Chapter 3 : A Lone Centurion
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'Don't do this, 'Mione,' he said, taking another step backwards, 'Try to remember what we were like once.'
Hermione snapped. Ron saw her eyes widen into ovals as she bared her teeth. She whipped her wand down, a jet of blue-green fire shooting down from its tip. Ron parried. He swept his left hand aside, and the curse that would have hit him straight on was diverted from its path. It raced just left of his shoulder and he heard it crash against the side of the stairwell.
'Hermione, please!' Ron said, but before he thought possible, she had shot another curse down. He countered it, and the curse bounced up off his shield to blast against the roof. Dust and plaster rained down on him as Hermione sent another two jets of magic his way. He cancelled their magic as they made their way over, unravelling two layers of reality in front of him just so that the curses dissipated in front of him.
'Bombarda!' Hermione screamed, but Ron was now enveloping her within an invisible cocoon of altered realities, effectively shielding her magic from the rest of the world. Anyone that wasn't aware of the layers would not have noticed anything unusual around her. Hermione's curse was so strong that it sped through the cocoon, though it was greatly diminished in power. Ron took a direct hit, the curse still having enough potency to ram him off his feet and up into the air. He flew back at least ten feet, losing his control over the layers of reality. They snapped back instantly, and the cocoon he had made around Hermione was immediately undone.
Ron fell down the spiral staircase and it took him a considerable amount of time to control his fall, one of the downsides of having a rather large bulk. As his body struggled to control the downward force of inertia, he tried to take hold of one of the railings that lined the inner circle. The railing, not being made for that type of force, snapped in half. Ron rolled to his side, then managed to flatten his body, coming to a halt nearly fifty steps down from where he had stood.
'Damn, woman! I told you to stop!'
Hermione came flying down the stairs, taking four steps a stride. Ron made another complicated gesture with his hands, and he managed to disarm her. Her wand, soaring through the space between them, was neatly caught in his gloved hand.
'You never did listen to me, did you?' he said, still irritated by her furious attacks. Hermione didn't respond. She just stood there, looking at him with wide eyes. The rage he had seen in them just moments ago was gone now, replaced with an all-out shock. For a moment, he wondered what was wrong, until the sight of his robe, snagged on the end of the broken railing told him of the loss of his camouflage. Now, it was Hermione's time to be speechless. Ron walked up to her slowly. Remaining well out of physical reach, he tossed her wand back to her. It startled her out of her revelry, and she just barely managed to catch it.
'Give me one reason not to blast you down another flight of stairs.'
'You can't.' Ron had remade the cocoon around her, and this time, none of her spell work would be able to make it out. Hermione seemed to taste the air for a moment, and decided not to attack any further, though her wand remained pointed at him. She eyed him suspiciously.
'I see you thought it was time for a make-over,' she sneered, 'Into tattoos now?'
Ron smiled. It wasn't surprising for people to make the mistake that his pigmentation lines were tattooed. Muggles certainly thought so, and gave him wide berth when he passed them on the street. He knew he resembled a muggle biker most; with his bald head, huge physique, and prominent 'tattoos'. Most wizards jumped to the same conclusion. Neville, having been around magical creatures and plants a lot, had been perhaps the only exception this year (though arguably, Ron didn't meet that many people since the Experiment). Hermione, though a bright witch, wasn't an expert on pigment.
'Not so much as one would think,' he replied.
Ron was still shocked to see Hermione again after being apart from her for so long. Of course, he'd stolen a glance once or twice at work, when nobody was present, or snuck a peek of her at Hogsmeade in an unguarded hour between patrols. He knew what she looked like, (he could describe her in detail with his eyes closed!) but there was something breath-taking about her in that moment, her wand still pointed at his chest. Her breathing was hard, and her hair was a mess. Little flakes of plaster were falling down on her, giving him the impression that Hermione was having a bad case of dandruff. She was wearing the standard Hogwarts professor robes. The dark indigo suited her, though she did seem a little pale in it.
