Amazing chapter image by my secret santa and dear friend, Kate (pandeia@TDA)!
The days following Fred’s funeral were difficult for the entire Weasley family. None of the men, Charlie included, felt ready to return to work, so they spent most of their days together at the Burrow, which only led to more painful conversations about Fred. Charlie’s mother Molly, however, seemed determined to get back to life as usual as quickly as possible, no matter how difficult it was for her. She could often be found doing housework while fighting back tears, or taking care of George, who remained in his bedroom in an almost trance-like state for hours at a time.
Things in the outside world weren’t much better. Each time a member of the Weasley clan went to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley to escape the confines of the Burrow, they were swarmed by fans and well-wishers. Along with the supporters came reporters, swooping down on them like vultures and asking for interviews and their own personal accounts of the Battle of Hogwarts. Things finally escalated to the point that Kingsley Shacklebolt, the newly-appointed Minister of Magic, had to assign Aurors to accompany the Weasleys and ward off the crowds. When the reporters started showing up at the Burrow, extra protections had to be put in place there as well.
After his first experience with the Weasley family’s sudden fame, Charlie refused to leave the Burrow without first disguising himself to the point of being unrecognizable. Charlie hated the feeling of being recognized for his participation in the Battle, because he knew that his participation wasn’t enough to save his brother. The overwhelming guilt that Charlie felt troubled him daily, and he knew that remaining at the Burrow and seeing his family constantly was only making things harder for him. Still, though, he found himself unable to refuse when his mother practically begged him to temporarily move back in at the Burrow.
Though he only intended to remain at the Burrow for three weeks, Charlie stayed with his family for almost six, on account of weekly pleas made by his mother. At the end of the fifth week, though, Charlie knew he could stay no longer. As much as it pained him to admit it, Charlie knew that he’d never be able to sort out his feelings while he remained at the Burrow, and he felt the strength and composure he’d been faking slowly start to slip away. So when his mother pleaded with him to stay for what seemed like the hundredth time, Charlie apologized but firmly refused, giving the excuse that he needed to return to work as soon as possible.
After packing his things and promising to write every day, Charlie bid farewell to his family and returned to Romania, feeling strangely relieved. He had bought a quaint two-story cottage a few years ago; it was just outside of a small wizard village a short way from the Romanian dragon sanctuary where he worked. The familiar, welcome sight of his home brought him comfort as he walked inside and dropped his bags on the floor. And then, finally completely alone, without anyone there to see him or stop him, Charlie fell apart.
After spending quite a while thinking and sobbing, Charlie forced himself to go to bed, remembering he had to be back at work very early in the morning. As was the case with every other night since Fred’s death, however, Charlie found himself tossing and turning all night long, having terrible dreams and barely getting any sleep at all. Finally, at around five in the morning, Charlie gave up on getting any more rest, got out of bed, and started preparing for his first day back at work.
When he arrived at the dragon sanctuary, Charlie was surprised to find that he had a harder time getting back to work than he’d thought he would. Though he had to endure handshakes and condolences from his coworkers, the uncomfortable moments were short-lived. For some reason, however, he felt very upset, and just wanted to go home; it was as though the full weight of Fred’s death had picked this particular moment to hit him full-force. Nevertheless, Charlie trudged on through the day, and when his coworkers started telling jokes and talking about everyday things, he was amazed at how quickly his mood improved, and the rest of the day proceeded as though Charlie had never left. By the time the day was over, Charlie was very glad he’d decided to come back to Romania; work was proving to be an excellent distraction from his grief and guilt, and he’d missed his work with the dragons very much. When he returned to work the next day, however, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
One of Charlie’s coworkers came rushing up to him as soon as he arrived, looking flustered and slightly worried. His appearance alone was enough to cause Charlie alarm, but he maintained his composure and waited for the man to speak. As soon as he reached Charlie, he quickly said, “Charlie, I think maybe you should take the day off,” under his breath.
