It takes Harry five days before he is able to step back and think about the fact that the Weasleys took him in after the battle without question. The fact that he didn’t even have to think about where he would stay. The fact that no one has been treating him as an intruder to their grief.
He thinks he might not have noticed because he has been spending his time in two modes: walking the quiet green hills of Ottery St. Catchpole alone, and busying himself in The Burrow’s kitchen or washing laundry or scrubbing floors or doing anything else that would allow his body to be on autopilot and his mind to be blank.
Hermione is staying with them too. She hasn’t mentioned plans to go back to her parents, and no one has asked. The war is still too raw and fresh to think about going far away, to Australia or to the Muggle world.
It’s hard to say who’s holding up who. Sometimes Harry sees Hermione leaning against Ron, her shoulders shaking and her breath catching on her sobs, but sometimes it is the other way around. Sometimes Harry holds them both, although his eyes are so dry they sting and his throat so tight he can barely swallow. He’s still waiting for the flood of tears to come.
George is barricaded in his bedroom. Harry doesn’t know if the bedroom is still Fred and George’s, or just George’s. Either thought is a fresh stab of pain. George only lets Ginny in to see him, so she’s the one who brings him trays of soft bread and warm soup and hot tea, and once Harry catches her sneaking in some firewhisky. He doesn’t stop her. He hopes the burning will numb the pain.
Ginny, though the youngest, has taken it upon herself to be the head of the household until Mr. and Mrs. Weasley have worked through the worst of their grief. With that hard look in her eyes that Harry has always loved and sometimes feared, she orders the others to gather vegetables from the garden, to wash and chop and cook, to clean and keep The Burrow intact, all while doing her own fair share of work. Keeping busy seems to be the only thing keeping her together.
Bill and Fleur spend their nights at Shell Cottage, but stop by every day to help look after things, although their visits are usually short as Bill is still a member of the Order of the Phoenix and is busy overseeing the rebuilding of the new Ministry of Magic; Fleur is equally determined to assist with the restoration.
Arthur, too, is often called away to the Ministry, and he leaves The Burrow without complaint, though his eyes are blank and his skin unhealthily pale. When he’s home, he spends too much time sitting in his armchair staring at nothing, but no one really minds. He drinks the tea that appears at his armrest without noticing how it got there, but no one minds that either.
Molly seems to cycle through the stages of grief with the fury of a tempest. Sometimes they hear her screaming her rage in the apple orchard; months later, when the apples ripen, they will be too sour to eat. Sometimes they hear her talking to Arthur late at night, asking him how it could be possible, what she could have done to stop it; no one can sleep on those nights. The only stage of grief she seems to miss every time is acceptance.
Percy doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He floats around the house looking miserable and scared, his mouth pressed so tight it’s as if he’s afraid of his own words. Maybe he is. After everything he has done, there isn’t much for him to say, even though everyone has accepted him back into the family as though he’d never left. Whatever ambitions he had before the war seem to have been snuffed out like a candle flame in a draft.
And then there’s Charlie. Like Ginny, he sees the sense in carrying on, and is always there to pick things up when they’re dropped. Sometimes this happens literally; three times now Molly’s fingers have slipped around a glass or dish in the kitchen, and Charlie has been there with a soft but sure Reparo to put things right. Other times this happens in a less concrete way. Harry watched once as Molly set down her quill and stormed out of the house, striding towards the apple trees with her head down, and Charlie sat down at the table, picked up the quill and continued writing with a steady hand. Glancing at Harry, who was standing hesitantly in the doorway with a basketful of linens to wash, he simply said, “Funeral invitations.” Harry swallowed and nodded, but said nothing. There was nothing more to say.
An outsider might have seen the stoic set of Charlie’s shoulders, might have noticed he rarely spoke, and thought he too was an outsider to the Weasley’s grief. After all, he’d been living in Romania for the past seven years, and had missed a great deal of his siblings growing up. But every now and then Harry caught it in a look, the grief so deep it looked for a moment as though Charlie might crack and crumble from the pain.
When the funeral comes, everything changes. Perhaps it is something about seeing George out in the open for the first time in a week, his face pale but not as ghostly as they’d feared. Perhaps it is the fact that the dusk around them is achingly beautiful, with a velvet purple sky and a symphony of crickets and a cascade of fireflies. Or perhaps it is the fact that the somber flowers arranged around the aisles explode into miniature Weasleys’ Wildfire Whizbangs when George gestures at them during his speech, or that Arthur’s wand turns into a rubber chicken when he automatically moves to try to clear them away, or that when George, faking panic, pretends to drop the notes for his speech, in actuality he lets a screaming yo-yo fall from his hand. It is cathartic. The entire extended Weasley family (except for Aunt Muriel, who looks scandalized) begins to laugh, and just as quickly begins to sob, and it is loud and ugly and somehow the only fitting end for the funeral of one of the two people who has been responsible for at least half of the laughter of Harry’s entire life.
After the funeral, Molly reassumes her role as the matriarch of The Burrow, snapping out orders to the rest of the family as they set out tables and food and drinks for those who attended and are now gathering out in the garden. Ginny, sensing that her duties are done, hovers at George’s shoulder, appraising everyone who approaches him with a watchful eye but saying nothing. Her eyes are so fierce that most people don’t dare approach, leaving George in relative peace as he talks to Lee Jordan in low tones.
Ron, Percy, and Harry are the errand boys, levitating casseroles and pitchers of iced pumpkin juice and napkin-wrapped bundles of silverware out to the garden, where Bill and Charlie are settling the heavy wooden tables in place. Harry remembers that summer evening before the Quidditch World Cup with a knifelike pain. The family had been whole, then. This time there is no thunderous crashing as they knock together in battle; this time they are set gently on the ground, their legs touching the soil so softly there isn’t a breath of sound.
Arthur and Hermione light torches and drape the garden fence with glowing moonflowers. Ron keeps glancing at Hermione, clearly wanting to go to her, but Harry can’t tell if it’s to comfort her, or to seek comfort for himself. She keeps her face turned away from the light, which makes Harry think she must still be crying. Arthur looks grayer and more lost than ever, and keeps accidentally dousing the torches with a stream of water and turning the moonflowers a bleak gray. He doesn’t even notice as Hermione follows behind him, undoing his mistakes with a wordless flick of her wand.
When the family finally gathers for dinner, Harry longs to slip away and walk into the dark fields, disappearing into the tranquil summer night. But one look at all of the Weasleys is all it takes to see that each of them feels the same, and there’s no way he can leave them, knowing that. He sits between Ron and Ginny and tunes out the conversations around him, pretending to eat even though his stomach feels tight and his tongue dry. Ron is quiet, paying more attention to Hermione’s hand in his under the table than to anything else, and Ginny is equally silent, her attention focused on George on her left. Harry hasn’t spoken to her since the battle. He can’t tell if she’s avoiding him, or if he’s avoiding her, but she doesn’t seem angry with him. Just consumed by grief.
During a lull in the conversation, one of those moments where by chance everyone ceases talking at once, Harry looks up from his plate, feeling that same primal fear that always shot through him when he realized he’d missed a professor’s question in class. Across from him sits Charlie, who looks up at the exact moment and catches Harry’s eye. The conversations resume around them, but as the misplaced panic trickles away, Harry’s heartbeat doesn’t slow. He feels as though he’s seeing Charlie for the first time. His hair is long, but not straight like Bill’s; it tumbles in waves to his shoulders, and he’s tied a handful of it back off of his face, though a few strands still fall into his eyes. Even seated at the table it is obvious that he is the shortest of all the Weasleys, Ginny included, but short doesn’t mean slight - he has broad shoulders and muscled arms, and Harry thinks he must belong outdoors, climbing trees and scaling cliffs and riding dragons. Charlie is still staring back at him, but Harry can’t read the look in his dark brown eyes, and couldn’t say what expression is reflected in his own. He feels odd, like he might come untethered and float away from the table, like the voices of the people around him are the songs of mermaids deep underwater, distant and indecipherable. Harry looks down and the feeling passes as quickly as it came, instead he only feels deeply tired. He doesn’t want to question what just happened; all he wants is to sleep.
Soon enough, the guests at the table are beginning to stand up and say their thanks and goodbyes to the Weasleys; Lee, Harry, and Hermione are the only non-Weasleys remaining at the end, and all three help clean up even though they’re dead on their feet. Grief, it turns out, is just as exhausting as fighting a war.
That night, Harry, Ron, and Hermione all flop down on Ron’s bed together; Hermione used a clever extension charm to make it big enough for them to lay comfortably. They’ve been sleeping this way every night since the battle of Hogwarts, shoulders touching and ankles crossing while they halfheartedly fight over blankets and pillows and grumble about how they’ve twisted up the sheets. If Ron and Hermione usually wake up in each other’s arms, Harry doesn’t mention it. He can’t imagine sleeping alone, with no one to hold back the bleak memories of war, to wake him from his nightmares if he begins to scream. But as he listens to Ron’s deep breathing turn into light snoring, and Hermione’s quiet sniffles turn into even breaths, he feels loneliness claw at him like thorns. He wonders why he doesn’t wish Ginny were here beside him, when he feels he could drown from the loneliness. He wonders if he is broken now, if he will never be able to want or need or love again. Not wanting to think about it, he stares at Ron’s bright orange ceiling, watching it flicker in the candlelight and daring himself to sleep.
“I’m heading back tomorrow,” a voice is saying quietly in the kitchen. Bees hum among the flowers in the windowboxes; a lazy breeze stirs the curtains and wafts in the scent of jasmine and freshly turned earth and early morning June heat and green things. Harry stops outside the kitchen door, still yawning, and listens to the conversation taking place over the sounds of water splashing and dishes clattering in the sink; he’s never been able to shake his habit of eavesdropping.
“So soon?” Molly’s voice responds.
“I’ve been here for a month now,” the voice says, not unkindly. It’s Charlie. “I’ve got to get back to my dragons.”
“They need you more than we do, is that it?” But Harry can tell Molly isn’t really angry.
“You don’t need me,” Charlie says gruffly. “All I do is eat your food and stir up the garden gnomes.”
“Well, if you wouldn’t keep gossiping with them the way you do, maybe they wouldn’t get ideas about ‘gnomish governments’ and ‘gnome rights.’ Honestly, the ideas you’ve put in their heads…” She’s trying to sound stern, but the hints of laughter and tears warring in her voice cancel the effect.
“Oh, Mum,” Charlie says, and there’s a plop as something drops into the sink, then a long silence; Harry thinks they must be hugging. “I’ll come back and visit again. How about before school starts?”
“I’m not sure there will even be school this fall,” Molly says. Harry suddenly feels much more awake. How could Hogwarts not open in September like it always did? And yet… how could it?
“There will be,” Charlie says firmly. “You know how McGonagall is. And all the rest of the Order have been helping rebuild everything. It’ll be fine.” Harry hadn’t known any of this. He feels suddenly angry at himself. He’s a member of the Order, isn’t he? What right does he have to pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t need his help right now? His anger melts quickly into shame, and for the first time since the night of the battle, he feels his eyes filling with burning tears.
Harry misses the end of their conversation and doesn’t notice when Charlie walks out of the kitchen because he has his face buried in his hands and is trying not to choke on his sobs. But he does notice when the sound of footsteps stop in front of him, and unfamiliar arms go around him in a tight hug.
“Hey.” Charlie’s voice is somehow both gruff and gentle, and it tickles in Harry’s ear. “You’re gonna be alright.”
Harry’s need to be comforted wins over his feelings of shame, and he buries his face in Charlie’s chest, not caring that they’ve never touched before, aside from a handshake. Charlie is warm and sturdy and just a shade taller than he is, and Harry allows himself to feel small in his arms. It ought to be awkward, but somehow it feels safe instead, and they stay like that until Harry’s hiccuping sobs stutter to a halt.
“You alright?” Charlie asks, putting his hands on Harry’s shoulders and looking at him with concern.
“Yes,” Harry croaks. “Well, no, but… better, I suppose.” Charlie nods and squeezes Harry’s shoulders before stepping back.
“You heard what I told Molly?” he asks, though not accusingly.
“Yeah,” Harry nods. “You’re leaving. I don’t want you to go.” He’s not sure why he said it; he hadn’t meant to, but it’s true. It’s not as though they’re close, but there’s been something comforting about having Charlie around this summer. He’s quiet, but he’s also steady, and when he smiles, Harry always knows it’s a real smile, and he’s seen enough fake smiles to last him a lifetime. He bites his tongue and vows not to say anything else without thinking; he doesn’t want to come across as a petulant child.
“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to leave,” Charlie admits. “Anyway… I was hoping you and the others might want to play a round of Quidditch in the orchard before I go.”
Even though he’s a wreck of emotions, Harry feels himself lighting up at the thought. He hasn’t thought much about flying or Quidditch since he lost his Firebolt. It would be wonderful to feel the wind in his hair again.
“I’d love to, but I don’t think we have enough brooms. I suppose we could take turns…”
“Or you could make use of that considerable fortune of yours and go buy a new one,” Charlie points out with a grin. “A flier like you ought to have your own broom, and a decent one at that.”
With all that had been going on, it hadn’t occurred to Harry that he could leave The Burrow if he wanted. That he had money, that he could go out into the world and spend it as he pleased. There wasn’t much he wanted to spend money on, but a broom… Well, after everything, maybe he deserved to do this one nice thing for himself.
