Warnings: (non-canon) character death, strong language.

Author's Notes: Written for first round (summer 2009) of the ronpansy_fest at LiveJournal for cassie_black12, who prompted me thus:

Ron's an Auror and Pansy is the victim of a crime whom he has to interview. Ron's marriage to Hermione is falling apart and his career is on the rocks. He comes to see Pansy as someone who understands him, and who he can lean on.

Disclaimer: © 2009 Mundungus42. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. This is an amateur non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by JKR or any other lawful holder. Permission may be obtained by e-mailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com

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The papers had colour-coded sticky notes indicating all the places that required his mark; green for initials only and red for fully dated signature. The accompanying letter was unsealed so he could read it before passing it on to Rose and Hugo. It was vintage Hermione: earnest, four times as long as it needed to be, terribly anxious to be the responsible parent, and very much the last word on the matter.

He crumpled it into a tight ball and chucked it in the bin. The kids weren't stupid. They knew the divorce had nothing to do with them.

He shoved the pile of paper aside and lurched stiffly to his feet. His leg was giving him trouble, which meant that it would probably be raining by lunchtime. He grabbed the lopsided clay mug Rose had made when she was eight and went to scour the staff room for leftovers from the morning's meeting. Some tosser had emptied the strainer in the pot and got the last of Wilkins's chocolate biscuits He was digging through the tin of teabags when he heard the bell on his desk ring.

Ron straightened, bashing his head on the overhead cupboard. Swearing, he turned round and pressed his hands to the injured spot, only to find the crumpled ball that was Hermione's note hovering patiently in the air. Apparently, she'd charmed it to follow him until it reached its intended recipient.

The bell rang again.

Ron seized the still-crumpled note that was floating patiently behind him and shoved it into his pocket. He stalked back to the office as quickly as his stiff leg allowed. However, he still wasn't fast enough to stop the bell-ringer from banging on the bell nonstop.

Ron could feel his face getting hot as he rounded the row of filing cabinets that formed the edge of his office, but when he saw who was standing in front of his desk, he was immediately sorry he hadn't stayed in the staff room.

He hadn't seen her in the flesh for almost twenty years, but he'd recognize the hard face and snub nose of Pansy Parkinson anywhere. Merlin in a fucking suspender belt, could this day get any worse?

She was dressed in grey wool that managed to give some shape to her bony physique. Her brown hair was cut short, and the blunt edges brushed the sharp edge of her jaw. She was wearing a stupid little black hat, black gloves and an expression of disgust on her face. Her artificially scarlet mouth thinned when she looked at him, and she spun on her heel, addressing all of the other Aurors in the room.

"I want a real Auror to help me," she said. She sounded bored and entitled to the bleeding world on silver tray.

Ron's stomach and fists clenched. How dare that utter cow, who hadn't done a day's honest work in her life, come into his department, up to his desk, and act like he wasn't up to snuff? He was about to give her a piece of his mind when the sound of a throat being cleared made them both turn to Ron's right. Ron couldn't suppress a smirk. Harry would have his back, and he looked to be spoiling for a fight.

"Is there a problem?" Harry's voice was cold; colder than Ron had heard it in a long time.

Parkinson's demeanour changed, and suddenly she was all smiles and honey. It was revolting.

"Harry Potter," she breathed, "just the man I wanted to see."

Only someone who knew Harry as well as Ron did would have seen the profound unease that flickered across his face. "You need to give your statement to Auror Weasley before we can assign your case to an active Auror."

She gave a high, brittle laugh that set Ron's teeth on edge. "It's something of a delicate matter, Potter, and since it's going to require a senior Auror anyway, I'd rather this stayed between the two of us."

Harry's expression darkened. "Weasley is a senior Auror," he said tightly, "and five minutes of his time is a hell of a lot more than you deserve, Parkinson. Talk to him, or I throw you out. Your choice."

Ron had to admire the way Pansy was able to twist her snarl into a broad, if pasted-on smile. "Come on, Potter," she said coaxingly. "I didn't mean anything against Weasley, and it's been a very long time since, well, you know. Can't we at least be civil to each other?"

"No," said Harry shortly. He turned his back and left her standing in front of Ron's desk. The other Aurors, several of whom were peering over the tops of their partitions, snorted with laughter.

Parkinson shot them cold glares that only made them snigger more and approached Ron's desk.

"All right, Weasley let's make this quick."

"Fine by me. Don't let the doorknob hit you in the arse on your way out," he retorted, bending over his paperwork once more.

"Are you refusing to help me, Weasel? I could have your badge and wand for that."

"No, you couldn't," said Ron dismissively. "There's a whole room full of Aurors here who will be happy to report that you're disrupting our work. And since you probably don't know the law from a loofah, disrupting an Auror means you get twenty-four hours in the holding cells if we feel like it, regardless of whether we charge you with anything. So if you're not smart enough to leave when you're told and aren't keen to sleep on cement tonight, you might want to treat Enforcers with a bit more respect."

Her brown eyes glittered with malice, but for the first time he'd ever seen, Pansy Parkinson held her tongue.

"What do you know?" remarked Ron savagely. "You can teach an old bitch new tricks."

Ron wasn't sure what got her more, the insult or his coworkers' sniggers, but Pansy's face was nearly purple. "You'll pay for that, Weasel," she hissed.

"Is that a threat?" asked Ron conversationally. "Because threatening me is not only good for a night's stay in the dock, but also a one-way ticket to a luxury suite in Azkaban."

She made a supreme effort to collect herself and gave him a nasty smile. "It won't work, Weasley. I'm the victim of a crime, and it's your job to help me. Insult me all you want, but I'm not leaving; you'll regret treating me this way one day."

