Written for FeesleyforDraco in the the 2011 DM/HG fic exchange. I thank my betas: Dusty273, Imbloodyenglish, Ssddgr, and UniquePOV for all their help and support. Usual disclaimer: JK Rowling owns everything and has the big bucks to prove it. I own nothing except this idea. ;)
"Hola, Kingsley. It is good to see you once more."
Kingsley Shacklebolt grasped the smaller man's hand and smiled. "Likewise, Andrés. It's been too long."
The dark-haired gentleman, Andrés Sacerdote, Minister for Magic in Spain, returned his counterpart's smile. "It is a good thing the war has been over for three years, is it not?"
"Quite, though I do love these Ministry get-togethers, I must say." Kingsley grabbed a flute of Champagne that passed by on a platter. "I hear there's a mean game of Skitgubbe being staged in the atrium…" He left the thought open for Andrés' consideration.
"Eager, are we, to lose the Ministry's money?"
Shacklebolt laughed. "Who said I would lose? You must have me confused with someone else, my friend."
"Ah, yes, perhaps." Sacerdote smirked at him. "You couldn't possibly be the one who lost five thousand Galleons on the Quidditch match between Spain and Ireland."
The other wizard's lips thinned. "That was a set-up, and you know it," he hissed. "You consulted a Seer before you approached me for the bet!"
"But it was not illegal, so there was no set-up," Andrés replied. "Plus, there was the factor of—"
A beautiful young brunette approached and interrupted both men, her arms stretched wide to receive a hug from Andrés.
"Mi amor!" Sacerdote embraced her and beamed. "Kingsley, this is mi hija, Isabella."
Shacklebolt took her hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed her knuckles. "Delighted."
Isabella blushed prettily and laughed lightly, batting her eyes seductively at the man still holding her hand before turning to her father. "I cannot stay long, Papi," she explained. "I just wanted to give you the invoice for Paon Deux." She withdrew her hand from Kingsley's grasp and pressed an envelope into her father's palm.
Upon opening the parchment, Andrés paled somewhat, but then collected himself. "Si, cariño, I will take care of it." He smiled at his daughter, bid her farewell, and then turned with a mischievous glance to Kingsley. "You know Jules Laurent, the French Minister, yes?"
"Yes, the bloke owes me seven hundred Galleons, which I mean to collect tonight… if I find him," Kingsley said, curious as to why the Spaniard was mentioning him.
"He is sponsoring the La Grande Danse this year," Andrés smirked. "Isabella is entered and favoured to win."
Watching the young woman disappear in the crowd, Kingsley muttered, "Is she, now?" He shrugged nonchalantly. "We thought about entering this year, but we heard that the time limit had passed, and the contestants were chosen before we could submit an applicant."
"Pity," Andrés said with a sigh. "The prize this year is three million Galleons."
Shacklebolt choked on his sip of Champagne. "What?"
Andrés grinned, knowing he had his friend hooked. "Laurent said he was tired of seeing the same whey-faced children paraded in front of him year after year. He wanted new blood and figured the only way to attract it would be to increase the prize."
"Damnation!" Kingsley said and pursed his lips. "I don't know how we could've missed that deadline!"
With a glance to the left and right, Andrés leaned in and whispered, "If I spoke with Laurent, you would need to give him the applicant's name plus the entry fee tonight. If you can do that, I believe I may be able to pull a favour or two."
Kingsley was ahead of Andrés before the latter had finished his thought, scanning his memory for any of his staff that had at least some inclination to dance. Rose DeWitt? He grimaced. She moved gracefully, but her looks were on the wrong side of plain. Patrice Cornerstone? Again, he mentally shook his head. She was pretty enough, he supposed, but her version of dancing looked like someone having a seizure. There just had to be…
"Hermione Granger," Kingsley said suddenly and with confidence. He remembered that she'd danced the night away with Viktor Krum in her fourth year, and had looked damn good doing it, too.
"From the Golden Trio?" Andrés asked with a frown. "Are you sure?"
"Positive." Shacklebolt nodded. "She can definitely dance, and with some work, will look good enough to win three million Galleons."
