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Act 1: ‘The Devil hath power to take a pleasing shape…’

 

Dark Magic, Dark Wizards and a mysterious and deadly Dark Flux, which, in the wrong hands, has the terrifying potential to wipe out millions of Muggles ... all this and an unexpected visit from Draco Malfoy. Just when Hermione Weasley thought her bad day couldn't get much worse, she went home...

 

1. But Thinking Makes It So

'As we discussed, sir, what we now need is professional help in this matter. An insider with connections and access to official resources,' the young man said, 'and experience of investigating Dark Magic. Someone discreet.'

 

'Have you got the dossier?' his master asked, in clipped, businesslike tones.

 

The master was sitting behind an ornate, ebony antique desk positioned in front of a large set of French windows framed by thick green velvet curtains. Shafts of bright, white sunlight streamed through the windows. Beyond the window was a rolling lawn stretching towards a well-tended shrubbery.

 

'I have it here, sir. We have found some excellent candidates, even if I say so myself,' the young man said, placing a thin file containing twelve or so pieces of parchment on the desk in front of his master.

 

'Let's see,' said the older man, quickly thumbing through the file. Each document appeared to be a character profile, complete with professional CV and personal details.

 

'I'd like to draw your attention, sir, to a few of the more outstanding candidates. They have noteworthy experience in handling the Dark Arts and famously helped track down and destroy the Dark Lord's Horcruxes, which proved essential in ending the Second Wizarding War in Britain.'

A shadow passed across the older man's face. 'Yes. I remember it well,' he said stormily. 'Naturally, I know of Harry Potter. Who doesn't? But he's far beyond our reach. I can't see him working outside of the law. Who else do we have?'

 

The younger man shuffled the papers, sifting out the only document with a photo attached, which he then presented to his master.

'Ronald Bilius Weasley,' he announced. 'He was Potter's closest friend and assistant. He is also Potter's brother-in-law. As an Auror, he is very well-connected and he comes from a family with a good pedigree. His brother, Percy, is in a powerful position at the British Ministry of Magic. He has another brother, Bill, who works at Gringotts Bank and is widely considered to be the leading code-breaker of our age. And yet another brother, Charlie, who is an expert on dragons. And then there's George Weasley.'

 

'Ah! Weasley's Wizard Wheezes? A bit of business acumen in the family, too, I see. They seem a talented bunch.'

 

'Ron's career has been less stellar than his brothers' or Potter's, but he is ambitious,' the younger man said smoothly. 'I think he could be worked upon.'

 

'He sounds like a fine candidate,' the master said, closing his file. 'A meeting should be arranged as soon as possible.'

 

'There is one potential sticking point, sir.'

 

'And what's that then?'

 

'His wife.'

 

The younger man reached over the desk and pulled the file from his master's grasp with a timid, apologetic smile. He tugged another profile from the file and presented it to his master.

 

'This is Hermione Weasley, also a former school-friend of Potter's. She's a very clever and diligent researcher. She's currently an esteemed prosecutor at the Department for Magical Law Enforcement in London. She's a well-known social activist and has vigorously campaigned to improve the welfare of house-elves.'

 

'House-elves?' the older man exclaimed, incredulous.

 

'Oh yes. House-elves,' the younger man said with a contemptuous sneer. 'And as a lawyer, she has been a very effective advocate for Muggle-born rights in the workplace.'

 

'Have you met her?'

 

'Once. Very briefly. We weren’t formally introduced so she’s unlikely to remember me.’

 

'Can she be neutralised?'

 

The younger man's face darkened. 'I don't think that would be the best way forward, sir. It would compromise her husband's emotional equilibrium at a time when we needed him most.'

 

'I don't mean fatally,' the older man said with a weary sigh. 'I meant can she be recruited to the cause?'

 

'As an active participant, I very much doubt it. She works by the book. Practically speaking too, I doubt she would have the time for anything extra-curricular, sir. She's a notorious workaholic.'

 

'We have the means to change that if it suits our requirements.'

 

'Of course, sir.'

 

'Best to keep her on board. A bit of social cultivation can go a long way with a woman.'

 

'Quite, sir. All very good, sir.'

