It took only two days for Charlie to return to Romania after watching Voldemort fall. If he'd had his way, it would only have taken one. Ron yelled; Bill cajoled; his mother cried; only his father seemed to understand, sending him off with a nod and a pat on the back, and a gentle suggestion that he not wait too long to visit.
Charlie would do anything for his family; he just hoped his family understood that he needed them to do this for him.
"We need someone to secure the fencing on the north side," said Hugh, the head keeper, after Charlie had been back a week. Back a week and not said a word about where he'd been, what he'd done. It wasn't as though they all didn't know, even if none of them had been there. "It's a shit job, at least two days alone in bad weather--"
"I'll take it," said Charlie, raising his beer in a semblance of gratitude. Hugh nodded his head, patently unsurprised, and returned to his own corner of the pub moments later. A corner where the lights burned a little brighter, the people smiled a little more often, the war hadn't hit quite so hard.
And so not only had Charlie exiled himself back to a country far from home, he'd put distance between himself and his friends there as well. In his head, Romania had been his refuge, his place where things had remained unchanged when his home had been torn apart. The problem was that Charlie had changed, and there was no going back from that.
Two days on the north side turned into two months, Charlie procuring himself a nice one-bedroom tent and taking all the jobs that nobody wanted: flying in gale-force winds, making long-needed repairs, taking care of the ill and dangerous.
After the first month, he thought maybe he'd come to terms with losing his brothers. Somewhat. As much as he could ever hope to. But then they were the ones he was allowed to mourn openly; it was the others that gnawed at him. The other. Remus. And one month wasn't nearly enough for that.
Each week, without fail, a letter arrived from his father, always delivered by an owl from the post office as though his father didn't want anyone to know he was sending them. Perhaps the family owl was needed for more important correspondence. So despite removing himself as far as he knew how to from that life, he still knew that Harry Potter had taken a job with the ministry, that Ginny was pregnant and refused to tell anyone who the father was, that Tonks had up and quit the Aurors.
He couldn't be surprised about any of those things, nor any other tidbits his father had seen fit to drop. Harry's best prospect, now that Voldemort was gone, was throwing his lot in with the new ministry. His sister had always had a mind of her own, and he wasn't surprised she'd decided her personal life was none of their business. And the only surprising thing about Tonks quitting was that she hadn't done it the moment she'd discovered one of her fellow Aurors had betrayed them to Voldemort, and led Remus to his doom.
He almost thought about writing her, then did write his sister, a stunted note saying only that he supported her, the first to any member of his family other than his father since the end of the war.
That week's letter from his father was a bit of a departure from others, though. Certainly his father told him things that he had missed -- the new Headmistress of Hogwarts had finally been appointed; a delegation from Kenya had unexpectedly shown up to help clean up from the war -- but then he'd ended with a single line that he'd never said before:
Come home, Charlie. You need your family.
Charlie snorted and figured he had that backwards, and tucked the letter into an inside pocket of his robes, trying to forget the words as they had been written.
Charlie wasn't used to having visitors; Hugh usually sent his assignments by owl, never quite sure where Charlie was at any given time. But here he was in person, and there was Charlie sitting on a rock, his father's letter in hand, rereading it again though it had been five days since it had arrived.
"Something wrong?" he said, carefully rolling it up and sliding it inside his cloak.
Hugh sighed and set his broom butt-end on the ground, resting his weight on it. "You've got a visitor," he said, "back at the main site."
"I've got a what?"
"A visitor," said Hugh again. "Take some time off and show her the sights, will you, Charlie?"
And suddenly Charlie remembered the letter he'd send his sister, and the reply that he'd never received. Hell. "I'm in the middle of cleaning up the fire damage from--"
"I'll get Smith on it," said Hugh dismissively. "I've been soft on them all, since you got back. They could use some good, honest labour. Go see to your guest."
"I won't need much time--"
"Take two weeks," Hugh interrupted him, in a tone that demanded no argument, even from Charlie. "Take a rest, Charlie. You've earned it."
Charlie didn't want a rest, but he nodded his head anyway. He didn't, after all, know what Ginny needed from him, or whether the situation could be handled in just a day or two. And after that, well, he could find something to occupy himself. There was always something to be done.