Ron realized an awkward silence had started to form between them, and it took considerable effort to break it.
'How did you know I was coming up?' he asked, knowing his passage through Hogwarts generally went unnoticed.
'I borrowed Harry's map. You showed up on it a few hours ago. You entered through a window?'
'First floor, charms corridor. The window by the statue of Millicent the foul is always open.'
'It won't be after tonight,' she muttered. 'Besides, I'm surprised you still remember Harry. It's been so long since either of us has heard from you, we were beginning to think you'd forgotten about us.'
'Hardly,' Ron scoffed, 'For your information, I haven't been in contact with anyone since I left. Not family, not Harry, not you. If Neville hadn't woken up last night, you'd be asleep now.'
Her wand-hand was wavering. She'd let it drop a little, and though it had come up twice again, it was now pointed at his legs. Perhaps the fury he had expected her to be in when they'd meet again was finally receding.
'Well, doesn't that break your heart,' she said sarcastically, 'here I was feeling all angry and deserted, but you must have such a horrid time in that tattoo parlour. I should really beg for your forgiveness. I was so selfish.'
Ron inwardly flinched. He had suspected Hermione to think of his reasons for leaving her as selfish. He had never really given a real explanation for his sudden disappearance, nor for the lack of communication afterwards.
'I'm not looking for your forgiveness, Hermione. Nor your anger, your fear, or your pity. What's done 's done.' With that, Ron started climbing the stairs again. He had a patrol to do, and he couldn't afford to linger in a staircase with his former lover. He passed her, picked up his cloak and marched up.
'What's done 's done?' Hermione suddenly said in an explosion of anger, 'Done?'
She ran up the stairs and started pummelling him hard. Though she was only a little thing, she packed a magnificent punch. Her fist had connected with his ear, and Ron could feel it turning red. She was punching his body now, and though it hurt him little, he reacted instinctively. His body turned to his assailant, and he grabbed her wrists, turning them outward to prevent her from attacking again. Hermione, suddenly overpowered, cowered in his sudden display of sheer force. Ron was in shock of what had just happened. Though every fibre in his body had an instinctive urge to protect the woman he now held, he couldn't believe how far estranged she must have become to fear him attacking her. His grip on her wrists slackened.
'You know I'll never be able to hurt you, Hermione,' he said softly. It came out with such tenderness, such regret, that for a moment, Hermione stopped moving completely, lost staring in his eyes.
'You should never have to fear me,' he said, breaking the spell she was in, 'For that, I am sorry.'
He let go of her wrists. Hermione rubbed them momentarily, though she soon recovered.
'So why are you here?' she asked.
Ron had been expecting the question since he first set eyes on her on the stairs. Obviously, Neville had been talking to her, or she would not have known he was back in England. Hopefully, Neville had only confided last night's encounter to her.
'I'm sorry, I can't tell you that. Orders.'
The trick had worked magnificently with Neville. Ron hoped it would do the same with Hermione. It didn't.
'What orders, Ronald. Stop playing me like a fool.'
Perhaps it only works with men, Ron thought, making a mental note to try it out on more men someday soon.
'I work for the government now. Most of what I'm doing is classified. So yeah, Orders.'
Hermione scowled. 'You're working for the ministry? How come nobody ever sees you then? Even the Unspeakables are seen entering and leaving the Ministry.'
'Our office isn't in the Ministry of Magic.' Ron hoped Hermione wouldn't press this. It was general knowledge that the ministry had all its departments in its single building, and telling her he worked outside that building was technically half a lie. His office was located somewhere else, but it wasn't under the jurisdiction of the Ministry. In fact, only a handful of people in key positions in the Ministry even knew of the organisation. Thankfully, she decided to take her questions to another subject, though her eyes had narrowed, something Ron knew only happened when she suspected something.
'What about those creatures?'
'What about them?'
