"-And in a shocking speech to the nation tonight, the Prime Minister announced-"
"Harry!" Hermione shrieked, and the rest of the room cringed. "You're going to miss it!"
Harry kicked the door open and jostled his way into the room, trying not to spill his tray of steaming mugs. Every possible seat, chair arm and patch of carpet seemed to contain an agog witch or wizard staring at Harry's tiny television set as if it was the greatest feat of magic since Aldred the Mighty invented the 'Look No Hands' Slicing and Dicing Wand, the first ever magical kitchen aid, and still the most popular. (Hermione said the accompanying leaflet left out how his early attempts had resulted in the 'Look No Hands' part of the name, and refused to have anything to do with it.) The scene reminded Harry of nothing so much as old pictures he'd seen of people crowding around the first TV sets to watch the Queen's Coronation.
This was probably an even more important event. They'd be teaching about this moment in schools both Muggle and magical in the future. Harry couldn't help a little shiver at the thought.
The newsreader in the meantime was carefully reading his script, casting occasional desperate glances to one side of him as if he suspected his colleagues of playing some elaborate trick on him.
"-said that these witches and wizards, as they prefer to be called, pose absolutely no threat to the safety and security of the nation, and in fact have assisted in a number of serious matters over the last few years."
"A number? How many d'you think?" Ginny asked.
"Bloody loads, I bet," said Ron, and rubbed his arm where Hermione slapped it. She shushed him disapprovingly.
"Thanks, Harry," Mr Weasley said breathlessly, taking a mug.
"-discussion about just how this Minister for Magic can be brought into the Cabinet formally and improve relations-
"There's Kingsley!" A murmur of approval rumbled round the room as a brief shot of Kingsley entering Number Ten flashed on the screen.
"He looks very smart in that suit," said Hermione, and Harry saw Ron frowning at her. Harry wondered if Hermione was the only one in the room who hadn't noticed Mr Weasley seemed to have put his robes on inside out.
"Harry, this cabinet-" Mr Weasley started, and Harry could see the furrowed forehead that meant he'd be explaining Muggle politics again, with special reference to the part played by imprisoning people in furniture.
"Biscuit?" he offered, and shoved the plate towards Mr Weasley. He knew how much Arthur loved the custard creams, and sure enough, the distraction worked.
"-tune in to this channel tomorrow at eight for a one hour special on what this could mean for the future, and how it might affect us all."
Harry wasn't sure he liked the sound of that.
"Do they mean just Muggles, or wizards too?" Ron asked, and Harry thought he might have had the same chill run down his spine.
"Oh, I don't think it's going to affect any of us," Mr Weasley said vaguely, munching distractedly on a biscuit. "Is it?"
* * *
Arthur Weasley had a problem.
As a matter of fact, he had several problems on his agenda right now, but the most important (item one, top of the list, underlined several times) was that there was something wrong with his desk clock. No matter how many times he tapped it with his wand and a Reparo spell, it still told him that he'd spent almost three hours trying to write a memo.
The next most pressing problem (item two) was that all he had to show for those three hours (if by some unlikely event his clock wasn't broken, and really, it had to be) was the words: ATTENTION ALL MINISTRY PERSONNEL.
And those were already printed on the memo form.
Item three, a problem which was currently weighing heavily on his mind, was that nobody had even questioned the three hours he had (maybe, possibly) wasted staring at a blank piece of paper. In fact, nobody had even looked straight at him, just glanced around, above, over, under him and kept on going.
That led him to item four. Which was that this kept on happening. It was as if bereavement made you firstly (when you really just wanted a little peace and quiet to think things through) a target for every well-wisher with nothing better to do than clutter up someone else's doorstep, and then, later when you could do with some company to stop the thoughts and regrets from rattling around in your head at times, it made you a pariah. Just a hint of sadness made you automatically someone who might need to cry on their shoulder, or need to talk about it all at length, when everyone else would much rather forget about it and carry on like before.
As if they'd never existed.
Yes, it was official. He was an ungrateful wretch.
Item five. An ungrateful wretch with a hole in his sock and badly-mended robes. His fingers worried at the seam, which no amount of wandwork had managed to fix satisfactorily. An ungrateful wretch with a hole in his sock and badly-mended robes who had been assigned to write a memo to all Ministry personnel about standards of dress.
