Chapter 1: The Bedraggled Vampire
The Bedraggled Vampire serves the smoothest butterbeer and the sharpest fire-whiskey in all of Zagreb. It has the grimiest tables and the shiniest floors, the surliest staff and the prettiest girls. Cockroach pasties are on the menu, and vampires get 10 percent off. It is the best wizarding pub in Zagreb, and the worst.
In short, the Bedraggled Vampire is the only wizarding pub in Zagreb, and it is about two stops from the end of the world.
As the steely spring sunshine fades out the western windows, two men sit silently in the dusty barroom. Mihail the bartender flicks a quill haphazardly and inattentively at last month's accounts, which don't add up. Charlie Weasley, Senior Assistant Dragon Keeper at the Transylvanian Dragon Research and Breeding Facility, taps his index finger rhythmically on the rim of an empty brandy glass and stares at the door.
He is sitting at a small, polished table for two along the side wall. He has been sitting there for thirty-seven minutes, and he knows now that she isn't coming. He is not surprised. He has been stood up before. He isn't devastated, either. After all, he barely knows her. It's not like he was in love. Pretending to be in love, perhaps. Wanting to be in love. Wanting not to spend the rest of his life in a dusty, dirty, empty, silent pub in the bombed-out city of Zagreb.
The war is over now, but it hasn't made much difference in Charlie's life. The war was in England, and Charlie was here. The war was in Scotland, and Charlie was here. The war was in Wales, and Charlie was here. Here in grimy pubs, here in a cold, barren bunkhouse, here in whitewashed muddy barns in the mountains of Transylvania.
He didn't mean to sit the war out. He joined the Order of the Phoenix the week it was recalled. He brushed up on defensive spells. He spent his weekends recruiting. Through Quidditch circles and through Hermione Granger, he made contact with Viktor Krum. He liaised with Viktor's secretive little intelligence cell on the rim of the Black Sea. When Ollivander disappeared, he started monitoring the dragon heartstring trade in eastern Europe. After several months and gobs of tedious paperwork, he fingered the wandmaker who was supplying the Romanian and Bulgarian Death Eaters.
Meanwhile, the news from home got grimmer and grimmer. One of his brothers was killed. One of his brothers was savaged by a werewolf. One of his brothers was present the night the last horcrux was destroyed.
Charlie stayed in Romania. He worked, he studied, he eavesdropped in bars. He poured over maps and wandmakers' accounts. He encoded messages to Remus Lupin and Albus Dumbledore. He decoded messages from Viktor. He hosted Hagrid and Olympe Maxime on their mission to the giants. He sheltered Witherwings from time to time. He nursed wounded owls.
In three years, he never saw a battle. He scarcely raised his wand. The night the last horcrux was destroyed, Charlie was sitting in a whitewashed barn in Romania, preparing slides of Hungarian Horntail dung for the first-year interns.
The war is over now. The Dark Lord is two years gone. The furious tide that swept away his brother, his beloved old headmaster, so much of his pre-war world, is ebbing now. And Charlie remains in Romania, wondering what happened to the last nine years.
All of his surviving brothers are married now: one—insanely, in Charlie's opinion—to a part-veela who can twist him around her little finger and one, scandalously, to a Muggle. He has two nephews so far and two more in the offing. Soon there will be more. One day, he will have quite a lot of nephews.
Because that's what Weasleys do. All the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford. Weasleys marry young and have no money but lots of sons. The Prewett side of the family is exactly the same, except that the Prewetts have daughters too. It's not a bad way to live. Charlie never thought twice about it. It seemed so easy, growing up. He was the normal one in the family. Bill was the smooth, brainy one, Percy the prissy prefect, the twins sly and mischievous, Ron the perpetual toddler trailing after them, but Charlie was the normal one, the nice one, the one who fit in everywhere, the one that everyone liked.
Now all his brothers are married, married and reproducing like mad, and he is sitting before an empty brandy glass in a dusty, dirty, empty, silent pub in the bombed-out city of Zagreb.
Between the Second War and the fall of Communism, Zagreb has taken a beating. Zagreb is a ghost town full of concrete shells of apartment buildings, concrete shells of schools and stores and bus shelters. His mother would have a fit if she knew he was here. But Bucharest is even worse. For most of the time Charlie has lived in Romania, Bucharest has been seething with Death Eaters. In Bucharest, during the war, it was hardly safe to speak to anyone. Every bus driver, every cashier, every lithe young witch about town, every Romanian Ministry of Magic official, almost, was a spy. So Charlie fell into the habit of flying to Zagreb on his days off, and even though the war is over now, he still comes. He has developed a perverse, unsmiling loyalty to the Bedraggled Vampire. It has become the scene of his youth, the scene of his war.
The door opens, and Charlie snaps to attention. He tries to look like a man who's in love, or at least like a man who thinks he's in love, a man who wants to be in love, a man who's willing to try. The door swings forward, and Viktor Krum walks in. Charlie's shoulders slump. Viktor raises a hand in greeting; Charlie nods curtly.
Viktor walks across the room and says in precise, heavily accented English, "I have a letter." He looks at the empty chair. He says calmly, "She isn't coming."
"No," says Charlie, trying to sound resigned. "No, she isn't coming."
Viktor sits. He fishes in the inside pocket of his jacket. "I have a letter," he says, "from your sister-in-law. The girl who broke my heart." This isn't news to Charlie. In the Bedraggled Vampire, Hermione is invariably referred to, in heavily accented English, as "the girl who broke my heart."
"She sent it by that doofus owl," continues Viktor, "the one they call 'Pig.' He zoomed in my vindow this morning vith muddy feathers and fainted on the bearskin rug. So I shook him, and I threw some owl treats at him, and he voke up and gave me my letter. And then I saw he had a letter for you as vell. So I said, I said, 'Pig, do not fly to Romania. My friend Charlie vill not be at vork on a Saturday anyvay. He vill be sulking in a pub somevere, probably in Zagreb. So,' I say, 'Pig, give me the letter for Charlie and you go right back to the Burrow.' And he did, and I am here. Here—" he shoves an envelope across the table—"here is your letter."
Charlie takes it. He says, "Thanks." He does not open the letter. Hermione is, hands down, his favorite of all his motley assortment of sisters-in-law, even though she doesn't know a thing about Quidditch. (None of his sisters-in-law knows a thing about Quidditch.) But Hermione's letters are apt to be long and full of confident, flowery allusions to her personal happiness. Charlie is happy for her, and Charlie is happy for his freckled kid brother, but sometimes he doesn't care to read too much about other people's happiness.
Maybe in the morning.
Mihail the bartender brings Viktor a shot of fire-whiskey before Viktor asks for it. Mihail knows Viktor. Viktor tosses it off and says, "A friend of hers is getting married."
Charlie nods. He is not surprised. Another wedding. That's the way it was, when the war was on, and that's the way it is, now that the war is over. Every month, every letter, another wedding. Just not for him.
"She is very happy for her friend. Myself, I think, though she does not say it, I think she is surprised. Surprised and very happy."
Viktor pulls out his own letter. "The name of Hermy-own-ninny's friend is Ne-fill Long-bo-tome."
Charlie does a double-take. "Neville Longbottom?"
"Yes, Ne-fill Long-bo-tome. She writes that it vill be a very big vedding and she says, my friend, that she hopes you vill come. She says the bride and groom vish to celebrate vith a special petting zoo and she asks you, as a friend and a sister-in-law, if you vill vrangle the dragons."