The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.
THE GIFT OF THE MAGES
by Mary Ellis-with apologies to J.K.Rowling and American writer O. Henry whose short story Gift of the Magi inspired this piece.
I want to thank my beta, Betty Boop, for Brit-picking and other corrections and her kind encouragement. And a very quick turnaround--nine chapters in two days! You rock, lady!
This is a Christmas story, to be read if possible by a toasty fire with a tin of cookies and a mug of chocolate close to hand. Or with your toasty laptop warming your knees in an underheated dorm. Happy holidays, y'all!
CHAPTER ONE: LOVE AND SACRIFICE--AND JUICY GOSSIP
His pocket watch chimed a quarter to five as the lanky young man broke the seal on the last remaining scroll in the in-tray. It was in his nature to save the least-worst for last, and he already had the bills opened, flattened and sorted in neat little piles the way his wife had shown him.
"Remember, Ron, we only need to pay the ones marked FINAL NOTICE, because if we don't they'll send Howlers. The others will wait until work picks up again." Then she'd gathered her own paperwork, stuffed it into her backpack, grabbed a cracker from the breadbox, and trotted breezily out the door as if nothing could be surer than work picking up.
He wished he shared Hermione's belief. But as the next-to-youngest child in a family full of Pollyannas he felt the Potion of Hopefulness had run dry long before it reached him--his father and twin brothers Fred and George having downed double doses before passing it on. What native optimism he did have was not stirred by the letterhead on the scroll in his hand:
Kickham, Waltherdown, and deWitt-Neatley, Solicitors
Poultice and Sowerby Streets
Lawyers. Well, that could be good news or bad. Maybe this was the final payment for his enquiry into the Hopkirk matter. A small fee but welcome, though the case had cost him dearly in other ways. He ripped it open, and scanned the first lines.
Dear Master Weasley:
In re your letter the 5th of October 2000, concerning compensatory recognition from our client, Robert Raglan,...
He clasped the parchment to his chest. Merlin's Monkey! The Robert Raglan was finally writing back to him--well, sort of. His eyes misted with happiness.
As a kid, he'd bought, borrowed, or traded for every issue of Raglan's Mad Muggle comic books and still had most of them committed to memory. He had so wanted to be like Raglan back then--writer, artist, humorist or--why not--all three. But Fred and George had already cornered the market on funny, and Ron's drawing skills had never progressed much beyond the Stick-Figure School. So, by default, he wrote. But first he read and re-read the comics, scribbling editorial comments and new plot threads in the margins.
From there it was a short leap to actual composition. He made up all kinds of stories, with Martin Miggs as the bumbling Muggle hero, accidentally running up against the magical world everywhere he went. Ron's first efforts came out of personal experiences with spiders (The Acromantula Invasion), hang-gliders (The Mysterious Collision over Surrey), gardening (The Gnomes of Otterbottom Hill), and the twins (The Two Wicked Step-Brothers) . Other ideas he got listening to his father's experiences working in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office: The Enchanted Tea Set, The Car-Shaped UFO, and The Wacky Toilets of Bethnal Green, to name a few. Most recently, he'd started writing stories tied to his years at Hogwarts. It wasn't easy contriving ways to get a Muggle onto the school grounds, but he'd managed it three times in The Floo Powder Accident, The Reluctant Prefect, and Caught in the Quidditch Crossfire with, he thought, rather hilarious results.
Thinking back, he was amazed at how many he had written, but no more amazed than his teachers would have been to learn of his prodigious output, as they had long since despaired of ever getting him to do his homework essays completely and on time. They'd have been even more amazed--nay, flabbergasted--to hear that self-deprecating Ronald Weasley had mustered the courage to send some of his better efforts to a published writer. But in all those years, although Raglan sent him signed glossies and the obligatory monthly fanletter (and Ron thought he saw glimpses of his plotlines in the series), the famous cartoonist never flagrantly exploited his material--until this year.
