As the first bright rays of sunlight filtered through the balcony windows, Hermione began to stir. For a few precious moments between sleep and true wakefulness, there were no thoughts, there were only the vagueries of bliss: the shared heat of two bodies surrounding her beneath a blanket, the scent of perfumed skin enveloping her senses, hands resting on her back.
But this moment was fleeting, as all such moments are, and soon consciousness began to creep into Hermione’s mind, disrupting her thoughtless ease. She felt a dull ache behind her temples that she assumed would only grow more painful as she opened her eyes fully to the light.
However, when she fluttered her eyes open, the throb of her headache was the least of her concerns. Beneath the same blanket, half-covered by Hermione’s own body lay Narcissa with her blonde hair splayed out against the pillow, angelic in sleep. Hermione’s brain swam in confusion.
Shifting slightly away from Narcissa’s face, Hermione dove into her memories of last night but found nothing but darkness. There was wine, certainly there was wine, there were notes and outlines, at least for a while, but then she hit a wall in her own brain as impenetrable as if someone had pulled the memory right out of her head.
Her heart was beating quickly with the sort of panic that utter confusion always brings. She thought she ought to at least sit up and untangle herself from this awkward predicament before Narcissa was awake. However, as she began to straighten, she realized that there was an obstacle to that plan, an obstacle in the shape of an orange cat happily lounging on top of her back.
“Crookshanks,” she whispered as forcefully as she could dare without waking Narcissa. “How did you get in? The windows are closed.”
The cat twitched an ear in her direction, but did not open his eyes.
“Crooks,” she tried again. “Crookshanks, wake up.”
He opened his eyes slowly, looking quite put-out by being roused from his nap. He stared at her with heavy lids, showing no signs of moving beyond the occasional lethargic blink.
Hermione grumbled under her breath at him, but it was clearly too late to make some furtive escape anyway. With all of the shifting and whispering, no matter how quiet it had been, Narcissa was beginning to wake. She stirred and reached a hand to her temple, similarly recognizing the dull ache of an unwelcome morning. As the woman stretched, Hermione could feel Narcissa’s body press more firmly into her own. Her heart began to beat faster at the sensation and she was shocked into stillness, silent and staring without any idea of how to be otherwise.
Narcissa cracked one eye and smiled at Hermione’s gaping face. “Good morning, Hermione,” she said. Her voice was slow and heavy with the weight of sleep still upon her.
Hermione found it odd that Narcissa seemed far less concerned to find Hermione on top of her than Hermione had been to find herself there. She wasn’t sure whether that was reassuring or not. What she did know was that if her heart began beating any faster, she was going to have to start breathing into a bag.
“Good morning,” Hermione said. Her voice was high to the point of cracking. Inwardly she cringed at herself; so much for playing it cool. “I — er — what happened last night?” she asked.
Narcissa opened her eyes fully and chuckled at the anxiety painted so clearly on Hermione’s face. “Don’t worry, Hermione. Nothing happened. We just drank far too much for our own respective goods and fell asleep.”
“I wasn’t worried I just…” Hermione trailed off with a shy laugh. Worried wasn’t quite the right word, but she didn’t know how to explain what she did mean.
When she met Narcissa’s eyes, there was a devilish glint that seemed to say “If I’d fucked you last night, you’d remember it.”
Hermione inhaled sharply at the sentiment, even though Narcissa, of course, had said no such thing. Rather, by the next moment, her look had grown far more serious. “I woke up earlier and put the blanket over us,” she explained. “You were sleeping so soundly that I hated to wake you. I’m sorry if you wish that I had.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well. I clearly needed it,” Hermione hastened to assure. Although as soon as the words had left her lips, she wondered if that was a very embarrassing thing to have admitted.
For the first time since waking, Narcissa tilted her head, her gaze drifting past Hermione’s face to the feline who was still soundly snuggled on top of them both. Narcissa laughed at the sight of him.
“Crookshanks, do you have a secret passageway?” She said as reached out to stroke his fur fondly. “If you don’t mind, darling, could you let Hermione get up? This is starting to become a bit uncomfortable.”
