Narcissa Malfoy smiled as she checked her wand at the reception desk at St Mungo's. She continued to smile as the witch behind the counter took her time examining both the wand and Narcissa herself, clearly trying to find anything to fault. Her smile didn't even waver when the witch pushed her wand back across the desk with a sneer, stopping short well before Narcissa's outstretched hand. Once upon a time, an insult like that would have been met with a curse or jinx before the other witch could blink. More recently, after she'd married a Malfoy and learnt to use words as a weapon, the desk-witch would have been out of a job by the end of the day. Now, though, the desk-witch's attitude slid over her like water. No matter what the reception staff thought of her, five years in, she'd well and truly passed her probation, and she was here to stay.
Besides, the desk-witch- Eleanor Lyptus- had fair reason to hate her- Narcissa's husband had killed the witch's uncle.
The job had started as a punishment. Her husband had died in prison, but Narcissa Malfoy (neé Black) had never been a Death Eater, couldn't be proven to have committed any crimes. There was to be no prison sentence for her. Instead, she had been brought lower than she'd ever thought possible, working as little more than a servant at St Mungo's. Her life had become a blur of drudge work, from feeding patients to cleaning bedpans to redirecting the patients who were suffering from permanent conditions. Some afflictions caused by curses or specific potions were sensitive to nearby magic use, and too much magic in their vicinity could destabilise their condition. Some of the nastier curses were even intended to do so and would lash out at anyone attempting to use healing magic on or near the patient in question. House-elves could only work in very specific parts of St Mungos for that reason- magical creatures simply gave off too much ambient magic to be safe working with spell damaged patients long term. As a result, non-magical staff were sometimes hired to work in those areas. Or, in her case, witches whose other option was house arrest and thus weren't even allowed to bring a wand near the hospital. During her enforced service period in the hospital since the end of the last wizarding war, Narcissa had taken on many such menial tasks.
Over time though, she'd begrudgingly started to pick things up. After spending so much time in a hospital, it was inevitable that she would pick up bits of healing knowledge, and she was surprised to find she enjoyed it. The tedious, repetitive work was somehow soothing, and through it all she listened and learned. And she got to know people, too. People she'd been raised to look down on, people she would never have given the time of day to before-
Well. Before she chose the wrong side in a war. So many things she'd left behind in the nebulous world of 'before the war'. So much she'd lost.
Now she cleaned the bedclothes of those people. Helped them sit up, listened to their stories. And she was forced to admit that, 'dirty' blood or not, they were people just like her. A girl with dark curls and a carefree laugh reminded her of a younger Bella, before it all. A boy with shiny blond hair reminded her of a young Lucius and an even younger Draco. The thought was hard to bear.
So she worked, and worked, and thought the whole time. She couldn't put her finger on when the people around her became just that; people. But the first time Healer Murray Goldfinch, the Healer assigned to supervise her, smiled approvingly at her, the first time she was allowed her wand while on the ward and made a colicky baby smile with the flock of colourful butterflies she summoned- she felt at peace, for the first time in far too long. More than that, she felt anchored- like she'd finally done something worthwhile, finally found a new reason to keep going.
By the time Goldfinch had promised her an official apprenticeship, three years into her initial four-year sentence, she almost hadn't been surprised to realise that she desperately wanted it. No longer as an act of penance; she genuinely enjoyed the job and wanted to learn everything she could. She'd seen magic used for so many terrible things- the mandated Mind-Healer she'd seen for the first year working at St Mungo's would tell her it was no surprise how much she enjoyed being able to use her magic to heal. It would never undo the damage she had allowed, even supported. Her only son oath-sworn to a madman- it made her sick to think of, now. Draco rarely spoke to her now, except for stilted dinners at Muggle restaurants. Nowhere they could be recognised, and especially not... there. The house she had watched him grow into a murderer in. The house she had allowed him to be abused in. Even she didn't spend time in that house anymore; the Blacks had owned a little cottage on the coast that had been part of her dowry. Malfoy Manor could rot for all she cared. The Mind-Healer had not absolved her; he merely stated that if she was genuinely repentant, she would make a sincere effort to make amends to everyone she had hurt, even through inaction.
