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The Ties That Bind

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Malfoy Manor — Wiltshire, England

A soft, persistent drizzle coated the windows as Narcissa looked out from the dining room into the garden. She sighed and poured herself a cup of tea as she tried to reorganize her day around this inconvenience.

She had hoped that the weather might clear up before afternoon, but it showed no signs of stopping. It would be a terrible day to walk, certainly to work outside. In her heart, she longed for winter when this frigid, dismal rain would turn to snow and lend some beauty to the landscape instead of merely gloom.

The sound of hurried footfalls and the creaking of the door roused Narcissa from her thoughts, and she turned to face her son. He looked rushed and tired as he checked his hair in the nearest mirror and straightened his already pristine robes.

“Good morning, darling,” she greeted with a tepid smile.

“Good morning, Mother,” he said, kissing her cheek with formal obligation as he passed. He poured himself a cup of tea and began to drink it hastily, making no move to sit down.

She furrowed her brows. “Aren’t you even going to eat breakfast before you go?”

“I’d love to, but I simply can’t. Mr. Rosewood positively throws a fit if I’m not in exactly at eight. He seems to think the place would fall apart without me.” He spoke with the air of a performer handling a crowd, shrugging with practiced nonchalance.

Narcissa offered another smile, this one perhaps even weaker than the first.

“And I won’t be home until late tonight, so don’t hold dinner for me,” Draco continued.

“Oh? Any exciting plans?” she asked, knowing he was unlikely to tell her.

He chuckled and shook his head, never meeting her eyes. “I just expect work to run late tonight. So if that rates as excitement, then yes.”

She nodded and sipped her tea. She assumed this was untrue—generally a safe assumption where the men in her life were concerned.

As Draco put his teacup back on the table, readying to leave, Narcissa reached out and grasped his arm gently. “Don’t work yourself too hard, darling.”

For a moment she thought she saw something flicker in his eyes at her touch, something genuine, something she recognized as her son. But it was quickly replaced by that hollow smile he so often wore these days. “Don’t worry about me, Mother. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

He strode out of the room, leaving her to sigh into her teacup.

It pained her to see how like his father he had become after all. Oh, not the cruelty—thankfully those tendencies had disappeared in the face of the war. Certainly the obsession with a lowly Ministry job could never be attributed to Lucius, who, had he lived, never would have borne his heir doing something so dreadfully middle-class. But he was the image of his father in so many other, more subtle ways. He had the same easy way with words, the incessant dancing around the truth, the almost compulsive vanity and desire to make an impression and charm the world into believing him glorious.

It all seemed so firmly rooted in Draco now that there would be no way to cleanse him of it. Perhaps if she had tried harder when he was young… but it had all seemed so inoffensive back then. And most importantly, it had never been directed at her. With her, there had always been some kind of honesty, some kind of trust that surpassed the desire to be viewed as faultless and superior.

Now, however, he had all these ways of handling her. When her conversation proved inconvenient, he would simply ignore her, tell her lies, omit details. He kept her out, spinning a web of words so thick that she could barely make out his features beyond it.

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand this distance, this lack of trust, but perhaps understanding made it worse, because she couldn’t for the life of her think how she could make it better.

 


 

A tiny flat— Diagon Alley, London, England

A ray of light splashed across Hermione’s face and she groaned, squinting against the oncoming morning. She wasn’t ready for Monday, for another week to start. She squirmed until her face was turned away from the crack between the curtains, which was traitorously betraying the hour. She knew that she had to get up, knew that she had to get to work, but some foolish part of her was convinced that as long as she didn’t open her eyes, her weekend slumber could remain intact.

There was a sudden clanking of pans from the kitchen. Hermione’s eyes shot open, and reflexively she reached for her wand as she tried to make sense of the commotion. Her mind was foggy, but the slight throb behind her temples became a clear and painful reminder of last night—Ginny was here. Her friend had been too drunk to apparate home and had slept on the couch as an equally drunk Hermione had toddled off to her room to crash into bed. Merlin, why had that seemed like a good idea on a Sunday night?

Hermione sighed. She loved her friend, but right now, Ginny’s presence was just another reason she needed to rouse herself from the comfort of her sheets. Begrudgingly, she did so, sliding her legs over the edge of the mattress and grimacing at her bedraggled reflection before making her way to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Hermione said, her voice no more than a hoarse croak.

Ginny laughed at Hermione’s morning disarray. “Good morning to you too, sleepyhead,” she said in a voice that Hermione found unbecomingly chipper for the early hour. “I made breakfast. Sit.”

“You didn’t have to do that...”

“I don’t mind.” She forced Hermione into a chair and began to dole out eggs and bacon onto two plates.

Hermione smiled, thinking how much Ginny grew to be like her mother every day. Wisely, she kept that observation to herself.

They ate in silence for a minute before Hermione felt an uncomfortable sheen of sweat beginning to form on her brow. “Merlin, it’s hot in here,” she grouched, rising to poke at the charms on the radiator.

“Yeah, I kept trying to turn it down, but it didn’t seem to do any good.”

“This thing is always busted,” Hermione murmured. The charms were so old that it was a wonder the godforsaken thing worked at all. She would have attempted fixing the mangled spells herself, but it was strictly against her lease to tamper with them, and she really couldn’t afford to lose her security deposit.

Just then, a small owl fluttered to her window and landed on the sill with a large letter tied firmly to its leg.

Hermione rushed to let it in, but found that the window was jammed. Of course it was. She grumbled to herself as she grabbed her wand to charm it free for what had to be the hundredth time this month. The owl looked unamused at the delay, but Ginny chuckled at Hermione’s quiet curses.

“You really need to look for a new place, Hermione,” Ginny said, looking over the admittedly tiny and ramshackle flat.

Hermione untied the letter from the owl and gave it a treat for its trouble before turning back to Ginny with a grimace. “As if I could afford anything better right now. If you think working part time at The Prophet is the way to get rich, I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken.”

“You know they’d let you go full-time in a heartbeat if you asked,” Ginny offered, sipping her tea innocently as if this topic hadn’t been broached before in varying forms over every floundering month since Hermione had taken the job.

“I don’t know. It’s not like they’re so thrilled with my take on things most days.”

“True, but you’re still Hermione Granger; everyone wants the Golden Girl on their team,” Ginny said with a teasing smile. 

Yeah, just as long as I keep my mouth shut , Hermione thought bitterly but did not say.

Ginny opened her mouth as if to say something further, but seemed to decide against it and let her lips settle into a passive smile.

Hermione was grateful for the silence. She knew Ginny was trying to help—everyone was always trying to help—but none of them seemed to understand that every poke and prod only made her feel worse.

Ginny was right, of course. The Prophet would let her go full-time; they would probably even give her a promotion if she asked. Only Hermione wasn’t about to ask for more of a job she barely tolerated as it was. In her mind, it was only a temporary gig to make ends meet while she pursued her side projects—mainly creature rights activism, and writing about further social reform, the likes of which she could only get published by the Quibbler under a pseudonym. That was what she considered to be her real job. However, if working at the Prophet could barely buy her a shoebox of an apartment, the Quibbler couldn’t buy her a shoebox.

Hermione cleared her throat and turned towards the letter, relieved at any distraction from discussing her life choices again, questionable though they were by everyone’s standards but her own.

With one glance at the letterhead, she could see that it was from the healer she had visited the week before. Her heart began pounding in her chest.

Miss Granger, although my team has run every possible test on the sample taken from your wound, it would seem that there’s no trace of any known hex or curse that would prevent its healing in this way. I regret to inform you that there’s nothing more we can do to treat your ailment. I do however know of a specialist in Wales that might be able to look further into your case. I have attached his information in case you wish to make inquiries.

Suppressing the scream that was rattling in her chest, Hermione crumpled the note in her hand without bothering to read the name of this other so-called specialist. 

Ginny stared at her with raised eyebrows. “Everything all right?” she asked. 

Hermione smiled unconvincingly with a telling twitch of mania in her eyes. “Yes, fine, just work stuff is all. It doesn’t matter,” she lied. She got up so abruptly from the table that Ginny flinched in her seat. “Well, I should get ready. I have to cover a conference at the Ministry today, and I desperately need to shower first.”

Ginny made as if to get up from the table as well, but Hermione held up her hand.

“No, take your time. If I leave before you, just be sure to lock up, all right?”

Hermione offered Ginny a tense nod in lieu of a goodbye, or a thanks for the meal, and bolted from the room as slowly as she could make herself.

Fifteen minutes later and after the quickest shower of her life, Hermione latched the door behind her and turned into the frigid morning. She did not in fact have to leave as early as she just had, but she wanted to be on her own.

It was early November and the leaves were at their brightest; they littered the ground with reds and yellows almost too vibrant to be real, but Hermione hardly noticed. The lines of the healer’s note rang in her ears, blurring her senses into a panicky haze.

She had no right to be this upset. It’s not as if she couldn’t have predicted what the letter would say. It was foolish to get her hopes up again, but this healer was supposedly the best in the country. Nonetheless, his response was a verbatim repeat of every note she had received from healers for the past three years: there was no curse, there was no magic, and by all accounts, the wound should be healing normally. It would be wonderful news if only it were true.

Yet time kept passing, days turning into years, and her scar—her wound, really—was the same as it ever was. It was lines of red, angry skin barely knitting over the gashes left by Bellatrix’s knife. Mudblood it said, like a hateful echo, reminding her of everything she wanted desperately to forget.

She tugged at her sleeve self-consciously, making sure it was pulled to her wrist.

“Ah, Ms. Granger!” said a friendly voice from beside her. “Heading to the Ministry today, I see?”

Hermione turned to see a middle-aged wizard beside her, whom she vaguely recognized as an employee from the Department of International Magical Cooperation.

A perfunctory smile rose to her lips as her anxieties were forced back into their cages. “Yes, I am, for the conference this morning. Updates to Class D dangerous plants regulations, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” the man said, nodding sagely, although Hermione was sure he hadn’t been listening. “I’m sure it’ll be a good one.” He patted her familiarly on the upper arm and took his place in the queue, thankfully allowing Hermione to drop back behind two other chattering witches.

This was exactly why she hated coming to the Ministry. It was always full of self-important hypocrites just like that. It was why she had only lasted for a single calendar year in its employment rather than becoming the youngest department head, the youngest Minister, the youngest everything as everyone had hoped. Then, it had been the only time she had ever been a disappointment—now it was merely the first of many…

But it didn’t matter now. She couldn’t let this morning get the better of her. Not only did she have a conference to cover, but this morning’s letter had added a new task to her schedule.

Hermione had promised herself that if she received another hopeless reply, she would have to resort to more desperate measures, starting with a conversation with an old enemy, one who was currently residing within the Ministry walls.

 


 

During the press conference, Hermione diligently took notes and asked all the proper questions. She might not like covering Ministry events, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to be good at it. All the while, however, Hermione was biding her time, waiting to talk to the man in the back row who kept glancing away from the speaker distractedly, like he too found little to hold his interest in his superior’s words.

The minute the clock struck eleven, the speaker was shuffled away from the podium, ending the speech with a shake of his hand and a series of thank-you-for-being-here’s directed at the crowd as reporters continued to pelt questions at his back.

The crowd began to disperse and it was then that Hermione made her move towards the young man she’d been watching closely for the better part of an hour.

“Malfoy, could I speak to you for a moment, privately?” she asked.

“Granger,” Draco said, his eyebrows rising in surprise. “Of course. Anything for you.” He flashed her a faux-flirtatious smirk and led her away from the remnants of the crowd that still lingered in the atrium.

Hermione groaned inwardly at his attitude and tried to resist rolling her eyes. Once they were largely out of ear-shot, she cleared her throat, willing herself to perform her now overly practiced speech.

“Malfoy, I need to ask you for a favor,” she began, practically choking on the words. She and Draco may have developed a sort of camaraderie after the war ended, but it mainly manifested in continual teasing that they agreed not to find too offensive. Anything more serious still felt wildly out of place.

Draco apparently thought so too, since he let out a surprised chuckle. “Oh, imagine that. It’s not every day that Hermione Granger comes down from her moral high horse to ask a favor from the likes of me.”

Hermione stared at him for a moment, unblinking. Pomposity was practically dripping from his gleaming white smile, and it made her stomach turn.

“You know what, forget it,” she said. She turned abruptly on her heel to leave, but Draco grabbed her arm.

“Hold up there, Granger. I’m only joking. I’ll be good, I promise. However could I be of service?”

Hermione swallowed hard, hating how much her plan had already gone off the rails.

“It’s about your mother,” she said. “I need to speak with her.”

Draco’s posture noticeably stiffened, that playful charm of his abruptly slipping away. 

“What could you possibly have to speak to my mother about?” he asked.

Hermione could hear the defensiveness in his voice, and the return of the cool, biting undertone with which she was so familiar from her school days.

“It’s…” Hermione paused. “I’d really rather not discuss it with anyone but her. I promise it’s just a conversation, Draco; it won’t do her any harm.”

Draco considered her for a moment in silence before shaking his head. “Well, I’m sorry but as I’m sure you’ve heard, my mother no longer accepts visitors, and I don’t see any reason why she’d make an exception for you.” Draco turned to leave, but this time it was Hermione seizing his arm and pulling him back.

“Please Draco, it’s important,” she hissed quietly. A few wandering eyes of passing Ministry officials rested on their conspicuous conversation, and she could practically see them straining closer to listen in.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he said. “If you want me to consider this, you’re going to have to tell me what it is you need to speak to her about.” 

The protectiveness in his voice struck Hermione deeply. He had always been so close with his mother; it only figured that his father’s death in Azkaban—not to mention his mother’s own short stay there—would only have intensified that bond.

Hermione heaved a sigh and pulled Draco into a more deserted hallway. She pulled up her sleeve, revealing the nasty mess beneath.

“It won’t heal, Draco. It’s been years, and it won’t heal. No one can make head or tail of it, and believe me when I tell you I’ve tried everyone. Bellatrix’s knife was obviously cursed, or… something, but no one can figure out how and,” she inhaled sharply. “I’m desperate.”

Draco’s haughty expression softened slightly into a pitying look. Perhaps the sympathy ought to have been comforting, but it made Hermione want to roll down her sleeve and obliviate him until he no longer remembered this horrible display of weakness.

“And you think my mother might know how to fix it?” he asked.

“She was the only person who was close to Bellatrix. After she died, I assume all of her possessions must have passed to your mother. I thought she might still have the knife and allow it to be examined, or at least know something about the kind of magic her sister might have used. Please Draco, she’s my only shot,” Hermione begged. Despite her flickering pride, she continued looking into his eyes, trying to move whatever ounce of human compassion he might allow himself to possess.

“Well, I suppose I could probably convince my mother to see you,” he admitted.

“Oh, Draco, thank you!” Hermione exclaimed, and a wide smile broke out over her face. The display of gratitude seemed to be a bit much for Draco, and he shifted into a more aloof posture.

“Hold up there, Granger. I said that I could do it, not that I would… at least not without one condition being met.”

Hermione’s smile faltered on her lips. Bloody Slytherins, of course there was a condition. She nodded, inviting him to continue.

“If I help you on this little quest of yours, I want you to help me with a project of my own.”

Hermione eyed him skeptically. “What project?” she asked. Draco may be a respectable enough member of the community now, but it was still hard to imagine any project of his with which she’d wish to be associated.

“You don’t have to get your bloody broom in a twist; it’s nothing dark and nefarious,” Draco said with a snide smile. “As it so happens, it’s also about my mother.” He paused for a moment, his countenance growing grim. “As you know, she spent about a year in Azkaban herself. Although it was a very light sentence thanks to Potter’s testimony, she hasn’t been the same since. It’s the dementors, I think; she was weak going in, and they drained her of everything that she had left. They preyed on her until she became very cold, distant… she’s become very reclusive. I thought that it would wear off with time after her release, but nothing has changed. Their effects linger in her.”

Hermione furrowed her brows. Given that cold and distant were two of the first words she would have used to describe Narcissa Malfoy at the best of times, she wondered how Draco could tell the difference. However, she figured that saying so wouldn’t win her any points.

“Dementors' effects don’t leave a person. I’ve seen it happen. My father never was his former self after he went in the first time, and his second stint killed him. Aunt Bella…”

Hermione flinched involuntarily at the name.

Draco saw the reaction and hurried to go on. “Distance from them isn’t enough. I’m trying to find a way to reverse their effects so they are not everlasting.”

“And you want me to help you… find a cure for a dementor’s long-term psychological effects?” Hermione asked hesitantly. 

“Yes,” he said. “I haven’t gotten anywhere with it. I fear that I could really use that unnaturally large brain of yours.”

Hermione considered her options. On the one hand, she despised the use of dementors in Azkaban, and since the practice wasn’t about to be stopped any time soon, such a treatment could be the next best thing. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure such an invention was even feasible. She knew very little about dementors or their effects aside from the most obvious information. She would truly be starting from nothing. Besides, would she really feel comfortable being Draco Malfoy’s research assistant? Her life plans might be shaky, but that would certainly seem to be a step in a strange direction.

Hermione had gotten so lost in her internal debate that she realized she hadn’t spoken in far too long. Draco was looking at her expectantly.

“I don’t know, Draco. That sounds like a very difficult task. Are you saying that my talking to your mother would be dependent on my ability to find her some kind of cure?” Hermione asked. 

“Not at all, only precluded on your word that you will assist me in my work finding one. If you make me that promise, you can speak to her as soon as she’s willing,” Draco said.

“To restore mental stability, to augment depression” Hermione pondered out loud. “It could take years, or who knows how long, if it’s even possible. It could be a full-time job, and I have a job, and rent to pay and…”

“I’d pay you for your time of course. And you’d be more than welcome to stay in the Manor if it would make things easier,” he said, spreading his arms in a haughty gesture. “The house is enormous and most days it’s just me and Mother rattling around in it.”

Hermione stared at him, mouth agape. Draco truly must be desperate to make an offer such as that. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” she said quickly, still watching him suspiciously, struggling to believe that he was serious. “I need to think things over, Malfoy. I’ll owl you when I’ve made up my mind.”

“Of course, take all the time you need,” Draco said. With a nod, he turned and walked down the hallway towards his office.

Hermione watched him disappear, still shaken by the conversation. Well, that hadn’t gone to plan in the least.

By the time Hermione arrived at The Leaky Cauldron that night, she knew her friends would already be there, waiting. The only downside to convenient travel was there were so few excuses one could make about being late when it would be obvious that you only left your flat a moment before arriving.

Weaving through the familiar rows of witches and wizards, Hermione searched for her friends among the loud, laughing crowd. Merlin, this place got rowdy these days; you could barely hear yourself think. Although, perhaps that wasn’t always a bad thing.

“Hermione!” Ron exclaimed when he saw her narrowly avoiding some swaying witch. “We thought you weren’t coming.”

“Sorry I’m late, I just got caught up in something,” Hermione said. She wasn’t sure she was ready to share her dilemma with her friends just yet. “What did I miss?”

“Quite a lot actually,” Ron said, tipping his beer towards his sister.

Hermione turned to Ginny in confusion.

“I’ve been offered a full-fledged Chaser position on a Quidditch team,” Ginny said. She was trying to play it cool, but a proud smile kept sneaking back onto her lips.

“A real one this time—she claims that this one is even going to pay her,” Ron said.

“Ron!” Ginny said, laughing in mock-exasperation.

“That’s wonderful! What team?”

“The Kenmare Kestrals—I know, I know, they haven’t had the best season this year, but it’s something.”

Hermione rolled her eyes at her friend’s modesty—as if she knew what kind of season The Kestrals had had this year; Ginny could have said they were best in the league and Hermione would have believed her. “Congratulations, Ginny, honestly, that’s incredible! So are you going to be—”

“Moving to Ireland, yeah,” Ginny supplied. “I’ll still be around all the time though, Mum wouldn’t have it any other way. Just not every day. You know how exhausting international apparition can be.”

“We’re going to miss you, but still, that’s so exciting,” Hermione wrapped her arms around her friend in a tight hug and accepted the Butterbear the waiter had brought her without her even having to ask.

Ginny and Ron settled into Quidditch conversation that Hermione couldn’t really follow. She thought that despite Ron’s teasing about the Kestrals and their “bloody awful defense,” he was positively beaming with pride at his sister.

On her other side, Harry seemed awfully quiet. He even mentioned leaving early because he was tired from work, which Hermione doubted. She wondered if he was less keen on Ginny moving out of the country. Not that they were a couple—they had never gotten back together after the war—but Hermione had always expected them to find their way back to each other some time, which was definitely harder to do with a sea between you.

The chatter turned into a dull buzzing in Hermione’s ear, and she went back to the topic she’d been brooding on all day—Draco’s double-edged sword of an offer.

“You seem distracted, Hermione. Everything all right?” Harry asked, startling her out of her thoughts after who knew how long.

“Oh, yeah. I’m just thinking about… well, work stuff really.” She supposed that wasn’t truly a lie if she was going to take Draco up on his offer.

“Yeah? What do they have you working on over there at The Prophet these days?”

“Are you telling me that you didn’t read my piece on the Ministry’s new regulations of Class D dangerous plants?” Hermione asked sarcastically.

“Oh, of course we did. I, myself, sleep with it under my pillow. We just wanted to hear it from you in person,” Harry said with a chuckle. 

She kicked him under the table and thought that with a little bit of alcohol in her veins, perhaps she could broach this topic with her friends after all. “I wasn’t thinking about work at The Prophet, actually,” she began. “I was thinking about one of my side projects… prospective side-projects, really.”

Ron softly snorted in laughter. “How you stand it over there at the Quibbler, I’ll never know. Every day, I expect to open the Prophet and hear that Luna or her father mentioned Nargles one too many times, you killed them both and are now on the lam.”

“Ron,” Ginny warned.

“I’m serious, Ginny. I mean, I like Luna, I do, but c’mon don’t tell me it doesn’t get to you sometimes, Hermione,” Ron said.

“Of course it does. But at least Luna and her father are willing to push for change. At least they’re willing to listen to perspectives that aren’t just touting the status quo. I respect them a lot more than I do the Ministry or The Prophet right now, Nargles and all,” Hermione said.

Immediately, she regretted her tone and the way the very air seemed to cool around her at her words. She didn’t want to ruin the evening, but honestly, why did they have to bait her like that? Hermione’s distaste for the Ministry’s post-war trajectory was always a sticky subject with Harry and Ron, who were both loyal Aurors. Not to mention, all three of her friends remained predictably less interested in social reform than Hermione, just like in school years ago.

“But it’s not about the Quibbler, either,” Hermione continued with a distinct note of bitterness in her voice. “In fact, I might have to cut down on my time there for a little while.”

“Oh yeah, why?” Harry asked.

“See, I told you it was getting to her,” Ron said.

“I might be taking another job part time. I’ve been offered a position as a… research assistant of sorts on someone’s personal project,” Hermione said, testing the waters as slowly as she could.

“Spending your day in the library. Well that sounds a lot more like our Hermione,” Ron said. “Who are you helping?”

“Draco Malfoy,” Hermione said plainly and waited for a reaction. 

Both Harry and Ron almost choked on their butterbeer. Ginny’s eyebrows raised up so high that they nearly disappeared into her hairline.

“Draco Malfoy?” Ginny asked.

“What?” Ron said. “You’re thinking of helping Malfoy, that slimy git? Why?”

Harry just stared at her with an odd worried expression on his face. It was even more disturbing that he, of all of them, should be silent.

“It’s… it’s a long story, ok?” Hermione said, somewhat sheepishly.

They stared at her expectantly, all seeming to think that they had the time.

“He’s trying to learn about the long-term effects of being exposed to dementors. The depression, the emptiness that people can never seem to shake once they’re released… like his Mother, apparently. Really, it’s a very worthy cause.”

“I don’t know. If Narcissa Malfoy is whacked after the war, then I’d say it’s what she deserves. She brought it upon herself,” Ron said. His tone was more flippant than cruel, like he was expecting a laugh in response.

Ginny nodded her head, and Harry remained motionless, brow furrowed, and looking extremely concerned.

“I don’t know. It was Lucius who was the Death Eater, not her. Besides, she saved Harry’s life after all. Doesn’t a life sentence of misery seem a bit harsh?” Hermione said.

“Why? These are the people who watched you get carved up in the first place,” Ron said.

“But that’s why I’m doing it! I need to talk to Narcissa. I’ve gone to healer after healer, looking for a solution to my scar and come up empty handed. It’s time I move from investigating the symptom to investigating the cause.”

“The Malfoys,” Ron supplied.

“Bellatrix’s knife,” Hermione corrected. 

“You think she might have it?” Ginny asked. 

“I don’t know. But when I asked Draco about it, he offered me this deal—he’d convince her to talk to me if I help him.”

“Merlin, he’s such a prick!” Ron exclaimed. “He can’t just help you, he has to get something in return.”

“How do you know she’ll help you even if she does know something about it?” Ginny asked, sounding more concerned than angry, unlike her brother.

“Well I don’t. I just…” Hermione didn’t know what to say. Truth be told, she didn’t know if Narcissa would have any interest in helping her. There was a decent chance that she would turn her away, whether she knew anything or not. But there was an equal chance that whatever humanity had allowed her to save Harry’s life in the forest that day could be stirred one more time, and Hermione held onto those chances as if her very life depended on it.

When Hermione didn’t elaborate, Ginny pursed her lips with sympathy growing in her eyes. “Just be careful over there, Hermione, ok?” she said.

Hermione looked to Harry and almost asked him what he thought, but he had such a strange, frantic look in his eyes that she didn’t dare prod him and break whatever restraint he was clearly exerting over himself.

“Look, like I said, I haven’t even decided yet. I’m just considering it,” Hermione said with a tired sigh. She had thought discussing the matter with her friends would be helpful, but this was muddling her brain worse than ever.

They were all eyeing her with different levels of apprehension, different shades of pity. And once more, Hermione felt like a disappointment. Ron and Harry had their promising Ministry careers, Ginny was going to Ireland, and what did Hermione have? One part-time job she hated, and two others that everyone thought her mad for even taking.

Everyone besides her seemed to have moved on so well and adjusted to this post-war world with ease. She didn’t know why she couldn’t do the same and find her place amongst the survivors instead of feeling trapped amidst the rubble.

She looked over her friends, trying to find the common thread of resilience that she seemed to lack. There was Harry who carried tragedies in his bones since childhood, now grown somehow accustomed to the unimaginable weight. Ron, who had settled too easily back into his comfortable life, spoiled by love and comfort that he would never truly appreciate. Ginny, who had managed to stay away from the worst of it until the very end, traumatized mostly by worry and loss that were easily shifted into energy and anger like so many others in the world.

And then, there was Hermione, left somewhere in between them all, out of sorts, out of the way, with a clawing desperation for something she couldn’t even name—some brighter future, some change in society that would make it all seem worthwhile, a feeling of belonging that she seemed to have lost.

Perhaps her friends would have wished that this sense of being an outcast would dissuade her from hopping into bed with the Malfoys, however, it had the opposite effect. She needed to get rid of this scar. She had this sense that she couldn’t move on with anything until she did, and there in that crowded bar, she resolved to do whatever she must to make that happen.

The next day, as soon as the sun was high enough that it wouldn’t seem downright inappropriate to do so, Hermione marched into the Ministry again and headed for Draco’s office. 

She burst into the small room preceded by only the slightest of knocks to announce herself. Draco looked up at her, affronted by the intrusion, but Hermione was too busy charging into her acceptance to interrupt herself with an apology.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

Chapter Text

“I’ll do it,” Hermione said again, and took a steadying breath. “I’ll help your mother in exchange for her insight into my… problem.”

Once the shock of Hermione’s arrival wore off, Draco didn’t look at all surprised. He smiled and leaned back in his chair with casual ease.

“Wonderful, Granger,” he said. He looked as if he was about to go on speaking, but Hermione had more to say. 

“But I’m not moving into your house, Malfoy. This isn’t going to be some wizard Odd Couple reenactment.”

“What?” Draco’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion at the reference. 

“It’s a Muggle thing… Never mind. The point being that I will keep my flat, and my job at The Prophet. We can set up a schedule around my hours there, and I will apparate to your house in the morning to work.” Having finished with her terms, Hermione set her jaw, waiting for Draco to find some way to up the ante once more as he had done on the previous day.

“All right, whatever works best for you,” he said with an amused smile at Hermione’s huffy, determined face.

“So, when do we begin?”

“I’ll talk to my mother tonight and tell her that you wish to speak with her. Assuming she agrees, we’ll set up some time that you can drop by for tea. You can ask her for help then,” Draco said without hesitation.

He had clearly known she would agree and had already planned it all in advance. If it wasn’t currently in her best interests, Hermione might have resented being thought so predictable.

“All right,” Hermione said, clearing her suddenly constricted throat. She had wanted this so desperately, but now that Draco had agreed, having tea with one of the most intimidating women she’d ever met hardly seemed like a prize.

“But Granger, there is one other thing,” Draco began. “You can’t tell my mother about our deal, what I want your help with. She’s a very private person, and she wouldn’t like it if she knew I had asked you to… well, it’s just best if we keep that part between us, at least until you figure something out about it.” He said it all as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Hermione scoffed. “Draco, you never said that I had to keep this all a secret from your mother. Besides, don’t you think she’s going to find it a bit odd if I just keep showing up at her house for hours at a time without any explanation?”

But Draco just smiled, he had it all worked out. He had come up with a cover story that he planned to tell his mother, and he looked almost too eager to share it.

Draco would say that Hermione had taken on a freelance position with the Ministry and was working on some research about ancient poisons and their modern medicinal uses. An old library was needed for source material so Draco had volunteered his own in the hopes of a good fluff piece in the Prophet to bolster the Malfoy name once more and garner goodwill at work. He would claim that Hermione had helped him be chosen in the desire to speak with him on a personal matter, on which he had referred Hermione to speak with Narcissa.

It was all believable enough, Hermione supposed, if you didn’t think about it too hard. Although honestly, she figured their only chance was that if Narcissa was as damaged as her son claimed her to be, she would be in no mood to examine it all too closely. Still, Hermione felt her skin begin to crawl with anxiety over how fragile this story appeared. Draco, on the other hand, seemed fairly confident that it would work, and skeptical though Hermione was, she had to admit that she didn’t have any more plausible tale to spin.

Hermione brought a hand to her suddenly throbbing temples.

Even if Narcissa was too lost in her own misery to care what Hermione was up to, she had no idea how she was supposed to do research on mental illness without a willing subject. What was she supposed to do, sneak up behind Narcissa and examine her mind for remnants of a dementor’s haze? That would go over swimmingly, no doubt. Well, at least it would be a quick death.

Hermione kept those concerns to herself, however, and reminded herself that she had only agreed to try to help Draco; she had never promised to succeed.

 


 

Narcissa strolled into the sitting room and let the door close behind her with a heavy thud. She didn’t want to face this day, yet she could see no way out of it, no alternative that wouldn’t be ultimately worse.

She kept telling herself that it was only tea, and she had certainly weathered worse storms than that. She had agreed to it, and there was nothing else to do now but get angry, and that was already done. It was funny really, how frequently she wanted to wring the neck of the son she’d fought so hard to preserve.

She moved to the windows. From the farthest pane, she could just see the line of trees that marked the edge of the woods beyond the garden walk. She wished that she could disappear beyond that skyline and join the pine trees in their peace and their solitude. Perhaps later, there would be some time to escape.

Narcissa made a note to fetch her warmest cloak from the closets, for while the sun may have been shining through a deceptively blue and cloudless sky, the wind was so frigid, it would chafe the skin in a moment. Fitting weather really for whatever maddening farce this afternoon was about to be…

With a pointed sigh, Narcissa snapped her fingers. A deafening pop rang through the air, and Todry, her house elf, appeared in the room beside her.

“Good morning, Madame,” the elf said with a bright and cheerful smile.

Narcissa hummed noncommittally, unable to truly repeat the sentiment.

“Todry,” she began. “We are expecting a guest for tea this afternoon, Ms. Granger. Please prepare something to be ready at three. There’s no need for it to be formal.”

“Yes, Madame,” the elf practically squeaked in excitement.

Narcissa furrowed her brows. It was odd that such a meager offering of pomp and circumstance could elicit such a reaction, but then again, the creature had been used to much more entertaining in the past.

“Are there any special requests?” he asked, still brimming with the same unrestrained joy.

Narcissa smiled softly. At least someone would enjoy the afternoon; that was something.

“No, Todry, no requests. Whatever you think best.”

The elf bowed low and with another pop, he was gone.

Alone once more, Narcissa moved back to the window, feeling a claustrophobic itch clawing at her skin at the sight of those distant trees.

Her world had become such a small one, so small that she could count the steps of it, inside and out. It was a confinement that was once by force and now by choice. Mostly she relished her separation from society, her isolation. She only felt the full weight of it when the pattern was disturbed, when someone from the very world she had sought to avoid stepped their heels over her threshold, poked their fingers through her wards, and left their lipstick on her teacups.

She turned her back on the pine trees and their lure, willing herself to forget that girl was coming, although she assumed it would be no use. Resentment simmered softly in her blood like an old friend, like the familiar warmth of a drink, and she didn’t fight the thoughts that came with it.

The outside world didn’t want to touch her, didn’t want to lay a finger upon her. They had locked her up once; they had let her out only with reluctance and spun her into a world where she no longer knew how to belong. All of which was fine; it was their right to do so. Yet, if they didn’t want to touch her, she wished they would at least have the good grace to leave her alone.

 


 

With a soft pop, Hermione arrived on the doorstep of Malfoy Manor. She took a steadying breath at the familiar sight of the place and climbed to the door, feeling slightly sick. She had a sense that even the knocker was mocking her, laughing at her like some Dickensian nightmare. She had begun to feel like a fool even coming here, agreeing to this ridiculous scheme.

Perhaps she might have lingered there longer wallowing in her own fear, but it was a good deal colder in the country than it had been in town. The nipping wind was whipping her hair into even greater disarray than she was used to, and so she let the door knocker fall, eager to get inside, even if it was through those imposing doors.

Within moments, a small house-elf met Hermione at the door and beckoned her into a large marble foyer.

“If you’ll wait here, Miss, Master Draco will be down to greet you in a moment,” the elf said, bowing slightly. 

“Thank you,” she said with a kind smile, catching his eye before he could turn away. “What is your name?”

“Todry, Miss.” 

“Todry, thank you so much.” 

It seemed that her voice was a little too earnest for the elf’s liking, and he eyed her with suspicion before bowing his head once more and shuffling off to fetch “Master Draco.” Hermione gritted her teeth at the phrase, willing herself not to focus on it, but instead look over her strange new surroundings.

She thought she might have flashbacks here. She thought she might be unable to push away the pain of those fateful hours once she saw the walls mocking her with their memories. But the halls looked so different from that night. The wallpaper had been changed, a good deal of the portraits had been removed, and the ineffable shroud of Voldemort’s frequent presence was noticeably lifted.

That wasn’t to say the Manor had become a cheery place. Dark magic or not, there was always an off-putting austerity that clung to these country manor homes. It was more than could ever be scrubbed away or covered with fresh wallpaper and innocuous decor. No matter the effort, they always seemed to reek of a past that was better left forgotten.

“Ah, Granger,” said Draco as he rounded the corner from the upper floor. He was descending the staircase with such ostentation, he could have been trying out for the cast of Hello Dolly. Hermione would have told him so if he would have understood the reference. “A vision in black, you’ll fit right in,” he continued, gesturing to the dark halls around them. 

Hermione wrinkled her nose again. She didn’t know where this smarmy charm had come from, but it somehow seemed even worse here than it had in the Ministry. Even there, it nearly made her sick to be on the receiving end of it—although her disgust most definitely put her in the minority among Ministry witches.

“You don’t have to flirt with me; I’ve already agreed to our deal,” Hermione said drily.

“Just because I don’t have to, doesn’t mean that I don’t want to,” he replied, leaning against the banister.

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s gotten into you, Malfoy? In the past, you never used to be so…” she paused, unsure how to describe what exactly this was.

“Devilishly charming? Endearingly Impish?” Draco suggested with a touch of self-aware sarcasm.

Hermione was visibly nauseated. “Not exactly the phrases that I’d use, but sure, that.”

He shrugged and let his smile fall back into an expression that looked nearly human. “It’s a useful trait to have when you’re trying to make the right sort of friends, or, at least, the right sort of allies.” 

Without a further word, Draco turned on his heel to escort his guest to the sitting room, leaving her no time to ponder his rare break in character.

When they entered the sitting room, Narcissa was sitting on the sofa, her eyes fixed on the hearth fire, apparently engaged wholly by her own thoughts. She merely cocked an ear in their direction when she heard the door open.

“Good afternoon, Mother,” Draco said, bending down to kiss her cheek, which she offered up in a habitual motion.

“Good afternoon, darling,” she said.

“Mother, you remember Hermione,” Draco said.

“Yes, of course.” Narcissa’s gaze flicked past her son and landed on Hermione. “Ms. Granger,” Narcissa said with a nod.

Hermione almost gasped at the wave of ice that washed over her from that stare.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from this fallen lady, but she had seen plenty of other released prisoners and remembered the haunted haze that always seemed to gather in their eyes. With Draco’s description fresh in her mind, she’d imagined Narcissa would look broken, weak, some frail, ghostly version of herself.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The woman’s blue eyes looked sharp as ever, and she certainly hadn’t lost a shred of her beauty. Perhaps that would have even been a relief if it wasn’t for her expression… Looking into those eyes, Hermione didn’t think Narcissa looked depressed at all; she looked furious.

Immediately, Hermione knew this would not go to plan.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Malfoy,” she said, hating the way her voice had nearly stuttered.

Narcissa’s lips twitched slightly in response, hearing the nervous catch in Hermione’s voice as well. Draco, on the other hand, moved towards the tea tray to serve, paying no attention to the reactions of either woman.

Hermione took a hesitant seat in the armchair beside Narcissa and begged her heart to beat just a tad slower, if only that she might hear the conversation over its rhythm.

“I’ve told Mother all about your research for the Ministry and how you plan to use our library. She, of course, is as delighted as I am to help out however we can,” Draco said with the uncanny charm of a politician spilling lies as freely as cheap wine. “Don’t you agree, Mother?” he asked.

“Of course, Draco,” Narcissa said calmly.

With Draco distracted, Hermione stole another glance in Narcissa’s direction. “Delighted” wouldn’t quite have been the word she would have used. Narcissa was staring at her son’s back, one eyebrow cocked, her nose wrinkled in an expression of distinct annoyance. Hermione swallowed the rising lump in her throat. No matter how Draco had deluded himself, she could no longer imagine any reality where Narcissa believed their story, and she clearly didn’t appreciate being lied to as cavalierly as this.

Hermione knew Draco wanted her to say something to elaborate on her phony research, but she didn’t know what. She was struck dumb by the unmatched absurdity of discussing a topic which all of the participants knew to be a lie. Feeling like an actor who had forgotten their lines, Hermione fidgeted nervously with her hands.

As Draco brought tea cups for all of them, Narcissa glanced at Hermione’s twiddling thumbs, and her annoyed sneer intensified. Hermione felt her cheeks go pink, and she felt compelled to still her hands immediately.

She had barely taken her first shaky sip of tea before Narcissa’s voice broke the silence with a pointed sigh.

“If you don’t mind, Draco, I would like to speak to Ms. Granger alone for a moment,” Narcissa said coolly.

Hermione swallowed, nearly choking on her tea.

“Of course,” Draco said. Leaving his cup untouched, he nodded to them both before strolling from the room.

Judging by his nonchalance, this was exactly what Draco had anticipated, but it caught Hermione by surprise. She had expected Draco to make some introduction to the topic, perhaps leave her to explain the details at most, certainly not leave her alone under the stare of those icy, guarded eyes.

Narcissa drummed her long, pale fingers against the edge of the table for a moment before she spoke. “Draco says that you have something to ask me… a dilemma of some sort in which you believe I can be of assistance.” She looked highly skeptical, as if waiting for the second half of Draco’s silly lie with only the bare pretense of patience.

“Yes,” Hermione said in a voice she found to be far too high-pitched to be appropriate. She cleared her throat. “Did Draco tell you the details?”

“No. He felt that it was your request to make,” Narcissa said. 

Hermione nodded and took a breath, seeing no point in going anywhere but to the heart of the matter. “Your sister… Bellatrix,” she began, almost flinching at the name. “You remember that she used her dagger on me to carve… to carve the word ‘Mudblood’ into my arm during the war, in this very house?”

A strange look came over Narcissa’s face. “Yes, of course I do,” she said hesitantly.

“Well, as I said, it’s been years and—” Hermione paused to roll up her sleeve. “The wound has not healed. Most days, the skin has knitted together enough to stop the bleeding but nothing more. It’s no better than it was a week after the incident, but no healer can find any trace of a known curse, and therefore, they are unable to do anything about it.”

Narcissa’s gaze fell to Hermione’s red and angry arm, and a slight furrow formed in her brow. She raised her eyes to Hermione’s and for just a moment, their icy chill was entirely gone, replaced by something that looked almost like sympathy. “And you think that I, as Bellatrix’s sister, might know how to cure it?”

“Or at least know what kind of curse Bellatrix may have placed upon the dagger. Any information would be more than I have now.”

Narcissa had turned her gaze to the fire and was staring at it intently. The pause lasted so long that Hermione was sure Narcissa had forgotten her completely. Finally, she spoke, with a voice that seemed uncharacteristically quiet.

“I had no idea that Bellatrix’s dagger bore any such curse, and I’m sorry to say that I am not in possession of the knife. Lord knows where it ended up after she died.” 

Hermione could feel disappointment beginning to lodge in her heart.

“However,” Narcissa continued. “Bella had that knife for many years. At the time she would have acquired it and placed such a curse, she documented almost all of her magical work in journals. I believe that I have them all, and one of them may have a record of the dagger’s creation. I will let you read them if you like.”

Narcissa had spoken this entire monologue to the fireplace, but now she turned to face Hermione, looking stoic and calm, her eyes flickering grey.

“Oh, Mrs. Malfoy, that would be—you have no idea how much I would appreciate that. Thank you,” Hermione said. The idea sounded so promising that a small twinge of hope unfurled in her chest for the first time in months. If Narcissa had been anyone but herself, Hermione might have hugged her.

Narcissa smiled rather tensely in response. “I’ll ensure they’re laid out for you in the library when you arrive to start your… research .” She tilted her eyebrows just slightly as she said the final word, making sure that Hermione caught the telling pause and all its implications.

Hermione sipped at her tea to give herself something to do, knowing how awful she was at concealing her reactions.

Narcissa snapped her fingers sharply, and Hermione startled first at the sound, and then once more as Todry appeared before them.

“Tell Draco that he may return to the sitting room whenever he please,” she told the elf.

“Yes, Madame,” Todry said. And as abruptly as he had appeared, he was gone.

The silence between them was gaping, but Hermione saw no way to fill it. Never before had she been so pleased to see Draco enter the room.

"I take it everything has been discussed, then, yes?” Draco asked, striding back in. 

“Yes, Draco. I’ve agreed to let Ms. Granger look at Bella’s old journals for answers about the dagger. It seems likely that there would be some record of it,” Narcissa said. 

“Very good.” Draco nodded approvingly, sipping his cup of tea. 

Hermione thought his tone seemed a bit patronizing, and apparently she was not alone. Narcissa’s eyes narrowed slightly as she gazed upon her son. She looked as if she was about to say something, but had decided at the last minute to bite it back, choking on the words.

“Well, now that that’s settled, Hermione, I would like to show you around a bit before you leave. You’ll need to know your way to the library at the very least, and the morning might be a bit rushed after all,” Draco said.

“Yes, of course. Thank you, I’d like that.” Hermione got up eagerly to take her leave. “Thank you so much for your help, Mrs. Malfoy; I’m very grateful. It was—it was lovely to see you again,” she said awkwardly.

Narcissa raised her brows slightly as if she too believed that last part to be a bit much. “Of course,” she said quietly.

Hermione allowed Draco to escort her out of the room, and instantly, she felt like she could breathe more freely.

“I’m glad your talk with Mother went well. I assumed that if she knew anything, she would try to help you,” Draco said.

“Honestly, I’m surprised that she’s so willing to hand over Bellatrix’s journals like that. It seems far too personal.”

“They’re going to be academic journals, Granger, not diaries. I wouldn’t expect a bunch of doodling over what boys she thought were cute. It’s going to be all potion formulae and spell experimentation, nothing personal about that,” Draco said, shrugging.

“I suppose not,” she agreed. “So, you said that you’ve been working on this research since your mother’s release. How far have you gotten with it?”

Draco almost looked bashful. “Not very far, I’m afraid. Between one thing and another, I’ve had little time for academic research, no matter how important.”

Hermione surveyed him; once you saw past the constant charming smile, he looked extremely worn out. “I’m sure. Keeping up appearances can be exhausting,” she said.

Draco looked as if he was about to be indignant but in a moment, he softened. “Indeed,” he muttered, throwing open the doors to the library.

The musky smell of the old books enveloped her the moment that she walked into the room, and despite herself, she instantly felt at home. Now that she was no longer a student of Hogwarts, it had been far too long since she had set foot inside a proper library. It wasn’t quite the incalculable size of the Hogwarts' stacks, but it was close, and like an alcoholic starved for a fix, any drop tasted like the best of scotches. 

“You hardly need someone to show you around one of these,” Draco said with a chuckle, observing how suddenly serene Hermione had become.

“I didn’t expect your family library to be so extensive,” she said as her eyes roamed over the shelves. 

Draco shrugged, unimpressed by the splendor to which he has grown jadedly accustomed. “That’s the benefit of these old places; they always come with centuries worth of books,” he said casually. “And none of that ridiculous censorship like Hogwarts; you can find anything you want to know in these.”

Hermione arched her eyebrows, truly torn between the urge to support a lack of censorship and the desire to scorn anyone trying to learn the darker arts. “Are you saying that this entire place is a regular Restricted Section?”

“Not quite the entire place. I know there’s a goody-two-shoes section around her somewhere to break up the monotony,” he said, pretending to scan the shelves. 

Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed. 

“I’m only joking,” he said, turning a bit more serious. “You should find everything you need, but if there’s any text that you don’t find here, I’m sure I could get my hands on it.”

Hermione nodded and allowed Draco to show her around a few of the twisting halls before sending her once more out of the Manor’s doors.

 


 

As soon as the door to the sitting room was closed, Narcissa let her head fall into her hands. Well, that hadn’t gone as she had expected at all.

In the days leading up to this meeting, Narcissa had imagined Hermione coming in, all arrogance and brass assurance—just like Draco. She had pictured the girl telling her part of their ridiculous story and laughing to think that Narcissa was just some stupid old woman who was naive enough to believe it. All along, Narcissa had expected that Hermione’s private request would be another piece of their scheme; she had never considered that it might be a genuine plea.

Though Narcissa still bristled against Draco’s charade and whatever it hid, it was so much harder to hate Hermione now.

In light of her problem, Hermione seemed less like a collaborator, and more like a fellow victim, pulled into Draco’s plans by her own desperation. And if there was one thing Narcissa could understand, it was acts of desperation.

Although that might be giving Hermione a bit too much credit; she didn’t know the whole story. All Narcissa knew is that she felt an incredible guilt when she thought of the night Hermione had received that wound. She hadn’t thought of it in years—after all, Narcissa had unwittingly witnessed so many horrors under her roof that to hold them all in her mind would surely drive her insane. But it wasn’t every day that one of her sister’s victims strolled into her sitting room for tea, lying to her face and asking her for help with all the nerve that one could expect from a heroic Gryffindor.

When Draco opened the door again, he found Narcissa staring into the fire and he tutted at her like she was a child neglecting her chores. How easily her anger returned to her then.

“I take it Ms. Granger has departed then?” she asked.

“Indeed. She was quite taken with the library. We might never get her out of it,” Draco said, taking a seat beside hers and warming his cup of tea.

“I assume her research will take some time as it is. Seems quite a vague assignment, doesn’t it?” She fixed him with a withering stare, but it made little difference. He so rarely met her eyes nowadays.

“If anyone can make heads or tails of it, it’s Hermione Granger,” Draco said.

Narcissa was disturbed by the sweep of darkness that came into Draco’s eyes, though it was only for a moment. For the first time, she became concerned. What was Hermione truly working on that would leave her son looking like this?

She had a hundred questions, but she bit them back.

She was used to men lying to her; she was used to everyone lying to her, and she knew that if she pressed them, they would run. But if she bided her time, played the fool, the truth would always slip out in the end.

 


 

That night, Hermione struggled to sleep as the prospect of returning to the Manor weighed on her mind. She surprised herself by actually being excited to return to those stacks of untouched volumes—even though she grew more and more convinced that her research would be fruitless. An image of Narcissa’s sharp, piercing, angry eyes flashed before her, and Hermione couldn’t help but wonder if the woman even suffered from the problems that Hermione had been sent there to solve. Draco seemed to think so, and normally, Hermione would have assumed that she just didn’t know the woman like Draco did. However, after watching them together today, she wasn’t sure Draco knew his mother very well at all…

Nonetheless, that flicker of hope kept growing in her chest, despite her unwillingness to fully embrace it. Research be damned; Narcissa was going to give her Bellatrix’s journals, and that’s where the answer would lie.

Even if she would be rolling in her grave, that crazy woman was going to heal her, whether she liked it or not.

Chapter Text

Exactly as Draco had predicted, the morning was indeed rushed. When Hermione arrived at the Manor for her first day of research, she was surprised at the aura of chaos in the place, given that Draco seemed to be the only person awake. He looked as if he had been up half the night judging by the bruise-like circles that hung beneath his eyes. Hermione was going to ask why he looked so dragged out but thought better of it before any words of concern could leave her mouth. 

With only obligatory greetings exchanged, Draco led her to the library as he hustled to get himself ready to leave for the day. 

“Well, call the elf if you need anything, I’d better be getting to the Ministry,” Draco said with a nod in her direction. He was out the door so quickly that he didn’t even give her time to admonish him for his use of the phrase “the elf” before he was gone. 

Hermione sat down in one of the armchairs and sighed to herself. After Draco practically running around her in circles, she was grateful for the first breath of peace.

Alone at last, she looked around at the intimidatingly numerous shelves before her and smiled with contentment. Most people wouldn’t know where to begin in a library this size, but luckily enough, Hermione Granger was not most people, and it was time to get to work.

Once she had spared the library a moment of due academic reverence, she moved to a large desk where two very different stacks of books lie in wait for her. One of them had clearly been left by Draco—magical creature books of all kinds, a few with markers on pages left from his own attempt at research. The other was a neat pile of jet black leather journals, each held closed with a silver clasp and bearing the name BELLATRIX BLACK embossed upon the cover. There was a note left upon them that read in exquisite script—“Ms. Granger, my sincerest wishes that they prove useful.”

Hermione frowned. Sincerest wishes. Simple though it was, it still seemed almost out of character for the woman who had written the note.

A vision of the brief glimpse of warmth in Narcissa’s gaze came back to Hermione, followed by images of all the anger that had passed over the woman’s face throughout the course of that tea directed for the most part at her son. Hermione couldn’t quite figure it out—this woman, this family—but every day since their afternoon tea, she kept returning to the pieces, turning them over in her mind and trying to make them fit.

Oh well. That wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing now.

Hermione stared at the two piles of books, filled with indecision. Ever the responsible worker, Hermione gravitated towards the magical creature books and left the stack of black journals staring at her from the other side of the table. She told herself that first she would work, and then claim her reward. But she knew a large part of her reasoning had less to do with responsibility and more to do with fear. Who could truly relish the idea of delving into the mind of such a terrifying woman, even when that mind might hold the key to something so valuable.

It was barely seven in the morning, and that was too early to face such fears. Instead, she decided she would fill her morning with the easy route—although it was horrifying to think that even dementors seemed a more pleasurable topic than the mind of Bellatrix Black.

Hours into the morning, Todry had already come and gone from the library countless times. With each visit, he brought Hermione tea and snacks. While it was undoubtedly appreciated, it was more than she could allow herself to be comfortable with. Every time she protested, but Todry paid her no heed; he only bowed and smiled like it was the best way he could have spent his day.

As the morning wore on, however, Hermione came to relish the distraction these little visits brought her. She hadn’t expected much to come of her first research session, but she had hoped to learn something worthwhile about dementors, some foundational knowledge, something that she didn’t already know at the very least. Instead, what the books offered her mostly seemed to be horror stories—variations on the air becoming cold, dark, and filled with despair. Some of them ended in a gruesome description of a soul being sucked from a body, others in a daring escape. Either way, it did her no good. There was very little science behind any of it.

Hermione could understand that very few people, including the most risk-taking magizoologist, had little interest in getting close enough to a dementor to study it properly. Yet, that was almost more infuriating. The Ministry was so comfortable exploiting these creatures, horrid though they were, and subjecting prisoners to their wrath, all without knowledge of their true effects or the bravery to find them out.

Out of a dozen, there was one book that described the lingering depression Draco had mentioned. The author described it as “a compounding residue of darkness that clung to the minds of its victims evermore.” However, maddeningly, they didn’t elaborate.

The description seemed apt, at least. With hours of such depressing stories filling her mind, Hermione too felt like there was a darkness clinging to her skin, a kind of grey, gathering dust. She decided that she needed a break.

With a sigh, she got up to stretch and walked to the far side of the room where a hazy ray of light was shining through the crack in the velvet curtains. Gloomy though the day was, the garden still looked inviting, and she was going to lose her mind herself if she sat in here any longer.

On her way out the door, Hermione picked up the plate that Todry had so graciously brought in full of sandwiches. She would take it to the kitchens and then go for a stroll in the gardens.

 


 

All morning, Narcissa had paced in the sitting room.

She knew Hermione Granger was in the house, but so far, she hadn’t heard a single sound. The house was as eerily silent as it ever was during the day when the air wasn’t filled with Draco’s incessant ramblings. Yet still, the woman’s presence distracted her.

Narcissa chastised herself for being so sensitive to disruption. She told herself not to think about her guest, but for most of the morning she did nothing but. She felt vaguely like a caged animal, aware of being watched, and observed in a way to which she was no longer accustomed. The idea was ludicrous of course. Hermione had no intention of watching her, not when she had her own secrets to keep and her problems to solve in the library, not when Narcissa did very little worthy of being watched these days anyway.

Speaking of problems to solve, Narcissa returned to her desk. She let a drop of dark wax drip onto the lip of the envelope in her hand. She pressed her ring to it, imprinting a signature sigil in its wake. She stared at it, hating the finality of a sealed letter, addressed and about to be out of her hands, no longer able to be edited or started anew.

With a heavy sigh, she turned the envelope over and traced her finger over her sister’s name.

Narcissa had written at least a hundred variations of this letter. Now they all lay crumpled in the bin, pitiful attempts at the impossible.

I understand that this letter may be unwelcome, but I saw your picture in the paper last week. I didn’t know you had a grandchild.

OR

I promise that I never stopped thinking about you.

OR

I assure you that I regret…. everything.

All of which had been disregarded.

She knew that the letter in its final version was probably cold, more business-like than she wanted it to be, but she hadn’t been able to manage anything with more sentiment without it sounding phony and hollow.

At least now she had something complete. It made her case, and it would have to do.

Narcissa slipped her cloak over her robes and pulled on her warmest gloves. She would take her letter to her owl, Athena, and carry on with her work. The sky was cloudy, grey, glum as an afternoon sky could be, but it wasn’t raining and today, she felt that was all she could ask for.

 


 

As Hermione walked through the halls of the Manor, looking for the door, her skin began to prickle. She had gotten so comfortable in the library that morning, that she had almost forgotten the extremely awkward feeling of being in someone else’s house alone. She felt vaguely like a burglar or a snoop meandering through the elegant halls without Draco to direct her into the proper doorway.

After a few tries, however, she did find the kitchen. It was as deathly silent as the rest of the house, although a good deal sunnier than most of it. With a sigh of relief, she laid the plate on the countertop and stepped into the chilly afternoon air.

Under the grey expanse of clouds, it struck Hermione for the first time that year how the world had stopped looking like autumn and had taken on a distinctly winter hue. It saddened her for reasons she couldn’t understand. Inevitable though the turn of the seasons may be, she didn’t feel ready to see the cheerful tones of autumn fade away.

Now, the world around her was flooded with that peculiar winter gloom, in which the shadows seem to linger too long, shifting and swaying in one’s peripheral vision. Try to catch them as they drift and the eye will see nothing, leaving only the uneasy feeling that there was something uncapturable in the darkness but a moment before.

During this time of year, Hermione often recalled the stories of the fae that her mother used to tell her as a child. At the time, she had feared those stories, as if a trickster fairy may lay around any corner, ready to lure her into another dimension. Now, she wondered if it would really be so terrible to taste the fruit and join the dancing reel, leaving this world behind? Especially with a beautiful woman beckoning you to come, to stay, to feast on beauty and delight until the end of days. Surely, her mother would shriek to hear her say so, even though neither one of them really believed in such superstition. Still, if any land was a perfect setting for such haunting tales, the woods of the Malfoy Manor was it.

From the corner of her sight, Hermione saw a shift in the shadows of the trees, but this time, when she focused her eyes, the vision remained—long blonde hair against a dark, winter cloak. In this setting, Narcissa could have passed as a specter, pale as she appeared against the darkness of the trees. 

At the sight of her frigid hostess, Hermione instinctively stepped behind a shrub to avoid being seen. But in the end, it didn’t matter whether Hermione hid or stood in plain view; Narcissa didn’t turn to face her, but only strolled farther into the woods.

Hermione felt oddly captivated by the sight, and she wondered where Narcissa could be headed. For a moment, she considered following her, but realized how foolish that would be, unless her goal was to be hexed the second Narcissa heard the snap of a branch behind her.

But there was something so attractive about the woman’s mystery, how it was accentuated by the darkness, the trees, the gleam of her hair in the grey light. Hermione could so easily imagine Narcissa as a fairy queen of lore—cold and distant in her beauty, almost more illusion than reality, and content to be thought of as so. How easily she could lead humans into danger with only a crook of one of those long pale fingers.

