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The Potter Files (part 5) , Centaurs by troll
Chapter 2 : Suitcase in the Rain
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 0


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[Diagon Alley]

The young witch warily walked through the old doorway of the Leaky Cauldron in from the light rain. Some shadowy figures in the rain had paced her walking progress, since she had left the city bus stop, and she was scared. Maybe it was her nervous looks back at them, but something about her told them she was vulnerable.

Until she entered the strange pub. Then the opportunistic muggers steered off, for some other easier prey. Locals left it alone. For no apparent reason they understood. Just it and the people about the 'Cauldron' faintly repulsed them.

The girl never saw them leave. But to Jennifer, letting the heavy oak door shut with an ominous iron 'thud' was a vast relief. She knew she was now 'mostly' safe.

Behind his battered wooden bar, Tom peered at her in curiosity. It was a slow late afternoon for old Tom, the Cauldron's ancient owner. Not many customers and it wasn't a regular time for young ones to be entering the place.

Maybe something to break the summer monotony!

Bartending could be an lonely job, this time of day. But then again, it was still early as far as serious drinking went. There were only a couple, fairly mute regulars in attendance, so far. Good times or bad, drinking went on in a fairly consistent, profitable manner. Tom had no fears on that score.

She definitely wasn't a regular bar-goer. The girl was dark of hair and light brown of skin. And she would have been truly a Latin beauty if she wasn't soaked, smelly and dirty, even wet under the light rain jacket. The girl shrugged off the hood of the jacket to let a further rain cascade to the old wood floor of the pub.

The Cauldron was the transition point into and out of the main magical shopping place for London's wizards and witches. For several centuries, new witches just like her had stood, a little dazed and uncertain what to expect. It was even more a problem for Jennifer than it would be for an ordinary witch. Jen had led a relatively sheltered life, and had not mixed with other magicians, at her mothers insistence. Also, the few times coming here, she was escorted and herded about by her stern and humorless mother. Never long enough to get familiar with the place and certainly not the pub

Jen could not for her life remember where to go from this point forward.

Those visits had been all business for the famously brittle Madame Cortez, her mother. There had been little interaction with strangers for her daughter, Jennifer. Her sole role it seemed was to be barked at and to follow meekly in her mother's wake. And the last time had been years before Jen had even begun at Hogwarts. Her domineering parent always doing the shopping alone, and rarely taking Jen out to see other people.

Her lone daughter didn't exactly know what to expect now. It was a wonder, frankly, she'd turned out half normal and able to interact with people. Jen looked worriedly at the stairs, thinking she had to go up or something like that. She had never done this alone.

“How are you, young lass, this arid and parched afternoon?” Old bearded Tom smiled kindly through his whiskers, gesturing for her to come in and sit at the nearly empty bar.

She did so, putting the old battered suitcase down by a stool, and gratefully sat down.

Tom's elderly sister came in from a back room, caught the concerned look from her brother and bustled up to the girl. “Are you in trouble, my dear? We are all witches and wizards here. You are safe in the Cauldron.” The old woman unconsciously wrinkled her nose, catching the faint whiff of sewer.

Try as she might, Jen hadn't been able to get rid of the stench.

“Yes, thank you. I ….I am okay. Just a little lost and ….wet.” Tom, sister Lynne and the other two old men in the pub chuckled gently, to put her at ease. Rain was part of the atmosphere, this time of year.

Well, in London, just about anytime of year.

“I haven't been to Diagon Alley since I was really little. I wasn't even too sure I found the right pub....”

“Oh, this is the place, it is. Right 'nough. Can't miss it. Only place the fire whiskey is hotter than a tourist in the sun.” Tom tried to put the girl at ease, but after a few awkward seconds, he could tell the poor thing was not in a joking mood. It was a weak joke, in any case.

He gave a look to his sister and a nod. This time of year, there was always one or two like this one that came in through the door. Poor or confused or just both. But usually they were younger than the teen. But it happened to the older ones, too. Muggle parents, finally not being able to take the changes in their child, after a few years of Hogwarts opening the new wizards to the 'real' world. And either showing them the door or the teen left on their own.

It wasn't pretty. Ever! Tom was too old and too acquainted with what the young woman was feeling to make light of it.

Seventy years deadened the pain – a bit – from preventing Tom from trying to make light what must seem the bitter end of a horrible day. But his sister was still mentally agile enough, though a bit creaky in the limbs, to step into action. Not that they knew the young witch. As common a wizarding crossroads as the Leaky Cauldron was, Lynne and Tom did not know every witch and wizard in Britain. Some lived stridently apart.

Some weren't even human. Those Lynne and Tom were glad never darkened her door.

In an earlier age, when the world was even more callous than it was now, some orphans hadn't made this far. As it was, the situation was just the same. As gently as she could, Lynne asked, “Not how you thought it might be, in the end, my dear. Was it?”

The teen girl -sixteen or seventeen- if old Lynne had to guess, shook her head. And said, “Might not be completely over. There's still a chance (sniff) …... maybe when things are calmer. My mum …....she knew I was leaving … told me to go to my friends ….....not come back.”

The old woman caught her breath at that, tssking disapprovingly.

Jen shook her head. Her own words back to her mother weren't anymore attractive. Nor decent enough for repeating. Before the shutting door had nearly closed, and Jennifer had apparated away to ….anywhere, with the dilapidated suitcase that was currently the only thing she possessed.

And the Magic wand. That was one asset that made the difference. That first night in the woods.

