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An Intimate Knowledge

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On Saturday morning, Narcissa awoke with a contented smile still playing on her lips. Last night with Anathema had been wonderful, and the lingering remnants of satisfaction made the sheets feel somehow softer against her skin, the scent of the warm morning breeze somehow sweeter. Seeing how high the sun already was in the sky, she figured the term “morning” might be pushing it a bit, but she was far from caring about technicalities.

As it turned out, the “something special” to which Anathema had alluded had meant that she had managed to wrangle a reservation to the opening night of a very posh new restaurant in Diagon. Narcissa never would have considered going herself, generally preferring to stay away from anything too heavily publicized since the war, but it had been an unexpectedly marvellous time. She and Anathema may have been indulging the benefits of their friendship for some time, but until last night their “dates” usually hadn’t required leaving the house. However, as unnecessary as dinner had been, it did add an appealing touch of formality and class to an arrangement which otherwise would have had very little of either.

Narcissa walked languidly to her kitchen to brew herself a morning cup of tea. Like an echo, she heard an answering clatter of cupboards from next door telling her that her neighbor was likely doing something very similar.

Standing quietly beside her heating kettle, she could make out the sound of a male voice—the boyfriend no doubt.

“He thinks just because he got Coalpepper out of the trade, it’ll make up for losing the other two, but he’s wrong, you know? The seeker can’t carry the whole team, now can they?”

“Hmm, right,” came the woman’s noncommittal reply.

Narcissa supposed they were sitting at the woman’s kitchen table having a conversation over brunch. Although, could it really be called a conversation if only one person was talking?

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Quidditch as a conversation topic; it was as good as any other given that both parties were interested in the sport. However, it seemed clear that that was not the case. Her neighbor’s murmured replies sounded just as phony and flattering as her orgasms had the other night, although granted the noise itself was far less disturbing.

Narcissa supposed that this made sense, bad communication was rarely isolated to one part of a relationship. People usually played out the same dynamics in the bedroom that they did everywhere else and this couple seemed to be no exception to the rule. Unfortunately, his stamina did seem to be a good deal stronger where chatter was concerned.

Narcissa wondered what her neighbor was thinking about as she let him prattle on. Perhaps she was considering bludgeoning him over the head with a frying pan just to stop him from talking. She herself had considered the same thing over many breakfasts in the past. Unfortunately for them both, detectives always look to the spouse first.

Ah, well. Narcissa moved out of earshot to enjoy her tea by the open window. She tried to shrug off this latest glimpse into her neighbor’s life as a mildly amusing anecdote, but she kept coming back to it with a morbid curiosity that bothered her.

As much as she hated to admit it, in the past days, Narcissa had found herself increasingly preoccupied with the couple next door. Oh, it wasn’t the memory of the overheard sex that had lodged itself so permanently in her brain—that she was more than willing to forget—but the entire dynamic this woman seemed to have in the relationship stuck with her, the way she was always playing this role that didn’t suit her in the least.

Narcissa had listened to each conversation as if she was waiting to hear something that would display a redeeming quality to this engagement, or perhaps some kind of blackmail that would explain it in a different way. But each overheard interaction was less satisfactory than the last.

Perhaps Anathema was right when she had said that Narcissa didn’t get out enough anymore. She clearly had too much time on her hands if she was so invested in the life of a woman she didn’t even know. Luckily for her, Andromeda would be here in a couple of hours, which would be a suitable distraction from this ridiculous fixation, at least for an afternoon.

 


 

Hermione heaved a sigh of relief when Ron finally left and headed out for work. The occasional weekend shift was one of the most benign hazards of law enforcement, and the one Hermione benefited from the most. It was a welcome reprieve that she had been able to spend her Friday night, and now her Saturday afternoon as well, exactly as she chose.

She chastised herself for being such a terrible girlfriend that she was actually wishing him away. She couldn’t even remember what they had talked about just now, which wasn’t such an unusual occurrence. This morning, she did have some excuse for her distraction, although she wasn’t sure it made her look any better to admit it. Even before Ron arrived, her mind had been wandering to a memory, one that last night seemed to have burned into her brain.

It had all started with a moan, soft and expectant, just as midnight had struck. It shivered through the wall like a whisper and Hermione startled at the sound. Before she could wonder at the origins of the noise, she had heard the voice of her neighbor, nothing more than a low unintelligible purr. It was followed by another voice, one Hermione didn’t recognize, also female, also speaking low. Their voices joined in sultry laughter and Hermione froze, her thoughts as stilled as her shallow breath.

It had been such a quiet start. If she had been listening to music, or perhaps even just more focused on her book, she wouldn’t have heard it at all. But that didn’t last long.

