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Playing Cyrano

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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…”

“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.”

“At… what?”

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?”

“Nepotism?”

“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.”

“Good.”

“Fine.”

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.

Chapter Text

“I swear, Ginny Weasley, you’re going to be the end of me!” Hermione dabbed her mouth in her sleeve. A small spout of beer had escaped. Ginny’s particular brand of teasing had that effect on a person.

“I’m just saying!” Ginny cackled. “Just because Butteryhaugh is full of old men, it doesn’t mean that they’re without their charms!”

“I’m not in the market for a rich old husband,” Hermione laughed.

“Good thing none of them are rich!”

“You’re mental.”

“That’s the pot calling the kettle black!” Ginny downed the rest of her pint. “Another?” She tapped Hermione’s own empty glass. Hermione exhaled in resignation and Ginny bounded to the bar with glee. O’Dell braced his hands on the bar and clicked his tongue in mock disappointment.

“Ginevra! You’d have been on your fourth glass on any other night!” His cloudy eyes sparkled.

“I have to be responsible and keep my eye on that one,” Ginny said, gesturing to her sweet friend, sitting alone in the corner booth. A crash sounded and O’Dell winced. His granddaughter Eliza, a very freshly twenty-one-year-old girl, had managed to overturn a full tray of empty glasses while trying to fit through the door to the kitchen.

“I know what that’s like,” he grumbled.

“She’s trying,” Ginny said.

“She’s a bull in a China shop,” he said. “This round is on my granddaughter.” O’Dell set two new, full pints on the bar and excused himself to help clean up the mess. Behind her, a grand, rousing burst of delight broke the gentle murmur from fellow patrons. Ginny rolled her eyes.

“Can you go anywhere without fanfare?” she teased, wheeling on a bashful Charlie Weasley, who was shouldering off the friendly handshakes and back-slapping greetings from fellow drinkers. He was embarrassed by the attention every time he showed his face in the Lynx in the Larch; Ginny would be a liar if she said she didn’t enjoy watching her older brother squirm under the attentive cheers. She nodded to the corner booth, where Hermione was now having her ear chatted off by two familiar dragon tamers. Seamus and Dean could not have looked more delighted to see her, and her pink cheeks betrayed her own delight.

“Showing her a traditional Butteryhaugh evening of beer and debauchery?” Charlie laughed. “You’ll run her out of town by midnight.”

“You’re the one who brought the two biggest flirts in town!”

You try talking those two out of anything ,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “As soon as I let slip that she was in town, it took everything in me to convince them to at least bathe before coming. The baby got out in the process.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the bar. O’Dell reemerged from the kitchen and gave him a knowing nod.

“Sherry told me. She also said you were ‘in a mood’ after he was finally corralled.” Ginny grinned when Charlie rubbed his face in frustration.

“If the population of our little farm is now at risk because of a pretty girl--”

“She is pretty, isn’t she?” Ginny glanced at Hermione, and Charlie’s eyes followed. Hermione had piled her wild curls on top of her head and was wiping her eyes beneath her glasses, trying to stifle peals of laughter. Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can’t believe you never met her. She’s a Weasley family favorite.”

“I did meet her, at Bill and Fleur’s wedding,” he said. O’Dell slid a Guinness his way and Charlie took a deep sip.

“That doesn’t count. That’s not quality time , brother.”

Charlie narrowed his eyes at his sister. “What’s your angle?”

“No angle,” Ginny shrugged. “She’s my best mate. You’re my favorite brother--”

“Don’t.”

“Charlie!” Hermione’s lilting joy echoed across the bar as she realized he had finally made it. She waved him over and boxed Dean’s shoulder for him to move so Charlie could sit in the booth. He acquiesced, with one last warning look to Ginny.

“Don’t what?” Ginny murmured, watching the way Hermione threw her arms around Charlie’s neck the moment he sat down. She was a lightweight--but the joy was real. It always was, with Hermione. She had become a ministry star with the transfer to the Magical Astrology department, and doing what she loved finally allowed her to enjoy the free time that wasn’t occupied with research. Her effect on the people that surrounded her, as a result of her newfound joy, was obvious.

Charlie was genuinely, toothfully, smiling for once.

Several beers later, Hermione was leaning against Charlie, his arm around her shoulders, giggling at everything, while Seamus and Dean were arguing about when either of them had last had a real butterbeer. Ginny looked at her watch and then at Charlie. She nodded to the leaning witch. Charlie rubbed Hermione’s arm.

“Ginny’s going to walk you home, yeah?” he said. Hermione turned her flushed face up to beam at him dreamily. Ginny pointed at him and raised her eyebrows in question. He shook his head. Ginny shrugged and downed the last of her own beer. He slid out of the booth and helped Hermione with her coat. Her fingers didn’t agree with the large buttons on her coat, so he fastened them for her, up to her chin.

“Thanks, Char,” Hermione yawned.

“‘S all right,” he said. He jammed his hands into his pockets and stepped away. She turned back to her old school mates and exchanged pleasant ‘farewell’s’. The bell on the door tinkled.

“Ronald Weasley, as I live and breathe!” Seamus crowed.

Hermione blanched. Charlie winced. What timing Ron had, showing up when the drinking was nearly done. Seamus ran past him and guffawed with joy, an excitement that was echoed by Dean. Ginny rolled her eyes at Charlie, who gave her the tiniest nod. He turned to greet his younger brother.

“Caught the latest possible portkey, eh?” Charlie whispered as he embraced Ron. Ron shrugged.

“Gin said you’re usually out late,” he said. “Didn’t think it would matter.”

“Would’ve liked to receive you at the farm,” Charlie said. “At a reasonable hour. But you’re here now. Get yourself a pint on me.” He caught O’Dell’s eye and held up two fingers. If he had to trade Hermione’s company for Ron’s, he might as well have another, too. Ron stepped around him to greet his sister, but stopped dead at the sight of Hermione, who had, just then, grabbed Charlie’s elbow to steady herself.

“Ron!” she peeped. Her grip tightened to a vice on Charlie’s arm.

Ron gulped heavily. He said nothing. Just… stared.

“You have the worst timing, Ronald,” Ginny said, “we’re just leaving. I’ll see you back at home.”

Only then did Ron finally look at his sister. He was… green. He carded a hand through his hair, turned on his heel, and bolted for the doorway to the loo.

“What’s wrong with ‘im?” Seamus laughed.

“Probably nauseated from the journey,” Ginny said quickly. “Come on, ‘Mione.”

Hermione was staring in the direction Ron had run, but a pat on the shoulder from Ginny shook her back to earth. She released her death grip from Charlie’s arm, but used it to steady herself, sliding her fingers into his palm and giving it a squeeze. “Nice talking to you,” she said softly. “You’re fun. Sorry ‘bout getting silly. Been a while since I drank, really.”

Charlie chuckled. “You were a delight.”

“See you,” she said with a smile.

“See you,” he echoed. She released his hand. Ginny took Hermione’s elbow and lead the brunette out of the bar. The mournful tinkle of the bell on the door signaled the exit of the evening’s interest, for Charlie. He retrieved his and Ron’s pints from the bar and slid back into the booth with Seamus and Dean. Ron emerged ten minutes later, looking sweaty and worse for wear. Charlie pushed his pint across the small table. Ron drank until he coughed.

“What the hell, mate?” Dean said, clapping Ron on the back.

“You look awful,” Seamus said.

Ron glared at him and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ate some bad curry,” he grumbled.

“Can you believe Hermione’s in town? All we need is Harry and we’ll have a perfect reunion on our hands,” Seamus said gleefully, rubbing his hands together.

“Don’t think the Headmaster can be spared,” Dean said. The two friends chattered on, while Charlie regarded his youngest brother across the table. Ron was much altered from the last time Charlie had seen him; nevermind that he looked sick, he was fit and looked to be strong. Once he got over the bad curry.

“She’s not staying at the sanctuary,” Ron murmured to Charlie, more as a plea than a question. Charlie shook his head and raised an eyebrow. Ron sighed in relief. He didn’t bring Hermione up again that night, and his countenance only improved with the addition of several beers, but Charlie couldn’t help but note how disturbed Ron was by her presence in town. Weren’t they sweet on each other, once? He couldn’t remember for certain. Either way, that wasn’t a reunion of delighted friends.

 

*

 

Hermione’s fingers browsed the spines of the used fiction section. Dora had done a respectable job of stocking classic Muggle authors; Dickens, Hemingway, all the Bronte’s, and a healthy Jane Austen section, which rivaled her own collection. It had been sheer luck that her landlord was also the owner of this delightful little bookshop, not to mention one that was so well curated. Dora had given her express permission to borrow whatever titles struck her fancy. Today, that book was Persuasion . She clutched the little book to her chest and continued her browsing into the mysteries. The door chimed. She peeked between the stacks. She was expecting Charlie to help her with her telescope, but a different Weasley had found his way into the shop.

Ron.

Hermione pressed her back to the shelves and shut her eyes. Damn. What was he doing here?

Dora’s sing-song voice greeted her new customer. “Hello, dear! What brings you in today?”

“I called earlier, about that Jane Austen book?” he said. Hermione’s eyes snapped open. She wheeled around and peeked through the books again. Dora’s face lit up.

“Ah! Persuasion ! I happen to know that we have a very gently loved copy, if you don’t mind a used book,” Dora said, pointing towards the back corner where Hermione was currently taking cover. Hermione swore silently and glared down at the book in her hands. “I’ll just show you where it is.” Hermione rushed over to the Austen shelf and tossed the book on top of the other titles, and then ducked around the corner into Dora’s office, just before Dora rounded the shelves with Ron. “Here we are!” Dora said. “It’s sitting here like it’s been waiting for you all day!”

“That’s the one,” Ron said. “Thank you.”

Hermione breathed out heavily from her hiding place. He was reading Jane Austen? She had never been able to persuade him to read Beedle the Bard when they were together, let alone her favorite author. And here he was, looking for her favorite of all Austen’s stories, at the same time she was seeking it herself. But he couldn’t even give her a “hello” in the pub? Hermione escaped up the back stairs and latched the door to her flat behind her.

She rubbed her face. Why was it so impossible to imagine that he had changed after all this time?  

 

*

 

Charlie had been occupied the entire morning with training Ralston to administer innoculations to the adolescent dragons; Ron was supposed to help them, but he had volunteered to run an errand in town for Seamus, who was too embarrassed to do it himself. Would’ve taken much less time with Ron’s help, but he couldn’t begrudge his brother for doing a friend a favor. Still, Ralston had done a fine job. Ginny was right, she was quite capable with the young ones. If only the rest of the recruits were so capable.

Ron returned around noon with Seamus’ prize, a book that Hermione had drunkenly made Seamus promise to read. Ron had been quite well received by the Cadets at breakfast. It helped that Seamus and Dean were his schoolmates and particular friends. Polewski, Waters, and Lathrop had given him a bit of grief over his request for plain oats for breakfast, but that was the extent of the conflict. Ron had agreed to lead the afternoon drills so Charlie could do some Ministry paperwork and run into town for his evening rounds. It would be nice to have someone to pick up where he left off, Charlie thought.

Unfortunately, Charlie realized rather belatedly that he had promised to help Hermione move her telescope onto the rooftop balcony by noon. In fact, he remembered the broken engagement at two p.m, two hours after his scheduled appointment. He raced into his study and threw floo powder into the fire.

“Calling Hermione Granger!” he exclaimed. Just a moment later, her sunny face appeared in his own embers. “I am a dunderhead, Hermione, I completely forgot.”

She laughed. “I could never be mad at you,” she said. “I assumed it slipped your mind.”

“You’re not forgettable, I swear,” he said. “I was expecting help from Ron this morning but he went into town on an errand. We took longer than I anticipated. I am sorry.”

Hermione cleared her throat. “Yes, I know. He came into Dora’s shop.”

Charlie nodded once. “He was picking up a book--”

“Jane Austen,” she said quickly. “My favorite.”

“You spoke to him, then.”

“No, I--” she stopped. “Anyway, I did see him.”

“I’m coming into town this evening to help a few of Butteryhaugh’s finest with odd jobs,” he said. “I can still come by, if you like.”

“Nah, it’s fine. It’s too cloudy to do any observations tonight anyway.” She smiled at him. “Say, Charlie? Have you ever read Jane Austen?”

He coughed. “Can’t say that I have. She’s a muggle author, is she not?”

She is a Muggle icon ,” Hermione corrected.

“Well, then, I’m sorry that I’ve missed out,” Charlie said.

“Do you like to read?”

“I do.”

“I’ll bring you one of hers. I assume you’ll be going to the Lynx tonight?”

“Might do. If all goes well with our relocation tonight. Why don’t you come by for tea and see the sanctuary? If you’re not doing anything--”

“Get your big head out of my fireplace and I’ll come through,” she said with excitement. “I’ll go back to town with you when you leave to do your duties.”

“Great! Nobody’s around the farm now, though,” he said. “Just me.”

She looked… relieved, strangely. “Perfect.”

“Great.” They just smirked at one another for a moment, before Hermione abruptly ended the floo call. Charlie chuckled and stepped back. Not five minutes later, his hearth flashed with green fire and she emerged from his fireplace, book and bag in hand. She stumbled forward and he grabbed her hands.

“Hi,” she said.

Charlie couldn’t help but grin back.

 

*

 

Charlie lead Hermione all over the farmhouse; he was proud of the little place, which was mostly homey thanks to Ginny’s efforts. It was quaint, but Hermione said that the wee place felt cozy, and that was high praise. As she observed their pleasant sitting room, he let himself take her in. She had plaited her hair in a lovely way, curls tucked back in a four-strand twist. Baby curls tickled her temples and cheeks. Her hair was curlier than his, but just as thick. He had left it un-tied and he felt like a scraggly hobo next to her. He tucked it behind his ears absent-mindedly. Movement caught his peripheral vision and he turned to see it’s origin… only to catch his own eye in the large, antique mirror.

He scoffed softly. Hermione heard him and turned.

“Sorry! I’m caught up in your library,” she said bashfully.

“No, no, I’m unbothered,” he said, smiling. “Take your time.” She fished in her bag for the book she had brought for him.

“I didn’t know which one you would like, so I went with a safer choice,” she said, handing over her worn copy of Sense and Sensibility . It was warm from her hands. Charlie knew what her hands felt like in his, and he suddenly felt jealous of every book she had ever held.

“Thank you,” he said. “I will give you a full report of my enjoyment.”

“You don’t have to like it.”

“I’m sure I will.” He tucked the book under his arm and tried to ignore the sensation of seeing himself in the mirror out of the corner of his eye. He looked uncomfortable.

“Charlie?” Ginny’s voice called from downstairs. “Are you here?”

“We’re upstairs, Gin!” he called. Her footsteps sounded up the stairs.

“Who’s we?” she asked as she rounded the doorway into the sitting room. Her face lit up at the sight of Hermione. “Only the best ‘we’ that could have appeared!” She hugged Hermione.

“Hi,” Hermione giggled. “I could really use a cuppa.”

“Now that I can provide!” Ginny took her elbow and the dear friends spoke softly, voices trailing down the stairs. Charlie let out the breath that he had been holding since Hermione had come through the fireplace.

The friends reconvened with Charlie in the kitchen. Hermione looked up at him brightly and then narrowed her eyes at him as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Headache.

“Did you ever use that salve I gave you?” Hermione asked.

In truth, he hadn’t. It was still in the pocket of the shirt he had been wearing. “Nothing really helps,” he said, sitting across the table from her.

“What causes your headaches?”

Charlie glanced at Ginny, who just raised her eyebrows at him. Nobody ever asked him about it. Nobody ever broached the topic of his well-being in general, except for Ginny. Most people who brought the scar up to him did so in order to ridicule.

He cleared his throat. “The culprit seems to be related to my scar,” Charlie said softly. “Or the spell that I caused it, more specifically.”

