“I swear, Ginny Weasley, you’re going to be the end of me!” Hermione dabbed her mouth in her sleeve. A small spout of beer had escaped. Ginny’s particular brand of teasing had that effect on a person.
“I’m just saying!” Ginny cackled. “Just because Butteryhaugh is full of old men, it doesn’t mean that they’re without their charms!”
“I’m not in the market for a rich old husband,” Hermione laughed.
“Good thing none of them are rich!”
“That’s the pot calling the kettle black!” Ginny downed the rest of her pint. “Another?” She tapped Hermione’s own empty glass. Hermione exhaled in resignation and Ginny bounded to the bar with glee. O’Dell braced his hands on the bar and clicked his tongue in mock disappointment.
“Ginevra! You’d have been on your fourth glass on any other night!” His cloudy eyes sparkled.
“I have to be responsible and keep my eye on that one,” Ginny said, gesturing to her sweet friend, sitting alone in the corner booth. A crash sounded and O’Dell winced. His granddaughter Eliza, a very freshly twenty-one-year-old girl, had managed to overturn a full tray of empty glasses while trying to fit through the door to the kitchen.
“I know what that’s like,” he grumbled.
“She’s trying,” Ginny said.
“She’s a bull in a China shop,” he said. “This round is on my granddaughter.” O’Dell set two new, full pints on the bar and excused himself to help clean up the mess. Behind her, a grand, rousing burst of delight broke the gentle murmur from fellow patrons. Ginny rolled her eyes.
“Can you go anywhere without fanfare?” she teased, wheeling on a bashful Charlie Weasley, who was shouldering off the friendly handshakes and back-slapping greetings from fellow drinkers. He was embarrassed by the attention every time he showed his face in the Lynx in the Larch; Ginny would be a liar if she said she didn’t enjoy watching her older brother squirm under the attentive cheers. She nodded to the corner booth, where Hermione was now having her ear chatted off by two familiar dragon tamers. Seamus and Dean could not have looked more delighted to see her, and her pink cheeks betrayed her own delight.
“Showing her a traditional Butteryhaugh evening of beer and debauchery?” Charlie laughed. “You’ll run her out of town by midnight.”
“You’re the one who brought the two biggest flirts in town!”
“ You try talking those two out of anything ,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “As soon as I let slip that she was in town, it took everything in me to convince them to at least bathe before coming. The baby got out in the process.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the bar. O’Dell reemerged from the kitchen and gave him a knowing nod.
“Sherry told me. She also said you were ‘in a mood’ after he was finally corralled.” Ginny grinned when Charlie rubbed his face in frustration.
“If the population of our little farm is now at risk because of a pretty girl--”
“She is pretty, isn’t she?” Ginny glanced at Hermione, and Charlie’s eyes followed. Hermione had piled her wild curls on top of her head and was wiping her eyes beneath her glasses, trying to stifle peals of laughter. Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can’t believe you never met her. She’s a Weasley family favorite.”
“I did meet her, at Bill and Fleur’s wedding,” he said. O’Dell slid a Guinness his way and Charlie took a deep sip.
“That doesn’t count. That’s not quality time , brother.”
Charlie narrowed his eyes at his sister. “What’s your angle?”
“No angle,” Ginny shrugged. “She’s my best mate. You’re my favorite brother--”
“Charlie!” Hermione’s lilting joy echoed across the bar as she realized he had finally made it. She waved him over and boxed Dean’s shoulder for him to move so Charlie could sit in the booth. He acquiesced, with one last warning look to Ginny.
“Don’t what?” Ginny murmured, watching the way Hermione threw her arms around Charlie’s neck the moment he sat down. She was a lightweight--but the joy was real. It always was, with Hermione. She had become a ministry star with the transfer to the Magical Astrology department, and doing what she loved finally allowed her to enjoy the free time that wasn’t occupied with research. Her effect on the people that surrounded her, as a result of her newfound joy, was obvious.
Charlie was genuinely, toothfully, smiling for once.
Several beers later, Hermione was leaning against Charlie, his arm around her shoulders, giggling at everything, while Seamus and Dean were arguing about when either of them had last had a real butterbeer. Ginny looked at her watch and then at Charlie. She nodded to the leaning witch. Charlie rubbed Hermione’s arm.
