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An Intimate Knowledge

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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.

 

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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?

Chapter Text

A few days after her meeting with Hermione, Narcissa once again found herself strolling back to her building. This time, however, with school newly in session, the streets were quite empty. It was only her and a few other stragglers set on running errands or grabbing brunch before the heat of the day set in. Without the usual crowd to weave through, she had the rare luxury of enjoying the quiet of a crisp Sunday morning with the sky a lovely shade of September blue. Or at least she ought to have had such a luxury, if only her mind wasn’t preoccupied with a few less romantic concerns.

In every store she had visited that morning, Narcissa had eyed the other customers carefully. As a woman with a complicated past, and a consequent number of enemies, she had always been a bit overly-observant of her surroundings. However, in the past few days, she had developed a completely new paranoia: that Hermione Granger would catch her unawares yet again.

The fear was not unfounded. They had barely missed a few chance encounters simply because Narcissa had made an abrupt turn, or closed her door just in time. It was as if that one coincidental meeting had somehow increased the odds of another, and now, Narcissa had the sense that she was only one distracted moment away from another uncomfortable run-in.

All morning, she had found herself flinching at the sight of brown curls before she could confirm that the locks were a slightly different shade of chestnut, or that there was an unfamiliar face waiting beneath them. Each time, the realization would flood her with feelings of relief and something else that felt ridiculously like disappointment—the latter of which she had absolutely no intention of examining too closely.

This time, however, as Narcissa’s eyes locked on someone else standing at the door of The Merlin, she didn’t have to dissect either emotion. Her steps slowed to a stop as she took in that all too familiar profile and the barely contained mass of curls that could belong to no one else.

Sweet Salazar, there she was again! Narcissa cursed under her breath. At this rate, she felt as if she was stalking the girl.

She weighed her options, considering whether she ought to steady herself and approach, but that idea went out the window the moment she realized that Hermione was not alone. There was a gangly redhead beside her with his hand draped proprietarily over her waist. So this was the fiancé—that Weasley boy.

Narcissa hung back, pretending to be suddenly engrossed by a sale on Valerian Root displayed in the window of a nearby potion supply shop. Surreptitiously, she eyed the pair, zeroing in on him specifically with curiosity. Of course, Narcissa knew that she had met the boy before, years ago in what felt like a different lifetime. He had been rumpled and displeasing then too, but he had been a teenager, not to mention a captive in her cellar at the time; it was only understandable that he wouldn't have been at his best. There ought to have been plenty of opportunity for improvement in the passing years. Alas...

His clothes were wrinkled; his posture was abominable. Even at a glance, he looked like he’d be terrible in bed. Funny how accurate these first impressions can be.

She watched them with a look of marked distaste. Even with their clothes on, it would have been a stretch to say that Hermione looked satisfied with him. She was pulled as far away from him as his grasping fingers would allow and her smile lacked warmth. It looked placating and empty like even she had grown tired of her usual performance.

Narcissa gave the couple a long lead, adamant not to join them on any part of their journey to the fifth floor. When she finally arrived in her own flat, she was surprised to hear so much silence from next door. It seemed so unnaturally quiet that she would have thought Hermione had set the silencing charms at last if it hadn’t been for the soft clinking of spoons against tea cups. It felt strange even through a wall, like being a part of a poorly planned dinner party where everyone’s been seated next to people with whom they have nothing in common.

Had there been no Quidditch game even for him to prattle on about? Or had he managed to exhaust even that line of conversation over whatever outing had preceded this?

“So… what did you do with your day off yesterday?” the boy asked, abruptly breaking the silence.

She supposed this was better than sports, although it didn’t get him any more enthusiastic of a response.

“Oh nothing, I just stayed in, did some chores,” Hermione responded.

Well that certainly wasn’t true, Narcissa thought. She had heard Hermione leave in the afternoon, and she hadn’t returned for a number of hours. Strange. What could she have been up to that would possibly be worth hiding? Perhaps she was having an affair; lord knows she deserved one. Although Narcissa wasn’t confident Hermione would do a better job picking out a casual partner than she had a committed one.

“Right. Well I really ought to be getting to work, shift starts soon and all,” he finally said, his chair squeaking against the floor as he rose to leave.

“Okay, right, of course. Have a good day then!”

Narcissa winced at the suddenly chipper tone in her voice. Hermione really ought to do a better job of hiding the sheer relief that she felt at his departure. She assumed it normally wouldn’t have been as obvious, but Hermione seemed to have lost interest in putting on her usual show of affection. What could have gotten into the girl today?

As they said their goodbyes, Narcissa imagined a smile plastered on both of their faces, their eyes a little too bright as they each tried to look pleased with the other.

Narcissa found the thought distressing, although she wasn’t entirely sure why. Really, what difference did it make to her whether Hermione Granger of all people was happy in her relationship?

Still, she had to admit it was a shame. That young woman had so much life and fire in her; she deserved better than to be with someone who seemed to put it out at every turn. And try as she might not to, Narcissa couldn’t help but add the observation that Hermione was simply far too pretty for him. She let that thought linger for just a moment before she hastily pushed it away.

Oh well. It’s not like she could have much of a high-horse when it came to taste in men. But at least no one could deny that Lucius was as pretty as she was; they at least had that going for them, if perhaps not much else.

 


 

Hermione heaved a sigh of relief when she closed the door behind Ron and sent him off to work. There had been a strange tension over breakfast that morning, and while nothing had been voiced, she assumed it had something to do with her unwillingness to sleep with him the night before. Or rather, her desire to do nothing more than sleep. Normally, she didn’t give a second thought to pulling her clothes off in the evening, but last night, she just couldn’t do it, not now that Narcissa might be listening at any given time, laughing at her from just a few precious inches away.

There was really no way to explain her abrupt lack of interest to Ron; the truth certainly wouldn’t do. He’d only ask why she hadn’t set the charms on the walls and been done with the whole thing days ago, and she’d struggled to explain why she hadn’t done just that even to herself. But she hadn’t, and she wasn’t about to, and if that meant she wouldn’t have sex with Ron until she figured it out, that was a sacrifice she was perhaps too willing to make. She doubted that he would see the situation the same way.

Regardless, last night had been a disappointment for Ron, but she didn’t think that was all of it. Something had felt altogether different between them ever since Hermione had been so thoroughly read by Narcissa in the elevator. Every time she laughed at Ron’s lackluster jokes or smiled too widely at his stories, she saw it through Narcissa’s eyes, heard her words as if she were listening to some other woman’s antics and scoffing at their idiocy.

She could tell that the effect of all this cringing self-censorship must have been rather awkward. Even for her, the cycle of it had become exhausting and strange, and she wondered how she’d gotten herself so invested in a dynamic that she disapproved of so thoroughly. It had left her feeling as if something heavy was hanging over her just out of her line of sight, as if something had to give.

Of course, she wasn’t sure whether Narcissa’s approval was a particularly valid way to judge behavior. She couldn’t really stop thinking of the woman as the enemy, even if some part of her brain—the part that clung so desperately to those overheard memories—was attempting to blur her vision.

Hermione opened the balcony doors for some air and heard Crookshanks trot out from the back room. Try as Hermione might to draw him out, the cat usually kept his own company whenever Ron was around. They had never really gotten past their feud from Hermione’s third year at Hogwarts, and now that it was nearly a decade old, it seemed they never would. Even now, Crookshanks looked at her as if to say “I can’t believe you still let him in my house.”

She sighed, expecting the cat to curl up in his usual spot in the late-morning sun. Instead, he perked up his ears at a noise Hermione hadn’t heard and stared outside with intense interest. A few moments later, with an quiet “mreep”, he sauntered out onto the balcony and leapt gracefully onto the neighboring one, heading Merlin knows where. Hermione never would have allowed this with any other cat, but Crookshanks was smarter than most humans so she let him do as he pleased—not that there was really any stopping him anyway.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Hermione called after him with a laugh, although she felt sure that she was the only one who found her jokes funny.

Moments later, what Hermione heard confirmed that not only did Crookshanks not find her funny, he also didn’t heed her advice in the slightest.

“Well, hello again,” came Narcissa’s voice, drifting through the window with a soft cooing tone that could only be meant for an animal or a small child.

Hermione gasped quietly in surprise. What had she just told him?

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you today, I’m going out for lunch. Unless a scratch behind the ears would do?” A soft chuckle followed, telling Hermione that it probably did quite well.

Hermione scoffed. Here the cat couldn’t even pretend to like Ron but he could fraternize with the enemy like this? And Narcissa had said again. Exactly how many times had Crookshanks wandered into Narcissa’s flat when Hermione had turned her back?

Grumbling to herself, she felt as if Narcissa was purposefully stealing Crookshanks affections from her just for spite, but she knew it was unlikely Narcissa had any idea where this cat was coming from. All the balconies connected if you had nine lives and springs in your feet. He could have been anyone’s at all.

When Crookshanks finally returned, Hermione was standing at the balcony door like a parent waiting up for a child after curfew.

“You little traitor,” she whispered to him.

“Meow?” Crookshanks said as if he had no idea what she was talking about and wound himself around Hermione’s legs.

“I thought you were a better judge of character than that,” Hermione said as she sat down and let him crawl into her lap. He looked at her as if she was being ridiculous, and she had to admit she felt a little hypocritical. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t indulging in the woman in her own way, but she didn’t like him doing the same.

Hermione sighed. She didn’t have time to unpack a disagreement with her cat of all things; she was supposed to be spending the afternoon with her mother, and if she was going to do anything with the remainder of her morning, it ought to be working on her book.

The meeting with her publisher yesterday had been so incredibly uncomfortable that she couldn’t stand to think of it. When she confessed to having only a few more words than she had a month before, the woman suggested that Hermione find a trusted friend to bounce ideas off of so the book would feel fresh again. It was probably valid advice, but Hermione wasn’t sure how to follow it. She loved Harry and Ginny, but she wasn’t sure either one of them were the right person for this, and Ron didn’t even know she was writing the book—which was another thing she simply didn’t have time to unpack, although she was pretty sure she ought to.

Instead, she summoned her notes and hoped that Crookshanks would have some good feedback for her floundering mess of a manuscript.

 


 

Later that evening, as the light began to dim, Hermione found herself of all places in the backseat of a taxi, absolutely fuming. She knew she could have gotten out at any point and apparated home but it wouldn't have made her any less angry about being shoved into it in the first place, so she sat there and let it take her all the way to the front door of her building.

She got out and paid the driver, holding as pleasant a smile as she could muster. She tipped him extra for the silence he had granted her the entire way, allowing her to simmer in her anger towards her mother and wonder whether she regretted having the conversation, or only neglecting to have it any sooner.

Over a day filled with shopping and lunch, Hermione had tried to tell her mother about how weird things had been with Ron that morning, how she thought things might have been weird between them for a long time, perhaps too long a time. She had tried to be more forceful than before in the face of her mother’s usual assurances that it was natural to have cold feet, but to no avail. All it had gotten her was stuffed into a cab and practically called hysterical like some repressed Victorian woman.

What bothered Hermione the most about the whole thing was that she wasn’t even sure that her mother liked Ron all that much. However, Mrs. Granger seemed to hover over her daughter far more as a young adult than she ever had as a child. It seemed to Hermione—and rightly so—that she had forfeited all the trust she once had with her parents when she had unilaterally decided to ship them off to New Zealand and run away to become a war hero. Now her mother seemed constantly plagued by the possibility that something similar could happen at any moment. And as if a wedding band around her finger could prevent such foolishness, she seemed to have an abnormal investment in seeing Hermione settled—with whom was most likely immaterial.

Hermione gritted her teeth. Clearly, if there was a decision to be made here, she was going to have to make it herself. Looking for permission, or even support, was getting her nowhere, which she supposed made sense; doing so before had only brought her here.

With these thoughts running circles in her mind, Hermione walked towards her door. She was fumbling angrily with her multitude of packages and trying to find her key when she heard a familiar “meow” from nearby. She was surprised to see Crookshanks sitting only a few feet away. For some reason, she had always assumed that he kept himself to the Diagon side of things. But as this morning had shown her, she had little idea what the cat got up to during his free time; for all she knew, he had a part-time job somewhere.

For now, he was sitting beside the flower beds on the window ledge, looking quite content to watch the Muggle traffic pass by. At the sight of Hermione, he jumped down and rubbed against her legs.

“What are you doing all the way out here?” Hermione asked, tutting softly. “C’mon, let’s go inside for dinner, it has been a day.”

Predictably, the word “dinner” seemed to get his attention, but Hermione could only hold his interest for a moment before he had perked up his ears and glanced towards the street as if he had seen something.

In a second, he was off, dashing towards the street as if about to pounce. “Crookshanks,” Hermione called after him, not wanting him to go too far into Muggle London. “Crookshanks!” she yelled again, seeing him getting far too close to traffic. When he still didn’t stop, Hermione broke out in a run after him, but it was too late for her to catch up.

Mere inches away from the bustling thoroughfare, Hermione saw the cat freeze unnaturally. He was still as a statue, but only for a moment before the caster of the inconspicuous stasis charm scoffled him into her arms.

“Now what do you think you’re doing, hmm? That was very close!” Narcissa said in a tone that was both scolding and soothing.

Hermione almost dropped her bags at the sight of Narcissa Malfoy—or Black, she corrected— turning around to face her, holding Crookshanks tightly in her arms. He looked happy as a clam, purring furiously beneath her touch. Unlike the two women, he didn’t seem to be bothered in the least by the fact that he had been inches away from becoming a pancake only moments before.

“Crookshanks!” Hermione exclaimed once more, dashing forward. “You scared me half to death!”

She looked up at Narcissa who was silently gaping at her. “Thank you! Mrs. M—Ms. Black. You saved him; I don’t know how to thank you.”

“This is your cat?” Narcissa asked, sounding a bit dumbstruck.

Hermione nodded as she tried to shift her belongings to one arm so she could take Crookshanks from her, but the stack was becoming precarious.

“I can take him. We’re obviously headed the same way,” Narcissa said. Hermione really had no choice but to agree, and Crookshanks certainly didn’t look like he minded.

As they walked into the elevator, even Hermione had to admit that they looked rather sweet together. Narcissa looked like an entirely different person while cuddling a contented tabby than she had in this same spot only days before.

As if reading her mind, Crookshanks looked at Hermione with a rather smug expression on his face before flipping himself over in Narcissa’s arms like a child, exposing the fluff of his stomach to strokes and pets. Narcissa smiled down at him indulgently and buried her fingers in his fur. His purr was loud enough to echo off the otherwise silent space. Hermione gave him a suspicious glance.

“He really likes you,” Hermione observed quietly.

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” Narcissa said, cocking her eyebrow in Hermione’s direction.

“No, I didn’t mean it like that,” Hermione hastened to correct herself. “I just meant that he usually isn’t all that friendly with strangers, or really anyone who isn’t me.”

“Well, this isn’t our first meeting; he’s snuck onto my balcony a number of times now.”

“I er… I heard,” Hermione admitted.

Narcissa sighed and seemed almost to roll her eyes. “Of course you did.”

There was an awkward pause as their previous conversation began to feel much closer than it had before. Hermione thought once again—seemingly for the millionth time—about Narcissa’s estimation of her engagement and she felt self-consciousness creeping up her neck again. One thought led to another and suddenly, her mind was back to the afternoon with her mother. She wished that there was anyone in her life who didn’t think she was a fool lately, even if it was only herself.

“I should have known he was yours,” Narcissa mused quietly.

“Why?” Hermione asked, still half lost in her own thoughts. “Because he manages to be both the brightest cat of his age and a reckless idiot at the same time?”

Hermione clamped her mouth shut the moment she had heard the self-deprecating remark leave her lips. She turned to Narcissa, feeling awkward and wanting to apologize for the strange lapse. Instead, she was relieved to see Narcissa chuckle. Her laugh sounded a little surprised but warm and genuine nonetheless.

“Well that’s hardly what I was going to say,” Narcissa said. “I only meant that I feel like I’ve been orbiting you as of late. I should have known that if any cat in this building would manage to find his way into my flat, it would be yours.”

Narcissa’s eyes flicked downwards as if she also wasn’t sure why she’d said any of that.

“I know what you mean,” Hermione said and Narcissa smiled hesitantly in reply.

“So,” Narcissa began, clearing her throat lightly to break the moment. “Indulge my curiosity, why were you getting out of a Muggle taxi?”

“Oh,” Hermione said, leaning against the wall. She considered making something up, but really what was the point? It wasn’t any more embarrassing than anything else Narcissa knew about her at this point. “It’s all my mother’s fault, she was convinced I was too upset to be trusted with magic and she hustled me into the cab without taking no for an answer. I wasn’t anywhere near so upset that I couldn’t apparate. I was just trying to tell her that I had… well not really fought with but had a weird morning with Ron and…” she stopped, unsure why she was being so forthcoming.

“I heard,” Narcissa confessed.

Hermione turned to Narcissa, expecting to see derision and laughter like she had the last time Ron was discussed, but now, she saw nothing but sympathy in her eyes.

Had the woman’s eyes always been so painfully blue? Perhaps she had never really looked into Narcissa’s eyes before, or perhaps she’d never looked and seen anything other than ice and apathy. But now the deep blue felt so warm it could burn her and drown her simultaneously.

In her distraction, an item slipped from her overloaded grasp which Narcissa caught with a deft display of wandless magic.

“Oh! Thank you,” Hermione said, but in her effort to reorient everything in her arms, another item was dropped and halted in the same way.

“Are you alright?” Narcissa asked, a touch of amusement in her voice.

“Yes, I—“ Hermione began and cleared her throat. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said with a firmness that she hoped would make it true.

The elevator door dinged as it reached their floor, and at Crookshanks insistence, he was put down to stroll alongside them to their doors.

When she closed her door behind her, Hermione felt unreasonably flustered. “Be more careful next time,” Narcissa had said to Crookshanks with a parting stroke of his back. He was always careful, uncommonly so for a cat. Now, looking into Crookshanks’ perceptive, inscrutable face, she wondered just how in danger he had ever been.

 

 

Chapter Text

Long after the evening had fallen, Hermione closed her windows and made sure that Crookshanks’ dinner bowl was filled. She had watched the cat more closely than usual these past two days, determined to pay more attention to his comings and goings if only to know when he had been next door. Not that she was about to stop him, of course; once she had given it some thought, Hermione didn’t think she even disapproved of their odd friendship. Even if she did, Narcissa seemed to positively dote on the creature, and Hermione had too much heart to deny him that. Merlin, if anyone treated her that way, she’d be crawling through their windows too. Still, his kamikaze act the previous day had piqued her interest and she had struggled to get either the cat’s strange behavior or the woman at which it was directed out of her mind.

With a spell to turn out most of the lights, Hermione picked up her bag and headed for the door. She was quietly dreading the evening. Ginny had sent an owl earlier in the day saying she and Harry wanted to meet Hermione and Ron at some coffee shop in Diagon that evening. It seemed odd that they wanted to meet there instead of at a bar at this time of night, but Hermione was fine with it. The tension with Ron had grown so strong as of late that she feared what might come out of her mouth if her tongue was loosened by anything stronger than tea.

Still, she would have preferred to stay home and continue with what she was doing—not that she was sure what that was exactly. Driving herself mad by obsessing over the way Crookshanks looked in Narcissa’s arms? Picturing the distinctly un-Narcissa-esque look on the woman’s face as she smiled down at the cat, so indulgent and sweet? Perhaps she’d even find time to brood over her growing discomfort with Ron and wonder what she ought to do about it. Yes, the possibilities were clearly endless.

She sighed, thinking that it was probably sad that any of these neuroses sounded preferable to an evening spent smiling at Ron’s side. But regardless, she needed to leave. There was already a chance that she would be late as it was.

When Hermione opened her door on her way out, she found Narcissa already in the hall heading towards her own flat. It was incredible how something could be so predictable and yet startle her all the same.

This time, however, Hermione could blame some of her surprise on the fact that tonight’s appearance was unique, for this time, Narcissa was not alone. Tonight, Narcissa was followed closely by a beautiful dark-skinned woman dressed in expensive-looking sapphire robes. Immediately, Hermione recognized the woman as Anathema Zabini: mother of Blaise, assumed murderer of many an unsuspecting and well-endowed husband. She was strikingly beautiful, with a luring gaze and an almost predatory glint to her smile like some kind of modern day siren. Hermione swallowed hard at the realization that this must be Narcissa’s mysterious lover. She fought the recollections back as if with a knife; now was not the time.

Looking at the women, she could tell that they’d been drinking wherever they’d been. Not that either one was sloppy or stumbling—she had a hard time imagining that Narcissa would ever allow herself to get that kind of drunk—but there was something unusually easy about her smile, and something honeyed and sly about her gaze that spoke of a few defenses slipping just a touch.

“Good evening,” Hermione said, drawing the women’s attention to her, although she probably could have escaped without them noticing her presence.

Surprised at the greeting, Narcissa turned her head, and when she saw Hermione, her lips spread into an easy smile.

“Oh, good evening, Hermione,” she said.

Hermione’s breath caught in her throat. Narcissa had never used her first name before.

“Anathema,” Narcissa continued. “This is Hermione Granger; she lives next door.”

Anathema, who had been looking at her curiously, now looked her up and down with a small smirk forming on her lips. “What a strange little coincidence,” she said.

“Hermione, this is Anathema Zabini.”

“Nice to meet you,” Hermione said with a nervous smile. If she thought Narcissa’s gaze was penetrating, it was nothing in comparison to the sheer discomfort she felt under Anathema’s sharp eyes.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” the woman finally said. She stared at Hermione for a moment longer before her attention snapped back to the icy blonde in front of her, apparently deeming Hermione to be no more than a peripheral distraction at best.

“Enjoy your evening,” Narcissa said, pulling her key from her bag.

“You too,” Hermione squeaked back—not that that seemed to be in question by the looks of it.

By then, Narcissa had the door unlocked and as she opened it, Anathema’s hands wound over her waist and she leaned in close to whisper something. The words were completely inaudible to Hermione, but it caused Narcissa to chuckle darkly.

For a self-conscious moment, Hermione wondered if it was about her. Almost immediately, however, she figured she was being incredibly self-centered as she saw Anathema bend to brush a soft kiss against the back of her lover’s neck. In response, Narcissa turned around to capture Anathema’s lips in her own as they stumbled through the door, slamming it behind them.

Hermione stood in the hallway alone with that brief image of their embrace imprinted on her vision like a spector. She forced herself to stop gaping at the empty air like an idiot, but even as she turned to lock her own door, she thought of them stumbling into Narcissa’s bedroom, the muffled sounds of commotion as they ripped each other’s clothes off and fell onto the sheets, the way Narcissa’s soft laughter would drift through the walls and fill the space like perfume.

A small part of Hermione wanted to have forgotten something, just to be on the other side of that wall instead of there in that too silent hallway. But that was a ridiculous thought. It was one thing to overhear one’s neighbors accidentally, it was quite another to be crouched on the bedroom floor with an ear pressed to the wall.

So instead, she turned towards the elevator, head pounding with the way Narcissa had smiled when she saw her, thoughts buzzing with the way Narcissa had said her name. How could her name sound so different on the woman’s lips? They were the same four syllables that had always felt so commonplace and cumbersome, but savored in Narcissa’s wine-sweetened mouth, they sounded almost new.

Hermione walked down the hall as if she was in a trace, ensuring that if she wasn’t going to be late before, she certainly was now.

 


 

“‘Mione, good, you’re finally here!” Harry said with far more enthusiasm than Hermione expected from her entrance.

“Hi Harry. What’s going on? What are you so worked up about?” She asked with a laugh, wondering if he ought to have switched to decaf.

“Apparently they have some big news, but they didn’t want to tell me until you got here. He’s been acting balmy like this for twenty minutes,” Ron said, looking at Harry with disbelieving good cheer.

“Well, I might as well tell you before Harry explodes,” Ginny said with a laugh. “I’m pregnant.”

“Congratulations! That’s wonderful!” Hermione said immediately, echoing something similar from Ron beside her.

“It’s too early to tell yet, but I just know it’s going to be a boy,” Harry said, a wide grin seemingly plastered on his face.

“I keep telling him that he’s getting ahead of himself. Honestly, you’re not a Seer.” Ginny said, rolling her eyes playfully at him. “Mum was thrilled of course. She’s been dead-set on another grandchild ever since she got one out of Bill, probably even more thrilled that she’ll finally have one that isn’t half-Fleur.”

Hermione laughed. She was nodding, keeping a smile on her face as they went on about the appointment with the healer, the due date, etcetera. But the longer she listened, the more a small voice of panic grew inside her mind. She hated the way Ron kept looking at her, the way he kept trying to grab her hand, the way it all seemed to say “We’ll be next”, meant of course as a comfort, but sounding more like a threat. And all the while, that voice in her mind kept screaming “Run.”

She had expressed her doubts about wanting a child, certainly about children, plural, but they had all fallen on deaf ears, or so it seemed. Was this just one more topic that she’d gradually stopped fighting about? She loathed herself at the realization that it probably was. Even with something as serious as children, she was just keeping the peace, assuming it would work out in the end.

“Stroke his ego,” an accusatory voice echoed in her mind.

Honestly, how did she expect it to work out if she didn’t work it out herself? The realization, obvious though it was, felt like a punch to the gut, knocking the wind out of her, shaking the smile slightly from her lips.

Luckily enough, Harry and Ginny were so lost in themselves that they didn’t notice Hermione’s increasing stress levels. It was only Ron whose looks towards Hermione grew more strained as the evening went on, whose attempts to grab her hand, her arm, her shoulder grew more assertive and less willing to accept Hermione’s uncomfortable shifts away.

Hermione’s smile had grown painful and all the while, she had this sense that whatever had been hanging over her head before was now knocking incessantly against her skull like a thundering hammer, sending fear through her veins and stoking an increasingly desperate need for action.

 


 

While Hermione silently spiralled, at the other end of the street, Narcissa and Anathema lay beside each other, now sobered and sated.

Anathema was eyeing the wall behind the headboard with a new kind of interest. “It’s a shame that your little neighbor there was headed out; we would have given her quite a show.”

“Oh stop it,” Narcissa said, swatting at Anathema’s arm, pretending that the same thought hadn’t briefly occurred to her earlier.

The playful rebuke did nothing to dim the mischievous smile playing on Anathema’s lips.

“Do you think she realizes all you’ve overheard?” she asked.

Narcissa really didn’t want to go into the details of their interactions; the whole thing felt far too fragile to share. Honestly, she would have been happiest not to be having this conversation at all. She shrugged, feigning a lack of interest. “I’m sure she has some inkling, yes.”

“Hmmm.” Anathema was clearly not satisfied by such a noncommittal answer. “So, did you ask her then, about our bet?” she asked with a devilish glint in her eye.

