She hadn’t played for so long, but the notes blossomed from her hands.
Each one felt delicate, a tiny drop of moonlight on the tip of her fingers. Coaxing, worshipping, venerating, she drew each one out into the keys of the piano, feeling her magic follow until the note was something alive, something not entirely of her making. One followed another. Her fingers remembered. Her foot remembered how to manipulate the pedal, drawing out the echo and pulling it back. Her body remembered the light and the darkness, the shifting moods that each phrase drew. It was muscle memory, she knew that, she’d played this piece so many times that she could have done it in her sleep, but now her magic was caressing it. The piano sighed under her hands. Arpeggios swelled and diminished like waves on the sea. She had no sheet music. The melody was cradled on her skin, shaped by her movement alone. It gently pushed her palms when it needed more, drifted from her like thread when it could carry itself, its longing so entirely in tune with her own. When the last chords came, they settled like her breath, the ghost of them hanging in the room for far longer than they should have done had she not used magic.
For the first time all evening, she felt as if she could breathe.
She hadn’t wanted to come. She never wanted to attend Ministry functions. The place had enough of her as it was, with all the late nights and weekends worked overtime, all the lunch breaks that she had foregone and the breakfasts that she had eaten at her desk. It had taken her relationship - or no, maybe that was unfair. That should never have been started in the first place. But still, she didn’t feel as if she owed anything, least of all her Saturday night.
Who was she kidding? She’d given plenty of Saturday nights in the past.
She especially resented giving them like this. Dressed like a trussed-up chicken - at least that’s how she felt, uncomfortable in the formal gown that Ginny had persuaded her to buy, wearing the sparkly heels that even a cushioning charm couldn’t redeem and the makeup that made her feel like a clown. At least she had managed to tame her hair. It was piled up on her head with liberal amounts of Sleekeasy, tamed into waves rather than frizzy curls, a few strands left hanging around her face. And the colour of the dress was pretty, a periwinkle blue that shifted as it caught the light. Dancing under the chandelier, she had been aware of eyes on her as the silk swirled into hues of cobalt, duck-egg, navy, sea-foam. It hadn’t made her any more enthusiastic about being there. Most of those eyes felt uncomfortable. If there was anything that she had grown to hate more than official functions and high heels, it was being the centre of attention.
She particularly didn’t want to be the centre of attention here.
The chandelier she remembered was different. In fact, the whole place had been remodelled and cleansed, and she couldn’t even picture where the drawing room had been. Perhaps she had been dancing in it, perhaps not. Nothing about the place was the same, and she had surprised herself by not feeling anything stronger than a mild unsettledness that faded the more she drank. Her empty wine glass stood on the top of the piano, the last drop of red liquid pooled in the bottom. Another one would be nice. Maybe she could sneak back downstairs without getting caught.
A shadow shifted in the corner of her eye, and she spun around to face the door.
“Apologies, Miss Granger. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Her hands dropped off the piano keys. She didn’t realise they had been resting there as if it was hers, as if she had every right to be there, but of course that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She had wandered upstairs, leaving an official function at which she had responsibilities. She had opened a door that was closed, and found the haven she had been so desperately seeking. She hadn’t thought twice.
She felt her face flush a deep, violent crimson.
“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t be here. I just…”
“Needed a break from mind-numbing conversation? Sometimes these things are horrendously dull.”
Hermione’s eyes widened as the woman stepped further into the room. She had expected anger. A cold ticking-off for intruding, for being somewhere she shouldn’t be in a private residence. She hadn’t expected dry humour, or the quirk around the full mouth that could have been the beginnings of a smile.
“Only sometimes?” Her hand flew to her mouth as Narcissa Malfoy smirked. “I’m so sorry. Really. I shouldn’t have…”
Her apology was cut short by a wave of the blonde witch’s hand.
“You play beautifully.”
Hermione’s hands twisted in her lap, and her eyes fixed themselves on her silver stilettos. In the low light of the piano room, her dress was glinting a deep turquoise, almost green. She supposed she was in Malfoy Manor, but still…how very Slytherin of her attire to twist itself to the occasion.
She didn’t know how to respond to the compliment. It was so unexpected.
“That piano hasn’t been played in several years. I’m surprised it’s still in tune.”
She looked up, surprised at the woman’s words as much as the tone of wistfulness in her voice. What she saw made her breath hitch. Up close, Mrs Malfoy was even more stunning that she had been from a distance. Across the ballroom, Hermione hadn’t been able to see the detail on the shimmering dress, the light that caught in the full sleeves that were spun like gossamer, or the glint in pale hair that looked like moonbeams. Blue eyes were gazing at the piano: eyes that usually held the coldness of ice, but now seemed more like a clear spring day.
“It seemed fine.”
Her voice didn’t sound like her own, but the older witch didn’t seem to notice. She simply nodded, slightly absently.
