A/N: thanks to DarkBluePhoenix for beter reading. Please enjoy.
Thunderous applause rang through London's Palladium Theatre as the cast of The Sound of Music took their bows. The crowd were on their feet cheering and stamping as the final curtain fell and the house lights came up.
"That was fantastic!" Hermione beamed while retrieving her handbag from beneath her seat. "Wow, I hadn't realise it was such a good production. Mum and Dad always said it was good, but I never really believed them."
Draco merely smiled as he helped her on with her coat and lead the way out of the royal circle, joining the crowd thronging the stairs to the foyer. Of course he had made sure it was a good show before purchasing the tickets but Hermione's appreciation was gratifying nevertheless.
"Careful," he murmured, taking her arm and steering her through the jostling crowds. "How about a bite to eat? I know a lovely Mexican place nearby, they make wonderful food."
Hermione shook her head. "I'd better not, or I won't be able to get up tomorrow. Unlike you city folk, I'm not used to keeping such late hours during the week."
They had emerged into a chilly evening and both pulled their coats more snugly around them. Partygoers were starting to throng out of Oxford Circus tube station, heading for the nightclubs around Soho.
"Oh come on, you'll enjoy it," he wheedled, steering her across Oxford Street and into Regents Street.
Hermione opened her mouth but another voice Draco knew well, spoke first.
"Malfoy, what are you doing here?"
Draco spun round, his heart lurching as he came face to face with Dean Thomas. Stepping in front of Hermione he eyed the other man with barely concealed distain. Thomas had his wife with him, a non-descript witch who was watching him uncertainly. Judging by their smart evening clothes, he guessed they had been to an evening showing at one of the art galleries nearby.
"I could ask the same of you Thomas," Draco drawled, conscious of Hermione standing nervously behind him and wishing they hadn't encountered someone she knew.
"We've been out," came the terse response. "I see you have one of your hangers on with you." He gestured at Hermione as he spoke, and his disgust was plain to see.
"Who I have with me is none of your business," Draco hissed angrily wishing he could hex the little git out of sight. He could have done without this confrontation, especially tonight, but he couldn't see how he could get Hermione away without raising suspicions on all sides.
Two spots of colour appeared on Thomas's cheeks and he stepped closer, eyes glittering with temper as he glared at Draco.
"You have no shame," he snarled. "I know your marriage vows don't mean much to you, but how about poor Hermione? How do you think she'd feel if she knew about her?" He threw a disgusted glance over Draco's shoulder at Hermione.
Turning, Draco yanked Hermione forward so that she stood beside him. "For your information, Mai Lin is a business associate whom I've known for years. As for my wife, don't talk about things you don't understand."
He saw confusion on Hermione's face before it cleared. He knew that she'd momentarily forgotten about the glamour he had spent half an hour perfecting on her face earlier that evening, and was relieved that he had been so careful in applying the charms. Currently she looked nothing like her real self. Her hair hung down her back in a straight jet black curtain while slanted eyes stared into his. Her skin had the yellowish tone of Chinese people and her dress, a simple but very elegant kimono with a wide embroidered black sash, skimmed her slim form falling around her feet in swathes of lemon silk.
Hermione was staring at Thomas with unnerving intensity now that her fear of being recognised had been put to rest. Draco watched her eyes skim over the other man, and was amused to see Thomas's wife step forward and place a proprietary hand on his arm. Clearly she saw Hermione as a threat.
Thomas glared at Hermione and addressed his next words to her. "I'm not sure if you know Madam, but Malfoy here," he indicated Draco with a jab of his thumb, "is a married man."
To Draco's surprise and relief, Hermione smiled and nodded. "So he says." Her accent was not brilliant, but hopefully would pass muster. "This lady, she is your wife?"
Thomas blinked. He seemed to have forgotten about the woman beside him. "Oh yes, this is Lynda."
Hermione inclined her head towards the still silent Linda before turning back to Thomas. "It is a pleasure to meet you both." Then lowering her voice, she went on, "You are wizards?"
"Yes," Thomas grunted.
"And you work for the British Ministry of Magic?"
Draco frowned, uneasy about Hermione's questions. He tried to shoot her a warning look but she ignored him, her attention focused on the other man.