"A rest," Hugh repeated; Charlie almost suspected legilimency. "You haven't had a break in a long time, Weasley. I'm not going to have you burning out on my watch."
Charlie smirked at the choice of words; Hugh just barely smiled back. Finally he hoisted himself off the rock and, pulling out his wand, he summoned both his tent and his broom to himself.
"I'll see what I can do," he said, and followed Hugh all the way back.
The woman sitting in the pub with a pint in her hand wasn't Ginny, which was a good thing because Charlie would've given her the mother of all lectures about drinking in her condition. No, it wasn't Ginny. It was Tonks.
"What are you--?" he blurted out, before she'd even turned to see him.
Part of her pint spilled down the front of her shirt at the sudden sound of his voice. It was with only a resigned sigh that she pulled her wand out and cleaned herself up, though, as if she'd been through just that a dozen times before.
She set it down before looking back over her shoulder at him. "I'm on a mission," she said.
"I thought you quit--" he began, then thought better of it. Was bound to be a touchy subject, with everything that had happened.
"The Aurors?" she said, smiling at him. "This isn't that kind of mission. Get your things, Charlie, you're coming with me."
"Tonks, I can't just leave."
"Sure you can," she said cheerfully. "I already took care of that."
It was just like her to do just that, he thought. Just the sort of thing she would've done when they were back in school, when she wanted something and didn't want anything to get in her way. He distinctly recalled, in fact, an incident with a bat-bogey hex and a flying teakettle, that had somehow ended up with them having the Quidditch pitch all to themselves for at least three hours. Charlie'd never been clear on how that had all come together, but he knew that Tonks had orchestrated the whole thing.
Tonks showing up in Romania had a feeling of inevitability to it suddenly, as though all along he'd been waiting for the moment when she, and she alone, would show up.
"Where are we going?" he asked her warily, but he knew in a flash of both certainty and dread just what she was going to say.
"We're going home," she sad, and took his arm to lead him out of the pub, the remains of her pint forgotten.
"Why did you leave?" she asked him, without preamble or pretence. She didn't even lead into the question gently, blurting it out the moment they were in the air, side by side, at a leisurely enough pace to talk.
"Because I had to," he said simply, staring straight ahead into the clouds that concealed their flight.
Tonks hadn't even suggested that they Apparate, though it would have been a quick, easy and painless way to get back to England. Maybe because she knew that it might've been quick and easy, but never painless. He needed a lot more than a moment's notice to go from his seclusion in Romania to the bosom of his family again. A two-day flight wasn't enough either, but it was better than the alternative.
"That's not an answer," she said. "I'm not your father, Charlie. You can talk to me."
He'd used to do just that, lying on their backs near the lake at Hogwarts, talking about classes and curses and boys and girls and everything under the sun. There was a time he'd been able to tell her anything, before school ended and they went their separate ways.
"Because I had to," he said again. "Because there was nothing to talk about and the rest of them thought there was. I'd've gone mad inside a week."
"You survived seventeen years in that house, Charlie Weasley, you're telling me you couldn't've gone a couple of months?"
"Yes, I'm telling you that," he said firmly. "How was I supposed to--"
"It wasn't your fault," she said. Like she knew. Like she'd been there, when nobody had, nobody but Charlie and his brothers.
He didn't answer her, staring straight ahead and flying through the wind. Flying like the wind. He would not have survived a week with his family, having to look them all in the eye, knowing that they all felt the same way Tonks did, and none of them knew. Maybe if it had been as simple as that one incident, monumental as it was, he might've let them comfort him. But war was never as simple as that, and there was so much more for him to answer for.
"You always were ridiculously stubborn," she went on finally, when it was clear that he wasn't going to be the one to break the silence.
"I thought that was why we got along so well," he said, and that was the end of that. "You left the Aurors."
"Yes, I was aware of that, thank you," she said. If he hadn't been looking, he wouldn't have noticed the subtle shift of colours in her hair, deepening to a navy before bouncing back to a sky blue again.
"What have you been doing?" he asked, instead of why. He'd've bet his racing broom she was sick to death of why.
"Nothing," she said, and flashed him a grin. "You should try it, you might find it suits you."