“Have I asked her if she’s faking her orgasms?” Narcissa asked, aghast.

Anathema nodded. She couldn’t possibly be serious, although knowing Anathema, she just might be. Still, Narcissa couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the prospect. Whatever ideas she might have had about boldly questioning her neighbor about her sex life had gone out the window the moment she had seen Hermione’s face.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Narcissa said. “Of course I haven’t asked her; I hardly know her.”

“It doesn’t seem that way. After all, you’re already on a first name basis with the girl.”

Narcissa gaped for a moment, realizing that she had called Hermione by her first name in the hallway. She had gotten so used to thinking of her as such that it had just slipped out.

“I suppose I did call her Hermione, didn’t I? I don’t think I’ve done that before,” Narcissa said quietly.

Anathema tilted her head, turning that over in her mind for a moment. “Well, she was certainly eyeing you like she enjoyed it,” she said with a laugh.

Narcissa shook her head and scoffed softly. She had thought that Hermione was watching them just a little too closely, but there had been just as much of a chance that was her own ego telling her what she wanted to hear. She felt her eyes drift to the shared wall for just a moment, feeling suddenly warm and self-conscious over whether Hermione had returned home yet or not. More disconcertingly, she wasn’t sure what answer she was hoping for.

The gaze lasted only a second, but Anathema was far too quick to miss it. “What was that look?”

“What look?”

“You had a look, just then, a strange expression on your face.”

Narcissa brought her features back into line. “If I had a strange look, it was only me thinking how absurd you’re being.”

“Hmmm. If you say so,” Anathema hummed consideringly, narrowing her eyes in a disconcertingly shrewd kind of way.

Narcissa fought a blush rising to her cheeks, but she rolled her eyes dismissively. “I do say so,” she said firmly. As soon as she saw the rise of Anathema’s eyebrow, she was sure that the firmness in her tone was a mistake. She should have kept her tone light, joking. Anathema was far too good at picking up on these things after all, and Narcissa was allowing herself to be obvious. Not that there was anything to be picked up on really, she chastised herself.

She lay back against the pillows, trying to shake the strange nervous feeling that had washed over her, and trying even harder to keep such a feeling to herself.

 


 

Later that evening, Narcissa sat alone. Anathema had left about an hour prior, and ever since, Narcissa had been turning the evening over in her mind. With the last of the wine’s thrill leaving her veins, there was nothing but an irritating dullness left in its wake. She supposed that she could have poured herself another glass of something, or even better gone to sleep, although she didn’t really want to do either.

She heard the fireplace announce Hermione’s arrival next door, and to Narcissa’s dismay, she was not alone.

“It’s colder than I thought it would be out there,” Hermione was saying.

“Right, it is,” her fiancé responded shortly and Narcissa cringed at the awkward small talk. The weather? Surely this was the most pathetic attempt she’d heard from them yet.

“Do you want a drink?” she asked him. He declined even when prodded with options of tea or coffee if he wasn’t in the mood for a nightcap. This clearly wasn’t what Hermione had expected and another awkward silence fell. It was strange not to accept an offer of a drink in someone else’s home. Did he plan on leaving, or was he so eager to fuck her that he wouldn’t even allow her a deadening buzz first?

Either way, Narcissa didn’t want to know. She was far too tired for another round of their distressing awkwardness and all the emotions it managed to wake in her. This wasn’t the first time that she had thought this foolish interest was getting out of hand, but if anything ought to stop her from indulging, it was the way Anathema seemed to be perceiving it. She moved to her library where it was the quietest and tried to search for a book dull enough to put her to sleep.

A few minutes later, she heard an impatient tapping at her balcony door. With a furrowed brow, Narcissa pulled back her curtains and found the orange cat whom she now knew as Crookshanks waiting for her to let him inside.

“Good evening, darling. I take it you didn’t want to listen to that either,” she said quietly as the cat strolled in.

He wound himself through her legs before jumping on top of the armchair. She stroked his back, expecting him to settle, but he did not. He stalked and jumped amongst the pieces of furniture with his bottle-brush tail held high in the air, all the while leading her back towards the very vent that she had been avoiding in the first place.

Normally, she wouldn’t have given a cat all that much credit for planning, but he was far too shrewd an animal for any action to seem too coincidental. But why in the world would he want her to listen to whatever inane smalltalk was transpiring over there?

“I’ve already said it was wonderful news, Ronald.” Hermione’s shrill voice rang through the air.

“Yes, I know. You’ve said the word ‘wonderful’ about a hundred times tonight,” he answered, his tone equally aggravated.

“Then I don’t know what else you want from me!”

Narcissa’s eyes widened at the undisguised anger in Hermione’s voice. She looked to Crookshanks who had settled on the back of the sofa, a soft purr rumbling in his chest. Narcissa sat down beside him, suddenly listening intently. She’d never heard them fight before. Granted, she thought a lot of what she had heard was worse than an argument, but still.

“I just wanted to know why you were acting so strange tonight. It was like you were barely even there.”

“You’re being ridiculous.” She laughed mirthlessly and a silence fell, awkward and expectant.

“‘Mione, can I say something?”

Narcissa found this irritating. She hated it when people asked questions you had no choice but to say yes to, forcing you to consent to whatever argument they were about to start.

“Of course, Ron. You can say whatever you like,” Hermione responded tartly, sounding like she had a similar opinion of the question.

“Well, now, that’s a laugh,” he scoffed.

“What do you mean by that?”

“What I have to say clearly doesn’t interest you much these days, not that’s any surprise.” His tone was sulky and juvenile. Perhaps he thought he could guilt her into an apology, but Narcissa guessed that Hermione wasn’t in a conciliatory kind of mood.

“Ron, would you just say whatever it is that you wanted to say,” Hermione snapped

“That is what I wanted to say, ‘Mione. You’ve barely participated in our conversation for days now, weeks even, and the bar was pretty low to begin with. No matter what I talk about, it doesn’t seem to interest you in the least.”

“That’s hardly fair! It’s not like you sit with rapt attention whenever I talk about my day,” she retorted.

“When do you ever talk about your day? You don’t tell me anything about what you do. I feel lucky to even know where you work!”

Well, he wasn’t as oblivious as Narcissa had previously thought. He had realized how much Hermione was pushing him to the sidelines of her life; he had just hung on anyway. She supposed there was something depressingly admirable in that. She wondered whether he was truly that in love with her, or if he was staying for the sake of it just as she clearly was.

“I’m an Unspeakable, Ronald. It’s in the job title that I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she hissed angrily.

He scoffed loudly at that, but she continued.

“I can hardly start spilling government secrets just to soothe your ego; I tell you what I can. Besides, the rest of it you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Even from the other side of the wall, Narcissa knew this was a misstep.

“I wouldn’t understand? Because I’m that stupid, am I?”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You have got to stop being so sensitive!”

Just like that, they were off. They fought about so many things, one dispute leading to another without either finding a satisfactory resolution. Narcissa lost track of many of the details as the couple moved throughout the apartment. She was shocked by the sheer breadth of their fight and the number of accusations flying on both sides. They were bringing up incidents that were a decade old or more, and by the sound of it, not for the first time. It was a wonder that the relationship had lasted this long with all of this between them. There were only so many unresolved disagreements any couple could bear before they crumbled under the weight. “Irreconcilable Differences”, yes, that’s what the lawyers had called it, such a neat little phrase to say that two people could no longer stand the sight of each other.

“It’s like you don’t want to marry me at all,” Ron eventually said.

“Well, maybe I don’t!” Hermione shouted.

Narcissa almost gasped in shock.

“Maybe I don’t,” Hermione repeated quietly as if affirming just how true it was, exploring how it felt to say it aloud.

“Well, that’s umm… that’s that then,” Ron said.

Narcissa wondered if Hermione might say something to take it back, try to form herself back into what she always was for him, try to apologize in some unsatisfactory way, but she did not. A minute later, she heard the whoosh of the fireplace and an ensuing silence that was peaceful and enduring.

At that, Crookshanks jumped down from the back of the sofa and trotted away to his home.

Narcissa wondered what Hermione was feeling, and whether she needed the comfort of her feline friend, even though he seemed more likely to offer congratulations. She wondered whether Hermione felt lucky, at the very least she ought to. They had reached a point in their relationship that Narcissa hadn’t reached in her own until the ink on the marriage certificate was hopelessly dry. Hermione had taken a way out that didn’t involve lawyers and signatures and children that needed therapy.

As if in an answering demonstration, Narcissa heard a single sob and she felt her heart break for the young woman. Contrary as she was, she thought she might not have felt so badly if Hermione had truly broken down. But there was just one sob and no more that followed. It was the unnecessary restraint that had wedged itself into her mind.

Narcissa felt a pang of something like vindication in her chest, although she knew that the victory was in no way her own. But it was a victory, albeit messy and complicated and heartrending, as most worthwhile victories were. A single sob to express it all.

She had this stupid desire to knock on the girl’s door, to tell her she had done the right thing, but that would have been inappropriate, and undoubtedly unwanted. But she knew that she simply had to do something…

 


 

Hermione heard her doorknocker clang once, twice, three times in a quick rhythm.

Who could that possibly be at this hour? It wouldn’t be Ron; if he wanted to come back to continue the row, he would have just come through the Floo the way he had left. Besides, that wouldn’t be his style. Ron liked to sulk after a fight, to brood. Most likely, he would be at home with a drink in his hand, or perhaps he had sought out Harry, or at the very least an acquaintance at a bar, and would be bemoaning how Hermione had just told him she didn’t want to marry him, essentially tossing him from her life.

With a sigh, she got up from her seat at the window and checked her face in the mirror. She hadn’t been crying so fixing herself up was mostly unnecessary. With her hair smoothed and some of the residual anger cleared from her eyes, she opened the door only to find an empty hallway. She furrowed her brow in confusion, turning left and right, before hearing a frustrated rustle below her eye level.

Looking down, she saw a bottle of wine, floating midair, wiggling before her as if annoyed that she could miss it.

With a look of confusion and an apologetic smile at the show-offy little thing, she grabbed it from where it hung in the air and opened the card that was tied around its neck.

It sounded like you need this more than I do — Narcissa

Hermione hesitated, glancing in the direction of Narcissa’s flat, but there wasn’t so much as a rustle beyond that closed door. The contents of the bottle were gold and glittering in the lamplight, expensive by the looks of it, which only figured.

She felt a bit as if she was being tempted like Alice in Wonderland. Drink Me, the bottle commanded and she knew that she had no option but to accept. She wondered in what Wonderland she might wind up and whether it could seem any madder than the world she was already in. She smiled briefly at her own dramatics. It wasn’t as if she was about to refuse the offer, either of the costly wine or of the implied sympathy that came with it.

Once inside, as Hermione searched for a corkscrew to open the bottle, Crookshanks hopped onto the counter and eyed the glittering bottle with interest. “This isn’t for you,” she said. But even without taking a sip, the cat seemed extremely satisfied with the present.

As she read the note once more, Hermione felt a tear slide down her cheek. It was the simplest of sympathies, only a handful of words, but Hermione cherished it deeply. Most importantly, she valued the absence of criticism and judgement that she already felt herself bracing against from the rest of her friends and family. Simple kindness was an appreciated luxury in comparison to the inevitable patronizing questions asking her if she was sure, wondering if she wasn’t perhaps overreacting just a bit, or assuring her that she would see it differently in the morning. It all made sense of course; if there was anyone who knew what it was like to endure a messy relationship and its even messier end, it was Narcissa Black.

Looking at the note again, Hermione fully noticed that Narcissa had signed her first name and her heart beat just a shade harder than before.

Although Hermione felt as if she could have chugged the bottle in her hands, the wine was far too good for anything so uncouth. Instead, she poured a glass and sipped it delicately, experimentally letting the flavors wash over her tongue. It was tart and tinged with a surprising note of citrus that was delightful—as if Narcissa’s taste in wines would be anything but exquisite.

Glass in hand, she sat in the chair nearest her balcony windows and looked at the few pale stars that could be seen in the city sky, already feeling a comforting warmth from the wine spreading through her body.

Her brain kept whispering to her of freedom, but there was a second voice, a nagging voice, that kept asking “what now?” And it terrified her to realize that she didn’t have a clue.

She heard Narcissa’s balcony doors open and with an idea fresh in her mind, she grabbed a piece of parchment and scrawled a hasty “Thank you”, likewise signing her first name. With a charm, Hermione sent it flying out the window and into the next.

Hermione’s heart fluttered as she imagined Narcissa unfolding the note and the smile that might come to her lips from knowing that her gift had been appreciated. Perhaps she too was searching out those few flickering city stars and meditating on her day. Perhaps she was even drinking the same wine, if it was one that she favored. Hermione imagined the same honeyed liquid passing over Narcissa’s red lips as she likewise reflected on the melancholy of complicated romance, or perhaps her salvation from it. She pictured how they each must look from a spectator’s point of view: two pictures so much the same that they could have been two panels in the same painting, variations on a theme.

Or, she chastised herself, it was just wine and she was being a drama queen.

Chapter Text

The post owl flew through the window and the moment the Prophet unfurled on her table, Hermione couldn’t help but roll her eyes in disgust. There in black and white was her own face staring back at her above the noxious headline:

Golden Girl On The Prowl

By Rita Skeeter

“Well, that didn’t take long,” she muttered under her breath. She wondered how Rita had gotten her hands on the story so quickly. Ron must have been awfully lax in his choice of confidants or at least complained loudly enough in a bar somewhere that he was overheard.

And what a picture they had managed to dig up. It was an image of her and Ron dressed up in evening robes. She was walking away, edging practically out of the shot, while he stood by the wall looking glum. Hermione had no memory of when this picture was taken or where she was headed at the time. In all reality, the photographer had probably just caught her as she left to go to the loo, but alongside the headline, it seemed far more dramatic.

Reluctantly, she began to read the article...

One of the Wizarding community's most well-known couples hit the skids this week when on Wednesday evening, Hermione Granger jilted her long-time fiancé—war-hero and trusted Auror, Ronald Weasley.

Though it comes as a shock to many, those close to the couple say it was only a matter of time. The notably ambitious Miss Granger has a well-established track record of searching out partners with fame and fortune. Although Mr. Weasley’s war-born notoriety must have been worth something to the young witch once, the honorable life of civic duty he has since chosen wasn’t enough to hold on to her fickle affections.

Rumor has it that she already has someone else lined up, undoubtedly someone with the clout to satisfy her lofty tastes.

Hermione gritted her teeth and turned the page rather than continuing to read what notable wizards she was supposedly courting in place of Ron. She had seen Harry’s name further in the paragraph and hadn’t even wanted to know.

Although Hermione regretted many of the choices that had brought her to this moment, most of all, she cursed herself for the lack of foresight that had allowed Rita Skeeter to weasel out of their arrangement of blackmail and secrecy. After the war, in a move that Hermione had never seen coming, the woman chose to register herself as an Animagus with the Ministry. She had even told a clever lie about how she had learned to transform in order to evade the Death Eaters during the war, explaining why she had circumvented all the usual bureaucracy. Rita must have missed her ability to operate in secret, but she apparently considered it a worthy sacrifice if it meant freeing herself from Hermione’s influence.

Ever since then, without any leverage to hold her back, and the requisite amount of bad blood that comes from being held in a jar, the odious woman had jumped on any opportunity to malign Hermione Granger. Generally, those opportunities were few and far between given how successfully Hermione’s job and her general desire to stay in on Friday nights kept her out of the public eye. Hearing about the break-up must have been like Christmas to old Rita.

Hermione grimaced, wondering if she ought to up her wards against hate mail, although she sincerely hoped that the story wouldn’t take off like it had years ago when she had supposedly broken Harry’s heart. It wasn’t that public opinion bothered her per se, but it could have consequences. For one, her publisher wouldn’t like this kind of negative press. The woman had always been urging her to get her name back in front of the masses before the book launch, but becoming well-known as a fame-hungry hussy was probably not how she intended it to happen. Admittedly, enough of that sort of press might make an academic text with her name on it more difficult to sell... Luckily, at the rate Hermione was writing, she wouldn’t finish for another decade at least. By then, the article would be nothing more than a crumbling piece of parchment in the archives somewhere. She supposed that counted as a silver lining of some sort.

Just then, Hermione heard a hurried knock from next door and she was suddenly shaken out of her thoughts. The greeting was quiet, but there was no mistaking the voice of Draco Malfoy—his drawl dulled slightly with age and self-awareness, but distinctive nonetheless.

“Draco, is everything alright? You sounded so anxious in your note,” Narcissa’s voice rang softly through the walls.

“Yes, everything is fine. You don’t need to worry Mother, I just wanted to see you is all,” he said. “Now is alright, isn’t it?”

Hermione thought Draco did sound nervous; the cheerful ease he was aiming for was too obviously put-on. She could imagine what he must look like with a forced smile on his face, tense and fidgeting. She wondered what was wrong, but Narcissa didn’t press the point.

“Of course it’s alright. You know that I’m always happy to see you,” she assured. “Sit down; I’ll get you a cup of tea.”

“Don’t you have anything stronger?” Draco asked with a tired sigh.

There was a pause.

“It’s not even noon, darling.” Narcissa said. Her voice was so gentle that it brought a sad smile to Hermione’s lips.

“You’re right. Tea then,” he agreed, as if he just hadn’t realized the time. Hermione was sure he would have preferred it spiked nonetheless.

There was a bustling silence as Narcissa likely set the kettle to boil and waited patiently for Draco to get up the nerve to say whatever had been on his mind.

“I er — I heard from Father yesterday, a letter. He sent it to my office,” Draco finally said.

Hermione nodded as the root of Draco’s tension began to take form.

“Oh?” Narcissa said. Her voice sounded light, but only because she seemed to be forcing it to be so. “And what did he have to say?”

“Nothing much really,” Draco said with a nervous sigh. “He said he was closing up part of the house, wanted to know if I would come pick up my things. He kept going on about how he didn’t need all the space now that it was just him, how he couldn’t keep it all clean now that he’s not allowed an elf. I think he was trying to make me feel guilty.”

Yes, and it was clearly working, Hermione thought by the sound of his voice. She could imagine how lonely it must be for Lucius to rattle around on that huge estate with only a hallway of snobbish portraits and the occasional peacock to keep him company. She might have even felt sorry for him if he wasn’t such a despicable excuse for a man.

When Narcissa spoke, she had clearly chosen her words carefully. “Darling, you know you don’t have to stay away from your father on my account, don’t you? I won’t be hurt if you do decide to see him.”

“I know,” Draco responded hastily. “But I don’t want to. I even thought about it but…” He trailed off into silence.

The quiet hung briefly in the air before Narcissa spoke again.

“Then have him send your things to me if you want them; he already knows my address. And otherwise, darling, I suggest you put him out of your mind.” Her voice was crisp and coolly decisive, and Hermione thought she sounded incredibly relieved.

She doubted Narcissa actually wanted Lucius in her son’s life any more than she wanted him in her own, which was probably for the best after all. Draco must agree if he hadn’t even told his father where he lived. For Merlin’s sake, if even a letter from his father brought him to such a state, a meeting sounded like a terrible idea. Still, it must be difficult to express such feelings in the midst of a divorce when loyalties are so often divided and unsure.

“Right. Right, okay. I’ll do that,” Draco said, sounding more confident now that he’d been given permission to be a negligent son.

A short silence fell and Hermione thought she could almost see the way Narcissa would put a soothing hand over her son’s and smile reassuringly at the sight of his worried brow, how the furrow in his forehead would gradually lessen at the thought of her support.

“Speaking of Father, have you two made any progress? With the divorce, I mean,” Draco asked.

“What do you think?” Narcissa said in a tone that made it easy to imagine how she might roll her eyes and offer up a light smile, sparing her son the worst of her troubles.

“Perhaps it’s you who needs something stronger then,” Draco joked and they both laughed. The situation wasn’t exactly funny, but there was always something to be said for choosing laughter over tears.

It was really very nice that they were at least able to take comfort in each other, Hermione thought. She was reminded of an early observation about her neighbor, one made long before she knew the woman’s identity: that there was so much softness in her, that the ice around her formed only when keeping the world at bay. Narcissa kept insisting on proving that point at every turn without even knowing what she was doing.

As the conversation turned to other topics, Hermione checked the time. If anything, this felt more intimate than some of the more scandalous things she had overheard and she was glad to have a reason to leave and give them some privacy.

Well, “glad” was undoubtedly an overstatement; she was sure she’d rather set herself on fire than set off to return the engagement ring to Ron. It was going to be so awkward. Even writing the letter asking him when he would be available was bad enough. If only it didn’t feel wrong to send something so expensive through the mail... Merlin, was that where all this ring nonsense came from? That it was too unbelievably uncomfortable to give it back that you'd marry them just to avoid it? It seemed possible. But there was no backing down now. She steadied her nerves as she headed into the fireplace and towards Ron’s apartment on the other side of town.

 


 

Narcissa heard the fireplace next door announce Hermione’s departure and she wondered whether her neighbor had been listening. It felt strange to think that, no matter the answer, it wouldn’t really bother her. Normally, she was even more protective over Draco’s privacy than her own, but for some reason she trusted Hermione—probably more than was justified, but nonetheless...

Just then, her owl flew through the window with her mail and newspaper clutched in its talons. Narcissa took one look at the Prophet and scoffed at the melodramatic image on the front page. She skimmed the silly article with vague interest and concluded it was no less rubbish than everything else that came out of Rita Skeeter’s acid quill. Really it was a wonder they let the woman write anymore, although admittedly, she and her dramatics were often good for a laugh. Perhaps The Prophet only employed her for comic relief.

Of course, Hermione was unlikely to find this portrayal of her very funny. Narcissa was used to her own name being tossed around like this in the papers, but she wouldn’t have expected Hermione’s to be. Wasn’t she supposed to be the beloved darling of the Wizarding World? Narcissa wondered what on Earth she could have done to make such an enemy out of Rita Skeeter at such an early age.

Draco’s glance followed her own and he read the headline with a furrowed brow. “So it’s finally happened has it?” he muttered quietly and continued to read the article in earnest.

“Honestly, what rubbish!” he exclaimed as he finished the article, or at least as much of it as he could stomach. “Acting as if she ought to count herself lucky to have had him. If anything, anyone with a brain has been wondering what sort of love potion he’d used to keep her around this long. It’s a bloody miracle that she’s finally come to her senses.”

Narcissa raised her eyebrows, surprised at his strong feelings.

“And suggesting she’s trying to break up Potter’s marriage, for Salazar’s sake—as if that would ever happen. He and Ginny are the image of domestic bliss, as he never tires of telling me.”

There was a typical note of jealousy in Draco’s voice, which Narcissa noted but tactfully ignored as she always did when it came to her son’s lingering feelings towards his childhood nemesis. He was happy with Theo now, and the less he indulged that doomed crush, the better.

Narcissa nodded. “Agreed, especially with the baby on the way, it seems very unlikely that she and Mr. Potter would be together in the background.”

Draco nodded absently, before fixing her with a curious look. “Wait, how do you know that Ginny’s pregnant? They haven’t even announced it yet.”

“Oh,” Narcissa said, startled. She had forgotten that she only knew that piece of information from the fight the evening before. “It’s a very long story,” she deflected, which Draco accepted with a raised brow in her direction.

He threw aside the paper with disgust and Narcissa wasn’t sure why, but Draco’s firm defense of Hermione pleased her immensely.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.

Narcissa shrugged, not sure how she could possibly explain it. “I just didn’t expect such a passionate response from you is all.”

“Don’t get any ideas, Mother, you know she’s not my type. But look, I know you don’t know her, but Potter made us all spend some time together and she and I at least made the effort. All her dim-witted troll of a boyfriend could do was hang all over her and make snide little remarks in my direction all evening.” Draco shook his head at the memory. ”Her even trying to date him was a mistake if you ask me, however, if I remember correctly, she very explicitly did not.”

Narcissa bit at her lip, deciding whether she wanted to share. “Well, actually, I do know her a bit,” she finally said.

Draco furrowed his brow in confusion once more. “How?”

“Well, as it happens, she lives next door,” she continued. She made a point of keeping her voice light and amused, gauging his reaction.

At that, he let out a hearty laugh. “You’re joking?”

“Not at all. We’ve… spoken from time to time.” She said, struggling to define the confusing nature of their connection.

“We’ll that sounds incredibly odd.” He eyed the wall as if gazing in the woman’s direction might give him some clarity. “Although, I can somewhat see it—you two getting on—in a strange sort of way. “

“‘Getting on’ might be a bit of a stretch. I only said we’d spoken.”

“Well I don’t see any scorch marks from errant hexes, so I’d say it counts. At least that’s how I judged the success of my time with her.”

Narcissa laughed. She supposed that was something. There were no scorch marks, no damage done from any of their meetings. The only remnant of Hermione in the room was a Thank You note still left on her sideboard that she’d yet to throw away. She eyed it as she drank her tea and turned the thought of Hermione’s smile over in her mind once more.

 


 

That evening, Hermione found herself wandering through the near-deserted supermarket. It was already late and most people were home, making their dinners, enjoying their evenings. This was the only time that Hermione could stand grocery stores. She always had a list of everything she needed, she knew the order of the aisles; she couldn’t stand all the people who seemed to mill about aimlessly as if they hadn’t given a second thought to what they actually intended to buy once they were there. But now, with the darkness gathering in the streets, it was peaceful.

Once her compulsory items had all been retrieved and she had inwardly bemoaned the rising prices of just about everything—as was also compulsory these days—she walked over to the wine aisle. She might as well pick something up for herself. She had very little left of that bottle from Narcissa and goodness knows she needed something this evening.

Hermione wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for, hardly being a connoisseur of wine herself, but she waited for something to catch her eye—an attractively pink rosé perhaps, or something red with an attractive logo. It wasn’t long until something did catch her eye. It was like it was calling to her, whispering to her, perhaps even placed there just with her in mind. Well, perhaps not her exactly.

The wine was called Pool of Narcissus and its label donned the famous painting of its namesake, bending over the water, enraptured by his own alluring reflection. Her feet walked to it as if compelled by a charm.

She had intended to pay Narcissa back at some point for the wine and for the sympathy, what better way than to do so than in kind?

Putting the wine in her basket, Hermione felt her stomach flutter just a bit as she considered how to phrase the note she would leave with it. As she walked to the checkout, she found herself obsessing over the wording and the grammar as if she had never written out a card before in her life.

 


 

Narcissa sat by her window, mostly ignoring the book sitting in her lap. She was just considering whether she ought to turn in early when the wards suddenly tugged at her magic, alerting her to someone lingering just outside the perimeter.

She frowned. It was already getting late and no one had knocked or rang the bell, which seemed incredibly foreboding. Rising to open the door, she braced herself for whatever fresh hell was waiting for her in the hall. Lucius perhaps, loitering until he’d perfected his latest insult? Yes, that seemed the most likely.

