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One Impossible Dragon Keeper by mrsteddylupin

Format: Novella
Chapters: 14
Word Count: 36,157
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Strong Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Humor, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Charlie, OC
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 03/02/2011
Last Chapter: 01/04/2016
Last Updated: 01/04/2016

Summary:




Ever since she laid eyes on him, Ileana Ramsey has hated Charlie Weasley. Even though they both have a crazy passion for dragons, she can barely have a conversation with him. When her job takes her to Romania to work alongside him, she has to learn to like him, but can she?
  eternal thanks to kaileena_sands @tda for this AMAZING banner


Chapter 1: The World According to a Dragon Freak
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If you had asked me at age five if I wanted to play dress up, I would have replied, “No, Dwagons!”

If, at age nine, I had been asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered, without even a second’s hesitation, “I want to be a dragon tamer.”

When, in my fifth year at Hogwarts, I had to have a career discussion with head of Gryffindor House, Professor McGonagall looked down at the “Work with Dragons!” brochure I had brought with me with a look of barely suppressed resignation.

“Should I even bother showing you these?” She asked, gesturing to the other pamphlets, in that mildly amused/ annoyed voice that she had reserved just for me, ever since Filch caught me preparing to rappel down the Astronomy Tower at three o’clock in the morning on the first day of term in my third year.

“Well,” I answered carefully, not wanting to give her yet another reason to send a letter home to my parents, “Probably not.”

Her nostrils flared as she raised her head to stare at her favorite spot on the ceiling.

“Very well, Miss Ramsey.” She finally responded, staring at me in a way that suggested she didn’t know whether to applaud me, or lock me up in the lunatic ward at St. Mungo’s.

In truth, that was a look that I often received. I wasn’t like other girls, from my beat up combat boots to my love of adventure; I’ve never been one for convention, and so what others thought has never mattered to me.

Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t exactly of the same mindset.

“Ileana,” my mother would scold in her native Romanian. “Please don’t wear those ratty shorts out in public. It isn’t proper.”

For someone born and raised outside of Bucharest, Romania, she sure used the word “proper” a lot.

My mother, Marilena Stanescu, fell in love with my father, William Ramsey, as soon as she laid eyes on him (or at least that’s how she told it.). But, before you start thinking, “Hmm, that’s a little odd,” let me explain:

My father is a curse breaker. Yes, a full out adventurer- long, black hair tied back with a piece of hemp, both ears pierced, with bright amber eyes; my eyes. To a pretty bookstore clerk in the wizarding district of Brasov, my dad must have seemed like a walking myth.

Well, honestly, my dad probably took one look at her unruly mane of chestnut brown hair and violet eyes, and fell ponytail-over-dragon-skin-boots.

Anyway, back to me. That story is only important as it explains my eccentric upbringing (Summers with my grandparents and billions of cousins in Romania, and winters wherever my dad’s job took him- usually to South America or Africa), and my love of adventure- more specifically- my love of dragons.

The first time I saw a dragon, I was with my dad in the mountains of Romania, and I had to be physically restrained; I wanted to ride it.

“Whoa there, Ili,” my dad laughed, scooping my little three-year-old butt into his arms.

“I want dwagon!” I said, clawing at his strong arms.

“When you’re older, Ili.” He assured me, and carried me, like a sack of potatoes, kicking and screaming back to my Grandmother Ema’s

I had grown up around adventure, and, at age eleven, when my parents enrolled me at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I was in no mood to let that adventure go.

On the train to Hogwarts, I was hauling my trunk, trying to find an empty compartment, when I heard voices directly on my right, talking about my favorite subject.

“But, the Norwegian Ridgeback had the most tail spikes.” A short, red haired boy was telling his friends, who were gazing at him, awestruck.

I couldn’t help it, I threw open the door and promptly said, “You’re wrong! Everyone knows the Hungarian Horntail has the most spikes.”

The boy stared at me, open-mouthed. I guess I was sort of scary looking; knobby-kneed with huge, amber eyes, and crazy, flyaway hair shoved into a braid.

“What do you know?” He said smugly. “You’re just a girl!” His friends laughed and, furious, I slammed the compartment door shut.

What did I know? Plenty. I knew enough to realize that I didn’t like him, not one bit.

Two hours later, he was sorted along with me into Gryffindor, and our rivalry truly began.

I’m talking, of course, about Charlie Weasley, and this is the story of how much I hate him. 


Chapter 2: Just My Luck
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 Romania has always been my escape. I found solace in the placid mountainside lakes after my little sister, Jenica, fell to her death from an out of control broomstick when I was 15, and the mountains’ idyllic beauty was just what I needed after I found my fiancé, Christian King’s tongue down the throat of some girly, twiggy apprentice at Gladrag’s Wizardwear in Paris.

Now, as much as the memory of him completely grosses me out, I probably should tell you about him. He captured my attention from the get go.

It was late, much later than I’d usually be out on a Monday night, but I was miserable. It was the fifth anniversary of Jenica’s death, and, I didn’t want to be stuck with my parents being miserable, so I found myself at the Leaky Cauldron, slinging back firewhiskies with a couple of fierce looking aurors.

The pub was almost empty when a really cute guy tied his apron over his trousers and got to work. The first thing I noticed was the huge dragon splayed across his chest.

“You like dragons?” I slurred, remarkably coherently.

“Love ‘em.” He replied, smiling at me. “You?”

“I work with them!” I said proudly, teetering on my stool.

“Whoa, there.” He said, reaching out a strong arm to steady me. “Let’s get you some coffee.”

I don’t know what he did to it, but that was the fastest I’ve ever gone from completely hammered to sober as my grandmother.

“Thanks.” I replied, trying not to choke on the bitter brew.

“No problem.” He grinned. He really was fit. His shaggy blonde hair ended right above his blazing blue eyes. He was very well put together. “I’m Chris.” He said, extending a calloused hand.

“Ileana.” I replied, shaking it.

“So, Ileana,” He said, leaning over the bar to grab his rag, with which he proceeded to wipe down the counter. “Do you really work with dragons?”

“Yeah.” I told him, looking down self-consciously at my outfit and cursing myself for not putting on a decent pair of trousers. “I’m interning with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, in the Dragon Safety office.”

“Do you like it?” He asked, looking at me with those penetrating eyes.

“No!” I burst out, laughing. “It’s full of old people who look at me weird because of the way I dress.”

He looked me up and down. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way you dress.” He said. “I think it’s actually pretty sexy...”

I wasted two years (two years!) on that scumbag. Sure, it was fun, but, apparently he liked having fun- with the hostess at the leaky cauldron, and that slaggy dressmaker. So, brokenhearted, I packed up my stuff from our flat and moved to Romania, where I was welcomed by my seemingly endless extended family.

Having lots of relatives proved to be a good thing, however, as my Uncle Grigore was good friends with the director of the Romanian Dragon Protection Program and Rehabilitation Center.

“You know, Ileana, I could probably get you a job for the summer.” He told me one night, shouting across the table to make himself heard.

I nearly spat out my food. “Really?” I cried. “Thank you so much!”

So, that’s how I came face to face with Charlie Weasley, bright and early on my first day of work.

“Well, well, well.” He sidled up to me, grinning. “If it isn’t Ileana Ramsey. Someone’s grown up!”

“Look who obviously hasn’t.” I retorted, without really meaning to; I swear, sometimes, my mouth has a mind of its’ own. Anyway, that wasn’t true- Charlie had grown up a lot since I’d dropped a Dungbomb on his head the day after graduation. He had never been extraordinarily tall, but he had really grown into his frame; he was buff. There was no other way to put it. His hair, which had always been bright red, was now dark, almost brown, and he was covered in freckles. He was hot, and, in comparison, I still felt like the lanky girl he had always teased.

“What brings you here?” He asked, eyeing me up and down. “On vacation?”

“Actually, I’m the new dragon caretaker.”

Charlie looked at me for a moment, disbelief etched on his face. Then, he burst out in raucous laughter.

“Ileana, this is man’s work.” He said, wiping his eyes, though more tears of laughter leaked out.

“Then where are the men?” I asked pointedly. That shut him up- Yes! “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go check in and get my assignment.” I picked up my beat up duffle bad and carried it past Charlie, who stood staring after me, open-mouthed.

I walked into an old building with a wooden sign that said “Dragon Center main office.” There was a man sitting at a beat up desk, writing a letter.

“Excuse me, are you Mr. Costache?” I asked, switching easily from English to Romanian.

“Ah, you must be Ileana Ramsey.” The man replied, standing up and shaking my hand. He was tall and tan, with salt-and-pepper hair and a kind, weathered face.  “Your Uncle Grigore has told me so much about you. Please, sit down.” He gestured to a heavily patched up chair across from his weathered desk. I did, and I was afforded a glimpse of the beautiful grounds that were to be my home.

“I’ve already reviewed your file.” He informed me, switching to heavily accented English. “And I’m delighted to welcome you to the team. That is, if you don’t mind being the only female.”

Oh, Merlin! I didn’t know whether to be grateful for the absence of excess estrogen, or saddened by it. But, I decided it didn’t matter; I would get to do what I loved all the time!

“That’s fine with me!” A smile spreading on my face as I shook his hand.

“Excellent.” He said, getting up and walking to the door. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll take you to the campsite.”

Giddily, I got to my feet. I could feel the adventure in the cool breeze that fluttered in through the open window. I followed him out of the office and onto a wide, open pathway.

“Here is the Rehabilitation Center.” He said, pointing to a vast, deforested hillside on his right. “This is where we help dragons who have been injured, whether naturally or by poachers. We get more calls to pick up injured dragons than any other center in Europe.” I nodded and we walked on until we came to a large-windowed building on his left. “This is the hatching facility. Of course, usually we let the eggs hatch around their nesting others, but this place was recently built to accommodate the increasing numbers of orphan eggs we’re receiving.”

This place was enormous! I couldn’t believe I was actually here; after dreaming about working here for most of my life, I hardly dared to believe it. Clichéd or not, I pinched myself and winced; this was real, all right.

“And, about a kilometer on your right, the grounds start.” Costache pointed straight into the woods. In the distance, if I squinted, I could barely make out specks rising into the sky: Dragons!

“We currently have about thirty dragons in ‘captivity’ if you will. But I remember when I was young, we had over a hundred.”

“Whoa,” Was all I could say.

“Ah, and here is where everyone lives.” We had come upon an open campsite of about two dozen large, airy tents. They were scattered throughout the woods in a semicircle around a large campfire pit. A few strong looking men sat around the fire, talking loudly and drinking coffee.

“And here is your tent, Miss Ramsey.” Costache said, walking over to a tent in the second row from the campfire pit.

“Thank you.” I said, pulling the flap aside and peering in.

It was huge!! Straight back- about ten feet, a small platform rose up from the rest of the wood floor. There was a large bed and a small bedside table resting on the platform. Next to this, there was a bathroom, enclosed by a curtain, and, on the wall closest to me, a bookcase was mounted next to a comfy-looking chair. I walked into the tent and made a beeline for the bookshelf: Men who Love Dragons Too Much, Treating Scalerot and other Minor Maladies, and Dragon Species Anthology. I dumped my bag on the floor and turned to my left. A large screen wall separated me from a small, outdoor patio with a hammock. But, what got me was the view. A large lake at the foot of a mountain was less than a five minutes’ walk from my tent.

I couldn’t help it, I started jumping up and down in excitement, but remembered myself, and walked out of the tent in a dignified manner.

“Is everything to your satisfaction?” Costache asked.

“Yes, thank you. It’s all fantastic!” I told him, taking in the beautiful scenery.

“In the summer, we sleep in tents.” He informed me. “But in the winter, when it gets very cold, we have cabins about a kilometer away. Anyway, here is your schedule.” He handed me a small stack of papers. On top was a schedule.

 

Sunday and Monday-   8:00 am -1:00 pm- Hatching Center

                                     3:00pm -8:00pm- Rehabilitation Medical Center

Tuesday and Thursday-8:00am – 1:00pm- Rehabilitation Center Border Patrol

                                      4:00pm -7:00pm- Supply Stock (Thursday only)

Wednesday and Friday- 8:00am-4:00pm- Protection Center (East Side)

                                      11:00 pm- 5:00am- Protection Center (West Side)

Saturday-                      8:00am- 1:00pm-  Free

                                      2:00pm- 7:00pm- Rehabilitation Center

                                      9:00pm- 12:00am- Protection Center Border Patrol

            *In Case of Emergency- all times are subject to change.

Then, I saw the footnote at the bottom of the page that proved that this was too good to be true.

            *Assigned with Charlie Weasley

 


Chapter 3: Playing with the Boys
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             “Look out, Ramsey!” I heard Charlie yell. I followed his voice and saw a ginormous Welsh Green lumbering toward me, its left wing sticking out at an impossible angle.

 “Are you kidding me?” I yelled back in exasperation. “And let you boys have all the fun?” I dodged a huge flame as it whizzed past me. “No freaking way, Weasley!”

“Fine!” He called out, laughter resonating in his deep voice. “Go behind the right flank- let’s see if you know what you’re doing.”

Rolling my eyes, I took a running leap at the nearest tree branch. I shimmied up the tree and saw Charlie and out two other team members, Ciprian Agaftei and Andrew Ross, dodging the Green’s fiery breath and whip-like tail.

Let me just say that, even for a grounded, injured dragon, this one was pissed off. I climbed down the tree and crouched behind it, ready to run at the opportune moment.

The Green’s back was turned, so I darted out from behind the tree and dodged its’ flailing tail. I reached the right flank and shot up blue sparks from my wand.

“I’m ready, Weasley.” I called out in mock boredom. This was so much fun!

“Okay, team,” Charlie’s voice went up in pitch- I guess he had to quickly leap out of the way to avoid another burn.

“Shoot the net on three. One, two, three!”

The Green whipped around quickly and I got a face full of tail as soon as I shot my net out of my wand. I didn’t even get to see the dragon fall; I was too busy falling myself.

“Stunners, go!” Charlie yelled, and I managed to croak out “Stupefy!” before I fell backward, completely winded.

Cautiously, I lifted my hand to my face and felt a gush of warm sticky liquid: blood.

“Shit!” I got to my feet, wiping my stinging face with the back of my hand, and walked around to meet Charlie, Ciprian, and Andrew.

“Wow, Ramsey, I must say- what the hell happened to your face?” Charlie exclaimed, his grin fading.

“Tail got me as he went down.” I said lightly.

“Here, let me help.” Charlie ripped the bottom of his shirt and took out a bottle of dittany from his pocket.

“It’s gonna sting.” He assured me before reaching out and wiping the gash above my eyebrow.

He was right. I recoiled slightly and took the cloth from him.

“Weasley, I’m not fragile, you know.” I told him, grinning.

“This is hard work, isn’t it?” He asked condescendingly.

“Nothing I can’t handle.” I said coolly before wiping my face one last time, cleaning the cloth and stuffing it into my back pocket.

“Okay, then,” Charlie said, grinning at Ciprian and Andrew. “Let’s fix this wing now, while he’s stunned.”

“You do realize that I know how to mend a broken wing.” I told him as he and the boys went to work.

“You sure?” He called over his shoulder. “This one looks like-“

“A double compound fracture with some tissue damage, yeah.” I finished for him, winning a glance of admiration from Ciprian and Andrew.

“Fine.” Charlie said, and I barely suppressed a smile. “Let’s see what you can do.”

“Fine.” I repeated, and marched up to Charlie and took the magically reinforced splint and bandages from him. I knew that they were going to judge me. This was only my second day on the job, and I knew I had a lot to prove.

Quickly, I set to work, aligning the fragile bones, using an adhesive spell that I learned at the ministry.

After about fifteen minutes, I stepped back and let them scrutinize my work.

“Seems like she knows what she’s doing.” Ciprian said, leaning back to grin at me.

“Yeah, Charlie, this is good.” Andrew agreed, his voice a thick, Scottish burr.

“It’s alright.” Charlie said grudgingly, stepping away and bending down to untangle the nets.

“Good work, team.” Charlie said, not looking at me. “We’ll put a tracking spell on him and check on him tomorrow.” He stood up and brushed his hands off on his cargo trousers. “Let’s go back to camp.” He gathered the nets and set off ahead of us.

“Don’t mind him.” Andrew told me as we set off through the woods for camp. He couldn’t have been older than twenty, with dark hair.

“I don’t.” I said, gingerly lifting a finger to my brow to inspect the damage. The adrenaline rush was starting to wear off, and my face hurt. A lot. “He’s been like this ever since I first met him. He thinks girls shouldn’t work with dragons.”

“Yeah, well,” Ciprian said bracingly, lifting his shirt up to wipe the sweat off of his face, revealing washboard abs in the process. “I think you impressed him today.”

“Thanks.” I replied, “But, actually I just think he’s jealous.” I joked.

The boys laughed, and I knew that I had at lest impressed them.

We entered camp to a fair amount of staring. I guess everyone wanted to see how many pieces I’d be returning in. God, men are so sexist. Their eyes flitted up to my forehead with some curiosity.

“What’d you do, girly?” Asked an old guy that I recognized from breakfast that morning. His arms were covered in burn marks and he had a long, jagged scar running down the left side of his face.

“That Welsh Green wacked her in the face with his tail.” Ciprian told the group, sticking up for me. “But, she just go up and mended his wing in record time.”

Murmurs of surprise floated around the camp, and the men were staring at me with gruff appreciation.

“That green is nasty.” Said Cliff, one of the keepers at the rehab center. The others nodded in agreement.

“He wasn’t too bad,” I said nonchalantly, and my stomach growled. “What’s for lunch?”

I was instantly handed a thick slice of bread with a slab of cheese.

“Thanks.” I said down on a log with Andrew and Ciprian, and started to eat.

“You were really good back there.” Ciprian said, taking a gulp of water from his canteen. “How long have you been interested in dragons?”

“My whole life.” I replied easily. “I think my parents realized what I was going to do the first time I saw a dragon; I almost attacked my dad to let me ride it; it was wild and I was three.”

“Wow!”  Ciprian said, elbowing Andrew amiably. “She’s crazier than you!”

“How long have you been working with dragons, then?” I asked them both. Andrew answered first.

“As soon as I graduation from Iceland’s Academy of Magic,” He replied. “I came straight here.”

“You went to school in Iceland?” I asked, interested. “Why didn’t you go to Hogwarts?”

“My dad teaches there.” Andrew said. “I think he wanted to keep an eye on me. But, it didn’t work. My first year there, I walked straight up to a Swedish Short Snout and tried to pet it.” He grinned at the look on my face.

“What happened?” I asked. I’d never met someone who tried to pet a wild dragon before.

“He almost took my arm off.” He replied, lifting up his shirt sleeve to show me a large scar.

“Whoa!” I breathed. “That’s awesome!”

“Thanks.” Andrew grinned and turned to Ciprian. “What about you, C?”

Ciprian laughed reminiscently. “I ran away from my Academy in Russia when I was fifteen.” He said, raking his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. “I’d had enough to know that school wasn’t for me. I’ve been here for ten years.”

“That’s mad!” I said, but I knew exactly how he felt. “But I know the feeling.”

“Yeah, anyway.” Ciprian continued. “I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here; Costache is a really great guy- he’s brilliant with dragons!”

“What’s the best thing you’ve done here?” I asked, swallowing the last of my lunch.

“I rode a dragon.” Ciprian said, his face lighting up in an impish smile.

“Are you kidding me?!” I almost shouted. “How?”

“I’d been working with this Chinese Fireball for about five months, and we were just forming this bond. So, one day, out of the blue, I jumped on his back.”

“You just jumped on his back?!” I repeated, awestruck.

“Yeah, and it was the best feeling in the world!” He looked at me and I smiled. “Better than being on a broom,”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know about broomsticks.” I said, an unpleasant sensation settling in the pit of my stomach. “I haven’t been on one in seven years.”

“Why not?” Andrew asked. I looked at the ground, drawing patterns in the dirt with my boot-clad toe.

“I- I just don’t like brooms.” I answered untruthfully. I was terrified of them.

The boys glanced at one another, but, thankfully, they didn’t press me. I couldn’t talk about it; that’s why I was here, away from anyone who would look at me with that “Poor girl” look. I didn’t need that. I just needed adventure.

“So, we have the afternoon off.” I said, getting to my feet. “Who wants to show me around?”

“We’ll go.” Andrew said, getting up and pulling Ciprian to his feet. “We have some awesome places to show you!”

“Let’s go, then!” I said, and, letting them lead the way, followed them into the unexplored territory that was now my home.


Chapter 4: Unpredictability
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 No two days were the same. I guess that’s why I love working with creatures that are so impossible to tame- there’s never a dull moment. My second week was really exciting, but as always, there are several incidents that stick out in my mind.

1. On Monday, a baby Antipodean Opaleye decided she wanted her mommy. I guess she mistook Charlie for a huge, overprotective female dragon (easily done if you ask me), and latched herself onto him, her little claws digging into the heavy fireproof jumper he was wearing. I couldn’t stop laughing, which I think just irritated Charlie more, but who cares? He was still treating me like I didn’t deserve to be there- so, of course, I had to prove him wrong.

2. At breakfast on Wednesday, Charlie was so busy talking to Andrew that he didn’t see Ciprian and I sneak Hiccoughing Sweets into his eggs. He couldn’t stop hiccoughing for the rest of the day! He had no idea what was wrong with him- it was absolutely brilliant.

3. I single handedly rescued a Romanian Longhorn from a group of foreign poachers.

I’ve never understood why people would want to poach dragons. Would they poach their pet dog? Hell, no! Then, why is it acceptable to hunt dragons in groups of 20- scaring it half to death before finally putting it out of its misery? I said the same thing to Ciprian that night at dinner. Once I started on my dragon-poaching tangent, it was difficult to stop, but Ciprian finally told me that, yes, he agreed with me, and yes, there are many people who do everything in their power to stop poachers. I opened my mouth to retort hotly that it wasn’t enough, but I was stopped just in time by a flurry of bright green sparks that had just been shot up into the sky.

