The Sugar Quill
Author: mary ellis (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Gift of the Mages  Chapter: 3. A Confession, a Conundrum, a Commission
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Here's the final chapter, all y'all. Now bring on the cookies and hot chocolate!

CHAPTER THREE: A CONFESSION, A CONUNDRUM, A COMMISSION

The next afternoon, Angelina was home, decorating for the holidays. Her impromptu anniversary celebration had knocked her off her schedule a bit, but if she could just get the soot marks off the ceiling and the splashes of jerk sauce out of the rug...

There was a knock at the door. It was George. Funny, thought Angelina, as she led him through the house, even their mother can't tell them apart, but I can. Fred's nose is just a little crooked, from that Bludger in second year, and George always smells of cheap aftershave.

They sat in the lounge. Angelina didn't want to take George into the kitchen, even though it was the coziest place in the house, where friends and family could sit and jive and nibble apple cobbler or fungi or whatever else the Johnson-Weasleys had left over from breakfast. To get there, they would have had to go through the dining room, and that would have reminded George painfully of the other night. He was still apologizing to Fred every five minutes. Oh they had to find him a good woman--maybe Alicia Spinnet, now that she was over Wood--

Angelina accio-ed a fresh pot of coffee and the morning's leavings: fried plaintains and mango-guava-kiwi salad to spoon over Fred's signature breadfruit pudding. She poured and passed, but George didn't touch a thing, just stared at his knees, his hands clasped around them. This was very unlike George.

"Whuzzup, old boy?" she asked lightly.

"Angelina, I've got to talk to somebody about this. But I can't bring myself to tell Fred. He told you about our visit to old Robber Raglan, didn't he?"

"Yes. As he put it, butter wouldn't melt in the gentleman's mouth, or any other orifice for that matter." He also said some other things that were even less appropriate for mixed company--except one's wife, of course.

"Well, he didn't tell you all of it--because he doesn't know all of it. Angie, I recognized Raglan--the git. He's in a picture I bought off Dung Fletcher. It shows him--ah--at a party--cuddling up to--someone other than his wife."

"And you want to use it to blackmail him."

"Right in one!" He seemed surprised that she could read his thoughts so easily. "And I almost did. As soon as I realized it there in his office, I started to make the pitch--I mean, it was right there on my lips..."

"So why didn't you follow through?" But she thought she knew the answer.

"He has a wife. I saw her picture on his desk. She looked so sweet, so innocent. I imagined what it would do to her--if she found out about--her rotter of a husband, and that I might have to be the one to tell her and--I just couldn't."

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

"What's that for?"

"Being a lovable old softie, just like your brother, that's what."

He sighed and took a spoonful of the pudding, then cleared his throat. "You don't think she'd--want to know."

"Who? The wife?"

"Yeah--don't you think she'd want someone to tell her what her husband's up to?"

"It wouldn't do any good, George."

"How's that?"

"There are really only two types of women: the type who already knows every move her husband makes and the type who doesn't want to know."

"Which type are you, Ange?"

"Can't you tell?"

George grinned, then sighed and finished his pudding--and started on the plantains. "So where do we go from here?"

"Can we prove the ideas were Ron's?"

"I haven't had much luck with separating out the different writings. Augurey feathers are supposed to help remove ink, but it takes a lot of them to do even one page. We're going to have a lot of bald birds on our hands before this project is over."

"What about the other spell--the Priori Incantato--forcing Ron's quill to give up its secrets."

"Oh, that was just something I made up on the fly. Sounds neat, but it's probably bogus, since eagle feathers aren't magical to begin with. Fred's going to look into it anyway. One thing I did do. Sent Dung around to all the pawnshops and fences in the city to let him know immediately if Ron should manage to sell the watch--so we can buy it back, of course. He's supposed to contact me if he hears anything."

"I'll bet that cost you."

George just shrugged and spooned fruit salad onto more of the bread pudding.

"He--Ron--would never accept the watch back."

"Yeah," said George between mouthfuls, "but at least it'd be out of the hands of potential blackmailers. And someday--maybe in a year or ten--who knows--we might find a way of giving it back to him..." He trailed off into bleak silence, punctuated by muted burps.

"Oh, well, at least I managed to get Hermione some money."

"How's that?"

"I spoke with Madame Fudge. I'm sure she's going to talk her husband into sending some of his department's contracts her way." Angelina stifled a sudden qualm. What if Madame Fudge didn't get around to it until after Christmas?. If Hermione didn't have a way to pay for Ron's present, she might...she just might...get desperate.

