It was a busy day in Diagon Alley, which could only be expected so close to the start of the new school year. Every corner was teeming with hovering parents and high-strung children still crowding the streets as evening began to fall. Narcissa side-stepped out of the way of a young witch chasing a cat as she approached the entrance to The Merlin. Memories of Draco’s childhood came back to her in droves—when her son was eleven, trying to act as if he wasn’t nervous picking out his wand and his owl, obsessing for days over what to name the bird before finally settling on Archimedes, looking to her anxiously for approval. She forced the memories to stop somewhere around there, refusing to delve into later years where the thoughts would grow difficult and complicated.
Narcissa paused as she caught her reflection in the brilliant glass of a nearby shop, taking in her features with a critical eye. Having been out most of the afternoon, her lipstick was dulled by then, looking especially flat in the harsh light of the early evening. She had only intended to return home to change into evening robes, but perhaps she would touch up her makeup one final time, spray some different potion onto her hair. Her dinner companion was only Draco, and certainly he would neither notice nor care if her lipstick was too pale, but there was something to be said for giving up a few moments to vanity, if only to be above reproach in one way before she stepped into the world.
She sighed with relief as the crowds began to thin the nearer she got to her building; thankfully, little else of interest resided on this end of the street. If the crowds bothered her, she knew that she could easily appear directly in her flat through one means or another, but she enjoyed walking to her destination from time to time, if only to feel some connection to the world and its seasons, which was so often lost when one merely popped from place to place.
With a wordless charm, she sent her key towards the lock of The Merlin’s outer door.
Hermione walked into the lobby of her building, hearing the Muggle London door click closed behind her and the warding charms shimmer back into shape. As expected, she found the halls empty enough to be almost eerie. Certainly the silence was not from a lack of occupants; this building had a waiting list that was laughably long. However, in a magical complex where every flat had its own fireplace connected to The Floo Network, and every occupant likely knew how to apparate, the hallways remained practically unused. The only people who chose to use their doors were those who found the walk soothing, as Hermione did, or those whose wards were strict enough to necessitate a fully corporeal entry.
Eerie though it was, the solitude didn’t bother Hermione in the least. She had never been very good at getting to know her neighbors anyway. The dull conversations about the weather and the news had never meant anything more to her than an abrupt end to whatever thought she had been lost in on her way home. It was nicer to be able to keep her guard down as she walked, without having to have a smile on hand to greet the passersby.
She strolled across the lobby with a tired yawn and entered the elevator—an elevator that she had never once had the misfortune of riding anything other than alone—and pressed the button to take her to the fifth floor. Today however, the doors didn’t close immediately; they hesitated as if waiting for something else. Hermione pressed the button two more times, and before she could wonder what in the world was wrong with the thing, another woman strode towards the small, mirrored space.
Hermione looked up, amazed that anyone else was about to join her, but that amazement quickly turned to shock at the familiar, equally stunned face of Narcissa Malfoy lingering on the threshold with her eyes wide and her lips parted in surprise.
“Good evening, Miss Granger,” Narcissa said with an apprehensive furrow in her brow.
“Good evening,” Hermione said. Her voice was a bit higher than it ought to have been, and immediately she felt embarrassed at her own lack of poise.
In her own defense, it had been a long time since she had been in such close contact with a Malfoy. With Harry and Draco on better terms since the war, Hermione had been forced to see him from time to time. She supposed she had even learned to tolerate him, albeit begrudgingly, but his parents were an entirely different matter. And right now, Narcissa was staring at her, looking startled and confused, her eyes raking curiously over Hermione as if she was a puzzle to be solved, or something to be explained away. Hermione stiffened further in defense.
“Do you live here also?” Narcissa finally asked, fully stepping into the elevator and letting the doors close behind her.
Hermione already felt annoyed at Narcissa’s presence, intrusive in the haven of solitude she usually found in the hall. But now, she felt even more so at the tone of utter shock in the woman’s voice, as if it would be so inconceivable that Hermione may live in this building. Narcissa probably suspected that she was someone’s hired help. Or, knowing her, she probably thought Hermione was robbing the place.
