The Sugar Quill
Author: Penpusher (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Sorceror's Endgame  Chapter: Chapter One: In the Midst of Life
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Chapter One: "In the Midst of Life"

Arthur Weasley vaguely mouthed the words of an apparently well-known hymn, glancing around the congregation with a practised eye. To his left, Molly unconsciously smoothed a wrinkle from her sleeve. He smiled proudly: she looked suitably non-magical and really quite at ease in her sombre muggle get up. Which was more than he could say for himself, he thought, surreptitiously tugging at his black tie for the umpteenth time that morning. Muggle clothes really were the pits, particularly on official occasions.

All in all, it was a very good turnout, both wizards and muggles. The magical folk had been obliged to toe the party line generally for this solemn occasion as the church was peppered with muggle press and the coverage would likely reach the national muggle news. He sighed. It had scarcely been sudden and was not at all unexpected, but Cornelius Fudge's death had ended an era for all of them. Sir Cornelius actually - he had been knighted in the last Honours List, but had been too ill to attend the ceremony. Lady Fudge had been his proxy. Arthur's eyes drifted towards the widow in the front pew, correct in deep mourning, stiff-backed and stony-faced. Her two sons stood closely either side of her, and she was accompanied by a few relatives, some close colleagues from the Ministry of Magic, and Tantalus Brown. Arthur clamped his jaw tightly and looked away. Over his years at the Ministry, he had learned discretion, how to govern by persuasion rather than fiat, how to conceal one's true feelings, and how to sideline unwanted interference. Unfortunately, Tantalus Brown was the first in a long career to irritate him so badly that all his carefully won diplomacy promptly jumped ship and headed for the hills. And Brown just happened to be his superior.

Arthur put those thoughts firmly aside and glanced about him, catching a glimpse of long, eye-catchingly red hair. He smiled tenderly as he recognised his daughter, Ginny, and her partner, Harry Potter. They made a very attractive couple, he mused, and their respective talents in a wide range of areas made the partnership a very valuable one to the wizarding world. They were at present investigating the ramifications of their strange magical bond, a potentially devastating mind-meld which seemed to spring directly from the strength of their attachment. Its manifestation had caused much consternation among the ranks of the ungodly. His forehead creased in a small frown as he recalled the events of the past few days.

~oo0oo~

Harry placed his wand carefully on the table and for a brief moment, rested his forehead in his hands. Ginny sat motionless, gazing at the floor, biting her lip apprehensively. Arthur mentally braced himself for Harry's explosion.

"It's no good, we're just not going to be able to trigger it this way." Harry started to pace the floor gesticulating wildly with his hands.

"Look, this mind-bond thing has locked into place between Ginny and myself precisely three times, and on those occasions without exception we, or someone else close to us, were in considerable danger. Now, I don't pretend to have either the abilities or the detailed knowledge that you gentleman possess, but, for the wisdom of Merlin, it doesn't need a genius to put two and two together and come up with four!" He glared at the assortment of experts assembled from various parts of the globe, ran an exasperated hand through his unruly hair and turned away with a sigh of disgust. There was a short silence, then Harry turned back to face his colleagues.

"We can't force it into place by willpower alone." he continued more calmly, "We have to find another way."

The others present in the Ministry Laboratory exchanged glances. One or two shuffled their feet in embarrassment.

"It is difficult." a quiet voice began. "No one here present has any concrete knowledge of magical mind-bonding between wizards. In fact, were it not for the shadows of these incidents in your minds, I could be forgiven for doubting the existence of such a phenomenon. In all my researches, I have never come across any reference to this ability, nor have I encountered anyone with such knowledge." The softly-spoken Chinese Dr. Lim was attempting to lower the temperature of the meeting.

"Except the Dark Side," added Dr. Galen, the Ministry's own expert, "We have it from their agents that bonding has been known to occur before between Dark Wizards. Indeed, the great Merlin himself was unwillingly bonded with the Dark Witch, Morgan le Fey, but we can discover nothing further from our archives, just the bare facts. It's very frustrating."

"Perhaps there is conflict between the parties." Dr. Petrucci now entered the discussion. Arthur had never met anyone who looked less like an academic. An olive-skinned, smouldering Latin-lover type, Petrucci's languid good looks concealed a first-class brain and a habit of speaking his mind. "Perhaps neither of you will submit to the other's will." There was a short, awkward silence. Arthur winced: it had not escaped his notice that Petrucci's roving eye had lit once or twice upon his pretty daughter, and Ginny's almost contemptuous disregard of his advances had not earned her any Brownie points with the Italian wizard. Ginny spoke for the first time.

