The slow melancholic notes of Satie’s Gnossiennes drifted in from the vent above her head and Hermione smiled. The music reminded her of the cool embrace of winter, of snowfall, and sweaters, and cheek-nipping breezes. She thought of it longingly as she felt another bead of sweat form on her brow.
“Remind me never to move flats in the middle of August again,” she said to Crookshanks. Seemingly unbothered by the nearly 30 degree temperatures himself, the cat was sprawled out in a beam of sun, thoroughly ignoring her.
“Of course, when a flat opens up in The Merlin, you take it, regardless of the heat,” she continued, running a hand over his overheated fur.
Hermione walked to the edge of her bookcase and tilted her head. If she stood at just the right angle, she could see Diagon Alley in one direction and Muggle London in the other. It was a rare simultaneous view into both worlds, and a large part of what made this building so desirable. No, this was definitely not something she could have passed up.
A tea kettle began to whistle and instinctively, Hermione almost ran to her kitchen to turn off the fire before she remembered that she hadn’t made tea. Rather, it was coming from next door and her neighbor was already tending to the high-pitched wail. Merlin, these walls were even thinner than she thought.
She considered the thought with a frown. It was a strange sort of intimacy one formed with one's neighbors amidst the stark anonymity of the city. You might never put a name or a face to the muffled lives playing out in the background of your own, yet a shared wall could reveal so much that even close friends might never learn. If you spent long enough near vents and windows, you could form any number of ideas from snippets of overheard conversations, from quiet moans in the dead of night, or alarms that went off uncommonly early.
It wasn’t as if Hermione wasn’t used to overhearing details of her neighbors’ lives from her previous flats, but somehow she had expected a certain kind of dignified silence to come with this building, as if the prestige of the address alone could dictate such a thing. However, prestige or not, it seemed that any silence she would find here would have to come from a few well-placed silencing charms. Such a project was hardly her highest priority, at least not when she still had boxes of books piled up in the corner waiting to be shelved. Besides, peaceful as silence could be, it could also be awfully dull. She had always enjoyed the thrill of secret knowledge; it was a reason she had become an Unspeakable after all.
Hermione was only halfway through her books when she heard the telltale whoosh of the fireplace next door, letting her know that her neighbor had left the building. The departure put an abrupt stop to the quiet music and the soft sounds of footsteps to which Hermine had become accustomed over the course of the afternoon. The sudden silence made the space feel emptier and Hermione, silly as it was, found that she missed her anonymous neighbor.
So far, Hermione had only managed to catch one fleeting glimpse of the woman disappearing into her apartment. It had only been long enough to see sage green robes and blonde hair before the door was soundly shut and locked. And yet, in these days of unpacking and letting her mind wander, she had frequently found herself preoccupied by the thought of the mysterious blonde, letting her mind fill in the details until the mental image was shockingly complete.
The woman was perhaps a little older than herself, more settled, successful enough in something to afford this place, with taste enough to decorate it fittingly. Unlike Hermione, she probably wouldn’t obsess over her choice of ottoman, sure that whatever she chose would be tacky enough to prove her unworthy of her address. No, her neighbor would have no such problems. She probably had an eye for beauty and an appreciation for the finer things in life in every regard. Hermione knew that her neighbor liked classical music; certainly it wasn’t so much of a stretch to believe she might be cultured in other ways. That she might appreciate rainy afternoons spent at art museums for instance, or perhaps have a taste for poignant poetry.
The notion seemed so romantic to her. Although she was aware that she was mostly just projecting everything she wanted in her own life onto this stranger. Still, it was a nice thought.
After all, the only danger to a fantasy was that one day it would be proven false. Worst case scenario, she might find out that the woman she had seen was a visiting daughter and her next-door neighbor was really some curmudgeonly eighty-year-old wizard who just happened to like sad piano music. And even if that were the case, she would probably never find out.
Hermione stretched and felt her back snap back into place. It was time that she quit for the day anyway; she was going to have to clean up before she went anywhere and she was supposed to see Ron tonight. Besides, she had promised to call her mother to tell her about the new place.
Narcissa swept back into her flat, watching as the green glow from the fireplace slowly faded back to orange. She had just come back from picking up her new robes now that the final alterations were complete. Anathema had said she had something special planned for tomorrow night and Narcissa was eager to look her best for whatever that meant. Not that Anathema cared what she wore so much, as long as it was easily taken off. Luckily, this outfit fulfilled both requirements quite well.