“Let’s go!” Ciprian said, getting to his feet nimbly and holding out a hand to help me up. “Green sparks mean there’s about to be a dragon fight. We need to stop it before it gets out of hand.”

Eagerly I grabbed his hand and let him pull me up. At least twenty other keepers were already on their feet, hurrying through the woods on a well-known shortcut to the vast Protection Center.

“I’ll race ya!” I said, grinning at him and took off through the crowd of people, agilely dodging them, with Ciprian hot on my heels.

“You’re going down, Ramsey!” I heard him yell. Still running, I turned my head and saw he was right behind me. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t looking where I was going, I tripped on a root. Laughing, Ciprian took the lead. “I didn’t mean literally!” He said, good-naturedly.

Rolling my eyes, I pushed myself to go faster, and, by the time we got to the boundary of the enclosure, we were neck and neck again. I stopped to catch my breath, laughing with Ciprian, and looked up into the sky. “Whoa!” I exclaimed.

A Herbidean Black was locked in a deadly, violent embrace with a Romanian Longhorn, black scales glinting in the light of the sparks set off by the amazed wizards on the ground far below.

“What’s this Black doing here??” Shouted Luca, one of the main tamers at the reservation. “This is too far south for him to just fly on his own.” His deep Romanian accent was barely audible over the monstrous roar of the Longhorn.

“That Black’s going to kill her!” I turned around at the sound of Charlie’s voice and saw him hurrying through the crowd, his eyes cautiously on the sky. “And she’s one of ten females left!”

The other men looked up warily. The Longhorn was thrashing her head about angrily, probably trying to impale the Black on one of her gold horns. The Black was having none of it; he roared loudly and a jet of flame shot out of his mouth, illuminating long, jagged teeth. The Longhorn held her ground, letting her dark green, fireproof scales do their job. Her bull-like head seemed to tremble in fury as she opened her mouth and let out a roar that even freaked me out.

“Everybody, behind the tree line- NOW!” Mr. Costache bellowed, a shimmery silver net in his hand. Hastily, the guys all went behind the trees, and I followed somewhat reluctantly. Why were we hiding? Let’s take this Black down!

“What are we doing?” I said to Ciprian angrily.

He smiled, and held a finger to his lips. “Just wait,” He whispered, barely audible over the continued roar of the dragons. Dragons that I couldn’t even see any more. “There’s a reason that Costache’s the head of this program.”

A jet of fire hit the ground about ten meters in front of us, narrowly missing Costache. Andrew, Ciprian, and several others sent silent extinguishing charms, and the fire was out.

I peeked out from behind the tree just in time to see Mr. Costache, with a look of grin determination on his face, mount what looked like a broom covered in dragon hide, kick off, and soar straight into the fray, his strange glittering net in hand. I saw him swerve between the two fighting beasts, barely missing the jets of flame that shot from their jaws in rage.

Everything seemed to be a blur of flame, glinting scales, and the net. I could barely see what was happening, even though I was craning my neck so much that it was starting to hurt. Suddenly the Black let out a deep roar and let out a huge jet of flame. The fire spark illuminated the sky just enough for me to see that he was suddenly wrapped in the glittering net. With an equally impressive bellow, Costache flung the net and it, and the dragon, went soaring into the sky.

“Whoa.” I had to remind myself to start breathing again. Soon, the dragon broke free of the net and set off flying as fast as he could in the opposite direction of the camp. The net came soaring back to Costache, who caught it with a barely illuminated grin. The Longhorn snorted flame after the hightailing Black.

“That’s my girl.” I heard Charlie growl appreciatively. The others murmured their agreement, but for one strange second, I wished that he had been talking to me.

Oh no. I told myself. Absolutely not. I did not need him to tell me good job.

“Wasn’t that amazing?” Ciprian asked, grinning down at me, his deep brown eyes alight.

“Yeah.” I agreed, accepting his proffered hand once again and getting to my feet, casually dusting off my trousers. “I’ve never seen anything that awesome.”

“Come on, Ciprian, Ileana!” I heard Charlie calling for us in the distance. “We have hatchery duty tonight until 2.”

“Should be fun.” I grinned up at Ciprian, taking note of his really handsome face. “Charlie gets to play mother again.”

“I heard that.” Came Charlie’s gruff voice, though I detected an undertone of amusement. “For that, you can start off in the nesting room.”

“Are you kidding me?” I complained jokingly. “There’s nothing to do in there except stare at the eggs- nothing’s going to hatch tonight.”

“You never know.” Damn. One point for Charlie.

“I’ll go with you.” Ciprian said, cuffing me on the shoulder. “We’ll draw faces on the eggs.”

“Can we do that?” I asked, smiling in spite of myself.

“Andrew and I do it all the time.”

“Awesome!” I said. “I’ll race ya again! And this time, I’ll win!”

“Whatever, Ramsey!” I could hear his eye roll in the darkness.

“What? Scared I’ll win?” I taunted, “I’ll give you a head start.”

“On your mark, get set, go!” Ciprian said, and ran off in front of me into the night.

Laughing, I followed, ready for what lay ahead.


Chapter 5: Unhinged
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“Is there a problem, Weasley?” I asked tersely after I caught him staring at me for what seemed like the zillionth time that day. Admittedly, I was dripping with sweat from chasing down an Antipodean Opaleye that was threatening to decimate the nearest town, and my tank top was singed and sticking to me in, what I’m sure appeared to the guys who thought me nothing but an airhead, a provocative and undoubtedly deliberate fashion, but Ciprian and Andrew had managed to at least attempted to avert their eyes, or make their stares slightly less obvious. Merlin, I was starting to seriously consider huge, shapeless jumpers, even in the middle of July; I was there to work, not to be ogled, even if I sort of enjoyed the attention.

“Nope.” He replied, smirking slightly as he looked back down at the stunned dragon in front of us and set about tying the nets over him. Ciprian and Andrew had gone ahead to do damage control in the village. “Just trying to figure out if you’ve had enough yet. Ready to give up the game?”

I stopped dead and turned around to face him. I was so furious I couldn’t see straight. My blood boiled in my veins as his words played over and over in my head.

“If I’ve had enough?” I repeated sarcastically, my hands balled into fists. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? In three weeks I’ve done more work than some of the men here have in years, and you still think that I shouldn’t be here?” I laughed then, more out of disgust than humor. It was either laugh or curse. There was plenty time for cursing later. “This isn’t a game for me, Weasley. This is as much my life as it is yours, so I’d appreciate it if you’d shut the hell up. I’ve put up with your shit about me and dragons since the first day I met you, and I’ve had enough. You can either accept the fact that I’m here to stay, or you can’t, but stop treating me like I’m inferior.” I stopped, my chest heaving. Charlie looked up at me slightly open-mouthed, and I met his stare challengingly. Just when I thought I’d finally made my point, Charlie looked back down at his net- laughing.

“Whatever.” He said as he got up, dusted himself off, and strode out of the clearing, back to camp.

“What an arse!” I screamed in Romanian and kicked the nearest tree trunk, which, of course, only accomplished a throbbing pain in my big toe. If there was ever a way to test your strength, it is hurling yourself at a tree while wearing dragon-hide boots and seeing how much it hurts afterwards. Apparently, I was pretty strong.

Limping and swearing colorfully, I shot sparks into the air so Costache’s team would know where the dragon was. Hopefully, they would get there before the Opaleye woke up. He was nasty!

Slowly, dreading the ridicule I was sure to receive upon my return to camp as Charlie was bound to have told everyone what an emotional, hormonal pill I was, I took every detour I knew through the woods and even halfway up a mountain to delay my return to camp.

 

I knew I couldn’t stay gone forever; Andrew and I had border patrol later that night and I didn’t want to give Charlie, or anyone else, a reason to continue to question Costache’s decision to take me on. Gritting my teeth and summoning every ounce of willpower I possessed, I hiked down the mountain, stopping only to catch the magnificent sunset that streaked the open sky with splashes of scarlet, yellow, gold, and violet.

It was dusk by the time I dragged my feet into camp. I was ready to collapse on the nearest log and call it a bed, but everyone was in an uproar. Apparently a group of poachers had been sighted up in the mountains just outside of Brasov, and we had to take “immediate action”.

Well, there it was: the “P” word. I was already grabbing my previously discarded rucksack, all thought of a good night’s rest instantly forgotten.

“Hey, Ramsey!” I spun around at Ciprian’s voice.

“Hey. What’s the plan?” He was looking at me with a mixture of anxiety and anger, and it was contagious. I took a deep, calming breath and tried to focus on the task at hand: catching the poachers and saving the dragon.

“Costache says we need to split up and send a patronus to headquarters if we find them.”

“Great. Let’s go, then. See you later.” I turned around, intent on apparating directly to the mountains, but I froze at a hand on my shoulder.

“Be careful, alright?” Ciprian said quietly, looking at me cautiously. Silently, I nodded, spun on the spot, and was gone, but not before I heard what sounded like, “Charlie needs you.”

Before I could even process what I thought I’d just heard or berate myself for being so delusional, I was standing alone on the top of the mountain. On par with every stereotype in the world, the clouds that had made the earlier sunset so glorious opened, and vats of rain poured down on the mountainside. I squinted, trying to see through the torrential downpour with little success, trying to convince my ears that it wasn’t pointless to try to hear the poachers through the storm.

Silence, save for driving rain. After slipping and sliding down several steep paths, nearly falling off of a cliff, I came upon a horrible sight.

A young Ukrainian Ironbelly was sprawled on a rocky outcrop, horns, talons, and half of its tail were missing. I could have sworn that it was dead; at least I desperately hoped that the monsters that did this would have had the decency to put her (it was a her in my mind) out of her misery before such desecration.

A croak of pain that sounded more like a whimper startled me. She was still alive.

I ran down the steep path, not caring when I slipped and slid over sharp stones, cutting my legs and arms.

Bright turquoise blood was oozing from her head, what used to be her claws, and tail. Too much blood. I stifled a gag as I looked down at her mangled limbs. This was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen in my life, and for a minute, I was too shocked to do anything. Knowing that I needed to do what I could, I crawled toward her, huddling up against the cold scales of her underbelly.

She tried to scoot away in fright, but only succeeded in shredding what was left of her once-awe-inspiring tale further on the sharp, brutal rocks. She let out a terrified screech that made my heart break. I gently laid a trembling hand on her back and petted her, skirting over the long, deep gashes that still oozed bright, shimmering turquoise blood.

I reached for my backpack only to find that it wasn’t there, having no doubt fallen as I flew head over heels down the steep rocks. In desperation, I looked around for anything I could use that would help me bind her wounds. I had my wand, but without the things I had brought in my backpack, the magic would only undo itself. Dragon blood was a difficult substance to work with, coagulating only with certain plants. I hit the ground furiously, and my dragon let out another panic-stricken croak.

“Shhh, girl. It’s going to be okay.” I soothed, my voice breaking as tears started to slide down my cheeks, mingling with the rain. She turned wide, fearful eyes to look at me, and in that evanescent second, our minds were one, and we both knew that it wouldn’t. She was going to die on that mountaintop, and I could do nothing to save her.

My hand was shaking as I summoned my Patronus, an ocelot, stammered my location and sent it off into the darkness.

I stroked her cold silver scales and tried futilely to stop the bleeding, but it was too late. With those huge, beautiful amethyst eyes, she looked at me one last time, forgiving me for not being able to save her.  For not getting there in time. I should have been there in time.

“No, don’t give up!” I urged her, but with a final effort, her head fell back, and the tension flew from her body. She was dead.

“No, no, no!” I yelled at the sky furiously.

All of a sudden, the symmetry was blindingly apparent. I had seen something like this before.

 “Ili, wait for me!” my little sister, Jenica, called from a distance. Laughing with my cousins, I turned around and urged her to join us. I could see fear in her face, even from where she was hovering on her broomstick, but there was also determination- to prove herself to her older cousins, and to make me proud. She leaned forward on her broom and sped forward. In the split second that followed, with an instant, heart- stopping fear, I knew that something was horribly wrong.

Her broomstick started jerking back and forth uncontrollably.

“Help me!” She screamed, holding on for dear life, her face streaked with terror.  The broom swerved up, down, sideways, and suddenly she was only holding on by her little, nine-year-old hand. The unadulterated fear in her voice chilled my blood. I had to help her.
            “I’m coming, Jenna, hold on!” I sped toward her, my heart racing as she struggled to get a better grasp. Just as I reached her, her broom gave one final, violent jerk, and she fell to the ground 30 meters below, screaming. I raced down, desperately trying to catch her.


She was dead as soon as she hit the ground. Her fragile little body broken on the rocks, head at an impossible angle. I sat by her body for a long time; never had I felt so helpless. My cousins lingered at a distance, each of them as unsure of what to do as the next.

“We need to take her home.” My older cousin, Dorina whispered at last. “Let’s get Uncle Octavian, he’ll help us.”

“I can’t leave her.” I said, holding her limp hand in mine. “I can’t.”

“Shh, Ileana, it’s okay.” Charlie’s voice. I opened my eyes and saw him kneeling in front of me, his hand in mine.

“I can’t leave her.” I repeated in a whisper.

“Who?” Charlie asked, looking behind him at the unmoving dragon.

“I can’t leave her.”

 “Who are you talking about? Jenica? Your sister’s not here.” He said uncertainly, looking at me with grief-stricken blue eyes.

“Oh, god. It’s my fault.” I stammered incoherently, unsure whether I was referring to the dragon, Jenica, or both. “I t-tried, but I was to l-l-late. I couldn’t do a-anything.”

“I know.” Charlie said, wrapping his warm arms around me and picking me up as if I weighed nothing. “It’s not your fault. Let’s get you home.” We turned on the spot, and vanished into the darkness.


Chapter 6: Venom
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With a loud thud, Charlie, with me in his arms, landed on the bank of a lake. I didn’t know what lake, or even where it was, and I couldn’t summon the will to care. I had curled up under the armor that I had created the instant Jenica’s hand let go of the broom. It was a numb cave, into whose depths I retreated when I just couldn’t handle it anymore: the pain, the guilt, the terror in which I constantly lived- usually at bay, never banished. The terror that one day, someone would realize that it was my fault. Her death; my fault.

The rain had eased up a bit, the rain that had been the steady, dull drumming sound; the rhythm at which I retreated, step by step, inch by inch, until I was nigh untouchable.  With each drop of rain on my face, Ileana disappeared, slowly but surely, and was replaced by a walking shell of a person who neither felt nor loved nor thought. And after Charlie cast “Impervius” over our heads, I felt nothing, not even his strong arms around me. The disappearance was finalized; I was numb.

Gently, he set me down against the back of an acacia tree, where I sat, quietly hugging my knees to my chest, staring straight ahead at the darkness in front of me, barely noticing the gentle rippling of the lake in the aftermath of the storm.

After a while, I felt Charlie sit down next to me, startling me from the nothingness that consumed me. For a long time, neither of us said a word. Then, I dimly heard Charlie’s voice, soft, tentative, asking me a question.

“What?” I asked, struggling my eyes up to meet his. It was a concentrated effort to forge my way out of my shell, an effort that summoned up the remaining shreds of my willpower. He had no idea how difficult it was to let him in again, to look him in the eye as Ileana, or at least a part of her that wasn’t consumed by the terrifying demons of her past.

“It wasn’t just the dragon, was it?” His dark blue eyes raked over my face, trying to read me.

I shook my head, looking away. It was too hard to let him scan my soul, not knowing what he would find, terrified it would be something horrible. “No.” I said in a small voice as I tried to force down the lump in my throat.

“Please don’t shut me out, Ileana,” He pressed on gently, but nevertheless firmly. “Talk to me.

“On the mountain, you said your sister’s name,” He paused, giving me the choice to ignore the question that was sure to follow. “Why?”

“She died on a mountaintop when I was fifteen. Broomstick accident.” I said, my voice hollow and detached. I felt myself retreating again, but I held on, clinging desperately to the newfound knowledge that Charlie cared enough to try to help me. I knew he couldn’t fix me. That would be an Olympian feat. But the fact that he was trying to at least understand me gave me something to hold on to as I struggled to remain in control.

Charlie exhaled slowly; I felt him warring with himself for a few moments.

“I’m sorry.” He said, looking off into the distance. “I know it’s not really what you need to hear, not something that can make anything better, but I am.”

I nodded, his unexpected emotion giving me the strength I needed to continue. “It- just seeing that dragon on the cliff, terrified, helpless; I didn’t know what to do- there wasn’t anything I could do- just like Jenica.”

Charlie put his arm around me, hugging me to him, trying to comfort me. “This wasn’t your fault.” He told me firmly. “Neither of these things were your fault.”

“But if only I hadn’t persuaded her to go riding, if only I’d have gotten there sooner… I should have gotten there sooner.” The last part was a whisper, and I no longer knew whom I was talking about: Jenna or the dragon.

“You did all you could.” Charlie reassured, and something in his voice made me think he knew more about me than he was letting on.

“Thanks, Charlie.” I said quietly, letting his arms envelop me, letting some of the warmth and strength in his embrace transfer to me.  I looked up at the night sky, clear from the earlier storm and actually saw the stars, for the first time in a long time.

“Christ, you’re all cut up.” Charlie said, examining my cut trousers, stained from the scrapes I had sustained on the mountain.

“What?” I said, looking down, surprised. I hadn’t felt any of them. “It’s not that bad. Honest.”

“Ramsey.” Charlie just looked at me, and his gaze emanated such masculine authority that I knew I would do whatever he said, and that I would like it. God, the inner feminist in me was screaming indignantly, but every other part of me seemed to be enjoying relinquishing the theoretical trousers in a relationship for once (Even though this was not a relationship).

“Fine.” I said, rolling my eyes. I bent down to roll up my trousers, wishing I had shaved that morning; even a little bit of leg stubble was so unappealing.

“Let me.” Charlie said, in the same soft voice he used when dealing with a particularly feisty hatchling.

My throat went dry as ever so gently he rolled up one leg of my trousers, then the other.

“God, what were you doing?” He asked indignantly as he examined the extent of the damage, which was actually a lot worse than I’d thought.

“I fell.” I whispered, grateful that it was dark outside- I knew my face would be beet red.

Charlie snorted with suppressed laughter as he started dabbing a disgusting-smelling salve on my legs.

“Hey, it was raining!” I exclaimed. “The rocks were really slippery. It’s not totally my fault.”

“Of course, blame the rocks.” He teased, and we both laughed. “Hold on,” He said after a moment, humor gone, staring at my upper thigh.

“What?” I asked weakly. The pain that I’d been lucky enough to have missed made its stunning debut on my hip, pounding with a ferocity I’d not thought possible, and this was coming from the girl who’d sustained almost every injury imaginable, including a face-full of dragon tail and a broken back.

“After you fell, did you get anywhere near the Ironbelly’s stomach?” He asked quickly, staring at my left leg.

“Yeah,” I said, sucking in a deep breath of shock and pain as he immediately flipped me onto my back. “Ouch!” I exclaimed, feeling tears prick my eyes. Then I realized, “Her stomach was releasing poison- that happens when they die, but it only affects-“

“Open wounds.” Charlie finished for me, turning me on my right side to inspect the damage. He quickly untied my shoe and slipped off my sock, and slid his hand up to my thigh, stilling as I gasped and strained my back, trying to jerk away, grabbing his arm, wordlessly begging him to stop.

“Take me to Costache.” I said, unexpectedly calmly for having just received news I was dying.

“No time.” Charlie all but growled. “Deep breath.”

I did as I was told, and inhaled unsteadily, only to yell out a string of swearwords I’m not too proud of as he ripped the leg of my already shredded trousers off, exposing my left side from hip to toe.

Ow.” I whimpered, lifting my head up a little to look down at my leg. The only thing I could say about my injury was, “Please, Charlie, tell me you have Dittany.” I guess I could also say that it was a malignant gash on my upper thigh that was oozing a black, toxic-looking substance that felt like liquid fire, but that didn’t surprise me. What got me was how large it was: five inches of rapidly decaying flesh was not my idea of a good time.

“I’m working on it.” This time he did growl.

“Charlie, please hurry.” I pleaded, fisting my hands tightly until my nonexistent nails drove into my palms, leaving half-moons in their wake.

“This will slow it down for a few minutes.” He said as he rubbed the salve onto the gash, causing me to see stars, and not the good kind. At his firm touch, I arched off the ground and jerked away, but he held me still, immune to my feverish pleas, refusing to move my leg away from the pressure of his hand.

“Stop. Please stop! I’ll do anything, just stop!” I begged, not even aware of what I was saying, only that I would do whatever I had to do to get him to stop touching me.

“Shh. I know it hurts.” He soothed, and he sounded so pained that I opened my eyes to see every muscle in his body taut with tension, barely moving. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet.

“Where are you going?” I croaked hoarsely, watching him as he got up and sprinted off toward camp.

“I need extract of a bezoar. Dittany won’t help now.” He called over his shoulder, leaving me to freak out alone.

Dittany wouldn’t help now?? Was I going to die? I had no idea how long Charlie was gone, but it felt like an eternity. The pain that had eased slightly at the application of the salve inched back, infringing upon my sanity, alternately burning and freezing. A vicious tide of bile rose in my throat; I thought I would be sick from sheer pain. I tried counting to a thousand, but past two hundred, the numbers blurred together in my head, melting together and exploding in tandem with the waves of pain that rocked my entire body as the venom spread. Just as one would subside, another would take its place, more brutal than the one before, leaving me shaking on the ground, a tangle of incoherent sobs on my lips.

I wish I could say that my life flashed before my eyes, and that the meaning of my existence was suddenly made clear to me, but, truthfully, I couldn’t think, my mind a white-hot, muddled whirl of pain. I was too busy ripping out the grass in agony, leaving large patches of dirt that unto which, when bared, my fingers also gripped fiercely, the rocky soil leaving cuts and bruises on my palms that I barely noticed. The small, insignificant pain was a welcome, if fleeting, reprieve from the sensations shooting through my entire body. Suddenly, the burning reached its peak, my eyes rolled back into my head, and, muscles straining and convulsing, I thought I would explode from the sheer intensity of the pressure.

