After the war, Charlie Weasley finds himself with a decision on his hands. Once the wild air of celebration wears off, there is so much loss and grief, and it is so tempting to run back to Romania and distance himself from it, to pick up where he left off and pretend everything is normal. But as he thinks about it, the less he can picture himself slipping seamlessly back into his old life. So much has changed. He has changed.
There is Mum to think of, too. Despite her burst of strength during the battle, it soon becomes apparent that Fred's loss is taking a major toll on her. It is a boggart made real. She wants Charlie to stay, though she won't say it in so many words. She knows her second son too well, knows his wanderlust and need for space. The Hebrides are a compromise; close enough to home that he can visit quickly, far enough away that he is not suffocating at the Burrow. The MacFusty clan is glad to take him on; the Hebridean Blacks are a handful, and an experienced dragon handler is always appreciated. Molly sends Charlie off with a tearful goodbye and he promises he will visit often, but his heart is already with the dragons, his soul is already moving.
He finds he likes his new post, however. The dragons are fierce, aggressive, spread out among the islands; the Blacks are notoriously territorial, and a hundred miles separates each one. They come together only to mate. Charlie is paired with a young female, and he spends his days largely tending her wounds, gained fighting off the the males that continually try to dominate her. The MacFustys worry that she won't breed, but Charlie suspects she is simply being choosy. He tells Colum MacFusty to give her time. She will find the one she wants to father her offspring.
Life takes on a pattern- days with the young dragon, nights back at the reserve. It's not so different from Romania, other than the landscape. Charlie learns to curse in Gaelic, he eats porridge for breakfast in the morning, and wild Romanian girls are replaced by wild Scots lasses. It is comfortable. It is where he fits.
One day, a guest arrives. She is neither Scots nor a MacFusty, which is unusual enough. She is there, she says, because she is writing an updated text on dragons. Charlie remembers the books he had to study from, written sometime in the last century, and finds that on the whole he thinks this is a good thing. Colum introduces them at dinner; her name is Penelope Clearwater, and she looks vaguely familiar, but for Charlie this is the case with most women. In any event, she is tall and lanky, with dark curls tumbling around her shoulders and stormy gray eyes, and on the whole is rather pretty. Charlie says something carelessly flirtatious, and she throws her head back with a rich laugh that surprises him.
"You don't remember me at all, do you?" she asks.
He doesn't have the grace to be shamed, only to hope that he's not slept with her before and forgotten.
"I dated your brother, Percy," she goes on, and thankfully her expression is amused, not offended. "And we were at school together for four years, though I was probably too young for you take notice. I used to watch you play Quidditch. That Sloth-Grip Roll you used against Ravenclaw in your last match... well, I'll say you earned Gryffindor the cup, certainly."
Charlie is a little surprised that anyone intimately involved with Percy has any idea what a Sloth-Grip Roll is, but the remark sets him at ease. It turns out this is a positive, because Colum would like Penelope to start her research by observing the mating habits of the dragons, which means she will be spending a good deal of time with Charlie and his female.
At first he grumbles, but he quickly discovers that Penelope is barely any intrusion; she spends her time in quiet observation, her quill notating just about everything, only pausing every so often to ask a question. Her questions are thoughtful, relevant- she must have done quite a bit of study prior to her arrival at the reserve, he realizes- and Charlie actually enjoys answering them. For the most part, though, their days pass in companionable silence, and Charlie grows used to her presence. It is not until he finds himself staring intently at the curve of her neck one day that he realizes he wants her.
She turns out to be a challenge. He begins the usual Charlie campaign of teasing and casual touches and charm, but it's wasted on Penelope. She'd seen too much at Hogwarts, perhaps, or heard too much from Percy. Whatever the reason, she seems immune to him; his dallying with various local girls only draws amusement from her, his teasing is met with rebuff disguised as banter. The female Black finally mates, but this is a violent event that is no help to Charlie's cause, and all it signifies is that Penelope moves on to a different area of observation, giving him less opportunity to win her to his bed. He still likes her, still wants her, and he seeks her out after meals. They become friends, if nothing else.
The female Black clutches, building a nest and shooting fire at all who come near. Charlie risks her flames daily, checking the eggs, checking the mother-to-be. He earns some new burn scars, but all is well. Penelope checks in occasionally, but there is not much to see until the babies are born. The incubation period keeps him busy, and it seems as if no time at all has passed before the hatching day arrives. After much toil and flame and roaring, three new dragonets have joined the flock. They will stay with their dam until maturity, when the territoriality and aggression that is characteristic of the breed will assert itself, and then they will fly off to claim their own part of the Hebrides. Right now, their live birth is cause for celebration on the reserve, and Colum MacFusty knows how to throw a party.