Spotting a tuft of bronze hair in the crowd, Andrés motioned for Laurent to join them. "You're quite certain? You cannot withdraw your contestant once you enter," he said out of the corner of his mouth, watching Jules approach with a swagger.
"The girl can glide, I tell you."
"Mes amis!" Jules Laurent cried, clapping each man on the back. "C'est fête est magnifique, n'est-ce pas?"
"Excellent, Jules, as always," Kingsley declared.
"Laurent, a word in private?" Andrés murmured in his friend's ear.
"But of course. This way."
Kingsley watched as the two men secluded themselves in an alcove. Both of them were animatedly speaking with their hands; Laurent seemed to be disagreeing with whatever Sacerdote was pleading for, palms open in supplication. If Andrés was not able to pull this off, Kingsley would fire the person responsible for not having filed before the deadline, because the British Ministry desperately needed the money.
After the war, the Ministry had been left in shambles, its largest contributors—mainly the Malfoys, Crabbes, Golyes, and some notable others—were either dead or in prison, and they had lost most of their best Aurors. It had taken at least three years for everyone to stop looking over their shoulders, waiting on some lingering effect of Voldemort's death. Only after a prolonged feeling of safety had the Wizarding world at large decided to contribute to the Ministry, but by then they were already floundering, as Kingsley scrambled to make ends meet so that he could pay his meagre staff.
Most departments were self-funded, through grants or foundations that were of interest to certain divisions, but he had to pay his own staff, and that of the Aurors. In a desperate attempt to find funding, Kingsley had taken up gambling, losing and gaining equal amounts during the past six months. He hadn't been kidding when he'd told Andrés that he needed the seven hundred Galleons that Laurent owed him; he needed to pay his employees—which included Granger, Potter, and Weasley—back wages that he'd been promising them for weeks.
Hermione Granger was his right hand, an aide-de-camp if you will, and she made his life exponentially easier. If Kingsley was absent, and a decision needed to be made, Hermione was the one to ask for the seal of approval; he trusted her like no one else as she'd proven herself time and again throughout the years. Plus, she was dedicated, working weekends and all hours of the night if need be.
Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley were his best Aurors, having been trained as much as they could by Remus Lupin, Tonks, and Mad-Eye before their deaths. It had been a sad day when Lupin and Tonks had been buried, their infant son wailing in the background the entire time.
What Potter and Weasley lacked in finesse, they made up for in apprehensions, bringing in the more notorious criminals and ex-Death Eaters after the fall. Of course, there were several mishaps that Hermione sternly admonished them for, but it didn't deter them from trying again… usually in a more foolhardy way. The three were still close, but in recent months they had all drifted in separate directions due to their work or personal life, though that applied more to Hermione than the boys.
Kingsley had remembered that Ron had tried, unsuccessfully, to start a relationship with Hermione, but she had seemed to become quite impatient with him early on. They had amicably decided they were better as friends, and had distanced themselves for a brief period while remaining cordial, only to later on appear at functions together when neither had a date.
Eyeing the men returning from their discussion, Kingsley braced himself for rejection, still intending to remind Laurent of his owed monies.
"This is highly irregular, Shacklebolt," Jules growled. "And I am sure you don't have the entry fee on you."
"Use five hundred of the seven hundred Galleons you owe me," Kingsley returned with a glare, challenging the man to repay his debt.
"Merde!" Laurent's bronze mane shook with his anger. "This girl, what did you say her name was?"
Kingsley grinned. "Hermione Granger." He did so enjoy witnessing Jules' discomfiture. "I see you've heard of her."
"You're doing this on purpose, Kingsley, to try and disgrace me!" Jules ran agitated fingers through his perfectly coifed hair. "Do you know how bad it would look if I turned away part of the Golden Trio?"
The British Minister chuckled. "How bad?"
"Va t'en faire foutre!" Jules spun and walked away, but returned, pointing his finger at Kingsley. "She better be worth it." With that, he stalked from the gathering, leaving several perplexed people in his wake.
Andrés watched his French counterpart leave. "I must agree with Laurent on that point. Señorita Granger's reputation to save our world is not in question." He turned and looked at his friend. "Her ability to dance is."