“You know, I think I might,” he decides out loud. “But not a Firebolt.” He could never replace the one Sirius had given him. “Which one would you buy?”
“Have you heard of the Siberian Arrow?” Harry shakes his head. “They’re world class, crafted by a famous broommaker in Siberia. Quality Quidditch Supplies has only just begun selling them, although the Nordic Team has been flying them since back in ninety-four. Now, the Firebolt is designed so that even the most terrible flier can max speed and balance. But the Siberian Arrow’s performance is based on how good a flier you are. That’s why most people don’t like them - they say they’re hard to control. But you? You’re a natural. I haven’t forgotten your performance in the Triwizard Tournament. I think you’d do well on a Siberian.”
It’s listening to Charlie talk about Quidditch that calms Harry down. He tells Charlie he won’t be gone long and hurries back up the stairs to Ron’s room, his thoughts of breakfast forgotten. He practically bangs open the door before realizing he ought to have knocked, but they’re just sleeping, their arms tangled around each other and peaceful expressions on their faces. Crookshanks is curled in a tight ball on top of them. For a moment he thinks of letting them sleep, but he’s filled with an energy he hasn’t felt in weeks, and he wants to share it with them. He pulls the dark cloth cover off of Pigwidgeon’s cage and opens the door, letting the tiny Scops owl fly out into the room, where he predictably begins circling Ron’s head, making his customary sonar beeping sounds as he begs for owl treats.
Although Ron is grumpy about being woken so “early” (“It’s eleven o’clock on a Wednesday Ronald, honestly!” Hermione scolds him), he lights up when Harry suggests going to Quality Quidditch Supplies and playing a match in the orchard that afternoon, especially when Harry promises to treat him to some new Quidditch gear. Hermione has no interest in broomsticks or keepers’ gloves, but she tells them brightly that she’ll go to Flourish and Blotts to buy a book or three.
“We’d better go in disguise,” she says with her usual matter-of-fact air that Harry loves her for. “Otherwise there will be chaos when people realize we’re making our first public appearance.” Harry can hear the silent since the war at the end of her statement, but doesn’t dwell on it. Today he’s determined to do something nice for himself - for all of them - and while they’re out, maybe he can talk through the idea that’s budding in his mind.
A few moments later she’s transfigured their faces and hair so that they look essentially unrecognizable; Ron’s hair is long and Viking blond, Harry’s scar has vanished and his jawline is unrecognizable, and Hermione’s facial features are subtly different and her skin a few shades lighter, light enough that she could almost pass for white. They stand side by side and gaze at their reflection in Ron’s bedroom window, on which Hermione cast a mirroring charm. Even to themselves, they seem unrecognizable; Hermione has one of Fleur’s French scarves knotted around her neck, and Ron and Harry have switched shirts (Ron’s newest Chudley Cannons tee shirt for Harry’s green button-up).
“That ought to do,” Hermione says with satisfaction, and she takes their hands and disapparates them all to Diagon Alley.
Charlie was right; the Siberian Arrow is perfect for Harry. Where the Firebolt was almost mechanically responsive, the Arrow is wild and mischievous, but then, so is Harry. He flies over the orchard like he’s never flown before, making daring turns and dizzying loops and diving at breakneck speed. The others cheer him on (save for Hermione, who sits firmly on the ground and yells at him angrily to “be more careful!” every time he flies past). Under the hot summer sun and the hazy blue sky, in the company of his favorite people in the world, Harry begins to feel lighter than he has in months, if not years; he remembers the first time he ever rode a broom, and something loosens in his chest and he thinks maybe being seventeen is young after all.
After hours of soaring over their corner of Ottery St. Catchpole playing with the new set of Quidditch balls Harry had bought for Ron in Quality Quidditch Supplies that morning, they all land and spread out on picnic blankets to drink pumpkin juice and nibble on garden sandwiches that Molly brings out. They’re sweaty and their muscles are burning and their clothes are covered with dirt and grass and leaves from falling, but no one cares except for Hermione, who sits pointedly on her own blanket with a book perched on her knees. Harry sits between Ginny and Charlie, but once more Ginny’s attention is focused on George, whose eyes are brighter and cheeks pinker than they’ve been all summer. Lee Jordan sits on George’s other side; he’s been at The Burrow more often than not this past month, and Harry is glad. They’re talking about Quidditch moves, and Harry knows he could join in if he wants to, but instead he glances at Charlie, who is admiring his Siberian Arrow where it rests on the red-and-white checkered blanket. The tip is an elaborately wrought golden spear, as fierce as it is aerodynamic; although it’s charmed to prevent actual impaling, its look is enough to keep opposing fliers wary of a head-on attack. The tail is made of white twigs that look like bones, or, Harry thinks privately, antlers; but he knows they’re actually carved pieces of Siberian fir. Altogether it has an almost feral elegance, like something that might grow out of a deep tangled wood in a fairytale. It’s fitting, he thinks, for someone who discovered they had been born into one.
“How was it, visiting Diagon Alley?” Charlie asks out of the blue, leaning back on the grass with his hands pillowed behind his neck, looking at Harry with those dark brown eyes, relaxed but curious. “Did Hermione’s disguises do the trick?” He’d seen them when they returned to The Burrow and recognized them instantly, laughing for five minutes straight and pointing insensibly at Ron’s long blond hair. His laughter had drawn the others outside, and even George had grinned to see them. Harry is fairly certain Ron will henceforth be known as “Ragnhild the Blond” among his family, even though Hermione immediately transfigured him back to his normal red-headed state.
“No one gave us a second glance,” Harry says, smiling. “It was nice to be unnoticed for once. And Diagon Alley was… Well, they haven’t finished rebuilding, and Gringotts is… er… not in the greatest shape, but almost all of the businesses are back open and people were doing their shopping like normal, it it felt… good. Hopeful.”
Charlie nods and gives Harry a mischievous look. “Bill mentioned you did a number on Gringotts, escaping on that dragon like you did.” Harry looks down, embarrassed. The story almost seems ridiculous now, like something he’d read about in a book. “No one ever found the dragon, you know. I’ve half a mind to go looking for her after I get things settled in Romania.”
“What they did to her,” Harry says softly, swallowing as he remembers the “clankers,” “it was… horrible.”
“Yes, it was. Starting with depriving her of fresh air. Dragons are creatures of the sky. They’re not meant to be kept underground like that. She’d probably been down there for centuries.”
They sit in silence for a while, Harry playing with blades of grass between his fingers, Charlie staring up at the clouds. Ron and Hermione are bickering on the blanket next over, but he can hear the laughter in their voices and knows whatever it is can’t be too serious. After everything they’ve been through, there are times when he can’t believe their relationship holds together, yet there are also times where he thinks that for them, there could never be anyone else. He glances at Ginny beside him and wonders why he doesn’t feel that way with her. He thinks he used to, but it feels like lifetimes ago.
“Charlie,” Harry asks after a while, dropping his shredded blades of grass and flopping down next to him, “why didn’t you want to play Quidditch professionally after Hogwarts?” Harry, too, has his arms folded under his head. They’re close enough that their elbows are almost brushing, and it’s nice to feel so effortlessly comfortable with him.
“I suppose it’s because I didn’t want to be famous,” Charlie says after a moment, turning to look at Harry, who stares at him for a full five seconds before he begins to giggle. “I didn’t mean it like that!” Charlie protests, sitting up and running his hand through his hair in obvious embarrassment. Harry is laughing in earnest now, and the others are all turning to look at them, curious about what conversation they missed. He’s not even sure why he’s laughing; maybe it’s Charlie’s lack of modesty, maybe it’s the fact that Harry knows exactly what it’s like to be famous.
Eventually Harry calms down and the others go back to their own conversations, and Charlie continues. “I didn’t like the idea of all the attention and the pressure. I loved flying, but even the Hogwarts matches were a challenge. You know how everyone gets about Quidditch. I loved the Gryffindor team, but I couldn’t imagine devoting my life to something that made me so anxious. I did my best to hide it, but before matches I couldn’t sleep or eat, and sometimes I’d even have to skip class.”
“Fred and George never mentioned that,” Harry says. “They only ever talked about what an incredible seeker you were and how I had a lot to live up to.”
“Well, not only did you live up to their expectations, you surpassed them,” Charlie says with a grin. “Want to fly some more?”
It’s only a few minutes later that Harry realizes he’d said “Fred and George” without feeling his heart crack a little deeper, and that Charlie hadn’t even blinked an eye.
Charlie leaves the next morning, and life at The Burrow goes on. Harry, Ron, and Hermione tell Molly and Arthur about their plans to help with the restoration of Hogwarts, something Harry had proposed during their trip to London. Arthur is immediately enthusiastic, commending them for wanting to do their part to rebuild their community, but Molly hesitates. Harry knows that even after everything they’ve done, she still sees them all as her children. She worries about the things they’ll see among the ruins of the castle where they spent so much time growing up too fast. Can’t you just rest for one last summer? He can see that she wants to ask. But she bites her lip and smiles and looks at them with proud (though slightly watery) eyes and tells them she hopes they’ll come back each night for supper. And they do. They leave The Burrow each morning, apparating to Hogsmeade and walking down the hills to the castle gates, where Headmistress McGonagall or one of her trusted professors lets them in and instructs them on where their help is most needed. Soon enough Percy starts following them, and his slightly lost look is replaced by one of renewed determination as he straightens his glasses, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work. A few weeks later, much to their surprise, Ginny and Lee Jordan show up with George; each of them are holding one of his hands, and all three look grim but certain as they begin to help clear away crumbled stone and levitate new blocks into place.
The work is hard but rewarding. Slowly the castle they know and love takes shape once more. Other students join them - Luna and Neville arrive one day and begin to work on restoring the grounds, and Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, and Oliver Wood from the Gryffindor Quidditch team devote an entire week to reconstructing the Quidditch pitch and stands. After a while Harry realizes they’re not just rebuilding in the sense of putting things back where they were - they’re making something new, something better. Luna and Neville build a memorial garden near the greenhouses, and Dean Thomas, who turns out to be as good at sculpting as he is drawing, spends the late summer months carving statues of all those who lost their lives in the war.
Harry wakes on the morning of July 31 to Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and George standing around his bed singing a humorous, rather untraditional version of “Happy Birthday,” which George tells him afterwards he wrote himself. It included lines such as “Harry the scary blueberry” and “the Frozen One.” It is absolutely ridiculous and has Harry laughing before he’s entirely awake.
Breakfast is a cheerful affair; Arthur takes the morning off so he can celebrate with the rest of his family as they have tea and scones made by Fleur, who is visiting with Bill from Shell Cottage. Harry had told everyone he didn’t want any gifts, but they all find reasons to give him small things - a box of magical French candies from Bill and Fleur (their properties are quite unlike anything Harry has seen before - some are meant to change hair color, some make everything you eat for the next few hours taste like chocolate, some turn your singing voice high and sweet), a book on Siberian magic from Hermione (“maybe if you learn more about it, your broom won’t kill you”), a respectable looking dark green carry bag from Molly and Arthur with an extension charm inside it (“so that you can take a change of clothes with you when you go stomping around that muddy castle”), and a fascinating instrument that seemed to be a conglomeration of a watch, a compass, a spile for getting sap out of a tree, a knife, and several other useful objects from Ron (“too bad we didn’t have this earlier, eh?”). It reminds Harry of a Muggle pocket knife, but is much more interesting and useful.
The best present of all is when Charlie arrives unexpectedly that afternoon. They’re all helping with the restoration at Hogwarts (even Arthur, who was enjoying his morning off a little too much and decided to skip work for the rest of the day) when Charlie casually strides up to them, looking if possible even more freckled than when they last saw him, and adorned with fresh new burn marks on his hands. At first Harry thinks he picked the day by accident, but when Charlie pulls him aside to give him a poorly wrapped gift (a gorgeous Romanian mug with a phoenix pattern and seven layers of unbreakable charms), Harry realizes Charlie is there because of his birthday. Upon this realization, Harry gets slightly overwhelmed and can only stammer his thanks, but Charlie just grins at him and puts his hand on his shoulder, which is somehow reassuring. He joins them for the rest of the afternoon, spending most of his time helping Hagrid with the grounds, even disappearing into the Forbidden Forest for a while. Harry, who’s helping rebuild the floor of the Astronomy tower (which still has no walls), finds himself glancing often over his shoulder, wondering what Charlie is doing. He’s not worried, exactly, just… preoccupied, but when he catches sight of Hermione giving him a thoughtful look, he determinedly keeps his focus on the floor until they’re done for the day.
The celebration resumes back at The Burrow once everyone has showered the dust and grime away. Everyone combines efforts to help Molly make a summer feast, and they set up the tables out on the lawn and invite a handful of others with Harry’s encouragement - Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood, Amos and Celia Diggory, Neville, Dean, and Seamus, Lee Jordan, Hagrid, Headmistress McGonagall, and, at Arthur’s suggestion, Kingsley Shacklebolt. The tables are packed full and everyone brings extra food, and Luna suggests music and dancing and before long the evening is alive with festivities. Harry is content to sit at the table with Ron and Hermione and watch his friends make fools of themselves; they all laugh so hard their chests hurt when a slightly drunk Hagrid waltzes through the garden with McGonagall, sending a wave of gnomes fleeing for the fields in horror.