Charlie didn't think that was likely, but he found himself smiling back anyway. Tonks' smile always demanded a response, though he couldn't make it linger.
"I'm sorry about Remus," he said finally, because it needed to be said, and better now than building to the moment. "I should've been there--"
"How were you to know, Charlie?" she interrupted him. "You'd no reason to go with him that night, not when you knew he wouldn't be alone. You had no way of knowing... none of us suspected."
"Don't do this, Charlie," she said, and he wasn't sure if it was for her sake or his that she was cutting his apologies short. "I know where the blame truly lies, and set it there a long time ago."
"It hasn't been a long time."
"Long enough," she said. "Long enough that I've laid it to rest, Charlie. And so should you."
And so he did, letting silence fall between them for the next several miles. Tonks was as strong as he remembered her, independent and capable of taking charge of her own life. He'd been worried about her. He should have known that she would be doing just fine.
"I missed you," he said finally, as they shot through the sky. "I think I've been missing you for a long time."
They found an empty wizarding house in the Polish countryside, one Charlie suspected Tonks had been heading for the whole time. Maybe it was an Auror place, a memory she carried with her when she left them. Charlie'd heard rumours they were scattered all over the continent. All over the planet.
To one side of them was a deep, dense forest, to the other a small meadow with untouched grasses and flowers. It was almost idyllic, except that Charlie wasn't in any shape to appreciate an idyll.
"We can spend the night here," she said, pulling her wand out and pointing it towards the door, which opened inwards into the cottage.
"I hope you brought vodka," he said, with something that was almost a smile. "We can't land this close to Krakow without respecting the local traditions.
"Hush up and get inside," she said, with a friendly smack to his bottom. "Like you need any vodka, you'd probably end up comatose. I've never seen you this morose."
"You most certainly have," he said, but he wouldn't have called this morose. The word was almost demeaning, dismissive of what he'd been enduring since the end of the war.
"No," she said, more quietly this time. "I haven't. Get inside, Charlie and make us something to eat. Or I'll have to, and neither of us wants that."
Charlie didn't think either of them wanted his cooking either, but the house was well-stocked and he didn't have to actually cook anything, which suited them both just fine. He'd survived on far less than sandwiches, after all, and had never complained about it.
"Why'd you come to get me?" he asked finally, when they were sated and both lying on their backs on the cold tile floor. "I've been trying to piece that together but I just can't make it fit."
"Because I'm incorrigibly meddlesome," she told him, bumping her heel against his. "No one sent me, if that's what you're asking."
It kind of was. "But then, why?"
"I'm also incorrigibly nosy," she admitted. "I used to make it a point to go by your father's office often, keep up with how you were doing. Even after I told the Aurors to kiss my fair arse, there were still a lot of reasons to go back there."
"Not sure why you'd want to."
"A lot of loose ends to tie up," she said, stumbling over the corner of a wooden chair and swearing softly under her breath. "Remus might have been gone but damned if I was going to let them take back everything they'd promised him."
Charlie held his breath a little at the mention of his name, unsure of what should and shouldn't be said, unsure of where everything stood.
Tonks turned around and looked him right in the face. "I miss him," she said. Charlie nodded. "You can miss him too."
"I do," he said, and slumped into a chair. "You have no idea."
"Don't I?" she said wryly. "It's only been four months, did you realise that? It feels like a lifetime."
"No, it feels like yesterday," he said. "It feels like today. I feel like it's every moment."
He waved her off. "That's not your problem to fix, Tonks," he said. That was all his to deal with. "So you go to the Ministry to fight for Remus's rights, and contrive to go by my father's office?
"Pretty much, yes," she said, smiling at him.
"And you overheard him saying that they wanted me back."
"Hells no," she said. "I didn't have to eavesdrop on your father to know that, Charlie. They've always wanted you back. No, it was reading one of your letters that made me figure out that you needed to be back."
"You read one of my letters?"
"I didn't think you'd mind," she said lightly. "Is there really anything you'd tell your father that you wouldn't tell me?"
"Well, it was him I was writing, wasn't it?"
