The breath left Hermione’s body in a rush of relief, and she slowly lowered her leg and tilted herself upright. Sinking to her knees, she tried not to groan out loud as she rested her forehead on the mat and stretched her hands back towards her feet. Warrior three was her least favourite pose. She had only been coming to the yoga class for two weeks, and already she knew it was her least favourite pose. Today, the teacher had had them in and out of it three times, alternating with warriors one and two - which happened to be Hermione’s second and third least favourite poses - and now she felt like she was beyond any kind of zen. She felt wobbly. Her legs screamed in protest. She felt like she’d already been stretched into oblivion, and now she wanted to stay like this forever, curled up in a ball on the sticky purple mat. Or at least until someone saw fit to carry her to a steaming hot bath, and preferably bring her some chocolate to eat while she was in there.
Unfortunately, there was still half of the class to go.
She tried to focus on her breathing. The teacher - a young woman with long brown hair and an upturned nose whose name was Nicole - was very enthusiastic about breathing. Hermione tried to follow the gentle commands to inhale and exhale and allow the movement of her body to follow the breath, whatever that meant, but concentrating on keeping her balance and getting all four of her limbs in the right place left no time for breathing deeply as well. As they moved through a series of seated twists that left her feeling like a dishrag being wrung out, she gave up and listened to the music instead. It was soft, soothing. The whole studio was soft and soothing, with cream walls and pinewood floors and little alcoves that were lit by candles. A huge pot plant filled one corner, and a Tibetan gong filled another. Nicole held meditation classes here too; she’d seen them advertised on the website, and she wondered whether that wouldn’t have been a better choice. She’d joined what was supposed to be an all-levels class on a thirty-day pass, and was already feeling woefully inadequate.
“Stretch up, and lean forward from the hips into seated forward bend, exhaling deeply….”
Hermione looked around to see what everyone else was doing, and almost squeaked out loud when she saw her neighbours folding expertly forwards, noses touching their knees and hands wrapped around their feet. There was no way in hell. Her hands barely reached to her shins, and even there the stretch on her hamstrings was borderline painful. She was almost as grateful to get out of this one as she had the warriors, but as she stretched her arms back towards the ceiling and draw your body upright as if an invisible thread connects the top of your head with the sky, she caught sight of something near the front of the class that made her heart sink into her stomach.
The more she looked, the more certain she became. The woman was in front of her, two rows ahead at the front, and her face was blocked by the shifting bodies in between. All Hermione could see was a slender, toned body in black leggings that should have been illegal, moving effortlessly into a downward dog pose before lifting one foot in perfect alignment with her back. Realistically, it could have been anyone. And yet something in the way the woman moved was familiar. Something in the way she held herself, even on a yoga mat, was distinct - almost as distinctive as the platinum blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Hermione had only ever seen that shade on one person.
She tried to force her mind to focus on your breath, imagine drawing air all the way down into your toes, but she couldn’t help it wandering. It was just her luck. She couldn’t believe that she’d chosen the same yoga class as one of her superiors; she was coming here in the first place to de-stress from work, not bring it with her. Nor could she believe that she hadn’t noticed before. Granted, she’d hurried in late, and had quickly taken a free space at the back of the class because she did not want anyone staring at her backside while she was trying to twist and turn and bend, but still, she should have noticed. And of course it had to be the superior that terrified her and attracted her in equal measure, so much so that she avoided the woman as much as possible.
She did her best with the supine twists and was quite proud of herself for managing to catch hold of her feet in a happy baby pose, but the savasana seemed interminable and it was all she could do to stop herself fidgeting. She forced herself to do some of the deep breathing, to keep her eyes closed, to try and relax each part of her body in turn. But by the time the final meditation was finally over and the first students were starting to gather their things, she was so antsy that she jumped up and hurried towards the studio door without a backward glance.
“Miss Granger? You forgot your water bottle.”
