Charlie apparated in the hills close to the Burrow and headed towards the house, drinking in the view when it appeared at the bend in the path. To any eyes but a Weasley’s, it might be the most unbelievable sight ever beheld, even in the Wizarding World. Some rooms just seemed to have been added as after thoughts – which they probably were – and jutted out at odd angles.
But as strange as the sight might be, it warmed him from the inside out. The young man had been living abroad ever since he left Hogwarts, but that was home to his eyes and to his heart. It wasn’t only magic that helped keep it up – it was love. Or so he liked to believe. The appartment he shared with other dragon handlers in Romania was soulless and cold. It was the place were they slept when they didn’t work at night, nothing more. They seldom ate there, prefering sharing food before leaving the reservation. Charlie loved his job, but he’d been missing the warmth of a true home for years.
And here it was, in the glory of the late winter sun, with timid flowers showing in the flowerbeds.
Sighing with contentment, he opened the door and walked in. At this hour of the day and at this time of the year, his mother must be alone at home. And as he expected it, he found her in the kitchen, drinking a cup of strong tea at the window. Of course, being a practical woman, it wasn’t the bird she was observing that way. It was the gnomes.
"Damned creatures," he heard her mutter. "Maybe I should buy a cat…"
Then she turned around – but not to find her Guide To House Pests by Gilderoy Lockhart. She had used it to fuel the sitting room fire, along with Lockhart’s other books. The git was a fraud – he didn’t help save her baby when she was taken to the Chamber of Secrets. When she had to talk about him, she called him the Greatest-Coward-The-Wizarding-World-Has-Ever-Known. Suffice it to say that she didn’t talk about him very often.
"Charlie!" Molly exclaimed, seeing him in the doorway. Then she frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, it’s good to see you too, Mom," he answered, smiling.
She clicked her tongue and shook her head, but gave him a bear hug all the same. Good thing I’m taller than she is, Charlie thought, hugging her back – but with some more care. He could barely breathe.
"I’m so happy to see you… but tell me why you’re here," Molly insisted, pulling away. "You should be in Romania, doing you job – you know, the one you’re married to."
She couldn’t help it, she made a face. She was proud of his dedication, she could understand his passion, but really, couldn’t he tell there were other things to life than dragons?
Charlie knew her opinion. He knew she wanted him to have everything life could offer – a good job, a passion and above all the love of the right person and a family. And of course, to her eyes, he wasn’t doing anything to find the woman that was made for him. How could he when he spent all his nights and days with his single friends, taking care of overgrown fire-breathing lizards?
Yes, Charlie loved his job and loved dragons. But since the day of the Final Battle, he’d discovered that he loved his family even more. He missed them. He wanted to be here for the birthdays and the little things that marked their life. At Christmas, he had an epiphany: he belonged with them. To make it short, after all those years, he finally realized that his mother was right. There was more to life than work and having good times with friends.
His brother Ron had discovered that earlier in his life, and he had died before he could really live all the good things he could foresee. It had been an eye-opener for Charlie. He didn’t want to wake up one day and find out he’d missed the most important things and wasted precious time. He didn’t want to wake up one day feeling like… he didn’t want to get up, because there was nothing, and especially no one, to get up to.
"I’m going to work on an experiment, Mom," Charlie announced.
"Does it have anything to do with giving a good fright to your old mother?" Molly asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
He laughed. "No, of course not. It has everything to do with…"
"Don’t say it," she cut him, holding up one index finger in warning. "It has to do with your overgrown fire-breathing lizards, of course."
Charlie nodded his head enthousiastically. "Well, of course!"
"What kind of experiment? Will it be dangerous?"
Seeing she was clearly alarmed now, Charlie stopped teasing her.
"No, it shouldn’t be more dangerous than what I’m doing now. In fact, probably less…" his voice trailed off.
Her fists on her hips, Molly snapped: "You’re not telling me the whole truth, Charlie Weasley, and you’d better do it quickly before…"
"We’re going to try to cross-breed two species. The Ministry finally gave us the go-ahead."
