A/N: Ookies, here it is folks, the sequel to 'Alone by Choice'. Thank you for all your wonderful reviews on that story and for giving me the inspiration to write more!
not 100 percent happy with the twins in this one, so if there's
anything I can fix, please tell me. Oh yeah, and the character of
Clarence Metz is mine; I had him planned for a Marauder fic but when I
realized I needed a Ministry fella he begged to fill the slot.
Bill paused in the ornately gilded doorway, blue eyes scanning the long, muted depths of the empty shop, the plain brass chandelier overhead only lit with a few half-melted candles. The sign on the broad windows flanking the sturdy entrance had said 'opening soon', but Bill was hardly going to be deterred by a locked door – especially one that belonged to his younger twin brothers.
When no answer came he entered anyway, closing the door carefully behind him as he regarded the large, battered boxes stacked around the shop. They filled the window, blocking out view from the outside, and teetered precariously on the long counter running from halfway down the shop to the back wall. Beside that was a thick black drape marking the entrance to what was probably a storeroom; it was the only area that was cleared, and Bill could see a half-full stand of muggle magic tricks in the corner beside the curtain.
The rest of the floor was an array of scattered boxes, some of them open and their contents half unpacked onto the shelves – the curse breaker noted colourful boxes of various Skiving Snackboxes – but mostly the shop had that air of hurried chaos that preceded settling into a new house. Since school wasn't quite finished the majority of the twins' business was done through owl orders, the catalogue of which was posted outside on the window and charmed to resist the elements, but Bill knew that before the summer holidays started his brothers would be ready to let customers in.
Speak of the dark lords. With a grin Bill turned from his inspection of the shelves, toward the toned door behind the counter that faded almost seamlessly into the wall. It was open, now, and very obvious, suspended midway towards the clear space of the wall behind it.
And standing before it, hand gripped around the edge as though he'd been on the verge of throwing it open enthusiastically, was a grinning Fred. Behind him, on the bottom grainy step, posed an identical George, freckles and all, who waved a hand ardently over his brother's shoulder.
"What are you doing here?" Fred demanded gleefully, bounding forward and over the counter with a swing of his legs, through the only space left by the boxes, his eagerness ending in the door rebounding loudly off the wall and into George. Even so, a dented stack of cartons tumbled to the floorboards and hit with a wooden clatter.
"What, I need a reason to visit my favourite twin brothers?" Bill asked, chuckling, as George lumbered through the door – sending it flying a second time – and lifted the thin divider covering the entrance to the counter to pass through.
"We're your only twin brothers," they chorused, skidding to a halt right in front of him, and Bill leaned back a little to get some space, his thick ponytail catching on the high collar of his jacket as he took their beaming faces in a little bemusedly. Both of them had the same shining blue eyes, the same pattern of freckles, same ruffled hair, long enough to touch their ears. About the only obvious differences between them were that their worn jeans were ripped open on opposite knees and George's rumpled T-shirt was green, while Fred's was red.
Seeing Bill's quizzically raised eyebrow, George made an aggrieved noise. "Fred nicked my red shirt last week," he explained, casting a dirty look at his brother. "You'd think he was trying to get me to wear Slytherin colours." Fred looked away, whistling what would have been an innocent tune if it had been almost anyone else.
"You not in school anymore, you know," Bill reminded them with a tiny smile, but both of them just snorted in reply before they each grabbed an arm and steered him forcefully towards the entrance through the cluttered bench.
"Come on, let us show you the little place we call 'home' –"
"So you can give us your honest opinion before Mum sees it and goes spare."
And before he knew it or could feel apprehension at being dragged into the twins' den (he clearly remembered a little incident on his first summer home from Hogwarts that he didn't care to be repeated), Bill had been tugged up the narrow, windowless stairs and into a modest four-room flat.
The door opened into a fairly spacious living room with a string of low windows, high up on the smooth wall, looking out over the sloping, sun-faded shingles of the ground storey's eaves. Beneath them was a worn second-hand couch, lightened almost to grey by age, and an old desk with one leg half broken off and propped up by what Bill recognised as a stack of the twins' Lockhart books. At the far end the ceiling arched into a partition separating the small (and definitely chaotic) kitchen from the living room. To the immediate left was an open door leading to a small bathroom; farther up along the wall was an entrance into the bedroom.
Or what would have been the bedroom, if Bill's sharp eyes hadn't spied frayed twin mattresses hiding on the floor beneath the piles of boxes, shredded packing paper, and bundles of discarded shirts and sheets.