"No," Thomas replied, clearly intrigued. "I'm an artist. I do free-lance work."
"What kind of things do you draw?" Hermione asked, her Chinese accent vanishing in her eagerness.
"Oh all sorts, still-lifes, portraits, the odd landscape, you mention it."
Swiftly Draco took Hermione's arm. If she wasn't careful, Thomas would get suspicious at her barrage of questions and that was the last thing either of them wanted.
"We'd better be going," he interrupted, "if you'll excuse us."
"Oh but," Hermione protested glancing over her shoulder as Draco hustled her away but he quickened his pace so that she was forced to speed up.
"This will do," he grunted, turning into a dingy alley between two buildings. Grabbing her round the waist he disapparated, to appear a moment later in the hallway of his flat.
"What do you think you're doing?" Hermione demanded looking round her. "Where are we?"
"My flat," he replied stripping off his coat and holding a hand out for hers.
"But I didn't say I wanted to go to your flat," she flung back, as he ushered her into the spacious lounge.
"No, but it was the only place I could think of where Thomas couldn't follow."
She scowled in response. "I don't see what the problem was, he didn't recognise me."
Draco gave an exasperated sigh. "No, but he was getting suspicious. He's a world renowned wizarding artist and it's inconceivable that anyone who is a business associate of mine wouldn't have heard of him.
"Oh." She seemed to deflate while stripping off her coat.
Before he could think better of it, he'd crossed to sit beside her and pull her into his arms. "Hey, it's ok." He hugged her tight, and to his gratification, she put her head on his shoulder.
"It was wonderful seeing Dean again, it bought back so many memories," she said, the note of wistfulness evident in her voice. "I wish we could have spoken to him longer."
"You know as well as I do it was a risk," he replied quietly. "The more questions you asked him, the more suspicious he became. Thomas is a very gifted painter, everyone knows of him."
"I suppose so."
There was a silence in which Draco enjoyed the closeness of Hermione's form resting against him. Her hair felt soft against his cheek and he turned her face to his for a kiss. Her lips were soft and yielding beneath his, pliant as he drew them between his own. It was she who opened her mouth to deepen the kiss, and he revelled in the feel of her tongue sliding against his as they kissed deeply.
"It's getting late," Hermione drew back and glanced over her shoulder at the clock. "I'll have to go."
Draco sighed. "You could stay here," he suggested lightly and unsurprisingly, she shook her head.
"No, sorry." She stood up smoothing her kimono down. "It was a wonderful evening though."
"Maybe we can do it again sometime," Draco suggested also standing. "A trip to the ballet, or opera?"
Hermione didn't reply. Her eye had been caught by the family photos scattered about the room and she went across to a low coffee table on which there were a few group photos of Draco and his parents. As though unable to resist her curiosity, she stretched out a hand and picked one up.
Draco examined the photograph over her shoulder and smiled. It showed the Malfoys lounging against cushions. "I was around eight then. We'd just had a picnic in the gardens."
"You all look very relaxed," she commented thoughtfully, eyes lingering on Lucius's smiling visage.
"We were. Lovely weather and no threat of dark wizards – it was idyllic really. Anyway, going back to my original question, would you like to do this again?"
Hermione put down the photograph and turned away from the coffee table. "I'd like that, but first I want to go home, come on."
Draco had never liked harry Potter much, and this feeling had not changed with the years. Currently the dark haired man was scowling at him from Across Draco's polished mahogany desk.
"Look, Potter, what do you want me to say?" Draco drawled, enjoying the others frustration as he glared back.
"You know full well but as usual, you're being an obstinate git. Dean said you had a woman with you and that you'd just come out of the theatre. No business trip requires theatre attendants so what I want to know is who was she?"
Draco had known from the moment that he and Hermione had come across Thomas the night before, that questions would be asked and he wasn't wrong. Harry Potter had arrived a while ago, asking to see him. Now here the man stood, having waited for over an hour, demanding answers and once more, Draco felt a slight pang of pity for him.
What had Potter and his friends done to deserve Hermione's complete rejection? It was a question he badly wanted to know the answer to but so far, neither Hermione nor her former friends would say.