There are copious amounts of firewhiskey to complement the raucous Scottish music. Charlie dances; he is jubilant, and he grabs Penelope by the hand and makes her dance with him. In some ways, she was very much a part of this. He twirls her around, his feet are lively in time with the music, and his wide smile is met by one from her, her eyes twinkling, reflecting the festive fairy lights. The song ends, and a loud cheer goes up, and before he can think about what he is doing, Charlie kisses her, with little finesse, with much enthusiasm. He breaks off, and he starts to apologize because he has accepted they are meant to be colleagues and friends, but her hands pull his face back to hers, and he kisses her again.
He does not know if it is the firewhiskey or the dancing or the general high mood that has brought this about, but he does not look a gift-horse in the mouth. He takes Penelope's hand, tugging her back to his quarters, and she comes along, laughing. As they fall into his bed, he tells himself this doesn't matter. She is just a girl, like any other. The shag is good, though. Penelope is a woman who knows what she likes, and she shows him, again and again; he does the same, and is rewarded by her unabashedly vocal displays of pleasure. It finishes with a yell, and him collapsing beside her, raining kisses on her face. Through it all, she laughs, and he suspects that she wanted this as badly as him all along. They fall asleep wrapped around each other, sweaty limbs tangled together, but when he wakes in the morning, he is alone.
It becomes a regular thing for them to sneak off together after the evening meal. Charlie tries to be discreet, but he is subjected to knowing looks from various members of the MacFusty clan. It's not as though his reputation doesn't precede him, and it's not as though he minds, really. Only that Penelope is such a respectable sort, and he wants to be respectful. He wants to keep shagging her silly on a fairly regular basis. What they have is easy, not serious at all, and he enjoys it immensely. They fall asleep together often, but they never wake together, and that is a relief. That would be too much like commitment, and that is something Charlie has always shied away from. The fact that she has become the only woman in his bed means nothing, only that he prefers her. This is what he tells himself.
So he's surprised by his reaction when she tells him she's done with her research in the Hebrides, that it is time to move on to Wales and observe the Greens there. He doesn't want her to go, but he knows it would be far beyond the boundaries they have set to voice that, so he says nothing. Their last shag is intense; it is like he is memorizing her, and he doesn't want to think too hard about why. He watches her leave, watches her hug the MacFustys and the other dragon handlers. He tells her he will see her around. He tries to put her from his mind.
And life goes on. Time passes, more dragons are born, others die, fighting to the death for territory. Charlie's life returns to what it was, and if he thinks of Penelope with a pang every so often, it is not important. There are dragons to tend to, and plenty of girls to distract him. Slowly, his time with Penelope becomes just another memory of his past, no different than Romania or the battle or any number of things. He will never change much; this is who he is, and he likes it. He is not Bill, to settle down and make loads of babies. He is not Percy, content with staidness and sameness and structure. He is not Ron, locking himself to one girl at a ridiculously young age. He can only be Charlie, and he is very good at that.
In the fall, Charlie receives a owl. The winged creature drops off a rather fancy envelope, and inside is what can only be termed an engraved invitation. Inwardly, he sighs and blusters. Ron is too damned young. But he knows no one wants the opinion of a womanizing bachelor, so he sends back his acceptance and asks the MacFustys for the time off.
When he arrives home for the wedding, he finds himself the subject of his mum's usual ministrations. Haircut. Shave. Manicure. His clothes washed even though he washed them before setting out. He is shoved into formal robes and told he will serve as usher, since he does not have a date. Charlie, affable as always, rolls with these punches. No one sees anything other than a smile, a jovial wink, a clap on the back. Ron is an anxious mess, fretting over this detail or that. Charlie helps keep him calm, keep him sane. Never mind that he would be terrified if it were him. Ron and Hermione are special. He still thinks they are too young, but he keeps this to himself. Ron is happy, underneath the palpable tension that swirls around him. The marriage doesn't frighten his younger brother, only the wedding. Ron wants it to be perfect for Hermione. Charlie makes a point to take him out the night before, crawling from pub to pub, a last taste of the single life. But all Ron can talk about is his Hermione, and Charlie goes to bed feeling a little empty.