But Jen knew she could not live like that. Her life was set before her. Only this last summer would have been like all the others, except things at home had become dangerously frosty. Days would go by with nary a word between her mother and herself. The final straw had been an innocent off-hand remark about Jen being glad to return to her friends. She had never meant more than that, but that had set her mother off in a tirade about the 'worthless' Weasley's and Jen happily being one of them.

She still found herself furious at her mother. Jen didn't know how she could talk to her again in any polite tone.

Just as well. Jen ruefully figured she would have been squatting under a bush a month ago, otherwise. And in only a week more, there would be the train to the ancient castle in the far north. A last one for her, as a Seventh Year. On that day, she was emotionally free.

Or really, she could apparate now, like so many her fellow Seventh Years did. To show how adult they were. To places to stay, anywhere in the land that witches with no permanent address chose to go. Jen had tried that, this fifth afternoon of vagabondage.

For Jen, in her anger and wrath, it had meant at first the patch of woodland across town from her mother's. Then, randomly traveling by wizard apparation to places she had gone to on day hikes with friends. Anywhere to be alone. She had wanted no one to talk to or have them tell her what an idiot she was. By day three, she accepted that cold, hungry and with no real shelter from the rain but her light jacket was the height of stupidity. Also, being alone in the woods was scarier than she had imagined.
Today, in rather more dire straits than that first evening, Jen set out to find people she knew.

That was the beginning of a string of disasters. Appalling bad at useful magic like Patronuses, and no handy owl available, she went to the Mid-lands town trying to find her husband-to-be. To find her fiancee, Robert, already gone from the country, on his internship. And Jen didn't want to face her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Montfrey.

Not looking and smelling like this!

Panic began to set in from there. And no seeming spell she could come up with would let her contact her only close remaining friends on this Earth. The Tonks house was unfindable. Teddy's grandmother's house was unplottable and hidden by magic that foiled anything she tried.

Despite that she was an accomplished young witch. The best in her class. For almost all six previous years at Hogwarts. But even if she was not already at the end of her rope, and brilliant beyond imagining, she would have been hopelessly frustrated at the protection spells around the home of Andromeda and Teddy Tonks.

They had protection that had foiled Voldemort himself.

Jen was also completely hopeless at simple camping. Not something her mother had ever deigned to try, so Jen knew nothing of such things but what she'd read in books.

If it wasn't for her magic wand, and the spell for 'fire', Jen would have probably have died of exposure in the cold rain.

And but for the tin of vienna sausages she had managed to talk a convenience store clerk out of for the few pennies in her pocket. The canned meat was as close to living death as she had tasted.

She similarly tried to go to Ted and Robert's friend Matthew Cantwell. But he and his father were not back from their vacation either. And that left – not last or least thought of, but certainly what seemed the hardest to bring herself to go.

The home of her best friend, Victoire Weasley.

Not because she hadn't wanted to or did not love her friend like a sister. It was that last stage of acceptance of who Jennifer was and what she represented to Victoire's family. An unwanted cousin begging at the door. And the humiliation of showing up at the front step of Victoire's father's home. The father whose brother had been revealed as Jennifer Cortez's actual real-life father. And who her mother and seemingly everyone had lied to Jen about for almost fifteen years of her life.

The thought of herself standing there – penniless and bedraggled – seemed too pathetic for Jen's pride to stand. She still had her mother's temper, that was for sure.

Then came the acceptance of yet another night in the woods, tentless and shelterless and with nothing to eat, proved absolutely nothing. Jen was not cut out for wilderness living. She needed shelter.
She decided to swallow her pride. Jen had met her friend's parents, Fleur and William, at school. They were seemed descent people.

In fact, they were Jen's family. And from the sounds of what Victoire had told her in the long two years since the truth was revealed, William Weasley was opposite of the abandoning, heartless, careless wretch that his brother must be.

But Jen couldn't find Shell Cottage, either. A horrible day spent, wandering along various coastal Cornwall towns and beach roads. Then it began raining again.

So Jennifer thought to try Diagon Alley. Maybe there was a doorway she could magic a hide for herself. And not be seen by the world for a blessed week.

The old woman's picking up the suitcase and walking on toward the pub's stair startled Jen out of her daydream. “Wha' …. mam, where are...?”

“To your room, child.” Lynne did not break stride, slowly leading the way up several flights of stairs, which definitely put a strain on her old knees. But the girl's suitcase was ridiculously light.

There might not even be a change of clothes in there!

The young witch followed obediently, after a gesture from the bartender. A few steps behind, Jen finally had the courage to say, “I don't have anything to pay with ….. I mean I have no money.” Jen thought it best to be honest. “Maybe I could work for my way for a few days. For a spot in a closet with a blanket. ...”

“Don't want your money.” Old Lynne turned to look the girl in the eye. “Wouldn't take it, if you had.”

Jen seemed a little lost with the tremendous generosity. She had never met this woman. They owed her nothing!

The woman looked Jen up and down. The girl smelled of woodland and having lived in her shirt and blue jeans for too many days straight. “Some ….long years ago. I walked in through that very door, downstairs, with a five-year old brother in tow with pneumonia and not even an empty satchel like this 'un. The old man that owned this place then did what I am doing now. And told me the payment I owed him was to do this for you that would follow me, in the years to come. And I have had to -every couple of years, sad to say. And will till I'm called to a final rest.”

Lynne opened the little attic bedroom, She could barely stand upright, herself in here. But it was clean and dry. A little bed squeezed into one side of a ancient dresser. And with a little window where the haphazardly slanted roofs over the Cauldron met, that overlooked Diagon Alley.

Old Lynne turned around to see Jennifer silently crying. She did not go to embrace the poor girl, despite Lynne's inner urge. The girl was a grownup witch, not a babe any longer, and she needed to master herself. Besides there would be time later to cry. It was a hard life.