“Aren’t you going to dance, Harry?” Ginny calls out as she whirls past with Luna, who is wearing a dress that seems to be made of real leaves and flowers.
“Oh no,” Harry says as Ron and Hermione immediately start nudging him and giving him encouraging looks. “No no no, see, it’s not supposed to work this way, I’m supposed to be allowed to not dance because it’s my birthday…” But they’re getting to their feet and pulling him up with them, and Molly and Arthur are cheering for him as they sway past, and Harry feels a great sense of betrayal as the only two people he thought he could count on drag him into the circle of dancing and begin swinging his arms around. And even though a part of him balks at the humiliation of being in the spotlight and not knowing how to dance, another part of him seems to be freeing itself from his chest, and he sees that more than half of the people there haven’t a clue what they’re doing (and only McGonagall seems to have any real poise), so he lets go and allows himself to be spun around, to leap with the music and laugh and step and stumble over people’s feet and knock shoulders and knees with no apologies necessary. And no one is taking any of it seriously, so Harry isn’t sure why when Charlie takes him by the hand and puts his other on his waist his mouth goes dry and his feet start to tingle and he forgets how to swallow (and he could use a reminder on how to breathe, too). Ron and Hermione are laughing, but in the way you laugh when you’re happy and drunk on absurdity, not in the way you laugh when you’re truly making fun of someone; and normally Harry would be laughing at himself too, but he’s too aware of how warm Charlie’s hands are, and how thin his own tee shirt is (he can feel the calluses on those fingers as though they’re right on his skin), and how the torches around the garden are reflecting in Charlie’s eyes like fire, and -
Oh. Oh no. No, this cannot be what’s happening.
As soon as the thought hits him, Charlie winks at him and spins him away, and Harry is suddenly dancing with Ron and Hermione again while Charlie and Ginny do a strange nonsensical jig that looks like something they might have come up with when Ginny was five.
The starlight and the dancers and the torches all blur before his eyes as he tries to reason his way out of what just happened. It would have been easier to explain away if he’d had some of the firewhisky, but he’d only had butterbeer - he couldn’t blame his feelings on having had a bit to drink. And it wasn’t only tonight, he realizes with a lurch as his feet almost miss the ground; it’s been happening for a while now.
“You alright, Harry?” Hermione calls, though her voice almost disappears into the music. Harry blinks; Ron and Hermione have stopped dancing and are looking at him in puzzlement.
“Oh! Yeah, I’m fine,” he lies, struggling to come up with a believable excuse, but Hermione is giving him that oh really look, so he gives up and settles for, “I’ll tell you later. I’m just going to go get something to drink for a minute.” They exchange uncertain glances, but he just forces a smile and tells them to keep dancing before weaving his way over to the table for a glass of pumpkin juice. He cups the ice cold glass in his hands and sits on the bench with his back to the table, watching the dancing, trying to not watch Charlie, failing.
Before he can even begin to explore the feelings he’s having, his brain decides to tell him all of the reasons he shouldn’t be having those feelings to begin with. Charlie is seven years older than he is, for one thing. And dating Ginny in his sixth year had put enough of a strain on his relationship with Ron; would he be risking their friendship again if Ron found out? And then there’s the fact that Charlie is obviously not interested in him. He’s just universally friendly; he treats Harry like a brother. Doesn’t he? Harry tries to tell himself that part doesn’t matter since a relationship would be impossible anyway.
He’s so caught up in his thoughts that he doesn’t notice someone is sitting next to him until they’re asking him if he’s alright. Harry starts so badly he spills his pumpkin juice all over his trainers. “What?” he stammers, turning to look at the newcomer.
Of course it has to be Charlie.
“You alright?” Charlie asks again, looking concerned.
“Oh. Um. Yeah,” Harry says unconvincingly as he pulls out his wand and attempts to clear away the spilled juice. He ends up vanishing his shoes instead. He hopes Charlie doesn’t notice. “Just… tired.”
Charlie gives him a look that makes it clear he doesn’t believe him, but he doesn’t press.
“Well, I wanted to say goodbye. I’ve got to head out now if I want to catch my international portkey to Romania in time. Our sanctuary is receiving a nest of Welsh Green hatchlings first thing tomorrow morning, and it’ll be all hands on deck. But I’m glad I could make it out to see you today. Happy birthday, Harry.” And before Harry can say a word, Charlie is leaning over and hugging him, and Harry is so stunned he forgets how to move his arms, and he’s reasonably certain that his heartbeat is louder than the Weird Sisters’ screaming from the gramophone in the background. Then Charlie is getting to his feet, and Harry is still sitting there as though he’s been petrified. “You know, you could always come visit me in Romania,” Charlie says as he steps back with a warm smile. “I’ve been telling Ron he ought to visit for years. You and him and Hermione. Think about it.” And before Harry can find his voice to say goodbye, Charlie disapparates with a crack barely audible over the throbbing of the music.
“Harry, where are your shoes?” This time it’s Hermione sitting next to him; Ron is still out on the grass, doing what appears to be a moon-worshipping dance with Luna.
“I accidentally vanished them,” he says, and his voice is croaky. Hermione frowns.
“Harry, what’s going on?”
He doesn’t want to tell her, but he also really, really does. The need to talk about what’s happening to him overpowers the need to take his secret to the grave.
“IthinkIhavefeelingsforCharlie,” he blurts out, much in the same way he did when he tried to ask Cho Chang to the Yule Ball four years ago.
“What?” Hermione’s frown deepens. “You’re mumbling, I can’t understand you.”
“I think I - ”
“Hey, Harry!” It’s Ron and Luna; Ron looks flushed from dancing, though Luna looks as serene as ever. “Dean and Seamus are about to leave, thought you might want to come say goodbye!”
“Er, yeah,” Harry says, getting to his feet, hoping the others can’t see his knees wobbling. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Ron and Luna head off, already deep in conversation about the fairy spirits that sleep inside moonflowers, but Hermione is still looking at him expectantly. “What were you trying to say, Harry?” she presses him, not unkindly.
“It can wait,” he says, looking down at his socks. Hermione looks like she wants to protest, but stops herself with a small sigh and walks back into the circle of torchlight with him, still frowning thoughtfully.
It’s after midnight when the last guests leave and Molly and Arthur finally decide it’s time for bed; they’re still half dancing as they make their way back inside The Burrow. Everyone else halfheartedly clears off the tables and takes down some of the decorations, but they’re all yawning too much to be of great use, so they decide to call it a night and head inside or apparate home. Soon Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the only ones left standing on the lawn, gazing up at the velvety indigo night sky; the torches are extinguished and the lights in the windows of The Burrow are dim, so they can see the stars sharply defined in the darkness.
“So what were you going to say earlier, then?” Hermione asks, not taking her eyes off of the stars. Harry can’t help but notice how she leans her cheek on Ron’s shoulder, how his hand rests lightly on the small of her back. He suddenly aches for that kind of closeness.
“It was nothing,” he says softly. He feels like fate has given him a chance to reconsider his confession. “Nothing important.” The lie burns on his tongue, but he still feels weak with relief that he won’t have to deal with Ron’s reaction.
“It wasn’t nothing,” Hermione says. “I could tell.”
Of course he shouldn’t have expected to get off so easily. He scrambles for a believable lie. “I guess I was just thinking about what my birthday was like last year,” he says after a moment. It’s not exactly untrue - he had been thinking about that day earlier. Well, mostly the day that preceded it; how the Order had come to Privet Drive, how he’d said his final goodbye to the Dursleys, how Alastor Moody had died. And then the day after - Bill and Fleur’s wedding, and the fall of the Ministry. The day their search for the Horcruxes had begun.
Ron nods and Hermione softens, leaning to bump her shoulder against his. “I think we were all thinking about that day. And about everything that happened since then. And where we are now.” A meteor streaks across the sky, and they all catch their breath in unison. Harry remembers the Muggle superstition that wishes made on falling stars come true, but he’s not sure what he’d wish for. “Anyway, I’m honestly glad that’s all it was,” Hermione continues, her tone light and mischievous. “I could have sworn you were trying to tell me something about how you feel about Charlie.”
Harry wishes Hermione would stop being so perceptive, but his wish is too late to come true.
“Hang on, what?” Ron demands, abandoning his stargazing to swing around towards Harry. Even in the dark, Harry can feel the suspicious frown radiating off of him. “What’s Hermione talking about?”
“Er.” Harry flails about for another lie, but it’s no use.
“So you’re not denying it,” Hermione interrupts, sounding delighted.
“Denying what?” Ron almost yells.
“Maybe not?” Harry almost whispers.
“I knew it!” Hermione punches the air, leaving Harry in the uncomfortable position of having one of his best friends triumphant (at his expense) and the other furious (also at his expense). He wonders if the three of them will always be this way.
“If you two don’t tell me what’s going on,” Ron begins, but now that Hermione has won the prize of being right, she fills him in readily enough.
“Harry fancies Charlie,” she says in the tone of voice that implies she’s going to announce their wedding in the next breath.
“Wha - Charlie? You’re joking. She’s joking, isn’t she?”
“I wish she was,” Harry says, feeling himself growing small in anticipation of Ron’s inevitable outburst. A hundred of meteors could have showered across the sky and none of them would have noticed.
“But - but I thought you and Ginny… I mean I know you hadn’t gotten back together, but I thought you were, I dunno, waiting for each other or something.” Ron sounds more confused than upset, and Harry is surprised but grateful he didn’t immediately go the “but Charlie isn’t a girl” route.
“Whatever we had before is gone now, and I’m okay with that,” Harry says. “We seem to work better as friends.”
“What I want to know,” Hermione breaks in, “is what he said to you before he left.”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything… well… you know. He just said I should come visit him in Romania. He said we should come visit him, I mean,” he amended hastily. “Could, not should.”
“I think that sounds like an excellent idea,” Hermione says. “We could do with a holiday. I’ve heard Romania is beautiful this time of year.”
“He’s been telling me to visit him for years,” Ron adds. Harry’s not sure if he’s trying to be supportive, or is trying to make it seem like Charlie’s offer to Harry is no big deal.
“Look,” Harry says, “I didn’t mean for this to happen, I didn’t - it sort of sprang up on me, alright? I haven’t even had time to think any of this through.”
“You can’t think it through when it’s about how you feel, Harry,” Hermione tells him gently. “No amount of thinking about it is going to change anything.”
“Alright, but - but what are you saying I should do? Go to Romania and - and what?” He only notices he’s waving his arms around when he almost hits Ron in the face.
“Now that’s something we can talk about tomorrow,” Hermione says. “That is the kind of thing you’re going to want to think through.” With that, the three of them head for the front steps, leaving the starlit summer night behind them.
“Hang on,” Ron says, “are you encouraging him to go after my brother? Don’t I get a say in this?”
“No,” Hermione says firmly, “you don’t. But I’m curious to hear what you’d say if you did.”
Ron is silent for a long moment. “Well, I suppose I don’t really mind. All I can say is you’re lucky he’s gay.” Harry almost trips up the stairs.
Bill leaps to his feet when he hears the knock on the door, throwing his book to the floor without marking the page. His heart is pounding; even though the war is meant to be over, he can’t help but feel a sliver of fear pierce his chest. Fleur, tired from dancing, fell asleep as soon as they’d apparated home. She’d looked so peaceful draped under their summer quilt, everything about her glowing silver and soft. Would he have to wake her with terrible news?
“Charlie?” Bill blinks in astonishment when he finds his brother on his doorstep.
“Is Fleur asleep?” Charlie asks, his voice so low Bill almost can’t hear it over the sound of the waves crashing on the beach.
“Yes,” Bill says, puzzled. Charlie looks aggravated, to be sure, but Bill knows what the shadow of war looks like on a person’s face, and this isn’t it. But what on earth could have brought him here in the middle of the night when he was supposed to be back in Romania?
“Come outside, then,” Charlie says. “I need to talk to you.”
Bill grabs his lightest cloak off the hook by the door - even in the summer, nights by the sea are cold - and follows Charlie down the steps, letting the door close softly behind him. They follow the sandy path up along the cliffs until the roar of the surf is dulled. Charlie runs his hand through his hair so many times that the tie in the back comes loose; he leaves it like that, tangled and wild and lost as the look in his eyes. He stops walking so abruptly Bill nearly walks into him.
“Charlie,” Bill finally breaks the silence, “what’s going on?”
“You and Fleur,” he says without looking at him. “You’re seven years apart. And she was only, what, seventeen? Eighteen? When you met.”
Bill stares at him, perplexed. “Yes?”
“And you didn’t feel - didn’t you ever - how did you know?” Charlie turns to face him now, and he looks desperate. Bill wants to ask him what’s going on, but if Charlie isn’t ready to tell him…
“How did I know what?” he asks instead.
“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Bill sits down on a boulder and waits for Charlie to sit next to him. He thinks it’s easier to be calm and reasonable when sitting down. But Charlie begins to pace instead, his feet kicking up puffs of sand as he goes. Bill waits. He leans back and looks at the stars. He watches the starlight dance on the waves down below. He feels common bird’s foot trefoil blooming under his fingertips as they skim the ground. And he waits. This is how it’s always been with Charlie. When they were younger, boys living at The Burrow and forging the path of first sons, they’d talked about anything and everything; but as they grew older, Charlie had begun to keep some things to himself. But he always came to Bill in the end, because Bill was the only one patient enough to wait for his words to come spilling out. A hint of pressure, and it was as though Charlie had used a silencing charm on himself - no one would hear a word of what was troubling him. So Bill would wait. It was like that when Charlie told him he didn’t want to play Quidditch professionally. It was like that when he’d told him he wanted to move to Romania to study dragons. And it was like that when he’d told him he was gay. Whatever Charlie wants to say now must be something of similar magnitude. So Bill waits.
