There are some moments in life that you never forget.
Like everyone else's, Charlie's moments are mixture of good and bad. He's lucky, with all he's seen, that the good ones usually win out, but he helps it along, tries extra hard to capture those moments forever in his mind. Holding his nephews and nieces for the first time. Ginny's beaming 'I do'. Watching the first baby dragon he bottle-fed make it into the sky on shaky wings. The moment he knew the final battle was won. Those and many more besides, are memories he summons up when the darkness crowds in too close.
There are more than enough moments he'd prefer to forget lurking in that darkness. The first Death Eater that fell before his wand. The Auror that bled out under his hands, despite his best efforts.
And those are just the ones he can bear to think about. Old wounds. They're healed, if sometimes still tender.
Some are a combination of both, like Bill's wedding. Glad to see him content, settled. Sad that it had to be with someone else, even if they'd agreed it a long time ago.
Neither of them had been able to keep him, or to keep him safe, though, had they? He wishes he could resent Fleur for moving on, but he can't. It's been six years since Bill walked out of Gringott's dingy Aqaba office and disappeared, and if she has a little brightness back in her life, he's glad for her.
One day, he thinks, maybe it will happen for him too. If he stops blaming himself, stops wishing he hadn't made the decisions he had. But he's not going to hold his breath.
Then, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday morning in May, an owl drops a perfectly ordinary-looking envelope onto his kitchen table.
He takes a gulp of his tea, finishes off his slice of toast. Wishes he'd laced his boots up properly when one of the local strays that likes to slink around at meal times takes a fancy to the dangling string.
Walking over to his bed, with the scrawny tabby still chasing the laces, he kicks off his boots and breaks the seal on the envelope. There's only a scrap of torn notepad inside. The handwriting is Ginny's careless crawl, and the paper warped; from wet hands or tears, who knows.
It doesn't matter.
He's come home.
And just like that, the colour rushes back into his world.
It's a miracle he doesn't end up splattered all over the countryside, because he can't even say where his thoughts are focused when he Apparates to the Burrow.
For the first time he can remember in his life, nobody is home when he steps inside. There's unfamiliar gear scattered on the beds and the floor in what will always be 'their' room, and Charlie has a moment where he's afraid he won't know his brother, won't recognise the man he is now. The note still scrunched in his fist only said he was alive, after all. It didn't make any promises about whole, or healthy, or happy.
He picks up a long cotton scarf from the tangle of clothes and wraps it around his hand, brings it up to his face. It's rumpled, but soft, and it doesn't smell like Bill, just like somewhere or something far away. The room though, doesn't need to smell of anything. Bill, and Bill-and-Charlie is soaked into the very wood of the floorboards, knitted into the blankets on the beds. It's in the toy dragons still lined up along the window sill, the honeysuckle still trying to wheedle its way in between the cracks. It's in the notches in the door frame where they fought to keep the other in or out, laughing and teasing, and in the beds, where they learned everything they were never supposed to know about each other, in between school and Quidditch and running wild through meadows filled with poppies.
It's still early, the sunlight bright through the narrow windows, slanting dustily across the floorboards and the shabby bedspread.
Charlie sits, and tips his face up into the ray. It feels like the warmth of his big brother's smile.
”Come on,” Bill laughs, pulling Charlie up from where he lies sprawled on Bill's bed. “Quidditch shootout, you get the brooms and I'll meet you by the pond.”
Charlie groans, and uses his momentum to back Bill against the wall. His head slides sideways on the shiny surface of the Harpies poster tacked up there, and Charlie stretches up to nip at his ear.
“I can think of more fun ways to get hot and sweaty,” Charlie murmurs, and reaches out a hand to knock the door shut. Bill's fingers are already up his t-shirt, spreading over his ribs, nails dragging over the skin in just the way Charlie likes.
Bill's head falls back, and Charlie nuzzles at his throat, needing more. “I don't think we—” Bill gasps, his hips jerking at a scrape of teeth over his jaw. “Mum's only gone down to the orchard, and everyone's—”
Charlie thinks that sticking his hand down Bill's shorts is the best way to demonstrate his utter lack of interest in what anyone else is doing, and from the way Bill kisses him, hard and hungry, pushing his dick into Charlie's tight grasp, he's pretty sure Bill's reached that place too.
It's still new, the way they do this. The way they don't pretend it isn't happening, like the years Charlie crept into bed beside Bill; all the times they woke up with sticky pyjamas, and sometimes went to sleep that way too.
“My turn,” Charlie says, when Bill comes all over his hand. He strips his own shorts off, wipes his hand, and flops back down on Bill's bed, leaning back on his elbows. He used to hate the whiteness of his belly and thighs, the ridiculous pinkness of his dick, the way he never seems to grow as fast as Bill or even Percy, who looms over him already. But Bill rubs his cheek over that pale skin like it's the most perfect thing in his world, and slides his lips over Charlie's dick like it's better than strawberry ice cream.