But Lynne did do one thing. She whipped out her own magic wand and waved at the teen and suddenly Jen's clothes smelled clean and fresh as if they had just been newly laundered.

Lynne cackled. “It's a simple spell. They aren't teaching the things -these days- like they should for children to face the world.”

Jen gave a watery chuckle in return. “No. Suppose not.” She wiped her face with her palms and tried to smile.

The old witch nodded. “Better in Dumbledore's day. It was. That's a fact. He was my teacher. And later my friend. The greatest wizard the world has seen. We will not see his like again.”

Jen could only nod but had no real idea. She hadn't even been born when the war happened that took that old Hogwart's headmaster's life.

“Now, then. There's a loo - down the first stairs behind you - and then meet me in the kitchen. I am too ancient to do all these aero-bits, up and down the bleedin' stairs. Could use your help.”

Jen meekly nodded.

It was a vastly better hour, than any she'd spent in five days.




An hour and after two whole roast beef sandwiches later, Jen was up to her elbows in dish suds and sweeping out the little kitchen. Taking out the garbage. And chasing out the Alley's contingent of permanent stray cats who tried to sneak inside the Cauldron. Who weren't quite as passive and easy to intimidate as Jen expected. There was something extra mysterious about Diagon Alley's cats.

“Never met any, like these kitties.” Jen said to Lynne, who was gratefully sitting in a corner. The last one encountered, a big dusty black tom, almost looked with pure contempt at Jen approaching with a broom. And nearly batted back the broomstick into Jen's face and then leapt out the door with an almost human snarl.

Lynne luxuriated in the few moments of peace. Jennifer had even taken charge of another guest for the night, taking the bags and bed linens to that room without being asked. This was the first evening the old woman had not needed to do anything in years, except give needed advice. Completely unexpected, the girl had proved to be completely competent at a stove and not intimidated to do house work.

About the felines, Lynne had no worries. “No cats are like these. Not outside those that live in Hogsmeade or even the Forbidden Forest.” Old Lynne calmly smoked an old pipe. It was a 'light' night tonight. And Tom had only a few customers at the bar. “Mind ….those from the Forest might also snack on you, as soon as look at a pretty thing like yourself. Don't take any strays from there, my dear.”

Jen gave a grim snort. “No, want nothing more to do with that place. Almost lost my future husband, Robbie, to that Dragon that was loose in there, as few years back.”

Lynne excitedly widened her eyes in remembrance. And pointed to the girl with her pipe, “Robert! Robert Montfrey? That scallywag! Why, he's great friends with Ted Tonks! And even the Potter's, themselves!”

“Ted's my friend, too. I tried to find him but couldn't. His Victoire, as well! My best friend. Figured it would be better to at least be protected, in some doorway back in the Alley, than alone out in the woods again. That was my plan, anyway.”

Lynne wasn't hearing this. She about swallowed her pipe stem in disbelief. She waved the girl silent, “Victoire Weasley! Have you lost your brilliant wits you've got, in that gorgeous head? Don't 'snow' me. I knows a smart girl when I talk to one. You've got friends all about you, here. You're best mate's aunt and uncle live just down the Alley from this very spot.”

Jen blanched and looked uncomfortable. She breathed out “Ummmm, yeah ….......I know.”

Lynne looked disbelieving at the girl and now felt a little cross. She had been sincere about taking in stray witches and warlocks, and felt briefly taken advantage of.

Then she looked closer at the raven-haired girl's face.

“Well …....Merlin turn me a gargoyle!”

Jennifer had been getting that a lot, in the past three years. Puberty and apparently her body were betraying her heritage to one and all, if they looked closer past her black hair and brown skin. What made it worse was that Jen didn't see it. Certainly, the constant presence of her best friend …..now first cousin, Victoire's permanently beautiful face didn't seem to stop the comparisons at school.

Jen seemed the only one that couldn't see the instant resemblance.

All the kids now knew it. There were few secrets among the students. Or at least no real personal secrets at Hogwarts. Or maybe, somewhere, in some corner of a dorm, there might be a few troll-like Second Years who hadn't heard Cortez's secret father turned out to be Charlie Weasley.

Lynne sat back in her wood chair. And nodded understanding. “Didn't know, then, child?”

“Not until after the boys were rescued from the woods. Some three years. Mostly not talked at all about. Especially at home, until this last weekend kind of blew things up, permanently.” Jen scrubbed away at a burnt piece of pie on a pan edge, then let it drop back in the water to soak. It just maddened her to think how futile putting off the confrontation with her mother had been.

Angelique Cortez would never forgive Charles Weasley from callously abandoning her. Or accept that she was to blame, as well. That was why they had lived so apart from others. At least, until the unwanted daughter finally went to Hogwarts and learned the truth.

Jen bitterly laughed. “Mom was furious that I found out, but I have to laugh at that. How was that supposed to be a secret? When just about every bloody person I meet spits out their pipe and points at my face -like I have boogies hanging out- that I'm a freaking Weasley!”

Lynne had to the grace to be a bit embarrassed at her own reaction. Tapping her unlit pipe on the stone f floor, she mumbled, “Sorry, Jennifer. Guess I'm no different.”

Jen waved that away. It didn't much matter anymore. “Was going to pretend it didn't matter. But my mother was …...is ….. not as accepting. Still! Seems to think I should shun the Weasleys and Potters as equally as she does. And won't accept that the day I stand with Robert to become his wife, my best friend and her husband and their families are going to be there, too!” Jen tapped the sink and and tossed the scrub brush into the flat, now-sudsless water. “Last straw, really. Stupid screaming fight. I didn't even think what I needed, just grabbed the case in my closet, threw in some undies ….”