When she flung the door wide, Narcissa was so ready for a fight that she almost said something catty before even glimpsing her caller’s face. She was extremely grateful for the moment of hesitation, however, for when she saw who was lingering at her threshold, it was none other than Hermione Granger biting her lip and staring intently at a piece of parchment with a bottle of wine clutched tightly in her arms.

A confused smile formed on Narcissa’s lips as she surveyed her neighbor who was so engrossed in whatever she was writing that she didn’t even notice that the door had opened before her.

“Hermione, well you’re certainly the last person I expected to find out here,” she said. The woman flinched with the sudden awareness that she was not alone, and she looked up with her eyes grown wide.

“Oh,” Hermione said, an endearing flush of embarrassment rising to her cheeks. “I’m sorry to disappoint… I mean, if you were waiting for someone or—”

“No, that’s not what I meant at all,” Narcissa assured her. “Frankly, I'm relieved. My wards alert me whenever someone lingers at my door, and I couldn’t imagine any innocent reason someone would be standing here long enough to trip them.”

“Oh, how clever. Perhaps I ought to add something like that to my own wards, especially now...” Hermione said and looked into the air for a moment, as if contemplating what it would take to mimic such a spell. Still, she didn’t elaborate on her reason for being there. After a few moments passed in silence, Narcissa raised her eyebrows in expectation, wondering whether Hermione was going to make her ask.

As if realizing how ridiculous her silence must seem, Hermione suddenly blinked and looked back to Narcissa. “I brought this for you,” she said, holding the wine out in front of her. “I wanted to repay you for the other night. I was just writing a note to go with it.”

This was so far from what Narcissa was expecting that she didn’t know what to say. Had Hermione truly been agonizing so long over what to write to her that it had tripped the wards? Taking the bottle lightly into her hands, Narcissa spun it around to see the label. “Pool of Narcissus,” she read with a light laugh.

“It’s not very expensive or anything,” Hermione began, fidgeting in self-consciousness. “The name made me think of you and I couldn’t resist. I hope you’re not so much of a wine-connoisseur as to be offended.”

Offended? The idea that she could be was almost laughable. She was touched—both by the gesture, and by that hopeful, faltering look in Hermione’s brilliant shining eyes, showing just how much she wanted the gift to be liked. Perhaps it touched her even more that Hermione thought of her even so far away from the wall that they shared when she would have been so easy to forget.

“Well, I am a bit of a snob about wine—about most things perhaps,” she admitted with a smirk, “but not so much that I can’t appreciate something fun, or certainly something so thoughtful.”

Hermione looked extremely relieved to see that Narcissa was pleased. She stood a little straighter as the weight of her nerves seemed to lessen, and a broad smile spread over her cheeks.

With an impulsive rush of sentimentality, Narcissa stepped back, opening her door even wider. “Come in, we should try it together,” she said.

Hermione gaped at her in response; she couldn’t have looked more surprised if Narcissa had slapped her.

Narcissa immediately felt that she had overstepped. “Don’t feel obligated, of course,” she hastened to clarify. “You’re certainly allowed to decline if you’d prefer to spend your evening elsewhere.”

“No, I’d like to try it with you—the wine,” Hermione said and quickly flushed a shade of crimson.

Narcissa fought a smirk rising to her face at Hermione’s unnecessary correction. The young woman did seem sincere, almost eagerly so, although her nerves were practically radiating off of her body.

Narcissa stepped back further, gesturing that Hermione ought to come in.

“Then be my guest,” she said, watching as Hermione stepped past her into the softly lit hallway.

Chapter Text

As Narcissa beckoned, Hermione walked into the woman’s apartment with a tentative step.

It was so like her own flat, only unquestionably nicer. A ghost of a smile rose to her lips at the end table where her ottoman ought to be, a mirror where she had hung a painting.

Minor differences aside, the flat was all so much as she’d pictured it that it was uncanny. The furniture looked suitably antique and imposing but not quite austere; every inch was tasteful and richly dark, all made so inviting by the low light of the lamps.

Hermione chuckled to herself, feeling a bit like she was breaking the fourth wall in a play, stepping behind the velvet curtains, glancing out into the empty audience where she ought to have been seated. Although, whether she was more the actor or the audience in this scenario was really up for debate.

Turning the corner into the kitchen, Hermione became very aware of Narcissa watching her from a step behind, watching as she made all of her silent observations while heading towards the kitchen without needing instructions. Hermione looked over her shoulder, meeting the woman’s eyes and a blush immediately rose to her cheeks. She hoped it wouldn't be visible, but Narcissa’s answering smirk seemed to say otherwise.

Hermione leaned against the kitchen counter, suddenly unsure what to do with herself and watched as Narcissa filled two crystal goblets generously with the pale wine, shimmering seductively as it caught the light.

“I’m glad you like the wine,” Hermione began tentatively, breaking the silence. “I had started to worry that you might find the thought—the allusion to Narcissus—less than flattering. That’s part of why I was hesitating so long in the hall; I thought that perhaps I ought to explain it so it didn’t sound so...I don’t know.”

Narcissa laughed softly. “I never would have taken it as an insult,” she said tilting her head to the side with a smile. “Although I have frequently wondered what my parents were thinking when they named me. When you hear my sister’s names, the first thing you think of is the stars. And while Narcissus may have inspired the naming of a lovely flower, no one can help but first think of how he lent his name to a personality disorder.”

Hermione laughed, but her smile faded as she returned to some of the thoughts she was trying and failing to express in her note a few minutes before. “I know it’s a tragedy and all, but I always liked the story of Narcissus. I don’t think there’s anything so wrong with loving yourself so much that you’re your own true love. It’s really a nice thought, finding so much satisfaction from staring at your own reflection; I can’t imagine being so comfortable with myself.”

Narcissa looked surprised, and a curious look passed into her eyes. “True. I agree that self-love is something to aim for, although you probably want to draw the line before you actually die for it,” she said lightly.

“Of course,” Hermione began. “But I think so many people are pretty much killing themselves or worse with their self-loathing every day. Personally, I’d rather die from taking too much joy in myself than from not taking enough. It’s presented in the story, in society even as such a curse, but in reality, I think such love would be a blessing.” For a moment, Hermione’s eyes were unfocused, incredibly lost in her own twisting thoughts before she remembered that she had been speaking out loud, to a woman she hardly knew no less, and blushed once more. “I’m sorry. Listen to me going on. I shouldn’t make an entire philosophical debate out of your name like this. You’re probably sick of people doing that.”

Narcissa was looking at her strangely, but she didn’t seem offended, merely intrigued.

“I can assure you that no one has ever said anything quite so interesting about my name,” she said. “Besides, I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. I never thought of the story in quite that light.”

As she handed Hermione her glass, their fingers brushed momentarily and Hermione thought she heard Narcissa’s breath catch, although perhaps she was just hearing her own.

“Come, take a seat.”

As they moved towards the sitting room, Hermione’s eyes drifted to the large alcove just beyond, into what had become a small but comfortable library. She felt embarrassingly excited when Narcissa continued past the moral formal couches and into an armchair of dark, lush velvet in that very alcove.

“Your library is gorgeous,” she breathed as she settled into a neighboring chair and took stock of the collection so artfully arranged around her.

“Thank you,” Narcissa said with a smile. “This has always been my favorite room here. Although I have to admit, I’ve been so used to having such a large library that I struggled to fit everything I wanted in here.”

“At Malfoy Manor, you mean?”

“Well, yes, but even before that. Black Manor where I grew up had as large a selection, if not larger,” Narcissa said. A shade of memory darkened her eyes. “And while I do own that house now, I have no desire to live there amongst all those ghosts and heirlooms. There’s something to be said for a fresh start.”

“A fresh start,” Hermione mused. “That’s exactly why I moved here as well. But — well, not that I have to tell you, of course — but it wasn’t exactly as clean as I’d hoped.”

“I assume few fresh starts ever are,” Narcissa said with a knowing raise of an eyebrow.

With a steadying sigh, Hermione took the first sip of her wine — although perhaps it might have qualified as a small gulp. She knew that she wanted to say something, but she couldn’t help but feel foolish. With a hesitant look at Narcissa, she cleared her throat.

“Things are over with Ron...for good, I mean. I gave him back the ring this morning,” she suddenly confessed. “I don’t know exactly why I’m telling you that, but it just seemed as if you ought to know.”

“Well, I have been a spectator to it for long enough,” Narcissa replied with a wry quirk of her lips.

“Exactly. It didn’t seem right that you’d miss the denouement after all of that,” Hermione said with a playful shrug.

Narcissa smiled and scrutinized Hermione carefully, tucking a long strand of blonde hair behind her ear before taking a sip of her own wine. “So,” she began. “Are you looking for condolences or congratulations?”

Hermione gaped for a moment, surprised by the bluntness of the question. But as she considered what to say, she couldn’t help the hesitant smile that blossomed on her lips. “Is it terribly wrong if I say congratulations?”

Narcissa laughed and smiled as if that was exactly what she hoped Hermione might say. “Not at all.”

Hermione’s laughter turned into a sigh, only this time it was a sigh of relief. It felt as if she was letting go of something incredibly heavy that she hadn’t quite been able to shake until this moment.

“You know,” Hermione said. “You’re the first person that I’ve told I was actually happy about the breakup. I felt the need to soften it for everyone else, but really, I feel more alive than I have in years.”

There was a pause as Narcissa sipped her wine thoughtfully. “If you don’t mind my asking, it sounded as if you’d been unhappy in your relationship for such a long time. What finally made you change your mind about going through with the marriage?”

“Well,” Hermione paused in thought. “I think in a lot of ways it was you.”

Narcissa’s eyes widened in surprise. “Me?”

“Oh, well, I mean, not that I mean — I’m sorry, that sounded very strange,” Hermione stumbled over her words, trying to correct herself. All the while, the flush that had been fading was creeping over her neck once again. “I only meant that your opinion of my relationship, the way you expressed it, was like hearing my own inner voice being validated instead of dismissed for once. And when I heard you and Lucius fighting, it felt like I was listening to my future; it terrified me.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m exactly sorry for my contribution,” Narcissa admitted. “In part because as I was listening to you, it often felt like I was listening to my past.”

Hermione paused at that. It was a strange sort of relief to realize that Narcissa’s spectatorship of her life was more than simply laughing at her fumbling antics. She narrowed her eyes in thought, feeling a bit more composed.

“Did you love your husband?“ she finally asked. “When you married him, I mean.” The clarification, however, was hardly necessary; Narcissa’s current opinion was more than obvious.

The question clearly took Narcissa by surprise. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but stopped, the charming smile that had barely formed wilting on her lips. “You know, I was going to say something rather flippant about men and marriage, bat away your question with a joke.”

“You don’t have to answer, really. It was a very personal thing to ask.”

“No, no I don’t mind. It’s no more personal than anything else you already know about me; that’s why I stopped. I figured why not be honest for once?” Narcissa paused and took a breath. “It’s just that… I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me that question before. I don’t think anyone really thought it mattered.”

Hermione didn’t know what to say to this, so she said nothing, waiting for Narcissa to come out of her own thoughts.

“I never loved Lucius. There were times where I thought I did or perhaps where I thought I ought to. But really, love had never been much of a consideration for me when it came to marriage.” She sighed, not really meeting Hermione’s eyes as she spoke. “There was a great deal of pressure on me, after Andromeda left especially, to restore the family honor. And Lucius was just always there. He was merely a convenient means to an end, and I imagine he saw me in much the same way. Although I have no way to know his true feelings, of course.”

Hermione nodded. It all felt so familiar, a darker version of her own narrative of a lover who is merely there.

“I’m sorry, Narcissa,” Hermione said with an intense and honest sympathy. “I think you deserve so much better than that.”

Narcissa looked at her in such a curious way that Hermione felt she could have burst beneath the scrutiny. Hermione wondered whether she’d gone too far, made the conversation too sentimental. She knew even one glass of anything was often enough to make her into the sort of person who finds themselves crying with a stranger in the ladies room.

But then a soft smile bloomed on Narcissa’s lips, and Hermione’s worries died with it.

“So do you, darling,” she said, the endearment falling so easily from her lips.

They held each other’s gaze as the silence hung. Their smiles were both slightly sad, but there was a comfort in the sameness, nonetheless.

After a few silent moments, Narcissa reached for her wine on the table and took a sip, slower this time as if exploring the taste of it with attention for the first time.

“You know, this really isn’t bad,” she said.

“No. It isn’t bad at all, is it?” Hermione agreed and poured them each another glass, although she wasn’t entirely certain Narcissa was merely talking about the wine.

The soft clicking of claws against hardwood was a startling sound amongst so much silence, but neither woman was exactly surprised to see Crookshanks saunter into the room, likely having returned to an empty flat only to hear Hermione’s voice coming from next door. He had the air of a guest arriving fashionably late to a party, apologizing to his hostess by rubbing against her calf and settling down by Hermione’s feet to ask what he had missed.

“Lovely as it is, I don’t imagine you’d enjoy the wine very much, Crookshanks. Perhaps a bit of milk instead?” Narcissa asked with a smile. Taking his slow blink as a yes, she rose to fetch him a bowl.

As Narcissa disappeared into the kitchen, Hermione bent to scratch the cat behind the ears. His lids were drooping contentedly in the candlelight, apparently as comfortable here as he was in his own home.

Hermione herself was surprised just how comfortable she had begun to feel. But it was so easy to talk to Narcissa. After all, there was a strange sort of freedom to speaking with someone who already knew so much of what she usually kept to herself.

She found her eyes drifting towards the sideboard where she was surprised to see her own face staring back at her. This morning’s newspaper lay there folded and forgotten as it probably was in so many households by now.

“There you are,” Narcissa cooed to Crookshanks as she handed the grateful feline his evening refreshment.

When the woman rose to stand again, she followed Hermione’s gaze to the discarded Prophet just beyond.

“I’m sorry. If I had known you’d be here, I would have made sure to get rid of that garbage beforehand. You shouldn’t have to be reminded of it,” Narcissa said.

“Oh, you don’t have to apologize. It doesn’t bother me all that much really. At first I was worried that the bad publicity might affect a project of mine, but she’d have to write something far worse than that for it to truly matter,” Hermione said. “Maybe it would even bother me if any part of it wasn’t such utter rubbish, acting as if I have some line of suitors just waiting for me to evaluate their credentials. That’s never been true even if I wanted it to be.”

Narcissa tilted her head in curiosity and Hermione felt compelled to go on, that tendency to ramble a bit showing itself now that she’d started a second glass

“I only mean, it’s not as if people have exactly fallen all over themselves trying to get me beside them. I think that’s part of why I stayed with Ron for as long as I did. It always seemed like at least he was someone. And someone is better than no one. Although really it isn’t. Still it was hard to face the idea that if I let Ron slip away, maybe there wouldn’t be anyone else. I still feel that way.”

“Please, I don’t believe that for a second,” Narcissa said. “You’re far more attractive than you give yourself credit for.”

Hermione blushed crimson and ducked her head. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“I am trying to make you feel better, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. I’m not exactly known for sparing people’s feelings.”

Hermione laughed. “Well, then I’ll take that as a high compliment, coming from you.”

The moment hung curiously in the air before Narcissa cleared her throat and sipped her wine once more, seeming to search for a new subject to break this tension.

“You said you were worried about the press affecting a project of yours; I would think an Unspeakable would be as immune from media influence as anyone could possibly be.”

“Oh, it’s not for the department exactly. I’m er —” Hermione hesitated and considered what she ought to say. But in a moment, she shrugged. Just as Narcissa had said about herself earlier, Hermione found she had no interest in lying right now. “I’m trying to write a book.”

“Oh, how interesting,” Narcissa said, her azure eyes lighting up like a flame. “A novel?”

“No. No, it’s non-fiction, a bit academic really. It’s actually about the Department of Mysteries.”

“Mmm, even better. Tell me about it.” Narcissa leaned back with wine in hand and fixed Hermione with such a focused gaze that Hermione couldn’t help but rise to the occasion with pride.

She told Narcissa all about her book, and by that point, it came as little surprise that the woman was a wonderful audience. She was perceptive and sharp, always quick to ask a clarifying question when Hermione had skipped from one topic to the next. Over the course of the evening, Hermione had started to feel a good deal better about it than she had in weeks.

It wasn’t until a number of other topics had been brought up and passed through and her third glass was emptied (or Merlin, was it her fourth?) that Hermione realized just how late it had gotten, and she made her excuses to leave.

It wasn’t until she stood up from the armchair that she felt the full extent of however many glasses it had been, and her vision seemed to double.

“Steady now,” Narcissa said, placing a hand on Hermione’s lower back for just a moment as she passed by, leading Hermione to the door.

Hermione walked down the hall with a sleepy cat at her heels. Looking around the apartment a final time before leaving, she noticed just how much art hung on the walls. She had seen the frames before of course, but she really hadn’t paid much attention to their contents. She was used to ignoring the irritating portraits that everyone insisted on hanging, but in all the frames, there wasn’t a single haughty face looking back at her. Rather, there were a number of attractive florals, a smattering of scenic landscapes, and a stunning nude study that she’d apparently been sitting beneath all evening. A few of the pieces she recognized, but most she did not. Especially in the library, every painting looked unfamiliar to her — although she reasoned that her lack of recognition might have more to do with the amount of wine she’d consumed than any lacking knowledge in art history. For all she knew, she might be tipsy enough to pass a Picasso and be none the wiser.

She could feel Narcissa watching her, following her glance around the room.

“You have so much art here, I hadn’t really noticed before.” She stopped when she saw an unmistakable painting that was hanging near the entryway. “Is that an O’Keeffe?”

“It is. Stunning, isn’t it?” Narcissa came beside her to admire the sensual petals. Hermione caught a fleeting note of Narcissa’s floral perfume and it was almost as if the painting itself was enveloping her. She caught herself in what was almost a swoon. Perhaps that last glass had been a mistake, she thought, although she had to admit that the sensation was nothing but pleasant.

“It’s lovely,” she breathed. “Is it an original?”

“You think I would settle for reproductions?” Narcissa asked with a devilish smirk.

Hermione raised her eyebrow. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply that you’re as much of a peasant as the rest of us. I’m just surprised that you have so much Muggle artwork—” She looked around again, searching for any twitch of movement in the depths of the frames. “Is it all Muggle artwork?”

Narcissa nodded and smiled at her collection. “Almost all, yes. There was a time when it was more of a guilty pleasure than anything else. But I’ve always found it more poignant, the stillness. The spells used in Wizarding art give a painting a mind of its own, which granted, is a marvellous feat of magic. But Muggle art—” she paused. “Whatever the artist wanted to create in that moment is preserved forever, unchanging. For better or worse, that moment remains the same and life moves on around it. It’s all so limiting and yet… You have one chance at capturing the uncapturable, and somehow it’s almost more meaningful that you never quite succeed.”

Hermione was staring at her with such an intense expression that the woman seemed to lose a bit of her nerve.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Narcissa said with a self-conscious laugh. “You can tell I’ve had too much to drink. I only try my hand at poetics once the second bottle has been opened.”

“Don’t apologize, I thought it was beautiful.” There was a note of awe in her voice that probably should have been embarrassing, but she was too numb to feel it.

Hermione felt heart beat faster as Narcissa’s glance travelled over her, considering her with a small smile on her lips.

“I’m not sure I trust your opinion,” Narcissa said. “You’ve had just as much as I have. And I’d venture that you’re even more of a lightweight.”

Hermione laughed; she couldn’t exactly argue that. She turned once more to leave but within a step, she spun around to face Narcissa, fueled by nothing but pure impulse. “There’s an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work at Tate Modern right now; it’s going on all month. I’ve been dying to go, but I hate doing things like that alone. Would you want to join me?”

Narcissa looked a bit surprised, but there was a glaze over her eyes from the late hour and the wine, dulling any true shock at the offer. “I — yes, why not? It sounds like a very nice time.”

“What are you doing tomorrow, late afternoon, say?”

“Well it sounds as if I’m going to the art museum with you,” she said with a light laugh that would chime in Hermione’s ears for the rest of the evening.

“Wonderful. I could meet you there around three. It’ll be better that way since the crowds tend to die down a bit by then.” Hermione felt irrationally excited at the prospect. “Oh, this is going to be marvellous,” she said, enthusiastically throwing her arms around Narcissa.

When Hermione pulled away she hesitated for a moment, keeping their faces overly near before she gained back any amount of self-awareness. She stepped back with a laugh and rubbed at her swimming temples

Narcissa laughed as well, but Hermione thought she looked quite flustered herself. “Well I think that settles that about you being more of a lightweight,” she said cheekily.

“I suppose it does,” Hermione admitted with a final nervous laugh.

Hermione barely remembered getting ready for bed, although she knew she had taken a shower and brushed her teeth. All the while, she reflected on the evening with disjointed, wine-soaked thoughts. It was so strange how it had all come about. Really, she supposed that oddly enough, her anxiety had been her good fortune that evening, since without it, she never would have lingered long enough to have been invited inside.

With even her flaws seeming like her allies for once, Hermione fell asleep with a smile on her face, her sheets and pillows feeling soft as clouds beneath her skin.

 


 

Narcissa closed the door behind Hermione and sighed. What a strange group they had made: a disgraced socialite, an Unspeakable, and a half-Kneazle cat. It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke, and yet, she had to admit that it was the nicest evening she’d had in quite some time.

And Hermione had asked to do it again, less than twenty-four hours away from the hour she’d left her. Narcissa wondered if Hermione would come to regret that, as so often happens with these decisions made while looking out of a wine bottle. Although, truth be told, Narcissa hoped that she wouldn’t as she was rather looking forward to tomorrow herself.

All the while that she’d been thinking, Narcissa had been trying to close up the windows and blinds for the evening, but her lack of focus had made it difficult. She doubled back at least three times, unsure of where she’d begun.

Honestly, she thought in annoyance, she hadn’t had that much to drink. Lord knows she’d had more than that and still been clear-headed before. After all, if there was anything worthwhile that ran in these Black veins of hers, it was an incredible tolerance for alcohol. And yet here she was; her senses were muddled, her head was light, and a smile lingered stupidly on her lips like a tottering drunk humming a half-forgotten melody in the street.

She supposed that a lack of tolerance might come with age, but such a change couldn’t come on so quickly. Still, as unpleasant as it was to think of any part of her weakening with passing years, it might be preferable to the truth. To be this intoxicated from the wine would be perhaps regrettable, but to be so from the company was downright dangerous.

But how could she deny it, that what she was drunk on was a conversation so lengthy and winding and honest that she felt they had both laid themselves bare.

To have someone look at her with such intensity, neither fawning nor flaunting but truly present was uncommonly novel to Narcissa. She was so used to every conversation being a game of impressions and exaggerations, but Hermione merely spoke. It was incredibly, intriguingly foreign, the feeling of telling the truth without first clouding it in jest.

The memory of those golden eyes and all their pensive stares, and all their swinging moods, so clear in the candlelight, was enough to get drunk on all over again.

At that thought, a sting of nerves, of embarrassment even, dug at her sharply, but she was too exhausted to pay it much heed.

Instead, she let the memory warm her as she drifted off to sleep, the promise of tomorrow held softly in her hands.

Chapter Text

When Hermione awoke the next morning, it was to two terrifying realizations.

First, she was supposed to be going to an art museum with Narcissa Black that afternoon, a prospect which had seemed far less intimidating the night before when she’d suggested it. She took a breath and tried to reassure herself. It was just an afternoon shared between recent friends; it’s not like it was a date. After all, Narcissa had Anathema Zabini for that, didn’t she? Although, in hindsight, Hermione found it strange that Narcissa hadn’t mentioned the woman at all during the previous night’s marathon conversation. She didn’t know what that meant.

Her second realization was less dramatic, but equally pressing. Her parents were coming over for brunch in what couldn’t be more than an hour from now. She wasn’t sure that would be anywhere near enough time to make herself presentable, and certainly not to shake the effect of her first realization from her mind.

As she brushed the last few curls into a presentable shape, Hermione had a sudden moment of panic. It occurred to her that Narcissa might not remember their plans at all, or at the very least might be having second thoughts — certainly there had been enough wine last night for either to be a possibility.

She thought about knocking on her door, but seeing Narcissa’s open balcony doors, she had a better idea, one that would be less awkward if Narcissa did decide to say no. She decided to write a note.

Are we still on for this afternoon?

Using the same charm as on a previous evening, she sent it flying into the neighboring flat, biting her lip in anticipation.

The reply came almost instantaneously.

Of course. I’m looking forward to it. I have a few errands to run beforehand, but I’ll meet you there at three?

Hermione felt herself smile broadly at the confirmation, happy that no one could see how stupid she probably looked except for Crooks. Not that he wasn’t undoubtedly judging her, but his criticism she could handle.

Perfect. See you there. She replied.

Now there was only a brunch to endure, a brunch full of her mother’s inevitable pestering about whether she’d seen Ron since the break, and her father’s clumsy attempts to change the subject, to keep the peace. It all seemed far more manageable to know there was at least something worthwhile waiting for her on the other side.

 


 

Later that afternoon, Narcissa stood beneath a tree outside Tate Modern, watching the river churn past and trying to keep her dignity as she scanned the crowd eagerly for Hermione’s familiar silhouette. Her mind kept filling with uncharacteristic worries of Hermione not showing, of having gotten the wrong time despite their earlier confirmation. She cursed herself for these silly nerves that made her feel foolish and self-conscious, and doubled her efforts to look as calm and collected as she wished she truly was.

It was just as her watch struck three that she saw Hermione approaching and felt her body surge with relief.

Strolling alongside the river, the young woman looked so perfectly Muggle with her leather jacket and her scarf blowing in the early autumn breeze that Narcissa couldn’t help but smile. It was amazing how well she seemed to fit in the bustling crowd, so much better than Narcissa ever did herself. No matter how thoroughly she had studied their fashion and their customs, Narcissa was always so aware of her own foreignness. The Muggles seemed to sense it too; they always looked at her strangely as if trying to figure her out. But not Hermione, little shape-shifter that she was, she traveled through both worlds with equal ease.

When their eyes met, Hermione hurried forward to greet her with no less nerves and enthusiasm than she’d had the other night. Narcissa fought the smirk rising to her lips as she remembered Hermione’s unchecked excitement, throwing her arms around her the minute she had agreed to come.

They set off, Narcissa leading the way towards the entrance with assurance. She felt Hermione’s eyes on her, a question in her glance.

“Have you been here before?”

Narcissa smiled at the hint of confusion in her voice. “I have, a few times, actually,” she said. “Does that surprise you?”

Hermione tilted her head slightly. “I suppose it does a bit. Although it shouldn’t; I don’t know where else I thought you had discovered a taste for Muggle art.”

