There was something extra special about the summers in Romania. They differed greatly when compared to England, and while Charlie did often find himself missing home; missing the cloudy skies, the temperate summers, his family, and his mum's cooking, he could never be homesick for very long. There was just too much to do, too much to enjoy, like the blistering heat, the wildflowers, and the dragons, of course. Mostly the dragons.
Sweat clung to every inch of Charlie as he stood out in the sun, in the middle of a field, holding a burlap sack in one hand as he used his fingers to whistle lowly, eyes sweeping the tall grass for any sign of what he'd been searching for for the past few hours.
It was subtle, the wave of flowers to his right, the gentle rustling, and there could be only one cause to it, as the area was almost entirely dead of wind. Charlie remained as still as he could manage, tapping the fingers of his right hand against his thigh as the rustling came closer. Then he heard another sound, like a hybrid between a growl and a purr.
Charlie pounced, snapping open the burlap sack as he threw his weight onto the creature. It immediately started to whip around and spit. A leathery tail smacked him in the face and the taste of iron washed over his tongue, but Charlie could only laugh as he got his arms under the flailing creature.
"Thought you could sneak away that easy, did you?! Not while I'm on babysitting duty!"
As he sat up, a head covered in iridescent scales poked out of the top of the burlap sack, eyes like pearls glaring at him: an infant Antipodean Opaleye. He was from a brood that Charlie and a handful of others were taking care of over the summer, before shipping them back to New Zealand for the winter. This one in particular was the runt; much smaller than the rest, he hadn't managed to blow so much as smoke yet, but he seemed to be the most curious. They'd discovered after a few times that the creature would need eyes on him at all times to keep him from wandering too far and, Merlin forbid, getting himself hurt.
He certainly looked upset at getting caught, but Charlie could only laugh at him. "You look exactly like my little brother Percy when the twins are bothering him!" He rubbed the Opaleye's leathery head, and the creature's eyes closed from the delightful sensation. "Too bad he's not as easy to calm down, huh mate? Ah, kids."
He arched his head back to see one of his friends jogging towards him through the field. He kept his eyes on the other dragonkeeper as he tightened his hold on the Opaleye and stood up, letting the creature sneak from the burlap sack and onto his shoulder.
"Look who I finally found!" Charlie held a hand proudly to show off the white dragon currently rubbing its head through his red hair. "We should get him a collar with a bell on it to make it easier to find him when he sneaks off."
"We could get more people to watch him," the witch offered.
"Oh, I'm confident he'd still find a way to sneak off." Charlie reached up to stroke under the dragon's chin, bringing out a purr. "At this point he causes so much trouble, he should be an honorary Weasley! I'm sure mum wouldn't mind." He then pouted at his colleague. "Can't we keep him?"
"It gets too cold for Opaleyes here in the winter, you know that as well as anyone." The witch said with a roll of her eyes, then held up her hand to show off an envelope she'd carried with her. "This just came for you."
"Me? It's not post day." Charlie took the letter, flipping it around. "It came by owl?"
"Yeah, a beautiful thing, a snowy owl, marvelous, Dimitriu is with her now, preening her and feeding her the best snacks we have, says she's so pretty she deserves it."
"Snowy." Charlie jerked his head up. "Couldn't be Hedwid?"
"She belongs to my baby brother's best friend!" Charlie explained, checking the handwriting on the envelope. "This is my mum's hand, too! Harry must've lent her Hedwig to send me something. She didn't use Erol, s'pose that means it's important..."
"Think someone's getting married?"
Charlie snorted, tearing open the letter. "Can't imagine who would. Bill did mention a girl, but they've only been dating around a year, I don't know if that's enough time." He looked up. "Bill's my older brother."
"I know, Charlie. We all know."
"Do I talk about my family too much?"
The witch rolled her eyes with a sigh that made Charlie snicker as he pulled out the letter. It wasn't long, written on thin parchment, and some of the letters were smudged. Charlie felt his heart jump straight into his throat. Before he even started reading he could recognize his mum's tears staining the paper, and he stopped breathing before he'd even finished the first line.
I wish I was writing with better news. We need you to come home, if you can, as soon as possible. There was an accident.
