The Sugar Quill
Author: Eurydice (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Return  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Return

by Eurydice

Disclaimer: Modwin and Ingrid are mine; everyone else (not to mention Charlie's message to Harry) belongs to J.K. Rowling.

A/N: This is a sequel (of sorts) to "The Expert," so it'll naturally make more sense if you've read that one already. Many thanks to B. Bennett and noodles, who help me with my ideas.

 

 

Charlie Weasley could think of far more pleasant ways to wake up than the one he was currently going through, which happened to be being kicked in the ribs. He rolled over and opened his eyes, only to squint against the bright sunlight. Standing over him, giving him an exasperated smile, his friend and workmate Modwin Banks appeared to have a halo, one he definitely did not deserve.

"We were wondering where you'd got to," Modwin grinned. "Good Lord, mate, if I were the suspicious type I'd say you were trying to avoid us all."

"No," groaned Charlie, and sat up against the protestations of his arms and back. "I must have dozed off… what time is it?"

"Nearly 8:00. We've got to start getting the beasties ready." Modwin extended a freckled, slighly burnt hand to help Charlie up. "They're straining at the leash; it's like they know what's going on."

"They probably do," said Charlie, rubbing the back of his neck. Falling asleep on a tree root wasn't the most comfortable way to spend an evening. "Dragons are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for."

"Oh-ho, look who's giving lectures," said Modwin, still smiling all over his angular face as they headed back to the paddock. From here, Charlie could see them all sleeping as peacefully as dragons could sleep. "Remember who's older and wiser here, Weasley. And, may I add, more handsome."

Charlie laughed. "Do we know what they're doing yet? The champions, I mean."

"No," said Modwin. He bit his lip as a rare look of anxiety flitted across his features. "We find out this morning."

"Nice of them to tell us."

"Yes indeed."

"How's our girl? The Short-Snout? Fully recovered?"

"You'd have to ask Ingrid," said Modwin, "but she seems fine to me."

"Ingrid?" asked Charlie, still not fully awake.

"No, you dolt," laughed Modwin. "The Short-Snout."

Charlie went red. "Of course."

Modwin smirked. "Look at you. You'll pine away once she goes back to Norway."

"I've never pined once in my life, Modwin Banks."

"First time for everything. Pining for the fjords, you'll be. And there she'll be, waiting for her hero to come rescue her from the big, bad glaciers." Modwin put a hand to his heart and sighed pathetically. "From Seeker to Saviour."

"Shut up," hissed Charlie – Ingrid was hurrying toward them, smiling. For a moment, Charlie didn't think Modwin would- but, to his immense relief, his friend kept silent.

"Good morning, Charlie," said Ingrid.

"Hi," Charlie replied. "Sleep well?"

"I haven't slept at all, I'm too excited. Today's the day… I can't bear it, they should start the task now." She giggled, spreading her arms and actually twirling on the spot. "We'll get to see our girls in action!"

"And hopefully not flambe-ing our champions," said Modwin cheerfully. He sighed. "Back at the pen in five minutes, Weasley – you get the unenviable task of waking the girls up."

And off he went, hands stuffed in pockets, whistling something that may or may not have been "Light My Fire."

Ingrid laughed delightedly. "He's quite a character."

"Yes, but which character, that's what I want to know. The Mad Hatter?"

"You'd know better than I," said Ingrid. "How long have you known him?"

"Almost ten years," said Charlie. "He was a prefect in fifth year when I started at Hogwarts. In my third year, when I started Care of Magical Creatures, Professor Kettleburn recommended that I study with Modwin, said that he was the best student in the class, and probably one of the best he'd ever taught. He helped me get the job in Romania, said he'd taken a liking to me. We've been friends ever since."

He was certainly telling her far more information than she needed, but as usual, his nerves made his mouth run away with his brain. It didn't look as though Ingrid minded, however; she was giving him a look of genuine interest. "That's wonderful," she said. "He certainly does make for an… intriguing captain of our little team here."

Intriguing, thought Charlie. I wonder if she thinks I'm intriguing. He dismissed the thought as ridiculous; Modwin was far more interesting than he was.

Aloud, he said, "He inspires trust, that's for sure."

