Chapter 1: Celebrations
This is the remastered version of the story on ff.net, I will subsequently update it on there too. For those stumbling on this for the first time I'd suggest not peeking at the original, and for those who've happened to share this story with me before I hope you enjoy this improved version! I've been wanting to do this remaster for years :)
Almost four years after the defeat of Tom Riddle and Hermione still slept with her wand firmly strapped to her left forearm. As she quickly blinked away any threat of tears and she willed her lungs to return to a normal breathing rate, she unsheathed her wand and wordlessly cast a soft Lumos charm to survey her room.
Crookshanks laying undisturbed at the foot of her bed… Check. Her bookshelf remaining static, all books untouched from where she’d left them the day prior… Check. The window, still closed and locked giving no hint of the sunrise that was sure to soon come… Check. One by one Hermione went through the inventory of her little room, relaxing slowly with each item she catalogued until at last she reached the large cauldron on the desk that was still bubbling under an invisible fire. She turned off the soft light on her wand, sinking back down onto the pillow and fooled around with the idea of going back to sleep, even as she knew that the likelihood of that happening was as high as Kreature deciding to bring her a cup of tea to wake her up in the mornings. Instead, she sighed, rubbed her eyes and left the warmth of her bed to start the day.
Today was an important day. It was little Teddy’s birthday and there was to be a party in his honour. Quidditch themed, if Hermione remembered correctly… definitely Quidditch, she thought as she smacked her head against a toy snitch on the way out of her room. The smokeless candles lit up the corridor, revealing an explosion of sporting decoration. Harry must’ve stayed up late doing all this, she thought warmly to herself as she ducked under a slowly moving bludger that hurtled her way. Her quiet friend had obviously not wanted to interrupt her early night in and took it upon himself to convert the house into his godson’s fantasy, and the result, Hermione could not deny, was quite spectacular. The walls were now draped to the effect that each corridor seemed like a tunnel leading to a quidditch pitch. Toy brooms, bats and quaffle’s were scattered about while child-proof snitches and bludgers flew around the corridors. As endearing as this all was, Hermione hoped Harry didn’t keep the redecoration around for long after the party - those bludgers alone were a serious threat to health and safety.
“Bit much?” Harry asked as he stepped out of his room, still in pyjama’s.
“Not at all. Very subtle, Harry, as always,” Hermione replied, both of them grinning. “Breakfast?”
“Yeah, Ginny’s coming in a few hours with the cake.”
“Let me guess - a snitch?”
“I always knew you quitting Divination was a mistake,” he teased. Hermione lightly bumped against his shoulder in response, still too groggy to retaliate verbally. By the time they reached the bottom floor, dodging and jumping Harry’s obstacle course, the sun was slowly pouring through the little window in the kitchen, illuminating the large table that stood in the centre of the room. Half of it was covered under small piles of books, documents, parchments and ink pots; the other half had freshly cooked breakfast already waiting for them. Against Hermione’s wishes, Kreature insisted on being a house elf that lived up to the standard expected of such an ancient and revered house.
“I really think we should pay him,” she muttered as she sat down.
“He won’t take our money,” he replied absently, having had variants of this conversation almost every morning since they had moved in. Neither would ever admit how comforting those little exchanges felt, a minuscule ritual of reassurance after a night of bad dreams. After her NEWTs, Hermione had found herself with nowhere concrete to stay and Harry had offered her lodgings with him in Grimmauld Place - the house was far too big for him, he insisted, especially when Ginny was touring, she’d really be doing him a favour. Hermione had insisted in return that it would only be temporary, she didn’t want to intrude on his and Ginny’s life. A month turned into two, and two into a year, until finally she came to the unspoken acceptance that the proximity did them all good - they were all still too scared and too young and too used to each others company to really go off on their own.
“Is Fleur coming?” Hermione asked as she buttered her toast.
“Yeah, so are the Lovegood’s - it’s going to be a full house; especially as Teddy is quite popular at his nursery. I think he invited his whole class,” Harry took a sip of orange juice, “I think I remember Bill saying something about Fleur doing some research on blood magic…?”
“Oh, yes, Fleur mentioned some healing rituals they perform in Veela clans last time we saw each other - could you pass the eggs? - so I asked her if she could go into it a bit more detail for me; I’m starting a new project.”
“So soon? I thought you’d just wrapped up your last book,” he asked as he poured himself some tea and took a crumpet from the small pile Kreature had baked that morning.
“I know, I know, but it’s out of my hands now and I’ve had some ideas floating…” Hermione noticed Harry trying to hide an indulgent smile behind his mug. “Okay, maybe I can’t sit still for too long,” she admitted, handing Harry the sugar. “That being said, with the updated version of Hogwarts a History out of the way, I can concentrate on a proper research study instead of being limited to stand-alone essays in journals.”
“What do you want to focu-“ Harry stopped mid-sentence, his eyes flashing as he heard the door open. Hermione herself froze, wishing that the knife in her hand was her wand and not silverware. But then the voices of Ron and George filled the halls, allowing both wizards to start breathing again.
“Mate, blimey,” Ron offered as an opening, nabbing a crumpet from the pile. “You need to be careful there, don’t want to end up spoiling Teddy do you.” His grin widened as a rogue bludger zoomed in from the open door.
“I’m glad to see the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes’ trial of party decor has been a success,” George said with a smile. “Fair warning - the toilet in the shop refuses to give up its Valentine’s Day theme… but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure whether that has more to do with the toilet taking a fancy with being covered in heart-shaped confetti or my charm work.”
“George Weasley, you will have me to answer to if I have to dodge snitches every time I leave my room,” Hermione said curtly as she passed the boys the pot of tea.
George bowed his head dramatically, “Fear not, oh wise one, my presence is preventative.” He gave her a wink as he smacked a snitch out of his face. “There’s a charm or two I’ve calculated will help stop the bludgers from getting more aggressive and stop the walls merging with the drapery… I think.”
Hermione narrowed her eyes but bit her tongue. “No time to waste then.”
Three and a half hours later and the part was in full swing. Small children flew rampant on toy broomsticks, high on sugar and chocolate while adoring parents ran after them taking photos.
“So cute, and yet so messy,” Fleur commented with her head cocked to the side as a small, golden haired boy made a mess of himself trying to eat a feisty chocolate frog whilst navigating his toy broom.
“I don’t see the cute at all,” Hermione replied, handing Fleur a cold butterbeer.
“That’s what they all say,” Andromeda said, joining the conversation. “But I suppose if there’s anyone I know who would stick to their wand it’s you.”
Hermione chuckled, “I hope. I dread even the thought of frogspawn splattered all over my books.”
“Oh, there would definitely be frogspawn,” Andromeda replied fondly.
“Oh, by the way, about your books,” Fleur rummaged around her little satchel, “I have my notes for you. I hope they can be of help.”
“Kitchen?” Hermione suggested, anticipation colouring her voice with excitement. “I’ve just been dying to compare this blood ritual I found with basic compounds of theoretical magic. You see, I found these papers published a while ago -“
“Slow down, slow down, dear!” Andy said with a laugh. “You’re just as bad as the babes.”
“Fleur! This is fantastic!” Hermione exclaimed as her eyes ran down the neat handwriting. “The calculations are exactly what I needed, I would have had no idea where to start for predicting effectiveness and strength of the rituals.”
“It was no trouble, cherie,” Fleur said with a gentle smile. “Just send me a copy of your work once you finish.”
“You’ll have more than that,” she replied half absently, still scanning the pages. “You are definitely going in the credits.” Finally, she looked up and smiled with unabashed glee. “Have you by any chance heard of Hippocrates?” Andy snapped to attention. “I’m going to try starting by running some of his theories with these formulae.”
In a vague attempt at casual, Andy spoke lightly, “Did you just say Hippocrates?”
“Oh, yes, yes. Published very sporadically…” Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “You’re the first person who recognises the name.” Andy shrugged with an innocence that didn’t reach her eyes. “I can only find two papers under the name, both years apart but both absolutely extraordinary. The odd thing is they were both published in the most obscure Turkish journal I only happened to come across because someone had used copies of it to balance a nightstand that was rickety.” Hermione furrowed her brow, something akin to sadness seemed to be creeping into the older witch’s posture. “I’ve hit a dead end, though - the magazine has been discontinued for over a decade and one of the articles was ripped in half and I have no idea how to find the other half. I suppose the name was deliberately misleading as I can’t find anything but treaties on ancient greek medicine when I try to look for other works published under his name.”
Andy started counting candles for the birthday cake, intent on keeping her hands busy while she seemed to deliberate something painful in her head. Something gave out and she abandoned the task. “Well, you can start by referring to Hippocrates as a ‘her’,” she finally offered. Fleur’s eyes widened and Hermione dropped the notes on the table.
“Andy, wait… are - are you Hipp-“
This brought out a long deep laugh from the older witch, clearing her visible indecision with faint amusement. “No, no, no, dear child. I never had the patience nor the mind for theoretical magic.” She laughed quietly again, her hand reaching the spot on her chest where she could feel her heart hammering away with the nerves of betraying secrets. “My sister, Narcissa, on the hand… well, she certainly had both the patience and the mind.”
Hermione raised her hands in incredulity. “Are you seriously suggesting that Narcissa Malfoy, the Narcissa Malfoy, wrote… all that?”
Andy shrugged, not at all concerned by the young witch’s disbelief. “Father didn’t approve of the idea of women in academia - ‘not a woman’s place’, he always said whenever Cissy brought up her ideas. Malfoy was much the same, of course. Kept her busy with parties and petticoats.” Andy rubbed her eyes. “I’ve never read the papers, but I know the pseudonym. Silly children’s code names when we wanted to talk about things we weren’t allowed to do or think ourselves… When did you say they were published?”
Hermione flicked through her stacks of paper on the table and pulled the journals out for Andromeda. “Hmm, I’m not surprised… Look, that’s just after her official engagement with Malfoy, and that’s a few months after the first fall of Voldemort. Cissy did always prefer silent rebellions.”
“Well, I guess that’s a dead end.” The frustration was evident in Hermione’s voice.
“You could try reaching out,” Fleur suggested gently.
“I’m sure Narcissa Malfoy will bend over backwards to help the muggleborn,” she replied sarcastically.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Andy interjected. “You certainly should try at the very least. She’s… mellowed a lot since Lucius’ death and her son’s marriage. If you ask me she could use the company.” Andy smiled at Hermione’s unbelieving expression. “You’d be surprised by how reasonable Cissy can be whilst not under dark influences. I’ll be completely honest with you both, the only consolation from all the war took from me, is that it gave me my sister back in the end.”
Chapter 2: Salutations
Narcissa extended her right arm out, feeling cold silk embrace her outstretched limb instead of finding a warm body she could push herself closer to. This sleepy confusion was quickly replaced with a well practiced heart drop of disappointment; a disappointment that Narcissa refused to engage with beyond acknowledging she had an obligation to feel it. After all, it was seven thirty in the morning, it would be absurd to expect her to decide who and what she was disappointed in - there were too many contenders, ranging from Lucius for not being there; herself, for missing Lucius in the first place; all the way down to Limpy for not having her morning coffee already brewed for her.
As she mused this, the luxurious smell of coffee curled in the air, crawling from her bedside table and into the depths of her silky fortress, until with a barely audible huff, she acknowledged that Limpy alone stood innocent of causing anyone even the slightest of grief.
Eyes already shut, she squeezed them tighter; taking a deep breath of air in which she gathered all her pride, breathing into her chest the blind determination she needed to confront another day. Like royalty ascending from their throne, Narcissa emerged from her covers.
Alongside the porcelain cup of coffee, Limpy had spread out the day’s issue of the Prophet; a detailed list of all the important transactions happening in the Ministry; a breakdown of the state of every enterprise and investment her branch of the Black’s had; a small pile of letters she had received; and a reminder of her engagements for the day. She cringed inwardly when she saw that today was her great-nephew’s birthday.
Of course, it had been in the back of her mind for the past few weeks, but having to confront the fact that for another year running, she would not be able to take part in celebrating the life of those few who remained alive in her family was a tall order for her to swallow with dignity. Andy had invited her to his party, trying to persuade her by mentioning that the party would be held in Grimmauld Place - a house were they held a handful of warm childhood memories. But despite Andy’s protestations, she knew she wasn’t welcome there. It was Teddy’s birthday, he deserved to be surrounded by people who only had eyes for him, not a company distracted with sending her distrustful glares.
No, she had already sent him his basket of presents and she would have to be content with that.
Narcissa pointedly put her empty cup on the saucer and left her bed, her feet sinking into the thick carpet that covered most of the dark wooden panelled floors as she walked to the door that led into her closet. The room illuminated itself when she came in and her face narrowed in concentration as she decided what she would armour herself with for the day. Her left hand ran softly on all the different fabrics, the sea of rich greens and deep blacks was broken up with delicate embroidery, for after all - she was the widow Narcissa Black; she was one of the most powerful and influential women in wizarding society and she was going to damn well look the part. And not just that, she thought determinedly as she pulled out a glossy emerald dress, she was going to do some good today.
After the flurry of activity that was Teddy’s birthday, the days trickled by for Hermione at an uncomfortably slow pace. She took to quietly pacing around the house from top to bottom, an exhausting habit she imagined Sirius had once also fallen to. Not for the first time, Hermione was thankful Harry was not the most observant of friends. The moment he had seen Ginny graduate straight into the bliss of a Quidditch contract, he’d handed in his resignation to the Auror office, trading the restless adrenaline of hunting magic most foul for the joyous adrenaline of snitch hunting. In the off-season he worked with Quidditch suppliers testing brooms, an occupation which had him out of the house early in the morning and back at sundown with aching muscles and a satisfied smile. This left the house entirely to Hermione’s peace and concentration… and pacing.
For the past couple of days, the only thing that brought her out of her reverie was the arrival of the Prophet. Each morning she waited for the owl by the window and scoured the paper for any mention of Narcissa Black. Rarely did the woman disappoint. Between attending balls, banquets, commemorations, openings of new businesses, being present at signings of laws, guest at the ratifications of treaties; Narcissa Black’s life and work seemed to revolve around being in an eternal party with the higher echelon's of society.
It took two whole days of muttering incredulously to herself to admit that she disapproved of the notion that the work she had come to reverentially look up to had come from… a socialite. And not just any socialite… Narcissa Malfoy. It was absurd, so she spent another whole day going up and down the rickety stairs marinating in the absurdity.
But with each new speech and statement the older witch gave, Hermione found herself becoming more and more intimate with the way Narcissa deliberately picked her words; her language as carefully cultivated as her closet.
After devouring all the fresh information the Prophet provided, Hermione would methodically re-read Hippocrates papers. It only took a few days for her to notice how Narcissa favoured using the subjunctive mood, both in writing and in speech, over the far more normal and simple indicative. Small turns of phrases used in the essays kept cropping up in her interviews. It also became apparent quite quickly that Narcissa was following an agenda, whether consciously or unconsciously, where she focused on promoting the work of illustrious academics in the fields touched in Hippocrates work. She also seemed adamant in helping ministers pass bills to help fund research in Theoretical Magic whilst trying to delicately bring the subject of blood magic out of the taboo and more into the mainstream, whilst carrying out the normal obligatory work of muggle and muggleborn reparations.
It took two weeks of stubbornness for the young witch to finally admit that Andy wasn’t pulling her wand - Narcissa Malfoy had genuinely written two of the most fascinating theses Hermione had encountered in recent times. Even after accepting this, it was still a bizarre thought for her to entertain - the mother of a child who had set out to make her entire schooling experience miserable, and the widow of one of Voldemort’s most trusted death eaters, had so much more to offer than her infamous roles of mother and wife.
Steeling her determination, Hermione accepted her conclusion. She wouldn’t be able to carry out the research on her own, if Hippocrates could help she would actually be able to get going. She would never admit it, but there was also a small irrevocably curious part of her that wondered what more Narcissa Malfoy had kept hidden behind that small enchanting smile that encouraged her stereotyping as a trophy wife.
What a day… Narcissa thought tiredly as she closed the door to her room, noting with approval that Limpy had a roaring fire prepared for her. Diplomatic incompetence seemed rampant as of lately - between the Minister for Experimental Magic’s distasteful jokes about squibs and Electra Selwyn’s lamentations about the mistreatment of the Sacred Twenty-Eight; Narcissa had had to work hard to make sure that her fundraiser for combating all the rogue dementors that were still rampant around Britain was remembered for that, and not the guest’s less than tactful comments.
On the bright side, if one were to ignore Electra’s tipsy recitation of Cantankerus Nott’s pureblood directory, and solely judge the evening on galleons raised - well, it was one for the books.
Narcissa walked over to her bed, sliding off her dress. She felt the soft satin gown caress her body gently like a lover as it fell carelessly to the ground. Letting her hair loose from the elaborate bun it was in, and wrapping her body in a sinfully soft silk gown, she tried not to think of the people the dress reminded her of as it explored her body on its way to the ground. Taking a small breath to compose herself, she went to sit on her small writing table by the fire. But before she could get comfortable, she double-took and almost tripped backwards.
Sitting squarely in the middle of her desk was a seemingly innocuous letter. Small in size; the parchment was just on the beige side of white, and written across the middle with dark blue ink in admirably neat and precise cursive handwriting was the name ‘Hippocrates’.
Narcissa took a step back. Then a step forward.
She outstretched her arm to pick it up, but was too afraid to actually touch it.
How had this letter found her? She asked herself with unabashed horror. Only two people knew of her publications: one was dead, and the other had no interest whatsoever in such theorisations of magic.
Narcissa stood paralysed staring at the letter as her heart ran at a sickening pace. Hippocrates. Such a silly name, she reprimanded herself. The irony of picking a healer’s name always added insult to her injured conscience. She had done too much wrong in one lifetime to ever be able to justify a medics name.
Narcissa sunk into the plush wooden chair, hiding her face in her hand as shame replaced shock.
She deserved the vapid life she had, how else could she atone for her misused intellect? Of course, her wealth had always shielded her from outside judgement by lifting her out of the accusing crowds, but it had shut her up in mansions, a severe isolation set in the backdrop of private properties. The wealth that had spared her and her family from Azkaban so many times did not bring real acquittal.
But there’s a fine line between penance and masochism, Narcissa reasoned with herself. So finally, she dropped her hand and faced the letter. She was Hippocrates, and she would have to answer to it. She picked it up - letting her thumb run over the smooth thick parchment with hesitation.
She turned the letter around; her curiosity increasing when she saw that the red wax that had been used to seal the letter had been stamped with a lion head emblem. So it had been a proud Gryffindor who had sussed her out, Narcissa thought sardonically. Trust a Gryffindor to boldly and blindly blast into things that aren’t any of their business…
With one last sigh of resignation, Narcissa opened the letter.
It must come as a shock to receive this missive - well there’s the understatement of the year, Narcissa thought sarcastically rolling her eyes - but if it’s any consolation, I find myself just as surprised to find myself writing this letter. So in that regard, we stand on equal footing.
It was purely by chance that I came across your papers; for as fate would have it, I stumbled upon a whole stack of issues of the Turkish Tangents and Talismans journal being used to support a rickety nightstand in my house. It was there, amongst articles exploring the reasons as to why puffapod’s are detrimental to trolls, that I eventually found your two papers.
The first - An Examination of Adalbert Waffling’s Fundamental Laws of Magic - made me have to completely re-examine my understanding of magical theory. The second paper - When Magical Theory Meets Pragmatic Misuses - is, put simply, a groundbreaking piece of work that can pave the way for understanding the repercussions of the magic used in the Second Wizarding War.
It is much to my displeasure that whoever found the journals fit to serve as quick furniture reparation, also happened to rip the issue in which your second paper was published in half. For weeks I tried to find the missing half, or simply another copy. I went so far as to write to the editor (no reply) - Narcissa smiled at this, pleased in her choice of editor.
I resigned myself to working on the assumption that what I had, was all Hippocrates would be able to help me with. It was not until two weeks ago when again, by chance, a mutual acquaintance of ours happened to hear me mention your name and revealed your identity to me.
It was decided - her schedule tomorrow would be wiped and Andromeda Tonks would be receiving a very angry visit from Narcissa.
It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I was not conflicted about the revelation of your identity. However, after much consideration I realise it is I who is reaching out for help, and therefore in your debt should you choose to help me.
Narcissa raised a sculpted eyebrow in interest.
In short, my intentions are the following: I plan on carrying out a thorough research to understand the consequences the wizarding world will have to face as a result of certain sorcery used in the war, and whether this can be mitigated. You would have my gratitude and debt if you would assist me, in any extent, with this enterprise; for your expertise would be invaluable. This could perhaps take the form of answering occasional questions via owl. If this thought is disagreeable with you, would it be possible for you to send me a complete copy of your second paper? I would trouble you no more.
Please consider my proposal. With your help, I think we could produce something revolutionary.
Hermione Jean Granger
Narcissa’s eyes almost popped out when she saw the signature. Well, wasn’t this a surprise?
She folded the parchment and carefully put it back in its envelope. Maybe it wasn’t so much a surprise after all. The girl did have a reputation that preceded her. How else could Mr Potter and that Weasley boy have made it out alive, victorious, without someone with some serious brains able to outwit the worst the Dark Lord could throw at them?
“Limpy,” Narcissa called out softly.
“Yes, mistress?” The small house elf replied cheerfully as he popped into the room.
“Could you please find me my copy of Turkish Tangents and Talisman’s for tomorrow morning? The one with my second paper, Limpy.”
“Would mistress like Limpy to send it to someone?” The elf asked.
“No, no - I’ll send it myself. Thank you, Limpy.”
The house elf bowed and immediately disappeared.
It took Narcissa a moment to process what she had just done. Had she… had she really just to decided to give Hermione Granger, of all people, a copy of a publication she had promised to herself she’d never acknowledge?
She was growing soft, she scoffed, turning off all the candles in the room with a flick of her wrist. But not soft enough to spare Andy from her wrath tomorrow. The fireplace still projected a soft light that cast long shadows, but what little remained of the fire would soon extinguish itself. Narcissa slipped into her cold bed, wondering if it was worth the effort to cast a heating charm. What was she to do with Miss Granger? The pureblood mused as drifted into sleep. What was she to do?
Chapter 3: Planification
“Wait, let me get this right,” Hermione said perplexed as she handed Andy a mug of hot chocolate. “Narcissa Malfoy flooed into your house and cursed your ceiling, and you’re fine with this?” Andromeda smiled and nodded. “Even though there’s a thunderstorm in every room?”
Andy laughed, drying her hair with a towel. “It won’t flood. But really, I can’t help it - it’s been decades since I’ve seen little Cissy lose her temper like that! I was actually starting to think I’d never see her rattled again.”
“I’ve got Teddy showered and changed - we’ll be in the playroom!” Harry said poking his head into the kitchen as Teddy ran after him, ripples of laughter preventing the boy from running faster, his hair going through all the shades of neon.
“Cissy used to do this all the time in Hogwarts,” Andy continued with a full bright smile. “I remember this one time Roberta Ringstar stole one of her bracelets - the girl had to sleep on the floor for two weeks because Slughorn couldn’t figure out how to stop the lightning bolts that kept attacking anyone who sat on her bed. Dumbledore had to come fix it in the end. Allegedly he had a fit of giggles when he saw what the fuss was all about. Best part is -“ Andy stopped dramatically, “he gave Slytherin twenty points for exemplary sorcery.” Despite herself, Hermione couldn’t hold back from joining the older witch with an amused laugh.
“Well I’m sure Harry will be thrilled to have Teddy for a while,” Hermione said with a genuine smile as she heard her best friend shouting something about dodging invisible trolls. “He hasn’t been this excited since his birthday.”
“It’ll do them both good,” Andy agreed, looking out into the distance, “even though I’m sure the curse will only last a few days.” The older woman then whipped round to face Hermione “That reminds me! - Here,” Andy pulled a soggy brown package from her bag. “Cissy left this for you.”
Hermione took the dripping parcel and carefully untied the cord that held it together. The young witch noted with relief a careful charm had been placed to waterproof the inside.
“Someone looks pleased,” Andy softly teased as Hermione carefully removed the two items inside the package.
“It’s just...” Hermione started as she flicked to the right page in the Turkish Tangents and Talismans issue 782, forgetting to finish her sentence as she started reading the new material.
“It’s just I never actually thought it would work,” Hermione finished. She looked up to the older witch, excited disbelief livening her eyes with plans. Andy raised an inquiring eyebrow. “As in, you know, writing to her,” she explained, tearing open the letter that had come in the parcel. “I didn’t actually think she’d send me a copy, a howler seemed more likely.”
“Howler’s aren’t her style,” Andy mused.
“Yes, well, when you arrived soaking wet with a couple of briefcases, I was bracing myself for being next on her list.” Hermione read the letter. “Dear Merlin…”
“Nothing,” Hermione said distantly, looking at the letter in disbelief. “Your sister... your sister has just invited me round hers. Look, listen to this - ‘you are welcome to join me for afternoon tea at four o’clock tomorrow to discuss any questions you may have about the articles written under my pseudonym. Discretion on your part would be appreciated. My current residence is the Black Norfolk Fortress. I am sure my beloved sister would be happy to provide you with further directions.’”
Andy snorted at this.
“This is unbelievable,” Hermione said putting the letter down. “I’m going to meet Hippocrates.”
“You mean Narcissa Black,” Andy corrected and Hermione scrunched her nose in distaste.
“Let me be in denial a little longer?”
“Not if you accept the invitation.”
Hermione huffed. “Fine. How do I get there?”
“Well there’s two ways,” Andy said leaning back into the her chair and stirring her hot chocolate. “Depends how long you want to take in getting there. Basically, there’s the wizarding way and the muggle way.”
“Muggle way,” Hermione said without missing a beat.
“It’ll take a while,” Andy warned.
“I don’t mind. It’ll give me time to clear my head.”
“Okay then... I suppose you do have the time if the meeting is at four.” Andy grabbed a spare piece of paper and dipped a quill in ink. “I’ll write it for you - it can be a bit complicated. First, a train from King’s Cross to King’s Lynn; then a bus to Hunstanton; then a bus change to Wells-next-the-Sea. Teddy loves a toy shop in that town, so sometimes we go the muggle way so we don’t miss it when visiting Cissy.” Andy re-dipped the quill. “But you get off at Bellamys Lane. It’s about a half hour walk from there to Burnham Norton. The pub there isn’t muggle, so you can ask for directions to the fortress from there. It’s about ten minutes away.” She passed her the piece of paper. “The landlord is lovely - Axylos, if I remember correctly. We used to spend the summer’s at the fortress; not much to do there for a bunch of teenagers, so we always used to sneak down to the pub and see if we could get him to sell us firewhiskey.”
“And did you manage?” Hermione asked, tucking the directions into the envelope where Narcissa’s letter was stored.
“Sometimes,” Andy replied with a laugh. “He’d always have a quiz for us when we went. If we got all the questions right, we got served. If we didn’t, it was butterbeer and a table for us to do our summer homework on.”
“I can’t quite imagine the Black sisters losing all that often,” Hermione said softly, unconsciously rubbing her forearm where her scar lay hidden.
“You got that right,” Andy scoffed proudly, “learnt how to hold my drink at that pub.” The older woman sighed and then wistfully muttered more to herself than her host, “those were different days...”
The door opened and Harry walked in carrying Teddy in his arms.
“Tired,” the young boy declared, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
“Okay then, my boy,” Andy said gently, “let’s get you to bed.”
“I think I’ll head up too. Long day tomorrow,” Hermione said, grabbing some of the papers on the table. “Thanks for all your help, Andy. I’m really sorry about your roof - I’ll help you clean up once it stops raining.”
“Don’t mention it. Have a good rest,” The older witch said smiling. Hermione ruffled through Teddy’s hair. “Sleep well, Teddy. You too Harry. You might not see me for breakfast though.”
“Where are you off to?” Harry asked as the small party left the kitchen and moved into the narrow corridor.
“Remember I wrote to Hippocrates?” Harry nodded. “Well, I got a letter back. I’ve been invited for tea tomorrow.”
“Are you sure it’s safe trusting a stranger?” Harry asked as the boy in his arms nodded off to sleep.
“Don’t worry, Harry, she’s in safe hands,” Andy said in an amused tone.
“Oh, so you know them?”
“You can say that.”
“Well have a good time then, ‘Mione,” Harry said with a genuine smile. “I hope they’re as cool as you’ve made them out to be.”
“I’m sure they won’t disappoint,” Hermione grinned back, sharing a knowing look with Andromeda as she opened the door to her room.
Once inside she flopped onto her bed and kicked her shoes off. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Narcissa’s ability to completely flip her plans with the snap of a finger. The woman seemed to be made of contradictions, Hermione grumbled. For a woman devoted entirely to the idea of family she had very little of it left. For a woman associated with the filthy values of purity she had surprisingly clean hands. But what really bemused Hermione was why would such an infamously prideful women keep talents like that hidden.
Hermione pulled the covers over her, staring at the narrow stream of light that the moon poured into her dark room. Haughty, arrogant, snobbish - those were the first words that came into her mind when she thought of the youngest Black sister. But Hermione’s mind wandered to the polite letter, and then to the charmed paper that had been carefully wrapped around the journal. There was a kindness to the magic that had kept the contents of the package dry she would have never associated with Narcissa Malfoy.
There began a soft tapping on the window. Hermione glanced up - a gentle drizzle had started.
The young witch huffed and buried her face in the pillow, determined to sleep. Slowly but surely she drifted off into apprehensive sleep. Dreams of young laughter and crying in maze-like gardens pulled Hermione from one emotion to the next. Her heart was about to break when her alarm went off and she bolted out of bed, counting the items in her room as she regained control of her breathing.
The ritual over, she pointedly set out to fill her knapsack with the items she would need for the day. Hermione went through all the motions, refusing to think about the dreams but unable to think of anything else. Before she knew it, her train had just passed Cambridge and she was heading into the Norfolk wilderness. Her view was filled with endless green fields, every shade of the colour contributing to the refreshing view outside her window.
Hermione’s eyes closed as the sun shone too brightly, but instead what she saw was the sorting hat calling out ‘Slytherin!’ like in her dreams the night before. The greens she had just seen in the fields all merged into one pulsating entity whilst the silver Slytherin snake crawled amidst all the shades of rich green.
A disembodied voice announced they had just passed Downham Market. Hermione’s heart sank, she was only a few stops away from hers.
The walk to Burnham Norton would do her good, she reasoned with herself. She was probably just detoxifying after having spent so long inhaling London fumes. Plus, she was meeting Narcissa Malfoy - the mother of the boy who had made a considerable part of her childhood miserable. She was bound to be nervous. The walk would also help to stifle that.
Partly due to the exercise and partly due to sheer stubbornness, by the time she reached the pub to ask for directions, Hermione Granger was walking with her head held high. She had a destination to go to and it was almost three thirty. She would not be late.
Hermione made her way down to the coast. Standing about two thousand feet into the sea was a 16th century fortress built of white marble. Hermione deduced that thanks to it’s location in the sea it was pretty easy to conceal from the muggles - an invisibility enchantment or two and the place must’ve vanished for them, lost in the dark waters. Hermione took a deep breath and walked onto the pier that connected the land to the impressive building. The fortress was a tight hexagonal - three floors of windows ran around it, with six windows per face wall. As Hermione approached it, and the sound of the waves got louder beneath her, she got a better view of the huge imposing black door she was about to knock on. The Black crest was sculpted into the stone that lay on top of the door and the contrast between the white marble and the black wooden door made knocking on it even less inviting.
But the Gryffindor didn’t bristle. She rapped quickly on the door three times.
The door immediately opened, inviting her into the luxurious fortress. Inside was a large hexagonal ballroom. The three hundred and sixty view around the sea must’ve made for some spectacular parties, Hermione thought, begrudgingly impressed.
“You must be Miss Granger,” a small squeaky voice said bellow her. “Mistress has yet to arrive from her meeting with ministers.” Hermione looked down to see a brightly smiling house elf wearing a pristine white cloth to cover himself. “Limpy will take Miss Granger to the library to await Mistress.”
Hermione nodded, knowing that it was best to follow the elf’s instructions. “Thank you, Limpy.” The house elf smiled wider at this.
“Just follow Limpy,” he said as he made his way to the eastern part of the room. Between each large window there was either a portrait or a small door. The stunning view of the sea distracted the eye from them, even when each portrait had a little candle illuminating the painting, making it possible to see how the people moved around from one frame to another, chatting amicably between them. Having reached the desired door, Limpy opened it and scuttled up the stairs. He opened the door that stood at the top of the stair case and bowed as Hermione entered the library.
There was a fire roaring on the far wall to her right, next to the two enormous windows that made up most of the wall opposite her. The rest of the room was filled with dark wooden bookcases, each shelf filled with row after row of leather bound books.
“Miss can stay here while waiting for Mistress,” Limpy announced, “just say ‘Limpy’ and Limpy will be happy to attend to anything Miss would like.” The little elf then popped away.
With nerves returning full force, she slowly approached the fireplace. Two leather armchairs sat around a medium sized desk with books splayed open. Curiosity overtook nerves, but before she could touch the paper the door opened loudly and Hermione’s head snapped up - there, standing at the top of the staircase, was Narcissa Black, head held high in all her opulent grace. Neither witch said anything, both seemingly shocked by the presence of the other. Hermione’s gaze travelled from Narcissa’s pointy black heels, her thin smooth calves wrapped in dark stockings, to the black tailored dress that floated around her knees until it hugged her small waist and enveloped her chest in the dark satin material, the conservative cut covering her clavicles. Hermione’s eyes rested on the heavy set of pearls that dangled around the pureblood’s neck until she mustered the courage to look up to Narcissa’s face - full berry lips, high sculpted cheekbones, and those incisive blue eyes that watched her watching her. The only thought that popped into her head was that the women standing dignifiedly in front of her was a women born in the wrong era.
Narcissa smoothed out an imaginary crease on the folds of her dress, a nervous habit disguised as good manners. It had been a long time since she had felt so scrutinised. She almost reprimanded herself for taking being welcomed unquestionably for granted as she now felt at a loss. After a lifetime of watching men break their backs for her whims and women simpering for her popularity, she never knew what to do with those rare souls that weren’t moved by her beauty or impressed by her social standing. Narcissa was almost disappointed in herself, what else could she have expected from Harry Potter’s best friend? This was all a big mistake. Why had she let things get this far? She should’ve just sent the girl a copy of the journal and kept her peace. But no, Narcissa sighed, she just had to have a moment of weakness. Well, the girl was here now and if anything, Narcissa Black refused to be impolite.
“Miss Granger,” she offered at last, moving further into the room.
“Please, I go by Miss Black now.”
Hermione blushed embarrassed at her own faux pas. “Sorry, Miss Black. Thank you for inviting me.”
The young girl stood up from her armchair, extending her arm as an olive branch. For a split second Narcissa was taken aback. Bemused by the informality Narcissa reacted without thinking and walked up to the girl and shook her hand.
With the same clumsy awkwardness of two teenagers on a fist date Hermione and Narcissa sat down on the facing armchairs.
“Would you like milk in your tea?” Narcissa asked politely as she poured Hermione a cup.
“Please, no sugar though.”
“So I take it you found my articles being used to fix rickety furniture?” The pureblood asked, trying to hide how amused she was by this. She handed the younger witch her teacup, making uncertain eye contact.
“Yes,” Hermione replied confidently, Narcissa’s quiet mirth spreading to her. “Under a nightstand, to be specific.”
“Ah. That sounds like Regulus’ doing,” Narcissa said fondly as she finished preparing her own teacup. “The boy got me to publish the articles in the first place - got a subscription to the journal to show his support.” She leaned back into the cushy chair and took a sip of her drink. “But he had a tendency to recycle things pragmatically after he had used them.”
Hermione smiled. “I’m glad he did. If he’d just thrown them out I would probably be re-designing the muggle studies course; which although satisfying, probably isn’t as exciting as this.”
Narcissa laughed politely into her teacup, “I’m sure Andromeda would disagree with your definition of exciting.”
“That’s because Andy doesn’t understand why this is important.”
“Why is this important, Miss Granger?” Narcissa asked, turning to stare at the muggleborn piercingly. Her tone was not accusatory but Hermione still bristled under the shifting intensity of the pureblood.
“The war -” Hermione started, looking down at the creamy brown contents of her teacup. “The war, as you know, used very destructive magic. The sort of magic that poisons. We don’t like to talk about it, but the effects of black magic don’t go away once the caster has been banished. It takes a life of its own. Balance needs to be restored.”
“It sounds like you have your heart set on championing this cause,” Narcissa drawled, her dignified demeanour marred with some sad type of resignation Hermione couldn’t peg. “Saving the world once isn’t enough for the golden girl?”
Hermione sighed. She knew getting Narcissa to help her was going to be a tall order, she just needed to be patient. Find common ground. “It’s not a question of saving the world again, Miss Black. It’s a question of finishing the job I began.”
“I think you’ll find that the job is much larger than you bargained for.”
“Which is why I’m asking for your help.”
The two women stared at each other in a standstill.
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything,” the pureblood began cryptically, pouring herself a fresh cup of tea. “But it is wrong,” she added milk, “no matter how fast light travels,” she stirred in a small cube of sugar, “it finds that darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
“Then lets not disappoint,” Hermione replied instinctively, and despite herself, Narcissa smiled.
“You are very persistent, Miss Granger.”
“So I am told.”
Hermione edged closer to the table that separated them. “Miss Black, for all I know, you could be right. This could be pointless. I might even make a bigger mess than the one there already is. I might not be able to help anybody.”
“So why try?” Narcissa asked curiously.
“We learn by being defeated by greater and greater things.”
“Your argument entails that surrendering from the start would achieve just as much.”
“We have a moral responsibility to try.”
“If your argument has a counter-intuitive consequence, that counts as an objection - regardless of any appeals to duty,” Narcissa bit back.
“There is nothing counter-intuitive in acknowledging the possibility of defeat.” Hermione sighed and ran her hand through her hair. “Miss Black...” She began softly. “I look around our world and I see so many vestiges of the war tainting our present. We’ve all gone through so much - we deserve our peace from that darkness.”
“Do remind me, Miss Granger, what is the first Fundamental Law of Magic?” Narcissa asked authoritatively. Hermione shivered from the cold drawling demand but answered nonetheless. “Tamper with the deepest mysteries - the source of life, the essence of self - only if prepared for consequences of the most extreme and dangerous kind.”
“Are you truly, genuinely prepared for such consequences?” Narcissa asked coldly.
It was Narcissa’s turn to sigh and look despondently at her tea. Hermione noted with curiosity that this was the most human she’d seen the witch look like since that day in the crumbled courtyard.
“You know, the last person who said that to me,” Narcissa said not bothering to hide the resignation in her voice, “was the Dark Lord.”
Hermione’s stomach dropped and for a moment, as her visioned blurred, she was acutely aware of where she was sitting in - the house of the wife of one of the most notorious death eaters of all time. The sister of the monster who had killed so many whom she loved. The woman who saved Harry and decided which side would win the war. Hermione shook her head, willing the nausea to disappear.
“Everyone says they are the exceptional case, that they and they alone are innocent,” Narcissa let out a small hollow laugh. “Everyone is the exceptional case. We all demand to be innocent, at any price, even if our being so means accusing all wizardkind.” The pureblood sighed again, seemingly struggling to pick between two conflicting emotions within her, until at last she said, “I helped make much of the mess you’re trying to clean up, Miss Granger. I… I am responsible for a lot of it, I suppose it would be even more unforgivable for me if I left you on your own to fix it.”
“Does… does this mean you’ll help me?” Hermione asked astounded.
The pureblood nodded slowly, giving the younger girl a small, sad smile. “Yes, Miss Granger, I’ll help you. On one condition.”
“Of course. Anything.”
“Don’t judge me too harshly.”
Something close to sympathy gnawed in Hermione’s chest as she saw the stiffness in the other witch’s posture. Without realising, she offered her a warm smile. “I can do that.”
Narcissa faltered from the warmth the younger witch was extending and from the pit of her stomach she felt the need to confess rise up to her throat until she couldn’t hold the horror in her any longer. “I’ve done terrible things.”
“That doesn’t condemn you to be a terrible person,” Hermione responded softly. “These days I’m starting to believe that goodness has more to do with being better than you used to be, rather than better in comparison to others. It’s almost funny, everyone thinks of changing the world, but few think of changing themselves. I’m told you’ve done that.”
Narcissa nodded, gracefully brushing off her moment of weakness so effortlessly Hermione was almost convinced it didn’t happen. “It seems we have come to an understanding, Miss Granger. You must forgive my busy schedule, we shall have to work around it.”
“I understand,” Hermione replied amicably.
The older witch picked up a thick notebook on the table and flicked to the right page. “Shall we commence our investigations on Thursdays? I have a free space before supper. Could you come around seven? - you’re most welcome to stay for supper.”
“That works for me.”
“I look forward to seeing you then, Miss Granger,” Narcissa said far more comfortable leaning into formalities.
Chapter 4: Divination
“So…?” Andy began the moment Hermione opened the door to Grimmauld Place. “How did it go?”
Hermione half smiled as she put her scarf on the peg by the entrance and took her coat off. “It was... alright, I guess.”
“Just alright...?” The older witch pressed as they moved into the kitchen.
“Erhh... well, she’s agreed to help me,” Hermione offered as she filled the kettle with water.
“Let me do that,” Andy said, shooing the younger woman into a chair. “You just tell me how you convinced Cissy to help you.”
Hermione laughed quietly to herself, leaning her head onto her hand as she reclined tiredly on the table. “Your sister is exhausting, Andy.”
It was the older witches turn to laugh. “You got that right - as intense as a streeler’s venom that one.”
“Andy... are you comparing your sister to a giant snail that deposits behind it a trail so venomous that it shrivels and burns all vegetation over which it passes?”
“Without a doubt.”
The two women burst out laughing.
“No,” Hermione began as she took the mug Andy offered her. “She’s... actually quite nice.” The young witch took a sip of her tea, narrowing her eyes in concentration. “Very polite. Very, very polite.”
“If I had to describe Cissy in two words I think I’d also go for ‘very polite’. If I had to pick three then I’d also go for ‘very, very polite’. We were raised to be charming, after all.”
“Charming,” Hermione mulled, “yes, she’s definitely that. But there’s just... something about her I can’t put my finger on.”
“Ah - the mystery of Narcissa Black!” Andy exclaimed with amusement. “Many a man has been entranced by it, driven mad by it!”
Hermione gently swatted the older witch, “I’m not joking.”
“Neither am I,” Andy teased.
Hermione huffed. “Well, the point is - I’m to go back on Thursday and not reveal her identity to anyone. Do you think I should drop Fleur an owl?”
The older witch ran a hand through her brown curls as she leaned into her chair. “I don’t think you need to. Fleur’s always struck me as a very discreet person.”
“You know, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually looking forward to going back.”
“I told you you’d like her,” Andy said with a triumphant smile.
“I just…” Hermione started, trying to find the right words. “It’s difficult, Andy. Am I supposed to treat Narcissa Black and Narcissa Malfoy as two different people? It feels wrong to see her as anything but a Malfoy. She was there, you know, when I got tortured in Malfoy Manor and she just stood there…” Hermione paused hesitantly. “I know… I know why she just stood there. At least I think I do, I guess it’s just a feeling.”
“Sometimes ‘just a feeling’ is the clearest explanation out there - not everything is meant to be articulated.”
“I’m not a fan of that school of thought,” Hermione said, forcing a small smile.
“I know you’re not. Neither is she. You two have a lot more in common than you’d like to think.”
Hermione opened her mouth to complain, but before she could form a retort, the doorbell rang and Andromeda had drifted off to open the door.
“Hey, ‘Mione. Brought this one along with me,” Ginny said as she walked into the kitchen. Ron dragged his feet behind his little sister, his usual glow subdued. Harry’s loud footsteps running down the staircase filled the empty place where Ron’s usual jokes would have been. Hermione got up to hug her friend - there was only one thing, or, well, one person, that made Ron act like this.
“What’s happened now?” She asked determinedly. Ron shrugged stubbornly as Harry patted his back.
“You look like you need something strong, mate,” Harry offered, giving Ginny a quick peck on the cheek and exchanging a knowing glance.
“I’ll leave you children to it.” Andromeda said good-humoredly as she left the kitchen. “Don’t stay up too late.”
“Yes, mother.” Hermione bit back.
“...so she says I can’t go to the Quidditch match cause it’s her great aunt’s birthday or something!” Ron moaned in the background. “It’s not like that old hag hasn’t had a hundred and five other birthdays and this is the first time they’ve actually put a decent seeker on the team!”
“Is this the great aunt that’s willed all her fortune goes to Lavender after her death?” Hermione asked.
Ron paused for a moment. “Yeah... I suppose it is.”
“That’s probably why Lavender is so insistent then,” Ginny admonished. “I’m sure the last thing she wants to do is spend the day listening to her great aunt telling her off for not being married yet.” Ginny took a swing of her butterbeer. “As to be expected, the girl’s doing it for the money. Should’ve been sorted into Slytherin that one.”
“Hey!” Ron protested. “That’s my girlfriend you’re talking about.”
“And you two were made for each other.” Ginny teased.
“I dunno,” Ron started, “sometimes I think we’re perfect. But then I just don’t understand her. Like sometimes,” he said leaning forward, “she does her hair up and while she’s doing it she’ll turn around and give me this smile... and it’s just perfect. But then, she’ll do stuff like this - she’ll just tell me what to do without an explanation and I just think she’s being hysterical. Like I’m not in on the plan, just a part of it.”
“She probably thinks she doesn’t need to tell you.” Harry offered.
“I just dunno if we’re perfect for each other.”
“Oh, Ronald,” Hermione began, her patience already being tested with the well trodden topic. “People always fall in love with the most perfect aspects of each other’s personalities. Who wouldn’t? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. The real challenge you never like is accepting the flaws-“
“Oi, that’s not fair!”
“Well then, can you look at Lavender’s numerous faults and say, ‘I can work around that. I can make something out of it.’?” Hermione took Ron’s hand into her own. “The good stuff is always going to be there, Ron, and it’s always going to lovely, but it’s the nonsense that will make or break you.”
“She has a point, Ron. Do you think me and this one are in perfect harmony all day every day?” Ginny asked leaning into Harry’s chest.
“Okay, okay, I get it, but I just don’t know if me and Lav are… soulmates.”
“Even if she is she wouldn’t be perfect.”
“Exactly,” Hermione interjected, “if you meet someone and you think they’re perfect, you should run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.”
“No buts, mate,” Harry said laughing. “Deep down you know that the person you’re meant to be with is the person that pushes all you buttons. You’ll be pissed off on a regular basis, but only because she’s making you face your own crap.”
At last Ron smiled. “Maybe you’re right.” He stood up from his chair. “I think I’m going to go back home. Talk it out with her.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Hermione supplied warmly as he took a pinch of floo powder.
“Hey mate, can I have your tickets if you’re not going?” Harry teased.
“Piss off,” Ron laughed back as he stepped into the fire.
Once the green flames died out, Ginny mused, “Those two really are perfect for each other.”
“Tell me about it,” Hermione replied. “Can’t believe I was envious of them at one point.”
Harry passed them both a fresh butterbeer.
“Yeah… you two were never going to work,” Ginny said, taking a sip of her drink. “Neither of you had the right type of patience for each other. Not to mention the emotional ranges of teaspoons, or in Ron’s case, sugar spoons.”
“Ouch,” Harry exclaimed with amusement. “That’s your brother, you know.”
Ginny shrugged. “My point exactly - I know him.” The redhead turned to Hermione. “But,” she began, using her bottle like a sword pointing to the other witch, “that does beg the question - who will the great Hermione Granger finally settle on?”
Hermione rolled her eyes, for once not actually annoyed by this well-trodden conversation. “I shall die an old spinster surrounded by all the books I was intending, but never managed to read.”
“I dunno… I see someone…” Ginny started in a mock mysterious voice, “I see someone wild and exotic! Someone whom my mother will disapprove of -“
“That won’t be hard, your mother has never truly forgiven me for breaking up with Ron.”
Ginny shushed her lifting the hood of her paisley robe to add dramatic effect. “Not just my mother then - you and your lover will shock the whole wizarding world! But it won’t matter to either of you that your pictures are splashed all over the paper with special featured articles of you in Witch Weekly!”
“But let’s be fair on her!” Harry joined in, lifting his own hood and lowering the pitch of his voice. “They’ll be as smart as you! Mysterious, with a tragic past like in those novels I’ve seen Ginny sneaking in her Quidditch bag-“
“And they’ll be beautiful!”
“And rich!” She interjected again. “You’ll adore each other, and have loads of adventures together!”
“Shocking the world both with your romance and all that you accomplish together!” Harry added.
“But we, your dear, close friends, will be the only one’s to understand this passionate, burning love affair. We’ll accept it, regardless of how ill-fated it may seem. Because we know...”
“Yes, we know that your love is second only to ours,” Harry earned himself a quick peck on the cheek.
“It has been fated.” Ginny finished with mock finality.
For a moment the three friends stared at each other in silence, until at least, simultaneously, they burst out laughing.
“Where…?” Hermione began, feeling tears threatening to start rolling down her face, “Where in Merlin’s pants did that come from?”
“Just - just you see, Hermione Granger,” Ginny said, barely able to get the words out. “I demand a hundred galleons for my prophetic skills once it happens.”
“I’m afraid you’ll be waiting a long time,” Hermione spluttered back.
“That’s fine, I’m a pat-” Ginny doubled over laughing. “I’m a patient person.”
Wiping a stray tear from her face, Hermione banished the empty bottles. “I appreciate your vote of confidence but I think I’ll head up before the two of you start trying to figure out who could possibly meet your staggering list of demands.”
“What can we say, we just want the best for you,” Harry said innocently, his eyes sparkling with the remnants of the mirth that still tickled his chest.
“Yeah, yeah... good night you two,” Hermione replied sarcastically.
“Yes, goodnight, future Mrs-”
Hermione closed the heavy wooden door resolutely before she could hear who Ginny had decided to couple her with.