Which he supposed might be one reason he was having such trouble with it.
Arthur sighed, and watched as yet another Ministry official walked past his tiny room with only a fleeting sideways glance.
Only another four hours, and he could go home.
* * *
Arriving home at seven minutes past five on the dot (as always), Arthur paused.
The kitchen table was scrubbed clean, without so much as a crumb to show for the three people who were supposedly living at The Burrow these days.
The house was silent, and the inside of Arthur's head wasn't. His bed would be cold and empty, and it wobbled without Molly's balancing weight on the other side, no matter how many of Ginny's old school books he put under the legs.
He turned and walked out of the door again, not even caring if it swung shut properly behind him.
He couldn't hold it against Ginny for staying with Harry. Arthur knew he was no company for her, he didn't even make conversation most evenings, just stared at his newspaper. And Ron, well, if he was staying at the shop flat again how could he begrudge George the company?
Well then, Arthur wasn't going to come home tonight either. Not straightaway. He could do something different, he needed to do something different. Maybe one of those noisy bars the children liked to go to, that would surely drown out the nonsense in his head. The voices.
He closed his eyes, and a few seconds later he was back outside the Ministry. The evening was turning chilly, a stiff breeze blowing down the alleyway that led to the street where lights were starting to flicker into life one by one on the busy thoroughfare only a few short steps away. Above the trees, coloured lights sparkled. Was it that time of year again already? How had he not realised that?
There was just the tiniest, slightest possibility that there was something wrong with him, he was beginning to realise. It was almost a relief to work it out, although he hadn't the faintest idea how to fix it.
"Nobody else can, Arthur," he told himself sternly. "Just pull yourself together, man!"
He only realised he had spoken out loud when he was startled by a deep voice next to him.
"Something wrong, Arthur?"
"Kingsley!" Arthur tried not to appear too flustered, but he didn't seem to know quite what to do with himself. "Working late, are you?" he asked, before he realised that Kingsley must have approached from the street. "Or, or not?"
"Just calling in to pick up some files." Kingsley smiled, and Arthur was grateful he didn't acknowledge Arthur's confusion. "If you're waiting for someone, Arthur, it would be warmer inside?"
"Yes, yes it would." Arthur found himself following Kingsley up the steps. There was something much more satisfactory about the new public entrance to the Ministry - something about the way his shoes tapped across the shiny marble floor and the feel of smooth brass door handle under his palm was more real.
It was a shame more Ministry witches and wizards didn't use it, but at least it was less congested than the fireplaces these days.
"You know, I think we're the only ones who use this door," Kingsley said.
Arthur started. "I was just thinking that," he confessed. "I don't think anyone likes the idea that Muggles can enter that way. Although really, I don't think any Muggles have been here yet."
Kingsley's smile was grimly determined, with more than a hint of satisfaction in it. Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever seen that side of Kingsley before, but perhaps that was what he was like outside of work. Outside of the Order. Outside of everything else they'd spent so long being involved in.
He knew Kingsley Shacklebolt, and he would have said he knew him well. Knew him personally even. They had many of the same friends, and they worked in the same building even if he was just a lowly employee and Kingsley had received the ultimate promotion.
He knew Kingsley was a good man, and already he'd shown himself to be a fine Minister for Magic. That should be enough. But how well did he really know the man who was now taking the Wizarding world into this brave new era of openness?
"They're going to have to get used to sharing things with Muggles," Kingsley said firmly, pushing open his office door.
Looking at the enormous stack of documents Kingsley was piling into his briefcase, Arthur had the feeling they were going to have to get used to a lot of changes.
"The dress code memo caused a bit of a furore," Arthur said, casting around desperately for a conversation topic. Perhaps not the best one, given the trouble he'd had with it. But there was very little inspiration in this room. Kingsley's office was neat and tidy - surprisingly so. Of course, he was spending a lot of time with the Muggle Prime Minister these days. They seemed to be getting along famously. "But it's a wonderful idea. Dress as a Muggle Fridays, who would have thought we'd see the day?"