Hermione felt her face flush red as Nicole called after her, and half the remaining class turned to look. She took a deep breath and returned the yoga teacher’s smile, walking back as quickly as she could to the mat where she had indeed left her water bottle. As she picked it up, she sensed them rather than saw them. Blue eyes on her back. She deliberately didn’t look.
She kept her eyes averted as Nicole came over to chat to her, asking how she was finding the class and whether she felt comfortable with the flowing style of yoga they’d been practicing. She was aware of the studio packing up around them as they talked. She admitted that she’d been struggling, but also acknowledged that it had only been two weeks and that, since she worked a demanding desk job, she was likely very stiff and tense to begin with. When Nicole asked what she did, she smiled and loosened up a bit, talking without much prompting. She’d fully qualified the previous year as a solicitor, and been offered a junior position at one of the top firms in the city. It was prestigious. It paid well. It often involved twelve or fourteen hour days, especially when there was a big case on and she had to do most of the legwork. Her focus was family law. She hated litigation, and wasn’t keen on tort either. She spent far too long at a desk, and her shoulders were screwed. She was having trouble sleeping because she couldn’t switch off. She hoped yoga might help.
By the time she said good night to Nicole and left the studio, it was almost empty and the blonde ponytail was nowhere to be seen. She breathed a sigh of relief as she headed towards the changing rooms. She would grab her things and have a shower at home, where there was a pizza waiting for her along with a bottle of red wine. She had a pile of work files to go through too, but she felt surprisingly calm about those. Maybe the yoga had had some effect after all.
Her fragile peace shattered as she opened the changing room door, and almost walked right into a woman with a long blonde ponytail and cool blue eyes.
The woman she had both anticipated and dreaded.
The woman who hadn’t yet zipped up her black hoodie, and who was clad in nothing underneath except a black sports bra.
“Good evening, Hermione.”
“Good evening, Miss…uh, Narcissa.” Hermione felt her face flush as she stumbled over even the basic greeting. She had never quite got used to using calling Narcissa by her first name, even though no one was formal at the office. Somehow, the woman commanded the respect of Miss Black in a way that no one else, not even her sisters and business partners, did.
Narcissa gave a faint smirk and Hermione flushed even deeper. Her eyes flickered down, trying to hide her embarrassment, but she immediately realised her mistake. There was a lot of skin. A lot of cleavage, even in the confines of the bra. A lot of slender curve from waist to hip. She’d thought Narcissa’s business suits were hard enough to ignore, with the pencil skirts and expensive blouses and heels that could kill in a courtroom, but this was on a whole new level.
“I didn’t realise you practiced yoga.”
“I don’t,” Hermione said quickly, looking up again so that at least she wasn’t talking to a senior partner’s breasts. “I mean, it’s just my second week. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and thought I’d give it a go….Andromeda recommended it, actually.”
She clamped her mouth shut, aware that she was rambling. She always did when she was nervous. It was a habit she was desperately trying to curb, since judges generally had no patience for incoherence and she knew that she would never not be nervous in court. But Narcissa simply smiled and nodded.
“Yes, she’s keen on it.”
“I didn’t realise you were too. I didn’t think it would be your thing.”
She felt her flush blossom down her neck as Narcissa raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, I’m sure…”
“No, you’re right. I don’t practice that much anymore. I prefer swimming. But the pool was shut tonight for a private party, so I ended up here instead.”
“Oh.” Hermione had never really looked around the rest of the leisure complex, but she knew there was a decent-sized pool, along with a state-of-the-art gym and various different luxury studios that accommodated not only yoga and meditation but Pilates, spinning, dance, aerobics, boxing, Tai Chi, and something called Body Burn that Hermione had no desire to know more about.
“So don’t worry, I’m not a regular fixture in Nicole’s class.”