“What was it? I have a feeling if it’s just radiant pain then it could potentially go away once you’re healed fully--”

“I don’t know,” he said quickly. “Hence my bewilderment as to a treatment.” The panic was rising in his chest--panic that usually turned to anger before too long. He tried to push it down. She meant well, she really did.

“Would you try the salve, anyway?” Hermione asked. “It might help! You never know.”

He hit his hand on the tabletop. Hermione and Ginny both jumped. He closed his fist and stared down at the floor. “I have done everything I can,” he breathed. “I have tried everything.

Hermione leaned forward and put her hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry. I was out of line, Charlie, I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t know what’s best for you, or--”

“The gesture was well-meant.” He smiled sadly, patting her hand. The grandfather clock chimed. “I’m late. Ginny, you’ll help Hermione back to town, won’t you?” Charlie stood and strode out the door without a second look back. The front door shut just a bit too hard. Hermione winced and stared into her tea.

Ginny groaned. “He’s thankful. I swear.”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” Hermione said. “I insulted him.”

Ginny narrowed her eyes. “Do you know how many people try to… make him “comfortable” about his scar? It’s horrid to watch. They overcompensate. They look him dead in the eye, unblinking, as if daring him to feel self-conscious. It is perfectly normal to see him and be viscerally affected. He’s not an idiot, Hermione. He knows what it’s like to catch his image out of the corner of your eye. He is the one who sees that scar in the mirror every morning.”

Hermione threw her hands up. “I just don’t want him to think that I think he needs to fix it… in order for me to look at him. Because he’s not bad to look at. I mean, it’s not hard, looking at him. But if he’s still in pain...”

Ginny smirked. “He’s always been handsome and a scar doesn’t change that. But he has seen every specialist on magical scarring and pain management that exists in England. He’s even seen a few Muggle doctors. He just muscles through it, like he does everything else.”

“So… you don’t think he was insulted.”

“Who knows?” Ginny took a long, slow slurp of her coffee. “I hope he does use it, though. Your salve might work, might not. But it will  most certainly give him a different way to look at his face every day. Between you and me? His confidence is in the shitter. Thinks he’s not worth spitting on, let alone being given a gift.”

“He’s a human being!” Hermione scoffed. “He shouldn’t have to feel that way!”

“No, he shouldn’t.” Ginny agreed, crossing her arms and considering Hermione, who was sitting across the table with her fists clenched and her teeth on edge. “We nearly lost him.”

“How bad was it?” Hermione peeped.

Ginny trailed her fingertip from her own forehead, across her nose, down her neck and sternum, and stopping beneath her right breast. “Could’ve cleaved him in half. Still looks like it might. Bad as it looks now, it’s nothing compared to what he looked like in hospital.”

“And it never bothers you ?”

“Me?” Ginny scoffed. “Please. I have one brother lacking an ear, one with a scar from top to belly button, one of them is a Gods-be-damned werewolf, and all of them with freckles and ginger hair to spare. They all blend together after a while. Charlie’s just the nicest, stubbornest, least egotistical of them all. He’s a bastard when he’s hungover, and self conscious to a fault, but besides that. He’s tops.” Ginny reached over and touched her friend’s arm. “Thank you for being so considerate. I’m afraid I won’t be able to shed much light on his feelings. I’m not attracted to him. That would be weird. But if you care about his feelings, you could always ask him.”

“I’m not attracted to him!” Hermione blanched. “Not that he’s unattractive, I’m just not… I didn’t mean the gift to be… he and I are friends, we’re friends.”

“You’re friends,” Ginny agreed with a smirk.

“As I said. Just friends.”

“You mentioned that,” Ginny laughed. “Nevermind that you’re perma-grin when he’s around.”

Hermione blushed deeply but she shook her head. “I barely know him.”

“That’s never stopped you fancying someone before.”

“Ginny!”

“Fine, fine. I’ll leave it alone.”

“Good.” Hermione crossed her arms and sat back in her chair with a gravely serious look. Ginny couldn’t help but grin, which made Hermione smile against her will. “You would drive Emma Woodhouse to distraction! He’s your brother , for Pete’s sake.”

“You have a type,” Ginny said with glee.

“Speaking of which… nearly ran into Ron today in Dora’s shop,” she said in exasperation.

“Why is it so awkward between you two?” Ginny asked. “I thought you broke up amicably.”

“We did. Last time we saw each other, we were cordial. Congenial, even.” Hermione stared down at her hands. “But he sent me a weird letter about a year ago, asked me not to speak to him anymore, that it was best for both of us. I tried to write him back, but all my letters were returned.”

Ginny sighed. “Do you want me to talk to him?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione cried. “Obviously he doesn’t want to speak to me. And we don’t need to be friends, only--only it’s just so uncomfortable! This town isn’t big enough for the two of us. He doesn’t even look like he did before. He’s so different, I would hardly know him if we met by chance.”

“What do you mean?” Ginny asked.

“He’s so severe,” Hermione said. “He’s all… conditioned to be a tamer, and all that. He’s not the scrawny clown I survived the war with. But then again, he picked up my favorite book in Dora’s shop today. I couldn’t get him to use Austen to wipe his bum back then, let alone read it .”

“Maybe he’s matured.”

“Maybe.”

Hermione and Ginny sat silently then; Hermione lost in thought and cup of tea forgotten, and Ginny trying to decide from which side of the family her brothers had inherited a streak of cowardice.

Chapter Text

Charlie couldn’t shake it off. She had just… looked at him. She must pity him. Who was he kidding? She was too logical to ever imagine an attachment between them, despite the fact that their senses of humor were so alike. But then again, they had only been acquainted for a few days! How could he even be thinking like that? It was foolish to consider her as anything other than a new friend. A beautiful one, with ideas to match, but someone he barely knew. It was too much too soon to imagine she felt… nevermind. A Guinness would put him to right.

He was staring into his beer when he felt someone sit on the stool beside him, to his left. He glanced at his new companion. Hermione. He coughed in surprise. She looked apologetic and sad.

“Can we forget about what I said and go back to being friends?” she asked softly. “I’ve been beating myself up all afternoon.” Charlie held out his arm to her and she leaned into the embrace. She tucked her head into the crook of his neck and wound her arm behind his back, squeezing him tight.

“There’s nothing to forgive, Hermione.” He rubbed her arm, and then released her reluctantly. She breathed out in relief. Charlie slid her his untouched beer. He nodded to O’Dell, who poured him a new pint. “Did you like the farm?” he asked.

“Loved it,” she said. “Told Ginny as much.” She took a sip of her beer and wiped the foam from her lip.

“Did you meet any of our animals?”

“Just one. Orpheus.” She put her hand over her heart sadly.

“Poor fella,” he said, shaking his head. “Ginny doesn’t know just how close he is to death.”

“I think you underestimate her,” Hermione said. He looked at her with a raised brow. “She suspects you haven’t been honest with her about his health.” Charlie looked away and blushed. Hermione put her hand on his arm. “She can take it. She’s talking about sleeping outside his pen tonight in case he has another hiccoughing fit in the night.”

“I have been waiting for the right moment,” he admitted, “but that moment never came. She deserves to hear it from me.” Hermione’s fingers squeezed his forearm. He put his hand over hers. “I suppose I can’t put it off any longer, eh?”

“She’s meeting me here in a few minutes,” Hermione said. “Might as well tell her when there’s a pint nearby for comfort.”

“I had better comfort my own nerves, then.”

Hermione clinked her glass against his and they both drank deeply. They sat in comfortable silence then, with Hermione’s hand tucked in the bend of his elbow. Charlie couldn’t quite settle his nerves with her touching him. All the hairs on his arms were stood on end, in fact, but his sleeves hid his adolescent reaction. She kept looking up at him and the corners of her mouth would turn up every time.

The bell on the door chimed. Ginny stepped inside and waved. “I should go, then,” he said, reluctantly. Hermione’s face fell, but she agreed. Charlie motioned O’Dell over. “Put her next pint on my tab,” Charlie said, nodding to Hermione.

“Your evening is already paid for,” O’Dell said. He pointed. Charlie followed the bartender’s gaze, over his shoulder, to the back corner of the pub. Two bashful blokes held up their pints. The Stick and the Oaf. Charlie nodded in thanks and chuckled. Well.

“Friends of yours?” Hermione asked.

“Something like that,” he said. Charlie sighed, patted Hermione on the shoulder, and met his sister at the door. “Let’s take a walk, Gin.”

Hermione smiled after them and turned back to her beer. The fact that the Weasley’s remained close, even as adults, was such a comfort. They were good to each other and good to their friends. Just look at her! She hadn’t been in town but three days and they were steadfast in their support. Charlie and Ginny had as much as promised that she would never feel lonely as long as she was in Butteryhaugh. It was strange, though, that Ron hadn’t said even a single word to her the evening prior. Had they truly parted on such unsavory terms that he couldn’t even say ‘hello’? What had she done to deserve such a cold greeting?

“Is this seat taken?” a deep voice asked behind her. Hermione turned to see a hulking man with a patchy beard and several missing teeth.

“Yes, my friend just stepped out for a moment,” she peeped. The man leaned close to her and grinned.

“Your friend,” he scoffed.

“Yes, he’ll be right back.” Hermione cleared her throat and glanced at O’Dell, but the bartender was turned away having a spirited conversation at the end of the bar.

“What’s your friend’s name?” the hulking Lunk asked, rolling his eyes.

“Charlie.”

“Why would ‘Charlie’ leave such a delightful little flower alone?” the Lunk said. He raised an eyebrow and Hermione cringed. The bell on the door tinkled and her head snapped to the door, praying for Charlie and seeing… Ron. Ron’s eyes widened and looked from Hermione to the Lunk. Then, his eyes darkened. Hermione blushed and looked away from Ron.

“Listen, I’m sure you’re… nice,” Hermione said plainly, “but I’m neither available, interested, or patient enough to speak with you any longer. Have a lovely evening, anywhere but here.” She smiled fakely and then turned her back on the Lunk. The man laid a heavy mitt on her shoulder. She shrugged him off.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Ron growled behind her. The Lunk laughed.

“Oh, this must be Charlie!” The Lunk loomed over Ron by nearly a foot, and set his pint down on the bar. “Here to fetch your ‘friend’ away?”

“Just leave it, Ronald,” Hermione sighed.

“Yeah, Ronald ,” the Lunk jeered. “We’re fine, here.”

Hermione fingered the cuff of her jumper and felt for the end of her wand. This moron looked like he might catch a case of the slug burps if he wasn’t careful. The Lunk leaned back and crossed his arms.

“She said she wasn’t interested,” Ron insisted.

“She’s still here, isn’t she?” the Lunk said. He sat beside Hermione on the stool and she stood up so quickly that she upended her pint and caught her foot on the base of the bar. She fell into Ron, who grabbed her elbow to steady her. Hermione looked up at him. Ron blanched. He set her on her feet, nodded to her, and bolted for the loo.

The Lunk crowed with laughter. “What an effect you have on men.”

Hermione’s hand crept under her cuff. A firm hand caught her wrist and pulled her towards a distant table. “Not worth it,” Ginny muttered. Hermione cast one last look back at the Lunk. Charlie stood in her place, sleeves rolled up, positioned between their haven and the Lunk. He crossed his arms. The whole establishment hushed. Every single person in the pub had seen what an angry Charlie Weasley could do.

“You had better go,” Charlie said. “Your pint’s on me. Be on your way.”

The hulking man stood. Charlie was shorter than him, but he did not appear to be the least bit intimidated. He held out an arm and gestured to the door. The Lunk looked to O’Dell for the support but the bartender shook his head. He shrugged, chugged his beer, belched, and pushed past Charlie. Charlie couldn’t resist knocking the man with his shoulder as he passed.

“Watch it, Scarface,” the Lunk growled.

“Classic,” Charlie said, throwing up his hands. “But weak. Descriptive and yet… meaningless.”

“Piss off!”

“What?” Charlie said, stepping toe to toe with the Lunk. “Can’t you be a little more creative?”

“Think you can do better?” The Lunk’s exasperated snort blew Charlie’s hair off his face. Charlie chuckled. He scanned the rapt faces of their fellow patrons and his gaze focused on Dec the Oaf in the back corner… he looked petrified.

“Whatever the highest bill that man is carrying,” Charlie said, pointing to Dec, “that’s how many Something Better’s I’ll give you.” Charlie raised his brow in a silent dare. The Lunk strode over to Dec, who was vigorously shaking his head.

“Don’t do it, mate!” Dec pleaded, while simultaneously handing over his wallet. The Lunk ignored him and fished out his wager. He held the note aloft.

“It’s not your lucky day,” The Lunk said. “Twenty pounds.”

The room buzzed. Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose. Well, he had stepped in it.

“Go on, Charlie!” His head snapped to the source of the voice--Hermione. She was beaming at him. He threw up his hands.

“Twenty, eh?” he said, rubbing his hands together. The Lunk shoved the wallet back into Dec’s hands and crossed his arms.

“Like the lady said: Go. On.”

Charlie threw up his hands. “All right.”

The room exploded with cheers and clapping. Those who knew better than to cross Charlie also knew better than to doubt him; this was his home turf. He had the advantage. He was handed a shot of whiskey on his right and a pint of Guinness on his left. Charlie took the shot, perched himself on a bar stool, and took in his attentive audience.

“Let’s begin with the obvious,” Charlie said, swirling his beer. “Wow! Must be nice to save money at Halloween!” Several people chuckled. “Cosmetic... ‘Have you tried any concealer? Like spackle?”

“Ouch,” O’Dell laughed, shaking his head.

Charlie shrugged. “Personal: ‘When they said you had a chip on your shoulder, I assumed they meant figuratively.”

“That’s three!” Ginny called.

“Geological,” Charlie said. “Well aren’t you gorge-ous?” He took a deep swig of his beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Envious... ‘Most people only have one crack!”

A communal amused groan spread through the room, followed by scattered shouts of ‘five!’

“Practical: ‘You make a better gutter than a window!” Charlie stood. He was buzzing, now. “Nice: ‘At least when you cry, your tears know where to run!’ Playful : ‘If that gash was complete, your tongue could play cheek-a-boo!’” He chugged the rest of his beer and handed his empty pint to The Lunk. “British: ‘Mind the gap!”

The patrons let out a resounding cheer. The Lunk tried to hand him back the glass; Charlie tapped his chin and tilted his head. “Theatrical: ‘Out of curiosity… are you keeping a young opera singer hostage in your basement?” He leaned over to Hermione. “How many is that?”

She giggled. “Ten, Charlie. Come on, ten more!”

“Ten more!” the patrons cheered. Charlie leaned against Ginny and Hermione’s table.

“Ten more,” he breathed. “All right. Murderous : ‘How unlucky to have a face only Lizzie Borden could love!”

The Lunk was bewildered, now, and growing ever annoyed.

“Scientific: ‘If you tried to cross your eyes, you’d need a rope--the bridge of your nose is out!” Charlie braced one hand on the back of Hermione’s chair and the other on his hip. "Humorous: ‘What do you get when you cross an axe and a boomerang?” Then, he pointed at his face.

“Oh God,” Ginny said laughing. The room followed suit.

Charlie tapped his chin. “Inquiry: ‘Is it dangerous for you to put tongue in cheek?” He looked down at Hermione, who was keeping a countdown. She held up six fingers. He grinned. She blushed.

“Ginny, cover your ears,” he said with a wry look on his face. When she didn’t, he shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Pornographic : ‘I’d like to sit on that fault line! The climax would be positively seismic.”

“La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!” Ginny put her fingers in her ears and cringed. Hermione covered her face with her hands. All of the old men whooped.

“Five more!” they cheered.

Charlie straightened and stared down the Lunk. “Religious: ‘Surely God only meant for you to have a cleft chin... he must have sneezed.”

“Four!”

“Disgusting: ‘You don’t burp very often, but you’re quite gash-ious!”

“Three!”