“One, my dear. I did your laundry. Won't get very far with tiny knickers like that and one T-shirt. 'Less you is takin' up street-walkin' as a profession?”

“No!”

“Thought not.” Lynne chuckled. “Some girls do. That aren't as lucky as you.” Well, this was a vastly better end to an awful glimpse back into her own horrid nightmare as a homeless witch. She wouldn't wish that three months on her worst enemy.

May Tom in his innocence never know what she had had to do to keep them alive.

“Well, then. Are you all finished?”

“Yes, except what Mr. Tom's got ….”

She cackled. “He can figure that much out. Old Tom's been working the same ugly bar glasses, in his little sink out there, before you was even a gleam in your daddy's handsome face. I remembers that rogue well, young Jen.” Lynne creakily got to her feet, and cackled, pointing the pipe stem at Jen's nose. “And maybe now I remember a certain dark-haired witch, who giggled and flashed the same pretty eyelashes you've got, at a young man with no scruples in that very black pit of a barroom.”

Jennifer blinked, unable to form a reply.

Lynne laughed to herself, “Oh, yes. Darling Jen. That story is as old as the first couple. Been acted out, in fancy mansions and little hovels, since well before humans took up magic. You ain't the cause. You're the glorious result. And you make those two regret their foolishness every single remaining days of their miserable lives.”

“Huh.” Jen didn't seem to think they cared, one way or the other. She made a desultory knocking of the dish brush against the stubborn pie plate, mad at herself for not being able to clean a stupid plate with magic. Wishing she'd got even that kind of convenient magic from somebody. “Well. I'll do my best.”

Lynne cantilevered herself upright to her feet and beckoned the girl to follow. “Alright, toss the brush, and comes with me.”

“Where?” But the woman was leaving the kitchen. And headed to where Jen had suspected she'd to be ordered to go all along. “No, that isn't right …..”

“Wheezes! Can't hide forever. That's what your mother chose to do and look at the result. You are going to be a grown up witch? Then start taking charge of your life. Be responsible! Your mother failed at that, and picked the wrong warlock to take a tumble with in the hay. And I think you'll find things aren't exactly the way you heard about those families, all this time.”

Cowed into obedience from the formidable old woman, Jen followed Lynne out into the bar. There were only a few more customers in the Leaky Cauldron, all old men who looked like past veterans at holding up a bar. Lynne went right up to an ancient little man. With straggling hair and shifty, rat-like eyes.

“Mung? I've got a mission for you, you miserable old coot?”

“What would that be, my jewel beyond praise.”

“Jewel me fat arse, you old sneak thief! This lovely witch has some business at the Wheezes. Would you take a chance on savin' an old woman's joints in shuffling down the Alley?”

All the men about the bar chuckled. Even Mundungus. “Sure, Lynne. But they should be closing up, about now.”

“I think, in this case, the Weasleys will want to see this young woman.”

Mungdungus Fletcher grunted dubiously, eyeing the teenager with suspicion.

Then his eyes lit up with a greedy glow. “Well, I'll be a pixie!”

“Hah! Not likely, Mung. You ain't got the legs.” Tom chortled. He'd figured out the girl almost a minute into her arrival at the door this afternoon. He'd quietly left it for his sister to work things out on her own. Their long lives together had worked best if he didn't push dramatic change upon Lynne, too suddenly.

Especially when he figured out choice gossip like this before she did.

Fletcher craftily eyed Jennifer for profit possibilities. “Ummm, no reward ...is there.....?”

“Mung!”

“Just teasing. Not take a knut from anybody for rescuing a fair damsel like yon lass ...”

“Hey!” Jen said tersely.

“Alright. Dark damsel. Right sharpish in her moods, too. Like her mother, I suspect.”

Lynne just rolled her eyes, and held out a shot glass for her brother to fill up for her. Jen's face darkened like the London sky in the pub's grimy windows behind her. Judging the comparison with her mother a sensitive topic to Jennifer, Lynne said “Take her now, Mung. Comparisons with her mother are likely to have her gutting you like the scheming rat you are.”

Fletcher's friends and Old Tom all laughed knowingly. It was perfectly true. Fletcher was the ultimate schemer.

“You always say such sweet things, Lynny.”

“Not in another ten seconds.”

“Let's go.” Fletcher hastily scuttled away to a far brick wall. The teen followed him. Jen now vaguely remembered her mother tapping some sequence of the bricks. And soon proved to have remembered that correctly, just not how to do that.

The magic entrance to Diagon Alley was revealed after Fletcher carelessly tapped the certain bricks in the proper sequence. Hidden behind the Leaky Cauldron pub. That sometimes Muggles who were lost tourists or just unfortunate enough to not have picked a higher priced establishment to get tipsy in. They had no idea that modern day witches and wizards lived amongst them.

“I'll take you to there, but it's easy to see. Once we step past the garbage cans, out back, you can see straight on down to Gringott's and in between is …..”

“Holy Shit!” Jenny hadn't been here in so long, she forgot that nobody except a blind mole or maybe eye-less cave fish could not see Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes joke shop from any point in standing in Diagon Alley. Lee Jordan and George Weasley had recently taken to sprucing up the joint, so to say, and making the front entrance sparkle and radiate alternating colored glows, like the foggy cartoon breathe of a wooden dragon.

With a giant red-headed Hatter sitting across it's skull. Occasionally whacking the dragon with a mallet and causing its mouth to open up to reveal the glittering contents of the store down it's impossibly narrow gullet.

