The Sugar Quill
Author: Jedi Boadicea and Elanor Gamgee (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Sleeping Dragons  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.

Sleeping Dragons

Authors’ Note: All the standard disclaimers apply.  Neither of us is J.K. Rowling, and we don’t own anything.  This story takes place before Jedi B’s Pandora’s Curiosity and between Chapters 6 and 7 of Elanor’s Moody Slavic Man 2: Bright in an Azure Sky.  (As of this posting, MSM2 is only up to Chapter 2, but don’t worry, no spoilers here, only hints).  This story features original characters from both of these stories, so you should probably read those first, or this story won’t be nearly as much fun.  We are also much indebted to Moey for her excellent Reading, Writing, and Wigging: A Wizarding Parents’ Guide to Billywig Abuse in Children, which we consider the next best thing to canon on the subject of Billywigs.

 

 

SLEEPING DRAGONS

By Jedi Boadicea and Elanor Gamgee

 

 

“Are you sure this is going to work?”

 

“If you ask me zat one more time, Sutter, I will make you ze bait for ze dragon.”

 

Heh.”

 

“Shut up, Henry.”

 

Merde. I am always stuck working with idiots.”

 

“Now look here, Bidet­ -

 

“Quiet! You will wake ze creature before we are ready.”

 

Uhn. I thought- ”

 

“I just don’t think this is going to work! I mean, shouldn’t we try to curse it or something?”

 

“Do you know nothing of dragons? Didn’t you tell me zat you ’ad done zis work before?”

 

I think -”

 

“Well… it wasn’t exactly a dragon…

 

“Ah, merde, merde, merde, I knew I should have done zis alone.”

 

“Now listen here, Frenchy, we’re on this job together.”

 

“Yes, much to my regret. Now shut up and hold zis -”

 

“Uh. I think that - ”

 

“Here, Henry, hold this.”

 

“No, you ’old it. Ze contents must not be spilled before we are ready to apply it.”

 

I think -”

 

Yes? What is it?”

 

“I think that -”

 

“Henry doesn’t think. That’s why his family got rid of him, isn’t it, Goyle? Thicky among thickies. Heh.”

 

I think -”

 

Shhh! I heard somezing…”

 

“What?”

 

Shhhh!

 

Uhn.”

 

“Hmmm… no, no. It is nothing. Give me ze poison now.”

 

“Here. So how much do you think Horntail eggs are worth?”

 

“It depends on ze buyer, yes?”

 

“I suppose. Do you think that this goat is big enough?”

 

“It will ’ave to be.”

 

“Are you sure that poison is going to work?”

 

“Unless you can brew a better one yourself…”

 

“Right. And now what? We just going to wait here till sunrise?”

 

“No. You will take ze goat and leave it near ze dragon’s lair.”

 

I will? Why me? Why don’t you go?”

 

“Because I am ze only competent man here and if someone must die it will not be me.”

 

“Well that’s just dandy for you, isn’t it? But I’m not going.”

 

“Fine. Then send Goyle.”

 

“Henry? He’ll get eaten for sure.”

 

Uhn.”

 

“If I remember, when we first began to work togezzer you said zat you did not fear facing danger if ze profit was right, yes?”

 

“What if -”

 

“Shut up, Goyle. Look, I just- ”

 

“If you are so convinced zat zis will fail, Sutter, zen perhaps you should try to curse ze dragon.”

 

“Fine. Goyle – take the goat.”

 

“What if -”

 

“Do not let ze infected flesh touch your skin for too long.”

 

Ergh.”

 

“This had better work.”

 

“It will. By zis time tomorrow, we will ’ave a dozen dragon eggs and soon you will be able to buy all of ze disgusting English beer your little heart desires.”

 

 

                                                ~***~

 

Two days earlier…

 

 

Ivanova, Prandzheva, Tsvetanov, I want a clean formation on that Parkin’s Pincer.  Keep it open like that, and the opposing Chaser can glide right through."  Conrad Boyar frowned and pointed his Beater’s club at the Vratsa Vultures players grouped in front of him.  "What I am seeing is sloppy carelessness...”

 

Viktor tuned out as the Captain’s tirade continued.  He wasn’t in the mood to hear it, and anyway, he had heard it a million times before.  Life was nothing but Quidditch to Conrad Boyar, and he never accepted excuses from his players.  Not feeling well?  Conrad’s answer was to put you on a broom and toss a few Bludgers at you - he claimed that this was the best way to forget an illness.  One would think he would have learned after Elsa Biliova had quit the team in disgust last year.  Viktor hadn’t been there to see it, but he had heard that Boyar had suggested that playing in the team’s match against the Craidva Centaurs would be a more fitting way for Elsa to remember her grandmother than attending the memorial service.  Elsa had promptly turned Boyar into a skunk and left in a huff. 

 

But Boyar hadn’t changed - the moment he’d been changed back he had promoted Tsvetanov from Reserve Chaser and stalked off to the showers, muttering about how he always knew that Elsa hadn’t been cut out for the Vultures.

 

“Krum!”  Boyar’s voice cut into Viktor’s thoughts, making him jump.  “What’s taking you so long today?  You should have had that Snitch in your hand fifteen minutes ago.”

 

A perverse part of Viktor wanted to explain that he couldn’t care less about the stupid Snitch, and that he had other, far more important, things on his mind today.  But he knew better than to say it out loud, so he settled for a vaguely agreeable-sounding grunt.

 

Boyar peered at Viktor from under his thick gray eyebrows.  “You may be Viktor Krum,” he said, “but if you get sloppy out there, I’ll pull you out the same as I would anyone else.  You get your mind off your love life and back on the game, or I will.  Ligachev’s been training hard while you’ve been gone.”  He nodded to Anton Ligachev, a slight, fair-haired man on Viktor’s left.  Viktor knew that it was an empty threat - his father had told him just how far Ligachev’s “hard training” had gotten him in the matches this past year, when he had only caught the Snitch twice - but his face burned nonetheless.  Boyar had been ribbing him about that Witch Weekly article ever since practices had started up again.  The words hit home today, though not for the reasons Boyar, or any of the readers of Witch Weekly, might think.

 

Fortunately, Boyar seemed to be finished humiliating him for the moment.  “Ten minutes,” he barked.  “Then I want to see some Quidditch playing worthy of the Vratsa Vultures.” 

 

The players began talking amongst themselves, breaking off into loose groups.  Viktor heaved a sigh of relief and went to sit on one of the benches at the edge of the pitch.  He balanced his broom across the bench and leaned forward, rubbing his forehead.  He knew he wasn’t at his best today - but then, why should he be?   After what had happened last night, he doubted Rositza would ever forgive him, much less even agree to see him again. 

 

But really, that was the thing that was most disturbing.  Normally, when he had problems, the only place he wanted to be was on a broomstick, pushing aside everything else to search for the rustle of silver wings.  He had certainly done it often enough at Hogwarts, when things were going badly.  Today, though, he was finding it impossible to concentrate.  There was only one place he truly wanted to be, and it wasn’t on a broomstick.

 

“Don’t let him get to you,” said a voice to his left, and Viktor looked up to see Chaser Susannah Ivanova sitting next to him.  She was several years older than he was, with dark red hair pulled back in a tight braid.  They had played in the World Cup together last year, and Susannah had always been kind to him, even when other members of the team grumbled about his publicity.  She smiled.  “You know Conrad.  He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

 

Viktor nodded.  “I know.”

 

Susannah frowned. “Are you all right?”

 

“Yes.  I’m fine.”

 

Susannah did not look quite convinced, but she let the subject drop as Irina Prandzheva came over and playfully tossed the Quaffle at her.  Susannah caught it deftly.

 

“Have you heard this rumor about the dragons?” asked Irina.

 

Susannah shook her head.  Viktor looked up.

 

Kiril says that everyone in the village is talking about it.  Apparently some children were playing up on the ridge and found dragon prints.  A few others say they’ve actually seen the dragon up here in the mountains.”

 

“Did they say what kind?” asked Viktor.

 

“A Hungarian Horntail, they say.”  Irina shuddered.  Vicious things.  But I doubt that’s what it is.  You know how rumors inflate these things.  It’s probably not even a dragon - I bet it’s just a Graphorn sighting that got out of control.  Anyway, supposedly there are some dragon people coming in early next week to have a look.”  She grinned at Viktor.  “But you’re the dragon expert, right?  We’ll let you deal with it, if we see it.”

 

Viktor flushed slightly.  He wondered if he would ever live down that wretched tournament. 

 

“Just make sure,” said Irina in a mock-serious voice, as Boyar called the players back together, “that you don’t let anything distract you from finding the Snitch.  Not even a dragon.”

 

Viktor smiled stiffly and mounted his broomstick.  Boyar shouted some last-minute instructions, then released the Bludgers and the Snitch.  Viktor saw the Snitch rise straight up in the air, then circle around the stands and back around to the right.  He sped after it, and within minutes had it clutched in his hand. 

