A/N: Finally here it is. Thanks so much to my beta and everyone for your patience.

Disclaimer: No recognisable characters are mine, though the plot and any other characters do belong to me.

Chapter Six

"I'll put all these things in the spare bedroom, shall I?" Peter Granger asked, heaving a trunk full of books up the narrow staircase of Hermione's cottage with difficulty.

"Yes thanks," she answered picking up a box of papers and following him up. "I'll sort them all out later on. How was your journey?"

"Oh not bad, we didn't hit any traffic which is always a blessing," Lynn panted, bringing up the rear with another box.

Peter nodded and went down the stairs to fetch the last of the boxes. "That's the lot," he sighed in relief. "We had a real job getting this lot down from the attic."

"It's much appreciated," Hermione smiled, leading the way downstairs. "Sorry for the short notice by the way."

The talk was general as Hermione set out platters of cold meats and salad and she was relieved that her parents hadn't started asking questions right away. Having been on the road for the past few hours, she suspected the need for food had dampened their curiosity for the time being, and they tucked into the lunch Hermione had prepared.

The next ten minutes was spent eating, and Hermione wondered how much her parents knew. They had not been surprised when she had rung first thing that morning asking them to bring all her old books and things to the cottage, merely agreeing to be there in a few hours. Judging by the guarded expressions on their faces however, she guessed that they too were nervous.

"So, what's going on?" Peter finally asked, as he helped himself to more ham. "Apparently, it's all over the wizarding world that you've been found. Ron and Harry came round first thing Friday morning to ask if we knew anything about it."

Hermione smiled mirthlessly as she handed round more salad. "Not much happened, a charm that one of my old school associates put on me before I left broke and he tracked my whereabouts."

"I see," Lynn frowned consideringly, laying down her cutlery. "Who? Do we know him or her?"

There was no point in not telling them. "Draco Malfoy."

"Why was it he who found you and not Ron and Harry?" an interested Peter asked, watching her closely across the dining table.

Hermione hesitated as she put the breadboard back in the kitchen. Then knowing she had to tell them something, replied, "Because he put a complex tracking charm on me all those years ago which activated when the shelf hit me."

"Ouch," Peter winced in sympathy. "So have you seen Ron and Harry?"

"Oh no. The charm was very complex and all the magical protection around this place is intact so no one other than Draco knows where I am. It's all very complicated," she said in a light voice which belied the truth.

"But he'll have told Ron and Harry won't he?" Lynn asked, as Hermione handed her a steaming mug of tea.

Hermione chose her words carefully wondering how much to tell them. "No, the protection spells on the cottage won't let him. Anyway, they've never really got on so even if he could, I doubt he would."

"I suppose," Peter agreed sounding unsure.

"That's a point, how is it that you and he are on friendly terms? He told me that you got on well," Hermione questioned brows raised.

"He's a nice man Hermione, very polite and friendly," Lynn replied swiftly, clearly on the defensive.

"He's one of the reasons I left that world and there's you making friends with the man," Hermione cried indignantly. Why didn't you tell me you were in contact with him? He told me all about it, how he got to know you and everything! All this time and you've never breathed a word. " She was more than relieved to be talking about someone other than herself so showed all the indignity she could muster.

"Because we knew how you'd react. At first we too were dubious about him but over time, we got to know him. He's a sobering influence on Matthew and I for one am not sorry for that," Lynn smiled.

"He knows Mathew?" Hermione cried, secretly unsurprised at this revelation. If she knew anything about Draco, it was that he didn't do things by halves. "I don't believe this!"

"Calm down Hermione. This is precisely why we didn't say anything. For one, it wasn't our place to do so, and secondly, Draco was very concerned about you," her father put in. "Naturally, we can't tell him anything about you but he's still kept in touch."

"I can't believe you all went behind my back in this," Hermione grumbled, as she began clearing away the used crockery. "Nice family you are talking to him without my knowledge. He was one of the reasons I left that world and there you are cultivating a friendship with him!" In comparison with the happenings of the last few days, this was a mild surprise but still she was annoyed.

"Just one of the reasons?" Peter seized on her words. "What were your other reasons for leaving the wizarding world?"

Hermione scowled. "The climate in those times wasn't safe for muggleborns, it was best to get out before I was thrown out. Staying in that world would have endangered you as well. Anyway, we're diverting from Ron and Harry."

Her parents exchanged glances. "We see them now and again," her father shrugged, "but not very often."

"Oh? That's surprising," Hermione frowned diverted. "I'd have thought they would have kept in touch with you."

Peter shook his head. "No, Ron and Harry are the impulsive type, if they can't get an answer from one source, they'll stop using it. Quite short-sighted one might say."

"Yes, I suppose," Hermione agreed reluctantly. Her father was right, it would not occur to them to keep in touch with her parents just in case, as Draco had done.

"But the war ended a few years ago, you could have rejoined the wizarding world then," Peter suggested leaning back in his chair and eyeing her thoughtfully.

Hermione shrugged in what she hoped was a casual manner. "Such prejudices take a long time to die down Dad. It was safest for me to stay where I was. Anyway, I've built up a life for myself here; I don't want to change it."

Her parents exchanged looks, relief evident on both faces. She knew they had been proud of her achievements at Hogwarts but more than delighted when she had decided to rejoin the world they understood. They had avoided mentioning the wizarding world as much as possible over the last six years and would not push her to go back now. If it were up to them, they would want her to have nothing to do with magic although wild horses wouldn't make them admit this.

"Fair enough, it's up to you. But we're veering away from the point, what are you going to do now that the news has got out about you having been found?" Peter asked with a furrowed brow.

"I'm not sure yet," Hermione admitted fiddling with a teaspoon, "I need to think about it some more."

"Then why do you want all your old books and things?" Peter persisted.

"Just to do some reading. I may not want to rejoin that world, but I can't ignore it either. Not now."

