A/N: This isn't what I'd planned on for the next chapter, but it sort of just poured out of me. I rather like it though, and I hope you all do too!
Narcissa and Andromeda strolled through the rows of magical foliage. Andromeda actively searched through each section, reading the cards that described each plant and its purpose. Narcissa, on the other hand, gazed straight through the plants and flowers around them, looking at them without seeing them.
"Screechsnap is a magical plant with the ability to move and make noise. It is also described as a 'semi-sentient' plant for having the ability to feel both pain and pleasure." Andromeda recited from the display card. "That sounds terrible. What in Merlin's name would be the use of such a thing?"
Andromeda looked toward Narcissa for a reaction, but she remained oblivious. She'd been dealing with her silent sister for a couple hours now. They had agreed to meet for tea earlier, and after spending an awkward half hour with her, where she spun her cup in its dish almost incessantly, Andromeda decided they should go out and buy those plants Narcissa kept saying she needed.
Now, here they were. Narcissa still silent, and Andromeda still trying to get her attention. They continued walking down the row.
"Ah! Puffapods," Andromeda gasped and moved toward them. "These are good, especially if you don't want to go through the work of actually planting everything. Just throw these about and they'll sprout where they land."
Narcissa caught up with her slowly and gave a noncommittal hum. Andromeda rolled her eyes and gently placed the Puffapods in their basket.
Andromeda looked around them, wondering if something or someone had spooked Narcissa, but all she saw were the usual people milling about, although a few did look in their direction. Not looking at herself, of course, but at her sister. She glared at those who did, guessing at the unkind things they were thinking about the fallen pureblood Ice Queen. Sometimes, she understood Narcissa's postwar distaste for Diagon Alley, but it couldn't be helped. She wondered if she could credit her sister's silence to some discomfort, but it had begun earlier.
Andromeda walked toward another group of plants and made a show of looking at the description.
"This plant is geared toward reducing signs of aging, especially for particularly hag-like witches, cursed with grotesque features. This sounds like a good one for you, Cissy!"
"Yes, that's fine, Andromeda. Put it in the basket."
"What is the matter with you?"
Narcissa finally snapped back into reality and looked at her sister in confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the fact that you're not listening to a word I'm saying and haven't been since you met me back home. Now, tell me what's the matter, or I'll leave right now. I don't relish the idea of walking around with a deaf, mute ghost all afternoon."
Her sister looked down shamefaced.
"Forgive me, Andy. I'm just...thinking."
"Nothing in particular. You know how I am."
"No," Andromeda admonished. "I've noticed you've been a bit more contemplative as of late, but completely ignoring my presence and refusing to take part in normal conversation? That's not your way. You're too well-mannered for that. So try again."
Narcissa exhaled in frustration, and her lips thinned into a tight line. She surveyed their surroundings and noticed more than a few curious eyes directed their way.
"Fine," Narcissa muttered, under her breath. "But can we do this elsewhere? Not in the middle of a shop?"
"No. We still need to buy more things here, and I'm not moving an inch until you speak."
"Are you serious right now? Or do you enjoy treating me as if I were a teenager?"
"Well, what's the American saying? 'If the shoe fits…'"
"I don't know any American sayings and wouldn't admit to it if I did, so I'm still unsure as to why I'm being disciplined."
"If you act like a teenager, I'll treat you like one. The last time I had to walk around with a brooding girl for a whole afternoon was when Nymphadora hadn't made the Quidditch team. Have you not made a Quidditch team? Has someone been bullying you? Did they take too many points from Slytherin again?"
"You're absolutely ridiculous. You know, I was prepared to speak to you, but now I don't think I will."
"Oh lovely! As if I haven't already been dealing with that for the past two hours!"
"Good afternoon!" A new voice chimed in, halting the sisterly back and forth that, instead of growing in volume, had been reduced to low mutters and growls, the result of years keeping arguments to themselves in their rooms at Black Hall.
Both women turned immediately to look at whoever dared to intrude upon a spirited discussion between two Black sisters. Narcissa instantly paled when she saw who stood behind them, while Andromeda merely looked annoyed and offered a civil greeting.
"Hello, Hermione. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks," she replied cheerily. Her eyes kept darting from her to Narcissa and back again. "It's been awhile since I've bumped into you at Grimmauld. Everything alright with Teddy?"
"Yes, he's doing fine. He's excited for summer, not knowing that he still has a few months before that officially hits."
"That makes two of us then," Hermione laughed. Then, she looked over at Narcissa again and seemed about to say something momentous, but Andromeda was disappointed. "Hi, Narcissa."