Hermione herself could only chuckle at her own folly. Narcissa may be beautiful and elusive, but she was no fairy queen; she’d surely be offended to hear Hermione describe her as such. And no matter where the woman was headed, she would not lead Hermione into some charmed paradise behind that line of trees. For better or worse, such worlds only existed in stories.

 


 

After an hour or so of work, Narcissa returned through the woods, retracing her steps over familiar paths, savoring the scent of the pine sap lingering in the air.

She was about to head inside the house, when her eyes caught a strange sight off the side of the garden, just beside the balustrade that separated the paved garden walk from the grounds beyond.

Hermione Granger stood there alone, staring out into nothing. She looked so… not quite sad, but somber, ponderous, vaguely disquieted by her thoughts. The look felt so familiar, but it was strange to see it on a face that was not her own, especially the face of a young woman such as this.

Narcissa knew she ought to keep walking, but she paused and continued to watch. Without making the conscious decision to do so, her feet began leading her towards where Hermione stood, her curiosity getting the better of her.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Granger,” she said softly.

At the sound of Narcissa’s voice, Hermione jumped up in unbecoming surprise and whipped around to face her.

“Good afternoon,” Hermione said, clearly trying and failing to inflect dignity into her tone. 

Narcissa felt that was pretty much a lost cause regardless, given that the woman had practically leapt out of her skin only moments before.

She felt her lips quirking into a smile. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said.

Hermione raised an eyebrow slightly as if she didn’t find the apology sincere, which was fair enough, as Narcissa still couldn’t quite force the amused twist of her lips to fade.

“It’s all right,” Hermione said and turned back towards the balustrade.

“I’m surprised to see anyone else out here; it’s hardly an inviting day for a walk,” Narcissa observed and stepped forward to stand beside Hermione, looking out into the misty trees.

“I needed some fresh air. And anyway, I don’t mind the gloom. Sometimes I even think I prefer it,” Hermione replied. She glanced at Narcissa briefly, with a twinge of guilt in her eyes, as if she wasn’t sure why she had said that.

Narcissa raised her eyebrows in a bemused sort of expression, equally unsure.

“Well, you’re out here too,” Hermione said defensively.

Narcissa shrugged. “I am. As it happens, I also don’t mind the bleak afternoons. While I would never say that it’s what I prefer, I suppose I have grown accustomed to it.”

“It’s hard not to be accustomed to gloom now, when there’s so much of it going around.”

Narcissa hummed in agreement, eyeing Hermione curiously.

“Sorry,” Hermione said abruptly, shaking her head as if she could dispel whatever she currently found displeasing.

“For what?”

“Being so glum. It doesn’t exactly make for good company.”

Narcissa tilted her head at the girl who already seemed to be forming her features into something brighter, something false. “Don’t apologize. You’re entitled to be in whatever mood you please.”

Hermione looked at her in surprise, as if no one had ever said that to her before.

They stood in silence like that for a long moment. Narcissa wanted to say something more, to comfort the woman in some way, but she didn’t know how to talk to her; she didn’t even know why she was standing here with her at all. Hermione certainly seemed to have little idea how to converse with her either, which was only understandable.

Narcissa considered asking her if she had looked into the journals yet, but it had only been a few hours, and she had probably been busy with… whatever she was busy with. A wave of irritation rose over her at the thought, but she fought it back.

Deciding that prolonging this moment was nothing but foolishness, Narcissa took a step backwards. “I will leave you to your melancholy then,” she said, and with a small nod, she turned on her heel to leave.

 


 

When Hermione walked back into the library, she felt off-kilter. She wasn’t sure what that interaction had just been.

You’re entitled to be in whatever mood you please.

That was not a sentiment she heard most days. Usually when Hermione got into these melancholic, critical moods, her friends accepted her apologies with begrudging nods, clearly wishing that she’d kept it to herself.

Honestly, Hermione was surprised that Narcissa had spoken to her at all. She didn’t have to. She could have easily walked by without Hermione knowing their paths had come so close to crossing. And yet, she had stopped…

And given Hermione a perfect opportunity to make an ass out of herself, she thought. It had been far too difficult to recover from watching Narcissa from afar only an hour earlier and toying with that silly fantasy about the woman and her “mysterious beauty.” Merlin, she loathed herself. Hermione hoped that all of that hadn’t been written so clearly on her face as her emotions so often were.

When Hermione sat down, she felt like Bellatrix’s journals were staring at her, as much as she was staring at them. They seemed to ask her if she was less of a coward now that she’d had her easy morning, now that she’d had her lunchtime walk.

Fearing that her hand may burn at the very brush of the leather, Hermione picked the first journal off the stack and eyed it with deep distrust. It had to be thirty years old, and yet the cover was still so black that it looked as if it could swallow you whole. She was reminded of the old saying about staring into the abyss…

With irritatingly unsteady fingers, she unclasped the silver catch on the cover. She half-expected the book to scream, or bleed, even reach out and grab her, but it was nothing but faded paper and dark ink. 

On the first page, the top right-hand corner read June 1st, 1972. Bellatrix would have been 21 at the time.

Flipping through the pages, Hermione couldn’t believe the sheer number of words that Bellatrix had managed to cram onto every page in her neat, slanted scrawl. It would be difficult to scan the pages quickly for references to the knife with writing as small as this. Hermione turned to the end, hoping that there might be some kind of index, but of course there was not.

With no option other than to start, Hermione flipped back to the first page and began to read.

A chill went down her spine when she saw the header of the first section: 

BLOOD MAGIC

“Why am I not surprised,” she mumbled to herself.

Looking further into the book did little to assuage the uneasy feeling creeping over her skin. The two most prominent subheaders read “My blood,” and “Other blood.” 

Hermione wondered where she had gotten this “other blood” but hoped Bellatrix wouldn’t choose to elaborate. 

It was no secret that blood was often a very important ingredient in darker magic, sometimes even in light, but Hermione had never known the vast number of uses it could have. She read on with a disturbed sort of fascination as Bellatrix described wards, curses, seals, potions, and elemental summonings she had made using her own blood as an ingredient. It was a wonder she had any left in her veins. 

At least in one of her experiments, Bellatrix did explain where the mysterious ‘other blood’ had come from. 

Cissy let me take a vial from her palm. Well perhaps LET is a strong word, but she didn’t see it coming.

Hermione almost had to laugh at the wording—a laugh of disbelief rather than humor. There were times like these where she remembered how grateful she was to be an only child.

Hours later, she closed the journal in her hands, having read three of them cover to cover. She simply stared into space for a moment, reflecting on the information she had learned; there seemed to be no other appropriate reaction. There had been nothing about the knife thus far, which was disappointing, but Merlin, what a mind this woman had. Completely unhinged… and yet fascinating. Hermione wished she had so much originality, such a clear vision and will to push the boundaries of what other people thought was possible.

She looked out the window into the darkening sky. Just as she was beginning to wonder whether she ought to leave, she heard unmistakeable voices in the hall of Draco and his mother. 

The voices began to get louder; she figured they must be just outside the library door, lingering in the hall as Draco recounted his day. She could hear the story that he was weaving in a bombastic tone of voice.

“Well and of course, the Minister said to me…” he began, followed by some tale that Hermione immediately doubted the validity of. Draco barely ranked at the Ministry; she doubted he had ever had a conversation with the Minister that amounted to more than “good morning.”

She heard Narcissa’s voice cut in with something like “of course, but Draco,” but he didn’t heed her. He continued to prattle on with his story.

Narcissa tried to interrupt him numerous times but he only spoke faster as if purposefully trying to deny her any further opportunity to do so. Eventually she fell silent, whatever she had tried so hard to say dying on her lips as Draco continued talking for them both, spinning a spell of throwaway words in the air around him. 

It was as if he thought that if he could only continue to speak, his words would start to ring true. If only he never let the plates stop spinning, he could seem as powerful and influential as his family always was, as his last name demanded he be. Hermione winced in second-hand embarrassment at the awkward exchange.

“Well, speaking of the Ministry, I ought to check on our guest,” Draco said from the hall and with one of his phony, prideful gestures, he was in the library, and Hermione tried to pretend she hadn’t been listening to the conversation all along. “Ah, Granger, how have you been doing today? Everything coming along well?” he asked.

“Oh, hello Draco, yes, very well,” Hermione replied. But, she wasn’t looking at him; she was looking past his shoulder where his mother stood silhouetted in the light of the doorframe. Hermione expected the woman to say something, but she did not. Narcissa merely turned away, snapping her wand in the direction of the door. It closed with a thud behind her and Hermione heard her footfalls retreating down the hallway.

Draco turned to the door and grimaced but overall seemed to relax. “Good, now we can really talk,” he said. “Find anything useful?”

“No, not particularly… not yet,” she answered.

“Well, that’s to be expected. It is only the first day after all,” he said. Still, he sounded somewhat disappointed as if he had secretly held a hope that she would have made a brilliant discovery in a matter of hours. 

“I’ve read through a good deal of the books on magical creatures but there’s so little information. No matter how many pages they fill, it’s all the same story told a hundred different ways.”

“I know; that’s pretty much all I found when I started looking into it as well,” Draco said and sighed. All of his bluster had faded away by this point and Hermione thought that without his overly broad smile to distract, he looked incredibly tired again, just as he had that morning.

“Oh well, you look like it’s been a long day,” he continued. “Get out of this place for the evening, and I’ll see you tomorrow when you have that usual saucy pep back in you.”

Hermione furrowed her brows at that last bit but decided not to address it. “You’re right. Looks like you could use the rest too, Draco. I’ll see you in the morning.” With a nod, she exited the library and made her way to the entrance where she could apparate home.

Chapter Text

Narcissa sat alone at her desk, going over the accounts for the week. From just outside the window, she heard the flapping of wings, the familiar click of talons landing on her sill, and her heart leapt into her throat.

However, when she unlatched the window and let the creature inside, she saw there was no cause for either alarm or excitement. He held the morning edition of The Prophet and had a jingling bag strapped to his leg, ready for payment.

She sighed and gave the bird its due as graciously as she could, but the disappointment still stung. It had been over a week since her first letter to Andromeda had been sent, and every day since, the Prophet’s owls, or any others for that matter, had managed to stir in her a startling hope—one that was always quickly dissipated.

She supposed it was time to admit that she was not going to get a response.

Without allowing herself to hesitate a moment longer, Narcissa grabbed her cloak, taking a piece of parchment with her, and headed towards Athena’s perch.

She woke the sleeping owl with a soft stroking of her feathers. “I need you to take a letter for me. Same place as before. Make sure she reads it.”

The owl stretched sleepily and blinked in understanding.

Narcissa pulled out her quill and her parchment and began to write her second plea. This time, she wouldn’t allow for revisions. Let herself think about it too much and messy feelings like pride were sure to get in the way.

When she was done writing, Narcissa attached the letter to Athena’s leg and watched her carry the words onwards to the other side of the country.

I’m sure that you received my first letter. If you say that you burned it, I’ll send it to you all again. But please, Andromeda, talk to me.

 


 

When Hermione arrived that morning, the house was as silent as a tomb. It had been a week since her first day at the Manor, and whenever she arrived in the morning, she was used to seeing Draco bustling around as if it was impossible to get up in time to get ready at a leisurely speed. She was so used to these few minutes of chaos that their lack seemed peculiar.

Silence, absence, those were hallmarks of her afternoons, not her mornings. Hermione hadn’t had the pleasure—or whatever it was—of seeing Narcissa in the house in days, or even hearing her voice. It would have been easy to think the woman wasn’t there at all, if it wasn’t for the rare moments when Hermione caught a glimpse of her in the gardens, in the woods roughly at the same time every afternoon. Hermione might have even timed her walk accordingly just for a chance that their paths would cross and she could admire the mysterious sight of her, though she wouldn’t have admitted it was anything other than coincidence.

Despite the odd silence, Hermione moved towards the shelves to begin her work, retrieving her notes from where she kept them, tucked in the side of a shelf.

Each day that she was there, Hermione diligently went through her reading list, waiting for some stroke of inspiration that would show her how to proceed, but what she looked forward to the most out of her days here were the journals. Once she had gotten over the initial horror of them, she had to admit that they were rather compelling—which was, if Harry and Ron’s reactions were anything to judge by, the most disturbing opinion she’d ever held in her life.

“Interesting?” Ron had sputtered the minute she had proclaimed the diary to be such.

“Yes,” she had continued with the vehemence she only found when imparting new information. “Well such as… when she was only twenty, she managed to curse a book so that when you tried to read it, it made you forget everything you knew about the subject.”

“But… why?” had been Harry’s only response.

She didn’t know how to explain that her interest had nothing to do with the malicious intent inherent in Bellatrix’s work, but in the originality—something that she used to feel she had herself, but now, out of school, she seemed to feel it slipping farther out of her grasp. She missed the way magic had made her feel back then, creating something new, accomplishing something difficult. Real life was so rarely like that.

But the boys had never shared her interest in knowledge for its own sake, and she vowed to stop sharing her findings with them. Talking like that had made her feel foolish as if she had been raving about Wrackspurts and the havoc they wreak upon society.

With an irritated huff, Hermione put the weekend from her mind and headed back to the desk. Having barely spread out her books, however, she heard a loud racket coming from down the hall. She rose in her seat, intending to poke her head into the hall and see what was causing the commotion. But before she could reach the door, she heard raised voices and two sets of heavy footfalls. She stopped to listen and was shocked to recognize one of the voices to be not either of the Malfoys, but Harry Potter.

“I’ve already apologized. I’ve said that it won’t happen again. Besides, this isn’t just on me. This isn’t just my fault,” Harry said angrily. 

Hermione heard Draco’s voice but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, though she thought she heard something like “keep your voice down.”

“Well then don’t you think you’d better let me leave then?” Harry said, followed by more quiet mumblings from Draco that Hermione couldn’t catch.

“Don’t you think that’s what I’m trying to do? Or did you think I was hanging around waiting for a breakfast invitation with you and your dear mummy?” Harry asked. 

“Fine, go then,” Draco snarled loudly, breaking whatever restraint had caused him to whisper up until then.

Hermione could hear his footfalls retreating. In the moment of relative silence, she rushed to the door and opened it, just in time to see Harry in the hall, about to pass the library doors on his way out of the house.

“Harry?” Hermione said tentatively, wary of him now that she could see the anger marring his features.

Harry startled at her presence as if he’d seen a ghoul in her place. “Hermione, I…” he started to say, “I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“I’m often here. I’m helping Draco with his research, like I told you,” Hermione said. “But what are you doing here? What’s going on?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Harry said. “I was just picking up something for work, and… it’s a long story.”

“Then why were you fighting?”

“Oh that… well, you know Draco, what he’s like,” he said. There was a pronounced bitterness in his voice. 

“Yes, I do,” Hermione said.

“Yeah, so anyway, I’ll see you around, Hermione.” Without waiting for her to say goodbye, Harry pushed past her on his quest to leave the Manor.

“Ok,” she called after him. She hoped Harry would tell her what had actually happened once he cooled off but she wasn’t sure she could count on that. 

Although departments frequently worked together at the Ministry, Hermione couldn’t think of any likely reason that Harry would find himself working with Draco. If it was true, it seemed like one of the worst managerial decisions anyone could have made. Even after the war, Hermione had never seen the two of them in the same room together without both looking extremely uncomfortable.

With a fresh sigh of confusion, Hermione returned to her work once more, this time feeling distracted, not by a lack of chaos, but by more of it than she was accustomed to.

 


 

When Narcissa came back to the house, she was surprised to see Draco still there, standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall. She was about to ask him if he had overslept, but before the words could leave her, she saw that his shoulders were wracking in forceful, silent sobs. The occasional whimper left his lips and echoed off the marble in the hallway; she assumed that if only she could see his face, it would be streaked with the glistening tracks of tears.

Her heart clenched in sadness, and in worry. She moved towards him with silent steps, as if approaching a frightened kitten.

“Draco?” she said in her softest tone, reaching out to lay her hand upon his shuddering shoulder.

At the sound of her voice, Draco whipped around, panic in his eyes, cheeks wet with despair.

“Darling, what’s the matter? What’s happened?” Narcissa asked. Fear rose inside of her at an alarming rate at the wild expression on her son’s face.

He schooled his features into some grotesque mask of a smile, weak even by his standards. He didn’t even bother to wipe the tear tracks from his cheeks, and nothing could hide the red that was rimming his eyes, or the blotchy flush creeping down his neck.

“Nothing’s the matter. It’s just…. I’m just… I’m going to be late for work.” He ran his fingers through his hair, only making its disarray worse, and started off down the hall at such a clip that she practically had to run to keep up with him.

“Draco, what’s going on?” she asked, her voice ringing loudly through the silent halls of the house as she trailed at his heels.

“Nothing, Mother. I told you it’s fine,” Draco said. He waved his hands in an animated gesture.

“It’s clearly not fine, darling. Why are you so upset?” Narcissa pressed. 

“I’m not upset!” he nearly yelled. He looked as if he regretted raising his voice at her, but it didn’t stop him from continuing onwards towards the door.

“That would be a lot more convincing if I hadn’t just found you weeping in the hall!” Narcissa called. She tried to grab his arm once more as he shrugged on his winter cloak, but he was too quick for her.

“I’ll see you tonight!” Draco said as he rushed out of the door and apparated away with such a loud pop that it started the birds perched upon the shrubbery.

Narcissa stared after him, her chest heaving with heavy breaths. What was happening in this house, in her son’s life, she could hardly guess, but apparently he was willing to slowly disintegrate before her eyes before he’d tell her the truth. If he didn’t have the misfortune of living in her house, he too would likely throw her letters into the fire.

She wasn’t sure what emotion was strongest in her—sadness, fear, anger. In the swirling wake of it all, she stormed off down the hallway and threw herself into the first door on the left, letting her head fall into her hands.

 


 

Hermione had been listening near the door— too near , apparently since she practically had to apparate to avoid a broken nose when it was flung open.

The door seemed to wobble on its hinges as Narcissa stormed into the room and threw whatever she was holding onto the table causing a noise so loud, it echoed off the walls. With a sharp exhale of frustration that could have been a small scream, Narcissa leaned against a bookshelf, pressing her fingers into her temples.

If there was ever a moment where Hermione felt struck dumb with surprise, that was it.

When Narcissa opened her eyes again, she finally saw the figure of Hermione standing in the middle of the room, staring at her with wide-eyed confusion. The usually stoic woman looked flustered by this audience, and she pulled every emotion back inside at an alarming speed, her face turning once more into a stony, unreadable expression. “Oh,” she said softly. “I forgot you’d be here. I’m sorry for barging in on you.” 

“No, I’m sorry…” Hermione hastened to say.

Narcissa narrowed her eyes like she couldn’t figure out why Hermione was apologizing.

She flushed. “I didn’t mean to get in the middle of anything.”

“You’re not,” Narcissa said shortly. For a long moment, she stared at Hermione, who felt as if her feet were glued to the floor. There was still a tinge of anger in the woman’s eyes, and slight though it was, it was terrifying.

“So, how has your poison research been coming along? Finding everything you need?” Narcissa asked, fixing Hermione with an intense stare.

“Oh, yes. It’s been going really well,” Hermione lied, trying to look as sunny and at-ease as she might feel had the information been true. Instinctively, she clutched the books she was holding closer to her chest so that Narcissa wouldn’t be able to make out the titles. 

“I assume that you have found Golpalott helpful, or Borage? We have first editions of all of their works, of course,” Narcissa pressed without breaking her gaze. 

“Yeah, yes, very helpful indeed,” Hermione said. Her face was a study in discomfort as she tried desperately to string together all the facts she knew about both authors in case Narcissa asked for specifics.

But Narcissa only sighed, and her gaze flashed with something that looked almost pitying as she regarded how uncomfortable Hermione had become under such light questioning. As if deciding that it wasn’t even fun to torture Hermione like this if she was going to make it so easy, she changed course.

Her voice was much softer this time. “Have you found anything useful in Bella’s journals? Anything to help with your arm?”

“No,” Hermione said. As much as this was theoretically a much more delicate topic, she was immensely relieved to be able to tell the truth at least. “I’ve gotten through a good deal of them, and I haven’t found anything at all yet.”

“How far are you?”

“The one I just started was written in 1973.”

“Hmm, I would have thought the knife would have been quite early if it was there at all. She’d had it for ages. Unless she only enchanted it at a later date, in which case it could be later on…” Narcissa said. She had a pensive look on her face. “I’m sorry that they haven’t been more helpful so far.”

“Me too.”

Narcissa nodded and took a step back as if to leave, but something compelled Hermione to keep speaking.

“They are interesting though… the journals. In some ways, I really admire her work,” she said. 

“You do?” Narcissa asked. She looked stunned. 

Hermione nodded vehemently. “Granted, a lot of it is… truly sickening. But it’s brilliant nonetheless. It’s all so original, and I admire that.”

“Sickening but brilliant,” Narcissa mused. “What an accurate description of my sister.” 

Narcissa was looking at her very oddly, just as she had when they spoke in the garden; she looked at Hermione like she was scrutinizing a puzzle she couldn’t quite figure out. She didn’t, however, say anything else.

Hermione decided to take the silence as an invitation to continue. Once she started a conversation like this, it was nearly impossible for her to stop.

“Like how she took the idea of a Patronus and decided to use the concept for other emotions. A physical embodiment of one’s anger, or pain, or sadness. Instead of creating a shield against dementors, it’s almost like creating your own dementor. Which is abhorrent obviously, but what an idea…”

It occurred to her that perhaps dementors weren’t the best subject given Narcissa’s issues, but when she looked at the woman, it didn’t seem to bother her in the least. In fact, Narcissa looked very interested in what Hermione was saying.

“Yes, I remember that experiment,” Narcissa said. “I can’t say I’m upset that she didn’t grow to favor that one.”

Hermione waited for her to go on. Narcissa looked a bit surprised at the interest but she continued.

“She found that it was far too draining. Unlike joy, which a person might feel indefinitely without adverse side effects, to call up that much rage, or pain, so much that she could project it onto its own entity was very depleting. It wasn’t worth the effort in the end. Not to mention, when it finally did work, she found she had no idea how to control it. This… thing she had created went rampaging through the house, set fire to my father’s favorite chair and broke three windows before it dissipated. All of which Bella found very amusing. My parents, not so much,” Narcissa said.

Hermione was surprised to see that Narcissa was actually smiling. Her eyes seemed almost warm, lost in the haze of a mischievous childhood memory.

It was impossible for Hermione not to laugh as she tried to picture the Black family chasing after what amounted to a home grown poltergeist wreaking havoc around the house. “She didn’t go into that much detail in the journals.”

“I should think not,” Narcissa said. “Father was furious; he didn’t speak to her for a week. I don’t think she tried it again after that. Or if she did, it wasn’t in the house.”

“She didn’t describe what it looked like at all, was it the same shape as her Patronus?” Hermione asked.

“No. It was sort of an odd shape—abstract. Certainly not any animal that I could identify. Although I suppose it represented the nature of her anger in some way.”

“Do you think that it’s a different shape for every person?”

“I’d imagine so, yes; it’s by nature a very personal manifestation. I imagine yours would be different if you managed to create one.”

Hermione shrugged. “Oh, I don’t think I have anywhere near enough rage for something like that.”

Narcissa tilted her head in consideration. “I doubt that’s true, even if you’d like it to be. I’d think that after everything that’s happened to you, you’d have nothing but.”

“You might have a point,” Hermione admitted, frowning pensively as she tried to think about what shape her anger might form if released that way.

Narcissa eyed her as if reading her mind. “Don’t get any ideas. You’re not trying this in my house,” she said with a finger pointed. “I like my furniture un-singed thank you very much.” 

For a moment, Hermione thought Narcissa was genuinely chastising her, but when she looked at the woman, her lips were twitching upwards, Narcissa’s version of a teasing smile.

“You ruin all the fun,” Hermione replied with a bold, cheeky smile of her own.

She was gratified to hear Narcissa actually laugh. The sound was unexpected—beautiful and light; Hermione’s heart beat a little faster in response.

Narcissa herself looked surprised at her laughter, like she had grown unaccustomed to its sound.

However, it was as if the laughter had broken some spell; Narcissa seemed to realize how casually she and Hermione had been speaking, how she had let such a natural smile break out upon her lips, perhaps even how entranced Hermione had suddenly become at the display. She pulled herself back together and picked up the book that she had flung so forcefully onto the table when she had walked in. 

“Well, I’ll let you get back to your work, Ms. Granger,” Narcissa said.

Hermione nodded and watched Narcissa exit the library. She was shocked to find that she felt a little regretful to be alone once more. It had felt oddly comforting to speak to someone about what had kept her so occupied lately… and to not receive any judgment or patronizing silence in return.

 


 

Hermione shuffled into her place among the reporters, trying her best not to speak to any of them more than she had to. Today, a new head of The Department of Magical Law Enforcement had been sworn in, and in typical Ministry fashion, that meant everyone had to be here in their finest robes to listen to a speech and toast his success in a show of solidarity.

When the man in question took the podium—Dominic Hawthorn, who had been up and coming in the Ministry ever since the war ended—he surveyed the crowd with a charming grin and set off into his speech.

Hermione diligently took her notes. Mr. Hawthorn was the perfect post-war politician, so set on the status-quo, so good at assuring people that he could solve the problems of the world by doing nothing at all, or at least nothing that would make them uncomfortable, nothing that would cost money. It was almost a wonder it had taken him this long to rise to the top of the department; he would likely be Minister within five years.

In the wake of tragedy, it seemed there was nothing people liked to hear more than that things would be normal again, business as usual. The Dark Lord has fallen and there is no need to look for improvements now. No need to fix any systemic causes that allowed his rise in the first place. Merlin no, why do that when that might amount to some semblance of culpability, some amount of discomfort. No, we’ve put the bad guys in jail and that was that. Might as well pat each other on the back and hold another press conference.

However obvious she thought her sentiments were, Hermione’s uncomfortable grimace was definitely in the minority among the enthusiastic nodding heads in the crowd.

There wasn’t a Niffler’s chance in a Dragon’s den that any of this critique would be printed in The Prophet, but already, she could hear the two versions of her article forming in her head. One, well-behaved and empty, would be sent to her editor at The Prophet, the other, scathing and truthful, would be sent straight to Luna. Perhaps it was a risky move, writing the same article twice, when it would most definitely break her contract with the Prophet to do so—conflict of interests and all that—but there was only so much that one woman could leave unexpressed, especially a woman with as much to say as Hermione Granger.

Once the speech had been concluded, the speaker’s success duly cheered, and every worthy hand shaken, Hermione peered over the crowd. Ron and Harry would both be here; she might as well say hello before she made her obligatory rounds to ask her questions.

Predictably, Ron was busy in the middle of a crowd of Aurors, all of which seemed to have had one too many for such a professional event. He could wait, Hermione thought; she didn’t want to join that.

Looking around further, there wasn’t a trace of Harry. Every crowd of employees was missing his face. Hermione thought that perhaps he hadn’t been able to come when she noticed an unmistakable head of tousled black hair loitering alone at the edge of the crowd.

With a furrowed brow, she walked through the crowd to stand at his side in front of one of the Ministry’s enchanted windows. The window seemed to show London as it truly was that day—a chilly expanse of grey winter.

Hermione hadn’t spoken to Harry since they had run into each other at the Manor days ago, and now, starting a conversation felt somehow awkward and unwelcome.

“Not exactly the winter wonderland I was hoping we’d have by now,” Hermione said, pulling Harry back into the present.

She’d thought her voice might surprise him, but he didn’t even flinch.

“No, no, it couldn’t get any gloomier,” Harry said.

She frowned at his tone and the tension evident in the way he held his shoulders. “How is everything, Harry? I feel like it’s been forever since we really talked.”

He shrugged. “It’s been ok. Nothing new really, just more of the same.” As he spoke, his finger worried at the label of his butterbeer bottle. “How about you? How’s… everything?”

“It’s been ok,” she said. They looked at each other and Hermione felt they understood something from their mutually vague replies. Harry turned to look out the window again.

“Harry, about that day at the Manor,” Hermione started tentatively. 

Harry’s posture stiffened noticeably. “Yeah, what about it?” 

“Did something happen between you and Draco? Something more than work? It seemed like a really heated fight and…”

“No, it wasn’t anything like that. It was just work stuff. You know how it is,” Harry said with a shrug.

Yes, she knew how it was. Work stuff—the same excuse that she used whenever she didn’t want to tell the truth about something.

“Ok,” she said, in a gentle tone. “I was just worried when I heard you two fighting like that. And everything was so strange at the Manor after you left. I thought that something really serious must be going on.” 

“What do you mean strange?”

“It’s just that… Well, after you left, I heard Narcissa and Draco fighting about something in the hallway. It seemed like he was really upset. Narcissa said something about how he had been crying and…”

Harry snorted with bitter, mirthless laughter. “So he was crying, was he?”

Hermione furrowed her brows. “That’s what she said.” She was looking at Harry intently but he refused to lift his eyes from the drink in his hands.

“So yeah, what else then?” he asked curtly.

“I didn’t hear all of it, but Narcissa was following him down the hall. She was angry with him because he wouldn’t tell her something.”

“And let me guess he was too much of a prat to tell her anything even then?” Harry said in an acid tone.

“What?” Hermione asked, taken aback

“Well?” Harry said, meeting her eyes for the first time. He had that look of intense impatience that she knew meant he was barely holding his temper in check. 

“Draco didn’t tell her anything. He ran away and left the house. She was really upset about it. Like I said, it was really strange.”

“Oh yeah, Draco Malfoy being a cowardly prick, really a shocking turn of events.”

“Harry, what are you talking about? What’s going on?” Hermione said, genuine concern in her voice. 

“It’s really nothing, nothing important. Not anymore, anyway. It’s all settled and done now,” he said. 

Hermione was struck by how heavy and tired his voice sounded. “All right,” she said hesitantly. “I know it’s none of my business Harry, if you don’t want to tell me… but if you need help with something… well you know that you can tell me anything, don’t you?”

Harry hesitated for a moment as if he was considering saying something but couldn’t quite form the words. But Hermione didn’t get to find out what he was about to say because some wizard, whom Hermione vaguely recognized as a member of the DMLE swooped in upon them.

“Ah, Mr. Potter! Charming as Ms. Granger is, I simply cannot allow her to take up all of your time here tonight. There are a few others who’d like a word with you,” he said cheerily and then leaned in to speak in a more conspiratorial tone. "Hawthorn also wouldn’t mind a picture with you by his side. Good for morale, you know."

Every drop of gloom suddenly faded from Harry’s face and he smiled back, although it didn’t reach his eyes. “All right, take me to them then.”

Now alone before the grey mirage of a window, Hermione joined the rest of the press corp. She couldn’t decide whether she was imagining it or not, but she was sure that Harry was purposefully avoiding being caught alone with her for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Many days passed at the Manor, and the weather grew colder as winter settled in for its stay. Inside the walls, however, very little changed. Hermione was near the end of her reading list. Rapidly, she was beginning to think that she might be the foremost authority on dementors in all of Britain, however, she wasn’t sure that was saying much.

There was more to be gained from reading Bellatrix’s journals, but even that was only due to interest, not to progress. Each day, she skimmed through experiment after experiment, knowing that the knife could be part of nearly any section depending how it was made. Yet, so far, it was never mentioned. The pages were filled with research—some gruesome, some less so—but never mentioning a weapon of any kind.

On a dull and silent Friday, however, Hermione opened the journals and gradually began to sit up a little straighter at what she read. The text had turned conversational, and it appeared as if it had been written quickly, like Bellatrix had been angry, or impatient, and looking for someplace to vent.

The potion Bellatrix had been working on required some illegal item or other in order to make it work. Hermione didn’t quite know what the item was and she didn’t care to find out, but Bellatrix not only knew what it was, but where she could find it. Fortunately or not, her Father possessed exactly what she needed in his private stores. She seemed to know better than to ask him for it, however, so instead, she hatched a plot to steal it.

I knew when Father would be out of the house. He’s such a fussy old man with his ever-unchangeable schedule. I wasn’t even worried about sneaking into his stores, I knew where he would be every second of the day and the coast was clear.

But Andromeda just had to follow me—not that I ought to be surprised, she’s always been incredibly nosy. I suppose I don’t really care if she feels the need to poke her beaky face into my business, but she actually tried to stop me, goody-two-shoes that she is. She actually had the nerve to grab me like a misbehaving child and tell me I didn’t know what I was doing.

I told her to mind her own business for once in her pathetic life. But she said I didn’t scare her. She said she would tell Father.

Well, that just wouldn’t do. I pulled out my dagger and twirled it between my fingertips. That shut her up. I had cut her with it once before. It was long ago and only a superficial scratch at worst, but she hadn’t forgotten it, the pain. The wound that wouldn’t heal until she had gotten over her pride and begged for any kind of relief. I had warned her then too, only that time she hadn’t headed it. By now, she knew that I meant what I said.

Andy stormed from the room, screaming about how it would be on my head when it all went wrong. As if I had intended to share either the blame or the glory with her.

Hermione stopped dead. An anxious warmth crept over her skin as she skimmed the page once more. A dagger whose pain wouldn’t stop. That had to be it. At first it seemed exciting to have found anything at all, confirmation that the weapon did in fact exist, but the thrill was short-lived. There had been no mention of the dagger up until this point, no mention of acquiring it, enchanting it, using it.

Yet it could hardly be a new possession. Bellatrix herself said this scratch she had placed on Andromeda was long ago, and even Narcissa had said she believed the knife to be an old possession, something likely acquired long before the journal that Hermione was poking through by then.

Suddenly impatient, Hermione flipped through the remaining parts of the diary in her hands, skimming for any further mention of the knife, but there was nothing. By then, it was a habitual possession, nothing to dawdle over describing.

Hermione slammed the book shut. Clearly Bellatrix hadn’t described the knife in any of these…. but why not? There had been detailed accounts of every other piece of minutiae that made up her magical life over these years, including items that were far less significant or impressive than the dagger, and judging by the way she twirled it at her sister, she certainly seemed proud enough of the feat.

Hermione turned the journals over absently as her mind began to wander. Had Bellatrix only started keeping journals at this point in time? Even on the first page of the first journal, she had seemed to be an old hand at this kind of research. She hardly seemed to be finding her way when it came to writing either. Perhaps there had been earlier journals…

Pondering that thought, Hermione suddenly wondered where exactly the journals had come from. There was no reason to believe that they had been stored inside the library itself but she couldn’t shake the idea that they had. Getting up to pace the shelves, she came to a back row, deep within the room, that was clearly rarely touched. The books were dusty and dim, looking as if they were as old as the library itself, and yet not as well-maintained as the other antique tomes that sat on shelves closer to the entrance.

But there was one book that stood out to her. Was it her imagination, or did it seem to be less dusty than the others? Did its cover seem worn in a different way, as if it had been frequently thumbed while the others were left to rot on their shelves? Hermione bent closer to read the spine, and she furrowed her brow to see it declare itself to be a collection of writings by John Locke.

John Locke wasn’t a wizard, at least as far as Hermione knew, and although the man had written three hundred years ago, she was sure his philosophies were still far too progressive for the Malfoys to have in their library much less be reading on any regular basis.

Without considering why she did it, Hermione reached out her hand and pulled the book free. As if out of habit, it fell open to a middle page. The furrow on Hermione’s forehead deepened when she stared into the pages. There were no lengthy paragraphs about political philosophy. In fact, there were no paragraphs at all. Just a single line that seemed to seep out of the page at her. 

You’ve found the lock, now where’s the key?

“What?” Hermione breathed softly. What could that possibly mean? However, she didn’t have long to hypothesize any answers to the riddle. Within a handful of moments, the book was falling from her hands, wrenched away from her by the bookshelf itself. Worse yet, the bookshelf seemed not to be grabbing for the book but for Hermione with dark tendrils that looked like shimmering black smoke.

The shock of the moment was so great that Hermione didn’t even consider grabbing her wand before it was too late, not that she would have had much defense against something that she couldn’t even identify, didn’t even know existed until a moment ago. She screamed as she felt the vining smoke twist like ropes over her limbs with remarkable strength. 

In a swift moment, she found herself tied to the bookcase by her arms, legs and stomach, held just high enough off the ground that her toes dangled in the air like a child at the dinner table.

She was relieved to feel the bookshelf fall still, this apparently being the worst of its defense mechanism. Still, it may not have been deadly, but it was enough. The bookshelf held her there proudly, like it had caught some kind of prize.

Hermione pulled at the restraints on her wrists but to no avail. They were so tight and so strong that her wrist barely moved a millimeter even though she tugged with all her strength. The binds on her legs were no different. She could feel the rough press of them dig into the flesh of her thigh, equally immovable.

She supposed there were worse things that could have befallen her from a cursed book. Still, Hermione imagined the smug, taunting face of Draco finding her in this ridiculous state hours from now when he returned from work. Already, she could feel her cheeks grow hot from the humiliation of it. Besides, how could she explain ending up in this situation in the first place without sounding like a snoop and a thief?

At the sudden sound of soft, hurried footsteps, Hermione froze. She hadn’t heard the door open and her mind went spinning wildly through possibilities of what the library might be sending after her now.

 


 

When Narcissa rounded the last corner of the library, she stopped dead in her tracks. She hadn’t been sure what she expected to find here after hearing that scream. She hoped Hermione had merely managed to startle herself somehow—after all, how many calamities could befall a person in a library? However, she had never expected to find the ridiculous sight that was now in front of her—Hermione strapped to the shelves, held like a prisoner by the one bookcase in the library that could do it. Narcissa’s concern melted away from her features and was replaced by the beginnings of an amused smile.

The young woman’s eyes grew wide at the sight of her; her wrists strained against the binds, but she did not say a word.

“Merlin, what have we here,” Narcissa mused. She approached the book that was lying haphazardly open on the floor. Hermione opened her mouth as if to voice a warning, but Narcissa, of course, knew better than to touch it. She levitated it in the air, letting it close, and slid it back onto its place in the shelves, somewhere beside Hermione’s ribs.

Narcissa raised her eyes to Hermione’s, and considered her petrified form with careful curiosity. Hermione looked terrified, yes, but there was also an unmistakable shimmer of guilt in her eyes. She didn’t look like she was being saved; she looked like she was being caught. Narcissa’s curiosity deepened.

“The library seems to think you’ve been sticking your nose somewhere that you don’t belong,” she said, approaching with slow, measured steps. “What were you looking for, Ms Granger?”

“N-nothing,” Hermione stammered. “I just thought it was odd that you had a Muggle book in here. I picked it up out of curiosity and then… I don’t know what happened.”

Narcissa tilted her head. That seemed far too coincidental. Either Hermione had indeed been looking for something and was now lying about it, or she had the worst luck in all of the Wizarding world. But, if Hermione was willing to lie to her even when tied to a wall, Narcissa at least had to admire her nerve.

Narcissa arched an eyebrow in response. “Well… you know what they say about curiosity.”

Closing the gap between them, Narcissa stepped forward. Hermione squirmed in the restraints even harder than before, as if she could suddenly break free of them, as if Narcissa wasn’t about to free her from them anyway—although perhaps that was less obvious than she would have imagined. It’s not as if she had made a point to be comforting, and Hermione did seem to be up to something.

Narcissa looked down in frustration at the squirming legs that were pushing the ropes further into her skin. She clucked her tongue in irritation. “Relax,” she said. Hermione only tensed further, looking at Narcissa in panic.

With an exasperated huff of laughter, Narcissa fixed Hermione with a firm stare. “I said, relax,” she insisted again, this time in a near whisper. She let her hands rest on Hermione’s thighs, stroking them softly just below where the binds pressed.

A different kind of look came into Hermione’s eyes just then—surprise, and something else, something softer that almost made Narcissa laugh. Well, she supposed that she hadn’t completely lost her touch over these years spent alone. Almost begrudgingly, the young woman did allow herself to fall still.

As soon as she stopped tensing enough for it to be possible, Narcissa’s fingers curled under the binds. She pulled sharply at them and simultaneously whispered the necessary incantation. With it, the ropes loosened and fell away, absorbed back into the shelves from which they came.

With the restraints gone, Hermione crashed towards the floor. She would have fallen flat on her face if it wasn’t for Narcissa grabbing her upper arms, steadying her until she was once again on her feet.

“Are you all right?” Narcissa asked, watching as Hermione panted in relief.

“Yes,” Hermione breathed, pulling back from Narcissa’s supporting hands.. “I think I’ll have bruises where the ropes cut in but that’s the worst of it,” she said, gesturing with her hand.

Narcissa grasped her proffered hand and examined the irritated skin on her wrist. She could feel the pounding, erratic heartbeat pulsing just beneath the skin. The arm of Hermione’s shirt had been pushed up during the ordeal, and the faint beginnings of her scar had begun to show in its absence.

“I’ll ask Todry to bring you a salve for that. We don’t want you leaving here more damaged than you came in,” she said.

“Thank you. And thank you for getting me down. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t shown up,” Hermione said earnestly.

“Of course.” Narcissa nodded in acknowledgement, and she let her eyes rake over Hermione once more. “But be careful in this part of the library, Ms. Granger. Sometimes these old books have a mind of their own.”

With a final nod, she disappeared behind the stack of books behind her, and headed into the hall. For the rest of the morning, she couldn’t get the incident out of her mind.

She didn’t believe the woman’s tale of innocence anymore than she believed Draco’s story about her research. Unfortunately, she could find no plausible story to explain either, much less both of these lies. Draco knew about the safe that hid behind that bookshelf, of course. It had once been Lucius' last hiding place from the Ministry and all of their midnight raids. With Lucius' death, it became a useful place for Narcissa to store the many heirlooms that she didn’t want to see, but with which couldn’t quite bear to part, or didn’t know how to dispose of. But if Draco had told her of the safe for some reason, why would he not tell her how to open it… yet perhaps, Hermione just hadn’t been quick enough.

And what in Salazar’s name could either one of them want with anything hidden in those shelves? It frustrated her so much that all day, she considered storming back into that room and demanding real answers, but she doubted she could extract them. And she didn’t want to see that terrified expression in Hermione’s eyes again. Truth be told, she much preferred that softer, warmer look, that gleam that had come into her eyes for just a moment… and she wasn’t going to do anything to elicit that again either. Narcissa cleared her throat, pushed that thought aside, and strode into her office, looking for any worthy distraction.

 


 

Once the adrenaline from the incident had finally drained out of Hermione’s body, she felt exhausted and confused. She had often been accused of trying to live inside the library, but she had never had one try to make that a reality before. 

Eyeing the bookcases warily, she moved to one of the armchairs in the center of the room. Hopefully this spot was at least out of the reach of any of its tendrils. She opened the book to the page where she had been reading earlier about Lethifold habitats and leaned back.

In the warm light of the fire, however, she struggled to keep her eyes open and on the page. She kept dozing off, and her mind would wander back to the bookcases. Her dreams swam with the memory of rope pressing against her skin, of soft fingers trailing up her thighs. “Relax,” Narcissa’s dark whisper beckoned. She was embarrassed, she was terrified, she was oddly enthralled. Narcissa’s fingers curled under the rope to cut it, but in the dream, Hermione didn’t want her to. If she would just keep trailing her fingers up a little farther… 

“Hermione,” a voice called to her. “Hermione.” A hand was on her shoulder, shaking her awake. 

She opened her eyes to find Draco staring down at her, a familiar smirk on his face. “Is this what you do in here all day?”

“What? No, of course not,” Hermione began to protest. 

He laughed. “I suppose it makes sense that you’re tired. I heard that you got a bit tied up with your work earlier,” he said with a mocking twist of his lips. 

Hermione thought of the dream she was having just before Draco shook her back to reality and her cheeks immediately turned an uncomfortable shade of pink. 

Luckily, Draco misconstrued the source of her coloring. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too embarrassed about it. Mother seemed to find it amusing that the library tried to gobble you up like a midday snack. Besides, weird things happen all the time when you live in an old place like this.”

“Has that ever happened to anyone else here?”

“No, I have to admit, that was a first as far as I’m aware,” he said with a chuckle. 

Hermione looked away and tried to force her cheeks to return to their normal tone. 

“Get out of here, Hermione, it’s late,” Draco said. 

“What? Oh right,” she mumbled.

“Well don’t sound so enthusiastic,” he chided sarcastically. “What, no hot date to look forward to this Friday night, no special lady in your life?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “No, no, there’s no one like that.” She paused and looked him over, considering his seemingly constant state of distress. “Draco?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.

“Why? Looking to switch teams?”

Hermione only raised her eyebrows.

“Not exclusively, no,” Draco shrugged.

“Un-exclusively, then?”

“It’s… Look, it’s complicated, ok?” Draco said in an exasperated tone. 

“Ooh, a tawdry affair, perhaps,” Hermione teased. She could easily imagine Draco with some married older witch, skulking around while her husband was away. She was going to push him farther but when he turned to look at her, he had such a serious, uncomfortable expression on his face that she decided to drop it. "Ok. I’m sorry I asked."

Draco shook his head like it wasn’t a big deal, but she could tell that it was. She got up from her seat and summoned her things. “I’ll see you on Monday, Malfoy,” she said. 

“Don’t miss me too much,” he said, but his attempt at charm fell even flatter than usual. 

Hermione walked out of the library, feeling rather sorry for Draco although she didn’t really know why. After all, what he had said amounted to absolutely nothing. Still, what he didn’t say felt very heavy indeed.

Even once she was home, Hermione found the book still had a hold on her—although admittedly, that was a poor choice of words.

“You’ve found the lock, now where’s the key?” The words kept repeating in her mind like a skipping record.

What a maddening riddle. What kind of key could a book possibly want? It’s not like there was hole for an actual key, besides that would be far too literal for that kind of thing. Equally disturbing to the words themselves, was the way the ink had seemed to seep out of the page like the book had chosen to present them to her.

She had never seen Tom Riddle’s diary, but from Harry and Ginny’s description, it sounded quite a lot like that. Perhaps if the instructions could seep out of the book, something had to sink into it. Like a password written in ink perhaps, or even some kind of potion? Although there were no clues as to what that might be. The book had appeared empty aside from those ominous words. 

Although the magic was clearly not isolated to the book itself. The ropes had risen from the bookshelf not the book. It was just a piece of a larger charm. There might be other clues on the bookcase or in any of the other dusty tomes on the shelf. Not that she was about to go prying into any of them now that she knew the kind of power was lying dormant there. Narcissa had already not believed her story of accidentally stumbling upon the book the first time; if she found her like that again, she would probably leave her there to rot. And who knew if the bookshelf could be counted upon to do the same thing… perhaps there was a harsher punishment for repeat offenders.

“Relax,” Hermione heard like a haunting whisper through her mind. She felt her cheeks warm a little at the thought. 

No, she could not let her mind go there. Forcing the memory from her mind, she focused on cooking dinner as if it was a potions examination. She left no room for any wandering ideas of books and locks and warm fingers on her thighs. 

 


 

Early the following week, Narcissa sat predictably alone at her desk.

It had been long enough since Narcissa had sent her last letter to Andromeda, that she assumed it too had gone either unread, or at the very least, would go unanswered. She had considered sending a third letter, but hadn’t managed to get up the nerve quite yet. Regardless, she had largely given up hope, so that when an unfamiliar owl tapped at her window, she could hardly contain her surprise to see her name spelled out in familiar handwriting.

Narcissa,

I don’t know what you think you want from me now, you certainly haven’t had any use for me these past two decades. And before you offer to explain it all again, I read your first letter. I didn’t respond then because I don’t know what you want me to say. I still don’t. You made your choice twenty years ago, and I have made peace with that. I’m not sure I’m ready to reopen those wounds just because you’ve suddenly had a change of heart.

And I have a feeling that there’s more than what you’re telling me, so if you have some ulterior motive in writing me, I suggest you get on with explaining what it is. Certainly this isn’t the time for more lies.

— A

The tone of the letter stung, but Narcissa knew that she deserved it, at least to some degree; it’s not as if she thought this would be easy. A response, even a curt one, was better than nothing. And Andromeda was right about one thing, Narcissa did have something else she wanted to say, though it was likely not what Andromeda was expecting.

With her ledger in hand to ensure she got it all correct, Narcissa penned her sister an offer. With Bella dead and childless, Narcissa had inherited more money than she knew what to do with. She had considered giving Andromeda her share of their parent’s inheritance before, but she had always been too afraid to make contact. But then to see Andy in that picture with her grandchild, a boy Narcissa hadn’t even known existed until that day… Well, it all seemed more important then.

Narcissa sealed her letter with a resigned sigh. She would take it with her to Athena on her way to the woods this afternoon. In fact, it was getting to be just that time.

 


 

Over the course of the passing weekend, Hermione had managed to put the book from her thoughts—for the most part. The one lingering sensation had little to do with the book, the mystery, or even the soft fingers that had freed her. No, what lingered in her heart was the feeling of foolishness. If she hadn’t been so bull-headed in the first place, perhaps she would have taken the obvious course of action and simply asked Narcissa about the incident with Andromeda that was mentioned in the journals. There was a chance that the conversation might jog her memory of an incident otherwise forgotten, perhaps overhearing a family fight that she didn’t understand. Or, if there was other relevant information to be had, perhaps this would be her opportunity to give it. Surely her chances with Narcissa were better than those of breaking into a trick bookshelf, which she didn’t have any evidence even held what she was seeking other than that prickling feeling she had gotten when she looked at that worn cover.

Thus, Hermione decided she would ask Narcissa. She would get up the nerve and ask her about the entry. Her plan did have a problem, however. She hadn’t the first idea where to find the woman inside that monstrously-sized house. Hermione had no idea how or where she spent her days. She had never once seen the woman inside the walls, at least not outside of the library itself.

The only time Narcissa seemed to be within reach was when she took her afternoon walks into the woods. Speaking of, it was almost that time of day, and Hermione thought that if she hurried, she might have a chance of catching her yet.

Hermione marched out into the dark afternoon and felt a chilly wind brush her cheeks. She tucked herself into an alcove that offered relative protection from the cold, and there, she waited.

It wasn’t long before Narcissa strode out from the same door, pulling her cloak closer around her against the nip of the wind and set off down the pathway. Even from afar, Hermione could see that there was a stony determination in the woman’s eyes, so much so that it seemed unwise to disturb her, but Hermione did not hesitate.

“Mrs. Malfoy,” she called out and watched Narcissa’s steps abruptly slow and stop.

The woman turned around with a curious expression on her face. “Yes, Ms. Granger? Is everything all right?” The concern in her voice was palpable.

“Oh yes, everything is fine,” Hermione hastened to assure her. “I just wanted to talk to you."

Narcissa failed to hide her surprise at that, as if the only reason Hermione might seek her out was to tell of some outrageous calamity… whatever trouble she had managed to get herself into most recently.

“All right,” Narcissa said hesitantly and took a few steps, closing the gap between the two of them and drawing them nearer to the alcove, away from the wind.

Hermione felt as if Narcissa’s eyes were boring into her, searching her for something, and she twitched beneath the sea blue gaze. “I was reading Bellatrix’s journals and I found a passage where she mentioned the knife.”

Narcissa’s expression brightened at that. “Oh?”

“It wasn’t exactly useful ,” Hermione amended. “But she used it to threaten Andromeda, and said that she had cut her with it before. She didn’t go into more detail… the way she spoke of it, it seemed like it had happened a long time ago. I was hoping you might remember it? Perhaps remember Andromeda having a wound that wouldn’t heal?”

Narcissa bit her lip and her eyes seemed to swim into darkness, probing and prying into her mind, but eventually she shook her head. “I don’t remember anything like that. When was this?”

“The diary entry was dated 1974, but she made it sound as if the incident had been years ago.”

“Then I likely would have still been in Hogwarts when it happened, while both of them were living at my parent’s house,” Narcissa mused. “Andromeda never told me that Bella had done that to her… And she hadn’t mentioned the knife at all up until that moment?”

“No, not once.”

Narcissa nodded. Hermione thought she looked troubled, like she was putting certain pieces together in her mind and feeling disturbed at the way they fit. Eventually, Narcissa shook her head. “I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help, truly.”

Hermione shrugged, trying not to let the disappointment claw too deeply into her skin. “I appreciate you trying.”

Narcissa nodded again, only this time, her eyes fixed onto Hermione with that same intensity from earlier. “Were you waiting out here for me?”

Hermione blushed, feeling too foolish to admit it, especially in the face of that growing smirk, the twist of mockery on Narcissa’s lips.

“I was indoors all morning, you could have come to find me in the house,” Narcissa said.

“I didn’t know where you’d be…”

Narcissa drew a step closer, as if about to impart a secret. “In the future, you can always ask Todry where I am. It certainly seems preferable to freezing your fingers off out here in the hopes that I will, at some point, take a walk.”

“Oh, I wasn’t freezing my fingers off,” Hermione said, as if that had been the point of Narcissa’s statement. She reached behind her and picked up a small jar that she had with her in the alcove—a spell jar full of the blue flames she had favored since childhood. “These kept me quite warm.”

Narcissa tilted her head and watched as Hermione stuck her hand into the jar and scooped the flames into her palm. She gestured them towards Narcissa, but the woman looked wary.

“They won’t hurt you,” Hermione said with a slightly teasing tone in her voice.

It was only then that Hermione realized Narcissa was clutching a letter in one hand. It intrigued her, but before she could ask about it, the woman tucked it into her robe and held out an outstretched hand, watching carefully as Hermione tipped the flames onto her glove. When it didn’t start to sizzle, a more genuine smile came over her face, and she transferred the flame from one hand to another, testing it, feeling it.

“They’re so warm, yet they don’t burn. Are these your own creation?”

Hermione nodded.

“Ingenious,” Narcissa mused.

“I’ll be heading in. I’ve already delayed you on your walk, and I’m sure you're growing cold; you can take them with you if you like. They’ll stay warm for another couple hours yet unless extinguished,” Hermione offered.

Narcissa was looking at Hermione as she so often did, as if she had said the exact opposite of what had been expected.

“I think that I shall. Thank you, Ms. Granger.”

It was hardly a gallant gesture, a jar full of fire, but Hermione couldn’t deny the way her cheeks had warmed foolishly at Narcissa’s acceptance, at her praise.

Oh Merlin, that was the last thing she needed, to develop some foolish schoolgirl crush on Narcissa Malfoy of all people. She had already let it get too far just by watching her so often in the afternoons, by thinking of her touch on her thighs so frequently over the past few days. Just because Narcissa hadn’t hexed her the moment she’d walked over the threshold was no reason to start acting like an idiot. And certainly not to show her idiocy so blatantly.

 


 

Later, when Narcissa knelt upon the ground, she placed the jar of blue flames beside her while she worked. She enjoyed looking at them, the curious, flickering illusion of them. Just holding the flames in her fingertips pleased her. At the touch of their warmth, she remembered the proud look on Hermione’s face when Narcissa had complimented them—how easy the girl was to flatter and fluster. That too, made her smile.

Narcissa tried to check her enjoyment of this silly little offering. Normally, she would question whether this token was some kind of trap, but she had a hard time imagining Hermione being capable of such guile. Every flicker of emotion showed so plainly in her face that you would think it was painted there.

And there was something in Hermione’s eyes that was forever catching Narcissa by surprise. It was the way she looked at her. It had been so long since anyone had looked at her— really looked at her as if she was a person rather than just an idea and a distasteful one at that. Strange that such a look should come from Hermione Granger, a person more justified than most to see her as a villain or an archetype of evil, rather than a woman made of blood and bone.

A warmth had spread over Narcissa other than the one emanating from the little blue flames. A foolish sensation undoubtedly. Perhaps after all this time alone, it was she who had become easy to fluster after all.

Chapter Text

Exactly one week after her night at the Ministry, Hermione strode into The Daily Prophet’s headquarters with a quick and nervous step. Her boots clacked heavily, causing echoes through the empty halls and closed-up offices of people who had already left for the evening. The sound was unnerving and her heart beat faster with every footfall.

Hermione couldn’t pretend to have ever enjoyed going to The Prophet’s offices—she generally made a point of doing so as little as possible—but never before had she found herself afraid to be there. But that day wasn’t like any of the others when her presence had been required; she wasn’t going to pitch a story or put in any obligatory time behind her desk. That day, she was there because Mrs. Duvall, her chief editor, had summoned her for a meeting after hours.

Mrs. Duvall rarely summoned anyone so late, especially not Hermione, who was never the one to be chosen for any kind of breaking story that might require a call once the moon had risen.

Nonetheless, Hermione had received a curt message that afternoon, written in her boss' unmistakable pin-straight hand. The letter had given little in the way of explanation for the summons aside from the request—the order, really—that she arrive at the office after business hours had ended.

The anticipation had driven her to distraction all day. She couldn’t fathom what Mrs. Duvall wanted from her, but the strangeness of the call had led her mind down all kinds of silly paths.

When Hermione arrived at the end of the hall, she rapped her knuckles against the large oak door that led to the woman’s office. The door clicked open beneath her touch.

“Mrs. Duvall? You wanted to speak with me?”

“Yes, I sent for you,” the woman said curtly. “Sit down, Ms. Granger.” Her mouth was set into a grim line, and she sounded vaguely tired herself like she too didn’t want to be bothered with this conversation.

Hermione did as she was told and sat down. Was she about to be assigned a story that Mrs. Duvall didn’t want to give? Was that the explanation for this attitude?

“It has come to my attention that a recent article of yours has caused quite a stir at the Ministry… at the DMLE to be specific,” Mrs. Duvall said, her eyes as sharp as a bird of prey, her face equally as pinched. “Quite a stir.”

Hermione gaped back in confusion. Had it? She roamed over her latest article from memory. It had been nothing but fluff as far as she had been concerned, merely details of Hawthorn’s induction speech, printed with a picture of him shaking Harry’s hand, surrounded by clapping Aurors. It had made her roll her eyes, undoubtedly, but a stir? It certainly hadn’t been critical. Critique, as it always was, had been saved for Jean Wilkins’s article—Hermione’s pseudonym that she used at the Quibbler.

Oh.

A moment of hesitant realization began to dawn in Hermione’s mind, and she failed to hide it from her eyes.

