“What have I done?” Charlie agonized as he stared out into a vast, sparkling grey infinity that was the moonlit Atlantic Ocean. How lovely it would be to chuck all this dread weight into its depths and let the bottom feeders dispose of the mess. How had he let things get away from him so badly at the pub tonight?
“Nothing so catastrophic,” Sasha murmured, his voice concerned and comforting. He stood by Charlie’s shoulder with his hands clasped behind his back, looking out at the sea. He’d followed him when he stalked off toward the shore instead of returning to his tent like everyone else after they got back to the family’s traditional August Devonshire beachside campsite.
“You don’t think?” Charlie grumbled entirely sarcastically. His hands were stuffed inside his pockets, and his finger worried itself into a nascent hole in one of them, enlarging it. His toes burrowed into the still-warm sand, and he wondered if he could slowly dig himself into a grave that way.
He’d pulled some stupid stunts in his day—the incident with the Ashwinder nest that burned down the Burrow’s old wooden shed was a perfect example—but this one truly took the cake. He still wasn’t entirely sure how it happened. One minute, he was dancing with his brother’s pregnant wife in Muggle pub on the Devonshire coast—the next, a ridiculous confession had tumbled out of his mouth. At the moment on the dance floor, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. A harmless little confidence. Tempting, even, to lighten just a tiny bit of the secrecy load. Now, it felt like nothing less than Pandora’s box gaping open.
“If nothing else, you can rely on her to hold her tongue,” Sasha countered. “I think she’s proven she can keep a secret.”
Charlie snorted. As true as Sasha’s argument might be—the woman had certainly managed to keep an impressive collection of secrets in her time—it was a moot point. “She wants me to tell all of them. Starting with George tonight.”
Sasha sighed deeply, considering their predicament. They both knew Annie well enough to understand there was no threat behind the suggestion—blackmail wasn’t even on the radar. Nor was she the loose-lips sort—Annie wouldn’t accidentally spill the beans, either. No, the trouble would come in a far more insidious manner. If Charlie told his family the truth about him and Sasha, all hell might break loose. But if he didn’t, he got to face Annie’s disappointment, her knowledge he was a coward.
“You really think he doesn’t know already?” Sasha asked. “Discretion is one thing, but… he is her husband.”
Charlie raked his hand through his hair. “Probably,” he confessed, cracking open a whole different can of worms. He suspected that part of why it felt so easy to say the words out loud to Annie was that he knew, on some level, that she’d guessed the truth already. And if she had figured it out on her own, of course she’d have discussed the matter with her husband. Not that George was a blabbermouth, either, but if the two of them had sussed out the truth… what were the odds any of the rest of them hadn’t? Just how far had the knowledge spread? How many people were secretly disgusted by his hypocrisy? How long had they borne witness to his cowardice?
Charlie let his head fall back and gazed up at another twinkling infinity above him. “Run away with me? Let’s just forget about all this rubbish and go back home,” he begged half-heartedly, knowing it was safe to do so. Sasha would understand that, as tempting as the thought might be, Charlie was man enough to face what was coming to him.
His low, growly chuckle was as comforting as a warm fire in the midst of a blizzard. “Do you really think it will come as a shock to them?”
“Are you saying I’m such a great poncy pouf, then?” Charlie protested wryly.
The chuckle grew into a soft laugh. “I’m saying your family are clever people. And if they don’t have their suspicions already as to why their brother remains a bachelor…”
Charlie sighed. “Yeah, but it’s not the same as an actual confession, is it?”
“Perhaps not,” Sasha granted. The closest they’d come to a public announcement was a few slips of the tongue during two heated, stressful situations. Even among the other keepers, their relationship was only vaguely alluded to, if acknowledged at all. Everyone seemed to tacitly agree to ignore the issue, for the most part.
And even if all their coworkers knew, even if all his siblings knew, it wasn’t the same as his mother learning the truth. Charlie’s gut clenched at the prospect.
“You ever tell your mum?” he asked in a hushed voice without looking at his lover, sparing him the indignity of his morbid curiosity. Sasha hadn’t wanted to discuss much of anything that had happened when his mother died a few years ago, and Charlie hadn’t pressed for information.
“Not even on her deathbed,” Sasha sighed, his voice heavy with regret. After another moment’s consideration, he continued, “We were never that close, as you know. It’s not so much that I’m ashamed I didn’t tell her… More like I wish we’d had the kind of relationship where it would have mattered. We were little more than strangers by the end.”
