His hood obscured his face, but any townsperson who saw the dark red dragonhide would know him on sight. If they could see him at all; the fog had rolled in in the deep recesses of twilight the night prior, long before the lamplighters sparked the wicks of the street lamps, and it was mashed potato thick. Or pea soup. Thick cloudiness that made his hair stick to his cheeks in reddish curls. He whistled anyway. Even with the lamps now lit, the streets were hazy.
Butteryhaugh slept long into the morning as a rule, but that didn’t mean it was dead. As little towns go, it was still pleasant and familiar, if a bit sleepy. Mick was out with his horse, Delilah, delivering bottle after bottle of fresh milk to each home on the town’s main drag. Charlie nodded to the milk man and patted Delilah’s flanks.
“”S a bit early for you,” Mick grumbled.
“I was awake anyway,” Charlie said. “Listen, could you spare a half gallon of heavy cream? My stud has had horrid acid reflux for the last week and it’s all he’ll take.”
Mick chuckled. “He’s probably in heat!”
“He’s trouble,” Charlie laughed. Mick fished a spare bottle from his wagon. Charlie dug in his pocket for change but the man held up his hand.
“Wouldn’t be able to eat if it weren’t for you lot. Take it.”
“You know I’ll just add it to my monthly fee, Mick,” Charlie said.
“‘M counting on it, but it’s the illusion of charity and a giving spirit.” Mick winked. “Besides, I’m counting on you telling that beautiful sister of yours about my kindness to you.”
“Fat chance of that, old man! She’d murder you,” Charlie laughed. “And I’d let her.”
“Oh, piss off,” Mick chuckled. He waved the younger man off and went about his business. It was the same exchange they had every day, more or less. One asking the other for a favor. A joke, a favor repaid, a friendly familiarity.
Charlie loved this time of morning on the town’s main drag; the sleepy storefronts glowed with two tones of gentle light--amber from the street lamps, and blue from the oncoming dawn. He liked the people in the town well enough, but the town itself was comforting. It hadn’t taken him long to see it’s charm. His morning walks usually led him here, instead of out into the beautiful forest that he oversaw. For a man who so loved the fauna of Northumberland, he sure felt pulled to the idea of a simple townie’s life.
There’s Dora’s bookshop, he thought. There’s the well where Mrs. Gant asks him to fill half a bucket of fresh water for her every day. And the Lynx in the Larch, Mayor O’Dell’s pub and inn, where Charlie had his one and only bar fight… with none other than O’Dell himself! That was all it took to make a lifelong pal of the octogenarian. Not to mention, it’s rather unfair to knock out an eighty-two year old man and not buy a round of beer for the house.
The door of the pub swung open and deposited two wibbly-legged blokes: a skinny fop with the kit of a royal Prince on the run, and an oafish buffoon with a footballer’s jumper and greasy longish hair plastered to his temples. Charlie rolled his eyes. Tourists. He tried to skirt past the two, but he was shoved into the brick wall by two palms at his back. “Oof!” Charlie rubbed his shoulder. On the way down, the oaf grabbed a handful of Charlie’s cloak to steady himself, but managed only to break the clasp and liberate the black hood from Charlie’s head.
“Oi! Whaj-ya knock ‘him down for?” the stickish man slurred. “‘e ain’t done nofing to ya!”
Charlie rubbed his neck where the clasp had bitten into his skin. “You chaps better get along, now. Sun’ll be threatening the horizon shortly.” He reached down for his cloak, which was still in the pitiful clutches of the Oaf. The Oaf held fast to the fabric.
“How’s about you gimme this kit for me trouble?”
“Afraid I can’t do without my favorite cloak,” Charlie said in feigned regret. “I’ll give you my tailor’s card, how’s that?” He tugged, but the Oaf held fast. The Stick brandished a massive electric torch in Charlie’s face and he winced.
“Cor! You’s got the face of a man what kissed an axe!” the Stick’s corn kernel grin was up-lit from the cast of his torch. He pointed a finger at Charlie. “Look, Dec! Ole’ axe gash will be wantin’ ‘is coat back.”