“Ah,” Mrs. Duvall said, leaning back in her seat. “I assume that you know what I’m getting at then.”

Hermione thought it imprudent to admit to anything without a direct accusation so she remained silent and as stony as she could force her features to be.

Mrs. Duvall rose from her seat and began to pace the room like a professor giving a lecture. “At first, I didn’t believe the accusations, not of you. Granted, the two of us have never seen eye-to-eye about your… political inclinations, but I thought that we had reached an understanding of sorts. But to use information given to you as a member of this staff during hours for which we paid for the profits of a competitor? That would be a grave breach of conduct to say the least.” The woman considered for a moment. “I had never noticed before, but looking back through the archives, Jean Wilkins is a rather prolific contributor to that magazine. And isn’t your middle name Jean, after all?”

“It is, Mrs. Duvall,” Hermione said. Perhaps she ought to have said more, but that was all she could manage.

She had always known that she wasn’t trying that hard to cover her tracks. When it came to the Quibbler, she largely counted on the assumption that no one at the Prophet ever read the damn thing, much less often enough to put the pieces together to connect this anonymous Jean with herself.

Hermione supposed that that assumption had been accurate. It wasn’t her co-workers who had smelled a rat, but someone inside the Ministry. It was likely Dominic Hawthorn himself; he was the exact sort of man who liked to keep on eye on everything. Even for a politician, he did have a particularly sensitive ego, and Hermione had certainly not pulled any punches—if anything, she had added a couple extra just for fun.

The editor sighed, taking Hermione’s silence to be as good as a confession. “You’ve put me in a rather difficult spot here, Ms. Granger. I would like you to continue writing for us; I’ve always thought your name looked rather good on our bylines whether or not you are proud to see it there. However, I cannot have something like this happening again. Mr. Hawthorn is already furious, although he has yet to learn whether or not his suspicions are correct. You can understand how bad it might look if he were to come down on us—our own reporters moonlighting at that rag, writing propaganda for conspiracy nuts.”

Hermione bristled at that. At first, her reaction had been pure fear, like a child called into the headmaster’s office for breaking the rules. But quickly, her fear began to morph into anger. She wasn’t a child after all; she was a grown woman with opinions that she wanted to express. Who was this woman to tell her she could not just because she paid her for a service? Who was anyone to tell her the only thing she could contribute was a smile and a nod at whatever idiot demanded it of her?

“He will forget in time, however” the editor was saying, “as long as nothing is done to jog his memory.”

Hermione met the woman’s gaze with as much steadiness as she could muster. “So where does that leave us?” she asked.

“We’re willing to keep you on, but you will have to sign a more stringent contract, one that will be magically binding, as you have displayed that your word is not trustworthy enough to count for much on its own.” Mrs. Duvall pulled a piece of parchment from her desk and picked up a quill, offering it in Hermione’s direction.

Hermione scoffed at that. Her word was not trustworthy. It was, she supposed, true in this sense. But it still felt ironic coming from a reporter whose hands were so tied by the Ministry that she could be concerned over one department head’s reaction to critique. It was just like during the war, just like before the war even, under Fudge.

“And what would this contract say, may I ask?” Hermione asked tartly.

The woman eyed her like she wasn’t too keen on Hermione’s attitude to this generous offer. “That while you are in our employ, you will write for no other newspaper, magazine, or any other publication that can be considered to be in competition with The Daily Prophet, nor will you engage in any other activity that might embarrass us.”

The contract shimmered with magic, as if nodding in agreement.

It didn’t even take long enough for a single breath for Hermione to decide upon her answer. Her jaw tightened in rage. “I’m sorry. I cannot make that promise.”

The woman blinked in disbelief and laid the quill on the table beside the parchment.

“You do realize that if you decline, I’ll have no choice but to fire you?”

Hermione would have guessed as much, but to hear it said aloud was an entirely different matter. “Yes, I do realize that,” she said through clenched teeth.

Mrs. Duvall nodded, seeming disappointed, but nothing more. “I see. Well, then that’s that. You will receive your official notice of termination tomorrow during business hours. I suggest you clean out whatever you keep in your cubby before leaving tonight.”

Hermione nodded, feeling tears well up in her eyes, and hating herself for them.

Fired . Nothing spelled failure quite as succinctly as that.

Once at home, feeling as if she was on the edge of some kind of breakdown, Hermione was disappointed to learn the only alcohol she had in the house was some awful wine that Ron had given her last Christmas. She had almost thrown it out then, sure she would never be so desperate as to drink it. If she was in the mood for humor, she might have laughed to think she had finally found a time where it would serve its purpose. When even its dubious contents seemed like a preferable option to facing her reality unaided.

She poured herself glass after glass in a haze of self-pity, until mercifully, she drifted off to sleep.

The next day, Hermione woke up with a start. It was late, and the sun was already high in the sky and yet, she still didn’t feel rested. Although she admitted that a good deal of her grogginess could likely be attributed to the wine rather than lack of sleep.

She got up to make herself a cup of coffee, fetching a hangover potion from the cupboard. Her thoughts threatened to wander to the previous evening, but she did not let them. She could not let them.

There were few things that Hermione feared more than failure. It had been her boggart back in third year after all. Even after all the horrors she had faced since, she thought it might still be the form it would choose now.

Hermione knew if she dwelled on it too long—on the words of her termination notice, on the looks on peoples faces when she inevitably had to tell them—her emotions would consume her. She didn’t have time for that; for now, she needed to be practical.

Beyond the massive blow to her ego, losing her job at The Prophet also dealt a very real blow to the future of her bank account. It may not have been a stellar salary, but it had been the bulk of her income.

Her lease renewal sat on her kitchen counter even now, and she could no longer feel confident about signing it. Surely, she would find another job, but would it be in time? Likely it wouldn’t be before she had drained what little she had collected in savings so far.

No, she would have to leave. Hopefully, it would only be temporary, but at least for now, she had no choice.

It would have been easier if she could have gone to Ginny, but she was in Ireland by then, sharing a flat with some other member of her team. She would have to go to Ron and Harry’s. They’d let her stay in a heartbeat of course, although Harry might not like it much seeing how he had been avoiding her ever since that night at the Ministry. Well, he would just have to get over it. Maybe being forced to see her every day would even do their relationship some good.

Hermione began to sort her things. She could take a couple bags with her—magically extended of course, for convenience—and the rest could be put into storage easily enough. Luckily those places always had such convenient charms for moving things in or out.

As she tried to prioritize, it surprised her to realize that she felt a little sad to be leaving this place. It wasn’t as if she liked it so much, or at all even. Nonetheless it had been hers. And to be leaving it, and not for a larger, more comfortable flat as she’d always dreamed, but for Harry’s couch felt like a slide backward that she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around.

It was then that she heard a knock on her door. “Just a moment” she called, getting up from her floor.

It seemed odd that anyone should be calling on her in the middle of the day. As far as she knew, all of her friends still had their jobs and ought to have been otherwise engaged.

Her mouth fell open in unbecoming surprise when she opened the door only to find Draco standing in the hallway, leaning against the doorframe in mock-casualness. She wasn’t aware that he even knew where she lived.

“Good, you’re alive after all. You had me worried when you didn’t show up this morning, and when I sent an owl to Mother and she said you’d never arrived…” he trailed off and gave her a hard look. “Are you ill? You look like hell.”

Between her poor night’s sleep and her general disheveled appearance, Hermione knew it must be true, but she still didn’t appreciate the remark.

“I’m not ill, Draco, I’m just tired,” she said petulantly and sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I wouldn’t be in today. It completely slipped my mind, but I… well, something else has come up.”

Draco strolled into the flat and looked over the jumble of bags and boxes in the middle of the room. A touch of confusion and concern painted his eyes. “You’re packing? Sorry, am I delaying you in the process of fleeing from the law?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “No, it’s nothing like that.” Giving the briefest possible explanation, she told him about her predicament and her plan to stay with her friends for the time being. “It won’t affect my research. I’ll still be able to come to your house on the same schedule to work.”

Draco furrowed his brow. “I still don’t see why this means you’ll have to leave this place. You have other income, and surely there are better options than moving in with that pair.”

Hermione bristled, instinctively wanting to defend her friends, but she remembered that was not the point at hand, and she took a breath. “I realize that you aristocrats are often out of touch, and I don’t know what you think a flat in London costs these days, but it’s certainly more than what you’re paying me.”

Draco looked around the room dubiously for a moment as if thinking that someone ought to be paying Hermione to live in a place this small. He frowned, deciding to take her word for it. “I’m currently paying you for only a couple days of work a week. Now, you’d have the ability to work on your research full time, and of course your salary would reflect that.”

Hermione hadn’t expected such an offer, and she stared back, weighing her options.

“Although you know you’re still welcome to stay at the Manor if you’d be more… comfortable there,” he continued and gave the room yet another judgmental glance.

Hermione paused and immediately hated herself for even considering it. It seemed less preposterous than it had weeks ago before she’d established a certain level of comfort with the Manor and all of its shadows. But still, it was too strange. She shook her head. “I’d rather keep my own place, Draco. But I will take you up on the rest of your offer. Thank you.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “Then I’ll expect to see you bright and early Monday morning.” He checked his watch and exclaimed that he really had to be off, and in a moment, he was gone.

Hermione wasn’t sure what she was feeling. On the one hand, it was a relief; Draco’s offer did save her from a good deal of her present problems. However, his project becoming her full time occupation seemed less of a relief. She hadn’t been getting very far, and it’s not as if helping Draco with his research was a career, not one with a future anyway. Although she had to admit that it was more of a career than she’d had a few minutes before, and who knew, perhaps it would lead somewhere worthwhile after all.

 


 

As promised, on Monday morning, Hermione found herself once more safely ensconced in the middle of the bookcases she had come to know so well, sitting on a comfortable settee.

She wasn’t sure whether being in that room made her decision to work there full-time seem better or worse. On the one hand, it was easy to fall into a routine. However, as the morning wore on, a pall seemed to form over her mood. She had quickly been reminded how frustrating these books had become, and with only a weekend of shoddy sleep between her and that meeting at the Prophet, her frustration was running high.

So far she had avoided telling anyone but her closest friends about her situation, but at some point, she would have to talk to someone else who would ask her what she did for work. Even saying that her only job was a part-time reporting gig at the Prophet had hardly garnered high praise, but what would she say now that she was a research assistant on a project that was secret from everyone including its subject? Devoting her life to someone else’s farcical lie seemed an odd choice even by her standards.

It was then that she heard the creak of the library door, and she turned, expecting to see Todry, totterring in as always with some unexpected refreshment or other. She could not have been more surprised by the figure that stood before her—a surprise that was mirrored doubly in Narcissa’s wide-eyed stare.

“Oh,” the woman said so softly it was almost inaudible. Pulling herself together, Narcissa strode towards one of the shelves and replaced a book. “I didn’t know you would be working here today, Ms. Granger. You usually don’t come in on Mondays.”

“No, I…” Hermione paused in confusion, her cheeks growing pink. “I’m going to be working here every day for a while… did Draco not tell you?”

Narcissa’s eyes flashed in familiar annoyance and she frowned, just slightly. “No, he did not.”

Hermione looked down, feeling awkward. She had never considered that Draco wouldn’t have even told his mother of her increased presence; she would have hoped he might have asked even. “I’m sorry,” she hastened to say. “I didn’t realize that—”

Narcissa waved her hand in a dismissive gesture, cutting off her explanations. “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault that my son likes to turn everything into a secret or a scheme,” she said with a strained smile and turned back to the bookcases, scanning the titles.

Hermione nodded, relief flooding through her at Narcissa’s relative ease; she didn’t have the energy or the focus this morning for a long-winded apology.

“If you don’t mind my asking though, how is it you have time for that? I was under the impression that this,” Narcissa fluttered her fingers as if to say whatever this actually is, “was… on the side, shall we say, of your actual profession. Is it not?”

Hermione sighed. “It was. When I still had an actual profession, that is.” She averted her eyes from Narcissa’s curious gaze. “I was fired from the Prophet.”

Narcissa raised her eyebrows slightly in surprise and turned back towards the bookshelf, calmly plucking a volume from its grasp. “I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Hermione let out a derisive snort—half at the notion that anyone would be sorry for her to lose such a meaningless job, and half at the emotionless tone with which Narcissa had offered her condolences.

Narcissa turned to face her, looking bemused by the reply. “Accept the sympathy, Ms. Granger. I’m not known for offering it so readily.”

Hermione blanched.“I’m sorry. That was so rude, I don’t know why…”

But Narcissa once again waved her off. “Don’t. It’s not necessary.”

“It’s just that I can’t decide whether it’s anything to be sorry about or not.” Hermione sighed, hating the twinge of emotion that had crept into her voice. No, she was not going to get upset about this. She’d fought off her tears so far, and she would continue to do so, even if they drowned her.

Narcissa nodded as if Hermione’s vague explanations meant anything at all. “Well I hope that whatever happened with your employer, the two of you will find a way to reconcile,” she said and turned on her heel to leave.

“That’s not going to happen, not after the way I behaved. At this point, they probably wouldn’t take me back even if I got on my knees and begged. Which I won’t,” she amended. “Although it has crossed my mind a few times this morning.”

The woman turned back and looked at her as if she couldn’t understand why Hermione was still speaking; Hermione wasn’t sure herself. 

They were both silent as Hermione pondered whether or not to apologize yet again for words spilling out of her mouth without regard for whether her audience cared to hear them. When she had said nothing for a number of seconds, Narcissa sat down beside her on the couch with an expectant look on her face.

“Oh, I…” Hermione said, unsure what protest she should make. 

“You obviously want to talk about it. So, talk about it,” Narcissa said, or rather commanded, Hermione felt.

Hermione opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She wasn’t sure that an heiress was exactly the person to talk to about the perils of losing a day job, but the woman did seem surprisingly willing to listen. And, Hermione reasoned, Narcissa likely did understand a thing or two about failure and regrets.

“I was… well suffice it to say that I was breaking my contract.” Hermione rolled her eyes at herself; there was no reason to beat around the bush now. “I was writing for another paper under a pseudonym, writing opinions that the Prophet would never put into print, namely, anything that criticized the Ministry,” she confessed.

Narcissa nodded and tilted her head in understanding; Hermione felt encouraged to go on.

“And I…. Well I wasn’t even being smart about it. Looking back, maybe I was trying to get caught, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just saying that now to soothe my ego since trying or not, I did get caught. But either way, they called me into the office like a naughty schoolgirl, and they gave me an ultimatum, telling me that I had to stop writing for anyone else, working it all into some magically binding contract to sign. And I know it’s their right to do so, they have ideals and they want them upheld, but so do I, and I just…. I just couldn’t lower myself to that. It was one thing to be a sort of double agent, but to offer up my entire life to them—those cowards, those shallow hypocrites…”

Hermione took a breath and tried to steady the tremble that had made its way into her voice. “In the moment, it felt brave, but now I’m not sure it wasn’t pure foolishness. The job wasn’t the best, but it was something. And I have to do something .” Her voice cracked and she swallowed hard. “And it was what I was supposed to do, or some version of it anyway. Now…”

Narcissa was staring at her, studying her carefully with a startling depth of sympathy in her eyes. She let out a slow sigh. “I can’t pretend to know the details of your situation, Ms. Granger,” she began slowly. “But I can tell you that it’s rarely wise to give in to those sorts of ultimatums, not if you feel the cost is so high. Nothing good will come of that, not in the end. You’ll keep whatever you fear losing—in your case, your status in society, and your sense of achievement, I suppose—but you’ll resent it all the same. Whatever’s good about it will soon be long gone and what’s worse, there won’t be much left of you either. And that… well, that is far too great a loss.”

Hermione wondered whether Narcissa was mostly projecting some part of her own past onto the situation, but the sentiment rang true nonetheless—in fact, it hit a little too close to home. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve already lost who I was,” she said in a small voice. “I keep thinking I’ll bounce back if I can just find the cause…”

“You’ll never be who you used to be,” Narcissa said. “It might not be comforting, but it’s true. You’re a headstrong, capable young woman, and I’m sure you’ll find a path, perhaps even one that makes you happy. However, you can’t pick up the path you left years ago, or the path a different version of yourself might have taken. We can’t force ourselves to be who we’re not, nor who our loved ones would like us to be, no matter how much we’d like to.”

“Merlin,” Hermione breathed quietly and ran her fingers through her hair. It felt like something had cracked inside her at the feeling of finally being seen in this way, understood even. Everyone else seemed to think she could just dust herself off and get back on the broom, fly the designated course. But Narcissa was telling her exactly what she knew to be true. “I think you’re right…. I mean, I know you are, really. I can’t go back there, not without putting the last nail in the coffin of my self-respect. But God, wouldn’t it be so much easier if you were wrong?” She offered Narcissa a small smile, knowing how silly it must look with her eyes brimming with tears.

To Hermione’s amazement, Narcissa placed a comforting hand over Hermione’s own and gave it a gentle squeeze. The long pale fingers were surprisingly warm against her palm.

She looked up at Narcissa in shock. When their eyes met, Hermione found herself drowning in the tumultuous seas of blue that stared back at her, the sympathy, the pain, all the feeling that was now visible to her beneath the cracking floes of ice. There was so much in those eyes that she had never seen before, which most people had likely never seen before.

Narcissa made as if to pull her hand away, but Hermione grabbed her fingers and held them tighter. She couldn’t let the moment break—whatever it was—not yet. It had been too long since she had felt so much understanding from another person, and now she clung to it with a desperate grasp.

A slight furrow formed in Narcissa’s brow but she let her hand lie still.

For just a moment longer, Hermione felt lost in those eyes, pulled into them like a whirlpool. She felt herself easing forward, shrinking the gap, longing for the comfort she found in those azure depths.

And she thought that for an even slighter moment, Narcissa did the same, falling towards her as if by the will of gravity.

But the moment was indeed slight, and before more than two inches could be gained on either side, Narcissa blinked rapidly and a startled expression came into her eyes. Abruptly, she straightened, slipping her fingers from Hermione’s grasp with a firm pull. She cleared her throat.

“Well, I’ll leave you to continue your work then,” Narcissa said in a crisp, dignified tone. Once more, her eyes looked cold, icy, unreadable, so different from the thaw of a moment before. She offered a small, perfunctory smile in Hermione’s direction before turning and walking out of the room with such speed that she left her book sitting on the table. She did not return for it.

 


 

Narcissa rushed out of the room without a destination, striding through the halls with the sole aim of putting as much space between herself and the library as was possible. Her feet took her towards her bedroom where she closed herself inside and let her head fall against the door.

Salazar, why did she still feel so flushed? And more importantly, what had just happened back there?

She shook her head and reminded herself that the answer was nothing , nothing at all had happened.

While that was basically true, that nothing had truly happened, Narcissa had felt that momentary shift in the air, noticed the way Hermione had looked at her, the way her face had eased forward ever so slightly in Narcissa’s direction. The way she herself had inadvertently followed suit, tilting slightly forward as it on instinct—a maladaptive, highly inadvisable instinct.

It wasn’t that Hermione wasn’t an attractive young woman, certainly she was, but that was far beyond the point—almost laughably beyond the point. Besides, it wasn’t about her attractiveness anyway, not really. It was only that suddenly, in that moment, in that conversation, Hermione could have been a mirrored version of Narcissa’s own younger self—stuck on a path she had thought she wanted, disappointed at every turn. Except Hermione had known her own mind early enough to realize her mistakes and correct them before she had thrown away decades of her life, before she had more regrets than she could carry.

Even so, Narcissa knew that pain and the fear of being a disappointment when all you’ve done thus far in life was please. It was so easy for her to feel too deeply for Hermione’s predicament. That’s what had done it in the end, that’s what had caused Narcissa to be so lost in the moment, so lost in the expression of those dark, glistening eyes that she nearly lost her sense of reason.

She laughed at herself and rested her head in her hands. Well that certainly made her sound like a narcissist to say all it took to steal a kiss from her was to remind her of herself.

Not that they had kissed , she reminded herself more forcefully this time.

At the thought, she forced her thundering heart to slow; she forced her mind to cool as she pushed it all into the dark subconscious part of her mind. If there was one talent Narcissa thought she could rely upon with any sort of certainty, it was this—shoving unruly emotions into the void.

With a colder outlook, Narcissa thought over the scene again. She supposed that she had learned one thing from all of this: Hermione was attracted to her, and even more so than she had supposed before.

She pitied the young woman if that was the case, and yet… There came a thought from what was either the best or the worst part of her, depending on who you asked, the part that had found her sorted into Slytherin all those years ago. She thought that Hermione’s feelings could be… useful in the quest of figuring out what she was doing under this roof.

Narcissa had often seen her own beauty as little more than a curse, and she was used to using it more as a weapon than anything else. Even so, she found that her fingers twitched in distaste at the thought of doing so in this case. It seemed wrong to take advantage of Hermione’s feelings with all her blushing cheeks and fluttering glances, not to mention her strength, her nerve, the way she let her golden gaze linger.

She sighed. No, she wouldn’t do anything drastic, she wouldn’t court her affections. However, it might not be so bad to let the situation play out and see how events unfolded.

Narcissa resolved to do just that, thinking only of Hermione’s entranced gaze, and conveniently forgetting that she too had leaned in towards Hermione’s lips even if it had been just a hair’s breadth.

 


 

Hermione didn’t leave the library for the rest of the day. In her desire not to think too much about what had just happened, she threw herself into her work. It seemed like a decent plan for distraction, not that it worked in the least, mind you.

All afternoon, thoughts circled back and back to the moment on the sofa, covering Hermione with a wave of shame that grew stronger every time it returned.

Assuming she had managed to close that gap, what had she planned to do? Kiss her? And then what? How far would she have taken it?

A brief image flashed through Hermione’s mind, and she hated how enticing it seemed, how it turned her cheeks crimson. Oh Merlin. Oh Circe. She offered up curses to long dead men and deities in which she didn’t believe. She had let this attraction get much too far out of hand ever since that day at the bookshelf. And worst of all, Narcissa surely knew, if she hadn’t realized it before.

Granted, Narcissa must have felt pretty desperate herself to indulge the moment for even the brief second in which she too had leaned in… before she had run out of the room as surely as if Hermione had been about to slap her, leaving only her book—something about flowers, oddly enough—as evidence that the event had taken place at all.

She kept picturing that shocked look on Narcissa’s face when she realized what Hermione was doing, and it flooded her with embarrassment.

With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Hermione wondered whether Narcissa would tell Draco about the incident when he returned home, just as she had with the bookshelf. She could easily imagine how he might waltz into the library later. “Feeling a bit desperate, eh Granger? Oh yes, Mother found it quite amusing that you tried to stick your tongue down her throat this afternoon,” he would say with a snide chuckle.

Wincing at the thought, Hermione checked the clock. It was getting late, and Draco could be home at any moment. He would wander into the library to check on her as he always did when he arrived. If she was going to avoid the encounter, she needed to make her escape now.

Cautiously, she peaked outside the library door and heaved a sigh of relief to find the hall mercifully deserted. She crept like a burglar towards the exit. However, just as she had put her foot on the marble floor of the foyer and was about to make a dash for it, the front door flew open, and Draco walked in.

Hermione froze.

Worse yet, she heard Narcissa’s soft step approaching from down the hall. “Draco, perfect timing. Todry’s just said dinner will be ready any moment,” she said. 

“Wonderful. I’m famished,” Draco said, shrugging off his coat. “Did I miss anything while I was away?”

Hermione tensed.

“No, dear, nothing at all,” Narcissa said.

At that, Hermione breathed an audible sigh of relief.

“Ah, Hermione, how are you feeling on your first day free of The Prophet? I take it we’ve done everything to make you comfortable? Fulfilled your every desire?” Draco asked with a saccharine smile.

Hermione nearly choked on the air in her lungs at the question. She wished she could melt into the floor.

Narcissa’s eyes widened and her gaze looked a bit too fixed on an empty spot across the room, but otherwise she did not react.

“Yes, perfectly,” Hermione said hesitantly.

“Good, well since you’re still here, how about we treat you to a decent meal?” he offered.

Hermione looked from Draco to his mother with shock. She was fairly certain that there was nothing she would like less than to accept that invitation. “Thank you, Draco, but I have plans tonight,” she lied.

Draco raised his eyebrows, looking surprised, which Hermione found insulting. She could have plans.

“Then I suppose I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.

“Yes. See you in the morning,” she said as she hurried towards the door.

“Enjoy your evening, Hermione,” Narcissa’s cool smooth voice rang out from behind her, pulling her back as surely as a summoning charm.

When Hermione turned, Narcissa’s gaze was steady, making no acknowledgement of the unprecedented use of her first name.

“Same to you,” Hermione squeaked, and hurried from the house and back to London.

Chapter Text

The following morning, Hermione walked into the library and sat down to her work with a new feeling of clarity. She had done her best to put yesterday’s events behind her and focus on the silver lining of her predicament. Although not in a way of her choosing, Hermione had managed to find a bit of temporary freedom from her constricting life—or at the very least, a cage that allowed for a wider wingspan—and she vowed to make the most of it while it lasted.

She didn’t want to read any more of the magical creature texts; surely, she had gleaned every possible bit of information from them. It was time that she tried to find an idea of her own.

Weirdly enough, it had been Bellatrix’s journals that had sparked a glimmer of inspiration. The neat stack of dark leather seemed to stare at her from across the room, asking her if she truly had so little originality that all she could do is read the words of long-dead cowardly men and hope they held an answer. Certainly Bellatrix never would have stopped there. Even if the men did have the answer, she would have scoffed at it and found a different solution of her own.

Hermione twirled her quill between her fingers, and she thought of Bellatrix’s experiments with other emotional manifestations, if that was what they were. A Patronus was really all anyone had to go on when it came to protection from a dementor. And a Patronus was happiness, but what was happiness in the magical sense? If it could be manifested, made corporeal in this manner, along with other emotions as Bellatrix had proven, why not other forms with other uses? A potion perhaps… a different sort of spell… something that could be consumed in order to root the same darkness out of a mind…

The thought was equally invigorating and intimidating. Hermione may have modified charms for her own uses before, however, this kind of spell composition would be something else entirely. It was beyond even N.E.W.T. level magic and certainly no one had taught it at Hogwarts. But information did exist on the subject. Merlin knew that Bellatrix had little issue finding enough information to fuel her own experiments. 

Hermione paced the shelves and greedily grabbed a few books on magical composition theory and analysis. They were thick and heavy, centuries old at least, and the weight of them felt pleasant in her arms. She settled into a comfortable chair and began to read.

The books were dense and complicated, not that that fact bothered Hermione much—in fact, she rather relished it. She didn’t even notice that she hadn’t moved in hours until she heard Todry’s squeaky voice from behind her.

“Miss Hermione, you’re still in that chair?” he asked with a disapproving tut that reminded her of her mother.

Hermione laughed. “Yes, I am, I—” but then she checked the time and had to do a double take. It was just after two in the afternoon. “Is that really the time?”

“Yes Miss,” Todry said. He tugged at her arm just slightly. “Why don’t you get up and stretch your legs. Sitting in here can’t be good for you, and don’t you usually take a walk long before this?”

Hermione allowed herself to be led to her feet and towards the door. “I do, yes,” she said with a chuckle. “I suppose a walk wouldn’t hurt; the books will still be there waiting for me in a half hour.”

But when Hermione went to grab her cloak from the hall closet, a walk no longer seemed so appealing. She may have been willing to go out in most weather, but on that day, the winter wind was whipping around mercilessly, making the bare branches of every tree shiver, and a cold mist of rain was hanging in the air with a bone-chilling dampness.

Hermione thought that even Narcissa, with her ever-invariable schedule, might not have been bold enough to venture into the woods that afternoon.

Regardless, it was clear that the bleak, landscape was begging to be left alone and she didn’t feel in the least bit compelled to defy it. 

However, stuck inside as she was, Hermione wasn’t sure what she ought to do with an afternoon break. There were only a few pages of the final journal left that she hadn’t read fully, but skimming through it had made its pages seem as fruitless as all the rest. She couldn’t handle another dose of disappointment, not yet.

Instead, she grabbed the latest edition of The Quibbler from her bag and walked from the library. Even if she couldn’t go outside, a change of scenery would still be welcome, and there were plenty of other rooms with couches and chairs where she could spend an hour or so.

Having little idea of the layout of the house or in which rooms she would be welcome, she headed towards the sitting room where she had been received for that first afternoon tea. It seemed like a good plan, and she was rather proud of herself for finding the right door at all. At least, she was proud until the door swung open and she met the eyes of Narcissa staring at her from a small table at the end of the room.

“Good afternoon,” Narcissa said, looking at her with a puzzled expression.

“Oh, hello,” Hermione said awkwardly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in here.”

“You don’t have to apologize. You’re a guest in this house. You don’t have to merely scuttle from the library to the gardens and back,” Narcissa said.

When Hermione still stood in the doorway, dumb-struck and awkward, Narcissa waved her hand towards the sitting area in a slightly impatient gesture.

There was really no way for Hermione to leave now, at least not without seeming incredibly rude. With a hesitant step, she took a seat on one of the armchairs, the one that sat furthest away from Narcissa. She opened her magazine to peruse it as she had intended, however, she found that she wasn’t getting very far. Her eyes kept drifting up furtively to Narcissa who had not only fallen silent, but was ignoring her as thoroughly as if she hadn’t been there at all.

Then slightly calmer, Hermione stole a longer glance and noticed that the woman was playing chess although she was entirely alone. The board seemed to be enchanted, playing back in its turn. Narcissa looked incredibly focused with her hands folded delicately beneath her chin, straying occasionally towards the board to direct a piece. All the while, her eyes drifted over the game with thoughtful intensity, and her long blonde hair draped elegantly over her shoulders.

Hermione narrowed her eyes in confusion when she realized that Narcissa was not vocally directing her pieces as she had come to expect from Wizard’s Chess. In the silence of the room, even the softest whisper would have been heard. Was she actually moving the pieces by hand?

Apparently far more aware of eyes upon her than Hermione would have hoped, Narcissa spoke abruptly. “Do you play, Hermione?” she asked. She hadn’t so much as raised her eyes from the board.

Hermione was so surprised by the address that she nearly let her magazine fall from her lap. Her fingers scrambled after it, and she cleared her throat. “I know how to play, but I’m not very good.”

Narcissa turned to her then and tilted her head in consideration. “I’m not sure I believe you. From what I hear of your accomplishments, it seems you excel at nearly everything.”

Narcissa’s tone had been crisp and business-like, but Hermione still reddened at the praise.

“I excel at a great deal of things, but chess has never been one of them.”

She thought she saw Narcissa’s lips twitch into an almost-smile at the slight cockiness in the reply, but it disappeared as quickly as it came.

“Well would you care to try?” Narcissa gestured to the seat across the table from her.

For a moment, Hermione didn’t say anything. Certainly it should have been obvious that this was where the conversation had been leading, but the invitation still caught her off-guard.

At the prolonged silence, Narcissa shifted in her seat impatiently. “I’ll even let you play white if you prefer.”

“Er—yes, all right,” Hermione said reluctantly. She put down her magazine and took a seat opposite Narcissa.

She felt as if she was sitting on a knife’s edge as the woman watched her, waiting for her to make the first move.

She had no strategy to speak of, so she simply picked a pawn and decided to move it forward and hope for the best. She made as if to grab the piece with her hand but stopped at the sight of Narcissa’s judgmentally raised brows.

“Well you don’t speak to move the pieces,” Hermione said peevishly.

Narcissa gave a rather smug smile at that. “No, that’s only for English boards; this is French.”

Before Hermione could ask her what exactly she was supposed to do with that information, Narcissa placed her own hand over Hermione’s, and hovered them above the pawn Hermione had been aiming for. Narcissa curled all but one of Hermione’s fingers in, and a jolt of magic ran through her hand, connecting her fingers with the piece. The warm tingle from the charm seemed to fill Hermione’s whole body, sending a shiver down her spine.

Narcissa guided her finger forward and the pawn moved smoothly under their combined command. “Just like that,” she said softly and released her grip on Hermione’s hand.

Hermione struggled to swallow. “Thank you,” she managed to say in a squeaky voice.

Narcissa smirked openly at Hermione’s reaction before returning to her own pieces and taking her move.

Merlin, was this woman teasing her?

Hermione shook her head; at least there was a distraction. Grateful for it, she threw all of her attention into the first game of chess she’d played in years.

The game was as brutal as they came—and not just because Narcissa was a skilled and ruthless player. The chess set itself had a kind of cold viciousness that made Hermione’s stomach twist even more than the violent English boards she had gotten used to over the years. When a piece was captured, rather than smashing it to bits with senseless barbarism, the conquering piece would grab its quarry and silently, emotionlessly slit its throat. It may have only been bits of marble, but the sight was oddly disturbing.

Narcissa watched without any sign of the same discomfort that Hermione was feeling. Her eyes flickered with satisfaction as piece after piece of Hermione’s fell in bloodless slaughter before her. After what felt like an eternity—but what was really an embarrassingly short amount of time for a chess game—Narcissa had backed Hermione’s king into a corner. It fluttered helplessly in its cage created by the rook and the bishop before the Queen finally approached and cut off the only means of escape in the final checkmate.

The head of the king fell to the board with a dark thud as the queen tossed it aside.

Hermione looked at the board with a helpless sort of frustration. She didn’t know what to say.

“What do you know, you were right. You’re not very good,” Narcissa said, breaking the silence.

Hermione sighed pointedly. She had said as much, and she had known it to be true, but it still hurt some part of her ego to be told so bluntly. “Well, at least you know I wasn’t lying,” she said, a light petulance creeping into her voice.

Narcissa fixed her with a steady, pointed stare. “I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s really a much better game for a Slytherin than a Gryffindor anyway.”

She didn’t know if Narcissa was purposefully twisting the knife, but if she was, she was doing an excellent job of it.

“How so?” Hermione asked.

“Because in chess, cunning will get you much farther than bravery. Charging forth into danger in your opening may earn you a few early gains, but you must think it through to the end… bide your time, manipulate your opponent into making mistakes, revealing their weaknesses. It’s almost impossible to win through brute force alone, or at least it would have been if you’d had any strategy at all.” Narcissa sighed. “Care to try again?”

“I would,” Hermione said, her stare equally steely. She didn’t like to fail at anything and she especially couldn’t stand someone telling her how soundly she had done so. She wondered if Narcissa was counting on as much to rope her in, but the answer made little difference since either way, it had worked.

As the game progressed, Hermione thought she was doing better. She was thinking further ahead, not getting caught up in the traps that Narcissa was setting time after time with her expendable pieces.

Midway through the game, Hermione smiled smugly. She saw an opportunity to make a strong capture and she raised her hand to make it. However, before her finger could fully connect with the piece that she was aiming for, Narcissa raised her own hand and clasped Hermione’s fingers within her own.

“You don’t want to do that,” Narcissa said calmly.

“Why?” Hermione asked, flustered by the sudden contact.

“Because the game will be over in five moves,” Narcissa said without releasing her grip on Hermione’s hand.

When Hermione looked at the board blankly, Narcissa sighed in exasperation and released Hermine’s fingers. Ghosting her hands over the pieces, she explained. “If you claim my bishop with your rook as you intended, I will move the knight to attack, you will be forced onto the defensive as I could claim your rook or also your queen…” Narcissa continued to explain and Hermione could see it so clearly. By playing the move she had found so clever, she was playing exactly into her opponent’s hand.

“And then I will be free to check the king,” Narcissa concluded.

Hermione flushed in embarrassment, realizing that she had thought she was doing so much better than she actually had been. “Then why stop me if it would let you win? Isn’t that what you want?”

“I’d rather make you into a worthy opponent… and then, still win of course,” Narcissa said, her lips curling wryly.

“So what would you have me do?” Hermione asked. She knew she sounded sulky, but she couldn’t help it.

Narcissa moved one of Hermione’s rooks and raised her eyes to watch her reaction.

“So I block the check and corner your bishop simultaneously,” Hermione said slowly in understanding.

“Precisely.” Narcissa nodded. “You force me to retreat, cutting off my path to the king. And this allows you to attack.”

Nodding, Hermione took a breath and they resumed play.

 


 

Narcissa was surprised by just how much time passed that way. With every game’s conclusion, Hermione was more than willing to start again. All the while, she could practically hear the young woman’s brain reeling through possible tactics and all the triumphs or pitfalls that might follow.

So much could be learned about a person from the way they played this game. Hermione, in particular, had such an urge to charge into every opportunity, as headstrong and stubborn as she was in life, and yet she was so clever. You could almost hear her thoughts as she halted her instincts and tried to check those unproductive urges with logic in equal measure.

With the occasional prod from Narcissa’s hand, Hermione’s strategy did improve—faster than anyone else she had ever met, in fact—but still, it had never been enough to let her win, nowhere near it even.

By then, Hermione had backed herself into a corner and she found herself on the defensive without any idea how to turn the tides of the game to her advantage. She pulled her last bishop out of harm’s way, and in the process she didn’t even realize that she had left her queen dangling. Narcissa gave her a satisfied grin as she claimed the piece as her own. The end of the game was inevitable.

“Goddamn it,” Hermione exclaimed. She pushed herself back from the table with so much frustration that they both startled at the noise of the chair legs squeaking against the floorboards.

Hermione looked up, suddenly apologetic, but Narcissa wasn’t offended. In fact, she couldn’t help but laugh, amused at the childish outburst over a game that was generally played so seriously.

Hermione’s eyes twinkled golden in the light, wariness giving way to relief, eventually giving way to humor of her own. She smiled and touched her reddening cheeks. “Merlin, I’m being ridiculous. I know it’s just a game, but… but goddamn it!” she said again. This time her voice was brimming with laughter.

For a handful of moments, they sat there laughing at nothing over the abandoned final pieces of the game.

Just then, the door to the sitting room opened, and both women turned to face Draco, still bright-eyed and smiling. 

Draco stopped dead in his tracks, and looked at them with surprise. He blinked rapidly, as if ensuring that they were in fact both there before him. “What are you two doing together?” he asked in a harsh voice.

Narcissa raised an eyebrow, feeling that his shock was no excuse for him to forget his manners, and certainly not to use such an accusatory tone with her.

“Why, we’re knitting, Draco, obviously,” she said, gesturing to the chess set that still sat between them.

Hermione gave a soft snort of laughter from across the table.

Draco sniffed indignantly, always taking himself far too seriously to allow even the smallest joke at his own expense. “There’s no need to be sarcastic, Mother,” he said, bending to kiss her cheek in greeting.

Gathering a bit of his composure, he surveyed the board. “I take it you haven’t managed to beat her yet?”

“Not even close, I’m hopeless,” Hermione said with a laugh. 

“Not surprising, I’ve given up trying myself,” Draco said.

Narcissa was surprised by the note of pride in his voice. It had been a long time since she’d heard anything of the sort from him, at least when it came to her.

She turned to Hermione and smiled. “She’s being modest. Hermione has… potential.”

Hermione’s lips fell apart just a bit at the compliment and Narcissa had to fight a smirk. She hadn’t actually intended to toy with the girl this way, but it seemed any glance, any kind word, certainly any touch, no matter how brief, was enough to bring color to Hermione’s cheeks. And by then, Narcissa had decided she rather enjoyed seeing it happen.

Draco frowned and raised his eyebrows in an impressed sort of expression. “A higher compliment than most receive, I assure you,” he said. Turning from Hermione to Narcissa his tone turned more business-like. “Mother, if you have a few minutes, I have some paperwork from the bank that I need you to sign.”

“Of course,” Narcissa said.

Draco had already turned and left the room, waiting for his mother to follow.

Hermione rose with her. “I suppose I’ll go back to the library, then.”

Narcissa was surprised to hear a note of disappointment in her voice. “Have you…” she started, and then paused, losing her nerve for a moment. “I assume you have finished the last of Bella’s journals since we last spoke. I had meant to ask—”

“Nothing. Nothing about the knife anyway. Technically I have a few pages left of the last one, but I’ve skimmed it already and… nothing.”

Narcissa knitted her brows. That had been what she’d expected, but it still came as a disappointment. And even more so, her heart clutched to see Hermione’s face so crestfallen, and to hear how she was postponing that final blow, as if she knew she couldn’t handle it. Perhaps it was time after all to try something else, to go to a less likely source. But she didn’t want to get the girl’s hopes up. She could handle that later on her own.

With a final grim nod, Narcissa rose from her seat and left the room.

 


 

With the Malfoys otherwise engaged and another two hours before the end of her day, Hermione strolled back to the library at last. So much for the short break that she had intended to take. Although she could hardly consider the time wasted, not when it was one of the more enjoyable afternoons that she’d spent in a long time.

Narcissa’s praise of her performance had left her feeling nearly giddy… as did the collection of teasing smirks that the woman kept giving her every time she had made a mistake, or got herself flustered over something trivial. She knew it was dangerous to indulge any of those feelings, especially since Narcissa seemed to catch on to every one. However, knowing it was a problem and being able to stop it were different matters entirely.

Hermione opened the magical composition books to where she had left them. At the end of a chapter, the book detailed a beginner’s spell to reveal traces of magic, the way curse-breakers do, although this spell was more generalized than the ones that searched specifically for the dark.

“All magic leaves traces,” the book reminded her. “The trouble was learning how to decipher what lingers behind.”

Hermione chose something simple and levitated a book above the end table, letting it hover for a moment and then fall with a soft thud back to its surface. Then she spoke the incantation. Strands of magic shimmered before her; some were clear as the original blast of the spell, some were more like shadows, something she could feel, sense but not quite see. She made notes, documenting her observations as meticulously as she could.

She tried a few other spells with a similar process and compared her notes for patterns that continued to elude her. 

Her heart was beating too quickly, and her head was swimming from the thought of something new, something satisfying at long last. It added to the already warm, prickling feeling that lingered on her skin from the chess game.

With a rash sort of excitement, Hermione cast a Patronus charm and watched her silvery otter glide through the room with ease. But when she moved to cast her own tracing charm upon it, she wasn’t sure where to aim. No object had been enchanted, there was only the Patronus itself, and it kept moving through the room in an elusive, slippery prance.

“Stop moving,” she muttered to it without any success. She tried to cast the tracing spell again, even tried to freeze the Patronus itself, but it slipped through her attempts like she wasn’t even there. Eventually, she had no choice but to give up and watch it fade into the ether. 

If she was going to analyze it, she was going to need to contain it. 

She picked up a spell jar, the same kind that she used to contain her blue flames. They were somewhat impervious to magic, intended for the very purpose of holding onto a charm without allowing it to dissipate. Admittedly, holding a Patronus may be asking a bit much of it, but it didn’t have to hold onto the thing indefinitely, just give her a few seconds to cast a tracing spell. When it could no longer hold it, the charm on the jar would break and the Patronus would slip through it as easily as it did anything else, Hermione assumed.

Perhaps too invested in the high of her experiments and the afternoon to consider the wisdom of what she was doing, Hermione put her wand to the lip of the jar. With a breath to bolster her bravery, she whispered the words “Expecto Patronum,” and an otter shot out of the tip of her wand and into the glass prison before it.

Unfortunately, the otter didn’t stop there. Hermione had been right to assume the spell jar’s charm couldn’t hold it for long. What she hadn’t counted on was the charm breaking so violently that the jar shattered into pieces and Hermione found herself blown backwards by the sheer force of it.

She slammed against a bookshelf behind her with an aching crash, causing a number of books to tumble onto the floor around her as she groped aimlessly at the shelves in a futile attempt to stop her fall.

Struggling to right herself, she pushed herself into a semi-upright position. 

During the fall, she had caught her hand on the sharp edge of one of the jar’s shards, and it was now bleeding freely. She didn’t have time to think about it until her blood-wet palm met with the pages of an open book on the floor. She pulled it away as quickly as she could, but not quickly enough that the page could escape a telling stain of red.

Her stomach sank into the ground when she saw the book beneath her. The words before her were all too familiar, seeping out at her in dark, black ink.

You’ve found the lock, now where’s the key?

“No, not this, not again,” Hermione said. She struggled to orient herself with the aim of getting as far away from the bookshelf’s grasp as possible. But to her surprise—and horror—the bloodstain on the book seeped into the pages like rain into parched earth.

When the last drops of wine red liquid had been sucked into nothing, the book’s old words faded away to be replaced by a new, even more haunting phrase seeping from its pages.

A perfect fit.

Before she could wonder what that possibly meant, she heard a loud click and the bookshelf where John Locke had been housed popped ajar, revealing a small space behind that was crammed with shelves worth of objects and books. 

“Honestly? You require a blood sacrifice?” Hermione exclaimed. “What kind of place…” But before she could get out the question, she looked around at the imposing dark shelves that seemed to look even more austere than usual as if reminding her exactly what kind of place this was. 

Grudgingly, she had to admit that this was exactly the sort of place that would require such a sacrifice. 

And what was the “key” in any Malfoy’s mind? Blood. Magical blood. She felt somewhat vindicated that hers had worked, that it hadn’t been able to tell the magic of one family’s pure blood from her own. But that victory would have to wait. For now, she perked her ears towards the library door. With all the commotion she must have made in her fall, she’d expected to attract some attention. She waited for Narcissa, or Draco, or Todry even to burst into the room and ask her what had happened. But all was silent.

Hermione was alone in the room with a bleeding hand, and a bookshelf, wide open revealing a room, no larger than a closet behind.

Accidental though it was, with the riddle solved at last, she couldn’t not go inside now could she? Not when the shelves seemed to be waiting almost eagerly for her entrance. With an emboldening breath, she pulled the bookcase open as wide as it would go and stepped beyond the threshold. 

A part of Hermione expected the door to slam shut behind her, trapping her in the dark little cupboard inside the walls, but it did not stir. Feeling a little braver at that, she began to scan the shelves.

There was an intimidating amount of boxes in this small space, some of which held bottles and objects that Hermione wasn’t anywhere near brave enough or stupid enough to touch. It seemed like a good deal of the darker objects that existed in the house had been locked away in this little hollow. 

But one shelf caught her eye. There was a neat row of black books—five or six at the most—that looked very much like Bellatrix’s journals, although a bit more worn than the ones that Hermione had been used to paging through these past few weeks. 

With a ginger grasp, Hermione picked up one journal and turned to the back cover. Embossed in the back was the familiar name. BELLATRIX BLACK.

Eagerly, she collected all the books on the shelf into her arms and fled the small ominous room as quickly as she was able. She may be a Gryffindor but she saw no reason to push her luck. 

Copying what she had once seen Narcissa do, Hermione levitated the John Locke book before her and replaced it back into the shelf where it belonged. In an instant, the door had swung closed and the library looked as it always had. Or at least it would, once she cleaned up the glass.

Hastily, Hermione cleaned up the remaining mess, and stuffed the books into her bag, fleeing back to her flat. She felt guilty for stealing them, knowing that they weren’t hers to take. And yet, she couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed that Narcissa hadn’t given her every journal to begin with.

A sudden fear came into her. It seemed like Narcissa had locked away a good deal of dark things in this room for safe keeping… were these diaries so much darker than what she had already been reading? Was that why Narcissa had held them back?

She shook her head from those thoughts. There was no way to know but to open one, now was there?

Unfortunately, the reason became immediately clear. First of all, the cover page had a date—1967. Bellatrix would have still been at school at this time, sixteen years old at most, not even a legal adult witch.

The entire format was different, the writing was large and hurried without any of the headers, bullet points, or marginalia to which Hermione had become accustomed.

And most importantly, Hermione couldn’t read a single word of it. It wasn’t English… it wasn’t anything. Every single line was unintelligible gibberish. Once more, her heart sank in her chest.

 


 

Long after midnight, Narcissa returned to the house. She felt more nervous sending this letter to Andromeda than she had any other, even the first. Perhaps nervous wasn’t quite the way to describe it, but she was anxious for a reply, for a reply that would lead her in the right direction, give her something worthwhile to offer to Hermione in place of the useless journals.

Her mind traced over the letter once more, hoping that it might calm her.

Andromeda,

It’s been days since my last letter, and still you remain silent. I won’t try to force your hand; I know how tainted that money must feel to you—often it feels that way to me as well. However, I want you to know that the offer still stands, and it always will stand whether you make a decision next week, or next year, or need any assistance whatsoever in the time in between.

Regardless, I’m not writing to you to talk about myself—shocking, I know, but I do have a more pressing topic in mind.

Even if you don’t want to speak with me for now, I must ask you to put aside your feelings and answer one question: do you remember a time, perhaps thirty years ago, when Bellatrix cut you with her dagger? A time when that wound wouldn’t heal without some kind of intervention?

Please tell me if you do, it’s important.

- Narcissa

She supposed it was all right, the letter, although no message to her sister ever proved to be quite as eloquent and persuasive as she imagined it would be.

With a flick of her wand, she sent her cloak flying to its hanger and headed towards the library with the small orb of a Lumos charm casting a circle of light around her form.

Andromeda might prove to be useful, assuming she had information and was willing to share it, but until then, Narcissa felt she must indulge the least likely source of all.

Narcissa headed towards the deepest row of shelves, plucking the tattered tome from its place in a ginger grasp. She rolled her eyes at the book in her hands, at its mocking print, and its long-dead inventor who had undoubtedly found himself so terribly clever. A riddle grew less impressive with every telling, and by then, Narcissa eyed this one with nothing short of disdain.

Taking out her wand, she slashed a small cut over her index finger and pressed it to the book, sighing in impatience as the book went through its usual theatrics.

Certainly her opinion of this ridiculous lock and key wasn’t improved by the fact that she didn’t like coming into this safe at all. It held too many memories—or at the very least, memorabilia—and far too much darkness for her liking. But it would be a short journey, a small price to retrieve something potentially useful.

Narcissa strode into the safe with slow steps, knowing the exact location of what she sought. However, when she came to the shelf where she expected to find Bella’s journals—the ones from her teenage years that she had originally disregarded as useless to Hermione’s cause—there was nothing but dust.

She had to laugh in disbelief if nothing else. So Hermione had made it into the safe after all.

For a moment, Narcissa only stood there and stared at the empty space in irritation. But, reminding herself that she shouldn’t spend any longer in this room than she absolutely had to, she turned back to the entrance with a last resentful huff.

Narcissa closed the door behind her and replaced the book with a rough shove, as if it was its fault that she’d been lied to yet again.

“That little witch,” she hissed to herself.

Chapter Text

The following morning, Hermione woke to the sun in her eyes and one of Bellatrix’s journals still laying open on her pillow. She had stayed up far too late trying to make sense out of them. She had recognized most of the letters, but they didn’t go together. Just as she thought she might have figured out some pattern and found an intelligible word, it would vanish before her eyes.

Whatever irritation she had felt towards Narcissa for holding the journals back had faded. In the wake of her failure to even read them, there was nothing but guilt over the theft, and fear over the conversation she was going to have to have that morning.

Aside from giving up on healing her scar entirely, Hermione only had one option. Perhaps it was foolish to confess to breaking into someone’s safe and stealing their possessions—even if it had been more like borrowing —but she didn’t care anymore. She was sick of lying, sick of scheming. She wasn’t cut out to play these games like the Malfoys were. If Narcissa got angry, then she got angry. Hermione could find somewhere else to live; she could find some other pet project with which to busy herself until she found another job.

She walked into the sitting room and found Narcissa at the desk by the window. “Good morning, Hermione,” she said, barely raising her eyes from the letter before her. 

“Good morning.” Hermione had to push her throat to work and her tone came out more forceful than intended.

Narcissa raised her eyes and looked at Hermione expectantly. For the first time, Hermione’s resolve faltered. Incurring Narcissa’s wrath had seemed much safer when those sharp eyes weren’t cutting into her.

When Hermione only stared back, caught in her own indecision, Narcissa raised her eyebrows. “You came in with such purpose, I assumed you had something to say.”

“I did. I do. I—I need to tell you something,” Hermione said, forcing herself to speak despite her nerves. She hadn’t intended to start this conversation in such an inane, halting fashion, but alas.

Narcissa blinked slowly at her, as if she too found it annoying. “All right,” she said, gesturing that she ought to get on with whatever it was.

Hermione took a seat across from Narcissa and took a breath. “Well last night, I was reading Bellatrix’s journals… not the ones you gave me, but the ones behind the trick bookcase in the library,” Hermione confessed hastily and waited for rage to fill Narcissa’s eyes at the deception.

But the woman only looked at her calmly, a hint of surprise in her eyes. “I see,” she said.

Hermione paused at that. “You’re… you’re not angry?”

“I was,” Narcissa said slowly, “when I first discovered you took them.”

Hermione gaped at her. “You knew? How? Does the bookcase have some kind of ward on it, something that alerted you?”

Narcissa smiled just a bit, briefly enough that it could almost be missed. “Nothing that complicated, I’m afraid. But I went into the safe myself last night. After you said you had nearly finished the journals I gave you, I thought perhaps Bella’s earlier journals could be useful after all. Alas, they were all missing. You were the obvious suspect since you were the only one who would want them. Not to mention, I had caught you on your first attempt, after all,” she explained in a neutral tone. 

Hermione didn’t say anything for a moment. She felt more abashed than ever in the face of Narcissa’s emotionless reaction.

“So you were trying to break into the safe that day that I found you?” Narcissa asked.

Hermione sighed. “I was.”

“How did you even know it was there? Did Draco tell you about it?”

Hermione furrowed her brows, puzzled. “No, no Draco didn’t say a thing about it. I didn’t know it was there really, I only noticed that the book was worn in a different way than the rest, that it seemed out of place. When I was wondering if there were more journals… I felt drawn to it.”

Narcissa’s eyes raked over her intently. She raised her brows in apparent surprise that she didn’t find any trace of deception. “Then you have very good instincts.”

Hermione chuckled mirthlessly. “I don’t know about that. They almost got me killed.”

“It wouldn’t have killed you,” Narcissa said as if the idea were preposterous.

“That would have been easier to believe before it had me strapped to a wall just for looking at that book the wrong way,” Hermione said with a disbelieving laugh. After a moment, she bit her lip. “You said you were angry when you first found out. What about now?”

Narcissa sighed. “Now, I’ve given it a good deal of thought, and I’ve remembered that you have no reason to trust me, and moreover, I can’t give you one. I’m not sure that excuses breaking into my safe, but you are desperate with that arm of yours, and desperation breeds foolishness, so I’ve decided to overlook it.”

Hermione was surprised by the sheer relief she felt at that. “I am really sorry about it. I didn’t even mean to try again after that day, I was too scared of it, but I—” she paused, remembering that she couldn’t talk about the Patronus. “I cast a spell, and it backfired. It sent me flying against the bookcase, and I cut my hand. It all just happened.”

To Hermione’s surprise, Narcissa laughed. “Well I suppose that story is too stupid to be a lie, who would ever believe it?”

Hermione had to admit that she had a point.

“So are you going to ask me what you wanted to know?” Narcissa prompted. “If I know how to read those journals? Unless instinct has led you to figure that out as well.”

Hermione sat up straighter. She had nearly forgotten what she had come in there for in the first place. “I stared at them half the night and couldn’t make out a single word. I recognized most of the characters, but I couldn’t figure out what language it was.”

Narcissa smiled smugly. “That’s because it’s not a language, not a real one anyway. It’s a cipher that Bella made up when she was a child. It’s actually a mix of Latin, Greek, and Mermish.”

Mermish? Why Mermish?”

“I don’t know, it’s not my cipher,” Narcissa said with a shrug. “Bella and Andy used it when they were girls to write letters to each other that my parents couldn’t read. They only told me about it at all because I was so insufferable about feeling left out.”

“So you can read it then?”

“I can. I can teach you the cipher,” Narcissa said. “As I would have done regardless, had I had the opportunity.”

 


 

Hermione translated every word but most of it ended up to be nonsense nonetheless. First day of school, talking with her friends, the exact sort of things a teenage girl might write in her diary. She had been a bit intimidated to read these personal journals, scared even, but now she had to admit she was getting bored as Bellatrix described walking into Potions.

I smiled smugly at Calliope Fawley the moment Slughorn read out my name next to hers.

She only rolled her eyes in response.

Of course it was the two of us, it was always the two of us. Slughorn chose partners based on skill level and no one could argue that the two of us were the top—the only thing worth arguing over was who was number one, which we did… and frequently. Miss. Perfect, revising into the night, or me showing up late, never having opened the book and still managing to get the same score. A rivalry made in heaven, really.

“Now, please move to share with your partners. You’ll be together for the full moon cycle so might as well get comfortable,” he said.

Most of the class was grumbling, devastated to be pulled away from their friends and usual desk partners, forced to sit with someone from another house. Callie and I were used to it. People had been shoving us together for six years, there was no reason to expect that year seven would turn out any differently.

She moved to sit with me—of course she did, I wasn’t about to be the one to move—and she spared me one head-shaking, disapproving glance before she turned to Slughorn and listened, her gaze never faltering as he recited the instructions for the assignment. All the while, her face was so rapt with attention that it was almost comical. I snickered silently. She had looked that way in every class since first year, her innocent enthusiasm never waning. No wonder she was Slughorn’s little pet—everyone’s little pet. Who could help but love someone who looked at them like that, especially with those big round eyes of hers.

“We’re going to need Lionfish Quills, and a lot of them,” I said the moment Slughorn mercifully stopped talking and let us get on with it. “Fetch them from the stores, will you?”

“And why don’t you go get them yourself?” she asked, her one eyebrow disappearing behind those shaggy bangs of hers.

I shrugged. “I’d rather you did.”

“And why’s that?”

“Perhaps I just like watching you walk away,” I said with a purposefully overblown wink.

“Oh, stop it,” she huffed, but I thought she looked pleased. And she did go fetch the Lionfish Quills.

I had said it mostly just to mess with her, but I wasn’t exactly lying. She seemed to have rolled her skirt up an inch or two higher than normal—finally a minuscule act of rebellion in her very last year—and it did seem to sway particularly well around her hips.

“And grab some Aconite while you’re there,” I called out to her.

She nodded and came back with both in hand.

I smiled even more smugly at her. “When I say jump, you say…”

“Go fuck yourself,” she filled in with a withering stare.

I barked out a laugh. “Good enough.”