Narcissa nodded and pulled at the memories. “After Andromeda and I reconnected, she made me venture out more, comfortable as she had become in the Muggle world after all those years with Edward. I complained about it the entire time, but honestly, I was surprised to find it all rather freeing. It was even exciting in a way. For someone as jaded as I often feel, to find anything novel was... well, novel in and of itself, much less something as simple as ordering food, or riding a train.”

Hermione laughed. “Riding a train? I have a hard time imagining you on the Tube.”

“Oh, Merlin, perish the thought!” Narcissa exclaimed, horrified. She was willing to come into Muggle London, but even this reformed version of herself had to have limits. “No, it was that train to Paris, whatever it’s called. Andromeda convinced me to try it by saying what a hassle international apparition visas can be these days. Of course, once I found out that it went underwater, she practically had to sedate me. It’s truly a wonder that she ever got me back to England.”

Hermione was laughing at her, but there was a kind twinkle in her eye. Narcissa felt her pulse quicken traitorously in her breast and she cleared her throat, looking forward.

The moment they were inside the museum, Narcissa could feel Hermione’s nerves lessen. A museum was not a library, but it had to be the next best thing. It was another one of those rare places where the world fell to stillness, where people listened more than spoke, where a naturally studious demeanor such as Hermione’s was completely at home.

Two rooms in, where the walls were dedicated mostly to Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs, Hermione grew rather quiet and paused at a quote of O’Keeffe’s on the wall. It read: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”

“You know,” Hermione began with a surprising bite to her tone. “It was Stieglitz who really cemented the whole Freudian sexual narrative about her work that she hated so much. He was the one who wanted to brand her that way even though it made her uncomfortable. He once said that women always feel everything in the world through their womb first, and their minds second.”

Narcissa pulled a face, hating that phrasing as much as the sentiment behind it.

“Is that what you’ve been brooding over? That there’s so much space dedicated to him, to their relationship, here?” Narcissa asked.

Hermione looked surprised to know Narcissa had noticed her deep in thought, but she nodded. “I just have a feeling that there wouldn’t be an O’Keeffe room in a Stieglitz display had their roles and fame been reversed.”

“Undoubtedly, there would not be,” Narcissa said without hesitation. Hermione looked pleased that she agreed, but how could she not? Certainly, she could sympathize with having a reputation dominated by the actions of the egotistical men in her life rather than her own. “Yes, well. Stieglitz was a bastard,” she continued. “It’s a shame how reductive the narrative around women’s art can be. Her own interpretation of her work meant so little once everyone had decided it was feminine and risqué.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Hermione said.

They walked in front of a particularly large floral and paused, their minds travelling along the same path.

“And yet…” Hermione mused, tilting her head to the side, the comparison too blatant to suggest much of anything else.

“And yet,” Narcissa agreed. She turned to Hermione with cocked eyebrows and a wicked smirk.

They both laughed at their own childishness and moved on. It was nice to be with someone who could speak both seriously and playfully about such things. How uncommon it was to find both in the same person.

Narcissa snuck a look at Hermione as she was pondering a neighboring painting, looking awed and thoughtful. She wondered how many people had the opportunity to see Hermione like this. There were so few people who might be both interested and willing to come here with her to a world that was not their own. Of course, it occurred to Narcissa how few people she would allow to see her like this, slightly out of her element, indulging an interest that still made her self-conscious among all those who found her taste in Muggle art either undignified or at best, eccentric — an opinion she found incredibly patronizing, albeit preferable. But Hermione didn’t find it either. To her, it was just art, and Narcissa didn’t have to defend a thing.

She thought that perhaps there was nothing quite so simple or so rare as all that.

 


 

By the time they walked out of the Tate, it was nearly closing time, but Hermione felt as if she could have stayed there for much longer. She could have spent whole weeks in those strange windowless rooms, exchanging commentary with Narcissa, exchanging looks and smiles and laughs that came easier as the afternoon wore on.

The women turned onto the street without any predetermined destination, simply walking onwards along the bustling riverside. A strange bout of nostalgia took hold of her on the way down the familiar path.

She had come to this museum so often as a child, and whenever she’d left, it was always like she had this new sense of herself. Suddenly, child though she was, she had felt cultured and mature, and she would struggle to hang onto the illusion that she was leaving to go somewhere glamorous and dignified instead of back to a hotel across town. It was thrilling to feel like tonight, it was actually almost true; she was headed back to her exclusive flat with a glamorous woman beside her. The thought brought a smile to her lips.

When Narcissa suggested apparating them both back to The Merlin for a nightcap, Hermione couldn’t help but accept. So, they searched for a suitably secluded alley to duck into.

 

In Narcissa’s apartment again, Hermione felt far more at ease standing off to the side while Narcissa poured them wine and lit the lamps against the evening darkness. Hermione wandered into the sitting room with curious eyes. This time calmer and completely sober, she found that she did recognize a good deal more of the art than she had the night before. Although, there were a number of canvases that didn’t look familiar to her at all; she puzzled over them intently.

“This one is lovely,” Hermione said as she approached a stunning floral painting full of white and gold roses.

Narcissa turned around and smiled when she saw the painting Hermione was admiring with such care. “Oh. Why, thank you Hermione. I’m rather fond of that one myself.”

Hermione frowned when she couldn’t put a name to the image; she felt like it was probably well-known and expensive, as all the other paintings in this flat seemed to be. “I don’t think I recognize it; who is the artist?” she finally asked.

“I am,” Narcissa said.

Hermione thought perhaps she was joking, but when looking to the bottom right corner, she could just make out the initials N.B. painted in gold.

“You paint?” Hermione asked, incredulous.

“Yes, from time to time,” Narcissa said with a nonchalant shrug, although Hermione thought she looked rather pleased with the praise. “Actually all of the paintings in the library are mine.”

Without a second thought, Hermione found her feet leading her into the library, admiring every painting in turn. She stopped abruptly when she stood before a large painting of a nude female with her head turned demurely to the side. Well nude, except that all of the most titillating parts were covered in one form or another — at least if you considered nipples and pubic hair to be the most arousing parts of a woman, which Hermione wasn’t sure was a valid assessment. Certainly, this painted woman was doing well enough without.

“This is a masterpiece,” Hermione said, unable to take her eyes from the painted figure before her. “They all are,” she amended hastily, “but this one…”

Narcissa came to stand beside her, regarding the painting, or perhaps regarding Hermione as she regarded the painting.

Hermione had a sudden thought — as invasive as it was appealing — of being the one stood impossibly still in front of Narcissa’s easel, her figure barely draped with fabric as Narcissa’s eyes trailed over her with the unyielding intensity of an artist. She shivered and pushed the thought aside forcefully.

“Who was the model?” Hermione couldn’t help but ask.

Narcissa tilted her head and chuckled softly to herself, turning to Hermione with a considering look. She paused as if not sure she wanted to divulge whatever secret was causing her lips to turn up at the corners with the slightest of smirks.

Finally, she sighed and her smile grew as she said “Well, actually, it’s a self-portrait.”

Hermione felt as if her breathing had become a bit harder to regulate than it ought to have been. “This is you?” she managed to squeak out.

Narcissa laughed. “It’s not a completely faithful representation. I’ll admit to omitting a few flaws for my own vanity’s sake. But otherwise, yes.”

At this point, Hermione wasn’t sure whether it was more rude to continue staring or to look away, not as if the latter was really much of an option. “Do people know this is you?”

“Of course not,” Narcissa said, as if the idea was preposterous. “I’ve never told anyone else that this is me. I’m not exactly shy, but I hardly need everyone in my social circle thinking about what I look like naked… at least, not so accurately.”

I’ve never told anyone else. Hermione swallowed. “Why me?” she couldn’t help but ask.

Narcissa looked at her and seemed to consider the question quite carefully. “I’m really not sure. It just seemed right somehow.”

Deciding that continuing to look at the painting any longer was bordering on salacious, Hermione moved to another innocuous floral scene. “And all of your paintings are inanimate?” she asked, remembering Narcissa’s fondness for the stillness of Muggle art.

Narcissa’s face lit up at the question. “Actually, they’re all magical in their way, albeit not traditionally; the charms are simply concealed.”

Narcissa strolled to the painting Hermione was currently facing and with the delicate motion of a finger, stroked the stem of the one flower whose bud had yet to open.

With a shivering pop, the flower burst into life, full and luscious.

Hermione couldn’t help but laugh in her surprise. It was beautiful magic and beautiful art, somehow both whimsical and sensual simultaneously.

Her eyes drifted back to the self-portrait. All of them? She wondered.

Narcissa didn’t miss the shift in focus and she approached that painting with a catlike grin. “Don’t get excited, I don’t drop the sheet,” she said cheekily.

Hermione wanted to deny that that was what she was thinking, but she knew she was a terrible liar.

“This one only comes alive, if you stroke the hip just so…” Narcissa extended her hand once more, and this time, with multiple fingers outstretched traced the length of what would be a slightly protruding hip bone.

The portrait arched it’s back in a wonderful mimicry of sensual bliss, the breasts pushing further up against the fabric that was clutched to them, eventually sighing and settling back into stillness.

Hermione felt light-headed, practically delirious. “That’s… that’s umm…”

Narcissa laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said. “Come, the wine is getting warm.”

With one last guilty glance, Hermione settled into an armchair, and the two women fell into talking.

As the conversation flowed, Hermione hated herself for the frequency with which her eyes travelled to the painting above the mantelpiece. She hated herself even more so because Narcissa seemed to catch her every time she did it. It was as if the woman had a sixth sense for when she was being admired, even if it was only by proxy.

Hermione sighed and sipped her wine. Even if it wasn’t for this scantily clad version of her hostess bearing down upon her, she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to pry her eyes from the art. It was all so beautiful and so clever in its charms. There was so much whimsy in it but yet it managed to maintain its class and its dignity and its worth. What a rare and impeccable combination, Hermione mused.

Hermione let out an audible gasp as a vision formed in her mind’s eye. “I’ve just had an incredible idea!” she exclaimed.

Narcissa looked at her warily, clearly wondering if the wine had already gone to her head. “What idea?” she asked.

“Your art, it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for,” Hermione said, half-distracted as her hazy plans began to take shape, if only in her own thoughts.

“For what, exactly?”

“For my book! My book about the department of mysteries! I’ve been trying so hard to convey the sense of wonder and whimsy that I felt at all these discoveries, but I always manage to lose the serious tone whenever I try. But perhaps if we combined my words with your illustrations of all these things, it could finally be right. At the very least the book would be so visually appealing that people couldn’t help but buy it.” Hermione realized she had been talking very quickly and Narcissa was looking at her, seeming a bit overwhelmed.

“You want me to collaborate with you on your book?” she asked with a disbelieving chuckle.

“Yes! I think It would be marvelous. Besides, you’re so talented, people ought to see your work!” Hermione cleared her throat, trying to rein in some of her enthusiasm, which was getting a bit out of hand for a plan that was still entirely hypothetical. “Would you be interested in that?”

Narcissa’s eyes slid down to the glass of wine clutched in Hermione’s hand and she cocked her eyebrows just slightly.

“Oh for Merlin’s sake, Cissa, I’m not even a whole glass in. I’m not that much of a lightweight!”

The little nickname had just slipped out and Hermione thought she could see the faintest hint of surprise pass through Narcissa’s eyes at the sound of it. She remained silent, watching Hermione, a world of consideration playing out behind those enigmatic eyes. Hermione fought the urge to push any further and tried not to see the doubt she knew was forming in Narcissa’s mind. Unfortunately, Slytherins weren’t nearly so easily carried away.

When Narcissa finally spoke again, her words came slowly, carefully. “Hermione, I’m flattered that you would want me to work with you, especially on a project that’s so dear to you. And it’s not that I don’t think it would be rewarding and enjoyable even to contribute; we obviously get along very well, but…” she trailed off and sighed slightly. “Well, I’ll be blunt. Are you sure you would be comfortable having my name on the cover of your book? Or your publisher for that matter if she’s as worried about publicity as you’ve hinted? If I’m honest, I doubt my involvement would do anything but bring controversy and bad press just when you need it least.”

“I don’t believe that at all!” Hermione said without hesitation. “I don’t think people would be as opposed to you as all that. Have you gotten all that much bad press since the war?”

“I don’t get any press, Lucius sees to that.” Narcissa said tartly.

“Oh. Right,” Hermione said, thinking for a moment. “There were a lot of negative articles about Purebloods just after the war; I imagine then it would have been very hard to get people on board, but now everything has settled quite a bit. You’d hardly be the first one to move forward with their life.” A clear picture of the two of them in a press photo began to form in her mind. “Besides a Pureblood and a Muggle-born writing a book together? People would buy it just to see if it was true. Think of all the interviews we’d get from people just waiting to see if we’d kill each other!”

Narcissa laughed softly, her curious gaze softening ever so slightly as she scrutinized Hermione a final time. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Deadly.”

Narcissa took a sip of her wine, and from that little smile on her lips, Hermione knew she was giving way. “Well if your publisher agrees — without blackmail or the use of the Imperious Curse, mind you — then I really don’t see how I could refuse.”

Hermione beamed back at the woman. Luckily, she hadn’t had enough wine for the urge to hug Narcissa to gain traction as it had the night before. But still, she felt that she was nearly bursting with newfound excitement for a project that had up until now been nothing more than a source of regret and self-loathing.

“Would you like to get started on it?” Hermione couldn’t help but ask.

“What, tonight?”

Hermione nodded. “We could order food and talk through the different pieces, make an evening of it. What do you say?”

Narcissa was shaking her head as if she thought Hermione had rather lost her mind, but she was smiling nonetheless. “Yes, alright. Why not?”

Hermione fetched her notes and over the course of the evening, they ran through a good deal of the draft, discussing which experiments and findings would be good candidates for an illustration, how it might all be organized.

As the evening passed, the wine had continued to flow freely, perhaps too freely. Although, at one point, they had reached the much sought after pinnacle where the alcohol had muddied their inhibitions just enough to fill their minds with burning creative clarity. It was a delicate balance, such a state, but they had paid little attention to maintaining it as they continued to refill their glasses time and time again.

At some point, they had fallen into talking on the sofa rather than at the table. Later yet, they had stopped keeping any semblance of notes or sketches, certainly not the organized ones with which they had begun. Their thoughts meandered over topics too freely, each seeming more brilliant than the last, although by morning, most would seem inevitably incomprehensible.

Neither woman remembered when those conversations had started to slow, or when they had become tired enough that they had stopped caring about continuing. They allowed themselves to doze against the pillows, their thoughts only vaguely about their project and left mostly unspoken.

 


 

Narcissa awoke with a start and had little idea what time it was. Not even the earliest rays of sunlight were creeping through her curtains. She still felt a slight tilt to her consciousness, telling her that her tipsiness had yet to leave her completely or turn into an unfortunate hangover. It couldn’t be anywhere near morning.

More interestingly, she was not alone. Hermione was laying on top of her, as asleep as she herself had been just a moment ago. With her head curled into Narcissa’s neck and her legs twining into Narcissa’s own, she looked as precious as a kitten. Narcissa chuckled and tried to remember how they had ended up like this. She remembered their conversation growing hazy and strange, she remembered the silence falling as the room began to spin. She groaned softly at the oblivion in her memory that she couldn’t quite get through; she couldn’t remember the last time she had let herself get this drunk.

“Hermione,” Narcissa whispered, touching the sleeping woman’s back gently. Hermione didn’t even stir.

“Hermione,” she said again, more firmly this time, and with a soft shake to her arm.

“Cissa,” Hermione breathed, not only failing to wake, but nuzzling more securely into Narcissa’s neck.

Narcissa’s heart beat faster at the sound, so soft, so sweet. She was touched by the knowledge that Hermione was thinking of her even in whatever hazy half-dream she was currently residing.

Narcissa sighed and ran her fingers through Hermione’s curls, causing Hermione’s lips to form into a sleepy, satisfied smile.

There was a moment, brief and shuddering, where she had almost pressed her lips to Hermione’s forehead. It had been an instinct rather than a conscious thought, and one that she had just barely resisted. She was happy that she had at least managed to catch herself; how terribly inappropriate it would have been.

She was already unsure if she was crossing some line of decency by not trying harder to wake Hermione from this ill-advised slumber. But she just didn’t have the heart to do it. Hermione had told her how much trouble she’d had sleeping lately, and yet, here she was, asleep so soundly that she couldn’t be awoken, so peacefully that the smile lingered on her lips.

How could anyone think to disturb such an image? It was asking far too much.

Instead, Narcissa summoned a blanket from across the room and used it to cover them both against the nip of the night air. She wasn’t sure if she was indulging herself or Hermione as she tucked the blanket up to their chests and wrapped her arms more firmly around Hermione’s sleeping form, letting herself drift into a sound sleep once more.

Chapter Text

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.

-Anathema

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.

“What?”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

The pieces of summer slid into autumn, and as the air began to chill, every bit of green started to fade into various shades of warmth.

Although Hermione felt that this time of year always flew past in a contradictory thrill of clinging to the last summer-like days and looking forward to the holidays ahead, this year, the days seemed to be speeding past faster than ever. Perhaps it was because this play of holding onto every moment and wishing for the future all at once seemed heightened by Narcissa’s growing presence in Hermione’s life, and even more so in her mind.

Ever since Hermione found out that Narcissa wasn’t nearly as taken as she’d once believed her to be, everything had started to take on a different significance. Every look that “couldn’t mean anything”, every playful comment that “was only a tease”, every outing that “could never be a date — don’t be ridiculous” suddenly felt ripe with possibility. It was faint and fragile beneath her touch but there nonetheless.

Once known for being the last one to leave the office, Hermione now found herself eager to get home the minute the clock struck five. She was impatient to join Narcissa for whatever writing session they had planned that evening, watching their project forming into something tangible and sensible and satisfying.

At first, Hermione had worried that she might be pushing Narcissa too hard; after all, few people had the ability or frankly, the desire to focus on a project like Hermione herself did. Narcissa, however, made no complaint. And Hermione was pleased to find out that the woman was just as likely to have thought up an idea on her own throughout the day as Hermione was herself to have scribbled some hasty draft between meetings at work.

Nearly every night they would gather in one flat or the other: one painter, one writer, and one orange cat who seemed to consider himself just as much a part of the project as either witch — and who at the very least was always happy to be wherever there was a warm fire and people to stroke his fur as they paused in contemplation.

It was on a Sunday afternoon such as this that Hermione sat in her favorite armchair in Narcissa’s library, editing her latest chapter. Narcissa was seated on the sofa across from her, studying a picture Hermione had taken from the archives at the Ministry, trying to get her spell to mimic the motion just right.

“I wish I could see this from a different angle,” she murmured, tilting her head this way and that, trying to get a sense of it. She compared it to her draft and frowned slightly in dissatisfaction.

“I can see if I can get permission to take some other pictures of it, if you like,” Hermione offered. “I can’t imagine that anyone would object really.” Her coworkers had always been supportive of her effort, although at this point, Hermione imagined they were beginning to lose interest from a lack of any visible results.

Narcissa continued to stare at the picture, saying nothing. “Do you think that they would let me in to see it for myself?” she asked hesitantly.

Hermione stared back in surprise. She hadn’t considered it before, but of course a first-hand observation would be better than any picture. Unfortunately, the department could be so incredibly strict...

“Oh, I — er — I don’t know. I suppose there wouldn’t be any harm in asking about it. The department is on board with the book after all, so it’s possible,” she said. She considered how she might ask such a question; no doubt it would be highly unusual. Perhaps she could find some kind of precedent in the records. “Actually, I have to go to this after hours event tonight anyway — just some silly dinner to acknowledge the new Department Head. That might be a decent time to ask, once my supervisor has had a glass of whiskey or two to soften her up and all.”

Narcissa chuckled. “I would appreciate it. I would love to confirm that what I’m doing is truly accurate to life.” She paused. “But I don’t want you to get into any trouble at work on my account from trying to sweet-talk your tipsy boss.”

“I won’t push it that hard,” Hermione said with a roll of her eyes at Narcissa’s worry. “It’s honestly good motivation for me to show up to the thing. Normally, I would try to find some kind of excuse to get out of it; I hate formal events like this.”

“Why?” Narcissa said, tilting her head in curiosity.

“Oh, er,” Hermione began, not sure how to explain herself to Narcissa, who obviously would be completely at home in any state of fancy dress and dinner. “Well, it’s not so much the event that bothers me, but it’s the dressing up bit that always makes me look like a fool.”

“I can’t imagine that’s true,” Narcissa said with a scoff. She paused and her eyes drifted over Hermione in unemotional estimation. “You don’t have a bad sense of fashion.”

“Hmm that’s rather damned by faint praise, isn’t it?” Hermione said with a laugh, waving off Narcissa’s attempt to say that she didn’t mean it any such way. “No, I know that I’ve settled into a look that works for me when it comes to everyday outfits, but dressed up, I can’t help but feel like a silly girl trying and failing to look grown-up going to her first school formal.”

Narcissa’s lips quirked into a small smile. “I don’t see why that should be. Perhaps you’re just choosing the wrong robes. What outfit are you planning for this event?”

“Oh, I’m not sure. I only have a couple of dresses that are formal enough anyway, and I’m not particularly keen on either one. I’ll probably just pick at random,” Hermione admitted. She could so easily imagine the moment of déjà vu where she’d shrug on the over-familiar garment and tug at it fruitlessly, trying to make it into something it wasn’t. Oh well, she’d think, as she always had before; it wasn’t as if she was trying to impress anyone there with her good looks anyway.

Hermione was shuffling the papers in front of her, trying to get them back into order, considering the conversation over, but Narcissa was still staring at her. When Hermione met her gaze, she recognized a shimmer of a thought forming in those blue eyes. Hermione had come to love seeing that glint over these past weeks; in her experience working with Narcissa, it always signalled the beginning of excellent ideas. All the same, it seemed an odd look for the woman to have now, talking about Hermione’s wardrobe of all things.

“What?” Hermione couldn’t help but ask, even though, in a way, she hated to interrupt the woman’s train of thought.

“I was just thinking,” Narcissa began. “I have a dress that I think would suit you. You could borrow it if you like.”

Hermione laughed in surprise. She could only imagine that any robes Narcissa deemed worthy to cloak her had to cost as much as Hermione’s rent or more. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Of course I am. I haven’t worn it in ages; it was never quite right for me, but I think it would look marvellous on you,” Narcissa said. Her curious gaze was now more clearly dressing Hermione up in her imagination and liking the mental image she was forming. “What do you say?”

“I — I don’t think we’re exactly the same size though…” Hermione reminded her.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I can alter it for you. I’ve always been good with tailoring charms,” Narcissa said with a casual shrug. “Besides, it’s not floor length and it’s a looser fit in the front so it should adequately handle most of our differences on its own.”

Hermione looked at the enthusiastic gleam in Narcissa’s eyes once more and was fairly certain that she couldn’t deny her anything. Besides, she was starting to like the idea of being dressed up like Cinderella going to the ball, even if she was just a lowly office-worker being dressed for a business dinner.

“Well, trying it on couldn’t hurt, could it?” Hermione said with a hesitant smile.

 

As soon as she pulled on the dress, Hermione knew she would wear it that evening. It was a dark, dusky shade of purple with a halter neck and a low waist that accentuated her curves rather than trying and failing to reign them in as so many dresses seemed to do. Narcissa was right; it looked marvellous on her, and while it did need to be let out in certain places — the neck alone was practically suffocating her — and perhaps the hem needed to be lifted an inch or two, the fit was better than she had imagined it would be.

Standing there before the mirror, watching Narcissa tailor the robes around her, it felt to Hermione like she was in a strange sort of dream. The silky fabric felt so soft against her skin, and it still had the faintest hint of Narcissa’s familiar perfume lingering upon it. All the while, Narcissa’s magic brushed against her skin like an evening breeze: refreshing, and cool, and thrilling.

Beneath Narcissa’s focused, critical gaze, Hermione felt like she understood a bit of what it was like to be her artwork — analyzed so carefully and carved into beauty by those soft, skilled hands. Perhaps even more so because she was at the moment, so exposed. The front of the dress was pooled at Hermione’s waist so she could breathe and stand without hunching while Narcissa focused on loosening the fit around the hips.

Looking at her reflection in this state, Hermione felt she looked more ridiculous than ever with only half a dress, a garishly polka-dotted bra, and her hair pulled into a cumbersome top knot to keep it out of the way. But it didn’t bother her the way it might have with anyone else; she wasn’t uncomfortable in the least. If anything, she felt giddy and silly, and her skin was prickling everywhere that Narcissa’s magic had touched.

“Maybe I’ll just go like this,” Hermione mused, striking a mock pose as Narcissa surveyed her finished work on the skirt.

Narcissa chuckled. “Well, then they’ll certainly give you anything you ask for… or ask you to seek psychiatric evaluation, either way.”

Hermione laughed and posed once more. “Hmm, probably about a 50/50 chance, I’d say.”

Narcissa’s eyes met Hermione’s in the mirror and she smirked. “Of course, if you’re really looking to make an impression, this dress isn’t meant to be worn with a bra.” Narcissa’s hands trailed up Hermione’s back as though she was about to undo the clasp.

Hermione spun around, giggling wildly. “Oh no, you don’t,” she said, catching Narcissa’s hands in her own.

Narcissa too was laughing, struggling to free her hands. She was smiling, all innocence, except for those gleaming eyes. “I just didn’t want you to make a faux pas.”

“Mmm, sure,” Hermione replied, her hands suddenly moving impulsively to the front clasps of Narcissa’s robes. They only made it there for a moment before Narcissa had grabbed her wrists and pinned them over her head against the wall.

“Are you trying to undress me?” Narcissa asked, breathless with laughter.

“Well, I think I have to level the playing field just a little,” Hermione said, shrugging with an attempt at innocence of her own.

“Hmm,” Narcissa mused with a playful raise of a single eyebrow.

By now, Narcissa’s face was only inches from Hermione's own. A single breath mingling between them. And suddenly, Hermione got a wonderful idea.

“Come with me tonight,” she said. The words had spilled from her lips, somehow sobering the moment and simultaneously spinning it further into the ether.

“To the Ministry?” Narcissa asked in surprise, never letting go of Hermione’s wrists.

Hermione nodded. “I’m allowed a plus-one. Besides, it’s our book now. If anyone ought to ask them about it, it should be us, together. We can sway them together.” Hermione bit her lip in anticipation.

Narcissa was smiling, speechless. Hermione thought that she was going to say yes. Actually, their faces were so close, and the moment so tense that she thought Narcissa was going to kiss her.

That’s when the door to the dressing room flew open with a terribly unceremonious thud.

Lucius stood there in the doorway and suddenly it was as if someone had turned a hose of cold water upon them both.