Gulping the last dregs of his Champagne, Kingsley nodded. "I have the utmost faith in her."
"I took the liberty of signing off on a few time-sensitive documents while you were away. Minister," Hermione said as she laid three scrolls on Shacklebolt's desk the following Monday.
Kingsley huffed in irritation. "It's not a liberty, Hermione, if you have my complete trust in these matters. In fact, I expect you to do just that in my absence."
She sat opposite him and glared. "You know I'd never—"
He stopped her with an upheld hand. "Don't waste your breath telling me something I already know. There is, however, a more pressing matter that I must discuss with you."
"The grimace on your face is not reassuring, Minister."
He wiped his brow and gave her a long look. "You know we are desperate for money…"
"You're firing me?" she asked incredulously, immediately jumping to the wrong conclusion. "But I—"
"I'm not firing you, woman!" he thundered. "I need you now, more than ever."
She narrowed her eyes at his fidgeting. "What have you done?"
Tapping his finger on the wooden surface, he queried, "What do you know about the La Grande Danse?"
"It's an international dance competition, held in different locations every four years," she answered, remembering what Viktor had told her about the event long ago. "Once entered, you cannot withdraw if chosen."
"Is that all you know?"
"Well, only the most talented dancers enter, the honour of winning is prestigious, and while there is fame, there's not much fortune to be had." She tilted her head in curiosity. "I take it the tournament is being held this year?"
Nodding, he bit his lip. "Jules Laurent is hosting it this time."
"Tell me you didn't place a wager," she pleaded, knowing his recent penchant for gambling. When he didn't deny the accusation, she rolled her eyes. "How much and on whom?"
"I didn't make a wager," he said hesitantly. "But I have a stake."
"Whom? And how much do you stand to win?"
"Three million Galleons."
Her eyes widened considerably. "There's never been a pot that large, Minister. How is Jules Laurent able to fund that?"
"He's a wealthy man, Hermione," he reproached. "His money has helped us numerous times in the past years."
"Always at our expense," she sternly reminded him. "How else do you explain that illegal shipment of Pygmy Puffs?"
"I didn't know they were banned from crossing international borders," he snarled. "All I knew was that his daughters were anxious to have a few. How was I to know Pygmy Puffs bred at a feverish rate?"
"You would have known if you bothered to look at my dissertation on the species," she groused, crossing her arms. "It's one of the few magical creatures for which I support population control because of their reproduction habits outside of their natural environment."
"Meaning they asexually repopulate themselves until there's no indigenous life left."
"Of course, and quit avoiding the subject. How do we stand to get our hands on that money, regardless of how badly the Ministry needs it?"
"We're entered into the competition," he said swiftly.
"How is that possible? I thought the deadline passed a month ago."
Crossing his own arms, he stared at her. "And just who was responsible for missing that deadline?"
She glanced at her frayed nails. "I thought it a frivolous expense, since we can't even afford to pay our own employees." Shrugging, she explained, "Besides, you never gave me the name of the dancers you wanted entered."
Kingsley steepled his fingers and smiled wickedly. "Well, you'll have a chance to rectify your ioversight/i. Laurent has accepted my entry and is using part of the money he owed me for the fee."
"What kind of strings did you pull for that to happen?"
He gave her a penetrating look. "I entered you into the contest. He couldn't refuse one of the Golden Trio."
"What? Wait... why?" she gasped, blinking owlishly, trying to process why the man had thought her a suitable candidate. "I can't dance!"
It was Kingsley's turn to gaze at her in shock. "Pardon?"
"I. Can't. Dance," she reiterated slowly. "Why would you waste this opportunity on me?"
He shook his head. "No—I remember, Hermione. You showed me pictures of you and Krum, twirling the night away for the Yule Ball in your fourth year."
"It was a Decorus Tripudio charm that Ginny Weasley cast on me." Her expression grew horrified. "I've got two left feet!"
He placed his palms face down on the desk and leaned forward. "So have her cast the charm again, Granger. We can't lose this."
Fire sparked in her eyes as she stood. "Once again, you failed to read the fine print, Minister! No magic. Period. None is allowed at La Grande Danse. This is about pure talent." Her lower lip quivered. "Something that I lack in appalling amounts when it comes to this."