Lost in thought, she walked on autopilot through her round of wards. Few cases required the majority of her attention these days. Though she was still learning, she no longer needed to double and triple-check her decisions for each patient. Finally she came to her last patients of the day; those in the long term spell damage ward. It was the second-highest point in the hospital, second only to the visitors' tearoom.
People with short term injuries or illnesses were at the entrance to the fourth floor as they were the most likely to get visitors. And it was less distressing to the long term residents to not have to mingle too much with those who would be out in days, weeks, or months. Before she was allowed her wand back, she'd spent a decent portion of her first few months working here in the short term spell damage ward. This was one of the least magical areas of the hospital due to the delicate nature of some of the cases. Before she was allowed to use her wand, she'd spent a lot of time bathing patients and cleaning up in here.
What she hadn't been allowed to do for almost two full years, though, was go into the long term spell damage ward as she did now. She wouldn't admit it, but this was the ward that gave her the most discomfort. No few of the people here were victims of the last war, and she certainly knew of them regardless of whether they recognised her. Thankfully the Longbottoms had been moved out before her time working there; apparently, the youngest son had put his foot down and had them moved into care in Longbottom Manor. Narcissa was quietly grateful; she wouldn't have wanted to encounter the formidable Augusta Longbottom in the hospital where Frank and Alice Longbottom permanently resided because of Narcissa's sister.
She didn't bother to look over the list of patients for this ward; it rarely changed. She unlocked the door with a wave of her wand and walked in. She checked her usual patients; two old witches convinced that they were a pair of petunias. One of them knocked over the deck of cards they were playing with (and how it was that apparent petunias could play cards, she had never dared to ask), and she had to go to the cupboard of games to collect a new one for them. The cupboard was warded against magical interference and had to be opened with a key. It wouldn't do the patients here any good to have to deal with possibly enchanted or even strongly magical items. The long term spell damage ward was the least magic saturated part of the hospital simply because of the potentially dangerous effects of free-floating magic on some of the spells affecting the patients.
On her way back from the cupboard, she saw the figure in the bed. The whole area was cut off from the rest of the ward by a curtain and a Notice-Me-Not charm. Despite herself, Narcissa moved closer. This level of security for a patient was unusual, to say the least.
The scar was the first thing she saw; it stood out against the pale skin of the woman in the bed.
She recognised that scar; she'd been there when the woman acquired it. Narcissa stared down at the pale form of Hermione Granger, mudblood hero.
Well. That explained the level of security.
She abruptly realised how it could look, Narcissa Malfoy standing over the beloved war hero with a wand in her hand, and turned on her heel to hurry away.
But as she went through the motions of her regular workday, she couldn't stop wondering about Granger.
She brought it up with Goldfinch when they were discussing her textbook readings during her daily debrief. He gave her a sharp look but didn't seem angry.
"Ah, I did not have a chance to inform you. Miss Granger has been in contact with some sort of dark artefact. She will be residing in that ward for the foreseeable future. Her condition is stable, but as of yet, the cause remains unknown. Her colleagues in the Department of Mysteries have proven rather unwilling to provide further information on possible causes, except that Miss Granger works with spell research and development."
His lip curled as he said that last, and Narcissa suppressed a smile. Goldfinch tended to think poorly of patients who refused to explain important medical information. And while he was incredibly strict on patient confidentiality, he seemed to be of the opinion that it shouldn't apply to any other occupation. The Department of Mysteries was notoriously tight-lipped about whatever projects they were currently working on, even within the department. The only additional information they'd been given was that no magic should be performed directly on or next to Hermione Granger. It was unclear how aware she was of her surroundings while seemingly unconscious. Their best guess was that she was in magical stasis. Her body performed some basic functions (breathing, heartbeat) but was otherwise comatose.
Narcissa felt uncomfortable at the thought that unknown magic could cause someone to be trapped in their own body, aware of their surroundings but unable to communicate. Mental magic like the Imperius made her deeply uncomfortable. She took a moment to desperately hope that the other woman was not aware of her situation.
"Reading to Miss Granger will be added to your list of daily tasks. And I'm sure I do not need to inform you that this case requires the utmost confidentiality?"
