Chapter 1: The Sports Bra
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.
Chapter 2: The Lacy Bra
Because I'm a terrible person, lol, I forgot to thank Yanana again for reading this, screaming about it, pointing out a few of my really obvious typos, and encouraging me to post it - so thank you! ❤️
“That was delicious, Molly, thank you.” Hermione leaned back in her seat at the large kitchen table, and sighed in contentment. She was full. So full her stomach almost hurt. It was a regular Sunday lunch occurrence, because everything Harry’s foster mother turned out was always so enticing that she couldn’t say no. Harry, sitting across the table from her, was in the same state.
“You’re very welcome, dear.” The bustling redhead patted Harry fondly on the shoulder as she walked past him with a scraped-clean serving bowl. “You’re looking far too thin.”
Hermione smiled. She wasn’t sure if Molly had been referring to her or Harry or both of them, but it probably made no difference. Molly Weasley always worried. She worried about everyone whether they were family or not, and after several years of close friendship with Harry, Hermione had found herself definitively counted as family. She didn’t mind. Her own parents were happily enjoying their retirement in Australia, and regular Sunday lunches cooked by Molly Weasley were as good a substitute as she could have hoped for.
“Hermione’s been going to yoga,” Harry winked at her. “Maybe it’s more athletic than they make out.”
“Hardly,” Hermione scoffed. “Or at least, the others in the class might be but I’m not. I can still barely touch my toes.”
Molly Weasley winced from the sink. “Good luck with that, dear, but it sounds like purgatory to me. I never was one for sports. I’m not sure where Ginny gets her love of football from.”
“Is Ron around at all today?’ Harry asked after his foster brother, the only one of the five Weasley boys still living at home, and Molly nodded.
“He was on an early shift, so he should be…”
But she hadn’t finished her sentence before they heard the front door opening and then slamming shut, and the sound of boots being kicked off and a jacket slung carelessly over a hook in the hallway. Ron was never quiet. Molly rolled her eyes fondly, and went to fetch the plate of lunch that she’d kept aside for him.
“Hi Harry, Hermione.” Ron came into the kitchen, already pulling the tie from his policeman’s uniform. He gave his mother a kiss before flopping down on a spare chair at the table. “Something smells good.”
Hermione got up to do some of the washing up while Molly fussed around Ron, but she was pushed firmly back down into her seat with a motherly hand and twinkling eyes.
“I can manage, Hermione. You sit and relax.”
She did as she was told. The Weasley’s large, rambling kitchen was the perfect place to sit, warm and content, after a large meal, and let the afternoon drift away as Ron shovelled chicken and roast potatoes into his mouth and talked about his shift. He hadn’t bothered to get changed, and his sergeant’s stripes stood out sharply on his blue shirt. Hermione had been almost as proud as Harry when he passed his exams. She had a soft spot for Ron, partly because she knew how fond Harry was of him: being plucked from the care system at the age of eleven and deposited with a family like the Weasley’s had been incredibly lucky, but had also taken a lot of adjustment. Harry never talked about those first years much, but Hermione knew that Ron had made a real effort to help.
“…and so this guy’s on the bridge, car stalled, blocking the entire one way system because he took a wrong turning and he’s a new driver and he’s having a panic attack at the idea of being lost on the wrong side of the river, and then…”
“Poor man,” Molly tutted.
“Waste of police time, if you ask me,” Ron grumbled into what was left of his broccoli. “They had traffic cops, us, a mediator because we didn’t know if he was going to jump or try and drive over the barrier…all because he took a wrong turning.”
“Imagine,” Molly shook her head. She took Ron’s empty plate away and replaced it with a bowl full of rhubarb crumble and ice cream. “The poor man needs help. I hope you made sure he was all right.”
“Course I did, Mum.” Ron rolled his eyes, and smirked at Harry. “He got the once-over by the paramedics, then got blue-lighted back to the road he should have taken in the first place.” He swirled his ice cream around the warm crumble, waiting for it to melt. “What have you two been up to?”
“Big new case,” Harry replied. “An estate. Not sure how much we can say?”He raised an eyebrow at Hermione, who shrugged.
“It’s been in the papers. Tom Riddle. I’d never heard of him but apparently he was a musician back in the seventies…”
“Tom Riddle?” Molly interrupted from the last of the washing up. “Not Tom Riddle of The Death Eaters?”
Harry’s eyes went wide. “Don’t tell me you were a punk fan too. It was bad enough finding out the boss used to headbang.”
“No, but your father was,” Molly chuckled, and Ron’s mouth dropped open around a spoonful of crumble.
“Oar oking?” He swallowed. “I never knew that!”
“Close your mouth, Ronald, no one wants to see your half-eaten crumble,” Molly admonished him. “Yes, Arthur was a fan in his time. Not me, I preferred a bit of gentle country rock myself. But Arthur had all the albums on vinyl.” She smiled fondly as she remembered. “He used to insist on playing them to me. Ghastly things. I think he’s still got them somewhere, you should ask him.”
“So this guy’s dead?” Ron asked, and Harry nodded.
“And the estate’s a mess. Andromeda and I are dealing with the properties, Hermione’s dealing with the song rights.” He smirked, and Hermione groaned inwardly. “With Narcissa.”
“Ummph.” Ron grimaced around the last huge mouthful of pudding. “Howth at goey?”
Ron swallowed again and grinned. “How’s that going?”
“It’s not, yet.” Hermione glared at Harry. She deeply regretted the evening she’d got drunk enough to confess her attraction to the blonde lawyer to Harry and Ron. “She’s been too busy finishing off another case to start this one. I’ve been going through some of the stuff Andromeda passed across, but I think it’ll be the end of this week before she can look at it too.”
“And it’s not like you’re hurrying her along,” Harry laughed. “You usually avoid her like the plague. If I didn’t know better I’d say Andromeda put you two together on purpose for a bit of fun.”
“I don’t avoid her!” Hermione protested. “I don’t usually have a reason to work with her, that’s all. And of course I’m not hurrying her, Harry, you don’t hurry Narcissa Black…"
“You’ll have to get over the open-mouthed awe if you’re gonna work with her…hey!” Ron laughed as Hermione plucked a grape from the fruit bowl at the end of the table and threw it at him. “Just saying it could get awkward if you’re stammering all the time, that’s all.”
“Oh for goodness sake, Ron, Hermione doesn’t stammer!” Molly looked horrified at the very idea. “It might not be her first choice, but I’m sure she’ll do a very good job with whatever it is they need to do together.”
Both Harry and Ron smirked behind their mother’s back. Hermione never could do much wrong in Molly Weasley’s eyes - she suspected it was because of all the times she’d sat up late studying with Harry at university, dragging him kicking and screaming through his exams - but she was grateful that Harry and Ron had never let slip about her crush. She was also thankful that she hadn’t mentioned the disastrous meeting with Narcissa at the yoga studio to them. They would have teased her about it for weeks. But just as she was preparing herself for more innuendo about what she and Narcissa would need to do together, the front door slammed again and Ginny appeared, filthy and tired and grinning after football training, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
The afternoon disappeared in laughter and conversation and gentle bickering just as it always did. Hermione left late, happy and content, just as she always did. This time, though, she had Narcissa on her mind, and Ron and Harry’s teasing hadn’t helped her decide whether she was looking forward to working with the woman or not.
It was towards the end of the week when she finally had an email from Narcissa, asking if she would be free to start work on the Riddle estate later that afternoon. She replied almost immediately saying that would be fine, and spent the rest of the morning trying to distract herself with other work. She had several smaller cases ongoing: a couple of straightforward divorces, an adoption, and a domestic violence case which Andromeda had taken pro bono and which Hermione had asked to take the lead on. While Harry was determined to focus his efforts ultimately on juvenile law and child protection, Hermione had found that her interests really lay in the junction of family and criminal law, and it was an area Andromeda seemed keen to encourage.
She was just in the middle of an application for a non-molestation order that she doubted would have any effect whatsoever, when the sharp ring of her desk phone made her jump. An internal number showed on the display, and her stomach flipped when she realised which one it was.
“Narcissa?” She quickly checked her watch. “I’m not late, am I?”
“Not yet.” Narcissa sounded amused. “I just wondered if you wanted coffee. Katie’s popping out to the place on the corner.”
“Oh.” Hermione breathed out. She hadn’t managed to get lunch today, so… “Please. One of their mocha lattes with an extra shot?”
There was a pause, and she could almost hear Narcissa’s smirk on the end of the phone. “Another fussy coffee order. Clearly my sister is rubbing off on you. Okay, see you in a bit.”
And with that Hermione heard a click and the dial tone, and she blew out the rest of her breath so slowly it made her feel a little dizzy.
She managed to get the non-molestation application to a point where she could save it and leave it. Then, checking her watch again, she quickly ran her fingers through her curls and swiped some balm across her lips. She didn’t want to admit that she’d been making more of an effort with her appearance for the last few days, taking extra care with her makeup and selecting the clothes that always made her feel good. She did not want to feel cobbled together when she met with Narcissa, and yet now, despite the light touch of eyeliner and the softly scented balm, and the trouser suit that usually made her feel like she ruled the world - and so was usually kept for court appearances only - cobbled together was exactly how she felt. But then, as she grabbed the Riddle file and headed out into the corridor, she thought she probably would always feel like that in Narcissa’s presence.
Ron and Harry had been right. She really had to get over this if she was going to work with Narcissa so closely for the next few weeks.
She climbed the stairs and turned down the corridor that held Narcissa’s office, right above Andromeda’s, and was greeted with a smile from Katie Bell, Narcissa’s secretary.
“One mocha latte, extra shot.” She handed Hermione a takeout cup, and Hermione took it gratefully.
“Thank you, Katie.”
“No problem. You can go on in, she’s finished on the phone.”
Hermione took a deep breath, balanced the file under her arm and her coffee in one hand, and pushed open the door.
Despite being exactly the same size and layout, Narcissa’s office couldn’t have been more different from Andromeda’s. There wasn’t a file out of place, and Hermione could see that the books on the bookshelf were all in alphabetical order. Where Andromeda had pens scattered across her desk, Narcissa had a beautifully painted ceramic pot full of them. While Andromeda’s pot plant was clinging on by a thread, Narcissa’s was thriving. There was nothing on the floor of Narcissa’s office except a very expensive carpet, and Narcissa certainly wasn’t sitting on it like Andromeda often did. She was sitting behind her desk, blonde hair loose over her shoulders and coffee cup in hand, and for a horrible second Hermione’s breath caught in her throat as she realised that Narcissa’s cream blouse was sleeveless.
“Take a seat.” Narcissa pointed to the chair on the other side of the desk, and Hermione obediently sat down. Long hair trailed over exposed, pale shoulders as Narcissa put her cup down, reached into a drawer for a legal pad, and picked up a pair of reading glasses. She’d taken the lid off her coffee and Hermione could smell the strong black liquid inside. No wonder she’d said Hermione’s latte was fussy.
“So. What do we have?”
Hermione grimaced and held up the bulging file she was carrying, and Narcissa swore under her breath.
“Well, I suppose too much is better than nothing at all.”
Setting the file down on the desk and flipping it open, Hermione forced herself to concentrate.
“I’ve divided it into five.” She picked up the first bundle of papers. “This is a list of all the band’s known recorded songs, together with official credits for music and lyrics. This…” She indicated a much smaller bundle, “is the paperwork from the record company - and he was only ever with one, so there shouldn’t be any contracts floating around anywhere else. These are Tom Riddle’s bank statements from the past three years - or at least the ones we’ve been able to get hold of, it’s not a complete record. These are copies of the claims from the other band members. And these….” She indicated the final, biggest bundle, “are the notated scores and lyrics that were found among his possessions. None of them were deposited with the bank or with the lawyers, but they are all dated.”
Narcissa looked like she was about to swear again, but took a large mouthful of her coffee instead.
“You don’t need to officially register a song to copyright it though, do you?” Hermione thought quickly back to the single university term that had been devoted to intellectual property, and wished that she’d gone back over her notes a third time before this meeting. “I thought most people today just emailed themselves a copy or something, so that they have a date on record.”
“No you don’t, and yes they do. Which is why he should have either sent himself a copy and left the envelope unopened - and made sure the post office stamp was clear with the date - or stuck his hand into his pocket and paid his lawyers to do it for him.” Narcissa sighed. “But at least you know something of what you’re doing, that’s a good start.”
Hermione wasn’t sure how to take the barbed compliment, and so drank some of her own coffee instead as Narcissa reached across the desk and pulled the file towards her. For a few moments there was silence as the blonde flicked through the papers. Hermione was aware of red nail polish, the gold-rimmed glasses, the subtle fragrance of perfume that drifted lazily around them. The window was open to muted city traffic and birdsong and a warm patch of spring sunshine, and she took a few deep breaths, trying to remember what Nicole had taught them in the Tuesday evening class. Inhale abdomen, diaphragm, chest; exhale chest, diaphragm, abdomen. The breath is like a deep wave. She was just starting to relax a bit and get into some kind of gentle rhythm that didn’t feel too forced or awkward, when Narcissa tapped the desk loudly with a fingernail.
“Okay.” The blonde nodded to herself, and leaned back in her chair. “We need to determine which royalties were legal and which ones weren’t.”
“You sound very sure he was scamming.”
“Of course he was.” Narcissa flicked to the bank statements. “The year before last he totalled over five million in royalties. That amount did not come from those contracts alone, the songs aren’t that popular any more.”
