"What do you do when your hands are
not enough? What do you say when your
words will not help things? Remember,
always: the future is informed by the past,
and it is the past you cannot change.
—Primare Macawi Qaletaqa, Integration Corps
—Primarius Combat Corps Designated Marksman Maxim
"You can still hear me, right?" Harry said nervously, touching a finger to his ear.
"Yes. Stop touching your ear," Scott said, his voice tinny and distorted.
Harry quickly dropped his hand. It wasn't that he doubted the technology: he had greater faith in Muggle devices than most of his companions. It was more that he had substantially less faith in his ability to utilise it properly. The receiver in his ear was working, but he was plagued by the persistent feeling that it might be a bit clearer or a bit more comfortable if he adjusted it just a little more…
He tried not to think about it, and tucked his hands into the front pockets of his light jacket to keep them from wandering. The hood of the jacket was pulled up over the hat with the enthusiastic fox on it that Scott had given him before, along with the rectangular glasses. The dark blue of the garment matched neatly with a pair of excessively baggy black trousers (with an extra tight belt in case he needed to run) and a ratty set of red trainers. All together, it made him pretty anonymous, he thought. He could be any London teenager with a taste for loud music and a contempt for authority.
Ginny was less unremarkable, but even more transformed. Her hair had been turned a light brown, streaked with bright pink stripes and styled at the front with a perfectly-edged fringe that fell to her eyebrows. Her lipstick and mascara were dark, highlighting her expressive eyes and the white of her teeth. She was wearing tight, low-slung jeans with stylish holes in all the right places, and a lime green t-shirt which had some kind of big-eyed Japanese mascot and lettering on it. There were multiple earrings in both of her ears (only the ones in the lobes were real), a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose and a small silver ring in the left corner of her mouth (both fake). She was a veritable punk rock princess ("I look like a drummer for the Weird Sisters!" she had exclaimed).
Harry thought she looked hot. He wasn't all that keen on the brown hair, though.
"Enjoying the view?" she teased, noticing his scrutiny. She waggled her tongue at him, showing off her faux-tongue stud.
He needed to be focussing on a different view. "I wonder what your mum would say?"
"Nothing, unless you count shrieking," Ginny snickered.
The two of them were sitting in a Muggle park, huddled together on a bench whilst they waited for Scott to find a good position. Ron and Hermione were doing the same at an intersection several streets away.
"Any luck?" Harry tried again, making sure not to fiddle with the device.
"Yeah. I just jumped a fence and found myself in Muggle-charm territory," Scott said. "Shouldn't have to worry about company on this side of the ridge."
"There's a charm where you are? A Repelling Charm?" Hermione questioned.
"Yeah, I think so. It's familiar enough," Scott replied.
"Do you see any reason as to why?"
A short silence. "…I didn't think of that, that's a good point. There must be something up here. I'll let you know if I run across anything, but I'm moving on."
The fact that the Muggle-Repelling Charm didn't even try to work its aversion magic on Scott implied some things about the shape and what he was. It was the sort of stuff Hermione probably thought about. "Right, just let us know. Uh, break," Harry said.
Scott had devoted about half an hour the previous day to a lecture on the vast array of KRAF communications protocols. Harry had held on longer than most, but finally spaced out when Scott began detailing the command codes between squad, element and company leaders, whatever that even meant. Sophie had capped off the presentation by pointing out that strict adherence to protocol was irrelevant as there were only five of them in the field.
"Don't get stilted, Red-Lead. Just talk when you have to, Sophie already ruined my fun."
"Copy, Highground," Harry replied with a small grin.
"Technically applicable, since I'm functioning as forward observation and support, but as the ranking Primarius asset in the field I would probably be Sword-Lead. 'Scott' will also work."
Ginny had little interest in such specifics. "Are you ready yet?" she said edgily.
"Soon. I see a tree I like the look of."
Ron's voice came booming over the hiss of the radio. "For climbing or peeing?"
"Keep it down, Ron, I can hear you just fine. And the tree will serve both purposes nicely."
"Now we have to sit here whilst he pees," Ginny muttered.
Godric's Hollow was a sort of quintessential British town: one- and two- storey buildings with hedges, pine trees and low stone walls. The cottages crowded together along narrow streets lined with tall black lampposts. Cars were not allowed to park in the village proper, lending it an even more rustic appearance. The air was cool and more than a bit humid. The soil squished beneath Harry's shoes, and the roads were strewn with deep puddles.
He could see the hill and the woods rising above the edge of town; Scott was somewhere in those trees, invisible and lethal. It was comforting knowledge. It was also a bit unnerving. Harry felt as if he had an angel of death hovering near, and with the release of a single careless word or gesture would bear witness to a bullet snuffing the life from a hapless target.
That was stupid, of course. Scott wasn't so inept, so random. He wouldn't shoot some poor Muggle in a fit of panic because Harry had sneezed. Scott didn't panic, so far as Harry could tell. That behaviour seemed to have been stamped out of the Kharadjai.
"I'm situated," Scott radioed, his level tone underscoring Harry's thoughts. "Red-Lead, progress. Gold-Lead, maintain."
"I think that means we can go now," Harry said to Ginny, and together they stood and began walking towards the town square.
Harry knew that the graveyard was behind the church at the centre of the village. He didn't know much beyond what the map could tell him, though, so they would have to alter their plans according to whatever obstacles occurred. There were a few other people out and about, on the streets and their lawns; Harry returned the friendly wave from a man tending to his front garden. Ginny's newly styled hair was already beginning to frizz in the damp. Harry's jacket clung wetly to his skin, but he knew he'd be just as uncomfortable without it.