"Draco Malfoy " she swallowed, then began again, "He told me the Dark Forces considered it unlikely that we would succeed in a full bonding because of my volatile temperament." Harry whirled round in dismay and took hold of her shoulders.

"Oh for goodness sake, Ginny, you're not going to give credence to anything that vermin told you, are you?" Ginny stared straight into his eyes, not at all intimidated.

"Why not?" she challenged. "They seem to know rather more about it on his side of the fence." Harry admitted this reluctantly, but still protested.

"That may be true, but it seems to me a very unfair description of you." Ginny shrugged indifferently.

"I don't consider it unfair at all." She replied. "I know I'm unpredictable - it's a large part of my creativity and my magical strength. Of course I won't submit to you - why on earth should I? I wasn't brought up to be submissive, for Merlin's sake. I have six brothers - that's not exactly encouragement to be meek and mild, now is it?"

~oo0oo~

Arthur shook his head with a gentle smile, coming back to earth as the hymn ended and the congregation sat down. He looked up at the highly-decorated lectern, observing as he did so that the unseasonally bright flowers were rather over the top. A faint smile crossed his face as he recalled the profusion of snowdrops and crocuses back at The Burrow. What would Cornelius himself have made of all this pomp and circumstance, I wonder? mused Arthur as Tantalus Brown approached the lectern to read the first lesson. What had Cornelius really been like anyway? Had he been as accomplished a Minister as they were today proclaiming? Or had his success been largely due to the considerable support he had received from Albus Dumbledore? Arthur wouldn't be surprised if the latter were the case. Things at the Ministry had turned on their heads after Fudge and Dumbledore fell out over You-Know-Who, and it had been some considerable time before anything coherent had been achieved at a high level. Tantalus Brown began to read. Arthur really did not want to listen, he preferred to keep his blood pressure at a manageable level. A faint, grim but satisfied smile settled over his lips as he recalled his relief when Brown had reluctantly withdrawn from the campaign to fill Cornelius's shoes. The article that Rita Skeeter had submitted to Brown for pre-publication comment, dealing with his treatment of Harry and Ginny over the Mexican affair, had been some of her best work. Rather a pity that Tantalus had caved in - it would have made marvellous copy. The downside was that Arthur's Department owed Rita big, and they had no doubt that come payday it would cost everything she could screw out of them. C'est la vie: they'd cross that bridge when they came to it. Arthur sighed soundlessly: even if they knew nothing bad about him, the fact remained that the New Man was something of an unknown quantity.

A shuffling of feet alerted Arthur that Brown had left the lectern. He strode back to his pew staring straight ahead, without deigning to acknowledge the diffident young man now taking his place at the huge Bible. Harry Potter carefully turned the pages until he found his place, refusing to be phased by Brown's discourtesy in not turning to the next reading. Arthur smiled faintly at the sight of his daughter's partner, still blinking behind his spectacles, still trying to flatten the unruly mop of hair that insisted on falling over his face. It was at times like these that Arthur was most forcibly reminded of James. Not that they had ever been close - Arthur and Molly had, after all, been several years senior to James, Sirius and Remus at Hogwarts - but he remembered James well, Lily too. And now their son was involved with his daughter, together with all that followed from such an alliance. Ginny had scarcely had time to breathe since hooking up with Harry. Their relationship had been fraught with danger from its very beginning. No wonder Ginny was reluctant to marry him - either or both of them could die tomorrow. Arthur shook his head again. That was why the exploitation of their mind-bond was so important. They had no choice but to see it through, if only for their own survival. The Dark Side were unlikely to slacken their vigilance now. Arthur's mind wandered again.

~oo0oo~

"He's answered my message - he's agreed to help us!" Hermione's almost incandescent excitement led Arthur to overlook her bursting into his office without even knocking. He looked up from his everlasting paperwork as a piece of well-worn parchment was waved frantically in his face. Arthur steadied it and squinted at the crabbed, scribbly writing. The message was from Dr. Ratcliffe in Florence, the learned gentleman Harry had consulted over his discovery of the Holy Grail last year. Seeing how desperate Harry and Ginny were becoming over their continuing inability to trigger their mind bond at will, Hermione had consulted the professor unofficially to see if he could shed some light on the problem. His response was to invite Harry and Ginny to the World Wizarding Library to explore some potential leads that could aid their endeavours. He insisted that Hermione should accompany them of course, but knowing the old man's partiality for his wife, Ron refused to let her go without him. Arthur came along for the ride, and also because he was curious to meet this eminent expert who had shed such a deal of light on the Holy Grail affair.

