Brownyn sometimes wondered at the differences between her family and Charlie's. Her father was somewhat taciturn, and her mother had been soft-spoken, often leading Bronwyn to speculate where she'd inherited her own admittedly sharp tongue and outspoken nature. Charlie's family was a marvel, in Bronwyn's limited experience with them. His parents, five siblings and their spouses and significant others, a handful of all-but-adopted-into-the-family friends – all crammed around a scrubbed wooden table on Sunday afternoons – ten different boisterous conversations that could ebb and flow around one another, merging into a single discussion with the wisp of an overheard phrase from another part of the table. As an only child, Bronwyn was fascinated with the family dynamic. 'Charlie?' she murmured. 'Are you asleep?'
'What if I said yes?' Charlie replied, teeth glimmering in a smile. Bronwyn poked him in the side in exasperation, with only a slight huff. The bedding rustled as Charlie rolled onto his side to face Bronwyn. 'What's on your mind?' he asked softly, scrunching up his pillow.
'What was it like to grow up in your family?'
The innocent inquiry startled Charlie. He hitched himself a little higher against the headboard, taking several moments to rearrange the sheet over his torso. He couldn't speak about his family while his willie was uncovered to the world. It offered him the opportunity to carefully consider his next words. It was too easy to romanticize his family, as well as go to far the other direction and make it sound like hell on earth. 'Intrusive,' he finally said.
Bronwyn snorted. 'No privacy,hmmm?'
'That,' Charlie said with a chuckle. 'No space to call your own with so many of us in a small house.' His tone lightened a bit. 'My cabin in Romania was half this size,' he informed her. 'It might as well have been a bloody palace, as far as I was concerned when I first arrived there.'
Bronwyn's nose crinkled as she contemplated an even smaller version of the already small cabin. 'Go on,' she scoffed.
Charlie fiddled with the edge of the sheet. 'It was. Shared a bedroom from the day I was born until I arrived at the reservation in Romania. Hardly a moment to breathe without someone sticking their nose in your business.' He glanced at Bronwyn. 'What about you?'
'It was just Mum, Dad, and me. I grew up here, and there weren't many dragonkeepers who had children my age. They were either much older or much younger. You know Dad. He doesn't talk much, and my mother did have an iron fist, but it was firmly encased in a velvet glove. She never raised her voice above a well-modulated tone, but there was no doubt she would get what she wanted. After she died, it was very, very quiet.' Bronwyn pulled the duvet over her shoulders. 'And very, very lonely sometimes,' she admitted.
Charlie nodded. 'I was never lonely. But I would have given my left arm to be alone sometimes.' He slid back down, turning to face Bronwyn. He threaded his fingers through Bronwyn's tangled curls, brushing them out of her eyes. 'And I wanted to start earning my own way in the world. Didn't want to be a burden to them.'
'How could you be a burden?' Bronwyn murmured. Unlike many of the other bachelor dragonkeepers, he easily managed his own laundry and clothing repairs. He could also cook, as long as it wasn't terribly complicated. He was self-sufficient to the point where the Healers on the reserve groused good-naturedly amongst themselves, because Charlie's first impulse when he was injured was to treat it himself, rather than seek the assistance of the Healers. 'You're hardly incompetent or irresponsible.'
'Financially,' he admitted heavily, feeling his throat close around the word. It felt like betrayal. Charlie's fingers lightly drew patterns over the slope of Bronwyn's breast. 'Dad's job didn't pay much, and there were seven of us.' He paused. 'Nine, if you count Mum and Dad.' The corners of his mouth tipped up. 'Mum might have been distracted with so many of us, and to be honest, Fred and George took up a great deal of her attention with their antics and pranks. But there was never any doubt that she and Dad loved us. Never a lot of money, but always a lot of love.'
'What was it like for your younger brothers and sister?' Bronwyn asked curiously. She'd been to a handful of Sunday lunches with Charlie's family, but had gotten to know Ginny a bit when she had attended the Harpies' trial. Ginny, like Charlie, could be independent to the point of obstinancy. Ever inquisitive, Bronwyn had casually studied the multitude of photographs that adorned the walls of the Burrow, noting that certain articles of clothing had made their way down from Bill to Ron, and even sometimes Ginny. Charlie had once offhandedly remarked that his first wand wasn't even his; it had belonged to his uncle Bilius. Charlie had obtained his current wand before leaving for Romania, and Uncle Bilius' wand passed down to Ron, where it had been destroyed in mysterious circumstances.