'For crying out loud, Ronald,' Hermione said, flinging her hands up momentarily to punctuate her point, 'Just answer the question!'
Ron grinned. Apparently, they still couldn't go through a minute without rowing.
'I'm not allowed to tell you about them either,' he said. Hermione had already opened her mouth in protest when he continued. 'But since it concerns the safety at Hogwarts, and your brilliant mind would find out about them anyways, I might as well tell you about them.'
Ron moved to the centre of the tower, and took in the impressive vista that was visible from the highest point of the castle. From there, he could keep an eye out on the Hogwarts grounds, and still talk to Hermione. He briefly explained the creatures and their origins, much like he had done the night before. He knew the Chief would go berserk on him for informing yet another civilian about their mission, yet he found himself strangely insensitive to it.
'So, these Centurions,' Hermione asked, 'are visiting places with high magical activity. What happens when nobody intervenes? What are they after?'
'That's exactly what we want to know. My superiors have arranged the Ministry and several other sites to be emptied completely at night, so perhaps we'll find out next attack. My colleagues and I have been patrolling those sites for weeks now, but up until now, every attack has been in the presence of civilians.'
'Why wasn't Hogwarts listed as one of the locations to patrol?'
'We're not that big. We don't have the manpower to cover and patrol every magical location in Britain. Azkaban, St. Mungo's, Hogsmeade; we just can't be everywhere at the same time. Hogwarts has probably been added to our list today, but I'm not sure if we have the manpower to patrol it.'
Hermione seemed to take this into consideration. She pursed her lips a bit, then asked another question.
'If it wasn't on the list, why were you here last night?'
Merlin!, Ron thought, Nothing escapes her attention.
'I had a feeling they might visit Hogwarts.'
'But if you weren't under orders to patrol,' she mused, 'then you must have been here on your own time.'
'I don't get any personal time, but the general answer to your question is yes, I was here without official orders to do so. Why?'
'After Voldemort, Hogwarts's protective charms were upgraded. It shouldn't be possible for visitors to enter the grounds by any means other than the main gate, which only opens if you are on the guest list. Since there was no such order from your superiors, nor mine, how could you enter the school grounds? Besides,' she said, gradually getting more suspicious, 'I saw you entering from the forbidden forest on Harry's map. How did you do that?'
Ron thought this over for a moment, then replied. 'I can't tell you that.'
'Orders?' she asked.
Hermione threw her hands up in the air in frustration. She resolutely turned on the spot and walked away. So much of her mannerisms and peculiarities were in that display of irritation that Ron couldn't help but smile as he remembered their time as students at Hogwarts.
'Ron', she said, looking over her shoulder when she reached the first steps of the stair down, 'be careful.'
Ron returned back at the office that morning to write his field report. He filled it out truthfully, and completely. He didn't add a biography, knowing Hermione Granger to be familiar name amongst wizards. After mailing his boss, Ron departed. Half his motivation was getting out before his boss would explode, but he also needed the comfortable solace of his gym. The night had been trying on him. It was unbelievable talking to Hermione again, even if she was still very much displeased with him. He suddenly remembered all those little things he had been in love with when they had been together, and which he had so desperately tried to forget afterwards. Seeing her face, and holding her wrists, her skin, had brought all of those details back, and he knew he was falling in love with them all over again. He spent many hours in the gym, warring against an army of live size straw puppets he had animated to life. After eight long hours, he defeated the last of them, then sank to his knees exhausted.
Find her. Talk to her. Screw secrecy and protocol. Follow your heart, Ronald. Promise me that.
The words kept echoing in his mind. Had he made a mistake discussing everything with Hermione? Was he a fool, violating protocol? And for what reasons? Was it really that necessary, or had he merely found an excuse to be in contact with her again? He spent at least four hours meditating before feeling fit enough to go back to the office. He would be on patrol with Nilima in an hour, and he knew the Chief would probably blast him with insults for at least that long.