He shrugged. "The identity of my guest last night as you well know, is none of your business. Now is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Oh for god's sake," Potter hissed, his temper finally snapping. "Dean said she was interested in his career and clearly knew nothing about it. Everyone knows about Dean's career, he's famous enough. Only someone who doesn't have much contact with the wizarding world wouldn't."
Draco wondered if there was any point in denying it, and then decided there wasn't. At the same time he certainly wasn't going to make it easy for the git.
"And your point is?" He began rifling through a stack of papers as he spoke.
"It was Hermione."
There was a silence and Draco deliberately didn't respond.
"I mean it had to be Hermione. Yes, she was Chinese looking, but a decent glamour can do wonders…." Potter tailed off a note of uncertainty creeping into his voice.
"Who are you trying to convince here?" Draco asked calmly. Then deciding he'd had enough shirking, he continued "If you must know Potter, the woman with me last night was my wife. I trust that's not a problem."
The other man looked down to hide his expression, but Draco had caught the look of hurt that had flashed across his features. Again, he felt pity for the man; Potter must indeed be desperate for news of Hermione if he had come here and had been prepared to wait so long.
"I hope she enjoyed it." Potter said stiffly.
"Oh she did. Now if there's nothing else…." Draco nodded towards the door.
He watched as Potter debated with himself, clearly torn about is next move.
"We need you to give Hermione a message and soon," the other blurted in a rush.
"Oh?" Draco questioned suspiciously, all empathy for Potter vanishing in an instant. It had only been a week since he had given Hermione the package from her old friends. Surely the man didn't want to send her another letter?
"Yes, we need to get a message to her urgently."
"Really?" Draco raised his brows in scepticism.
"Malfoy, please. It's not often I ask you for favours or anything like that, but now there's more at stake. Hermione's…needed by the Ministry. I can't say more but it's imperative that she rejoins the wizarding world and soon. You're the only one who has access to her so we need you to impress the importance of this on her."
Draco frowned, his attention caught. There was something here that Potter wasn't telling him.
Masking his curiosity behind a bland expression, he asked, "The Ministry? Forgive my ignorance Potter, but what have they to do with my wife? The last time I checked, I was the main person who was affected by her disappearance."
Harry Potter's discomfort increased as he began to pace the floor, and Draco watched him calmly.
"Well, of course, but we also want her back you know."
"We, as in the Ministry, right? Or are you referring to you and your band of merry followers?"
"Everyone, that's all you need to know," Potter flung back irritated.
Draco returned his look with a passive one of his own. "Ah but that's where you're wrong. You see, I'm the only one with access to Hermione, and so naturally, need to know everything concerning her." His voice hardened. "If I don't, you can forget any ideas about getting me to help you."
Potter glared back. "Look Malfoy, we need Hermione's help. I'm not authorised to tell you any more than that."
"Fine, then you can forget any cooperation from me, now if you wouldn't mind, I've things to do." He jabbed at the door with his wand and it flew open.
As he had guessed, Potter caved in, shutting the door hastily with a snap. "Ok, ok, fine then. But I swear if any of this gets out, you're in for it."
Draco sat back, passive expression back in place and waited. As a precaution, he put a silencing charm on the office to ensure their conversation couldn't be overheard.
Potter continued pacing, thinking hard.
"See, it's difficult," he began. "Before she left, Hermione was working on something for the order, I'm not sure of the details, no one is. All we know is that it involved the use of magic in certain forms. Only Dumbledore really knew and he didn't leave any clear information on the matter."
"And why the sudden urgency to know now?" Draco asked, intrigued.
"There are…certain…shall we say problems that need dealing with. The letter Dumbledore wrote Hermione must have been charmed so that when she opened it, a letter addressed to me, would come to light in the heads study at Hogwarts. McGonagall found it and it just said that I was to ask Hermione to help solve one of the problems that haven't been sorted since the war. He said that only she had the capabilities to do it and that I was to ask for her assistance."
"And the problem is?"
Potter paused, and then shook his head. "Sorry Malfoy I can't tell you that. Its top-secret information that I'm not supposed to know. I suppose Dumbledore thought that went Hermione opened his letter to her; she would already have rejoined the wizarding world." He gave a mirthless laugh. "Poor fool for assuming that."
Draco nodded, thinking. Potter had told him a lot more than he had expected, which indicated that he was verging on the desperate.
