Part 5

Lilac - trees flowering tree: a European and Asian shrub or small tree with strongly perfumed sprays of white, pink, or pale purple flowers.
It is a member of the olive family.

It was a perfect day outside. The sky was blue, it wasn't too warm, the sun was shining, and Charlie Weasley was finally ready to tell someone his story. He was going to tell it to Hermione Granger, and he was going to do it now. He knew she was here before she even said a single word. The little hairs on the back of his neck stood up at attention and his skin tingled with anticipation.

He was glad she was here. He had come to crave her company. She was becoming more and more vital to his existence… more than the air he needed to breathe and the water he needed to quench his thirst. Her presence nourished his soul. It filled the hole in his heart. It was more important to him than all the blood flowing in that long useless, dormant organ. It was even more important than the neurons flickering in his brain.

If he loved her before all of this, what could he call this even stronger feeling he felt for her now? What was stronger than love?

As he contemplated these things, he could see her walk down the path toward him out of the corner of his eye. She walked past rows and rows of blossoming flowers and shrubs. The garden was almost done. He was planting the very last of his flowers today. Soon, it would be over. It would be done. He would no longer have an excuse to escape out here – except for the occasional weeding and upkeep – and that probably meant that she would stop coming to see him.

It also meant that he was finally ready to talk and he had to do it today. He was going to tell her why he was back home. He would lay his sins and truths on the dirt path at her feet and she would either trample all over them, bury them deep in the earth, leaving them in disgust or she could pick them up and carry them in her heart, where she might even forgive him and find that she could love him as much as he loved her.

And maybe, just maybe, he could continue living in this world instead of merely existing. That would be nice. He was tired of carrying on – silently – harboring his guilt and shame quietly by himself.

If she really wanted him to talk, by all that was sacred, he would finally talk.

She was almost to him now. He could smell her scent. It was stronger and more intoxicating than the strongest fragrance from the most aromatic flower. He looked up and she was there.

"It's such a beautiful day, isn't it?" she began, but then she held up her hand and said, "No, don't answer that question. That's not my question for today. If I only get one question for you to answer honestly per day, I'm not wasting it on something as obvious and mundane as your views on the weather."

As she did on the previous days, she knelt down beside him and expounded, "Oh, you're planting my absolute favourite flower of all time today! I've always loved lilacs. I even wear a lilac scent. Can you tell?" She held her wrist up to his nose.

Charlie dropped the spade from his grasp and placed both his hands on her arm, one hand at her fragile wrist and the other on her upper arm. He inhaled her heady scent, smelling lilac and beautiful clean woman. He dropped her arm gently and then wiped his hands on his trousers.

Nodding, he managed to mumble softly, "Nice."

She looked down at his hands and asked, "Why do you always do that? Why do you always wipe your hands on your trousers after you touch me? I really want to know. That's my question for the day, by the way. I want to know why you do that."

Charlie looked down at his hands, flexing them and then balling them into fists. Standing suddenly, he took a fortifying breath and then opened his left hand and reached it toward her. Glancing first at his hand, she raised her eyes to his and then placed her hand gingerly in his grasp. There was full flesh-on-flesh contact and it made him almost dizzy. With a lump in his throat he pulled her to her feet and then walked with her toward the middle of the garden, to a weathered old bench, which was waiting for them like a beacon.

What could he tell her that wouldn't sound insane? He could hardly tell her HIS truth… that touching her was close and akin to pain. That he didn't want to soil her with his filth and guilt. That his heart was black as pitch, and that blackness might somehow travel from his heart to his skin, which would then affect her if he touched her.

That he didn't do it because there was anything wrong with her, he did it because something was terribly wrong with him.

He exhaled a ragged breath and said, "Last fall, I was training a new recruit, a young bloke, barely 18 years old. I was to teach him everything I knew about Dragon Handling. They gave him to me to teach because I was considered the best there was." He stopped and looked down at the ground, repeating, "I was the best. I was."

He stopped.

Hermione reached a hand out and touched him on the arm. Her hand felt heavy and warm on his bare skin. It also gave him the courage to continue. He turned to look at her. "I was the best, Hermione. Everyone always said so. I don't want you to think I'm bragging, because I'm not. Everyone else always said I was the best. It was just a fact. I wasn't just considered the best Dragon Handler at my reserve in Romania, either. It was well known that I was perhaps the preeminent Dragon Handler in the world. Every other reserve in the world wanted me to work for them… because I was the greatest. It's as if someone said you were smart, or you had curly hair, or you were the brightest witch of a generation. It was just a fact."