I suppose that’s why we had eventually decided to get along, such as we did, at least; she may have been the most insufferable goody-two-shoes in our year, but she did have a mouth on her.

We worked on the potion in near silence for an hour. Having worked together as often as we had, we had developed a certain rhythm. Irritating really, how that had happened.

I raised my hand to the Essence of Dittany, but I felt her magic grip my fingers, freezing them over the cauldron before I’d had the chance to pour.

“Don’t,” she said, barely glancing up from the herbs she was slicing. “It’s supposed to be two minutes, it’s only been one.”

She was right, of course, but I still had to laugh. “What did you do, memorize the recipe before class?”

“Of course I did, this potion has been on the schedule for weeks. It’s what any responsible person would do, not that you’d know about that.” She raised her eyes for a moment, just to smirk at me, and released her grip on my hand only when the extra minute had passed.

I snorted at her cocky display. “Unbelievable. I’ll find your weak spot some day, Fawley.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

 

Hermione tilted her head in consideration. Even though she’d come to respect a good deal of Bellatrix’s mind and work while reading her work journals, these were something different. It was the first time that that terrifying woman began to seem almost human, simply Narcissa’s sister, Bella . Someone who had once been young and clever, someone who most definitely had a crush on this rival of hers even though she wouldn’t admit it. The sensation was incredibly disconcerting.

She had been pausing for quite a long time, her gaze no longer on the books and she could feel Narcissa’s curious gaze upon her, so she lowered her gaze and read on.

A few days passed in typical mundanity until there was any other mention of this Callie Falwey.

 

Because of all the commotion this morning, Callie and I had to return to the potion lab after hours. The scarab beetles had to be added before the new moon, and if we waited for the next class, it would be too late.

I wasn’t exactly relishing the prospect of giving up my evening, but she said that if I didn’t show, she would let the potion rot rather than add them alone. An empty threat, I figured, but I respected the ultimatum and that defiant little look on her face when she said it. So I went.

I think she was surprised to see me, or at least she looked it when I sauntered into the classroom. I thought a flicker of pride passed through her eyes as she considered this some sort of victory.

“You didn’t think I’d show,” I said to her, leaning on the table towards her.

“I was sure you wouldn’t,” she said, pushing back in her chair away from me.

“I guess I’m just full of surprises,” I said with a smirk.

She rolled her eyes. “Would you stop leaning over the desk and get a beaker out of that cupboard?”

As I turned around to fetch it, I heard her say, “Now, who’s jumping?”

There wasn’t another soul that could get away with talking to me like that, but when she said it, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I can’t tell if you’re power hungry tonight or if you just wanted to see me bend over.”

She didn’t even look up from her book as she said. “Why not both?”

Salazar, if I’d known she’d get so cheeky after ten in the evening, I would have made sure to schedule extra potions with her every day.

A half hour had passed, and we were just about to the final step we needed for the evening.

“The last thing we have to do is add the skullcap…” she paused to double-check, even though we both knew she wasn’t wrong.

“Let’s not dawdle now, I do have other things to do, you know,” I said as I watched her skimming the page in silence.  

“Like I don’t have anything better to do with my nights than measure out beetles?” she retorted.  

“Well, if you’re so busy, perhaps we should let the potion rot after all. Then tomorrow, we can just confund Slughorn and hope for the best,” I suggested.  

She raised her eyes to me, and snorted in laughter. “Oh yes, I’m sure that would come off without a hitch,” she said sarcastically. Her lips twisted into a mischievous smile as she thought about it. “Although, honestly, we probably should have done that ages ago. We could have had Wednesday afternoon’s free all last year to do whatever we’d liked.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. It seemed the late hour was getting to her. “And what would you have wanted to do with all that free time? Probably study for your other classes like always.”

She shrugged. “Sometimes, I want other things.”

“Oh?” I leaned in with a smirk, stroking one finger over the line of her jaw. “Tell me all about them.”

I expected her to jerk away, but she did not. If anything she leaned closer with that smirk still playing on her lips, like a challenge.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

For a moment, I thought I had stopped breathing, but in the deafening silence, we heard footsteps approaching in the hall and instinctually, we pulled apart.

I audibly groaned when the face of her useless prat of a boyfriend rounded the corner. I had learned to live with Callie’s irritatingly perfect ways, but if she had one flaw that I couldn’t get past, it was this idiot at her side, Jasper Selwyn.

“Oi, Black! You showed after all,” he said in that jovial, teasing voice of his. “I was sure you’d be too busy with a ritual sacrifice, or whatever it is you do with your free time.”

“Jasper.” She said his name in the tone of an admonishing mother and swatted him gently, twisting her hair through her fingers, which she always did when she was uncomfortable.

In that moment, I hated him more than I ever had before, but I smiled.

“Oh, that’s not until eleven. We’re still looking for volunteers if you’re free,” I said.  

He laughed and tossed his scruffy head back. “Thanks for the invite, but I do have a few more pressing engagements,” he said, putting a possessive arm around Callie’s shoulders.  

“Pity, maybe next time,” I replied.

“Give us a few minutes to finish up, ok?” she said, turning those big doe eyes up at him in a sickeningly placating way.  

He sighed as if these five extra minutes might kill him. “Fine, I’ll wait in the hall.”  

She nodded and their hands stretched between them as he walked away, only breaking the contact of their fingertips when they absolutely had to. It was revolting.

“I’m sorry about him, I don’t know why he’s like that sometimes. He’s not really a bad guy,” she said with a smile full of pity and apology, that same damn smile from before.

I scoffed. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince herself or me.

When we were done, I rushed out of the doorway pushing past them and into the corridor. He said something to her that was too quiet for me to hear and she actually giggled like she was twelve years old. Hell, Narcissa is twelve and I’m fairly certain I’ve never heard her giggle like that… but then again that’s Cissy.

Fuming, I thought about how he talked to me, about how they’d probably talked about me behind my back: snide, laughing, just like now.  

I heard their footsteps getting fainter, heading in the opposite direction. I don’t know what made me do it, but I turned to follow them. I kept to the shadows, skulking close enough to hear but just out of sight.

I don’t know what I expected to hear but Merlin they were idiotic. He kept whispering romantic nothings in her ear. Had I been in her shoes, I would have scoffed in his face, or perhaps vomited into a nearby vase, but she giggled again, all inane and small and weak.

I don’t know why it made me so angry to see her like that. It was just that she was so strong, one of the only people at this school strong enough that she didn’t fear me, neither running away nor begging me for praise and approval… perhaps the only one.

To have that taken from her… it made me want to hex him with the most powerful spells I knew. Forget hexes, my hands itched to slip around his throat and squeeze until I felt his pulse start to flicker.

But either way, it would be more detention than I cared to serve so early into the year. So I skulked away back towards my own common room, feeling strangely terrible about the entire evening. And all the while, my mind kept comparing side by side images—that dewey-eyed stare she’d given to that boy, and the challenging look she’d given me when our faces were only inches apart. I couldn’t get either one to leave me alone for the rest of the evening.

 

So much of the book was like this, the day to day ramblings of a school girl. Mostly, they were rather dull. Hermione supposed that all diaries were in retrospect, no matter how profound we think we are as we write about our own lives.

However, the next section took an unexpected detour. Bellatrix and her sisters had been allowed leave from the school for the weekend for a family funeral, and Bella planned to use this to her advantage. 

Even at this time, Bella had started to experiment with magic outside of her schoolwork. She wanted to experiment with a few very advanced potions, potions that needed ingredients that were strictly non-tradable substances. Not that she didn’t know exactly where to get something like that. Hermione turned the page.

 

Since she had stupidly burned up the last one, Cissy needed a new cauldron. The family dipped into Potage’s to find her something suitable. I pretended to be engrossed by a display in the window and they all filed ahead of me, expecting me to follow once I was done.  

As soon as I saw Andromeda’s cloak disappear behind the closing door, I took my chance and took off as quickly as I could without drawing attention to myself. I pulled up my hood and turned down another street. By the time they realized I was gone, they wouldn’t be able to follow. I felt like I could finally breathe freely for the first time all day.

Borgin knew to expect me. I had told him I could slip my family if I wanted to. I thought smugly that he had written I was sure to be caught. Well it was his fault anyway, being too much of a coward to send it. As if Hogwarts was really searching our mail every day.

He was clearly surprised to see me but he had the package nonetheless. I dawdled over the glass cases just to prove to him that we weren’t all as cowardly as he was. It was all for show, however I was glad I had looked.

I knew it was mine as soon as I saw it. Silver, ornate handle, something so appealing about the shape. I bought the knife within a minute of seeing it, not even bothering to haggle the way I knew I should.

When I finally caught up with the group again, father was furious. "Now where have you been sneaking off to?" he screamed at me. “We’ve been looking everywhere. Your mother has been worried sick!”

Mother didn’t look worried sick, but she did eye me carefully as if I should know better than to pull this sort of thing in front of Father. “You know how he is,” her eyes seemed to say.

I looked back at him defiantly. “I don’t know what you mean, I only popped into the book store since I didn’t need anything from Potage’s”.

He didn’t believe me, obviously. I saw a vein popping ominously in his neck. He wanted to hit me. He wanted to hex me. He didn’t, not with all these people already watching with judgmental eyes as he berated his daughter in the street.

He stood in silence for a long time, too long really, it was getting quite awkward. Mother was staring pleadingly at him, wanting him to calm himself, too scared to say anything to him herself. Andromeda was staring at me with an annoying mix of curiosity and accusation. Cissy was the only one who looked at ease, at least to someone who didn’t know her. She was staring across the street with that strange blank, frozen expression of hers, who knows where she had gone but she was determinedly not there.

I couldn’t believe the way Andromeda kept pestering me once we were home. She just wouldn’t stop and it was driving me crazy. Had I bought something? Had I met someone? Was it a boy? She was such a child. My silence did nothing to dissuade her throughout the night. Andromeda had no tact, she really ought to have been in Gryffindor.  

“Aren’t you going to ask me where I went?” I asked Cissy once it was just the two of us sitting by the fire.  

“Why? It’s not like you’re going to tell me,” she said cooly before rising and going to her room with that air of indifference she carried so well.

 


 

Narcissa watched Hermione as she worked, never openly but under lowered lids with her head directed towards her account ledgers. However, Hermione worked so studiously that Narcissa thought she probably could have stared at her outright without Hermione being any the wiser.

Even with the rules written out as Narcissa had done, the cipher could still be complex and difficult to master. The patterns all twisted over themselves in a jumble that often forced readers to go back four words after realizing they’d made a mistake. Bella had written it with the idea that it would be uncrackable. Narcissa doubted the boast was true, but it certainly did manage to give everyone a headache.

Hermione, however, didn’t look frustrated, merely intense. In a pattern of her own, she would bite at the end of her quill, face scrunched in deep thought as she pondered. Then, as her idea came to fruition in her mind, she would begin to scribble hurriedly, as if she couldn’t get the words down fast enough to match pace with her translation.

It was only once that Hermione’s quill halted mid-stroke and she gasped softly. Then, with renewed vigor, she seemed to write at twice the speed that she had before.

Narcissa held her breath and waited for Hermione to finish, not wanting to distract her. In all honesty, Narcissa held little hope that these diaries would prove any more useful than the other batch. But it only took this small sign of excitement in Hermione to make her own heart beat a bit faster.

As soon as Hermione’s hand slackened, Narcissa leaned forward and tried to catch her attention. “What is it?” she asked.

Hermione lifted her head quickly, as if she’d been startled out of a dream.“She mentioned buying the knife,” she said softly.

Narcissa was stunned. “That soon?”

Hermione nodded slowly. “I think it was just a knife then, not enchanted at the time, at least if it was cursed, she didn’t mention it. She bought it at Borgin and Burkes, during some weekend the three of you were taken out of school for a funeral. She snuck off while your parents were buying you a cauldron.”

Narcissa leaned back in her chair. How strange it was to have a mystery unraveled nearly thirty years later.

"Do you remember it?”

“Yes, I remember that day,” she said, pulling the threads of her memory back to her mind. “No one ever knew where Bella snuck off to; she refused to tell us even long after the fact. Andromeda kept hinting that she was meeting some boy, but that always seemed preposterous. Even if Bella had had some older lover, she was only gone for twenty minutes, a half hour at most. What could have possibly happened in that short a time?”

“Nothing satisfying enough to make it worth all the trouble,” Hermione said with a laugh.

Narcissa looked at her in surprise “Precisely,” she agreed with a smirk.

“But like I said, it wasn’t enchanted at the time. Maybe in a later book…” Hermione trailed off, her eyes falling to the stack of journals. She had already read nearly one entire journal, the page she was turned to nearly at the back cover. There were still four more to go.

“Perhaps,” Narcissa agreed. Hermione’s eyes looked bleary and crossed from the painful translation, and, Narcissa assumed, the emotional strain of all this unfulfilled hope. “Although for now, you might need a break,” she suggested.

Hermione looked as if she was about to protest, but she sighed. “You’re right. Merlin, my mind is spinning.”

“I would suggest some fresh air but…” she gestured towards the window where icy rain was falling, scratching against the glass like fingernails.

“Would you like to play chess again?” Hermione asked.

Narcissa chuckled in surprise. “Not exactly the break from mental exertion I’d intended for you.”

“I don’t need a break from mental exertion, I need a break from your sister,” Hermione insisted.

Narcissa laughed at that. “More than understandable. Then… chess.”

 


 

A few days passed and the afternoons remained the same. Hermione continued to translate the journals with what Narcissa considered to be astounding dedication. After less than a week, the young woman was almost as fluent in the cipher as Narcissa had been as a child. She could even read bits of it without writing it down word by word. She really was just as brilliant as everybody said.

However, the knife hadn’t been mentioned again after that fateful trip to Borgin and Burkes, and there was only one journal that remained unopened. Both women were hanging on tenterhooks waiting for an answer and trying to pretend that they were not.

To Narcissa’s surprise, Hermione chose to read the journals in the sitting room with her every day. To her even greater surprise, she found herself looking forward to the moment that the door would open and Hermione would come in with a look that grew less hesitant with every passing afternoon. It was oddly pleasant, the company, the conversations that for once, weren’t based on any sort of lie—not that she had solved the mystery of Hermione and Draco, but the journals, at least, were a confidence shared.

Hermione would sit cross-legged on the settee while Narcissa worked at her desk. They would converse idly as they went about their separate tasks, sometimes speaking of what Hermione read in the journals, other times not. They had far more to talk about than Narcissa would have guessed. Hermione was well-read and well-informed; Narcissa could count on her to have an opinion on almost any subject, and she was certainly never shy about expressing them. Even when they didn’t agree, which wasn’t often, Narcissa enjoyed the discussion, and even more shockingly, it seemed Hermione did too.

Narcissa felt her lips curl into a smile—a smile she knew was likely dangerous—at the mere memory of those blotches of red that formed on Hermione’s cheeks when she was expounding on her ideas, the way her eyes would burn, alight with the passion of debate as she listened to Narcissa speak her side. She was unaccustomed to anyone looking at her like that. Not just recently, but ever, at least not when she was speaking. It had never been her words that had elicited such interest.

In years past, Narcissa had been so good at keeping her opinions to herself, at manicuring her every word until it gleamed and pleased like an accessory to her outfit. She no longer had the energy, or the desire for such behavior, however, she seemed to be the only one who found her honesty to be an improvement. Except Hermione… If anything, when Narcissa intended to hold back, Hermione egged her on, goading out the strongest of her feelings, and offering hers up in turn as soon as she found out Narcissa was equally willing to hear them without scolding her or whatever Hermione had always seemed to expect.

Some of that easy camaraderie would fade away when Draco was around with his bluster and his bravado but not always. Narcissa thought she caught a few confused glances from her son’s eyes when the two women beside him would laugh over a shared interest, or reference some past conversation, as if he truly believed the world stopped when he wasn’t there to see it turn.

On one such afternoon, the two women sat at the table by the window, once again, playing chess.

Hermione made her move. She had cornered Narcissa’s knight in a position that also threatened check, and Narcissa had to admit, she hadn’t seen it coming.

She looked at the board intently for a long silent moment. “Clever,” she said softly with an admiring smile on her face. “But it won’t save you.” She managed to shift her way out of it, blocking the check, and saving her knight with a skillful grace.

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Don’t you ever make a mistake?”

Narcissa considered for a moment. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes, you just haven’t used them to your advantage.” She took a breath and met Hermione’s eyes. “You’re getting much better; you’re keeping me on my toes.”

“I’m not sure I believe you, you beat me every time” Hermione said.

“Do you honestly think I would lie just to stroke your ego?” Narcissa said, arching an eyebrow at Hermione.

“Valid point. I do not,” she said with a laugh. She paused for a moment to take her next turn. “How long have you played?”

“Nearly twenty years longer than you’ve been alive,” Narcissa said with a wry half-smile.

“Gosh, you must have been so young.”

“I was seven when I learned.”

“Seven, Merlin,” Hermione said with a disbelieving sigh. “No wonder you’re so good.” She hesitated for a moment before asking, “Did you use to play with your sisters?”

Narcissa was surprised at the personal question, and she shook her head. “Andromeda never liked it.”

“And Bellatrix?”

Narcissa actually laughed at the idea. “Can you imagine Bella playing chess?”

When she saw the confused Hermione’s face, she said, “I’m sorry, Hermione, I know you didn’t know her before… But chess would have been far too cerebral for Bella. She never would have sat still that long. Certainly she would have appreciated the aggression in it, but the patience? Never. She would have flipped the pieces over and smashed them to bits before she allowed her king to be taken. A far more effective way of winning and so much more amusing by her standards.”

“Then who did you play with?” Hermione asked.

“My father, mostly,” Narcissa said.

“That’s sweet,” she said.

Narcissa wasn’t sure that was the word she would have used to describe it, although it remained one of the fonder memories she had of the man. “My father was… a very harsh sort of man. He didn’t believe that chess was a particularly appropriate pastime for a little girl, but he could be worn down, at least by me.”

“Why by you?”

Narcissa considered for a moment. “Because I was the good one,” she said.

Hermione looked confused. Understandably since a Death Eater’s wife undoubtedly was not her definition of the good girl.

Narcissa hastened to explain. “Oh, even as a child, Bella was a handful as you can imagine. She could never be controlled by anyone, and there were always seeds of her… madness. And Andromeda was always rebelling against something, even before her marriage. But I…” she shrugged. “I was the good one. I was the one who followed the rules, did exactly what was expected of me, made up for my sisters' shortcomings…”

“The golden-haired girl,” Hermione mused softly.

“Quite literally.”

“So he taught you how to play?” she asked.

“Yes. And he showed no mercy on me for being seven years old without any idea what to do. He beat me in about twenty moves. He said, and I quote ‘Cissy, if you’re going to learn to play the game, you’d better learn to win.’ And I took that advice to heart.”

“In more than just chess?” Hermione asked wisely. 

Narcissa was surprised at her perception, but she nodded. “In more than just chess.”

A moment or two passed in silence as they each took a turn.

“If you don’t mind me asking. You still play it after all these years. Why?”

Narcissa took a breath and smiled. “I’ve never once considered stopping. Chess is merely life played out where you can see all the pieces for once. It is like the most organized of warfare. A dance to decide whether you will conquer or be conquered. What will you sacrifice to get what you want? It’s… well it’s almost a seduction of sorts,” she said. 

A seduction of sorts. Narcissa had mostly phrased it that way to make Hermione blush, which she did as surely as if on cue, but when she raised her eyes to meet Narcissa’s, there was a glint of knowing mockery in them.

Hermione’s eyes seemed to say “I know what you’re doing.” They seemed to say. “Don’t stop.”

And Narcissa felt her breath still in her lungs, her own cheeks warming slightly in turn.

“It’s your move,” Hermione reminded her after a few moments of silence, that laughter never leaving her eyes.

Feeling a bit like a spider caught in its own web, Narcissa checked her pieces with intense scrutiny to make sure she hadn’t led herself astray in more ways than one that afternoon. But her chess strategy, at least, still appeared sound.

Narcissa took her turn and they resumed play with a different sort of rhythm to their attacks. She wondered if Hermione was still thinking about what she’d said.

Pawn takes rook, bishop takes pawn. A seduction of sorts.

What would you offer up? How could you pull pieces in, snare them? How could you tease and escape?

Hermione’s color rose steadily as the game progressed and Narcissa felt herself tensing under the weight of her own remembered words.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed in Bellatrix’s diaries since her trip to Knockturn Alley and there hadn’t been a single other mention of the knife. It was mostly more of the same. She was still working with Callie on their project, but the young woman was hardly mentioned. It seemed so purposeful to leave her out after she had been such a focal point in those entries. However, after stalking Callie and her boyfriend down the hall, Bellatrix seemed determined to feign disinterest. Still, when the lab partner was mentioned, there was almost always something written about her eyes, about her intelligence, something that made Hermione think she was right in assuming Bellatrix had real feelings for this girl. Not that her love life was what Hermione was there for, but it was more interesting than the rest of the journal.

It was the last day of our paired project, the potions were finished, bottled, and waiting for grading. Slughorn announced to the class that we were all free to resume sitting amongst our friends again, and most of the class practically yelped with glee.

I gave Callie a sarcastic wave as I grabbed my stuff to go. “See you in the next one,” I said and saw her roll her eyes at me like she always did.

This wasn’t the first group project where I felt a little reluctant to leave her table where every potion of mine would find a worthy match beside it. It was always nice to sit next to someone who was an equal in that way, even if it was just to exchange the occasional teasing insult. But as always, I returned to my usual seat beside Persephone where I often had to stop her from setting the entire place on fire when she neglected her cauldron for hours at a time.

When Slughorn dismissed the class, we all got up to leave. I was dawdling over my bag, letting all the other Slytherins file out before me, I don’t know why. But it was just as nearly everyone had left the lab, that Callie stood up and pulled her bag from the table, not noticing how the strap caught, tipping all of her things onto the floor. Her quill had managed to slide halfway across the room in my direction, and I picked it up, twisting it between my fingers for a few moments before I approached her.

I kneeled down and proffered the quill with an outstretched hand.

She looked me up and down and arched an eyebrow. “What did you do to it, cast a forgetting spell on it so I’d make an ass out of myself in Transfiguration today?”

“Nothing, I just picked it up and brought it to you.” I sounded a little hurt, and I winced at that. Although, perhaps I was a little hurt. Not that I hadn’t pulled similar pranks in earlier years, but I wouldn’t do that now, and for some reason, it felt very annoying that she didn’t know that.

She looked into my eyes and got quiet, looking surprisingly serious. She grabbed the quill from my hand, and when it didn’t immediately burst into flames of hellfire, she seemed satisfied. “Thank you,” she said softly.

“And then I hexed it, of course,” I said with a grin.

She looked up, eyes wide.

I laughed. “Only joking. I just wanted to see your reaction.”

“Merlin, Bella,” she said, laughing in a familiar, exasperated sort of way, like she was so used to my antics that they couldn’t really surprise her.

I had thought we were alone in the room by then, but I heard Jasper’s voice from behind my back, “Black, mad as ever.” He was laughing in a way that was far less kind than Callie had been, and I felt my hand flexing instinctively towards my wand.

“I’ll help you with that, babe,” he said, about to bend down, but Callie stopped him.

“No, go ahead, Bella and I have it covered. I’ll catch up with you at lunch,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, all right,” he said, obviously surprised. She smiled sweetly in his direction, and he softened slightly. “See you in the Great Hall, then.”

We continued to pick up the rest of her stuff for a moment before she finally spoke.

“I’m sorry about him,” she said, like a broken record. “It’s not right for him to say that to you; I know what it’s like to be told that you’re mad.”

I hardly knew what to say to that, and I couldn’t help it, I laughed. “I have a hard time believing that, Callie. You don’t do anything but study and follow the rules; you’re one of the most boring people I’ve ever met.”

She shrugged. “Maybe. But no one in my family wants me to be so academically driven. They’ve never stopped making fun of me for being sorted into Ravenclaw. They wish I’d just use school to find someone to marry and forget the rest. Growing up, whenever they’d find me avoiding a party just to be hiding with a book, they’d say I must be out of my mind.”

I had never considered that her family might be anything but bursting with pride at their perfect little daughter. My father at least wanted my sisters and I to be brilliant. Not that he’d want it to get in the way of our obedience, or our attempts to catch the eye of a proper man, but the Blacks also had a reputation of strong magic to uphold, and he wouldn’t want any of us messing that up with empty-headed frippery. But Callie’s family wanted her to be weak, just like Jasper wanted her to be, just like she pretended to be for so many people.

She was staring at me, waiting for a response.

I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I just wanted to show her that not every kiss, not every show of affection had to begin with a silly giggle and her giving up every ounce of strength she had.

I grabbed her face and pulled her closer to me. I kissed her on the lips so hard that I almost pushed her back onto the floor. She didn’t pull away, she didn’t make a single move to stop me.

I pulled back and smirked at her flushed cheeks. I handed her the bottle of ink, the last possession that wasn’t safely back in her bag, and got to my feet, walking from the room. She was still sitting stunned on the floor with two fingers pressed softly to her lips as if trying to prove the reality of the sensation there, which was fair enough, I could hardly believe I’d done it myself.

 

Later that night, I was in the library. I had needed who knew how many books for my project and had grabbed the few most likely candidates to take back with me. I could have read them in the library, but I preferred the silence of the common room after midnight when everyone else had already given up and gone to bed.

I was just about to leave when I saw Callie reshelving a book back in one of the oldest, least-used parts of the library. I supposed that she also liked her privacy when trying to read.

I probably should have kept walking, but I didn’t. I felt my feet turn towards her until I was leaning against the shelf where she was trying to look.

“Bella,” she said with an air of surprise. Her hand remained comically hovering in the air before the shelves, her book forgotten. "What are you doing here?"

“It’s a library; there’s really only so many activities,” I said and gestured with the book in my hand with a mocking smirk.

She turned back towards the shelves, staring at them as if highly intent on finding the right book although she didn’t touch a single one.

“Why did you do it?” she said eventually in a quiet voice. “This afternoon, why? I’ve been trying to figure out your endgame ever since you waltzed out of the Potions lab, but I can’t figure out what angle you’re going for.”

“Whatever angle you’re up for,” I said with a wink.

She snorted. “Be serious.”

“I am serious. I don’t always have a master plan. I kissed you back there because I wanted to. I kissed you because I thought you might enjoy it.”

Her stare softened a bit, as if she had expected me to say something humiliating and was relieved that I had not.

“Well, I… I,” she said, stumbling over her words as I moved closer.

I closed the gap between us, nearly touching our stomachs together as she turned with her back fully to the bookcase.  

“You what?” I prompted.  

“I…” but she trailed off again, her eyes traveling from my eyes to my lips and back again.

Pressing my body into hers, I took her face in my hands and her lips in mine. This time, not caught so unprepared, she kissed me back. Her hands trailed up my back, clawing at me for more.

I pushed her onto the table and began to slide my hands up her robes. There was hesitation in her eyes, but she had spread her legs wide at my touch nonetheless.  

 

Hermione gasped and began trying very hard to skim, but it was so hard to do anything of the sort when you had to translate each word in order to read it at all.

She found it very embarrassing. Not only to be reading something so intimate that was most certainly intended to be kept private but to be doing so with another person in the room, only feet away. The more she thought about it, the more her cheeks flushed, and the faster she tried to translate.

“Are you all right?” Narcissa asked, clearly noticing Hermione’s frantic demeanor and flurrying quill.

“Oh, yes,” Hermione said, but she could hear how unconvincing her voice must have sounded. “It’s just… well your sister really doesn’t hold back on the details.”

Narcissa grimaced at that. “Her experiments?” she asked, likely expecting something gruesome.

“No, not exactly…” Hermione began. “The issue here is with her sex life,”

It took Narcissa a moment to register what Hermione had said before bursting into laughter. “Honestly? With whom?”

“A girl in her class, Calliope Fawley.”

If Narcissa had seemed surprised that her sister had an active love life, she seemed doubly surprised to hear the name of her partner. Her lips fell open. “Calliope Fawley? I didn’t think they even liked each other very much, much less…”

Hermione let out an awkward laugh.“It’s complicated, but I’d say they liked each other quite a bit.”

There was a small smile on Narcissa’s lips, and a disbelieving stare in her eyes. “I’d say you must be mistaken, but if she goes into that much detail…”

“Oh there’s really no mistaking it,” Hermione said, pushing the journal in Narcissa’s direction.

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said, pushing it back with a laugh. “That is my sister after all.”

“Right, I suppose you don’t… right.” Hermione sighed, and went back to her reading. Surprisingly, admitting the contents of the journal had made the situation feel a bit less embarrassing, but still, she was relieved when Bellatrix made it out of the library and back to her bedroom, thankfully alone.

 

I pulled the books out of my bags and settled in with them. I had almost forgotten them and left the library empty handed.  

But I’m glad I didn’t leave them behind. I’ve never attempted to imbue any object with a potion or a venom, or anything along those lines. This will take some research.

 

Hermione sat up straighter, her heart beginning to pound. Bellatrix had a list of the books she had taken out of the library. There were a handful of books on poisons and toxic materials, and then one on magical infusions.

 

It doesn’t seem like infusing the metal with the contents of any potion or venom would be that difficult given the proper conditions. I will test on other knives first to perfect the process.  

But first, I have to choose what poison I want. There are a number of candidates…

 

Hermione skimmed through the list, more eager for Bella’s conclusions than any of this thought process. 

 

But none of them seem quite right. Certainly, any of them could make the wound worse, make it harder to heal. If I got the infusion right and chose a venom instead of a potion, I could make even a small incision quite fatal. But none of them are jumping out at me.  

I’ll get another book tomorrow and see if I can find anything more suitable.

 

Hermione flipped the page, hoping to find another list of poisons, perhaps one circled with an excited little flourish, but there was nothing. The next page only contained another return to Bella’s normal days of classes and schoolwork and Calliope. She read on, determined to stay patient.

To Hermione’s surprise, and maybe to Bella and Callie’s as well, the affair between the two young women continued. They kept meeting up in hidden hollows throughout the castle, and unfortunately, the passages didn’t get any less explicit as they went on. She supposed Bellatrix might have tired of all the elaborate details, but of course she didn’t. It seemed that Cygnus and Druella had named the wrong daughter after a self-obsessed demi-god. Surely, Narcissa was the prettiest, but Hermione thought that only Bellatrix would take up this many pages writing erotica about herself.

Honestly, Hermione was getting a bit tired of it. For all of Bellatrix’s revulsion at Callie and Jasper’s romantic sweet talking, she did know how to go on and on and on about a relationship. She wasn’t sure if that was touching or irritating.

She was so busy thinking about the pair, that she didn’t realize just how close to the end she was getting. When she turned the page, she felt a sinking sensation in her stomach when she saw that it was the last.

There were a few ragged edges left in the book where an entire section must have been ripped out, and a couple pages at the end of the book that were completely blank before she reached the dark back cover, heavy and ominous. There was simply nothing else to read.

“That’s it…” Hermione said, feeling a bit hollow. “That’s all of it. There are pages ripped out, and then blank ones, and then… nothing.”

“Oh,” was all Narcissa said, sounding equally shocked and disappointed by the news.

Hermione was barely breathing. They had both been so sure that this would get them somewhere, but what had she gotten out of them except an irritating investment in the love life of the woman who gave her this scar in the first place. It felt like the final twist of the knife.

She kept looking at the ragged edges missing pages, as if she could look long enough to conjure them out of whatever fire they were thrown into decades ago.

“What if the ripped pages had her conclusion, what if they had the cure?” Hermione asked, feeling gutted. It made no sense for the journals to stop then, not when she felt like she was in the middle of everything, the knife, the affair…

Narcissa shook her head. “There’s no use dwelling on that, not unless you plan to drive yourself mad. However, I doubt she would have ripped out that piece. I’m surprised that she destroyed anything, but with what you said about her relationship with Calliope…. Well, I imagine it couldn’t have ended well, now could it?”

Hermione hadn’t given the couple’s future much thought, reading it much more like a second-rate novel than a history. However, the story was a true one, and she knew the ending all too well. The two young women didn’t end up together, they couldn’t have even if they wanted to, not then, not with the families they had.

Narcissa furrowed her brow and sat in silence for a moment before speaking again. “Do you have any other leads? Anything that you plan to try now?”

“I don’t know what else to try,” Hermione said, a note of pain in her voice.

Narcissa nodded grimly. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you ought to give up hope. I understand how disappointed you must be that the journals couldn’t offer anything more… tangible. But you do have more than when you started.”

Hermione looked at her sadly and gave a half-hearted shrug. “I’m not sure that’s true. What have I gained aside from a strange knowledge of your sister’s teenage troubles?”

Narcissa shook her head insistently. “You know that Bellatrix enchanted the blade herself, she didn’t acquire it that way, and you know vaguely when she did it. You know what her goals were, what initial options she had considered, why they interested her, why she disregarded them. You know her train of thought; now, you just have to continue it.”

Hermione looked back, unconvinced.

“Consider what you might do if you were in the same position, if you had the same end goal,” Narcissa continued.

“But that’s just it, I’ve thought about it a hundred times and don’t know what I would do. I feel so…” Hermione paused, fighting the urge to say inadequate or dumber than everyone has previously believed, or quite as unoriginal as Professor Trelawney had once accused. “I mean that your sister was…” she stopped again.

“Bella was brilliant, there’s no denying that,” Narcissa cut in. “But so are you.”

Hermione was surprised by the compliment, but Narcissa didn’t seem to notice. She seemed to be working herself up to a high key.

“And no matter what she may have thought of herself, Bellatrix wasn’t so bloody clever that no one could possibly come to the same conclusions.” The curse sounded strange in Narcissa’s voice, harsh and out of place, but she went on. “There’s no reason that you aren’t capable of making the same discovery.”

She paused as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue, but then she took a breath, keeping her eyes on the table. “I might be able to offer some assistance. I do have some insight into her methods, what types of magic she tended to favor—only if you’d like assistance, that is,” Narcissa qualified.

Hermione was so shocked by the offer that a strong wind might have knocked her out of her chair, but she accepted without a moment’s consideration. “I would appreciate that a great deal, Narcissa, truly,” she said.

Narcissa looked pleased, almost grateful. “It’s settled then,” she said. “We’ll start tomorrow.”

 


 

The next day, Hermione opened the door to the sitting room and found Narcissa at the window. A moon-faced barn owl was perched in front of her and she was tying a letter to its outstretched foot. Hermione knocked softly, announcing her entrance, and Narcissa turned to face her. 

“Good afternoon, Hermione,” she said. Her eyes looked sad and distant as if Hermione had broken her out of a deep and melancholic thought.

“Good afternoon. I was wondering, if you were still interested… that is, if you would want to work on research this afternoon? About the knife.” She felt oddly nervous taking Narcissa up on her offer, even though she was sure the woman had been genuine in her desire to help.

Narcissa offered her a small smile and nodded. “Of course. Just let me finish up here and I’m all yours.”

Hermione heaved a sigh of relief and unclenched her fingers that she was nervously twining behind her back.

The owl eyed Hermione suspiciously and rubbed at Narcissa’s hand to get her attention directed back at it. Narcissa gave its feathers a fond stroke and finished tying the letter. 

“You know where to go, darling,” she cooed to the creature, and with an affirming hoot, the owl took off from the sill and disappeared.

Hermione strolled closer and watched as Narcissa gathered the rest of the items on the table and began ordering them purposefully. She couldn’t help but be curious to whom Narcissa would be writing, and these appeared to be financial ledgers in front of her.

With curiosity getting the better of her, she approached the table cautiously and slid her eyes over the books that Narcissa hadn’t yet closed. There was nothing in her quick sweep over the pages full of numbers that meant anything at all, but tucked beneath one cover was a short letter, written in neat, unfussy script that Hermione did not recognize.

As much as I’d like to refuse this sudden show of conscience, I’m really in no position to do so, as you know.

Perhaps unfortunately for us both, I’m afraid I must accept your offer and thank you for I am now forever in your debt.

-A

P.S. I wrote this reply days before, but hadn’t been able to make myself send it. In the interim, I received your last letter. Of course I remember that day; how could I forget? I didn’t even know you knew about that though. And why on earth would you want to bring that up now?

Hermione had been trying to read the note surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye, but she was no master spy. Narcissa had noted Hermione’s sudden silent attention, and in a moment, her pale fingers crossed the table and snatched the letter, regarding Hermione with an arched brow of disapproval.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to pry,” Hermione said feebly.

Narcissa scoffed audibly. “Just like you weren’t trying to break into my safe?” she asked, her tone heavy with sarcasm.

Hermione felt incredibly embarrassed but when she raised her eyes to Narcissa’s, she was relieved to see that she didn’t look angry. 

Hermione considered whether she ought to change the subject or let the silence hang. Both seemed like viable options, but out of some maladaptive lack of self-control, Hermione continued to indulge her curiosity. “A as in…?” she began to ask tentatively. 

“Andromeda, yes,” Narcissa said. 

“You two are speaking again?”

“If you read the letter you’ll know that’s a bit of an overstatement,” Narcissa said and sighed. “But I have offered her money. Andromeda has never worked a day in her life and with her husband and her daughter dead, there’s no hope of her being able to support that little boy for much longer.”

Hermione was even more surprised by this than the renewed contact. “That’s kind of you,” she said honestly.

“It’s not really. After Bella and Lucius' deaths, I inherited more than I could use in ten lifetimes. It’s no sacrifice on my part,” Narcissa said.

“Must all kindness include sacrifice?” Hermione asked.

Narcissa furrowed her brow slightly and seemed to consider for a moment. “Perhaps not. Though it’s not really my area of expertise.”

A heavy silence hung in the air between them as Narcissa vanished the remaining documents to their rightful location. “All I’m really offering her is her share of our parent’s estate anyway. It would have been hers in the first place if she hadn’t been disinherited.”

“Still…” Hermione began to protest but a look from Narcissa seemed to say “drop it” so she did.

This time, Hermione did let the silence hang, and Narcissa hesitated at her desk for a moment before turning back with a much clearer facial expression, one that said she was putting this conversation behind her. “Shall we go to the library?”

Hermione had been sure to put away all of her magical composition research before she broke for lunch, so there was nothing awaiting them on the table but her notes on Bella’s journals and a few books on poisons where she had marked those that had been on the list of candidates. 

“I’ve found a few of the poisons that Bellatrix had been considering already,” Hermione said as they each took a seat at the table. “I thought perhaps we should find the rest and see if anything stands out to us?”

“All right,” Narcissa said and reached for one of the books on the table, beginning to flip through it on her search. 

“You haven’t pulled Veritable Venoms by Borage? It could be useful,” Narcissa said, summoning an additional book to their stack. 

“Merlin, is this a first edition?” Hermione asked excitedly as an ancient looking but perfectly preserved book landed in front of her on the table.

“Yes, it is,” Narcissa said without inflection, but Hermione could feel the woman’s stare boring into her, intense and searching.

She immediately realized her mistake. Obviously this was a book she should have been reading if she had really been researching ancient poisons all along. Narcissa may have already even asked her about it; she couldn’t remember what books she had brought up during that one uncomfortable conversation weeks ago.

But Narcissa didn’t call her out about the book, and she let the moment pass.

Ever since she and Narcissa had begun to spend more time together, Hermione had become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of Draco’s scheme. She didn’t really like to lie to anyone, but especially not someone she had begun to consider a friend… at least of sorts.

Narcissa was no longer looking at her and Hermione wondered what she might be thinking, what she thought Hermione was actually doing in her house. Hermione doubted she could suspect the truth, but she must have some hypothesis or other. She pushed the thought from her mind; it wasn’t as if she could ask.

They sat like that for a while, each engrossed in their own pages, taking a handful of notes or marking pages as they went.

At a certain point, Narcissa closed the book in front of her and sat in thought. She picked up Bella’s journals and flipped in Hermione’s translation to the pages she had marked for the references to the knife: the conversation with Andromeda, the trip to Knockturn Alley, the list of poisons from her initial research. When Narcissa had read the last relevant entry, she closed the journal and stared into nothing, pondering some information. 

Knowing how irritating it was to be interrupted before she’d finished her thoughts, Hermione waited patiently until Narcissa turned to face her.

“I don’t think it makes sense that it’s a poison,” she said. 

“What do you mean? Bellatrix seemed dead-set on poisoning the blade,” Hermione asked.

“Certainly Bella was compelled by the idea of using poisin, but as you said, she didn’t seem particularly interested in any of the options that she came across,” Narcissa said, stroking the leather spine of the journal absently with her fingers. "At 16, I doubt Bella would have had access to any poisons so rare that qualified healers wouldn’t be able to identify them. Perhaps in later years, but then… " Narcissa trailed off. “Besides, the symptoms don’t fit. These poisons could prevent a wound from closing and cause additional blood loss, but that’s not really the case here. This is more complicated; it has more finesse. Not to mention, the venom would be in your bloodstream, and even if it didn’t kill you, it would likely have other effects, which you’ve never mentioned before.”

Hermione thought about what Narcissa was saying and it made sense. After her victories at chess and their long conversations, it was no surprise that the woman was smart, but Hermione found a new appreciation for how logically her mind worked. It would be good to have such a woman on her side.

Narcissa continued to think aloud. “You said that the trouble with the wound is sporadic. It opens and starts to close and opens again. Sometimes it causes you pain, sometimes not, sometimes it will begin to bleed, others not…” Narcissa shook her head and bit at her bottom lip. “That seems like a curse of some sort, not a poison.”

“I see what you mean,” Hermione said. “And all of that makes sense. But, all of the healers ran checks for curses and couldn’t find any trace of one….”

Narcissa considered this. “While that is surprising that she would have been capable of something so elusive at such a young age, it still seems more likely that she could have mastered an advanced curse at that time than procured some rare poison.”

Hermione nodded. “I suppose that’s true, she could experiment with curses on her own, she didn’t need to find anyone to sell to her or find a way to get to London. Not to mention money.”

Narcissa nodded. “Besides, a poison is somewhat not her style. It’s too common, it’s too… easy. Bella lived to show off, especially at that age. She lived for drama and extremity; she hated anything that was predictable or pedestrian. It seems more likely that she would have chosen a curse of some sort, something difficult to master, or something she could modify for her own uses. She’d have wanted something she could brag about.”

“But she didn’t brag about it,” Hermione said. 

“That’s true, she didn’t, which in and of itself is out of character. She had that knife for decades and she never said that she had cursed it, not even to me. Why?” Narcissa exclaimed, a note of frustration in her voice. The expression on her face was so familiar to Hermione. She could have been examining a chess board, trying to connect the dots, form a pattern from all the fragmented pieces. Only unlike chess, Narcissa’s eyes never lit up with stunning revelation; instead she let out a sigh and shook her head.

“So do you think we should start looking into curses next,” Hermione asked, pulling Narcissa’s gaze back to her. 

Narcissa nodded. “I do. I think we should start making a list of your symptoms today and start tracking the state of the wound so we both know as much about it as possible. And then tomorrow, we can see what curses might line up.”

The sun had begun to sink low in the sky and Hermione noticed how Narcissa’s eyes continued to drift towards the windows. Each time, her eyes scanned the horizon and fell in disappointment.

Narcissa must have felt her looking because her eyes shot from the window to meet Hermione’s gaze. The woman’s stare was like a question, like a challenge but Hermione’s gaze didn’t falter. 

“You’re watching for your owl, aren’t you? For a reply?” Hermione asked. She was almost surprised by her own boldness.

A touch of uncharacteristic self-consciousness flitted through Narcissa’s eyes. She didn’t seem to like being so transparent. “I suppose I am,” she admitted. “Although, she never uses Athena. When I do get a response, it’s days later, weeks even, and always by some post owl or other. Still, it’s been a long time, she might have returned by now…” Narcissa had been wringing her hands and only then seemed to notice what she was doing. She stilled her fingers and furrowed her brow with an air of self-reproach.

Hermione watched her with caution. She had never seen Narcissa look so nervous and fidgety. It seemed unnatural on her in comparison to her usual composure. “I’m sorry if this is too personal a question, but if you miss her so much, why wait until now to contact her again?”

Narcissa’s gaze flew to Hermione’s face and for a moment, Hermione thought she saw a flash of anger at the impertinence to ask a question that was indeed far too personal. But it softened, and Narcissa seemed to consider for a long moment before speaking. She shook her head and looked away. “It seems so hard to explain now. It all seems so foolish looking back.”

Narcissa was looking out the window again, but her eyes no longer scanned the horizon. They seemed lost and sightless in whatever explanation she was trying to form.

“I was still a teenager when she ran off. There was no question of keeping in contact with her then. I would have been thrown out just like her, and then where would I have been?” Narcissa began. “But I shouldn’t act as if I even considered doing so. I don’t mean to make myself sound more noble than I am. I was so angry with her at the time.”

As if remembering Hermione’s presence, Narcissa raised her hand. “And not because he was Muggle-Born, I never really believed in all that nonsense, even then. But… It felt like such a betrayal. The way I saw it at the time, she had chosen him over us—over me—and I couldn’t get over it. It seemed to me so selfish, her marriage. And I resented how much pressure it put on me to make up for her mistakes, the way our parents never stopped looking at me after that like I was the last hope.”

"By the time I was old enough to fear my parents a little less, I was engaged and then married. And still, it would have meant choosing her over everyone else in my life. It wasn’t fair, and I resented being put in that position, I… " Narcissa sighed again. “Time continued to pass and as the years drifted by, the possibility of ever reconnecting seemed more and more remote. But then recently, I saw a picture of her in The Prophet with her grandson at some memorial event or other. I hadn’t even known that her daughter had a child before she was killed and…”

Narcissa’s eyes darted back into the room and she seemed to recollect herself a bit. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” she said, her eyelids fluttering in renewed self-consciousness as she saw Hermione watching her.

Hermione shrugged sympathetically. “I asked,” she said.

“Still, I…” Narcissa began but didn’t finish her sentence. She turned her gaze back to the book in front of her, although Hermione assumed she wasn’t reading a word.

“She might come around yet,” she ventured. 

Narcissa raised her eyes momentarily and scoffed before returning to her book. “Perhaps, though I’m not sure she has any reason to,” she said.

“But she responded. You must have said something in your letters to get her that far, some apology she found meaningful.”

Narcissa opened her mouth as if to speak but stopped, clearing her throat and looking away from Hermione’s searching gaze.

“I suppose. Although sentimental words have never been my strong suit—especially apologies. They can’t help but feel performative, whether they’re genuine or not,” Narcissa said. “Besides, growing up in a family of accomplished liars, it’s hard to feel that words have much value on their own. When I do mean something, I’m far better with actions.”

“Like giving your sister her inheritance?” Hermione probed.

“Indeed,” Narcissa agreed.

“Or helping me with my arm?”

Narcissa raised her eyebrows and nodded. “Precisely.”

With a small uncomfortable sigh, Narcissa turned back to her book, and this time, Hermione didn’t press her further. She only watched as the woman’s pale cheeks continued to flush in discomfort, as she tucked a strand of that long blonde hair behind her ear, as her eyes darted over the book before her. Hermione wanted so badly to reach out and touch her, to hug her and reassure her that she didn’t blame her what happened that day, that she had nothing to be embarrassed about when sharing about Andromeda, that Hermione even found it nice to see her be so human… but that would likely only make things worse.

Eventually they fell into more general conversation as the sky faded into early winter blackness.

 


 

With a boisterous clatter, the door to the library fell open and Draco strolled in, apparently about to check up on Hermione for the day, even though he hadn’t done so in almost a week. “Hello Granger, so tell me—” Draco began. When he saw Narcissa sitting in the chair beside her, he stopped dead with a shocked expression on his face. 

Narcissa smiled faintly and raised her eyebrows. “Draco, you look as if you’ve just seen an unfriendly ghost.”

“Mother, I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said, trying to regain some of his composure.

“In my house?” Narcissa asked with a sarcastic bite to her tone. 

Draco tried to smile casually. “You know what I mean.”

They stared at each other for a moment before Narcissa rose from the table. “I’ll leave you to speak to Hermione alone if you wish. Although, if that’s what you wanted, you might have just asked.” 

“Of course, I’m sorry, Mother,” Draco said. 

Narcissa shook her head and kissed him on the cheek before leaving the room. He waited to hear her footsteps fade out of earshot before he began to speak.

He regarded Hermione with a strange look, as if seeing her in some new light. “So are you two… friends or something now?” he asked. He didn’t even bother to hide the suspicion from his voice.

Hermione shrugged. “A bit, I guess. I don’t know. We play chess occasionally, we talk now and again. When you walked in on us, she was helping me with some of the research around Bellatrix’s knife.”

Draco’s usually exhausted face had taken on a fresh note of worry. “I wouldn’t be so trusting if I were you. She wants something. I’d bet she’s only getting close to you so she can question you about what you’re doing here… and about me.”

As he spoke, Hermione could see his hair practically curling in panic at the thought that Hermione’s loyalty might shift and she’d start spilling his secrets. It seemed like a ridiculous overreaction to her, and she wondered when Draco had last really slept. 

“Draco, relax. She hasn’t asked me about you at all,” Hermione said. Even if she had, Hermione thought she had little to offer besides the obvious secret project anyway, and that hardly seemed like a big enough deal to warrant this fear.

“What do you talk about then?” he asked, looking at Hermione with genuine incredulity.

Despite herself, Hermione laughed. “Do you hear yourself? As if there’s nothing two people could talk about besides you? The ego on you is astounding! We talk about any number of things—books, magic, life. She hasn’t once started asking me questions about… well anything that you might be concerned about me telling her.”

Hermione’s words had done little to calm Draco. In fact, they seemed to have had the opposite effect. 

“But she wouldn’t, would she? She’s smart, my mother. She wouldn’t jump in too soon and pester you with questions you didn’t want to answer. It would make you suspicious. That’s her game; she makes you think she doesn’t care, gives you a false sense of security and waits for you to slip up.”

Hermione shook her head. She wanted to be indignant that Draco thought it so improbable that anyone could enjoy her company without an ulterior motive. However, she could see his point. His description of his mother’s tactics was similar to something Bellatrix had written about Narcissa thirty years ago.

She expected to feel offended or let down at the thought but she didn’t. Since she herself had come into the house on the pretense of a bald-faced lie, she hardly had any moral high horse if Narcissa did have an ulterior motive of her own. If anything, it made her feel a bit sad, and guilty. They both enjoyed the conversations, the chess, the work. Not even Narcissa was a good enough actress to fake all that. It seemed incredibly unfair that there was so much baggage between them, and yet none of it of their own choosing.

Chapter Text

Somewhere around three in the morning, Narcissa awoke. When she turned over, she could tell that a heavy snow had fallen over the estate. A clean white light streamed in through the curtains, bright as any dawn despite the early hour. The light of a nearly full moon was reflecting off the icy expanse of white, giving the air a mystic silver hue.

She wasn’t sure why, but she immediately felt more peaceful to know that the world was silver and sparkling for once rather than the bleak grey that it had been for weeks. It felt the way that winter ought to feel, like a moment of silence, a moment of rest between the seasons that demanded so much from the world. An unexpected smile rose to her lips as she pulled the warm covers around her. Relishing in a rare feeling of peace, she turned from the window and fell back asleep.

Unfortunately, that moment of peaceful quiet could only last so long into the morning, as Narcissa found was often the case in her life.

She had barely poured herself a cup of morning tea and settled in to look out over the snowy expanse before Draco swooped in upon her with a piece of parchment in his hand.

“Ah, good morning, Mother. I’m glad that you’re awake already. I wanted to leave early this morning and I hoped to speak with you first,” he said.

“I couldn’t stay asleep, not with the snow outside shining through my window,” she said. A smile still lingered on her lips, one that hadn’t yet been shaken by the day.

“I’m sorry that you didn’t sleep well,” he said, approaching her seat at the table with barely checked haste.

She frowned, thinking that that wasn’t what she had meant at all, but as usual, Draco was only half-listening to her.

“I had meant to ask you to sign this yesterday but it completely slipped my mind, and I did hope to drop it off at Gringott’s while I’m already in town for work.”

He placed the piece of parchment and a quill beside her cup without so much as sitting down beside her.

“Another withdrawal request so soon?” she asked. But when she picked up the document to read, she saw that it was not merely a request for a withdrawal from the Malfoy vault but one to increase his monthly allowance from his trust by a rather sizable amount.

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have given it much thought. She really didn’t care how he spent his money; as it was, she was only in charge of his inheritance until he turned thirty or was married, whichever came first. It wasn’t enough to purchase anything truly extravagant, but as her son had very few expenses that weren’t already covered by the estate, this figure did give her pause, especially on top of the other one-off withdrawals that she hadn’t questioned in the past few weeks.

Her quill hovered above where her name was supposed to be signed and when she raised her eyes to her son, he was watching her fingers with such intensity it was almost as if he was trying to wordlessly charm her hand into signing whether she wished it or not. That too, alarmed her.

“Have you acquired a particularly expensive hobby lately?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

“No, no, but you know how expensive things can be these days, inflation and all. And as you always taught me, one does have to look the part.” He chuckled, and straightened the collar on his robes for effect, but his eyes were too nervous, too searching to pull off the air of ease for which he was aiming.

“So all of this is to go for… new robes?” she asked disbelievingly, thinking this sum alone could likely cover a small salary.

“Oh, yes, and you know, this and that,” Draco said with a shrug and a nervous sort of laugh.

Narcissa narrowed her eyes. “Are you burning your clothes the minute you take them off these days? Even your father wore the occasional outfit more than once.”

At the mention of his father, Draco stiffened uncomfortably and didn’t reply.

She rolled her eyes and relented, signing her name to the document. Draco’s relieved sigh only did more to cement the worry budding in her mind.

“Darling, if you need the money, I’ll give you the money, but tell me honestly, what is it for?” she asked as she placed the parchment into his greedy hands.

His eyes took on a familiar shade of panic. “I told you Mother, nothing specific, just—”

She cut in. “Yes, I know, hundreds of galleons worth of this and that every month. Draco, are you in some sort of trouble?”

“What? No,” he insisted. “It’s nothing you have to worry about, nothing like that.”

“If it’s nothing to worry about then there’s no reason to hide the details from me,” she said. Her patience was wearing thin, and her voice was harsh.

His eyes grew steely with annoyance of his own, looking so much like his father’s that it startled her. “Mother, I’m a grown man and I shouldn’t have to ask your permission to buy whatever sort of robes I want with what is supposed to be my inheritance.”

“I’m not saying that you have to ask my permission ,” Narcissa hissed. 

“Good, because I have to leave for work, and I really don’t have time for this,” Draco said, tucking the document into the breast pocket of his robes, and turning away.

“Draco—”

He turned on his heel to face her with anger in his eyes. “Mother, you’re overreacting. I’m not hiding anything, there’s nothing to hide. Get some rest today, all right?”

“Don’t you dare talk to me like—” she began, but before she could even finish her sentence, he was gone.

Narcissa felt she could have screamed if she let herself. She was so sick of this never-ending battle for information. Over the years, she had spun so many webs and caught so many confidences, just once she wished that someone would tell her the truth without it having to be won by force or by stealth. Draco, it would seem, truly was her son, and so was immune to both forms of manipulation—maddening silence, direct badgering, none of it made any difference; he didn’t crack an inch.

She was only spinning in the darkness, never finding a light.

 


 

Less than an hour later when Hermione arrived in the library for the day, she too found herself rather mesmerized by the frozen landscape that was presenting itself outside.

The snow had looked attractive in the city too, but there was something so different in the way it lay here undisturbed by pedestrians or traffic, the way it lined the trees of the forest like a scene from a painting.

A few minutes later, before Hermione had managed to pull herself away from the window, she saw Narcissa’s familiar figure crossing the snow covered yard and disappearing into the woods beyond.

It had been at least a week of cold, icy rain up until today, and Narcissa hadn’t ventured out the way Hermione had come to expect. Besides, it was still so early that the sun was still rising in the sky, far before her usual midday walk. Even though they spent hours together every day, Hermione knew that she had missed this opportunity to watch her out on the grounds. Somehow it thrilled her even more than all Narcissa’s silly teases over chess, her knowing glances at Hermione’s flushing cheeks. This image felt so personal.

Even more than usual, she felt a nagging sense of curiosity and a strong desire to follow Narcissa wherever she was going. And unlike the early days at the Manor where she had fantasized about doing just that, she was no longer afraid that Narcissa would turn around and hex her. They’d spent far too much time together for that, and she had seen too much of the warmth that lay hidden in that guarded gaze to truly fear the woman’s wrath.

Pulling on her heavy winter cloak, Hermione found herself walking out in the snow, following Narcissa’s footprints into the expanse of naked, sugar-coated trees.

When she caught up with Narcissa, she was sitting on a bench nestled within a small copse of trees, looking silently out into the woods. In her white fur-lined cloak with her platinum hair cascading down her back, Hermione thought that Narcissa looked right at home in the still, icy landscape. She was a true Ice Queen, but only in the most flattering sense of the term.

Hermione cleared her throat and Narcissa turned to her, startled. “Oh, Hermione,” she said, her breath visible in the air.

“The snow was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist a walk,” Hermione said cheerily.

Narcissa nodded and hummed noncommittally.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Hermione asked. 

“Not at all,” Narcissa said, gesturing to the seat beside her on the bench. 

They sat without speaking and the world seemed unnaturally quiet around them. Hermione thought that Narcissa’s eyes seemed sad, slightly gloomy. It was a look Hermione hadn’t seen much of since they had started spending afternoons together, when they both seemed more able than usual to set aside their worries.

Hermione couldn’t help but wonder at the cause. “What were you thinking about out here all alone?” she asked.

Narcissa sighed and tilted her head, never turning from the trees. “You, funnily enough,” she said softly.

Me ?”

“Yes, you… and Draco.” The muscles in Narcissa’s jaw visibly clenched.

Hermione swallowed hard.

“Draco weeping in the hallway, money practically leaking from his pocket, you researching poisons by reading about magical creatures and magical composition theory all day.”

Hermione’s throat constricted around her breath. She had no response prepared for this, and even though Narcissa wasn’t demanding one, she would have to say… something. She considered brushing it off with some flippant, meaningless excuse, perhaps getting up and disappearing from sight—certainly that was what Draco would have done. Instead she stayed still, and a feeble, mumbled “Oh,” escaped her lips.