Fred followed his amused gaze and grinned. "Oh. That. We needed the bedroom to use as a laboratory, you see…"
"This room has too many open spaces to risk it," George added with a smirk, stepping carefully across the room through little clearings that showed the floorboards beneath. "The bedroom was more secure. Not to mention quieter." He made it to the door, his brothers behind him (Bill wincing at what his mother would have said at the state of the room), and reached in to pull it closed so Bill could see. "We had to replace the door for security reasons – that took up quite a few of our galleons, let me tell you – but it's been worth it, in the end."
Bill had to agree. Knowing what the twins' preparations in pranking were like – and having seen the battered and scorched inside of their room at the Burrow – the thick, iron-shod door would protect anything outside… and prevent anyone trying to get in.
Curiously he peeked around the edge, expecting to see a chaos that reflected the rest of the house, but was surprised to be met with an orderly – if equipment-strewn – office. The rough counters ranging the side walls were filled with bubbling potions and seemingly innocent items, like the tilting stack of black felt hats sagging in the corner, but the wall that drew the eye was the one directly opposite, simply because it was bare in comparison to the others. There was a sturdy desk backed up against the lime-green paint and the small window overhead that overlooked a thin divide between the twins' building and the next had a crack meandering through the centre of the pane.
Resting on the tabletop, half covering a long-dried ink stain, beside an uncapped ink well and a ruffled quill was an open leather-bound book, its spine splitting against the sheer number of the loose sheets of parchment that littered the top and jutted untidily from the pages.
The curse breaker only got a moment's glimpse, because George saw him looking and quickly turned him around, prattling on about one of their experiments or another and shooting Fred a significant look that Bill didn't miss. The elder twin took up the challenge his brother's glance had seemed to imply and together the two expertly kept him from entering the room a second time.
It was only later, when he'd arrived back at the Burrow and tossed his keys on the battered desk in his room, that Bill had the time to wonder what the twins were doing with what must've been several rolls' worth of parchment covered in Percy's handwriting.
Bill frowned, tapping the dry nib of his fluffy-feathered quill against the curling parchment in thought as he sat back in his chair, legs stretched out beneath the desk. Two days since he'd visited his brothers, and two days since he'd been plagued with the annoying riddle of the book they'd had. He hadn't concentrated on it, since long experience had taught him that his subconscious mind often solved puzzles on its own, but now he had a spare few hours and it had come to the forefront.
It wasn't as though his life depended on the answer, as had often been the case in Egypt, but it still annoyed him. Bill solved puzzles for a living – and he hated it when there was one he couldn't answer.
Which was why there was now a slip of parchment in front of him. Some people, when they wanted to organise their thoughts, meditated or brainstormed. Bill's way of stirring his thoughts was to write a letter; more specifically, write a letter to Charlie.
He dipped the quill and drained off the excess ink, putting nib to parchment to continue from where he'd left off. So far all he had were the standard retellings of day-to-day life – nothing on the Order, of course, all that information was sent through a secure channel – but he desperately wanted feedback. Charlie had an incredible knack for pointing out the obvious when he'd missed it or unwittingly providing a link between pieces.
The twins are up to something. He wrote, and paused, then snorted.
The twins are always up to something, he could almost hear Charlie say. Drives Mum spare, it does.
More than usual, I mean.Bill added. I visited them in their new flat the other day; it looked like their room did, only on a grander scale. He paused again, absently tapping the quill and leaving thin splatter marks over the edge of the parchment. They had something; a book of records, it looked like. It could've been documentation for their shop, but it was all in Percy's handwriting, I'm sure of it. And they distracted me quick-smart when they saw me looking, too.
For a moment the quill hovered, poised, to continue as Bill swiftly reread his words. Deciding there was little else he could say about the matter, he moved to a new line and went on with the letter.
"I've got it!" Bill called into the kitchen to his mum as he crossed the cluttered living room in answer to the incessant tap of a beak on glass, stepping around books and papers with ease until he reached the window, levering it up to allow an irritable barn owl to land with a flutter on the sill. A pang of anticipation hit him when he saw his name written in Charlie's scrawl, absently murmuring a 'thank you' as he untied the parchment and retreated to his room. Behind him, the bird ruffled its feathers indignantly before spreading its wings and soaring off.
He'd hardly reached his room before he'd opened the letter, skimming the beginning until he found what he was looking for: the response to his suspicions about the twins.
Obviously you think something serious is up, otherwise you wouldn't bother to write about it, Charlie had replied in his candid manner. You realize that they could've just gotten Percy to do all the paperwork for their shop? There was a spot of ink, as though Charlie had paused to consider his words, and then: …never mind. Bill grinned.