The screams that I’d been holding in valiantly were ripped from my throat in a broken sob that vanished on the cool breeze. The pain was gone; I was lying flat on my back, clutching at the ground, panting, tears sliding down my cheeks, mingling with the dirt on my face, leaving muddy trails in their wake.

“Ileana?” Charlie, who was leaning over me, his deep blue eyes huge with concern, eclipsed my view of the stars. I blinked several times, trying to get him into focus. I tried to lift my arms to wipe the tears out of my eyes, but I found that my arms were still so shaky that I couldn’t summon the strength.

“Thanks.” I breathed softly, my voice little more than a hoarse whisper, looking up into his face. The lines of worry on his face melted away, and his face broke into a hesitant grin.

“Wow.” He half-laughed and covered me with a wool blanket, treating me for shock before I started to shiver uncontrollably. “I’m glad I had that salve on me; it probably saved your life.”

“Thank you.” I repeated again, the words somewhat skewed through my chattering teeth- I was so cold.

“I heard your screams all the way back at camp.” Charlie said as he gently eased me onto his lap, carefully lifting me up so my leg wouldn’t brush against anything. Its contact with the air, however, was enough to make it throb dully. “I’m sorry there wasn’t anything else I could do, I got here as fast as I could.” In his embrace, I started to warm up a little bit, but I knew it would be a while before I stopped trembling.

“You got here in time.” I said, a small tear slipping down my cheek, which he gently brushed away. “That’s all that matters.”

We sat there for a while in silence. Charlie had one arm tightly around me, hugging me to his chest while the other soothingly stroked my tangled, dirt-streaked hair.

“Charlie?” I heard a voice call out in the darkness.

“Over here!” Came Charlie’s replied shout, and shortly thereafter several people came into the clearing.

“We just got back.” Costache said, kneeling down to our level. “I got your message and got here as soon as I could. Is she okay?”

“It was the Ironbelly. Ileana found her first, sliding half-way down the cliff in the process, and, in trying to comfort the dragon, got a little to close to her stomach, getting some of the poison into the cut on her leg.” Charlie said quietly, holding me protectively, cautiously. “I put the coriander salve on the cut while I ran to get bezoar extract and warn you.” Costache nodded affirmatively to Charlie and gently peeled the blanket away from my leg. I saw his brows knit momentarily before his face resumed an inscrutable expression.

“How are you feeling?” Costache asked me concernedly after he gently draped the blanket back over me.            

“Fine, I guess.” I said faintly, looking behind Costache to see Ciprian and Andrew, who were standing a few feet away, uncertain looks on their faces.

“Fine, you guess.” Costache chuckled, amused. “Well, Ileana, not many people can say that they’ve just been poisoned by an Ironbelly, but are ‘fine, I guess.’” He laughed again. “Miss Ramsey, you are one exceptional girl.”

I nodded groggily and stifled a yawn, neither of which was missed by Charlie or Costache. “Let’s get you to camp.” Costache said, at the exact same moment that Charlie muttered “She needs to get back to camp.”

Costache looked between us with a knowing smile on his face. “Well then, Weasley. Carry her. She’s already in your arms as it is.” Charlie, the living furnace, seemed to radiate more heat than usual-was he blushing?- as he gently lifted me up and got to his feet, freezing as I winced in discomfort.

“Ciprian, Andrew, let’s go.” Costache said, setting off for camp. “You can visit her tomorrow morning.” He stopped and turned around and called out to me. “Ramsey, you have the rest of the week off at least, end of story. Ironbelly wounds are not to be taken lightly.”

“Tell me if this hurts.” Charlie muttered as he treaded lightly over the uneven ground. “I’ll stop if you need me to.”

I stifled a giggle as I realized how incredibly awkward this conversation must sound to an outsider, but my immaturity might just have been heightened by my delirium. My hysteria was short lived, however; as every step Charlie took made my entire leg pound. I said nothing, though, simply gritted my teeth, and we were soon at my tent.

Wordlessly, Charlie set me down on my bed, stopping over me as he saw the flash of pain flit across my face.

“Ramsey, I thought you were gonna tell me if it hurt.” Charlie said angrily, but I could tell his irritation was self-directed.

“I’m okay.” I assured him, but he lifted the blanket from my leg, and I saw the muscle in his jaw twitch.

“Alright, so I might not be okay, but it’s just a little twinge.” I amended hastily, trying to mollify him. He said nothing but continued to stare stonily down at my leg

“Charlie,” I began tentatively. “How big is the cut?” I knew that Ironbelly poison expanded the wound size the longer it was left untreated, and since I hadn’t noticed it for a pretty long time, I was expecting it to be huge.

Wordlessly he lowered the blanket further with one hand and lifted my head with the other.

“Sweet Merlin.” I whistled and closed my eyes as Charlie set me back down.

“It’s not that bad.” Charlie said bracingly. “I’ve seen worse.”

“So have I.” I replied faintly, the image of my leg branded onto my eyelids. “But when it’s your own leg, it somehow seems a little different.”

“With Dittany three times a day, it will heal.” He said evasively.

“Charlie, it’s massive.” There. I said it. It was out in the open. “It could take weeks before this thing finally heals! I can’t just sit around here for that long; I’d go mad!” I let my plea show in my face, hoping he’d come right out with an immediate cure.

No such luck.

“You need sleep.” He said, quietly but firmly as he turned away and started toward the door.

“Don’t leave me!” I said, my voice rising in desperation.

He turned around and gave me a wry smile. “I wasn’t planning on it. I was just going to go wash up. You might not have noticed, but I’m sort of blood-spattered.”

“Oh.” I said softly, turning toward the wall to hide my mortification.

With a low chuckle he walked out of the tent. I was asleep before he came back.


Chapter 7: Striking
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 The last thing I saw before I woke up was the Ironbelly’s mangled head before she died. Panting, drenched in sweat, my eyes shot open in the middle of the night.. I couldn’t remember where I was, what I was doing, but I was terrified. Needing fresh air, I sat up and swung my legs clumsily over the side of my bed. I crumpled to the ground as soon as I tried standing, cursing loudly at the sharp pain in my left leg.

“Ramsey?” I was momentarily blinded as all the lights in my tent came on at once, but I knew that voice; hell, I’d know it anywhere.

“Charlie?” I mumbled, shielding my eyes with one hand while the other gripped my leg, futilely trying to stop the searing pain.

“What are you doing on the ground?” He asked as he lifted me up and back into my bed. “Were you trying to walk?”

“Er,” I said noncommittally. “Well, it wasn’t quite like that.”

“Jesus Christ.” He growled, momentarily closing his eyes to manage his frustration.  

I sat up in bed and tugged the blanket that Charlie had just used to cover me off and stared at the stained bandage on my hip, at Charlie, who swiftly averted his eyes, and back down again.

“Can you explain to me why you were trying to stand up four hours after being poisoned by a Ukranian Ironbelly?” He said slowly, enunciating each word clearly, as if putting all of his effort into his words would help him regain control.

“I, er, forgot.” I replied, my voice scarcely louder than a whisper.

“Help me.” Charlie lifted his eyes skyward.

Fixing his eyes on a spot directly in front of him so he wouldn’t have to look at me, he firmly pushed me back into my pillows and yanked my blankets back up to my shoulders.

“I will tie you to this bed.” He growled, looking at me for the first time. My first thought was that I wouldn’t mind that too terribly much, but I quickly berated myself. “I’m not kidding, you are not getting up until I say so.”

My protestations of how I would be so bored fell on deaf ears as he resolutely turned away and sat down on the chair next to my bed.

“I was going to give you some privacy and sleep by the bookcases, but I know you’ll do something stupid again.” He sat stiffly in the chair next to my bed, fiddling with a hole at the hem of his t-shirt. It was impossible to say who felt more awkward, but I’ll take a stab at it and say he did.

“Why do you want me to get better?” I asked, startling both of us. “I thought you didn’t want me working here.”

Charlie was quiet for several moments. “Because the guys think that you might be pretty competent.” A pause, before he grudgingly added, “I think you probably know what you’re doing.”

“What?” I asked, open-mouthed. I couldn’t believe what I thought I’d just heard.

“You heard me.” He replied, not looking at me. “You know what you’re doing. As much as I hate to admit it, and believe me, I do, you’re good.”

For the first time in my life, I had no idea what to say; I was so happy. Finally, with only that one concession, I was starting to feel like I might belong.

“You look like an idiot.” Charlie said, grinning. “You know you’re good with dragons.”

“Yeah, well, it was nice to hear you finally admit it.” I told him.

“You’re injured. I figured something nice couldn’t hurt.” He joked. “But, seriously, you’re not getting up until this wound closes up.”

I protested; part of me knew that he liked having the final word, but that didn’t make me any more inclined to give it to him. “But that could take at least,”

“Three days.” Charlie finished for me. “Now, if you’re done being stubborn, it would be great if you could go to sleep- you’re not getting better by pulling an all-nighter. And, I’m tired.”

“Fine.” I complained, secretly grateful when he turned the lights off; I was extremely exhausted. Right before I completely drifted off to sleep again, I dimly heard Charlie say, “I’m sure Costache has plenty of paperwork for you to take care of, at any rate.” I hate him.

“Rise and shine!” It felt hideously early, and I was rudely awakened by the chorus of voices that greeted me with way too much cheer for the hour.

“Go away.” I groaned, pulling my blanket up over my face.

“We can’t!” Andrew said, sitting down on the edge of my bed. “We’re under orders to not leave you by yourself lest you try to walk again.”

“Honestly, Ramsey,” Ciprian said, laughter in his voice as he pried the thick blanket off my face. “’ You forgot.’”

“Well,” I started evasively, smiling. “Yeah.”

“We brought you breakfast.” Andrew said, holding half a loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese and a bright red apple.

“Thank you!” I said, instantly ravenous. I took the food and tried not to make a complete pig of myself.

“So,” Ciprian started. “How exactly did you end up with Ironbelly poisoning?”

“I don’t even remember touching her stomach.” I said. “I just remember getting  back to camp and feeling like I was dying.”

“Damn.” Andrew said. “I’ve never been that close to an Ironbelly before. I’ve never even seen a gash before.”

“Do you guys want to see it?” I asked, sort of proud to show off my battle scar.

“Sure.” Ciprian said, and I lifted back the blankets and stared, frozen. This was not what I was wearing last night.

“Can one of you please tell Charlie to get his ass in here?” I said, my brain going into overdrive.

“Well, if it isn’t our little patient.” Charlie strode into the tent, raking a hand through his damp hair.

“Could you please explain to me how my clothes magically changed?” I asked in a voice of deadly calm, my stupid, blushing cheeks revealing my embarrassment.

“You know what?” I heard Andrew say loudly to Ciprian, “I think Costache needed to see us this morning.”

“You’re absolutely right.” Ciprian smirked as they high-tailed it out of my tent, leaving me and an uncomfortable-looking Charlie.

“Explain.” I said, clutching the blankets to my chest.

“Ramsey,” Charlie looked at me, an eyebrow cocked arrogantly. “Don’t flatter yourself. I can get a woman into a clean pair of trousers without looking.”

“Good.” I snapped, though I wasn’t angry; I’d never really been angry, just startled, as I’d looked down, expecting to see my tattered jeans, only to find black cotton shorts in their stead.

“I’m not saying that I didn’t, just that I can.” His beautiful blue eyes were twinkling and he laughed as I flung my pillow at him.

“You’re gonna need this.” He said, grinning, as he handed me back my pillow.

“Oh, yeah,” I said sarcastically. “I forgot that I get to stay in this freaking bed for three days. Joy.”

“Don’t complain.” Charlie said, sitting on the side of the bed. “Costache wanted to make you stay in bed for a week.”

“You’re a wonderful person! Thank you for making him see sense.” I replied gratefully.

“Don’t thank me yet.” He said, reaching down and grabbing a stack of papers.

“You’re a horrible person.” I said with a groan.

“Hey, it’s not that bad.” He gave me a rueful smile and laughed at my expression of complete disgust.

“Well, it will keep me busy.” I said, taking the gargantuan stack from him and glaring down at it.

“That reminds me,” Charlie stood up suddenly and ran outside the tent only to come back a moment later carrying a large crate full of old records. “I thought you might need some decent music to keep you in a good mood.”  He set them down on the chair he’d slept on the night before. “You don’t like Celestina Warbeck, do you?” He asked, looking momentarily worried.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked derisively. “I hate her.”

“Good.” He smiled, picked a record up at random from the pile and put it on the gramophone at the head of my bed. “I can’t stand her; mum played her on the WWN all the time when I was younger.”

I laughed, and listened to the song on the record player. It was my all time favorite song, off of the last record Phoenix had released before they broke up, the year I turned 10.

“Do you like it?” Charlie asked uncertainly as he stared at the grin on my face. “This is my favorite song; I know it’s pretty old, but,”

“This is my favorite song!” I said incredulously. “My dad used to always play them on the weekends.”

“Whoa.” Charlie grinned at me. “I thought I was the only one who liked this album. Everyone else thought it was weak.”

“No, I love it.” I said, unable to ignore our striking similarities any longer. “It was by far their best.”

“Charlie.” Andrew stuck his head through the door. I heard Ciprian say something but couldn’t discern what it was. It made Andrew laugh, though. “We’ve got border patrol this morning. Ready?”

“Oh, er, yeah.” Charlie tore his eyes away from me. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

Lucky.” I said wistfully, glancing down again at the stack of papers that seemed to be taunting me maliciously.

“I’ll check on you later.” He said, ruffling my hair as he jogged out. He turned at the door, looked at me mischievously and said, “No walking. Got it?”

“Yeah.” I smiled and started tackling the work in front of me. At least I had good music to make the time go by faster.


Chapter 8: Scarred
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 I retract my previous statement; good music can only get you so far. For a girl who has been raised on adventure, being inside, confined to a bed with a huge stack of papers that seemed to grow exponentially by the minute, every hour I spent in bed felt like a quadruple History of Magic Lesson.

“Charles Freaking Weasley!” I yelled as I opened yet another file, this one a report of the previous weeks’ dragon sightings. I’d gone through three of Phoenix’s eight records, and had started on the newest Quills album, but even the awesome chord progressions of their song, “Hex Me” weren’t enough to make my job any more enjoyable.

“Yes?” Charlie stuck his head in through the open flap of my tent.

“I hate you so much!” I told him, gesticulating wildly around at the towering  stacks of paper.

“It can’t be as bad as all that.” He grinned mischievously as he sat down next to me. “Are you sure that you actually did all of this?” He asked, staring at all the paperwork I’d completed with a look of admiration, or incredulity, one of the two.

“Yes.” I replied waspishly. “I know how to fill out paperwork. It’s all I did when I worked for the Ministry.”

“Yeah, I forgot you went there after graduation.” He said, turning the volume on the gramophone down so we could have a conversation with normal voices. I’d turned it up quite loud, as if blasting my eardrums could make the work less tedious.

“I hated it.” I told him, setting aside folder without any hesitation. “Old codgers who sat around and talked about ‘the old days’” Charlie let out a snort of laughter.

“The old days?” He repeated, chuckling.

“Yeah, when they were young and could actually chase a dragon down without fear of asphyxiation.” He laughed again, and I joined him.

“You two alright in there?” Came Andrew’s Scottish brogue, which was followed by his shaggy head.

“Yeah, we’re fine.” Charlie said easily, reclining in the chair. “Just having a laugh.”

“Is that all they’re having?” Ciprian said, striding into the tent behind Andrew. They were both dirty, sweaty, and exhausted, and I was ridiculously envious.

“What happened today?” I asked, changing the subject to steer them away from their obvious conversation topic of choice.

“Nothing much,” Charlie started hastily, shooting daggers at Andrew and Ciprian, who were, of course, completely oblivious.

“Well, it was chaos today, because some Longhorn was spotted right outside of Sibiu. Muggles phoned it in to the police station, who phoned it in to the Romanian president, who called our Minister, who called the Department of Magical Creature Protection, who called the Muggle Protection Center, who called us.”

“Wow, Drew,” Ciprian said, cuffing him on the shoulder. “Do you think you could given a more convoluted and complicated answer?”

“Probably.” Andrew said, hitting him back. “Anyway, Costache sent us out all over the area trying to find the damn thing, wiping about 300 memories as we went. These Muggles were telling everybody about it; you’d think they’d never seen a dragon before.” I laughed through my jealousy at his indignant tone of voice. “We finally found her, sleeping in some cave, 150 kilometers from where we first started looking.”

“Sounds eventful.” I said, irritated that I was temporarily on what I considered hospice, and I couldn’t join them.

“It wasn’t anything special.” Charlie cut in, quickly, throwing a newly-completed file at Andrew, who got both the hint and a paper cut on his lip.

“Really, Charlie?” I asked, now supremely aggravated. “You just had to throw a file that I’ve been slaving over all day while you got to go hunt down a dragon?!”

“Nice one,” Ciprian said, smothering a laugh. I don’t know why, but they found it hilarious when I went off on Charlie.

“Well,” Andrew began, chewing on his lower lip, “We’ll leave you to sort this out on your own.”

“See you.” Ciprian said, and, futilely trying to hide their smirks, they ducked out, leaving me alone with my current least favorite person in the world.

“I’m not doing that again.” I told him pointedly. “There is no way in hell that I’m doing that one again; it took me an hour and a half to get it all in the right order!”

“Sorry!” Charlie broke off abruptly, and I could hear the uproarious laughter of Ciprian and Andrew- they were going to go into conniptions if they weren’t careful.

“Clear off, you two!” Charlie growled, and their laughter grew fainter and fainter as they ran off, no doubt to spread the gossip. Those two are like old women when they find something interesting to talk about; they’ll tell anyone.

“Fix it.” I said pointedly, shooting him a look that my mother calls “Horribly improper.”

Charlie raised an eyebrow challengingly.

“Charles Arthur Weasley, fix this file now!” I was so pissed that he was making light of the fact that I had all of these papers to fill out while he got to go have all of the fun.

“Calm down!” Charlie laughed good-naturedly as he opened the file. “I’ll fix it. It’ll get me out of my desk shift tonight.”

“You have the desk shift tonight?” I repeated, gleeful. The night shift at the Muggle Protection Center was the most dreaded of all. Ten hours of sitting in a cubicle waiting fruitlessly for the buzzer to go off, sounding an alarm that would mean we could actually get to go out and do something. Every week, someone from our team had to go to Bucharest for the night; the stories of extreme boredom were legendary

“Had.” Charlie amended, chucking his pen at me.

“Who’d you get to fill in for you?” I asked incredulously, throwing his pen back at him. I’d never been, but I’d have to be paid a huge sum of money to fill in for someone else; today’s experience with just sitting around had taught me that much.

“Ciprian.” He replied. I had to remind myself that the open-mouthed idiot look was not attractive.

“Ciprian.” I reiterated slowly, making sure that he heard every syllable.

“Yeah.  I told him I’d teach him the Wronski Feint at this weekend’s Quidditch match. Plus, he’s sort of into this girl that sits at the desk next to ours, so it wasn’t that hard.” He said, not taking his eyes off of the papers he was futilely sorting through, trying to get them in some sort of order, as if attempting to decipher the miniscule, Romanian print was even possible.

“Interesting.” I said, watching him in his efforts, feeling sympathetic in spite of myself, my cool façade crumbling. “You know,” I began after a few minutes. “This file might be easier if you spoke Romanian.”

“I do.” He said, rubbing his eyes wearily. “Or, at least, I thought I did. These papers make no sense.”

“Here,” I scooted over closer to him against my bitchy intentions. “Let me see if I can figure it out.”

“No!” Charlie said, holding the papers out of my reach. “I can do it- you don’t have to.”

“Really?” I asked skeptically. He rolled his eyes. “Let me help; it’s not like I have anything better to do.”

“I know the feeling.” Charlie seconded. “I’ve been poisoned, too.”

“Seriously?” I asked, looking at his arms, trying to guess which one of his many scars was caused by an Ironbelly. “Where?”

“Here.” He put a hand on his chest, right above his heart, bring his eyes to meet mine, giving me a small, wan smile.

“Can I see?” I asked before I could stop myself. Mortified, I clapped my hand over my mouth, cheeks flaming what I’m sure was a very unattractive shade of red.

“Sure.” He replied hesitantly, as if he couldn’t comprehend why I’d want to see a scar.

“No,” I began, still completely chagrined. “I mean, you don’t have to- I wouldn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, or anything.” I finished, lamely.

“You don’t.” Charlie reassured me. He closed the folder and set it aside and slowly unbuttoned the row of five buttons on his navy thermal, slowly. He popped the last button open and I couldn’t stop staring. His muscular forearms, and, on the occasion that I’d seen them, biceps, should have been a strong indicator that he was one sculpted man. My attention was drawn to a long, jagged white scar that started right above his collarbone and traveled down his defined chest, ending right in the middle of his sternum. His bronzed chest brought out the pale gash, giving him a rugged, real quality I’d rarely seen.

“Beautiful.” I breathed, and, before I could stop myself, reached out with tentative fingers.

His breath whooshed out of his body on impact, a muscle leaping in his jaw. Slowly, I traced down, reluctantly stopping at the scars’ end before starting back up.

“How did this happen?” I whispered, somehow unable to stop touching him. I looked up to find him watching me intently, gauging my reactions, measuring every hint of emotion that flitted across my face.

“It was a wrangling job a few years ago. An Ironbelly was bewitched by Death Eaters and was ravaging town after town. They sent Andrew and I to subdue him, but we didn’t have a chance. I tried to distract him while Andrew went around the back, but I got clawed in the process. We called for backup, but before they could get there, we’d killed the dragon.” He looked away then, his voice full of anguish. “We had no choice but to kill him. I was helping move the body to a safer location, but I got too close.”

“What did you do?” I asked, stopping my hand at his heart, feeling the reassuring, steady pulse, reminding us that he was still alive.

