A/N: This story was written as a prize for Quilter for winning the December Carrot Challenge at The Maple Bookshelf. Way to go Quilter! I hope you love it. Huge thanks to my alpha TycheSong and my beta StitchWitch!
Disclaimer: As per usual, I'm only playing in the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling rules it all.
Hermione locked the door behind her and shed her cloak with a tired sigh. The dim, quiet light was a welcome relief after the bustle of an unusually hectic day at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Her day had ended with a particularly nasty incident, and all she really wanted was to go home and shower to rid herself of the stench of bubotuber pus that seemed to permeate her entire being before promptly crawling into her bed. That unfortunately wasn't an option however, as her single bedroom flat was currently very soggy; the result of a neighbor's mishap with an Unclogging Charm. And so instead of slipping between her flannel sheets with a good book and Crookshanks at her feet, she was spending the week at number 12 Grimmauld Place.
The only positive aspect of the entire situation was that, for the moment at least, the old house was entirely silent. That was very often not the case, as the Order's former headquarters was typically occupied by the Potter family, not to mention a varied selection of their relatives.
Fortunately for Hermione's current state of mind however, Ginny was on an exhibition tour with the Holyhead Harpies and Harry had been called away on an Auror mission, and so their children had been sent to spend time at the shore with Bill and Fleur. It wasn't that she didn't adore the Potter children and their parents, but the recent stress of her promotion to Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement left her with less patience than was required to sometimes deal with the brood.
Gripping the handle of her bag more firmly in one hand and casting Lumos with the other, Hermione set off up the stairs, climbing all the way to the fourth floor. The lower rooms where she and her friends had slept as children had long since been refashioned into bedrooms for the Potter brood. She had since regulated herself to one of the guestrooms.
Upon reaching the landing, she immediately opted for the door on the left. Both Sirius' and Regulus' rooms had been refitted as beautifully decorated guest rooms by Ginny. Hermione had never quite been able to shake the air of indelible sadness she associated with Sirius' old chambers though, and so always chose Regulus's when staying at the Potter home.
She dropped her bag onto the dove grey bed spread, a dull thud belying its deceptively small appearance. Digging out her toiletries and her favourite pyjamas, she headed back down the stairs for her much anticipated shower.
After a deliciously long shower, Hermione stepped from the bathroom, shivering in the suddenly cool air but eager to crawl into the bed awaiting her. She had only just set foot on the stairs when a loud thud sounded from below, causing her to pause.
"Crooks?" She called out, hoping her cat had simply discovered a mouse and wasn't otherwise causing mayhem. When she didn't hear the customary meow in return, she frowned and turned to head down the steps instead. A quick search of the second floor elicited no results and so she continued to the first.
She was preparing to search the dining room, Crooks' haunt of choice, when it dawned that something wasn't quite as it should be. A fleeting mental catalogue soon revealed the problem; there was the faintest glow of light emanating from the kitchen where there had been none an hour earlier. Cursing under her breath, Hermione reached for her wand before realizing that it still lay on her bed next to her bag. Hermione could practically hear Moody snarling "CONSTANT VILIGANCE!" in response to her carelessness.
This wouldn't be the first time a glitch in the Floo system had allowed curiosity seekers to invade the Potters' home, but they were usually chased off by the family Crup, Herbert. Herbert, however, had gone along with the Potter children and Hermione instead found herself creeping warily down the stairs.
As she drew nearer to the door, the low murmur of a sole voice reached her ears, rattling off a rather impressive series of expletives accompanied by the crunching of glass beneath shoes. There was something familiar about the voice, but it was one she couldn't place until she peered through the crack between the door and the wall and spotted a shock of bright red hair.
"Charlie!" She exclaimed, bursting into the fire-lit room. The stocky man whirled, brandishing his wand before a wide grin spread across his face.
"Hermione!" In a few broad strides he had crossed the room and enfolded her in his strong arms. She returned his hug for a long moment, savoring the comforting contact from the friend she hadn't seen in far too long. When she had started her job at the Ministry working for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, Hermione had spent a number of months working as a liaison at the Constantin Ardelean Dragon Reserve. Much of her free time had been spent with the older Weasley son—time which had allowed them to become close friends, though they rarely saw one another these days.
A split second later, she pulled back to ask, "What in Merlin's name are you doing here?"
A confused frown turned his features as he asked, "Ginny didn't tell you?" Hermione's brow flew up and she offered a quick shake of the head, earning an explanation from the redhead.
"Magical Creatures at the Ministry recovered an egg from the black market; they think it might actually be a Catalonian Fireball! The Reserve's sent me to bring inspect it and bring it back." His voice was tinged with the same excitement of a little boy with a new toy and Hermione couldn't hide the amused smile that came to her face.
