“You’ve hardly eaten a thing, Hermione dear, are you sure you’re all right?”
Hermione looked down at her still-full plate of roast chicken, and sighed as she pushed it away.
“I’m sorry, Molly. I think I’m just tired.” She smiled up at Harry’s foster mother, hoping that she wouldn’t be prodded for any more of an explanation, and was met with a worried look and the back of a hand to her forehead, as if Molly were checking that she wasn’t feverish or coming down with something. It made her smile, and it made her want to cry all over again. Her own mother had always done the same thing when Hermione was little.
“You’re working far too hard.”
Molly went to clear Hermione’s plate away but was stopped by Ron, who reached over the table and took it neatly out of her hands.
“Seconds,” he said, shrugging his shoulders at the raised eyebrows, and began eating Hermione’s lunch as if he hadn’t just eaten a plateful of his own. “I never got a break on last night’s shift at all, I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry, Ron.”
Ron swallowed a forkful of mashed potato, and turned to Hermione. “Mum’s right, though, you look awful.”
“Ronald! I never said she looked awful. And she doesn’t look awful anyway, she just looks tired.” Molly bustled around clearing away Harry’s plate and the serving dishes.
“I’m fine, really,” Hermione shook her head, slightly unwilling to laugh but unable to help herself. The Weasleys were so over the top, it was hard sometimes not to. “I just didn’t sleep very well last night, and it’s been a busy couple of weeks catching up with everything else after the Riddle case, that’s all. An early night tonight and I’ll be fine.”
She ignored Harry’s narrowed eyes.
“You should book some holiday, dear. You haven’t taken any since Christmas. Have a few days off. Go to the beach, have a couple of nights away somewhere.”
“If ooo do, we ood ow uh…”
“Ronald, for the love of god will you stop talking with your mouth full!”
Ron swallowed hastily, and started again. “If you do, we could go up to the National Park and do that hike we were going to do last year, remember the one?”
Hermione nodded. She and Harry and Ron and Ginny had planned it the previous summer, a full day’s hike before camping at a lake that was inaccessible by road, and then hiking back the following day. But then work had got too busy, and both Harry and Hermione had started working some Saturdays too, and then she was frankly too tired, and then the autumn had set in.
Now, it didn’t sound like a bad idea. She could take a week off - a whole week. She could read and walk in the park and spend some time in her flat. She could cook for herself, something nice that took a bit of effort instead of low-fat microwave meals all the time. She could do the hike with Ron and hopefully Ginny and Harry too. She would probably skip the beach, since she had a feeling that every time she saw a seagull it would, in a roundabout way, remind her of Narcissa, but she could go to the cinema and browse the bookshops and do that cycle ride along the river.
She could have a whole week in which she wouldn’t have to go to work knowing that Narcissa was just upstairs and Astoria was on the floor above that, and tearing herself into pieces wondering how she could have got it so wrong.
Her excuse about not sleeping the night before had been a true one. She’d tossed and turned all night, eventually getting up at five to run herself a deep, hot bath and falling asleep in that instead, waking only when the water turned cold and she started shivering. In her tired, slightly fragile state, her mind had run riot. She’d forgotten all about her rational explanations - that Narcissa had just been comforting a friend - and had instead allowed herself to be swamped by the part of her mind that said she’d been stupid, ridiculous, because why on earth would Narcissa Black like her as more than a friend and colleague anyway? It was exhausting and she knew she was overreacting, but snapping out of it was far harder than she’d hoped.
A week where it would be easier not to think about it every five minutes sounded like heaven.
“Yeah, maybe I will.” She smiled up at Molly, and then looked over at Harry and Ron. “We could try the hike on a weekend you’re off, Ron?”
He nodded, sweeping the last bit of chicken around the plate to catch the gravy. “I’ll check my shift calendar in a bit, I’ve got it on my phone.”
After that, Hermione started to relax a bit more. She still wasn’t hungry, but Molly made her a cup of sweet tea instead of dessert and refused to allow Ron to eat her slice of the apple pie, saying that she would wrap it up and Hermione could take it home for later. Hermione sipped the tea and listened to Ron and Harry talking excitedly about the hike already, planning what they would need and the best route and even what time they would need to leave, and she couldn’t help smiling. She nearly hadn’t come today at all, but she was glad she had.
Later, after walking home through the late afternoon, Hermione felt even better. She’d spent a good hour in the garden with Molly, helping her to deadhead the daffodils that were long over and to weed the beds around the roses, while Ron thrashed Harry at chess. Arthur had come home from his game of golf, pleased with his new ranking - no idea, love, don’t look at me, Molly had mouthed behind his back - and had switched on an afternoon film. It was an old one, a musical that Hermione remembered seeing on video at her grandparents’ house when she was small. She’d ended up staying to finish watching it even after Harry had left to get some work done, and then had decided to take the road home along the old railway track rather than get the bus or a cab. The company and then the walk had done her good. She carried Molly’s apple pie wrapped up in her handbag, and she hadn’t really thought about Narcissa for most of the afternoon.