“I’ve never felt this way before,” Charlie finally says, and Bill forgets for a moment that his brother is twenty-five, and feels like they are teenagers sitting under the apple trees in the orchard once more. “About anyone.”
So this is the heart of it, Bill thinks. He smiles a small smile he hopes Charlie can’t see in the darkness.
“I feel like I’m seeing him for the first time, even as I feel like I’ve known him for years. Bloody hell, I suppose I have known him for years. But this is different. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m expecting to happen. He obviously couldn’t feel the same way.” Known him for years? Bill had assumed it was someone new. Had he reconnected with someone from Hogwarts? But when would he have had the chance? Hold on… had this happened tonight? At The Burrow? “I was supposed to go back to Romania tonight but I missed my portkey to come talk to you instead. I know I ought to go back home and forget all about this, but what if… what if I go back and he forgets about me and I can’t forget about him, what am I supposed to do then?” Seven years apart , he’d said of Bill and Fleur. Bill does some fast mental calculations. Seven years younger than Charlie, who’s twenty-five. Eighteen. Someone who was at The Burrow for Harry’s eighteenth birthday party…
“Oh no,” Bill says out loud.
“Yes,” Charlie says miserably, and finally sits down on the boulder next to his brother, defeated.
Bill starts to laugh. He can’t help himself. “Oh, Charlie, what have you gotten yourself into now?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose!” Charlie wails, burying his face in his hands. “I always knew I liked him well enough - who wouldn’t? He’s kind and loyal and brave enough to break your heart. But that’s not what got to me. It’s the way he saw me. As if… as if he actually cares who I am. Most people look at me and see something else first. In school I was a seeker, a prefect, a Quidditch captain. Then I was that dragon tamer Weasley. I had family, I had all of you, but did you know that after I moved to Romania I never got a single letter from anyone from Hogwarts? Not my classmates, not my teammates… I never minded all that much. I just thought I didn’t like attention, you know? It’s part of why I love living somewhere so quiet and remote. I can just be myself. But at The Burrow this summer, even after everything we all went through in the war, even though he of all people had a thousand reasons to isolate himself, to take care of himself for a while, to let everyone else take care of him - he was the one who smiled at me and asked if I wanted a cup of tea, he was the one who sat down and helped me write funeral invitations when Mum couldn’t handle it anymore even though his handwriting is almost as bad as Ron’s, and he was the one who went and bought a brand new broom so we could all go flying together on my last day there, and he didn’t have to do any of those things but he did, and then I left and I missed The Burrow so much more than I’d expected to. And then Mum wrote and mentioned Harry’s birthday party and I don’t know what got into me, but I booked an international portkey so I could be there and I thought I’d just been missing our family but tonight…” he trails off, and Bill wonders what he’d missed by leaving early.
“Did something happen?” Bill asks after a time.
“Not exactly.” Charlie’s face is still hidden in his hands. “We might have danced once.”
Bill bites back his laughter. “You might have?”
“It wasn’t supposed to mean anything! Everyone was dancing, it was all for a laugh, but it made me feel… things.”
“It made you feel things,” Bill repeats as calmly as possible.
“And then I told him he should visit me in Romania.”
“How bold of you,” Bill says. Charlie knocks him with his shoulder.
“And now I don’t know what to do. What if he doesn’t visit? Then I wouldn’t see him until Christmas, because I really can’t keep coming up with excuses to visit home, and that’s a long time from now and he doesn’t have any reason to think about me if I’m not there. But then what if he does visit? And what if he finds out how I feel? Then he’d certainly never want to see me again. I can’t imagine not seeing him again but the thought of being in the same place as him is unbearable and I don’t know what to do!”
“Is it possible you’re being slightly dramatic?” Bill asks. He can feel Charlie’s answering glare. “I’m sure he wouldn’t never want to see you again if he found out how you felt. He isn’t like that.”
“He can’t find out,” Charlie says. “He can’t. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“Then what exactly do you plan to do? Pine over him from afar for the rest of your life?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that, but what other options do I have?”
“Now you’re asking the right question.” Bill sighs and scoops up a handful of sand, letting it sift between his fingers. “Look, think about what he’s going through right now. He’s still grieving and healing, and he’s used to bearing the responsibility of his whole world on his shoulders, and he never even finished school. That’s a lot to work through. He has to decide what he’s going to do next, and that could be one of the most difficult choices he’s ever faced. Whatever he decides, he’s going to need all of us to support him. But for now, all we can do is wait.”
“I hate waiting,” Charlie mutters.
“I know it’s hard. But we all do what we need to do when it comes to love.”
“I didn’t use that word,” Charlie protests.
“Charlie, if everything you’ve told me about what you’re feeling is true, you might not be in love, but you’re on your way there. I suppose there’s still time for that to change, but… Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“I still hate waiting.”
“Look, you invited him to visit you, and for all you know, he will. It could be exactly the kind of thing he needs right now, to get away from the world that’s held him captive for so long, to be in a place where no one expects anything from him. But if he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you need to give up. You don’t have to wait until Christmas to visit, you know. Mum and Dad would be thrilled to see you at any time of the year. Come up with any excuse you like. And I can almost guarantee you that if you visit The Burrow, you’ll see Harry. Even if he finds himself his own place to live by then, Mum and Dad are as good as his parents too, and besides, he’s always with Ron, and Ron wouldn’t miss the chance to see you. And you could always write him letters.”
“Letters?” Charlie sits up straight, sounding incredulous. “What, are we living in a Victorian romance novel now?”
“I’m serious!” Bill protests, laughing. “I’m not talking about ten page letters in viridian ink on fancy parchment. Maybe it would only be a quick note asking how he’s doing, or asking if he thinks he might visit you after all, or telling him you’ve got connections if he’s ever interested in dragon training as a career, or - ”
“No, that’s far too obvious!” Charlie interrupts. “Anyone would see through something like that right away!”
“Well, at the very least, you could write a letter to Ron and ask about him in a postscript. Just something to keep you on his mind.”
“That’s slightly more reasonable,” Charlie grumbles. “When did you get so wise, anyway?”
Bill laughs. “It’s going to be alright, little brother,” he says, reaching out to ruffle Charlie’s hair. “You haven’t made any terrible mistakes, at least not yet. And of all the people you could have fallen for, well, it could have been a lot worse.”
“Oh, that’s comforting,” Charlie snorts, but he leans over and hugs his brother tightly before getting to his feet. “Thanks for listening and all of that. I feel fractionally better. But now I’d really better see if I can’t get a portkey back to Romania before those hatchlings are delivered.”
“Now that you’ve told me, I expect you to keep me informed of any new developments,” Bill tells him.
“Hey Bill?” he asks as they begin to walk back down the cliffs. “You really think it’s alright, the fact that I’m twenty-five? I mean, I’m a quarter of a century old. And he’s barely of age.”
“You’re not old,” Bill tells him with fond exasperation. “And he’s not all that young, either. Not after what he’s been through. He can decide what he wants for himself. All you have to do is give him time if he asks for it. That’s how it always worked with Fleur and me. She came to me, you know. I let her do all of the pursuing. Everything was on her terms. And now that we’re married, it’s as if those seven years between us have fallen away. We know each other, and we love each other, and that’s what matters.”
“She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, you mean,” Charlie says with a laugh. “Alright. I’ll owl you soon. Thanks again for everything, Bill.” And he disapparates with a crack.
August first begins like any other hot summer day in the countryside, but Harry knows he’s going to be interrogated as soon as the three of them leave for the market to buy the next week’s vegetables - which is why he’s putting it off as long as possible, eating his toast at a leisurely pace and drinking his tea in tiny sips from the patterned mug Charlie had given him. Hermione keeps giving him one of her “you can’t put this off forever” looks, which he ignores. He loses himself in the breakfast chatter instead, listening to Molly and Arthur talking about how long he’ll be at work and if he’ll have time to plant autumn greens in the garden beds when he gets home, and Ginny is asking George if he’ll go to Diagon Alley with her to look at school things (even though Harry knows she’s really trying to get him to set foot in Weasleys Wizard Wheezes), and Bill stopped in to ask Percy if he’ll go in to the Ministry to help piece together some mixed records. Bill keeps shooting Harry odd glances, making him wonder if there’s something stuck in his hair or if he has jam on his face, but after covertly looking at his reflection in his mug of tea, he can’t find anything worth staring at.
Ron looks up from his third plate of food when an elegant barn owl Harry doesn’t recognize swoops onto the open windowsill. “That’s Charlie’s handwriting,” Ron says in surprise, and Harry sets down his mug with a thunk. Ron takes the envelope while Hermione gives the owl a few treats from the jar on the window and strokes the white heart-shaped face. Both of his friends glance at Harry as Ron opens the letter; he pretends to be very interested in his toast crumbs.
“It’s for you,” Ron says after a moment, handing the letter to Harry with an odd look.
Harry takes it with trembling fingers. The message is short:
Harry, I meant what I said last night - it would be great if you wanted to come visit. I think you’d like it here. You can fly for miles and the scenery is beautiful. Ron’s always been stubborn about visiting but maybe you could convince him? Anyway just send me an owl if you’re interested.
Harry reads it three times before he passes it to Hermione, his mind whirling. He’d gotten a bit stuck on a few parts in particular - why did “I meant what I said last night” have to sound so intimate? And “if you’re interested…” Even though he knew that wasn’t what Charlie meant, reading it had given him that same swooping feeling in his stomach that he usually felt when he’d seen the snitch and just begun going into a dive.
Hermione hands it back to him, and he can tell she’s trying to hide her smile.
“Does this mean we’re going to Romania?” Ron asks as Harry slips the note into his pocket.
“Let’s talk about this later,” Harry says in a low voice, glancing around the room to see if anyone’s paying attention. Only Bill seems to have noticed the owl, and Harry thinks he catches a glimpse of something - surprise? amusement? on his face before he’s talking to Percy again like nothing happened.
“Come on, Harry, we know you’re done with breakfast,” Hermione says briskly, getting to her feet. “Let’s walk to the market now.”
“What about me?” Ron demands, pointing at his unfinished plate of food. “I’m not finished!”
“Bring it with you, then,” Hermione says in a voice that brooks no argument.
A few moments later they’re walking away from The Burrow and Harry is already beginning to sweat under the bright August sun. He feels the note in his pocket as though it’s burning into him, and he wishes he could steal away somewhere to look at it alone, because he can’t think clearly with Ron and Hermione giving him those looks.
“Alright,” he says, stopping in the middle of the field on the other side of the orchard, “say it. Whatever it is you’re both thinking, tell me now and get it over with.”
“I don’t want to go to Romania,” Ron says at the same time as Hermione says, “We need to go to Romania.” She turns to him with a frown.
“Why are you so against visiting Charlie?” she asks him.
“It’s not that,” Ron mumbles, looking down at his shoes. “It’s just… well, Fred and George mentioned there are acromantulas in the forests there, even worse than the ones in the Forbidden Forest - ”
“That’s why you haven’t wanted to visit Charlie?” Hermione asks him, incredulous. “Because of spiders?”
“Well, they’re really big spiders!” Ron defends himself.
“I want to go,” Harry interrupts him, and they stop and stare at him. “Look, it’s not just because of Charlie, alright? It’s just - it would be nice to go away for a bit. To go somewhere where we can pretend the war didn’t happen, even if it’s only for a few days. I can still feel the weight of it here. I think I’ll feel it for the rest of my life. But sometimes I can’t think, and I feel like if only I could clear my head, I’d know what I need to do next.” He falls silent. He hasn’t said anything to them yet about whether or not he’s going back to Hogwarts for his seventh year, because he still doesn’t know what he wants to do. Neither of them have mentioned it either.
“Okay, but does it have to be Romania?” Ron asks helplessly. “Couldn’t we go somewhere without giant spiders?”
“There are spiders all over the world, Ron,” Hermione says in her familiar “do you ever read?” tone of voice. “The only places they can’t live are the sky, the oceans, and Antarctica.”
“Antarctica sounds like a nice, remote place for contemplation,” Ron says without any real hope.
“Anyway, I’d like to go,” Hermione continues. “There’s tons of magical history there, I’ve read about wizarding museums and libraries in Bucharest that would be fascinating to visit. And Harry’s right, we could do with some time away. Besides, your Mum and Dad might appreciate a bit of peace and quiet.”
“So what, you’re saying we should just pack up and leave tomorrow?” Ron asks, and it’s like they’ve forgotten Harry is standing there (again).
“Not tomorrow,” Harry says before Hermione can answer. “We’re almost finished rebuilding Hogwarts. I think we’ll be done by the end of the week. I want to see it through to the finish. Then we can leave.”
After a bit more grumbling on Ron’s part, it’s settled. They’ll spend the next week adding the finishing touches to the castle’s reconstruction during the day while packing and researching for their trip at night. By the time they arrive at the market, Ron is complaining about how with all the work they have to do he’ll never feel well rested again, and Hermione is wondering out loud which books she should bring with her, and Harry is entirely silent, hoping they won’t be able to tell that his heartbeat is a little too fast, and his throat’s gone dry again, and his palms are sweaty. He keeps trying to reason through what the trip will be like, but he always gets stuck when he thinks about how it will feel to see Charlie again, now that he’s put a name to his feelings. He wonders miserably if he’ll just end up disapparating in panic the second he sees him.
