xXx

"You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied." - Charles Warnke

"A king may move a man, a father may claim a son, but that man can also move himself, and only then does that man truly begin his own game." - Kingdom of Heaven

xxxxx

Part One

Draco had just finished paying for the Daily Prophet when someone tapped him lightly on the shoulder. Unsolicited and unannounced physical contact always made him flinch. It was a reflexive reaction based on years of various unpleasant experiences. Quite unwarranted, he realized as he turned around. The woman standing in front of him reminded him slightly of McGonagall, but her smile was considerably softer. However, he wouldn't be surprised if she called him "young man" in that tone only teachers achieved.

"I assume this is yours, sir?" she said instead, looking down and in front of her. Draco followed her gaze, where he met the twinkling eyes of his rather adventurous progeny.

"Ah," Draco raised his eyebrow at Scorpius, aged barely six, who apparently wasn't buying his father's stern look. "Yes, that would be mine," he said, looking at the kindly smiling woman.

"I found him by the magical pet store. I assume he likes to wander away?" she asked.

"Mildly put," he answered, in mostly amiable tone, to which the woman nodded. He looked down at his son, raising eyebrows. "Scorpius," he used the boy's full name, which meant he was very serious. This boy had him wrapped around his finger, it was true, but there were some things Draco would never not treat seriously. "What did I say?"

The boy's smile deflated, but only a fraction. Seriously, this child might look like him, but he was too cheery for a sombre and often morose Malfoy gene pool. He was so carefree– something Draco never was, not even when he was this age. At times his son would catch him frowning at whatever thought inside of his head, run up to him and tell him to cheer up.

"That I should stay close to you, hold your hand and not wander away," Scorpius recited, following it with, "But I saw puppies!"

"Ah," Draco sighed, crouching down to the eye level of his son. "Of course," he still kept his tone stern. The woman patted Scorpius on the shoulder. "I fear it's a matter of day when I'll be going to Lost and Found store to look for you, would I?" Draco did his best to show how serious he was, but he couldn't channel the seriousness of his own father. He didn't want to be like Lucius, but Scorpius wandering away, simply because he'd seen something interesting was among his greatest fears.

"I am sorry, daddy."

And there went his fatherly anger.

"Next time be more careful, all right?" Scorpius nodded. The woman who found him stood beside them, smiling at the entire exchange between the two. "Now say thank you," Draco instructed as he took his son's hand. Scorpius was an obedient boy with truly good manners. Draco insisted on those, but the boy had more enjoyable nature than his father. Everything pleasant about him came from his mother, and Draco felt he was showing off something he wasn't truly responsible for. If this child had his temper, he would never be this manageable. Scorpius looked up at the woman and smiled like a Hufflepuff.

"Thank you," he said and added, "Bye – bye," with a wave of his hand. The woman waved at him and went the other way, and Draco silently thanked every single deity he knew and didn't know of for her kindness, and then picked Scorpius up.

"You, young man, are incredibly heavy. What are they feeding you?" he said. Scorpius giggled, as Draco started walking briskly towards the Ministry entrance. "On a more serious note, son, you really scared your father. What did I tell you about wandering away?"

"That it's dangerous and I shouldn't do it," Scorpius was turning less charming and more anxious.

"And you shouldn't," Draco affirmed. There were three completely frightening occasions when he couldn't locate his son for several hours, and he was certain that those hours have cost him his health. "I know you wanted to see the puppies, but you should not have gone all by yourself. Okay?"

The boy nodded solemnly. "Okay," he said quietly.

"We're here," Draco put him down in front of a phone box, which was a new entry into the building, designed for parents with children. Recently, more employees expressed the need for a Ministry based daycare. Even if the amount of work was steadily growing, a more sinister fact lay behind this, and Draco was grimly aware of it – after the war the number of single parent families had grown due to so many lives lost. His own son had only one parent, but that wasn't due to the war. Draco often thought that it would have been far better if Scorpius had grown up with Astoria instead. She was kind, she wanted to be a mother, but the fate had denied that experience so thoroughly. She never even got to hold their child. It happens rarely, Mister Malfoy, but it happens. He never heard of aneurysms before. He didn't know something so small and void of any magic could kill you instantly.

Draco had a nanny for Scorpius, or at least he used to have one, but Mrs Roberts now had an ill husband to attend to. He didn't want to leave the boy with Astoria's mother, who was overbearing and not really a familiar figure in boy's life, and his parents were out of the question. Three hour visit every weekend was a suitable dose of brooding Lucius Malfoy for Draco's son. Ministry daycare would have to do.

