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A surprising turn of events turns Hermione's life upside down...

 

3. Her Last Stand

 

Hermione had all but given up on trying to convince Ron that throwing his lot in with the likes of Draco Malfoy posed a very high risk to his career and reputation. Ron didn't seem to care. He'd made up his mind, and that was that.

 

It worried her deeply. What was driving Ron to such desperate measures? Had his life really become so stale and tired? At just thirty-two, he was far too young to be having a mid-life crisis. Did he need saving from himself?

 

This question had often loomed over Hermione during the last week. She had even wondered if it was worthwhile staging an intervention of some kind; enlisting his family and friends to talk some sense into him. She was sure Molly could stage a sufficiently convincing heart attack if all else failed. But she doubted Ron would ever forgive her the humiliation.

 

Or should she simply support him?

 

Up till now, this had been her favoured approach to a very thorny problem. But their visit to Malfoy Manor had only served to boost her very real misgivings about the entire venture; most particularly, this harebrained notion that Ron and Draco should travel to Paraguay of all places.

 

Later that afternoon, Hermione spotted Draco at the Ministry of Magic. He was in the public atrium, speaking with Auror Tom Bennet. Their conversation seemed quite amicable. More like two old friends… And yet Draco had claimed that the Aurors were 'hounding' him, baying for his blood.

 

It had all been an outright lie.

 

She decided then to change her tactics. She simply couldn't allow that conniving little creep to take her husband down. She had been right all along to suspect his true motives in approaching Ron – one of his oldest enemies - with his dark accusations about Jeroboam.

 

What other lies had he told?

 

Discrediting Malfoy's claims and character with some hard evidenceshouldn't be too difficult, she reasoned. And Ron couldn't ignore the facts, surely?

 

And if she could achieve this by Friday, just a couple of days away, then she could hopefully wriggle out of her 'date' with Narcissa Malfoy as well.

XXX

As soon as Hermione arrived at her desk, she paid a quick visit to the Auror's Record Office, which was on the same floor as her own, to confirm that Auror Bennet worked in Section B - Fraud and Finance.

 

Bennet was described as Draco's main 'handler' – which seemed a little informal for an official Ministry record, Hermione felt.

 

Despite her rising reputation and status as one of the leading luminaries in the Legal Prosecution Service of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, she wasn't allowed to access any further information about Bennet's ongoing cases – which seemed a tad unusual. Still, she was pretty certain that Ron could.

 

And she might even try to engineer a friendly chat with Auror Bennet… It would be interesting to find out Draco's purported crimes, she mused. Although, too many crimes would potentially support Draco's argument that no Auror would ever take him seriously if he accused a well-respected wizard like Jeroboam of plotting a major terrorist catastrophe.

 

What else? Hermione whipped out a quill and a piece of scrap parchment. On the left-hand side, she jotted down a list of questions she had concerning Draco's credibility, while on the right-hand side, she listed her options in finding answers to these questions. This she would then present to Ron as a 'dossier of truth.'

 

Getting people to express their undying hatred for the man would be almost too easy, Hermione thought gleefully.

 

That dealt with Draco.

 

But more importantly perhaps, what about Draco's accusations? What about his claim that Jeroboam was seeking to find and weaponise Dark Flux? If true, of course, this was terrifying and needed immediate attention from Section A. But how could she prove it?

 

Indeed. How could she disprove it?

 

She had to learn more about Jeroboam himself, to see if he was fishy. She tried to ignore the voice in her head that reminded her that this was precisely what Draco Malfoy had wanted her to do in the first place. Obtaining a background check probably wouldn't be difficult. She could even send an owl to Harry at the Aurors' Office in Paris for any information they might have.

 

Thinking of Harry, more Ginny really, Hermione realized she had to hand, an invaluable eyewitness account of exactly what happened when an outbreak of Dark Flux struck a neighbourhood. Ginny had been more exposed than Harry to this particular incident in 2008, which had killed two Muggle-born witches and three Muggles on the street in Paris where the Potters were living. Harry had been away on an assignment leaving Ginny alone - terrified and distraught by the events unfolding around her. This was hardly surprising as she had been so close to term with Lily. The whole experience had prompted plans for an early return to Britain for the family.

