AN IMPORTANT NOTICE FROM THE AUTHOR:

If you read this story prior to May 19, 2014, you are hereby STRONGLY URGED to REREAD previous chapters on account of extensive rewrites and edits!

See additional notes at the end of the first chapter for further details (and my very lazy excuse about why I left this story in limbo for so long), and thank you for reading.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~

IX. It Is As Follows

He couldn't move. He couldn't think. He wasn't in a position where he and Fred had the upper hand. They weren't sniggering in the next corridor or having secret discussions in the Owlery or passing notes in class. When he looked across to where Rookwood sat and where his twin spun slowly in the air, George's heart constrained. Breathing became an impossible feat as he struggled with his own sense of raw disbelief.

"Sit," Rookwood instructed.

George wavered on the spot. His eyes flicked to Fred. He wondered if he could stun Rookwood in time.

"Put him down, first," George bargained.

"No deal."

Rookwood flicked his wand and a chair went flying across the room, forcefully knocking George into it. He tossed Fred aside. The chair rushed into the middle of the room, taking George with it. Rookwood leaned forwards to stare at him with the utmost interest in his pale eyes.

"Tea?" Rookwood asked casually.

"Tea?!" George repeated. "Are you serious?!"

"Quite!"

Rookwood snapped his fingers. Several ropes wrapped around the chair, tying George in place. The harder he struggled, the tighter they became. Meanwhile, the kettle flew from the cupboard to the stove and began to make itself.

"Now, while the tea's getting ready..." Rookwood leaned back. "How are we doing? Comfortable?"

"Comfortable?" George grunted. "I wouldn't say that."

"Pity. Oh, did I introduce myself? Augustus Rookwood, at your service. We have met before, but meeting in the middle of a firefight is hardly a proper introduction. Those oafish werewolves didn't give any time for introductions."

"Believe me, I know who you are."

"Excellent. Good old Mad-Eye has probably told you all about me—or, warned you, more likely. I expect nothing less. He really opted for the Kiss during my trial. I'm going to have to thank him for that one day. A card, maybe. I love cards. Greeting card, card games, wild cards. But we're going to have to finish this meeting rather quickly. You see, your shop is being watched."

"Watched?" George repeated, despite himself. "By who? Not the Ministry."

"Good heavens, no. Moody and Lupin have been watching your shop since this morning. I had to turn invisible to sneak in. It's inevitable that we will be interrupted sometime in the near future."

George paled as he recalled a cool gust of wind, like a cloak slapping against the currents of the breeze, that had passed by him as he'd exited the shop. God, he must have ambushed Fred. George was just relieved he'd only been gone for that short period of time. Any longer and Rookwood might have decided that it wasn't worth keeping Fred alive. And Mad-Eye and Remus...if what Rookwood said was true, then Fred's suspicions about their involvement were right.

The kettle started singing. Rookwood rose to his feet, stretched, and went to retrieve it. George strained, but the ropes tightened. He started to lose feeling in his hands

"I wouldn't fight," suggested Rookwood. He poured himself some tea and returned to the chair. He leaned back and put his feet on the table. "Those could cut off your circulation...or your hand...Are you sure you don't want tea?"

"If only to drown you in."

"Alright, more for me."

Rookwood sauntered back to his seat just opposite George.

"Shall we get down to business?" Rookwood asked casually.

"Where did you get those?" George demanded.

"Get what?"

"Those clock hands!"

"What, these? Pried them off of the clock in the Burrow, of course! I took some biscuits, as well. I couldn't help myself—your mother really is quite a fabulous cook."

"What for?"

"I was hungry."

"I wasn't talking about the biscuits."

"Oh, you mean the clock hands? I need to make a statement and these are going to help me do just that."

"A statement to who?"

"Oh, to most it will just be a random act of violence. 'Those poor boys in Diagon Alley! They were just going to fulfill their life long dream to open a joke shop! Their mother sobbing! Their father saying he should have done more!'"

Rookwood downed his entire cup of tea like it was a bottle of whiskey. He then started to circle the room, stepping over Fred's unconscious form. George struggled to get a good look at his twin's face, but it was turned from him.