“But how?” Hermione wasn’t sure she understood. “If there was no contract, then surely he couldn’t have been paid?”
“You’re forgetting all this was set up forty years ago. Too many people were too lax on the paperwork; what mattered most was who you were and who you knew.” Narcissa turned to the contracts, and flicked one of them derisively with her fingernail. “Durmstrang - the record company - were tiny when they signed The Death Eaters. They grew together with the band, as it were. They were all friends, they all knew each other’s girlfriends and kids. All Riddle would have needed to do was to walk into the studio and say he wrote the song, and they would have taken his word. They didn’t bother with contracts until they had to.”
Hermione nodded slowly. Narcissa had clearly done some research.
Narcissa picked up the song catalogue, and split it in two. “You take half, I’ll take half.” She handed the first part of the bundle to Hermione. “We need to go through every song, and cross-reference the official credits with the royalty contracts and - most importantly - his own scores.”
Hermione’s eyes widened, but Narcissa was focused on the file.
“If his name is on the credits and there’s a corresponding contract, highlight the song in green and mark it with the contract number. If he’s on the credits and he has a handwritten score that’s dated, highlight it in orange and again, give both a number. If he’s on the credits but has neither of those things, highlight it in red. Obviously there’s the complication of songs having been jointly written and the contract or score being elsewhere, but it’s a start.”
“And the claims from the other band members?”
“We’ll go through those afterwards.”
“I assume we’ll need to speak to them at some point?”
Narcissa nodded. “Unfortunately. We’ll need to confirm any proofs of copyright that they have. But this will do for the moment. If you don’t mind working up here this afternoon and making a start, I can ask Katie to copy everything tomorrow so that we each have a set to work from.”
“Of course,” Hermione nodded, and took another deep breath. She was a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of legwork; she’d known it would be a big case and Andromeda had warned them, but she hadn’t quite realised how tangled everything was.
“Don’t be put off,” Narcissa gave her a quick smile. “It’s one of those things that might never get completely finalised. We’ll just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
“I know.” But she couldn’t help thinking of the domestic violence case waiting for her downstairs, and something of her reluctance must have shown on her face.
“It’s not your preferred area.”
It wasn’t a question, but Hermione slowly shook her head. “If I’m honest….no. Estates and property aren’t really my thing.”
Narcissa slipped her glasses off and eyed Hermione appraisingly. “You want to focus on the criminal element of family law.”
“How did you…”
“I do talk to my sisters.” Narcissa looked amused, and then her expression became serious. “Domestic violence, abuse, harassment…it’s tough.”
Hermione raised an eyebrow. “Are you trying to talk me out of it?”
“Not at all.” Narcissa leaned forward, and Hermione was pinned in place by blue eyes that she couldn’t look away from. “But remember that there are lots of ways to make a difference. You don’t particularly want to do this because you think the estate of a multi-millionaire musician isn’t a worthy cause.”
“I didn’t say…”
“You didn’t need to.”
Hermione felt her face flush. She hadn’t really admitted it even to herself. For the past week she’d been trying to focus on the challenge and the learning experience of the Riddle case, and had ignored the little dismissive voice in her head that said she could be doing far better things.
“You aren’t going to be saving anyone from an abusive husband, that’s true. But you are, hopefully, going to be bringing some peace of mind to a bereaved family and believe me, that is worth every hour you will spend on this. However obnoxious they are, at least some of them will be grieving in their own way. Beyond that, you will be getting compensation for artists who have likely been cheated for years out of what they were rightfully owed. Don’t dismiss it too quickly.”
Hermione flushed even deeper, but Narcissa was already reaching into her desk drawer. She retrieved a handful of highlighter pens, and handed three across the desk.
Hermione nodded, still feeling slightly ashamed, and they got to work.
Three hours later, Hermione’s eyes were swimming with song titles, contract numbers, and traffic-light coloured lines. Her neck was stiff. She’d shed her suit jacket and rolled her shirt sleeves up and finished her coffee long ago. Katie had brought them bottles of water. But when the clock struck six, even Narcissa sighed and threw down her highlighter.
“I can’t take any more tonight.”
“I don’t think I can either.” Hermione put the cap back on her pen and stretched her arms up to the ceiling, groaning as her spine popped. “What’s your half looking like so far?”
“Mostly red,” Narcissa snorted. “Yours?”
“About equal between the three.”
“Interesting.” Narcissa stood up and stretched, walking over to the window, and Hermione noticed that she’d slipped her shoes off. Her skirt was tight and clung to her curves, and Hermione tried not to stare. “I gave you the first half of the catalogue, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Hermione checked. “And it’s done by date order, not alphabetical.” She looked up at Narcissa. “I guess he got more brazen as time went on.”
“It would seem so.”
Hermione hesitated, and then remembered her resolve to not be so awestruck around the blonde woman. “Did you really sneak out to go to a gig?”
She wondered if she’d overstepped, but Narcissa chuckled. “I did. I was only ten. I was so jealous of Bella going - although of course she didn’t have permission either. Both of us got grounded for three months.”
Hermione laughed. The image of a small Narcissa following her older sister to a punk gig was so unexpected and somehow so believable that she couldn’t help it.
“Have you listened to any of the music?” Narcissa asked, and Hermione shook her head.
“Not yet. I’m not sure where to start, to be honest.” She gestured to the song catalogue. “Three hundred songs and twelve albums?”
“The early stuff was the best.” Narcissa padded towards a tall cupboard in the corner of the room, next to the printer and scanner. “Try the second and third albums. They’re on YouTube.”
“Azkaban and…Nagini’s Tongue?”
“Very explicit lyrics, I would wait until your neighbours are out if you want to turn it up.”
“Oh.” But Hermione was no longer focusing on the albums. Narcissa had pulled open the cupboard door, and she was watching, almost mesmerised, as the blonde began to unbutton her blouse.
“Sorry,” Narcissa said, sounding totally unconcerned that Hermione was still in the room. “I told Andie I’d babysit and I want to change first.”
Her voice brought Hermione to her senses, and she almost squeaked as Narcissa slipped off the blouse to reveal a cream lace bra, the delicate floral pattern plunging low on her breasts.
“I’ll…uh… leave you to it?”
“No need, I assume I don’t have anything you haven’t seen before.” Narcissa smirked, and Hermione swallowed. Her palms were clammy and she felt flushed all over, and she wanted to say that of course she’d seen women in their underwear before, but none of those women had been Narcissa and so it was completely different. She turned back to the papers on the desk, and began gathering them loudly together as Narcissa pulled a t-shirt out of the cupboard. Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione could see the rail was hung with a suit jacket, a coat, several scarves, some tops, and a pair of jeans. A gym bag, the same one that she had seen Narcissa carrying in the changing rooms, sat at the bottom. Narcissa clearly spent a lot of time at the office.
“I’d like to get this first comparison of the records done in the next week.” Narcissa’s voice cut across Hermione’s increasingly frantic paper shuffling. She didn’t dare turn around as she heard Narcissa slipping her skirt down, pulling jeans on instead, zipping them up. “Is that manageable with your other cases?”
“I think so,” she croaked, and she sensed Narcissa’s amusement.
“I’m dressed, Hermione, you can stop hiding your blushes in song titles that are probably less decent than I am.”
Hermione immediately stilled her hands. Remembering, yet again, her resolve to not turn into another nervous wreck, she forced herself to turn around. It didn’t help much. Narcissa dressed in tight blue jeans and a black t-shirt was no less attractive than Narcissa in sports gear, and only marginally less appealing than Narcissa in lace.
“I’ll get it to you by the end of next week,” she confirmed, trying to sound more confident, but Narcissa shook her head.
“You won’t get it to me, Hermione, we’re working together. I suggest a check-in on Tuesday of next week, and then an afternoon meeting next Friday to go over what we’ve managed to do. Check your appointments schedule when you can and let me know if that suits.”
Wrong-footed once more, Hermione simply nodded. She knew she would make it suit. She didn’t know if she would end up dreading Tuesday or looking forward to it, but she already knew it was going to be a very long weekend, and that she was going to have serious trouble putting the image of Narcissa and the cream bra out of her mind.
Chapter 3: The Swimsuit
Hermione looked up from her desk to see Andromeda standing in her doorway, eyebrows raised and lips curved in a smirk.
“Hi, Andromeda.” Hermione’s welcoming smile quickly faded to worry. “Have I missed a meeting or something? The e-calendar’s been down all morning…”
But Andromeda shook her head, and continued to regard Hermione’s tiny office space with something akin to amused pride.
“And I thought no one was messier than me. Can I take a photo? Cissy’ll never have a go at me about files on my floor again.”
“No!” Her eyes widened as Andromeda pulled out her phone, light smirk turning to laughter as she saw the horrified look on Hermione’s face. Hermione knew her boss was teasing and that she was probably overreacting, but even the possibility that Narcissa might see the disaster area that currently passed for her office made her flush hot with embarrassment. “It’s the Riddle case,” she said defensively. “I’ve never seen so much paperwork in my life. Not even the Court of Protection produces this much.”
Andromeda, still chuckling, slipped her phone back into her pocket.
“I would ask if I could come in, but…”
‘It’s okay, I left a path through.” Hermione indicated a trail of carpet visible in between papers, barely a couple of inches wide, that led from her desk chair to the door. Andromeda looked at it, shook her head, and then slipped off her heels and carefully padded right over the scattered papers to the corner of Hermione’s desk, where she perched after shifting a half-empty coffee cup.
“Dare I ask how it’s going?”
“You mean you can’t tell?” Hermione gestured around her. Her office had never, ever been in such a state. It looked as if her entire filing cabinet had tipped itself out; every available surface was covered with bank statements, contracts, lyrics, notated music, list upon list of song titles, and her own scrawled notes that she hadn’t yet got around to filing properly. Lurid splashes of colour indicated where she’d highlighted. There were pages filled with doodles that she really should have thrown away but which somehow helped her to think, and pages with nothing on but a giant question mark. She was supposed to be meeting Narcissa the following day to compare their notes. Their planned Tuesday check-in had been cancelled - she still wasn’t sure why - but she desperately wanted to prove to Narcissa that it didn’t matter, that she was taking this seriously, and that she didn’t need regular check-ins to prod her into working hard. She’d wanted to have all her half of the song catalogue done and all the papers filed in order by now, but instead she could barely even get to her office door.
“I can only see one coffee cup, that’s a good sign.”
But Hermione pointed to the floor right by her desk, where another three empty mugs were lined up waiting to be taken to the kitchen and washed up, and Andromeda’s lips parted into a little ‘o’.
“It’s not difficult, there’s just so much of it,” Hermione sighed. “I’m sure it’s taking me far longer than it should to cross-reference everything. And then I see something that I don’t understand or that doesn’t make sense, and I get sidetracked into trying to solve it and lose where I am with what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Andromeda’s laugh was rich and throaty, and Hermione smiled despite herself.
“Curiosity is a good thing in this profession.”
Hermione nodded and grimaced at the same time. “It’s just not so good when I’m on a deadline.”
“Speaking of which…”
“Does your office always look like the paper shredder blew up all over it, Hermione?”
Hermione’s heart gave a single, hard thud in her chest as she heard the familiar voice, and felt her stomach sink as she looked over to her office door. Narcissa was standing there, looking perfectly put together in a light grey suit and lilac blouse, one eyebrow raised as she surveyed the scene before her, and it was all Hermione could do not to groan out loud.
“Ah, good. I wanted to speak to you too,” Andromeda greeted the blonde, and Narcissa’s other eyebrow lifted delicately.
“No,” Hermione finally managed, and both sisters looked at her. “My office is not usually this…” She swept an arm out, as if hoping that the right word would catch in her outstretched fingers, “….disastrous.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Narcissa purred, and Hermione swallowed. How did the woman make what felt like a ticking-off sound positively sultry? “Although clearly my sister has been influencing more than just your coffee.”
Hermione was about to protest and say that she’d always liked a mocha latte with an extra shot, even before she started working here, but Narcissa had turned back to Andromeda and she closed her mouth again.
“What did you want me for?”
“Just to check in on the Riddle case, but I think I now have a fair idea.” Andromeda still looked amused, and Hermione did groan then. She waited for Narcissa to say that this mess was certainly not representative of the case as a whole, and that her half of the song catalogue was done, and that it wasn’t her fault if Hermione couldn’t keep up, and that…
“It’s a bastard of a case, and you gave us the worst bit.”
Hermione looked up in surprise.
“I know, I’m sorry.” But Andromeda didn’t look sorry in the slightest. “Which is why I wondered whether both of you would like to forget your meeting tomorrow afternoon, and come for a working dinner tomorrow night at mine instead. Dora and Teddy will both be out. I could give you a hand, but I’m not doing it without wine.”
Narcissa narrowed her eyes. There was something unspoken that passed between the sisters, something that Hermione couldn’t catch, but the blonde’s gaze didn’t waver and Andromeda finally sighed.
“All right, and I will make tacos.”
“With extra spices.”
“Yes, with extra spices and too much cheese and a load of sour cream just for you.”
“You like tacos?” It came out as a bit of a squeak, but Hermione was too surprised to care. She had never really thought in detail about what foods Narcissa might enjoy - she wasn’t quite that obsessed - but if she had, she was fairly sure that tacos wouldn’t even have made it onto the list of possibilities.
“I do.” Narcissa turned to her, a smirk lurking dangerously close to the corners of her mouth. “Do you?”
