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A/N: Hello all. I apologise very much for the delay of this chapter, but the last two months have been rather hectic. Here it is though, and I am quite pleased with what was produced in mitigating circumstances! As you might guess by the (circular) ending of this chapter, there is only one more installment left. I've enjoyed writing this immensely, and thanks so much for reading. I hope to finally be able to answer some reviews soon - I know I have a lot to catch up on!

*

Deception


Oh, my love, my darling
I hunger for your touch

Unchained Melody, Righteous Brothers


December 2007


Draco fumbled a little with his briefcase as he stood outside the office, waiting. The fumbling was a sign of weakness, he realized, and he quickly desisted, correcting his posture so that no notion betrayed him. He was impatient. He wanted to move. His feet were itching to pace up and down the room. He heard the doorknob turn, and Hyperion Greengrass’ bloated head popped out to meet him.

‘Come in, Draco, come in,’ he smirked, holding the door wider open and pointing him inside. ‘I hope you haven’t been waiting long?’

‘Not at all.’ Draco grimaced. The apparentness of the lie was ridiculous. He took a deep breath and stepped in.

The office was imposing, as everything else connected to Hyperion. A handsome desk stood in the centre, papers flowing, not untidily, everywhere. Hardly an inch of the expensive wallpaper could be seen for photos of the women in Hyperion’s life: Cinxia, Daphne and Asteria. These photos kept catching Draco’s eye, as every single one of the subjects had the same manic tic of tossing their hair back. He wished there were not so many of them. It made him feel even more observed.

‘Well, I have to admit I was surprised that you wanted to see me,’ Hyperion said, sitting down behind the desk and reaching for something in one of the drawers. ‘Since Scorpius’ birth, I do believe there has been some… some reluctance on your side to fully embrace us as a family.’

‘Not at all, Hyperion,’ Draco answered a little stiffly, taking a seat opposite his father-in-law. ‘And if there had been, that would make this all the more mortifying.’

Hyperion deliberated, withdrawing a shiny cigarette case very slowly. He made quite a business of offering one to Draco, who declined, lighting it and inhaling several times. Draco resisted fidgeting in his seat, well aware that Hyperion was watching him closely. He wished he could get to the point.

‘So, why have you come to see me then, Draco?’ Hyperion finally asked, leaning back in his brown leather chair with a great creak of rusty springs.

Draco sighed before answering. This was the moment he had been dreading ever since he realized there had been no other way. He had looked through every possibility, gone through all his accounts four times, but had not seen another solution that did not imply giving the idea up.

‘I wanted to ask you for a loan.’

Hyperion’s eyes widened excitedly; he had, Draco knew, been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. Hyperion had always let Draco know in no uncertain terms how much he disapproved of jobs at the Ministry, and had often, at the beginning of his and Asteria’s marriage, insisted that they simply live off Asteria’s inheritance. Draco had refused point-blankedly, very aware of how indebted that would make him to a man he was not proud of being connected to. He could not prevent Hyperion from giving Asteria an allowance, but he had never accepted a dime from him, until realization had struck him last night.

‘Well, Draco, I’m glad to see you’ve finally come to your senses. Decided to quit that job at the Ministry, have you? Excellent idea, I’ve been telling you from the beginning –‘

‘I won’t be quitting my job at the Ministry, Hyperion,’ Draco said firmly, indifferent towards the interruption. ‘I want a loan, that’s all.’

‘But if you’ve managed to live off that tiny salary of yours for so long, then surely -?’

‘I want to invest. I want to make sure Scorpius is always looked after.’ The guilt squirmed a little in Draco’s stomach as he realized that he was using his son to make his lie credible. He pushed it aside, too intent on his goal to go back. ‘I wanted to go to you first. You are, after all, his grandfather.’

Hyperion smiled a little, as if he were a bee that had just been given a fat wad of free honey.

‘So how much are we talking about, Draco?’

Draco quenched another sigh of relief. The more difficult part had subsided: now it was just a question of sums. Before he laid out his suggestion, he remembered another vital part of the deal.

‘Hyperion, I don’t want Asteria to know. The investment I’m planning on making isn’t all that safe – in terms of risk – and I don’t want to get her hopes up only to disappoint her. If all goes well, I’ll let her know. But I would like to keep this between us.’

Hyperion sucked his cigarette one last time, then crushed it in an ashtray.

‘Of course, Draco. Wizard’s agreement. I have to say, I do like seeing a man take care of his family.’ He smirked. ‘This is the first time I’ve really felt you deserve my baby girl, Malfoy.’