“I wasn’t. Worried, I mean. I don’t mind. Of course you can join whatever class you like…”
“Good to know.” Narcissa smirked again and Hermione swallowed. She had never been more grateful not to work directly for the woman. She wouldn’t have been able to concentrate for the rest of the week, remembering how she’d stammered and stuttered and blundered her way through a surprise meeting in the gym changing rooms.
Narcissa shouldered her bag and zipped up the hoodie, and Hermione breathed a sigh that was mingled relief and disappointment.
“I’ll leave you to the rest of your evening. See you tomorrow, Hermione.”
Hermione was almost too dazed to reply, and the changing room door had almost swung shut before she managed to wish Narcissa’s retreating back a nice night.
So much for relaxing. She sank down onto one of the benches and groaned. Muscles that she didn’t know existed were beginning to ache. All she’d done was stretch, for heaven’s sake, and she felt like she’d been put through a workout. And on top of that, she now had Narcissa imprinted on her mind, all blonde hair and blue eyes and very revealing sports bra.
She leaned her head back against the lockers and scrunched her eyes shut. Maybe she could still switch to meditation. She felt as if she might need it.
The reply to Hermione’s knock sounded a little harassed, but she pushed open the door anyway and stepped inside. The office, as usual, was chaotic. Piles of legal files were everywhere, covering the desk, the spare chair, and a lot of the floor as well. Books and loose-leaf folders were shelved randomly. A pot plant sat on the windowsill; Hermione knew the only reason it was still alive was because Luna, Andromeda’s secretary, made sure to water it. Andromeda herself was crouched in the middle of the room, an open file spread out on the floor in front of her with half its contents loose. Her white shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and her grey suit jacket hung haphazardly over the back of her chair. Wild curls were pulled back in something resembling a ponytail, and Hermione smiled fondly as Andromeda pushed a stray curl out of her face, only for it to fall straight back again.
“Am I interrupting something?”
“Nothing important, just the Baker divorce.” Andromeda sighed, and smiled up at Hermione. “The wife is now trying to include the French holiday home in the financial settlement, but I’m sure I’ve seen paperwork somewhere that says that’s actually owned by his parents and he just fronted the purchase. But can I find it?” She shook her head, and stood up. “I’ll just have to call him. Luna can’t find it either.”
Hermione grimaced. She hadn’t had much to do with that particular case, but she knew both parties were difficult to deal with.
“Anyway, what can I do for you?”
“I just wanted your advice on something, if you don’t mind? This Court of Protection case.”
“Sure.” Andromeda sat down and gestured for Hermione to move a pile of files and do the same. “What’s the issue?”
For the next half hour Hermione lost herself in the discussion. The case was a complex one involving an elderly couple, their three sons, and a dispute over a deputyship that had been made three years previously, and while she knew the Court of Protection system itself almost inside out, she had very little experience of dealing with the kind of bitter family dynamics that were beginning to take over. Andromeda had far more practice at that than she did, and Hermione knew she would be more than willing to help.
They’d just decided on a course of action when there was another knock at the door, and Luna poked her head around with a smile.
‘Sorry to interrupt, but you have the weekly meeting in ten minutes.”
“Oh, shit,” Andromeda swore. “Thanks, Luna.”
“No problem.” Luna disappeared, shutting the door behind her, and Andromeda pushed back her chair.
“We can pick this back up later.”
“No, it’s okay.” Hermione gathered the file. “I’m happier with it now, thank you.”
“If you want me to sit in on their next appointment, just let me know.”
“Thanks,” Hermione smiled. “I might do that.”
She followed Andromeda out of the office, and past Luna’s desk into the corridor. To her left, an open-plan area was filled with curved desks and computers and several photocopiers; it buzzed with a softly frenetic energy as the typists and administrators dealt with dictation and filing and appointments and court bundles. Her own small office was the other side, along with the other junior solicitors and trainees. The other two floors were laid out much the same. It was the first floor they were heading to now, passing by the reception area with its shiny glass and large raven logo on the wall, and up the black carpeted staircase. Despite all the modern touches the building was quite old, and the stairs weren’t level under Hermione’s feet. It was one of the strange, small things that had made her feel so at home when she had first come for an interview.