Andromeda looked over to her sister and was surprised at what she saw. Narcissa's cheeks were flushed, and her right hand drifted over towards Andromeda until it rested on the handle of their shared basket. Andromeda noticed her tight grip and pale knuckles.
"Good afternoon, Hermione."
At the address, Hermione smiled and seemed to relax slightly.
"I'm excited about tomorrow. I had to pop in here though because I couldn't find my old Herbology supplies anywhere. I need some gloves, at least." She chuckled.
"Oh, you needn't worry about that," Narcissa quickly interrupted. "I could get you an extra pair. We're already doing some shopping."
Andromeda turned a quizzical stare towards her sister. Since when did she offer anything to someone outside the family?
"No, that's alright!" Hermione responded. "I'll get it myself. Besides, I think I deserve a better payback for that book than just a pair of gardening gloves."
Andromeda's wide-eyed stare instantly shot towards Hermione. The blushing girl smiled at Narcissa, and when Andromeda finally tore her eyes from Hermione, she saw the same blush tinting her sister's cheeks and nearly gasped in shock at the sight. She knew it!
"Well, I'll just get those and be on my way," Hermione continued, in spite of Narcissa's silence. "Ronald's waiting for me outside. It was nice seeing you." Her eyes and words were directed towards Narcissa, but she quickly corrected herself. "Both of you!"
Then, she scurried away as silently as she had arrived. Narcissa watched her go, and Andromeda watched Narcissa, how her eyes remained locked on the young girl as she found her gloves, paid for them, and left the store.
Finally, Narcissa turned her attention back towards themselves, although her cheeks were still tinted a pale pink. Yet again, she seemed ready to reenter her trance, but Andromeda wouldn't let her.
"Well, that answers my question."
"What question?" Narcissa peevishly asked.
"My question as to why you're acting like an imbecile." Narcissa narrowed her eyes and silently begged Andromeda to shut up. "You've invited that girl over to the house, haven't you? And you're nervous about it. We'll discuss why you're nervous about it in a moment, but I'm right, aren't I?"
Narcissa rolled her eyes in a show of both impatience and surrender. What was the point of trying anymore?
"Yes, I'm nervous about it. What of it?"
"Haven't you been spending more time together? Last time you told me, you'd upgraded the book club for fancy dinners." Andromeda almost added, "...and dates," but she didn't want to push too hard, too fast.
"We have been spending more time together, and that's precisely the problem," Narcissa admitted and began walking down the aisle again. Andromeda quickly strode after her, refusing to let this subject drop.
"Why would that be a problem?"
"I'm not going to discuss this in a shop."
Andromeda saw the resolve settle into Narcissa's features and knew she wasn't going to budge on this. Truth be told, she intuitively felt that this wasn't a conversation she could have here.
They quickly ran through the aisles. Andromeda haphazardly threw various plants in their basket, while Narcissa followed behind, adding a flower or two to their pile. As they went, Andromeda watched Narcissa's features flit between elation, contemplation, and then frustration. Before, she'd just been quiet, now she seemed to be working something out as well.
When they got to the line to pay, Narcissa's thoughts finally bubbled over.
"I wonder what she was doing with that boy."
"Weasley." Narcissa spat the family name as if it polluted her palate.
"They're friends, Cissy."
"And former lovers," she sneered.
"Bloody Merlin," Andromeda muttered to herself, then spoke directly to Narcissa. "I wouldn't use the term 'lovers.' They were children. And if you'd see them together, you'd see it's completely platonic. You have nothing to worry about."
"I'm not worrying about anything," she snapped back at her sister, her eyes fierce.
"Of course, you aren't," Andromeda replied with exaggerated assurance.
After that, Narcissa seemed to settle a bit and reverted back to her preoccupied silence, but without the tint of jealousy. She hardly noticed the cashier staring at her as if she were an extra-terrestrial, and both women picked up their bags and went back out into Diagon Alley.
"My place or yours?" Andromeda asked.
As fluidly as their next step, both women apparated onto the coast of Cornwall and were now striding towards Black Hall. The gate opened for them as did the door, and Whishee waited just inside, ready to get the bags both women carried and place them in the greenhouse as Narcissa directed.
Andromeda followed her sister into the drawing room. With a wave of her hand, Narcissa set the fireplace going, then with another wave, a bottle of Firewhiskey and two glasses appeared on a side table. Narcissa sunk into one of the old leather couches, while Andromeda unscrewed the bottle and poured them both a generous glass.
They both took a few sips. Andromeda waited for Narcissa to begin, while Narcissa gazed into the flames in her fireplace, watching their reflection in her whiskey.