With an easy smile the young witch walked down the narrow corridor that led to the staircase. The dim light that was meant to illuminate her path was more effective at casting shadows of all the old and bizarre objects neither she nor Harry had had the heart to throw out. As her ears settled on the silence, she heard more than felt the soft draft of wind that haunted the entrance of the house. Goosebumps spread through the length of her arms as she gave her back to the door to go up the staircase, but as she lifted her body onto the first step she almost fell as a shooting agony from her forearm delivered dark, heavy poison straight to her heart.
Panting, she staggered up the staircase, her brain pulsating against her skull in a synchronised rhythm with the words mudblood digging deeper into skin. The little light there had been flickered on and off; each time it came back on, it was dimmer than it had been before. Just a few more steps... Hermione willed herself. Just a few... more... steps...
She leaned her body weight on the doorknob, the cold bronze providing a brief respite for her hand which felt like it was on fire; but her heat quickly warmed the metal and it too felt like a source of dark energy through which electrical pulses burned their way up her veins, into the deep scars that spelled that nasty little word, and then, reenergised from the hatred that carved them spread out to the rest of her body.
Hermione managed to unfasten her hand from the knob and use the momentum to swing her door open. Half blinded, she stumbled to her desk where her cauldron bubbled under an invisible fire and frenziedly threw out all the pens and pencils she held in a mug, and used that as cup to scoop out some of her potion.
One sip of the concoction was enough for the witch to peacefully close her eyes and crash face forward onto the floor, too gone in her dreamless slumber to feel anything.
Chapter 5: Constellations
“Thought I’d find you here,” Andy said softly from the door.
Narcissa almost fell from her chair. “Andromeda! Do not scare me like that! I could’ve hexed you!”
Andy gave her little sister an arrogant lopsided smile as she walked towards where she was in front of the large window. “And I could’ve blocked you.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Andromeda,” Narcissa scoffed with good humour as she sat up straight, making room for her sister to sit next to her on the malachite camelback sofa.
“Who are you looking for tonight?” Andy asked her, taking a peek into the lavish brass telescope that stood in front of them as she sat down. “Ah...” Andy sighed sadly recognising the constellation.
“I’m sorry-” Narcissa began, her cheeks flushing from shame.
“No, no,” Andromeda reassured the younger witch. “Don’t worry - you have every right to miss her. Hades, sometimes I can’t stop myself from missing her too.”
“I’m ashamed to miss her,” Narcissa confessed, “but I still do.”
“What happened to her wasn’t your fault. You know as well as I do there was no earthly power that could’ve stopped her, in anything.”
“No, there was so much I could’ve done,” Narcissa whispered softly. “You know how Bella in her madness would pray for storms, I think she dreamed those storms would bring her peace. I should have, could have done so much more. Family is supposed to be everything, after all.”
“So your plan is to atone by staring at the stars?” Andy asked gently, leaning into the chair as she watched all the delicately drawn astronomical movements dancing on the walls and ceilings.
“It’s a start,” Narcissa replied tersely, unable to suppress the little smile that pulled on her lips; both witches shared a fond smile. Narcissa took her sister’s hand into her own and sighed contently. “I remember crying over you, you know,” she said turning to look into her older sister’s dark eyes. “And I don’t mean a couple of tears and being blue, I only remember collapsing and screaming at the moon.”
“Oh, Cissy…” Andy squeezed her sister’s hand. “We’re okay now.”
“Why did it take us this long?”
“There are days I’m not quite so sure anymore. I guess we both got wrapped up in our own worlds, our own wars.”
Narcissa laughed hollowly. “That sounds like us.” The younger witch reluctantly pulled her hand away and clasped it back neatly, remembering at last it wasn’t normal for her sister to casually join her in late night astronomy sessions anymore. “What can I do for you, Andromeda?”
“You can start by lifting that curse you set on my house.”
“Oh yes… that. I had almost forgotten,” Narcissa said with a small innocent je ne sais quoi shrug of the shoulders. “I’ll pop by first thing in the morning.”
“That’ll do for one night then,” the older witch said yawning. “I better get back.”
“But you just got here,” Narcissa said indignantly, earning an indulgent smile from her sister.
“And it’s one in the morning, Cissy.” Andy kissed her sisters forehead and stood up. “I couldn’t get to sleep and saw it was a clear night so I figured you’d be up too. But it’s late and we should both go to bed.”
“Always the responsible one,” Narcissa muttered to herself.
“Someone’s got to be sensible around her,” Andy bit back jovially heading to the door. “Oh, and Cissy…”
“Hermione…” the older witch started, playing with the knob nervously.
“What about her, Dro?”
“She’s a special one, that one.”
“Look out for her, won’t you?”
Narcissa understood the responsibility her sister was giving her. She didn’t reply right away, hesitating in a way she rarely did, for Narcissa knew there was much to be said, but was confined in that moment to saying only a little. At last she nodded to Andromeda. “She’s in safe hands.”
“Good. Get some sleep then, Merlin knows I need it.”
Narcissa watched her sister close the door, leaving her alone again. Her sisters had the bad habit of running off, away from her and into the midst of the battle; leaving her unable to pick between them; leaving her stationary, waiting for them to come back to her - family is everything, after all; she thought sarcastically to herself.
She pondered on her sister’s request to keep an eye out for the Granger girl. She remembered leading the muggleborn and her little band of misfits into Malfoy Manor when the snatchers had caught them. Children trembling with terror, each of them, including her Draco. It was with shame that she remembered how she had blurted out that she recognised the girl, fear pushing her to ask Draco to confirm. The muggleborn’s deep brown eyes had bored into hers as they shed reluctant tears and the whole scene broke down to chaos - her husband fighting Bella over who called the Dark Lord; the Snatchers squabbling over gold; her sister screeching about swords and banks... her sister - all prodigious skill and no conscience.
And then... the screaming.
Some of her nights were still haunted by those screams, all terrible and drawn out and nauseating as they mixed with her sister’s voice. When Narcissa had watched her sister draw wand and blade against the Granger girl, she had felt paralysed, her heart aching for the child screaming and for her sister laughing. Under the cool waves of her Occlumency defences her head had looped through questions she was horrified she had answers to - how had things gotten this far? How had she and Lucius sunk this low? Why had they dragged Draco down with them? And Bella - had she always lacked a soul? The nausea doubled down in her when her sister, her once kind, brave, over-protective sister had given the muggleborn away to Greyback.
The rest of the evening was crystallised in silent fragments - the chandelier breaking, dragging Draco from harm, seeing Dobby… Her sister had asked her to kill Dobby, but how was she going to kill Dobby? Dobby had been there when she’d married Lucius, taking care of her every time things got out of hand - they had both gone through it together; when Dobby had freed himself, a small, selfish part of her had wished he’d freed her too. He’d disarmed her, preventing her from harming him, the small creature taking care of her once more.
Then the Dark Lord arrived and everything became muddy with agony, the only thing she could see through the tears being those scared, brown eyes begging her for mercy. The same brown eyes that now looked at her inquisitively with compassion and curiosity. There was something about the Granger girl, well, she definitely wasn’t a girl anymore; but there seemed to be some understanding between them that felt relieving. Narcissa was convinced this spelt trouble, relief had never been a long-lasting feature in her life.
When will this man stop speaking? Narcissa asked herself furiously. Miss Granger was soon to arrive to Black Fortress and the conference on post-war economics was overrunning.
“In conclusion,” the bald, wheezy man at last spluttered to Narcissa’s relief, “our purchases reflect, deep ineradicable emotional needs, most prominently the assertion of self-identity.” Narcissa eyed her pocket-watch; 20 minutes overrun, this was quite frankly rude. “We are highly social animals,” the pureblood raised an offended eyebrow - there was only one animal in the room, and that was the animal who was overstepping his time, “and a lot of our spending is governed by its anticipated effect on our relationships. It is my argument that businesses make money not, primarily, by conjuring up false desires, but by identifying and satisfying real ones. Thank you very much.”
Narcissa suppressed the sigh of relief that bubbled in her as she clapped politely along with the audience and with barely contained impatience she tried making her way out of the hall.
“Narcissa!” Called out a familiar voice.
Closing her eyes to regain her composure she took a deep breath, plastered a huge smile on her face and turned to face the alarmingly overweight and slightly terrifying heiress of the Bulstrode family. “Violetta! What a pleasure. Don’t you think it was a terribly insightful conference?” Narcissa asked trying to get all the pedantic pleasantries over with as quickly as possible.
“Quite so. The old gang has a table reserved at the Phoenix Platters. Do tell me you’ll come - we’re all dying to hear what you make of this.” Violetta said enthusiastically, her large diamond earrings bobbing along precariously with her head movements.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Narcissa said, almost surprised by how sincerely apologetic she sounded, even to herself. “Tell the boys it’ll have to be another night. Oh, and don’t order that new champagne they got in,” Narcissa said leaning into the other witch, “between you and me, that rosé is not worth the bottle it’s corked in.”
“Oh Cissy, this is why we need you!” Violetta complained dramatically.
“Another day, Vi!” Narcissa said, winking cheekily at the witch as she hurried to the exit, not letting her respond. They were going to hold this one against her, she concluded.
There would be no escaping the old gang next time unless she wanted them to start asking what she was up to and that was simply not an option.
Narcissa made her way down the gilded hall, uninterested in all the gauche decoration. Once she pushed open the door that led to the cold London street, she quickly glanced side-ways to double check there weren’t any stray muggles, and with a faint pop, apparated home.
“Miss Granger, you must forgive me - it seems I’m developing the bad habit of arriving late to my own invitations.”
“Hermione, just Hermione,” The younger witch said warmly as she looked up at her, amusement playing on her features as she rested her head on her hand. “And it’s no worry, I know you have a busy schedule. Plus, these have kept me company,” She said nodding towards the large pile of books in front of her. “Your collection is excellent.”
“Thank you for understanding, Hermione.” The name felt good on her tongue. “It’s only fair if we’re both on a first name basis, so please - Narcissa, just Narcissa.” She teased lightly. “Where did you get to?” She sat next to the younger witch and took a look at the books spread out on the table. The fire was roaring and when she turned, a steaming cup of tea had appeared on the coffee table. As Hermione gathered her notes and thoughts, Narcissa couldn’t help but marvel how blissful this felt.
“I’ve been trying to categorise the mental, physical and magical and their properties into substances and essences and features but I think I’ve muddled it a bit,” Hermione said, passing Narcissa a parchment with crossed out charts.
“Substances have ontological independence - they can exist in their own right; they do not depend on another entity in order to exist,” Narcissa muttered as she grabbed a quill and inked it. “Mental properties are not the same as physical properties, just as neither of those are the same as magical ones.”
“Mhmm, like you said in your paper - there is a correlation between them, but not a necessity.” Hermione pulled out a dove blue notebook and flicked to the right page.
“Exactly,” Narcissa said approvingly. “However, an essence is the set of attributes that make a substance what it fundamentally is. Without its essence, a substance loses its identity. Magic, alas, is not an essence in and of itself - that’s why it can live on after it has been cast, independently of its caster.” Narcissa handed Hermione the corrected paper.
“So the mind’s essence is logical reasoning,” Hermione confirmed, trying not to get distracted by the pureblood’s exquisite penmanship. “The essence of material things, is extension; and the essence of magic is... emotion?”
“Why do you think wands have personalities?” Narcissa said flashing the younger witch an encouraging smile. Hermione smiled back, but winced. “That concealment charm might do wonders for hiding a bruise, but it won’t actually help with it.” She said casually.
“I’ve lived my entire life surrounded by highly temperamental people,” Narcissa said as she stood up in the search for something. “I’ve cast it so many times I can spot it from across the room.”
“I just fell,” Hermione supplied, suddenly feeling the need to justify herself.
“Okay,” Narcissa replied, unable to keep some of the disbelief from her voice.
“I sometimes have trouble sleeping,” she added quickly. “I make my own sleeping potions but I think I let this batch strengthen too long - one sip and I crashed face forward.”
“Well let’s see the damage,” Narcissa said as she sat back down on her chair. “I promise I’ll have seen worse,” she pressed, sensing the muggleborn’s hesitation. Hermione hid her surprise at the patience in the other woman’s voice opting instead for a huff of resignation as she turned her head so the pureblood could have access to her left side. Amused that Hermione refused to un-cast the spell herself, Narcissa touched Hermione’s cheek with feather-light weight in order to feel where the magic ran. Slowly Narcissa’s fingers ran from Hermione’s temple down her smooth cheek, leaving tingles on their route. Satisfied she wasn’t about to banish half of Hermione’s face, she dispelled the charm wandlessly. “That looks sore,” she drawled sarcastically.
Hermione chuckled at the pureblood’s dry sense of humour. “Ouch, you’re not allowed to make me laugh,” she said still smiling.
“Well, I’m sure this will make up for it,” Narcissa replied opening the small jar she had fetched. “Severus and I invented this many moons ago.” She scooped a small amount of the white cream on her index and middle-fingers and gently spread it where the nasty red and black bruises coloured Hermione’s face. As her skin absorbed the cream, the bruises changed from black to blue, to green, to yellow until they faded away completely.
“There’s only one reason you wouldn’t have used a normal anti-bruising potion - your body is already overloaded with magic. Severus and I made this for all the bruises you get with the cruciatus, but it works just as well with any sort of magical excess,” she replied closing the small jar.
“Thank you,” Hermione said sincerely.
“It’s no trouble,” the pureblood replied with a small smile. “Anyway, I think we were talking about the essence of magic.”
Hermione nodded enthusiastically, pulling out another book from her bag. “Yes, we were.”
Chapter 6: Publications
The elegant barn owl opened its large tawny wings and took off high into the cloudy sky instantly becoming only a small brown and white spec on the grey horizon. Attached to its powerful legs the proud bird carried a newspaper and a magazine. The glossy magazine declared its title in a thin, long gold font - “TATLER: A Wizarding World” - and was headed straight to London. On the cover of said magazine the profile of a high-cheek boned woman with an elusive archaic smile stood proudly, occasionally blinking, under the heading “The House of Black Lives On”. Her black hair was done up in a messy bun, parts of her blonde strands contrasting with the thick black hair that gracefully bunched up behind her head, whilst the remaining silvery strands fell casually on the contours of her face.
Since 1709 “Tatler: A Wizarding World” had documented all the rises and falls of the richest, most powerful, and most beautiful among the magical world. Between its 9 pages reserved for the photographs of the best parties of the month, it was always a cut-throat strangle to be seen featured on those pages. Throughout the years, Narcissa Black had become a regular - a fact that would’ve made her mother proud, she would remind herself each month as she flicked through the pages. All the balls, charity events, parties, fashion and gossip were dissected in that publication. Druella Black herself had been a staple regular in her heydays, the magazine forever immortalising her beauty and philosophy of life - “dress is a very foolish thing,” she once said in an interview, “and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed according to his rank and way of life.” The Black sisters had read their mother’s words out proudly in the Slytherin common room while their classmates sat around them in quiet awe. “The difference between a man of sense and a fop, is, that the fop values himself upon his dress; and the man of sense laughs at it, at the same that he knows he must not neglect it.”
Now it was Narcissa’s face gracing the cover of the publication. The irony of the headline had not escaped her - ‘The House of Black Lives On’, and there she was on the cover alone, the last of The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black. It wasn’t the first time she had seen her face plastered on the cover of the magazine; upon her marriage with Lucius there had been a special edition dedicated to the wedding which would unite the Malfoy and Black family. After that, every once in a scandal she would receive a copy and see her face smiling cooly back at her, but thankfully, her mother had prepared her for such nonsense. Druella had sat her down on her fifteenth birthday and explained how she should navigate such unforgiving attention.
“There are a thousand foolish customs of this kind, Narcissa, which although not criminal must be complied with cheerfully. Diogenes the Cynic was a wise man for despising them; but a fool for showing it.” Druella had then taken her pretty daughter’s face into her hands and continued, “Be wiser than other people, Narcissa. But do not let them know it.”
Druella knew her daughters; Bellatrix had always been a lost cause from the start. Too impulsive, too unrestrained, too in love with freedom. Andromeda took too much like her father’s side with that English crust of awkward bashfulness and roughness that no amount of etiquette classes would ever be able to rub off. But in Narcissa Druella had been able to instil that good breeding that had been passed down from generations. Countless hours had been spent teaching the girl how to answer with complaisance when spoken to; to place herself at the lower end of the table unless bid to go higher; to drink first to the Lady of the house and next to the Master; to not to sit when others stand.
There had ever only been one doubt in Druella’s mind when it came to Narcissa, a doubt she had done her best to stifle but which lingered still in the bottom of her bowels even long after her daughter had signed the marriage papers to Lucius. But, as long as the girl didn’t act out on it, or at the very least gave Tatler no opportunity to plaster a photo of her enveloped in another woman, Druella knew Narcissa would have the world wrapped around her little finger.
Narcissa had been vaguely surprised when she had found out she would be featured in this month’s edition. Welcoming Hermione into her calendar had meant her cutting back on public appearances - there were only so many hours in one day, and the muggleborn looked exhausted already, there was no way Narcissa was going to infringe on her sleep time.
One month working with Hermione. Tatler’s party pages gave no hint of how the witches had been running around libraries up and down the country, having discreet meetings with academics and sharing their progress with each other every few days in Black Fortress. The fact that Narcissa couldn’t draw a timeline of her companionship with Hermione from the publication, gave her a satisfaction she hadn’t felt in ages and made her cherish those stolen moments of intellectual discussion with the witch even more for they were theirs and theirs only. Narcissa knew it was foolish to delight in good fortune supposing that it will never leave, but she had come to the conclusion that the friendship she had with the muggleborn was nobody’s business and she deserved a bit of joy, however short lived.
Her mother had taught her that knowing people well requires the same attention and dedication as studying a books, and, even, more sagacity and discernment. As such, Narcissa had taken to studying Hermione alongside their research. You must look into people, Druella had instructed her, as well as at them. Her mother had warned her that all people are born with all the passions, to a certain degree; but almost every person has a prevailing one, to which the others are subordinate. Narcissa silently searched for Hermione’s ruling passion, eager to pry into the recesses of her heart to observe the different workings. Druella had taught her that once the prevailing passion had been identified, to never, ever trust that person where that passion was concerned. The muggleborn was far more tightly wound than Narcissa had expected, her real passions seemed to shift somewhere below an impenetrable compartmentalisation, leaving Narcissa unknowing and unguarded.
Then there was that exhaustion the muggleborn seemed unable to sleep off. From the first time Narcissa had laid eyes on Hermione sitting in her library she had noticed a grief imbedded in the younger witch, her grief was horribly discreet but as persistent and almost as silent as bleeding from an unstitched wound. Between the peachy smell that told Narcissa she was using her salve to heal bruises and the small winces she betrayed when anything pressed against her left forearm, Narcissa knew the muggleborn was keeping something deliberately private. Despite the privacy Hermione was entirely entitled to, the two witches had slipped into a comfortable intimacy they couldn’t seem to recover from.
“So I’ve read I’m in the presence of the most desirable bachelorette in the country,” Hermione said teasingly as she walked into the library.
Narcissa closed the book she was reading and looked up at the muggleborn with a devilish smile. “Better make a move quick then, Miss Granger, if Tatler’s reported that it won’t last long. I’ll have suitors lining all the way to the beach.”
“Oh no, Miss Black, it doesn’t work that way,” Hermione replied back grinning, laying on her mock serious voice thickly. “Because believe it or not, I certainly don’t, but I have tied you for first place. I’ll have a whole line of suitors myself to pick from.”
Never one to back down from a challenge Narcissa quickly replied, “Oh really? Well, I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in settling for second best. I think it’s only appropriate for the two most desirable bachelorette’s to go out for dinner. Give the tabloids a run for their money.”
Hermione burst out laughing. “You know what? - that isn’t even a bad idea. Dinner somewhere out sounds nice, I feel I haven’t gone out in ages.”
“That’s because you haven’t gone out in ages,” she commented tartly. “I for one, am tired of stuffy libraries. Let’s be civilised and go somewhere nice.”
“Does this mean you’re asking me out on a date, Miss Black?” Hermione asked, pivoting back to a faux sultry voice.
“Oh no, Miss Granger, it doesn’t work that way,” she retorted with the muggleborn’s own words. “It’s going to take a bit more effort to get me to go on a date with you.”
“Fine.” Hermione replied, pretending to be hurt. “Where are we going tomorrow for our non-date?”
“Don’t worry - I know somewhere nice.” Narcissa said cryptically, her eyes twinkling as she passed Hermione a stack of parchments. “I added Fleur’s calculations to our main canon, can you double-check my workings?”
Hermione took the parchments with an easy smile, “With pleasure. Can you take a look at what I’ve found about separating black magic from human matter?”
“With pleasure,” Narcissa mimicked again.
Chapter 7: Alimentation
It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold. Two young witches sat comfortably in the bright warm kitchen of 12 Grimmauld Place, enjoying the sun pouring through windows that been drawn closed for many years. The grey stone floor retained its dusty quality despite the re-polishing the rest of the room had undergone - the wooden drawers that lined the walls and displayed the china no longer sagged sadly, marred with scruffy scratches; and the walls whose red paint had been slowly peeling off, revealing the white masonry underneath, now sported a new coat of rich red paint.
The witches sat on the far end of the narrow table, next to the unlit fireplace. After half an hour of them working, the organised fortress of books and papers had exploded into a disarray all across their half of the table. Fleur had dropped by after having breakfast at the Burrow - she had the day off and Bill was working, and seeing what Hermione was up to with her research was always a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon. Or, at least that had been what she had told the muggleborn when she had shown up out of the blue.
In truth, Harry had made a comment in passing during breakfast that had peaked Fleur’s curiosity. Not quite knowing how to bring it up, Fleur had taken to observing Hermione as she caught up with the work. The younger witch had an air of nervous gravity, as though she was waiting for something major to happen, further fuelling the french witch’s suspicions.
Fleur dismissed the thoughts from her mind and looked back down at the papers in front of her, Hermione’s notes were always a pleasure to read. The smooth handwriting and carefully explained theories invited Fleur to rid herself of all the opinions she had adopted up to then, and to begin afresh from the foundations for Hermione herself had certainly applied herself seriously and freely to the general destruction of all her former ideas.
The french witch turned the page and raised an eyebrow - Hermione wanted to introduce the muggle concept of causal closure into the magical debate. Fleur closed her eyes, concentrating in order to remember her Year 6 Theory of Magic syllabus. Causal closure said something along the lines that every physical event has a sufficient physical cause to bring it about. Fleur mentally shrugged her shoulders, Hermione was probably right - just because magic was magic, did not mean that some physical events had no complete physical explanation.
Fleur looked up at the witch in question and saw her staring anxiously at the clock as if unsure of whether she wanted it to move faster or slower. The french witch smiled discreetly to herself, becoming more and more certain that her suspicions were right. As Fleur watched Hermione shake her head reproachfully and turn back down nervously to her equations, she pondered on the muggleborn’s anxiety. It had been a long time since Hermione had taken a liking to somebody, everyone knew Ron had been the first and the last. Fleur suspected there’d probably been a number of muggles Hermione had tried to connect with in the ensuing post-break up phase, but none had stuck for long. Hermione always seemed very comfortable with her solitude, which made it no surprise that feelings, and choosing whether or not to act on them, probably felt terrifying.
Fleur kept reading the parchment. The notes started asking more questions than positing theories. How do you diagnose how far black magic has corrupted the host? Fleur perked up at this - this was something she could help with. Hermione sighed and rubbed her eyes exasperatedly. The french witch nodded mentally to herself - that was her cue.
“Rumour has it zat you are going on a date tonight,” Fleur said, trying but failing to sound casual as she pretended to carry on reading Hermione’s notes. The younger witch spilt the ink pot and stood up quickly from her chair.
“It’s not a date,” she spluttered out.
“You are acting like it’s a date,” Fleur teased watching Hermione nervously clean the inky mess.
“That’s impossible - it’s Narcissa, so it can’t be a date. I mean, c’mon! - we’re just going somewhere nice for a change,” she replied quickly.
“Narcissa?” Fleur said as surprise made her eyes twinkle with excitement. “On first name basis already? And somewhere nice? That is definitely a date.”
“It’s not a date!”
“Okay! It is not a date zen!” Fleur said huffing dramatically. “I am just saying, if a beautiful, intelligent witch was taking me somewhere nice, it would definitely count as a date.”
“Fleur! She is old enough to be my mother!” Hermione whispered furiously as she quickly glanced out the kitchen door to make sure nobody was listening.
“That has never stopped me,” she replied nonchalantly. “In fact - they make for better lovers! I remember this wizard I went out with the summer before I met Bill, ce qu'il pouvait faire avec ses mains!”
“Okay, I’m going to pretend I did not understand what you just said.”
Fleur laughed heartily. “Forgive me, Hermione, I forget how prudish ze English can be.”
“I am not prudish!”
“Okay,” she challenged, “then admit you have a crush on Narcissa.”
“I shan’t, because I don’t!” Hermione retorted. “Look, I’ve been working with her for a few weeks now and I’ll admit it - she’s not half as bad as I’d thought she’d be. She’s actually quite generous and she’s scary smart. Now that I think of it she’s actually quite funny too, if you don’t take the dark sarcasm seriously. She’s still insanely snobby, but I’ll give her credit, it’s nice for once to be around someone who cares about the little details, goodness knows Ron never did. Ultimately, she doesn’t have to help me and yet she is, so I’m grateful. I have so much to learn from her and Merlin forbid I actually look forward to seeing her. But none of that means I have a crush on her.”
“Do you seriously expect me to believe you’re not even slightly enamoured with her after that?”
“Goodness, Fleur!” Hermione exclaimed. “When did we go from a crush to enamoured?”
Fleur leaned back into her chair with a Cheshire cat grin. “So you do admit the crush?”
“I did no such thing!”
“Okay, okay. Maybe I am wrong,” Fleur said not sounding like she believed a single word she was saying. “What are you going to wear for zis... reunion.”
“Err... I hadn’t thought that far,” she confessed.
“Well we should make you beautiful, no?” Fleur declared. “You are going somewhere nice in a few hours so you should be getting ready.”
“But you came all the way here to help me -”
“Exactly, Hermione!” Fleur said happily. “I can walk you through diagnosing how far dark magic has spread in ze blood while I do your ‘air - croyez-moi, vouz avez besoin de plus d'aide avec vos cheveux qu'avec vos livres.”
Narcissa threw herself gracefully on the leather chaise lounge, languidly applying her red lipstick as a mirror floated passively above her. She felt a little foolish at the nerves that tickled in her stomach, it was almost like the nerves one feels when standing at the top of a cliff over the edge… but she was just in her room, getting ready for dinner with a colleague; and yet, two types of fear rushed up and down her spine: the fear of falling, and the fear brought on by the impulse to throw herself off the edge.
The tall grandfather clock in the corner chimed, announcing it was time for her to leave.
With one last resolving glance at the mirror, she straightened her dress, put her gloves on and apparated into London.
Narcissa had never been a big fan of this part of the city. The tall victorian brick houses had an old, grimy feel to them modernity seemed unable to scrub off. At last she rounded to number 12, and with practiced grace, walked up the stairs and rang the door bell.
Immediately, Hermione opened the door, unbolting with her in one fell swoop all the freshness that the grubby street had needed.
Like the first time they had met, both witches felt momentarily stunned by the presence of the other. Hermione would be the first to admit that nobody would ever describe her as elegant, but the woman in front of her was every inch a lady. As her eyes trailed up and down the curves and valleys marked out by Narcissa’s layers of velvet, she realised how she had never before considered how powerful that could be.
“Good evening, Miss Granger. Are you ready?” Narcissa asked, reverting into old formalities to break the trance they had fallen into.
“Yes, sorry, where are my manners? How are you? You must be a bit chilly,” Hermione spluttered closing the door behind her as the witches walked back down on to the street.
“You needn’t worry, but thank you,” Narcissa said with a smile. “Are you okay to apparate? - it’s a short distance, I promise.”
“Yes, of course,” she replied, taking the soft hand Narcissa offered her into her own as she gazed curiously into Narcissa’s blue eyes. “I finally get to find out where you’re taking me.” She flashed her a playful smile to hide her nerves.
“You’ll probably laugh when you see it,” the pureblood said mischievously and with a small pop they apparated into a quiet park. Wordlessly, Narcissa guided Hermione out of the green enclosure and after a few steps Hermione couldn’t help but laugh, gently squeezing on the older witch’s hand.
“Smack bang in the middle of muggle London, I see, Miss Black?” She grinned. “Keen to keep out of the papers?”
“What can I say? I value my privacy,” Narcissa replied, reluctantly releasing Hermione’s hand as they reached the door.
A tailor dressed waiter took one look at the pureblood as he opened the door for them, made a short bow and bid them to follow him through the brightly lit building. Carpeted with long, heavily decorated red and gold rugs, and plush mirrors on either side of the large corridors that reflected all the golden features, an old fashioned opulence dominated the interior. Heavy curtains hanged at every opportunity, as did inviting chairs in which well dressed men and women sat chatting amicably amongst each other. Hermione didn’t know of any building with more chandeliers. The group reached the restaurant wing and the waiter took them to their table by the mirror, overlooking Green Park. The restaurant was busy, filled with people who were overly aware of their own importance.
The waiter handed them their menu’s as Hermione looked at the ceiling mural of a bright cloudy sky. Much to her amusement, the mural stayed still reaffirming the muggleness of the establishment they found themselves in.
“You looked surprised,” Narcissa said, a smile tugging at her lips.
“I’ve been here before, once in fact, with my mother, to celebrate my OWLs. Just to have tea, mind you. I never imagined coming back, let alone with such… interesting company. But don’t worry, this is most definitely a pleasant surprise.”
“Would you be even more surprised if I told you I came more regularly than I care to admit?” The pureblood asked as the waiter came back with two flutes of golden sparkling liquid.
“It would explain why you haven’t needed to say anything to this chap,” she replied thanking the waiter. “But overall, yes -“ she grinned at Narcissa, “definitely more surprised. It’s very muggle.”
“What can I say? - the lobster salad here is to die for,” she replied conspiratorially, taking a sip of the bubbly wine.
Hermione leaned back into her chair happily soaking in the vibrant buzz that hummed in the room as she opened her menu. Her eyes ran down the menu but before she could raise her eyebrows at the price, Narcissa spoke wistfully. “I have been thinking, Hermione, it takes time to be happy. A lot of time, actually. And that happiness itself is a long patience.” She took another measured sip of her drink and looked back at the hazel brown eyes that stared at her inquisitively. “I spent too long more interested in the business during business meals than the meal… a life making money instead of using money to make life.”
Sensing the pureblood’s surprise at her own revelation Hermione offered her a teasing smile. “That’s the best defence for eating caviar I’ve ever heard.”
Relief flickered in Narcissa’s expression. “Oh, I haven’t even started on the caviar, Miss Granger,” she teased back. “You should’ve met my mother - that woman could give a monologue on hors-d’oeuvre’s.” The pureblood closed her menu and stared at Hermione inquisitively. “Your scholarly achievements are infamous, but why did you choose to pursue theoretical magic in particular?”
“You don’t get explanation in real life,” she replied, “you just get moments that are absolutely, utterly, inexplicably odd. Some things are better in the abstract.”
“Yes,” Narcissa agreed with a dignified huff. “What a terrible mistake it is to let go of something wonderful for something real.”
Before Hermione could answer the waiter politely came up to there table, demanding their attention. Three courses later and Hermione’s eyes were fluttering closed with delight as her lips closed around her silver spoon. The banana and rum ice cream melted in her mouth and she briefly considered the practicality of coming to the Ritz for dessert every day. Maybe also dinner. Definitely also dinner. Hermione then remembered where she was and with a light blush quickly opened her eyes and looked sheepishly at Narcissa. The pureblood seemed incredibly satisfied with herself; her red lips sported a small, amused smile as she deftly lifted a spoonful of tiramisu into her mouth. Hermione looked back down at her soufflé trying not to look long at Narcissa as if the pureblood were the sun, yet Hermione saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
The muggleborn had another mouthful of her dessert and had to actively resist sighing contently as the sweet soufflé reawakened her taste buds.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Narcissa began. “Ever since we began our acquaintance, I’ve been catching up with all the work you’ve published.” Hermione’s nerves returned full-force, unaccustomed to her work being scrutinised with those she shared company with. “Don’t look so terrified,” the older witch said with just enough sarcasm and warmth to make Hermione laugh. “I just wanted to tell you I’m impressed with the sheer amount of work you’ve been able to do in just a few years.”
Hermione sighed pensively. “I guess what horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, but falling out into an indifferent middle age. Combine that with a curiosity that gets me into trouble more often than not, and it’s meant I’ve tried to eat the whole world in one go.”
“Don’t you get tired?” The pureblood asked, her head cocked slightly to her right shoulder.
“No. Yes. No. Kinda. Yes. Definitely.” Hermione smiled as she shook her head, slightly regretting the amount of wine she’d had over the course of the evening. “I get restless if I don’t have a puzzle to solve. I need to tire myself out. Plus, there’s just so much to learn and so little time to learn it all.” The muggleborn paused for a second as she decided whether or not to share the next thing that was on her mind. “My mother... my mother once told me that a love affair with knowledge never ends in heart break.”
Narcissa smiled sadly. “See, my mother told me that in much wisdom is much grief,” she said taking another spoonful of her sinfully rich dessert. “And I too have found that any increase in knowledge will ultimately result in an increase in sorrow.”
“But surely you must agree with Socrates that regardless of the sorrow, an unexamined life is not worth living?”
“My dear Hermione,” Narcissa said with no hint of irony, “you must accept that however seriously we take life, deep down we’ve always known that this seriousness is absurd.”
“Then what of love? Is that too dismissed as meaningless in your world?” She countered.
“Absolutely,” Narcissa replied. “That, however, does not diminish its value.” The older witch leaned back into her chair, nursing a sip of port as she observed the woman in front of her - all passion and bravery fit for a hot summer’s day. “Love will be loved all the better if it has no meaning. It is expectations and demands and hopes and definitions that stifle it. Let love be love - it’s nothing more.”
Between the words that hung in the air and the alcohol rushing in her blood Hermione found herself shocked by how blue the pureblood’s eyes were. The moment seemed to stretch into a lifetime, a lifetime in which both women silently acknowledged all the impossible ‘could be’s they could recklessly run away into; and wordlessly, they lived that lifetime of ‘perhaps’ like a book’s pages being flicked forward; and for a moment, Hermione understood that the only way of loving a person was to love them without hope.
But it was just a moment. Like all lifetimes, this one had no claim to eternity.
“Tea or coffee?” The waiter asked.
“Tea for me - Hermione?” Narcissa offered politely.
“Tea for me too, thank you.”
Hermione rubbed her eyes trying to make sense of what had just happened between her and Narcissa, but that was the problem with feelings - they are rarely understood in the moment and they are quickly forgotten and almost always misremembered.
As Narcissa watched the waiter pour the rich dark brown liquid into a delicate china cup, she briefly considered the ludicrous idea of what Lucius would’ve made of all this. He would’ve disapproved of her choice of restaurant, for a start, and Narcissa couldn’t help but feel smug about that. As for her company of choice - well, she would’ve never heard the end of it. She could already hear his silky voice hissing ‘blood-traitor’ at her. But she had loved him in her own way, Narcissa reminded herself as she poured a droplet of milk into her tea and stirred in a lump of sugar, she had loved him.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Hermione offered.
“I’m being silly,” Narcissa replied, but then reconsidered. “I’m just thinking about my dearly departed husband.”
“Duty can compel people to do unimaginable things,” the pureblood began cryptically. “We were terribly in love for moments, mostly before the wars.” She said fondly. After each lost crusade there had been hope in both Malfoy’s that by returning home they would be able to begin the process of taming the wickedness and frenzy in their hearts by means of devotion to each other; but each time the peace had just been stolen time before the world was swept back into madness with wickedness and frenzy being the currency of most value. “But love gets harder,” Narcissa continued solemnly. “Which is not the same as to say that it gets harder to love. Lucius was just hard to love well. His standards were high and he wouldn’t settle for the quick way out, which is why we spent so many years wasting away bitterly together, hating each other but stuck together.”
“Why did you stay, though?” The muggleborn asked gently.
“I guess habit silenced me the way habit does,” she replied quietly. “You get so used to a person or a thing there’s no need to speak of it, however horrible; so well known your roles that there’s no need to redefine them.”
“You know, you both managed to fool us all,” Hermione said as she sipped her tea. “We all thought you were so in love. I guess it was the way you always stood by him.”
“It was my duty to.”
“Because duty can compel people to do unimaginable things,” Hermione repeated softly.
“There are three types of lovers, Miss Granger. Those who shout: ‘Love me!’ Those who beg: ‘Don’t love me!’ And then there is a third, comprised of only the worst and most miserable, who say: ‘Don’t love me, but be faithful.’ I am sure it is no feat for your intellect to deduce which group my marriage belonged to.”
“And yet, you still have some fondness left for him,” Hermione said without judgement. Narcissa’s heart fluttered slightly with panic, unused to being read so easily - her occlumency must be getting rusty. But then the older witch looked directly into Hermione’s eyes and saw no intrusiveness from them and decided to trust her.
“That’s because there’s no lover who does not love forever.”
The muggleborn broke into a huge smile and lifted her teacup, “I will toast to that - to lovers who love forever.”
Narcissa smiled back at the younger witch, joyfully lifting her own teacup. “To lovers who love forever.”
“More tea?” The waiter asked with a pot of tea in hand.
“I’m okay, thanks,” Hermione replied, placing her empty tea cup on the saucer.
“Me too,” Narcissa said with a content sigh. “Just put it all on the tab, won’t you, Jeremy?”
“Yes, Miss Black,” The waiter said with a small bow.
I can’t let you do that!” Hermione objected.
“You can and you will,” Narcissa said with a casual, dismissive flick of the wrist. “It was my invitation. That will be all, Jeremy.”
“No ‘buts’ Hermione. It’s my pleasure,” The pureblood insisted.
“Next time it’s my treat then.”
“So there’s going to be a next time?” Narcissa asked innocently with a devilish smile.
“If you ask nicely,” Hermione teased back as both witches stood up. “Thank you, Narcissa. This evening has been... truly wonderful.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” she replied sincerely as she helped the muggleborn into her coat and they started making their way out of the restaurant.
“Don’t you think it’s funny how everything has ended up?” Hermione asked ponderously, the London evening air rushing through her hair and sobering her thoughts.
“Oh yes - my mother is probably rolling in her grave as we speak,” she said with an amused laugh, looking down at her jade green heels that clicked on the grey pavement until they entered the empty park that was illuminated by scattered lamp posts.
“I suppose this is goodbye,” Hermione said, trying to sound casual as sparks of potential crackled in the air, making her palms sweat and a terrible impulse pull in her chest.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Narcissa replied quietly, her blue eyes still vivid in the dark. Hermione noticed how the humming yellow light of the lamp posts made Narcissa seem like she was glowing. Her black hair was pulled back into a complicated bun, but her two white strands casually framed her face highlighting her sharp jaw line. She was a sight for sore eyes and as Hermione’s eyes trailed from her thin neck, to her berry lips that were drawn into a challenging smile, she had to tear her eyes away from the temptation, back up to Narcissa’s lively eyes.
“See you on Sunday, Miss Black?” she asked, the simple question carrying more weight in the absolute solitude of the empty park.
“Yes - six o’clock,” Narcissa replied, sealing the vow and hammering the final nail in making their scenario seem dreamlike.
Hermione didn’t know what to do. Their goodbyes seemed incomplete, so she stretched her hand out for the pureblood to shake.
Both witches let go.
Chapter 8: Perpetration
Narcissa’s pale hand ran down the grand vanity table that stood forgotten in her parent’s old master bedroom. Her reflection in the oval mirror was disconcerting - the last time she had seen herself reflected in that polished ornament she had been a young woman; no tired eyes, no dark circles under them that required real dedication to hide, no lines across her temple that spoke of years of worrying; no lots of things she wasn’t inclined to compare.
She hesitated before picking up her mother’s perfume and spraying some into the empty air. Like a homecoming the rich scent welcomed her back into an old life, inviting her to close her eyes and believe that when she opened them her mother would be sitting on the vanity imparting some wisdom as she did her makeup. She kept them closed, almost able to hear her mother reminding her that a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves.
The fortress was intent on driving her mad, she thought indignantly once she opened her eyes and surveyed the lifeless room. Like Hogwarts, the Black Fortress’s stairway system had a life of its own. The many doors in the ballroom entrance gave the inhabitants the illusion of choice when in fact the fortress itself decided what room they really needed to go in. Originally intended to ensure visitors would never get lost on their way to the toilets, the fortress had sometimes taken the role of protecting the residents from themselves.
Dejectedly, Narcissa sat in front of the vanity, placing the bottle of burgundy liquid back in its place next to the row of lipsticks. Twenty three years since she had last sat in this room. Twenty three years since her mother had died and the fortress had decided to seal the room. They had ended on icy terms, but Narcissa now understood her mother’s cruel sorrow from having lost a daughter to social confines - there were some loses that just did not dull with time. Druella had never been the same after that wicked night in October when Andromeda had had a vision of courage, packed her stuff and left into the night. As Narcissa studied her aged reflection in the mirror, she finally understood that it had been the grief that had ruined her mother, far more than the societal disgrace.
Druella had been sitting on the very chair Narcissa now sat on when she had confirmed her betrothal to Lucius a few years after the... incident with Andromeda.
“Now, you will finish your N.E.W.T.’s and by August you’ll have married Lucius Malfoy,” Druella had said dryly as she carefully moved her wand around her head, sculpting an elaborate hairstyle.
Narcissa had felt her heart drop to her stomach like a glacier violently falling into the sea. She had always known this would be her inevitable end but that didn’t make finally facing her betrothal any easier, not when there was still so much of the world she hadn’t seen.
“I suggest you start wiping that sour look from your face - after what your blood traitor for a sister did, you should be thankful that the Malfoy boy still wants you,” Druella had scolded coldly, her expression becoming increasingly darker.
“No,” Narcissa had whispered.
“I beg your pardon?” Druella hissed back, immediately swinging round from her vanity table.
“No,” Narcissa had repeated, quickly brushing off an angry tear that had fallen down her cheek. She had been fully aware that what she was doing was foolish and futile but any less felt like too easy a surrender. “You go and marry Lucius. I don’t want to share his bed.”
“Want?” Druella had repeated incredulously as she stood up and slowly made her way to where Narcissa had been standing by the bed. “Since when has ‘want’ had anything to do with this?” She continued pitilessly.
“Please Mama...” Narcissa begged in a low whimper.
“Stop. Crying.” Druella ordered, her heart clenching into iron. “I have raised you better than to turn into a whimpering sop at the turn of a foolish fancy, or are you yet another failure of a daughter?”
Narcissa had quickly shaken her head as she bit her lower lip, willing her eyes to stop weeping, but tried as she might, the fat tears had kept pouring down her pretty face as her body was convulsed with silent sobs. Druella had roughly grabbed her daughter’s chin in her hand and slowly snarled, “Do not provoke me any further, Narcissa Black, or I may lose my temper, and believe me when I say that I can hate you as much as I have loved you.” Druella let go of her daughter. “Now get out of my sight. I expect you looking your best for when the Malfoy’s arrive in an hour.”
Narcissa shook her head, gazing back in the mirror to find in her older features evidence that she had long since grown-up. With an eye roll, she remembered how that particular dinner party still stood as the most awkward in her life. Everyone had shown up dressed to the nines, stiffly uncomfortable and thinking of a hundred other things they could be doing with their evening.
Her father had sat at the head of the table carelessly gulping wine with Lucius at his left and Abraxas at his right. Next to her soon to be husband had been Rodolphus; and between herself and her brother-in-law was Bella, discreetly pulling at the diamond choker on her neck that was living up to its name. In front of them the two matriarchs had sat together, both sending each other haughty looks and trying to one-up the other. Narcissa was already fed up with their petulant behaviour, particularly as Druella always loved to remind her that society was the intercourse of persons on a footing of equality, real or apparent. As Hecuba Malfoy sent a politely worded insult at Druella concerning her middle daughter’s marriage, Narcissa gave up trying to understand why they were acting like either was superior to the other.
“Will you be attending the World Cup?” Her father had asked Hecuba, completely ignoring the animosity that was seething between the two witches.
“I would never participate in what should widely be considered the death of art and civilisation,” Hecuba bit back. The whole table had turned to look at Druella; the pureblood had taken a calmly measured spoonful of her soup, somehow managing to convey contempt without moving a muscle beyond her dainty eating. Narcissa had taken a sip of her own soup, her disgust at the gaucheness increasing by the second. The sour mood on the table had been disheartening from the first course.
“Style, like silk, all too often conceals eczema,” Narcissa said out loud as she stood up from the chair and moved to the bed, flopping backwards into the large expanse of heavily decorated sheets.
Her mother was dead. Her father was dead. Her sister was dead. Her husband was dead. Her cousins were dead. Her brothers-in-law were dead. Her niece was dead. Her friends were dead. Death used to mean something - a statement instead of a list. Now all graves were shallow. This late age of world’s experience had bred in them all, all witches and wizards, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; all in a perfectly upright and stoical bearing. And yet, as Narcissa emptily looked up at the dark wooden beams she wondered why, if death was so peaceful and painless, did all living things prefer life to death?
She remembered Lucius clinging on senselessly onto his last few months of life like a stubborn child who refused to let go of his toy. The cruel magic imbued in the dark mark on his left forearm spread all over his body poisoning its host as it was designed to do upon the death of the Dark Lord. Dark magic always killed its victim in the end, whether in one sharp blow or a slow trickle that corroded on the soul for decades until there was nothing left. It had been worse at night, when her husband woke up feeling a phantom pain of the cruciatus twisting and tearing his body. During the day the poor man could barely breath, his lungs choking on themselves as visions and voices teased with him relentlessly.
He used to say it started with goosebumps spreading through the length of his arm like a mocking warning; the anticipation of the pain almost as painful as the pain itself. Narcissa remembered watching him unable to do anything to give him a respite from his torture. Such a proud man had been reduced to a whimpering mess - the fear had been all over him, like a dead cold air falling down from the sky, suffocating him, clutching his lungs.
That cursed mark.
And the irony of it all was that she had helped create it. It had been the summer before her sixth year - the Dark Lord had been Bella’s guest at Black Fortress. It had been a time when Narcissa was still furious at her family for discarding Andromeda. The handsome man had swooped down on her, immediately recognising her talent and her pain the moment they had shaken hands.
During that almost dreamlike time before the wars when anything was possible, some corners of the universe bred the most terrible things. Things which acted against everything any sane person believed in. Amongst those corners was Black Fortress. Surrounded by the sea and the sky it was easy to forget the real world in which consequences existed. She had been a pampered teenager, unable to grasp the effects of her actions. It had been like watching an object fall into a black hole, for no matter how long you watched, you would never see the object enter despite it already being sucked in.
He had asked her to help him create a branding mark for his followers. A mark that would ensure their loyalty. A mark that would ensure he owned them. Narcissa had argued that such a creation would destroy an essential part of whoever underwent it, for it meant renouncing freedom, and renouncing one’s freedom was to renounce one’s humanity. But he had persisted, charming her the way only he knew how. For after all, what was charm but the ability of obtaining the answer ‘yes’ without having asked a clear question with a clear consequence?
So Narcissa had poured herself into dabbling into the theory of that dark magic, producing for the Dark Lord a plethora of ways for branding someone. Narcissa had then gone back to Hogwarts, quickly forgetting her bizarre summer amidst the ordinary chatter of school life. That was, until the Christmas holidays when after tightly embracing her older sister at Platform 9 and 3/4’s, her Bella had lifted her sleeve and shown her that black skull and snake tattoo marring her snow white skin. Petrified in the middle of the busy platform, Narcissa was unable to do anything but stare at it with horror. She knew there was no possible quid pro quo for someone who renounced everything.
That winter had been spent in a constant state of shock with each beloved family and friend she had ever held dear to her heart, proudly showing her their mark. With frantic desperation each night she poured back over all her papers, calculating with masochistic precision all the effects that would slowly manifest with time and fruitlessly trying to invent a remedy despite knowing there was no solution for someone who had voluntarily offered everything. What right can a slave have against his master?
“Don’t worry, Cissy. I’ll restore the Black name back to its rightful glory after what that blood traitor did to us,” Bella would reassure her at night when Narcissa slipped into her sister’s room. Narcissa would trace a finger over the tattoo, imagining she could erase it with her finger. “This is just the first step, Cissy. The Dark Lord has great, great plans for us. It will be a new world order.”
Narcissa kept her silence… there was nothing she could do except watch the train wreck she had designed grotesquely unfold. Every so often, the Dark Lord would come back to her, demanding more research from her, exploiting her guilt. When she asked, what have I done? She really meant, what am I doing?
For twenty six years Narcissa had carried around that guilt with her like cold, soaking wet clothes that clung on her skin. She never had any doubt the Potter boy hadn’t defeated the Dark Lord; her husband was alive and healthy, her friends and family too. The Dark Lord’s lifeline was like a string which grew shorter by the day, it had only been a matter of time until they reached the end of the string and the Dark Lord would be there, waiting for them. No amount of wishing could have extended the string, instead it snapped along with her heart as she watched him carve out her son’s arm, his muffled screams mingling with the smell of burnt flesh. The only thing that kept her from trying to draw wand against the Dark Lord was the knowledge that there was a fundamental difference between her son’s mark and that of everyone else who had it. Her son didn’t want it, whereas all the other Death Eaters in the room had gladly given up their soul for it.
Narcissa hedged her bets on the theory that dark magic that had been imposed on the host would have a different consequence than if the magic had been welcomed in. She didn’t sleep for a week after Draco’s initiation, desperately calibrating a potion that would keep the darkness at bay. But her husband... her husband had been a lost cause from the start. So had her sister. So had every one else. The mark had made them all dependent on the Dark Lord’s lifeline. If he lived, so did they. Death Eaters indeed.
“He is dead,” she remembered calling out, knowing that she was condemning those she loved to death. He is dead. He is dead. He is dead. Those three words echoing forever in her head, even when they stopped sounding like words. He is dead. He is dead...
