Ron stared at his new partner, quite unable to believe that his eyes were not deceiving him. Blaise Zabini stood in the doorway to his office in the Auror department, arms loaded down with boxes of the dark man's belongings. "When Shacklebolt said I'd be assigned a new partner," Ron started conversationally, "I never thought I'd be paired with you."
"Trust me, this situation isn't ideal for me either." Zabini sneered at the redhead and placed his stuff neatly on the desk in the other corner of the room; he busied himself by unpacking every item individually, setting it on the desk in a specific location.
A small smile tugging at the corner of his lips, Ron cleared his throat quietly and politely - something he'd learned from Hermione. "So... What made you become an Auror anyway? Doesn't seem like it'd be your first choice."
"It wasn't." Zabini was silent for a moment, the only sounds being the soft thuds of heavy pewter against solid wood. He paused as he situated the last object in place, fiddling with it until he had it facing the right way; then he turned and faced his new partner. "My mum didn't want me to work; she wanted me to settle down with her somewhere in a foreign country, just the two of us. I told her I couldn't, wouldn't, do it."
Ron was confused now. "Why couldn't you do that? You're bloody well rich enough."
The other man clenched and unclenched his hand a few times before speaking slowly, dangerously. "I told her that I wanted a life of my own, that I was tired of running from the hardships that would eventually make me a stronger person."
"That's very wise."
"Yes, well, she thought it was complete codswallop. She couldn't understand why I wouldn't just go with her. I didn't want to drop the life I had finally made here and run off with her; I have friends here and I won't abandon them."
Ron nodded in agreement. "Understandable. But-?" He knew this wasn't the end of the conversation; there was something else Zabini wasn't telling him.
Zabini's face got considerably paler, as if recalling a horrifying nightmare in perfect clarity. "She told me she wasn't going to waste her time trying to convince me that a life with her would be better than a life here, so she left. One morning I woke up, and she wasn't there. I tried for weeks to figure out where she had gone, but I didn't have any luck, obviously. I decided then to just forget about her and start my own life.
"I had always had respect for Madame Pomfrey back at Hogwarts and made up my mind to become a Healer; I was halfway through the courses when I got an owl a few months ago informing me of a mass murder in Malaysia. I wondered what this had to do with me, until I read a few paragraphs down stating that one of the bodies identified was that of my mother's." He stopped for a few seconds, regaining his composure which had begun to slip with the memories. "That's why I became an Auror; I intend to hunt down this daftie and avenge her death."
He sat down in the chair behind his desk, surreptitiously slumping his shoulders. Ron just stared at him for long moments, paperwork forgotten on the corner of his own desk. The silence carried on, not really awkward but not entirely comfortable either, until Harry stuck his head inside the door. "Hey, Ron, could I-" He stopped when he saw Zabini and slowly entered the room, walking over to Ron's desk. "What's Zabini doing here?"
Ron ripped his eyes away from the other man long enough to talk to Harry. "He's my new partner," he replied softly.
Harry looked surprised. "When did he become an Auror?"
"Two months ago," Zabini answered, glaring at them pointedly. "Yes, I can hear you, Potter. You're only five feet away."
Harry shot him a look and straightened up, nodding to Ron. "I'll just talk to you later, Ron. We'll meet for lunch somewhere."
"Bye." The distraction was kind enough to slap Ron out of his temporary stupor, so he got back to his paperwork; this was the worst part of the job. Every once in a while, he would glance up at Zabini, but the man would be in the same position at his desk, just staring at the wall. The redhead sighed silently and prayed their whole partnership wouldn't be this dull.
When lunchtime came around, Zabini was still sitting stoically at his desk; Ron paused at the door to ask him if he would like to join him and Harry, but Zabini just waved a hand. "You and Potter have things to discuss, and I don't believe I would be invited to sit in his presence. Not now, anyway." Ron frowned and mentally took note to talk to Harry about being nice.
Harry was waiting for him in the atrium, sitting on the ledge of the fountain and running his fingers through the water; as soon as he saw Ron, he waved and stood up. "Is Hermione joining us?" Ron asked.
"I asked her, but she said something house elves and ran off." He shrugged, leading them to the mass of Floo fireplaces. "Anywhere special you want to go? I picked last time."
"Three Broomsticks?" Ron suggested. "It's been a while since I've had a good Butterbeer."
"Sounds good." Harry stepped into the Floo and stated his destination. He disappeared in a flurry of green flames.
Before Ron could follow suit, he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder; he turned and saw Zabini's handsome face. "Zabini? What's up?"