And Ron might never have discovered this sorry fact. After he took on the responsibilities of husband and breadwinner, he had gradually let go of his childhood, even going so far as to put his beloved comics collection in Fred's hands to sell at the shop, although he continued to write for a while. But then Fred and George gave him and Hermione a set of self-sharpening knives for their first aniversary--and a copy of Robert Raglan's first novel: Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle and the Quidditch-Playing Prefect of Pigpimple Academy. To his surprise, the book featured no less than three of his plot-arcs, in fact, the last three he had written. And, he thought, a good bit of the dialog looked familiar too.
This was both the best and the worst present the twins had ever given him. Granted, it was the only one ever that hadn't also inflicted physical pain and/or humiliation. And he was proud to know his stories were good enough to print. But it showed Raglan up as a thief, a plagiarist, a scoundrel. Ron couldn't believe that of his hero. There was probably some mistake, some reason why no one had asked his permission. His address had been mislaid, or the owl that delivered the stories had collapsed and died immediately after, so there was no way to get back to him. Or some evil wizard had taken over Raglan's mind and was forcing him to steal other people's ideas. The Imperius curse had explained far worse crimes than this.
So, wanting to believe only the best, he wrote Raglan a request for recognition and waited patiently and naively for a check, however small, which would acknowledge his part in what had turned into a best-seller. And finally, here in his hand was a reply. He took a breath and read further:
...we hereby inform you that Mr. Raglan has no recollection of any contribution you may have made to his novel. And unless you have some witnessed or dated evidence to the contrary, we advise you not to speak of this matter to anyone else as it would constitute slander and be, thereby, actionable.
It was not signed by Raglan of course but by one of the deWitt-Neatleys, Junior. Ron was chastened and impressed by the lawyerly language--for about two seconds. Then he began taking the apartment apart looking for any scrap of proof that he had written those stories. He thought he'd made a fair copy of at least one of them before sending in the original--Hermione was always after him to do things like that-- but if he had, he could find it precisely nowhere.
Now he slumped over the paper-laden desk and pushed at his unruly mop of red hair. Hermione'll be home soon, he thought. Best have tea ready. Also, best get away from that depressing pile of bills--and his forever-lost opportunity. Oh well, at least they'd got the last of the wedding debts settled.
Now here it was, two weeks before Christmas, and not a knut in the till for gifts. Ron sighed, remembering Christmases past--especially at Hogwarts. What a little prat he'd been in those days. There was his sweetie, carefully choosing--and wrapping!--gifts for him and Harry every year, and neither of them with so much as a chocolate frog for her. It had taken him years to learn to reciprocate--he just hadn't liked her that much back then. No that wasn't the whole reason. A gift from a boy to a girl meant something quite different than the reverse. Girls could give guys all the presents they wanted and it could be explained away as part of their motherly instinct. But if a boy gave a girl a gift, it meant he was serious about her, and that always started the old school gossip mills turning, and with brothers like Fred and George leading the taunts, life would have become unbearable.
But all that didn't matter now. Hermione was his--all his--and he didn't care who knew it. He felt a sudden ache in his chest, which rose slowly in the direction of his Adam's-apple. He always got this way when he thought of his responsibilities as a husband. Here they were, a year married and poor as Muggle church-mice in their tiny bed-sit flat. True, his private agency, Aurors 'R' Us, had worked out well for a while. With his friend Harry as partner, newly triumphant from his defeat of a certain major evildoer, they were able to entice lots of business to their little office in the East End. But then Harry took a sabbatical to pursue his lifelong dream of playing in the pro Quidditch league. A series of game-related injuries and requests to appear at amateur sports banquets had prevented him from working with Ron for most of the past year.
It was probably because of Harry's absence that Ron had made a botch of his most recent case. Tailing the philandering husband of Ministry official Mafalda Hopkirk late one night, he was able to take an incriminating picture of Magus Hopkirk at a wild party, while balancing on his broomstick outside a third-storey window. He presented it triumphantly to Mafalda, and she, equally triumphantly--and boasting of a very lucrative divorce settlement--showed it to her friends while they were all having their nails done. As the lurid magical photo made the rounds in the beauty shop, several people in it, including her husband, moved aside to reveal former Minister of Magic (and current Head of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures) Cornelius Fudge, whooping it up in the background with a witch who was emphatically not Madam Fudge. If Harry had been involved, the picture would surely have revealed all its contents to him immediately, not taken its good old time--Harry was clever, or lucky, that way. Needless to say, Madam Fudge heard about it, her husband took up residence in the family doghouse, and Ron stopped getting work from Ministry personnel, who made up the bulk of his clientele.