"It can't be that hard to learn," he posed, not really believing himself.
Hands on hips, she wavered between outrage and astonishment. "Are we having the same conversation? I can't learn to dance in two months time for an international competition! Pardon me, Minister, but you're bloody idiot!"
"Hermione…" he warned, glaring at her.
She threw up her hands in frustration. "You are!" She began pacing. "And how dare you use my reputation to gain money, no matter how noble your cause?" Her fists clenched and unclenched. "I'll be the laughing stock of the Wizarding world."
He came around his desk and grasped her by the shoulders. "Calm yourself, dear. We'll figure something out, I promise."
Hope lit her eyes. "Maybe I won't be chosen, even though you've entered my name."
"Erm, I hate to burst your reclusive bubble, but it was one of the conditions upon your entry—that you would be accepted for certain."
"Seems you've thought of everything, Minister," she muttered. "Except how I'm supposed to actually dance." Shaking her head, she pulled away from her boss and friend. "I can't believe you did this to me."
When he tried to approach her once more, she backed towards the door, refusing to let him comfort her. He let his hands drop and, determined that she see this as an opportunity to learn a new skill, allowed the veneer of his role as her supervisor to take over.
"I'll get the best dance instructor," he swore, returning to his desk. "Just be prepared to study your bloody back end off until the competition."
"Fine," she hissed and opened the office door. "But I want it noted that I'm doing this under great duress… and I still think it's a frivolous idea!"
The slamming of Shacklebolt's office door reverberated throughout the room, knocking over several knickknacks in the process.
He buried his face in his hands and groaned. "Merlin help us."
"I don't bloody care what time it is, Maria," Kingsley rasped through the Floo, later that night. "I need to speak to Andrés now!"
He paid no further attention to his friend's wife as she ambled away to wake her husband. He never even paid attention to the fact that it was three in the morning, and that Maria was probably muttering some rather obscene things about his personage because of said time.
"Kingsley?" Andrés yawned. "What the devil are you doing here?"
"I've got trouble."
"Is it…" Sacerdote glanced behind him to the secure windows. "Voldemort again?"
The British Minister looked at him blankly. "Move back, I'm coming through," he demanded, giving the other wizard no choice but to accept his arrival.
"You better have—" Andrés started, but was cut off the moment Kingsley stepped through the flames.
"She can't dance!" Shacklebolt cried as he paced in front of the fireplace.
"Who?" Irritated with the man's presence, Sacerdote stood in front of him to prevent his worn path. "What are you talking about?"
"Hermione Granger. She can't dance," Kingsley mumbled.
"I thought she glided; at least those were your words."
"Well, Miss Granger promptly disabused me of the notion the moment I told her about the entry."
"My thoughts exactly."
Rubbing the end of this goatee, Andrés swore again. "Foolish man." He started pacing alongside Kingsley. "I met her once, your Hermione Granger. She was a determined lady, though a bit uncoordinated." He stopped his flustered friend with a hand to his shoulder. "This is why I asked you if she was the one you wanted to enter as a contestant. When I met her at a Ministry function a year ago, I had to keep her from falling into the spotted ivy plant in the atrium with a strong arm on her elbow, and my shin has never been the same since."
"I don't understand," Kingsley lamented as he moved away and continued to pace. "How can someone who helped defeat Voldemort be so ungainly?"
"Sit down, my friend; you are starting to wear a path in my very expensive carpet," Andrés demanded.
Both men fell into blood-red leather chairs and sighed heavily. Sacerdote finally lit a fire to ward off the chill of early morning. "I have a nice Fonseca Vintage Port, nineteen fifty-five, I believe. It will go a long way to soothing our frayed nerves." After summoning a house-elf with his request, Andrés poured them both generous portions.
Sinking further into his seat, he began asking Kingsley pointed questions. He wanted to assist his friend in finding a solution; while his daughter was a competitor, he was confident that she would place far and above Miss Granger, and he had no wish to see the girl make a spectacle of herself. "How is it that you have not observed your employee being… awkward?"
