Falling snow was an icy curtain across the windowpane, veiling the glimpse of forest beyond the alpine meadow. Inside one of the small cottages clustered around the dragon research centre, colourful paper chains and evergreen boughs lent a festive air to bare wooden walls. On a side table in the lounge, an Orpheus Orb spun like a top, broadcasting a medley of Christmas Carols. Stubby Boardman's God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs currently played. Within the kitchen, a feast weighed down the table adorned with a lace cloth brought with the food from Devon. Seated across from his parents and his sister, Charlie Weasley breathed in the aroma of turkey and roasted potatoes and smiled. It felt like home—minus five brothers.
Charlie eagerly took a bite of bacon-wrapped sausage dripping with lashings of hot gravy. He'd missed his mum's cooking. As he chewed, he wondered who had volunteered for patrol that day. He hoped it wasn't Emil. His housemate was staying with family in the wizarding village in a lower valley. Emil shouldn't have to leave them.
"Almost like Christmas at the Burrow, isn't it, dear?" Molly asked brightly. "The food, the music, Charlie dreaming of dragons instead of making the most of his limited time with us."
Ginny's snorting laughs made Charlie swallow his food the wrong way. He began to cough.
Molly's tone sharpened with concern. "Take a drink. Wash it down."
It was hard to follow the advice with his sister pounding on his back, but Charlie managed to drain his wine glass. "Thanks, Ginny. Sorry, Mum. I was thinking about my friend, hoping the others didn't take advantage of Emil's good nature to skive off patrol duty. There are a few blokes spending Christmas alone. One of them should be flying the perimeter to check the wards."
Molly spooned another helping of Brussels sprouts onto her plate. "Yes, they should. What else have they to do?"
"Drink and play cards, I expect," Arthur answered. "Pass the cranberry sauce, Ginny."
Charlie raised his eyebrows to see spots of red appear on his mum's cheeks.
She fingered the locket Dad gave her earlier that morning as a present, jerking the heart pendant back and forth. "You need seconds on cranberry sauce, Arthur? Is the turkey dry?"
"No. You've simply outdone yourself on the sauce. Bravo, my love."
Charlie exchanged grins with Ginny. It was amusing—although slightly disturbing—to watch his parents make eyes at each other like newlyweds. Charlie tucked into his dinner and decided to be thankful he had loving parents, and that his mum was ace at cookery.
Later, after he and Ginny pulled the wishbone and helped with the washing up, Charlie settled into his favourite chair beside the fire. Ginny sat on the rug reading a book with the picture of a teenaged couple on the cover. His parents sat close together on the old-fashioned settee. While his mum knitted, his dad asked questions about the centre. Charlie answered almost by rote, until he heard, "If you patrol during the day, who takes the night watch?"
Charlie was completely gobsmacked. "I—I don't know," he said. "I've been here since I left school, well over a year, and no one's ever mentioned it."
And I've never wondered. Am I that single minded?
A smile flickered across his face as he admitted to himself that when it came to dragons, yes, he was.
"Maybe there isn't a watch at night," Ginny said matter-of-factly, her gaze glued to her book. "Because the dragons are sleeping."
Arthur stretched out his legs and linked his hands together across his stomach. "Perhaps it's locals from the village, community support and all that."
Molly said, "They do have a vested interest in making sure the dragons stay within a protected habitat."
"Yeah," Charlie said. "They do."
His dad closed his eyes. "Doesn't the centre have a logbook?" he asked sleepily. "You could check that to see if it solves your mystery..." His voice trailed away. A few seconds later, he began to snore.
"Don't feel you have to keep us company, Charlie, love," his mum said. "Go solve your mystery if you like."
He wanted to, but it was Christmas, a time for family. He could wait. "I'm in no hurry." Charlie bent to take a closer look at the cover of Ginny's novel. The girl had red hair while the boy was—an opportunity to tease. "Is that the type you go for? Lads who style their hair to look like they've just left the Quidditch pitch? Or is it blokes who don't own a comb?"
Ginny swatted at him with her book. "Shut up before I drag you outside to play in the snow."
Instantly, Charlie was out of the chair and bending to haul his sister off the rug and sling her over his shoulder. "I think I'd rather dump you into the snow!"
"Not so fast!" Mum tossed her knitting aside to reach for her wand. "Remember the rules: Warming and Waterproof Charms, Wellingtons and woollies!"
Charlie set Ginny on her feet. "Since gloves seem to be optional," he said with a wink, "Do you want to go bare handed or try out the green dragon hide pair I forgot to wrap and put in your Christmas stocking?"
His sister's face lit up. "Green's my favourite colour!"
He used an Accio charm to fetch the gloves.
It wasn't until his parents retired for the night that Charlie decided to stroll over to the centre to take a look at the logbook.