Dec the Oaf peered up at the dragon tamer through slits and belched a sickened laugh. “Wif a mug like that, who can blame ‘im?”
“Wha’s it like to ‘ave a face only a mother could love?” the Stick asked. “Are you the village werewolf?” The drunks had a good chuckle at that one.
“‘s not even a full moon!”
“You’ve got to be a real monster to disobey the moon!” Dec’s rolling guffaws echoed off the cobblestones, and the Stick’s torch strobed across Charlie’s completely neutral face, devoid of any reaction.
Charlie released the cloak slowly and reached for his belt instead. He let out a long, slow breath. And then, he smiled. “You have quite beautiful oxfords, mate,” he said to the Stick.
Dec scoffed through the end of a broken laugh. “Wha’?”
“‘e fancies me brogues, Dec,” The Stick said.
“Yer wha’, Jem?”
“His shoes,” Charlie clarified. His fingers curled around the instrument in his belt pouch and he flicked it open. “But as much as I do so admire the cut of the leather, the fine stitching that could only have been done by a seasoned cobbler, the turn of the arch which most certainly was custom made for you, I’m not sure that the style is for me. As you can see, I’m more of a booted man myself. And as much as I truly admire the gumption of a man who would wear such an ostentatious shoe, not just for a special occasion, but for an everyday look, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes just now.” He held up the deluminator and clicked.
The torch went out. He kneed Jem in the groin. Dec scrambled for the torch as it clambored to the stones, but Charlie crushed his fingers beneath his dragonskin boots. Jem rammed him in the stomach with his head--or tried, at least--but Charlie swung the bottle of cream and smashed him in the temple. The bottle and the Stick clambored to the ground. As Jem fell, Dec flicked open a switchblade and pressed it to Charlie’s ankle rather unsuccessfully. His dinky knife was no match for the thousand year old leather. Charlie kicked the knife away and picked up the torch. He shone the light in Dec’s face and crouched down as the man winced. He grabbed him by the throat.
“I can tell you’re passersby,” Charlie whispered, “because nobody in this sweet little village would speak to another human being with so little regard. Besides: this is a village of gentle elderly people who have basic decency. This is no place for two cockroaches. Take your mutton dressed as lamb back inside this pub, get a room for the night, and leave as soon as you’ve slept off the drink. Unless, of course, you just want to start walking, in which case,” he turned off the torch and holstered it in the loop on his belt normally occupied by his wand, “look out for wolves.”
As soon as he released the Oaf, he scrambled inside for help. Charlie knelt down beside the unconscious Stick. “My brother is a werewolf, I’ll have you know.” Muggles, in his experience, tended towards hysteria when it came to any magical creatures. It was just lazy to suggest that his scars were at all similar to Bill’s. Besides, Bill was married. Someone thought Bill’s scars attractive. He picked up his cloak and slung it over his shoulders. The milk bottle lay on it’s side beside Jem, unharmed. He dusted it off, held it under his arm, and turned heel towards the edge of town. At the tell-tale creak of the pub door, Charlie pulled up his hood.
“Charlie? Again?” the bartender called. “Could you at least have made sure they were both conscious?”
“Send me the bill for their room, O’Dell,” Charlie called over his shoulder.
Sixteen minutes of walking through the morning mist brought Charlie to the gate of his home, Kielder Nature Reserve. A beautiful protected forest in Northumberland, kissed up to the border with Scotland, which promised to reinvigorate the wildlife in Kielder. A front. A new Dragon sanctuary, to which Charlie had been assigned nearly a year prior, and a struggling one at that.
It hadn’t been difficult for Charlie to keep the sanctuary’s true nature a secret from the nearby village of Butteryhaugh, however; he frequented the shops and pubs, he made weekly visits to the school children for nature talks, he went to church picnics and helped build the grocer after the old building burned down. He had felt obligated to do that work, though; neglect by one of his keepers had meant one of the Welsh Greens escaped the wards and set fire to several silos, a cow, and the roof of the grocer at the edge of town, before Charlie was finally able to coax it back to the sanctuary. He just so happened to be there when the fire brigade arrived to put out the flames.
