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The Changing Times

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 There wasn’t any sort of fanfare for Ron Weasley about to board the Hogwarts Express for the first time. Ron hadn’t really expected any special going-away, being the sixth son and well-used to every milestone feeling a little bit underwhelming, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still disappointed. He’d have liked just a bit of fanfare. 

 No one on the platform seemed to be paying the Weasley family the slightest bit of attention though. Everyone who wasn’t tearfully pushing their child towards the train was huddled tightly together, newspapers open in hand, whispering furiously over the important adult news of the day. Ron had hardly expected everyone to drop everything and pay attention to some random eleven-year-old kid - and, in fact, he probably would have died of mortification on the spot if everyone started staring at him - but it would have been nice if someone was taking notice of his big day. 

 Dad wasn’t even here to see him off. Ron understood that Dad had to work, that work had been really, really busy lately, and that it was just yet another kid headed off to school for Arthur Weasley. Ron understood that Dad might’ve taken the time to see him off if Ron had only asked it of him. But Ron also understood that Dad might’ve said it just wasn’t possible, sorry, maybe next year, and some part of Ron was heartily sick of being understanding. 

 It’d be nice if someone just stopped and realized without prompting, “Hey, we’ve never done anything really special for Ron. We ought to do something just for him for once.” 

 “You sure you’ll be alright, Percy?” Mum was saying, with one hand on Percy’s shoulder and the other on his cheek. “Being a prefect is such hard work. We’re so proud of you for it, but we also wouldn’t blame you at all if you decided that you’d rather focus just on yourself this year. I’m sure Professor McGonagall would understand.” 

 “I’m looking forward to being a prefect, Mum,” Percy assured her, looking rather silly as he tried to puff his chest out and lift his nose in the air while also bending over to accommodate her. “It’ll do me good to have responsibilities to take my mind off things.” 

 “Oh,” Mum cooed, her lip quibbling. 

 Bill intervened before this could go on forever, putting his hand on Mum’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do great, Perce,” he declared, smiling. “The school needs people who care about not letting the firsties wander off into the Forbidden Forest. But take it from a previous Head Boy: remember to look after yourself while you’re looking after everyone else.” 

 Beside Ron, Fred gagged, but not so loudly that he got another glare from Mum. 

 On Ron’s other side, he got a nudge from George. “Hey, Ronnie, we’re going to go load our trunks so we don’t have to listen to this load of shit anymore,” George whispered. “Want us to get your trunk too?” 

 “You’re only going to do something weird to it. I’m coming too,” Ron whispered back. 

 Bill was nudging Ginny for support now, since she’d stolen one of his hands as soon as they’d arrived at King’s Cross and didn’t seem to have any plans to give it back. “Percy’ll be just fine as a prefect, right, Gin?” 

 “You’d only get mad at the new prefect for not doing a good enough job,” Ginny agreed knowingly. “You’re too bossy to be happy not being a prefect.” 

 Mum gasped. “Ginny!” 

 Bill just laughed. “She’s got the both of us pegged there, eh, Perce? I know I’d have gone spare watching someone else muck up my hard-won job. Face it, Mum, we’ve got a bit of busy-body perfectionism running in the family. I wonder who we got that from?” 

 If Ron had made that joke, he would have probably gotten a scowl and a scolding, but Bill Weasley could do no wrong. Mum flushed and giggled nervously, swatting her eldest son in an “oh you” gesture. Ginny beamed up at Bill. Even Percy managed a real smile for a few seconds. Meanwhile, just behind Ron, Fred quietly made another awful retching sound and George snorted. 

 “Hey, Mum,” George interrupted. “Fred and I are gonna go take Ron to load his trunk.” 

 Mum looked uncertain and Bill swooped in to save the day again. 

 “That’s a good idea, Mum. We don’t want anything left behind. Remember when Charlie forgot his trunk a few years ago? We should probably go load Percy’s trunk as well, since it’s getting closer to eleven now and he’ll have the prefects meeting to get to soon.” 

 “Oh, you’re right! Come along! Come along! Let’s get those trunks loaded, Weasleys!” 

 Mum began to herd them along unnecessarily, like she thought they’d all get lost and wander onto the train tracks without her keen eye on them. Like it’d be their fault they’d missed the train, even though it had been her who’d been wasting time fawning over Percy. 

 Ginny rolled her eyes. Percy shot Bill a grateful look. Fred pretended to vomit. 

 Mum noticed as she bustled them along. “Frederick Gideon, what on Earth are you doing?! Stop that and stand up straight! I want much better behaviour from the two of you this year! You’re so bright! But you need to stop getting so many detentions or you’ll never make prefect like your brothers!” 