Kingsley sipped his drink. "I don't normally keep tabs on this sort of thing, if I must be honest. She is my friend, yes, but I've never had a better employee. I would be truly lost without her. I look at the big picture and tend to gloss over the details, and she keeps me, for the most part, from toeing the line by studying the finer points and reminding me of them." He shook his head. "Circe's toes, Andrés! I can't let the girl fail. I'd never forgive myself."
"You care for her," his counterpart said gently.
"I do," Kingsley admitted quietly. "She is very different from the others, keeps to herself, studies constantly—be it about a legal issue that we must try and sidestep, or an ordinance regarding magical creatures that must be thoroughly dissected before approval. She never seems to leave the office…" he trailed off and frowned. "Come to think of it, she doesn't seem to have much of a social life, not even when Potter or Weasley visit."
"A wallflower, perhaps?" Andrés purposed. "It is the way of some people. Shy, reclusive, uncoordinated, easily flustered if prolonged attention is focused on them. Isabella was like this."
"But she is favoured to win. How did she overcome her reticence?"
Andrés coloured somewhat. "What I am about to tell you, you must keep in the strictest confidence, yes?"
"I am the soul of discretion," Kingsley promised.
"Isabella is my pride and joy, my only hija," the other man said with an obvious light in his eyes. "However, I am not so blinded that I could not tell that my precious one was a graceless menace on two legs." He smiled indulgently. "Once, I watched her fall no less than seven times while crossing our estate."
"Did she step in rabbit warren entrances?"
Chuckling, the Spaniard shook his head. "No, mi hermano. It was a paved, smooth road from the edge of the property that ran to the manor house."
Kingsley frowned. "Then what did she trip on?"
"A pebble on the path? A caterpillar that dared to cross at that moment?" Andrés shrugged. "Who knows? But it was clear she desperately needed guidance."
"What about her mother? Could she not help?"
"Maria is not Isabella's mother," Andrés admitted softly. "Sofia died in childbirth, and Isabella never warmed to Maria."
Kingsley placed his half-finished glass of port on a side table, leaned over, and patted his friend's knee. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"It was over twenty years ago, and I remember my first wife fondly." He looked at Shacklebolt. "She would have liked you very much."
Andrés nodded. "For her memory, I will tell you this." He leaned closer to Kingsley. "Knowing mi hija's greatest wish was to dance, I sought only the best to teach her heart's desire. But every instructor I hired quit after several weeks, citing she was impossible to teach. One went as far as to say that he would have had better luck convincing a house-elf to wear a tutu than training Isabella to move gracefully.
"I was at my wit's end when I was told about an opportunity that had just arisen." He refilled the now empty glass. "It was a last resort, you see," Andrés explained, downing a large gulp of the smooth port. "There is an organization that takes one student every year and transforms these wallflowers into amazing butterflies."
"How?" Kingsley asked eagerly, sitting on the edge of his seat.
"I cannot say, because I do not know. Only the students see the instructor and his or her methods, as they are bound to a contract not to reveal their secrets. Then, students are sequestered for the year's duration, emerging as dancers of the highest calibre."
"I don't have a year," Kingsley said in a panicky tone. "I have only two months before the competition!"
Andrés studied his friend long and hard. "What iPaon Deux/i did for my Isabella is nothing short of a miracle." He smiled thinly. "But she is not as she was before." He paused for several moments, weighing the information in his mind. "Mi hija was always carefree and happy, innocent in many ways of the world. Now? She has a calculating gleam about her eyes, and she moves as a…" He gulped audibly. "Seductress. Dios forgive me; I had to let the groundskeeper go last week, when Isabella returned from her year abroad."
"He was attempting to accost her within the conservatory."
"No!" Kingsley gasped.
The dark-haired man didn't bother nodding. "He cried foul, of course, saying she was enticing him with the sway of her hips and the pout on her mouth." Andrés shuddered and closed his eyes. "And the worst part is, Kingsley, having seen her behaviour since her return, I am half inclined to believe him."
"Just what kind of place is this Paon Deux, that it alters a person's behaviour so much?"
"Again, I have no idea," Andrés asserted. "It is secluded, with access only via Floo, and that is if you have a reservation. Otherwise, it is completely blocked."