"No, I suppose not-" Lynn broke off, her eyes widening as she stared over Hermione's left shoulder.

Hermione didn't need to turn around to see what had caught Lynn's attention. The slight breeze behind her, was warning enough of Draco's arrival.

"Well, well, this is a nice surprise," he drawled, pushing Hermione back down into her seat when she made to stand, and taking the seat beside her. "How are you Peter and Lynn? It's been a while."

Hermione's parents both smiled awkwardly although she could see Draco's arrival had caught them off guard. They weren't used to seeing people appearing in front of them seemingly out of thin air.

"We're fine thanks," Peter replied uncertainly, clearly trying to come to terms with what had just happened.

Draco, completely at his ease, moved his chair so it was closer to Hermione's and to her annoyance, slid a possessive arm round her. "That's good, I wasn't aware you were coming down today or I would have made it a point to be here and greet you. You should have told me Hermione."

"It must have slipped my mind," she said hurriedly, seeing her mother about to speak. It would never do for him to know that she had asked her parents to bring her wizarding books and the trip was unplanned. Her parents seemed to get the hint for they both nodded.

"Oh yes, the trip up here has been planned for a while now. You can't just decide on the spur of the moment, the journey's far too long," Peter corroborated, his expression bland.

"I see," Draco smiled again, his eyes travelling between Hermione and her parents. "I presume you'll be staying for a while?"

"Oh no, we'll drop in on some friends who only live a few miles away," Peter said and Hermione could have kicked him. "After all, it's not everyday you come this way, so we thought we'd kill two birds with one stone, so to speak."

"Good idea," Draco sat back, his arm tightening around Hermione.

"Well, we'd best be on our way," Lynn stood up, and pulled on her jacket.

"But you've only finished lunch," Hermione protested, also jumping up, Draco beside her. "You can't go yet."

"We'll leave the two of you in peace," Peter also stood. "Anyway, Eileen will be expecting us soon. Take care and Hermione, ring soon."

It seemed that their minds were made up for no amount of arguing on Hermione's part would make them change them.

Having said their goodbyes, she watched as they got into their car and drove away.

"You should have told me your parents were coming today," Draco said closing the front door and turning to her. "They must have thought me very rude coming in like that half way through lunch."

"I'm sure they didn't mind," she snapped marching back into the dining room and picking up the used crockery. "It's not as though they came to see you."

"Ouch, someone's in a temper," he drawled, levitating the crockery out of her hands and to the kitchen with a flick of his wand.

"Is there a reason you're' here?" she asked scowling, her eyes taking in his lithe form clad in jeans and a cashmere jumper.

"To see my wife, what other reason do I need?" he countered smoothly.

Turning away, she began tidying up, her back to him.

"Hermione, I'm speaking to you!" he turned her back to face him, and before she could pull away, brought his mouth down on hers in a none-too-gentle kiss.

Anger began to ignite within her and she tried to push him away but to no avail. At her struggles, he lifted his head.

"Don't," he said quietly releasing her. "I don't know what you're angry about but don't take it out on me."

"No?" she flared back. "How would you feel if your privacy was taken away from you? I can't move a step and there you are behind me. Have you any idea how that feels?"

His eyes were boring into her like drills and any other time, she would have looked away. Now however, she simply glared back.

"Why do you think that is?" he drawled in a deceptively quiet voice ignoring her question.

"You know the charm works, so what's the problem?" she through back, her frustration evident as she straightened the dining chairs with trembling hands.

"The problem, my dear wife, is that we've been apart for over six years. That makes a person a little wary one might say." His voice too had taken on a bitter note but Hermione ignored this.

"I don't see why. You know where I am and thanks to you, I can't go anywhere without you knowing about it," she snapped back, determined to make her point.

He let out a bark of mirthless laughter. "No, you can't and a good job too! Anyway, that's not why I'm here. Mother and Father would like it if you came to dinner at the manor this evening. As they can't visit you here, they've asked you to go there instead."

"No thanks," she replied coldly. "I've better things to do with my time than make stilted conversation with your parents." She could have added more but bit the words back.

"Such as?"

"Seeing my friends, marking of examination papers, dusting, shopping, that kind of thing."

"That reminds me, I'll bring one of the house elves to take care of you here," he informed her.

"Oh no you won't, I don't want an elf here. I'm perfectly capable of doing my own housework thanks very much," came the sharp retort as she shook out the table cloth.

He gave her a searching look. "Why do you insist on making your life more difficult than needs be? A house elf would save you hours of chores."

"It may surprise you to know, but I enjoy doing my own chores," came the sarcastic rejoinder.

His mouth tightened but he said no more on the subject, instead reverting back to their previous discussion. "So, you'll come this evening?"

"I told you, no. One, I haven't time, but apart from that, I'm not ready to see anyone else yet!"

There was a pause. Then to her surprise, he shrugged and glanced at his watch. "Fair enough, I can accept that. I'll come round later; I've the company books to look over before this evening."

Taking her by the shoulders, he bent and placed his mouth on hers and waited. When she didn't move, he lifted his head and drawled, "Aren't I going to get a kiss goodbye Hermione?"

Her expression was mutinous as she glared back at him.

"Just one kiss, surely not too much to ask? I won't go until you have you know." His voice had hardened and she knew that to get rid of him she would have to comply however much she disliked it.

Leaning forward, she gave him the briefest of kisses and drew sharply away.

"Such condescension," he tutted, "I should be honoured. One day, I must give you some proper lessons in kissing. For the time being though, I'll see you later," he said, straightening and stepping back.

She nodded and a moment later, he had disapparated leaving her alone.