 

Boyar roared approvingly from the other end of the pitch.  “Now release it and do that again!”

 

“Give Ligachev a chance, Viktor,” Susannah called with a grin as she swooped past clutching the Quaffle.

 

Viktor tossed the Snitch into the air and sped upwards.  He closed his eyes and did a Campos Spiral, to give the Snitch a head start.  His heart contracted suddenly as he remembered the last time he had come out of this move and seen her there in the woods below him.  The first time he had ever seen her. 

 

WHAM!  A Bludger hit him in the stomach, and Viktor’s eyes flew open as he rolled in the air, completely winded.  A movement far below and to the right caught his eye.  A dragon, long, sleek, and black, was visible in the distant sky.  It wheeled around and flew to the east, and Viktor could clearly see the spikes protruding from its tail.  He’d seen that kind of dragon before...

 

“Dragon!” he finally got enough wind to shout, just as Ligachev caught the Snitch.

 

 

~**~

 

It was a gray and drizzly day, and nearly everyone in the dragon-keeping camp nestled in the Romanian wilderness had sought refuge from the weather in the tents. Even the dragons seemed subdued by the gloomy morning, for they lay in their corrals with wings tucked close to avoid the damp, hot breath rising from their nostrils in plumes through the chill air.

 

But Charlie Weasley wasn’t about to let a quiet morning go by without taking full advantage of it. There was usually some crisis with the dragons demanding his immediate attention, a keeper’s wounds or concerns to tend to, or even the need for a few hours spent hunched over gathered scales, clippings, or droppings, studying and searching for explanations to draconian illness or migration difficulties. In short, it wasn’t often that he had the time to indulge in the only other true passion he’d ever had: his flying. 

 

Charlie wiped the drizzle from his eyes, taking both hands off his broomstick to shove them through his hair, pushing it back in the damp. It was time for a hair cut. Bill might be able to pull off the long hair, but Charlie had learned that if he didn’t trim his hair regularly he was likely to catch it on fire. He would never understand how the female Handlers coped, especially those with hair as wild as his newest assistant.

 

He put his hands back on the broomstick, curling his fingers in a familiar grip around the dark wood, and pulled it up into a steep climb. He shot toward the sky, leaning low over the handle to gain more speed, squinting and grinning into the drizzle now stinging against his face. It had been at least a solid three weeks since he’d had the spare time to fly like this. He didn’t often get the chance to put his Trasnet through its paces, and he had always thought it criminal to let a quality broomstick go unused.

 

Though he sometimes still liked to take his old Cleansweep for a fly, just for memories’ sake, he never regretted having put down the money for his Trasnet. He’d bought the top-notch Romanian broom on one of his rare visits to the wizarding district of Bucharest, after a test flight that had left him breathless. True to its name, the Trasnet accelerated with the ferocity of a thunderbolt; what it lacked in precision it made up for in sheer power, and while Charlie might have chosen a more maneuverable broom for playing Seeker in a real match, the excitement of the Trasnet was more rewarding for diversion. And no matter how much he enjoyed the weekly Quidditch war waged by the keepers and Handlers on their homemade pitch, the truth was that he didn’t need to push his skills in order to win, and so the Trasnet served him perfectly well. He rarely played Seeker during their matches anyway; the Puffskein they’d charmed to fly around the pitch was far easier to spot than a Snitch, and the Puffskein seemed to enjoy being caught as much as it enjoyed being zoomed about, all of which ensured that catching the furry Snitch substitute was altogether too easy a task for Charlie Weasley. More often than not these days he played Chaser, which turned out well in the end since most of the wizards and witches who came to work with the dragons had a propensity for playing Beater, no matter their actual position, which frequently resulted in Quidditch matches even more chaotic than the norm.

 

Charlie leveled the Trasnet after a good and lengthy climb, skimmed the underbelly of the dark and heavy clouds for a short stretch, then crouched low again and dove back down toward the trees. With the rain at his back now it felt as though he outstripped the very wind, and he found that he was grinning again as the tents and dragons swelled to greet him with dizzying speed. He slowed his descent well before reaching the rough-hewn goalposts in the small field beyond the camp; he’d only needed to plow into the underbrush once to learn that it took a while to slow a Trasnet in full dive.

 

But when he saw that his newest assistant – easily identifiable by the wild brown curls – was waiting on the pitch for him, he cut his descent so abruptly that he nearly plowed himself anyway.

 

Perhaps it was because he knew she’d been a Slytherin at Hogwarts, or because she seemed to eye the dragons like over-sized meals, and seemed to eye him in much the same way – but he felt like he ought to watch Alandra Fitzroy as carefully as he would a territorial Ridgeback in mating season. Not that keeping an eye on her was an unpleasant business, mind.

 

Weasley!” she called up, one hand shielding her eyes from the drizzle and the other cocked on her hip. “There’s an owl for you!”

 

Charlie wiped the water from his face again and back into his hair, which was probably clawing from his head like Knarl spikes by now. An owl in this weather? The poor thing was probably sodden.

 

“It had an official seal of some sort,” Alandra continued to shout up at him, seemingly undisturbed by the drizzle quickly thickening into a full blown rain.

 

Charlie did his best to ignore the way the rain was plastering her trousers and flame-resistant coat to her body, and turned his attention instead to a safe landing on the mushy field. He swung his leg down and the Trasnet onto his shoulder in the same easy motion, and also tried to ignore the predatory glint that had sparked in Alandra’s eyes.

 

“In my tent?”  Charlie asked, hoping the owl was warming up somewhere - but instantly regretted his choice of words when the glint in her eyes grew sharper.

 

“Yes.” Her smile showed far too many small, sharp teeth to make him entirely comfortable.

 

“Right.”

 

“Jane told me to ask if you’ve seen Horace out here. She can’t find him, and thinks some of the enchantment might have lingered again.”

 

“’Fraid not.” He started back toward camp, grinning at the thought of the furry creature floating and humming its way happily through the trees somewhere. “But I wouldn’t worry. If he did get out he’ll come back eventually, flying or rolling. I’ve never seen a Puffskein so devoted to its owner.” Well, there’d been Ron’s Puffskein, poor little bugger. He remembered when Dad had brought it home for Ron, in the hopes of comforting his youngest son by assuring him that it would eat all of the spiders in his room at night. The little creature had been unusually devoted to Ron, which might have been reason enough for Fred to target it even without the added incentive of perpetuating the fear of spiders he’d been inordinately proud of inspiring in his younger brother. A six-year-old Fred had insisted that he’d changed that teddy bear on purpose, though Charlie suspected it had been a lucky bit of chance really. He doubted that Fred remembered any of it now, of course. The twins had calmed down somewhat as they grew older, if such a thing was possible, and tormenting their siblings was no longer first on their list of priorities. But he suspected that Ron probably remembered it all quite vividly. He’d adored that Puffskein.

 

“I think we’re going to have to find a new way to restrain the Ironbelly.” Alandra fell in beside him, switching from personal to business with a speed that never ceased to astonish him. It would have been easy to ascribe her two separate personalities if it weren’t for the fact that the same slyness lurked behind her smile and her gaze whether she was clipping dragon talons or eyeing the Chief Handler over consumption of a sausage breakfast. He’d never worked closely with any Slytherin before this – he was finding the experience very educational. But one thing, at least, was certain: there was no denying that she was one of the most industrious and promising new keepers he’d ever had. She probably had every intention of usurping him as Chief Handler some day.

 

“He keeps rolling over and crushing the fences,” she went on. “And if we don’t trim back those talons then he’s going to dig the tether posts right out of the ground.”

 

Ironbelly talons grow slowly. Last week’s trimming should hold. We need to move him to a wider field, that’s all.”

 

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Sounds simple enough.”

 

“He’s just cranky, I’ll reckon. Still got indigestion most likely.”

 

“Yes. ‘A waste of perfectly good wigs’ – isn’t that how you put it?”

 

Charlie winced. It was bad enough that Clagg had been foolish enough to leave the new supply arrivals close enough to the Ironbelly for unfortunate ingestion, and not just because his container of fresh Billywigs had finally arrived from Johnston down in Australia; there had been important equipment in those supplies too. But worse was the fact that Fitzroy had managed to overhear him lamenting the Billywig loss to Clagg after giving the fellow a firm dressing down for his carelessness. Not that she struck him as the kind of girl who would turn down a good dose of levitation, mind, but it simply wasn’t professional to allow his assistants an arsenal to use against him.

 

“Something like that,” Charlie said with a somewhat sheepish grin. There was no point in denying it, really. Not since that time he’d had to Flyfoot Charm rocks to his feet to get outside to handle a midnight emergency with Norbert. He would have reprimanded Clagg for his uncontrollable laughter if he’d been able to stop chuckling himself.

 

The tents loomed suddenly out of the drizzle and gloom, and it wasn’t long before they’d come to his own front flap, as his tent was the closest to the corrals. The rain rolled in streams off the magically repellent brown tent canvas, and light glowed through the seams.