Before Charlie could ask his coworker for the reasons behind his suggestion, before he could even furrow his eyebrows in confusion, he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat nearby. A look of panic immediately dawned upon his companion’s face at the sound, and Charlie quickly turned, searching for the source of both the noise and his coworker’s frustration.
As soon as he turned around, Charlie wished he hadn’t. Though he’d never met her in person, Charlie knew right away exactly who he was looking at; the stiff blond curls, talon-like two-inch fingernails, and rhinestone-studded glasses were unmistakable. Rita Skeeter was at the Dragon Sanctuary, and that could only mean one thing: She wanted to interview him. Charlie was unsure as to why she wanted to interview him, but that didn’t really matter… all he knew was that he did not want to be interviewed, especially when Rita was going to distort everything he said anyway.
Quickly coming to his defense, Charlie’s companion spoke up. “I told you to bugger off, didn’t I, Skeeter?” he asked, with venom in his voice. Ignoring him, Rita addressed Charlie anyway.
“Charles, the Prophet’s readers and I were just wondering why the Weasley family seems to be withdrawing from the rest of the wizarding world,” she said with a sneer. “Your family is victorious! You just helped defeat the darkest wizard of all time! But instead of celebrating, you’re all acting like the world’s ended. Why?”
“Charlie, don’t answer her,” his companion interrupted, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. Charlie, however, was much too upset to listen to his friend’s warning; Rita Skeeter had just struck a nerve.
“Victorious? VICTORIOUS?” Charlie half-yelled, half-asked. “I JUST LOST MY BROTHER! Tell me, Skeeter, where’s the victory in that?”
Though most people would have been startled by Charlie’s very rare yelling, Rita seemed delighted by it. A hint of excitement flashed behind her glasses, and her mouth twisted into a disgusting-looking smile.
“I see,” she said slowly. “So is it safe to assume that the entire Weasley family blames Harry Potter for Fred’s death, as you do? Or are you all just upset with the wizard world because you feel Fred’s life was more valuable than the lives of those who survived?”
Though still outraged, Charlie was now completely bewildered. “I never said either of those things!” he replied in shock.
“You didn’t have to, Charlie, that’s the point!” his coworker interrupted. “It doesn’t matter what you say in an interview with Rita Skeeter, she’s going to wind up with the story she wants anyway. The best thing you can do is just go home.”
Realizing that his friend was right, Charlie nodded his head. “You’re right,” he said, casting murderous glances at the still-sneering reporter. “Tell Jeffries I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Done,” the other dragon keeper replied.
Then, with one final threatening glance in Rita Skeeter’s direction, Charlie turned and began to make his way towards the dragon sanctuary’s outer gate. Charlie walked as quickly as he could without it seeming too obvious; he knew he had to get away from there before he had a breakdown. Rita Skeeter, however, wasn’t finished interviewing Charlie just yet.
“Oh, Charlie,” she called to his back. Ignoring her as best he could, Charlie kept walking… but that wasn’t about to stop her. “You must have witnessed your brother’s death, to be so upset about it,” she continued. “Why don’t you give me a first-hand account of how it happened? You know, to honor your fallen brother and all.”
Charlie stopped dead in his tracks, and panic quickly set in. She couldn't possibly know, he thought to himself, and although he knew that this was true, it didn’t make him feel any more comfortable. He turned slowly and eyed Skeeter with both suspicion and fear, and she took that as a sign of weakness.
“Tell me, Charlie,” she said, walking closer to him. “What was it like to watch your own brother die? Did he fight bravely? Was it a Death Eater that took him down? Did you try to save him?”
“SHUT UP!” Charlie bellowed as his face turned red, and tears built up in the corners of his eyes. He realized that he was breathing heavily, and tried to calm himself, but it was too late… through his reaction, Rita had already learned everything he’d been trying to hide from her.