“How was yoga last night?”
Hermione looked at Andromeda in surprise as they reached the top of the staircase and turned into the corridor.
“How did you know I went?”
“You bumped into my sister.”
“Oh.” Hermione felt her face flare again. She’d been trying to force the memory of Narcissa Black in a sports bra - and the idiotic mess the sight had turned her into - to the back of her mind all morning, especially once she’d remembered about the weekly meeting that meant she would actually have to face the woman. “It was good - I think. Is it meant to be painful?”
Andromeda laughed. “You might be sore after the first few classes. Your body’s stretching in ways it’s not used to. Give it time, I’m sure it’ll help.”
“Do you practice a lot?”
“Most days at home, although I rarely get to class these days,” Andromeda nodded. “It keeps me somewhat sane.”
“I ached in places I didn’t know you could ache,” Hermione admitted as they neared the conference room. “But I did sleep better.”
“Good,” Andromeda smiled as she pushed open the door. “You’re going to need it.”
Hermione looked at her warily as they took two of the free seats, but didn’t have a chance to ask. They were almost the last to arrive. Neville Longbottom hurried in behind them, his face flushed and a pile of papers in his arms, and Hermione saw Andromeda subtly smirk. She liked Neville, they all did. But his timekeeping was a standing joke, especially to the weekly meeting.
As the meeting began, Hermione looked around the table. The firm was relatively small, considering its reputation, and she noted that not everyone was there. There were some who, like her, were newly qualified: Harry Potter, who she had been through law school with and whose office was now opposite hers in family law, and Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson from litigation. There were the few junior partners that she knew and had had dealings with: Neville, along with Dean Thomas, Fleur Delacour and Astoria Greengrass. And then there were the three Black sisters, who had founded the firm and were the senior partners and major shareholders. Andromeda, head of family law, property and tax. Bellatrix, who headed up litigation and had a reputation as one of the fiercest lawyers out there. And Narcissa, who dealt with the minefield of contract and tort, and who was currently looking at Hermione with a small but knowing smile as she sipped a coffee.
Hermione wished she had a coffee of her own to hide behind. She tried to concentrate on what Bellatrix was saying, but her eyes kept being drawn to the blonde woman. Long fingers twirled a pen absentmindedly as her sister outlined the new developments in the litigation department’s major case. Blue eyes flashed with intelligence as she asked questions and dissected the answers. Hermione had often wondered why she had no trainees or juniors; that department of the firm had a reputation as one of the best in the country, but now that she had been there a while she suspected that it had nothing to do with lack of applicants and everything to do with Narcissa’s pickiness.
She had had a crush on the woman since her first day there, and had really tried not to let it show. It hadn’t been too hard. Beyond these weekly meetings, they barely saw each other. Now, though, she couldn’t forget what lay underneath the green silk blouse and perfectly tailored black blazer, and the slightly amused look in Narcissa’s eyes whenever she looked in Hermione’s direction told Hermione it was probably obvious.
“Got anything, Andie?”
Bellatrix had finished the update from the litigation department, and was looking at her sister expectantly. It always amazed Hermione how two people so alike in looks could be so different in temperament. Bellatrix and Andromeda shared the same wild curls, the same dark eyes, the same curvy build. But while Andromeda was open and friendly and hid her steel with a touch of softness, Bellatrix didn’t bother. Bellatrix was all hard lines and sharp edges that frequently shredded opponents in court. Hermione had never been on the wrong side of her and had no desire to try it, but she also knew that Bellatrix was one of the best. She had a huge amount of respect for the dark haired woman, along with what she considered to be a healthy dose of wariness.
Hermione looked at Andromeda in surprise, and was gratified to see that Harry was doing the same. Clearly, she wasn’t the only one who had missed the news that warranted a mention in the weekly meeting.