"Have you ever regretted treating people like shit, Parkinson?"

She gave him a contemptuous look. "Of course not."

"Then what makes you so sure that I won't laugh my head off every day for the rest of my life over the day Pansy Parkinson had to kiss my hairy arse and say she liked it?"

"Because you'll be too busy remembering this as the sorriest day of your pathetic existence," she said, gesturing to the stack of divorce papers on his desk. "I hear she's been spending quite a lot of time at Malfoy Manor, you know. Perhaps the Mudblood has some ambition after all."

"Watch yourself, Parkinson," said Ron.

"What, is saying 'Mudblood' a crime now?" she asked, batting her eyelashes. "Or speculating how often the soon-to-be-ex-wife of an Enforcer spends the night at Malfoy Manor?"

Ron hauled himself to his feet, using every inch of his not unimpressive height to tower over her. "Give me a reason, Parkinson," he whispered. "Give me a good reason and I'll drag you downstairs by your hair and throw you into the cell so hard you won't be able to cast a spell straight for a week."

"I wish to report a theft," she said primly, eyes glowing in triumph.

The periphery of Ron's vision was beginning to fill with black spots as he forced his anger down. As much as it galled him to admit it, Parkinson was right. He had to do his job. "What sort of theft?"

She looked at him coolly from underneath too-thin eyebrows. "What do you know? Some pigs actually can fly."

"Your statement," prompted Ron through gritted teeth.

She gave him a poisonous smile. "I was shopping in Diagon Alley today when someone bumped into me. I was thrown against a wall and had to stop to catch my breath. After I recovered, I thought to check my handbag and discovered that my wand was gone. I assumed I'd dropped it. I carry a second wand for just such occasions, but when I cast Accio my wand didn't come. It's a very old family wand and worth more money than you can imagine."

During her recitation, Ron allowed himself the luxury of imagining the sight of Parkinson going face-first into a brick wall. When he belatedly realized that she had stopped speaking, he began rummaging through his files, summoning his most Percy-like demeanour, with a dollop of Hermione's bossiness.

"Fill these out," he said, handing her a small pile of parchment. "And these as well. Wands are Class Q registered items, so you'll need to get a senior specialist's signature from the Department of Magical Weights and Measures verifying its dimensions and registered ownership. Since it's an old wand, we'll also need the wand-weighing records so we can make sure it's in safe working condition. We don't want the Aurors assigned to the case to be exposed to any undue risks. And lastly, if the wand is worth something, we'll need you add a clause to your insurance policy stipulating that the Ministry will not be responsible for any damages that may be sustained during our attempts to return it to you. You can return everything by owl once you've filled out all the paperwork."

She wasn't impressed, but he didn't care. The paperwork was redundant, confusing, and best of all, in absurdly tiny print. He also knew for a fact that the only senior specialist of Weights and Measures who wasn't on his summer holidays was Owen Jenkins, who always arrived late, took two-hour lunches, and left early.

"Of course," continued Ron with relish, "you can Floo call the office at any time and give the officer at the desk your sixteen-digit case number, which you can find at the top of form 43C.1A, and he or she will owl within twenty-four hours about the status of your case. Oh, and you have lipstick all over your teeth."

Pansy's hand flew to her mouth, but she almost immediately worked out that he was lying. "You'll get yours, Weasel," she hissed, scooping up the pile of paperwork. "You're a swine."

"That reminds me," said Ron, rising with less difficulty this time, "Bacon sandwiches for lunch today. Don't let the door hit you in the arse on the way-"

"Sod off." She marched out of the office with her ugly nose in the air.

Orlofsky, whose desk was nearest Ron's, whistled. "You straightened her out all right with that pile of bumf. I didn't even know there was a 43C.1A form no more. Thought it was integrated into the 44B."

"It was," said Ron stretching his arms over his head. "The file I gave her is full of old versions of the same form."

Orlofsky guffawed. "She'll be weeks filling that out, if'n she don't give up straightaway, that is."

Ron smiled, feeling more satisfied than he'd been in weeks. "I'm off for lunch. Taking the piss always makes me hungry."

"What doesn't, lad?" asked Orlofsky.

"Tosser," replied Ron with a grin.

There was a decided spring in his limp as he rose in the phone box and stepped out into the howling rain.

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A fortnight later, the highly satisfying row Ron had had with Parkinson did indeed come back to haunt him. Harry was handing out the low-priority assignments to the Senior Aurors. This was Ron's least favourite time of the week, for all that it lifted him from the tedium of taking reports and handing out forms, because the other Aurors walked away with cases, and he walked away with a stiff leg and, if he was lucky, a stale muffin. However, Ron was jerked out of his torpor when a file came sailing across the table and landed in front of him.

He gave Harry a quizzical look and took the file. He made a show of dropping it as soon as he saw the name on the tab. "Circe's Sausage!" he swore. "What're you on about, Harry?"

"What have you got, then?" asked Orlofsky.

"Parkinson!" moaned Ron. "He's fobbed Parkinson off on me!"

To his disappointment, the others laughed.

"Harry, you can't be serious," he said. "I've got a bad leg already. I'll never get better if Parkinson's always chewing at it. She might have rabies!"

"She might have the pox," murmured Wilkins, who had brought ginger biscuits today.

"Sorry, Ron," said Harry, whose mouth was twitching. "We all know her case isn't going anywhere. Her wand's probably been sold on the streets of Tbilisi by now. All you need to do is make a few official inquiries to get the minger off our backs and we'll have filled our obligation, just like that."