"Another Death Eater attack. Something for the Daily Prophet." Rookwood stopped at the window and inhaled deeply. "But not just done by any Death Eater. You see, Mr. Weasley, I wrote a letter to the Dark Lord today announcing my resignation. I felt I could accomplish more as an independent agent, not to mention that the cause no longer serves my interests. Sure, it got me out of Azkaban, but the funny thing about prison is that it allows one's mind to clear."

"You mean to tell me you just 'quit' the Death Eaters?" said George. "Can you do that?"

"No, those who quit have the tendency of turning up dead. But by the time the Dark Lord receives my letter, I daresay I will have vanished from the face of the Earth...Now, where is it?"

The last sentence was murmured more to himself. Rookwood marched forwards and shoved his hands into George's pockets, causing him to instinctively flinch and intake the distinct stench of alcohol and tobacco on Rookwood's breath.

"You better not be thinking about doing what I think you're thinking of doing," George growled.

"Grow up, George," Rookwood retaliated. "Where is it?!"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"That's exactly what the Prewetts said when I first asked them about it."

When he withdrew the watch, George realized that he was wearing gloves. Rookwood let out a light gasp of surprise and relief, looking upon it lovingly.

"Oh," he whispered. "It's...It's true then. When I tore apart Humblehaug...I gave up too quickly. I thought that since Alastor never found it..."

Rookwood studied George's face.

"I knew it," Rookwood murmured. "This is too ironic! I always knew that the Prewetts would try to keep the watch in the family. I just never figured that you two would be the ones to get a hold of it...I want this, more than I wanted my freedom from Azkaban!"

"You can have it," George snapped.

"No fun in that," said Rookwood. "I don't just want the pocket watch. You see, the watch is naturally attracted to talented and powerful wizards. It wants to be used, it wants to be controlled. You two must be exceptional...more...more exceptional than many give you credit for."

Rookwood laughed. He sank to his knees and rocked gently back and forth.

"Oh, dear," Rookwood grinned feebly. "I never expected...Oh, why just take it? It's too easy!"

Rookwood gestured vaguely. George's hand turned upright. Rookwood slapped the watch into his hand and unwillingly clenched over the cold metal as the Death Eater examined the countdown.

"That's really not too long, is it?" Rookwood asked. "I'm going to have to speed that up. I suppose you read the rules. Do you recall what the last one was? Of course you do. Difficult to forget something like that. I admit that when I first owned the watch I saw no distinct purpose to that rule, when...I...first held it in my hands, ownership I lost when those Prewetts laid their grubby little fingers on it and soiled its magnificence with their disregard for the sheer complexity of the magic behind it!"

George's eyes flicked to the nearest clock. It was a quarter after five. He vaguely remembered that it had been five-twenty, twelve hours ago, when they found it.

"Ah, yes, the magic number! Two! Two wizards! Twins! Brothers! History is repeating itself!"

The binds holding George to the chair tightened.

"You see, George, if you and your dear brother here die tonight, that watch will absorb all of your magical talent and use it to enhance the power of the next owner. It would be a waste to simply take it when I can kill you and your brother. With each soul it claims, its potency grows! And when I pry it off of your cold, dead bodies, everything that belonged to every previous owner, every ounce of power, every secret of Prewetts and Weasleys and all owners alike...will belong to me! The world will be a truly brilliant place once you are dead!"

Rookwood laughed and raised his wand, as if he was conducting an orchestra.

"Whoops, I suppose that doesn't make sense," Rookwood laughed. "I said 'cold, dead bodies.' What

I really meant were 'very warm, dead bodies, and possibly a bit overdone.'"

From the sleeve of his coat he pulled out a box of matches. He had to strike it twice before a flame was conjured, seemingly harmless and innocent and very much overwhelmed by the presence of the wizard who'd created it. Rookwood transferred the flame from the match to the palm of his hand, where it floated harmlessly. George eyed it.