Charlie took a slow step towards his opponent, whose fists were clenched at his sides. He had lost. “Vocational,” Charlie said, taking another measured step. “I’m sure that lumberjack didn’t mean to hit you! It was probably an axe-dent.”

“Two!”

“Surgical: ‘If they try to fix it with skin grafts, don’t let them take any more skin from your arse.”

“One!”

Charlie stepped up to the Lunk and sobered. “Complementary: “You have the perfect face for radio.” The pub exploded with delight at Charlie’s victory. He patted the Lunk’s cheek. The man grabbed his wrist.

“You piece of shite--”

“Thou art a flesh monger, a fool, and a coward,” Charlie spat. The man reared back to deck him, but Charlie dodged his fist, wrenched his wrist out of the Lunk’s other hand, and hammered into the man’s stomach. The Lunk doubled over and lunged forward to ram Charlie. He sidestepped the attack, kneeing the Lunk in the nose. That was all it took to fell the large man. Charlie turned, pushed his hair out of his face, and strode to the table at which Ginny and Hermione sat. Ginny wordlessly held up her glass. Charlie took it and drank deeply.

“That was brilliant,” Hermione breathed. Charlie set the empty glass down and patted her cheek.

“No, darling, that was Shakespeare.” He winked. Then, Charlie bowed to his adoring fans, nodded to O’Dell, and left the pub.

Chapter Text

Charlie wandered into the kitchen about the usual time the next morning, which usually afforded him time alone to plan out the day. Except for today.

“Keeping it rather casual, I see,” he said, startling Ginny and Ralston out of a passionate lip-lock. The two women broke apart but neither looked ashamed to be caught. In fact, they were quite proud--to be seen together and in love. Ginny in love was a rare thing. She was well-known for infatuations with unremarkable people, but Ralston was a whole new frontier.  Molly Weasley would be thrilled to see her daughter infatuated with a nice girl, once she got over the shock--not that her daughter was with a woman, but that her daughter was with anyone worth subjecting to the Weasley family. Charlie sat down at the table beside his sister and she slid the morning paper to him.

“Now that you know about us, what’s the point in hiding?” Ginny grinned. Ralston gave her a peck on the cheek and stood.

“Honestly, I’m surprised that you’re cool with it,” Ralston said. She poured herself a generous helping of orange juice from the refrigerator. “Seeing as how we all work together. Thought for sure you’d put a stop to it.”

“Hey! Don’t give him any ideas.”

“I’m easy. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of your work ,” Charlie said, with faux solemnity. “I expect you to maintain decorum in front of the others.”

“Yeah, stop distracting me, Ginny!” Ralston stuck her tongue out at the red-head.

“We can’t afford distractions, can we?” Ginny asked her elder brother, elbowing him. “Especially cute ones.”

Ralston laughed in delight. “You think I’m cute, red?”

“Unequivocally,” Ginny said. “But it wasn’t you to whom I was referring. Instead, I was thinking of a certain brunette witch who thinks Charlie is delightful. At least, she did last night at the Lynx, after the way you slayed that muggle oaf.”

“Oh, her? She couldn’t stop talking about you!” Ralston grinned.

Charlie smoothed the page of the newspaper and raised an eyebrow without looking up. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I think it was the dirty pun that got her--not that I condone my brother making suggestive remarks, unless they’re in pursuit of Herm--”

“That’s enough,” Charlie coughed. “I’m not in pursuit of anyone or anything but a little peace .”

“The best things happen when you’re not searching for them,” Ginny shrugged. Ralston put her hand over Ginny’s. “But if you’d rather avoid her, you should know that she’s stopping by at ten to ask my opinion on her telescope’s mount--but I can just tell her that you’ve decided to stop speaking to her forever.”

Charlie rolled his eyes and glanced at his watch. The hands indicated that he had less than three minutes to either disappear or--

“Hello?”

The sweet voice of Hermione Granger floated down from the top of the stairs. Of course she was early. Charlie raised an eyebrow at Ginny, who pretended to lock her mouth with an invisible key.

“Talk to her!” Ralston mouthed.

“Fine,” he sighed. “If you lead the drills today, I’ll do it.”

“Yes!” Ralston pumped the air. “Those idiots won’t know what hit them.”

Charlie stood. He held a finger to his lips and strode out of the kitchen. “What a pleasant surprise, Hermione!” He called back. She smiled as soon as she laid eyes on him. Take that, Ginny! He was no coward. Even if she would never see him that way, he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. A conversation, at least!

“Charlie! I was hoping to catch you--actually, I popped in through your office floo for that reason, I hope that’s all right. Do you have a second?” Hermione asked.

 

She couldn’t stop talking about you.

 

“Go for a walk?” he asked. Hermione nodded. Each step she took down the stairs ramped up the volume on his racing heart. She stopped just one step up from him, so they were face-to-face. She held out her arms and wound them around his neck.

“You’re so good to me, Charlie,” she said, with their cheeks pressed together.  “I hope you can help me.”

They walked along the perimeter fence; a picket-type configuration, the white slats spelled out muggle normalcy to any passersby. They also marked Charlie’s breaths, Hermione’s footsteps, and the spaces between sentiments. It took her thirty posts to say what she had come to say.

“I’ve met someone,” she said.

“Have you?” he said. His heart was beating in the soles of his feet.

“Well, re-met him. After a long bout of thinking I would never meet anyone ... “ She stopped, leaning against a section of fence that overlooked the forest. “Anyway. I’m a bit lost about it.”

“Do I know him?” Charlie asked. He stepped up beside her until their elbows pressed together. She nodded and looked away.

“You could say that. Everyone loves him.” Hermione smiled. “Especially people around here, from what I gather. He’s charming, funny… he has this way about him, a maturity. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome…”

Charlie scoffed. “Not to everyone,” he said, blushing. She looked up at him confused. He caught himself and patted her hand. “Sorry, go on.”

“Anyway--the trouble is… we don’t talk. Ever.” Hermione sighed and the weight of her disappointment dropped her head down onto Charlie’s shoulder. Which was all the better--then, she couldn’t see his face. Which was flushed with embarrassment. He had presumed… no matter.

“You?” Charlie scoffed. “Not talking? Preposterous.”

She laughed and batted his arm. “Gods, you are rude, aren’t you? It’s… it’s Ronald. You probably guessed that by the way I’ve been around him.”

“Hmm.”

“He avoids me! You saw him flee last night. Oh Merlin… does he hate me so much that he can’t even be in my presence?” She put her head down on her arms. Charlie patted her shoulder.

“Who could hate you?”

“Could you talk to him?”

Charlie raised an eyebrow. “You want me to ask my little brother out for you?”

“No! No, just… encourage him to talk to me.” She clasped his arm. “Please?”

“You’re relentless.”

“I’m stubborn.”

“I’m beginning to see that,” Charlie chuckled. He nodded toward the house and Hermione slipped her hand through his arm. “Say, how goes your comet research?”

“My report was submitted. I can’t say the outcome, not until Monday, but Shacklebolt is optimistic.” She squeezed his arm. “How’s Sense and Sensibility ?”

“Amusing,” he chuckled. “I feel badly for Colonel Brandon, though. Poor man is well thought of and yet easily forgotten when a Rake comes to town.”

“How far have you read?”

“The picnic,” Charlie said.

“When Willoughby disparages Brandon for abandoning the party?”

Charlie scoffed. “He’s so obviously a toff--why doesn’t Marianne see it?”

“He’s a flirt, a bit dangerous…”

“Oh, women love a bad boy,” he said.

“We’ll see what you have to say when you’ve finished,” Hermione smiled. “About the kind of men that appeal to women.”

“But Brandon gets his due?” Charlie stopped at the porch and Hermione released his arm.

Willoughby gets his due,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Brandon gets something more precious. Not what’s owed to him, by Marianne or any other women to whom he has paid respects.”

Charlie scratched his chin. “I misspoke.”

“Remember, she’s a satirist,” Hermione grinned. “Everyone, and I do mean everyone, is made ridiculous by love. Even your hero Brandon.”

“He’s very... kind-hearted. It’s refreshing is all.”

“That’s not all he is,” she said. She touched his shoulder. “When you’ve finished, I’d like to hear your opinion on Persuasion.

“I’ll steal it from Seamus.” He looked at his pocket watch. He had scheduled a morning of transfer drills, which would mark Ron’s first time observing their outfit since his arrival. He was determined to prove to Ginny that he hadn’t given up on the sanctuary, but spending the afternoon with Ron was going to be torture. Good thing he was proficient in self-pity and suffering in silence.  He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels.

“I’m keeping you, I’m sorry!” Hermione blushed. “I’ll see you tonight, I’m assuming?”

“Dean’s birthday. Wouldn’t miss it.”

“He wouldn’t let you,” she laughed. “Thanks, Char. You’re a real friend.”

“See you,” he smiled.

 

*

 

The training went… abysmally. To Ralston’s credit, it wasn’t her fault. They started without Charlie, Ron, or Ralston, and not a one of them was wearing their protective gear. Between the six participating cadets, only one could remember the procedural acronym for the transfer process, and Lathrop got it completely out of order (S.T.A.C.K. was not the same as T.A.C.K.S. and that mistake had cost Lathrop a singed boot). Four of them were hungover. Seamus twisted his ankle. The baby dragon they had chosen for the drill, Peanut, had a tantrum and refused the restraint harness, which meant Ron, Charlie, and Ralston had to wrestle him into the pen--poor Ralston took the brunt of Peanut’s ire in the form of a nip to the hand from tiny razor teeth. Charlie sent the cadets to their quarters to sober up, read up, and shape up. AND he cancelled the group evening to the Lynx, on threat of an all-night drill. Dean’s birthday or not, it was a sorry show of inadequacy that Ron would have to report back to the Ministry.

Ginny was right. He had been neglecting the cadets. He hadn’t been on them to keep up with protocol or held them to any sort of standard other than the faintest of expectations. And he certainly hadn’t modeled anything but disinterest in their growth. Sure, he care for the animals himself every morning, but he wasn’t encouraging growth at the sanctuary and he most certainly wasn’t enabling them to rescue new species or release rehabilitated dragons. The program needed to be overhauled. He needed to talk to Ron.

“It was easier in Romania,” Charlie lamented, over his third pint. “The program there is hundreds of years old. The keepers grew up with the animals, and inherited their parents’ positions when they retired. It’s just instinctual. If the head keepers had any hand in turning the cogs to make it work, I didn’t notice. It seemed… self-sufficient. And I admit that I was cocky in thinking that I could create such a sanctuary without that storied background.”

“Plus, there wasn’t a nearby village to distract you,” Ron said. He nodded at a small grouping of old women who were whispering and staring at them. He waved and the women snickered.

Charlie chuckled. “The sad truth is that I like them all. I like doing things to help them. They accept me, and I repay them with little errands.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I mean, what sort of living could I make being Butteryhaugh’s go-man? I do it because I like these people and helping them makes me happy.”

“So, you’re being paid to do a job that you’re not really doing… and doing actual work for free.”

“Oh Merlin, when you put it like that…” Charlie put his head down on the table and groaned. “I’ve lost my way, Ron. I need your help.”

“Never known you to be lost, Charlie.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” he mumbled into the table.

“We’ll sort it out, mate,” Ron clapped him on the back. “You need to relax. Get yourself a girlfriend. Settle down your personal life, if that’s really what you want.”

“Speak for yourself,” Charlie said. “Didn’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Short-lived,” Ron sighed. “I have the worst luck.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I know someone who likes you.” Charlie smirked when Ron’s eyes narrowed. “And as far as witches go, she’s about as good as it gets.”

“I swear to Gods, if you say Ginny, I’ll throttle you,” Ron said.

“That’s creepy. And she’s unavailable.”

Ron punched Charlie’s arm and they both laughed. The bell on the door chimed and Charlie looked up. Hermione. He sighed. He had forgotten to tell her that Dean’s birthday do was cancelled. She spied him and waved, but gestured to the bar and pointed at Ron. Ron hadn’t noticed her come in.

“Uh, no,” Charlie said, sitting up. “It’s someone just as dear to our family. It’s Hermione.”

Ron’s mouth hung slack. “What… wh-when did you find that out?”

“Told me herself. Though, I can’t think why,” Charlie said, sipping his beer. “It’s not like you speak to her.”

“Oh, I can’t speak to her,” Ron said. He rubbed his face. “Not after… I can’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

Ron gulped. “I get… nervous. I’m too damn terrified. She… she makes me feel inadequate, and she always has, and I just know I’m going to say the wrong thing.”

“Have you tried mime?”

“I’m serious, Charlie!”

I don’t find it difficult to talk to her--”

“Yes, well, you’re not bloody in love with her, so.” Ron pressed his temples.

“Ron, how in Merlin’s name did you manage to date her as long as you did before if you find her utterly horrifying?”

“We were best friends who just… happened to like occasional benefits. And teenagers , might I add. It was nothing serious, just a bit of fun. We were distracted by the war too. But after we left Hogwarts, she started talking about our relationship in terms of a lifetime and I realized that everyone was waiting for me to propose, including her… but I couldn’t even keep a pygmy puff alive, and I, I just… I would be a terrible husband and I don’t know if I even want to have children, I mean what if she does?” Ron pulled at his hair. “I can’t talk to children about sex and what if one of them is a real arse--that means I’m a bad parent, right? I can’t take that kind of pressure! It’s not my fault my son doesn’t know how to be a decent wizard--I can’t help him with his arithmancy, so why would he go to me about anything!” Ron had slid his way down the booth and was awash in a waking nightmare of his own anxiety. “I’m a great guy, right? Charlie? Right? I’m like… a really interesting funny guy, and I’m good at my job or I wouldn’t be here. I’m a good person. I’m a good person.”

Charlie carded a hand through his hair and let out a low whistle. “Is this a bad time to tell you that she’s sitting at the bar, then?”

Ron closed his eyes in dismay. “I hate you. I hate you so much, you cad. I should buy her a drink. What does she like? Can you take it to her? Send my regards.” Ron fished for a few coins in his pocket and tossed them across the table towards his older brother. “On second thought, tell her it’s from a Secret Admirer and I’ll duck out the back. Oh, Charlie. You’re the best. I owe you one.” He scooted out of the booth and stumbled over a loose floorboard, falling face first into the table. “Shit!” He grabbed his nose and struggled to stand. Charlie grabbed his elbow to help him up.

“All right, mate?” Charlie asked. The pub had hushed but Charlie tried not to draw Ron’s attention to that fact.

“My heart is beating in my ears,” Ron mumbled into his hand. “Is she still there?”

Charlie looked over at Hermione, who was covering her mouth in concern. “She is, but she’s talking to Eliza and she hasn’t noticed.”

“You’re a liar,” Ron said. He winced and allowed himself to peek over his shoulder. The moment his eyes met Hermione’s, his stomach rolled.

He puked all over Charlie’s shoes.

 

*

 

Charlie crossed his arms and leaned against the doorway, taking in the sight of his youngest brother--the Ministry’s golden graduate of their elite magical creatures unit--face down on his bed. Poor boy. Lost his stomach and his nerve, all in one day… and in front of the entire schoal of patrons of the Lynx in the Larch, and Hermione Granger.

Charlie cleared his throat. “So,” he chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t think she saw you puke.”

“Please leave me here to die,” Ron groaned.

“It’s not that bad, I’m sure.”

“What if I missed my moment with her?” Ron lamented, head in hand. “What if I had my chance?”

“Nonsense,” Charlie scoffed. “There is no ‘right time,’, Ron. There are no chances, only action!” He clapped his brother on the shoulder. “You know what you feel about her.”

“She is the most brilliant woman I have ever met.”

“So tell her.”

“Nah,” Ron groaned. “I told you. I’m no good at that stuff. I open my mouth to make declarations, and all that comes out is hot air. Or vomit. I’ll clean your boots, by the way.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Charlie said. “I scourgified them. What if... you wrote down how you felt?”

“You’re talking love letters.”