She almost laughed at that. Despite not being an official Healer yet, she was bound by the more severe form of the confidentiality spell that bound all staff at St Mungo's. She had to admit that she would have done the same thing in Goldfinch's position. While Narcissa herself had never been a Death Eater, and there was no evidence of her interacting with anyone of that ilk in years, there were certainly ways for a determined witch to pass information about people when they were at their weakest to those who would do them harm. But as an accidental result of that same unfortunate situation, she was perfectly positioned to do this job. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't tell anyone anything about the war hero lying prone in her bed. Still... she doubted that the Ministry, not to mention the Boy-Who-Lived and his red-headed tagalong, would be happy with her of all people looking after their pet Muggleborn. She said as much to Goldfinch, who seemed uncharacteristically cagey.
"Well...the exact nature of your work here is not necessarily common knowledge outside of this hospital. Few outside our staff know you still work here, let alone that you have permission to use your wand. So anyone who may argue with you looking after this patient comforts themselves with the knowledge that you can't do anything to her. By necessity, visiting hours will be limited to reduce her exposure to excess magic, so anyone who would object to it won't have to suffer your presence."
Narcissa couldn't fault his logic, really. And she felt a little better to know he had thought it out and wasn't just going to leave her explaining herself to Harry Potter or Ron Weasley. Besides, whatever the rest of the Wizarding world thought of her, they both knew that she would never jeopardise her position within St Mungo's. And maybe once she would have laughed at that idea, but... not anymore. And on a purely practical level, she was still far from a fully qualified Healer and could be pulled off several of her small daily tasks. And the universal truth of St Mungos was that it was always, always understaffed.
She pulled the ratty, torn book from the cover. It was as un-magical as everything else in the cupboard; that is to say, Muggle. She carried the book over to her designated chair. She was hesitant to read it but didn't know why. Though Goldfinch's reasoning seemed genuine, this situation still felt like a test, some sort of power play that she didn't understand the rules of. St Mungo's internal politics were less cutthroat than the more literal cutthroat politics of housing a dark lord in one's home, certainly, but that didn't mean they couldn't be just as dangerous. Especially when she didn't understand the rules. Though she'd proven herself to Goldfinch, the same wasn't true of everyone who worked there. There would absolutely be people watching her for any sign of wrongdoing. With a sigh, she cracked open the book and started to read aloud. Trap or not, she had been tasked with this, so she would do it.
"Once, there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy."
Narcissa found herself strangely invested in the little Muggle book, though it appeared to be written for children. In spite of her remaining misgivings, she found herself relaxing into the chair and the world the Pevensie children found through the back of the old wardrobe. She was so absorbed in reading that she was caught off guard when her wand lit up to indicate her time to meet with Healer Goldfinch.
A few weeks went by, and she found herself enjoying the routine. Her studies were progressing apace, and reading to Hermione Granger had become a regular, even welcome, part of her day. She had become more comfortable with the odd feeling of reading to someone so completely non-responsive and even found herself recounting details of her day sometimes. Just small anecdotes that are built into longer stories and ruminations. She didn't forget the other woman was there and perhaps able to hear and understand, but she found it didn't bother her as much anymore. Over time, Healer Goldfinch had added more tasks to her routine. The DoM was still being predictably close-mouthed about the specifics, but they had relaxed enough to admit that some brief physical contact (hair brushing, gentle exercises, some magic to heat or cool the room etc.) would not actively cause more harm. It might even help, Goldfinch had reported, though he apparently had no further information on how or why it would help. Still, Narcissa found herself enjoying the addition to her daily routine. Looking after Hermione Granger was far from the most arduous task she had ever been given in the hospital, and most days she'd go so far as to say it was pleasant. It was almost meditative, and she found herself remembering the hours she spent as a child absorbed in books and her own thoughts. Since the war, she'd thrown herself into reading and learning everything she could- but that was mostly nonfiction. She'd even read some Muggle literature, but interesting as it was it wasn't exactly a relaxing read. She was grateful for that alone; regaining the ability to read for leisure. It had been years since she'd taken any time for herself- not grieving everything she'd lost, not trying to catch up on decades of Muggle advancements and the wizarding world outside of England, but just... being.
Narcissa pulled the brush softly through Hermione's hair. She wasn't sure when she'd started thinking of the woman in the bed by her first name, but here she was. Somehow, someway, caring for the young woman had become a part of her life, routine as breathing.
