Chapter Five: Reluctance
For a brief instant, Kate felt transported back in time. It was Romania, three years ago, and she was embracing her old friend after a prolonged separation – like a long trip home for the holidays perhaps, one of the many times he returned to England to see his family. Just as she had so many times before, Kate wrapped her arms around Charlie’s familiar frame and hugged him tightly. And he returned the gesture, just as he always had, with equal enthusiasm.
Then, just as quickly as it arose, the spell of familiarity broke. This was not Romania, and it was not three years ago. She was standing in the middle of the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic, grasping onto a man she hadn’t spoken to – hadn’t even heard from – since that horrible night that seemed both so long ago and so very fresh in her mind. This realization must have occurred suddenly to Charlie as well. Simultaneously, the pair released their hold on each other and quickly stepped apart.
“Wow,” Charlie said at last, exhaling loudly as if he had been holding his breath.
Kate tried to think of something – anything
– to say but her mind came up blank. Charlie was apparently having the same problem.
“I’m…speechless,” Charlie admitted. “I mean…it’s you.”
Kate attempted to smile but feared it may have looked more like a grimace. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought of Charlie over the last three years. She’d thought of him more than she was comfortable admitting. But the feelings those thoughts conjured were painful and confusing and it was easier to leave them unexplored. Now, however, those feelings were rushing over her faster than she could process. Kate wanted to run. Fast.
“How are you?” Charlie asked, his expression apologetic at the inadequacy of the question.
“I’m fine,” Kate heard herself reply. “And you? You look well.”
This was true. Charlie always looked well. He was sturdy, thickly built, with wide shoulders and strong arms. His skin, fair and freckly by birth, was perpetually tanned and flushed, as if he had just stepped inside from a long run on the beach. Everything about him seemed to radiate assurance and security, from his capable hands and intelligent eyes, to his kind face and easy smile. Looking at him was like looking at an old stone house: not always beautiful but built to survive and protect, whatever the elements might throw at it.
“I’m good,” he said, relaxing a bit. “Aside from the fact that I thought I was seeing a ghost back there. I didn’t even know you were in the country.”
“I’m not,” Kate said. “I mean…I just got in yesterday. For work.”
“Oh, are you working here now?”
Kate wasn’t sure if he meant the Ministry itself or just in London, but either way, her answer was the same.
“Not exactly. It’s sort of a long story. But you,” she said, taking in the full sight of him dressed in long, dark blue robes and polished black shoes. “You look like…” But Kate wasn’t sure what he looked like. She had never seen him so dressed up before.
Charlie looked down at his clothes. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Normally it’s not this bad. I’ve just been in meetings all morning. Been in them all week, actually. You know how that is.”
Actually she didn’t. Kate couldn’t imagine working at a job that kept her cooped up in office meetings for an entire morning, let alone an entire week. Sitting in a library for a few hours was torture enough. And up until five minutes ago, she couldn’t have imagined Charlie in such a position either.
“I was just taking a break for lunch,” he continued “We’re on a recess until three.”
“Oh, right,” Kate nodded, seeing her chance at escape. “I won’t hold you –”
“No, it’s great. I mean, it’s fine.” Charlie glanced around suddenly, as if looking for someone. Seeming not to find them, he turned back slowly. “You wouldn’t want to join me, would you? For old time’s sake?”
“I don’t think—” she began, but he cut her off.
“It’s on me,” he offered, giving her an awkward smile.
Kate wanted to say no but found she just couldn’t form the words. She couldn’t bring herself to make up some excuse...to lie to him.
“Alright,” she agreed at last, reluctantly ignoring the feeling in the pit of her stomach that warned her this was a very bad idea.
Charlie led Kate to a small pub just a few blocks east of the Ministry. The outside was overrun with ivy that hung unchecked over the stain-glass windows while the inside consisted of a long, narrow room with dark wood floors and even darker wood paneling that stopped just short of the low-hanging ceiling. Most of the room was taken up by a curved bar built against the far wall and the long row of stools tucked up underneath the counter. In what little space was left, small tables with mismatched chairs had been haphazardly arranged.