Ron is filling a basket with onions and potatoes and carrots when Hermione notices Harry isn’t entirely with them (the fact that he’s staring at a cabbage in his hand with no memory of how it got there might have clued her in). She drifts over to him and pretends to examine some string beans.
“Are you alright?” She asks, softly enough that Ron doesn’t notice.
“Not exactly. Are you sure this is a good idea? There’s so many ways this could go wrong.”
“Ron seems okay with this now, but what if he changes his mind? What if Ginny finds out and is upset? Or any of the other Weasleys? And what if I make a complete fool of myself when I see him? I can’t stand the thought of him feeling sorry for me if he realizes I fancy him, or worse, if he laughs at me… And he’s seven years older than me, it’s not like he’d ever notice me in the way I’d want him to, it’s just - this whole thing is impossible and I’m setting myself up to be humiliated and neither of you are helping,” he finishes with an angry wave of his cabbage.
“It’s not impossible that he’d notice you,” Hermione says. He wonders how she always manages to focus on the thing he’s worried about the most. “Harry, there’s nothing wrong with looking for love, especially not now. We almost died - you did die. How could anyone blame you for trying to find someone who might make you happy? Love is the most beautiful and important thing we have. It’s how we’re going to move on from the war. It’s what we all fought for. It’s what your parents died for. So no, I’m not going to stand by and let you miss this opportunity. And I saw the way he looked at you when you were dancing last night, Harry. He didn’t look at anyone else that way all night. And that owl he sent you? There’s no way that owl flew all the way from Romania in one night. He sent that from wherever he caught his portkey. He stood in some international travel office in the middle of the night and wrote that letter to you , Harry. Not to Ron, to you.”
Harry stares at her, dumbfounded. He hadn’t thought about how long it would take an owl to fly from Romania, but she’s right. He sets the cabbage down before he can damage the leaves by squeezing it too hard.
“I never said anything about love,” he says finally. She reaches up and ruffles his hair with a fond smile.
“You didn’t have to,” she says, and walks away to help Ron choose the garlic bulbs and collard greens.
The sound of cicadas, coupled with the distant clang of metal mallets on blocks of stone, echoes in Harry’s ears as he sweats under the noon summer sun, circling Gryffindor tower on his Siberian Arrow. After Professor Flitwick taught them the complex form of Wingardium Leviosa used to remove individual damaged stones from the towers without collapsing the entire structure, he and Ron had been set the task of removing them and floating them to the ground for removal. Others down below are crafting perfectly shaped stone blocks to replace the damaged ones, and Professor McGonagall is leading a team of advanced students and order members in the application of protective spells before Ginny and George fly up on their own brooms and levitate them into place. They’re almost finished with this tower; after that, only Ravenclaw tower remains.
The last stone is placed under the window of his and Ron’s old dormitory, and everyone below cheers. They spiral down around the tower and land, glad for the break. Everyone gathers in the shade of the trees around the lake and dips their feet in the cool water, picnicing on the familiar shores.
Harry finds Professor McGonagall in conversation with Professor Flitwick a few paces away from where the students have settled on the grass. He waits politely off to the side until Flitwick sets off for the castle and McGonagall focuses her attention on him.
“What can I do for you, Potter?” she asks him, and for a moment he is a student again, and this is where he asks her about his Transfiguration homework and she tells him he should have paid more attention in class. But the moment fades when he looks down at the grass and remembers the bodies he’d seen there, still and cold in death, and he feels as though all of the summer warmth in the world couldn’t reach him.
“I’m not coming back to Hogwarts this year.” It’s the first time he’s said the words out loud, and hearing them in his own voice unleashes a torrent of feelings - guilt, because he’s letting down his teachers and his friends; relief, because thinking about it has been weighing him down for weeks; grief, because a part of him longs for the sense of home the castle had once given him. McGonagall nods as though she’d been expecting this, and he sees a weary, wise sadness in her eyes.
“You will always be welcome here, Potter, but no one expects you to return after everything that happened here. As your teacher for the past seven years, however, I must encourage you to continue your studies elsewhere. You have proved yourself a hardworking student, and there is still much for you to learn. I daresay the professors here would even correspond with you by owl should you wish to continue your studies remotely. Whatever you decide, know that we will stand behind you and wish you only the best.”
Harry had expected her disappointed acceptance at best; never had he imagined such understanding and faith in his choices. He feels his eyes begin to burn and a piece of his heart is tugged towards the Forbidden Forest, where he knows the Resurrection Stone lies hidden somewhere in the leaf mold. Is this what it would have felt like, if his parents had lived? But so many things would have been different if they had.
“Thank you,” he manages to get out, and he almost wants to hug her, but she still intimidates him too much. “Whatever I do next, I’ll be sure to write.”
“See that you do,” she says, and the familiar stern tone has returned to her voice. “And I expect you to visit as well. I think you’ll find compelling reasons to do so sooner than you might expect.” And with that she heads back to the castle, leaving him wondering what she might be hinting at as he wanders over to where Ron and Hermione are settled around a blanket with Ginny, George, and Lee.
Hermione and Ron are watching him curiously; he can tell they’re about to ask what he was talking to McGonagall about, but Ginny leans forward before they can say anything and says, “So I hear you’re going to Romania.” Her tone is innocent - too innocent.
“Yes?” It comes out sounding like a question, and he wonders if he’s walking into a trap.
Ginny steals one of Ron’s sandwich halves and begins tossing pieces of it into the lake for the giant squid.
“What my dear sister means is that we’re both wondering what you see in Charlie when clearly she and I are the two most attractive Weasley offspring,” George says helpfully. Harry drops his sandwich. Ginny throws the entire thing into the lake; a red tentacle seizes it and draws it under the water.
“I didn’t say a word, mate,” Ron says with a shrug when Harry looks to him for an explanation. Hermione is snickering.
“Poor boy,” Ginny says, patting his knee in a way that is somehow both affectionate and patronizing. “So obliviously obvious with your feelings. You might as well have them written across your forehead.”
“Nah, it would have to be somewhere else,” George says solemnly. “The scar is too distracting. Maybe across your chest. You could walk around shirtless and save us all some time.”
“I think the real takeaway here is that Harry has a thing for Quidditch players,” Lee says cheerfully. “Cho Chang, Ginny, Charlie…”
“And Cedric,” Ginny adds with a mischievous smile.
Harry buries his face in his hands. He doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or cry or both. Being here with his friends and listening to their teasing makes him feel like he’s finally beginning to move on from the war, like his wounds are healing into scars; but he feels like things are happening too fast - he isn’t ready for anyone to know about his complicated newly discovered feelings for Charlie; he isn’t ready for the world to know he was attracted to men at all. He’s hardly even begun figuring that out for himself. It’s too new, too fresh, and he doesn’t know what he’s afraid of more - discovering that he’s mistaken what he’s feeling for something else, for affection or admiration or he doesn’t quite know what, or discovering that his feelings are real, and leading him into unknown territory.
“Come off it, all of you,” Ron says, and though his tone is light, Harry can sense his underlying defensiveness, and he feels a rush of gratitude. “Let him eat his sandwich in peace.”
“We’re walking up to Hogsmeade anyway,” George says, getting to his feet. “The three of us have things to do.” On that mysterious note, he heads off, and Ginny and Lee follow. As Ginny walks past Harry, she leans down and squeezes his shoulder and murmurs in his ear.
“Don’t worry, Harry, none of us really mind. And we won’t say a word to anyone else.” Then she’s walking off and Harry is flopping facedown in the grass with a groan.
“You’re all terrible people,” he mumbles into the grass blades that tickle his lips. “How did they find out?”
“They might have noticed the two of you at your birthday party,” Hermione says apologetically. “Ginny’s right, you’re a bit… obvious.”
Harry frowns and rolls over, squinting up at them against the brilliant azure sky. “Why don’t you ever tell me these things?”
“We figured you knew,” Ron says with a shrug. “I mean, you vanished your trainers.” He looks pointedly at the new shoes Harry is wearing now, which he’d ordered by owl the other day.
The three of them lie back on the grass and talk about everything and nothing, dipping their feet in the lake and letting the giant squid tickle their toes, until it’s time to head back to work on the castle.
“So what were you talking to Professor McGonagall about?” Hermione asks as she tenderly brushes grass off of Ron’s shoulder.
“Oh, it was nothing important,” Harry says, and the lie weighs as heavy on his chest as a block of stone. It stays with him long after the last stone slides into Ravenclaw tower with a chink and all of the reconstruction crew members cheer, after they go for drinks in the Three Broomsticks, after they return to The Burrow and look over their packed bags to make sure they’ll be ready to leave the next morning. And still he can’t bring himself to tell them. He lies awake long after the two of them fall asleep that night. First he worries about what Ron and Hermione will say when they find out he’s not returning to Hogwarts, but inevitably his mind drifts to the next morning and it suddenly hits him that it’s really happening, they’re going to Romania and he’s going to see Charlie in just a few hours, and his heartbeat scrambles all over the place and he starts worrying for a whole new host of reasons. By the time he does fall asleep, he’s dreaming about Hermione wearing Professor McGonagall’s robes and telling him he’ll never be successful in life unless he finishes school, and Ron is flying around him in circles on a Firebolt telling him that at least he’ll be safe from the spiders at Hogwarts. And Harry wants to remind Ron that there are probably still acromantulas in the Forbidden Forest, but Ron is too far away - he’s flying over the Quidditch pitch now, and it’s the middle of a game, and Harry is watching from the stands and he feels a sudden jolt of panic when he realizes he’s supposed to be up there, he’s the seeker and they can’t win the game without him but he doesn’t have his broom, and he’s about to vault over the benches to go looking for one when he feels a hand on his shoulder and a familiar voice says, “Are you looking for something?” And Harry says yes, he is, and he knows he’s going to turn around and Charlie will be standing there holding his Siberian Arrow -
“You’ve got to wake up, Harry,” Hermione is saying, and he blinks open his eyes and sees her standing above him, already dressed and awake and alert. “We’ve got to catch our portkey in less than an hour.”
“Alright, alright,” Harry mumbles, reaching for his glasses on the bedside table. He waits until he hears her footsteps recede and the door snick shut behind her before reaching his hand under his pillow and pulling out a crumpled note. It’s the one Charlie sent after Harry had written to tell him when they were visiting.
Harry - so glad to hear you’re visiting with the others. Be sure to bring your brooms. Can’t wait to see you,
He’s unfolded it and refolded it so many times it’s on the verge of tearing apart. He looks at it every time he starts thinking the visit is a bad idea (which, as it turns out, is quite often). Sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he stares at the words until they’re etched in his brain. This is really happening, he thinks numbly. He traces his finger over the “Yours” at the bottom of the note. Does Charlie always sign his letters that way? He could have just signed his name. Harry crumples the note again, refusing to dwell on it any longer, and sticks it in the carry bag that was his birthday gift from Molly and Arthur, where it’s swallowed up by his packed clothes.
Everything after that happens too fast. His shower and breakfast seem to pass in the blink of an eye, and before he knows it he’s getting hugged by a handful of Weasleys, all wishing them a good trip; Ginny and George wink at him, which doesn’t do anything for his nerves, and Molly hugs him so long and hard he forgets how to breathe. Then he’s walking out into the yard with Ron and Hermione with their bags on their shoulders and their brooms strapped across their backs, and after a final wave at the kitchen window where everyone’s crowding to watch them go Hermione apparates them to the International Portkey Office in London. It’s a bit what Harry thinks a Muggle airport might be like, except much smaller and with portkey stations instead of gates. Some of the stations are quite crowded - there’s a long queue for New York, Paris, Beijing, Cairo, and São Paulo - but an attendant leads them to an empty corner, where a single tall man preemptively wrapped in a heavy cloak and a warm hat waits for a portkey to Bergen. A few spaces over sits a rusty garden spade on a platform under a blue, gold, and red striped flag. “Bucharest, Romania, leaving in six minutes,” the attendant announces, pointing at the spade before hurrying off to assist newcomers.
“Well, this is it,” Hermione says, and Harry notices for the first time how excited she is to be traveling to a new place, and a bit of the pressure weighing on him lightens when he realizes the trip isn’t only about him.
“I still think we should have gone to Antarctica,” Ron says, but Harry can tell he’s excited too (possibly because his confidence magnified tenfold when Hermione gave him a spray bottle of acromantula repellant).
“It’s not too late to change our minds,” Harry says, only half-joking.
“Don’t you dare,” Hermione warns him, taking his arm as if to stop him from trying to escape.
“You need to relax, mate,” Ron tells him. “We’re going on holiday, remember. You look like McGonagall just gave you detention cleaning out dragon dung barrels with Filch or something.”
“I feel a similar sense of dread,” he admits. Ron rolls his eyes and Hermione mutters something that sounds like “lovestruck idiot” under her breath.
“I am not - ” he begins hotly, but the portkey is beginning to glow blue, and they all reach out for it, bickering forgotten.
No going back now, Harry thinks as he feels the familiar tugging sensation behind his navel and the world begins to spin away.
