Ron slammed his bedroom door and stomped across the floorboards. He sat down angrily on his bed, causing the ageing mattress springs to groan their displeasure. He didn’t know why he was so surprised; hadn’t he learned long ago not to hope for the impossible? His heart thudded in his chest and he felt sick with the adrenaline of storming up to his room. He felt even worse as he recalled the stricken looks of his parents as he’d yelled at them, and the unfamiliar but horridly disapproving expressions on his siblings’ faces as he’d pushed his chair away from the kitchen table and, near tears, told his family that he hated being one of them.
All because of a stupid rat. He looked down at the little creature snoozing in his shaking hands and felt a fresh surge of guilt as he realised that the hated gift was just an innocent, trusting animal. His parents had been so pleased as they’d presented him with the cardboard box, wrapped with a large red ribbon; they’d known that Ron had wanted a pet to take to Hogwarts more than anything. Unfortunately for their youngest son, they’d just spent a large portion of their savings on an owl as a reward for Percy who’d recently been appointed as a school prefect.
Thinking on her feet, Mrs Weasley had suggested Scabbers. Charlie had found the rat looking pathetic and somewhat ill on their doorstep many years previously, and had nursed it back to health. Eventually he’d given it to Percy as a good-luck present when he’d started at Hogwarts. Five years later, Mr Weasley had been able to convince Percy that his little brother would be able to take care of the rat, and Percy had conceded that he would have little time for Scabbers now anyway, with a new owl to care for as well as undertaking his numerous prefect duties.
Ron’s face had been a picture of delight as Mrs Weasley had brought the large box into the kitchen; maybe this was his wand! Deep down, he’d known that his parents couldn’t really expect him to start his school career with Charlie’s old wand. Then he’d seen the holes in the top of the box. A pet! The box was too small for an owl, disappointingly, but maybe they’d bought him a kitten. A cat wouldn’t be too bad, he’d supposed; it could sleep at his feet and catch mice and keep him company. He’d looked around at the smiling, eager faces around him, and had started to thank his parents as he untied the ribbon and lifted off the lid. Inside the box lay an old, balding rat that he’d seen a thousand times before. His gratitude had stammered to a halt as his ears grew pink. He had felt his face burning, and his throat seemed to constrict.
‘Scabbers?’ Ron had managed to croak, lifting the rat out of the box. Scabbers had stirred briefly, looked up at his new owner, before giving a little sigh and curling up in the boy’s hands, snoring almost immediately.
‘Oh, look Ron, he’s happy to be yours!’ Ginny had squeaked delightedly, stretching across the table to tickle the dozing creature. Ron had glowered at her and she’d hesitated. He turned his gaze onto his parents, whose smiles were rapidly fading from their freckled faces.
‘You’re giving me Scabbers to take to school?’
‘You said you wanted a pet, dear,’ said Mrs Weasley, casting a nervous glance at her husband. Mr Weasley’s brow had furrowed. He had been afraid of this.
‘I didn’t mean a pet we already have!’ Ron had wailed, fully aware that he was being very ungrateful and yet unable to stop, ‘I know I’m only getting Percy’s old cast-off because he’s got that new owl!’
‘I’ll have you know that Scabbers is a very loyal companion,’ Percy had said proudly, colour rising in his cheeks. ‘He sat with me for hours whilst I wrote essays in the library, and I managed to train him to gnaw blunt quill nibs back into working order -’
‘Oh well, that’s different. I really wanted to start my magical career in possession of a fat, old pencil sharpener,’ Ron had mumbled, hot tears stinging his eyes. At this, Mr Weasley had pushed his chair back and risen from the table. He had looked down at his youngest son, who was suddenly reminded of just how tall his father was.
‘Ronald, you know your mother and I would have given you an owl if we could have,’ he said softly, his lips thin. ‘We want you to have the best. We want all of you to have the very best. But you know that we simply can’t afford it. Percy worked really hard, and becoming a prefect is a big occasion. He was kind enough to say that you could take his pet to school with you; don’t you think that deserves a little gratitude on your part?’