"As if there weren’t enough already!" she humphed. Then she sighed. "I guess we’ll see you even less than before…"
Charlie shook his head. "You should see more of me actually – so much more than you’ll probably try to send me back to Romania in a couple of months."
His words were so unexpected they took time to register. Then a big smile broke on his mother’s face.
"Where are you going to work now?"
"Scotland," Charlie answered. "Not so far from Hogwarts. We needed a remote place…"
"Where are you going to live?" Molly asked, her eyes suddenly alive.
"Why didn’t you say so earlier? We would already be there… Wait, how many of your friends will live there with you?"
Charlie felt a bit embarrassed now. She had the knack for asking the questions he didn’t want to answer.
"Just… you?" she looked at him more closely. "I suppose you’re not going to do that experiment on your own."
Oh, Charlie didn’t like it when she used that tone of voice and looked at him as if she could read his very soul.
"No, of course not. There will be three other people and…"
"I guess you’re doing that because it will be a more interesting job and you’ll get a pay rise."
"What?" he stammered. Then he cleared his throat and nodded. "Yes, a better job and a better pay."
And it was the truth – part of it, at least.
Molly cupped his cheek with one hand. "Well, that’s what we’ll tell the others," she said with a knowing look.
"I still can’t believe you’re going to live here," Ginny said, looking around her.
The appartment wasn’t that big – two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a bathroom – but Hermione could see that Molly had done her best so Charlie would have a real home. And you can tell there is a guy living here alone. Definitely. She hid a smile, seeing the sock caught under one of the cushions of the couch.
Charlie cleared his throat and inquired. "So… whatcha think, Hermione?"
Harry and Ginny had run ahead of them. Charlie was showing them around. Lately, eight months pregnant Hermione had had the feeling of dragging herself – she was certainly not walking anymore. Yet she wasn’t that big. When she had asked Madam Pomfrey about that, worried because it showed, but not as much as she thought it should, the Matron had laughed and answered that all women were different. Then, noticing Hermione needed a bit more reassurance, she added that it happened, sometimes, with a first pregnancy, and she should be grateful that she wasn’t that big.
"I love it, Charlie, really," she responded.
"Yep, it’s very nice," added Ginny, coming back with Harry. "Tell me, what are you going to do with the spare bedroom?" she asked her brother.
Behind her, Harry blushed slightly.
Charlie feigned to ponder her question, rubbing his jaw. "Well, I guess I could use it to house a pet dragonet…"
Hermione laughed at the look on Ginny’s face. Her friend sticked out her tongue at her.
"Well, I need to buy a couple of things," Harry said. "Hermione, do you feel up to it or do you want to wait for us in the Three Broomsticks?"
"You can stay here with me, Hermione," Charlie offered. "Then we’ll join with those two for lunch, and if you have anything to buy, I’ll go with you and Harry and Ginny can keep on running from one place to the other."
Unexpectedly, the grateful smile she gave him made his heart leap. He told himself that it was good to see her smile again, even if sadness seemed to have settled in her eyes.
"You don’t mind, Charlie?" Hermione asked.
"Of course not!" Ginny answered for him. Then, seeing her brother shake his head, she retorted: "You wouldn’t have offered if you did."
When her friends were gone, Hermione turned to Charlie, who invited her to take a seat. "Do you want something to drink?"
"Let’s see, no tea nor coffee… I have pumpkin juice."
"Good! But before…"
"You know where is the bathroom," he told her above his shoulder, disappearing inside the kitchen.
When Hermione came back, there were two glasses of pumpkin juice waiting on the coffee table. She sat down in one of the armchairs. As she was conjuring her drink, she asked: "So how is your new job?"