"I understand you have quite a few flammable objects in the shop," said Rookwood. "That should burn the place down quite nicely, don't you think? Some might even think it was an accident. Anyways, I'll be sure to come back to rightfully claim my property once you are very much dead. Farewell, George!"

He dropped the flames.

The moment the flames touched the ground, they started to spurt, getting dangerously close to where Fred was lying. When George looked up again, Rookwood was gone and the heat rushed from the growing flames up to his face. The tendrils danced from object to object in the flat, touching everything like an exploring child. The next thing George knew, smoke started to swell up from the objects to the ceiling.

George jerked his hands around in an attempt to get slack around his wrists. His eyes flicked to Fred. The fire was crawling closer to his body.

"Fred!" George screamed. "Fred, you git! Get up!"

He managed to deliver a sharp kick to his brother's leg. Fred let out a soft groan, but was otherwise unresponsive. Smoke was piled up in the rafters.

Great. If he didn't choke on the smoke he'd burn to death. Or maybe both. While the idea of dying heroically in flames had a mild sense of appeal to it, George knew he couldn't afford to get caught up in the quick succession of fire. He desperately tugged at his wrists and toppled the chair onto its side. He and Fred had practised this sort of trick when they were children and trying Muggle tricks was for fun; they'd take turns tying each other up and the other would have to escape without magic. Now the game was no longer funny.

The more he moved his wrists, the tighter they became. George arched his head. Flames were at the top of his head.

"Let me go!" George demanded.

The binds immediately loosened.

He didn't stop to question or contemplate the response. He sprang to his feet, stumbled slightly, and immediately inhaled a great deal of smoke. George's knees buckled and he violently retched in an effort to free his lungs, but he forced himself forwards towards Fred. He could barely hold himself up.

"Fred! George!"

The muffled voice was coming from downstairs. George managed to pick up Fred by one arm. Someone was storming up the back stairs. Seconds later, Remus burst into the room, his wand drawn. He rushed forwards and took Fred's other arm.

"Hold on!" Remus directed.

He slashed his wand through the air, murmuring an incantation.

In a crack, the three of them disappeared. Cool night air hit George's face, soothing the seering heat on his cheeks. He collapsed forwards and started retching, knotting the grass in between his fingers. Lupin was panting nearby.

"Are you alright?" Lupin asked.

"F—Fred?" George breathed.

Fred's body shifted in response.

"'M fine," mumbled Fred. "I feel like I got hit by a train...Where are we?"

"My house," said Lupin. "Can you walk?"

"Yeah."

"Get inside, quickly."

George couldn't breathe. One hand was pressed to his chest and the other to his head. The voices surrounding him stared to fade, until the dizziness overtook him and he collapsed.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~

"—is burning down, and if you had kept those fireworks in proper storage the damage would've been a lot less worse!"

"We weren't asking for your opinion, Mad-Eye!"

These were the voices that heralded George's return to the land of the living. He let out a cough and sat back up, the lightheaded sensation quickly clearing.

He was lying on the fainting couch in Remus's living room. Fred was sitting at his side, one hand gripping his brother's arm. Remus was standing in between them and Mad-Eye, whose face was blackened by soot and both eyes raging and maddened. His one good eye was almost the same size as the fake one.

"Alright, George?" Fred breathed.

"What happened?" George asked.

"You passed out, that's what happened. Not that I blame you or anything."

"...The shop?"

Fred averted his gaze.

"It's gone!" Mad-Eye roared. "It's burning to the ground as we speak! Didn't anyone teach you to cast protective spells around flammable objects? Did it never occur to you or did you just think you were invincible?! You're either stupid or reckless! Which is it?!"

"Perhaps this isn't the time to be discussing it," suggested Lupin.

"No, this is the perfect time! This confirmseverything I suspected!"

"Alastor—"

"No more playing by your rules, Lupin. If we'd acted right away, as I said we should have, this could've been aboided"

Remus sighed and turned to the twins. "I had been hoping you would come to us first before we accused you of anything..."

"We were going to," said George, disregarding Fred's irritable expression. "Today."

George reached into his pocket and extracted the watch.