The man looked like he wanted to say something else, but eventually he reached into his suit jacket pocket and pulled out a small envelope. "This arrived for you just after you left." He slipped it into Ron's hand and walked away without another word.
Ron stared at the envelope a second, stuffing it in his pocket when he remembered Harry was waiting for him on the other side of the Floo. He stepped in, shouted "Three Broomsticks!" and disappeared.
He landed quite ungracefully on the mat in the restaurant, Harry standing to his left tapping his foot. "What took you so long? I'm absolutely famished."
"Sorry, I got held up." He pointed at a table in the corner of the room. "How about there?"
Harry shrugged and led the way over, ordering two Butterbeers when the waitress came over. "So, why is Zabini suddenly an Auror?"
"It's a long story," he responded, running a hand through his hair. "And I'm not sure he would appreciate me telling you about it." He smiled when the waitress handed them their drinks. "Thank you."
"Are you ready to order?" she asked politely.
"I'll have the Shepherd's Pie," Harry said.
"The same, please." She nodded and walked away, and Ron turned back to Harry. "He seems to keep it a secret; I suppose the only reason he told me is because now I'm his partner."
"I still don't trust him."
"And why's that?" Ron asked hotly, setting his mug down on the table a little too hard; some of the froth on top of the Butterbeer sloshed over the sides.
"What's got your knickers in a twist? He was a Slytherin; you can't possibly tell me that you trust him only a few hours after meeting him again."
"He's changed." Ron glared at his friend, saved from having to reply further at the arrival of their lunch; he tucked in immediately, finishing in record time. Instead of waiting for Harry, he stood up and threw some galleons on the table. "I've got paperwork to finish; I'll see you later." He made his way back to the Floo and went through, leaving a gaping Harry in his wake.
When he got back to his office, Zabini was no longer around. "Probably went to lunch..." Sighing heavily, he sank into his chair, grabbing and opening the folder, setting back to work. He didn't notice when Zabini reentered the room and sat silently at his own desk until he heard the soft Pop! of Transfiguration. He looked up and noticed that Zabini's dragon statuette had been turned into a full-sized quaffle.
"That's quite impressive," Ron commented, eyebrows raised slightly in amusement. "I haven't played Quidditch since Hogwarts."
Zabini shrugged. "Maybe we could find time to play one day." He tossed the red ball at Ron, who reached out and caught it deftly. "You obviously haven't lost your skills."
Ron grinned and threw it back. "Yeah, well, you were the best player on Slytherin's team, besides Malfoy, of course. You could give any keeper a run for his money."
That earned him a small half-smile - more of a smirk - but he would take what he could get. He turned back to his paperwork, every now and again glancing up to see his partner tossing the quaffle in the air and catching it right before it hit the desk.
Finally, after about an hour, Kingsley Shacklebolt stuck his head in their office. "Sorry I'm late, Weasley, Zabini," he said, nodding to each of them. "We had a... situation in Magical Accidents and Catastrophes." He transfigured a floor plant into a large, comfortable-looking chair and sat down. "Now, I'm here to explain this sudden partnership."
"Well, I've already gotten the story from Zabini himself, so if you just skip to the technicals, I think we'll be all right."
"Right, then. Weasley, I know you haven't had a partner since Potter got promoted, but I felt you were the one most capable for Zabini's successful integration into the Ministry." He turned to Zabini, then. "Weasley here is one of the best Aurors we have; my decision to pair you two together also comes in the hope that you will teach each other to be understanding of the other."
"I understand you had some issues in school?"
Ron laughed dryly. "Hermione put you up to this, didn't she?" When Kingsley didn't say anything, he pinched the bridge of his nose. "I knew it; ever since she became Senior Undersecretary to you, she hasn't been able to keep her nose out of others' business."
"Well, if you have a problem with this situation, I'm sorry, Weasley. I cannot change-"
"That's not at all what I said, or meant. We've been getting along admirably. I just wish that, for once, one of my relationships wasn't based off of Hermione's getting involved."
Harry's shaggy-haired head suddenly appeared in the doorway, stopping short when he saw the Minister. "Oh, is this a bad time? I could come back..."
"Not at all, Potter. I'm just leaving." To make his point, he stood up and changed his chair back; he clapped Harry on the shoulder with a large hand as he exited the room. "Keep an eye on them for me," he whispered.
Kingsley's only response was a secretive smirk before he disappeared.
"Well, that was odd." He stepped fully into the room. "I have your first assignment," he announced to them both, holding up a folder. "In here is all the information you'll need." He set it on Ron's desk, leaning in closer to murmur, "I'm sorry about earlier. I didn't mean to upset you."