“Yes, I do,” Hermione said tensely. When the perplexed look on Narcissa’s face did not lessen, Hermione felt her irritation prickling over her skin “Why? Does that make this building less desirable to you? Considering moving to a more exclusive location?”
Narcissa scoffed dismissively. “Please, I said nothing of the kind. There’s no need to be so melodramatic,” she said. Something of the woman’s usual haughtiness had returned from where the shock had momentarily displaced it. She turned to the elevator panel with an outstretched finger, but it only hovered there over the button for the fifth floor, the only button which had already been pressed.
Narcissa turned to her with that perplexed look once more, but this time with a certain hesitant realization dawning in her expression. On some level, Hermione knew what she was going to say before she said it.
“I’m in 514,” Narcissa said. The natural follow up question was unspoken, it hardly needed to be formed, or even answered for that matter; the little inhalation that escaped Hermione’s lips as she turned to face front said it all.
Hermione’s mind was reeling at this news, unwelcome and unpleasant. She couldn’t quite allow herself to process it. There had to be some mistake, some other kind of explanation; the woman she’d been listening to couldn’t be… Hermione cleared her throat, determined to appear less flustered than she felt, less flustered than Narcissa currently looked.
“It would appear that I am your next door neighbor, Mrs. Malfoy,” Hermione said.
By that point, Narcissa hadn’t needed the confirmation, but she nodded anyway, Hermione’s voice seemingly breaking her out of some twisting thought path of her own. “Actually, I prefer Black now. I only use Malfoy when I must.”
“Oh. Right,” Hermione said with a subtle eye-roll. The divorce. She grimaced at this reminder that everything she knew about the woman next door, must now be formed awkwardly onto the snobbish blonde beside her. As every memory took on a new shape, Hermione felt suddenly furious as if she had been caught in some elaborate trap, as if it was Narcissa’s fault that Hermione had been listening at the wall and growing fond of her under painfully false pretenses. She clenched her jaw.
“I thought it might still be Malfoy,” Hermione began, her voice hot with this newfound anger, “seeing as how you can’t even get your husband to stop filing motions, much less finalize the thing.”
She hadn’t made any plans to lord this ill-begotten information over Narcissa’s head, but it was too late to turn back now. And there was a certain amount of satisfaction to seeing how taken-aback Narcissa looked at the comment, or at least at the tone in which it was delivered.
“How did you—” she began.
“The walls are thin,” Hermione said spitefully.
Narcissa stood up a little straighter and Hermione thought she saw a faint, uncharacteristic flush rising to those deathly cheeks.
“Yes, I suppose they are,” Narcissa said quietly. “Perhaps a few silencing charms are in order.”
“Perhaps,” Hermione agreed with a tart smile. “Especially if you and your girlfriend intend to keep screaming like that every other night.”
As soon as the words fell from her mouth, she regretted it. She had expected Narcissa to look even more ruffled than before, for her flush to deepen, for her expression to look silly and embarrassed. And for a moment, it did. Her eyes had widened, and she exhaled sharply, looking at Hermione in shock. But that moment was fleeting, and too quickly, she had fixed Hermione with a look that was no longer puzzling and confused, but gleaming with anger.
“Oh, but are you sure I won’t be depriving you?” Narcissa asked, her eyes shining dangerously.
Hermione tried to laugh it off, but some shimmer of guilt must have shown in her expression as details of that one night flooded back into her mind. Narcissa’s lips curled into a smirk.
“I would think you might take whatever excitement you could get. Seeing as how you have nothing better to do than stroke the ego of that clumsy boyfriend of yours, and that can’t be very thrilling. After all, you don’t even bother to listen to him speak most days.“ Narcissa paused. “Oh, I’m sorry, I said boyfriend, but it’s fiancé, isn’t it? As much as you hate to admit it.”
This time, it was Hermione’s turn to gape in shock.
“As you say,” Narcissa said, leaning closer, “the walls are thin.”
Hermione turned forward once more. She had no retort now that she had been, while not quite bested necessarily, at least reminded that their situations were identical. Whatever intimate detail she could use against Narcissa, the woman would only parry with one of her own.