 “Charlie who?” George muttered. 

 “Mum, there’s two of us,” Fred said. “What are they gonna do? Cut the badge in half?” 

 Immune to the common sense that said Fred and George were never going to be prefects, Mum’s finger was out and waggling. “If I get one more letter saying that you’ve… you’ve… blown up a Hogwarts toilet seat or something-!” 

 “Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Thanks, Mum!” 

 “How about it, Gin?” George asked cheerfully. “Send you a Hogwarts toilet seat?” 

 Ginny waved her free hand in refusal. “I don’t need one!” 

 “YOU WANT FIVE TOILET SEATS?” 

 “Gin, don’t you think that’s a bit much to ask of your brothers?” Fred demanded, waving five fingers back at her. “We’re not miracle workers, you know! How about a nice sink?” 

 “Could we interest you a pair of showerheads instead?” 

 Ginny clung to Bill’s arm and giggled helplessly. Bill grinned between her and the twins. Mum’s finger went back and forth, like she was having trouble figuring out which twin to tell off first. Fortunately for Fred and George, they’d reached the train now, and the twins bounded away with their trunks before she could start listing all the plumbing they weren’t allowed to blow up and send home. 

 “Don’t worry, Mum, I won’t let that happen,” Percy promised. 

 “Thank you, Percy, dear,” Mum said fondly, and started fixing Percy’s perfectly straight, brand new robes all over again. “I do want you to look after Ron and the twins, but don’t stress yourself too much, alright? Now, I want you to write to me every week, do you understand me? Don’t try to bottle it all up again. Professor McGonagall was very concerned for your stress levels during exams last year-” 

 “Mum, please.” 

 “No, you listen to me, Percival Ignatius Weasley. If that boy keeps you up late again with his Quidditch nonsense, I want you to tell him from me that he needs to sort out his priorities and let you get your rest-” 

 Ron hefted his trunk off his trolley and tried to flee after the twins. He didn’t think Mum was about to capture him and smother her “last little boy going off to school” in her condescending concern again, but he didn’t want to risk it. Even though, honestly, sort part of him wished Mum would fuss over him like she was fussing over Percy now. 

 It was Ron’s first year at Hogwarts, but somehow today was really still all about Percy. 

 It had been all about Percy for the last few weeks, actually, and no one would tell them why. One minute, Percy had been over the moon with his shiny new prefect badge, strutting all around the place like he bloody well owned it. And then, sometime in early August, something had shaken Ron’s brother up badly. Percy had cried a bit, Mum had cried a lot (and still occasionally sniffled into a handkerchief), and Dad hadn’t cried but he’d still had an expression like someone in the family had died. 

 The next thing anyone knew, Bill had come home to stay for a while. And none of them would stop worrying over Percy all the long hours of the day and night. 

  Charlie had even sent a few letters home, which was pretty communicative for a guy who’d told no one about taking the bare minimum of N.E.W.T.s at the end of his sixth year, then skipped what should’ve been his seventh year (and staying Quidditch Captain for one more season) last year, all in favour of running away to Romania to live on the couch of his penpal with a name like a vampire. Fred had said that something bad must’ve happened to make Charlie stop paying attention to his dragons and his maybe-boyfriend long enough to write multiple letters home in the same month. 

 But none of them - not Mum, Dad, Bill, Charlie, or Percy - would talk about what. 

 “Here, Ronnie, let me help you with that,” Bill said, swooping in to help lift Ron’s trunk. 

 “I’ve got it,” Ron insisted. 

 Bill didn’t listen - older siblings never did - and lifted one end of Ron’s trunk anyway. At least he didn’t take the trunk away from Ron entirely, but Ron quickly saw that this was because Bill had Percy’s trunk in his other hand. Ginny was “helping” Bill lift it, which basically just meant she had her hands on it and Bill was doing all the work. 

 “I know you do, but let me help anyway,” Bill said. 

 They came up to where Fred and George were talking to that kid who’d come on to the platform with them - the boy with the round glasses and untidy black hair. The boy had loaded his trunk already and was holding the cage of his gorgeous snowy owl, the sight of which again made Ron feel just a bit green with envy. The boy was probably about to load his pet into the owlery car where they’d be able to nap in peace. 

 “Fred, George, come here and give us a hand!” Bill called. 

 The boy excused himself from the twins gladly and boarded the train. Ron might’ve followed him, but Bill tugged on Ron’s trunk and held him back. When Ron looked at his eldest brother questioningly, Bill took his trunk away entirely and handed it over to George, then handed Percy’s trunk over to Fred. 

