Comet Charlie streamed away from Earth at a rate observable to a keen eye, but too fast to map its trail into the dark. It would be back to visit someday--but not in the lifetime of it’s discoverer, or it’s namesake. On, and on, on it’s path it went. If the comet’s namesake had anything to say about it, that would be just enough time to convince her to stay in Butteryhaugh.
Charlie peered through the eyepiece of the telescope. Charlie-cat curled around his leg and purred, arching his back against the human’s shin in affection. Ice tinkled against the glass in his hand. “Careful, kitten,” he hummed. “You knock this drink out of my hand and you’ll be sorry.”
“I would never dare spill a drop of your precious firewhiskey,” Hermione said, tip-toeing out onto the balcony in her fuzzy slippers. She slid the door shut behind her and sidled in beside him. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pressed his lips to her temple.
“I wasn’t referring to you, but I’ll call you ‘kitten’ if you’d like.” He smiled. Hermione wrinkled her nose.
She laughed. “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t you like pet names?” he asked.
“Not especially. I have a perfectly good name.”
“But everyone calls you that,” he teased. “What if I want to call you something special?”
“You’ll have to get creative,” she laughed. He raised an eyebrow but let the subject drop. Hermione shiverred. Charlie opened the front of his coat to her; Hermione wound her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek to his chest. “London skies can’t hold a candle to a clear Butteryhaugh night,” she sighed.
“Shacklebolt wants you back, huh?” he asked softly.
“I want to go,” she said, looking up at him. “I have the opportunity to present my findings to MACUSA, I have the gala next month, and I am craving a monte cristo from the Leaky Cauldron… I think I need to go back.” She curled her fingers into his flannel. “Don’t I?”
Charlie kissed her forehead. “Not tonight, love.”
“You’re going to make this very difficult for me, aren’t you?”
“I’ve become attached,” he shrugged. Hermione sighed and pressed her forehead to his chest, but Charlie chuckled. The clock on her mantle chimed nine times. “Enough of that. Come inside.” Charlie patted her lovingly on the rear and followed her into the little flat, followed closely by Charlie-cat. Hermione rubbed her arms.
“You can’t talk me into staying, you know,” she said quietly.
“Mmhm.” He took her hand and lead her to her wingback chair. She sat. Charlie shook out her chenille blanket and draped it over her lap, tucking the sides under her legs, and then he slipped her fluffy slippers from her feet and curled the blanket beneath them. He went to the kitchenette and sparked the burner beneath her tea kettle.
“Charlie?” Hermione leaned around the chair to watch him. He picked a pair of matching mugs from the cabinet and placed a tea bag in each.
“Yes, my dear?” He finished the last sip of his firewhiskey and washed his glass out in the sink.
“You know that my career is important to me,” she said. The kettle whistled. “And I cannot afford to keep this flat and continue my work in London.”
Charlie turned off the stove and poured the steaming water into each mug. “Of course,” he said. “You cannot let that mind go to waste, and this place isn’t essential to your success.” He plopped two sugar cubes into her mug and one into his own. “Charlie-cat will miss you, I suspect.” The cat mewed.
“So you know that I’m going to be leaving Butteryhaugh, even though my time has been lovely here…” She gestured at the air. “I just… I can’t…” Hermione sighed.
Charlie swirled a spoon in Hermione’s mug and tapped it on the rim. He brought the tea to her, leaned down, and kissed her soundly on the mouth. He hummed a ditty to himself and retrieved his own tea from the counter. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “I could whip something up. I’m a bit peckish myself, to be honest. Hospital food is horrid. I know salt isn’t supposed to be good for you, but they couldn’t even spare me one flake of pepper?” He scoffed. “Three days is not enough to forget that… bean mash . What was it that Luna said I should eat while I’m recovering?” He tapped his chin.
“Beets--Charlie, are you listening to me?”
“Beets! That’s right. Ugh,” he shiverred involuntarily. “I think I’d rather have… flapjacks. That’s it! We’re having breakfast for dinner.” He kissed her again and beamed down at her.