Ron could suddenly hear the whooshing of blood in his ears. He’d known that his father was right, that he was being horrible. He didn’t want this to be his memory of his last night at home. He’d opened his mouth to apologise, but to his horror, all that had tumbled out were horrid words of anger and frustration.
Now, in the silence of his bedroom, Ron burned with shame. He didn’t deserve an owl. He didn’t even deserve this rat. He could hear the distant sounds of his family clearing the kitchen table of their final meal together until Christmas. He and Ginny had spent all afternoon helping their mother prepare the dinner in the hot August kitchen of the Burrow. Ron thought wistfully of the sticky toffee pudding he’d helped to make. He’d been looking forward to that, too.
He sat in silence for some time, waiting for his pulse to stop hammering his eardrums. Instead, it was joined by a knocking at the door. Ron gulped.
‘Come in,’ he said, the words emerging as a whisper. He cleared his throat, and tried again. ‘Come in!’
The door opened quietly, and Ron held his breath as his mother walked in to his bedroom. Her cheeks bore red spots of colour, but her eyes, though bloodshot, were dry. Crossing Ron’s room without a word, she placed a bowl of steaming sticky toffee pudding on his desk, and then sat down next to him on the bed. Ron didn’t want to break the silence; at least his mum wasn’t shouting at him. So, he kept his mouth shut and waited, absent-mindedly stroking the rat he’d been so angry to receive.
‘I’m going to ask you to apologise, Ronald, for what you did just now,’ said Mrs Weasley suddenly. ‘You hurt your father’s feelings. You hurt Percy’s feelings. You upset Ginny, who would be glad to be going to Hogwarts at all. But first, I want you to tell me what’s really wrong with you. What’s upset you so much?’
Ron blinked back tears, and didn’t know what to say. He decided to be honest.
The pudding bowl lay abandoned on Ron’s bedside table; it showed suspicious signs of having been licked clean. Scabbers was sniffing at the remnants of sticky syrup on the spoon, his whiskers twitching with interest. A battered school trunk lay open on the floor, layers of previously neatly folded clothes now looking slightly dishevelled, as their young owner stood in front of a mirror, turning this way and that. Ron’s eyes were stinging slightly from crying in his mother’s arms, but he’d scrubbed his face and was now trying on his uniform once again. He straightened his tie and smoothed his robes.
‘Ron Weasley, Gryffindor.’ He smiled at his reflection. A knock at the door made him jump. He hurriedly pulled off his school robes and tossed them onto the trunk.
‘Come in!’ he called.
The freckled faces of Fred and George appeared in the doorway. Ron was pleased to see that the ugly looks of disapproval had vanished from their faces, and matching expressions of mischief and glee were now bearing down on him.
‘Ronniekins, we hate to see you upset’, crooned Fred as he placed an arm around Ron’s shoulders, and jostled him gently.
‘Yeah, we know what it’s like, starting at Hogwarts and not having anything new,’ said George, reaching into the pocket of his jeans, and pulling out a long strip of parchment, ‘but fortunately for you, you have a pair of big brothers who already know a bit of magic.’
Ron looked at his brothers with a vague sense of bewilderment.
‘You can help me turn Scabbers into an owl?’ he asked, hope rising in his voice.
‘Afraid not, little brother,’ said George, studiously avoiding eye contact with his twin, who was trying to suppress a small fit of the giggles, ‘however, this little spell might just make you feel a little bit better about taking old Scabbers to school.’
Ron took the parchment, and his lips moved as he deciphered George’s scrawling handwriting. His eyes lit up with excitement.
‘Will this spell really work?’
‘Of course it will! Just point your wand at Scabbers, concentrate, and say the spell,’ said Fred, ‘Et, voila! Instant yellow rat! Much more exciting than your average grey one –’
‘- and a real eye-catcher for the ladies!’ finished George, winking at his little brother, who blushed to the tips of his hair.
As Ron sat down on his bed to read through the spell once again, he heard muffled laughter as Fred and George left his room and clattered down the hallway.
With the strip of parchment folded carefully into a pocket of his jeans, to be used after his family had gone to bed, Ron pulled on his school robes once again and stood in front of the mirror. He smoothed his red hair, and gave what he considered to be a winning smile.