 “Bill-!” Fred began excitedly. 

 “Load those up, would you?” Bill ordered casually. “Then hurry back, quick as you can, I need to talk to you about something important. Do it properly. Don’t just toss them out the window.” 

 The twins exchanged a look, then chorused, “No promises!”  

 Then Fred and George hurried away with their ill-gotten gains. Bill’s freed hand kept Ron from following his trunk. Ron couldn’t believe that Bill had so grossly unfairly left choosing his compartment to the twins. He’d be lucky if Fred and George tossed his trunk in the luggage car or with the prefects! Hell, he’d be lucky if he ever saw his stuff again! 

 “Bill, what the hell-?!” 

 “I need to talk to you,” Bill repeated. 

 “What about?” Ron demanded, unimpressed. If Bill was looking to offer brotherly advice, he was cutting it awfully late, and no amount of condescending wisdom would make up for the theft that had just happened. 

 “Come on,” Bill said. 

 Bill led them away from the train, towards the huddled crowds of gabbing parents and guardians. The twins reappeared distressingly quickly. With one hand on Ron and one hand on Ginny, Bill had nothing left with which to wrangle the twins, but Fred and George followed them into an empty side nook of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters with dazed and self-satisfied looks on their faces. 

 Ron glowered at them, arms crossed. “What did you do with my trunk, you-?” 

 “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted,” Fred said over him, strangely hushed. “Bill, you won’t believe whose trunk we just loaded onto the train!” 

 “Percy’s?” Ron said. “Mine?!” 

  “Before that,” George said, trembling with identical hushed excitement. 

 Bill raised his eyebrows. “That kid Mum helped onto the platform?” 

 “Bill, that was Harry Potter!” 

 “Oh,” Bill said, looking at the train again. “Really?” 

 Ron peered at the train as well, looking for the boy in the windows. Harry Potter? That boy had been Harry Potter? Ron couldn’t see the boy now, which was disappointing, but it was strangely thrilling to know that he’d soon be sharing classes with someone famous. He’d known that famous people went to Hogwarts - he had the Chocolate Frog cards to prove it - but usually they got famous after Hogwarts. 

 George nodded gleefully. “We saw the scar and everything!” 

 “We asked him too. He said so himself.” 

 “Oh, Bill,” Ginny pleaded, hanging off their eldest brother’s arm like she was trying to pull him over. It didn’t at all work, seeing as Bill was probably at least twice Ginny’s weight. “Can I go on the train for just a minute and have a look at him? Please, Bill? Please?” 

 “What and let you stow away to Hogwarts, Gin? You can’t get away from me that easily. Besides, he’s a person, not a new broomstick in the window. That’d be rude.” 

 “Bill, do you think he remembers what You-Know-Who looks like?” 

 Bill looked at Fred incredulously. “Fuck, Fred, you can’t ask him that.” 

 “Why the fuck not?” Fred asked curiously. 

 “Wait, shit,” Bill said, letting go of Ron to rub a hand over his face. “I mean… hell. Look, if you really want to know what You-Know-Who looked like, you can ask Mum or Dad or someone. Like Dumbledore or McGonagall or any other adult who was about. Don’t ask the kid to try and remember what his parents’ murderer looked like.” 

 Fred considered it. “I guess that is a bit fucked up.” 

 “Stop it. Mum’s already on my back about the cursing. Look, the kid’s going to have enough people staring at his forehead and asking rude questions as it is, alright? Just remember to act like decent people when you’re talking to him.” 

 “Us? Acting decent?” George said, fanning himself with a hand. “Heavens forfend!” 

 “I mean it,” Bill said in his serious voice. 

 He sounded a lot like Dad when he did that. Bill and Dad had both been breaking out their serious voices a lot in the past few weeks - more often than Ron could ever remember Arthur Weasley ever doing so before, even though Dad wasn’t often home from work these days. Just like Mum had been regularly busting out their full names, ever since whatever had made Percy into a nervous wreck and brought Bill home from Egypt. 

 “Don’t ask him about You-Know-Who. Don’t ask him what the Killing Curse feels like. Don’t even try to thank him for anything,” Bill dictated. “He won’t want to be thanked for having his parents die for him. If he does, he’s probably a git, and then you shouldn’t talk to him anyway.” 

 “But he was really polite,” Ginny said quietly. 

 “So he’s probably not a git, which means don’t be one to him.” 

 “Sweet Sugar Quills, fine, we get the message,” Fred said, raising his hands in a show for mercy. 