In shock and fear, Hermione grasped for the front of the dress, but Narcissa had already stepped in front of her, shielding her from his gaze. Hermione was relieved that she kept her bra on at least, although it was still far more exposure than she was even remotely comfortable with.

“What are you doing in here?” Narcissa snarled with more malice than Hermione had ever heard her utter.

“Relax, Narcissa. I just came by to drop off these papers. When you didn’t answer the door, I assumed you weren’t home.” Lucius’ eyes drifted to Hermione with an infuriating smile. “But then I heard all this commotion…”

Hermione wanted to say something cruel to him, wipe that smug look from his face, but she could think of nothing adequate. All she could do was stand gaping, dumb from embarrassment and rage.

“So you thought you’d come in for a show?” Narcissa asked with a high-pitched, bitter laugh.

“A laugh, perhaps,” Lucius said with a shrug and that cruel, pitiless smile of his. “I assumed that it would be Anathema like it always is. This new piece of filth is frankly, more than I bargained for.”

“How dare you talk to her like that under my roof! How did you even get past my wards?” Narcissa asked, her voice full of fury and indignation. It was a marvellous question. Hermione knew that the wards were set so that the door wouldn’t open unless it was her hand that opened it. The only person in the world who had an amulet to allow passage was Draco.

“Oh, they’re not so hard to pass as long as you have the proper tools,” Lucius said, pulling a diamond shaped amulet on a silver chain from within the folds of his robes.

“Draco would never give that to you,” Narcissa said in a furious whisper.

“Oh, undoubtedly not,” Lucius said. “But he did happen to drop by to pick up some of his possessions from the Manor last week and he can be very careless with his belongings.”

“The first time he visits in a year and you go through his bags?” Narcissa said with a hard mirthless laugh. “It’s truly a wonder he doesn’t visit more often.”

As Lucius continued to go on about Draco and the coddling that had made him so careless and soft, how Narcissa’s amulet hadn’t really been that hard to copy, Hermione could see Narcissa’s hand slowly sliding beneath her robes, carefully creeping towards where her wand was concealed. In a movement that was terrifyingly fast, Narcissa sent a stunner from her wand. Her aim was impeccable, and in a moment, Lucius crumpled to the ground.

Narcissa stood staring in the direction of her frozen husband with undisguised hatred, breathing heavily for a moment until she was able to collect herself.

“I’m so sorry, Hermione. I probably shouldn’t have done that but…” Narcissa trailed off. She sounded so sincere, but her eyes were distracted by whatever her plan was. “I’ll… I’ll get rid of him.”

Narcissa flicked her wand once more and Lucius’ stiff body rose from the ground. She led him out the door of her bedroom, letting his head bounce off the woodwork a few times just for good measure.

Hermione stood alone in the dressing room, still gaping in shock. The moment had disturbed her, but what stuck in her mind far more than Lucius’ tedious insults was the anger that had flown into Narcissa the moment he disparaged her. He had said so many terrible things to Narcissa over just these past few weeks, and she had never lost her control enough to hex him. Yet, a single comment directed towards Hermione, weak as it was, was enough to send Narcissa over the edge. She began to feel as if her Fairy Godmother who had been dressing her for the ball, had just become her prince.

A few minutes passed, and Hermione began to worry. She considered following Narcissa into the sitting room, but there hadn’t been any commotion, and besides, Hermine figured that all Narcissa had to do at this point was leave Lucius in a heap in the hallway and call it a day.

In a moment, however, Hermione’s concerns were assuaged. She felt the magic at the periphery of the flat shiver and change, no doubt the result of Narcissa closing whatever gap had previously allowed the amulet passage. Now, not a soul would be allowed through unless accompanied by Narcissa herself. It seemed extremely cruel to Hermione that even now, Lucius’ attention had managed to make Narcissa close herself off even more than before.

 


 

The spell had only taken moments, but the effect it had was unmistakable. Narcissa sent a glassy-eyed Lucius tottling down the hall with a “Thank you for dropping these off, darling,” just for ironic good-measure. Later on, as his brain began to clear, he would wonder what had come over him and conclude that he had eaten something that had disagreed with him, or perhaps adopt a begrudging belief in Wrackspurts which had momentarily befuddled his senses.

Even if he did realize what she had done, Narcissa wasn’t sure how much that mattered to her at this point. She was furious. To pull such a ridiculous prank. To bring Draco into it no less.

Draco. She couldn’t believe Lucius had the nerve to try to pin the blame on him, as if it was Draco’s fault that his father had lured him home under false pretenses and used him to attack his mother. She wondered what he had said to finally get Draco to change his mind about coming. She wasn’t sure she would ever know unless Draco decided to tell her, and she wasn’t about to ask. As it is, she would have to find something to tell her son about why the amulet no longer worked, something which wouldn’t add to his already burdensome amount of guilt. Perhaps if she put her own blood into the wards, she could extend it to her relations. There was something similar at Black Manor. She had always shied away from blood magic, adverse to the pain and the brutal archaic nature of it, but sometimes the old dark magicks were used for a reason.

Reasons like keeping out oddly persistent demons.

As angry as Narcissa was, she was equally perplexed. She couldn’t fathom why Lucius had gone through all the effort of finding the amulet to her wards even though there seemed to be so little for him to gain from it. Certainly he had no need to rob her; his coffers had remained remarkably full even after the post-war wealth taxes. Still, it worried her. Even though she frequently accused him of being such, he wasn’t actually a complete idiot.

She pushed the thought from her mind. Surely, she’d find out soon enough what he thought he had been up to and for now, she had Hermione to tend to. Hermione who had looked so adorable in that tacky pink bra of hers, who had looked like a graceful nymph in that purple dress, who had asked her to go to that dinner as her date… no, as her guest, as her collaborator… as her date? And of course, Hermione, whose sweet moment had been so easily shattered by Narcissa’s uncontrollable mess. On that thought, she rushed back into her dressing room.

Hermione was standing on the edge of the room, and much to Narcissa’s relief, she looked far more concerned than upset.

“Oh, Hermione,” Narcissa said the moment she walked in. “I’m so sorry. I—”

“You don’t have to apologize for him,” Hermione said vehemently.

Narcissa smiled doubtfully. It may not have been her who had said anything vile, but it was her fault that Hermione was mixed up in it in the first place. The guilt stung in a familiar pain.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Hermione continued. “The opposite even, you defended me! Not that I exactly relish that he saw so much of me just now, but I’ve been through worse.”

Narcissa smiled a bit more genuinely and Hermione took a breath. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, he won’t remember a moment of it,” she said soothingly.

“What?” Hermione asked, clearly confused.

“I obliviated him before I sent him out the door. He’ll be a bit muddled about the afternoon but otherwise convinced that he stopped by, met me at the door and gave me the papers he had intended to drop off.”

“Are you serious?” Hermione said with a laugh.

Narcissa nodded. “I’ve always been good with memory charms along with all the other cerebral magicks. Besides, it’s hardly the first time that Lucius conveniently forgot something that I didn’t want him to remember,” she said with a sly smile.

Hermione looked at her strangely and for a moment, Narcissa wondered whether she ought to have kept that to herself, but then Hermione laughed. “You’re brilliant, you know that,” she said.

Narcissa laughed too in surprise. This really wasn’t the reaction that she expected Hermione to have to any of this. She fought the urge to bite at her lip as she wondered whether some moments were less easily shattered than she’d originally thought.

“Then I take it the invitation for tonight still stands?” Narcissa asked with a hesitant smile of her own.

“Well, you never actually accepted, you know.”

“Of course, I accept,” she said softly, and was gratified to see Hermione’s smile grow even wider.

 


 

With Narcissa at her side, Hermione felt that the evening spun around her in a strange mixture of workplace banality and unmitigated delight. Even now, on her way down the familiar hallway, one that both she and Narcissa had walked an uncountable number of times, she felt a flutter of novelty in her chest.

Speaking to her coworkers about the book, asking for Narcissa to be allowed to tour the experiments, it couldn’t have gone any better. Everyone had taken so much interest in the way Narcissa spoke about their efforts. Not that there weren’t a few hesitant looks at her entrance beside Hermione, but they had all faded quickly with conversation. Hermione almost had to laugh at the look on all those stodgy faces the minute Narcissa unleashed that charming half-smile of hers. They probably would have given her the key to the entire Ministry if she’d asked, much less a day pass to the declassified sections of the department.

In light of this public success, small thought it might be in reality, Hermione felt as if her future had never held more promise. For so long, even working with Narcissa, the book had felt like a fantasy, merely a dream that she might revel in when she needed to escape her real life, but now it felt so real.

It had been a perfect evening, well everything except for the food which was predictably abominable — there was really only so much that could be expected from government-provided catering. However, even that had been in Hermione's favor in the end. When the event had let out, the night was still young and both women were hungry from barely touching their plates of overcooked pasta. Narcissa had insisted they go out to a late supper, her treat, at what Narcissa had described as a quaint little Italian place, but what might have been the most expensive restaurant Hermione had ever set foot in.

“God, they loved you,” Hermione mused with a smile on her face, nearly at the end of their hall. “I can’t wait for them to issue your pass so I can show you around the department. I still can’t believe it was so easy.”

Narcissa shook her head. “It wasn’t me they loved. They loved your ideas; they loved you. I’m just window dressing,” she said with a laugh.

“Don’t sell yourself short. It’s an art, the way you take to people, I wish I had that gift,” Hermione said, although in a way she did have this gift, at least for the evening, because she had Narcissa beside her, filling in for her own shortcomings, a partner, a team. It felt so strange in a way, the honesty, being forthright enough about yourself to consider anyone else a part of you. The thought brought a quiet smile to her face.

“Thank you for coming with me,” she finally said.

Narcissa clasped Hermione’s hands and squeezed them gently. “You don’t have to thank me, I had a wonderful time.”

They were at their doors by then, and their eyes were locked onto each other’s stare in the stillness. Hermione could feel something in the air around them, a tension of sorts that had been growing all night. Well, if she was being honest with herself, growing for weeks now slowly, but suddenly taking off under the influence of this evening spent side by side.

It was Narcissa who first broke the stare, dropping her eyelids and smiling softly.

“Goodnight, Hermione,” Narcissa said and leaned in impossibly close with Hermione’s hands still clasped in her own.

It was only a kiss on the cheek but she did it so slowly that it felt more intimate than any real kiss Hermione had ever received — either that, or time had simply slowed to stillness in Hermione’s mind for one precious moment.

It left her nearly stumbling, Narcissa’s kiss, which had lingered overlong, her lips which had trailed downright lavishly, certainly unnecessarily, against the flushed skin of Hermione’s cheek before finally pulling away.

Narcissa looked at Hermione with a question in her eyes, seeing how she’d taken it, this gesture of intimacy laced with oh so much plausible deniability if it didn’t come off right, an innocent gesture of something not so innocent at all. Although, Hermione thought, perhaps there was nothing more innocent than this… to be yourself and want someone to see it, to hold it, to press lips to it so gently.

Narcissa had stepped back but Hermione hadn’t retreated an inch. Instead she moved forward, closing the space between them that had just been created.

In a moment of impulse, Hermione lunged forward. She pressed her lips to Narcissa’s, suddenly enough to hear the woman make a small noise of surprise. She lingered only long enough to delight in the feeling of Narcissa kissing her back with equal ardor. Only long enough to leave a lasting imprint of the incomparable heat of Narcissa’s mouth, the soft supple sweetness of it, lingering on her tongue.

When she pulled away, it was with a smile, wide and toothy and probably looking insufferably proud of herself at the sight of Narcissa’s flushed cheeks, the dulcet shades of pink so noticeable against her otherwise porcelain skin.

“Goodnight, Cissa,” Hermione whispered in turn.

Narcissa answered with a smile of her own, looking bemused that Hermione would want to leave it there. Hermione wasn’t entirely sure herself, but this was all so new, and no matter what the heat of her body might be telling her — practically throbbing in immediacy as it was — there was tomorrow and tomorrow and so many tomorrow’s after that to take things slowly, to lead them there with more solid footing. And for tonight there would be nothing but sleep for both of them, enough to let visions of the embrace dance in their heads like a sugarplum on Christmas Eve.

Hermione struggled to get her key from her bag and into the lock. She struggled to flip the catch on her balcony windows and let the evening air inside, probably bringing too much of a chill indoors at this hour, but she didn’t care.

It was nearing the middle of October and by then the evenings were crisp and cool, yet the daylight of the afternoons remained warm and forgiving. It was the time of year that seemed to hold the best of everything between its palms. Somewhere in her heart Hermione begged for it to linger.

It was with the warmth of Narcissa’s lips against her own and with dreams of this perpetual autumn that Hermione stumbled into her bedroom to change.


Nearly an hour had passed since the two women had parted ways, although Narcissa could hardly account for it. She had been walking mostly aimlessly through her flat, stumbling around with a smile on her face, her fingers returning time and time again to her lips as if she could find evidence of the evening’s end having been real beneath her touch.

Just then, Narcissa heard an odd knock at her door. She wasn’t sure what to expect. It was unlikely to be Hermione, and yet she could think of no one else who would be calling so late. Or perhaps she just could think of no one else...

When she opened the door, she couldn’t help but chuckle at what she saw before her, not a person but the distinct lack of one. Her own dress hovered before her, some variation of the charm she herself had used to enchant the wine.

The magic was clever. The dress hung in the air as if still on Hermione’s body and for a brief moment, Narcissa was almost disappointed that it wasn’t. The knock could have so easily been Hermione in the flesh rather than this ghost of her curves.

And Salazar, she had looked so lovely in that dress; it was flowing and light and curvaceous just as she was. From the moment it had touched Hermione’s skin, it had seemed to be her own. So much so that Narcissa couldn’t imagine ever wearing it herself again. Like a wand, it’s loyalty seemed to have changed, having been justly and rightfully won.

It was then that she first noticed a note, hanging beside the gown. She reached for it, recognizing Hermione’s handwriting.

The note was short, but still far more lengthy than the return of any borrowed dress would require. Hermione’s handwriting, usually a bit of a hasty scrawl, was neat and flowing. Narcissa remembered just how long it had taken Hermione to write a simple gift tag for wine; she could only imagine how long it must have taken her to craft something with multiple paragraphs.

She began to read.

I know I’ve already thanked you for this evening, but I never feel that my gratitude is truly expressed until I can put it on parchment.

Thank you for coming with me tonight, and thank you for buying dinner. It was far more extravagant than anything I would have done for myself. This whole evening has made such a silly fantasy of mine feel not so silly after all.

Between the wine, the dress, and keeping my overly dramatic cat well-tended — not to mention so many things that I don’t know how to put into words even with a quill in my hand — I feel like my debts are hopelessly mounting.

I promise that I’ll figure out some way to pay you back that will make it all seem worthwhile to you. But for now you’ll have to settle for me leaving my dress in a heap at your doorstep.

-Hermione

Narcissa realized that all along she had been holding her breath, and that last line nearly made her choke on the air caught in her lungs.

She reached out to grab the dress and at the barest touch of her fingers, it collapsed into a heap in her hands.

She smiled at this lovely little piece of magic. It was so tantalizing to watch the silken thing become undone before her, and yet so maddening that this thing made of pure imagination, held together by fantasy alone would collapse into mundanity the moment it was touched by the real world.

Narcissa closed the door behind her, feeling antsy and bothered.

She thought back over the evening, the dress in all its forms tangling themselves in her mind. A final form, one that Narcissa dared not indulge too much, simply kept returning. One of Hermione turning around, sweeping her hair to the side. How smoothly the zipper would pull down beneath Narcissa’s own pale fingers, the fabric separating to reveal gently sunkissed skin beneath it, how Hermione might glance over her shoulder as the fabric fell to the floor. Those golden eyes.

Narcissa felt her heart beating faster at the memory that that beautiful woman had kissed her barely an hour before. This fantasy, this silly hopeful fantasy, was so close to becoming a reality and the realization of it kept flooding into her consciousness over and over again like a tide. She knew she was risking herself to even hope for it, but how could she be expected to do anything else?

She placed the letter on the sideboard beside Hermione’s first thank you note from an evening that felt impossibly long ago. It was becoming a strange little collection of trinkets, of moments.

Narcissa furrowed her brow. She thought she remembered putting the picture of the two of them here as well and she wondered whether it had slid off. Before she could bend to search for it, however, Narcicca heard another knock on the door, and she held her breath. There could be nothing left to return, nothing left to give…

She opened the door with a broad expectant smile, an expression that quickly turned to shock at the sight of her caller.

“Anathema,” she breathed.

“Good evening, Cissa. May I come in?”

Chapter Text

Narcissa stood gaping dumbly into the hallway where Anathema was standing, looking stunning in a low cut dark evening gown. The question — May I come in? — hung in the air almost like a joke. Anathema clearly wasn’t really asking; she was smirking with too much confidence to suggest any doubt of being accepted.

“Of course,” Narcissa finally said without much enthusiasm, the notes of shock still present in her voice. She stepped back to allow Anathema passage and furrowed her brow at the woman’s slinky stroll into the room. This didn’t make sense; they were on a break, a break of Anathema’s instigation. There was that impressionable young heir to tend to after all. Yet there was so little room for misunderstanding with an impromptu visit so late in the evening.

Narcissa’s eyes flickered instinctually to the vent on her shared wall. She thought she had heard Hermione go to bed already. She hoped that Hermione wouldn’t be in her living room to overhear and misunderstand whatever this exchange was about to be, although Narcissa was determined to keep it short and decidedly inoffensive.

“What are you doing here, Thema?” Narcissa asked, watching the woman take off her cloak to reveal bare, shining shoulders. “I thought your evenings were already spoken for.”

“Yes, well.” Anathema shrugged as she threw her cloak on the sofa with a flourish. “Things didn’t really pan out on that front after all. Mr. Ainsley and I weren’t nearly as sympatico as I had first imagined. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”

Narcissa tilted her head in suspicion. Anathema had never given much thought to compatibility before. Certainly she had never been sympatico with any of her former husbands, not unless a man having the very weaknesses she wished to exploit could count as such. Still, Narcissa couldn’t remember a time when Anathema had failed to convince a man of how like-minded they were, and it seemed strange. Perhaps there had been a perceptive friend able to talk sense into Mr. Ainsley’s love-struck little head; perhaps he was gay — although Anathema had only used that to her advantage with husband number four...

Trying to get the real story would be fruitless of course. Anathema’s tone sounded practiced and light and it seemed unlikely that she would ever divert from this sparse tale of mutual disinterest told with a careless attitude and a casual shrug of her shoulders.

Anathema was watching Narcissa’s suspicious glance with inscrutable intensity. She strolled closer to slide a thumb over her lover’s jaw. Narcissa breathed in sharply, her body thrumming in instinctual response to the familiar touch, to her own familiar need.

“So with that tedious incident behind us, how about tonight, Cissa?” Anathema said, drawing closer still, stroking a lock of blonde hair beside Narcissa’s cheek and placing it behind her shoulder to reveal the pale neck beneath. “I know I should have owled first, but I was hoping you didn’t have any other plans, at least nothing more pressing.”

Anathema had whispered the last bit in her ear, her words slow and heavy. She remained impossibly close, breath ghosting over Narcissa’s neck, waiting for her response, waiting for permission.

For a moment, Narcissa was frozen in place, her body willing her mind to go numb. She found it strange that Anathema had turned up the charm to such a high level just for her benefit. It was a show usually kept to a minimum when it came to Narcissa, and she wondered if Anathema had sensed her hesitance and was responding accordingly, or if she was simply receiving the remnants of what Mr. Ainsley had been too weak to take earlier in the evening.

Tempting though it was — and it was incredibly tempting — Narcissa stepped backwards. She eyed the vent again, remembering Hermione’s soft, giddy smile from earlier in the evening, the quick, eager press of her lips — the only lips she truly wanted right now hovering so tantalizingly just above the thrum of her pulse. She cleared her throat.

“I don’t have plans tonight, Thema, but I can’t,” Narcissa said, feeling almost shy in this small confession.

Anathema’s brilliant smile faltered just a bit. A dark look came into her eyes as she considered Narcissa as if seeing her for the first time that evening. “Whyever not?” she asked pointedly.

Narcissa sighed and threaded her fingers together. “There’s someone else,” she said simply, shying away from details. She was unsure how much she wanted to admit, unsure at this stage what she was even admitting to besides hope.

Anathema regarded Narcissa’s hesitant silence with a deeper furrow growing between her brows.

“Don’t tell me you’ve gotten back with Lucius after all this hassle?” Anathema asked, sounding highly incredulous at the idea, rightfully so of course.

“Oh don’t be absurd, of course I haven’t,” Narcissa exclaimed, feeling insulted at the mere insinuation. “It’s not Lucius; it’s someone new.”

Narcissa ventured a small smile. She had expected her confession to garner a playful tease, a dirty question, a tawdry congratulations even, the same as every other time she had confessed to an extra-extra-marital affair throughout their complicated friendship. This time, however, Anthema didn’t even smile.

“Who is it?” Anathema merely asked in a tense voice.

Narcissa’s eyes drifted the vent once more, just for a moment, but she saw understanding dawn on Anathema’s face. Something almost like anger flashed through those dark eyes and it scared her. In a moment of fear of what was to come, Narcissa cast a hasty silencing charm, just in case Hermione was still awake after all.

“Her? You’re fucking that fumbling, hapless, mousey little neighbor of yours?” Anathema asked, aghast and accusatory.

“Anathema, don’t be cruel,” Narcissa said, glad that her instincts in setting the charm had at least been well-timed. “And besides, I’m not fucking her.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“You’re going to think this sounds incredibly silly,” Narcissa began. “But we have this connection. It’s new and it’s delicate, and I don’t really know what will come of it yet, but I don’t want to ruin it, whatever it is.”

“You’re right that does sound very silly,” Anathema said, her voice dripping with spite.

Narcissa felt as if she had been slapped across the face; she could almost feel the sting upon her cheek.

“So you’re saying that you would rather hold out for the mere possibility of sleeping with her, rather than actually sleep with me?”

Narcissa gaped at her for a moment, dumb in her deepening confusion. “Anathema, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t understand why you’re getting so upset. This is how we’ve always functioned.”

Anathema looked at her with unfading malice in her eyes for one long, heavy moment. “I’m not upset. You’re right, of course, this is how things always function,” she finally said. The words were reasonable although her voice sounded strained, and she didn’t look any happier than she had a moment before.

Narcissa was perplexed. ”Look, Thema, let’s take a breath. I’ll get us something to drink; I think we could both use it. Then, we can talk about this, alright?”

Anathema nodded and sat down, looking troubled and distant. By the time Narcissa had returned from her kitchen with glasses in hand, Anathema was gone. Hermione’s letter from earlier was crumpled on the floor, tossed aside in a fit of anger.

Narcissa put the now useless drinks down on the sideboard beside where Anathema had been sitting, and picked up the parchment, smoothing it as best she could. All the while, her mind spun in confusion.

She couldn’t imagine how this was different from all their prior endings and beginnings. Anathema had rejected her not a month prior with only a few careless sentences carried by an owl; there was no reason this evening should have warranted such extremity.

Narcissa shook her head and decided it wasn’t worth dwelling on. They could make things right some other time once Anathema had calmed down and remembered how to be reasonable, or at the very least pretend to be. Besides, Narcissa could at least console herself that it all could have gone much worse. She could have been weak, given in, jeopardized something satisfying for something immediate. At least she could be proud that she had nothing to regret. In her life, this was a rare enough sensation to warrant a little savoring.

With a wave of her wand, the hastily raised silencing charm faded into nothing. Narcissa crawled into her bed and let her head fall against the pillows. She thought if she was quiet enough, she could just make out the heavy slow breaths of Hermione’s peaceful slumber. It was probably nothing, imagination, folly. But for being nothing, it seemed to be taking its toll. Her chest was clenching around the absence of something she couldn’t quite articulate, and her body was aching for a far more tangible satisfaction.

 


 

When Narcissa awoke the next morning and went about her day, she couldn’t help but feel as if she were merely going through the motions. Every moment was just one more to be gotten through until Hermione returned from work. Even as she walked down the street towards the door of her building, her thoughts were far from the present. They were flung into the future, when she hoped she could follow up on that kiss, find some conclusion to that moment left dangling in agony.

“Mrs. Malfoy!” A voice called from across the street.

Narcissa turned back with suspicion, knowing that she had little interest in speaking to anyone who would address her as such. When she identified the woman calling her name, she knew her hunch had been correct; she certainly had no desire to speak to Rita Skeeter of all people this afternoon. It had been a long time since Narcissa had been hounded by the press on the streets of London. In that way, and in that way only, her unwillingly sheltered existence was as much a blessing as a curse. Regardless of its novelty, she had no intention of engaging. She turned on her heel and proceeded to walk in the direction of The Merlin.

“Mrs. Malfoy!” Rita Skeeter called again. “I know that you heard me!”

The horrible woman had gained on her considerably as Narcissa was unwilling to do anything as uncouth as hurry away. Admittedly, hurrying wasn’t exactly possible in these shoes anyhow.

Seeing a number of people turning curious eyes in her direction, she sighed and turned around to face her hanger-on. “Of course I heard you, Rita. I simply have no desire to speak to you,” Narcissa said coolly.

“Oh, I think you will once you hear what I have to say,” Rita said with a sickening red-lipped grin that made Narcissa’s nose scrunch in mild disgust.

She raised her eyebrow in annoyance and waited for the woman to continue, unwilling to show even a modicum of interest in whatever suspense Rita was trying to create.

“I came to ask you about your affair with a certain notable witch,” the woman said simply.

“You stopped me in the street for something as tedious as that old gossip?” Narcissa hummed in mock disappointment. “What, Lucius finally took you off the payroll and you’re coming directly to me for bribes now?”

“No, of course not. I’m not talking about Anathema Zabini. As you said, that’s old gossip. Besides, what two aging pureblooded women get up to is less interesting to the public than you might flatter yourself to believe.” Rita paused, awaiting a reaction to the jibe.

Narcissa merely kept her gaze steady and smiled “Understandable,” she said calmly.

Rita’s smile faltered slightly at the realization that her arrow had failed to hit its mark, but sensing Narcissa’s impatience, she hastened to go on. “That’s not the affair I’m talking about. Luckily enough, you do keep yourself busy. I’m talking about Hermione Granger.” She paused for effect. “Now that is something I believe the public will want to hear.”

“What? That’s preposterous,” Narcissa said in the most dismissive tone she could muster.

Internally, Narcissa’s heart had stopped in a frightened moment. How was it possible that The Prophet knew about an affair with Hermione before it had even happened? They had been seen in public together, certainly, but nothing had happened that would suggest they were a couple.

“Oh I don’t think it is. And I don’t think my readers will either. Not once they’ve seen the evidence, and my source — “

“What source?” Narcissa interrupted.