Hermione felt the gentle pressure of brush strokes on her hair. It was the first feeling she'd had in... she didn't know how long. she wasn't awake, not entirely aware, but some part of her was. Some part of her felt safe and cared for, and- there- in a way she hadn't been in a long while. Still, she floated on the edge of awareness.
She really should have predicted this. She'd been lulled into a false sense of security over the days she'd been looking after her new patient; she'd forgotten to check the time, too absorbed in the Muggle books and her own work to remember what time official visiting hours were.
She rubbed her cheek, still aching from where Molly Weasley had drawn back and slapped her. Crass as she was, Narcissa almost admired the fact that the other woman refused to be helpless without her wand.
The other woman was, after all, still yelling at Healer Goldfinch. It didn't look like she was close to stopping anytime soon.
"Leaving the hero of the wizarding world in the hands of that- that-"
Narcissa tunes her out again. Mrs Weasley was starting to repeat her impressive vocabulary of curse words.
Idly, she considered that learning some other languages would do wonders for the woman's ability to verbally scalp people. With a little more decorum, people would fear to cross her.
Voices echoed on the edge of Hermione's consciousness. Some part of her recognised them, tried to reach for them, but she couldn't quite get there. They slipped through her fingers like water, and she stayed where she was. Wherever that was.
After that close encounter of the Weasley kind, she tried to be more cautious of visiting hours. So it came as a surprise when, as she walked into the ward three days afterwards, she was greeted by Healer Goldfinch and Ron Weasley.
The Weasley boy looked awkward but held out a small bouquet of tulips.
"Mum asked me to give you this. As an apology. The Healer explained the situation, and while mum thinks she should have been informed earlier, you haven't done anything bad so far. Mum wanted to tell you herself, but Ginny's due to give birth any day now, and she's looking after her. Anyway, we're not overjoyed with you being here or anything, but... you're helping Hermione. She's family."
He shrugged artlessly, as if that was all that needed to be said. Maybe for a Weasley, that was all. Narcissa respected that loyalty.
She accepted the bouquet and the apology, marvelling that Molly Weasley had managed to arrange the tulips correctly in the pattern that indicated she was ashamed of her actions and wanted a fresh start. It was an old tradition, rarely recognised outside of the most basic flowers. Fewer people still knew how much the arrangement of the flowers could change their meaning. Still, she didn't expect much more to come of the situation beyond an uneasy truce. That was until the next week, when Molly Weasley walked in, burst into tears, and pulled Narcissa into a hug before she could so much as ask what was going on. Thankfully the woman released her almost immediately, as Narcissa's knee jerk reaction to unexpected physical contact was to start reaching for her wand. Molly's voice wavered as she frantically dashed her tears on her sleeve, but she spoke clearly enough when she said, "Thank you for saving Harry's life."
Narcissa was sent reeling, thrown back to that day in the forest when she was told to check the pulse of the Boy-Who-Lived. She pulled herself back to the present with massive effort, focusing on the hard hospital floor beneath her feet and the familiar white hospital lighting to ground herself as Molly Weasley's voice faded back in.
"-and Harry said that you lied to V- Voldemort and... and..." The other woman was clearly at a loss for words, and decades of social etiquette allowed Narcissa to nod, smile, and say all the right things to calm the other woman while still teetering on that edge. They talked for a while, avoiding some topics but generally getting along fine. They weren't friends when Narcissa left for the day, but they weren't mortal enemies. Narcissa shouldn't have been so surprised by how much they had in common, in hindsight. Despite what her late husband had proclaimed, Weasleys were just as much witches and wizards as everyone else.
Hermione's eyes flickered open. Ron's familiar ginger hair swam in Hermione's vision, slowly coming into focus. The room was full of people, but she felt like someone was missing. She couldn't put her finger on who, though.
"She's awake!" Harry's voice exclaimed somewhere off to the side, beyond her field of vision. Hermione felt a rush of annoyed affection at his ability to state the obvious. She tried to turn to look at him, but the movement blurred her vision and she felt nauseous at the sensation. She felt her awareness drifting in and out over the next few minutes as what seemed like every Healer in the hospital ran around the room, adjusting her bed and the lighting and doing something she couldn't quite see with a potion of some kind.
She decided to drift for a bit, as trying to keep track of all the moving people and colours and lights made her feel sick.