Narcissa turned to her suddenly as if the response grated on her already delicate nerves. She fixed Hermione with an intense glare.

Hermione hated the look on Narcissa’s face, so distrustful and hurt. She hated being on the receiving end of it, being part of the reason it was there.

Her mind spun over what Narcissa had said: money disappearing, Draco’s constant mood, her mysterious presence and odd choice of books. It painted a terribly suspicious picture. “Wait,” she said. “How do you know what I’ve been reading?”

Narcissa huffed indignantly. “It is my house and my library, and I do know a thing or two about what goes on inside of it,” she snapped.

That was hardly an answer, but Hermione wasn’t about to press the point.

Looking abashed by her lack of composure, Narcissa took a long steadying breath. “There’s a spell on the library that catalogs the movement of the books,” she explained. “It’s meant more as an index or to track down loans, but it has other uses.”

“Oh, how interesting,” Hermione exclaimed in genuine interest. For a moment, she forgot the issues at hand as she considered the workings of the spell.

Narcissa let out a small hollow laugh as she watched Hermione ponder this new information, but the pain never left her eyes. She turned once more to silently watch the trees with that wistful, sad expression.

Hermione thought that the topic might have dropped, as it had so many times before after similar hints in the past. However, in that moment, the desire to smooth that worry from Narcissa’s brow, to ease some of the hurt from her eyes was far stronger than any fear of betraying Draco’s confidence.

She took a breath. “Whatever you’re thinking, Narcissa, whatever’s making you so worried, I promise you it’s nothing like that.”

Narcissa turned to her with a look that was so surprised, Hermione thought she could have knocked her over with a feather. She too had apparently expected Hermione to take any opportunity she could to let the conversation drop.

Her expression only made Hermione more determined to go on. “Draco just wanted me to help you,” she confessed. 

Narcissa wrinkled her nose. “Help me with what exactly?”

Hermione tried her best to explain the situation: what Draco thought she needed, how she had been trying to go about it, why the books she had been reading all fit into the picture.

All the while, Narcissa watched her with blatant disbelief. When the explanation was done, she heaved a deep sigh and rested her temple against her fingers, massaging it slightly. The worry had dissipated from her eyes, but in its place an exhaustion seemed to grow. “I have to admit, even through all this, I never thought he would one day decide I was mad .”

“Not mad exactly… just that the dementors took a toll.”

“Please,” Narcissa hissed. “I was only charged as an accomplice. I was in minimum security; there were hardly any dementors around. I wasn’t being tortured out of my mind for a year, I was just bored . Which he would know if he ever bothered to listen when I spoke.”

Narcissa was looking at her challengingly as if she was about to argue, but instead she nodded. “That makes so much more sense. I never believed that you had those issues in the first place. You may not be the cheeriest person I’ve ever met, but it’s not… well, it always seemed like if anyone was driving you mad it was Draco.”

The faintest ghost of a smile crept to Narcissa’s lips. “Lately, you wouldn’t be wrong.”

“I’ve thought about this a great deal while I’ve been working, and I think that Draco is very good at seeing what he wants to see. And he’d rather think you were depressed and muddled than that you don’t believe all of his bullshit. So he decided that was the case and never looked back.”

Narcissa nodded and her gaze drifted to the trees once more. She made two false starts at speaking before she finally began. “I was only in prison for a year, Hermione, but by the time I got out, Draco had started a whole new life for himself, changed himself to be… well, you know what he’s like these days. He wanted me to join him, to stand beside him at the Ministry events, plastering fake smiles on my face every evening and reviving the family name.”

“But you didn’t want that?”

“No. These political games may have been new to Draco, but I’ve been playing them all my life, and I no longer have the desire or the energy to be an accessory to someone else’s schemes for glory. However, when I didn’t jump to his side, he decided I was the enemy, or at the very least a liability. I suppose it’s only gone downhill from there. He comes home and lies about you, obfuscates about his job, tries to hide…” she stopped abruptly and took a breath. “Well, soon enough we’ll be reduced to speaking of the weather.”

“What he’s doing is… ridiculous. But Draco loves you, Narcissa. I’m sure of that,” Hermione said earnestly.

Narcissa sighed. “Yes, Draco does love me, but he doesn’t trust me. And perhaps that’s justified after all that’s happened. But he is without exaggeration all that I have, and…” she trailed off, her face tightening as her eyes glistened with tears that she seemed to be willing not to fall. 

Instinctively, Hermione put a hand on Narcissa’s knee.

Narcissa turned to her, wide-eyed, looking somehow both scared and accusatory, shocked to silence at this intimate gesture of kindness. In her surprise, she relinquished her hold on herself enough for a single tear to escape and slide down her cheek.

Hermione wanted nothing more than to cup her cheek and brush it away with a soothing swipe of her thumb, to feel the soft skin of her face beneath her fingers. But she held herself back. If Narcissa was startled by a hand on a knee, anything such as that would be far too much

Narcissa turned from her and brushed the tear away herself, regaining her stoic demeanor.

Hermione understood that Narcissa was trying to ensure the moment was over and she retracted her hand from her knee.

“Thank you for telling me the truth, Hermione. I.. I didn’t know what to think.” Narcissa said softly. 

“I wish I could have told you sooner. I hated lying, especially once we started spending more time together,” Hermione said. “Are…. I hate to ask, but are you going to tell Draco about this… that I told you? I understand if you will, it’s just that he made me promise not to say anything and—”

Narcissa shook her head. “I won’t, not now. Don’t worry about Draco,” she assured. “He has plenty of other secrets to keep him warm.”

Hermione frowned. As far as she knew, she was currently holding his most potent secret. “What do you mean?”

“Well, for one thing, he thinks I don’t know he’s in a relationship with Harry Potter,” Narcissa said without inflection.

Hermione coughed, suddenly struggling to breathe after choking on the air within her own lungs. “I’m sorry, he’s what ?”

“Oh.” Narcissa looked genuinely surprised at this reaction. “I—I assumed you knew. I figured one of them would have told you by now; it’s been going on for months,” she said.

“Nope, no, that’s definitely news to me,” Hermione said, still trying to catch her breath.

Narcissa looked out into the woods thoughtfully. “Apparently he’s more embarrassed about it than even I believed.”

“He has no reason to be embarrassed! There’s nothing wrong with him seeing Harry!” 

“Don’t put words in my mouth. I never said that there was,” Narcissa snapped. 

Hermione nodded and relaxed her stance. “Wait, how do you know about this if it’s such a secret?”

Narcissa rolled her eyes. “Draco knows that I set all the wards on this house, yet he never even considers that I might check them from time to time, just to see who comes and goes. Three nights a week, the boy shows up after midnight and leaves before the sunrise. It doesn’t take a genius to put those pieces together.”

Hermione nodded. It was a sloppily-kept secret. A lot of Harry’s behavior, and Draco’s as well, made sudden sense when viewed in this light—the fighting, the brooding, the secretly-shed tears. It was a wonder that Hermione hadn’t considered the possibility before.

“But I don’t understand,” Hermione began tentatively. “If you’ve known for this long, why not just tell Draco and be done with it? Why let it go on being a secret?”

Narcissa closed her eyes in thought for a moment. “It’s not that I haven’t considered it, it’s just… It’s not about me knowing. I don’t care whom he sleeps with; he’s a grown man, he can make those choices on his own, and he’s certainly due a certain amount of privacy. It’s—” she paused. “What I want is for him to trust me, and telling him that I’ve been spying on him isn’t going to accomplish that.”

Hermione could see her point in a way. Draco wouldn’t take kindly to that, and there was always the chance he might curl up even deeper into this shell. And yet, she wasn’t sure there was any other way out but to take that risk and have an honest conversation—not that these two Slytherins would agree with that.

She paused, mustering up the nerve to say what was playing in her mind. “Not that it matters but if it does, I’ve enjoyed spending time with you. Playing chess and talking, and… everything. And none of that had anything to do with what Draco wanted… In fact, I get the impression that he doesn’t like it at all… us being friends,” Hermione said clumsily.

Narcissa’s lips parted, and a look of surprise crossed her features, as if she couldn’t fathom the sentiment, or the fact that Hermione had just referred to her as a friend. She cleared her throat and offered a hesitant smile. “Well, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve enjoyed spending time with you as well.”

Hermione couldn’t help but smile at the sincerity in the woman’s eyes, and at the discomfort with which she expressed it. “Good,” she said with a cocky, playful smile. 

Narcissa laughed and she regarded Hermione with what looked shockingly like affection. There was a white flame flickering in those blue eyes and at the sight of it, Hermione’s heart skipped a beat. 

Abruptly rising, Narcissa said, “Well, it’s a beautiful day, and there’s no reason for us to dwell on any of this. Have you ever seen the far part of the grounds, the gardens beyond the woods?”

Hermione shook her head. “No.”

“It’s lovely in the winter, in the freshly fallen snow,” Narcissa said and extended a gloved hand to Hermione.

She took it and rose, enjoying the warm press of Narcissa’s fingers—probably more than she ought to—before her hand was released.

Narcissa began to lead her deeper into the woods where any paths were covered and obscured by the blanket of white that covered all the earth. For a silly moment, Hermione wondered whether she was going to end up led into the land of the fae after all, pulled by the fleeting touch of this fairy queen.

 


 

As Narcissa guided her deeper and deeper into the woods, she could hear Hermione’s footsteps crunching over the snow just a step behind.

She felt light, giddy in a way that she hardly recognized in herself. She tried to temper whatever this feeling was, but still her heart drummed faster with the simple pleasure of… she wasn’t sure, a mystery solved, perhaps. Although that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t about knowing the truth per se—the knowledge itself had brought as much pain as it had relief. 

It was about Hermione wanting her to know the truth, wanting to tell it. The young woman had seen a barrier between them and wanted it removed instead of merely seeing the fissure and wanting to plug it and build a stronger fortress as anyone else might have done. Hermione’s desire for honesty, for closeness based on truth was such a novelty in Narcissa’s life that she hardly knew how to handle it.

The shift the conversation had caused was so subtle and yet, everything felt changed.

She supposed that was why she had set out on this journey, an offering of a secret of sorts in turn, in payment, in hopes that it would bring Hermione joy.

Walking in silence, Hermione kept close to her heels, as if she feared losing her way. The woods must have seemed like a labyrinth to her with their twisting rows of homogenous pines and the paths covered by a thick blanket of obscuring snowfall. Narcissa, however, likely could have walked through them blindfolded by this point, so familiar was she with the subtle twists and curves of every row of trees.

Eventually, they reached a tall hedgerow of evergreens. Narcissa turned back to face Hermione who was looking at her in confusion. With a smile, Narcissa took her hand once more and slid into a gap that was only just big enough for them to fit.

Hermione stumbled through after her with a gasp of surprise. The girl’s breath seemed to halt for a moment, her cheeks pink from the cool air, her eyes bright and shimmering with shock.

As promised, Narcissa had led her to a garden, but likely not the kind Hermione might have imagined—all snow-covered shrubbery and empty flower-beds where one might say the tulips will look lovely come the spring. No, within the circle of greenery that was the hedgerow wall, every flower was in full bloom, trapped in a bubble of magic, preserving them at the height of their growing season.

Hermione let out a laugh and the sound rang beautifully over the quiet morning. She stepped tentatively forward with amazement, almost disbelief in her eyes. Narcissa knew the feeling, she felt it every time herself, even though the garden was hardly new to her. Yet even when you saw it coming, it was still like stepping into a different world, a beautiful fantasy where the Earth was painted in its brightest shades. 

Compared to the stark, dying forest just outside, every leaf seemed impossibly luscious and green surrounding the rainbow of petals above it. If you closed your eyes and reached for it, you could feel the soft hum of magic over your skin, the complex web of charms that kept the garden alive and blooming even in the harshness of the season, kept the flowers yearning towards some invisible summer sun even amidst the shining, icy white that had settled on all the ground beneath.

Narcissa stepped closer to Hermione. “Do you like it?” she asked.

Hermione smiled with an undisguised look of awe on her face. “It’s wonderful.” She raised her hand as if feeling the magic that swirled around them. “Does it bloom year round?”

“Only in the winter, it will die back in the spring just as the other flowers come into bloom. This is the height of its season,” she explained.

“Did you create all of this yourself?” 

Narcissa smiled and shook her head. “I wish I could take full credit for it, but no. This garden has been here for two hundred years or more. Although I have done a great deal of work to bring it back to its former glory and beyond after it was mostly left to disintegrate by Lucius' mother. It suffered as much during the war and after. I’ve been tending to the charms every day that I could this season to undo the damage.”

“So this is where you come every afternoon on your walks,” Hermione mused quietly, the sweetest of smiles growing on her lips. “That’s one more mystery solved, I suppose.”

Narcissa was surprised that Hermione had paid enough attention to her movements to wonder, much less to wear that soft expression now. “Have you watched me so closely?”

“I’ve noticed,” Hermione said with an attempt at a casual shrug, but her cheeks turned a shade of fuchsia as deep as the oleander petals beside her.

Narcissa’s heart stuttered in her chest, and she told herself to get a grip.

Hermione turned from her and meandered down the garden path, letting her hands drift above the plants, through the swirling magic, and brushing the occasional soft petal with her fingertips. She bent towards a peony, burying her nose in its sweet scent, running her finger up the stem with a smile.

Narcissa felt paralyzed with thoughts that wouldn’t quite crystalize. All she knew is she couldn’t move from the spot, couldn’t tear her eyes away from Hermione’s sojourn through the petals and thorns.

The young woman raised her gaze, and apparently seeing the apprehension in Narcissa’s face, smiled reassuringly. “You don’t have to worry. I promise I’ll leave them be.” She smiled and a thought alighted in her eyes. “I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one,” she recited.

At that, Narcissa’s lips parted in surprise. She could see Hermione laugh, about to explain the reference when Narcissa cut in—“I see the garden has had quite an effect on you if you’re quoting poetry now,” she said quietly. Hermione looked surprised that she recognized the quote, and that look too was thrilling. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to see Hermione pick the most beautiful flower in the place, to claim it for her own.

“But regardless of verse,” Narcissa continued, letting her own fingers brush over a neighboring flower. “Why deny yourself? Why fight the temptation? Why not harvest beauty where it grows, as it were?”

“I thought you said ‘regardless of verse,’” Hermione joked.

Their eyes met in the lingering moment, delighted smiles playing on their lips.

Seemingly emboldened by Narcissa’s words, Hermione crouched before the stem of a white lily. She raised her hand to claim it, but Narcissa stopped her.

Narcissa hummed thoughtfully. “We can find something that suits you better than that,” she said and began to stroll through the garden, eyes glancing over the varieties before her. She stopped in front of a rose bush and her hands fell to the biggest bloom; it seemed to be almost too large, practically bursting with silky red petals. It was so full of twists and turns that it looked unruly in its careless beauty.

With a quick severing charm, Narcissa cut the rose free and shorn it of its briars.

Staring into the labyrinth of petals, Narcissa hesitated for a moment, considering quietly before speaking. “This seems to suit you perfectly,” Narcissa said as she pressed the stem into Hermione’s hand. 

“The most beautiful rose growing here today?” Hermione mused, not quite taking the flower into her hands. “Surely, this one is intended for you.”

Narcissa’s breath grew shallow, strained. “You’re very sweet.”

When Hermione still refused to take the flower, Narcissa sighed in playful impatience and retracted her hands from Hermione’s. She reached up and wove the stem into a curl of Hermione’s hair and smiled at the sight. Her fingers lingered for a heartbeat too long over the skin of Hermione’s neck, long enough for the young woman to shiver, for that look, soft and hungry, to come into her eyes again.

Narcissa cleared her throat. What did she think she was doing? This was getting out of hand. She turned away, letting her steps lead her into another row of flowers. She kneeled before a bed of lilacs.

She saw Hermione pull out her wand and mutter some incantation, tracing the lines of the flower’s charms. “These charms are amazing, they’re so complex,” she called.

“Indeed they are, and they take so much upkeep, a few years of neglect requires a few years of work to undo the damage.” Narcissa plucked at the strands of magic before her and renewed the pieces where she found weakness, unraveling, or frayed edges.

Hermione walked beside her and watched, seeming to study her subtle movements. “May I help?” she asked.

“Of course,” Narcissa answered without hesitation.

Studying the motions of Narcissa’s wand, more closely, Hermione turned to the flowers and began to work, instinctively feeling her way through the magic in a way that seemed beyond her years, although with all of her studying of magical composition, it seemed she had learned quite a bit.

It was fascinating to see the concentration with which she worked, the way she felt for the charms, pulled them into line with a furrow in her brow and the smallest of smiles on her lips.

Narcissa didn’t even realize that she had stopped working on the charms in front of her, or that she was worrying at her lower lip  as she watched Hermione’s hands… not until Hermione turned to face her and their eyes met. Abruptly, Narcissa pulled her glance away.

Hermione continued to stare back and Narcissa felt her cheeks grow hot, she knew that her eyes must look panicked, but she couldn’t calm them. Could Hermione see the way her heart was pounding beneath the skin of her throat?

Oh, Merlin, when had this happened? When had it stopped being a game? Or even better, when had Narcissa herself become one of the sacrificial pawns?

Turning her thoughts back to her work, they were able to resume some idle chatter, but Narcissa thought she saw Hermione stealing glances in her direction, like she too had noticed that something had shifted when Narcissa had let her own gaze linger that afternoon, like the expression in her eyes had been too clear to deny.

Chapter Text

All night after that afternoon in the enchanted garden, Hermione was haunted by memories of the look in Narcissa’s eyes.

Now that she’d seen it so plainly that once, she felt she could see traces of it everywhere—a glimmer of hesitation, subtle smiles, perhaps the faintest traces of guilt that might follow. She took each moment like a prize, like pieces of a greater treasure she could collect with patience—indications that this attraction was in fact mutual.

It was after two days and countless of these moments that the two women sat together on another afternoon, playing chess once again.

Hermione had been thinking about the game the previous night as she fell asleep, and she had a plan that she wanted to try out. The game was unusually aggressive as Hermione charged forth, sacrificing piece after piece, coaxing Narcissa into doing the same. She felt she must have lulled Narcissa into a false sense of security with her senseless barbarism, too reminiscent of her earliest games, that the woman didn’t realize how purposeful and considered all of the sacrifices were.

Not that Narcissa had made it easy. She had deflected a number of Hermione’s attacks, cutting them off in unpredictable and inventive ways. Yet, it was only when Narcissa had captured Hermione’s dangling queen with her knight that she realized Hermione’s final strategy. A small gasp escaped her lips as realization dawned upon her.

“And with the knight out of the way, you’re free to take the queen, leaving the king hopelessly trapped.” Narcissa said it with a tone of wonder in her voice. “I resign.”

Narcissa’s eyes scanned the board as her king threw his crown to the feet of Hermione’s approaching rook with a bow. “Well played,” she said in a near whisper.

Hermione thought Narcissa might be upset to have finally lost but on the contrary, she looked extremely pleased, proud even as she looked at Hermione’s final position.

“Thank you,” Hermione said with a wide smile. " I was thinking about it last night as I went to bed and I couldn’t wait to try it out."

“You’ve come a long way, Hermione,” Narcissa said. “It’s my game, my board, and yet you managed to trap me so efficiently. I’m impressed.” She paused and looked once more at the board in admiration. “Although this won’t work twice, I’ll warn you. So I hope you have a few other equal strategies planned.”

There was no doubt in Hermione’s mind that that was true. The woman was brilliant after all, perhaps the only person Hermione had met who had truly felt like her intellectual match in every area, even her superior in some. If there was anyone that Hermione could count on to have a plan more logical than her own, it was Narcissa.

Suddenly an idea popped into her head, one that she knew she wouldn’t be able to shake now that it was there. “Cissa, I’ve just had a thought. You know the research I’m doing with the Patronus?”

Narcissa’s eyebrows raised slightly, likely surprised at the sudden use of her nickname, which had just slipped out of Hermione’s mouth. Nonetheless, she nodded and tilted her head as she leaned back to listen.

“Well, I plan on continuing with it for as long as I can. Even if not for you as it was intended, I think the research could be valuable to so many people who suffer from that kind of trouble. But I’ve been struggling with it a bit, and I’m not sure where to go from here,” she said, beginning to feel quite shy about her request. “But our minds work so well together when it comes to the knife, or about chess… about everything really, and I thought that perhaps you might have a few ideas about this as well.”

Narcissa’s lips fell open for a moment. “You want me to help with your research?”

“Of course I do. Your mind could only be an asset to the project,” Hermione said earnestly. “Although I certainly don’t want you to feel obligated if you’d rather not. I mean I understand that it might be awkward for you given that this entire situation was originally about you and all, but…”

Narcissa cut in. “I would be honored to help you, Hermione. I’m honored that you even asked.”

“Wonderful,” Hermione said with a grin.

The look on Narcissa’s face was a strange one—a mixture of disbelief, pleasure and puzzlement. “First that brilliant victory, and now this… You really are full of surprises,” she said with fondness in her tone.

The words brought a trembling happiness to Hermione, only furthered by the honeyed smile on Narcissa’s lips. In her distraction, Hermione shifted her chair backwards, bumping a neighboring desk and sending a small stack of papers clattering to the floor.

“Oh Merlin, I’m so sorry,” she said, clambering up to right her mistake.

Narcissa too rose from her chair with protestations that it was perfectly all right, no harm done.

It was only once they were both on the floor, with hands on either end of the same papers that their eyes locked. They had both tried to pull the papers in opposite directions, and neither one of them could help but laugh at how they couldn’t seem to make it right, tripping over each other, and alternately offering the papers to the other.

Hermione moved her hands over Narcissa’s, intending to loosen her grip, but at the first touch of their fingers, Hermione stilled. She cleared her throat, raising her eyes to Narcissa’s once more.

Narcissa’s pupils were wide, making her eyes look darker than usual, her hair was tossed over one shoulder, cascading down her body like a waterfall of blonde. And her lips were parted just slightly, looking almost like an invitation.

There was something palpable in the air lingering between them, some tension that Hermione could taste on her tongue. Nervously, she laughed. Narcissa followed suit, but even that mutual lapse couldn’t break the moment, it was made of stronger stuff than to be so easily fractured. All the swirling darkness in Narcissa’s gaze was intoxicating, all the feeling behind those eyes that shone cold to the rest of the world.

Visions flashed through her head of a rose twined into her hair, of a stare held a moment too long in the garden, of bookcases and rope, of soft ivory fingers on her knee, on her neck, on her thigh. Relax .

In hindsight, Hermione wasn’t sure who made the first move forward. Their faces eased closer as if pulled by gravity until their hurried breaths mingled in the air.

By then, they had reached a point of no return, when thoughts of logic were too far behind them to be heeded. With a final thrust forward, Hermione raised one hand to Narcissa’s cheek and captured her lips in a hard and eager kiss.

Without any sign of hesitation, Narcissa was kissing her back, raising one hand to trace over Hermione’s jawline, the other twining into her twisting curls.

Hermione brushed her tongue over Narcissa’s bottom lip, savoring the feel of her. Her mouth was soft, and hot, and delectably sweet. All the while, Narcissa’s other hand was tracing up Hermione’s thigh, over her stomach, fingers outlining her ribs.

Hermione felt like she was practically on fire from the sudden flood of arousal in her veins, from this release so long awaited. She pushed forward until Narcissa’s back was pressed against the table leg, until Narcissa was pulling Hermione closer, practically into her lap as she teased Hermione’s mouth open with her tongue, swallowing the low moan that emanated from deep within her throat.

With one sure hand, Hermione’s fingers ventured up from Narcissa’s waist, cupping her breast, and she felt the woman sigh and relax into the embrace. Through the thin layer of silk, she felt a nipple tighten under the touch of her palm. She wanted nothing more than to rip away that fabric, no matter how expensive, no matter how fine.

Somewhere far in the distance, in what could have been another world, a door thudded closed, footfalls traipsed down a deserted hallway, rubber soles padding against marble in a rhythmic step.

It was only just before the footsteps reached the room that either one of them could bother to pay the noise any heed, but at the unmistakable sound of a doorknob twisting, the two women pulled apart in the bed of papers just in time to see Draco’s face as he opened the door.

“Draco,” Narcissa said in a stuttering tone. “You’re home early.”

“Yes, I have to go back to the Ministry tonight for that dinner, but I wanted to freshen up first. Is everything all right in here?” he asked, looking between the two of them in puzzlement.

“Oh, yes,” Narcissa said with a dismissive gesture of her hand, rising to her feet with surprising grace. “We just knocked over some papers from the table, it was silly really. Hermione was helping me to pick them up.” Her voice recovered all of her usual cold dignity in a moment, but not even Narcissa Malfoy could force her cheeks to grow pale in an instant, or for her breath to return to its normal speed.

Draco raised an eyebrow at his mother’s odd demeanor. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to use a spell?”

Narcissa laughed. “Yes, I’m sure it would have been. Like I said, it was silly.”

Draco nodded and his gaze turned to Hermione who had yet to say anything, who had yet to even rise from the floor.

Hastily averting her gaze, Hermione shuffled the papers back into order and placed them on the table as she got to her feet.

“Well, if you’re going back to the Ministry tonight, I ought to tell Todry not to expect you for dinner,” Narcissa said abruptly. She glanced back at Hermione who was still looking like a flustered mess leaning against the table. She took her son’s arm to lead him from the room. “Come with me Draco and tell me about what you plan to wear to this dinner. And Hermione, you can return to your research.”

“Right,” Hermione said weakly.

Narcissa had seemed to throw her cold orderly personality into overdrive in compensation for her disarray; her voice had been incredibly firm as she commanded them all to their corners. As she exited the room, she gave Hermione a significant look, one that Hermione couldn’t quite read—was it chastisement in her eyes, guilt, pleasure, longing? Perhaps some tangled mess of all of those things?

Hermione lifted her fingers to her lips, tracing the ache left behind by the hasty, bruising embrace. Her mind trailed back to the chess game, the victory that had led to them both coming undone.

Narcissa hoped that Hermione had equal strategies. Well, Hermione wasn’t sure if they were equal or not, but a new strategy was forming in her mind, probably a bad one. But how was she supposed to sit beside Narcissa now, knowing that their spark had such power, knowing that a mere kiss could singe her like that? After feeling all the need that emanated from Narcissa’s body as it pressed into her caresses…

She supposed she could learn to live with that knowledge if she must, if Narcissa insisted upon it, but all that longing left in Narcissa’s eyes just then made Hermione imagine that unlike in chess, the woman would have little interest in deflecting her advances, and unlike in any game, this was a situation where they could win in equal measure.

 


 

Later that night, Hermione found herself back on the steps of the Manor. There had been times when she hadn’t left until this late, times when she had become so invested in her work that she had been invited to dinner and shooed into acceptance by Todry if she protested. However, never had she arrived any later than mid-morning; she almost expected the wards to push against her, as if her admittance was tied to her usually rigid schedule.

The wards did no such thing, however. The garden door opened to her touch and Hermione slid through the halls like a burglar.

She knew that Draco would be out tonight, so there was minimal need for stealth. The only person who was home was the exact person whom she sought.

Hermione walked towards where she believed Narcissa’s bedroom to be. The hall was quiet save for her own footsteps, and she wondered if Narcissa was asleep or merely if the rooms were silenced so thoroughly that nothing could be heard through these doors.

With a trembling hand, she let her knuckles rap against the door.

Nothing.

She waited for a moment, and tried once more.

Still, there was only silence.

Hermione lowered her hand to the doorknob and gave it an experimental turn. She had expected to meet resistance from a lock or a charm, but it pressed open at her touch as easily as the garden door had before. She ducked her head in.

“Narcissa?” she called out. She was too aware of the silence to let her voice grow very loud. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, seeing as the room was completely empty.

At first, Hermione felt crestfallen at her plans having turned to dust so quickly. But then, she realized that perhaps it was better this way after all. Narcissa couldn’t have gone far, and she would have to return.

Hermione slid off her shoes, took off her cardigan and sat on the bed trying to arrange herself in an appealing sort of way, and there, she waited.

 


 

When Narcissa entered her room that night, she was fairly certain nothing could have prepared her for what she would find there.

On her bed sat Hermione. She was dressed the same as she had been that afternoon, a dark dress that wrapped around her body, held closed with a tie. Only now, the sweater she had worn earlier was gone, and the tie had been dramatically loosened, revealing skin nearly down to her navel and the edges of a lacy bra where the fabric had parted.

Narcissa swallowed. For a moment, she wondered if pushing down all her thoughts about the young woman, about the kiss this afternoon, had made them stronger, let them turn into some kind of delusion. But the flush upon Hermione’s cheeks was far too realistic for that, as was the way the duvet wrinkled around the indent of her legs. She blinked hard in a last attempt to clear the illusion from her eyes, but to no avail. No, if this was madness, it was mutual.

“Hermione,” Narcissa managed to say. “I thought you’d left hours ago. What are you doing here?”

“I’m half-undressed and sitting on your bed, I thought it might be obvious,” Hermione said, playfully pulling at the tie that held her dress closed, teasing its release but never quite pulling the end free.

Narcissa almost laughed, but she wasn’t sure her lungs were working well enough for that. The fact that Hermione could be so bold… it had always startled her, drawn her in, fascinated her at every turn.

Hermione bit her lip in response to Narcissa’s silence, and hurried to explain. “I can’t stop thinking about that kiss, Narcissa, and I—” she paused. “I couldn’t let it end there, not without trying.”

Narcissa’s breath hitched in her throat, but she couldn’t stop her lips from curling into a small smile. As she took a seat next to Hermione on the bed, she shook her head with as much disapproval as she could muster—which honestly, wasn’t much.

“Hermione,” she began in a warning tone. “I should have said as much this afternoon, I shouldn’t have…” Narcissa stopped, unable to claim that she had given Hermione the wrong impression. There were only so many ways to interpret shoving your tongue into someone’s mouth on the sitting room floor after all. “Hermione, you don’t want this, not—”

But Hermione cut in. “Why don’t you let me worry about what I want. What do you want?” She cocked an eyebrow and stared at her earnestly.

What did she want? There was no more complicated question than that.

Narcissa could only stare back in silence for a moment, fighting a battle within herself and losing. Abruptly, Narcissa’s hands reached for Hermione’s fingers where they still held her dress tie. She wasn’t sure what she intended to do, and she could only stare fixedly at their shared grasp, longing to pull the fabric free but unable to give herself permission to do anything of the kind.

Seeming to sense her hesitation and wanting to quell it, Hermione leaned forward. “I want you, Narcissa; you know that I do. And I’m pretty sure that you want me too. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that,” she said, tilting her head until Narcissa felt compelled to return her gaze. “No strings?”

Narcissa’s eyebrows raised slightly and she considered Hermione so thoroughly that she might have been a specimen in a lab. No strings. Of course there wouldn’t be strings; there were no strings strong enough to bind the likes of them together. It was a wonder that there were forces in the universe powerful enough to have brought them this close. She felt her heart beat harder at the thought, at the freedom of it, at the rush of possibility she felt as she imagined herself as completely untethered for once in her life.

She cleared her throat and saw Hermione brace herself for another rebuttal. The words were out of her lips before she had consciously chosen to speak. “Draco cannot find out,” she said, staring at Hermione intently.

Hermione swelled forward with a wild light in her eyes. “Obviously not,” she responded vehemently.

Narcissa smiled and felt herself begin to relax; they were on the same page, taking the same risk in the same storm. If it would look bad to Draco for Narcissa to have seduced his former classmate, it would look just as bad for Hermione to have allowed such a thing, to have been so easily diverted from her purpose here. She swallowed, feeling her self-imposed restraint begin to slip away, feeling lighter without the weight of it pressing into her skin.

“No strings,” she agreed finally, and with a final sigh of resignation, Narcissa took the cord of Hermione’s dress in her own hand and pulled until the knot came undone completely. Her hands rose to Hermione’s shoulders and she eased the dress away, leaving only the lacy bra she was wearing beneath, her tan skin swelling against the fabric with every breath.

Hermione froze, her eyes alight with the thrill of expectation, but she didn’t lift a finger. She sat, waiting for Narcissa to continue.

She wrapped a hand around Hermione, resting her fingers on the warm skin of her lower back, and pulled her closer into a soft, exploratory kiss.

Her lips were so soft, so eager, just as they had been that afternoon.

The kiss only remained gentle for a moment, however, before Hermione grasped Narcissa’s face in her hands and deepened the embrace. She ran her tongue over Narcissa’s bottom lip, teasing her lips apart until their tongues could meet, eliciting a sigh of pleasure from each of them.

Narcissa’s hands wandered up Hermione’s back, tracing every notch of her vertebrae with her fingers. Hermione’s skin felt hot beneath her touch, like it ought to have burned through those last bits of fabric that caressed her skin. Arousal shot through her at the thought, and in a moment of passion, Narcissa pushed Hermione back, pinning her to the bed with straddling hips.

Hermione stared up at her with what looked almost like reverence. She reached for the tie of Narcissa’s robe and hastily pulled it free.

Leaning back, Narcissa let it fall from her shoulders until it pooled like ink behind her on the bed and left her with only an insubstantial amount of lace clinging to her hips.

“Wow,” Hermione breathed, likely inadvertently, as she stared at Narcissa’s breasts. A moment later, she turned pink with embarrassment.

Narcissa’s cupped Hermione’s chin, holding her gaze steady and smiled reassuringly. She was pleased with the praise, and she couldn’t help but sit up straighter beneath Hermione’s awe-struck gaze.

It was hardly the first time she had elicited such a reaction, but she couldn’t remember a time when she had enjoyed it quite so much, or when such a bold open-mouthed stare had been paired with such an endearingly bashful blush. Narcissa leaned forward, placing a kiss on each burning cheek before capturing Hermione’s lips within her own once more.

Hermione was touching her so gently, running hands up her sides like she was a doll made of white china, liable to snap in half at even the thought of a heavy-handed caress. Her hands kept ghosting over the skin of Narcissa’s breasts, but never quite committing, as if she worried she would be pushing things too quickly or taking things too far.

It was sweet really, but it had been a very long time since Narcissa had been anything other than alone in this bed and sweet wasn’t what she was looking for. She grabbed Hermione’s hands and used them to push her breasts up forcefully, holding her gaze with an intense fire glowing in her eyes. “You don’t have to be gentle with me,” she whispered.

Narcissa leaned back, pulling Hermione on top of her, reigniting their kiss.

Apparently Hermione had only needed to be given permission, for this time, she broke their kiss to trail her lips over Narcissa’s jawbone, down her neck, taking one nipple into her mouth and swirling her tongue over it in a motion that made Narcissa gasp.

Hermione had one leg pressed firmly between Narcissa’s thighs, and it was only some last-held shred of dignity that kept Narcissa from rutting her hips against it in eagerness. Hermione shifted her leg slowly and Narcissa released a whimper that sounded far more desperate than such a small amount of pressure could possibly warrant, and yet…

“I take it you like that?” Hermione whispered into her ear, shifting her thigh in much the same maddening way and chuckling darkly when it elicited a similar noise the second time.

Narcissa pushed Hermione back, holding her at a distance as she raised her hips and slid the last shred of lace down her legs.

As she let her thighs fall apart, her arousal was so strong that she felt almost delirious. With a smirk at the once more awe-struck look on her lover’s face, she grabbed Hermione’s hand and guided her fingers over her glistening lips. She stared directly into her eyes as she led her fingers in soft, pressing circles over her clit, just like she wanted it done.

She released her grip on Hermione’s hand, letting her claim her own variation of the rhythm. She let her head fall back, lost in the sensation of Hermione’s touch, in the thrill of writhing beneath her gaze. In that moment, she hardly felt like herself, or like anyone at all.

Hermione was following every whisper, every hitch in Narcissa’s breath and her hips rocked and shuddered in response. She could feel herself getting close to a point of no return. She kept pushing down the sensation, trying to draw it out. This was likely a one time thing, she thought, and in that case, why not have it exactly how she wanted it?

Following that impulse, she grabbed Hermione’s hand and pulled it away.

Hermione looked dumbstruck. “Was that… did you…”

Narcissa’s eyes were closed and her body arched against the pillows, squirming in silent need. “No. Just…” she whispered, but didn’t have the ability to elaborate as she lay panting for a moment, never releasing Hermione’s hand. “Now,” she said, pushing Hermione’s fingers between her thighs again. 

From the smirk on Hermione’s lips, it was clear that she understood that Narcissa was denying herself, building herself up, or rather, forcing Hermione to do so. And she seemed more than willing to play that game. Her strokes were slower this time, softer than they had been before when she had been trying to make her come as quickly as possible. 

Narcissa moaned deeply, and the minute that her body started to tense, Hermione pulled her hand away, letting her fingers draw aimless shapes on her inner thigh. 

Narcissa gasped at the release being withheld from her, eyes closed, losing herself in the pleasure of dancing on the precipice and the heady, cloudy sensation of stretching out this moment.

Her legs were trembling when Hermione resumed her motions once more, this time, increasing the pressure. She slid two fingers inside of her, and lowered her head to Narcissa’s chest, kissing her sternum, trailing light kisses over her breast until she reached her nipple and took it into her mouth. Without warning, she bit down.

Narcissa’s hold over herself collapsed at that, shuddering into climax, an unintelligible sort of cry leaving her throat as her body contracted against Hermione’s.

In her moment of delirium, she felt Hermione’s lips press against her own. “I’ll keep going if you can come again,” came a whisper against her ear.

Narcissa’s eyes shot open and she bit her lip in a delighted smirk. “In that case, I might never let you leave,” she said, once more grabbing Hermione’s fingers and leading them where she wanted them.

“Patience,” Hermione said, lowering her mouth to kiss Narcissa’s neck and chest.

Narcissa relented and released her grip as Hermione traced kisses over Narcissa’s ribcage, followed by her hips, before finally easing her thighs apart and parting her folds with her tongue. She let out a low groan and twined her fingers into Hermione’s hair.

Hermione was just as talented in this position, sliding her tongue up the length of her, sucking her clit into her mouth. This wouldn’t take long at all.

Narcissa came again, hard, while riding Hermione’s mouth and fell back against the bed. She lay there panting for a moment before pulling Hermione into a kiss that had lost all of its usual precision.

 


 

After the haze of her second orgasm had dissipated, Hermione watched Narcissa lean back into the pillows. She thought that the woman had never looked quite so alive. Usually a practical ghost in this house, she was now flushed, and her eyes were bright and mischievous.

Narcissa raised a hand and tucked one of Hermione’s errant curls behind her ear.

“Now what are we going to do with you?” Narcissa mused, and Hermione felt her mind go blank.

Hermione’s skin was on fire where Narcissa’s fingers had trailed up and down her arm, where they were pushing her backwards on the bed. Narcissa rolled on top of her and kissed her with such force it almost hurt; Hermione moaned into her mouth, begging for more.

Hands traveled over Hermione’s breasts, rolling the nipples between her fingers, pinching them gently as her hands retreated. It didn’t quite hurt, but it was close, and Hermione gasped at the strength of the sensation.

“Is that all right?” Narcissa whispered so close to Hermione’s ear that the warmth of her breath tickled her skin.

“Yes,” Hermione managed to whimper. “More”

“Perfect,” Narcissa said and repeated the motion, sucking Hermione’s earlobe into her mouth simultaneously.

Hermione groaned. It felt so good that she wondered if it was possible to climax from that alone.

Slowly, Narcissa’s fingers began sliding down Hermione’s body, over her stomach, through the soft curls at the apex of her thighs before she finally reached the center of the wet heat awaiting her touch.

Parting the sodden folds, Narcissa began stroking her fingers slowly, one on either side of Hermione’s clit. Hermione moaned involuntarily at the maddening touch. She canted her hips, trying to force Narcissa’s fingers where she wanted them, but to no avail. She wanted to beg, she even considered grabbing Narcissa’s hand and placing it directly where they belonged, but the devilish smirk on Narcissa’s lips stopped her.

A finger slid directly over the head of her clit and Hermione gasped against the sudden sensation. But it was gone as quickly as it had come.

Narcissa repeated this game, touching Hermione everywhere but that precious spot and then shifting to elicit a series of moans that were becoming increasingly more rattling and derailed.

Hermione could feel that her lips had become incredibly swollen, so much so that they ached.

Just when Hermione was fairly certain that she couldn’t take this blessed agony any longer, Narcissa’s hand retreated for only a moment to reposition. Two of those long—oh so long—fingers slid inside of her, and Hermione called out in a sound she had never heard herself make before.

Narcissa’s lips were on her breasts, trailing a hot tongue down the curve of her stomach and soon it was joining where her fingers had left off. Hermione could have blacked out, it felt so good. She would have whispered Narcissa’s name but she was fairly certain she couldn’t form the syllables.

She came with a shattering jolt of white behind her eyes, fingers twined into Narcissa’s hair, probably hurting her with the strength of her grip.

When she could open her eyes again, she could see Narcissa stroking her stomach soothingly, pulling her back into reality. “Oh god,” Hermione was finally able to utter, and she pulled Narcissa in for a kiss of gratitude.

After another round of the same for both of them, Hermione pulled back and they lay together, breathing hard and starting to regain some sense of reality. Hermione turned on her side, absently watching Narcissa’s breasts rise and fall rhythmically as she caught her own breath.

When the strongest of the heady sensations had drained out of her mind, she turned to Narcissa again. She didn’t want to say it but she knew she had to, was expected to even. This was a relationship with qualifications, and it was not one that was going to involve cuddling.

“I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’m going to go back to my flat,” Hermione said.

Narcissa didn’t look surprised, Hermione even thought she saw a flicker of amusement across her lips. “Well I hope you don’t think me rude either, but I didn’t expect you to stay.”

Hermione had to laugh at Narcissa’s attempt to return to aloof coolness after Hermione had just seen her writhing in ecstasy.

She sat up and pulled her clothes back on to leave, but it all felt so cold, so suddenly formal and distant. She couldn’t leave it like that.

Turning back, she kissed Narcissa forcefully. 

“That was fantastic,” Hermione breathed against her lips before pulling away entirely.

Narcissa looked bemused at Hermione’s show of sentiment, her eyes bright with pleasure. “It was,” she said, stroking a finger delicately over the line of Hermione’s chin. “Sleep well, darling.”

With the term of endearment ringing pleasantly in her ears, Hermione turned to the door to leave.

Chapter Text

Hermione stumbled out into the hallway, trying to find her footing. She felt oddly light, as if she was gliding over the floors more than walking on them. It was exactly how she always felt when she had drunk the perfect amount of alcohol—silly and smiling, without any of the painful after-effects. However, unlike drunkenness, Hermione felt wide awake as she strode through the halls, and she had a clarity of mind so sharp, she was sure she hadn’t felt it in years.

She knew that the sex had been good of course, but still, this was something. Perhaps it really had been far too long since she’d been with anyone.

About to step into the foyer, Hermione’s gaze suddenly caught on a figure on the other side of the hall coming from Draco’s part of the house. Hermione retreated into the shadows as quickly as she could and hoped that she hadn’t been spotted. The last thing she wanted was for this moment to be shattered by an awkward run-in with Draco, complete with some ridiculous story made up on the spot to explain her presence in the Manor after midnight.

However, it took only one proper glance to see that the figure moving towards the door was not Draco Malfoy. This man was shorter, and he held himself without any of the pompous self-importance that Draco could never quite shake. No, this figure was unmistakable, and as soon as Hermione recognized him, she moved back into the circle of moonlight that was shining through the window.

“Harry?” she said. In all the drama in her own love life, Hermione had nearly forgotten about what she had learned of her friend’s.

At the sound of her voice, Harry jumped. Instinctively, he drew his wand to face the mysterious figure beside him.

“Hermione? Merlin, you scared me,” Harry said. He lowered his wand, seemingly too relieved to find a friend rather than an enemy to come up with an excuse for his presence there or even to question hers.

“Picking up something else for work?” Hermione asked slyly with one eyebrow meaningfully cocked.

“What?” Harry asked, apparently forgetting the excuse he had used the last time they had met in this very hall. “Oh, right, I—er—Draco just got really drunk at that Ministry thing going on tonight. I was making sure that he got home all right.”

“I see. How thoughtful of you,” Hermione said with that same eyebrow raised now nearly to her hairline.

Harry shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. “Yeah… well, someone had to do it. Anyway, I’ll see you around,” he said and took a hasty step towards the door.

Hermione, however, had no intention of letting him get away that easily again. She grabbed his arm in a tight grip before he could take a second step, and he was far too much of a gentleman to shrug her off the way Draco might have.

“Harry, when was the last time we closed down the Leaky Cauldron?” she asked with a smirk.

“What?” Harry laughed in apparent disbelief. “Not for at least a year or two, not since the three of us still went to all those post-war celebrations.”

Hermione hummed in consideration. “That’s what I thought. And we still have nearly two hours until they close tonight.”

Harry looked at her with amusement. “You can’t be serious. It’s so late, what has gotten into you tonight?”

Well, that was a question she was not going to answer.

“I just think we ought to talk is all,” Hermione said with a shrug.

“I don’t know, Hermione…”

“Harry, I know ,” Hermione said and held his gaze, looking for a sign of recognition.

“What are you talking about? Why are you looking at me like that?” Harry asked, looking more confused than anything else.

Hermione sighed. She wanted to make herself clear, and yet she felt so uncomfortable about calling him out directly. “I know about you and Draco… why you’re here,” she said.

Finally, a look of understanding came into Harry’s eyes but he averted his gaze a moment later. “Yeah, because I just told you,” he said with an attempt at an aloof tone.

“Harry,” Hermione said, “ I know .”

He looked at her with an expression of uncomfortable resignation. Finally, he nodded. “So… the Leaky Cauldron then?”

They paused their conversation only long enough to get themselves to the pub and order their drinks. Surprisingly, it was Harry who spoke first.

“So how do you know?” Harry asked. He took an overly large swig from his glass and set his jaw. “I can’t imagine that he told you.”

Hermione swallowed. Perhaps she had overestimated her post-orgasmic clarity seeing as how she hadn’t considered the inevitability of such a question when she dragged Harry here. “No, he didn’t tell me. In fact, he doesn’t know that I know at all, and I have no intention of confronting him.”

“Oh, you saved that specially for me?”

“Naturally,” Hermione said with a small smile.

Harry chuckled softly and took another drink, his expression unreadable. “Well, how, then? I can’t imagine you figured this one out in the library.”

“It’s… it’s a long story, Harry, and I’m not sure it’s one that’s mine to tell,” she said slowly. “But what I don’t understand is why you didn’t tell anyone before. Why does it have to be a secret at all?”

Harry scoffed. “I wouldn’t think that I had to explain why. You saw how Ron and Ginny reacted when they heard you were even working with Draco, much less anything else. They’d think that I’d lost my mind, which would probably be one of the more forgiving opinions. The press… Merlin, maybe that wouldn’t even stop me, I don’t know, but Draco is…. Well, you know how much he cares about his image. Not to mention that he’s terrified his mother is going to find out.”

This was getting into a strange territory for Hermione and she shifted in her seat. “Does he really think his mother will care all that much?” she asked.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. He says she wants him to procreate and you know, spread the Black blood around. He thinks she’ll be crushed if she knows that won’t happen…. Or at least won’t happen properly .”

“I don’t know, Harry. We’ve seen what lengths Narcissa will go to for her son. She loves him more than anything… I imagine that she’d just want him to be happy,” Hermione suggested.

“Yeah, well that’s what I said,” Harry said vehemently. "But he disagrees. At this point, I’ve given up trying; those conversations never end well." There was no hiding the bitterness in his tone.

Hermione watched him, filled with indecision at how much further she should dive into this discussion. “She’s… she’s really not so bad, you know, his mother,” she said hesitantly.

Harry rolled his eyes at her and chuckled softly. “Draco said the two of you had become friends or something lately. He doesn’t like it by the way, it makes him nervous. He thinks you’ll collude against him, figure out all of his secrets.”

Hermione laughed. She supposed it was almost ironic just how right Draco’s paranoia had turned out to be.

In another minute, however, the temporarily lightened mood faded again and Harry ordered a second drink.

“But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You know Draco and how much of a coward he’s always been. He’s never done a brave thing in his life.” He paused, and a shadow came over his eyes like he felt incredibly guilty for what he had just said. “I don’t really mean that but… He’s always been so scared of disappointing people; that’s been his problem all his life. I think he’s just scared of finally disappointing the only person in his family who ever thought he was worth anything.”

“I’m sorry, Harry, that’s really hard,” Hermione said. 

He shrugged. “Yeah, well, I don’t even know what we are anymore. We broke up for a while a couple of weeks ago—the first time that you saw me at the Manor. But then we ran into each other again and… well, you know.”

Hermione placed her hand over Harry’s and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Wait, I never asked—why were you there so late in the night?” Harry asked. He looked relieved to have found a topic that wasn’t about himself.

“I—I just couldn’t get an idea out of my mind… so I came back to… test my theory,” Hermione said. Technically it wasn’t untrue .

Harry shook his head. “Merlin, even when you’re working for Malfoy, you’re a workaholic,” he said with an easy laugh.

Hermione tried to laugh along. It felt wrong to lie to Harry after she’d just coaxed such a personal secret out of him, and yet it would have felt like such a betrayal of Narcissa to have told anyone at all about how she’d really spent her evening.

Even with all the drama of her adolescence, Hermione wasn’t used to her life being such a complex web of confidences. Yet just as with Draco’s research project, keeping one confidence seemed to mean breaking another.

More than anything, she wished she could get all of these fools in a room together so they could figure out that they were all on the same side.

Bloody Slytherins.

The next morning, Hermione woke after a truly inadequate amount of sleep. However, she didn’t feel bothered by it in the least. Her first thought was of Narcissa—how she’d be waking up in her bed miles away, naked and flushed, a smile on her lips as she noticed the lingering dampness on her thighs, as she recalled the feel of fingers in her hair and lips on her neck from the night before.

Hermione felt a silly smile grow on her face and a warmth spread through her body at the delicious image. A part of her wished that she was there to see it, but that was a dangerous thought—likely one she shouldn’t indulge. Would that be considered a string? Probably. And yet, wouldn’t it be inhumanly cold not to find even that small amount of joy at the thought of a lover, even if the lover was a casual one?

She sighed wistfully.

Last night, she had been impulsive, purposefully not giving her actions much thought. But she always found spontaneity easier in the light of the moon, rather than that of the dawn. Now, Hermione’s mind spun with characteristic speed.

She wondered if the two of them ought to leave it at that now that they had gotten it out of their systems and soundly scratched their mutual itch. After all, there was already so much drama in that house, and she wasn’t sure that they ought to be adding any more. Logical as it was, that argument didn’t feel anywhere near strong enough to counteract the tug Hermione felt when she thought of returning to Narcissa’s embrace. 

And certainly, saying that she’d gotten Narcissa out of her system would be a downright lie. If anything, the woman was more entrenched than ever. A fantasy could always be forgotten, but Hermione wasn’t sure there was a memory charm strong enough to erase the images of the perfect curve of Narcissa’s breasts, the sound of her quiet whimpers… the taste of her.

She forced herself to get up and start getting ready for her day. The last thing that she needed was to get herself all riled up again before she’d even arrived at work.

 


 

That morning, Narcissa breakfasted in a trancelike silence. She couldn’t remember the last time that she’d woken up with such a smile on her lips, the last time even Draco and his antics couldn’t make it fade.

Honestly, she wished that she didn’t feel so good, strange as that may sound to say. But it would have been so much easier if last night had been mediocre, disappointing even, something that could be forgotten, or recalled only occasionally with a disbelieving laugh.

Instead, Narcissa felt as if she was floating through the Manor that morning as her mind flitted through memories of last night. She wondered how she might manage to see Hermione in the library that day without turning red as a tomato and stripping the young woman bare for a repeat performance.

She pursed her lips, trying to resist the fresh sensation of arousal brewing inside of her. That was the problem with giving in to impulse. Let her guard down once, and suddenly, it was so much harder to quiet the voices telling her that she could easily do it again.

There were very few things that could have distracted Narcissa from that appealing fantasy, but the arrival of an unfamiliar owl tapping its talons on her dining room window was certainly one of them.

She had been impatiently waiting for a response from Andromeda for days now. Although, if she was entirely honest, their correspondence had been mostly forgotten amidst everything that had happened in her life between letters.

However, what Narcissa’s last letter contained had been important on multiple fronts. With Andromeda accepting the money being offered to her—begrudging though that acceptance was—there was paperwork to be signed, paperwork that Narcissa had already prepared and had ready at a moment’s notice. But perhaps more importantly, she had asked Andromeda to try to recall anything about her prior run-in with Bellatrix’s dagger, vaguely explaining that she knew someone suffering from its side-effects and was looking to help them however she could.

Thanking the owl for its trouble with a treat, Narcissa ripped open the letter with haste and read.

Narcissa,

I’ve been putting off sending this letter for two days now, but by now, such cowardice is pointless. You say that you have the papers ready for me to sign, and in light of what you said about this acquaintance of yours, I’d like to at least tell you what I know, even if it isn’t much. If you’re free this morning, I can be ready whenever you are.

-A

Narcissa read the letter three times before she believed she had understood it correctly. It was exactly what she had wanted and yet now, it filled her with fear. With trembling fingers affecting her penmanship more than she would have cared for, she wrote her reply:

I can be ready now — Cissa

At the sound of a knock on the door not an hour later, Narcissa answered, feeling rigid with fear and laid eyes upon her sister’s face for the first time in over twenty years. “Andromeda,” she said softly. She phrased her sister’s name like a question, as if she needed further confirmation of her presence than her senses alone could give her.

“Hello Narcissa,” Andromeda said in a stilted voice. It was hard to make pleasantries under such circumstances; even the most thorough of etiquette books likely had little advice on the topic. “I’m sorry it took me so long to accept this invitation, but I just couldn’t bring myself to come here until now.”

Narcissa nodded. “I understand that, but then… why now?”

Andromeda sighed. “Well, honestly it was you writing about that damn knife of Bella’s and what you’re trying to do…” she took a labored breath. “It reminded me that you were never really the enemy, not like she was. I found that I had started to blend you all into one foe in my mind over the years, and perhaps that isn’t quite fair. And I thought if I was going to tell you about that memory, and if I was going to have to sign those documents from the bank, I might as well… well, we might as well talk properly, no?”

 


 

Hermione arrived at the Manor a bit late, and immediately went to the library as usual. And yet, as she cracked open the familiar spines of the books, she remembered that even this aspect of her day was something she had asked to share with Narcissa.

She remembered the gleam in the woman’s eyes when she’d accepted the offer and how Hermione herself had felt such renewed excitement in her research at the prospect of having another mind as quick as her own with which to share ideas. The thought excited her still, and in its wake, her work felt cold and hollow with only her own eyes there to see it.

Leaving her books haphazardly on the table, Hermione rushed from the room to see if Narcissa was free to start this morning. She tried to keep her thoughts on the excitement of sharing her work, and not the excitement of simply seeing Narcissa again, or of seeing how she would respond this morning. There was no way to predict how last night would sit between them, or how easy it would be to gauge whether or not Narcissa’s thoughts had been as haunted by Hermione as Hermione’s had been by her…

There was a possibility that Narcissa would still be in bed given their late night, but somehow Hermione didn’t expect that so she headed straight for the sitting room in search of her. She opened the door with confidence that she would be there.

“Cissa, I—” Hermione began, but stopped with the sudden realization that Narcissa was not alone. “Mrs. Tonks,” she exclaimed in surprise at the sight of this familiar woman.

“Hermione?” Andromeda asked. If Hermione had been surprised to see her, she appeared to be doubly so.

Hermione turned to Narcissa, flushing in embarrassment. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. I didn’t realize that you weren’t alone,” she said, hastening to step backwards towards the door.

“It’s perfectly all right, Hermione,” Narcissa said calmly, a grim smile playing on her lips as she looked from one surprised woman to the other. “I believe you already know my sister.”

“Yes, of course,” Hermione said with a nod in Andromeda’s direction. “How are you, Mrs. Tonks?”

“I’m quite well, dear, although you really ought to call me Andromeda,” she said, still eyeing them both with curiosity.

Hermione nodded, but inwardly she winced. It suddenly felt very conspicuous that she had not only called Narcissa by her first name a moment ago, but had shortened it, as she had taken to doing lately. She really ought to be more discreet. Only a day into this strange arrangement and she was already making a mess of things.

“Hermione has been working with Draco on a research project of sorts, utilizing our library for her work,” Narcissa explained to her sister, taking a sip from her teacup.

“I see,” Andromeda said slowly, although judging by her facial expression, this answer lessened neither her confusion nor her curiosity.

Hermione was about to make her excuses once more and head for the doorway when Narcissa turned to her. “Would you like to join us, Hermione?” she asked.

“Oh, I…”

“We’ve already gotten the fighting out of the way—at least for the time being—so you wouldn’t have to worry about interrupting anything uncomfortable ,” Narcissa cut in.

Andromeda laughed slightly at that, and her smile, though small, seemed genuine.

“Um, yes all right,” Hermione said and sat down, choosing the spot beside Narcissa without hesitation.

While Narcissa poured Hermione a cup of tea—and added the right amount of milk and sugar without having to ask—Andromeda watched them with increasing curiosity. The woman’s eyes were dark and lacked the certain penetrating ice of her sisters', but there was still something uncomfortably sharp about them.

“So, you’re working on a project with Draco? What might that be?” Andromeda asked.

Andromeda likely thought the question would be the most innocuous one under the circumstances, but Hermione blanched. She had no idea what version of the truth she was supposed to tell.

“Would you like to tell her the real story or the cover up?” Narcissa asked with a wry smile as if reading Hermione’s worried mind. Though Hermione assumed her anxious expression had been so obvious, even the worst legilimens in the world could have heard her thoughts.

A relieved laugh escaped Hermione’s lips. “I hardly know. I was just panicking over which version I was supposed to tell.”

“I assumed you were,” Narcissa said with a look so understanding that it made Hermione melt just a bit.