Draco forced a smile.

It was worth it, he told himself. Hermione was worth it.

*


‘I think this is it,’ Draco called out, tugging Hermione’s hand as they ran towards shelter. It had been raining all afternoon, and the thunder had only just started.

They stood underneath a bus stop for a moment, looking up at the house that had been advertised. It looked nothing like the picture in the Muggle paper, but perhaps that was just the effect of the weather. Draco glanced sideways at Hermione, who was looking up at the property with a weird expression on her face. He could not read it, which was a first: Hermione had lately been like an open book to him.

‘The top floor,’ he said, looking at the windows highest up. ‘The landlady said it was converted into a studio a few years ago.’ He waited for an answer, but there was nothing but silence. ‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ Hermione said, biting her lip. ‘Is this really a good idea, Draco?’

The sound of his first name in her voice was unfamiliar, but he liked it. It was different from the way Asteria called him, even from the way his own mother used his name. He could not quite determine why he took such a profound pleasure in hearing it on Hermione’s lips.

‘Of course it is,’ he said, smoothing back his wet hair. The raindrops were getting thicker, the descent more rapid.

‘It’s just, taking a loan from your father-in-law for this…’ she continued doubtfully. Her eyes met his. He knew that the loan was not really what was bothering her; indeed, it would have been far worse if he were the one paying for it, like some cheesy Casanova planting his mistress in a hideaway. What she was really worried about was officialising their liaison, of finally putting it all into concrete proof: they were lovers.

‘Come on,’ he coaxed her, ‘let’s go see it.’

Biting her lip, Hermione nodded, and they ran out from under the shelter and towards the house. It was not a handsome building, but at least it looked well kept; the gardens surrounding it all had nicely trimmed hedges and newly soiled flowerbeds. Draco rang the doorbell.

An elderly lady came to the door, wearing what looked like a very outdated Chanel suit in pink and black. A dark shade of red lipstick had recently been applied on her lips, and her hair was set in highly artificial curls – Draco could spot one of the curlers still hanging behind her left ear. He guessed her to be in her early seventies, though she was clearly still intent upon keeping up with what she must assume be the times.

‘Mrs Wolsey?’ he asked politely. The woman gave him a toothy smile.
‘Yes, that’s me. And I presume you’re the couple come to see the flat.’

Hermione looked hesitantly at Draco, but he smiled.

‘Yes.’

‘Well, come in, come in, don’t stand outside in that weather, cats and dogs as always.’

They stepped into the small hallway. The house had obviously been divided into separate apartments quite recently; there was a new-ish feel about the grey paint that coated the walls and the neutral post-boxes lined up against the entrance.

‘That’s me right down there,’ Mrs Wolsey said, pointing at a door directly in front of them. ‘There are three flats in all. I’m letting the one on the second floor to a young businessman just up from Oxford. He comes and goes on weekdays, you know. I think he uses it as a bit of a getaway. Quite scandalous, if you ask me! But then young people are much easier at acting on their whims these days…’

She looked Draco up and down, clearly comparing him to the Oxford tenant. Hermione fidgeted next to him, but he laid a reassuring hand on her elbow, which only made her fidget more. She was clearly very uncomfortable, and it irritated him a little: he wanted her to take this opportunity as a must, just as he was doing.

‘Well, come along, I’m afraid there isn’t a lift, and I’m not fifty anymore.’

The three flights of stairs proved laborious work for Mrs Wolsey, but she seemed determined to do it. Between pants, she told them that she had taken out an advertisement in the newspaper instead of applying to an agency: the last time she had done that, they had provided her with a most unfitting young lady, who had spent most of her time listening to rock music and dying her hair purple. Draco could not prevent a smirk, and he saw that Hermione finally looked a little amused too.

After many wheezes and groans from the landlady, they reached the top floor, which included a tiny space devoted to a blue door and a ‘Welcome’ mat. Mrs Wolsey fumbled with her keys and opened the door.

The flat was fully furnished, although the decorator obviously had peculiar taste. The almost non-existent kitchen was hidden in a corner, with just a tiny stove and one kitchen surface. The pull-out bed was standing, almost proudly, in the middle of the room, clearly the only piece of furnishing from the 21st century. A door indicated the entrance to the bathroom, which Hermione pulled open to look inside.

‘How long have you two been married, anyway?’ Mrs Wolsey inquired, looking at the wedding band on Draco’s finger. Hermione cast a terrified look at him, but he smiled calmly.

‘Almost a year.’

The lie unsettled Hermione, and she cast him a questioning look when Mrs Wolsey closed her eyes in romantic giddiness.