The bed frame creaked. The moans, no longer hushed and yielding, had turned into a string of obscene noises that Hermione barely knew how to qualify. Eventually, she had no longer been able to distinguish her neighbor’s voice from that of her lover, both being so distorted by pleasure as to be barely recognizable.

With every escalation in the sounds, Hermione’s face had blushed a deeper shade of red. Even now with the incident long behind her, she felt a shameful flush creeping up her neck at the thought. She had known that she ought to have left the room, or cast a hasty charm to remove her unwelcome presence from her neighbor’s private life, but she had done neither. She had listened on guiltily, with rapt attention as the minutes ticked by, feeling as if she were indulging some private sin of her own as her book hung impotently in the air before her.

Her brain had been a muddle ever since, unwillingly engrossed by memories and all the fantasized images her mind had conjured up to fill the gaps. She hadn’t tried to think of it; she had very distinctly tried not to. The memories just kept flitting back into that almost unconscious back of her mind that did what it pleased whenever she was engaged with a mundane, mindless task.

She measured out the tea for her breakfast.

“Oh, God, yes.”

She sorted through her mail.

“There… Oh, there.”

She brunched with Ron.

A sharp slap of skin on skin. Devious, dauntless laughter.

Merlin, what were they doing that had felt so good? No. “Good” was most certainly an inadequate word. What she had heard last night was euphoria, ecstasy, all those words that people threw around when talking about sex that Hermione had secretly assumed no one really experienced outside of a trashy romance novel.

It seemed so fitting that her neighbor should be having such phenomenal, life-shattering sex. Hermione had already idealized her in every other way, why not be haunted by the sound of her breathless whispers on top of it all?

Oh well. She couldn’t sit here fantasizing about her neighbor’s life for the rest of the day. She had her own life to lead and she hardly needed yet another distraction. She had promised herself that she would use these obligation-free afternoons to work on her book. In theory, she had been working on it for months; in reality, she had barely touched it, regardless of the publisher’s adamant interest in seeing a first draft.

It was still little more than a vision, but it was one that Hermione thought was very good, if only she could manage to get it out of her own mind and onto parchment without it losing a significant amount of its luster. After the war, a significant number of Department of Mysteries projects were declassified. This of course meant that all of the documentation was publicly accessible; however, in its current state, it was essentially non-consumable for the average reader. Hermione thought there was little point in declassifying such knowledge if it still didn’t find its way into the hands and minds of a greater audience. Getting it there was what she aimed to do, however, it never managed to come out quite right. She didn’t want to skimp on the information and the facts, but she also wanted to provide the same sense of wonder and appeal that she felt when she had learned of these experiments. It was a delicate balance that she hadn’t managed to strike with any amount of success. But, with the day still new before her, she was willing to try again.

 

The sun was beginning to set and the sky was a lovely shade of golden just around the horizon. Hermione’s heart felt heavy as the end of the day approached. It was incredible how quickly the hours could slip by just when you wanted to hold onto them most dearly.

Before sitting down to write, it was always so easy to imagine that she would have a burst of inspiration and manage over a hundred pages by nightfall, but that ridiculous expectation could never be met. Undoubtedly, she would have to put off her publisher at least one more time. She tried to reassure herself that that was alright; the woman had to be used to it. Hermione was hardly the first fickle writer with more desire than ability to create. Still, she wasn’t used to being the person who asked for extensions to deadlines, and it didn’t sit easily with her.

As Hermione lingered by her window, she heard the soft rap of a door-knocker cutting through the evening silence. She had gotten better at distinguishing the volume of her neighbor’s door from her own, and this time, she didn’t rise to greet a guest who wasn’t her own.

“What are you doing here?” her neighbor asked sharply.

Hardly the warmest of greetings, Hermione thought curiously. Her neighbor sounded surprised and accusatory and Hermione immediately started to listen more closely.

“Good evening to you as well,” a man’s voice said. “So little time out of society and already you’ve forgotten your manners?”

Silence followed, heavy as a stone.

This had to be the husband, Hermione thought. She knew there was a divorce in the works on the other side of the wall; she had heard about it through a conversation earlier in the day with a woman Hermione surmised was a sister.

“I never should have married him,” her neighbor had said. “I think you had the right idea all along.”

Even with only a casual sentence or two uttered by the man in question, Hermione could understand the sentiment. His voice was sneering, snide, and immediately off-putting.

“To answer your question, I’m closing off the west wing and when the elves went through it, they found this. It’s yours, no? I thought you might want it.” Even through a wall, Hermione thought the man sounded disingenuous. Judging by the prolonged silence that followed, her neighbor was equally unimpressed.