“To answer your question--yes, I’m listening to you, darling,” he said sweetly. “But lest you forget, I am a man in recovery, and I find your presence healing. You can go whenever your career demands it, but I need you tonight. All right?” He flung the door open to Hermione’s refridgerator. “Can you give me tonight?” Hermione nodded silently. Charlie dug through the drawers but he couldn’t quite find what he was searching for. He frowned. “Rats. You don’t have any eggs, or milk for that matter.”
“I have been eating at the farm, mostly,” she said.
“Suppose that’s my fault,” he laughed, scratching his head. She couldn’t help but smile.
“It is, a bit.” She looked down at her hands and gripped the blanket tightly. She looked positively forelorn. He leaned against the counter and folded his arms, considering her. He raised an eyebrow.
“Love, do you regret all this? Now that I’m out of the hospital, and the excitement has all died down… have I lost my lustre for you?”
“No!” Hermione jumped to her feet and held out her hands to him. Charlie took them. Her eyes glistened. “I don’t know. I’m scared, I think.”
“That is grave,” he said solemnly, but his face belied amusement.
“Don’t laugh!” She hit his chest and he grabbed her hand again, but he couldn’t help another chuckle. “I’m being deadly serious!”
“Do you think I’m not terrified that you’ll change your mind at any moment?” He cupped her cheek. “Hermione, I know you didn’t come here to become involved with someone. I know you’re doing very important work. I also know that you’ve just closed the final chapter with your first love and made the biggest discovery of your career, and that is a lot to process in one go. But I’d like to help you try.”
“Ugh!” Hermione threw herself against him and squeezed. She mumbled something into his shirt that sounded an awful lot like ‘I love you, you idiot.’
“What was that?” He laughed, rubbing her back.
“I said, ‘You’re a dunderhead ,” she grumbled. She turned her face into the crook of his neck. Charlie traced circles on her jumper and rested his chin on her hair.
“I am,” he agreed. He nosed the top of her head, nevermind the wild curls tickling his cheeks. Hermione sighed into his shoulder. He’d only been out of St. Mungo’s for three days, but Charlie was positively vibrating with a new lease on life. He wanted to rescue more dragons and take on more cadets and grow his little reserve into the sanctuary that he knew it could be. He had slept better than ever since his release, and Hermione had come to the farm every morning to help him fix his meals and get his strength back up. But, they’d spent nights apart, and Hermione had started to complain of nightmares. It wasn’t that surprising; considering what they had all just gone through, it made sense that her brain was trying to process a fair amount of emotion. But he loved her, and he made sure to tell her that before she left every single night.
He had wasted so much time believing that he didn’t deserve to feel like this for another person. Deep down, he knew that he deserved it even when his face was scarred, but now that it wasn’t… he felt more worthy of her. He couldn’t help it. Call it vanity, but Charlie was relieved that when she looked at him, her eyes didn’t track to the gash in his face. Now she looked him in the eye, every single time. She smiled, too.
He hadn’t even considered what would happen between them, now that her research in Butteryhaugh was finished. She helped him home from St. Mungo’s, she read to him when he needed some down time (they had finally moved on to Pride and Prejudice , much to her delight), she forced him to hydrate and take things easy with his farm chores--she even helped him feed the baby goats and chickens. He didn’t care what they did from now on as long as he could share even the most menial of chores with her. A life, even. Perhaps that was putting the cart before the horse, but his horse happened to love Hermione, and there was no such thing as ‘too early’ when it came to his brilliant astronomer.
“Say…” he pulled back just enough to look her in the eye. “What if I helped you move out of this place?”
“And move where?” she asked.
“To the farm. With me and Gin,” he said, but he blushed. A tentative smile crossed Hermione’s face.
“What do you mean ‘with you and Gin’--like, into your spare room?”
Charlie touched her chin. “Into my bedroom, with me. Sharing my office and my library. Working from the farm and commuting to London, via my Floo.”
“Can we get bunkbeds?” She grinned.
“Only if I get the top bunk,” he laughed. “I like to be on top, you know.”
Hermione raised an eyebrow. “Actually, Charles Weasley, I don’t know that.” She leaned up and kissed him, lingering close to his face. “Besides, maybe I’ll just sleep in the library.”