“They wish to remain anonymous, of course.”

“Mmm, of course,” Narcissa agreed.

Rita seemed to be growing impatient that Narcissa wasn’t in the immediate state of panicked pleading that she’d been expecting. “But I didn’t come to you for a bribe, Mrs. Malfoy. This is the hottest gossip I’ve come across in years; there’s not enough money in Gringotts to keep me quiet.”

Narcissa lowered her lids suspiciously. “Then why come to me at all?”

“I thought you might want to comment on the story before it goes to print.”

Narcissa rolled her eyes. She was no fool where the press was concerned. She knew never to make comments, assuming what they knew only to accidentally become the source of your own undoing.

“Please,” she scoffed. “You’ve been incredibly vague. I don’t even know what I’m commenting on.”

“Well, that can be remedied quickly enough,” Rita said. With a silly flourish of her wand, a piece of parchment appeared with a draft of her story printed in lurid green ink.

To Narcissa’s horror, beside the title was the photo of Hermione and herself walking outside of the museum that day, the only one that she had kept. Some hazy form of realization began to dawn upon her and with a twinge of genuine worry, she began to read.

Hermione Granger’s Secret Affair

A woman of notable ambition, Hermione Granger’s tangled love-life and admiration for fame and fortune are certainly not news to the majority of the Wizarding World. Yet, as shocked as we all were to see her leave her fiancé — trusted Auror Ronald Weasley — for a chance at higher-positioned partners, no one was prepared for as low and blatant an exchange as what the young witch had in mind.

The social-climbing Miss Granger has begun an affair with none other than Narcissa Malfoy, wife of Lucius Malfoy — although how long he’ll allow that to be true after this remains unseen.

The dubious nature of their connection can hardly be overstated. It’s hard to imagine that they have much in common besides a mutual love of Mrs. Malfoy’s money and Miss Granger’s youth. Understandably, many readers might struggle to see what drew Mrs. Malfoy’s attention to this young witch in particular. However, it does finally explain how Miss Granger is able to afford her grandiose lifestyle in the exclusive apartment complex The Merlin with only a government salary in her own name. A complex in which Mrs. Malfoy’s own pied-à-terre is only a door away — for ease of access no doubt.

How long ago this affair may have started, readers can only speculate. But it is worth noting that Miss Granger moved into her flat in early August, many weeks before her engagement had ended. We can only hope that the timeline is not as sordid as it first appears.

However we may hope to see the best in the Golden Girl, the quid pro quo nature of this relationship does seem obvious. Sources close to the couple say that Mrs. Malfoy frequently gifts the girl expensive wine, dinners, even designer clothing.

 

Narcissa nearly choked to turn the page and see a picture of Hermione in the dress from last night, to see everything she had ever given to Hermione listed out in a way that made it all seem so lewd. She felt like her head was spinning and she fought to control her expression.

The article was absolute nonsense the lot of it and yet it all sounded so convincing in Rita’s toxic hand, at least it would to her readership who possessed dubious intelligence at best and managed to make up a distressingly large percentage of the population.

It all painted a pretty little picture, just tawdry enough to resonate with a public eager to believe the worst of anyone press-worthy. Although she shied away from all press coverage, Narcissa wouldn’t have minded them printing rumors of the relationship, unless it bothered Hermione, but this… This painted her in an awful light, and worse yet, it made Hermione look like nothing more than a gold-digging trollop. If the public ate up that image of her, it could do nothing good for the book. They’d probably say that Narcissa was the one who had gotten them the publishing deal in the first place.

She swallowed hard, thinking of how many times Hermione had rejected the idea that Narcissa’s proximity could bring this sort of thing upon her, the notion that her presence could bring only chaos. How naive the young woman was to think it couldn’t be true simply because she didn’t want it to be — although that was the familiar folly of youth. Now, unfortunately, such a fantasy would be shattered. Hermione would be forced to see how correct Narcissa had been to warn her all those weeks ago, how she should have listened.

Narcissa bit back the emotions rising in her chest with practiced firmness and forced herself to plan. Her brain swam through options and angles, piecing it together with logic and precision, even now as she felt her own doom crawling towards her, threatening to dismantle her own fantasies, those based on the last shreds of naivety she had allowed herself to possess. Some pain, some sacrifice was inevitable, but there was no reason that Hermione ought to share her pyre. She simply couldn’t bear it.

“What if I made you a deal?” Narcissa asked, looking up abruptly from the article.

“I’ve already said I won’t take your money.”

“I’m not offering money. I know that you want a comment. What if I did more than give you a comment? What if I gave you an interview?”

Rita’s eyes lit up with unbecoming interest. “About the affair?”

“No, because there isn’t a word of truth in that,” Narcissa corrected. “About the divorce.”

Rita gasped comically as if this was breaking news.

“Oh, don’t play me for a fool, Rita. I know that you’re aware of the divorce proceedings. The Prophet would have printed it months ago if you weren’t so easy to sway.”

Rita was eyeing her suspiciously. “Why do this if the story about the affair is as ludicrous as you claim? Certainly it would all blow over if there’s nothing further to back it up, and it wouldn’t be worth your sacrifice?”

“Mmm, I think what’s more important here are your reasons for taking the interview. You’re right, this will blow over when there’s nothing further to substantiate it, which would seem to make it an easy choice between that and an interview every journalist will fight for once it gets out that I’m willing to give it. But more importantly, I will sue you for libel if you print that story, and I will give the interview about the divorce regardless — to another publication, in that case, obviously — and make sure that your superiors are aware that you turned it down only for a false story that landed them in a troublesome lawsuit.”

Rita pursed her lips, looking like a child who was told they could only keep one birthday gift.

“Alright, I’m interested,” she finally said with a begrudging sigh.

 


 

When Hermione got home from work, she was surprised to see Narcissa’s windows dark and empty. She shrugged, trying not to feel too disappointed. They hadn’t made any plans for the evening after all, but she had so hoped that Narcissa might be here waiting, as eager as she was to continue what they had left hanging last night.

Two hours later, when Hermione heard a familiar knock on her door, her heart leapt in her chest. The Narcissa who awaited her, however, wasn't nearly as cheerful and eager as Hermione had anticipated; the woman looked antsy, bothered, her smile uncharacteristically tense.

“Narcissa, I was wondering where you were. Come in,” Hermione said hesitantly. She feared that the woman’s demeanor could only mean one thing: a rejection, one that Narcissa was perhaps struggling to form. Struggling with how to say that Hermione had misread the signs, that this looming, clawing tension that she had felt drawing them together all these weeks was merely in her mind.

Hermione couldn’t stand the suspense. If Narcissa was going to say something of the kind, it ought to be immediately, so the process of dealing with it could begin without delay. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“No,” Narcissa admitted, passing Hermione into her flat and shrugging off the cloak. “I would have been here earlier, but I had to see my lawyer.”

“About the divorce?”

Narcissa shook her head. “To draft a contract. I —” she paused. “I don’t know how to explain it except to show you this,” she said. She reached into her bag and somewhat reluctantly handed Hermione a piece of parchment.

Hermione furrowed her brows in confusion, feeling Narcissa’s intense stare as she lowered her eyes to read. As soon as she saw the familiar acid green scrawl and the title bearing her name, her confusion turned to ire.

“I can’t believe this. This is ridiculous!” Hermione said in a furious whisper.

“I know,” Narcissa said wearily. “I assume we have Lucius to thank for this.” She pushed her mane of blonde hair back and Hermione thought she looked exhausted.

“But…. but I thought he was trying to keep your name out of the papers?”

Narcissa nodded and sighed. “I think I may have become a bit too difficult to contain as of late, what with the book, outings with you, the Ministry, getting involved in events that were no longer only for the gossip columns and therefore no longer subject to Rita’s sole discretion. I saw the desperation starting in his eyes weeks ago; I knew something was coming. His control was unravelling. His worst fear of the world knowing of his straying family and the impending divorce was rapidly becoming unavoidable.”

Hermione nodded, putting the pieces together into a picture of a vengeful man backed into a corner. “And what better way to face the inevitable than to skew it in your favor?” she filled in.

“It’s what any good Slytherin would do. Merlin, sometimes even I hate my house,” Narcissa said with a hollow laugh. “If he thought it was only a matter of time before it got out, it only makes sense to take the opportunity to make me into the villain. I’m sure this wasn’t his ideal, but it’s preferable to be an ill-used man throwing aside a vile cradle-robbing wife, than a fool who was trying and failing to keep a good woman by his side.”

Hermione was silent, filled with regret that she had ever put air holes in Rita’s jar all those years ago.

“I think he took the picture yesterday while we were in my dressing room. It must have been in his pocket and I didn’t check... I wouldn’t have thought it was enough to bring back the memory but perhaps...”

Hermione shrugged. “Who’s to say where Lucius’ bile ends and Rita’s begins. I can’t imagine how excited she must have been to write about me being after you as some kind of sugar mama.”

Narcissa furrowed her brow. “A what?” she asked.

“Oh. I suppose witches don’t use that term. It’s when a rich woman, usually older, dates someone younger for — well, exactly what the article implies. It’s Muggle slang... sugar mama, sugar daddy,” Hermione said, hearing just how silly the term sounded when it had to be explained like this.

Narcissa was smirking, looking a bit calmer than when she had walked in a minute ago. “Well, if that’s what I am, then I’m not very good at it. The dinner and the wine couldn’t amount to more than a hundred galleons, and you gave the dress back. I’m assuming the price would normally be a good deal steeper.”

Hermione laughed. “Well, I haven’t exactly lived up to my end of the bargain either in that case.”

Narcissa chuckled and the moment lingered over long in the air.

Still, when Narcissa’s gaze met Hermione’s once more, her eyes were shimmering with guilt. Hermione had been so busy being furious, that she hadn’t realized just how upset Narcissa was. She knew that Narcissa was sensitive to the idea of bringing down Hermione’s reputation, hurting the public opinion of her by mere association. Granted, now the fear was not entirely without basis, but Hermione’s only thought was how to make it right. She had no intention of letting Rita win, of letting her cause Narcissa such pain; she’d trap her in another bloody jar if she had to.

She grasped Narcissa’s face in her hands and forced their eyes to meet. “Hey, hey, I know that this isn’t great, but look, if it takes off, we’ll deal with it together. We can try to get ahead of it even; I’ll owl our publisher and we can see what she thinks and —”

Narcissa grabbed Hermione’s hand and the look in her eye softened considerably. “No, that won’t be necessary. They won’t be printing the article. I took care of it.”

“What do you mean? Did you pay her off?”

“No, I made a deal with Rita,” Narcissa said. “That’s what the contract was for. I agreed to do an interview with her about my divorce in exchange for the pleasure of throwing this into the fire.” With that, she flung the paper away like its very presence offended her.

Hermione gaped in response. “Cissa, but you hate talking to the press. You didn’t have to do that.”

Narcissa shook her head. “Of course I did. I couldn’t stand by and let them print this about you. Hermione, I might not be the best person in the world — I know that I’m not — but I will always do whatever I have to to protect those I care about.”

Narcissa’s voice was so quiet, yet so fierce that Hermione barely knew what to say.

“And that includes me?” Hermione asked.

“Of course it includes you, darling,” Narcissa nearly whispered.

“Oh, Cissa,” Hermione exclaimed and threw her arms around the woman. She could feel Narcissa’s hands pulling her tighter, pressing against her back, leaving spots of burning warmth in their wake.

“You’re honestly not upset?” Narcissa asked, her lips so close to Hermione’s ear. “This hasn’t made you have second thoughts about…” she trailed off.

Hermione pulled away just slightly and looked at the woman in disbelief. “Of course not! Narcissa, you’re so convinced that you bring nothing but disaster, but I think you might be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Narcissa was gaping at her, stunned by the sentiment, and Hermione wondered whether that had been a tad too dramatic. She ducked her head and shuffled self-consciously, stepping back just a bit, but Narcissa caught her wrist.

“Hermione, if I have to watch you walk away again, I think I’m going to lose my mind,” she said.

Without any other warning, she grabbed Hermione’s face and captured her lips between her own in a kiss that was far less chaste than the one they had shared the previous night. Hermione sighed and melted into it, feeling as if she had been made of ice up until that very moment.

Whatever progress Hermione had made in removing herself from the embrace was rapidly undone as she found herself crawling back into Narcissa’s arms.

Electricity jolted through her body as her tongue slid against Narcissa’s and the softest of moans vibrated across her lips. The sensation spread through her, nearly paralyzing her as Narcissa’s kisses drifted to her neck. Warm breath sending chills down her spine, the soft scrape of teeth over sensitive skin.

“Oh, God, Cissa, I want you,” she managed to whisper, halted and stammering as it was.

Narcissa pulled back and looked at her with eyes that were so bright it was startling — a blue no longer of ice or waves, but of flames.

She leaned in close. “Then take me,” she said, the whisper brushing Hermione’s ear. She could have fainted, she could have died from the longing that it inspired.

Hermione wasn’t sure how long they stood like that, wrapped in each other’s arms, how long it was until they stumbled into the bedroom, how long until Narcissa’s hands had travelled up from her waist, coaxing Hermione’s shirt over her head and cupping her breasts, massaging them ever so gently in her palms.

She only remembered how her breath kept hitching in her throat at every new touch, every novel sensation, the way Narcissa had sighed when Hermione had slid her dress from her body and lowered her mouth to the curve of dark lace left in its wake.

It was almost like a dream where conscious thought was impossible. It was only as Hermione pulled the last of her clothing from her body, straddling Narcissa in the last rays of the day’s light that she suddenly felt the jolt of nerves, which had been entirely absent up until now. She wanted so desperately to please — no, not just please — to inspire, to thrill, to make it worth it all. There was a part of her that almost feared getting a poor grade — a mediocre Acceptable where only Outstanding would do.

Narcissa stroked her thigh so softly, searching Hermione’s eyes for where she had momentarily drifted. “Are you alright, darling?”

Hermione nodded her head and smiled, pushing her nerves down. “More than alright, just thinking… don’t forget, I’ve already heard you orgasm, so I’ll also know if you fake it,” she joked.

Narcissa laughed but when she looked at Hermione her eyes were intense, serious. “I would never fake it,” she whispered. “I demand to be satisfied, and I’ll make sure you accomplish it.”

Hermione’s heart beat impossibly hard in her chest. “You seem awfully sure of that,” she said.

“I am,” Narcissa said with a smirk. “I know what I like, and if you’re not doing it, darling, I will tell you. I won’t let you go astray.” She cupped Hermione’s cheek gently. “Sex isn’t a test, Hermione; you don’t have to be worried that you’ll fail.”

“God, you understand me too well,” Hermione said with a laugh, leaning into Narcissa’s neck, savoring the heat of their bare stomachs pressing together. “I suppose that does rather take the pressure off,” she admitted.

“Hmm,” Narcissa said and grabbed her by the hair, pulling her back into a kiss. With an abrupt twist of her leg, she pushed Hermione into the pillows. “But let’s start with you. Let’s see what I can do about some of those nerves.”

Narcissa’s kisses returned to her neck as she slid her long, slender hands down Hermione’s stomach, trailing them over her hips, torturing her with anticipation.

With one hand Narcissa stroked the curls at the top of Hermione’s thighs, tantalizing and slow. Every moment, Hermione thought she’d go lower, but she did not. Instead, Narcissa grabbed Hermione’s hair and tilted her head back. “Tell me that you want it.”

“I want it,” Hermione breathed back.

Narcissa leaned into Hermione’s ear. “You want what?” she whispered, running her tongue over Hermione’s earlobe.

“I want you to fuck me,” she managed to croak out, feeling like her throat was too tight from the tension of the moment for words to escape.

“Hmm,” Narcissa hummed thoughtfully. She slid a finger lower and stroked the head of Hermione’s swollen clit once before retracting it, making Hermione moan.

“Please,” she begged.

With a final kiss, drowning any further supplications between her lips, Narcissa slid her hand down Hermione’s stomach once more and spread her tender lips apart.

Hermione’s forehead was pressed to Narcissa’s, her mouth open, panting desperately, their breath mingling in the air. She rocked her body against Narcissa as those deft fingers continued to press, to stroke, to tease. Eventually, Narcissa slid her fingers further down, thrusting two of them into Hermione’s cunt, opening her up.

She felt as if some deep tension within her had suddenly cracked and unwound itself under Narcissa’s touch, something tight and ragged that she didn’t even know she was holding onto until it was no longer there.

Hermione arched her back, freeing a moan from her shaking chest. She was only half-conscious of Narcissa’s face, but in fleeting moments, she could see that the woman was smiling at these sounds, so real and raw and un-pristine.

Hermione had always thought there was something so inherently embarrassing to sex, not so much because of the physical nudity, but the emotional. Especially this way, to be the center of all of the attention, not even sharing in the vulnerability of mutual moaning pleasure. But somehow, it didn’t feel embarrassing this time. The sensation of opening herself only heightened her pleasure rather than scaring her back into her shell. She had never felt anything so freeing as this in all her life.

It wasn’t that she was comparing Narcissa to previous partners, that would be ridiculous for any number of reasons. But she was comparing Narcissa to her expectations.

Unlike anyone else, Narcissa had undressed her carefully, had cupped her breasts with delicate longing like they were a prize she had won at long last. She was going slow, testing her boundaries, finding what pleased her, peeling away every wall between them as slowly as they could stand. Narcissa kissed her and it was so easy to lose herself in the warmth of her mouth, in the heady scent of her skin.

Hermione was so close, and she could tell Narcissa knew it from the way her muscles had begun to tense, the way her breath stuttered into the inch of space between them, over both of their lips. But still she wasn’t rushing her, she wasn’t pushing her, she was coaxing her, cajoling her to fall, fall ever so easily over that cliff.

In one trembling moment of lucidity, she looked into Narcissa’s eyes and felt as if she’d been reborn. She had reached the precipice and only when there was nowhere else to go, did she leap, a silent scream of pleasure contorting her body into grasping fits as she clawed at Narcissa’s back.

 

When Hermione opened her eyes after Merlin knows how long, Narcissa was stroking her arm, clearly trying to judge just how long she had to allow Hermione to recover before pulling her on top. Hermione laughed at the greedy, eager little smirk on Narcissa’s lips and pulled her into another kiss.

With an unexpected amount of assurance, Hermione trailed her lips down Narcissa’s ivory stomach. She stopped to stroke one thigh as she let her tongue wrap over the outline of Narcissa’s just-protruding rib cage.

Hermione made her way back up, taking one nipple into her mouth, scraping her teeth against it, making Narcissa gasp, never taking her hand from Narcissa’s inner thigh, edging closer and closer.

Hermione kissed down her stomach again, delighting in the way Narcissa moaned and clenched her stomach as she did so, only to mewl in longing when Hermione’s kisses diverted themselves to her hip.

She looked up to meet the woman’s gaze. The look in Narcissa’s eyes, usually so sharp like two knives of blue, was now muddled and nearly vacant, lost in her own wanting. “Are you teasing me?” Narcissa whispered with a slow, honeyed laugh.

“Only seemed fair after what you did to me,” Hermione said. “Do you like it?”

“Mhm,” Narcissa murmured in pleasure. Yet, as she kissed down Narcissa’s stomach once more, the time for teasing was over. The firm, insistent grasp on her head, guiding her down, nearly pushing her down, told her as much without a great deal of subtlety.

Narcissa didn’t let go of her hair for a moment, practically using it like reins the entire time, keeping her just where she ought to be.

Keeping her neck just so was sometimes uncomfortable, but it was worth any amount of restorative potions she’d take in the morning just to see Narcissa’s head thrown back like that, to see the way her breasts pushed up and swelled into the air as her back arched in pleasure. To feel that searing rosey heat of her cunt clenching around Hermione’s fingers, to feel her toes curling rhythmically against Hermione’s back.

In that moment, Hermione couldn’t tell if she felt broken, or incredibly whole, but it didn’t matter either way. For even if she was broken, it was indescribably sweet to allow herself to be shattered by someone whom she trusted with the pieces.

“Yes,” Narcissa whispered above her all the while, almost subconsciously, like a rhythm, like a prayer.

Chapter Text

When Narcissa awoke the next morning, it was to a sense of calm, a sense of ease that was so pervasive she hardly felt like herself. Her head was curled against Hermione’s chest, and the scent of her skin like amber, and vanilla, and chai flooded her senses. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d come to associate those scents with Hermione until the moment she found herself wrapped in them, enraptured by their sweetness, their spice, their comforting familiarity.

The sheets that were tangled around their legs, while not exactly the expensive satin Narcissa was used to in her own bed, were of a comfortable cotton that had let the heat of their bodies seep in and smoulder throughout the night.

Hermione’s soothing hand lay against her back now, those supple fingers stirring memories of the night before when they had scratched against her shoulder blades, when their nails had dug into her skin without even realizing what they were doing. Narcissa sighed at the hazy image, at the phantom stir between her thighs, pleasant and aching, bringing an effortless smile to lips. With a small stretch, she opened her eyes to the still-dark morning.

When Narcissa looked down, she saw that on top of the duvet was an orange fluff of fur nestled in the valley between her and Hermione’s legs — Crookshanks with his paws tucked beneath him. She almost laughed at how content the little creature appeared to be. Although, she reasoned, why shouldn’t he be content? Surely this outcome had been as much his doing as anyone else’s.

Narcissa stretched her hand out to stroke his ginger fur in morning’s greetings. At the feel of her touch, Crookshanks opened his eyes and shimmied nearer so he could rub the top of his head contentedly against her chin as she pet him, all the while purring like the motor of a small machine.

“Hush now, darling, we don’t want to wake Hermione now do we?” Narcissa whispered softly to the feline who was currently pressing his paws against Hermione’s stomach in a happy rhythmic knead.

“Too late,” a soft voice croaked above her, slow and heavy from sleep. Much to Crookshanks’ delight, a second hand reached out to scratch his head.

Narcissa chuckled and looked up at her lover — her sleepy smile, those flushed cheeks, those golden eyes. Hermione’s hair looked more wild than ever after a night that had undone any semblance of control usually exerted over it.

“Good morning, darling,” Narcissa said and stretched to kiss Hermione’s lips. She felt her heart flutter at the soft sigh that echoed into her mouth.

“Good morning,” Hermione replied. She stretched just a bit and tucked her exposed arms beneath the covers against the cool nip of the morning air.

They stared at each other for one moment, long and silent with sleepy half-smiles reflecting in each other’s stares. And yet, there was a little crease forming between Hermione’s eyebrows, a thought twisting in her mind. It wasn’t quite concern, but Narcissa longed to smooth it away, whatever it was.

“What are you thinking?” Narcissa finally asked, stroking her still chilled arm beneath the covers.

Hermione lowered her gaze and laughed softly. “Only that last night was so good… life-changingly good even, and I know that you probably can’t say quite the same thing but it was easily the best night I ever spent with someone and —”

“Why are you so sure I can’t say the same thing,” Narcissa asked, getting closer, their faces inches apart like they were plotting or sharing a secret. The idea that Hermione could doubt or feel anything but proud of her performance last night left Narcissa absolutely baffled. What standards this young woman must hold herself to. “I think I made it perfectly clear how much I was enjoying myself last night,” she said with a mischievous raise of her eyebrows.

Hermione flushed slightly and smiled. “Yes, you are — er — very vocal.”

“Whatever will the neighbors think?” Narcissa asked cheekily, directing her eyes to their shared wall behind Hermione’s headboard.

With a playful swat, Hermione began to laugh, pulling her into a flushed and giggling kiss.

By then, Crooks had apparently decided they were moving far too much for his liking and he repositioned himself on the opposite corner of the bed. However, he didn’t look put out about it in the least. If anything, he looked quite pleased as he settled on a neighboring pillow.

“It’s not that I don’t think you enjoyed yourself last night,” Hermione said. “It’s just that… well, you’ve had a far more satisfying sexual history than I have. I mean, I’ve heard it for Merlin’s sake. The bar for that kind of statement would have to be a good deal higher for you.”

Narcissa stroked one of those unruly curls that had become displaced in their kiss and tucked it behind Hermione’s ear. “You’re right of course; I have. But even beyond those incredibly talented fingers of yours, you have something that none of my previous partners ever really had.”

“And what’s that?” Hermione asked with doubt evident in her tone.

“Sincerity,” she replied. “You were so real, so present, and it made me feel the same. It was…” She paused. She really didn’t know what it was, this feeling of wholeness. “I like who I am with you Hermione, and it’s not very often I get to say that with such honesty.”

Hermione looked touched by the thought and she smiled.

“And God, there was this look in your eye, right before you came that first time, that was so…” she paused, not knowing how to describe the expression which was still so vividly painted in her mind, that raw bliss, that openness, that darker shade of ecstasy. “It nearly shattered me.”

“What look was that?” Hermione asked with a suspicious smile.

“Like you’d seen divinity,” Narcissa said, knowing full well she sounded incredibly melodramatic, perhaps even egotistical, but having no other words regardless.

Hermione smiled and there was something of the same look in her eyes just then, a wistful ghost of the expression, prodded to spark anew by the memory, something of that soul-cracking stare she’d donned last night.

“God that’s how I felt,” Hermione said, recovering herself with a self-conscious laugh. “It was just so… so…” she didn’t finish her sentence except to pull Narcissa into a kiss. After all, these were sentiments far easier communicated with lips and tongues and wandering hands than with words alone.

It was just as Narcissa was sliding her hand over Hermione’s breast, that the woman pulled away. “Wait,” she said, and her eyes drifted past Narcissa’s shoulder.

Narcissa followed Hermione’s stare towards the other side of the bed where Crookshanks was still inconspicuously curled beside them, once again sound asleep.

Narcissa chuckled. “He’s a cat, Hermione, not a child. I don’t think we’ll traumatize him if he wakes.”

Hermione seemed to consider for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Still, it’s too weird,” she said apologetically.

Narcissa smiled at Hermione’s sweet hesitance, at how the thought of chasing the cat from the room was so entirely out of the question. She sighed and let her moment of desire subside.

“Later then,” Narcissa said, leaning in close to whisper it against Hermione’s ear and kissing her on the cheek.

“Later,” Hermione agreed in a breathy whisper. Later, a word so sugared with promise that Narcissa could have taken her right then and there. Instead, she kissed her once more, gently, deeply, and let Hermione settle herself on top of her, nuzzling her face into Narcissa’s neck in a position that felt familiar from a very different morning not so long ago.

Narcissa ran her fingers through those soft curls and cherished the smile that formed on Hermione's lips.

“Mmm that feels wonderful,” Hermione murmured. And this time, Narcissa had no reason to hold back from pressing her lips to Hermione’s forehead as they dozed against the ever-brightening light of the dawn, and the inevitable call of the real world that would drag them into their respective days.