"Easy for you to say," grumbled Ron. "I'm the one who's going to have to deal with her when she comes in to demand a burnt offering as befits her standing."

"Naturally, some allowances have got to be made for your injuries," said Harry in an innocent voice. "As such, the head has approved two-hour breaks you can take whenever you feel tired. Provided you have a bit of paperwork to show you've done something on the Parkinson case, I see no reason why you can't take a two hour break every day. And that's the lot for this week. I'll see you later."

"Jammy sod," commented Wilkins, as she and Ron made a beeline for the leftovers. "Swap you a burglary? Very valuable books, and what could be an especially grateful client, I'm told."

"Nope," said Ron, popping a buttered bit of crumpet into his mouth. "If I never see a valuable book again it'll be too soon."

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Ron threw the case file down on his desk, which sent half the papers spilling out and on to the floor. He immediately regretted it and bent down uncomfortably to retrieve the papers. This was his first case in months, and even if it was Parkinson's, he wasn't about to bodge it. Especially since it was Parkinson's, as she'd have no reason to pull punches if she thought he was skiving off.

The first thing he did was send a memo to the Improper Use of Magic Office notifying them that the wand had been reported stolen and requesting a trace on it. In the unlikely event that it was used in Britain, he'd know immediately where, and he could dispatch a team of junior Aurors to look for it. Not that it was likely, of course. Everybody in the racket of pinching registered magical items knew better than to sell or use them locally.

Just to be on the safe side, he also sent off a request to the Arithmancers in the Department of Mysteries to see if there had been any kind of surge in the movement of wands. Once the memos were zooming off to their respective recipients, Ron spread out the forms and certificates so he could see them all at once. There was a dried drop of something brown on the form Owen Jenkins had signed that made Ron smile in spite of himself. He wouldn't be surprised if Jenkins had been on time for work for the first time in decades the day after Parkinson had put the fear of Circe into him.

Like all case files, there was plenty of information about the victim. It seemed that Parkinson had done a night in the nick ages ago for getting shit-faced on champers at the DuBonnay Club and attacking Draco Malfoy with a cheese knife. Ron didn't have a clue what a cheese knife looked like, but if posh cheese was anything like what his mum charmed at home, it was probably massive and sharp. No charges had been filed.

He was disappointed that it was her only notable brush with the law. There were no fines for stamping on babies or hexing Muggle orphans like he'd expected, just a few broomstick violations that had been successfully contested by some private solicitor, a transcript of her testimony after Voldemort's defeat, which he'd read when it was first made public, and a sheaf of Daily Prophet society items.

He tossed aside her personal information and read her statement, which she'd had to write out five times on separate forms. It was pretty much identical to what she'd told him weeks ago, though she'd taken the liberty of writing, "If you're reading this, get stuffed, Weasel," after different sentences on each form. He smiled in spite of himself.

Her story was utter bollocks, of course. Parkinson was the type to spin around and screech at anybody with the audacity to breathe on her without permission, not the sort to be thrown bodily into walls and swoon before getting a good look at her assailant. However, the wand she'd reported missing undoubtedly belonged to her. Perhaps she was trying to gain a bit of financial independence through a spot of insurance fraud?

He had a look at the wand-weighing records and appraisals. While the Parkinsons had insured the wand for a tidy sum, it certainly wasn't the kind of money one risked being thrown in prison for. Unless, of course, one was stupid enough to think she wouldn't get caught.

He was about to toss the records back into the file when a small piece of parchment fluttered to the ground. It was ancient and written in a spidery hand.

For a loan of eight months, one CHESTNUT WAND, belonging to G.P., I.G. shall provide the sum of eight hundred gold Uspekhovs.

Ron didn't know what Uspekhovs were and didn't particularly want to know, but something about the little slip of paper was decidedly dodgy. What kind of person would loan their wand out for cash? And referring to the parties in a legal agreement only by initials was more than a bit suspicious, too.

Just to make sure his arse was covered, he sent off another note to the Arithmancers to find out when G. Parkinson had lived and to cross-check all contemporary I.G.s. He added a postscript asking them to define the word "Uspekhov."

He was about to go back to the staff room to see if Wilkins had left him any gingernuts when the Departmental Floo roared to life and a bony face appeared in it.

Ron scowled and limped over to the fireplace. "What do you want, Parkinson?"

"I want to know what's been done to recover my wand. I have my sixteen-digit case number, and you have exactly twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty seconds to get me a complete update."

He briefly considered taking her number and sending her an owl later, but supposed it would save time if he could get some real answers out of her. "You'd better come through, then," he said.

She looked at him disbelievingly before stepping into the fireplace. He bit back a laugh when she stumbled over an andiron.

"Watch your step," he advised blandly. He fancied she actually growled. Ron grabbed the case file and led her into one of the bare offices intended for private interviews.

She crossed her arms when he gestured for her to sit and gave him the snotty-impatient look. "I'll just wait here, then, shall I?"

Ron looked at her uncomprehendingly. "What are you on about?"

"While you get the Enforcer assigned to my case," she clarified, speaking as if she were addressing a particularly thick four-year-old.

This startled a laugh out of Ron. "Your bad luck, Parkinson. He's already here."

"Last time I checked, your name wasn't Harry Potter."

"Got it in one," said Ron. "Harry's got important cases to look after. Looks like you're stuck with me."

"You can't even walk, Weasel," she said, wrapping her scarlet claws around the back of a chair. "I'm requesting another Auror immediately."

"Go ahead," said Ron airily. "Don't let the doorknob hit you in the-"

"Would you shut up?" exclaimed Pansy, flushing an ugly shade of red.