“Ginny’s going to walk you home, yeah?” he said. Hermione turned her flushed face up to beam at him dreamily. Ginny pointed at him and raised her eyebrows in question. He shook his head. Ginny shrugged and downed the last of her own beer. He slid out of the booth and helped Hermione with her coat. Her fingers didn’t agree with the large buttons on her coat, so he fastened them for her, up to her chin.
“Thanks, Char,” Hermione yawned.
“‘S all right,” he said. He jammed his hands into his pockets and stepped away. She turned back to her old school mates and exchanged pleasant ‘farewell’s’. The bell on the door tinkled.
“Ronald Weasley, as I live and breathe!” Seamus crowed.
Hermione blanched. Charlie winced. What timing Ron had, showing up when the drinking was nearly done. Seamus ran past him and guffawed with joy, an excitement that was echoed by Dean. Ginny rolled her eyes at Charlie, who gave her the tiniest nod. He turned to greet his younger brother.
“Caught the latest possible portkey, eh?” Charlie whispered as he embraced Ron. Ron shrugged.
“Gin said you’re usually out late,” he said. “Didn’t think it would matter.”
“Would’ve liked to receive you at the farm,” Charlie said. “At a reasonable hour. But you’re here now. Get yourself a pint on me.” He caught O’Dell’s eye and held up two fingers. If he had to trade Hermione’s company for Ron’s, he might as well have another, too. Ron stepped around him to greet his sister, but stopped dead at the sight of Hermione, who had, just then, grabbed Charlie’s elbow to steady herself.
“Ron!” she peeped. Her grip tightened to a vice on Charlie’s arm.
Ron gulped heavily. He said nothing. Just… stared.
“You have the worst timing, Ronald,” Ginny said, “we’re just leaving. I’ll see you back at home.”
Only then did Ron finally look at his sister. He was… green. He carded a hand through his hair, turned on his heel, and bolted for the doorway to the loo.
“What’s wrong with ‘im?” Seamus laughed.
“Probably nauseated from the journey,” Ginny said quickly. “Come on, ‘Mione.”
Hermione was staring in the direction Ron had run, but a pat on the shoulder from Ginny shook her back to earth. She released her death grip from Charlie’s arm, but used it to steady herself, sliding her fingers into his palm and giving it a squeeze. “Nice talking to you,” she said softly. “You’re fun. Sorry ‘bout getting silly. Been a while since I drank, really.”
Charlie chuckled. “You were a delight.”
“See you,” she said with a smile.
“See you,” he echoed. She released his hand. Ginny took Hermione’s elbow and lead the brunette out of the bar. The mournful tinkle of the bell on the door signaled the exit of the evening’s interest, for Charlie. He retrieved his and Ron’s pints from the bar and slid back into the booth with Seamus and Dean. Ron emerged ten minutes later, looking sweaty and worse for wear. Charlie pushed his pint across the small table. Ron drank until he coughed.
“What the hell, mate?” Dean said, clapping Ron on the back.
“You look awful,” Seamus said.
Ron glared at him and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ate some bad curry,” he grumbled.
“Can you believe Hermione’s in town? All we need is Harry and we’ll have a perfect reunion on our hands,” Seamus said gleefully, rubbing his hands together.
“Don’t think the Headmaster can be spared,” Dean said. The two friends chattered on, while Charlie regarded his youngest brother across the table. Ron was much altered from the last time Charlie had seen him; nevermind that he looked sick, he was fit and looked to be strong. Once he got over the bad curry.
“She’s not staying at the sanctuary,” Ron murmured to Charlie, more as a plea than a question. Charlie shook his head and raised an eyebrow. Ron sighed in relief. He didn’t bring Hermione up again that night, and his countenance only improved with the addition of several beers, but Charlie couldn’t help but note how disturbed Ron was by her presence in town. Weren’t they sweet on each other, once? He couldn’t remember for certain. Either way, that wasn’t a reunion of delighted friends.
Hermione’s fingers browsed the spines of the used fiction section. Dora had done a respectable job of stocking classic Muggle authors; Dickens, Hemingway, all the Bronte’s, and a healthy Jane Austen section, which rivaled her own collection. It had been sheer luck that her landlord was also the owner of this delightful little bookshop, not to mention one that was so well curated. Dora had given her express permission to borrow whatever titles struck her fancy. Today, that book was Persuasion . She clutched the little book to her chest and continued her browsing into the mysteries. The door chimed. She peeked between the stacks. She was expecting Charlie to help her with her telescope, but a different Weasley had found his way into the shop.
