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Chapter 22: Dead End
21. DEAD END
A grifter and a granny walk into a pub.
Dust choked Fred like a mouth of fabric and the blurry edges of the room formed a skyline of trunks and boxes, outlined by a gauzy yellow glow. A sound—nothing more than a click of teeth—broke past his thudding heartbeat, and he gripped his wand so tightly that he feared it would squeeze out of his fingers like goo.
But it was only a mouse.
And it was just a storage room.
The wood creaked as Fred and Bea stepped down from the cabinet. He pressed a finger to his lips and Bea treaded forward with care, while he checked over his shoulder for a potential ambush. The oily windows spaced along the wall were bright enough to save him a 'Lumos'—one less spell to mark their location.
They seemed to be alone, but he could hear a distant murmur buzzing like a market square. His eyes trailed beyond a block of shipping crates to a blue-grey crack of sky, where an open door beckoned.
"Bea," he hissed, pointing. She was peering up a staircase when she turned and her hair swept up a spider's home.
As Bea went around, Fred squeezed though a gap between two crates, face cheeks and other cheeks bulging with effort by the time he freed himself on the other side. Brushing off his trousers, he hobbled to the door and peered over Bea's head. The exit led to an empty lane branching from a street of dark storefronts. The handful of people around were cloaked from the drizzle.
Vague warehouses, shrouded figures, poor lighting conditions—Fred appreciated the area's dedication to atmosphere, but this was rather unhelpful.
Then at last, he spotted it above the roofs: the tip of a clock tower. It stood tall in his memories, framed by the third-story window of his father's shop in Diagon Alley. He used to climb onto the ledge because it was the only way he could see the whole clock face, giving Mum a heart attack every time he wanted to know if Miss Polly's Children Hour was on.
But from this angle —
"This is Knockturn Alley." Fred pulled Bea back in. Of all the places for a cupcake trail to lead.
"Knockturn Alley..." Bea scratched her head, frowning at the family of crushed spiders under her hand. "If anyone casts magic near Scorpius, they should be able to trace him."
"He might be long gone now though." Her face crumpled, and Fred hastily added, "Er, but we know someone's come through. Chain's broken." He nudged the padlock on the ground; a residual anti-theft charm sizzled pink. "Must be recent if the owners haven't noticed yet. Maybe we should get out of here before they do."
They slipped outside, and the splashing puddles drew the attention of at least one passerby, who sported more scars than teeth and flashed a smile fit for a jackal.
Fred stared the man down until he left. "We need to blend in if we're going to stay," he said, grimacing at their school uniforms. "How good is your transfiguration?" His aunts had been complaining about the Ministry's lenient underage surveillance; might as well test their luck.
"Lucy's better at the fashion stuff, but I can try." Bea raised her wand. Fred spread out his arms, but she paused mid-flick. "Erm, I can't do it if you're watching."
"Fine." Fred covered his eyes. "Just be quick. I don't like my senses blocked. What if we get ambushed?"
He could feel her wand swish through the air and his robes become heavy. "You've got to stop worrying about ambushes. You'd think the forks would up and attack us at lunch." Bea muttered another spell. His sleeves tightened and a leather collar bloomed around his neck. "All right, jacket should be fine. Maybe I can also adjust—"
R-i-i-i-p, came from below, and his heart plummeted.
"Bea." There was wind about his legs where there hadn't been wind before. Upon separating his fingers, Bea clamped her hand over his eyes.
"I can fix it!" she sputtered. Quiet mumbling followed. "Right, so, circle swish is for shortening. If it's circle swish-flick for shorts, then it's swish-swish-flick for trousers—"
Fred flushed red. "Bea, did you give me hot pants?"
"Just give me a moment! You sort of pull it off, if it makes you feel any better—"
She blurt out another spell and fabric wrapped around his legs so tightly that Fred thought he was stuck between the crates again, until another stream of magic prickled down the seams and slackened it two sizes. Bea took away her hand, and he was relieved to find himself wearing normal-length trousers and a spiffin' leather jacket. Without a tie to pull, he tugged on his high collar, which promptly tore off.