 

'So, have you any ideas how we approach these Weasleys?'

 

The young man looked thoughtful. 'It's a tricky one, sir. And a little risky. But I have an idea.'

 

'Enlighten me.'

 

 

XXX

Finding Draco Malfoy sitting in her lounge, casually drinking tea, really was the last straw for Hermione Weasley, rounding off what had been a truly terrible day.

 

Work-wise, it had been murder.

 

She’d endured five wasted hours trying to convince the Most Esteemed Wizarding Fraternity of Lincoln City's Medieval quarter not to enforce an ancient bylaw, which forbade anyone but pure-bloods and first generation half-bloods from owning businesses inside the old city walls. Hermione forcefully reminded them that the first time these archaic laws had been introduced, as far back as 1381, there’d been a violent riot and angry Muggle-borns had burned the city walls to the ground – but they didn’t give a damn.

 

Flushed with failure, Hermione had Apparated back to the Department for Magical Law Enforcement in Central London, only to find that her office was in complete disarray. Drawers flung open, furniture pushed out of position, files dashed to the floor, paperwork scattered everywhere ...

 

Hermione’s deputy, Padma Patil, was standing in the middle of the office, wand hanging limply in her hand, gazing helplessly at the mess around her.

 

‘What the hell happened here?’ Hermione gasped.

 

‘We’ve had a surprise inspection from Internal Affairs,’ Padma replied in ominous tones. ‘There’s been complaints.’

 

‘Complaints?’ Hermione shrilled, aghast. This was mystifying. Unthinkable! Her office was the most organized, the smoothest-running, the highest-achieving of all the offices in the Department for Magical Law Enforcement, if not the entire Ministry of Magic - as evidenced by the five gleaming Gold Star ‘Efficiency Awards’ ranged on the wall high above her desk. She glanced upwards and recoiled in horror. The wall had been stripped bare.

 

‘Who would do such a thing?’ she wailed.

 

‘A Mr Jinks,’ Padma replied, spitting out the words with disparaging scorn.

 

‘Never heard of him,’ Hermione muttered darkly. She had always made it her business to know EVERYBODY who worked at the Ministry. ‘Did he have an official seal?’

 

Padma nodded glumly. ‘Issued by the Minster for Magic himself.’

 

‘Really?’ Hermione tried to suppress the pang of alarm that throbbed through her. Clearly then this hadn’t been an administrative mix-up - it was far more orchestrated than that. ‘I see. Well. It’s a travesty.’ And one which Hermione had little personal power to resolve. She silently regretted avoiding the seemingly innumerable inauguration events and parties that had peppered the Ministry social calendar since Silas Witchell had become the new Minister for Magic earlier that year. Earning and keeping five Gold Star awards was no easy business! It took long hours, assiduous effort and relentless pressure to achieve the best results. Ingratiating herself with the new regime hadn’t been a priority.

‘This Mr Jinks. What’s he like?’ Hermione asked Padma.

 

Padma shrugged disdainfully. ‘Smarmy, officious … a wheedling little toad of a man.’ She whipped her wand, scooping sheaves of paper onto her desk in swift, fluid motions. ‘Said he was looking for “hard evidence” – whatever that might mean – and kept firing off all sorts of random accusations of incompetence and suspected corruption.’

 

Corruption? But that’s farcical!’

 

‘He claims he has received insider briefings; intelligence pointing to particularly serious breaches of departmental protocol.’

 

Hermione’s heart quickened. ‘From who?’

 

‘He wouldn’t say.’

XXX

Hermione dispatched an owl with an apologetic note to her mother-in-law, Molly Weasley, asking her to pick up Rose and Hugo from their local primary school in Ottery St Catchpole. She was going to be late home from work – yet again. She could clearly picture Molly Weasley in her mind's eye, hands on hips, lips puckered in disapproval, sighing in dismay as the Ministry owl came pecking at her kitchen window at The Burrow. She reckoned she’d be in for yet another lecture from her mother-in-law, berating her over-zealous working habits.