Hermione pressed her back to the shelves and shut her eyes. Damn. What was he doing here?
Dora’s sing-song voice greeted her new customer. “Hello, dear! What brings you in today?”
“I called earlier, about that Jane Austen book?” he said. Hermione’s eyes snapped open. She wheeled around and peeked through the books again. Dora’s face lit up.
“Ah! Persuasion ! I happen to know that we have a very gently loved copy, if you don’t mind a used book,” Dora said, pointing towards the back corner where Hermione was currently taking cover. Hermione swore silently and glared down at the book in her hands. “I’ll just show you where it is.” Hermione rushed over to the Austen shelf and tossed the book on top of the other titles, and then ducked around the corner into Dora’s office, just before Dora rounded the shelves with Ron. “Here we are!” Dora said. “It’s sitting here like it’s been waiting for you all day!”
“That’s the one,” Ron said. “Thank you.”
Hermione breathed out heavily from her hiding place. He was reading Jane Austen? She had never been able to persuade him to read Beedle the Bard when they were together, let alone her favorite author. And here he was, looking for her favorite of all Austen’s stories, at the same time she was seeking it herself. But he couldn’t even give her a “hello” in the pub? Hermione escaped up the back stairs and latched the door to her flat behind her.
She rubbed her face. Why was it so impossible to imagine that he had changed after all this time?
Charlie had been occupied the entire morning with training Ralston to administer innoculations to the adolescent dragons; Ron was supposed to help them, but he had volunteered to run an errand in town for Seamus, who was too embarrassed to do it himself. Would’ve taken much less time with Ron’s help, but he couldn’t begrudge his brother for doing a friend a favor. Still, Ralston had done a fine job. Ginny was right, she was quite capable with the young ones. If only the rest of the recruits were so capable.
Ron returned around noon with Seamus’ prize, a book that Hermione had drunkenly made Seamus promise to read. Ron had been quite well received by the Cadets at breakfast. It helped that Seamus and Dean were his schoolmates and particular friends. Polewski, Waters, and Lathrop had given him a bit of grief over his request for plain oats for breakfast, but that was the extent of the conflict. Ron had agreed to lead the afternoon drills so Charlie could do some Ministry paperwork and run into town for his evening rounds. It would be nice to have someone to pick up where he left off, Charlie thought.
Unfortunately, Charlie realized rather belatedly that he had promised to help Hermione move her telescope onto the rooftop balcony by noon. In fact, he remembered the broken engagement at two p.m, two hours after his scheduled appointment. He raced into his study and threw floo powder into the fire.
“Calling Hermione Granger!” he exclaimed. Just a moment later, her sunny face appeared in his own embers. “I am a dunderhead, Hermione, I completely forgot.”
She laughed. “I could never be mad at you,” she said. “I assumed it slipped your mind.”
“You’re not forgettable, I swear,” he said. “I was expecting help from Ron this morning but he went into town on an errand. We took longer than I anticipated. I am sorry.”
Hermione cleared her throat. “Yes, I know. He came into Dora’s shop.”
Charlie nodded once. “He was picking up a book--”
“Jane Austen,” she said quickly. “My favorite.”
“You spoke to him, then.”
“No, I--” she stopped. “Anyway, I did see him.”
“I’m coming into town this evening to help a few of Butteryhaugh’s finest with odd jobs,” he said. “I can still come by, if you like.”
“Nah, it’s fine. It’s too cloudy to do any observations tonight anyway.” She smiled at him. “Say, Charlie? Have you ever read Jane Austen?”
He coughed. “Can’t say that I have. She’s a muggle author, is she not?”
“ She is a Muggle icon ,” Hermione corrected.
“Well, then, I’m sorry that I’ve missed out,” Charlie said.
“Do you like to read?”
“I’ll bring you one of hers. I assume you’ll be going to the Lynx tonight?”
“Might do. If all goes well with our relocation tonight. Why don’t you come by for tea and see the sanctuary? If you’re not doing anything--”
“Get your big head out of my fireplace and I’ll come through,” she said with excitement. “I’ll go back to town with you when you leave to do your duties.”