The portkey drops them in a secluded field on the banks of the Dâmbovița River a few miles east of Bucharest; it’s a location deemed by the Romanian Ministry of Magic’s Magical Transportation Department as safe from Muggle detection. Harry, who never really got the hang of traveling by portkey, lands flat on his back next to Ron, staring up at a sky so blue he thinks the sky back home must only be a pale imitation of it. A soft, rich green grass stirs in the breeze around him; the field must be regenerating pastureland, or perhaps a hay baling field. Glad of the protection spells wrapping his broom like invisible gauze, he’s about to sit up when he the breath is knocked out of him as a small animal leaps on his chest. He adjusts his glasses and peers up at the friendly creature, expecting a dog, and gasps. A scaly, spiky, acid green reptilian face with fire-bright eyes looks back down at him. Translucent membranous green wings are partly unfurled on either side of its face, though they look too small to be used for flying. Next to him Ron is yelling and swearing loudly, and Hermione is gasping in delight.
“Are these Welsh Green dragon hatchlings?” Hermione asks, and Harry’s heart leaps into his throat when he hears Charlie’s voice answering.
“Yeah, they’re only a few weeks old. Unlike the Norwegian Ridgeback hatchling the three of you will be familiar with, Welsh Greens can’t breathe fire until around six months. We’re helping look after them until they’re old enough to defend themselves.”
Harry reaches up to stroke the dragon’s smooth scales; they’re surprisingly warm under his fingers. “I’m going to sit up now,” he tells it, and slowly levers himself up on his elbows. The hatchling clings to his shirt with its thornlike claws and hides its face under his chin.
“That’s Denver,” Charlie says, and Harry finally looks at him, takes in his bright smile and dark eyes and the burns and scratches on his bare arms, and he knows he wasn’t imagining the things he felt before. “Her name means “green valley.” Don’t tell anyone,” he says in a low voice, “but she’s my favorite. Looks like she likes you.”
“I like her too,” Harry says, and he means it. “Er, how do I… What do I do with her?”
“Here, she’ll ride on your shoulders if you let her,” Charlie says, reaching down and gently removing her claws from Harry’s shirt, one by one. “They can’t fly yet, but they like to climb as high as possible.” He lifts her off of Harry’s chest and sets her lightly on his shoulder. She immediately unwinds her serpentine body and drapes around his neck like a scarf, nuzzling at his ear with her hot breath. Harry laughs. Then Charlie’s helping him to his feet and brushing grass out of his hair and he’s forgetting how to breathe. Luckily Ron and Hermione are preoccupied with their own dragons and don’t notice.
“My place is only about a half hour away by broom, I thought we could fly back with the hatchlings to give them a bit of fun. They won’t fall, they usually cling to their mother’s belly while she flies until they’re old enough to fly on their own. This will give them a taste of it.”
Before long they’re kicking off from the field and soaring into the impossibly blue sky. Charlie took Ivy from Hermione so she could focus on flying. She stays close to Ron, and it’s clear that while she’s slightly nervous about flying so high, she’s comfortable enough to enjoy the view. Harry finds himself talking to Denver as he gazes down at the sprawling homes and farms below them. They’re flying north towards the Southern Carpathian Mountains; the foothills leading up to the craggy peaks are a breathtaking purple-green mist of forests. “I bet there are plenty of acromantulas down there,” Harry tells Denver, who leans over his shoulder to look down with interest. His heart is light as he breathes in the cool, fresh air; all of his worries had been left down on the ground. Viridios pokes his head over Ron’s shoulder to look at them, and Harry laughs at the sight.
All too soon Charlie begins a graceful descent. They’re heading for a jewel-green meadow hemmed in by dark evergreen forests, and as the earth rises up to meet them Harry can see a few small dwellings nestled alongside a fast-flowing snowmelt stream. Charlie lands in front of a small wood-and-stone cabin close to the edge of the trees that looks out over the meadow. Harry thinks it looks like something out of a storybook, with its slate shingles and pine-red wood and picturesque porch. A small vegetable garden sprawls in front of it, full of tomatoes and cucumbers, corn and climbing purple beans. Sunflowers line the back of the garden, and close by an ancient twisted tree bears reddish plums.
Denver slithers over Harry’s shoulder and climbs down his body, scampering through a patch of herbs to get to the porch steps. Ivy and Viridios follow suit, sitting in front of the door on their hind legs with huge, beseeching eyes like begging dogs.
Charlie lets them inside, and by the time Harry, Ron, and Hermione walk through the front door the three hatchlings are crying for food; they sound almost like Arabella Figg’s cats. Charlie fixes them bowls of something that looks like thick white milk, and they lap it up, splashing it all over their long snouts.
“So,” Charlie says, gesturing at the space around them. “This is home.” It’s somehow both open and cozy; the space is small, but the kitchen melds with the living room which winds around to a staircase, and there’s a tiny bathroom under the stairs and a loft above them with a small bed, and a door on the other side of the kitchen leads to the back half of the house. All of the furniture is rustically carved wood or painted in bright blues and reds, and every surface is draped with colorful woven rugs and tablecloths. The walls are white and the window frames are painted a rich turquoise. Charlie leads them to the back and shows them the bedroom he’s set up for them - there’s a bed heaped with blankets in the corner by a wide window looking out over the forest, and two plush bedrolls spread on the floor. Harry wonders if he knows Ron and Hermione will end up sharing the bed while he sleeps on the floor.
“I hope this is enough space,” he says, and he sounds apologetic, but after living packed in The Burrow all summer, it feels like a mansion. “Listen, I’ve got to take these three back to the sanctuary, you’re welcome to make yourselves at home. I’ll show you where the tea and things are, come on.” He takes them back to the kitchen and points out all of the important things, but Harry isn’t paying attention. They’re only staying in Romania for a week, and now that they’re here, Harry means to make the most of it. He waits until Charlie’s coaxed the three hatchlings to him with dragon cookies and Ron and Hermione are bickering over the tea kettle before summoning his Gryffindor courage.
“Charlie,” he says, hoping the others won’t notice - if they give him one of those looks now, he might not be able to follow through with his plan. “Would you, er, mind if I came with you? To the sanctuary? I’d really like to see it.”
Charlie looks surprised, but then he grins. “Yeah, alright,” he says, and he glances at Ron and Hermione as though debating whether or not to ask them along. Don’t ask them, Harry pleads in his mind. It’s so much harder to relax when they’re around, because he knows they’re just waiting for him to slip up and expose his feelings (or hoping to do it for him). But Charlie doesn’t say anything, just scoops up Denver and puts her in Harry’s arms before shooing the other two back out the front door, and then they’re free, and just the two of them (well, five if he’s counting the dragons) are skirting the garden and following a path that leads up into the mountains. Harry wonders how long it will take Ron and Hermione to notice he’s gone, and what they’ll have to say to him when he gets back. They might pretend to be upset, but he suspects they’ll be glad to have some time alone. It’s nearly impossible to have any privacy in The Burrow, and he’d walking in on them snogging in Ron’s bedroom one too many times.
They walk side by side along the forest path; soon they’re enveloped by tall Norway spruces, and sunlight filters down from directly above; thanks to the two hour time difference between London and Bucharest, it’s already almost noon. Their steps fall softly on a layer of golden pine needles, and Ivy and Viridios scamper between the tree trunks; every now and then they climb to the lowest branches and leap back down, their claws tearing off the flaky gray bark to reveal a redder wood beneath. Harry asks Charlie more about the sanctuary, and he lights up when he starts talking about it. He loves listening to Charlie’s stories about all of the dragons there, and the other people who work with dragons alongside him. The research that their sanctuary produces is used by dragon advocates around the world as part of a movement to convince governments not to use dragons as security or sell and trade dragon products. Harry had never given much thought to how dragonhide gloves and dragon heartstring wands were made, but by the time the path spills them out into a secluded valley set against tall, steep stone slopes, he’s holding Denver protectively against his chest, vowing silently never to buy dragon products again.
It turns out the entire valley is the sanctuary, bordered by layer upon layer of invisible protective spells and charmed to be entirely fireproof. Charlie shows him a break in the cliffs where the sanctuary extends inside the mountain; it’s a colossal cave in the arched shape of a cathedral with green vines hanging around the opening and shafts of sunlight pouring in from openings in the stone roof. There are dragons everywhere - sleeping on cliff ledges, soaring over the valley, drinking from a swift mountain stream, rolling on the sandy banks of a small lake. Harry recognizes a few species from the Triwizard Tournament, though thankfully no Hungarian Horntails. A waterfall tips into the lake, and beside it is what looks like a small campground. This is where medicines (for dragons) and first aid supplies (for humans) are stored, and there are tables with quills and ink bottles and fireproof parchment for taking notes.
“Some of the dragons come and go,” Charlie explains as they watch a dark spine-backed dragon soar in from over the mountains and land near the stream. “That’s your Norberta. She visits often because she grew up here, but sometime she’s gone for weeks or even months at a time. We don’t worry about her, she’s quite good at taking care of herself. But then there are some, like this Antipodean Opaleye, who aren’t allowed to leave.” He points to a stunning white dragon with iridescent eyes who lies curled next to the lake, gazing at her reflection in the water. “Her name is Greta. She was raised in captivity and used as a guard dragon at a palace, and during a rebellion she was attacked and her wings were lost. This all happened over fifty years ago. She was the first to come to the sanctuary. She’d been kept hidden for years before the founders brought her here. Her collar is spelled to keep her from leaving the valley, but she never tries anyway. She likes the peace and quiet by the water.”
Charlie is full of stories for every dragon, and Harry thinks he could listen forever. But then two people Harry doesn’t recognize arrive at the sanctuary. Charlie greets them in Romanian and then introduces them to Harry. They light up with recognition and shake his hand enthusiastically, and he’s not sure if it’s because he’s famous even here, or if it’s because Charlie’s mentioned him before. Andrei is tall and wiry and very shy, and Sorina reminds him of a younger Molly Weasley, plump and smiling but with dark hair instead of red. They switch to English for his benefit and ask him all sorts of questions about what he thinks of Romania and the sanctuary before Charlie remembers Ron and Hermione are waiting for them and it’s past time for lunch.
“We can apparate back now that we don’t have the dragonlings with us,” Charlie says as he watches the three small green hatchlings climbing all over Andrei and Sorina. Part of Harry wants to suggest they walk back instead - the forest was so soothingly beautiful, and he wouldn’t mind if it could be just the two of them a little longer. But he’s also hungry, and he remembers Ginny’s comment about him being “obliviously obvious” with his feelings. Maybe this is one of those times. So he nods and takes Charlie’s arm, and for half a heartbeat their eyes meet and a hundred thoughts are crashing through Harry’s mind about what it would be like if he slid his hand a little higher, or if he leaned in just a fraction closer, or if he told Charlie how beautiful his eyes are -
And then the pressure of apparition closes in and he can’t think at all. When they appear in front of the cabin, Harry sways and almost stumbles into the potato patch, but Charlie catches his arm with a huff of laughter. “All the more evidence you were born to fly,” he says, and Harry wonders if he takes a moment too long to let go of his arm. “You’re flawless in the air, but you can’t keep your feet together when you’re supposed to be on the ground.”
“So I suppose you trip and fall all the time, then?” Harry grumbles, and Charlie stares at him for a moment.
“I’m not sure if that’s an insulting compliment or a complimentary insult, but either way the answer is yes,” he says, and they’re both laughing when they walk in the door. Ron looks up guiltily from where he’s sitting cross-legged on the floor eating out of a bag of crisps. Hermione’s nestled in a chair reading From Egg to Inferno: a Dragon-Keeper's Guide; there’s a gap on the bookshelf next to her in the middle of an entire row of books about dragons.
“Sorry if you got hungry waiting for us,” Charlie says, glancing at Ron’s crisps. Ron looks amazed that Charlie isn’t upset about having his food stolen - another way the cabin is markedly different from The Burrow. “Anyway, I’ve got things for sandwiches if you want lunch.”
“I’ll help you make them,” Harry offers, and even though he doesn’t miss the amused look exchanged by Ron and Hermione, all of the worry that had knotted up in his chest the night before is gone. Being around Charlie is so easy . He can’t explain it, but it feels like they’ve known each other for years. And the voice in the back of his mind keeps whispering that the week will be over before they know it, and Harry doesn’t want to miss a moment of it.
The week passes by in a blur. If Charlie is weeding the garden when he wakes up, Harry will walk out barefoot in the grass and kneel next to him to pull up crabgrass sprouts. If he’s making something in the kitchen, Harry will sidle up and offer to help. If he sees a light on late at night and finds Charlie reading by lamplight in one of the comfortable chairs in the living room, he’ll grab his book on Siberian magic from Hermione and settle into the chair next to him. Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don’t, and either way Harry feels like it’s exactly what he needs - having someone to talk to, but also just having someone to be with. Charlie lets him visit the sanctuary while he works there in the mornings, and even lets Harry help feed the Welsh Green hatchlings and apply dittany salve to Greta’s scale rot. Every night Harry falls into his bedroll exhausted but exhilarated. He feels as though he’s living a new life, forging a path for himself out of everything he likes and wants, and it’s glorious and he doesn’t want it to end.