XoXoXoXo

The piece of parchment was crumpled and like everything else in the trunk, grimy with dust. Carefully, Hermione brushed off the dust until the ink was clearly visible. As she had thought, it merely contained the instructions for the potion and not the charm. She groaned inwardly knowing that she had no means of obtaining the incantation for the charm so the potion it would have to be. Then getting up, she closed the trunk, and pushed it under the bed of the spare room before picking up the parchment and a dusty bag containing some wizarding money. She had spent the last hour sorting through her old school things looking for the parchment detailing the recipe for the potion she had once used to help her change to her animagus form. Of course trying to suppress the memories of that time had been difficult and she felt raw as she made her way into the attic. It didn't take long to unearth the wand hidden behind a pile of boxes containing odds and ends and as she pulled it out of its grimy box, she smiled. The surge of power she felt as her fingers closed round the wand felt good. How long it had been since she last held a wand. She gave it an experimental wave and red sparks flew out of the tip, illuminating the dimly lit room. Waving the wand round the room, she murmured "Scougrify." The dust and grime that covered the floor, boxes, and windowpanes disappeared and she blinked as more daylight lit the low ceilinged room. The wand in her hand felt odd and familiar at the same time. She stroked the wood, marvelling that she had gone so long without holding a wand. The rush of power that had leapt through her body during the incantation was exhilarating and she felt more alive and energised by it than she could remember feeling in a long time.

Downstairs, she sat down at her computer and copied out the list of ingredients she had found in the trunk. She frowned in thought as she stared down at the list; most of the ingredients were bog standard, Nott Grass, geranium Root, spine of lionfish. But some such as bicorn horn, Boomslang skin, unicorn blood, and a bat spleen were much harder to account for. The unicorn blood especially would pose problems even though a miniscule amount was required. She hoped she had enough money to pay for it. Five minutes later, she was printing the list off, and staring down at it, contemplating her next move and wondering again if she was doing the right thing. If she had misjudged her plan, she would be forced to modify a memory, something she had never done before and which she should not attempt with this wand which Quentin had given her when she had moved in. Squaring her shoulders, she put the list, the bag of money and wand in her handbag. She grabbed up her coat, and exited her cottage before she could change her mind.

The day was cloudy and overcast matching her mood. She walked briskly, exchanging polite greetings with the few people she saw out and about, most walking dogs. Luckily all seemed engrossed in their own pursuits and so didn't stop to chat, much to her relief. Finally she arrived at her destination.

Barry Langford's house, like Megan's, was set back from the road, and had a garage to one side. It was redbrick like most of the other houses in the village, its lines clean and uncluttered. Hermione hoped she wouldn't regret what she was about to do as she marched determinedly up the front path. Taking a deep breath, she rang the doorbell and waited.

It was a minute before the door was opened by Joan Langford, the eldest of Barry's children and one of Hermione's A-Level English students.

"Oh, hello miss, come in," Joan invited, stepping back and opening the door wide.

"Joan, is your dad home?" Hermione asked as the girl closed the door behind her. "I need to ask him for a favour."

Joan's face relaxed and she nodded. "Yeah, he's in here. "Dad, it's Ms Granger, she wants to ask you something."

A door to their left opened and Barry emerged, looking as though he'd just been woken from a nap.

"Ah, Hermione this is a nice surprise, come in." He ushered her into what she guessed to be his study. Papers were scattered on a desk and books were arranged on shelves round the room. There were a number of comfortable looking easy chairs and he waved her to one of them. Joan she noticed had gone.

"What will you have?" Barry offered nodding at a drinks cabinet, but she shook her head.

"Nothing thanks, I'm not much of a drinker."

"I remember you refused to try my punch the other night. You don't know what you were missing," he shook his head in mock bewilderment.

"I think I did," she grimaced. "Meg said the punch was very potent. One glass would have knocked me flat."

Pouring himself a whisky, he sat down opposite her. "I'm guessing this isn't a social call?" At her slight shake of the head he continued, "So, how can I be of assistance?"

Instead of answering his question, she posed one of her own. "How's Chris getting on at school?"

"Very well thanks. He wrote the other day, saying that he'd passed a test with good marks." The pride in his voice was evident.

"Oh?" she asked with interest. "Which subject?"

"Um, chemistry." At her raised brows, he amended, "Well, a form of chemistry if you like…Oh if you must know, it was potions!"

Hermione relaxed slightly, knowing that a small part of her problem was solved. "Hmm, a hard subject I believe."

Barry's interest was caught. "So you know what potions is about then?"

"You could say that."

His expression became intent and he leaned forward eagerly. "Hermione, if I'm anything it's honest. Ask Megan if you don't believe me. I promise that anything you say to me will be said in confidence. Is it true? You're the Hermione Granger who left that world six years ago?"

She hesitated. Then nodded.

"I knew it." He lowered his voice, "Chris told me about you when he first went to Hogwarts, about how you'd disappeared from the magical world and no one had seen you for years. I couldn't believe it at first but you looked like the girl in the pictures he showed me. Naturally it was none of our business and when I tried to enquire about your schooling, you always had such convincing answers that I thought we'd been mistaken. But when all that stuff blew up the other day, well…"

"Your curiosity was peaked again," she finished dryly.

"It was all over the Prophet that you'd been found on Thursday evening. Chris sent me a copy of the paper and when Joan and Anthony said you weren't at school on Friday, I wondered."

She nodded. "Well it's a long story but that's not the reason I'm here. Barry, I need a favour from you."

"Anything," he said eagerly. "Heaven knows we owe you, especially after the extra tuition you gave Anthony last year."

"Oh that was part of my job, nothing more," she disclaimed. Lowering her voice, she asked, "Do you have access to the wizarding world?"

"Well yes, mainly through Chris."

"No, I meant access to places like Diagon alley or Hogsmeade," she clarified, glancing round warily.

"I can I suppose."

"Let's say Chris needs something, I don't know, more potions ingredients or some such, how do you get hold of them?" she asked.

"We order them using Chris's owl," he replied promptly.

"Where's the owl at the moment?" she asked, trying to suppress her own excitement.

"In Chris's room. He's resting."

Hermione picked her next words with care. "There are some potions ingredients I need but for obvious reasons, can't get hold of, would you order them for me? I'll pay you of course."