"So how is Hermione supposed to help you?" He asked. "What it is it that she can do that the rest of you can't?"
Potter ran agitated fingers through his messy hair. "I don't know, but there must be something. Dumbledore just said that she was the only one who could take care of a certain problem, and that's why we need to find her."
"And if she doesn't want to be found?" Draco asked quietly, leaning forward and pinning the other man with a sharp look. "Potter, she went into hiding for a reason. Now I don't pretend to know what her reasons are concerning you lot, but they must still hold true for her to still want to hide even though I now have access to her."
The other man shifted uncomfortably and a look of sadness passed over his face. "We'd hoped that time would be a healer. But our feelings don't matter now, we need her help. Of course she may not want to help us, but we have to try, don't you see?"
"Hmm, so what do you expect me to do?" Draco asked.
"Next time you visit, take me along with y-"
"No!" Draco cut him off sharply. "I'm not doing anything like that. I've only just gained Hermione's trust. I'm not about to lose it because of you!"
How dare Potter even suggest such a thing? Draco knew full well the man wasn't averse to being underhanded and had broken a fair few rules in his time, but this trickery was something he had not expected of the so called hero of the wizarding world. He fixed Potter with a scathing look, not attempting to hide his contempt at the man. To his gratification, Potter was the first to look away.
"Fine, a letter then. Deliver a letter to her from me and insist she responds then and there, I trust that's not too much to ask?"
"I'll ask for a response, if she decides not to give one, that's her decision," Draco's voice was cold. The last thing he wanted was for Hermione to get upset and push him away, especially now that they were building a tentative relationship. The Ministry could go to hell and back as far as he was concerned.
He could see that Potter wasn't happy, but in the absence of any alternative, had to make do.
"Well, I'll charm it to make sure you don't read it of course," he snapped scowling.
"Do what you like, Potter." Draco replied indifferently. In his opinion, Potter and co were going the wrong way about convincing Hermione to return, but who was he to tell them that? Anyway, he was more than capable of breaking any enchantments Potter would put on the letter.
"I'll deliver it to you this afternoon," Potter huffed going over to the door. "Malfoy it really is urgent, so please give it to her as soon as you can."
"Ok, ok, now go!" Draco barked with annoyance.
Once Potter had gone he sat back deep in thought. He was prepared to bet that whatever it was Potter and the Ministry needed help with, had something to do with the now deceased dark lord. Most of his followers had been rounded up after the war but there were some who had escaped detection. The Ministry was always looking for ways of cracking down on the last of them and it was possible that Hermione knew of a way to do just that.
He wondered what it was that she could do that Potter and the other aurors could not. It must be important if Potter had risked telling him about it.
Curiosity took hold of him, and more than ever he wanted to know why Hermione had hidden from her friends.
Once he had the letter, he would visit her and do a bit of digging of his own.
Stowing the sealed letter in the inner pocket of his jacket, Draco touched the tiny scar on his finger. Immediately he felt the tugging sensation and a moment later, he was standing on the outskirts of a wood. He blinked, and looked around him, perplexed. The wood seemed to be deserted. Trees blocked out his view of the path ahead but he could see no one behind him. Twilight was fading and he wondered where he was. Had the charm failed in some way? Again he touched a finger to the scar but this time, nothing happened.
A rustling above him made him look up. A tawny owl was sitting in the tree nearest him. At sight of him, the owl took off with a squawk of alarm, disappearing from view within seconds.
Draco frowned with unease. The charm had always worked for him before, depositing him as close to Hermione as possible, allowing of course for the statute of secrecy.
Pulling out his wand, he was about to disapparate and try again, when the sound of cracking twigs alerted him to the presence of someone else.
Turning, he saw Hermione making her way through the trees, slightly out of breath and dishevelled as she wended her way towards him.
"What on Earth are you doing here?" She asked sharply, taking in her ruffled appearance with a frown.
"Walking, what does it look like?" She reached his side and turned towards the road Draco could see a few metres away. "Come on, it's late."
"Yes, I know that, but why were you walking in a wood at this time of night?"
"I felt like stretching my legs, so here I am. I presume the charm deposited you at the edge of the wood?" She asked, whilst brushing leaves off her coat.
"Not quite, under that tree." He pointed behind him to the oak the branches of which had housed the owl.