“I….yes, I do.”
“And are you free tomorrow night?”
Hermione nodded like a puppet. “I was going to go to yoga, but…”
“That’s fine, I’m going swimming. The yoga class finishes at six thirty, yes?”
Hermione nodded again.
“Then I can meet you afterwards, and we can go to Andie’s together.”
Hermione’s stomach flipped over, but Andromeda shrugged as if that settled it.
“I’ll see you both around seven, then.” She grinned at Hermione, who felt a bit like a canary that had inadvertently invited the cat into its cage. “Hope you like your food spicy.”
“Bring the inside of your foot to the opposite leg - either the calf or the thigh, never rest it on the knee joint - and focus your gaze….”
Hermione wobbled as she lifted her right leg off the floor and rested it, gingerly, on her left calf. She had no idea how so many of the class were effortlessly tucking their feet into their groins. For her, being able to balance on one leg with her arms stretched towards the ceiling was an achievement in itself, and she decided to focus on that instead. She knew she wouldn’t have been able to do it four weeks ago. Neither would she have been able to keep her balance while moving straight into warrior three - still her least favourite pose, but at least it no longer left her legs burning. She found she could already breathe more easily. A few of the more regular poses no longer felt like precursors to torture. Occasionally she felt as if she was actually flowing, not stumbling out of one pose and into the next, and she felt a twinge of satisfaction as she realised her muscles were adjusting.
Her mind, too, was blissfully free of distractions. She wasn’t thinking about work - at least, not most of the time. She wasn’t thinking about Harry or the text he had sent her wishing her good luck for tonight, or about Ron and the text he had sent saying that he hoped she had fun (fun with a lot of wiggly-eyed emojis after it). She wasn’t thinking about Narcissa - she hadn’t thought about Narcissa for at least the past three minutes. By the time Nicole guided the class into savasana and an extended meditation to finish off with, she felt a bit light-headed, heavy and floating at the same time, wide-awake and as if she wanted to sleep forever.
She was still drifting, getting used to this new stretched body that felt more upright and less knotted, when she pushed open the door of the changing rooms and came face to face once more with Narcissa, clad in nothing but a deep blue swimsuit and dripping water all over the tiled floor.
‘Sorry about the mess,” she said by way of greeting, seemingly not noticing how Hermione’s mouth had dropped slightly open. “The pool changing rooms were shut for maintenance, there was a sign saying to use these.”
Hermione let the door swing shut behind her as she walked slowly over to her locker. She was really trying not to stare at how Narcissa flipped her head over and rubbed her long hair with a towel, or how droplets of water ran down her pale skin, or how toned her legs were, or how this was the third time she was seeing far more of Narcissa’s breasts than she had a right to, because the swimsuit had cutout sections on both sides and a very low plunge and didn’t leave much to the imagination at all. She didn’t know how successful she was. She thought a little smirk crossed Narcissa’s face, and she felt her face heat up. She was always blushing around Narcissa, it seemed, and she told herself sternly to get a grip.
She pulled out her bag and headed for a cubicle. She’d brought jeans and a shirt to change into, but she had no intention of stripping off her leggings in front of Narcissa. The blonde might be confident enough to do that, but Hermione certainly wasn’t. Unfortunately - or fortunately, she wasn’t entirely sure which one - the only free cubicle was right next to the shower that Narcissa was aiming for, a towel and a bottle of body wash in hand.
Hermione tried to retain some of the calm focus that she’d felt for the first time during yoga. The water started to run, hot needles from the shower that she imagined turning to steam on the cool floor, and she tried to breathe as she’d breathed for the past hour. Abdomen, diaphragm, chest. Inhale, exhale. She heard the wet slap of swimsuit fabric hitting the bench, and gritted her teeth. As she pulled off her leggings and scrabbled in her bag for her jeans, a faint fragrance reached her, light and fresh like orange blossoms on a spring day. She stripped off her vest top and pulled on her shirt, noticing with a muttered curse that her fingers were shaking slightly as she did up the buttons, and then the sound of the shower stopped. She heard the last drips falling from the shower head. She imagined cream curves tinted pink from the heat, and gave herself a literal pinch on the arm to snap out of it. And then she heard Narcissa’s voice, echoing through the thin wall that separated them.
“Can you do me a favour? I picked up the wrong towel. There’s a bigger one by my bag on the bench outside. Just grab it and toss it over, would you?”
Hermione closed her eyes for a brief second against the visual of Narcissa with nothing but a hand towel, and then unlocked her cubicle door. Narcissa’s gym bag was on the bench opposite, with the bigger towel tucked behind it. It was soft in Hermione’s hands, smelling lightly of chlorine and something else that was Narcissa herself, and she quickly stepped back over to the shower and threw the end of it over the door.
“Thanks.” Narcissa had evidently caught it, because the rest of the towel disappeared from view and, after a moment, the door to the shower opened and Narcissa appeared wrapped in it. “Sorry, won’t be long.”
“Don’t worry,” Hermione squeaked, and hurried back into her cubicle to gather her things. She heard a soft chuckle and swore under her breath, but she didn’t look round. She waited until she had heard the lock of another cubicle door before she shouldered her bag and swiftly headed for the changing room door. “I’ll wait outside!”
Less than five minutes later Narcissa appeared, dressed in the same jeans and black t-shirt that Hermione had seen her in before, her still-damp hair twisted back in a loose bun. Somehow, the blonde managed to make casual look elegant. Of course, Hermione tried to reason, they were designer jeans. She could see the subtle but distinctive 7 For All Mankind stitching on the back pocket. The t-shirt, with its deep v-neck, looked soft and as if it was at least partly cashmere. The belted cream raincoat slung over the blonde’s arm, and the low-heeled boots, screamed both simplicity and money. Hermione was grateful that she’d at least brought her best jeans and favourite dark green shirt, but she didn’t quite believe the not-so-subtle look of appreciation that Narcissa gave her as she slipped on the coat.
They walked out of the leisure centre into the early evening, swirls of orange and pink already beginning in the blue sky. The building was in a complex set back from the road, but Hermione could see that traffic was heavy. The bus stop just along the street was crowded, a crush of passengers attempting to both get on and get off the two buses that had just pulled up, and the shops were beginning to empty while the restaurants and cafes got busier. She followed Narcissa along the pavement and down the hill towards the secure underground car park that the leisure centre used; she realised that she had no idea where Andromeda lived, but she guessed now that they would be driving there.
“I’m sorry I had to cancel Tuesday, by the way.” Narcissa took her arm and steered her into the pedestrian entrance, standing to one side briefly to let another couple past. Hermione felt the warmth of the blonde’s hand even through her coat. She could still smell that body wash, light and fragrant and completely Narcissa. She couldn’t help pressing a little closer, but Narcissa didn’t pull away.
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” She glanced sideways at Narcissa. “Was it a client?”
“Theodore Nott.” Narcissa rolled her eyes. “The biggest jerk ever to cross the threshold of my office, and that’s saying something.”
Hermione laughed. She’d heard vague things about the case, some kind of breach of contract involving Nott’s security company, but didn’t know the details.
“You’re the defence in that one, yes?”
Narcissa nodded as they walked up, their footsteps echoing in the concrete stairwell. “Gringott’s Bank are on the other side. They paid Nott’s company several million pounds to install a completely overhauled security system in all their city branches. Two weeks after the job was completed they had the biggest break-in in their history, and they’re blaming Nott for a shoddy job.”
“Did he?” They reached the third level of the car park, and Narcissa pushed open the swing doors from the stairs into the parking garage. She let go of Hermione’s arm to rummage in her handbag for her car key, and Hermione instantly missed the touch. “Do a poor job, I mean.”
“Of course he did,” Narcissa scoffed. “Even I could have done a better one. But technically he fulfilled every part of the contract, so…”
“You think you’ll win.”
Narcissa shot her a smirk that made Hermione’s stomach twirl. “I always win, darling. Even when they don’t deserve it.”
Hermione’s entire body flushed with warmth, and she barely even registered that Narcissa had pointed the key fob at a sleek silver BMW parked in a corner. Her mind was still stuck on darling and the sensual way in which it had dripped off Narcissa’s tongue, and it took her a moment to realise that Narcissa was standing by the open boot, waiting for her to put her gym bag in, a knowing smile on her face.
“Sorry,” Hermione shook her head, and placed her bag alongside Narcissa’s. “Daydreaming.”
For the next several minutes, Hermione kept her mouth shut and concentrated on enjoying the car. She’d never been in anything so luxurious. As Narcissa drove down the ramps of the car park, flashed her pass at the barrier, and inched out into the traffic, Hermione stretched out her legs and relaxed into the soft leather, and tried to ignore the fluttering sensation that Narcissa’s proximity set off in her stomach and chest.
“You seem nervous.”
Hermione looked at Narcissa as they drew up at a red light. A smile hovered around the corners of the blonde’s lips, and her blue eyes flicked between the lights and Hermione.
“You’re fiddling with your thumbnail.” A light hand rested on hers for just a few seconds, stilling the movement that Hermione had been completely unaware of, and left a hot tingle in its wake when the lights turned green.
“Oh.” Hermione looked down at her hand. “Well, I guess I am a bit. I mean, not nervous like I am when I’m in court or anything, just a little…”
“Well, that’s good.”
Hermione could hear the lilt of laughter in the other woman’s voice, and couldn’t help smiling herself.
“Sorry. I tend to babble as well. When I’m nervous, I mean.”
“Why are you nervous?”
Hermione swallowed. She couldn’t exactly say the real reason and besides, the hand was back. A brief warmth washed over her skin, and she almost reached for it, almost held on to it, but then Narcissa needed to change down a gear and it was gone again as soon as it came.
“I just….” She paused. “It feels a little bit like seeing your teachers outside of school for the first time, that’s all.”
Narcissa’s laugh was warm and rich, and the sound echoed through Hermione’s body long after it had stopped ringing through the car.
“But you’ve already seen me outside of school, Hermione.” The teasing note was unmistakeable, and Hermione wondered if she dared rise to it.
“I’ve seen you in sportswear rather than a suit, I’m not sure that really counts. I know you like to swim and I know you take your coffee black. That’s it.”
“And you know I like my sister’s tacos.”
Hermione laughed. “I’ve decided I’ll believe that when I see it. I mean, I’m sure Andromeda’s cooking is wonderful, I just can’t put you and a taco together in the same image in my head.”
Narcissa hummed, and her eyes flicked from the road to Hermione.
“So what images do you have of me in your head?”
Hermione’s eyes widened. She willed her cheeks not to flame up and give her away completely, although from Narcissa’s little smile she was sure the blonde woman already knew. Damn, damn, damn.
“I don’t really have any,” she said huskily, doing her best not to remember the few moments of watching Narcissa get changed in her office. “And even if I did I’m sure they’d all be proved wrong.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” Narcissa smoothly switched lanes, and Hermione vaguely recognised that they were now heading south, towards the river and the expensive converted warehouse apartments that lined the old wharfs and quays. “I’m quite predictable really.”
Hermione snorted, and Narcissa chuckled.
“Ask me something, then.”
“Ask me something.” Narcissa gave a delicate shrug. “And then you can see if I match up to the image that you aren’t admitting to. You’ve got time for at least one question before we get to mine, another two after that before we get to Andie’s.”
“Yours?” Hermione’s stomach flipped over, and Narcissa looked amused at the faint trace of panic in her voice.
“I left the file of bank statements there after I took it home last night.”
“Oh.” Hermione felt a little dazed. She looked out of the window as they wound through small side streets; she didn’t recognise where they were, but she sensed that soon they would come out on the wide road that ran along the river. “Do you live down here?”
“You’re wasting a question on something you’re going to find out anyway?” Narcissa tutted, and Hermione shook her head.
“I didn’t mean….never mind.” She cast a sideways glance at the blonde, and wondered if she dared. Narcissa hadn’t said she couldn’t ask anything personal….“Are you married?”
“Divorced.” The car swung round a corner, and Narcissa turned left at the junction to bring them out roughly where Hermione had guessed. Beyond the road curved the river, a wide ribbon that shimmered and flickered with car lights and streetlights and the bridge lights and the stretching, fading colours of sunset. “If you look in Andie’s archive you’ll find the file under Malfoy.”
“She handled your divorce?”
“One of the perks of having lawyers for sisters. I didn’t trust anyone else to clean him out sufficiently.”
Despite the little smirk, Hermione sensed Narcissa wasn’t joking.
“Make it quick, we’re almost there.”
“One son, younger than you.”
Narcissa flicked on her indicator, and turned slowly into a complex of luxury riverside apartments that Hermione knew had been converted from Victorian warehouses. Dark brick glowed in the last of the sun. Huge windows blinked like eyes in the low light. They drove along the back of the building that fronted the water, and Narcissa pulled in almost at the end.
“Won’t be a minute,” she said as she unbuckled her seatbelt. “I won’t invite you in, or we’ll never get to Andie’s.”
And with that she was gone, walking swiftly up to the apartment building door, leaving Hermione to wonder frantically about the meaning of those last words and whether maybe, just maybe, they meant what she thought they might mean.