The elevator doors opened. Ron stepped out and, after greeting Terry and Gillian, moved on to the electric glass doors. There weren't completely open before--
Bing! WEASLEY! NOW!!!
It wasn't so much an order as it was a snarl. Most of his colleagues had probably heard rumours by now (for when did rumours not spread faster than the fact on which they were based?) and were actively trying to be busy with something else. Roy and Jill were seemingly deep in a discussion about a field report, but both of them were looking at him as he walked past. Luke and Nilima were in one of the training rooms, and though Luke was known to be a chatterbox in the gym, neither of them made a sound.
The Chief nearly exploded into rage when Ron had closed the door. Though most of his sentences were profanities, Ron could distil from them that the Superiors had nearly laid him off. Ron gathered that his Superiors weren't all too pleased with an operative that defied their order of absolute silence towards civilians twice within twenty-four hours.
'You were this close, Weasley, this close to being fired.' The Chief was now turning a deep shade of magenta, and pressing his thumb against his index finger quite forcibly. 'This close!'
'You were lucky some of the Superiors still owed me a favour or two. They nearly sent you off. The vote was split four against four, with three Superiors deciding not to vote. Had I not intervened, you'd be looking for another employer right now. I spent two hours in their offices, trying to persuade them our department can't afford to lose an operative in this situation.'
Reflecting on this, Ron couldn't quite shake off the feeling that things weren't so black and white was the Chief just made them out to be. He'd be hard pressed getting a job without a wand and looking the way he did. Besides, the organisation wouldn't want its former operatives to pass along sensitive information, so most of the operatives were put into other parts of the organisation, safely stowed behind a desk. Some of the operatives had unique skills or talents. Those were often placed in the academy, where field operatives were trained. Ever since going through the Experiment, Ron knew he wouldn't be able to leave his current employer. He had made peace with that. Ron had never aspired to work in many different places, or make a career for himself. He felt blissfully at peace being a field operative. Signing on with International Safety Board had made sense at the time; it still did.
Ron left the Chief's office ten minutes before he'd have to patrol with Nilima. She came up to him with a broad smile on her face, a constant for her.
'So,' she said, 'Still my co-worker?'
'Good. I heard you informed a second Hogwarts professor about our mission. Personally, I think it was a good idea. We need eyes and ears in as many magical locations as we can. We can't be everywhere at once, so we might not be present next time they attack. Imagine just one Centurion running rampant in Hogwarts, and us finding out too late...'
Ron dismissed the thought. He didn't want to think about that possibility. 'We'd better get a move on, or we'll be late for our patrol.'
They entered the elevator and apparated out between the fortieth and thirty-ninth floors. They were due to patrol the ministry of magic, and after making themselves invisible to all but the highest ranking ministry officials, they entered the main lobby. Things seemed to be slow at the ministry. The climate control system appeared to have malfunctioned again, and the mid-summer heat had taken hold over the building. A group of ministry officials passed them. They were loudly complaining about the sauna they'd have to work in.
'McNamill told me maintenance doesn't expect to be able to fix the problem until Monday next week!' one of them scoffed, 'Really, how hard can it be?'
Ron rolled his eyeballs at Nilima. Not only would they have to do their twelve hour patrol without getting noticed, they would also have to do it in nearly a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Nilima walked up to him and put her hand on the sleeve of his shirt.
'Well', she said, trying to find some light at the end of the tunnel, 'at least we won't be cold.'
Eight hours had passed. The last of the ministry's officials had long since left the building, and Ron and Nilima were walking through the empty corridors, passing time making small talk. As always, there was much gossiping. Because most of the field operatives had little in the sense of a private life, most of them had become obsessed with gossip about the others. The International Safety Board continually stressed the importance of secrecy about its existence, which made it nearly impossible for those that had gone through the Experiment to socialize.
'Lianne is dating again,' Nilima said, her mouth in an impish grin, 'Somebody with the financial department.'