Sounds more like they're gathering evidence for something; maybe they're planning a prank at the Ministry? After what I've heard about what they did at Hogwarts, I wouldn't put it past them anymore…
Bill had already stopped reading; he was staring at the first words. Gathering evidence. He rolled the words around in his mind. Gathering evidence. The more he thought it, the more he felt it was right. Suddenly spurred into action by the familiar excitement that tightened his chest, Bill cleared the desk and pulled a fresh roll of parchment from the pile against the wall, swiftly uncorking the inkwell and catching up a thin quill.
I think you're right, he scribbled, his usually neat handwriting untidy in his haste. But they were much too serious about it. If it was a prank I'm sure they wouldn't be so secretive; you know how they are. They like people to know when they're up to something, even though they don't say what it is.
Bill paused, letting his chaotic thoughts churn their way into some semblance of order. If they're gathering evidence for something, then it's either for Percy or about Percy, he continued, hardly even writing for Charlie anymore, just wanting to get it all out. I can't see Percy going to the twins for something or them offering. So I'd hedge that he doesn't know about it. He pondered the reasons, wondering what on Earth the twins would want to prove, but then he mentally checked himself. The possible answers were so simple, albeit on a much grander scale than the twins had ever gone before.
Mind you, there wasn't much going on in the world aside from the war.
I can only think of three things they'd try to prove: that Percy is working for the Ministry, which we already know… the next sent chills down the curse breaker's spine, but he put it down anyway. That Percy is a Death Eater… although I don't believe that one. I can't. I won't.
Or… Once against he stopped, gazing at the drying ink, shiny against the light coming through the battered window. Finally he grimaced and put down his last theory, one that made him feel as guilty as the second made him defiant. Or they're trying to prove that he's a spy for the Order. For long moments he stared at the words, thinking furiously, ignorant of the ink that dripped from the quill's nib and onto his fingers.
It had to be one of them. Percy had left over the war and the Ministry's drawing lines in the sand, and there were, after all, three sides in the war for as long as the Ministry resisted Dumbledore's help.
He couldn't understand why the twins would be getting evidence to prove Percy was in the pay of the Ministry – they already knew that – and he flat-out refused to believe that Percy might be a Death Eater.
Which left only one choice.
I have to see what they've got, the curse breaker decided, laying the quill down. I don't know enough… why would the twins suddenly get that thought into their heads? Why would they think it's true? Why are they trying to prove it if they don't want to tell anyone?
Satisfied for now, Bill picked up Charlie's letter and started over.
The shop was packed.
Summer hols had just begun and many teenagers were flocking to the twins' shop in a desperate effort to forget, for a few moments, that the Dark Lord had indeed arisen, now confirmed by the Ministry.
Bill pushed through the crush of people chattering enthusiastically about the products. The shelves were a now glare of bright colours, displaying everything from the Skiving Snackboxes to Daydream Charms to a polished cageful of squeaking pink or purple balls of fluff.
The curse breaker was easily among the tallest there, save perhaps a few of parents who were trying and failing to look disapproving, and he used his height to good advantage as he scanned the shop for his brothers.
Not that it would be difficult to miss them – they were wearing gaudy magenta robes that made him wince when he first caught sight of one of them, absently fingering his own long ponytail and reflecting on the drawbacks of red hair.
Reaching the gleaming counter, Bill glanced around to make sure no one would notice him slip behind it – he doubted anyone would care, he could just say he was the twins' older brother coming to visit, which would be the truth – but before he could manage a beaming George appeared in front of him.
"Bill! We didn't expect you here."
"Hullo, George," Bill offered, squinting at his brother's bright robes.
George noticed and grinned, plucking at the wide sleeves and turning so he could see the three huge orange 'W's on the back. "Like it?" he asked impishly, knowing all too well what Bill thought. "If you do I'm sure we could get another, be much more eye-catching than that," and he gestured at Bill's worn jeans, faded blue T-shirt and black jacket.
Bill grimaced and shook his head, his fang earring bumping against his jaw. "No, thanks." He smiled a little mistily, jamming his hands in his pockets. "I don't need to catch any more eyes."
George eyed him suspiciously, but as he opened his mouth to start questioning Bill, someone tapped at his shoulder and he turned around to meet the piercing gaze of a stooped, black-haired man in neat Ministry robes. "Mister Weasley?" he asked in a surprisingly deep voice, holding out a hand for George to shake, then went on without waiting for a reply. Not that he needed one. "Clarence Metz. I'm from the Office of Magical Equipment Control; I've come to talk to you about your Shield Hats."