"I thought you wanted to know what was being done to recover your wand," said Ron. He was beginning to enjoy himself.

"This isn't a case for someone with a gammy leg," she said, recovering a bit of the ice in her tone.

"Oh? Then you know how the wand's going to be recovered? Funny, I didn't see that in any of your statements. And speaking of your statements, you can get stuffed, too."

She looked amused for a moment before giving him a withering look. "Of course I don't know how to get the wand back."

"Then let me do my job," said Ron. "I'll call in the others if there's something I can't do, all right?"

She looked at him for a moment, her face as still as marble. "All right," she said, sitting at last. "What have you found out?"

Ron did his best not to gloat. "Right. Your case was just assigned to me this morning, so there's not much to report yet. First off, there's a trace on the wand, so if the thief uses it anywhere in this country, he's ours. I'm also running some numbers on wand thefts. But I was hoping you might be able to tell me something about this."

He slid the yellowed bit of parchment over to her. She pursed her lips when she read it but he could read nothing else in her face. "G.P. is probably my great-grandfather, Geoffrey Parkinson. He was head of Magical Law Enforcement."

"He sounds like he'd have been quite a man to know."

"He died before I was born," she said.

"Too bad his sense of duty skipped so many generations," commented Ron. "Any idea who I.G. is?"

"No," said Pansy, her expression cold. "But this is ancient history."

Ron looked askance at her. "Ancient?"

She gave him an impatient look. "The wand is described as 'chestnut.' The exterior wood has been replaced at least four times, and it hasn't been chestnut in over a hundred years."

"That's not in any of the repair records from Ollivander's. All it says here is that it was 'refinished' once in 1818. The wand's official specs say that it's still chestnut."

"That's because not all the work was done at Ollivander's."

"It's illegal to modify a wand without having it reweighed."

"Oh that's news," sneered Pansy, "an Enforcer selectively following the law."

"You don't know anything about it, Parkinson."

She laughed bitterly. "I know that it's the Thin Purple Line for you lot and conspiracy or corruption for anybody else."

"Yeah, well, try putting yourself on the line for something more important than your own stupid self, and maybe then you'll have some right to talk about it."

"I did," she said softly, "and it got me and my housemates thrown into battle with nobody but a Squib and a distracted Mediwitch for protection. You can't have it both ways, Weasel. You can't hate me for not having convictions and for having had convictions that you don't like."

"Right, I'll just hate you for your personality, then" he said.

"My heart's breaking, Weasel."

"Didn't know you had one," he returned. "So about the wand."

"It's cherry wood now," she said. "Natural finish, rather whippy. Before it was chestnut, I think it was oak. Before then, I don't know. It's an old wand."

"Yeah, I gathered. So why did you choose to use the old family wand instead of get something new and gold-plated?"

"You know the rules, Weasel. The wand chooses the wizard. Besides, gold's only for the nouveau and never riche."

Ron was very glad he'd stopped wearing his gold wedding ring after signing the divorce papers. "Fair enough, Parkinson," he said. "I just have a couple of questions about your statement."

Her demeanour changed slightly, and she crossed her legs at the ankles. "Go ahead."

"Your wand was stolen in Diagon Alley on the fourteenth at about two o'clock in the afternoon."

"That's what it says," she said, gesturing at the paper in front of him.

"What were you doing there?"

"What everyone else does in Diagon Alley on a Sunday afternoon," she said. "Shopping."

"For what?"

"New robes," she said impatiently. "I was placing an order at Mabel's."

"You don't happen to have any sales receipts, do you?"

"Clearly you've never ordered bespoke clothing, Weasley. You don't get a receipt when you place an order, you pay when you pick it up."

Ron was long-since inured to snide comments about his family's lack of wealth. "But Mabel can confirm that you were there on that day around that time, right?"

Pansy glared at him. "Of course she can. Weasel, did you forget that I'm the victim here?"

"Not at all," said Ron lightly. "I'm just trying to make sure I have the facts straight. So the theft occurred after you left Mabel's." He pulled out a map of Diagon Alley. "So can you point out exactly where the theft occurred?"

She rotated the map and stuck her finger on Flourish and Blotts. "Right there, where the shop front sticks out into the pavement."

"So the assailant came up behind you, shoved you into the wall here, grabbed your wand from your bag, and ran away?"

"Yes," she said testily. "I was carrying an open handbag, and the handle of my wand was sticking out of the top. It wouldn't have been hard to grab."

"Are you certain that the person who knocked into you took it?" he asked. "Couldn't it have been snatched at any time before then?"

"I'm certain," she said. "I rest my hand on top of the handle when I walk anywhere with that handbag. I'm not completely stupid, Weasel."

"So, did anybody see it happen?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"Sunday afternoon outside Flourish and Blotts," he said. "That area is always crowded."

"Well, if anybody saw it, they didn't say anything," she said. Her voice had an edge to it, and Ron felt a surge of triumph.

"I found out something interesting," said Ron. "It turns out Flourish and Blotts was having a big sale on the fourteenth. It must have been crowded."

"So whoever stole it was probably hiding in the crowd," she said impatiently.

"But you're telling me that someone shoved you into a wall outside the busiest shop in Diagon Alley and nobody saw it happen or came to help you?"

She scowled at him. "Would you have helped me, Weasel, or would you have laughed?"

"Oh, I'd have laughed, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have grabbed whoever did it. So, you were knocked senseless for a bit. Did you go to hospital?"

"No," she said.

"Why not?"

"I just didn't," she said shortly. "Look, Weasel, it's obvious you don't believe a word of my story. I couldn't care less. It's your job to get my wand back, so just get on and do it."

