Ministry employees bustled through the atrium, heading to work. Few noticed two Unspeakables among them in our gray robes. I scribbled on parchment tucked precariously between my sling and my chest, left hand struggling to make legible words. Finally I got my thoughts down and tucked the quill pen away.
"If you're done recording your groundbreaking insights," Narcissa said with a smile, "you might want to take this. You left it on the counter." She held out one of the lunches I'd packed for us this morning.
"Oh, thanks! I was a little lost in thought."
"You were quite lost," she replied. "I swear you would misplace your arm if it weren't attached to your shoulder."
I glared at her.
Tentatively, she asked, "Too soon?"
My glare couldn't hide my smile any longer. "It's only been two weeks," I said, still trying to sound affronted. "At least wait until I can use my arm to smack you."
"I'm not waiting that long," Narcissa replied, nose in the air. "I need to get it out of my system now, before you can retaliate."
We exchanged amused glances, both knowing full well my injury wasn't truly holding me back.
Inside the crowded lift, people didn't shy away from Narcissa as much as they used to, and her expression was less cold and closed off. I wasn't sure which caused which, but things were improving. We entered the dark, glossy corridor of the Department of Mysteries.
Narcissa wondered, "What are you wearing to our double date this evening?"
"I hadn't thought about it yet," I said. "There are only about three choices anyway. I could wear my black dress."
"Black is good," Narcissa said, nodding. "Our dresses won't clash. But I don't know how you've survived with such a limited wardrobe."
"Pretty easily, actually."
"Hmm." She looked skeptical, but pulled me against her side to kiss my cheek. "I'll see you at the meeting later."
Narcissa disappeared into the Death Chamber, still trying to improve the armbands. I passed through the Planet Room and walked upstairs to the offices, ready to continue onboarding. Now that I wasn't sneaking around to investigate false charges, my daily work had more regularity. Almost too much regularity. I pushed the thought aside and greeted my mentor.
"Morning, Granger," Edgecombe responded absently, reading through a pile of raw intelligence that had come in overnight.
Trying not to distract her, I sat down at my desk in the corner of her office, not senior enough to have my own yet. There was a pile for me to read too. Just as I picked up the first piece, Edgecombe spoke again.
"Take another look at those centaur complaints," she said. "Most of your analysis looks solid, but remember to watch out for the anchoring effect. I think you should put more weight on the recent observations."
"Anchoring, right," I said, nodding to myself and trying to remember what the manuals said about that. There was so much to learn that Hogwarts never prepared me for. It wasn't enough anymore to simply read a few chapters about potions and write a report. Now I had to deal with cognitive biases and missing information and unreliable sources. It was hard to keep up, but I loved it. I was finally surrounded by people who were building knowledge―or at least reducing uncertainty―and pushing themselves to excel.
A little after noon, I found Narcissa at her lab table looking like she had no intention of stopping for lunch. She held up a vial full of something bright but fading.
"Patronus material," she explained. "It could eliminate the negative side effects, but I can't figure out how to stabilize it."
"Keep experimenting," I encouraged her. "But remember to take a break and eat. Come with me. We're not eating in the Death Chamber."
Her eyes were soft as she let me take her hand and lead her away. "Have I told you how nice it is to have someone looking after me?"
For a change. The words were unspoken, but I understood by now that Narcissa had spent years as the nurturing mother, the caring wife, with no one giving her the same nourishment in return.
We sat down in her office and took out our lunches. Narcissa took a dainty bite of her egg mayo sandwich. I bit into mine and only got a mouthful of bread. There was no filling. Did I forget to put any on mine? I hadn't thought I was that distracted. Frowning, I pulled the slices apart and stared at them.
Narcissa kept a straight face as long as she could, then started shaking with contained laughter.
"You didn't," I said in disbelief.
"You shouldn't leave your food and drink unattended."
"Where is my egg mayo?"
She held up her own sandwich, overstuffed.
"Narcissa!" I whipped out my wand. "Give it here!"
She took another bite. "Mm. This is very good. But the ratio is a bit off."
Narcissa anticipated my spell and blocked it. We faced each other in a standoff for about three seconds before I broke down laughing. She took my plain bread and put everything back to rights, chuckling all the while.