And that was where two of them were right now. The room they entered was spacious and warm, and certainly appealed to Scorpius instantly. Draco saw the unmistakable spark of interest lighting up boy's eyes when they walked inside.

"Wow," he said. Draco crouched again, straightening his son's jacket. Over the last six years he had acquired a collection of mother hen gestures which would make his own father twitch.

"Here we are, Scorp," he said, wondering if, by any chance, he was more anxious about leaving the boy here, than Scorpius himself was. The boy had hundred – and - something questions about the daycare once Draco told him he would have to go there, which were part anxiety, part curiosity. But right now, he seemed too delighted with multitude of toys and sight of other children there.

"Dad, this is brilliant," he said.

"Is that so?" Draco asked, amused.

Scorpius nodded excitedly. Draco could see Hannah Abbot in the corner, and he acknowledged her with a nod. She was walking toward them, and she remained few steps away, probably to allow Draco to say goodbye to Scorpius.

"Positive," Scorpius flashed him a smile.

"Good, then. I can rest assured that you won't wander away from here?"

There was a resolute head - shake.

"I expect you to be well behaved young man," Draco said seriously.

"Yes daddy," Scorpius replied with equal seriousness. Draco stood up then, addressing his former school colleague.

"This is Miss Hannah," Draco said to Scorpius. "I expect you to behave well for her, Scorp," he looked at Hannah who seemed just a bit guarded. Abbott was a Hufflepuff in school, which meant Draco despised her house quite a lot. The never really spoke back then, but these were different times. "Abbott," Draco said briefly.

"Malfoy," she greeted, not looking at him longer than truly necessary. Then she turned her attention to the boy, who was thankfully oblivious to most of his father's past. "And you must be Scorpius!"

"Yes," the kid was sunshine and roses.

"I think your daddy needs to go to his office now," Abbott said. "I assume you will stay and keep us company while daddy's busy, right?" she said, and with that Scorpius easily parted from Draco and followed Hannah Abbott toward the group of children who were already there.

Draco allowed himself only a few moments to watch this and then forced himself to leave. There was something his mother was correct about when she said each goodbye will be easier on the boy. With that unsettling thought Draco found his way to the elevators, feeling much older than thirty two.

In the meantime, a little red haired girl, bit younger than Draco's son walked over to Scorpius, smiled and said hello. Scorpius Malfoy, cheerful and friendly, smiled in return and learned that the little girl's name was Rose.

xxxx

Hermione closed her eyes in futile attempt to hold off a headache. She knew the voice that neared the door, the clipped and agitated speech, the very rhythm of footsteps coming closer to the office door. Surely, she had made someone very pissed, and this was karma's way of paying her back. Working with Draco Malfoy, despite the fact that he hadchanged considerably, still felt like a punishment.

As a fun addition, it seemed that Anthony Goldstein was after Draco yet again, another thing she was still puzzling over. Judging by their interactions, their conflict didn't begun only recently.

"... and I told you already, Goldstein, there was nothing to be done. Until it bloody happened! The Aurors didn't make any mistakes, and I certainly hadn't made one either. It was unpredictable! Do you even know what that means? -"

Hermione sighed, counting to three at which point the door opened. Draco walked inside, his body rigid with control, followed by Anthony Goldstein, whom Hermione was steadily beginning to dislike. She didn't understand why he was so zealously after Draco. She suspected it had something to do with Draco's initial transfer from Gringotts, but she hadn't know for certain. Ever since Draco transferred, he proved to be useful and also competent in whatever he was tasked to do. She didn't like Draco, but she had begun to appreciate him through everything he was doing, a curse breaker with unparalleled knowledge of Dark Arts. For some reason Anthony didn't feel the same way, and that was fine, as long as it didn't disturb her current work. She was set on seeing this project succeed, and by the way things looked right now, Anthony Goldstein was beginning to undermine her work. He was on too many boards, he insisted on reviews, reports, insight in Malfoy's work. He was after something that couldn't be found, until that Auror raid several weeks ago.

"Malfoy, three people were seriously injured there. A simple curse breaking would have prevented that, wouldn't it? And you keep repeating there's a reason why we enlisted curse breakers in the first place -"

Draco's face was falsely calm. Only his eyes indicated the true state he was in.

"And trust me, Goldstein, I know more about curses and dark magic than you could fucking dream of. I have no fucking problem breaking the goddamn curses or bringing down nasty wards, and Merlin knows there's enough of them left over from the bloody war," Draco took off his coat, after he slammed a stack of parchments on his desk. Hermione looked up from her work. This was their third row this week. Draco was ready to end the conversation with Anthony, but the latter didn't seem willing to leave just yet. "If you'd excuse me now Goldstein -"

Anthony gave Draco a poisonous look, at which the Draco didn't even flinch.