“You only like me for my books,” he sighed.
“You have an awfully big library.”
“Since I met you, it just seems to grow.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
“If it’s working, then yes, it is.” He grinned at her and Hermione shook her head, smiling.
“I do love you, you know,” she said, giving him a queer look and stepping back. “I’m a calculated person. I try to plan things to a strict order. I like lists. I like organization. I have… a very hard time living without some reassurance that I’m making the right choice. I guess I just need some…”
“Proof?” Charlie suggested. Hermione nodded. Charlie knelt down on one knee and held fast to her hand. “All right. I, Charles Gideon Weasley, will love you until my body is accepted back into the earth as food for worms--hopefully I’m not conscious of that happening. I will give you a safe home here, if you will accept it. You will always have a place to be the woman that you want to be. If you decide that what you want is to move to Timbuktu and study ancient African astronomy, I’ll go with you. I’ll even find a sanctuary in Africa that will take me. If you decide that you want to move back to London without me, I will let you go. But if you want assurance and safety with a partner, Hermione, I will fight for the life we want every single day. I can’t promise not to fight with you, but I can promise I’m always going to be on your side.” He kissed her hand and sandwiched it between his own two hands. “For Merlin’s sake, have I not proven the lengths I will go to assure your happiness?”
Hermione grabbed him by the lapels of the coat he still wore and pulled him up to stand. “Listen, if this is going to work, it can’t always be about me, all right?” She shook him a bit. “The things that you want are important too. You might have to go to Romania to bring a new dragon here or something and you have to take those opportunities when they come! No more setting yourself on fire to keep me warm.”
Charlie covered her hands with his. “I promise that I will not sacrifice my own goals to keep you happy, if you promise to ask me for what you need.”
“Promise,” she breathed.
“What do you need, then?”
“I need you not to die before I do,” she said. Charlie laughed in surprise.
“I don’t know if I can promise that,” he said.
She pulled him closer. “I mean it. If we’re talking forever than you have to die first. I’ve already dealt with the prospect of you not making it and I don’t think I can take it if you die before me.”
He sighed. “All right, fine. If it is within my power, I will hold out on dying at least until one minute after you perish.”
“What else, my love?”
“I need alone time, sometimes,” she said. “It’s nothing personal, I just need my space here and there.”
“You’ll have it.”
“I sleep on the left side of the bed--” Charlie captured her lips and held her close, taking long, lingering kisses from her willing lips.
“Whatever you need, I will give you. Whatever you want, I will help you find it.” He pulled her against the length of his body. “I want you, plain and simple.”
Hermione threaded her fingers in his hair and tugged his head back so she could level her eyes with his. “I don’t want to stop touching you. Got it?”
“Got it,” he murmured. Hermione kept her gaze locked with his and walked backward towards her little bedroom. Charlie toed the door shut behind them, squarely in the face of his cat counterpart, who mewed in annoyance. Hermione tucked her fingers into the waistband of his trousers, while Charlie attempted to kick off his boots and simultaneously tug her jumper over her head. This wasn’t the first time they had become intimate, but the first time had been a quiet and gentle moment in his room at the farm, just after he came home from the hospital--he would be loathe to say he didn’t remember it very well, but he had let her take the lead. This time, his wits were about him, and he couldn’t get enough of her. Hermione allowed him to strip her down to her panties before she pulled the tie from his hair, rucked his shirt off his shoulders and shucked his trousers straight down his muscular legs. He fell onto the bed with her and she straddled him.
“Hermione? Charlie?” Ginny’s voice sounded from outside the door and Hermione growled in frustration.
“She has the worst timing,” Hermione breathed against Charlie’s mouth. He couldn’t help but pin her to the bed and kiss her soundly.
“It’s Orpheus,” Ginny said insistently. “I need help.”
Charlie sighed and pressed his forehead to Hermione’s naked shoulder. “Come on, love. We have to go.”
Hermione nodded. She sprang up and grabbed a dress from her armoire, tossing it over her head and throwing open her bedroom door. Charlie quickly righted himself and was close at hand. Ginny was sitting in the wingback chair, head in hand. Hermione knelt at her feet. “We’re here, Gin, what do you need?”