By the time she turned into her street, the sun had almost sunk over the rooftops. The neat row of three-storey brick townhouses curved away up the hill, windows reflecting the sunset and tiny front gardens swaying in the breeze, and she felt a sudden gratitude that it was home. She loved her flat, on the top floor of one of the houses, far more spacious than it looked from the outside and with a view over the long back gardens and down to the main road. She’d decorated it in her favourite sage green and cream, carefully painting the panelling on the walls herself, and replacing the old kitchen with something a bit more up to date. She’d even managed to keep a few pot plants alive. It was her own little sanctuary, and even though she knew she’d left it in a mess - coffee cups still to wash, a few work papers on the coffee table, a pile of laundry waiting in the machine - she was very glad to be back.
After rummaging in her bag for her keys, she climbed the stairs and opened her front door with a sigh of relief. She wanted her pyjamas, more tea, and the apple pie. She kicked off her boots and walked through to the kitchen, dumping her bag on the table and shifting all the dirty cups off the side and into the sink; she would deal with those later. An archway, created by knocking through the original dividing wall, led through to the living room, and after flicking the kettle on she went to switch on the lamps. They cast a soft glow over the sofa, the single armchair, the ornate fireplace that now held a selection of different sized pillar candles, the photographs of her friends and family that lined the mantelpiece. Two stuffed bookcases filled one corner. She’d often wondered about moving them through to the small second bedroom that she used as a study, but she liked them there, where she could see them and where things could easily catch her eye. It was Vanity Fair that did so now, the large paperback resting on top of a pile that she’d never quite found a proper space for, and she picked it up as the kettle boiled. Maybe she would read a bit with her pie. Work could definitely wait.
Just as she was about to go and get into her pyjamas, she heard her door buzzer and smiled to herself. Adam downstairs was always forgetting his keys; he’d pop out to the garden or to the bins and lock himself out on a regular basis. She swung into the hallway and pressed the button to open the bottom door without even checking, and then headed back through to her bedroom. She’d just stripped off her shirt and was pulling her pyjama vest on when she heard the knock at her own door.
Her brow furrowed in confusion, she pulled on a zip-up hoodie over the vest and hurried back into the hallway. Maybe Adam had locked himself out of his own flat as well. But when she pulled open the door, her eyes widened.
“Hi,” Narcissa said softly.
“Uh…hi.” Hermione stood there, a bit too shocked at seeing the blonde at her door to do anything else, and Narcissa smiled. She held out a small takeout type container, and Hermione slowly took it.
“Your dessert from last night. Minus the ice cream.”
Hermione took a peek. Inside was a slice of lemon tart and a piece of gooey chocolate torte, together with a handful of fresh raspberries and a sprig of the mint that she knew had decorated the plates, and she bit her lip as everything came flooding back.
“Thank you,” she whispered, but still didn’t move.
“Can I come in?” Narcissa prompted gently, and Hermione looked up from the cake. She didn’t know what to say. She should say that she was busy and just leave it at that, but instead she found herself moving aside and holding the door open and not saying anything. Narcissa stepped hesitantly past her, and Hermione caught a light scent that mingled grapefruit, lilac, magnolia, something else that was entirely Narcissa. She shut the front door with a dull thud, and felt like crying all over again.
She led the way silently through to the kitchen. She was conscious of Narcissa following behind her, of blue eyes watching her, of the long soft cardigan and sleeveless charcoal top and tight jeans Narcissa wore, and she tried not to let the trembling in her hands show as she put the takeout box on the counter and fetched another mug.
Suddenly, she didn’t think she could stand the silence.
“Sorry about the mess,” she said, just for something to say, and Narcissa shook her head.
‘It’s a lovely place.”
“Thank you.” Hermione sucked in a deep, nervous breath. “I’ve been here a few years now. It wasn’t much when I first moved in, that’s how I managed to afford it, but I’ve gradually done it up. There’s still more I want to do, but…” She trailed off, and shrugged. “I was just about to make tea. Would you like some?”
“Yes, please.” A cool hand rested on Hermione’s shoulder, and she froze for a moment. “You’re babbling again.”
“I told you I do it when I’m nervous.” Hermione’s voice, when it came, was croaky, but then the hand dropped from her shoulder and she could breathe once more.
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Hermione blinked as she dropped Earl Grey teabags into mugs and poured the water on top.
“You could have sent a text. Do you want milk? I haven’t got lemon.”
“I could have done, but Teddy said you were upset and I wasn’t sure whether you’d reply. And black’s fine.”