Ron smiled back at her. Lianne's dates tended to be horrid. Nilima had found out the last person she'd dated had actually filed for a transfer out of Britain.
'Well good for her,' Ron said in a voice of mock involvement, 'though I hope her date is well-insured..'
Nilima barked a laugh, then broke into a fit of giggles. Ron loved patrolling with her, since her good-natured and happy personality closely matched his own. They were close, like brother and sister, and they always had dinner together on the last Friday of the month. She would often visit his home, and cook for him on those occasions.
'Yeah, make fun of it,' she said, 'but I'm the one she goes to when she gets dumped.'
They spent another hour walking about the place when they entered the lobby again. Nilima took off her shoes, then dipped her feet into the fountain.
'Ah', she said, transpiration on her forehead, 'that's better.'
Ron sat down next to her, facing the other way.
'So, Weasley', Nilima said, 'What teachers did you tell about the Centurions?'
'Longbottom first. He woke up when I landed on the roof of the greenhouse he was in. Bit of a chance encounter that. Really wasn't sure until the last moment if I was going to Obliviate him. I decided not to. Hogwarts needs to be overseen by as many eyes as possible.'
'I see. I think you took a big chance in not removing his memories, but I agree with you; Hogwarts should be overseen.'
After a moment of silence, Nilima asked him for the name of the second teacher. Ron was hoping she'd forget.
Her reaction was instant. Unlike the other members of his team, Ron's past was quite well known in the country. Nilima, originally from India, had naturally heard all about it when she came to Britain.
'You had contact with your ex-partner? Are you mad?'
'Barking,' he replied coolly, 'but aside from that, I really didn't have much choice. She'd already heard about me patrolling Hogwarts from Neville. She cornered me at the top of the astronomy tower.'
'Even so,' Nilima said, 'You could still have Obliviated it. Why didn't you?'
Ron smiled ruefully. 'I can't do that to the woman I loved. Did you have a partner before joining the ISB?'
'Yes', she said, though the sound of her voice had changed into something lower and deeper. The smile on her face was absent for once.
'Would you do it?' he asked, knowing full well what her response would be.
'Then you understand why I didn't?'
'Yes.' It was barely more than a whisper.
They were silent for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. They were supposed to have started another round ten minutes ago.
'How about I start at the bottom, and you at the top. We'll meet in the middle.'
Nilima agreed. They both entered an elevator, then went their separate ways. Nilima would go up to the first level, starting her patrol at the offices of the minister of magic and his support staff. Ron went down to the lowest level; the department of mysteries. He exited the elevator and crossed the plain corridor and entered the Entrance Chamber. He had been there before, and knew the details of each room. He decided to enter the rooms in random order. The first were uneventful. The room of Death was warmer than usual, though the warmth of the summer which had spread throughout the building couldn't take hold here. Ron never could suppress that shudder the went through him upon reaching this room. Bad Memories.
The other rooms proved to be equally uneventful. Ron went up one level to the atrium, and made a quick pass through around the fountain. Everything seemed in order. He glanced up, and caught sight of Nilima through one of the windows at the second level. She waved down, then continued on her way. Ron looked around the atrium one more time, checking for anything out of the ordinary, but nothing seemed off. He was on his way to the elevator doors when he noticed movement at the fifth level. Ron quickly got into the elevator and slammed the button labelled "Level Five". When the doors opened, he saw an empty hallway. The Department of International Magical Cooperation was deserted (as it should be around this hour). Carefully, he exited the elevator and scanned the perimeter. Nothing seemed out of order. He pushed the button of Nilima's elevator. Since the building was empty save them, Ron hoped Nilima would understand his signal. Slowly, he moved forward. His auror training kicked in, and Ron carefully checked the two offices nearest to the elevators. The was about to 'cut the pie' into another office when he heard Nilima's elevator close and go up again. Ron moved into the third office. Though it was a large office, it had eight desks crammed into it, making it feel claustrophobic. There were papers strewn around everywhere. The office was also empty.