 

“Thanks for fetching me.” Charlie gave Alandra a friendly nod, both relieved and foolishly disappointed when she only smiled in reply and walked away. He wasn’t at all surprised that she walked not toward her own tent, but toward the dragons. She was fantastic with the dragons, really. It was nice to have someone around who loved the brutes almost as much as he did.

 

Charlie lifted the flap and ducked inside, stepping gratefully into the warmth generated by the fire he’d set to burning in the stone hearth before going out for a fly. Firelight flickered over the usual clutter of dragon bits and equipment on his worktable, and the untidy lumps of blankets and clothing over bed and armchair. Pretty soon he’d be hit by a surge of guilt, thinking of his mother’s reaction to his typical mess, and put a few cleaning charms to work. But right now there was an owl perched on the back of his faded armchair demanding his attention.

 

The owl looked as bedraggled as he’d expected, but still surprisingly energetic despite the condition of its soaked feathers. It hooted at him as he entered, and began to shift from claw to claw, putting the scroll case in easy sight. Charlie recognized him as a local mountain owl, which at least meant that he probably hadn’t been sent too far.

 

“Hello there, fellow. Let’s hope that someone had a good reason to send you out in this weather.”

 

He took the time to snatch up a fallen cloak with which to give the Trasnet a quick wipe down, and then he set broom and cloak aside to relieve the owl of its burden.

 

“Help yourself to anything you find in the kitchen. I’m sure there are plenty of unwashed plates in there.”

 

The scroll case was well sealed against foul weather, but it opened easily beneath the pressure of his callused fingers. Alandra had been right – there was an official looking seal on the end of the case. He pulled out the parchment, noting the same seal at the bottom, next to an equally official looking signature. Konstantin Zhivko, Regional Ministry Liaison, Vratsa, Bulgaria.

 

Charlie read over the letter with a growing grin, noting with amusement the barely masked tone of panic in the politely worded request. 

 

This wasn’t the first time that he’d been asked to come take care of an errant dragon problem, but he never ceased to find it exciting – especially when the specimens were so far out of their natural territory, as in this case. There was always some interesting behavioral quirk to unravel.

 

He’d have to take care of a few things here at camp first, but he should be able to whip everything into shape in a day or two. At least enough to allow him to leave for a bit.

 

“Dragons in Bulgaria, eh? Sounds like fun.”

 

 

~**~

 

“...and the Seeker must catch the Snitch, to end the game - ”

 

“I know how the game is played, Ivan,” Edina said, rolling her eyes.

 

Ivan grinned.  “Just making sure. You have to understand it to fully appreciate it.”

 

Edina leaned her head on his shoulder.  “I do appreciate it, just not as much as you do.”

 

Ivan kissed the top of her head and put one arm around her.  He looked up, tracking Viktor’s progress across the pitch.  “Did you see that?  He just did a Lipsett Dodge!  See how he forced the opposing Chaser out of the way, over toward the Beaters?” He raised his voice.  “Good one, Viktor!”

 

Viktor heard him, and gave the barest smile and nod of acknowledgment in his direction before zooming off toward the other end of the pitch.  Ivan shook his head and smiled.  That had been positively effusive, for Viktor.

 

Ivan and Edina had arrived an hour earlier, and, after a brief run-in with the suspicious guard at the gate, had been met by Viktor and escorted into the stands to watch the Vultures’ training session.  Ivan thought that Viktor had looked pleased to see them - though it was true that, to anyone else, the slightly upturned mouth and fractionally less sullen expression would hardly have been noticeable.  But he also knew, from the way Viktor was flying, that his friend was preoccupied.  Ivan frowned.  He hadn’t seen Viktor fly quite so recklessly since that night back in March, when he had found out about that Witch Weekly article.  Ivan wondered if something had happened with Hermione...but Viktor had said that he hadn’t heard from her since the beginning of July.  Ivan had managed to extract this bit of information from Viktor when he had spoken to him the week before, to set up this visit...and Viktor had seemed distracted then, but happy.  Something had obviously happened in the past week to change that.

 

Suddenly he remembered something Viktor’s mother had said, a few weeks ago when Ivan had shown up in the fire to talk to Viktor.  Oh, he’s out of the house every day now for hours. I don’t know where he goes - probably out flying, you know - but he comes back in a good mood, so I suppose it does him good.” 

 

Ivan grinned and let out a short laugh.

 

“What is it?” asked Edina, sitting up and looking at him.

 

“I think our Viktor has a new love interest.”

 

“Really?”  She looked up at Viktor, soaring out over the pitch.  “What makes you say that?”

 

“Just a suspicion.”  Ivan closed his eyes.  “Oh, the material...”

 

Edina swatted him on the arm.  “You leave him alone, Ivan Pashnik.”

 

He opened his eyes and smiled at her.  “Do you think he’ll bring her to the wedding?”

 

“Maybe he will.”  Edina smiled, and her eyes grew soft the way they always did when he brought up the wedding.  It made him want to kiss her, so he did.

 

“Two weeks,” he whispered, squeezing her hand.

 

“I know.”  She smiled up at him, and Ivan felt his insides grow warm.  She was going to be his wife.  Even now, that seemed hard to believe.

 

Ivan glanced up, just in time to see Viktor speed toward the ground, then pull up at the last possible second.  He changed direction effortlessly while coming out of the dive.  “Did you see that?” Ivan yelled, jumping to his feet.  “GO VIKTOR!”

 

He was still clutching Edina’s hand, and she looked slightly irritated as he sat back down beside her. His attention was immediately caught, however, by a loud yawp behind him.  Ivan turned around and saw a group of rowdy-looking wizards, and one very attractive witch, further up the stands.   One of the wizards, a stocky man with red hair, was standing up on his seat, shouting incoherent syllables of encouragement toward the pitch.  The woman was giving him an amused look and twirling a long brown curl around her finger.  Noticing Ivan watching them, the woman turned her gaze on him.  She raised her eyebrows at him, her lips curling into a suggestive smile.  Ivan had grinned back before he’d even thought about it.  Edina’s grip on his hand tightened, and he turned back to her.

 

“Viktor’s caught the Snitch,” she said, her tone somewhat distant.  “Shall we go meet him?”

 

Er...yes.  Of course.”

 

~**~

 

When he had agreed to come out to Bulgaria looking for the dragon supposedly lurking in the forests outside Vratsa, he really hadn’t imagined that he would get the chance to see Viktor Krum fly again.

 

Charlie remembered last year’s World Cup vividly, and Krum’s performance in particular. He knew from experience how hard it was to pull off a successful feint, especially one as treacherous as the Wronski, and Krum had managed it with admirable ease. Watching Krum fly in that match had been both exciting and somehow nostalgic. Krum was one of the youngest professional Quidditch players in history, competing in the World Cup at only seventeen. Charlie couldn’t help wondering if he mightn’t have been in Krum’s unique position, had he gone on to play for England as everyone had expected he would.

 

Well, not everyone. Bill had always known him well enough to suspect that he’d end up with dragons instead of brooms. And his father had probably known as well. Ron, on the other hand, still harassed him about it at every family match.

 

Charlie knew where his heart was, and he had never truly regretted choosing dragons over a Quidditch career. Or at least, he rarely regretted it. But he remembered feeling a longing pang for the thrill of wind in his hair and the fluttering beat of tiny silver wings against his palm as he watched the World Cup from the top box last year, and he felt it again now watching Viktor Krum at his practice.

 

Krum was good. And it was damn enjoyable to get to see good Quidditch, even if it was only a practice session.

 

“I thought this was supposed to be a business trip.”

 

Charlie turned to grin at Clagg, sitting next to him in the mostly empty stands. On Clagg’s other side was Ernest Hopkirk, another of their newest assistants. Ern wasn’t quite as enthusiastic or fearless as Alandra, but Charlie was sure he’d turn out competent enough. Still, fearless or not, both assistants had a long way to go before they could claim to be fully trained dragon keepers, and even further before they could hope to become professional Handlers. This trip to Bulgaria had seemed a good opportunity to give them some experience out in the wilds beyond camp, and so Charlie had chosen to bring both Hopkirk and Fitzroy along.

 

Ernest, at least, seemed almost as pleased as Charlie with this unexpected opportunity to watch a professional Quidditch team at practice, though Alandra, perched on the bench behind them, seemed rather bored. Charlie suspected it was feigned boredom, really, as it hadn’t taken him long to recognize that she was an excellent actress. And after all, how could anyone not be happy about the chance to watch some good Quidditch?

 

The four of them had the stands to themselves today, except for a young couple down near the pitch. 

 

“We are here on business, Davey,” Charlie replied to Clagg’s jibe. “Eye-witness reports, remember?”

 

Davey grinned and scratched at the side of his nose. “I don’t know. Seems to me that those reports from the village are enough to go on. I think you just wanted an excuse to come and watch.”