“I’m sorry.” Hermione repeated herself, feeling the embarrassment steal over her once again. “I shouldn’t have come in. I was just…”
“If you found this room, then it must have wanted you to.”
Hermione shrank a little under the witch’s gaze, but it wasn’t unpleasant. More…searching. Intense. Cool, but not the ice she had expected. She wondered what magic Malfoy Manor still harboured, and why on earth it would open itself to her, but before she could even think about asking the other witch spoke again.
“I would say to stay as long as you like, but the speeches are about to start and I think they’re looking for you.”
An involuntary groan left her lips. She hated this. Harry never seemed to mind it, and these days Ron, the only one of the three of them not working for the Ministry, always got out of going at all. They always picked on her for some reason, her and Harry, the Chosen One and the Golden Girl. There would be some inane prattle beforehand, some rubbish that they’d all heard several times before. Kingsley would make a speech that his secretary could write backwards and upside down by now, and then it would be her and Harry. Brought out like puppets at Christmas. Saying what they were expected to say. After six years of it - six long drawn out years since the war had ended - she was sick.
Looking up, she saw a twinge of sympathy in the other witch’s eyes. Hell, she really needed to get herself together. It was important. She was supposed to be enjoying herself.
“I’ll be right down.”
Mrs Malfoy nodded and turned to leave. As she did so, her wand flicked in the direction of the piano. The drop of wine in the bottom of the glass now filled it almost to the brim.
“You’ll be needing that, then.”
“I…” Merlin, yes. She would. “Thank you.”
But the shadow was already gone.
Hermione got through the rest of the evening on willpower and alcohol. There was always someone that wanted to talk to her, someone that wanted to ask her opinion, someone who wanted to dance with her. She barely saw Harry and Ginny. She said as little as possible and danced even less, sipping her wine instead. A conversation about the potential new breeding grounds for Eritrean Hippogriffs didn’t interest her in the slightest, even though she supposed it should, but she was practised enough now that she could nod at the right time and murmur a few words of encouragement if need be. And the surroundings were certainly more enticing. There had been no expense spared, of course. Hundreds of candles made it seem like it was merely dusk, and not almost midnight. Flowers clung to the walls, vines twisting and creeping over the light gold paintwork, and the heady scent of roses and lilies and night-flowering jasmine permeated the air. Bunches of grapes dangled, charmed to flicker like marbles, and the dance floor shimmered like an enticing pool.
Only once was she left with an almost-empty glass, but a floating bottle changed course and gracefully tapped her on the shoulder before pouring her a refill. If she hadn’t already been looking, she would have missed the deft flick of Narcissa Malfoy’s fingers controlling it. Wandless magic. It sent an involuntary shiver up Hermione’s spine. She was still a novice herself, but clearly Narcissa Malfoy was an expert. And it was far more polite than her last experience of these things: a memorable New Year’s Eve when she had been determined not to drink, but an enchanted bottle had actually followed her around, tapping her on the head and dripping champagne down her neck until she gave in.
Belatedly, Hermione realised that this was the first time she had really seen the woman since the end of the war.
So many people had been in and out of Grimmauld Place that summer. She and Harry had been living there, more out of necessity than anything else. Neither of them had had anywhere else to go. But a constant stream of visitors meant that they were never alone. Surviving Order members, and spies. Ron of course, and Ginny. Luna and Neville and Kingsley. Snape, although his first unexpected appearance had startled Ron into hexing him; Harry had had to intervene. Lucius Malfoy and Draco, unsure of their reception even after a year of putting their lives on the line, welcomed by one of Ginny’s jelly-legs jinxes and an assurance that it made them part of the family - like the cousins you dreaded seeing at Christmas. But gradually they had all faded away, leaving Harry and Ginny to make it their home, and Hermione floating around like a spare broomstick until she found a flat of her own. Narcissa Malfoy had never shown up.
Instead, Hermione had found herself drawing closer to Draco. In the months and years after the war, as both of them had struggled in their own way to adjust to a life beyond survival, so their friendship had grown. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe that she was sometimes more comfortable with a Slytherin than with her old Gryffindor friends. Other times she cursed the house system and the ingrained prejudice that had allowed them to pass so many years in wanting to kill each other. Because Draco was intelligent. He was funny, in a sarcastic kind of way. He could hold a conversation about something other than Quidditch, and - best of all, in Hermione’s opinion - there was no attraction there whatsoever. It was Draco who she had turned to when her relationship with Ron slid onto the rocks and lodged itself there. And, in turn, he had occasionally talked to her when his father started drinking and left the Manor. When the business was hanging on by a thread. When his mother wanted out. When the Daily Prophet finally cottoned onto what Draco had been hinting at for months, she had felt sorry but not surprised, and she had tried to support him through the divorce as best she could. But he had never tried to introduce her to either of his parents. Lucius she could take or leave. Now, though, after having sneaked upstairs and played the woman’s piano, she felt a creeping sense of guilt that she hadn’t made more of an effort with Narcissa.