"If you really wanted your wand back, you'd have made sure I knew what it was made of," said Ron. "Maybe your wand was stolen, and maybe it wasn't, but I reckon your being here hasn't anything to do with your wand."

"You reckon that, do you?" she asked, rising to her feet. "Well, you're dead wrong."

"Just a friendly warning, Parkinson. Filing a false report is a crime. I don't care what your angle is, but if you're wasting my time, I will do everything I can to put you away."

"You ought to be thanking me. This is probably the only case you've had in months."

She was right, damn her, but he wasn't about to admit it. "Insurance fraud is an even more serious crime," he went on.

She looked down her nose at him. "I haven't requested a knut," she said, "and I won't."

"Then why insure it at all?"

"Ask my father," she said flippantly.

"I'll do that," he said, rising stiffly. "I won't have anything for you for a few days at least."

"I'll be here on Wednesday," she said. "Three o'clock."

"I'll be at lunch."

"Then you can tell me everything you've learned while dribbling curry down your front," she said, smirking.

"Your pug face is enough to kill anyone's appetite," he growled, nettled by her unflappable superiority and even more nettled with himself for being nettled.

She reached for the doorknob, then paused. "Do you even know what a pug is, Weasel?"

"Of course I do. They're ugly, posh dogs that yap all the time. Sort of tan, wonky stick-out eyes, bat ears, pointy noses-"

"I thought not," she said, smirking. "Pugs have flat faces. You're thinking of a Chihuahua."

"If you say so, Chiquita. See you on Wednesday at three."

"You'd better not be wasting my time, Weasel. I may not be popular with your lot, but I can still make your life unpleasant."

"You already do, Parkinson," he said. "You already do."

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The next day, a bright red paper aeroplane zoomed into Ron's inbox. He pressed his fingertip to the nose of the aeroplane. It unfolded quickly, and a picture of an hourglass appeared in the corner of the parchment and its sand began to trickle steadily downward.

G.P is Geoffrey Parkinson (1788-1892), notable positions held, Head of Magical Law Enforcement (1844-1867), Special Envoy to Russia (1867-1872), Secretary of International Co-Operation (1872-1880), Special Advisor to the Minister (1880-1892), Order of Merlin (2nd class), Supreme Overlord of the Knights of Walpurgis, Loyal Follower of Toutatis, President and Founder of the Magical Preservation Society, Lifetime Service Award (posthumous) . Given his stature, the only notable I.G. likely to have entered into contract is wandmaker Ivan Gregorovitch (1832 – 1944). Parchment likely dates between 1882 and 1892, but there are no extant magical traces. Uspekhovs were the currency of pre-revolutionary Russian states, worth approximately 1.75 Galleons at the time of the transaction. Information level Slightly Sensitive. The other information you requested about the frequency of wand theft will be delivered via regular interdepartmental memo.

Ron scribbled down the relevant information inside the case file and managed to get the memo into the bin before it burst into flames. As if it mattered that old Parkinson had been a Supreme Whatever-it-was. He was also disappointed that the parchment hadn't proved to be anything more than a legitimate contract for a perfectly legal loan to someone with a valid reason to be interested in old wands.

A moment later, a neat file of recent wand traces on stolen wands flew in from the Improper Use of Magic Office, and another from Weights and Measures on recent transfers of ownership and wand purchases. He was somewhat bewildered by the second set of information, but recalled that his request to the Department of Mysteries had been a bit vague, and he hadn't requested information on only stolen wands. Unfortunately, the file from Weights and Measures was at least three inches thick.

He heaved a gusty sigh and clumped off down the hall to fetch some tea. He had some very boring reading to do. It wasn't like he was good for anything else, anyway.

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Ron took the first of his two-hour lunches that day. It was raining again, but his dad kept a collection of brollies in his office and was more than happy to lend him one. He stepped out of the phone box into the light rain and started walking in the direction of his favourite chippy. His leg wasn't troubling him quite as much as it usually did, as he'd had an appointment at St. Mungo's the previous afternoon. They couldn't remove the curse because they didn't know what it was, but weekly treatments eased the symptoms.

Ron passed the familiar shops and didn't give them a second glance until he passed one of the posh restaurants he'd never been in. There, at a table towards the middle of the restaurant, was a familiar-looking pale blond head. Ron stopped short. He was sitting with his back to the door, but when he turned to say something to the waiter, Ron recognized the pale, pointed face of Draco Malfoy.

Ron walked into the restaurant, folded his brolly, and set it beside the door. He addressed the maitre d' with a curt nod. "Just meeting an old friend."

Malfoy's eyes widened a fraction at Ron's approach, but his surprise was quickly covered with a sneer. "Weasel. What do you think you're doing here?"

"It's a free country."

"Perhaps, but this restaurant isn't," said Draco. He began to raise his hand to gesture to the waiter when Ron seized his hand and pinned it to the table.

Draco's eyes were glittering. "Spoiling for a fight, are we, Weasel?"

"Not at all, Malfoy. I'm looking for a friendly chat."

"Well, you're obviously in the wrong place," said Malfoy. "I'm meeting a friend, so you can just crawl back into whatever hole you call home these days."

"I'd like to talk to you about a wand."

Whatever Malfoy was expecting him to say, that wasn't it. His face went a bit paler than usual for a split second before the sneer was back on his face. Honestly, had Snape taught private sneering classes just for the Slytherins? "Why, did yours finally wear out?"

"I'm working on a case for an old friend of yours," said Ron. "Seems she had her wand snatched in broad daylight in Diagon Alley."