 

Hermione fired off sharply-worded missives to just about every under-minister and their respective secretaries working at the Ministry of Magic, demanding an explanation as to why this Mr Jinks (who no one seemed to know much or anything about; he had been newly-recruited by Witchell himself) had been instructed to ransack her office. She waited for over an hour, rapping her finger-nails impatiently on her desk, hoping for some kind of response. But none came.

XXX

'Where are they?' Hermione finally countered after Molly had delivered her usual diatribe in particularly scathing tones. She looked beyond Molly into The Burrow's dimly lit hallway, hoping to retrieve her children and escape as fast as she could.

 

Molly folded her arms tightly across her chest and smirked, a little too victoriously for Hermione's liking. 'They've asked to stay here tonight. With me. And Ron said yes.'

 

'You asked Ron? But he's on assignment.'

 

Molly shook her head. 'No, dearie. He's not. And once he realized you weren't coming home at a respectable hour, he decided to drop by for his tea.'

 

Hermione choked back her spluttered indignation - she was too dog-tired to argue – and heaved what she hoped looked like a grateful sigh. 'Well, at least I won't have to cook tonight,' she murmured, already retreating down the path. 'Thanks, Molly.'

XXX

Thanks, Molly, she thought bitterly, repeating the phrase over and over in her head. Thanks for what? For forcing her to listen, for the umpteenth time, to the same old speech following the same well-worn groove; wouldn't it be easier if Rose and Hugo simply stayed at The Burrow during the day, while their mother was out gallivanting here, there and everywhere? But instead, almost every day, (which wasn’t even true, Hermione thought waspishly), Molly had to interrupt whatever she was doing to pick up poor little Rose and Hugo from their Muggle school … And why did Rose and Hugo have to go to a Muggle school anyway? Weasleys had always been home-taught. And it hadn't done her children any harm, had it? Why should Hermione’s children be any different? Hermione had explained, countless times, that there were some links with her Muggle heritage, certain ways of doing things, that she wanted her own children to experience. Why couldn’t Molly see that?

 

It didn’t help matters that Ginny was always saying how she would have happily left James, Albus and Lily in Molly's care… if it wasn't for Harry's job. How convenient, Hermione thought grudgingly, that Harry's job had taken his family all the way to Paris. Instead, it was Ron and herself, who had somehow wound up in Ottery St Catchpole.

 

Hermione rapidly jogged down the lane leading away from The Burrow, trying to ignore the gathering gloom cast by the tall elm trees which lined her route, to the village nearby. Chill dusk was closing in fast and the thick scents of Autumn clotted the air around her.

 

She shivered a little, hastening her pace.

 

Minutes later, Hermione's home, a neat redbrick cottage over-run with creeping wisteria, came into view. A faint trickle of light was seeping through closed crimson curtains.

XXX

Hermione was wholly unprepared for the shock of seeing her husband calmly drinking tea in their neat, little sitting-room with its aged oak beams and whitewashed walls in the company of Draco Malfoy.

 

Ron grinned. 'Oh good. There you are. We were wondering where you'd got to.'

 

We. Had he said we? Like they were buddies … At least Draco had the decency, Hermione reflected later, to look a little sheepish.

 

'I thought you'd at least send an owl to tell us you'd be late,' Ron continued.

 

'I didn't even know you were coming home, Ron,' Hermione said pointedly. 'I thought you were at work.'

 

Ron shrugged. 'I am. This,' he nodded towards Draco, 'is my new assignment.'

 

A perplexed frown stole across Hermione's features.

 

Ron eagerly patted an empty space on their shabby, brown leather sofa. ‘You look pooped, love. Come in. Take a seat.' Then to Draco, 'you don't mind, do you, mate? You did say she could help out.'

 

Draco evaded eye contact, staring instead at his hands resting on his lap.

 

'Excuse me,' Hermione breathed. She really wasn’t in the mood for this. She stumbled backwards - almost tripping over a scattering of Hugo's toys splayed across the length of their hallway - and headed into the kitchen.

 

She needed a drink.

XXX

Hermione poured herself a long glass of red wine and leaned heavily against the kitchen wall, closing her eyes tightly. Draco Malfoy in her house? it could only mean one thing... She downed her drink in one fell swoop, but her heart was still beating crazily.

 

'Hermione?'

 

Ron had followed her.

