The Sugar Quill
Author: Dancing-pony  Story: A Butterfly's Wings  Chapter: Chapter 3 -- Evening Visitors
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Chapter3 The previous autumn, during a series of break-ins among the buildings in her neighborhood, Isabel spent solitary moments imagining how she might respond if confronted by armed intruders. In some of her varied musings, she came face-to-face with burly ruffians who forced their way though her front door while she attempted to beat them back with whatever cudgel she found handy. In others, oily rogues pried open the window adjacent to her fire escape and accosted her while she lay sleeping. She hadn't pictured herself staring across her sitting room at a pair of fresh-faced young men who'd appeared from nowhere and who were scrutinizing her every bit as nervously as she was scrutinizing them.  

Isabel took a deep breath and let it out. There was a logical explanation for everything. She just needed to pull herself together and think. Pressing her fingertips to her eyelids, she moved her hands deliberately up her nose and across her temples. The stick was still clutched in her right hand, and she tried to focus on the warmth and smoothness of the wood as it brushed gently over her skin. It had a calming influence, and she slowly opened her eyes, peering cautiously toward the rug, expecting to find the odd apparitions had vanished into the depths of her imagination. The two men were still there, staring anxiously back at her, and she studied them with renewed composure.

Both of the burglars were tall and, as far as she could discern given their shapeless attire, slightly built. One looked like an overgrown schoolboy, alarmed at his own temerity in following a more daring classmate into a perilous escapade. He had disheveled blonde hair which fell almost to his shoulders, round cheeks highlighted by twin spots of pink, and wide eyes which darted around Isabel's flat as though he expected to see his secondary school's headmaster lurking in the shadows. The other man had flaming red hair, trimmed so short as to give him a military air, an impression heightened by his stiff posture and tightlipped frown. From the critical way he began surveying her, after a few more agitated glances around the room, Isabel had the ridiculous notion that he was about to read her a lecture when he should have been begging her pardon for his trespass into her home.

Although television had never held much appeal for Isabel, she was an avid reader. Stereotypical villains and miscreants flitted rapidly through her mind, but not one of them bore the least resemblance to the characters facing her. It struck her that neither of  the men appeared to have any experience in criminal endeavors. Surely a criminal would make his intent known . . . demand money and jewelry . . . make a move toward her . . . . something. These two were acting as though they were the ones in danger, and they didn't seem to have the slightest idea how to proceed now that they had somehow gained entry into her flat.

Isabel was gathering her courage to insist that they leave the premises, when the blonde one leaned toward his companion and said, in an exaggerated stage whisper, "We need fudge."

"Why fudge?" asked the red-haired one, looking even more disapproving as he gave voice to Isabel's growing confusion. Their sudden appearance was baffling enough. Now it seemed that one of them was seeking, not cash or valuables, but . . . chocolate?

"He's still advising the Ministry on problems with muggles, isn't he?" As he hissed this question to his cohort, the blonde man kept shooting terrified glances at Isabel. Although the idea was both preposterous and insulting, his words clearly implied that she was the one causing problems.

Isabel's initial shock and alarm were rapidly giving way to an entirely different mixture of emotions. Although she knew it was irrational, she couldn't resist a covert glance into the gilded mirror on the opposite wall, a pointless attempt to discern something frightening in her slight form, pale face and damp curls. Far from looking dangerous or deranged, her reflected image was only a bit bedraggled. Somehow, though, the fact that she didn't look insane wasn't especially comforting, because it suddenly occurred to her that she might be suffering delusions. Hadn't she read somewhere that mixing bleach and detergent could create noxious fumes? Was she having a delayed reaction to the vapors she had breathed while scrubbing her parents' storeroom? Would someone who was suffering hallucinations even realize the world had suddenly turned upside down? Common sense told her that hallucinations must seem real to the person suffering them . . . but Isabel was perfectly aware that the events of the past few minutes were impossible.

She was silently debating the wisdom of approaching close enough to pinch one of the men to see if he was flesh and blood when the red-haired one folded his arms across his chest and gave gave a prim sniff. The mannerism reminded Isabel so forcefully of her Aunt Gertrude that she almost missed his response as she fought to repress a giggle. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she wondered whether she was bordering on hysterics.

