QLFC Round 2, everybody! Whew! My prompt this round was to write a story set at Gambol and Japes! :) Hope you like. :D

(and there is more GD coming, I promise! I needed a little breather!)

18 April 2006

Ron squeezed past a pack of teenagers who were crowding their way out of the front door of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, yelling and laughing jubilantly, each one clutching a neon-orange paper bag emblazoned with three violet W's. He couldn't help grinning as they passed him. He sidled over the threshold onto the busy main floor of the shop. The summer holidays were an overwhelmingly busy season for George, as Ron well remembered from the days of his Auror training, when he used to moonlight as one of his brother's sales clerks.

This summer was no exception. The shop was crammed with wizards and witches of all ages, playing with Pygmy Puffs, choosing from the shelves full of the New and Improved Skiving Snackboxes, and examining the displays of all-new merchandise, some of which Ron had never seen before. He edged his way past the ever-expanding WonderWitch display, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of his brother, who could usually be found running product demonstration for over-excited young customers.

Tall as Ron was, he couldn't find George with a cursory sweep of the lower floors, and he wondered if George had forgotten the appointment he had insisted on.

"Those are awesome!" cried a small voice at Ron's hip, and he looked down to see a boy of about eleven who was studying a shelf of Gravity-Defying Suction Cup Shoes with his friend. "How much gold have you got? I'll split them with you!"

Ron chuckled, just as a hand descended on his shoulder. He nearly jumped out of his skin and spun around to find—

"George, you prat!" he snapped, clapping a hand over his chest.

"You're awfully twitchy," George laughed, though he patted Ron's back a little more gently. "Didn't mean to scare you. Sorry about the holdup, got stuck with a disgruntled parent." He pointed his thumb over his shoulder, and Ron saw an angry-looking wizard whose hair was a vivid sour-apple green. "His kid bought a Comb-A-Chameleon and decided to play a little joke. Can't say I blame him, but Adaline has his remedy in hand…"

George looked at Ron, and Ron met his eyes properly at last.

"Sure you're all right, Ronniekins?" he asked, with a slightly worried smile, and Ron had the feeling he was being scrutinized. "I didn't scare you that bad, did I?"

"What? No," Ron said, shaking his head quickly. "Er—look, what did you want to meet about? I told Hermione I'd be home…"

"Ah," said George, with a mischievous smile, "come with me. We're going on a walk."

"Ron, can you hear me?"

"I hear you," he muttered irritably. "Quit askin', m'head hurts…"

"Prat," said another distant, but familiar voice. Ron opened his eyes and the room swam into view. Hermione, who looked terribly anxious, was leaning over his bed on the left.

On his right, looking equally anxious, though admittedly making a great effort to hide it, was Ginny. She gave him a taut smile. "Morning, sunshine."

Great, thought Ron, what better way to wake up in a hospital than surrounded by two pregnant Aurors' wives?

"Mornin'," he mumbled, allowing his heavy, painful head to fall back on the pillow. Hermione instantly reached out and brushed the hair gently back from his face. "What happened?"

"We're in St. Mungo's," she told him. "How does your arm feel?"

Ron looked down at himself and saw, to his mild surprise, that his left arm was heavily bandaged and supported on a pillow. He raised his eyebrows, bewildered for a moment, and then it suddenly came back to him.

"Doesn't feel like much of anything, at the moment," he said.

"They've got you on about half a dozen different potions," said Ginny.

Ron blinked groggily at Hermione. "We got caught on that operation, didn't we?" he asked. "Where's Harry? He all right?"

"He's not—he's not out of the treatment room yet," said Hermione, with a nervous glance at Ginny, who, Ron realized, was hovering in the space that would have existed between two beds in this part of the ward that had been curtained off. She looked torn between joy that her brother seemed to be all right, and anxiety at Harry's continued absence.

Ron tried to sit up, but Hermione pressed him back down. "The Healers don't want you up just yet," she said. "What do you need? I can get it for you…"

"I just want to know what's going on with Harry," he said, a little heatedly. "This is all my bloody fault."

"How's Hermione feeling?" George asked cheerfully. "All well and good?"

"Well and good," Ron agreed, walking alongside his brother off the main alley and down a side street. "We're going to build a crib this weekend." He gave a sheepish smile as George clapped his shoulder again.