With every moment passing in silence, Hermione’s flush deepened as much with frustration as embarrassment. As silly as it seemed now, she had never really thought about her neighbor overhearing her life in the same way she was hearing theirs, as if sound could only travel in the way most convenient to her.
The elevator dinged and the women sighed in mutual relief. Neither could remember ever having been so grateful for an elevator to reach its destination. Granted, the situation was still immensely awkward given that they had no choice but to walk in the same direction to their adjacent flats.
As they reached their respective doors, Hermione would have been content to end the interaction with awkward silence, but Narcissa it seemed had chosen to be more mature, or at the very least, spiteful enough to want the last word.
“Enjoy your evening, Miss Granger,” she said. A moment later, Narcissa disappeared into her flat without waiting for Hermione to respond.
Hermione fumbled with her keys, trying to breathe, trying to bring her heart rate back to its normal cadence. When she finally got the door open, she stumbled into her apartment and fell onto her sofa with a miserable groan. Immediately, she clapped her hand over her mouth. There could be none of that. Narcissa could hear her, after all, and Hermione didn’t want to expose any further weakness, not when she’d already exposed so much of herself unintentionally.
Embarrassment rose within her chest as she tried to consider all the things that Narcissa might have overheard in order to make those comments. Merlin, if she had just kept her mouth shut, Narcissa would have left it all unsaid, she was sure of it. But, no, she had to pick a fight.
Crookshanks approached her with his head tilted to the side, uttering a quizzical mew as he jumped into her lap. “Oh, Crookshanks,” Hermione whispered, quietly enough that she felt Narcissa wouldn’t hear. “I am such a fool.”
Narcissa got ready for the evening as quietly as a ghost. She kept her head held high and her features stoic as if Hermione might have been able to see her as well as hear.
It wasn’t until she had left her flat and strode into the relative safety of the empty hall that she allowed her mind to move beyond the physical tasks of changing her clothes, of doing her makeup, of doing her hair—the waves had ended up more pronounced than she’d wanted them, but she had been distracted after all. And how could she not be distracted? Of all the people in the magical world, her neighbor, her fumbling, hapless, all too relatable neighbor was Hermione Granger. At least no one could say that the universe didn’t have a sense of humor.
Salazar, why did she have to be in the elevator at just that moment? Why didn’t she just apparate like the witch she was and let the seasons be damned? Narcissa thought that perhaps it was some twisted form of karma that doing things the Muggle way would only bring her harm in the end.
Alone in the elevator once more, Narcissa felt oddly guilty for what she had said to Hermione about her relationship, true thought it all was. She had spent so long sympathizing with her neighbor, even imagining that one day they might meet, that now, to throw it all in the woman’s face with malice rather than understanding seemed like a terrible betrayal. Of course, when she’d imagined the meeting, she had never expected her neighbor to taunt her like Hermione had. Gryffindors, honestly. Even the brightest among them charged into a battle the moment it appeared without any thought to how they might be injured in the process.
She sighed with resignation as the elevator doors opened onto the thankfully deserted lobby.
The guilt she could get past, surely she’d done far worse in her life and managed to move on, but what was embedding itself far deeper in her mind was distinctly more distressing. She couldn’t stop thinking about that first moment her eyes had met Hermione’s own. In that moment, Narcissa had known; she had felt a twist of recognition, heard that nagging voice of her intuition telling her to look just a little closer. For Hermione’s eyes were just as she’d imagined her neighbor’s would be. They were an appealing shade of brown, so warm they were practically burning with fire, and yet, there was a depth there, shades of complexity that asked a gaze to linger.
At the thought, Narcissa felt an ache in her chest that startled her. She had expected the embarrassment, the annoyance, the self-reproaching sense of foolishness that came with a secret being revealed. What she hadn’t expected was this sense of sadness, as if she’d lost something—which was ridiculous. This closeness, or whatever it was, was obviously far more imagined than real, and she couldn’t lose what had never existed in the first place.
And yet, Hermione’s frustrating little life had become part of Narcissa’s day as much as her tea and her newspaper. But no longer; a kinship such as this could surely only flourish in anonymity. It was only natural that something so fragile might crack and fade away without warning, there was no point in dwelling on it.