"Don't think this is over. You might believe Potter's got your ass, but I'm not sure I trust you," Anthony said. .

Draco snorted. "Did you finally buck up to say what you really think -"

"There are kids who might have been orphaned that day, Malfoy -"

Hermione got up, noticing how Draco's entire demeanour.

"Enough," Hermione raised her voice over theirs. Anthony looked up and then at her, as if he finally remembered she was even there. "I don't want to listen to this anymore, Anthony," she said, and Goldstein gave her a look full of unpleasant things. "If you need to settle this matter, then I suggest you do it in a meeting with the Aurors that were present at the accident," she said. It had taken him a short time to come up with a retort.

"Are you taking his side here?"

Now she was becoming angry. "Whose side? I thought we were all on the same side," she replied, putting an emphasize on the last few words. Some things never died, no matter how much time had passed or what happened in between. Goldstein's gaze turned cold and frustrated, and then he finally walked out.

Draco let out a slow breath before he went to settle behind his desk. Hermione kept looking at him intently, until he finally addressed her after a few minutes.

"What?"

"I am getting tired of that," she said, intent to hold him accountable. She didn't have a problem backing him up, but something about entire situation didn't feel right. Draco she knew from school wouldn't let something like this slide.

"Too bad for you, Granger. On a second thought, why are you complaining?" he asked, turning his attention to the stack in front of him. "One would think the lot of you would be happy because that bleeding idiot finally put me where I belong. Behind a desk," Draco said sarcastically.

No, this wasn't the Draco she knew from school. Not any more. Hermione remembered clearly the distinction between the arrogant boy and unwilling Death Eater at the sixth year. Draco was always taller than her, and she had to look up to look him in the eye. During the sixth year it seemed he was shrinking, growing into himself with tightly contained misery. She assumed he felt that way. The man in her office sometimes reminded her of a dry, knotted rope twisted too many times. Part of her wanted to unravel this mystery, but there were no books that could grant an insight into the closed private space behind Draco's words. Ever since assignment rotations had landed him here, he was a puzzle that her analytical mind was trying to decipher. Her success was limited.

"Seriously, Malfoy, I was hoping Harry was right when he said you grew out of that obnoxious mentality you had at school," she said, dividing the papers and parchments in front of her into several neat piles.

"And I suppose I was right when I doubted you had changed in the slightest," he shot back in a heartbeat. This was the boy she remembered, opinionated, arrogant and impatient; and for some reason she preferred him to the man who seemed older than his age.

"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked. Even if she felt bad for him, in some aspects, she would not let him get an easy way out, if he challenged her. This was why working with him was a hard task. He had an ability to turn every conversation into an argument.

"Can you not impart the judgement on everyone and everything around you for a bloody second?"

"And can you not assume you know what everyone thinks about you? Merlin! You just went and assumed what I was going to say!"

"Oh, do tell me you're happy that they transferred me, of all people, here," he challenged, arching an eyebrow at her. She met his stare steadily, sensing that there was more behind his words. Sometimes he reminded her of someone who wanted to be punished.

"I wasn't happy, but I was ready to work with you, Malfoy," she replied sharply, but maintaining her calm. His eyes defied her, but the principle of Hermione was fairness. She would not be provoked. "And I do trust Harry's judgement. I always have, and I always will."

"How very Gryffindor of you," he said, quiet and almost malicious.

"Merlin and Morgana! Are you going to gain house points? Are we still in a third year? "

"Are you saying you want to take another swing at me?"

He had to possess longest memory ever.

"I could do that, Malfoy," she assured.

"You could do what?" Harry's voice came from the door. Hermione turned around and met his familiar face. Safe and familiar things splashed over her, mixing with the fact that he was still a walking reminder of her loss. Their loss.

"Oh bloody hell," Draco rolled his eyes dramatically, but Hermione could sense a shift in his frustration as he looked at Harry; as if Harry was capable of reining him in.

"Hello Harry," Hermione offered a smile. "Something we could do for you today, before we head out?"

Harry's stance was casual, yet not too comfortable. He looked from one at another like he was weighing options which were known to him alone. "I just wanted to make sure nobody hexed anyone else," he smirked. "They could hear you yelling up on the third floor, you know."

"You are just so wonderfully subtle, Potter," Draco said and gave him a glare, but it wasn't like it used to be. They had mutually reached a cease fire, which transformed into a reluctant understanding. "Came to rub in some salt?"

"Malfoy, you've got to calm down. I know how annoying Goldstein is, believe me, but you've got to let this drop," Harry crossed his arms and looked at him as if he were a particularly stubborn little child. "For Merlin's sake, ignore him and let me deal with him in my own way."