Draco relaxed infinitesimally. "Stupid of her."

"Someone bashed her head against a brick wall first," said Ron. "Or so she claims."

"And this has exactly what to do with me?"

"The wand was old. Worth a lot of money. Possibly powerful. Kind of like all the wands you've been buying up recently."

"Except for the fact that the wands I buy have verified provenance and, oh yes, are procured legally. Sorry to disappoint you, Weasel."

"I'm not saying that you had anything to do with the wand's disappearance," began Ron.

"That's good, because I'd have your wand and badge before you could stand up," said Malfoy.

"All I'm saying is that you run in antiquarian circles. My client and I would be grateful to you if you could keep an eye out for it." Ron managed to get the request out through gritted teeth.

Malfoy's face broke into a thin smile. "Well, well, well. The Weasel needs my help with Auror work. And I thought the only things you lacked were money, brains, and breeding."

"I don't need your help, Malfoy," snapped Ron. "But I thought it would be sporting to give you the chance to volunteer information before I turn your manor upside-down searching for it."

"Get over yourself, Weasel," said Malfoy. "Not that I believe for a second that anybody would authorise such a search, but Potter's treated me fairly when nobody else would. Since you wouldn't be on any case without his influence, I'll let you know if I spot your missing wand, all right?"

Ron pulled a card out of his pocket, but Draco sniffed at it. "I know how to contact you, idiot. Just tell me about the wand and get out."

Ron knew he wouldn't be able to resist the impulse to grind Malfoy's face into the table for much longer, so he acquiesced. "It's cherry wood, eleven and-a-half inches long, unusually supple for its thickness, and identifiable by a circular device on the handle end."

"Natural cherry finish?" asked Malfoy, whose eyes had narrowed.

"Yeah. How'd you know?"

"Because the wand is in my possession. I borrowed it from Pansy Parkinson weeks ago."

"'Borrowed?'" exclaimed Ron. "Is that what you call it?"

"I didn't steal it," insisted Draco. "She said she had something I might be interested in and let me look at the wand. She offered to let me keep it for as long as I wanted."

"When was this?"

Draco thought for a moment. "The tenth."

"She reported it stolen on the fourteenth." Ron felt a predatory smile spread across his face. "You've just put yourself in a spot of trouble, Malfoy."

"And I'm telling you that she's making a fool of you, Weasel," said Draco, who was no longer bothering with a façade of unflappability. "Come by the Manor if you don't believe me. You can have it."

"I don't know what game you and Parkinson are playing," said Ron hotly, "but I ought to take you in right now and search your house."

"Try and you'll regret it," said Draco in a soft and dangerous voice. "Besides, I have a prior engagement. You can come by in the morning."

"Draco, I'm sorry I'm late!" said a familiar voice. "All this horrid rain, I- oh!"

Hermione Granger, formerly Weasley, was standing by the table with a look of horror on her face.

Draco's smirk was insufferable as he stood to greet Hermione with a kiss on the cheek. "Never you mind, darling. Weasel was just leaving."

Ron felt his face harden. "I'll be seeing you tomorrow then, Draco?"

"If you insist."

"Oh, I do," said Ron. He ignored his ex-wife and swept out of the restaurant into the rain. It wasn't until he was a block away that he realised he'd left his brolly behind.

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The chip butty he'd had for lunch was sitting about as poorly as Parkinson's cock-and-bull story and Malfoy's lunch with Hermione. There was an owl from her not an hour later, but he'd binned it without reading it and placed an almanac on top of the bin in case she'd charmed it to follow him again. What did it matter to him if she'd taken up with a probable wand thief who was also a complete git and possibly still evil? He'd only examined the records for two of the wands Draco had recently "purchased," when a tall, distinguished-looking man swept up to his desk.

"Are you Weasley?" he asked. There was something about the man's tone that he didn't like.

"Who wants to know?"

"Reginald Parkinson," he said. Ron could see the resemblance now. They had identical Chihuahua noses.

"Yeah, I'm Auror Weasley. I'm working your daughter's missing wand case."

"Well, I'm here to tell you that you can stop right now."

Ron managed to keep his expression fairly neutral. "Really? Have you found the wand?"

"Yes," he said shortly. "She found it in one of her handbags."

Ron blinked in surprise. What in the name of Clytemnestra's cunt was going on? "Well, that must be a relief for her," he replied. "I'll write a statement. She can sign it at our meeting tomorrow afternoon."

"We've found the wand," said Parkinson. "That makes the meeting superfluous."

Ron was a fairly suspicious man to begin with, but Parkinson's behaviour was raising all kinds of flags, even if Draco Malfoy hadn't claimed to have the wand that was now being un-reported as missing. He had to play this one close to his chest.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Parkinson," he said apologetically, "but rules are rules. Your daughter is the one who reported it missing, and it's registered in her name. I can't close a case on hearsay, even if it's from you."

"I see," said Parkinson stiffly. "Then I will have Pansy send you something in writing."

Ron was about to protest, but Parkinson's suggestion was perfectly reasonable, and as cold a fish as Reginald Parkinson was reputed to be, Ron highly doubted that he would do anything untoward to his only child. Besides, closing the case meant that he wouldn't have to deal with Chihuahua girl and her entitlement issues anymore. The thought didn't cheer him nearly as much as he expected it to. "All right," said Ron gruffly, pulling a form from his drawer. "Have her fill this in."

The elder Parkinson picked up the form with a look of distaste, then took his leave. He didn't go so far as to thank Ron, but he was a far sight politer than Pansy. Of course, he'd met trolls politer than Pansy. He watched the older man go.

