Ron Weasley stretched out in bed, eyes still closed. He was enjoying that first moment of blissful peace after awakening - that moment before he could remember what day it was, or care about what time it was. He revelled in that golden second of sleepy confusion until it unavoidably passed. Then a sickening feeling crashed down upon him, as it did every morning when he remembered. Fred.
The bedsprings gave a great squeak as Ron hauled himself out of bed, and dragged himself across his violently orange room. He stopped in front of the full-length mirror in the corner of the room, staring at himself for a long time. He looked into his own blue eyes, not moving or thinking, just staring, as he had every morning since he had returned to The Burrow.
“Pyjamas are a bit short in the leg, don’t you think?” said Ron’s mirror critically, interrupting his reverie. Ron glanced down at his worn pyjama bottoms, which only reached mid-calf.
“Who enchanted you to talk, anyway?” he muttered. The mirror gave an offended, “Hrumph!” and Ron took one last look at his reflection before taking a deep breath and opening his bedroom door.
He jogged down the zigzagging staircase, the smell of bacon, eggs and scones getting stronger as he descended. On the third floor, he met Ginny coming out of the bathroom she shared with their parents. They exchanged small smiles and “Good mornings” with none of the usual sibling bickering about who was going to feed the chickens or help Mum with breakfast. Ron’s heart felt heavy as he walked down the last few flights of stairs and into the kitchen. His mother was in front of the stove, scrambling eggs with one hand while waving her wand haphazardly at the table. The slightly rumpled, chequered tablecloth flew off the table and out the open garden door, shook itself loose of crumbs, and then zoomed back into the kitchen. It settled itself back on the table, ending up somewhat askew. Ron absently fixed the tablecloth as he walked past it, his bare feet making soft slapping noises on the tile floor.
“Morning, Mum,” he said, bending down to kiss his mother on the cheek.
“Oh, Ron!” his mother said with a little start. “You gave me a scare, I didn’t hear you coming.”
She poured the entire pan of scrambled eggs into one dish and started heaping sausages atop the mountain of eggs. She then added two scones to the cornucopia. Mum peered at the plate for a moment and then, not fully satisfied, added two more sausages.
“Hungry, dear?” Mum asked in an absent sort of way.
Ron stared down at the overflowing plate of food, still not quite awake enough to feel hungry.
“Starving,” he lied, taking the plate and settling down at the table.
His mother gave him the shadow of a smile and returned to her overzealous breakfast preparation. Ron had heard that there was a certain way everyone dealt with death. In fact, Hermione had told him there were some stages one went through, with a lot of anger and denial and that sort of thing. He reckoned his mother was in the ‘cooking a lot to keep busy’ stage. Dad was in the ‘working overtime and tinkering with Muggle stuff in the shed when he got home’ stage. Ron wasn’t sure what stage he was in, or if he was going through stages at all.
“So…any mail?” Ron asked through a mouthful of sausage. Thus began the daily struggle of trying to make conversation, being careful to avoid anything that could be connected to Fred.
“Yes, a few owls came in this morning…letter from Charlie, he’s arrived safely back in Romania…a few letters for you too, over there on the stool. More eggs?”
“No I’m fine, thanks,” Ron said as he scrambled over to the stool by the sink and snatched up the two letters addressed to him. He quickly shuffled through them and was disappointed to find nothing new from Hermione yet, but surprised to see another letter from Harry so quickly. He had received one from Harry only two days ago detailing his visit to that prospective house of his. The other letter was in a familiar magenta-coloured envelope addressed to him in neat, feminine handwriting. Ron sighed and headed back to the table, deciding to open the magenta letter first.
Dear Mr (R) Weasley,
Thank you for coming down to the shop last week to sign those papers and to meet Allegra. She thanks you again for the job opportunity here at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. I was having difficulty managing on my own, and she’s been a great help.
I’m afraid I have to bother you to come down to the shop again, though. Several customers have come in and complained that there’s a problem with one of the WonderWitch products. Apparently, the Vivacious Violet colour line of Edible Nail Polish has turned several customers’ tongues permanently vivacious violet. I’m not sure how you’d like us to handle the situation. Perhaps you could ask Mr (G) Weasley if he knows of a solution?
