The Sugar Quill
Author: batsnumbereleven  Story: One Favour Too Many  Chapter: One Favour Too Many
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One Favour Too Many by batsumbereleven

One Favour Too Many

By batsnumbereleven

 

A/N: Many thanks to Felina Black for her beta help.

 


 

Harry had never expected to become Minister of Magic. He'd done all that he could throughout his years at Hogwarts to shy away from the sort of attention that the Minister's job now lavishly bestowed upon him. Once he'd finally disposed of Lord Voldemort, on the first anniversary of Professor Dumbledore's murder, he thought that the media furore surrounding his every move would die down, but he'd been wrong - very wrong.

Even now, some eight years after that seminal event, everyone wanted to be associated with the Boy Who Lived, especially since he had become the wizarding world's salvation for a second time.

He'd been rather miffed when Ron had joked as part of his speech as best man at Harry's wedding that the groom ought to be lining himself up as the next Minister of Magic. Everyone at the wedding had thought it a wonderful idea, despite his protestations, and it had only taken a couple of days for the Daily Prophet to have it spread all over their pages.

So when Rufus Scrimgeour died in office and there was no ready replacement for him, it didn't take long for Harry's name to be brought up as a possible candidate, and the floodgates opened.

He refused to have his name put forward, despite the urgings of his friends, but when the ballot was over and the results announced, more than five times as many ballot papers were submitted with his name scrawled onto them than there were votes for any of the formal candidates, and the pressure really started to be applied to him.

"But I don't want to be Minister, Hermione," he argued over a butterbeer one evening at Grimmauld Place.

The ancestral Black family home had become Harry's after Sirius died, but he primarily used it as a central meeting place for all his friends, and on this particular occasion there were rather a lot of them present.

"Don't all those votes mean anything to you?" the bushy-haired young woman asked him. "Everyone's relying on you!"

"Well I'm fed up of them relying on me," he grumbled, aware that he was starting to sound a bit like a whiny child, even perhaps like his cousin Dudley, and feeling even more depressed about it.

"So you want me to go in there and run the country as everyone's second choice then, Harry?" Kingsley Shacklebolt asked him in his deep, slow voice.

Kingsley had been the designated "Order" candidate, and he had received the highest number of official votes. He wasn't particularly bitter about Harry's popularity though. He found it rather funny, to be fair, especially since he'd spent the best part of a year training Harry before he set off to fulfil his prophesised destiny.

"Shack?"

"Yes, Harry?"

"Shut up. You're not helping matters."

Kingsley sniggered, something of a strange noise from an otherwise imposing figure.

In the end he'd caved in. He could have withstood the pleading from Hermione and Ron, the persuasive arguments about the greater good from Headmistress McGonagall and Remus Lupin, and the good-humoured banter and niggling from Kingsley and the Weasley twins, but he couldn't say no to Ginny.

She finally persuaded him that perhaps he could get what he'd always really wanted by accepting the post - the chance to be remembered for who he was and what he did as an adult, rather than his unknowing conquest of the Dark Lord as a baby.

So here he was, some months later in his office at the Ministry. So far he'd spent a lot of time getting to know the job and putting the right people in place to get things done the way that he wanted, rather than the way his predecessor had done them. And, of course, that included the Ministry employees.

He looked up in concern this morning as his assistant entered the office. One of the perks of being Minister of Magic was being able to appoint your own staff, and Harry had never regretted for one moment of his three weeks in office to date asking Belinda Chesterfield to be his personal assistant.

She was a quiet woman in her mid-fifties, with dark brown hair that was cut into a fashionable, if short, style. In the Muggle world she could have been mistaken for a businesswoman in the city, or perhaps a civil servant.

She had come highly recommended from a number of sources, including a couple of high-flyers that had retired over the past couple of years towards the end of Scrimgeour's time in office, and her work had been exemplary. She showed just the right amount of deference towards Harry, whilst being able to remind him that he was human and she also had exceptionally good relationships with all the visitors that came to Harry's office.