The morning of the wedding dawns bright and clear. It's similar to Bill and Fleur's wedding, only without the impending threat of attack by Death Eaters. Charlie is stationed outside the gate, showing people to their seats. It is easy work, and allows him to say hullo to everyone he might be obligated to, and he doesn't mind it. He is grinning and seeing Aunt Muriel seated when a couple arrives at the gate. Glad for an opportunity to excuse himself, Charlie kisses Aunt Muriel's cheek and hustles over to see to the new arrivals. At the gate, however, he draws up short. It is Penelope, and she is on the arm of his brother Percy.
She's laughing, and then she's turning to him to ask how he is. She's so close he can smell her perfume, and suddenly, for a second, he is back in the Hebrides, and she is lying naked in his arms. The memories, so easily put away, are now quite close to the surface- the curl of her body against his, the way her wild hair fanned over his pillow, the feel of her breath hot and frantic against his neck.
Charlie's smile only falters for a second, and then it is back in force. He claps Percy on the back and says his how-d'you-do's, and perhaps his gait is a little stiff as he shows them to their seats, but his smile never wavers again. He smiles so hard, in fact, that his cheeks hurt a bit when it is finally time for him to take his own seat. His mind wanders as Ron and Hermione vow their love to one another. He tries to understand why Penelope's arrival with Percy feels like a sucker punch to his gut, why his blood is boiling and his stomach is in ropes. He is barely paying attention as Harry hands over the rings, as Ron kisses his wife for the first time; he is almost completely focused on the jealous fire that burns inside of him, hardly comprehending why he even feels that way.
Finally the boring bit is over and the party starts. Charlie stands on the outskirts, a glass of firewhiskey in his hand, watching people dance and smile. He watches Penelope dance and smile, with Percy, and with Ron, and with a git he vaguely remembers being in Percy's year at school. Finally the dancing takes her near him, and he grabs her by the elbow, steering her away from the dance floor with a steely smile at the bloke whose name he can't quite recall. He notes with satisfaction that the fellow has a spot on his chin, even as he's tugging Penelope in the direction of the shed.
"Why are you here with Percy?" he demands, roughly and without preamble.
Penelope's eyes go wide, before something like resolves settles in her face. "Because he invited me."
"Oh, well, that makes it all clear then, doesn't it?" Charlie knows her answer makes perfect sense, but for some reason it only stokes the sharp discontent he has been feeling since the two of them had turned up.
"I hadn't heard anything from you in months, Charlie." Her mouth is set in a firm line, and the remark only seems like a non-sequitur; Charlie knows it is an explanation.
"I hadn't heard from you, either," he says pointedly, though he knows he gave every impression of wanting it that way. He feels confused, contrary, and surly, all things that are so unlike him that they only add to the confusion.
"Well, then," Penelope begins, her eyes brightening in a mischievous way, but that is as far as she gets, because Charlie cannot take how he is feeling any longer, and one thing is clear, one thing he understands- he wants her, and now. His mouth slams against hers, their teeth clacking together, and he clutches her close, not caring at this moment if anyone sees.
Everything from there on out is frantic; he pushes her up against the back wall of the shed, and her legs wrap around his waist, their mouths meeting in a frenzy. He hikes up her dress robes even as she's fumbling with the zip of his trousers, and it is not long before he is inside of her, exactly where he wants to be. It is over all too quickly; he has been starving for her, although he's just now realized it. They finish, breathless, Charlie still clutching Penelope against him desperately, his sweaty forehead pressed to her neck, where her curls have come loose to tickle his nose and mouth. He does not want to let go, but he knows he must, and he wills his hands to release her, to set her back on her feet. Silently, they rearrange their clothing, giving Charlie a moment to attempt to find his equilibrium. He cannot believe he has just done this, at Ron's wedding, with Percy's date. Who is he?
He spins on his heel and walks away, leaving Penelope to fend for herself.
Charlie cuts through the party, through the Burrow, up to what was once the room he shared with Bill. The muted sounds of celebration reach up through the floorboards, through the windows, but they can't quite touch him. He paces. He opens his journal and stares at the blank pages. He holds his head in his hands and prays to gods he doesn't even believe in for an answer. Everything he knows about himself seems to be a lie. Finally it occurs to him that perhaps Penelope is the answer.
He goes down to look for her, but she is gone.
The next day, things seem so much more clear, but his sorrow is that much sharper for it. Now he knows what he is missing, and what he has lost. He covers it well, or so he thinks, grinning, laughing- same old Charlie. But Bill knows him too well, knows the difference between what is on his face and what is in his eyes, what is in his head and what is in his heart. He takes Charlie aside.