Charlie's mouth twisted. 'It wasn't so bad for Bill, Percy, and me,' he said slowly. 'Mum thankfully didn't do that thing where the older siblings are totally responsible for the younger ones. We did help the younger ones with their lessons, though.' The walls of the cabin faded, and Charlie no longer saw the faded striped wallpaper of his bedroom, but the scrubbed wooden table in the Burrow's kitchen, Molly flitting from child to child, teaching them how to read and do maths, while dishes washed themselves in the sink. Bronwyn lay still, scarcely allowing herself to breathe. Charlie rarely spoke this much about anything. Charlie lips pressed together. 'Didn't seem fair for the younger ones, though. Especially Ron. I almost hated that Mum and Dad didn't have enough gold to get Ron his own wand to start Hogwarts.' His voice trailed off and he shifted uncomfortably. He went to Romania a year before Ron started Hogwarts. Arthur and Molly had insisted on helping him get kitted out for Romania. Charlie knew the cost had been dear, even though neither Molly nor Arthur ever let on just how much. It had caused no small share of clawing guilt on Charlie's part. Often late at night, he would wonder just how much his younger brothers had been deprived of something necessary merely because of an accident of birth order. Both he and Bill had regularly sent money home once they had advanced enough in their respective jobs to make a decent amount of gold.
'They confuse me, and I don't always like them,' Charlie confessed, his voice small in the dark stillness.
'But you love them,' Bronwyn breathed. Charlie nodded, drawing Bronwyn close. Enough talk now,' he thought. Actions were always much more straightforward, in Charlie's opinion, that left little room for doubt.
Harry held a spoon aloft. 'Open wide for the hippogriff!' he chanted in a sing-song voice as he moved the spoon in swoops and swirls. Teddy's eyes avidly followed the path of the applesauce-laden spoon. Harry suddenly made the spoon dive into Teddy's partially-open mouth. Teddy began to crow with delight, spraying Harry with bits of pureed apple. Andromeda handed him a damp tea towel, with an inquiring tilt of her head toward Hermione, who rarely came to the house with Harry to visit Teddy. Harry wiped the specks of applesauce off his glasses, then polished them on the hem of his shirt. 'You still have Remus' books in the attic?' he asked, rubbing at a smudge on his face.
'In boxes, yes.' Andromeda took the spoon from Harry's hand and offered Teddy another bite of applesauce. 'Why?'
Harry swiftly kicked Hermione under the table. She jumped and nearly upset the milk jug. 'Ow!' Hermione rubbed the throbbing spot on her shin, scowling at Harry. He sighed and mouthed 'Books.'
'Oh, right,' Hermione said weakly. 'I…' Andromeda turned toward Hermione. The sunshine streaming into the kitchen backlit Andromeda, throwing her features into shadow, making her resemblance to Bellatrix a bit stronger than usual. Hermione paled visibly and gulped. 'Remus left a letter for me and said I could take his books to friends of his,' she said in a rush, almost making the sentence a single word.
Andromeda's brows arched. 'Friends with more body hair than usual at times?' she asked.
'Y-yes,' Hermione stammered.
'Whatever for?' Andromeda countered.
Outrage spread over Hermione's face. 'Remus was a member of your family, and you have the nerve to ask that?' she spluttered. Andromeda remained silent and merely fed Teddy another spoonful of applesauce. 'They're bored,' Hermione said angrily. 'They used to be active, productive members of society. And now, through no fault of their own, they're forced to be idle and not do what they've been trained to do!'
'So you're attempting to prevent mental atrophy?' Andromeda ventured.
'Oh, honestly,' Hermione muttered in annoyance. 'Yes,' she ground out between clenched teeth.
Andromeda wiped applesauce from Teddy's face. She lifted him from his highchair and set the toddler on the floor. Andromeda watched Teddy hoist himself to his feet and waddle toward Harry. A frown briefly deepened the crease between her brows. 'I'll have to think about it,' she said.