Also, the Pygmy Puffs won’t stop breeding. Could you let us know how to tell the difference between the males and the females so that we can separate them? They are beginning to overrun the shop.
Send my best to Mr (G) Weasley. Please tell him that we look forward to his return.
Ron groaned imagining violet tongues and a plethora of Pygmy Puffs. He wasn’t entirely sure how he had become accountable for Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Verity, the witch who had been working for the twins part-time, had taken on the responsibility of temporarily running the shop after Fred’s death. Although Verity was handling daily shop business, there were also papers to be signed, finances to be sorted out, rent and fees to be paid, and so on. George seemed entirely uninterested in returning to work, so Ron had somehow wound up being George’s stand-in when official business needed doing. The shop was still spinning out enormous amounts of gold (they had sold out their entire storehouse of fireworks in the week following You-Know-Who’s death) but Ron knew that Verity was struggling to run the business without Fred and George. He’d agreed to hire on Verity’s sister to help out at the shop for now. But without the twins’ inventions and their business savvy, Ron feared that Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes would eventually sink.
A fully dressed Ginny came into the kitchen and wished their mother a good morning. Mum gave her one of the three full breakfast plates she had saved on the counter. One of the two remaining must have been for George, who was probably still up in his bedroom, but the third was a mystery. Mum rarely ate breakfast, and Dad had already gone off to work. It was as if Mum had put the plate aside with the hopes that someone else would show up and claim it.
“There’s mail for you too, dear,” Mum said to Ginny. “So, what do you two fancy for lunch?”
Ron stared incredulously at his still-overflowing breakfast plate. He exchanged looks with Ginny, who lightly answered, “Whatever you’re making is fine, Mum,” and settled down across from Ron at the table. After shoving a forkful of eggs into his mouth, Ron ripped open the envelope holding Harry’s letter, feeling mildly curious. Two pieces of parchment fell out. Harry’s untidy scrawl filled one page, and the other was a map, by the looks of it. Ron put the map aside for the moment and read the letter.
Sorry for the letter overload, but I thought I’d write again and tell you straight away. I did it -- I bought Arbour Glen. I know, its kind of quick and whatnot. Hermione will probably think I’m barking mad for going ahead and buying it so soon. You get it though, right? I need somewhere of my own, and I like the place, so why wait around?
I’ve got to sign one more thing this afternoon called a Homeowner’s Contract (which I’ve never heard of, any ideas what it’s all about?) and then it’s official. I’m going to stay at Grimmauld Place for a couple more nights, and then I’m moving in on Wednesday! Anyway, I’m meeting Peet to sign the contract at one o’clock. Want to come by to see the place?
(Actually, you have to come by, because I need a witness to sign the ruddy thing with me. Map’s in the envelope, you can Apparate straight onto the property.)
“Wow. I don’t believe him,” Ron said, shaking his head as he lowered the letter.
“Who’s that, dear?” said Mum over the tinkling sounds made by the plates moving back into their places in the cupboards.
“Harry. He’s gone and bought that house,” said Ron in amazement.
“I know,” said Ginny, holding up her own letter. Ron recognised Harry’s handwriting. “The nutter. I didn’t think he was that serious about it.”
“Are you going over there today too, then?” Ron asked, feeling only slightly peeved that Ginny’s letter was significantly longer than his own
“Can’t, going into the village with Mum this afternoon - ”
There was a clatter over by the kitchen counter as Mum put her wand down and abruptly burst into tears. Ron looked to Ginny; they both leapt up from their chairs at the table and hurried to their mother’s side.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” Ginny asked.
“Oh nothing, oh it’s silly!” their mother cried out between sobs. “I just…Harry…I thought he’d…he’d stay with us now. House feels…so empty…just thought he would stay…”
Ron’s heart suddenly felt like someone was squeezing it very tightly. He swallowed a very large lump in his throat and glanced at Ginny, who for once looked as lost for words as he.