‘And no children yet, what a shame. I suppose every couple needs a starting point, don’t they. I don’t think you could get better than my flat here, not on your budget. And you know, like I said, it’s only a stepping stone. My husband bought this entire house for me when I was just twenty-six, and look what it’s become now!’ She looked at Hermione. ‘I’m sure you’ll be able to do this place up more according to your tastes, it offers plenty of artistic expansion, you know.’

‘My wife isn’t very artistic,’ Draco said, with a hint of a laugh in his voice. Hermione glared at him, her expression murderous.

‘No, I prefer to be the breadwinner, you see,’ she said.

‘But because of my wife’s work, we travel a lot, Mrs Wolsey,’ he continued. Hermione shot a quizzical look at him. He suppressed the laughter in his voice. ‘She’s a – uh – a flight attendant. You know, on euro-planes.’

Air-planes,’ hissed Hermione unhelpfully. Mrs Wolsey’s eyes widened.

‘I see! How very glamourous indeed! You know, back in my time, an air stewardess was the one thing every girl wanted to be. I suppose you do something too, Mr Malfoy?’ she looked inquiringly at Draco, who blanched.

‘Uh –‘

‘He’s a writer. Or he tries to be one, anyway. He can’t ever get any inspiration unless he’s up in the air. He thinks travelling works the brain.’

Draco smiled at Hermione, impressed.

‘Well, a writer and a flight attendant. I don’t suppose I could get a better pair of tenants. Will you take it, then?’

Draco looked around, satisfied with his surroundings, but not sure what Hermione felt. She surprised him, however, for it was she who held out her hand in a businesslike manner and said, ‘Yes, we’ll take it.’

Ten minutes later, once they had run back outside the rain, Draco pulled Hermione to a halt. He had read about kisses in the rain, seen kisses in the rain, and had kissed Asteria in the rain; but this wasn’t about the rain. His lips met with Hermione’s beneath the drops of sky, and he whispered sweetly in her ear:

‘You’re sexy when you lie, Granger.’ And then, more seriously: ‘You’ll be happy here.’

*


October 2008


Hermione’s maternity leave was driving her crazy already, and it had barely been a month. It unnerved her beyond belief to be stuck in a house, admittedly with the joy of discovering the quirks of her newborn, but without anything useful to do. After years of scrambling about, reaching for a promotion, defending clients and reading through long judgments, this absence of intellectual strive drove her mad.

She began to have nightmares. They were not frequent, but violent enough for Ron to wake her in the middle of the night, when she was screaming and crying into her pillow about inaudible things. Ron did not know what to make of it, for the evenings he came home from work, tired but satisfied, Hermione always seemed happy enough.

With her nightmares and with Hugo waking up every four hours, crying in that upsetting way only a newborn can cry, Hermione started feeling very exhausted. Her mornings were spent in a stupor, half-awake, half-asleep, reaching for cups of tea and spitting them out when she realized that they were cold because she had made them hours before. The house fell in disorder, and she could not bother tidying it; sometimes she thought she caught a look of annoyance on Ron’s face when he come home from work to be presented with piles of clothes and empty glasses, but he never said anything.

Her eating patterns became irregular. At meal times, it was hard for Hermione to get anything down, sitting opposite Ron and wondering whether he was the father of their child. She feasted on apples and jam sandwiches when he wasn’t about, but her breastfeeding started suffering; she found it hard to produce enough to satisfy Hugo. All the weight she had gained during her pregnancy suddenly fell off her in one go, but it did not suit her: she felt as if the spare pounds were still hanging around her, like an old skin she had not yet shed.

When Hugo’s hair started turning lighter, her heart skipped a beat and she was shocked to find herself smiling. It was not a distinguishable blonde; but it was certainly not Ron’s ginger. She hated herself for it, but from that moment, she started loving Hugo more. He had been almost blurry before, just one more thing in her life that needed taking care of. But when she actually realized, actually understood, that he might be a little piece of Draco, she cherished him all the more for it. She could not have Draco, she knew that; but she could have this one little part of him - if that was what Hugo was – that no one but her would ever have.

*


They rang the New Year in two months later at the Burrow. It was Hugo’s first official big event amongst family and friends, and while the magical fireworks George and Angelina produced did not appeal to him, he was very much pleased with the rest of the familial attention. The occasion meant something sweeter to Hermione, who would start work again for the first time in four months the following Monday.