Mad-Eye and Remus each let out a breath, though he knew instinctively that it wasn't out of relief. They both followed his movements as George sat up and placed it on the coffee table.

"It was Rookwood," George confirmed.

"He ambushed me in the shop about an hour ago," explained Fred. "He asked about that thing, but—well, I didn't tell him anything. I couldn't. He didn't give me the chance."

"He questioned me when I got back," George continued, "and said that he needed to make an example out of us. He started the fire."

It was clear from their expressions that they had already deduced this. George belatedly realized that they were sitting in the same spots they'd been in following the incident with the werewolves.

"You two are tied up in this, aren't you?" Fred accused. "You knew about this watch. That's the real reason why you wanted to find our uncles' hideout!"

Mad-Eye glowered. "It's the reason I didn't want to find it. I knew that if the Prewetts had hidden it and hidden it well, then it was safer that way."

"Is Dumbledore in on this, too?" Fred glared.

"Yes," Mad-Eye confirmed. "Yes, he does."

George scowled. "Are you going to tell us what this is all about, then, or are we going to have to guess that, too?"

Mad-Eye exchanged a glance with Remus, then went back to staring at the pocket watch.

"If you don't say anything, I will," Remus whispered.

Mad-Eye grumbled something that sounded like an agreement. He headed over to the window, peered out, and then faced the room at large, arms folded.

"Twenty years ago, the Ministry of Magic was infiltrated; we knew there was a traitor, but we didn't know who it was," explained Mad-Eye. "I suspected Rookwood from the start. Most said the eccentric behaviour, the chronic lying, and the obsession with Dark Magic was because he was an Unspeakable, like being an Unspeakable makes any man exempt from suspicion. But I garnered enough support from Ministry officials to get a warrant to search Rookwood's flat, where I confiscated a number of objects I believed were stolen goods. This watch was one of those objects."

"What is it, exactly?" George asked.

"Its purpose is to collect magical energy from its owners by absorbing their souls. If the owner dies before their time, then the watch can absorb it and transfer its power onto its next owner. Some say it has a curse on it that brings misfortune to whoever possesses it. I don't know whether this is true or not. All I know is that it came from the Department of Mysteries and Rookwood most certainly obtained it from there."

Mad-Eye scratched the side of his cheek and leaned against the mantelpiece.

"But, like so many things during the first war, the Ministry overlooked the discovery of stolen goods in Rookwood's home. Said I didn't have authorization—another lie—and the evidence wasn't admissible in court. What a joke! Rookwood didn't get what was coming to him until Igor Karkaroff named him as a traitor."

"How did our uncles get a hold of it?" George asked.

Mad-Eye shook his head. "Most of the stolen goods were returned to where they belonged, but I managed to keep hold of the pocket watch. The Prewetts stole it from me in 1977, not too long after they joined the Order."

"They stole from you?" Fred gawked.

"That was brave of them," George remarked.
"That was nothing," Mad-Eye scowled. "What was brave of them was betraying the Order."
George's brow furrowed. "I know you said you were suspicious of them, but—"

"But nothing," Mad-Eye snapped. "They betrayed us not by joining You-Know-Who's side, but by not being there when the Order was in need. They stole the watch, murdered a few people, and went on the run. The only reason we didn't immediately hunt them down was because the Prewetts continued to pass on vital information. Those were their only redeeming actions. But even the paper trail's usefulness exhausted itself, and by 1981, both Order members and Death Eaters were hunting them. The Death Eaters got to them first."

George's mouth fell open slightly, but Fred did not linger on surprise.

"Who did they kill?" Fred asked.

"Two Muggles and a witch by name of Constance Burbage," answered Mad-Eye. "Those are the ones we know about. There were always others we suspected but couldn't prove."
"But—but, Remus!" George swivelled to face Remus. "You and Sirius, the other day—you seemed certain that they weren't traitors!"