Why had the fortress decided to open this room up to her? She wondered tiredly, propping herself up.
“Limpy,” she called out softly.
“Yes, mistress?” He asked shyly.
The little house elf stroked his downcast ears and refused to look his mistress in the eye. “The fortress and Limpy decided that...”
“Decided what Limpy?” Narcissa asked sitting up properly.
“Decided to show mistress that mistress has been brave in the past, and that mistress deserves better now,” Limpy said in one hurried sentence as he hunched himself into a little ball expecting to be reprimanded. Old habits died hard.
“Oh Limpy...” Narcissa said softly as if speaking to a child. The house elf opened one eye nervously and slowly untied himself from the knot he got into. “If only that were true.” The pureblood stood up. “C’mon, Limpy. Lets get out of here. We need to start on Master Draco’s potion before Miss Granger arrives.”
Chapter 9: Reparations
D-d-deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.
The bookshelf. Check.
C’mon, c’mon - you need to breathe. Have another breath.
The window. Check. - Wait. Is it locked? Yes. Check.
Now the closet. Yes, everything’s there. Check.
That’s it, keep it up. Nice, deep breaths.
The manuscripts - are they where I left them last night? Yes, yes. Ok. Check.
J-j-just a few more things now. No, no! - ... why the crying now? Please don’t cry, you can hardly breath as it is.
Th-th-the pictures of Harry, Ron and her laughing with their arms around each other out on one of the quad’s in Hogwarts hanging above her desk. Check.
Please... stop crying.
Hermione buried her head in her hands and sobbed as Crookshanks rubbed himself against his mistress’ thigh consolingly. Her inner monologue was replaced by the sound of a terrible animal she had never heard before, it screeched like a basilisk and roared like a dragon all at once. Hermione began to tremble, knowing she was the only one who could hear it; or perhaps she was just shivering from how icy cold she felt, she couldn’t tell which. Despite the intense cold, drops of sweat burst from her skin all across her forehead, chest and belly. The animal in her head was chanting “MUDBLOOD! MUDBLOOD! MUDBLOOD!” over and over again in its terrible screeches until Hermione forced herself to open her eyes and face her empty room. Their volume faltered.
Her notebooks all ordered neatly on her desk. Check.
That’s it! Keep going! Keep going! - just ignore it and keep going!
The pale orange wallpaper with flowers blooming and dancing in an imaginary wind. Check.
The cherry wooden planks all lined up in their horizontal rows. Check.
Her well used Converse waiting for her on the rug. Check.
Almost done, Granger.
Her large chest open and revealing an odd assortment of magical equipment. Check.
That sickly cheerful poster of the Holyhead Harpies. Check.
The sun at last poured through the open window and Hermione flopped backwards on the bed, the half-kneazle hopping onto her chest and licking her chin.
“It’s okay, Crookshanks. I’m back now. I’m back now.” She reassured the feline gently, stroking him with one hand and wiping the vestiges of her tears with the other. The furry creature on her chest purred happily at the reassurances and Hermione lifted her left arm above her face to see how bad it looked today.
The seven letters all glowed pungently, the veins around them all popping up against her skin in varying tones of black. Had she been unable to move her arm she would’ve been positive the limb was necrotic. She touched it as lightly as possible but flinched automatically when her right hand came into contact with the swollen skin and the carvings sent out a wave of electric shocks down her arm in retaliation.
“Merlin’s beard,” Hermione coughed out through clenched tears. “Why haven’t I learnt to stop doing that?”
Crookshanks jumped onto the floor and scratched on the closed door. “You’re right, Crookshanks - breakfast is in order,” she said wearily as she stuffed her wand into the elastic band of her pyjamas and quickly put a jumper on to cover her arm. “It’s going to be a long day.”
Hermione walked into the kitchen and saw Harry already sitting on the table pouring himself a cup of tea, the salivating selection of food all set out.
“Have we ever really offered him clothes?” She asked in lieu of a greeting.
“Many, many a time,” Harry replied quietly with a small smile.
Hermione sat down in front of her friend, the young man passing her that morning’s copy of the Prophet. Both of them noticed the dark circles under the others eyes, and silently acknowledged the difficult night with a small tired smile.
“You’re going to see your... friend-? today, right?” He asked as he served himself a healthy portion of sausages.
“Yes, around lunch time, actually,” she replied absently, flicking the newspaper to page three to see if Narcissa had made the headlines.
“I remember when you used to scoff at anyone who read that rubbish,” he teased as he passed Hermione the marmalade.
“It’s for educational purposes!”
“Oh yes,” Harry kept teasing, “I’m sure the page 3 gossip column has quite the educational insight.” Hermione blushed as her friend gave her a cheeky smile and her eyes caught sight of the words ‘Miss Narcissa Black...’
“Oh hush, Harry. I’m trying to read,” Hermione replied curtly, trying to look casual as her friend barked a laugh at her embarrassed expression.
The handsome widower Mr Charles McLaggen was reported to have spent all of the previous evening dancing with the beautiful widow Miss Narcissa during the Annual Muggle Reparations Banquet Fundraiser. Hermione impatiently closed the newspaper after the nefarious reporter started dissecting all the ensuing rumours about a possible romance between the two in all their salacious glory.
“You’re right, Harry. I don’t know how anyone can read this rubbish,” she said with a little too much vehemence as she stabbed a sausage with her fork.
Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh salty sea air. She had just apparated onto the sandy beach that served as a welcome mat to Black Fortress. It had turned out to be a grey day and the sea seemed almost inky black, making the pristinely white marble fortress really stand out against its drab surroundings like an ephemeral vision.
The sound of the steady waves crashing onto the shore lulled Hermione into a comforting feeling of safety as she walked on the stone pier towards the black door she now realised she had become fond of. Two quick knocks and the door opened itself to her and she walked quietly into the gilded ball room. So used to the house being empty, it took her a few moments to register the pale young man in a grey tailored suit that stood silently looking out of one of the windows that faced the blue and grey horizon. His arms were drawn behind his back and he didn’t seem to have noticed the intrusion.
Hermione hesitated uncomfortably, unsure whether to say something or try to slip away into the library unnoticed. The blonde boy made the decision for her, turning around with a look of astonishment as he caught sight of her.
“Granger,” he offered at last, his face quickly hiding any trace of surprise
“Malfoy,” Hermione replied in the same neutral tone.
“Mother mentioned she was working on something with someone. I suppose she forgot to mention it was you.”
Hermione almost raised an eyebrow - this was by far the most civil thing Draco had ever said to her. She nodded but then became hyperaware that she was at a total loss as to what to say next. Instead, Hermione took to observing the sullen young man who stood in front of her - after all, she had as much a right as him to be there. She had never noticed it before, but he looked so much like his mother. It was the cheekbones. And the nose. The rest, she supposed, was all his father - from the hard jawline, the cold grey eyes, all the way to the tired way he held himself. Despite the favouring suit Draco sported, he looked worse for the wear; better, far better than the empty carcass he had been during the battle of Hogwarts, but in the unflattering dull light that the window cast on him, his handsome figure seemed broken the same way statues in museums were, irreparably but still standing.
The uncomfortable silence stretched as the two former enemies stared at each other, until at last, in one final act of surrender, Draco nodded respectfully to Hermione and started making his way to the door. However, he paused the moment he was about to brush past Hermione’s left side. He turned to look at the muggleborn with the faintest hint of concern.
“How bad is it?” He asked quietly, his voice sounding strained.
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stammered.
“Granger,” Draco drawled haughtily, somehow making her name sound like a boast, and Hermione almost sighed with relief - this was the Draco she was used to. “You may have many faults but stupidity is not one of them.” With his right hand, the pureblood lifted his left arm as if the limb was dead weight. Despite the thick tweed and leather gloves Draco was wearing, Hermione could still see how his left hand quivered significantly. “I can feel the dark magic radiating from you.”
Hermione looked down at her feet, surprised at the intensity of the shame she was feeling.
“Show you mine if you show me yours,” Draco offered, his tone such a sharp contrast from his previous comment it made Hermione look up. She nodded and watched as Draco took his glove off revealing a hand covered in black and blue bruises. The boy then lifted his sleeve up, his jaw visibly tightening as he tried not to act like he was in pain. The dark mark stood out on his pale skin with the snake twisting and curling around his arm as if intent on strangling it. His arm was bloodshot, pulsating shocks of some black poison but Hermione could see that something was blocking the poison from spreading to the rest of his body. The mark seemed delighted to see her, pulling at Draco’s skin to get closer to her until Draco quickly shoved his sleeve back down and put the glove back on. “Go on, Granger, your turn now.”
Hermione hesitated, but then shook her head and quickly pushed up her sleeve revealing her own parasite.
“Has my mother seen it?” Draco asked wearily.
“No,” she replied, rolling her jumper back down. “I see no reason for her to.”
“Well I think you should do so soon,” he said as he straightened back into his posture with his hands behind his back as if they were tied by some invisible chain. “I can guarantee you you won’t live for much longer, let alone have an arm, if you leave that untreated.” The blonde boy looked at her stoically. “You need to deal with it, Granger. There is nothing deep down inside us except that which we have put there ourselves.” He nodded at her as a parting gesture. “See you around, Granger.”
Rooted to her spot, Hermione heard him shut the door behind him and the empty silence that followed his departure was far more uncomfortable than the one they had shared.
How do I tell her? She asked herself. Then she asked herself again, and again, until she barely registered her own question or the way that her knees buckled, throwing her to her knees.
How do I tell her... that I? How -
“Hermione, are you okay?” She heard a soft voice ask in the distance.
A warm hand touched her cheek and the young witch was startled back into life. She blinked a couple of times, and saw Narcissa kneeling patiently in front of her, their knees almost touching each other.
“Hermione,” The older witch repeated, her voice feeling like a warm blanket being put around her. “Whatever it is, it’ll be okay.” Hermione looked up to Narcissa as if the older witch was air and she was drowning. “What happened?” She insisted.
Hermione shook her head stubbornly. “Nothing,” she managed to croak out, at last noticing she was crying. “Nothing.”
The older witch didn’t falter for a second, resting her hands on her thighs and felt the soft material of her tight dress. She knew she could wait this one out.
“Nothing,” Hermione repeated. “I’m just very, very tired. Didn’t sleep well last night,” she rambled. The younger witch shook her head, surprised she was still crying, then, as if exasperated with herself she shoved up her sleeve revealing what lay hidden on her forearm.
“Oh, Hermione,” Narcissa exclaimed quietly. “We need to get you downstairs right now.”
Narcissa slammed open the door at the bottom of the staircase, sending a silent thanks to the fortress for not choosing this time of all times to mess around with her. With an arm supporting most of Hermione’s weight, she half carried the girl to the large wooden chair that stood surrounded by shelves of potion ingredients. The windowless room was illuminated with oil lamps that floated around the room casting shadows on all the colourful glass vials and containers. The room was as cold as the dungeons in Hogwarts, except here, the sound of the waves crashing against the marble walls could be heard in the distance whereas the static lake insulated Hogwarts’ dungeons from any outside sound.
“Hermione, listen to me,” Narcissa said as calmly as she could. “This curse has evolved great lengths from what it once was.” She traced her wand up the length of Hermione’s arm, holding the muggleborn’s hand tightly in hers as Hermione bit back a moan upon the contact from the wand. “It’s flowing all through your blood. I need to draw the magic back to a containable area before your heart gives out.”
Hermione looked up at the pureblood, guilt flooding her chest for what she was putting the older witch through. Narcissa’s usual calm and collected expression had been abandoned for a tense frown and fearful eyes. “I trust you,” Hermione managed through gritted teeth.
“I should give you something to knock you out,” Narcissa said resolutely, as she tore through calculations for dosages in her head.
“No!” Hermione pleaded, “don’t knock me out.”
“It’s going to hurt and you need to keep still lest you break the trance.”
“I can keep still.”
Narcissa was about to argue back until she saw the resolve in the younger witch’s eye. There was no point wasting time trying to convince her. “Don’t say I didn’t offer,” she drawled sarcastically, trying to sound casual as she started hastily pulling containers off the shelves and set a bunch of sweet smelling herbs on fire, their smoke lazily filling the lab with wispy curls of green smoke.
Hermione closed her eyes, the smell of herbs lulling her into a peaceful trance that focused her attention on the sound of the waves crashing around her. She could hear Narcissa moving around in the room and had her arm not felt like it was splintering into tiny pieces, she was certain she would’ve felt very content.
“This is...” Narcissa sounded apologetic, and Hermione opened her eyes to see Narcissa standing with a vial of black liquid looking deeply hesitant. “This is going to get its attention.”
“Go for it,” Hermione choked out, noticing how moving, even to speak, had become a very difficult thing to do now that the smoke had taken control of her body, synchronising her heartbeat to the waves.
Narcissa bit her lip, bending down to sit on a low stool and carefully poured the dense liquid over Hermione’s scar. The effect was immediate.
The young witch wanted to close her eyes and scream but found herself unable to move an inch. Petrified like stone, Hermione watched as Narcissa moved her wand across her arm muttering at a frantic pace. Suddenly, as Narcissa’s whispers grew even faster and faster in pace, Hermione realised how very afraid she was.
Never had she known such a belly-tightening fear, not even when Bellatrix had dragged her by her hair telling her all the things she was going to do to her in a sing-song voice if she didn’t tell her how she got the sword. She was afraid that the magic would rip her apart, yes, but even more she dreaded moving and breaking the trance. And if she did, she didn’t need Narcissa to tell her that the magic would consume her. The magic would kill her for giving in to her fear, to the darkness. This thought, in turn, fed her fear, intensified it until sweat poured down her ribs and soaked her shirt.
A wind began blowing, rattling all the glass vials and chilling her to the core, and she despaired because she felt herself falling through a black bottomless night from which there was no escape. There is nothing deep down inside us except that which we have put there ourselves - she remembered Draco saying this just a little while ago. And repeating the words in her head, she willed herself to stare into the darkness that was enveloping her, welcoming in Narcissa’s purging magic. In a moment of exhilaration she realised that she was there to surrender up her fear, or rather, to lose a part of herself, to let die her childish conception of herself as a separate being terrified of the darkness of the world.
Just then, Narcissa’s voice started growing considerably louder, filling the small laboratory with her incantations. She felt the blood that flowed through her body start boiling under her skin, it was a mutilating and scorching pain. Hermione clenched her jaws so hard she thought her teeth would break off in splinters and be driven into her gums; her muscles strained to rip apart from her bones, and instantly her eyes were burning so badly she could not see. She could still hear, though, and in many ways that was the worst of it, the crunching, ripping sounds of the magic cackling through her body and the curse coming out and screeching “MUDBLOOD! MUDBLOOD! MUDBLOOD!” in that terrible voice of its. It hurts! She silently screamed. Oh, God, it hurts! The pain was a black flame burning up her arm into her heart and spine. The pain ate her alive; the world was nothing but fire and pain and that stupid, nasty word ‘MUDBLOOD! MUDBLOOD!’.
But there came a moment when her body was so consumed in pain she began to feel like a single nerve connected to a vastly greater ganglia and webwork of living things; she was part of that infinite ocean she was in the belly of. She could her the death scream of Tom Riddle, and all the death eaters she had killed and all the friends that had died in front of her exploding from within her mind; she remembered the electricity of the magic that had scorched her arm when she had cast curses that had killed, and felt a sudden pressure below her ribs, as if a spear or claw had pierced her liver. In one blinding moment she saw again the face of her parents as they forgot her. The hurt of all these people and things flowed into her like a river of molten stone. She ached to move, to scream, to push herself off the chair and run away. Only now, wholly consumed by the terrible pain that was the awareness of life, she was no longer afraid. Beyond pain, there was only death. Death was the left hand of life, and suddenly Hermione beheld its long cold fingers and deep lines with a clarity of vision that astonished her. Seen from one perspective, death was cruel and dreadful like a murderer’s hand over a baby’s face; but from another, death was as familiar and nonfrightening as the whorls of her father’s open palm. She would die, tonight or a thousand nights hence - she could almost see the moment when the light would flee her eyes and join all the other lights in the sky. She would die and no desire for an invisibility cloak was roused within her.
Narcissa’s magic continued to ruthlessly tear away the dark, foul magic that had ingrained itself into her body, she was dying, but strangely she had never been so alive. She held herself quiet and still, listening to to the wind beating at the waves. She heard Narcissa’s voice, softer now, whispering that Hermione herself would have to confront the darkness within her if she ever hoped to survive.
There is nothing deep down inside us except that which we have put there ourselves. Hermione told herself.
And inside her, despite the pain, at the centre of her deepest self, she accepted all the horrors she had committed and which had fed the darkness of the curse on her arm. In many ways she would always be tainted, no matter any purging she went through.
“Hermione!” Narcissa called out with relief. “Your blood is finally flowing red!”
The young witch listened to her deep breathing as other cuts were carved into her flesh, tiny cuts up and down the length of her arm. Hermione saw Narcissa making the incisions with a knife as she rubbed various coloured powders into them. The cuts would fester and then heal; briefly, she wondered whether her arm would now forever be decorated with dozens of green and ocher scars.
“How is the pain?” The pureblood asked. Hermione felt something soft and soothing being wrapped around her arm, it felt like wet moss and smelt like mint leaves. “Hermione, you’re going to have to rest for some time. What remains of your strength will be depleted in the coming days as the magic works on itself.” Narcissa then stood up looking for something on the many shelves. “Here - this will help with the pain. Open your mouth and swallow it without chewing.”
Hermione did as she was told. Like a baby bird she opened her mouth and waited. Suddenly she felt a bit of raw meat pressed into her mouth, back against her tongue. She swallowed once, convulsively, and she tasted warm blood.
“Sorry, I know it’s not pleasant, but a morsel of vampire’s heart is the only thing that can dull this type of pain.” Narcissa explained apologetically as she summoned a basin and a towel to soothe Hermione’s feverish face before moving down to clean up her arm. The piercing pain started dwindling, replaced instead with exhaustion, but Hermione didn’t mind quietly watching Narcissa carry out her ministrations. Relief looked so good on the older witch, Hermione noted.
“You’re not cured,” Narcissa confessed, dipping the towel in the water. “Not by far,” she continued as she cleaned Hermione’s arm. “But we’ve bought you a reasonable amount of time.”
“Thank you,” Hermione rasped out at last.
“Please don’t,” Narcissa whispered. “It’s my fault. I should’ve intervened. I should’ve never let this happen -”
“Narcissa,” The younger witch interrupted. “It’s okay.”
“How can it be okay?” Narcissa snapped back, trying to discreetly wipe away a tear. “I am an inventor of cruelties unworthy of civilised men. Look how I’ve made you suffer when I could’ve stopped this from ever happening.”
“Narcissa,” Hermione started again, grabbing the older witch’s hand and forcing her to look into her eyes. “It’s long done, not by your hand.”
“I have let you suffer. I have let so many suffer.”
“Maybe, but I will embrace my allotted suffering and let it give weight and substance to my life,” she said holding Narcissa’s hand tightly. “I think I understand Harry better now, true love comes from embracing our pain. It takes that to fully love another.” Narcissa closed her eyes to concentrate on the younger witches words. “I suppose that presents us with a terrible choice - on the one hand we can choose happiness by turning away from suffering, or we forsake happiness for love.”
“That sounds absurd,” Narcissa whispered wistfully, leaning her head on Hermione’s thighs.
Hermione took another deep breath of the sweet herbs. “It’s true because it’s absurd,” she responded gently. “I always hated when they told me things like that, but I guess they were right in the end. Sometimes we have to believe even if we don’t understand. In any case, you can stop feeling guilty about me.”
The pureblood slowly lifted her head and smiled ruefully. “That still leaves me with so many things to feel guilty about. I have done so many monstrous things, Hermione. I am a monster, and yes, you can love a monster, it can even love you back, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a monster.”
Hermione wiped her brow as a feverish drop of swear trickled down her forehead. “Why do you keep punishing yourself? Who are you helping?”
“Because it is not enough to accuse oneself to relieve oneself of guilt, Hermione!” The pureblood replied instantly, unable to keep the horror from her voice.
“None of us are innocent. That’s the one thing I can say with certainty - that in this moment, like in every other moment, everyone is guilty. We’re all bearing witness to each other crimes. We must move forward, that’s the point of forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness?” Narcissa repeated incredulously. “I deserve no such thing.”
“You don’t forgive people because they deserve it,” she replied, echoing words she once heard in passing. She rested her arm on the older witch’s shoulder and leaned all of her weight on her. “You forgive them because they need it.”
“I beg to disagree,” Narcissa replied, pulling the muggleborn up to her feet as the young witch laughed dryly at the older witch’s stubborn response. “And before you try to argue back, we need to get you to a bed. Travelling is out of the question for the time being, so you’ll stay here until you’ve recovered her strength.” Hermione opened her mouth to protest as they slowly made their way to the door. “No. I don’t even want to hear it,” she said opening the door. “I’ll send a letter to Mr. Potter, but until you’ve got your strength back, any travel, even muggle transport, would be a reckless exercise in suicide.”
Hermione closed her mouth, knowing better than to argue against Narcissa, and leaned her head on the older witch’s shoulder, losing herself in the perfume that clung to Narcissa’s clothes. If she was being honest, she was exhausted and a bed sounded heavenly. “Okay, Narcissa. To bed it is.”
It was a cold biting fever, the sort that shook every tensed muscle with shivers. The delirium of cold temperatures was a fickle as that of hot ones. Narcissa had lost count how many times she’d seen it before. Another blanket, more logs in the fire, and patience. No magic, just a caring hand. It went against all her instincts as a witch, so used to pushing the laws of nature that it took nerves of steel not to give in and just break them properly once and for all. Of course, all hell would break loose, she knew this, but it was so easy to forget when she saw the younger witch muttering frantically in her sleep, beads of sweat running down her icy forehead.
Maybe just a little spell, you know, to ease the discomfort. No, no. Hermione’s body was so overloaded with magic, any more would tip the balance and her body would be consumed by it. Her body would stop being a physical thing, converted wholly into a substance of pure magical energy. Nasty death, to be honest. Quite common during the early 1800‘s when half-cocked magical experimentation was the avant-garde entertainment for high society parties. Between botched experiments and twenty wands casting healing spells, many a carpet had been sacrificed at the altar of impatience. The road to Hades was paved with good intentions (and intoxicated fools brandishing a wand). Sometimes, only sometimes, the muggle way of doing things was the only way of doing things. The Dark Lord had loved to pretend otherwise but magic did not make omnipotent gods of them all.
Narcissa sighed as she kept her vigil over the muggleborn. She knew there was a party going on that she should be attending. It was up in Scotland, someone’s spring castle. It was a promising soirée; the further north the party, the more bizarrely entertaining they had a tendency to become. London society had forgotten the meaning of bohemianism, these days it took a kooky Scottish warlock with an obstacle course for a residence and the ruse of a masquerade to jump shock all those old snobs into... well... forgetting to be snobbish for a night. And honestly, what better a time than that to convince Ulysses Stark to pass that war tribunals reform? And Emilia Rosenberg was also going to be there - when she got tipsy, and with the right cooing, the woman was prone to revealing in which direction the Wizengamot’s agenda was heading. Not to mention the old gang...
Narcissa glanced at the clock on the mantlepiece - the time for being able to get away with ‘fashionably late’ was quickly running out. It made her uncomfortable to know that her absence would be noted as all the guests carried out their debauchery - a footnote in her honour, pondering on her absence would definitely be featured in next months Tatler. But for the sheer life of her, she refused to leave the brunette lying on the bed, even in the careful hands of Limpy.
No, no. Business could wait another day. Hermione needed her and she’d be damned if some tribunal reform was going to get in the way. Lucius never understood priorities, in trying to provide the best for his family he forgot about them. And himself. Yes, Lucius had been cold and cowardly, stubborn and occasionally brutal, but never for a moment had Narcissa doubted that most of what he had done, he had done for her and Draco. A cruel fool, but a cruel fool with good intentions - the wickedest kind, in her opinion.
She need only close her eyes and with a clarity that was terrifying she could picture every single fight they had ever had. All of it - the begging, the crying, the swearing, the broken glasses, the slapping, the threats, the curses, the torn clothing, the bruises - all twenty years of that madness. In those long, bitter years of marriage Narcissa had been reduced to many things: the taste of firewhiskey; ripped silk; the feeling of rough stubble against the skin; foggy mornings; a flash of grey eyes; the smell of cologne; the way chins tremble when trying not to cry. Now... well now she was a mirror draped in black; burnt photographs; spilt wine; a wince at raised voices.
The fire cackled and Narcissa opened her eyes. Hermione was gazing at her with an expression of contented exhaustion. They shared an indulgent smile.
“How are you feeling?” She asked standing up and placing a hand on Hermione’s forehead to check her temperature. The young witch moaned at the contact, the warmth of Narcissa’s hand breaking through the cold. Hermione clasped Narcissa’s hand over her cheek.
“You are so warm,” Hermione mumbled.
Narcissa paused for a moment before pulling her hand away despite Hermione’s feeble protestations. “Patience, Miss Granger; they say it’s a virtue.” The pureblood hesitated again. “Oh for goodness sake - it is the best way to raise her temperature,” she berated herself. Narcissa stripped off her dress and summoned her silk shorts pyjamas. Tentatively she slipped into the bed, suppressing the shiver she felt as Hermione immediately gravitated to the new source of warmth.
“I’m... I’m sorry for causing so much trouble,” Hermione mumbled as Narcissa accepted the girl in her arms.
“Nonsense,” the pureblood reassured her, allowing herself to get comfortable. “You’ve caused no trouble at all.”
“I just wanted you to know…”
Narcissa waited as her heartbeat quickened, but then she felt Hermione’s breathing slow and knew she had fallen asleep. “Tomorrow perhaps, then.”
Closing her own eyes, Narcissa felt Hermione’s chest slowly lifting and falling against her own ribcage. In... out. In... out. It was like feeling the eternity of the cool sea gently crashing against her. In... out. In... out. Each breath a wave that had travelled worlds to reach the shore. In... out. In... out.
Hours later Hermione parted from her heavy sleep to find herself engulfed by an overwhelming sense of relief. Eyes still closed she revelled in the sheer... coziness she felt. She snuggled closer to the only source of heat, trying to place the different smells that surrounded her. It definitely reminded her of vanilla. Maybe even sunshine. Hermione almost giggled to herself - sunshine? What a peculiar thing to be able to smell, and yet, it entered into her with each breath into her lungs, filling her up, imbuing her with the warmth she lacked. Maybe it was more like honey. No, it wasn’t quite honey. Hermione furrowed her brow, it was such a familiar smell…
The witch opened her eyes to greet the morning with the sight of Narcissa sleeping soundly under a small barricade of covers. Before she knew it a lopsided smile had spread on her lips as she assessed the full extent of Narcissa’s messy hair. Black and blonde strands were splayed all over the white pillows and Hermione decided in a heartbeat that Narcissa had never looked more stunning.
Her eyes travelled down the pureblood’s long pale neck where a hidden necklace had fallen out onto display. The thick silver chain dangled a diamond and ivory studded crest that rested on the sheets between the two witches, it was a crest Hermione was awfully familiar with. Trying to move as gently as possible, the muggleborn dared to touch the cool metal, her thumb tracing over the white skull that headed the coat of arms, then trailed down to the three crows that stood over the family motto. Toujours pur.
Hermione looked back up to Narcissa’s peaceful face and wondered - was it irony or a warning?
The thought was immediately abandoned as Narcissa stretched her left arm and pulled her closer. Stunned and pressed against the pureblood’s warm chest Hermione could have sworn she felt Narcissa’s heartbeat against her cheek. So distracted by the position, Hermione almost missed what the older witch was saying.
“Coffee...” she mumbled softly, “where’s my coffee?”
Immediately the room was flooded with the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans.
Narcissa opened her eyes and with magnificent blush released Hermione from her grip.
“Coffee?” The older witch offered in an embarrassed voice Hermione had never heard before.
“Coffee sounds lovely,” she replied with an easy smile as she pulled herself up to a sitting position and wrapped herself with a thick cover. Narcissa noticed the shiver that ran through Hermione’s body as she drew away from her to levitate the pot of steaming coffee towards them.
“How are you feeling?”
“Still exhausted and cold as a corpse,” she responded, instantly regretting her choice of words as an unamused scowl flashed on Narcissa’s face. She took the porcelain mug offered to her, suddenly too ashamed to look Narcissa in the eyes.
“Appropriate, I suppose,” the pureblood said testily, “seeing as you did so nearly kill yourself via neglect.”
Hermione winced into her cup. “It wasn’t... you know... on purpose.”
“Such is the nature of neglect,” she drawled back coldly.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Of course, let me imagine - you just thought that the black magic curse that is, for all intents and purposes, tattooed on your arm would clear itself up. That maybe, if you ignored it long enough it would just go away.”
Hermione winced again, she had forgotten how biting Narcissa’s sarcasm could be delivered. “No,” she muttered meekly, “I just didn’t think it was that important?”
“Not important?” Narcissa hissed, the volume of her voice lower as her temper rose. “Don’t you realise that a person is, among all else, a material thing - easily torn and not easily mended. You were - and are, might I add - dying, Hermione. Dying. That’s not something that can just be shrugged off.”
“I just... I just...” Hermione rubbed the back of her neck trying to remember what she had just, “didn’t want to inconvenience anyone?” Hermione grimaced at how bad that sounded, even to herself, and quickly tried correcting herself. “No, no, I mean - I just didn’t think it was that important.” Hermione instantly realised she was repeating herself. “As in, you know -”
“No, I don’t know,” Narcissa drawled out in a tone colder than the North Sea. “Enlighten me.”
“I guess... I was just ashamed.” Hermione confessed faintly to her coffee. “It’s humiliating to be tainted like this. I could barely admit it to myself, let alone to anyone else. Plus,” she gulped, returning to her analytic tone, “our research hasn’t exactly provided any optimistic prognosis. If there’s no hope then what’s the point worrying anyone? - I’m not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Caught unguarded against the younger witch’s honesty, Narcissa felt her anger dissipate replaced with the familiar sinking in her stomach of realising too late that someone mattered to her. She let go of her mug, letting it levitate beside her and against her better judgment she pulled the witch into an embrace. “You are to many, myself included.”
Surprised but not uncomfortable Hermione let herself relax in the embrace. She leaned her head on the pureblood’s shoulder, grateful for the warmth that spread through her body as Narcissa’s hand ran up and down her back soothingly. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled out at last, intentionally avoiding thinking how pleasant this all felt.
“You certainly should be,” Narcissa retorted but it lacked any of the bite it had before. “Now, Miss Granger,” she said as they pulled apart, “our research is not over.” Instinctively, Narcissa placed her hand on Hermione’s jaw and rubbed her thumb on the icy skin. “But first a bath and then breakfast.”
Narcissa dropped her hand back to her lap and Hermione almost frowned, would this be the first and only time she’d feel Narcissa touch? She felt silly for mourning something that had never been meant for her. The older witch nodded, her demeanour back to business as usual. She left the bed in search of something returning with a little vial.
“Old family recipe. It’ll help with the cold and the pain.” She handed her the golden liquid. “Have a small sip every once in a while, it barely has any magic in it’ll cause no interference. Of course, if you’d rather not risk it there’s always more jumpers-“
“I trust you.”
Narcissa nodded. “I’ll see you in the dining room then. Limpy picked up clean clothes for you last night, you should have all you need in the drawers. I’ll redress the bandages after we have something to eat.”
“Thank you,” Hermione said as she slowly dropped her feet on the ground.
“That reminds me.” Narcissa pulled out her wand and conjured a wooden wheelchair. “You shouldn’t be walking.”
“I think I can make it to the bathroom,” she responded stubbornly. Narcissa raised a disapproving eyebrow. “But I will use the wheelchair from then on.”
The pureblood tutted at the compromise and moved to the door. “You better, Miss Granger.”
Hermione was left alone in the blue room.
I trust you. The words rang in Hermione’s head as her thumb ran over the smooth label on the bottle. I trust you. This was the second time in less than twenty four hours that she had expressed the sentiment, and as Hermione trudged to the bathroom she idly wondered when that had happened.
The water started pooling in the large bath the moment she walked in and Hermione flung her shirt on the floor before picking up the bottle again. Fortes it spelled out in Narcissa’s careful penmanship. Then, as she was about to settle the bottle back on the counter, it occurred to her that that was probably it - what had subconsciously dispelled her suspicions about the older witch. How silly, Hermione thought, that a person’s good handwriting and syntax had such an effect on her.
However, maybe there was something to it, Hermione thought as she dipped a finger in the water to check the temperature. Too hot. Narcissa’s measured words and carefully constructed script suggested to Hermione that the pureblood was a person who knew how to put things in their right place; that she could trust her because a person who could respect even the correct way of writing a word, would surely be able to respect the more important things in life.
Hermione finished undressing and slowly dipped herself in the gloriously hot bath.
Slowly, she un-bandaged her arm, wincing all the way through. She sighed. It was a mess, like somebody had tried to pass a lawnmower over it and then proceeded to whack it with metal pipe. She took a small swing of the vial Narcissa gave her, surprised of how much it tasted of scotch and gradually dunked her arm in the water, stifling a yelp each time a colourful cut made contact with the water.
She took another swing of the drink, becoming more convinced that the ‘old family recipe’ was just alcohol as it burned her throat on its way down. The realisation made Hermione laugh despite her aching body.
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Chapter 11: Considerations
Narcissa slipped into some black slacks and threw an emerald robe over her; she was far too famished to go through the nuisance of properly getting ready for the day without more coffee. The pureblood grabbed the newspaper Limpy had left for her on her nightstand and walked out of the room as she scanned the front page. Apparently a small muggle village in West Yorkshire was being haunted by dementors and the ministry was still working on a strategy for dealing with the situation. The door to the dining hall opened for Narcissa, allowing her to keep her attention on the paper. She would have to pay a visit to the Ministry, she hadn’t raised so many galleons for the anti-dementor fundraiser for such poor results.
Narcissa turned to page three and raised a sculpted eyebrow.
“That doesn’t look good,” Hermione said as she wheeled herself in the room. Narcissa jumped in her chair.
“Forgive me, I was engrossed,” she replied closing the newspaper.
Hermione pushed her wheelchair next to Narcissa on the long mahogany table. “You know - wheelchair - really unpractical.” Narcissa raised her eyebrow, challenging the younger witch keep complaining. “But, if you think it’s necessary...” Hermione trailed off picking up the newspaper. Her own face darkened as she read about the fate of the populace of the little Yorkshire town. The weariness was quickly replaced by shock as she opened the paper and was greeted by a photo of McLaggen Senior snogging an unknown woman in all its moving glory. “Well that was unexpected,” Hermione stated as she put the paper down. “I thought he was really into you…”
“Hmm,” she replied noncommittally, but Hermione was almost sure she detected a note of displeasure. She suddenly felt a bubble of envy ripple in the pit of her stomach. “Do you like him?”
“Who would that be?” Narcissa avoided casually as the food appeared before them. “Oh, you mean Charles?” She nodded towards the newspaper as she served herself a slice of salmon. “As much as the next man.”
Hermione rubbed her eyes, forcing the feeling away. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my business.”
“That’s quite alright,” Narcissa replied dismissively. “Anyway, there are far more riveting topics for conversation than any page three nonsense.”
“That’s certainly true,” she replied self-consciously, taking a bite of the fish. “I’ve had more than enough of my share of that world.”
“Ah yes... one Miss Rita Skeeter does come to mind.” Narcissa said with the smallest of mischievous smiles.
Hermione felt herself blushing. “No comment,” she spluttered out, a smile spreading across her face as the room was filled with Narcissa’s tinkling laughter. The mirth spread quickly and soon both witches were laughing as they swapped stories of their misadventures with various members of the press as they had their breakfast.
Hermione had a sip of her tea and leaned into her wheelchair. “You have work to do, Narcissa. You shouldn’t blow off your commitments on my account.”
Narcissa stood up and started pushing Hermione back to her bedroom. “Contrary to what you like to tell yourself, someone needs to keep an eye on you - make sure you don’t die.”
“But what you do - your work - all the people you talk to, all the plans you have. It’s important,” she insisted. “I bet if you open your diary you have a hundred things to do today. A hundred people to meet.”
“A hundred you say?” Narcissa asked amused. “You’re not a wise gambler, are you, Miss Granger?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Well, I suppose Andromeda could always come over,” she mused. “It’s a Monday and Teddy’s at that... institution... Andromeda is adamant on sending him to.”
“Institution?” Hermione asked baffled. “Do you mean his nursery?”
“Mmmh... if that’s how you call it.” They crossed the threshold of the cozy dove blue room.
“What’s wrong with nursery?”
“Nothing... per se,” she replied with a distinctly disapproving shrug of the shoulders. “It’s just not... tradition.”
Hermione crossed her arms. “What does tradition dictate, then?”
“Oh you know...” Narcissa said absently as she dug in her drawers to find all the supplies she needed to redress Hermione’s arm. “Rearing a child is best left to the house elves. Who else would you trust your child to? I can tell you for certain there’s nothing like the bond a person forms with the house elf that took care of them. Not to mention children of the same age should grow up in each other’s houses, where the magic is familiar and familial. How can a home’s hearth be strong when its children are being raised somewhere else with a stranger?” Hermione sighed and Narcissa turned with an inquisitive expression. “Something the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Hermione replied half-heartedly.
“No, it’s just sometimes I forget how different we are.”
The pureblood leaned back on the drawer until understanding dawned on her face. “How could I forget?... Draco used to tell me all about your... campaign to free house elves.” She tucked a loose silver strand behind her ear and sat on the stool next to Hermione. “You don’t approve of the old ways.” She stated simply.
“The old ways don’t approve of me.” Hermione replied mildly.
“That may be so,” she conceded. “But,” pausing to pick the first ointment she would use, “probably not for the reasons you've been led to believe. Ultimately, no one wizard, however brilliant, can justify the arrogance necessary to judge and dismiss all the traditions and institutions of his society - brace yourself -” Hermione hissed in pain when the wet cotton made contact with her skin. “Shuu, it’s okay. Take deep breaths.” Narcissa stroked Hermione’s head soothingly as the first cut absorbed the potion. “The customs we have are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment.”
“It’s not arrogance to question customs that are barbaric,” she retorted through gritted teeth as Narcissa dabbed another cut and pain shot from her arm to her spine.
“Of course,” the Slytherin replied absently, inspecting how damaged the scars spelling out MUDBLOOD on Hermione’s arm were. “But we would all do best to remember that of every hundred new ideas, ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace.”
“Is that... how you justify... blood prejudice... and slavery?” Hermione asked through lungfuls of difficult breaths.
Narcissa paused her ministrations. “It’s not that simple.”
“Oh really?” Hermione asked sarcastically, beads of sweat rolling down her face. “Forgive my... naivety... on the matter.”
“I understand your particular... misgivings, about my world,” Narcissa said carefully as she dabbed Hermione’s cool forehead with a warm towel. “However, there is a world of a difference between what the Dark Lord twisted our customs to, and what our customs are actually like.” She dipped the towel back in the tepid water and sighed tiredly. “But I suppose I can’t blame you if you can’t see the difference,” she uncorked another bottle, “you have had the misfortune of only being exposed to the cruelties the old ways can lend themselves to.” Narcissa looked up to Hermione with a gentle expression. “There’s more to them, however, and they’re all part of me - from the rites of Eostre to the Yule offerings.”
“Even... after you’ve witnessed... how... inhumane... the consequences... are?” Hermione asked trying to catch her breath as her arm started burning up.
“Again, you’re confusing two different things.” Narcissa said gently as she rubbed a salve over the muggleborn’s scars. “After two wars I have discovered the awful truth: what we conventionally call inhuman is simple humanity under pressure. Scared men doing cruel things has little to do with the rituals and traditions that bless the land and make our magic strong.”
“Scared men? Scared of what?” Hermione asked incredulously.
Narcissa smiled darkly. “Oh, Miss Granger, you have a lot to learn about how things looked like from this side of history.” She then wrapped Hermione’s arm in the white bandage. “There we go. Anyways, it’s far too early for sad stories and I need to get ready if I’m to follow your orders to work.”
“Okay,” she acquiesced. “What are you up to today?”
Narcissa flashed her a playful smile. “Oh you know, a hundred things to do and a hundred people to meet.” She squeezed Hermione’s good shoulder gently as she made her way to a closet. “I have a committee to attend to - need to organise a ball to commemorate the end of the war.” Narcissa poked her head out of her closet. “Which reminds me - I should be lobbying you to attend.”
“Wait-” Hermione said through a yawn, “is this that annual thing I get an invitation to every year?”
“That would be the one,” she replied with some amusement. “You and Mr. Potter are notoriously anti-social, but a celebration of the war’s end isn’t quite the same without the key players.”
“That’s what Ron’s for,” she said, unapologetically avoiding all responsibility. “He loves that stuff.”
“Trust me - I am well aware,” Narcissa answered, “catering to my guest of honour’s demands is quite a large part of my job."
“Now that you mention it, I think I do remember him saying something about purposely pissing off the organising committee as one of the perks of accepting the invite.” Hermione frowned.
“That does sound like Mr. Weasley,” she said sighing. Narcissa walked out of the closet with two dresses in her hand. “Which one do you like more?”
Hermione had never had much patience for the intricacies of fashion, but even she could appreciate that the two dresses Narcissa held up were stunning. One was a two part dress, the smooth, thick, mint green brocade fabric ran from where the waist would be, hugging the thighs until it flared more loosely down to the ankles. The top part was so dark Hermione wasn’t sure if it was still green, but the dark satin would wrap itself up to the base of Narcissa’s neck, whilst the pureblood would carry a bundle of light and transparent chiffon that was attached to the midsection of the dress in such a manner that screamed ‘avant-garde’. The second dress was completely different - all cashmere layers, a thick black belt and what looked like a military style jacket from the 18th century. As the muggleborn considered which one she preferred, she mused how Narcissa’s fashion sense was fierce, stunning and most of the time incredibly unpractical, but always a joy to look at.
“Depends,” Hermione answered at last. “Are you going for the stunning factor or more of a business mood?”
“I suppose a serious business look would be more sensible,” Narcissa said with a small sigh that hinted at playful petulance. Hermione felt a wave of fondness for the older witch crash over her and she couldn’t help the happy laugh that escaped her.
“Then my vote goes to the one with the jacket,” she supplied happily. “I feel the whole faux military vibe is apt for business.”
Narcissa dropped the other dress on the bed and levitated the olive green one in the air so she could inspect it properly. “Are you sure it’s...” she paused to consider her words, cocking her head in concentration, “impressive enough?”
At this Hermione grinned, feeling a cheekiness she hadn’t felt in a long time. “So, Miss Black - you dress to impress?”
Narcissa turned around with the most mischievous smile, “Oh, no, Miss Granger - I undress to impress.”
Both witches burst out laughing, Hermione’s cheeks burning red from bashfulness as ripples of laughter escaped her lips.
“Well, I better get this on,” she said coyly, walking back in the closet.
Hermione heard the dull swoosh of Narcissa’s robes falling to the ground and for reasons she refused to think about, the room felt warmer.
“You still haven’t accepted my invitation and I won’t take no for an answer,” Narcissa insisted from behind the door. Hermione shook her head, forcing herself not to think about the feeling of silk falling off skin.
“What invitation was that, sorry?”
“The ball - you’ll bring Mr. Potter, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes, yes. I see no reason why not.”
“Excellent,” Narcissa said with a sincere smile as she walked back into the room. “It’s in a couple of weeks time - more than enough for you to get some of your strength back.”
Hermione struggled to find words. “You look… stunning, Narcissa.”
Narcissa felt caught off-guarded again. She looked at the other witch through the reflection of a mirror, no lust or greed on her features, instead she was graced with an expression that seemed caught somewhere between wonder and affection. What a relief, Narcissa thought, to have somebody look at you that way.
“Thank you,” she replied at last. “I should call Andromeda now.”
That conversation turned out to be as irritating as she’d imagined it would be.
“So... can I know why Hermione’s ill and why, of all people, you’re taking care of her?” Andromeda asked bemused on the other side of the Floo Network.
“It’s a long story, okay Andromeda? I don’t have the time for this. Can you look after her while I go to work - yes or no? It’s a simple question,” Narcissa asked, pinching the bridge of her nose. Her sister always had a way of testing her patience which was unrivalled.
“Of course, Cissy,” she replied in the same exasperated tone as her little sister. “I would just like to know what’s going on.”
“Like I said - it’s a long story.” Narcissa replied cooly.
“Touchy, touchy… Okay, give me ten minutes and I’ll hop over.”
“Thank you,” Narcissa bit sarcastically as she removed her head from the fireplace.
The pureblood sighed, running her hand through her hair and sat on the armchair. This was a terrible idea. Why had she let herself be talked into it? Andromeda, for all her merits, was not the most careful of people; after all, Nymphadora had inherited that clumsiness from somewhere and that somewhere was Andromeda with her carefree attitude that usually came hand in hand with benign carelessness; which in the case of Hermione’s extremely delicate health could prove fatal. No, no, Hermione needed keen observation, the correct application of potions and ointments to draw the magic back to a containable area. This was a complicated process that required a steady hand and experience - what would Andromeda do if Hermione’s temperature dropped again? Or her muscles were shredded because her arm was jogged too roughly and the magic broke out? And what if the second stage of recovery hit earlier than expected? - how would her sister cope with the disease fighting back?
This was a terrible idea.
“I’ll be fine,” Hermione said as she wheeled herself into the drawing room. “Really,” she insisted with a smile. “You have your worried face on.”
“Worried face?” Narcissa asked daintily.
“Mhmm,” she mumbled, parking her wheelchair next to where the pureblood sat by the fireplace. “Your eyes look harder and you purse your lips really tightly - kind of like McGonagall, except more politely somehow,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But you needn’t worry, because I’ll be fine.”
“And if you’re not - you’ll never hear the end of it; that I promise you,” Narcissa warned, her tense expression softening slightly.
“What’s the worse that can happen?” Hermione asked ironically.
Narcissa looked at the muggleborn with a deeply unimpressed expression. “Don’t tempt the fates, Hermione.”
“Que sera, sera,” she replied confidently.
“You Gryffindors and your reckless courage,” she scoffed, “que sera, sera indeed.” Laughing, despite herself, at the absurdity of the motto. “You do realise that that’s the attitude that’s got your house to have the highest mortality rate by a landslide?”
“Oh, come on!” Hermione exclaimed with good humour. “That is such an unfair statistic to bring up!”
“Really?” Narcissa asked sarcastically. “So it has nothing to do with the fact that the rest of us are not rushing into a glorious and premature death? You see, some of us find our thrills in the uncertainty of tomorrow.”
Hermione huffed. “The uncertainty of tomorrow? I haven’t been able to live with that in a long time.” She smiled thoughtfully at Narcissa. “It sounds like such an empty place; so vague. ‘Tomorrow’ - where promises go and things disappear.” Hermione furrowed her brows as a thought struck her. “I suppose that in Slytherin they teach you to save for a rainy day; trust me when I say I’m a big supporter of that philosophy; but with life, like love, the truth is, that they need no saving - it is fresh or not at all.”
Narcissa cocked her head thinking over Hermione’s words. What an idea, Narcissa thought, to no let yesterday’s love suffice for today. How that could work in the long-run she had no idea, but in private to herself she’d admit it was a lovely idea. “So is that the real Gryffindor philosophy? To love as recklessly as you live?”
“There is nothing reckless in truly loving, even at the cost of sacrificing the possibility of tomorrow. I know you wouldn’t hesitate to do so yourself.”
“That may be so, but at least I acknowledge that love is a cruel master,” the pureblood replied straightening up and smoothing her dress. “I don’t romanticise it.”
Hermione couldn’t help but chuckle. “Wow... you don’t romanticise love? That’s a first.”
“There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart, Hermione,” she said quietly. “The greatest sins have always been done in the name of love.”
“As have the greatest virtues,” Hermione replied.
“It’s a selfish act,” she retorted.
“It should be selfless.”
“It makes fools of us.”
“We’ve always been fools.”
“Not always,” Hermione returned gently. “And when it does, we get to chose whether it’s worth it.”
“And there,” Narcissa said with a smug smile, “is the categorical mistake in your argument.” Hermione leaned back curiously. “The language of choice cannot be applied to the language of love. Love compels. Demands. Remember Dido throwing all of Carthage up in flames for Aeneas. Her heart was inflamed, driving her to madness as the fire of passion rounded her bones. She had no free will whilst she was on fire with love.” The pureblood paused briefly before continuing. “Love is a passion, and like all passions, it is ruinous.”
“So that’s it, then?” Hermione asked incredulously. “We should just abandon love? Tear out our hearts like the Warlock and get hairy hearts of our own?”
“Oh, not at all, Miss Granger,” Narcissa said with a sigh. “I agree it’s the only thing worth living for. But we should not pretend it’s some pure, benign force. It can ruin cities just as easily as it can build them.”
Hermione was about to reply when Andromeda crashed out of the fireplace dramatically falling face forward as she tripped on her robe in such a cantankerous manner Hermione couldn’t help but be reminded of Tonks.
“Every. Damn. Time.” Andy cursed under her breath, picking herself up and dusting herself off.
“Lovely to see you’re as graceful as ever, Andromeda,” Narcissa said with a sickly sweet smile.
“Oh, ha ha.” Andy replied sarcastically. She then turned to Hermione, concern immediately replacing annoyance.
“Do I look that bad?” Hermione asked with a grimace.
“I... wouldn’t put it that way...?” Andy said in a high-pitch voice. “You just look a little... worse for the wear, is all, dear.”
Narcissa rolled her eyes and stood up. “Anything happens, Andromeda, anything at all, send Limpy for me immediately. Don’t even hesitate for a moment.”
“Of course, of course,” Andy said faintly, still in slight shock by how pale and battered the younger witch looked.
“Also, don’t let her do anything reckless.”
“Hey! I’m right here!” Hermione protested.
“Don’t do anything reckless then,” she repeated directly to the muggleborn as she put her travelling cloak on.
“Um... Cissy?” Andy asked meekly.