Hermione scowled, studying her watch. 'I'm late for tea with my parents.' She picked up her handbag. 'If you'll excuse me…'
Harry muttered, 'Hermione, wait…' She left without a backward look.
'Mr. and Mrs. Granger have tea rather early,' Andromeda commented idly. 'It's hardly half past three.' Whatever else she was going to say was lost in the crash of the door opening.
Hermione stalked back into the kitchen. 'It's unconscionable!' she declared. 'Remus wanted his books to be used, and they're not doing anybody a whit of good sitting in a dusty attic!' She whirled around and stomped from the kitchen once more.
Andromeda's lips twitched in a superhuman effort to not laugh. She held up the teapot. 'Tea?' she asked Harry.
'Sure.' Harry watched as Andromeda busied herself with the teapot. 'Why didn't you let Hermione have the books?' he ventured.
Andromeda flicked her wand at the dresser and brought a plate of biscuits to the table. 'If she wants them badly enough, she'll come back,' she said tranquilly.
Harry picked up a biscuit and nibbled the edges. 'She's terrified of you, you know,' he commented. 'He paused, then amended, 'Well, not you in particular. You really do look like Bellatrix.'
Andromeda snorted, spooning tea leaves into the warmed teapot. 'Only if the light is poor and you squint.'
'And tilt your head to the left,' Harry chuckled. Andromeda's resemblance to her elder sister really was superficial at best.
Andromeda tucked a lock of wavy light brown hair back into her neat chignon. 'Imagine if I had been dark,' she said wryly, examining her reflection in the back of a spoon. 'Narcissa was the lucky one. She took after our mother with her blonde hair.'
'How many books are there?' Harry asked curiously, turning the conversation back to the original topic.
Andromeda heaved a sigh, and glanced at the ceiling. 'I'm not sure. There are at least a dozen cartons, but Merlin only knows how many books he magicked into them. But knowing Remus, there's a library's worth.' She deftly poured tea into two cups, and offered one to Harry. 'Hermione is welcome to have them. She is right. They ought to be used.' Andromeda sipped her tea. 'She'll come back and ask for them, if she's anything like the girl Remus knew and admired.'
Ginny stretched out on a blanket, letting the warm sun bake her skin. 'Ready to go home?' Marion asked, shading her eyes with one hand.
'Yes and no.' Ginny opened one eyes and peered at her mentor. 'I miss my family. I miss Harry. I miss a good home-cooked meal. I really miss my mother's Sunday feasts,' Ginny said longingly, thinking of all the meals she'd eaten over the past month. Gwenog had ensured they were well-fed, but it wasn't Molly's cooking. 'Not that I won't miss being around you lot all hours of the day,' she added cheekily, dodging the swat Marion aimed at her arm. 'I want to eat breakfast without having ten people examine the contents of my plate,' she laughed. There was a kernel of truth to that. More than once, someone had felt the need to inform Ginny she needed more protein or more fruit. 'But…' Her voice trailed off. She was silent so long Marion poked her sharply to see if she'd fallen asleep. 'Ow!' Ginny rubbed the spot on her thigh where Marion jabbed her index finger.
'But what?' Marion prompted.
Ginny inhaled deeply. 'Here, I'm not anyone's sister. Or daughter. Or girlfriend. I'm not defined by who I know or who I'm related to. With the team, I'm just… Ginny Weasley, Reserve Chaser. I like that.'
Marion grinned. The Harpies were legendary for not caring who someone was off the pitch. What mattered was what they did on the pitch. 'What else have you learned?'
Ginny sat up, and drew her knees close to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. She rested her chin on her knees, and gazed at the dark blue sea, lapping gently on the sand. 'You have to implicitly trust your team. That they will protect you. If you don't, your performance on the pitch suffers. If you can't trust them off the pitch, how can you trust them on the pitch?' She snorted. 'Lauren said something like that in Sweden.'
'Took you long enough to figure out she meant it,' Marion chuckled. 'And I thought you were brighter than the average witch.' She picked up a tall glass and sipped the fruity concoction in it. 'What else?'