“That’s what the post is for, darling,” she finally said. “What are you really doing here?”

“Oh nothing much. I just wanted to talk is all. I saw a picture of you from last night. Was that a new dress?”

The woman scoffed loudly. “Of course that’s what this is about.”

“I had to pay to keep that picture out of the papers.” The man’s voice was measured and calm and somehow all the more sinister for it.

“You’re unbelievable. What, do you keep Rita Skeeter on the payroll nowadays?”

Hermione frowned slightly. So whoever these people were, they were well-known enough that their messy divorce and her affair would warrant at least a few passing words in the society pages. She could have sworn she’d heard their voices before… perhaps he worked for the Ministry?

“Don’t you think it unwise to be seen with her in public, with the divorce not even final yet?” the man asked.

“By the time that happens, I’ll be eighty and no one will want to see me in that dress,” her neighbor said. “Besides, it would only be ‘unwise’, as you say, if I was trying to break the prenup and claim you’re at fault for the divorce, which I’m not. How I look in this situation is irrelevant, legally or otherwise. And as for the press, they can call me whatever they like, I don’t care.”

The silence was so charged that it practically buzzed.

“But it's not what they'll call me that you think I should be worried about, is it?” she continued, a malicious sweetness in her tone. “What are you afraid of, dear? Afraid that they’ll finally start seeing you for the cuckolded old fool that you are?”

There was a loud slam as something was thrown to the floor. Perhaps whatever he had brought her.

“You’re such a bitch. I regret the day I ever laid eyes on you,” the man snarled.

“Wonderful! Then sign the papers, go obliviate yourself and forget I ever existed,” the woman said.

The couple’s voices shifted, growing quieter and harder to make out from wherever their fight had landed.

The joys of marriage, Hermione thought bitterly.

She wondered whether one day this would be her and Ron, screaming so loudly that the neighbors pounded on the wall or put a glass to it for a better hearing. Granted, she had a hard time imagining any fight of theirs being so dramatic. And yet, twenty years from now, who knew what they would become. Surely the couple on the other side of the wall never thought this was where they would end up. They must have been happy once or had enough semblance of happiness to convince themselves that it would last.

No longer being able to hear the specifics, Hermione had started to feel anxious on her neighbor’s behalf and she was relieved to eventually hear the man’s gruff goodbye and the door slam behind him as he stormed out of the hall.

A few moments later, a glass shattered as if it had been thrown against the wall in a fit of anger. It was only understandable, of course. We all must take release where we can find it, cheap and shallow as it may be.

Hermione bit her lip in consideration. The knowledge of the divorce certainly made the life of her neighbor seem less enviable. Given that Hermione had previously considered envy the basis of her interest, she would have thought this would have dulled the allure. However, it had the exact opposite effect because it made the woman something that she had never been before: relatable. She too was stuck, struggling for an out, imprisoned in a cell that, like all poor relationships, she had in part created for herself. If only that knowledge made it easier to find the way out...

Hermione knew that most of her feelings towards this woman were based more on fantasy than fact, but it did little to dull the empathetic ache in her chest. For Merlin’s sake, this woman, when left to her own devices, listened to classical music, chatted easily with her sister, and had phenomenal sex with some mysterious lover. She had so much softness when alone, or when comfortable. It seemed so unfair that someone so horrid could walk in and turn her so hard.

 


 

Narcissa mulled over the fight with Lucius for a good part of the day. She still couldn’t believe his audacity to have actually bribed the Prophet over some silly picture of her and Anathema at dinner together. It was maddening the extent he would go to just to keep her under his control.

She sighed and considered her options.

They had a mutual agreement not to speak to the press about the divorce, one she no longer cared about honoring. Regardless, the thought of leaking the story just to spite him still offended her. To actually court the press and air her dirty laundry to the public—how incredibly nouveau riche!

Without any better strategy for immediate revenge, the following night, Narcissa decided to take Anathema to one of the most public places she could find, figuring that she might as well drain Lucius’ fortune in whatever small ways she could given that he was about to drain hers in legal fees. She wondered what a picture of a faded socialite out with her murderous lover went for these days. Lucius would soon have the figure memorized and that, at least, was something.

 

With Narcissa’s last contented sigh, Anathema rolled onto the pillows and settled back with a satisfied stretch.

“That was good,” Narcissa said with a smile, catching her breath. “Care for a drink?”

Anathema turned to her but before she could answer, a series of familiar sounds began next door. Apparently the boyfriend intended to service her neighbor with another five minutes of mediocrity.

“Oh Merlin, there they go again,” Narcissa exclaimed, bringing a hand to her temple.

Anathema smiled mischievously as the ridiculous noises continued. “Do you hear them often?”