“He won’t wake up,” Ginny sobbed. “He’s just laying there, breathing shallow. I don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll go with you,” Charlie suggested. “Come on, Ginny.” Charlie helped his sister stand and hugged her close. Hermione grabbed his elbow. With a pop, they disapparated.
When the three arrived at the adult dragon paddock, the cadets were all gathered around the old Orpheus; Dean and Seamus were tending to his smoking snout, while Ralston and Geraldine tucked his beloved flannel shreds under his belly. Lathrop and Polewski were rubbing the dragon’s padded feet. Charlie raced to Orpheus’s side and pulled open one of the dragon’s eyelids. He looked at the dragon’s gums, nostrils, and teeth, and pressed his head to Orpheus’ massive chest to listen to his heart. He looked up with wide eyes.
“Everyone back up!” he shouted, motioning his cadets to fall back to the perimeter fence. He pushed Ginny back until Ralston came to comfort her, and then he reached for Hermione.
With his last breath, Orpheus became engulfed in a bright blue flame. Smoke filled the clearing and made their eyes burn. Ginny sobbed into her girlfriend’s shoulder. Every person gathered there took strength from another. The last of the flame consumed the scraps of flannel that had cushioned the dragon’s belly, and then it abruptly extinguished, leaving only the skeleton of the Welsh Green. It stood, like henge stones, curled head-to-tail in the center of the paddock. Orpheus had passed on.
Ginny looked up from Ralston’s shoulder and let out a little hiccough. She couldn’t help herself. She laughed. Ginny swiped at her cheeks. “Bloody hell,” she said. A murmur of laughter passed between the group. Hermione squeezed Charlie’s hand and he looked down at her with shining eyes.
“I need a pint,” Seamus announced.
“Aye,” several people agreed. One by one, the group peeled off for the Lynx in the Larch, where they would all inevitably end up toasting to the life of an “old friend.” Hermione shivered for the millionth time that night.
“I’m going to borrow one of your shirts,” she whispered to Charlie. He smiled and nodded once. Hermione skipped off towards the little lane, which would take her most quickly to the farmhouse. Ralston left Ginny with one last squeeze to the shoulder, leaving only Ginny and Charlie with the bones of the sanctuary’s first dragon.
Charlie held out his arm to his sister and Ginny took it. She hugged him.
“We gave him a good life,” Charlie reassured her. She nodded.
“I know.” She looked up at him. “He loved it here.”
“He most certainly did.” Charlie rubbed her arm.
“Is it always this hard?” Ginny asked.
Charlie sighed. “No, sometimes it’s easier. If they’re really sick and they go suddenly, it makes it easier to justify it to your heart. Don’t get me wrong, he was an old grump, but he was important to me. We’ll all feel this one for a while.”
“You old softie,” Ginny teased gently. She laid her head on his shoulder. Then, she looked up at him suddenly and frowned. “Oh gods… tell me you were wearing pants when I popped into Hermione’s flat.”
“I was wearing pants,” he repeated, but he shook his head and Ginny covered her face.
“Gross, gross, gross, I don’t want to think about what I almost walked in on!” She faked vomiting and Charlie laughed.
“You didn’t ruin anything,” he reassured her. “She’s in no hurry to leave me.”
Ginny swatted him on the arm. “You asked her to stay?”
“I got on my knees, Ginny.”
Ginny didn’t know whether to hug him or punch his arm in excitement so she sort of flailed in his direction and squealed. “Please marry her and have eight babies immediately--”
“Hey now,” he said, grabbing his sister’s elbow. “If Hermione and I decide to get married, that’s between Us. It will be a mutual decision, and not one I spring on her suddenly, or an ultimatum from our families that we cave to. And I’m too old to have eight children unless we have them all at once.”
“But you want to father her babies,” Ginny said, conspiratorially looping her arm through his.
“I would, yes,” he chuckled.
“Everything is perfect,” Ginny sighed. She cast one last, sad look at her old dragon friend. “Come on, brother. I’d like to buy you a pint.”