"Are all Slytherins like this, or did I luck out?" I asked.
"We keep each other on our toes."
I kept watching her in suspicion as we ate, until a paper airplane flew in and landed on her desk. A second one unerringly found me and dropped onto my lap. We unfolded them and read the memos.
"Director Chang wants to see us," Narcissa said with an unreadable expression.
"No." She looked down. "Yes. But I'm trying not to assume it's a bad thing."
"Keep up that optimism," I encouraged, squeezing her hand.
Trying not to be nervous was easier said than done, and it was contagious.
"Come in, sit," Director Chang said when we reached her office.
Did she sound mad? I didn't think she sounded mad. She sounded neutral. Were we in trouble? If we were, should I pretend to be calm? Or should―
"Hermione," she began, "the minister says you seem unhappy with the decision to keep the Ash Society and their actions a secret."
"Yes," I said, sitting up straight. "Is that the final decision?"
"As final as any decision. We periodically review cases to decide whether it's appropriate to declassify them. My concern is that you have a bit of a reputation for activism. If you believe people ought to know the truth..."
I swallowed. "You're worried I'll leak the story."
Narcissa stayed silent but listened with interest.
"Tell me you won't, and I'll believe you," Director Chang said. "You made a commitment to DEPMYS, and we trust you as one of our own. We will listen if you have something to say. I hope you don't feel like you have to campaign against us from the outside."
My eyebrows drew together. A few months ago, I would've walked out. But protesting loudly like I used to seemed irresponsible now. In our argument about it, Narcissa made valid points about how people might react. If I unilaterally decided to tell reporters about this, it would look much worse than if the ministry made an official statement. Worst of all, it could put people's safety at risk.
I sighed and said, "Don't worry, I won't go rogue and tell everyone."
Director Chang relaxed in her chair. "Good to know."
"I still think we should tell everybody, carefully," I said, voice challenging.
"You can develop a plan and petition for it with the review board."
"And I want to be involved in ethical oversight," I added.
"I'll nominate you to the new committee."
Satisfied, I nodded. Narcissa looked proud of my maturity.
Director Chang turned to her. "One more thing while we're here. Narcissa, what's the status of Project 404? Most of the missing dementors were eliminated when you two were trapped in that cavern, weren't they? How many are still out there?"
"Around fifty of them were at the Channel Prison, and they're in the wind now." Narcissa's voice was steady, but her clasped hands tightened as she said it.
Chang wondered, "Is there reason to believe they'll create another prison?"
"No. I've questioned members of the Ash Society. They made a deal with the creatures and coordinated everything. Those dementors would have spread out like mindless predators across Britain if left to their own devices."
Chang tapped the arm of her chair thoughtfully. "Dementors emerge spontaneously in cold, miserable conditions. There are always some lurking across the country, correct?"
Narcissa stiffened and didn't answer, so I answered for her, "That's true."
"This seems to be an acceptable population level," Chang said. "We'll establish a few Indicators and Warnings―"
"No," Narcissa interrupted.
"―to make sure the number doesn't get out of hand."
"Narcissa, the minister and I have agreed that we can close this case if there's no longer the threat of an enormous horde with unknown intentions."
Narcissa's hands tightened into fists. "There is no acceptable number of dementors," she declared, but even as the words came out she seemed to realize how unreasonable that was. Her hands unclenched and smoothed her robes over her legs. "So Project 404 is over."
Chang answered, "Yes, unless you have a compelling reason to keep it active..."
Narcissa shook her head stiffly and stood up. "Is that all?"
"Go on, don't let me keep you from your work," Chang encouraged us.
"Have a good day, director," I said.
We left, Narcissa marching in silence all the way to her office. I walked with her as she carried the project files to the archive room to store them safely. When they were tucked into the drawer of a filing cabinet, she stared at the long row of folders for a few moments. I couldn't tell if she was sad, or angry, or afraid―
She slammed the drawer shut.
Angry, then. I waited for her to let it out.
"We were right there with the last of them. We should have destroyed them when we had the chance!" Narcissa growled.
"We should have trapped them with our patronuses! They might've faded away like they did in the cavern! Maybe it was love that made it happen. We could've done it again!"