“Yeah. Beautiful, even in the daytime. Something subtle. Love it. Me two best customers. Mind you, that's strictly confidential. You understand? Not that you'd betray any of your kin to the authorities.....”

Jen had already had just about enough of strangers gawking her. She was going to face her new found family on her own. “I'll …...handle this from here. Mr. Fletcher. Thank you.”

Old Mung looked skeptical at the pretty girl. But it was safer in this Alley in this day of age than any Fletcher had lived through in his long years of sneaking.

She'd be perfectly safe.

Just to show off, however, Mung handed her her wallet. Which he had liberated a few moments ago without her noticing. “Watch where you keep that, young Miss Cortez. Maybees' on a lanyard, someplace close to yer heart. And don't try any of them jelly babies or toffees, except wot the person behind the counter is eating himself.” Mung winced and made a dramatic face. “Can be a bit ….gastronomically explosive, if you know what I mean.”

Jen sardonically took the wallet, saying “Thanks …..Mr. Fletcher. And I know a bit about you as well. Teddy's last house party was well supplied by a certain …..liberal-minded individual. Ted was very grateful.”

“Ah, well......” Fletcher inspected his fingernails, and looked briefly modest. But then he said, “Don't think it is going to be anything like what you fear, Jen Cortez. I knows this bunch since they was younger than you are now. The world is a better place, 'cause o' them. And you can quote me on that!” The grinning thief suddenly didn't seem so terrible.

Jen smiled, honestly, for the first time in what felt like years. Giving the grinning cutpurse a weak punch in the shoulder, and bravely walking straight into the dragon's maw.




[Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes]

Jen's trip down the dragon's throat did not end messily. Or in quivering meaty bits. But there were brief spouts of flame threatening to singe her backside. And gooey things dripped on her as she made the passage past the rear teeth, walking on a spongy, rather realistic giant tongue. Then the illusion ended. At a real doorway, and the glittering, multi-level atrium of the normal, noisy Wheezes joke shop.

Well, almost normal. Jen disgustingly brushed off some greenish bits of something like fake snot off her shoulders. That apparently hadn't been just an illusion.

“May I help you, miss. Store closes up in a few minutes.” A truly beautiful woman, sitting behind the tall counter next to the central staircase, happily said. She was dressed in simple plain sweatshirt and jeans, but bare feet. And no make-up. And she still would have put to shame a ball room full of Muggle super models. “Are you looking for something for yourself? Or for friends? Just ahead of the preschool week rush, luckily. We got quite a bit of …..”

The witch was standing and coming around from her stool and now frozen in the inevitable recognition. Then she grinned at Jen, “Well, son of a gun! Guess I wins the prize.”

“I ...ah....am looking for Mr and Mrs. Weasley....?”

Maddie proudly swept a hand out and grandly waved to the gaudy store. No other customers were present. But the sounds of boxes rearranged and curses were coming from one of the higher upstairs levels, so some others were present. “Found herself. Madame Madelene Weasley. In my barefoot glory. My wizard and humble husband George is out, for this evening. Embarked on a grand mission of rescue and danger on this soggy night. The like few have experienced before.”

“Really?”

“Well, no actually. He is tramping about some woods, with a couple of others. Looking for you, in fact. Didn't want to get his lazy ass up and out of the easy chair. Harry, neither. Till we told them to or else.”

Jen had to ask. “Else what?'

Maddie smiled and brightened up the loudly color skewed room even more. “You are gettin' married soon, yourself. Next year?”

Jen nodded.

“You'll find out.” She tossed off a pile of horrendously clashing scarves off a wood chair and pointed the teen to sit down. “Time I got my clan to eat some humble pie. This should be quite enjoyable.” She turned and looked up and called loudly. “Lee! We are off the hook. I found her.”

There was a thud of something heavy, and a swear word. “Where?”

“Our front door. I'll make the call, then, shall I?”

The upstairs wizard laughed. “Sure! Yeah! That beats another night fun-filled of sloshing in a swamp.” The still unseen 'Lee' made some more sounds of shoving boxes and heavy objects. “Guess Harry was right. Once again.”

At Jen's quizzical look, Maddie supplied. “Harry. Harry Potter himself, mind you. Said if we just wait around here, you'd be walking in like there had been nothing amiss. He's got a nose for things like that.”

“That's what 'Tori tells me.”

Maddie smiled again. “It's all true. But there'll be time for stories later. You hungry?”

Jen shook her head. “Ms. Lynne has me working for the week. For room and board. I wasn't sure what I'd find tonight.”

“Don't have to. Ever. Our home is yours.”

“Thank you, but …..I just need some time alone. This is all piling on top of me. This past week has been …. bad.”

Madelene understood. She had been a runaway, herself, once upon a time. “Okay. I'll just make some Patronus-eses and call the lazy louts out from their swamp crawl.”

That was extremely unusual. Jen had no idea one could do more than one.“Patronui! Plural? We've only learned to do one at a time.” Or she thought to herself, most had! Mine was like a wren, but with one wing and no sense of direction.

Maddie scoffed. “It's easy.” And the tall witch pulled out her wand and waved into existence three enormous ghostly wolves. That waited unconcernedly for Maddie to instruct them, not even flinching when two twin girls rushed to a sliding stop. Passing completely through one wolf.

Which proceeded to lick the nearest girl full in one ear, smearing the small witches hair around with imaginary slobber and making her giggle.

“It's worse when they pretend to pee on your feet.” Declared the unlicked one.

The other bent her ear and neck against her shoulder, trying to rub away the electric sensation that was still coursing it's way up and down her spine. “My ear feels full of goo. And could have sworn my foot was wet, last time. Honest.”