"Of course! Is that it?" He gave her a slightly disappointed look.

"Well, yes." She wondered what he had been imagining she would ask.

"If you give me the list, I'll send Hereclys directly," he agreed enthusiastically.

"Thanks." She took the list from her bag and handed it to him.

He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he scanned it. "Heavens, this lot is enough to put you off your dinner, what are you going to do with it?"

"Oh not much. I need to make a potion, for protective purposes you know, but haven't the ingredients."

He nodded. Then unable to contain himself asked, "Is it true? They're saying in the prophet that you ran away from your husband and it was some kind of protection mechanism that made him find you." His look was sympathetic and he was no doubt remembering the scandal that had occurred in the village when she had broken up with Ben. Now he knew why.

She had wondered how long it would take him to get on to the subject of her background and shrugged. "Something like that. It's a long and not very interesting story. Now about these potions ingredients…."

The look on his face belied her words but she continued, "The apothecary I need you to send the letter to is one that sells more rare ingredients. I've written the letter and your owl can deliver it if that's ok."

"Yes, of course."

"Barry, I trust this conversation will remain between us?" she asked, a dart of unease dimming her excitement for a moment.

"Oh yes. As I said before, you've no need to worry on that score. Anyway, if I did say something, you'd know about it and I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of your wand. The Prophet was quite explicit about your talents with hexes."

"Oh I'm not that bad, honestly. I just want to be left alone," she said with a weary sigh.

"That's more than understandable. Well, as soon as the stuff arrives I'll give it to Meg who can pass it on to you. It'll probably be less conspicuous that way."

She nodded in agreement and rose to take her leave. The conversation had gone better than she had dared to hope and now all she had to do was wait for the ingredients. She just hoped that the apothecary in Knockturn Ally was still doing business. Hopefully they wouldn't ask any questions. Handing Barry the letter and bag of money she gathered her things together.

"Wait for the ingredients before sending the bulk of the money," she instructed, closing her bag. "You can never be too careful with apothecaries in Knockturn Alley so it's always best to be safe. Just give a small deposit when sending the order, no more."

He nodded. "I'll let Meg know as soon as the stuff gets here."

XoXoXoXo

"It smells absolutely revolting," Megan said eying the bubbling pan on the cooker. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Hermione looked up from the sheet of paper she was studying and grinned. "It's possible I made a mistake but I don't think so. I was a dab hand at potions at school and this looks the right colour and consistency."

"Potions, sounds positively barbaric," Megan Muttered shaking her head. "I can't believe poor Sophie will have to endure it."

"She'll love it," Hermione answered vaguely, concentrating on the potion. "Could you pass me that wooden ladle?"

Megan handed Hermione the implement and watched as she began to stir methodically, first clockwise, then anticlockwise.

"How long will it take to cook?" she asked.

"It doesn't cook, it brews. It's ready according to my instructions."

"You still haven't told me what it's for," the other woman grumbled, giving the bubbling potion a distrustful look.

"Trust me, its very complex. Maybe when you've become more used to the wizarding world I'll explain," Hermione tried to placate.

"It sounds ominous," Megan snorted. "Err, what do you do with it?"

Hermione gave her an uncomprehending look. "Sorry?"

"Well, what do you do with it? I mean do you put it on your skin or what?"

Hermione didn't think Megan would react well on learning the potion had to be ingested and merely gave a vague shrug. "It's used for various things."

"So explain again, why is it safer to brew the potion here rather than at your place? I mean your husband's just as likely to turn up here as there," Megan went on, evidently deciding not to pursue the earlier discussion.

"Yes, but there's the statute of secrecy to consider. The last thing he wants to do is appear out of thin air in front of muggles and have the ministry involved." Hermione took the pan off the heat, and began to pour the mud coloured mixture into a bottle.

"It's still taking a risk," Megan persisted. "He could easily turn up here now. By the way, that card you brought is weird, I still can't get used to the fact that the pictures move of their own volition."

"That's a chocolate frog card; the chocolate frogs are really nice too. You'll get used to the idea of the pictures moving, it just takes a bit of time." Putting the bottled potion into her bag, she gave Megan a reassuring smile. "Stop worrying about things until you have to. It'll work out, you'll see." She wished she could be as optimistic about her own future.

"I suppose so, but it's all so alien!" The other woman persisted. She turned to contemplate the pan Hermione had used. "This potion, will it help hide you in some way?"

Hermione hesitated, and then nodded. "Yes, you could put it like that."

"I've been thinking," Megan started busily wiping down the vacated cooker, "I'd like to meet this husband of yours. How about it? I know a lot more about men than you do and can tell you if he's any good or not."

Hermione frowned, taken aback. "Um, I don't know. Would it be a good idea?"

"Why not?" an eager Megan asked. "Angus and I were discussing it last night and we think it'd be an excellent idea. I won't lie and say there isn't something in it for us as well, but from your point of view, it'll show him you have good friends in the village and so to watch out."

"And what's in it for you?" Hermione asked, interested despite her misgivings.

"It'll give us a chance to question him about that world, maybe introduce us to other parents with children Sophie's age. That way she can get to know other children like her so she has time to adjust to that world before going off to school. I don't imagine it's easy to get used to it, their way of doing things being so different to ours. Besides, it'll give us a better understanding of what she's in for and that's never a bad thing."

As ever, Megan and Angus had decided to adopt the practical approach to Sophie joining the magical world. "I'll think about it and let you know," Hermione hedged, not wanting to disappoint her closest friend, but at the same time reluctant to agree to Megan's suggestion. Glancing at the clock she picked up her bag. "I'd better go Meg; I've marking to get through before tomorrow. Thanks for letting me use your kitchen."

Taking her leave of the other woman, she made her way down the deserted road, her expression thoughtful as she crunched through piles of autumn leaves. The light had faded, and street lamps lit the road in pools of yellow. She hunched further into her coat as gusts of wind buffeted her, clutching her bag with its precious cargo.