Chapter 4: The Vest Top
After the unexpected stop at the riverside, where Narcissa had fetched not only the file of bank statements, but a bottle of wine and a book that she said she’d borrowed from her sister and needed to return, it had taken them barely fifteen minutes to reach Andromeda’s house. Over the bridge, where the traffic had crawled slowly enough for Hermione to appreciate the view of the river curving into the distance, carrying its shimmering reflections all the way out to sea; past the concert hall with its domed roof, and the modern art gallery converted from an old flour mill that stood tall and imposing over the water; and over the flyover to the residential areas that sprawled up the hill on the other side. It hadn’t surprised Hermione one bit that they were driving towards one of the most expensive. None of the Black sisters really flaunted their money, which gossip said had not only come from their successful partnership but from a family inheritance too, but that didn’t mean they didn’t enjoy it.
Her other questions for Narcissa had been fairly banal, and still the blonde had managed to unsettle her with the answers. What’s your favourite book? Anything by Anaïs Nin, and Hermione’s mind had immediately been overwhelmed with memories of the erotic stories of Delta and Venus. But I like crime thrillers too. Contemporary novels. Anything that helps me relax. That answer hadn’t helped. Where do you like going on holiday? Holiday, darling, what’s that? And then a chuckle. South of France, mostly. She’d steered away from the one question that she really wanted to ask, which was whether Narcissa was seeing anyone, and if so whether that person was a woman or a man. Where did you do your degree? You could find that out on the firm’s website, but since you ask so nicely…London, then a postgraduate at the Sorbonne. I got married and had Draco in between. Lucius was horrified to get stuck with the babysitting.
Now they were turning into a street with large detached houses on either side, separated from the road by long drives and front lawns and low walls, and Narcissa pulled the car up about halfway down. The drive, Hermione saw, was already full with two cars. The house was Victorian, grey brick with a double bay window, its gable end half-hidden behind a huge beech tree. The engine idled for a moment as Narcissa contemplated the driveway, wondering if she could squeeze the BMW in on the end, but she clearly decided against it and pulled it up snugly against the pavement instead.
“Bella always gets here first,” she complained, and Hermione raised an eyebrow.
“Bellatrix is here too?”
“The Mercedes is hers.”
Hermione looked at the black Mercedes Coupe parked haphazardly on the drive, and smiled despite the fluttering of nerves. It seemed like a very Bellatrix kind of car. But she hadn’t banked on all three Black sisters tonight, and she’d barely even seen Bellatrix outside of the weekly meetings, and…
“Relax, she won’t eat you.” Narcissa smiled as she switched off the engine. “Not while she’s got Andie’s tacos, anyway.”
“Thanks for the reassurance.”
She stretched as she got out of the car, and her shoulders gave a satisfying pop. It was almost dark now, but the streetlights and the glowing windows of the houses made it feel as if it was barely dusk. It was much quieter here. They weren’t that far out of the city centre or that far off the main road, but the noise of the traffic had already reduced to a hum, the buzz of the city to a faint tingle. When she turned around, Hermione could see glimpses of the city between houses, and she guessed that the view from Andromeda’s upstairs rooms would be wonderful.
She went to get her handbag out of the boot, and Narcissa handed her the file.
“It’s your last chance to ask.”
Narcissa chuckled as she shut the boot. A flick of her thumb on the key fob locked the car, and Hermione followed her slowly up the drive towards the front door.
“The question you’ve been avoiding since I told you I was divorced.”
Hermione stopped, staring after Narcissa with her mouth slightly open, while her mind frantically tried to come up with something, anything, that wasn’t the truth.
“No one asks if someone’s married without then following up, Hermione.”
“I’m sorry,” Hermione stuttered. Somehow, her legs began moving again, and her boots tapped dully on the brick driveway. “I shouldn’t have asked that. It was too personal.”
“Not at all.” Narcissa stopped just shy of the front door, and turned to face her. The smile on her face was surprisingly soft. “If you want to know, then simply ask.”
Hermione swallowed. She should just say that she didn’t know what Narcissa was talking about. She should just invent another question. Any question. But instead what came out of her mouth was, “Can’t you do what you did when you told me about your son?”
Narcissa’s laugh was a gentle as her smile. “I don’t let people off that easily twice.”
“Damn,” Hermione muttered. She could feel the warmth in her stomach begin to creep up her chest and her neck. Blue eyes were gazing at her with an expression that, in the orange glow from the security light, she couldn’t quite read. She was thrown off by what felt like a shift into something a little deeper than flirting. She felt as if she were in court on the back foot, quickly trying to come up with something to save her argument, and that analogy brought a memory to her mind. Her old family law professor at university, telling her that her bravery and tenacity would serve her well in practice as long as she learned to trust herself and her instincts too. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She doubted that this was the kind of situation Minerva McGonagall had had in mind when she’d said those words, but Hermione thought they were probably still applicable.
“Okay. I guess….are you with anyone else now?”
“Satisfied your curiosity?”
But before Hermione could answer, the front door swung open to reveal Bellatrix, dressed in tight black jeans and a thin hooded top and wielding a large kitchen knife in one hand.
“Are you two coming in, or are you planning on eating out here?”
Hermione followed Narcissa in through the front door, following her lead in taking off her boots and hanging her coat up on a hook. The hallway was high-ceilinged, with dark oak panels and cream paint, and elaborately-patterned green-and-cream tiles on the floor that Hermione suspected were original Victorian. She saw a formal dining room off to the left that looked as if it was never used, and a huge living room to the right that spanned the house from front to back. Hermione glimpsed squashy sofas, a flatscreen TV, thick rugs and photographs and a couple of bookcases, and then they were past the doorway and into the kitchen on the left. Some of the original Victorian features remained here too; a large alcove where a range would once have stood and which now housed a top-of-the-range electric cooker, black and white tiles on the floor, tall shelves which held plates and mugs. There were sleek, modern appliances, but there were also lots of homely touches - the child’s drawings that covered the fridge along with a homework timetable, several photographs on the walls, the cat food bowl in one corner. A large wooden table dominated the room, covered with papers, and a bottle of wine was already open in the middle of it.
“Couldn’t resist a taco?”
Bellatrix waved the knife towards the pile of shredded lettuce, draining over the sink in a colander. “I’m having to work for it.”
“You’d better not be letting the mince burn, Bella!” Andromeda’s voice echoed from upstairs, and Narcissa smirked as Bellatrix whirled back towards the cooker.
“Make yourself useful, Cissy, and top up the wine.”
Narcissa obliged, refilling the two glasses that were already half-empty and pouring new ones for herself and Hermione. Hermione felt the cool brush of skin against hers as Narcissa handed her the glass. Soft blue eyes held hers for the briefest of moments before Andromeda entered the kitchen, and even when Narcissa’s gaze shifted, Hermione still felt the lingering warmth.
“Hi,” Hermione turned to smile at her boss, and gathered herself enough to remember her manners. “This is a beautiful place.”
Andromeda smiled. “Thank you, although it’s never usually this tidy. Teddy’s taken Dora and a couple of her friends for burgers and to the cinema, so it’s a lot less chaotic.” At Hermione’s quizzical expression, she gestured to a framed photograph on the wall. It showed Andy together with a pretty blonde woman, and a girl of about eight or nine with short brown hair and tanned skin. They were in a sunny garden, laughing at the camera, and Hermione wondered whether it had been taken here.
“Teddy’s your wife?”
“Theodora, but never call her that, she hates it.” Andromeda laughed. “Dora’s fourteen now and has bright pink hair. That was taken a few years ago. She’d only been with us a couple of years.”
Hermione looked back at the photo, realising that Andy and her wife had adopted the bubbly-looking youngster.
“She looks happy. You all do.”
“She settled in well, thank goodness.” Andromeda took the wine Narcissa handed her, and walked over to the cooker to peer over Bellatrix’s shoulder. “Anyway, how was yoga?”
“Good, thank you. I think it’s starting to get easier.” She looked over to where Narcissa was taking a couple of avocados and a block of cheese out of the fridge. “What can I do?”
“Grate or chop?” Narcissa offered her both hands, and Hermione took the cheese with a smile.
“Don’t do the avocados yet, this’ll be another fifteen minutes or so.” Andromeda picked up a small jar of spice. “How hot do you want this?”
“You know how I like it.”
“I’m not asking you, Bella, I’m asking Hermione.”
“However you usually have it is fine.” Hermione took the grater that Narcissa passed her. “I like spicy food.”
“Good girl,” Bellatrix grinned, and Andromeda rolled her eyes.
“Save the terror tactics for the office, Bella.”
“What?” Bellatrix protested. “I said…”
“Shut up and have a tortilla chip.” Narcissa ripped open a packet of salted tortilla chips, and pushed it under Bellatrix’s nose. “You know perfectly well that your idea of being nice makes most normal people squirm.”
“I’d say the words pot, kettle, black, but they’d just go in one ear and out the other.” Bellatrix took a handful of tortilla chips and winked at Hermione, who managed a surprised smile back.
“You taught me all I know, Bella.”
“Sorry,” Andromeda murmured into Hermione’s ear as the two women continued to bicker. “They’re always like this.”
But she was smiling, and Hermione laughed. The warmth and homeliness of the kitchen, along with the wine, was helping her to relax more. “Don’t apologise. I said to Narcissa on the way over here that it’s like seeing your teachers outside of school for the first time. Weird and fascinating in equal measure.”
Andromeda’s green eyes sparkled as she chuckled. “Well, let’s hope by the end of tonight it’s more fascinating than weird.” She paused as she found Hermione a bowl to grate the cheese into, and her voice dropped a little. “You know, I’m impressed at the way you’ve been working with Narcissa. She’s not the easiest, and the times I’ve placed juniors with her before they’ve usually demanded to come back downstairs before the job’s done. Despite Bella’s reputation as the most brutal one in the firm, it’s always Cissy who seems to do the most damage.”
“Oh.” Hermione blinked and looked down at the cheese to avoid Andromeda’s gaze, trying to hide the little tremble in her fingers as she opened the packet. “Well, I had some fierce professors at uni, I guess maybe I’m used to it.”
“And the juniors you’ve given me before have all been imbeciles.”
Hermione’s eyes widened a little as the tortilla chip packet was placed on the counter, and she looked up to see Narcissa prodding it towards her.
“Not quite up to your standards doesn’t automatically mean they were idiots, Cissy.”
Narcissa shrugged lazily as she leaned her back against the counter, and Hermione tried not to stare as the blonde licked her fingers clean of salt. A rush of heat pooled in her stomach. She hastily began grating again, and saw Narcissa smirk softly. The praise from Andromeda had made her flush a little in pleasure, but it was the heavily veiled compliment from Narcissa that was making her heart beat a little faster. She didn’t know why she should be so pleased at the implication that Narcissa didn’t consider her an idiot.
“I’m glad I come up to scratch.” Her voice didn’t sound quite like her own, but fortunately Andromeda had turned back to the cooker to inspect the mince.
Hermione continued to grate, finding the repetitive motion a good distraction from Narcissa’s proximity. “Was Andromeda exaggerating?”
“About the juniors?” Narcissa sipped her wine, and reached into Hermione’s bowl for some cheese. “No. Fortunately, it’s rare that our cases overlap. When they do, though, she usually gives me the new solicitors who she thinks could benefit from a challenge, and they always buckle within a week.”
Hermione couldn’t help a smirk of her own at the slightly affronted tone of Narcissa’s voice. “Nothing to do with you pushing them too hard, then.”
“Have I pushed you too hard?”
Hermione hesitated, and then shook her head. Ignoring her own feelings towards Narcissa - which she was beginning to suspect were feelings and not just bursts of attraction, and she would figure that one out later - she was genuinely glad to be working with the blonde. Narcissa had high standards. She expected others to come up to them. But in Hermione’s experience that was no bad thing. She’d never shied away from the pressure of any challenge, however hard it was, and she was finding Narcissa’s presence on the Riddle case both demanding and inspiring.
“Despite the appearance of my office yesterday….no, you haven’t.”
Narcissa’s laugh was soft and warm in her ear. “Mine was the same on Wednesday night. I just didn’t let anyone see it.”
Hermione raised an eyebrow. She couldn’t imagine Narcissa’s office with even a file out of place, but she was distracted by Narcissa’s fingers sneaking into the bowl of cheese again, and without thinking she slapped them lightly away.
“Wow. My sister really is rubbing off on you.” Narcissa picked up her wine, and reached for the tortilla chips instead of the cheese. “Perhaps you should come and work in tort with me for a while. Get rid of some of these bad habits she’s getting you into.”
“No poaching, Cissy.” Andromeda started clearing the table of papers, and Hermione let out a long, slow breath as Narcissa pushed herself away from the counter to help. “I’m not letting Hermione go anywhere, she’d too good. Have you chopped those avocados yet?”
“Actually, I think if Hermione goes anywhere it should be to me,” Bellatrix chimed in from the cooker. “Since I’m the only one who hasn’t had the pleasure yet.”
Hermione hid her splutter behind a little cough, as Andromeda threw a pen at her sister and Narcissa smirked.
“Good thing that didn’t land in the pan, little sister, it was tucked behind Neville’s ear earlier today.”
Hermione carried the bowl of cheese over to the table, helping with forks and knives and wine glasses as the bickering continued around her. Seeing all three of her bosses in this way - relaxed, at home, more sisters than business partners - was still strange, but despite the teasing and her continuing nerves around Bellatrix, she was beginning to enjoy herself. And as they sat at the table to eat, she even found some of her uncertainty towards Narcissa begin to dissipate. Something had changed between them, that much was obvious. She still couldn’t fathom that Narcissa liked her in the same way, but she was beginning to feel more confident about easing into it and seeing what happened.