All at once, she came awake. Some time had clearly passed; the room was nearly empty. Her eyes opening seemed to summon Ron, who had been sitting down across the room. At almost the exact same moment, a blonde witch entered the room. "Ron, I'm just here to- ah. I'll... send Healer Goldfinch in."
Hermione gaped after her, her mind still moving far too slowly. Like she was trying to think through a brain full of wool. She looked at the retreating back of Narcissa Malfoy and found that familiar sense of comfort that she remembered from her weeks spent asleep. There was something. She didn't feel hate, or fear, or the reckless indifference she'd felt towards so many Death Eaters after the war. Some part of her subconscious mind recognised the other witch's presence, and when she walked out some part of Hermione wanted to call her back.
She turned back to Ron, with what felt like momentous effort.
"Narcissa Malfoy. Yes. She, uhh. She's been looking after you. I still don't like her, but... she seems to care a lot about working here." He shuffled a little, as if nervous to admit he'd ever be even vaguely sympathetic to a former Slytherin. "And... mum hit her her one time and then they sat and talked for like five hours and now I think they're friends? You just say the word though, and you'll never have to see her again. I'll make sure that healer keeps her away from you. You're at St Mungo's, if you didn't... know. Now that you're awake there's no reason for her to be here, we'll look after you, I'll ask Mum-" He looked serious, and she jumped in quickly. "Ron, be reasonable. You've all got jobs outside of here. Leave looking after me to people who are paid to do it."
Then the rest of what he'd said filtered through. "St Mungo's? But my-"
The words died in her throat as Ron looked around, reached into a pocket, and pulled out the moldavite talisman, wrapped in silk.
"I knew you'd want to see this when you woke up. Healer Goldfinch didn't want to risk it, but I figured if you had it you'd be more likely to stay, so I... grabbed it for you." He rubbed awkwardly at his nose and Hermione remembered why she stayed friends with him.
Then all her attention returned to the talisman. It was almost empty now; the last thing she remembered was the magic spilling out of it, dissipating against her runic shield. There had been enough energy left in it to knock her out and damage her connection to reality- but only temporarily. She'd managed to channel the majority of its corrupted power away. It could still do some serious damage, but it wasn't actively dangerous. She took it from him reverently, tucking it away under her blanket. It was small enough to hide for now, and she'd be out of here soon.
And on that note-
She looked properly at Ron for the first time, taking in his scarf and gloves. It had been the height of summer last she'd checked.
"Ronald? Just how long was I asleep?"
She wasn't strong enough to leave the hospital. The Healer was reluctant to tell her, but was firm on the fact that she needed to look after herself. If nothing else, she'd been in bed for several months. Magic could only do so much to keep a body functioning; she would need to rebuild a solid base of muscle tone before she could properly leave. Besides, while her condition was currently stable, there was no guarantee it would stay that way when she left the hospital. She finally gave in reluctantly when they brought Harry in. If Harry Potter, who had spent most of their schooling years in the Hospital Wing, thought she needed to stay a while longer- then she was probably on the verge of death.
That didn't entirely stop her from arguing with the Healer though. She wanted to know every detail of her condition, needed the data in order to continue her entire field of work. It wasn't her fault though; what he was saying made no sense.
"But I was completely detached from the material plane. I would have needed an anchor, some way to pull myself back here. You're telling me you don't even know what brought me out of it?"
"I have said as much. Several times now."
And that was all he would say on the matter, no matter how much she pushed.
"Why look surprised? You were there when she did it." Hermione was sitting up in bed, looking at something in her hands that Narcissa couldn't quite see. It was the first time they'd been alone in the hospital room since Hermione had woken up; Narcissa had tried to make as much noise as possible as she walked up, to make sure the other witch knew she was coming. She lingered in the entrance, eyes drawn to the mudblood scar on Hermione's arm. When Hermione was unconscious, it was harder to notice that particular scar. But the way Hermione was holding her arm, it was almost the first thing Narcissa saw when she walked through the door. Narcissa would have sworn it had been more healed over when she saw it last. Carefully, she moved her gaze up from the other witch's arm, trying to read her expression and see whether her positioning was intentional, designed to confront Narcissa with the reality of her sister's actions. By the way Hermione held her gaze unflinchingly, it was absolutely a calculated power play. There was no emotion attached to the words Hermione spoke, and for some reason that scared Narcissa most about the situation. That and the fact that she still couldn't see what Hermione was holding in her other hand.