"Don't!" Bea closed the loose threads. "The stitches... never knew how to do 'em right." She shuffled behind a rubbish bin and transfigured her own robe and skirt into a hooded shawl and floor-length diviner's gown, similar to the ones Trelawney wore.
Fred had to snicker. It was like little Granny Bea. "Not going for the femme fatale look?"
"Overrated," Bea sniffed, dying her hair white. "'sides, my po-po is the scariest woman I've met. I know what I'm doing."
The two took to the streets with, as hoped, little fanfare. Now they had to find witnesses who wouldn't mug them. The streets were mostly empty (the first rule of Knockturn Alley was to keep walking), and those few who plodded past were... colorful, if color meant varying shades of grey.
Bea's hand tightened around the crook of his elbow, and Fred could feel the unuttered questions tapping in her fingers. We'll find him, right? He'll be okay, right? As much as habit wanted to treat this outing like another caper about the castle, this was no unicorn hair heist; they were searching for a flesh-and-blood prize.
They passed a beard trimmer's and a mortuary. Further down the street was a pub with three wizards out in front, the closest thing Knockturn had to a crowd. Fred and Bea approached carefully.
"Maybe you should stay outside," Fred whispered and Bea puffed her cheeks. But when an old chap walked out with a bottle in both hands and a boa constrictor around his neck and hissed at them—the man, not the snake—Bea was quick to back down from the steps. Fred pushed through the doors.
The dingy interior clanged with a fair bit of activity, full of the types one would expect to get hammered at the crack of noon. Everything from the chairs to the tables to the bartender was missing a leg, but it wasn't as bad as Fred expected. He could see the travel section now: The Hooved Haggis is Wizarding Britain's cozy heart for newly released criminals...
Fred swaggered to closest table, where a patch-eyed brute sat, and hocked up a thick accent made mostly of spit. "I'm lookin' for Scor—a laddie. Rich-looking hair, fancy odd clothes, don't belong here. Have you seen him? Blighter stiffed me and ran off."
The giant didn't respond and took another swig from his flagon, which had distinct bite marks on it. Fred moved on. Looking around, he caught the watching eye of a stocky man sitting on the last stool of the bar.
"You, uh, you know something 'bout this lad?" Fred slid onto the adjacent seat.
"Depends." His voice was gravely.
It took a moment for Fred to catch the cue, but luckily gritty crime serials had prepared him well. He palmed one of the galleons from his jingling pocket and slipped it to the man, who kept staring. With a sigh, Fred handed him the remaining money. There went his hypothetical deerstalker.
"What're lookin' fer him fer?"
"Sold 'im some lucky potions. Never paid."
The grizzly stare narrowed and Fred froze, gulp halfway up his throat. Were his jacket and accent that thin?
But when a fresh glass of whiskey arrived, the scarred man answered, "Saw him near the street to Diagon."
Fred swallowed and nodded. "Thanks." It was a start.
As he neared the exit, a racket outside was growing louder, and Fred quickened his steps. Oh Fawkes, Bea.
He burst through the double doors, ready to make his heroic swoop, when he found Bea wielding a tree branch as big as his arm and two wizards backing off.
"You think you can steal from me? In China, I dealt with robbers before you 'er born!" she crowed and advanced upon the men. Her white hair was flung about her face and if Fred didn't know better, she really was a little old—scary—granny. "And in China, we can-not afford wands, so we used sticks. Want to see stick magic?"
Shawl billowing, she spun and clobbered a third wizard creeping up behind her on the nose. The fall to the floor knocked him out cold. The other two rushed forward, but then Bea gave the branch a warning rattle, and they looked at each other and decided to search for an easier mark.
"Respect your elders!" she screeched as they fled. Brushing off her hands, Bea skipped to Fred and dropped the accent. She was unsmiling. "Get anywhere?"
"Er, yeah, but how'd you—"
She raised her branch. "Do you want to see my po-po's stick trick again?"