With a languid stretch, Crookshanks slowly rose to his feet and jumped onto the back of the sofa. Hermione huffed a bit to think that he was so willing to rise now but not two minutes ago when it could have spared her an awkward moment or two.
Newly freed, Hermione sat up, struggling awkwardly to free herself from the blanket and from the tangle of Narcissa’s legs around her own. She rubbed at her eyes and searched for the nearest clock, groaning at the realization that it was Monday morning.
“Gosh, I have to get to work,” she grumbled, rising from the couch with a stretch.
“Are you sure you’re fit for it?” Narcissa asked, eyeing her with a soft chuckle.
Hermione was sure she looked frightful, wearing last night’s rumpled clothes, still half asleep and a bit hungover to boot. Narcissa on the other hand looked just as lovely as always, even with her eyelids still a bit heavy-lidded from sleep and the remnants of yesterday’s makeup slightly smudged on her face. If anything, she looked lovelier this way.
Hermione looked at Narcissa’s bemused eyes and realized that she’d been asked a question, but had done nothing but stare in silence ever since. “Yes, I’ll be fine. I have a couple hangover potions around somewhere. That should set me right.”
She stepped towards the doors, feeling clumsy and out of sorts. The morning air felt cold now without Narcissa’s warmth around her, and she suddenly wondered if she ought to have played that situation in a different way altogether. Shaking her head at her, she turned around and cleared her throat.
“I hope you have a good day, and I’m sorry about — er — all of this.”
Narcissa smiled kindly. “There’s no need to be sorry. Take care of yourself today, alright? Drink water.”
“Don’t worry, I will,” Hermione agreed with a roll of her eyes. With an awkward wave of her hand — which seemed like a woefully inadequate gesture after waking up in someone’s arms — she was off to her own flat with Crookshanks trotting happily at her heels.
When Hermione left, Narcissa closed the door behind her and let her head fall against the woodwork. She felt almost unbearably light. This morning may have been a bit awkward, but nonetheless, memories of last night flooded her sleep-muddled brain and filled her with a comfortable warmth — the book, the work, how easy it had been to let it all fall into place.
She sighed and told herself to get a grip. There was still a chance, a very likely chance really, that this collaboration wouldn’t come off. Hermione’s publisher had yet to agree or even hear a whisper of this idea. And while Narcissa felt that objectively, her art was rather good, she wasn’t sure that it made up for all the baggage she would bring. She forced herself to stop that train of thought, however; she was as unwilling to be prematurely melancholy as joyful.
Even if it didn’t work out, Narcissa still took comfort in the offer being made. She was amazed really that Hermione would put so much faith in her as to want her art intertwined in the book’s precious pages, their names only a few centimeters apart. More than anything, she wanted it to come off, she wanted the opportunity to prove herself to be more of an asset than a liability, to continue seeing that burning enthusiasm in Hermione’s golden eyes.
A smile came, perhaps too easily, to Narcissa’s lips at the thought of Hermione’s nervous wide-eyed stare this morning, at Crookshanks pinning them together so successfully, at how sweet her name had sounded in Hermione’s slumbering whisper.
Narcissa shook her head and blinked hard. She was supposed to be making tea. She hesitated, feeling the night’s inadequate amount of rest threatening to creep upon her; on second thought, perhaps coffee would be better.
Hours later, there was a knock at Narcissa’s door. In her lingering light-hearted mood, she didn’t even think to be apprehensive about who might be in the hall. These recent wine-soaked nights had done wonders for softening her cynicism, if not the dark circles beneath her eyes. She was immediately reminded, however, just how useful such apprehension can be, for when she opened her door, she saw Lucius’ unwelcome face staring back at her.
His steely eyes regarded her cooly, emotionlessly as always. That noxious smirk played on his lips as if there was nothing funnier than her apparent good mood.
“Oh for Merlin’s sake, what now?” Narcissa snapped. She felt less patient than usual, and when it came to Lucius, that was saying something.