"Should I wake Mum and Dad if you're not back in an hour?" Ginny asked from her makeshift bed on the settee.
"Will you still be awake? I thought our snowball fight wore you out, the way you dodged so poorly at the end."
Ginny peered at him over the edge of her novel. "In the spirit of Christmas, I took pity on you for your bad aim and gave you an easy target."
Charlie grinned in appreciation of her cheekiness. "Happy Christmas to you, too, and no, don't wait up. I might—" he stopped short of saying, "investigate a mystery."
"Have a drink and play cards with your friends?" Ginny lowered her book to reveal a smirk. "Remember that I'm going to wake you up early to take me flying."
He walked over to ruffle her hair. "How old are you? Ten going on twenty? What do you know about drinking?"
Charlie tweaked her nose. "Good. Keep it that way."
At the front door he took a full-length dragon hide coat down from a peg and dragged it on before pulling his black, sheepskin-lined hat down to cover his ears. His hair was longer than Mum liked, but not enough to keep his earlobes from freezing. He flexed his fingers in his gloves and stamped his feet.
"Is that a Romanian dance?" Ginny watched him over the back of the settee.
He chuckled. Emil had asked if it was an English dance. "No. Something I do before I get ready to patrol. It's just habit. I'm not flying anywhere."
"Oh. Goodnight." She sank down out of view.
Her head popped up. "Is that Romanian? Are you learning the language? Will you teach me some phrases?"
"I'm trying, and yes, tomorrow, so good night."
"NWAHP-teh BOO-nuh!" Ginny called after him.
Her pronunciation was better than his, Charlie thought ruefully. He made his way to the centre using a Lumos charm to light the darkness.
Unlike the cottages he passed, the centre had no candles burning in the windows. Maybe Ginny has the right of it. There's no need for anyone to patrol at night.
Immediately, his twin brothers' merry faces flashed into mind. At home, Mum and Dad were the "keepers" who had prevented Fred and George from sneaking out of the house on too many nights to count. If humans pushed boundaries day or night, was it logical to believe dragons wouldn't? Diurnal didn't mean only active during the day.
Charlie disengaged the ward to enter the building through a side entrance, his breath a pale mist in the shadowy darkness. No one had been in the centre that day to cast warming spells. He headed directly to the muster room. On a table of worn pine, open for anyone to see, was the daily log. He raised his wand to illumine the pages. There were no night watches recorded over the last two years.
On the back wall, library-sized bookshelves held the logbooks of years past. Charlie selected a record from five years ago, then ten, then twenty. He found no evidence that anyone had ever flown a patrol at night.
After re-shelving the hefty tomes, he carried one final logbook over to the table. "If there wasn't a night watch fifty years ago, there never was such a thing," he muttered. After turning the first couple of pages, he exhaled sharply in frustration. With a snap, he closed the book.
He didn't believe in Divination, but he was willing to try anything once.
Charlie balanced the book on its spine, concentrated on what he wanted to know and let the logbook fall open. Eyes closed, he reached down. When his finger touched the right side of the page, it slid upward. Charlie was able to translate a couple of words from the log dated November 22, 1941, 0200.
Charlie read the name of the keeper who had made the entry. N. Tedescu.
He skimmed the pages and found the entries stopped abruptly on December fourteenth and never resumed. He wondered why.
"Accio information on N. Tedescu!" Charlie cried waving his wand at the doorway.
A thin, black, leather-bound book zoomed into the room and landed on the table. He opened the first page. It was logbook, with the first entry dated February 14, 1942. He couldn't do more than pick out a word here and there, but Charlie recognised the handwriting. Instead of N. Tedescu, the keeper signed only one name: Nadia.
He flipped through the pages, eventually realising two things. First, the logbook was enchanted to stay slim while never running out of parchment: there were blank pages at the back. Second, the same person made every entry from February 1942 to December 1991: Nadia Tedescu. It was almost too incredible to get his head around. Why had this woman worked for almost fifty years in secret? She had to be getting old—a regular McGonagall. Were the Romanian and English wizarding Ministries responsible? Had they demanded cutbacks at the centre, forcing the staff to find a way to pay their night keeper off the official books?
Charlie decided to find out. I'm going flying after all. He sent the logbook back to wherever it had come. And I'm finally going get some more use out of that Night Vision Spell Bill and I came up with to play hide and seek in the dark.
Since there were no senior keepers around, he took the fastest, latest-model broomstick out of the shed. The Comet Two Sixty handled like a dream. His eyes, magically altered to be sensitive to the longer wavelengths of light, tinted everything he saw with red. He saw wolves and a lynx, but no dragons.
