Hermione jumped. Instead of the cold, atmospherically speaking, drawing room of Malfoy Manor she was standing bolt upright in a drill square being buffeted by the very real harsh north wind. Instead of her soaked through muggle clothes she was wearing an ill-fitting, horribly scratchy woollen military uniform. In place of a wand strapped to her waist there was a shining Webley Mk IV Service Revolver. It wasn't particularly heavy, but compared to a wand the weight was unfamiliar and it took Hermione a while to get used to the feel of it. Malfoy stood in front of her, and in stark contrast. His uniform was tailored, his boots gleaming and he sported a sword at his waist. What hadn't changed was the perpetual sneer that forever threatened to break out from its confines and spread across his face. It even made its way into his speech.
'You are improperly dressed, I expect you to maintain proper discipline regarding your uniform in future'
'How will my uniform help me reach out to Harry?'
Malfoy rapidly closed the distance between them. 'Why I ask you to do things is not up for discussion. If you will not obey my instruction in this delicate matter, which I assured Professor Snape you would not when he bade me take on this odious task, then you will fail to maintain any contact with Potter. For your information your ability to control your mindscape down to its smallest details provides the key to successfully navigating no man's land and securing contact with Potter. Is that understood?'
Hermione grit her teeth. 'It is' she said
'Good. Now, as it was explained to me the first time you made contact with Potter this contact took on the form of a battlefield correct?'
'And in this battlefield you were fighting Potter?'
'Yes, multiple versions of him. I think they could have been different aspects of his psyche'
Malfoy hit her with the flat of his sword. 'You are not here to think. You are here to listen, learn and obey. Is that understood?' He hit her once more.
'Yes' said Hermione. This is for Harry. He's suffered worse for you
'And in this battle' Malfoy began to pace around her, 'you were fighting alone?'
Malfoy stopped pacing and turned to look at her. 'Then that is where we shall begin.'
In London Ron and Luna were making their way to the Ministry of Magic. Walking with the cane was not strange to Ron anymore, but the looks were. Or rather, the non-looks. With muggles it made little difference, Ron was well practiced at passing unnoticed by them. Part of what made Harry and he such an effective Auror team was their ability to operate in the muggle world with relative ease. Time was marching on and there were more and more criminals who saw the muggle world as a safe haven and Ron could see why. Minister Shacklebolt had ordered that extra care be taken with regard to the secrecy of the magical world and blowing up half a street every time you wanted to bring someone in was getting harder to hide from the muggles. However, since wizards on the run were always on the lookout for other wizards, a muggle disguise proved most effective when apprehending them. Ron took this lesson to heart and was dressed in a sensible dark jacket.
Luna on the other hand was not. While everyone's eyes pretended not to notice the cane and moved swiftly onwards they couldn't quite hide their stares at Luna's outlandish outfit. Butterbeer corks were involved.
'Could you not have put on something more appropriate Luna?' Ron asked as they rounded the corner to the toilets that hid the entrance way to the ministry.
'I'm simply preserving the balance Ronald. You look like you're going to a funeral' She replied. Luna held the door open for him and helped him into the toilet. Before he lost his balance she quickly flushed him in.
By the time she made it down herself there was quite a scene. The normal hustle and bustle of busy ministry workers had ceased. Those who were still moving did it slowly but most had abandoned the pretence and were standing still and staring openly. The tap of the cane on the marble floor was deafeningly loud as they made their way to the Auror office. Inside the office Ron saw something that swatted aside his default level of anger that had been pretty much simmering away since his encounter with the dark wizard and replaced it with a boiling fury. Instead of his and Harry's desks being as they had left them, Harry's fastidiously clean desk was occupied by a blond wizard whose robes identified him as Jenkins. Next to it a very short witch was moving the carefully ordered disorder that was Ron's desk into a box. Ron took a step forward but before he could get a word out a door on the far side of the office opened and a voice bellowed 'Auror Weasley, inside. Now.' Ron motioned for Luna to remain at what used to be his desk and crossed the office.
The head of the Auror office was blessed at birth with the unfortunate surname of Valerie and was without a doubt the toughest, meanest man to ever wear the robes. Most wizards would see a promotion to department head as a well-deserved reward for years of diligent service, but Valerie would have chosen ten years in Azkaban if he'd been given a choice. As it was, he was the most senior surviving Auror left in the department after the war and Kingsley's ascension to the top job. He was also well known for his opposition to the minister's decision to overlook the lack of appropriate qualifications in the case of those who survived the battle of Hogwarts. Since Ron was one of these people their professional relationship was strained at best. As Ron entered the office Valerie closed the door with a wave of his hand before motioning to a chair in front of his desk.
'Have a seat Weasley'
Ron didn't move. 'I can stand sir' he replied.
'It wasn't a request. Sit down.'
Ron sat. Valerie kept a Spartan office. There were no photos on his desk or case clippings on the walls. The calendar behind him was blank save for the 14th of April, which was circled in red. Valerie reached into his desk a pulled out a cigarette which he lit with a snap of his fingers. He did not offer one to Ron. After a moment he exhaled and leant forward. What he said next took Ron by surprise.
'I'm sorry you had to see that Weasley. If it means anything, it wasn't my call.'
Ron sat in silence. Valerie paused momentarily and then continued.
'You're to get an honourable discharge and your full pension. Subject to your silence the minister has also arranged for an additional stipend to supplement your income.'
This shook Ron out of his thoughts. 'What do you mean my silence?'
Valerie had the good grace to look uncomfortable, but he didn't beat around the bush either. 'You're not to divulge any information regarding the nature of your condition. A mediwizard will be assigned to you for your personal care and they will be subject to the same restrictions as you are. Any mention of Potter to anyone and the deal is off. All you have to do,' Valerie expelled a contract from the tip of his wand, 'is sign here.'
Ron made no move to take the quill that was on the desk. He felt a familiar burning sensation in his ears. Looking Valerie in the eye he said, 'and who'll be taking over the case? This is no run of the mill power hungry bad guy here. He took me and Harry out of the game and Harry was the best whether you're willing to admit it or not. Now he's roaming the streets and you're taking the one man who knows exactly what we're dealing with off the case and what, throwing him on the scrapheap?' Ron took out his wand and waved it at the parchment which curled up as it burnt. 'You can tell Shacklebolt that's what I think of his deal. I'm taking this wizard down with or without his sanction.'
Valerie's face remained as impassive as ever in the wake of Ron's outburst. He calmly extinguished his desk before turning his attention back to Ron. 'Weasley' he began 'you are no longer part of my department. Accept it and you can get on with what life you have left. If you work against the Aurors you won't be getting any special treatment. The law is the law.'
Ron pushed himself stiffly to his feet. Leaning on his cane as little as he could he limped out of the office.