He had thoroughly ingratiated himself with the locals. They had learned a long time ago that the sight of him was not something to fear, even if, in his own mind, looking at him was the price that one paid for his company. At least in this little town, people understood propriety and respect for one’s privacy, so nobody had ever asked him why he looked that way. They knew he kept a lovely little farm on a nature preserve and that was all they cared to know.
The main house smelled like coffee and cooked sausages. Ginny was up and at ‘em already. She smiled sleepily at the sight of her brother. Charlie kissed her temple and handed over the bottle of cream. “Thanks,” she said. “Wait, what’s this on the bottom?”
“Blood, probably,” Charlie shrugged. “Any of those sausages for me?”
“No, you mooch! There’s only one man I’d make breakfast for, and he has four legs and a terrible case of swamp breath.”
“I don’t think the sausage will help his heartburn, Gin.”
“Sausage is for me. I’m making him a milkshake,” she said with a grin. “Get me the biggest bucket of ice you can find, eh?”
“In a sec.” Charlie poured himself a vat of coffee and sat slowly at the kitchen table. He rubbed his neck absent-mindedly. Ginny turned off the stove and plated her sausages. She sat across from him and observed him quietly, noting his silence. He stared into his coffee mug.
“Want to tell me about it?” she asked softly.
Charlie shook his head, but he smiled. “When you’re older.”
“Suit yourself.” She narrowed her eyes. “But I bet they deserved it.”
“Gin--” he stopped. Charlie took a deep sip of his coffee and winced as it burned his throat. “Who’s uglier: me, or Bill?”
Ginny nearly choked on her breakfast. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “Just answer.”
“Oh Bill, for sure. But he’s married to Fleur, so I’m against everything about Bill on principle,” she said with a wink.
“You can stand to look at me, though.”
She sighed. “Yes, I can.”
“And you’re squeamish, even. So.”
“So, I’m not the sort of person that you’d be afraid to meet in a dark alley.”
“Yeah, no, I’d be terrified.” Charlie’s face fell and Ginny laughed, grabbing his hand across the table. “Why this again? I thought you got over your vanity a long time ago. It’s just a scar, so what?”
“Too right,” Charlie said with a shrug. He smiled at Ginny and she went back to eating her breakfast. Too right. Why should it still bother him if people saw his scar and coiled back in disgust?
“Go get the ice, yeah? I’ll meet you out by the paddock.” Ginny dropped her dish in the sink and pulled the ingredients out of the fridge that they would need for an upset dragon milkshake. Charlie took one last sip of his coffee and abandoned the mug on the table. Another day, chores to do around the sanctuary.
The sanctuary team was a small outfit consisting of a head tamer (Charlie, of course), and an armorist (Ginny), and six junior trainers, aka. The Kielder Cadets. Charlie and Ginny had the run of the old farmhouse, which came with the land when the Ministry’s muggle front had arranged for the transfer from forest and farmland to preserve. The cadets slept each in their own small cottages, and then trained in the barn. The dragons themselves were kept half a mile into the forest, in the cover of the thick pines. Any muggles who visited the preserve were none the wiser. He had horses, and chickens, and several goats, which he had already fed before his jaunt into town. Ginny made jam to sell at the farmer’s market, too, and all eight of them played in the summer Butteryhaugh cricket league. They had as good a life as any quaint little preserve could.
Charlie loaded the ice chest onto his small wagon and hitched it to his favorite horse, Mariah. Mariah adored him more than any living creature, including his adoring sister and right hand woman, but then again, the horse liked everyone--including the dragons. She was the only horse willing to go to the paddock, and she went joyfully.
“Come on Mariah,” Charlie hummed. She kicked up her heels.
Ginny and Charlie sat on the fence and watched Orpheus, the adult Welsh Green, lap at the concoction Ginny had made to soothe his burning throat. Poor fellow hadn’t been able to produce a single puff of smoke lately, but Ginny had theorized that he had swallowed something he wasn’t supposed to eat, and it had either cut up his throat or something lodged in it. Charlie knew better; the poor chap was just getting old. Swamp breath, as she called it, was the first sign of internal rot… he wouldn’t last the year. Charlie didn’t have the heart to tell Ginny this. Orpheus was her favorite, and she hadn’t yet experienced the death of a creature under her protection. When the time came for Orpheus to go, Charlie would help the poor dragon go as painlessly as possible. For now, they’d make him milkshakes and put Ginny’s mind at ease.