The tacos were delicious. The spices made her eyes water, and all three sisters laughed as she reached for some water instead of her wine, but she let Andromeda pile her second one high with avocado and sour cream to take the edge off the heat and it was the best she’d had in a long time. As they ate, the conversation gradually shifted to work. Bellatrix talked, more animatedly and with much more colourful language than she ever used in the weekly meeting, about her current case, while Andromeda and Narcissa interjected in between mouthfuls of food and wine. Hermione was content to mostly stay quiet. The three of them were so different, she mused. Similar in some ways - they’d all chosen the law, after all - but so distinct in the ways they approached things.
“You look thoughtful,” Andromeda teased her, and Hermione smiled. Maybe it was the wine, but she felt mellow and relaxed enough to be honest.
“I was just thinking how different all of you are when it comes to work, that’s all.”
“Oh?” Narcissa raised an eyebrow, and Bellatrix smirked.
“I thought we’d established that Cissy here isn’t any less scary than I am.”
Hermione laughed. “No, she’s not…” She risked a glance at Narcissa, who was delicately swiping her finger around her plate, clearing it of sour cream while her eyes remained fixed on Hermione. “You can all terrify people, to be honest, you just have very different ways of going about it.”
“Me?” Andromeda pretended to look offended. “I’m nice!”
“You still have it when it counts.” Bellatrix’s smirk grew wider. “What’s my method then, Hermione?”
Hermione took a deep breath. She had a feeling she’d just dived in way over her head, but she decided there was no backing out now.
“In court? You shoot from the other side of the room and hit them between the eyes. You…” she turned to Andromeda, “…buy them cups of tea and ask about their kids and pretend to help them adjust their tie before sticking the knife in between their ribs.”
Bellatrix burst out laughing, and Andromeda almost spat out a mouthful of taco.
Hermione looked at Narcissa, the sensual challenge clear in blue eyes.
“You poison their coffee before they even get into the courtroom, and are long gone by the time they even realise what’s happening.”
Bellatrix laughed even harder at that, and Narcissa’s eyes danced.
“Actually, that’s not a bad idea.” The blonde reached for another taco wrap and began to fill it. “Think I could get away with it with Nott?”
“You’d have extenuating circumstances.” But Andromeda was looking at Hermione with a mixture of amazement and slight wariness. “I’ve changed my mind, I think you’ve been working with Cissy too much. Maybe Riddle’s houses would have been better for you.”
“Too late….shit!” Narcissa swore as sour cream and mince dropped out of her taco and splattered onto her t-shirt. “Why does that always happen?”
“Because, Cissy, you over-stuff them. Every single time.”
Hermione laughed. Bellatrix reaching over with a paper napkin and wiping the worst off Narcissa’s tee was its own special kind of endearing, and the dark-haired woman's look of amused resignation said she’d been doing the same thing for years. Hermione had a sudden, vivid image of the three of them as children. Bellatrix, she knew, would have been a very protective older sister.
“Grab something of mine to wear instead if you want,” Andromeda gestured towards the hallway and the stairs. “You know where it all is.”
Narcissa pushed back her chair and headed for the hallway, and Andromeda called after her.
“Put some stain remover on that and dump it in the laundry basket, I’ll put it through with Dora’s school things tomorrow.”
“Not with her PE kit, please, that’s a biohazard and this is partly cashmere.”
“Can you never buy anything that has normal washing instructions?”
The three of them were still laughing and finishing off the tacos when Narcissa came back downstairs, and Hermione paused with her wine glass halfway to her mouth. She knew she was staring. She couldn’t help it. The burgundy vest top had thin straps and a lace trim, and it was blatantly obvious that Narcissa hadn’t bothered to keep her bra on underneath it. Even with a thin black cardigan hanging open over the top, it was obvious. Slowly, she brought her wine to her mouth and swallowed the last mouthful. She didn’t think she was imagining Narcissa’s eyes holding hers over the rim of the glass.
“I think that’s our cue to start working.” Andromeda gathered everyone’s empty plates, and Hermione helped to carry the bowls and serving dishes over to the dishwasher. “Where’s best?”
“Living room, there’s more space to spread out on the floor.”
“Is that my cue to disappear?” Bellatrix said hopefully, but Narcissa shook her head.
“No such thing as a free taco, Bella.”
They decamped to the living room, taking the remains of the wine and cups of tea and armfuls of files with them. Like the kitchen, the space was large and yet cosy at the same time, lit with lamps and full of the little touches that said it was a family home. A hoodie was draped over one armchair that Hermione guessed was Dora’s, and a couple of schoolbooks had been left open on the sofa. Newspapers and magazines were piled in one corner, teenage fashion magazines stuffed in with The Financial Times and back copies of Apollo art journal, and the walls featured beautiful abstract oils that were different to anything Hermione had ever seen before.
“Teddy’s an artist.” Andromeda saw her looking. “Her studio’s in the garden.”
“These are gorgeous.” Hermione was already thinking that she’d love one for her own flat, and made a mental note to ask Andromeda another time where Teddy sold her work. Now, though, Narcissa and Bellatrix were already settling themselves on the floor, opening files and spreading papers out around them, and Hermione made herself comfortable on the rug.
“What do you want me to do?” Bellatrix asked, and Narcissa handed her a file.
“Go through the claims from the other band members and pull out any that reference specific songs. I want to double-check those against what Hermione and I have marked up in the song catalogue. Andy, can you go through the bank statements and check my calculations on the royalty payments? Include everything that’s come in from Durmstrang. Hermione, you and I need to put our two halves of the catalogue together."
“We should put some music on while we do this.” Bellatrix smirked and began to hum, and Hermione recognised some of the less explicit lyrics of Dark Mark.
“No music,” Andy said firmly. “And definitely not that one.”
They settled down quickly. Hermione was very aware of Narcissa’s proximity, their heads close over the papers as they double-checked each other’s work and pulled out every song title that had been marked in red highlighter. But as they worked, she found it became less of a distraction and more of a warm, comforting background. She felt herself easing into the few flirtatious looks that still came her way, into the brief touches and brushes of Narcissa’s skin against hers, and didn’t feel embarrassed when Narcissa questioned her on some of her notes. They discussed the contentious points for what felt like hours, and not once did she feel as if Narcissa was talking to her as any less than an equal. Only when she realised that both Bellatrix and Andromeda had finished their tasks, and were regarding the two of them with amused smiles on their faces, did she flush slightly and gather the last of the papers together.
“Have you two quite finished?”
“Yes, thank you.” Narcissa looked unperturbed. “Andie?”
“You were right. Seventeen million over three years.”
Bellatrix whistled softly. “So that’s where all my pocket money went.” She waved a sheaf of papers at Narcissa. “If I read out the song titles on these claims, do you two want to check them against the list you’ve got?”
Narcissa nodded and Bellatrix began. There were a lot of them, but as they went on it became clear that at least some of the claims would be thrown out. By the time they’d finished, Bellatrix’s pile of papers had grown a lot smaller, and there was only one claimant’s name that consistently cropped up.
“These all involve Snape.”
“The drummer?” Hermione asked, and Narcissa nodded.
“In my opinion, his are the only claims that could be considered legitimate in court.” Bellatrix handed the papers to Narcissa. “There is at least some proof that Riddle had a hand in the songs that the other claimants have named, however tenuous it might be. But there’s nothing for these.”
“Damn,” Andromeda swore. “So the whole estate’s going to be held up until Snape’s claims are settled?”
“If he decides to take it to court and not accept a settlement.”
Narcissa flicked through the papers. Her arm brushed Hermione’s as she did so, and the cardigan slipped a little off her shoulder to reveal the thin vest strap. Warmth flooded Hermione all over again, and she wondered if it was obvious.
From the way Narcissa smiled as she looked up, she thought it probably was. But for the first time she found that she didn’t really mind.
“Are we going to talk to him?” she asked a little throatily, and Narcissa nodded.
“Looks like you and I get to have a trip to the seaside.”
Chapter 5: The T-Shirt Bra
...and this time it's Hermione's. Enjoy! xx
Fresh air tinged with sea salt gusted into Hermione’s face as she opened the car window, letting in some of the sea breeze and sunshine while the engine idled in traffic. They were on the outskirts of the small seaside town where Snape lived, wide roads lined with detached houses, all with neatly-kept gardens and huge windows to let in the sea and the sky, but they were stuck in roadworks. Narcissa’s fingers tapped impatiently on the steering wheel, and Hermione suppressed a smile. In the two and a bit hours it had taken them to drive from the city, she’d learned that the blonde loved speed.
“What’s the postcode again?”
Hermione read out the postcode of Snape’s address from the file that was on her lap, and Narcissa typed it into the satnav. It showed them to be less than ten minutes away, and once the lights changed and they had inched through the red cones and the workmen digging up the gas mains, Narcissa swung onto the road that would lead them towards the seafront. Large houses started to give way to smaller ones, then the houses dropped off altogether in favour of fish and chip shops, souvenir kiosks, ice cream parlours, and amusement arcades.
“This is not where I expected the drummer of The Death Eaters to end up,” Hermione commented as they drove past a row of colourful beach huts, pale sand and blue-grey sea beyond.
“Well, I suppose never judge a book by its cover. Or a drummer by his hairstyle.”
Hermione laughed. It was true. The pictures she’d seen of a sallow-faced, long-haired, scowling drummer dressed head to toe in black didn’t fit at all with this touristy, slightly tacky seaside town, and she tried to imagine him on the beach with his toes in the sand, or walking along the promenade with an ice cream.
“Maybe he’s changed.”
About a mile along the seafront, the shops tailed off and they were into another residential area, a little more unkempt and, Hermione suspected, much cheaper. The houses here were weatherboard, paint dulled by years of exposure to wind and sea spray, and the gardens were smaller, the cracks in the pavements sprouting with weeds. Narcissa turned down one side street and then another, finally pulling up outside one of the neater houses. The grass was trimmed and the windowpanes freshly painted, and Hermione blinked in surprise as she spotted a garden gnome, perched with a fishing rod on an ornamental rock.
“Oh, my.” Narcissa spied it too, and leaned towards Hermione for a better look out of the passenger window. “I’ll have to tell Bella.”
“She won’t believe you without a photo.” Hermione felt her body starting to tingle from Narcissa’s closeness, the scent of blonde hair and light perfume drifting over her and mingling with sea salt and sand and waves and cut grass, and she was quite proud of herself for keeping her voice steady against the brush of silk blouse on her arm. “Preferably with Snape sitting next to it.”
“Think he’d do it?”
Hermione laughed again. “Maybe. If you ask nicely.”
Narcissa smiled as she got out of the car and stretched. Hermione followed, and she inhaled deeply as the clear light of the sun hit her face. Narcissa had picked her up early, wanting to get out of the city before the worst of rush hour, and the blonde clearly did not like mornings. She’d handed Hermione a takeout cup of coffee - regular, milky, one sugar, just the way Hermione liked it before the mocha craving hit her in the afternoons - and had stayed mostly silent until they’d cleared the suburbs and were on the motorway. Hermione hadn’t minded. She’d enjoyed simply being in the car, watching the city slip past, soaking in the blonde’s quiet presence.
Since the evening at Andromeda’s, she’d started to feel a lot more comfortable around Narcissa, having given herself permission to indulge in whatever flirting came her way without expecting anything from it. The nervousness that she had always felt had begun to dissipate in warm teasing and perceptive conversations, always based in work but sometimes also veering off into other subjects, and she had tried not to think about anything more. She had tried not to nurture the faint hope that Narcissa might feel anything for her beyond…beyond what? She didn’t even really know that. For once, she was trying to enjoy herself without overthinking it, and she tried to ignore the deeper, more persistent butterflies in her stomach that told her Narcissa had become far more than a simple crush.
Narcissa grabbed her blazer from the back seat of the car, along with the other files and her handbag. She was dressed in a simple dark trouser suit and a silvery blue blouse, and Hermione was glad that she had made an effort herself with flowing black trousers and a v-neck peach jumper that brought out her freckles. For once, she didn’t feel so woefully frumpy in comparison. She was starting to realise that the blonde would never give compliments she didn’t mean, and the blue eyes that roamed over her in frank appreciation were as good a compliment as she could hope for.
Hermione nodded, and let Narcissa go in first through the small wooden gate.
The door was opened by the man Hermione had seen in all of the band photos. Tall, slightly lanky, with dark hooded eyes and a surly expression.
His mouth curved in something that might have been a smile, and he stepped back to let them in.
“Yes, but you can dispense with the mister.”
He led them through to a surprisingly bright, sunny living room that ran from the front of the property to the back, and had large French doors looking out over a patch of scrub that passed for a back garden. The chair she sat down on was old and worn, but comfortable; the rest of the furniture appeared much the same. She looked around at dark wood, patterned upholstery, plain carpet. Nowhere did she see any photos, any memorabilia, anything at all to say that this was the home of an ex-drummer with a punk band and not an average pensioner retired to the seaside.
“I’ve got tea but no coffee.”
They both declined. Snape waved Narcissa into the armchair just across from Hermione, while he took one of the chairs from the small dining table and turned it around.
“So. Miss Black, Miss Granger. You’ve come to persuade me to change my mind?”
“Not necessarily.” Narcissa smiled as she opened a notebook, balanced on her lap. “Although it would make my life much easier if you did.”