"I know I can rely on you to set a good example, Arthur," Kingsley said, frowning at his briefcase, which seemed unwilling to stay closed. He sighed and removed a handful of sheets before trying again. "Set the nightshirt and frilly apron wearers straight when they turn up, help them get the hang of trousers. You know what some of the old guard are like."
"Oh, yes. yes, of course." Arthur certainly couldn't wait for Friday to come around. Except-where on earth were the few Muggle clothes he owned these days? He hadn't seen them in the laundry, and he hadn't opened Molly's side of the closet since-
"If you need anything, you're welcome to borrow it from my wardrobe." Kingsley snapped his case shut at last and looked up. "In fact, if you're not in a hurry, why don't you join me for dinner tonight and we can look something out for you?"
"Really?" Molly would have been pleased at him having dinner so casually with the Minister, Arthur thought. Even if it was only Kingsley Shacklebolt, who had sat around their kitchen table more evenings than Arthur could count back in the old days.
Everything seemed different now. He remembered to smile before Kingsley decided he was refusing the invitation. "That-yes, that sounds lovely. Thank you."
Kingsley clapped him on the shoulder a little more heartily than was necessary, Arthur felt. "Good man. I have a few other ideas I want to run past you anyway - we can talk over a nice steak and a glass of wine."
Run past him? Other ideas? Arthur had the feeling that socialising with the Minister was going to be more work than he'd suspected.
Still, it might take his mind off his other problems for a while.
* * *
Surprisingly enough, however, Arthur enjoyed himself.
The enjoyment might have had a little to do with the excellent dinner Kingsley cooked while they chatted over a glass or two of really quite delicious wine, but more than that, there was a good, comfortable atmosphere in Kingsley's flat that made Arthur feel more at home than he had in ages. Here were all the things that were missing from his office - pictures of smiling witches and wizards in brightly coloured robes like the ones Kingsley used to wear - etheric or something, Bill always called them. A familiar-looking flask stood on the mantelpiece too, polished and dust-free, gleaming in the firelight.
So many people they were missing these days. So many reminders everywhere.
Nevertheless, Kingsley was good company. Not that Arthur didn't know that, he'd always known and liked him as a good man. But this Kingsley was both more serious and more fun than he'd seen him before, relaxing in his own home.
By the time Kingsley asked the inevitable question, Arthur was too mellow to find the energy to object.
"So." Kingsley filled their glasses once more, ignoring Arthur's protests. "How are you really, Arthur?"
For the first time, Arthur told the truth. "I'm not sure."
Kingsley just nodded, his head bobbing slowly.
"I can just about boil an egg without burning down the kitchen after two years on my own. Give me another six months and I might have got the hang of sewing. The children have their own lives, and I can't ask more from them when-" When he wasn't the one who loved them enough to follow Fred into the grave, he thought, irrational as it was. But he stopped, because those were private thoughts, too much to share even with a good friend.
Kingsley didn't push.
"And work?" he asked instead, his voice gentle.
"Fine," Arthur said, too quickly. "I have a little trouble concentrating perhaps, but other than that it's all fine." He shoved his hand down the side of the soft leather chair to hide the twitching of his fingers, his good mood rapidly evaporating. How could he have thought Kingsley wouldn't notice? The man wasn't an idiot.
"If you need any time off-"
"No, really." The last thing Arthur wanted was to draw more attention to himself. Everyone had lost someone, whether friends or family, whether wartime or during the aftermath. Two whole years of change, upheaval, counting the losses. There was no need for any more fuss. And he wasn't even sure it would help.
"Then perhaps a change of scene?" Kingsley sat up straight now, his eyes alight as if the most marvellous idea had just occurred to him.
As it turned out, it had.
* * *
"So you're going to be working with the Muggle Prime Minister?" Ron looked around the room as if appealing for help. "That's the maddest idea I've ever heard. It's--"
"Absolutely wonderful, Mr Weasley," Hermione said, congratulating him with a kiss. "Isn't it, Ron? Harry?"
"Oh, yeah." Ron sat down heavily and stared at his father. "Wonderful." Then he perked up a little. "Hey, does that mean you'll be on Harry's telly?"
"It's not just mine, Ron," Harry said. He was getting tired of explaining it, but Hermione kicked him in the shins anyway. Oh, right. "And, um, congratulations on the new job, Mr Weasley."