Ingrid nodded, making her dark curls fall across her pale face. Looking at her more closely, Charlie noticed something he hadn't before- her eyes. They were so dark, he couldn't tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. Utterly black. It was fascinating, really-

He realized somewhat belatedly that he'd been staring. He pulled his gaze away to look at the grass and asked the first question that came to mind.

"How's the Short-Snout?"

"Oh, she's much better. She'll be fine for the task today. Once the food problem got fixed, the allergy cleared right up. She's right as rain today. Slept all through the night, the little dear."

Charlie laughed. "Little dear?"

"I get attached," said Ingrid, sounding somewhat defensive. Her eyes were playful, however, as she added, "And not just to dragons."

Charlie blinked. And then again. "Um," was all he managed to say before he heard Modwin's voice call over the wind.

"Weasley! Ingrid! Get over here!"

"Best go," said Ingrid. She turned and sprinted lightly over where Modwin was standing, leaving Charlie to watch her. What did she mean? he asked himself, and then decided not to think about it. It was easier that way.

He jogged over to Modwin, who was standing in front of the entire group of wizards. He was wearing his game face, which was not much different from his normal face; perpetually amused and cheerful. The only difference was in his eyes, which were focused and serious. "Everyone," he began, "today is the first task, as you all well know. We've been preparing for this for over a month now, and I have complete faith in all of you.

"We've been trying to keep these dragons as docile as possible for the past few days. Today, however, things are going to be different. There will be a crowd. A huge one, cheering and shouting. The girls are going to be mean, and from what I understand from Ludo Bagman, we want them as mean as possible."

"Oh, marvelous," muttered a wizard next to Charlie.

"Do not be gentle unless you are completely certain that you will be harmed," continued Modwin, unhearing. "Since they'll be riled, all of you will have to be on the alert at all times. The safety of the champions is foremost, the safety of the dragons comes second. We'll Stun them only if necessary. I will be calling that shot.

"Remember- the Short-Snout is first, then the Green, then the Fireball, and the Horntail is drogue. You all know your assignments, and you know what to do. If you have any questions, ask me or my second-in-command, Charlie Weasley." Modwin gestured to Charlie, who waved. The wizards assembled knew who he was, of course, and cheered. Charlie laughed, gratified to notice that Ingrid was cheering him, too. "Weasley will be signing autographs after the task," Modwin added, and everyone laughed.

"Everyone stand back!" Charlie said, backing up himself. "And I suggest you cover your ears. Be at the ready with Extinguishing Spells, but remember – no Stunning."

The crowd backed up to the edge of the forest, hands over ears. Ingrid remained next to Charlie. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

Charlie grinned at her wickedly. "Wake them up," he said. "Cover your ears."

She did, and he pointed his wand to the air over the pen. "Stentorious!" he shouted. A great white shape erupted out of his wand, vaguely cylindrical, and shot in a twirling arc to above the pen. It hung there, rotating slowly.

"What does that do?" asked Ingrid.

"Three," said Charlie absently. "Two. One." And he clapped his hands over his ears.

The cylinder exploded in a great, deafening blast that shook the ground. The sounded lasted only four seconds, but the effect was instantaneous. Four angry, snarling, rudely awakened dragons reared their heads up to the sky, roaring and spitting fire. They strained at their harnesses and spread their wings. They stamped and hissed and bared their teeth.

Charlie stared at them in awe. As terrifying as the spectacle was, seeing dragons like this, at their rawest, their most powerful, always reminded him that he was in the right line of work. He sucked in his breath, and beside him, he could hear Ingrid doing the same. "My God," she whispered, "they're so beautiful." And then the Welsh Green set a tree on fire.

"Uh-oh," said Charlie.

A short, stout witch hurried to the tree. "Aqueous!" she shouted, and water spurted from her wand to douse the fire. The tree looked a bit singed, but all right.

"I knew that pen was too close to the forest," muttered Modwin. "Who counted the eggs this morning?"

"I did, Modwin," said a slight, pretty witch from Modwin's left. "All accounted for."

"Thanks, Maggie," replied Modwin, smiling at her. Maggie blushed deeply and hurried away.

Charlie saw that Ingrid was peering off into the distance, squinting at the top of a nearby hill. "Who's that?" she asked.