Just about that same time, Hermione's private agency, dedicated to negotiating jobs and basic rights for disenfranchised beasts and beings, lost its government funding. A spokeswitch from DRACOMC insisted that cutbacks were being made all over. Still, thought Ron, it was a bit of a coincidence that the department's economies started right after he'd made an enemy of its Director.
Ron sighed. Hermione had to put up with a lot in this marriage. He wondered at times like these what she saw in him. She was smart, witty, compassionate--and, yes, bossy--but so beautiful. He remembered just when it was that the beauty had overcome the bossiness in his mind. It was at that Yule Ball in fourth year when she went as the date of Quidditch-star Viktor Krum. (He still felt a secret savage glee whenever Krum's team, the Vratsa Vultures, lost a game.) Ron hadn't even recognized her at first, her white neck rising like a Sugar Quill, delicately curving, out of the collar of that filmy blue robe, the smooth mass of her dark toffee-colored hair piled up on her head and held in place as if charmed.
This gravity-defying effect he found out later, had come courtesy of Professor McGonagall and fellow Gryffindor, Angelina Johnson, but was in fact only partly due to sorcery. The hair itself, normally frizzy and a bit unkempt, had been straightened and styled by Angelina, aided by slathers of an expensive magical pomade. Ornate Spanish combs, a McGonagall family heirloom, from the adventurous--some said piratical--branch of the family tree, were stuck strategically in Hermione's hair, sculpting it into glistening waves and tendrils. They sparkled as she moved about, dancing with Krum, sipping pumpkin punch with Krum, walking with Krum, holding hands with--but he wouldn't think about that.
But that wasn't when he had fallen for his sweetie. It was later that night in the Gryffindor common room. He'd made a tactless comment about her hair coming down in the back, and made a motion to show her where. She had whirled around to face him, and his hand got tangled in the unruly strand and pulled it out completely. Just for an instant he felt the hair run, satiny smooth, through his fingers, and he felt sudden the urge to pull it all down, until it covered her shoulders like a great shiny cascade of caramel and milk chocolate.
As it was, he never got within ten feet of her after that. She had pulled roughly away from him and started one of her endless tirades, attacking his appearance, his intelligence, his social skills, his magical skills, his motor skills, and by association, his budding manhood. This of course triggered all his defensive mechanisms, and they were going at it hammer and wands when their friend Harry walked in and broke it up.
He never thought of her after that without being intensely conscious of her hair. He dreamed of it, slithering under his chin, tangling around his ears, tickling his nose. Now he had a sudden powerful urge to revive that perfect beauty which she hid from the world, hunched over over massive legal tomes, squinting at tiny print in her efforts to better the lives of ungrateful house elves and leprechauns. And he knew how to do it--how to reveal her beauty, affirm his love, and arouse her bit of feminine vanity all at the same time.
In a little shop in the Muggle village of Ottery St. Catchpole, he'd seen them: a set of hair combs, even prettier than McGonagall's--filagreed silver inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Ron wasn't much on style, but he knew instinctively, just looking at them, that they would look wonderful, nestled in her rich dark hair--especially if he could afford some of that pomade too. But the price--he'd gotten his father to help him work out the exchange rate--was insurmountable. And it was quite out-of-the-question to ask his parents for a loan.
The watch chimed again. Five o'clock. He took it out of his vest pocket. It was a wedding gift from his father, platinum, an early twentieth century Muggle gadget that Mr. Weasley had tricked out with all kinds of awesome spells. It could not only tell the time, the day of the week and date, and the phase of the moon, but also the next-nearest holiday and how many days until it came round. It could locate your nearest and dearest for you, just like the big grandfather clock in his parents' house, and--this was the biggie--it made a little tinkling sound whenever it passed a sweet shop. It was his father's pride and joy and undoubtedly valuable. He'd presented it to Ron with swimming eyes just before the ceremony. The bezel was engraved:
To Ron, on the happiest day of your life, from the second-happiest man in the world. Love, Dad."