Dumbledore is dead.
Bill was attacked by Fenrir Greyback, he'll live but he's in bad condition. Please come home soon as possible, I know seeing you will bring him a bit of comfort.
Please do not disclose any of this information until we've been able to talk to you. Please be safe. We hope to see you soon.
P.S. Bill and Fleur are getting married, just as soon as he's on his feet again.
"Charlie?" He lifted his head slowly to stare at his colleague, who looked concerned. "What is it? Did something happen?"
Charlie opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the sound of hiccuping, burping, then a loud belch as the Opaleye jerked on his shoulder and coughed out a stream of red hot flame that hit the letter straight on. Charlie watched, half aware, as the fire burned down to crisp the edges and bite at his fingers before swallowing thickly as his colleague gasped.
"Oh, he did it! He breathed fire! We can put him with his brothers and sisters now!"
The panic of it all seemed to finally settle in Charlie's bones at her words, and he opened his now empty hands as he began swallowing breaths.
"I have to go, I have to… I have to go home, to my family, I… there was an accident."
The witch covered her mouth with both hands. "Oh, no, Charlie I… I'm so sorry."
"I have to go." Charlie pulled the Opaleye from his shoulder and dropped him into his colleague's arms, rushing past her and towards their small settlement.
It wouldn't take long. He had to hunt down a Portkey, but he could manage. Even if he had to pay extra to leave illegally, that was nothing he'd never done before. It would be fine. As soon as he was back in the UK he could just apparate to the Burrow. It was fine. Everything would be fine.
Bill had seen some pretty horrible injuries during his years as a Curse Breaker; curses would backfire, witches and wizards in his team would be hit with the curses and have to be brought to hospital for treatment. Sometimes they didn't come back to work because the wounds had been too serious.
He'd even met a few werewolves during his travels. People who were scarred with shadowed eyes and deep set frowns. Wizards and witches who were living with consistent aches and pains, heavy consciences and shaking hands that couldn't still due to permanent nerve damage caused by the extensive scarring; most of it self inflicted during the long nights of the full moon.
A lot of the Lycanthropes Bill had questioned about the affliction admitted they didn't remember the attack that turned them, but the few who were newly turned, the few who had their attacks stapled into their minds, all said the same thing: they could feel their body changing as they recovered from the initial attack. It was as if their internal organs were melting, their bones softening, their blood boiling, and every inch of them set on fire, while the bite and scratches merely itched in their skin.
It certainly wasn't what he'd been expecting when he finally woke up after his attack, fingers digging into the sheets around him, breathing air into burning lungs and trying to focus on something, anything. He managed to focus on blue eyes and white gold hair, a smile that Bill had quickly come to love despite the war raging around them. He'd clung to her hand the instant it was on his, his lips curling into what felt like a smile.
The explanation was quick, certainly one he didn't need, he knew exactly what had happened, but he somehow focused on Madam Pomfrey as she told him about Greyback, how he'd attacked Bill, left him bleeding at the bottom of the Astronomy Tower.
"Is anyone else hurt?" Bill asked when he could speak, swallowing around the fire in his throat.
The way his father exchanged a look with the esteemed Hogwarts healer made Bill panic, clinging to Fleur's hand as his breathing hitched painfully.
"Ron and Ginny are fine." Arthur had a hand on his shoulder, sitting lightly on his collarbone but putting no pressure into the touch, presumably out of fear of hurting him. "Your mum and I are fine. Harry is fine. There was only one casualty."
"Who?" Bill rolled his head to look at Fleur, who offered him a tight smile.
"You don't need to worry about that right now." Molly soothed, but Bill couldn't tame the panic.
"Dumbledore." The answer came from Remus, who was standing behind Arthur, with Tonks close to his side.
Her hands were folded towards her lips and her hair was pale white in shock, the tips still a rosy pink.
Bill's vision dropped out of focus and he clung tighter to the sheets and Fleur's hand as his mind reeled in shock. He could hear his mother scolding Remus, something about how Bill was in no condition to deal with the knowledge of someone's death, but Remus muttered that he deserved to know. Tonks and Arthur quickly agreed.