“What exactly counts as reckless?... you know, to be on the safe side.”
Narcissa took a deep sigh. “Anything that involves physical exertion. And no magic. I’m sure between the both of you, you can make further deductions. And I needn’t remind you about sleeping outside of the bedrooms...?” She drawled out.
“What’s wrong with sleeping outside of the bedrooms?” Hermione asked with a mixture of concern and curiosity.
Narcissa looked around the room fondly, it was filled with comfortable leather chaise lounge’s and an odd assortment of old trophies and school photographs. It was the most lived-in room Hermione had been in the fortress, lined with cases full of family heirlooms and memorabilia left behind by previous generations. The wooden panelled walls were barely visible under all the things that had been tacked on the wall, and Hermione had the distinct impression that this intimate room was not intended for formal guests. “The fortress is very old.” Narcissa answered at last. “It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.” Narcissa gently grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her close to her. “Please do look after her properly, Andromeda.”
The sisters exchanged a silent conversation until Andy smiled gently at her sister. “Of course, Cissy. Of course I’ll look after her properly.”
Narcissa nodded at her and carefully squeezed Hermione’s good shoulder in lieu of a goodbye.
Chapter 12: Fortification
As soon as the youngest Black had closed the door behind her, Andy threw herself on the leather couch and whistled. “Boy, you have a lot of explaining to do, Hermione Granger.” The older witch then grinned. “But let’s start with how you’ve managed to get my sister, of all people, wrapped around your little finger.”
“What?” She exclaimed incredulously. “I don’t- she’s not- what? No. What are you on about?”
“Aha! Going through a denial phase, I see,” Andy teased mercilessly.
“It’s not a denial phase if I don’t know what I’m denying,” she rebuked with an eye roll, taking the last swing of the liquid courage Narcissa had given her. “Damn...”
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“Oh, no, nothing, Andy.” Hermione said waving her arm casually. “It’s just Narcissa gave me something for the pain and I’ve finished it.” The older witch raised an eyebrow at the first name basis but didn’t comment on it.
“Anything I can get you more of?”
“To be honest, I’m ninety-nine per cent sure it’s just whiskey but it really works,” she confessed as she passed her the little vial. Andy laughed recognising the label.
“Mother,” she began explaining, “had one of the most impressive whiskey collections in the country. However,” she continued, running her hand on the wooden panelled walls, “she was utterly convinced Walburga was stealing from her stores, so she came into the bad habit of hiding it.” Andy started knocking on the wood to see where it sounded hollow. “I can still remember a few of her hideouts but she made sure we’ll never find it all.” Andy pulled out her wand and made a small cut on the pad of her forefinger and dabbed it on the dark cherry wood. “Aha! I knew it!” She exclaimed as the panel opened up, revealing a crate of whisky bottles. Andy pulled one of the bottles out and closed the panel again. “Only immediate family members can open it up. She might’ve disowned me,” she uncorked the bottle, “but blood is a law unto iteslf.”
Andy grabbed two glasses from a cabinet and flopped back on the couch as she poured herself and Hermione a large drab of the brown liquid. “To mad harpies who hoard their stash,” she said as a toast. Hermione laughed, clinking her glass and promising herself she would not make a habit of drinking liquor so early in the day.
“Now, do for heaven’s sake, explain what’s going on.”
Hermione sighed. “I really don’t know where to start.” She took a small sip of the strong drink and eased herself in her chair. “I guess it all started in Malfoy Manor. Have we ever told you what happened there?”
Hermione wondered if Bellatrix would’ve looked this beautiful had she not gone to Azkaban - all full lips and sharp cheekbones and wild, untameable hair with twinkling, energetic eyes. It was well known that Andy was a spitting image of her older sister, but having spent more time with Narcissa, she could see the ghost of Narcissa’s grace in her. “Just the basics, you know - snatchers got to you, realised who you were, took you to the Malfoy’s, then Dobby saved you.”
“Yes,” she mumbled, “that’s about right.” She took another sip. “They found Godric Gryffindor’s sword on us. It was supposed to be in Bellatrix’s account in Gringot’s. And well... she went mental on us; on me, to be precise.”
“Long story short, she use a cursed knife on my arm and although Fleur did a damned good job at dispelling any immediate risks, I was - and am, I suppose - still cursed. So there we go, that’s about it.”
“But wait,” the older witch interrupted with a confused frown. “What does Cissy have to do with this? I know you two are doing your research thing but that’s as far as I know.”
“Well our research... kinda has to do with this,” Hermione explained. “In its simplest form, our question is whether the energy of black magic can be purified and converted to, well, positive energy that doesn’t harm. Everyone who came into contact with dark magic for a prolonged period of time during the war is probably suffering some after effects.” Andy’s eyes widened. “To be fair, I’m probably one of the more extreme cases because the magic is still imbued in me.”
“But you’re not the only one.”
“No… Ron and Harry have also been exposed to similar magic. Harry gets some of my symptoms too. Way less often than me, thankfully, and much milder; although he did set Sirius‘ room on fire once. You should see Ron on a bad night… but his episodes are even more rare.” She paused. “If I’m being honest, Ginny’s the one I’m really worried about. I don’t know how public the details surrounding the Chamber of Secrets are, and I probably shouldn’t speak for her, but she was tricked into voluntarily pouring her soul to Voldemort and mingling hers with his for an entire year. Now that he’s dead, it‘s likely she’s carrying around necrotic energy in her soul.”
“But Ginny seems fine,” Andy said incredulously. “Her Quidditch has only got better."
“Oh yes, she’s a tough one,” Hermione said with a proud smile. “But I imagine it’s going to catch up with her sooner or later; I just hope I’ll be able to do something by then.”
“As Cissy is doing for you?
“Well, not quite…"
“Then what is she doing?” Andy asked indignantly.
“Buying me time; how much? Who knows… it could be decades, but I’ll be losing my strength. It’s all very tricky and volatile magic and she’s the only person I know who has any idea how it works. I mean, I do too, but purely theoretically - I wouldn’t even know where to start if I had to draw my wand and start putting it to practice.”
Andy let out a long, drawn out sigh. “Sounds like a question for Prometheus’ Palace,” she said ruefully.
Hermione frowned. “Prometheus’ Palace?”
“I’m sorry - it’s an old Slytherin expression,” she said taking another sip of her drink.
“What does it mean?”
“Oh, well, it’s this mythical castle in some marshes somewhere - it’s all very vague, you see - in any case, the legend says that inside the castle live the servants of Prometheus who have the answer to every question in the world - hence the expression.” The older witch paused airily for a moment. “Every curiosity of the wizarding world is gathered in the Palace... as if it were the centre of some sort of illuminating whirlpool.”
“Sounds more like a Ravenclaw thing.”
“True that,” Andy replied standing up and cocking her head in concentration. “But Ravenclaws are much wiser than the lot of us, and as such, they are far better at accepting that there are some answers we shouldn’t have. It doesn’t sit well with a Slytherin to not get what they want; suppose that’s why we need the delusion that somewhere out there, there has to be an answer to our questions; that our ambitions aren’t wasted.”
“But there has to be,” Hermione insisted.
Andromeda turned to the younger witch with a knowing smile. “You would’ve made a fine Slytherin with that ambition, Hermione.” She took the handle of Hermione’s wheelchair. “Now, to less lofty topics, has Cissy given you a proper tour of the fortress?”
“Uhh… no, actually. We always get caught up in our papers.”
“Excellent! I give way better tours than Cissy anyway. Do you remember that little scar Sirius had right above his left eyebrow?” Andy asked cheerfully as they moved down a narrow corridor, made tighter by all the little decorative tables that were scattered about.
“Oh… I think I do, like a little triangle, right?”
“That’s the one, he got it when we were around seven and we were playing aurors versus goblins and he smashed his head right into the corner of that table,” she said pointing to a little writing desk decorated by a vase with a single rose. “There was blood everywhere! You should’ve seen it: Sirius was screaming, Cissy was screaming, Bella was screaming, Regulus was screaming - we were all screaming; all whilst mother’s doilies were being completely splattered with blood. In the panic someone made the chandelier explode which naturally made us scream even louder. Then Sirius fainted and Cissy started crying like the world was over because she thought Sirius was dead, which made Regulus start yelling at Cissy for being a baby at which point all the vases started shattering and Bella started hitting Regulus for making Cissy even more upset.”
“Oh wow... what happened?”
“One of the portraits went to get Limpy,” she said wistfully. “Only time I’ve ever seen him lose his patience with us.”
“Really?” The muggleborn asked surprised. “I cannot imagine Limpy angry.”
“Oh, he most certainly was that day. After tending to Sirius, cleaning the mess we made, and putting us in a childproof room with blankets and hot chocolates he gave us one of the sternest talking’s to in my life.” She chuckled. “Needless to say we never ran indoors after that.”
Andromeda opened a door and pushed Hermione inside.
“What a view...”
“Thought you’d like it,” Andy grinning.
They were at the top of one of the fortress’ towers. It was a large circular area that would’ve been exposed to the elements had it not been for the glass dome ceiling that afforded the viewer a sheltered panoramic view of the coast. The room itself was filled with decadent couches overflowing with pillows, and thick warm rugs which were scattered about over the white marble floor. However, what really tied the room together was the impressive amount of stuffed magical creatures that casually dotted around the furniture.
“Do forgive the questionable hunting ethics of this particular collection - Orion Black was a renowned magizoologist in his day, and this was how they studied beasts back in the 1800’s - laid down a good chunk of the work for Newton Scamander, though.”
“As long as they don’t bite...” Hermione mumbled, eying the large murtlap on the coffee table with curiosity.
“Don’t worry... I’m about eighty-five percent sure most of them won’t,” she said sitting down in her favourite armchair next to the full sized kelpie. “Although those grindylows in the jars always freaked me out.”
Both witches settled on comfortably listening to the pitter patter of rain hitting the glass ceiling. It was taking Andy a considerable effort to remind herself that this wasn’t her home anymore - that it hadn’t been, not for a long time; but the fortress still recognised her blood and responded to her authority, leaving her to wonder if she’d ever left. Had the ancient staircase that still led her to the doors she wanted noticed her absence? Did the rooms with wardrobes filled with her old dresses even remember why she’d left?
The portraits were the only tell tale that she didn’t belong here anymore. Members long gone of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black gawked at her with disapproval and pity. It was when walking the halls, lined with the judging portraits of her ancestors, that Andromeda found herself with a longing to betray: betray her own betrayal, and return to her sister as a Black. But, she thought to herself as the rain picked up, if we betray B, for whom we betrayed A, it does not necessarily follow that we have placated A. The first betrayal is irreparable. It calls forth a chain reaction of further betrayals, each of which takes us farther and farther away from the point of our original betrayal.
“So, what do you think of Cissy?” Andy asked, at last breaking the trance they had fallen into.
“Oh, you know...” Hermione said smiling at the clouds above her, “she’s kinda... extraordinary.”
“Is that the life debt speaking?” The older witch teased.
“No, no,” she replied. “I suppose I understand why one could think that, but no. Ever since first meeting her, I actually began wishing for...” Hermione paused, trying to decipher what it was that she had wished for. “More time. I want more time with her. I’m just so... terribly curious about her.”
“Curious, hmm?” Andy pondered with a cheeky grin. “I’m sure I can help to dispel some of the mystery that is Narcissa Black.”
Hermione laughed at the offer. “That would be cheating!”
“Aha! And there, my dear, is one of the things you’re going to have to learn if you’re to woo-”
“Wooing? Who said anything about wooing?”
“Turn of phrase, darling,” she said appeasingly, “can I finish my point, now?”
“Yeah, yeah, go on...”
“You should consider redefining cheating to a much narrower concept than what you’ve understood it to stand for.”
“Are you point blank telling me to sacrifice my integrity?” Hermione scoffed.
“You’re missing the point,” she chastised. “How can I put this? You’re still very young, and when you’re very young your words have a malleability you’ll start losing with time. The thing about this malleability is that it allows you to define things with those who are growing up with you. The older you grow, the more complete your dictionaries will be, and you’ll find that when meeting new people almost every idea, every expression, almost every word means something something slightly different. That’s one of the troubles of growing up, Hermione: there’ll be people who you’ll eagerly listen to the story of their life, and they’ll be equally eager to listen to the story of yours, and although you have a clear understanding of the basic meaning of the words you exchange, you’ll fail to-“ Any flapped her arms dramatically in the air trying to find the right words, “…to hear the semantic whispers of the river that separates you. Needless to say you two are very different, but that could change if you were willing to learn a little of her vocabulary. If you don’t, I might as well start compiling a long lexicon of all the misunderstanding you’ll have.”
Hermione stared at Andy with raised eyebrows, “That was… deep.”
“Cissy isn’t the only one allowed to have deep thoughts,” she replied with a smug grin as she settled back into her chair.
“No, she certainly isn’t…”
“Look,” she started again shrugging. “My point really boils down to if you want to know Cissy, start figuring out what words mean to her, that way you’ll learn how to talk to her. The other stuff, the biographical stuff, anyone can figure that out, all you need to do is start ordering back issues of the Prophet and Tatler and you’ll probably be able to piece together a whole book of factoids. Blimey, I can even save you some effort and fill you in on the drivel: favourite fruit - cherries; always port after dinner, not sherry; loathes quidditch; hates a silent room; loves the smell of fresh lavender rubbed onto skin.” Andy ticked off each fact with a finger. “That’s just trivia anyone can find out, but whether or not you can accept her definition of cheating - that’s a serious litmus test.”
“That’s an interesting hypothesis, I’ll give you that,” Hermione replied, wondering if Andy was actually making a good point or if the firewhiskey was starting to cloud her judgement. The muggleborn grinned at Andy in surrender, “I hate it when you might be right.”
“I know,” she teased tartly, “although, naturally, none of this means that I won’t fulfil my official duty as older sister to tell you all the embarrassing stories I have of her; complete with photographic evidence, of course.”
“No!” Hermione exclaimed, pretending to be shocked. “I refuse to believe that Narcissa Black has ever embarrassed herself!”
“You just let me refill our drinks and then you are in for a treat!” She stood up surveying the room. “Now, where did that old hag hide the booze in here?” She mumbled to herself. “Think like mother, think like mother…” Andy looked at the huge stuffed griffin that stood proudly on the other side of the room. “Wouldn’t that be appropriate?” Carefully approaching the taxidermic beast she prodded it twice with her wand. The previously stilled creature immediately tried clawing her head off and she yelped in surprise. “Stupify!” She sheathed her wand and pried open the griffin’s massive beak, removing one of the bottles that had lain hidden inside. “Of course she put this here… Now! Where were we?”
Chapter 13: Libation
Narcissa closed the door behind her. A curious routine had developed since the Monday Andy had first agreed to watch over Hermione. The pureblood had the luxurious pleasure of greeting her sister after a lively breakfast with Hermione each morning before work. Then, after a day of vicious haggling in the greasy political market she got to come home to a house filled with laughter and Hermione telling her all the whirlwind of things she’d discovered that day - from a new magical formula to an old photo of Narcissa’s childhood that Andy had no doubt supplied.
It all seemed slightly surreal to her, and she’d taken to stealing a few minutes before leaving the house to press her head against the door and listen to the voice of her sister cracking a joke at Hermione just to prove to herself that this was real. These were voices she had never dared hope she would get to casually hear in the Fortress, but suddenly, there they were, like the past twenty five years had been a terrible misunderstanding that had never happened. Part of the reason she derived so much pleasure in those stolen moments was the curious feeling of atonement they provided her. Like some wrong was being made right simply by the presence of those two witches in her house.
It was in those moments, however, that her mind had the bad habit of wondering back to the day after Andromeda had left and the silence that had ensued her departure. She and Bella had gone for a walk on the beach but as they had left the Fortress Narcissa noticed that her sister’s shoes did not match. She had been in a quandary: she wanted to point out the mistake, but was too afraid she would hurt her, so during the two hours they had spent walking the beach together she had kept her eyes fixed on Bella’s feet. It was only then that she had had her first inkling of the repercussions Andy’s desertion would entail, it was also the first time she had ever seen what suffering really looked like.
However, today was a different day - it was Saturday, and Andy could no longer neglect her own responsibilities. After much coaxing, Narcissa had agreed to leave Hermione under Limpy’s supervision. The pureblood had yielded, not on the grounds that Hermione’s strength seemed to increase daily and her temperature was steadily becoming less hypothermic, but because unbeknown to her, Narcissa was not really leaving the fortress.
It was the twenty fifth of April; the anniversary of Lucius’ death.
Dressed in black lace from head to toe, Hermione had been polite enough not to enquire why Narcissa was in formal funeral garb. After ensuring that the muggleborn was settled in the library, Narcissa had made that daunting trip down to the crypts in the bowels of the Fortress. The staircase made no accommodations for a trip to the mausoleum, forcing the visitor to endure the long walk down, deeper and deeper into the sea where the silence grew as the light dimmed.
It was amidst that deathly silence that Narcissa was reminded of the speech Lucius had given after his return from Azkaban. There had been a banquet and everyone, from the highest to the lowest ranks of the Dark Lord’s army, was there - almost like old times. Although she had completely forgotten what he had said, she could still hear his quivering voice. She thought about how ministry officials had arrested him, a free pureblood man, in his own house, held him for weeks somewhere on that rock, sucked on his soul; then packed him off to the Ministry, ordered him to have a bath and shave, to change into clean silk robes, sit at a table opposite the Dark Lord, and forced him to beg for mercy.
He had returned, humiliated, to address his humiliated family. He was so humiliated he could not even speak. Narcissa would never forget those awful pauses in the middle of his sentences. Was he that exhausted? Ill? Had they cursed him? Or was it only despair? If nothing was to remain of Lucius, then at least those awful long pauses when he seemed unable to breath, when he gasped for air before a whole room of Death Eaters, at least those pauses would remain. Those pauses contained all the horror that had befallen their family.
Narcissa reached the bottom of the staircase, her heart contracting painfully as she caught sight of all the busts of her family members. The Fortress’s crypts did not contain the bones of any Black family member, instead, a marble sculpture of each deceased member was erected and placed in its own little shrine. Lucius, as her husband, got his own bust next to where hers would be upon her death.
Staring at all those static people, Narcissa felt the terrible urge to turn around - to sod this grotesquely morbid tradition - and go back, back to Hermione and the warmth of the library where the fire cackled and their hypotheses were coloured by the mellow music on the radio.
The pureblood clutched her chest in terror as she approached the statue of her mother. Druella Black had been immortalised in all her glorious opulence, and as her mother stared blankly back at her in that white stone, Narcissa couldn’t help but feel that she had none of Hermione’s courage. No, she was like Lucius, who made a thirty-second pause in the middle of a sentence; she was like her dead husband, who stuttered, gasped for air, could not speak.
With trembling hands she started lighting the candles that rested at the base of each bust.
Narcissa reached the bust of her grandmother and found herself unable to hold back the tears back any longer. The witch had been a cruel and bitter old woman; the first to have raised the cruciatus against her. Why was she honouring this foul hag? - especially when it made no difference to the dead whether they received rich gifts for the grave; no, this was all just empty ostentation on the part of the living. But then Narcissa reached her sister.
Her wand was shaking too much to light the candle, and as she angrily wiped away her tears she realised she wasn’t crying out grief anymore. What was sobbing, in fact, was the naïve idealism of her love: she was trying to banish all the contradictions between who she knew these people to be, and who they actually were. Love for Narcissa meant a longing to put herself at the mercy of her loved one. But she who gives herself up like a prisoner of war must give up her weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defence against a possible blow, she cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why for Narcissa, love meant the constant expectation of a blow.
“Narcissa...” She heard a voice call out for her sorrowfully.
Narcissa whipped round to see Hermione standing at the base of the stairs. The younger witch walked next to her and put a gentle hand on the crook of her back. The careful touch was the final blow in disarming Narcissa, and the pureblood immediately crashed down to the ground, her dress creating an ocean of black around her upon which her tears fell on.
“Come here,” Hermione whispered, pulling the Slytherin into her embrace.
When Narcissa’s sobs softened, Hermione let go of the older witch and slowly lifted her black veil. The muggleborn wiped the tearful tracks that ran down Narcissa’s face and before she could stop herself, she softly kissed her where the tears had marred her cheeks.
“I won’t let you do this alone.” The younger witch stood up, offering her hand. Narcissa took it. With a grace Hermione could never have imagined possible Narcissa starting lighting each candle again. As each bust was lit a notch of magic rushed in the air until the whole crypt was blazing and the air was thick with an electricity that charged through every cell in both witches body. The strength of the past and the bonds that tied each generation to the next renewed and reenergised the magical core in their chest. Hermione felt drunk on the power of magic and history. The weight of the ocean outside had nothing on the weight of this room.
Narcissa brought Hermione’s hand to her chest, kissed her knuckles. “Thank you.”
Not trusting herself with speech she nodded. Narcissa led them back to the spiral staircase, ready for the long ascent.
The veil was the first thing to come off. Then the heels were kicked off.
Upon closing the door to the crypt and with it the power that had strengthened their bones, grief had returned to her blue eyes. They were led by the fortress to her bedroom and a muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by a log breaking in the fireplace. The witches sat purposely opposite each other, as if Narcissa’s silent grief was insular and incommunicable. They were on the floor, being stared at openly by the portraits that hung on the walls who were all clamouring over each other to get a better view. The portraits marvelled at them with the most terrible of curiosity, for the two women present wore the countenance, if not the trappings, of some unceasing grief in whose unhealing hearts the sight of each other caused the old wounds to bleed afresh.
They were on the floor because the pureblood refused to be moved any closer to the imposing bed in the middle of the room. Instead she eyed it with the look of distaste she usually reserved for a bad vintage of wine.
At last she spoke. “Lucius and I slept in the same bed until the very end.” Hermione looked at her curiously, not quite understanding what the older witch was trying to convey. “Believe me when I say I would have much rather have slept by myself, but!-” a high pitch sigh, “the marriage bed was still the symbol of the marriage bond, and symbols, as I was taught, are inviolable.”
Observing the proud pureblood with her fine dress ruined with creases sitting cross-legged on the floor, it occurred to Hermione that here was true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon but grateful for punishment. And yet, even when reduced to the floor with no one but a muggleborn for company, Narcissa Black was every inch the regal lady she had been bred to be. Maybe, Hermione considered, all person tragically great was made so through a certain morbidness… perhaps all mortal greatness was nothing but disease.
Shame made Narcissa avoid eye contact. “Each time someone tells me that they admire the woman in me, I have the distinct impression of having lied all my life.”
Hermione’s shoulders slumped as something in her chest contracted painfully. She’d always known there was nothing heavier than compassion and presently, not even her own pain weighed so heavy as the pain she felt for Narcissa, with Narcissa. Her pain was intensified by her own imagination and prolonged by a thousand echoes. She had to close her eyes tightly shut to stop herself from crying. “I-I think…” she started, “that you are a much better person than you give yourself credit for. One of the best, in fact, that I’ve ever met.”
“Oh, but haven’t you heard what all your friends say, Miss Granger? I have no soul.”
Hermione’s eyes snapped open. “Bollocks. And you know it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then enlighten me.”
Narcissa stood up in one fluid motion releasing her thick black hair from it’s bun and ran her hand through it. “You don’t understand!” She repeated, the threat of hysteria coloured her voice with the richness Bellatrix’s had been defined by. But the impulse was short-lived. “Maybe… one day I will tell you,” she finished with a sigh. “I need to get out of this thing.”
The pureblood disappeared into her closet, reappearing only moments later wearing deep purple worsted wool trousers and a thick black cashmere jumper.
“Can we do something normal?” She asked the muggleborn, as if entrusting Hermione with her sanity.
“Of course,” she replied, “of course.” The younger witch stood up and racked her brains for something normal to do after such a surreal morning. “How about I help you go through all those old cases you brought the other day - you know, for your tribunal reform - you always help me with my work, it’s about time I help you with yours.”
Hermione was rewarded with a grateful smile but it left as quick as it came. “Are you sure?” She asked frowning. “They’re um…” Narcissa winced at the stutter. “Well, you see, most of the cases… they’re my family’s or our… old associates.”
Hermione considered the implications for a moment, some part of her knowing this was some sort of betrayal. Her curiosity, as ever, won out. “Just tell me what I’m looking for.”
Surprise coloured Narcissa’s features until she schooled her expression. “Lets go to the library then.” She picked up a few books from the nightstand and they moved towards the staircase. “I’m planning major reforms for the Wizengamot.”
“You don’t pick easy targets, do you?”
“A concerning habit we share.”
Finally settling down in their usual chairs Hermione eyed the stacks of parchment tied with plum coloured ribbons with open curiosity.
“How much do you know about the Wizengamot?” The older the witch asked.
“Not half as much as I should,” she confessed. “I did some basic reading years ago when Harry was being tried for violating the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, but I haven’t had much reason after that. I was numb through the trials.”
“I remember Mr Potter’s case. One of the most shambled trials since Sirius’.” She looked thoughtfully at Hermione. “And that’s the point; the Wizengamot has been active since, at least, 1544 - and in all that time, even when the Ministry was established in 1707, their approach to the law remains almost the same. The wizarding world, thankfully, moves at much slower a pace than the muggle one, but this is frankly an embarrassment. The mistakes this system has made are simply unforgivable.”
“What exactly do you want to reform?”
“Everything - from the nomination process to establishing Wizarding rights. The law should be applied equally, everyone should have the right to habeas corpus, there should be no imprisonment without due process, and the law should be easily accessible - fair, basically.” Narcissa sighed. “And then there’s Azkaban...”
“The definition of a cruel and unusual punishment, as the Americans would say,” she supplied.
“Exactly. We have no judicial independence or neutrality. The Wizengamot is in the hands of whoever is ruling and the members have little to no impartiality. Of course, that’s not all their fault - they have no security of tenure, as we saw with Dumbledore. Their salaries aren’t protected, and the recruitment process is abhorrently corrupt.” Hermione felt an old tug of excitement she hadn’t felt since S.P.E.W. “Right now, I’m just going through all these old cases to gather evidence of malpractice. We have to start by making note of all the violations of the rule of law. Any questions?”
Hermione slumped back in her chair and looked at the older witch open curiosity, as if trying to figure her out. “This is going to sounds horribly crass, I know, but -”
She bit her lip. “It’s just... - what do you get out of this? I mean, it’s no secret that your family has benefitted from the Wizengamot’s corruption.”
Narcissa laughed darkly. “You should never rely on a pendulum that swings both ways, you should know this considering your close acquaintance with my cousin Sirius. Think about it, the first Gryffindor in the family, a man who unapologetically turned his back on us - a blood traitor, by definition - basically adopted by the Potter’s, and yet,” she paused for effect, “...when it came to pointing a finger as to who could be capable of betraying the Potter’s, naturally and unquestionably that finger landed on a Black.” A chill of unease shot down Hermione’s spine but Narcissa continued. “Dumbledore moved earth and sky to get Snape acquitted and yet that same Dumbledore, infamous for his second chances, refused to testify on Sirius’ behalf. Oh no, because no matter all the choices Sirius had made or with whom he had pledged his loyalties, at the end of the day, he was still just a Black. Imagine,” disgust dripping in her voice, “Dumbledore preferred to defend one of the highest ranking Death Eaters over Sirius who had never had anything to do with the Dark Lord.”
Narcissa started stacking case after case in front of Hermione. “And here - a small sample of all the cases where a Slytherin committed the same crime someone from one of the other houses did. Care to guess who got the considerably harsher sentence?” Narcissa looked at Hermione with a sad smile. “Has it ever occurred to you, Miss Granger, that the reason all the old Slytherin pureblood families were the first to sign up to the Dark Lord’s revolution was because we had already been ostracised on account of our surname? Think about it this way, a naive eleven year old who gets sorted into Slytherin is immediately hated by the entire school; and yet in the battle of Hogwarts, you asked him to fight for you.” The pureblood sighed again and passed Hermione a case file. “By no means am I defending the Dark Lord, or the actions that were done in his name; but if you want to help me, you have to understand that cruelty goes both ways.”
Hermione opened the case file and saw Sirius’ name carefully typed out at the top. “Thank you,” she offered by way of reply.
The pureblood cocked her head. “For what?”
“The opportunity to help set something right.”
Surprise coloured Narcissa’s features again. “It’s my pleasure.”
Chapter 14: Realisation
Narcissa pressed her hand gently on Hermione’s forehead, checking her temperature. If she had to give a guess at a number she’d say she was around thirty two degrees; still too cold, but as good as it was ever going to get.
“So, how am I doing?” Hermione asked once she removed her hand.
“You’re good to go.” Regret hit Narcissa as soon as the words left her mouth. The ambiguous invitation that had allowed the muggleborn to stay with her for an indefinite amount of time had been officially revoked and now there could be no pretending that Hermione didn’t belong with her. “I’m sure Mr. Potter will be relieved to see you again.”
“Knowing Harry, he’s probably made an elaborate story where I’ve runaway with Hippocrates,” she said trying to lighten the mood.
“I imagine Mr. Potter’s imagination is a force to be reckoned with.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” she said smiling fondly. “He always gets Ron worked up and it’s up to me to get them to see sense before they go off gallivanting.”
“So this is how the Golden Trio foiled all of the Dark Lord’s greatest plans?”
“There was a method to the madness, I assure you. Although, on reflection, I’m sure there was a better way of defeating Riddle... one that didn’t include starving in a tent for months on end doing nothing but becoming acquainted with what’s left of Britain’s wilderness while a horcrux sucked on our souls... just thinking about it makes me hungry again.”
“Then let’s delay breakfast no longer,” Narcissa said standing up, fully aware that she was trying to postpone the inevitable.
“But bags... and packing... and all that…”
“Nonsense. Limpy will do all that while we eat.”
“You do remember you’re talking to the founder of S.P.E.W. here, right?” she said teasingly.
“A founder that lost all her moral high ground the moment she kept a house elf in her house,” Narcissa bit back as they walked down the stairs.
“Trust me! - I have tried to give that elf everything from clothes to an employment contract, even a pension scheme! But he just. won’t. budge.” Hermione huffed.
“Then let that be a lesson that you can’t force things to be free,” Narcissa said with a delicate shrug as she sat at the head of the long mahogany dining table and folded a cream napkin on her lap.
“It’s not forcing-”
“Really?” She asked skeptically with an indulging smile as she poured herself a cup of tea and waited for the food to appear on her plate. “So what verb would you use to describe the action of persistently coercing elves to join your ideology by whatever means necessary?”
Hermione winced at the accusation. “That’s not what I’m doing! Or was doing, anyway. I was just trying to liberate them. Dobby, for example-“
“Dobby is not an example,” the pureblood cut in. “Dobby was an extraordinary creature, an anomaly amongst his kind. Your ideology is even more misguided if you’re basing this entirely on the evidence of one house elf.” Narcissa took a small sip from her china cup and gave Hermione a devilish smile. “Come now, Miss Granger, you purport yourself to be a... scientist, I believe is the term you use, - I expected better logic from you.”
“Oh, no, no, no!” Hermione replied in an equally daring tone just as the toast appeared on the table. “I am not going to let you win that easily.”
A cheshire cat smile spread on Narcissa’s lips. “I’m glad we both agree I’ll be winning in the end. But by all means, Miss Granger, do try to defend your so very… admirable position,” she challenged coyly as she daintily picked up her butter knife. “I’m just dying to become a devotee of yours.”
Hermione felt a blushing heat rise up her throat and spread to her cheeks. “Fine then. Freedom, liberty - they’re the most important concepts we have,” she began bravely. “This is because choice is necessary in order to morally blame or praise agents for their actions.” Valiantly she held on to her train of thought even as the pureblood was staring at her with an intensity in her bright blue eyes that was becoming increasingly overwhelming. She was almost amused, she’d never imagined she could could find defending elvish rights so difficult, but under Narcissa’s burning gaze coherence seemed to elude her. “B-but if a house elf... is compelled to follow his master’s commands... then that house elf has no responsibility over his actions.” She took a steading breath. “Blaming or praising him for something would be akin to saying that it was wrong or good for salt to dissolve in water. And for goodness sake,” she huffed - it really was impossible to think with Narcissa looking at her that way, “I cannot be the only person who sees that the implications of this are monumental: our moral feelings of sympathy and other such sentiments towards each other are what makes us human, they separate us from the mechanical side of nature and provide us with our humanity. If we have to explain away the feeling of gratitude we have towards a house elf then we are denying ourselves our own humanity. Thus, to deny house elves freedom we are unwittingly rendering our own social life incoherent.” Hermione tore through her speech in one mouthful, desperate to have respite from having to form thoughts into words.
Narcissa leaned back in her chair as she studied the proud posture of the Gryffindor sat next to her. Green really suited her, she thought. There was an energy to Hermione in the mornings that was stunning; stunning perhaps in the way a natural catastrophe was stunning as it stood alone amongst its wreck, but stunning nonetheless.
“Limpy,” the pureblood called out at last.
The little house elf happily popped next to Narcissa. “Yes, Mistress?”
“Limpy, would you like your freedom?” She asked him seriously.
The house elf’s face fell to horror and pure, undiluted hysteria coloured his voice. “Does Mistress not want Limpy anymore? What has Limpy done?!”
“None of that, Limpy,” Narcissa said soothingly as big fat tears started rolling down the elf’s face onto his white dress. “It’s just a question - what do you really want? I am ordering you to be honest.”
“Limpy wishes to serve Mistress forever,” he said hurriedly. “Limpy cannot imagine a life without Mistress. Limpy does not want a life without Mistress. Limpy would be lost without Mistress’s magic.”
“Then forget I ever mentioned anything,” she said gently. “Have you packed Miss Granger’s clothes and potions?”
“Of course, Mistress. And the books,” he said wiping his tears and nodding profusely.
“Then that would be all for the moment, Limpy. Thank you.”
The house elf gave her a watery smile and disapareted out of the room.
“I won’t deny that there is truth to your theory, but in practice, what would really render our social life as incoherent would be to force clothes on him.”
“But he’s obviously not autonomous!” The muggleborn argued back. “If he were in his full rational faculties, and not brainwashed, then he would want to be free.”
Narcissa scoffed at this. “Dear Merlin, Hermione, do you realise what you’re saying? You’re equating freedom with some ethereal ‘higher self‘ which is ‘true‘ and ‘rational’, and not only that - you’re only allowing for your definition of rational. You are defining freedom for house elves instead of allowing them to decide what they want. Isn’t autonomy supposed to be being able to act on your own values, and only following other’s values, if you have freely accepted them for yourself? Forcing elves to be free is its own form of tyranny.”
“I just don’t see how subservience can be rational,” Hermione defended as she tucked into her porridge.
“You just have to accept that there isn’t only one way of living that is rational for everyone,” she said thoughtfully as she sprinkled pomegranates over her yogurt. “Every house elf I have ever met has wanted to be a house elf; granted, barring Dobby.” The pureblood shrugged again. “But didn’t a muggle once say that obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is what freedom truly is?”
“But come on...” Hermione persisted. “Don’t you have a gut feeling, like in your heart of hearts, that there’s something wrong about this whole arrangement?”
Narcissa smiled indulgently at Hermione. “You really are extraordinary, Miss Granger.”
“I’m going to take that as a ‘no’, then?”
The pureblood laughed softly. “Yes, it’s a ‘no’ from me. His life’s meaning is to serve. Is that a life I would want for myself? Of course not. Is it a life I would wish on anyone? Also not. But that is the meaning of his life, therefore it is not my place to judge him or take it away from him.” The pureblood paused to give Hermione a fond smile. “If it’s any consolation, I do see where you’re coming from, and I have to say, your kindness is as exceptional as it is misguided.”
“I’m going to focus on the compliment there,” Hermione said with amused sarcasm.
“Please do,” she replied thoughtfully. “Kindness is among the rarest of virtues these days.”
“Maybe you’re just consorting with the wrong type of crowd,” her tone muddling levity with concern.
Narcissa smiled ruefully at the suggestion. “Oh, Miss Granger, if there is one thing for sure, it’s that I’ve always consorted with the wrong type of crowd.” A dark laugh escaped the pureblood’s lips and her tone turned molten heavy. “And you’d do best to remember that it was by no means an accident, Hermione.”
And there was that gaze again; the one that made Narcissa look like a high stakes dare to… to what? Hermione wondered. No matter the question Narcissa made her feel Hermione’s answer always seemed to be if only…
They remained silent - both lost in an impasse of indecision until the handsome longcase clock in the corner chimed ten o’clock, snatching away from them the dance floor of impulsiveness they were flirting with.
“I should get going,” Hermione finally offered. “I’ve intruded long enough.”
“You haven’t intruded for a second. But I suppose I shouldn’t keep you from your friends any longer. I’m sure they’re missing you.”
The two witches stood up and unwillingly made their way back up to the dove blue room. Laying on the low bench at the foot of the bed was a white duffel bag and a leather satchel. Narcissa opened the satchel and inspected the contents until they met her approval.
“All the potions you’ll need for the next few weeks are in here. I’ve included instructions but please don’t hesitate to call me if you’d like any help,” she offered as Hermione swung the duffel bag over her good shoulder. “I insist it would be no trouble.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied with a grateful smile. “Oh damn, I’m still wearing your jumper - here, let me just take it off.”
“Keep it, keep it,” Narcissa insisted. “You can return it some other time.”
“Thank you,” she said earnestly. “For everything.”
“Anytime, Miss Granger.”
The muggleborn stepped into the fireplace and took a pinch of the floo powder Narcissa offered her.
“Oh, don’t forget to make Mr. Potter RSVP for the ball!”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “The things I do for you...” They shared one last amused smile and Hermione threw the powder at her feet, immediately engulfing herself in flames. “Number 12 Grimmauld Place.” Narcissa disappeared in front of her as other fireplaces zoomed around her and it was barely a lungful later that she was spat out in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place.
“Blimey, Hermione. We thought you’d been kidnapped,” Ron said as Harry and Ginny sat frozen in their seats around the table laden with breakfast food.
“Didn’t you get a letter that I’d be gone for a while?” She asked setting her bags on the floor and dusting her jeans off.
“Well yeah...” he replied, “but it just seemed a bit fishy, is all.”
“See! I was right,” Ginny said triumphantly. “Hand over the galleons, boys.”
“You thought I was kidnapped and you made bets?” Hermione asked incredulously.
“I always knew you were fine,” Ginny explained as she pocketed her winnings. “I have a sixth sense for these things. These two drama queens on the other hand... almost called up the whole D.A. to track you down when that house elf came to get your stuff.”
“That would be Limpy...” Hermione elaborated lightly, sitting herself next to Harry and stealing a bite of his toast.
“So what did you do with that... bloke... that meant you had to take off and leave just like that?” Ron asked quizzically.
“It was an... experiment, of sorts,” she explained carefully. “Required constant observation. It was just more practical to stay over. Also gave us time to mull over some important questions.” She provided vaguely as she poured herself a cup of tea.
“What sort of questions?” Harry asked with his brows furrowed with confusion, breakfast forgotten.
“Oh you know… just standard theoretical questions; we’ve got to question our everyday assumptions when we’re surrounded by contradictions…”
“Getting a bit existential there, aren’t you?” Ginny teased. “Almost sounds like you’re having a quarter life crisis.”
“You’re actually probably not too far off,” Hermione chuckled. “I’m not quite sure of anything anymore.”
“Well the way I see it,” Ron said, back to wolfing down his bacon, “if you ever feel like you’re slipping into a dark, murky world of an existential crisis - go take a dump. That’ll put everything into context.”
“Insightful as always, Ronald,” Hermione retorted sarcastically as her other two friends sniggered at the exchange. “I think I should unpack.”
“Oh, by the way - these came for you,” Harry said pulling out a small pile of letters from a drawer. “That fancy one came just a few minutes before you got here, actually. I got one too. I think it’s for that ball thing they’re always trying to get us to go to.”
Hermione took the letters, running her fingers over the elegant white envelope that had her name written in Narcissa’s careful script.
“Yeah, I think you’re probably right,” she said more wistfully than she realised, then tucked them into her duffel bag. “I’ll most likely be in the library today,” she added as she made for the door. “Just so you know I haven’t been kidnapped.”
“Safety is no laughing matter!” Ginny called back mirthfully.
Hermione trudged up to her barren room and sat on the small bed. Alone at last, she thought to herself. But the exclamation felt hollow in her empty room, and all of a sudden she realised that the silence that reigned around her had become an unwanted companion. This was ridiculous, she thought, she’d been alone her whole life - solitude her haven. This was normal. This was her normal.
Hermione pulled out the invitation from her bag and her eyes widened in shock as realisation dawned on her. She loved her. She loved Narcissa. And until she had loved Narcissa she had never minded being alone.
Chapter 15: Carnations
A party like this required meticulous attention. From making sure the house elves left the house spotless, all the way to catching light fairies to illuminate the ballroom. Charles McLaggen was not a man intended for such activities. He was more of an… enjoyer of parties, rather than a purveyor. No, no, that was his wife. His dead wife. She always knew which champagne to order and how to haggle with the caterers. He was completely lost when it came to choosing the correct musical entertainment, and don’t even get him started on which cravat to wear on formal occasions.
His talents lay with a good nogtail hunt with Tiberius. Many a future minister had accompanied him and his brother to their estate in Norfolk for a jolly good old hunting trip. Cormac had taken after him in that respect; ever since becoming great friends with Bertie Higgs - formerly Rufus Scrimgeour’s assistant, now the head of the Department of Intoxicating Substances - during a hunt in his seventh year at Hogwarts. Cormac was doing well for himself these days. Very well. He had kept in touch with Blaise Zabini and Melinda Bobbin from the Slug Club; and after a few high risk investments that he had been reticent to lend his son, the young trio were quickly becoming industry leaders in the field of mass production of previously rare potioneering such as wolfsbane; a niche that was sorely needed after the mess of the war.
It was with great fondness that Charles had watched his son grow up, even if it had meant seeing him more in the papers than in person. However, the degree of separation between them started fading quickly after his son’s first stock review. After that he had noticed that he was increasingly running into his son during the merry-go-round of social engagements - and with his heart full of pride, he realised that his son had made it in the club (as he referred to it) on his own merits.
Ah… the club, Charles thought wistfully as he ushered one of the house elves to expand the broom cupboard and clean the fireplaces. If anybody asked him, it was more like a game you need to get tagged to play in - the ultimate form of competition and natural selection played in waistcoats and high heels. Through generations, the club had been the father of all things, the source of the most potent ideas, inventions, institutions and states. And if the last century had taught him anything, it was that peace was an unstable equilibrium among its members; which was why he really, really needed that elf to get rid of that bouquet of chrysanthemums and start decorating the room with the white carnations he had ordered and were waiting in the drawing room.
All the important people were coming today, so it was imperative he put on a good show; especially after that little indiscretion the Prophet had caught him with that other witch. It had all been a terrible misunderstanding. Yes, his hand had been up her skirt. And yes, she had been about a decade or two younger than him. But they were just having a laugh. Nothing serious. No need to blast the affair all over page three. He had a weakness for beautiful women - who could blame him? And didn’t they realise they were making it terribly difficult for him to make his advances on Narcissa Black? Honestly, there was no respect for the higher classes anymore… as if Abraxas Malfoy ever had to put up with this nonsense.
Charles re-entered the ballroom and directed the musicians to where they would be playing for the night. He ran his hand through his golden locks, wondering how his wife had ever made this look easy. He needed some wine. Now. As he was about to reach for a silver goblet the doorbell rang and he sent one last desperate prayer hoping nobody would notice he’d forgotten to order napkins. What a birthday indeed.
As the ballroom filled up, it was in increasingly dazzling manners that the guests for Charles McLaggen’s birthday party arrived. Some chose to make their entrance by not so legally tampering with the floo network to create a rainbow of colours in the flames as they burst out. Others chose to show off by arriving atop some fantastical creature that tended to terrify the poor house elf in charge of valeting.
Narcissa was aching to roll her eyes at the extravagances; the flamboyant entrances denoted a despicable insecurity on behalf of the invitees - compensating grotesquely as they tried to hide the shallowness of their station with an expensive trick. The rules of simplicity are those of taste, and as Narcissa looked around her, her sight landing on Charles McLaggen himself, she couldn’t help but think that a man could be no more truly wretched than he whose soul could fly no higher than his neck-tie.
And yet… she would dance with him. And laugh with him. And lay her head on his shoulder as he pressed her closer to him when the lights dimmed and the music mellowed out and the sound of discreet cameras shuttered around them. She would inhale his aftershave as he whispered how glad he was that she had come. She would feel his hand trailing the arches of her back as he purred on about how beautiful she looked. She would be silent, almost stoic, as their intimate dance was recorded by every tabloid paper. They would be close enough to feel each other’s breathing press against the other’s chest, but her attention would be lost to the white carnations and his would be lost to the temptation of asking her to go with him to somewhere private.
Narcissa downed a flute of champagne in one go, immediately placing the glass back on one of the floating trays and picking another glass in the process. The second glass didn’t last much longer than the first, and she discretely looked around the full ballroom wondering where he hid the good stuff… and where were the napkins, for goodness sake?
“It’s going to take us five hours to get drunk on this hobgoblin’s piss,” Violetta stated with her usual grace as she appeared next to her.
“Does that mean we’re going to have to be here for another five hours?” Narcissa drawled out sarcastically and the two witches shared an amused smile.
“I must say, Cissy, that dress of yours really is quite spectacular,” Violetta gushed.
“This old thing?”
“No need to be modest, Cissy,” the older witch said teasingly. “You look splendid, and I for one, think Charles is blind if he hasn’t fallen for you already.”
“I really hope he hasn’t - it’s such a clumsy affair to get them back on their feet.”
“I’m sorry,” Violetta said, not sounding apologetic at all. “I forgot you’re still pretending you and Charles aren’t a match made in heaven.”
“Don’t be silly, Vi,” Narcissa said sweetly. “I’m just not looking for those sorts of thrills anymore. I’m too old for that sort of nonsense.”
“Too old?” Vi said incredulously. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? You’re by far the most stunning witch in this room. It’s a damn shame you’re alone, Cissy - someone as beautiful as yourself shouldn’t have to be.”
“You’re too kind, Vi.” Narcissa picked up her third glass of champagne.
“Not at all. I’ve been saying this for years - you two are a perfect match, and before you saying anything else, I know your mother would’ve agreed with me.”
Narcissa almost slapped the older witch on the head. Hadn’t anybody learnt that her mother’s approval was more an omen than a blessing?
“I couldn’t possibly understand what fault you could find in a man like him…” Vi cooed. “I mean, he’s just so handsome.”
So are a thousand others, Narcissa thought to herself.
So am I.
“He has one of the few last good surname’s.”
“Have I mention he’s rich?”
“Yes, Vi,” Narcissa replied, tired of playing along with the game Charles had obviously put Violetta up to. “However, I am not going to marry a man just because he’s rich.”
“Oh, but don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?” Violetta asked enthusiastically. “You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”
Violetta had a good look at her friend and wondered why she seemed so unimpressed with the prospect of such an advantageous courtship with McLaggen. “Why are you so reticent?” She asked suspiciously, then her eyes widened as a trickle of possibilities flooded into her mind. “Narcissa Black, I am about to ask you a most serious question and I need you to look me in the eyes and answer me with complete and utter honesty.”
Narcissa raised a surprised eyebrow at Violetta. “Go on.”
“Narcissa… is there, is there someone else?”
The younger witch suddenly felt very dizzy from all the champagne and begged for this god awful nightmare of a conversation to be over. “Someone else?” She asked back, feigning ignorance.
“Yes, yes - that’s caught your fancy, and with whom you wish to pursue a relationship with,” Violetta expanded with little disguised exasperation.
Narcissa fell back into the cool waters of her mind, painting a honest smile on her lips as she prepared to… lie? “No,” she said resolutely. “I’m just… not looking for anyone. I’ve had enough commitment for one lifetime.” It was Narcissa’s turn to look at her friend with suspicion. “Why are you so intent on getting Charles and I together?”
“Lets just say I had a long chat with someone at that party you didn’t come to last week, and well…” Vi grinned and leaned closer to her friend, whispering conspicuously. “He’s absolutely in love with you.”
“Really?” Narcissa drawled out sarcastically again. “And that’s why he’s getting with every woman he can get his hands on?”
“Oh, it’s all a faff!” Vi chortled. “You know how boys are - he’s doing it all to make you jealous, and golly, I can tell it’s working.”
Narcissa took a deep calming breath. If Violetta kept prattling on about this nonsense there would be no power on this earth that could stop her from stunning the silly witch into the next decade.
“Oh, do dance with him!” The older witch urged. “Just give him a chance - it’s his birthday!”
“Fine,” Narcissa conceded as politely as she could - anything to please stop her talking.
The pureblood finished what remained in her flute and slowly glided towards the general direction of Charles McLaggen. All around her excited voices buzzed enthusiastically; negotiations and plans thriving in the atmosphere. This was the sort of party where much of the pleasure to be derived depended on the general effect of the enjoyers. But it was just a tad too big for Narcissa’s taste. She was a sucker for swell, intimate, black tie parties; but in inviting half the senior ministry, Charles had forgone intimacy for revelry. That was why she had gone for such a purposely stunning dress - if she could not pump up a look of mirth, she would at least wear the semblance of it in her dress.
“Cissy, darling!” Charles called out to her, excusing himself from the little group that surrounded him.
“Charles! What a wonderful party!” Narcissa said in lieu of a greeting as he kissed her on the cheek and a camera shutter went of.
“What are you drinking?” He asked her, stopping a floating tray that was passing by.
“Oh, I think I’ve had more than enough!” She replied, laughing gently.
“Nonsense, nonsense!” Charles said dismissively, handing her another flute of sparkling liquid.
“My, my, Mr McLaggen! One would dare think you’re trying to get me inebriated,” she said faking shock.
“I do seem to remember it was you, Miss Black, who introduced me to the catchphrase ‘it’s too early to be sober.’” He retorted with what Narcissa knew was his most charming smile.
“We’re not sixteen anymore, Charles,” she replied, annoyed by the fondness the memories brought back to her.