‘I do have to admit, I am looking forward to it,’ Hermione conceded to Ginny and Fleur, as they sipped elderflower wine in the overcrowded living room. ‘I love my children, but to tell you the truth, I think they would be happier with a mother who worked. I would feel so much more free – so much more able to give.’

‘I do not know,’ said Fleur in her throaty voice, shaking her head so her silvery hair flew about her. ‘If I only saw Victoire, Louis and Dominique in the evenings, I would be most displeased.’

Hermione cast a glance in Bill’s direction. For a split second, she had wanted to snap that it was easy for her, in love with her husband, but she bit it back. Bill was listening solemnly to Ron talk about the latest raids on Death Eater homes. There was still a ruggish handsomeness about him despite his bad scarring. Would it be easier to stay in love with Bill? Would it be easier to stay in love with any man but Ron?

Had she ever been in love at all?

‘Maman,’ an airy voice called, and a miniature version of Fleur danced towards them. ‘Please may I stay up till midnight this year? Please?’

Fleur looked at her daughter in amusement. Behind her, Bill winked.
‘Of course, Victoire, I told you so this morning.’

‘Ginny!’ Harry interrupted, hoisting Albus higher up against his shoulder, looking to his wife for help. ‘Ginny, could you –?’

Ginny abandoned Hermione and Fleur to look after her youngest son; engrossed in conversation with Victoire, Fleur did not really notice, and Hermione was left to her own devices.

Glad to be alone, she strolled into the little pantry off the kitchen. Laundry was scattered in piles in various baskets across the rooms. Molly had pasted her grandchildren’s drawings on the walls, along with to-do lists and the odd photograph. Hermione leaned against the counter and took a deep breath, wondering if this were to be her life in forty years.

She was so ill-equipped to the menial tasks of life, Hermione mused. Laundry, cooking, peeling potatos, running errands; it all bored her. Why did these trivialities have to be a part of life? Why could she not just exist, floating at her own leisure in between realms of peace and challenge, not to be bothered with necessities and checklists? Why could things not cease to subsist when she no longer wanted them – why could Ron not just vanish in thin air, or her desire for Draco be quenched at last, or these tedious family gatherings run to a halt because she wished it to be so?

Her cheeks reddened as she realized how selfish her thoughts were. Running from responsibilities – that was what she wanted. It was what she had always reprimanded others for. She ran a sweaty palm over her forehead, feeling wretched.

‘Hermione?’

She turned, and was half-surprised to see Ron in the doorway. He squeezed in and, rather unexpectedly, grabbed Hermione by the arms.

‘I can’t stand this,’ he said, and she started, completely taken aback and a little frightened by his sudden approach. ‘I can see something is wrong. What have I done?’

‘No,’ murmured Hermione, trying to detach herself from him and avoiding his gaze. ‘No, let me go, nothing is wrong…’

‘Stop it,’ he went on, refusing to let go, his grasp actually growing firmer. ‘You’re slipping away from me, I can feel it all the time, I can’t let you do this – I hate seeing you waste away like this. Everyone’s noticed, Hermione, please –‘

Hermione bit back the sob that had threatened to rise. How could everyone had noticed? They had noticed nothing. They had not guessed the half of it. Perhaps they believed her to be suffering from some sort of post-partum depression, or nerves from the upcoming return to work. But she had been too clever to leave clues about her affair, too damn efficient to let anyone guess that she was an adulteress. Her own intelligence was her own demise.

‘Hermione, don’t you remember, don’t you remember how easy it used to be…’

‘Don’t, I can’t stand it.’

‘What have I done, what have I said to make this happen?’ His desperation seemed sincere. Ron’s blue eyes were wide and pleading; it hardly seemed possible that they were talking about this here, in Molly’s pantry. ‘At least tell me something. Tell me I’m a bad husband, a bad father, tell me I don’t pay you enough attention – but say something!’

His voice rose into a powerful roar that sent a wave of emotion down her spine. Somewhere in the distance, fireworks were erupting. The champagne she had drunk was sticking to her throat in an obscene way. She thought of Rose, of her teddybears lined neatly against the wall and her pleated bedspread. Then she thought of Draco, and how they had made love the first time, and how violent and good it had been; how she had hurried home and washed her clothes and laid them neatly back in her chest of drawers. She thought of the flat they had rented together which he must have brought to an end, and of Mrs Wolsey and how absurdly similar their two surnames were, though Mrs Wolsey had never found this out.

‘Ron –‘

‘TEN!’

Hermione had almost forgotten that it was New Year’s. Ron’s eyes settled on her encouragingly as the taste of champagne slowly faded, a sign that she should speak, tell the truth, unveil everything.