“You weren’t there, were you?” she asked, with a malicious glint in her eye. Interpreting Charlie’s silence as a “yes,” she descended on him like a hawk swooping down on its prey. “Your brother died defending Hogwarts, and you weren’t even there,” she stated knowingly. “How does that feel, Charlie, knowing that you missed out on the last few moments of your brother’s life? Were you too cowardly to go to Hogwarts, or did you just not care?”
“Reinforcements,” Charlie replied quietly, before gulping rather loudly, choking back the tears as best as he could. “I - I was gathering reinforcements. By the - by the time I got to Hogwarts, Fred was already gone.”
“Charlie, don’t answer her!” his coworker howled, coming to his comrade’s defense. Rita Skeeter, however, knew that she was getting the biggest story of the century, and she wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
“So what would have happened if you’d arrived a few moments earlier?” she pressed. “Is it safe to say that, had you been a bit quicker, your brother might still be alive? Is it safe to say that it’s your fault that your brother is dead?”
Charlie was now unable to keep the tears from falling, and he looked down at the ground in shame. Rita Skeeter had just reinforced everything he’d been telling himself since his brother’s death, and she was an outsider to the situation. Charlie could only imagine who else knew the truth: That he was responsible for Fred’s death. Charlie thought it was about time he stopped pretending and accepted the consequences of his actions, however horrible they might be. “Yes,” he said quietly, “it’s my fault. I’m the reason Fred is gone.”
Having said that, Charlie turned and made his way out of the dragon sanctuary without another word. He walked all the way home with his head hanging down, barely able to see through the tears that were still pouring from his eyes. As he neared his home, however, he began to realize what a huge mistake he’d made. The Daily Prophet was the most widely-read newspaper in the entire wizard world; all of his family read it. And even though Charlie was sure that his whole family already knew that he was responsible for Fred’s death, he began to wonder, what if they didn’t? What if Charlie’s family hadn’t realized how guilty he was before now? He could just imagine the front page of The Prophet tomorrow, with a huge heading that read, “Coward Charlie Weasley admits fault for brother’s death,” and the thought of his mother reading that made Charlie cringe.
A nervous feeling began to build in the pit of Charlie’s stomach as he entered his home, and by the time he reached his bedroom, he was in a state of complete panic. What if his parents hadn’t realized his guilt before now? How would they react when they read the newspaper tomorrow? Would they be hurt, or angry? Would they come to his home and scream at him? Tell him he was no longer a part of their family? Disown him? Or, even worse, would they try to convince him that Fred’s death wasn’t his fault, even though it obviously was?
Charlie grew more and more nervous by the second, and his heart and mind were racing. After what he’d just confessed to Rita Skeeter, he couldn’t bear to look into his parents’ eyes again. He was a coward and a disgrace; he didn’t deserve to be a wizard… he didn’t deserve to be a Weasley. Charlie was at his wit’s end; he’d had enough.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision, he grabbed his suitcase and cast an Undetectable Enlargement Charm on it. He started shoving things into it haphazardly, and in less than a half hour, he was walking out of the front door of his home. He wasn’t sure where he was going or what he’d do when he got there, but Charlie knew he had to get away… away from everything and everyone he’d ever known and loved. Then, only then, could he escape the guilt and sorrow that had followed him here.
As he prepared to Disapparate, Charlie considered his possible destinations, but The Burrow was the only thing that kept popping into his mind. This caused him to think of his mother, and how upset she’d be if he just disappeared without a trace… especially after she’d just lost one son. Leaving his suitcase on the front steps, Charlie rushed back inside and over to his desk. He grabbed a piece of parchment and quill and quickly scribbled a note to her. Mum, it read, I’m sorry. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine… I just need some time. All my love, Charlie.
Charlie quickly folded up the parchment and handed it to his owl, which he’d almost completely forgotten about in his haste. “Take this to Mum,” he said. “And stay at the Burrow until I come back.” The owl hooted and nipped at his forefinger lovingly before taking the letter from him and flying through the still-open door.
Sighing heavily, Charlie watched the owl depart with sadness. Then, before he could change his mind, he walked back outside, locked the door, grabbed his suitcase, and Disapparated.