“We’ll always be sixteen at heart,” he said clinking his glass with hers. “Come now, Cissy. You can’t deny me a dance on my birthday.” He pulled her gently onto the dance floor, their steps naturally synching to the fast pace of the violins. “Feeling up to making front page news tomorrow?” He asked her with a brazen grin.
“Depends the reason,” she replied coldly, very aware she was trapped in the rhythmic spinning of the dance floor.
“All good reasons, I promise,” he whispered as he kissed her and with cold horror Narcissa heard every single camera in the room immortalise the moment in a gluttonous wave of clicks and shutters.
She could deny it no longer, the floor of a toilet cubicle was her ‘padam… padam… padam’.
In her almost forty years of life Narcissa Black had become acquainted with more bathroom interiors than her dignity allowed her to admit.
However, there was something to be said about the knife sharp clarity that was only accessible through that magical combination of exhaustion, drunkenness, and the peripeteia of going from a black tie party to a toilet floor. The silence probably had a lot to do with it. After hours of incessant chatter and considerably loud music, that muffled silence in a bathroom felt like a cold shower on a sweltering hot July night while the distant responsibility of the party was but a rumble that could claim no right to her while she found asylum in the bathroom.
“Padam… padam… padam” went the song, until it drove Édif Piaf mad.
It was a strange irony (if it could even be called irony), that it was only when locked in a lavatory and slumped on the floors, nicked bottle of wine et al, that Narcissa felt so absolutely free her very existence felt like an act of rebellion. The fact she could sit there, refusing to come back out to the mingling and the stabbing, was a testament to the fact she could walk away from the party all together, if only she dared.
In those toilets, the absurdity of her life, was so hilarious, in fact, she could barely manage not to spill the wine from her giggles. That was what was hidden in the bathroom; the secret all that dancing and music and pretty velvet suits were trying to hide: it was all bollocks.
Take Charles McLaggen, for example: that insufferable imbecile for a man had just gone ahead and snogged her in front of the whole wizarding media. It had been such a ludicrously idiotic action that every time Narcissa thought about it ripples of laughter started pouring out of her mouth until she was gasping for air. A large part of her wished she could stay in that toilet permanently just so she could find that kiss funny forever.
But she was well aware that she couldn’t, and in ten minutes time, twenty tops, she would have to down a sobering up potion and re-enter a world heavy with responsibility.
“Oh Merlin…” Narcissa groaned under her breath. “What has he done?”
To her credit, given the circumstances, she had damage controlled the situation admirably well. After the initial shock of feeling McLaggen’s lips pushing against hers and hearing that roar of clicks crashing around her, she had gracefully parted from him, kissed him on both cheeks like two old friends greeting and with a “carefree” laugh, continued dancing with him until the song was over.
The thought of blasting his foot off had occurred to her, she could not deny it. But by casually shrugging off his advances, Narcissa had left everything in a wickedly ambiguous territory that could offend no party. Of course, every media outlet in the country would have a field day… and that did, of course, mean that Hermione would wake up to a picture of McLaggen snogging her on the front page of the Prophet… and that was just… embarrassing?
It occurred to Narcissa that the only shame she felt from this situation was derived from the realisation that Hermione would have to pay witness to this spectacle. Her relationship with Hermione existed in a whole different sphere from this circus and Narcissa found herself mortified at the prospect of the younger witch seeing her at her worst. But what could she do about it? She could hardly send an apology letter - that would be beyond bizarre. ‘I’m sorry I’m snogging McLaggen in the papers.’
There were no grounds for apologising. No reason to apologise. And yet Narcissa Black sat there on McLaggen’s tiled bathroom floors feeling horribly apologetic. Like she’d betrayed some trust. Crossed an unspoken line. Disregarded a muted promise.
And that was the problem with the unarticulated - there was nothing to talk about when it was ruined.
There was a knock on the door.
“Just a minute!” Narcissa called out, downing the sobering up potion and banishing the empty bottle. She quickly reapplied her make up, then tucked her coral lipstick away and floated back to the party with a beaming smile.
Chapter 16: Protestation
It wasn’t a well of tears. It wasn’t even a flock of yellow birds conjured like a gun blast. It was… it was far more permeating than that, like the taste of firewhisky or the ache of internal bleeding. It was reluctance and resignation and envy all rolled into one well hooked punch to the stomach. It was a silent library. Unanswered letters. Shaking hands picking up the morning paper. It was selfish and and irrational and unproductive with all the proportions of Achilles’ ruinous anger.
Maybe the real problem was how overwhelming the world had suddenly become; like burnt skin, aggravated even by the most well meaning touch. Or maybe it was just exhaustion; Odysseus’ exhaustion.
Whatever it was, Hermione wanted no more of it. She gave up. She surrendered. She had no right to feel this way. This was not supposed to happen. Merlin, whenever she even thought about it, it sounded preposterous even to her. Although, to be fair, this wasn’t the sort of thing that was meant to be thought, only felt.
Just let her be happy and I’ll have my peace, Hermione thought. Just let her be happy and I’ll have my peace. I can leave her if she’s happy. She knew she sounded pitiful, bordering on the pathetic and well past the cliché, but Hermione had no space left in her to care. If this was the cliché then she had found her people.
The real horror of the situation, however, was not this. No, it was far more mundane than that, and it hid in the knowledge that just because she had laid down her arms, it did not mean that the world around her had. By this point it was bordering on a conspiracy, led, of course, by the green cashmere jumper and rallied by the smell of lavender. The Prophet with its photos and its features was the daily weakening strike and the Black crest that was stamped onto everything, from her cutlery to her pillows, was an inescapable reminder of how much she missed her.
She missed her like a bookmark missed its favourite pages; perhaps even as the ocean missed the shore. She missed her, and yet, knew that she would not be able to stand to see her.
The paradox pushed her towards one book after another, after another, after another; her insatiable appetite for Narcissa Black was misdirected towards a literary consumption. It was as if she was hoping that with each page she read it would count as a step away from the witch. Each chapter would be a mile closer to forgetting her, all of her, from the way her magic felt underneath her skin, to the weight of her hand on her shoulder telling her goodbye.
There was a fatal flaw in her plan, however. In her desperation to run away from Narcissa Black, she had run so far she had inevitably returned to her original position. The irony was delicious, but she’d be damned if she’d accept it.
“No, I’m sorry Harry, but I’m just not going,” Hermione said through clenched teeth as she threw some gillyweed into the cauldron.
“C’mon, Mione! I am not going alone, especially when this was your idea in the first place!” Harry said in an equally resolute tone.
“I know,” she snapped back. “Trust me. I know this was my blasted idea.”
“Then what happened to ‘it’ll be a good chance to catch up with everyone’ and ‘it’ll be good to dress up and do something special for once’? - I mean look at me, I’m in this stupid suit and everything and now you suddenly decide that you’re not going?” He asked incredulously as the kitchen was filled with red vapours from the cauldron.
“Yes, Harry. That’s exactly how it is,” she answered darkly, the door bell cutting her off.
“I’ll get the bloody door, but this is ridiculous,” he muttered as he rushed to the door.
“Looking dapper, Harry,” Bill greeted happily whilst Fleur nodded in agreement.
“Hermione’s refusing to come,” he replied flatly.
“What?” They both burst in unison.
“I will talk to her. Stay here.” Fleur said moving in.
The French witch’s long blue dress fluttered behind her like a waterfall rippling down her back while Harry muttered loudly, mostly to himself. “Fat chance when she gets this way.”
Fleur entered the kitchen to find Hermione furiously chopping a whole array of ingredients, her hair a gigantic mess that was only dwarfed by the enormous sweatshirt she was wearing.
“I’m not going, so don’t even bother,” she warned.
Fleur didn’t take the bait, instead taking the time to pull out one of the chairs and languidly sit down to wait for the younger witch’s attention.
She had seen the picture; well, everyone had seen the picture; but now Fleur realised that it had been a big mistake to leave Hermione’s overactive imagination to fawn over the infinite possibilities it entailed. They would be late to the party.
“You’re going to be late,” Hermione stated disapprovingly.
“I’m not going,” she repeated.
“You said so.”
Hermione dropped her knife rather forcefully on the wooden chopping board and turned to face her friend. “Then why are you still here?”
“I know what zis is about,” Fleur replied quietly.
Hermione’s expression flipped from exasperated to furious in a millisecond. “Don’t go there, Fleur.”
“I will. And you will go to zis party even if I ’ave to drag you myself.”
“What’s the bloody point?” The younger witch asked furiously, her voice coming out much louder than she had expected.
“‘Ave you talked to ‘er?” Fleur asked, her tone a soft comparison to Hermione’s.
“No, I have not talked to her. There is nothing to talk about. Plus, I think it was quite clear what’s going on.
“Nothing is ever that clear.”
“Yes, well, I think the front page of the Prophet is as clear as you can get,” the muggleborn retorted, back to crushing toad eyes aggressively and scraping them into the cauldron. “You know, Fleur, I think I’ve finally learnt that people are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You’ll never know them.”
“Oh, mon dieu! Enough of this nonsense!” Fleur said rolling her eyes. “You ‘ave no idea what happened, and you can’t stay ‘ere sulking making Merlin knows what. No. Enough. We are going upstairs, finding a nice dress, doing something with zat ‘air and then we are going to this tactless party and you are going to find zat woman and set things straight. Allé! Allé!”
“Please…” Hermione whimpered. “Don’t make me go. I don’t think I can bare to-“ her voice faltered and she tried again, hating the taste of a confession on her tongue. “I can’t see her with him.”
“‘You do not know if she is his,” Fleur said standing up. The older witch then gently put her hand on top of Hermione’s to still her fervent chopping.
“What if she is?” Hermione asked, looking down at the bloody pulp that remained of her ingredients.
“Then you wish ‘er ze best and let her go,” she replied softly. “C’mon, let’s get you in a dress.”
Hermione sighed. “Okay.”
An hour and a half and two missed portkeys later, the little group landed outside the great hall where the party was already in full swing. It was the first time Harry and Hermione had gone back to Hogwarts since the reconstruction, but now… the dust seemed settled and the cracks had scarred.
As Hermione was helped up to her feet by Bill she noticed a lone figure looking at them expectantly. The figure was wearing killer heels and had a red neckline that plunged elegantly down an ivory neck where a crested necklace rested as a centre piece. Hermione need not have looked up to know exactly who was patiently standing outside the great hall - the rich perfume gave her away, and oh, how she loathed to admit that it took all her self-control not to close her eyes and just let that rich fragrance make peace for them both.
“Miss Black, good evening,” Bill said politely with a small head bow.
“Thank you for ze invitation,” Fleur added.
Narcissa gave them her politician’s smile. “Thank you for coming. Do go in, I think almost everyone is here.”
“Yeah, sorry we’re late.” Harry said rubbing the back of his hair, awkwardly glancing at Hermione. “We had some… delays.”
“Think nothing of it,” she reassured them and opened the door to let them in.
“You go on ahead - I have to, um… go to the toilet,” Hermione said awkwardly.
Harry shrugged. “See you in a bit then.”
‘Talk!’ Fleur mouthed at her as she went inside.
Both witches were left alone.
“Hello,” Narcissa offered.
“You look stunning,” the pureblood stated. What a relief it was to rest her eyes on the lithe figure of the muggleborn and know she was okay.
“Thank you. It was all Fleur, though,” she replied, her hand vaguely gesturing to her face and the green dress that was complemented by a delicate little white jumper. “You look amazing yourself.”
“Thank you, I was feeling a bit bold and went for red. Not sure if I’m pulling it off, though… but I guess I’ll find out later in Tatler,” Narcissa said lightly as an afterthought, and the old hall was immediately filled the cantankerous expectation of a conversation neither witch knew how to start.
“So… I’m supposedly going to the toilet,” Hermione volunteered. “What’s your excuse for avoiding the adoring crowds?”
“I’ve been waiting,” Narcissa said without missing a beat.
Narcissa’s courage wilted. She could not tell the muggleborn she had been waiting for her. “The wine,” she said at last. “A few crates are missing.”
“I haven’t heard from you in a while,” Narcissa said trying to keep the hurt out of her voice.
“Well, you’ve been busy,” Hermione replied testily.
“Not as busy as you, considering you haven’t replied to my letters.”
“Letter,” Hermione corrected.
“I beg your pardon?” The pureblood asked incredulously.
“Letter. Singular. You sent one letter.”
“I stand corrected then,” Narcissa said biting her tongue. “You didn’t reply to my letter. I wasn’t sure if you were okay.”
“Still, you could’ve answered. I was worried,” she said frowning.
It was dawning on Hermione that maybe… just maybe… she was being slightly childish, and the mess of hypotheses and conclusions she had been saturating herself in for the past two weeks were more poison than vaccine. “How are you and McLaggen doing?” She asked bitterly, immediately hating how petty she sounded, even to herself.
Narcissa rolled her eyes, so this was what it was all about. “For goodness sake, Hermione. By now you must realise that I would never be with a person whose appreciation of me is largely based on the belief that I am beautiful,” she replied cooly.
“Oh. But you are,” she retorted in confusion. “Beautiful, that is. Objectively speaking.”
“Beauty is nothing. It won’t stay,” Narcissa said, tucking away an imaginary strand of hair. “Sometimes I even think that people don’t know how lucky they are to be ugly, because if people like them, they can know for sure it’s for something else.” If they hadn’t been in the situation they were in, Hermione knew she would be laughing at Narcissa’s sense of the dramatic. But they were in the situation they were in.
“So let me get this straight… that photo-“
“Was a nightmare. Biggest PR disaster since Lucius went to Azkaban,” Narcissa said exasperatedly. “That imbecile, well, was an imbecile. I’ve been bombarded for the last two weeks with requests for interviews and because I refuse to dignify the story with an answer the gossip becomes more and more salacious and…” Narcissa paused as she registered that Hermione had moved a few steps closer to her. “It’s been horrible.” Because I’ve missed you, she concluded.
“I’m sorry,” the muggleborn offered as if she had heard Narcissa’s thoughts loud and clear.
“You’ve nothing to apologise for in this mess.”
“I do - I mean, I ditched you in the middle of that disaster,” Hermione explained. “I should’ve stood by you; instead I jumped to conclusions.”
“Well you’re here now,” Narcissa said, letting herself feel just an inch of relief.
“Yes, I am - unlike your wine,” she replied with a light laugh.
It was that smile that did it. Narcissa kissed her. Without warning. Without permission. Without even deciding to do it, but simply because she couldn’t have done anything else. She needed that breath Hermione was holding. It belonged to her, and she wanted it back. Narcissa bit the younger witch’s bottom lip like hope, and before she knew it, Hermione was kissing her back like forgiveness. The pureblood couldn’t think of anything except how the taste of Hermione’s lips reminded her of all the magic in the world she had forgotten.
“Fuck, I’d swallow poison if it tasted like you,” Hermione whispered when they broke apart.
And like a recurrent nightmare that haunted Narcissa’s dreams, she heard the sound of a camera shutter going off.
Born a Black, by nature a Slytherin and married to a Malfoy; a lifetime of cynicism had prepared Narcissa for this moment. Self-preservation took over like gravity guiding an object back down, down, down… She didn’t even need to think about it to know she could not allow Hermione to be dragged into her world. The reporter had never stood a chance - one formidable stroke of her wand and his recent memory was wiped so clean it bordered on the antiseptic.
Deftly, Narcissa stepped over to where the prone body of the reporter lay and removed the film from his camera and inserted a clean one. This would be her gift to the muggleborn - the chance to blame this all on a momentary lapse of reason without consequence. “We have… about two minutes before he comes to his senses. We need to go inside before we arouse any suspicions.” She whispered urgently to the muggleborn as she checked the reporter’s pulse.
Unbeknown to the Slytherin, her words burnt Hermione like electricity, the only giveaway of the static shock were her raised eyebrows and the incredulous tone of her voice. “Wait wait! Are you seriously asking me to go inside and pretend like nothing happened?”
“Yes,” Narcissa replied unflinchingly. This was for the best, she thought as she hardened her heart to the Gryffindor’s disappointed face.
“But I can’t - we can’t - No, no - I mean -” Hermione stumbled over her words and she felt the burning prickle of tears threatening to spill, and in the most distant recesses of her mind, she couldn’t help but find it funny she always ended up crying at balls. “I can’t pretend like nothing’s happened.”
“If you have any respect, any respect at all, for me, then we will go back in-“ Narcissa pushed unyieldingly but the younger witch cut in.
“Respect? Respect? Are you kidding me, Narcissa?!” Hermione spat back. “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.”
“Do not dare talk to me about love,” Narcissa warned, her voice as quiet as it was cold.
“Why not, Narcissa?” Hermione asked, hysteria creeping into the treble of her voice. “And need I remind you it was you who kissed me?” Distress had given way to anger, and Hermione felt the surge of fury inebriate her body like wildfire.
“My fault… my failure…” Narcissa said perfunctorily as she started pacing the square antechamber deep in desperate thoughts, “is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
“You really do have a talent for making up bollocks on the spot,” the muggleborn marvelled sarcastically.
“You don’t understand!”
“Then please do explain, what is it exactly that I don’t understand?”
“We really don’t have time for this,” Narcissa begged, wordlessly placing silencing charms around them just in case another reporter happened to stumble onto them.
“Why not when neither of us actually wants to go in?”
“Because this is neither the time nor the place -”
“Oh, would it be improper to talk about the fact you’re ashamed of being acquainted with the mudblood?” Hermione accused, spitting the words out. This too somehow felt like a confession.
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Really, really? I’m the one being ridiculous? You just broke seven laws to cover up a kiss.”
“I’m just doing what is necessary, and I know one day you will thank me for it,” the Slytherin drawled coldly.
“Merlin, no! I’m not letting you make this decision for the both of us. Either explain to me why you don’t want to be seen with me, or I’m leaving.”
“FINE!” The older witch finally exploded. “I’ll spell it out for you then,” she snarled. “If this ever gets out; if this - us - is ever known by the people on the other side of that door, they will never forgive you. Can’t you see, Hermione? You are the apostle of what is right, the champion of the defenceless, the genius behind the glorious Golden Trio who saved the world! And I am Narcissa Black: traitor to the wizarding world. I’m the sister of Bellatrix Lastrange, the wife to Lucius Malfoy, the host to Lord Voldemort, and I will be your ruin.”
“I…” Hermione faltered at the strength of her response. “I don’t care,” she admitted, removing the two steps of distance between her and the Slytherin. “I actually really, really don’t care.”
“Don’t be silly, Hermione. Do you think the Weasley’s will ever be able to look at you the same way if they ever found out? Are you so naive as to believe that McGonagall and Longbottom and Lovegood and all the others will ever really trust you again? Two wars were bankrolled in my name and they will never forgive me for it. They should never forgive. Any association with me would count as a betrayal to them because I am still the enemy. I will always be the enemy. Look around you! Do you think it’s a coincidence I have to organise the war commemoration celebrations? It’s their way of reminding me of my place - that my side lost. The wounds are still too fresh, Hermione, just like the dead are still too alive.”
For a moment, while Narcissa regained her breath, the foyer to the great hall was silent.
“And I will ruin you,” she repeated softly.
Exhaustion and defeat were starting to creep into Hermione’s bones whilst a dull ache pulled on her poisoned arm. Her eyes begged to close and her mind wished for no more debate. She knew her resistance was wasted breath - how could she say no to Narcissa Black, anyway? How could she say no when the pureblood was looking at her like she was the place where the earth finished and began? Like she was the lintel that held the entire weight of their future on her shoulders. Unthinkingly she leaned onto the older witch’s shoulder and rested her head above Narcissa’s collarbone the way she would rest her head against a pillow. Instinctively, the pureblood’s arms were around her like a blanket, steadying her body.
“I’m not being silly,” Hermione argued, holding stubbornly onto the last embers of her anger. “I really don’t care.”
“I know you don’t today,” Narcissa whispered firmly into Hermione’s ear. “But one day you will. And I won’t take that from you - I won’t take your family.” The Slytherin felt Hermione’s body cave in and convulse with sobs, and sent a silent prayer of thanks that the reporter remained passed out. She closed her eyes and slowly ran her hand up and down the muggleborn’s back as if this was her only chance to steady the tremors in her spine. It was her only chance.
“What’s your stance on running away?” Hermione asked meekly, her head still buried in the crook of the pureblood’s neck where the smell of lavender was being washed with her stubborn tears. Narcissa chuckled softly, tucking a loose strand of Hermione’s hair behind her ear as she pulled away from the Gryffindor. “In another life, perhaps. One where we have somewhere to run to.”
“They say Paris is always a good idea,” Hermione suggested lightly, wiping away the tear tracks. The pureblood only smiled ruefully at her. Hermione closed her eyes as she gulped down the inevitable surrender. “But you’re right, maybe in another life…” she said, taking a steadying breath to gather the little courage she had left. “I suppose it’s best we go in.”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Narcissa conceded in a distant tone.
With a flick of her wrist, all the wards she had placed dropped and the Slytherin opened one of the double doors, allowing the cheerful music of inside to flood the empty antechamber. Silently and resolutely, they stepped into the brimming hall with its bright lights and boisterous guests.
“Hermione! - How I’ve missed you!” A familiar face called out.
“Whatever happened to the wine, Cissy?” Someone else inquired.
“Mione! You have got to try these canapés!” That was probably Ron.
“Excellent party as always, Narcissa!”
“Are you going to give a speech, Miss Granger?”
“Ah, Miss Black, I was wondering what the itinerary for tonight was…?”
“I’m not drunk enough for this…” Narcissa muttered to herself. “Please do tell me if you need anything, Miss Granger - I’ll be most happy to comply,” she said formally to the younger witch and disappeared amidst the crowd before Hermione could even respond.
“Mione, seriously - just try one,” Ron said, pushing a small snack of colourful food in front of her face. “I have no idea what that red sauce is, but bloody hell! Wait - was that Narcissa Black?” Ron chuckled to himself.
“Yes, why Ronald?” Hermione asked coldly, taking the canapé Ron was waving at her face.
“Nothing, nothing!” Ron replied, openly laughing now. One look at Hermione’s serious face and he sobered up slightly. “It’s just you always have a knack for fraternising with the enemy at these things.”
Hermione shoved the canapé back into Ron’s hand and turned around.
“Oh, c’mon, Mione! It was just a joke! I know you’d never talk to Narcissa Black if you didn’t have to!” He called out to her. “We’re on table seven, by the way!”
Hermione reached the bar and grabbed the closest flute of champagne she could get her hands on, wondering if she could just stay there the entire night.
“Good to see you’re not dead yet, Granger,” a familiar cold, drawled out voice said to her. Hermione turned to face Draco Malfoy staring at her with a faintly amused expression. “You don’t look too pleased to be here,” he continued, leaning on the bar.
“Whatever gave you that impression?” She replied flatly.
“Aside from the fact you were approximately two hours late?” He asked sarcastically. “Takes one to know one.”
“Why are you here then?”
“Probably the same reason as you -“ he said with a small smile, “-couldn’t say no to my mother.”
And despite herself, Hermione smiled. “She really has a talent for swaying people.”
A comfortable silence ensued as the pair sipped on their champagne and watched the mirthful crowds loudly chat amongst each other. Everyone was dressed so nicely, Hermione thought to herself. She could see Molly in an extravagant violet dress, and in the corner talking to a small group of people was Seamus in bright golden robes. “This feels so odd…” She mumbled. “It’s like we’re celebrating a war. Shouldn’t this all be more…”
“Reserved and respectful?” Draco supplied.
“At the very least.”
“You can’t blame them for a carnival after misery,” he replied. “You took to your books, they took to their parties - we all find peace in different ways.”
“I suppose both activities are equally futile…” Hermione sighed.
“Whatever happened to what you were working on with my mother?” Draco asked politely, his eyebrows furrowing slightly.
“Oh, it’s going - kind of,” Hermione said wincing as her heart sank. “We’ve just reached a stage where we don’t know how to move forward.”
“I’m sure the set back is only momentary, you are, after all, the brightest witch of our age,” he said in a tone that was as playful as it was sarcastic.
Hermione smiled at him. “I’m afraid it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”
“I have no doubt it is, if it’s got both you and my mother dumbfounded.”
“To be honest, I’m coming to think it might be a question best left to Prometheus’ Palace,” she said wearily.
Draco looked at her with a surprised expression. “How do you know of the Palace?”
Hermione raised an eyebrow. “Just an old Slytherin expression, why?”
The pureblood’s grey eyes hardened. “I’m sure I needn’t remind you, of all people, that it isn’t wise to play with old Slytherin legends.”
Before Hermione could form any type of response, a beautiful woman dressed in a loose silver dress swooped next to them. “There you are, darling. I’ve been looking for you every where! Cissy says we should start going back to our tables. Oh, hello, Miss Granger, I’m Astoria Malfoy,” she said warmly, extending her hand out to the muggleborn.
“Please call me Hermione,” she replied, shaking her hand.
“Then do call me Astoria,” she said with a bright smile. “Cissy said they’re going to start with the speeches any minute now, so I think it best we find our seats.”
“Good idea, I think I see Harry over there,” Hermione mumbled.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Hermione.” The younger witch said sincerely.
“Chin up, Granger - it’s going to be a long one,” Draco said with as much resignation as Hermione felt. He handed her another flute of champagne with a curt nod of understanding before Astoria linked arms with him and slowly, the three made their way to their tables.
Chapter 17: Station
Narcissa glanced at the clock on the mantlepiece and stood up to turn the radio on. With practiced motions she waved her wand to find the correct tuning until she found the station she had heard an interview would happen. Radio silence followed her to her chair until a cheery male voice filled her marble living room.
“Hi, we’re back. This is Capital Radio and we have a very special surprise for our listeners. Joining us today is none other than Hermione Granger, here to talk to us about her research in theoretical magic. How are you doing Hermione?”
“Fine, thank you… just a little wet.”
“Oh yeah, it’s still pouring out there.”
“Yeah, I had to run from the portkey landing place.”
“Well, we’re glad you made it. Now, your new papers, you’ve published a handful in the past few months which have become instant bestsellers all around the magical world. Tell us a little about the themes running through them. I noticed there was a good deal of repeated references to magical branding in the papers - you know, different forms of branding, curses, blessings, artefacts. Could you discuss some of this?”
“Sure. Let’s see, the branding is -“
“First let me say, the papers are brilliant, we’re all really excited about the possibilities here at the station. We get lots of calls about it, it’s really good stuff.”
“Thank you, thanks a lot.”
“So talk a little about the themes.”
“Well the branding is a reference to the way black magic has a way of searing itself on the host in such a manner that it becomes part of the person afflicted with the curse. It can be done in many different ways but my main focus is on rituals which brand.”
“And the research is, as you might have guessed, an examination of the long term effects that type of branding can have, and if there’s any possibility, even theoretical, for the reversal of the effects.”
“That touches on what, at least personally, is the most interesting result of your work. Could you please tell us a bit more about the discoveries you’ve made in medicinal magic?”
“Oh yes, as a byproduct of the work, there’s been quite a few discoveries about the healing potential of blood magic. St Mungos is currently developing two of the rituals we wrote the underlying equations for. I think they will really help mitigate symptoms which up until now were considered untreatable.”
“You just said ‘we’, which brings us to Hippocrates. Who is this research partner of yours? How does he fit in to all of this?”
“Yes, we see he shares the credits alongside you in all the papers you’ve recently published. Can you tell us about him?”
“Well, my methodology of work is usually trying to solve problems quantitatively through logic or rationalisation. Hippocrates likes to argue that that approach is often fruitless in matters of dark magic… they have a very practical approach. It creates a good balance I wouldn’t otherwise have, most of the work, actually, would not have been possible without us working together.”
“So how did you meet Hippocrates?”
“Eh… a mutual friend introduced us.”
“Oh, really? So you haven’t known each other long?”
“Um… well… I suppose not, actually… Not in the grand scheme, at least. We just dived into our work.”
“Now that you’ve published this anthology of papers, will you two continue to work together? I mean, the worked you’ve published is just amazing. Have I mentioned how everyone here at the station loves the work?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“So can we expect more work from you two?”
“Oh really? On what? We would love more work from you two.”
“Well, it’s up to Hippocrates, really. Working with them has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, but it’s up to them really. I would love- I mean, I would look forward to working with them again, if they- if they wanted to.”
“Are we looking at the start of an office romance with the allusive Mr. Hippocrates?”
“No, no! I’m sure neither of us would ever dream of that. The arrangement has always been… very professional.”
“What a shame - who knows what else you could accomplish with a more… intimate relationship.”
“No, it’s not even certain if we’ll have the opportunity to work together again.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t want to pass up the opportunity of working with Hermione Granger. That is an accolade in and of itself.”
“Thank you… but they have a busy schedule, and they have important work to do as well.”
“Talking about busy schedules; we saw you in the War Commemoration Ball a few weeks ago.”
“What pushed you to go? We know that’s not your sort of event.”
“I know; or well, knew; someone who it meant a lot, if I went.”
“Oh! Is that perhaps why Mr. Hippocrates hasn’t got your attention? Someone else has already caught your eye?”
“No! No! Not at all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m very sure.”
“You looked splendid in that green dress, by the way.”
“It was interesting, seeing you in Slytherin colours, that is.”
“Yeah… it was a change.”
“We noticed Narcissa Black was in a bold red - everyone was switching it up! Are you familiar with Narcissa Black?”
“Just… just in passing.”
“Did you think she did a good job with the ball? Do you think you’ll go to another one of her balls?”
“I forget, you’re not into balls.”
“No, no - it’s not that…”
“Oh, my apologies, I haven’t asked you your opinion on Narcissa Black. Such a divisive figure in the wizarding community, I might add. Excellent balls in my opinion.”
“But it must be difficult for you to deal with her, your loyalties being as respectable as they are.”
“I’m afraid that’s all the time we have right now. This is Capital Radio, thank you so much for listening. This was just Hermione Granger talking about her latest research work. How she’s keen to work with Hippocrates again, and how Narcissa Black is not her cup of tea. Once again, thank you for tuning in.”
Narcissa took another burning sip of her amber drink and turned the radio off.
Chapter 18: Regulations
A piping hot cup of tea, a heavenly comfortable armchair, and the carefully selected pile of books she had curated from Grimmauld’s library. Hermione picked the first in her stack - ‘A Modern Mistresses’ Guide to Manners’ - that sounded like Narcissa to the core, Hermione decided. With an annoyed eye-roll at the colourful cover depicting a laughing witch entertaining a small group of people, she opened the introduction and skimmed over the small lettering.
“…But it is more than this. The intercourse must be both active and friendly. Man is a gregarious animal; but while other animals herd together for the purpose of mutual protection, or common undertakings, men appear to form the only kind who assemble for that of mutual entertainment and improvement. But in society properly so called, this entertainment must address the higher part of man…”
Hermione resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. ‘Society properly so called’? What about the centaurs? Or the merpeople? Or any of the hundreds if not thousands sentient magical creatures whose communing habits were well documented? She turned the page, a torn piece of yellowing parchment falling out between the pages. The muggleborn recognised the handwriting in playful green ink that still had enough magic in it to cheekily change through various shades of bright green.
“Is Sirius coming to the Fortress this summer or is he off with the Potters again? We do miss him, especially Bella. By the way, mother says we’re to start learning how to waltz over the holidays. She’s employed a Russian warlock to keep residence over the summer to ensure we’re taught ‘the correct postures’ - you know how she is about these things. Thought you should have a copy of this book; the chapter on waltzing is… edifying, at the very least. You might also like to have a flick through the rest, give mama a run for her money.”
Hermione furrowed her eyebrows, the idea of Bellatrix Lestrange missing Sirius sat uncomfortably with her. Not to mention how different Narcissa sounded, or, well… read. She had grown to expect a certain level of crypticness from the older witch and it was certainly lacking here. For lack of a better idea she flipped over to the chapter on waltzing.
The book’s pages easily gave way to the chapter where sooty fingers had marred the white paper and stuffed a little letter between a moving etching that showed people dancing and the introduction for ‘Chapter 8: Accomplishments’. Hermione’s eyes wandered to the text.
“…But to the waltz, which poets have praised and preachers denounced. The French, with all their love of dancing, waltz atrociously, the English but little better; the Germans and Russians alone understand it. I could rave through three pages about the innocent enjoyment of a good waltz, its grace and beauty, but I will be practical instead, and give you a few hints on the subject…”
The young witch rubbed her eyes as she remembered all those pictures of Narcissa dancing to soundless music in the pages of Tattler. Even with eyes closed she could see the pureblood swirling in those lavish ballrooms, smiling for the cameras, one hand resting on a faceless man’s shoulder, the other entwined in his hand.
“…The position is the most important point. The witch and wizard before starting should stand exactly opposite to one another, quite upright, and not, as is so common in England, painfully close to one another…”
Common indeed, Hermione thought sarcastically to herself, her mind naturally bringing her back to that picture of Narcissa and McLaggen spinning on the dance floor until he slowed for a moment, whispered something to her and leaned in to kiss her. Of course he got to kiss her in front of the whole British press, she thought with unrepentant bitterness. Hermione opened the envelope to find a muggle photograph and small note. The books pages folded closed.
“Regulus Arcturus Black! I know you took that picture! The flash completely gave you away! You better burn it or so help me I will curse you into next week! Mama would kill me if she ever saw it. Especially after what happened with Dro. I swear it was Lucius’ idea anyway!”
Hermione picked up the picture and saw a startlingly young looking Narcissa, holding herself up against a wall, her head just turned to the camera, showing smudged makeup and a crumpled evening gown. What shocked Hermione, however, wasn’t the despondent expression or the photographic proof of Narcissa’s teenage indiscretions, but the muggle cigarette dangling expertly between her lips; captured with a muggle camera no less.
Hermione had no idea what to make of it. Half of her found it ironic that the picture had been squished between ten kilos of etiquette books, while the other half wondered if Narcissa knew that Regulus had kept the picture. Who else had seen the photo, for that matter? Or had it simply managed to stay hidden all these decades in Regulus’ second edition of ‘A Modern Mistress’ Guide to Manners’? Regulus… Hermione wondered what Narcissa would have been like had Regulus not died. Then she pondered what would’ve happened to her had the dark lord never entered her life… Had she not been wedded to Lucius… Had she not been born into that family. Had- Hermione stopped herself. What a pointless train of thought. She knew the answer to those questions: she wouldn’t be Narcissa.
Tucking the picture and letter back into the envelope, Hermione opened the book again on a random page and began to read once more: “…No rank, no wealth, no celebrity will induce a well-bred English lady to admit to her drawing-room a man or woman whose character is known to be bad. Society is a severe censor, pitiless and remorseless. The witch who has once fallen, the wizard who has once lost his honour, may repent for years; good society shuts its doors on them once and for ever.”
Hermione sighed sadly. The last two sentences had been underlined with bright red ink, and Narcissa had written a note to Regulus in her careful script on the margin. “Wonder how we haven’t been shunned?”
She kept reading.
“…Society itself is the court in which are judged those many offences which the law cannot reach, and this inclemency of the world, this exile for life which it pronounces, must be regarded as the only deterrent against certain sins… Often is it given without a fair trail, on the report of a slanderer; often it falls upon the wrong head; often it proves its injustice in ignoring the vices of one and fulminating against those of another; often, by its implacability, drives the offender to despair, and makes the one false step lead to the ruin of a life…”
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, each damning word the book hurled at her made her think of another burnt face on the tapestry in the room below her, and her heart learned there was no limit to its aching. She flicked the pages.
“…we are not, we English, a nation of talkers; naturally our talent is for silence…”
The muggleborn bit her lip, trying not to recall the content and familiar quiet they had shared together in the Fortress’ library. A few split seconds later and Hermione was desperately flicking the pages again as she tried in vain to block out the memory of the cold, pointed silence that filled the gaps between their polite exchanges in public.
“…when asked of something, if you do not intend to do so, refuse so more decidedly that you cannot be compelled; but the more decided the refusal, the gentler should the manner be. There is a style of saying ‘No’ that never offends…”
Again the cheeky notes in red ink cut in the text - “this man has clearly never met your mother, has he Reg?”
Hermione had had enough. Reading Narcissa’s cheerfully innocent notes was making her feel slightly sick. She closed the book and placed it next to her cold tea.
After a moments hesitation she opened the book again and pulled out the picture of Narcissa. The pureblood couldn’t have been any older than sixteen but she looked tired, perhaps even drunk. That cigarette certainly didn’t look like her first. Maybe their lives weren’t so dissimilar. Hermione knew all too well that a pedestal was as much a prison as any small, confined place; maybe that was why she looked so tired in the picture, she pondered… everyone needed to have the illusion that they were making their own choices.
Hermione’s mind wondered back to her own childhood. Back to those patchy images and distant voices… those scenes from now-hazy memories. But try as she might to revive them, the muggle world had lost its former clarity. Perhaps she too no longer existed for the muggle world. It was gone, cast off. She was probably as surprised to have come out of the muggle world as it was surprised to have spawned her. Hermione’s fingers traced the rim of her mug, magic humming through her skin and into the ceramic as her tea was warmed and she looked earnestly at the picture. To live like this, with magic like this, you had to forget everything that came before. How else could she have managed to survive?
She put the photo down. That was not to say she had disowned her muggle roots. Her predicaments with the old ways were a stark reminder of where she came from; of where she was proud to come from. It was just that… life gave priority to the living. The departed - their shadows, their silhouettes, their voices, scents and memories - slowly but eventually began to dwindle and recede. Humans, for their part, were hardly the most loyal of beings, especially when it came to the past. So, she concluded, she was dead to her parents, for being dead was tantamount to never have been born. She could live with that.
Hermione sighed and picked up the old colourful book and in a last ditch effort to gain some more insight into the pureblood’s world, she flicked the annotated pages until the spine of the book naturally gave way to page 178. Ah… the chapter on fish. Hermione sighed, it was probably best she read it - more information was good information. Might even come in handy for that fancy conference she was going to in the evening to talk about the anthology.
“…it is essential to instruct your house elf that fish is cut with a large flat silver knife or fish-slice, never with a common one. Of small fish, the elf must send one to each person. All the larger flat fish, such as turbot, John Dorey, brills, &c., must be first cut from head to tail down the middle…”
Hermione could not stop looking at the still picture of Narcissa. Although the act captured was drunkenly defiant, her shoulders carried an angry resignation. The dichotomy made Narcissa look like she was suffering from vertigo. Hermione had seen this expression on Narcissa far too many times. It was as if the older witch was forcing stillness in herself, despite knowing that it would not stop the world from moving on. If Hermione had learnt one thing about the pureblood, it was that Narcissa’s goal in life was ‘something higher’. Vague as the sentiment was, it made sense that if someone’s goal was ‘something higher’ they would suffer vertigo. As Hermione observed the picture of Narcissa inhaling grey smoke into her lungs despite knowing she’d be cursed if she got caught, it occurred to Hermione that the vertigo Narcissa suffered was not the fear of falling. Rather, it was the voice of emptiness below her, tempting her and luring her. It was the desire to fall, against which, terrified, the pureblood held on to protocols and etiquette books to defend herself.
She realised that in many ways she was asking Narcissa to jump, to which Narcissa knew only to react with resistance. Narcissa would chalk every invitation to her being reckless and careless; it wouldn’t matter that Hermione had her reasons, her passions.
The muggleborn sighed, forcing her attention back to the chapter on fish, “…and then in portions from this cut to the fin, which being considered the best part, is helped with the rest…”
Hermione turned the page, her attention drawn to a sentence that had been circled in the red ink. “We shall never know where Prometheus’ Palace is, but we should all know how to open an oyster with grace.” Hermione’s heart started beating as she read Narcissa’s commentary: “Do we get bonus marks for knowing both things?”
Well, Hermione thought… wasn’t that interesting?
Still half asleep, Narcissa tried figuring out whose bed she was in. Innocence insisted she was in Hogwarts - tucked into her four poster bed with those green cotton sheets her friends hated because they weren’t silk.
But no… the bedding was far too smooth for that.
With a flutter of disappointment that tinted her hazy dreams, she let instinct take the next guess. Instinct argued that if she remained in bed, she would be awoken by the sound of her sisters’ laughter and a gush of cold wind as they opened her window and let the crisp sea air into the room.
Narcissa burrowed herself deeper into her bed, preparing for the assault but the room remained silent.
Habit reminded her of Lucius. Of Malfoy Manor. Of black and gold wallpaper. Of ebony floors and large Georgian windows. So she stretched out her hand expecting to meet soft breathing, warmth and the smell of rich cologne.
Instead - more silk.
It was reason’s turn to intervene. Reluctantly, Narcissa let the last tendrils of sleep slip away as she opened her eyes and looked around the room. Of course. She was in one of the guest bedrooms of Malfoy Manor. “Coffee,” she demanded of the empty room, her voice muffled by the pillow under her cheek. “Where’s my damned coffee?”
Waking up in Malfoy Manor always put her in a bad mood. How she had let Astoria convince her to stay with her and Draco for a few weeks was beyond her. She sat up, her scowl intensifying for every second the coffee didn’t appear on her bedside table. Why hadn’t she brought Limpy with her?
“Coffee,” she repeated, and at last a porcelain cup appeared on her bedside table. With a dignified huff she took a sip of the black brew and stretched her back.
This was the first time she’d slept over at the Manor since Lucius had died and she had returned to the Fortress. This house was Draco’s birthright, and she was more than happy to step back for him to start fresh with it. Lucius’ death day had been an exhausting day, Narcissa thought with a sigh. He had been distraught throughout, almost as if he had known that death was finally coming for him. He had roamed around the Manor one last time, stroking and petting the furniture - the vases, the chairs, the mirrors, cupboards and cabinets, everything - weeping the whole time as though he was apologising to them. She had seen her own mother go through the same strange ritual before her death and knew it was best to let the moribund get on with it.
“What will they do when I’m gone?” Her mother had kept asking herself as she stroked the piano.
“They’re just things, Mama. Please come back to bed. They can’t feel anything,” Narcissa had tried reasoning.
“That’s what you think, young lady. These furnishings and belongings have been far more my family to me than many of my so called relatives. At least they’ve stayed with me, something my own daughters didn’t do. How can they be without feeling? If you listen, you’ll hear them. They’re all crying because I’m leaving. If you can’t hear them, then that’s your concern, not mine.”
Narcissa had quietly walked away, trying not to think about how her mother would rather spend her last few hours with the furniture than with her. Her mother was right about something though, Andy and Bella had abandoned their mother in their own way; and the loss had been so great for Druella she no longer noticed that her youngest daughter had stayed.
As Narcissa tightened her dress and straightened the picture of the 1932 Slytherin Quidditch team that hanged in the guest bedroom, she pondered that maybe the furnishings in these old houses really did talk. After all, they were the ones she opened up to when things got out of hand with Lucius. They were the ones with whom she had shared her pain, her grief and her rage; they were the ones who listened patiently and were witness to her helplessness: The opulent staircase, the embroidered curtains, the dressing table with the drawer that stuck, the small bookcase on the second floor, the flowers in the vases; everything that had made the Manor her home had felt the same anger she did, cried like she did, cursed their fate like she did. Likewise, on the rare occasions when she was able to withstand the terror of the Dark Lord’s residency and Lucius’ torments, then that too, was due to the Manor and everything within it.
Narcissa stepped out of her temporary accommodation and into the long corridor, trying, as she did, to suppress the ugly feeling of disapproval she felt every time she surveyed the current state of Malfoy Manor. Astoria had redecorated, and to lime green no less.
The portraits looked considerably disgruntled themselves, and as she passed them, a few called out to her demanding she put a stop to their current mistress’ nonsense. Oh, Astoria was a good girl, and she had the best intentions at heart, if not perhaps the best tastes. But she was good for Draco and this was no longer her household.
Narcissa made her way to the dining room and sat opposite to a beaming Astoria.
“Good morning,” Narcissa said politely.
Draco smiled at his mother. “Morning.”
“Good morning,” Astoria joined in brightly.
The food appeared on the table, but before Narcissa had even time to reach for the cherries Astoria finally burst out what was on her mind. “So what do you think, Cissy?”
“…I do beg your pardon?”
“The redecoration! What do you think? I oversaw it all myself!”
Narcissa smiled gracefully at the younger girl. “It’s lovely, dear.”
“She’s been so worried about it,” Draco said with a small humorous smile that he shared with his mother.
“You needn’t have,” Narcissa reassured her gently. “That shade of green, in particular, is… quite a revelation.”
Draco coughed lightly, trying to disguise a laugh.
“Tell me, Draco - were you part of this renovation?” Narcissa asked tartly, catching her sons eyes and showing him her amused disapproval.
The young man blushed. “Not quite, mother. Astoria wanted to keep it a surprise - even from me.”
Astoria observed the light humour her husband and mother-in-law were exchanging and smiled to herself. Of course she knew the green was outrageous, especially under Abraxas’ portrait, but those two needed something good to laugh about, especially after the ball last week.
The young witch could remember the exact moment during the commemoration that she had realised something very wrong had happened. While most of the invitees were up on the dance floor jumping up and down to the Weird Sisters (how Cissy had managed to book them was still beyond her), Draco had been talking contently with Blaise Zabini, his hand resting on her thigh. Her dark green eyes trailed onto the other person who remained on their table - Cissy herself. That night her mother-in-law had been dripping in despondence, a despondence which, in all fairness, only seemed to complement her ruby red dress.
The young witch had taken a sip of her white wine and wondered what possibly could’ve been bothering Cissy. Was it those crates of elvish wine that never came? No, if she had learnt anything about Cissy, it was that she didn’t tend to pay heed to such trivialities. Maybe it was just the anniversary they were celebrating. Astoria herself still remembered the battle of Hogwarts with a shiver running down her spine. Most of the details from the day were hidden behind a blur of tears, but there was one image that had stayed imprinted on her mind with a painstakingly precise clarity: Narcissa and Lucius, wandless, running between duels screaming Draco’s name.
There had been something in the older witch’s demeanour that reminded her of that day. The young witch had carried on discreetly looking at Narcissa, until with surprise she understood why that scene kept coming to her mind every time her eyes landed on her mother-in-law. Once again Cissy looked like she had lost something and was desperately searching for it in the crowd of the Great Hall. What had Cissy lost this time? Astoria wondered with confusion.
That night Astoria had resolved to invite the older witch to their home where she could keep an eye on her. Make sure she was okay. Not that she would ever dare confess any of this to Draco, let alone Narcissa. Her mother-in-law struck her as the sort of woman who stood right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. She made them so that others wouldn’t have to, so that others could pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, that things just happened. She never said what she did, and she never asked for anything in return. But everyone needed to be taken care of every once in a while, even Narcissa Black; so she had painted the walls of Malfoy Manor lime green.
“So, Cissy, what’s your next project going to be?” Astoria asked politely. “It’s always so exciting to hear what you’re up to.”
Narcissa faltered for a second as her heart contracted with shame and she was caught frozen with her wrist in mid air as she held duck pâté on a silver knife. But the shock was short lived. She lowered the knife and smiled at the eager girl. “I’m taking a holiday of sorts,” she said at last. “Although, I do have some commitments that would… take precedence over everything if they were to resume.”
Draco looked curiously at his mother, recognising the distant smile she only wore when trying to disguise some disappointment. “What happened to that research project you were working on?” He asked casually.
Narcissa’s smile tightened. “I made a mistake of sorts.”
Draco nodded and stared into the contents of his pumpkin juice as he put together his mother’s pained admission of guilt and Hermione’s disappointed surrender. How curious. “What a shame,” Draco finally commented. “I know how important it was for all parties involved. Are you sure it’s over, mother?”
Narcissa’s eyes darted to her son, warning him not to tread further on the subject. “It’s probably for the best, Draco,” she said evenly. Her nails dug into the palm of her hand as she calmly continued, “before anyone gets hurt.” Narcissa took a large gulp of her demi-sec to wash out the bitter taste the words left in her mouth. How she missed that stubborn girl.
She missed the laughter, the self-righteous crusades, the science, their little squabbles.
“Science will explain everything one day,” Hermione would mumble with her nose stuck between two pages.
“How very muggle of you,” Narcissa would reply tartly, not daring to look up from her book.
Then it would be Hermione’s turn to straighten up and look up at Narcissa with playful incredulousness. “I beg your pardon?”
This was Narcissa’s cue to roll her eyes and face Hermione, “This… science of yours, it’s all about the objective and verifiable, am I correct?” Hermione would nod, slumping in her chair as she listened to the pureblood contently. “However, our experience of the world - what it is like to live and to breath, and to love and to hate - consciousness; all this, is ineradicably subjective. If scientific explanations are always objective, it would be a fool’s quest to search for a complete, objective scientific explanation of a subjective world.” These little speeches always had a knack for earning her a beaming smile from the younger witch-
Narcissa snapped back to the present. “I’m sorry, Astoria - I didn’t quite catch that?”
“I was just wondering if you’d like to go to a botanical garden show with me today? I hear the Snargaluff’s have just bloomed.”
Narcissa smiled again at her daughter-in-law. “I would love to.”
“Draco?” Astoria cooed at her husband.
The young man rolled his eyes indulgently. “If you insist.”
“Excellent! We should head out in about half an hour!” Astoria exclaimed enthusiastically.
Both mother and son shared an indulgent smile, knowing neither would ever have the heart to say ‘no’ to any of Astoria’s requests.
Chapter 19: Confrontations
Hermione looked at the clock that hung on the bannister of Flourish and Blotts and sighed in relief as she noticed there were only twenty minutes left before her book signing was over. The main bulk of the crowd had dissipated but a number of people were still trickling in for a chance to get her latest best seller signed.
The young witch played with the cuff of her cerulean jumper and wondered how Narcissa could put up with so many flashing cameras and being the focus of such undivided attention from the general public. Between the constant smiling and hand shaking it had only taken two hours before she felt exhaustion creeping into her bones. Her left hand was especially sore and she was counting down the minutes before she could go home and take her potions. She gently rubbed her stiff wrist trying to imitate the patterns Narcissa would press into her skin to relieve the tense muscles that were contracted painfully up her arm.
A book was slid on the table before her.
“Who should I make it to?” She asked politely looking up as she pulled the sleeve of her jumper back down.
“Wilkins!” The middle aged wizard said excitedly. “I’m such a fan, Miss Granger!”