Nine witches and wizards squeezed into a booth at the Lynx, each with a pint in hand. They silently toasted to their lost friend. They had come so far since Orpheus came to the reserve and seeing him go was a rite of passage they would forever share. The gravity of that reality settled the table into a quiet moment of mutual appreciation. Then, Dean and Seamus became aware of the dart board and the moment was broken as they challenged one another to a friendly match. Geraldine, Lathrop, and Polewski followed behind to place their bets on a winner. Only four tired friends remained in the booth. Ginny grasped Ralston’s hand and looked lovingly at her partner.
“We’ve decided to get engaged,” Ralston said quietly. “We wanted you to know first. I realize it may change my assignment here once it’s formally announced.” Ginny rubbed her thumb over the back of Ralston’s hand.
“Mum will be happy that we’ve all sorted ourselves,” Ginny giggled. Charlie looked briefly alarmed and then narrowed his eyes at his little sister.
“Please get married immediately and have eight babies?” Charlie said, more as an accusation than an echo of Ginny’s earlier sentiment.
“Can’t a girl wish her brother the same happiness she has found?” Ginny asked, blushing. Hermione blushed too, but Charlie held out his hand to her.
“Don’t worry about us,” Hermione said. She leaned into Charlie’s side and he kissed her forehead. “We’re grand.”
The four friends toasted one another’s happiness and drank deeply. A heavy hand dropped onto Charlie’s shoulder and he turned his head slowly. None other than Dec the Oaf had clapped him on the shoulder and the man was positively beaming as Charlie faced him.
“Cor! You’re a sight for sore eyes, my man,” Dec said, shaking Charlie’s hand vigorously. “You look a beaut! Don’t tell me you ‘ad cosmetic?” Then, the man mimed a knife cutting into his own face. Charlie coughed lightly.
“Oh… yep. Had the ole’ touch-up on my mug.” Charlie said, pointing to his forehead. “The ole… slice and dice.”
“You can’t even tell .” Dec made a gesture as if his mind had been blown. “‘Ho did your tune-up, iffen ya don’t mind me askin’?”
“She did,” Charlie dead-panned, thumbing over to Hermione. “Best cosmetic surgeon in town.”
“My last procedure before retirement,” she said with a faux-sigh. “I always said once I turned fifty that I’d hang up my scalpel.”
“You’ve earned a long vacation,” Charlie said, patting her hand. “Doesn’t she look good for fifty?”
Dec lost his mind entirely. “Ravishing, mate,” he said in awe. “Don’t let me keep ya, jus’ wanted to jaw at ya.” Dec backed away, bowing as he went. He made dramatic gestures to O’Dell behind the bar, indicating a round for the whole table. Ginny and Ralston snickered behind their hands.
“How do you know that fellow?” Hermione asked softly.
“Beat him with a milk bottle once,” Charlie shrugged, “after he and his mate drunkenly jumped me. He seems to have forgiven me for that.” He looked down at his partner and nodded towards the door. She agreed. Charlie scooted out of the booth and helped her stand. “We’ve got a cat to feed. See you in the morning.”
“If I didn’t know you have a tabby up in that apartment, I would think you’re being crude,” Ralston laughed. Ginny elbowed her, but they both snickered. Charlie rolled his eyes, Hermione blushed, and they left the bar that had suddenly gotten way too stuffy.
Charlie and Hermione linked elbows as they walked down the cobblestone street, past all the glowing street lamps and closed-up storefronts to Dora’s bookshop. It was past midnight and they were the only people out. Hermione fished her keys out of her pocket and opened the front door. Charlie shut and locked it behind them. Silently, he followed her through the darkened shop to the back stairway, up her stairs, and into the small flat. Hermione toed off her flats beside the coat rack, while Charlie hung his coat on a hook. She fed Charlie-cat a scoop of dry food. Charlie-the-man waited patiently for her in the threshold of her bedroom. As the kitten took tentative bites of his food, Hermione turned towards the handsome man across the flat and leaned against her counter. He smiled.
Hermione padded across the plush carpet to his feet. She peered up at him. “My sink still leaks, you know.”
“Give me ten minutes--”
“Oh no you don’t.” Hermione grabbed his arm and yanked him into her room with a giggle.