"Or maybe it was self-sacrifice," I replied. "Or maybe it can only happen near a ley line. We don't know. But we were in a battle. There wasn't time to try anything."
She barely listened, still venting. "We were this close! We could've wiped them out! No more dementors haunting anyone like they did to my sister, twisting and tormenting..."
"You know more will grow somewhere else," I reminded her. "The director is right. It's time to drop the case."
"I can't simply drop it!" she said angrily, then closed her eyes. "I don't know how. I've hated them for so long." Quietly, she asked me, "How did you do it? When we argued, you were adamant about telling everyone what the Ash Society did, so it would never happen again. How did you move past that?"
"I still want to tell everyone," I said again. "But that wouldn't magically solve everything. There are other ways to help."
Narcissa smiled slightly. "Fighting... reconciling... Bringing people together like we did over the holidays..."
"Exactly!" I said, nodding. "All the vile, nasty things people do, you can never stop it completely. You just do what you can to help people be kinder to each other and more aware."
Narcissa breathed out slowly. "As with dementors. You can never hunt them to extinction, only slow their spread and face them where you find them."
We watched each other for a moment, mulling over our words as they sank in. Eventually I murmured, "Couldn't have said it better myself."
"You really couldn't have. Try making up a poem."
I made a face. "Uh... roses are red..."
"Violets are blue..."
"They are not blue. They are violet."
"Alright, then. Daffodils are yellow..."
"This is worse than I thought," she said, looking genuinely appalled.
"Why don't you find yourself an eligible fellow?"
Narcissa laughed at that. "I'd much rather keep you. Even if you mangle the metre."
Toward the end of the workday, I slipped into the room where we were having our mid-month departmental meeting around a rectangular ring of tables. Narcissa was already sitting in a corner, legs crossed with her hands folded primly in her lap. She smiled in invitation when she spotted me, and I headed toward the chair beside her.
Another witch walking by pulled the chair out for me. "Here you go."
"I've still got one working arm, haven't I?" I objected.
"Sorry, just wanted to help... sorry," the woman said, scurrying away to sit on the other side of the room.
I sat down and said quietly, "I was too harsh. Do you think I was too harsh?"
Narcissa lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Not by my standards."
"I'm just tired of people trying to help me without asking," I said in frustration. "One of my neighbors took the keys out of my hand to help me unlock my apartment door the other day."
Narcissa's eyebrows rose. "I assume you gave them a lecture?"
"A long lecture. I'm injured, not incapable."
Director Chang came into the room and started arranging papers at the head of the table while the last few people came in and found seats. Some papers had "Secret" or "Top Secret" stamped on them in vivid colors, and my pulse quickened.
"I've never been to one of these meetings before," I said excitedly. "I wonder what interesting things we'll learn about."
Terence Higgs sat down to my left, saying, "You'll learn to sleep with your eyes open."
Narcissa's lips quirked in amusement. "A valuable skill."
"Maybe you'd get more out of it if you paid attention," I scolded automatically, taking out a piece of parchment to take notes on. It took almost a minute to write today's date in an inky mess at the top. My self-sufficiency had its limits. "Narcissa, would it be too much trouble..."
The words had barely left my mouth before she accepted the quill and parchment. "Of course I'll take notes for you, dear. I would've offered if I didn't think you'd decline."
"Thank you," I said appreciatively.
Thirty minutes later, I started to doubt the importance of taking notes on the meeting.
"MDIV reports shortages of memo paper due to other divisions using their inventory and requests that other departments use their own memo paper..."
Beside me, Narcissa diligently wrote a summary, whispering aloud, "Mind Division doesn't like to share. Noted."
"TDIV requests that people stop writing future dates on reports that do not actually involve time travel."
Narcissa kept writing and muttered, "Time Division has no sense of humor. Noted."
I considered telling her she didn't need to write down trivial things, but her running commentary was the only thing keeping me awake.
"Now, regarding various ongoing operations..."
As Director Chang changed gears and started describing the status of several projects, I paid close attention to the long, increasingly confusing summary.