To her immense relief, the apothecary in Knocktrun Alley had delivered the list of goods without question within a day. No doubt they had been grateful for the custom. Megan had agreed to lend her use of her kitchen to brew the potion although Hermione didn't like to think how much Megan's gas bill would total after five hours of constant use. Now Hermione had a good supply, and if all went well, would be able to transform into her animagus form very soon. This in itself would give her much more freedom and protection, something which more than adequately made up for her fear of heights.

The feel of a hand on her arm, made her start in surprise. Draco stood watching her, his expression enigmatic. He was dressed in a crisp suit, hair windblown, and scowl firmly in place.

"You were at your friend's house a long time," he grumbled, falling into step beside her.

"How do you know?" she asked warily, hoisting her bag higher up her arm.

"I waited for you. Unfortunately, the charm won't let me appear in front of muggles who haven't taken the oath of secrecy so I had to stand outside." He sounded thoroughly disgruntled and she suppressed a smile.

"Now that's a shame, I almost feel sorry for you."

"Don't be sarcastic, it doesn't become you." He took her arm possessively as they walked. "What were you doing there anyway? You went there this morning and at lunchtime."

"What do people usually do at their friends houses?" she retorted and lengthened her stride whilst glancing surreptitiously around. She didn't want anyone she knew to see them together.

"But on top of that you were at your school all day and then back at your friends place; do you ever have any time to yourself?" Draco continued irritably.

He wasn't to know that normally she would be glad to go home after a day of teaching and enjoy some solitude; today however the potion had been her first priority and she had got started first thing this morning, making frequent checks on it throughout the day. She shrugged as they crossed a quiet road. "Meg invited me round so I went."

"Yes, well, it seems you're always doing other things," he griped as they turned into a narrow lane close to Hermione's cottage. "Last night you had marking to do as well, that was when you finally got in."

The day before, she had gone round to her neighbour Val's house after visiting Barry. The older woman's company had been a balm to her ruffled nerves, and it had been late when she had returned home. She took her time in answering his question.

"Welcome to the real world Draco," she drawled, going up her garden path and unlocking her front door. "I have a life here and as surprising as it may seem, it's a busy one."

"I appreciate that," he replied, shutting the front door behind them and following her into the sitting room, "but things have changed now. I'm doing everything I can to accommodate you into my life, why can't you do the same?"

She bit back a derisive laugh, a number of scathing retorts springing to mind as she divested herself of her coat. Settling for a diplomatic response, she answered, "Because I didn't ask to be found by you. "

He huffed in exasperation as he threw his jacket and tie on to an armchair. "No, but I have found you and that changes things. For one thing, it would be nice to see something of you. I had planned for us to spend the evening together last night but you were otherwise engaged. The only meal we've had together since we got back from the villa was hurried and even then you kept saying you had other things to do. I'm regretting us coming back to England so early."

She sighed, putting her bag in a cupboard. "Well, you're here now, what would you like to eat?"

"Oh I've instructed Guddin, my elf to cook," he said, following her into the kitchen.

She scowled as she washed her hands. "That's nice."

"I thought it'd make life easier for you," he smiled, taking her place at the sink. Raising his voice," he called, "Guddin?" There was a crack and a house elf appeared before them beaming. It wore a neatly tied tea towel about its body.

"Master called?" the elf asked looking curiously at Hermione.

"Is dinner ready?"

The elf nodded vigorously, its large ears flapping. "Oh yes master, will Guddin serve now?"

Draco also nodded. "Yes, I'm hungry. "

Hermione wondered how she could get rid of him without arousing his suspicions and knew that she would have to go through with this meal. It was true she had been avoiding Draco whenever she could, using friends and neighbours as a barrier and excuse. Tonight however, he seemed in no mood to be trifled with so she said nothing as he took her arm and lead her to the antique dinner table placed in the centre of the small cosy dining room.

A snowy damask cloth covered the oval table and silver wear she guessed to be Draco's, glinted in the light. She certainly didn't own solid silver cutlery or such fine china.

"Your elf's been busy," she commented as he drew out her chair.

"Well if you won't go out, we have to bring things to you," he smiled taking his place opposite her. "I hope you don't mind, Guddin arranged it while I was waiting for you."

"How did he get in to the house?" she asked alarmed.

"I told him where to come. Elf magic is different to our magic; they can apparate in and out of dwellings which are warded by the most complex spells."

"I see." She relaxed.

"So tell me, how was your day?" Draco asked as a large boll of herb scented pasta and tofu was placed before her. She didn't ask how he knew that she was a vegetarian.

"The usual really," she replied, watching him pouring wine into Crystal glasses. "I had a lot of catching up to do as I was away Friday."

"How many classes do you teach?" he asked, sounding genuinely interested, while offering her side salad and garlic bread.

"I teach one class from each of the lower years and contemporary literature to all the A-level classes," she explained, tucking in to the mouth watering food.

"It sounds as though you have a very full timetable," he commented, before starting on his pasta which had chicken in it. .

There was a silence as each did justice to the meal. Having eaten barely half her sandwich at lunchtime Hermione was particularly hungry. Finally she asked, "How about you? Being the head of such a large company can't give you much free time either."

"I make free time," he smiled, relaxing slightly as he replenished their glasses.

She hesitated. Then asked, "Have you told my parents about what happened before I left? They didn't seem to know anything about it yesterday so I wondered."

He shook his head. "I thought about it but decided against it. It took ages for them to even speak to me in a civil manner, telling them about what had happened would have undone all my good work."

"I can't believe they accepted that you were merely a friend. They knew full well our history."

His gaze flicked away from her as he replied in a seemingly casual voice, "I gave them to understand that our relationship wasn't what one could call platonic."

"Meaning?"

"Well, only that my feelings for you weren't of a brotherly nature."