 “Mum’s the word,” George agreed, zipping his lip. 

 Bill relaxed. “Good.” 

 Ron remembered now that Bill had started at Hogwarts the year after the war had ended. Bill, unlike the rest of them gathered around him now, actually remembered what it had been like when You-Know-Who was still alive.

 “Mum and Dad know what You-Know-Who looked like?” Ron asked.

 “What?”

 “You said to ask them about it.”

 “Oh, right, well, I don’t know, actually,” Bill admitted. “Maybe. I was just trying to point out that Harry Potter is not the person to ask about any of that for a good number of good reasons. Now, shut it, all of you, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about and we’re running out of time.”

 All the younger Weasleys in this hidden nook stood up a little straighter. Ron did so with some offense, given that it had really been Fred and George who’d been doing all the talking. Also, he didn’t want to be here. 

 “Are you finally going to tell us what happened to Percy?” George asked.

 Bill grimaced. “I promised Mum and Dad that I wouldn’t, even though I think it’s a bit stupid not to tell you,” he said, which was already the most anyone had told them. “I think most of you are going to work it out sooner or later, so I’m telling you now: when you do work it out, don’t talk to anyone at school about it. Write home and ask Mum and Dad. Dad’s worked really hard to keep things quiet for Percy’s sake.”

 “Why? Is it embarrassing?” Fred demanded eagerly.

 Before Bill could answer, Mum’s voice barged in, quickly followed by the rest of her. “There you are! Why are you all huddled up in this corner for?”

  Bill straightened with a winning smile. “Just giving them some last minute advice, Mum. It is Ron’s first year at Hogwarts after all,” he said, ruffling Ron’s hair as though to prove his point. “Where’s Percy? Did he already board the train for the prefects meeting? Oh, bloo- blimey, would you look at the time! Sorry, Mum! Didn’t hear the whistle!”

 “No harm done, yet, dear! Let’s get you boys on the train before it leaves you all behind!” Mum said, cheerfully, but she gave Bill a very suspicious look.

 Ron flattened his hair again and let Mum bustle them all back towards the train.

 No one ever told them anything. It was the worst.

 “GEORGE! FRED!”

 They all turned to see the twins’ loud friend, Lee Jordan, shoving his way through the crowds of parents who were chattering intensely and absentmindedly waving at their children. Ron recognized Lee from his occasional visits to the Burrow and from King’s Cross last year. The older boy looked like he had news and not just because he had a rolled-up newspaper in hand. 

  “Lee!” George called back jovially. “What’s new?”

 “GEORGE, HOLY SHIT!” Lee proclaimed, coming to a sudden stop in front of them, brandishing the rolled-up paper like he might hit someone with it, probably George. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME SOONER?! MERLIN’S SAGGY B-eeeard. Oh, hiii, Mrs. Weasley. Nice to see you. You look lovely today. How are you doing?”

 Mum just stared disbelievingly at the twins’ friend, whose voice had gone strangely high-pitched, so Bill intervened again, offering his free hand and a smile. “Hello, Lee, isn’t it? I’m Bill, Fred and George’s eldest brother. I’ve heard so much about you. All interesting, I promise.”

 Lee shook Bill’s hand with a stunned expression, the sort which a lot of people tended to get around Ron’s eldest brother, especially family friends. Fred had recently said it probably had something to do the earrings Mum wanted nothing more than to vanish right out of Bill’s ears, but the stunned expressions had been happening even before Bill had gotten his earrings. Everyone liked Ron’s eldest brother. Bill was charming.

 “Interesting?” Lee repeated.

 “Well, you’re Fred and George’s friend, aren’t you?” Bill said teasingly, releasing Lee’s hand. “Don’t worry. Personally, I think interesting is way better than good.”

 Lee laughed, but it didn’t sound like a real laugh. “I’d hope so, for my sake! Nice to meet you, Bill, I’ve heard some real interesting things about you too,” he said, his voice getting strangely faster as he spoke. “Anyway, I just remembered that I left my pet, Sweetpea, with Angelina and I promised to take her back before the train took off because Angie’s cousin is arachnophobic! Gred, Forge, we’ll talk on the train! Bye, Bill! Bye, Mrs. Weasley!”

 After Lee had vanished into back into the crowds, Ginny tugged on Bill’s arm.

 “What was that about?” she asked.

 “I think that’s a question for Fred and George, Gin,” Bill said, looking towards the twins.

 “You saw the part where he ran away without talking to us, right?” George said.

 “You don’t have any idea? Seemed pretty urgent.”  

 “Not a clue! Wow! Look, there’s, like, two minutes until eleven now,” Fred said.