'Not to get cocky,' Ginny said ruefully. She could still recall the bruises from the scrimmage with the starting side during the trial.
'That's a lesson everybody should learn,' Helen interjected. She unfurled a blanket next to Marion. 'Can a Beater join you, or is this an all-Chasers party?' Marion's expression didn't change, but Ginny saw a light creep into her eyes.
Ginny grinned. 'Make yourself comfortable.' She grabbed her beach dress and pulled it over her bikini.
Helen kicked off her sandals and lowered herself to the blanket. She tilted her head slightly so she could see Ginny. 'Don't feel like you have to leave.'
'I thought I'd get a drink,' Ginny said. 'What are Mandy and Julia up to?' she asked Helen.
Helen kicked off her sandals and lowered herself to the blanket. 'At the café, I think. Plotting our last night in Italy.'
Ginny's brows rose. 'You mean Gwenog allows us one night of unadulterated debauchery during training?'
Helen laughed with a deep guffaw. 'In case you hadn't noticed, little one, we haven't been in training since yesterday afternoon.'
'We do get a bit of a holiday in August,' Marion told her. 'Gwenog tends to push us so hard while we're on this jaunt, she lets us have the first two weeks off.'
'Worth it,' Helen sighed flopping onto her back. 'I'm getting too old for this.' She settled into her blanket a bit more. 'Mind you don't let yourself get out of shape,' she cautioned. 'Gwenog'll have a litter of Kneazles. Keep up your land training.'
Ginny bent to retrieve her bag and saw a movement from the corner of her eye. Helen's hand moved across the scant inches that separated her from Marion. Her smallest finger moved in the tiniest caress against Marion's smallest finger.
Ginny cleared her throat. 'So, would you like a report of debauchery plans?'
Marion pulled her sunglasses slightly down her nose with a fingertip. 'I think we'll stay in,' she replied with a smirk.
'Right,' Ginny snorted. 'And have an Exploding Snap tournament.'
'So that's what the sprogs are calling it these days,' Helen chortled.
'Among other things,' Ginny said, as she turned to walk to the café.
Marion sat up. 'Ginny! Wait!' Ginny glanced over her shoulder. 'Careful with your drinks tonight!'
Ginny frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'Because there are arseholes who'll put something in your drink, so you'll be unconscious, and then they can assault you,' Helen told her bluntly. 'Don't put your drink down and don't accept one from someone you don't know.' She snorted. 'I know things at Hogwarts got disrupted quite a bit the last few years, but they've made a dog's breakfast of preparing you lot for the world outside the castle.'
'Pair up with someone,' Marion advised. 'Stay with them,' she ordered. 'Even if one of you has to go to the loo.'
'Mandy, Tilly, Caroline, or Millie would be good,' Helen advised. 'They keep their heads about them.' Ginny nodded wide-eyed.
'Don't panic,' Marion said soothingly. 'Just don't go off by yourself, don't drink something that you haven't constantly had in your possession, and don't drink to excess.'
'And remember to have a good time,' Helen interjected sarcastically.
'Yeah,' Ginny said faintly, looking a bit pale around the edges. She set off for the café on the edge of the beach.
Marion leaned back on her elbows and gave her partner a long, considering glance. 'What?' Helen muttered. 'Have I got something on my nose?'
'Just who is supposed to teach Hogwarts seventh years about the mundane evils of the world?' Marion asked with the air of someone inquiring about the weather. 'Could you really picture Slughorn telling the girls about the potions arsewipe boys can put in their drinks? Or Madam Pomfrey? Professor Sprout? McGonagall?' Helen's mouth opened, but Marion cut her off. 'And don't even say the DADA professor. They haven't had one worth the job description in ages.'
'When we get back to England, you can send an owl to McGonagall, suggesting they do it right after Disapperation lessons,' Helen drawled, stretching out fully on her blanket. 'Don't worry. Ginny'll be fine.'
Ginny stood at the edge of the shore, her sandals dangling from one hand. The salty breeze tugged at her hair, pulling it from the loose fishtail plait. She absently thumbed errant strands from her eyes and folded herself to the sand, sitting next to Julia. 'Can I ask you something?' she began, her eyes focused on the brightening sky at the horizon.