He merely smiled at her, clicking his tongue in mock reproach. “I have something for you,” he said, brandishing a large envelope.
Narcissa might have thought he was dropping off their son’s possessions as she had previously offered Draco to facilitate, but unless he had suddenly become quite good at extension charms, that seemed unlikely.
She was silent, but he pressed past her into the foyer nonetheless. She didn’t want to let him in; she wanted to treat him like a demon of lore who must be kept beyond the threshold. Unfortunately, she wanted even less to make some scene in a public hallway, so she and her wards begrudgingly let this particular demon pass as she always had before.
He sat down at her table and began to slide photographs from the envelope in front of him. She rolled her eyes; the last thing she wanted was to have this fight again. Without so much as glancing at the images, Narcissa scoffed with as much derision as she could muster.
“Was it really worth the effort of dropping by just to show me yet another picture of me and Anathema out to dinner somewhere?” She said with a mocking laugh. “I would think by now you would simply put them in your scrapbook and be done with it.”
His grey eyes flashed in malice for a moment, but his voice remained calm. “Yes, you’ve quite exhausted that story, haven’t you? Even Rita’s getting bored with it by now. No, I wouldn’t bother to bring you another picture if it didn’t have an interesting twist.” He slid the pictures towards her. “Tell me, why were you out in Muggle London yesterday with Hermione Granger of all people?”
Narcissa lowered her eyes to the images. It was a series of shots from the day before, all featuring her and Hermione leaving Tate Modern together, chatting about the art, making plans for the evening.
Narcissa didn’t allow herself to so much as flinch beneath his watchful gaze. She raised her eyes to his slowly, keeping them empty, cold, as hollow as his own. “I’m not sure what you expect me to say, Lucius. I can spend my days with whomever I choose. And I see no reason why I am obligated to explain my reasoning to you.”
“You’re still my wife,” he said in a low, snarling tone.
“Well, whose fault is that?” she said calmly.
He stared at her for a moment, his lips in a firm set line, his jaw clenched. He looked furious, but she honestly didn’t understand why any of this would affect him so much even if he disapproved.
“Draco is seeing her, isn’t he?” Lucius said, and suddenly it all fell into place.
Narcissa was so surprised that this was his angle of accusation that she couldn’t stop her eyes from widening in shock. He latched onto her expression as if it were a confirmation.
“I knew that was why you were spending time with her. You’re encouraging this!” He stood up from the table and stepped closer, but she refused to react. Draco was about to celebrate his one year anniversary with Theo, but Lucius didn’t know that, and he wasn’t about to learn it from her.
She looked him up and down, his furious eyes, his aggressive stance and she sighed. “Oh, Lucius, would you get a grip on yourself? Draco isn’t seeing her, but would it really be as awful as all that if he were?”
“He’s the last of my bloodline, Cissa, and yours I’ll remind you, even if he doesn’t bear your name. He has a responsibility!”
She only stared at him and watched as he seemed to digest her denial of any relationship between Hermione and their son.
“I’m not sure I believe you that there’s nothing going on with them. Why else would you be out with that ridiculous little Mudblood?”
“Don’t call her that,” she said immediately, disgust dripping from her voice.
Lucius laughed, but there was no humor in his eyes. “Oh don’t pretend that you’ve gone that soft on me, Cissa. You’re no saint, no matter how liberal-minded you try to act these days.”
Narcissa sighed, heavier this time. “Times have changed, Lucius; we must change with them.”
He sneered and turned away. It seemed a good deal of his anger had spent itself, or at the very least dissipated now that it lacked clear direction. “I have no use for these changed times. I’d prefer to revel in the past for as long as I’m able.”
Narcissa scoffed. “Quite a lonely place to revel.”
“You hardly have to tell me.”
Narcissa frowned; this conversation was getting off track. “Quite,” she said coldly.
Lucius looked up at her. There was something in his eyes just then, something small, weak, almost desperate. Although his weakness might have pleased her, it scared her more than any shows of strength. It felt unnatural, whatever it was, and by that token, it felt unpredictable.