"Just wait," he said, shaking his head. "Just wait'll that kid gets here. You don't know what you're in for." His tone was nothing short of elated, and Ron grinned. "And how's your arm?"

"Fine," said Ron, extending his left arm and drawing back his sleeve to reveal a thick, raised red welt of a scar that coiled around his forearm and up his sleeve like a rope. "It looks worse than it is."

George whistled and indicated that they should turn right. "That's a good one, all right. Ah—here we are."

"I remember this place," Ron said slowly, his hands on his hips as he stared up at the faded sign over the dark and dusty windows of the shopfront they'd stopped before. "You used to shop here."

"Got some of our best stuff here," George agreed, absently scratching a spot above his missing ear, a habit that showed itself whenever Fred was mentioned, even indirectly. He also had a habit of using the plural when he was discussing anything related to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes—though most people assumed, not entirely incorrectly, that he was speaking on behalf of himself and his employees, many of whom were like adopted family. Only a few, Ron among them, knew otherwise.

George and Ron stood side-by-side on the pavement, looking up at the dark storefront of Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop. Diagon Alley buzzed busily at their backs, and a few people edged around the brothers as they looked in the vacant windows.

"Basically," said George, "the witches who ran the place retired to the Mediterranean about two years ago. We never really directly competed with anything they put out, and they even carried a few of our products for us, when we were running out of room, so we had a good relationship. They kept the shop open for a while, letting someone run it for them, but now they've closed up and want to sell the building—to me."

Ron raised his eyebrows and looked around at his brother, who was now frowning critically at the storefront. He turned his gaze on Ron. "What d'you think?"

"About…buying it?" Ron asked.

"No, about having the wedding here," George snorted impatiently, digging a hand into his pocket. "Yes, about buying it!"

"Angelina'd like that," Ron chuckled, picturing his soon-to-be sister-in-law's reaction to getting married in an outpost of George's office. This summer's wedding had been a long time coming—for everyone in the Weasley family, not just George, Angelina, and their two-year-old son, Fred—and Angelina Johnson would be damned before she lost the chance to throw a party exactly the way she wanted to.

George had fished a tarnished key from his pocket. "Let's have a look, shall we?" He fit the key into the lock and pushed open the door, which disturbed a small cloud of dust that danced in the streaming afternoon sunlight.

Ron's eyes adjusted to the gloomy semi-darkness of the shop, and he saw that even without shelves and tables displaying merchandise in the center room, it was a tiny place—barely half the size of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. He faced his brother, frowning.

"You're looking to downsize? Number ninety-three's already a tight fit, isn't it?" he asked.

"Well," said George, leaning against a tall desk that looked like the former check-out counter, "I was actually thinking of moving the development offices and laboratory over here, and converting the top floor of the old shop into more retail space." He eyed Ron carefully for a moment.

"Ron, you know Harry would never blame you for all this," said Hermione as she stirred a pan full of vegetables on the stove. "Just like you'd never blame him."

Two weeks after the New Year and the end of their medical leaves, Aurors Potter and Weasley had been brought in for questioning regarding the operation they had executed without backup two weeks prior to Christmas. As no one had been irreparably harmed and an arrest—however inadvertent—had been made, there was a general feeling at the Ministry that very little harm had been done. There were, however, a few of the elder powers-that-be who felt that fame and celebrity should not exempt rogue Aurors—for that was how they were being painted by the displeased minority—from punishment, suspension, or even expulsion from their seat of office.

Never mind the fact that Ron still had a sling on his arm, and Harry had a new, angry red scar along his right cheek to show for their misadventure, and one at the back of his head, too; never mind that Ron—though he had not been able to admit it until today—was still so rattled that he could barely cope with the reality of how close they had both been to leaving their respective children without fathers.

He couldn't believe it had taken him so long to come to the realization that running off on these life-and-limb-risking adventures was beyond idiotic, it was cruel. Frankly, he now believed it was a wonder that Hermione still hadn't killed him. He also couldn't believe that he was having these thoughts at all.

Ron sat down at the kitchen table, pushing his hands through his hair, and looked over at Hermione, who had a hand on her belly as she watched him.