 

Before Charlie could come up with an argument against Clagg’s spot-on guess, Hopkirk shifted forward in his seat and pointed with a startled exclamation. “What’s he doing?”

 

Charlie snapped his gaze back to the pitch, and with Seeker-trained speed he picked out Viktor Krum, high above the other players, executing a complex swerve at the peak of a steep ascent. He recognized it immediately as the first stage of a Brown Ballista, a dive which started with a winding up swerving maneuver to disperse any other players, usually Beaters, trying to box in the opposing Seeker.

 

“It’s a –” Charlie began, but just then Krum dropped into the dive, plummeting toward the earth, and the speed of the maneuver stole his breath. He jumped onto his seat in excitement, eyes tracking Krum’s descent. Bloody hell, the man was good!

 

Krum pulled up out of the dive with beautiful precision. Charlie couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen another player of such skill, except maybe young Potter. But while Potter had more natural skill than any other flyer Charlie had ever seen – by Merlin it had been something to see that kid fly against the dragon! - he still lacked the finesse that more experienced players possessed. In a few years, Potter would be a Quidditch player to shame generations of Quidditch heroes. But Krum had more experience, and a smooth technique Charlie couldn’t help but admire.

 

Krum had barely pulled up from the dive when he shifted into a sharp turn, shooting off toward the opposite end of the pitch. Charlie let out an incoherent shout of admiration, fist in the air, wishing fiercely for a broomstick beneath him.

 

“Looks like you’ve caught some attention, Weasley.”

 

It took him a moment to even register the sound of Alandra’s amused voice, and another moment to tear his eyes away from the pitch. But when he finally turned to meet Alandra’s gaze, she gestured further down the stands to where the young couple was casting unreadable glances up at them as they descended the stairs toward the field. And on the edge of the field itself a stern-faced man with broom in hand was beckoning impatiently at Charlie and his fellows.

 

“Looks like he wants us to come down,” Ernest said.

 

“You’re a sharp one, Ern,” Clagg said with a grin.

 

“Right.” Charlie tried to keep the regret from his voice. “Back to business, mates. Davey, grab the chain.”

 

Clagg gathered up the coils of dragon chain from the bench in front of them and looped them over his shoulder. The chain was charmed to near weightlessness, but the links were still thick and char-stained; Clagg looked nearly swamped by their heavy coils. He shrugged them into a more comfortable position, then grinned, obviously appreciating the illusion of strength it lent him, and nodded that he was ready.

 

Charlie led his people down the stands, jumping from seat to seat, eager to get down to the pitch and the people there as much to congratulate the players on a good practice as to ask about the dragon. The first person to stroll forward to meet them was the stern-faced man who’d beckoned for them to come down. Charlie guessed, from the club in the man’s hand and the authoritarian look of impatience on his face, that this was the Vultures’ Captain, Conrad Boyar. He knew that Boyar played Beater on the team, and that he’d been Captain for at least the last ten years. After Bulgaria’s performance in the Cup Charlie had kept on an eye on the country’s principle teams, most impressive of which was without a doubt the Vratsa Vultures. But without Krum they weren’t good enough to compete with the real greats, in his opinion; they certainly hadn’t performed as well in the season during which Krum had been at Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament.

 

But even if he hadn’t been somewhat informed on the Vultures’ activities, Charlie thought he would have recognized the man glaring at him now as a Quidditch team Captain. He’d been a Captain himself in his day.

 

“You’re the dragon people, are you?” Boyar demanded, brandishing his club in what seemed like a subconscious movement.

 

Charlie stopped with a good safe distance between himself and the Vultures Captain. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he had too much experience with Beater clubs to not be cautious.

 

“That’s us.” He smiled. “The name’s Charlie Weasley, and these are my associates, Da -”

 

“If you insist on disturbing my players then do it quickly. Ve have better things to be doing than vorrying about these dragons of yours.”

 

Charlie wondered what it was that drove people to call all dragons ‘his’. Not that he didn’t feel a certain sort of possessiveness, but he always considered it a sign of inexperience with the draconic breed that anyone could imagine that wizards truly controlled dragons.

 

“We’ll take care of the problem as quick we can, sir, you can count on that. You’ll be able to get your team back to practicing with no worries. Really stupendous practice, by the way. Top notch. You’ve got some fine players here, Mr. Boyar.”

 

“Of course I do, though one vould not know it from the vay they have been flying this past veek.” He tossed the last over his shoulder at the men and women landing on the pitch and ambling over to see what the commotion was about.

 

Rather than get between a Captain and his team, Charlie opted for the safer route. “We were told that some of your players actually saw the dragon.”

 

“Yes, yes, that’s vy you’re here. Ivanova!” Boyar beckoned sharply with his club and an attractive witch with dark red hair stepped forward, broom held comfortably in hand. “Krum!” He bellowed for his Seeker, looking around in intense irritation when Krum didn’t promptly appear.

 

Charlie glanced around as well and caught sight of Krum standing on the edge of the pitch, apparently in conversation with the young couple who had been sitting in the stands before.

 

“KRUM!”

 

Krum looked over his shoulder in bare acknowledgement of the call, then seemed to share some last comment with his companions before turning and walking over. He wasn’t exactly shuffling, but he was certainly taking his time. He looked sullen, but Charlie couldn’t really believe it. No one could feel sullen after flying like that. No one who flew like that could be so totally unaffected by it.

 

Before Krum was even close enough to speak with them comfortably, Boyar was already barking orders. “Krum, Ivanova, tell these people vot they need to know so ve can see an end to this dragon business. The rest of you – go! Go sleep or do votever you have to do to show me some real flying tomorrow!”

 

With that he turned on his heel and practically herded the majority of his team off the pitch, sparing not another glance for Charlie and his people.

 

Clagg met his eyes gaze and raised his eyebrows, shaking his head in a pitying sort of way.

 

“Right, then.” Charlie struggled with his own smile. He turned to the red-haired witch, who was already standing by with a curious expression. “Miss Ivanova, was it?”

 

She smiled and nodded casually. “Susannah Ivanova.”

 

“Charlie Weasley.”  He shook her hand.  “These are my associates, Davey Clagg, Ernest Hopkirk, and Alandra Fitzroy.”  He turned to Krum, hand outstretched.  “And you’re Viktor Krum, of course.  Fantastic Brown Ballista you did just now.”

 

Krum shook his hand, a closed-off expression on his face.  “Thank you.”

 

Krum’s hand had the familiar calluses that came only from long handling of a broom. Charlie remembered the familiar hardened patches on his own hands during what he thought of as his Quidditch days, but they were lost now to the more prominent scars and marks of dragon handling.

 

It was a brief struggle to decide whether to wax on about flying or cut straight the dragons, but in the end, as always, the dragons won out. “So, I understand the two of you actually saw the dragon?  Can you tell us what you saw?”

 

“Viktor saw it first,” said Ivanova.  “He shouted that he saw it, and I flew up to see.  It vos that end of the pitch.”  She gestured with her broomstick.  “I only saw it for a moment before it vent behind the mountain, so I couldn’t say for certain vot it looked like – ”

 

“It vos a Hungarian Horntail,” said Krum, his voice conveying absolute certainty.  Everyone turned to him.

 

Charlie felt a flutter in his gut, half dismay, half excitement. “You’re sure?”

 

“I know vot a Horntail looks like,” said Krum.  “That is vot it vos.”

 

Charlie nodded.  Of course, Krum would know his dragons, wouldn’t he?  After all, he had managed to get past that Chinese Fireball pretty well last fall… Really decent bloke, Krum.

 

He turned to his people.  “All right then, lads, there’s our confirmation.”

 

“Vot vill you do now?” asked Ivanova.

 

“Oh, the standard routine.  We’ll track it to wherever it’s holed up, do some observation – you know, make sure it’s not hurt at all – ”

 

Ivanova’s eyes were wide.  “That vould be the least of my vorries,” she said dryly.

 

Charlie grinned.  “Then we’ll subdue it and ship it back to Romania, to our base.  We can take care of it there.” 

 

“You make it sound easy,” said a new voice, and Charlie looked up to see that the young couple whom Krum had been talking to earlier had followed him over.  The young man, shorter than Krum, with blond hair, stepped forward to stand next to Krum.  The young woman, holding his hand, followed. Krum shot the two of them a look that was almost amused.

 

“It’s not that hard,” said Charlie with a laugh, “once you know what you’re doing.”  He grinned at Krum. “You know that.  I saw you take on that Fireball last year.  In fact,” he gave a friendly shrug, stopping himself just short of companionably elbowing Krum; somehow he doubted it would be as well received as he might hope, “why don’t you come along?  We could use an extra hand.”

 

It had been a joke, of course, but Krum’s friend perked right up.  “Ve vould love to!  Vouldn’t ve, Viktor?”

 

Krum shot the fellow a look so sour his eyes seemed to vanish beneath his glowering brows.

