The Real News
Hermione immediately dropped to her knees beside him. "Charlie? Charlie, what's the matter?"
No one else had noticed his arrival or his collapse yet, but it was only a matter of moments. She pulled back his winter cloak, searching for any obvious injuries, but there were none visible. His breathing was steady, but his skin was beaded with sweat as if he'd come in from an exceptionally hot day, rather than December chill. It had only taken her seconds to assess the situation, but it seemed like hours.
"Remus? What's happened to him? Where's he been?" she asked, standing to address the group. Her voice must have sounded pretty frantic, because nearly everyone in the room came rushing toward her. Of course, as soon as they saw Charlie on the floor, she was no longer the focus of their attention.
Mrs. Weasley was the first to reach him, despite having been clear across the room at Hermione's outcry. Tonks was next, despite Remus's admonition that she should stay put and let the others handle it. The latter didn't seem quite as distressed as Hermione might have expected, though his forehead was lined with worry. The calmest person in the room by far was Luna, who simply walked over and parted the clambering party guests as if there'd been no one in the way at all. They all got quiet as she examined the patient.
"He's fine," she said after a moment, smiling up at the group. "Ennervate."
Charlie began to stir immediately. Hermione felt her heartbeat start to settle into a normal rhythm again. As soon as he awoke fully, a moment of panic crossed his face, and his eyes darted across those standing above him before he finally relaxed. "I—I'm sorry if I frightened you."
Luna stopped him when he tried to sit up. Her voice was scolding when she said, "You should know better than to exert yourself so fully, Charlie."
"Charles Septimus Weasley," said Molly, doing her best to sound stern, but coming off as nothing but relieved. "You gave us quite a scare there. What have you gone and done to yourself now?"
Hermione got the distinct feeling that this was the voice Mrs. Weasley used every time Charlie came home with a new dragon-related injury. She felt a little relieved that the older woman wasn't as concerned as she would have thought, but there was still a nagging sense that she didn't know everything that was going on.
"I'm fine, Mum, really," he said, and this time he stood up with Bill's help. "It's just been a really long day."
"A really long day that ends in you fainting the second you step foot into your flat?"
Everyone turned to look at her the second the words came out of her mouth. She knew they were all thinking it, so why didn't anyone else say anything? Or maybe they weren't thinking it, and her bringing it up just drew extra attention to the fact that she was a married woman smitten with another man. Whatever the reason, she felt very exposed with all their eyes on her. It wasn't as if she had just collapsed.
"I'm going to go change," said Charlie quietly, and he pushed through everyone and disappeared down the hall. Hermione didn't hesitate, but turned immediately to go after him. She thought a voice might have called after her, but she was too preoccupied to even consider stopping.
When he stepped into his bedroom, he left the door open. Either he'd heard her footsteps behind his, or he'd known she'd follow. Despite his seemingly quick recovery, she didn't feel any calmer, any less anxious, and her hands were shaking as she pulled the door closed behind her. She was silent for a moment, watching as he stood with his back to her, ran a hand through his hair, and then slowly turned.
"I'm fine, Hermione."
"You are bloody well not fine," she said, the words coming out clipped and snappy. "Remus makes it sound like you're all just players in a giant game of real life wizard's chess, but I'm beginning to think it's a lot more than that. What happened to you today?"
"Nothing," Charlie said, shaking his head. Then, with one quick motion, he pulled his shirt over his head. Maybe he was trying to distract her—and if that was the case, it was working just a little. "Today wasn't any different than any other. I just...what was it Luna said? Exerted myself too fully."
Hermione's eyes travelled over his torso and chest, making no secret of how she was examining his body. There were still no injuries that she could see, no obvious signs of distress. A thin sheen of sweat remained on his skin, but otherwise there was no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. In fact, it was quite the opposite. His body was well-muscled and obviously in good shape. Perhaps not quite as toned as it had been several months ago, before he'd returned to England—and really, that was only conjecture on her part, as he still looked plenty toned to her—but he'd gone from hard physical labour outdoors to a desk job, so a certain amount of that was to be expected.
He definitely didn't look like the sort who could overexert himself on a job that was supposedly easy and safe.
"My life has enough lies without you using them on me," she said, keeping her voice carefully even this time. She wasn't sure if she was angry or just hurt. Why wouldn't he want to tell her what was going on?
He let out a quiet sigh, taking a few strides toward her, but stopping before he reached her. "It's not a lie. Even if I thought about doing that to you—which I haven't, by the way—I'm not so stupid to think you're that stupid."
"Lie, purposeful omission... It's the same thing."
"Are you sharing all the intimate details of your life with me?"
She didn't answer at first, watching his eyes. She and Tonks had discussed some of the details of her complicated relationship with Harry, but she'd avoided the subject with Charlie. It was more than a little awkward to talk to him about snogging another man. When she was sure it wasn't a rhetorical question, she asked, "Do you want to know about all the intimate details?"
"That's not an answer."
"Neither is that." Hermione crossed her arms over her chest.