"Please, you should both call me Arthur." It was worth it for the look on Ron's face when Hermione hugged him again, Arthur thought. Really, the sooner those two were married, the better. "We're all family here."
"So, when do you start?" Hermione asked, hastily tacking on a self-conscious "Arthur" at the end.
"Not for a few weeks." Arthur straightened his smart new Muggle necktie in the mirror and admired his reflection. "For now, I'm in intensive Muggle Relations training."
That was a really nasty cough his youngest son had, Arthur thought, watching Ron turn an interesting shade of pink in the mirror. He'd have to make sure he gave Hermione the family recipe for cough mixture before they left.
He was sure she'd understand.
* * *
Kingsley laughed heartily when Arthur told him of the scene, gratifyingly amused by Arthur's revenge.
"She reminds me of Molly," he said, "in all the best ways."
Arthur couldn't argue with him, and not just because of the lump in his throat.
Kingsley didn't draw attention to it, though, just brought out the newspapers. Apparently today's lesson involved reading. That seemed simple enough.
"They have a lot of politics, Muggles, don't they," Arthur said, turning the pages of the largest paper on the stack.
"In that one, certainly." Kingsley pulled one from underneath that was smaller, although the headlines were larger. Odd, that.
"And this one." Arthur wasn't sure what to make of it.
"Gossip. Celebrities. Royal family. Scandal." Kingsley counted them off as he flipped over the pages. "Oh, and television."
Arthur hummed approvingly at that one. "It's a marvellous thing though, isn't it?" It was a shame he couldn't have one at The Burrow. It was almost enough to make him want to live in a Muggle house
Kingsley laughed. "I knew you were the man for this job. You're going to get along just fine with your new colleagues."
"You haven't told me much about them yet," Arthur said, marvelling over the frozen pictures in the newspaper. Really very clever, the way they made the people stay still.
"They'll be in the Ministry next week to learn about our side of things, so you'll meet them soon enough." Kingsley poured two glasses of wine. "That'll be the more sober part of your training, I'm afraid." His eyes twinkled over a mischievous smile.
"Best make the most of this then, hadn't we?" Arthur clinked his glass with Kingsley's and took a hefty swallow of wine before poring over the newspaper once more. There was a picture there of two young men standing very close together. Indecently so, almost. It puzzled him, and he was sure he was misunderstanding the text printed beneath it.
He must have seemed as perplexed as he felt, because Kingsley leaned over to see what he was reading.
"Ah." Kingsley's voice was loud in Arthur's ear, very close where he leaned over him. "I see you've found the scandal section." He sounded disapproving, and no wonder, if Arthur was reading the article correctly.
It was a good thing wizards didn't do that sort of thing. Although he supposed at least it wasn't dangerous for Muggles to indulge in it. Just scandalous, apparently. Arthur could feel a hot prickling sensation at the back of his neck, and reached up to loosen his collar.
Kingsley's flat was a little on the warm side today, he was sure.
"That reminds me," Kingsley said, retrieving a memo from his case. "Since you'll be in the office before me on Monday, could you get young Batleigh to send this out? I'd like it circulated as soon as possible."
Arthur couldn't possibly be reading this correctly either, he was sure of that. He skimmed the sheet of paper, growing more and more confused.
Equal Opportunities Policy.
Compassionate leave on death of a spouse or equivalent, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
And they kept on using those words. Sexual orientation. As if there was more than one!
"Kingsley," he started, but the man had his back towards Arthur, and was busy with some papers once more. "Kingsley!" he tried again, louder this time. His voice echoed loudly in his own head, and he cleared his throat to cover his confusion.
"Problem, Arthur?" Kingsley didn't seem to realise quite how ridiculous his memo was, although Arthur found that hard to believe.
"Not a problem as such," Arthur started, but he had to stop. "All right, yes. I realise that we need to have a certain amount of, of. consistency with Muggle policies, but I don't see the point of including all this-" he waved his hand, not trusting himself to even speak the words out loud.
"All this?" Kingsley raised his eyebrows, and Arthur's heart plummeted. Kingsley was using his 'being polite to strangers' voice, and that never boded well.