"Well, that's a tidy end," commented Wilkins, who was peering over the top of her desk's partition.

"You'd think so," said Ron absently. "But it doesn't fit."

"Weasley, your case was to find a missing wand, and now it's found. What's there not to fit?"

"They don't have the wand. I do. Or I will tomorrow morning, at any rate."

Wilkins whistled. "What's the angle?"

"I haven't a bleeding clue," said Ron.

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Malfoy Manor was less terrifying in the bright morning sunshine than it had been on Ron's last visit. It also helped that half of his colleagues were already there when he arrived at bang on nine.

He caught Wilkins's eye, and she waved him in the front door. "Hullo, Weasley. You got the message awfully fast."

"Message? I'm here to talk to Malfoy."

She shook her head. "We got a call about ten minutes ago. There's been an attack. House Elf found Malfoy. The poor thing's hysterical. Bad business all around."

Ron's jaw dropped. "Is he dead?"

Wilkins snorted. "That little cockroach? Naw, he'll live to see two hundred. But someone Stunned him into next Tuesday. We haven't been able to rouse him."

She led him into a spacious office whose walls were lined with large, old-looking books. Or at least they had been until someone had decided to have a duel there. There were hex marks on the ceiling and carpet, one of the chairs had been overturned, and an entire section of books had been blasted from their shelves and lay strewn on the floor.

Draco Malfoy was sprawled among the fallen books, surrounded by Aurors.

"Ron," exclaimed Harry. "Give us a hand, would you?"

Ron joined the circle and aimed his wand at Draco's head. He wondered if anybody would care if he cast a Furnunculus Curse.

"On three," said Harry. "One, two-"

RENNERVATE!

The group countercurse did its job, and Malfoy's eyes fluttered open. He gazed woozily up at Harry.

"Hello, gorgeous," he slurred.

Harry flushed a dark red and scowled. "He's been Confunded, too," he said. "Ron, give me a hand with him. You lot keep looking for signs of forced entry. Once we've set him to rights he can tell us if anything's been stolen."

Malfoy still looked confused, and Ron waved his wand at him. His expression cleared, and his eyes darted around the room, taking in the state of the room and its occupants. "Well, isn't this a nice reunion?" he said sarcastically.

"You were attacked, Malfoy," said Ron.

"Really? I thought I'd been invited to tea," snapped Malfoy. He rushed past Ron to the door, knocking into Ron's shoulder on the way. Ron's bad leg crumpled, and if there hadn't been a cabinet handy, he would have fallen.

Harry seized his shoulder and shot him an apologetic look before running after Draco. Ron pulled himself to his feet and followed them down the hall.

He found them in what had once been a grand dining room but was now taken over with books, papers, and dozens of wands in every shape, size, and finish. Draco had a small, leather-bound book in his hand and was digging through a pile of wands while he snarled answers at Harry.

"I already told you, I don't have any memory past eight o'clock last night. I know it was eight because my evening Scotch had just arrived, all right? Don't touch that, Weasley. You couldn't afford to replace it."

Ron withdrew his hand from the cherry wand he'd reached for. Its deep-red finish called to him, even though he knew it wasn't Pansy's wand.

Draco made a frustrated sound. "They're all out of order. It's going to take days to work out which ones were taken."

"You don't need to do this right now, Malfoy," said Harry placatingly. "Once I have your statement, we can leave. Now, were you expecting any visitors last night?"

Malfoy stopped short, and what little colour there was in his cheeks drained out. "Oh, Merlin," he whispered. He dropped the book and bolted down the hall. Harry sighed and followed him.

Ron seized the opportunity to flip through the book. It was a detailed inventory of all the wands, but it was full of acronyms he didn't recognize, though one column contained mostly Gs and Os, which he assumed stood for Gregorovitch and Ollivander. He flipped through the book, searching for a record of Pansy's wand, when he heard Harry bellow his name.

He limped down the hall to the library and found Harry and Draco kneeling next to the unconscious form of Hermione Granger. Her face was deathly pale, and there was a bloody gash across her temple. Ron's stomach dropped, and he ran to her side.

"Is she- ?"

"Alive," said Harry, swallowing hard. "But she's hurt. Badly."

She was so pale, and her neck was at a strange angle. He knelt painfully beside her but couldn't bring himself to touch her. "Should we-?"

"I've sent for a Mediwizard," said Malfoy. "We shouldn't move her or try to wake her. The state she's in, she's better off unconscious." He looked nearly as shaken as Ron felt.

Ron felt a white hot bolt of anger surge through him. "I'll kill you," he said, balling his hands into fists.

Draco raised his head slightly to meet Ron's eye. "No, you won't," he said wearily. "You and Potter are going to find the bastard that did this, and we'll all kill him."

Harry was looking everywhere but at Hermione. "I can count the number of people who could beat Hermione in a fair fight on one hand, and four of them are dead."

"You want me to bring the fifth one in?" asked Ron vaguely. He lifted a shaking hand to her face. It was cool to the touch, but not cold.

"He's referring to himself, idiot," said Malfoy. "And the odds are it wasn't a fair fight."

Harry wasn't listening. His eyes darted around the room, resting on the hex marks on the carpet and furniture. "He probably came in while she was reading with her back to the door, but she heard him. He might have got off the first shot, but she fought him. She probably landed some nasty curses, too."

"She couldn't have won," said Draco, sadly.

"You underestimate her," said Harry, voicing Ron's thoughts exactly.

"No, you underestimate what's in the dining room," said Draco.

"The wands?" asked Harry.

"Only two hundred of the most powerful wands ever made," said Draco harshly. "And Granger and I just left them out there, unprotected."