“Had a letter from Ronald,” Ginny said, tapping her feet on the bottom slat.
“Yes, they’ve finally approved his transfer,” Charlie said. “Fourth time’s the charm.”
Ginny winced. “You don’t seem happy about that.”
“No, I am,” he assured her. “Don’t think the team will be thrilled to have Ron come in and outrank them. Ralston still thinks I’m punishing her for the grocery fire.”
“Well,” Ginny laughed. “You are.”
“Yes, but now it’ll seem like I’m beating a dead horse,” Charlie sighed.
“She’s very good at what she does--”
“Hence my extensive campaigning for him to be transferred here,” Charlie smiled. “Besides, it’s not nepotism if he’s the best person for the job.”
“Not him ,” Ginny said, slapping his arm. “Her. Ralson. She ’s very good.”
Ginny slapped his arm again. “She’s good with the little ones! The babies love her.”
“And it stands to reason that I, too, should love her?”
“Maybe not,” Ginny said, blushing. “But I do.”
Charlie crossed his arms. “Well, well, well. Always did know you’d go for someone like mum.”
Ginny scoffed. “Gross, Charlie! You should be happy for me. It will take the heat off of you.”
“Mum doesn’t bug me about that nonsense anymore,” Charlie said softly. “Anyway, I’m off to town today. Dora’s new renter has a burst water pipe and her husband is still in traction from his accident.”
“Do you even tame dragons?” Ginny teased.
He crossed his arms. ‘I don’t see you complaining. I’m not even supposed to let you within sight of a dragon.”
“Charlie?” Ginny stopped for a moment. “I just… I don’t want you to think I don’t take you seriously. Your feelings, and all that.”
“Right,” Charlie sighed, looking down at his hands.
“You’re allowed to be sensitive about your scar, that’s all I’m saying.”
“It’s… not just about having a scar, you know.”
Orpheus let out a little satisfied belch and hopped back towards his nest (a pile of Charlie’s old flannel shirts, shredded diligently by dragon talons), settling down with his eyes closed. Orpheus didn’t mind either Ginny or Charlie’s presence, but he reserved the right to nap all morning.
“Do you… want to talk about it?” Ginny said gently.
Charlie hopped off the fence and stuffed his hands in his pockets, striding towards the empty bucket of heartburn cure. “Not really, if I’m honest.”
Ginny followed. “Does your lack of attention to the cadets have anything to do with what you don’t want to talk about?”
Charlie grabbed the bucket and walked past her, towards the gate. “I’m not ignoring the sanctuary--”
“I didn’t say that,” Ginny said, grabbing his arm, “but you’ve been taking a lot of odd jobs in town.”
Charlie wrenched out of her grip. “Maybe I like helping them!”
Ginny held her hand over the latch on the gate and pushed in front of him. “I don’t doubt that! But I also think that somewhere along the way, you started to feel like you were no longer worthy of your post. And if that’s how you feel, then let Ron take over your duties and become a townie. Marry a local girl, even.”
He sighed. “But who will I meet all the way out here?”
“You never know,” Ginny smiled. He ruffled her hair. She opened the gate and stepped under his arm, wrapping her own around his waist.
“When did you get so wise?” Charlie asked.
“With six brothers? Who knows?”
“I have to tell you something, Gin,” Charlie said with mock seriousness. “Do you know the real reason you were hired on here?”
“One hundred percent,” he laughed.
“Good to finally have that cleared up.” Ginny lay her head on her brother’s shoulder.
For his midday jaunt into town, Charlie favored a much more Muggle sensibility; he traded work boots for his dragonhide boots, tartan flannel shirt for his linen and leather tamer’s kit, but his leather work belt remained. He even combed his hair. Dora had said her renter was new to town and probably wouldn’t be home when Charlie came to fix the pipe, but nevertheless… best to be prepared. New introductions were always somewhat rocky. It seemed to be easier, for him, if he was at least wearing a crisp collar with tidy hair. At least his beard helped hide his scar from cheek to chin.
