With a deep breath to steady his nerves, Ron pushed open the door of the shop. His first thought was one of gratitude at having taken that last breath, for as soon as he stepped through the door, he found himself almost incapable of drawing another. The air was thick and heavy, laden with too much sweetness, too much fruit, too many flowers, too much of everything. He shut the door behind him and took a tentative step forward, looking around at a room full of bubbling cauldrons, flowers hanging upside-down from tiny hooks on the ceiling, dozens of jars full of bees and butterflies, and curtains drawn around small, square areas. Some of these areas were open, their curtains drawn aside, and Ron could see that each one contained a table with a chair on either side. On the far side of the large room, Ron read a sign with much the same design as the one outside: "Scents and Sensibility ~ Proudly Serving You Since 1811."
A hand suddenly drew back the curtain from one of the small areas on his left, and an old witch stepped out, followed by a young wizard who looked just as lost as Ron felt. The wizard pressed a few coins into the witch's hand, and she gave him a red box with a white bow.
"Thanks," he mumbled, shuffling quickly past Ron.
Ron heard the soft tinkling of bells as the man shut the door behind him, and he felt even more helpless than before. What had possessed him to come into a perfume shop? He knew nothing - absolutely nothing - about perfume, nor could he imagine what Hermione would think if he gave her such an odd gift.
"May I help you?" The old woman was petite, her white hair pulled into a loose bun on the nape of her neck, though thin, silvery wisps had escaped to frame her pleasant face.
Ron looked down at her as she motioned for him to join her at the table she'd just left. "Er..."
She smiled slightly. "Is this your first visit, love?"
Realizing that his throat had shut down all functions that allowed him to breathe or speak, Ron nodded.
Her smile widened, then transformed into a look of kindness. "Well, come on, then. Don't be shy." She motioned to him again, and this time he felt his feet moving to the table. He sat down and heard the soft clatter of rings on metal as she drew the curtains shut around them. "There now," she said, sitting across the table and folding her hands in front of her. "I am Madam Dashwood, and I'll help you find something perfect. You are looking for perfume for...?"
"Your mother, perhaps?" she prompted.
Ron shook his head.
Madam Dashwood removed her small, round spectacles and tilted her head a little to the side. "What's your name, dear?" she asked gently.
"Ron," he replied. "Ron Weasley."
"And which would you prefer - Ron or Mr. Weasley?"
She smiled. "Very well, Ron. Why don't you relax? I know it isn't fun for a young man to visit Witches Way. I assume some female friend or relative is the reason for your presence here?"
"Yeah," Ron mumbled. "But... but that isn't to say... I mean... I think your shop is very nice."
"Apart from the fact that you can't breathe, yes?"
Ron was surprised to find himself laughing, even sitting back comfortably in his chair. "I'm getting used to it."
"I'll try to make this quick and painless for you, Ron, don't worry." She winked and replaced her spectacles. "Now - in order to make the perfect perfume, I just need a little information from you. Easy enough, yes?"
He nodded. "Okay. I'm buying it for a friend. A girl friend. That is, a friend who is a girl. But she's rather more than a friend. Not a girlfriend, but a girl who's been a very good friend. More than a friend."
If Madam Dashwood was baffled or amused, she gave no sign of it. "This friend of yours must be very special, if you're here talking to me. Tell me a little more about her."
"Well... er... her name's Hermione Granger. She's Muggle-born, and a bit younger than me, and... er... bossy. Smart..." Ron trailed off. "Er... do you want me to keep going?"
Madam Dashwood wore a small smile. "Yes, I will need a little more."