Kingsley rubbed his temple. "That's strong magic, friend. Borderline Dark magic."
"I know. And I already checked; there are no compulsion spells, no Imperio cast, nothing but innate behaviour that causes Isabella to be this way."
"How does one go about getting a reservation to become a student with them?"
Andrés stared at his friend. "You can't seriously be contemplating their services?"
Kingsley got up from his seat and began pacing once more. "I have to give Hermione that option, no matter the consequences. I feel guilty enough as it is for having dragged her into this. I told her I would find the best."
"Paon Deux will change her. Neither you, nor Miss Granger, are prepared for what she will become."
"I promise to warn her before she makes her decision."
Rising to meet him, Andrés said, "I know you need the money, but please reconsider. Would you sacrifice your hero and have her become de puta amongst the people?"
"You don't know how strong and determined Hermione can be," Kingsley countered. "She is very self-aware, and it's highly doubtful she'd prostitute herself after a few weeks of dance instructions."
"No, it is you who does not understand, Kingsley," Andrés hissed in warning. "They do more than instruct in the art of dance. They will change the way she looks at herself, how she acts towards others, how she is portrayed to society at large." He shook his head in disgust. "Your greed for money will be her undoing."
Wand drawn, Kingsley pointed it at the other wizard, advancing slowly. "If you were not my friend, I would've hexed you where you stand. As it is, you will tell me everything I need to know to secure a reservation with Paon Deux. I cannot fail Hermione, and if this is the only way to ensure that she learns how to dance, then I must present her with the option."
Andrés hung his head. "I will make the necessary inquiries, but for her sake, I hope she denies you."
"Do what it takes."
Please accept this payment and signed contract as terms fulfilled. I know your organization only accepts new students based on recommendations from previous clients. /iPaon Deuxi has far surpassed my expectations in the transformation of my daughter, Isabella Sacerdote, so it is with great honour that I propose the unique situation of a one, Miss Hermione Granger.
As you are well aware, the La Grande Danse is to take place in a little over two months time and, seeing as your students have won the last five competitions, my daughter hopes to gain your approval with a sixth win. I will not flatter you with false praise, as my payment should be proof enough of your abilities. Miss Granger's employer wishes her to win the tournament as well, though I wonder whether you could produce a winner in a shorter span of time.
In conclusion of the contract, I advocate Hermione Granger to complete the terms of my daughter's agreement. This will fulfil the obligation of the next student placement that was part of the bonded contract for /iPaon Deuxi. Per your terms, once you have accepted Miss Granger as your student, you are required to release Miss Sacerdote from any spell that governs her behaviour, while allowing her to retain the instruction she received in dance. Also, in accordance to the contract language, neither Miss Granger nor her employer, have been told specifics of your identities or teaching methods.
With all due respect, this concludes our business partnership.
Minister for Magic, Spain
Smirking, Andrés quietly opened the Floo. "Paon Deux."
Since he was technically still a client, the Floo opened automatically, though no one approached him. Instead, he flung the sealed parchment through the green flames and quickly deactivated the hearth. Slowly, he made his way back towards his bedroom, his hands clasped behind his back. Shacklebolt was so desperate, but Sacerdote had to give a token protest to Kingsley procuring the famous company, finding it all too easy to sway the other Minister to his line of thinking. If Hermione Granger was as strong-willed as Shacklebolt purported her to be, then there would be relatively no chance she could win the tournament. He imagined she would argue about the instructor's methods, thus ensuring little to no practical application. He smiled to himself. No, Isabella would win the dance.
Even if he had to manipulate the competition to accomplish such a feat.
Two pairs of eyes alighted on the slightly singed scroll lying in front of the fireplace the next morning at Paon Deux.
"That didn't take long."
"I didn't expect it would." A calculating gaze read over the words on the unfurled parchment. "Quite ingenious, that little clause of yours."
"Agreed, if I do say so myself. Why not fulfil the contract while procuring our next student in the same go?"
A look of astonishment crept across the reader's face. "That slippery little weasel!"
A second pair of eyes read the document. "Bloody hell!"
"My thoughts exactly."