“What do you think, Miss Granger?”
All three wizards were looking at her expectantly, and she hastily swallowed her mouthful of wine, coughing as it went down too fast.
“I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat. “I…” Missed that entire conversation? Don’t know? Don’t give a flying dragon shite? “Excuse me, gentlemen. Headache.”
If that was the best she could come up with, it was time to call it a night.
The entrance hall was almost empty. Only a few witches and wizards hovered, waiting for their cloaks or simply getting some air; not many were leaving yet but she really didn’t want to stay any longer. Her presence would probably be missed, but it wasn’t so early that she couldn’t get away with it. She could Floo Harry in the morning to apologise for not saying goodbye. But she supposed she should find…
“Given up already?”
“I’m afraid I have.”
She looked up to see her cloak appearing in the hands of a house elf. Before she could take it, she felt it being slipped expertly around her shoulders. A light wave of perfume enveloped her, the softest brush of hair against her skin before her cloak covered it. Something warm plunged to her stomach.
“I was about to come and find you. To apologise again…”
“No need, Miss Granger.”
She took a deep breath. None of this fit with what she had expected - but then, really, what had she expected? Everything she knew was from another world entirely, a world of subterfuge and violence and war and desperate attempts at survival. Nothing she knew from then was relevant any more. She had learned that the hard way. Now, she knew nothing except that this was the woman who had discovered her pouring her emotions and her magic onto piano keys that she shouldn’t have been touching in the first place, and who had told her she played beautifully, and who had carefully kept an eye on her all night. An immaculate hostess, and an ex-spy.
“Thanking you for refilling my glass. I need to expand my wandless magic, I think.”
The light laugh sent goosebumps down her arms, and she was grateful for the cloak’s covering.
“Consider it your due for having to talk to Dawkins and Scrivener.”
There was a few seconds of silence, and Hermione shifted on her feet. Was she supposed to say something? Gods, she wasn’t a schoolgirl anymore. She should be more practiced at this, but Narcissa Malfoy spoke before she could even think of anything to say herself.
“I was hoping to speak with you, but perhaps we can arrange another time. Draco often used to mention you when we spoke…”
“…and I barely know you at all, even after all this time. I should have made more of an effort.”
What was she supposed to say? That she had been thinking the same? She had no idea Draco had mentioned her to his mother; she had the impression they barely talked these days. Circe, she hoped no one was getting the wrong idea. Draco was her friend. He was gay, although maybe his mother didn’t know that. He was…
“Relax, girl.” A gentle smile curved the older witch’s lips. “I can see your mind whirling from here. I know you two are just friends, of course, but my son doesn’t make friends easily, Miss Granger. You of all people should know that. I’m intrigued, that’s all.” She shrugged, the movement elegant and subtle.
Muggleborn friends? Hermione couldn’t tell if the insinuation was hanging in the air or not.
“I…” She swallowed. Suddenly her cloak seemed suffocating, and she wished they’d had this conversation while she still had a wine glass in her hand. But as she thought of Draco, she felt her shoulders relax a bit. “He’s a good friend to me too, Mrs Malfoy.”
“It’s Miss Black now.”
Merlin. It had slipped out without her thinking - as always - even though she had been mulling over the woman’s divorce not moments before. She made to apologise, but she was cut off with the same small wave of the hand that had stopped her in the piano room.
“I must get back, but perhaps we can meet on a less formal occasion?”
Hermione’s head was spinning, and it wasn’t from the wine.
“That would be lovely.”
“And also -“ Narcissa hesitated, and when she spoke again her voice was soft. “I meant what I said, your piano paying is beautiful. Talented. You must practice a lot.”
“I don’t, actually.” It came out in a rush, so much so that she missed the compliments. “I haven’t played for years, I don’t even have room for a piano at my flat and the neighbours would hate it anyway. I’m sorry, I’m not sure what possessed me tonight.”
Narcissa raised an eyebrow.
“As I said, the room would only have opened for you if it wanted to.” She seemed to hesitate, a flash of something crossing her face that Hermione couldn’t quite catch, before the hostess mask was back on. “But if you don’t have anywhere of your own, then please come and practice here whenever you’d like.”
Hermione felt her mouth drop open.
“Of course. It’s time that room heard some music again.”
She was fairly sure that her surprise was still etched clear on her face as Narcissa bade her goodbye and left her by the Floo, opened for the night to all those who had requested it as an alternative to Apparition. It was certainly there as she staggered out from her grate and into her living room. Her reflection in the darkened window looked gormless with amazement.
As she drifted off to sleep - on her sofa, because suddenly she was too exhausted even to make it to bed - she wondered if any of it was real, or whether she’d just drunk too much wine.