 

'What the bloody hell is he doing here?' Hermione demanded.

 

Ron swiftly closed the kitchen door. 'Like I said. It's work, Hermione.'

 

'Witness Protection?'

 

'No.’ Ron placed a large, warm hand on her shoulder and drew her a little closer.

 

Hermione almost melted with relief. 'Thank God for that. For one truly terrible moment I thought this was going to be his safe-house.'

 

‘Nothing like that at all,’ Ron smiled tenderly. ‘But something really interesting’s come up. You’re going to want to hear this.’

 

'Hear what?' she asked hotly.

 

'Come and have a drink with us and I'll explain everything,' Ron urged.

 

'Tell me now.'

 

'It's best coming from Draco.'

 

Hermione scowled and fiercely wriggled out of her husband's grasp. Had Ron just called him Draco? What was wrong with sticking to Malfoy?

 

Ron sighed in exasperation. 'Believe me, Hermione. This is big.’

 

'You mean, Section A big?'

 

'Section A,' Ron said affirmatively. 'Most definitely Section A – the Elite Corps.'

 

There was an urgent, pleading look in Ron's eyes which Hermione couldn't quite ignore.

 

'This is exactly the kind of investigative case I’ve trained for, Hermione. The kind of job I’ve dreamed of. If this comes off, there’s absolutely no way they can shunt me back to Section D.’

 

‘No more Witness Protection?’

 

‘Never again.’ Ron lightly caressed her cheek with his thumb. 'Please, Hermione, come and hear what he has to say. It only has to be for a few minutes.'

 

Hermione realized just how much this meant to him. She forced a polite smile. 'Sure. Just… just give me a minute, will you?'

XXX

Alone again, Hermione poured herself a fresh glass of wine.

 

She was still fuming, but her protective instincts were kicking in. What kind of mess had Ron got himself involved in? She hoped that Ron had the wit to realize that, even now, almost fifteen years since the end of the Second Wizarding War, Draco Malfoy was still not a man to be trusted. Sure, he'd wangled his way back into a vague semblance of respectability in wizarding society – particularly since his father's prolonged illness meant he was pretty much Head of the Malfoy family. Even so, both Ron and Harry had openly discussed suspicions amongst the Auror teams that Malfoy remained a key figure in the flourishing trade in Dark Magic artefacts.

 

She took a deep gulp of her wine, but it did nothing to settle her jangling nerves.

 

It was more than a lack of trust, though. Much more. Maybe Ron was able to get over the rude, sneering taunts Draco Malfoy had levelled at them for so many years? After all, it was a long time ago. And nobody was the same person they’d been at school... But she’d never really got over it. She’d never forgiven Draco Malfoy for the constant degrading comments, mocking her Muggle-born heritage, calling her a ‘Filthy Mudblood’. She was bigger than that. She’d made sure of it, even drawing up the necessary legislation to outlaw pejorative terms of racial abuse. But it had never left her. It still hurt.

XXX

Hermione kicked off her shoes and curled herself into the corner of the sofa. She studiously ignored the cool grey stare of Draco Malfoy, seated somewhere to her right on Ron's favourite well-worn armchair.

 

Ron was perched rather uncomfortably on a high wooden bar-stool he’d dragged in from the kitchen. He was momentarily distracted by the red wine swirling in Hermione's glass and regretfully eyed the empty teacup in his hand, but then seemed to collect his thoughts and raised his eyes to meet Hermione’s.

 

'No doubt you've heard of Dark Flux,' he declared by way of an opener.

 

‘Of course I have,’ she scoffed impatiently. ‘I’m a Muggle-born, remember?’ She shot Draco a quick, fierce glance. ‘But as we don’t know if it actually exists, it’s not something I’ve ever really troubled myself to think about, Ron.’ She sighed deeply, barely able to contain her disappointment. So much for Section A …

 

‘Well, I’m sorry to have to inform you, Hermione, but it DOES exist.’