 


 

Unfortunately for them both, the real world did have to be heeded eventually, and since neither woman actually wanted Hermione to live off Narcissa’s good will alone, she had to head out for work. Although they had likely managed to make her late by their unwillingness to leave that warm embrace.

Even in the late afternoon, Narcissa wished that she was still there, wrapped in Hermione’s sheets. Although she honestly would have chosen to be almost anywhere rather than in the cramped airless room that Rita Skeeter called an office, telling her story to a woman she despised.

There was a part of her that couldn’t help but shudder at the commonness of it. It was an instinctual part, perhaps even ancestral — her mother’s voice warning of the dangers of loose-lipped indiscretions and courting the press. She bit it back; luckily, she wasn’t in the habit of listening to her mother’s advice. Lord knows this would have been the least of her worries if she was. Her mother likely would have advised killing Rita when she had had the chance. Satisfying though that may have been, she wasn’t sure she quite agreed with her mother’s aphorism that it wasn’t immoral if it could be made to look like an accident.

By then the interview was over, but Narcissa lingered at the paper’s headquarters still, determined to see the article go to print before daring to leave the building. She knew too well how “sure things” could go wrong, and she was not willing to take any chances when it came to her inventive cast of antagonists.

It wasn’t until she saw the first editions slide off the presses with her photograph on the cover that she let out the breath she had been holding in her chest all day. It was done, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to stop the world from reading about her marriage and her consistently thwarted desire to break free from it.

She picked up a single copy still warm from the machine and let the old picture of her own fake smile stare back at her, complete with Lucius’ haughty sneer and a hand gripped overly tight upon her waist. From the vantage point of the present, the past seemed increasingly ridiculous. How anyone could have believed that they were happy was beyond her.

Well, at least there would be little doubt now.

Narcissa skimmed the article, which she was coming to know by heart, one final time. Unaccustomed to playing the victim, she hadn’t wanted to start now, but she had been truthful, and in this case, the truth was accusation enough. She came off as a wronged wife, imperfect in her own right, but willing to make amends, willing to make a fresh start. He, on the other hand, appeared as a clutching, dangerous man who could only keep a soul by his side by ensuring it was too weak to fly away. She sighed. It would suffice. He would despise her for this, which didn’t bother her in the least; it was only fair that the feeling be mutual.

Satisfied for the moment by her stroke of revenge, there were only a few final steps to complete it. One of which being the look on Rita’s face when she found out Hermione and she really were a couple, only to realize Narcissa’s contract was thorough enough to prevent her from writing about it without express permission. That bit would wait, of course.

For the other, she had an appointment, one only a few minutes from now.

 

When she arrived at the café, Lucius was waiting for her, a cup of tea steaming before him. A part of her had thought that he might not show, perhaps she had even hoped he wouldn’t, but she did feel a rather clawing urge for closure.

“Ah, Narcissa,” he said, getting out of his chair at her entrance in some noxious display of insincere gallantry. She figured it was more for the benefit of any onlookers than for her own.

“Lucius,” she said simply. He looked so smug, so haughty, like a man decidedly in the midst of his own victory. Narcissa wondered whether he was concerned at all that his own article hadn’t gone to print today as had likely been intended.

A waiter had rushed over to hand her a menu but she raised her hand to refuse it.

“Just tea for me; I won’t be staying,” she said, noticing how Lucius’ face tensed just a touch at her curt tone. He stared at her over his cup as he took a sip.

“It’s very unusual that you would call a meeting, in public no less. What is it?” he asked, a touch of annoyance creeping into his voice now that there was no one within earshot and no need for pretense.

Narcissa took a breath and looked into those steely eyes without compassion. “I wanted to give you fair warning that you’ll see your name in the papers tomorrow morning — just in case you want to lay low.” She flashed a perfunctory smile as she pulled a copy from her bag and set it on the table. She watched his face fall into shock and then anger as his eyes slid greedily over every tragic phrase.

“It’s already gone to print, so it’s too late to stop it.” she continued. “Nothing short of buying the entire paper could shut it down now, and I don’t think even you could close a deal that quickly.”

He looked up at her with malice. “We agreed we wouldn’t speak of the divorce to the press,” he snarled.

She was almost amused at the irony of his anger, directed solely at a more successful iteration of his own prodding games. “Yes we did. And while I do hate to be thought of as untrustworthy, I think you might understand how I came to think of that agreement as null and void.”

There was a shimmer of surprise in his eyes, shock even, but no confusion. If anything, he looked disappointed, and that was all the confirmation she needed.

“How?” he merely asked, his mouth settling into a grim line.

She laughed softly at his disbelief. “How should be obvious. You always forget that people who are as bendable as dear Rita are not so solely to your particular will.”

He turned the paper over, escaping the smaller versions of herself who were also looking at him with disdain. His jaw was clenched with fury and Narcissa was grateful she had called this meeting in public after all.

“So you just came here to rub this in my face then?”

“In part, yes,” she admitted. “But more so, I wanted an explanation.”

He raised his eyebrows in grim expectation and waited for her to go on.

“How did you break through the memory charm to remember seeing that dress? Was the picture in your pocket really so strong as to undo it?” She asked. It had been nagging at her all day; she had been so sure that her spell had been clean. And even with the dress accounted for, she wondered whether the reference to the wine and the dinner could possibly be a lucky guess.

Lucius laughed without humor. “Ah so that’s what I saw then? I figured it had to be something good to warrant all that effort.”

Narcissa furrowed her brow and searched his face for any sign of deception, but she found none. His eyes were maddeningly blank. She thought she could almost see him searching for the memory, hands grasping in futility at where it ought to have been in his brain. “You didn’t break the spell?” she asked faintly.

“No, of course not.” Lucius said and sipped his tea in resignation that he could no more find the memory now than before. “Not that I didn’t try, but you are incredibly thorough.”

She stared at him, thoughts spinning. “Then how?” she asked.

He cocked a smile at her and she thought he was relishing her confusion, a small consolation prize in the face of larger failures.

“Can you think of no one else with that information? No one else that you’ve angered lately?”

Narcissa’s mouth opened to deny it, but she couldn’t utter a word. For the first time, it all clicked into some kind of sense. Anathema was the only soul who could confirm the budding romance, the only one who knew of the dress, the wine, the dinner — she had read Hermione’s note after all, read it angrily enough to have left the parchment crumpled on the floor. The betrayal sunk into her, staining her like red wine.

“She wouldn’t,” Narcissa said in a hushed tone, knowing that it sounded stupid the moment that it left her lips.

Lucius clicked his tongue. “You were always so convinced you could control her, but there’s no controlling a woman like that. She’s a psychopath.”

“She’s not a psychopath,” Narcissa insisted.

“She hunts men for sport!”

“Which always seemed perfectly logical to me.”

Lucius rolled his eyes and huffed. “She’s not Bella,” he said, ignoring Narcissa’s resulting scoff. “You got so used to being untouchable to people like them, the exception to the rule. But it’s high time you learned that you can’t just flash that pretty smile of yours and make everybody love you.”

At that, Narcissa rose calmly from her chair, tossing a coin for her untouched tea onto the table, refusing to show any sign of a sting. “Don’t worry Lucius, you taught me that years ago.” She turned to leave but Lucius caught her by the wrist.

“I did love you once, Cissa,” he said. She was disturbed by the note of sincerity in his voice. He looked so broken, so tired. She might have felt bad for him if his misery wasn’t all his own doing.

“Don’t,” she said firmly. She wrenched her arm from him, and he let her pull away without a fight. She pushed the paper towards him, letting every version of herself stare at him in defiance. “It’s over, Lucius. It’s done,” she said, and for the first time, she thought he might know it too.

 


 

Hermione’s steps were light and buoyant, proud as she was of what was clutched in her fingers as she crossed the last few blocks on her way home from the Ministry. By the time she was standing before Narcissa’s door, hearing those familiar footfalls, enduring the latch being undone, she was nearly bursting with excitement.

“Hi,” she said with a giddy smile the moment she could once more lay eyes on her lover’s face.

“Hello, darling,” Cissa said, eyeing Hermione’s unexpected enthusiasm with a curious smile. Happy as she also seemed to see Hermione again, Hermione’s own bouncing exuberance no doubt appeared unwarranted.

“I have something for you,” Hermione said. And with a silly flourish, she produced Narcissa’s acceptance letter and accompanying paperwork that meant her application for a temporary Department of Mysteries security pass had been approved.

Narcissa’s eyes raked quickly over the letter and grew wide with happiness. “This is wonderful! I never expected them to approve it so quickly. Not even a week for a Ministry request? That can’t be typical.”

“Admittedly, my department is a bit more efficient than most of the others, but it did seem fast even to me,” Hermione confirmed. “I don’t think there was any hesitation to hold it up, really. Most of the people who would have had to oversee it were talking to us at that dinner. I think they felt just as invested in getting you in as I did.”

Narcissa looked at the letter again, almost disbelievingly, before pulling Hermione into a joyful kiss. “Thank you, darling. I think it will make all the difference.”

Hermione sighed gratefully at the sight of Narcissa’s happiness and finally shrugged off her coat, preparing to settle in for the evening as she so often did.

“Honestly, I was surprised they gave it to me instead of directly to you, usually they’re so particular, but I think they were convinced we were a couple even before it was strictly true,” she said with a laugh, feeling rather proud at that. Her coworkers had all seemed to know she’d be headed straight for Narcissa that evening, and a few of their looks had seemed almost indecently congratulatory.

“Well I was having a terrible time of keeping my hands off of you while you were in that dress,” Narcissa said with a playful smile. “I imagine not all of my looks could have been missed.”

Hermione watched as the paperwork joined the collection of other trinkets on the sideboard and Narcissa floated their binders of drafts toward her. “I’d like to make a list of everything we’re covering and mark any experiments I’ve had particular trouble with so we can prioritize, just in case we’re short on time.”

Always a fan of a well-organized schedule, Hermione was eager to help. “That’s smart,” she said, sitting down with a quill and some parchment.

When a bit of their project chatter subsided, Hermione remembered that she had not been the only one who’d had a busy day outside of their comfortable little hideaway. Having been so caught up in all of this, she had nearly forgotten to ask what had been on her mind most of the afternoon.

“So how did it go at The Prophet today?” She asked.

Narcissa sighed and tilted her head. “It actually went rather well, considering. It’s already gone to print — you can read it if you like.” She reached behind her for a folded piece of parchment and tossed it into Hermione’s lap. However, even seeing Narcissa’s picture with Lucius from all those years ago seemed a bit too much for the moment and she pushed it aside.

“Some other time,” she said. She scooted closer to Narcissa and rested a comforting hand on the woman’s arm.

“I never thought that I’d say this, but I feel almost glad that I did it. I’ve lived so long with this marriage and all of its secrets covering me, that to shed myself of their sickening shroud — even in this small, tawdry way — was cathartic,” Narcissa admitted, sighing into Hermione’s gentle touch. “And seeing Lucius’s face when he saw the article didn’t hurt in the slightest.”

Hermione nodded, she could only imagine what a treasure that would be. “So you saw him after all?”

“I did. The conversation was going to happen eventually and I wanted it to be on my terms. I’m sick of him bursting in and spoiling my afternoons,” Narcissa said. “Although he did still manage to get in one final sting.”

At that, Narcissa recounted the conversation about Anathema. All the while, Hermione was trying hard not to interrupt, but the indignant anger rising inside of her was becoming harder and harder to contain.

“That’s horrible!” she finally exclaimed when Narcissa was done. “I can’t believe she would do that. To actually join up with him against you!”

“I honestly can’t either,” Narcissa began and then paused, looking at Hermione with a considering expression. “Does it bother you if I talk about her? If it does, I can always make Andromeda listen to all of this some other time.”

“No, it doesn’t bother me,” Hermione said, and she meant it, but she did appreciate Narcissa checking.

Narcissa watched Hermione’s eyes for a few moments longer before deciding to go on. “I know that so many people would say I should have seen it coming. Certainly Anathema has done far worse in her life than spill a secret, but it still caught me completely by surprise. I can’t even wrap my head around her reaction that night, much less…” She paused in thought for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t know what Anathema is; there’s a reason that we never became a couple after all. But, through it all, I did always believe that she was my friend.”

Hermione grabbed Narcissa’s hand and stroked it soothingly, wishing there was anything she could say to make it right. “I’m so sorry, Cissa,” she said, knowing it was inadequate, but having nothing else to offer.

Narcissa smiled like it was enough after all.

“Thank you darling.” The woman looked quite lost in her mind for a moment before snapping back into the present, the clouds in her eyes clearing with alarming speed. “But it doesn’t matter. I appreciate you listening, but it’s done and there’s no point going over it when nothing can possibly be changed. I don’t want to talk about her tonight; I don’t even want to think about her. We have work to do after all.”

Just then, there was a strange scratching at the window and both of them jumped at the noise. Narcissa pulled back the curtain to the sight of a rather large horned owl with gleaming yellow eyes. Hermione didn’t recognize it, but she could tell by Narcissa’s expression that it was familiar to her. She was looking at the owl as if the creature itself had personally wronged her.

“Speak of the witch,” Narcissa said softly.

Hermione stared into the eyes of the shrewd-looking, intimidating creature and thought it fit it’s mistress discomfortingly well. “What do you think she has to say?”

Narcissa swallowed and squinted at owl who looked so impatient he was practically tapping his claws against the sill. “Who can tell? A taunt? Perhaps making sure my subscription to the paper is still active so I would be sure to see it?”

With a determined huff, she opened her window and shooed the owl away. “I won’t accept it, return to your mistress.” The owl looked highly affronted, staring at her for a moment in disbelief but eventually fluttering off with the letter still tied securely to its leg.

“I doubt she’ll give up that easily, not if she has something to say, cruel or otherwise,” Hermione said warily.

“No,” Narcissa admitted with a resigned sigh. “Anathema is nothing if not persistent.”

“Well,” Hermione began, approaching Narcissa to wrap her arms around the woman’s waist. “I do imagine you’d be very hard to let go of.”

Narcissa laughed and turned around, a bit of her previous good mood returning to her eyes. “Luckily enough I don’t intend for you to ever find out.”

Chapter Text

Days passed, a visit to the Ministry ensued, and before they knew it, a week lay crumpled at their feet like the fallen leaves. It had been a week since Rita, and Lucius, and Anathema, of course, had tried to tear them apart, but only ended up bringing them closer together.

Hermione could hardly believe that only seven days had passed; it seemed like so much of her life had changed since that afternoon. After that day of chaos, after those weeks of almost and never, it seemed ridiculous to think that it could all fall so easily into place. And yet, it had managed to feel so simple to mold their lives into a new pattern — that of a couple.

Such a shift could often be so complicated, leaving so many blushing lovers weighted down by all the unseen complexities of intertwining one’s life with another’s. But in many ways, Hermione and Narcissa had done that already with paintings, and prose, and the inescapable honesty of every breath overheard.

In place of the nervous tension so characteristic of budding relationships, both women felt a deeper sense of calm. Hermione certainly felt it and she thought Narcissa did as well. Gone were the warnings of impending doom and the unforeseen consequences of her proximity. After all, what more could be warned of than what had already happened — a catastrophe from which they had come out hand in hand?

Now, their evenings were so much like the ones before, only they were more likely to contain dinner out somewhere for romance’s sake, and at the end of the night, instead of retreating to their respective corners to ache in their own longing, they could choose to ache together.

It was on an evening such as this that they were coming back from dinner. Night had fallen irritatingly early, and in the dimness of the city street, they were both eager to get back indoors and out of the hazy autumn chill.

Just as they were nearly to the door of their building, Hermione heard the call of a male voice, one that she hadn’t heard in quite some time coming from behind them.

“Narcissa,” he called again, and both women turned to see a tall, handsome young man approaching from the other side of the street.

Narcissa looked just as shocked as Hermione felt when she recognized the approaching figure.

“Blaise?” she breathed in surprise.

“Good evening,” he said to Narcissa the moment he was close enough to be heard in a normal tone of voice. “Granger.” He nodded curtly to Hermione in turn. If he was surprised to see them together, he didn’t show it.

They both greeted him, but Narcissa looked wary. Hermione assumed that they knew each other well enough; she could even assume that they got along quite well — Blaise always being sharp-minded, witty, and unreasonably worldly for his age. Still, Narcissa had never so much as mentioned the young man, certainly she had never mentioned a personal connection that would make an impromptu visit seem anything less than alarming.

“Is your mother alright?” Narcissa asked. There was a begrudging tone to her voice as if she wished she didn’t care about the answer. Hermione smiled sadly for the hurt she was undoubtedly still suffering with in silence. It was both a blessing and curse that Narcissa could never bring herself to be quite as cold as the world insisted on believing her.

“Oh yes, for the most part,” Blaise said with a nonchalant wave of his hand as if the idea of his mother being any other way was a preposterous one. “Although she’s completely beside herself about you. She says you won’t see her, won’t answer her letters.”

Narcissa scoffed. “And has she told you what she’s done to warrant that?”

“No,” Blaise said brusquely. “And honestly, I’d rather you didn’t either. I really don’t want to get involved. I didn’t even want to do this, but you know what she’s like.”

Hermione stood awkwardly, feeling like an uninvited guest as Blaise reached into the breast pocket of his robes and produced a letter. “Here,” he said as he held it out to Narcissa. “She says that it contains something very important — an explanation of some kind.”

Narcissa was still staring at the proffered parchment with hesitation. At the lack of action, Blaise sighed impatiently. “Please just read it. I don’t care if you send her a reply telling her off afterwards, but I’m absolutely sick of hearing about how you’re ignoring her.”

Hermione furrowed her brows, wondering at his attitude. She could hardly believe that Blaise wasn’t more curious about the fight in which he was currently playing mediator. Although, if all the rumors about his mother’s life were true, she supposed a certain amount of practiced disinterest could only have served him well over the years.

With a sigh of resignation, Narcissa took the envelope and looked it over as if the paper itself could tell her the intentions of its sender. “Fine, Blaise,” she said at last. “I promise that I’ll at least read it.”

“That’s all I ask,” he said with a nod. “At least I can tell her you received it, so she hopefully won’t send me out after you again. It wasn’t exactly the welcome home I was expecting after being away for so long.”

Narcissa smiled and a certain softness grew in her eyes. She leaned in and kissed him briefly on the cheek in farewell.

“Take care of yourself,” Narcissa said. “And do call on Draco while you’re in town. He misses you terribly when you’re away, even if he won’t say it.”

Stepping back, Narcissa twined her arm with Hermione’s, and once more, if Blaise found this at all odd, he didn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow in response.

“I will,” Blaise said. With a final nod to both of them, he disappeared into the darkness and the lingering crowd of the street.

“Well, I suppose I really have no choice now, do I?” Narcissa said.

Hermione shrugged. “You knew she’d catch up with you eventually.”

“Yes,” Narcissa said quietly. “I suppose that I did.”

 

While Narcissa read the letter, Hermione was fighting the urge to be on her tiptoes behind her, reading every word over her shoulder. She was incredibly grateful for her immense personal restraint, for surely such a display would have been unbecoming, unwarranted, an invasion of privacy even. She kept her expression as calm as she could manage, but all the while her heart — protective, and wild, and tingling with the faintest notes of jealousy — was pushing her forward as Narcissa’s eyes skated over the page.

After a minute or two of concentration, Narcissa lifted her eyes and shook her head. The softest chuckle escaped her lips when she glanced at Hermione, whose eager gaze was not as well hidden as she might have hoped it to be. Before she could ask what Anathema had to say, Narcissa handed her the letter, nodding in confirmation that she ought to read its contents.

With her intense curiosity finally about to be sated, Hermione lowered her eyes to the parchment. It was dated days ago, the day Narcissa had originally turned that intimidating owl away from her window ledge.

Narcissa,

As you well know, I’m no friend of confessions. Therefore, you’ll know how difficult this letter will have been for me to write. Unfortunately for us both, I do have something important to tell you.

You were right two evenings ago to accuse me of being upset about that girl. I hate that admission almost as much as the confession itself, but there you are. I was terribly upset. I’d like to explain that to you, but now is not the time.

The only thing that matters now is what I did afterwards. After I left your flat, I ended up at some pub or another, some overpriced place not too far from your building. It was there that I happened to run into your odious snake of a husband. I had already been drinking for quite some time, and by the looks of him, so had he. He tried to jibe me about you in that sneering, mocking way of his. In hindsight, it was nothing really; it’s not as if we’ve ever been kind with each other. However, in the moment, I couldn’t take the mention of your name, much less anything else. In anger, I said quite a few terrible things about you, and he was more than willing to commiserate.

He offered to buy me a drink — certainly my millionth by then — and for a reason I can hardly fathom with a sober mind, I accepted. We talked for a long while. If that seems strange to you, you’re not alone. You know that Lucius and I have never exactly seen eye to eye, but suddenly, we had at least one thing in common, an enemy in you.

He was on about how you’d wiped some memory of his, one that he’d been trying and failing all night to access. He was furious. And while in general, I do find these little tricks of yours quite funny, I couldn’t see the humor that night. Instead I told him it only seemed typical. I went on and on about how you’d turned me away, all about that girl, and that little thank you note she’d written you. He ate it up. Even then I was surprised that it seemed to strike such a chord with him, one that I couldn’t quite understand.

I wish I could say that I never thought he might be able to use the information against you, but it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t think, I didn’t care. I was too angry to see past my own small moment of venting and the vengeance that had fallen so effortlessly into my lap. At least that’s how I felt until some time had passed and I’d come back to some semblance of my senses.

I don’t know what, if anything, he intends to do with the information, or what he’s already done, but I thought you ought to know so you can be prepared. I am terribly sorry that I betrayed your confidences, Cissa. I do hope you’ll believe me when I say so, knowing as you do how apologies stick in my throat and even in my pen. Please contact me when you read this.

Anathema

The final paragraph of the letter was scrawled in a slightly different ink and with a hastier slant as if it had been added on a different day.

P.S. You’ve sent back my owl and now your wards push so hard against me that I can’t even approach your building. I assume this means you already know the contents of this letter and hate me for it, or you simply found my behavior during our last conversation unbecoming enough to keep me at arm’s length.

Regardless, I have found out what Lucius did with his bit of ill-gotten news, and I marvel that you managed to find your way out of it. I’m glad to see that no lasting damage has been done to you by my actions — except perhaps between us, and I regret that more than I can say. I vow to make it right in whatever way I must.

Anyway, I do hope that Blaise has more luck than I have with getting this to you, and that one day, you will be willing to see me again.

 

Hermione read the letter at least three times before she looked back at Narcissa, who had watched her carefully the entire time.

“Well,” Hermione finally said. “At least she apologized. And I suppose it’s better that it wasn’t planned.”

Narcissa tilted her head in consideration. “I suppose a crime of opportunity, or of passion is always more forgivable than something premeditated. And anything is better than thinking she sought out Lucius just to wrong me. Although I still don’t understand why she was in such a state to begin with.”

Hermione had her suspicions, those of feelings running deeper than imagined, but she tried to keep them to herself as she cleared her throat. “Are you going to see her to let her explain that part?”

“Probably,” Narcissa said with a small nod. The woman tilted her head once more, this time looking at Hermione and the set line of her lips, at the look in her eye which had become too purposefully without emotion. “Are you jealous?” she finally asked.

Hermione opened her mouth to deny it; she wasn’t really the jealous type. But it was so much easier not to be jealous of Anathema when the woman was essentially in exile, more a memory than a reality. She sighed, annoyed at herself. “Probably,” she admitted quietly.

Narcissa slid closer and wrapped her arms around Hermione. “You don’t have to be, darling. I promise you that. As she herself pointed out that night, I turned her down for the mere chance at you; I'm not about to give up on the real thing, now am I?”

Hermione smiled and let Narcissa pull her into a soft kiss, as much a promise as her words. She felt warm and assured, and glad that she had expressed her feelings, silly as she felt they were, and had let them find safety between Narcissa’s palms.

 


 

It was two days later that Narcissa accepted Anathema’s request to discuss the matter at length, including all the particulars left out of the letter. There was still a part of her that didn’t want to see her former lover, but as her own emotions around the matter had begun to cool, such a stance seemed childish. If nothing else she was curious to hear the rest of the story, which Anathema had refused to elaborate upon in print.

Her lingering hesitation wasn’t from anger; that she had gotten over. It wasn’t even that she hadn’t accepted Anathema’s apology; she at least appreciated that the woman was uniquely contrite. But Narcissa couldn’t help but bemoan the idea that nothing ever seemed capable of simplicity. There was always someone chasing her down to her door, confessing to their sins, spreading the blame around. In their wake, she was always left recalibrating, reevaluating, separating the truths from the falsehoods anew. She found the process exhausting.

She supposed, however, that in its way, that was life. At the very least, such duplicitous drama did generally characterize her own. That is, outside of one notable exception. She knew that one relationship without pretense was more than most people can hope to receive, and with the steadiness of that blessing holding her fast, Narcissa opened the door with a tense welcome.

Narcissa had never seen Anathema enter a room with so much hesitation. It was almost strange to see her walk without her usual slink, acting like she owned everyone and everything within her line of vision.

“Good evening, Narcissa,” Anathema said with a formality of tone that felt incredibly unnatural for two women who had been friends for two decades and on-and-off lovers for nearly as long.

“Good evening,” she replied as she led them into the sitting room. She had expected some performative, effusive display, but received none. Anathema seemed unwilling or unable to start the conversation. Rather, she sat down silently in the familiar space, and looked to Narcissa as if for direction.

“I suppose we’ve never been very good at small talk, so I’ll get right to it. Why, Thema? Why did you do it? I know you were angry, angry enough to be tempted into revenge, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why suddenly a single rejection cut you as deep as all that,” Narcissa said.

Anathema laced her fingers together in her lap and shrugged, wearing her vulnerability like an ill-fitting cloak. “I’d like to give you some complex, intriguing answer, but I’m afraid that it’s embarrassingly simple, Cissa. I was terribly jealous,” she said.

Narcissa laughed softly in surprise. “Jealous? Anathema, you’re not telling me that after all these years, you’ve actually fallen for me?”

Something sparked in Anathema’s eye, a flicker of familiar mischief. “Oh would you get over yourself, Cissa? I’m not trying to tell you I'm in love with you. For Merlin’s sake,” she said with a mock-exasperated sigh. The moment was brief, and soon she looked serious yet again. “It’s nothing like that. It’s just that when I came to see you that day, I was in a very insecure state. In all honesty, I was starting to feel rather badly about myself… terrible in fact.”

Narcissa furrowed her brow, feeling that this was even more surprising than a sudden declaration of love — and that alone would have knocked her cold. “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you feel badly about yourself in all the years that I’ve known you.”