“Meditations, let’s say. On her beauty. How she makes you feel. How the sun tucks into the flyaways of her auburn hair. How her laugh rivals any bird’s song. How the corner of her mouth quirks up when she’s intrigued,” Charlie said. “She’s an intellectual, she’d love it.”

“I don’t think she’d like to read about how she makes me feel,” Ron said. “Don’t think birds like it when you mention ‘blue balls.’”

“Mate, you’ve just got to phrase it right,” Charlie chuckled.

“What makes you think that I’ll have any better luck putting my words to paper?”

“Uh… alright, here. I’ll help.” Charlie dug a piece of parchment out of the desk and furnished a quill from the well. He tapped the paper and pulled out the chair for his forlorn brother. Ron reluctantly took his pen in hand and sat.

“Write more… metaphorically about her,” Charlie said. “More figurative.”

“Figurative?”

“Shakespearean, almost. Poetic. Wordy. Flowery. For example, tell me what you think about her hair,” Charlie suggested.

“Well… it’s brown.”

“Hazel. Russet. Umber, even. And what of it’s texture?”

“Frizzy, a bit wild--”

“Cherubic.”

“--Very curly, too.”

“Coiled like a satin ribbon around a gently swirling breeze.”

“She would never believe that I wrote something like that,” Ron sighed. Charlie nudged his shoulder.

“Nonsense, brother. You may not be the most… descriptive, but you are pedantic, and that’s certainly a step.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You’re good at… talking. At least to other people. Now, go on. Write her a sentence about how she makes you feel.”

Ron shook his head. “This is not helping my stomach.”

“Alright, fine. Write her anything. Just put something on the paper,” Charlie chuckled. He waved his hand for Ron to get to it. Ron sighed, and then spent the better part of five minutes scratching into the parchment. When he was done, he sat back, pushed the paper away, and pinched the bridge of his nose. Charlie picked up the missive.

“Hermione,” Charlie read aloud, “I am attracted to you like a boy who likes a girl. Will you go out with me? Check Yes or No.”

Charlie cleared his throat and turned away from his lovesick brother. “That’s certainly straightforward. But Hermione won’t be wooed by mere honesty; She needs more… effort.” She deserves it, Charlie thought. “Write down exactly what I say.”

“She’ll be lucky if she can even decipher my handwriting,” Ron grumbled.

“Hermione,” Charlie began, to the tune of Ron’s gently scratching quill. “I hardly know where to begin--”

“Oy! Don’t lay all my cards out on the table!”

“Hush, you git, and write.” Charlie turned back to the open window. “I hardly know where to begin. How can I put into words what I feel so acutely, what I see in my mind’s eye?” He turned back to his brother. “Did you get that?”

“Did… you... get--”

“Don’t write that ,” Charlie chuckled. “How do you feel when she looks at you?”

“Like I’m going to vomit or… horny.”

Charlie nodded once and pointed at the paper for Ron to continue his note-taking. “When I see you, I feel like my skin cannot contain me; when you draw near me, I am at risk of shattering into a thousand planets and revolving around one central, beaming star. A star who does not know her light.”

Ron tossed the pen down on the desktop. “She’s not going to fall for that bollocks. She hates astrology.”

“She’s an Astronomer, you numpty. And a natural born romantic. She’ll appreciate the effort, even if you think it’s ‘bollocks.’ Write.” Charlie crossed behind Ron so he could observe over his shoulder. “But were she to shine on me, I would be no less worthy than an egg, an acorn--”

“Hey!”

Charlie pointed at the paper and Ron frowned. “I would not,” Charlie continued, “I could not ever hope to be worthy of you, sole mio , except to wait every day for noon, when the shadows disappear, and your light touches every part of me. That would be enough. Yours, etcetera.”

“Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t we?” Ron’s feeble hand signed his name and threw down his quill in defeat. “What if this doesn’t work?”

“It’ll work,” Charlie assured him, scooping up the parchment and blowing the ink dry.

“What if it does work, and she wants me?”

Charlie rolled up the letter. “Then you got what you wanted, and then it’s kings to you, old boy.”

“What if it works, and she doesn’t just want to sleep with me… she wants to… talk to me?”

Charlie smiled sadly. “Brother, you sell yourself short. There’s a brain in that skull, make no mistake.”

“Not when she’s around,” Ron scoffed. “If only your voice could come out of my mouth.”

If only the sight of me was enough, Charlie thought. “Wouldn’t that be something?” Charlie tied the scroll the the leg of his beloved owl, Athena. “Hermione Granger,” he whispered. The owl hooted in confirmation and took flight out the window.

“This is a horrid idea,” Ron mumbled into the desktop.

Charlie smiled. “Get some sleep. I need your help tomorrow, figuring out how to turn this place around. Unless you think you’d like the day off.”

“No, please--distract me. I didn’t come all this way just to throw up every night in the pub. I’m actually good at what I do, believe it or not.”

“Cheers.” Charlie left his youngest brother to his devices.

He took himself on a long evening walk, down the winding driveway of the farm and towards the little village that seemed to have a trance-like hold on him. Towards the faint glow of gaslights, flickering. Toward the little bookshop, and then past it, with no glance upwards to her lit windows where she was probably reading his ghost-written declaration and thinking god knows what. He passed up the Lynx, too. He just walked. It was cold without a cloak but he took the shivers on as a kind of penance for what he had just done. In the morning, he would get up and feed the animals, and then he wouldn’t give one more thought to this tugging in his heart. He would be happy for Ron and Hermione. If Colonel Brandon could do it, so could he. Right?

Merlin. He was looking forward to less… dramatic days. Enough.

Chapter Text

Ron threw the back door open and whistled his way to the refrigerator, a little ditty with no name but plenty of pep. Ginny glared at him from behind her vat of coffee. The bopping dandy tossed eggs from one hand to the other, bumped the door closed with his hip, dropped butter into the pan--he damn near danced his way through a full English.

“I hesitate to ask,” Ginny growled, “but I will murder you if you carry on like this: what’s got you so happy?”

Ron just shook his head and laughed. “Can’t a man just be in a good mood?” He scrambled his eggs vigorously and winked at his sister.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Come on,” he goaded. “The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day!”

“I’m going to poison you. Slowly, until you’re dead.”

“If you must know…” he paused. “There’s a girl in my life.”

“Bully for you. I bet she’s not half as brilliant as your last one.” Ginny invested her attention in a deep draw of caffeine-laden mercy.

“Funny you should say that, Gin. Because… it’s the same girl.” Ron resumed his whistling and Ginny spat her coffee in a shocked spray. “I know, I can’t believe it either. But it could be meant to be, after everything we’ve been through. Ginny--do you believe in ‘True Love--”

The screen door clattered against the frame as a Ginny-shaped gust of wind breezed out of the kitchen and across the yard, towards the red barn and the other Weasley brother. Charlie was knelt down beside the baby goats, who were joyfully leaping around him; onto his legs and feet, onto his back if he leaned too far forward, wherever they could find a perch. He scratched the dappled tan baby behind the horns and smiled when he saw his sister approach.

“Good mo--”

“You didn’t tell her?” Ginny demanded, vaulting over the fence and sending the kids scattering. Charlie brushed off his trousers and stood. He skirted around Ginny and made his way to the feeding trough. She grabbed his elbow. “Why is Ron inside celebrating getting back together with Hermione?”

“They still have feelings for each other, which came to light yesterday,” he said simply. Ginny’s fingers tightened on his arm and her face filled with remorse and pity for him.

“What happened?”

He upended a bucket of grain into the goat trough. “She asked me to talk to him. Yesterday morning, Gin, when she and I took a walk. She thinks he’s ‘it.’ I never had a chance.” He threw up his hands. No chance at all--to tell her that the sun rose because she smiled. To get to know her better… to be a prospect of her affections. He never had a prayer. He straightened his stance and shrugged. “I’m not anyone’s idea of a dream guy, I guess.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Weasley,” Ginny said. “That is preposterous and you know it. She cares about you, even if she doesn’t see it herself.”

“Even if that were the case…” He threw up his hands and lost himself in the un-voiced regret.

Ginny nodded. “I’m so sorry, it must have been hard to hear.”

He shook his head. “I’m fine, honestly. Helping Ron write her was a good way to get her out of my mind. Now they’re talking, or at least communicating via letter, and I can step away.”

Ginny crossed her arms. “You did… what, exactly?”

Charlie leaned against the fence. “He’s nervous talking to her. I encouraged him to write her a letter to break the ice.”

“I swear to Merlin and Morgana--”

“What? Can’t a brother help his brother out?”

“PLEASE tell me you did not write it for him,” Ginny demanded. Charlie looked at the ground. She kicked the fence post in frustration. “Charlie, wake up! You cannot spend your entire life orchestrating other people’s lives at the detriment to yourself.”

“That’s enough. It may have escaped your noticing but I am nine years your senior; I think I can handle my own affairs!”

“Then why didn’t you tell her how you feel?”

Charlie shoved the feed bucket into his sister’s arms. “Leave me alone, Ginny.” He stepped back and tried to find his words, but he was bereft of any such explanation. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You have no idea...” He strode out of the pen without finishing the sentiment, latched the gate behind him, and disappeared between the cadet cabins, leaving Ginny alone with a load of guilt.

Charlie hammered on the doors of each cabin, awakening delirious cadets for their morning training. It was to be a new routine, which Charlie had thought of in the wee hours when he couldn’t sleep. He had gotten up twice as early to feed the animals so they were handled by daybreak. He would not think of anything else but the new regimen. They would do physical fitness drills until nine, and hopefully, he’d think of a new task for his team in the meantime. And if he couldn’t think of anything, he’d make them run laps around the farm until he did.

“Never seen you wear trainers, Charlie,” Seamus said from the doorway of his little cabin. He scratched his head and squinted.

“Dust off your own trainers, Finnegan.” Charlie pulled his wand from its hiding place in his sleeve and cast Sonorus . “All cadets report to the field in five minutes, prepared for physical training.” He crossed his arms and waited.

One by one, the cadets appeared from their quarters (though it took Ralston six minutes, as she came from the farmhouse), while Ron did not appear at all. Ginny also abstained, and buried herself in her pole barn, which served as her armory and repair shop.

“We’ll be meeting out here every morning at seven for physical training and team building,” Charlie announced, once the cadets were lined up in front of him. “We’ve all gotten lazy--myself included-- and it’s unacceptable. So we’re about to put in the work.” Charlie looked into the faces of his six cadets. They were nodding. Tired, but receptive.

“Can we start by saying something interesting about ourselves?” Dean asked.

“Would that make you more likely or less likely to do running drills?” Charlie asked. The cadets exchanged looks and shrugs and general agreement that it would improve morale. “Fine. Be quick about it,” Charlie acquiesced.

“Yes!” Dean pumped his fist. “I’m Dean Thomas, my favorite thing to do is walk down by the adult pens with Geraldine and listen to her play her harp for the dragons.” He smiled lovingly at Geraldine, who Charlie realized was standing very close to Dean. Dean nudged her to go next.

“Geraldine Waters and I’m learning how to crochet little goat blankets so the kids can be outside all winter and not get cold.”

“That’s adorable,” Seamus said, totally unironically. The rest of the cadets voiced their agreement at the cuteness. Apparently, Dean and Geraldine were a thing as well as Ginny and Ralston. So. There was that.

“Sheridan Ralston,” Ralston began. “I’m obsessed with Muggle horror films--”

“Merlin, we know ,” Geraldine sighed. “Say something else.”

“Now, now,” Charlie said. “ I did not know that.”

“Ugh,” Ralston said. “Fine. I’m... allergic to wool.”

“Lame,” Seamus said. “I’m Seamus, the pride of Ireland, and I have been sober for a week, now.”

Charlie narrowed his eyes. “You had a beer on Sunday.”

“Oh, it doesn’t count on the Sundays,” Seamus said. The introductions continued as such. Andrew Polewski had once been a monk, Trent Lathrop had never seen the ocean, and Charlie couldn’t think of anything good by the time they got around to him.

The physical drills went much better than Charlie expected and it was a release to his anxiety to work out with a group of surprisingly cavalier cadets. Who, to Charlie’s surprise, were a delightful group. They were close-knit and had inside jokes. They only complained a little, for the last twenty minutes of lunges. Charlie felt guilty for not getting to know them better from the start. Once the drills were over, Charlie allowed his cadets to show him around the farm and pinpoint concerns they had, be it simple up-keep of hinges on pen gates, or health worries for the animals themselves. He even helped them come up with a revised plan for Orpheus, who had lately taken a turn for the worst. By the time they were done, it was time for supper.

After a community dinner (stew, thanks to Gertrude, who was an excellent cook as well as a novice knitter), Charlie sat on the front porch with Seamus and Ralston. He decided that Seamus had much more promise than he let on, and Ralston even more so. She could be of use to Ron--speaking of which...

Ron burst out of the house in a panic. “Thank the gods, Charlie, this is an emergency,” he breathed. “You have to come with me right now.”

Charlie followed his panic-stricken brother inside and upstairs to his office, where Ron paced and Charlie’s owl chirped happily from her perch on the windowsill.

“What is it, Ron? Is it Mum?” Charlie crossed his arms. Ron thrust a scroll into Charlie’s hand and sat in on the window seat, head in hands. His shoulders hunched. Charlie unfurled the scroll and it read:

 

Ron,

Could we talk in person? I think we both have a lot to say, but if it’s anything like your letter, we might just be on the same page. I could come by the farm?

Sincerely,

Hermione

 

“I can’t believe my rotten luck!” Ron moaned into his heads.

“Just sit tight, Ron, I’ll take care of this,” Charlie said. He patted his brother on the shoulder and scribbled a quick note on his stationery. He sent the dutiful owl off with the reply for Hermione. Then, Charlie sat behind his desk and fished through his drawers. Ron peeked at him through shakey fingers.

“What are you looking for?” Ron asked.

“Extendable ear,” Charlie mumbled. His hand closed around the box at the very back of his bottom desk drawer. He placed it on top of the desk with a flourish.

“And that’s supposed to solve my Hermione problem, how?”

“You throw up because you’re too nervous that you’ll say the wrong thing to her,” Charlie explained. “But if you have this in when she stops by--” he tapped the little box. “Then I can help.”

“But I’m supposed to be burying myself alive in a shallow grave so she never finds me,” Ron said breathlessly.

“She will be here at six, per my instructions. Well, your instructions, you really ought to change your signature because honestly… it’s so easy to forge… at which point I will offer my office for your conversation.” Charlie stood, ignoring his brother’s aghast look, and approached the bookcase directly to the right of his desk. He pulled back a single tome (Ellis Wheeler’s ‘Accounts of Butteryhaugh Livestock 1979-1982’) and the entire shelf swung open to reveal Charlie’s sleeping quarters. He gestured to the room beyond. “I will merely stand behind the hidden door and offer you small encouragements via the E.E.”

Ron did not look convinced. “Won’t she notice that I’ve got that thing stuck in my ear?”

“She won’t. Because I told her that you’re feeling a cold coming on, so it would be perfectly reasonable for you to wear a stocking cap… on account of your chill,” Charlie said. He reached for his favorite cap, which hung on a coat rack just inside his bedroom. He tossed it at his brother. Charlie’s mantle clock chimed six times. Ron jumped and slammed the cap over his ears. Charlie tossed him the listening end of the Extendable Ear device and motioned for him to sit in the chair behind the desk. Ron tucked the earpiece in and smoothed the hat down to cover it. The doorbell rang. Ginny must have answered it.

“Ron? Visitor!” Ginny bellowed.

“Up here!” Charlie called back. Ron blanched and shook his head furiously at his brother. Charlie covered Ron’s shoulders with a blanket. “Incendio!” Charlie lit his fireplace. He patted Ron once on the shoulder as he heard the footsteps of Ron’s visitor on the landing. Then, the bookcase swung shut. Ron was alone. Terrified.

From behind the door, Charlie could hear only Ron’s laboured breathing. And then he heard a knock, Hermione’s entrance to the room, and her greeting.