 

‘No it doesn’t; there’s zero proof of such a thing,’ Hermione retorted. ‘Dark Flux is nothing more than a malicious myth peddled to scare people like ME. A stupid fabrication to make us feel as unwelcome as possible, to know our place.’ She eyed Draco beadily over the rim of her wine glass. She shouldn’t be surprised that HE, of all people, should encourage her husband to spout such conspiratorial nonsense. ‘And even if it DID exist – for which, I repeat, there’s no concrete evidence – nobody has ever been able to describe exactly what it is… Case closed.’

 

Ron folded his arms and his lips tightened. ‘You’re forgetting, Hermione, that my own sister was caught up in a Dark Flux attack just four years ago! A bunch of Muggles and two Muggle-born witches died that day.’

 

‘The Paris incident?’ It was the first thing Draco had said. His clipped, laconic tones seemed to echo around their living room.

 

Ron nodded vigorously. ‘Yeah. It was bloody awful. Poor Ginny was about to give birth when it happened.’

 

‘How many times have we gone over this? It was a leaky gas main,’ groaned Hermione.

 

Ron narrowed his eyes suspiciously. ‘In a single apartment block?’

 

‘The authorities verified it at the time … surely you remember that, Ron?’

 

‘I remember how terrified we were for Ginny and the kids – and then baby Lily … that’s what I remember!’ Ron blustered. His cheeks were glowing.

 

Hermione gave him a twisted smile. ‘But you never actually believed that it was Dark Flux, Ron, because if you had, then you’d have also realized that they had nothing to fear... Dark Flux doesn’t kill pure-bloods or half-bloods.’

 

‘Just people like you,’ Draco said. His voice seemed closer and Hermione was startled to note that he had leant forward in his seat and his head was just a few inches from her own. At such close proximity she could see taut lines creased deeply across his forehead. He looked like a man with worries.

 

‘Have you ever heard of the Zametsky Effect?’ Draco asked.

 

Hermione was a bit stumped by this. It felt like a new line of attack.

 

‘It was first recorded about a hundred years ago; a small town somewhere in deepest, rural Russia,’ he continued. ‘Much of the Muggle population was decimated and the Wizarding Community was expelled. Up till then the two communities had co-habited peacefully alongside each other – for centuries, I believe. But this sudden, cataclysmic attack wasn’t the first of its kind, and the Muggles decided that enough was enough.’ Despite her better instincts, Hermione was suddenly alive with heated curiosity.

 

‘But I seriously doubt there’s any substantive evidence that these Muggle deaths were due to DARK FLUX,’ Hermione said snippily. ‘The historical record at that time and in that kind of place would have been very patchy.’

 

‘The Muggles didn’t agree.’

 

‘There could be any number of reasons why something like that could happen… Some kind of mysterious plague or virus. Or a toxic mineral affecting the water supply.’

 

Draco gave her a chilly smile. ‘And why would that just kill Muggles – and Muggle-borns?’

 

‘The truth is, Hermione,’ Ron said, ‘the Ministry is convinced that Dark Flux is a very real phenomenon and there has been considerable anxiety for some time that a dark wizard with an anti-Muggle agenda might get hold of some, and - you know - weaponize it.’ He shuffled uneasily on his stool as he spoke. 'The problem is that the Ministry doesn't really know what Dark Flux is –’

 

‘Because it doesn’t exist,’ Hermione muttered between gritted teeth into her wine-glass.

 

But Ron chose to ignore this. ‘They don’t know if it’s a powder or a gas or some kind of airborne micro-organism - which makes it even more bloody scary. And – and things have suddenly got even scarier… Go on, Draco. Tell Hermione what you told me.'

 

Hermione instantly switched her gaze to Draco.

 

'I've got firm evidence that this has already happened. Someone has found a way to detect and harness Dark Flux in its natural state.’

 

'This is the stuff of nightmares, Hermione,' Ron pushed vehemently. His eyes bulged a little as he spoke. ‘Draco’s sources say this guy then plans to release Dark Flux in a highly populated area.’

 

His eyes dropped enviously to Hermione's glass of wine, which she was clutching tightly in her right hand, whilst with her left hand, she fiddled with an unruly lock of hair which framed her face; something she often did when she was tense. The moment she realized what she was doing she immediately slapped her hand down, acutely aware of an unwelcome stab of self-consciousness.