‘NINE!’

The children in the living room were squealing loudly, excitedly, and the fireworks were erupting non-stop now.

‘EIGHT!’

‘I –‘

‘SEVEN!’

‘I’ve been – ‘

‘SIX!’

God, how can I tell him this?

‘FIVE!’

His face was growing more contorted, more concerned, and it was as if some suspicion flashed across his eyes, although Hermione was not sure if she were imagining it.

‘FOUR!’

‘Tell me, Hermione.’

‘THREE!’

Tell me.

‘TWO!’

Tell him.

‘ONE!’

‘I love you, Ron. Happy New Year.’

*


February 2008


Draco dropped his keys on the kitchen counter, and looked around, his heart sinking in disappointment. As usual, he was the first to arrive, though all the way to the flat, he had been hoping that Hermione would be there first for once, waiting for him.

The bed was freshly laundered, with very plain sheets and a rather inexpensive bedspread. They hardly had anything in this flat; a couple of glasses, two mugs, an old lamp and some towels. Draco loved it. The absence of luxury was surprisingly refreshing. When they were hungry, they ordered takeaway and ate it on the bed, devoid of dining table and chairs. When they needed to sleep, they curled up in each other’s arms and rested.

The purpose of this flat was rather obscene, Draco realized. It was simply a place to make love in. There was no alternate reasoning. They would eat if they were hungry; shower if they needed showering; but the purpose that they came and went here was to get lost in one another.

Draco had forgotten when he had got so attached to Hermione; forgotten or never knew. One day, he had woken up and felt his heart skip a beat when he realized that he would see her later. He had never felt that way before. He did not understand how his dislike for her had ceased to exist, separate from his desire. They had merged, but the dislike had not sustained; now it had grown into a gradual affection, and a dangerous possessory notion. He began to hate the idea that when she left, it was to go back to another man. She stopped bolting out the door the minute they had finished making love, and began to linger. When she fell asleep in his arms just a few weeks ago, he had stayed awake, pondering, unable to comprehend why he liked her restful, sleeping form so much, a form that was supposed to be useless to him. She had awoken looking rather frightened, as if she had committed some wrong, and had not spoken to him for several days.

The door opened and Hermione stepped inside, panting. She had obviously run up the three flights of stairs. Her haste pleased him.

‘I only just managed to escape Mrs Wolsey,’ she huffed, and his pleasure diminished. She had not hurried to see him.

‘Oh, well done,’ Draco said, smirking. She was wearing a beige trench coat and a white scarf. The colours danced delightfully against her pale skin. He walked up to her and took her in his arms. ‘Hello.’

‘Hello,’ she said breathlessly. He lowered his lips down to her neck and kissed her skin. She smelled of soap and something else. Her hands gripped his hair and he fumbled with the buttons of her coat, letting it slide off her. Her boots clacked noisily against the floor as they moved towards the bed.

He stopped kissing her once they had fallen on the bedspread, and she looked up inquiringly at him. When she realized he was not going to answer her silent inquiry, she sighed, almost a little sadly, and looked around the tiny room.

‘I decorate this place in my sleep, you know,’ she said, leaning against his arm. He began stroking her hair. Her eyes were wandering around the kitchen. ‘A coffee-maker, a laundry basket. Paintings there. A dog.’

‘Cat.’

‘Dog.’

‘I’ll let you have your way.’

Hermione smiled at him reluctantly.

‘We could have those things you know,’ he whispered into her ear, and then began nibbling on it. Distracted by this, Hermione could pretend not to have heard him. ‘Hermione.’

They began kissing feverishly again, and did not stop for a long time. Her boots had fallen on the floor, his shirt was tucked away underneath the bed, and time seemed to stand still for the two lovers.

Hermione rolled over, away from him, and Draco had to restrain himself from pulling her back. She began to dress, and he kept his eyes on her naked back. He knew her well enough by now to know that she was feeling guilty. The last few times she had laid restfully in his arms afterwards, and they had spoken of meaningless things. He had anticipated the shame would return, prompting her to leave him quickly, but not enough to prevent her from seeing him. What torture she must be living, he thought, what unnecessary torture.

She was pulling on her boots, the last of the clothes. Then she would leave him. His throat constricted a little. He hated the thought. His chest burned when his mind, unbidden, formed the picture of Ron. He got to watch her dress every morning and undress every night. It was not fair.

Draco reached his hand out and massaged Hermione’s shoulder. He would get her to stay. She would stay with him.

‘Don’t go; not yet.’

*


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