He looked. Ludo Bagman was hurrying toward them, puffing slightly and looking more delighted than even Ingrid. Behind him was a wizard pushing a wheelbarrow. Something gleamed brightly from within it. "Charlie!" Bagman exclaimed, coming to a stop before him. "Charlie Weasley! Good show!"

"Hello, Mr. Bagman," said Charlie. He smiled and shook the elder wizard's hand. Bagman pumped enthusiastically.

"I say, they're quite as thrilled as we are!" he said, beaming at the dragons. "We're in for a real afternoon's excitement. The champions are in for a big surprise, eh? What do you say, Modwin? Will this thing go off without a hitch?"

"I very much hope so," said Modwin.

Bagman patted one of the objects in the wheelbarrow; upon closer examination, Charlie could see four enormous golden eggs, each about the size and shape of a slightly flattened football. "Each nest gets one of these," said Bagman. "The champions retrieve them- that's their task."

Modwin went pale. Charlie didn't blame him. "Mr. Bagman," said Modwin shakily, "I know this tournament's supposed to be about bravery and daring and all that, but this task is extraordinarily dangerous. One kid versus one dragon is bad enough, against a mother is worse still, but trying to steal her eggs… well, that's pushing the limit, don't you think?"

Harry, thought Charlie. Harry is going up against one of these dragons. The thought scared him badly, but he managed to keep a level voice as he said, "And one of the champions is only fourteen years old. These aren't trained wizards, Mr. Bagman. It takes half a dozen of us just to keep one of these things at bay."

Bagman just laughed. He seemed utterly non-nonplussed by the arguments. "Just keep an eye on them, and if things get hairy, you can step in. No worries, Charlie, Modwin." Charlie must have looked more worried than he was letting on; Bagman fixed him with a smiling gaze. "I daresay our Mr. Potter will be more than able to handle himself with this lot. He's faced down worse enemies."

"Perhaps," said Charlie, "but-".

"So chins up, lads and ladies!" chuckled Bagman. "Nothing can happen to them with all of you here. I've got to get back to the castle – lots to do today, lots to do!" He turned and walked back in the direction of the castle with the wizard who had accompanied him, leaving the wheelbarrow behind.

Charlie sighed. "You're worried," said Ingrid.

"Of course I am," he said. "My brother's best friend is one of the champions. And Mr. Bagman was right when he said that Harry's been through worse – he has, and everyone knows it – but what if something goes wrong? They must be mad, thinking it'll be safe for them to try and steal eggs from mother dragons." He hefted one of the eggs from the wheelbarrow; it was extremely heavy.

"They knew they were getting into something dangerous when they entered," said Modwin quietly.

Charlie dropped the egg back into the wheelbarrow, where it landed with a loud bong. "I know," he said, disgusted. "What Harry was thinking when he entered this bloody thing I'll never know." He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. Behind him, the dragons bellowed impotently at the sky and stamped their enormous feet.

"Charlie-" Modwin began.

"I'm going to check and see if they've got the tent up yet," said Charlie shortly, and started walking along the edge of the forest. "I'll be back soon."

He walked quickly, face blazing. He was trying very much not to have his mother's temper, but sometimes it was difficult. The sheer irresponsibility of the thing was what bothered him; very deliberately putting four people who were little more than kids in the path of such grave danger. And he, Charlie Weasley, was a part of it.

But the worst thing was that he was excited about it.

Part of him wanted to face the task himself.

He shook his head and quickened his pace. Up ahead, he could see two groups of wizards and witches; one group was setting up the tent for the champions, the other (and larger) was putting up the stands for the spectators and the judges. Charlie paused and leaned against a tree. The noise of the dragons was fainter now, but still present. In less than four hours, one of them would be out here, roaring and hissing at… who? The Beauxbatons girl? Viktor Krum? That Hufflepuff Seeker?

Or Harry?

"Charlie!"

He turned to see Ingrid jogging up to him. She stopped to catch her breath and put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?" she asked, concern in those astounding eyes. "You looked… angry."

"Just worried," said Charlie, hoping she wouldn't move her hand away. She did, but kept looking at him.

"I have a feeling that you're not the only one," she said. "And it's not all the champions you're worried about. Just Harry."

"He's three years younger than the others," Charlie replied. "He doesn't have all the training they do. And considering who he is… I mean, we know that no one's jinxed the dragons, but this lot don't really need jinxes to be dangerous. And what if someone's in the stands, one of You-Know-Who's people? After the bedlam at the Cup I shouldn't wonder at that possibility."