"I'm good," he said quickly. "Let's just get to Diagon Alley."
As the clock tower struck one, they doubled back the streets they had come from. The tension had eased, but disguises and sticks could only ward off so much danger, and Fred's fear wisely tapped his shoulder to remind him that it was there.
It struck him again how utterly real Knockturn Alley felt in comparison to Hogwarts. Not that Hogwarts was fake, but it did lend a certain false security. He had an obsession with preparing himself for the real world for ages now, but as many summers he spent helping his aunts in the Ministry, he could not shake the artificiality of his scheduled life. It would cycle from summer to school for seven years, from one classroom box to another, and while it was all in preparation of the real world, it wasn't it.
The illusions of independence were multiplied tenfold in Knockturn's bleakness. There was no tether to safety—no James, no professors, no magically repairing castle—just himself. He was certain one of the men in the earlier scuffle had been on a wanted ad for robbery; if Bea weren't so lucky with her trick, there could have been an instant tragedy. On his hands.
Two blocks from the pub, Fred felt a shadow. He thought it might be the rain or a tree, but trees didn't turn the corner when they did. No, for every step they took, something matched with their own behind them, and when Fred sped up—Bea was beginning to notice his unease—it came even closer.
They were being followed.
He didn't turn and make it real, not yet. There was a time to strike, and too often, people were impatient. He counted his steps and the slimming meters between him and their light-footed pursuer.
When he saw the flutter of a cloak leap out, he whirled around and caught a wrist. Bea gasped and raised her wand a second later.
The hand that he caught had been poised to strike, five sharp nails in the air. His heart already knew to beat quicker before the robed figure drew back her hood and a cascade of wavy locks fell to her waist.
"Oops." Anjali's red lips were curved into a smirk. "You caught me."
Fred didn't know if he was relieved or more afraid than ever. He unclenched his grip and her arm slid free, gliding down his palm the whole way.
"What are you doing here?" Bea snapped.
Her eyes lowered to the white mop of hair. "You're a granny. Cute."
"Answer the question."
"I'm looking for Scorpius, too."
Tongue untied, Fred joined the interrogation. "How do you know he's here? That we're here?"
"More than one of us can play detective, Weasley. It's not exactly a prime date location; I can do a little process of elimination." Anjali checked her nails, running her thumb along them. "Now, are you going to let me join your search party or what?"
Fred had been prepared to fight and to run, but he wasn't—nor had he ever been—prepared for Anjali. But he knew the answer immediately: in an hour that didn't allow for a single margin of error, he couldn't risk such an unpredictable presence, and Bea, who had lowered her wand only to hold her stick tighter, seemed to agree. "I don't think we can trust you," he said.
"I thought this might happen," Anjali sighed, "so I brought a permission slip. Albus!"
"Al—?" Oh bloody gods.
Bounding out of a side street was the one person who shouldn't let a single hair into Knockturn Alley. "Fred! Bea!" Fred's old jacket flapped behind Albus as he ran into them for a hug, sporting a grin that overfilled the area's eagerness quota ten times over.
"You brought him?" Fred sputtered.
"Yes, he's quite versatile. A very solid investment and, I'll admit, even fascinating." Anjali smiled, turning so a bare leg flashed out of her robes for an unmissable second. "I'll be over here while you have your reunion party. Albus, if you could please talk to them?"
"Sure thing, Anj."
"You let him—she lets you call her Anj?" Fred hissed, as Albus pulled him and Bea into a team circle. "But she hates that."
"Only because that's what her nanny used to use, but she's getting used to the idea again. Amazing how much a person opens up once you become their friend." Albus nudged a jaw-dropped Fred with a wink. Here Fred had been trying to decipher Anjali, and his cousin, who wasn't even trying—who was more like her footstool—got answers on a platter? "Now, I swear that Anjali's not fooling you."
"Yeah, she's not," Bea muttered, who at least shared Fred's incredulity. She struggled to keep her arms up in the ring. "She's fooling you. Al, how can you trust her?"
"You've just seen the tip of the anthill—"
"Iceberg," Fred corrected.