Groaning at that, Charlie crossed the remaining distance between them and pulled her into a searing kiss. It took her by surprise, enough that she didn't actually relax into him until he slid an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. Whatever strength he'd been lacking upon arrival at the flat had either returned, or her legs were simply weak enough in return to compensate. A little voice told her that she should stand her ground and push him away, demand that he tell her what was going on. Right. Now. She knew before that voice had even spoken that she wouldn't listen to it.
"Charlie," she managed between kisses, the sound barely louder than a breath. "What are you doing?"
He paused with his lips hovering just in front of hers, as if he was debating whether to answer or stop her from speaking any more. She had very nearly decided to make the decision for him, as the distraction of his closeness was almost more than she could handle, when his answer came. "Stealing a birthday snog from my favourite witch." Something in her look must have told him that wasn't a sufficient answer, though, because he added, "Please, Hermione. I...can't. Not right now. Can you just trust me when I say I'm not doing anything that's more dangerous than my old job was?"
She dropped her eyes, unable to maintain contact with his. She didn't want to trust him with that. She wanted to know exactly what was going on and why he couldn't seem to trust her with that information. Secret missions were one thing, and she understood the need for them, but this was something else. That had always been a weakness of hers. The need to know had driven her too far in the past, and she couldn't risk doing that right now. She needed Charlie in her life, if for no other reason than to distract her from the bad things that were happening around her. It was selfish, but it was the truth.
Her hand moved from his waist, up his bare chest, and came to rest on his neck. One finger extended to touch the thin scar that started there. It occurred to her that this was the first time she'd ever seen him shirtless like this, close enough that she could follow the line of the old injury down to the spot on his chest where it stopped just over his heart. She traced the scar with a light touch. "Is that supposed to be comforting? I've seen what your old job did."
Charlie snorted a laugh. "Actually, that one's from the time the twins climbed a tree and got stuck, and I fell while trying to rescue the little buggers. Who managed to get down perfectly well on their own and without a bleeding scratch to go tell Mum I'd hurt myself." He scowled, but it was obvious that the memory was a cherished one. He stroked his thumb across her cheek. "Please?"
She studied him another moment. "Okay."
With another quick kiss and a touch of her hand, she stepped back into the hallway and closed the door quietly, waiting for him to change clothes. She was sure he wouldn't have complained if she'd stayed, but if there was any hope of spending a relatively normal evening with his family, she needed her head as far away from there as possible. Snatches of conversation drifted back to her, but it was nothing serious, no furtive whispers about Charlie's well-being or her interest in it. Maybe she was overreacting.
The way Charlie gripped the door frame as he came out to meet her made her think again—maybe not.
"Oh no, she's perfectly wonderful," Luna was saying as they rejoined the group. "I only wonder that they assigned her to Tonks's case. Healer Cabot usually only handles Muggleborn cases, you see. I believe her parents are both Muggle healers."
"Doctors," Hermione corrected automatically.
Luna turned to smile at her friend. "Yes! Doctors. I imagine it would be fascinating to study. Eleanor—that is, Healer Cabot—says they actually slice open a patient's skin with a knife. It's really rather horrifying, isn't it?"
The tone of her voice didn't make her sound particularly horrified, but the look on Ron's face was enough to bring a little giggle to Hermione's throat. She felt Charlie's hand move to the small of her back as he stepped up next to her, but she resisted the urge to snuggle into his side. Casual touches were one thing; waving their non-relationship like a flag when her husband was in the room was something else. Fake marriage or not, it simply felt strange.
"Eleanor was a Hufflepuff," Tonks said in between bites of roast beef. "A year above me, but we were mates."
"Impossible to shut them up sometimes," Charlie said.
Tonks rolled her eyes, but she didn't disagree. "I requested her. Can't hurt to have another friend on our side, even if she doesn't know the truth."
"Come then, enough talk of business," said Mrs. Weasley. Her eyes shifted to her second son, and for half a second Hermione could tell that the woman hadn't forgotten Charlie's collapse as easily as it seemed. It was only a brief glimpse of worry, though, and then she was bustling up to him and tugging on his arm. "Can't let the birthday boy go hungry. It's been a busy day, no doubt. You must be hungry, love. I've made all of your favourites."
"Thanks, Mum," he said, kissing her on the cheek and allowing her to steer him toward the kitchen.
Hermione forced herself not to stare after him, taking a seat on the arm of George's chair instead. Her nerves were starting to calm, her mood to turn into one more appropriate for a party. They all deserved to relax a bit, and she tried to clear her head of everything that was bothering her lately. Worrying about Tonks and the baby, about Charlie, about sleeping with Harry, about Ginny, about getting her wand back...it was more exhausting than she liked to admit.
Charlie returned to the sitting room with a plate that could probably have fed three first year students at Hogwarts, sitting on the couch next to Tonks. He exchanged a quick smile with Hermione, then settled into conversation with Bill and Fleur. Hermione had just stood to help herself to some of the food when there was a knock at the door.