Ron glanced at the watch. That knot started forming in his chest again. The locator showed Hermione "at home". He walked to the kitchen alcove to brew the tea. He'd failed her in so many ways. He'd lost all chance of getting some money out of Robert Raglan, screwed up his job, almost certainly lost her hers. He heard her step, her hand on the latch, saw that face with its adorable moue of concentration framed in the doorway. Yes, he'd get the money--in the only way left to him.
The next morning, Angelina Johnson-Weasley opened her shop with a wave of her wand. The lock, developed by her clever husband, answered only to her voice speaking her own personal cant, "Angelohomora!" She stepped inside, reveling in the familiar odors: the waving and straightening, shortening and lengthening, tinting and bleaching, shrinking and enlarging potions for which she was becoming justly famous. She managed to be an hour early, even with that late-running game last night. One of her best customers had an early appointment, and Angelina would greet her personally, make some small-talk, turn her over to a more-than-capable assistant--then go home and crash.
As she was laying out the tools of her trade, she heard the door-bell tinkle.
"Hello, Angelina, nice game last night."
"Hermione, how you doing? How's Ron?"
"Fine. He's home again today, organizing things."
"It never was a strong point as I remember."
"He's getting better with practice. How're you and Fred?
Angelina returned to her sorting. "Mmm--never better. I tell you, that man--everything he touches turns to gold." There was silence. She turned around. Hermione's face had taken on an odd crumpled look.
"What is it, baby?" Angelina took her hand and led her into the back room. Her preparations could wait. Hermione never, ever cried, but she was on the verge of floods just now.
"Angelina, I have made the biggest mess of things, and Ron thinks it's all his fault. And now I have to sell my hair and--" The floods came and Angelina conjured up a quick cup of camomile tea, a tray of biscuits, and a fresh handkerchief. Hermione took a big swig of tea, refused the biscuits pleading a slight tummy-ache, and swiped her face with the hankie. These minor rites helped to calm her, and she was soon pouring out the story to her sister-in-law, laying out their economic difficulties, their problems with Ministry funding, and the letter from Raglan's solicitors.
"Ron didn't even want to tell me about it, but I saw the refusal on the desk, and--and--Angelina, it's all because of me, him not getting some compensation for that story. I lost him his proof!"
Angelina looked skeptical. Hermione never lost a thing in her life.
"Let me explain. I have to use invisible ink to write my clients' notes in. For confidentiality, you know. Well, I left one of the ink-bottles on our desk overnight and--I think--I'm sure Ron made his fair copy of one of his stories with it. The ink takes a couple of hours to fade, so he didn't notice, and next day I mistook it for blank scrap and cut it up and used it for shopping lists and such. See?" She took some pieces of parchment out of her bag. "I sprayed every piece of parchment in the place with the revealing agent, and that's how I found these--though I'm sure I've thrown most of them away."
Angelina looked closely at the pages. It reminded her a little of felted paper that had been used over and over again to blot wet ink. There were obviously several sets of writing criss-crossing the parchment, but except for a few words, there was no telling what they said.
Angelina looked at her for a minute. "Now you know, Hermione, if Ron had filed these away immediately, you never would have mistaken them for scrap." Hermione hiccuped and took a sip of tea. "Oh, baby, I'm not trying to blame Ron, but you know he is awfully Muggle-headed sometimes."
"Yes, it's one of the reasons I love him so. It keeps me from being homesick." She stifled a sob.
"Mind if I keep these? I'd like to show them to Fred. Maybe he can erase just your writing and leave us with Ron's."
Hermione gratefully handed her the lot.
"Now what's this about you having to sell your hair?"