So no help there, Charlie lamented selfishly, half-hoping Sasha would’ve shared some magical phrasing that helped him face this particular hurdle. Then another thought occurred to him. “Oh, but what about you, then? This affects you as well. If you’d rather I not—”
“Oh no,” Sasha laughed, interrupting his gutless rant. “You’ll not use me as an excuse.” After Charlie huffed his frustration, he added, “Anything that is important to you is equally so to me. Tell them if you want, or if you feel you must. I do not fear their reactions.”
“Because you’re so much braver than I am,” Charlie grumbled, hating how true it was. He kicked a clod of sand in his pique, feeling like the absolute lowest of flobberworms for dragging Sasha into this, for not proclaiming without hesitation how much he loved him, how proud he was Sasha had chosen him to love.
“No, not braver,” Sasha corrected him. “Only because I see how much they love you, Charlie. In the end, I truly believe this love will overcome any other objection they might have.”
“I really hope you’re right,” Charlie prayed aloud.
Sasha’s large, calloused hand curled around the back of Charlie’s neck, and a wave of calm coursed through him. Charlie closed his eyes to better focus on the soothing sensation. “You don’t have to face it alone,” Sasha offered.
For a moment, he pondered which would be worse: Sasha witnessing Charlie’s bumbling his way through coming out to his brother, or facing the firing squad without him at his side? It was impossible to decide, and Charlie once more wished he could be anywhere but here. A disgruntled herd of dragons suffering a bout of explosive diarrhea would be preferable to deal with.
“I’ll do it on my own,” Charlie sighed eventually. “You go get some rest.”
“The moroz and I will be waiting up for you,” Sasha promised, smiling and clapping him encouragingly on the shoulder. “We’ll get rat-arsed together either in celebration or commiseration, eh?”
Charlie nodded. Taking a deep, lung-filling, mind-clearing breath of sea air to steel him, he strode off through the sand toward George and Annie’s tent, trying to think of what to say when he got there. The words had practically blurted themselves out with Annie on the dance floor of the Muggle pub—would they do the same tonight in their tent? She’d urged him to tell George—promised to play along and pretend he hadn’t already come out to her—insisting his brother would be “easy” to tell this way.
Easy, hell. If this was fucking easy, he’d hate to see what she thought was difficult.
Annie wanted him to tell the rest of the family, too. The thought of which made him queasy. Charlie felt cornered now, a feeling he most assuredly did not relish. Began feeling resentful, even. Who the hell did she think she was, anyway?
Your very kind, very understanding, darling of a sister-in-law, he scolded himself. Absolutely your favorite, berk. All the women his brothers had married were, for the most part, good-hearted, loving wives and mothers. But compared to the often grating conceit of Fleur, the pervasive haughtiness of Audrey, and the occasional intellectual distance of Hermione, he’d found Annie’s down-to-earth, playful sarcasm to be the easiest company.
Reminding himself that Annie had been perfectly encouraging and accepting when he’d made his confession, he picked up his pace, wanting to get this thing over with as soon as possible. She hadn’t even batted an eye at the word, for Merlin’s sake! But it wasn’t Annie he was marching to face—it was George. His flesh and blood. Would he take the news as calmly?
Oi, George, I’m a pouf. How d’you like them apples?
He thought about telling the others. How would Bill react? Or Percy? What about Ron?
Ginny? Oh, God, he could never face Ginny. Never discuss anything remotely connected to his sex life with her. Never ever ever. Didn’t matter she was twenty-three years old, married to Harry and expecting her first child. She would forever be his little baby sister, eternally pure and innocent.
He stood at the tent flap for a full minute, frozen by a last-second attack of nerves. But he reminded himself that he owed Annie this. He forced himself to recall how just a few nights ago, standing right in this very spot, he’d overheard her defending his life choices to his mother when she’d been bitching yet again about his lack of matrimonial prospects. Then he remembered Annie’s heartfelt words to him on the dance floor just an hour ago.
“Charlie, George and I spent a long time hiding a relationship from the rest of the world. I know how miserable it feels not to be able to share the one you love the most with the ones who love you. Can you honestly say you want to do that forever?”
She had him there, didn’t she? Damn.
“Charlie!” she cheered in a hushed voice when he finally pushed through the tent flap. “Come in. We were just having a spot of tea.”