“Thank you, Mr Wilkins.”
“I especially loved chapter 2 - the arithmetic for those healing spells - an absolute beauty!”
“Yes, it took a while to crack them,” Hermione said smiling as she signed the book and remembered how smug Narcissa had been at completing the algorithms before her.
“Would you two like a picture?” Asked the photographer who had stood vigilant all afternoon beside her. “It’s two sickles a photograph.”
Wilkins looked at Hermione like his dream had come true. “Only if you don’t mind, Miss Granger.”
“Not at all.”
Hermione stood up and placed her arm around the happy wizard and let the flash burst out on them.
“Thank you so much, Miss Granger!” Mr Wilkins insisted as he shook her hand.
Hermione sat back down on the wooden chair, closing her eyes for a moment and remembered the horrid nightmare she’d had to wake Harry from last night. His desperate screaming could be heard from the other side of the corridor and it had taken magic to wake him from his slumber. Hermione wondered if the boy would let her give him a proper health check and she started to formulate the way she would bring the touchy subject up until she heard the sound of a book being placed gently on the table.
“Who should I make it to?” She asked automatically.
“Narcissa Black, if you please.” A smooth, drawled out voice called out to her.
Hermione’s eyes jumped up and she smiled widely. Oh, the older witch was a sight for sore eyes. One hasty look over at the green tight bodice dress Narcissa was wearing and Hermione’s appreciation for fashion was revolutionised. The delicate golden embroidery that had been stitched all along the torso made Hermione think of double entendres and ironies she’d never have the time to fully interpret.
“Only if you sign me one,” she managed at last.
Narcissa shook her head in amusement. “If you insist.”
“I do,” Hermione replied daringly, passing Narcissa a book from the little pile she had next to her.
The pureblood kept her eyes trained on the muggleborn, trying to soak in every clue available. She noticed the crumpled sleeve of her pretty blue jumper… perhaps she was in pain. She looked tired. Was she taking her potions? It was a lovely little dress Hermione was wearing, and Narcissa wondered what the texture of the cream coloured dress would feel like if she touched it. Batting her concerns away, she inked her quill and considered what to write.
She closed the book and exchanged copies with Hermione. Narcissa opened the cover curiously and felt a tug. “I miss you too,” Narcissa said quietly, mindful of the photographer.
“Then let me take you out for coffee; the Ritz is just around the corner,” Hermione said as casually as she could. Narcissa sighed, and Hermione already knew she was formulating all the reasons why they probably shouldn’t so she cut in before Narcissa could say no. “Well, maybe not just around the corner, but it is a lovely afternoon for a walk and I could kill a man for a snack.”
Narcissa’s resolve cracked and she smiled in defeat. “Well, that would be terrible manners; couldn’t have that, now could we?”
Hermione joined in the comfortable laughter. “No, no we couldn’t.”
“Would you two like a picture?” The photographer asked with a bored sigh. “It’s two sickles a photograph.”
“Miss Black would love a picture. In fact, I’ll have one too, please,” Hermione said cheekily. The muggleborn rose from the chair and stretched, her smile lingering as she noticed the way the Slytherin’s gaze quickly slid over her body. Walking around the table, she put her arm around Narcissa’s waist, waiting for the man to set up the camera and leaving Narcissa no option but to stand still as she felt the soft weight of Hermione’s hand resting just above her hip and the light pressure of the younger witch’s body leaning onto her side.
“It’ll just be a moment - I need a new film,” the wizard said gruffly, turning around to find his bag of equipment.
“You know you should be signing these books with me,” Hermione said quietly, not releasing her grip of the older witch’s waist.
“Your handwriting is better than mine,” Narcissa replied tartly, keenly aware of the heat that was traveling through the thin layer of satin onto her skin from the Gryffindor’s hand.
“Bollocks,” the muggleborn shot back playfully catching the older witches eyes. Their gazes held, and Narcissa experienced a strange shock of awareness that went from her head to her toes.
“If you could look at the camera now,” the wizard called out to them.
Hermione’s hand slightly increased the pressure against Narcissa’s waist and she smiled fondly at the flashing camera. The muggleborn then handed the wizard the silver coins in exchange for the pictures, leaving Narcissa’s waist feeling desolate at the loss of contact.
“So - the Ritz?” Hermione asked as she handed the pureblood a copy of the photo.
Narcissa smiled indulgently as she nodded. “I’ll meet you outside of the Leaky Cauldron when you’re done here - on the muggle side.”
“Okay,” she confirmed, “on the muggle side in twenty minutes.”
The muggleborn sat back in her chair and watched as Narcissa gracefully made her way out of shop without once looking back. Hermione rubbed her eyes as she supposed that the pedants were right: love did not hurt so good… it hurt so well. Another book was plopped on her table.
“Who should I make it to?” She asked, breaking out of her revery.
“Miss Trusted, please,” a middle aged witch said happily.
“With pleasure, Miss Trusted,” Hermione mumbled, dipping her quill in the ink pot.
“Would you like a picture? It’s two sickles a photograph.”
“I would love one!” The witch responded.
Hermione bit back a sigh. These twenty minutes were going to be a pain.
Perplexing. Almost disconcerting. Certainly astounding. Watching Narcissa Black casually walk through the streets of muggle London in the evening light was most definitely an overload for the senses. Hermione couldn’t quite pin what it was - maybe it was the click of the pureblood’s obscenely expensive heels on the grubby cement of Trafalgar Square; or maybe it was her innate aristocratic confidence that made Nelson, First Viscount of Nelson, First Duke of Bronté, look plebeian compared to the proud upright posture that Narcissa maintained in her stride. The tourists themselves naturally made way for her as if they could sense they were brushing with someone larger than life, although Hermione suspected the real reason might’ve been some muggle-repelling charms woven into the fabric of Narcissa’s dress. Such discreet magic would definitely explain why the pureblood seemed comfortable enough walking through the masses that had congregated in central London.
Narcissa was eyeing the muggles curiously, taking in their dress and habits with polite detachment. Occasionally a small smile would tug at her lips when she saw an exceptional display of tailoring in the windows of the small boutiques that dotted about. Hermione’s quiet company was soothing in the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounded them. It must’ve been her happy energy that was making her feel so revived. It had worn off Narcissa over the past few weeks, and her tolerance had dipped. Now, a few minutes in Hermione’s presence made her feel positively jubilant.
“I… I like this muggle fashion,” Narcissa said almost tentatively as she nodded towards a Dior boutique that had an elaborate display of the most recent season of haute couture.
“You’ve never seen muggle high end fashion before?” Hermione asked curiously.
The pureblood blushed pink. “Mama and Papa never allowed… and when I go to the Ritz I usually just apparate into Green Park. Never had much reason to have a look…” She trailed off.
“We could go have a look round Mayfair one of these days,” Hermione suggested lightly. “I think that’s where most of the really fancy stuff is. Savile Row is supposed to be legendary,” she added with a bright smile.
Narcissa considered the offer. Go muggle window shopping with a muggleborn. Her family were probably rolling in their crypt. Plus an evening with Hermione. In the open. “I would quite like that,” she concluded with a satisfied smile.
Hermione bit her lip and gathered her courage. “So does this mean that your period of pretending I don’t exist is officially over?”
Narcissa tried not to wince. “I’ve never done such a thing.”
“Oh really?” She asked sarcastically as they crossed the street.
“I just thought a little distance would do us both good. Clear our heads,” Narcissa said aloofly as the flashy entrance of the restaurant came into their view. Don’t think about the kiss. Don’t think about the kiss. Narcissa drilled in her head. Don’t think about the kiss. Don’t think about kissing her. Don’t think about requesting a private parlour room and kissing her there. Just don’t think about kissing. Kissing. Just stop it. “Ah! We made it.”
Hermione rolled her eyes but couldn’t stop herself from smiling as she remembered the first time she had come to the restaurant with the pureblood. Between the nerves and the chandeliers and the unmoving ceiling mural, Hermione had missed what it was like to observe Narcissa walking in the opulent corridors. The ease with which she slid her travelling coat off and handed it nonchalantly to the waiter made her look like everywhere was home.
“I’m glad we came,” Narcissa said sincerely as they arrived at their table. She had certainly not planned her day to turn out like this. She’d had some errands to run in Diagon Alley when she passed the bookshop and saw Hermione smiling politely to a little wizard in green robes. And just like that, in a momentary lapse of reason, she went in, knowing all the while she was foiling her own plan to cut Hermione loose to be free from her. Narcissa blamed it all on gravity. Who could resist Hermione’s pull, relentless like the planets’ orbits. Objectively, it was all Andromeda’s fault. Her inability to keep secrets had led them on their collision course. In a rare moment of honesty she would be able to confess she was grateful for their path; had they never re-encountered, she would’ve probably unwittingly missed her. As if in Narcissa’s life someone would be lacking. Less. Maybe they could pretend the kiss had never happened. Spare themselves the awkwardness and embarrassment of having to delve into all the reasons they couldn’t be together. Just go back to their comfortable lull in their comfortable world of the Fortress, far far away from the maddening crowds.
“How’ve you been, Narcissa?” Hermione asked earnestly, momentarily disarming the older witch.
“Same old, same old,” Narcissa said with a small smile, pouring milk into her tea. “I think Astoria’s made it her mission to keep me company every waking moment of the day.”
“How is she?”
“She has too much spare time in her hands, if you ask me,” she answered lightheartedly. “Practically had to sneak out today for some time alone, although goodness knows her heart’s in the right place. Don’t know what Draco’d do without her.”
“Draco does seem completely smitten.”
“That’s putting it lightly,” Narcissa said with a satisfied little smile. “How’s Mr Potter?”
Hermione’s own smile faltered. “Same old as well, unfortunately. Keeps waking me up with his night terrors but refuses to let me give him a check up. It’s so typical of him. I saw Ronald the other day and he kept rubbing his chest where one of the horcrux’s was, but he just refused to acknowledge anything. Those boys are so stubborn.” The Gryffindor sighed and took a sip of her tea. “I really must stop calling them boys,” she added as an afterthought. “But I suppose it’s appropriate considering they still act like children sometimes. You should’ve seen what they did last week! - bashed a bludger into Mrs. Black’s portrait playing Quidditch indoors. Old hag didn’t stop screaming for a week, even when her curtains were drawn. And for Merlin’s sake! Do you know they have weekly Bertie Botts competitions? They have a chart and everything where they keep scores of how many beans they can eat in a row before one of them gags… sorry, I’m rambling.”
“Don’t apologise,” Narcissa said waving her off cheerfully. “Always happy to hear of Auntie Walburga being bashed with a bludger. Mother would’ve been ecstatic.” Her face softened. “And… they’ll always be your boys. Mainly because they’ll never grow up. Trust me on that one.”
Narcissa snickered. “Even Draco. Silly boy thought that an appropriate anniversary gift would be a season pass to the European Quidditch Premier. Poor woman got dragged around Europe every weekend for three months until she broke down and told him she hates the sport and could not bear the thought of watching another game in her life.”
“Ouch!” Hermione groaned sympathetically.
“I know. Can’t believe she lasted that long. And Draco’s still convinced it wasn’t that bad of an idea.” The pureblood sipped her tea. “But tell me, how have you been?” She asked, observing how Hermione was looking around the table as if trying to find within the silverware something to defend herself with from the loaded question.
“Better now,” she finally answered. Better now. Better now that what? Hermione asked herself exasperatedly. She glanced at Narcissa, aware she was being studied by the older witch. What a mistake it had been on the pureblood’s behalf to take that kiss back, Hermione pondered; for yes, it was fashionable to say that all mistakes in a relationship were made by both parties, but that simply wasn’t always true. One person could easily kill the other. And still, she was better now; now that the Slytherin was back - a fact that irritated Hermione even further.
“I know you feel betrayed,” Narcissa said quietly, as if reading her mind.
“Yes, that’s a side effect of betrayal,” Hermione snapped back.
Narcissa did not retaliate, only slumped a little in her chair as if straining under the weight of all the lives she was not living and stared at the muggleborn with dogged resignation. Hermione took a deep breath and ran her hand through her hair, watching the smart waiters quickly navigating between the tables and the muggles they served carrying out their business around them. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, you know - your reasons - or, at least what I understand your reasons to be, and I admit, there is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable?” Hermione paused, and then added, more for herself than Narcissa. “The Greeks lived in peace in the cave of Cyclops awaiting their turn to be devoured…”
“You still don’t understand, Hermione,” Narcissa said colder than she had expected. She gestured to a waiter to bring her something stronger. “You have no idea what I’ve done. Who I am. Goodness knows that when I peer into the secret places of my heart what I see there makes me faint with horror.”
Hermione reached out her hand over the pristinely white table cloth but stopped herself before she touched Narcissa’s hand. “Tell me every terrible thing you ever did, Narcissa… and let me love you anyway.”
Narcissa froze with her auburn drink held daintily in her right hand. “Oh…” The gasp had escaped her lips before she could stifle them but Hermione’s words had coiled and contracted around her chest and Narcissa knew this was caught in the midst of a slow, heavy death that in retrospect was absolutely inevitable. She drained the glass in one go. The shot of alcohol snapped her back to her sense and she remembered where she was.
“This is not a conversation we should be having in public,” she drawled out. Narcissa stood up and threw the first bunch of muggle notes she found in her pocket. Noticing the denominations the waiter hastened to bring her coat while Hermione blinked away her disorientation. Narcissa took her hand and wordlessly guided her out of the restaurant, swiftly making way to the park where she disapparated them as soon as she found a discrete tree to hide behind.
A second later and Hermione’s senses were engulfed with grey - the sea, the sky, even the sand at her feet seemed drowned in the drab colour. Narcissa ignored the cold wind and the even colder water that the sea sprayed on them as they rushed down the pier to the Fortress. She finally dropped Hermione’s hand when she slammed open the black door and a fire immediately erupted in the fireplace.
Still mute, Narcissa paced up to one of the portraits of her relatives and stared at it imploringly before moving on to the next, and the next, and the next… Hermione was beginning to understand that there were houses with such a sense of the personalities that built them, an all-pervading smell of the lives lived there, that both visitor and current inhabitant would always feel like a cross between a burglar and a ghost, spying on a private place with old secrets.
“No,” Narcissa finally managed. “I will not let you ruin yourself for me. No,” She stated perfunctorily, refusing to meet what was surely the younger woman’s disappointed gaze. But Hermione threw her arms up in the air, not bothering to mask her fury.
“It is not your place to protect my honour or my reputation or whatever the hell it is you think you’re protecting!” Hermione seethed. “You have no right whatsoever to take this choice away from me!” Hermione took a deep breath, hoping that the cackle of magic that was fuelling the roaring fire did not get out of hand. “Contrary to what you’ve let yourself believe I do understand that I love you against reason. Against hope! Against even happiness!” The younger witch moved in front of Narcissa so that she was only a step away from the pureblood. “And yet I love you, Narcissa Black. I love you and the wizarding world be damned. I love you and I would not have it any other way.”
Without thinking Hermione shoved Narcissa against the closed grand piano and kissed her roughly. Narcissa responded, fuelling the kiss with intense need, her hands greedily exploring the contours of Hermione’s ribcage that her white dress kept hidden from her. Hermione’s lips travelled towards her neck where she bit softly, earning a whimper. Narcissa languished in the fission of sensation. It didn’t matter what happened next. Hermione deepened the kiss and felt a tremor, had she just made Narcissa shiver? The Gryffindor was convinced that the pureblood’s soft pale skin was the worlds true source of gravity, pulling every part of her in. Colliding. Crashing into one another. Narcissa grasped Hermione’s hips to steady herself. It was like the pureblood had never kissed anyone else ever before her, all others a timid practice compared to this.
“I have always loved everything about you,” Hermione whispered into the crook of Narcissa’s neck. “Even what I didn’t understand.” She peeled off Narcissa’s soaked jacket shamelessly throwing it on the floor. “And I have always known that, at heart, I would have you no different.” Hermione kissed her on the lips again, deepening the kiss as she cupped the pureblood’s face. “Don’t be foolish.” She let go of Narcissa, peeling the pureblood’s hands from her waist. “Please, Cissy.”
An out of breath Narcissa watched as Hermione straightened her dress. “I should go home. Harry’s probably worried.”
And just like that the muggleborn strode out unapologetically of the Fortress before the pureblood could even compose herself to say the word ‘but’.
Narcissa closed her eyes and placed a trembling hand on her chest. Inhale. Exhale. She could feel her heart straining to burst free under her palm. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat the exercise. Narcissa dared not move from the support the grand piano afforded her, her legs felt so light she was sure they would not be able to bare her weight. Her whole body, in fact, was suffering from this sudden feeling of weightlessness, as if somehow the muggleborn had forgotten to return her essence to her on her abrupt departure. The little that remained of her was still burning up under the ghost of Hermione’s touch. Inhale. Exhale. Narcissa forced the breaths out of her lungs, wondering if her skin looked as torched as it felt.
“That foolish girl,” she gasped out, opening her eyes.
Narcissa took another deep breath and willed her composure to return to her. The pureblood took a tentative step and then another, shakily making her way to the cabinet that stood under the portrait of her great uncle Eridanus who was staring at her with jaw drop shock. Narcissa looked around at the other portraits of her ancestors and noticed similar expressions of trauma.
“Oh, do get over yourselves,” she drawled out scornfully, pulling out a glass from the cabinet and pouring a rich brown liquid into it. “You all know as well as I do that hysteria is unbecoming.”
She drained the glass in one go, ignoring the protestations the portraits were starting to hurl at her, and gracefully made her way back to the piano to pick up the items of clothing that had been so carelessly discarded. She kept silent as she cast drying spells on her travelling coat, even as one of the portraits started screaming “Blood-traitor!” in an ear piercing tone. That was probably Auriga Black, she thought distractedly, - the woman had such a penchant for dramatics that even two hundred years of hanging on a wall could not dampen.
Content with the state of her coat, she looked around for her gloves.
“The house of Black is doomed! DOOMED!” Screeched one of the portraits.
Had she forgotten her gloves at the restaurant? Narcissa wondered. Or had she picked them up before rushing out? Maybe she had put them back on as she had stood up from the table. She just couldn’t remember.
“Another mudblood lover! Another mudblood lover! How could our legacy end like this?!” Another portrait cried to itself.
No, she had not been wearing them on the way back - she definitely remembered feeling Hermione’s hand in her own. Those hands weren’t as soft as hers; no, Hermione had working hands, made resilient after years of war waging.
“At least your mother isn’t here to see the disgrace you’ve brought on this family,” a portrait spat.
Of course! Narcissa thought at last. The gloves were in her clutch! She strode purposely to the table where the clutch lay to confirm the location of the gloves. They were one of her favourite pairs and would have been heartbroken if she’d lost them. She put them on slowly, feeling the fur that lined them and then proceeded to reapply her rich raspberry lipstick and straighten her hair.
Content with her restoration, she tilted her head up proudly and stared down icily at the portraits for a small measure of eternity until they all quieted under her impassive gaze. Narcissa knew there was a special contempt amongst her breed of people reserved for the fallen members of their own tribe. But she had not fallen and would therefore not rise to any bait that suggested so. Expectant silence filled the room.
“Better now,” Narcissa said with a chilling smile. “For a moment there, we had almost forgotten our manners, hadn’t we?” The pureblood tucked her clutch under her arm and checked her pocket watch. She was going to be late for a little catch up with the old gang if she didn’t leave promptly. “Now, if you would all excuse me, I have engagements to attend to.”
Chapter 20: Reiteration
Hermione rested her body on the door she had just slammed, her heart fluttering with panic as she felt her temperature dropping and her muscles shivering painfully in an attempt to heat her body. She really should have brought her potions with her, she thought bitterly as her head started pounding nauseatingly in sync with the rough waves that were soaking her. The Gryffindor took a step forward, immediately regretting leaving the support the shiny black door had afforded her. She stumbled forward, regret given way to obstinacy.
The curse that had been so carefully contained in her forearm was tearing her muscles as it ripped out of its carved cage. At last Hermione’s survival instinct started to kick in and she knew she had to do something. The young witch looked around the Norfolk shore adamant she could not go back in the fortress without disappointing the woman inside. She could already see the anguish in Narcissa’s face - terror and distress unconcealed in her pretty features like the time Hermione had escaped from her in Malfoy Manor. Malfoy Manor…. Hermione knew time was running out and she had to do something but for the life of her she could not stop thinking of Malfoy Manor and how she had looked up at the weeping figure of Narcissa as Bellatrix tortured her. She never wanted to make Narcissa cry like she had seen her cry in Malfoy Manor.
Malfoy Manor… with all the crying and the screaming and the curses and then… of course… the sea. Hermione fell on her unprotected knees and concentrated as hard as she could.
Bill and Fleur’s… Shell Cottage… Bill and Fleur’s….
With a loud bang that was drowned by the howling of the wind Hermione’s body was hurled into pressurised spinning until she was smacked onto solid earth and her senses were once again engulfed with the smell of salty air. Hermione slowly pulled herself up and staggered up the shore to the cottage. The weathered door burst open as she fell on her knees again.
“Bordel de merde…” Fleur said gasping, feeling like she was caught in déjà vu. In an instant she pulled Hermione from the ground and half carried the girl inside. Muscle memory guided Fleur’s actions as she conjured a towel and cast a drying spell over the muggleborn’s clothes - why was she so wet?
“I’m so sorry, Cissy…” Hermione mumbled feverishly, “I’m so sorry.”
Fleur raised her eyebrow curiously as she wrapped Hermione in thick warm blankets and laid her in the bed of one of the guest bedrooms. The older witch placed her hand on the muggleborn’s forehead - she was far, far too cold. “Merde…” she whispered under her breath. Pointing her wand at the fireplace, a roaring fire erupted in an instant and she paced around the little room as she ran through all the strategies she could take against this familiar enemy. A hissing noise silenced her thoughts as she whipped around and stared at Hermione who was now openly calling for Narcissa. Fleur slowly approached Hermione’s side and uncovered her arm with her wand. The scar had reopened and she could see how the muggleborn’s blood was turning black with poison as the curse rejoiced in its hissing.
Wasting no time, Fleur sliced her hand open place it on top of the wound. She closed her eyes, summoning the protecting of all the old magic she carried in her bones. The wound screeched angrily and started burning her hand as the light in the room got brighter and brighter. Fleur bit her lip as she worked through the pain of her hand burning through the acidic fury of the curse and concentrated on conducting the light that illuminated the room into Hermione’s arm.
And then… for a instant, everything seemed to stop. Fleur could’ve almost sworn they were trapped momentarily in one of those old paintings that hung in her parents house. Not the moving wizarding ones, but one of those old baroque muggle ones by the likes of Caravaggio in which the scene was split so decisively between clarifying light and otherwise all encompassing black space.
And then the scene was over.
Reality settled back in with sobering mundanity. Hermione’s body stopped shivering and the unearthly hissing had abated.
Fleur dropped, exhausted, into the armchair next to the fireplace and wiped her forehead that had beads of sweat trickling down her brow. She placed her wand on the little table next to her and looked at Hermione curiously - what was she to do with her? The young witch was sleeping peacefully now, her calls for the pureblood abated temporarily.
With a sigh Fleur pushed herself off the chair and took a pinch of floo powder and threw it into the fireplace. She hesitated for a second, wondering if she was overstepping. Rolling her eyes at herself she stuck her head in the fireplace decisively before she realised she had no idea which address she needed to call out.
“Malfoy Manor?” She requested hesitantly.
A lime green drawing room came into Fleur’s view before a strikingly elegant woman in tailored tweed kneeled curiously by the fireplace.
“How may I help you?” The woman asked politely with a heavily clipped accent.
“I am looking for Narcissa Black,” she responded with urgency, her own French accent exacerbated by panic.
“You’re Fleur Delacour, aren’t you?” The young woman exclaimed with a satisfied smile at having identified the stranger in her fireplace. “I never knew Cissy was a friend of yours!”
“Oui, oui, do ‘ou know where she is?” Fleur snapped exasperatedly.
“Now that you mention it, I have no idea. She went out earlier today and I haven’t seen her since. Whatever is the matter, Miss Delacour?”
“There ‘as been an emergency and it is imperative to find Miss Black,” Fleur said hastily. “Can you just get her? Tell her it is concerning a Miss Granger.” The younger woman’s jaw dropped open as if some sort of puzzle had just become clear to her, but before she had time to inquire, Fleur repeated herself in as commanding voice she could muster. “Woman, this is an emergenceé! Can you just get ‘er?”
“Of course! Of course!” The young witch said patting herself down in search of her wand; once retrieved she settled comfortably, a large sappy smile appearing on her face as she cast her spell. “Expecto patronum!” A ghostly grebe appeared in front of her, “Cissy, Miss Delacour has just popped in my fireplace to tell me there’s been some sort of emergency with Hermione Granger. Do please go to…” the pureblood looked at Fleur expectantly.
“Shell Cottage immediately.”
The grebe extended its large silvery wings and took off in flight.
“I’m Astoria Malfoy, by the way,” the young witch said soothingly.
“Enchanté,” Fleur replied awkwardly.
“I think I saw you at the War Commemoration ball, didn’t I?”
“I met Hermione there, green really suits her.”
“No doubt. Er… it ‘as been a pleasure, Madame Malfoy, but I must get back.”
“Of course, of course,” the younger witch replied, “I’ll let you get back to it. Send Hermione my best wishes, I do hope she’s okay.”
“I will,” Fleur said sincerely. “Good day.”
“Yes, good day, Miss Delacour.”
Fleur popped back into the room slightly disoriented from the bizarre conversation she had just had with Astoria Malfoy. What had that ‘moping about’ comment been about, she wondered. The blonde went to check on Hermione but was interrupted by the door bell.
“Where is she?” Narcissa asked at Fleur’s doorstep, all pleasantries forgotten.
“That room,” Fleur said gently, pointing the pureblood in the right direction. Fleur followed Narcissa as she rushed into Hermione’s room and quietly watched the way the pureblood tenderly cupped the muggleborn’s face as she assessed how cold she was. “Silly girl, what have you done this time?” Narcissa chastised her softly before turning to face Fleur. “You performed a Veela ritual spell, didn’t you?”
“Yes. How did you-”
“Your hand gave you away.” Fleur turned pink and automatically tucked her burnt and bloodied hand in her pocket. Narcissa rolled her eyes, “Are all of Hermione’s friends as stubborn as her?” She drawled sarcastically as she pulled a blue vial from her purse. “You should soak your hand in it, it would be a shame if you scared.”
Fluer took the bright blue vial with surprise. “Thank you,” she said at last.
Narcissa nodded distractedly as she returned her full attention back to Hermione. The muggleborn was as pale as the white dress she was in, resembling a carved ivory statue. Narcissa felt something clench in her chest and she had a sudden clear and sudden understanding that she would not survive another death. She would not survive Hermione’s death - she would want to die with her.
Narcissa shook her head, clearing her mind of morbid thoughts and pulled out all the potions she would need.
“I’ll bring a cloth and a basin,” Fleur said quietly as Narcissa carefully poured the first potion into the open wound.
“Yes, thank you, Miss Delacour.” Narcissa tapped her wand on Hermione’s forearm, slowly closing the wounds.
“That is incredible magic,” Fleur said with open amazement as she passed the basin and towel to Narcissa.
“Thank you,” Narcissa replied with a tight, embarrassed smile. She dipped the towel in the warm water and softly cleaned around the raw scar.
Fleur’s astonishment grew as she came to grips with the scene in front of her. The Narcissa she had pictured in her head all these years did not seem fully in character; she was softer and gentler than she had imagined; but with her hair tied up in one of those complicated buns she had seen her wear before in the papers, she did not seem free of her character either. It was almost as if she was holding herself up with some sort of wavering reluctance towards the world at large. Fleur wondered what sort of mess those two had gotten themselves into.
Narcissa laid the basin next to the bed, having finished her ministrations. “She’s going to be okay,” she declared with a resolution so absolute it almost sounded as if she was trying to command the muggleborn back into good health.
“Yes, she is,” Fleur supplied reassuringly.
“Thank you for calling me,” Narcissa said earnestly, “I have no idea what she was think-” The pureblood stopped herself, remembering Hermione’s hands hungrily running through her hair while her lips pressed hotly against her throat. Of course - she wasn’t thinking. Neither of them were.
“She was calling for you,” Fleur said quietly, “zat was why…”
Narcissa nodded tiredly. “This is my fault. I should have noticed.”
“We can not take the credit for the foolishness of our lovers,” Fleur said gently. “‘You look like you need a drink,” she stated before the pureblood could rebuke what she had said.
“Thank you very much for the offer, Miss Delacour,” she said cordially. “But I must return to my meeting. I left rather abruptly. Could - would it be too much trouble - is it pos-“
Fleur waved her arm nonchalantly at the Slytherin. “Do not worry, Miss Black. I will keep an eye on ‘er and let you know of changes.”
“Thank you,” she said gathering her implements back in her bag. “Good day, Miss Delacour.”
Three moons later Hermione woke up feeling giddy. Exhausted, but extremely giddy; almost as if she had secretly tapped into the entire world’s source of mirth and her body was overflowing with euphoria. Her vision took a while to adjust to the darkness of the room, illuminated only by the glowing embers in the fireplace; and she realised she was in a strange bed, not at all in the clothes she remembered last wearing. Hermione felt like laughing - did this mean she had had a one night stand? How daring of her! Would Cissy be pissed? Good, she thought devilishly to herself, maybe that would finally push the right buttons. The door opened welcoming in the smell of cooking and - Merlin and his most soggy pants! She had had a one night stand with Fleur! What would Bill say? What would Cissy say? Her horror was quickly replaced with hilarity, for, she supposed, if there was anyone to have a wild one night stand with it would be Fleur Delacour; for one, Ron would be eternally jealous. Not bad, Granger. Not bad at all. That’s top notch banter right there. The muggleborn simply could not contain herself and she finally burst out laughing.
“‘Ermione…?” Fleur asked tentatively. “How are you feeling?”
Hermione giggled at the question. “Spectacular,” she said unable to hold back her laughter. “I am doing just spectacularly, Fleur. Thank you very much for asking - how attentive of you.”
Fleur approached her and put her on Hermione’s forehead. The younger witch immediately turned bright red - weren’t the nature of one night stands that they ended once the deed had been done? But then again, she thought to herself, she was dealing with the French now - there was bound to be a whole different continental protocol. Hermione giggled again as Fleur ran her hand over Hermione’s left arm to inspect it and the older witch muttered something about pain killers and side effects. Hmm… Hermione frowned - her arm was all bruised and swollen and cut up, and… kinda really hurt. In the name of science she prodded it and immediately let out a long stream of curses that made Fleur raise her eyebrow.
“Oh Merlin!” Hermione gasped. “That actually really hurt!”
“You are surprised?” Fleur asked incredulously.
The muggleborn proceeded to prod it again, laughing as pain shot up into her shoulder. “Yeah… that really, really hurts. But in a kinda funny way.”
“What in hades was in those potions?” Fleur muttered quietly to herself as she watched Hermione start roaring with laughter. “You need something to eat,” the older witch determined.
“What did you make?” Hermione asked with childish curiosity, distracted from prodding her arm.
“Bouillabaisse.” Hermione doubled over with laughter. “Er… okay,” Fleur said perplexedly, wondering if she even wanted to know what was going in her friends potion upped head. “Why…?”
“Do you remember the first conversation we ever had?” Hermione asked the French witch as she regained her breath. The older witch decided to humour her friend and narrowed eyes in concentration as she levitated some logs into the fireplace. “Was it in ze tent during the first trial - or no - maybe during the second when we were rescued?” Fleur was surprised she couldn’t actually peg their first encounter; however, in her defence, she actively tried not to think about her year in Hogwarts too much.
“Nope. Wrong.” Hermione replied, regaining some of her composure as the intensity of her ecstasy rapidly decreased. “It was during the first night you arrived at Hogwarts. Or at least somewhen around then. BUT. You came over to our table and asked us for the bouillabaisse. Get it?” She asked, and immediately all the lost jubilation returned to her body as another cascade of laughter poured out of her. “I gave you the bouillabaisse when we met, and you give me the bouillabaisse after we have an affair, - the bouillabaisse has made a full circle!” Hermione said inciting in herself another round of laughter.
“Quoi? You think we had an affair?” Fleur asked from the fireplace completely nonplussed.
“I know. I really didn’t peg myself as the type to wake up in unfamiliar beds but I guess we can never truly know ourselves. What are you going to tell Bill? What am I going to tell Narcissa?” Hermione suddenly asked with amused horror.
“Nozing, because we did not sleep with each other,” Fleur said factually, even though a smile was tugging at her lips and she was trying very hard not to laugh. Fleur studied the younger witch, carefully folding her arms as she approached the bed and passed her friend a thick jumper; her giddy slip about Narcissa had not gone unnoticed and she wanted to curse herself for not making a bet with Andy.
“Excuse me?” Hermione’s asked perplexedly. “Then why am I in your bed wearing clothes that are obviously not mine?”
Fleur smiled, quite smug over the fact she now had something over the muggleborn she would never let die down. “Come on, lover, I’ll explain it all over your infamous bouillabaisse, because for starters you are not in my bed, you are in one of the guest bedrooms…”
Fleur led them into the kitchen passing Hermione a bowl of the soup as they sat down on the heavy wooden table and Fleur summoned a bottle of wine and a glass of water. Fleur’s rustic kitchen had always had a calming effect on Hermione. She could see the sand dunes of the beach illuminated by the bright moon; the smell of the medicinal herbs Fleur grew on the windowsill had ingrained themselves in the Gryffindor’s memory as a hallmark of safety. Shell Cottage was a place to say goodbye to past misfortunes and as Hermione took a large sip of the soup, she closed her eyes in delight and realised how much she had needed to come back.
“This is amazing, Fleur; and not just because it feels like I haven’t eaten in days,” Hermione said contently as she took a piece of bread the older witch offered her.
“Zat is because you have not eaten in days,” Fleur supplied, dunking a small piece of bread in her soup. “And because Mama’s recipe really is amazing…” she added thoughtfully before enquiring, “what is the last thing zat you remember?”
Hermione faltered in her motions as she blushed to the colour of the soup, and coughed awkwardly remembering how her lips had trailed Narcissa’s neck tasting her soft skin; biting that place where her neck met her jawline and was it just her or was the room getting really hot as she recalled the way having Narcissa’s body in her hands felt-
“Interesting.” Fleur said amusedly. “Zat was also Miss Black’s reaction.”
Hermione’s head snapped back up to Fleur and she felt sobriety quickly kicking in her system. The young witch quickly downed her glass of water, hoping it would help with how hot she suddenly felt. Then there was thought of trying to imagine Narcissa in Shell Cottage. What would the older witch look like in the soft lights that illuminated the little house? Would her sharp and piercing contours seem out of place within the comfortable walls? Or would the blacks, deep greens and dark greys of the satin she favoured be tempered by being far away from marble floors?
“From what I gather, after you left Miss Black you apparated here. You were a mess,” Fleur said bluntly, serving Hermione another glass of water.
“What happened?” Hermione asked rubbing her forehead futilely trying to put the messy pieces of her memory in the right place.
“Narcissa suggested that you most likely forgot to take your potions,” Fleur supplied, standing up to pour herself another serving.
Hermione face palmed herself. “Of course. How could I have been so stupid?” She groaned.
Fleur laughed ruefully, “Quite. After I stabilised you I thought it best I called Narcissa - this is her area of expertise, not mine. She was beside herself with worry. Insisted on watching over you every night - I know she wanted to take you to her home but you had to stay where my ritual was cast until you woke up.”
“Oh gods… I never-“ Hermione couldn’t even finish her sentence; the shame was overwhelming.
Fleur decided to give her friend some respite. “Narcissa seems nice,” she said nonchalantly.
The young witch looked up at Fleur sheepishly and took another sip of her soup, “yeah… she is.”
“How is it that you say? Called it,” Fleur said with a devilish smile, unable to hold her tongue.
“No, no you haven’t!” Hermione spluttered indignantly. “Nothing has happened. Technically. In the most official of senses.”
“Oh…so that fresh love bite on Narcissa’s neck the other day - is that not official enough?” The French witch scoffed, wondering why the younger witch was always so touchy with this subject.
The burning red returned brazenly to Hermione’s features. Hermione opened her mouth to make an excuse, but then closed it again. She really didn’t have the energy to come up with a half decent excuse and for once, just for once, why couldn’t she confide in a friend? Hermione was starting to realise it was naive to believe she could keep the hurricane that was her and Narcissa contained within herself, so why shouldn’t she take Fleur’s extended hand for confession. “She doesn’t want anything,” Hermione finally confessed to the bouillabaisse. The Gryffindor would continue her campaign against all the reasons the pureblood threw at her, but sitting in the no man’s land of Fleur’s kitchen she could admit they were bloody good reasons, and maybe… she wouldn’t win.
“For a person who does not want anything she is very willing to drop everything for you,” Fleur replied with a shrug as she topped her glass of wine.
“That’s because she’s a nice person,” Hermione muttered, rubbing her eyes. “And she’s so nice she’s probably going to kill me next time I see her, which I, of course, one hundred percent deserve,” Hermione said morosely. “I knew I was already feeling terrible by the end of the signing - I was so reckless…”
“Surprise, surprise,” Fleur said sarcastically. “Our ‘Ermione was reckless.”
“Oh, come on, Fleur! I am usually not that bad!” Hermione protested with a small guilty smile.
“Aha,” Fleur scoffed, relieved to see the small smile on her friend’s face again. “Your biography will be called, ‘Hermione Granger: A study of reckless behaviour’. I am sure Miss Black would agree.” Hermione almost pouted. “She will forgive you,” Fleur added gently.
“I know,” Hermione replied, studying the mussels in her bowl. Fleur was looking at her kindly, as if trying to think of solutions to help her out of her predicament with the Slytherin and suddenly the Gryffindor experienced an extreme urge to leave the cottage and run as far away from her friend’s piercing scrutiny as possible; for perhaps Fleur already understood their problems - Fleur was the type of woman who knew, and knew and knew. The French witch herself was also part of that same type of old guard aristocracy and knew of the stories that occasionally slipped from Andromeda’s sharing nature. None of these facts could be mentioned without inciting a deluge, and the great weight of the unspoken left Hermione frantic to run back into the wilderness like when she’d been eighteen. “Thank you so much for taking care of me, Fleur. I should get out of your hair, though - go home and rest up. Now that the painkillers have started to wear off I’m starting to get quite sore again.”
“If you think I am letting you wonder your way home, you are very mistaken,” Fleur said incredulously. “The ritual I performed on you was extremely invasive - you’re not going to be able to summon magic safely for at least another week.”
“No ‘buts’ Hermione,” the older witch said resolutely. “I ‘ave put you back together once this week, twice would be tempting fate.”
“I am so sorry for all the fuss, Fleur,” Hermione insisted earnestly, hoping the older witch understood she hadn’t meant for her mess with Narcissa to interfere with her life.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, this is what family is for. And it’s a bank holiday weekend and Bill is on a business trip - he says hello, by the way, - this is among the more interesting ways I could spend a long weekend,” Fleur said reassuringly.
Hermione shot her friend a grateful smile and finished what remained of her soup. Hermione often thought it was funny the way things had turned out, her younger self could’ve never imagined finding in Fleur Delacour the safety of a home. She was glad time had proven her wrong about Fleur. What a mercy that she had been forgiven for such crass mistakes. The older witch practically glowed in the pale kitchen light, her silver yellow hair matching the pale wine she swirled languidly in her hand. How silly it had been to begrudge her for her beauty.
“Okay, time to get you in bed,” Fleur directed as she drained the remainder of glass.
“Yes, mother,” Hermione bit back playfully as she moved her dish to the sink.
Hermione collapsed back into the bed, pulling the covers around her and closed her eyes. The sheets smelled comfortingly familiar. She could hear the calm sea in the distance, reminding her of the sounds that accompanied every room in Narcissa’s fortress. It was her favourite thing about the fortress, she decided - the constant rocking sounds of the waves that engulfed the massive marble sculpture in the sea.
It felt like only a few minutes later when she was woken up by soft voices speaking quickly outside of her room. Hermione couldn’t figure out what time it was but if the embers in the fireplace where any indication they had said hello to a new day a few hours ago. The door finally cracked open and somebody quietly stepped in. Hermione felt the bed lower as the person sat on the side of the bed and gently put their hand on her forehead. The muggleborn clasped the warm hand that was cupping her cheek.
“Narcissa…” she said sleepily, and before she could even put real thought into what she would tell the pureblood, the tremble in her chin that threatened with tears expelled the words she had been holding in since she woke up. “I am so sorry.”
“Shhh… it’s okay.” The pureblood said soothingly, allowing herself to smile in relief for a moment. “You must sleep. I just needed to see you were okay.”
“I want to go with you,” Hermione insisted. Her eyes were still closed but she tugged the older witch to her.
“Okay,” she replied appeasingly. “I’ll take you home tomorrow. You need to sleep for now.”
“Stay,” Hermione implored. “Please.”
Narcissa almost laughed at herself. This was the easiest choice she had been faced with in a lifetime. With one word the muggleborn’s wearied request had crumbled in her any desire to return to the Fortress, too exhausted to even bother with resistance. Instead, she kicked her heals off, vanished her makeup off with a flick of the wrist and slipped in the bed. Hermione pulled the pureblood into her arms and before the older witch gave in to slumber she distantly concluded that having sex with a witch or wizard and wanting to sleep with them were two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love did not make itself felt in the desire for lust (a desire that could be extended to an infinite number of people) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire that was limited to one person). Yes, Narcissa thought contently, that was how things were.
Chapter 21: Inceptions
Only a few hours later when the last of the embers had finished dying out, Narcissa extended her right arm out, feeling warm cotton embrace her outstretched limb which she automatically pushed herself closer to. This sleepy pleasantness was quickly replaced with slight confusion that distracted her from her usual morning demand for coffee, and as she opened her eyes to a sleeping Hermione, Narcissa decided that coffee could wait for a moment.
The chirping seagulls that soared outside the little cottage had woken her up, and for once she was grateful to the birds who had started their natter as soon as the sun had given its first hints of rising. In the pale light Narcissa gifted herself with a moment to feel the muggleborn’s chest slowly rise and fall under her cheek and she wondered contentedly what madness she had allowed herself to partake in last night when she had accepted the Gryffindor’s invitation to sleep. For this was madness, she resolved. Ill-advised, imprudent, and incautious madness. Her mother had warned her long ago about succumbing to such recklessness; and not only that, this was going against the most basic rule of survival, the rule that had allowed her to subsist for so long: never lift a finger for a lost cause.
The pureblood bit her lip. How gauche of her - she didn’t want Hermione to be a lost cause. Gauche as it was, she really didn’t want the miraculous whim of fate that had led her into the muggleborn’s arms to be meaningless. But this whole line of thought was pedestrian, she reprimanded herself. How jejune to believe for even a moment in that muggle Virgil’s lie - omnia vincit amor. For as novel as Hermione’s wilderness was, wild things ended up in cages.
The birds trilled even louder outside, interrupting her thoughts.
Noise has one advantage. It drowns out words, she thought to herself. And suddenly she realised that all her life all she had done was nothing but talk, write, scheme, concoct sentences, search for formulations and amend them, so in the end no words were precise, their meanings were obliterated, their content lost, they turned into trash, chaff, dust, sand; prowling through her brain, tearing at her head, they were her insomnia, her illness. And what she yearned for at that moment, vaguely but with all her might, was for the birds to keep on shrieking until it became absolute sound - an all-encompassing, over-powering, window-ratting din to engulf, once and for all, the pain, the futility of words. Noise to negate all sentences. She yearned to stay embraced with Hermione, yearned to never say or think another word, to let herself be fused with the thunder of noise.
It was time for coffee, she decided.
Fleur poured steaming water into her large coffee press, releasing the wonderful smell of fresh Ethiopian coffee into the kitchen. The rich aroma curled further in the air as she pressed the plunger down slowly, and she briefly wondered if her guest even liked coffee. Her aloof guest… who had freely handed her medicaments the moment she had seen Fleur had hurt her hand, and who was always arriving from and departing to mysterious meetings. But between the older witches weariness and precise drawling tone, Fleur was starting to realise that the reality of Narcissa and Hermione being together was completely different from the playful abstract thought she had teased the younger girl with in the past. She had, in retrospect, naively imagined that such a liaison would not amount to anything more than a flirtatiously inappropriate rendezvous that would allow both witches to experiment with the other side of the social spectrum. But in glimpses Fleur had noticed small details of sincerity - discreet relief when the pureblood looked at the Gryffindor; the tight, almost angry way Narcissa clutched her diary when it commanded her away; the fresh flowers on the bedside each time the pureblood left; longing -
“Good morning, Miss Delacour,” she heard a delicate voice say quietly from the doorway, interrupting her thoughts.
“Miss Black,” Fleur acknowledged with a tired nod. “Coffee?”
“That would be marvellous,” the older witch said with a tight smile, moving closer into the room.
The two witches remained silent as the coffee was poured into large mugs and Fleur summoned the milk and sugar. Now that the muggleborn’s health was tentatively on the safe side, their main topic of conversation had been made redundant, and Fleur imagined that the pureblood shared an aversion towards small talk.
The French witch familiarised herself with the formal silence that permeated the room and watched as Narcissa took a sip of her coffee and tried to hide a content smile. The pureblood wasn’t used to smiling, Fleur realised. Still, she thought, with or without a smile, the older witch was always disarmingly beautiful. With those high cheekbones, blood red lipstick, and regal posture she looked like an actress from one of those old muggle black and white movies Fleur had seen once - where the fast talking men were doomed and the beautiful women chain-smoked. She was, in essence, inscrutable; and Fleur could not finish making up her mind about her.
“This is not the first time she has come here almost dead,” the French witch said flatly. Narcissa kept a neutral expression as she raised an intrigued eyebrow, waiting for her host to continue. “I do not know if she told you, but they came here after they escaped your Manor.” Her tone was not accusatory, it was stated factually, as if she felt obligated to disclose these facts. “Ze brave elf, Dobby, is buried here.”
Narcissa hid her discomfort by taking another sip of her coffee. She was caught between wanting to apologise and wanting to give the younger witch her most earnest gratitude; but both were inappropriate. For one, she had been as much a prisoner as the others, and on the other, it wasn’t her place to give the French witch thanks.
“They never told us what happened,” Fleur continued, not really sure what she was trying to say.
“I’ve learnt not to ask questions I can’t bear to hear the answers to,” Narcissa spoke up at last. Fleur understood the warning, and topped Narcissa’s mug.
“We love her dearly,” Fleur finally settled on. Narcissa looked into Fleur’s sea grey eyes and nodded - she too understood the warning. “I won’t bring her more harm,” she said sincerely.
Fleur broke out into a disbelieving smile, “Miss Black, surely you cannot believe that is something you can promise. You must know that is not the nature of these passions.”
“Then what would you have me do, Miss Delacour?” The pureblood drawled out sarcastically as her lips curled into a defensively mocking smile. Fleur had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes, but she had always expected the pureblood to be a woman of a difficult nature.
“It is simple. Do not lead her to believe that you will give her more zan what you are prepared to actually give,” Fleur said softly, standing up to put her mug on the sink. Narcissa bit her bottom lip - the only give away to the guilt that had just sickeningly pooled at the pit of her stomach. The pureblood’s instinct was to lash back with a cold, scathing comment but the guilt that had now seeped into her bones stopped her. The younger witch was right. All she did with Hermione was take and take and take - her kisses, her breath, her happiness, even her sleep; and what did she give back in return? An apology that they could never be together. She finally realised that after a life privilege she had unthinkingly come into the bad habit of taking without deserving, for she now depended on the muggleborn’s company; on her smile; on her humour; on her softness. But people did not always deserve what they needed. Unable to reply, Narcissa let her manners take over.
“Thank you, Miss Delacour,” she said with an air of complaisance, “for all you have provided these past few days.”
Fleur folded her arms as she leaned on the sink and gave the pureblood an appraising look before nodding knowingly. Narcissa was noble enough, Fleur finally decided. Yes, she was amongst the most controversial people Hermione could have ever dreamed up of choosing, but… at least one of them was aware of that fact. “It was my pleasure, Miss Black. ‘Ermione is always welcome, as are any of her guests.”
“Thank you,” the pureblood repeated, this time more sincerely. The French witch flashed a smile at her and turned the radio on, filling the kitchen with the melodious voice of a wizard informing the world of the day’s news. Narcissa closed her eyes and leaned back on the comfortable chair, allowing Fleur to go about her chores undisturbed.
“Today we start with the concerning news of the small muggle village in East Yorkshire that has been haunted with a herd of dementors for the past two months. Ministry authorities are in a disarray with how to respond to the infestation…”
What a waste of money, Narcissa thought tiredly. What a waste of energy, in fact - raising so much money for the ministry to create a special anti-dementor division had obviously been futile. Well, she couldn’t be too hard on the ministry, after all, she too was slightly stumped with what to do with the rogue dementors the Dark Lord had bred during the war. How to kill a creature that was never alive to begin with? She wondered as she heard Fleur moving about. Maybe it was a matter of energy conversion…
“In our sporting section, rumours of illness have been floating around about key Holyhead Harpies player Miss Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Weasley after a series of blunders in the last two season matches…”
“Imbéciles cruels!” She heard Fleur mutter angrily under her breath. “Deux mauvais jeux et elle est malade.”
Narcissa didn’t comment. The French witch was probably right - it was a stretch to believe that two bad games equalled sickness. She didn’t know enough about the Weasley girl to - except. Narcissa opened her eyes in a startle before quickly masking any hints of distress from Fleur and closing her eyes again. There was only one thing she really knew about the Weasley girl and that was that Lucius, in one of his more epic moments of stupidity and pettiness, had given the girl the Dark Lord’s diary. It had originally been given to her for safekeeping, but as a matter of pride, Lucius had insisted on keeping it himself, despite not really knowing what it contained. - And what for? Just so that on a whim of distaste he could throw it at Arthur Weasley’s youngest offspring in an effort to cause an inconvenient minor curse.