"She obviously isn't a muggle," the red-haired man stated, gesturing at the stick in Isabel's hand and then at the pieces of tea cup scattered across the hardwood floor. The shards of china were surrounded by splatters of brown liquid, and a dark puddle was oozing, amoeba-like, toward the edge of the rug.

Every other thought drained from Isabel's mind at the sight of the broken cup. "Look what you've done," she said, annoyed almost beyond bearing when she heard her words come out in a breathless whine. "That cup belonged to my great-grandmother, and it's irreplaceable!"

The red-haired man stiffened even further, throwing back his shoulders and dropping his hands to his sides. "I certainly didn't do anything so clumsy," he said, biting out the words through an irritable scowl, "and I would very much appreciate it if you would lower your wand."

Isabel's fingers tightened on the stick in her hand, which was pointing in the general direction of the two men. Even though she refused to think about the word "wand," the slender piece of wood gave her a feeling of comfort and protection out of proportion to its delicate weight. She couldn't help but notice that the two men had sticks too. The red-haired man's stick was now dangling loosely at his side, but the other one was still held in front of its owner like an undersized sword, its pointed end twitching from side to side in concert with the young man's frightened gaze.

"Look, I really think Fudge might be able to help sort this out." A pleading note crept into the blonde man's voice as he spoke again.

His companion shrugged as though he had decided to wash his hands of the entire situation. "This is your department," he said repressively. "If you think you need Fudge, go get him."  

Isabel was only beginning to assimilate that "Fudge" must be a person rather than a sweet, when the blonde man shot a final nervous glance at her, did a jerky pirouette, and vanished with a faint "pop."

Her knees trembling beneath her, Isabel sat down heavily onto the sofa, staring at the spot where the blonde man had been standing. A thousand questions rushed through her head, but her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton and her voice didn't seem to be working properly. After taking a few deep breaths and flicking her tongue nervously over her dry lips, she finally managed a raspy, "Who are you?"

For a long moment, the remaining man kept his eyes focused on a spot somewhere over Isabel's right shoulder, as though he intended to ignore her. Then he met her eyes and gave another sniff. "Weasley," he said. "Percy Weasley." Almost as an afterthought, he inclined his head in the manner he might use to acknowledge a formal introduction. "Assistant to the Minister."

The minister? Since when had the Prime Minister deployed his minions, unannounced, into the homes of law-abiding citizens? For that matter, when had the Prime Minister's minions developed the ability to appear and disappear out of thin air? It was the outside of enough if the government, instead of concentrating on the serious problems the British people had been facing over the past year, was wasting time and resources in harassing harmless librarians. Why wasn't it focusing on hurricane relief, unsolved murders, and bridge collapses? "What are you doing here?" Isabel demanded, beginning to feel rather put out.

Percy Weasley apparently was the type who never gave a brief, succinct answer if given a chance to expound on a subject for his own aggrandizement. "I've been working with Finch in Magical Law Enforcement this month," he informed Isabel, puffing himself up importantly.  "I'm one of the youngest Assistants in decades . . . technically Junior Assistant," he conceded, with a faint twitch of his long nose, "but Minister Scrimgeour doesn't make any real distinction between those of us trusted with access to his inner office. At any rate, you might not think such exposure necessary to my career, but Minister Scrimgeour believes I should be familiar with the day-to-day workings of every department of the Ministry."  (Weasley's forehead creased in a slight grimace as he continued, leading Isabel to wonder whether it had occurred to him that this Scrimgeour person might prefer to avoid having such a prat of an assistant constantly underfoot.) "I must say working in law enforcement been a somewhat disappointing experience," Weasley continued, obviously having missed the most obvious connection, "and I have a substantial list of improvements to recommend. The entire department has been in chaos since the unfortunate death of --"  His eyes widened for a moment, and he must have suspected he was giving Isabel more information than Scrimgeour would approve, because he gave himself a little shake, raised his chin several notches, and started rapidly onto a different tangent. "At any rate,  when the alert signal came in -- the use of magic in a totally muggle section of the city -- I obviously thought death eaters must be involved, so Finch and I Apparated immediately."

Isabel closed her eyes. Percy Weasley's matter-of-fact mention of magic had caused a flash of yearning so strong it blocked out everything else  -- a feeling quickly extinguished by the term "death eater." For several moments, she was torn between a burning desire to hear more about magic and the near certainty that she didn't want to know what a death eater might be. Longing quickly conquered revulsion, though, and she could hear the entreaty in her voice as she asked, "Can you really do magic?"