"To the pub with you," Bill declares, his easy smile not quite masking the big-brotherly concern in his voice. "We'll grieve the reduction in the world's number of bachelors together."
Charlie opens his mouth to protest, perhaps to say that Bill is no longer a bachelor himself, but he shuts it with a snap and nods. He has an inkling of what this is really about.
Sure enough, at the Leaky Cauldron, Bill pulls the truth from his younger brother. Though Charlie has been telling himself over and over that this is nothing and he will soon get over it, he finds himself telling Bill the tale from start to finish. Bill nods sagely and pushes a fifth pint in Charlie's direction as he finishes with his bastard behavior at the wedding.
"Seems to me you're smitten." Bill says this matter of factly, and Charlie's head is so muddled with drink that he simply gapes at his older brother.
Bill looks at him almost gently, then grins in that utterly Bill way, going on, "When I first fell for Fleur, I simply thought I'd gone completely mental. Who obsesses over the exact shade of blond in a girl's hair? It wasn't until she heaved a sack of sickles upside my head and told me I was a stupid man, and that I was lucky I was English because we didn't have enough words to describe what a prat I was, and then proceeded to curse me up one side and down the other in French- which we both know I understand, by the by- that I realized I was head over heels for her and had to make her my wife if it was the last thing I did."
Charlie shakes his head vehemently- he and Penelope are not like that. But even in his intoxicated state, he knows this to be a lie, to Bill, to himself. She is not just some fling he got stuck on. She is more. She will always be more. He quaffs his ale and stares into the empty mug morosely.
"It doesn't matter. I've cocked it up completely. And even if I haven't, Percy might have something to say about it."
Bill snorts. "Percy is more in love with the Out box on his desk than he is with Penelope Clearwater. He only asked her to come to the wedding with him because she's the only female he's on a first name basis with that he's not related to, the mad workaholic." At Charlie's questioning look, Bill explains, "I asked him, Chas. You think I didn't notice you sneaking off with Penelope at the reception?"
Charlie feels his cheeks flame, but nods. "Well, even so. Cocked up. Utterly. So that's that, then." He signals to the barkeep for another pint.
It's Bill's turn to shake his head. "Never figured you for a quitter." Bill slides his galleons across the bar and stands. "Running to the loo. Then we're going back to the Burrow so you can sober up and hopefully come to your senses before it really is too late."
Back at the Burrow, Charlie attempts to sleep it off, but he cannot fall asleep, instead lying there, staring at the ceiling, replaying everything that's happened since he met Penelope in his head. Finally he gives up. In his journal, he's written the direction of Penelope's London flat, the one she uses when she's not traveling and researching. He never used it to owl, as she'd reminded him, but he finds the page it's scrawled on so very easily. He's in no shape to Apparate, so he floos back to the Leaky, not caring that everyone stares as he stumbles out of the fireplace. What does it matter what he looks like when his world is falling down around him? He walks as best as he can manage, the street lights highlighting every step he takes towards nothing ever being the same. He just has to see her, even if it breaks him in two.
Penelope's flat is on the second floor of a townhouse that's been converted into smaller residences. It's a Muggle building, and Charlie immediately looks around, finding the street empty, to his relief. He pats himself down; despite the six pints of ale, nothing is splinched, which is also a relief. He locates her door, but it is locked, and as he's raising his fist to pound on the door, he thinks the better of it. It is three in the morning after all, and waking her out of a sound sleep will not score him any points. There is also, in the back of his mind, the fear that perhaps she is not alone, and he does not want to be greeted by a handsome stranger, not in the state he's in. So he settles himself in her doorway and, bundling his cloak up so he can lay his head comfortably against the door frame, he kips down there.
This is the sight that greets Penelope in the morning, when she goes to fetch her morning paper: Charlie, spread across her doorway, smelling faintly of ale, his hair falling into his eyes, his clothes rumpled, a thin line of drool snaking from the corner of his mouth onto the collar of his shirt.
She shakes him gently by the shoulder to wake him, then helps him to his feet. After settling him onto her couch, she makes coffee, which Charlie accepts gratefully. His head is pounding and he feels completely foolish. But she sits beside him with her own mug of coffee, not saying anything for a very long time. The silence should be awkward but it feels companionable, and slowly Charlie's shoulders unwind from their tense posture. He smiles ruefully into his coffee cup and thinks that his grand romantic gesture has gone completely amiss, and somehow that has worked for the best. He and Penelope have never been about grand romance; companionable cups of coffee are grand enough.
"Penny..." he begins, but she puts a finger over her lips to hush him.