Narcissa felt a headache looming closer and closer. How many more years would she have to keep cleaning after Lucius? The man was long dead but the tendrils of his imbecility kept coiling around the world. Trust him, and only him, to inadvertently chuck a horcrux at an eleven year old girl. Horcruxes. Dear Merlin… Narcissa became very still, not daring to open her eyes. She could hear Fleur chopping away at the counter and the presenter merrily interviewing a ministry official.
Everything had finally clicked into place, and she was despairing. How could she have been so shortsighted? She was sitting in Fleur Delacour’s house. The house the glorious golden trio had sought refuge after the incidents in Malfoy manor. The Manor in which Bella had screamed and tortured in order to find out how they had obtained the sword of Godric Gryffindor. The sword that could destroy a horcrux; which meant they must’ve been carrying the things around for weeks on end, if not months.
No wonder Hermione had started their investigation. They were all tainted by the blackest of black magic. They had played host to the Dark Lord’ soul, in the case of Ginevra even poured hers into his until there could be no disentanglement. With his death they were now all carrying bits of necrotic soul inside them. Maybe with the exception of the Potter boy, Narcissa fathomed, for after all, he had died. Maybe that had been enough to purge him. But what would happen to the other three? Hermione was already incredibly weakened by Bellatrix’s curse… Narcissa almost sighed. Of course. The curse was so pernicious because of the horcruxes’ residue; its branding.
The headache was in full swing now.
Narcissa opened her eyes as she heard a mug being placed in front of her.
“Ginger tea,” Fleur said nonchalantly, “for the headache.”
Narcissa looked up at Fleur with undisguised surprise. “Thank you.”
She took a sip of the steaming tea and wondered exhaustedly how she would fix everything. Dementors, curses, maladies, charity balls, the old gang, Lucius’ errors… the list seemed to increase daily. She remembered the old days. How innocent it all seemed now. “Now that the Dark Lord has risen, things will change,” Bella had told her. And it had been true: the general euphoria lasted no longer than the first week. The muggleborns had been hauled away like criminals by the Dark Lord’s forces, no one knew where they were, everyone feared for their lives, and hatred for the Ministry who had been unable to stop this force drugged people like alcohol. It had been a drunken carnival of hate. Wizarding towns were decorated with thousands of hand-painting posters bearing ironic texts, epigrams, poems, and cartoons of the Ministry and its aurors, jeered by one and all as a circus of illiterates. But no carnival could go on forever. And now… now that the show was over, it was necessary to pick up the pieces of all which they had destroyed in their revelry.
Narcissa closed her eyes again, hoping the ginger tea would kick in soon. She would take Hermione back to Grimmauld Place and then go back to the Manor; back to the books; back to planning; back to the ball she had tonight. Back to a frenzy of activity that would distract her from the fact that she had no idea what to do; no idea how to cure them; or what to do with the bloody dementors. Where was Prometheus’ Palace when you needed it? She thought testily. Narcissa perked up at this thought… the Palace - there was a bold and reckless plan if there ever was one.
Hermione sleepily padded into Fleur’s kitchen, stopping to observe Narcissa as she sat with her eyes closed in deep thought. In her mind, she imagined how she could walk over to where the older witch sat; how she could place her hand on the back of the pureblood’s neck to break her out of her reverie; and then, just for pleasure, say good morning to her with a kiss to the cheek. But as things stood, Hermione decided against such tomfoolery, contenting herself with the thought alone.
“‘Ermione, good morning,” Fleur announced cheerfully, turning the radio down. Narcissa automatically stood up, unable to restrain the formality in her manners when caught by surprise. “Miss Granger, I trust you slept well,” she blurted out before remembering their tangled limbs in the pale morning light and immediately blushed at her own choice of words. Fleur snorted out, trying abysmally to hide her amusement with a cough.
“Thank you, Miss Black,” Hermione replied amicably, deciding to ignore Fleur’s implicit suggestion, “I was in dire need for rest.” Narcissa smirked disapprovingly at the understatement but let it slide. “Can I help with breakfast, Fleur?” Hermione asked.
“No, no. I am almost done,” Fleur replied, flapping her away. “There’s coffee on the table, but I have boiling water for tea.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”
Narcissa watched as Hermione set about to make her first cup of tea of the day; she was wearing old jeans and a thick purple jumper that was a little too large for her, whilst her hair was bundled up in a loose bun. She looked so young. Hermione leaned languidly on the counter, yawning as she stirred in the milk, taking the croissants Fleur passed her with a grateful smile. The two witches seemed so at ease with the situation, Narcissa couldn’t help but feel like an intruder in the scene; but then Hermione sat in front of her, passed her a plate and offered her a croissant and the feeling of intrusion vanished. Suddenly, it was like when they had shared breakfast at the Fortress - the sleepy smiles; the smell of fresh coffee; the sound of the sea and the rustle of newspaper. Longing. Narcissa pushed away that train of thought, pulling her diary out to distract herself, only to realise how exhausted she was - those handful of hours last night had obviously not been enough.
The Slytherin looked up from her notes, but Hermione had already hidden an enamoured smile and was pretending to read the paper intently. The pureblood realised she was being watched, and blinked sleepily even as she tried to pretend she was fully alert. Hermione could not help but think that the supposedly inscrutable Narcissa Black could be disarmingly cute sometimes. She propped her head on her hand and smiled warmly at the pureblood. “What do you have on today?”
“Oh you know, a hundred things to do and a hundred people to meet,” Narcissa said with a playful smirk, pleased with the way she could make Hermione laugh. “Brunch with Vi Bulstrode, meeting with the head of the anti-dementor division, dinner with the minister for experimental magic, and then… the Wizengamot annual gala,” Narcissa read out loud.
“Vi Bulstrode?” Hermione asked with knitted eyebrows. “Not related to Millicent Bulstrode by any chance?”
“Yes, first cousins.”
“Oh golly,” said Hermione, “we once got in a fist fight when duelling in second year. She had me in a headlock until Harry pulled her off of me.”
“Dear Merlin, how uncouth!”
“That’s not even the worst part,” Hermione said openly laughing now. “Have we told either of you the polyjuice potion story?”
The French witch joined them at the table with plate full of chopped fruit and yoghurt. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s still so embarrassing,” Hermione shared with mirth playing in her eyes. “It was in second year, as well. Harry, Ron and I were investigating the Chamber of Secrets and for some reason I came to the conclusion that the only way to get more information was by brewing some polyjuice and sneaking into the Slytherin common room.” Narcissa raised an intrigued eyebrow, quietly impressed that the muggleborn had tried to make such a complex potion in her second year. “Somehow, I managed to actually brew it correctly, but, thinking I had taken a hair from Millicent Bulstrode’s robes I accidentally turned myself into her cat.” Laughter filled the table. “Not my brightest moment, I’ll admit.”
Narcissa leaned into her seat, happy to listen to the two witches chattering as she imagined a twelve year old Hermione turning herself into a cat to get into the Slytherin common room. Narcissa bit her lip to conceal a laugh - of course, they had probably thought her Draco was the heir of Slytherin. The antagonism those four shared was flabbergasting at times. She remembered how Draco would come home for the holidays huffing and puffing that Granger had beat him in all the class tests and would force her and Severus to tutor him on all the upcoming material. But she couldn’t blame them for their animosity - the Malfoy and Weasley feud went back generations. “I’ve never trusted a Slytherin,” she had heard one of the Weasley’s say during the War Commemoration Ball. Narcissa had wondered whether that was supposed to bother her. In a way, it was natural for people, especially the Weasley’s, to dislike her house - they had the predisposition of confusing ambition with arrogance; they saw cunning and couldn’t envision intelligence, instead all they could imagine was the clever curve of a knife. Cunning and cutting did sound so remarkably alike after all. She imagined Percy Weasley had understood this during his infamously long sorting.
“More coffee?” Fleur offered the pureblood.
“No, thank you.”
“We should get going,” Hermione posited gently.
“Yes,” Narcissa agreed absently, “we should be getting you home.” And as the words came out of her, the pureblood suffered a heart drop of disappointment. Home. Home for Hermione meant Grimmauld Place. Of course. Of course. She refused to acknowledge that for a moment her reason had lapsed and she had only thought of taking the muggleborn back to the fortress.
“I’ll go get my stuff,” Hermione declared as she stood up and left the kitchen.
“Oh, Miss Delacour. I almost forgot,” Narcissa said pulling out a thick white envelope. “It’s my birthday next month, and there’s to be a party - formalities, and all,” she said almost self-consciously. “I would, however, be delighted if I could count on your company.”
“Thank you,” Fleur replied, taking the invitation, “I would love to attend.”
Hermione poked her head in the kitchen, “I’m all set.”
Narcissa nodded at muggleborn, following her out of the cottage and onto the sand dunes of Cornwall. The Slytherin took a deep breath, feeling the fresh morning air wash away the last traces of her fatigue. She had plans. A hundred things to do. A hundred people to meet. Everything was going to be okay. She would find a cure - by any means necessary, and then everything would be fine. Narcissa steeled herself even as Hermione took her hand by surprise and guided her out of the cottage’s wards. The pureblood watched the muggleborn’s peaceful face as they walked further on to the beach, and marvelled at how deceptively healthy she looked; almost as if the curse on her arm wanted to trick them all into believing it wasn’t there.
They finally stopped where the sea kissed the land goodbye and Hermione faced her.
“Grimmauld Place?” Narcissa asked her. Hermione nodded and the pureblood apparated them into London.
Chapter 22: Mortification
Two witches quietly made their way through Georgian town houses. Unobstructed by muggles who always seemed to be looking the other way when they passed they quickly reached the Black family’s London residence.
“Come in,” Hermione invited the older witch. “I have something to give you. I was originally going to send it to you, but now that you’re here I can just give it to you.”
Curiosity guided Narcissa inside the house. It was brighter than she remembered. “You kept some of the original features,” Narcissa noted as she gestured at the row of house elf heads. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”
“No one really had the heart to take them down after Kreature started wailing about losing his family at the suggestion.”
Narcissa slid her hand on the old wooden banister, feeling all the new nicks of a lifetime. They took a left corridor and with every step Narcissa had the unshakable impression Regulus was about to pop out of one of the corners.
“So, yeah, um… this is my room.”
“Is that your infamous sleeping drought?” The pureblood asked with faint amusement. She closed her eyes as the smell wafted up to her. “You should add more wormwood - give yourself at least a minute to sit down before it kicks in.”
“That’s not what the instructions say,” Hermione replied curiously, pulling out her old potions textbook to confirm. Narcissa resisted the temptation to laugh with fondness. “No, it doesn’t, but Severus and I found it doesn’t tamper with the rest of the recipe.” Hermione nodded, grabbing a quill and quickly making a note in the textbook.
“Excellent. Thank you,” she said, setting the book down and picking up a brown parcel that was waiting on her desk. “Anyway, this is for you.”
Narcissa took the parcel, placing it carefully in her bag. “Thank you, Hermione.”
The orange leaves in the wallpaper danced merrily as the two witches stood awkwardly, their last encounter playing vividly in both their minds. A short fit of boldness surged in Hermione, “are you still convinced…?” She couldn’t finish the question, allowing silence to describe the complexity of their impasse. Narcissa’s expression fell with regret. “We could just keep it to ourselves,” Hermione persevered. “It’s nobody’s business but ours.”
“You deserve more than that,” Narcissa cut in, “you should never be made ashamed.” The pureblood looked down at the floorboards remembering how she still burned with the shame Lucius brought her. Hermione walked up to her, carefully placing her hands on the Slytherin’s hips and leaned into the older witch’s neck, “you underestimate how shameless I can be.”
Bit by bit Narcissa found her arms slowly wrapping themselves around Hermione’s small frame and she felt her heart’s resolve break down with each kiss Hermione placed on her neck. An ache started pounding in her body, it was like fire was eating at the soft marrow of her bones… eating away at all plans, all future. With Hermione’s hands slowly inching up her ribs Narcissa felt her spine shudder and she almost whimpered when Hermione grazed her teeth over the delicate skin where her pulse sang the strongest.
Surrendering her better judgement she tugged at Hermione’s purple jumper, urging her to take it off. The Gryffindor flashed her a brazen grin, taking the garment off in one motion revealing a thin white cotton shirt and hunger in her eyes.
“There is no remedy for this,” Narcissa whispered, finding the muggleborn’s mouth and kissing her deeply.
“I’m okay with that,” she pushed back and pulled the pureblood’s black gown off.
Narcissa basked in the power of inevitability. “Fine then,” she replied feeling drunk on the weightlessness of the world around her. Hermione made her feel so unbearably light. “Let them burn.” She was rewarded with a blazing smile she matched. Narcissa let her pull them closer to the bed and headlong into the love she had been captured by. Relief mixed with need as one by one each piece of clothing was removed exposing pale skin and the troublesome scars that tied both women to the other. Narcissa grabbed the muggleborn’s thigh, lifting and bending into complaisance so she could taste her want. “How late have I loved you,” she whispered. Hermione’s touch was electrifying its path on her body and she understood that she could no longer have secrets - she would betray her loneliness for Hermione, she surrendered her mysteries.
Hermione took a deep breath, filling her lungs with that perfume that always lingered on Narcissa’s skin and realised she needed to be closer to it. She needed to taste and bite and consume and turn Narcissa’s white flesh into a pleasure she could master and turn inwards as a constituent element of herself. But first she would tease. The pureblood moaned, digging her fingernails into Hermione’s back as an unconscious protest against the Gryffindor’s crimes of courage. Hermione slowly made her way down the pureblood’s body, kissing and sucking everywhere she could until she reached Narcissa’s dripping cunt and finally, whilst looking straight into her blue eyes, tasted her.
Narcissa’s back arched with intoxication - or was it disintoxication? She didn’t care anymore, helpless as her legs trembled under her own consumption. The magic in her core throbbed in rhythm with Hermione’s, unravelling. I hope death feels like this… Narcissa wove her hands in the messy brown curls and held the younger woman down as some sort of death coursed through her. With the same grip Narcissa pulled her up and tasted herself in Hermione’s kiss. She wanted more, more, more, more. She wanted her name on the lips that had ravished her. She wanted to reconquer, to reclaim, to impose her own materiality on Hermione’s body.
Gasped syllables of her name that increased in volume with each turn of her index finger Narcissa felt her victory surge in Hermione’s shuddering body. She kissed her deeply, drinking the others pleasure like a tonic to her death and she wondered how it had escaped her notice that she adored the muggleborn this much. Her mouth lowered back down to the other’s breasts and she curled her fingers relentless in her victory, determined to draw it out.
Their breathing synched. Quick shallows breaths rose in one’s chest and left in the other’s. The sweet smell of sweat reminded Narcissa of the sea. “I don’t want to move,” she confessed.
“Then don’t. Stay with me.”
Of course, Narcissa thought. Of course.
She closed her eyes and drifted…
It was cotton sheets. The sound of muggle automobiles in the distance. The honeysuckle smell of the sleeping drought bubbling on the table. It was familiar. It was foreign. It was the comforting ache of tired muscles resting in the sun. Her warm skin against slightly colder. It was rest while the city around them busied away like buzzing bees. She could stay like this forever.
A sharp movement on Narcissa’s left woke her up from her decadent slumber. She opened one eye with the intention to glare down whatever had interrupted her sleep, but quickly opened both when she realised that Hermione’s previously blissful face was scrunched up in pain. Narcissa gently propped herself higher on the pillows so she could comfortably pull the cold Gryffindor closer into the warmth of her arms. The younger witch didn’t rouse from the movement, her left arm now securely wrapped around Narcissa’s bare chest but the stress on her forehead was still visible under the tangled mess of her chestnut curls. The older witch trailed a lazy finger over the light scars that dotted about the milky expanse of Hermione’s back, running through the toxicity of all the potions and enchantments Hermione had had in the past week and reminded herself that there was nothing more she could give her to soothe the pain in the coming days. On the other hand, Narcissa reckoned with a distinct flair of annoyance, maybe this would teach the Gryffindor that a jovial approach to her treatment was not in anyone’s interests.
Experience told her there wasn’t anything she could do about it. The muggleborn would have to decide whether to continue being this reckless with herself or not. She could nudge gently, politely remind her about treatment regimes; damage control. But denial was a powerful force to be reckoned with. Narcissa couldn’t begrudge the Gryffindor’s carelessness; she understood that for a woman so used to being a force of nature, being weakened was a concept hard to accept.
Resignation against the younger witches stubbornness won over. Narcissa closed her eyes and decided to focus on the sinfully sumptuous sensation of Hermione’s weight resting on her; the steady rise and fall of her chest under her hand; the spring sun hinting at summer as it poured through the open window. Narcissa idly wondered when her good conscience would finally wake up and bring with it the crashing force of reality. Maybe they could elope to Paris, she thought whimsically - anything in an effort to avoid the catastrophic consequences this would bring, or at least avoid the messy questions of what were they to each other? A Modern Mistresses’ Guide to Manners had not covered this particular topic: what should the relationship between a widowed, former follower of the Dark Lord, pureblood and a muggleborn war hero constitute? The sentence alone was an awkward mouthful. It seemed equally inappropriate to tell anyone as it was to keep it a secret.
Her mind wondered back to that bible of etiquette she had memorised as a child… “Society is a severe censor, pitiless and remorseless. The witch who has once fallen, the wizard who has once lost his honour, may repent for years; good society shuts its doors on them once and forever.”
Paris was sounding more and more reasonable.
An amused smirk curled on the pureblood’s lips as she sarcastically imagined how that would play out. First they would forsake their friends and family; then, take the train to Paris from St. Pancreas that left every hour at platform 7 and 3/9’s; elope; vow never to return to Britain again; take lodgings in the in the 7th arrondissement; introduce themselves with pseudonyms; quickly realise that the muggle tourists are unbearable; realise even quicker that the French in general are unbearable; return to Britain; be officially shunned by good society; slowly come to resent each other; die alone.
Maybe Paris wasn’t always such a good idea after all, she drawled in her mind. And not just that, she had Hermione’s brazen promise to contend with. The memory alone of the way she had whispered the words into her ears was enough to disarm her. “You underestimate how shameless I can be…” she had vowed.
A gust of cold spring air blew in and Narcissa found herself quickly scrambling to cover the younger witch under the safety of the blankets. A well aimed wrist flick at the window closed the contraption, preventing further intrusion from the elements. Narcissa resumed her position with her head nestled behind Hermione’s, her heart still beating rapidly from the onslaught of wind against Hermione’s frail body.
Ice cold fear trickled down her spine and the memory of Hermione lying broken on Fleur’s guest bed inundated her mind. It had been such a close call.
It was in that moment, for the first time, that Narcissa realised how scared she was, with Hermione’s cold skin pressing against her own; the Gryffindor’s hands clenched in fists like a fighter, with their earthquaking. Hermione was stunning - she smelt of vanilla and the opening of a flower and the magical residue of all the healing potions she had had. She wasn’t going to let go of her, Narcissa concluded. This was what she wanted, this drowning. Although she supposed she still shouldn’t have given in, it shouldn’t have been this soon, not this blooming without words, without a cure, a plan A let alone a B or a C… without a fight. But Hermione’s skin was battle worn; Narcissa’s was soft and unmarred, the contrast unavoidable as she ran a soothing hand over Hermione’s thinned body, adding to her worries that the younger witch wasn’t eating enough.
“You’re awake,” Narcissa stated, pretending not to be surprised as she felt one of Hermione’s hands sneakily roaming over her skin under the covers.
“Have been for a while,” Hermione replied cheekily, an amused smile finally betraying her. “Didn’t want to move. Too comfortable.”
“How are you feeling?” Narcissa asked casually, trying to pass the loaded question as innocuously as possible.
“Drained. Both in a good way and a slightly concerning way, but that’s probably just the magic,” Hermione replied lightly, turning in the pureblood’s arms so she could place a kiss on the Slytherin’s neck. As Hermione’s languid kisses slowly reached her mouth, Narcissa knew that her reason had surrendered to this force, these lips. The pureblood ran the tips of her fingers over Hermione’s ribs, eliciting a gasp; the older witch felt a tug of fear in her bones: gasping sounded too much like not breathing.
“Didn’t you have a hundred things to do today?” Hermione asked her mischievously as she straddled her hips, giving the pureblood a full view of Hermione’s taut body. “A hundred people to meet?”
Distracted by the compulsion to touch and trail and tease Narcissa emitted a quiet groan at the reminder. “Why did you have to remind me?”
The muggleborn lowered herself to place a chaste kiss on the older witches lips. “Trust me - being headlocked by a Bulstrode is not as funny as it sounds.”
“Fine,” Narcissa acquiesced, somehow making the monosyllable sound like it was accompanied by a dramatic drop of a teacup back onto its saucer.
“I promise I won’t do anything rash in the meantime,” Hermione teased as she extracted herself off of Narcissa.
“You better not, Miss Granger,” she drawled with a hint of seriousness, “zero magic.”
“I know. I know,” Hermione quickly defended herself, “not for a week.”
“Or two,” she echoed as a peace offering.
“Good,” Narcissa said with unhidden satisfaction, standing up to find her clothes. “You need as much rest as you can get.” The message barely registered as Hermione’s lips twitched with appreciation, her eyes shamelessly absorbing the image of Narcissa’s naked frame stretching as she slipped into her black gown, forgoing anything underneath. “Before I go,” Narcissa began, turning around to catch Hermione’s hungry expression. The pureblood smirked, amused at the obvious effect she was having on Hermione. “Would it be too forward for me to request to borrow a book from your library? I know where it is. I just need to pop down and get it.”
Hermione laughed, burying her head in the pillows to stifle her laughter until she could reemerge with some semblance of serenity. “Cissy, after what we just did I don’t think anything between us can be considered too forward.”
Narcissa rolled her eyes but couldn’t help the amused smile that played on her lips. “I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, bending down to press a kiss on the Gryffindor’s forehead before straightening up and magically tying her hair back in an effective bun. “I’ll be right back.”
The Slytherin padded down the corridor, feeling the house’s draft on the exposed skin her gown didn’t cover. Time melted away as she quickly trailed down the stairs, taking a left before she encountered Auntie Walburga’s portrait with practiced ease, and finally opened the door to the little but powerful library the Black family had hidden in this residence.
Narcissa smiled as she surveyed the cosy atmosphere of the library, from the pillows and throws that scattered about the room to the stacks of books that Hermione had undoubtedly added to the collection. It too did not escape her notice that a rich red Gryffindor banner had been tacked over the Slytherin one above the fireplace. But above all, Hermione’s warm presence permeated the previously austere room from her memories. It took no effort to imagine the young witch sitting on the table, sleeves rolled up and hands covered with black ink, signalling that Hermione was lost to the physical world. Within that bubble of concentration, Narcissa knew that Hermione could study for hours undistracted, eyes tracking from book to diagram to scribbled notes, lips sometimes moving soundlessly beneath the play of her eyes and eyebrows narrowing and focusing and parsing. Narcissa could see in those moments when Hermione drowned out the world how days and weeks and months of grinding research were carried out so diligently. The hours spent in her own head spent absorbing and listing information, breaking down established ideas and analyses into tidbits serviceable as building blocks for something new: bridges connecting the familiar in unfamiliar ways; pathways forging into the depths of the unexplored. How nights would bleed into mornings along the strings of sentences yielding into the page from her careful writing; “new possibilities” that would be revised and rethought and sometimes scrapped together in a more lucid state. The way her research would come to dominate every waking thought, even the spurts of dreaming snagged from the jaws of stress and exhaustion; how it would colour and dictate her every interaction and conversation, but in such a manner - Narcissa imagined, predicated - that would be captivating. It would be knowledge that Hermione needed to share, to explicate, to simplify and complicate; her hands punctuating points and theoretical knots, all of her frenzied with eagerness to impart understanding.
All Hermione needed was health.
Narcissa consciously straightened her posture and reorientated herself in the room, hoping that Hermione hadn’t changed the order of the library too much during her residency. She approached the bookcases, running her hands over the spines of the large leather-bound books she had played around with as a child. Titles stood out to her like old friends calling her name; encyclopaedias eliciting memories of weeks spent with Regulus trying to outdo each other with the most bizarre spells whilst they wondered what their siblings were up to at Hogwarts.
Still sitting in the place it had been left over thirty years ago, Narcissa levitated the small book from its place in the top corner of the second bookcase next to the window. The pureblood quickly flicked through A Guide to British Wizarding Birds, relieved that the annotations scrawled throughout the text remained unchanged.
“Hermione, I was just wondering-“
Narcissa whipped round to face a stunned Mr Potter, standing by the door in boxer shorts and an overlarge shirt, a bowl of cereal in hand.
Hermione closed her eyes the moment Narcissa gently closed the door behind her. The young which stretched languidly in the white sheets, inhaling the husky smell of Narcissa which clung to the cotton she nuzzled in. Opening her eyes again to the sun bathed room, her attention was caught by all their abandoned layers of clothing still scattered over the dark wooden panels… softly, her attention wondered back to the sensation of Narcissa’s black lace being undressed under her fingers. How ravishing she is, Hermione thought. Everything about her was ravishing. And menacing. Those colours of hers; that spectrum of greens to black. Life to death. Her striking dark hair. Her cheekbones - pronounced, emphasising a wrinkle which her smile created beside her mouth.
With a lazy sigh, Hermione pushed herself off the bed in search for something to cover herself with. As she pulled an extra large Gryffindor shirt over her head, two soft knocks on her door demanded her attention.
Quickly slipping her pants on she called out, “come in!”
Narcissa opened a small fraction of the door, clearing her throat as she tried to school her expression - it was the closest to uncomfortable Hermione had ever seen the older witch look.
“Mr. Potter is here.”
Hermione’s eyes widened with shock and a trickle of shame ran down her spine - how could she have forgotten about Harry? The young wizard walked into the room, leaving Narcissa by the doorway.
“Hermione…” Harry began, placing his half empty bowl of cereal on the mantlepiece. “What the…?” He pointedly looked at all the clothes that lay damningly on the floor. Hermione winced giving her friend all the confirmation he needed. “Malfoy’s mum?” Hermione’s wince stiffened.
“Malfoy’s mum?” He repeated emphatically. Hermione shot Narcissa a smile of nervous condolence, a smile that said ‘I love you’ and ‘please don’t be hurt’. The Slytherin smiled sardonically back at her, not budging from her position by the door. She had no intention of leaving until Hermione said so, like some captain, waiting to drown with his ship.
“She’s Hippocrates,” Hermione supplied quickly, “you know, the person I’ve been working with.” Hermione searched his green eyes, looking to find her best friend amidst the paradigm shift that was playing on his features. “This is important to me, Harry.” She pressed on urgently, looking at Harry with an expression that reminded him of when they were children: it was the look Hermione got when she was projecting utter confidence in what she was saying, but couldn’t quite hide how desperately she cared about Harry’s opinion. She needed to know that Harry wasn’t upset; that Harry didn’t think she was weird or a horrible person. “She’s important to me.”
“Bloody hell,” Harry exclaimed with a sigh. “Well, I didn’t see this coming, to say the least.”
“Harry!” Ron’s booming voice echoed from somewhere downstairs. “What’s taking you so long?! Is Hermione here?!”
“Harry! Why didn’t you tell me Ron is here?!” Hermione hissed at her best friend, lightly hitting him on the shoulder. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Caught between her fight or flight response, instinct propelled her to start scooping up all their clothes as if she was cleaning up a crime scene. Narcissa opened her mouth to intervene, but before she could get the words out Hermione had unceremoniously shoved all their clothes into the cupboard, stealing away any possibility of escape for the pureblood.
“Well I’m sorry, I kinda got distracted by the fact that you’re shagging Malfoy’s mum!”
“Narcissa, Harry. She has a name. Narcissa. She’s not just ‘Malfoy’s mum’.” She snapped back at him as Ron’s cantankerous footsteps loomed closer.
“Fine, fine. But when were you planning on telling me?”
“I don’t know, Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, pacing around the room looking for anymore incriminating evidence she could hide. “Can you just go stall him?”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Narcissa drawled coldly from the doorway, still not quite sure if the situation amused or embarrassed her, for after all - had she not been warning the muggleborn that this was precisely what would happen?
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Hermione heard Ron blurt out bluntly. The two Gryffindor’s rushed out into the corridor, putting themselves between Ron and Narcissa.
“Mate, what’s going on here?” He asked Harry.
“She’s my guest, Ron, so if you’d excuse me,” Hermione said trying to sound nonchalant.
Ron scoffed. “Since when are the likes of her your guests?”
Harry sighed, Narcissa rolled her eyes and Hermione balled her fists as she felt the ache of disappointment in her old friend crash into her body.
“Mate, lets go downstairs, this is none of our business,” Harry tried reasoning, putting his hand on Ron’s shoulder.
“Nah, nah, I want to know what’s going on here,” he replied, shoving Harry’s hand off him. “What are you doing with Hermione?” He demanded from Narcissa. The Slytherin did not rise to his baiting, only giving him a steady stare that was evidence of an innate confidence that unsettled Ron to the core.
“I would advise you to listen to your friend, Mr Weasley,” she chastised him softly. “Neither Hermione nor I owe you an explanation of our personal affairs.”
He was familiar with her tone of voice - it was that clipped enunciation which had always been used to speak down to his father. He was also familiar with the look she was giving him - it was the look Lucius Malfoy had always used when surveying the Weasley family, needing no words to convey his superiority, their inferiority. Boyish shame rushed through Ron’s body; old wounds of humiliation sliced open despite the protection of his expensive robes. And for a second of blind fury, all he could see was Draco Malfoy in Narcissa’s features. He closed his eyes, trying to push away the revolting feeling of disgust that was churning in his stomach - disgust directed at her for making him feel that way; but just as acutely, perhaps more so, the almost unbearable feeling of disgust with himself for still feeling like just another red head in a hand-me-down robe. Inevitably, shame gave way to self-righteousness and in a flash, he determined he would not be backing down this time.
“Bollocks. I have every right to know what a death eater is doing with my friend.”
“Ronald! How dare you!” Hermione retorted immediately. “Narcissa is not, and never was a death eater!”
“Oh, really?!” He bellowed back furiously, disbelief painting his expression - how could Hermione betray him like this? He was on her side. “Am I the only who remembers her standing by as her sister tortured you? Am I the only one who remembers the way you screamed and screamed? Or have we all forgotten how she was going to let Fenrir Greyback have you? Or how she was going to sell us to Voldemort? SO FORGIVE ME if my definition of death eater isn’t as apologetic as yours.”
“Ronald Weasley,” Hermione began, her tone so quiet and cold it immediately cut through Ron’s outburst. “Just stop talking,” she hissed at him, so angry and disappointed in him she could barely form words. “You are making a fool of yourself.”
Ron took a step back, his anger forgotten from the shock of Hermione’s fury. “Why are you defending her?” He asked her in a small voice. Then, for the first time, his eyes regarded both witches calmly - from the messy hair, the bare legs, to the blooming hickey’s - “No, no, no, no,” he said with a hysterical chuckle, “this can’t be happening.”
“Ron,” Harry begged, “lets just go.”
“Harry, Harry,” he interrupted, “they’re shagging.”
“How could you?!” He demanded, wondering if he would ever recover from this betrayal; wondering whether he would ever be able to forgive her; whether he would ever be able to look at her the same way again. How could this be the same person who had punched Malfoy in third year? Or who had held his hand every night during the war? How could this be the same person who had once love him? Who still loved him like a brother? “How could you do this?” He spluttered out, his voice breaking under the weight of his grief. “After everything her lot did to us?”
“Are you insane, Ron?” Hermione asked, failing to keep the distinct pitch of hysteria from her voice. “She is the sole reason we’re here today.”
“I can’t be listening to this,” he muttered to himself. “I just can’t be listening to this.”
“Stop insisting on clearing your head!” Hermione automatically snapped back at him. “Clear your bloody heart instead.”
“Oh, fuck off, Hermione!” Ron yelled back from the stairs, leaving the hallway silent.
“I’m sorry -“ Harry began, looking at the ground, as if he shared responsibility for Ron’s words. “You know how Ron gets. He doesn’t mean it.”
“Don’t worry, Harry,” Hermione said quietly, surprised by how quickly her energy to fight had been drained. “Just go after him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“Sorry,” he repeated quickly, but this time his apology was directed solely at Narcissa. One curt nod from the Slytherin was enough for Harry to go after his best friend.
“Damn,” Hermione cursed under her breath. Still staring at the empty hallway, the muggleborn felt Narcissa’s warm arms wrap around her. Relief quickly trickled in, glad the confrontation was over for now. The muggleborn took two deep breaths, extinguishing the last embers of fire in her stomach and focused on Narcissa’s steady breathing. This is it, Hermione thought at last as she leaned back into the safety of the pureblood’s body. This is all I want, she concluded closing her eyes and allowing the pureblood to nuzzle her face on Hermione’s neck. Slowly, Narcissa began to trail soft kisses over the skin the t-shirt exposed, as if with each kiss she was offering an apology inappropriate for words. Her hands slid under the red shirt, atoning with touch to the shape and form lent to Hermione by nature, wondering and a little awed that the Gryffindor was truly willing to wage wars for her. Hermione didn’t comment, didn’t admonish, but looked at Narcissa in the pauses of her movement, in the lulls between her touch, as if to say, I know. I know.
“Okay, mate. That’s my sixth pint. If I have anymore I’m going to chunder,” Harry said trying not to hiccup.
“Haven’t you heard of tactical chundering?”
“That’s so gross,” Harry groaned, pushing his friend playfully.
“What? It works,” he replied, cracking a small smile.
“We should go now.”
“Nah, you go home, Harry, I’ll just have one more.”
Harry regarded his friend hazily, deciding that he didn’t look too bad. “You sure?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ron replied, waving him off. “I have the day off work and Lavender is out with her mother. I’ll just have another pint and crash home.”
Harry nodded. Neither had mentioned the reason why they were sitting at the Leaky Cauldron at eleven in the morning, but denial seemed to have been working wonders with Ron’s mood so Harry nodded again, regretting moving his queasy head so quickly. “Okay. Tom,” he called the bartender.
“Another round, Mr Potter?” He asked jovially.
“No thank you, Tom,” Harry stood up, holding on to the counter to make sure he didn’t fall down. “Just make sure he gets home, yeah? Lav-Lav will kill me if anything happens to him.”
Ron groaned from his seat, “stop calling her that!”
“No problem, Mr Potter. I’ll throw in the floo powder myself.”
“Alright, mate,” Harry slurred as he patted Ron’s back. “Breakfast. Tomorrow. At the Burrow.”
“Lightweight,” Ron teased in reply.
Ron watched his friend step into the large fireplace, engulfed by the green flames until he disappeared from sight.
“Alright, Tom - it’s time for some fire whiskey,” he said gruffly.
“You sure, Mr Weasley?”
“Yeah, and another pint.”
“My, my, Mr Weasley - day drinking on a Tuesday?” A cooing voice said beside him. “You do seem to be letting yourself go.”
“Oh, fuck off, Skeeter,” he growled back before downing his glass of fire whiskey and motioning for another one.
“Tut, tut, Mr Weasley. Something or someone has got under your skin,” she said coquettishly. “Fight with Lav-Lav? Trouble at work?”
Ron closed his eyes, feeling the punch of the firewhiskey bashing away at the last dreads of his sobriety, until at last he could laugh. “Nope.”
“Then do tell, Mr Weasley. You know I’m a very good listener,” she purred, motioning to Tom to bring them another round of drinks.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Ron replied, knocking down another glass of the amber liquid.
“Try me,” Rita replied a smile curling around her features as she pulled out a quill.
Chapter 23: Flagellation
CAUGHT IN FLAGRANTE
Mr Ronald Weasley, decorated war hero and celebrated auror, describes the traumatic event of finding dear friend Miss Hermione Granger ensnared in bed with former You-Know-Who follower Narcissa Malfoy, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent.
It was a normal day for Mr Weasley visiting best friend Harry Potter (a.k.a. The Boy Who Refuses To Die) who lives with Miss Granger. It has long been rumoured that Mr Potter and Miss Granger have been carrying out an affair under the roof of his godfather’s house, despite the former’s relationship with Quidditch star Ginny Weasley. However, today your correspondent can dispel those rumours and reveal that Miss Granger’s fickle affections for the famous (see: Viktor Krum and Mr Weasley himself) have taken a scandalous turn for the worse as she is now confirmed to be conducting an affair with none other than the infamous Narcissa Malfoy nee. Black.
“I was coming up the stairs to find Harry when I saw [Mrs Malfoy] standing by Hermione’s bedroom door in nothing more than a robe,” Mr Weasley recalls painfully, bravely holding back his tears. “I didn’t want to make any assumptions, but Hermione didn’t even bother hiding what she’d done. In fact, she even defended [Mrs Malfoy]. How could she do this?” The tears become too difficult to contain for Mr. Weasley.
Mrs Malfoy, it must be recalled, was married to one of You-Know-Who’s most important Death Eaters, the late Lucius Malfoy; was sister, as well, to Bellatrix Lestrange - You-Know-Who’s most loyal and terrible servant. Her son, Draco Malfoy, has long been suspected of having played a pivotal part in the murder of Albus Dumbledore during his sixth year at Hogwarts. Although the Malfoy family was exempt from investigation due to Mr. Potter’s testimony of Mrs Malfoy’s role in the Battle of Hogwarts, there has never been any doubt that she had a place in You-Know-Who’s inner most circle.
“I just can’t understand how Hermione could do this,” Mr. Weasley repeats, struggling to put to words the terrible emotions he is going through. “After everything she and her lot did to us. Why would she betray us like this?”
Mr Weasley was referring to the well known fact that as mistress of Malfoy Manor she provided sanctuary to You-Know-Who and was one of his main financial sources during both the first and second wizarding wars. As such, it comes as no surprise that the discovery that Mrs Malfoy, long considered the greatest example of pureblood ideals, has taken as her lover Miss Hermione Granger (almost twenty years her junior and the same age as her son, Draco Malfoy) the most morally outrageous event in recent memory.
The sentiment of betrayal expressed so harrowingly by Mr Weasley is one that will be surely shared by many of this journal’s readers. Miss Granger, a beloved member of the wizarding community, widely considered the most brilliant witch of this age, has long been the face of muggleborn rights. How then, your correspondent asks, could she believe that such an act of hypocrisy would be forgiven?
As Ginny reread the article for the sixth time, Hermione’s great horned owl swooped through her open window and dropped off a large pouch on her bed. The distinct sound of coins rattled as she picked up the leather pouch.
“What the-“ she muttered as she picked up a handful of galleons from the bag. Pulling the scroll that had been attached to the leather cord she recognised Hermione’s loopy handwriting.
A hundred galleons for your prophetic skills, as promised.
Ginny looked back at the front page of the Prophet and then back to the overflowing pouch of galleons. She couldn’t believe it - she couldn’t stop herself from laughing in a way she hadn’t for a long time.
Chapter 24: Expectation
Narcissa stood outside the gates of Malfoy Manor with her hands folded behind her back and her lips pursed. She’d been standing there for a good five minutes, watching the way the morning sun imbued the masonry of the grand building with light and, distantly, delighted in the smell of the two gardens in full bloom either side of her. She could picture the large roses blooming behind the tall bushes; the lilacs too - a colourful contrast next to the white gardenias. Astoria was obviously working wonders with the gardens, it seemed.
Another minute passed by with the gentle breeze playing with the hem of her skirt. It was proving exceptionally difficult to muster the courage to step inside the gates when she found herself so voraciously enthralled with the architectural style of a building she’d known all her life. It occurred to Narcissa that this could possibly well be the first time she’d properly looked at the manor. In unfavourable light, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how intimidating her old home could come across as. Maybe that had been the point, she pondered. It would explain the facade’s obsession with right angles - not a curvature in sight or the offset of a column. Severe. Always severe; this world of hers.
Severe… Severe…. Severe…, she repeated in her head. Severe… Severe…, she continued, until the word no longer sounded like a word.
A large barn owl swooped past her, forcing her to acknowledge the small army of owls that were delivering what seemed to be an endless stream of letters. The distinctive red envelopes of howlers dotted her view of the manor and she knew full well the extent of the echo they would cause in the dining hall. She also knew that the only reason the letters were being directed to Malfoy Manor was because the general public continued to be under the impression that she still lived there. At least this wouldn’t be the first time Draco dealt with hate mail, she reasoned guiltily. In fact, during the impassioned times of the war trials, she, Lucius, and Draco had gotten rather good at vanishing howlers before they opened. Not that that gave her any motivation to confront the situation at hand.
Narcissa sighed exasperatedly at herself. This was getting ridiculous. She couldn’t just stand there forever. Taking a deep breath, Narcissa straightened her already upright posture and with confidence she didn’t have, walked determinedly into the Manor.
The door opened up to her automatically, inviting her into the grand foyer.
“He’s in the study,” Lucius’ portrait hissed at her, not bothering to look up from his newspaper.
Narcissa nodded to herself, taking another deep breath and briskly setting about to climb the four stories needed to reach the top. The ornate wooden door of the central study immediately came into view as she turned to climb the final set of stairs, but her determination was cut short as she raised her hand to knock on the door.
“Come in,” Draco called from within.
Like the portrait of his father, Draco was slumped in his chair engrossed with the morning’s Daily Prophet.
“Good morning, Draco,” Narcissa announced, trying to sound bored.
Draco’s attention immediately darted to his mother, his posture automatically straightening in her presence despite the shocked expression he threw at her. With a rough motion, her son shoved the paper in the air to show his mother her face and Hermione Granger’s plastered all over the front page.
“Yes, I know, Draco. I read the papers too,” she admonished exasperatedly, immediately regretting her tone of voice.
He threw the paper onto the ebony table, frowning as he stood up to close the window. “Well then,” he began, sincere in his confusion. “Is there any credit to this latest drivel Weasley has come up with?”
He sat himself back down in the chair behind the desk, waiting for his mother to reply. Narcissa confirmed with a quick nod and automatically his expression hardened into haughtiness; it was the same expression he would use when a good wine had been paired with the wrong food, or when a reporter hassled him for an interview to talk about the war.
“How did this happen?” He finally managed to hiss out coldly. Distantly, Narcissa wondered if he realised how much he sounded like his father when he was scared.
“She,” Narcissa paused, turning around as she desperately searched for the right way to phrase this. “Is the first person to see me as I am. And not just that,” she paused again to regain her posture and smooth down her dress, finally facing Draco with a calm smile. “She also see’s me as I long to be.”
The coiled rage in Draco drained in one go, leaving Narcissa’s pale boy looking exhausted. He nodded wearily in understanding, lowering his face onto his propped hand as if wishing he could escape into slumber before pouring all his strength into his lungs and lifting his body back up in one deep breath. He nodded again at his mother - a token blessing - then stood up to throw the paper in the fireplace. “I hope Weasley had a heart attack.” He deadpanned. Narcissa’s lips twitched with mirth, “almost.”
They both stood in front of the fireplace, watching the paper quickly dissolving into the flames.
“Granger?” He asked with a slight scowl.
“She’s an extraordinary witch,” Narcissa replied lightly.
“I know,” he drawled sarcastically, “I went to school with her.” Draco cocked his head to the side in deep thought. “Although I suppose in the grand scheme of things eighteen years isn’t that big of a difference.”
“It’s not,” she agreed, both still enthralled with the fire.
“Granger, though?” He asked, seemingly unable to help himself. Narcissa raised a curious eyebrow. “I just never thought you’d go for a -“
“Girl?” Narcissa supplied.
“No. Well, yes, that too,” he replied awkwardly. “A meant a muggleborn.”
Narcissa sighed, tearing herself away from the fireplace to sit down on one of the armchairs. “Will you be offering me a drink, Draco, dear?”
“Of course, mother,” he replied quickly, grabbing two glasses and the ornate decanter in his drinks cabinet. He carefully poured her two fingers of single malt, offering her the smallest of smiles in apology when he gave her the glass. His mother returned the smile fondly and watched him sit down in the armchair opposite her.
“You look tired, Draco. Have you been taking care of yourself?”
“Yes,” he replied, knowing there was no way of rushing his mother’s small talk.
“Now that the weather’s improving you should make an effort to go out more,” she reminded him gently, “fresh air does wonders for the soul.” He nodded in agreement.
“I noticed Astoria restored the walls back to their original green.”
“Yes, she did it before I woke up this morning.”
“And what does she make of this whole fiasco?” She asked aloofly, waving her hand to gesture sarcastically at the fireplace where the ashes of the Daily Prophet became indiscernible.
“Didn’t seemed surprised at all, for some reason,” he admitted with a confused frown. “She actually wants to invite Granger over for dinner.” Narcissa’s lips twitched with a fond smile.
“Would you be opposed?” She asked him curiously.
Draco took a sip of his drink, feeling the way the whiskey burned its way pleasantly down his throat. He knew what his mother was doing.
“Of course not,” he finally answered.
“Then it’s settled,” she stated with an untroubled smile. “I’ll have a word with Astoria before I leave as I’m more than happy to host.”
A few minutes rolled by gently as they sat in companionable silence. Draco was the first to break their reveries with a short sigh. “Father’s portrait is furious,” he stated.
“As is half of Britain.”
“Are you going to do something about it?” He asked.
“I need to talk to Hermione first, find out what how she wants to approach it,” she replied lightly. “Regardless, we’ve smoothed out larger bumps than this, I’m sure this won’t prove too taxing.”
The blonde boy nodded contemplatively, considering whether it was wise to ask his next question, but his indignity gave out. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
His mother’s smile saddened as she leaned slightly closer to Draco. “Of course I was, Draco,” she said earnestly. “Contrary to what Miss Skeeter and that Weasley boy will have us believe, these developments have been very recent.”
“And do you truly think it wise to continue?” He finally asked, knowing this would be his only chance to question his mother’s judgement. “The reputation of all of our name’s are at stake here.”
“I’m well aware,” she replied cooly. “Do not make the mistake of thinking this was a choice made lightly.”
“Then what of the old ways?”
Narcissa considered his question calmly, knowing that if he insisted she would have no other choice but to end things with Hermione. In the last few days of Druella Black’s life, she had never stopped reminding Narcissa that being a mother meant sacrificing everything. Her words had had the ring go truth, backed as they were by the experience of a woman who had lost everything because of a child. Finishing her drink, Narcissa chose her words carefully.
“We should never make the mistake of believing that the limits of our own fields of vision, are the limits of the world.”
A few tense seconds ticked by, until at last Draco raised his hands in playful surrender. A wide smile bloomed on his mother’s face, and it occurred to him that it had been a long time since he had seen his mother look so delighted.
“Have you had breakfast?” He asked, unable to refrain from mirroring his mother’s infectious smile.
“No, I got rather caught up in all the commotion - came straight here.”
“Would you care to join me? I haven’t had breakfast either,” he offered warmly.
“I would love to, thank you,” she replied as they stood up. “It was terribly rude of me to cause an emergency before breakfast, I must apologise.”
“Don’t think twice about it, mother,” he said, offering her his arm as they made their way to the dining hall. “If anything, it’s always good fun trying to vanish all the howlers.”
Narcissa chuckled, “it’s been a while since we’ve had a good scandal, hasn’t it? Ah! Good morning, Astoria.”
“Morning, Cissy!” The young witch replied, quickly closing the paper she was reading with an embarrassed smile.
Narcissa waved her hand in appeasement, “don’t stop for my sake.”
“Actually, I was just waiting for Draco to come down,” she said cheerfully. “All the howlers will go off the moment I open the doors and two wands are always better than one. Or, well, three.”
“On the count of three, then,” Draco directed as the three of them unsheathed their wands.
Chapter 25: Abdication
Sorry guys, my arse got dumped so working on a romance was just the last thing I wanted to do. Let's all take this as a sign that I'm (finally) starting to get over it. Thank you for the reviews - they mean so much.
“The next train to depart from Platform 9 will be the five ten train to Skipton. Will all passengers intending to take this train, please make their way onto the platform…”
“Are you going anywhere interesting?”
Hermione jumped in her seat, snapping her newspaper closed and looked up to find Luna staring at her curiously with a large trunk next to her. “Golly, Luna, you shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”
The pale girl smiled apologetically, “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” she said softly as she sat in the empty chair next to her. “My train doesn’t leave for another half hour, and I saw you sitting here so I thought I should come over to say hello. Hello.”
“Hello,” Hermione replied hesitantly, despite the younger woman’s warm smile.
“I’m sorry, I interrupted your reading,” Luna said gesturing at the Prophet in Hermione’s hands. The muggleborn blushed bright pink and stuffed the newspaper in her bag, “No, please, don’t worry about it. Load of nonsense anyway.”
“I haven’t read the Daily Prophet in a long time,” Luna mused softly, “have I missed anything important?”
Hermione closed her eyes and sighed, “It’s complicated.”
“Tends to be, doesn’t it?”
The two witches sat in comfortable silence, watching the commuters busily making their way home - the muggles talked and ran and moved and planned, granting the two women glimpses into their small private domains. Hermione’s eyes locked onto an ageing couple pointing at the timetables before quickly making their way onto a platform that lay beyond her eyesight. A familiar laugh caught her attention as she toyed with the idea of showing Luna her copy of the Prophet, but the owner of that bellyful of laughter was not to be located in the moving crowd.
“This is a safety announcement. It is not permitted to cycle, skateboard or roller blade within the station building…”
“You never told me where you’re going,” Luna commented curiously.
“That’s because I’m not going anywhere,” Hermione replied quickly, before adding, “I spent the day in the library around the corner, but I just didn’t feel like going home.”
“That makes sense,” Luna stated, her ethereal smile radiating cryptically. “It’s difficult to find ourselves at home. The furniture is always insisting we haven’t changed just because it can’t. I had a lamp that claimed it knew me, but that wasn’t who I was; not essentially, anyway.”
Hermione frowned, once again finding herself slightly bemused by her friend’s well intended words. “What did you do with the lamp?” She asked slightly awkwardly.
“Oh, I gave it away,” Luna replied, “it was high time for it to meet someone new.”
“Of course.” Hermione narrowed her eyes but didn’t press any further. “Where are you going, Luna?”
“Hogwarts!” She said with a beaming smile. “I’m going to visit Neville for a week. He says he needs help with his Moondew. I suspect a pesky gulping plimpy.”