The look he shot at her clearly showed he considered her question unworthy of a verbal response. Turning away, he pointed his wand at the shattered teacup and muttered something under his breath. In a sequence that reminded Isabel of a home movie playing in reverse, the pieces of china rose into the air and melded themselves together. The repaired cup then floated to the coffee table, where it landed gently on its saucer. While Isabel stared in fascination at the cup (which looked perfectly undamaged) and tried to think of something to say, Percy Weasley touched the end of his wand to the puddle of tea, which shrank as though being siphoned in an invisible container. He then twirled the wand in fussy little circles over the area until all of the tea stains vanished.

"If you'd like to make yourself another cup, you may as well," he said, tapping the wand against the fingertips of his left hand in a bored fashion. "It might take a few minutes for Finch to return with Mr. Fudge." Noticing Isabel's eyes flitting between his wand and the teacup, he added "I could put the spilled tea back into your cup, but I'm sure it's quite nasty by now."

Isabel shook her head. While a cup of tea, even a glass of water, would have been a welcome relief to her dry throat, she had no intention of turning her back on her uninvited guest. She was honest enough to admit to herself that this was at least partially because she didn't want him to disappear. She wanted Percy Weasley, and magic, to be real.

The silence was beginning to be uncomfortable when Finch reappeared, followed a few seconds later by a third man. The newcomer was middle-aged, with the deflated countenance of a person who had just recovered from a serious illness or reverse of fortune. His face had the same defeated expression her father always wore after a visit with the attorney who advised him on shop finances. Instead of a flowing robe, however, he wore a pinstriped suit which would have enabled him to blend into almost any crowd -- if not for his violently colored bowler hat. Like the other two, he was carrying a wooden stick, which he slid into the breast pocket of his jacket as soon as he arrived. A thick manila folder was stuffed under one arm.

"Cornelius Fudge," he said, stepping toward her and holding out his right hand. He flashed a jovial smile that seemed, to Isabel, to be rather forced. "Miss . . . Miss . . . ?"

"Landers," Isabel replied automatically, before pressing her lips closed. While she hadn't allowed herself to jump or even blink at this new arrival, her mind rebelled at providing further information until someone told her what was going on.

"Landers, Landers, yes . . . yes, let's see." As he paged through the folder, Fudge began a mumbled and halting monologue that no one else in the room bothered to interrupt.  "You must have been invited to Hogwarts, but muggle parents do sometimes refuse to allow their children to attend. In the years before the  disappearance of you-know-who, Dumbledore" (Fudge pronounced this name in a grudging voice) "insisted on telling them about some of the seamier . . . . Well, no need to go into all that. Quite a number of muggle families refused to allow their children to attend, even after . . . . " Fudge cast a wan smile in Isabel's direction and cleared his throat before continuing. "As I said, it's certainly not unheard of . . .  . Ah, here we are."  Pausing in his rifling of the pages, Fudge ran a finger across several lines of green ink. "Landers, Isabel. Birth date, February 15, 1976. Invited to attend the Hogwart's term beginning September, 1987. Initial contact by owl post . . . follow up by Deputy Headmistress . . . parents refused permission . . . . Yes, yes, it's all here."

Fudge beamed at the other two men in a way that clearly invited them to share his satisfaction in having unraveled the mystery of Isabel's existence. "Odd business, though," he continued, apparently giving no thought to enlightening her. "We've never had a completely uninitiated witch or wizard get their hands on a wand before. What to do, what to do . . . ." As he repeated this last sentence, he gave Isabel a pained look, as though expecting her to sympathize with his incomprehensible dilemma.

"Perhaps you could start by explaining more clearly," Isabel said, deliberating on Fudge's words as she tried to fit together the pieces of this very strange puzzle.

"Why don't we just take the wand and alter her memory?" suggested Finch, who looked as though the sooner he could leave Isabel's flat, the happier he would be.

"Ah, there's the rub . . . there's the rub . . ." said Fudge, running a pudgy hand slowly over his lower jaw.  "We're in a tricky position here. It's not strictly legal to alter the memory of an adult witch, you know. And taking her wand . . . I'm not certain we'd be entirely within the law to do that, either, without a hearing before the Wizengamot."

"Wizen-what?" asked Isabel, doing her best to stifle her annoyance at having her request ignored.