Charlie doesn't know if anyone else will feel like that about him, but biting his lip and clenching his fists in the bright patterned bedspread, it's enough for him that one person does.
He's not sure how long he sits there, but when a shadow falls over him it's the last person he expects to see.
She's still beautiful, Fleur. Maybe more beautiful than ever; not softer, like a mother figure in a story would be, but sharp still, and a little scary. She might be married to someone else now, but she has the spirit of a true Weasley matriarch in a way that Hermione, even though they love her for herself, will never have.
“We are all at 'arry and Ginny's,” she says, and Charlie only realises that he's half hard in his jeans when he sees her eyebrows lift. “But per'aps you need a moment before you join us?”
She's drinking tea from one of the few delicate china cups that normally cower behind the row of mugs in the cupboard when he emerges. There's a pot on the table, but she doesn't offer to pour him one.
“'E told me,” she says abruptly, and Charlie knows what she's saying even as he can hardly believe it, because when you have secrets you always know when you've been caught out.
“I don't—” he tries, because maybe he's just paranoid; that's what secrets do to you. “What do you—”
“Before 'e left on that last trip,” she says, and she's calm, but he can still hear a trace of bitterness in her voice. “'E told me that 'e loved both of us, but you 'ad both decided 'e should be with me. And that 'e 'ad—”
Charlie can hear his heart pounding, feel its thump echo in his head. There's a rushing sensation in his ears, like the air in the room is being sucked out around him, leaving him gasping.
“I told 'im,” she says, and she sounds defiant, as if Charlie is going to blame her. Whatever it is, he's pretty sure the lion's share of the blame is staying with him. “I told 'im zat we could try, if 'e still wanted to make it work. If 'e wanted a family more. But if 'e could not be sure 'e would keep 'is vows, then 'e should not come back.”
“So you're off for a long weekend with your boyfriend while I'm sweating it out in Jordan?” Bill says, and the lightness of his tone annoys Charlie even though it shouldn't.
”He's not my boyfriend,” he says, and then he's even more annoyed with himself, because he he never usually gets irritated with Bill, of all people. “He's a friend; a colleague, really.” And he should never have introduced them either, but Bill said he wanted to meet everyone while he was visiting the reserve.
“Who invites you to his sister's wedding?” Bill's face is sceptical, but he's smiling, faintly. “Look, it's okay—”
“I know it's okay!” For god's sake, he was Bill's best man, wasn't he? Bill wasn't the only one who could, theoretically, make a relationship with someone else work. “But it's not what it is. It's not what I want.”
“With Paolo?” Bill asks, taking a step closer.
Charlie backs off then, under cover of fetching them a couple of glasses. He pours them both a drink, and takes a long swallow from his glass before he looks at Bill again. “With anyone,” Charlie says, shrugging awkwardly. “Not yet. Maybe not ever, I don't know.”
Bill's sympathetic face is more than he can take. Or maybe it's just sad, he can't tell any more. “I have a full life with my work,” Charlie says, and he means it. “Other things can just take a back seat for a while, okay?”
Bill's quiet for a long while, swirling the whisky in his glass round and round, not drinking any of it.
“I just—” he says, eventually. “I want to see you settled too. Happy.” And maybe there's a touch of guilt there, but it's stupid because they both made this decision, and they've lived with it for years already.
“Yeah, well,” Charlie says, draining his glass. He'll blame that later for what he says next. “We all want things we can't have.”
Bill's kisses are as demanding as they ever were, more so with the force of a fully grown man behind them. Charlie never did have any power to resist them, not that he feels inclined to tonight, with the party still going on outside, the music drifting through the half-open window with the faint trace of smoke from the bonfire. He feels restless, reckless, like he can have this just one more time and it wouldn't make any difference to their plan, their agreement.
He's been here before, and it's always him who says “We can't,” or “We shouldn't,” or “Bill,” in a broken, needy voice. It's always him who has to put a stop to it.
This time, he doesn't.
Ginny meets them at the gate, and she's in Charlie's arms before he even knows what's happening.
“It's okay,” he says, even though he hasn't a clue if it is, really, or what they're crying about, because he can feel his own eyes getting damp as she sobs into his chest.
Fleur's gone when Ginny steps back, rubs her eyes and sniffs.
“So you remember where we live, you bastard,” she says, thumping him far harder than he deserves. He gets home when he can, Christmas usually. Most Christmases, anyway. “I was wondering.”
She's jumpy in the kitchen, and that's not like her. Her hands straighten bowls, mugs, chopping boards, pat over the surfaces like she's making sure everything is still there, everything's real.
He thinks he knows how she feels.