"Because you knew he'd never do anything with what he learned about you," she said bluntly. "Because you knew he'd leave you in your little cocoon and never make you face anything outside of it again."
"You're wrong, actually," he said with a bitter smile, staring straight up at the ceiling. Not about his motivations; she was dead on, there. "In his last letter he told me I needed to come home."
"Well, good for him, then," said Tonks. "He's a smart man."
"I would have come back when I was ready."
"You are coming back when you're ready," she said. "You just needed someone to blame for it. I'm used to being the one to take the blame, so I figured it might as well be me."
"I've got a flat," said Tonks the next time they were on the ground after a long day's flying. Charlie saw water and knew they were somewhere close to the channel, but he'd lost track of just exactly where. Before he could decline or consent, she had an arm wrapped around him and was Apparating both of them into the foyer.
"Some flat," he said appreciatively. No Ministry-owned property, this one. Maybe an old Black holding that Tonks' mother had inherited; it had that old-money feel about it. "Are you sure we can't just stay here?"
"Mother always did like Amsterdam," said Tonks, bypassing the question entirely. "Just one bedroom so I guess that's yours this time; I think she liked to come here to get away from her sisters." She opened a couple of windows before saying anything further, letting in the night air. "What are you afraid of?"
"Dementors, the killing curse, and, more recently, high rocky cliffs."
"Charlie," she said with a soft sigh. "You're impossible sometimes."
"Well what kind of question was that?"
"One I was hoping you might answer," she said. "It's not going to be terrible, going home. They love you. You love them. What's going to happen that you don't think you can handle?"
"I can't handle their understanding."
"You seem to be handling mine just fine."
"Yes, well, you're you," he said. "We've got a...." He gestured between them. "An understanding. We understand each other."
"You think so?"
"You're not really doing nothing," he said, and despite the non sequitur it was an answer to her question, of a sort. "No one can really do nothing at all. You just say that because it's easier than explaining."
"I'm reconnecting," she said, after a long pause and then a nod of her head. "I'm finding the things that I lost. Does that mean you have to share something with me, now?"
"That depends," he said. "Did we remember to bring the rest of the vodka with us?"
"No, but there's brandy under the counter. Or at least there was, the last time I was here, and I don't think anyone's been since."
"That'll do," he said, fetching the bottle and making himself comfortable in the living room, starting a fire even though the room was already warm.
Tonks joined him a few minutes later, curling up at the other end of the sofa and sharing the bottle with him in comfortable silence. Sometimes they didn't need to say much to say a great many things. The fact that Charlie had come with her at all, hadn't questioned her when she told him to come, said a great deal in itself, he thought.
They drank slowly, and as the night air grew cooler they enjoyed the fire even more, drawing closer to both it and each other.
"Were you in love with him?" Tonks asked him, when the fire had burned low and Charlie'd had just enough of the brandy to feel boneless as he sprawled on his back on the rug.
He didn't have to ask who, and he didn't even make a token attempt to deny it, closing his eyes and nodding his head, feeling the back of his skull bump the floor every time he did. "At least, I thought I was. I never told him, of course."
"He might've chosen you, if you had."
This time he shook his head, side to side, feeling his liquid brain slosh inside his head. "I'm not sure I would've wanted him to," he said a moment later. "It was what it was. A pleasant fantasy, a quiet ache. It'll always have been perfect in my head." After a moment of quiet he rolled over onto his stomach and looked at her. "Sorry, Tonks."
"No, don't be," she said, wiping the corner of her eye hastily. "Reality is never perfect, is it? But it was good while it lasted."
Charlie gave her something that he hoped passed as a smile. "Just imagine what the four of them are getting up to again these days," he said, jabbing a finger upwards towards the ceiling. "And Dumbledore's probably still looking the other way."
"I'm sure they're still managing to get detention here and there," said Tonks, smiling back. "He used to tell me about what they'd get up to, in school. Makes the things you pulled off look like the efforts of a firstie."
"Makes you wonder how I ever made Prefect, doesn't it?" he said, with a widening smile.
"Oi, James Potter made Head Boy," Tonks reminded him. "Remus said they never did figure how that happened, even being Dumbledore's favourite. They all figured it would go to this Trevor bloke from Ravenclaw. Remus said he didn't just have a stick up his arse, he had the entire bloody tree trunk!"