Ron thought for a moment. What could he say about Hermione? "Well, she's so smart she scares me sometimes, really. But also so smart that she's annoying, because she usually wins whatever fights we have. She completely loses her head in a crisis, and she always nags us - that's me and my best mate, Harry - about doing homework and taking notes. But then she always helps us, too. And she has a monster of a cat. She's off her rocker when it comes to house-elves. She wants to free them all, and she won't listen to reason when we try to tell her that they don't want to be freed. So she knits these hats - at least, she says they're hats - I really can't tell. And she leaves them around under rubbish, trying to trick them into picking one up. She has bushy hair. It could probably knock something off your shelves, if you want to know. And she's lousy at chess. I like when she laughs, though. She doesn't giggle like most girls do... she laughs, and you can tell by her face that she really thinks it's funny. As for Quidditch, I think my mum knows and cares more about it than Hermione does. I don't think she'd care about Quidditch even if it was a school subject, and that's really saying something, I can tell you. The only subject she refused to study was Divination, not that I blame her. Our teacher is a right old fraud. But back to Quidditch. She doesn't like it, which makes me wonder why she'd want to go to the ball with Krum. Ugly, stupid oaf, if you ask me. But that was nice, what she did with her hair. It was all straight and different. She got petrified our second year, and that's the only reason I went into the forest after those giant spiders. I loved when she slapped Draco Malfoy - you don't know him, but I can tell you, he's a slimy git. I saved her life once... saved her from a troll. That was in first year. And that's when we became friends. We're both Prefects this year, even though she couldn't believe at first that I got it." Ron paused. "Er... was that enough?"
Madam Dashwood blinked, her mouth slightly open. "Yes... yes, dear, I think that was... more than sufficient." She pulled her wand from her robes and tapped the table smartly. As if it grew up from the wood, a small glass bottle rose between them. Ron stared at the dark liquid inside.
"Is that it?" he asked skeptically. "Is it supposed to be black?" He had seen perfume, but none of it looked like this.
"Ron, you see..." She sighed, then rested her chin in her small hand, looking at him sympathetically. "The perfume is mixed based on what you tell me, and... How shall I say this? Dear, you gave me a cauldron where most give a teaspoon."
Ron stared at her blankly. He didn't quite understand what she was telling him, but he did get the impression that he had done this wrong. That was no surprise. "A cauldron of what?"
"Thoughts," she replied, waving her hand. "Emotions."
In spite of himself, Ron suddenly grinned and reached over to take the bottle. "So..." he said slowly, turning it in his hands, "what you mean is... most people get a perfume with - with the emotional range of a teaspoon - and I had a cauldron?"
"I'm afraid so, dear. It doesn't often turn out this way, and if you want to mix another bottle, that's quite understandable."
Ron looked down at the delicate bottle in his hands and read the label. "__________ ~ To Miss Hermione Granger ~ Specially Prepared for You by Mr. Ron Weasley and Your Friends at Scents and Sensibility ~ No House-Elves Were Tested or Enslaved in the Making of This Product."
"Ron?" said Madam Dashwood gently. "Shall we try again?"
He looked up, met her eyes, and grinned. "No, I want to give her the cauldron."
"Are you sure? It - it will smell... rather unusual."
"I want it to smell unusual!" he exclaimed, ignoring the small voice in his head that reminded him that he was getting excited over perfume. "What's this blank on the label, here at the top?"
"That's where you name the scent," she explained.
Ron grinned again. "I want to name it 'spew.' That is... S.P.E.W."
Madam Dashwood raised an eyebrow. "Spe - S.P.E.W.? Are you quite sure?"
"Positive," said Ron, trying very hard not to laugh when the four letters appeared in an elegant script on the bottle's label. "How much do I owe you?" he asked, reaching into his pocket.
Madam Dashwood gave one last look at the bottle, then sighed, "Forty-five galleons."
"Forty.... forty-five galleons?!" he spluttered. "For this?" That would leave him with practically nothing!
"It has a lot of ingredients," Madam Dashwood explained calmly. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you used almost every ingredient in the shop. But we can make you a new bottle, yes?"
Ron stared down at the bottle in silence, his brain comprehending nothing on the label but "Miss Hermione Granger." He felt the wonderful weight of the galleons in his pocket, then looked up at Madam Dashwood again. "Okay," he mumbled.
She smiled at him and reached to take the bottle from his hands. With a soft tap of her wand, she wrapped the bottle in a white box like the one Ron had seen her give the wizard before him. Ron counted out all but five of his galleons and paid her, then rose from his seat hurriedly, not wanting to think about what he'd just done.