 

‘The plan, I hear, is to target the Muggle population of London,’ Draco said. 'Although we don't know all the details yet - obviously,' he added, instantly defensive.

 

Hermione suppressed a nervous snicker. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. This was a wind-up… It had to be.

 

'So tell me, Malfoy,' she said, fixing Draco with a hard stare. He instinctively recoiled and a faint flush stained his pale cheeks. ‘Have your sources told you exactly how this individual can track Dark Flux, seeing as nobody even knows what it darned well is? Both of you seem to think I’m a complete ignoramus about what goes on at the Ministry. Any worries like this – something that amounts to terrorism, actually – would have passed over my desk by now. Not to mention the tiny but extremely relevant fact that Dark Flux is NOT recognized as a magical phenomenon by the Ministry and has actually been registered and classified by all peer-approved contemporary scientific research as a Verifiable Imponderable; meaning it defies rational explanation.'

 

'I'm surprised, Mrs Weasley, that you remain so pitifully uninformed. Dark Flux was officially removed from the Ministry's master-list of Verifiable Imponderables last year. In any case, Dark Flux research has continued, regardless of the Ministry's former attitude. You’ve heard of The Jeroboam Foundation, I take it?' Draco asked, a crooked smile curling his upper lip into an all-too familiar sneer.

 

But of course she'd heard of The Jeroboam Foundation! Everybody had heard of it. The foundation was a major sponsor of all sorts of worthy research projects across a variety of fields; Medi-Magic in particular.

 

'Saul Jeroboam is highly respected and a very generous philanthropist,' Hermione said primly.

 

'The bloke's loaded,' Ron sniffed. 'He can afford to splash his money about.'

 

'Jeroboam's do-gooding image is a front. Believe me,' Draco said assuredly.

 

'Believe you?' Hermione snorted.

 

'But you’ve got to admit that just about everyone thinks Jeroboam’s a bit of an oddball…' Ron interjected. ‘All we know is he’s this brilliant scientist, got pots of money, companies coming out of his ears, his brand name’s all over the place… but no-one’s ever actually met him! He’s a complete recluse.’

 

‘Social timidity is not a criminal offence, Ron,’ Hermione snapped.

 

‘Oh, come on, Hermione. He hides away in his mountain lair in Switzerland. Merlin knows what he’s plotting up there!’

 

Hermione couldn’t help but laugh at this. ‘You’ve been watching too much James Bond, Ron!’

 

‘James WHO?’

 

‘He’s a popular character in a British spy film franchise,’ Draco explained hastily, ‘but more importantly, there are also rumours that Jeroboam likes to avoid society because he’s a pure-blood supremacist, who hates mixing it up with Muggle-borns and Muggles.’

 

Ron took his cue. ‘The sort of guy who’d love to purge the wizarding world of witches and wizards like you, Hermione.'

 

'And he's developing the perfect weapon to do so,' Draco concluded in cool tones. Hermione could sense his wintry, grey eyes roaming her face, her hair. 'A weapon which can distinguish between blood.'

 

‘And – and how do you know this?’ she asked.

 

‘A few years ago, a private security firm managed to scout out one of Jeroboam’s storage depots in Switzerland. The place was clean – deserted, actually - but they did find blueprints suggesting that a whole load of mobile tracking scanners were being built, to be operated worldwide, checking out new Dark Flux manifestations where and when they occur.'

 

'Is that meant to be often?' Hermione asked, a slight quaver in her voice. She had always assumed that Dark Flux – if indeed it existed - was extremely rare.

 

Draco's eyes glowed silver with meaning. 'More often than you think, Mrs Weasley… Anyway, sources suggest those blueprints have become a reality and that Jeroboam has now developed a machine which traces – and can maybe even collect - Dark Flux matter.’

 

'So, why are you telling me about this?' Hermione exclaimed, caustically. 'Isn't this a matter for the Aurors? The Ministry? Come to think of it, it's probably even a matter for the Muggle Police as well. They've got stacks of anti-terrorism measures at their disposal.’

 

Ron sighed deeply.

 

'You have told your superiors about this, Ron, haven't you?' Hermione asked, a note of sharp concern creeping into her voice.

