Author's Note: Hello everyone. I hope you all are having a wonderful day, and that you enjoy the pilot chapter of my new story! Let me know how you feel about it, and what you think could improve it as the chapters go on. I'm really excited about the idea, it's been brewing in my head for a long time now, and I have all summer to work on developing it consistently. It's been a while since I've written for the site, so any feedback is greatly appreciated!
Diagon Alley was a different place than she remembered it in childhood. No longer a kaleidoscope of colors, light, sound, and shape, it was dingy and grey; haunting and lifeless. People appeared scared to pass to and fro. The amount of passersby, in fact, had dwindled so severely she almost did not recognize it. Aside from a few huddled masses in front of an abandoned storefront, she appeared to be alone. The air was tense; not at all as it should be. She felt a ripple of familiar anxiety course through her veins.
Father wasn't lying, she thought.
The deep plum cloak felt strange and tight around her neck. It was slightly too short for her now, as she had not worn it since she was fifteen. However, it kept her warm in the chill morning air. She pulled half-heartedly at the collar as she turned down the winding cobble-stoned road, trying to avoid eye-contact with a couple of shady characters shuffling by. After rounding the corner she stopped short when she saw a garishly orange store-front at the end of the lane. Complete with music and moving statuary, it was so shocking against the grey that she stopped short. It had to be the place. She had to admire the audacity of the joke shop. If she weren't so suspicious of the ambient surroundings she would have snorted. It looked like the only open place around that was not selling some kind of dark arts merchandise. She wondered how it had managed to survive the blitzkrieg that seemed to have befallen every other building.
" 'ey!" came a sudden bark at her right. She leaped vertically a couple inches in surprise.
She hadn't even noticed the cloaked man standing there. Before she could react, he had her in his firm grasp and pinned painfully to the wall of the adjacent building. Panic flooded her veins. This was a mistake. She should never have come back. It clearly wasn't safe anymore; especially for someone like her. Old memories poured back into her brain, and she started to tremble.
"Wha's yer name?" The hairy man demanded with his wand at her throat. She thought she could see a flash of a tattoo underneath the sleeve of his cloak. Her mouth gaped open and closed. Where were her self-defense maneuvers? Somehow they seemed obsolete with a wand aimed at her jugular. She really needed to buy a gun. Her assailant didn't wait for an answer.
"Yer awfully pretty to be out alone so early," His teeth were filthy, and he smelled like mead. He was obviously drunk.
"L-let me go." She finally stuttered, still unable to move her hands to a defensive position. "I'm flattered, but I ha-"
"How about I take ye' down to the pub?" He interrupted. His grimy hand tightened, and she could feel the wand tip starting to singe the skin of her neck.
"There we can ha-have a nice little interrogation alone together. Eh?"
Suddenly there was a blinding flash of red light, and she ducked instinctively, assuming he had struck, covering her head. However, the sordid man had relinquished her and was lying ten feet away on the ground.
"Oi!" There were steps rushing towards her. "Are you alright?"
She straightened, still shaking. Probably visibly, she realized, feeling even more inadequate than she usually felt in the magical world. There was a tall red-head in a strange leather jacket standing before her. He looked like the human version of the top-hatted marionette figure looming above the orange storefront behind him. That, she realized, was where he must have come from, as the door was swinging on its hinge as if it had been forcefully opened. Unlike the massive puppet, however, he was breathing heavily and regarding her with concern, wand in hand.
"Y-yeah, I believe so," she answered, finally registering his question. "Did you curse him?"
"Only a Stunner," he said, leering at the crumpled man. "I needed to practice it anyway. What a smarmy git. Been hanging around in front of the shop for a few days, scaring away potential customers. Glad to finally do something about it."
"Well, thanks. I really appreciate it," she said, trying to shake off the remaining astonishment.
"Ah, it was nothing, love. Are you sure you aren't hurt?"
He seemed to be eying her neck. She placed a hand in front of it, ignoring his question. It didn't really hurt.
"Are you the owner of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes?" She had guessed at the answer, but as that was who she had come to see, it felt like an appropriate bridge. Her awkward nature was something she had resigned herself to long before. She felt embarrassed, and was eager to forget her encounter with the drunken wizard.
He cracked an amused half-smile, seemingly satisfied that she was no longer in grave danger. There were well-formed laugh-lines on his young face; those of someone who smiled frequently.
"Yeah. Fred Weasley." He stuck out his hand. "And, you are, my dear?"
She took his outstretched hand, and was surprised when he bowed and kissed it with a flourish, his lips a warm contrast to the cold air.
"I'm Ayla Sower. I was referred to your shop by my father… I had an interview scheduled for this morning."
"Ah!" His excitement made her start. "Yes! Nice to meet you. We were expecting you! Came in early and everything. Come on in out of this chill."
Fred Weasley ushered her through the door to his shop, completely forgetting the Stunned wizard lying prostrate behind them in the street. As soon as the pleasant warmth and aroma of the colorful store surrounded her, Ayla had all but forgotten the encounter as well. Her mouth dropped open as she took in the towering shelves of brightly packaged products. Every available wall, and many individual kiosks and shelves, were stuffed into the space, creating a labyrinth of aisles and ledges. It was most definitely some kind of joke emporium, she realized after scanning a few of the silly labels.
Fred looked pleased by her reaction. "George!" He called out, springing up one of the many small staircases onto a platform and out of sight. "Our interviewee is he-e-re! Thanks to my lightening reflexes and damsel-rescuing abilities!" His voice echoed as he moved away. Ayla thought she heard him mention something about averted rape crisis. Her cheeks reddened.