"Am I cracking up?" he asked her. "I feel like—like I've—I dunno…"

"Lost your nerve?" Hermione asked simply, and he threw her a look, but nodded grudgingly.

"I'm starting to think it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if they suspended me," said Ron, and he looked quickly at his wife, who met his eye evenly, without a trace of surprise.

"Well," she said slowly, after a moment, "would it be so terrible?"

"This is the only job I've ever had," he said, becoming suddenly defensive. "Harry and I've been at this—you know how long we've been at this!"

Hermione nodded, turning down the heat on the stove with a tap of her wand, removing the pan from the burner. She faced him, folding her hands on her middle. "But I didn't ask about Harry. I asked about you."

"Did Hermione talk to you about this?" Ron asked, trying not to let his embarrassment and irritation creep into his voice. "She wants me to quit, I knew it—"

"She doesn't want you to do anything you don't want to do, mate," George interrupted calmly. He was still leaning casually against the empty till. "Just listen for a minute, will you?"

Ron took a sharp breath in through his nose and stared at a dusty shelf in the corner, nodding tersely. "Go on, then."

"Hermione didn't give me the idea to ask you to come back. Actually, I've been wanting to do it for a long time. I miss having you in the shop, as irritating as you are," George said. "But I also know that the only way I could ever, ever bring you back would be if you were committed, and excited, and not feeling like you were missing out on something else."

Ron shifted his weight from foot to foot, disturbing more clouds of dust around his ankles, but he held George's gaze.

"I know how much you like being an Auror," said George, "and I know how close you and Harry are. But the two of you have dealt with that accident before Christmas in really different ways—we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, I'm just telling you what I've observed—and so…the last time I dropped by the Ministry for lunch with Dad, I decided to talk to Hermione about asking you."

"Asking me what?" Ron asked testily, feeling needled from all sides.

"I want you to be my partner," said George.

Ron stared at him blankly. "Your partner?"

"I need one," George said bluntly. "I do. It's a huge thing to try and handle on my own, this business, and now with Ange and Freddie, I feel like I barely see them…" he shook his head. "And you—well, everyone helped, but—you're the one who jumped in after…"

He looked down at his feet, his hands deep in his pockets—apparently, it was now his turn to be embarrassed. His neck and one ear were glowing scarlet. "Why don't we really make it…you know…Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes again?"

He punctuated this question by waving his hand in the space between Ron and himself, and then looked up, meeting Ron's eye. He was still red-faced, and, to Ron's horror, his eyes looked as though they were welling up.

"We both know it's really just been one," George said, and his voice sounded constricted. "I just never changed the sign."

Ron looked away, his own eyes smarting. He did a slow turn on the spot, studying the now-empty Gambol and Japes. In his mind's eye, he saw it as it had looked the first time he had ever shopped in Diagon Alley with his older brothers—the way it had been when Fred and George, one sweltering summer afternoon, had taken charge of him while Percy was fitted for school robes, and brought him into the joke shop for the first time. He saw the barrels of Acid Pops, and the eye-watering display of Filibuster's Fireworks, as clearly as if they were in the dusty, empty room now.

He wiped hurriedly at his nose and looked around at George, frowning. "We should keep the sign—the Gambol and Japes one," he said, clearing his throat. "We can put ours below it. And we can make it look like it used to, don't you think? Sell a little merchandise in here…"

"We could even offer tours of the lab," George said, starting to grin. "I bet people would like that."

Ron chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, I bet."

"So, you're in?" George asked.

Ron heaved a sigh. "You know I've got to talk to Hermione. And Harry," he added. "I…it wouldn't be right to leave him, just like that. He deserves to hear about it from me."

"But…" George pressed.

"But," Ron went on, "yes. I'll do it."


"Blimey, George, d'you want me to or not?" Ron laughed.

"I do!" George cried. "I just—well, I sort of lied, and I had a moment of panic."

"You lied?" Ron repeated.

"I've kind of already bought this place," George said, with an awkward grin. "I thought you'd say yes, and Hermione did too, but I had to hurry up and close the purchase…"

"Bloody hell, George…"

"Well, if you'd said no after all, I would've just asked Percy," said George seriously, and Ron burst out laughing. "Come on, he'd love it!"