Feeling slightly more at ease, Hermione launched into an explanation of her work with Draco, mostly skating past the fact that the project had originally begun with Narcissa as its subject. It was easier than Hermione might have thought for the three of them to talk. In fact, Hermione had become so involved in the conversation and answering Andromeda’s questions that she had carelessly rolled up her sleeves. She had become accustomed to paying little attention to hiding her arm in Narcissa’s presence, used to the sight of the gnarly scar as the woman was.

Andromeda’s eyes fell to the carved slur and gasped. “Oh, Hermione,” she exclaimed in a near whisper.

Hermione pulled down her sleeve as quickly as she could, not that it made any difference; by then, the damage was certainly done. She was about to offer some explanation to shrug away Andromeda’s concern, but the woman surprised her by continuing to speak.

“It’s you ? It’s you that Narcissa is helping with a wound from Bella’s dagger? Oh you poor girl,” Andromeda said, eyes never leaving Hermione’s forearm, even though the scar was once more hidden from view.

Hermione turned to Narcissa with a searching look.

Narcissa looked almost abashed and dropped her gaze. “I hope that you don’t mind, Hermione, but I contacted Andromeda to ask her about the knife, about the incident you read about in the journals. I didn’t tell her it was you; I know it’s a very private matter. Really I should have asked you for permission anyway, but I didn’t want to get your hopes up only to dash them once more. It’s already become far too much of a habit…”

Hermione’s lips fell open. Narcissa seemed to think she would be offended, but really, she was touched. “No, you don’t have to apologize, I don’t mind you contacting anyone, really I should have thought to do so myself. I—” she stopped. She realized she was starting to feel too emotional—at least too emotional to get under Andromeda’s watchful gaze.

Andromeda cleared her throat and looked at Hermione with deep pity in her eyes. “As I was about to tell Narcissa, I don’t think I know much more about the knife than she does, unfortunately. I remember the day of course—one of those fond family memories that’s so hard to forget—but she never told me what made the wound remain like that, why it was immune to Dittany or any of the other usual cures.”

“But she did heal the cut?” Narcissa asked.

“She did, yes, but only after weeks, only after I begged, ” Andromeda said with a defensive bite to her tone.

Narcissa shook her head. “That’s what I mean, I’m not excusing her, Andy. I just mean that she was able to heal it? How? Did she have some kind of counter curse?”

Andromeda pursed her lips and looked embarrassed to have gotten caught up in her emotions, forgetting why they were discussing this in the first place. “No. She had some little bottle of something stored in the back of that big chest in her room. It was some kind of antidote, clear as pure water, but with an off-putting scent. However, she didn’t tell me what it was.”

“So it wasn’t a curse… it was a poison after all,” Narcissa murmured, more to herself than to anybody else. “I was so sure it wasn’t.”

“I suppose it was. I assumed that she had poisoned the blade somehow,” Andromeda said with a shrug and sighed. “Honestly, by that point, I didn’t even care; I just wanted that damn cut gone. Now I wish I had asked… Perhaps she would have told me and I could have helped you.”

Narcissa folded her hands in her lap and smiled sadly at her sister. “Well, it was worth a try,” she said.

Hermione heard the note of genuine disappointment in Narcissa’s voice, and felt a mirroring twinge in her own chest.

The clock in the hall outside struck the hour loudly, and Andromeda immediately sat up straighter.

“I hate to leave on such a melancholy note,” she said. “But I left Teddy with a neighbor, and I promised her that I would be back by now.”

“Of course,” Narcissa said, rising from her seat. “Let me grab the papers from the bank for you before you go. I’ve already signed them so you’re free to finalize them whenever you wish.”

Without Narcissa between them, Hermione wasn’t sure what to say to Andromeda; she couldn’t remember a time where they’d spoken outside of a few large gatherings at the Weasleys'.

Although, Andromeda seemed to be paying very little attention to Hermione. Instead, she was staring after her sister through the doorway through which she had disappeared. “It’s almost unbelievable,” she said in a quiet voice. “It’s been twenty-five years and still it’s all the same.”

“What do you mean?” Hermione asked.

“Oh, it’s still Cissy stoically trying to keep order in the wake of all of Bellatrix’s messes,” Andromeda said with a sigh and looked long and hard at Hermione. “I hope this time, she succeeds, in one way or another.”

Before Hermione could say anything in response, Narcissa had returned, giving her the opportunity to say goodbye and leave the room so the two sisters could end the visit alone.

 


 

“Thank you,” Andromeda said as Narcissa handed her the papers. “You didn’t have to do this, and I really appreciate it. We were managing to make ends meet with what Ted left behind, but that wouldn’t have lasted forever, and you have no idea how hard it is for a woman my age to find work when her experience is all twenty years in the past.”

Narcissa could imagine. “I hope this will make things easier for you both. And—” She took a breath, surprised at her lingering nerves. “And, if you’re up for it, we could do this again soon… talk again like this? Although perhaps with fewer arguments to start it off.”

Andromeda laughed softly and nodded.

“You might even bring Teddy with you… if you like, that is,” Narcissa continued in a painfully hopeful voice.

“Perhaps,” Andromeda said with a small smile. She looked as if she was about to turn to leave, but abruptly, she pushed forward and caught Narcissa in a hesitant hug. “I really did miss you, Narcissa, truly,” she said.

Narcissa stifled the grateful sob rising in her chest for long enough to return the sentiment in mostly coherent words.

After a moment alone to pull herself together, Narcissa headed towards the library in search of Hermione. It was bittersweet in her mind that the young woman had walked in when she did. Part of her regretted that Hermione had been forced to face another moment of hopes raised and then thwarted, and yet a part of her was happy that at least it hadn’t formed another secret to create space between them.

Although she recognized that such joy at their closeness was an emotion she ought to keep in check.

When she opened the library door, Hermione stood by the window, looking out onto the grounds.

“Are you all right?” Narcissa asked, strolling forward to stand beside her.

“Oh, I’m fine, just thinking is all,” Hermione said. “It seems like that meeting went really well, I’m happy for you.”

Narcissa couldn’t help a small smile forming on her lips. “I think it did too, far better than I would have predicted when she contacted me this morning.”

“It was that sudden?”

Narcissa nodded. “I was nervous about it and I…” She shook her head and cleared her throat. “We agreed to talk again soon. I even asked her if she might let me meet her grandson one day.”

“What did she say?” Hermione asked.

“She said, ‘perhaps,’ but I’m trying to be optimistic about it,” Narcissa said. “She showed me pictures of him earlier. I think he looks a bit like Draco did at that age. At least when he chooses to have his hair lighter, that is.”

Hermione reached out and grabbed her hand, squeezing it gently for just a moment. “I’ve met him with Harry. He’s a sweet boy. I’m sure you two would get along splendidly.”

Narcissa stopped breathing for a moment at the gentle touch, at the kindness in her eyes.

As Hermione’s hand fell away, she moved towards the table. “When I came into the sitting room, I was actually looking for you, hoping you would want to start helping on the Patronus research today, but now, I can’t stop thinking about that bloody knife again,” Hermione said with a sigh. “I was so sure that you were right about it being a curse. To think it’s a poison… It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’ve been giving that some thought as well,” Narcissa began. “About Bella having an antidote for the wound. No matter what she says, I still believe that a poison doesn’t fit the symptoms. But I had a thought; what if it was a potion?”

Hermione lit up. “Narcissa, that’s brilliant. It could be a potion. A potion could have similar effects to a curse, more so than a poison at least. And she could just as easily imbibe the metal with a potion, I’m sure. Besides, it’s more likely to have held its magic over all these years than a poison that may have worn off.”

“Then we can start on that path next,” Narcissa said with a smile and walked to the bookshelf to pull a few more helpful volumes.

Although she ought to have been fatigued by this endless research, Hermione looked as eager as ever to start this new topic. “I feel a little bit bad though,” Hermione said with a laugh. “This means I won’t have worked a single moment of the day on the project Draco’s actually paying me for.”

“Well, if you want to be technical about it, I’m the one paying you. Draco wouldn’t have the money to give if I didn’t release it from our vault for him,” Narcissa said with a shrug.

“Oh, Merlin, I’d never thought about it like that before,” Hermione said with a laugh. “How strange.”

“Why strange?”

“Well,” Hermione paused and bit her lip like she wasn’t sure she ought to continue. “In that light, it does make what happened last night seem a bit more… salacious than before.”

Somehow Narcissa hadn’t expected Hermione to bring up their night together, not in the bright light of the afternoon when they no longer had the haze of midnight to hide themselves behind. It thrilled her more than it ought to have to hear the words, and to see the accompanying twinkle in the young woman’s eyes.

“I suppose you have a point,” Narcissa answered in a very serious tone of voice, belied by the small smirk on her lips. “Although, you’re being paid to cheer me up, aren’t you? And you certainly did that last night… three times, in fact.”

As soon as their eyes met, they broke out into a fit of laughter.

Hermione tried to recover herself. “Right, so ummm…” Another laugh. “Potions,” she said firmly, opening up her book.

“Potions,” Narcissa agreed, but it was incredibly hard to focus on potions, on anything other than the careful movements of Hermione’s hands over the pages of her book, and restraining her desire to slide their chairs closer together and swallow that adorable laughter in another kiss.

 


 

It was later that same night that Hermione raised her hand to knock lightly on Narcissa’s door. She wasn’t sure if she was more or less nervous than she had been the previous evening. She ought to have been less, and yet, her heart was thumping, her pulse fluttering beneath the skin of her neck, just waiting for Narcissa’s lips to calm it.

When the door opened, Hermione was both relieved and awestruck to see Narcissa in a black negligee, lace cupping her pale breasts. The blue of her eyes seemed to be that of flames. “I was hoping you’d come back,” she said in a dark whisper.

“How could I stay away?” Hermione said and she allowed herself to be pulled inside and into a fervent kiss as Narcissa closed and locked the door behind them with a deft flick of her fingers.

Chapter Text

The following morning, after another night of sneaking out of the Manor long after midnight, Hermione was finally able to introduce Narcissa to the research that had once been intended as her cure. They sat at the table of the library with magical composition texts, notes, and diagrams spread out before them in a complex maze of information.

“My main issue at this point is a mobility one,” Hermione explained as Narcissa combed through the notes before her. “A Patronus moves far too quickly, and I don’t know how to trap it once it's been cast. It leaves magic in its wake, and I’ve learned a bit from those traces. However, it’s not nearly enough to analyze in any meaningful way.”

Narcissa nodded, examining the few sparse spell diagrams Hermione had begun to construct. “Still, this is all very interesting; I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, sitting back in her chair and staring into the distance for a moment.

Hermione thought that perhaps one day, she would be able to hear a compliment from the woman’s lips without turning a shade of pink, but it would not be today. Still, she kept silent and held her breath as she watched the familiar wheels of Narcissa’s mind turning behind her eyes.

“The only time a Patronus stays in the same place is when it has something to fight. Otherwise, it will charge off in search of one,” Narcissa began slowly. “If it was halted in front of a dementor, it would be stationary for as long as it took to scare it away, which might be long enough for you to complete your work—depending on its relative strength, that is.”

“Well, unless you have a dementor handy—” Hermione began in a teasing voice. However, before she could finish, a memory of the cursed bookshelf came back to her, and she stopped; this house was full of strange things. “Wait, you don’t, do you?”

Narcissa laughed and swatted at Hermione’s arm playfully. “Of course not. Granted, even I don’t know what’s in half of those closed-off rooms, but a dementor seems unlikely. However, I wasn’t suggesting that we track down an actual dementor, but perhaps we could fool the Patronus with something that had a similar magical aura.”

Hermione nodded and was about to suggest looking for a boggart, remembering the way Harry had practiced with Lupin all those years ago, but that wasn’t what Narcissa had in mind.

“Have you ever encountered fear fog before?” Narcissa asked.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Hermione said, shaking her head.

“Fortunately for our purposes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a magical fog that when inhaled, creates a sense of fear. It causes you to imagine your worst nightmares are after you, waiting just around the corner, and you can barely think straight for the panic it induces,” she explained in what Hermione thought was an unreasonably calm tone of voice given the subject matter.

Hermione shuddered at the mere thought. “That sounds awful.”

“Oh, it’s horrific,” Narcissa agreed with a grim smile. “When we were girls, Bellatrix used to cast it on the woods behind our house, and the three of us would make a game of chasing each other through it. Everything becomes harder in that state, even a game of tag. Your senses are heightened, and yet confused at the same time. It was usually Andromeda who ended up running screaming into the gardens before we were finished.”

Hermione blinked slowly. She could understand how Narcissa might have preferred playing chess with her father if this was the alternative for childhood entertainment. “That’s… well, that’s incredibly disturbing, really.”

Narcissa laughed. “Perhaps. I don’t exactly recommend it, but it is a useful exercise. You learn to recognize your fear for what it is—where it begins, where it ends, how to keep a grasp on other parts of your mind even with terror coursing through you…” she trailed off and sighed pointedly. “But that’s hardly my point. I only mean to say that theoretically, it’s a very similar idea to a dementor, and a Patronus might respond to it. If we could fill a spell jar with enough of the fog, perhaps we could distract your charm long enough to analyze it.”

Hermione had to admit that the idea seemed to be a reasonable one, even if the fog itself sounded like something she wasn’t keen on being anywhere near, much less conjuring. “Ok, so how do we do it?”

Narcissa taught her the incantation, and although the spell itself was simple enough to manage, Hermione didn’t like the feel of the fog sliding from the end of her wand, slippery and twisting, as it filled the jar with white, misty nightmares. She’d never closed the top of a spell jar with quite so much enthusiasm or so much apprehension.

Luckily for them both, unlike the disaster with the Patronus, the spell jar held the fear fog perfectly. Yet even when trapped hopelessly inside, the fog seemed to curl around itself and lick against glass, as if trying to find a way out. It gave Hermione such a distressing impression of sentience that she shivered.

At the sight of her fear, Narcissa placed a reassuring hand on Hermione’s shoulder, pulling her thoughts away from the jar and back to the task at hand. “It won’t harm you. Even if it wasn’t contained, all you would have to do is walk away into clear air, and it would lose its power entirely,” Narcissa said, waiting for Hermione to nod in agreement. “Now cast your Patronus, and we’ll see how it responds.”

Hermione still felt a bit shaken, but Narcissa’s calm gaze was fortifying. After taking a deep breath, Hermione focused her thoughts and cast her Patronus.

She didn’t want to get her hopes up, not when the otter might still swim in searching circles through the aisles of the library shelves just as it had before. However, this time, when the silver creature sprang to life at the tip of her wand, it went straight for the fog as surely as if pulled there by a magnet. It circled the jar, fighting off the darkness within.

Hermione’s mouth fell open in shock at how effective it had been. “It works!” she said with a loud laugh. She had never expected such success, not so easily at the very least. “Oh Narcissa, you’re the most brilliant witch I’ve ever met!” she exclaimed, brimming with excitement and happiness that once more, her project had a chance of moving forward. In an impulsive moment, she turned to kiss Narcissa hard on the lips.

A moment later, when they pulled apart, Hermione felt a bit embarrassed at having broken an unspoken rule to keep that sort of thing behind Narcissa’s bedroom doors.

Narcissa let out a laugh and looked slightly bemused—whether by the kiss or the compliment, Hermione couldn’t be sure. “That’s high praise coming from you,” she said with a smile and turned to watch the otter as it continued to swim.

The fog inside the jar was actually becoming lighter, dissipating at the presence of the Patronus. The otter lingered until every last bit of the terrifying mist was gone and the jar stood empty before them.

“That’s ample time for me to run through the spells,” Hermione said excitedly. Even if she only had time for one or two at a time, the process was so easy that there would be no problem repeating it as many times as was necessary.

And repeat the process they did. They went through the dance a number of times—the fog, the Patronus, the diagnostic spells. They filled page after page with observations. It came as no surprise that the charm was a complicated one; it had strands upon strands of magic weaving over each other, difficult to pull apart, but possible with patience. It was a struggle, but it was more rewarding than anything else Hermione had done in this library in weeks.

 


 

Narcissa also got used to this rhythm quickly over the course of the afternoon. After the first few times, she had taken over casting the fear fog herself. Despite Hermione’s repeated protestations that she was up to the task, Narcissa could see her reaction every time the darkness erupted from her wand, and the last thing she wanted was to be responsible for any grimace upon Hermione’s face. They alternated casting diagnostic charms on the shimmering otter—a manifestation so adorable that Narcissa fought not to comment on it—and mapping what they found.

“I just had a thought,” Hermione said when her Patronus had dissipated once again. “What if the composition of each Patronus is different? Obviously, they must share a good deal, but it’s a very personal charm… some of this magic could be unique to me rather than to a Patronus itself…”

Narcissa bit her lip in thought. “That’s an excellent point. If you analyzed another, you might find that certain strands were entirely different, I hadn’t considered that.”

Hermione bit at her lip as she so often did when she was thinking. “Are you able to cast a Patronus?” she finally asked, looking hopeful.

“I can, yes,” Narcissa answered hesitantly. “Although it has been years…”

“Would you be willing to try? Only if you’d want to, that is, I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable, but I think it could be helpful.”

Narcissa would have said yes regardless, but certainly there could have been no denying that sweet, hopeful look in Hermione’s eyes—and the way she was trying to hide it. “Of course I will,” she said and tried to sound less apprehensive than she felt.

Turning towards the jar she had filled only a moment before, Narcissa tried to concentrate. She tried to recall the memories that used to bring her Patronus surging forth with effortless ease. Her mind grasped every shred of happiness it could find at the images, but when Narcissa cast her charm, only a thin silvery mist emitted from her wand.

She shook her head, disappointed; she was being foolish. She pushed her mind harder this time, pressing slivers of joy so tightly together that she felt sure they had to create something worthwhile, but two more attempts elicited the same lackluster results.

“It’s much harder for me than it used to be,” Narcissa explained with a touch of embarrassment—not that she was doing this to show off for Hermione, but still, she wished she could do better.

Hermione looked at her with nothing but tenderness. “It’s all right, Cissa; You’re out of practice, that’s more than understandable.”

“It’s not that, really,” Narcissa said with a sigh. She wished that was all it was, a need for practice would be far less frustrating. “It’s just that too many of my memories have become… complicated. It’s not that they don’t bring me happiness still, in a way, but the joy is too mixed up with other feelings, ones that I find hard to ignore.”

Hermione nodded slowly. “Are your memories of Draco?”

It was quite a personal question to pry into what a person used for such a spell, yet when had Hermione ever shied away from questions any other soul would have feared to ask? And, as always, Narcissa didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Yes, mostly. Although honestly, you could take your pick—Draco, Bella, Lucius…. What memory do I have that doesn’t involve one or all of them?” Narcissa mused. The memories of Draco at least had remained intact for so long, but now they were the most complicated of all.

Hermione was looking at her oddly with a furrow forming in her brow.

“What is it?” Narcissa asked.

“It’s just… Lucius, I’ve never heard you mention him before. I’ve never even heard Draco mention him since the war. It’s almost easy to forget he ever existed,” Hermione said with a shrug. “And now that I know you, it’s hard for me to imagine you with him.”

“How I wish I could say the same,” Narcissa said in a bitter tone.

Hermione nodded, still looking troubled. “Was it always that bad?” she finally asked.

Narcissa sighed. There it was, the past. The memories of everything Hermione had up until now managed to push under the rug when her eyes were clouded by her foolish attraction.

“You don’t have to answer that—” Hermione began.

But Narcissa held up her hand. Just like always, she found herself pulled into honesty with only the slightest of provocations from Hermione’s curious gaze. “The answer is no, Hermione; it wasn’t always so bad, not anywhere near, in fact. Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember that my marriage used to be anything other than a burden, but for a time, I think we both were happy. At the very least, we were both young, attractive, foolish… mutually drunk on the notion that we were young gods destined to see the world at our feet.” She smiled ruefully, cringing at her remembered naïveté. “One war was more than enough to dispel such idiotic notions, at least from me, not to mention drive more resentment between us than could ever be surmounted. But by the time the second war came around and he pulled us into that hell once more… Well, we clung to each other out of a desperate desire to survive, but there was no love there—hatred, if anything.” After a long pause, Narcissa shook her head and she shifted her gaze back to Hermione. “By the time he died in Azkaban, I did not mourn him and still, I do not.”

Hermione’s gaze was hard to read, and Narcissa wondered if she shouldn’t have said anything, if she should have deflected and let Hermione spin whatever tale would have been most pleasing to her.

Narcissa took a deep breath and forced herself to regain her composure. “So you can understand how difficult it is now to find a memory that isn’t in some way tainted .”

Hermione nodded, and to Narcissa’s surprise, she reached out and rested a hand upon her arm. “I understand. I feel that way about plenty of my own memories, although to a lesser extent, I’m sure. Once we grow past something, it’s hard to look back at our memories and not focus on the mistakes we made, and all the small moments that led up to our pain.”

Narcissa felt her heart swell at that, at this young woman’s inconceivable understanding, and the kindness she extended at every turn, even though it was far from due.

Her mind spun over every moment that Hermione had surprised her, every time she’d approached her when any sane woman would have politely turned away. It was once again that feeling of being seen truly as she was, rather than what everyone wanted to make her into. And Narcissa knew—though she hesitated to admit it—it was the closest thing to real happiness she had felt in a number of years.

She cleared her throat, and raising her wand once more, she focused on Hermione, on the image of her shimmering eyes as she poured over the charms in the garden outside. “Expecto Patronum,” she whispered, almost hoping it would fail, for that would be simpler in the end. But of course, it did not. A silver, misty bat surged forward from her wand and fluttered towards the jar.

Hermione laughed in joy at the sight. “A bat!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen a bat Patronus before, it’s wonderful.”

Touched as she was by Hermione’s praise and at the glittering smile on her face, Narcissa clucked her tongue.

“Don’t dawdle about the shape of it, cast your charms,” Narcissa commanded with a laugh. “Who knows if I’ll be able to cast it again so successfully.” Although, and Narcissa almost hated herself for admitting it, she thought she would be able to cast the charm with ease as long as it was Hermione requiring it of her.

 


 

Days passed in much the same way, one day fading seamlessly into the next. Their progress with the Patronus had so far been promising, although neither one of them was quite sure where they were headed with their diagram once it was complete.

The progress on a potential potion for Bellatrix’s knife, however, had been less successful to say the least, but they weren’t willing to give up, so they continued to catalog potion after potion and refused to acknowledge how their potential options seemed to dwindle.

It had all become a bit of a blur of books and notes and charms in Hermione’s mind. There were only a few moments that stood out from the rest. For instance, the first time, her hand had subconsciously wandered towards Narcissa’s while they were reading, and idly began tracing Narcissa’s fingers with her own. At first, Narcissa’s hand had stiffened, and she seemed to question it, analyze it, but only for a moment before softening, opening her palm, smiling at the touch she had likely contemplated refusing.

Or the first time, Narcissa had left the room in the evening and said “I’ll see you later, darling,” an admission that usually went unspoken between them.

It all felt so delicate, this… whatever it was, with Narcissa. Every touch was a bit like holding sugar between her fingers, knowing that it could melt from the heat of her grasp. She knew it wasn’t a relationship, not in that sense of the word, but still she felt herself falling, clinging to what she feared she wouldn’t be able to hold onto.

However, for a few days, at least, that would all have to go on hold. Ginny had invited Hermione, Harry, and Ron to visit her in Ireland for a few days and watch a pre-season game of some kind—Hermione wasn’t clear on the details of the Quidditch aspect, but she was looking forward to seeing her friend again, regardless.

As Hermione left Narcissa the final night before her trip, she shrugged on her clothes, unsure what to say. She wanted to say, “I’ll miss you,” and she knew it would be true. She would miss their sleepless nights, and even more so their quiet afternoons, but she was too conscious of trying not to make Narcissa uncomfortable by pushing too hard, or making it seem like she had developed feelings where only attraction was supposed to be allowed.

So Hermione opted for, “Well, I’ll see you on Wednesday then,” which was undoubtedly safe, if disappointingly dull.

“Safe travels, darling,” Narcissa whispered, before placing the softest of kisses on her cheek.

It wasn’t much, but Hermione thought that just might be enough to sustain her during her time away.

Chapter Text

When the Portkey landed, Hermione tumbled to the ground as she always did, but this time, she couldn’t help but laugh a bit at her clumsiness. It had been so long since she’d been anywhere but London, Wiltshire, and the passage between that Ireland seemed like a different world, and this short visit, a true adventure. Even Harry seemed a little more light-hearted in this new air with miles between him and all that had been weighing so heavily on his mind.

Ginny had told them to meet her at the practice field where they could watch for a bit and then the group of them would go out to a pub for dinner.

The practice area was bustling beyond belief, but within a few moments, they were able to spot their friend’s familiar face standing beside the field. She was dressed in her uniform, looking a bit muddy and tossed about, but beaming nonetheless at the crowd of people surrounding her.

“Ginny!” the three of them exclaimed in unison the moment they saw her.

“Hey guys!” Ginny called out, rushing in to hug them all.

To no one’s surprise, a tall, attractive man followed behind her and smiled at them from a step away as he watched the reuniting group. Hermione could only laugh; her friend had always had a way of collecting boyfriends as easily as some people collected chocolate frog cards.

“Guys, I want you to meet Liam,” Ginny said, pulling away from her final embrace and stepping back to stand near the young man. “He’s a sports reporter; we met when he was covering me joining the team.”

Hermione and Harry greeted Liam warmly, but Ron stood up a bit straighter as if he was trying to look more intimidating than usual. Hermione and Ginny both rolled their eyes in his direction.

Liam, however, seemed undeterred by Ron’s posturing and turned straight to the protective brother with a friendly grin. “You must be one of Ginny’s brothers,” he said in a cheery voice. “Let me guess… Ron, the Auror, right? Ginny’s told me so much about you. Great to finally meet you, mate.”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s me,” Ron said as he shook Liam’s eagerly offered hand. Some of his defenses fell away immediately in the face of recognition, and the mention of his impressive job.

Hermione rolled her eyes harder. Undoubtedly, Liam knew exactly who he would be meeting today, and he had played the situation to his advantage perfectly. He must really like Ginny to go through this little act.

“And you must be Harry and Hermione,” Liam continued, shaking their hands in turn. “I’ve heard so many stories that I feel like I know you all already.”

Ginny laughed and gave him a quick kiss of approval, turning to her friends with a grin. “I really have to get back on the field, but why don’t you guys get acquainted, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Why don’t I get us some drinks, and you guys can take a seat?” Harry offered.

“I can help you with that,” Ron said, stepping away with his friend. He was always eager for a drink when he could get one.

Liam and Hermione took seats near the front and watched Ginny rejoin the team’s practice exercises.

“So,” the man said, turning to Hermione with that same confident ease. “Ginny tells me that you’re a journalist as well.”

Even though only a short time had passed since her tenure at the Prophet, it felt like a different lifetime. “Well, I used to be,” Hermione said at last with a shrug. She hoped he would leave it at that, but of course he did not.

“Used to be?” Liam asked.

“Yes, I…. I had a job at The Daily Prophet, if you’re familiar, but it didn’t work out in the end. They didn’t like my… well let’s call them political inclinations ,” Hermione explained with a wry smile and a tilt to her brows.

“Ah, I see. Political inclinations… I’m sure they had a more colorful term at the time,” he said with a good-natured chortle.

Hermione smiled. She was relieved to finally be able to think of that horrible evening with a bit of humor. “Yes, they did. As I recall, my editor referred to my writing as ‘propaganda for conspiracy nuts.’”

He let out a low whistle. “Hard to forget a phrase like that, really. I’ve heard a good deal about your Daily Prophet. Not many subscribe to it here, but up North, they do, of course. From all I hear, the government holds those writers with a Devil’s Snare grip.”

“Hardly. Even Devil’s Snare can be persuaded to relax its hold occasionally,” Hermione said dryly.

“Touché,” Liam said, leaning back in his seat. “So the Prophet got tired of having a token radical on their staff?”

“Not quite that; nothing I ever wrote for them was extreme. But they did get tired of me airing my opinions elsewhere.” Hermione sighed. “If you ever get a copy of The Quibbler, keep an eye out for Jean Wilkins, my alias; she was the real radical.” It was hard for her not to laugh about it now; it sounded so silly in retrospect, this game of fake names and secret articles. “Perhaps I’ll write for them again someday; we’ll see.”

“Jean Wilkins…” Liam mused, studying her carefully with what looked a good deal like respect. “A more innocuously English nom de guerre , I’ve never heard.”

Hermione laughed and turned her attention back to the field. She was sure that Ginny’s relationship with Liam was likely to be as short-lived as any other of her friend’s flings, but she liked him anyway for as long as it did last. It wasn’t every day that she met a journalist who sympathized with her story rather than calling her foolish and idealistic for allowing herself to lose a stable gig like The Prophet offered. But then again, things often seemed to be a good deal freer on this side of the sea.

 


 

Two days into Hermione’s absence, Narcissa was delighted by another call from Andromeda, this time for a calmer tea, one without fights or bank paperwork to hold them back from a normal conversation. She would have looked forward to the visit regardless, but especially with Hermione in another country, Narcissa found herself feeling lonely in a way she never had before Hermione had arrived into her life. The company, especially from Andromeda, was much appreciated.

Best of all, Andy had agreed to bring her grandson along. And that felt like a significant gesture of trust, one that neither woman would take lightly. Narcissa only hoped to prove herself worthy as she opened the door at the sound of her sister’s knock.

The boy she presumed to be Teddy was clinging to Andromeda dearly and looking up at the imposing house in fear. That day, his hair was dark brown, same as his grandmother’s, as if he was trying to be close to her in every possible way.

“Hello there,” Narcissa said, bending down to be closer to his height. “You must be Teddy.”

The boy nodded shyly in response.

“Teddy, this your Aunt Cissa,” Andromeda said gently when the child looked at her with apprehension. “What do we say when we meet someone new, sweetheart?”

“Nice to meet you,” the boy mumbled in a sweet, anxious voice.

“It’s nice to meet you too, darling,” Narcissa said, and she flashed him a brilliant smile.

Though she often denied it, she supposed her beauty was good for a few things. For one, people always seemed more apt to like her at once, and in a child, the effect was obvious. At her smile, Teddy’s own lips curled upward slightly and his grip on his grandmother’s leg loosened a bit. It was a start.

And so she led her small family inside, where a tea tray had been set out by Todry.

After so many years apart, it wasn’t exactly easy to fall into a pattern of sisterly closeness, but they were trying. And there were some bonds, bonds of blood and childhood confidences, that not even twenty years could sever entirely.

Narcissa was relieved to see Teddy continuing to warm to her throughout the afternoon. At only three years old, he couldn’t contribute much to the conversation, but he interjected when he could with the rambling stories of a child. However, Narcissa listened with a kind smile that only grew when she saw a few blonde streaks form in his hair the longer he sat beside her.

She couldn’t help herself from reaching out and running her fingers over those light strands.

“You look so much like my son with your hair that color,” she mused.

“You have a son?” Teddy asked and looked around curiously as if this other child must be hidden in the room somewhere out of sight.

“I do, darling. His name is Draco, but I’m afraid he’s much older than you and hard at work out of the house at the moment,” Narcissa said kindly.

Teddy seemed a little disappointed at this loss of a potential playmate. Understandable, since a quiet afternoon tea with his grandmother and great-aunt was hardly the sort of excitement that could content a child his age.

“However,” she continued. “When your grandmother said you were coming over today, I took a look at my son’s old toys. I found a toy broom that he adored and I thought you might like to ride on it while you’re here, as long as it’s all right with your grandmother, that is.”

Immediately, Teddy’s face lit up with joy. “Can I, Grandma?” he asked excitedly.

“Yes, dear, just don’t go anywhere we can’t see you all right? And be careful,” Andromeda said in a firm voice.

Teddy nodded vigorously and headed off towards the broom with excitement.

“Don’t worry, Andy. Draco was such a clumsy child at that age that we put every protective charm we could think of on the toy. He couldn’t hurt himself if he tried,” Narcissa said with a smile. She remembered all the times Draco had very nearly run into every piece of furniture in the house before those charms were set. Really it was a miracle that he had grown out of those tendencies by adolescence.

“And how is Draco?” Andromeda asked, watching Teddy carefully as he flew in slow circles around their knees, laughing all the while.

“He’s doing well,” Narcissa said hesitantly. She wasn’t sure that it was true, although he’d always refused to tell her anything to the contrary.

“When we agreed to meet again, I thought you might suggest a day when he would be available as well. I would like to meet him, Cissa, if you’d both like that as well,” Andromeda said with a searching look in her eyes.

Narcissa offered a weak smile in return. She had such a hard time imagining introducing Draco to her sister now, not without it turning into an afternoon she’d regret. “I would love for you to meet him, Andy, truly I would. It’s just that… Well, things between Draco and I aren’t the best at the moment. It’s been hard since the war, and…” She trailed off.

Andromeda nodded. “I didn’t mean to pressure you, Cissa, I completely understand if now isn’t a good time.”

Narcissa nodded and her gaze drifted to Teddy once more, who was still laughing and oblivious to the conversation between the two women beside him.

“And Hermione,” Andromeda began in a careful tone, “how is she?”

The question caught Narcissa off-guard, as did the attentive stare her sister was aiming at her. She had never considered Andromeda to be the most perceptive member of the family, but perhaps that had grown with age. Or Narcissa was just overly paranoid, which seemed equally likely. Regardless, Andy’s gaze seemed far too sharp for Narcissa’s liking.

“I believe she is well,” Narcissa said in a mild, enigmatic tone. “She isn’t here at the moment if you wished to speak with her. She’s currently visiting a friend of hers in Ireland.”

“Ah, Ginny Weasley, I assume?” Andromeda asked. “Her mother, Molly, told me she’d moved there recently.”

“Yes, I believe so,” Narcissa said, taking a sip of her tea and trying to sound as if she wasn’t entirely sure of the details. As if Hermione’s plans, her presence or absence, were no more than an after-thought in Narcissa’s day. Perhaps a part of her wished that had been true.

Andromeda raised an eyebrow but said nothing as she sipped her tea in turn.

Narcissa told herself to calm down, she was too conscious of what she was trying to hide, which was always the surest way of being caught. Andromeda was likely only interested in Hermione and their friendship because it seemed so odd to her, so contrary to the prejudice that she’d have expected Narcissa to have maintained.

It felt like a shallow excuse for her sister’s interest even in Narcissa’s own mind, yet it would have to do, and it was enough to get her through the rest of an easy afternoon without stumbling over her words with nerves.

 


 

The moment that Hermione returned home to England, she took a long, hot shower and fell onto her bed in exhaustion. It had been a busy, if enjoyable, few days, and between the normal exhaustion of holiday and the excitement of seeing her friends for so long, she was beat.

Hermione lay there on her bed for a moment, half-expecting to fall asleep without even taking her clothes off, but despite her fatigue, there was a buzzing in her body. The thrill of the trip had yet to wear off entirely, and there was something else—the sudden knowledge that Narcissa was close again… just a moment away if Hermione apparated there. She tried to push that thought away, but once it came into her mind, it was impossible to shake entirely.

Are you still awake? Hermione wrote, sending her owl out without even bothering to sign her name.

I am. Are you back in London? Came the reply a few minutes later.

Well, she wouldn’t be for long.

Probably testing her stamina more than she ought to have, Hermione showed up on the steps of Malfoy Manor. She was being foolhardy; how would she ever explain her late night appearance here this time if anyone but Narcissa found her skulking through the halls when she hadn’t even been at work that day. But she was beyond caring. She had gotten so used to feeling Narcissa’s touch on a daily basis, that to not even look into those shimmering blue eyes for days had felt like agony—if she may put it incredibly dramatically.

When Narcissa opened her door, she laughed, and Hermione realized just how much she missed that sweet sound, how much she missed being the one to bring it forth from her lover’s lips.

“I wondered why it was taking you so long to respond,” Narcissa said. She ran a hand through her hair and tossed it to the side, exposing the pale skin of her long neck.

“May I come in?” Hermione asked, biting at her lip.

Narcissa raised an eyebrow at her with a curling smile. “Goodness, you are eager; it hasn’t even been a week, you know.”

Despite her teasing tone, there was an unmistakable glint in Narcissa’s eyes betraying the woman’s own interest.

Hermione smirked. “You know what, you’re right. When you put it like that, perhaps I ought to leave and come back tomorrow,” she said, turning as if to exit.

Narcissa reached out and grabbed her arm with an iron grip. “Well, since you came all this way,” she said. She pulled a giggling Hermione into the room with her and pressed her against the wall in a hard kiss.

Somehow they ended up on the bed with Narcissa kissing down Hermione’s neck, clothes being slid off by grasping fingers.

“Merlin, I missed you,” Hermione mumbled the moment that Narcissa took one nipple into her mouth, dragging it lightly through her teeth.

Narcissa hummed against her skin and brought her hand to Hermione’s other breast, massaging it lightly.

Hermione gasped and continued talking, rambling really, saying things like “I thought about you constantly, every night I thought of you.”

She thought that Narcissa might ignore it, but the woman pulled back and gave her a smirk. She slid closer until her lips were against Hermione’s ear.

“And during this night when you were thinking of me,” Narcissa said slowly. “What were you doing?”

Hermione blushed impossibly hard. She told herself it shouldn’t be embarrassing to confess to touching herself, not to someone who had already seen everything she had to offer, but it still made her shiver with nerves. “I… I was,” she took a breath, “I was touching myself and imagining it was you,” she said finally.

“I can’t tell you how much I love that image,” Narcissa said and took Hermione’s earlobe into her mouth, sucking it gently between her lips.

Hermione released a soft sigh.

“And in these fantasies of yours,” Narcissa continued. “What exactly was I doing?”

“You… you were…” Hermione laughed. She was struggling to put together words. She saw the familiar images flash through her mind, but she felt woefully inadequate to whatever dirty talk Narcissa seemed to be expecting.

Narcissa hummed soothingly and continued to kiss Hermione’s neck, tongue soothing the occasional gentle bite of tender flesh. “If you tell me, darling, I might even do it,” came another dark whisper.

“It’s not… I mean it isn’t really something…” Hermione took a breath. “It’s silly.”

Narcissa pulled away and shook her head softly. “I’m sure it’s not silly,” she said, running her thumb across Hermione’s lower lip.

And before Hermione could insist that it was, she found her lips otherwise engaged in a deep, probing kiss.

When her lips were free to speak again, Hermione sighed. “It’s just that… Well it’s the first fantasy I ever had about you, before we were even… and it’s not something that would ever really happen, but it stuck with me.”

“Tell me,” Narcissa whispered.

“Do you remember when I first tried to get into the bookshelf… how you found me tied there?”

Narcissa let out a disbelieving laugh. “That’s what you picture?”

Hermione blushed furiously. “I told you it was silly. But ever since that day, I always imagined that instead of freeing me, you…”

“Fucked you senseless while you were helpless and writhing beneath my touch?” Narcissa completed with one eyebrow cocked.

Hermione laughed and nodded, averting her gaze towards the duvet.

“Well…” Narcissa began, an amused smile playing on her lips. “There’s no reason to say that it couldn’t happen. Just because you know how to get into the safe, doesn’t mean you have to be quick enough…”

“What? No, I—”

“I’m only teasing you, Hermione,” Narcissa said, planting a soft kiss on her stuttering lips. “That would be far too dangerous. But it does give me a couple of ideas…” she said, before tracing her kisses lower

Narcissa pulled back, and Hermione nearly groaned at the sudden absence of her lips. 

Picking up her wand and casting a silent summoning charm, Narcissa watched the drawer of the nightstand slide open and a dark blue velvet blindfold fly into her outstretched hand. 

Hermione’s heart quickened and her eyes widened. She didn’t know what was stronger, her arousal or her nerves.

“Trust me?” Narcissa said, silkily flirtatious. 

“Merlin, help me, I do,” Hermione said.

Narcissa smiled deviously. “Good,” she said. “Turn around,” she instructed, guiding Hermione into a position in which she could tie the blindfold securely to her, letting her fingers linger over the fluttering pulse in Hermione’s neck.

When she was done, Narcissa lowered her head and kissed Hermione’s shoulder. Her hands reached around Hermione’s torso, gripping her breasts and rolling her nipples between her thumbs and forefingers. Hermione knew it was mostly an illusion because she normally would have closed her eyes anyway, but the sensations felt more acute with her eyes deliciously left in the dark of the velvet surrounding them. 

“If you want me to stop just tell me to stop,” Narcissa said, close enough to her ear that Hermione felt the heat of her breath on her neck.

Hermione nodded, and said something in agreement, although in this moment, she couldn’t imagine telling Narcissa to stop anything

When Narcissa’s touch had departed, Hermione’s only warning of what was to come was a soft zing of magic before her wrists slammed against one another, caught in an intricate bind of soft, velvet rope, cutting into her arms ever so slightly. Hermione gasped in surprise. 

Narcissa’s lips were at her ear. “Is that ok?” she asked. 

“God, yes,” Hermione sighed, her body positively humming in anticipation. The ropes were gentle, but strong, and it really did feel like the best variation of her fantasy that she could imagine. “Take me,” she whispered impulsively and heard Narcissa chuckle from behind her.

Hermione felt Narcissa’s hands guiding her torso down until she was on all fours. “Spread your legs,” she commanded with a hand slowly stroking Hermione’s inner thigh. Hermione did as she was told.

In the darkness, she heard Narcissa grab something else from the nightstand; she felt Narcissa’s fingers slipping over her lips, dipping inside of her for just a moment. Hermione pulled on the binds, enjoying the gentle bite of them, the sensation of being caught in Narcissa’s grasp.

The next moment, she hissed out a ragged breath as she felt the shaft of a toy slide inside her, deep and slow until Narcissa’s thighs were pressing against the backs of her own. A deep moan escaped Hermione’s throat.

Narcissa bent close to Hermione’s ear to whisper. “Do you like that?”

Hermione wasn’t sure if Narcissa meant the ropes or the position but either way the answer was the same. “Yes,” she managed to choke out in response. 

Narcissa hummed her approval and Hermione felt Narcissa’s nose trail up the vertebrae of her neck, and a soft kiss at the top of her spine. Then Narcissa’s hips began to rock, thrusting slow and deep inside of her, pulling out just to make Hermione ache with the absence only to be filled again.

The toy itself was charmed so that Narcissa too could feel the sensation, and Hermione could hear a low moan from behind her, in harmony with her own.

Narcissa’s hand wrapped around Hermione’s body and she felt a single finger slide over the head of her clit, glancing and soft. Hermione’s arms nearly failed to hold her as she gasped at the pleasure that shot through her body. 

Narcissa’s hips moved faster now, not quite as deep but angling downward in a way that made Hermione’s toes curl and Narcissa gasp. At unexpected moments, Hermione would feel the brush of those fingers again, always just as light, just as fleeting, just as maddening when they departed. 

“Narcissa… please,” Hermione groaned.

“Pull your elbows in,” the woman instructed, tugging gently on Hermione’s arms until they came directly under her shoulders, creating a much more stable base. Hermione knew why she had done so in a second because as soon as Hermione’s arms were able to support her, she felt Narcissa’s left hand grip her hip firmly, and the shaft inside her now pushed into her so fast and hard that she almost screamed out in pleasure even though her climax was still out of sight. Narcissa’s right hand slid around her waist and parted her lips. No longer was her touch fleeting and gentle. She ground her fingers against Hermione’s clit in hard, rough circles. 

Hermione nearly collapsed, she felt so good. She fought to keep her head, wanting to draw out this sensation as long as she possibly could. When she could fight it no longer, she arched her back, pressing into Narcissa’s body and letting her mind go dark as she released a high squeak. Narcissa’s legs trembled against her own as she allowed herself to fall over the edge at the same time.

Finally, Hermione went still and Narcissa pulled away, a final jolt of pleasure as the shaft popped free. She felt Narcissa’s arms around her, turning her over and laying her gently on the bed with a soft kiss to her lips.

She didn’t actually notice Narcissa undoing the binds on her hands or removing the blindfold from her eyes but when her eyelids fluttered open they were both gone. Hermione could feel that her cheeks were flushed to a point that they were almost painfully hot, and looking down, her chest was mottled with patches of red, blushing skin. 

Narcissa was staring at her, admiring her, Hermione thought. Hermione ducked her head, suddenly embarrassed by the attention. 

She felt Narcissa’s hand on her chin, forcing her head back up to face her. “You look beautiful,” Narcissa said, in a gentle tone.

Hermione thought Narcissa’s admiration seemed ridiculous as she observed the woman propped up casually on her elbow, blonde hair draping with thoughtless elegance over the pale skin of her naked body, gently flushed in the dim light.

Hermione wanted to tell her so but couldn’t find the words to express what she meant properly. In absence of eloquence, she pulled Narcissa down to her, kissing her forcefully. “You’re incredible,” she whispered inadequately against her lips.

Narcissa laughed softly and kissed Hermione’s cheek as she pulled away. For a moment, she nuzzled her nose into Hermione’s neck and rested her head against her shoulder. 

They lay there in silence for a minute, Hermione running her fingers through Narcissa’s hair before the woman spoke.

“So tell me about Ireland, darling,” she said.

And she did. She told her about Ginny, about the team, about the reporter boyfriend. It was all so hazy by then that she didn’t even feel herself falling asleep until it was too late to stop it.

Chapter Text

The next thing she knew, Hermione woke, feeling warm and comfortable. In her sleepy stupor, she could feel Narcissa’s arms around her, smell the sweet scent of her skin, the lingering whisper of her perfume from the night before, feel her chest rising and falling beneath Hermione’s cheek. As Hermione shifted, Narcissa, still mostly asleep herself, stroked her back fondly. It felt wonderful and Hermione sighed at the gentle touch, feeling at peace.

She blinked her eyes open slowly and tried to shake the sleep that was currently fogging her mind.

It was then that she realized just how brightly the dawn had begun to shine through the slit left open between the curtains. Hermione sat up with a gasp. Merlin, how late is it?

At the sudden movement, Narcissa startled awake. She looked just as surprised to see Hermione still on top of her as Hermione was to be there. 

“I’m sorry,” Hermione stammered, feeling abashed by that expression on Narcissa’s face. “I didn’t mean to stay over, I fell asleep.”

Merlin, why did she always have to mess things up? They had ground rules and boundaries, and she didn’t want Narcissa to think she was pushing things too far. Hermione rambled through apologies as she struggled to wake herself enough to think about leaving.

“Hermione, darling, calm down,” Narcissa said, reaching out and grasping Hermione’s face, forcing her to meet her eyes. She looked alarmed at the panic that had started to rise in Hermione’s sleepy voice. “It’s ok, I don’t mind.”

“You don’t?” Hermione asked, stunned. She had been so sure that staying over would have overstepped this arrangement to an unforgivable degree.

“No, I don’t,” Narcissa said after a pause. She released Hermione’s face and turned on her back, pulling the covers around her body once more.

Hermione thought she looked slightly embarrassed at the admission.

Hermione too settled back into the pillows, and she couldn’t help but smile a little as she glanced at Narcissa out of the corner of her eyes. The woman was lying very still as if she suddenly didn’t know what to do with herself.

“Well… good,” Hermione said with the cocky half smile that Narcissa always seemed to like.

Narcissa turned to her with a curious expression on her face. “Why good ?” she asked.

Hermione had a hundred answers to that, each less appropriate than the last.

Because I love the feel of your skin against mine.

Because I like the way you look now, just waking up with tangled hair and eyes still clouded by sleep.

Because every time I’ve crawled out of your bed, I’ve wanted to find a way back in, an excuse to hold you just a little longer.

If those weren’t strings, Hermione didn’t know what was. No, none of that would do. Just because it was what she wanted so desperately to say, didn’t mean it was what Narcissa wanted to hear. And Hermione already felt sure that she was pushing her luck by even being here at this hour. She had been given an inch; she didn’t want to try to take a mile.

Hermione shrugged. “Well, for one thing, I can do this,” she said, leaning her head on Narcissa’s shoulder once more, tangling their legs together and sliding a hand up her stomach, cupping her breast gently.

Narcissa laughed and pulled Hermione closer. She seemed relieved at this return to the familiar, playful nature of their relationship. It was a dynamic that was practiced and comfortable, and the only one they ever allowed between these sheets.

Most importantly, it had been enough to cover any awkwardness from the previous moment.

But as Hermione continued to doze against Narcissa, her mind still spun over all the sentimental reasons that she had kept to herself. She wondered if it had been too obvious on her face for any amount of teasing to hide. And yet, if it had been, Narcissa had let her stay regardless.

How she wished she could get inside that mind of hers.

 


 

If Narcissa had been surprised to find Hermione on top of her that morning, it was nothing in comparison to the shock she felt the next night when Hermione asked if she could stay again. Perhaps even that paled in comparison to what she felt upon hearing her own voice agreeing to the idea without a beat of hesitation. The words had fallen from her lips so easily, accompanied by a girlish laugh that she hardly recognized as her own.

Every night since, she had questioned it, wondering whether she ought to have set a boundary here before the strings she felt looping over her constricted around her heart, knotted too deftly to be unwoven when the time came.

And yet, no matter what Narcissa resolved to say when she was alone and fretting over her damnably sentimental heart, one look at Hermione’s contented smile as she settled back against the pillows or burrowed beneath the blankets, and all of Narcissa’s sense would shatter. It was a perilous kind of joy, but one she found herself incapable of resisting.

So night after night, Hermione stayed, and Narcissa became sure the pleasure outweighed everything else, even the pain that she feared might follow.

It was probably lucky that she had something to occupy her mind during the day or else she’d have driven herself mad each afternoon going over her choices again and again. Although as it was, it often meant simply exchanging one frustration for another.

As if to prove that point, Narcissa let the heavy tome in front of her thud closed in a display of more irritation than she normally would have allowed herself in Hermione’s presence, but she hadn’t been able to help it. Since hypothesizing after Andy’s first visit that Bellatrix must have imbued the knife with a potion, rather than a charm or a poison, the two women had gone through countless potion books, both common and obscure, while cross-referencing Bellatrix’s own research, and yet they had found nothing that seemed even remotely relevant to Hermione’s arm.

There were potions that when applied to a blade might strengthen it, perhaps to kill a victim from a superficial wound, but this ?

There were more books—in a house like this, there were always more books—but they had reached a point where the contents of the volumes had grown repetitive. Neither Narcissa nor Hermione had voiced their feelings beyond the occasional complaint, but she had a feeling that they were both silently giving up hope that they’d stumble across anything useful in that shelf of untouched books.

It was maddening that her sister managed to torment them even from the grave. Her sister’s ability to make everything so difficult was really a brand of magic all on its own, Narcissa thought and let out a sigh.

Hermione’s attention had been drawn by the loud noise of the book falling shut, and by then, she sat staring at Narcissa with a look of resigned understanding. “I haven’t found anything either,” she said, closing her own book.

Narcissa reached out to grasp Hermione’s fingers in her own. “I’m starting to think that if it was a potion that Bellatrix used, it was one entirely of her own creation. And yet have done so without even inspiration from an existing draught at such a young age… it seems unlikely, even for her.”

Hermione nodded. They had said all of this before. “I’m starting to think that it’s a very good thing that I’ve begun to learn so much about magical composition for the Patronus. Perhaps one day I’ll be good enough that I’ll be able to pick the strands of this apart. It might be my best shot.”

“At the rate you’re going, I’m sure you’ll be good enough for that and more in no time,” Narcissa said with a consoling smile.

They had already tried to run some diagnostic spells on Hermione’s arm themselves to create a diagram they may be able to identify. While they had unsurprisingly found a good deal of magic there, it didn’t match any pattern they already knew so they had held out hope that there would be an easier path.

Unfortunately, the only people who tended to learn these sorts of spells were curse-breakers and healers, so while most curses, hexes and jinxes had readily available spell diagrams—the ones each healer had already ruled out months ago—there was very little call for anything of the kind to be made of other charms, potions, or anything else.

“I think I’m done with this for today,” Hermione said, getting up and stretching her back until Narcissa heard a snap. “Want to take a walk and then switch to the lab?”

“I would,” Narcissa said, rising in turn and vanishing their tea tray to the kitchen.

Strange as it may have sounded in any other context, it was always a relief for both of them to shift their attention to dementors once more. This was the one part of their day that wasn’t personal for either of them. It was purely academic, and Narcissa felt like she could breathe much easier talking about spell diagrams that didn’t invoke any guilt or hold the key to Hermione’s future health and happiness.

Not to mention, it was the one area where they felt they were making decent progress. It had taken them weeks, but they had finally constructed a complete spell diagram of a Patronus charm, now the only thing to do was replicate it in a more useful form—which was far easier said than done.

They had moved their work to a lab, where they could easily experiment with brewing potions or working on modifying the charm into something that would affect a broken mind. It was less aesthetically pleasing to work in such a functional room, but it was undoubtedly far safer to practice uncertain magic there than within the walls of a temperamental library.

“What we really need is a subject or two who actually suffer from long-term side-effects from dementors. We need to know what we’re actually dealing with,” Hermione mused as they turned out into the chilly air of the gardens for their walk. “Perhaps a freed prisoner who might be willing to be part of the test.”

Narcissa nodded. “You’re right, of course. We can only get so far before that will become absolutely necessary. Although, I’m not sure how we’ll be able to find the right people. Even with your reputation as a war hero, I doubt you could put up advertisements in Diagon Alley asking for ill people willing to have experiments done upon them without a suspicious Auror or two showing up on your doorstep.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” Hermione said ruefully.

“Include my name, and perhaps the Auror will be here within the hour,” Narcissa joked and elbowed Hermione playfully in the ribs.

Hermione laughed and rolled her eyes. “What we really need is someone who knows the laws in these kinds of these, perhaps people at St. Mungo’s. They have to have some kind of process for trials that they do… or anyone else who does spell research…”

It would be something to think about. Narcissa had so few useful contacts these days, and the only person she knew who worked in magical research had fled England decades ago during the first war, so she would only be so much help with British Wizarding law.

Regardless, crafting a spell of which they’d be confident enough to test on a human being would still take months of work, if not more. So for now, it wasn’t imminent, just something to keep in the back of their minds in case an opportunity arose for the future.

 


 

At the break of another morning, as the birds began to sing in the dawn light, Hermione woke up as usual in Narcissa’s bed. She hadn’t been sure what kind of Gryffindor foolhardiness had persuaded her to ask to stay, but now she felt as if her mornings must have always begun this way—wrapped in satin with Narcissa’s arm draping over her. It was ironic really how hard she’d fought against moving out of her flat, when she’d ended up spending so little time there after all. Most days she only returned at brief intervals to change and fetch her mail.

Hermione was aware that for the most part, Narcissa was indulging her whims when she’d agreed to share her bed for actual sleeping night after night, but she didn’t allow herself to mind too much. There was something to be said for taking what she could get.

Throughout the night, Hermione always found her hands reaching for Narcissa, no matter where they started out. She would wake up, clutching at her, tucking her face into Narcissa’s neck, twisting their legs together as if trying to have as little distance as possible. It was almost disconcerting that this was how Hermione’s subconscious mind chose to operate, that even in her sleep, she would grasp at any piece of herself that Narcissa was willing to share and hold it for as long as she was allowed, as if everything given was a treasure.

That morning seemed exceptionally sweet, if only because of the way the sun shone through the curtains so brightly at the first breaking of the light. The air itself seemed light and spring-like, so unlike the gloom that they’d lived through during the past months of winter.

It had encouraged Hermione to wake early—and to wake Narcissa up early as well—and by the time Hermione had changed her clothes and returned to the Manor that morning, it was still nearly an hour before she normally came back—and pretended to be arriving for the first time in case she ran into Draco before he set out for his day.

The minute she stepped in the door, Todry hastened her into the dining room where breakfast, coffee and tea awaited. He ignored all protests that she wasn’t hungry, and had already eaten at her own home. He seemed to think it indecent somehow for her to start working before the family had properly risen and breakfasted.

In the dining room, Draco was already awake, dressed, and seated at the table with a plate of food before him, which he hardly seemed to be touching.

It seemed that the spring morning air had also convinced him to rise early, but it hadn’t seemed to inspire any kind of good mood in the process.

He barely looked at her as she came into the room, greeting her with a good morning that was unusually terse. She thought that perhaps even he wasn’t capable of turning on that noxious charm before a certain hour of the day. Understandable, of course, but it was odd to see his posture so stiff, and his face so brooding as if he had gone back years into the past. His eyes looked dark and distracted, like he was chewing on some piece of unpleasant information rather than the breakfast he was ignoring.

Hermione decided it was best not to ask, and instead chose to leave him to his thoughts, as gloomy as they might have been.

Within moments, Narcissa floated into the room, and floated did seem to be the right word for it. She looked at ease, even cheerful as she joined the silent pair.

Hermione had to fight a laugh at Narcissa’s contented air, thinking that she ought to be content, given how she’d started the morning. After all, it wasn’t every day that her alarm clock was a tongue between her thighs—a fantasy Narcissa had confessed to days earlier, and one that Hermione had been more than happy to oblige.

“Good morning,” Narcissa said, and kissed Draco’s cheek. “Hermione, you’re here quite early this morning.” The teasing smirk on her lips was only a brief flash before she turned to pour herself a cup of coffee. She began to hum a tune softly, as she looked out the window at the unusually clear skies.

Hermione saw that Draco was watching his mother and her apparent good mood carefully, suspiciously even. Yet, when Narcissa turned to him, he immediately went back to pretending to read the paper.

Without raising his eyes from The Prophet, he asked “Did we have a visitor here this morning?” in a tone that was likely intended to sound off-handed, but had an underlying bite that couldn’t quite be missed.

Hermione fought not to choke on the air in her lungs.

Narcissa sipped her coffee calmly and turned to face him. “Not that I’m aware of,” she replied “Unless you count Hermione here, of course. Why?”

Draco shrugged, still not raising his eyes to meet his mother’s. “I wanted to talk to you earlier, just after I woke up, and I thought I heard someone in your room,” he said in the same casual tone as before.

Hermione felt her stomach clench, and she fought to control any signs of panic. 