“I didn’t realize what had happened until we were finished wiping memories. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before: pain so intense that I literally couldn’t move. Nobody had Dittany or a bezoar, but Costache had Coriander Salve.

“I remember wanting to die- I was ready to die, to give up fighting, if only the pain would stop. It was an hour before I got treatment. The longest hour of my life.” He shuddered at the memory.

“I’m sorry.” I said, on the verge of tears at his story. God, this injury thing was taking its toll on me.

“Part of the job, I guess.” He laughed softly, though his eyes lost none of their intensity.

“I guess.” I repeated, finally able to take my hand off of his rock-hard chest. An incredibly awkward silence filled the tent, neither of us looking at the other, afraid to say anything.

“Wow, I’m sorry.” I said again, this time bustling with a random file, needing to do something to ignore the ten thousand malformed butterflies who’d suddenly made a home of my stomach, making me feel alternately sick, dizzy, and wonderfully nervous. “I’ve just, er, just been feeling really,” I paused, feeling like a complete idiot. He looked at me expectantly, “out of it.” I finished quietly, looking back down at the open file in my lap. I felt his hand on my chin, turning my face toward his, and suddenly, I was looking into his face, stunned by his blazing blue eyes.

“I like you out of it.” He said softly, with a small grin, right before he pressed his lips to mine.

His kiss was incomparable to anything I’d yet experienced; maybe, one day, if I was ever lucky enough to ride a dragon, I could come up with a decent comparison. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and, my mind went totally blank.

All too soon, he broke away, touching his forehead to mine.

“Wow,” I said. He stood up, and ran a hand through his cropped hair, stretching his arms.

“Wow.” He seconded, grinning impishly. “Well, I-I gotta go, take care of a couple things, I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yeah.” I echoed, smiling. I knew I was blushing, but I didn’t care; I was giddy, yet confused- I didn’t know what to think.

He nodded, grinned at me one more time, and ducked out of my tent.

Wow.” I repeated, slumping back against my pillows. Just when I thought I had him all figured out, Charlie Weasley surprised me yet again. 


Chapter 9: Visigoths
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Even though, at times it might seem debatable, I am a girl. Thus, I am prone to rehash confusing, unexpected, surreal situations regarding the opposite sex over and over again.

Charlie didn’t come back that night, but that didn’t surprise me. I needed time to think, and I’m sure- well, now that I think about it, he’s a guy, so maybe he didn’t- Charlie did, too. Maybe, I told myself, as I lay awake in bed sometime after midnight, maybe completely overthinking this situation is the wrong way to go about it. Going over and over that glorious, unanticipated kiss in my mind was only making me more confused. Guys kiss girls all the time, and it doesn’t necessarily hold any hidden meaning. I should know; even guys who profess their love to you tend to have no qualms about kissing other women.

Around 3am, the brilliant solution to my dilemma hit me. It was Descartes, or some other dead, “important” philosopher that I’d had to study in my mother-mandated muggle studies class, who’d said, “I think, therefore I am.” What rubbish. Anyway, it wasn’t until an extremely sleep-deprived, recently kissed Ileana Ramsey came along that the neo-philosophy of “if you don’t think about it, it never happened,” was born. Not thinking about it was the perfect solution; however, I hit a small snag around 4am, when I realized that by concentrating on not thinking about The Kiss, I’d subconsciously made it the only thing that I could think about.

My usual method of clearing my head had been explicitly banned by Charlie, the guy who’d hated me forever: the guy who, one day, out of the blue, had kissed me. Why did he kiss me? Why did he stop? Why- damn.

Anyway, back to my original train of thought: I couldn’t get up and walk around to clear my head, which only succeeded in frustrating me more. That had been my fallback method, rain or shine, whether I was running through the streets of Cape Town, or snowshoeing in the mountains in Switzerland, being outside was usually the only thing that could calm me down.

I punched my pillow several times irritably, trying to find a comfortable position. Ironbelly wounds heal best when the victim lies flat on their back. Due to a spinal injury (broken back), which I’d sustained when I was fifteen after a failed attempt at tree climbing in the middle of an ice storm, sleeping flat on my back was challenging. It sucked, actually.  I was already uncomfortable enough without factoring in the dull throbbing of both my back and my brain.

It was a little after 5am by the time I finally drifted into a light, troubled sleep, waking several hours later at the sound of loud voices passing my tent.

“Morning, Ramsey!” Andrew stuck his head into the tent, temporarily blinding me with bright, early morning sun.

“Hey,” I yawned groggily, wiping the sleep from my eyes.

“Feeling better this morn?” He asked, walking through the door and sitting down on the chair next to my bed.

“Yeah, a little,” I stretched, wincing at the twinge in my leg. “What’s on the schedule today that I get to miss out on?”

“Good question.” He grinned ruefully, looking in his pocket for that week’s schedule. “Er, let’s see, it’s Thursday, so we have border patrol at the Rehab Center later this afternoon. We were at the Protection Center all last night- nothing good happened, though.” He added hastily.

I smiled at him, grateful that, even if something absolutely brilliant had taken place last night, he could at least protect my pride and lie about it.

“Since I was up all night, I was going to go sit by the lake and relax. You want to come?” He asked, standing up and proffering his hand.

“I’m not supposed to walk, remember?” I said sarcastically.

“That was yesterday, this is today, why no’ give it a go?” He cajoled, giving me an impish, dimpled grin.
            “What about Charlie, though?” I asked, hesitating. “Won’t he be pissed?”

“No’ if he doesnae find out.” He replied, winking.

“Why the hell not?” I asked, slowly swinging my legs over the side of the bed. I took his hand and, right before my legs could fall out from under me, he put his arm around my wait, holding my weight. With his help, I tentatively made my first few steps in days.

“Wow, it feels great to be outside again.” I remarked, taking note of the beautiful Romanian summer morning. Birds were weaving complex melodies that floated through the green leaves of the old, gnarled trees, leaving glorious traces of magic on everything the song touched.

“Yeah, I figured if you were anything like me, ye’d absolutely hate to be cooped up inside.” Andrew said, helping me get situated on top of a blanket he’d placed at the bank of the lake. He sat down next to me, and we let the cool, gentle swells of the tide wash over our feet.

            “Thank you so much for this.” I sighed in bliss, letting my head fall back, my long hair, straying from its braid as always, reaching down to sweep the rocky embankment.  I’d been told on several occasions that I look like a gypsy, with flyaway, curly hair, and huge amber eyes rimmed by dark lashes. As a native Romanian, I’ve tried not to take offense to this, and ignore the connotation of the term “gypsy”, even though, as I’ve grown, I’ve envied their lifestyles on several occasions, apart from the thievery and complete disregard for the law. I’ve always wanted to be free from engagements, to have the time to roam the countryside and live.

            “So, tell me about yourself.” Andrew said, taking a bright red apple from his jacket pocket, polishing it on his shirt, and biting into it. “All I know is that you love Dragons, hate being discriminated against, and have the capability to frustrate Charlie more than anything I’ve ever seen.”

            I laughed, not really sure if I wanted to go into my life story, or at least the part of it I was comfortable telling. I looked at Andrew’s honest profile and took a leap of faith. It was time I started letting people in.

            “Well, I also hate paperwork.” I said, grinning. Andrew looked down at me and burst out laughing.

            “What?” He said incredulously. “I had absolutely no idea! I thought you were just calling Charlie all those names yesterday for no reason. At last, the truth is out. Ileana Ramsey, dragon tamer extraordinaire, hates to be cooped indoors doing paperwork.  Who knew?”

            I nudged him with my shoulder. “Hey, I try to keep my hatred of writing a secret.” I couldn’t even finish the thought before I erupted in giggles.

            “But, seriously,” He said, still guffawing, “What brings you to Romania?”

            “A broken engagement.” I said, stilling.

            “Really?” He asked, “What happened?”

            “He was a cheating scumbag.” I said, shrugging my shoulder. “The wedding was three months off, when I discovered that he’d shagged about four other girls during the length of our engagement. Classy, huh?”

            “What kind of an idiot would do that to you,” He mused.

            “I know, right?” I joked, keeping the tone light, carefree. “So I packed my things and moved back home.”

            “What the hell are you playing at, Ross?” Andrew and I both turned to see Charlie standing at the top of the hill, bellowing, looking supremely irritated, even from the distance.

            “I promise, Charlie’s a great guy.” He said in an undertone, as we both started laughing quietly. “Very even-tempered, never lets anything get him riled up.”

            “I’ll believe that when I see it.” I said, giggling.

            “I swear, until you got here-“

            “Comforting to know that I piss him off.” I was wondering why Andrew was telling me this. Did I really look like a girl who was absolutely mind-boggled when it came to a certain redhead named Charlie Weasley? Because I was, I was just hoping that I was better at hiding it.

            “I don’t think it’s you,” Andrew said, “By the way he’s cursing my name, I’d say that I might be the offender this time.”

            “Yeah, that might be a bit of a dead giveaway.” I said, accepting his hand and letting him pull me to my feet. “Just act innocent.”

            Charlie, striding toward us from the top of the hill, finally reached us. He didn’t look happy.

            “What are you doing?” He asked pointedly.

            “What?” Andrew said innocently, tightening his hold on my waist as my legs threatened to give way.

            “Why is she out of her tent, walking, with you?” He reiterated slowly, trying to control his anger.

            “Oh, that.” Andrew said, running his free hand through his shaggy hair. “Well, you see, I thought Ramsey could benefit from some fresh air, and she agreed to come with me.”

            “Is that all?” He asked, glaring at Andrew, who, thankfully, was completely unaffected.   

            “Look, Charlie,” He started. “She’s fine. Also, she can make her own decisions. If she says that she’s okay to go outside, then she’s okay to go outside.”

            Charlie brushed him off, strode to my other side, and put his arm around me, and slowly started walking me back to camp.

            “Oh, yeah,” Andrew muttered in my ear before Charlie half-dragged me out of earshot, “I forgot to mention that he’s a bit protective.”

            I bit back an enraged laugh. “Just a bit?”

            I turned toward Charlie, “Weasley,” I hissed, “Where the hell d’you think we’re going? Take me back! Andrew and I were having a laugh.”

            In response, he swung me up over his shoulder, carrying me like a bloody friggin’ sack of potatoes. “No walking, remember?” He ground out, though I thought I detected a grin in his voice, which only served to enrage me further.

            “Charlie, put me down!” I pounded on his back with my fists. “You barbarian! You can’t just pick people up because they don’t agree with you!”

            He only tightened his hold. I stopped screaming and lifted my head to see Andrew, standing on the bank of the lake, laughing his head off.

            “Is this about yesterday?” I asked him as we neared my tent. “Because as far I’m concerned, that never happened.”

            He stopped, put me down, and looked at me. Without arms around me, I stumbled. He picked me up right before I hit the ground, holding my shoulders roughly, supporting me just enough that I didn’t fall, but making me struggle to stay upright.

            “Why?” He asked, as the muscle in his strong jaw twitched. “Because you didn’t want it to happen? Because you didn’t like it?” Damn, I was cornered, and he knew it. We both knew the answer to those questions, and as much as I was loath to admit them, they were completely different than they would have been six months ago.

            “Because you confuse me!” I burst out finally. “One day you’re telling me that you think I should just leave and go home, and the next, you’re saving my life and kissing me. Jesus, Charlie, what the hell is a girl supposed to do? You make absolutely no sense!”

            He looked at me, utterly bewildered for several moments. “Christ, you’re a mess.” He said finally. “I kissed you because I wanted to. Simple. We can figure the rest out later, once you get better… Unless,”

            “No,” I said, backing away quickly, not ready to go down that road. I needed to figure out what I wanted first. “No, later is fine by me. Perfect, in fact.”

            He was looking down at me with such an expression of male arrogance, the look of a man who knows exactly what he wants, and is confident in his ability to procure it. Unfortunately, I was the target.

            “Could you take me back to the tent, now?” I said quietly, looking at the ground.

            He let out a low laugh, grabbed me around the waist, quite tightly, so I was basically flush against him, and walked me into the tent, depositing me down on the bed.

            “Thanks.” I whispered, surveying the wooden floor.

            “No more walking adventures, got it?” He said, tilting my chin up to look him in the eye. Mutely, I nodded my head.

            He gave one last chuckle and strode out of the door, leaving me wondering what in the name of Merlin I was going to do.


Chapter 10: Stargazing
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“Ileana,” I turned my head into my pillow, not wanting to wake up just yet. There was absolutely no way that it was time to get up. I’d finally been able to fall asleep that night without too much pain from my leg, which was, centimeter by torturous centimeter, finally starting to heal.

“Ileana,” The voice said more firmly this time. I felt a strong, warm hand on my shoulder, gently rousing me.

“What?” I groaned, opening an eye and turning my head so I could see who the hell was annoying enough to wake me up this early.

It was Charlie.

“Go away.” I threw my hand out with the intent of hitting him. I missed, and heard his quiet laughter in the darkness.

“Come on, I wanna show you something, but you have to get up first.” He shook my shoulder again.

The excitement in his voice brought me out of my state of sheer exhaustion. I turned my head to glare at him, curious in spite of myself. “What, Weasley?” I asked him skeptically.

“Come on.” He insisted, helping me sit up in bed, a large hand behind my back, supporting me.

“It’s so early.” I complained weakly, not wanting to leave the soft, warm oasis of the blankets.

“It’ll be worth it, I promise.” Sleepily, I nodded my head sleepily in acquiescence, and without a second’s hesitation, he swung me up into his arms, staying true to his promise and not letting my feet touch the ground.

“Where are we going?” I asked warily as we set off at a brisk pace through the darkness, down to the lake, the moon our only illumination.

“You’ll see in a minute.” He assured, gripping me more tightly as he strode purposely through the forest. I could tell that that was the only answer that I would be able to wheedle out of him, no matter how hard I tried, so I let the matter drop. I’d find out eventually, whenever we reached wherever the hell we were going.

When we arrived at the clearing, I took a minute to observe the genuine beauty of moonlit lake. While I’d done border patrol in the middle of the night several times in the weeks I’d been there, I had never been down to the lake. It was dazzling.

The thousands of stars that shimmered in the inky black sky were reflected in the rippling surface of the water as a balmy breeze whispered through the full trees and down to the embankment, creating gentle swells in the water, that made the lake look like it was glittering like a magnificent, midnight-blue diamond. I couldn’t help it; I was wide-awake and completely awestruck at the brilliance of the stars. Yes, I’d seen plenty of beautiful night skies before, but there was something different about this, something that I didn’t quite have the words to explain.

“It’s so pretty.” I exclaimed, tearing my eyes away from the sky to look at Charlie, who was grinning, a single dimple at the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah, but just wait.” He said and slowly deposited me down on the remaining trunk of a cut down tree, one hand on my shoulder to make sure that I was in no danger of falling off, ever the graceful one.

“What’s going on?” I laughed, not sure whether I was referring to the scene that was unfolding as if before my eyes, or his newfound chivalry. I was discovering so much about Charlie that I never could have believed. There was a whole other side to him, one that was considerate and charming, possessive yet courteous, that I never would have imagined existed a month ago. It was mind-boggling. I had absolutely no idea what I’d done to deserve seeing this new side of him, but I was immensely glad that, after months, years, of mistakes, I’d finally done something right.

“I told you, you’ll see.” He laughed, sitting down on the grass at my feet. I simply glared at him in what I’d been told was an utterly non-threatening manner. “Fine, I guess I’ll tell you. I’m sure you’d just keep asking, anyway.”

“You’re absolutely right.” I agreed, lightly smacking him on the shoulder. “Or you could just pick me up like a complete barbarian again.”

“You were asking for it.” He retorted, playfully nudging my uninjured leg with his shoulder. “I still can’t believe he was stupid enough to let you walk.” He snorted at the memory and ran a hand through his cropped hair, staring up at the sky.

“I told you. I was fine.” I said, refraining from rolling my eyes. “Anyway, will you please tell me what I’m doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“So impatient!” He mock-reprimanded, laughing again. “If you must know, a meteor shower is supposed to happen in a few minutes, at three-thirty. That’s why I told you we had to go pretty quickly.”

I didn’t really know what to say. It was so sweet; Charlie, the guy who had the power to confuse me beyond all reasonable measure, was at it again. Against my will, I knew that I was starting to soften toward him. I’d hated his ridiculously sexist attitude since our first conversation, but I was starting to realize that there was more to him than I’d guessed. He’d changed; there was no doubt. Maybe we both had.

There was no way around it; I had to face facts. I was developing feelings for Charlie Weasley. I didn’t believe it was possible that I could have made the complete U-turn from the beginning of the summer, but the proof was staring me in the face. I, Ileana Ramsey, previous hater of all things Charlie Weasley, had a big-time crush. Damn.

“Ramsey, look, up!” Charlie gripped my wrist in excitement, his other hand pointing up at the sky, where stars had started to fly across the heavens like twinkling, opaque raindrops.

I stared, open-mouthed and transfixed as I watched the stars shoot across the sky, barely more than bright blurs against the darkness.

 I closed my eyes and made a wish. A wish for change, a plea for things to work out, for clarity, for closure. Anything that would bring about the impossible phenomena I was facing was fine by me.

“Thank you for that.” I whispered, biting my lip and wondering when the hell I’d gotten so weird. For the benefit of those who don’t actually share my brain: I’d not been acting normal ever since the poisoning. I fully blame my “bed rest,” because there’s absolutely no way that that is healthy for the mind. I opened my eyes to find Charlie staring at me intently, and I realized then that his hand was still around my wrist, thumb tracing an unintelligible pattern on my skin.

For the record, I am not the type of girl who is so easily swayed, especially by men that she has hated for her entire life. I am certainly not the girl who goes around kissing the type of men stated above, not to mention the type of girl who likes it.  I will plead innocence, when the judge of my sanity comes to question me. It was not my fault- I was coerced by Charlie Weasley. In the past four days, I’ve gone from hating him, to kissing him, to stargazing with him: definitely not normal behavior. However, I was completely powerless to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride; I’ve always loved adventure.

“No problem.” He replied, getting up and dusting off his trousers, and then proffering me his arm, which, shakily, and still lost in a mental tangency in which I was no doubt berating myself for the startling manifestations of my feelings, I accepted. I let him pull me to my feet and swing me, once again into his arms as we made our way back to camp. We didn’t say anything, but I found that words weren’t necessary; simply being with him was enough. For now.

We reached my tent, and my mind was already starting to drift away, ready to fall back asleep and get a break from the overthinking that I’d put it through in the past couple of days. He set me down gently on my bed, so I was sitting up, with my feet dangling about an inch or two above the wood floor.

“Thanks again, Charlie.” I smiled up at him in what I’m sure was a ridiculously bemused fashion. I was bewildered by the 180 degree turn our interactions had made; I couldn’t even pretend that I understood it.

He leaned down, cupped my cheek in his calloused hand, and brushed his lips against mine gently, backing away before I’d had time to fully register what was happening.

“We probably shouldn’t make a habit of that,” He said, flashing his dimple, still visible against the days’ worth of scruff on his face.

“Habits are boring.” I agreed, touching my hand to my lips, trying to feel the imprint his mouth had made on mine.  He laughed quietly, nodding his agreement, and strode out of the tent, and into the moonlit night. 


Chapter 11: Flying
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Those first few steps the next day were freedom. It was excruciatingly tempting to burst flat out into a sprint, to work the muscles that had, for too long, lain dormant, but I resisted; settling instead for a few shaky steps, the extent of what my long-neglected limbs could manage.

Slowly, much too slowly for my taste, but Charlie’s hand at the small of my back prevented me from taking off at full charge, I walked out of my tent and down to the center of camp.

“Well, girlie.” Serban gave me a lopsided grin, the scar down the side of his face strikingly visible. “I guess you’ll be joining the ranks of the eternally scarred.”

“Who isn’t scarred here?” I asked, looking around at the ranks of scarred men around me.

“Good point.” He replied, laughing. I couldn’t help but notice that, as I walked on, the guys parted surreptitiously so that I had an unheeded path to the table of food.

If I’d have known that a gruesome battle wound was all it took to earn their respect outright, I would have thrown myself headfirst straight into the path of a pissed Welsh Green. Wait, I did do that. Still, it was great to know that I’d finally earned my stripes and was welcomed among the fiercest group of men I’d ever encountered.

“So, Charlie,” I started as we walked, with his arm still hovering behind my spine in case my legs gave way, to the Rehabilitation Center. “What’s on the agenda for today?”

“You will be taking it easy,” He said as he grabbed two plates and started piling them with food.

“What do you mean, ‘taking it easy’?” I asked, staring down at the table.

“Bacon?” Was his only reply.

“Please,” I answered. “What do you mean, taking it easy?” I repeated with slightly more force. “Charlie, I’ve already been cooped up inside of that bloody tent for days. I-“

“Ramsey,” Charlie stopped, holding a metal serving spoon, a bit of scrambled egg still on the end. “You.” He pointed at me with the spoon. “Are not ready to go back to work.” He put the utensil back in the bowl, and we moved on.

“Yes, I am!” I exclaimed. “Costache said-“

“Costache said that you had to stay in bed until the end of the week. You are now out of bed. Why are you complaining?”

“I- you- damn- Charlie!” I protested, spluttering. It was too unfair. I felt fine. I was dying of boredom. “I want to work!”

“You’ve been working.” He reminded me.

“I want real work!” I specified. “Paperwork is not real work.”

“Fine.” Charlie agreed and steered me toward the half-logs that were our benches. “You want real work. The only thing that doesn’t require walking or running, that isn’t paperwork is flying.”

“Flying.” I repeated softly, looking down at the plate of food Charlie had just handed me.

“Yeah,” He repeated, looking at me. “Flying.”

“Which would complicate things a bit, as I’m terrified of brooms.”

“Yes, that would make this endeavor a little difficult.” He agreed, accepting a cup of black coffee from Andrew, who sat down next to him.

“What’s difficult?” Andrew piped in, voice muffled through the mouthful of food.