Bill agreed too, he definitely needed to know that. "Where did it happen?"
"The Astronomy Tower."
Another wave of dizziness. His stomach cramped from pain and nausea. That's where he'd been, patrolling the tower, trying to protect the students and Professors, trying to ensure nothing bad happened. Then Greyback had attacked him, took him down, and when he woke up, someone was dead.
Dumbledore was dead.
"Did anyone else-"
"No," Arthur was quick to reassure him. "Dumbledore was the only one…"
Bill shut his eyes, screwing them tighter as a wave of pain burned through his chest, his breath stuttering. "Should it hurt like his?" He asked shakily.
Remus was again the one to answer, his voice low and apologetic. "Yes…" Bill opened his eyes and rolled his head to watch the other man, his throat tight. "It will hurt for a while."
There was something comforting about Remus being there, as if he had a deeper sense of empathy towards Bill's situation and the pain he was feeling. This only increased over the next couple of days. There were times when Bill felt nothing but pain, didn't want anyone to touch him, and Remus seemed to know it, subtly drawing people away by talking about something "important" that needed their attention. There were times when Molly would offer tea or food, wanting to take care of her son, but he just couldn't eat, and Remus was there to distract her without her getting up in arms about people trying to keep her from nursing her baby to health.
"I can see why you like him so much," he noted to Tonks at one point when they were alone, and she arched an eyebrow into her hairline.
"I'm not sharing him, if that's what you're implying. It took me four years to get this far with him, that's hard work!"
The laugh hurt, but it was nice. Tonks was one of the people who didn't look at him differently, like he'd been ripped out of his skin and stuffed into a new body. She looked at him like he was still Bill, and having a good friend like that at his side through this was a blessing.
Moving was a task he barely managed, but he didn't want to stay at Hogwarts looking the way he did. He didn't want to scare any of the kids, didn't want Ginny or Ron to constantly skip classes to dote on him (their mum was doing enough of that), and he didn't want to somehow tarnish the school with the fact they were nursing a Partial Werewolf back to health after a brutal attack.
He didn't disclose any of this to his parents or Madam Pomfrey when he asked about leaving soon after Dumbledore's funeral. "I'd feel more comfortable." He explained softly. "If I could go home, that is."
His mum was thrilled with the idea, flitting around to gather her things as Madam Pomfrey relayed orders and stuffed bottles of medicine and potions into Fleur's arms.
The most Bill remembered about moving from Hogwarts to the Burrow was how shaky he was when he was pulled to his feet with his father on one side and Remus on the other. His head spun as they heaved him upright, clinging to both men as his vision somersaulted and his blood rushed in his ears. At one point before they'd even apparated, he completely blacked out, and when he woke up he was tucked into bed in Percy's old room.
No Percy, of course. Percy hadn't been around for a while, and while a piece of Bill hoped he would come by once he heard what had happened to his brother, he didn't bet on it. There was enough comfort in the fact they'd placed him in Percy's old room.
With way too many pillows and way too many blankets.
The pillows were nice, Bill appreciated the extra padding on his scarred back, soft enough that they didn't pull at the bandages or irritate the multitude of wounds. The blankets were a bit much, and whenever he was given a rare moment of solitude where even Fleur left the bedroom, he would heave all but one blanket off and kick them to the end of the bed. It was just too hot, and heat made his entire body ache in pain as his head throbbed.
Every time he kicked the covers away he was able to fall into a restless sleep, but he was always woken soon after when his mum came back into the room and replaced all the blankets, dragging him from his rest sweating and uncomfortable.
"The blankets won't help with his fever." Bill vaguely recognized Remus' voice, followed by his mum clicking her tongue.
"Nonsense, he needs to sweat it out!"
"This isn't a normal fever, Molly, it can't be sweat out. His body needs to adjust to the disease and that takes time. You can't cure him, you can simply make him more comfortable as he processes it. The blankets don't make him comfortable, believe me."
"Oh is that a fact? Is that what you know, Remus?"
"Well you don't know my son, I do, and blankets will comfort him!"
"Does he look comfortable to you?"
"He looks fine!"
"Dear, we should listen, he's right, and he does have more insight into this kind of thing. We're lucky Remus is here."