"Oh that. That 's what I came to ask you about. I really want to get Ron a nice present for Christmas--a silver chain for his pocket watch. He's always leaving it around--you know--on the wash stand, the kitchen table, his desk at work--I'm so afraid he's going to lose it somewhere. And a chain would look soooo classy, hanging across the front of his vest--sort of Dickensian, I think. Anyway, when I went in to make the last payment on my wedding robes, I saw a nice chain in the window. Coincidentally, the proprietor asked me if I'd like to sell my hair to her wig department. It seems frizzy 'dos are coming back into style. She'll pay fifty galleons for the lot."
"And you'd like me to grow it back for you afterwards."
"Oh, Hair-Growing Charms and potions don't work on me. The new hair is all brittle. It just breaks off."
"Mmm--That's interesting. Some of my other Muggle-born clients have that problem as well."
"What do you recommend?"
"A wig. But seriously, I'd be happy to style it for you afterwards."
"Yes, I'd trust you to give me a hairdo that Ron could live with--so--so he doesn't want to hex me first."
"He does like your hair long, doesn't he."
"Yes. You know, it's funny. He's always playing with it--almost like a little child."
George Weasley strode into the Leaky Cauldron. "A pint of your best, Tom. And join me if you will." Tom smiled his toothless grin. That Master Weasley, so generous and fun-loving--and a great one with the stories. But Tom had a capper for him today.
"Say, Master George, how's business?" he asked innocently as he drew two foaming tankards of Fester-Addams Home-Brew. He knew it was George, and not Fred, because he wasn't wearing a wedding band.
"Right well, Tom, we're just tearing up the airways with our ads for the shop. Can't keep those new dung-bombs in stock. Got five flavors now." He ticked them off lovingly on his fingers. "There's Cow-Patties, they're actually rather mild, the kind you'd leave on the doorstep of the Warlocks' Home to liven up the old boys' mornings, Goat-Droppings, ever so skanky, Boar-Fewmets, the bane of hunting enthusiasts, Pixie Poop, great for aerial assaults, and my personal favorite--Dragon-Spoor--when you care enough to send the very worst."
Tom was not to be deterred from dropping his own little dung-bomb. "I only ask about business, Master George, because your brother was in here earlier asking how he could go about selling something on the Dark Market. Sounded like he was having money problems."
"Who? Fred?--no way."
"Not your twin--the tall, skinny one. He had on what he thought was a disguise, a great balaclava wrapped clean around his head, but I seen his hair sticking out. Weasley-red, thinks I. You can't fool old Tom."
"Hm--can't be Bill, he's in Egypt. Must be ickle Ron--. Did he say what he wanted to pawn, or why?"
"Nope--played his cards close to the vest--or robes--as you might say. But I got the feeling it was something very valuable."
George covered his amazement with a long pull at his drink. What did Ron own that was valuable? Nothing he could think of--except maybe Hermione. "He didn't give you any clue as to what--or why?"
"Well, he might have said more, but just then, Mundungus Fletcher walked in. Methinks your brother don't trust old Dung much, although I suspicion Dung could give him better advice on the fencing of valuable commodities than I could."
That was certainly true, thought George, finishing his drink. Dung Fletcher knew all the shady dealers in Knockturn Alley. But it would have been more like him to pick Ron's pocket of the item, and try to sell it back to him later for twice its worth. Ron, as well as the twins, knew this from hearing Dung brag about his nefarious exploits when they were holed up together at Order of the Phoenix headquarters during the second edition of the Dark Times.
George thanked Tom for the tip and headed for the back door, the shortest way to his shop, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Then he got a whiff of a familiar odor--a unique mix of pipe grunge, stale whiskey, and cabbage gas. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Dung Fletcher keeping an even lower-than-usual profile in a corner booth. He'd best pay his respects. To know Dung was to know you had to keep an eye on him.
"Mundungus, my man, how's tricks?" George meant this literally.
The mass of rags stirred in the gloom. Eyes red and bright with rheum signaled that Mundungus Fletcher was awake and aware, for the time being at least. "That you, Fred, or is it George? It's a mort dark in 'ere. Can't see yer 'and in front of yer face, yer can't."