Rational as that seemed, the thought of the future's silences weighed on Narcissa’s mind nonetheless as she stepped out into the evening with a distracted step.
Hermione had made herself a cup of tea and moved to stand at the door of her balcony, looking out over Diagon Alley. The day’s light had already started to dim, fading towards darkness a few minutes earlier than the day before, and a few later than it would tomorrow. The shortening days were always bittersweet, but in this moment, it felt right somehow. It fit her recently brooding mood.
There were many things that were upsetting Hermione about that evening, but mostly her mind kept flitting back to Narcissa’s words about Ron. It was all so mortifying. “Stroke his ego,” Narcissa had said. Did she really do that so much that it was obvious through a wall?
She supposed that she did, although she had never really intended to; it had all just developed over time. In their relationship, she had become used to taking full responsibility for keeping the peace, just as she always had in their friendship. He had always had such a fragile self-esteem that she had gotten used to trying to bolster him up with praise and interest, even when she didn’t naturally feel it. When was the last time she naturally felt it? She couldn’t remember, and that fact stuck in her like a thorn.
Hermione had never told anyone about her doubts about marrying Ron. She had hinted from time to time to her mother and her friends, but any concern was always squashed in well-meaning encouragement. In the face of their unerring positivity, she had given up and accepted that no one was willing or able to see any flaws in their match. Strange really that Narcissa Malfoy, of all people, had somehow become her closest confidant—her only confidant even.
God, Narcissa must think she’s an idiot. And wasn’t she? If the situation had been reversed and Hermione had heard Narcissa acting that way with Lucius or with her girlfriend, wouldn’t she say that she was a fool? The answer was undoubtedly, yes. Hermione hated this new view of herself. She hated even more that Narcissa had this view of her.
Hermione opened her balcony doors wider to feel the evening breeze on her face. She hoped it would do her some good and cool her overheated temples even if the dampness of the day still hung in the air with uncomfortable warmth.
As she glanced out into the street again, Hermione saw Narcissa’s form walking down the now twilit street and felt a pang in her chest. Her robes were swinging elegantly around her in the evening breeze and her hair fell down her back in perfect, appealing waves. Wherever she was going, it was surely somewhere upscale and elegant and… Hermione sighed. It hurt her to realize that as much as she felt like her fantasy woman had been shattered into unsalvageable pieces by that conversation, Narcissa actually did manage to embody everything that Hermine had imagined about her neighbor. She was elegant, cultured, effortlessly gorgeous, even in the face of all of her pain and struggles. Hermione wasn’t sure whether it was more or less upsetting that she had been so right.
As Narcissa turned the corner, the light from a shop caught her face and Hermione thought she looked troubled, deep in thought, a bit melancholy even. It wasn’t how she expected Narcissa to look at all. The woman had essentially told her that at least she was having sex worth overhearing, and in the aftermath, Hermione had expected her to look victorious and proud still. As she pondered the woman, Hermione felt that Narcissa’s expression mirrored something of her own and the sameness felt distressing. Hermione drew herself behind the curtain, eager not to create yet another uncomfortable moment by making eye contact from across the street.
Images flashed in her mind of her prior fantasies, now painted with Narcissa’s face—the fight with her husband, her and her lover moaning in the night. Immediately, she could feel the depths of this new problem she had built. How could she dissolve an intimacy like this once it was created? How could she extricate herself from a fantasy once it had become so dangerously real? How could she even bring herself to want to?
At the end of the night, when Narcissa entered her flat, she heard music playing and despite herself she smiled. She had expected to come back to silence, with Hermione having set the charms and locked them out of each other’s respective lives forever. It was a strange and comforting thought that Hermione had struggled to make the break and end this… whatever it was.
Throughout dinner, Narcissa had repeatedly vowed to set the charms herself, but now, listening to the soft sounds of an unfamiliar song and a clatter of pans as Hermione cleaned up from her own dinner, Narcissa knew that she didn’t have the heart. She cursed herself for letting this sentimentality lead her to foolishness, but if Hermione was still willing to let her in, how could she deny her the same privilege?