 That snapped Mum out of her disbelief; she began physically shoving them onboard immediately. “Oh, there’s no time for this! I won’t have a child almost miss the train again! Not after what happened last time with dear Charlie! No, I won’t be having that again! On! Now! All of you! On the train before it takes off without you!”

 Fred and George hopped on gladly, pulling Ron up after them.

 “Bye, Mum!” Fred said. “Bye, Bill! Bye, Ginny! Don’t have too much fun without us!”

 “No parties, Bilius Arnold Weasley! I’m looking at you!” George agreed.

 “That’s not my name,” Bill said, waving agreeably.

 “Bye, Mum!” Ron said, not to be left out.

 He wouldn’t be seeing them again until Christmas, he realized. 

 It was a strange thought. Ron was used to not seeing his brothers for months on end, as they’d all gone off to Hogwarts before him and without him, but now Ron was going to Hogwarts too. It was his turn. And while that might have been a strange thought, it also felt like it was about bloody time it be Ron’s turn for something.  

  Mum’s lip began to quibble again, now that they were properly on the train. “Oh, Ronnie! I can’t believe my last little boy is growing up so fast,” she said, beaming up at them. “You’ll have gotten so much taller by the time I see you! Oh, did I show you how to let your robes out properly? If you need help, if any of the stitches come undone, just go to Percy and he’ll show you how to fix it! Did you pack regular clothes in larger sizes? I hope you didn’t pack anything too small for you; if you grow out of anything, ask Fred and George for-”

 “Mum, it’s fine,” Ron assured her, embarrassed. “I know all that. I’ll be fine.”

 “Oh,” Mum said, looking teary.

 Concern wasn’t quite fanfare in Ron’s book, it was more embarrassing than anything else. He didn’t need Mum for everything anymore. He didn’t want to upset Mum by demanding again: “If you’re so bloody concerned about how I’ll do at school, why didn’t you get me my own wand instead of giving me Charlie’s chew-marked leftovers?” 

 “Good luck, Ronnie,” Bill agreed. “You’ll be great.”

 “Thanks, Bill.”

 “Promise me that you’ll write! All of you!” Mum said. “Fred and George, this includes you!”

 “Yes, Mum,” George agreed.

 “And Auntie Muriel would like to hear from you all more!” Mum went on, shoving in those last lectures in the little time they had left. “She’s an old woman who’d like some letters from her great-nephews when they’ve got a spare moment to think of family! I don’t want another letter from her telling me you’re all disgraces to Prewett family because none of you have remembered to keep in touch with her.”

 “Er,” Ron said, not wanting to promise anything.

 “I’ve always wanted to try and make a Howler,” Fred mused.

 Mum blinked. Bill coughed. Ginny snickered.

 “Fredrick Gideon Weasley, don’t you dare send your great-aunt a Howler-!”

 “Molly? Molly Weasley?” someone interrupted. 

 Mum’s rant cut off and she whirled to face the witch who’d come up behind and beside her. It was a woman who looked about their Mum’s age, despite her silver hair, wearing nice yellow robes and a concerned expression. She looked sort of familiar. 

 “Oh, Mabel Kirke!” Mum greeted happily. “Well, it’s Mabel Kirke-Diggory now, I know! It’s been that way for years, but some part of me is always going to know you as Mabel Kirke first! How are you?” 

 “I’m lovely, Molly, thank you for asking-” 

 “It’s always such a pleasure to see you outside of the book club. Is Amos here today or at work? Young Cedric must be on the train already and I shudder to think how tall he’s gotten since I last saw him!” 

 “Amos is here. He’s just saying hello to some old school friends,” the witch said, waving off towards one of the crowds of parents and guardians, where a bunch of wizards were slapping each other on the back and chortling heartily. “You know he just can’t bear not to see Cedric off personally every year, much to my poor son’s embarrassment.” 

 “Oh, I know what that’s like,” Mum said sympathetically, patting Bill’s arm. “When it came time to ship my first son off to Hogwarts, one of us was crying and it wasn’t my brave little Bill!”

 “Brave little Bill?” Fred repeated, snickering

 Since Mum wasn’t looking, Bill flipped the twins a rude gesture, which just made the twins cackle at him. Ginny, still holding on to Bill’s other hand, looked down at her own hand and carefully formed the same rude gesture, before flipping it at the twins as well. Fred and George hooted their approval as Bill hurriedly forced Ginny to put her hand down before Mum saw.