Even Hermione had commented on how effective and efficient she found Belinda and had made friends with her over coffee breaks and lunch in the Ministry between her confidential research and visits to the Chudley Cannons' training ground to watch Ron practicing.

Ginny had complimented Harry on such a good choice of assistant. She was pleased that he'd managed to get someone who was so capable at organising him. She didn't really want to have to worry about Harry at work while she was juggling her part-time job managing House-Elf Liberated Labour (HELL), one of Harry and Hermione's joint projects, with caring for Alice, their daughter.

But it hadn't just been the wonderful references that had swayed Harry to choose Belinda over the other seven applicants for the post. Unknown to each of the candidates, he had spent a couple of days observing their daily work, just to see what they were like at their current jobs, and he'd been most pleased with her performance on those occasions.

Her annual reports from her previous department heads had been positive but not glowing, a sign Harry recognised instantly of someone that the department wished to keep. Had the reports been especially exceptional, he would have suspected they were trying to get her headhunted by another department.

Not that the other candidates had been lacking. Aside from Percy, who Harry had dismissed out of hand as totally the wrong sort of person to work for him, there were three other highly qualified secretaries and a couple of personal assistants to Department Heads that would easily have fitted the bill, but Harry had like the efficient yet unobtrusive way that Belinda went about her work, and her interview had merely cemented his opinion.

Yes, he was most pleased with the appointment, he thought as his eyes flicked over a request from the Chinese Ministry of Magic for help with a dragon problem and he considered the comments that Belinda had added to the bottom.

 

She made the duties of his position so much easier to deal with. His diary was well organised and left him just enough time each day to relax between official appointments without getting too wound up about what problems each correspondent would be bringing to his attention to solve; his calls were taken smoothly and swiftly, and if there were people that Harry would rather not speak to, Belinda normally managed to divert their attention to other sources of information or help rather than burdening the Minister with their troubles.

This was a skill Harry had been most grateful for when Cornelius Fudge had come crawling to his door the day after Harry had summarily dismissed him as a consultant to the Minister.

So, it was a little strange that on this particular morning Harry could feel Belinda's apprehension as she approached the Minister's desk. Normally she would breeze up to his elbow, place his most pressing mail in the in-tray, already annotated with her comments, and collect the work he'd done in the couple of hours he'd been in the office, then wait for his attention before detailing the most urgent items of the day and outlining his expected schedule.

Today, however, she seemed rather tentative as she approached his desk, and it was this air of uncertainty that Harry detected and that made him raise his eyes from the latest reports from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement that Remus Lupin had signed off.

"What is it, Belinda?" he asked kindly, wondering whether perhaps his most efficient servant had decided she no longer enjoyed working for him and had gotten a job elsewhere.

She hesitated for a moment before speaking.

"Minister..." she began.

"Come on, Belinda," Harry grinned. "You haven't called me 'Minister' in private since the day I took over and insisted on everybody using my Christian name. Now, what's wrong?"

"Sir..."

Harry rolled his eyes at the honorific and gestured for her to speak.

"Well, it's Horace Slughorn, sir, ... Harry, ... Minister."

Harry rolled his eyes.

"Oh yes," Harry recalled, "I remember him. He taught Potions in my sixth year at Hogwarts, but left immediately afterwards."

"Really?" she asked, a little surprised at the fact. "I thought he'd retired years before then - he taught Potions when I was at Hogwarts too!"

"Ah, well, Dumbledore convinced him he was needed." Harry sighed at the reminder of the former Headmaster's untimely demise. "But he claimed that once Albus had gone there was nothing that could possibly keep him safe, at Hogwarts or anywhere else. I think he moved to America where he thought it was safer."

"Well, he's back, Minister."

Harry looked over the top of his glasses at Belinda. His old black plastic frames had long ago been superseded by a much more stylish pair of wire-framed glasses, and the pair that Harry wore today were reminiscent of those that Headmaster Dumbledore had worn: half-moon shaped, and with a tendency to slip down Harry's nose from time to time that occasionally reminded Harry to stop at the optician's to get them tightened.

It was at one of these moments that he was eyeing his assistant over the top of them.

"Harry," he stated firmly.