"I'm sorry. I have no excuse that will ever excuse my inaction against those... people. Against my sister. I allowed them to use my own host rules against you. It doesn't matter what Goldfinch says, I won't continue medical care if it brings you harm. I may still be an apprentice, but I take my vows seriously."
The other witch's eyes shuttered briefly. She clearly hadn't expected the apology. Narcissa felt slightly proud for defying expectations in that way, then ashamed of her reaction. Of course Hermione didn't trust her. If their positions were reversed, Narcissa would stay far away from anyone who had let her be harmed her like that. That's if she left them alive.
As if hearing the thought, Hermione took that moment to hold up whatever it was in her hand. Seeing it, Narcissa took a hasty step back.
"Ah, so you do recognise this. I thought you might; I took it from the Black library a few years ago. I've cleaned the especially dark magic out of it-" Narcissa started breathing again at that "-but there's still more than enough to cut your soul loose entirely if I want it to." Narcissa held her ground, but barely. Then, as quickly as if it was never there in the first place, the talisman was gone. Tucked back into whatever hiding place Hermione had pulled it from, presumably. If Goldfinch knew what it was, knew that his patient was carrying around the same cursed talisman that landed her in St Mungo's in the first place- well. Hermione would certainly not be left unsupervised in the hospital. Or possibly ever again.
Hermione smiled softly, and despite herself Narcissa relaxed slightly to see it. She wasn't sure why, but she had the impression that the danger had passed.
"Healer Goldfinch wanted me to figure it out on my own. I think he expected it to take longer. But I've studied souls a fair bit. As you can imagine, it's a topic the DoM has been very interested in pursuing since Voldemort. It was you anchoring me, wasn't it? Harry, Ron, my friends- they love me, but they've moved on with their lives. They couldn't stay with me for the time needed to bring me back; they've got families of their own now. They've got people other than me to keep them tethered, keep them here. Me, though? Without them, I have nothing left in this world or the Muggle one. Goldfinch must have known I would need some connection here if I was ever going to wake up, and if I had to guess... you're not doing much better after the war than I am."
Narcissa was still reeling, but her mind was leaping ahead, making the connections. She had been right that there was more at work than she was aware of, but it was still a lot to take in.
"That... that meddling prick."
Hermione smiled properly at that. "Yes, well, there's been a deficit of meddling old men in my life since Dumbledore died, so I guess I was due a new one. And I do apologise for the threat; just wanted to level the playing field a little. And besides, if I did use it on you Goldfinch would know, and he would probably have me locked up. There's good reasons we usually only experiment with things like this talisman in the safety of the Department of Mysteries, behind heavy shielding."
"Mutually assured destruction?" Narcissa asked wryly, surprising a laugh out of the younger witch. The Muggle reference had slipped out of its own accord, but the part of Narcissa's brain that had been trained to constantly evaluate social situations noticed that Hermione reacted positively to it. She told that part of her brain to shut up, then thought again and decided to make a note of it anyway. She had the feeling she would need any advantage she could get with Hermione Granger, who had evidently become a lot more interesting than the Gryffindor bookworm she'd been in school.
Before this year, Hermione would never have expected that she could even have a civil conversation with a Malfoy, let alone get to know one on the level she was coming to know Narcissa on. No one would have blamed Hermione for simply signing herself out of the hospital rather than work with a Malfoy, especially the sister of the woman who left her permanently scarred. But the Wizarding world's emphasis on family sins falling on the individual never quite made sense to Hermione. She probably could have never forgiven Bellatrix in the same way, but Narcissa had never harmed her directly. Somehow, it seemed that the older witch did genuinely regret her past actions, and trying so hard to make amends was far more than some people had done, even in the years since the war.
It definitely helped that Hermione was older now, more experienced with the world and human nature from her work in the DoM. She'd seen worse things, now, than someone standing by and letting bad things happen. Besides, the Narcissa Malfoy who sat, pale and wan in the corner while her sister tortured Hermione was worlds away from the intriguing, surprisingly witty witch who had heated debates about Muggle children's books with her. Hermione was surprised to learn how much Narcissa had enjoyed Narnia; it had been years since she'd had anyone to talk to about Muggle literature.