“Ramsey.” Charlie answered abruptly, grinning.

“Hey!” I protested, elbowing his side, balancing my plate on my knees. “Not fair! I just want to do something!”

“You do paperwork.” Charlie said, shrugging his shoulders. “Sorting papers constitutes doing something. But, I know what you mean.”

“She could do hatching,” Ciprian suggested, sitting down next to me, giving me a one-armed hug.

“Luca’s group has that covered today.” Charlie retorted, briefly glaring at Ciprian as he removed his arm from my shoulders.

She could go back to work because she is fine.” I rolled my eyes, irritated at their complete inability to realize that all I wanted to do was get back on my feet, pardon the pun.

“Costache could have something for her up at the main office.” Andrew speculated, the three of them completely oblivious to my outburst.

“She doesn’t want more paperwork.” Charlie responded, shrugging his shoulders.

“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed incredulously, startling both Ciprian and Andrew. Charlie, for his part, stifled a laugh, looking down at his plate.

“What?” Andrew asked, exchanging an utterly confused look with Ciprian.

“I am right here!” I declared, glaring at the pair of them, and at Charlie, whose mirth was growing less and less contained.

“Just trying to help,” Ciprian muttered.

“Ileana, we’ll put you on border patrol, north end.” Charlie said suddenly, looking up at me, eyebrows raised challengingly

I gaped, my mouth opened and closed as I stared at him, my cheeks flushing in embarrassment. I couldn’t think of anything to say, but my chagrin fused into fury. How dare he just casually suggest that I just go hop on a broom? How dare he just throw a suggestion like that out there, knowing full well that I couldn’t save face and ignore what he’d just said. It was a perfectly legitimate idea, one that was a perfect solution to my bitching. It also happened to be the one answer that I refused to accept.

“If looks could kill,” Ciprian stage-whispered to Andrew, and the two of them guffawed quietly. If looks could kill. They had no idea.

“Shut up, you too.” Charlie whacked both of them on the head in quick succession. “Why not, Ramsey?” He looked me in the eye, daring me to refuse.

As much as it terrified me, I couldn’t say no to what he’d suggested. However, I couldn’t willingly acquiesce, either- my fear of flying was too far entrenched.

“I-I,” I faltered, glaring daggers at him, feeling completely disgusted with myself. Suddenly, I heard Jenica’s little voice in my head,

Do it, Ileana! It’s an adventure!”

It’s an adventure. She was right. I couldn’t believe that the ever-ready-for-adventure Ileana Ramsey was about to pass up an opportunity for adrenaline, a chance to prove someone wrong.

“I’ll do it.” I whispered, looking at Charlie. I saw the flash of victory flit across his face, and I realized that he had done all of that on purpose. Just to get his way. Or maybe to help me find mine.

“Excellent.” Charlie said, standing up suddenly, knocking Andrew backward, off the log, and offering me his hand. “Let’s go get you a broom. I don’t reckon you’ve got one. Do you?”

“No, I don’t.” I responded, smiling at him in spite of myself. God, I wanted to be mad at him; I want to scream and swear at Charlie for putting me in this position, but I couldn’t. And I knew that I couldn’t because I was grateful. I was really grateful that somehow, some way, Charlie had found a way to get through to me, to get inside my head and help bring me back.

“Well, then,” He said, tightening his grasp around my waist as we started up the hill to the broom-shed. “I think that we have a fairly decent selection in the shed by the kitchens up at the east end, so,”

“Okay,” I answered, letting him bear most of my weight as we trudged to the north end of camp. I was silent, furiously trying to remember everything I’d learned about riding brooms. I made the Gryffindor Quidditch Team my second year, playing chaser. In hindsight, I’m really glad that I wasn’t a beater, as I would have clobbered Charlie, who was the five-time Quidditch Cup winner, as much as I possibly could. After Jenica died, though, I quit the team and never looked back. Until now, that is, when I found myself looking back my first flying lesson.

My dad was holding a training broom in one of his big hands, making it look like a mere twig.

“Pretend it’s a dragon.” He said, laughter resonating deep in his chest.

“Give me dragon!” I said, reaching for the broom with my four year-old hand. He threw his head back with mirth, holding the broomstick just out of my reach.

“Magic word?” He asked, picking me up with the other hand, and hoisted me in the air so I was reaching for broom four and a half feet off of the ground.

“Please?” I tried, my efforts on reaching, what was in my mind, a ferocious and terrifying dragon I was about to master.

“Go!” He put the broom directly underneath me, and let go.

“Whee!” I yelled as I zoomed away, at an astonishing altitude of four feet, and a lightning speed of five and a half miles an hour. It was amazing.

“Weight forward, kick off hard, watch the sun,”

“Ramsey.”

“What?” I looked at Charlie, who was staring at me like I was a madwoman, which, now I think about it, isn’t too far from the truth.

“Are you taking to yourself?” He asked humorously, an eyebrow raised.

“No.” I answered, turning away so he would see the blush that covered my stupid, traitorous cheeks.

“You were!” He said gleefully, playfully poking my side.

“So what?” I said defensively, mentally cataloguing all the things I remembered about riding brooms. God, it was a pitifully inadequate list. Or so I thought.

“It’s okay!” He said, hugging my shoulders as we walked toward the now-visible broom shed. “No need to freak out!”

“I wasn’t.” I mumbled shamefacedly.

“Sure.” He said skeptically, flashing his dimple. That stupid, stupid dimple! How dare he be so adorable? It was criminal.

“Are you going to open the broom shed, or just stand here and lambast me?” I asked.

“Patience, patience!” He said, laughing, and opened the broom shed with a flick of his wand. He stepped in the small cabin and rummaged around amongst the rows of brooms. “Any preference? We’ve got pretty much anything pre 1990.”

“No, I don’t care.” I said, drumming my fingers against the bandage on my leg, trying to still the nerves that raced through my entire body. “Whatever’s fine,”

“Here you go, Ramsey.” Charlie walked out of the shed and handed me a polished Nimbus 1988. “It’s not the newest model, or anything, but she’s pretty damn stable.”

“Too late to back out now, I guess.” I gave a shaky laugh that I wish could have at least sounded braver than I felt.

“No, it’s not.” His dark blue eyes held me breathless. “If you really don’t want to get back on a broom, you don’t have to.”

I made an executive decision. “I’ll do it.” I said as I took the broom from him.

“Alright!” He grinned at me challengingly. He grabbed his broom from the rack- a gorgeous comet 280, obviously worn, yet still in pristine condition- and locked the shed behind him with a casual wave of his wand.

“Remember,” He started, swinging his leg over the side, mounting the broom. “Stay low to the handle, lean into the wind to keep your balance.”

“Charlie, I know.” I told him cheekily, swinging my leg over the back and gripping the handle tightly.

“Just checking.” He laughed and ran his hand through his dark red hair.

“Talking to you, I never would have guessed that you used to be Quidditch Captain, or anything.” I said drolly, arching an eyebrow.

He rolled his eyes. “Weird, right?” He asked, “Oh, and remember, watch out for the,”

“Quit stalling!” I laughed, cutting him off, kicking off hard from the ground, soaring above the trees into the clear, blue sky.

“Dragons!” I heard him yell from behind me as he kicked off as well.

“Whoo!” I screamed in exhilaration as I looked down at the valley below me.

“Doing alright?” Charlie asked, flying up beside me, handling the broom masterfully and controlling it with virtually a touch of a finger.

“Yeah,” I answered, rocking unsteadily a little as a gust of wind all but unseated me.

“Shift your weight forward.” He coached, reaching out an arm and gently pushing my back closer to the handle. “It moves your center of gravity and will stop the rocking.”

I did as instructed and noticed an instant stop in the tremors.

“Thanks,” I said, slowing to a stop over the lake, hovering 150 feet in the air.

“That’s it.” He said, slowing behind me. “Pull up on the handle gently. No, straight up, straight up, hold on. There you go!”

I let out a shaky breath, still low to the handle, gripping it so tightly that my knuckles were white.

“Easy,” He laughed, prying my stiff fingers from the broom. “You’re not trying to break it- are you?”

“No,” I said, keeping one hand on the broom, but letting Charlie hold the other one, his big strong fingers reassuring around mine.

“Hey,”

I looked at him and was caught slightly off guard at how ridiculously gorgeous he was: his hair was disheveled from the wind; his blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight, almost as dazzling as his smile.

“You’re on a broom.” He pointed out, grinning, his dimple finishing off the completely disarming effect.

I giggled and looked out over the grounds. “So I am.”

“How does it feel?” He asked.

“Freaking terrifying.” I replied immediately.

“Really?” He was instantly all concern.

“Yeah.” I answered. “But in a good way - like skiing, or cliff-diving, or –“

“Being with you?” He offered, an eyebrow raised questioningly. His honesty and openness were disarming and utterly infectious.

“Yeah, being with you.” I admitted softly, blushing (Why am I always blushing??)

With that admission came a sense of relief. Finally, I was able to stop lying to myself and pretending that I didn’t like Charlie Weasley. Because I did. A lot. I was beginning to suspect that I always had; I always had wanted to be accepted by him, and when he shut me down, I guess I shrugged it off by pretending that I didn’t care.

Granted, being around him now made me dizzy, and about twenty-seven different kinds of confused, but I didn’t want to stay away. Hell, I didn’t even want to try. If I was being truly honest, all I wanted to do (almost as much as riding a dragon) was to spend as much time with him as possible.

“Let’s practice some more.” Charlie said, the grin on his face no doubt due to my earlier admission. “Fly to me.” He sped off through the air, moving effortlessly, controlling the broom with the slightest shift of his body; a movement so small it was almost imperceptible, swinging around to stop, facing me a hundred yards away.

I leaned forward, holding on tightly to the handle as I hesitantly sped forward. Charlie never took his eyes off of mine as I neared him. I could almost hear him urging me on in my head.

Suddenly, a huge gust of wind blew in from out of nowhere, forcing me sideways and sharply to the right. In a second, my mind went blank as the panic closed in. “Don’t let go don’t let go don’t let go,” I chanted, trying to lift the fog that clouded my thoughts.

“Ileana, swing your torso.” I heard Charlie’s voice, full of worry, yet full of power. He knew what to do. I tried to do as he’d coached, but the wind swung me right back with such force that I almost let go. All I could do was force myself to hold on through the approaching storm that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

Somehow, I managed to clear my head, to drown out the wind and Charlie’s yelling as he sped toward me. On instinct, I realized that I’d rolled from one direction, and to land back on top, I’d have to continue the motion. With a deep breath, I let the tension from my body release and turned upside down. With a yell of determination as cold, fat raindrops splashed onto my cheeks, I clung to the broom and managed to right myself just as Charlie stopped beside me, gray t-shirt sticking to him as the rain pelted us.

“That’s my girl!” He yelled, gripping my shoulder and pressing me toward him so that my head rested on his strong chest.

“Can we fly down now?” I asked, shaky yet utterly exhilarated.

“Yeah, it’s getting a little mental out here.” He furrowed his brows, scanning the horizon. I followed is gaze and could barely make out shadowy figures flying up into the mountains.

“What was that?” I asked, accelerating to catch up to Charlie, who had suddenly flown in the direction of the disappearing figures. He stopped, straining to see through the pouring, tumultuous rain.

“Dunno.” He lied unconvincingly.

“Bullshit.” I retorted as we started to descend.

“Need to report this to Costache.” He said, a muscle twitching in his strong jaw as he sped toward the ground, touching down and swiftly dismounting. I followed, significantly less gracefully.

“Why didn’t we just fly there?” I asked as he opened the broom shed and grabbed my broom, putting it on a high wooden shelf with several others.

“Don’t wanna be up in the air now.” Was his gruff reply as he shut the door behind him, “Especially if that was what I think it was.”

“Charlie, what is going on?” I asked, frustrated as we started briskly walking back to camp, passing several tamers sprinting through the woods with jackets or drenched newspapers over the heads, hurrying to get to their destinations.

Charlie stopped under the cover of a large, sweeping beech tree. He put his big, strong hands on my shoulders and turned me to face him, rain-streaked face completely serious

“There have been reports,” He started, voice low with intensity, “Recently, in the past six months, of death-eaters raiding dragon protection centers, places like this, and stealing the eggs or young adults capable of reproducing, and breeding them.” His voice was hard as flint, and sparks seemed to shoot from his deep blue eyes in anger.

“They take these dragons,” He continued, still holding my shoulders tightly through my soaked shirt. “And abuse them, mistreat them, shape them to do whatever the death-eaters want them to do.

“They’re reportedly being used to intimidate, even to torture and kill.” I felt my blood turn to ice, completely freeze in my veins as I forced back tears at the knowledge that somebody would be capable of doing something so cruel, so inhuman, so horrible.

“Our first suspicion that we were being targeted was when we saw that Herbidean Black last month, because they’re native to-“

“Scotland.” I finished for him, fists balled at my sides as I let my newfound knowledge wash over me.

“We’ve tried to keep this quiet, until we were sure, but now that we’ve seen their patrol.”

“We don’t know it was them,” I said slowly, trying to calm him down, even if I knew the words I was saying were lies.

“Who else would patrol our Protection Center, our borders, on brooms in the rain?”

“The Romanian ministry?” I offered, knowing it was a stupid suggestion.

“No,” He shook his head. “They always tell us before they hold an inspection.”

“Then we probably should go,” I started to turn away, but was stopped as Charlie grabbed my hand, swinging me around so I was facing him again, this time much closer: barely a breath of space between us.

“Hold on.” He said, grinning down at me, his smile only a little strained, his eyes not quite surrendering their anger, though it was obvious he was making the effort.

“What?” I asked, looking up at him, trying to un-knit my eyebrows, a habit that I had whenever I was genuinely worried about something. My mother was convinced I’d have a permanent frown-line before I turned thirty.

You rode a broom,” He said, running his hands up and down my arms in congratulations.
            “You’re right.” I said, giddy. The adrenaline rush hit me, and on impulse I closed the space between us. He moved a stray lock of hair out of my face, and I couldn’t help it, I shivered.

“You cold?” He asked, noticing the slight tremor that ran through my body at his touch.

“No.” I answered softly, transfixed by his mouth as it curved into a little half smile.

If I had been cold, the kiss he pressed to my lips cured all of that. Lightning struck me, or so I thought: my brain fried on impact, and electrically charged plasma was the only logical explanation. Every particle in my body instantly hummed to life as I pulled him closer, tugging him down to me by the back of his neck.

He growled, a low, barbaric sound resonating from deep in his throat, and dammit, I was a goner. I made absolutely no protest as he gently bit my lower lip and his tongue coaxed my mouth open. His hands tangled in my hair, deftly taking down my braid and running his fingers through the mass of it.

This kiss was different. There was no doubt about it. Gone were the gentleness, the teasing, the leisure. This was a kiss of fire: a fierce embrace of taking, claiming, of giving everything and expecting no less in return. I gave it all.

Sparing nothing, saving nothing, I wound my hands up around his neck and scratched my nails down his shoulders as he kissed a hot trail down my throat and back up again, plundering my mouth with his tongue.

“I want,” I gasped, “Your shirt,” grabbing the hem of it, “Off,” his mouth gloriously assaulted mine and I forgot what I was saying. Momentarily.

“Now.” I finished, yet pulled him closer as he tried to step back. “No.” I refused to let him go, and nipped at his bottom lip to prove my point.

“Ramsey,” His dark blue eyes were intense with passion. “Yours too.” He tugged it over his broad shoulders and let it fall onto the damp ground. My heart was hammering as I swallowed what seemed to be an entire flock of butterflies.

His stare scorched as he took a slow step back toward me. Suddenly feeling ridiculously modest, I dropped my gaze and instantly found his broad chest, the long pale scar above his heart vivid against the freckled expanse of his chest.

“Sweet Merlin,” I whispered, in awe of him.

Charlie put his arms around my waist and lowered his mouth to mine, once again attacking all of my senses simultaneously. His hands lifted the bottom of my shirt and slid under it, running up and down the sides of my torso.

Breaking away from his mouth with some effort, I lowered my lips to that scar, unable to stop myself, getting a thrill when I felt his hand freeze on my lower back and every muscle in his body tense.

“Do you enjoy shredding my self-control?” I looked up to find his jaw clenched and his eyes steeled, staring straight ahead.

In response, I ran my hands down his spine.

I barely had time to think before I found myself backed up against the rough bark of the tree trunk, lifted clear off the ground by the force with which he’d moved me, held suspended in the air with his hands on my hips.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He growled, and lowered me to the ground, but trapped my head with his hands on either side, gripping the bark.

Right before his lips touched mine, a thought visibly flickered across his face.

“Didn’t we have to go to Costache about something?” he asked, backing away slightly.

“Later,” I said, completely unwilling to let him go.

“But,” He started, lips grazing my jaw, the vibration of his voice giving me chills.

“Not important,” I assured him forcefully, wrapping my un-bandaged leg around him, pulling him closer.

He gave a low, dangerous laugh and met me in a frantic, brain-melting, open-mouthed kiss.

“Stupid clothes,” I managed, trying to muster the will to remove my hands from his magnificent torso and take my shirt off.

“Let me.” His eyes never left mine as he peeled away my rain-soaked, clinging t-shirt. Only when the garment was in his hand did he look down.

Apparently, no words were needed. The savage, triumphant, and utterly masculine grin on his face was all that was needed to describe his thoughts. It didn’t matter that my bra wasn’t made up of pink lace and frills, or that I was wearing baggy trousers and no makeup.

 “You’re right.” He whispered, teeth tugging on my earlobe as his hands worked their way down my back and sides, exploring, teasing. “Costache can wait.”

“Wait.” In between the bursts of fire that zoomed through my abdomen, our earlier, intense conversation came back to me in fragments.

“What?” He asked innocently as he slid his tongue underneath my bra strap, caressing my shoulder with his lips.

“The dragons.”

“Dragons?”

“Death Eaters,” I corrected myself breathlessly.

“They can wait.” He nuzzled my neck and I almost believed him. Almost.

“Charlie,” I giggled, squirming playfully in his arms. “Really,”

“But,” He began, still leaving kisses anywhere he could reach. Damn, the man is persuasive.

“Now.” I said, bringing his face up so I could kiss him.

With difficulty, we both broke away, panting, eyes hazy and unfocused. He rested his forehead against mine as we let our pulses slowly return to normal.

“We probably should go now.” He said and his dimple flashed.

“Probably,” I leaned back against the tree, and he slowly let me go.

“Why is it so hard to let you go?” He asked, groaning, pulling me to him once again and planting a soft kiss on my forehead.

“We’ll work that out later.” I forced myself to switch back to business mode, trying to clear my foggy, thoroughly kissed head. I bent down to pick up my shirt and came up to find Charlie right behind me, hands encircling my hips.

“Charlie,” I started. I would have rolled my eyes at his pitifully one-tracked, male mind, but I couldn’t; it didn’t matter that I’d just been half-clothed, backed up against a tree, I wanted to kiss him again. But he surprised me, saying,

“Calm down, I’m just going to braid your hair.”

“Charlie Weasley, infamous Dragon Tamer, a secret master at hair-braiding?” I teased, giggling.

“Shut up.” He said playfully, nipping at my ear. “I used to braid my sister’s hair when we were younger.”

“I forgot you had a sister!” I said, closing my eyes as he twisted my hair back into its plait. “How old is she now?”

“Fifteen.” He answered, “God, it makes me feel old, just thinking about it.”

I laughed, “Yeah, I know. In my mind, I think I’m still 17, not about to turn 23.”

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for your birthday?” He asked abruptly, smoothing my hair somewhat expertly.

“Hmm,” I said, thinking. “That’s a good question, there’ve been so many. What about you?”

“I asked you first.”

“How old are you?”

“Six, I think.” He said petulantly.

“Fine.” This time, I did roll my eyes. “The year I turned 16 – I think it was 16 – I stole my mom’s magic carpet. It sucks that they’re outlawed now in Romania, too. Anyway, I flew it halfway to Bulgaria to see my cousin Dorina, who was in her last year of school on the border. It was five in the morning by the time I got back. God, my mom was so mad! But, it was worth it.”

Charlie finished my braid and backed away, giving me time to untangle my shirt and pull it back on as he said, “That’s pretty good.” He picked up his shirt from the damp ground, dusting it off and pulling it over his head. I forced my eyes to look away; I was way too easily transfixed by the ripple of his muscles as he moved.

“I remember,” He continued, running a hand through his cropped hair, “My mum flipped out when I drove dad’s flying car to Brighton to see the Quills for my 13th birthday.” I let out a disbelieving snort of laughter.

“No way!” I said, letting him once again bear my weight as we started off through the woods to camp.

“Why don’t you believe me?” He grinned. “Mum was livid: ‘Charles Arthur Weasley, you could have died! Worse, you could have been seen!’” He broke off his high-pitched imitation, chuckling. “Honestly, I think Dad was just pleased I got his car back safely.”

“That’s mental!” I laughed, picturing 13-year-old Charlie stumbling out of his dad’s flying car at sunrise, a huge grin spread across his face.

“I was grounded for weeks!” He said, breaking off and waving at a couple of guys as they passed us, jogging through the wet, muddy trail.

“Hey, Charlie, Ileana,” One of the pair, a tall, lean guy named Danial called to us.

“Alright?” Charlie asked, casually, almost instinctively pulling me back out of their way.

“Pretty good.” Danial called over his shoulder as he and Domani sprinted off on the narrow trail.

“Where will Costache be?” I asked, a new sense of urgency creeping into my bones.

“In his office. Most likely,” He said, trying to steer me from my worry. “We’ll take care of it, Ramsey.” He gave my shoulders a friendly, reassuring squeeze.

“What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?” I asked, shifting back to the track of our earlier conversation, partly to make our long walk go by more quickly, and partly to learn as much about him as I could.

“I had detention for two weeks fifth year,” He said, shrugging, “but I was a prefect, so I had to at least attempt to control myself.”

“Yeah, you had no problem putting me in detention, though.” I pointed out.