Ron softly exited the office he was in. His auror training had taught him how to move silently, and his new physique, though bulky, had a surprisingly light thread. Nearly noiseless, he re-entered the corridor, just in time to see a large centurion enter one of the offices at the end. He moved back towards the elevator. A quick glance had shown Nilima was on her way down as he had hoped. The elevator opened and she stepped out gingerly. Using standard auror sign-language, she quickly asked for a status update. Ron quickly tapped her hand with his finger, and conveyed his discovery during the momentary contact of the pigmentation lines. She nodded, then moved forward with him. Ron had checked the first three offices of the corridor, but there were still two more offices between them and the one Ron had seen the Centurion enter. They carefully checked them, making sure there weren't any more Centurions. When both had signalled the offices to be clear, they headed forward.
They reached the door of the office. It had been torn off its hinges. The Centurion was standing erect. It was an awe-inspiring sight, the magnificent beast now over eight feet tall. Its head nearly brushed the ceiling. Nilima was about to enter, when Ron held her back. Her brow furrowed, but Ron quickly explained his intention with a quick tap on her hand. Nilima nodded. They were going to see what the creature was after before taking action.
The Centurion meanwhile was sniffing the air. It appeared to be looking for something. After a few seconds, its head cocked to the side, and it walked ahead two paces towards a file cabinet. A quick swipe of a paw trashed it completely, the contents spreading out over the ground. It had been filled to the brim with reports. Some were simple, consisting of a single sheet of paper. Other were bigger, having their own cardboard container. The creature seemed to be picking through the rubbish selectively, but discarded most of what it found. It worked its way through the pile of reports until it lifted out a single cardboard box, slicing it open effortlessly. It contained a huge report, at least five hundred pages thick. It thumped heavily on the floor. the creature disregarded it. Instead, it fiddled with the box until something else fell out.
Ron heard Nilima suppress a gasp, as a beautiful blue diamond collier hit the ground. The stone sparkled in what little light there was, and Ron could feel that it was enchanted with a powerful curse. The black magic that had been used on it would undoubtedly be fatal of anyone that touched it. The creature bent down and picked up the collier without being effected by anything more than an apparent curiosity. Then, Ron noticed what seemed like a close inspection of the jewel by the creature. It lasted perhaps a few seconds, when the creature suddenly dropped the collier. The dark magic that had been on it (a spell even the ministry's finest curse-breakers couldn't remove) had dissipated. Now, it was just another pretty collier. The creature straightened up again, and tasted the air once more. It moved a few paces to the left, where it destroyed a desk. From the rubble, it lifted up a dark green globe. Ron recognised it as one of the international communication devices made for long-range communication. The department used it to communicate with foreign nations that were too far away to owl. The object was the department's prized possession. The creature was about to inspect it as well, when Nilima suddenly bolted forward. With unbelievable stealth and agility, she crossed the distance in half a heartbeat, then took out her infamous dagger. She slashed the creature's neck. Surprised, it dropped the globe, and lashed out at its assailant. Nilima had already gotten out of range. Her style wasn't melee. Ron often compared her to a scorpion. A single attack was enough. She needed just one critical strike, and then got out of reach again. The poor victim would often die before it had gotten close enough for contact again.
The Centurion was no different. Black blood flowed down from three severed arteries its neck, and before it could muster the strength for a second strike, it toppled over. Nilima carefully examined the body. It was dead.
'All clear!' She piped, obviously pleased with herself.
Ron entered the ruins of what had been an office, and raised an eyebrow.
'What?' Nilima said, 'You saw what it was going to do. We need fast communication with the other countries.'
'Yes,' Ron acknowledged. On the one hand, fast communication with the other countries was indeed necessary. The Centurions weren't just attacking sites in England, but over the whole world. Each department was patrolling their designated locations, and what little they had discovered needed to be communicated to the others fast. On the other hand, they needed to know what the Centurions would do if they were uninterrupted. They now knew the creatures were indeed after magical artifacts, but to what end?