Seeking to head him off before he could get started on a detailed explanation of every fact he had ever heard describing Catalonian Fireballs, Hermione gestured to the glass shards that covered the floor. "What happened here, Charlie? You haven't even been in the house an hour and things are already breaking." Her tone was gently teasing. The man was notoriously clumsy, and the pale gold of his skin flushed to a deep red.
"It was supposed to be a gift," he mumbled, gesturing helplessly at the mess.
"For who?" Hermione asked, surprised that the man would bother with the hassle of traveling with gifts when they would be seeing him for Christmas in just a few months.
"For you, of course."
"For me?" Confusion marred her features. "Why for me?"
He let out a bark of laughter and just as quickly his expression sobered when he realized she wasn't laughing along. "Don't tell me I got it wrong?" His disbelief was evident.
"Got what wrong?"
"The nineteenth of September? Isn't it your birthday?"
Hermione's mouth dropped opened, stunned and her mind racing frantically to recall the date. She had been so busy lately, had been so utterly distracted, and her approaching thirtieth birthday had slipped her mind entirely. So much so, in fact, that she and apparently everyone else had gone the entire day without realizing the significance of the date.
A brief flicker of hurt flashed in her being at the thought but she quickly pushed it away. She really couldn't blame her friends for forgetting when she herself had; Harry and Ginny were both out of the country, and Ron was busy with his and Lavender's new twins.
"You actually forgot your own birthday, didn't you? And so did everyone else." At Hermione's bleak nod, Charlie stepped forward and again enfolded her in his strong embrace, his voice soothing as he continued. "I'm sorry luv, my brother is an idiot, and so are my sister and her husband."
She looked up and offered him a brave smile, demanding in a voice that quavered only slightly, "Nothing to worry about, of course. But I have to ask, what did you bring me?" She was relieved to see Charlie's serious expression turn up into a sheepish smile as he kicked lightly at one of the larger broken pieces.
"Isn't it obvious? It was an ancient and rare Chinese book of spells, wait, no; it was a huge, gorgeous museum of them. And, of course, a canopied litter for your peons to carry you about in!"
"It was not, don't be a tease, Charles Weasley!"
A mocking look of hurt covered his visage as he protested, "How would you know? Have you suddenly developed a new appreciation for Divination? It's really a pity you missed it." He gestured to the mess. "It really was magnificent."
Hermione couldn't help herself;n't help it, a giggle escaped her lips, quickly morphing into full-blown laughter. "You," she gasped out between bursts of merriment, "are quite possibly the most deranged wizard I have ever had the pleasure of encountering."
He offered her an exaggerated wink, pronouncing, "Well, if you're going to be abusive, Madame Granger, you won't be getting your ancient Chinese library and we'll simply have to take you out to find you a new gift instead." Before Hermione could get another word in, Charlie swept her up in his arms and strode purposefully across the room toward the fireplace and the waiting pot of Floo Powder.
Hermione squirmed in his grip, though she couldn't help but notice the distinct bulge of muscle in his arms that suggested her efforts would be entirely futile. "Charlie! Put me down! What in Circe's name do you think you're doing?"
Without breaking his stride, he replied, "Taking you out, what does it look like, Miss 'Smartest Witch of Our Age'? I could have sworn you were bright."
Hermione snorted, giving up her struggle in favour of logic. "Bright enough to know I can't go out in public looking like this." Charlie's eyes flicked downward to take in her appearance and Hermione flushed as his heady blue gaze paused, focusing where her nipples pebbled against her damp shirt in the cool air. "And certainly bright enough to know how to walk on my own!" She flashed, flustered by the warming look that had appeared in his eyes.
His attention startled back to her face, he asked, "Hermione?" Waiting until her eyes rose again to meet his, he nodded toward the floor and explained, "I could put you down if you'd really like, but it's been my experience that pretty little bare feet and broken glass don't mix well."
Hermione's face reddened again. Her normally calm and collected disposition was entirely wrecked by this man's presence, and she simply replied, "Oh."
When he showed no sign of intending to find a safer place to put her down, Hermione spoke again, asking, "Charlie, it's not that I'm not pleased you're here, but it is rather chilly and I'd love to get dressed properly, if you don't mind."
Much to her satisfaction, he complied immediately with her not-so-subtle hint. His boots crunched quickly over the glass and to the bottom of the stairs. He set her down on the bottom step and she smiled in thanks before to turning to dash up the stairs in search of clothing that wasn't quite so... damp. Before she could make her escape, however, Charlie's hand wrapped firmly around her elbow, turning her around and holding her in place.
Standing on the step, her eyes were nearly level with his and his blue gaze was intent as he ordered, "We will be going out to celebrate your birthday, Hermione. Wear something nice, please."