He knows Ron and Hermione want to ask him questions each night, but he asks them to wait until after they leave Romania, because he’s not ready to think about anything beyond the moment. On their second to last night, the two of them speak in whispers after they think he’s asleep, and he hears things he’s not meant to hear - their fervent “I love you”s, their “what if”s and “maybe”s for the life they’ll have together after they finish school. It keeps Harry awake long after Hermione’s breathing has slowed and Ron’s has turned to snores, and the cool mountain air seeping in from the night leaves him feeling chilled and restless. Wrapping his patchwork quilt around him like a cloak, he slips out of the bedroom and pads barefoot into the kitchen to fix himself a steaming mug of chamomile tea. The moonlight is bright enough that he doesn’t need to light the lamps. The valley is frosted with an enchanted silver light, and he thinks of the night he saw Remus transform into a wolf beside the Whomping Willow, and a lonely ache floods through him. Gripping his mug tightly, he tiptoes to the front door, not wanting to wake Charlie in the loft. He needs to be outside, breathing the fresh night air; he needs to remind himself he’s alive, even though so many people who were a part of him no longer are.
When he goes to sit on the bench on the porch, he finds Charlie already sitting there, similarly cocooned in a blanket and warming his hands around a mug of tea. He smiles at Harry and shifts to make room for him.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Charlie asks softly; the night is too delicate to break with careless voices.
Harry sits down next to him and draws his knees up on the bench so that the quilt drapes over his exposed feet. “Sometimes I feel too awake for sleep. Do you come out here often in the night?”
“Sometimes,” Charlie says. “Sometimes there’s something on my mind, sometimes I like watching the moon and the stars. The sky is so clear, out here. None of the light pollution you’ve got back home. I’d be a fool to miss a beautiful night like this.”
Harry watches Charlie while he talks, taking in the lines and curves of his profile, the way his hair falls to his shoulders, and he allows himself to imagine what it would be like to touch instead of just looking. He gives himself a moment to feel everything he wants to feel, and then he tears his gaze away, because even in the darkest hour of the night, when secrets tug at their bonds and beg to be freed, Harry would rather sit and look at the stars and keep whatever closeness they have safe between them. And there’s something to be said for looking at the stars, he thinks, especially here, where the sky is deep and fathomless, and he can feel the space of it all; before, he’d thought of the sky as a dome or a ceiling, a sphere of nothingness above them. But now he sees that the sky is full and endless and brimming with light and mysteries.
A bright blue-green meteor dashes across the sky, splintering into pieces as it falls, and they both gasp in the same breath.
“Some Muggles think that if you make a wish on a meteor, the wish will come true,” Harry murmurs after a moment. A purple-red trail is burned across his vision. This time he can think of a whole list of things he might wish for, but he doesn’t dare think them in case they write themselves out on his forehead like Ginny had said.
“What would you wish for, then?” Charlie asks.
A touch, Harry thinks in spite of himself. A kiss. He closes his eyes. You.
“You can’t tell anyone, or else it won’t come true,” he says instead, and he thinks maybe he ought to go back to bed now, because he’s getting sleepy. But keeping his eyes closed is so nice…
Charlie’s not sure how it happens, but one moment Harry is whispering something about meteors and wishes, and the next he’s asleep and tipping sideways onto Charlie’s shoulder. He ought to wake him up and send him back inside, but instead he rescues the empty mug dangling from Harry’s slack fingers, sets it on the porch railing, and slips his arm behind Harry’s back, his hand settling on his waist to keep him from slumping forward off the bench. He stays that way for a long time, looking at Harry’s dream-softened face instead of the stars, wondering what he ought to have wished for, wondering if it’s already coming true. But perhaps the deepest hours of the night are not the best time for asking questions and making judgments, so all he does is hold him, until the moon is past its zenith and he knows it’s time for him to go inside. He touches Harry’s cheek with the back of his hand to find it chilled from the mountain cold. Lifting Harry in his arms is physically effortless - he lifts dragon yearlings twice as heavy all the time - but nothing could have prepared him for the weight of holding something so vulnerable and dependent, and he feels almost weak with tenderness. A part of him knows that Harry, when awake, is anything but vulnerable and dependent, but this side of him is real too, and as he carries him up the stairs and covers him with his own quilt, he feels torn between gladness to have known him in this moment, and a desire for that moment not to end. He leaves him sleeping peacefully and steals down the stairs to curl up in his favorite cushy armchair, where sleep takes him by surprise.
Harry knows something is wrong before he even opens his eyes. He’s in a real bed, for one thing, and the angle of the sunlight is different, and even the pine and spice smell of his pillow is unfamiliar. It only takes him a moment to realize he’s in the bed in the loft, and when his memories of the night before come rushing back, they leave him curled under a blanket on the porch under the moonlight, and he pieces together what must have happened for him to end up here.
Mortified, he climbs out of the bed and peers down to the room below. He doesn’t see or hear anyone, so it’s possible Ron and Hermione are still sleeping, and Charlie is probably out in the garden. All Harry can think is that he needs to get outside before Ron and Hermione figure out where he is. If they wake up now, they’ll just think he woke up before them and left the room - unless one of them woke up in the night and saw he was missing. He could just go down the stairs, but what if they walked into the living room and saw him coming down? He quickly comes to the conclusion that the only reasonable solution is to jump out of the window. It slides open easily, and since the house is built on a slope, he’ll only fall about two meters before hitting soft grass. Only after he’s airborn does he realize that if Ron and Hermione happen to glance out of their bedroom window, they’ll see him standing barefoot in his pajama bottoms and sweatshirt. This leads him to his next inevitable conclusion: the only way to minimize his chances of being seen by them is to flee for the forest and take cover. He breaks into a run as soon as his feet hit the ground, and before long his feet are skimming over a soft bed of pine needles and he’s flinging himself behind a sturdy tree trunk, brushing spiderwebs off of his arms and feeling triumphant, though out of breath.
That’s when he sees the acromantula standing in front of him, watching him with eight huge black eyes.
His wand is still under his pillow in the guest bedroom.
He runs back for the meadow faster than he’s ever run in his life, and he can hear the thundering of eight legs galloping after him over the sound of his own yelling. Following some wild instinct, he thrusts his hand into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls out the magical pocket knife Ron had given him for his birthday. There are several buttons along the side he hasn’t had the chance to explore. Without any real hope, he presses one of the buttons and waits. Nothing happens. If only I could apparate without a wand, he thinks desperately, and the next second he’s sprawling in the grass in front of the cabin and Ron, Hermione, and Charlie are staring at him in astonishment.
“I apparated without a wand!” he yells in amazement. “And I think I’m being followed by an acromantula.”
“I TOLD YOU!” Ron bellows, but his words devolve into a high-pitched scream of terror as the giant spider speeds around the corner of the cabin. Ron dives behind the cucumbers.
“Oh, not again,” Charlie groans, almost casually taking out his wand and sending what looks like a jet of firecrackers in the acromantula’s general direction. It flips over on its back in its haste to escape the exploding fire and flails its eight legs in the air. “Go on, back to the forest,” Charlie yells sternly, and the huge creature finally manages to flip itself over, fleeing as fast as its legs can carry it. “Sorry about that,” he apologizes to no one in particular. “They haven’t come out of the forest in months. I don’t know what got into that one.”
They all turn to look at Harry.
“What were you doing out there, exactly?” Hermione asks him curiously. Ron is too pale and shaky to say anything. Charlie looks like he’s trying not to laugh.
“Er. Long story,” Harry says, uncomfortably aware of the fact that he’s the only one still wearing pajamas. “I think I’ll just go and have a cup of tea,” he announces with his last shred of dignity. “Oh and by the way, Ron, this - ” he pulls out the magical pocket knife - “is absolutely useless.”
For their last day in Romania, Charlie takes them to the annual Prislop Dance, a Muggle festival filled with traditional dancing and feasting and music that takes place in an emerald green mountain pass to the north. They explore the festival all afternoon, and when dusk falls they’re still enjoying the food and performances; but then Charlie draws them away from the crowd with a secretive smile. He leads them along a path up into the pine forest; none of the Muggles give them a second glance. Before long, they come to a small meadow dotted with bellflowers and daisies. The clearing is filled with people, but it only takes a second to realize none of them are Muggles. There are fountains of wine surrounded by floating glasses, sparkling streamers of real fire hanging in the air, and brightly colored patterned robes that swirl as the dancers leap and twist. An ethereal music fills the air and fills Harry with an odd longing; it reminds him of Fawkes’ phoenix song.
Andrei and Sorina are there, along with a handful of their friends, who helped found the dragon sanctuary before joining the Magical Creature Protection Force, a sector of the Romanian Ministry of Magic devoted to improving and enforcing the laws protecting all manner of magical non-human beings. “These are the people who rescued Norberta,” Charlie introduces them. Hermione assails them with questions about their work; Ron makes a face at Harry and whispers, “I hope she doesn’t get any more ideas like SPEW,” and Harry is forced to turn his snort into a cough.
The sky is a deep indigo now, dusted with stars that mingle with sparks shooting up from a ring of freshly lit torches. Ron leaves to investigate the platters of baked apple tarts and chocolate cakes that are drifting among the festival-goers, and Hermione is still deeply immersed in her conversation. Andrei and Sorina are leaving early to go give the Welsh Green hatchlings their evening meal.
And suddenly Harry and Charlie are standing there, surrounded by people yet somehow entirely alone, and Harry remembers dancing with him on the night of his birthday and he realizes a part of him is waiting, hoping, longing for it to happen again. But he can’t just wait , he thinks. Every second he waits is a second Charlie might step back, might turn to talk to someone else, might walk away from the possibility hanging between them. Taking that step forward feels like stepping into himself. He remembers the night he watched the Dementors encircle Sirius from across the lake, waiting for someone else to save them until the moment he stepped forward and let the silver stag burst from his wand. There is the same certainty in this step, the same fire in his veins, but it’s a different kind of spell he aims to cast this time. “Dance with me?” he asks, and Charlie’s smile is as bright as a Patronus when he answers, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Later, he will remember the night in bits and pieces. Charlie’s warm hands against the dropping temperatures of the night, the black sky behind blacker trees, gold and scarlet torchlight reflecting off of Charlie’s coppery hair, Ron not-so-subtly giving him a wink and a thumbs up as he dances past with Hermione. He’ll remember the exhilaration of flying with his feet still touching the ground, and the feeling of being filled up with happiness to the point where it spills over like a shaken bottle of butterbeer. He’ll remember Charlie’s fingers touching his, his hand steady on his waist, and green eyes meeting dark brown with the knowledge that whatever happens next, they’re one step closer than they were before that night. Harry doesn’t try to hide his feelings anymore. Let the words be written across his forehead and tattooed across his chest, he thinks, as he lets his eyes trace Charlie’s smile and the line of his jaw and the curve of his neck and collarbone as though his gaze is a touch of his fingers or his lips. There’s no going back now; there’s no way to unsay these unspoken words.
They don’t stop dancing until close to midnight, when the other festival-goes start to drift away and the torches grow dim, and Charlie says they should head home and sleep because the three of them have to catch their portkey early the next morning. Harry’s veins are still coursing with adrenaline; he feels bold and reckless and he wants to say that there’s no reason for him to leave, tomorrow morning or ever, but he bites his tongue because Ron and Hermione are there and he still hasn’t told them he’s not going back to Hogwarts. He can see his guilt like a monster waiting for him on the other side of an invisible wall; he can’t feel it now, but the wall is made of time, and it moves ever closer. As soon as they return to The Burrow, he’ll have to face the guilt head-on, but not now, not when his heart feels like it’s soaring with the stars.
They apparate back to the cabin, and Harry is struck by how much it feels like coming home. He’s not just going to miss Charlie, he realizes with a pang; he’s going to miss all of it - the garden with its fresh herbs and vegetables, the wide windows with their views of the Carpathian foothills, the comfortable blankets and the bench on the porch and the fresh mountain air. He’s even going to miss the dragon sanctuary (though perhaps not the acromantulas lurking in the woods).
Ron and Hermione head straight for bed, half asleep on their feet, but Harry is far too awake, so he starts boiling water for tea and sits down at the kitchen table to wait. Charlie sits down across from him, and they simply look at each other, and the air between them is charged with feelings, but without the open night sky over their heads and the language of dancing to do the work for them, their words don’t come. From the other end of the house comes the sound of Hermione yelling at Ron, something about not leaving his toothbrush in the sink (“it’s terribly unsanitary!”), and they smile at each other, but there’s something unbearable about it, so Harry looks away. The teakettle whistles; he grabs it off of the burner and gathers two mugs while Charlie rummages in the cabinet for the tin of chamomile tea and the sugar bowl. It’s only been a week, and yet they know each other’s habits enough that they’ve developed a nighttime tea ritual. Harry tries to memorize the way their shoulders brush as they stir in their sugar, the way his fingers burn when their hands touch as he hands him the tea tin to put back on the shelf. Harry has never wanted to kiss anyone so badly.
“Do you want to sit outside?” Charlie asks, and Harry nods; he feels incapable of speech, as though all of the things he wants to say are tangled up in his throat.
When he finally untangles them, they’re sitting on the porch bench watching heat lightning from a distant storm, a single blanket draped across their knees with barely an inch of charged space between them, and his tea sits half-drunk by his feet.
“I’m not going back to Hogwarts,” he says, and it’s the last thing he wants to talk about, yet it comes out first all the same.