Narcissa’s mask of an expression, however, did not waver. “Hmm, how odd,” was all she said as she took another sip. 

At that, Draco finally shut his paper. “That’s all you have to say?” he asked, incredulous.

Narcissa didn’t seem to like being addressed in such an accusatory tone; her eyebrows raised just slightly, but the placid smile remained on her lips. “That’s all I have to say,” she replied, and without another word, she strolled casually from the room, leaving Draco to stare after her, lips pursed in annoyance.

With Narcissa gone, Hermione struggled to decide what to do. She too itched to flee through that door, but the last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself, when thus far, Draco had soundly ignored her presence as surely as if she’d been under a disillusionment charm.

Like most blissful moments, however, this lack of attention had to end eventually. Draco turned to her abruptly and seemed to consider her properly for the first time that morning.

“You two have gotten awfully chummy lately, Granger,” he said in a harsh tone, causing Hermione’s eyes to widen in panic once more. “Do you know who she was with?”

“N-No,” Hermione stammered nervously.

“Oh Salazar, you do know,” Draco said, immediately latching onto the anxiety in her voice. "Who is it?"

Hermione forced herself to calm down. She wasn’t doing herself any favors by losing her wits this way. “Draco, you’re being ridiculous,” she said in a much flatter tone. “You likely just heard a radio or your mother speaking to Todry about something.” She paused before asking what she really wanted to know. “What did you hear anyway?”

Draco scrunched his nose at the memory, “I heard a strange amount of commotion, and then laughter, and… and then I got out of that hallway before I could hear anything else. There was someone here, and I want to know who.”

Hermione was incredibly relieved that what he heard had been relatively innocuous, and nothing that could be definitively tied to her. “I swear, Draco, if there is or was anyone in this house besides the three of us, I don’t know a thing about it.” She thought Narcissa would have been proud of that twistingly truthful phrasing.

Draco, however, was unimpressed and undeterred. “You do,” he practically snarled. “I can see it in your eyes. You’re a god awful liar, Granger. Who is it?”

It was lucky really that Draco was apparently so sensitive about losing control over his little world, because the vicious tone of his voice immediately turned Hermione’s lingering anxiety to anger.

“Draco, honestly, leave me out of this,” she said forcefully. “If you want to pester someone about your mother’s personal life, then I think you should go after her.” 

Taking full advantage of the moment of silence that followed, Hermione rose from her seat and retreated from the room as quickly as she could without actually running away.

 


 

Hermione waited for a suitable amount of time until she could be sure that Draco had left for work before setting out in search of Narcissa.

Without Draco’s maddening face before her, it was so easy for her worry to return. He clearly hadn’t considered the possibility that it was Hermione in his mother’s bed that morning, but that was only luck. If he had approached the door at a different moment, perhaps he would have heard a voice that was clearly her own. Or he might have arrived at a moment of silence and knocked on the door, expecting to find his mother alone. What would Hermione have done then, hide behind the window curtains like a mistress in some bad romantic comedy? Hop into the fireplace without even putting her clothes on first? Talk about hoping she got the right grate.

Besides, even without getting caught, the situation seemed to be making things even worse between Narcissa and Draco, and Hermione wasn’t sure how she felt about that, or more importantly, how Narcissa would feel about that.

The thought had plagued her during the passing hour, and she wondered whether Narcissa was worried as well. However, when she found her, she was sitting on a cushioned bench before a window that had been cracked slightly to let in the cool morning breeze.

“Oh Hermione,” Narcissa said, turning towards the approaching footsteps. “Isn’t it a lovely day outside?”

“It is,” Hermione agreed hesitantly. She was surprised by Narcissa’s lingering cheer; she had expected to find the woman as contemplative as she had been herself since that awkward breakfast conversation.

“Come,” Narcissa said, gesturing to the cushion of the window seat beside her. “Smell the first breath of spring in the air.”

Hermione sat down beside Narcissa as she pushed the window further open. She had to admit that the breeze did feel lovely as it brushed her temples and cooled her skin. There was a hint of sunny warmth that she hadn’t felt in months, and it had a subtle earthy smell that could only mean the first bloom of spring.

“I can’t believe the weather changed so much overnight,” Hermione mused, and she stuck her hand out into the air to feel the breeze play over her fingertips.

“Let’s go outside,” Narcissa said, rising from her seat and readying to pull Hermione alongside her.

Hermione allowed herself to be tugged to a standing position, but she pulled back before Narcissa could drag them through the door. “Wait, Cissa. I think we should talk about what happened this morning… with Draco.”

Narcissa looked surprised.“Talk about it how? I’m sure he didn’t suspect it was you.”

“I don’t think he did, but aren’t you worried about what he overheard regardless?” Hermione asked.

Narcissa seemed to consider for a long moment before shaking her head.“No,” she said firmly. “It’s not my favorite thing to contemplate, my son hearing me in bed with… well anyone , but no, I’m not worried. He didn’t suspect it was you, and if Draco can collect enough secrets to fill this house, surely I’m entitled to a few of my own. Besides, I’m tired of worrying.” Narcissa took a deep breath and smiled. “Perhaps this spring air has made me reckless.”

Hermione thought that Narcissa did look a bit reckless. There was a certain vigor in her eyes that couldn’t be explained away by morning sex alone. It was intoxicating.

It felt odd to Hermione to be suddenly turning back from where she thought this conversation would go. She had been so ready to agree not to stay over any longer, or to be more careful, or something… but Narcissa’s cavalier attitude made every one of those ideas seem ridiculous.

The breeze blew in again, prickling goosebumps over her skin, and she allowed herself to smile, feeling Narcissa’s good mood flow over her in turn. “I think you’re right,” Hermione said, smiling genuinely once more. “We should go outside, go somewhere even, do something. It’s too nice of a day to spend it indoors and worrying.”

Narcissa laughed softly at Hermione’s sudden change of heart. “And where do you suggest we go?”

Hermione bit her lip in thought. She considered every place she had ever frequented in Diagon Alley but no matter how small or discreet, they all ultimately posed the same problem. If Narcissa thought people gawked at her in public alone or with her family, Hermione could only imagine what kind of looks they might get if they were seen walking down the street together. That’s when an idea came to her.

“We could go to Muggle London,” she suggested, an impulsive thrill filling her at the thought. “I know this great little café that serves fantastic coffee. It would be perfect; no one would know who we were or try to bother us.”

The idea felt wonderful—getting Narcissa out of that house, getting her somewhere where she could feel any kind of freedom.

Narcissa, however, looked skeptical. “I would hardly know what to do, or how to order, or pay even. I’ve barely been anywhere Muggle in my life.”

Hermione waved her concerns away. “I could order for you and pay, you wouldn’t have to worry about any of that if you didn’t want to.”

Hermione had just begun to lose her resolve at the sight of Narcissa’s hesitation. She was about to say that it was a stupid idea and they didn’t have to do anything of the sort when she saw Narcissa take a heavy breath and smile abruptly.

“Yes, all right, why not?” Narcissa said. Her voice was confident but there was a twinge of uncertainty in her eyes that could have made Hermione melt on the spot.

“Perfect,” she exclaimed, feeling her enthusiasm begin to return.

“I’ll have to change into something more suitable,” Narcissa was saying. “And while I’m happy to let you order for me, you’re certainly not going to pay,” she said, regaining a bit of her usual hauteur. 

Hermione laughed and nodded. “I’d like to change as well. Meet you back here?”

Within fifteen minutes, Hermione was changed and ready to venture out. She was surprised that she only had to wait five minutes more for Narcissa to walk into the room. Her usual robes were gone and in their place, she wore a simple long-sleeved black dress with a boat neck collar and an A-line skirt that fell just below her knees. A simple silver necklace and an emerald ring were the only pieces of jewelry she wore.

“Do I look all right?” Narcissa asked.

Hermione could tell that while Narcissa was usually far too sure of herself to ask such a question genuinely, this time, she truly wanted an answer.

“You look perfect,” Hermione said without hesitation. And she did.

 


 

As they walked down the street from the alley where they had apparated, Hermione was impressed by how well Narcissa contained her unease. Despite her nerves, she managed to walk with much the same haughty aplomb that she did in her own world, even if she did cling a bit closer to Hermione than she might have otherwise.

Once inside the café, Hermione left Narcissa at a table and went to order their drinks. Glancing around the small room, she couldn’t help but notice a number of people eyeing Narcissa with interest. Even dressed as perfectly ordinarily as she was, she still stood out from everything around her. Her clothes looked expensive, and there was an undeniable glamor about her that made her seem incredibly out of place in this quaint little coffee shop filled with breakfasting businessmen and hipster freelancers.

Hermione felt a twinge of pride and jealousy as she regarded both men and women watching  Narcissa with hungry stares. It made her want to block their view of her, or at the very least put a possessive arm around her waist. However, if Narcissa noticed the attention from her would-be suitors, she didn’t show any interest; she merely looked out the window at the passers-by with curiosity.

“You were right, Hermione,” Narcissa said when she returned with the coffee. “This place is very nice.”

Hermione beamed. She knew it probably took a lot for Narcissa to admit anything but criticism for a Muggle establishment, and she appreciated the effort the woman was making to have an open mind. 

“I used to come here sometimes to write whenever I was looking for a little peace,” Hermione said. She remembered the first time she came here to work; the barista was so amused that she was writing on paper rather than a laptop like the rest of the struggling novelist crowd he was used to seeing. At least she had remembered to bring a pen rather than a quill.

“Do you come to… this part of London very often?” Narcissa asked, avoiding the word Muggle just in time and stopping herself from stirring her coffee with wandless magic out of subconscious habit.

“Occasionally,” Hermione said with a shrug. “Especially right after the war, the anonymity was appreciated.”

Narcissa nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t think I’ve had this kind of anonymity since before I was married. Not even then probably. I wasn’t famous as a teenager like you, but you know how it is in our world, everyone knows everyone,” she said. “It’s an odd sensation really, to feel that you could do whatever you like, and it won’t end up in the papers the next morning.”

Hermione was about to agree when she saw a man across the room rise from his seat. Even though he could have been going anywhere, she just knew he was about to approach their table. He appeared to be in his forties, handsome and fit, dressed like an upper middle-class businessman who was used to getting what he wanted, and the look in his eye made it very clear that today, Narcissa was it.

Grimacing, Hermione braced herself for the inevitable onslaught of cheesy pickup lines and smarmy grins, the polite refusals that would turn more insistent when he just wouldn’t get the idea. She might not have been as enticing as the leggy blonde before her but she was hardly inexperienced in being approached by blundering creeps when she was out on her own.

She tried to alert Narcissa to his approach so she wouldn’t be caught completely unaware, however, it turned out to be entirely unnecessary. When Narcissa saw him out of the corner of her eye, she turned towards him and looked him up and down slowly with an expression of such frozen, disdainful apathy that he stopped dead in his tracks, looking as terrified of her as a naughty child might be of their school matron. He abruptly turned towards the counter as if he had only approached to look at the danish selection in the window. After a few obligatory moments of pretending that nothing in the bakery case had caught his eye, he retreated awkwardly back to his own seat looking humbled and flushed.

The warmth returned to Narcissa’s face the moment she turned back to the table, and Hermione couldn’t help but laugh. She thought that if only she could master such a look of malice, all of her problems might be solved.

When they had finished their coffee, Hermione suggested that they take a walk in the park across the street, and Narcissa agreed. She seemed to feel more at ease now that she had managed to live through the coffee house without making any terrible faux-pas or being harassed by a band of angry Muggles. She walked on the path in the park as comfortably as she might in her own gardens, her light step slightly slowed by the necessity of winding through other Londoners taking advantage of the spring-like morning.

Hermione smiled at how Narcissa’s platinum hair shimmered in the sunlight and how her cheeks flushed pink in the open air. It felt almost dream-like, walking with Narcissa on the sunny path, smiling pleasantly at passers-by. Truth be told, it almost felt like a real date. It was something so normal and simple and easy—at least in comparison to the complex web of secrets that their life often proved to be inside the Manor walls.

She knew it was silly to think of it as a date. A date would be strings. They were friends, albeit friends with benefits, and friends could spend the day together quite innocently, couldn’t they?

Narcissa paused at the side of a bridge, overlooking a tiny creek. She leaned over the side to watch the ducks that were swimming there.

As Hermione did the same, a gust of wind blew, pushing her hair back, and blowing a few curls falling across her face.

As if out of instinct, Narcissa reached out and tucked the errant strands of hair behind Hermione’s ear again, with a soft fond smile, before returning her eyes to the water below.

And Merlin help her, that did feel an awful lot like a string.

Chapter Text

With a soft pop, Hermione appeared back in her flat. It was a week after her excursion to Muggle London with Narcissa, and although it had once again cooled back to more seasonable temperatures, there was still the faintest trace of spring in the air that couldn’t be dampened by the chill.

She had only returned for a short while, just to change her clothes and get ready for the day. After that awkward breakfast with Draco, Hermione had made sure to wait in her own home for as long as was necessary to make sure the encounter would not be repeated.

It was much better to limit her run-ins to the short visits Draco made into the library at the end of his work day when he was still full of bravado and bluster. It wasn’t her favorite side of him, but it was still preferable to the cranky indignation he’d displayed over the breakfast table.

Checking the time, Hermione made herself a piece of toast and cut up some fruit before settling herself on her sofa to pick through the pages of the Prophet.

With her experience, it was a wonder she could even read the title without growing queasy, especially during a meal, but she always reminded herself that knowledge was power, and it was good to remain updated on current events, even if it was through the Prophet’s distorted lens.

As she turned a page, a loud clatter came from the other side of the room. Hermione lifted her head from her book with a start, and craned her neck towards the source of the commotion. Across the flat, a large beleaguered looking owl was scratching at the window with a large cream-colored envelope attached to its leg.

Hermione opened the window and let it hop onto the kitchen counter.

“Is that for me?” she asked with surprise. The only people who wrote to her those days were Harry, Ron, or Ginny; the boys were only good for a few lines at best to set a time to meet at the pub, and this envelope looked like too much even for one of Ginny’s updates from Ireland. Besides, this owl didn’t belong to any of them.

When she continued to hesitate, pondering the mystery, the owl grew impatient. It looked at her as if she was an idiot and pushed its leg out farther as if hoping she might finally get the idea.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

Hastily, Hermione untied the envelope and thanked the tired-looking creature with a treat and a small bowl of water, which it accepted gratefully.

The heavy envelope was sealed with a stamp of green wax, and when she turned it over, she saw a familiar name, one she expected never to hear again. On top of an Irish return address, the scrawl read “Liam Byrne”, the name of Ginny’s boyfriend that they had met during her Quidditch practice a couple of weeks earlier.

“No wonder you’re tired,” Hermione said to the owl before giving in to her curiosity and opening the letter. She wondered what Liam could possibly have to write her about, especially given that the letter was so long, multiple pages in fact.

Dear Hermione,

Or perhaps I ought to be addressing this to Jean Wilkins since it’s her writing I wish to compliment.

I managed to dig up some archived editions of that magazine of yours, The Quibbler. You weren’t joking when you said it was obscure. A good number of people had never heard of it, and the others looked at me like I was barking mad for trying to find it. Nonetheless, I did manage to find quite a few with your work in it, and I won’t lie to you, I was very impressed.

Regardless of what those pompous twits at the Daily Prophet might think, I feel that you have marvelous insight into the problems your government is perpetuating. Although, I am Irish, so I’ll admit to a bit of Anti-English bias that might be influencing me there.

On the rest of the first page, he went on to cite a few articles in particular, pointing out lines that he enjoyed. Hermione was flattered by the praise of her writing, rare that it was, but she was still amazed that he had bothered to write at all. As far as Hermione knew, he was still dating Ginny, so this elaborate show of compliments wasn’t a come-on—at least she hoped it wasn’t; if he was hitting on her, he would be severely disappointed by her response.

She turned over the parchment and read on.

I’m sure by now you’re wondering what all this is about and likely hoping that I get to the point. Well, after reading your work, I took the liberty of sending a copy to my boss and telling her about your predicament. I hope that I wasn’t out of line in doing so, but I was confident that she would enjoy your style as much as I did.

And as it turns out, I was right. We’re always looking for new talent at The Courier, and unlike in England, we value someone who is willing to write the unpleasant truth, especially with as much flair as you manage.

When I told her that you weren’t aware of my passing on of your portfolio, however, she asked me to write to you first to gauge interest, but if you would like to restart your journalistic career, I believe that the job is frankly, as good as yours.

Attached you’ll find a letter from her with a bit of information about the position and what you could expect, as well as instructions if you are interested in taking her up on the offer.

Hopefully your future co-worker,

Liam Byrne

Hermione was stunned practically into a trance, and when she inspected the remaining piece of parchment, it contained exactly what Liam had said: a similarly complimentary letter from the editor of The Courier, albeit less effusive in tone, and a more details job offer, extended on the condition that they first meet in person to discuss details and ensure that it was a good fit for both of them. The woman was even in England for a short period of time and available to meet that very afternoon.

Hermione read the letter what might have been a hundred times. She was convinced that she must have misread the entire thing, or misunderstood some crucial part. But after a final careful reading of those crucial paragraphs, she had no choice but to admit that she had indeed read it correctly, and Liam Byrne, or rather his editor, was offering her a job.

A few months ago, such a letter would have felt like a godsend. It would have solved her problems in the ideal way—the freedom and satisfaction of the Quibbler paired with the salary of The Prophet. Perhaps then, it would have even felt like a relief to think of going away to a new country, someplace where she was a tad less famous and wouldn’t have the expectations of an entire society weighing heavily upon her shoulders. 

Ireland wasn’t exactly far , but international apparition was incredibly draining, not to mention regulated by the Ministry. While Hermione could do some of the writing from London, she’d have to be in Ireland, available to cover events on the ground for most of the week and going back and forth that often wouldn’t be feasible; the only sensible thing was to move. 

It was an adventure that might have seemed exciting in the past. Now, however, Hermione barely smiled at the thought. Instead, a cold, heavy sensation began to settle in her stomach, as if she had just swallowed solid ice. Unlike months ago, Hermione felt like there was a good deal that she’d be leaving behind—her project with the Patronus, her research into her scar, futile though that often felt, and of course Narcissa.

But even in that moment while counting off her losses, Hermione wasn’t sure that there was enough to tether her to life at the Manor, no matter how hard she tried to grab on, not when there was something far more concrete throwing its strings around her.

It was Hermione’s first instinct to flee back to Wiltshire, to tell Narcissa the news and see what she would say. She didn’t fight it. She threw the remains of her breakfast into the bin and popped back to those intimidating steps within minutes.

She was only glad that she didn’t run into Draco on the way back to Narcissa’s bedroom, who knows what she would have said to him to excuse her behavior in that precarious state.

Without so much as knocking, Hermione barged inside. Narcissa was sitting at her vanity, fully dressed, and brushing her platinum hair smooth.

When she saw Hermione walk in, Narcissa turned and smirked. She looked like she was about to say something flirtatious— Back so soon? —Hermione could almost hear the words in the air, could almost see the playful twist of the lips that would accompany them. But before Narcissa could utter whatever was on her mind, she seemed to notice the pained look on Hermione’s face, and she grew serious.

“Hermione, what’s wrong?” she asked.

Hermione took a heavy breath. There was nothing to do but get on with it, but she found that it was difficult to say the words. “I received an owl this morning, at my flat,” she began. “I’ve been offered a job at The Courier—Ireland’s Wizarding newspaper. I met someone, a reporter, while I was over there. I didn’t apply, but he sought out my work and well… They say the job is as good as mine as long as a talk with the editor goes well.” Hermione fought the urge to ramble on as she often did when she was uncomfortable.

“I see,” Narcissa said and fell silent.

For a moment, Hermione thought she saw something dark flicker in Narcissa’s eyes, but then it was gone, and the woman’s lips formed into a smile.

“That’s wonderful news, Hermione,” she said. “I always knew you’d be able to get yourself back on your feet. Truly, I’m so happy for you.”

Hermione stared silently at the enigmatic blue eyes before her, searching for something, anything that might be asking her to stay.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to take it,” Hermione said quietly.

Narcissa stared blankly for a moment before rising from her chair and stepping forward to meet Hermione. “Of course you should take it. It’s a marvelous opportunity for you, for your future career. You don’t want to throw that away; you’d regret it forever.”

“But what about our project?” Hermione asked in a small voice.

“I think our project is a wonderful cause,” Narcissa said and paused, her eyes growing dark once more, “but we have no idea where it may lead, if anywhere at all. Besides, you no longer need the library much for either your scar or for the potion. All that’s left is practice, and that can be done in your spare time… It can be done without sacrificing your future by staying here. You would of course still have access to the library any time you require it, and we can always send an owl if you’d like my input on anything while you’re away.”

Hermione stared back in silence. Narcissa’s voice had grown very professional, not quite cold, but brisk and crisp in a way that made Hermione feel like the woman was drifting away from her, just out of reach. “But what about you ?” she suddenly asked, forcing the conversation back to all the messy emotions that Narcissa had tried so hard to dance around.

Narcissa smiled gravely. “What about me?”

“Well, you’ll be here , and…” Hermione paused. “And it won’t be easy for me to come back to England every day. I think I could manage it on the weekends, of course, but we’d have to plan for any time we wanted to meet up, and…” she trailed off, sensing how stiff Narcissa’s posture had become.

“Hermione, we always knew that this wasn’t about forever,” Narcissa said in a slow and measured voice. “Now you have a chance for a fresh start, and you ought to take it, embrace it even, and allow yourself to look for something more suitable… something with a future.”

Hermione felt something twist inside of her. Everything was falling away and her fingers just couldn’t find a place to grab hold. She looked into Narcissa’s eyes again, but there was nothing but seas of blue staring back with firm, unwavering resolution. Hermione looked away and sighed. No strings; it was what they had agreed, and it seemed that one of them, at least, had managed to keep that promise.

There was a part of her that wanted to keep protesting regardless, but she knew it wouldn’t make any difference to drag this out. Narcissa might not be thrilled at the idea of their parting, but it looked like mere disappointment, and moreover, Narcissa seemed to accept that it was time. Hermione knew that she couldn’t sway Narcissa to feel what she didn’t feel, or to want what she didn’t want.

“I… I suppose you’re right. I’ll write to the editor and tell her that I can meet her this evening,” Hermione said at last.

Narcissa nodded approvingly. “Good,” she said. And in a surprisingly warm gesture, Narcissa tucked a curl behind Hermione’s ear, lightly stroking her cheek for a moment before retracting her hand. “Now go, write your letter. I’ll meet you in the library and we can put together whatever you’d like to take with you to continue your work on your own.”

With a nod, Hermione turned to leave but stopped before she reached the door. “Wait, what about Draco? He’ll be furious with me if I tell him I’m stopping now that I’ve finally made some progress. But even if I still work on this on the side, I won’t be able to do it properly.

Narcissa sighed and furrowed her brow in thought for a moment. “I can handle Draco, don’t worry about that,” she said. “I really should have confronted him about his little project about me the moment I found out about it. Now that it won’t put you in an awkward place, I’ll do exactly that and tell him that it all must end. That way none of it will be your fault, the work would be over regardless.” Her tone was crisp and reassuring as if they were arranging a business transaction instead of organizing the end of a love affair.

“Won’t that be an awfully big fight for the two of you?”

Narcissa swallowed hard. “I’m sure it will be, but I think it’s one we ought to have had a very long time ago. And now, I finally have a reason to have it.”

Once back in the hall, Hermione sought out the Malfoy’s owls to send her responses, feeling a bit like she was in some kind of stupor. Her letters to Liam and his editor were short and rather plain, especially for someone who called herself a writer, but she made an effort to sound as grateful as she could manage under the circumstances.

The rest of the afternoon passed equally strangely. Narcissa helped her arrange everything that she might want to take with her, organizing their notes, loaning her the most useful of their books, and thrusting pounds of parchment into her bottomless purse. Yet, all the while, the distance between them felt palpable, like an invisible wall that one or both of them had constructed over the course of that morning conversation.

All the easy intimacy that had grown between them was gone, and all that was left was two witches who didn’t seem to know how to behave around the other, or knew what they ought to say versus what was better off left alone. It felt a lot like going back in time to those first uncomfortable meetings.

By the time they were done, Hermione felt as if ice was running through her veins.

“You’re meeting her at six, I don’t want to keep you too late,” Narcissa said, returning the last of their volumes to their proper places, leaving the table that was usually so cluttered in diagrams, completely clear for the first time in months.

“You’re right. And I’d really like to change first,” Hermione said.

The silence was heavy, uncomfortably pressing upon them until Narcissa cleared her throat.

“Then you better get going. I’ll speak to Draco as soon as he gets home. You can return here tonight if you like and tell him that you’ll be quitting, It should be sorted by then.”

“And then?” Hermione asked, the question sounding silly even to her own ears.

She felt like Narcissa was holding her body unnaturally still as she said, “And then you will go and live your life, all right?” She smiled kindly. “And of course, I expect a full account of how things are going in Ireland. And if you’re ever back in England, you’re always welcome to stop by the Manor. And I meant what I said about you having use of the library, for this project or any other, mind you.”

Narcissa’s kindness stung her far deeper than anything else. It was such a tidy end, neat and easy… all except for the burning itch behind Hermione’s eyes.

Knowing that she couldn’t dare think too much about the situation without losing her composure, she turned and stepped towards the door, but a soft touch on her wrist caused her to pause.

“Goodbye Hermione,” Narcissa said, placing a brief kiss on her cheek.

“Goodbye,” Hermione whispered back, and walked out of the library, hearing the door close behind her.

Walking into the foyer, and out of the house, Hermione felt sure that was the last time she’d see Narcissa before her true departure. She would come back to see Draco that evening, but she had a feeling that Narcissa would be absent from all public areas, and she wouldn’t have the nerve to knock on the woman’s door, not that night, likely not any night again.

Emotions welled up in Hermione’s body but she took a page from Narcissa’s book and pushed them down, willing her face into an unnatural state of calm.

 


 

Alone in the house once more, Narcissa fled to her bedroom and let her head fall against the door with a sigh that nearly turned into a sob.

The afternoon had been torturous, enough to try even her famed composure. It was one thing for a love affair to end, but to sit there all afternoon planning the logistics of Hermione leaving, planning the time table of how she would walk out of her life into something better, something with a future, planning the very moment of how her own heart would break. It was too much.

Narcissa had meant what she said, she was happy for Hermione. She had always believed that this directionless moment was a fluke in the woman’s life. Someone as brilliant and capable as Hermione Granger was always going to find her path eventually. And Narcissa knew, as she had always known, that it wasn’t going to be with her. She was just an interlude between main events, a footnote, and it was a wonder that she had even been allowed to be that.

Still, for the briefest of moments during that fateful conversation in the very room in which she stood, Narcissa had imagined that she might find a way to make it work, despite the job, despite the distance. Had it been a real relationship, it might not have been an issue at all. It was only Ireland, after all, and they were witches. Portkeys could be arranged for weekend visits, apparition spaced out for longer trips so as not to be too magically draining. For goodness' sake, even boats or trains would have done well enough.

It could have been feasible for something real, but to go through all of that for a casual lay seemed preposterous. And the last thing she wanted was to be the reason that Hermione didn’t move on with her life. She deserved everything, including a partner who could be what she needed and give her the life she deserved, not drag her into the gossip column and ruin her standing as surely as was possible.

Narcissa wasn’t a woman who cried often. She certainly wasn’t a woman who cried in front of others, except in the most desperate of circumstances. Even in the privacy of her own room, she held her emotions in with an iron will. It wasn’t the time to lose her grip. After all, she had an important conversation to plan, one she should have had weeks ago, one that had only been prevented, only by Hermione and a desire to keep her there. But now, there was nothing to hold her back.

By the time evening came, Narcissa was prepared. She had stewed all day, considering just how she wanted to approach this situation, feeling her emotions rise every time she went over it all again.

For so long, her anger towards Draco had faded into the background, dwarfed by her focus on Hermione, their relationship and their work. Without that distraction, it was all too easy to remember the resentment she had felt when she had first learned that Draco was commissioning people to research her mental state behind her back, to try to fix her by making her into what he wanted her to be, without any consideration for her own desires.

Hours of that train of thought had started to drive her mad, and by the time Draco returned from work, Narcissa was properly livid.

“Hello, Mother,” he said in a casual tone as he walked into the house, passing her by without even looking at her.

“Draco,” she responded coolly.

If he heard her crisp tone, he didn’t pay it any mind.

“Draco,” she said again, intending to stop him.

He merely hummed and continued to walk on, seeming to expect her to follow him and say whatever she felt needed saying to his back.

Narcissa wasn’t in the mood for those games, not today. She reached out and grabbed her son’s upper arm with a strong grip, and he turned to her, visibly startled.

“Draco, we need to talk,” she said in a forceful voice.

He looked back at her with fear in his eyes, and for the first time in a very long time, Narcissa thought he seemed to be actually looking at her, trying to figure out what she knew or wanted to know. He looked like he wanted to run, only he could see no escape.

For once, Narcissa knew that she had the upper hand, and she intended to use it.

 


 

Dinner with the editor of The Courier went incredibly well as Hermione had expected it would. Some part of her hoped that there would be a catch, some clause or opinion the woman would express that would make it seem like less of Hermione’s theoretical dream job, but there was nothing of the kind. The woman said all the right things, complimenting her work, reiterating the same speeches Liam had made about freedom of the press and the difference between their two societies. Even the contract was faultless as far as Hermione could see—and she read it carefully at least three times.

Without even a single point to quibble over, Hermione gave her final acceptance and smiled, knowing that the happiness ought to be more genuine. After all, this was a future, the one she had been so devastated to lose when she had been fired from the Prophet, the one she had mourned years before when she’d given up her position at the Ministry. This was a job that could mean something, and yet still give her enough success that she could feel proud beside her successful friends. It was the ideal scenario, and yet that knowledge stopped somewhere shallow within her, leaving her heart utterly cold at the thought.

Once dinner had concluded, Hermione headed back to Malfoy Manor. She wondered how the conversation had gone between Draco and Narcissa. Hermione hoped that this one unraveled secret might be good for them in the long run, but she was sure that it hadn’t been pleasant. She felt a bit guilty even if very little of it was actually her fault.

Unsurprisingly, within minutes of reentering the Manor, Hermione was greeted by a nervous Todry, telling her that Master Draco wanted to see her in the parlor for an important conversation. She swallowed hard and tried to look like she didn’t know what was coming.

When she entered the room, Draco was sitting alone, staring into the fire with a glass of whisky in his hand. Although Hermione normally considered Draco to be the perfect replica of his father, she was struck by how much he looked like his mother in that moment with his thoughtful, gloomy countenance, and that pained resignation looming in his eyes.

Hermione cleared her throat, and he turned. He opened his mouth and started to get up but she held up her hand.

“Before you say anything, Draco, I have something that I need to tell you,” she said before he could jump in. “I’ve been offered a job at The Courier, the paper in Ireland, and I plan on taking it, meaning that I’ll no longer be able to continue working for you.”

Draco looked genuinely shocked, and he took a swig of his whisky. “Oh,” he said, his surprise turning to relief as her words settled in. “That’s wonderful, Granger. Actually, that makes everything I’m about to say much easier.”

Hermione tilted her head to the side, feigning an innocent curiosity.

He sighed and pointed to the chair beside his own. “Sit, have a drink,” he said, pushing the bottle towards her with a glum nod.

Normally, Hermione would have refused the whisky, she hardly drank these days and certainly not anything that strong, but if there was any time that she needed a real drink, it was then.

Once she had summoned a glass and filled it, Draco seemed satisfied and finally began to speak.

“Unfortunately, my news isn’t nearly as happy as your own. My mother has found out about what you were really working on,” he confessed.

Hermione’s eyes widened in shock that she hoped looked convincing. Luckily, as she wasn’t much of an actress, Draco was too lost in his own mind to be paying close attention to her reactions.

“I think she suspected something similar for a long time, or at least she says so now. She said she knew what books you were taking out, but she didn’t know for sure until she managed to get her hands on some notes of yours that you left behind,” he said and took another drink.

“I don’t blame you for it,” he continued. “No one’s perfect with that sort of thing, not even you, Granger, and my mother does have a way of finding any slip-ups.”

Hermione didn’t know what to say to any of this so she continued to watch Draco speak with a look of consternation.

“It’s my fault, I know that. I shouldn’t have put you in that position,” he said. “And now… well, she was furious. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her so mad. She was going on and on about ‘how dare I meddle in her life without her permission, bringing a stranger into it behind her back, in her own house no less,’” he said, waving his hand in the air as if the speech had gone on for a while.

Hermione was sure that it had. Narcissa had been saving up these feelings for how many weeks, months, years even as Draco pushed her into a corner in his life.

“I distinctly remember the phrase ‘You don’t have enough that you hide about your own life, you have to start hiding things about mine as well?’ She looked at me like she used to look at Father, I… Maybe she’s been looking at me like that for a long time, and I just never noticed before…” Draco trailed off and finished his drink, immediately pouring himself another.

“Draco, I’m sorry,” Hermione said feebly, having nothing better to say.

“It’s not your fault,” Draco said shortly. “But it does go without saying that your work here with me is done. And I’m glad you have someplace else to go. I’d feel terribly guilty if losing this job would leave you in a rough position. Really, it’s a wonderful coincidence that this all came on the same day.”

Hermione nodded and tried not to look too knowledgeable, or guilty.

“You never did find anything about your arm, did you?” Draco suddenly asked.

“No, no I didn’t, nothing conclusive anyway,” Hermione said, pulling at her sleeve in a way that she hadn’t done in weeks. “I’ve gotten rather good with magical composition and diagnostic spells, however. At this point, Narcissa,” the name seemed to stick in her mouth, “ your mother thinks that perfecting those skills is my best hope at figuring it out, and I agree.”

Draco furrowed his brow at the mention of his mother but quickly shook away whatever thought was pestering him.

“I suppose that’s that then,” Hermione said, and got up to leave, downing her own drink in a single swig that burned her throat.

“Thank you for helping me with another one of my brainless schemes,” Draco said with a gloomy sort of half-smile.

“No, thank you for giving me a job when I needed it and all,” Hermione said, feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing. 

Draco nodded curtly, turning back to the fire, and Hermione took her leave. 

Just as she had predicted, the house was completely dark and silent. Although she knew it was stupid of her, a morbid part of her wanted to take a tour of the manor, take one last look at the remnants of the past months: the stack of journals left out by the library armchair, the potion books spread out on the table, the chess set in the sitting room that was expecting her arrival tomorrow afternoon, the hidden garden that would be just starting to fade now that spring was beginning to set in. She wondered how long it would be before all these things would be completely gone, before Narcissa would turn the library right and the garden would fall into a brown, barren space while the rest of the estate bloomed around it. It would be almost as if none of it had happened, as if she had never been there at all. 

But she knew that she was being overly dramatic. It wasn’t anything like that at all, she told herself. She was just leaving a situation she knew to be temporary for one that she had always felt would be permanent.

It was just jarring.

It was just tiring.

And unless she was going to sit there analyzing her feelings for the rest of the night, there was nothing more for her to do. She considered knocking on Narcissa’s door just to inform her that she was leaving, but that seemed like an even stupider idea than taking some farewell tour of the mansion’s austere hallways. They had said their goodbyes that afternoon; there was nothing else to say. And at least the way they’d left things earlier, Hermione could feel like she was leaving with a little bit of dignity. That way if they ever did meet again, if they ever wanted to talk, she could look Narcissa in the eye. If she went back in there now, who knows what she’d end up saying. 

With a heavy sigh, she headed out of the front doorway and apparated home to sleep in her own bed for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Text

The sun was just beginning to fade into the dusky purple of twilight when Narcissa entered the sitting room. She had taken to waking exceptionally early these past few days and so although the night was still young, she was already feeling tired. Still, she resisted turning in just yet, and instead sat down and cracked the window open slightly to feel the evening air on her face.

The weather had cooled since the first rush of spring that had sent her and Hermione out into Muggle London, feeling practically drunk on the warmth of the sun. It was still spring, but seasonal storms had settled in, complete with a wet chill and soaking rains to coax the new buds into being.

That trip was two weeks ago as of that morning; one week since Hermione had left the Manor for good. It was only seven days, such an inconsequential amount of time in the grand scheme of things, and yet, Narcissa couldn’t help but feel as if it had been so much longer. Each day had seemed to stretch out behind her like an eternity.

She knew she was being melodramatic and a little pathetic. After all, she had spent countless days alone in this house since the war. Even before, when Draco was at school and her marriage was rocky, a good deal of her days had been spent on her own, and it had never bothered her much. She had certainly never struggled to fill her time or occupy her mind, but now, her afternoons of solitude had begun to feel incredibly barren.

Whether she was attempting to work, or even read, every activity seemed to be painted with traces of Hermione. Alone, it all seemed to have grown pale and pointless, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Hermione was feeling the same, merely drifting through the days… the thought left an ache in her chest.

Although, Narcissa was reminded that unlike her, Hermione was quite busy with her preparations for her move and all the excitement that she was likely starting to feel; it was a happiness that Narcissa had no desire or right to disrupt. She was likely the last thing on Hermione’s mind—and although she was sure that was how it should be, the thought pained her even more.

Narcissa tried to stop these maudlin fantasies as soon as they arose, but it was often easier said than done when even opening a book and smelling the musty scent of aging parchment could conjure up Hermione’s face and the way she looked when hunched over open pages, scribbling notes like a madwoman.

The only silver lining to the past week was that she had managed to see Andromeda twice. They were beginning to fall back into that easy sisterly pattern that she had missed so much over the years. Andy had even managed to drag her out to Diagon Alley, where Narcissa had hardly set foot since her release. She did get a few stares walking into the restaurant, but honestly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been years ago. In fact, they would be returning to the same place the following afternoon for lunch, and she was even able to think of it without feeling too much dread.

After a moment, Narcissa closed the window, bolting out the cold for the night. She picked up the book she had finished and headed towards the library in hope of something dull enough to lull her to sleep.

She took a steadying breath before walking into the room, steeling herself against the inevitable flood of memories.

It all felt so strangely quiet in there now that it was only her in the room and there was no bustle of research and experimental spells and quills scratching out ideas. Most of their work had been cleared away, but next to the armchair, the pile of Bellatrix’s journals still stood, untouched and growing a fine layer of dust.

There was no point in leaving them out any longer. It’s not like they had ended up doing anyone any good anyway. She gathered them into her arms and headed towards that godforsaken bookcase once again. Really, she needed to find a better place to keep these sorts of things, but there wasn’t anywhere that was more secure than this hollow.

Slashing a small cut on her index finger, Narcissa pressed her hand into the book and waited impatiently for the door to swing open. Once inside, in a petulant moment of frustration, she tossed the journals onto the shelf without much care and was immediately punished by one of them falling to the floor and skidding across to the other end of the safe.

It took every ounce of self-control she had not to leave it there out of spite, but maturely, she went to fetch it, kneeling to the ground only to find not only that journal half hidden beneath a bookcase, but another one, wedged firmly to the ground beside it.

Narcissa’s heart began to pound against her ribs.

It must have fallen and gotten stuck there years ago. She had initially filled these shelves in such a rush. At the time, she had been newly-released from Azkaban, recently a widow, and responsible for parsing through not only all of Lucius' possessions but Bellatrix’s as well. It had been good for her to throw herself into the project at the time, but it hadn’t been pleasant, and often, she felt entirely overwhelmed. She never would have noticed a book sliding out of place and getting kicked aside to make room for something else.

Carefully, Narcissa pried the book out from under the shelf where it was jammed and cast a quick charm to clean the dirt off as best she could.

With a glance at the first page and the date in the top right corner, she could see that it was the last diary in the set. She wished that she could sit down and read it cover to cover right then, but the damn thing was, of course, in Bella’s bloody code, and Narcissa’s eyes were already threatening to close from the strain of one page. Who would have thought that she ought to have been studying this fake language for the past twenty years in order to keep it fresh?

She tucked the diary under her arm and left the safe. It was far too late for this, but someone was going to have to read it, just on the chance that it might be exactly what they’d been looking for all those months.

 


 

The next morning, Hermione put her copy of Hogwarts A History on the pile of books she was not taking with her to Ireland and released a heavy sigh. Something sentimental in her liked to always have a copy on her shelves, but it wasn’t as if she read it on any regular basis these days, and it was only going into storage for a few weeks at most. Still, deciding between her hundreds of books had so far been an almost impossible feat and easily the worst part of packing.

The only solace was that magical moving was so much easier than Muggle moving. All she really had to do was separate the things she was taking and call the moving company to charm the rest into storage somewhere that she could call on in a few weeks when she was settled.

Hermione felt a strange sense of déjà vu as she sorted her things into piles of what she could and could not live without. She had been making the same choices months ago after she had been fired and planning to move onto Harry and Ron’s couch. The only difference was that unlike then, Draco wasn’t about to storm in and tell her to stop what she was doing. No one was.

On the contrary, Ginny had come to England for a long weekend to visit her parents and had stopped by to help, and if there was anyone who was supportive of Hermione’s new job, it was Ginny. Her friend was so excited for her that she had even agreed that Hermione could stay in the spare room of her flat until she found her own place.

It was a wonderful offer, one that Hermione appreciated immensely, but it did mean that for a short while, she would only have space for the bare essentials. So far that included her clothes, a few personal items, a handful of books she couldn’t bear to part with, and the contents of her research that she had taken from the Manor.

She had pushed all of her research material to the bottom of her bag days ago. One look at her own scrawl next to Narcissa’s elegant handwriting had brought back too many memories that she felt sure she couldn’t handle, not when she had so much to do and had Ginny staring at her, asking if she was all right.

Not that hiding her notes had done all that much good. Every time Hermione let her mind wander, it would go back to the same place—Narcissa in her garden, Narcissa smirking deviously during a game of chess, the feel of her fingers brushing a curl behind Hermione’s ear. It was so habitual; she had thought of so little besides Narcissa for months, that her brain didn’t seem to know how to stop now that it had become painful.

Earlier when she had been folding her clothes with mindless charms, her mind had flashed through images of a black negligee slipping off of pale breasts, of blonde hair being swept over a shoulder, of a barely audible whimper coming from soft coral-colored lips.

When Hermione realized what she was thinking, she had gasped so loudly that she had had to make up an excuse about being stuck by a pin so that Ginny wouldn’t grow too concerned. As it was, Hermione had been so obviously upset over the past couple days that Ginny was clearly worried about what was wrong with her friend.

Hermione wanted to stop it and put on a happy face. But all she could think about was how much she missed Narcissa. And it wasn’t just the sex. Maybe it was the sex least of all. Honestly, she just missed being around her. She wondered if she could write to her sometime soon, just so that they could talk again. She thought that one day, she’d do it, only she wished it didn’t seem so hard to go back to being just friends after they’d been friends with benefits for so long… after knowing she’d wanted to be even more than that.

“Well, I think that’s the last of the clothes,” Ginny said, standing up, and zipping Hermione’s duffle bag closed.

“And I think that’s it for the books too,” Hermione said, similarly stretching and feeling her back snap back into place.

“You’re going to take all of those with you?” Ginny asked, but at the shocked look on Hermione’s face, she laughed. “I know, I know. I shouldn’t be surprised. You probably wanted to take double that amount.”

“I hate leaving any of them, honestly,” Hermione said and collapsed onto her couch.

Ginny joined her and put a comforting hand on Hermione’s knee.

“You still look so glum,” Ginny said with a note of concern in her voice. “It’s going to be fine, I promise. Better than fine even.”

“I know,” Hermione said. “I guess the move is just a little intimidating…”

“I understand that, but really there’s nothing to be worried about. It’s not like you’ll be alone, and the job isn’t anything you won’t be able to handle,” Ginny said with an encouraging smile.

Hermione nodded. She was a bit nervous about her job. It was daunting to think of going back to writing; she felt so out of practice. Besides, over the course of the winter, she had gotten used to a life of research that had reminded her of school and the years of the past that she felt so nostalgic about. Although working for the Courier was likely going to be more satisfying than anything she’d done for the Prophet, she wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be disappointing nonetheless in comparison to the academic rigor she had briefly been allowed to return to. Why did all of this have to feel so complicated?

Before Ginny could continue with her reassurances, there was a knock at the door.

“Are you expecting someone?” Ginny asked.

Hermione shook her head.

Ginny shrugged and strode towards the door. “It’s probably your batty neighbor looking for her cat again. Honestly, you’d think she’d learn how to keep an eye on it.” She turned the lock, cracking the door open to see into the hall.

But when Hermione expected to hear Ginny telling Mrs. Mackenzie that they had once again not seen Mittens all afternoon, she was surprised to hear her friend gasp.

“Mrs. Malfoy?” Ginny exclaimed.

Hermione froze, and her heart began pounding in her ears. She briefly wondered whether she had fallen into one of her inadvisable fantasies.

“Miss… Weasley, I presume?” came Narcissa’s familiar voice, a touch of confusion in her tone. “Is Hermione in?”

“Umm yeah, yeah she is,” Ginny said apprehensively.

Hermione had rushed to her feet just in time for Ginny to pull the door open all the way and reveal Narcissa standing in the hall. Her composure seemed a bit thrown by Ginny’s unexpected presence, but most people probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“Narcissa,” Hermione said quietly. Seeing her in this tiny one bedroom flat seemed almost absurd somehow as if the walls grew shabbier in comparison to the woman’s elegant form. “Is everything all right?” she asked immediately. She couldn’t imagine why she would be here if it wasn’t for some unavoidable emergency.

“Oh, yes, it’s nothing like that,” Narcissa said as she strode into the apartment.

Ginny had retreated to the far end of the room in some attempt to give them privacy. However, her curiosity seemed to keep her from actually moving out of earshot.

Narcissa put her bag onto Hermione’s kitchen table and took off her gloves. “I was putting things away into the safe last night when I found something, something I thought you ought to see,” she said as she pulled a black leather-bound book from her bag and placed it in Hermione’s hands.

“Another journal?” Hermione said, astounded. Without hesitating, she opened the pages, and was greeted with the familiar scrawl of jumbled characters upon the fading pages, all entries she had never seen before.

Narcissa nodded. “You were right to think there was another. It was tucked beneath a bookcase in the safe, completely out of sight. It’s no surprise that we both missed it. I only found it by accident when I was putting the others away. I was going to read it myself, but it has been so long since I could read the cipher with ease, and I assumed you’d make short work of it after all your practice.”

The look on the woman’s face was so tender and caring that Hermione might have rushed forward and kissed her in gratitude if Ginny hadn’t been watching the interaction with an intense and curious stare. Hermione cleared her throat. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “Thank you so much, Narcissa. I really appreciate you bringing this to me.”

“There’s no guarantee that it will be any more helpful than the others, of course,” Narcissa warned. “But I thought if there was any hope, you ought to see it.”

“It’s worth a shot, certainly worth the few hours it’ll take me to read this.”

“I quite agree. Keep it as long as you need to of course, but please let me know if you find anything useful in it,” Narcissa said.

“Of course I will. You’d be the first person that I’d tell,” Hermione said earnestly.

Narcissa had seemed so guarded since she walked into the apartment, cold and professional, every movement carefully planned and executed. But at that moment, there was a dark flicker of what looked so much like pain crossing through Narcissa’s eyes. It startled Hermione to see it.

But before Hermione could indulge the thought for too long, Narcissa glanced at Ginny and threw her gloves back into her bag. “I’m sorry to leave so quickly, but I’m supposed to be meeting Andromeda and Teddy any minute now.”

“That’s wonderful,” Hermione said, and she meant it. She was so pleased that Narcissa had been able to reconcile with her family. “I hope you all have a good afternoon together.”

“Thank you,” Narcissa said, and as if she just couldn’t control the motion, she reached out and touched Hermione’s hand gently. “Good luck with the journal, and if I don’t see you again before you leave, good luck again at your new job. I know I already said that but…” she trailed off and gave a crisp smile, pulling herself back together.

“Thank you again, Narcissa, for everything,” Hermione said, suddenly unsure if she ought to say more, Ginny’s presence be damned. That look was just so…

“Of course.” Narcissa checked her watch. “Well, I’m afraid I must be off. Goodbye, Hermione.” She strode towards the door from whence she came with a cool “Miss Weasley” to Ginny on the way out. 

“Well, that was unexpected,” Ginny said, finally moving from the edge of the room where she had been watching.

Hermione nodded and gently slid her fingers over the cover of the diary, emotions churning inside of her that made her want to collapse on the couch and refuse to rise.

“That was nice of her to bring that over for you. Maybe you’re right and she’s not all bad after all,” Ginny said with a shrug. “And who knows, maybe this one will have some useful information, and you can start fresh in yet another way.”

Hermione nodded as she let her fingers continue running over the embossed outline of the name Bellatrix Black on the cover. 

As excited as she was to have her hands on this final clue, her mind kept returning to that look in Narcissa’s eyes, fleeting and sharp. With that look of pain so firmly in her memory, Hermione couldn’t help but wonder if she had been wrong about Narcissa’s feelings, or lack thereof, if perhaps she was actually just as sad to see Hermione go as Hermione was to leave, and all this time, Hermione had just been too much of a fool to see it.

 


 

Narcissa was still in a daze when she walked into Diagon Alley towards the café where she was meeting her sister. She had known that seeing Hermione again would be difficult, but she hadn’t expected it to affect her quite so much. She should have just read the diary herself instead of using it as an excuse to see Hermione one last time. Why did she love to torture herself like that?

When she turned the corner, she saw Andromeda and Teddy already seated at a table outside. Andromeda waved when she saw her and pointed her out to her grandson. Teddy immediately rose from his seat and rushed down the street, his hair turning a violent platinum blonde to match her own.

“Aunt Cissa!” he exclaimed excitedly the moment he was close, and she scooped him up into her arms.

“Hello darling. Happy to see me?” she asked, running a hand through his tuft of bright blonde hair.

He nodded enthusiastically.

“And who might this be?” she asked, gently touching the paw of a small black bear the boy was clutching tightly in his fist.

“His name is Licorice,” Teddy said, continuing to babble aimlessly about his new toy and everywhere he had taken him. There was barely a pause in the story long enough for Narcissa to greet her sister as she took a seat and let the boy settle in her lap.

“He’s really taken with you,” Andy said with a loving smile in her eyes. “He’s never this comfortable with people after so few meetings.”

“Well, I’m quite taken with him myself,” Narcissa said as she smiled fondly at her great-nephew.

She had always been good with children, better than she was with adults it would seem. With a tense sigh, she pushed the thought aside. If there was ever a good distraction from her thoughts, it was this rambling child sitting on her knee. Between him and Andromeda, she mostly managed to keep her attention on the present and the beautiful day that was taking shape around them.

After the three of them were done eating and were chatting peacefully, Narcissa heard an unfamiliar voice behind her. “Hello Andy, sorry to interrupt.”

“George!” Teddy exclaimed, looking extremely pleased to see the red-headed young man who had appeared at their table.

“Hello, Teddy!” the man said, laughing as Teddy’s hair took on a number of bright red streaks to compliment the platinum base.

“Do you know my Aunt Cissa?” the boy asked, eagerly tugging on Narcissa’s sleeve.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Narcissa said, extending a hand to the young man who was looking at her hesitantly.

“We have not. But I’m sure it’s a pleasure, Mrs. Malfoy,” George said, clearly trying very hard to be polite.

“The pleasure is all mine. But please, call me Narcissa,” she insisted and the man nodded, looking a little more at ease to see that she too was at least trying to be nice.

“Well, I am sorry to interrupt you ladies but we have a new product in the store, a toy, and I’m on a desperate search for a willing little boy who might want to test it for me, do you know of anyone like that?” George asked in mock seriousness.

“Oh me, me! Can I do it?” Teddy asked eagerly.

“Well, I suppose you’ll do,” George said, playfully ruffling the boy’s hair. “You don’t mind, do you, Andy?”

“No, I don’t. Just be careful, ok?” Andy said with a small smile.

“When am I not careful?” George said and paused to wink in Andromeda’s direction. It was a short pause, but long enough that Teddy had turned eagerly away. “Wait up there, Teddy!” he called, running after the boy who was already toddling his way towards the joke shop where his present awaited him.

Andromeda was blushing slightly and looking at the table, at her coffee, anywhere but at the knowing glance of her sister.

Narcissa kicked at Andromeda’s leg under the table, making her jump in surprise.

“Did he just wink at you?” Narcissa asked in a teasing tone.

“Did he? I didn’t notice,” Andromeda said, fiddling with her silverware.

“Andy, stop it. Blush any harder and your face is going to blend into your dress,” Narcissa said with a laugh, watching as Andromeda rolled her eyes and attempted to calm her flaming cheeks. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, he’s very cute.”

“Oh stop it,” Andromeda said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m hardly going to start dating Molly’s son now am I? Even if he has been rather persistent… I’m not sure that he’s even serious, and I know I’m not, but it is good to feel wanted,” Andromeda said with a sigh. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to feel attractive.”

Narcissa hummed in understanding and sipped her tea as Andromeda calmed herself. Her sister had always been the hopeless romantic of the family, and it seemed that even with age, that streak had never quite faded.

Andy cleared her throat and looked at Narcissa with clearer eyes. “What about you, Cissa? Anyone special in your life?”

Narcissa immediately felt her entire body tense and she looked down at the table in front of her. “No, there’s nothing like that,” she said. It was true of course, there wasn’t anything like that at all, not anymore.

“Are you sure? You’ve seemed distracted today, a bit gloomy, I thought perhaps a lover’s spat…” Andromeda continued to push. Yet another thing that hadn’t changed; Andy was still insufferable when she wanted to know anything, the same as when she was sixteen.

Narcissa sighed. “Well, I was with someone but…”

“It’s Hermione isn’t it?” Andy cut in, causing Narcissa to stop in shock. 

“What? How… How did you know?” Narcissa asked, aghast. 

“Call it an educated guess.” Andromeda shrugged. 

Narcissa rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Yes, it was Hermione. “ Was” being the operative word here, Andromeda.”

“Hmm,” Andromeda hummed, furrowing her brows thoughtfully at her sister. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did it end? You two seemed so happy together when I was at the manor.”

Merlin, had they really been so obvious? Narcissa had been sure it had been her paranoia playing tricks on her.

“It… it wasn’t like that, Andy. The relationship was purely physical. We both knew it had to end eventually. She was offered a job out of the country recently, and so we ended things. That’s all there is to it.” Narcissa’s voice sounded calm, but she couldn’t quite make herself meet her sister’s gaze and she was stirring her tea far too aggressively.

“Oh my god,” Andromeda said suddenly. 

“What?” Narcissa asked, looking up from her teacup.

“You’re in love with her.”

“I am not in love with her,” Narcissa said, her voice rising in anxiety. 

“You are,” Andromeda insisted. 

“I… I…” Narcissa stuttered. She felt like an animal backed into a corner beneath her sister’s knowing stare. “So what if I am in love with her? It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean, Cissa, of course it matters.”

“No, it doesn’t. Because it’s over regardless. Because my feelings aren’t the problem. No matter what I do or don’t feel, Hermione doesn’t love me. She was the one who suggested that we start a relationship without strings. And besides, she seems more than content to be playing house with that Weasley girl now anyway,” she said petulantly.

Andromeda snorted. “Ginny? You think Hermione is with Ginny? Cissy, I know Ginny. And much to her mother’s dismay, the girl has a rotating list of boyfriends long enough to form their own Quidditch team. As thrilled as Molly might be for her to settle down with someone as stable as Hermione Granger, somehow I don’t think that’s her style. And I don’t think you even believe that.”

Narcissa crossed her arms over her chest tightly. She knew she was just being childish and jealous and letting it out far more than she ought to have, but she just couldn’t seem to help herself.

“Besides,” Andromeda continued. “You say that Hermione doesn’t feel the same way about you, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I saw the way that she was looking at you.”

Narcissa sighed pointedly. “Hermione was attracted to me, certainly, I know that. I have that effect on people, even now. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything more behind it.”

Andromeda cocked an eyebrow halfway up to her hairline. “She didn’t look at you like she was just attracted to you. When you spoke, it was as if you were the only person in the world to her. I like Hermione, I do, but usually she has a real arrogance to her. She’s so sure she’s right that she hardly listens to anyone else half the time, but not with you.”

Narcissa looked at her sister for a long moment, feeling a familiar sting behind her eyes that she hastily blinked away.

“Well if she is in love with me then that’s all the worse for her,” she finally said.

“What are you talking about?”

“What can I offer her in comparison to what she’s leaving for? It’s far better that she go and have the career that she deserves, a fresh start away from any of the gossip my association would bring, a chance for a relationship with a real future, someone her own age with far less baggage.”

“Cissa I—,” Andromeda began to speak but Narcissa cut her off. 

“I know I sound like a self-loathing idiot right now. But I’m really not looking to be convinced of my worth here. It’s just…” Narcissa fought to collect herself. “It’s just…”

“You miss her,” Andromeda filled in.

Narcissa looked at her sister with shocked, sad eyes, realizing just how true it was and she nodded. “I miss her,” she confessed quietly, feeling more miserable by the moment.

“Oh Cissy,” Andromeda said as she placed her hand over Narcissa’s who quickly retracted her own and began to worry at her ring.

“Don’t pity me, Andy, I deserve this; it’s all my fault.”

“What do you mean?”

“I never should have let the friendship turn physical in the first place. I knew better. We said that was all it was going to be, but I knew I liked her too much for that. Even then, I think I could have contained it if I had tried. But I let her in at every turn. I let myself get used to spending every day with her, to waking up with her in my arms. I could see it all happening… and the ending was so laughably obvious, but I let myself fall anyway. If I’ve been hurt, I only have my own foolishness to blame,” Narcissa explained and looked off into the distance, purposefully slowing her breathing, calming her nerves, which had started to reach a fever-pitch.

Andromeda stared at her for a long time before she spoke again. “Cissa, I promise I don’t want to hurt you by pressing the point. But you keep talking about the relationship as if it was doomed from the start but I just don’t think that’s true. Certainly the two of you would seem to the world to be a very odd couple, but how much does that really matter? I think there’s no reason the two of you couldn’t make it work if that’s what you both wanted.”