“Shh, Mum,” Ron finally said quietly. “I’m sure Harry will visit loads…”
Harry had spent the last few nights at Grimmauld Place, with occasional brief appearances at The Burrow. Ron had figured that something needed doing at Grimmauld Place, and that Harry would eventually return to The Burrow to stay for the rest of the summer. Everyone had known about Harry’s desire to buy a house, but no one had thought he was serious about it. Mum had expressed scepticism but hadn’t outright disapproved, because she must have thought it just a passing fancy. A nonsensical thought occurred to Ron - maybe if he didn’t show up this afternoon and Harry didn’t have a witness to sign this contract, he wouldn’t be able to buy the house and Mum would stop crying…
For the next few moments Ron and Ginny continued trying to comfort their mother. Then all of the sudden she announced in a stuffed-up voice, “Enough of that nonsense,” and became very busy preparing sandwiches for lunch. Bewildered but grateful that she’d stopped crying at least, Ron said something about going out for the day. He headed upstairs with his two letters still in hand while Ginny stayed to help with the altogether unnecessary sandwiches.
Ron stopped on the second landing in front of George’s closed bedroom door, hesitated for a moment, then knocked. There was no immediate response, so Ron kept on knocking loudly until George finally pulled open the door. His brother’s clothes were rumpled, as if they’d been slept in, and his hair was messy. There was a significant amount of ginger stubble on his chin and his eyes looked dull and bloodshot.
“What?” George asked grumpily.
“Hi. Er…what’re you doing?”
“Ballroom dancing,” said George sarcastically. “I was sleeping, you git. What do you want?”
Ron ignored his brother’s tone. “Got a letter from Verity this morning. I guess there have been some problems at the shop…” He told him about the Edible Nail Polish and the Pygmy Puffs.
George gave a hollow laugh. “Sounds like someone’s been bewitching the products.”
“Why would anyone do that?” asked Ron, confused.
“For a laugh, I suppose. Probably thought it was clever, playing a joke on the joke shop.”
“Well that’s stupid. Do you know how to fix it?”
For a second Ron saw a familiar look flash in George’s eyes, the same look he’d seen when the twins were huddled together discussing some prank, or invention, or problem to be solved. But then it was gone and George just shrugged.
“I’m sure you can figure it out,” he said, starting to close the door.
“It’s your shop, why can’t you fix it?” Ron snapped, beginning to lose his patience. He heard George say, “I’m busy,” just before the door slammed shut.
“Right, busy ballroom dancing,” Ron muttered savagely to himself.
He stalked up to his room and threw some clothes on, swearing as he pulled on the heavy gold watch that he had received for his seventeenth birthday - it was already half past eleven. He wanted to get to Diagon Alley as soon as possible so he could get that business over with, but he would have to hurry if he wanted to make it to Harry’s by one o’clock. Ron stuffed Harry’s letter and the map he had provided into his back pocket. He narrowly avoided Splinching himself by remembering just in time that he could not Apparate directly into Diagon Alley. Ron sighed heavily and Disapparated with the Leaky Cauldron in mind instead, hoping that he wouldn’t Apparate into an occupied bathroom cubicle like he had last time.
A few moments later (he had mercifully Apparated into the bar of the Cauldron) Ron was walking down Diagon Alley, which was thrumming with activity. Several shops that had been boarded up a few months ago now had flashy “Opening soon!” or “Grand re-opening!” signs in the windows. Ron smirked as he passed Mory’sMemorabilorium. The window display featured several tiny, black-haired action figures that drew their wands at passers-by, or clambered heroically over the pyramid of boxes on which they were mounted. A banner with a lightning-bolt border was stretched over the display, proclaiming: “Here only - official Harry Potter figurines!” Ron was not quite sure what made the figurines ‘official’, but he was certain that Harry would not have sanctioned them. Ron entertained himself briefly by envisioning Harry’s reaction when he discovered that he was an action figure.
Ron reached Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Ignoring the assault on all of his senses that the colourful storefront provided, Ron pushed open the door to find the shop jam-packed as usual. He noticed that a gaggle of young witches were fighting over the last bottle of Pimple Vanisher and that many shelves had small red “Out of Stock” signs on them. On each of these shelves, several cages containing rolling balls of fluff had been jammed in, replacing the out-of-stock product. Ron swore he saw a few Pygmy Puff escapees on the floor as well, scooting around people’s feet.
At the far end of the shop was a long table with an old-fashioned, brass till. Verity was behind it, looking remarkably unperturbed by the long line of impatient people she was ringing up. Ron always wondered how she had ended up working at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. He vaguely remembered her from Hogwarts; as far as he could recall she had been in Ravenclaw, a year ahead of the twins and had not really been in their circle of friends. With her pretty features and short blonde hair, Verity Chamberlain looked as if she belonged on the cover of Witch Weekly, not behind the till of a joke shop.
