“And the boy who lived... with the boy who lived. It's Ronald Weasley!”
Ron tried to smile, but it probably looked more like he'd eaten a mouthful of acid pops. The other guests on this show were genuine celebrities. Miranda Hart and Henning Wehn were well known on the wizarding comedy circuit. Gloriana Hornby was the new Seeker for the Holyhead Harpies. Ron had been asked partly because he was known for his involvement in the Battle of Hogwarts but mostly because having a brother in the joke shop business meant you were never more than a degree or two of separation from comedians, and sometimes some of them got the idea that if your brother had been brilliant on their show last year, you might do in a pinch now.
For the first half hour, Ron was pretty sure he hadn't said more than twenty words.
It took him three tries to read out his own card—I have brushed my teeth with an electric toothbrush. The other panellists seemed sceptical at first. “Are you telling us that the same technology muggles use to light rooms, they also use to clean their mouths?" David had asked, jabbing his wand in the air towards Ron in a way Ron would have found menacing if he hadn't recognised the gesture from having seen him on the show before. But between Ron's father's love for muggle technology and Hermione's parents actually being dentists, he was able to provide enough detail that the opposing team rightly concluded the story was true.
Worse, every time Lee asked him what he thought of an opponent's story, Ron froze. He knew a minute before being asked, he'd had an opinion on whether Henning had actually Apparated into an occupied toilet by mistake (he hadn't) or whether Gloriana had actually fed a stray kneazle out of her Hogwarts dorm room (she had), but sitting in front of an audience made his thoughts fly out of his head.
By the time the mystery guest appeared, a tall witch named Matilda wearing robes festooned with blinking lights, Ron could tell that even Lee's patience was wearing thin. There were only so many times you could joke about your fellow panellist having been hit by a Silencing Charm and still get a laugh.
“You've got to say something,” Lee told Ron, when the panel was given a five-minute break.
“I can't think of anything to say,” Ron protested. “I just look out at everyone watching us and everything goes blank.”
“Think about what doesn't make sense,” Miranda advised, “and ask about that.”
“Or just think about what would make them laugh,” Lee offered.
“All right,” Ron had said, not at all sure of himself. It was easy enough talking when it was just the three of them, but the audience was still intimidating.
David was first to speak after the break. “Possession,” he announced, and a silver box appeared in front of him in a plume of colourful smoke. The object that emerged was a tall, tattered black hat. “This,” David said, “is the sorting hat my parents made for me when I was seven. I refused to put it on after it sorted me into Hufflepuff.”
Everyone laughed, and Ron made himself take a deep breath. Surely he could find something to say about Hogwarts house sorting.
“Your parents made you a sorting hat?” Lee echoed, and Ron practically kicked himself under the table. He could have thought to say that himself at least.
“Well, yes,” David answered. “I think they'd sort of seen me putting things on my head and shouting the names of various Hogwarts houses, and they thought I might enjoy a more... realistic experience.”
“David,” Lee interrupted, holding up a hand. “There is nothing realistic about a seven year-old who wants to play Hogwarts getting sorted into the least ambitious house there.”
“You mean the kindest, most dedicated house,” Rob cut in, glaring at the panel. Everyone laughed dutifully, and Ron joined them. Rob was the only Hufflepuff on the show that night: Lee and Miranda were both fellow Gryffindors, David and Gloriana were Ravenclaws, and Henning swore that Durmstrang didn't so much have houses as military ranks, and his had been something that roughly translated to lieutenant.
“How did it sort you?” Miranda asked.
David frowned, turning the hat around in his hands. “I don't know. I expect my mother enchanted it to name houses at random.”
“Did it sort you into other houses too, then?” Lee asked.
“It didn't have the chance to,” David said. “I only put it on the once.”
“So, for all you know,” Lee pointed out, grinning, “it says Hufflepuff every time.”
“I don't think David's mother is that cruel,” Gloriana said with a laugh, and Rob cleared his throat loudly.
A hush fell over the panel. Okay, Ron thought. Hats. Heads. Houses. Mums. Something that will get a laugh. “Can you put it on now?” he blurted out.
Lee patted Ron approvingly on the back. David held the hat at arm's length. “And have it ruin my self-image a second time?”
“If your self-image is still intact after seven years of doing this show,” Lee shot back quickly, “I don't think putting that thing on your head is going to ruin it.”
Ron laughed. David had revealed some things over the years that Ron would have found mortifying. Then again, Ron found just sitting on this stage mortifying.
“David,” Rob cut in from his seat at the center of the stage. “I think I speak for everyone here when I say I'd like to know which of Hogwarts' four equally respectable houses that hat sorts you into.”
“All right,” David said, and Ron watched curiously as he lowered the black hat gingerly onto his head. But either the enchantment had faded or there had never been an enchantment to begin with, because the hat did nothing out of the ordinary except sink down below David's eyes.
“That hat's huge,” Ron heard himself blurt.
Next to Ron, Lee snorted. “Good point,” he said, only a bit patronisingly. “Why did your mum make you a hat too big for an adult wizard's head?”
“Have you seen the actual sorting hat?” David asked. His wand was beginning to spark as he gestured, though Ron had a feeling his agitation was mostly for show. “It's always too big.”
“For an eleven-year old!” Ron didn't think; it just came out.
“For anyone who isn't half-giant,” David shot back, and Ron shrank at the feeling of David's full attention turned towards him. It was intimidating to be so directly in David's line of sight, and yet, at the same time, it made the audience easier to ignore.
“Why didn't it sort you?” Ron asked. Think about what doesn't make sense.
Lee snorted. “Because whoever made up the story couldn't be bothered to enchant it.”
“I suspect,” David said, “my mother saw the emotional turmoil she'd wrought on an aspiring young wizard and removed the enchantment herself.”
Everyone laughed, and then Rob turned towards Ron, Lee, and Miranda. “What do you think, Lee's team?”
“True,” Miranda said, with confidence Ron could only dream of. “I can just picture a tiny David playing pretend games about his first day at school.”
Lee frowned. “Ron, what do you think?”
“The hat's too big,” Ron said, his throat still dry.
Lee watched him expectantly.
“And if he wanted so badly not to be Hufflepuff, wouldn't his parents know that from hearing him shout the names of other houses?” Did that make sense outside of Ron's head? He was practically shaking.
“So you think it's a lie?” Lee asked.
Ron nodded slowly. He'd been wrong every other time, but then, every other time, he'd been too scared even to speak.
“Against my better judgment,” Lee announced, “I'm going to go with my quiet teammate here and say it's a lie.”
David took the hat off his head and placed it on the table in front of him. “It is,” he said, waving his wand towards the table to reveal his answer, “a lie.”
Ron breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, maybe he wasn't completely useless here. Maybe he was more than just an embarrassment. Maybe—
Lee elbowed Ron in the side, and he looked up to see the entire panel watching him.
“Your turn,” Miranda whispered.
Ron lifted the card in front of him and tapped it with his wand to make the writing appear. I have beaten Viktor Krum at wizard chess, the card read. Ron swallowed. He wasn't sure Krum even played wizard chess. But, okay, he could do this. Think about what would make them laugh.
Ron took a deep breath and opened his mouth to read the card.