 

Charlie cleared his throat, but before he could say anything a familiar, husky voice came from behind him.

 

“What a marvelous idea,” Alandra practically drawled. “I love men with accents.”

 

Charlie didn’t need to look back at her to know that she was fixing Krum’s eager friend with one of her pointed gazes; the young man’s slightly widened and suddenly glassy eyes made that perfectly clear. Just as clear to Charlie, though obviously not to the rather dazed fellow, was the look on the face of the girl holding onto his arm.

 

“Ah.” Charlie choked back a chuckle. “Well, you’re very welcome, of course, though I can’t really promise your safety. It’s a risky business. Rewarding, naturally, but definitely risky. If we’re dealing with a Horntail then we’re likely to find it in a bad mood. Horntails usually are.”

 

Krum gave a soft sort of grunt that might have been meant to express agreement, or understanding, or amusement – Charlie couldn’t be sure. Krum’s expression was likewise indiscernible, though his gaze was shifting now between his friend and Charlie in what appeared to be an almost speculative manner.

 

“Sir,” Clagg’s voice hissed just behind him, and Charlie turned to see his friend tugging at the chains over his shoulder and glancing dubiously at the Bulgarians. “We should probably get going before the day gets on. D’you want me and Ern to cover the south stretch?”

 

“Yeah, south stretch. Alandra and I will take the north.”

 

“Right.” Clagg nodded, then swung the chains down from his shoulder. He expertly unlooped and separated one of the two sets and handed it over to Charlie, then swung the remaining loops back up and called for Hopkirk to follow him. Without further ado they strode off across the pitch, heading for the forest line.

 

Charlie turned back to Krum and his companions, wondering if he hadn’t stuck his foot in it this time. If there was a Horntail out there – and he was inclined to believe Krum’s word – then it certainly wouldn’t be safe to take untrained people out in the wilderness looking for it.

 

But then, Krum had already faced down a dragon. And while Charlie hadn’t approved of the use of the Conjunctivitis Curse, he had to admit that the fellow had shown a lot of nerve facing it down. And besides, the man could fly.

 

“Right, then.” Charlie settled the light and cool chains over his shoulder. “Who’s coming?”

 

                                                            ~**~

 

Viktor pushed aside a tree limb.  This was an idiotic idea, and he still wasn’t sure how he had been convinced that going to look for a dragon would be at all fun.  He had known, however, that Ivan would go with the dragon people whether he himself did or not; from the look on Edina’s face as she eyed the female dragon keeper, she would have as well, if only to keep an eye on Ivan.  Viktor snorted softly to himself.  Ivan had seemed surprised when Edina had said she would go.  It was amazing that he was getting married in two weeks, and yet was still so oblivious to feminine signals. 

 

Then again, Viktor thought with a frown, thinking of Rositza, it wasn’t as if he himself knew any better.

 

Still, the walk through the woods had been pleasant enough.  It was clear that the female dragon keeper, Alandra, was still in training, as Charlie had taken pains to point out exactly what to look for in tracking the dragon.  However, he must have thought her capable, because when they had found several sets of human footprints leading off in two directions, he had sent her off with Ivan and Edina to follow one set while he and Viktor followed the other.

 

Viktor was beginning to suspect, however, that this arrangement had been more for the purpose of getting him alone to talk Quidditch than anything else.  Charlie seemed quite intent on following the tracks, but every few minutes he would burst out with, “Spectacular Lipsett Dodge you did back there,” or, “What do you make of the Centaurs’ chances against Heidelberg?”

 

It was unusual to see a British wizard so knowledgeable about the Bulgarian teams, and the young man’s casual manner was almost enough to melt some of Viktor’s customary reserve. 

 

“Hello, what’s this?” muttered Charlie, kneeling.  He examined a patch of grass.  Viktor couldn’t see anything remarkable about it.

 

“What is it?” he asked.

 

“See here, where the grass is flattened along the middle?  That’s consistent with the mark of a Horntail’s tail if were dragged through here.  Which means…” He looked around, and pointed triumphantly at a bit of mud a few feet away.   “Footprints.”  He rushed over to prod at the mud.  Viktor followed slowly.  Now that it was coming to it, he wasn’t sure how much he really wanted to face an actual Horntail.

 

Charlie looked up.  “It’s headed in that direction, so we can continue on this path.”  He stood up and led the way through the trees, his step suddenly livelier. 

 

Viktor shook his head and followed.  This dragon keeper certainly was an…enthusiastic fellow.

 

“Was that a Baranof you were flying in practice?”

 

The man’s question startled Viktor.  He had somehow thought it was time to focus on the dragon.

 

“Er…yes.”  He was surprised, and a bit impressed, that anyone would recognize the model of his broom; it was made by a lesser-known, local broom manufacturer, and Viktor was one of the very few professional players who rode a Baranof.  His teammates generally preferred flashier models, but Viktor had tested many, many brooms, and none suited the kind of maneuvers he preferred better than his reliable Baranof. 

 

“You like it?  I tried one when I was looking for a broom a while back, but I didn’t like the way it handled.  Wound up with a Trasnet.”

 

Viktor nodded.  “The Trasnet is fast, yes, but the Baranof is better for skilled maneuvering.  It is more flexible.  Of course,” he added, “it can be difficult to handle, if the rider lacks the proper skill and control.”

 

The slightest frown crossed Charlie’s face, and then he laughed, a deep, hearty laugh.  Viktor stared at him, bewildered; he couldn’t see what was so funny.

 

Charlie just shook his head and started rummaging in his pockets.  “You hungry?” he asked.  “I’ve got some trailcakes in here somewhere…” He held up a small canister and peered at it.  “Not those,” he said with a grin.  “Those are for later.  Hold that, will you?”  He handed the canister to Viktor, who immediately recognized the crude drawing on the lid. Viktor raised his eyebrows as he remembered the pamphlet he had read in the Hogwarts library once when he had picked up a stack of books, any books, to pretend he was reading while waiting for Hermione: Reading, Writing, and Wigging: A Wizarding Parent’s Guide to Billywig Abuse in Children.  He had been idly flipping through it when Hermione had come in to sit with him, and her eyes had widened upon seeing his choice of reading material.

 

Somehow, it was far from comforting to know that this dragon keeper was carrying these things around.  Viktor thought back to the pamphlet and looked carefully at the young man.  His feet were firmly planted on the ground, and he didn’t show any signs of being “stung up”, so that was something , at least.

 

“Here we go,” said Charlie, brandishing another canister, identical to the one Viktor was holding except for the mark on the lid.  He pulled off the top and removed two round cakes.  He handed one to Viktor, who eyed it warily.

 

“It’s safe, I promise,” said Charlie with a grin.  “If we get this dragon taken care of, we can celebrate with the other kind later.”  He took the first canister back from Viktor and shoved both into his pockets.

 

Viktor took a bite of the cake.  It was soft on the inside, though its crust was quite hard, and the taste was surprisingly sweet.  He supposed this was the kind of food that was easy to make and transport when one was in the wild with dragons all day long.

 

Charlie resumed the path, his eyes sweeping the ground as they walked, his words coming back to Viktor through mouthfuls of cake.  “What do you think of the Firebolt?”

 

Viktor shrugged.  “It is fast, and more flexible than a Paisi or a Nimbus, but still not as flexible as Baranof.”

 

Charlie laughed.  “My kid brother Ron is just dying for a Firebolt.  Talks about it all the time.”  He stopped and looked sideways at Viktor.  “You, er, know his friend Hermione, don’t you?”

 

The casual delivery of this question was obviously studied, and Viktor stiffened slightly without meaning to.  He had suspected that this man was related to her friend as soon as he had heard the name – after all, how common a name was Weasley?  But he didn’t want to talk about Hermione, with anyone.

 

“Yes, I know her,” Viktor replied shortly.

 

Charlie continued scanning the forest around them as he continued.  “You heard from her since you left Hogwarts?”

 

Viktor gritted his teeth.  “We write to each other.”

 

“Ah.  So does that mean –” He stopped suddenly as an overwhelming stench hit them.  Viktor covered his nose in disgust, but Charlie breathed in deeply.  “The dragon’s nearby,” he said in a softer voice.  “Follow me, and be quiet.”

 

Charlie crept forward through the trees.  Viktor followed dubiously, wondering why he hadn’t brought his broomstick with him – at least then he could have made a quick escape.  In fact, the idea of flying back to the Quidditch pitch seemed infinitely smarter at the moment than creeping toward a dragon.  Come to think of it, why on earth would anyone want to go toward a dragon?

 

Charlie stopped and beckoned Viktor forward.  Viktor stepped up next to him, and together, they peered through the lower branches of a fir tree. 

 

In the clearing not ten feet away, lying on its side, was a massive Hungarian Horntail.

 

~**~

 

Tracking dragons wasn’t such a bad business, thought Ivan as he followed Alandra Fitzroy through the bushes.  It was a lovely day, and he was out in the forest with two beautiful women.  No, it wasn’t bad at all.