"I was a bit further in; I suppose the charm put you as close to me as it could," she said airily, pulling her coat tighter round her.
They had reached the main road and ahead shone the lights of a cosy looking pub, the Fox and Feathers. It looked homely and Draco glanced in curiously.
"Shall we have a drink?" Hermione asked pausing. "I've not been to this pub before though Meg says it's a nice one."
Nodding, Draco led the way inside and to the bar. He watched Hermione commandeer a corner table by the well lit fire as he ordered drinks. A moment later, he wended his way through the tables and pushed Hermione's glass of red wine towards her.
"This is a nice place," he said, sitting down and taking an appreciative sip of his gin and tonic. The warmth of the log fire felt good and helped lessen the knot of anxiety that had lodged beneath his ribs when he'd arrived so unexpectedly in the wood.
In a more affable tone he asked, "How was your day?"
"The usual, classes, essays to mark, that kind of thing. Yours?" She replied jerkily, eyes staring into her glass.
He paused, then said, "I had a visit from Potter today. He wanted me to give you this, he was quite insistent actually." Taking the letter from his pocket, he handed it to her.
Hermione turned it over in her hands, clearly not wanting to open it.
Draco continued, "He asked if you could give a reply straight away. Said it was urgent."
"I don't want to open it here," she said nervously. "As for a reply…."
"He was pretty insistent that you reply back. Of course I said it was entirely up to you whether you did or not, but judging from his attitude, I think he may have been telling the truth for once."
She shifted in her seat, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation.
"Well, I don't know," she hesitated.
"Just read it," Draco encouraged. "There's a charm on it to notify him when you open it, I checked."
Alarm flitted across her face and she dropped the envelope on to the table as though it were red hot.
Correctly guessing the reason for her panic, he continued, "Don't worry, the tracking charm was blocked, I also checked that before I came here. The wards protecting you are as strong as ever."
She nodded, then slit open the envelope with fumbling fingers. Draco watched the tightening of her mouth as she read the letter. The contents were clearly not to her liking.
Finally she refolded it, her expression guarded. "He wants a response straight away," she stated and he nodded.
She stared at a point over his shoulder as she lapsed into thought. "I'm not sure," she muttered distractedly.
"Well, do you wish to respond?" He asked patiently. "Once you've decided that, it'll make everything else easier."
"I'm not sure," she said again, fingers toying nervously with the envelope. "Did he tell you what the letter said?"
Draco let out a humourless laugh. "Hardly."
She looked round the pub with unseeing eyes, clearly thinking. He watched the conflicting expressions of interest, curiosity and resentment chase across her face and waited. No doubt the letter had bought back unwelcome memories for her.
Finally she looked back at him, her expression giving nothing away.
"I'll need to think about this carefully. He's asked me to do something which only I can, but the risks…."
Draco leaned forward, his curiosity rampant. "What? What have they asked you to do?" The urge to snatch the letter from her and read it was never stronger, but he hesitated, not wanting to anger her.
Pushing back her stool, she stood up. "Come on, let's go back to my place, we can't talk here."
He jumped up with alacrity, and followed her from the pub, uncaring of the curious glances thrown their way by the other patrons.
He waited until they had reached a patch of shadow between two glowing lamp posts, before pulling her to him, and disapparating to the small cops of trees opposite Hermione's cottage.
"Thanks," she said stepping away from him and crossing the quiet road without looking back.
As Draco followed her, he couldn't help noticing Hermione's neighbours curtains twitching. A moment later, the door was pulled open, and an old woman stood there, a box clutched in her arms.
"Hermione, this came for you," she called, coming to her gateway and waiting for them to reach her.
Draco sore Hermione's shoulders stiffen and knew that she was wondering how to explain his presence away.
"Oh thanks Val," she said, taking the parcel and starting to turn away.
Evidently Val was having none of this for she addressed her next remark to Draco. "And who might you be young man? I've not seen you round these parts before."
He smiled and nodded. "Oh I'm a friend of Hermione's from way back. We lost touch for ages and only recently met again."
The old woman's eyes travelled between them, speculation rife in their depths. "You live round here?" She asked.
Draco shook his head. "No, London."