"That's because no one aside from Alastor, Albus, and the Prewetts knew about the pocket watch until I was told earlier today." Remus sat on the fainting couch beside them, his hand running through his coarse hair. "Calling them 'traitors' is unfair. Gideon and Fabian were loyal to the Order and ultimately died for it, but many of their actions were...rather pragmatic. Dumbledore didn't care for it. They were always up to something, but they never lived to explain themselves fully. Other members of the Order knew they might have been experimenting with Dark Magic, but the pocket watch was a secret."

"And...and does our mum...?"

"She knows nothing," Remus stated. "She didn't need to know the truth. Ultimately, we didn't understand the Prewetts' actions and they never directly antagonized us aside from stealing the watch, and...and we were all...too close to them...When the time came when we should have told Molly, we didn't. After they died it seemed unimportant."

"The pocket watch wasn't on either of them when we found their bodies," Mad-Eye added. "Dumbledore became convinced that they'd hidden it and that it would be best if we didn't seek it out."

"What about the paper trail?" George narrowed his eyes. "Did you still use that if you weren't sure if you could trust them?"
"We had no choice. We were desperate." Remus inhaled unsteadily. "Everyday, we heard about another friend dying or another family disappearing."
"When you're cornered, you reach out onto whatever help will be offered to you, even if you're not sure if you can trust the source," elaborated Mad-Eye. "The Prewetts kept sending messages and we needed information. There was no one else."

"It was right before James and Lily Potter were murdered that the Prewetts sent a message and said they wanted to arrange a meeting. They asked for Alastor by name. The Order was rightfully unsettled. The Prewetts did emerge from hiding on occasion, though only to make contact with their closest friends and family. They visited their sister—your mother—quite often and they were also fairly friendly with Marlene McKinnon. Marlene had died earlier that month, so we also theorized that the meeting had something to do with the recent murder of her and her family."

"I knew the truth, though," Mad-Eye testified. "Dumbledore and I believed that they wanted to talk about the pocket watch, otherwise they wouldn't have asked for me. Since they'd stolen the pocket watch, they hadn't dared to face me in person. We knew that Rookwood had been hunting the watch ever since the Prewetts had come into possession of it."

"And—and the watch is the real reason he was so interested in them?" George spluttered

"It was one of many reasons. Rookwood used the power the watch granted him to cheat, maim, murder, and advance his own interests. For a time, he used it to serve You-Know-Who, but it was always clear that his loyalties were frail at best."

"The rules—the rules said that all of the rules still apply to former owners," George remembered. "Why would Rookwood be so worried about getting it back when he has all the power he can possibly want?"

"Because the watch has been owned by five wizards since it left his possession," explained Mad-Eye. "Myself, Fabian and Gideon, and—if my timing is right—now you two. To to mention that the watch reveals the secrets of past owners to the current owner. It steals secrets. If Rookwood reclaims ownership, he'll be able to use our knowledge for his own gain. I also suspect that the pocket watch has some sort of addictive quality to it. Nine years ago, I went to Azkaban to ensure that the Death Eaters were locked up tight. Rookwood had scratched the walls until his fingernails came out. The absence of the pocket watch created a gnawing effect that's etched away at his personality. Once, he probably would've hesitated to do anything drastic and mindlessly devoted himself to You-Know-Who. Now he just doesn't care."

"Does You-Know-Who know about it?" asked Fred.

"If he knows, he has little interest in it. Dumbledore always thought that it's more likely that he doesn't know about it."

"Rookwood's a Death Eater," Fred stressed. "Obviously this has to be for You-Know-Who."

"He told me he quit," George recalled.

"He did what? Can you do that?"

"Not unless he plans to go on the run," Mad-Eye headed to the window. He pulled back the curtain.

"Well, I can't really blame him," said Fred. "I hear the Death Eater medical plan is horrendous."

"I suspect You-Know-Who won't be pleased about this," George agreed.

"No, he won't," said Mad-Eye. "In fact, I suspect that's Rookwood's intention."

"To piss off his former boss?"

"Yes. To him, provoking Voldemort might be a bit of fun and possessing the watch would mean absolute freedom to do whatever he pleased."

"But he doesn't have it."