Her surprise must have shown in her face, as the corner of his mouth quirked. She hadn't honestly believed he was serious about wanting to venture out at this late an hour and opened her mouth intending to protest, but instead the words that came out were, "Out, to where?"
"To my favourite hole-in-the-wall London diner. I know, it's not the fanciest idea, no complicated menus with words no one but the French can pronounce or anything like that. But they do make the best chocolate cake in the world, and drinks are half-off to birthday girls. When was the last time you got well and truly sloshed, Hermione Granger?"
Her eyes widened and then snapped shut as her face flamed. "Umm… Well, to be totally honest, not since that night at the reserve, actually, you know, when we…" Her voice trailed off as his face registered the surprise, his hand loosening just enough for her to free her arm and whirl about, escaping up the stairs to the promised safety of her bedroom.
It was the first time in ten years anyone had mentioned that night. That night they had both consumed far too much firewhiskey after a day fraught with accidents. That morning when they had awoken in the same bed, both only partially clothed and both unwilling to admit to recalling any of the events of the night before. She wished she could just hide in her room and pretend it had never come up, and that maybe he would forget... But no. Hermione Granger was not a coward. She straightened her shoulders and headed for the bag still sitting on the bed, hoping she had packed something at least possibly suitable.
Nearly half an hour had passed before she again descended the stairs; her hair was unmanageable at best after a shower and had required some heavy effort to tame. The only other occupant of the house stood waiting by the balustrade on the first floor, intently watching every step she took down the final flight of stairs, obvious admiration in his eyes. She came to a halt when there were still several steps between them, tugging unconsciously at the hem of her blue dress.
She offered him a half smile, which he returned in full force before extending a hand and beckoning, "Let's go, birthday girl, at this rate your birthday will be over before we even leave the house." Hermione let out a quiet sigh of relief that her earlier reference hadn't dampened his mood or made things awkward between them. Taking his offered hand, she allowed him to guide her down the steps and out the door.
Upon reaching the restaurant, Hermione hung back when Charlie attempted to escort her in, dubiously surveying the dingy windows and peeling paint on the door. Charlie simply laughed at her obvious expression and tugged her through the doorway. It took several seconds for Hermione's eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. It was a change even from the lamp-lit street outside, but when they did she was pleasantly surprised. The place reminded her of a pub she had been to while on vacation with her parents several years prior, full of dark wood and warm lighting and savoury scents.
Charlie greeted the hostess at the door with a quick hug and he had just led her to a cosy table, the wood of the table scarred and well-used, when the burly man behind the bar threw up a hand and offered a booming, "Charlie!" The red-head returned the wave with a smile and a nod before sliding into the booth opposite Hermione and picking up a menu.
Hermione's menu lay in front of her, forgotten for the time being as she stared at her companion. When he realised she hadn't moved, he looked up, a flash of uncertainty crossed his face. "Do you not like it? We can go somewhere else if you'd like..."
Hermione quickly shook her head, rushing to explain, "No, no, it's not that. I'm just surprised. You haven't been in the country in three years?" At his nod of conformation she continued, "And you still have so many friends here, Muggle friends even. It's nice, that's all." With a quick smile to punctuate her words, she finally turned her attention to the menu and the rest of the night.
Hermione dabbed her mouth with her napkin and pushed her plate away ever so slightly. "That was wonderful, Charlie. Thank you."
"But it's not over yet!" He exclaimed. "There's still cake! Delicious, wonderful, chocolate cake! Not to mention drinks for the birthday girl." This was accompanied by an exaggerated wink and then, "I'll be right back with drinks. Still drinking Side Cars?" At her nod, he stood with a grin and headed for the bar.
Certain that he would get caught up in conversation with the bartender, Hermione turned her attention to reading the eclectic assortment of fliers adorning the walls. She was jolted out of her study by surprise when the booth shifted as someone sat down next to her. She turned to see if Charlie had had a problem with something and was instead confronted by a stranger's face only inches from hers, his alcohol-ridden breath washing over her face.
Hermione tensed and reached for her wand, in a holster strapped to the inside of her thigh before realising that causing a scene in a Muggle pub would only make things worse. "Hello, beautiful girl," the man slurred, leaning closer as Hermione scooted back. She offered him a tight, uncomfortable smile but said nothing, instead trying to see over his shoulder and praying that Charlie would return soon.
"Couldn't help but hear it's your birthday," he continued. "Thought someone should come make sure you're celebrating properly, that bloke didn't look like he knows how to have fun like Doug."
It took a moment for Hermione to realise the man was speaking about himself in the third person, a fact that made her cringe even more than the rancid smell emanating from his person. "I'm fine, thank you," she replied, her tone measured and even, and as frosty as she could manage.