"That's a long way to come to see a friend," Val commented, curiosity rampant in the beady eyes that were flicking between him and a discomforted Hermione.
Hermione cleared her throat, pushing open her garden gate with more force than necessary. "Well, thanks for taking this in for me," she said indicating the parcel. "We'd better not keep you now. Good night." With that, she marched up the path and inserted her key in the door.
Nodding to the old woman, Draco followed her, amused.
"I love her to bits, but there are times when I really wish she wasn't my neighbour," Hermione grumbled depositing the parcel on the table and throwing off her coat. "It'll be all round the neighbourhood tomorrow that she saw us together."
"How come she can see your house? I thought the fedelius protected you from everyone."
"She knows there's a house there, but can't actually see it, though doesn't realise that," Hermione said tersely. "She has to take in my post though, shame as it means I can't avoid her."
"What's in the package?" Draco asked nodding to it, as he took off his own coat.
"Oh just some books I ordered from Amazon."
She turned away and began drawing curtains and switching on lamps. Her shoulders were tense and Draco knew that her mind was far away, mulling over the letter Potter had sent.
Finally she turned to face him again, her mouth a grim line of determination.
"I still don't know if what I'm about to do is right," she said sighing, "but thinking about it any longer, won't help make the decision easier."
Draco stood still, hardly daring to breathe. He knew what a struggle this was for her but at the same time, hoped passionately she would consider re-joining the wizarding world.
"I'm prepared to help with this task they need dealing with, for want of a better word. In return though, I want to remain private. I don't know though how I can still manage to maintain my privacy if I help," she mused thoughtfully. "I'll have to go into the Ministry to do what needs to be done but I really don't want to see anyone…."
"Use a glamour as you did last night and an alias." Draco suggested. "That way most people won't know you from Adam and you can do what you need to at the Ministry and no one need be any the wiser."
"I'll have to tell the Head of Law Enforcement who I am though, and probably the current Minister for Magic as well; could they be relied upon to keep it to themselves?"
He gave a short laugh. "You're joking right? If it means solving this problem, then they'd be more than happy to keep anything quiet. The means justifies the ends and all that."
She nodded thoughtfully. "This letter is from someone called Cavendish Hillington, the Head of Magical Law Enforcement. Do you know anything about him?"
"Nothing in particular. He's worked his way up the ranks, is very ambitious and good at his job. He'll do what it takes and then some to get the job done."
"Well, for a start, I'll have to write to him and let him know the terms of my working with him. Would you make sure he gets the letter?"
At his affirmative nod, she went to a small desk in the corner and pulling out pen and paper, began to write. Draco watched her, wondering what she was thinking. He couldn't believe that she had agreed to go to the Ministry and knew that her decision was based as much on sentimentality as much as anything else. Hopefully this would be the first step to re-entering the wizarding world.
He waited as she wrote her letter, with many crossings out and rewriting. Finally she seemed satisfied and putting the letter in an envelope, sealed it.
"You're welcome to take a look," she said handing it to him, "but it'll tell you nothing you don't already know so I wouldn't bother if I were you. Could you make sure that this Cavendish Hillington gets it?"
"Yes of course." Taking the letter, he pocketed it. To his surprise, he felt no urge to read it. He knew that it wouldn't say anything he didn't already know. Knowing Hermione, it would be cloaked in vagaries and omissions only she understood. It was enough for the time being that she was responding at all.
"We'll have to work out a disguise I suppose." Her voice was nervous as she twisted her pen between unsteady fingers. "No one need know about me coming to the Ministry don't you think?"
"I'll talk to Hillington about it," Draco promised, "and we'll work something out. Don't worry; the Ministry will accommodate your every wish and then some. They want something from you after all."
"I'm surprised you no longer have any influence there," she said dryly. "At one time, your father was never out of it. He was bosom buddies with Fudge."
"Oh, we still have a say in what goes on there. It doesn't do to neglect the Ministry."
Influence and power were vital tools in survival, and like his ancestors, Draco had taken good care to ensure he donated generously to Ministry run charities and had alliances with the right people. The difference between him and his father however was the need for recognition. Lucius, dominated at a young age by his own father had been keen to get out from under his shadow and prove himself. Joining the Dark Lord had been his way of asserting his own independence whilst gaining glory and recognition. Draco had no love for such showy exhibitionism, content to influence and guide the Ministry from a distance. To his way of thinking, power was something to be used with care, so that he got what he wanted without seeming to do so or compromising his reputation.