“Hi,” she said. Ron hesitated.

“Hello, Hermione,” Charlie said into the E.E. Ron said nothing. “Say HELLO, Ronald!” Charlie insisted.

“Hi-hey. Hey,” Ron said.

“Thank you for your letter,” she said politely.

“S’alright,” Ron said.

“I meant every word,” Charlie prompted.

“Meant all of it,” Ron parroted. “Every word.”

“I guess--I guess I’m just confused?” she said. The chair across from his desk was pulled out, Charlie assumed she had sat down. “After everything else that happened.”

“It was easier for me to write it down,” Charlie said.

“It was easier to write it out,” Ron said. “Couldn’t say it, obviously. What with the… vomit. And all.”

Charlie sighed. “Easy, cowboy--”

“Easy, cowboy!” Ron exclaimed.

Charlie hit his forehead with his hand. “Easy on the vomit talk, Einstein!” Charlie whispered.

“What?” Hermione said.

“I--I told myself, ‘easy, cowboy!’ You can’t lay out all your cards,” Ron recovered. “Hermione’s no… gambler.”

“You might be surprised how willing I am to take a gamble on a sure thing,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m relentless.”

Charlie groaned inwardly. He told her that. And it hadn’t been a compliment, it had been in reference to her total unwillingness to see that everything was hopeless with the very brother he was trying to help her shag! A confusing and utterly exhausting conceit, all told!

“I guess what I’m asking,” she began,” is if you can give me some sort of… reassurance that efforts on my part to get reacquainted would be requited.”

Ron scoffed. “Oh, you can re-believe it,” he said.

“Charlie?” Ginny’s voice floated up from the bottom of the stairs. “Telephone for you! Could you please bloody answer it? Am I the butler?”

Shit. Charlie said nothing. Ron said nothing. Hermione said, “I didn’t realize Charlie was home. Is he in his bedroom?”

“Uh…” Ron paused.

“Yes,” Charlie said pointedly. “I’m sleeping.”

“He’s asleep. His bedroom is next door,” Ron said.

“Oh, is it?” Hermione said, genuinely surprised. “I’ll just get him for Ginny, then.” The office door opened and Hermione’s footsteps sounded in the hallway. “I’ll tell him, Gin!”

“What do I do?” Ron whispered furiously.

“Stop her! I can’t come to the phone if I’m asleep!” Charlie said frantically. Light taps sounded on his main bedroom door, the one that led from the hallway. “Ron, I swear to Merlin, lure her back to the office!”

“Charlie?” Hermione called softly.

“I’m gonna be--” Ron daintily vomited, Charlie assumed into the garbage can. Charlie opened the hidden door into the office and wrenched the E.E. out of Ron’s ear. Ron remained hunched over the garbage. He tossed the E.E. beneath his desk and shut the hidden door again. He lowered the tapestry that usually hid the door to his office. Then, Charlie attempted to pull off his trainers quietly, hopping from one foot to the other as Hermione’s gentle taps sounded on his door again. He dove beneath his blankets and rubbed his eyes furiously.

“Charlie? There’s a telephone call for you,” Hermione said, this time pushing the door open a touch and peeking inside. He yawned.

“Hermione?” he asked sleepily. She laughed.

“No, it’s McGonagall, you’re late for class.”

“The sass, I swear,” Charlie grumbled. Then, they exchanged a most pleasant half-smile.

“There’s someone on the phone for you, apparently,” she said.

“Oh, all right,” he said. He flipped his covers off and stood, stretching for good measure. Hermione ducked under his arm as he passed through into the hallway and gave his waist a squeeze. She paused at the door to his office. “You sticking around?” he asked, heading for the stairs.

“Might do,” she nodded. “Depends.”

“On?” Charlie asked.

Hermione thumbed inside his office. Ron , she mouthed. Charlie rolled his eyes (seriously) and then laughed (fakely). Good luck , he whispered back.

Charlie met Ginny at the base of the stairs. She was chatting with Ralston and completely ignored him. “Well? Who’s the call from?” he asked.

“Nobody,” Ginny said. She leveled her eyes with his and leaned in close. “There was no call.” Then she grinned at her girlfriend conspiratorially. “I figured you were hiding when you heard she was here and I wanted her to see you before she left again.”

Charlie closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You have no idea what you’ve just done, Gin.”

The door to Charlie’s office slammed and Hermione came flying down the stairs in a rage. She caught Charlie’s eye and shook her head once. He followed her out the front door and grabbed his cloak from the hook, quickly throwing it on. Nevermind that he was still in his socks. Hermione cast a glance back at him.

“I swear--he does this to torture me,” she ground out, whipping her wand from inside her coat sleeve. Charlie caught her elbow. She shivered in the evening chill.

“Wait a minute. If you apparate now, you’ll splinch yourself,” he said, grasping her shoulders and encouraging her to take a beat. “Can I help you get home?”

She just nodded and folded herself into his chest. Ron burst out onto the front porch just in time to see Charlie side-along disapparate with Hermione in tow. On the other side, Hermione gripped Charlie’s cloak so tightly in her hands that her knuckles were white.

When they landed in the alley beside Dora’s bookshop, Hermione shoved herself away from her escort and gasped for air. “I’m an idiot,” she grumbled. Charlie put his hands in his pockets and looked down at the dirt.

“Want to tell me what happened?” he asked.

She sighed. “Not really. But thank you.” She touched his arm and squeezed. “All I want right now is a glass of Firewhiskey on my balcony, where I can soak up the moonlight and my misery in equal measure.”

Charlie covered her hand with his. “Would you like company?”

“Not tonight. Raincheck?”

“Just name the day,” he said. She smiled sadly, cupped his cheek, and turned down the alley towards the front door of Dora’s bookshop and her apartment. Charlie leaned against the brick and closed his eyes.

A tell-tale pop signified the arrival of a new companion.

“I’m sorry!” Ron exploded, the moment he realized his brother stood before him. “I messed up! She hates me… I have to talk to her for real, right now--”

“No, you don’t,” Charlie said. He put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Whatever you said to her, she’s upset. She wants to be alone.”

“She’ll talk to me, I know it.” Ron pulled out of his grasp and strode in the opposite direction of Dora’s front door… up the alley, towards the trash bins and back gardens of the main street.

“What the hell did you say to her?” Charlie whispered.

Ron shook his head. “I merely complimented the shape and size of her breasts.”

“You’re a pig, Ronald,” Charlie said.

“That’s what she said, too,” Ron said, squeezing between two fence slats and into the garden behind Dora’s bookshop… beneath Hermione’s balcony. Charlie could see Hermione’s curls just inside the doorway and he quickly ducked into the shadows before she spied them both. “‘Mione? Come on, talk to me!” Ron shouted. “Come on, babe. I messed up.”

“Get bent, Ronald!” she called from inside the house.

“Can you be reasonable for one second?” Charlie whispered, smacking Ron on the shoulder. For once, the idea seemed to land.

“This won’t work!” Ron realized. “Face it, Char.” He hung his head. “She wants someone who looks like me, and-and-and talks like… you.”

Charlie felt the pang of truth ringing between his ears. Ron was right, wasn’t he? That’s why they were in this predicament in the first place. Hermione. Her happiness. If this is where they left it, she would be devastated. He loosened the tie at his neck and slipped off his cloak. “Switch with me, Ron. Quick!” He shoved Ron beneath the balcony and donned his brother’s cloak and hood.

“What are you doing?” Ron whispered.

“‘Mione?” Charlie called, pitching his voice up to Ron’s timbre. He held up a reassuring hand to Ron. “‘Mione, please come back,” Charlie called again, gently. Ron buried his face in his hands.

“Whatever could entice me to do so?” she yelled back through the screen door. “I’ve heard enough.”

“I honestly can’t think of one good reason, after that display,” Charlie said, shooting his mortified brother a pointed look. “Except, maybe… maybe you had hoped things would be different, as I did. But I fumbled, I proved you right--I haven’t changed at all. Have I? Hermione?”

She said nothing, but the door opened slowly and she leaned against the doorway. Her shoulders shrugged ever so slightly. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Why did you say those things?”

“Hermione, I have not known the right words to say to you since I first met you.”

“I didn’t give you a chance to get a word in back then,” she said. He couldn’t see her face but her voice was touched with amusement.

“Imagine how I must feel now, Hermione--Merlin, your name is like a knife . I haven’t spoken it out loud in so long. Only to myself, when I knew nobody was around to hear.” He turned away.

“That’s good! That’s good!” Ron exclaimed.

“What’s good?” she asked.

You ,” Charlie said quickly, whirling around and glaring at Ron. “You are too good. How many chances have you given me to explain myself?”

Hermione let out a long breath. She stepped forward and leaned against the railing. “I wrote to you ten times after that last letter. You sent them all back, Ron. What was I supposed to think?”

You did what? Charlie mouthed to Ron. Ron shrugged and hung his head.

“I was ashamed,” Charlie said. Ron nodded his approval but turned away to rub his face.

“Of me?” Her voice was so soft it broke Charlie’s heart. He couldn’t see her face but her hair was backlit from the lamplight inside her little flat and she glowed.

“I am not what you think I am,” he said. He looked to Ron but his brother gave him no more indications or cues. He was curled into himself, hand over his eyes. Charlie sighed. “I have always tried to define myself by the quality of my closest friends and family and model myself after their attributes, but… well, I was never a scholar, I left that up to Percy. I have no passion for animals or curse-breaking or pranks like my other brothers. I’m not the hero presumptive, like Harry. I can’t hold a candle to Ginny’s skill with smithing. I don’t have a hobby that belongs only to me. So I was... loyal. You could trust me to be there. But in your proximity, as your friend, I was also the steadfast tin soldier. That was fine for me until you began to look at me a little more closely. When you picked me. What’s a man to do when Hermione Granger chooses you?”

“What do you mean?”

“After we separated, I realized that I had to be somebody I am proud of… even when you’re not looking. It took me a long time to figure that out. But when we were younger, I would step outside of your circle and I had no purpose for myself other than what I thought you wanted me to be. It’s like I was this great buffoon of a wind-up toy. You were the key. You wound me up. You drove me. You were my speciality.”

“I never thought of you that way,” she said. Her voice shook with what sounded like pity and Charlie didn’t dare look at his brother. She was listening and it was working.

“But what did I give you in return?”

“You made me laugh.”

Charlie smiled. “Did I challenge you?”

She laughed gently. “You certainly challenged my patience.”

“Did I?”

“You drove me crazy, if I’m honest.”

“That’s good. I always wanted to drive you crazy and drive your dreams forward and drive you back home again, into my arms, to unload and assuage your fears. To feel good.”

“And now?”

“Now?” Charlie scoffed. “This is my whole life right now, this moment. Just standing here.”

“What do you want, Ron?”

“I want to share . Yours for mine. Can I trade a dream of mine with you?”

“Mhm.”

“I dunno,” he said warmly. “Might not come true if I tell you.”

“Why don’t you share a little one and we’ll see? Can you stand where I can see your face better?” She gestured towards a glowing patch of pavement several feet behind him.

Charlie held up his hands. “Please, just allow my voice to do the work, for now. Just my voice.”

“So, this dream…”

“I want to feel worthy of your smile.”

“That’s your little dream?”

“Just imagine how much deeper I can fantasize,” he said.

“Tell me another.”

“I almost don’t remember what your skin feels like,” Charlie said. “Almost, because I touched your arm the other night for the first time in so long--it was like taking that first sip of water after ages in the desert. My skin hasn’t forgotten you. How could it? The way my hair stands on end when you’re near.”

“Another?” Hermione asked, pulling a wrap around her shoulders.

“That moment, years ago, when you first looked at me with doe eyes and rendered me speechless with your lips. I dream about that more than I should, and then I wake up with a jolt, just as my fingers find purchase in your hair. It’s torturing me this very moment--Hermione, tell me--don’t you fall into that dreamscape of memory and fantasy remembering how we used to be?”

“I don’t usually let myself remember those particular times,” she admitted in the softest voice. “It’s too painful when I know how it all ended.”

“What if you tried again? Try now, when it’s only us here.”

She paused so long Charlie almost forgot to breathe. “I see your shoulders first, when I see you in my dreams,” she said. “They were what I always held onto; to cry, to beg… to find my high. Oh, I can’t… I’m embarrassed.” The tone in her voice was playful and self-conscious, a heady combo for an already teetering Charlie. He ventured a look at Ron, finally, who was staring at him intently and pressing his palms together in thanks.

Keep going! Ron breathed. He looked eager and utterly in disbelief.

“Would you prefer not to talk about our mutual highs?” Charlie asked lowly. The agony of coaching such faith out of this beautiful witch on someone else’s behalf… it would surely kill him. Still, he didn’t let his voice betray how he suffered.

“I’ve never known you to want to talk about it,” she whispered.

“How can I possibly talk about pleasure with you when we could be feeling it instead?” Charlie asked.

“Don’t joke, Ron,” she chided gently. “Were you afraid to talk about it before we broke up?”

Charlie looked to Ron, who nodded slowly, just once. “I was petrified.”

“What changed?”

“I lived without you. I felt my body change from open and comfort-seeking to closed off and ashamed. I realized that… with you, I have nothing to fear. You don’t judge me. You just…”

“Want you.”

“You want me.” His voice failed him on the last word.

“I do,” she admitted. She wanted Ron. He could hear it in her voice. This man with Charlie’s voice, and all the draw of Ron 2.0.

“How can a man ask for more?” Charlie asked, brokenly. To Hermione, it would sound like an emotional confession from her life-long love. It was good enough for her. “What I wrote to you… did it touch you?” he asked.

She turned her face away from him but the light from inside revealed a pink-cheeked nod. Ron waved for him to switch places.

“Tell me how much,” Charlie breathed. He nodded to Ron. Stepping beneath the balcony, he traded back his own cloak and gestured for his younger brother to walk into the light, so she could see him, and he could be the man who made her blush.

Charlie pulled his hood up and tried to coax his heart out of his throat.

“Come around front. I’ll let you in,” Hermione said. “And I’ll elaborate. As long as you don’t go on any more about my… assets.” She sounded amused by it now. Her silhouette paused in profile for just a moment--enough for Charlie to memorize the look of it on the ground, in the lone pool of light--and then disappeared. The balcony door closed. Ron punched the air in victory and strode to his brother, clasping him on the shoulder.

“We did it!” he cackled. “How did you know all that, Char? Cor, you were magnificent.”

“I’ve listened to many of your drunken rants,” Charlie smiled sadly. “Don’t keep her waiting, Ron, go!”

Ron gave him a look of utter thanks. “I’ll never repay you.” Ron practically skipped around the front of the building to meet his girl. Charlie waited until he heard the front door of Dora’s shop open and shut before breathing again. Then, he walked down the street to the Lynx. Ginny was waiting for the rest of the cadets at the bar. Charlie deposited himself beside his sister at the bar and said nothing. O’Dell set a pint down in front of him. Charlie drank until the glass was empty and pinched the bridge of his nose. His entire face was aching, radiating out from his scar. His eyes were watering, it was so painful. Ginny put her hand on his elbow.

“Where the hell are your shoes?” she asked with a laugh.

Charlie shrugged.

“Wanna talk about it?”

Charlie patted her hand and sighed. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Is it Hermione?”

“Ginny, I don’t want to talk about it. All right? She’s got what she wants. My brother is happy.”

“And you?”

“I’m tired.”

Chapter Text

Dear Hermione,

You’ve only been gone half a day but I miss you. Just a pop and I’d be there. But I have to content myself with the memory of you: you, in the twilight, you, in the dawn… you in my arms.

Yours,

R

*

Dear Ronald,

You’re addicted. It’s almost embarrassing. Lucky for you… so am I.

One week will fly by, promise.

Xx

H

*

Hermione--

Finished S&S. Wondering why Brandon didn’t bring the younger Eliza back to care for her. Don’t you think Marianne would’ve understood? Maybe loved him more for it? Please advise.