"Well, that's comforting. I still wish we could get 'Robber Raglan' to cough up. I can only imagine what it'll be like when Hermione hands Ron his Christmas present, and he has nothing in return."

"It'll be just like old times, actually. You know--when they were at school."

"Yeah, Ron always was a nose-wipe about that sort of thing. Um, Ange. Speaking of ickle Ron. There is one other thing."

"What?"

"I--um--saw him last night. Wanted to check and see that he still had the watch, you know? So I asked for the time..."

"And so? He does still have it, right?"

"Yeh, I saw it...but..."

"But what?!"

"I couldn't help it, Ange. I had to know."

Angelina sensed bad news of the foot-in-mouth variety coming. "Spit it out," she said.

"I asked him if...hewouldmindifHermionecutherhair."

Angie couldn't believe her ears. "And why, in the name of all that's magical, did you do that?"

"Well, we need to know, don't we? I mean, just how serious he is about it--the hair thing, I mean."

"And he said--"

"Um--he said--she wouldn't dare--"

"Oh, really. You're sure it wasn't more like 'SHE WOULDN'T DARE!!!!'"

"Well, yeah, I guess he did raise his voice a titch. Like he was maybe a little upset."

"George, I could have told you that."

"Well, I did know...that he kind of has this thing...for her hair...but...how can a guy, any guy, be so nutsy? I mean...does love really do that to a person?"

Angelina just looked at him for a moment. She had to hook him up with Alicia. She'd be perfect: warm, cuddly, sports-minded--with just enough sex-appeal to keep him interested and just enough smarts to keep him in his place. But back to damage control. "Maybe it's not so bad. You didn't tell him she was planning on selling her hair, did you?"

"No, no, Ange. I just said the styles seemed to be getting shorter and shorter and wondered if Hermione would be going with the trend."

Privately, Angelina thought that no one who knew George could fail to note how out-of-character it was for him to be discussing current women's hair styles with another guy. But she just nodded and smiled sweetly and poured them both some more coffee.

"Say, Ange, can I ask you a question?"

"Shoot."

"Are there any more like you at home?"

"In Barbados? Sure. My mom. But she's already taken." Oh, yes. He was ready for a relationship, and badly in need of one.

~*~

Ron entered the small dress shop. An elegantly coiffed woman strode to meet him with a may-I-help-you look on her face. She was dressed in the height of fashion and had beautiful eyes.

"Miss, I'm interested in that set of combs you have in your front window."

"Mmm, yes, the tortoiseshell. Very chic. A holiday gift for your girlfriend?"

"My wife. Um--but I have a slight problem. I don't have the money to pay for them right now, and I wonder if I could make a trade?"

She looked doubtful.

"I have this watch, see? It's solid platinum--and has all kinds of great spells on it--"

"You are a wizard?"

"Sure, Ron Weasley. I live--well lived--just over the hill--the Burrow, you know. Oh, I guess you're not from around here. Believe me, I was that surprised to find a branch of Gladrags here in a Muggle village."

"It's something we're trying, expansion into new areas. My husband's helping me finance it. We've had a sort of windfall you might say. But your name--Ron--Weasley--it sounds familiar somehow."

"I don't think we've met--"

A look came over her face as of a light dawning. Her great eyes glowed. "You write, don't you?"

"Not really--well, yes, a little, how did you know?"

"I'm not psychic if that's what you're thinking. Do you like comic books, Mr. Weasley?"

"Well, yes, I'm kind of partial to the Mad Muggle series."

"And all these years you've been writing to my husband."

"Your husband?"

"My name is Gladys Raglan. I own Gladrags."

"And you're husband is..."

"Robert Raglan. You're a real fan, aren't you?"

"Uh, yes, ma'am." He watched Madam Raglan's eyes soften. Perhaps she would take the watch in trade for a 'real fan' of her husband's work. Ron had a dim sense of an irony in this, but he had no time to work it out, as the shop bell tinkled behind him.

"Oh, Miss Granger, very good." called Gladys Raglan past him. "The delivery broom was here just a few minutes ago. I have your package ready..."

Ron turned and gulped. "Hermione, what are you doing here?" She looked different today. She was wearing a bulky old mac she'd picked up at a rummage sale. There were dark smudges under her eyes, and she had her hair tucked away under a black woolen cap. Her forehead shone whitely in the glare of the shop lights.

"You two know each other?" asked Madam Raglan.

"We're married," put in Hermione. But she did not answer Ron's question. He thought she looked worried or embarrassed about something.