 

'The thing is, Hermione,' Ron reasoned, 'Draco has come to me, and me alone. Not the Auror division. Although, strictly speaking, I'm still acting in my professional capacity.'

 

A clattering at the window alerted the party to an incoming owl. Ron rose to open the window and accept the message tethered to the owl's leg.

 

'Draco's run into a fair bit of trouble lately,' Ron continued haltingly, quickly scanning the message with a small frown. Even from this distance, Hermione could recognise Molly Weasley's large, scrawly handwriting. 'If he goes directly to the Investigation Unit, they'll hang, draw and quarter him before listening to a single word he says - which isn't going to help anybody, is it?'

 

He gathered up his and Draco's empty teacups.

 

'I'm for something stronger,' he muttered, gesturing towards the kitchen. 'And Hugo wants his Captain Magic teddy bear.' He moved towards the door. 'Anyone else for a drink?'

 

Draco shook his head.

 

Ron swept out, leaving the door wide open. His sudden absence sent a chill through the room.

 

Hermione fidgeted uncomfortably, listening to the sounds of clanking glass and rushing water emanating from the kitchen, wishing Ron would return to break the weighty silence between her and Draco.

 

She hazarded a glance in his direction. He was watching her intently, his long, slim fingers casually toying with a silver rose pendant hanging from a silver chain, which hung loosely over the collars of his smartly-fitted, charcoal robe.

 

‘You shouldn't be here,' she hissed, turning on him, unable to suppress her irritation any longer. His mere presence was maddening.

 

'I had nowhere else to go,' Draco remonstrated forcefully.

 

'Rubbish! If there was any truth in what you’re saying, the Ministry would have no choice but to give you a fair hearing.’

 

‘Unlikely. I'm the target of a concerted hate campaign. Pure prejudice. That’s what it is.'

 

‘I doubt that very much,' Hermione said in cutting tones.

 

'Well, it's true. Six months ago, those cretinous bastards in Section B fined me a wad of cash for handling what they described as unwarranted objects,' Draco griped.

 

'I hear Dark Magic artefacts are quite the rage at the moment,' Hermione replied, brandishing a sarcastic smile. 'You must be making a roaring trade.'

 

‘I wasn't trading.'

 

'Of course not.'

 

Draco grimaced peevishly. 'You've no idea what I have to put up with. You see, I have to travel a lot for my work-'

 

'Draco is the global business manager for Herb Healing Limited,' Ron explained, returning with Captain Magic, who he swiftly reattached to the waiting owl before shunting it off the window-sill.

 

He was about to sit down again, but then seemed to have second thoughts, dashing back to the kitchen.

 

'But in my case, travel and work combined appears to be a highly suspicious activity … according to the Ministry at any rate,' Draco complained heatedly. 'Even though I am travelling for perfectly legitimate business reasons and have scores of witnesses to prove it. But those arseholes in Section B. They're still hounding me.'

 

'Did you say Herb Healing?' Hermione asked, screwing her face up in disbelief.

 

Draco nodded.

 

'You, Draco Malfoy? You work for Herb Healing?'

 

Draco nodded again.

 

'But doesn't that mean you work with Muggles?'

 

'Yes. Our main market is Muggles,' Draco agreed, keeping his eyes firmly trained on Hermione's face as he spoke. There was a faintly victorious gleam in Draco's eyes. 'It seems they just can't get enough of our products.’

 

'Well, Malfoy. I’m in shock. Consorting with low-born Mudbloods…? Who'd have thought it?' she said snidely.

 

'I couldn't care less what you think,' he retorted in a quieter, more menacing tone.

 

Ron swung back into the room carrying a tumbler of Firewhisky.

 

'The thing is,' Draco continued breezily, 'in the course of my work I get to meet a lot of very interesting people and hear a lot of very interesting things. Jeroboam's quest for Dark Flux is currently a recurring theme. Over and over. Everywhere I go. This man means business. Dark business.'

 

Hermione pursed her lips into a small, withering smile. 'Then you're just the man for the job, aren't you, Malfoy?'

 

Draco fixed an icy stare in her direction. 'You might not want to believe a word I say, Mrs Weasley…'

 

Hermione growled in frustration. 'How can I? If you were telling the truth you'd TELL THE MINISTRY!'