"Can he do this?"
"Apparently he can, and has. If you would fetch Miss Sacerdote's contract."
"Accio Sacerdote contract."
"Indeed. I suspect the old man will soon be rejoicing the return of his meek yet talented daughter." There was a noticeable hesitation. "Though, if we remove the enhancement, there is still the potential that she may retain some of the glamour."
"How is that possible?" A hint of irritation laced the words.
A wave of a graceful hand, and a shake of the head, brought that line of thought to an end. "It matters not. What's done is done."
"I wonder if he realizes that she probably won't win the competition now."
A depraved laugh filled the chamber. "Let him find out the hard way. After all, only the truly uninhibited win this tournament. One cannot fake confidence."
"Which is why we have a larger problem on our hands with this prospect."
There was a long silence that permeated the room, as both parties searched their minds for a way to decline this latest assignment.
"It would present a challenge, on several fronts."
"You can't be serious. Hermione Granger?"
"Quite serious. It would provide a certain credibility for the company that is not usually associated with us. Imagine, Paon Deux as a household name in England. It would also smooth the transition into society when the time comes. I'm quite tired of being unable to return."
"Gods damn it! Is her reputation made of fucking gold, that she is so untouchable?"
"Tut tut," the older wizard drawled. "Such language. And control your temper. I won't allow you to bruise Miss Granger like you did Miss Sacerdote."
"Don't blame that one on me! She wanted me to spank her."
"She had Tufts Leather Goods emblazoned on her backside with as many times as you paddled her!"
The younger wizard shrugged. "She was a very naughty girl."
"Enough. Draw up the contract for Hermione Granger and send it to Kingsley Shacklebolt. We'll see if they're serious once they have read our terms."
"You look like hell," Kingsley murmured two days later as he watched a distraught Hermione sit across from him.
"Remind me never to ask you anything with regards to my self-esteem," she practically growled. "I look and feel like death warmed over."
"I imagine you've had some trouble sleeping."
"You suppose?" she asked with narrowed eyes. "I've only got the weight of my current responsibilities, the possible future of the Ministry, my reputation as the only person who can figure out the ever-changing combination of Severus Snape's wildly intricate wards, and hopefully not forgetting to feed my decrepit Kneazle, resting heavily on my shoulders." Rubbing the grit out of her eyes, she yawned. "Oh, and don't forget: I need to find a way to save face while not falling on it for the competition."
Kingsley gave her a sympathetic smile. "I think I may have found your answer for that."
"For what? Remembering to feed Crookshanks?"
"No," he said with a chuckle. "I just received a parchment this morning, confirming your acceptance at the Paon Deux academy… erm, studio… uh, organization." He looked a bit flustered. "All you need to do is read over the contract and sign it."
"Then why do I need to sign a contract?"
"Look, Hermione," Kingsley intoned, irritated. "This is the best of the best, and they demand a signed contract. I don't know why, but if you decline their services I'll need to start looking all over again and that could take months."
"I don't know how you've managed to stay alive this long without me hexing your private parts," she snarled, her shattered state clearly loosening her tongue. "Let me see the contract. You know I don't have the time to search for a reputable teacher."
He handed her the heavily charmed document. "The terms are… interesting."
Nearly two hours ticked by before she raised her eyes from the document, her mouth hanging slack as she tried to absorb everything that she had read. "Who are these people?"
"I don't know."
Her brows rose into her hairline. "You don't know?"
"If you've read the entire document, then you know I have no clue as to anyone's identity within the company."
"You just expect me to pack myself off to… to…" She glanced down at the parchment. "It doesn't even say where they're located. And for two months?"
"They've produced the last five winners of this tournament; I'm guessing they value their privacy and keep their trade secrets under considerably powerful protection spells."
"But you don't even know who they are!"
Pressing the balls of his palms into his eyes, Kingsley sighed in frustration. "Hermione, you've read the contract. It's a simple yes or no."
"Is it? Then why are there three additional signature lines?" She handed him the parchment.
Confusion swept over the Minister as he read the extreme fine print. "Merlin's hairy left nut!"
She didn't know whether to snort or sob. "What?"
"The bottom," he whispered. "Read it."