“Ileana, I think you managed to break virtually every rule at Hogwarts.” He retorted. “But, believe me, 6th and 7th years, I almost wanted to assign myself detention to be with you, except for the fact that we couldn’t have a single conversation without wanting to kill each other.”

“Remember when Tonks and a couple other people would throw a topic in the air and watch us argue about it?” I asked. Tonks was one of my good friends at Hogwarts; she was in trouble almost as often as I was. She was in auror training at the Ministry now, and I hadn’t spoken to her in a couple of months.

“Yeah, they got a kick out of it.” He laughed at the memory. “The best entertainment next to Quidditch.”

“With a lot more bloodshed.” I reminded him, thinking of all the times when I would punch him in the face. Wait, those were only in my mind. Damn, I felt stupid.

“You were funny when you got pissed.” He said bluntly, grinning as my fantasy world in which I always kept my cool came crashing down around my shoulders.

“I was not!” I cried indignantly.

“You were!” He maintained and stopped on the trail, “’Charlie!’” He mimicked, “’I’m not letting you walk away with the last word. Come back!’”

I cringed. That was a very real excerpt from an argument we’d had in our fourth year. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I mumbled, consulting the ground.

“Really?” He asked, amused. “Then why are you looking at the ground and blushing?”

“I’m always blushing.”

“Around me, yeah, you are.”

“That was a bit exaggerated.” I said evasively.

“Not really.” He laughed.

“Well, you were mean!” I said reasonably.

“At least I didn’t try to be bigger than I was.” He shot back, “The way you would yell, you’d think you were about 25 foot tall!”

“You talk rubbish!” I burst out, laughing. “I did not!”

“You absolutely did.” He retorted, shielding his eyes as the drizzle started to come down harder.

“Yeah, well at least I didn’t bring sex into it!” I shot back hotly.

This stopped him, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“The first thing you ever said to me was ‘you’re just a girl.’”

“Ramsey,” Charlie bit back a grin, looking down at me. “I don’t really know how to break this to you, but you are a girl.”

“Not the point.” I said.

“I kissed you,” He reminded me, like I needed reminding. “Multiple times, in large part because you are ‘just a girl.’ A girl I’ve been crazy about for forever.”

I bit my lip and blushed, mollified. “I can’t believe we just argued about arguing.”

Charlie threw his head back and laughed, the deep, rich sound infecting me so before I knew it, I was laughing, too. And not just a flirty giggle, either, but a full out, I’m-laughing-so-hard-I’m crying-and-every-muscle-in-my-abdomen-hurts situation.

“What do you think they’re on about?” I dimly heard Andrew’s bemused voice nearing us.

“No idea,” Came Ciprian’s reply, “But it’s about time.”

“Oi!” Andrew and Ciprian rounded the corner and stopped at the sight of Charlie and I both clutching our sides, hysterical with mirth.

“What’s so funny?” Ciprian asked, bewildered, staring at the two of us like we had completely lost our minds and should be locked up immediately.

“Old times.” Charlie managed, steadying me as I threatened to careen into him.

“Well, then,” Andrew said, eyebrows raised. He turned to me, “Ramsey, Costache wants to see you. Something about making sure you weren’t off doing anything stupid.”

“I think his suspicions were correct.” Ciprian muttered to Andrew, shooting Charlie and me a furtive look.

“Hey!” I said. “Not fair!”

“We were just on our way to see him.” Charlie replied for me, as I was apparently too busy blushing and being tongue-tied to properly respond. “Thanks.”

“I guess we’ll leave you two alone, then.” Andrew said suggestively. “See you at the hatching center at one.” And, chuckling, they started running north, the way from which Charlie and I had just come.

“Why do they always do that?” I rounded on Charlie. “Why do they think that just because we’re alone, we’re snogging, or something?”

“Because we usually are.” He suggested, making it sound more like a question than the blatant statement that it was.

“But how would they know that?” I asked suspiciously, mind going into overdrive. What if someone had seen us? What if rumors were spreading all around camp? What if Costache was starting to think maybe he’d made a mistake? How had Andrew and Ciprian found out? Unless, “Charlie…”

“What?” He answered impishly.

“What did you say to them?” My voice lowered about half an octave as I measured every word carefully to prevent myself from doing anything stupid, like accusing him of being a complete idiot.

“Me?” He asked vaguely, staring off in the other direction. “I didn’t say anything. Directly.” He added in an undertone.

“Charlie.” My voice rose at the end of his name without my meaning it to.

“Calm down!” He reasoned. “I guess they saw the vacant look on my face after the first time and came to the right conclusions. They’re horrible at beating about the bush, so I finally asked them why the hell they were acting so mental.”

“Of course.”

“And Andrew said that I should just come out with it and asked me up front if I was ‘hitting that,’ to quote him directly- no you can punch him later!” He said hastily as I opened my mouth to interject, probably with something witty, cutting, and clever, if I could find the words. Was it that obvious? “I said ‘I wouldn’t put it quite that way,’ and they immediately knew that something was going on between us.”

“Charlie,” I began, forcing myself to be an adult, for the sake of the two of us. “I don’t know if this such a good idea,”

“If what is not such a good idea?” God, he was dense sometimes.

“This.” I repeated, gesturing to the lack of space between the two of us, hoping he would understand what I meant.

“Why not?” He asked. God, this conversation was going to be a difficult one, especially because I was leaning on him in the middle of the freaking woods.

“Because we work together.”

“And?”

“And you very well know that it’s almost impossible for me to keep my hands off you.”

“Fine by me.”

“Charlie.” I said again, determined to speak my mind. “I can’t get distracted from work. Hell, I’ve only been here a month, and I have a lot to prove. People are watching- even you up until recently- and waiting for me to slip up and make a mistake so that they can rest on their ingrained beliefs that girls don’t belong in this part of the world.

“You, every gorgeous muscled inch of you, are a massive distraction. I can’t focus when your eyes are on me, it’s like my brain turns to mush.” I finished, disgusted with myself for letting that last bit slip out. Wasn’t supposed to happen.

“Mush, you say?” He repeated, stopping on the path and turning me around to look at him.

“That wasn’t supposed to come out.” I mumbled. “That only happened in my brain.”

“Only when I look at you?” He pressed on, giving me a first class stare that, yes, turned my brain to mush.

“Or when you say my name like you do, when, you know.”

“Ileana,” He all but whispered, voice deep, husky.

“Like that.” I squeaked, backing away hastily, tripping on a tree root and falling flat on my arse. I grabbed Charlie’s arm to steady myself but only ended up in dragging him down with me. On top of me, to be precise.

“Ramsey, I know you like me, but come on, this is a little sudden for me: in public?” He joked, eyes searching my face.

“Can you get off of me now?” I asked, not quite trusting myself to be this near to him in semi-public.

“What were you saying about the way I say your name?” He redirected, pressing an almost chaste kiss to the cord of my neck.

“It’s distracting.” I said, trying desperately to focus. Dammit, I would not be swayed! “And I don’t need distractions.” I shoved his chest, and he rolled off of me and to the side, flat on his back in the middle of the trail.

“That’s not what you said ten minutes ago.” He prompted, getting to his feet and offering his hand to help me up.

“Anymore.” I specified, taking his hand, letting him pull me up, and then quickly letting go, making sure to stand several feet away from him.

“Really?” He asked, looking vastly amused at the distance between us. “How do you intend to get back to camp? It’s another half-kilometer.”

“Walking.”

“Really? How?” He couldn’t bite back the grin that lit up his face as he knew he had me cornered.

“You put one foot in front of the other over and over again.” I said dryly, setting off down the trail, ignoring the twinge in my leg.

“You’ll start bleeding again.” He called out, walking behind me. “Then Costache will really make you stay in bed for a week.”

“Shit.” I stopped walking and waited for him to catch up to me, which he did in about two seconds. I was so frustrated with, well, everything! I couldn’t even bloody walk on my own, I was slipping into a habit of kissing Charlie whenever we were alone, and I couldn’t even summon the willpower to put up a convincing argument to persuade him that it was a bad idea.

“Here,” He knelt down and looked at the leg of my trousers, which, unfortunately was starting to seep through with blood. “Let’s get you back to camp and fix this. Seriously, I’m going to carry you.”

I gave him the Look. You know, the one that says, “I hate you, you’re a terrible human being, why must you be so damn reasonable?”

“I’m not going to try anything.” He said as he swung me up in his arms, cradling me to his chest. “Unless you do something stupid.” I elbowed him. “Like that.” He amended, swinging me over his shoulder once again, and setting off on the trail toward camp, with me kicking and cursing and beating on his shoulders with my fists. He was impervious, the damn stoic.

“I hate you!” I whispered in Romanian, making it sound more like a caress than an insult.

“No you don’t.” He said in English, pressing a hand down on my left leg to keep it from bleeding any more.

“But I do.” I switched tactics and decided it was a much more effective use of my time to go silent and stare at his perfect bum. How dare a man so infuriating as Charlie Weasley be so attractive? I guess that was part of the maddening, irritating, and completely irresistible package: gorgeous bum. It was so unfair.

“You’re giving up that easily?” He sounded slightly put out, like he was expecting me to rise to the occasion and fight, like I had virtually every other time.

I said nothing, letting him work that answer out on his own.

As much as I was loath to admit it, Charlie’s carrying me was a much more effective means of transportation than holding up the sham of “walking.” We reached camp in no time at all. Charlie strode through the semi-circle of tents, ignoring the stares we received, as the guys no doubt wondered what the hell was happening. Personally, I think they all got a huge kick out of seeing the two of us rapidly alternate between fighting and submitting, wanting to kill each other and him winning disagreements solely based on the sheer fact that he was a megalith of a man. I rested my elbow on Charlie’s back and propped my head up on my hand, meeting the stares of the men with a look that I can only describe as weary, even bored, resignation.

However, what Charlie had failed to factor into the equation was that I was more stubborn than a mule. I would hold my position on something for years and not consider budging even a centimeter. If he wanted a fight from me, I would give him nothing, not even a scathing word to stroke his ego.

He set me down effortlessly on a bench under the shade and protection of one of the trees by the tents.

“Wait here.” He said gruffly and strode off to the first aid tent to get whatever he needed.

I leaned back, let out a huffy breath, and waited for Charlie to come back.

“You and Weasley, huh?” Luca sat down next to me. What I forgot to mention earlier is that Luca is my cousin. Or at least someone who’s always around my grandmother’s house in the summer enough to seem like a cousin. I think, to be scientific about it, he was my cousin Gavril’s best friend from the time they were babies.

“No!” I said indignantly, spluttering in such a way that I’m sure made my vehement outburst thoroughly unbelievable. “At least, not like that.”

“Yet.” He said knowingly, ridiculously sage for someone barely three years older than me.

“Luca!” I exclaimed, nudging him with my shoulder. “It’s none of your business.”

“But it is.” He replied. “You know you’re like my little sister.”

“Don’t start.” I laughed. “Is the family demanding constant updates on my well-being?”

“Only occasional updates.” He said easily, swinging into our banter that was so common. He actually was a brother figure, teaching me to climb my first tree and listen at doors long after we were supposed to have gone to sleep.

“Please tell me you didn’t tell them about the incident.” I said, pointing to my leg.

“No, I didn’t.” He said, leaning back against the rail of the bench. “Your mom would have gone crazy.”

“Thanks, Luca.” I replied gratefully.

“So, Charlie.” He tried subtlety.

“Not going there with you.” I was resolute.

“Fine.” He held his hands up in defeat. “I know better than to try to charm you out of your opinions!”

“Hey, Luca.” Charlie had returned, arms full of medicine-type things and a fresh bandage.

“Hey, Charlie,” Luca got to his feet, “Just want to let you know that one of the Fireball eggs is about ready to hatch. So you can keep an eye out.”

“Thanks, mate.” Charlie grinned at me. “Hopefully we’ll get to see it.”

“See you later.” Luca walked away, stopped, pivoted on the spot and gave me a ludicrously obvious wink behind Charlie’s shoulder that I pointedly ignored.

“Do you happen to have any shorts on beneath these pants?” Charlie asked, not meeting my eye. I was grateful that he could at least pretend to be embarrassed to be around me like this when other people were around.

“Why would I have shorts on beneath these?” I asked, “It’s July.”

“Well then, “ He said bracingly, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked, right before he ripped the left leg of my trousers up to the very bottom of my hip. “Bastard.” I said, forcing myself not to get goose bumps as he started to gently remove the old bandages from around my thigh. His face was a mask of profession as he took an antibacterial cloth and started to clean the gash. I would never have thought that first aid (unless, obviously, it was mouth to mouth CPR) could be considered sexy. Damn Charlie for making it look incredibly hot.

“The binding came loose.” He murmured, looking up at me. “That’s why it’s bleeding again.”

“Oh.” I said casually, praying he wouldn’t order more rest.

“Probably from being out too soon.”

“Absolutely not,” I disagreed, inherently knowing that he was right.

“Let me redo them, and then you’ll take the rest of the day off.”

“But,”

“No.” He really wasn’t kidding, that much was apparent.

“Fine.” I groaned. “After we talk to Costache.”

“Do you really want him to see you like this?” He questioned, his face betraying what he thought of that idea.

“Fine, doctor, stitch me up.”

“Ready?” He asked, gripping my hip, strong fingers pressing into my skin. The contrast between pleasure from his touch and pain at my wound made me slightly dizzy, I didn’t know which was stronger.

“Yeah.” I felt a slight pressure as the gash once again closed up, held together a medical adhesive spell.

“Alright?” He asked, looking up with clear blue eyes marred with the faintest trace of concern.

“Yeah.” I replied, taking a second to get used to the feeling of the spell once again.

“I’m gonna wrap it up again now.” He took a long piece of fabric and started to wind it around my leg. I’m not responsible for the sound I made when his knuckles collided with the underside of my thigh, but his mask of cool shattered as it escaped my lips.

“You okay?” He repeated as he met my eyes again. His eyes were hazy and dark with a reckless gleam, a sort of desperation, balancing on an edge. I realized that this endeavor, after our little escapade in the woods, was very difficult for him.

Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded weakly. He grinned, then, obviously amused with the effect he had over he. He took his time, leisurely winding the bandage around my leg, letting his fingers stray up as far as the fabric where my ripped trousers began.

To a passerby, this was just an ordinary first-aid procedure. But they would have had to get closer to notice that I was even antsier than usual, darting my eyes around to make sure nobody was staring, and tapping my fingers against the bench as I tried to keep my mind off of what Charlie was doing. Unsuccessfully.

Finally, just when I thought I’d been pushed to the final limits of my self-control, and was ready to grab him by the neck of his shirt and kiss him in front of everybody, he waved his wand, binding the end of the bandage, and stood up, looking at the expanse of bark above my head.

“Let’s go,” He said, and I almost missed the dangerous edge to his voice. An edge that signified that he was feeling the exact same way that I was. He offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet. I slid my arm around his wait for support- I swear he almost stopped breathing- and ran my hand over his ridiculous muscles. “Come on.” He said and silently led me to my tent and deposited me on the bed.

By then, my heart rate had slowed back to normal, and I trusted myself to speak.

“Am I gonna be alright, doc?” I joked, grinning at him as he kneeled down again and brusquely removed my shoes and socks.

“If I can keep my hands off of you.” He said, teasing me right back, but we both knew he wasn’t entirely kidding. “I’m taking your shoes with me,” he said as he pushed himself to his feet. “Just in case you get any ideas.”

“I wasn’t?” I finished it like a question because I knew I was caught red-handed.

“Like hell.” He shot back, grinning.

“But the Fireball!” I protested, grasping at straws. “She’s supposed to hatch!”

“I’ll come get you if anything starts to happen.” He promised, my boots in one hand. “I need to tell Costache what we saw. Be good.” He added, right before he strode out the door.

Already bored, I fell back against my pillows. And was instantly asleep.


Chapter 12: Interrogation
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I was lying somewhere warm, enshrouded in a cocoon of sunlight, or some other similar substance. Dimly, I thought I could hear voices nearby, but I didn’t want to pay them any mind. I wanted to stay asleep, surrounded by nothing.

“Let her sleep.”

“Damn, he wore her out.”

“Don’t be stupid. They’ve been working.”

“In the woods?” Andrew asked, thick Scottish brogue full of derision.

“Idiots.” I muttered, and with great effort, opened my eyes and rolled over to face them, tugging my blanket almost up to my eyes.

“You’re awake.” Ciprian observed dumbly.

“What?” I asked, the sarcasm in my voice somewhat offset by its gravelly tone, “Who told you?”

“Ha. Ha.” He retorted, “Charlie said the Fireball is about to hatch, so –“

“I’m coming!” I bolted out of bed and sprinted to the door, stopping suddenly at the threshold.

“What?” Andrew asked, stopping just shy of plowing me over.

“He has my shoes.” I said, “Not that that’ll stop me, but just so you can back me up when he lectures.”

“Not a problem.” Ciprian walked past me, knelt down on one knee, and turned his head to look back at me. “Hop on.”

“If you say so.” I climbed on his broad back and wrapped my arms around his neck, locking my ankles together around his middle.

Together, we set off down the shortcut path to the Hatching Center.

“Giddy up!” I yelled, affecting my best western drawl. Ciprian laughed and obliged, breaking into a jog, holding my legs so I wouldn’t fly off. “Whoo!” I yelled, leaning back and lifting my hands high into the air.

Guffawing, Andrew broke into a run, leaving us in the dust, or, more accurately, mud.

“Cheater!” Ciprian yelled after him, speeding up. For a piggyback ride, we reached the Hatching Center in record time. I reached ahead and opened the door for us. Loudly proclaiming our victory, he carried me into the hatching room.

“Where is she?” I asked, breathless. I scanned the rows and shelves of large, multicolored eggs resting on incubators. We must have had at least 100 eggs in the airy, high-ceilinged room. The hatchery was a modern structure, built several years ago with a generous grant from the Romanian Ministry, with an all-glass roof that sent dappled green light down to the smooth cement floor. It was industrial, yet comfortable, with lots of space and a clear glass table in the middle of the room, with a hole through the center. Underneath this opening was a fire burning in a hearth whose warmth spread throughout the hatching room. Suspended directly above the hole, a large metal bowl held a bright red, glittering egg, shell speckled with shimmering flecks of gold and orange.

Charlie’s eyes found me, clinging to Ciprian’s back and narrowed slightly; I got a slight thrill at his possessiveness. I think because I’m so headstrong, I gravitate toward guys that I know can handle my stubbornness. Charlie could obvious handle it. I saw his eyes flit down to my bare feet, and then up to Ciprian’s hands holding me to him. He cleared his throat loudly.

Grinning, Ciprian caught Andrew’s eye and released his grip, holding his hands up at his shoulders as if to plead his innocence. I uncrossed my ankles and slid down to the floor, letting go of his shoulders.

Satisfied, Charlie turned his attention back to the egg, now trembling loudly in the bowl. I neared the edge of the table, ignoring the sweltering heat from the flames. Ciprian and Andrew stood at the other two ends, and never took their eyes off the egg as the bowl swayed from side to side.

“Wait,” Charlie look up at us. “Get a fireproof vest on.” He took one from the rack behind him and tossed it to me. It was heavy and awkward, and smelled of soot, but I heaved it on anyway.

“Glasses.” He threw them to me. I caught them with an outstretched hand and put them over the bridge of my nose. These things were indestructible; they wouldn’t shatter if hit by flying bits of shell that were strong enough to break regular glass, nor would they fog up in the intense heat. I felt ready for battle: properly armed for a conversation with my mother. And if I can handle that, a flaming dragon would be no problem.

I diverted my attention back to the egg. Faint cracks had appeared in the almost-translucent shell, streaking the crimson exterior with thin cerulean lines.

“How did we even get this egg in the first place?” I asked loudly over the crackling of both the hearth and the shell.

“Long story,” Charlie looked up at me and grinned, such a look of boyish enthusiasm on his face that it was impossible not to smile back.

“Right,” I retorted, “I forgot that we’re so pressed for time here.”

“Look!” Andrew directed our attention back to the egg. Bright blue cracks ran along the middle of the scarlet shell, dividing it evenly into four jagged pieces that broke away, leaving a thin, almost entirely transparent second shell covered in a shimmery gold membrane, which fell away from the inner shell in the heat, turning molten in the bowl. Eventually, it would harden and form what is commonly called “Fool’s Gold.” We were silent as the second layer of the shell, this one a pale orange, began to crack, splitting into many different pieces, held together by yet another membrane on the interior.

With a muted, high-pitched shriek, the baby fireball exploded the egg, splattering the table with flaming bits of eggshell. In the bowl, there was a fiery ball of confused dragon.

“Give it a minute,” Charlie said, stilling Ciprian, who’d started to cautiously move forward, with a raised hand.

The flaming dragon crawled out of the suspended container, leaving fragments of burning shell on the glass table. Removed form the direct heat of the fire, the Fireball started to cool down. He was splayed, flames dying on her glittering red scales, on the table. Gazing confusedly up at the four awestruck faces before her, he was easily the most adorable thing I’d ever seen.

“Use the gloves.” Charlie looked at me.

“You want me to…” I trailed off, stunned. In the hatchery, it was a ridiculously important thing to be a dragon’s first human contact. These creatures are so smart that they can form behavioral traits based on the first person/momma dragon they are introduced to.

“Yes.” Charlie raised an eyebrow, daring me to fight him. “Use the gloves.” I tugged the bulky gloves onto my hands and reached out to pick up the baby, who stared at me with blinking brown eyes. As he cooled down even more, gold scales formed sloping ridges down his spine. He coughed and a little ball of flame flew out of his snout.

She snuggled against my chest, purring as her forked tail curled protectively around his eyes.

“Oh my god.” I whispered gleefully. “This is the best thing ever.” Charlie, who was starting to clean up the mess on the table, momentarily stopped what he was doing to wink at me, his dimple flashing and eyes alight.

“Girl’s got a gift, Charlie.” Andrew said pointedly, nudging Charlie as he passed, pausing his sweeping of the floor to nod to the dozing dragon in my arms.