 

Strange how things worked out, though. The Paris office, which was the centre for European Auror Co-operative Ventures – more commonly known as Auror HQ - had been so mortified by the great Harry Potter's plans for a hasty departure, they had offered him an even better job with more perks, a very nice apartment, and a very fat pay cheque to boot. And now Ginny couldn't be happier, or richer, as Ron so frequently liked to point out.

 

Thinking back to the Dark Flux outbreaks… Draco had said there were many more incidents than she thought. Exactly how did he know this? Was it worth cross-referencing Muggle news coverage with Daily Prophet reports over a period of time; possibly the last five years? It might be time-consuming, even for her fabled research skills. Still, it was worth a shot. Particularly if Ron could then cross-check Draco's claims with suspected cases. That might be a sure-fire way to catch Draco out.

 

She chewed the end of her quill thoughtfully, half-watching Padma battle a thick wad of case reports back into their relevant folder.

 

Dark Flux. Dark Flux. What else could she prove wrong?

 

Draco had claimed Dark Flux wasn't listed anymore as a Verifiable Imponderable. Now that she found very hard to believe. If it was off the list, that made it fair game for funded research from any quarter. Even if it could be rationalised and understood as a phenomenon, which was unlikely, surely Dark Flux would be far too dangerous a substance to actually work with? No Ministry official in their right mind would endorse such a move. She could check that one out pretty much straight away.

 

Another nail in Draco's coffin…

 

She was back to Draco himself. Considering his lesser importance in the scheme of things, her questions regarding himwere much more extensive, which didn't feel right somehow. In fact, some of them just felt plain nosy.

 

For example, was it really relevant that Lucius Malfoy hadn't stepped out of Malfoy Manor for six years? It was intriguing, but it hardly reflected on Draco's character – unless of course he'd murdered him and squirreled his body under the floorboards – but one thing Hermione felt sure about when it came to Draco was that he was no killer. And even if he had killed his father, (which she knew he hadn't, he idolised the prig), that would hardly wreck his credibility in Ron's eyes. Ron possibly hated Lucius even more than he hated Draco.

 

Then there was the wife. Or wives. Both of whom appeared to have done a flit. Astoria's running off with a Brazilian quidditch player, Feliu, had been a cause for hilarity some years ago. So much so, Hermione remembered Harry actually getting defensive of Draco… which had been a bizarre turn of events.

 

Hermione knew absolutely nothing about Draco's second wife, except for the fact that she was very absent, and according to Ron, had been so for a very long time. And of course, that glamorous Sylvestra creature was currently installed in Draco's house, which might explain a few things, but this was the sort of stuff Witch Weekly was made of. And she neverread Witch Weeklyor garbage like it. And really, when she thought about it, it had no bearing whatsoever on the case against Draco Malfoy that she was planning to compile for Ron.

 

On the contrary. Multiple wives and a live-in lover? Salacious scandal and bonhomie with his investigating officer? Not to mention he was part owner of a Quidditch team.

 

Ron would be on his way to Paraguay in no time. Still. She had to start somewhere.

 

Hermione looked over to Padma who did read Witch Weekly– under her desk when she thought nobody was looking – and wondered if she had time for a coffee.

XXX

Trying to talk to Padma about anything beyond the pernicious Mr Jinks was proving something of an ordeal, Hermione realized.

 

The girl was obsessed. Or maybe possessed, judging by her hysterical tone and frantic arm waving whenever she recounted yet another outrageous demand on her time and patience. Hermione was at least thankful, for Padma's sake, that they were the only customers, huddled at a corner table in a little Muggle coffee shop located close to the Ministry of Magic – far from any eavesdroppers.

 

She aimlessly stirred her tepid black coffee. Frankly, she was unable to dredge up the sort of blind hatred Padma clearly felt for Jinks. Yes, yes, she had the same memos piled high on her in-tray. And yes, this whole investigatory audit business was hugely irritating and more than a little perplexing. But really, Jinks was a toothless tiger. A busybody accountant. A bureaucratic rubber stamp.