"No, anthill." Albus pinched his fingers together. "You see a bit of her on the surface, but there a lot underneath her scariness, going in twisty directions that make your head hurt, and you get lost and you forget why you were thinking about anthills in the first place."
"Al, if you're sure we can trust her..." Fred just wanted to get his long-winded cousin off his back, but one glance at Bea told him which one of them needed the convincing.
"I know she's tried to break up your partnership with Scorpius, but she does it 'cause she cares," Albus told Bea, who made a scoffing noise. "Really! Well, not about you so much. Just Scorpius."
She rolled her eyes, deadpanning, "So she trapped us in Hooch's office because she cares about Scorpius."
"Er, well, try to understand." Albus was attempting to twiddle his thumbs, except his arms were around the other two, so his thumbs rotated apart and individually instead. "From her point of view, she doesn't feel you're the best influence on him, that's all."
"And from my point of view, she nearly got us expelled!" Albus shirked from her shout. Bea broke from the circle and pulled Fred's sleeve. "We haven't got time for this. I say we—"
"Why do you think no one ever went into classroom fourteen?" Albus shot back desperately.
Fred frowned. The classroom that Bea used for her inventing?
"What do you mean?"
"No one ever questioned you, right?" Albus glanced over his shoulder to where Anjali was waiting. "The whole two, three weeks you were there. You think that was a lucky coincidence?"
Bea looked toward Fred, who shrugged. "I figured no one cared about those classrooms," he said.
"No, they do," said Albus. "but Anjali has a way of convincing people otherwise."
Bea's voice was quiet. "She... did that?"
"She won't admit it, but I think so." Albus shuffled in place. "She knows she can't change Scorpius' mind, but she'll help him anyway. Like what Fred does for you sometimes."
"A faithful wingwoman," Fred whispered. When he and Bea exchanged a glance, he half-expected Bea to scoff again but instead saw a mute reflection of the year's bumps creep across her face. He had to commend Albus on his friendship-spreading skills; he had never seen empathy land on someone's face so quickly.
"Okay. She cares. I still don't like her," Bea grumbled. "But... whatever. Fine."
They called Anjali back.
"Good, you made the right choice," she said. Bea mimicked her words with duck lips.
Coughing, Fred pointed to the sign marking Knockturn's exit. "Let's get to it then. Someone said they saw him go into Diagon Alley..."
Anjali swiveled on her heel. "And I bet you paid whoever told you that. You've been duped. I know where he really is."
"You—" In less than a second, Bea had bolted through a wave of puddles and skid in front of Anjali. "Where?"
"Why didn't you tell us earlier?" Fred frowned.
"Not so fast." Her eyes flicked from Fred to Bea, who stood rooted to the pavement with her fists clenched. "If I tell you, you let me lead."
"Tell us where he is," Bea grit. It was a demand, not a concession.
"There's an apothecary at the end of this street, Slug & Jiggers, owned by the Malfoy company," Anjali said slowly, and though Fred had become accustomed to her expert coolness, she seemed to drink up the suspense with a sick delight. "I've been watching it. Sign says closed, but there are two men in there who barely leave."
Albus nodded. "I was there. It's true. You could hear 'em."
"I recognize them," Anjali continued. "They're his father's hired men. I think they mean to ransom Scorpius."
Bea narrowed her eyes. "You seem to know a lot."
"Aren't you glad that I'm here then?"
Fred swiftly inserted himself in between the two hot- and cold-headed extremes and beckoned Albus to do the same. "Well, if you're sure, we should tell the Ministry where Scorpius is. Let them handle it." Something wasn't right. She did know too much.
"Again, getting ahead of yourself." Anjali pressed Fred to the side and held off Albus with the flat of her hand. Her gaze did not leave Bea's. "They also have your invention."
"They—" Like the realization had to sink in twice, Bea's face morphed from anger to shock. "They took it? The men who took Scorpius? Does Scorpius know?"