This contract is legal and binding within the Wizarding Union. Any attempt to dismantle its properties will result in permanent loss of magic, no exceptions. Once the term length of the contract is fulfilled, the contractor and the student must sign the additional indicated lines, provide Paon Deuxwith prompt payment, and furnish the name of another prospective student, or the contract will be considered to be in default. Any deviation will result in permanent paralysis of magical properties according to Magical Law, section 13;18, article 42. Should those parties involved wish to decline Paon Deux'sservices after signing the initial contract for tutelage, let it be known that the magical signatures of said parties have been recorded and payment, as well as the name of the next prospective student, will be required immediately. Failure to pay will result in permanent loss of magic.
"Minister! You… you…"
"I know!" He held up his hand to forestall her tirade. "And you also know we don't have five hundred thousand Galleons to pay them immediately."
"I can't believe you've done this to me," she seethed in a murderous tone. "I can't be away for two months! What will you tell people? My cat! Who will take care of Crookshanks? And Harry and Ron? What will you tell them?"
"You can choose whomever you wish to take over your duties while you're away. I'll tell them I sent you on a desperately needed holiday. I will feed Crookshanks. I'll tell Ron and Harry that you're on a special assignment for me and you're not to be disturbed." He raised his eyebrows. "Does that cover it?"
"I loathe you."
He smirked somewhat. "No, you don't; you just don't like the terms of the contract and are frustrated you can't find a way out of it."
She stood, grabbed the parchment, and sloppily signed her name, flinging the document back at her employer when she was done. "Good luck finding the next person's life you're going to destroy." She strode through the door, making sure to let it slam in her wake.
Brandishing his quill, Kingsley signed his name in flourishing script on the contractor line, with a heavy sigh. He then opened the private Floo in his office and called out, "Paon Deux."
The signed document allowed instantaneous access to the notorious company, and the Minister couldn't get rid of the parchment fast enough. In return, a crisp white card flew from the hearth and landed on the carpeted floor, before the connection closed with a snap.
Floo will be open in ninety minutes.
A perverse side of Kingsley idly wondered what would happen if she showed up late, but he decided not to test the theory. He did, however, conveniently forget to warn her of the possible change in behaviour, seeing no need to give her further cause for worry.
Kingsley, Hermione, and Luna Lovegood gathered in his office an hour and twenty minutes later.
"I can't thank you enough for doing this for me, Luna." Hermione glared daggers at Shacklebolt. "The assignment was unexpected and unavoidable."
"No worries, Hermione. Father doesn't start his newest expedition until this coming spring, so I have lots of free time," Luna replied with a smile. "And the Minister said I could name my own salary. I've decided to name it Fred, in honour of Ron's brother."
Hermione's knuckles grew white because of how hard she was clutching her travel case. "Now, remember: read the fine print on everything, because the Minister here will forget time and again."
"I promise." Luna noticed her friend's nervousness. "You know, you shouldn't worry so," she offered. "You'll blossom like a rose and surprise them."
The brunette's gaze darted to Luna's. "I-I… hope so," she murmured, disconcerted by her friend's highly tuned perception.
Kingsley moved to embrace Hermione, but she backed away with a scowl. Masking his hurt as best he could, he handed her the white card and moved next to Luna.
Inhaling deeply, Hermione muttered, "I'll need more than luck."
Grabbing a handful of Floo powder, Hermione stepped within the grate and spoke. "Paon Deux."
She didn't know what was worse, travelling via Floo or Portkey.
With Portkey, she always experienced that sucking sensation that led to an interminable time in the toilet. Flooing was less harsh on her digestive system, but left much to be desired in the cleanliness department.
Such was the case when she rolled out of the ornate hearth and onto her back, a plush carpet padding her fall. She slowly opened her eyes, which had been closed tightly, only to close them quickly once more to erase the view she beheld.
"Laziness will not be tolerated, Miss Granger," said a cool voice above her. "I do suggest you get up and remove your untidy self from my Persian rug."
Reluctantly, she reopened her eyes to stare into twin pools of icy grey, and knew she had officially entered Hell.
Lucius and Draco Malfoy returned her stare.