Float high, high above the mountains, where goats and yetis are neighbors and the cold is a sister to the wind. Here, the sun shines brightly even as the clouds promise snowfall.
Circle down, little by little, down past the treeline, and bank southwest. Small towns which are little more than villages pass by below, and then... nothing. Just a blank canvas of dirt and trees. There is nothing here of interest.
Now, see specks begin to form – people, tiny at this vantage point. Judging by their movement, these are busy people, active people.
Lower, and two more speck-people come into view. They are moving slowly, in no hurry, toward the mass of other specks. Lower still, and features are apparent. One of them, a woman, is tall and dark-haired. Her eyes, which are also dark, are full of humor and vitality and independence. Her left hand is swinging by her side; it is badly scarred, and part of it is bandaged.
Her other hand is gripping someone else's, a large, freckled hand, also scarred (but not as badly). The person to whom it is attached is broad and cheerful, slightly shorter and slightly younger than his companion. His eyes, which are a deep green, flick to his left and he smiles.
Observe him now, as he walks. Something is strange here. It is difficult to pinpoint, but suddenly… yes, there it is. So easy to see. This is a man who is used to walking very, very quickly, and is at the moment walking very, very slowly.
But there, just ahead in the distance, is another figure, and it is moving fast. She is tiny and possessed of a frantic energy as she struggles through snowdrifts that reach up to her knees. They seem to barely slow her, and her honey-colored hair streams out behind her as she draws closer to the walking couple. Formerly walking, anyway. They have stopped, and it is clear from their uncannily similar expressions – eyes frozen wide, eyebrows drawn together – that both of them are astonished and worried by what they are seeing.
They stand stock-still until the advancing figure screams a single word – "Charlie!" – and then they dash forward.
- - -
It was Grizelda, sprinting across the field. Charlie's step quickened; he'd never seen Grizelda looking so upset. She stopped in front of him and gasped for breath. "Charlie. Oh, Charlie, thank God you're here."
"What's going on? What's happened?"
"Did you get my owl?"
"No. What's the matter?"
"It's Modwin." Grizelda took a deep breath and tried to steady herself, either ignoring or oblivious to Charlie's stricken stare. "It's been chaos today. Everyone's scared, and everything's gone wrong… Vuselich has been giving us our marching orders, but even he's distracted, and-"
Charlie grabbed her shoulders, cutting her off. "Grizelda. Modwin. What's happened to Modwin?"
Grizelda's eyes met his. The panic there was palpable. "He's hurt," she finally said, her voice no more than a whisper. "He went in by himself to check on Nadia, and then… I don't know what happened, he yelled for help-"
"Will he be all right?" asked Ingrid. Her voice was calm, and Charlie was later grateful for that; at the moment, he was too busy being terrified to notice.
"Y-yes… he'll be fine… b-but Charlie, we've all been so scared, and Vuselich, he's done the best he can, but we can't do this… I can't do this…" And Grizelda, usually the picture of calm, dissolved into frightened tears. Charlie held her for a moment, and in the confusion of the moment he wondered about the last time he'd seen Grizelda upset about… well, anything. He'd certainly never seen her cry.
"Is he in the infirmary?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes, but he doesn't want to see anyone."
Charlie smiled encouragingly at Grizelda, trying to pass off a confidence he didn't feel at all. "Hey. Everyone looks to you, y'know. You've got to calm down a little; if people think you're panicking, they'll all panic, too, and then everything goes to hell. The compound's still here, no signs of apocalypse- you're all doing fine, okay?" Grizelda smiled a little and nodded. Charlie headed across the field to the infirmary.
When he got there, a young mediwizard named Arnold jumped up and nervously told him that Modwin didn't want any visitors. Charlie said that he was perfectly aware of that, and pushed past him.
Modwin was lying half-propped on a hospital cot. Charlie stopped and stared at his friend in shock- he was far too pale. An evil-smelling black goo covered his left cheek, most of his neck, and part of his left arm. His eyes were closed, but he smiled at Charlie's entry anyway. "Weasley," he said in a hoarse voice. "You're here. Crisis averted."
"Are you insane?" asked Charlie. His voice shook with anger. "Are you absolutely mental? You went in to see Nadia, the most dangerous dragon here, by yourself? Have you any concept of the rules you yourself laid down? What the hell were you doing, anyway?"
"She finally laid her eggs," replied Modwin, still sounding hoarse. "I was checking on them."
The anger and the fear Charlie had been feeling transformed into a strange white-hot flame, and he barely heard himself say, "I suppose you forgot everything you've ever known in that moment. You could have been killed, Modwin, and from the looks of it you almost were. I thought you had been when I got here, and Grizelda said to me, 'It's Modwin.'"
"I'm sorry," said Modwin, and something in his voice stopped Charlie's anger dead in its tracks and replaced it with fierce, protective relief. It wasn't just humility and contrition Charlie heard in his friend's voice; there was a fear there that Charlie had never heard before. Modwin? Afraid? Before that day, Charlie would have said it was impossible. But now, looking at him, he could believe it.
He sat beside the cot. "I know you are," he said.
Modwin let out a sigh that quickly turned into a retching cough. He grimaced and shook his head, and laughed at Charlie's aghast expression. "I inhaled a bit of smoke," he said. "It sounds worse than it is."
Charlie stood and put a hand on Modwin's shoulder. His friend looked up at him, tired and frightened, and said in a voice that was little more than a whisper, "Don't be angry with me, Charlie. Please don't be angry."
"I'm not," Charlie soothed. But he was. He hated himself a little for it, but he couldn't help but be angry.
He stepped out from behind the curtain and found himself face-to-face with what he was certain was the entire staff of the reservation. Their worried faces were turned up to him, rapt and unblinking, and then the questions began.