"We're using an MoM WIZPUB opinion survey to run a covert op. MDIV and SDIV will form a CJTF with ADMDEP to collect HUMINT on latent hostility toward the CoW and VOLs. Use of MIPS is not authorized for elicitation."
I stared at the director, for the first time in my life feeling like I might not be smart enough. No one else looked confused. Narcissa was busy writing everything down for me, so I turned to Terence on my other side.
"MIPS are... Mentally Invasive Potions and Spells?" I tried to remember.
"Right," he confirmed.
"What's WIZPUB?" I asked.
"The WIZPUB. You know, as opposed to the MUGPUB."
"No, actually, I don't know!" I whispered frantically. "I've learnt all the manuals by heart and some of this wasn't even written in them! There's cows and voles and I'm completely lost!"
"VOLs are Voldemort sympathizers. It's just our department's jargon. You'll catch on quickly, I bet."
Limited talking was allowed during the meeting, but I didn't want to push it, so I quieted down and nibbled on my nails. Once I learned all of the jargon, would everything still seem exciting? Or was it only interesting because it was new to me? I kept fretting, relieved when the meeting wound down to the end. Director Chang asked if there were any questions, comments, or suggestions.
Narcissa leaned over and rested her hand indecently high on my leg, speaking softly in my ear. "I'd like to make a suggestion of something I think I'd enjoy, if you want to surprise me."
Her words alone were enough to arouse me right there in the meeting room, but she made it even worse by scratching her fingernails along my inner thigh. I glanced around to make sure no one was watching even as I listened intently to her next words.
"Some morning, when we're in bed together and you wake up first, reach under the covers and caress me. Run your hands over me while I'm still half in a dream."
Pulse pounding, I had to concentrate on keeping my breathing steady. "While you're asleep? Shouldn't I make sure..." I whispered uncertainly, shifting in my seat and trying not to be too obvious.
She kept speaking, breath hot against the sensitive skin of my ear. "I'm giving you my permission. If you're willing to play along with my little fantasy, then touch me. Gently, gently. I want to wake up with your fingertips on my clit and your name on my lips."
My cheeks burned with a blush. She certainly knew how to express what she wanted, and it made me want her so badly I thought I might come on the spot if her nails grazed just the right place.
Director Chang noticed the excessive whispering. "Ms. Black, do you have a suggestion?"
"Only for undercover activities," Narcissa answered, and I started coughing. "Strictly need-to-know."
I didn't hear a single word in the last few minutes of the meeting. When it was adjourned, I quite willingly let Narcissa pull me away while cheerfully saying goodbye to our coworkers.
The moment we were alone in her locked office, she pushed me against her desk and took care of my outer robes and sling with well-practiced ease. I was wearing black slacks underneath, and she wasted no time undoing the button and zipper until she could reach inside. Her eyes caught mine in silent question, and I answered by pressing myself more firmly against her hand.
"Eager, are you?" she asked, feeling my arousal.
"Me?" I countered. "You were whispering about what you wanted. This is the opposite of what I expected."
"Oh, you thought I'd be the one pressed up against my desk? That was never my plan."
"Always scheming." I kissed her hard and wrapped my free arm around her shoulders to steady myself as my knees weakened from her intimate exploration.
Afterward, my body quieted with her hand cupping me. We looked down at ourselves at the same time and grinned. She was still in her work robes, and I was still half-dressed with my trousers pushed open.
"You couldn't even wait until we left work," I said, pressing kisses along her jaw. "You're not very patient, are you?"
"I'm resourceful," she replied, catching my lips with a satisfied hum. "We had an opportunity and embraced it."
"It's a good thing you weren't in school with me. I would've been too distracted."
"Speaking of distraction, don't we have a date shortly?" Narcissa asked, straightening my clothes as if re-dressing me was half the fun. "Let's not be late." There was a sly look in her eye that I had come to recognize. Rather than receiving the same in return right away, she wanted to let her own anticipation build longer.
I smiled and bit my lip. "I'm excited. It's been a while since our last date."
"You mean the prisonbreak wasn't a date?" she quipped.
We were still in high spirits later that evening. Narcissa got ready at her cottage before apparating to meet me at my apartment, and when she stepped inside, my mouth fell open.