 The witch, Mrs. Kirke-Diggory, smiled, but it didn’t look like a real smile. “Yes. Molly, forgive me if I’m misremembering something here, but… well. Have you seen the newspaper today?” 

 “The Prophet? No, I’m afraid I haven’t had the time, trying to get everyone fed and fully packed and out of the house on time!” Mum admitted laughingly. “There’s never a minute to spare on September 1st for us! Arthur was off to work before it arrived and I haven’t even been able to glance at the headlines! Why? Is there a story I should have seen?”

 By Mrs. Kirke-Diggory’s face, there was very much a story Mum should have seen.

 But then train whistle blew, interrupting the conversation. It was eleven o’clock! The Hogwarts Express was lurching into motion, with Ron and the twins still standing in the open doorway of their car. Crowds of parents and guardians turned towards the train, waving back at all the hands reaching out the windows for a last goodbye.

 “I’ve got to find Amos and wave to Cedric. Find me before you leave, Molly, I’ve got to speak with you!” said Mrs. Kirke-Diggory, before she slipped back into the crowd. “Amos has a paper in his pocket! I’ll fetch it.”

 “I’ll find you!” Mum agreed, looking a little confused.

 They were having to lean out the window to see her now, as Platform Nine and Three-Quarters began to slip away behind them. Mum shook herself back to her senses and began waving after them, calling all her love. 

 Ginny began to jog after the train, as she often did, trying to keep up with them. The time, she tugged Bill along after her. Bill went readily and they ran along together, hand-in-hand, waving and ducking around the other people on the platform. 

 “Didn’t you have enough of Hogwarts the first time ‘round, Billiam?” Fred shouted.

 “Gonna stow away after all, Gin?” George called out.

 “Send me something from Hogsmeade!” Ginny called back, teary-eyed as she always got when the older brothers were off to Hogwarts without her. “You’re going this year!”

 “A Hogsmeade toilet seat too?!” George demanded incredulously.

 “That’s outrageous!” Fred declared. “You starting a collection, Ginny?”

 “No! Don’t send me that!”

 The train was picking up speed now. Mum was completely out of sight, not about to run after the Hogwarts Express unless someone had forgotten something. Bill and Ginny were beginning to fall behind. Many of the parents and guardians on the platform were beginning to give up and turn away.

 “Hey!” Bill called, only just loud enough to be heard. “Don’t talk about Scabbers!”

 Ron felt his own face screw up in confusion. “What?”

 “Didn’t he run away?” George called back.

 “I thought he finally got eaten by something faster than him, which is everything!” Fred said jokingly, before his face screwed up too. “Wait, he’s been gone for a couple weeks. Are you saying all this is over a bloody dead r-?”

 “Shut it!” Bill called, in his serious voice. “I mean it! Don’t talk about him! Not to anyone!”

 “Bill, what the hell is going on?” Fred demanded.

 But Bill was several train cars behind them now and the platform was coming to an end. If Bill called out a proper answer, it was lost in the wind and the steam. 

 A seventh-year student wearing the Head Girl badge shouted at them to close the door already and George complied. (“Yes, ma’am, Miss Summerbee!” he said, saluting.) Then they all stayed there in silence for a few seconds, as outside the door window, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters fell away completely.

 Then Fred and George looked at each other.

 “Lee?” said Fred.

 “Lee,” nodded George.

 Then they both looked at Ron and slapped him on the back as older siblings did.

 “Well, Ronnie!” George said.

 “Dear Ronniekins!” Fred agreed. “We’re off to find Lee now!”

 “If you need us desperately, just holler, but here is where we leave you. You must go off into the wild compartments alone and find one to make your own.”

 “Such is the test of every young wizard.”

 Ron stared up at them, feeling like he’d expected exactly this and also that it was highly unfair. “You two have never had to do anything alone in your whole bloody lives,” he accused. “What the hell did the two of you do with my trunk?!” 

 “Ah, that is for us to know-!”  Fred began. 

 “-and for you to find out!” George finished, with a wink. 

 And before Ron could throttle proper answers out of them, Fred and George shouted their goodbyes and sprinted off down the train corridor. They weaved around the people not yet in compartments with the long-practice of being unable to walk anywhere at a sedate pace. They ducked and swerved like they were on the run from the Ministry itself. Probably because Head Girl Summerbee was now shouting after them. 

 If Fred and George were ever walking anywhere at a sedate pace with solemn faces, Ron knew, it meant they’d been up to something, were up to something, or were shortly going to be up to no good. 