"That's out of our control," Ingrid pointed out. "We can't have a tight rein on everything. The Ministry will be keeping an eye out, don't worry."

"But I do worry," Charlie persisted. "My Mum's right. He shouldn't be competing. I know he's faced down things more dangerous than a whole herd of dragons, but I can't help feeling like I should be doing more to protect him. If something happens… well, Ron would never forgive me. No one would."

"It wouldn't be your fault."

"Maybe not, but I can't help thinking… look, Ron's got five older brothers. One younger sister. Me, I had Bill growing up. Percy had himself, he didn't need anyone else. The twins have each other, and Ron's got Harry. I can't imagine what it must be like growing up the youngest boy of seven children. Our whole family's madly protective of him. It would devastate any of us if something happened to Harry… but it would destroy Ron. So I look at what we're going to make him do – what I'm going to make him do – this afternoon, and I hate it. He's going to do it anyway, and he'll probably be absolutely fine, and life will go on as it always has."

Ingrid was looking at him with a steady gaze. Her hand was back on his shoulder, and its slight weight was comforting. "If it wasn't this," she said, "it would be something else, probably just as dangerous. And if it were something else, you couldn't be there to protect him. At all. You'd have to stand on the sidelines, or even read about it in the Daily Prophet the next day. Here, you can do something if you need to. Wouldn't you rather have something to do with the task than nothing?"
"Yes," Charlie admitted.

"And right now, isn't your blood racing for this task to start?"

"Yes," he repeated, in his head tacking on and that's not the only reason. Unthinking, he put his hand over hers.

"So there you are," said Ingrid, smiling. "Trust the Ministry. Trust Modwin, and me, and your staff, and yourself. Forty-seven wizards, handpicked by Modwin and the Ministry, plus me, plus your champion, plus the witches and wizards in the stands if it comes to that, all against one dragon? Piece of cake."

Charlie smiled back. "I'm being a bit of an idiot, aren't I?"

Ingrid laughed and, rather unexpectedly, grasped his hands with both of her own. "Of course not," she said. "You're right to be worried. But don't panic, that won't do anyone any good. C'mon, let's get back. Still a lot to do today."

Keeping her right hand laced through his left, she dragged him back to the paddock. Modwin watched this with raised eyebrows, and when Ingrid left to help feed the Short-Snout, he mouthed a single word to Charlie.

The word was: Fjords.

* * *

The rest of the morning passed more quickly than Charlie could have imagined. The angry dragons were certainly keeping him busy, and before he knew it, people were filing into the stands, talking excitedly. "Okay!" said Modwin. "Let's move the Short-Snout into the arena! Everyone to your positions!"

As Charlie went to the edge of the stands, he saw Ingrid standing with the Short-Snout. She was holding a chain that attached to a thick piece of leather tied around the dragon's snout. When she saw Charlie looking at her, she smiled eagerly, and then went back to looking at the dragon.

A calm young wizard named Fallon stepped into the middle of the arena. He pointed his wand not at the Short-Snout, but the nest between her front legs. Carefully, slowly, he pulled it forward, and the Short-Snout followed until she was in position. Fallon, unruffled, made his way to where Charlie was standing. "Ready?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Charlie, gripping his wand. "You?"
"Of course," said Fallon.

The group of wizards surrounding the Short-Snout pointed their wands at her, and the chains and harnesses clanked to the ground and were dragged away. Now all that was missing was a champion, and here he came through the curtain – a tall, handsome young man. Cedric Diggory.

Once the task actually began, time became very strange for Charlie. Thinking back on it later in the day, he was startled at how little he actually remembered. He remembered Diggory transforming a rock into a dog, and Diggory's face getting slightly burnt. He remembered the Beauxbatons girl's skirt catching fire, and wincing when Krum's Fireball stepped on her eggs. And then he was in the center of the enclosure, bringing the eggs forward for the Horntail to follow.

The chains fell away. Everything came into sharper focus. He saw the Horntail crouch low over her eggs. And there, standing across the enclosure, was Harry. He was very pale against his black hair, and it looked as though he hadn't been sleeping well. For a moment, the boy only stood there – was he surveying the situation? Frozen in fear? Charlie couldn't tell.