"Wow," I breathed, staring at her dress. It was a rich, dark green, with a wide neckline that showed off her slender shoulders. But the most eye-catching part was the trail of silver clasps holding it together, snaking down from her sternum around to her side with a thin line of exposed skin underneath. My fingers went straight to the clasps at her hip, touching the skin between them. "I have to look at you wearing this? All evening?"
"I hope you won't suffer too much," she replied.
"Liar," I said, fingers still helplessly seeking out all of the gaps. "You want me to suffer."
She smiled. "A little bit."
We flirted with each other during the entire cab ride to L'Escargot in Soho. At the restaurant, Narcissa opened the door for me with a flourish.
"I wouldn't have guessed you're the gentleman in the relationship," Bill joked, welcoming us inside.
"On the contrary," Narcissa replied. "We're both the ladies."
"She just got to the door first this time," I added.
"You are too precious!" Fleur said, glowing with excitement as she greeted both of us with cheek kisses. "I was so looking forward to zis! I'm relieved that 'orrible murder accusation did not prevent our date."
"Merlin forbid," I mumbled.
Narcissa chuckled softly. "Yes, that would have been the true tragedy."
"But wait, what 'appened to your arm?" Fleur asked, suddenly noticing the sling I'd charmed to match my dark dress.
I told her a simple cover story as the host seated us. Our table stood near a night-darkened window in a room illuminated by a large, glass chandelier. The brightly colored chairs and walls weren't my style, but the fresh rose in the center of each table was a nice touch.
Narcissa saw where I was looking and plucked the rose out of the water with a mischievous grin. "Please accept this token of my affection."
"I think we're not supposed to touch that," I said.
She gave me a plaintive look and kept holding it out, stem dripping on the table. "Excuse me, I stole this table decoration from its vase just for you, and you spurn my gift?"
"I would appreciate your rose," Fleur said, leaning toward Narcissa with a flirtatious smile while I rolled my eyes, amused.
Narcissa turned to me and tilted her head as if to say, See, this is a much better response. All the same, she put the rose back and said, "So sorry, but I love another."
"Alas, as do I," Fleur said, reaching out to hold Bill's hand and intertwine their fingers.
"Unfortunately, she's stuck with me," he agreed dryly.
"Oh, I feel very fortunate," she corrected.
Bill grinned and turned to us. "How is life going for you two?"
"It's wonderful," I said happily. "Most evenings, we share ideas about our work and read books until one of us―um, gets too tired."
Narcissa added, "Very tired. With an urgent need to go to bed."
"To sleep," I said hastily. "And when we're at my apartment, Narcissa spoils Crookshanks―"
"I do not spoil him. He deserves to have fresh fish. You spoil my office plant."
"Chomper deserves fresh parchment."
"You named him?"
"He's a good boy. I'll explain later."
Fleur laughed at our back-and-forth. "So life at home is good, non?"
"Y-yes," I said, caught off guard. "But home isn't really... We don't live together."
"Yet," Fleur said with a smile. "You seemed so at home together over ze holidays. Ah, it warms my heart!"
I bit my lip. Would Narcissa expect us to move in together? Not my apartment, surely. Not the manor either; she was moving out. At the cottage, maybe. But did I want that? I liked being independent and having my own place. I rubbed my perspiring palms on my dress.
A server arrived to take our drink orders, saving me from having to say something.
"The Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, please," Narcissa said. She glanced at me to see if I wanted any. "Just a glass for me, and water for my girlfriend."
The server's eyes widened, looking between us. "For your..."
"My gorgeous young lover, yes," Narcissa confirmed, unable to resist goading him.
"Narcissa," I scolded.
"What, is it not true?"
The server turned to Fleur, looking relieved to see a regular couple―as regular as a quarter veela and a werewolf-scratched cursebreaker could be.
"Ice water with lemon for me, s'il vous plaît. Bill, do not abstain on my behalf. Enjoy a glass. Perhaps zees one?"
Narcissa looked curiously at her when the server was gone. "No wine? Fleur, are congratulations in order?"
Fleur turned to Bill, eyes shining as they smiled at each other. It took me a few seconds to realize what I'd missed.
"You're pregnant?" I asked, receiving a shy nod in response. Happiness for them bubbled up inside me. "That's wonderful!"