 Ron sighed and felt very small and very alone at the end of this crowded train car. He’d sort of expected this, but that didn’t stop him from having his siblings leave him behind. There had to be a compartment of other first-years somewhere on this train - a decent group of people to talk to, at least, since he knew not everyone found their forever friends on the Hogwarts Express - and he could find it if he tried. Unfortunately, he’d first have to find out what the twins did with his trunk. 

 He wandered down the train in the opposite direction of the twins, but none of the compartments had his trunk and most of them seemed to be full already. Ron had to keep on shuffling around squealing reunions and flailing hugs. 

  “Merlin, did you see the news this morning?” someone hissed. 

  “I know!” their friend cried softly, helping them block the entire bloody corridor. 

  “He’s already out and the Ministry didn’t tell anyone! How could they just go ahead and not tell everyone? What if he gets out? What if they’ve got it all wrong and he is the one-” 

 “Excuse me,” Ron said loudly, annoyed, and pressed on. 

  Some of the compartments had an empty seat, but with the other seats full of upper-year students, Ron considered them full. Some compartments had seats unoccupied by a person but stacked high with coats and bags, as though they were reserved or someone was trying to keep all company out of their compartment. Or like people didn’t know how to store their bloody trunks properly. In any case, Ron didn’t have his trunk or the courage to knock and ask the people inside to move their things for him. 

 People were leaving their things all over the corridors too, Ron noted unhappily, feeling a bit like his mother. He stepped over the half-crumpled newspaper someone had just dropped on the floor, which had a large photograph of a screaming man Ron guessed was the member of the Weird Sisters or something, with his long hair and dirty look. 

 Ron went down the train until he came to the very last compartment of the very last car, now determined to storm up the train and break the twins’ noses if he didn’t find his trunk. He peered inside, prepared to be disappointed, only to see his trunk stored neatly above a perfectly free seat. The compartment was practically empty too, except for a small boy with round glasses and untidy black hair. 

 The boy looked up before Ron could duck away. Caught, Ron could only swallow his nerves and open the compartment door. “D’you mind if I join you? That’s, er, that’s my trunk.” 

 “Not at all,” Harry Potter said, waving at the empty seat across from him. 

 “Thanks,” Ron said, even though he still wanted to storm up the train and break the twins’ noses for putting his trunk in with Harry Potter. His smile felt more like a grimace on his face and he took a seat with Bill’s serious voice ringing in his ears. 

 Anything he could think to say to the other boy - the Boy-Who-Lived - was everything he wasn’t supposed to say. 

 Well, Mum and Dad had always said that you couldn’t go wrong with a proper introduction. They’d been sort of introduced already, just outside the platform, but not really, and Ron couldn’t think of anything else. 

 He stuck out his hand. “I’m Ron. Ron Weasley.” 

 He was inexperienced with introductions and tacked on his last name like an afterthought. Ron had always done pretty much all of his travelling as part of a pack, for which Mum and Dad handled the introductions for the family, moving quickly down the lineup of children. Ron was used to standing awkwardly between “the twins, Fred and George” and “our youngest and only daughter, Ginny”. 

 The Boy-Who-Lived didn’t seem to notice Ron’s lack of experience and shook his hand happily enough. “I’m Harry,” he said. “Harry Potter.”

 “I know,” Ron said without thinking, then felt his face burn at the mistake. “Sorry, I mean, my brothers said they helped you load your trunk onto the train - the twins, Fred and George. They ran off to talk to one of their friends about something.”

 Harry Potter nodded, unoffended. “Are all your family wizards?”

 Ron blinked at him. A part of him that sounded like Mum said that he would have been told off for asking that question, but Ron couldn’t see anything wrong with it. He’d heard that the Boy-Who-Lived had been sent off to live with Muggle relatives.

 “Er, yes, I think so? Mum might have a second-cousin who’s not a ‘wanded wizard’,” Ron answered, making the quotations in the air with his fingers. “We don’t really talk to him though, but only because we’re a big family! You know? Not because he’s a- anyway, Dad’s got a lot of cousins and they’ve all got loads of children. I can’t keep track of their names half the time.”

 “You must know lots of magic, though,” Harry Potter said.

 “Not really. I only just got my wand this year.”

 “But you’ve grown up around it, haven’t you? I’m sure you know tons about it.”

 “Not anymore than the next person.”

 “Well, the next person is me and I grew up with Muggles,” Harry Potter said, sounding miserable. “I don’t know anything about magic. I might be the worst in the class.”

 Ron gaped, unable to imagine the Boy-Who-Lived being awful at magic. “You can’t be! I mean, you won’t be. There’s plenty of Muggleborns at Hogwarts - people whose parents are both Muggles - and they learn quick enough. You’ll be fine.”