Nilima had tucked the dagger away again. Her reputation with it was infamous. She was definitely the most lethal killer in his department, and perhaps the entire ISB. Nimble as a cat, silent as a fax, and deadly as a snake, her skill was known by every field operative. Few suspected such a shiny, happy girl to be such a lethal predator.
Together, they repaired the office. The desk and file cabinet were restored to their previous states, leaving only the body of the Centurion on the ground. It would fade away within half an hour, and Ron and Nilima didn't want to disturb that natural process, having seen the creatures in their own dimension. Nilima replaced the green globe in the desk, then turned around. Ron picked up the collier. He put it in his pocket.
'Stealing now?' Nilima said flatly.
'Consider it confiscating,' Ron replied. The ISB had a lot of personnel, each of which had to be paid. Though there was some (undisclosed) governmental support, that would never be enough to pay for their expenses. Confiscating the occasional object was part of the job. Nilima never had approved of it. She muttered under her breath as she passed him. She might not like it, but it does provide her with a pay-check.
Their patrol finished, Ron started his field report instantly. He typed it out quickly, sending it to the Chief, but also the head of the department of international communications, knowing the information would be deemed important enough to disperse across the other departments. He quickly printed the report, and attached it to a bag containing the collier. He took it into the Chief's office.
'Sir?' Ron asked as he entered, 'Got a minute?'
The Chief was busy studying his flat-screen monitor. After a few seconds, he was able to tear his eyes off of it.
'Have you read my field report?'
'Just finished reading it. Well done, given the situation. Give Chopra my compliments for her well executed attack. That girl and her knife...'
Ron smiled. A compliment from the Chief would make her day. He rarely gave compliments to any of his employees. 'I can't help but feel--'
'Dissatisfied?' the Chief finished. 'Don't be. Nilima was right, acting on her instincts. Though I'd love to know what the creature would have done next, it's also important that we have a fast way to communicate this news out.'
'But we have our own department for that,' Ron argued, 'and we only use the ministry’s globe when our server is down for maintenance.'
The Chief smiled. 'Don't under-estimate the importance of having backups for everything. If our server was down now, you'd be sending your field report via that same globe.'
Ron let the argument go. It wasn't important. What was done, was done. He put the bag down on the Chief's table.
'The collier. Thought our financial department might have some interest in it.'
The Chief opened the bag and peered inside. He fiddled with the diamond. 'Magnificent. Did you mention confiscating it in the field report?'
'Was I supposed to?' Ron asked, never having done so before.
'No,' the Chief said, stowing the collier back into the bag. 'I'll take it to Finances in an hour. Good job.'
Three long hours had passed. Nilima had indeed been elated with the Chief's compliment. She had replayed the whole encounter twice now, clearly enjoying herself. Lianne was listening with rapt attention, and even Terry and Gillian seemed as if under a spell. The mood in the office was relaxed. Their department had been the first to report some news about the Centurions, and though no one would admit it, there was ever a competition with the foreign departments over such things. Even the Russian department (several times bigger than theirs) had yet to report any news about the Centurions.
Ron was checking his e-mail. Though he had started out very apprehensively of the computer systems at work, he was now familiar with most of the basic computer skills. He could type quite fast by now, and knew his way around the software. He did tend to miss-click often though, sometimes messing up his desktop up to a point where one of the techies (often squibs, or muggles that had found out about the wizarding world) would have come over to restore everything.
No new messages. He sat back in his chair. It was the first moment in a few weeks that his desk was cleared of reports that were due, or inspections that had to be done. He turned off the computer and headed out, deciding to make himself a quick lunch. Simone tailed along.
'Off to lunch?' she asked innocently.
'Me too,' she said, making it sound as if it was a big coincidence. 'I know, let's have lunch together!'