“I suspected as much,” Charlie says, and his voice is so gentle and understanding that Harry’s eyes begin to burn. All of the feelings he’s been holding in are swimming to the surface, desperate for air. “You haven’t told Ron and Hermione, have you?”
“No,” Harry admits, and then he’s crying, and he hates himself for letting this happen now, in front of Charlie, when only moments ago he was happier than he’d been in months. But Charlie just wraps his arms around him and holds him, and Harry buries his face in his chest and it doesn’t matter that their position is a bit awkward or that Harry’s glasses have gone askew and are fogged with his tears because Charlie is stroking his hair and saying his name and telling him it’s okay to let it out, and he doesn’t seem to mind that his shirt is getting wet or that Harry can’t stop shaking.
“Everyone expects me to go back,” he manages to get out when his breathing is close to normal again. He sits up and wipes his glasses on his shirt, and still Charlie holds him, and his arms are protective but gentle; he feels safe, and not trapped.
“How do you know?” Charlie asks. “I didn’t expect that.”
“You’re different,” Harry says, and wonders what Charlie will make of that.
“Harry, I think Ron and Hermione know more than they’ve let on,” he says. “Just because you haven’t talked to them doesn’t mean they haven’t figured it out. They know you better than anyone.”
Harry blinks. Could they already know? “And what about everyone else?”
“Anyone who truly cares about you will know it doesn’t matter one way or another.”
“Everyone always says that, but it doesn’t stop me from caring what people think,” Harry says with a sigh.
“All that matters is that you feel like you’re making the best decision for you,” Charlie tells him. “And for what it’s worth, I think you are.”
“Yeah?” Harry leans into him and pulls the blanket up to his chin.
They sit like that for a long time, and although it’s not how Harry had hoped the night would end, maybe it’s better this way, because it’s real, and he wants this feeling between them to grow on more than just a fantasy. That night he falls asleep next to Charlie for the second time, and even though his throat is raw and his eyes burn from crying, it’s a hundred times better than the night before, because this time he can feel Charlie’s arms around him, can hear his heartbeat where he leans against his chest, can feel his breath stirring his hair. As his own breathing slows and restless dreams reach for him, he thinks of all of the other things he wanted to say, and the one that stays with him is, I’m in love with you.
So this is what Professor McGonagall had been hinting at.
Harry sets the invitation on his desk and leans back in his chair with a sigh. Doubtlessly, Ron and Hermione will never let him hear the end of it if he refuses to go. He picks it up again and reads it over a second time:
You are cordially invited to join us at Hogwarts on the evening of December 21st for the renewal and redefining of an old tradition as we come together with Beauxbatons and Durmstrang for the fifth ever Yule Ball. Our invitation extends to all those involved in the Triwizard Tournament of 1994-95 in addition to current students, faculty, and staff of all three schools.
The letter goes on to address the time (the doors will open at 6:00 PM), the food (a collaborative effort between the House Elves of Hogwarts Union and the Beauxbatons culinary club), the music (the Weird Sisters, again), the dress code (dress robes, with the strong hint that the style ought to belong sometime within the past century and ideally the past decade), and guest etiquette (everyone is invited to bring a plus one). He remembers back in his fourth year thinking the Yule Ball was worse than facing the Hungarian Horntail in the first task, and his opinion hasn’t particularly changed. Of course there are people who will be there who he’d like to see, but his small number of friends is vastly outweighed by the number of people he’s been pointedly avoiding since the war. For most of the attendees, it will be nothing more than an exciting social event. For him, it would be an unwelcome handful of hours spent in the spotlight.
And yet he’d promised McGonagall he would visit.
“Bloody hell,” he mutters out loud, putting the invitation back on his desk.
He picks up the letter next to it. It’s three pages of Charlie’s steady script, and the last in a long string of letters that Harry may or may not have read from start to finish every single night for the past three months. With every letter he writes in response, he feels as though they’re getting closer, in spite of the fact that they haven’t seen each other face to face since that early August morning when they left Romania in a rush to make it to their international portkey. There’d only been time for a quick hug in the small, poorly lit transportation office of the Romanian Ministry of Magic, and even if Harry had felt brave enough for something more, there were too many other people around them, and he’d had to say everything with his eyes instead. And now all he had were these letters, and the knowledge that he’d see Charlie again at Christmas. He was planning to stay at The Burrow through New Years, so it would be a long visit - long enough that he might finally say the things he’d been holding on to all this time.
He’s convinced that Charlie feels something for him, but he still doesn’t know what, and it’s driving him to distraction.
“Just ask him,” Ron advised him when they were meeting in Hogsmeade one Friday evening.
“Just tell him how you feel,” Hermione suggested in one of her letters.
But he can’t bring himself to do either of those things.
The light streaming in the window is red from the setting sun. It washes over his desk and his hands and the letters and turns everything to liquid rose. The nights creep up on the days so much faster now. Scraping back his chair, he gets to his feet and hides the letters in his desk drawer, spelling it locked with a practiced nonverbal charm. It wouldn’t do for the landlady to find and read them; she’d probably try to have him committed to a Muggle hospital since all of the letters are about dragons and Quidditch and the like.
Climbing down the steep stairs from his attic room, he pauses at the bottom to listen for signs of life, but the television is off and there’s no clink of dishes from the kitchen; Mrs. Haliday must still be out running errands. Making sure his key is in his pocket (he could use magic to get back in if he locked himself out, but he’d risk being seen by the Muggles), he pulls a warm Weasley sweater over his head and walks out into the dusk.
He likes walking around the quiet streets of Godric’s Hollow to clear his head. Even in the chill November twilight, the town is beautiful and gives him the weightless feeling of coming home. He knows he won’t stay here forever - he probably won’t even stay for another month - but it’s a perfect in-between place for him to sort out what he wants to do next. He spends his days either at his desk in his rented room or at his favorite sunlit table in the tiny Muggle library at the end of the street. Mostly he writes. He writes about the war and everything leading up to it; he writes letters to Charlie and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid; he writes about his nightmares and his daydreams and everything in between. But he also studies. Every month McGonagall sends him a set of tasks for keeping up with his schoolwork, and he loses himself in the deep woods surrounding Godric’s Hollow to practice spellwork and brew potions and read the same textbooks that he knows Ron and Hermione pore over every day (well, Hermione does, at least). It’s not the same as being at Hogwarts, and he’s not allowed to try any of the more dangerous spells or potions, but he enjoys it all the same. He thinks he’d like to spend the rest of his life learning new magic. It fills some of the empty spaces inside him, and now he dreams more often of mixing moonflower seeds and cat’s claw vine or correcting his wandwork than he dreams of flashes of red and green explosions in a smoky night.
Sometimes he visits his parents’ graves. It was hard, the first time, remembering the dark snowy Christmas night when he and Hermione had nearly died and he’d thought his wand had been permanently broken. He didn’t want those memories associated with his parents, and he knew the only thing to do was to keep going back until new memories replaced the old. He goes there now and sits against the gravestone until the last light leaks out of the sky and the cold begins to numb his fingers. Whenever he’s here, he likes to tell them about his day and ask them for advice; he knows their voices in his mind now, and a part of him thinks he’s not imagining their answers. He asks them now what they would do about the Yule Ball. He imagines they appreciate hearing about the trivial aspects of his life just as much as they’d want to hear about the monumental ones. James tells him he ought to go because his friends will be there, and the night will be full of mischief and fun. Lily tells him not to listen to James and that if he doesn’t want to go, then that’s all there is to it.
Sometimes other voices join his parents’, and this is one of those nights. Moody tells him it’s not worth the risk of being assassinated. Remus tells him to ignore Moody and that Hogwarts is as safe as it was before the war, if not safer thanks to McGonagall, and that a bit of dancing and merriment might be good for him. Sirius heartily agrees and asks slyly if Harry is thinking of bringing anyone with him. Dumbledore merely smiles mysteriously (he rarely says anything of import).
Would Charlie leave Romania early for something like this? Would he say yes if Harry asked him? Even as he wonders these things, he knows he’s not going to ask. Asking someone to go to a ball is a hundred times more terrifying than asking someone for a dance.
He walks back to the house in the dark; his way is lit by lanterns at the end of front walks and even a few Christmas lights strung up in the windows (what is it with Muggles and their obsessions with holidays?).
Back inside, he takes out a fresh sheet of parchment and begins to write.
Dear Headmistress McGonagall,
I look forward to attending the Yule Ball this winter…
I have good news. Harry has indeed decided to attend the Yule Ball. However, due to his pitiable lack of critical thinking ability, it seems not to have occurred to him that as everyone involved in the tournament was invited, you’ve been invited to attend as well. Whether or not you inform him of his grave error is up to you. I certainly won’t be saying anything.
Hope you’re doing well and looking forward to seeing you at the ball! Be sure to say hello to Denver, Ivy, and Viridios for me!
“This is even worse than I thought it would be,” Harry complains to Ron as they duck behind a curtain for the fifth time, this time to avoid Cormac McLaggen. What McLaggen is even doing here when he’s no longer a student, Harry can’t begin to guess; surely no one in their right mind would have invited him as their plus one.
“Well, at least you managed to avoid Romilda Vane,” Ron says brightly as they drift back out from behind the curtain. “I’ve heard she’s improved her love potions since sixth year. Oh look, it’s Hermione!” Ron hasn’t been able to take his eyes off of her all night. She looks absolutely stunning in a midnight-blue gown with her hair cascading around her shoulders. Thankfully, Ron is wearing new dress robes that actually fit him, and the teal color goes well with Hermione’s dress. According to Hermione, that sort of color-matching is of high importance. Harry, upon discovering his bottle-green dress robes from his fourth year didn’t fit him (“What were you expecting, honestly?” Hermione had yelled at him when she’d discovered he didn’t have anything to wear two nights before the ball), had equipped himself with an elegant green-trimmed black robe (“It will bring out the color of your eyes,” Ginny had promised), but he still couldn’t shake the sense that he was wearing a Slytherin-themed Muggle bathrobe.
Hermione hands them each a butterbeer and looks around happily at the crowd. “I think this is going well, don’t you?” she says cheerfully. Aside from the unexpected encounter with Viktor Krum (it was hard to say who was more flustered, Ron or Hermione) and all of the hurried curtain-ducking, the evening has gone fairly smoothly; but it’s barely seven o’clock and Harry is desperately bored. He has half a mind to sneak out into the grounds and stir up the Whomping Willow for a bit of fun, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends, and people are still arriving - Luna and Ginny have each invited George and Lee Jordan, but there’s no sign of any of them yet. Harry sips his butterbeer and tries to pretend he doesn’t notice the gaggle of fourth years who have gathered to stare at him and whisper. He’s about to ask Hermione how long he has to stay to not be considered socially inept when he sees a peculiar expression cross her face.
“Ron, do you want to dance?” she asks, but there’s something off about it, though Harry can’t pinpoint what it is, and Ron doesn’t seem to notice.
“Certainly, my beautiful lady,” Ron says with exaggerated gallantry, setting their butterbeers on a windowsill and sweeping her into the crowd without a second glance at Harry.
He’s staring after them, nonplussed, when he hears an impossibly familiar voice behind him.
“This isn’t half as exciting as the Triwizard Tournament was,” Charlie says with a grin as Harry spins around to stare at him in astonishment, sloshing his butterbeer on his fancy shoes.
“What - how - ” Harry can’t think of any words to string together in a coherent sentence. He sets his bottle on the windowsill next to Ron’s and Hermione’s with a shaking hand and surreptitiously attempts to clean off his shoes with the wand stowed in his inner pockets. He vanishes them instead. “I’ve got to stop doing that,” he says helplessly, looking down at where his feet peek out from under his robes. Of course he’d decided to wear the mismatched red and green snitch-and-broom adorned socks that Dobby had knitted for him, in memory of having worn them to the same ball four years ago.
Charlie just laughs, and it washes over Harry like a wave breaking across his chest. Charlie is here. Harry doesn’t have to wait three more impossibly long days to see him, doesn’t have to settle for reading and re-reading his letters and closing his eyes and painting pictures of him in his mind. All he has to do is reach for him, and he’ll be solid and warm and real.
So he reaches for him. He steps forward and takes his hands and it’s everything but it’s still not enough, so Harry kisses him.
He doesn’t care that he’s in a vast room full of people who are doubtlessly all turning to stare, doesn’t care that the two of them will likely be all over the front page of the Prophet tomorrow, doesn’t care that he’s standing there shoeless for everyone to see. All he cares about is the fact that Charlie is kissing him back, that he has one hand in Harry’s hair and the other around his waist, that Charlie tastes like sweet basil and smells like pine forests and fresh air.
“What are you doing here?” Harry asks him, though it’s hard to get the words out between their kissing and smiling and breathless laughter.
“I helped with the dragons for the first task, remember? So I got an invitation like all the rest of you.”
“I’m such an idiot,” Harry says as he wraps his arms tightly around Charlie’s shoulders and hides his face in his chest. He’s not quite ready to look around them yet. “How did I not figure that out?”
“I think it turned out alright, though,” Charlie says, and Harry looks up at him, takes in the way his hair is gathered into a loose knot and his eyes are sparkling and he looks happier than Harry has ever seen him.
“I think it did,” Harry agrees, still breathless.
“Dance with me?” Charlie asks, and Harry lets himself forget that he still can’t properly waltz to save his life, and he lets Charlie sweep him off his feet as the Weird Sisters play a lively tune, his socks and his heart exposed alike.