"Will he be all right?"
"Can he talk?"
"What happened, Charlie?"
"Why can't we see him?"
Charlie held up his hands, tried to say that he didn't know, that he'd just gotten there, and found that he couldn't. He felt as though he'd been his in the stomach with a sandbag, and his voice simply died in his throat. Finally, he forced something out.
"I got back here ten minutes ago," he said as loudly as he dared. "I don't have the answers you need. Talk to the person in charge."
There was silence for a moment, and Grizelda stepped forward. "Charlie," she said softly, a hand on his arm, "you are the person in charge."
He looked over the group and saw an overwhelming mix of expressions and emotions: concern, fear, hope, expectation. The first three were all directed toward Modwin, and the last toward him. And it wasn't fair, dammit.
"You all know what needs to be done," he said finally. "So go do it. If you need help I'll do my best, but for now, just… go to your assignments." He knew it was unsatisfying, even rude, but he didn't know what else to do. The funny thing was, if he could know that Modwin was up and around and ready to take charge if a situation arose, Charlie knew that he would have no trouble at all telling people what to do. But he was on his own.
An owl flew into the room and landed on the back of a chair. It surveyed the people who were now directing curious glances at it, ruffled its feathers self-importantly, and then flew on into Modwin's room. Charlie stared. After a moment, he realized that everyone else was staring, too. "Go on," he said softly. "If I hear anything I'll let you guys know, okay?"
They nodded and, one by one, shuffled slowly out of the infirmary. Only Ingrid and Grizelda remained. The former was standing almost to attention, watching Charlie carefully; the latter was sagging against the wall, her eyes half-closed. As Charlie watched, she rubbed her hands over her face and shook her head quickly, the action of a person trying to digest too much information at once. Charlie felt he should say something to her, and when nothing came, he could have punched the wall in his frustration. In fifteen minutes, everything had been turned upside-down. Modwin hurt, the reservation in chaos, Charlie in control, Grizelda in tears. Good God, he thought, what next?
The voice was a croak from behind Modwin's door. With a quick smile at Ingrid and Grizelda, Charlie hurried back into the room as the owl flew past him again, heading for the exit.
Modwin was holding a small piece of parchment limply in one hand, and he proffered it to Charlie. "Here," he said. "Read."
Charlie took the parchment, gave it a cursory glance, and handed it back. "I can't," he replied. "It's in Russian." Which is a bad sign, he thought.
Modwin cleared his throat and began reading aloud. "'Dear Mr. Banks: We have heard of the incident at the reservation, and we wish you a full and timely recovery.
"'We will be sending three representatives from the Board to you to review protocols and procedures. They will arrive in three days' time. Yours respecfully, Fyodor Igorovich Grushenko.'" Modwin sighed and dropped the parchment to the floor. "Grushenko. What do you want to wager that he's going to be one of the three?"
"So they're sending people," said Charlie. "Grushenko maybe included. So you might have to sit through some lectures and some wrist-slapping. Unpleasant, maybe, but not the end of the world."
Modwin shook his head, though it clearly pained him to do so. "No," he said. "It's not just to tell me I made a mistake. They could do that through a letter. They're sending someone- three someones. I'm being reviewed, Charlie. They don't want to say as much, but the lines are easy to read between. I'm being reviewed, and if these three 'representatives' don't like what they see, I'm likely to be replaced." He swallowed, with difficulty. "Fired."
"They wouldn't," said Charlie, shocked. The prospect of being in charge of the reservation for a few days was daunting in and of itself. The prospect of someone else entirely being in charge, having to answer to someone who wasn't Modwin… it was impossible to imagine.
"Grushenko would," said Modwin with a bitter smile. "He's never liked me; he was against my appointment from the start."
Charlie had met Grushenko only once, very briefly, when the man had stopped by the Ministry one day shortly before Charlie left for his initial trip to Romania. The memory was a hazy one, but he could vaguely recall a large, brisk man with a nearly indecipherable accent. Charlie had no trouble believing that here was a man who could find it possible to dislike Modwin, a feat few people found possible.
"Now that I've gone and made such an idiotic mistake, he may well get his way. Good God." Modwin shook his head again, wincing and letting out a small grunt of pain. "You weren't wrong, Charlie. I was stupid."
"Maybe so," Charlie agreed, speaking quickly – seeing Modwin so unhappy was beginning to make him panic – "but you've got everyone on this reservation on your side. Maybe going in there alone was a terrible decision, but really, we all trust you. Grushenko of all people knows how important that is in a place like this. You've got to trust the person giving orders, or else disaster strikes." He smiled a little. "Far more frequently, anyway."
Modwin laughed. "Just concentrate on getting up and around for now," Charlie continued, bolstered by the laugh. "I'll take care of everything."
"They're in good hands," said Modwin. He sighed deeply and reached a hand up to touch the strange black substance on his face. His nose wrinkled. "This stuff smells awful. It had better work, or Arnold and I are going to have words."
"It'll work," Charlie assured him. "And now, would you please let Grizelda see you? The poor woman's nearly off her head, she's so worried."
"All right," said Modwin, looking surprised.
Charlie gave a last encouraging smile and left. As Grizelda went past him, he saw that Ingrid was still waiting, leaning against the wall with her eyes closed. She glanced up at Charlie's entrance and smiled at him. "How is he?" she asked.
"As well as can be expected," said Charlie.
"And you?" asked Ingrid. She placed a cool, slim hand on the side of his face, and Charlie marveled at how easy it had become to be near her. It was strange, it was new, it was wonderful. "Are you all right?"
He nodded. "I'll be fine."
"Meaning you're not yet."
"I'll be fine," he repeated. And he was almost certain that he meant it.
A/N: Please – no Charles In Charge jokes. Thank you. *grin*