She nodded. "Your family always said that as well," she confirmed.

When he looked as if he wasn't going to continue, she urged, "Please, go on."

Before he did, he added, "It's like if someone said you were beautiful, because you are, and it would be the truth, even if you didn't say it, it would be the truth. You're beautiful, Hermione Granger. The most beautiful woman I've ever known."

He suddenly realized he was rambling. For a man who had barely spoken ten words in four months, he was rambling, and perhaps it was because he didn't want to get to the point, or perhaps it was because he had opened some sort of floodgate, but he found he couldn't stop talking now even if he tried.

"His name was Billy McKee. He was fresh out of Hogwarts. He was referred to the dragon colony by Hagrid. I guess young Billy used to help Hagrid with all sorts of animals. He had a special touch with them, or so it was said. Everyone thought he had a very bright future. He had potential. They said his potential rivaled my own at that age."

Hermione started to say something, but Charlie held up a staying hand and said, "If you don't let me finish, I'm afraid I won't continue."

She didn't say a word. She merely nodded at him to go on.

"Hagrid had told my superiors that Billy wanted nothing more than to learn how to handle dragons. He'd been fascinated with them since he was a tot. He knew all about them, too, sort of like how you know all about flowers. He knew the different species, and the different attributes of each. He knew their origins and what they ate and everything."

"He was so enthusiastic, Hermione. He reminded me of myself at that age. But by all that's sacred in this world, he didn't really know everything about them, did he? He really didn't. And that's not his fault. I guess I even realize it's not mine, but then, who's to blame, Hermione? Who?"

Hermione frowned. "Who do we blame for what, Charlie? What happened to Billy McKee?"

"Have you ever heard of a Peruvian Vipertooth, Hermione?" Charlie asked the question, but didn't wait for the answer. He stood from the bench and began to pace back and forth in front of it. "They're native to the mountains of Peru, but we had one at our reserve, on loan from a reserve in South America. Their teeth are highly venomous, and they're small compared to most dragons; this one was only about 15 feet tall. Like most dragons, their main source of food are sheep and goats, but unlike most dragon, save for the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball, they're also known to eat humans. In fact, they especially love to eat humans, and that's what makes them so very dangerous."

Hermione started to make a sound, but she actually put her hand up to her mouth, covering it, forcing herself to stay quiet so he could continue.

Charlie stopped pacing and sunk to the ground by her feet. He couldn't move from his place on the ground if he wanted to. It was like he was planted there, just like the flowers all around him. He felt lightheaded… nauseated and unable to breath. He was certain he was going to pass out, but then he felt her hand on his back. She was rubbing her hand in small circles, and the contact gave him a lifeline. He took two deep breaths and knew that if he didn't continue his story right now, he never would, and if he didn't continue his story, he would never be free.

No one else could see them out here in the garden. He was safe from the prying, yet loving eyes, of his family. There was no one here but her and him.

He needed to tell her the whole, unmitigated truth and he needed to do it now.

"Billy was a sweet boy, a smart boy, but he was cocky. He thought he knew more than everyone else. That was the biggest difference between me at that age and him. I never once thought I knew it all. I still don't. But he did. One night he said he wanted to go study the Vipertooth, and I told him he couldn't go there, not alone. He wasn't ready. I told him that although the Vipertooth was small, he was probably the most dangerous animal at our reserve. I told him to never, under any circumstances, to go into that dragon's pen without me."

Charlie inhaled. "But I should have known he wouldn't listen. I should have been more diligent. I should have insisted. I should have enforced the rules better. I wasn't paying any mind, and that evening, after supper, when no one could find Billy, I just knew where he was. I knew it in my heart. I also knew it was too late."

Hermione fell to her knees beside him. "You don't have to say anymore, Charlie, unless you really want to, but I have a question for you. I know I told you that I would only ask you one question a day, but I'm afraid I have to ask you another."

Shaking his head resolutely, Charlie said, "What, Hermione? What do you want to know?"

Placing a hand under his chin, she forced him to look at her. "Did you force young Billy into that pen with that dragon?"

"No, but…" he started, only to have her ask, "And did you or did you not, by your own admission, warn him how dangerous the Vipertooth was?"

"I did, but…" Charlie started.