“You are our cousin. Aren't you?” The first one demanded.

“You are very dark. I think you are the first of us girls with black hair.” said the other.

“Darker than the Potter boys, anyway.”

“Yes. But they are shit-heads.”

Mrs. Weasley interrupted the rapid fire interrogation. “Girls. That's rude!” Maddie lost some of her earlier good humor. “Could we at least try to make a good first impression.” Madelene began talking to the wolves, in a subvocal voice, and then they leapt away, dissolving into fading mist.

The last one out stopped to lift a hind leg on the dragon tooth closest to the door.

“What do you mean good impression?” One twin seemed genuinely surprised that wasn't obvious.

“We are making nice.” The other asserted. “We brought her jelly beans.” The girls, as usual were identically dressed and at first glance, virtually identical in their face and red hair. The one bringing candy offered a little bag to Jen.

Immediately charmed, Jen leaned over to look into the draw-stringed opening as if seriously choosing. But Jen was not completely bamboozled. Having been warned by cousin Victoire and now the Leaky Cauldron's leading thief not to take any candy for granted in this establishment. “Thank you, very much. But that's a vomit or boggie flavored one, isn't it?”

“Wow! She's good.” Said the other girl, as her sister withdrew the little drawstring bag with equal approval. “Bird poo, actually. Various species ….”

Madelene really was disgusted, “Girls! What in God's name is wrong with you?”

“Just the taste! Not real.”

“How do you know that?”

There was no safe answer to that. The other twin quickly spoke up instead, “Daddy thought that was rather tame, actually. So these were just the experimental ones. We are going after something more exotic for the next batch. Pixie's!”

“Lord! How could you be my babies?”

From upstairs, Lee's voice sounded approving, obviously listening with keen interest. “That's great girls. But don't use the real thing this time.”

Maddie frowned up at the ceiling, unable to see Lee Jordan through the several flights of stairs and the several overlapping layers of balconies of the Wheezes Jokeshop. “Dammit, Lee! Are you two putting them up to this?”

The girls, Jen included , all laughed.

“Not at all.” Lee sounded strained, as if lifting a great weight. “Girls have a naturally inherited urge to be funny. Be grateful they didn't get a real sample of dragon dung they were actually looking for this summer.”

Whatever response to that was lost, as a great crash and shattering sound of dozens of little bottles sounded from up above the women.

Maddie began to move to dart up the steps, calling “Lee? Are you alright ….?”

“Don't come up. I'm okay. The box fell on top of me. Just covered in this stuff.”

“What stuff?” Maddie demanded.

“Covered in it. That new love potion, 'Implacable'. Ugh!“

Madelene Weasley wasn't too sure she knew about 'that stuff'. That was a section of the store she adamantly stayed away from. And had tried to discourage the Wheezes' owners from being in the market in the first place.

Most of it was not much better than the girl's poo-flavored jelly beans, anyway. With even less romance inducing power.

“Okay.” Maddie turned to the new arrival. “This is not usually how we greet someone.”

“Actually fairly standard.” Twin one said.

“We met one of the second-cousins with a our underpants on fire.” Said the other.

“One wonders why we don't get a Christmas card from that branch of the family.” Maddie ruefully pursed her lips sideways. “Think that is enough, for one evening, girls. Let's call it closed, for the night, shall we. You've got school ...”

“NOT till next week.” One twin said outraged.

“And we haven't introduced ourselves. The other twin eight-year old reached over to take Jen's wrist. “I'm Abigail.”

“I'm Tina.” Declared the other.

Again. Careful coaching the past year had prepared Jen. At least for this hurdle. “No you're not. Other way around. I've got you figured out, already. So that trick is not going to work.”

This was more electrifying than the failure of jelly bean trick. Both girls looked significantly at one another and coolly assessing their new first cousin.”

“Bold. And sharp. This one is.” Said the now-revealed Tina.

“Pretty, too. I'd be careful, of trusting that sharpness. If I was you?” Suspiciously muttered Abbie.

“Really?” Jen grinned.

“I smell Victoire's handiwork in this.” Tina surmised.

“Definitely. Those damned shitty veelas ….”

“Girls! Language.”

Whatever that language correction was, it too was now interrupted by a terrific flash, and a crash of thunder. Jen looked to see what rocket or airplane had struck what part of the store, when she grasped that the flash had come from the front door. Smaller flashes caused the forward teeth of the dragon to show in brief outline.

“Oh! Thought I'd turned that off.” Maddie said absent-mindedly, vaguely waving her wand at the front door to the jokeshop.

That produced nothing but a shower of sparkles out of the Puking Pastille's manikin's ear.

But it did cause all four witches to be staring out the front door just in time for another flash and floor shaking thunder crash. To see the outline of an immense, wolf-shaped man outlined in the brief brilliance. Then disappear as all went black in the doorway.

Then Bill Weasley strode into the jokeshop. Slightly damp from the off and on sprinkles in the evening. And looking distinctly unhappy.

“Uncle Bill!” Cried one twin joyfully.

“Our favorite!” The other declared.

“I happened to hear you say that to your Uncle Harry. Not three hours ago.” Bill said sternly, but knelt down to receive twin embraces about his broad shoulders and head. To Jen, he once again properly just appeared like a big man, getting giggling kisses from too-coddled nieces. But even that reminded Jennifer of a big dog..

A big, jagged-faced, fearsomely grim wild animal. Being swarmed by two affectionate pups.

“He was our favorite. Then. He brought candy.”