Madame Raglan took a small box wrapped in butcher paper from under the counter. "You've already paid for it, of course, but I don't think we have your address for our Owling List." She brandished a quill and parchment. Hermione scribbled the requested information. Ron strained to catch a glimpse of stray hair curling out from under her cap. He could see none. What was it George had said last night about new hairstyles? She wouldn't...She couldn't...

"What's in the box, Hon?"

"Oh, just a last-minute gift. You know how these things are."

But they couldn't afford gifts, especially not careless ones of the 'last-minute' variety. Ron's ears went red. Why she was being so secretive? But Hermione cut off his questions with a tremulous "See you at the Burrow," and was gone before he could get another word out.

"Now, Master Weasley, we have to talk," said Madame Raglan.

"I'm sorry, Ma'am, I've got to go." And he was out the door into the snow, chasing after his wife, who seemed to be crying.

~*~

On Christmas Eve, Fred, Angelina, and George shuffled through the soft snow of Ottery St. Catchpole, on their way to the Weasley enclave. They'd Apparated on the farther side of the village, just for the pleasure of observing the quaint Muggle holiday traditions. They heard caroling groups and shrieking children sledding on Stoatshead Hill, peered into houses at train gardens and fir trees decorated with 'eckeltrik' lights, smelled cookies baking, beef roasting, admired fancy displays in shop windows.

Each carried a package and dressed in traditional wizarding robes. They knew from experience that Muggles would explain away their eccentric finery as just one more expression of the season's happy madness. George wore a great pancake of a hat made of violet satin, with lime Fwooper plumes trailing down the back and violet robes with gold trim. He carried a gilt box of chocolate galleons wrapped in gold foil for his sister Ginny. Angelina, in a stylish white turban with a faux-sapphire like a third eye, and silver-and-white robes, which set off her dark beauty, brought a delicate cut-glass bottle of Algerian perfume for Mrs. Weasley. Fred carried a polished sandalwood box he'd made himself with numerous small drawers full of Muggle hardware, like pan-head screws, hooks-and-eyes, and triple-A batteries for his father. He'd sent away specially for his outfit and was dressed to the nines in the Oriental tradition in crimson robes and a jewelled skullcap. On his feet were green slippers embroidered with gold thread that sported pointed toes curled up at the ends.

"Look," said George, and he pulled them all over to a shop window, " That looks a little like us." All three gazed at the painted-plaster miniatures in a scene so cherished by Muggles of a certain religious tradition.

"Christmas is really a Muggle holiday, isn't it? asked George.

"Yes," said Angelina, "The ancient witching traditions called it Yule. They celebrate different stories, but their themes--peace, joy, and hopefulness--are essentially the same. "

George pointed to three richly dressed figures in Eastern garb, bearing lavish gifts, bent over a small child asleep in what looked like the feeding trough of a cattle byre.

"What's all that about?"

"He was a very special baby," answered Angelina softly, "a savior promised to their race, the very essence of love. The Magi traveled a long way following a prophetic conjunction of Jupiter and Mars just to find him."

"Magi?" said Fred. "Wizards--like us?"

Angelina turned to answer, and saw beyond Fred a man--Muggle--staring at them. He had apparently broken off from a small group of pub-crawlers who were standing across the street, trying to decide which pub to crawl to next.

"Evening, folks, where's the pageant?"

"Pageant?"

"It's a kind of Christmas play, Fred," said Angelina, catching his arm. "Just come from there, sir. Next village over--Saint Lapidary-and-All-Angels. A fine time that, but they've broken up for the night."

"Pity. Must have been a good show. Costumes look marvelous. Merry Christmas to you."

"Merry Christmas," they all waved after him.

"How do you know about all this stuff, Angelina?" asked George, as they continued along towards the Burrow. Fred was slowing them down a bit, trying to remember a foot-warming charm Hermione had once shown him. Despite his pride in his appearance, he was starting to realize that the slippers were a tad impractical for walking in the snow.

"Mum has a lot of Muggle relatives, and she's a great one for inclusion, so we exchange visits a lot. That's why I did so well in Muggle Studies."

They were nearing the edge of the village. At the last shop, they saw a tall figure in the light of the show window. It was Ron.

"Hey, Bro," shouted George, "Whuzzup?"

"Oh...hi, George, Angelina. That you Fred? Look here. Aren't they beautiful?" He opened a longish box. Nestled in cotton wool were four delicate silver combs, with mother-of-pearl butterflies chasing over them.

Fred caught up to them and stared into the box, his mouth agape. He'd accidentally given himself a hot-foot trying to get that charm right. But suddenly all thoughts of frostbite and second degree burns were driven out of his brain. "F-for Herm-m-ione?" he stammered, not entirely due to the cold.