There was a pause, then footsteps. "Fine, do what you want!"
"I'm opening the window. It's hot."
"I'll… take some of the blankets off."
Bill absolutely hated that his condition was making his family fight, that it was hurting his mother so badly, but he took it with a grain of salt. His mum was the only one still trying to process what had happened. The rest of them were calm enough, didn't look at him like he was on his deathbed, didn't force smiles with tear filled eyes.
The twins made it fun, despite how the scars hurt. "We should get you wolf themed clothing!"
"A wolf hat!"
"Your patronus might change!"
"Or was it always a wolf?"
"A ginger wolf! Those are rare, you know?"
Ron always snuck in candy and treats when he ducked into the bedroom to check on Bill, his shirt rolled up to hide the bulging snacks, eyes wide in partial terror. "Mum almost caught me!" He would squeak, pouring the candy into the drawer of the bedside dresser. "I brought Butterbeer Fudge this time, courtesy of Harry, but don't tell him I told you. I also brought Sugar Quills and Jelly Slugs. Don't tell mum, she'll yell."
"It's normal to crave sugar," was what Remus had explained when Bill mentioned wanting something sweet and only sweet. "Your body's working overtime to adjust to the disease, you're lacking energy because of it and need carbohydrates. The fastest way to get it is through sugar. You can work around that once you've healed up and recovered a bit more."
"Is that why you've always got chocolate with you?" Bill had asked, and the small smile Remus gave him wrinkled the scar across his nose.
"Sometimes after a full moon I can't eat normal food. Chocolate isn't heavy or hard to eat, so it's all I can manage."
"Chocolate is good for your heart and can prevent diabetes." Ginny of course would bring books and magazines when she visited him, lying down with Bill and reading to him. "The flavanols in cocoa beans contain antioxidants that help reduce damage to your cells." Her head would roll on the pillow to glance at Bill. "You should eat more of it."
"Do you know how much chocolate Ron has brought me? I don't need anymore. You'll make me fat."
Ginny gave a sigh and reached over to pat Bill's hand. "Everyone needs to sacrifice something, and if Fleur decides not to marry you because you've gained weight, I suppose we'll just have to move on."
"Something tells me she'd still marry me."
"Is it your pride?"
"Ah Gin, unlike Percy, my pride doesn't speak."
Ginny giggled, but the laughing tapered off and they laid in silence for a moment. "Do you miss Percy?"
Bill didn't have to think long before answering. "I miss all of you when I'm working."
"I know, but really miss him." She tapped her fingers together. "I think I miss him. He always helped with my homework when George and Fred were busy messing around. Ron misses him too, though he wouldn't say so. I know Fred and George probably miss him. Mum and Dad miss him. Mum keeps trying to write him."
Bill pet back Ginny's red hair. "I miss him very much." He admitted. "He could be testy, difficult, but he just wanted to make us all proud, to take care of us. I'm glad you don't hate him, Gin."
"Oh, I do." Ginny said in a half brightened voice. "But it's the kind of hate only I'm allowed to give, since I'm his sister. I still want him to come home."
"Yeah." Bill laughed. "Me as well." His eyes shut against the pain of his scars, which seemed to be a constant now.
There were those times when he could sleep through it, if he was lucky the potions would numb most of the pain, but the scarring would continue to hurt even when the rest of him felt healed.
It hadn't been long since that horrible night of his attack, and of Dumbledore's death. Less than a week since the funeral, since the end of term. The house had been quiet in mourning, not even Fred or George seemed to have the spirits to prank or cause chaos. Ron spent most of his time writing to Harry, getting no letters in return, and pouting about it in his bedroom. Ginny worried as well, but didn't pout like Ron did. She spent the time she wasn't with Bill outside on a broom, flying her troubles away.
Bill found himself alone much of the time when his mum wasn't worrying. Fleur was with him the most out of everyone, her hands cradling Bill's and sharing both her worries about his health and her pride at his strength. She was the only one he didn't mind doting on him, tracing the bandages on his left hand and arm and smiling at him.
"Lucky you still have your fingers." She smiled. "To fit a ring when we marry."