"And what should I do until then? Walk around with Granger, pretending to hold her purse while she makes visits on empty households?"

Harry gave him a half hearted glare. Hermione watched them going on about this for couple of weeks now; Malfoy with his best attempts to provoke Harry, who was trying to convince Draco that something wasn't his fault. It was as if Harry had some kind of insight she was lacking.

"You're gonna keep your mouth shut and let me deal with Goldstein, because it was me who sent you there."

"And it was me who was responsible for those three, remember?"

They went on and on and on. Sometimes it felt like they were talking about something else entirely, Draco being his own persecutor, and Harry becoming his defence.

"And like you've said so many times over, nothing could be done until the curse was activated. And I agree with you. We both know how that works, Malfoy. You can't protect everyone, every time," Harry said firmly. Hermione mentally agreed with Harry, but Draco's behaviour tickled her curiosity. Experiences could change a person; time, years, doubts and guilt. But to what extent?

When it came to Draco, it was difficult to judge the quality of this change. Was he feeling guilty of someone else's predicament? He wasn't a type of person who would discuss private matters, ever, but he was different. The jury was still out on the matter of new Draco, but she would be true to herself and give him a chance.

"Thank you, doctor Freud," Draco replied to Harry. Muggle references were new. They were also accurate. To someone else it might have been a detail. To Hermione it was more like a sign written in a foreign language she had yet to learn. "If you don't mind, Granger, I'll wait for you outside, until you're ready to go and check out that suspicious property they've found."

Hermione exhaled a breath she didn't know she was holding after Draco had walked out. Harry gave her a look in which a plea was badly concealed with sympathy, and something about that annoyed her. She wanted an explanation.

"Tell me, Harry. Why isn't he at Gringotts any more?"

"Because we need him more than they do," Harry said. It was an answer Hermione knew and didn't want to hear. Why him? Why Draco Malfoy? Was it because he'd seen darkness up close, in a way most other people working here haven't? What singled him out? There were still Death Eaters on the run, yes and curse breakers weren't just magical archaeologists any more, they were a necessity. They've become the people who got hurt first during the raids. Some people viewed them as a welcome support, a good addition to Auror teams. A group of officials, Anthony Goldstein included, were strongly opposed to them.

"Right," she sighed. She didn't buy Anthony's arguments, because there was too much politics behind that for her liking; but she didn't find Harry's words any more convincing.

"I am doing everything I can," Harry offered quickly. "You might not believe me, but I really want him back on my team."

Hermione looked at her friend for a couple of moments, thinking about this. There was something between Harry and Draco, something she couldn't grasp and hold between her fingers. It always slipped away. What could happen between them, to solidify this unlikely bond? Weren't they something of a mutual punishment to each other?

"Why?" she opted for a less direct version of the question that bothered her. "What makes him different than the others?"

Harry regarded her thoughtfully, thoughts and notions locked behind his gaze.

"His motivation," he said finally. This didn't answer anything; besides, Hermione wasn't used to this, Harry keeping secrets from her. Not with Ron gone. Where did her safe place disappear to? In whom she would confide? When Harry reached the door he turned around. "Will we see you and Rose this evening?"

We, as in Harry, Ginny, James and Albus. The future which Ron would never see, never witness to. Hermione nodded, steeling herself against these thoughts.

"It's nice of you to invite us," she said.

Harry smiled somewhat sadly. He was, possibly, doing his best not to remember. But how could he not? This was the saddest month of the entire year, the month when Ron was born, and the month when he died. Four years. Had it really been that long? Could it be? Hermione examined the void in her heart, like feeling a scar with uncertain fingers. It was there, and it felt mostly numb; the living flesh of her being that was once able to feel.

"Can't wait to see Rose," Harry replied.

"She's excited," Hermione answered, feeling the familiar sadness creeping all over her insides. It was impossible to prevent it. She had learned how not to drown, she had to, like she learned from books, like she perfected her spells and faced the dangers. She gave it all.

"See you," Harry's goodbye was quiet.

"See you, Harry," she whispered to the silence and said a quiet thanks for everything she had left, every bit of her broken world. Broken or not, it was still there. And she had to move on. There was still so much to do. It was still not safe around them.

She took a minute to compose her thoughts, concentrating to the task at hand. Malfoy waited for her not too far away from the office door. Her project was their project now – Safe removal of dangerous artefacts and inspection of households, a clinical name for cleaning up magical minefields and looking for clues and fugitives. She glanced at him, pushing her thoughts far to the back of her mind.

"Let's go," she said, and he promptly followed, his face impassive and expressionless.

xxxx