Annie put the finishing touches on a pot, and George reclined in his seat at the head of the table. The rest of the tent’s occupants—consisting of their four children and their good friends, the Jordans—had all gone to bed. Annie busied herself arranging the tea things and pouring a cuppa for each of them.
Charlie nervously downed his first cup in three gulps. Annie poured another. Charlie downed it, wishing something a bit more fortifying had been added to it, then cleared his throat. And said exactly nothing.
In an effort to fill the awkward silence, George quipped, “If you’ve come for a chat, I should tell you I’m forbidden from discussing Quidditch for the rest of the holiday by this one,” nodding his head toward Annie. In an instinctive move, she lightly boxed his remaining ear for his trouble while he ducked and grinned.
“That’s probably for the best,” Charlie countered. George had been yammering on about the topic all night at the pub, which had led Charlie to ask a bored-out-of-her-gourd Annie to dance, which had led to… “You seldom have an opinion on the subject worth expressing.”
“I’ve been telling him that for years,” Annie said with a roll of her eyes.
The tense mood was gentled by their soft, easy repartee and laughter, and Charlie was reminded why he’d been motivated to end his self-inflicted banishment from Devon. Spending time at Mole Hill with the warming banter of George and Annie and their noisy little family had made him feel welcome again.
“I’m here to tell you something—” But his tongue froze to the roof of his mouth like he was about to blab a Kept Secret. Then Annie gave him an earnest look accompanied by the slightest nod of her head. Go on, Charlie! You can do it! “—But I don’t know how.”
George’s eyes gleamed keenly, and he rubbed his palms together with anticipation. “Ooh, am I finally gonna hear the story about how you lost your little finger?”
Charlie’s expression darkened, displeased to be reminded of that horrible day not quite two years ago. “No.”
During the long pause that followed, George’s theatrical disappointment morphed into reserved concern. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, bro.”
“You don’t know that,” Charlie warned him.
George heaved a tired sigh. After rubbing his face, he said, “Usually people this hesitant to approach me want money for something. Are you bankrupt? Considering whoring yourself unless you get a loan from me?”
“NO!” Charlie retorted in a strangled voice, trying like hell not to shout at the idiot out of consideration for sleeping children. What the bloody hell was he thinking? Just what had Annie told him to expect tonight?
George grinned triumphantly. “That’s a load off. With that ugly mug, you’d be starving by Thursday.”
“Fuck off,” Charlie grumbled with an irritated smirk, realizing he’d been taken for a fool by the legendary prankster once again.
“You do look awfully serious, though,” George chuckled. “Is it criminal charges? Are you on the lam? Looking to hide out in my cellar until the coast is clear?”
Charlie responded with a deadpan, “No.” Annie shot him a look of amused empathy, giggling under her breath. “And you watch too much damned Muggle telly,” he grumbled at his infamous brother. “And did I mention fuck off?”
George shrugged, taking a drink of tea.
“Can we be remotely serious about this for a moment?” Charlie said, hating himself for sounding so much like their mother.
George wasn’t about to let it ride, either. “Oh dear. This sounds dire, indeed,” he needled him. “If you’ve lost your sense of humor, the only explanation possible is that you must be terminally ill. Have you got some nasty dragon virus and come here to say your final goodbye to us?”
But by the end of his little sarcastic speech, his tone had suddenly sobered.
“No,” Charlie answered, his voice equally soft. I’m not ruined, not ill, not dead—is that what he’s trying to get me to realize? He glanced at Annie, her violet eyes softly glittering in the low light, her smile supportive.
“Oh, I get it now,” George said, a wry smile on his never-serious face. “It’s the worst of all possible scenarios, isn’t it? You’re ecstatically happy and in love. Please, tell me it’s anything but that!” he bemoaned facetiously. Casting his voice heavenward, he cried, “I prayed this day would never come to pass!”
Charlie rewarded him with an unimpressed snort. “You really are intent on being an arse about this, aren’t you?”
“Just spit it out already, why don’t you,” George grumbled impatiently.
“It’s not that easy!” Charlie snapped.
“Says you,” George snapped right back, looking somewhat pissed off at this point. When Charlie didn’t respond immediately, he groused, “Well, I’ve certainly labored under a very false impression about your profession. Funny how people say dragon keepers are the bravest men alive.”
“George…” Annie scowled warningly.