Hermione quickly rescued the bag before the tea got too strong, and pushed that mug along the counter towards Narcissa. Fetching the milk from the fridge, she added a drop to her own tea and stirred it in. The spoon sounded loud, clattering against the side of the mug, and she winced at the noise it made when she dropped it into the sink.
“I’m fine. Teddy didn’t need to worry, and neither do you.”
“Then why did you leave in such a hurry?”
Hermione nearly gave her the headache excuse, but then thought saying nothing was the better option. Narcissa, she knew, could tell a lie from a mile off.
“Did something happen?”
“No, I just…” Hermione sighed. Her heart was thudding, but it crossed her mind that maybe if she told the truth they could simply clear the air and move on. Maybe it would make the next few weeks easier.
“I saw you with Astoria,” she eventually said quietly, looking down at her bare feet. The pink polish on her nails was slightly chipped; she hadn’t bothered to redo it properly for ages. Another little luxury for her week off. “I’m sorry. I think I’d somehow got the wrong idea about you and me, and I know that was stupid. It just upset me a bit, that’s all. I’m fine, though, really, and it won’t affect…”
But Narcissa held up a hand, a look of total confusion spreading across her face.
“Stop,” she commanded quietly, and Hermione trailed off. For a few moments Narcissa was quiet, clearly trying to sort through what Hermione had said and what it had meant, and when she finally did she looked incredulous. “I’m not even sure where to start with that.”
“You don’t need to say anything…”
“Firstly, Hermione, I’ve been flirting with you for weeks. How the fuck could you still think you have the wrong idea?”
Hermione’s sip of tea went down the wrong way, and she spluttered as it scalded the back of her tongue.
“You…” She looked up at Narcissa, her eyes wide as she coughed. “You meant all of that?”
“Do you really need to ask?” Narcissa didn’t wait for an answer, but shook her head. “Clearly you do. Yes, Hermione, I meant every word. I intended to flirt with you. I didn’t do it by accident, I didn’t do it without realising what I was doing. I’m forty seven years old, for goodness sake, I’ve had enough practice. Does that make it clear?”
Hermione nodded mutely, too shocked to do anything else.
“Secondly…” Narcissa paused. “What you saw with Astoria was nothing more than friendship. She’s engaged to my son.”
Hermione looked at Narcissa blankly for a few seconds. When she finally realised exactly what the blonde had said, she sucked in a deep breath and wished the floor would swallow her whole.
“Your son,” she said faintly, and Narcissa nodded, a small smile starting to spread across her face.
“My son,” she confirmed. “Who is currently doing a very good imitation of his father and behaving like the world’s biggest prat. Astoria was upset yesterday because he was meant to come to the ball with her, but threw a tantrum and pulled out at the last minute. I think they’d both said some stupid things and she needed a shoulder to cry on. That was all.”
Hermione screwed her eyes shut, feeling her face flame and her heart sink. She didn’t think she’d ever felt so embarrassed. Not even the seagull poop came close. She’d certainly never felt like such an idiot.
“So. Shall we start this again?”
Narcissa’s voice was soft, amused, and Hermione risked cracking open one eye. The smile she saw gave her a tiny bit of hope.
“I am such an idiot,” she groaned, and Narcissa chuckled.
“For once I wouldn’t disagree.”
“Can I turn back time?” She squinted open the other eye to see Narcissa stepping towards her, and she nearly gasped as a light finger brushed her cheek.
Hermione grimaced. “To the ball, before I decided I wanted the bathroom?”
Narcissa smiled. She reached for the takeout carton on the counter, and opened it again under Hermione’s nose.
“To dessert, you mean?”
Hermione’s stomach grumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t really eaten all day, and she nodded. Her mouth was dry. Narcissa was so close. “Yes,” she murmured. “But share it with me, I can’t eat it all.”
Narcissa reached over to the draining board, and plucked off two forks and a knife. Her top was loose, silky, and the movement gave Hermione the barest glimpse of simple black cotton, lace trim, a deep plunge of black lace in between Narcissa’s breasts before it was gone. She handed one of the forks to Hermione and sliced each of the pastries in two; the way she delicately licked the knife clean of chocolate afterwards made heat coil in Hermione’s stomach. When she held out a forkful of lemon tart, Hermione nearly groaned out loud.
She took it between her lips, noticing with amazed satisfaction how Narcissa’s eyes darkened.
‘Would you have done that last night?”
Narcissa smirked softly. “Probably not, although it was tempting.”
Both desserts were delicious. They sat at the small table and ate quietly, Hermione still taking some time to absorb everything Narcissa had said. Her stomach was twisting so hard she wondered if she could even eat, but she was genuinely hungry and she savoured the sharp lemon, the bittersweet chocolate. They saved the raspberries until last, when Narcissa put down her fork and picked one up between her fingers. Knowing what was coming, her heart flipping over and unable to quite believe she was doing it, Hermione took it gently from her with her lips.