"Are you going to speak of your own accord? Or should I ask questions?"
Narcissa seemed to ponder the thought for a moment.
"Fine," Andromeda nodded. "Why are you suddenly nervous about seeing her? Is it the change in environment?"
"Partly, I believe."
"But I assume you were the one to invite her here. I don't really see Hermione as the type to invite herself to one's home."
"No, she wouldn't." Narcissa agreed. "I invited her. An impulse that I couldn't check."
"Why should you check it?"
Narcissa then turned her gaze from the fire and towards her sister. Her eyes were heavy with apprehension, and Andromeda now regretted being so harsh with her back at the shop. This obviously wasn't easy for her, and although Andromeda intuited what was going on – and had been for weeks now – it seemed as if this all came as a surprise to Narcissa. So she would tread lightly.
Their shared silence continued, as Narcissa searched her face, looking for some answer to her question.
"Cissy, you must speak to me, or else I can't help you."
"Can't you just…?" She said in a pleading tone and gestured to her eyes and head. Andromeda understood what she wanted. She was asking her sister to perform a bit of legilimency, but Andromeda shook her head.
"No, you have to talk this out, darling. And besides, I haven't done that since we were girls. I doubt I still can."
"Of course, you can. I'm your sister."
"While that thought is touching, I remain adamant that you speak to me. We're doing this the Muggle way."
Narcissa pursed her lips in distaste, and Andromeda chuckled softly. They both took another long sip from their glasses, while Narcissa mustered her courage. She almost spoke a couple of times, but it took a minute or two before she finally asked a question that Andromeda had not been expecting.
"What did it feel like," she began, "when you first knew you were...attracted to Tonks?"
Andromeda's jaw slackened. After so many years, they still never had spoken of that time, which was a time of pain for her sister, but which for Andromeda was a conflicted time of both pain and bliss. She tapped into that now and answered Narcissa.
"Terrifying," Andromeda declared. "Like getting caught in Devil's Snare and knowing that the more I fought against that feeling, the stronger its grip would become."
Something like pity flitted into Narcissa's eyes then, but when Andromeda looked closer, she knew it wasn't pity, but rather empathy. Andromeda's words seemed to spark something within Narcissa as well. She not only understood it, but she recognized it.
"I knew it was insane," Andromeda continued. "Both my feelings and the ones Ted claimed to share with me. I made his life hell for an entire school year because I was so afraid of him and of my feelings for him. I pushed him away, ignored him, even went so far as to bully him in front of others."
"I remember that," Narcissa whispered.
Andromeda remembered it as well, all too vividly. The hexes, the taunts, the pranks – all the childish tricks she pulled to make the boy she loved hate her. Since his death and the many sleepless nights when she wished for just one more moment together, she regretted that ridiculous year in her youth the most. They could've had one more year, right there in the beginning.
"I was still too much of a coward then, still struggling too hard against that Devil's Snare without realizing that the only way to escape was to accept my fate. Accept the fact that I'd fallen for someone I was explicitly forbidden to love. Once I did that, everything else fell by the wayside, and I knew what I had to do to survive and to be happy."
"That takes an incredible amount of courage, Andy." Narcissa looked around the room, at the portraits, the tapestries, and all the vestiges of her family. "I thought it then, though of course I didn't tell you. I just wanted to save you from yourself. I also wanted to keep you here, and knew that if you married him, I'd lose you. Selfish of me. Yet, a part of me admired you. And now as a grown woman, I still haven't the slightest idea how you did that when you were seventeen."
"I wonder at that myself very often," Andromeda said, through a soft laugh. "The answer I come up with is rather paradoxical." Narcissa raised an eyebrow, gesturing her sister to continue. "I acted like a Black. Stubborn, impetuous, a bit insane. The time I was most like my family was, ironically, the time I broke from my family."
The lines in Narcissa's brow smoothed over, and a relaxed, almost languid look came over her whole body. Andromeda knew that, however much she'd like to act blasé about their family, Narcissa still felt inextricably tied to the House of Black. Now, she even lived in their ancestral home, which put a note of pathetic fallacy to her situation. So if Andromeda found a way to show her how following her desires constituted a fulfillment rather than a betrayal of her deepest self, then the way would become clear.
"Tell me what you're thinking, Cissy," she chided her sister. "You always do this. I sit you down to talk, then somehow you turn the tables and I'm the one talking non-stop."
Narcissa smiled at the joke and placed her glass next to the bottle of Firewhiskey.
"It's difficult for me to know where to begin."