Hermione looked at her, surprised. She didn’t think she’d ever known Narcissa take such a casual tone at work, certainly not with a potential problem, and she was even more surprised when Snape returned the smile. For the first time, Hermione saw that his skin held none of the unhealthy pallor she’d seen in the photographs. His hair was no longer lank and greasy. He was not wearing the heavy dark suits that had been his stage uniform, but black jeans and a light grey shirt, and the smile revealed teeth that had clearly been fixed. Hermione blinked. This was not what she had expected at all.
“I can imagine. But then again, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t think my claims were valid.”
“You must know that they are.” Narcissa looked up from her notebook. “You’re representing yourself. That’s risky enough without worrying about whether you even have a case or not.”
Snape shrugged. “I can’t afford lawyers.”
“Then you also know how much you’re looking at if you win.”
“I have some idea.”
Narcissa nodded, and gestured to the file Hermione was still holding on her lap. Hermione handed it over quickly, and Narcissa flashed her a quick smile of thanks.
“Would you like me to go through it?”
Hermione watched, a little confused, as Snape shrugged again and nodded, and Narcissa began to talk him through the figures. She wanted to ask why, when they were supposed to be there to talk him out of going to court, Narcissa was effectively giving him free legal advice that simply encouraged his case. She wanted to ask why the blonde wasn’t downplaying the amount of money Snape could be entitled to, but instead was jotting it all out for him on the yellow legal pad balanced on her knee. She kept quiet, knowing that there must be a reason, and waited until Narcissa had finished going through the file.
“Is that roughly what you thought?”
“Give or take a zero.”
“Of course, that’s assuming you win. There are always judges that would demand more proof than the paperwork you have. There are always those that would be suspicious as to why you’re only bringing your case now, when Tom Riddle is dead and can’t answer for himself. That figure is the maximum you would get with a good judge on a good day, minus any costs that you would have to pay yourself. But without a good judge or a good day…nothing. Less than nothing, since you would be liable for the other side’s costs.”
Narcissa leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, letting the pen she had been scribbling notes with twirl idly in her fingers.
“Just out of interest, why did you choose now?”
Snape scowled, and for a moment Hermione thought he wasn’t going to answer. But Narcissa waited. An old, loud clock filled the silence with a syncopated ticking that suggested it was there more for decoration than telling the time, and Hermione could hear seagulls, an ever-present faint cry in the skies outside.
“No one crossed Tom Riddle,” Snape said eventually. He had a deep, slow voice that reminded Hermione of the monotonous tones of one of her chemistry teachers in school. “If he were alive and I’d brought these claims, he wouldn’t have simply had them thrown out. He would have destroyed me.” His jaw tightened as he looked at Narcissa. “You were a fan.”
He didn’t say it as a question, but Narcissa shook her head.
“My sister.” She gave a faint smirk. “I wasn’t really old enough.”
Hermione almost laughed as she remembered the story of Narcissa sneaking out of primary school to the gig, but managed to disguise it under a light cough.
“Then I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.”
“All mostly true, although the record company tried to play them down.” He snorted in disgust. “The band was his. We were just there to do his bidding and make him look good on stage - which I can assure you was a lot harder than it seemed. The record company was his. Without him, they were nothing. And he knew it. Drugs, alcohol, women. He could do what he wanted and get away with it. If he said a song was his, it was his whether he’d written a note of it or not.”
“And no one stood up to him?” Hermione couldn’t help the question, and Snape turned to her with a slight smile.
“Not if they wanted a life and career at the end of it, Miss Granger.” He turned back to Narcissa. “So that is why now, Miss Black. Precisely because Tom Riddle is not here to speak for himself. And I am not the only one, I think?”
“There were others,” Narcissa nodded. “Alecto Carrow. And the first guitarist that she replaced - Fenrir Greyback.”
Snape chuckled, and the sound was so unexpected Hermione’s eyes widened a little.
“Real name Jack Newton,” he drawled. “He always was one for dramatics.”
“I would never have guessed,” Narcissa murmured dryly.
“And are you visiting them too?”
“No need. Their claims would be thrown out by any decent lawyer before they even got to court.”
“So only me. I’m honoured.” He paused. “And yet you still want me to settle out of court?”
Narcissa considered for a moment, and then replied with another question.
“Tell me, Snape. What is it you want?”
He raised an eyebrow, and she went on.
“If it’s recognition you want, or revenge, then by all means take it to court. The papers will love it. But you don’t seem like the type to crave either of those things.”
“You’ve only just met me.”
“True, but I’m usually fairly good at judging character. You also don’t seem like the type to want money for the sake of it. Am I wrong?”
For the first time, Snape looked truly uncomfortable, and Hermione watched Narcissa’s eyes soften slightly.
“The money is for my mother, not me. Nursing home fees are exorbitant these days.”
Narcissa nodded sympathetically, and was quiet for a moment, seeming to consider before making a decision and leaning forward.
“Then I truly advise you to settle out of court. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing everything, or of only getting a partial amount.”
“And how much would I get out of court?”
“Ninety five percent of the figure I gave you earlier. The five percent less would simply be to cover our costs in including your claims as part of the estate.”
Hermione tried not to look too surprised, but Snape looked at Narcissa questioningly.
“And the family have agreed to this?”
“Not yet, but I’m sure they will in order to avoid Riddle’s affairs being dragged out through the courts and in the media.” Narcissa paused, and Snape looked undecided. “You do have a choice. Think about it,” the blonde went on quietly. “You have my number.”
Snape looked at her for a long moment before nodding, once.
As they stood up to leave, Hermione looked out of the window into the front garden, and he saw her eyes flicker over the garden gnome and then back again.
“Next door’s kid gave it to me. I keep trying to drop it but the damn thing won’t break.”
“Well, that was the shittiest thing I’ve done in a while.”
Hermione looked at Narcissa in surprise. They were sitting on a bench on the promenade, Hermione with a takeout tea and Narcissa with another coffee, and it was the first time the blonde had spoken since they’d left Snape’s.
“Why?” she asked. “He’ll probably agree to settle, won’t he?”
“Oh yes, he’ll agree,” Narcissa grimaced, and gulped her coffee. “I practically bribed him with his mother’s care home fees.”
Sunlight glinted off blonde hair as Narcissa looked out over the beach to the sea, where the warm breeze tossed ribbons of foamy white up onto shore and the blue-grey waves were ruffled like lace curtains. She did indeed look a bit disgusted with herself, and Hermione nearly reached out to take her hand.
“Did you know about the mother?”
“No,” Narcissa shook her head. “But I knew there had to be something like that. He clearly wasn’t out for any kind of recognition or reward - there was nothing in the place to suggest the band had ever existed - and he wasn’t living beyond his means, either. I guessed he didn’t want the money for himself.”
“Was that why you didn’t try and downplay what he could get?”
Narcissa nodded, and Hermione couldn’t help being impressed.
“I can’t read people like that,” she admitted quietly. “I would probably have gone in and tried to tell him the claim wasn’t worth it, that he should settle for a lot less, and just made him all the more determined to try his luck in court.”
Narcissa flashed her a quick smile. “You’ll learn.” But she still didn’t look much happier, and this time Hermione tentatively rested her hand on top of Narcissa’s. The blonde’s skin was cool and smooth, and Hermione’s heart thudded a little when she didn’t pull away.
“This is the best outcome for him too,” she argued. “He’ll probably get more money than he would ever have got in court, and he’ll get it quicker.”
“And if he really was planning on representing himself, then he’s probably saved himself a few months of sleepless nights too.”
Narcissa smiled briefly at that, and Hermione smiled back. Her fingers tentatively squeezed the blonde’s, and she nearly sighed in pleasure when long, delicate fingers pressed lightly back.
The beach and promenade were quiet. It was still early in the season, and the sand was empty save for a few families with very small children, running around with buckets and spades. Elderly couples walked slowly on the promenade, still wrapped in coats and scarves despite the warmth in the sun. One of the beach huts was open and occupied with deckchairs and a portable radio, and Hermione could hear the start of the midday news over the screeching cry of the gulls that wheeled overhead, catching the currents and diving towards the waves. Narcissa didn’t seem in any hurry to get back, and despite the mountain of other files waiting for her on her desk, neither was Hermione. It was nice to be out of the city, and she could feel the clear, salty air reviving her after a row of late nights and early mornings.
“It’s nearly lunchtime,” she said, and Narcissa hummed. “Want some chips?”
Narcissa raised an eyebrow, a light smile playing around the corner of her mouth. “If you’re trying to make me feel better, ice cream would be more effective.”
Hermione laughed, her body tingling and little butterflies dancing in her stomach as she realised Narcissa was still holding her hand. “You want a Mr Whippy?”
“With a flake.”
“Yet again, you surprise me.” She stood up, reluctantly disentangling their fingers, and Narcissa smirked up at her. “Don’t tell me you want that disgusting raspberry sauce too?”
“It’s strawberry, actually.”
“It’s got so much sugar in it I can’t tell what flavour it’s supposed to be.”
“Yes, get some of that too.” Narcissa reached into her handbag, and pulled out a business credit card along with a ten pound note. “If they take card, stick it on there, if not just use the cash.”
“I can get it, you know.”
“I think the firm can stretch to an ice cream and a bag of chips.”
But when Hermione returned it was with two ice creams, soft and swirled into peaks on large sugar cones, both dripping with indeterminate red sauce and pierced with a stick of flaky milk chocolate. She hadn’t been able to resist. One was already starting to melt down the cone onto her fingers, and she caught the ice cream with her tongue as she reached their bench, handing the other one to Narcissa along with the card and the ten pound note that she hadn’t broken into.
“Don’t drop it like you did the taco,” she said, her mouth slightly dry as she saw the flirtatious look in Narcissa’s eyes. Maybe getting ice cream - that they both had to lick - hadn’t been such a good idea. “I didn’t pick up any napkins.”
“I’ve got tissues in my bag.” Narcissa’s lips closed over the tip of the soft peak of ice cream and her tongue caught a dribble of sauce, and Hermione swallowed. Definitely a very bad idea. “Habit from when Draco was a toddler. I still never go anywhere without them.”
“How old is he now?” Hermione asked, more to distract herself as she sat down, and Narcissa smiled.
They ate their ice creams mostly in silence. Hermione tried not to be too obvious in watching Narcissa, but she sensed amused blue eyes on her every so often and, rather than getting nervous or flustered, found herself enjoying it. She hadn’t had a proper soft serve ice cream for years, and her little moan of appreciation wasn’t entirely put on for the blonde’s sake. But even with her new-found confidence, she still almost choked when Narcissa plucked her flake from the cone and very deliberately licked the end of it clean of ice cream. And when the blonde reached over to gently wipe a tiny smear of sauce from the corner of Hermione’s lips, she froze.
“I thought you said you had tissues?” she croaked, and Narcissa smiled.
“I do. Help yourself.”
Narcissa had parked in a car park not far off the seafront, and once they’d finished their ice creams they began to walk back slowly along the promenade. Hermione breathed in deeply. It was so tempting to strip off her shoes and socks and paddle, or even simply walk barefoot on the beach, but she promised herself to come back when the weather got warmer. She hadn’t had a day out for far too long. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d come to the beach or been for a long walk, or got on her bike to cycle out of the city along the river. She’d always loved wild swimming, too, but she hadn’t been to her favourite lake for nearly two years. Her mind drifted as they walked, thinking of all the things she could try and make time for this summer instead of spending every waking hour either working in the office or working at home, and the heavy sensation of something dropping on her shoulder made her startle.
“What the…? Oh, no.” She squinted at her jumper out of the corner of her eye, and her heart sank as she saw the tell-tale white splodge. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
She looked up to where a huge seagull was now perching on a lamp post, and scowled up at it as Narcissa burst out laughing.
“Seriously? I manage not to drop the ice cream and you do that?”
“It’s meant to be lucky,” Narcissa said, trying to keep her giggles under control, and Hermione turned her scowl on the blonde, but couldn’t keep it up. Narcissa’s laughter was too infectious.
“Lucky for you, maybe, I’m glad it at least made you smile again.”
Narcissa smirked as she brushed Hermione’s curls out of the way of her shoulder.
“Unbelievable,” Hermione muttered. She felt her cheeks going pink both with embarrassment and from Narcissa’s touch, but didn’t resist when the blonde took her elbow, steering her towards the car park that was now just across the road.
“Lucky for you too. I have my gym bag in the boot, there’s a t-shirt in there you can borrow. Otherwise you’d have had to drive all the way back to the office in whatever you’ve got on underneath.”
Hermione’s eyes widened a little. Narcissa could see perfectly well she had nothing on underneath. There was no blouse collar neatly pressed above the v-neck of the jumper, no t-shirt lines, not even the strap of a vest top peeking out. She’d thought about it that morning, but then reasoned that the forecast said sunny and that she would be too warm in layers, but she’d really wanted to wear the peach jumper anyway…
“Relax, darling, I’m not going to make you sit there for two hours in your bra.” Narcissa laughed again as they reached the car and she popped the boot open. “Tempting as the idea is.”
Hermione spluttered as Narcissa rummaged in the gym bag and pulled out a black t shirt.
“Good,” she managed to say. “My decent one was in the wash.”
Narcissa smirked as she leaned against the open boot and pulled her phone out of her bag.
“Try not to smear it all over the seat.”
Hermione slipped into the front passenger seat and shut the door. With slightly shaking hands - because Gods above, Narcissa Black had just implied that she wanted to see Hermione in nothing but a bra, and her body was wanting to do cartwheels at the same time as her brain was trying to urge caution - she scooped her hair out of the way and carefully tugged the jumper off, holding the shoulder well away from her face and head. She was just folding it, making sure that the white splatter was turned inside so it wouldn’t wipe off on anything else, when she saw a couple suddenly appear by the car next to them through the driver’s side window.