"Okay, sir. He's back, Harry."

"Well that's nice to know, Belinda. I hope he's well. I can't imagine that the American way of life has encouraged him to diet particularly, but I suppose it's good to be aware that he made it through the war intact. Many didn't."

Reminders of those who had died during the battles against Voldemort still haunted Harry on occasion.

Arthur Weasley had been one of the first significant casualties. He'd attempted to defend The Burrow from an onslaught of Death Eaters that were targeting pureblood families who had aligned themselves with Harry. The Weasleys had managed to repel the attacks on their property, but Lucius Malfoy had managed to get hold of Arthur and spirit him away. When they finally found him he hadn't been a pretty sight, and Harry had helped to ensure that those closest to Arthur hadn't had to see his remains.

Harry had caught up with Malfoy Senior less than a week later. He'd goaded the high and mighty Lucius into duelling him one-on-one, and had spent a good half-hour toying with him before finally despatching him to his much-deserved death.

It was rumoured that the corpse had at least one hundred separate broken bones, but Harry preferred not to deal with rumour. In the end he'd blasted the Death Eater clean off his feet and into oblivion to end their duel, so Harry doubted that anyone had been able to piece enough of Malfoy together to do a broken bone count.

"Harry?" Belinda's voice recaptured Harry's attention, and he shook his head to clear the memories.

"Sorry, Belinda. What were you saying? Oh yes - Slughorn's back. Is there a problem?"

Now Belinda's face turned bright red and she stuttered out something incomprehensible, which Harry had to get her to repeat. This was most unlike the usually unflappable woman.

"He's asked to see you."

"Has he? What does he want?" Harry wondered aloud.

"He wasn't very specific, but he was quite insistent. I'm afraid ... I'm afraid I promised him a meeting with you this morning."

Harry's eyes widened. Given Belinda's normally excellent ability to protect Harry from the usual stragglers wanting his time for no easily discernible reason other than to say they had been in his presence, he was somewhat surprised that she had succumbed to Slughorn's rather dubious charms.

"He's calling in a favour," she added a little miserably.

"Of me?" Harry asked. "I'm not aware that I owe him any favour."

"No. Of me," Belinda replied. "He helped me get my job in the Ministry, and helped me get this job, too.

It suddenly clicked for Harry. "You mean to say that all those people who wrote such glowing references for you did so on Slughorn's say so? Cashing in favours with them in response for one with you as the closest person to the Minister?" He asked incredulously.

Belinda nodded nervously and backed away from Harry slightly. He might now be a mature and responsible adult with years of experience fighting dark forces behind him, but his anger still occasionally became wild and uncontrollable, and the menace in his eyes was unmistakable at times like this, even when he had only been mildly riled.

"I'm sorry," Belinda whispered, dropping her head to stare at the floor.

"Don't worry," Harry said with a chuckle. "I thought those references were rather good. Tell me, was anything in them made up, or was it all factual?"

"There might have been some minor embellishments," she mumbled, unable to look him in the eye.

"So, you think you don't deserve this job?" Harry questioned. "That you only got it because of Horace Slughorn?"

She looked up at him uncertainly.

"I don't understand," she admitted.

"You will soon," Harry said with a grin. "Tell me, when's his appointment?"

"He's in the outer office at the moment," she added.

The fire lit up in Harry's eyes. "Oho!" he exclaimed in triumph. "Is he now? Excellent. Please, show him in!"

He paused a moment, then called her back.

"One more thing, Belinda."

"Yes, sir?"

"Don't look so scared, dear. I'm not upset with you. Why should I be worried about how you managed to get the approval of Slughorn's buddies, when you do such a good job? That's all that matters here - if you hadn't been up to it, it wouldn't have mattered how good your references were. I'm not interested in who referred you."

"You're not going to fire me?"

Harry's eyebrows shot upwards. "No chance! How could I replace you?"

"Well there was that Weasley fellow that used to do the job for Fudge and then for Scrimgeour. You've always been close to his family, too."

Harry screwed up his face in disgust. There was no way he could have stood having Percy spending all day toadying around - he needed to get work done, not spend the whole day being told how wonderful he was.