A smile formed on her lips as she indulged the fantasy of how Anathema would eye the delicate straps all throughout their meal. How the moment they were back within doors, she would slip them from her shoulders with haste and elegance. She sighed at the thought. Unfortunately, this evening held no such promise. Instead, a stack of letters awaited her on her dining room table and she flipped through them, separating what was important from what was not.
The last envelope, the largest of the set, was enough to send her groping for the liquor cabinet before she had even broken the seal. The return address told her that it was the latest communication from her lawyer. Undoubtedly it was regarding the divorce, and therefore important, perhaps even time-sensitive, but she couldn’t face opening it now.
Whatever it was, it would have to wait until later; it’s not like anything inside could be so much of a surprise. Oh, certainly, the details would be new and maddening, but really it would be the same as every other time an identical envelope had shown up at her flat. It would be some additional nonsensical proceeding that Lucius and his attorney had concocted to draw out this process as long as humanly possible.
Really this divorce should have been so simple. She had her own money, her own property; she wasn’t asking for a sickle of his. Draco was grown so custody was not an issue. But Lucius had managed to be an absolute prick throughout the entire ordeal–quelle surprise–and was threatening to drag this out until they were both too exhausted to care. This, she assumed, was rather the idea.
It wasn’t that he wanted to stay married to her per se; she could hardly flatter herself that that was the case. Whatever was good in their relationship had drained out long ago on both sides. By the end, she was just another ornament on his shelf, another preening white peacock that he could point to proudly and claim ownership. But, her refusal to stay was the last straw for Lucius. Already disgraced and humbled in society with an estranged son and a looming probation officer, his pretty little wife leaving him was more than his fragile ego could bear. And so here she was, reduced to a symbol of his shattered manhood, with claw marks on her arms as she wriggled from his grasp inch by maddening inch.
She shook her head and forced the image of his sneering face from her mind. There was no reason to let him haunt her now, not when she had succeeded in escaping his house and his embrace if not the burden of his name.
“Hello, Mum,” a voice rang out through the vent above her. It sounded just as clear as if the woman had been standing beside her. Narcissa thought she had heard more noise than usual at the apartment next door. Someone must have moved in after all.
“Yep, I’m mostly unpacked,” her neighbor continued. “I still have some things in boxes, but it's really just books that I haven't placed.”
The woman laughed, warm and natural. "Yeah, you're probably right. They've already taken me longer than everything else combined.”
Narcissa smiled and glanced at her own meticulously organized library. There were spells to organize the books without lifting a finger, but there was something satisfying about placing them by hand.
“He’s fine. Yeah, he’s already been here. He helped me place some of the furniture yesterday.” A pause. “Well I don't think we can credit masculine strength with too much, since I was the one levitating everything where I wanted it anyway."
Narcissa laughed softly at the woman’s cheeky sense of humor. The voice sounded so familiar. She searched her memory, trying to identify where she had heard it before and yet she couldn’t place it.
"No, I don't think it'll be too much space for just me,” her neighbor said. A telling tinge of frustration had suddenly entered her voice, indicating that this was not the first time the topic had been brought up. “We've already talked about this, Mum; Ronald and I aren't ready to move in together.” A pause. “Yes, I know that, of course I know that. But the wedding is still two years away…”
"Yes, I know that you don't understand why we set the date so far in the future... Of course I want to marry him, but I just need some time before I settle down... just a little time to myself. Can't you understand that?"
Narcissa felt a twinge of pity at the tone of this woman’s voice as she pleaded with her mother to see things her way. She might as well save her breath; her mother would never understand such things, not if her heart was set on her daughter settling down with this boy. People could rarely be convinced once they’d made up their mind about where your future ought to lead, even if it was none of their business, perhaps especially if it was none of their business.
Narcissa could only imagine the sorts of rows that might be ringing through the walls from her own flat if only her mother had been alive to see her file for divorce. There was a reason there wasn’t a single family portrait hanging here after all. While she didn’t always have control over the people who accosted her in person, art could be put into storage.
“Well, look Mum, I don’t want to fight about this again, okay. I have to get ready, Ronald and I are going out for dinner in a bit. I’ll do my best to elope to Gretna Green just after dessert,” the woman said in a tense and sarcastic tone.
“I know Mum! I know that you can’t just elope without paperwork in Scotland anymore. I was just joking, for Merlin’s sake!” The woman laughed, but it didn’t sound as if she found any part of this conversation very funny.
The conversation next door came to a tense end. Narcissa could practically feel the fake and painful smile on the woman’s face as she wished her mother a goodnight and asked that she pass her well wishes on to her father.