"Indeed not." Hermione raised a sceptical brow but said no more.
She had stood up and he knew that she wanted him to leave. No doubt the last hour had been more trying for her than she cared to admit. He didn't want to spoil the progress he had made, so promising once again to deliver her letter, he departed.
Glancing up and down the corridor, Draco stepped out of Cavendish Hillington's office and made his swift way to the lifts. He didn't want to encounter anyone he knew.
The interview with Hillington had gone as much as Draco had expected. Hillington, a man of few words had read Hermione's letter and nodded, not troubling to disguise his relief that she had agreed to help him. He had been more than amenable when Draco had explained his plan of getting Hermione in and out of the Ministry using a portkey and glamour. Draco knew that Hillington wouldn't breathe a word of this to Potter or any of Hermione's former associates, there was too much riding on keeping Hermione happy. He smiled cynically. If only Hermione knew how much power she currently held over the Ministry.
"Merlin's beard, look who it is! What's the saintly Malfoy doing wandering these halls alone?"
The voice, loud and intrusive made Draco start and he whipped round. Ginny Potter née Weasley stood glowering at him, not troubling to hide her hostility.
"What can I do for you?" Draco drawled, inwardly annoyed that he hadn't seen her first and taken evading action.
"What were you talking to Hillington about?" The other asked stepping closer and lowering her voice. "It wasn't Hermione was it? I mean she may have sent Hillington a reply to his letter…" she tailed off under Draco's frosty stare.
"My conversation with the Head of Magical Law Enforcement, as you well know is none of your business Madam," Draco said coldly. "Now unless you wish for me to call one of the security wizards, I suggest you move out of my way."
Ginny Potter didn't move. Draco looked down at her compact form and smiled inwardly. For someone barely 1.5 metres tall, she had a lot of nerve. She stood looking back at him, her gaze unflinching. Of all the Weasleys, he had always admired her most.
She glanced round her, then asked, "Did you give our package to Hermione?"
"What do you think?" He retorted, glancing at his watch.
"I don't know. I wouldn't put it past you not to."
He surveyed her coolly, then nodded. "There you are wrong. I did deliver it. If she doesn't choose to respond, it's her choice, don't you agree?"
Her expression wavered between annoyance and hurt, finally settling on neutral. "How did she react when she got the package? I mean once she'd opened it?" She asked hesitantly.
For the second time in a week, he felt pity rise in him for Hermione's old friends. Ginny Potter was clearly eager to hear from Hermione and he could tell her nothing.
"She wouldn't open it in front of me," he said as gently as he could. "I suspect she wanted to be alone when she did."
She seemed to droop at these words. "Oh well… That's understandable I suppose. She's ok though is she?"
The sound of a door opening behind them made Draco glance round. This wasn't the place to be having such a conversation.
"We're rather in the way here, would you care to accompany me to the atrium?" He asked formally, whilst wondering what on Earth he was doing talking to this woman whom he usually avoided on principle.
She nodded and fell into step beside him as he made his way to the lifts.
"She's fine. You know I suppose that she's a teacher. She teaches at some school close to where she lives. It seems to work for her," he told her.
"I'd heard as much," she replied quietly, waiting as he pressed the button to summon one of the lifts. "I suppose she's happy?"
"She's certainly settled," he replied neutrally. "She's got friends and seems to have a busy life."
"Does she ever ask about us?" The redhead asked tensely.
Draco wasn't sure how to reply to this, relieved when a lift clattered into site. He followed her in along with a fleet of paper memos and waited until the grills had shut before answering. "She doesn't ask about anything in the wizarding world. A case of the less she knows, the better I think."
"But she's accepted you back into her life," Ginny stated, a note of challenge in her voice.
"Because she was given no choice in the matter. Everything else however, she does have choice over and for the time being, is sticking to what she knows."
Ginny nodded. "It's understandable even if we don't like it."
A silence descended on them and Draco was relieved when they reached the Atrium. He strode out of the lift and not looking back at her, left the Ministry. He had things to do to set up Hermione's visit. He badly wanted things to go right for her as it would impact on his marriage if they didn't.