“I know.” Charlie replied, intentionally loudly enough for me to hear. He sent me a smoldering look from beneath his brows, blue eyes intense, and I could feel my knees start to get wobbly.

“What do you want me to do with him?” I asked, trying to ignore the blush of sheer happiness that seeped down to my toes.

“Hold him.” Was his answer, “At least until we finish cleaning up. Then, we’ll put him in the big crate in the nursery, but someone will need to stay with him overnight.”

“I’ll do it.” I answered abruptly, not saving even a split second for thought.

Charlie raised his brows questioningly at the speed of my reply, but nodded his assent. (Finally I found a Charlie-approved activity!) He gathered the soot and ash on the table with a dustpan and discarded the remnants of the shell still on the table into a nearby bin. He and Ciprian lifted the glass table and moved it to the corner, away from the fire so it could better warm the entirety of the room. Andrew turned a lever by the door, which caused the windows on the ceiling to open, instantly giving the room much-needed ventilation.

“Andrew, Ciprian,” Charlie started, tugging his fireproof apron over his head. Not that I was ogling, or anything, but his worn blue thermal rode up as he lifted his arms, and I found yet another reason to find Charlie damnably attractive. “Can you write the report? There should be a blank copy in the box by the door. I’d have Ramsey do it, but I figure if I make her fill out one more form, she’ll strangle me with a shoelace.”

“Damn right I will,” I murmured, giving him a dark look. Or as much as I could give anyone a dark look, given my elated state of mind.

“Oh yeah?” He shot back challengingly. “With which shoelaces? Last time I checked, I still had your boots!”

“Well then, I suppose I’ll steal your boots, and strangle you with your own shoelaces!”

“Oi!” Andrew peeked his head through the door. “Hate to break up the party, but Charlie, there’s not an extra form in here.”

“Really?” Charlie crossed the room to check for himself. Ciprian took that opportunity to push me into the next room, the “nursery” of sorts, and into a thoroughly patched armchair. He shut the door behind him and said,

“So you and Charlie are...?” Ciprian started mischievously, pulling up a chair in front of me and plopping down on it backwards, using the back as an armrest.

“What is this?” I cried in indignation, “Some sort of camp-wide interest group?”

“No,” He answered cheekily, “Just curious.”

“Well I don’t kiss and tell.” I shot back, satisfied.

Satisfied until he said, “So you admit you’ve kissed him?”

“I never said anything like that!” I spluttered, red-faced. I wanted to yell at him, but knew I had to remain calm, if only for the slumbering dragon in my arms.

“No,” He said, grinning gleefully like a schoolboy, “But you said that you didn’t kiss and tell, which means you aren’t telling me, which means you have, in fact, kissed Charlie!”

“You truly have a dizzyingly whirlwind intellect.” I said sarcastically. “I’m amazed anyone can ever keep up with you at all, such mind power.”

“So you confess?” He asked, standing up and moving his chair back where it had been.

“I haven’t done anything wrong!” I said defensively. Whoops, another mistake.

“I wasn’t accusing!” He grinned, “but thanks for giving me an answer!” He turned, threw open the door, and, laughing at my outraged attempts at eloquence, bolted out of the room.

“I’m going to kill him.” I leaned back in the chair and tried to blow a stray lock of hair out of my face, to no avail.

“Who do you want to kill, and why do you want to kill him?” Charlie strode into the room, shaking his head amusedly. “Idiot Andrew, the paper was right where I said it would be.”

“Ciprian.” I answered, rolling my eyes. “He shepherded me into the room, and virtually interrogated me about you.”

“Me?” Charlie raised an eyebrow quizzically, taking a seat in the chair Ciprian had just vacated.

“Well, us, to be more exact.”

“I’m going to kill him.” Charlie rose resignedly to his feet. “I thought that was Andrew’s angle.”

“What did Andrew say?” I asked, instantly on my guard again.

Charlie took his seat again and reached for a switch by the wall. He pulled it down and the shades on the floor-to-ceiling windows rose, bringing the room into its full beauty. Like the hatching room, it was round, but this one was obviously built for comfort over industry. Shiny mossy green tiles, flecked with gold, covered the floor; against the wall, several brightly patterned cushions sat unused. There was a large steel crate next to the door, full of neatly (as much as that was possible in a camp run by men) folded blankets. Next to this, there was a large cabinet, full of what I assumed were supplies necessary for looking after a newborn dragon.

Charlie said nothing, but devoted his attention to rolling the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows.

“Charlie,” I prompted, “What did Andrew say?”

“Oh, the usual,” He answered finally, kicking his boots up onto the low wooden table between us, folding his hands behind his head and regarding me casually. I laughed at the image of domesticity that we must present: mom, dad, dragon???

“Oh, you mean he asked you again if you were, what was it? Oh, yeah, ‘hitting that?’” I tried once more to get the damn strand of hair out of my eyes- it was really starting to annoy me. As if intentionally to get on my nerves, it flew up, and straight back down, hitting my nose.

“Need some help with that?” He asked, nodding his head to the offending strand of hair.

“I’m fine.” I said stubbornly, looking away and trying sheer mind power to make the hair go back.

“I can see that.” Laughter resonated deep in his voice, “But let me, anyway, so you don’t go cross-eyed.” He got up and in two strides was standing in front of me. He leaned down and smoothed the hair away from my face, never once breaking eye contact.

“There,” He said quietly, regarding my face intently, “Was that so difficult?”

“Charlie, we’re finished- sorry!” Startled, we both jerked our heads up at the same time, resulting, of course, in a collision. My forehead made forceful contact with his chin, and we both smothered very choice words as Andrew looked on, obviously enjoying the scene he thought he'd interrupted.

“I was just,” Charlie trailed off, rubbing his chin ruefully, obviously deciding that a hasty explanation here would not help either of our cases.

“I’m sure you were.” Andrew’s eyes glinted impishly. “Anyway, just wanted to tell you I’m done with the paperwork.”

“Brilliant.” Shoulders tense, Charlie gave a strained smile.

“And so we’ll just leave you alone then, and drop it with Costache.” Ciprian continued, I’m sure doing his very best to make Charlie and I feel as awkward as possible.

Charlie nodded, taking his seat once again, apparently out of things to say.

“We’ll be here for the night shift,” Andrew said, making no move to leave, hanging causally in the doorway.

“Unless, of course you’d rather take it,” Ciprian eyes roved from Charlie, whose head was in his hands in resignation, to me, unable to do anything that I wanted, like, perhaps punch both of them in the face, and back to Charlie.

“No, please take it.” Came Charlie’s muffled plea.

“Great, we’ll see you at eight.” Yet they still made no effort to leave, and perhaps end this most recent of mortifications. They seemed to revel in our discomfort: grinning like idiots, shaking with badly suppressed laughter,

“Weren’t you supposed to be going somewhere?” I asked finally, shaking me head in disbelief as they continued to stand there obliviously.

“Oh, sorry,” Ciprian elbowed Andrew in the ribs, “Yeah, we’ll just let you have you privacy, then,”

“That’s not what I meant!” I called after them, but it was too late- they were gone.

Now utterly exhausted, I leaned back in the chair with a loud sigh.

“Is your head alright?” Charlie asked, lifted his head to look at me.

 “What? Oh, yeah, no problem.” I smiled reassuringly at him, shrugging my shoulders. “You know me, I’m pretty hardheaded, so…” I trailed off, not really sure where I was going with that one.

“This is true.” Charlie said, straightening in the chair, relaxing once he heard the door to the Hatching Center slam shut as Ciprian and Andrew left to go cause chaos and mayhem somewhere else.

Finally at peace, I looked down at the sleeping Fireball in my arms, whom I’d secretly named Rufus, and ran my fingers down his spine lazily. He purred, my heart melted, and Charlie grinned.

“So,” I looked across the low glass table at him thoughtfully.

“So?” He propped his feet up on the table, propped his head up with hands behind his head, reclining in a pose that screamed that particular brand of male confidence.

“So tell me more about these death eaters.” I said, stomach clenching in anger at the thought.

“I really don’t want to talk about that right now, Ramsey.” Charlie leaned forward intently. “I’d much rather listen to you talk about your life.”

“It’s pretty boring,” I muttered, unsure why he cared at all.

“Bullshit.” He called, grinning at me. “You’ve probably had the most exciting life of anyone here, including Serban. You’ve traveled the entire world.”

“How do you know that?” I asked. This wasn’t something I usually talked about. I’d realized a while ago that people’s excitement for your triumphs and adventures is limited by their own jealousy. Either they shut down every time you mention it at all, or they ply you for more and more details, until you feel like they pretty much lived it for you. Which, on one rather memorable occasion, they’d tried to say they had.

“Because you had stickers from South Africa, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Canada on your trunk 7th year.”

“Why do you know that?” I asked, suspicious, yet oddly touched that he remembered that detail.

“Because I was a prefect, and therefore, in charge of hauling luggage up to the dorms when the house-elves went on strike because they felt they were getting paid too much.” He said, laughing reminiscently at the memory of dozens of tea-towel clad elves with huge ears warring with themselves as they saw kids hauling their own trunks up the stairs, and debating in squeaky anguished voices about whether or not to cook more than five courses for dinner for the duration of their strike. It was truly a spectacle my sixth year, one of the many things that made Hogwarts unforgettable. Apparently, what a surprise, Charlie thought so too.

“For some reason, it just stuck with me.” He continued. “As did the weight of that thing. Jesus, Ramsey, for someone who hates fashion, your trunk weighed more than some other girls.”

“That’s because I was smuggling a niffler in to put in Filch’s office.” I said, chuckling.

“That was you?” He asked disbelievingly. “I guess that shouldn’t be a shock, but, wow!”

“And the best part?” I guffawed, “Filch thought it was Caelum Gamp, you know that hideously pretentious Slytherin with bad teeth?”

“That doesn’t narrow it down at all.” He admitted. “They were all disgustingly self-satisfied and hideous, each in increasingly unique ways.”

I snorted, biting my lip to keep from being too loud and risk waking Rufus.

“That’s an excellent point.” I conceded. “But anyway, he had detention for weeks!”

“You’re a conniving little imp, Ramsey,” He pointed out smugly, “you know that?”

“I am not an imp.” I answered primly, “Nor am I conniving.”

“Really?” He leaned forward, taking his boots off the table and resting his elbows on his knees, “then what are you?”

“An absolute angel.” I couldn’t even get the words fully past my lips before we both erupted into peals of hysterical laughter.

“That’s a side I’ve yet to see.” He replied, holding his hands up innocently when I shot him a venomous and wholly nonthreatening glare.

“I’m full of surprises.” I said, carefully getting to my feet, holding tightly to the gently snoring Rufus, and moving slowly in the direction of the crate.

“That’s true.” He agreed, getting up as well to help me put my favorite thing on the face of the planet in its new, temporary home. “You never disappoint on that scale.”

“Can you open the hatch, please?” I asked him, grabbing a blue fuzzy blanket with one hand and wrapping it around Rufus. Well, partly around Rufus- it of course got stuck somewhere between his back and my front, in the general direction of my chest.

“Uh, Charlie?” I asked, trying to figure out the best way to ask him.

“Yeah?” He looked up expectantly, having opened the hatch.

“Could you please, er, help me with the blanket? It’s sort of, well, stuck.”

“Stuck? Charlie followed the line of fabric to where it disappeared. “ah, stuck.”

“Stuck.” I repeated, feeling incredibly stupid.

He ran a hand through his cropped hair, which I was beginning to realize was a habit he had when he didn’t really know how to proceed with anything. “Let me get the dragon,”

“Okay,” I answered softly, avoiding looking at him. I tried to hand him Rufus, but of course the little devil’s claws were firmly situated in the sleeve of my sweater.

“Well,” Charlie started, his face mere inches from mine. “It seems our little Fireball is already on the team with Ciprian and Andrew.”

“I hate them, corrupting baby dragons.” I rolled my eyes. “How can we fix this?”

Gently, one by one, Charlie pried the claws from my jumper, affixing them instead to the blanket, which he also managed to miraculously fix. I tried not to notice, but Charlie’s hand got very close to the other side of the Fireball’s side, nearly meeting me full on in the chest.

Against my will, my breath hitched slightly in my throat. Charlie noticed, turned bright red beneath his freckles, and muttered an embarrassed “sorry,” before managing to free me from the Fireball’s grip.

“Thanks.” I murmured, in a voice much breather than I was accustomed to hearing come out of my mouth.

“No problem.” He broke into a grin, tucked Rufus into the crate, and closed the hatch firmly.  “Mission accomplished.”

I gave him a high five, and we walked back to our chairs, where we once again broke into easy conversation, hardly realizing that three hours had passed until Andrew and Ciprian sneaked stealthily into the room, ready to “let us go off and do whatever we wanted.” 

Boys.

Anyway, I digress. Charlie and I parted ways at the door- he to go talk to Costache, and then fill in for Sven at the Rehabilitation Center, and me to my bed, that glorious, comfortable bed, to sleep.

It wasn’t until I was about to drift off did I realize that my shoes were back in my tent, right where they usually were. And that the thermal that I was wearing to bed, tugged blindly from my dresser, smelled quite a bit like Charlie Weasley. What on earth was it doing there?? What on earth was I doing in it?

And then I realized that I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to write my cousin Dorina. 


Chapter 13: More Surprises
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A word about my cousin: Dorina Russinov is ice if I’m fire; winter to my summer, and all of those other clichéd comparisons. The penultimate of girly-girls, she owned a shop called Dorina’s Wizardwear. Yet, like all analogies, we are connected. We get along better than I do with anyone else in my family. She frustrates me to no end, yes, but she is also one of the few people whose advice I will actually listen to.

Before falling asleep that night, I promised myself that I would beg her for desperately needed help first thing the next morning. Which is why, early Saturday morning, I dragged my ass out of bed much earlier than I would have liked and blindly rummaged around in my semi-unpacked trunk for a quill and some parchment.

In my messy scrawl, so unintelligible that even McGonagall had difficulty deciphering it- to the point where she’d only grade about half of every essay I wrote (on second thought, that might be because they actually were nothing but scribbled rubbish)- I etched out a plea to Dorina:

Boys are stupid. Especially ones that kiss you, after you’ve hated them for years. Please help!


Cryptic, I know, but while she was around my family, the fewer details she knew, the better.

I walked out of my tent in search of the owlery, which I’d never before had the need to visit. I knew it was somewhere between the lake and the broom shed at the north end, but that left several miles of possiblity.

Though it was still to early for any normal person to be awake yet, a few crazy old men- early risers or late night stragglers, depending- were trudging through camp with random supplies.

I yawned out brief “mornings” to those few that I passed, and was soon lost in the intricate web of narrow pathways and dirt trails that spanned the entire north end of camp. I was aware of the general direction in which I was heading (east), but apart from that, I was completely lost. Which wasn’t a problem for me.

Except for the occasional twinge in my injured leg, I was energized, wandering the woods at sunrise. I don’t know if it was the dragons or the Romanian air, but I was in my element here, happier than I’d been in a good two years. I guess it’d just taken me time and distance to realize how bad Chris was for me.

Eventually, I came to perhaps the weirdest building I had ever seen. Suspended between two ancient, gnarled trees, the owlery was accessible only by a long rope ladder, fastened at one end to the nearest tree.

“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me.” I muttered, gazing up at the structure. “A tree house. How old are these boys?” I walked over to the edge of the ladder and stepped on the lowest rung. Charlie would absolutely kill me if he ever found out about this, which I guess was no less than I deserved. As I put the letter securely in my pocket, I knew it was a horrendously stupid idea; a girl with an injured leg should not, under any circumstances, except maybe in pursuance of Callum Stone, the drummer for Phoenix, climb a twenty foot rope ladder into a large, floating wooden house.

However, I have never been one for following the rules of what one “should” do, so I fixed my eyes in front of me and began to climb, gripping fiercely to the rope as the whole thing swayed underneath me. Luckily, the day was calm, and the gale-force winds of yesterday were long gone, so the only trouble I had was courtesy of my damn leg. I decided that when I got down, I would give it a firm talking-to. It had absolutely no right to impede me like this; it was not polite in the slightest.

By the time I reached the top, my forehead was dotted in sweat and my hands were red, but my letter was still safely in my pocket, so that was progress! The owlery was surprisingly sturdy, but maybe after a climb on a rocking rope ladder, I would have found anything, even my mother’s emotional roller coaster, stable. I made my way over to the nearest owl, a sleek eagle owl who regarded me with cool indifference, and perhaps a bit of annoyance at keeping him up past his bedtime, and tied the letter to his haughtily extended foot. With a low hoot, he took off through the open window. I followed his progress with my eyes until I lost him over the horizon. Feeling slightly relieved at having sent the letter, but no less confused about what to do over Charlie, I popped my knuckles and prepared myself for the descent back down my newest of enemies: the rope ladder.

I got halfway down successfully, until my boot caught on the rung, and before I knew it, I was upside down, hanging by my good leg. If that escapade taught me anything, it was that I should be grateful for the little things, because if it had been my other leg, I would be a.) in so much pain, and b.) flayed alive by Charlie, who, what do you know, was also feeling the need to mail a letter in the ludicrously early hours of the morning.

There I was, flailing on a rope ladder, shirt halfway up my navel, I’m sure completely red-faced, when Charlie comes striding through the forest, like a mountain-man, scruffy, in yesterday’s thermal- wait, why the hell did I remember that? He stopped dead when he saw me, eyes scanning to make sure the leg keeping me off the ground was not the one he’d been tending to so vigilantly.

“Good morning, Charles.” I smiled politely down at him, giving him a wave.

“Ramsey, should I even ask?” Charlie folded his arms across his chest and looked pointedly up at me.

“You could,” I started evasively, “but I think I prefer to be cloaked in a mysterious aura of guesswork.”

“That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” Charlie bust out laughing, throwing his head back as he guffawed, leaning against the tree for support.

“Fine!” I crossed my arms, partly to mimic him, but mostly to make sure my traitorous shirt didn’t rise up any further. “If you must know, I was channeling my inner wombat.”

“Wombat or not,” Charlie gasped out in between bouts of laughter, “You must be a little, er, ready to come down?”

“Not a chance.” I shot back stubbornly. I would pass out from lack of blood circulation before I let Charlie help me out of something so stupid. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, it looks like you do.” Charlie observed drolly, raising an eyebrow in skepticism. “But were you planning on letting your pockets empty? It looks like they’re about to.”

My hands shot to my pockets to make sure anything didn’t fall out before I realized that they were empty. Charlie, sneaky, chauvinistic Charlie, had planned that. Indeed, according to Charlie’s plan, my shirt slid a few more inches up.

“You pig.” I shot him a venomous glare, hands back securely over my chest.

“Hey,” Charlie sat down in front of me, obviously in no hurry to move and cease his tormenting, “If you had in fact had something in your pocket, it would have been in danger of falling out. It was merely a precautionary measure.”

“Precautionary, my ass.” I retorted, not believing a word of it.

“No, Ramsey,” Charlie said slowly, as if speaking to a small child or really old person, “Your ass is fine. I was talking about your pockets.”

“God, you’re hilarious.” I spat, trying to hoist myself up to a more dignified position, and failing spectacularly.

“Me?” He asked, “No. I’m just looking out for your best interests.”

“That’s truly frightening.” I said. Attempt at reclaiming dignity unsuccessful once more; fall back down. I glared at Charlie, who was doing his best to bite back hysterics.
            “Are you positive that you don’t need some help getting down?” He asked, as I tried again, and only succeeded in looking like a monkey having a seizure.

“What, so you can say ‘I told you so?’” I stuck my tongue out at him, epitome of maturity that I am.

“Actually, it was more so I can get up myself,” Charlie got to his feet and dusted his trousers off. “My mum gets slightly insane when she hasn’t heard from me in a while, and I figured it was about time that I assured her that I wasn’t letting my hair get too long.”

“Well, in that case.” I started, secretly very relieved that I now had an excuse to accept his assistance. “You may help me down.”

“Fantastic.” He said and started up the ladder, making much more graceful work of it than I had, nimbly scaling the bottom half of the ladder until our faces were level.

“You need to shave.” I remarked, contemplating his chin to avoid eye-contact.

“And your lips are chapped.” He replied, shutting me up very successfully by tracing them with his thumb.

“Your fault.” I informed him, trying to remember how to breathe, because I knew that I knew how. Somehow.

But before I could remember, his lips were on mine, gentle but persistent, and he lightly bit my bottom lip. The fact that I was upside down really wasn’t helping my case- I was already loopy enough. All too soon, he broke away.

“Excuses, excuses, Ramsey.” He grinned. “Hold on to this rung.” He instructed.

“No peeking.” I ordered. He consented by nodding his head once, and then continued his work.

“I’m going to untangle your foot, and it would look bad if you fell on your head, not that it would cause any damage or anything, it being so hard already.”

“Please just hurry up Charlie!” Joking aside, I was ready to get down. Immediately. Charlie swung around to the side of the ladder, untwisted my foot from the rope, and I instantly fell forward, leading with my feet.

“Shit!” I screamed, half-laughing, and half terrified. Suddenly, I stopped falling. Charlie had me by the waist, gripping so tightly that I was quite convinced that I wasn’t going anywhere, up or down.

“You okay?” He asked quietly, grinning down at me.

“Yep!” I squeaked, nodding vigorously. “I’m splendid. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He replied, but made no move to let go of me.

“Er, Charlie? I think I would like to go down now.”

“Why?” He asked, doing what I thought was impossible, and tightening his hold. “Don’t you trust me?”

“That’s an unfair question.” I chose my words carefully. “You are currently between me and a fifteen foot drop.”

“So I think your trust here would be implied, and at the very least, justified.” He answered himself.

“Yeah, well,” I quickly found the need to change the subject. “A tree house, Weasley? Seriously, who the hell built this thing?”

“This was Costache’s dream project.” He explained. “He grew up in the city, and always wanted a tree house. So what does he do when he gets an extra grant from the ministry? Builds a massive one, suspended between two trees.”