George turned to his twin and muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "I'll kill Dung Fletcher..."

Angelina alone remained calm. "They're fabulous, Ron."

"And expensive-looking," Fred started to say, but his wife backed into his already throbbing toes.

"She'll be thrilled to death, I'm sure," Angelina continued loudly to cover her husband's groan of pain.

Ron pocketed the box, a dreamy look on his face. "Did you know? She's expecting."

"Who? Hermione? Expecting what?" said George.

Angelina cut in, "No, we didn't. Congratulations, Ron."

"Told Mum and Dad tonight. Mum got all teary, of course, and made Hermione a cup of tea. So I slipped back out to pick up my special order here."

"They must've cost you a pretty sickle, Ronnie-kins." George had managed to get in under Angelina's guard. She glared at him as if she was about to launch a Cruzan Whammy at his sorry carcass.

Ron didn't notice the silent exchange or the dig at his minority and for once, didn't seem to care. "You know, I thought I might have to do something drastic to afford them, but funniest thing, at the last minute, a wonderful thing happened."

George started to open his mouth. Angelina glared at him. George closed his mouth.

Ron continued in a sort of dazed wonderment, "It's weird how it all worked out. I didn't tell you before, but Hermione and me--we hit some pretty hard times there for a while."

"Thanks to dear Cornelius Fudge," said Fred.

"Oh, you heard about that. Well all of a sudden Madame Fudge--you know, his wife--owls Hermione that she's heard all about the wonderful work she's doing and wants to sponsor a special project in the New Year."

"Probably rehabilitating wayward husbands," smirked George.

"Or unfortunate young witches out on the East End," said Fred.

Angelina sighed. Short of a blanket Silencio, there was little she could do once the twins got on a roll. Besides, it didn't seem as if Ron was listening to them. It was like he was in a little world of awe and contentment all his own, from which the twins' gibes could not touch him.

Ron just nodded. "And can you believe it? Hermione was actually going to sell her hair to buy me a present."

"She didn't!" Fred cried in horror.

"No--she got an advance from Madame Fudge, see? Sort of a good-faith retainer. Then--to cap it all--Robert Raglan--you know--"

"Yeah," said George, "the cartoonist with the Lockheart fixation."

Ron continued, "I've sent him a lot of my own stories over the years, and I recognized some of my stuff in his new novel, the one you gave me."

"Mere coincidence, I'm sure."

"He's nothing like his brother,I'm also sure."

" What brother?" asked Ron.

"Didn't you know? The infamous Rascal Raglan. Dung Fletcher's partner in crime..."

"...And slime..."

"... and doing time."

"Really? Well, Robert Raglan's not like that. Anyway it turns out his wife was the one reading his mail all that time--and my stories you know. Master Raglan never saw them at all. I figure my plotlines must've gone into her subconscious. She remembered them, but she didn't remember where she remembered them from."

"Ah, selective fact-twisting--so handy at times like these."

"Like our friend Fudge, saying he'd believed in Voldie's return all along but was just pretending not to, to throw the Death Eaters off."

"Uh, yeah, I guess. So whenever Robert was stuck for an idea, she just threw something out off the top of her head, and more often than not, it was something I had written, because, you know, I was always sending them stuff."

"Oh sure."

"And he wrote it down. They just realized it a couple days ago. Raglan somehow got a hold of one of my comic books. Don't know how that happened...but, anyway, his wife recognized some of the ideas I wrote in the margins, and it made her remember the stories I sent. She still had the copies filed away."

"The Augureys will be glad to hear that," said George under his breath.

"And the eagles," said Fred.

Ron went on as if he hadn't heard. "Can you believe it? She just gave me a cheque for a thousand galleons!"

That silenced the wisecracks for once. They all exclaimed over his good fortune, and congratulated him heartily. The twins even withheld the customary diminutives--"Ickle Ron" and "Ronnie-kins"--from their address. But brother Ron had yet more surprises.

"Oh and his wife--she owns this store here--Gladrags. She gave Hermione a gift certificate--for baby clothes."

"Our little 'scone in the fire'," crooned George, making a face at Fred.

"But best of all, Robert thinks I have a talent for writing and he's going to help me get started in the New Year. Hermione was so happy. We're going to exchange gifts soon as I bring this back."

With that, they all linked arms, very full of the peace--and justice--of the season, and walked on to the Burrow with the snow falling softly, Muggle carols in their ears, and another bright star beaming down on them all.

//
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