The Burrow was quiet, the fires burnt down to embers in the hearths, candles blown out, and the light bulbs switched off, unplugged, and the fuses removed for safety by Molly, though Arthur insisted that they were perfectly safe and every Muggle family in the country had enjoyed the convenience of electric lighting for a nigh on a century now without the great catastrophes Molly stubbornly predicted.
The only sounds were the crackle of the dying fires, the desultory clanking of the family ghoul in the attic, and the long, low sound of Arthur's snoring, a comforting bass note that reverberated through the whole of the rickety, cluttered house. Normally that bass would be accompanied by a whole orchestra. Bill's high harsh whine, Charlie's rapid breathing keeping time, Percy's whinnying counterpoint, and the twins, George and Fred, in perfect unison, blasting out the main melody. But tonight, with the Christmas holidays ended, taking the younger brothers back to Hogwarts, and Bill off having Adventures, the house was eerily quiet. It was no wonder that Ron couldn't sleep.
He lay in his bed, deep under a heap of blankets, quilts, and some old knitted thing that Mum insisted was enchanted with all sorts of good sleep spells, but Ron rather suspected was kept around for more sentimental reasons. The bed was a huge old thing, with tall carved legs and a thick old mattress that had probably slept generations of Weasleys. Beneath the blankets, Ron squirmed and tried to get comfortable. It seemed like every way he turned, the blankets would tug at him, the mattress would poke him, and his pillow would get all bunched up under his neck. He sighed loudly in the darkness. The real problem was that he couldn't seem to stop his brain from thinking all kinds of thoughts, and these days, left to its own devices, all his brain seemed to want to think about was girls.
Ron could count the number of real-life girls he knew on one hand, if you didn't count his Mum and his little sister Ginny, and they definitely didn't count at all. He listed the others. Two older cousins who came for Christmas and spent the whole time teasing Ron about his haircut and giggling in the corner. Their mum, his aunt, who sounded like she'd had an accident with a Sonorus spell at an early age and never recovered. And last (and in this case least) the two baby girls his Mum babysat on the weekends sometimes for pin money. These girls held no great mystery to him and on the whole seemed quite ordinary creatures.
But there was another kind of girl, his traitor brain insisted. A kind of girl he'd seen hinted at on the TV his dad had proudly installed with great ceremony and which Ron had avidly watched for two glorious days until it had blown a fuse, and Mum had insisted the whole thing be canned as a dangerous experiment that would come to no good. This was the kind of girl that Ron's mind turned to in the middle of the night, when he couldn't sleep. He'd close his eyes, try to think of peaceful things like Fairies and Unicorns, and instead his mind would be full of soft curves, long eyelashes, and inviting smiles. He'd find himself remembering the stories about Veela his mum told him, and try to imagine what a Veela might look like. He wasn't sure, but he suspected they looked a lot like the women he'd seen on the TV.
Ron discovered his hands creeping beneath the covers, and underneath the waistband of his pyjamas. He snatched them back, face burning. His father had given him a strict warning about this.
"Ron," Dad had told him, an uncharacteristically stern expression on his normally kind face, "It might be ok for other people to go about engaging in that kind of thing, but we are Weasleys, and we can't let ourselves get into trouble that way."
Of course, Ron had been too embarrassed to ask any questions, and it had never come up again. But he still remembered the hard look on his father's face, the voice, normally joking and laughing, deadly serious. His father, who just chuckled when Bill used the Knee-Reversal Hex on George, and who even when he was telling you off always seemed to be winking and grinning while he did it, talked about "you-know-what" like it was "You-Know-Who".
But the temptation was irresistible. Ron's hands seemed to act of their own volition, and just as if he were the victim of an Imperius Curse, giving in to the compulsion felt like the most wonderful thing in the world.
Over the next few days and weeks, Ron was like a boy possessed. Thoughts burned in his mind, and he spent each day waiting for a chance to be alone to explore this new and marvelous thing. Previously he had spent every possible moment out of the house, avoiding chores and the study haphazardly assigned to him by his parents. But now he looked for excuses to stay in his room. His parents exchanged looks and joked about him being a little young to turn into a surly teenager. But Ron knew they didn't suspect the truth. He was diligent about covering his tracks, though as the weeks went on, this became an increasing problem. His room became littered with bits of tissue, old socks, dirty underwear, scavenged handkerchiefs, and on one ignominious occasion even a page of spelling homework that had come to hand at the crucial moment. All these Ron pushed hurriedly under the bed during the periodic cleaning binges which blew through the house, Molly sweeping into the room, a whirlwind of dust and dirty laundry and forgotten dishes wheeling about her head as she conducted the whole affair with her wand.