For a moment, she thought he was going to rally himself, say something further to pester her about Hermione, but he did not.
“Well, now that we’ve established that my choice of afternoon companions has nothing to do with either Draco, or yourself, is that all?” she said, walking crisply to her door and opening it.
“That’s all,” he grumbled, a bit more of that usual disdain creeping back into his tone. With some string of muttered parting words, he was out the door.
With a few angry murmurs of her own, Narcissa swept up the pictures he had left on the table, she took them and threw them into the fire... all but one where the two of them actually looked rather nice walking down the street together, laughing amiably over some joke, the details of which now forgotten. That one, she just couldn’t bear to throw away.
She fell to pacing the room, getting more worked up in the wake of the spat than she had been during. It infuriated her that the press had managed to follow them even there where they should have been quite safe.
She wondered what the headline would have been like in the gossip columns by morning, what Rita would have thrown together, certainly nothing flattering. The column would likely have followed the same line of thought as Lucius, predicting a relationship between Hermione and Draco, marking him as her suitably famous and wealthy suitor that she was supposedly clamouring for.
The whole thing made her sick. Even though it hadn’t happened, she felt a sting of guilt. Even an innocuous meeting such as yesterday’s had almost been used to smear Hermione’s name again. It was everything she had warned about her involvement in the book come prematurely.
No matter how many minutes passed, Narcissa couldn’t seem to settle herself. She felt a surge of angry energy flowing through her at the argument; rage and guilt and things she couldn’t quite place swarming together to cause her discomfort. She couldn’t seem to stop running over thoughts that only made it worse.
Lord, she was losing her mind. She was feeling practically manic, and she needed something. A distraction. Something to expel this tension. Something tangible beneath her fingertips.
Anathema, she suddenly thought. Yes, she could call Anathema. It had been too long and goodness knows, she needed the release. For suddenly in this strangely charged moment, she had a desire shaped like Anathema's lips, Anathema's fingers. Or more accurately, she had a desire shaped like lips and fingers, and one's as skilled Anathema's would suffice.
Narcissa grabbed a piece of parchment and in embarrassing desperation, scrawled a hasty "Tonight?" to Anathema, watching as the owl flew from its perch towards Anathema's townhouse.
The invitation may have been only one word, but its meaning would be perfectly clear.
Her foot tapped impatiently as she awaited a response. Already partially distracted, her fantasies now winding around far more satisfying scenarios than they had been before.
By the time her owl returned, Narcissa had let her thoughts get so carried away that she startled at its arrival. She knew she was doomed from the moment she unrolled the parchment; there were far too many words.
Not tonight, Cissa. I don’t know if you heard about the lovely young Mr. Elias Ainsley—now sole heir to that horrible business of his family’s, surely, you’ll remember the scandal from before. Still, such a tragedy about his parents all those years ago. Well, he finally arrived back from the continent last week. We just happened to run into each other in Diagon a few days ago and he positively insisted on taking me out.
Just happened, of course. Narcissa rolled her eyes.
He’s a bit of a slippery one but he does seem interested.
You know I’d gladly spend the evening with you, but I do like to make sure they feel comfortable at first. Oh, how terribly fragile male egos can be, and how quick they are to smell another lover on you at the beginning. I’ll check in in a few weeks to let you know how it’s going, unless you just want to get drinks sometime before then.
So that was that, Narcissa thought. She sighed and every silly fantasy she had had for the evening went up like smoke. Along with it went a decent amount of her arousal, which she supposed was a blessing since apparently she would no longer be able to relieve it any time soon, at least not the way she wanted to. Even her anger seemed smaller now.
In the wake of her thoroughly burst bubble, Narcissa began to feel rather downcast. Certainly, she’d been through similar breaks with Anathema before and it hadn’t bothered her. But at the time, she’d had her own marriage, a marriage which also often needed tending and required breaks of her own instigation. It felt far more like a rejection to be left with nothing but foolish fantasies of things just out of reach.