'Sure.' Julia toed off her own shoes and wiggled her toes in undisguised bliss, handing Ginny a paper cup of hot, strong, sweet tea.
'What was your first time like?'
Julia burst out laughing. 'It was awful,' she replied, giggling. 'Lots of fumbling, if I recall correctly. I'd just turned sixteen, and he was not quite seventeen. The first time for both of us.' She burbled with laughter. 'Somehow the first condom he tried to put on somehow snapped off his fingers and hit me dead in the middle of my forehead. Once things got going, it lasted all of 30 seconds before he was done.'
Ginny frowned. 'It's not like that in books,' she proffered.
'It never is,' Julia shot back. 'It's awkward and embarrassing. Unless you've indulged in foreplay as stepping stones on the way to the main event, it's the first time you've really seen each other naked, which is a whole other level of awkward.' Julia's mouth twisted in amusement. 'You just can't unsee that, which isn't a problem, unless the relationship goes south.'
Ginny giggled and took a sip of her tea. 'Because every time you see them later, the thought that goes through your head is, "I've seen your willy!"'
Julia nodded. 'At the very least.' An evil grin spread over her face. 'Did I ever tell you about the time I went out with Asher Elliot?' Ginny shook her head. Asher Elliot was the current Captain of Montrose, the youngest in their history. He was also widely considered a shoo-in for the English side for the next World Cup. 'The British and Irish Quidditch League hosts a few parties every season. One before the season begins, a Christmas do, and a formal banquet at the end of the season. If one of the teams makes it to the European Cup, they have a big send-off. I had just signed with Kenmare to be on their practice squad. Asher and I hit it off, and started seeing each other. Casually, mind,' Julia mused. 'At any rate, I did go to bed with him…' Julia trailed off and gave Ginny a measured glance. 'How well do you know male anatomy?'
'Well enough,' Ginny quipped.
'It varies from bloke to bloke,' Julia told her. 'Most would want you to believe they all look like the sort that pose for those racy mags you buy in Knockturn Alley once they've got their kit off.' She gnawed the edge of a fingernail thoughtfully. 'Krum's one of those. Not that I know from personal experience,' she added hastily. 'It's just that one hears things. And he does go on about being an international Quidditch star,' Julia huffed. 'Like he's compensating.' She leaned back on her hands. 'But I was speaking about Asher.' Julia smiled dreamily. 'He's marvelous in bed,' she murmured. 'But in all honesty…' Julia held up her smallest finger, with up upraised brow.
Ginny's mouth dropped open. 'No!' she gasped.
Julia chuckled. 'Oh yes. Ironically, it's why he was good in bed. He's developed other skills to make up for his lack of performance in other areas.' She sighed, almost regretfully. 'In the end, we didn't have much in common, and the relationship petered out. Asher's a bit vain, really. Like many handsome men are.'
'Do you still talk to him?'
'We're friendly enough when we meet each other at league functions,' Julia said. 'But still. Every time I see Asher at games or one of the parties, all I can think of is, "I've seen you naked, and it's rather underwhelming."' Julia watched the surf crash against the sand for several long moments. 'Size isn't everything, you know. It's all about patience, technique.' Julia glanced at Ginny. 'Still wondering about what to do with Harry?'
Ginny pleated the hem of her skirt between her fingers. 'Millie said something about knowing whether it's scratching an itch or a progression of a romantic relationship.'
Ginny looked at Julia from the corner of her eye. 'Why can't it be both?'
'That's the best kind.' Julia drew the edges of her wrap closer together. 'You can be in a committed romantic relationship and still want to shag like crazed bunnies in the heat of lust.' She tilted her wrist to check her watch. 'Come on. We should get back to the hotel.'
Ginny glanced at her own watch and swore softly under her breath. Gwenog had warned them at dinner last night that they were expected to be at breakfast at seven-thirty, and their first Portkey would leave promptly at eight-fifty-one. Anyone not on the Portkey would have to find their own way home. She still needed to shower and pack her belongings.
They scrambled to their feet and set off for the hotel. Ginny nudged Julia with an elbow. 'Thanks,' she said.
Julia drained her tea and tossed the cup into a nearby bin. 'Welcome to the world.'