“We’ve got a new estate to deal with.”
Narcissa raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow, and Bellatrix looked blank.
“We don’t do estates anymore.”
“We’ll do this one.” Andromeda smiled, and it reminded Hermione of a cat about to pounce on a cage full of canaries. “It’s Tom Riddle.”
As she looked around the room, Hermione noticed what seemed to be a clear age divide. Narcissa and Bellatrix had wide-eyed looks of recognition, while Fleur, Neville and Astoria looked as if they knew the name but couldn’t place it. Everyone else - everyone, Hermione thought, who was under the age of about thirty five - just looked blank, and it was Pansy who dared to ask.
“Who the hell is Tom Riddle?”
“You’re joking?” Bellatrix looked askance at her, but Andromeda chuckled.
“Probably before your time. He fronted The Death Eaters. Punk band, late seventies, early eighties?”
“First gig I ever went to. I loved that group.”
Hermione wasn’t the only one who looked amazed at Bellatrix’s surprising reminiscence.
“Before my time, too,” Narcissa smirked, and Bellatrix laughed.
“You wish. You sneaked out of primary school to come with me.”
“Anyway,” Andromeda interrupted her sisters before Narcissa could retaliate and before the eyes in the room could get any wider, “to cut a long story short, Tom Riddle is dead and he didn’t leave a will.”
“That, I’m guessing, is what the family are thinking.” Andromeda tapped the end of her pen on the table. “It’s a mess. He has five children by three women, none of whom he married. The only thing they can agree on is hiring us. Three houses in three different jurisdictions. But the shittiest mess of all is the song rights and royalties. It’s not clear at all what he legally held the rights to and what he didn’t, and he’s been pocketing money for years on songs that others are now claiming to have written. It all needs clearing up before the estate can be settled.”
“That’s gonna take months,” Harry said, pushing his glasses up his nose and his shock of dark hair out of his eyes, and Andromeda nodded. There was a glint of excitement in her eyes that Hermione knew came with a new, challenging, and potentially very lucrative case.
“It is. We’re going to split it up. Harry, I want you to focus on the properties with me. Spain, the Bahamas, and South Africa. They’ll probably take the longest to sort out.”
“Okay.” He nodded, not looking too excited at the prospect of delving into the intricacies of international property law, and took the thin file she passed to him.
“Hermione, you’re going to be working on the intellectual property side. Song rights and so on.”
“Okay, but I….” She had been about to say that she didn’t really have that much experience of either estate handling or intellectual property, but Andromeda interrupted her.
“Narcissa, can you work with Hermione? You’re experienced in intellectual property and we need this part dealt with fairly quickly. The other band members are threatening to take it to court before we can apply for probate.”
Hermione must have looked as horrified as she felt, because Narcissa raised an amused eyebrow.
“I don’t bite, you know. Not like Bella.”
“Hey!” Bellatrix looked affronted, and Andromeda shook her head at her sisters’ bickering.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Hermione, the file on that is in my office, I forgot to grab it. Come and get it after lunch. I’ve got appointments until then.”
Hermione nodded mutely. There was nothing else she could do. She tried to concentrate on the rest of the meeting, but she didn’t take much in. Her palms were clammy and her heart was thudding. She had been doing so well. And now not only had she seen Narcissa in a sports bra - a sight that she knew was perfectly decent, but somehow did several indecent things to her body and imagination - but she was going to have to work with the woman. Closely. For weeks.
“Last thing before we go…” Bellatrix held up a hand to stop the exodus when the clock struck eleven. “Law Society annual dinner and ball. It’s in six weeks. Guaranteed to be as stuffy and boring as ever but we should put in an appearance. Let me know if you want tickets. We can accommodate plus-ones.”
Hermione stood up with the others, and caught Narcissa’s eyes across the table. She bit her lip. That smirk would be the death of her if it happened too often, and she already had a horrible feeling she was done for.