If he had known what he was letting himself in for, Arthur would probably have stayed quietly at home. Immediately on catching sight of Hermione, the good Professor enveloped her in a bear hug, kissing her soundly on each cheek. Arthur glanced fleetingly at his youngest son, observing a muscle twitching in his rigid face, and coughed discreetly into his handkerchief to hide his amusement. Ron refrained from kicking Ratcliffe in the shins as he received his rather more formal greeting, but only just. Almost immediately, the Professor and Hermione went into animated discussion, swiftly making lists and consulting the Catalogue. His suggestion that they should research some muggle documentation, namely that of the ancient Indonesian peoples, particularly Javanese Hindu writings was greeted with puzzlement by the others.

"But why?" demanded Ron, his antagonism making him blunt. Oblivious, the Professor turned an animated face towards him.

"A very good question, Mr. Weasley." He replied, absently stroking his beard. "The fact is that throughout history, a number of famous wizards were prominent Hindu priests, that particular great religion always being more tolerant than any other of so-called "magical" phenomena. Consequently, Hinduism has had far more interface with the magical community than Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any of the Eastern faiths." Hermione was nodding earnestly.

"Yes, Professor. I've also read that the older, pre-Christian religions of Europe have revealed a surprising wealth of knowledge and artefacts known to be magical in origin."

"That is absolutely true, Dr. Granger." replied the Professor. "But we have so few European sources - the early Muggle Christians took it upon themselves to destroy anything they considered Pagan. I suggest we begin where the pickings are good and hope that we strike gold soon!"

Hermione submitted her enormous reading list to the Catalogue and within a few minutes the first instalment of texts was delivered. Arthur's jaw dropped.

"What a task!" he muttered. Hermione turned her head.

"Oh that's only about a quarter of it." She told him, frowning in concentration as she divided the books rapidly into six categories. "Even though I jumped the queue by using the Professor's name, these are only the references they had within easy reach. It should take them the rest of the day to track down all the texts I've requested, and probably most of tonight to assemble them. We should be able to discard half to three-quarters of this consignment - or at least send the relevant pages for copying - before we leave this evening."

By six o'clock, Arthur was going cross-eyed. When they broke for lunch, he had been congratulating himself at having reduced his huge pile of books by approximately 75%. Over lunch in the Library Refectory, he was looking forward to sloping off home early for once and surprising Molly. His spirits fell sharply, however, on his return to the reading room to find the next consignment of texts had been delivered while they were eating. The piles practically reached the ceiling! Arthur rested his forehead on the table and despaired.

It took two days to sort through the information. Two solid days of backache, cramp, sore necks, gritty eyes and aching brains, but the relevant material now resided at the Ministry of Magic. Hermione, with immense aplomb, had run roughshod over anyone who tried to stand in her way and had commandeered an office, some furniture and the services of a secretary. She then proceeded to work her way through the references slowly and methodically, magnanimously waving aside Tantalus Brown's protests about non-Ministry personnel and shutting the door firmly on his attempts to interfere.

~oo0oo~

Arthur's musings were interrupted again as the congregation stood for another hymn. Opening the small black book, he looked carefully around the church for his daughter-in-law, Hermione. Ah, there she was, sandwiched nicely between Ron and George. He must remember to ask her if anything new had come up over the past couple of days. Was that Fred standing next to George? Yes, it was. Good. Bill had put in an appearance (suitably dressed, much to Molly's relief) and was standing on the other side of his mother. Percy, a little further down the row, was dipping his head to murmur something to his wife Penelope. Sadly, Charlie was involved in the hatching of a brood of Hungarian Hornbacks which had reached a critical stage. The Hogwarts contingent had seated themselves towards the back - no doubt somewhat concerned about the all too blatant intrusion of the muggle press.

The hymn ended, the congregation sat down and the new Minister for Magic, Jeremy Wingford-Hill, slowly ascended the lectern to begin the Address. Arthur immediately started to pay close attention, not solely because the man was his ultimate superior, but because he was very curious as to how he would acquit himself in such a sensitive situation. Wingford-Hill took his time arranging his few pages of notes against the large Bible, then he looked out over the top of the lectern, surveying the congregation thoughtfully for a moment before beginning to speak. The proverbial pin could be heard echoing throughout the large building. Arthur smiled: he liked a man with a sense of theatre.

 

~oo0oo~

"Pressing the flesh" it was called. Or at least Arthur remembered it being described so by his then immediate superior when he joined the Ministry so many years before. Armed with a solitary glass of a vaguely alcoholic beverage that he pretended to sip every now and then, Arthur cruised the crowd attacking the funeral baked meats, feeling slightly nauseous. Trying to formulate a plan of attack, he was distracted by a low voice in his ear:

"Bloody awful crush. We'd get better service down the Cat & Broomstick. And a better meal too, although that wouldn't be hard!"