--Charlie

P.s. I stole Persuasion from Seamus. Sir Walter Elliot is a toff and I’m only on page 4.

*

Char!

Ah! I’m so delighted that you liked Sense and Sensibility (I’m assuming you did since you obviously care what happened to such a minor character as Eliza 2). To answer your question:

  1. Brandon has been a member of the landed gentry for long enough to know that a young woman who is pregnant and unattached would be under much harsher scrutiny in a manor house in the country than in the midst of a city, where she can more easily hide--or be hidden. He would not subject a girl he loved like a daughter to that sort of ridicule.
  2. I’m not sure Marianne would have understood--she’s naturally jealous and easily offended. Just because she grows to love him doesn’t mean that she would’ve taken to Eliza so readily. I think you give her credit that would be due to her more mature, more realistic sister, Elinor.

But what did you think of Lucy Steele? What I don’t understand is how she became attached to Robert, who, for me, is an UTTER toff. She certainly doesn’t SEEM like a gold digger, the way she keeps her claws dug into Edward for so long. Please advise your thoughts on the Steele’s, on the whole.

--Hermione

*

Dear Hermione,

Would they let me in to watch you present your research to the council, or do I have to wait until you write for confirmation of your brilliance? Nevermind--don’t answer that. You’re going to change the world, aren’t you? Proud of you.

X

R

*

Dearest R,

You’ll have to make do with these words, for now: I have done what I set out to do, and now I get to wait for the reward. So do you. Aren’t I a tease?

Xx

H

*

Herb--

(I wrote the ‘b’ by accident, but it’s funny, so I’m leaving it for my own benefit, la)

Watered your plant. You ought to get a cat. This place is boring.

Anyhow.

  1. Lucy Steele is annoying because she’s clueless but not as clueless as her obnoxious sister--my apologies if you like her, but GADS, I find her insufferable. But I feel like Lucy felt safe with Edward because he made a promise to keep her when she was at her most vulnerable, aka. About to leave the protection of her parents’ home, so she stuck by him until she realized that she actually needed to marry someone who could provide her with the kind of living that would allow her to remain in society. Because Edward only wants to be a vicar, right? So when his mother disowns him, he can no longer provide Lucy the life she desperately believes that she needs. The only thing I don’t get: If Mother Ferrars disowned Edward for being secretly engaged to Lucy, why would she allow Lucy to marry Robert instead?
  2. Otherwise, re: Persuasion: now I have Lady Bertram to contend with? Why is everyone in Anne’s life so bloody bossy?

Please advise.

--Charlie

*

Dear Chuck--

If I get an annoying nickname, then so do YOU.

  1. Maybe Robert put her under an Imperius? Eh? Nobody said it was a Muggles-only story.
  2. Anne Elliot is the only sane person in Persuasion.

Sorry for a short one, I’m off to an amazing seminar on celestial phonemenae--can’t wait to tell you all about it ASAP!

Xxx Herb

*

Dearest Hermione,

I ache for you. Letters aren’t enough. Please tell me you’re coming home to me soon.

R

*

Ronald,

The days will fly by and I will be home before you know it. Be patient, be constant… be ready for me.

Xxx

*

Harv--

  1. Do you mean that Jane Austen intended for Robert to be some kind of dark wizard… or he was one, and she didn’t even know it? Or was she a wizard? I mean witch!
  2. You’re the only sane person, period.
  3. Insanely happy for you. Please name the comet after me.
  4. I got you a cat. Well… I found one in the barn and the dragons were annoyed with him, so he’s taking cover in your apartment until I can figure out a more suitable home. Ginny and Ron are both allergic, so he can’t stay at ours. Don’t worry, he’s practically a human being, you’ll barely know he’s there. I got him food and everything. He has six toes. As yet nameless, but something good will come to me, I’m sure of it.

--Chaz

P.s. You can’t even spend five minutes writing your old pal a detailed dissection of your favorite novel? I knew it. I’m chopped liver.

*

Chirp--

  1. Oh--what if she WAS a witch?? Merlin’s left one, that would be incredible. I’m going to do some very illegal digging to find out while I’m here in this undisclosed location, the Ministry library. If true, this opens up a world of new interpretations of her work. Delicious!
  2. No, YOU.
  3. I’m naming it Obnoxious Sycophant. After you, obviously.
  4. You’re lucky I love cats, Weasley. Please name the cat after you.
  5. I never said it was my favorite. But Persuasion is. Be gentle with it/me.

Home tomorrow. I’ll buy you a drink?

Yours,

Harp

*

H--

I can’t breathe without you. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to do it. Save an old man from suffocation?

--R

*

My darling!

First of all, I hope London is horrid so that you come back to the lowly countryside and keep me company. But also, I hope your presentation went well because you’ve worked SO FLIPPING HARD for this, Hermione Jean Granger--so much so that my mother will be bragging about your accomplishments as if she gave birth to you herself. So. You bring blessings upon my/our family.

The farm is doing amazing--between my two egg-head brothers, this place has really turned around. Charlie and Ron lead early morning physical drills with all of us (I know--I’m in amazing shape after like six days, I don’t know what to tell you. Blessed, I guess!), and then Ron spends about an hour leading behavior conditioning with our more difficult dragons and just a few cadets at a time. We have two new babies--they’re not twins, but they are so identical that only Charlie can tell them apart, you know what a freak he is--who consistently try to bite when they’re being transported between their home pen and the grazing pasture. Ron has helped Dean and Ralston develop a fairly good rapport with the troublesome twosome. They finally managed a clean transport and return yesterday evening! Nobody was bitten and the dragons were in good spirits throughout. I thought Charlie was going to cry with pride. Ralston won’t talk about anything else. And Ralston!

Gods, Hermione. I really love her. I know that sounds cheesy. I’ve never been with anyone who makes my heart swell with pride every single day, while simultaneously driving me crazy and making me feel wanted and… Merlin, ‘Mione. She’s the One. It’s too early; we’ve only been together for a few weeks. You’re not supposed to love someone until you’ve seen them at their ugliest and lowest and watched how they handle it, but I think I will love her until I can’t remember who she is anymore--and then I’ll get to flirt with her all over again. I love Sheridan Ralston, you heard it here first.

Charlie is in a bad way. I hate to say it, but he is really hurting, and I’m not sure why. He’s present for every single drill and he feeds the animals every morning and he never shirks his duties, but he is in so much pain that he has blown through that salve that you made for him. He’s always furrowing his brow and pinching his nose. I know we didn’t really explain what happened to you in detail, but suffice to say: Charlie is most likely suffering from the combined effects of a Cruciatus and some sort of home-brew curse that affects him whenever he’s feeling intense emotions--it’s like he’s being punished for feeling. It’s probably a childish curse--a cowardly Dementor’s curse, that Half-Blood-Prince type nonsense, but that doesn’t make it better. Charlie deserves to feel things! For Merlin’s sake, he’s a passionate man! For some reason the Cruciatus has combined with this other spell in his body, so it’s like… a constant torture. He doesn’t mention it, but you know the look he gets when it’s really bad. He’s really bad, Hermione. I don’t know what to do. He’s actually going to St. Mungo’s tomorrow to see a healer because Ron and I forced him to make the appointment. I’m scared for him, but I don’t want to tell him that. And I have no idea why he’s been so upset this week, either. He hasn’t been talking to me much. I wish you were here. You seem to be able to reach him in a way that I just can’t. As for Ron? He is hopeless with Charlie. He’s never been good with words.

Ah! Sorry--I absolutely dumped my entire life on you just now. I miss you. I can’t wait for you to be here, but please take your time and revel in your successes; your triumphs will bolster all of us here, I know it.

Love you, my sweet dear friend,

Ginny

*

Charles Elizabeth Weasley--

I don’t know your middle name, but I’m furious with you, so I just picked one. Are you okay? Ginny said that you haven’t been doing well and you never let on in your letters. Please tell me that you’re okay. I’m worried. I was supposed to come home today but I know that you’re going to St. Mungo’s for an appointment today and I’d like to come to support you if you’ll let me. Please let me.

Love,

Hermione Jean Granger

*

R,

I’ve been delayed a few days, I’m so sorry. I’ll be back soon, I promise.

X Hermione

*

One week earlier…

“I’ll only be gone for a week,” she laughed as Charlie slumped down in her armchair melodramatically. “You should’ve seen Ron when I told him. Total drama queen.”

“You have one plant, Hermione,” Charlie said. “Surely you don’t need me to water it every single day.”

She closed her briefcase with a snap and tucked it under her arm. “Just one day, Wednesday, if you please,” she placed her hand on his head and patted it lightly. “But check on the place. Make sure nobody breaks in and eats all of my pumpkin pasties.”

“Unless I eat them.”

“Unless you eat them, yes.” She smiled and smoothed his hair, leaning down to his ear. “But if you eat my chocolate frogs, I will murder you.” Hermione kissed his cheek to punctuate the sentiment.

Charlie considered her as she walked towards the fireplace and took a handful of Floo powder from a jar on the mantle. She stopped abruptly and turned back to him.

“Hey, would you do me a favor?” she asked.

“Probably,” he said. “What do you need?”

“Ask Ron to write me while I’m gone? I know it’s stupid…”

“I’ll do it,” Charlie said. He smiled at her with a look of utter understanding and she sighed in relief.

“Just… tell him to knock my socks off, like the first one he ever wrote me.”

“Can I write you as well?”

“I’m counting on it,” Hermione laughed. “I’ll go crazy if you don’t. You know what a spazz I am.”

Charlie stood and smoothed his clothes. “Hermione. You’re not crazy or a spazz,” he said, leaning against the back of the chair. “You have worked very hard for this and you deserve to be there. Plain and simple.”

“So you’ll write me once an hour to remind me of that?” she asked with a glimmer in her eye.

“Of course I will.” Charlie held out his arms to her and Hermione leaned into his embrace.

“I’ll miss you,” she said, before pulling away, throwing her Floo powder into the fire, and stepping into the green flames. “Ministry of Magic!” she said.

 

Present day…

Charlie curled the quilt tightly around his shoulders and tried to block out the ambient noises from the bustling nurses and complaining patients. His bed was fairly isolated, all things considered. Still, it didn’t prevent him from writhing with every stray cry of pain from across the way. Until they could get him in a solitary room, Charlie would have to suffer the joys of a community hospital environment.

Even on a fairly heady pain potion, Charlie was in agony. He had been in such agony since Hermione left at the beginning of the week. Every day, he had gone through the motions of caring for the farm to the best of his ability, but every day, he had found himself less and less able to stay conscious. He had been in such pain that his body seemed to be trying to put him to sleep. This bloody curse, whatever it was… it was robbing him of his faculties.

Someone touched his shoulder to rouse him, but Charlie didn’t budge from the safety of his nest. Small, slim fingers curled around the top of his quilt and pulled it down just enough so he could make out her eyes. Hermione. Charlie at up abruptly in surprise and then groaned, grabbing his face. She made no more move to comfort him. Instead, she merely sat in the chair beside his bed and stared at her lap.

“Herb,” he grunted.

“Chuck,” she whispered. Hermione cleared her throat to make room for a threatening emotion. “The healer says you are to be moved into your own room,” she said.

Charlie managed a small nod.

“That’ll be good for you,” she said.

“‘M bloody broken,” Charlie mumbled, sliding down on his pillows and shading his eyes.

“You certainly kept your promise about writing to me,” she said brightly. Amusement colored her tone. “If I had known that your impatience about my return was medical, I might have been able to come sooner.”

“I was perfectly patient,” he whispered. “Read Persuasion and everything.” He dared to open one eye and look at her. She was digging through her briefcase.

“But, see, the way I remember it, in your last letter…” she flipped pages of parchment until she found her target. “Ah, here we are. ‘I can’t breathe without you. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to do it. Save an old man from suffocation?’” She read aloud the letter to him. “And then it’s signed ‘R’, in pencil. Isn’t that odd? Because you, Charlie, YOU--” she dug for a different letter and then smacked the paper when she found it. “You write almost exclusively in pencil, like a man who just doesn’t trust himself not to make a mistake. But Ron always writes me in pen.” Hermione laid both letters on Charlie’s legs and pointed. “And you are the one who begins and ends on an em-dash, while Ron usually includes a term of endearment. His letters are short while yours are pedantic.” Her voice had grown harried and gruff. Charlie winced. “But these two are in the same hand. The same person wrote these two letters, someone who has been lying to me almost since the moment that we first met… and it isn’t Ronald.”

“I wrote them both,” Charlie breathed. “I wrote them all.”

“You bastard.” She set both letters alight in a flash and Charlie convulsed in surprise. “You had me fooled. I thought you would help me connect with Ron again, but instead you… you orchestrated a great big scheme to mess with me. You got me in bed with him!”

Charlie held up his hand to quiet her and tried to sit up. “H-how--”

“Ginny’s letter tipped me off about why you hadn’t written me back… and then Ron didn’t write me back either. And then I went through both sets of letters… and it just was so obvious holding them up side-by-side. Ron confessed everything, once I confronted him,” Hermione said. “Even told me how you helped him seduce me. That was you under my window! Those were your words!”

“Yeah, what about that?” Charlie hissed. “You sure jumped into bed with him awfully quick. All it took were a few pretty words and you were hooked.”

“You took advantage of my vulnerability!”

“And you took advantage of my feelings for you,” Charlie spat, and that shut her right up. Hermione blushed and looked down at her hands, which were white-knuckling the handle of her briefcase. “Come on,” he said, wincing as a spasm ripped through his skull once again. “You had to have an inkling how I felt about you. I don’t hide my emotions very well. You knew I would never do anything to deliberately hurt you,” he said pointedly, “so you asked me to do something for you, even knowing that it would hurt me to do it. Admit that you had some idea.”

“I didn’t--”

“Yes you did,” Charlie insisted. “Hermione, I should never have helped you and Ron along, but what could I do? You asked me to talk to him. He told me he still loved you. He couldn’t even look at you without vomiting. You liked talking to me at least, even if I look a fright. Seemed obvious.”

“You could have said No to both of us,” she said.

“But I didn’t want to,” he said sadly. “It got out of hand. I got lost in the idea of making you both happy. I was wrong to do it. It hurt me to do it… was worth it to make you happy.” The pain was too much for him, then, and Charlie exclaimed. Hermione called for the healer. Several medi-witches rounded the corner and attended to the writhing Weasley.

“I’m sorry miss,” a round-faced nurse said. “You appear to have caused him some distress; you’ll have to go.”

“I’ll go,” Hermione peeped, torn between utter concern and anger at him for what he had done. She skirted around the partition which separated his bed from the one next door and her boots echoed on the stones. Hermione tried to shake off his words.

Of course she hadn’t known that he had feelings for her.

Had she?

He was merely generous with his time. Intelligent, and lovely to talk to. He laughed with her, he embraced her… oh, bollocks. Hermione pressed her temple. She was an idiot. He could not have been more obvious if he had been wearing a sign that said “I love you.” Hermione stopped abruptly.

She turned on her heel and raced back to Charlie’s cubicle. She grabbed the arm of the nearest medi-witch.

“I know what’s wrong with him,” she breathed.

Chapter Text

He had been in the hospital for a week and Hermione was beside herself.

She stared at the blank wall beside the bed, tracing the woodgrains. Here she was, alone in his room, crying like a bloody infant. Hermione wiped her nose on her sleeve. Nobody was home anyway. Ginny and Ron were at St. Mungo’s with the rest of the Weasley clan, trying to support Charlie’s recovery. Hermione had banned herself from his bedside, as a concerned friend. Nevermind why he was suffering. She didn’t want to think about it. She caused him distress, distress flared his curse, curse caused him unparalleled pain. She caused him pain. Therefore, she had to stay away. Another sob choked her and Hermione coughed into her elbow.