"Oh don't be a prude, luv." He slurred, crowding her against the back wall of the booth. "A birthday girl needs a good fucking –"
His speech was cut off as he was yanked backwards and out of the seat, a furious Charlie gripping the back of his shirt. "Apologize," the irate man growled, shaking the sot slightly.
"Sorry," he mumbled and then, when Charlie's grip tightened, "I'm sorry, miss."
Satisfied this time with the apology, Charlie shoved the man around until his back was to Hermione and he was eye to eye with her rescuer. "If you ever," Charlie intoned in a low, deadly voice, "ever come anywhere near her again I'll feed you to a Hungarian Horntail and not a person here will stop me."
Both Hermione and the drunken man peered past the unfolding scene to see every employee, not to mention most of the patrons, standing and glaring threateningly. Hermione couldn't see the man's facial expression from where she still sat, but judging by the speed with which he suddenly left the restaurant, it wasn't likely to have been a particularly brave one.
"Thank you," she whispered up to Charlie, who towered over her with concern in his eyes.
Instead of responding, he pulled her up into his arms, burying his face in her hair as he asked, "Are you okay?"
She nodded against his chest and he squeezed her tighter. A voice behind the pair coughed conspicuously and Charlie released her to turn, tensing again into a threatening pose before he released it was nothing more than the waitress. She offered a sympathetic smile and then held up a plate holding an absolutely massive slab of decadent chocolate cake.
"On the house," she explained, setting it on the table and giving Hermione a motherly pat on the shoulder before leaving the pair alone again. Hermione slid back into her seat and then started when Charlie gently nudged her over to sit next to her.
"Oh," Hermione noticed as she focused her attention on the table instead of the man whose thigh was now pressed against hers, "there's only one fork. Can you get another?"
Charlie shrugged. "One is fine." He reached for the fork and scooped up a bite of rich chocolate cake and fudge ganache. "Open up."
"I can feed myself, Charlie!"
"Shut it, you're the birthday girl."
"But-" Her words were cut off by the fork crammed into her mouth and quickly morphed into an appreciative moan. "Merlin, that's heavenly."
"Mmmhmm," Charlie agreed, his mouth full with his own bite.
They continued on like that, trading taking bites off the sole fork until nearly all the cake was gone. Scraping the last bite off the plate, Charlie offered it to Hermione despite it being his turn. Under normal circumstances, Hermione likely would have argued, but the cake truly was decadent. She swallowed the offering, her eyes flicking to meet his with an appreciative smile and then froze there, caught by the intent focus of his stare.
"What?" she asked. "Do I have something on my face?"
Her hands fluttered self-consciously toward her face but he caught them in one hand and pushed them down, reaching with the other hand and using one rough thumb to swipe the chocolate from the corner of her mouth. Hermione watched, her mouth going dry as he pulled back and slowly sucked the icing from his thumb.
"Charlie," she murmured.
"He was right, you know," he intoned, his voice low and husky.
"Hmm?" she asked, unconsciously leaning closer.
"Birthday girls do deserve birthday sex." Charlie rasped before fusing his lips to hers. Hermione gasped, and she felt him smile against her lips before pulling away only slightly.
"Now would be the time to say stop, Hermione," he prompted.
She hesitated for a moment, the logical section of her brain that governed every aspect of her life demanding that she stop this insanity and go home to her bed and her book just like she had intended. Another part, one that rarely ever made an appearance, begged her to allow it to continue, to embrace the madness that was Charlie Weasley's role in her life. It only took a moment for her to decide, to make a decision that would have shocked many a person had they been there to see it.
She curved one small hand against his face, appreciating the rough stubble she found there, and pulled his lips back to hers. Long seconds passed before Charlie pulled away with a muffled curse, producing his wallet from a pocket and throwing a number of notes on the table. Grabbing Hermione by the hand, he towed her quickly from the diner and into the nearest alley, Apparating with a crack to the front steps of number 12 Grimmauld Place. Once inside, he swept her up into her arms for the second time that night and started up the stairs at a rapid pace.
"Charlie," Hermione protested, rationality again shining through. "You're going to have a heart attack if you insist on carrying me." He snorted and ignored her, continuing up the steps, but by the time they were halfway up the third flight of stairs, even Hermione could tell he was out of breath.
He set her down and, panting ever so slightly, muttered, "Bugger this," before wrapping an arm about her and Apparating them both to the top floor.
"Happy Birthday, Hermione Granger," were the last words the old house heard before the bedroom door slammed behind them.
A/N: So there you have it. Quilter (and everyone else) I hope you enjoyed. Don't forget to leave a review!