A hand slipped into his, and in surprise he saw Ingrid standing beside him. Her eyes – those remarkable black eyes – were shining. "Relax," she said quietly.

Charlie shook his head. "I can't," he whispered.

He saw Harry raise his wand, but didn't hear the spell that issued from his lips. For a moment, nothing happened. Then Charlie saw something zooming through the air toward Harry, and when it stopped, he could see what it was – a broomstick.

Dumbstruck, Charlie watched Harry fly high into the air. He had a feeling that he was squeezing Ingrid's hand a bit harder than necessary, but she wasn't complaining. As he watched Harry fly, Charlie felt another pang of longing for his Quidditch days, which was quickly buried by fear as the dragon's tail came swinging up to meet Harry in midair. "Look out!" Charlie shouted uselessly, and the spike grazed Harry's arm.

Charlie started into the field, but Ingrid yanked him back in place. "He's fine," she soothed. "Now be still."

"Right," Charlie muttered.

And then Harry dove, and before the Horntail could see what was happening, he was holding the golden egg under his arm. Charlie, hardly aware that he was doing so, was yelling in triumph. He hugged Ingrid tightly and swung her around; Ingrid laughed and hugged him back. "My God," he said, "he did it." He was nearly weak-kneed from relief.

He saw that the remaining wizards, finished with their own charges, were dragging the Horntail off the field. "I should go help them," said Charlie.

Ingrid yanked him back again. "They've got her under control," she said. "You need to relax for a moment."
"I'm fine," said Charlie.

A few minutes passed. The crowd was still chattering excitedly, but Charlie barely heard them. It was over. Just like that. And now he would go home, and…

What?

Ingrid was again holding his hand- less anxiously than before, but still tightly. He risked a glance at her. She was staring off into the sky, a slight smile on her face. She really was lovely… and now that Charlie looked closer, he could see how very tired she was. She hadn't slept in three days, and now that the pressure was off, she looked as though she could sleep for a year. "Are you all right?" he asked.

She looked at him, startled, and then smiled. "Of course," she said, and squeezed his hand.

After the scores were awarded (Charlie was slightly suspicious of Karkaroff's) and a quick word from Bagman, Charlie hurried across the field to where Ron and Harry were standing. "You're tied in first place, Harry! You and Krum!" he said. "Listen, I've got to run, I've got to go and send Mum an owl, I swore I'd tell her what happened – but that was unbelievable! Oh, yeah – and they told me to tell you you've got to hang around for a few more minutes… Bagman wants a word, back in the champions' tent."

"Go ahead," said Ron, "I'll wait for you out here."

Harry nodded and hurried into the tent. Ron grinned at Charlie. "Bet you're glad that's over," he said.

"I feel better now it's done," Charlie admitted.

"So do I," said Ron, and Charlie could see the relief outlined on his brother's young face. Smiling, he put an arm around Ron and gave him a brief hug. "What was that for?" asked Ron.

"Nothing," said Charlie. "Here, keep an eye on him, or Mum'll have your head on a plate."

Ron laughed. "I will," he said. "See you, Charlie."

Charlie headed away, back to the temporary housing that had been set up for the workers. "Your little brother?" asked Ingrid. Charlie nodded. "He's the spitting image of you. I'm going to see if Modwin needs any help with the girls." She gave his hand another quick squeeze and continued on to the pen. Charlie watched her go.

Inside the barracks, he sat down and hastily began to write his mother a letter. When he was halfway finished, he heard the door open. Assuming it was Modwin or one of the other wizards, he looked up to see an enormous figure silhouetted in the doorway.

"Hagrid!" he exclaimed. "Good to see you!"

"'lo, Charlie," said Hagrid, grinning. "Didja see Harry take on that dragon? I'm real proud of 'im."

"Me too."

Hagrid hung in the doorway, looking uncomfortable. It suddenly dawned on Charlie what Hagrid wanted to ask, and he laughed. "Norbert's fine, Hagrid," he said. "He's been staying at the compound in Romania; he's proven invaluable for research. We've been able to observe his behavior very well."

"Really?" Hagrid said breathlessly, beaming.

"He's a real playful thing," said Charlie. "Particularly fond of Modwin. Most of the scars Modwin's got he got from Norbert. Oh! I just remembered, I brought something for you."