"No, Belinda. You do a great job. I am going to have a few words with Slughorn about abusing his connections though."

Belinda looked curiously at her boss, and suddenly realised that the momentary look of fury had been replaced by one of calculation, mixed with a little mischief. She turned back to the door and stepped out for a moment, before returning with the unmistakable Horace Slughorn.

"Mister Horace Slughorn to see you, Minister," she intoned formally as she escorted him into the Minister's office.

Slughorn hadn't changed much despite the years that had passed since Harry remembered him fleeing from Hogwarts. His bald head was a little darker now, no doubt a result of his sojourn in the United States, and his moustache perhaps a little greyer. He might even have filled out a little more though, given his prior girth, Harry found it difficult to tell. He certainly hadn't been on a diet.

Seeing Belinda about to slip out the door, Harry motioned her instead to a chair off to one side, intending her to remain, and Slughorn was quick to spot it.

"Ah, Harry, Harry," he said jovially holding out a hand which Harry stood to shake. "There's no need to make this a formal occasion. Please, I'm sure Miss Chesterfield has lots to be getting on with."

"That's quite alright, Horace," Harry replied, matching the former Potions Professor's convivial tone. "My business is Miss Chesterfield's business. Anyhow, what can I do for you?"

He indicated that Slughorn should be seated and returned to his own comfortable but sturdy chair.

"I understand that you managed to obtain a slot in my crowded diary most rapidly on your return to the country. Not a feat many achieve, you know. You must have news of great importance for me."

"Why, no, not really," Slughorn smiled, "I merely thought that it would be beneficial to us both to have a friendly chat, you know, to apprise ourselves of what is going on in the world."

"Sorry, I must have misheard you," Harry suggested, allowing his smile to fade slightly. "I was under the impression that this meeting was of the highest importance, that you had something significant to pass on."

Slughorn's obvious plan of attack, to smarm and smile his way into Harry's good books was off to a shaky start. "Well, no, no, I just thought you might find it helpful to renew acquaintances with an old friend - someone well connected, who might be able to smooth the pathways of power for you."

"I see." Harry's face grew stony cold as the man opposite him tried to explain himself. "Then when you convinced my personal assistant that it was vital for you to speak to me, you were lying to her?"

"What?" he spluttered. "No, no, not at all. You know how it is - secretaries and the like often get confused about things like this. She must have misunderstood what I meant. Difficult to get the staff these days, after all..." he muttered, his voice growing quieter and quieter as Harry's eyebrows raised.

He chanced a quick glance across at Belinda and was relieved to see that although she looked a little nervous at the direction the conversation was taking she was still confident enough to raise a little smile for Harry. He winked back at her surreptitiously, and hoped she wouldn't get alarmed at his next tack.

"I see. So you think I should reprimand my assistant then?"

"What? No, no. After all, I'm here now," Slughorn insisted. "Just time for a quick chat, eh? I'm sure I could give you a helping hand if you ever needed one, you know."

"Is that so? And what in particular did you have to offer me?"

"What? Well, I have all sorts of personal contacts out in the wizarding community that you might find it helpful to meet - get yourself in tune with what the wizard in the street is thinking and so on. Meet a few celebrities. After all, you're something of a celebrity yourself, aren't you now?

"All I ask in return is a few moments of your time now and again to let you know what's happening, where public opinion is heading, the sort of concerns that my acquaintances have about policy, and so on. Just the usual sort of thing."

Harry's silence seemed to make Slughorn nervous, and he chattered on, trying to justify himself and set his plan in motion, oblivious to the Minister's discontent.

"It works well both ways, you see. I make you recommendations for key people, and then if you employ those people, I can get more of the top people to work with them, you know. Eh? Don't you think?"

"Indeed! And what makes you think that I can't foster those relationships myself?" Harry asked dangerously, but Slughorn appeared not to notice the tone of voice.

"You? Young man, you're little more than a child still, even if they have made you Minister. Merlin's teeth! These sorts of contacts take decades of nurturing to bring to such ready ripeness. You'll hardly be in office a month and people will be calling for your head. They won't trust you! No, no. You need an old head, a man experienced in this kind of thing to bring the right sort of people to you."

