It was not a wise idea to venture into Knockturn Alley -- not with the war on -- not with their flaming red hair advertising their loyalties as blatantly as a "Dumbledore's Army" tee-shirt would have done -- but Fred and George Weasley were nature's risk-takers, and they wanted to test their new Invisibility Draught. If it worked, it would mean a major breakthrough for the Order. Invisibility cloaks were rare and costly, and without access to them, spies risked life and limb in the field every day.
The potion seemed to be working, so far. They had encountered no fewer than five witches and wizards who knew them by sight, and each pair of eyes had simply slid over the two young men, visible only to each other.
"This is great!" whispered Fred, dodging out of the path of a tall and sinister-looking witch.
"It's brilliant," agreed George. "But we should get out of here now. We can't be sure how long this dosage will last." He had always been the more cautious of the two.
"I know," said Fred. "But this is just too much fun! Hey, look!" He pointed toward a shop doorway some distance down the alley. "It's Malfoy's mum and that horrible Lestrange woman."
"How can she be out in the open like that, when the whole Ministry is after her?" wondered George, disgusted.
"I dunno," whispered Fred. "Let's go see what they're talking about."
George reluctantly followed his brother, careful not to come into contact with any of the witches and wizards thronging the narrow street. It had been almost a year since the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, and his inclination was to stay as far away from Bellatrix Lestrange as possible, but he was not about to leave without his twin.
As they drew nearer, the two witches' conversation became audible.
"-- must be so proud of Draco," Bellatrix was saying. "Thank the Dark Lord that at least one of his generation recognises the sanctity of blood!"
Fred smirked and rolled his eyes at his brother.
Narcissa Malfoy shook her head sadly. "I am proud of him. Standing up to that Potter boy when everyone else fawns over him, and upholding pure-blood ideals when the old traditions seem to have fallen out of fashion. I don't know what I'd do without him since his father --" She broke off and dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a square of pale green silk. It was common knowledge that her husband, Lucius Malfoy, had spent the past year in Azkaban prison for his role in the Department of Mysteries episode.
Bellatrix looked sympathetic. "I never thought I would live to see the day when I would be ashamed of the name of Black. When I saw that blood-traitor cousin of ours in the Ministry fiasco last year, let me tell you, Cissy, I was only too glad to take the opportunity to clear our family's good name."
Fred growled softly at this smearing of Sirius Black's heroic death, and George elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
"You did the right thing, Bella," Narcissa replied, patting her arm. "I understand the Dark Lord was very impressed by how you dealt with him. He was very popular with Dumbledore's lot, you know. The rest of them are bound to try and avenge him, sooner or later. It will be easy to pick them off, one by one."
Bellatrix's smile marred her otherwise attractive face. "I'll just bet the Potter boy and that nancy werewolf will be the first to give it a go. It will be my pleasure to deal with them. I had an idea that we might --"
Fred and George leaned in closer simultaneously to listen, and their heads came together with a resounding clunk.
"What was that?!" screeched Narcissa Malfoy, flailing at the air as if it were attacking her.
With a quickness that seemed inhuman, Bellatrix's white arm flashed out, and one twin watched in horror as her long fingers closed around his brother's wrist.
"A spy!" she shrieked. "I've got him!"
Her wand was in her other hand. Everything seemed to move in slow motion before his eyes. Why had they not thought to keep their wands at the ready? So stupid! Two pairs of wide, matching brown eyes met.
His brother's mouth formed the word run, just as the terrible cry of "Crucio!" passed the perfect, red lips of Bellatrix Lestrange.
A sound like an animal in pain tore from his own throat as he watched his brother go down. Everyone not transfixed by the scene unfolding before them looked around for the source of the cry.
Have to run. Have to hide. No. Can't go. Can't leave without him --
Apparently the curse had forced the effects of the Invisibility potion to wear off, for Bellatrix crowed, "I've got a Weasley!"
"It's one of those twins," Narcissa said disdainfully. "From Weasleys' Witchy Widgets or whatever it's called. The other one won't be too far away."
"Where's your brother, little red weasel?" Bellatrix hissed.
Face pale but resolute, the young man on the ground gasped, "I'll die before I tell you!"
"You'll die anyway," she said, then faced the gathering crowd. "Find him! He's here somewhere! He's invisible."
He tried to run -- tried to avoid the blindly-flailing arms all around him, but it was no use. Within seconds, half a dozen grasping hands had come down on his arms and shoulders, and he could not fight his way free.
"We've got him!" called one of his captors.
Bellatrix pointed her wand at him. "Reveal!" she cried. Then that horrible smile returned as she retrained her wand on his fallen brother. "So. The infamous, inseparable Weasley twins. Fighting the good fight, are we, boys?"
"Always!" panted his brother, still on the ground.
"Shut up, you!" she spat, kicking him. "Now. How to deal with our young spies?"
"Kill them," suggested a voice from the crowd. "They're too young to know anything useful. Send their bodies back to Dumbledore. Remind him and his precious Order what happens to blood-traitors."