Kate followed Charlie to a collection of tables near the back, about as far away from the bar as it was possible to get in such a cramped space. They had their fair pick of seats. The place was nearly deserted. Whatever lunch crowd there might have been was long gone, leaving behind empty – if not quite clean – tables.
“I’ve never been in here before,” Charlie said, breaking the long silence that had fallen between them. “Must have walked past it a dozen times though.”
“Hmmm,” was all Kate could think to offer in reply.
They fell into another awkward silence, busying themselves with the list of dishes written in chalk on a small blackboard tacked to the wall.
“So,” Charlie began again after they had placed their orders and the barman had taken his leave, “what exactly are you doing here?”
“Excuse me?” Kate asked, taken aback.
"No,” he said, backtracking quickly. “That’s not how I meant it. You just said at the Ministry it was a long story. I was curious what brought you here is all.”
“Oh,” she said and stopped. It wasn’t exactly a personal question but Kate felt uneasy about answering. She just wasn’t sure yet whether that was a reflection of the topic at hand or the person asking the question.
Kate did her best to come up with an answer without actually saying much of anything at all. She told him about being abroad in Egypt and the series of excavations her team was working on but stayed vague about her reason for returning to England.
“I’m just doing some research here for awhile,” Kate told him. “Combing through books and the like. What about you?” she asked, welcoming the opportunity to divert further questioning but also increasingly curious about what Charlie was doing at the Ministry dressed in formal robes, sitting in week-long meetings.
Now it was his turn to show his discomfort.
“A bit of this and that, really,” he said. “I’ve been on with the Ministry for a time now.”
“Doing...?” she pressed.
“For the moment…” He took an exaggerated pause. “I’ve been working with the Aurors.”
an Auror. I’m...one of those now. An Auror.”
” Kate asked, stunned. “I mean, doesn’t that take years? And...why?
“Because it's important,” he replied defensively. “And it’s good work. They needed help at the time. They still do. I agreed, is all. What?
” he added, taking in her look of shock.
“Nothing. It’s just...a surprise. Not exactly the career I pictured you in.”
“Well, maybe it’s easy to forget all the way out there in Egypt but things got pretty bad here, Kate. And some of us are still trying to clean up the mess.”
Kate felt her checks grow hot and the unmistakably accusatory tone of his words.
“What’s that supposed to mean? I don’t remember you turning your nose down at my line of work back when we were in...”
But she didn’t say the name. She didn’t want to think anymore about the deafening screams. The heat of the blaze. The smell of burning flesh. Or how just when it was all over, when she thought she’d finally reached her breaking point, she found he was gone – leaving her alone. Leaving them to clean up all that death and destruction without him. Over and over she thought of his note, his final words to her: I’m going home. It’s urgent. I’m sorry.
Kate felt sick to her stomach. She had to get out of there. She couldn’t breathe.
“Fred died,” he said softly. “Did you know that?”
Kate froze. She starred across the table at Charlie, whose shoulders seemed to sag suddenly under the weight of his own words.
“I—” she started but stopped. “Yes, I read it in the paper. I’m sorry.”
He nodded. “Two years ago last month.” He rubbed his hand across his face. “Hard to believe it’s been that long already.”
Was it a really that long of a time?
Kate wasn’t so sure. Three years since Romania. Two years since that horrible battle. So much had happened since then, and yet so much still seemed so fresh in her mind. The Wizarding World had already begun moving forward it had it really even begun to move on?
“Did you join...” she began slow. “Is that why you’re working –”
Charlie just shrugged. “We’ve all got to make amends somehow, right?”
Kate found that an odd thing to say, but a lot of things were sounding odd right about then.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “I shouldn’t have just blurted that out. I just...I don’t know.”
“No, it’s fine,” she assured him.
Charlie picked his hand up off the table, reaching out slightly before letting it fall back down again. “It really is good to see you again, Kate.”
Kate said nothing in return.
A/N – In case it isn’t clear, or I’ve contradicted myself, this scene is occurring two years after the battle of Hogwarts, which means the events in the prologue were occurring around the same time as Dumbledore’s death. On a totally unrelated note, thank you so, so much to those who’ve been reading and reviewing. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it :)