 

This audit, Hermione now assumed, was all part of the Ministry's much-hailed 'New Brooms' campaign - effectively a shake-up and restructuring of each and every department - which had come into effect when Witchell had been instated as the new Minister for Magic in February that year. Despite her initial fears of a dastardly set-up, nothing truly terrifying or portentous had come of Mr Jinks’s rummage through her office for supposed ‘evidence’ of incompetence or nefarious dealings. And Hermione very much doubted it ever would. She knew she had nothing to hide.

 

They simply had to suffer Mr Jinks's unwanted attentions and complaints just a little longer, Hermione felt, and then he'd move on.

She had much more pressing concerns to deal with now.

 

'Padma,' she interrupted sharply, 'I'm looking for some background information.'

 

Padma halted her tirade, blinking rapidly as though pulled unexpectedly from a deep trance.

 

'About Draco Malfoy,' Hermione said, keeping her voice as cool and steady as possible. She wanted this to sound professional.

 

Padma screwed up her nose in disgust, looking like she'd just discovered a dead fly floating in her coffee. 'That prick,' she snorted. 'What could you possibly want to know?'

 

Hermione cradled her coffee pensively. How should she approach this? She was used to being pretty blunt these days. But she didn't want anybody learning about Ron's nutty dealings with the guy, which made this awkward.

 

'I've – I've got a friend who's interested in working with him. For Herb Healing.'

 

Padma looked relieved. 'Phew. I thought you were going to say you had a friend who wanted to date him.'

 

'That would be a tad difficult, wouldn't it? He's married.'

 

'So, he says. Have youmet his wife?'

 

'No… but Ron says he has.'

 

'When? Where?'

 

'He couldn't remember.'

 

'See?' Padma said smugly. 'Nobody ever does. A bit odd that, don't you think?'

 

'A little,' Hermione agreed. She signaled to the passing waitress for a top-up of her coffee. 'Maybe she's not particularly memorable?'

 

Padma snorted with loud laughter, surprising the young waitress who nearly dropped the hot, steaming coffee pot she was carrying to their table.

 

‘You remember Astoria? Not exactly a shrinking violet.'

 

'Maybe his tastes have changed?'

 

'Hardly. There was a string of witches after Astoria. All identi-kit. Same blond hair. Same enhancements. Same loud, raucous personality. I used to work with one actually. At Arcana.'

 

Arcana. Now this was good, thought Hermione. A neat little segue from Malfoy's chequered love life to Padma's old boss. The mysterious Jeroboam.

 

'She used to talk non-stop about everyone and everything. Believe me, I knew more about Draco Malfoy than I everwanted to know!' Padma continued. 'She hates him now of course.'

 

Hermione knew she should move the conversation directly to Jeroboam while she had the chance, but burning, or human curiosity as she liked to think of it, was getting the better of her.

 

'Why's that then?'

 

Padma looked puzzled. 'Why does she hate him? I can hardly believe you just asked me that.' She pondered a moment. 'There was another girl. A blond and beautiful American. Seemed good chums with the family. I met her at a work do.'

 

Sylvestra. It had to be. There had been a slight American twang to her voice. At a guess, though, she'd been schooled in Europe.

'This was still when you worked at Arcana?'

 

'Oh yes. About the time the Malfoys were finally declared bankrupt.'

 

'Bankrupt? Are you sure?' Hermione asked, incredulous. How had she missed that golden nugget of news?

 

Padma nodded. 'Absolutely. I hate to admit it, but Draco's done well to turn things around, so if your friend's thinking about a job at Herb Healing, they could do a lot worse in my opinion. Anyway, this girl's father became a big investor in the company, so I figured it was more a relationship of convenience than anything else... Or so I told poor Agatha. She was pretty cut up over it all.'

 

That sounded typically like Malfoy, Hermione thought. Thinking he was onto bigger, better things and not caring who he hurt to get there.

'Anyway, Agatha's moved on,' Padma grinned. 'She's now the gossip columnist at the Daily Prophet.'