"That's alright," Andromeda encouraged. "How about we go back to the questions then?" Narcissa nodded. "Right. So based on your question to me, may I assume that you're attracted to Hermione?"
Narcissa took a deep breath in and seemed about to grab her glass of whiskey again, but then stopped herself. After a moment, she nodded in answer to Andromeda's question.
"When did you know?"
"I'm not sure. I was in the middle before I knew I had begun," Narcissa replied airily, as if reciting words already written. "It was only after our first dinner date, however, that I knew. Since then, I've been caught between two impulses: wanting to see her as much as possible and wanting to ignore that this is even happening at all."
"I remember that feeling. The former is the one that's winning, I presume."
"Yes," Narcissa admitted. "By a long shot. I've even been inventing ridiculous excuses to visit her at work."
"Heavens, that is serious."
Andromeda smiled at her sister, and Narcissa slapped her arm, trying to stay on topic but also realizing how she had been acting like a lovesick puppy these past few weeks.
"Right then," Andromeda declared, getting back to the main issue. "So what is the problem? Why are you dreading tomorrow rather than looking forward to it – as she even admitted to being today when we saw her?"
Narcissa ran both hands down her face and neck, breathing deeply as she did. On her exhale, her body fell against Andromeda's, and her head rested upon her shoulder. Andromeda knew this as the telltale sign that Narcissa was about to vent, so she braced herself for the impact.
"'What is the problem'?" She said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "How about what isn't the problem, Andromeda?"
"You'll have to enumerate them, Narcissa, because I'm not seeing it. Don't tell me you're thinking of her...background."
"No," Narcissa softly yet firmly declared. "Fanaticism about blood purity ruined my family – both of them – and almost killed my son. I'd not only be backwards, but stupid as well to hold fast to such ideas."
Andromeda twisted towards her sister and remembered the conversation they'd had not so long ago about whether the "traditions" of their family were worth sticking to. Andromeda had assumed she was talking about their family motto, "Toujurs Pur," and apparently she was right.
"Granted," Narcissa began again, "I may still be a snob. I think my family is better than a Parkinson or a Weasley, but that's only because I have some pride. Not blood pride, mind you, but just...pride in my personal appearance and in my home and in the contributions my family has made to our society."
"The contributions of our family have been...rather mixed, Cissy."
"I mean before ours and our parents' generations. Although you, Reggie, and Sirius made strides in the right direction. Bella and I may've remained obstinate, but you all pushed against the status quo."
"Don't include yourself with Bellatrix," Andromeda muttered, after a few heavy moments of silence.
She felt Narcissa squeeze her hand, and she saw it as a thanks and also as a sympathetic gesture. Some things were unspeakable, and their other sister – or rather what she had become – still remained in that territory of unmentionables. Nevertheless, they both grew quiet at her name, and only after they both drained their glasses and refilled them did they continue their conversation.
"So you're fine with the fact that she's a Muggleborn?"
"Yes, Andy," Narcissa replied, almost impatiently. "To be honest, it doesn't even enter my mind when I think of her."
"Alright. Then, is it her gender?" Andromeda asked. "I'll admit to being a bit surprised by your growing interests in her."
Narcissa then sat up and looked, wide-eyed and pale-faced, directly at her sister.
"What do you mean 'growing interests'? Has it been obvious?"
"Is that really the main thing you got out of that question?" Andromeda chuckled. "Come on, Cissy, you're my sister. And although I've never seen you fall for someone, I think I can tell when my nearest blood has a crush."
"Do you think she knows?!"
"Merlin," she muttered, while pinching the bridge of her nose. "That's a whole other conversation that we can have after we finish this one. Back to my question, is it her gender that's frightening you?"
With the added anxiety of realizing that Hermione may possibility already be on to her, Narcissa nearly blew up at this question and took her whiskey in gulps as she answered it in a feverish outpouring.
"Yes," she began, vehemently. "Of course, it's her gender! I've only ever been with men – one man. And before you ask the next question, let me just answer it for you: her age is a problem as well. Not only is she younger than me, but she's my son's exact age. I could quite literally be her mother! From every possible angle, it's ridiculous. Here I am hoping for something I daren't even think about, much less name, and she's probably wondering when the old divorcee will stop pestering her and get a bloody life."
Andromeda couldn't hold it in anymore. She loudly cackled at Narcissa's frustrated diatribe. For her part, Narcissa just stared at her sister with stony seriousness. She failed to see the humor in her situation, which only made Andromeda laugh even more.
"You're even more daft," Andromeda gasped between laughs, "than I already thought."