She was silent. Then asked, "Have they seen the latest additions of the Prophet? I imagine the whole thing was brought up again."

"I made sure they didn't see the prophet, and you're right, it was all dragged up again. You'd think that lot have nothing better to write about than us."

She wondered how often he'd been pestered by journalists but decided not to ask. For once, his scheming nature was working in her favour and Hermione was grateful for that. He would have done everything he could to ensure that her parents knew nothing of their marriage until he wanted them to know although how he had managed to stop Ron and Harry telling them was beyond her.

Tentatively she said, "I can't imagine Ron and Harry keeping quiet about that in front of my parents," and was disconcerted to see the cynical smile these words provoked.

"What, and have your parents ask them why they allowed this to happen to their best friend? Oh no, if you ask me, Potter and Weasley have their own secrets to hide and divulging this news would no doubt oblige them to have to tell your parents of their part in events. For Hermione, they did have a part to play in what happened, you can't deny that."

She didn't answer but concentrated on her pasta as she thought about this twisted logic which nevertheless made sense. No doubt if it had been left to Ron, he would have charged round to her parent's house without a thought for his own part in the events leading up to her departure from the wizarding world. Most likely Harry and Ginny had stopped him. She shrugged, seeing no reason to deny Draco's words.

"Is the miss finished?" Guddin asked, and when she nodded, removed their plates.

"That was delicious," she sighed in contentment, leaning back in her chair.

"There's Italian apple tart to come," Draco said, clearly satisfied.

"I don't think I have room," she groaned as Guddin placed plates of the mouth watering dessert before them.

"Your parents said it was one of your favourite foods." Draco offered her a jug of cream. She poured some on the tart, and tucked in, enjoying the novelty of being waited on in her own home.

Soon the meal was finished, and Hermione stood up, feeling replete and pleasantly tired.

"Can I offer you coffee?" she enquired politely, as Guddin cleared the table and with a click of his long fingers, vanished the used dishes.

"Guddin will do it," Draco said nodding at the elf who bowed and disappeared. "Shall we go to the sitting room?"

Nodding, she lead the way into the cosy room, conscious of him following her. Disconcertingly, he sat on the sofa beside her, rather than opposite as she had expected.

He yawned and leaned back, arm brushing lightly against hers as the elf appeared before them with a crack, carrying a laden tray.

"It's odd to be waited on like this in my own home," she observed, watching the elf setting down the tray before disappearing.

"But nice though," Draco said pouring the steaming brew into bone china cups. "Cream, sugar?"

She accepted the former and sat back, wondering how long he intended staying. There was silence as both sipped their coffee.

"So, had any more visitors?" Draco asked, in a seemingly casual voice.

"Visitors? What do you mean?" she responded guardedly.

"Oh I don't know, other people from the wizarding world maybe?"

She frowned. "Hardly. The only one who knows where I am is you."

"And your Secret Keeper, now lets not forget him," he put in swiftly.

Deciding not to rise to the bate she continued, "I meant to ask you, do you know why my parents haven't been inundated by people wanting to know about me?"

"Because I saw to it that their address was removed from all wizarding records a few years ago. It would never do to have others find you before I did. " He paused and then went on, "I've also cast a few protective wards round their house just in case. Potter and Weasley know where it is but no one else."

She wasn't surprised at his answer. No doubt he had ensured the removal of her parents address as soon as he could after her disappearance, and the wards on her parents' home were probably as complex as any in Gringotts.

Placing his half full cup on the coffee table, he hesitated, then pulled a small package wrapped in thick brown paper from his pocket. With a flick of his wand it had been enlarged and wordlessly he handed it to her.

"What's this?" she asked, turning the package over in suddenly nerveless fingers.

"Potter gave it to me to give to you. At first I refused but he went on and on until I agreed, so here it is."

"Oh," she replied flatly, staring down at the plain paper, her stomach sinking.

"Aren't you going to open it?" he urged.

She wasn't sure she wanted to know what was inside and hesitated. Part of her longed to rip open the package but the other more sensible part warned against it, for now anyway.

"It's not hexed you know, I checked," Draco encouraged watching her closely.

"I know but maybe I'll do it later." She put the surprisingly heavy package on a side table.

Draco's expression was bland as he nodded. "Suit yourself although Potter did ask for a reply from you. What shall I tell him?"

Hell and damnation, trust Harry to want a reply. She could guess only to well the contents of the letter inside the package, for she was sure there would be at least one, although why the package weighed so much, was a mystery. She would open it when Draco had gone, no doubt it contained painful recollections. Just seeing Harry's untidy writing would bring back unwanted memories and she didn't want Draco being a witness to that.

"Whatever you like," she replied indifferently, surprised that he hadn't opened it himself.

His look was searching and she had trouble meeting it. "There's a lot of bad feeling between you," he commented in a neutral voice.

"Some things are best left in the past," was her cryptic response.

"Ah, but the past has a habit of catching up with you," he volunteered, eyes straying to the parcel.

Then he turned back to her, his expression purposeful. "I was wondering whether you'd seen the new production of The Sound of Music?" '

The change of topic took Hermione by surprise and she frowned. "Err, no. Why?"

He smiled. "In that case let's go one evening. I'll book the tickets and-"

"Woe, hold on a second," she interrupted, throwing up her hands. "Where did this idea come from? You don't like muggle musicals and stuff."

Draco let out a long-suffering sigh. "Really Hermione, you must stop prejudging. For your information, I've always loved musicals and plenty of wizards go to see them purely because music and theatre are not things we're good at."

A distant memory shifted in Hermione's mind, and she saw again the Malfoy drawing room on the night so long ago when she and Mandy Brocklehurst had sung arias from the Marriage of Figaro. She was sure that Lucius Malfoy had mentioned something about wizards not being great musicians.

"What's the first musical you saw?" she asked curiously.

"The Lion King, it was very good. My parents took me as a birthday treat when I was seven."

"And they sat with the muggles?" she asked incredulously.