As she waited, Ayla rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet and chewed her lip, eager to distract herself. She hazarded a quick glance out of the window to be sure the wizard was still lying on the ground, which he was, before turning her attention inside. The store was overwhelming to the senses, but not in an unpleasant way. This magic was less intimidating than the kind from wands. Charms, they must have been. Something to her left caught her eye. It appeared to be a kind of magical terrarium filled with tiny balls of candy floss.
"Ahh-," She breathed, realizing that they were living creatures. "How precious." She poked gently at a yellow one, and felt her heart leap when it squeaked and bounced lightly away. There was nothing like this in a muggle pet store. Maybe it really had been too long since she'd been back.
"Do you like them?" came an amused voice. Fred had returned with who she guessed was the George he had been calling for. At first she was taken aback, but then realized that they were clearly twins. She smiled.
"Yes, very much." She said. "What are they?"
"Pygmy Puffs," said Fred. "They're quite popular among the female crowd."
"I'd say so." She turned to the new twin and extended her arm. "Hello. I'm Ayla."
"George Weasley. Glad to see my brother rescued you in time. I've threatened that slimy Death Eater before. Maybe this will finish him off. Old Voldy really knows how to pick them, doesn't he?" He took her hand but did not kiss it, apparently a bit more reserved than his brother. Still, his face was extremely good-natured, and he smiled kindly. Ayla's cheeks warmed.
"Yes, he definitely caught me quite off-guard." She murmured, being only vaguely familiar with the term Death Eater. "I'll have to remember to keep moving while I'm on the street."
Fred bent to retrieve a fallen box he had accidentally knocked off when bounding up the stairs, and his brother spoke again.
"So, you're here about the Prophet advertisement?" George asked, hands shoved into his pockets.
"Yes, my father heard you were looking for someone to hire temporarily that had some skills in baking and pastry…" She trailed off, not sure when mentioning her status would be appropriate. As nice as they seemed, she wasn't sure they would be willing to hire her after they knew.
"We've been looking for someone who can bring the finishing touch to some of our edible products." said George.
"To add the final pizzazz, you might call it," added Fred, gesturing as he leaned up against a shelf. "While extremely gifted ourselves, cooking isn't exactly our forte', and a product that has wicked taste as well as function will sell much better, we figure."
"And, as we're one of the few remaining businesses in Diagon Alley that are prospering at the moment, we can afford to take on another member to the team. We have Verity as well, but she's frankly pretty hopeless in the kitchen."
"There have already been loads of owls inquiring about the position, but…"
"They were all just looking more for a cut of the profit rather than the sheer, un-paralleled, and rewarding experience of working with two geniuses such as ourselves."
"And, more importantly, they all lacked the specific talents we've been looking for."
"You need a pastry chef, it sounds like." Ayla assessed, beginning to feel more qualified.
"Yes! We need someone to help us develop our new line." George answered.
"We call it Confunding Confections," interjected Fred. "It's essentially a gourmet branch-off of our Skiving Snackboxes, and is geared towards people who want to prank annoying relatives and friends rather than get out of appointments and classes."
"It's going to be a series of pastries and chocolates which house some of the old products as well as a few novel ones. Should catch people off guard, since they're starting to recognize the basic Puking Pastilles, Nosebleed Nougat, and such. It opens a whole new avenue of pranking possibilities!"
Ayla grinned, tucking a tendril of golden hair behind her ear. Their enthusiasm was electric and the product names ridiculously perfect. Perhaps it was just this silliness that she needed right now.
"Well, I must admit that I'm not familiar with many of your current products, but…"
The Weasley twins' expressions turned abruptly to alarm. The sudden change in demeanor was quite humorous, and she wasn't sure they intended it to be so. Fred crossed his arms indignantly, and Ayla was reminded of a young child who hadn't gotten his way.
"What?" they said simultaneously with narrowed eyes.
"Where have you been?"
"And you want to work for us?"
"Maybe we're falling short in advertising, Gred! We've been too arrogant to think that everyone's heard of us."
"That's ridiculous! How could you miss it? It's as bloody orange as a blooming pumpkin! And who doesn't talk about us?"
"And the posters! The Ads in the Prophet! Where have we gone wrong?"
They continued to berate her and banter until Ayla interrupted.
"Well, you see, I haven't exactly been in the Wizarding world for some time now. I don't think it's necessarily your fault that I haven't been exposed to any of it. I'm only back to help my father. He's older now, and the war has him quite shaken, even as a pureblood."
They calmed somewhat, though still couldn't seem to shake the astonishment that someone had not heard of them.
"Wait," said Fred. "You haven't been in the Wizarding world?"
"Have you been in hiding?"
"Oh no, is that why that guy was attacking you?"
"You know if you'd done something illegal, or something to piss off a Death Eater, we'd accept that. In fact, maybe it wouldn't even matter that you haven't heard of us."
"Yeah, you're brave to come back."
"It's worthy of immense respect!"
"No!" she exclaimed before they could continue. "No, no, no. I've done nothing to anger anyone as far as I know. But I hope you will consider my qualifications for the job despite my complete lack of interesting stories to tell about run-ins with magical law-enforcement!"
George cleared his throat and gave a sheepish smile.
"Sure, sorry, we get carried away."
"Happens quite frequently."
"Go on." they both said.
Ayla shifted her weight, trying to maintain eye contact so they wouldn't perceive her as weak; a tactic her father had tried to teach her. She had a feeling she was failing miserably.
"I've not exactly been in hiding. I've been gone for years though, and I just finished at the University in London, and had a job with one of the premier bakeries in Covent Garden." She said, sure to hint at her qualifications before breaking the news. A suspicious glint had appeared in their eyes at the mention of the university, however. Witches and Wizards never attended university. They both leaned in, curious.
Well, might as well just say it… She hated the word. It sounded so… dirty. But it was the only thing magical folk ever understood. She inhaled, preparing for what had always held her back in the world of her family.
"I'm a Squib."