"Why not?" asked Finch at the same moment, his shrill tone drowning out Isabel's question.

Fudge gave Finch a vague shrug. "For one thing, we have no evidence she's committed a crime. The wand could be legally hers, for all we know."

"No evidence she's committed a crime?" repeated Isabel incredulously. "I'm not the one who broke into someone's flat --"

"How could it be hers?"  Finch cut her off with an irritated growl. "The file says her parents didn't allow her to attend Hogwarts. Does she even know she's a witch?"

Fudge shook his head and gave a deep sigh. "No, I dare say she doesn't. As I said, it's a very tricky business."

"We can't let her keep a wand," said Finch stubbornly. "For the love of Merlin, she could kill someone! She doesn't know how to use a wand properly if she hasn't been to school."

"Ah, but there's no legal requirement that witches and wizards go to school, you know."

"Not that it's any of your business, but I graduated with top honors --"

"Well, yes, of course I know that," said Finch, continuing his argument with Fudge as though Isabel hadn't spoken. "I've only been with the Ministry for a year, but I do have a fair understanding of wizarding law and --."

"Rubeus Hagrid's wand was snapped when he was expelled from Hogwarts," interjected Percy Weasley. He had been standing to one side, arms folded across his chest, one foot tapping on the hardwood floor, and a detached expression on his face. This new name, however, sparked his interest.

Although Weasley's tone was more puzzled than accusatory, Cornelius Fudge looked rattled. "The destruction of Hagrid's wand wasn't due to his expulsion from school," he said, avoiding the younger man's eyes. "That was before your time, I know, but it was a very bad business . . . a little girl died . . . people were panicking . . . ."

"But Hagrid didn't cause the girl's death." Weasley looked away from Fudge long enough to cast a patronizing glance at Finch, apparently anxious to defend his seniority or his superior position within the Ministry. "Not everyone heard the entire story after it came out, but, of course, I know all the details. I haven't heard that Hagrid's been reinstated, though."

It was perfectly obvious, even to someone who hadn't the slightest idea what the men were talking about, that Fudge wanted to change the subject.  His entire being tensed, and words tumbled out so low and fast that they were partially unintelligible. "Dumbledore did submit a request to have the incident removed from Hagrid's record. Not that anyone at the Ministry can be blamed. All evidence pointed at . . . and you know Hagrid's unfortunate propensity for . . . well, what I mean is, anyone would have thought . . . . Hagrid's always been a favorite of Dumbledore's, though, so naturally he'd like. . .  but you know how busy we are at the Ministry these days. Hagrid's status has no bearing on this situation, at any rate, so we should focus on--"

"You learned the truth nearly four years ago." Weasley was sounding almost as frustrated as Isabel felt, although she didn't have the impression he was trying to prove a point. He sounded more like a small boy who wanted to a trusted adult to justify his belief in the tooth fairy.

"If someone doesn't tell me what's going on, I'm going to scream," Isabel said in the tone that never failed to silence the most rambunctious child at the library. She hadn't actually screamed since she was five years old, considering it a waste of time and energy. Problems were solved through reasoning and positive action, not histrionics. She was tired of standing on the periphery of a discussion which she didn't understand, though, and she felt confident that all of the men before her fell into the significant majority of males who would cringe from the idea of dealing with a shrieking female.

"I suppose," said Fudge, looking as uncomfortable as Isabel expected, "that the best way to explain would be to let you see for yourself what happened." He flipped over several pages in his folder, pausing here and there to study something more closely. "Normally, I wouldn't be so foolish as to attempt to reverse one of Minerva McGonagall's spells, but the report states she used a reversible memory suppression charm rather than an obliviation charm. I imagine that's standard procedure in these cases, since there's always the chance of a change of circumstances which would make the young witch or wizard eligible for admittance in a later year. That's neither here nor there, though" he added, closing the folder and tucking it back under his arm. "The point is, it shouldn't be much of a problem to --"

As he abruptly halted this speech, he raised his wand so that it was pointed at Isabel's forehead. Isabel shrank instinctively back into the sofa cushions, and he reassured her in a fatherly tone. "No need to be alarmed, Miss Landers. This might feel a bit unpleasant, but it is perfectly safe, I assure you."

Isabel was about to protest when he said something that sounded like "memorabilia." She was dimly aware of a flash of purple light before a wave of nausea forced her eyes closed, and she felt herself falling backward . . . .

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