Hermione had been going stir-crazy in her little apartment with only the six-toed cat for company. Little Charlie-Cat was a nuisance in that his tiny razor claws were sharp, and all he seemed to want to do was curl up in her lap and knead her thigh with needles. It was affectionate and painful. But he was still a tiny kitten, so it wasn’t his fault. She just needed a few hours out of the house.

Hermione had plenty of work to do now that her research had been approved with the Ministry. She had come over to borrow a book from Ginny, but she couldn’t make herself budge from Charlie’s room. He had never invited her inside in the past, and she had no business being there now… but the second she came through the floo in his office, her feet carried her next door, to the place he must call a sanctuary. Except that it was hardly homey… Charlie had a bed, of course, and a bureau which contained his clothing, and a single wing-backed chair that was flanked by a floor lamp. But that was it. It was tidy--and not just because Hermione had made his bed when she arrived. He just didn’t have many things to clutter it up. It had all the marks of a man who did not know how to make a home. Despite that, it was comforting to smell the distinctly Charlie-ish-ness of the place. Cedar, with the faintest hint of cinnamon. The source of the scent was a pipe, which rested in a modest bowl on his windowsill. Hermione didn’t know that Charlie smoked a pipe. He didn’t seem the type, but then, she had to admit that she knew much less about him than she thought. She sniffed.

Stop crying, she thought. You have no right to cry. You’re crying because you’re worried about him. You feel guilty. You’re crying because you feel guilty , and you should . You basked in the attention he gave you without considering for one second that you were taking advantage of him and his feelings. He did what he thought he had to do to make you happy. Well, what the heck do you know about making yourself happy?

I don’t owe him affection! She huffed. Definitely not, but she had to admit that she had loved the loyalty of a friend who really cared , and didn’t ask for anything back. She loved the little touches on the elbow to get her attention, the lingering hugs, the self-lessness--no, not selfless. He had done wrong for selfish reasons. Even if he had done it to make her happy, he must have deep down hoped that she would figure out his ruse and care for him back.

Who was she kidding? She did care about him. But… if she forgave him, and their friendship remained intact… how could that work? Have a frank and honest conversation that sets boundaries? “We can be friends as long as you never again do something I ask you to do, in order to help me, even if your methods were misguided at best and dangerous at worst?” What a strange contingency for a friendship that was based solely in two people being nicer to each other than anyone else. What in Merlin’s name did Charlie like to do, aside from trying to fix the world single-handedly? She didn’t want Charlie to try to fix things for her anymore.

He’s hurting, she thought with regret. What if he doesn’t survive this?

You can’t sit here and cry over someone who you don’t love, she told herself plainly. Then, she shivered.

Hermione swiped at her eyes one last time and piled her unruly curls into a massive top knot. She opened Charlie’s bureau. That one--the one he was wearing when we met. She pulled the tartan flannel from the hanger and slipped it on over her light blouse. The sleeves were too long, but with the cuffs rolled up, it was perfect and she was warm.

She smoothed Charlie’s quilt where she had just been sitting and fluffed his pillows. A stack of books caught her eye from beneath his bedside table. ‘Persuasion’ was on top, with a Chudley Cannons card for a bookmark, about halfway through, and a pencil tucked beside it. She picked it up. She tucked the pencil behind her ear and flipped to find where he had left off… page after page was filled with margin notes in Charlie’s neat handwriting that she had come to know so well.

‘Crofts seem like a real love match.’

‘Benwick and Anne are a good match of wits--but no passion to be had.’

‘Mr. Elliot is her cousin, right?’

‘Wentworth is torturing her! Have some decency, man.’

The notes went on and on, page by page; mostly, the notes were Charlie’s short observations about the relationships in the story, but sometimes he had recorded little bursts of intense feeling. Romantic thought , profound. one such observation read. It was underlined twice. He loved this book, obviously. He loved to speculate on the lives of these inconsequential people, it was notable from his first letter she received while she was away for the week. The moment summarized by his succinct critique was a critical point in the novel, when Anne’s conversation with Harville is overheard by Wentworth, making him realize that Anne has loved him all along, and spurring him to write her an immediate declaration letter.

A line from her own letter to Charlie came to her mind, unbidden.

‘You’re lucky I love cats, Weasley. Please name the cat after you.’

She blanched. Oh. Hermione shut the book with a clap and dropped it onto the quilt. She strode from his room in a frenzy, raced for the stairs--and ran full-force into someone at the bottom. She landed with a thump on a sure-to-be-bruised-tailbone.

“Hey,” he said softly, grasping her elbow.

 

*

 

Divello Fragmentum.

A curse meant to torture the emotional bonds of the cursed one. A calculated curse that was most certainly the invention of a Death Eater and Charlie would bet money on Rudolphus Lestrange.

A curse with a name is still a burden as long as there is no known counter-curse. Lucky for Charlie, Healer Lovegood was a friend of the family; she was an adept curse-breaker with hundreds of patients on her list of triumphs, and she happened to owe Ginny a favor, so getting her to attend Charlie wasn’t difficult. Until she broke the curse, Charlie would have to suffer. It was the treatments that were a struggle.

For the first three days he was in the hospital, Charlie was put into a sensory deprivation chamber for three-hour chunks. It was supposed to dampen his sensitivity to touch and light. The rest of the day, Charlie was blindfolded and had his ears covered with ear-muffs while Healer Lovegood and her team ran tests on him. If anyone had visited him, Charlie was not aware of it. His thoughts were cloudy, but every once in a while, he would get a flash of a pretty face and an immediate zap of pain. Of course, he recognized her. He wished he could stop thinking about her.

On the fourth day, Charlie’s visitors were allowed to sit beside his bed if they spoke in a whisper and they could touch him as long as it was only a grasp of the hand.  On the sixth day, he was allowed to alternate between blindfold and sight for one-hour increments, which allowed him to see and acknowledge his family of visitors. Charlie was hardly coherent. On the seventh day, Ron came to visit by himself.

“Hey, mate,” Ron said, sitting at the end of Charlie’s bed. Charlie nodded weakly. “How are you getting on?”

Charlie shrugged as if to say ‘how do you think?’

“Sure,” Ron said. “Listen, Char…” He stood and ran a hand through his shaggy hair. “I think it’s time I return to London. Ralston’s ready to take my place, now that the cadets are in order, and you and Ginny don’t need me underfoot. It’s... “ he sighed. “It’s best, I think.”

Charlie narrowed his eyes and winced. “What about…”

“It’s not meant to be,” Ron said with a shrug. He was quite obviously deeply sad about the whole thing but trying not to show it. “You’ll never believe my luck, though. I met someone yesterday. I didn’t even throw up when she spoke to me.”

Despite everything, Charlie laughed. Ron patted him on the arm softly and smiled. “You know… you can’t fix everyone, Charlie. I know that you care about your friends, and what’s best for them, but what do you want?”

Ron stood and held up his hand in farewell. Charlie raised a few fingers in return. His youngest brother closed the door behind him.

Ron apparated back to the farm to pack his things. Once he had a bag together, he’d tell Ginny. She’d understand. Then, he’d pick up Eliza and they’d go to London together. She’d have to learn about wizarding transportation someday… why not today, the first time she’s ever left Butteryhaugh? It would be a far cry from her grandfather’s bar, but he was sure Eliza would find her way. She was sweet. Ron needed sweet.

He rounded the corner to ascend the stairs and ran head-long into a brunette blur. He grabbed her elbow to steady her and realized who it was in his hands. Strangely, a flop sweat didn’t spring up on his forehead, and he felt no fear in looking her in the eye for once. He didn’t even need to vomit.

“Hey,” he said softly.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” he said softly.

She shrugged her arm out of his grasp and Ron stepped back. “I didn’t think anyone was home,” Hermione murmured.

“I only just arrived,” Ron said. “But I’m about to take off again, actually.”

“Are you?” Hermione pulled Charlie’s oversized shirt tighter around her body and folded her arms. Ron nodded.

“My work here is finished, and there are more opportunities for me in London. Charlie will probably be in ship shape pretty soon, anyway, so he doesn’t need me here anymore.” Ron shuffled his feet. “I’d just be in the way, now that things are running smoothly here. Too many cooks and all that.”

“Hmm.”

Ron kicked at the rug. “We haven’t seen you at the hospital.”

Hermione shrugged. “I’ve had work to finish,” she said quickly. “Shacklebolt needs my second report by tomorrow.”

“I’m sure Charlie would appreciate you going. Ginny certainly would.”

“We’ll see if I have time,” she said, scratching her head. “I shouldn’t keep you, I’m sure you have some packing to do.” Hermione stepped around Ron but he reached for her shoulder. She stopped, but she did not look up at him.

“It would mean a lot to me if you went to see him,” Ron said softly. “He would walk on water for me. You know how he is: if it were you in his place, he wouldn’t think twice about it. He’s that kind of guy. Always intervening in the lives of his loved ones--he’s worse than mum.” He chuckled and Hermione couldn’t help but smile, despite the choking feeling building in her throat. “Luna said we’re allowed to read to him during visits; maybe you could bring one of those books by, oh… what’s her name?”

“Jane Austen?” Hermione offered. But he obviously knew. She allowed herself to look up at him and he smiled at her sadly.

“But, you know,” Ron said, releasing her. “Only if you have time.” He took a few steps up the stairs and halted abruptly. “Two things, before you go?” he requested. Hermione nodded.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Well, first things first, you should hear it from me… I’m not leaving Butteryhaugh alone,” he said. “I’ve met someone, and she’s decided to accompany me to London. I feel… worthy of her, somehow. It’s quick, but I’d like to try--see where things go.”

Hermione’s breath caught, but she forced herself to smile. “Good for you, Ronald. I hope it works out with her.”

“You might remember her from the Lynx--Eliza?”

“O’Dell’s granddaughter?” Hermione said, surprised. “Isn’t she… like sixteen?”

“She’s twenty five,” he said. “And she’s hoping to be a teacher.”

Hermione blushed. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me,” she said. “She seems very nice.”

“She is. She doesn’t mind my babbling.” He stroked his chin. “She is encouraging me to be assertive and to stop second-guessing myself. ‘S why I can talk to you, now,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Oh, Ron,” she said, shaking her head. “You know… you were worthy. For me.”

“Wasn’t good for you, though, was I?” He smiled at her warmly. “But someone else I know is . You’re wearing his shirt, as a matter of fact.” Hermione opened her mouth to protest and he held up his hand. “And that brings me to my second and final point.” Ron beamed. “He’s been asking for you.” Ron turned on his heel and walked up the stairs without another word, a farewell, or a parting glance. Hermione, on the other hand, stood stock still at the base of the staircase and stared after him.

“Get out of here, Hermione,” Ron called from a distant corner of the upstairs. She laughed.

Accio ‘Persuasion,’” she said, flicking her wand from her sleeve. Well.

*

Warm fingers crept into his hand and Charlie curled his fingers reflexively. Usually, his guests only patted his hand or shoulder (except for Molly, who hugged his arm until the healer asked her to back off), but this small hand held firm. He wasn’t due to remove his blindfold for at least an hour, so he would have to content himself with not knowing who the hand belonged to. One of his cadets, maybe. Or Victoire, or Fleur.

He wasn’t in pain, per se; the desensitization therapy had taught him to prioritize feelings as they welled within him, and compartmentalize according to urgency. At this point in his recovery, all emotions could be dealt with by way of reason and logic--no welling of rage or tears or anxiety need be focused on anything that wasn’t absolutely dire. What a relief, he had to say, not to suffer those splitting headaches any longer.

“Ahem.” She cleared her throat. His head turned toward her and his forehead furrowed, but he said nothing. Hermione opened the book to where the Chudley Cannons card held his place and propped it on her lap with one hand, so she could still grasp his hand. “Chapter 20 is where you left off, I believe,” she said meekly. Ginny grasped her shoulders in an affirming squeeze. “ Sir Walter, his two daughters, and Mrs. Clay, were the earliest of all their party at the rooms in the evening… ” she paused. He had no reaction at all, which was equal parts disconcerting and encouraging. He didn’t seem to be in pain in her presence, anyway. “ ...And as Lady Dalrymple must be waited for, they took their station by one of the fires in the Octogon Room. But hardly were they so settled, when the door opened again… and Captain Wentworth walked in alone! ” Hermione feigned a gasp. “ Anne was the nearest to him, and making yet a little advance, she instantly spoke…

Hermione continued her reading, settling into the comfortable rhythm of ennunciating the emotional shocks and delights of the story, without seeming too nervous. Her hand was sweating in his grasp but she refused to let go. Ginny had backed off into the corner of the room to observe with her arms folded, but she soon slipped out without Hermione taking notice.

I have hardly seen you since our day at Lyme, ” Hermione read. “ I am afraid you must have suffered from the shock, and the more from its overpowering you at the time.’ She assured him that she had not. ‘It was a frightful hour,’ said he, ‘a frightful day!’ and he passes his hand across his eyes, as if the remembrance were still too painful…

Charlie raised his free hand and draped it dramatically over his blindfolded eyes, smiling sleepily. Hermione laughed silently, squeezing their clasped hands. “ But in a moment, half smiling again, added, ‘the day has produced some effects however; has some consequences which must be considered as the very reverse of frightful. When you had the presence of mind to suggest that Benwick would be the properest person to fetch a surgeon, you could have little idea of his being eventually one of those most concerned in her recovery .” Hermione scoffed a bit. Or Me, with you , she thought. Charlie squeezed her hand to encourage her to continue.

Certainly I could have none. But it appears--I should hope it would be a very happy match. There are on both sides good principles and good temper ,” Hermione read. Charlie held up his hand.

Ron ,” he whispered emphatically. “ You .” Hermione’s heart dropped into her stomach. She took her hand back and flipped forward a page to less fraught text.

I confess that I do think there is a disparity ,” Hermione continued reading, “ too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind. I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more …” Hermione couldn’t help herself. She touched his forearm again and Charlie’s fingers stretched out seeking an unspoken target, known to both and yet unfulfilled. “ He is a clever man ,” she said, “ a reading man; and I confess, that I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing --”

Charlie carded a hand up to his face and pulled off his blindfold, eyes squinted into tiny slits from the brightness of the lights. Hermione gasped; she sat back from him, withdrawing her hand and clutching the book to her chest like a life preserver. He blinked until his eyes could focus on her and he smiled with just one side of his mouth. It was all he could manage. But it was enough to make Hermione lean forward again and smooth the book on her lap.

“Skip forward,” he requested softly. He opened his hand again, Hermione took it, and he closed his eyes.

Hermione skipped forward, to a point she felt appropriate. “ The last hours were certainly very painful,’ replied Anne; ‘But when the pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering, which was by no means the case at Lyme. We were only in anxiety and distress during the last two hours, and previously there had been a great deal of enjoyment .”

“Not that. Harville, and the letter,” he yawned. “My favorite.”

“Yes, your majesty,” Hermione whispered. Charlie opened one eye and she laughed, flipping to his requested chapter. “ Look here,’ said he, unfolding a parcel in his hand, and displaying a small miniature painting, ‘do you know who that is?

“Benwick,” Charlie murmured.

“Yes,” Hermione smiled. “ And you may guess who it is for. But, it was not done for her. Miss Elliot, do you remember our walking together at Lyme, and grieving for him? I little thought then--but no matter. This was drawn at the Cape. He met with a clever young German artist at the Cape, and in compliance with a promise to my poor sister --”

“My Brother is an idiot--” Charlie babbled.

--sat to him, and was bringing it home for her; and I have now the charge of getting it properly set for another! I am not sorry indeed, to make it over to another. He undertakes it,’ Harville said, looking towards Captain Wentworth. ‘He is writing about it now. Poor Fanny! She would not have forgotten him so soon.

“No, that I can believe,” Charlie said, word-for-word with the next written line in the book. Hermione quirked an eyebrow.

“Would you like to read to me? ” she asked teasingly. He nodded once. He released Hermione’s hand and grasped the book gently, tugging it out of her grasp. Charlie dragged the book onto his chest. He squinted so badly, he looked pained, but determined. Hermione jumped up and flicked off the light switch so the only light source in the room was the uncurtained window.