 “Really?”  

 “Yeah. All the classes start at the beginning, you know, because of the Muggleborns and how there’s always some sort of magic that someone doesn’t know anything about. Me? I’ve never been good at paying attention to a cauldron. I’m barely allowed to do anything and Mum always ends up taking the potions over anyway, no matter what I do, so I can’t see the point. What’s it like living with Muggles?”

 Dad was fascinated by Muggles, but Ron had never been able to talk to anyone who’d been raised by them. Ron had never been able to understand how anyone got on without magic. It sounded like a lot of work.

 “Horrible. Well, I mean, I’m not saying all Muggles are horrible. Most people are alright. My aunt, uncle, and cousins are just awful,” Harry Potter admitted. “They hate magic and everything out of the ordinary. I wish I’d gotten to grow up with magic. I wish I had four wizard brothers and lots of wizard cousins for company.” 

 “Five brothers,” Ron corrected glumly. “I’m the sixth one to go to Hogwarts, so whatever I do, one of them’s already done it first and better. Bill was Head Boy - he was the one with the earrings, holding hands with my sister?”

 Harry nodded very understandingly, having been on the receiving end of one of Bill’s smiling greetings just outside the platform.

 “He’s the eldest. Already graduated from Hogwarts. He works for Gringotts as a curse-breaker, but he came home from Egypt early because my other brother Percy is having a nervous breakdown or something. He was the one with the glasses shiny new prefect’s badge. He’s the third child. Charlie is the second and he graduated a whole year early to work with dragons in Romania! And he was captain of the Quidditch team for a few years before he left school and gave it all up, joking that he didn’t want to deal with the twins making the team last year.”

 “Wow,” said Harry, looking impressed. 

  “Yeah, even Fred and George get really good marks and everyone likes them because they’re funny. Everyone expects me to do just as well! But no one’s gonna throw me a parade if I do, because one of my brothers will have done it first and probably better. I never get anything new either. It’s my first year of Hogwarts and I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand, and I was supposed to get Percy’s old pet r-”

 Ron cut himself off, remembering Bill’s strange last-minute warning not to talk about Scabbers. Ron had no idea what could have happened to Scabbers that was so embarrassing for Percy, but Bill wouldn’t ask it of them if it wasn’t serious.

 “Why didn’t you get his pet?” Harry asked curiously.

 “It ran off,” Ron said shortly, his face feeling hot again. “Percy got an owl from Dad for making prefect, but they couldn’t afford- wel, I said I didn’t need a pet, anyway.”

 Ron wanted nothing more than to sink into his seat and stop existing. He couldn’t believe he’d gone on to the Boy-Who-Lived about how his family was too poor to afford another pet. No one needed to hear about how everything Ron owned was broken or falling apart. No one needed to hear about how Ron wasn’t looking to changing into his faded school uniform, because it would only look shabbier next to everyone’s neat, new black robes. Ron might as well have stood on his seat and announced that he was a second-rate wizard.

 It was probably for the best that Scabbers was gone, whatever had happened to him. Ron didn’t need an old, fat rat to look after and make him look even worse. 

  “Until I learned I was a wizard, I never got anything new,” Harry Potter said empathetically, gesturing towards his rolled-up jeans and frayed button-up. His shoes, Ron now noticed, had even more scuffs than Ron’s. “I only ever got my cousin Dudley’s cast-offs. Until a month ago, I’d never had my own money before or gotten any proper birthday presents.”

 Ron stared at the other boy in amazement. Ron Weasley had spent every year dreaming of one day getting a proper allowance, instead of counting up his meager birthday money whenever he wanted something for himself, and every year hoping uselessly to get his own proper broomstick for a birthday gift, instead of a new Chudley Cannons poster or a bundle of Chocolate Frogs almost like an afterthought. He’d never imagined he might find a kindred soul in the Boy-Who-Lived.

 “Really?” 

  Harry Potter nodded. “Really.”

 This made Ron feel much less embarrassed about not having a pet.

 “Honestly, until Hagrid told me I-” Harry began.

 Knock. Knock. 

 Ron and Harry both turned towards the compartment door, where another boy was hopefully looking in at them. He looked to be about their own age. He had silver blonde hair, a sharp pale face, a fancy leather satchel over his shoulder, and the neatest, blackest Hogwarts school uniform that Ron had ever seen. Ron disliked him immediately. 

 Once the new boy had their attention, he opened the compartment door. 

 Ron disliked him even more. 

  “Sorry to interrupt,” the new boy said. “Hello, Harry, I was wondering if my friends and I might join you for a while?”