"Actually, I don't think I do."

Suddenly the atmosphere became even frostier.

"You barge in here like I'm some long lost family member and try to insinuate yourself into my business. I don't like that. You prevail upon my personal assistant and call in favours from her to get in to see me, when you know she can't refuse. I really don't like that." He glanced over at Belinda and gave her a friendly smile to reassure her that he didn't blame her for Slughorn's intrusion.

"Your personal assistant?" Slughorn's voice rose. "You wouldn't even have a personal assistant if it weren't for me! The hours I spent working on some of the finest minds in the Ministry to get them to write letters of approval for her! You owe me, dammit! You owe me a voice!"

Harry stood and glared at the bloated excuse for a man in front of him. His stare elicited fear in the hearts of some of the toughest Aurors in the Ministry. Slughorn was far from that, and he backed away, trying to hide himself deep in the plush armchair that held him.

"First of all," Harry growled, "you do not take that tone of voice with me. I don't care whether you called in one favour or a hundred, Belinda is an excellent assistant, and she would have been promoted sooner or later anyway, regardless of your machinations.

"You might think that you've greased the wheels for all the members of your little 'Slug Club' over the years, but I know exactly how you work. You cherry-pick the best students to be associated with and then accept all the credit for their success. All you do is introduce them to other 'famous' members of your little circle.

"Well I've had enough of the sycophantic, ferrety, self-promoting line of bull that you've been feeding everyone, and it stops now!

"I'm taking steps to eliminate the little patronage system you've set up. Please take notes, Miss Chesterfield."

He added the latter for Slughorn's benefit, since he knew that Belinda would be noting down everything that was said anyhow. He just wanted to put the scare on the old man.

He strode around the table and started pacing the floor, talking almost more to himself than to either of the room's other two occupants.

"Firstly, I think we'll put together a little database of all of the members of Horace's little club," he began thoughtfully. "We'll also need to maintain good links with Professor McGonagall to make sure he doesn't start teaching again.

"I think I'll also take a good look at Mister Slughorn's accounts. He doesn't seem to have filed a tax return in many, many years. I'm sure all those 'gifts' he's received from the more successful members of his self-serving system are taxable.

"How does that sound, Horace?" he asked, turning back to his guest.

"You can't do that!" he squeaked.

"No? I'm Minister of Magic, so why not?"

"But ... but..."

"I think Mister Slughorn's run out of 'significant information' for me Miss Chesterfield. Please see him out." Harry turned on his heel and returned to the chair behind his desk, deliberately swivelling it around so that his back was to Slughorn.

He could hear the overweight man, spluttering incoherently as Belinda escorted him out, and sighed deeply, glad to be rid of the greedy hanger-on.

A few minutes passed and the door clicked open once again. He heard the familiar sound of Belinda's confident footsteps striding across the office floor, the noise as she shuffled his papers around and her patient silence as she waited for him to turn his attention to her.

Once again, she broke from her usual pattern, and spoke first.

"Harry?" she said quietly, once more confident using his given name.

He swivelled back around in his chair and looked at her expectantly.

"That was brilliant! Thank you!"

He smiled up at her.

"Too many people owe him favours simply because he identified them as likely successes. Oh, perhaps some of them benefited from his confidence in them, but most would have been high-fliers just the same without him - the only real beneficiary was Horace Slughorn himself."

He paused for a moment.

"Just keep him out of my office from now on, please, Belinda," he grinned, "no matter what favours he may claim to be calling in."

She blushed and nodded in acceptance of Harry's mild rebuke, swearing to herself that the former Potions teacher wouldn't be getting anywhere near the Minister again as she exited the office.

Some time later that same day, Harry was annotating a draft bill in front of him when he was surprised by a call through the Floo from Ginny. It was the last news he really wanted to hear that day.

"Just thought I'd let you know, dear. Horace Slughorn's invited himself to dinner," Ginny told him with a crooked smile, which turned quickly to consternation at the look on Harry's face.

//
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