Charlie rose and started digging through his trunk, and finally unearthed a small bundle of cloth, which he handed to Hagrid. Hagrid untied it, and four small yellow-white spikes rolled into his palm. "Are these…?"

"Yep," said Charlie. "A few of Norbert's baby teeth. I've been meaning to send them to you since he lost them, but I forgot. I'm sorry."

"Thanks," said Hagrid, his eyes filling with tears. "Tell 'im… tell 'im 'is Mummy misses him."

"I will," said Charlie, and Hagrid left, holding the bundle cupped in his massive hands.

Chuckling, Charlie finished the letter and took Quaffle, his red screech owl, from her cage. "Take this to Mum," he said. "She'll be waiting for it." Quaffle hooted softly and flew out the open door, leaving Charlie alone.

He felt strangely empty, purposeless. He'd been preparing for the task for months now, in eager consort with Modwin. At times he'd felt Ron's age or younger in his excitement, and that excitement had grown when he'd read that Harry was to be one of the champions. But now it was done, and life would return to normal – what did he have to look forward to now?

"Charlie?"

Ingrid was standing in the doorway, smiling. He smiled back. "You should get some sleep," he said.

"I plan to," Ingrid replied, "as soon as I get home."

"Home?" exclaimed Charlie. Behind him, the door opened and Modwin strode in, giving them both a wave. "That'll take ages. Rest now so you don't fall off that broomstick on your flight back."

"Charlie, I'll be fine."

"I've heard that one before. You were on a dragon's neck at the time – not exactly the safest place for you to be – and I didn't believe you then, either."

He'd tried to say it lightly, even jokingly, but her look was stern. Even hurt. "I'm going to go say goodbye to the girls," she said. "I just came back to… but never mind." She turned and left, running her hand over the wood of the doorframe and disappearing around the side of the barracks.

Charlie turned to face Modwin, who was carefully folding clothes and putting them into his trunk, and Charlie had to smile a little at this; Charlie wouldn't have guessed it to look at him, but Modwin was a bit of a neatnik. "Did I say something wrong?" asked Charlie.

"She's just sensitive," said Modwin. He knelt beside his bed and rooted around under it, as if hunting for something. "And extremely tired. You'd better apologize before she leaves this hallowed ground for good, back to the-"

"If the next word that comes out of your mouth is 'fjords,'" Charlie warned, "I may have to punch you."

"No worries there," said Modwin, sidestepping fate. He pulled a quill out from under his bed, looked at it curiously, and tucked it into his trunk with a satisfied smile. This task accomplished, he closed the trunk and perched on it cross-legged with a theatrical sigh. "There's one girl who'll, in a few days' time, most definitely be pining for the…" He stopped. His lips pursed. His brow furrowed.

"The what?"

"What has England got?"

"Fields? Mountains? Moors?"

"Pining for the moors," finished Modwin.

"That was silly," Charlie observed.

"But it's true," said Modwin, and this time, Charlie could see that he was serious. "You're mad, Charlie. Have you noticed the way she looks at you?"

"No," said Charlie.

"Then you're stupid as well as mad. And Ingrid would have to be equally daft not to notice the way you look at her. For God's sake, man, what are you waiting for? Say something."

"I've only known her a few days."

Modwin ran a hand through his thick hair, sighing in exasperation. "Who cares? You're old enough now to know a good thing when you see it." He stood. "Let's go find her." His tone brooked no refusal, and for emphasis he grabbed Charlie's arm and dragged him through the door. Charlie knew better than to resist. Modwin was skinny, but he was strong.

They headed over to the pen, where the dragons were all sleeping again. They had been loaded into huge Transport-A-Beasts by the Return Unit, who would take the dragons away. People were milling about, talking excitedly about the task, and Charlie spotted Ingrid perched once more on the Short-Snout's head. She was lying on her stomach with her head near the dragon's ear, talking to it. This struck Charlie as absurdly sweet, and he didn't need Modwin to pull him to the pen.

"Hi," he said.

Ingrid looked at him. "Going to tell me to get down?"

"No."

"Charlie thought of something he needs to ask you," said Modwin. At Charlie's look of startled panic, he added, "Don't give me that look. You did." He grinned largely and sauntered away, leaving a very helpless and frightened Charlie standing by the Short-Snout's head and feeling very small indeed.