 

'You mean, Agatha Thrussington?'

 

'The one and only. Bit of a faux pas that, from Draco, don't you think?'

 

Hermione laughed, all the while thinking: Arcana, Jeroboam, Arcana. She had to switch topics. Padma had already checked her watch twice since they sat down.

 

Luckily, Padma was a chatter-box.

 

'Mind you, I kind of miss all her silly tittle-tattle sometimes. Our office is so deadly serious, don't you think?'

 

'Do you miss working at Arcana then?' Hermione asked, a little miffed.

 

Padma grimaced. 'Not really. It had its moments and some decent people worked there. I was stuck doing admin for the lab's legal department, which wasn't too thrilling. All pretty standard stuff really: Contracts, patents, waivers. Tony lovesit there. Says he has the best lab facilities in Europe. He's very proud of the work they do.'

 

'And what is that exactly? I forget-'

 

'Medi-Magic. Healing the sick and old. Saving the wizarding world… That sort of thing. It's all a bit too evangelical for my liking. Everyone's in awe of Saint Saul – that's Mr Jeroboam, who owns the company - even though we never got to meet the man! Personally, I'd rather have worked at Medi-World.'

 

'Why's that then?'

 

'Better pay, shorter working hours, less groveling. Jeroboam might be the great white hope of the wizarding world, but he pays his staff peanuts.'

XXX

Not exactly a glowing endorsement of Jeroboam, Hermione thought as they walked back to the Ministry a little later than she had first anticipated. But by the same token, she didn't feel the man could be considered the next Dark Lord just because he was a bit stingy.

 

As for Draco? Sounded like a shifty little shit in the romance department, but that was hardly surprising. But to learn that the Malfoys had been bankrupt! No wonder Draco had been dirty dealing in Dark Magic artefacts. The family had been broke.

 

There were three messages waiting on Hermione's desk. The first was a big blow to her plan to undermine Draco's credibility.

 

In answer to her question concerning Dark Flux's status as a Verifiable Imponderable, the archivist at the Department of Mysteries had confirmed that, yes, it had been removed from the list.

 

Exactly as Draco Malfoy had said.

 

There was no record of which official had permitted such a travesty and no sign either of a Wizengamot hearing to discuss the matter, which was most peculiar.

 

The second message came in the form of a 'Case Report' and was similarly troubling. Hermione had requested any historical data relating to Draco Malfoy - basically, case histories prior to any ongoing investigations. The resulting single parchment page listed a number of offences over many years, mainly minor infractions relating to missed court hearings and a persistent refusal to pay fines.

 

However, there were some offences that had been left blank. Completely blank. The date when Draco was charged was listed, but nothing more. Nothing incriminating. And the charge sheets themselves were missing, including Draco's latest so-called infringement six months ago, that he complained had incurred a hefty fine.

 

This must be the work of Draco's friends in high places.

 

However, it was the third message that proved most shocking of all for Hermione. It came from her immediate boss within the department, informing her in the tersest of tones, that she had been summoned to a Ministry Tribunal, investigating her work practices, scheduled for Thursday next week.

XXX

'I can't believe it! I just can't bloody believe it!' Hermione was screeching, slamming dinner plates on to the kitchen table with such force that they nearly jumped straight off again.

 

'That Jinks is a miserable, lying bastard! “Irregularities. Anomalies. Causes for Concern.” What the hell is he going on about?'

 

Ron shook his head. 'Doesn't make sense.'

 

'I could be sacked!'

 

'No, Hermione, that's not going to happen.'

 

'Or… or they might try to move me out of the Department. Out of Level Two. Maybe to Level Ten. Closer to the law courts in the bloody dungeons. Now wouldn't that be fitting?' she said a little hysterically. 'I think I'd shrivel up and die of embarrassment!'

 

'Come on, dear,' Ron said, wrapping his arms around her. 'You know you've done nothing wrong. It's probably just routine.'

 

Hermione pushed him away, a little more roughly than she had intended.

 

'Who the hell do they think I am? Some half-cocked twit who doesn't know what they're doing? I'm Hermione Granger, for fuck's sake!'