"Now, now," said Bellatrix silkily. "Where would be the fun in that? No," she continued. "There's no need to expend that much power. I say we separate them. After all, what good is one twin without the other?"
She looked directly into his eyes as she said this, wand still pointed at his brother's chest.
"What are you going to do with us?" he asked, trying to sound as brave as he could.
"You?" she said scornfully. "I'm not going to do anything with you. I'm going to let you run home to your blood-traitor mummy and daddy."
"What?" Now he was confused.
"Yes. Run along home, little weasel. Unless you want to die too?" And without taking her eyes from his, in the coldest voice imaginable, she spoke the words "Avada Kedavra!" And then she laughed.
There was a flash of green light, and his twin lay, pale and still at her feet. His brain was screaming at him, though his mouth was clamped tight shut, and he would have flown at her, if not for all the hands restraining him. And then he was being pushed away by the crowd. They were all sneering and laughing and forcing him back, out of Knockturn Alley.
He could not see his brother's body anymore beyond the crush of people. At last, he broke and ran. No one gave chase. He had to put as much distance between himself and what had just happened as he could. He stumbled and fell and got up and kept running. He only knew that he had to get back to Grimmauld Place.
He could not think -- could not remember. His wand lay forgotten in his pocket. Magic was a word he knew without comprehending. In his right mind, he could have Apparated back to the Order's headquarters in seconds, but as he was -- crazed with horror and denial -- it took him the better part of a day to make his way to the house on foot.
It was nearly dark by the time he reached its forbidding façade. Stumbling up to the door, he beat and scratched at it until it opened. He staggered inside, not even looking to see who had let him in, covering his ears to block out the screeching of the painting in the hallway, whose twisted mouth reminded him too much of the last face he could remember seeing.
He half-fell into the sitting room, crawled on hands and knees to the space between the sofa and the wall, squeezed himself into it, and huddled there, shivering.
There were voices. People were gathering in the room, peering at him, speaking to him. He looked up at them with the eyes of a wounded and terrified animal. They quickly saw that they would get no response from him, and began talking amongst themselves.
"-- contact Molly and Arthur?"
"-- never seen him look like that."
"-- never seen one without --"
Then there was a scarred and belligerent face very close to his, a hand on his shoulder, shaking him, one black eye and one milky blue eye searching his face, and a harsh voice saying, "Weasley? Weasley, pull yourself together. You must tell us what's happened. Where is your brother?"
"We've got four," he mumbled.
"Weasley, your parents have been summoned. If something's happened to your brother, we must know. Where is he? Has he fallen into enemy hands?"
He was vaguely aware that a few members of the Order were pulling on cloaks and checking for their wands. They were standing near the door, a rescue mission waiting for a word from him -- waiting for him to tell them where to go.
"Knock -- Knockturn Alley," he managed at last.
"You heard him, lads," Mad-Eye Moody said grimly.
As they turned toward the door, he put out a hand. "No, wait! No, it's too late -- too late!" His voice sounded unnaturally high. "He -- he's dead!"
A heavy silence descended upon the room, and all he could hear was the gasping sound of his own breathing. Everyone was staring at him, transfixed.
Then, with a soft popping sound, there arrived in the room something he could focus on at last.
"Mum?" he whispered. "Dad?"
Alastor Moody rose to his feet, feeling as grim as the tidings he knew it would be his duty to bear to Molly and Arthur Weasley. The couple were standing in the middle of the room staring at their son, crouched and cowering behind the sofa.
"Where's --?" Molly began with a slight frown.
And then she met Alastor's eyes, and a mother's intuition took over. He would not have to tell her, after all. With a heartcry, Molly Weasley clutched at her husband's arm and fell to her knees.
"Nononononono --" she moaned.
Arthur Weasley went dead white. His eyes slowly turned from his son to his wife, kneeling on the floor. Numbly, he crouched beside her, trying to take her into his arms, but she kept batting his hands away. At last, she went down on hands and knees, and crawled to her son's hiding place.
"Baby?" she sobbed. "Baby, Mummy's here."
Her son reached out to her, and disregarding the fact that he was no longer six years old, she pulled him into her arms.
Alastor was ushering the rest of the stunned Order members from the room. At last, it was just himself and the Weasleys. Arthur still knelt in the centre of the room, staring at his wife and son. Alastor rested a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up.
"Is it --" He cleared his throat. "Is it true? Is my son --?"
"Afraid so, Arthur." He sighed. "The boy says his brother is dead. It must be so. He would never have come back alone, elsewise."
Arthur nodded, eyes turning miserably back to his family.
"I know this is difficult," Alastor went on, "but we must send word to Dumbledore. Can you tell me which of your sons it is that's come back, and which it is that's gone?"
Arthur's Adam's apple bobbed in his throat, and Molly, with a despairing cry, held the boy away from her at arms length. She searched his blank face for a moment with swollen, red eyes.
At last she said in a trembling voice, "I don't know. And I don't think he knows, either!"