"Exactly, and that's our best advantage, though it won't remain that way for long."

Silence. They all stared malevolently at the watch sitting on the coffee table.

"That...note, the one we found at Humblehaug," George furrowed his brow, "was it meant for you, Mad-Eye?"

"Perhaps," Mad-Eye shrugged. "Whoever it was addressed to, the note proves that the Prewetts were investigating methods to destroy the watch and ran out of time. Maybe they finally saw some sense."

Mad-Eye left the window.

"Let's get back to the present," he moved on. "Rookwood probably knows by now that you survived the fire, but he's going to be coming for you again, steadily chipping away at you until somewhere down the line you make a mistake that he can take advantage of. He did it with the Prewetts and he'll do it with you."

"Why not just kill Rookwood?" Fred demanded. "Why haven't you done it before?"

"You don't think I haven't tried?!" Mad-Eye snapped irritably. "You don't think the Prewetts tried?! And for the record, you two first denied having the watch, then almost burned to death, which is a fate you almost deserve for being so stupid and arrogant to believe that this wasn't worth the attention of the rest of the Order! In doing so, you've proven my exact point to Dumbledore and your mother! You aren't ready and you were damn well nearly killed in the process!"

"We didn't ask Rookwood to attack us!" George rose to his feet.

"Not to mention—" Fred started.

"If you had just been forward with us—"

"—from the start"

"—all of this could've been avoided!"

"Don't you lecture me!" Mad-Eye shouted.

"How about we all calm down?" Remus intervened. "It's quite clear what needs to be done, and that does not involve bickering amongst ourselves."

"Alright, what 'needs to be done,' Remus?" George sneered.

"What enlightening revelation do you have?" Fred mocked.

"Well, it's obvious!" Lupin exclaimed, looking at everyone in turn before addressing the twins. "The watch must be destroyed! Even if Rookwood is killed, the watch is far too dangerous to keep. What if You-Know-Who gets a hold of it? Who knows what he could do with it!"

"Then it's settled," said Mad-Eye.

Mad-Eye reached towards the watch. Fred leapt forwards and snatched it off the table, clutching it protectively in his fist.

"Hand it over!" Mad-Eye barked. "I'm not playing around. Give it to me!"

Fred and George's eyes immediately met. Flashing in front of his eyes was the image of the countdown of four years. That was all they had left.

"What happens if the watch is destroyed?" Fred asked. "To the owners, I mean?"

"Can't be sure of that," Mad-Eye admitted. "Not until we know more about it, and we're not going to learn about it if you two are handling it all the time. Give it here before I have to stun you."

Fred reluctantly surrendered it. Mad-Eye examined the watch briefly and pocketed it.

"New plan," he decided. "You three head to Humblehaug House and dig something up. The Prewetts must've left something behind and we need to get it before Rookwood catches on. I'm going back to Diagon Alley. He may still be there, in which case I 'm going to do what I should have done when the Ministry couldn't finish the job."

"We should tell their parents what's going on," said Remus.

"There will be time for that later. Get moving."

They waited until Mad-Eye exited the house and disappeared into the night before they relaxed. Remus's face had gone white. The fine scars lining his cheek lucidly stood out.

"How long did the watch say you have to live?" Remus asked. "It's not long, is it?"

George pursed his lips and glanced to Fred.

"A few years," Fred shrugged.

Remus massaged his temples.

"Don't worry about it," Fred said brightly.

"Yeah, we'll just have to make them the best damn years of our lives," grinned George.

Remus ran his fingers through his hair, clearly at a loss. Finally, he said, "We should leave."

The three of them vacated the house. With a quick flick of his wand, Lupin smothered all lights and they stood on the lawn for a brief second, marvelling at the sudden darkness. Crickets echoed over the countryside in anticipation of sudden conflict. Fred and George waited patiently while Lupin performed concealment and defensive enchantments around his home. When he was finished, the former professor lingered, one hand resting on the doorway's wooden frame, before he dared part with it and he joined the twins at the end of the walk.

In three successive cracks, the wizards disapparated, leaving Lupin's house to its fate.