"Think nothing of it, mate." Ron grinned and got one in return. "So, who are we hunting down now?" He grabbed the folder from the edge of his desk; Zabini's presence was suddenly hot and heavy behind him as he leaned over to read with him. "Casey Low?" He could feel Zabini tense up behind him, but didn't think anything of it. "Who the bloody hell is Casey Low? And why is this the first time we're hearing about him?"
Harry glanced at Zabini quickly. "I have no idea. Shacklebolt gave me the folder to give to you. He also told me that you are to halt any other investigations you may have going on and just focus on this one. Top priority and whatnot."
"Yeah..." Ron closed the file and handed it to Zabini to peruse, who immediately took it to his desk to scour every little detail. "Well, thanks, mate. Did you get Hermione's memo about dinner tonight?"
"Yeah. I don't think Ginny and I are going to be able to make it. She's been busy with the kids lately, and with another one on the way soon... I don't think she's fit for going out right now."
Ron smiled; the day Harry and Ginny got married was one of the happiest days of his life and he couldn't be happier for them with the looming arrival of their third child. "That's okay," he said. "Her cooking is atrocious, anyway."
"I heard that, Ronald Weasley." The two friends turned around to see Hermione standing in the doorway. She glanced over at Zabini, who hadn't lifted his eyes from the file, and smiled. "I was just coming to inform you that dinner at my house tonight is canceled. Viktor is returning home from Bulgaria tonight."
"Oh, we get it," Harry said slyly, smirking; he walked to the door, stopping to place a hand on Hermione's shoulder. "Tell him I said hello."
"We. Tell him we said hello!" Ron called from his desk, but the two of them had already vacated the office. Ron grabbed his wand and flicked it, sending the door shut and locked. "Thank Merlin, privacy." He turned to Zabini; the other man had finally finished reading and had placed the file on his desk. "Where was he last seen?" After Zabini had grabbed the folder from him, he knew immediately that this Casey Low was the man Zabini'd been searching for.
"Just outside of Paris. The Ministry thinks he's going to try something like he did in Malaysia..." His grip on his wand tightened, and Ron could swear he heard the wood splintering under the force. "I want to hunt this bastard down, Weasley, not just for my mother; I don't think I could bear to witness more families being torn apart if this happened again."
Ron nodded, impressed. "That's very... Gryffindor of you."
Zabini sneered. "If it makes me a Gryffindor, then so be it. You don't want anymore people dying than I do."
"True." There were a few moments of silence, the two of them just staring at each other. "So let's get to it."
It had been a long day. They had Apparated to Paris to see if they could find some leads on Casey Low; some people had information, but most of them were Muggles and were useless.
"This is going to be impossible," Ron commented, fists clenched in his hair in frustration. "Nobody has seen him. Hell, we barely know what he looks like! We're going off of some idiot's 'eye-witness' report from in Malaysia."
"Did you even read the file?" Zabini asked, pointing at the folder now back on Ron's desk. "It explains everything."
"I... scanned it."
"So no." Zabini rolled his eyes. "He's shorter than Potter, has brown hair like Granger's, and walks around with Malfoy's air of importance; but he also shields himself and stays in the shadows. It's no surprise we couldn't find out much about him today." He sat up straighter, staring through Ron, it seemed. "The only sighting was reported a month ago, by a thirteen-year-old Muggle girl who thought that a 'suspicious-looking man' was making 'weird things happen to the Eiffel Tower'."
"What kind of 'weird things'?"
"Fireworks erupting from the top, small things; always small things. Something to indicate to him who is watching and how many people actually pay attention. He can't very well kill a bunch of people while everyone he's trying to kill is aware of it, now can he?"
"That logic is so very wrong and twisted," Ron said, shaking his head. "But it makes sense." He watched Zabini for a bit longer, sitting in amicable silence. "So where do we start?"
"For once, Weasley, I don't know."
Ron thought about it long and hard, took into account his years of service to the Ministry; they had trained the Aurors to think like killers, after all. "We need to find a place that could possibly be used as a safehouse; it's the first thing he'll have looked for."
"Thinking with your head for once, eh, Weasley?"
"It's been known to happen occasionally." Ron smiled triumphantly when Zabini flashed a small grin; Ron decided then that his life's mission would be to get Zabini to smile, preferably at him. He shook his head to rid those thoughts from his brain and listened as his partner started speaking again.
"We should go back tomorrow, though. I'm absolutely bushed."