“Shit!” she squeaked, and held the jumper back up over her plain black bra, non-wired and seam-free and definitely chosen for practicality rather than style. She didn’t think they’d seen, but she should have been quicker. They were in a public car park, after all. She knew it was theoretically no worse than wearing a bikini on the beach, but she never did that either because she always felt too exposed.
But then the driver’s door opened and Narcissa got in, effectively hiding her from view, and she wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or not.
“Relax, I’m not looking.”
Hermione cast the blonde a wary glance - enough to ascertain that she had indeed been looking before turning her eyes back to her phone - and then pulled the black t-shirt quickly over her head. It fit her perfectly, soft and expensive and somehow so Narcissa that she gave a little sigh of pleasure despite her embarrassment. It was almost worth being pooped on. Almost.
“You’re welcome.” Narcissa gave her an amused glance, before dropping her phone into the hands-free cradle. “Get the worst off that jumper with a tissue or something, and pop it in the boot.”
Hermione obeyed, wondering whether she dared try washing the jumper herself at home with some extra-strong laundry detergent and hot water or whether she would need to get it dry cleaned, and she cursed the seagull one last time under her breath before settling herself in the car for the drive back. Before they pulled out of the car park, though, Narcissa’s phone rang.
“Cissy? I’m doing tickets for the Law Society ball thingy.”
“And it couldn’t wait until I’m back at the office?”
“Nope.” Bella’s voice sounded slightly stressed. “I have until 3pm to let them know numbers.”
Narcissa rolled her eyes. “You do this every year, Bella…”
“Yeah, yeah. Are you coming or not?”
“Don’t I always?”
Narcissa glanced at Hermione briefly. “No, you know perfectly well I’m not bringing anyone.”
“Fine. Can you check with Hermione too?”
Hermione shrugged, and nodded. She hadn’t given it much thought. She’d been the previous year and it had been bearable, she supposed. She’d had fun with Harry and Pansy and Blaise, at least, and had tried not to stare at Narcissa too much across the large round table where they’d been seated for the meal.
She tried not to think about how much harder that would be this year.
“One?” Narcissa mouthed, and Hermione nodded again. Narcissa relayed it to Bella and ended the call with a shake of her head.
“I don’t know why she always leaves it to the last minute.” She turned on the satnav again, and followed its directions onto the road that would lead them out of town. “It’s not as if she can get out of going.”
“She doesn’t enjoy it?”
“You’re joking. She hates it,” Narcissa laughed. “I mean, none of us are keen on it, I’d rather be at home with a decent book, but Bella always seems to have some kind of personal vendetta against it.” She paused, glancing over at Hermione as she waited at a junction. “No one you wanted to bring?”
Hermione smiled inwardly at the not-so-subtle question, and shook her head.
“Harry and I ended up going together last year, and it was fun. We’ll probably just do the same this year.”
“You two seem quite close.” Narcissa’s tone was light as the lights turned green, and this time Hermione smiled openly.
“We went through uni together, did the Legal Practice course together, shared a house for most of it until we could each afford our own. His foster family treat me like one of them. But we’ve never been together.” She shook her head at the thought. “That would just be weird, he’s like my brother. And besides…” She paused, and then shrugged inwardly. “He’s not my type. Men in general aren’t.”
They’d cleared the roadworks and were heading back towards the motorway when Narcissa spoke again.
“Are you going to yoga tomorrow?”
“I think so.” Hermione had come to look forward to the twice-weekly classes, and even though she still always thought about skipping them in favour of working late, she had started to realise that she would regret not going. “Why?”
“I’m probably going to use the pool.” Narcissa’s eyes flicked between her rearview mirror and the road ahead as she indicated to merge right onto the dual carriageway. “I could give you a lift.”
Hermione blinked, her mind instantly running through all the possibilities. A simple lift? An excuse to spend more time together? If Narcissa gave her a lift to the leisure centre would she also give her a lift home afterwards? She knew Narcissa often stopped at the leisure centre cafe after a swim for a coffee and a snack; would she invite Hermione to join her? Was it a coincidence that the invitation had come after Hermione had told her she preferred women to men and that she wasn’t dating anyone?
“You’re overthinking again.” Narcissa smiled at her softly, eyes this time flicking from the road to Hermione and back again. “Yes or no.”
Hermione looked at the blonde, a pink flush spreading over her cheeks as she returned the smile and nodded. Any one of those possibilities was fine. Of course it was.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Chapter 6: The Strapless Bra
Hermione put the final touches on her makeup and stepped back from the mirror. The reflection that stared back looked damn good, even if she did say so herself, and she smiled. She’d gone shopping for the dark green dress especially - unlike the previous year when she’d ended up wearing the same dress she’d worn to her cousin’s wedding two summers before - and it fit her perfectly. A deep v-neck showed off just enough cleavage to still be decent, while the cinched waist and flowing skirt made the most of her curves. Light chiffon sleeves floated like wisps of smoke over her upper arms. She’d followed Molly’s surprisingly knowledgable advice and set the whole thing off with simple teardrop earrings, deep red lips, and a wrap instead of a coat against the chill, and the elegant simplicity of it made her feel beautiful.
A hint of excitement and nerves showed in her face, but she reasoned that the nerves at least would be gone after the half-hour taxi journey with Harry and Pansy and Blaise. She tried not to think too hard about the reason for them. She tried not to think too hard about the reason she’d made such an effort this year, but the longer she hovered in front of the mirror the harder it became. She wondered what Narcissa would be wearing. She wondered if they’d be sat near each other during the meal. She wondered whether she’d even have a chance to talk to the blonde; the previous year Narcissa, like Andromeda and Bellatrix, had spent most of the evening after the meal chatting and mingling with lawyers from other firms. To be fair, Hermione reasoned, that was the whole point of the evening. She supposed she should try and do a bit of the same this evening. Networking wasn’t her strong point, but it was certainly more bearable with a glass of wine in hand.
Her phone buzzed on the bed, and she picked it up with a smile. She was expecting it to be Harry, saying that they were on their way in the taxi - she was always the last to be picked up since her flat was a good two miles from the little central cluster everyone else had found themselves in - but her heart gave a leap as she saw Narcissa’s name on the screen instead.
I should have asked this earlier, but do you need a lift? Andie’s driving.
She sat down hard on the bed, her fingers hovering over the keypad of her phone. She could call Harry quickly and tell him not to bother picking her up, that she’d just see him there, that she’d still pay her share of the fare that was set upfront. Then she wondered why on earth she was acting like a hormonal teenager. She could play it cool for once, couldn’t she? On the other hand, it might be the only chance she got to properly talk to Narcissa - but on the other hand again, both Bellatrix and Andromeda would be in the car too and she wasn’t entirely sure what she would say, and judging by the way her fingers were shaking she’d probably just sit there and drool, because the thought of Narcissa in an evening dress was already doing things to her that she didn’t want to question too closely….damn it.
No, Harry and I are getting a cab. Thank you, though! See you there.
She pressed send before she could start overthinking even that simple message - had the exclamation mark been too much? - and gathered her wrap and her heels. A last tweak to her hair, bundled up in a slightly messy French twist with a few curls left to drape around her face, and she was ready just in time for the loud hoot of the taxi’s horn.
“Looking good, Hermione.”
“Thanks, Pansy.” Hermione smiled as she climbed into the cab and squeezed herself in next to Harry. “You too.”
Both Harry and Blaise were in simple black tuxedos, while Pansy wore a long, asymmetrical skirt in midnight blue, with a matching high-necked top delicately embroidered with lace and beads. A bolero jacket rested in her lap, and her dark bob had been smoothed until it shone like a helmet.
“I’m taking bets as usual,” Blaise said. “Odds so far are 3 to 1 on Neville being late and not turning up til the second course, and 5 to 1 on Fleur picking someone up again. Wanna put something in?”
Hermione laughed. “Sure, why not.” She thought quickly. “A fiver on Neville actually being on time, though. I’m sure he knows we do this every year.”
“If you want to throw your coffee money away, that’s up to you.” Blaise made a note on his phone and grinned at her. “I was going to run another one on Bellatrix actually dancing this year, but…”
“Way too terrifying if she ever found out,” Pansy finished for him. “It’ll never happen, anyway. She’d either have to be seriously drunk or…or….” She struggled to find another scenario in which Bellatrix might metaphorically let her hair down and dance at the Law Society Ball, but gave up and shook her head. “Nope.”
“I could shift the bet to Narcissa?” Blaise offered, and Hermione’s stomach did a little twirl.
“She’d be no less terrifying if she found out.”
“I forgot you’ve been working with her.” Pansy looked at her, eager and curious for gossip. “What’s she like?”
Hermione swallowed, ignoring Harry’s little elbow dig and the faint smirk on his face as he looked out of the window. “She’s, uh….good.”
Harry snorted, but managed to cover it with a sneeze that came a second or so later.
“Course she’s good, I meant is she as cold and sarcastic as everyone says?”
“Not really.” Hermione thought of warm smiles, little touches, of how Narcissa’s eyes crinkled and sparkled when she laughed. “Only with clients that piss her off.”
“And juniors, from what I’ve heard.” Blaise was busy tapping away on his phone as he spoke. “She must like you.”
“Or I just do the job and don’t annoy her.”
“It’s a possibility.” Blaise finally looked up and waved his phone. “Okay, that’s set up too. Starting odds of 10 to 1 she gets on the dance floor.”
Hermione shook her head, smiling, and leaned back in her seat. The cab was taking them down towards the river. Dusk hung over the water, lights beginning to flicker in the gathering darkness, and the quayside road was busy with Saturday night traffic and pedestrians. She wondered where Narcissa was, whether she was also driving along the river and thinking how beautiful it looked. She wondered whether the blonde would dance. She wondered what seeing Narcissa dancing with someone else would do to her insides, and decided to try not to think about it.
In the three weeks since their seaside trip, she’d barely seen Narcissa at work. Once Snape had agreed to settle out of court - which had only take him a day to decide, and which Hermione knew hadn’t made Narcissa feel any better about the whole thing - their part of the Riddle case had been largely put to one side. There was nothing more they could do on the estate as a whole until Andromeda and Harry had managed to get valuations on all of the properties, and so Hermione had returned to her other cases. She’d enjoyed getting back to the things she knew well. She’d also, if she was honest, felt a little flat. Not just because she no longer had the slight thrill of working with Narcissa most days, but because the work itself no longer seemed to excite her in the same way. She ploughed through Court of Protection paperwork and filed divorces and filled out a depressingly large number of forms in her domestic violence case - forms that she knew, deep down, would probably end up being useless - and she found herself secretly longing for the challenge of something different. She’d found herself missing the intellectual debates and the excitement of learning something new. She was still convinced that criminal and family law was the direction she wanted to go in, but she was also starting to think that perhaps she was ready for something more than the relatively straightforward cases she was taking.
She hadn’t said anything about it to Andromeda, nor to Narcissa when the blonde drove her from the office to the leisure centre twice a week. Somehow the one-off offer of a lift had turned into a regular thing, and Hermione had found it surprisingly easy to settle into banter, laughter, talk about work, a little flirting. She usually stayed and had a coffee or a smoothie with Narcissa after her class was over and after the blonde had finished in the pool. One evening, they’d gone to a pub just around the corner. Hermione suspected that they’d both pretended to themselves it was a working dinner, since they’d mostly talked about what would need doing on the Riddle case once Andromeda and Harry had caught up, but really, she thought, there had been too many little smiles for that. Too much innuendo. Narcissa’s eyes had been far too dark when she said goodbye.
She could no longer pretend it was a one-sided crush, but neither was she sure what Narcissa actually wanted. She wasn’t even sure it mattered. Mixing work with anything else was probably a very bad idea, especially when the anything else was technically one of her bosses, and…
“Earth to Hermione!”
She startled out of her daydream as Harry laughed, and she realised they’d arrived. The riverside hotel was glittering with lights and laughter and dresses; even outside, where several cabs other than their own were disgorging people onto the plaza, she could sense the mixed reluctance and excitement. It was, she thought with a wry smile, like every office Christmas party she had ever been to rolled into one. Everyone kind of dreaded it. Everyone went anyway. At least one person from each firm would embarrass themselves, while the rest of them pretended they were networking.
Pansy leaned over both her and Harry to look out of the window as the cab rolled to a stop, and let out a soft whistle.
“Is that Marcus Flint? I thought he was at Flitwick & Sons, not Filch & Norris. He is looking good.”
“Easy,” Blaise laughed. “He’s more likely to be into me than you.”
Hermione let the banter wash over her as the cab dropped them off. She followed the other straight inside where the foyer was already full of people mingling, the noise level high and the clink of glasses already evident. Her eyes searched. She saw Fleur and Astoria and Dean, and waved; Fleur gestured to the doors that led to the bar and Hermione nodded. She continued to scour the crowd as she walked over to join them, Pansy and Blaise and Harry following along too, but she couldn’t see a shade of blonde that was the right one.
It was Bellatrix that she saw first, already at the bar, looking particularly stunning in a black suit with long flowing trousers and a tightly fitted three-quarter sleeved jacket, a hint of lace peeping out around the neckline and her dark curls loose around her shoulders.