While Narcissa hardly wanted to side with the woman’s mother, she also thought the wedding date did sound like a bad sign. What was the point of setting a date so far in the future if not to give yourself ample time to call the thing off? Not that such a tactic had worked very well in her own case–months fly by much faster than one could ever imagine–but perhaps this girl was smarter than she had been at that age. Or perhaps, she would at least grow enough of a backbone to tell them all off before it was too late.
A few minutes later, Narcissa heard the first few notes of Satie humming from the woman’s gramophone. Hadn’t she played that very piece herself just that morning? Well at least this woman had decent taste in music, if perhaps not the best grasp on her relationships. She wondered whether her neighbor had simply heard it through the very same vent, or if it was just a day fated for mournful melodies. Narcissa looked towards the unopened envelope on her desk and sighed. Yes, perhaps it was just a day for it.
With the whisper of music as a backdrop, she was beginning to form a hazy outline of the woman next door. Young, pretty, a certain spark of fire in her eye from trying so desperately to assert control over her destiny, a certain tinge of grey if you looked at the right moments when she was tired from how much effort every inch of freedom had taken her.
She couldn’t help the woman, she didn’t even know her, but Narcissa hoped that whoever she was, she had an easier time finding the freedom she sought than Narcissa herself had ever had.
Hermione let the first hesitant notes wash over her and she practiced breathing deeper and slower until she was calm once again. It was incredible really how she couldn’t even start an innocuous conversation about placing furniture without it nearly turning into a fight.
She really wished that she could just spend the evening alone, placing her books in peace rather than going out with Ron again tonight. She didn’t want to listen to the story of his day, to hear him chew his food, to watch that silly smile spread over his face as she took her shirt off at the end of the night. Most of all, she didn’t want to hear his commentary on her new place.
No one, least of all Ron, seemed willing to grasp that she needed her own space, her own life, her own existence before she tied it inextricably to Ron and his family and his dreams of a cottage full of children. That may be the inevitable description of her future but she needed there to be something else before she made that leap into destiny.
Hermione walked into her bedroom and wondered what she ought to wear for the night. Wherever Ron took her, it wouldn’t be fancy; it would probably be somewhere he could get free drinks from his lingering fame and social recognition. Two hours later they’d be back here, half-sauced and sloppy from the refills Hermione hadn’t wanted but Ron could not refuse.
Hermione looked down. On second thought, what she had on was more than sufficient.
She turned back into her living room and grabbed a book from her shelf, making herself comfortable to wait out the inevitable knock on her front door.
Later that evening, Narcissa was perched in her bed, letting a glass of wine and the chapters of a subpar novel lull her to sleep. She was just beginning to doze against her pillows when she heard a loud creak from next door. She perked up at the sudden noise.
The first noise was followed by a series of muted clunks and clatters and Narcissa wondered what could be going on over there so late. Soon enough, however, she heard some all too distinct male grunting, followed by some even more unpleasant performative female moans.
Narcissa grimaced. Wherever did this woman get that horrible squeal from? If her neighbor was going to fake her pleasure with noises she’d heard in porn, she should have at least picked better porn as a model.
Apparently undeterred by the offputting noises, the boyfriend continued to thrust mechanically, causing the bed to creak against the wall in a hard, regular rhythm. Narcissa wrinkled her nose in distaste at the uncomfortable sounding encounter.
Luckily for her, and probably for her neighbor by the sound of it, it was over laughably quickly. His awkward sputtering orgasm rang out clear and horrible in the silent night along with her long high-pitched sigh to show just how satisfied she was, which Narcissa figured was impossible.
With a soft laugh, Narcissa rolled her eyes at the awkwardness of it all and turned over to sleep. She returned to her existing mental image of the woman and tried to conceptualize the clumsy man beside her. They sounded young. God, she hoped they were young. It would be unbearably sad if they were having such appalling sex if they weren’t. It was an excellent reminder that although she would never quite achieve the same beauty she had possessed at twenty-one, there was little else to recommend the experience of youth.
Whispers were filtering through the wall, but they were too muffled to make out any words. Narcissa wondered what they were saying to each other now in the wake of that. If he felt proud of himself, if he thought he had satisfied her. If she was only biding her time before she could escape and touch herself in the bathroom to a thought far more satisfying than anything he’d been able to accomplish.
Narcissa hoped that whatever had happened over dinner for those two, desert had not included the aforementioned elopement. A good man may be hard to find, but there was still no reason to saddle yourself with sex that terrible for the rest of your life unless it was absolutely necessary.
It was probably a good thing that Narcissa was unlikely to ever meet this neighbor of hers, since she wasn’t sure she’d be able to resist the urge to tell her so.