“Excuse me, pardon me…”
Ron turned around to see Verity’s sister, Allegra, struggling to make her way through groups of customers with a tall stack of boxes balanced precariously in her arms. Ron watched as someone inevitably bumped into her and the boxes toppled to the ground. A distressed-looking Allegra dove to the floor to prevent them from being trampled by the customers. Ron made his way over and began helping her to pick them up.
“Oh, thank you,” Allegra said breathlessly, her head bent as she scrambled to collect the boxes. She looked like a younger version of Verity, except that her blonde hair was very long and very straight. Unlike her sister, Allegra had been sent to Beauxbatons instead of Hogwarts, so Ron had only met her for the first time last week. She would be entering her fifth year at Beauxbatons in September.
“I thought I’d be able to balance them all and - oh! Mr Weasley!” Allegra flushed pink, having just looked up and recognised him.
“Hi, Allegra. How’re things?”
“Just fine!” Allegra said in a very high-pitched voice. “It’s the lunchtime lull, so I’m just trying to get some new stock out!”
Ron looked around at the thick crowd of customers. This was the lunchtime lull?
“Verity probably wants to talk to you. I’ll just head up to the till…” Allegra hugged her newly-balanced tower of boxes close to her chest, squeezed past a wizard trying to figure out a Muggle card trick and disappeared into the crowd.
“Hello Mr Weasley,” said Verity, appearing beside him a moment later. “Thanks for coming in so soon. I’m sure you’ve noticed our Pygmy problem?”
Ron watched as a runaway purple Puff scooted behind a box of Puking Pastilles. “It’s bizarre, I remember the twins couldn’t breed them fast enough.”
Verity smiled wryly. “If only we were so fortunate. They’re still very popular, but now we can’t sell them fast enough. I swear they’re doubling every morning. Then there’s the nail polish. I don’t know how many girls I’ve sent to St. Mungo’s with violet tongues.” She suddenly grinned. “Although it’s rather funny when the boys come in with them. They get quite embarrassed, because you know they’re either licking a girl’s fingernails, or using the polish themselves…”
Verity chuckled, and Ron found himself wondering if licking the fingernails of one’s girlfriend was a normal thing to do. He took a moment to re-focus on the task at hand, and then told Verity that he had spoken to George. Ron relayed his brother’s theory about pranksters. By the time he was finished, Verity was frowning.
“Well it makes sense,” she said. “The shop’s so busy that we probably wouldn’t notice someone bewitching the products.” She pensively tapped a magenta fingernail against her cheek. “I know that your brothers put a charm on the products to prevent people from stealing - their palms turn bright red, it’s actually quite a laugh - but they probably didn’t anticipate this.”
“Maybe we could charm them to do the same to pranksters?” Ron suggested.
“That’s a tricky bit of magic to do without harming the product, though,” Verity pointed out. She bit her lip and hesitated before saying, “Do you think…I mean, would it be too much to ask Mr Weasley to come in?”
Ron shifted uncomfortably. “He’s still, er…having a tough time, I think.”
A disappointed look crossed Verity’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. “Yes, of course. I understand,” she said quietly. “It was…a great shock.”
They had come to Fred. Wanting to avoid the subject of his late brother, Ron quickly said, “So for the nail polish…I guess we’ll have to put an ad in the Prophet announcing that we’re recalling that colour line and that people should chuck it if they’ve bought it. We don’t know how much of it is tainted…”
They talked for a little while longer, trying to sort out the product problems. Ron suggested that eating the clear Edible Nail Polish might turn the violet tongues back to normal (a simple solution, but worth a shot nonetheless) and promised to take a small cage of Pygmy Puffs home for observation. Hopefully he would be able to discover the cause of their mysterious proliferating before they completely took over the shop.