“Damn,” Pansy muttered in her ear. “Is it really wrong to think your boss looks hot as hell?”
Hermione laughed, and felt the butterflies take off in her stomach at the thought that, if Bellatrix was here, then Narcissa would be here too. “No. As long as you realise she’d eat you alive.”
“I’ll take it.”
“I thought you were into Flint?”
“Yeah, I changed my mind.”
Andromeda appeared beside Bellatrix as the groups came together, and Hermione smiled as she also saw the blonde woman from the photograph she’d noticed in Andromeda’s kitchen, this time dressed in a smart white jumpsuit and spiky heels.
“Hermione!” Andromeda beckoned her over. Her deep red dress shimmered, and her usually unruly hair had been rolled and twisted into a sleek updo that didn’t have a pin visible anywhere. “About time you met Teddy.”
“Pleasure,” Teddy smiled and stuck out her hand. “Andie talks about you a lot.”
“Lovely to meet you finally, but I’m not sure I want to know what Andromeda says about me,” Hermione laughed as she took the woman’s hand. “I didn’t realise you’d be here.”
“Neither did I, until Dora announced last minute that she was sleeping over at a friend's.”
For a few moments, Hermione fell into easy conversation while Andromeda ordered drinks. The wine was good and Teddy was fun, but she couldn’t help her eyes still wandering every so often, wondering where Narcissa was. Almost everyone else was there. Even Neville turned up, looking a little flustered, and she laughed as Blaise rolled his eyes at her.
“I’ll settle on Monday.”
“Tonight, Blaise.” She turned back to Andromeda’s questioning look and shrugged, suddenly feeling a bit embarrassed. “We had a bet on whether Neville would be on time, or whether he’d show up halfway through dinner like he did last year. I think I just won fifty quid.”
To her surprise, Andromeda threw back her head and laughed.
“That’s funny, because Cissy and Bella and I had a bet on the same thing and I just lost. Cissy was the only one who said he’d be here.”
“Where is she, by the way?” Teddy asked. “I lost her as soon as we came in.”
“She got caught by one of the Flitwicks, I think.” Andromeda smirked. “She’ll be furious at not even getting to the bar.”
When the group started to drift towards the main hall, Hermione excused herself for the bathroom. She didn’t really need to go, but she already felt like she needed a moment to breathe and didn’t think she could escape back outside just yet. She left the remains of her wine with Teddy, and made her way back out of the bar and across the foyer to the luxurious bathrooms that she remembered well from the previous year. Soft lighting, marble-effect sinks, gold-plated taps. Real towels the size of face flannels were folded in piles, and a wicker bin underneath each sink served as a laundry basket for the used ones. Expensive hand creams sat alongside the soap dispensers. Delicate perfume hung in the air. Only one cubicle was occupied, and Hermione allowed herself a sigh of relief as she ran her hands under the cold tap and dabbed water lightly on her face.
Her moment of peace didn’t last long. The cubicle door opened, and she froze as she met Narcissa’s eyes in the mirror. The blonde’s lips curved in a soft smile, but Hermione simply stared.
Narcissa wore a deep black dress in a silky georgette fabric, with a delicate scooped neck and several spaghetti straps that fanned out over her shoulders and only came together again halfway down her back. Her hair was tied back in a complicated twist of braids that swept into a low bun at the nape of her neck and left a few tempting strands around her face, and a thin silver chain wound around her neck before exploding into a cluster of stars between her collarbones. She looked incredible, and Hermione’s mouth suddenly felt dry.
“Hi,” she managed, and got herself together enough to pick up a towel and dry her hands. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you. So do you.” Narcissa’s eyes swept over Hermione as she washed her hands, and Hermione could almost feel the heat of them trailing over her skin under the dress. “That colour suits you.”
“Thank you.” But she blinked as Narcissa pulled on a strap of her own dress, and looked irritated as she tried to adjust something invisible to Hermione’s eyes. “You okay?”
“I will be in a minute.” Narcissa sighed, and turned to go back into the cubicle. “Remind me never to wear a new bra to something like this again, without first making sure that it does actually stay in place. I can’t undo the dress, I’ll never get it done up again.”
“Do you, uh…” Hermione swallowed as Narcissa stopped at the cubicle door, raising an eyebrow. “Need some help?”
A light smirk crossed Narcissa face as she considered, and then beckoned Hermione over to an alcove at the end of the room. It had a sink, its own mirror, the same luxurious toiletries and hand towels, but Hermione saw that it also had a pull-out table for baby changing, and offered a bit more privacy.
Narcissa stood facing with her back to Hermione, her blue eyes meeting Hermione’s in the mirror.
“Think you can figure out the fastening?” Her voice was smoky, the hint of a challenge lilting under the amusement, and Hermione raised shaking fingers to the twist where the straps converged. She could see that the zip of the dress was tucked underneath and that the straps were actually tied, hanging in soft tendrils down Narcissa’s back, and she took a deep breath as she looked closely.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Otherwise I can call Bella. She managed it earlier.”
“No, it’s fine.” Hermione’s fingers were moving almost of their own accord, gently untwisting, her senses filling with soft silk and skin and fragrance and Narcissa. “I’ve got it.”
After a few seconds the twist fell apart in her fingers, and she gathered the straps up as she lowered the zip.
“You’ve lost a clasp.” She could see straightaway that one of the tiny clasps at the back of Narcissa’s bra had slipped undone. “Do you want me to….”
“Well, I don’t want you to leave it undone so that it falls off completely halfway through dessert.”
“Right.” She felt her stomach flip over and her heart thudded so loudly she was sure Narcissa had to be able to hear it. The blonde smiled at her in the mirror.
“Just let the straps go, I’m holding the dress up. You won’t get an eyeful.”
“Oh, I wasn’t worried about that,” Hermione murmured, and then felt a horrible deep flush spread over her face as she realised what she’d said. Narcissa chuckled softly.
“Payback for me trying to get you to drive home topless the other week?”
“Something like that.” Hermione could barely force words out. It took her a couple of tries to get the clasp back in place, not only because she was still shaky but because the hook and eye were so tiny. When she did, Narcissa wriggled a little and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Much.” The blonde nodded as Hermione, somewhat reluctantly, slid the zip back up and began to coil the straps back together. She managed it neatly, and Narcissa hummed in approval as she twisted to look at it in the mirror. “Thank you.”
Narcissa smiled at her in the mirror again, before walking back to the sink where she’d left her small clutch bag.
“We should get going, before someone comes to drag us out.”
Hermione found herself seated in between Harry and Teddy, with Andromeda on the other side of Teddy and Pansy next to Harry. Narcissa was almost straight opposite her, next to Astoria on one side and Bellatrix on the other, and the placement made it very difficult for Hermione to concentrate on anything. She couldn’t get the moment in the bathroom out of her mind. She accepted another glass of wine, picked at her starter - spinach and artichoke stuffed mushrooms - and was grateful to Teddy for making conversation so easy. When Hermione asked about her art and whether she sold it anywhere, a pleased smile brightened the blonde’s face.
“At the moment I’m mostly working to commission. But I have a few things at home left over from the last exhibition. You should come over again sometime, see if you like any of those.”
“I’d love to,” Hermione nodded. “The one on your living room wall was just gorgeous - the one above the sofa.”
Teddy laughed, and looked fondly at Andromeda. “That one was my wedding present to Andie. It’ll never be replicated, but I have a couple that are in a similar style.”
She tried to follow some of the other conversations around the table. The buzz of noise was almost overwhelming, and she watched Narcissa laughing, sipping her wine, also picking at her food. Every so often blue eyes would catch hers, and she would feel the warmth of a brief, soft smile before Narcissa’s attention would be pulled elsewhere. Narcissa talked a lot to Astoria, Hermione noticed, an intimate kind of talking that sent a hot flare of jealousy through her gut before she told herself not to be so silly. But still, she couldn’t help focusing on the way Narcissa’s hand briefly rested on Astoria’s, and how her laughter seemed so much more affectionate and personal than it was when she was talking, say, to Neville. On the way the blonde leaned in to say something into Astoria’s ear. On the way she listened intently to whatever it was Astoria was saying - something which seemed to turn serious as Astoria gestured and bit her lip and grimaced. Hermione pushed the salmon with dill sauce around on her plate and chatted with Harry and Pansy and Blaise, and laughed with Dean and Neville as they recounted some amusing moments from a recent court case. But her eyes kept being drawn back to Narcissa, and every time she felt a twist of something in her gut that made her feel a bit sick.
“Well, at least the food was better than last year.” Andromeda pushed her plate away with a sigh. “Think I might stretch my legs.”
Hermione looked around to see others starting to do the same thing. There was usually a bit of a break in between the main course and dessert, so that people could mingle a bit; often they ended up finishing the meal on another table entirely. She hadn’t minded that last year but tonight she suddenly wasn’t in the mood, and she had to plaster on a fake smile as Andromeda stood up.
“I should probably visit the bathroom, then I’ll come and join you.”
She slowly finished her wine, and then stood up. Almost everyone was wandering, now, between tables and back to the bar and to the bathrooms, and she decided to take the extra walk back through the foyer rather than queue for the loos that were closest to the ballroom. The relative quiet of the bar and the reception area was like a balm, and she took a few deep breaths. Pull it together, she told herself sternly. You are better than this. She remembered the heated look Narcissa had given her as she’d twisted the dress straps back into place. She remembered all the touches that could no longer be classed as accidental, all the lifts to and from the leisure centre, the blatant flirting at the beach. Surely all that was what she should be concentrating on. Surely, now, she was overreacting and being an idiot.
She pushed open the door of the bathroom and stopped as she heard voices. Two familiar voices, coming from the alcove that she and Narcissa had occupied not two hours before.
“I’m sorry, Cissy.” Astoria sniffed. “Not the time or place, I know, but…”
“Hush, darling. Don’t apologise.”
Hermione’s eyes widened a little as she glimpsed Narcissa’s arms around Astoria, the soothing hand that rubbed Astoria’s back, the way Astoria rested her head on Narcissa’s shoulder and Narcissa’s head turned to kiss her cheek, but she didn’t stay to hear any more. As someone else came in behind her, apologising for nearly bumping into her, she turned around and walked out.
“You okay, Hermione?” Harry looked up at her from where he still sat at their table talking to Dean and Fleur, and Hermione nodded as she sat down.
“Think I just need some water.”
He poured her some from the jug on the table and she sipped it gratefully, trying to calm her shaking body and her whirling mind. She hadn’t seen anything, she tried to reason with herself. One friend comforting another. One colleague taking care of another. Even if it had been more, she had no right to be upset. She wasn’t anything to Narcissa, not really.
Still, the sight of lemon tart and flourless chocolate torte and tiny scoops of raspberry ice cream made her feel nauseous.
“Actually, Harry, I think I might head home.”
He looked at her in concern, and she tried to smile.
“Just a banging headache, but it’s starting to make me feel a bit sick. I just need to lie down for a bit, I think.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, of course not, you stay here. I’ll be fine.” She was already reaching for her small beaded bag, slung over the back of her chair along with her wrap. “There are plenty of cabs about, and I can always ask reception to call one.”
“Not giving up already, Hermione?” Teddy reappeared, minus Andromeda, and looked at Hermione with a worried expression. “You look pale.”
“Headache.” Hermione tried to smile again, and failed even more miserably. “I’m just going to head home and lie in the dark for a bit.”
“I’ll come out with you.”
“There’s no need…”
“Don’t argue, you look like you might keel over.” Teddy waited until Hermione had gathered her things, and then took her arm.
“Call me tomorrow, yeah?” Harry gave her a quick hug. “Molly’s for lunch if you feel up to it.”
“Sure,” Hermione nodded. She felt a real headache starting to pound at her temples, and tears were pricking her eyes. She swore inwardly. How could she be so stupid? But stupid she was, and there was no way she was going to make it through the rest of the evening if she had to sit and watch Narcissa laughing, dancing, whispering in Astoria’s ear.
Teddy guided her out of the ballroom, and when they were through into the quiet of the foyer Hermione felt a comforting hand on her back.
“Wanna talk about it?” the blonde woman said quietly, and chuckled when Hermione looked at her in surprise. “You look like you’re about to cry, love. I don’t think the idea of leaving the ball with a headache would get you that upset.”
Hermione smiled weakly, a genuine smile this time, and shook her head. “No, I think…” She paused. It was tempting, but how would she even explain? I had a crush on my boss, and I didn’t think she was seeing anyone but now I wonder if she might be and I’m feeling like the world’s biggest idiot? She almost laughed out loud. “It’s fine. Thank you, Teddy. I think I just need to go home and sleep and then eat my body weight in ice cream tomorrow.”
“Always works for me.” Teddy gave her a quick hug. “I’ll let Andromeda know you weren’t feeling well. But don’t forget that invitation to come over.”
The rush of cool air outside hit Hermione like a shower. It was almost as noisy outside as it had been inside; there were a lot of bars and restaurants and hotels dotted along this part of the quayside, and people were out walking from one to another, enjoying the dry night after a few days of rain. She didn’t have long to wait for a cab. Her phone buzzed already with a message from Andromeda - are you sure you’re ok? - but she didn’t reply straight away. She got in the cab and settled herself in the back seat, and only when it had pulled out of the plaza and round the corner did she let a few tears fall.
Chapter 7: The Plunge Bra
Last chapter! Thank you all so much for reading ❤️. Also, the bra is kind of incidental at this point, but hopefully you don't mind ;).
“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.”