Before Ron could even get a word in, she started planning it.
'We'll go to your house, I'll bring some vegetables and some bread. We'll make sandwiches!'
'But--' Simone apparated out quickly, leaving Ron in the elevator. Feeling helpless, he apparated home.
Once there, he tidied up the place a little. After dumping some of his discarded clothes into the laundry bin and quickly cleaning the kitchen with a spell, the doorbell rang. He opened, and Simone came in carrying some ingredients and a basket of bread. Apparently, she had quickly changed her outfit, she was now wearing a simple skirt, and a blood-red tank top. She quickly started to work in the kitchen, cutting open the bread and stuffing it with some vegetables. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
'So,' she said over her shoulder, as she neatly placed a pair of tomato slices on a bed of lettuce, 'An eventful evening, huh?'
'Yes,' Ron said, as he searched his cabinets for a second plate and some cutlery, 'Nilima was amazing.'
'I read about it in the field report,' she replied, 'that must have been a sight.'
Ron remembered the deadly attack. 'Yes. Never ceases to amaze me how such a bubbly girl can be such a ruthless killer.'
Simone turned to look at Ron over her shoulder. 'I know! I keep having the same feeling whenever she pulls that dagger out.'
After a few minutes, Ron and Simone were silently eating their sandwiches. Together, they ate twenty sandwiches, not uncommon for those whom had gone through the Experiment. Simone seemed happy, though Ron expected her to make a move soon. Operatives rarely socialized together, and the slightly sexual tension that often lingered between them would undoubtedly return soon. Ron was enjoying himself though, eating good food, and in the company of a very pretty girl.
Suddenly, she started laughing.
'What?' Ron asked.
'You've got a huge glob of mayonnaise on your face.'
Her thumb shot out and brushed his cheek. For a moment, Ron was afraid she sought to connect the pigmentation lines again, but instead, she removed her hand. It had a much greater effect. The momentary touch sent shivers down his spine. There was an unspoken invitation in it, a simple longing for more; for longer. Simone gave him a shy smile.
'Much better,' she said.
Back at the office, Ron couldn't keep from touching the corner of his mouth Simone had touched. The tension that had so dramatically risen the moment she'd touched him, had ebbed away almost as quickly. Simone had started talking about work again, and apart from her occasional coy smile, nothing in the way they acted reminded him of that moment of contact. It wasn't five minutes later that Ron and Simone were back behind their desks, busying themselves with checking reports and doing some light training. Ron mused about his feelings for Simone. He knew he wasn't in love. The girl was great, any man would be proud to be her boyfriend, but for Ron, something was missing. He just didn't feel that way he had once felt, for that one special girl.
Ron guessed that much of the heightened tension between Ron and Simone had to do with the loneliness that came with having gone through the Experiment. In their social isolation, it was hard to find relief for some of the most basic human emotions. It wasn't uncommon for field operatives to start intimate relationships (the ISB wasn't outspokenly against it, but kept its reservations). Ron certainly enjoyed working with Simone. She was funny for starters, but also possessed an endearing soft spot for animals. She was easy to be around, and also a bit of a tomboy. Ron certainly didn't mind her physical appearance. But even with all that, Ron knew he wasn't in love. She was too rash, too outspoken for him. Simone was a presence in a room. She had a very public opinion, and would defend it heatedly. She was notorious for defending her opinions; sometimes not accepting the general consensus even after having been proven wrong. She could also hold grudges, not speaking to people for hours after an argument. Those grudges were easily forgotten though, and never interfered with their work.
Ron closed his eyes and rubbed his face. He had another fifteen reports to go through, and he also had to do the inventory that day. He also had a meeting planned with the Chief at three o' clock. After that, he would have to visit the financial department to discuss their department's expenses, and then write a report about it. It was going to be a long day.
Hogwarts was being patrolled by operatives every night, and Ron couldn't help feeling enormously relieved by that.
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