“It’s a rare occurrence, I’ll grant you,” Anathema said with a laugh and a smile that was disconcertingly soft. “It’s just that… well, I’ve lost men before; it would be unrealistic to expect every tryst to be a success. But never before have I been tossed aside the way Elias jilted me. It had been going so well, perfectly in fact. Then one day, he had no use for me. It was like I had no sway over him whatsoever. He dumped me and had the gall to say the most terrible things.” She paused and took a breath, shaking away the embers of anger that had started to form in her eyes at the memory.

“I felt like a fool, and I’ll admit that the failure rattled me. I had started to worry that perhaps middle-age was finally catching up with me — my judgement finally cracking, my charm fading beyond my grasp.” Anathema sat a bit straighter as if proving that it wasn’t the case. “I couldn’t bear that to be true, Cissa; I don’t know what I am without it. I was in desperate need of reassurance and perhaps unfairly, I looked to you as a sure-thing, someone who I knew would still find me irresistible and tell me I was glorious. When you too said that you could in fact resist me, that you had found someone else, someone younger and more satisfying… it was the last crack that my self-esteem could take. It might not have been your fault, but you were there, in front of me, turning me away, and I directed every shard of rage in your direction.”

“Oh, Thema,” Narcissa said. “It had nothing to do with that. You haven’t lost an ounce of your charm; you must know that.”

“You don’t need to console me, Cissa. My ego has rallied,” Anathema said, regaining a bit of her usual shell in the face of Narcissa’s sympathy. “And what matters now is why.”

Narcissa furrowed her brows as Anathema reached into her bag and pulled out a bundle of parchment. “What is all that?” she asked.

“My atonement,” Anathema said, pulling the top page free. “Once I found out what Lucius had done with the information I gave him, I was furious. So I decided to do some digging, and I was glad that I did. I got my hands on your husband’s financial records.”

At the sight of Narcissa’s raised eyebrow, Anathema smirked proudly. “It’s always good to have a few connections at Gringott’s. Anyway, it all would have looked to be in order, except there was one familiar name on the transaction list, an account I recognized from combing over the Gideon family bank records during the failed courtship with Elias.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Well, you see, Elias has a rather lucrative business in setting up tax-shelters out of the country. Especially with all the new wealth taxes this Ministry is on about, business is booming. Which, handily enough for my state of mind, did explain how Elias may have come to have a rather negative opinion of me all of a sudden. Lucius never was a particular fan of mine. I imagine for the latest transfer, Lucius paid the fee along with a warning about me.”

Narcissa stared back, astounded. “You’re saying that Lucius is funneling his money out of the country? That can’t be legal,” she said.

“Oh, not in the slightest, and I imagine that, pesky little financial crime that it is, it would still be a probation violation large enough to send him back to Azkaban,” Anathema said. “Which is precisely why I sent a copy of all of this to Lucius an hour ago, informing him that I would only keep this information from the authorities in the event that he gave you your divorce. I could have gotten rid of him far more permanently, but I assumed that would cause you more problems than it would solve. Although it would have been more satisfying."

Narcissa’s mouth fell open slightly, unable to disguise the shock coursing through her at the thought. “Do you think it will work?”

“Well, I certainly hope so; something has to,” Anathema said, tossing the papers aside with a determined huff. She leaned back on the sofa and stared, searching Narcissa’s shocked face for a reaction as she combed through the papers for herself.

“Narcissa, I hope you can agree that I’m not normally like this. If anything, I look down upon it — all those emotions bubbling to the surface, the messiness of hot-headed revenge and misdirected anger. It always ends up like this,” she said with a sigh. “It was not the best side of me. And under normal circumstances, I would never consider doing something like that to you. You are my friend; I hope that you can still bring yourself to be mine, and forgive me.”

Narcissa raised her eyes to the woman who was looking at her so plaintively, wanting a forgiveness and acceptance that was almost out of character for her to seek. With a final glance at the papers in her hands, hopefully ones that spelled her salvation, Narcissa let a smile drift to her lips. Words, no matter how contrite, meant very little to her; actions, however, she could accept. “I can forgive you,” she said.

Anathema looked immensely relieved and she too smiled, beginning to look a bit more like her old assured self.

“If this goes through, after all, you’ve done more than make up for the damage.” Narcissa continued. “Besides, that horrible little article was oddly enough the exact push Hermione and I needed to get together in the end.”

Anathema smiled a small version of that wicked grin. “So I’m the hero in this story after all?”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Narcissa said with a laugh, rolling her eyes.

“Well good,” Anathema said. “Now you and your little girlfriend can have your happily ever after, assuming that you want something as dreadfully common as all that.”

Narcissa laughed softly, feeling a girlish smile blooming on her cheeks. She was unwilling to embrace this sense of hope quite yet; she didn’t want to be disappointed if Lucius managed to slip out of trouble once more, but she couldn’t help herself. It had begun to feel a bit too real for such restraint. “I do, Anathema. I want it terribly,” she finally said.

Anathema looked a bit uncomfortable with the amount of sentiment in Narcissa’s voice, and her eyes raked over her friend as if recalibrating everything she thought she understood about her. She cleared her throat. Unwilling or unable to respond with equal schmaltz. “Well, I hope that whatever noises she makes with you are more to your liking. I know her previous performances weren’t up to your standards.”

“Honestly, Thema! I’m not going to tell you that,” Narcissa said, chuckling in a comfortable, familiar way. “But it’s good. It’s all very good.”

“Oh, Merlin, that love-drunk little expression on your face! You disgust me,” Anathema said, but this time she too was smiling, laughing, joking — at least in part, at least enough.

Narcissa felt like she could breathe easier at long last. It felt good to have her friend back, complicated as she undoubtedly was. It always felt better to have an ally than an enemy. “Thank you for this,” she said. “Whether it works or not, I really do appreciate the effort.” She moved closer on the cushion and squeezed Anathema’s hand in her own.

“Alright, get off me,” Anathema said after a moment of sentiment had passed. “With your luck, Hermione will walk in and get the wrong idea.”

“Oh, well, I assume she’s listening to us right now actually,” Narcissa said.

Anathema looked shocked, stiffening even further against any amount of vulnerability she may have let slip in the past ten minutes. “Are you serious?”

“Of course I am. The walls are just as thin out here as they are in the bedroom,” Narcissa said. At that, she raised her hand to knock on the wall. “Hermione? Are you over there?”

A moment of silence passed, followed by a small, slightly embarrassed “Yes.”

“Would you come over here, please, darling?” Narcissa entreated and turned to Anathema as she waited for Hermione to walk from one door to the other.

“You have to be nice to her,” she said firmly. “But not too nice,” she amended after a moment’s thought of what Anathema’s nice side could often do to people.

She accepted Anathema’s begrudging eye-roll as the most acquiescence she was likely to receive and rose to answer the door.

 


 

Hermione felt her heart pounding as she walked those few precious feet to Narcissa’s flat. She had felt nervous enough even listening to that conversation play out; she felt incredibly strange being asked to be a part of it.

When Narcissa answered the door however, the woman kissed her, brief and habitual, but comforting all the same. She twined their fingers together and pulled Hermione into the sitting room where Anathema was waiting.

Once more, she felt the discomfort that was being on the other side of Anathema’s piercing gaze. She could almost hear the thoughts running through the woman’s mind as she skated over her in critique. This, of all possible women, is the woman that she chose? Hermione stood up straighter and steeled her eyes, trying to feel confident in her own worth. It was a shade easier with Narcissa at her side, rubbing comforting circles with her thumb in their clasped hands.

“I wanted you both to meet the other, properly this time,” Narcissa said, taking her seat. “I don’t want there to be any unnecessary tension in our lives, and that includes between you two.”

Hermione was the first to speak, urging her brash Gryffindor confidence to the surface, if only for this moment. “Anathema,” she said with a nod of her head. “I appreciate what you did for Narcissa with those financial records.” Anathema opened her mouth, probably about to say “you’re welcome” in that haughty self-satisfied way of hers, but Hermione wasn’t done. “But nonetheless, I’m not sure I forgive you.”

“For what I did to you?” Anathema asked. Her eyes were raking over Hermione with mild interest, clearly gauging whether she was about to be made to apologize yet again.

“For what you did to Narcissa!” Hermione corrected. “You were supposed to be her friend; she trusted you. I’m not sure that you having a dark moment excuses betraying her like you did.”

Anathema had raised her eyebrows at this unexpected rebuke and she tilted her head in careful consideration. To Hermione’s surprise, she smiled, completely unbothered by the anger directed at her. “I see you found yourself a little lion protectress, Cissa,” she said calmly, her eyes never leaving Hermione’s. “Good. I’m glad you’ll take care of her, Hermione.”

Hermione was surprised to see that Anathema made no further attempts to win her forgiveness, but this expression of care, belated though it seemed to Hermione, was probably worth a bit more anyway in her mind.

It would be a stretch to say their ensuing conversations was easy, it wasn’t even particularly enjoyable, but Hermione did find a moment or two to laugh at Anathema’s barbed sense of humor. Anathema even took a bit of interest in some of Hermione’s stories about their work and the Ministry. Still, the only part that Hermione truly cared about was that Narcissa never let go of her hand, never stopped looking at her with just as much care and interest as when they were alone, making sure she knew that she had nothing to prove and nothing to compete with.

 


 

As the hours of the evening passed into the following day and into yet another evening, both women sat as if on a knife’s edge.

Hermione had never cared before about the fact that Narcissa was technically someone else’s wife. Her marital status had always seemed to be an annoying detail at most and nothing to give too much thought to.

However, now that the divorce seemed to be so close within their grasp, it was impossible not to feel its gravity. Without a marriage hanging over them — however doomed and shattered as this one was — it would feel as if the next chapter of their lives could begin in earnest, rather than being another element of the waiting game Narcissa had been forced to play for so long.

It was a sharp and slicing realization when Hermione saw just how badly she wanted it and just how devastating it would be if the divorce still didn’t manage to come off. Hermione felt as if even voicing such a wish might manage to jinx it. So instead, it passed unspoken between them that they were both eagerly awaiting the conclusion, that they were hoping so foolishly for the best to happen if only just this once.

Perhaps that tension, nervous and hopeful and clawing in their chests, was the reason both women startled so unbecomingly at the sight of a dark-feathered owl on Narcissa’s ledge. It arrived just late enough in the evening that both women undoubtedly had given up hope, at least for the day, of any resolution.

Yet in the thickening twilight, it sat, awaiting entry as Narcissa glided across the room so quickly it was as if some force other than her own was dragging her towards it.

She ripped open the envelope and her hand flew to her lips, the slightest glisten of tears welling in her eyes. Hermione couldn’t read the emotion, couldn’t judge it as happy or sad, and she rose from her seat in near delirium.

“He did it; he’s signed it,” Narcissa said in a quivering voice. “It’s over. It’s all finally over.”

Hermione surged forward and wrapped her arms around Narcissa, her heart beating so hard, so fast that Narcissa must have felt its rhythm in her own chest. Together, they laughed as if drunk as they smothered each other in the embrace.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Hermione asked, her face pressed close to Narcissa’s ear.

“What?” Narcissa replied, pulling back just enough to look into Hermione’s eyes.

“That you’re all mine.”

A wide smile broke onto Narcissa’s lips and she laughed. “Oh darling, I think I’ve been all yours for quite some time now.”

And with that they fell together into a kiss that was heated and ironically hasty, given that they had now been given all the time in the world.

Before they could even break for air, however, there was a knock at the door, impatient and hurried. They each looked at the other in confusion, their joy hanging on a thread between them.

The knock echoed once more, and with one worried glance in Hermione’s direction, Narcissa moved to the door, unlocking it, only to find the face of her son in the hall, looking somehow even paler than usual.

“Draco,” Narcissa exclaimed in surprise.

“Mother, I have to speak with you,” he said, pushing through the doorway. His gaze was so fervent and focused that for a moment, he didn’t seem to notice Hermione standing only a foot or so away. His eyes suddenly shifted to her. “Oh hello, Granger — Hermione, I mean.”

“Hello, Draco,” Hermione said tensely.

“What’s the matter, darling? What’s happened?” Narcissa said, her voice taut with worry over her son’s apparent state.

Hermione almost expected Draco to halt whatever urgent statement he had come here to make in light of her own unexpected presence, but he did not.

“I think Father stole your amulet. I think he made a copy of it,” Draco said with guilt and worry dripping from his voice. “I don’t know what he plans to do with it, but —“

Hermione couldn’t help but laugh. Her laughter was hard and wild. The emotions of the previous moments — the joy, the worry, the relief — all combined and burst into madness at the irony.

Narcissa joined in the fit of hysterics, probably feeling the same, along with a good deal of relief that Draco wasn’t actually reporting any fresh danger that hadn’t already been discovered, anguished over, and solved.

Draco, on the other hand, was looking at them as if they had each lost their mind. To say that this wasn’t the reaction he was expecting was likely the understatement of the year.

Predictably, Narcissa recovered first, walking to her son to clasp his arm in apology. “I’m sorry, Draco, we shouldn’t laugh, it’s just that… well, you’re rather behind the times. We know what Lucius did. I should have told you when we found out, but I didn’t want you to feel guilty about it.”

“I’m so sorry, Mother. I don’t know what I was thinking bringing it there and —“

“It’s alright,” Narcissa interrupted in a gentle, consoling tone. “It’s all handled and done with now. Perhaps, it was even for the best. I’ve just received these, after all.” At that, she handed him the signed divorce papers and they both watched his eyes grow wide with shock.

“He’s finally signed them?” Draco asked in disbelief. “Oh, Mum, that’s wonderful!” He rushed forward, pulling Narcissa into an enthusiastic hug.

When she was released, Hermione stepped towards her and grabbed her hand, pulling it to her lips to kiss it in what had rapidly become a habit. Draco stared openly at the intimate gesture, and it was only then that Hermione realized her lapse, gasping quietly in shock and dropping Narcissa’s hand with a hasty step away.

“I was, I mean I was just —“ Hermione stumbled over her words trying to explain what she was doing there, not sure where to begin or where she wanted to end up.

Narcissa walked over to her and put an arm around her waist. “Relax, Hermione, it’s alright. I’ve already told him about us.”

“Oh, thank god,” Hermione said, stress melting off of her as quickly as it had risen. “I had no idea how I was going to explain why I had just started kissing your fingers.”

Draco scrunched his nose slightly, looking as if he might still want a more satisfactory explanation than the truth, but he said nothing. Honestly, he looked less distressed than Hermione had expected when faced with the two of them so decidedly intertwined. Nonetheless, his gaze did seem to flicker an inordinate amount of times to his mother’s fingers resting on Hermione’s hip.

“Wait, Draco, how did you figure out that your father took the amulet after all this time?” Hermione couldn’t help but ask.

“Oh, I was practicing some diagnostic spells to show enchantments that have been cast upon an object. I got a rather strong reading coming off of my bag and I looked into it. It wasn’t hard to piece together after that,” Draco admitted.

“That’s very clever, Draco. Diagnostic spells like that are notoriously difficult,” Hermione said, quite seriously impressed by it.

“Why Granger, did you just give me a complement?” Draco said with a cocky tilt of his eyebrow.

“I suppose there has to be a first time for everything,” she replied. After a moment, Hermione cleared her throat and looked once more at the divorce papers signed and dated in front of her. The same joy bubbled within her at every fresh glance.

“We should celebrate,” she said enthusiastically, turning to Narcissa with a wide smile.

Narcissa chuckled and tucked a curl fondly behind her ear. “Alright, how?

“Well, now that that’s cleared up, I’m sure you two will want to be alone,” Draco said, shifting uncomfortably towards the door.

“No, Draco, wait. I was just going to say that we should go out somewhere, and I think you should come with us,” Hermione insisted. “After all, we should probably get to know each other better now, shouldn’t we?” She bit at her lip, awaiting a response. And while Draco pondered the thought, Narcissa leaned in and kissed her gently on the cheek in appreciation, looking pleased and touched.

She actually thought that Draco looked a bit touched by the gesture as well, although he was far less willing to show it.

“Er — alright then, I suppose,” Draco agreed. “But I’d appreciate as little of that as possible.” He gestured towards his mother’s still close embrace with disapprovingly raised eyebrows.

“Oh, Draco, it was only a kiss on the cheek. I didn’t raise you to be such a prude,” Narcissa said in mock-reprove. “But, nonetheless, I think we can promise to behave ourselves.”

Narcissa’s eyes slid momentarily over to Hermione’s as if to say “for now”. Certainly, she had other plans of how she wanted to celebrate this good news, but they were plans that would have to wait for later in the evening.

Hermione was fairly certain that Draco hadn’t missed the look, subtle though it was, although he was hardly about to acknowledge it. Instead he made a hasty suggestion of an Italian restaurant nearby, and they began to settle their plans.

As the two women got dressed for a dinner out, Hermione thought Narcissa had never looked quite as happy as she did now, and it warmed her like a wildfire. She assumed it would never cease to amaze her that this icy blonde with the soul of a painter could be so easily melted by her words. And moreover, Hermione assumed that she would never stop trying to do it for as long as those blue eyes would continue to look back at her like that.

Chapter Text

A week after the arrival of the couple’s newly found freedom, Hermione rushed through the streets of Diagon. The autumn had turned quite rainy, and with the biting chill of a late October surrounding her, she wanted to get indoors again, even though she was quite nervous about the lunch meeting that awaited her alongside the welcoming warmth.

Hermione had been avoiding her friends ever since the breakup with Ron. Weeks had passed without seeing either Harry or Ginny. Even now, she had only agreed to this meeting because Ginny was very skilled with a guilt-trip. Although admittedly, guilt was easy to come by given that Hermione already felt quite bad about her series of dodged invitations and shoddy excuses.

It wasn’t that she held anything against them, but she hadn’t been able to face them either. Every time they had invited her anywhere, she had been so sure that they’d have some scheme cooked up to get her back together with Ron. She had always imagined herself walking into Grimmauld Place, or The Leaky Cauldron, or wherever they thought she’d find enticing, only to find Ron as a surprise third, waiting to make his case.

Hermione didn’t trust her reaction if such a scheme was truly put into place, and the last thing she wanted was to end up shouting unbecomingly at her old friends and ruining these relationships as well.

“Hermione!” They both exclaimed a tad too cheerily the moment she walked in the door.

“Hey, it’s been too long,” Harry said, pulling her into a quick hug before sitting back down and handing her a drink menu.

“Sorry, yeah, I’ve been really swamped with work and everything you know,” Hermione excused, knowing full well that she was fooling no one. “But you guys were so insistent this time — er — what did you want to talk about so badly?”

“Well,” Ginny began, eyes glancing briefly in Harry’s direction, no doubt judging Hermione for her brusqueness. “We were hoping you might come to dinner for Mum’s birthday. She misses seeing you, you know. Everyone’s going to be there.”

Hermione gaped for a moment in their direction, unsure what to say. She had planned on begging off whatever plan they might try to make, but to bring Molly’s birthday into it was tricky indeed.

“Ron’s going to be there as well, obviously,” Harry added, suddenly making it all much easier.

Hermione sighed. “Listen, guys. I know what you’re doing. I know that you really wanted to get us back together when we ended things, and I get that. But a lot has changed and there’s no chance that the two of us are going to patch things up. I don’t want to, for one. I’ve moved on, so if you’re planning something —“

“You have?” Ginny interrupted.

“Yes, I have,” Hermione said firmly.

Harry and Ginny each took a breath and settled further back into their chairs.

“Well, actually, that’s a relief,” Harry said. “Because Ron is seeing someone.”

“And we thought it might be awkward depending on how you were feeling,” Ginny continued.

“I’m not upset at all. It’s good that he’s seeing someone,” Hermione said emphatically. She was admittedly a bit surprised, but nonetheless, utterly relieved. “Wait, who is it?”

Ginny made a bit of a face, brief but unmistakable. “Pansy Parkinson,” she said and waited for a reaction.

Hermione couldn’t help but laugh in surprise. “What, really?”

“Mhm,” Harry confirmed. “It’s weird, we know. But we’ve all just decided to go with it.”

Hermione chuckled, and the three of them settled into a more comfortable silence.

Hermione cleared her throat and felt a bit ashamed at her apprehension coming here. “I’m really sorry, you two,” she began. “I haven’t actually been so busy; I was just worried that you might be trying to convince me to go after Ron again, and I avoided you, it was childish.”

“Well…” Ginny said, shifting awkwardly. “To be fair, that was our intent originally, but you were really good at dodging us. And then yeah, that ship sailed… right into Pansy’s harbor, that is.”

Hermione laughed along with them and felt a moment of swelling warmth towards her friends. She hadn’t realized just how much she had missed them all these weeks apart.

“Anyway, with that settled,” she began with new assurance. “I suppose I do have quite a lot of news. You know how I said a long time ago that I was trying to write that book? Well, it’s really coming along. I found a collaborator and it made all the difference.”

“That’s wonderful, Hermione,” Harry said with genuine enthusiasm. “Who did you find to work with? I can’t imagine that there’s many people who would live up to your standards.”

“It’s Narcissa Black actually,” Hermione said, nearly laughing at the shocked looks on both of their faces. “It turns out she lives next door to me, and we’ve gotten close.”

Harry merely nodded, taking it all at face value, but Ginny smirked across the table with that characteristic mischief in her eyes.

“How close exactly?” she asked.

Hermione blushed and looked down at the table for a moment. “Very close.”

“Oh,” Harry said, the realization dawning slowly. “Oh. Well, that’s… great, isn’t it?” Ginny echoed a similar sentiment from beside him, albeit with a bit more of a twinkle in her eye that promised follow-up questions the next time Harry wasn’t around.

They both sounded like they meant it. Still, Hermione couldn’t miss the look that passed between them, surprised and smirking. That was the terrible thing about hanging out with couples, you could always tell when they were going to talk about you on the way home.

“You could bring her, if you like, to Mum’s party,” Ginny offered. “There’s plenty of room for one more. Andromeda will be there with Teddy, so that’ll give her someone else to talk to — not that we won’t talk to her, of course,” she amended hastily. “But just in case she feels uncomfortable.”

Hermione could have hugged them, the moment felt so sweet. With an emotional smile on her lips, she agreed to ask Narcissa that evening, feeling fairly certain she’d accept the invitation just as gratefully as Hermione herself.

Narcissa had encouraged her to come to this lunch, but Hermione had had her doubts. She had been so worried about fresh angst growing in her finally settled life that she might have let this loose end dangle for far too long to be mended. Now however, she felt the threads of her life joining together so suddenly, growing whole with the support that she had never really thought to receive.

She smiled at the sensation as she searched the menu, looking for a drink that was properly celebratory for this unexpectedly pleasant afternoon.

 


 

Two Seasons Later…

It had been a drizzling and damp April, and so far, May appeared unwilling to break the pattern. Even on this day when the sun was shining, the air felt heavy with the newly fallen rain that had drenched the soil and prepared the earth for easier times ahead.

Narcissa and Hermione dodged the puddles littering the streets of Diagon as they made their way over the familiar path back to their building. Familiar though it was, Narcissa’s step slowed as they passed the windows of Flourish and Blotts, for there in the window sat their book. That sight alone was not new — it had come out just over two weeks ago — but one small piece of the display was very new indeed; now, there was a “#1 Bestseller” plaque that sat just in front of the poster. It was a number that had been getting smaller and smaller ever since the release and every time it changed, it caught the women by surprise.

Narcissa clasped Hermione’s hand in excitement and pulled her to the window, staring at the thing in silent, disbelieving awe.

“Number one best seller,” Hermione mused in satisfaction. “The Department of Mysteries: An Intimate Knowledge by Hermione Granger and Narcissa Black.” With a sigh, she leaned her head against Narcissa’s shoulder.

They stood like that for a moment, probably looking foolish to any passers-by who saw two women staring at a book that they must have known by heart. Yet they continued to stare into its cover nonetheless.

Naturally, it had been designed by Narcissa, containing a single door — the dark and ominous passage that led to the department itself. It was almost glowing, begging you to reach for it. Knowing full well what would happen when she did, Hermione reached out her finger and touched the doorknob, watching Narcissa’s charm come to life as the painted door slid open to reveal glimpses of the experiments and discoveries inside, peeping out from just beyond her view.

"Every time I see it, I can't get over just how beautiful that cover is, Cissa," Hermione said. “It’s genius.”

Narcissa smiled proudly at the praise, feeling that it still meant more coming from Hermione than from any reviewer that had said as much or more. “Thank you, darling. I do think it all turned out rather well.”

It brought Narcissa so much joy to see the project become a success, to see her art and Hermione’s words appreciated by so many. Yet, it felt so strange to think it was out in the world for everyone to see. Her art had always been such a private part of her life, intimate and secret. Somehow, it still felt that way, even though it had made its way into countless homes and minds over these past weeks alone.

But really, it didn’t matter who else saw it now. It may not be secret any longer, but it would always remain personal and close to her heart. In so many ways, the version of her that had helped to create this book was hers and Hermione’s alone, in the same way that there was some version of Hermione that only belonged in Narcissa’s own eyes.

She supposed that was the way in all relationships, the intimate and the not. We all have our own versions of each other; that, in and of itself, was not unique. What made it unique was the pieces that made up the whole of it. The bits of themselves that they had shared with only each other, even if some were unwilling or unknowing to begin with, were the pieces that Narcissa had always most wanted hidden, the parts of her that made her feel exposed and vulnerable. What made it unique was just how safe those pieces felt in Hermione’s hands, and how gently she had cradled the young woman’s own mirrored shards in turn.

It was all so hard to describe, so hard to capture, this perspective — limited and yet limitless. Still, she felt she was determined to try.

“I’ve just had the most wonderful idea,” Narcissa said, noticing how Hermione’s eyes snapped out of her own musing revelry and into the present.

“And what’s that?”

“What if I painted a portrait of you?” she asked, feeling almost nervous at an offer she had never made anyone else before.

“I would love that,” Hermione answered without hesitation. She bit her lip in consideration. “I’m imagining it would be in the nude?” She asked with a single eyebrow quirked up teasingly at the idea.

Narcissa tilted her head and leaned in close enough that she knew her breath would just tickle Hermione’s earlobe.

“You or me?” she whispered with a devilish twist of her lips.

They were beyond a time where she could make Hermione blush with her flirting, but she could always count on that sparkling glimmer rising to the woman’s eyes at any worthy tease.

“Why not both?” Hermione replied with an equally cheeky smirk and the two women began to laugh.

Narcissa pulled her into a hasty kiss just as they felt the first drops of yet another spring shower coming to wash the alley clean. With a hurried step, they dashed off down the street to their flats, to the warm fires growing less necessary with every passing week, to the orange cat who was awaiting his dinner, to the walls so useless they might as well be knocked down.

Once in the elevator, in the very same one where they had first laid eyes upon the other, Narcissa twined their fingers together and pressed the button for the fifth floor.