“What else did I miss?” she asked huskily, and Narcissa smiled.
“Well, there was the ball part of the ball. Although not many people danced, to be fair. Pansy somehow got Marcus Flint out on the floor…”
“I thought he was gay?”
“He is. Filch did a jive with Norris…”
“No! I missed that?”
“I got a video on my phone, don’t worry.”
Hermione looked at Narcissa. Her blue eyes were soft and her hand was resting close, so close, to Hermione’s on the table. “But you didn’t dance?”
“No.” Narcissa shook her head. “The person I wanted to dance with had gone by then.” She stood and held out her hand, and Hermione allowed herself to be led through to the living room as if in a dream. Narcissa looked at the CD player, and Hermione smiled.
“At your own risk. I have terrible taste.”
The blonde laughed and hit play anyway, and Hermione did groan as the song filled the room.
“How much more embarrassment can I take in one night?”
But Narcissa was still laughing as she drew Hermione closer. One of her hands rested on Hermione’s shoulder and the other entwined their fingers together, leaving Hermione one hand free to rest on Narcissa’s waist. She slipped it underneath the blonde’s cardigan, letting her fingers tentatively feel warm skin beneath the t-shirt, and she felt Narcissa’s sigh mingle with her own as their cheeks brushed together and they swayed gently to the music.
“Would you have done this last night?”
“Yes,” Narcissa whispered, and Hermione pressed closer, smiling. All of her senses were filling with Narcissa; with blonde hair, with light fragrance, with softness and warmth, and her embarrassment had all but melted away. In its place was happiness, disbelief, a slight giddiness, and a fervent desire that the song never end.
“Your sisters would have teased you forever.”
“Oh, they’ve already started. Apparently I wasn’t exactly subtle that night at Andie’s.” Narcissa smirked softly. “And it would have been worth it to see Blaise’s face when he realised how much money he’d lost on that bet.”
Hermione pulled back, her eyes widening. “How did you know about that?”
Narcissa laughed at the look on her face, and gently drew her back in. “Pansy can’t keep her mouth shut when she’s drunk. Surely you knew that?”
Hermione shook her head, resolving never to tell her colleague anything in future. “No, I did not.”
“She also told Bella that she looked hot in the suit.”
“Oh, my.” Hermione buried her sudden bubble of laughter in Narcissa’s neck. “I did warn her Bella would eat her alive.”
“She won’t be allowed to forget it for a while, that’s certain.”
But Hermione’s smile was already fading as she thought about her colleagues and the office, and Narcissa sensed her change of mood.
“Are you okay?”
Hermione hesitated, and then grazed her lips along Narcissa’s neck. “You know this is potentially a very bad idea.”
Narcissa hummed against her cheek, and Hermione gave a little sigh of pleasure at the sensation.
“Because of work?”
She nodded, and Narcissa drew her even closer.
“I already work with my two sisters and my future daughter-in-law.”
“I know, but…”
“Don’t worry about it, darling. The whole law world is incestuous because none of us have the time to date anyone else.” Delicate fingers stroked through Hermione’s hair. “Besides, we don’t actually work together. Now that our bit of the Riddle case is just about over, I’ll go back to eyeing you up once a week at the meetings and that’ll be it.”
“You did?” Hermione pulled back in surprise, and Narcissa smiled as she took the opportunity to twirl her.
“Yes. And so did you.” She drew Hermione close again, and they gradually stopped swaying. Hermione looked into blue eyes that looked suddenly uncertain, and she smiled. Hands trembling a little, she reached up to cup Narcissa’s face gently in her hands.
“Would you have done this last night?’ she whispered as her lips ghosted across Narcissa’s, and the blonde nodded.
“I wanted to.”
“I’m sorry. I was an idiot.”
Narcissa smiled, and the lips that met Hermione’s were so warm and soft that Hermione nearly moaned. She tasted lemon and chocolate, and her senses were now flooded with the perfume and another scent that was just pure Narcissa. Pressing even closer, she wrapped her arms around Narcissa’s back, and had enough brain power left to be satisfied at the little gasp, at the way Narcissa’s tongue suddenly flicked against her lips, at the way the blonde seemed as needy for this as she was.
When they finally pulled apart to breathe, Narcissa rested her forehead against Hermione’s and smiled.
‘Yes, you were. And now we have a whole twenty four hours to make up for.”
Hermione laughed as she took Narcissa’s hand.
“Yes, we do.” She leaned in for another kiss, deep and hot this time. It left her tingling, a little dizzy from happiness and desire, and feeling as if she’d properly come home. “So we’d better get started.”