"You tell me. But if the Ministry finds out that goonies for the Malfoys stole an anti-magic generator from a protected institution—impersonating Ministry officials no less—the Malfoys are going to be investigated, stocks are going to tank, and they'll be ruined. And that wouldn't be very fun for your cupcake boy, hmm?" Anjali plucked Bea's chin and gave it a twist. "Now, are we done with the explanations, because I'd like to find Scorpius before they escape again."
It broke Fred's heart to see Bea's determination quiver so visibly when it had bore the brunt of so much before. Bea lowered her eyes and slid limply to Albus' side.
"Weasley, I hear you've got a knack for plans." Her voice held no disdain nor flirtations nor disdainful flirtations, only the terrifying efficiency of business as she turned to him. "If I show you the building, would you be able to devise a way to get him out?"
She had requested the lead only to hand it back to him; flaunting dominance was enough for her, and she already knew how to trip him up.
"Er, yeah. I mean, we'd have to scout the area and see where they're holding him, but... yeah I could do that," Fred said, glancing at Bea who whispered, "Let's just find him, Freddie."
"We'll get only one shot to catch them." Anjali drew her hood over her head. "If we fail, they'll flee to who knows where."
Grim as he was, Fred couldn't help but smirk. "One chance is all we need."
Whenever he was asked about how he became such a good point man, Fred generally attributed it to the same thing: practice.
He had plenty of practice even long before Hogwarts, but back then he only knew it as growing up as a Weasley. His mum's side was decently normal, but wasn't enough to balance out his dad's side, who harbored an odd bunch in every family (Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur almost hit the jackpot with two well-adjusted daughters, but broke the streak on their third artiste of a son).
Fred's first mistakes as a point man were with one hand in the biscuit tin. Contrary to what Bea thought, she was not the biggest biscuit addict that he had known. That title had gone to four-year-old Lily Potter, who was fourteen years old now and was going through a phase where she banned herself from eating anything with flavor. But four-year-old Lily Potter was a different story, and her demanding sweet tooth was the reason why, at the age of seven, Fred and James had become notorious throughout the family for grand theft of custard creams.
Through the years, he found that there wasn't much of a difference in nicking biscuits and nicking potion ingredients, or even finding a kidnapped friend. The point man role boiled down to common sense and good preparation. Research was essential. It never hurt to know more before acting.
Slug & Jiggers was at the end of the street, separated from the rest of Knockturn Alley by a burned down building that still hadn't been repaired. It was a prime spot to hide. There were three entryways—the front, the back, and a west-facing side door—and Fred operated on the assumption that they were all magically locked. It wouldn't matter; the captors were going to let him in themselves.
Anjali, Albus, and Bea had taken their places. Fred, with a deep breath, walked to the front of the store and knocked on the glass. Ten seconds later, he knocked again. The third time would be the charm.
A plastic-faced man in a grey suit answered the door. Fred had learned all about him from Anjali when they were staked outside.
"See that man walking in? He's Emeric. The James of the two, if you will. Pretty politician smile gets him anywhere they want. Except a chair in the Ministry, but that's why he slums it for Draco. He's a coward in a fight; you don't have to worry on that end. Cato's the one you've got to watch out for. He's their brawn. Merciless if he wants to be."
"Sorry, we're closed," said the man named Emeric, but Fred pushed the door open.
"Oh no, you're mistaken." The memorized lines rolled off his tongue. "Are you the new master? I'm the apprentice here."
"I'll be really quick, sorry." Fred walked in and Emeric seemed ready to block him but decided against it. Good. "I need some books, but my key wasn't working. I want to get the growth potion right by this weekend. Finally fixed the locking spells, then?"
Fred could feel Emeric follow closely behind as he made a beeline to the nearest shelf. He couldn't get a good look at the apothecary, but he did spy a hatch on the floor near the main cauldron. Most shops in and around Diagon Alley area had cellars leading up to the main floor, as he learned from his time in his dad's shop. Another point for good research.
"What's your name again?" Emeric asked.
The door jingled behind Fred and a second man entered the apothecary. When Fred turned his head, he saw the scarred man from the bar standing at the entrance, who recognized him at the same time. "Hey—!"