"Well, no. We hired a box. Anyway we're veering from the point, would you like to see The Sound of Music? I haven't seen it yet but have heard it's very good."

She hesitated. "I don't know, it's in London and well…"

"You're worried you'll be recognised?" he guessed shrewdly.

"You can't be too careful. The events of last week will have put me under the wizarding media's spotlight so people will be on the lookout."

He nodded and she could tell by his smug expression that he had already considered this problem.

"That's true. But who's to recognise you under a glamour charm? All we need do is darken your skin colour, and disillusion your features to look more oriental."

She hesitated, torn. It would be lovely to go and see a show in London's west end, something she had not done for six years, but was it worth running the risk of being recognised? Then there was Draco's part in things to be considered. What would her accepting the invite mean to him?

"I don't know…" she prevaricated.

"It's just a show and a pretty good one if the reviews are to be believed. Come on, it'll do you good," he cajoled.

"When?" she asked glancing up at the calendar on the wall opposite.

"How about next week?"

"Just the two of us, right?" The last thing she wanted was Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy turning up.

"Of course," he agreed hurriedly. "I've no intention of sharing you with anyone else!"

She nodded, well able to believe this. "An evening would be best." There would be less people around in the evening to see her, reducing the chances of recognition.

"Right, I'll get tickets and let you know."

Draco sighed as he looked at the clock. "I'd better go, I've a few floo calls to make before going to bed and have to be in Geneva by 8 tomorrow morning."

"Oh?" She asked with interest.

"A conference given by the international Confederation of Wizards, pure tedium, but nevertheless necessary. It means I'll probably not be able to see you tomorrow," he continued. "I don't know how well the tracking charm works overseas and would rather not try."

Keeping her expression neutral she nodded. One wrong move at this stage and his suspicions would be aroused. "I hope it goes well, Mum and Dad dread international dental conferences."

He turned her face to his and gazed unblinking at her. "I'll miss you." His lips were gentle as they brushed over hers, the movement unhurried and sensual. She allowed him to slide his arms about her, enjoying the feeling of being held by an attractive man. She returned the embrace, aware of him pushing her back against the sofa and deepening the kiss. The man knew a few things about snogging, she thought hazily as his tongue probed the recesses of her mouth with slow languid strokes. Soon she would end it, but she had to play along convincingly. Anyway, this felt far too good to be so hurriedly curtailed.

His fingers were in her hair while the other hand was splayed against her back, the warmth of his body enveloped her and she felt her nipples stiffen against the cotton of her bra. Her own arms were wrapped about him, maximising the contact between them. With an effort of will, she broke the kiss and turned her face aside but didn't push him away.

"What's wrong?" he asked, voice unsteady, as he rubbed his face against hers.

"Nothing," she faltered.

He said no more, but pressed his face into her neck, and she tried not to flinch as his jaw covered by a 5 o'clock shadow, grazed her skin. She wasn't sure how long they lay like that, intertwined, but it was she who turned her face to his, and shyly renewed the kiss. His look of surprise was short-lived, and in seconds, he was kissing her back, their mouths melding together. She didn't protest as he slid a hand into her jumper and cupped her breast, expertly massaging until she thought she'd scream with the sensation overload. God this felt good, she thought as he trailed kisses over her jaw down to her throat, each kiss seeming to sensitise her skin still further. She was vaguely aware of her own hands sliding beneath his shirt to caress the skin of his back, anything to maximise contact.

"No," she gasped, finally pushing him from her. "Stop."

She scrambled up, hurriedly adjusting her clothes and not looking at him.

"Hermione," his voice was gentle as he got up and turned her to face him. "Hermione, it's ok."

She looked into smiling grey eyes and blinked. He wasn't annoyed; on the contrary, he looked very pleased.

"I…That is, we shouldn't have," she sighed, confused by the longing that was racing through her. True it had been a long time since she'd been intimate with a man, the tentative kisses exchanged with Ben had been overshadowed by her worry of getting caught, but this rampant need that was coursing through her bloodstream was totally unexpected.

"There are forces that neither of us can control at work here," he reminded, tucking waywood strands of hair behind her ears. "It's natural that the more time we spend together, the more our desire for one another grows, our marriage ensured that."

She nodded doubtfully, still trying to bring her breathing under control. "Yes, but so quickly?"

He laughed easily. "It seems so. Now I'd best leave before we do something we'll later regret. I want our first time together to be really special and for neither of us to regret a moment of it."

Hermione drew back, startled. The consummation of this marriage had been discussed by herself and others with the same detachment as discussing the economic state of Britain, or the problems brought about by climate change. Now however, probably for the first time since it had taken place, she was confronting the real possibility of sleeping with Draco, and quailed at what it would mean. Swiftly she stepped back, putting distance between them, and adopted a closed expression that gave nothing away.

"Let's not be too hasty," she smile grittily, "after all, we're practically strangers. Such intimacy as you're suggesting, isn't born over night, whatever the spells or enchantments were, activated in that parody of a ceremony."

She didn't miss the look of hurt that flashed across Draco's face at these words but remained cool and collected, the passion of a few moments ago, forcibly relegated to the back of her mind.

"I don't understand you," he answered bitterly, "one moment you're ok with things, the next I'm getting the brush-off, why?"

How could she respond to this? The question taunted her, he did after all have a point.

"I'm sorry," she said, feeling mean but resolute. "It's just that things are moving too fast and I don't feel as though I'm in control of them. I thought we'd take our time getting to know one another and stuff, but it's not working out like that, which is frightening."

Draco nodded, looking resigned. "True, but I'm not objecting. Don't worry; you won't have to do anything you don't want to. Best to take it a day at a time. Now one more hug and I'll be off."

He held out his arms and feeling less reluctant than she should have, Hermione stepped into them. They wrapped tightly round her, and involuntarily her arms slid round him, pressing their bodies intimately together. A traitorous part of her that had lain dormant until this evening revelled in the contact and she pressed herself closer, breathing in the clean smell of his skin. It was all she could do to stop herself hanging on tight. His kiss was gentle, and to her relief undemanding.