‘Hi. Ron Weasley, Gryffindor,’ he said again. He paused to enjoy the sound of the words, then pulled himself up to his full height and extended a hand towards his own reflection. ‘Ronald Weasley. Head Boy, Hogwarts.’
‘That’s the ticket.’
Ron spun around, his face instantly aflame with embarrassment. Percy was leaning against the doorframe of his little brother’s room, a proud smile on his lips.
‘Just keep your head down, work hard, do the opposite of whatever Fred and George do, and take good care of Scabbers,’ Percy continued, polishing a small silver badge with the hem of his shirt. ‘I’m sure that, in time, you too could rise to the rank of prefect.’
Despite his thankful smile, Ron’s heart sank a little. He dreamed of one day being a cool prefect like Bill or Charlie, not a pompous perfectionist like Percy. But he’d be lucky to make a splash at Hogwarts at all. After all, what was one more Weasley?
Ron had changed into his pyjamas and was eyeing Scabbers with curiosity. The rat was curled up on the pile of clothes he’d discarded onto the floor, flecks of syrup adorning his drooping whiskers. Ron wondered briefly whether he would just be better off with an ordinary grey rat, rather than a more exciting pet. Did he really want to draw attention to himself? He knew he wanted to distinguish himself at school, to stand out from the befreckled and fiery hordes of Weasleys that had come before him, but until he knew what he was good at maybe it would be best to keep his head down and go unnoticed; he might not be good at anything. Twiddling an old, chipped wand between his fingers, he imagined the taunts and teasing he might encounter. He’d be the only clumsy, stupid, unpopular Weasley, whose only remarkable feature was a bright yellow rat. How sad.
On the other hand, Ron really wanted to try some wand magic, and turning Scabbers yellow seemed harmless enough. Imagining the look on Percy’s face when Ron strolled downstairs for breakfast the next morning, clutching a radiant and far more interesting Scabbers in his triumphant hands, he grinned to himself, and pointed the wand at the rat. Just as he was about to recite the words provided by George, there was yet another tap at the door. Embarrassed, Ron quickly shoved the wand under his pillow.
‘May I come in?’
‘Yes, Dad,’ sighed Ron, wondering if he’d be allowed to get any sleep that night. Not that he’d been about to go to bed, but his father hadn’t known that. his heart beat a little faster as he remembered the quiet anger on his father’s face earlier that evening. Ron could count on the fingers of one hand the times he’d ever seen his father truly angry, and he felt ashamed of his outburst. Nonetheless, he decided to try and act unconcerned, hoping that his dad wouldn’t ask too many probing questions. He didn’t want his father to know that he was afraid, that he wasn’t as bluff and capable as his older brothers had been on leaving for Hogwarts.
Mr Weasley entered, and silently cast a seasoned eye over the clothes spilling from his son's battered school trunk, and the books littering the floor. He raised an eyebrow.
‘I thought you’d packed.’
‘I have! I’ve just been – ’ Ron hesitated, then felt his shoulders slump. This was Dad, the one person whom Ron knew he could never fool, ‘I’d mostly packed, but I’ve been trying on my uniform again, and I needed my toothbrush for tonight but it was at the bottom of the trunk, and I wanted to have another look at Charlie’s – my – wand.’
Mr Weasley sat down on the bed next to his son, and the bedsprings grumbled once again. Hands clasped on his lap, he didn’t look at Ron but matched his gaze, watching the soft rise and fall of Scabbers’ stomach as the little rat snored.
‘He’s not that bad, you know,’ said Mr Weasley.
‘I know,’ Ron replied quietly.
His father sighed and removed his glasses, rubbing at his eyes wearily.
‘It’s always a tense evening, before we send you lot off to school. Mum wants the packing done and the dinner to be perfect, your brothers want to get going so that they can see their friends, Ginny’s upset that she’s too little to leave yet and I just want you all to get along so that we can enjoy our last day of summer together,’ he glanced sidelong at Ron and gave a sheepish grin ‘And so that your mother doesn’t get upset. You know how quiet it is here when your brothers are at school. With you away and nobody squabbling with Ginny, it’ll be even harder for your mum.’