Bill was unimpressed. “Rot your teeth. I imagine Uncle Harry will be crushed at being demoted, Tina.”

“He should bring more, next time. I'm really Abbie, Uncle Bill.”

The big man slightly sniffed. Jen heard that distinctly. She had very good hearing. And the big man shook his head. “No, you're Tina. I don't have candy. Now, run along to your rooms. It's late and we've got grownup stuff to discuss.”

This was the worst night of the young girls lives. Foiled not once, not twice, but now being outfoxed a third time in a span of about ten minutes. Never had their 'twin-identity-switching-ploy' been hoodwinked by an adult. To have it happen again, in the span of their new cousins' arrival, was simply unthinkable.

'Tori did not count. They had told her her secret as a deal not to reveal that they snuck out one night when she babysat.

Maddie smiled in secret triumph at Bill. Who winked back. The humor left when he looked to Jen. The wolf-like wizard's face looked keenly at Jennifer, letting her know who was going to be in charge for this conversation

A pitiful little voice, from far upstairs, squeaked “Help.”

Bill looked puzzled and Maddie called back towards the ceiling.“Lee, is something still wrong?”

“I ….. am covered in this …...goo. And this is the stuff that works on skin contact. Not an internal potion. And I have no wand to take it off with.”

“Oh, boy.” Maddie now was seriously troubled.

“What 'goo'?” Bill said suspicion's triggered.

Mrs. Weasley lowly muttered, “The box of that new love potion dropped on him. He said some of the bottles broke.”

Even Bill now looked alarmed. “Not that damned 'Irrepressible' ….”

“ 'Indefatigable'.” Abby corrected.

“ 'Implacable', you silly.” Tina hip-bumped her sister.

“Ah. ….okay. Lee. Umm …..” Bill looked about him. Then as a brief aside to Jen. “I'm a curse-breaker. I end up having to undo something or other these two idiots cover themselves in. At least once a week.” Then he stopped, and gave Jen a hard look. “So!” he declared, as if that was his final point of a long summation. “You are here. Safe.”

“Ummm. Yes. But how did you know ….?”

“Your house is always warded. You've been under guard since you were two. Your behavior this week is just this side of puerile and as juvenile as these girls are ….” The scarred broad face was fierce and took Jen's breath away.

Even had she the stomach to get angry, she was suddenly speechless.

Madelene Weasley - for one – didn't seem intimidated at all. Stepping between the girl and the wizard, she pressed him backward with a pretty finger. “DON'T YOU ...growl at people in my house, William Weasley! Think you a great man, snarling at a girl. Thought better of you ...”

“You any idea where we've been tonight? He had us searching the town sewer ….

“William! That will be enough.” Tall, shapely Maddie was not looking so daffy and happy now, as Jen first saw her. The woman sternly looked at the gruff man, and he briefly cowed.

For the moment.

He called back up into the air, instead. “Alright. Lee. Stay where you are. We will come to you ...”

“Don't anyone come near me!” The unseen Lee's voice was frightened now.

Jen, still only now getting her tongue to work. This uncle growling at her had really had her shaken to her toes. But she had to ask, in a still quavering voice, “Why can't you go up and give him a good Scourgify ….?”

Lee answered from the echoing stillness of the air in the stairwell, alarmed at what she suggested. “Love potion. First person I see …...”

Jen looked up at Bill Weasley. All six-foot three and twenty stone of him. “ ….....Oh!”

“Had an alarming glimpse of that old Umbridge dummy. Here in the corner.” Lee muttered to no one in particular. His voice then trailed off in a dispairing …..“Oh, please God, may that not work the same way …..”

“This is a problem.” Bill rubbed his grizzled face. “What a night? First Charlie and George, and now …..”

“What do you mean?” Maddie demanded.

“Covered in sewer muck.” Bill pointed at the now no-longer missing witch. “Your father has been frantically searching the streams, lakes and ponds, near your mothers house. For three days, now!”

Jen again felt breathless, “My father?” She hadn't known she had a living one till three years ago this summer. The twins, wide-eyed and drinking it all in, watched from the bottom stair step. Eager to hear more.

“Followed your trail from some woods, outside your town.” Bill waited till she nodded. “Then lost the path, except that it seemed straight into that little containment pond by the highway.” Bill grimly smiled. “I don't think he's slept, either, for the past three days. Tonight he demanded we check the sewers in town, in case you had been swept off in a downpour. Or spirited away by shit-loving grindylows, or something worse …”

“Language, Uncle!” One twin teased.

“Silence, child!” The snarl made Jen blink. It made the girls look frightened.

Maddie was now a little angry. “I know you've had a long couple of days, Bill. But shut it!”

“Somebody. Please do something.” Lee plaintively called.

Bill closed his eyes. “Right. Okay, Lee. First things, Maddie get the girls across to the Detective's office. Then get me Jennifer's things, for Shell Cottage. I'm not finished with her, either, after I've sorted Lee out ….”

Jen finally had recovered her temper. Things and been done and said, all without her so much as a word in it. And a father she'd never even met killing himself from worry and still not the guts to stand here and yell at his foolish daughter. The son of bitch!

Well she'd had enough.

“I have a place, tonight. And a job, till school starts. I am quite alright and I will be staying.” All in the room wordlessly waited for more, and Jen finally said. “Uncle.”

Bill looked narrowly at the brown-skinned girl. He could ignore her. But he was also mindful of what she had just been through. And despite the overwhelming heritage given Jen by her Latin mother, Bill Weasley could see his mother -her grandmother- faintly, about her eyes.

He nodded. “Fine. You stay within the alley. Never leave. When the time comes, we'll take you to the train. That's the end to it.” Bill knew he'd let his emotions get away from him.