"Merlin, I'll miss you," he murmured, eyes gentle as they rested on her flushed face.

"I'll miss you too." The words escaped her before she could stop them and to her surprise, she realised she meant them.

Their parting was swift and a few moments later, Hermione was alone in the cottage, relief sweeping over her as she collapsed onto the sofa. Her feelings were in turmoil as she thought about the evening and she silently berated herself for responding as she had, while unable to deny the feelings of pleasure he had invoked.

The package Draco had bought was still lying on the side table and to give herself something else to think about, she picked it up, turning it over in her hands. She was curious about its contents and hesitated, wondering if she could open it. Then squaring her shoulders, she tugged on the thick tape binding the paper and it came away. There was a tingle in her fingers as the wrapping fell apart and she knew it had been spelled to open only for her. The brown paper fell open to reveal a few letters and a photo album.

Hermione picked up the top letter in not quite steady fingers and ripping open the envelope smoothed out the crisp sheets of parchment. Ginny's neat writing covered the pages, and Hermione had to blink back tears to decipher the words.

'My Dear Hermione,

'Ron and Harry wanted to be the ones to write, but I thought I'd better do it. You know what they're like, can't string two sentences together without starting to yell and blubber.

'I hope you're ok and that Malfoy has delivered this package to you. We were overjoyed to hear that you'd been found, but frustrated to find that only he has access to you. As you can imagine, he isn't letting anyone forget this and it took Merlin knows how many hours of pleading before he agreed to give you this package.

'Oh Hermione, I miss you so much! It's been six years since you left the wizarding world and every day we all feel the loss. A lot has changed since the war. I'm sure Malfoy's told you how it all ended so I won't bore you with it. All I will say though is that things have changed here. Everyone agrees that what happened before you left was awful, but time is a great healer and I hope you can forgive us for the events of that terrible day. None of us realised the extent of the magic that had been used to bind you and Malfoy and when we did find out, we were horrified, but by then you'd gone.

'Before he died, Professor Dumbledore left you a letter which I've also enclosed in this package. He wanted your forgiveness Hermione for what happened. He was very ill during the last months of his life, and he spent a lot of time worrying about you and his part in things. I hope his letter brings you some peace and goes some way towards helping to heal old wounds.

'From what Malfoy's grudgingly told us, you're teaching now. I hope you're enjoying it. As you probably know, Harry's an auror and Ron plays chess professionally. As for me, well, Harry and I recently had a baby, James. He's a month old, and much to dad's dismay, has inherited Harry's untidy mop of hair rather than the Weasley red. We got married two years after the war and I played Quidditch before having James. Now all my time is taken up with him, it's amazing how something so small requires constant attention. How mum wasn't driven insane by seven of us is beyond me.

'I've enclosed some photos of James you may like to look at. He's smiling now and cooing so the photos will be more interesting.

'Hermione, we can't tell you enough how sorry we are for what happened, but please, please, try and put it behind you now. It's too much to hope that you'll forgive us for our part in events, and I won't ask it of you, not in a letter. All we ask is that you reply back. Malfoy has agreed, grudgingly, to bring us your reply and for now we must be content with that. All we want is a few lines telling us you're ok and happy. Surely that's not too much to ask?

'I'll end now, but please, please write back, even if it's a note telling us to 'sod off'. That'll be better than nothing. Anything's better than your silence from the past six years.

'I hope you're ok and that Malfoy's not making a nuisance of himself. He is very protective of you and anxious that no one disturb you in any way, an admirable sentiment however frustrating for us.

'All my love,

'Ginny'

Tears rolled unchecked down Hermione's cheeks as she reread the letter. There was pain etched in every word the other woman had wrote and Hermione knew the letter was heartfelt.

Carefully she put the letter back into the package and retied it. Later she would look at the photos and maybe even read the letter from Dumbledore but she didn't feel strong enough just then.

Glancing at the clock, she saw an hour had passed since Draco's departure. Now was a good a time as any to put her plan into action and it would take her mind off Harry Ron and Ginny for a while. Pulling the bottled potion from her bag, she eyed it nervously. It had been a long time since she had transformed after all, and she was not looking forward to it. She had spent the last few days going through the exercises to help with the transformation but still she worried that something may go wrong. Then for the second time that evening, she took a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, she swallowed a mouthful of the potion and waited.

It happened instantly and she screamed inwardly as her body transformed. Physical pain she hadn't felt in years lanced through every cell of her, as rapidly as she shrunk, and her limbs, not used to this excruciating pressure, were forced into those of her animagus form.

A few seconds later it was over and she stood on the carpet breathing heavily and peering at the coffee table, the surface of which reflected a tawny owl, wearing a pained expression. With care, Hermione lifted her wings and wobbling slightly, flew in not quite a straight line to the window sill on which she perched, gazing round her with not just a little pride at her accomplishment.

She had done it! After years of no magic, she had turned into her animagus form. A hysterical laugh bubbled up inside her at the thought. Now all she had to do was master her dislike of heights and she could truly take advantage of the freedom this gave her.

Deciding she'd had enough for one day, she transformed back into her human form, wincing as every muscle shrieked under the strain it had been put through. She definitely needed to practice transforming. At this rate she wouldn't be able to walk two steps let alone fly. Gingerly she limped back to the sofa and fell on to it, her muscles protesting. There was a long and painful road ahead of her where transforming was concerned, but she was determined to travel it and endure the pain.

She would use the next day which she hoped would be Draco free, to work on her transformation and maybe she would even fly outside. If she was feeling up to it, she'd read the letter that Dumbledore had left for her. It would be interesting to see what he had to say, and possibly, explain his actions, although how, she wasn't sure. As for replying to Ginny's letter, she would think about that when she wasn't in so much pain.