"No," she overruled. "You did everything you could. You were a mentor, a teacher, and you told him what to do, but he was a kid, and sometimes even the smartest kid can make dumb mistake. That's what makes them kids, Charlie. They think they're invincible. They don't think anything bad will ever happen to them, yet bad things happen to them everyday. And sometimes, Charlie, it really isn't anyone's fault. Sometimes, as blasé as it sounds, sometimes accidents really do just happen."

Charlie dropped his head into his hands and for the first time since young Billy McKee was killed by the Peruvian Vipertooth, Charlie Weasley began to cry. "I tried to save him, you know. I went into the pen even though all the other handlers were yelling at me to stay clear."

"That's how you became injured," she stated, not asking it as a question because she already knew she was right.

"It was too late, though. He was dead. He was only at our reserve for three days and he died. I was supposed to train him because everyone said I was the best, yet he died."

Charlie continued to cry, bending at the waist, until his head was in her lap.

"He was young," Hermione agreed, "and he was there to be trained by the best, and he died. It's a bloody tragedy, Charlie. I know you feel guilty, so I'm not even going to tell you not to feel that way, because perhaps you need to feel guilty, and by feeling guilty you can at last deal with your grief. Then, after you deal with your grief, maybe you can finally forgive yourself. And perhaps, one day soon, you'll forgive yourself and realize that while it's a tragedy that Billy died so wretchedly, it's just as much a blessing that you're still here."

He sat up. "How can you say it's a blessing that I'm here? How can you possibly think that, Hermione?"

"Because I'm in love with you, Charlie Weasley, and I for one would be completely undone, totally devastated, if you had died along with young Billy. I'm sorry if that sounds callous, but I'm glad you're alive."

Feeling as if he'd been knocked over by a boulder, Charlie said, "You love me? When did that happen?"

"Sometime between the delphiniums and the foxglove," she said with a small smile.

Charlie took her hand in his. He was no longer afraid of contaminating her with his touch, because his touch was no longer tainted with his guilt. His guilt was still there, along with his shame and fear, but it was lessened by the words she had just said. She loved him. And she was a smart woman. She was the smartest witch of her generation. Everyone always said it. Just like everyone said he was the best Dragon Handler, they always said she was the smartest witch of her generation. And if she thought it was a blessing that Charlie Weasley was alive, than who was he to naysay her?

"I love, too, Hermione," he proclaimed.

"I'm glad," she replied, placing his hand upon her cheek.

She stood and this time she was the one who reached down a hand to help him to stand. Placing his hand in hers, he stood beside her and said, "Now what?"

"Well, I know you probably think you're done with the garden, but I was thinking that some calendulas or peonies would look perfect near the walk leading up to the house."

"We could plant some of them, if you want," he said hesitantly.

"Or lupines!" she said with a gasp. "They're ever so useful, and quiet pretty, you know. I still think I like the idea of calendulas and peonies, though." She took his hand back in hers and started toward the house, still talking. "Did you know that calendulas are a member of the daisy family and that their orange and yellow flowers have traditionally been used for cooking and medicinal purposes? The Latin name is 'Calendula Officinalis' and many in the U.K. call them pot marigolds."

Charlie smiled and said, "Really?" That was when he saw his mother, father, and brothers, George and Ron, standing on the back porch. Raising his hand in greeting, he said, "Hello, Mum and Dad. Beautiful day, isn't it. How's the shop, George? Hope you've been busy. I like your hair cut, Ron. You're looking good."

Each of them looked shocked by his greeting and his small exchange of words to them. His mother started to cry, while the rest of them smiled silently.

Hermione seemed not to notice as she said, "Now, peonies are a rather showy flowering plant, a shrub belonging to the buttercup family that have large globe-shaped red, white, or pink flowers and is native to Europe, Asia, and North America. Its genus is Paeonia."

"Do tell me more, Hermione," Charlie said with a smile.

And she did. For the rest of her life. She did.

The End

A/N: June's story is already up at The Maple Bookshelf, if you want to go over there and read it. I am working on July's story. Also, the administrator at The Maple Bookshelf wanted me to let everyone know that July is considered open submission month, so if you ever wanted to submit a story but was afraid of rejection, or didn't have a beta, etc, well, here is your chance to post one. You must still follow the rules and regulations of the site, but you are more than welcome to post a story over there this month if you so desire! They accept all fandoms.