They all glanced around as if checking to see who they'd forgotten. Hermione couldn't think of anyone, especially anyone who would need to knock at the front door, but she thought it was entirely possible Charlie could have invited someone from work. When he stood to answer it, it occurred to her that she often forgot this was technically his flat. She knew he lived in it, of course, but she always thought of it as belonging to Tonks, as if he was simply camping there. It really wasn't far from the truth, she supposed.
"Hello," he said as he opened the door, his tone pleasant enough. "Can I help you?"
The door swing open enough that Hermione could barely make out the figure standing out on the landing. It was a woman, probably not far from Charlie's age. Her clothes and hair were neat, and her posture and expression were timid.
"Oh, hello," the woman said, obviously taken aback by the crowd that was staring at her from inside. Her eyes darted around at them all before going back to Charlie. "I didn't mean to interrupt. I'm Diana. I volunteer for St. Mungo's on the weekends." She held out a small wrapped package. "Healer Cabot asked me to drop by with this. It's not much, but she thought it might help Ms. Tonks with..." Her cheeks turned pink. "Well, I suppose it's rather confidential, isn't it? She said it would help. With things."
George snickered. Hermione couldn't tell if it was about Tonks's "things" or the woman's stammered and jerky statements, but she backhanded his arm lightly anyway. He pretended to rub away the pain, but she knew her reaction really only made it funnier for him. She smacked him again.
"Ah," Charlie said. "Well, thanks then for bringing it by. Tell Healer Cabot thanks as well."
The confusion in his tone echoed what Hermione was feeling. Did St. Mungo's often send runners to make house calls? She'd never heard of such a thing, but it was possible. The texts she'd read on the hospital hadn't been as thorough as she would have liked. It bothered her nonetheless. Perhaps it was just natural for her to be suspicious these days, and for good reason, but the woman's sudden appearance felt wrong. She'd have to talk to Charlie about it later, once the party was finished and the guests had gone.
"I will." The woman raised a hand and gave a little wave. "Bye then." She turned on her heel and disapparated.
Charlie closed the door and turned back to the room, shaking his head in amusement. He tilted the package leaning in closer to read something, then laughed aloud. "Calming Draught. I'd say Eleanor remembers you well enough, Dora. I'm surprised she didn't send a whole case of the stuff."
He tossed it toward Tonks, but Remus stepped into its path and grabbed the package out of the air before it could reach its destination. The look on his face was enough to job Hermione's memory, and she realised why she was so uneasy.
"Calming Draught? But that's..."
Remus nodded, the creases on his face made more pronounced by his frown. When he spoke, his voice was much calmer than Hermione expected it would be. "Luna? Do you think this is something she'll need?"
"Remus, what—" Tonks stopped at his look, turning toward the slight blond witch.
Luna had a pensive look on her face. Hermione wouldn't have thought twice about it except for the slight frown that marred her friend's features. It looked as if the witch was working out a dozen riddles all at once, or at the least one that was so complex she couldn't make quick work of it. After a moment, as if continuing some unspoken conversation, she said, "Well, I suppose it's not that odd."
"What's not odd, love?" Ron said without a hint of irritation.
"Oh, it's perfectly safe," Luna replied, her lips then turning into a slight smile. It was only a subtle change from her previous expression. "Not necessary, I don't think, but safe. Diana's very nice," she added, turning toward her husband. When he continued to look at her, waiting for an answer to her question, she patted his cheek. "I don't see why she didn't send it by owl, though. It would have been much less trouble."
Hermione looked at Remus, and when he caught her eye, he nodded again. Luna continued on about hospital policy for potions, and the differences between the procedures for ones that required a healer's prescription and those that did not, but Hermione barely listened. She watched as he moved out of the room and into the kitchen, then slowly unwrapped the package and turned the potion into the sink. If the others noticed—and she was sure a few did—no one said anything, and she was glad. There would be time to discuss after they'd celebrated. Maybe a recalled potion was nothing.
"—but I suppose she can do as she likes." She kissed Ron's cheek. "I'm glad you don't take advantage of your fame."
The tips of Ron's ears turned bright red, but Hermione could tell the comment pleased him. She'd never considered herself and Ron to be famous like Harry, but they had gotten enough attention in the years after the war that it had sometimes seemed it.
"Everyone at the hospital whispers about her. I think it's very sad that no one likes her just because her father-in-law is the Minister."
What little sound there had been in the room ceased for long, silent moment, and then there was a sudden rush of sound. A clatter and the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen as Remus dropped the potion vial. Harry swearing. Mrs. Weasley's gasp. The cracking of Charlie's knuckles.
Luna broke the awkward moment with a question. "Oh, you didn't know? I suppose it's because she's so very shy."
Harry stood up and exchanged significant looks with Remus and Charlie, then moved to retrieve his cloak from the hook near the door. "I'll find out whatever I can. Don't worry, Remus. Sorry, Charlie."
If not for that last muttered apology as he exited, they might have all forgotten they were even at a party.
"All right, everyone. Come now," Mrs. Weasley said, a determined expression on her face. "Cake."
I told you I'd be back to this eventually. Work is hell right now, but I need the creative outlet. I've got a full outline on this story, so I'm doing my best to hurry up and get this thing finished. Sorry for the wait!