One o’clock was fast approaching, so Ron said quick goodbyes to the Chamberlain sisters and hurried back down Diagon Alley. He had to fend off a couple of children who recognised him outside Mory’sMemorabilorium and asked for his autograph. He pretended to be bothered by the request, although he was secretly pleased. However, the delay meant that it was only five minutes to one o’clock when he finally reached the Leaky Cauldron. To make matters worse, when he reached into his back pocket, Ron realised that the map Harry had drawn him was gone. He swore loudly in the middle of the Leaky Cauldron, drawing several stares. Ron had either left the map in the shop, or it had fallen out of his pocket. Trying his best to summon up a mental image of the map from memory, Ron anxiously repeated the name, “Arbour Glen” in his head a few times and Disapparated.
Ron had a fleeting impression of greenery and an earthy smell before he lost his balance and toppled forward. He landed face-first in a pile of rotting leaves and soft dirt, arms and legs sprawled out in all directions. Disoriented and confused, Ron raised his face from the ground, spat some dirt out of his mouth and looked around. The air was heavy and the enormous old trees surrounding him blotted out the sun; only a few shafts of sunlight had pierced through the canopy above. The place was filled with a peaceful silence, punctuated by the occasional birdcall. It slowly dawned on him that he was in a forest. He must have overshot the Apparition.
Ron groaned and dropped his head back down on the ground. He lay there in the dirt for awhile, feeling drained. This entire day had been terrible. Come to think of it, this entire month had been terrible. He had thought things were supposed to get easier with You-Know-Who gone - and they were, but only in a way. People kept telling him how brave he was, because he’d destroyed a Horcrux, robbed Gringotts, fought Death Eaters and whatever else. But now he had to be a different kind of brave to run a business he had no idea about, shoulder his family’s grief, maybe never return to Hogwarts and have a great, gaping hole where his future was supposed to be. He also had to be brave about Hermione, because he cared about her so much that it scared him. He so badly didn’t want to muck things up with her and was nervous, excited and terrified about the fact that they had crossed the line from friendship over into something more. Then there was the cold, hard truth about Fred and to face that required more bravery than Ron thought he could muster. It was one thing to face your own death and another thing entirely to deal with the fact that someone you loved was never, ever coming back.
He wasn’t sure how long he lay face down on the forest floor feeling sorry for himself. But then, quite abruptly, Ron was brought to his senses as something jabbed him hard in the ribs. Reflexes kicked in as he quickly rolled onto his back and sat up, wand out, expecting to see some kind of predatory animal that had been eyeing his prone figure for dinner. Instead, a small boy with a round face and messy brown hair was staring at him curiously. He looked quite young, perhaps only four or five years old, and still had the chubby look of a child who hadn’t yet lost their baby fat.
“How come you were sleeping on the ground?” the boy asked in a small, clear voice.
Ron glanced at a moss-covered rock sitting in front of him. He must have Apparated directly onto the rock, which had caused him to lose his balance. “I wasn’t sleeping, I tripped and fell,” he muttered, beginning to stand up.
The boy’s large green eyes flickered to Ron’s wand, which was still drawn. “Are you looking for a walking stick? ‘Cause that one’s really small, it isn’t going to work.”
Oh, brilliant, the kid’s a Muggle, Ron thought as he swiftly pocketed his wand. He took a moment to look around at his surroundings, absently brushing dirt off himself as he did so. It was forest as far as the eye could see. He guessed they were in a ravine, because the ground sloped sharply upward on one side. He could not see what was over top of the slope.
“Do you live in the forest, then?” the boy piped up. Ron started; he had forgotten the kid was there.
“No, I do not live in the forest,” said Ron irritably. “And may I ask what you think you’re doing, traipsing about the woods and kicking people?”
“I’m collecting bugs,” the boy said matter-of-factly. “I caught a spider; want to see?”
Ron inadvertently shuddered. “No. Look, shouldn’t someone be watching you or something? Where are your parents?”
“In heaven,” the boy responded promptly, in a casual tone. He might as well have said they were at the post office.
Ron was taken aback. “Oh. Er…sorry.”
“That’s okay. I live with my Granny and Grandpa, over there,” he jerked his chubby thumb over his shoulder, in the vague direction of the uphill slope.
“That’s erm…nice. Listen, I’m looking for my friend’s house,” Ron said. He felt very stupid asking for directions from a child, but it would be even stupider to aimlessly wander the forest for the rest of the day. “The place is called Arbour Glen, have you heard of it?”