Charlie cleared his throat. Hermione crossed her arms.

It was not in her nature ,” Charlie read, slowly. “ She doted on him.’ ‘It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved.’ Captain Harville smiled. ‘Do you claim that for your sex?” He paused and tipped the book so Hermione could see it. She scooted her chair closer and leaned an elbow on the bed.

Yes ,” she read, “ We certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us .” Hermione sniffed away unbidden emotions. “ You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions .” She leaned her head against his shoulder to get a better angle for reading… is what she told herself.

I will not allow it to be more man’s nature than woman’s to be inconstant and forget… those they do love, or have loved .” Charlie couldn’t handle much more; he felt the siren pull of sleep, but he did not want to leave this moment. “Summarize,” he instructed Hermione.

Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer lived ,” Hermione said, skipping down a bit. “ You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. It would be hard, indeed, if women’s feelings were to be added to all this .”

Charlie’s head fell to rest on top of Hermione’s. For support, of course. “ We shall never agree upon this question,’ Captain Harville was beginning to say… ” he tapered off.

“Captain Wentworth drops his pen,” Hermione says. “He has been listening, rather than writing. ‘Have you finished your letter?’ Harville asks. ‘Not quite. I shall be done in five minutes.”

Let me observe that all the histories are against you ,” Charlie read. “ I do not think I have ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon women’s inconstancy .”

“But they were all written by men,” Hermione said with a laugh.

“I won’t make it to the letter,” Charlie said. He turned his nose into her hair. Hermione raised a hand and took the book from his grasp. “Please be real when I wake up,” he murmured. Then, he was asleep.

Hermione’s right arm was trapped between her body and the bed, but she reached up with her left and cupped his cheek. She realized, of a sudden, with her fingers on skin she had memoried on sight… Charlie didn’t have his scar anymore.

Not even a faint red line.

Nothing.

Ginny peeked her head in the room and made eye contact with Hermione. Her face contorted into total delight at the sight before her, but Hermione put a finger to her lips before she could speak. Ginny gestured to the hallway and invited Hermione to join her. Once Ginny had closed the door, Hermione shifted Charlie so his back wouldn’t ache from leaning to one side. She kissed his forehead. She tucked ‘Persuasion’ under his arm. Then, she joined her friend in the hall. Ginny welcomed her with open arms.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Ginny said.

“Is he going to be okay?” Hermione crossed her arms around Ginny’s back and held fast to her friend.

“He’s fine,” Ginny said. “Just exhausted. Luna broke the curse, thanks to you.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Hermione said.

“You figured out the name of the curse, which is more than I can say for anyone who has tried to treat him in the past. How did you know, by the way?”

Hermione stepped back and hugged her arms to her chest. “Snape’s textbook. Harry and I spent a lot of time pouring over the margins for all of his newly invented spells. That one had us puzzled for a while. Didn’t really figure out it’s true nature until we dug deep into the latin behind it. Never saw anything about a counter-curse though!”

Ginny shook her head in awe. “Why did you go into Astronomy, again?”

“Because I’m bloody good at it,” Hermione said, exasperated. “What in Merlin’s name did Luna do it break the curse? You’d never even know that he had a scar in the first place!”

“She basically desensitized him to all of his emotions and then used Occlumency to figure out what was causing him pain,” Ginny explained. “Then, she pinpointed the part of his brain that the curse had taken over and forced his brain to burn away the nerve endings that fed the curse, so it could repair itself and no longer respond to the old trigger.”

“And what, by chance, was this trigger?” Hermione asked. She paled at the thought of being eradicated from Charlie’s mind so completely.

“An innate childhood desire for love, apparently,” Ginny said.

“Oh.” Hermione cast a regretful glance at his closed door. Ginny touched her arm.

“You look worried. What’s going on?”

Hermione shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s better.”

“He’ll be so relieved to see you,” Ginny said. Hermione eyed her skeptically. “Once he is fully conscious again. He’s high as a kite on pain potions right now.”

“Should I come back later once he’s rested?” Hermione asked.

“Why not go sit with him for a bit? He tends to wake up quite a bit on this medicinal cocktail, and I’m sure your company would really help him.”

Hermione nodded solemnly and Ginny rubbed her arms. “You know,” Ginny said, “The curse only killed his fear of never being loved. It didn’t touch his desire to give it.”

Hermione silently hugged her dear friend and slipped back inside Charlie’s room without a word. She closed the door behind herself and pressed her forehead to it. It was too much. She was overwhelmed, he was fine! But she was a mess--nevermind the Ron bombshell, and the shock of Charlie actually being all right. She was emotionally worn-out.

“Knew you were real,” Charlie murmured. Hermione jumped in surprise and spun around to face the bed. Charlie smiled at her sleepily.

Chapter Text

“Judging by your expression, I must look a fright,” Charlie said, yawning. He placed Persuasion on his bedside table and stretched his arms overhead. Hermione smiled.

“You certainly don’t look like your normal self.” She leaned back against the door with her hands layered behind her hips.

“Uglier than ever, eh?” Charlie brushed a piece of hair out of his face but it fell right back where it started. He huffed in annoyance. “Could you help with this mess?” he asked, gesturing to the mess of hair. “It’s been tickling me for days and I couldn’t stay conscious long enough to tell someone.”

Hermione pushed off the door. “Tell me about it,” she laughed. She pointed to her own top-knot, from which curls were trying to liberate themselves. “Can you sit up?”

Charlie pressed his palms to the mattress on either side and slowly scooted backwards to brace against the headboard until he was upright. Hermione considered his posture and shook her head. “I think it will be easier if you turn to the side. If you can handle it,” she said. He took that as a challenge. Charlie raised an eyebrow and pushed the blanket off of his legs so he could hang his legs over the side of the bed. “All right?” Hermione asked. Charlie rolled his neck and ankles in unison.

“A bit cramped, and in a fog… but…” he looked up at her and a puzzled look came over him. “No more headache. Which is… new.” He narrowed his eyes.

“That’s great!” she said, touching his shoulder. His shoulder flinched at the touch and she blushed. He tried to run a hand through his hair but he was too shakey. “Here, I’ve got a comb in my bag, one sec--” She practically dove for her purse, which hung from the back of the chair. She dug for her comb and a hair tie.

He cleared his throat. “We’ll see how long it lasts, though,” Charlie said.

“Has Luna told you anything yet?” Hermione asked. She looked at him over her shoulder and his own were hunched forward, hugged by the dark green henley he wore. He pushed up his sleeves.

“No, but then again, this is the first time I’ve felt like I can keep my eyes open all week.” He brushed the hair off his shoulders towards the back.

“I can tell you what she told me, at least,” she said, stepping up behind him and gently starting to work the comb through his tangled ends. His auburn tresses curled around her fingers.

“Tell me about your presentation, first,” he said. “Forgive me for not asking sooner.”

“Oh! Well… honestly, it could not have gone better,” Hermione said. She could not hide the utter delight in her voice.

“Yeah?”

“Truly.” She paused to work through a small tangle. “It’s sort of complicated--”

“Tell me everything,” he said, amused. “I promise not to fall asleep again.”

“Well... I was right. It’s not just a comet, but a cluster of small meteors surrounded by a cloud of copper particles,” she said, combing all of his long, unruly hair back as the last of the tangles loosened. She sat on her knees and sectioned off the top of his hair into three pieces. “Hence the bright green color,” she continued, “which only appears as such as the cluster approaches the sun and the particles heat up. As it travels away from the sun and the particles cool again, the comet appears nearly black, which explains why muggle scientists think it is a new phenomenon. It’s not in danger of colliding with Earth or anything, but little meteors keep breaking off and causing mini-episodes of green flares as they collide with other space debris, which we’ve thought were just star deaths. My theory (the one I presented to the Ministry) is that the comet itself is debris from the explosion of a copper-rich planet in a collision with another celestial body millions of years ago--aaaaand I’ve totally lost you, haven’t I?”

Charlie looked at her over his shoulder, rubbing his eyes. “Two planets, smash smash, go on.”

Hermione laughed. She tugged on a lock of his hair and worked it into the first turn of the braid. “I think it’s about to turn the arc on it’s orbit and so-called ‘disappear’ once again. Because it was so bright the last month and then dimmed incrementally so quickly that I nearly lost track of it. Turns out it went behind Jupiter, BUT it’s still getting dimmer. My comet is in fact real. And nobody figured it out until me. So I get to name it.”

Charlie turned his whole body and touched her forearm. “What a beautiful brain you have, Hermione Granger.” He beamed. Hermione blushed and pushed his shoulder so he’d turn back and she could finish taming his hair into a neat plait.

“I’m naming it after one of my dearest cheerleaders, so. Everything is official and there will be a gala for all the other star nerds to celebrate sometime next month.”

“Fancy! That is wonderful,” he said joyfully. “You really did it.”

She smiled. “I did, didn’t I?” Hermione wrapped the hair tie around the tail of Charlie’s braid and patted him on the shoulder. “Do you want to have a look?”

“Sure,” he said with a shrug. Hermione dug through her purse once again for her compact mirror. She knelt behind him on the bed and held the mirror out to him over his shoulder. Charlie flicked open the tiny circular compact and peered at himself in its glossy face. Of a sudden, he swore under his breath and held the mirror close to his nose. “What is this?” he breathed. He turned to her with utter shock on his face. “Do you see this?” He exchanged glances between the mirror and Hermione. “It’s gone! How is it just… gone?”

Hermione sat back and smiled. “Luna broke the curse,” she said simply. Charlie’s eyes widened and he pulled at his forehead, which no longer puckered into tough skin.

“How in Merlin’s name did she manage that?” he exclaimed. “Last time I was conscious for any stretch of time, she was just trying to desensitize my emotions, and all she knew was the name --”

“Well, she was able to sort of trick your brain into killing off the cells that stored the effects of the curse. It’s not that simple, but something like that. You might feel different.” Hermione tried to remember what Ginny had said but she felt emotion welling in her throat watching him.

“I don’t know how she even figured out the name of the curse in the first place, let alone...”

“Actually… I did.”

Charlie snapped the compact shut and stared at her. “You-you did?”

“I did.” Hermione reddened under his gaze. “It was one of the curses from Snape’s old textbook, which explains why it behaved so much like that spell that Harry used on Draco by accident,” she explained. “‘ Divello Fragmentum ’ literally means ‘tear fracture’ and it was designed to divide the target from the thing that they want most, torturing them, until… well. Thankfully, Luna is a talented curse-breaker.”

Charlie peered at himself in the mirror once more and then held out his hand to her. She took it. He squeezed softly. “Luna is a talented healer, I’m sure, but… as far as I’m concerned, you broke it.” He released her hand. Charlie handed back the compact and patted his newly plaited hair. “New hair, new face, didn’t require much effort on my part… all I had to do was sleep for a week.” He rubbed his face and stared at nothing. He looked confused and…. Worried.

“Are you all right?” Hermione asked for the second time.

Charlie stretched a toe down to the ground and stood hesitantly. “Don’t quite know,” he said softly. He turned towards the window and braced his hands on the windowsill. “So… is a side-effect of this ‘cure’ at all related to her desensitization treatments, do you think? Am I just sort of destined to feel rather milquetoast about the world? No scar, no headaches… no feelings? Merlin, now that’s a frightening thought. Or it should be, but why am I not scared?” He scratched his head.

Hermione scooted off the bed and touched his back. “I think you’re just going to have to reacquaint yourself with… yourself. So to speak.”

“Am I having a forced mid-life crisis?”

“You’re not that old,” Hermione chuckled. Charlie shook his head and smiled.

“Still--what if I never feel right?”

“You’ll be better than ever, I know it,” she said. She felt her heart leap into her throat and she wrapped her arms around him, resting her cheek against his soft shirt. Charlie clasped a hand over hers.

“I hope certain feelings aren’t gone forever.” Charlie held fast to her hand and tried to sort his thoughts.

“They aren’t.” She laced her fingers with his.

Charlie suddenly held her hand up to his mouth and pressed his lips to her skin. He bent his head to reach it, even. “I should not have done what I did,” he murmured. “To see you with him would have done worse than scar me but I knew that if you were happy, I would find some degree of happiness in it. Someday. But it was agony.”

Hermione sniffed away unbidden tears. “Perhaps you should have considered that even I didn’t know what I really wanted.”

“Perhaps,” he said.

Perhaps you should not have made the decision for me ,” she said gently. Hermione tugged on her hand and Charlie released her, but he kept his back to her. She sat on the bed and pulled her knees up.

“Charlie, I… I have been inconsolable since you’ve been here,” she said. “I know reasonably that what you did was wrong and manipulative and I could be very mad at you. If it weren’t for the fact that I lived for your letters when I was in London. Not faux-Ron’s letters, not the ones you sent to mimic what you thought I wanted, but yours. You made it so much easier to shake off my nerves. I laughed reading your theories about Lucy Steele and delighted in the news of a new flatmate, the needsome and precious Charlie-cat… you are very good to me as yourself. You were a convincing fantasy Ron but you are better as Charlie. You are better for me. I… honestly, I think I’ve adored you since the moment you broke into my house to fix my sink. I have felt that intense pull to you since before I knew about your headaches or your scar, and you were handsome to me for more reasons than your impeccable beard grooming and magnificent hair.” She grinned through shining eyes. “There is so much kindness behind a Charlie Weasley smile--it’s the best sight I’ve ever beheld. I think I even loved your scar, Charlie. I love you , Charlie.”

Hermione waited for anything in return but he didn’t say a word. He didn’t even turn around. A hot tear fell on her arm and she swiped at her cheeks. She shook her head, pulling her sleeves over her hands.

Maybe he had changed too much and she was too late.

Hermione lay back on the bed and covered her eyes. She was mortified, embarrassed… sad.

A little noise ruminated in the back of Charlie’s throat. Something like a laugh.

“Well,” he said almost incoherently. “That answers that.” Charlie turned around with shining eyes of his own. Hermione peeked out from between her fingers. She sat up as he took a step toward the bed. His knees couldn’t hold him up any longer so Charlie knelt abruptly in front of the bed, at Hermione’s feet. Hermione leaned to steady his arm but Charlie’s fingers were already curling into the fabric of her shirt for purchase. He stopped short and gave her a once over. “Is that my shirt?” he asked with a laugh.

“I said I missed you, didn’t I?” Hermione blushed.

“You didn’t say that, actually.”

Hermione grabbed on to the two sides of his unbuttoned henley collar and pulled his face closer to her own. “I bloody well missed you--”

Charlie leaned up to kiss her soundly, cupping her neck with his hand. Hermione hummed against his mouth. Who knew that mustaches gave no issue in well-deserved kisses? She let him take the lead until he drew away from her with a languid sigh. Then, she renewed the kiss. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders and teased his lips slowly, forcing him to lean up. When neither of them could breathe any longer, Charlie pressed his forehead to hers.

“I feel you now more than ever,” he said.

“Well, we’ve never smashed our faces together before,” Hermione teased. She kissed his eyebrow when he raised it in amusement.

“Could we just try it again? For scientific purposes.”

“To determine what, exactly?” she laughed.

“That I am the luckiest man who ever lived.” He smiled as Hermione wrinkled up her nose.

“In order to determine that, we would have to gather data about every other man on this planet and their good fortunes… and weigh that against yours, and honestly--that could take years--”

Charlie pushed himself up to silence her with his lips once again. He kissed her cheeks, her jaw, her brow, then tucked his face into the crook of her neck and wrapped his arms around her waist. Hermione hugged him tightly, one arm around his shoulders squeezing his shoulder, and the other hand stroking the back of his head.

“I am in love with you,” he muttered into her neck. He yawned. His energy was entirely spent, but it didn't matter now. Hermione beamed.

“By the way,” she said softly. “I named the comet ‘ Charlie ’.”

Chapter Text

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.

“Char--”

“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.”

“Thank you.”

“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.