“I don’t know,,” Narcissa said, twisting her hands in her lap.

“Just think about it,” Andromeda said and mercifully let the topic drop.

Narcissa knew that Andromeda was trying to be helpful. She knew that Andromeda imagined she was pushing Narcissa towards fighting for her lover, making some dramatic gesture of violent devotion, something like Andy herself would have done. But Narcissa was nothing like her sister, and even the thought of showing up on Hermione’s doorstep… It made her feel exceptionally foolish.

Chapter Text

Hermione wanted nothing more than to curl up in her armchair one last time and begin to translate Bellatrix’s final diary. However, her afternoon was already booked.

Ginny was returning to Ireland that evening via Portkey, and Hermione was supposed to join everyone at The Burrow for a farewell dinner for both of them.

However, before she could even be distracted by a home-cooked meal, Hermione had an appointment at the Ministry, and it would have been silly to miss it, no matter her misgivings about the plan, or her swimming mind that badly needed to be left alone to think.

There was paperwork that needed to be filled out to document her new address out of the country. It was no surprise really that there might be a few forms to sign, although the heavy stack of parchment the Ministry witch handed to Hermione had still managed to catch her off-guard.

By the time it was finally all done, she hurried towards the exit. She had been there far longer than she had expected, and all she wanted was to get outside again. She was just about to join the queue for the fireplaces when something stopped her dead in her tracks.

“Granger, what a surprise,” she heard a familiar voice drawl from beside her. 

“Malfoy?” Hermione said, turning towards him. She thought he still seemed a bit deflated even though days had passed since their last conversation. Something of his smarmy charm had disappeared, and despite his glum eyes, it still felt like an improvement to her.

“How have you been? It’s been strange not seeing you around every day,” he said with a tight sort of smile.

Hermione shrugged. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she remembered those first mornings of confusion at waking up in her own bed with thoughts of rising early to get to the Manor in time. “I’ve been all right,” she lied. “How about you? How have things been with your mother since… well, you know?”

“Oh, well, we’re muddling through, I suppose,” Draco said with a shrug of his own.

Hermione frowned. She could imagine that “muddling through” only meant a worsened version of their awkward silences, their one-sided conversations. It was probably the same as ever, only without Draco able to kid himself that his mother was buying all his lies. Her heart ached for both of them.

“If I’m honest with you,” Draco continued, “my mother’s been in a right state since we fought. I suppose that I said some things I should have and…” he trailed off, guiltily. “She’s barely talked to me since except when she has to.”

“Draco, I’m so sorry,” Hermione said, and she meant it. He deserved this stony silence from his mother undoubtedly, but it still wouldn’t do either one of them any good if it went on too long.

Draco smiled, but it failed to reach his eyes. “We’ll get through it,” he said with a stiff nod. “She’s been seeing a lot of Aunt Andromeda lately though, did she tell you about that? Well, I suppose it’s probably very good for her, not that she’d tell me either way.”

As if realizing that he was getting into far too emotional territory for a conversation in the Ministry atrium, Draco cleared his throat and seemed to collect himself. “I have to admit, I do miss having you around the house though. I think Mother misses your company as well, not that she’d ever admit it, of course.”

Hermione managed to smile, but her stomach twisted into knots. That look of pain flashing through Narcissa’s eyes returned to her and made her anxious. It made her want to run to Narcissa’s side, but she didn’t know if that would end up being the best choice of her life or her biggest regret if it turned out she was reading too much into all of this.

Draco shifted awkwardly at Hermione’s pensive silence. “Well, I’ll see you around then. Good luck in Ireland,” he finally said and turned to be off.

“Wait, Draco, before you go, can I give you a piece of advice?” Hermione said, hesitantly.

Draco raised his eyebrow in confusion, but waited to hear what she had to say.

Hermione took a steadying breath and figured that even if this went badly, she really had nothing to lose. “You should tell your mother about you and Harry,” she said simply.

Whatever aura of calm that Draco had managed to cloak himself in before fell away in an instant. He looked shocked enough that a single Bowtruckle might have knocked him flat. He struggled to speak for a few moments, mouthing the beginnings of words that never materialized.

“Did he tell you?” he finally asked in an angry whisper. “Merlin, I should have known that Potter couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. I’m surprised that all of England doesn’t know by now.”

“Don’t blame Harry,” Hermione said. “He didn’t tell me; I guessed, and he didn’t deny it.”

Draco still looked livid and embarrassed. His expression reminded Hermione of when they were in school and one of his pranks wouldn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.

“But never mind that,” Hermione continued. “I’m serious; I think you should tell her. You’re only making things worse by keeping it a secret, and doing far more harm to your relationship by pushing her away. I know you fear she’ll react badly, but you ought to give her a chance to prove you wrong. She won’t take it as badly as you think.”

“No offense, Granger, but you can’t possibly know that.”

Hermione wanted to scoff at that, given that she knew far more about the situation than Draco did, but she was trying to improve the situation for Narcissa, not make it worse.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with your mother over the last few weeks. More than you have,” she said defensively at the annoyed look on Draco’s face. “She loves you, Draco, and she’s only upset because she thinks she’s losing you. If you started talking to her again, you could probably tell her that you’re swearing off magic and becoming a Muggle and she’d still be happier than she is now.”

Draco sniffed and shrugged noncommittally, but Hermione thought she might have gotten through to him, at least a little. 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. “But when I tell her I’m becoming a Muggle and she burns the house down, I’m telling her that she has you to blame.”

Hermione laughed and rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the warning,” she said.

With that, they parted ways, and Hermione could only hope that for once, her meddling would do a bit of good, and that he might find at least an ounce of Gryffindor bravery to follow her advice.

Maybe she’d even be able to find some herself.

 


 

That evening, Malfoy Manor was silent enough that Narcissa heard footsteps on the stairs all the way from the sitting room. It was likely Draco, about to leave again for the evening. He’d been going out for dinner every day now without even a warning, which was just as well seeing as how the silence during the meal would have been downright grating.

Only an hour earlier, he had come home from work, not that Narcissa had seen him then either, but she had heard the front door as it closed with a heavy thud. Neither one had sought out the other, as was their new habit of avoidance.

To anyone watching from the outside, it would have looked like their relationship had gotten far worse than it had been before, but that wasn’t true. Nothing substantive had changed; only the acts that they had played out to hide the truth. The fight had pulled away the curtains, which had been growing desperately thin as it was. It was almost a relief to see it disappear at last—her polite tolerance, his sickening bravado. The acts had been draining, on both their parts, and they gave little comfort in return.

She expected Draco’s steps to pass the sitting room door on the way out, but instead, she heard them stop. The pause was heavy and expectant as he apparently weighed his options from the hall, giving himself a last moment to escape without seeing her, as he’d done so many nights this week.

Narcissa watched the door as it stood still, and wondered what he wanted badly enough that he would consider ending the stand-off, even when he clearly wasn’t eager to do so.

Abruptly, the door swung open, and her son slunk into the room, barely looking at her as he passed. Ever since he’d stopped his phony charm, he seemed to have shrunk four inches, and he looked younger to her, more like his sullen teenage self than the young version of his father that he had become. Although right then, he looked like a man sentenced to the gallows.

She watched him in surprised silence as he crossed to the sideboard, poured himself a glass of something and silently moved to a chair across from her own. He downed the drink in its entirety without looking up from his knees.

Even angry with him as she still was after their fight, after everything that had happened, Narcissa couldn’t help but be worried. He was still her son, and she loved him; that would never change no matter how much he pushed her away.

“Draco…” she began, breaking the silence.

At the sound of her voice, he popped up from his chair and returned to the bottle, pouring a second glass and downing it without even sitting down again.

Although he looked like he would have liked a third glass, he turned to Narcissa and raised his eyes to hers for the first time since entering the room.

“Mother, I have something to tell you,” he said in a voice that quavered slightly as he spoke.

She held her breath, and wondered what in Merlin’s name was left to say. “All right,” she replied. “But wouldn’t you rather sit down first?”

He nodded and returned to the chair, struggling not to fidget with his empty glass as he took a heavy breath. “I’ve been seeing someone,” he said suddenly, practically shouting the words as if he couldn’t convince them to come out without a great deal of force. “That is, romantically… And it’s… well, I think it’s serious.”

Narcissa’s heart stuttered in her chest. “Oh? And who might this someone be?” she asked, not knowing if she was bracing herself for the truth or another lie.

“They’re a he ,” Draco said quietly.

Her lips fell open for a moment in surprise, not at the knowledge she already possessed of course, but only that it was being told to her at last and willingly, no less. A hesitant smile began to bloom on her lips. “All right, and who might he be, then?”

Draco’s eyes widened, and the firm set of his jaw seemed to slacken. He looked confused, thrown-off by her easy response, as if he had been so prepared for an outburst that he wasn’t sure what to do now that he wasn’t getting one. “That doesn’t upset you?”

“No, Draco, it doesn’t upset me, not in the slightest.” Narcissa barely dared to move; she felt sure that if she breathed too hard or spoke too loudly, she might shatter this fragile moment. She took a chance and reached out her hand to clasp Draco’s fingers within her own. “I just want to know who it is.”

Draco shifted in his seat, and for a moment he looked like he wouldn’t be able to say it. “Well he’s… well the thing is that… well it’s Harry Potter,” he said, the final confession spoken far too quickly. The look in his eyes seemed to say that this must still be going too far, that she would drop his hand and start the tirade he’d been waiting for.

But Narcissa only let out a relieved laugh and gave his hand a comforting squeeze. As disbelieving as he was at her reaction, she felt she could have topped it. She couldn’t imagine what might have sparked this honesty after all this time. “That’s wonderful, darling. I’m sure you two are a splendid match. Nothing like a Gryffindor to keep a Slytherin in line after all,” she said, feeling a few misty tears forming in her eyes.

Draco stared at her so intently he might have burned holes into her skull. He looked like he was thinking it might be a dream or a trap even. “You’re sure this doesn’t upset you, or even… surprise you?”

“Darling, I just want you to be happy, and if Harry Potter is the one who makes that happen, then I think it’s wonderful. And as for surprising me,” she took a breath, “I think I know you better than you give me credit for… and certainly far better than you’ve wanted me to lately.”

At that, Draco sniffed, blinking back tears of his own with effort. “I was so sure that you’d be disappointed in me,” he finally said in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.

Narcissa rose from her seat and joined him on the sofa, cupping her son’s cheek in her hand. “Draco, I’ve never been disappointed in you. I’ve been incredibly proud of you since you were a little boy, and that’s never going to change.”

He shook his head. “You don’t like the choices I’ve made, to join the Ministry, to—”

“That’s not true,” Narcissa cut in. “I am proud of how you’ve been able to create a new life for yourself, darling, and I’m incredibly grateful that you were able to start over again the way you have. But there’s a difference between respecting your choices, and letting you make mine. Perhaps for the first time, the life I do or do not create for myself is my choice, not yours or anyone else’s. But just because we’re taking different paths does not mean that I can’t support you in my own way. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to lie to me, and keep me in a corner, and try to control me in order to keep me happy with you.”

Draco stared into her eyes, and Narcissa thought that for the first time in years, he was truly seeing her, truly hearing what she was saying. A tear began to slide down his cheek. “I’m—” he took a shaky breath, “I’m so sorry.”

He collapsed against her shoulder, blubbering incoherent apologies about how he’d made such a mess of things, how he’d made assumption after assumption that each proved more false than the last, how even Harry was at his wit’s end with him, and more.

All the while, Narcissa ran her hands through his hair, making shushing, soothing sounds. She felt like something inside of her was melting. It had been so long since she had been allowed to touch her child, at least not without a cold, distant formality. She clutched him closer, and hoped that this could be a turning point for them.

After what might have been an hour of back and forth, Draco finally sat up and wiped at his cheeks. Now with the rush of emotion behind him, he looked abashed by his behavior, and he gave her an awkward smile.

“Wait,” he said suddenly, furrowing his brows in apparent thought. “What about you? The person who was in your room that morning. Aren’t you also secretly… involved?”

He said it with a small laugh, and while she supposed the symmetry had at one point been ironic, she couldn’t bring herself to join in. She was too busy biting back the jolt of pain that hit her at his words, at the thought at how nice it might have been if she had been able to make a similar confession. She cleared her throat.

“I was,” she admitted. “But it’s over now, and nothing worth talking about anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, but she shook her head.

“But I promise that if I should start a relationship with someone again, I won’t hide it from you.”

He nodded and stared away for a moment. “So, are we all right?”

“I think we have a lot of work to do yet, darling, but I think we will be.”

They exchanged teary smiles, and Narcissa rose from the sofa, smoothing out the fabric of her dress. “Now that that’s all settled. Why don’t I invite Mr. Potter for dinner sometime so the two of us can get acquainted properly.”

Draco beamed back at her. “I think that’s a very good idea,” he said.

He too rose from his seat and began to walk towards the door, leaving to clean himself up. Before he could leave the room, however, he chuckled softly to himself, and muttered under his breath, “What do you know, she was right again.”

“Hmm?”

“Hermione. She told me I should tell you. Salazar knows how she figured it all out in the first place, but with that big brain of hers… She was right again.”

Draco walked into the hall, leaving Narcissa alone, staring at the closed door.

Hermione had talked to him and told him to do it. Narcissa wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry to think that she was in fact still on Hermione’s mind. At the very least, it was yet another thing that she felt she had to thank her for.

 


 

Hermione got back late from her dinner at the Burrow. It had been nice to see everyone again, and to hear the warm wishes of everyone who truly hoped she would be able to find happiness in her endeavors. She was still distracted by a thousand other thoughts, but she tried to force herself to stay in the moment where she could appreciate all of her friends.

Although, it had taken a good deal of willpower not to cancel on dinner and stay home, reading the journal that was waiting on her bedside table, especially once she found out that Harry wouldn’t be coming.

Just as she’d started to put on her outfit for the evening, a dark brown owl, whom she’d recognized immediately as Harry’s, had fluttered to her open window with a letter attached to its leg.

It had taken a good deal of strategic positioning to make sure her back was to the wall so Ginny wouldn’t be able to peek over her shoulder as she started to read.

Hermione,

I don’t know what you said to Draco, but whatever it was, I have to thank you for it. I just received an invitation from Narcissa Malfoy asking me to join the two of them for dinner—tonight, if I’m free—and Draco assures me that he not only told her about us, but that she’s supportive. It seems they had some long talk and are trying to work things out between them.

I’ve told Mrs. Weasley that I can’t make it because of work. I’m sure she’ll understand, but I was worried if I tried to reschedule with Mrs. Malfoy, I wouldn’t get a second chance.

I really think this is going to be a big step for the two of us, but Merlin, I’m nervous. I have no idea what I’m going to say to her, but I only hope you were telling the truth when you said she wasn’t really so difficult to get along with. Write me some tips if you have any, even a book she likes or something that can give me something to say.

- Harry

The joy and pride of feeling like she’d finally done something useful had been enough to buoy her spirits all night. No matter what happened, she’d at least be able to feel that she had brought Narcissa this happiness and helped those two brooding Slytherins finally say something honest to each other.

Molly had been understanding, but she couldn’t resist commenting with a disapproving cluck of her tongue that “they do keep you boys busy.”

To that, Ron, always the master of subtlety, had let out a small snort. “Especially Harry,” he said cryptically.

Hermione wondered whether Harry had broken down and told Ron at last, or if he’d somehow figured it out on his own. She wanted to get Ron alone and ask, but that was hardly her place. She’d meddled enough already, and she assumed that if things went well with Narcissa that evening, Harry and Draco would likely start telling other people; Hermione’s curiosity would have to wait until then.

Besides, finally alone in her flat with a warm cup of tea beside her, Hermione had a different curiosity to satisfy. Her heart was beating so hard against her ribs that the sound of it was deafening. She had long ago given up hope that Bellatrix might be good enough to actually tell her how to solve this riddle, but a terrifying hope was now lodged in her mind.

Trying not to get too attached to that fantasy, Hermione cracked open the spine of yet another black book.

Immediately after opening the cover, the journal gave a clear explanation as to why those last few pages of its predecessor must have been destroyed.

There was a newspaper clipping attached with a sticking charm to an early page, and it proclaimed the engagement of Calliope Fawley and Jasper Selwyn, Bellatrix’s lover and the boyfriend she couldn’t stand. The short blurb gushed over the Pureblooded match and how perfect the couple looked together. Calliope was very pretty, and even in this photograph, you could see a certain spark in her eyes, traces of the attitude that captivated Bellatrix all along.

Hermione wondered how the situation must have played out. However it ended, it must have been painful enough that Bellatrix couldn’t stand to remember it in detail. And yet, she hadn’t been able to suppress it altogether, keeping this one painful memento, even after she had destroyed the rest.

Unwillingly, a small part of her heart ached for Bella. It was terrible to lose someone, especially someone that seemed so special. Hermione even wondered what might have changed about the course of history if the woman had been allowed to be with the person she loved, being forced to shun her own family in the process, and all the places those ties eventually led…

She knew that Narcissa would tell her it was a futile thought experiment, one that would only bring pain, but it was hard not to wonder.

As Hermione began to read, she found it even sadder that Bellatrix acted as if the entire affair had never happened. She never mentioned Callie, even though they must have been forced to see each other day in and day out with all of their classes side by side. However, something had changed in Bellatrix’s writing. She seemed angrier than before, harder somehow in the way she spoke about everything.

Hermione was halfway through the book, the evening fading and with it, what was left of Hermione’s hope, when an entry caught her eye.

As I thumbed through my potions book, looking for our assignment, it fell open to the recipe for Amortentia. I scoffed and flipped it shut. Love never seemed to do anyone’s life any good, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to create it if they were lucky enough not to be plagued by it in the first place.

Love is merely a weapon, a trap, something to lure you in and leave you bleeding.

Like that prissy little Malfoy boy that Cissy was dancing around for so long this year. He’s seemed positively suicidal since she turned him down. Of course, I don’t think I improved anything when I told him the only logical reason she might have been interested in him in the first place was that they have the same hairdo.

I’ve made fun of him endlessly, but really he’s no different than anyone else caught in the snare of a pretty girl.

That’s when I got the idea.

It was a realization I had had once before: even the worst of wounds heal and the scars fade into surrounding skin, but love, the twisting pain of it… It was a wound that would almost heal, would almost close but then, the smallest thing could send it clenching and dripping as fresh as the day it was made. The only thing that could never really be cured.  

It was perfect. It was just what I wanted. I hadn’t realized what I was after until I saw it. It wasn’t really about doing more damage with the cut, it was about being remembered.

I pulled my knife from the side desk and stared at my reflection in its shining silver surface.

Perfect.

Hermione pulled herself up straighter in her chair, reading the details of Bellatrix’s experiments with avid attention. She couldn’t decide whether she was more saddened by the proclamation that love was indeed the most powerful force, but only because of the way it could break you, or sickened by the way she’d decided to use that pain to her own advantage.

But judgment of either kind quickly flew out the window when Bellatrix declared that her experiments had worked. Amortentia, a slightly modified recipe, mixed with a variety of poisons: a venom of love. A body wounded by this love, would bleed and ache long after a normal wound would have closed; less deadly but more maddening than a simple poison to keep the skin from knitting. Vicious, twisted, and unquestionably unique; it was everything Narcissa had predicted it might be. Not only unique, but undoubtedly quite personal, almost a memento of what had happened to her in her final school year. Bella might not have feared physical pain but her love affair had hurt her in a way that scared her, and she had forged her fear into a weapon.

Bella had tried it all on herself, making small incisions, tracking their progress until it was perfect. And now it was there on the page before Hermione’s nose at long last. The knife, its makeup, the antidote that Bella used to heal her own wounds. 

Hermione let the book fall into her lap, and she hardly knew what to do. After all this time, after all these journals, she never really thought that this one would help, no matter how grateful she was that Narcissa had dropped it off. And yet, after all of that, finally in black and white before her was an answer and a cure.

It was almost funny how close they had been. Narcissa had known it was a potion, but as they had looked through potion books, at the sight of a love potion, they had flipped onwards without giving it a second thought.

It wasn’t just that Bella was clever, she saw the world differently than anyone else and neither Hermione nor Narcissa would have considered love to be a weapon, especially not when they were so deeply involved in their own affair.

And yet… Bella did make a point that Hermione agreed with: love was the one wound that never truly healed. Perhaps it was poetic in a way that love should leave such a permanent mark. That no matter how much time had passed, it would always be there to wound you again, lurking in the forgotten caverns of your mind. You could lock it in a cage, hide it deep, obscure it from view but in the depths of night, you could always hear the rattling of the door.

More than a week had passed, and yet Hermione felt as if every minute of that time had been spent dragging herself back into the past and choking back tears over chess sets and winter roses, and haughty barn owls or whatever else had the misfortune to spark a memory of what she had lost.

No, not lost, given away.

No, Narcissa hadn’t stopped her from leaving. Yes, she had told her to go. And yet… that dark grey flash of pain that had flickered through the woman’s eyes the other day. That flicker of loss, like looking into a mirror. A wound that wouldn’t quite heal.

Bella had had no choice to let love wound her in that way, but perhaps Hermione did. Perhaps she had an opportunity to heal herself twice that night.

Without questioning it for a moment longer, Hermione apparated herself to the front steps of Malfoy Manor.

Chapter Text

By the time Hermione arrived at the Manor, it was already quite late. If she’d had any sense, she would have questioned whether Narcissa had already gone to sleep, or if it wouldn’t have been wiser to have waited until the morning. However, a combination of excitement and fear had sent her out into the hazy moonlit air without thinking of the morning as a possibility.

She knocked on the door for the first time in ages and smiled at Todry’s surprised squeak when he answered and saw her face. He assured her that Madame Malfoy was still awake and if Hermione would only wait in the sitting room, he would fetch her as quickly as he could.

It wasn’t until Hermione had been waiting for a minute or two that she started to worry whether she ought to have owled first. Normally, she wasn’t the sort of person who just popped in… not that Narcissa had given any warning over her visit earlier either.

She knew that she had vicious tendencies to overthink and to doubt, and she didn’t want to do either. She wanted to allow herself to focus on the moment for once. Her fingers tensed over the cover of the journal in her hands, creasing the leather, but rooting her more firmly to the present.

After what felt like a year in silence, but what was likely about three minutes, Narcissa entered the room, looking flustered, her face utterly surprised, and her brow furrowed slightly in concern. All of which was completely understandable given that it was midnight and Hermione had shown up completely unannounced.

Hermione jumped to her feet almost too quickly at the sight of the woman in the doorway.

“Hermione, I… is everything all right?” Narcissa asked, closing the door behind her with the flick of a finger.

“It’s more than all right,” Hermione said, nearly bursting with the news. She cracked open the journal in her hands and shoved it at Narcissa, practically forcing it into her hands. “It’s there, the description of the knife, how she cursed it, and how to cure it.”

The transformation of Narcissa’s expression was instantaneous. Her lips broke into a wide smile, and she laughed as if in shock.

Seeing the woman’s excitement, Hermione finally felt the jolt of wild happiness she probably ought to have felt all along. However, it had been like the journal’s contents hadn’t felt real until Narcissa too had laid her eyes upon them.

“That’s wonderful news!” Narcissa exclaimed. “I have to admit, I hardly dared to hope it would be anything useful. Have you done it, have you brewed the antidote?”

Hermione shook her head. “I came right to you,” she said quietly. “I thought we might brew it together.”

Narcissa smiled and her brows knitted together for a moment before she nodded and cleared her throat. “Let’s do it now,” she said.

“Are you sure? It’s already so late—”

“I doubt either one of us could stand the suspense of waiting until tomorrow, do you?” Narcissa said.

Of course she was completely right. Neither one of them could have gotten a wink of sleep with the thrill and the doubt of it all hanging over their heads.

Without any more discussion, they headed towards the lab and began to brew the antidote that Bellatrix described in her notes. It was a complex recipe; an antidote to a strong love potion always was, but it was made even more so by the subtle changes Bella had made to her Amortentia, adding more malicious ingredients, changing a desperate love to a doomed one, one that could wound the flesh in the way real love could wound the heart.

Even with the few days to break their pattern of working together, the two women still moved like a machine in perfect working order. They understood each other, could predict the other’s next move and act accordingly.

Hermione had always thought that Narcissa was selling herself short when she claimed that she was merely a “fair hand” at potions. Especially with an important task at hand, Narcissa could be so intensely focused on her goal. She cut each ingredient with a terrifying precision, focused on getting everything exactly right for the moment that it mattered most.

When they had added every ingredient, there was nothing to do but let the potion simmer on the fire, giving it the occasional stir until the ingredients dissolved into a clear liquid like Andromeda had recalled from all those years ago.

Narcissa stirred the potion, once clockwise, twice counter clockwise and stared into the depths with a thoughtful expression.

“Amortentia,” she whispered almost to herself, shaking her head. “I was so certain that we’d looked into every potion imaginable, but a love potion… I had never considered… Really, I should have given it more thought.”

“No one would have ever considered that besides your sister,” Hermione said fervently, “certainly not me or you. And I think I’m very glad that neither one of our minds work that way. Although I have to give her points for originality.”

Narcissa chuckled a glum laugh and fell back into her own thoughts. “I didn’t have a clue that her and Callie were that close. Even once you told me they were lovers, it made some sense, but this… frankly, I didn’t think Bella had it in her to fall that hard for someone, even back in her softer days.”

“I think it’s so tragic that they didn’t have a chance to be together,” Hermione said softly. “You can’t help but wonder what might have changed if only they could have…”

Narcissa had set a timer spell and it went off just then, shaking them both from the conversation. They both rushed to peer into the cauldron where the potion was just turning clear, the last murky remnants of herbs and essences dissolving into nothing.

“It’s time,” Narcissa said. With several elegant flicks of her wand, she extinguished the flame beneath her cauldron, decanted the potion into a small vial, and called a dropper to her all within moments. She took a slow breath and turned to face Hermione, potion in hand. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Hermione said.

She rolled up her sleeve and stared at the scar. There was too much pressure on the moment. Certainly Bellatrix took her journals very seriously, and it was hard to imagine she would have written down the recipe for her antidote with it being incorrect or incomplete, but after all those years spent watching her hopes rise and fall, Hermione couldn’t help but fear that it wouldn’t work.

Narcissa grabbed Hermione’s wrist with her left hand and steadied a dropper full of the potion above the angry skin. She hesitated and met Hermione’s eyes once more. “It might sting, I… I don’t know what to expect,” she warned.

“I can take it,” Hermione said with a nervous smile.

Nodding, Narcissa rubbed her thumb comfortingly over the skin of Hermione’s arm before summoning her courage and letting the first drops of potion fall onto the lines of Hermione’s wound.

The potion fell onto the mangled wound, seeping instantly into the cracks that formed the letter M. For a moment, nothing happened, but then a subtle steam began to rise, and Hermione clenched her teeth against a burning sensation. It wasn’t quite painful, but right on the verge of it.

All the while, Narcissa’s eyes flickered anxiously from the letter to Hermione’s face, until at last, the steam began to lessen and the skin began knitting over where the poison had been burned out.

Both women gasped at the sight. For a silent moment, their eyes met, alight with excitement and promise that they dared not speak aloud.

As if thinking that wasting a second might undo their progress, Narcissa turned her attention back to Hermione’s arm and began the process again, starting in on the letter U, and onward until the final grizzled line of the letter D was smoking away to give way to delicate, newly-formed skin.

Hermione’s exhalation was shaky at the sight of her unblemished arm, something she hadn’t seen in years. She held up her skin to the light to inspect it and let out a wild kind of laugh when she couldn’t see even the faintest outline of the hateful carving.

“It worked! It actually worked!” she screeched, rushing over to Narcissa and throwing the arm back into her hands.

Narcissa traced her forearm with her fingertips, and Hermione saw that there was actually moisture welling in the woman’s eyes. “Oh, Hermione, I’m so happy for you…I can’t believe it,” she said, blinking hard against the tears threatening to fall.

“Thank you,” Hermione said earnestly.

“You have nothing to thank me for.”

“Of course I do. It was you who gave me the journals, you who helped me at every turn, you who found the last one when we’d both overlooked it. It was all you.”

With both of them bleary-eyed and laughing, they fell into a hug, pulling each other aggressively closer in the whirlwind of emotions. Narcissa’s fingers found purchase in Hermione’s hair, and she stroked the mass of curls in a gesture that felt familiar and intimate.

It took a few moments for the rush of feeling to pass, and they pulled apart, giving each other sheepish looks.

Narcissa cleared her throat, looking awkward and flustered, and turned towards her desk where the journal and the potions ingredients still stood. She fiddled with a few of the bottles, sending them back to their places on the shelves. She stared at each one a bit too long as if looking for inspiration for something to say.

Abruptly, she turned back to Hermione. “Would you like a drink? If there’s anyone who deserves a bit of celebration, I think that it’s you.”

“Merlin, I would love one,” Hermione said with another round of laughter.

Together, they headed towards the library, and Narcissa summoned a bottle of wine and two glasses, pouring one for each of them.

She had brought the journal in with them and set it on the table. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be to finally put this last one back in the safe. At least now I can do it with a bit of gratitude that I saved them all these years, even if the help they gave was as unwilling as a set of books could be.”

“I think I’ll be happiest if I never see another journal ever again,” Hermione said with a laugh.

Narcissa smiled and raised her glass in agreement before taking the first sip of her wine.

Hermione’s heart started to pound. She could feel a moment passing her by, feel something in the air that she had to grasp right then or give up on it forever. “Although…” she began quietly, “What Bella said got me thinking quite a lot, actually. Everything she said about love, how it’s the only wound you can’t truly recover from, it’s all so true.”

Narcissa’s face twitched just slightly. “Mmm,” she hummed noncommittally, sipping her wine again without much interest almost as if she was just looking for something to do.

Hermione pressed on. “Everything Bella said about love, once she knew that Callie was truly out of her life for good, once she’d lost that chance, it all made so much sense to me.”

Narcissa was staring at her, sitting so still that she might have been holding her breath.

Frustrated by the silence, Hermione shook her head and grabbed Narcissa’s hands.

At the sudden motion, Narcissa looked startled, wary, as if she felt any words from her mouth, any inadvertent movements might disrupt whatever delicate situation was unfolding before her. Might give away a hand she wasn’t sure she was willing to play.

“It’s been over a week since I left the Manor, since I left you,” Hermione began, “but every day, I’ve woken up and wished that I was coming back here.” She sighed and gathered her strength. “I know we said it wouldn’t have strings, that it would only be sex, but I only said that because I thought it was the only way to have any of you, and that seemed so much better than none, but it wasn’t ever enough. For Merlin’s sake, Cissa, I’m trying to tell you that I’m in love with you, and I think that I have been for a very long time. When I found the cure, the only person that I wanted to tell was you, the only one I wanted to help was you… And I understand that you might not feel the same way, and you don’t have to say it back if–”

Before Hermione could finish her thought, Narcissa had placed a hand on her cheek and the pad of her thumb on her lips.

Narcissa stared at her so long that Hermione was afraid to breathe. Narcissa’s look was so intense, so full of such strained emotion that Hermione couldn’t even categorize. 

“Of course I’m in love with you, Hermione. How could I help but be?” Narcissa said quietly. 

Hermione’s face broke out into a wide smile and she grabbed Narcissa, pulling her close into a long awaited kiss. The familiar feel of Narcissa’s soft mouth, hot against her own made her shiver, and by the time she pulled away, both of them were breathless.

But in a moment, Narcissa had pressed her forehead to Hermione’s and she looked almost sad. “Hermione,” she began. “You know this is a terrible idea, don’t you? What will your family say? Your friends?”

“I don’t care,” Hermione responded immediately. 

“You say that now.”

“I mean it,” Hermione insisted.

“Darling, the press alone… They’ll have a field day with you if this gets out— when this gets out,” Narcissa said seriously.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Hermione said, smiling.

Narcissa looked at her questioningly.

“I am the press,” Hermione said, and Narcissa laughed, calmed slightly by Hermione’s ease.

“You can’t put them all in jars, darling,” Narcissa admonished, but this time, she was smiling softly. Having nothing but hatred towards Rita Skeeter herself, she had enjoyed that story of Hermione’s a little too much.

“I know that a lot of people will say things about us that I won’t want to hear, that won’t be flattering, that might even hurt both of us, but I don’t care. I want you, Narcissa, far more than I want their approval,” Hermione said. “I want to walk with you in the garden, I want to read with you in the library, I want to beat you at chess,” she ignored Narcissa’s protesting scoff at that one, “I just want to wake up in your arms again.”

Narcissa inhaled sharply and it looked as if her eyes were glistening as she took Hermione’s face into her hands. “Oh, Hermione,” she said and kissed her gently. “My god, I’ve missed you. Sometimes I missed you so much that I thought I couldn’t bear it.”

“I missed you too. It’s all I’ve done for days,” Hermione said and brought their clasped hands to her lips to press a kiss to Narcissa’s fingers. She paused for a moment and bit her lip. “Are you worried about what your friends and family will think?” she asked cautiously.

Narcissa shrugged. “Luckily for us, I have very little of either,” she said with a laugh. “If we do make a go of this, Draco will get used to the idea eventually, I’m sure. And Andromeda… well Andy already knows; apparently we were painfully obvious the day that she came to tea, but she approves. If I had taken her advice, I would have come to you long before now and started this conversation myself. Merlin, if she’d had her way, I would have shown up on your doorstep with three dozen roses screaming ‘take me, I’m yours.’”

“I would have jumped into your arms if you had,” Hermione said. “I rather like the idea of you on my doorstep, stark naked and surrounded by flowers.”

Narcissa’s eyes widened and she laughed softly. “I don’t remember saying anything about being naked,” she said with a sly raise of her eyebrow.

“No? I could have sworn you had,” Hermione said in mock seriousness, tempered slightly by the mischief twinkling in her eyes. “Well, if not naked… I supposed you could always wear that black lingerie that you look so good in.”

“Stop it,” Narcissa said and swatted at Hermione’s arm, but she was laughing, and a bit of color had risen to her pale cheeks.

“You said if we make a go of it,” Hermione said. “Why still conditional?”

Narcissa took a breath. “Because… I’m scared to say it’s a sure thing when I’ve spent all these days telling myself that it couldn’t be.”

“Narcissa, I love you more than anyone, and now that I know you feel the same way, I think we ought to give ourselves this chance; we deserve at least that much.”

With a watery eyed smile, Narcissa pulled Hermione towards her and kissed her hard.

Hermione was breathless by the time they pulled apart. “Would you be offended if I tried to get you into bed not ten minutes after we got back together?”

Narcissa raised an eyebrow, and for the first time that night, her eyes looked warm and at ease. “Darling, I’d be offended if you didn’t,” she said with a smirk.

 


 

Before Narcissa could blink, Hermione was kissing her again, softly, tentatively testing the waters. But as soon as she parted Hermione’s lips with her tongue, deepening their kiss, something seemed to ignite. Suddenly, Hermione was in her lap, pushing her backwards into the sofa cushions with surprising force and grasping her cheeks, demanding and urgent. Narcissa could barely breathe for the intensity of it, especially once Hermione had relinquished her grip on her face and her hands began to wander. 

Soon, her fingers were unbuttoning Narcissa's shirt, practically ripping the buttons off when they got stuck. Her lips began to trail down Narcisa's neck, over her chest, teasing at the line of lace along the top of her bra with her tongue and sucking the stiff peak of a nipple into her mouth through the fabric.

Narcissa had guiltily fantasized about this moment countless times over the days they had spent apart, but nothing she had managed to conjure could compare to the reality. She buried her fingers in Hermione's hair and pulled her back to her lips.

This time, Hermione's wandering fingers began to lift Narcissa's skirt, skimming over her thighs, chuckling darkly as Narcissa’s legs trembled at the light, tantalizing touch, so close and yet so maddeningly far from where she needed it most. She groaned.

Merlin, were they really going to do this here? Every other time they had managed to make it into a bed even if it started elsewhere... But Hermione was kissing her, and the taste of her lips was sweet and familiar; it was almost enough to send her careening into oblivion… almost . But then, Hermione's fingers moved higher, caressing the damp fabric between her legs, threatening to push it aside. And the sound Narcissa made then... something desperate and mewling. Even the short pause to apparate away seemed too long to be borne.

Instead, Narcissa lifted a quivering hand and locked the door, letting her head fall back in utter surrender.

“Hermione,” she whispered, egging her on. It was a long name to manage in the heat of passion, but she’d wanted to say it, to claim it for her own. She liked the way it sounded, the way it felt on her tongue when her voice was unsteady with arousal.

Hermione relented, clearly too eager to try to stretch out the foreplay. She slid Narcissa's panties off and buried her fingers in the wet heat between her legs, stroking in rough, insistent circles that made Narcissa’s breath catch in her throat.

She bucked her hips against Hermione’s unrelenting rhythm, holding her close all the while with messy kisses that were only broken by the occasional moan or whimper that escaped her lips. 

It was rushed and hard, both of them only half undressed, but maybe it was perfect this way, because they knew they had all the time in the world for slow.

When Narcissa came, she instinctively bit back the sound that threatened to rattle from her chest, still too conscious of where they were. Instead the noise became a strangled squeak as she clawed at Hermione’s back, leaving light scratches behind.

Immediately after Narcissa relaxed, they both started laughing at the absurdity of where they were, their foreheads pressed together, the disbelief and the joy hand-in-hand as they caught their breath. However, the laughter didn’t break the surreal and impulsive feeling of the moment, if anything, it made it stronger, and after a few moments, Narcissa was kissing Hermione again, shifting their bodies until their positions were reversed.

Hermione’s shirt was already off, and Narcissa unhooked her bra, tossing it across the room where it caught on a chair amongst the rest of their discarded clothing.

Narcissa cupped Hermione’s breasts, kneading the soft flesh and relishing how Hermione’s head fell back, how she sighed and sank into the touch. She wanted to taste her. She never wanted to stop kissing her lips. She wasn’t sure which instinct was the strongest, but she opted for the former, sinking slowly to her knees and propping Hermione’s feet up on the edge of the sofa, pushing her skirt up to her waist.

Looking almost delirious, Hermione gasped when Narcissa kissed up her thighs and made her panties disappear with a silent spell.

Narcissa smirked as she lowered her mouth to Hermione’s folds and dragged her tongue slowly over her clit.

Hermione sighed and squirmed with every movement, eventually twining her fingers into Narcissa’s hair and holding her firmly in place. Usually, she enjoyed a bit of teasing as much as Narcissa enjoyed giving it, but that day, neither of them could stand it. 

“More,” Hermione pleaded, and Narcissa slid two fingers inside of her, matching the rhythm of her tongue. 

“Harder,” came Hermione’s shaky voice again, and Narcissa doubled her efforts, picking up  speed.

It wasn’t long until her whimpering moans grew higher, until her thighs were tensed to the point of shaking and she was tumbling over the edge, letting out a quiet “Oh, Cissa,” as she started to relax and released her grip on Narcissa’s scalp.

Rising to sit on the sofa once more, Narcissa smiled as Hermione laid her head onto her shoulder, clasping their hands together and kissing Narcissa’s fingers one by one. 

It was nice to lean together, however a sofa like this wasn’t meant for cuddling, not the way Narcissa wanted. 

“When you propositioned me, you did say something about a bed… ” she said.

Hermione laughed. “I did, didn’t I? Seems like that part didn’t really go to plan.”

“Shall we?”

Hermione nodded and gave Narcissa a final kiss on the sofa before apparating them to the comfort of the bedroom without bothering to gather the remnants of clothing littering the ground, evidence of how they’d spent the past half hour.

 


 

Narcissa awoke in a hazy state somewhere in between dreams and reality, feeling the silk of the sheets sliding over her skin as she pulled her knees up to her chest. Her arm was draped over Hermione’s stomach, and the scent of her shampoo wafted into her nose.

For a moment, when she was still mostly dreaming, the scent made her sad, until she realized that it was neither a memory nor a dream. Hermione was laying next to her in the flesh, the flyaway hairs of her tangled curls tickling at Narcissa’s cheeks.

Memories of last night came flooding back to her, bringing her so much joy that she was nearly in tears all over again. She pulled Hermione closer and gently placed a kiss on her head. She had tried to make it so soft, but Hermione had stirred nonetheless, pressing her body backwards, and reaching for Narcissa’s hand on her stomach, interlacing their fingers together.

Hermione turned to look over her shoulder with a sleepy smile and half-closed lids. “Good morning,” she muttered.

Before Narcissa had an opportunity to say it back, Hermione had flipped around and captured her lips in a probing kiss.

Narcissa laughed against Hermione’s lingering lips. “Good morning to you, too,” she said, gathering Hermione’s hair to the side and trailing a finger over the line of her jaw.

With a sly smile, Hermione turned back around and allowed Narcissa to spoon her tightly, twisting their legs together, falling into a warm and comfortable doze until the sun grew higher and brighter in the sky.

They both knew that it was getting late. They had been up until who knows what time after hours of brewing, and talking, and twisting beneath the sheets.

Hermione curled her face into Narcissa’s chest with a sigh of satisfaction and began to trace a finger over her lover’s collarbone. “What do you say we spend the entire day just like this?” she said in a sleepy wistful voice.

“Very tempting,” Narcissa said, straining to see the clock on her nightstand. “But actually, I’m supposed to be meeting Draco and Harry for brunch in a couple of hours.”

“Oh?”

“Mmm now that I’ve been going out now and again with Andy, Draco is determined that the two of us should get used to going out in public together.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Hermione said, but she looked a little disappointed at the dissolution of their plans to never leave this room until the following morning.

“Would you like to come with me?” Narcissa asked.

Hermione pulled away slightly to look at Narcissa. “You mean as your date?”

“Of course as my date,” she said, stroking Hermione’s cheek.

The smile on Hermione’s face grew wide. “I’d like that very much,” she said and leaned back down to her former position, running her fingers over the pattern on the duvet. “How do you think Draco will take it?”

Narcissa tilted her head. “Oh, I imagine quite poorly,” she admitted. She had a hard time envisioning the conversation going well, per se. “But I was so nice, frankly uncharacteristically so, to Harry when we met that I don’t see how Draco can help but reciprocate. Although it might be tense at first.”

To Narcissa’s relief, Hermione didn’t seem particularly worried about how the brunch would go. Understandably, she was just as used to tense encounters with Draco as Narcissa was herself, and she knew how to navigate them. And no amount of prospective tension was enough to mar the bliss of having Hermione in her arms.

 


 

Narcissa was a bit surprised when she walked into the restaurant where they were about to have brunch. It was clearly more popular than the out of the way places Andy had dragged her to, and at peak brunch time on a Saturday, the dining room was packed.

A couple people raised their heads in her direction and looked away again a moment later, as if afraid what might happen if they were caught staring.

To her surprise, Hermione stepped closer to her side, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze.

“I still don’t like the way some of them look at me, but I don’t mind it so much as I’m with someone I love,” Narcissa said. The silly smile that bloomed on Hermione’s lips was nearly enough for Narcissa’s heart to beat out of her chest.

“Just give them time,” Hermione said. “I’m sure they’ll get used to seeing you again.”

“Mrs. Malfoy,” the maitre d said with a small bow as he saw them approaching. “Two of your party have already arrived.” His tone had a strange mix of deference and distrust. He clearly didn’t want to offend, but seemed to be watching her closely nonetheless as if he couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t pull a wand out and hex him at any given moment.

She wanted to roll her eyes and tell him to stop acting like a fool, but instead, she continued to hold herself with as much poise as she could manage.

“Yes, I see them there, thank you,” she said with cool politeness and strolled into the dining room where Harry and Draco were already seated. 

Harry started to get up when he saw Narcissa enter the dining room. He smiled at her congenially, but his expression turned to confusion the moment that he saw Hermione in tow.

“Hermione?” he said, eyes flitting between Narcissa and Hermione under curiously furrowed brows. Although there was an air of disbelief in his face, Narcissa wondered whether he wasn’t putting some of the pieces together. She couldn’t be sure how much Hermione might have said—or carefully not said—during all those weeks in secret.

At the mention of Hermione’s name, Draco finally raised his eyes from the menu where his face had previously been buried.

Narcissa expected him to look shocked, or at the very least as surprised as Harry currently did, but instead, what she saw in his eyes was relief.

“Oh, Granger, what a surprise,” he said, rising chivalrously as Harry had done. He leaned in and kissed Narcissa on the cheek. “Merlin, Mother, when you owled to say you were bringing someone, I was certain it would be a date, not just Hermione here. I’m glad you managed to make up before she left for Ireland though, I know you had become quite close for those few weeks.”

“Draco,” Narcissa and Harry said in tandem tones of warning.

Before Draco could ask why he was being doubly cautioned, Narcissa covered Hermione’s hand on the table with her own and Draco’s already pale face grew positively ashen.

“Draco, darling, Hermione is my date,” Narcissa said simply. If she had actually stupified him, he couldn’t have looked more dumbfounded. 

“Well, that’s great,” Harry, forever the diplomat in such matters, said, smiling broadly at the pair. “Isn’t that great, Draco?” he prodded his silent boyfriend who still did nothing but stare.

“But I thought you’d left? I thought you were making your dramatic exit to Ireland,” Draco finally said to Hermione. 

“Well, I suppose I still am, but Narcissa showed up at my flat yesterday to give me a final journal that she’d found—”

“Well, you do move fast, don’t you? One small attempt to help you, and you’re picking up my mother?” Draco said, his voice tense and quiet. 

“Draco,” Narcissa jumped in, giving him an admonishing look for letting his anger rise so quickly. “Hermione and I were together for most of the time that she was staying at the Manor. We thought we were going to end things because of her job out of the country, but we’ve decided to give ourselves an actual chance.”

Draco looked horrified at this information, and he stuttered meaninglessly for a moment before turning to Hermione with narrowed eyes. “It was you I heard in her room that morning, wasn’t it?” he asked. 

“Yes, Draco, that was me,” Hermione confessed. She looked like she was trying her best to hold her calm posture in much the same way Narcissa did, but she was far less practiced at it, and it was obvious just how desperately she wanted to let her gaze drop to the table in front of her.

“So all those times that you were reading in the library, playing chess in the–”

“We did both of those things,” Narcissa said, cutting him off.

“Among others,” Draco said in a biting tone.

Harry snorted into his coffee he had been sipping from and began coughing into his napkin. Narcissa arched an eyebrow but didn’t flinch from her son’s narrowed glance. 

“Among others,” she conceded, her eyes full of warning. She didn’t want a repeat of that morning over breakfast two weeks ago.

Draco huffed and slunk deeper into his chair. “This is unbelievable.”

“Draco,” Narcissa said, her voice stoically calm and firm. “I understand that it might take you some time to get used to this idea. But, let me remind you that I have put aside any expectations or prejudices that I might have had regarding your future in order to support your happiness, and I was happy to do it. However, I will warn you that that is a two-way street.”

Draco looked up at her with an uncomfortable expression. As long as he was actually listening, her son wasn’t stupid, and he had to realize that he was thoroughly backed into a corner. She could see him fighting to express all the indignation he felt that Narcissa and Hermione had both gone behind his back all that time. In so many ways, he was still a spoiled little boy, accustomed to pouting and getting his way. At least he was making the effort to restrain it this time.

“Well I…” he began and cleared his throat. “I have to admit, I never saw that coming,” he finally said with an attempt at a laugh. 

“I don’t know, Draco. Looking back, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Harry said. When Draco did nothing but grimace in what was probably supposed to look like a smile, Harry elbowed him playfully in the upper arm. “Besides, you two make a lovely couple,” he said, gesturing to the women across from him.

Narcissa was sure that Harry wouldn’t have said anything else regardless of his feelings, but he did seem genuine, and she felt an immediate surge of warmth towards him. “Thank you, Harry,” she said, glancing at Hermione and squeezing her hand reassuringly.

“I suppose you have a point,” Draco conceded. “Mother’s never let anyone else beat her at chess before.”

Narcissa laughed and Hermione opened her mouth in a moment of silent indignation. 

“Ok, she didn’t let me win,” Hermione insisted. “Wait, you didn’t, did you?” she asked, turning to Narcissa.

“Of course I didn’t, darling. I’ve never let anyone beat me at anything,” Narcissa said, stroking Hermione’s wrist comfortingly with her thumb. 

Hermione looked back at Draco probably to say I told you so, but he was no longer looking at her; he was looking at Narcissa, his eyes drifting from her hands to her eyes that were still twinkling with amusement and affection. It might have been a stretch to say her son looked happy, but Narcissa thought he was at least seeing her own happiness in a way that he hadn’t before and he was nodding slowly as if in understanding. 

Even over the course of the meal, Draco seemed to get a bit more used to the idea, although the number of mimosas he consumed may have had a great deal to do with that.

 


 

As brunch concluded, the two couples rose a bit awkwardly from their seats. The meal had actually gone quite well, but Hermione still noticed those signs of tension and hesitation between them all, especially Draco and Narcissa. They were still trying to get used to this new dynamic. One honest conversation and a couple days of pleasantries was not enough to make up for years of uncomfortable silence, but they were trying, and that was the most anyone could ask for. Hermione knew that one day, probably sooner than anyone could have guessed, they’d be remarkably close all over again, and those long months of distance would seem like a fantasy.

Stepping foot outside the restaurant and onto the crowded pavement of Diagon Alley, Hermione suggested that she wanted to stop in Flourish and Blotts before heading out, which was to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Draco even managed to laugh congenially when Narcissa enthusiastically said that she would come along, and he joked that there was no point in him and Harry waiting up, they’d probably be in there for hours.

Just like in the restaurant, Hermione saw a handful of witches and wizards staring in Narcissa’s direction and noticing Hermione’s proximity. They seemed to be trying to puzzle out whether or not they were actually there together or just had the misfortune of wanting the same book at the same time.

It rankled her to think they would manage to excuse her presence at Narcissa’s side so easily, not when she felt she had worked so hard to get there.

In a move of defiance, Hermione moved beside Narcissa at the bookshelf and slid the woman’s hand into her own.

Narcissa startled and turned to Hermione with a surprised look in her eyes, before a smile formed on her lips.

“I hope that’s ok,” Hermione with a sheepish smile.

“It’s far better than ok,” Narcissa said, rubbing her thumb over Hermione’s own, and the two of them went back to looking at the books on the shelf in front of them.

Together, they passed a magazine rack that held a number of academic journals. The Journal of Modern Magical Advancements was the one in center, proudly displayed with the names of well-known innovators on the cover. Hermione paused and reached for it, flipping to the index to read the topics for that quarter’s issue. She smiled at a few of the more interesting article titles and tucked the magazine under her arm.

“I think we have some plans to make today,” Hermione said, still tapping on the cover of her magazine.

Narcissa sighed at the prospect, but she didn’t look unhappy. “You’re right, a schedule will take a good deal of working out.”

No matter how badly Hermione wanted to suggest something rash like Narcissa buying a house in Ireland so they could be together every day, she knew it was far too early for such a drastic step.

“Perhaps I’ll finally get used to landing Portkeys since I expect to take about a million of them,” Hermione joked. “But it’s not just that… I’m just not so sure about Ireland.”

Narcissa opened her mouth, clearly about to protest about not wanting to hold Hermione back again, and Hermione hastened to interrupt her.

“And it’s not about you or our relationship. I think we’ll be able to manage no matter what either one of us do for a career or where that takes us,” Hermione said. “It’s about the job itself. I love writing, I do, and I don’t want to give that up completely, but I’m not sure it’s my dream career. I had forgotten just how much I liked research until we were working together on the Patronus. That’s what I want, to make my own magic, try new ideas and make a change that way. We have to continue with our project, I mean really continue with it and try to make something out of it. I just know there’s something there.”

Narcissa looked touched and as thrilled at the prospect of renewing their efforts as Hermione felt herself. “I think that’s a wonderful idea, darling. We’ll make it work, I promise.”

They spent a good deal of the rest of the afternoon at Hermione’s flat, figuring out the logistics of the coming weeks, trying to include everything that was important to either one of them in their soon to be busy schedules.

It was a very odd feeling for Hermione to realize that for the first time in her adult life, she was choosing to do what she wanted, not trying to please some judgmental society, not trying to maintain her image in the press, but doing what would be satisfying to her and the people closest to her in her life.

She thought that Narcissa felt the same way, for she was also coming out of a different kind of shell, reconnecting with her family, with the world outside of her own walls in search of what would make her happy.

Together, they thought they just might be able to manage it, letting string after string bind their lives together.

Chapter Text

Six months later

It was a day in late summer, and the shadows had begun to lengthen in the garden behind the Manor. Hermione was due back any minute, and Narcissa had settled herself in the sitting room waiting for the sound of familiar footsteps traipsing over marble at the end of yet another long day.

Narcissa had spent the afternoon at St. Mungo’s arranging the schedules for the next month of the patients that she and Hermione would visit to conduct further research on the effects of their Anti-Despair potion.

Hermione had done a marvelous job with her proposal to the hospital’s research lab, and between her good reputation, the promise of the potion itself, and Narcissa’s vow to bankroll the entire project, there was really no grounds to refuse them. As it turned out, there were quite a few people under the care of mind healers who were suffering from the mysterious effects of long-term exposure to dementors—there had been so many who were wrongly imprisoned before and during the war who had been freed, but left damaged by their time behind those impenetrable stone walls.

With months of practice identifying magic in all of its forms, it hadn’t taken long to identify a dark, slippery miasma that lingered in every one of their minds.

They had spent months perfecting recipes with similar magical signatures as a Patronus—potions that ended up just as shimmery and ghostly as the warding creatures themselves. They had tried them against all manners of dark matter with promising results, and soon the clinical trials would begin in earnest.

As Narcissa had insisted, Hermione had taken center stage during all of this, but her money behind it all, Narcissa hadn’t been able to avoid attention from the press entirely. And as much as she had resisted it, it had been an odd and pleasing change of pace to see her name mentioned kindly in the Prophet.

Meanwhile, Hermione had flourished with her writing for the Courier. She had impressed them so much that they were more than happy to bend over backwards to accommodate any kind of schedule she required to travel from England to Ireland and back again within the course of the week. She had even been able to find a very sweet little flat where the women spent a good deal of their time when they didn’t need to be within apparating distance of London.

Hermione had managed to convince Narcissa that she ought to dedicate more time to the botanical magics that ran her garden, documenting her efforts and publishing her results in a book. It wasn’t anywhere near complete, but so far, writing it had been a joy, and something she could feel incredibly proud of given that it was entirely her own.

Just then, Narcissa heard the front door open and strolling footsteps approaching her door—Hermione, straight from London, where she had conveniently been covering an event.

“Hi, Cissa,” Hermione said with a beaming smile when she walked into the room. “Sorry I’m a bit late, it kept dragging on, you wouldn’t believe the number of questions people wanted to ask.” She sighed and put down her notes, kissing Narcissa softly on the lips before taking the pins out of her hair and shaking it free.

“No need to apologize, darling,” Narcissa said. “It isn’t really that late.”

“Did you get the schedules worked out this afternoon with the hospital?”

“Yes, completely finalized,” she said, fetching a copy for Hermione and adding it to the woman’s stack of work papers. “August will be a busy month, all except for the last week when the department apparently closes for an end-of-summer holiday.”

“Oh, that’s perfect actually,” Hermione said with a grin. “The paper was just bugging me about how I haven’t taken any time off since I began. If I take off from the paper at the same time, we could both have a wonderful break.”

“Sounds lovely, I think we could both use it,” Narcissa said, pulling Hermione by the hand to the sofa where they could both sit. “Do you have any plans in mind?”

“Well, I thought we could visit my parents in Australia for a couple days, but after that, I have no idea,” Hermione said with a contented sigh, no doubt at the prospect of days that wouldn’t be spent with an overly packed schedule for once.

“Would you care to go to France?” Narcissa asked. “I own a small cottage in Nice. It’s right on the water and swimming in the sea does feel heavenly that time of year.”

“That sounds exquisite,” Hermione said with an even deeper sigh. “I’ll have some shopping to do before we go though, I don’t even own a bathing suit that fits at this point.”

“So what? Neither do I,” she said, cocking her lips into a half smile. 

Hermione laughed, seeming to like that image even more than the promise of a holiday. “Are you serious?”

Narcissa shrugged playfully. “Well, I do own one, but I wouldn’t wear it there. The place is completely private, warded practically out of existence. It’s a wonder it lets me in. And there is something wonderful about feeling the sun on your bare breasts.”

“Hmm, I have to admit, I like the sound of that,” she said and leaned over to kiss Narcissa deeply, practically falling into her lap.

A minute later, they were distracted by the sound of a throat being cleared from the doorway. Narcissa pulled away and looked over Hermione’s shoulder with wide eyes. 

“Oh, good afternoon, Harry,” she said, straightening up and letting Hermione pull herself off of her lap so she too could turn and see her embarrassed friend standing a few feet away.

“Draco’s not home yet, but you’re welcome to wait,” Narcissa continued, gesturing to the chair across from them.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” Harry said hesitantly, not taking a single step towards the sitting area. 

She waved her hand dismissively and stared at him unwaveringly until he gave in and sat. “Hermione and I were just planning a summer holiday.”

Harry chuckled. “Looks like you’re planning on staying in, then,” he said with a cheeky grin despite the lingering embarrassment in his gaze.

Narcissa rolled her eyes, but she smiled fondly at him nonetheless. “We’re going to spend some time in France at my family’s cottage on the Riviera.”

Harry hummed in apparent appreciation of the plan. “That sounds really nice.” 

Narcissa nodded. “It’s a romantic spot. You should make Draco take you there sometime, it sits empty most of the year.”

“I just might suggest that,” Harry said with a smile. 

Beside her, Narcissa could feel Hermione beaming at the two of them. Even after months of witnessing it, she never seemed to get over how well she and Harry had managed to get along after so long as supposed enemies. But to Narcissa, it was as natural as breathing to like someone who treated her son so well and had stuck by his side as he tried to find himself all over again in the world.

The three of them fell into casual conversation while they waited for the rest of the afternoon to pass, and Hermione twined her fingers into Narcissa’s, suffusing her with the easy bliss of skin on skin.