Ron's salvation came in the form of another of his father's forays into the world of Muggle technology. Every other wizard family happily used a bathtub, and had done for centuries. Even the simplest families could conjure water with a quick Aquamenti spell, and heat it over a fire, though the more well-to-do families used enchanted tubs or had house elves to bring in hot water in buckets. But Arthur Weasley would not be content with such "old fashioned and cumbersome methods" as he described them, and nothing less than the "efficiency, speed, and hygiene of a fully-functional modern shower unit" would please him. Of course, the plumbing Arthur had to rig himself since a visit to the Burrow for even the most open-minded Muggle plumber would have proved more than a little alarming. That meant that the shower tended to run hot and cold, and the pipes clanked and banged enough that the family ghoul nearly packed its bags and left.
But the shower was a godsend for Ron, where he could indulge in his newfound obsession to his heart's content, and have the evidence neatly whisked away to the public sewer. His parents joked about the long showers, and wondered about his seeming newfound obsession with cleanliness, but dad seemed pleased that at least one member of the family was as excited about the shower as he was, and even mum seemed pleased that she no longer had to nag him to take his daily bath.
The months passed quickly. The summer holidays came and Ron's obsession had become a daily habit. For days or even weeks at a stretch he'd manage to abstain. He'd resolve that things would be different from now on, and for a while it would work, but the urges would come back, stronger each time, like a Rictusempra in his pants.
But the summer holidays brought Ron's brothers back from Hogwarts, and spelled the end of his days of solitary amusement. Soon the house was full of the sounds of laughter, crashes and thumps, and the whizzzzzz of Fred and George's latest inventions. The Burrow, always overstuffed and cluttered, was practically bursting at the seams and it seemed like every corner was full of some Weasley or another, practicing spells, arguing and fighting, or playing with their familiars. Ron couldn't get a moment to himself. Even the shower was lost to him, with the bathroom in seeming constant use.
It was late one night, while Ron was struggling to sleep over the cacophony of snoring, that he heard a very strange sound. It was difficult to make out, over the sound of his father's throbbing baritone and the twins' soaring harmonies, but there was a tiny, faltering sound coming from right underneath Ron's bed. It was like fabric rubbing against fabric, or a little bit like something scratching at the floor.
At first Ron thought that Scabbers had got out of his cage again, but soon he heard the tiny squeak of the rat wheel that told him the pet rat was still safely in its home.
"Probably just my imagination" Ron thought. He turned over in bed, and pulled the covers closer up around him, although it was Summer and he was already too hot.
The sound came again, and this time it was accompanied by what sounded like furtive whispering. Ron froze, a cold chill running through him. There was definitely something under his bed, and it didn't sound friendly.
Ron ran through in his mind all the many ghosts, monsters and beasties his mother and father had told him about over the years. He cursed himself for not paying more attention. Bill would know what to do in this situation. Leap out of the bed, probably, wand at the ready, a quick Expulso smashing the bed to pieces, revealing some marauding hobgoblin who'd probably beg for mercy and cry and promise to serve Bill for all eternity.
But Ron could only lie in the bed, frozen, as he heard more and more little voices gathering under the bed, whispering, rustling about.
He felt a small, soft tug at the edge his blanket. His eyes widened. Ron peered through the darkness at the edge of the bed, where the blanket was being pulled taut by something under the bed grabbing its dangling edge. Ears straining, Ron heard what sounded like a tiny grunt of effort. Something was climbing the side of the bed!
Ron could barely breathe. The rustling continued, the blanket twitched as something scaled the high sides of the great old bed. At last, the thing heaved itself over the side of the bed, onto the coverlet and into a beam of moonlight. Ron gaped in horror.
The thing had a baggy, blobby kind of body, with crazy stripes all over it and fuzzy fur sticking out in tufts. It gripped the coverlet with tiny hands that looked like a doll's. It was the size of a kitten, but its face wasn't anything like a cat's. It had a great wide saggy mouth like an empty shopping bag, and enormous eyes perched right on the top of its head.
The eyes were the worst part. They were clear blue human eyes, looking at him with sadness and fear and an agonizing glimmer of hope.
The thing opened its mouth, and a plaintive sound emerged, a sound almost like a human voice.