“We live on Arbour Glen, too! My house is Number Two, Arbour Glen Road,” the boy said, reciting his address in the slow, singsong voice that children usually used to repeat something they had memorised. “There’s another house way down the road, but it’s really old and rotten, and nobody’s lived in it in ages, and I got in trouble once from Granny for trying to get in the front gate - ”
The description did not match Harry’s portrayal of the house, but Ron decided it was worth a shot. “How do I get there?” he interrupted.
The boy pointed up the slope. “When you get to the top, you’ll see the road. Watch out for snakes though, there’s some in the bushes,” he said cheerfully.
“Thanks,” Ron muttered, heading towards the uphill climb. He heard the boy call out, “Bye!” behind him and suddenly felt slightly guilty about leaving the little boy alone in the forest. Then again, it wasn’t really his problem if the boy’s grandparents wanted to let him to wander about down there alone, was it?
After a few scrapes from wayward branches and a narrowly missed encounter with a garden snake, Ron reached the top of the slope. He found himself on a gravel road enclosed by forest. The road was empty and quiet, shrouded in peaceful silence like the forest. Further up the road, he could make out a low stone wall amongst the trees, so he set off in that direction. Presently, he came to wall; in the middle of the stone wall stood a gate and behind it was a large, grassy property with a little yellow cottage in the middle. It looked neither old nor rotten and Ron wondered briefly if there were some charms around the place to keep Muggles away. He opened the gate and headed up a dirt pathway towards the cottage.
The front door was unlocked, so Ron pushed it open and entered a small hallway. A flight of stairs stood in front of him. There were handsome wooden beams throughout the house. To his left was a sunny sitting room, bare except for an old-fashioned fireplace. To his right there was an empty kitchen with a wood-burning stove and bright blue curtains on the windows. Sunlight streamed through the large windows in the entranceway, making the place feel sunny and happy despite its bareness. Ron liked it immediately.
Harry appeared at the top of the staircase and came thumping down the stairs, looking alarmed. “What happened?” he demanded as he reached the entranceway, his eyes raking over Ron.
Ron realised that he was still covered in dirt and forest debris. He pulled a leaf out from behind his ear. “Apparition error,” he said dryly.
The look of worry was wiped off Harry’s face and he began to laugh. Ron rolled his eyes at him.
“You’re late, by the way. It’s half past one,” Harry said. He had stopped laughing but was still grinning.
“You’re lucky I came at all. If I hadn’t checked the post this morning…”
“Sorry, I know it was kind of last minute. I owled Hermione too - ”
Ron felt his heart leap at her name. “Is she here?”
“No, she couldn’t come. I guess her grandmother’s visiting for a few days, so she’s got to keep magic to a minimum. She managed to stick her head in the fireplace this morning while her grandmother was in the bath to tell me that she couldn’t come, though. Lucky this place is already connected to the Floo network.”
Ron felt mollified; this explained the lack of post from Hermione over the past few days. He knew owl post wasn’t used by Muggles (they did something mad like stick their letters into little boxes), so her grandmother might think sending mail by owl was weird. He had never thought about how Hermione had to keep magic a secret from everyone but her parents.
Ron’s thoughts were interrupted as Willy Peet, the estate wizard from Hogsmeade, thundered down the stairs with a rolled-up piece of parchment in his hands. “Mr Weasley! Pleasure to see you again, of course, glad you made it!”
“Hi,” said Ron, a bit wearily. Just listening to Peet tired him out. He was suddenly reminded of the boy in the forest. “Hey, did you know there’s another house up the road? I think they’re Muggles, I met their grandson wandering around the forest.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr Peet. “Older Muggle couple, they live about five minutes up the road. They rarely go out, from what I understand, so you won’t have any trouble with them. I didn’t know they had a grandson…but this house comes equipped with several Muggle-repelling charms, so no need to worry about that! Now, if you’ll just come with me, we’ll get this signed…”
Peet headed into the sitting room. Harry and Ron hung back while Peet Conjured a table and spread out the piece of parchment on it.
“So,” said Harry in a low voice to Ron. He looked a bit nervous. “What do you think of the place?”
A memory flashed through Ron’s mind, of him being twelve years old and showing Harry his room for the first time. He remembered he had been anxious for Harry’s approval of his house, too. Ron smiled for probably the first time that day.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said Ron truthfully. Harry grinned.