“He’s crazy.” I marveled. “If I had any doubts before…”

“I know.” He seconded. “Brilliant, but absolutely mental.”

“Okay,” I said, after a short pause. “I think I really am ready to climb down now.”

“Fair enough.” Charlie chuckled, nodding his head. “Go for it.” He released his vice-like grip, and watched in amusement as I scrambled down the remaining length of the ladder as fast as I could, which, apparently, was quite fast.

“Thanks, Weasley.” I called up to him, absolutely delighted to be on solid ground again. “See you at breakfast.”

“Try not to do any more wombat impersonations until I’m around to laugh at you.” He called out to me as I strode down the path.

“Whatever, Charlie.” I shouted over my shoulder.

“Ramsey, camp is the other way.” I heard Charlie’s voice, resonant and full of amusement, behind me. I stopped, pivoted on the spot, and walked in the opposite direction, head held high, past Charlie, who was doing his best not to laugh, and all the way back to camp.

 

After a breakfast that consisted of Charlie making references to wombats, me threatening to punch him in the face, and everyone looking around at the two of us, wondering what the bloody hell was going on, Charlie, Ciprian, Andrew, and I decided to drop by the hatchery and visit baby Rufus.

“You seriously named him ‘Rufus?’” Andrew asked incredulously, while Charlie and Ciprian snorted with laughter.

“Yes.” I answered, defensively. “Rufus is a perfectly respectable name.”

“Yeah, for an old man!” Charlie offered, and he and Ciprian and Andrew were once again consumed with mirth.

“I hope he grows up and bites all three of you.” I said, smiling angelically.

“Hold on, Ramsey,” Charlie said, looking ahead of us, ‘Isn’t that your dad?”

“What the hell is he doing here?” I asked, spotting him as well. William Ramsey, curse-breaker extraordinaire, was striding toward us on the narrow trail.

“Because I would know.” Charlie replied dryly. I was immediately incredibly grateful that this was happening today, instead of yesterday, after our little escapade in the woods. That would have been horrifically awkward.

“Dad?” I called out, “Did mom tell you to come to drag me away?”

“Good to see you too, Ileana,” He grinned, reaching us. Even at 46, he still cut an impressive figure. Well over six feet tall, he was almost as well muscled as Charlie, though his hair was still very long, tied back with a piece of hemp. The boys regarded him in a slight state of awe. William Ramsey was somewhat of a curse breaking legend throughout central Europe and Latin America.

“Hey, Mr. Ramsey.” Charlie said, clasping hands with my dad briefly.

“Charlie, good to see you again.” My dad replied. “How’s Bill? Still working at Gringotts?”

“Yeah, he’s been pretty busy, doing a lot of work in Africa. He still talks about his mentor, though.” Oh yeah, my dad trained Charlie’s brother. No big deal.

“I’m thinking of maybe putting a team together for a job in Mongolia soon, I’ll let him know, in case he’s interested. That’s one talented kid.” My dad looked around at Ciprian and Andrew, who at least had managed to close their gaping jaws.

“Wow, Ileana, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends? Maybe your mother was right and you do need some help with manners.” He was teasing again- always one to make a joke.

“Oh, right. Dad, this is Andrew Ross, and Ciprian Agafitei. Guys, this is my dad, William Ramsey.”

“Nice to meet you, sir.” Andrew said, still slightly tongue-tied.

“I’m not my father,” Dad replied, laughing as he shook Andrew’s hand. “No need for ‘sir.’”

“Um, dad,” I started, still unsure as to why my dad would spontaneously show up at my job, even if it was a kick-ass one. “What exactly are you doing here?”

“I came to ask you for your help.” This threw me off. Never had my dad actually asked for advice before. Not from me, anyway.

“Okay,” I said, waiting for more information.

“I’m working on a ruin in Costa Rica, in the rainforest on the Osa Peninsula. I was wondering if you could take a couple of days to help me with some stuff pertaining to dragons. We think this temple used to be guarded by them, but we need an expert opinion.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’m necessarily an expert.” I started hesitantly, though I was instantly incredibly excited.

“Nonsense,” My dad blew off my protest. “I already spoke to Mr. Costache, and he said that it was fine with him, as long as you took care of your leg.” Shit.

“Speaking of which,” He looked down at me amusedly, and I prepared myself for some sort of lecture. “Could you explain why you didn’t feel it was necessary to tell your family you’d been poisoned by an Ironbelly?”

“Oh, um, well,” I stalled, having absolutely no idea what to say, “I guess I didn’t really want you to freak out, so,”

“What she means is that the wound was treated quickly, and it wasn’t serious.” Charlie butted in before I could dig myself any deeper into this particular hole. “She was up in a day.” What a lie. What a flat-out lie.

“Then I think it will be best if we don’t tell your mother about this,” Dad nodded his head sagely, obviously envisioning my mother’s high-decibel reaction to the news if she ever found out.

“Thanks.” I muttered to Charlie, who nodded his head once. I looked up at my dad, “So, when do you want me down there?”

“Could you meet me there tonight?” He asked, looking between Charlie and I. Instantly, I took a step away. I did not want my dad to think the only reason I was here was to be some boy’s distraction. Arguably, he was more my distraction than I was his. He could at least look like he was focusing.

“Sure.” I replied, forcing my cheeks not to give away my secret as I caught my dad’s knowing look. “I mean, if you’ve already cleared it with Costache…”

“Everything’s in order, Ili.” No, not the nickname!!! I heard Ciprian force down a snort of laughter. “There’s a team of Costa Ricans, Ticos, as they like to be called, down there already, starting the in-depth excavations.”

“Yeah, dad.” I replied. “I’ll see you down there tonight. Do you want me to walk you to the gate?”

“Sure.” He answered. “Sorry, boys. I’ll promise I’ll return her in one piece.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Ramsey.” Ciprian called as we turned away to walk down to the gate. “See you in a few minutes, Ili.” I heard his smirk.

“Ciprian, I hope Rufus attacks you.” I shouted my reply over his and Andrew’s raucous laughter at the discovery of my childhood nickname.

“Dad, why did you call me that?” I groaned in embarrassment.

“Because I always call you that.” He replied, shrugging like it was nothing.

“Fine. Fair enough. What exactly are you wanting me to do?” I asked, admittedly insatiably curious.

“I’m writing a book on this old temple.” My dad replied. “We are almost positive that it was erected over a thousand years ago by pagan goblins.”

“Goblins worship?” I asked, taken by surprise. It seemed inconceivable that they would be after anything other than gold.

“A long time ago, they were very devout. Anyhow, they erected this massive temple to worship Urukho, who was their god of destruction. Along with spiritual relics, there was a vault that stored gold, supposedly offered up to Urukho, but in all probability was hoarded most jealously by the corrupt priests.”

“So nothing has changed, then.” I say, joking. My dad cracks an easy smile.

“We think they had a dragon that guarded the vault, but I want to know if this is true, and what kind of dragon, and how long it was down there.”

“Should be easy enough,” I say, nearing the entrance now. “Any guesses as to what kind of dragon? It might have been a hybrid, or an extinct species…”

“Now I have a question for you,” My dad said, as he reached the gate. “Is there something I should know about Charlie?”

“Why on earth does everyone keep asking me that?” I burst out, incredulous.

“Because there’s obviously something there to ask about.” My dad shot back. “I was just asking, because I like to keep up to date about my daughter. Charlie’s a good guy.” He nodded, “Much better than whoever the hell that last guy was.”

“You mean Chris,” I prompted, “You mean my fiancé, the guy I was with for more than two years.”

“Him.” My dad agreed. “He was a weasel. Charlie is much better.”

“Wow,” I said, not really sure what to say to that. “Thanks, dad. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Here’s the address where someone from the team will meet you.” He handed me a slip of paper, on which, in a scrawl barely more legible than mine, my directions for apparition were written.

“Bye.” He waved, spun on the spot, and vanished, leaving me shaking my head disbelievingly at the interest everyone was taking in my alleged love life. How had my dad ascertained that much from the five minutes he’d been talking to us? Was it really that obvious?


Putting the address in my pocket, I walked back to the hatching center, where I knew, with grim resignation, I would have the lucky privilege of answering to “Ili,” for the rest of the afternoon. Splendid.


 

 


Chapter 14: Tactical Errors and Traitorous Thoughts
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Charlie and I took the night shift that night, partially because the time difference from Romania to Costa Rica is eight hours, and to be there at seven pm that night, I would have either had to stay up or wake up disgustingly early; and partially because Ciprian and Andrew pretty much shoved it on us, claiming that “the darkness would be beneficial.” What they were trying to insinuate, I have no idea. So in response, I threw a baked potato at Ciprian’s face. He was fine once he cleaned the melted cheese off his chin.

“So, Ramsey,” Charlie stepped back from the fire that he’d just started in the hearth of the nursery. “Are you all packed and ready for your three day vacation?”

“Well, I’ll be working, so I don’t know if it’s a vacation, exactly, but yes.” I leaned back in the rocking chair and rolled my sleeves down over my arms. It might only be the beginning of August, but the nights were already cool.

“I’d take it as a vacation. Any time away from Andrew and Ciprian’s raised eyebrows is something I’d gladly snatch.”

“But I have my father, who, after a five minute interaction, already is suspicious of something between us.” I rolled my eyes, legitimately vexed as to what it was that was giving us away so easily.

“He has a point,” Charlie shrugged his shoulders, looking at me intently, a mischievous smile on his face.

“Shut up.” I said, shaking my head.

“Oh, come on, Ramsey.” He leaned in toward me. “Don’t tell me you aren’t going to miss me.”

“Charlie.” I started, flustered. Dammit, I couldn’t tell him I wasn’t going to miss him. I would, and we both knew it.

“You can’t, can you?” He asked, almost reading my mind.

“Oh look, Rufus is awake!” I shot up out my chair and over to the cage. I bent down and grabbed a worn wool blanket, opened the crate, and picked him up, cradling him to my chest.

“You are going to permanently scar him if we don’t change his name.” Charlie chuckled, eyeing me as I sank back down onto my chair.

“No.” I disagreed. “First of all, there isn’t anything wrong with the name Rufus. Secondly, I know for a fact that there used to be a Hungarian Horntail named Winnifred Louise, so don’t even talk to me about scarring with names.”

“Winnifred Louise was a sweetheart.” Charlie said defensively. “And she was named by some guy named Sergei who used to work here. He was like 70 years old.”

I snorted, stroking the patch of scales between Rufus’s eyes, making him purr. “All I’m saying is that you cannot criticize me for naming him Rufus.”

“But all the older dragons will tease him and not let him in the sandbox.” Charlie implored, eyes going all wide, affecting a lisp. I burst out laughing. 

 

“That is so wrong, Charles.” I tried to stop laughing, but his face was too funny, so the hysterics started once again.

“But it was funny.” He said. “Much like naming a baby dragon Rufus. So funny, yet so wrong.”

“It isn’t the same at all!” I shot back. “Why are we still talking about this anyway? You shouldn’t contribute to knocking his self-esteem down, Charlie. Really, that isn’t nice.”

Charlie grinned, looking like a kid. “But seriously, Ramsey, I hear Costa Rica has some awesome beaches, maybe you should check them out.”

“Charlie, I don’t have time for that.” I shook my head as I lightly scratched Rufus’s nose, causing him to sneeze tiny orange sparks. “Really, I’ll be down there for three days, working the whole time, and then I’ll come back. You won’t even realize that I’m gone.”

“That’s highly unlikely.” He murmured, barely intelligible enough for me to make out.

“What was that?” I teased, “Is Charlie Weasley actually going to miss me while I’m gone for three whole days?”

“It’s not that,” Charlie said hastily, turning slightly red, raking a hand through his hair so I knew he was lying. “It’s just that you’re the only estrogen-fueled person here, and so I think it will be quite apparent when you’re not here, bossing us all around.”

“I don’t boss everyone Charlie, just you.” I smiled sweetly.

“That’s so nice, Ramsey!” He exclaimed, throwing a fist in the air in mock-triumph. “Yes! I thought you did that to everyone.”

“Nope, just you.” I replied. “Makes you feel kinda special, huh?”

“Indescribably.” He said, laughing.

“So you will miss me.” I inserted, trying my luck, seeing if I was as firmly in his head as he was in mine.

“I didn’t say that.” He raised an eyebrow, and winked- yes, WINKED- at me.

And it was hot.

“It will be nice to actually be able to focus for once, without you there, trying to distract me.” I mused, gnawing on my bottom lip.

“What do you mean ‘trying?’” He asked, “I distracted you, multiple times, successfully. Or don’t you remember?” He smirked. “Most recently was that time on the trail. You had just fallen down, dragging me on top of you.”

“Stop it, Charlie.” I muttered, looking down, away from his searing gaze.

“So you do remember.” He nodded triumphantly.

“Of course I remember, Charlie.” I snapped. A girl doesn’t simply forget one of the best kisses of her life-“ I stopped, mortified at my admission. He wasn’t supposed to know that.

“What was that?” He asked amusedly, resting his elbows on his knees, leaning in.

“I hate you.” I said, looking away. “You were baiting me.”

“And you took the bait anyway.” He retorted. “See, I think you wanted me to know that. Maybe so I would pull the same stunt again.”

 

 “Wasn’t.” I said, lying though my teeth. God, he was good.

“But the thing is, I don’t like to pull the same stunts twice. That’s not nearly as fun. I’d much rather keep you guessing, on your toes.”  His words hit me. Holy hell. What had I gotten myself into?

“You manipulative man,” I recovered myself, not nearly as quickly as I’d hoped, but in enough time to try to reverse any damage my speechlessness had caused in our power play.

“Not really,” Charlie shrugged. “Just a man who knows what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it.”

“So it’s the chase?” I shot back. “The thrill of pursuit, nothing more?”

 

“Sometimes yes,” he admitted. My guard went up instantly- I didn’t like being a game: I’d gotten enough of that with Chris.

“But not with you.” He added thoughtfully, as if it was only dawning on him then. “There’s something about you, about this- it isn’t a game to me.”

And just like that, my defenses dropped, and he won. With nothing else to say- well, actually, I had a lot to say, but just didn’t trust myself to partially divulge-I looked down at Rufus, and saw that he was sound asleep, snoring lightly in my lap.

“He’s asleep, I’ll put him back in his crate.” I said, without looking up at Charlie. I got up, and gently set Rufus down in his crate. When I straightened up, Charlie was behind me, his hands encircling my hips.

“You know, that was probably tactical error, Ramsey,” He whispered, before his lips were on my neck.

“Dammit, Charlie.” I closed my eyes, turned in his embrace and instantly felt his lips on mine, tugging on my lower lip, coaxing my mouth open.

I wound my arms around his neck, twining my fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, pulling him in closer, harder, deeper. He grip on my hips tightened as his tongue once again claimed now-familiar territory. Slowly, and I must say that I admire the man for his balance, he started walking backward, pulling me with him, mouth never leaving mine, until he was sitting back on the chair he’d just vacated, and I was on top of him, hands braced on his shoulders for support, his hands behind me, keeping me from doing something terribly ungraceful, like falling.

Oh good lord, I was straddling Charlie Weasley on a rocking chair. And he was kissing me like I was everything he needed. NOT GOOD. And even worse than the aforementioned facts, was that I was kissing him back. Not caring that I was probably making yet another huge mistake, that I was giving him all the power, something I’d sworn to myself I would never do again.

I grabbed his head, preventing him from pulling back, from stopping. Hell, it didn’t matter to me that there were windows all around us, that in the dim light of the hatchery, we would be incredibly easy to spot by anyone walking in our general direction. One hand trailed down my spine, pressing me closer to him while the other wound its way in my hair, untying it from a messy knot on the top of my head, making a fist at the back of my skull, curls trapped in his grip. He growled as he bit my lip and goosebumps erupted all down my arms.

 

Kissing him was too much; too much sensation, too much emotion, and yet not enough. In one terrible second, I realized that kissing him would never just be enough. I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about him until he became mine, and I, his. Which, while an incredibly antiquated thing to say, was quite true.

But then what if things were changed for the worse? What if this delicate balance we had going for us was destroyed in the aftermath? What if- oh my goodness, hand on my butt, I can’t concentrate anymore.

It wasn’t long before we were tearing at each other’s clothes, needing to be rid of anything that separated our skin. I can’t tell you how quickly things escalated beyond that, or, rather, would have escalated were it not for The Distraction.

Something as if from far away was beeping irritatingly loudly. I hadn’t noticed it at first, and it still took me a second that it was Charlie’s watch beeping form somewhere near my ear.

“What the…” I started dumbly, not really confident in my ability to form a coherent sentence that wouldn’t make me grit my teeth in embarrassment.

“And that means it’s almost time to go.” Charlie panted, gazing up at me, dragging his teeth across my bottom lip as he pulled me closer.

“How much time do we have then?” I asked hoarsely, reading his mind, knowing exactly what he was thinking, exactly what his intentions were even though he was too much of a gentleman to go ahead and just say it.

“We have an hour, and we both know you haven’t packed yet- no you’re not walking out of here in what you’re wearing. Or, well, half of what you’re wearing, and half of what is on the floor.” I followed his gaze to the small pile of hastily discarded clothes.

“Unamusing, Charles.” I said, pushing off his lap, or at least attempting to. He grabbed my hands, touched his nose to mine as he gazed into my eyes.

“Ramsey, I’ll see you in three days, yeah?” I heard his unasked question that wondered where we would even be in three days, if this was something that would be more than a few snogging sessions in the woods, away from everyone else. If this was more than a vetting of feelings we’d both had for more years than we were okay with admitting.

I took a deep breath, and did what I did best. Skirted the issue. “I’ll be back in three days, Charles. I gotta go pack.” I brushed my lips against his briefly, disengaged from his embrace, picked up my clothes, and got the hell out of there before he could see what I’m sure was a look of abject terror on my face.

I felt like such a complete idiot as I made my way back to my tent in the dark. I couldn’t believe that I have left it that way with Charlie. Well, I couldn’t believe that I was still unable to convince myself that falling for him was a good idea. There were at least a hundred reasons why I should stay the hell away from him, yet when we were together, not a single one of them seemed to matter. Nor did they seem to keep me from wanting to jump his bones every time we were out of earshot of the others.

“Good one, Ramsey,” I berated myself as I reached my tent and started throwing random things into my backpack. “Way to leave things like an adult.” Whatever, I would have three whole days starting now to distance myself from him. Maybe, on the other side of the world, I would get some sort of clarity as to if we were a good idea or just a far-fetched, improbable disaster in the making.

I glanced down at my watch, saw that I had about twenty minutes to make it to the other side of camp to await the signal to leave, and trudged out of my tent, turning the lights off a bit too enthusiastically with a wave of my wand.

I was really not expecting Charlie to be waiting for me, but of course he was.

“Ramsey, did you honestly think I’d let you leave without answering my question? Or a proper goodbye for that matter?” His signature smirk was visible in the light of the harvest moon that shone down through the break in the trees.

“There’s probably nothing proper about what you have in mind, Weasley.” I retorted, pitifully using my derision to try and mask the fact that my knees had gone weak at his words. I was a mess. Officially. Again.

“Yeah, you’re right.” He grabbed me around the waist and pulled me flush against him. “Nothing proper at all.”

He leaned down until his lips were just a breath away from mine.

“You’re quite the Casanova,” I managed, stepping back hastily lest I do anything stupid, like lose the last vestiges of my control and let him have his way with me then and there. Which would pose huge, gigantic problems. Problems that were hard to remind myself of when he was standing that close to me, his intentions heart-stoppingly clear.

“Maybe,” He said, slowly advancing toward me again, forcing me to step backwards. “But you can’t deny you don’t like it Ramsey, especially after what just happened.”

“Mmgn,” I said eloquently as my back came to rest against a tree trunk. Jesus Christ- I must stop getting caught between trees and Charlie. Best to cut them all down to avoid temptation.

“Come on, Ramsey,” He coaxed, still slowly advancing on me. “Can you honestly tell me you don’t feel it too? You don’t want to just let go, to stop trying to fight it and see what happens? Because it’s driving me crazy. Absolutely freakin’ crazy.” He’d reached me by this time, trailing his fingers up my arms slowly. He never took his eyes off mine as he said all of this. I, for one, couldn’t look away to save my life. Pathetic.

“Please tell me you feel this, too. Ileana.” His eyes blazed.

“Screw it.” I replied, picture of grace and femininity that I am, as I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him full on. “Wait,” I said, he paid me no heed and simply started kissing my jaw, my neck, leaving bites that I’d have to charm over before I met my father. “Don’t think that this changes anything.”

“What are you talking about,” He muttered, probably calling me crazy for trying to have an actual conversation at a time like this.

“I still hate you.” I clarified, half-joking. I felt his resounding chuckle from somewhere around my collarbone. I am convinced that I will lose my brain out of my ears if this keeps up.

“Okay, Ramsey. I still think you’re a pain in the ass, if that makes you feel better.” He said, grabbing my chin with a rough hand, forcing me to look at him. “Now shut up and kiss me.”

I shut up and kissed him. It was so easy to lose time kissing Charlie. He was wild; a criminal combination of dirty, raw, and really really sweet. I felt alive, primal, and completely crazy about hi- whoa, where the hell did that come from? I’m talking, of course, about a bright blue light that beamed down about a foot to my left.

“Charlie,” I said, breaking away with difficulty. “I think that’s my signal. Time to go.”

“Don’t go.” He whispered mischievously against my ear, nuzzling his stubble against my face.

“Don’t try that. I’m going!” I said, giggling, pushing his chest to get a little bit of breathing room.

“Fine.” He kissed his way to my mouth, “See you in three days then.”

“Bye, Charlie.” His goodbye kiss almost made me want to stay, so it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to pick up my backpack and disapparate, but somehow I managed.

But not before my traitorous brain passed along the thought that taking trips wouldn’t ever be too bad if I had Charlie to come home to.

Not again!


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