Ron roared with horror. He threw the covers off him, and bolted for the door. He vaguely hear the thud of something soft hitting the floor, and of frantic scurrying under the bed. He did not stop to hear more. He ran straight down the stairs, shouting and yelling for help.
In the kitchen, he almost collided with his father, who was still pulling on a dressing gown with one hand, while with the other he brandished his wand with more bluster than menace.
"What on Earth is going on?" his father said, peering up the stairs, where more and more Weasleys were emerging from their rooms, to gather in the Kitchen.
"Something… something under my bed!" Ron cried, still backing across the kitchen.
"Oh Ron", said Percy, looking less serious and superior than he probably hoped, in his Puffskein Print Pyjamas. "You're getting a bit old for nightmares, aren't you?"
Fred and George laughed, and Ron started to go red.
"It was real! I saw it!" he started to protest, but by then Fred and George were joking with each other and making silly faces, and Percy was starting on a lecture, and then Ginny came storming into the room wielding a coal shovel and a fierce look, and everyone started laughing again.
"What did you see?" Molly's clear, calm voice cut through the noise, and everyone went quiet.
Ron tried to compose himself. "It was a monster!" he said. "A little monster. It came right out from under my bed, and I think there were more of them under there!"
"Arthur, come with me." said Molly in a voice that Ron had only heard before in moments of Serious Trouble. She had her wand now, and she and Arthur went to the stairs, advancing up them with slow, careful steps, wands at the ready.
In the kitchen, there was a long moment of silence, even Fred and George suddenly struck by the seriousness of the situation. They all looked to the kitchen door, where their parents' tread on the stairs could be heard.
All at once they heard a gasp, Molly's or Arthur's they could not be sure, and Ron heard a thunder of footsteps coming down the stairs at a dash. Molly and Arthur crashed back into the kitchen at a dead run, slamming the door behind them. But before they did, Ron saw over his white-faced father's shoulder a tide of horror rushing down the stairs close on their heels.
It was like the work of a mad artist. A sea of ordinary household things, turned nightmarish and terrible. At the swarm's head was the same monster Ron had seen on his bed. It clutched in its hand a spear fashioned from an old pencil he thought he had lost three weeks ago. It hopped down the stairs on a single, wide, slug-like foot, the weird patterns of its body now recognizable as a demented argyle. Behind it came a hodgepodge army. There was a waddling, many-legged beast whose ghastly white face was formed from a Y-shaped seam of fabric. A whole horde of beasts had little puffy, feathered bodies like balls of tissue paper and tufts of flaming red hair. Flapping above them was a flock of plaid and white scraps of fabric, each with a rolling blue eye in their center.
Ron reeled. His father stood with his back to the door, braced against it and with a face like a snowbank. His mother had her arms crossed, and was looking right at Ron with an expression of such disappointment and pity that Ron wanted to bury himself in the ground.
"What are they?" he asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
"Tell him." Molly said to Arthur, her voice flat and low.
Arthur Weasley stood, facing his son, looking like a great weight had settled upon his shoulders.
"It's the family curse, son." he said. "I should have told you sooner. I guess I thought you were still too young for that sort of thing". He said the last few words in a rush, his face downcast.
"Every Weasley man, as far back as we know, has the same thing. No one knows why. Tangled with Pixies, I suppose, or else a Boggart. They're fond of curses, I hear. At least some of the Northern types, they say."
Molly elbowed Arthur sharply in the ribs.
Fred, George, and Percy were looking at the ground, shuffling their feet. From the closed door came the sound of tiny drumming fists.
"But as I was saying. The family curse. You see, Ron, us Weasley men, we're very, um. fertile."
Ron felt his face start to burn.
"Quite remarkably so" his dad continued. "It works on anything at all, really. Anything our, um, stuff touches. It makes children, Ron, hundreds of the wee things."
The sound of drumming on the door grew louder. The tiny voices grew louder, more intelligible. Ron could even make out what they were saying. They were calling to him.
"Dad!" they shouted. "Daddy!"
Ron looked around the faces of his family, each of them now looking at him with pity and disappointment. Then he heard the sound. Over the banging on the door, the cries of his tiny children calling his name, he heard another, deeper sound. It was a groaning, creaking noise, like a whale or a rusty door.
It was the sound of the pipes beneath the house. There was a gurgling, rushing noise from the bathroom, from the shower. Water flooded into the hallway, and the door burst open. There was a wave of stink, the smell of the sewers.
A thousand tiny gurgling voices cried out in unison.