"Wonderful news!" Narcissa agreed, sounding delighted. "How far along?"
"Just over three months," Fleur replied, resting a hand on her unnoticeable belly. "We wanted to be sure... you know, but ze healer says everything eez going perfectly."
"We told all of our parents first," Bill added. "Now we're telling friends."
We shared in their excitement as the two of them talked about how they were getting ready for a new baby in their lives, and time flew by. When our food arrived and the conversation lulled, Narcissa looked a little wistful.
Fleur asked her, "Do you wish for more children?"
Narcissa's expression cleared. "Oh, I was only reminiscing! Sometimes I miss the days when Draco was a baby, before―before he had to see the ugly side of life. I hope your child can grow up in a better world."
"We hope so too," Bill agreed while Fleur nodded. A quiet moment passed, memories of war stirring just under the surface.
"What about you, 'Ermione?" Fleur asked me, breaking the silence. "Will we see petits enfants with bushy hair and textbooks coming to visit us someday soon?"
I choked on my mouthful of roast stone bass.
"Wouldn't zat be adorable? I'm sure you've thought about it!" Fleur went on.
Narcissa covered her mouth, eyes bright with laughter, and I glared at her. "Sorry, sorry," she apologized. "I can't get the image out of my head―a toddler carrying an enormous textbook..." She stifled another laugh.
I smiled, half amused, half fearful. What if she longed to see that toddler? Way back on our mission, she'd told me Draco was all she wanted, but he was grown now, and what if she had changed her mind?
While I struggled to answer, Narcissa spoke on my behalf. "Hermione wants to focus on her career."
"Ah, yes," Fleur said, nodding in understanding. "It eez difficult to juggle both. Bill says he will stop traveling for a while. I have my part-time job at Gringotts, but ze goblins have no concept of maternity leave. Can you believe it? If I quit, zey will not hire me again!"
Narcissa tilted her head. "I happen to know that Blaise Zabini is opening a new bank soon. If you want to return to work after the baby is born, I can pass your name along."
"A Slytherin?" Bill asked.
"Naturally," she replied.
"Don't bring up zat silly house rivalry, Bill," Fleur said. "Narcissa, I would very much appreciate it. But 'Ermione, remember a career is not everything. Take time for yourself."
"I should try to relax more often," I agreed. "Not too much, though. I don't want to end up―" Like you. No. Stuck at home. No. "―bored."
Fleur glanced at Narcissa and smiled. "Your 'Ermione needs a lot of stimulation, non?"
Narcissa quirked an eyebrow in coy acknowledgement, but her thoughtful gaze stayed on me until we were drawn into Bill's story about a burial chamber found recently in the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan.
"The curses protecting it were like nothing I'd seen before," he said. "I learned a lot from the Native magic users there. And their food was great! Better than French food."
"I cannot believe you would say such a thing," Fleur objected. "French food eez ze best."
"Not better than everything," I disagreed. She turned on me and I sputtered, "B-but I do like bouillabaisse."
"Try escargot," Narcissa encouraged me, holding out her fork. "It's really quite good with this sauce."
"You said I wouldn't have to eat snails," I reminded her.
"I lied. Give it a taste, won't you?" she entreated.
"If you make me eat that, I'm not sleeping with you tonight," I threatened jokingly, then clapped a hand over my mouth when I realized what I'd said in front of Bill and Fleur. Bill was playing it cool. Fleur's chin rested on her hand as she watched us in entertainment.
Narcissa's eyes were wide. "Oh, dear. We're not going to be that type of couple, are we? Getting our way by withholding sex?"
"No," I admitted, fidgeting with my napkin and mumbling, "As if I could resist you in that dress."
Narcissa set the snail fork down and took a sip of wine, cheeks turning pink as she leaned back in her chair with a pleased expression.
I ended up trying the escargot, and it wasn't that bad. The whole night went well, though little stresses were building up. I was more than ready to go home and relax and make love with Narcissa. Tomorrow was Saturday, thank goodness, an opportunity to decompress.
"Zees has been so fun," Fleur said. "We should have dinner every week!"
My shoulders hunched.