"And here I was worried you wouldn't want me anymore," Bill teased, and Fleur rolled her eyes.
"Can I get you anything?"
Bill thought about it before answering. "Firewhisky I expect."
"Already bossing me around, I see."
Fleur leaned closer to place a kiss against Bill's cheek, then stood up. "I'll be back soon."
"Don't keep me waiting too long, I might be a real wolf soon."
Bill watched her as she left, rolling his head on the pillow to glance out the open window at the bit of blue sky breaking through the heavy gray clouds. Then he closed his eyes with the intention of sleeping. He vaguely processed the sound of the door opening downstairs, heavy boots thudding on the wood of the floors and what sounded like a passing greeting, then boots on the stairs, and the door to the bedroom swung open and hit the wall, so loud that Bill jumped, his arms flying out to either side to cling to the bed sheets, turning his head to gape at the doorway.
Charlie was standing there, dressed in dirty clothes, his boots only half tied, the laces dragging, a bag hanging over one shoulder that sagged low and heavy from whatever was inside. There was dirt and ash on his face, his bottom lip was split like he'd gotten in a fight, the ends of his hair on the left side of his head looked partly singed, bags were layered beneath his eyes, and he was clearly out of breath.
"I bloody ran here!" Charlie revealed. "Got into town and forgot I could apparate! It took me days to get a Portkey! I almost took a train! And a boat! That would've taken ages!" He took a few steps into the room and stopped again. "You look horrific!"
"I missed you too." Bill laughed out as Charlie rushed the final distance to the bed, falling onto it and hugging him.
He smelt of ash, sweat, brimstone, and something distinct and unique that Bill had come to recognize as definitively dragon related.
Bill raised his arms to return the hug, unable to crush Charlie against him like he usually did, like he did with all of his siblings. The scars hurt too much, his skin felt tight and restrained, his eyes pinching closed in frustration. He couldn't hug his brother like he wanted, couldn't hug any of them tight enough to make them breathless. It was one of the things he loved most, crushing his siblings in his arms till they started grumbling. Now he couldn't.
He had never expected to see Charlie home, he was far too busy in Romania, too busy working as a correspondent between the Order and the rest of the world. Why would he bother leaving such an important position to visit his foolish brother?
Suddenly it didn't matter, and all the weight from the past few weeks fell hard onto his shoulders. He dug his fingers into the back of Charlie's coat, and he swore it was his mum's voice at the back of his head silently scolding him for the little holes that baby dragons had likely burned into it. Then he buried his face into Charlie's shoulder, eyes burning as hot as the still healing scars. He knew deep down that he would be fine, that everything would be fine, if he could live through a werewolf attack then he was capable of anything, but letting the tears go felt freeing. Just once, he needed to cry.
He couldn't cry in front of his younger siblings though, they were worried enough about him, and he really didn't want to end up scaring them. He couldn't cry in front of his mum because then she'd cry too, and she was under enough stress as it was. His father probably wouldn't know what to do, so would end up doing something unnecessary like promising this would never happen again (that would have been ridiculous). He never felt the need to cry when Fleur was around, and he assumed she was influencing him somehow with what little Veela power she had, simply relaxing and calming him enough to sleep through the night.
Bill didn't mind crying in front of Charlie. Somehow, though Charlie was his younger sibling, he felt comfortable showing this kind of weakness. Charlie wasn't just his brother, he was his best friend. He'd be perfectly fine after crying for a bit. Charlie wouldn't judge him, or tell the others. He may tease him about it later, but for now he simply returned Bill's weak embrace with a tighter one of his own.
"Mum wrote to me," Charlie explained. "Scared me half to death when she said you'd been attacked; that Dumbledore was dead. Sorry it took me so long to get here. I hope you didn't miss me much."
"Course I missed you," Bill whispered. "I'm sorry you felt the need to leave your work."
"Don't feel too bad. I got you back by not bringing you any presents."
"That seems callous of you. I got attacked by a werewolf, I want a souvenir at least."
"How bout a baby dragon?"
"Wrong kind of souvenir."
"Good, they wouldn't let me bring him anyway. He just started breathing fire and apparently that's dangerous and makes him a fire hazard."