"It's George. Say Dung, you seen my brother Ron around lately? You know: tall--spotty--vacant expression?"
"I mighta, George, I just mighta. What's it worth to yeh?"
"Oh c'mon, Dung, what's a little gossip between friends?"
"Can't say, I'm sure, but times is hard, young fella, 'specially since You-Know-Who went you-know-where."
"Why's that? Business has never been better for Fred and myself."
"Well, you know, as long as they was hunting Death-Eaters, the Ministry didn't pay no attention to the likes of yours-truly. We're just small-potatoes out there on the East End. Hardly worth bothering with. But now that Voldie's gone for good, those Aurors got nothing better to do than harass us little fellows, the Nation of Shoplifters, the foundation of sash-eye-et-tee--"
"Get off it, Dung. The soap-box, I mean. And it's 'Shopkeepers' not 'Shoplifters.' I just want to know if Ron approached you with any--ah-- business transactions is all."
"Naw, I ain't seen 'im since our days with the Order. You remember. Fighting side-by-side with Albus Dumbledore--great man, Dumbledore--out to rid the world of evil--"
More like us fighting and you skulking in the shadows, you great coward, thought George.
"Say that reminds me," said Dung. " Spot us a drink, Georgie, and I'll tell you a great shtory."
George started to say he was sorry but--
"It involves our old friend Cornelius Fudge." He laid a finger to the side of his nose and winked in the time-honored tradition of thieves and scoundrels.
George grinned. "Long's it's quick. I gotta get back to work."
He settled in opposite the old shambler, and called for a pint of small ale--just the one. Dung took a long pull, cleared his throat and started in. "You 'member the fellow I was working found-goods with back in them days." "Found-goods" was Dung's expression for anything of value that fell off a wagon or broom-transport, especially if it was helped on its way earthward by a discreet nudge. Dung's favored partner in this enterprise was a chap named Rascal, who was a particularly adept "finder." Rascal Raglan had very long arms and could steer a broom without using his hands. As George remembered it, he'd once been a third-string Beater for the Chudley Cannons, but found petty larceny paid better.
"Well," Dung continued after another sip, "M'fren' Rascal, you know, he comes from a good family, educated at Hogwarts an' all. Most of the family made it big--one way er 'nother. Anyway his younger brother just had a really big score. So Rascal persuades him to celebrate in a big way, but not with the Missus--if you get what I mean. Calls up his friends, some business ass-o-shee-its, some Ministry brass--the family's got connections, right? And--get this--Rascal arranges for some luscious witches from my neck of the woods to attend. That's how I hear about it. And I asks m'friend if they can maybe use a mater-dee or a broom-val-ay or sumpin. He gets Little Bro' to hire me and I have m'self a great night--a little bartending, free booze, a bit of cadging on the side, nothing serious, you get me. But the real kicker is this. Some Auror--private agency, on an unrelated divorce case--gets pix of the party and Fudge is in one of the pix--frolicking about with a bunch of these gorgeous young witches. Mrs. F. finds out about it somehow--and last I hear he's sleeping out back o' the mansion with the Crups and the Kneazles."
George let out a roar. "Say, Dung, that's pretty good."
"It gets better. I got some pix of the party m'self. And I can let you have 'em for, oh say, a sickle apiece. Ain't no good to me now--'cept as soo-veneers--now the cat's outta the bag."
George was no blackmailer, but he loved the thought of having something to remind him that the former 'prime' Minister was nothing more than a ferrety cheating scoundrel. If they were good enough, he might even frame some and hang them in his flat. He took the lot and paid up.
"Now just for the record, Dung, you sure you haven't seen my brother Ron in here today?"
"Well, come to think of it I may have. I thought I saw a tallish feller talking to Tom this morning, as I come in, but when he saw me he lit out quick. Thought at first he mighta owed me sumpin, but--naw--ain't nobody owes old Dung nothin' these days."
"Did you see which way he was headed?"
"Went out back--the Alley."
"Here," said George. He tipped Dung a sickle and, now with two good reasons to do it, headed for the back door.