Hermione opened her mouth, but before she got the words out, she thought better of it. Instead, she opted to watch a trio of teenagers excitedly making their way towards the exit - their excitement carrying the distinct bounce of their first time alone in the city.
“The next train to depart from Platform 1 will be the five twenty five train to Peterborough via Finsbury Park. Will all passengers intending to take this train, please make their way onto the platform…”
“Do you come here often?”
The question caught Hermione by surprise. “Yes.”
“Are you waiting for someone?”
Hermione knew she was lying before the words even finished stumbling out of her mouth, “no one.” The Gryffindor bristled in her chair, wondering why Luna always had this effect on her. Her eyes swept over the vast expanse of King’s Cross station and sighed. Surveying the bright shops and busy rumble of life that pushed forward under the fluorescent lights she began in a quick and embarrassed rushed, “A few years ago, I was coming back from somewhere and I thought I saw my parents.” She paused expecting Luna to interject but she didn’t. “It probably wasn’t even them, but since then, whenever I’m in King’s Cross I always find pieces of them in other people’s faces. It’s horribly silly, I know.”
“It’s not,” Luna stated with a finality that allowed Hermione to set aside her embarrassment.
“Please do not leave your baggage unattended on the station. Luggage left unattended may be removed without warning or destroyed or damaged by the security services…”
“I’m in love with someone I definitely shouldn’t be in love with,” she finally managed to garble out. Her eyes burned into the large clock that hung above them as if begging it to save her from asphyxiating from the stress of trying to understand everything and everyone and all their secret motivations.
“Congratulations,” Luna began, “falling in love is such a difficult thing-“
“No, no, Luna, you don’t understand,” Hermione insisted urgently. “This changes everything.”
Luna delicately patted Hermione on the back. “Everything was going to change anyway, Hermione.”
The Gryffindor slumped in her chair, her tension unwound. Sitting quietly in King’s Cross, Hermione could almost see exactly how the future would uncoil. It was true, she could attempt to reason with Ron, chase after him with explanations and figures and facts, even apologise, even beg. But none of it would console him. She knew him. He would roar at her ten times louder than her most clamorous explanation, his alcohol intake would increase six-fold. Harry would provide words like “angry” and “sad” in his defence, assuring her that those emotions where perfectly normal for someone in Ron’s position. But she was angry too. She was being betrayed as well. The only difference was that Hermione knew that her righteous anger at him would ebb away over the days and weeks: it would be too difficult to sustain that sort of anger. The sadness would last longer.
“I fell in love with her because I saw the world through her eyes,” Hermione muttered distantly. “I thought… I thought, that perhaps, if I could see from her point of view, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to show everyone else what I saw. I thought I would at least get a chance to explain.”
Luna smiled sadly at her friend. “I’m sorry, Hermione, people seldom like being made to see.”
Hermione’s thoughts trailed to the Daily Prophet in her bag and suddenly, from the very bottom of her bowels she felt a fury so strong it was almost like grief. Is it hate? That didn’t seem like the right word, but she had no other.
“24 hour CCTV recording is in operation at this station for the purpose of security and safety management…”
“I sometimes try to imagine what future historians will say about us,” Luna wondered out loud. “What single sentence will they use to sum up modern wizardry?” Hermione didn’t answer, fully aware how fickle reputation could be. “I guess it doesn't really matter…” Luna trailed off.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“The next train to depart from Platform 11 will be the five thirty seven train to King’s Lynn via Cambridge. Will all passengers intending to take this train, please make their way onto the platform…”
Hermione perked up at the announcement, remembering that that was the train that could take her to the Fortress. “Actually, Luna, I am going somewhere.” The blonde girl looked at her curiously. “It’s time I go home.”
“Good luck then, Hermione,” Luna replied with a warm smile.
“Say hi to Neville from me!”
Waving one last goodbye to her smiling friend, Hermione joined the crowd, pleased she had figured out which direction she was meant to be heading.
“Granger,” was all he said as he stood holding the door open.
Draco regarded her with eyes weary around the edges, as if strained by the effort of considering too many things lately. Hermione endured his scrutiny with equanimity, unmoving and unwavering, until Draco stepped aside to let her in the marble fortress.
“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he warned haughtily.
Hermione’s lips parted. A loud crack interrupted her. Limpy stood before them with a silver tray holding a china set. “Tea?”
Draco nodded and took the delicate cup offered to him. Hermione followed suit, wondering if it was too late to bolt.
“She’s not here yet,” he offered, and Hermione could see the considerable effort he was putting into playing nice. He gestured awkwardly at the jade green chesterfields, but as they sat down their eyesight immediately darted to the morning’s papers spread out the coffee table between them. With ill concealed anger, Draco pulled his wand from his cane and set the papers on fire. Hermione let out a squeak as a small fireball arose from her picture on the front page. With a satisfied flourish Draco sheathed his wand and smoothed his hair back.
“I’ve half a mind to sue the Prophet,” he hissed angrily. “How dare they speak of my mother that way?”
Hermione sipped her tea nervously, desperately trying not to think about the fact that she and Draco were now related in some distant and awkward way. “You could… sue her. Rita Skeeter that is,” Hermione offered, trying not to sound as uncomfortable as she felt. Draco’s attention darted to her, waiting for her to continue. “Not about this,” she said and she felt all the blood in her body rushing to her face. “But in general - she’s an illegal animagus.”
A small smile crept on Draco’s face, “how do you know this, Granger?”
“During the Triwizard Tournament I caught her spying on us in the form of a beetle and I trapped her in an unbreakable jar until she promised she’d stop using it to spy on people. But the fact remains that she’s an unregistered animagus.”
Draco threw her a begrudgingly impressed smirk, but then his whole expression darkened. “What about Weasley? How are you going to fix that? Or is our lord and saviour Weasley allowed to do whatever he wants?”
Hermione sighed and looked at the clear night sky through the large windows. She should’ve suspected that Malfoy would want blood. And there was weight to his grievance - Ron could be so irresponsible, so utterly careless. She turned to face him and Draco looked into her eyes with an intensity that made Hermione realise this would be his only offer for a real truce.
The muggleborn leaned back into the couch, rubbing her temple as she mustered the courage to commit to all the implications he was asking of her. A deep breath. Of course, of course, she finally admitted to herself; there was nothing to debate. She would choose Narcissa and all her implications. She would pick her side every time, just as she had once for Harry.
“Contrary to popular belief I am not responsible for Ron’s actions,” she finally said with a heavy sigh. Draco looked at her curiously, the picture of patience as he calmly took a sip of his tea. “I’ve spent so much energy caring about what he thinks of me, that I just don’t care anymore. As for the article -“ she raised her hands in surrender, “it’s on his conscience, not mine. I have nothing to be ashamed for and I won’t dignify it with a response.”
Draco raised his eyebrows thoughtfully, then nodded, accepting Hermione’s response. The blonde man stood up in search of the drinks cabinet. “Drink, Granger?” He offered her.
He returned to his seat, passing her one of the ornate glasses. She watched him lazily swirl the amber liquid in his glass, and thought that after more than two decades of war with dust and soot, the wizarding aristocracy had exfoliated itself, since then wearing the honest look of an ageing actress at breakfast. He seemed to be struggling to chose whether to say something or not, but after a few sips of the firewhiskey, he surrendered.
“When my father died he said, ‘my son, I pray that you’ll be luckier than your father was, but still take after me in everything else.’” Draco avoided looking at the Gryffindor, as if he would be incapable of speaking what was on his mind if he had to acknowledge he was saying it to her. “For all his faults, family was sacred to him,” he spoke quietly, in a slow thoughtful pace Hermione almost found gentle. “In honour of that, I’ve set aside my animosity against your blood status, and I hope you can forgive me for the grief I’ve given you for it.”
Draco looked up at Hermione, surprised to find her smiling.
“That’s certainly a footing we can start with, Draco,” she said warmly, extending her hand out. Draco returned the smile and shook her hand.
Chapter 26: Coercion
“Come now, Cissy. What on earth are you thinking?”
Narcissa clenched her jaw trying not to wince at her friend’s words, but Luisa Ravenstock caught the gesture and took a delightedly scandalised sip of her tea, gleeful that her words were having a visible effect on the pureblood.
“I just can’t believe you of all people would do something like this to the Granger girl,” Luisa continued leaving Narcissa to wonder precisely which of the implications the word ‘girl’ Luisa took issue with. “And what about Draco? Surely he deserves better than to see this happen to the last of his family.”
Narcissa’s stomach dropped. Did Draco deserve better than to see his mother publicly shamed for her illicit affair with his sworn childhood enemy? If she thought about it for a little bit, it was almost funny; if she thought about it for longer, it was sad; if she thought about it too long, her head hurt, so Narcissa stopped thinking right away and returned her attention to Luisa who did not seem anywhere close to finished with her admonishments. Thinking didn’t do her many favours in this world.
“How you can square your conscience with this is beyond me,” She continued with a thick veneer of concern. “Look Cissy, I hope you know I’m just saying this because I love you. We’ve been friends since our first night at Hogwarts and we realised that both our mothers paid tribute to Cybele. This, this -“ Luisa raised her hands dramatically trying to find precisely the right words to describe Narcissa’s moral shortcomings “- folly! This folly is just going to do you, and the Granger girl, more harm than good. Really Cissy,” she cooed, “take it from me.”
A sudden, violent urge to throw the contents of her teacup onto Luisa’s smug face bloomed from the pit of Narcissa’s stomach; instead, she let a smile blossom on her face. The tightness around her eyes was her only give away.
“Of course Lulu,” she cooed back. “I’m so thankful that you raised these concerns, you know how I’ve always valued your insight.”
“Naturally, naturally, Cissy. What sort of friend would I be if I didn’t tell you just how terrible the mistake you’re making is?” She was good at wrapping the blow of her words with a saccharine laugh.
“Well, I’m so very grateful for this chat. I look forward to seeing you at my birthday, Lulu.”
“I better be going, thank you so much for the tea.”
The two women stood up simultaneously and walked towards the door arms linked together. “You need to come over more, Cissy. Keep you out of trouble!”
“I wouldn’t wish to intrude, Lulu.”
“Impossible! And please, if this… situation escalates, let me be the first to know so I can offer more help.”
“Thank you, Lulu. I certainly will.”
The women kissed on each cheek and Narcissa pulled her fur coat on. A curt nod and she immediately apparated from her friend’s doorstep. Her feet sunk into pebbly sand and in childish spite she threw her purse on the damp ground.
She closed her eyes, feeling the sea breeze ruffle the loose strands of her hair.
What a humiliating day.
It had begun in Pagford visiting the Fawleys. The boisterous Hufflepuff’s had gone on and on about “poor Miss Granger! - she deserves so much better than this!” They were referring to the Skeeter article, of course, but the disappointment in their address to her let her know that the ‘this’ extended to her. Then there was Violetta. She’d known well beforehand that the Bulstrode heir would have the time of her life with this. On the surface, the chatter seemed normal, even amicable. But after the last sip of her tea, the conversation quickly became dangerous.
“Why not have some fun with the tea leaves?” Violetta had purred, and Narcissa instantly realised that this was what the large woman had been waiting for. Her stomach knotted. She had seen Vi play this game countless of times before with unwitting victims.
“Oh, Vi? Really?” Narcissa had replied with fake amusement.
“Come on, Cissy. Just a little bit of harmless fun.” Violetta insisted, her smile frozen in place.
“The morning’s almost over, Vi. I don’t want to make you late.”
“Nonsense, Cissy. I always have time for you.” The older witch flicked her wrist, magically snatching the small porcelain cup out of Narcissa’s hand across the table and into hers. Violetta’s smile widened as she turned the cup over onto its saucer. She tapped it twice with her wand and Narcissa readjusted the strap of her bracelet nervously. “Lets see what we have here!”
Violetta turned the teacup back up and peered into the remains of the tea leaves. As the witch across her slowly turned the cup to see the contents from every angle, Narcissa consciously held back a sigh. Violetta’s acuity for divination had always been her sharpest weapon.
“Well then, Vi? What do you see?” Narcissa drawled, seeing no point to continue with any warmth in her tone.
Violetta had gently pushed the tea cup away from her, the self satisfied gesture matched in her smile. “Every omen points to sacrifice.”
Narcissa held back from rolling her eyes. She wasn’t going to indulge this any further. “Thank you for the revelation, Vi. I really must get going now.”
“Not every sacrifice will be answered, Cissy. For all we wish to give, not all can be received.”
Narcissa opened her eyes again, the sun was all but set and the wind was getting colder. Everyone loved a scandal no matter how big or small. After all, what could be more entertaining that watching the downfall of the high and mighty? What could be more amusing than the public exposure of hypocritical sinners. Yes, Narcissa mused, everybody loves a bloody scandal.
She picked up her purse and let the flare of anger in her stomach propel her to start walking towards the fortress. It was a brisk, angry walk, fuelled by the memory of each comment. She reached the end of the pier, and unrepentant, Narcissa rested her head against the black door of her marbled fortress with the tired serenity of a woman who had performed her duty. As the wind picked up around her she burrowed into her large fur coat, mentally listing all the people who would stand by her, those who wouldn’t, and all the liars in between who would pretend and purport all manner sympathies whilst in secret waiting to see if she sank or swam.
She sighed, slowly raising her head from the door and readjusted the collar of her coat. Her dress was digging uncomfortably into her ribs and all she wanted to do was to get out of the blasted thing. She had picked the dress carefully. It was one of those with a slit up the side, plunge down the middle, enough to show her bones. People liked that. People liked seeing all the places they could crack her open; it was tantalising. She needed to put herself at the mercy of her peers with an air of complaisance… not with even the hint of a grave, sour look, giving away the fact she did all this unwillingly. But the day was finally over, she reminded herself. It was over. She could finally rest after a day of hopping from one great manor to the next projecting hubristic confidence in her ability to come out winning from this scandal. But who knew… who knew if she would. To this new great wizarding society, blemishing the heroes of the war was a far greater sin than being amongst those whom the heroes defeated.
Narcissa finally opened the door, pausing in surprise to find her son and Hermione talking amiably, if not a little awkwardly.
“Mother, you’re back,” Draco said standing up from his chair. Hermione followed suit, flashing her a bemused smile Narcissa found adorable. The pureblood took her gloves off and went to give Draco a soft kiss on the check.
“I trust you’ve been playing nicely,” she whispered into his ear with a fond smirk.
“Of course, mother,” he replied quietly, content to play her game.
“Good,” she declared, turning her attention to Hermione. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Only about a half hour or so,” Hermione supplied, blushing as the pureblood delicately placed her hand on the small of her back. Narcissa didn’t even question Hermione’s presence; her apparition seemed the natural conclusion to her day.
“Good, good, let's go down to the dungeons - I’ve a few more ingredients to add to both your potions,” Narcissa said absentmindedly, leading the way purposely down the narrow stairs. She turned to see her son and Hermione following her, and a sense of pride flared amidst the horror of shame that filled her chest.
A few hours later, after having been put to chop ingredients with ‘the blonde git’ - who could actually be not a git when he wanted to - Hermione was left to observe the pureblood’s comings and goings almost undistracted. The two witches had settled naturally back into their routine of study. The tensions of their day would not have to be acknowledged for as long as there was the excuse of potions to stir or equations to solve. Any chore would do, really.
Behind the quiet scratch of her quill, Hermione watched as Narcissa re-entered the dungeons for a fourth time. The pureblood had nipped out while the cauldron reached the right temperature and she had changed into an old pair of silk robes and let her black her loose. She looked utterly exhausted. Having already taken the time to change for bed herself, Hermione knew it would be up to her to get the older witch into bed. Left to her own devices, Narcissa was likely to stay up all night finding more and more chores to occupy herself with until the morning call of her calendar whisked her away to the duty of her daily engagements.
Two dollops of moondew were dropped into the cauldron, and Hermione watched as Narcissa bit her lip to keep a scowl taking over her face.
Hermione looked back down to her sequents. P&Q, P <-> R ⊢ S v R… P&Q was an assumption, the second assumption was a biconditional and the conclusion was a disjunction - the older witch groaned and disapparated the contents of the cauldron. Hermione looked up to watch as Narcissa started her potion all over again. Something about the pureblood had been off since she’d arrived and as Hermione pretended to go back to her sequent, she wondered what had pushed Narcissa into angrily chopping gillyweed with a careless vigour.
The Gryffindor managed to add a conjunction elimination to her proof before she was interrupted again by the soft poof noise of yet another potion being eliminated. Hermione noticed how Narcissa’s hands were shaking as she tried to measure the exact amount of ruby dust until her patience snapped and she threw the measuring spoon on the counter and let out a measured breath. Quietly, Hermione stood up and headed towards the older witch. She placed a soft kiss on the pureblood’s shoulder and with a steady hand, measured the powder, adding it into the copper cauldron.
“There,” Hermione said softly, watching the water bubble into a magnificent blue. The potion would hold true under a gentle simmer if it was paused there.
The Gryffindor reached out for Narcissa’s hand and without asking, led her up the stairs and into their room. Hermione climbed into the poster bed and pulled the pureblood with her, arranging them so that the older witch was curled into her side, her head on Hermione’s chest as the muggleborn ran her fingers through her hair.
“Would you like to talk about it?” She asked.
“No,” Narcissa said quietly, wrapping her arm tightly over Hermione’s stomach.
“Okay,” Hermione replied. She thought about pushing, but reminded herself that if there was anyone she could trust to know their own mind it would be Narcissa. Curled up in the silent dark, Hermione let the soothing warmth of Narcissa’s body coo her to sleep.
For her part, the pureblood wrestled with sleep in fits and starts. Throughout she held onto Hermione’s cold body, willing herself not to ask herself when she would accept that she was imprisoning her beloved in a net of tyrannies: she, Narcissa, who had begun as pitiable would become monstrous. Her friends’ words from that morning kept clamouring in her head. She was mad, mad, mad! But every lover is mad, or at least she was told. But could she imagine a madman in love? Never… Narcissa replied to herself. The only madness I’m entitled to is an impoverished, incomplete, metaphorical madness… love drives me nearly mad, but I do not communicate with the divine…
There is nothing of the sacred within me.
Narcissa untangled herself from Hermione and lay on her back resigned to her sleeplessness. There was a dull ache in her chest and there would be no budging from it. She rubbed her chest wondering if she was honest enough to admit where it came from.
She missed Lucius.
His love had been negligent, but she missed him because of his negligence. It had been more than she had ever gotten from anyone else, and it was as much as she thought she was ever going to get.
The woman laying beside her loved her with a love that was more than love. Hermione’s love had blossomed within Narcissa a breath of life she had never had. She was indebted to her for giving her a second chance to live a life well lived. But for Narcissa there was nothing worse in life than being indebted to someone, especially when it was to her lover. Especially when she saw no way to repay her. Every time she tried to do right by Hermione the result was catastrophic, and the art of catastrophe no longer calmed her down.
Narcissa quietly stepped off the bed and perched herself on the couch by the window.
She tugged at the chocker on her neck.
I am not someone else, she realised with horror each time she felt the maddening weight of her family’s crest on her chest. I am not someone else.
“Still can’t sleep?” A tired voice asked her from within the canopy bed.
“Not quite yet,” she replied. “Go back to sleep.”
She heard the shuffling of sheets and a second later Hermione had plopped herself in the seat opposite her. “It’s going to take me a while to get back to sleep.”
“I do apologise. Are you sure you’re not tired?” Narcissa asked gently. Hermione gave her a warm grin and wrapped the blankets she had brought with her closer.
“I had a weird day and I still can’t shake off the feeling,” the young witch offered. “You?”
“I suppose weird could be one way to describe it.”
Hermione looked at the pureblood curiously, her thoughtful features were concentrated on the dark sea outside and she suddenly got the feeling that she was intruding in a private moment of contemplation. Hermione wanted to smack herself on the forehead - sleep had made her forget about her ‘non-pushy’ policy. Not quite knowing what to do with herself she blurted out, “Draco is actually really nice.”
Narcissa looked at her curiously but then smiled. “He’s always liked you,” she said with some amusement. “Even when he didn’t.” The older witch smiled at Hermione’s unbelieving expression. “I’m not being facetious,” she insisted smiling, “half of all the letters he ever sent me from Hogwarts were filled with detailed narrations of your exploits and achievements. He was very bad at hiding his begrudging admiration,” Narcissa paused thoughtfully for a moment. “Boys like Draco are foiled by their own envy.”
“Because such a friendship would’ve been so approved of in Malfoy Manor,” Hermione replied with playful admonishment.
Narcissa laughed gently at the thought and leaned her head back on the couch, letting the moon illuminate the stretch along her ivory neck. “Boys like Lucius must be heard but not listened to. Another foil for Draco.”
“Didn’t you listen too, though?”
Narcissa smirked with her eyes closed. “The true cynic know’s the vacuousness of what he’s doing but keeps on doing it.”
“Oh stop with that,” Hermione huffed good-naturedly. Narcissa chuckled a soft laugh and opened her bright blue eyes to look at the young woman before her. What would she and Lucius have done if Draco had done the unthinkable and brought a young Hermione Granger to Malfoy Manor? Well… they would have had no option to be anything but polite, she imagined. Leave the disapproval for when the child had left. Narcissa’s stomach twisted with guilt, the shame seeping deeper and deeper as Hermione looked at her with that serene expression of hers, the one that said, I know. I know. It’s okay.
“I’m sorry,” Narcissa offered, surprising herself with a sincere display of meekness. “It was a different time.”
“I know,” Hermione replied gently. “Although I can’t pretend to understand it.”
“I could blame my family and upbringing,” Narcissa said. “Trace back my responsibility through centuries, until every Black but the first was innocent. But no…” The pureblood closed her eyes again, her voice growing softer. “No, we are not just a product of objective circumstances, we have a tiny amount of freedom and it is enough for our guilt to be entirely our own.”
Hermione’s hand traced her blackened scar underneath the cozy covers and she shivered at the memory of cold hands dirtied with black magic. “What was the appeal?” She asked suddenly. “What was the logic behind believing in all that? In backing someone who openly wanted to be a tyrant?” Hermione narrowed her eyes on Narcissa, almost as afraid of her own questions as she was of the answers. “Maybe this is a stupid question, but… don’t you believe in freedom?”
“We just believed… I suppose still believe, in only the most vague of senses, of course…” Narcissa twirled her hand expressively, “that were there a people of god, of course their freedom should be unfettered. But… such allowances are not meant for fallible men.”
“We might not be perfect, but we are most certainly perfectible,” Hermione replied.
Narcissa smiled uncomfortably. “Perhaps. I guess we just believed that law and order would never prevail in a city where fear’s not well established. You know… how can discipline be maintained without the backing of fear and proper respect?” Narcissa closed her eyes, as if pained by having to admit her reasoning out loud. “It took me too long to realise that the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on a quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum until it goes… pop.”
Hermione quickly got up from her chair and plopped herself next to Narcissa, splaying the thick blanket over both their bodies so she could burrow closer to the pureblood. Narcissa pulled the younger witch into her arms, realising that this was the first time in her life she’d ever had to justify her actions to anyone. The guilt that had laid stagnant in her chest was finally being stirred back to life by her lover, and a small, horribly honest part of her was glad someone finally loved her enough to hear her confession.
“We were stupid,” Narcissa admitted.
“As much as I can’t believe I’m saying this… it sounds like you were human,” Hermione replied honestly. “People do weird things when they’re scared. Still not quite sure what you were scared of, but it sounds like your lot was terrified.”
Narcissa smiled sadly. “Scared and proud. The most dangerous combination… as all terrible movements, this one came from an idea,” she said rubbing her eyes. “It was… it was our belief that wizards didn’t belong to the world, but were in fact the limit of it.” She paused, “It would be dishonest of me to say we weren’t all enraptured by the idea, and, well, you know… when everyone thinks the same, no one thinks at all.”
“I look back now and a lot of things don’t quite make sense,” Hermione admitted. “Why we had to go through a lot of things… and the more I think about it, the more I feel like so many of the cruelest things we went through was because good people couldn’t admit they weren’t doing the right thing. Which leads me to begin thinking of violent acts as enacting some sort of symbolic deadlock of something that can’t be expressed. The tension must be relieved some way and if we’re not very careful that way will turn out being violence.”
“I like to believe that no cruel man is cruel to the extent that the mistreated man believes,” Narcissa replied, allowing herself to let go of some of the tension that had her so wired, despite her minds eye returning to the memory of the cruciatus curse curling on her lips. She’d had little talent for the Unforgivables, a quirk her sister had liked to goad her with. “The idea of pain is not the same as the suffering of it. It is automatically assumed that the perpetrator and the sufferer think and feel the same, and the guilt of the one is therefore measured by the pain of the other.”
“But you’ve got to mean it, really want it. Isn’t that what they say about Unforgivables?”
A shiver ran down Narcissa’s spine. How could this woman see through her so clearly even in the dark? “Yes.” She didn’t believe herself capable of lying anymore. “He asked us to be honest enough to admit that there is pleasure in inflicting pain. You see, most people are too dishonest, and a few people are too good, to know anything about this… type of shame. He… swooped in just as our numbers were dwindling and our traditions were being watered. Our lands - the air, the ground, and the waters - muggle pollutions encroaching and disturbing the ancient cycles that are at the heart of our magics. He promised cleansing. Then with our attention undivided he tapped into the most primal of fears - death. First it was about protecting our way of life and our lands, then it became about something else entirely - immortality, to ensure the eternal preservation of the old ways. And then… then it became about power for powers sake, but by then his evil and our shame had covered us entirely, like particles of dust. There was no cleaning that could wash away what we had already done.”
Quite settled around her confession. She felt lips on her clavicle and a gentle kiss quickly followed. Relief flooded Narcissa’s chest. A distant seagull heralded the commence of a new sunrise soon. She’d let herself close her eyes until that sun lifted her from the dark.
The young witch tugged at her fluffy scarf aware she stood out in a crowd relishing in the warm, almost hot weather. Her walk was slow, each step weighed down by a pain that gained traction daily. Even under heated layers and the kind shine of the sun, the bitter cold in her bones added to her invisible struggle to arrive to the bookstore. She already had what she needed, a new dress for her dinner later today, but she couldn’t resist a treat on such an ominous day. Hermione stopped outside the owl emporium and pulled out a delicate diamond shaped crystal vial. Discreetly, but under the watchful gaze of the young birds looking at her intently from the windowsill, she uncorked the vial releasing a faint green mist that quickly evaporated into the air. The birds hooted curiously, mildly ruffled by the magic that had been released in front of their storefront, their agitation increasing as they witnessed the young witch put her lips to the bottle and with a grimace, began drinking the contents of the vial.
The effect was immediate. Like pure acid the potion scorched her tongue and throat and soon her whole body felt on fire. Hermione hardly registered the sound of glass smashing as feverous beads of sweat started running down her face and her vision blurred white. The birds had exploded into a full cantankerous ruckus and Hermione wondered if Narcissa had measured the poisonous ingredients wrong… but just before the pain laid her unconscious… it all stoped. The birds settled down. Her vision cleared and for small, brief moment, Hermione almost felt cozy under all her woolly layers. The cold quickly took over again.
“Speculo reparo,” Hermione whispered and tucked the fixed vial back into her pocket. One small charm hardly counted as breaking Narcissa’s no magic rule, Hermione reasoned guiltily.
With renewed vigour the Gryffindor gathered her bearings and resumed her walk to Flourish and Blots. Hermione took a childish pleasure in being part of the bustling streets of Diagon Alley - just one more body in a crowd of extraordinary. Magic bubbled in every corner and she remembered it had been in these streets with their impossible architectures that she had first understood the limitless possibilities she was being offered through membership of this society.
And then, with Gringots fully in sight, Hermione stopped outside the store that had stolen her heart well over a decade ago. The old familiar bell rung and habit helped her duck as a book floated by her head and back to its place on the shelves.
“Good morning, Miss Granger,” the bookkeeper greeted from the balcony. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“Not today, Delphius,” Hermione replied with a huge smile.
“There’s a new book on elemental transfiguration I’ve been meaning to write to you about. I’m sure you’ll find it in the back section by the -“
“By the Bartleby Encyclopedia?”
Delphius chuckled, “Yes, by the Bartleby Encyclopedia.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for it, thank you, Delphius!”
“Of course, Miss Granger.”
The store had a good handful of patrons browsing the shelves, and Hermione was relieved that her exchange with Delphius had gone unnoticed by the other customers in the shop. After the Skeeter article, her natural proclivity for privacy had doubled downed. The thought of running into inquiring masses demanding explanations and offering opinions filled Hermione with a frightening anxiety she hadn’t felt since her days in Hogwarts.
All she wanted of her Tuesday morning was to calmly peruse the bookshelves for nothing in particular.
She remembered the first time she had walked into Flourish and Blotts with her nervous parents. They had stood closely next to her as if afraid to lose their only reference in this alien world. Hermione had taken particular delight in slowly seeking each book on her school list, her fingers tracing titles she had never heard of. She remembered distinctly the concentration she had employed, desperate to remember all the authors she didn’t know so that she could look them up as soon as possible. She could feel now, just as she had then, the magic reverberating from within the closed pages and it awoke the hunger that had taken over her the day McGonagall had come knocking on her door. Each book was a secret and there didn’t seem to be enough life to reveal each one.
The Gryffindor jumped in surprise.
“I thought that was you, how are you doing?” Susan Bones said with a gentle smile.
“Susan, I didn’t see you there.”
The Hufflepuff chuckled taking her witches hat off and giving it a pat. “Didn’t mean to frighten you, it’s just been ages since I’ve seen you, although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here.”
Hermione smiled at the former D.A. member noticing the ministry pin attached to her robes. “They finally recruited you, did they?” Hermione asked nodding at the pin.
Susan blushed slightly, “Oh yeah…” she began in a faintly embarrassed tone, “the Wizengamot kept nagging… I’ll never be able to fill her shoes… but I guess it’s what she would’ve wanted. Keep the family tradition alive and all…”
The witch before her looked all the part of a respected member of the Wizengamot; from the meticulously pressed robes to the ministry issued white band around her neck. However, the way Susan bit her lip nervously reminded Hermione of the girl she had shared so many desks with at school while Ron and Harry had automatically paired up. Susan had always been a quiet witch, happy to share her space without questions even when the rest of the school was dying to find out the latest golden trio gossip.
“And are you enjoying it?” Hermione asked her as they walked slowly past the shelves.
“It’s actually not as bad as I thought it would be. A lot of work, of course… But it is satisfying. Definitely not the adventures we dreamed of in Gilderoy’s class,” she said with an easy laugh that Hermione shared. “But it’s necessary work.”
“I can imagine, I’ve heard of all the reforms they’ve been trying to get through.”
Susan’s eyes lit up at the comment. “Of course you have,” she said more to herself than to Hermione and the Gryffindor looked away to hide her wince. “Narcissa Black is behind quite a few of those. I think her trial reform is long needed, although you didn’t hear me say that. But some of her other stuff… she certainly keeps me busy, to say the least,” Susan let out a tired sigh and caught sight of Hermione’s growing grimace. “Sorry, I can imagine you don’t want to talk about this, Skeeter had no business publishing your private affairs. That woman has always seemed to have it in it for you…”
Hermione remembered her conversation with Draco, and in a split second decided to confide in her old classmate. “Indeed, she has… and about that… I think Draco Malfoy might actually sue her, and I can’t imagine him letting her settle this outside of court, so just a heads up that you might be getting a very angry Malfoy knocking on your door soon.”
Susan raised her eyebrows with curiosity. “And are you for this?”
For some reason Hermione couldn’t quite pin, she felt her cheeks reddening madly as she replied, “I am, actually. I’ll probably be one of the main witnesses he applies with.”
Susan looked at Hermione curiously for a second but then nodded. “I’ll keep an eye out for the submission file then, and I’ll let you know when it’s been processed.”
“Thank you, Susan,” she replied, grateful for the Hufflepuff’s impartiality despite Hermione’s new allegiance with a Malfoy.
“Don’t mention it,” Susan said absentmindedly, “but if you could help me find Tobias Thomson’s compendium on troll rights I wouldn’t complain…”
Hermione lit up, “As a matter of fact, I do know where that is! It’s next to the shelf about house elves, over here -“
The two witches set about looking for the book, enjoying an easy chatter that made Hermione forget entirely about the Skeeter article. Once they had found the right book and Hermione had picked up a few books of her own along the way, Susan pulled her behind a shelf after they had paid up.
“Hermione,” Susan began, and the young witch’s heart dropped knowing it had been wishful thinking to imagine she had got off so lightly. “I know it’s none of my business, and Skeeter had no right to publish your private affairs, but as your friend I feel like I should warn you -“
“I know, I know - once an evil Malfoy, always an evil Malfoy -“
“No,” Susan said gently cutting through Hermione’s exasperated retort. “I really mean it when I say it’s not my business. But you need to know that the Wizengamot isn’t fond of the Blacks, especially ones that used to be a Malfoy. They’ve never really forgiven them for getting away unpunished during the war trials -“
“But Harry testified! We all heard why -“
“I know, I know. I was there. But just because the Wizengamot exonerated them doesn’t mean they did it willingly. It just so happened that at the time it would’ve been political suicide to go against Harry’s testimony,” Susan sighed uncomfortably, shuffling the books under her arms as she tried to find the right words. “Look, all I’m saying is that coupled with some of the reforms she’s trying to push through, any misstep on her behalf and you can know for certain all the senior members will be morphing into angry veela’s for some form of retribution,” Susan raised her hand stopping Hermione’s interruption. “Aligning herself with you will be seen by most as an unexpectedly shrewd move to buy herself more protection and influence in the Ministry.”
“But I’ve hardly even stepped foot in the Ministry since the trials,” Hermione said with a scowl. “What protection and influence am I supposedly giving her?”
Susan raised a patient eyebrow, “I’m supposed to be the Hufflepuff here and you the one in bed with a Slytherin - I shouldn’t have to spell this out to you… The point is, you’re walking head first into some very old grudges; old and strong enough that all parties involved won’t hesitate to drag you into them.”
Hermione suddenly felt very tired again. She nodded. Susan squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, “but you’ve dealt with the Umbridge type before,” the Hufflepuff pulled out a Galleon from her robes and winked at Hermione as she turned back towards to the exit. “If my memory serves me right a small rebellion was involved.” Susan twirled the Galleon in her fingers and just before she tucked it back away and walked out, Hermione noticed that it lacked a serial number on its edges.
Hermione stood for a moment looking out of the door of Flourish and Blotts. Her friend had become another hat in the crowd and the young witch was hesitant to enter the sprawling mess of people shopping. The relief she felt from knowing that she had a friend looking out for her in the Ministry was slightly overwhelmed by the knowledge she now had unknown enemies in it. And then, as quickly as a candle being lit, Hermione understood her parents’ hesitation every time they stepped into the wizarding world. It was a wonderous world with limitless possibilities, but a certain brutality always hung around the edges. It was not a world meant for those feint of heart. Hermione shook her head, trying to dispel the discomfort in her chest, and walked back out to the sunny street.
The discomfort stayed with her all the way back to the Fortress.
“Did the siren’s call of a new book distract you?” Narcissa asked casually as she placed a kiss on her forehead when Hermione arrived. The younger witch nodded absently, taking her cloak off and setting her books on the table. “Ah, I see the pull led to more than one,” Narcissa commented fondly.
Hermione debated whether or not to tell her about her conversation with Susan, grateful the older witch was making herself busy in the potions lab.
“Did you know about the Chamber of Secrets?” Hermione asked suddenly, surprising herself with the question. Narcissa froze.
“What do you mean?”
Hermione scratched her head, suspecting an oncoming headache. “Did you know there was a great big monster at Hogwarts attacking the students - albeit the muggleborns - and that Dumbledore had no idea what to do about it?”
The initial surprise of the topic of conversation had quickly disappeared from Narcissa’s face, replaced with an inscrutable expression. “Of course I did, and not just because Lucius was on the board of governor’s - Draco wrote to me, told me all about Filch’s cat and how you, Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley were at the crime scene.” Narcissa took the chair next to Hermione and started jarring the assorted ingredients in front of her. “And even if he hadn’t, I would’ve found out sooner or later from one of the other parents. Why?”
“Wait, so all the parents knew?” Hermione asked shocked.
“I don’t know if the muggle parents knew, I imagine you’d be in a better position to know that than me.”
“No, they didn’t know; but I didn’t realise that was just us. I mean Harry had no one else to tell and Ron never wrote home…”
“What was that for?” Hermione asked.
“Nothing,” Narcissa said in the carefully reserved tone she usually reserved for work. “But let me gander a guess… you and all the other muggleborns knew you’d be taken out of Hogwarts if your parents found out.” The derisive drawl she was renown for was creeping back into her voice.
“Well of course! There was a basilisk let loose! Muggle or not that’s not something that can be brushed off."
Narcissa’s posture straightened, and she stopped chopping the ingredients she was pickling. The round room was well illuminated with candles floating languidly around the room, casting long shadows over the walls of ingredients. Hermione could tell Narcissa was choosing her words carefully. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but in Dumbledore’s defence no one knew it was a basilisk until after it was killed so… heroically… by Mr Potter.”
“Basilisk or not I was petrified,” Hermione argued, failing to understand why she and the pureblood weren’t seeing eye to eye about this.
“Yes, a condition easily reversible provided you have some good mandrakes and even the most minimal of competence in potion making, which naturally, Severus had. Poppy assessed you after your attack and it must have been evident to all involved that there was no permanent damage to your personhood. If a petrification was grounds for pulling children out of Hogwarts, no wizard would receive an education,” Narcissa said with an infuriating little shrug. “In my experience muggle parents sorely lack the perspective necessary to get by in the magical world. Any tiny little incident sends them running to the hills…”
Hermione sighed, knowing she was fighting a losing battle but not ready to relent just yet. “Perspective? Is that what you’re going to blame their common sense on.”
“I don’t know what they got up to in the Gryffindor common room, but in Slytherin it was a right of passage to learn how to cast a jelly legs jinx. Utterly harmless magic that’ll either wear off in an hour at the most, or can be remedied with an even simpler counter curse. However, you jinx a muggle with that and they lose their minds thinking they’re dying of some sort of brain disease they can get, which is reasonable -“ she added seeing Hermione’s mouth open to argue - “but they lose their minds because they lack the perspective to understand it’s just a little magic. Barbaric they would call it. We can’t afford not having thicker skins.” Narcissa looked at her with a friendly smirk. “I’m surprised we’ve ever had to have this conversation considering Miss Edgecombe still bears the marks of your handiwork.”
“That was different -“ Hermione faltered as Narcissa laughed triumphantly with an easy smile on her face. The pureblood stood up and placed her hand on the back of Hermione’s neck bending around to place a playful kiss on her lips, “If you say so, dear.”
In Wiltshire, Draco had begun his day with what he could only describe as a whiff of absurdity in the air. Astoria had planted a kiss on his cheek to remind him she had to go pick up her new dress for tonight’s dinner, and he nodded through the motions letting habit rescue him from paralysis.
The young man ran his hand through his blonde hair looking at his reflection wearily. Little sleep had graced him the night before, nerves keeping him tossing and turning as he ran awkward scenario after awkward scenario in his head. Draco’s hand hovered over the seven razors on his counter, the second one floating up to his hand while a boar brush applied a generous layer of lather on his cheeks. He’d been dreading this day since Astoria had persuaded his mother to host a dinner for her and Granger. It was one thing to exchange information and reaffirm uneasy truces while they waited for his mother’s potions, which reminded him… Draco knocked back a small gleaming vial, shivering as the poisons snaked through his body with an acidic burn… But it was a whole other thing to be expected to engage in the formal activities of polite society for a whole dinner. A dark silver tie slithered around his neck looping itself into a full Windsor knot. What would they even talk about for five courses?
“It’s going to be fine, you know?” Astoria said with a reassuring smile as she smartened his tie.
“Of course, darling.” He said with pursed lips. “I’m sure we’ll all fondly reminisce about our schooldays together. Or perhaps our war days. And if that fails I’m sure conversation of our happy families will rescue the day.”
Astoria laughed gently, not at all put off by her husband’s sarcasm. “Well, if you’re nervous, just imagine how nervous she must be, but it will do you both good. You’ll see.” Draco huffed in response as he fiddled with his cufflinks. “If this ends disastrously I am taking no responsibility.”
“Yes, yes,” Astoria said appeasingly.
The day trudged on both painfully slow yet terrifyingly quickly. Before he knew it Draco was once more fiddling with his cufflinks whilst he finished arranging his dinning robes. Just as he sat in his favourite chair in the parlour the ancient doorbell rang announcing the arrival of his guests. For a moment Draco was transported back in time to the last time that doorbell had rang with Granger behind it. Dread filled his body as he waited for his aunt’s cackle of magic to fill the room or for Greyback’s stench to reach him. Instead he felt a warm squeeze belonging to his wife bringing him back to the present.
The door opened and he stood up automatically, bending his head down to the floor respectfully while he felt his heart beating up to his throat. His mother’s shoes appeared in his field of vision and in a second her hand had cupped his cheek lifting his face to kiss the other side. “Thank you for having us, Draco.” She said sincerely, her eyes sparkling with joy. He smiled at her, relaxing ever so slightly at the tenderness in her expression.
She took a step back revealing the younger witch in muted gold and blue robes. Their eyes locked and both seemed terrified by the sight of the other. Draco took a tentative step towards her and Hermione reciprocated. In a further wave of absurdity he could almost hear his father hissing “Manners!” at him before smacking him on the back of the head. It was his turn to extend his hand to her.
“Thank you for coming, Granger,” he said awkwardly as they shook hands.
“Pleasure, Malfoy,” she replied. The other two witches exchanged amused eye rolls and sat down. “The flowers outside look beautiful,” Hermione offered nervously.
“Thank you!” Astoria said with pleased delight. “I’ve always been rather passionate about Herbology. Mummy hated me getting my hands muddy but that’s part of the satisfaction. Do you grow yourself?”
Hermione looked a little shy under the attention of the three Slytherins. “I’ve always toyed with the idea of growing some of my own materials for potions but the space in Grimmauld Place isn’t very inviting, so I’ve never got around to it.”
“Oh, you know what you should start on then?…”
Draco reached out to grab a glass that had just popped on a silver tray in the middle of their circle. The elves were under strict instruction to keep the drinks flowing throughout the evening, a small mercy he figured he wouldn’t be alone in appreciating, especially as Granger nervously gulped down half her flute while Astoria and Narcissa commented on indoor plants. With sardonic amusement he noticed that everyone had made the deliberate choice to avoid house colours. He wondered what that said about them.
The Gryffindor was actually sitting in his aunt’s usual chair. He bit his tongue before he accidentally vomited that fact out. It was almost silly what a few years and a number of choices could do, Draco thought to himself. The last time Granger had been in this room he’d been convinced none of them would make it out alive; and with the way Granger sat with her back ram rod straight in attention he imagined she was thinking about that too. Draco almost felt pity for the girl in front of him, he knew how difficult it was to feel enclosed by the same black wooden panels that had once witnessed your screams. The pity stopped short when he remembered the circumstances that precipitated the occasion. Even as the two witches sat in front of him his mind still couldn’t really wrap itself around the idea that they were together. He kept expecting one or both to jump and scream ‘April Fools!’ An occurrence that would make much more sense even though April was more than a quarter year past.
Once all glasses had been emptied a crystal ball on the mantlepiece glowed twice indicating a move to the dinning hall was in order. Draco watched his mother stand up, a renewed joy colouring her graceful movements as she offered her hand to Hermione. A pang of sadness struck his stomach as he failed to remember if his father had ever made her smile like that. Draco leaned onto his cane as they shuffled into the dinning room. The chandeliers shone brightly letting light bounce on the stone columns. No one noticed his brief hesitation before he sat at the head of the table. His father had made a point of reclaiming the seat, and Draco was intent on honouring that wish no matter the nausea involved… the chair was his birthright, so that was that.
Draco sneaked a glance at the Gryffindor, noticing the way her eyes darted around the room as if making note of every exit. A shameful part of him took satisfaction in her discomfort. The porcelain bowls filled with steaming soup that spread a warm and comforting smell. Her tension was even evident in the uncertain way she held her silver spoon. Guilt flooded his chest. Astoria was right, he was not the most uncomfortable person in the room. Draco took a sip of the soup, enjoying the heat that spread through his chest and wondered what he could possibly say that could be considered an olive branch? The table had fallen quiet and he knew everyone felt the rising tension even though they were all making a concerted effort to seem engrossed by their soup. What was he supposed to say? He couldn’t be expected to conjure confetti her way and he didn’t actually know her beyond the insufferable know-it-all that always dominated attention in class. Well… there was something in that department she could help settle.
“Granger,” He began as neutrally as possible. All three sets of eyes shot to him. “There’s something I’ve always wondered…” Hermione cocked her head slightly waiting for him to continue. “How did you take all those classes in third year?”
Hermione let out a relieved little laugh. “Oh, boy… did everyone notice?”
“That you were in every class?” Draco’s tone was sarcastic but none of the bite was there. “You did have a fondness for speaking up.”
“But wait,” Astoria said scrunching her face in concentration as she did the mental arithmetic. “You couldn’t have taken every elective, there isn’t enough time.”
Hermione flashed the table a conspiratorial grin and seemed to relax a little. “I’m not supposed to tell… And I’m pretty sure Professor McGonagall could still put me in detention but… time-turner. They gave me a time-turner.”
Despite themselves, the three Slytherins broke out in a barrage of questions which Hermione seemed game to answer. By the time the four of them were enjoying their delicately stuffed quails the awkwardness had been significantly reduced and Draco found himself almost enjoying the conversation. Almost. The tentative joy being shared at his father’s table tasted bittersweet to him. There was just something about seeing his mother and wife trading sincere smiles over Granger’s company that sent something desperate and nostalgic squirming down his throat. Since the start of the week the portrait of his father had vacated his seat and was still nowhere to be seen. The absence in the frame felt doubled at the table and Draco couldn’t help but feel like the chair he sat in was too big for him.
“I did actually hunt the quails myself,” Draco said in reply to his mother’s question. “Now you can’t complain I don’t get out enough.” His mother smiled fondly at him and he let the conversation move away from him. He took a large sip of wine watching the way the three witches swapped anecdotes easily and tried pinning down the source of his sadness. It would be easy to blame Granger, even easier to direct his discomfort through anger at the Gryffindor. His grip on his fork tightened and he forced himself to consider whether he would have actually preferred McLaggen Sr. in Hermione’s seat. With an imperceptible sigh he relented - it wouldn’t have been that much easier.
Their top plates disappeared leaving the bottom ones empty for the boards of cheese that now filled their end of the table. Draco reached for the Stilton. So this was it. He watched his mother telling Granger to try the Little Dragon by passing her her cheese knife. His father was gone. Intellectually Draco was more than aware that his father had been gone for quite some time now, but as long as his mother remained the solemn widow the door between the present and the past felt cracked open. But here they were, Hermione Granger, of all people, making his mother smile more in one evening than he usually saw her smile in a month. He could almost hear that door slamming shut. Shut to the Christmas mornings when he’d wake up his begrudging parents; shut to his birthday trips to Diagon Alley; shut to the hug they would give him before leaving in September with both sets of arms wrapped tightly around him, his mother’s silent tears falling on his collar while the metal of his father’s ring accompanied the feel of his fingers being run through his hair.
Draco shook his head forcing his attention back to the dinner. “Dessert, anyone?” Astoria asked cheerfully, tapping her fingers twice on the table making individual cups of chocolate mouse appear in front of everyone. “You know if you need any help getting your birthday celebrations in order, I’d be more than happy to help.”
“Thank you, I expect I will.” Narcissa replied.
Draco gathered his courage and directed his look at the Gryffindor. “You’ll soon be discovering the horrors of trying to buy a gift for my mother.” Hermione blushed but seemed comfortable under Draco’s attention. “I’m glad it seems I won’t be alone in the panic.”
“Not at all,” he replied, “it’s been downhill for me from the day hand drawn cards stopped cutting it.” The two of them actually managed to share a rueful smile.
“Oh, you both make me sound like a harpy!” Narcissa exclaimed with a laugh. “I am not that hard to get presents! And in any case, your company will be more than enough.”
“That’s what she always says,” Draco drawled with mirth. “And that always makes it harder.”
“Do you agree with this, Astoria?” Narcissa asked feigning offence.
“Absolutely not, Cissy, no one could possible be any easier to buy a gift for than you…” The beautiful woman bit her lip trying not to laugh but all four quickly broke.
“Well, on that note I must thank you both for the wonderful meal,” Narcissa said graciously.
“Yes, I really enjoyed it,” Hermione added. “It was all lovely.”
“The pleasure was ours,” Astoria replied, nudging her husband. “Right, Draco?”
Draco jumped in surprise. “Yes, yes, absolutely. Must do it again sometime.” Narcissa raised an amused eyebrow at him making him feel like a boy caught breaking a vase. “I mean it, mother. I’m glad we did this, Granger.” He said nodding his head at her politely. They moved towards the fireplace and he held out the floo powder to them.
“You go on first, Hermione,” Narcissa offered gently. The muggleborn took a handful of the powder and threw it into the fireplace. “Grimmauld Place!”
Narcissa pressed her son in a tight hug. “Thank you, Draco,” she said earnestly. “That meant a lot to me.”
“Of course, mother.” His voice was tight but sincere, and he returned the embrace. Narcissa stepped into the fireplace waving goodbye to the young couple as she disappeared in a roar of green fire. Astoria slipped her arms around her husbands waist, hugging him from behind and placing kisses on his neck. “She seems really happy.”
“Yeah,” he replied noncommittally.
“They both do.”
Draco turned around to hug Astoria properly, taking a moment to enjoy the florid smell that hung from her hair. “I-“ Draco hesitated saying what was on his mind. “I miss him,” he spat out. Astoria grabbed his hand guiding him to the door. “He’s not gone” she said reassuringly.
He was about to open his mouth to contradict her but before he could she nodded at the portrait in the hall. Lucius was back in his seat, hands crossed against his chest, head held up high, pretending to be asleep.
Well, we're all caught up now folks!