After that first conversation, they'd spent hours discussing every topic from the correct reading order of the Chronicles of Narnia to wizarding theatre. Winning a debate with Narcissa made Hermione feel more alive than she had in years. Over time, their conversations became more personal. Narcissa mentioned that her first introduction to Muggle literature was an old copy of Hamlet that she'd found stuffed into a corner of the Black library after an argument with her parents. At first she only read it to make her parents angry, as anything Muggle was forbidden in the house, but Hamlet's character resonated with the perpetually angry teenager she'd been at the time. Hermione had a similar story of being forbidden to read pulp novels because they had no substance, according to her parents. She'd spent so much time unsupervised in the library, though, that as long as she could plausibly be reading something else her parents didn't necessarily check everything she read.
After that, they bonded over similar memories of trying to read under the table at formal dinners that their respective parents insisted on hosting. Narcissa was far from an expert on Muggle finances, but it seemed as if whatever it was that dentists did, they made a lot of money. And apparently rich Muggles had just as many expectations of their children as rich witches and wizards did. Hogwarts was the first place either witch had been out from under their parent's thumb, and though they'd had vastly different experiences there, they both privately thought of it as their first real home.
Two months later, when Hermione was cleared to leave the hospital, it only made sense for her to move into the guest bedroom of Narcissa's little cottage. She still wasn't permitted to go back to work, and had been strictly prescribed rest and relaxation by Healer Goldfinch. He was serious about it, too, because the first time she tried to sneak into her office (just to grab some paperwork!) she was escorted out by her own assistants. And the second time. And the third time. Eventually she resigned herself to take the time off when Goldfinch said he would add a month of enforced idleness for every attempted break in.
At least if she stayed with Narcissa she could have almost free rein in the Black library, as well as the even older books that Narcissa had taken from there and kept in her private collection since her teen years.
Over coffee one morning (they had breakfast together every morning. Narcissa had long since stopped insisting that it was purely to make sure the other witch was eating.) Narcissa tapped a nail on the Daily Prophet article for emphasis. The heading was something absolutely atrocious, which was par for the course for the newspaper's chief muckracker. "That Skeeter woman never knows when to stop."
"I have a fun fact for you about Rita Skeeter." Hermione leaned in close to whisper, pulling away with a faux-modest look that the Narcissa had taught her. "Oh? Do tell."
Hermione explained the whole, sordid tale, complete with hand gestures that presumably represented her shoving Skeeter's beetle animagus form into a jar and screwing on the lid. As she finished speaking, there was a moment of complete silence. And then: Narcissa laughed. Her laughter was bright, and rang out across their private section of beach.
Narcissa startled awake one night, unable to put a finger on what was wrong. She applied a warming charm to her robe and wrapped it around herself, stepping out into the night. She wasn't surprised to find Hermione sitting quietly, staring out across the ocean. It wasn't the first time it had happened. They both had nightmares. She simply sat down, close enough that the younger witch would know she was there, but not so close that she would be crowding her.
"You never asked about the scar." Narcissa didn't ask which one; the slur on Hermione's arm never quite healed over. She was curious, of course; what Healer wouldn't be? But she knew better than to push. Even now, she didn't want to say the wrong thing and send Hermione into a spiral.
"It's cursed. It'll never fully heal. Any time I get angry, properly angry, it opens again. It doesn't bleed as much anymore, but it'll never stay closed properly." Narcissa reached out gently, touching the tips of her fingers to the curse scar. She tapped her fingers gently once, twice, three times; on the third tap it heated up under her touch. The heat faded after a few seconds, and Hermione stared at her arm in wonder. The scar tissue, which had ached since the day she got it, now looked its age. The word was still visible, but it was much fainter. She turned abruptly, almost falling off the rock she was perched on.
"How did you-"
"Bellatrix used that spell on me, once."
There was nothing Hermione could say to that, besides, "Thank you."
They sat in silence as the sun came up over the horizon. Somehow, in that time, Hermione's hand had reached out and laid on top of hers. Narcissa would have pulled her hand away but that would have been… too much somehow. Too much of an acknowledgement. Whatever was between them would remain unspoken for now. Still, they both drew comfort from the gesture. And for now, that was enough.