"I don't find this funny, Andromeda."
Narcissa rolled her eyes, growing more frustrated by the moment.
"I'm almost a quarter century older than her. And once again, my son is her exact age."
"I heard you the first time," Andromeda groaned back. "I assure you that you're the only one preoccupied by that fact."
"And how can you assure me of that, pray tell?"
"One need only look at how she practically consumes you whole with her stare! And let's not forget that obvious bit of flirtation today. Some inside joke, I presume?" Narcissa seemed to stop breathing. Her eyes were still wide in anxiety, but now they also seemed to shimmer in hope. "Yes, I could tell for the past few weeks that you've been feeling something more than mere friendship for her, but I could tell from the moment I ran into her after the first time you walked into her shop that she was smitten with you."
"She insulted me the first time I visited her," Narcissa returned in a flat voice.
"Then what did she do? Wrote you a heartfelt apology and asked you out to tea, which you harshly declined because you're you." When Narcissa remained silent, Andromeda continued. "You should've seen her before she decided to write that note. When I mentioned that you'd talked about running into her, she nearly fell out of her seat in her haste to hear more about what you said of her. It gave me deja vu of all those times I had to push back all your faithful admirers in the common room, asking when you'd be coming down and if you'd mentioned them recently. So I can assure you, Cissy, that Hermione does not think of you as an old woman, nor as her mother."
Andromeda reached for her drink to wet her lips after such a monologue. Narcissa still sat next to her, rigid and obviously fearing to move and shatter her moment of realization. This reaction really did surprise Andromeda. Her sister had always been the first one to know when she had an admirer and the first one not to make much of a fuss over it. She'd always taken it as a matter of course. She was well aware of her beauty and of her stature in society, so the attention she received practically bored her most of the time. Yet, here she was, acting like a schoolgirl who'd just heard that her crush just might feel the same way. She was flushed and silent, her chest rebounded back and forth with her quick breaths, and her stare was half-vacant, half-feverish.
Andromeda decided she'd just wait for all this to sink in. She knew there were probably still some reservations regarding the gender issue, but it seemed as if Narcissa practically forgot about that in favor of contemplating Hermione's reciprocated interest. Just to be sure though, Andromeda added another word.
"And don't worry your head with who you have or haven't been with before. The past is past, Narcissa. Enjoy your present now and to hell with the rest of it."
This seemed to finally pull her sister out of her trance. Narcissa slowly turned towards her, and the corner of her mouth lifted into a small smirk.
"She does like me, doesn't she?"
Andromeda tried to keep her eyes from rolling and just nodded instead. Narcissa shook her hair back from her face and swung it against her back, while her smirk grew into an impish smile.
"Of course, she does," Narcissa whispered, as she seemed to sift through her memories with Hermione and as if she hadn't just been agonizing over this question. Her sister was back.
"Ugh," Andromeda groaned. "Forget about my complaining. I think I liked you more when you were unsure and silent."
She seemed not to hear her, however, because she sprung from the couch, grabbed her glass of whiskey, and drained it in a final shot.
"In fact," she declared, while slowly pacing around the side table and in front of the fire. "She's surely even more anxious than I. I know she's attracted to other women, and now," she looked down at Andromeda, "thanks to you, darling, I feel somewhat assured in the idea that she may be attracted to me in particular. On the other hand, for all she knows, I'm completely oblivious to her."
"The poor thing," Andromeda muttered. "I can just imagine what she's thinking and feeling. Probably that you care nothing at all and that you never would, given your history."
Rather than an expression of remorse, one of excitement and of cunning crossed Narcissa's face. Her lips finally broke into a smile, almost frightening in its relish.
"And I'll let her continue to think so."
Andromeda laughed in shock and for a moment – Narcissa with her pallor glowing from the fire and Andromeda with her dark mirth over her sister and her actions – they looked like some centuries-old ancestresses, concocting a plan to ensnare the most eligible bachelor in the county.
"You're cruel," Andromeda whispered through a low chuckle. "You better send me an owl as soon as she leaves. I'm already wondering how she'll take you in all your glory."
A/N: I'm making the final touches on the next chapter as we speak, so you can expect that out sooner rather than later! So how do you guys think the afternoon together at Black Hall will go? Or better yet, what are you hoping for? Let me know!
Many many thanks (and for my Spanish reviewer, muchísimas gracias!) for your continued support through follows and especially through reviews. You all have been super patient with this story and how I'm writing it. I'm also pleased to see that I've converted some of you into slow burn fans. It has its perks! But don't worry - the UST will resolve itself...soon. ;)