"Merry Christmas, Ron," said Madam Dashwood, rising as well and drawing aside the curtain.
"Thanks," he replied, not looking back as he made desperately for the door.
Ron felt his face burning and couldn't decide if it was from humiliation, the slow suffocation of his senses by perfumes, or the fact that he had almost no money left. A nagging voice in his head suggested that it was because he had just bought something so personal - something so expensive - for Hermione. But he quickly decided that perfumes and humiliation caused his present discomfort. At least now he was back in the fresh air, and he felt even more relieved to find Lupin waiting for him at the corner.
"You came out alive, I see," Lupin said with a gentle smile.
"Just barely," Ron muttered, stuffing the white box into his robes. "Can we get out of here now?"
Lupin laughed. "Certainly. We should meet Ginny on the way out." He paused, then asked carefully, "What did you buy?"
"Perfume," Ron mumbled. He knew he had given a stupid answer, since Lupin had plainly seen him leaving a perfume shop.
"What are you going to buy in Quality Quidditch Supplies?" asked Lupin, and Ron felt a rush of gratitude toward him. But just as quickly, he remembered that he no longer had anything to spend there.
"I don't really want to go," he said lightly.
He heard Ginny's voice a little way ahead of them, but hardly noticed. Lupin had stopped walking and was looking at him with an odd expression, as if trying to read something in his face. He turned away, not wanting to give anything away. It didn't matter that he had spent everything. It didn't matter that he had never spent so much money in one place. It didn't matter that he would have to buy candy for everyone else. Blokes like Harry and Sirius could throw away galleons wherever they pleased; what did it matter if he had a chance to do the same? But then the thought occurred to him that if anyone understood what it was like to be poor, it was Lupin. Lupin wouldn't make fun or give him disapproving looks.
"Of course, your broom must still be like new," said Lupin mildly. Ron glanced up, jarred from his thoughts and ready to tell Lupin everything, but he had lost his chance.
Ginny had joined them, and she stopped in front of them, adjusting the bags on her arms. "What did you buy, Ron?" she asked eagerly. "If you haven't got anything yet, I saw the perfect -"
"Ron went to Scents and Sensibility," said Lupin.
Ginny's eyes widened, and Ron flushed once more and looked away, desperately wishing that the ground would swallow him. "That place is really expensive, Ron," she breathed. "Isn't it one of those shops where you mix your own -"
"Did you find presents for everyone?" Lupin asked Ginny. He began to walk again, leading them out towards the main street of Diagon Alley, and Ginny seemed successfully distracted. She chatted eagerly with Lupin about shops and gifts, though Ron barely listened. He was content to follow quietly, taking in what he hoped would be his last sights of Witches Way.
"Ugh! What's that black stuff?"
Hermione held the bottle in both hands and brought it closer to her chest. "It's perfume," she replied, not looking up at Ginny. She smiled in spite of herself. "Ron gave me spew for Christmas." Then she found herself unable to contain a laugh. It wasn't a mocking laugh at Ron and his utter stupidity and his hopeless inability to buy perfume. It was because he was Ron, and he was utterly clever, and hopelessly unable to do anything without teasing her.
Hermione reached into her lap and reread the small white card that had fallen out of the box. "It smells bad because he gave me a cauldron instead of a teaspoon. Keep him. - M. Dashwood."
Holding the bottle and the card to her, Hermione smiled down at her feet.
"Hermione?" said Ginny. "Please tell me that isn't the perfume Ron had mixed for you?"
"It is," she smiled, finally looking up at Ginny. "It's wonderful."
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "It looks awful."
"Looks awful? You should smell it," Hermione laughed fondly.
"Ron is hopeless," Ginny sighed. "I can't believe he spent all his mo -" She broke off and raised a hand to her mouth.
Hermione's heart flew to her throat. "All his money?" she finished softly.
"Oh, please don't tell him," said Ginny. "He didn't want you to know."
"I won't tell him," Hermione assured her. She slipped the bottle and the card back into their box and closed it, hardly caring what any of her other gifts contained. Only one idea was very clear in her mind: Keep him.