"Good to see you, Fred." replied Arthur without bothering to turn round. "Rather a good turnout, I thought. At least most of our side stuck to the rules. And you're being a little unfair about the food: from the little I can see, it appears to be very good."

"I'm not protesting the quality, or even the quantity, just the proximity. Or lack of it." Fred pursed his lips and took an unenthusiastic sip from his glass, surveying the room. His eyes narrowed and fixed beadily on someone over the other side of the room.

"Sorry, Dad," he said, patting his father's arm without breaking his gaze, "I'll catch up with you later. I've got to go see a man about a hippogriff." He took off purposefully into the crowd and Arthur later spotted him deep in earnest conversation with Caesare Brooks.

"Damn and blast!" another voice exploded in Arthur's ear. "I've been trying to snatch a word with Fred all day. Couldn't you have held on to him for five minutes?" Arthur smiled sympathetically.

"George, your mother and I have been trying to hold on to either or both of you since the day you were born," he replied, amused, "With a singular lack of success, I might add." George grabbed a passing waiter by the sleeve and directed him to fill their glasses.

"Never know when you'll find another one in this crush." He commented, eyeing the diminishing buffet with chagrin. Arthur gave his son a considering look.

"You say you haven't been able to pin Fred down all day." He said thoughtfully. "That's unusual, surely. Never a day goes by without you two cooking up something together, even now you've supposedly both grown up." George shook his head.

"I'm trying to focus his attention on the business." He complained. "We've got some important policy decisions to make as to our future direction. Most of the time I run the whole bang shoot, but there's the odd occasion, like now, when I needs Fred's input - and incidentally his signature on some documentation." Arthur smiled. It was scarcely perceptible to outsiders, and if challenged he would have denied it vehemently, but there were definite signs that George was beginning to show a little more adult responsibility. Arthur was of the private opinion that it was well past time he grew up a little, but part of him couldn't help mourn the passing of the happy-go-lucky, irresponsible twin boys whose pranks he had outwardly condemned but inwardly enjoyed as much as they had.

George suddenly spotted Oliver Wood among the crowd and, hastily excusing himself from his father, fought his way to the other side of the room. Arthur caught sight of Oliver looking handsome and well-groomed, surprisingly well at ease in his muggle suit. With him were Lee Jordan and Ellen MacBeth, both long time friends of Fred and George. Arthur wondered if wedding bells were tentatively ringing in that direction and promised himself to make time to talk to the youngsters today.

"Arthur! How pleasant to see you. Wish it could have been under more cheerful circumstances though. Still, it wasn't exactly unexpected." Arthur turned to shake hands with Professor McGonnagall, a broad genuine smile creasing his face.

"Minerva! Good to see you too. How are things at Hogwarts these days?" The years had changed Minerva McGonnagall very little. She was still stiff-backed and severe, radiating an aura of calm competence from behind her square spectacles. If Arthur could discern a few more wrinkles and perhaps a little more grey in her hair since she had taken over from Professor Dumbledore as Head Teacher, he would never be so ungallant as to mention it. She was accompanied by Professor Flitwick, the tiny Charms teacher, who was so small as to be almost lost in the crowd.

"We're getting along much the same as usual." Professor McGonnagall replied to his question. "We're working very hard on the new student exchange programme, you know. Beauxbatons and Durmstrang have both been very supportive, and the scheme has been extremely successful. It's in it's third year now, and this year we've had some students from the American schools, LAWA and NYWA - Los Angeles and New York, you know. I think Harry Potter may have had some influence there." Professor McGonnagall smiled in satisfaction.

"We've also had an approach from Caravadoccia, the Italian school, but sadly the Russians and the Japanese regard the whole thing with grave suspicion. Professor Sinistra," she gestured to nearby group which included the Arithmancy teacher, Professor Vector, Professor Kettleburn and Madame Hooch, now retired, "Has put in a great deal of effort to forge links between the various schools." Arthur nodded briskly.

"This is all excellent news." He replied with approval. "These links must be forged while the children are young enough to be flexible. You need have no worries about the continuation of your grant for this work, Minerva, I will make sure of that personally." She inclined her head in thanks.

"I have been a little concerned," she began, "That there are some in the Ministry who have their doubts as to the validity of our work in this area." She let her eyes slide over to a stiff little group standing somewhat apart from the crowd where Lady Fudge, flanked by her two sons, was being lectured by Tantalus Brown. Arthur followed her gaze and nodded slightly, noticing Percy and Penelope on the edges of that group. Penelope seemed to be trying to urge her husband away from Brown's monologue without being too obvious, but Percy was having none of it. He was hanging on his superior's every word. Arthur gave a small sigh.