"Well, that'd explain why it took eight of us to counter the Stunner on you," said Harry.

"The most powerful wands ever made?" asked Ron. "That's a big claim."

"They're a big investment," said Draco sharply. "Why did you think I got Granger to help me catalogue them, her stunning good looks?"

Ron struggled to his feet, furious. "Don't you talk about her like that!"

"She's unconscious, Weasley. It's not like I'm speaking ill of the dead."

The fortuitous arrival of the Emergency Medimage Squad saved Malfoy a broken nose and Ron a great deal of paperwork.

The medics were gentle, and their hands and wands were sure as they cast Petrificus Totalis on Hermione and lowered her onto what looked like an ironing board with tentacles. The entire process took less than a minute, and before Ron had truly registered that help had arrived, they had Disapparated back to St. Mungo's.

An awkward silence descended upon the library.

"So, Malfoy," said Ron, at last. "You want to tell us what happened?"

"Not particularly," said Malfoy, making a beeline for a decanter of amber liquid that sat on an end table. "Drink?"

"It's half past nine, Malfoy," said Harry.

"Well, according to my memory, it's half past nine last night, and I need a drink."

"I'll have one of those, too," said Ron.

To his pleasant surprise, Malfoy served him without comment and once he was ensconced in one of the armchairs, he began to speak without prompting.

"It all started at the Dark Lord's fall," he said, swirling the glass unconsciously beneath his nose before sipping. "Everything changed that day. I saw hope for my own continued survival and my family's, and I learned something that I've been reading up on ever since.

"That day was a revelation, Potter. You showed me how powerful knowledge of wand lore could be, and I've been studying it ever since. I'm self-taught, since the old wandmakers don't pass on their knowledge to anyone who's not an apprentice or the Chosen One. But I have access to literature that they don't, and that's my advantage. Well, that and Granger's brains. She's admirably mercenary, that one. She goes where the books are.

"Our goal – and I include Granger in it, because it's her project at least as much as mine – is to define the precise rules of wand ownership and quantify to what degree materials and workmanship influence succession and compatibility. That's why I've been buying up so many wands," he said, with a meaningful look at Ron. "You both know Granger. You know she wouldn't be involved unless the project met her rigorous academic and ethical standards."

"So that's all?" asked Ron. "You're just studying them?"

Malfoy gave him a superior look. "If by 'just studying them' you mean quantifying how casting spells is accomplished. If that doesn't strike you as the least bit noteworthy, it's a miracle Granger didn't leave you decades ago."

Harry placed a restraining hand on Ron's shoulder. "But that doesn't really explain why you're collecting all of these powerful wands."

"It does if you have a brain," said Malfoy. "You wouldn't listen to a second-rate composer to learn how to write music. Wandmakers, the good ones, anyway, understand the rules of wand lore either by instinct or training. Studying examples that best represent their craft makes the rules easier for us to grasp."

Ron was still unconvinced, but Harry cleared his throat.

"So when Hermione's awake, she'll be able to corroborate this?"

"Of course she will. Now, if you'll excuse me, my head feels like it was dipped in Swelling Solution. I'd really like to get some rest."

"We'll show ourselves out as soon we have the investigation wrapped up," Harry assured him.

"I'll see you out myself, if you don't mind," said Draco, whose voice had taken on a cynical edge. "I've already had enough trouble from unwanted people in my home."

They followed Draco back to the dining room, where they found Wilkins directing two junior Aurors, who had evidence in small bubbles floating at the tips of their wands.

"There are signs of forced entry through the doors on to the terrace," said Wilkins, "but no lingering magical traces, I'm afraid."

Harry nodded. "If that's it, then you lot can head back to the office."

"Right," said Wilkins. "I'll tell Orlofsky, Pennington, and the other juniors."

"Hang on," said Harry. "I want to talk to Pennington about the hex marks in the study ceiling. I'll contact you when St. Mungo's has word about Hermione, Ron."

Ron swallowed hard. "Thanks."

Harry and the others left down the hallway, and Ron turned to Malfoy. "All right, you can let me have it now."

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. "As amusing as it would be to let you have it, Weasley, I don't think Potter would approve."

Ron gave him a look. "Parkinson's wand."

"Ah," he said, with a grimace. "I'd completely forgotten." He glanced at the piles of wands on the dining room table and frowned for a moment. "Surely it wasn't taken," he murmured. He stood in thought for a moment, but his face cleared suddenly, and a familiar smirk spread across his face. "This way, Weasel."

Malfoy walked a dozen or so feet down the hall and stopped in front of a large porcelain urn. He put his shoulder against its great, curved side and lifted one edge up enough for him to slide his toe underneath the foot and kick a pale cherry wand from beneath it.

"That's an odd place to keep a wand," remarked Ron, as he stooped over to pick up the wand. He was rewarded by an unpleasant snap of magic that made him fumble with it before wrapping it in his handkerchief and shoving it into his pocket.

"And now you know why," said Malfoy, leading Ron to the front door. "Parkinson's wand has some power to it, certainly, but it didn't like me or Hermione enough to do much other than deliberately shoot curses at other wands or produce foul-smelling smoke on occasion. Granger got so mad she threw it down the hall. It may be old, but it's been more trouble than it's worth. She can have it back with my blessing."

Perhaps it was just his imagination, but Ron felt as if the wand were shooting sparks inside his pocket.

"Thanks, Malfoy," he said, giving the wand in his pocket a warning smack. It obliged by setting his robes on fire.

To his credit, Malfoy didn't laugh nearly as hard as Ron expected him to, even when he emerged from the lake coated with duckweed.

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