Bill had to give George credit: he didn't flinch, even though the temperature metaphorically went down a few degrees. "I'll hang around in your flat until closing time," Bill offered. "We can catch up then."
Once again, George opened his mouth to speak, but Bill had already lifted the divider and vanished up the stairs, closing the door behind him. George grimaced, then turned back to Mister Metz, taking his hand and putting on a bright smile.
Bill let out a tense breath, shutting the door at the height of the stairs behind him carefully and surveying the minefield of the twins' 'bedroom' with a critical eye. It couldn't be worse than navigating a floor of Groundshaker Curses, right?
Knowing the twins, it could be.
He just hoped they hadn't warded the door to their lab…
They hadn't. Not that the twins' versions of 'wards' could be counted as such… mostly they set up their door to be pranked. The last time Bill had tried to enter their room without checking with them first, he'd walked around with violet hair for a week.
This time, the door just groaned as he pushed it open, eyes darting about the interior of the room just in case one of their inventions decided to attack him. Nothing happened, not when he stepped across the stained floorboards or took the rickety chair drawn out before the desk.
The book was closed, revealing a plain leather cover, but it was bulging with loose parchment and had been bound with thick rawhide straps since the last time Bill had seen it. Gingerly he unknotted the cord and flipped the tome open to a random page, preventing parchment from slipping out every which way.
The very first slip of paper caught his eye: it was covered in Percy's handwriting but was marked with the Ministry seal, indicating it was an interoffice document, and Bill wondered how on Earth the twins had managed to get it without anyone knowing – assuming no one did.
Then he remembered his own experience with paperwork and how his brothers had seemed to know an awful lot about Percy's business during the summer before their sixth year. Copies were made of everything, and knowing the twins they probably did something to Percy's cabinets so they'd always had a fresh supply of blackmail material at hand.
The document seemed innocuous at first, detailing a request for his own father's public file; but underneath that were another two folders, apparently copies the file itself, yet one had things missing from it, things that Bill knew should have been noted. On the page of the book itself the twins had written notes about the file and its discrepancies in their frustrating double-speak way until, at the very bottom, Fred had written, 'want to bet which folder Percy gave to Fudge?'
Frowning, Bill flipped to another page, and another, each of them requests to see the public file of various people. Most of them were people of the Order and yet, somehow, the copies of the files that followed were changed from the originals.
He found another slip of notepaper with the Ministry seal and quickly read through it, marvelling at the third Weasley boy's ability to write legibly even when it was clear he was in a hurry.
'Hearing details changed. Courtroom Ten, 8 o'clock. Hurry.'
The date, scripted in automatic print as per the charms placed on official Ministry paper, was marked as the twelfth of August the previous year.
Now, which hearing do we know of that happened on that date, George? Fred had scrawled.
Why, one Mister Potter's, of course! George has answered. Changed the venue, they did. Dumbledore said it was 'lucky he'd come early', if I recall Harry's words right. Seems he had a little bird tell him.
Feverishly Bill flipped some more pages, stopping randomly at an unsealed sheet which had scribbled across it, 'DA found out. Fudge coming to expel Harry with aurors Shacklebolt and Dawlish.'
I wondered why Dumbledore seemed so ready to leave, George mused. Prepared his office to be locked and everything. He must've been planning something to keep Harry from being expelled. Good thing he had forewarning.
Yes, Bill agreed inwardly. A very good thing.
As Bill sifted through the papers, a feeling of both guilt and amazement began to grow; Percy had seemed to affect almost every Order-related piece of parchment which crossed his desk. There was a document which twisted a disciplinary note against Tonks for falling asleep on duty; a edited criminal file on Sturgis Podmore that removed a great deal of affiliation with Dumbledore; a complaint against Mundungus which had been carefully amended and explained away; at least a dozen sheafs reworking and scrapping various Educational Degrees, some of which were simply ludicrous and which Bill found himself glad were never released.
So were Fred and George, according to their notes on one that ordered all relevant students' ties charmed with a tracking spell.
We'd never get anything done! George had commented indignantly.
That's assuming we're listed as 'relevant students', Fred pointed out. I think if you put 'Harry Potter and friends' down instead you'd get something more accurate.
And we don't count as friends? George complained.