Charlie lifted his glass to the memory of Remus Lupin and drained the last of his brandy. "Time for me to hit the hay. Are you sure you'll be all right with the sofa tonight, Tonks?"
She brushed him off with a wave of her hand. "I'm going to transfigure it the moment you're out of the room anyway," she said. "Something really pink and girly. With frills. You'd be appalled, go, go."
Charlie laughed and pushed himself to his feet, stumbling only a little as he made his way to the bedroom. One more day and he'd be back in the embrace of his family again. Either he was ready or he was not, and he'd only know for sure once they'd arrived.
The plan had been to reach the Burrow by noon, but Charlie took a turn at London, landing unseen outside the city and apparating to Diagon. Tonks was right at his heels, though she arrived half a block up from him, not knowing his precise destination. It was enough that she already knew exactly where he would head.
She waved him over to her location, and reluctantly he went. It wasn't her he was avoiding after all, his abrupt departure from the plan notwithstanding.
"I've got a room at the Leaky," she told him, sliding her hand inside his robes and giving his side a hard pinch.
"You knew?" he said, after yelping and jerking away. "You knew I wouldn't make it?"
Tonks snorted indelicately. "Do you remember when you were twelve years old, and you were so horrified that you were meant to transfigure a living thing into an inanimate object that you fled the classroom?"
"I do now," he said, with a slight groan.
"And all the professors were out looking for you long after dark, because you hadn't returned?"
"They never did find me," he pointed out. "I came back a little after midnight, made it all the way to the castle before they spotted me. I don't know what it has to do with a room at the Leaky, though."
"You were in the forest, weren't you?" she said. "Just far enough inside so that you wouldn't be seen, in that little grove where you discovered the bowtruckles."
"I don't remember telling you that."
"You didn't," she said. "I knew where you were all along. It was your favourite place, and anybody who listened would've known that."
"And you knew."
"I know you, Charlie," she said. "Even now. So do you want to go up to our room, or do you want to do a little shopping first? Showing up at the Burrow with gifts might be a good start."
"You're brilliant, Tonks," he said, kissing her cheek, and set off to shop for the rest of the afternoon, to justify his delay.
When Charlie dreamed of Tonks that night, it wasn't the Tonks that he'd known in school, nor even the Tonks he'd known and fought beside during the war. It was the Tonks that he'd seen at Remus's side, grown up and beautiful and as desirable as anything he'd ever known. Tonks with bright hair and a bright smile, and a wand quick enough to burn your hide off if you weren't careful.
Charlie imagined her with him instead of Remus, giving him those smiles, giving him those touches, hauling him aside for a tryst inside the linen cupboard. She was all over him, around him, inside him, part of him.
And then sometimes it was all three of them.
Tonks' hands, Remus' mouth, Charlie's body. In this dream world it could be all of them, in any combination, whenever and however they liked, for as long as he remained asleep.
When he woke, though, it was just him and Tonks. And Charlie thought maybe that was all right too.
It was midmorning when they left, flying again even though Apparation would have been the logical choice. Charlie enjoyed every moment of the flight, and found as they drew closer that he wasn't dreading seeing his family quite as much as he had when they'd set out. They were bound to say a lot of things to him that he didn't want to hear, but maybe he needed to. Maybe he was finally ready to.
Still, he didn't go right inside, pausing in the yard, his broom already banished to the shed with all the others.
"They know you're here," Tonks pointed out. "You can't just stand outside forever. Sooner or later they're going to come investigate."
"I know," he said. "I know. Just one more minute."
Tonks smiled at him indulgently, crossing her arms over her chest and waiting for him in a classic pose of impatience. Charlie didn't care. He crossed the last remaining space between them and curled his hands around her elbows and kissed her. Closed his eyes and kissed her soft and wet and long, like he'd imagined. And like he'd imagined, she kissed him back just the same.
Finally he pulled away and looked into her eyes, lifting one hand and running his thumb along her lower lip to catch some of the moisture there. She bit it lightly and grinned at him.
"Now are you ready?" she asked him.
"Now I'm ready," he confirmed, and taking her hand he led them into the house.