They went through the contract, which seemed to contain a load of legal jargon that Ron didn’t quite grasp. But apparently Harry had quickly talked it over with Hermione when she had Flooed him, so this made both of them feel better about signing it. Mr Peet beamed and shook their hands several times, then took another awful photo of the two of them standing on the porch of the house. He finally parted after shaking their hands yet again and left Ron and Harry standing on the porch, both feeling a sense of accomplishment.
“This is my house,” said Harry slowly, as if testing out the words.
“That is kind of cool,” said Ron with a grin.
They stood in pleasant silence for a moment, enjoying the view of Harry’s yard, with its tall, curvy old trees and sprawling carpet of grass. Suddenly, Ron slapped his forehead and swore. “I forgot the damn cage of Pygmy Puffs!”
“Housewarming gift for me?” Harry joked, one eyebrow raised.
“No…long story, I’ll explain some other time,” Ron said with a sigh. “Look, I’ve got to go back to Diagon Alley to pick something up from the shop.”
Harry looked at him strangely for a second and shrugged. “All right. I’ll be back at Grimmauld Place tonight, but I move in here on Wednesday. You’ll come help, right?”
“No, I think I’ll let Kreacher handle all the heavy lifting,” said Ron sarcastically. “Of course I’ll come help, you git. I’ll see you Wednesday morning.”
“Try to Apparate into the house this time,” said Harry with a smirk.
Ron wearily turned on the spot and Disapparated, successfully Apparating into the bar of the Leaky Cauldron for the second time that day. He hurried out into Diagon Alley. Upon entering the shop, he quickly explained why he had returned to a flustered-looking Allegra and grabbed the cage of Pygmy Puffs he was supposed to take home.
“Oh, we forgot to tell you before,” said Allegra nervously. “Some people from the Office for the Regulation of Magical Shops and Services are coming in on Thursday to do an inspection of the shop. We were wondering if you could be here for that…”
Ron suddenly felt very tired. “Yeah, I’ll be here,” he answered, casting his eyes around the shop and wondering if there was anything they could get into trouble over. The nail polish and Pygmy problems didn’t exactly lend credibility to the shop at the moment, but he could see nothing that blatantly flouted any rules lying about…
As he looked around the shop, Ron noticed a heavyset wizard in black robes skulking over near the Reusable Hangman display. The stranger was turned towards Ron, undoubtedly watching him, although his face was partially obscured by a hood. Frowning, Ron interrupted Allegra in the middle of saying something about changing signage to make prices more visible. He started making his way over towards the hooded figure. The man, however, seemed to realise that Ron was heading his way and quickly swept out the door. Ron pushed his way through a family who had just entered the store and stumbled out the door to see the man in black running down Diagon Alley.
“Oi, you!” Ron hollered after him, guessing that he had just found the prankster about which George had theorised. “Come back here!”
He sprinted after the hooded man, who ran into the less busy area of Diagon Alley. Ron saw the man turn round a quick corner and realised he was heading into Knockturn Alley. Feeling triumphant - Knockturn Alley ended in a dead end, after all - Ron pumped his legs a bit harder and rounded the corner at high speed.
Something suddenly slammed into the back of Ron’s head with a sickening cracking sound. White dots exploded in Ron’s vision; he felt hot pain blossom at the site of impact and slowly seep into the rest of his skull. Ron stumbled and felt rough hands pushing him up against a stone wall. One hand held his head against the wall, while the other jabbed something sharp into his back, something that was almost certainly a wand. Ron suddenly was very sure that he had been mistaken. This man was not the joke shop prankster.
“Who are you? What the hell do you think you’re doing, attacking people in the streets?” Ron asked furiously, his face pressed against the wall.
“You shouldn’t have followed me,” said a quiet, threatening voice in his ear.
“You shouldn’t have run away like a guilty criminal, then,” Ron said boldly.
His attacker gave a chilling laugh. “You and your friends will get yours when the time is right,” he said cryptically. “For now, though, we can’t have you doing anything stupid. Petrificus Totalus.”
Ron felt his body stiffen. His attacker released him and Ron went crashing to the ground. Frozen and helpless, Ron found himself face down on the ground for the second time that day. The hooded man disappeared around the corner, and Ron was left to spend the end of his unfortunate day lying on the ground in Knockturn Alley.