“I'll do eet,” Fleur says, when Ginny stands there clutching the kettle, like she's not sure why she picked it up. She shoos them outside, more comfortable here than Charlie would have expected, because apparently a lot has happened while he hasn't been paying proper attention. The garden is full of kids and adults, family and strangers, but he has no trouble picking out Bill from the crowd.
It's not what he expected, the way he keeps his distance, hovers idly with aunts and uncles and neighbours. He always thought, if he had the chance— a hug, maybe, if they were in public. A friendly thump on the back, if that wasn't enough. But now that he knows Bill's safe, that he's alive, and apparently well, if the way he's chatting away with everyone is any indication, he finds his hands clenching into fists at his side.
“Ron beat you to it,” Hermione says, from beside him, and yes, when Bill turns there's a redness that might turn into a bruise on one side of his face. “For your mum, you know.”
“What happened?” Charlie asks her, because he knows she'll get what he's asking. He can see Ron's anger all too clearly, his indignation at what Bill put his mum through all these years. He doesn't blame Ron, and he doesn't need to ask about it. “Why now?”
He realises when he's said it that it's not the question he's supposed to ask, but Hermione doesn't comment on it when she answers the real one. “A curse backfired. He was injured and his memory was affected.” She pauses. “It took him a long time to recover,” she says, but he can hear the seeds of doubt in her voice.
“The war was hard on all of us,” he says, keeping his eyes on the bright red head that still stands above them all. “You can't always tell— sometimes it takes a while before it all gets too much.”
“Yes,” she says, with soft, relieved hush of breath, like she can make sense of it now. He doesn't know what she's thinking of, but he knows it wasn't just Bill's disappearance that made him distance himself from everyone more than he should. “Yes, I can see that.”
“I don't think I can do this,” Charlie blurts out, because he has no idea what he'll do when Bill turns around, when he sees him.
Hermione looks at him, but she doesn't say anything.
“I'm not—” he says, but there's nothing else. Whatever everyone needs from him, whatever Bill needs from him here, today, he can't be it. The last few years of loss haven't fixed him, they haven't made him like everyone else. They've broken down his defences, because he's forgotten how to hide it, how to pretend.
It feels like everything should stop, fall still and silent while he tries to put himself back together, but it doesn't. Children scream, glasses clink, conversation rises and falls, a hat blows away and someone splashes into the pond to retrieve it.
“One punch up is probably enough for today,” Hermione says, and he laughs. “Will he know where to find you, if he—?”
“Probably,” Charlie sighs, and walks away.
It's barely midday when he gets home.
The stray tabby is playing with the discarded owl envelope under the table, and something has picked all the buttery bits off his toast. It was probably birds, pecking after the seeds. He should maybe have shut the door and windows before he left, but it's too late to bother now.
He sits on the bed, pulls up his legs and ignores the dirt on his boots to wedge them against the wooden frame, pushing himself back. The wall is cool behind him as he watches daylight turn to dusk turn to darkness before the door creaks open.
This new Bill, this strange Bill, still walks in to Charlie's space without asking permission. Maybe he's not so different after all.
Charlie doesn't answer, but he shifts on the bed, just a little. His legs are stiff; he's not as young as he used to be. The footsteps that approach are soft, but not uncertain. Bill remembers where the bed is. How sad and desperate is it that he was the last one to share it with Charlie, even after all this time?
“Can I put the light on?” Bill asks.
There's a thud from the gloom, and the sound of a chair being scraped across the floor. Bill's voice is closer when he speaks again; lower.
“I thought it might go away,” Bill sighs. “If we had time apart. Things were so messed up, with you, with—”
“She told me,” Charlie says, and when he hears Bill's sharp indrawn breath, he laughs, though there's nothing funny about it. “Today. She told me today.”
“I didn't know what else to do,” Bill says. “It was like the world was exploding, and then it really did, and it had been months...”
It's wrong that he still sounds so lost when he's not any more, when he's found now. When he's here, and Charlie has wished and prayed for this so many times, for so long, that it's beyond ridiculous that he's quibbling the how or why of it.
“So, if we're together, she's going to know,” Charlie says, because he thinks that's what it comes down to now. “And we can't leave, because—”
“Yeah.” Bill is silent for a moment. “I've really made a mess of things. We should have left then, both of us.”
And maybe they should, but they didn't, and they can't change that now.
What they can change is the space between them. The emptiness of Charlie's bed. The huge gaping hole in his life that he hasn't been able to fill for the last few years. Charlie can change all of that, starting right now, if he has the guts to take that chance.
Charlie reaches out before he even realises it. His fingers snag in Bill's hair, which must pull, and their legs tangle awkwardly as he tugs him on to the bed, but when Charlie presses their mouths together this stranger still feels, still tastes like Bill.
“We'll make it work,” Charlie says, again and again until Bill breathes “Yes, yes, yes,” against his lips.