But George ignored her. “And I know you can yammer on like a bloody Fwooper, swearing like a mad Jarvey the entire time. I’ve been in a Quidditch locker room with you, remember? Never heard a pep talk drawn out so long. Christ, you’d just go on and on, in love with your own voice, nobody able to get a word in edgewise—”
“Will you shut it already?” Charlie growled through clenched teeth.
“Just say the bloody words, then,” George growled back.
“I’m gay, you fucking git,” Charlie snarled.
Annie stared at them both, her mouth slightly agape and her eyes as wide as the saucers on the table. George, with his lips lightly pursed, gave a single nod of acknowledgement. Only a second later did Charlie realize what had just happened. That underhanded, manipulative little shite! I would have said it on my own, dammit! Still, there was no doubt in his mind George had known exactly what Charlie was trying to confess and had tried to ease the passage in his own twisted, diabolical way.
He chewed on his tongue for another moment before grumbling, “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
George smirked. “Jolly good for you?” he sneered.
“Oh, fuck off. Really,” Charlie muttered as George and Annie began to chuckle.
“What d’you want, a medal?” George countered, ducking as Charlie cuffed him.
“I’d like to see what that one looks like,” Annie giggled. “Something sparkly and colorful, I hope.”
Charlie groaned, laying his head down on the table to hide his smile. This really was too silly for belief.
“I reckon it’s just par for the course, innit?”
“I’m not sure I want to hear this,” Charlie said warily, peeking over his arms at his brother.
“Look, the way I see it, we’ve all taken what the rest of the world views as a misguided turn down the promenade of love,” George explained, resuming a semi-serious expression. “Bill married someone who is, in very technical terms, not fully human. Gin married nothing less than the savior of British wizardry; Ron wed the very embodiment of a political gadfly; I snagged a Muggle; and Perce committed the worst sin of all for a Weasley: he married rich and titled. Explain to me how you think your situation is so very special compared to such infamous company, eh?”
Charlie responded with an eloquent snort. George did have a point, oddly enough. Perhaps his love for Sasha wasn’t all that out of the ordinary, in comparison.
“Thing is, we all married for love, didn’t we?” he continued. “Not pedigree or power or prestige. And I reckon that puts us head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the pack, no matter how mad the pairings look on paper.”
“Oh, well said, love,” Annie cooed, planting a gentle peck on George’s cheek. “And cheers for categorizing we freakish Muggles on par with non-humans. Your candor’s always appreciated.”
“I barely even scratched the surface of your freakdom, love,” he countered with a leering grin and a wink, his arm sliding around his wife’s waist. “I can keep a secret, too.”
Annie kicked her husband under the table as Charlie cleared his throat. Such blatant displays of affection in public always made him uncomfortable and a tiny bit jealous. “I’ll never marry though, will I?” he said, steering the conversation back to the crisis at hand. Such was the lynchpin of his mother’s perpetual distress, after all.
But George only shrugged. “What does a stupid ceremony and piece of parchment prove that your words and actions don’t?” he pressed, giving Charlie an intent stare. “A promise is a promise, a bond is a bond, no matter how you look at it. And unless I’m much mistaken, your commitment runs deep. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”
Charlie merely scratched at the stubble on his cheek, saying nothing. There was something very disconcerting about how accurately George, of all people, saw the state of things between him and Sasha, how perfectly he’d just summed up the situation. Charlie chalked his disorientation up to the fact that George never seemed like himself if he wasn’t wreaking mayhem or taking the piss out of someone.
“Thought so,” George grunted. After a pause, during which his expression morphed from Wizengamot-serious back to a far more familiar smirking smart-arse, he grinned tiredly. “That it?” he yawned.
Charlie checked his watch, noting it was after midnight already. “I suppose.”
“Brilliant!” he said, slapping his thighs. “I’m knackered, and the kids’ll be up at the bloody arse-crack of dawn, so that’s me off to bed. Check you tomorrow, then?”
“Right.” Dismissed, Charlie rose from the table and made for the door.
Annie darted over to meet him, and he heard George clearing up the tea things behind them as she hugged him, eyes glittering proudly. “You did brilliantly, Charlie!” she whispered in his ear before he left. “Well done!”
As Charlie made his way back to his own tent, looking forward to the prospect of a bottle of soothing moroz and a quiet conversation awaiting him there, he began to think that maybe this wasn’t the end of the world after all…