Ron nodded, remembering the hush that would fall over The Burrow once his older brothers had gone to school, strange after the long summer holidays that had invariably been filled with mischief, mayhem and a lot of noise.
‘Speaking of your mum,’ Mr Weasley continued, ‘She mentioned that you were feeling a little nervous about tomorrow.’
Ron’s ears turned almost instantly pink. Again, he nodded silently. His dad looked at him, his face kind and a little careworn.
‘Oh, Ron. I know it’s scary, leaving home for the first time, even if you’re really looking forward to Hogwarts.’ He sighed again, and wrapped a long arm around Ron’s shoulders, the gesture a gentler echo of Fred’s earlier clasp. ‘Sometimes I forget just how young you really are. Shall I tell you a secret?’
Ron perked up at the prospect, and nodded once again, this time with a touch of enthusiasm. Mr Weasley chuckled softly at his son’s taste for intrigue.
‘Bill cried all morning, the day he started at Hogwarts.’
‘What?’ Ron exclaimed, amazed at this revelation, ‘Bill? He didn’t!’
‘He did! He didn’t stop until we reached Platform 9 ¾. Then, he got on the train, made friends with the children he travelled with, and spent seven of the best years of his life at Hogwarts.’
Ron felt heartened by this story; perhaps there was hope for him after all, if Bill had been scared too. Mr Weasley bent forward and scooped Scabbers up gently, placing him into Ron’s hands. He briefly stroked his thumb over his son’s small palm, and gave a warm smile.
‘Ronald, there’s nothing wrong with having an ordinary grey rat. Scabbers may not be your ideal pet, but he’s your responsibility now and I’m certain that you will do your best to take good care of him, as your brothers have before you.’ He stood up, and gazed down at Ron. ‘In any case, you’re not an ordinary grey rat. You’re a Weasley. You’re Ronald Bilius Weasley, and you will have a wonderful time at Hogwarts.’ He gave Ron’s hair a quick ruffle and walked towards the door. Turning, he once again surveyed the mess surrounding the little boy, who was looking at the rat thoughtfully.
‘Shall I help you tidy up before your mum sees this?'
'No thanks, Dad. I'll do it in the morning,' Ron replied, grinning up at his dad as he carefully placed Scabbers onto the folded blanket at the end of his bed.
'Okay then. I'll pop in to say goodbye before I go to work tomorrow,' said Mr Weasley. His voice cracked slightly, but Ron, who had begun rummaging once again through his trunk, didn't seem to notice.
'Goodnight then, dad,' he mumbled, head buried amongst parchments and socks.
'Goodnight Ron. And don't worry about tomorrow,' Mr Weasley added, 'you'll be great.' With that, he stepped out onto the landing and quietly closed the door of his youngest son's bedroom.
Finally left alone, Ron reached under his pillow and pulled out the wand. He looked at Scabbers, who was once again asleep. Fumbling for the strip of parchment in the pocket of his jeans, Ron hoped that it wouldn’t matter if he practiced a little magic before term actually started. It's just a simple little spell, he reasoned, the Ministry won't care if an underage wizard just wants his pet rat to look a little more interesting. There may be nothing wrong with having a plain old rat, but he’d been looking forward to trying this all evening.
Glancing nervously at Scabbers, he quickly read George's scribbled note one last time, before screwing his eyes tightly shut and pointing the battered wand at the old rat. He had to admit, the incantation sounded a little longer and more poetic than the spells he'd heard his parents using, but maybe the incantations used on animals were different.
He took a deep breath and whispered the words he'd memorised, jabbing the wand towards Scabbers. After a moment of silence, Ron cautiously opened one eye. Scabbers was still dozing happily and, disappointingly, still grey.
With a sigh, Ron threw down the wand. I must be a duff wizard, he thought sadly ashe pulled back his duvet and climbed into bed. I can't even manage a really simple spell. I bet I'll arrive at Hogwarts and even Hufflepuff won't take me, and I'll have to come home. I am a grey rat.
Anxiety, fear, and odd glimmers of hope wheeled repeatedly through Ron's mind as he lay in bed that night, and when he finally fell asleep he dreamed that he'd accidentally turned himself bright yellow, and had arrived at Hogwarts School to gales of mocking laughter.