The next morning dawned pink, the seemingly everlasting cloud cover breaking up just enough to let the sun into Liz's tent at an ungodly hour. She groaned, passing a hand over her eyes, and rolled over, pulling her pillow over her head. It was a futile attempt to have a lie in because mere moments later she heard a shout from one of the boys, pulling her out of bed in a panic. It was a good thing, too, because it had been getting hard for her to breathe under the thick down.
She pulled her dressing gown and parka on, and headed outside to see what the commotion was. She squinted against the bright glare from the sun reflecting off the snow and attempted to make out shapes and images through the harsh whiteness. Gradually she focused on either Charlie or Nils, they were about the same height, and a smaller figure that could have been almost anything, even a mid sized predator. She blinked to clear the spots from her eyes. What if he was in trouble?
Rushing closer she gradually gained full vision again...and stopped, her hand on her heart. It was Nils, leaning over his pack, cursing as he tried to get it to close over too many things. Panting heavily, the adrenaline still running through her veins, she gasped out "Do you know how badly you scared me there? I thought you were being attacked or something!"
Nils looked up and grinned. "Concerned about me? I didn't know you cared."
She shot him a cold look. "Concerned? I thought you were Charlie."
He laughed heartily. "I like you, girl. You've got some spunk."
She rolled her eyes and turned around. "I'm going back to bed. You might want to keep it down out here. You might give poor old Wilhelm a heart attack." She proceeded into her tent.
And sat on her bed. She felt her heartbeat still trying to run a record mile. Then it struck her. Why should she be scared for him? Not only was Nils a grown man and able to take care of himself, but he was an absolute git to her earlier. What would make her heart race as if it were she being attacked?
Because you thought he was Charlie, suggested a most annoying portion of her brain. Because you're head over heels in love with our dear Mr. Weasley and you can't help but worry about him.
She dismissed this as being absolutely impossible. After all, why would she love him? He'd done nothing to prove to her that he was worthy of her attentions (his nobility and gorgeousness being conveniently forgotten at this point) and she still hated him from Hogwarts. That's all there was to it!
You're forgetting the day before we left school, dear. Just a little reminder. God, she didn't need a reminder of that particular incident. All it did was reinforce how kind and strong Charlie really was (and made her feel really stupid all over again). One idiotic jerk of a seventh year gets drunk and I live with the consequences all my life.
Okay, so she really didn't want to be hit on by a drunk eighteen year old, and she really (really, really) didn't want to do with him the things that he had been suggesting, but still... Charlie didn't have to make her feel guilty every time she looked at him. Every time she remember that he'd secured her escape, punching the kid in the face and ending up in the hospital wing battered up enough that Madame Pomfrey had asked what new creature Hagrid had him playing with.
Every time she looked at him, she saw the painful scratches, the broken hand bones, the cracked ribs, and the black eye that he'd sustained for her, the risk of expulsion the day before they left school, all for her...and then he'd gone back to ignoring her and she'd gone back to being just number two, just a little girl who couldn't do anything well enough.
Some things aren't worth remembering.
Charlie was mad. He wanted to rip Nils's head off, but decided that that would definitely not be an impartial action. He wanted to run over to Liz's tent and sweep her off her feet, but decided that that could pretty well be construed as playing favorites.
He was basically stuck.
What made it worse was that Liz had obviously decided that she liked Nils, like liked him (great adult vocabulary there, Charlie). He'd seen them this morning, flirting right outside, Nils laughing, Liz cooly telling him something or other. He'd considered telling them to get a room, but decided not to in case they chose to take his advice. THAT would not be a favorable conclusion to the morning. Liz had gone back to her tent after only a few moments, but he'd seen Nils laugh, and the look that the Minnesotan always got on his face when he was about to, er...go in for the kill.
He took the pillow he was trying to fit under the blanket as he made his bed, but somehow even the simplest actions were beyond him. In finality, he threw the pillow onto the the floor, followed by all of his blankets and sheets. If the others cared that he was being sloppy, well, too bad. He was the boss, after all, their fearless/fearsome leader. He would do as he damn well pleased. Taking his water bottle and some of their rations in to his pack, he started taking down the tent. Lights off, oven off, heat turned on so that they could use it as an emergency shelter if they needed to, all loose containers put away... he stepped out just in time to get the door flap flung in his face as Nils and Wilhelm started pulling the tent down around him. "Hey!"
"Oops, sorry boss." Nils didn't look very sorry as he came around the corner of the tent, folding a pole as he came, and sticking it into Charlie's pack. "Didn't see you there."
Charlie restrained himself from the urge to wrap his hands around the neck of the other man and just sort of grunted in response. He didn't trust that if he opened his mouth some sort of uncalled for (ha, right 'uncalled for', whatever you want to believe, Charlie) profanity would come out. He started on another pole and took out his frustrations by pulling it apart with fervor. Wilhelm looked at him strangely, but kept quiet.
It took them about fifteen minutes to break camp, and by the time they were ready to move out the sun had already climbed pretty high into the sky and was warming the ground, making the extra layers underneath their parkas uncomfortably hot. Nils was going about telling them to all leave their parkas unzipped, claiming that sweating would make it easier for them to get hypothermia later, but Charlie stubbornly left his closed, even though he thought there was probably at least a grain of truth in Nils's statement. He wasn't going to caught taking advice from the camp jerk.
They took up a marching order of he and Nils in front, and Wilhelm and Liz in back, probably because she doesn't want to be anywhere near me, Charlie reflected glumly. He didn't bother trying to fathom why Nils was walking up by him; he couldn't pretend to understand what was going on in that man's mind.