"Have no fear Minerva." He said quietly without turning back. "The Ministry will support your work." But his eyes were flinty. As they watched, Jeremy Wingford-Hill approached Lady Fudge to spend a few minutes chatting to her. It seemed to Arthur that she latched on to him with the same relief a drowning man feels at the sight of a lifebelt. He smiled: for someone who had only known Cornelius personally for a year or so, Wingford-Hill's eulogy had been considerably better than anyone had expected. At least the man had done his homework.

A few moments later found Arthur taking very real pleasure in approaching a group comprising his daughter, his youngest son and their respective partners. Ron and Hermione were both radiating rather too much happiness for such a solemn occasion, but Arthur felt his spirits lifting just looking at them. Ron acted as though he and Hermione were joined at the hip, refusing to be parted from her for a moment and gazing sappily into her eyes whenever he thought he wasn't observed. Hermione seemed equally star-struck, and if Ron's fussing around her like a mother hen caused the occasional little frown of irritation, she refused to dwell on it.

"Doesn't she look well?" Ron said to his father as Hermione turned to exchange greetings with a colleague. Arthur nodded.

"Indeed she does. Motherhood becomes her." He raised his glass and clinked it against Ron's. "I remember your mother when she was carrying Charlie - looked as pretty as a picture." Which was a good deal more than he could say for his own daughter, Arthur thought. Not that he had any reason to think Ginny was pregnant, of course. His smile faded as he noted her uncharacteristic silence, the shadows under her eyes, the tension in her body language. Harry seemed little different from usual, but Arthur noticed that he wouldn't stray far from her side, although he didn't touch her in any way, not even to hold her hand. He glanced around: people were starting to drift away now the buffet had been cleared.

"Have you spoken to Oliver yet?" Ron was talking to him. Arthur shook his head.

"Haven't reached him yet."

"So you won't have heard about his stint in Singapore then. Get this: the team has a new chaser who needs to be broken in. Seeing as it's the low season for Quidditch at the moment, matches are sparse anyway so Oliver's keeping the whole team in Singapore for two months' training. Imagine that! Two solid months in one of the most exciting cities in the world!" Arthur smiled.

"Perhaps you and Hermione could visit him for a holiday?" Ron shook his head.

"Nah, no Apparating or Porting for her until she's six months gone - too much of a shock to the system. And by that time, she says she won't want to be too far from home. I guess we could use muggle transport, but it's a long way to go, especially with morning sickness. I guess we'll wait till there's three of us!" Arthur grimaced.

"She's still being sick?"

"As a dog. It's supposed to stop after three months. Just goes to show you can't believe anything these Witch Doctors tell you!" Arthur smiled, drained his glass and looked around for Molly. He found her talking kindly to a nervous young wizard from Arthur's department who seemed very ill at ease in muggle clothes. Arthur nodded at him kindly before gently taking hold of Molly's elbow.

"I don't know about you, dear," he murmured into her ear, "But my feet are killing me, and I need a proper drink!" She smiled obediently and made her excuses to the young man before the couple embarked upon the obligatory round of farewells. Tantalus Brown seemed rather put out at being interrupted in full flow, but the widow received their condolences and thanks warmly. Arthur and Molly made their way slowly towards the exit. Molly sighed with suppressed exasperation.

"Honestly, I really don't think I could have stood another minute." She confided, rummaging in her handbag for their Portkey. "Ah, here it is. What with Hermione still with morning sickness, Ginny looking so tense and Fred so very unhappy at the moment, this funeral has given me enough family worries for several weeks. And Arthur dear, you really must do something about that dreadful man, Tantalus Brown. He spilled my drink, positively stamped on both my feet, then had the nerve to glare at me as though it was my fault! And poor Lady Fudge! How she managed to stay civil to him is beyond my imagination."

"Yes indeed, dear." agreed Arthur, wrapping her gently in her coat. Yes indeed. But there's more to it than simply promotion beyond his level of incompetence, I'm quite sure about that. He's like a Hydra - wherever you go at the Ministry, whatever avenue you explore, you'll find one of his heads at the end of it. It just doesn't tally with the bluster, the sidelining, the petty one-upmanship. We've all been feeling the squeeze lately, but it can't be coincidence that my allies are gradually disappearing - seconded, being shunted to other posts, taking early retirement. I'm calling in more favours than I'm creating just simply to stay afloat. The muggles call this a War of Attrition, I believe. Their so-called "Cold War" was one such - it went on for decades. Somehow I don't think I'm going to last that long.

//
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