Narcissa replied, "Certainly! We'd love to..." She spotted the look of dread on my face and quickly improvised, "...consider doing this again sometime."
Our goodbyes were friendly, and Bill and Fleur didn't notice anything amiss, but Narcissa kept glancing at me. The cab ride back to my apartment was quiet. She was probably waiting for me to open up, but my fears didn't seem rational enough to voice. I tried to work through them on my own.
When we entered my apartment, Narcissa stepped in front of me and held my shoulders. "What's on your mind?"
"Do you want to do this every week? I can try to do it," I offered. "I'll get used to going out more often."
She shook her head. "That's alright. You're more introverted than I am. We'll find a middle ground, like always. Is there something wrong?"
"It's stupid. I'm just being stupid. I'm fine," I told her.
"Let's not say we're fine when we're troubled," she replied. "Not to each other."
"But I should be fine," I said, shifting under her attention until the worries burst out of me. "Do you want to move in together?!"
Taken aback, she eyed me carefully. "That doesn't sound like an invitation."
"It's not." I cringed as the words left my mouth. "Oh, no, this is coming out wrong. It's just... I like having my own place and being alone sometimes, and now I'm afraid we're supposed to live together and start a family and I'm not sure how to say I don't want that without sounding like I don't want you, when in fact the opposite is true! I love waking up with you and coming home to you, but I don't want to get stuck in the kind of life I thought I was escaping when I broke up with Ron and quit my job!"
By the time I finished, my voice was horribly shrill like it was every time I freaked out over something. I felt out of control and lightheaded.
When Narcissa's warm palms cupped my face, my heart slowed. For the moment, it was enough to know that she had listened to all of that and wasn't upset. She gave me a gentle kiss, unhurried, leaving our lips joined as if she could pass words through them. I sank into her embrace.
"I know what you mean," she murmured. "Why are you suddenly worried? Because of what Fleur was saying? I know you don't want the typical manor with the wrought iron fence and 1.6 children and 9.5 albino peacocks."
I let out a teary laugh.
Narcissa smiled. "I've already gone on that adventure. Now I want to go on a new one, with you. You told me clearly, very early on, that you wanted to focus on making a difference in the world. Hermione, most dear, I still want to see that. I'll be there by your side, whether we're at your flat or my cottage or huddled around a fire in a forest."
My forehead rested against hers. "I believe you. And I'll be by your side," I promised. "Whether you're doing research at work or rebuilding your social life or helping prisoners."
"I believe you too."
We breathed the same air and felt the thrum of each other's heartbeats, staying close all night.
A month later, I stepped into Narcissa's office with a folder clutched in both of my hands, one of them less mobile but improving. My lover looked up from her work and smiled.
"I want you to work on a project with me," I said.
"Oh?" Narcissa set her quill down with a gleam of curiosity in her eye. "What kind of project?"
"An undercover operation. Muggle land developers are encroaching on centaur territory―Brin's herd, in Wales. The usual ways of deterring them aren't working. We think witches and wizards are secretly involved, which is illegal under our treaties with the centaurs!"
She stroked her lower lip. "Hmm, and my role would be...?"
"We need someone to show interest in buying land and getting in on the scheme, pretending not to care about 'inferior' species and their ranges."
Narcissa raised an eyebrow. "Should be convincing, considering my history, but what will you do? Pretend like you haven't spent your entire career thus far lobbying for the rights of magical creatures?"
I grinned. "You'll be the only one talking with them. I'll be your handler, sneaking around behind the scenes."
"I can be difficult to handle," she said, leaning forward in challenge. "Is that even allowed when we're romantically involved?"
"We'll be a tandem couple." I leaned over the desk to meet her halfway and brushed our lips together. "We've already proven what a great team we are. Director Chang approved it, and my mentor will show me the ropes."
"We do work well together," she agreed, then reached out her hand. "That's the file?"
"Project 416. The first one I've ever proposed," I said proudly, giving her the folder I was holding. As she flipped through the pieces of parchment in it, I warned her, "It might take a lot of time, depending on how hard it is to figure out what's going on. You don't have to decide right now."
Narcissa met my eyes. "It sounds like an interesting mystery to unravel."
"For what it's worth," I said with a smile, "I hope you'll say yes."