"Finally came to your senses, did you?" There is no bite in her words; she has known what she was dealing with all along.
He can't speak- he simply looks at her, feeling like a prat. His hand reaches for hers, squeezing, and she squeezes back.
"Go take a shower," she says gently. "I'll be here when you get done."
The hot water soothes him back to something approximating human again. The only soap is of course Penelope's, but since she favors citrusy scents, it's not so bad. Charlie doesn't mind smelling like her. Her towels are lavender, however, and he's snorting at himself in the steamy mirror as he winds one around himself. He steps into her bedroom to discover she's taken his clothes off for washing up, which is probably a good idea since they smelt of drink and night sweat and were wrinkled beyond belief. But it leaves him with nothing to wear but the fluffy light purple towel, and he stands by the foot of her bed, unsure what to do with himself.
Penelope enters the room, her hand covering her mouth to hide her amusement. He makes a face, and she comes over to him, tucking his damp hair behind his ear affectionately.
"You look charming," she says with a giggle.
"I rather think this towel clashes with my hair," he replies, lifting a self-deprecating brow.
"So take it off." Her smile is still in place but her gray eyes darken. Charlie feels an answering bolt of lust, but he leaves the towel in place.
"I love you," he says, wanting that to be the most important part of this moment, because it is, for him. "Madly and completely and I've been such an arse and I'm sorry."
"You are an arse," Penelope agrees, and he worries for a moment before she goes on. "But I love you, too."
The feeling that floods him just then is indescribable, more than he has ever felt before, he thinks. Joy and relief and desire and so, so much love. Something like that.
"Now can we lose the towel?" Penelope asks archly.
"Oh yeah," Charlie answers, which is a good answer, because her hands are already trailing down his belly and pulling the towel free from his hips.
He picks her up, swinging her to the bed. She's got him at a disadvantage, clothes-wise, but he's quick to even that up, tugging her pyjama bottoms off in one movement, her camisole in another. There is nothing beneath. He realises with a start that he has never seen her in her pyjamas before. He hopes this is first time of many, though he takes little enough time to dwell on that, because there is Penelope beneath him, and she is naked and lovely and familiar and exciting all at once. His kisses her, swift and fierce, and it is met with such passion that he nearly loses his mind.
Her hands don't stop moving, roaming freely over the planes of his back, the curve of his arse, the hard muscles of his thighs. He's equally ravenous for her. He had her only the day before last, but he doesn't think that counts, no, that was so hard and angry and this is anything but. His mouth travels, following his hands- the curve of her neck, the swell of her breast, the soft flesh of her belly, the musky heat of her inner thigh. It is more intense than it has ever been between them, and is just how he wants it. Finally he cannot bear it any longer, and he nudges her thighs apart with his knees, and then he is inside her. It is bliss. He is home.
She rolls him over with a push of her hips, and he takes a moment to look up at her. She is so very beautiful, her face lost in pleasure, her hair a corona around her head and spilling over her shoulders, tendrils brushing her breasts, which are flushed like the rest of her. He wants to see her like this for as long as he can manage, both now and in the more general sense. For the first time, such thoughts don't scare him. His hips rise to meet hers, and he tugs her down for another searching kiss, reiterating his earlier confession without words.
After, she lies curved around him, her head pillowed against his shoulder. His fingers stroke through her curls; he is sated and content and happier than he could've imagined. He can't help asking her, though, the question which has run through his mind repeatedly since Bill made him realize how he feels about Penelope.
"Did you think we'd be here, now, when you met me at the reserve?"
"No," she answers, a note of surprise in her voice. "I knew your reputation. I just wanted you anyway."
"Are you happy?" he wonders. "That this is where it's ended up, I mean."
"Yes." The answer is simple enough.
"I am, too," he says, and there is a note of surprise in his voice, as well. While he'd never envisioned himself anything other than a bachelor to the end of his days, now he cannot envision himself anywhere other than where he is right at this moment.
A tapping at the window ends the discussion, however. Charlie recognizes Bill's owl, and he wraps the coverlet around himself and goes to the window to take the folded parchment from her talons. He opens the note, then laughs aloud.
"What does it say?" Penelope asks, pushing herself up on one elbow in a way that renders her utterly delicious, and Charlie briefly considers telling Bill to sod off and pouncing upon Penelope again.
"It says 'Come home for breakfast. Mum says Penny is invited as well,'" he reads, laughing again.
"Oh my." Now Penelope is laughing along with him. "I suppose we'd better, then."
So they do, although Charlie points out that they need to kill time while his clothes dry. And they do that, as well.