“Great! Nobody’s around the farm now, though,” he said. “Just me.”
She looked… relieved, strangely. “Perfect.”
“Great.” They just smirked at one another for a moment, before Hermione abruptly ended the floo call. Charlie chuckled and stepped back. Not five minutes later, his hearth flashed with green fire and she emerged from his fireplace, book and bag in hand. She stumbled forward and he grabbed her hands.
“Hi,” she said.
Charlie couldn’t help but grin back.
Charlie lead Hermione all over the farmhouse; he was proud of the little place, which was mostly homey thanks to Ginny’s efforts. It was quaint, but Hermione said that the wee place felt cozy, and that was high praise. As she observed their pleasant sitting room, he let himself take her in. She had plaited her hair in a lovely way, curls tucked back in a four-strand twist. Baby curls tickled her temples and cheeks. Her hair was curlier than his, but just as thick. He had left it un-tied and he felt like a scraggly hobo next to her. He tucked it behind his ears absent-mindedly. Movement caught his peripheral vision and he turned to see it’s origin… only to catch his own eye in the large, antique mirror.
He scoffed softly. Hermione heard him and turned.
“Sorry! I’m caught up in your library,” she said bashfully.
“No, no, I’m unbothered,” he said, smiling. “Take your time.” She fished in her bag for the book she had brought for him.
“I didn’t know which one you would like, so I went with a safer choice,” she said, handing over her worn copy of Sense and Sensibility . It was warm from her hands. Charlie knew what her hands felt like in his, and he suddenly felt jealous of every book she had ever held.
“Thank you,” he said. “I will give you a full report of my enjoyment.”
“You don’t have to like it.”
“I’m sure I will.” He tucked the book under his arm and tried to ignore the sensation of seeing himself in the mirror out of the corner of his eye. He looked uncomfortable.
“Charlie?” Ginny’s voice called from downstairs. “Are you here?”
“We’re upstairs, Gin!” he called. Her footsteps sounded up the stairs.
“Who’s we?” she asked as she rounded the doorway into the sitting room. Her face lit up at the sight of Hermione. “Only the best ‘we’ that could have appeared!” She hugged Hermione.
“Hi,” Hermione giggled. “I could really use a cuppa.”
“Now that I can provide!” Ginny took her elbow and the dear friends spoke softly, voices trailing down the stairs. Charlie let out the breath that he had been holding since Hermione had come through the fireplace.
The friends reconvened with Charlie in the kitchen. Hermione looked up at him brightly and then narrowed her eyes at him as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Headache.
“Did you ever use that salve I gave you?” Hermione asked.
In truth, he hadn’t. It was still in the pocket of the shirt he had been wearing. “Nothing really helps,” he said, sitting across the table from her.
“What causes your headaches?”
Charlie glanced at Ginny, who just raised her eyebrows at him. Nobody ever asked him about it. Nobody ever broached the topic of his well-being in general, except for Ginny. Most people who brought the scar up to him did so in order to ridicule.
He cleared his throat. “The culprit seems to be related to my scar,” Charlie said softly. “Or the spell that I caused it, more specifically.”
“What was it? I have a feeling if it’s just radiant pain then it could potentially go away once you’re healed fully--”
“I don’t know,” he said quickly. “Hence my bewilderment as to a treatment.” The panic was rising in his chest--panic that usually turned to anger before too long. He tried to push it down. She meant well, she really did.
“Would you try the salve, anyway?” Hermione asked. “It might help! You never know.”
He hit his hand on the tabletop. Hermione and Ginny both jumped. He closed his fist and stared down at the floor. “I have done everything I can,” he breathed. “I have tried everything. ”
Hermione leaned forward and put her hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry. I was out of line, Charlie, I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t know what’s best for you, or--”
“The gesture was well-meant.” He smiled sadly, patting her hand. The grandfather clock chimed. “I’m late. Ginny, you’ll help Hermione back to town, won’t you?” Charlie stood and strode out the door without a second look back. The front door shut just a bit too hard. Hermione winced and stared into her tea.
Ginny groaned. “He’s thankful. I swear.”
“Doesn’t seem like it,” Hermione said. “I insulted him.”