Charlie, handyman edition, tied Mariah to a post outside Dora’s bookshop. He pushed open the red front door and the bells chimed. Dora waved him towards the back of the shop. The back staircase was only accessible through her tiny office, which was stacked with books from floor to ceiling. He climbed the stairs. The new tenant had already decorated the small landing with a welcome mat, a flower pot housing a fake geranium, and a small porcelain cat. It was friendly. He fished his ring of keys out of his pocket and found the one with a D stamped in the head. D for Dora’s Books. Same key for every lock in the building. Charlie let himself in.
The leak seemed easy enough to fix in theory, but the pipe seal didn’t want to stay affixed to the drain trap, which was the source of the leak itself. What he wouldn’t give for a better set of tools… but that’s what a wand was for, right? The tenant wasn’t home. He was a capable wizard. Why not?
He pulled his wand out of his sleeve and pointed it towards the drain.
“ Expelliarmus! ” a female voice exclaimed. So, Dora’s new renter was a witch.
Charlie’s wand flew out of his hand. He slowly lowered his head from beneath the sink. “I’m trying to fix your sink,” he said gently. “The valve won’t seal and I don’t have the right Muggle tools to fix it without a sticking charm.”
“I can take care of it myself, thank you,” she said. “So you can go ahead and just leave.”
“I’m Charlie,” he offered.
“Good for you. Get out from under my sink.”
Charlie closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. He scooted out from beneath the sink, holstered the wrench in his tool belt, and stood. Then, he turned around.
The woman before him did not flinch at the sight of him; that was the first thing he noticed about her. She was a petite brunette with fiery eyes and beautiful brunette hair that fell in curls around her shoulders. She was sensibly dressed in Muggle denim trousers and a blue jumper, with red high-top trainers. A pair of cat-eye reading glasses were tucked into her collar. She was also extremely familiar.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “Are you a friend of my brother, perhaps?”
“That depends on who your brother is.”
“I have five of them, actually, but you look like you might have been in Ron’s year,” Charlie wagered.
The woman lowered her wand and a smile filled her face. “I can’t believe it. Charlie Weasley?”
“Yeah!” he couldn’t help but smile, hers was contagious. “Then you’re Hermione Granger, right?”
“I am.” She pushed her wand up her sleeve. “I can’t believe this, what are you doing here?”
“Fixing your sink, remember?”
She laughed. “No, in Northumberland!”
“I run the new dragon sanctuary on the Kielder Nature Preserve,” he said. “I have a small team of tamers, but we’re… doing alright. If you know Ron, then you’d know my cadets Dean and Seamus too! And Ginny, of course.”
“I’m going to throttle her!” Hermione exclaimed, folding her arms. “She didn’t tell me she was anywhere close to Butteryhaugh, let alone living here with you . If I had known, it would’ve made it a lot easier to stomach moving to the middle of nowhere. She was the one who even suggested the place.” She sheepishly fetched Charlie’s wand from the middle of her kitchen rug and handed it back to him.
“What brings you to the middle of nowhere?” Charlie asked. Her face lit up in excitement.
“Darkest skies in England. Do you want to see?” she asked. Charlie nodded. She turned on her heel and skirted out of the kitchen to the adjoining living space. Her coffee table was covered in maps and scrolls. “So, I’ve been spending every waking moment tracking this comet that has been prophesied in these ancient viking texts,” she said, flipping open a massive black tome to a page she had bookmarked. “Nevermind how I found them. That story is tedious and involves a deal that I am not proud of, but let’s just say that I spent too much time with Draco Malfoy and a bottle of absinthe.”
“And Malfoy knew about a mythical comet?” Charlie asked.
“Yes! And no magical astronomers have been able to track it since it was first sighted. So my theory is that they did see it close to earth, right over England, but that it’s orbit is sort of... a flat, elongated oval.” She pulled out a map of the solar system and pointed at a purple orbital line she had drawn indicating the comet. “Which means that all this time, since the Vikings saw it, it’s been traveling away from Earth and then back towards us.”