“No, just occasionally, whenever I have such unfortunate timing,” Narcissa said.

“Or fortunate, depending on how you look at it,” Anathema said with a wicked grin.

Narcissa raised a dubious eyebrow. “While there may be a bit of a voyeur in all of us, listening to my fumbling neighbor fake her orgasms does not rank on my list of turn-ons.”

Anathema tilted her head to the side. “You think she’s faking it?”

Narcissa laughed, aghast that it could be in question. “Of course she’s faking it, listen to her!”

“Oh she’s putting on a bit of a show for him, obviously, but that doesn’t mean she’s not actually enjoying herself,” Anathema said.

“I don’t believe that for a moment. It’s all an act to stroke his ego,” she said. “She’s just trying to convince him that she’s enjoying the sex, the relationship, all of it, but there’s nothing in it for her.”

Anathema shrugged noncommittally. “Don’t you think you might be projecting just a bit, Cissa?”

“Projecting what?” Narcissa asked with an indignant sniff.

“Oh I don’t know, perhaps memories of your own failed marriage?” Anathema said.

Narcissa was put off by the smugness in Anathema’s voice, as well as the fact that she was probably right, at least in part. She had come to equate the woman next door a good deal with herself, although she wasn’t so sure that meant she was wrong.

“I never said Lucius was bad in bed, he wasn’t. Honestly, that’s when he was most tolerable,” she said, trying her best to sound flippant and indifferent. “Besides, I never cared enough about his ego to perform anything I didn’t really feel.”

Anathema laughed. “I suppose that’s probably true, my chilly little flower. I doubt you’ve ever cared enough about anyone’s feelings to go through all that.”

Despite herself, Narcissa felt stung. “Well that does make me sound charming,” she deflected with a sarcastic smile.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Cissa, I didn’t mean to insult you, but you know it’s true. You’re like me; we’re just not made that way,” Anathema said. She had a slight endearing pout to her lips as she stroked Narcissa’s arm and tried to gauge whether she was truly upset at the comment.

Narcissa tried to get over her sense of being insulted. She knew Anathema didn’t mean it as such. To Anathema, cold was a compliment; if she had called her warm and cuddly, that may have been intended to wound.

“I suppose you’re right,” Narcissa said begrudgingly although she wasn’t sure she agreed.

Granted, like Anathema, she had always had a hard time forming connections to others, or feeling much of anything but shades of tolerance or disdain towards them. The only exceptions were her sisters and her son, but family was a different matter entirely, especially when it came to a child. Draco wasn’t really another person; he was part of her walking free, made of her blood and bone.

Hearing her own words play out in her mind, she rolled her eyes at herself. God, she thought, maybe she really was as big a narcissist as her parents had predicted on her birth certificate if the only people she truly loved were those she considered shades of her own self.

But back to the point. Yes, she had a hard time connecting to others but she didn’t think she was unable, or formed with a sheen of ice over her body as Anathema had intimated. While Anathema may have embraced her distance from others, reveling in the games, the mimicry of intimacy without a care, Narcissa had always cared. All her life, she had felt the sting of loneliness and sought to soothe it, but she always seemed to choose the wrong people. Her past lovers were either worshipping sycophants, or worse, even bigger narcissists than herself. But then again, after 45 years, perhaps it was time to admit that there was no one else out there after all.

Another squeal echoed through the vent from next door. For once, Narcissa was glad to hear it since nothing less dramatic was going to break her out of her thoughts.

“I would bet you anything she’s faking it,” she repeated, pushing more serious conversations aside.

“Twenty galleons,” Anathema proposed with a smirk.

Narcissa laughed at the ridiculous idea. “Fine. Although I don’t see how we’ll ever find out.”

Anathema shrugged. “She only lives a wall away, perhaps one day you’ll meet her.”

“Ah yes. ‘On a scale of one to ten, just how disappointing is your boyfriend in bed’, a classic ice-breaker,” Narcissa said with a laugh and pulled Anathema out of bed. On that note, they departed for the kitchen for the aforementioned drink.

A brief image flashed through Narcissa’s mind of meeting this young woman under coincidental circumstances. How they each might mention their address and gradually narrow it down. How they would laugh over the improbability of it all and fall into conversation. It wouldn’t be an ice-breaker, but she could see herself asking the question at some point if the situation was right. She had been known to be as bold in the past. So many questions seemed less gauche if paired with a charming smile.

She shrugged. What a silly fantasy. She put it aside in favor of choosing the right wine to finalize the evening’s indulgences.

Little did Narcissa know that, fantasy though it was, she was destined to meet this neighbor of hers. Only it wouldn’t go anything like she had imagined.