Draco leaned back in his leather armchair beside the fire in the smaller drawing room of Malfoy Manor. Opposite him, his father sat, his expression anxious as he gazed into the flames.
"Silly girl, why can't she just re-enter this world and be done with it?" Lucius grumbled half heartedly, rustling the pages of the evening prophet in agitation.
"You know why," Draco replied lazily, "she doesn't trust anyone here yet."
"Other than you," Narcissa smiled from beside her husband.
It was evening and the family were all feeling replete after a large meal. Draco let the heat of the flames wash over him, his mind at peace. The day had been long and he was glad of the quiet of the comfortable room and his parents' company.
"I had hoped to see my grandchildren before I passed on," Lucius sighed wistfully. "Thanks to her, that's now very unlikely."
"Lucius, enough of that!" Narcissa snapped, the sharpness in her voice not disguising her fear. Draco too looked across at his father. The older man looked ill, his skin waxy and features pinched. He had lost a lot of weight in the past few months so that his finely tailored robes hung off him. His heart, which had never been right since the war, was giving up the fight. No treatment seemed to be able to revive the tired organ. Draco knew that his father didn't have too long in this world.
"No point in fudging the issue," Lucius said stoically, shrugging thin shoulders. "I'd hoped that you and the girl would make your peace Draco, your happiness is all I've ever wanted."
Draco swallowed the lump in his throat. "We have."
"I'd like to have seen her, put a few things straight and all that," Lucius continued. "I wanted to apologise for my part in the debacle of your marriage and such."
He had been talking in this way ever since Hermione had been found, but so far, Draco had refused to entertain the thought. Hermione had made it no secret that she didn't want anything to do with his parents and he hadn't wanted to rock the boat. Now though he wasn't sure. His father looked so ill…
"If she doesn't want to come here, maybe we could meet her in muggle London, or wherever suits her," suggested Narcissa, her expression pleading. Clearly she too was worried about Lucius's precarious health and wanted to do everything she could to help him.
"I'm not sure mother, I don't want to push things at the moment. We're getting on quite well and I'd like it to stay that way," he explained.
"One meeting," Lucius cajoled. "All I ask for is ten minutes of her time, that's all I need to say my piece. Once that's done, I can rest more easily."
Draco wondered if he ought to reconsider. Lucius was an ill man and if seeing Hermione helped lower his stress levels, could Draco honestly deny him?
"Please Draco," Narcissa said quietly watching him. "As your father says, it needn't be for long but it'd help him so much to speak with her!"
"I don't know. When I mentioned it to her, she refused."
"In that case don't mention it to her," Narcissa hurriedly intervened. "We'll meet somewhere public that's not too crowded, she can't object to that surely."
Draco nodded absently, his mind on the day in two weeks when Hermione would be visiting the Ministry. He wondered if he could arrange for her to meet his parents that day. She would be wearing a glamour so there would be no fear of her being recognised. If they met in a public place, it would be better and the meeting need only be for a few minutes. He was anxious that his father not be stressed more than could be helped. One way to do that was for him to meet Hermione. Draco wondered how this would impact on his own relationship with Hermione, would she trust him after the meeting with his parents. He hoped so. A twinge of unease went through him at the thought of her reaction, but another look at his father's pinched face decided him.
"Look," he said turning back to his parents who had been watching him quietly. "I'll arrange a meeting but the lady you'll meet won't be Hermione if you get my meaning. We'll go to a coffee shop or something and you can speak to her for a few minutes. OK?"
Both nodded. "Who will the lady be?" Lucius asked intrigued. As Draco had hoped, both had cottoned on to his meaning.
"Not sure yet, I'll let you know her identity nearer the time."
"I hope this won't have a detrimental effect on your relationship with her," Lucius said anxiously.
"Don't worry, maybe a slight hitch but nothing more," Draco reassured with an easy smile, which belied his inner unease.
Lucius's look of relief touched Draco and he knew that he had made the right choice in this. Hermione probably wouldn't see it like that, but right now, his father's health mattered more than her opinion. He sincerely hoped she wouldn't hold it against him, whilst acknowledging that she probably would. He sighed to himself; some things were worth her wrath, and if it meant his father would rest easy, then so be it.