Now came the fun.
Plans were somewhat of an oxymoron, as no plans ever went as planned, and the only solution was to have low expectations and plenty of backups. In this case: strike first and fast.
As the shout left the man's lips, Fred drove his fist into Emeric's face, and crony number one fell backwards, blood spurting from his nose. The other man, probably Cato, had already put up a shield spell and sent a hex that Fred barely dodged, more due to luck than timing. With the ingredients table as cover, Fred dropped to the ground.
But there was no point in a fantastic first strike if the second one was subpar.
The second strike came in the form of Bea and Albus zooming through the open door and leaping onto Cato, because while shield spells were excellent at deflecting spells, they were less effective at blocking projectile humans. It was risky and stupid and wasn't part of the plan, but it sent Cato's next spell awry and gave Anjali enough time to break through the side door.
"Expelliarmus!" Anjali shouted, disarming Cato from behind. The shield spell broke.
Fred scrambled to his feet. "Stupefy!" It hit towering man square on the forehead, and he slammed against the shelves, crushing Bea and Albus. Bea unstuck her arm and jammed her wand into Cato's neck, stunning him again. He slumped to the ground.
"Make sure he's knocked out." Anjali walked briskly to where Emeric was still conscious.
Meanwhile, Fred slid to the hatch on the ground. "I'll check here." Feeling along the wood, he began to untangle its protection charms.
"It's the pretty birdie..." he heard Emeric wheeze, almost like a chuckle.
There was a grisly crack as Anjali's heel crushed the man's fingers and then went to his windpipe. "Where is he?"
"Anjali!" Albus gasped, eyes round. Even Fred was aghast.
"Ack—grah—" Emeric stuttered. His eyes threatened to roll back. "Draco will hear about—"
"He will hear that you kidnapped his son."
Fred frowned. She had told them that Emeric and Cato frequented Malfoy Manor quite a lot in during one summer she spent there, and that was how she knew about them, but there was something too habitual about their exchange, like they had spoken recently.
"D-doesn't matter. He's d-d—" Emeric made a grab for her foot and Anjali kicked him across the face. His body went limp.
She scowled. "Weakling."
Fred swung the hatch open. "You didn't have to do that." The question repeated itself in his mind: Hear about what?
He descended the ladder into the freezing cellar, lighting a candle on the way. Scorpius' frame was lying on a floor pallet, unconscious and a mess, but the relief was bubbling out of Fred's throat at just finding him. "Finally."
He often wondered when his grand adventures with James would finally feel small in comparison to the hypothetical bigger and better and realer adventures he was having in the present. He could not let the greatest years of his life be in the past, and this heroic rescue finally beat the rest.
In the past months, Fred had watched Bea grow up with the intrusion of a strange Slytherin's strange proposition, offered his wisdom to Albus—known in private circles as "a lost cause"—and said lost cause had become cheekily assertive, wearing clothes that fit him, and even charmed an unattainable woman. Then there was him: bored, directionless Freddie, stagnant as a puddle under the sink, yearning for olden days. What would it take to wake him up from the routine?
When Fred knelt beside the pale boy and grabbed his wrist, he nearly dropped it from the shock of cold. His stomach lurched.
Would it be his first tragedy?
po-po is a Chinese (at least, Cantonese) for grandmother on the mom's side.
A/N And now the chapter title makes sense!
Heh, this is not a short chapter. This chapter is even longer than the last one. It's been a very long time since I've updated within two weeks. I wanted to update in one, but I hope no one really believes that, because I've yet to fulfill an update promise. That's me: terrible at keeping promises and secrets.
I didn't expect so many people to pop in last chapter! I'm glad you guys are still around for these chapters, because it's what I've been wanting to get to for ages. Of course, when they're finally here, I'm more like grahhh this is so hard. I think I... like? this? I've been meaning give Fred a proper good kick in the character development instead of second-hand stuff, so I wanted to write it right. And I am totally not avoiding commenting on the end, cough.