Ginny narrowed her eyes. “Do you know how many people try to… make him “comfortable” about his scar? It’s horrid to watch. They overcompensate. They look him dead in the eye, unblinking, as if daring him to feel self-conscious. It is perfectly normal to see him and be viscerally affected. He’s not an idiot, Hermione. He knows what it’s like to catch his image out of the corner of your eye. He is the one who sees that scar in the mirror every morning.”
Hermione threw her hands up. “I just don’t want him to think that I think he needs to fix it… in order for me to look at him. Because he’s not bad to look at. I mean, it’s not hard, looking at him. But if he’s still in pain...”
Ginny smirked. “He’s always been handsome and a scar doesn’t change that. But he has seen every specialist on magical scarring and pain management that exists in England. He’s even seen a few Muggle doctors. He just muscles through it, like he does everything else.”
“So… you don’t think he was insulted.”
“Who knows?” Ginny took a long, slow slurp of her coffee. “I hope he does use it, though. Your salve might work, might not. But it will most certainly give him a different way to look at his face every day. Between you and me? His confidence is in the shitter. Thinks he’s not worth spitting on, let alone being given a gift.”
“He’s a human being!” Hermione scoffed. “He shouldn’t have to feel that way!”
“No, he shouldn’t.” Ginny agreed, crossing her arms and considering Hermione, who was sitting across the table with her fists clenched and her teeth on edge. “We nearly lost him.”
“How bad was it?” Hermione peeped.
Ginny trailed her fingertip from her own forehead, across her nose, down her neck and sternum, and stopping beneath her right breast. “Could’ve cleaved him in half. Still looks like it might. Bad as it looks now, it’s nothing compared to what he looked like in hospital.”
“And it never bothers you ?”
“Me?” Ginny scoffed. “Please. I have one brother lacking an ear, one with a scar from top to belly button, one of them is a Gods-be-damned werewolf, and all of them with freckles and ginger hair to spare. They all blend together after a while. Charlie’s just the nicest, stubbornest, least egotistical of them all. He’s a bastard when he’s hungover, and self conscious to a fault, but besides that. He’s tops.” Ginny reached over and touched her friend’s arm. “Thank you for being so considerate. I’m afraid I won’t be able to shed much light on his feelings. I’m not attracted to him. That would be weird. But if you care about his feelings, you could always ask him.”
“I’m not attracted to him!” Hermione blanched. “Not that he’s unattractive, I’m just not… I didn’t mean the gift to be… he and I are friends, we’re friends.”
“You’re friends,” Ginny agreed with a smirk.
“As I said. Just friends.”
“You mentioned that,” Ginny laughed. “Nevermind that you’re perma-grin when he’s around.”
Hermione blushed deeply but she shook her head. “I barely know him.”
“That’s never stopped you fancying someone before.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll leave it alone.”
“Good.” Hermione crossed her arms and sat back in her chair with a gravely serious look. Ginny couldn’t help but grin, which made Hermione smile against her will. “You would drive Emma Woodhouse to distraction! He’s your brother , for Pete’s sake.”
“You have a type,” Ginny said with glee.
“Speaking of which… nearly ran into Ron today in Dora’s shop,” she said in exasperation.
“Why is it so awkward between you two?” Ginny asked. “I thought you broke up amicably.”
“We did. Last time we saw each other, we were cordial. Congenial, even.” Hermione stared down at her hands. “But he sent me a weird letter about a year ago, asked me not to speak to him anymore, that it was best for both of us. I tried to write him back, but all my letters were returned.”
Ginny sighed. “Do you want me to talk to him?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione cried. “Obviously he doesn’t want to speak to me. And we don’t need to be friends, only--only it’s just so uncomfortable! This town isn’t big enough for the two of us. He doesn’t even look like he did before. He’s so different, I would hardly know him if we met by chance.”
“What do you mean?” Ginny asked.
“He’s so severe,” Hermione said. “He’s all… conditioned to be a tamer, and all that. He’s not the scrawny clown I survived the war with. But then again, he picked up my favorite book in Dora’s shop today. I couldn’t get him to use Austen to wipe his bum back then, let alone read it .”
“Maybe he’s matured.”
Hermione and Ginny sat silently then; Hermione lost in thought and cup of tea forgotten, and Ginny trying to decide from which side of the family her brothers had inherited a streak of cowardice.