"Sex stuff," Arthur managed finally. "Orientation. I mean, it's not as if it applies to wizards, is it!" He forced out a laugh, but it wasn't especially easy. Damn Kingsley for bringing all this nonsense up, just when Arthur was enjoying himself.
Kingsley sat down and looked at Arthur.
"It doesn't?" he asked, and it was like looking at a stranger when Arthur met his eyes. A stranger who was saddened, disappointed by what he saw. Or by what he heard.
Arthur shifted his eyes to the two wine glasses on the table between them, so close they were touching, the fire flickering orange streaks that reflected one in the other and back again. He raised his eyes, searching for something more comfortable to look at, but the only thing in sight was a familiar-looking flask on the mantelpiece, one piece in a large jigsaw puzzle, and he was only just now seeing the picture on the box.
He wasn't sure yet if the picture was frozen in place, or if it was still moving.
He didn't-- he wasn't. Was Kingsley--
"I should-" Arthur reached for his glass of wine, but thought better of it when his hand neared the warm sides of it. He drew back and reached for his coat.
Kingsley just nodded, and Arthur didn't look back when he left.
* * *
Arthur expected things to be uncomfortable at the office, but after an hour or so of Kingsley behaving perfectly normally, and the relief of getting along just fine (as promised) with his new colleagues, Arthur was able to relax.
There was a tense moment when a memo fluttered round the corner to their little meeting room, but it was just Jenkins reminding them that the Ministry would be closing early for employees who were attending the Albus Dumbledore Memorial Dinner.
Arthur had completely forgotten about the dinner, but there was nothing to be done about it. Kingsley was acting as if nothing had happened, so Arthur had no need to avoid the dinner just because he had so foolishly requested to be sat at the same table as the Minister.
They were sat, as Arthur's usual fortune would have it, in neighbouring seats.
"Well, this is pleasant," Arthur tried, and although vaguely familiar faces nodded and bobbed around him, muttering polite responses, only Kingsley's still, silent head had his attention.
So much for behaving normally.
If anyone noticed that the Minister seemed less than friendly with his closest subordinate this evening, however, they were far too polite to mention it.
The atmosphere was still awkward enough for Arthur to take more walks than usual out in the courtyard, however. The night air was crisp, and would have been too chilly for hanging around if it wasn't for the glowing torches that warmed as well as lit the area. Arthur kept to the shadows out of a vague sense of shame, though he was having trouble working out exactly what he had done.
"I don't understand," he said, when he felt someone step up beside him, because he didn't need to look to know who it was.
"I know," Kingsley sighed.
At least the silence that fell was companionable once they'd got that over with. Arthur's head was pleasantly fuzzy from the buzz of conversation and half a glass of wine over dinner, and something about the faint smell of smoke in the air, the crisp coolness, the company, allowed another piece of the puzzle to slot into place.
"Morris Turpin," he breathed, and he felt -- not saw, but really felt Kingsley tense next to him. How long had it been since he'd thought of that night? He had no idea.
"We sneaked out of the dorm," Arthur said. "We had a bonfire after the final Quidditch match before Christmas, but we couldn't see it from the tower, our dorm faced the wrong way."
His friend's face had been dancing, lively and flickering orange in the firelight, full of so much joy. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world to kiss him, and to be kissed back.
"I can't even remember the Professor's name," Arthur sighed. "But he caught us out there, lying on the grass. Two weeks detention we got, and he scared us half to death telling us that's how wizards turned into Squibs."
"Not many things more frightening than the threat of losing what you're just learning to use," Kingsley observed.
"We spent all those detention hours copying out texts from some old book on a wizard's duty, and something about temptations of the flesh." Arthur laughed, but there was very little mirth in it even with all the wine bubbling up inside him.
Kingsley snorted. "Alastor had a similar experience. He never did overcome it completely." Arthur could hear the regret in Kingsley's voice. "Not enough to ever let anyone know what we had."
The memo made so much more sense now. When Arthur thought of the consideration he'd had, the gentle enquiries, however poorly received by him, and the offers of assistance. Kingsley had never had the option of being annoyed by solicitous well-wishers.
It seemed more than a little unfair.
"I loved Molly, you know," he said, because that was where his thoughts naturally strayed in any quiet moment. He expected nothing would change that.