Of course not. We're just his best mate's twin brothers. 'A threat to the security and humourlessness of Hogwarts', perhaps…
There were several drafts of a letter to Ron which Bill would have counted against Percy's case if not for Fred's notes on the fact that Percy's handwriting was loopy and more ornate than usual, a sure sign that, as Fred put it, 'he was terribly nervous about something at the time and trying to overcompensate. What's the bet that Fudge was standing over him as he wrote it?' Bill supposed he'd know; the twins had forged Percy's writing enough times.
The more Bill read, the more he began to agree with the twins that Percy was definitely not on the Ministry's side. He could have been thrown in Azkaban for an untold number of years if Fudge had ever got a hold of his records at some point before the end of the year. Even now he'd probably be charged, if granted leniency on account of the circumstances.
Finally the curse breaker came to several drafts of a document petitioning for Sirius Black to be cleared of all charges, written by Percy himself, even though it was signed 'Headmaster Dumbledore'.
I think that about proves it, Fred, George said.
He's a Weasley through and through, Fred agreed. I never knew that Percy was such a good actor. We should award him the honorary medal of 'Prank Master'; who'd have thought he could fool us?
No one did, Bill thought regretfully, laying the parchment down and closing the book solemnly.
That's why he succeeded.
"Finally!" Fred panted, leaning against the door wearily. "We really need to consider hiring some help, George, but we had so many orders before the summer that I didn't expect so many people to come in straight after school ended."
"We're popular, Fred, what can you expect?" George grinned back, busily picking up fallen boxes and replacing them on the correct shelves.
Fred moved to join him, absently swapping around a lurid purple Skiving Snackbox with a fairy floss-pink Daydream Charm carton. "Nice work with that Ministry bloke, by the way, has to be the biggest order we've ever taken. When I first saw him I almost went spare! I thought we were in trouble." He glanced over at his twin proudly, but George had stopped in the middle of rearranging the muggle card tricks, his brow furrowed.
"Bill!" he burst out suddenly, his eyes widening in horror, and Fred jumped, startled. "He came in a few hours ago, I was talking to him but the Ministry worker distracted me – he went upstairs!" Fred blinked at him, his thoughts scrambling to catch up. George saw and added in explanation, "He saw the book the last time he came, remember?"
Fred swore, paused, and suggested hopefully, "Maybe he didn't go in? He had to've learned by now it's too dangerous to go into our room when we're working, he wouldn't want to brave our lab…" He trailed off as George shook his head incredulously, then grimaced. "Let's take a look, then."
Fred's hopes were dashed when an anxious George pushed open the door to find their older brother sitting back in the thatch-backed chair, booted feet up on the corner of the desk, one hand resting contemplatively on the closed tome. He glanced up at their entrance, earring swinging wildly, his expression so sombre that neither of them had any doubt that he'd read the book.
"How did you find out?" he asked quietly as they exchange helpless glances.
"We overheard Percy talking with Dumbledore in the hospital wing, just after the Department of Mysteries fiasco," George admitted, gently pushing the door closed and leaning back against the cool prick of the iron banding across the thick wood as Fred pulled himself up onto a spare bit of counter. "He didn't want to keep on with it." His face contorted into a series of unrecognisable expressions. "Dumbledore made it sound like he was letting Perce make the decision, only he wasn't, you know?"
Bill nodded. "The Headmaster does that all the time; once you've been in the Order long enough you get used to it. Got a lot of secrets, he does. A lot of plans."
"We can't tell anyone, you know that, right?" Fred blurted, his blue eyes intense as he stared at Bill.
"I know," Bill agree with a bitter smile. "Ron can't act to save his life, Mum could but it's too close to home for her to try, Dad…" He shook his head. "Too big a risk, they see each other at work too often. Ginny…" He hesitated. "I'm not sure about her, to be honest, but…"
"Gin could keep a secret," George said instantly with a sidelong glance at Fred.
"But we should keep it as quiet as possible," was Fred's immediate rejoinder. "More people who know, more of a risk someone else finds out." George looked unhappy, pushing his voluminous sleeves up to his elbows, but didn't argue. "Just as well Charlie's in Romania, he can't act either."
Bill grimaced, running a hand through his hair and causing half of it to fall out of his ponytail. "I wrote to Charlie to get some feedback," he explained. "He's already half in, I'll have to tell him the rest."
Fred made an aggrieved face but didn't answer. For long moments they stayed in contemplative silence, not looking at each other, but united in keeping Percy's secret. Bill stared blindly at the innocent-seeming book as his thoughts turned back to the evidence he held in his hands, evidence that he'd now have to keep hidden when all he really wanted was to run to his parents and tell them the truth, and felt his heart break.
Why can't anything be easy?