Charlie smiled. "Great! I’m sure we’ll have dragonets soon. It’s just a question of finding the right spells for the mating, then…"
He told her everything about the experiment they were doing, and she listened to him, asking questions sometimes. Then he realized he’d been talking for almost an hour
"Oh, Merlin! I’m so sorry, Hermione…"
"Why?" she said, looking at him quizzically. "I really thought it was interesting." Then her stomach grumbled and she laughed, embarrassed. "But now I’m hungry… I’m always hungry."
"You should have told me!" Charlie said. "Mum was here yesterday and left…"
She held up both hands to stop him. "No, please… I can’t eat all day long – it wouldn’t be good either for me or for the baby."
Charlie stood up and held out a hand to help her up. "Come on, let’s go to the Three Broomsticks." Then he saw her wince. "Are you all right?"
She beamed at him. "The baby is just kicking. Do you…?"
He swallowed hard when she took the hand she was still holding and pressed it against her swollen belly. And he felt it. "A foot?"
"I hope so, or he or she will know how to use their fists!"
Laughing, they left his appartment and slowly headed towards the Three Broomsticks. Harry and Ginny were already there when they enter.
"We have a pumpkin juice for Hermione and a butterbeer for Charlie," the readhead announced as they sat.
They ate wizard shepherd’s pie. The food was good, though not as good as Molly’s. Then while Harry and Ginny went their way Charlie followed Hermione at Scrivenshaft’s Quill Shop – she needed a new quill. They didn’t visit any other shop, because she was tired.
As Charlie was going to the gates of the castle with Hermione, she suddenly cried out and clutched at his arm with one hand and at her swollen abdomen with the other. "Hermione, are you ok?" he asked her, his voice full of concern.
They had stopped in the middle of the road. She let out a hissing breath, then she answered, her voice quivering a little. "Yes… no… I don’t know, Charlie!"
When she looked up at him, he could see she was terrified. "When are you due?"
"Two weeks," she whispered.
Well, she was going to have her baby. So he had to get her back into the castle – and the Hospital Wing. "Do you think you can walk?"
Hermione nodded her head. He put his arms around her, to support her, and they walked slowly across the grounds and towards the looming castle. They had to make three other stops, as she was having contractions. There was no doubt now – she was in labour. Finally, he had to pick her up in his arms and carried her to the Hospital Wing.
"Well," Madam Pomfrey said when she saw them enter. "It was bound to happen."
She guided Charlie towards one of the bed.
The young man put down Hermione, then the matron shooed him out, despite Hermione’s protests.
"I need to find an owl," Charlie muttered. His mother would kill him slowly and painfully if he didn’t tell her.
There was a crack, and a house-elf appeared. "Dobby can help you, sir?"
Dobby… He’d heard that name before. "Yes, I need to write a message to my parents."
The house-elf nodded, then disappeared. He was back two minutes later with a quill, an inkwell and a piece of parchment. Only seconds later, and owl landed on the windowsill.
"Thank you, Dobby," Charlie said, taking the profered items.
"Dobby always serves Harry Potter sir’s friends."
And he was gone.
Charlie wrote a couple of sentences to his mother – Hermione is having the baby. Come as soon as possible. –, gave the note to the owl and set to wait. Ron should have been there. Hermione shouldn’t be left to go through that alone, even if ultimately she was the one giving birth to that baby.
He was so lost in his thoughts he didn’t hear Madam Pomfrey approach. "She would like to see you."
Charlie nodded and followed her on the other side of the curtains.
Hermione had never felt so utterly alone, but she smiled bravely at him. "Thanks, Charlie. Now would you tell your mother and your fa…" She had to stop because of the pain.
Charlie took her hand in his. "Don’t worry, I already did. Mom should be here soon."
Hermione gave him a wan smile.
When Madam Pomfrey asked Charlie if he wanted to stay, he nodded his head. He couldn’t leave Hermione alone – he promised Ron he would take care of her.
A/N: Who said Charlie always had to go back to Romania and break Hermione's heart? Well, not in my story - I promised you some surprises along the way, didn't I? If you enjoy reading that chapter, and my little twist, please leave me a review. :D