 

Alandra had her wand out and was pointing it at the ground every few feet, casting Revealing Charms.  Her boss, the red-haired dragon keeper, had seemed perfectly capable of following the prints without magic, but she didn’t seem to want to take any chances. 

 

“I can’t tell,” said Alandra suddenly, turning to Ivan with an innocent smile.  “Is that a footprint?”

 

“Let me see,” said Ivan eagerly, and he bent to look.  He could practically feel Alandra’s gaze on him from behind, and he straightened up quickly.  “I think so,” he said.

 

Edina was standing a few feet away on the path, a look of revulsion on her face.

 

“What is it?” he asked her.

 

Edina raised her eyebrows, giving him a look of disbelief, then shook her head.  “Oh, nothing,” she said in a clipped tone.  She pushed past him.  “The footprints pick up here,” she said, pointing.  She turned to Alandra.  “I trust you can see them without assistance.”

 

Alandra’s eyes, however, were on the engagement ring on Edina’s left hand.  She glanced at Ivan, then back to Edina, and a wicked grin formed on her face. 

 

Edina let out an impatient sigh and turned, leading the way down the path.  Ivan followed, and Alandra quickly fell into step beside him. 

 

“So,” said Alandra conversationally, “when are you two getting married?”

 

“Two weeks.  August eleventh.”

 

“I see.” 

 

Ivan glanced at her; she seemed far too pleased about something.  “How long have you worked with dragons?”

 

“Only a few months.  But they take to me quickly.”  She grinned, and Ivan noticed for the first time how sharp her teeth were.  “Especially the male ones.”

 

Ivan shifted uncomfortably.  “Shouldn’t we catch up with Edina?  What if the dragon is nearby?”

 

Alandra waved her wand dismissively.  “You’d be able to smell it, if we were close to it.”  She stepped up onto a rock, gripping Ivan’s arm for balance, and cast a Revealing Charm in a wide swath on the ground below. 

 

Edina came running back toward them then.  “Up ahead – ”  She stopped short, her eyes on Alandra’s hand, which was still holding on to Ivan’s arm.  Ivan stepped away quickly, causing Alandra to stumble from the rock.  He caught her as she fell into his arms, feeling slightly guilty about making her fall; he could have sworn that she had had firm footing on the rock. 

 

Ivan helped her to her feet and looked back at Edina.  “What is it?”

 

Edina was eyeing them both with a repulsed look on her face, but, at his words, she turned back down the path, her hair flying out behind her in an almost angry way.  “Come with me,” she said.  “You should see this.”

 

Ivan stole one last glance at Alandra, who was smirking at him, and followed.  He was beginning to think that the dangers out here would not come from dragons after all. 

 

Edina crouched behind a large boulder at the edge of the path.  She beckoned them forward, one finger to her lips, and Ivan and Alandra moved to join her.  Alandra, he noticed, kept herself between him and Edina.  Edina moved over rather more than was necessary as Alandra crouched next to her.

 

Ivan peered over the boulder, and saw that they were just above a turn in the path that led to a clearing.  At the far end of the clearing was an enormous cave.  As Ivan strained his eyes to see the top of the cave through the trees, an extremely unpleasant smell hit him.

 

“It’s a Horntail’s cave, all right,” muttered Alandra.  “But the smell’s not so strong, so it must not be home.”

 

Ivan gaped at her.  That wasn’t a strong smell?  He met Edina’s eyes, and knew she was thinking the same thing.

 

Then Alandra gasped, and Ivan turned back to the clearing.  Someone was emerging from the cave – a man, short, with dark hair and a moustache.  The late morning sun gleamed off the man’s bald patch. 

 

More striking, though, was the fact that the man was carrying something.  It looked like a huge rock, granite-gray and obviously quite heavy.  The man was singing softly to himself in French, and, as they watched, he lugged the rock over to the side of clearing.  That was when Ivan noticed the wagon standing there, partially obscured by the trees.  Inside were several more of the great gray rocks.

 

No, not rocks, he realized.  They were –

 

“Dragon eggs,” he whispered.  “What should we –”

 

Alandra, however, had already vaulted herself over the rock and into the clearing.  Ivan watched, open-mouthed, as she raised her wand and charged at the man, shouting, “Stupefy!

 

~**~

 

Charlie knew that something was wrong the moment he saw the Horntail.

 

The dragon lay on its side, wings sprawled open at awkward angles, the spikes of its tail tangled in nearby undergrowth. It was a bad sign. The only dragon breed that could sleep comfortably so sprawled was the Chinese Fireball, whose sinuous and wing-less body allowed it to coil at rest in almost any position. Most of the other dragon breeds, the bulky Horntail in particular, used stone or the like for perches on which to rest, or at least arranged themselves in careful repose so as not to harm their wings.

 

“There’s something wrong,” Charlie murmured, frowning. 

 

Krum grunted behind him, but Charlie’s thoughts were now far from dwelling on the fellow’s enigmatic personality, or even the snatches of enjoyable and fascinating Quidditch talk they’d managed – unintentional slights to his Quidditch prowess aside. Right now, all that mattered was the dragon.

 

Moving as silently as possible, he lowered the chain from his shoulder and held it in his left hand, making sure the properly charmed end was ready for throwing. Then he drew his wand with his other hand and crept forward into the clearing.

 

He could hear the dragon’s heavy breathing as he drew closer. It sounded labored, but did not alter in its painful rhythm as he approached, proving that he hadn’t been heard – which further proved that there was something very wrong with the dragon.

 

He inched along, staying close to the edge of the trees as he circled around the dragon’s massive hind legs, taking special care to keep out of range of the tail. Though he doubted that the creature was in any condition to attack him. He searched for signs of wounds, but wasn’t surprised when none came quickly into view. After all, there weren’t many things in the world that could wound a dragon, and the Horntail was too far out of its natural territory to have encountered battle with one of its own kind.

 

As he crept into view of the dragon’s massive head, the Horntail’s scaled flank rose and fell in a deep breath that issued from its nostrils like a strangled explosion.

 

Charlie froze. He heard Krum’s footsteps come to a quick stop behind him. For a man who shuffled more than walked, Krum had fast reflexes. Then again, most people discovered fast reflexes when faced with a dragon.

 

But in this case, Charlie was sure that good reflexes wouldn’t be needed. The dragon might have smelled or heard them, but that one angry breath was clearly all that it could muster. Its eyes were little more than yellow slits, and not even its claws twitched as Charlie moved directly toward its head.

 

“Something’s very wrong,” he muttered, a sinking feeling in his gut. No dragon should lay like this with humans approaching. It just wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right.

 

“Vot is wrong?” Krum’s voice barely carried to him as a harsh whisper. Charlie glanced back to see that, while the Bulgarian had followed him to the center of the small clearing, he was still keeping his distance from the dragon. Just out of tail range, in fact; he had a good eye.

 

Charlie slackened his hold on the chain and tightened it on his wand, drawing a deep breath and then stepping right up to the dragon’s snout. It made no move, only continued with its labored breathing. Tiny trails of smoke rose from its nostrils. Charlie breathed in the familiar acrid smell, noting instantly the distressing sour tang to it. The scent of illness. Or at least of severe indigestion. The old Ironbelly back at camp had certainly achieved new levels of stench after swallowing all those crates of supplies.

 

But Charlie knew that it wouldn’t have been anything as innocent as misplaced beans and Billywigs that caused this.

 

Stomach queasy with distress and apprehension more than from the foul smell (he had learned to appreciate the stench), Charlie let the chain fall and came to stand directly before the dragon’s head, wand at the ready. Krum gave a strangled sort of grunt somewhere behind him.

 

“It’s all right,” Charlie said grimly. “She’s no danger to us right now.”

 

“She?”

 

“Yes, you can tell by the -” He stopped, eyes caught by the faint purple splotches barely visible along the tiny scales of the dragon’s snout. “Damn. Damn, damn.”

 

He crouched down by the massive head and placed the palm of his free hand flat against the creature’s rough brow. When his touch elicited no reaction he leaned in closer and pried the dragons’ eyelids completely open. The slit pupil in the yellow eye was dilated so large that it was nearly as wide as his hand, and it remained fixed as the sunlight hit it.

 

“Damn!” Charlie hissed. “The tracks. Those bastards.”

 

He’d dismissed the tracks too easily, seen them as an easy way to give Alandra some tracking experience on her own, and himself some time to talk about flying with Viktor Krum. He’d assumed they were just the tracks of some overly-curious villagers, out trying to catch a glimpse of the dragon. But since no injuries had been mentioned in the report he was given, he hadn’t worried. Now he was certain that the tracks explained everything.

 

“Vot is… the problem?”

 

“The dragon is dying.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“She’s been poisoned.” He ground his teeth together in anger, and set his hand gently against the dragon’s neck. “The bastards poisoned her.”

 

Krum came to stand behind him, apparently reassured by the dragon’s immobility. His question was little more than a grunt.  “Who?”