Ingrid was watching him expectantly. "Yes?" she said. "What is it you wanted to ask?"

Charlie thought fast. "May I join you?"

She sat up and leaned against one of the horns. "Come on up," she said.

It took a minute, but Charlie was at last able to gracelessly pull himself to sit on the dragon's head. Ingrid was watching him, amused. "You're much better on a broomstick," she observed.

"Yes, well, I'm used to standing twenty feet away from dragons, not sitting on their heads." Charlie leaned against the other horn and ran a hand over it, enjoying the smooth feel of it in contrast to the Short-Snout's rough skin.

"What did you want to ask?" prodded Ingrid.

This shouldn't be nearly this hard, thought Charlie in frustration as his mind went through its usual somersaults. You know her now, have done for a few days, and you've had plenty of civil conversations with her. Why don't you bloody well bite the bullet and-

"Are you angry with me?"

Ingrid blinked at him. Then she smiled. "No," she sighed. "Just that independent streak of mine kicking in again." She played with a stray curl, and Charlie felt a sudden (and mercifully brief) urge to find out if it was as soft as it looked. "I just… sometimes I feel like I'm back in Norway. People there, they don't trust me. There are plenty of women working here, and I'm sure everyone gets treated the same." She sighed again, deeper this time, and folded her hands in her lap. The forgotten curl blew gently in the breeze. "I like it here, but whenever anyone questions me, I feel like I'm back in Roem- that's the city where I work, Roem. I'm the only woman, and now that Dr. Bjornson's gone… I guess the men don't feel they can trust me to do anything correctly."

"That's ridiculous," said Charlie. At her questioning look, he added, "I mean that they wouldn't trust you. Why wouldn't they?"

"I'm not as strong. I've faltered on the job before."

"I'm sure everyone else has, too."

"They have." Ingrid ran her hand over the Short-Snout's scales, where it made a rasping sound. "Of course they have. And it's not everyone that makes me feel this way. But there are enough of them. Half of my coworkers were happy for me when I got this assignment and the other half were resentful." She straightened up, her black eyes flashing. "But I am the expert. It should tell them something that I was the one contacted."

"It tells me something," said Charlie. "That's probably little consolation, but-"

She grasped his hand. "Thank you."

An idea occurred to Charlie then within his still-somersaulting mind. Before he could think about it any more he jumped off the dragon's head, staggered a bit, regained his footing, and turned to Ingrid. "Come with me," he said. She did, with no questions, and when she was safely on the ground he took hold of her hand and tugged her after him.

Soon they were running, Ingrid laughing as she struggled to keep up with Charlie. Charlie's feet pounded on the grass, and soon his protesting thoughts were left behind. In front of him was only open space.

They ran until Charlie spotted Modwin, who was giving instructions to one of the Return Units. "Modwin!" Charlie shouted, approaching him.

"Charlie!" said Modwin. "What on earth's gotten into you? Hello, Ingrid."

"Modwin," gasped Charlie, clutching at a stitch in his side, "give Ingrid a job."

"Pardon?" asked Modwin.

"Pardon?" asked Ingrid.

"A job." Charlie didn't let go of Ingrid's hand. "She's proven herself more than capable, and we can always use more help in Romania. Especially with Norbert- she can take him off your hands once in awhile, hey?"

"Sounds fine to me," said Modwin with a smile.

Ingrid's eyes were wide. "What? You… you want me to come work for you?"

"Charlie's the idea man around here," said Modwin. "I do what he tells me to. Especially if it's a good idea like that one." He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled warmly at her. "You're more than welcome with us, Ingrid. And I daresay that Charlie can talk you into it if you have any doubts- he's rather the persuasive one."

Ingrid nodded slowly, dreamily, then forgot herself completely and threw herself into Modwin's arms. Smiling, Modwin disengaged himself and turned her toward Charlie, and then she was hugging him tightly, laughing, and Charlie was hugging her in return. "When were you planning on telling me about this idea?" she asked in his ear.

"I just had it about ninety seconds ago," said Charlie, "so… now, I guess."

She pulled back and connected her eyes to his. "You're a one, Charlie Weasley," she said, "you really are."

"I know," Charlie responded.

//
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