Until Nils started talking to him, that is. "Charlie, you're our boss, right?"
"Last time I checked, yeah." Charlie replied irritably. "What, you want the post for yourself?"
"No." This was unlike Nils. He was never serious, ever. "Um, I'm not sure how to put this..."
"Spit it out, Nils, I'm not in a good mood." At least he was able to be truthful with his crew members.
"Right, um...well, I suppose I should ask you if...if there's any sort of rule against, uh...inter-crew relationships..." he trailed off.
"What do you mean? Are you gonna ask Liz...er, out?" Once again with the wonderfully adult vocabulary. Cursing out the part of his brain that JUST WOULDN'T SHUT UP!!! (hint, hint) taking his frustration at the thought of Liz dating the Neanderthal next to him out on a twig he picked up from the ground stripping it down to long thin fibers and ripping them apart.
"Well, there's not exactly anywhere to take her to dinner or anything...but yeah, basically."
Charlie went silent on this, picking up another twig and completely destroying it before answering (in a completely calm and agreeable manner...or not) "There is no rule that says you can't." After all, a rule like that would mean he couldn't ever...well, and he didn't want to be a hypocrite, though there was nothing he wanted at that point more than to tell Nils that he couldn't ever have her (complete with evil laughter, of course).
"Great boss, thanks. You don't know how much this means to me!" He bounded off the back of the group where Liz was walking resignedly with Wilhelm, pretending to be interested as he told her about his latest great-grandchild ("number thirty two!").
Charlie looked ahead and concentrated on the trail, not hearing Wilhelm come up behind him. "Ah, Charles. How are you this fine morning?"
"I'm..." he was about to lie and say that he was doing just fine, thank you very much, but something in him just snapped, breaking out his grief through thick droplet of salty tears falling from his already swollen eyes, "...not doing well at all." He picked up another stick and started shredding.
"May I ask what's bothering you?" Wilhelm had to take two steps to cover each of Charlie's.
Charlie glanced behind himself at Liz and Nils taking up the back, talking quietly. He turned his gaze back to the ground in front of him. "I don't know...I..."
He never got to finish his thought. Liz screamed "Charlie!!!" and his attention came to a purplish gray, fourlegged, very LARGE creature in front of him.
"A Graphorn!" yelled Wilhelm, scrambling to the nearest tree to get a height advantage.
Bloody hell! The perfect ending to the perfect day (and the perfect life, added the nonstop annoying voice). The Graphorn charged at him, its horrifically long horns glinting in the light reflected off the snow. I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die!
The last thing he saw was Liz's face.
I can't believe it.
I can't bloody believe it.
This is why I hate Charlie Weasley (fooling yourself! called out the loud mouth in her mind).
He actually gave this sucker permission to ask me out?
"So, what do you say?" Nils was talking.
"What do I say?" she asked, in a dangerously quiet voice. "I'll tell you what I say..."
But she never got to finish her sentence. At that very moment a mass of gray-purple jumped out in front of them, glaring at Charlie and Wilhelm, it's meter long horns glinting dangerously.
"Charlie!" she screamed. The idiot was staring at the ground! How did he manage to get along in life without her? (Don't answer that!)
Charlie looked up sharply, and came to lock gazes with the Graphorn. They seemed to be having a stare down. Liz was holding her breath, waiting for something to happen. Charlie was frozen to the spot. He's not going to be able to fight that thing, especially not with that enormous pack on his shoulders. She dropped hers to the ground, in preparation.
The Graphorn snorted and started to charge, closing up the limited space between him and the man who had trespassed on his territory. The four thumbed feet left odd prints in the newly fallen snow, the powder making for a slippery run for the enormous beast. It would also cushion Charlie's fall, Liz realized, if he doesn't die from being gored or sat upon, he might have a chance.
Timing was everything. It hurt her like nothing ever had to wait while the huge creature rushed at the man she loved (enough with that already! I'm just looking out for the best interests of the group), even though the time was only two seconds, but she knew what she had to do. I didn't go to University just to sit on my arse all day. Just in time for the beast's reaction to kick in before he hit Charlie, she rushed out into the beast's vision. She had to be able to see its eyes for this one.
The beast saw her and changed his direction as Charlie fell. Liz would worry about him later. If she didn't deal with this beastie then they'd all be dead. It came toward her and the seconds slowed to what seemed like minutes, the beast's paws hitting the ground ever so slowly. It gave her time to think. This one's got small eyes; I'll have to aim well. Maybe I should go for the mouth...but that's too risky. It might bounce off that thick hide.
She cursed, her way of relieving the tension that had built up inside and would probably cause her to miss if she didn't lose some of it, then whipped her wand out of it's sleeve pocket. "Devaleo!" She exclaimed, aiming carefully at the beast's beady eyes. Hopefully that worked. Here goes! "Semoveo!"
The beast disappeared before her very eyes. She stood, breathing hard, the excitement of battle rushing out of her in just a few short moments.
She'd done it.
She'd bested Charlie Weasley.
He'd stood there, just staring at the thing when it came at him. He'd needed little Liz Abernathy, only second best, to save him from the big bad Graphorn. He'd collapsed when...
Oh my god! He collapsed!!
A/N: Whoops! I forgot thanks and everything on the last chapter. Many, many thanks to Yolanda for great beta reading, and to Incurable Romantic for great-friend-and-editor-and-idea-bouncer-and-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-being! (Whew!). Thanks to to Lourdes and to everyone who reviewed. Please, everyone review!!! I've become addicted to reviews, now. Kalarien the review hog, that's me!
For a disclaimer, see the prologue. I'm too lazy to keep writing them.