"Good idea. Hey," Ron could have kicked himself, but it was already too late. "Since, uh, I'm not going to Hermione's for dinner tonight, what say you come over to my flat and we'll... eat together."
Zabini regarded him with a blank stare.
"Unless, you know, that's too weird for you. I know we essentially just met again, but I thought that-"
Ron swallowed, and he could feel Zabini's eyes following the movement of his Adam's apple. "Yes?"
"I'd love to join you for dinner." He smirked when Ron visibly relaxed. "Eight o'clock?"
"Yeah. Yeah, eight's great. I, uh, live at-"
"I know where you live, Weasley," he interrupted, rising from his desk. "See you at eight."
"Wha- How do you know where I live?" But his question never reached his partner's ears as Zabini was already out the door and halfway down the hall. "Bugger."
At 7:30, Ron stood in front of his mirror smoothing out his clothing. "Who's the lucky lady?"
Ron glared at his mirror. "You know my preferences," he accused. "And it's my new partner, Blaise Zabini." He pulled on the hem of his shirt again, grumbling as he did so. "Oh, bugger it. I don't know why I'm doing this anyway."
"Because, dearie, you obviously fancy him."
"I do not fancy him," he hissed, scaring himself with how Slytherin he sounded. "I'm just... trying to make a good impression."
"You faaaaaancy him," she sang happily.
"Oh, go to hell." He heard a knock on his front door a few minutes later.
"Ooooh, he's here! Give him a kiss for me!"
"Shut up!" he shouted, spelling her quiet. He ran out of his room and opened the door calmly. "Hi," he greeted awkwardly.
"Weasley." He stood on the stoop for a minute before clearing his throat. "May I come in or were you planning to eat in the corridor?" He smirked when Ron blushed and moved aside, beckoning him inside. "Thank you."
"Sure." He watched as Zabini glanced around his flat, taking everything into deep consideration. "Um, well, I'm absolute fodder at cooking, so I thought maybe we could go somewhere."
"What did you have in mind?"
They ended up in a small pub nearby, discussing their assignment and what they should be doing next. At the end of dinner, Ron paid for both of them, joking that Zabini could get the next check; he hadn't seen Zabini's smirk as he turned to pay.
Later, Ron Flooed Hermione, who told him to come over instead. He arrived on the rug half-covered in soot and saw a smug Hermione sitting at her kitchen table.
He pointed an accusing finger at her. "You set me up!" he shouted as soon as he was able to breathe.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Ronald." Her voice was serious, but her smile was sinister.
"You know about my... sexual preferences," he whispered, as if anyone was around. "You're sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong."
"I had just mentioned to Shacklebolt that you seemed lonely ever since Harry became Head Auror and that he should give you another partner. The fact that Zabini had just become an Auror and that he fancies you was just an added bonus."
"Oh, honestly, Ronald. I'm just trying to give you a push in the right direction."
"And what direction is that? Straight into Zabini's arms? Look, he may be tall, dark, and handsome in your book, but I still see him as the slimy git from school."
"That's not what Harry told me you said today."
"I- We- That's different! I can't talk to him about my sex life."
"Or lack thereof," Hermione said, giving him a pointed look; at his glare, she relented. "Okay, okay. I'll stay out of your business from now on. But if you have a problem, don't come running to me. I may not be so quick to help you."
"You're welcome." They were silent for a moment, Hermione busying herself with making tea. "So how did your date go tonight?"
"It was not a date, Hermione. I was just trying to get to know him better so it would be easier to work with him." He scoffed. "It's not like we talked much about ourselves, though. We mainly discussed work."
"Oh, how boring. Even Harry would agree."
Ron glared. "Hermione, I appreciate what you're trying to do, really; but I don't need help. I'll know when I find the right person."
"You wouldn't be able to find your packet if it wasn't attached to you."
"Don't talk like that, Hermione!"
She laughed. "We're not in school anymore, Ron."
"I know, but it's... weird."
They sipped their tea, not talking much; when Ron was finished, he rinsed it out and put it in the sink. He was just about to step into the fireplace when he realized something important. "Viktor's not here, is he?" Hermione didn't say anything, but her evil smile was all the answer Ron needed. "I hate you."
She laughed and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I love you, too."
She disappeared from view as he vanished in the green flames of the Floo, thankful when he landed in the privacy of his own flat. "Thank Merlin that's over with." He decided on a quick shower to calm his nerves and another cuppa before throwing himself onto his bed; he fell asleep with images of Hermione, Harry, and Zabini floating around in his head.