“How do you know that, if magical astronomers can’t verify it?” Charlie asked.
“ Muggles ,” Hermione said gleefully. “Muggle scientists have been tracking a comet too, but they think it’s new. It’s anomalous because even though it’s approaching the sun, it’s not the same color as usual comets, which are yellow and white. It’s green . Like, electric green.”
“I’m beginning to understand the Malfoy interest.”
“Pure coincidence, but delightful nonetheless.” Yes, she was. She studied him and tilted her head to the side. “Sorry. I’m a bit excited. I haven’t even unpacked my suitcase.” She removed her glasses bashfully.
“No, no, don’t apologize,” Charlie laughed. “It’s nice to see a familiar face.”
“Even if we hardly know each other,” Hermione said quickly, still apologetic.
“True,” Charlie smiled, putting his hands in his pockets. “You’re well acquainted with the rest of my family though, so you’ll be happy to know that Ron’s joining us here shortly.”
Her face… fell, a bit. “Is he?”
Charlie rocked back and forth on his heels. “You’re welcome at the reserve of course. Between the eight of us, someone has always prepared a kettle of tea.”
“And conversation too, I hope?” She sat back in her floral wingback chair and pulled her knees up beneath her, as if to say, “and more conversation now ?”
Charlie straightened an invisible tie at his neck and raised a brow. “You do not yet know me well enough to know that I can be a bit of a pedant when the occasion calls for it.”
She gestured to the sofa for him to sit. “You are to be believed, if that sentence is any indication.”
Charlie smiled and shook his head. Pressure was building behind his eyes and he pinched the bridge of his nose. Bloody storm front. Couldn’t be but a few hours off. He must get back to Kielder before the worst of the weather hit, else he’d be in the throes of a migraine.
“Are you unwell?” Hermione leapt to her feet and touched his forearm.
“Fine, fine,” he said, though he winced.
“Don’t be silly, you’re flushed. And I know a headache when I see one. Sit down.” Hermione practically shoved him into her chair and ran to her medicine cabinet. She returned with a small jar of salve. “This will help. Rub it on your forehead and temples. And maybe between your eyes.” He could see the label just peeking out from beneath her fingers, but couldn’t make out her handwriting. She held it out. “It’s only topical, but it should at least dull the pressure.”
Translation: rub it into that horrid scar. Charlie sighed. “Thank you, but I really am fine. It’s just a dull annoyance.”
“Then take it home. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said, tucking the salve into his breast pocket. It made a silly lump of a thing, but he wasn’t about to remove it. “I have loads of it. I make it, in case you run out.”
“I will let you know if that happens,” he said in defeat. She smiled brightly at him. “I best be off. I’ll reassure Dora that the sink is “fixed” but best floo me directly if you need any help--”
“I won’t,” she said brightly, but her eyes glinted.
“But you won’t, as I was saying, so don’t bother. Well, goodbye forever Ms… what’s-your-name? Good luck with whatever it was.”
“Ah yes, thank you, Mr. Whos-it. I’ve already forgotten you.”
They grinned at each other for longer than seemed necessary. Charlie bowed dramatically. Hermione curtsied. He closed the door behind him. He paused again, three steps down from the landing. It was lovely--she was lovely, the whole interaction. A reunion in the wrappings of a meet-cute. He should go back and invite her for dinner that very night. Or brunch… less formal. Ginny would like that. It could be a surprise.
“It’s just that--” Her sweet voice paused at the sight of him on her stairs. They both laughed. “Well, I don’t know anyone here, and I like to think I know the Weasley’s as well as my own family--”
“Save me,” Charlie said.
“Right,” she laughed nervously.
“What if we all met up for a drink tonight?” Charlie suggested. “The Lynx and the Larch, say seven?”
“Yes, that’s just the sort of thing I had in mind,” she agreed in relief.
“See you then,” he said.
“Not if I see you first.” She shut the door rather quickly but he heard her cackle behind the door in delight. Merlin. Nothing but trouble would come of this blistering and delightful woman.