 

“I don’t know. Whoever left those tracks.

 

Krum grunted, but Charlie was too preoccupied to bother trying to interpret the sound. Whoever had done this was going to regret it when he caught up to them. Regret it most fervently.

 

“Vy vould they poison a dragon?”

 

At another time, Charlie might have been amused by the question; not many people would have felt the need to ask it. But at the moment the answer to the question was the only thing in his thoughts.

 

“I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”

 

But first he had to help the Horntail. The problem was that he didn’t have any medicinal supplies with him. None for the dragon at least. He hadn’t anticipated the need to be doctoring anyone but himself.

 

“I have to send a message back to camp right away. We need –”

 

The sound of something snapping echoed clearly even over the dragon’s labored breathing. More clear still was the sound of a low voice cursing.

 

Charlie spun to face the sound, to find that Krum was already staring into the trees, wand raised and leveled at the large man stumbling out of the forest. Krum’s reflexes were fast indeed. But then, he would expect a quick draw from someone who’d gone to Durmstrang.

 

“Who are you?” Krum demanded.

 

The shadow of another man darted through the trees behind his stumbling companion.

 

“Behind him!” Charlie shouted, and leapt forward, over the dragon’s head, taking aim with his wand.

 

He and Krum cast at the same time. “Stupefy!”

 

Both men fell to the ground in the underbrush. Charlie charged ahead, leaving the first man to Krum, and moved to grab the second man before the stunner could even begin to wear off. He buried his free hand in the front of the man’s robes and dragged him up.

 

He was a scrawny man, with a nervous twitch under one eye that continued even through the stunning spell. Charlie shoved the tip of his wand into the fellow’s chest, and propelled him through the trees into the clearing.

 

“Did you do this? Was it you?”

 

The man’s twitch worsened, but he couldn’t yet speak.

 

“Veasley.”

 

“What?”

 

“Vot do ve do with them?”

 

“Tie that one up.”

 

Krum grunted, and Charlie heard the familiar sound of binding cords exploding from a wand.

 

“All right.” Charlie pushed his man over so that he fell onto his back mere feet away from the dragon’s faintly steaming snout. The twitch worsened. “Take your time coming around, mate. Use it to think up a real good explanation for this, because your health depends on it.”

 

Charlie raised his wand to conjure binding cords, but then his eyes fell on the dragon chain that still lay on the ground at his feet.  Grinning viciously, he scooped up the chain and made ready to throw the enchanted end. The man’s eyes went wide; the stunning spell was starting to wear off.  Charlie narrowed his eyes and tossed the chain.  Better you than the dragon, mate, he thought, as the chain animated, wrapping itself around the man far more tightly and more quickly than binding cords would have done. On a dragon, the chains would be wrapped around the muzzle, to prevent the dragon from burning a keeper to a crisp when he or she was trying to help it.  The chain did its work quickly, and probably with enough force to bruise the scrawny fellow before him, but, at the moment, Charlie couldn’t bring himself to care.

 

“Vy did you do that?”  Krum’s voice sounded slightly alarmed behind him.

 

“Poetic justice.”  Charlie turned to the second man, now lying inert and bound at Krum’s feet.  This man was solidly built, and Charlie suspected he could have given both himself and Krum a run for their money, if the look on his face hadn’t made it clear that he was stupider than an addled Gnome stumbling into a den of Jarveys.

 

Charlie looked between the two prisoners, shaking his head.  “What did a pathetic pair like you think you were going to do with a dragon?” he muttered.

 

The smaller man let out an incomprehensible groan.  Charlie crouched beside him, his wand resting on his knee.  “Sorry, didn’t catch that,” he said, his voice deliberately calm.

 

The man’s eyes widened again, and he began to wriggle feebly in the chain, which tightened around him. 

 

Charlie smiled.  “You know, the more you struggle, the tighter that chain will get.”

 

The man went still at once, but the twitch under his eye grew more violent.  “Not…my…fault.”

 

“Is that so?  Just thought you’d nip up the mountain and have a little lie down in the bushes, did you? Thought you’d sneak in a bit of harmless dragon-watching?  Don’t buy it, mate.”  He stood up and pointed his wand at the man.  “How about giving me a real answer?”

 

“It’s not my fault!” the man burst out.  “He made us do it!”

 

“Who?”

 

Surprisingly, the answer came from behind him, in the form of a grunt even less intelligible than Krum’s.  “Bidet.”

 

Charlie whipped around and stared at the second man, who had come out of the stunner and was now looking sullenly up at Charlie through heavy-lidded eyes.  Charlie shot a look at Krum, who shrugged, looking just as bewildered as Charlie felt.  Bidet?  Was that supposed to be some sort of insult? 

 

“What?” said Charlie.

 

“Bidet!” said the scrawny man.  That damn Frenchy.  I knew this wouldn’t work.”  He struggled to sit up, gagging slightly as the chain tightened itself again.

 

“Then there are more of them,” Krum said, looking off into the trees and raising his wand.

 

“Like bloody vermin,” spat Charlie.  He turned back to the scrawny man and steadied his wand.  “Where is he?  What were you going to do with the dragon?”

 

The man seemed more than happy to cooperate, possibly because the chain was now wrapped around his throat.  “The poison…was to…keep it…out of the way…so…he could get the…eggs,” he gasped. 

 

Charlie’s hand clenched around his wand.  “To sell them in some seedy tavern basement, no doubt.”  He gritted his teeth and advanced on the man, not entirely sure what he intended to do, but suspecting that he would regret it later.

 

“Veasley,” said Krum.  “Shouldn’t we hand them over to the authorities?”

 

Charlie stopped with a sigh.  Krum was right. And besides, if they kept them here, he really might do something he’d regret.

 

And there was the dragon to think about.  

 

“You’re right,” Charlie muttered.  “We should.”

 

There was a sudden commotion in the woods behind them.  Charlie started to spin around, wand raised, but stopped when he recognized the distinctive sound of Alandra’s predatory laugh.  He tracked the sound to see an unexpected procession emerging from the trees.  Krum’s Bulgarian friends were stumbling along behind Alandra, queasy looks on their faces, while Alandra strode confidently ahead, herding a half-naked man in front of her at wandpoint.  The man, short and balding, was clad only in horrible mermaid-patterned boxer shorts.  The animated mermaids swam around and around, and Charlie stared for a moment, horrified, before he had to avert his eyes in disgust.  He looked at Alandra, who was waving a set of gray robes like a banner with one hand, and prodding the man in the back with her wand with the other.

 

The procession filed into the clearing.  Alandra shot Charlie a toothy grin.  “It seems we have an egg-snatcher here.”

 

~**~

 

Ivan looked around the clearing.  It was hard to believe that it had only been a few hours since he had stumbled into this clearing behind Alandra and the Frenchman, to find Viktor and Charlie with two men bound at their feet.  It had been a strange day, to say the least.

 

Ivan’s eyes lingered on Edina as she spoke with an official from the Bulgarian Ministry of Magic.  The Ministry people had taken statements from all in the party, but had seemed particularly interested in speaking to Edina, since she had been the first to see the man stealing the eggs.  In fact, Ivan thought with a frown, this particular Ministry employee seemed a bit too interested in speaking to her; the man keep leaning forward and smiling at her, and there was far too much laughter ringing from their direction for his liking.

 

The three criminals had been taken back to the Ministry Headquarters earlier.  Alandra and Charlie both had seemed to feel that no punishment the Ministry could mete out would be quite horrific enough.  But after what the Frenchman had been through at Alandra’s hands, Ivan seriously doubted the man would bother a dragon – or a dragon keeper – ever again.  He shuddered involuntarily at the memory, wondering vaguely whether Edina would consider him weak if he asked her to put a Memory Charm on him later.  It hadn’t been a pretty sight, but he had to admit, Alandra had been… amazing.

 

He glanced over at her now.  She was kneeling behind the dragon’s head, stroking its rough brow and talking to another dragon keeper, who, along with several others, had arrived some time before, after Charlie had sent one of his assistants to Apparate back to the Romanian camp and fetch them.  Ivan shook his head.  After Charlie had administered the antidote to the dragon, he had assured them all that the dragon would remain unconscious for several hours, and that it was perfectly safe for them all to be near it.  Still, Ivan thought, as he watched several of the new arrivals examining the dragon’s scales and talons, he wasn’t about to go anywhere near the thing. 

 

On the other side of the clearing, three of the dragon keepers were carefully packing the enormous gray eggs into crates, conjuring straw with which to pack them, and casting protective spells over the whole lot. 

 

Edina’s laughter pealed across the clearing, and Ivan glared over at her.  He didn’t see what could possibly be so funny about finding dragon-egg thieves.  Feeling a familiar predatory gaze on him, Ivan realized without having to look that the laughter had caught Alandra’s attention as well.  It’s either her or the dragon, he thought, and the dragon’s supposed to be unconscious. 