She let her head fall into her hands for a moment in frustration. At least Hermione was at work and hadn’t heard any of this morning’s little tragedies. Of course, at the thought of Hermione, one thing at least took on a different hue. This evening when Anathema would have come, Hermione would likely be home and would have therefore overheard. And in light of recent events, she didn’t think that was really what she wanted at all.
When Hermione got home from work at long last, she was smiling like a silly schoolgirl. She threw off her work clothes and pulled on a more comfortable pair of slacks and a jumper, eager to knock on Narcissa’s door and tell her the day’s news.
As she passed through to her kitchen to set out the cat’s dinner, she was overjoyed beyond reason to see Narcissa standing on her balcony. At the sight, Hermione nearly flung the doors wide and jumped the divide in her enthusiasm. Really, it was only the look on Narcissa’s face, so lost in thought, so complicated, that convinced her to calm herself and open her own doors with any semblance of dignity.
“Cissa,” she said, and Narcissa startled slightly, turning to her in surprise. Hermione’s heart beat to see a smile form on Narcissa’s lips where it certainly hadn’t been before.
“Hermione. Glad to see you’re still on your feet after this morning. How was your day at work?” Narcissa asked.
“Oh, work itself was fine. But, I do have some excellent news. I went to see my publisher on my lunch break today, and she loved the draft with your sketches in them. She’s completely on board,” Hermione said with a broad grin. “And she doesn’t see any issue with you being listed as a co-author. She’d like to meet with the both of us actually, so whenever it suits you, we can all set up an appointment.”
Narcissa flashed a brilliant smile, wide enough to challenge Hermione’s own. “Oh, Hermione, that’s wonderful!”
Finally pulling out the purchase that had been hitherto hidden behind her back, Hermione displayed a small bottle of pink champagne. “Care to celebrate?”
Narcissa laughed. “I think I’m making you into an alcoholic.”
“Yeah, probably only one glass for me tonight. Slap me or something if I reach for a second.”
With a glass of frothing pink wine in her hand, Hermione raised her own in a toast. “Cheers,” she said, “to new beginnings.”
“To new beginnings,” Narcissa echoed and they let their glasses clink softly together.
As Hermione moved into her now familiar spot in the library, she was startled to once more see her own face reflected back at her. This time, not from any article in the Prophet but from a snapshot, clearly taken yesterday at the museum. It took her by surprise.
“Where did this come from?” Hermione asked, staring at the picture in confusion.
Narcissa sighed heavily and let herself slide into the sofa at her side. “It was a gift, or a warning more accurately, from Lucius. Apparently there’s nowhere we can go without some member of the press tracking us down.”
Hermione felt a string of indignation rising in her chest. These vultures at the Prophet were never satisfied.
“He thinks you’re dating Draco, which I told him was preposterous of course, but I don’t really think he believed me. I expect that would have been the angle of the article as well.”
“Ah yes, my line of fashionable suitors taking form,” Hermione mused bitterly.
“Precisely,” Narcissa agreed. “I am sorry that I’ve already brought another sordid element to this story about you, truly I am.”
“It’s not your fault! If they’re willing to make that much of a stretch to find me someone, certainly they would have found a way regardless. Don’t blame yourself,” Hermione said passionately. She was distressed by that little twinge of worry in Narcissa’s eyes and eager to smooth it away. “Besides, it didn’t even get published. And at least this way, Lucius had to cough up a few galleons for it.”
At that, Hermione was relieved to see Narcissa laugh.
“I thought the same thing. If this divorce drags on much longer, he’ll have paid as much to hush the media as to his lawyers, I expect.”
Hermione thought suddenly of Anathema, and she felt a twinge of jealousy to think of all those pictures, even if she knew that she had no right to feel the sting.
“I wonder how much a picture of us goes for — more or less than a picture of you and Anathema?” Hermione asked, testing the waters of this yet untried topic.
Narcissa looked a bit surprised by the question, but she merely shrugged. “I expect more. You’re more newsworthy than either one of us these days.”