On a hunch, Charlie flew higher, up to the shallow caves beneath the conical peak that looked its name: burnt. Hungarian Horntails nested at this time of year. Keepers monitored the temperature of the sands in the cave to ensure the sands remained warm enough to incubate dragon eggs. At night, in cold weather, wouldn't a diligent keeper be twice as likely to check and renew Heating Charms if needed?
He landed on a sandstone slope, using a Shrinking Spell to store his broom in a pocket. After nonverbal spells to neutralise his scent and silence his footsteps, he cast a Disillusionment Charm. The extended bout of spell casting left him swaying on his feet. He should have said no to a third glass of wine with leftovers. Charlie took deep, slow breaths and waited until his light-headedness passed to climb up to the nearest cave.
A blacked scaled dragoness lay curled around a clutch of eggs half-buried in volcanic sand. Her tail twitched. Charlie crept forward to slide his hand into the sand. It was hot. Someone had cast a Heating Charm recently.
Charlie crawled out of the cave and slowly made his way along the snow-covered slope. Interestingly, he found that even in caves occupied by lone males with no eggs to incubate, the sand was still hot. Not many of his workmates would have wasted their time and energy to heat the sand above a tolerable, warm temperature. Was it a Christmas gift from the night keeper?
When he had accounted for every nesting Horntail dragoness, there was still one cave left to check. The likelihood that he would find the mysterious Nadia inside was slim, yet he couldn't turn away. His stubborn streak pressed him to continue. In for a Sickle, in for a Galleon.
He approached the cave from the side. At once, he could tell something wasn't right. Dragons slept curled up like cats. This one had his neck stretched out as though he'd fallen from a Stunning Spell, and there was something else—something attached to the body. Charlie stared in shock when he recognised the shape as that of a woman in black clothing moving away from the dragon.
"Multumesc foarte mult dragul meu prieten." The woman's voice was low and husky.
Charlie understood enough Romanian to know she had said, "Thank you very much, my dear friend." What he couldn't understand was what she was thanking her "friend" for. Had she taken claws or fangs, perhaps bottled blood to sell on the black market? Anger brought him to his feet and into the cave. "Dragons are a protected species. If you've harmed this creature in any way, you'll be prosecuted."
She whirled around. "Eu nu am ranit pe nimeni, Englez."
He took a closer look at her and froze. This wasn't a seventy-year-old witch! Night vision cast a red glare over everything, but the woman didn't look much older than him. She must be Nadia's granddaughter. "Nu vorbesc bine româneste—I don't speak Romanian well," he said. "Do you speak English? Vorbiţi engleză?"
She tilted her head, considering him for several moments before nodding sharply. "Da. I said I hurt no one."
"Then what were you doing? Only authorised—"
"Do I look like a turist, Englez?" In the blink of an eye, she was standing in front of him, pointing to the mouth of the cave. "You are the one not authorised to be here. Go, before I am tempted to wake my friend from his slumber."
Seen up close, her pale, unlined skin and long black hair confirmed Charlie's guess about the woman's age. "You didn't answer my question."
It was a trick of night vision, of course, but her dark eyes seemed to glow red with anger. "I answer to no one, Englishman."
"Not even Dimitrie Maslahaun?" Surely her grandmother wouldn't want the Head Keeper notified of this trespass.
"No one! Fly to Dimitrie if you do not believe me. Tell him you patrol at night. Tell him you accused Nadia of harming dragons. See how fast you are sent back to England!"
Charlie tried to comprehend what she was saying. "You're named after your grandmother Nadia? Nadia Tedescu?"
"My bunica was Afina. I am Nadia Tedescu."
Details overlooked before suddenly registered. It was bitterly cold outside the cave, and she wasn't wearing a hat, cloak, or gloves. When she'd told him to go, he'd felt the urge to obey. Only his stubborn will—and the desire to see her face more closely—enabled him to resist.
When her lips curved, his pulse leapt. She had a beautiful mouth.
"And you are?" she asked, in her pleasantly accented voice.
He was riveted by the way her lips moved.
"Late," he said, tearing his eyes away. "I'm expected back. I have to go." Charlie turned on his heel, silently chanting charms of protection. He retrieved and mounted his broomstick, speeding as fast as he could toward home.
Snow began to fall. It felt good against his flushed face. How could he have been so bloody stupid? It had been years since his third year DADA lesson on vampires, but that was no excuse for not recognising one!
I didn't expect her to look so young.
Back at the centre, he decided not to confront the Head Keeper. If he did, Charlie would have to confess how he discovered Nadia, which might give Dimitrie an excuse to sack him. He refused to let that happen. He'd worked too hard for his position!
He returned the Comet to the shed and walked home. Charlie was about to open the front door when he heard a sound.
A black cat stood on the snowy path behind him. It lifted a paw and shook off the snow.