"Nobody could dispute it," Kingsley said, but it was important that he understood. That Arthur made him understand.
"Even if I hadn't believed all that nonsense," and Arthur was more than a little ashamed he'd never questioned it in more than forty years, "it wouldn't have made any difference."
Kingsley's face was very near when Arthur turned his head. Near, but with maybe an impossibly distant gap between them all the same. "And I always wanted children. Lots of them." He couldn't help the satisfaction in his tone. His family was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
After Molly, anyway.
He'd been so sure that was it. One love, one family. One tiny corner of the universe to call his own. So many people didn't have that much, it seemed greedy to expect any more. And at his age, well. It took a lot of energy to start over.
It didn't take as much as he thought it might, to lean forward and brush his lips against Kingsley's. It was no effort to let Kingsley slide his arm around him, to warm himself against the familiar solidity of what might be his only really good friend.
Or just might be more. Yes, he thought this could be more.
"Merlin!" Arthur said, breaking off the kiss suddenly.
Kingsley looked concerned at this, and Arthur hastened to reassure him, pulling him closer and pressing his cold nose against Kingsley's ear. "I just thought," he said breathlessly, "I'll have to get a new bed!"
Because of the wobble, he wanted to explain, but Kingsley's delighted roar of laughter distracted him, and he had to kiss him again before they attracted too much attention.
Although, Arthur was giddy to realise, it didn't matter in the slightest if the whole party stood around to watch - he wasn't about to stop this any time soon.
Not this time.
* * *
"There he is!" Hermione nudged Ron, who was busy trying to fish an escaped piece of biscuit out of his mug.
"Damn," Ron said. "Almost had it that time." Hermione pulled a face and turned back to the television.
"With Kingsley," Harry said, and Hermione gave him a sharp look.
"Yes," she said, her voice thoughtful. "His good friend Kingsley."
"My dad, friends with the Minister for Magic." Ron shook his head. "And dealing with all those Muggles, look at him!" Arthur was smiling and waving for the cameras, and a lot of men in suits seemed to be very happy with him.
"Good friends, Ron." Harry stared at the screen where Hermione's eyes were now fixed.
"Really good friends," she murmured, and shot a glance over Ron's head.
"What are you two on about?" Ron grumbled, still not taking his eyes off his father.
"Um." Harry's contribution was less than helpful, he didn't need Hermione's eyeroll to point it out.
"They do spend an awful lot of time together, Ron," she tried.
"So do we," he said, and tried to grab her fingers.
She shook him off impatiently. "That's what we're saying, Ron."
Ron frowned for a moment, then his face cleared with relief.
"You don't think--?" He laughed when they glanced at each other. "Hermione, Harry mate, you couldn't be more wrong."
"Really?" Harry couldn't help but get the feeling Ron had misunderstood.
"Wizards don't get that-" Ron waved his hand airily, and Hermione's eyebrows almost disappeared into her hair. "Don't do that, whatever. That-what do you call it? The gay thing."
"Um." This was news to Harry. He was pretty sure it would be news to a lot of people, given some of the scandal he'd picked up from Ginny lately. He was pretty sure it would be years before he'd be able to speak to Oliver Wood again without blushing. Who would have thought you could get four grown men in one of the showers at Puddlemere, let alone four men doing that?
"And," Ron said, with a triumphant smack on the arm of his chair, "do you know how I know that? Because my dad told me."
"Okay," Harry said, but Hermione grabbed the remote before he could do anything and the men in suits were doing a funny walk backwards, climbing the wrong way into cars and reversing into the distance.
"Too far," she muttered, and pressed a few more buttons until she was happy with the frame on the screen.
"What?" Ron said, looking at his father's smiling face in the crowd. His dad, with Kingsley Shacklebolt, and that Muggle Prime Minister, whatever his name was. The Prime Minister was patting Kingsley on the back and holding a hand out to Arthur, who was pulling his own away from Kingsley to accept it.
Pulling his hand away. From where it lay quite happily, up there on Harry's television screen, in Kingsley's large, firm grip.
"Bloody hell," Ron breathed, and Hermione deftly caught his mug before he deposited the remains of his tea and biscuit all over himself.
"I think," she said, handing it to Harry with a sigh, "we might be needing more tea."