 

Almost against his will, he looked up to see Alandra eyeing him, a sly smile on her face.  She said something to the woman next to her, then stood up and crossed the clearing to him. 

 

“You’re still here,” she observed, her voice conveying nothing less than delight.  She touched his arm lightly.

 

Ivan smiled.  “Yes, we are still here.  Is the dragon – ”

 

“She’ll be fine.  It’s a good thing Charlie found her when he did, though.”  She gave him a speculative look, her eyes glittering.  “Have you ever seen a dragon up close?”

 

“I believe I have,” replied Ivan, arching an eyebrow at her. 

 

She flashed him a knowing smile, and started to say something, but before she could, Edina appeared at Ivan’s side.

 

“Ivan,” Edina said, slipping her hand into his.  “I am finished now.”

 

Alandra’s smile widened, and Ivan felt Edina’s grip on his hand tighten painfully. 

 

“We were just discussing the day’s events,” said Alandra innocently.  “It certainly has been… memorable, don’t you think?”  Her eyes were on Ivan as she uttered these last words.

 

“It certainly has,” said Edina dryly, her nails now digging into Ivan’s hand.  She spared one more disdainful look for Alandra, then turned to Ivan.  “We should go find Viktor now.”

 

“Oh!  I believe he’s by the cave, with Charlie,” said Alandra.  “I’ll go with you.  I need to have a word with Charlie anyway.”

 

Edina looked less than pleased about this, but didn’t say anything as she turned and led the way down the path.  She kept her iron grip on Ivan’s hand, however, and his fingers were starting to go numb.  He had a feeling that it would be a bad idea to tell her so.

 

As they neared the cave site, they could hear voices.  Ivan and Edina stopped and stared at one another as one of the voices became clear.  It was Viktor, sounding more enthusiastic and talking more freely than Ivan had ever heard him.

 

“…and then Dumas dove for the Snitch, but Vulchov and Vulchanov both hit the Bludgers at him, and he had to break off.  But while all this was happening, and the Beaters were distracted, the French Chasers had gone into this swirling circle formation – our Chasers had never seen anything like it, and they could not break through – ”

 

There was a low whistle, then Charlie’s voice:  “I wish I could have seen that.”

 

Ivan and Edina, with Alandra trailing behind, descended into the clearing as Viktor continued his story.

 

“ - then Ivanova got the idea to dive into the center and loop them.  They could not keep it up, and by this time our Beaters had seen it, and they shot the Bludgers at the French Chasers.  Levski caught the Quaffle and had scored with it six times before the French Chasers even got over their – ” Viktor broke off as Ivan and Edina came to a halt before him. 

 

Ivan couldn’t help grinning at the scene.  Viktor was seated on a large, flat rock, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.  Charlie was sitting on the ground, leaning back against the rock face with his head tipped back and his eyes closed.  There was a silver flask on the ground between them.

 

“What is it?” Viktor asked gruffly.

 

Charlie opened his eyes.  “Hey, you all survived your dragon adventure, eh?”

 

“And the Ministry people,” said Ivan meaningfully, squeezing Edina’s hand.  She shot him an annoyed look and let go.  Ivan tried to shake out his hand surreptitiously behind his back, to get some of the feeling back into his fingers.

 

“We have finished making our statements, Viktor,” said Edina.

 

Viktor only grunted.  Ivan shook his head slightly.  He should have known the effusiveness it wouldn’t last.

 

~**~

 

“How’s the Horntail?” asked Charlie.  Viktor glanced at him.  Charlie had been relaxed and talkative ever since they had finished searching the cave half and hour ago, and had seemed more than ready to relax in the sun and talk Quidditch.  But now, as he shot the question at his assistant, he was tensed for action again.

 

Alandra shrugged and stepped up beside Ivan.  “She’s fine.  Still stable.  Joe and Elise are keeping an eye on her.  She should be fine for transport.”

 

Charlie sat back against the rock, apparently satisfied.  “Good work, Fitzroy.  And, off the record, good work on that egg thief too.  Whatever you did.”

 

Viktor saw Ivan and Edina exchange uncomfortable looks.  What had the woman done, anyway?  Neither of them had seemed inclined to discuss it.  Viktor somehow doubted that the details would show up in the Ministry report either.

 

Alandra grinned, her sharp teeth practically glinting.  “No problem,” she said.  “You could say I have… a way… with men.”  She leaned casually toward Ivan as she said this, brushing his shoulder with hers.  Ivan started.

 

Viktor rolled his eyes and looked away.  This was almost painful to watch.

 

A moment later, however, Edina’s voice made him look up.  “Excuse me,” she said politely.  “Could I have a word with you, over there?”  She had stepped in front of Ivan to address Alandra directly.  She had her arms crossed casually over her chest, in what Viktor recognized as a prelude to a Heimler Draw, a technique that Karkaroff himself had taught them.  Viktor shot a look at Ivan, who was looking back and forth between the two women as if afraid to say anything.  Which one of them he was afraid of, Viktor couldn’t tell. 

 

Alandra smiled innocently.  “Of course.  I adore girl talk.”

 

Edina turned and led the way up the path.  Alandra shot an openly flirtatiously look at Ivan before turning to follow.  Ivan swallowed hard.

 

“So, you went to Hogwarts?” Edina asked.

 

“Yes.  I was in Slytherin.”  Viktor could practically hear the smug grin in the girl’s voice.

 

“Hmm,” replied Edina, in a deliberately casual tone, “interesting.  I went to Durmstrang.”

 

Viktor thought he saw Alandra’s step falter very slightly before she turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

 

Behind Viktor, Charlie chuckled.  “She’s always like that,” he said.  “It’s about time someone called her on it.  She could use a good talking-to.”

 

There was a loud sizzling noise from the direction in which the girls had gone.  Viktor looked over in time to see a shower of blue sparks.  The three men looked at each other.

 

Ivan cleared his throat.  “Well,” he said, sounding uneasy, “what will you do now?”

 

Charlie was staring toward the trees, mouth open.  “I, er…well, we’ll cast some weightless spells on the dragon and –” He paused as a shower of gold sparks followed the blue, accompanied by a string of helpless-sounding giggles.  He raised his voice.  “-and then we’ll take her back to the camp in Romania.  We’ll take care of her there until she can be released into the wild.”

 

“I see,” said Ivan, never taking his eyes from the trees, which were now filled with glowing, ghost-like birds.  “That is…good.”

 

A loud humming sound started up in the trees, and Viktor glanced at Ivan and Charlie, both of whom looked just as baffled as he felt.  It grew louder, until finally the trees seemed to shake around them.

 

And then it stopped.  Viktor looked uncertainly at Ivan, wondering if they should go find the girls, but before he could say anything, Edina came walking jauntily into the clearing, slipping her wand into her robes.  Alandra followed a few moments later, walking slowly, one hand clutching her now-disheveled curls.

 

Charlie looked at Alandra, then at Edina, and Viktor could see him come to the decision not to comment.  “Well,” he said, turning to Viktor.  “I’ve got some time before I have to be back at camp.  Joe and Elise will handle the Horntail transport.  I’d love to check out that Baranof you were telling me so much about earlier, if you wouldn’t mind.”

 

Viktor nodded.  “The team practice brooms are available too.  I would like you to show me your ‘Weasley Wobble’ as well.”

 

Viktor had clearly said the right thing, because Charlie grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Sounds excellent.”  He turned to Alandra, who was still rubbing her head.  Viktor also noticed that she was standing further away from Ivan than she had all day.  “Alandra, you head back and tell the others to begin the transport.  Tell Davey I’ll be back at camp before the Horntail comes out of it.  And you head back too.  You’ve, er… done enough for one day.”

 

Alandra nodded.  She looked at Edina, then at Ivan.  Edina, Viktor noticed, casually crossed her arms once more but didn’t look especially worried.

 

Alandra nodded, almost deferentially, to Edina, then smiled at Ivan.  “I admire a man unafraid to submit to a dangerous woman.” She drew her wand and Disapparated.

 

Ivan turned to Edina.  “What did you do to her?”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Edina innocently.  “We just had a little…chat.”  She turned away toward the trees, a small smile on her lips.

 

Ivan stared at her, looking utterly impressed.  Viktor snorted.

 

“So, should we go find those brooms?” said Charlie.

 

This got Ivan’s attention.  “Yes!  We’re coming too.  That is,” he added hastily, looking at Edina, “if you want to.”

 

She grinned.  “That would be fine.”

 

“Let’s go then,” said Ivan.

 

Viktor nodded and led the way down toward the pitch.  Conrad, in his eternal paranoia about other teams spying, had insisted on putting anti-Apparition charms all around the pitch, so they would have to walk.  But it wouldn’t be so bad.

 

“And when we’re done,” said Charlie, patting at the pocket in which he had earlier stowed away his canisters, “we can celebrate properly.”

 

Viktor doubted that he was talking about the trailcakes. 

 

 

 

//
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