 

'Look, Hermione,' Ron cradled his tumbler of firewhisky in his hands, a sorrowful look on his face. ‘You know how the Ministry drags these things out.’

 

‘Yes, of course I do, but that doesn’t mean you can simply bypass legitimate channels and investigate these claims about Jeroboam yourself! That’s not your plan, is it?’ she asked, her voice rising in alarm.

 

‘Yes. With your help.’

 

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Hermione shrilled. ‘I know nothing about this – this Jeroboam.’

 

'You might not,' Ron said, 'but Draco's told me that your colleague Padma and that chap she's going out with… you know… the nerdy one in Ravenclaw.'

 

'Tony Goldstein.'

 

‘Well, they've got connections with The Jeroboam Foundation. Padma used to work for Arcana Limited – owned by Jeroboam – and Tony’s still there. Been there since Hogwarts. He’s some kind of lab boffin.’

 

‘Jeroboam’s top researcher, actually,’ Draco observed.

 

‘I know you don't approve of this, Hermione,’ Ron said in beseeching tones, ‘but could you talk to them? Kind of informally? Especially Tony. We need to get a sense of how The Jeroboam Foundation works - its’s such a secretive organization. They might know of former colleagues we can talk to.’

 

‘It’s all a bit cloak and dagger, Ron,’ Hermione grumbled. ‘Can’t you just take Jeroboam in for questioning? You are an Auror, after all.’

 

‘Yeah, sure, I could probably rustle up an international warrant for his arrest in no time,' Ron said blithely. 'But Jeroboam will have friends in high places. He's a very powerful wizard; which means any investigation would have to be super-stealthy.’

 

Hermione heaved a baleful sigh.

 

She recognised Ron's round-eyed excitement all too well. It was the look of an overgrown puppy with a new toy.

 

What choice did she have? If it made Ron happy and forestalled any future nagging, then of course she would talk to Padma and Tony – all told, it didn’t seem like the most onerous job in the world. And then hopefully, that would put an end to it. And Ron could move on to his next obsession.

XXX

Draco didn't hang around for any social niceties. Just minutes later, he unfurled his lean frame from Ron's favourite armchair, surprising Hermione at how tall he had become - certainly compared to the jumped-up little squirt she remembered from their school-days – and picked up a small black attaché case which had been parked against the armchair.

 

He moved purposefully towards the large Inglenook fireplace which dominated their sitting-room and asked to borrow some Floo Powder. Hermione informed him that they had, in fact, run out of Floo Powder, just yesterday morning.

 

'I hardly use the stuff when you're not around,' she explained to Ron.

 

Draco looked crestfallen, Hermione noted. Even a little agitated. He clicked open his attaché case and rummaged frantically through its contents.

 

'Blast it,' he cursed under his breath. 'I thought I'd packed a spare Portkey.'

 

He snapped the attaché case shut and headed instead for the front door.

 

Ron appeared to have recovered from his earlier comparative enthusiasm for Draco's company and was only too glad, it seemed, to usher him outside. He nodded tersely and in his best Auror's voice assured Draco that he would investigate the matter in hand thoroughly.

 

'Thanks for the tea,' Draco muttered, chiefly preoccupied with tightly buttoning-up his long, grey raincoat.

 

His eyes momentarily flicked to Hermione who was standing directly behind her husband.

 

She instantly prickled with anxiety.

 

There was something unfathomable in his forlorn, grey expression which disturbed her greatly.

 

The night had deteriorated since Hermione's return home. Steady drizzle fogged the air and a stiff breeze was furiously whipping the tops of the elm trees which bordered their property.

 

Draco stepped outside and with a brusque farewell he headed down the lane at some speed, turning left towards the village. His long, lean figure, crowned by his trademark silver hair, luminous in the darkness, was soon swallowed up into the shadows.

 

'Odd chap,' Ron murmured, staring after Draco's fading form with a bemused expression on his face. 'Why didn't he just Apparate?'

XXX

CHAPTER TRACKS:

"EXTREME WAYS" by MOBY

&

“THE DARK SIDE” by MUSE

 

Disclaimer: I own nothing except my original characters.

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