 

'Weasley, dear. You're Hermione Weasley,' Ron said, a strange look in his eye.

 

'I've worked so hard for that department! I've put my life and soul into that job. I've done more for Muggle-born rights in the last few years than anybody at the Ministry – and this is my reward! It's not fair!'

 

'Children,' Ron hissed, indicating Hugo, who was standing pale-faced and rather forlorn at the open kitchen door.

 

'Have you seen Elephant?' Hugo asked timidly, his eyes round as saucers.

 

Hermione tried to clear her mind. To take a deep breath and think.

 

'Nope. Can't picture it,' she sighed. 'Did you leave it at Granny's?'

 

Hugo shook his head mournfully. 'Can it wait? Mummy and Daddy are talking.'

 

Hugo bit his lip nervously, then shrugged resignedly before shuffling away to hunt for Elephant alone.

 

XXX

'I spotted Malfoy today at the Ministry,' Hermione said, pouring herself a glass of dry white wine.

 

Finally, she was calm. Dinner had been eaten, Rose and Hugo were tucked up in bed and Ron was reading the Daily Prophet at the kitchen table.

 

He didn't look up.

 

'He was talking to Tom Bennet. Works in Section B?' Hermione added.

 

Ron nodded. 'Yeah. Good guy.'

 

'Don't you think that's a bit odd though?'

 

'Tom's his chief investigating officer. They have history,' Ron explained.

 

'Well, here's a thing. That history's been erased,' Hermione said in dramatic tones.

 

Ron continued reading.

 

Exasperated by his silence, Hermione tugged his newspaper out of reach, forcing him to look at her. 'I really think you should check out his case files, Ron. Before you go chasing off to Paraguay.'

 

'Bolivia, actually. Turns out it's a border town.'

 

'Well… wherever it is.'

 

'Look, Hermione,' Ron said, sighing heavily. 'I know all about Draco's record. More than you could imagine. I was his chief protection officer during the Angelotti trial in 2007. He was one of our key witnesses.'

 

'I didn't know that.'

 

'And why should you? That's my job. It's what I do… did.'

 

'And since then? Has his record been blameless?' Hermione asked with a sceptical sneer.

 

'Far from it. Like I've told you before, the prat can't keep out of trouble. His name's always attached, one way or another, to just about every Dark Magic deal that comes our way. Naturally, he denies most of it, but he's probably guilty as hell…'

 

'And this is the caliber of man you want to be working with? Come on, Ron, he's up to no good and trying to drag you down with him. Why can't you see it?'

 

Ron shook his head vehemently, tapping his nose in a knowing manner. 'I've got an instinct on this one, Hermione.'

 

'But why you, of all people? Why not Auror Bennet?'

 

'Tom's a different department. Dark wizards planning mass murder isn't his bag.'

 

'Nor is it yours.'

 

'YES IT IS!' Ron shouted, jumping up from the dinner table. 'You might not want to believe it, Hermione, but I am now a Section A Auror. Like Harry.'

 

'Who I strongly suspect would be reporting Malfoy to his superiors.'

 

'No, he wouldn't. He'd be sticking close to the bastard to see exactly what he was up to.'

 

This gave Hermione momentary pause for thought. Did Ron know something she didn't?

 

'Look, Ron, it's simple. After all the things that were said and done at school–'

 

'School? Are you kidding me?' Ron exploded. 'That was bloody years ago. I can hardly remember school! A fair few things have happened since then, if you hadn't bloody noticed. Now leave this alone, Hermione. I know what I'm doing!'

 

Then, to Hermione's surprise, Ron marched out of the room, leaving her with that rare queasy feeling that she had just lost an argument with her husband.

 

This had been her last stand. She couldn't stop Ron, she knew that, and now she had no choice but to let it all happen.

 

XXX

CHAPTER TRACKS:

"ERASE/REWIND" byTHE CARDIGANS

&

“THE SYSTEM ONLY DREAMS IN TOTAL DARKNESS” byTHE NATIONAL

 

Disclaimer: I own nothing except my original characters.

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