Hermione nodded. Raising her eyes to Narcissa’s with a streak of masochistic rashness, she decided to pursue the topic and ask one of the questions that had been plaguing her for so long.
“Did she really kill all seven of her husbands?” Hermione blurted out impulsively.
“It’s incredible how far Anathema’s reputation seems to proceed her.” Narcissa chuckled softly. “Yes, I believe she did. Although honestly, she’s never said, and it always seemed rather impolite to ask.”
Hermione laughed almost disbelievingly. Narcissa was awfully cavalier about dating a woman whom she readily admitted hunted her previous lovers for sport. Admittedly, Anathema’s beauty was something to behold, perhaps notable enough to overlook a good many flaws, even dangerous ones. Her ill-advised jealousy reared its head, stronger this time.
“Doesn’t that worry you?” she asked very seriously.
Narcissa tilted her head. “In what sense?”
Hermione was surprised that she had to explain it. Was that woman’s sway really so great? “That being around her might be dangerous for you,” she said.
“Why? Anathema doesn’t stand to gain a sickle from my death, so I’m quite safe. Besides, her issues are really more with men, specifically,” Narcissa explained calmly.
“But if the relationship got more serious?”
“Oh, it’s not a relationship. At least not how you mean it,” Narcissa said. “Anathema and I are old friends, and while that friendship does have a physical component from time to time, there’s never been any romance there. Besides, that aspect is on hold for the time being.”
Hermione bit her lip and suddenly understood. Relief coursed through her, which she decided to attribute to her concerns of Narcissa’s personal safety. “Oh,” was all she said in response.
Narcissa laughed, looking at Hermione kindly. “You look so shocked. What, you’ve never had a purely physical relationship before? No tawdry affairs during that engagement of yours?”
This time it was Hermione’s turn to scoff. “God, no. The sex was bad enough in my real relationship. I hardly needed more of it.”
A strange smile quirked on Narcissa’s lips. "That's precisely why you needed more of it," she said.
Hermione blushed and looked away. “I suppose that’s a fair point,” she said with an embarrassed laugh. When she looked back up, Narcissa was considering her carefully.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that apparently Anathema owes me 20 galleons,” Narcissa said with a mischievous look in her eye.
“What do you mean?” Hermione asked.
“We overheard you one night with your boyfriend, before I even knew it was you. I said you were faking your orgasms, but she disagreed, and we made a bet,” Narcissa explained, that mischievous glint never leaving her eyes. “It sounds like I was right. Not that I intend to collect on it, of course.”
Hermione felt her cheeks grow hotter than she could ever remember them being before. “How did you know I was faking them?”
“Because you’re just not that good of an actress, Hermione,” Narcissa said with a soft chuckle.
Narcissa was absolutely right of course, Hermione had faked every single one; she just hadn’t realized it had all been so obvious. Of course, she’d had so little comparison. She’d never really allowed herself to make much noise even when she had felt real pleasure in her life, which was always only when she was alone. She was too well trained from going through puberty in a room shared with four other people only a thin curtain away.
“Do you think Ron knew?” Hermione asked.
“I doubt it. Men are rarely so observant,” Narcissa said and took a sip of her champagne. She was still watching Hermione carefully, eyes gliding over her with curiosity.
“Yeah, that seems accurate,” Hermione agreed, wrinkling her nose at unpleasant memories. She laughed self-consciously. “God, I’m so embarrassed.”
“Well if it makes you feel better, I think you still have me at a disadvantage here,” Narcissa said.
Hermione laughed. “In what possible way?”
“Everything you heard from me in that department was completely real. All I ever heard was a show.”
Hermione tried to keep her mind blank, tried not to think of those overheard evenings, but she failed. “I suppose that’s also a fair point,” she said with a cheeky smile.
Of course, the conversation passed on from there to other topics, but some part of Hermione’s mind remained quite fixed exactly where it was. On mental images she had never quite gotten out of her mind. Ones of parted lips and glistening fingers. Of lace underwear being slid off by trembling hands. Of muffled moans and soft skin just one wall out of reach.