"That's the general understanding." Bill squeezed Charlie's arms. "You can't be carting dragons around, I've told you that before."
"Is this because I burned your house down when you were working in India?"
"There are a lot of reasons you can't be carrying a baby dragon around."
"So it's because I burned your house down when you were working in China."
"All those reasons."
Charlie rubbed his hand over the bandages on Bill's back, hidden by the loose fitting shirt. "I'll try not to burn anything else down, mate," he promised, then tightened his hold. "You did amazing, Bill."
Bill breathed out a laugh, or what sounded like a laugh. "Got caught off guard, Charlie. Wasn't paying attention. Keep dreaming about it."
"They're just dreams." Charlie patted Bill's back. "You're alive, that's what's real. That's what matters. Besides." He pulled away, keeping his hands on Bill's shoulders and grinning despite the tears on his face tracking through the patches of ash and dirt left over on his cheeks. "The scars make you look cool. You know you were cool enough before though, now you're just trying to upstage the rest of us. That's kind of unfair."
"If you knew how many people have called these scars cool," Bill chuckled, wiping the tears from his face and shaking his head. "I'm glad you're here."
"Well good," Charlie grinned, "because it took a lot to get here. You owe me a good handful of galleons, cuz I dumped all the money I had on me to buy a Portkey through the black market. You can pay me back later when you're on your feet again."
Bill gave a firm nod. "Awesome."
"For now, you should just lie back again and rest." Charlie pushed Bill back into the pillows stacked behind him, then squeezed his shoulder. "I'll wait with you, if you'd like?"
"I'm not an infant, and I'm feeling alright at the moment."
"Fine." Charlie rolled his eyes, squeezing one of Bill's hands. "Shall I retrieve your lovely bride-to-be then?"
Bill's eyes widened. "You know already?"
"Mum told me in her letter."
"Well," Bill sighed, "that ruins the surprise then."
"Don't think that," Charlie urged, leaning closer with a grin on his face. "Just want to make sure, though. I'm your best man, aren't I?" Bill laughed loudly. "Hey, I think I deserve it. What if I swear not to bring a dragon to the wedding?"
Bill reached out and dragged Charlie closer, fighting the strain of the scars and hugging his brother as tightly as he possibly could. It definitely hurt, but the way Charlie grumbled in irritation made it better.
"Course you're my best man, Charlie. You're my best friend, remember? There's no one else I'd want next to me on such an important day."
"Good," Charlie managed to choke out through the tight embrace. "I'd need to have had a bit of a chat with whoever else you had chosen if it wasn't me."
"Won't have to now then."
"Suppose. Bill, you know, can't actually breathe right now. Did you get stronger? Do you have wolf-like strength now?" Bill didn't respond so Charlie just patted his arm, which was shaking noticeably. "Alright, Bill. I'm gonna stay here until you're sleeping, not going anywhere, so lessen the grip before you pop my head off."
"I'm really glad."
"You could've asked me to stay in the first place, mate."
"No, I… I'm glad it was me that this happened to." Bill loosened his grip, his arms weak. "If it had been Ron or Ginny, or you, the twins, Percy, or even Harry, I… I'd have hated myself."
Charlie pulled back and set a hand on the side of Bill's head, smiling. "You're a daft prick." Bill snorted and Charlie dropped his hand, reaching up to the strap of the bag hanging over his shoulder. "Go to sleep."
Bill sighed and shut his eyes, brow furrowing when he heard rustling and Charlie hushing something. "Charlie what do you have in that bag?"
"Nothing, my dear brother, go to sleep."
"It's a dragon, isn't it?"
"No, of course not." There was a flapping sound and Bill opened one eye in time to catch Charlie hugging a silvery white baby dragon with wide eyes. "Please don't tell mum."
Bill just closed his eye again and shook his head. "Don't ever change." There was a pause, then he muttered. "How'd you even get that thing through customs?"
"Yeah, never mind, the less I know the better."
"Like you've never done anything illegal before."
The last thing he heard was Charlie's laugh, followed by a soft, "Night," before Bill found himself falling into sleep, somehow not concerned about the infant dragon. It would make for a good story, that's for certain.
All of this would.