Bloody carnival, these past three nights.

“Sorry.” The gruff man mumbled and ran up the stairs, two at a time. Heedless of the cries of the wizard helplessly covered in 'love'.

Maddie corralled all three girls and pushed them out the dragon's gullet to the Alley.

“Nothing unusual. For this family.” She said brightly. Her bare toes did not seem bothered by the wet cobblestones, and she steered the three toward an adjoining building off a short side alley to the Wheezes.

Jen had to give a nervous giggle, in return. “Everyone seems a bit ...stretched. I am sorry.”

Maddie laid a hand on a seemingly anonymous door of the building right next to the Wheezes. There was no signs. No names. The shop window next door was boarded up.

Jennifer was a bit confused. “Is this your home? It seems so ….abandoned?”

Maddie pushed the girls through, but smiled mysteriously. “No. My work place. Actually. I was just watching the store because George was out dredging Lower Tintagel's sewer for your body.”

Jen felt like she'd just got reprimanded again. But this one felt like she'd just stepped on a kitten.

“I'm …..really sorry.”

“For penance, come take hold the door knob for me,” Maddie quietly commanded.

There seemed no reason. The twins were silent watching, next to their mother. Madelene gestured to the door knob. “Go on,” she almost whispered.

Jen took the knob like it was electrified. But there was no shock. No spark.

Was this another stupid prank?

But the frosted glass suddenly came alive with movement. Black and dark gray charcoal figures, men on old-style racing brooms flew helter-skelter, then coming all at once to float in the glass, watching Jennifer. Looking at her face. Then, a Quidditch captain - Jen had to endure the boys panting about the game endlessly at school, she knew what the jersey numbers meant  – gave her a nod and the team flew off back in to some vanishing point, in the frosted background.

“That's it then.” Said Tina.

Abby was dissatisfied. “All this for getting' yelled at. Uncle Bill's in a stink. Lee is covered in teenager sweat. And we are losing our mojo.”

“This night sucked!”

Madelene just look beaten down. “Girls. I have had just about the limit. Where are you learning to talk like this”

“From you.” Abby said, slyly, then switching into her mother's East End accent. “Wot do you mean, then, luv?”

“I really can't wait till they have me committed. In the daffy home for batty witches.” Maddie said wearily to Jen. “Don't let a man touch you.” The woman indicated the two girls. “You'll get these as the reward. After your hips are blasted apart.”

“Ah, well, Maddie. Umm ….... that is a trifle late advice, within another year.” Jen bashfully said. Mindful of the two eager faces smiling at there mother's elbows.

“Course she's one of us. Didn't need the daft door.” drawled Tina.

“Look at that sexy body. And the face. She's like a combination of Aunt Ginny and Victoire and that Spanish actress.” Abby snapped her little fingers. “You know the one!”

Tina snapped her fingers back. “Don't tell me. On the tip of my tongue. Mom's glamour mags. We'll be right back.” The girls just leaped backwards, scrambling up the dark stairs.”

Maddie just shook her head, grabbing the door to close it upon the twins triumphant comparing Jennifer with the latest poparazzi photographs. “We'll see you in the morning. I'll be over with some old clothes. I'm a bit too tall for you. But there is lots of old stuff that will work if we cuff. You don't have anything else, do you Jen?”

Jen took a big breath, but might as well spell it out. “Not really. Panties. And a Tee-shirt. 'Bout it.”

“What a girl needs. We will work on getting your stuff. You won't want to go home, right now.”

“No?”

“No. The words between your Aunt Ginny and your mother are still probably causing aircraft problems over Devon.”

“Oh.”

“Goodnight. Jen.” And Maddie closed the door firmly. Jennifer still didn't know if this was their home, or some sort of strange genetics test. Jen had a feeling she'd passed.

The Alley was dark and deserted. And got darker when all the lights coming out of the Wheeze's dragon suddenly extinguished, with a final rumble of distant thunder.

Jen was wondering how to get the brick wall at the Cauldron to open up for her, when the bricks scurried and clattered away from her touch and formed a passageway into the old pub.

But the night was still not over for her. Because, standing in the middle of the barroom floor, quietly stared at by the still unmoved old men Jen had left when she'd first entered about four hours ago ….was a newly arrived witch.

Ginevra Weasley Potter stood wet, tired and on the jagged edge of a good scream. But at the sight of the girl of the hour, struck mute and seeming unable to breath. Looking at the girl tremulously walking out from the Alley entrance.

They had never met. Knowing who each other was, they had avoided one another for two years.

Mundungus Fletcher sat on in a back corner booth, snacking on peanuts. Eagerly expecting fireworks.

There was no running away, Jen admitted to herself. This was her aunt. All hiding failed, sometime.

Ginny didn't know what to say. She had gotten here, to meet with Maddie and Lee as the next drafted shift to be yelled at by her frazzled brother Charlie.

Who had caused all this. By being a dirty, scheming shit of a man.

Neither witch knew what to do now.

Ginny solved it by wordlessly pointing to the Cauldron's stairs. And Jen wordlessly scooted past and disappeared up.

Just seconds later, the Leaky Cauldron's door burst open, and Bill and Fleur's daughter, also still soaking wet rushed in. Ginny just continued pointing up the stairs and the girl rushed up.

Harry Potter came in behind Victoire. Calmly restraining his inner sense of triumph, he said, “Thought so. Actually ...”

Ginny just cut off the victory speech. “Not tonight. My love. Please? Where is George and Charlie?”

“Not here. Being de-sewerfied. Be grateful.”

“I am. Husband. I am.”

*


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