"Scat," he said, pointing his wand at the feline. He'd never seen a cat around the centre before.
It meowed again, a pitiful, mewing sound. He wanted to pick the animal up and pet it, bring it inside to get warm by the fire.
"Is this how you find your victims, slinking around humans as a cat?" he said harshly.
The front door opened. "Who are you talking to, Charlie?"
In the time it took to look at Ginny, standing with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and glance back, the cat had vanished.
"No one," he said. "I was talking to myself. Go back to bed."
She didn't listen, and trailed after him as he went around the house casting extra security wards. "Is there something bad outside that's trying to come in?"
"I don't know, but I'm not taking any chances." Charlie hugged his sister and steered her to the lounge.
He went to his room and almost jumped out of his skin to see a black cat peering at him through snow-frosted glass. She was stalking him! Adrenaline rushed through his veins. He jerked open the window. "I'm not inviting you to do anything but come in, say your peace, then leave."
In a fluid motion, the cat sprang into the room.
Charlie clenched his wand in readiness. "If you attack me you'll regret it, vampire."
The cat transformed into a woman. "Villagers call me moroii, a shape shifter, but I prefer strigoi, from strigă, witch."
"You're undead in any language."
"I find it preferable to the alternative." Nadia smiled slightly, drawing his gaze to lips that were even more seductive in the candlelight. "You left before we completed our introductions," she said. "And you are...?"
"Not interested in being a blood donor if that's what you're after."
"I do not drink human blood," she said, "so you have nothing to fear."
Thank you very much, my dear friend.
She didn't drink human blood because she already had a source of food: dragons. Weirdly, it made him feel better about having a vampire patrolling the reserve at night—and finding her attractive. She wasn't a threat to humans, and as Mum said about the villagers, Nadia had a vested interest in making sure the dragons stayed within their habitat. "I don't fear you," he said.
"I hear your heart pounding."
Well, that was embarrassing. "Doesn't mean I'm afraid."
Her uncertainty made her seem vulnerable, more human. He said, "I'm Charlie Weasley."
"Ah, C.W. I've read your entries in the log. Two ironbellies were fighting for territory in the gorge last week. You used an Aversion Charm. Clever."
"You are still a trainee?"
He smiled a little. "I should be offered a keeper position next summer, if Dimitrie doesn't send me back to England."
"I will tell him nothing. I followed to tell you that."
Their eyes continued to hold. It slowly dawned on Charlie that if Nadia had only followed to inform him she wouldn't tell Dimitrie about their encounter, she would have already left. His heart skipped a beat. Was she as drawn to him as he was to her? "I decided not to say anything, either. After all," he said, in an attempt to lighten the tension arcing between them, "you do have a half century of seniority."
She smiled fully, displaying canines that weren't half as long as those he'd seen on some unfortunate girls. "And I never miss a night of work."
"Except for those two months between '41 and '42?"
Her expression became so melancholy, Charlie wanted to hex himself. That must have been when she was attacked.
Suddenly, he wanted to know how Nadia had survived and everything she had seen and done and learned about dragons. He was curious about dragon blood. Was it better for vampires—strigoi—than human blood? More potent? The blood could be used for oven cleaner. How did she drink it without damaging her skin?
Charlie wasn't the only one with questions. Nadia asked almost shyly, "Will you tell me about your daylight patrols?" Her expression was wistful. "I have missed seeing dragon wings block out the sun."
His breath caught in his throat. He could hear it in her voice; she loved dragons as much as he did.
Fully aware that he was taking a risk, Charlie said, "My family is leaving in a few days, and my housemate won't return until New Year's. If you'd like to come over some night before you go on patrol."
"You are inviting me into your home?"
His home, his life—hell, he didn't know what he felt or where their talks would lead. It didn't matter. He wasn't the type to play it safe. "Yes."
She responded with a smile that enhanced her dangerous beauty. "I accept your invitation."
A/N: Never underestimate the power of random discussion! I have to thank lyin' for making a comment in the reviews lounge forum about liking the idea of Charlie having an ongoing relationship with a vampiress. I found the idea intriguing, and when I thought of a way to fit it with my view that Charlie would be most likely to have a relationship with someone who works at the research centre, I wrote the story! Thanks also to respitechristopher for putting the BeeGees in my head. :D The song I've been humming is More Than a Woman, because Nadia and Charlie can take forever just one minute at a time (sings falsetto, winces).
I took my dragon info from GoF, the HP-Lexicon, and memories of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and my Romanian info from research gathered for an earlier story—research, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste. :). As for vampires, I looked up the Romanian versions and tweaked folklore to suit plot purposes.
Special thanks, as always, to MollyCoddles for letting me bounce ideas off her and being a fab beta, and I hope all readers will accept my invitation to leave a review!