He tried to stick to the left side of the street, knowing it was the only chance Scott would have to keep them in sight. It didn't seem to matter much, though: the houses were too close to the pavement, and any buildings with a first storey were probably in Scott's way. Harry pulled on Ginny's elbow, moving her further towards the houses and away from the open street.
She went with him, but shook her head slightly. "It's no good, those trees are still there."
He glanced over; sure enough, the houses had momentarily ended only to be replaced by tall pines behind a fence. "Scott, can you see us at all?"
"Sometimes. Get to the square, it's mostly open. Gold-Lead, maintain, but be ready," Scott said.
"We'll be ready," Hermione replied.
"The sooner the better. This bench is rough on the arse," Ron said.
The square was just up ahead. There was little traffic of any kind around, despite it being the hub of the village. A woman on a bicycle passed by, and the retail shops had a few customers visible through the glass window displays. The Parish Church sat at the terminus of the lane which bore its name. It was a very old building, though Harry didn't know enough about architecture to guess how old. The suburbs of Little Whinging were an entirely different sort of England than Godric's Hollow.
"It's quite nice here," Ginny opined, looking around the square. "Bit damp at the moment, but that'll change…"
He looked at her and imagined, for a vivid moment, what life would have been like had he stayed, had his parents lived. He would have met Ginny at Hogwarts regardless; he might have been a better boyfriend, happier, more whole. He could see himself with her, hand in hand, roaming the square, eating at the shops and then going back home for a snog in the cottage garden.
But his parents were dead, the cottage was empty, and in so many ways he was, as well.
"Harry?" Ginny said softly.
He looked up, realising he had stopped in the middle of the pavement. "Sorry," he said, resuming motion. "It is nice, yeah."
They crossed the square together, avoiding the deeper puddles in the old, uneven road. Groups of birds chattered and pecked at the ground, searching for crumbs and splashing in the pools. Hints of music wafted out from an open window somewhere, echoing faintly. No one seemed to be paying Harry and Ginny much attention.
"What's this?" Ginny said, indicating the obelisk in the centre of the square.
"Memorial," Scott radioed. "I don't know what's on the other sides, but I can see the Air Raid Precautions insignia on the one facing me. Volunteers lost during the Blitz, most likely."
Harry felt somewhat ashamed at that; he was only barely familiar with the organisation's existence. "There's a crown with a circle on this one, it says 'AFS'."
"Auxiliary Fire Service. You'll find more than a few women listed on that thing."
Harry approached to take a closer look, and then recoiled in shock. The obelisk had disappeared: in its place was a statue of a family with a small child. He blinked, nonplussed. Obviously, the monument had been magically altered.
Comprehension began to dawn just as Ginny spoke again. "Harry… Is that your parents?"
It was. It was strange to see them in stone form, but there was no mistaking it. The infant in Lily Potter's arms was none other than Harry himself.
He didn't know how to feel about that. He had never become accustomed to being put on a pedestal, and now it was entirely literal.
"What's going on? Call out targets."
"No, no targets," Harry said quickly, taking a step back. The statue did not revert. "The obelisk is actually a statue of my parents and… well, me."
"It must be magically concealed. You would have to be close to see what they are, Scott," Hermione chimed in. Harry had almost forgotten that she and Ron were listening.
"Baby Harry is so cute!" Ginny gushed. She brushed the stone infant with one hand. "Ugh. And very wet, still…"
"Change your nappy, Harry," Ron said.
"Ha ha, shut it, Ron," Harry grumbled. "Brilliant, now I'm a sodding statue. And have been, I guess. Thanks for not telling me, all the people who have known my whole life."
"We didn't know, either," Ginny said.
"I wasn't blaming you. No one here is to blame," he said tiredly.
He stood and stared at the effigy for a couple long minutes, trying to decide how he really felt about it. He couldn't find the right mixture of emotions. It was a good likeness, but the photographs he had been given by Hagrid were better. He didn't know if the statue was a fitting tribute or an empty gesture. No one had ever asked him how he felt about it. No one had bothered to inform him that it existed in the first place. But there were a great many things of which no one had bothered to inform him, and the statue was far less important than most of them.
"Come on," he muttered finally, gesturing to Ginny. "Let's go before someone asks me to sign it."
"What is it all the girls do at rock concerts? 'Would you sign my chest?'" Ginny asked with forced levity in a rather obvious attempt to distract him from his dead parents given engraved form.
It didn't really work, but he appreciated the effort. "Maybe later."
"Oi! Mission stuff only, I don't need that shite delivered straight to my ear," Ron complained.
Harry had expected some colourful commentary from Scott, but the Kharadjai had remained silent as Harry left the statue and continued towards the church. Normally Harry would just let it be, but an extended silence of any kind made him second guess his radio.
"Scott? Are you there?" he asked, trying to touch a finger to his ear without being obvious about it.
"I'm here," Scott replied after a moment.
"Okay. Just making sure I hadn't lost connection."
Harry frowned. Scott sounded a bit different, not like he had a moment before. "Everything all right?"
"Yes, now if you're done playing with the statue there's a graveyard to tour."
Harry frowned. Scott's tone was brusque and annoyed, which wasn't his usual reaction to the kind of verbal sparring that had been going on. He almost sounded… "Er, Scott…" Harry said carefully, basing his query entirely on a gut feeling, "Are you… not happy about the statue?"
Ginny looked startled. "Is he getting tetchy on your behalf?" she said to Harry.
"No, I think he has his own reasons. And I guess I understand."
There was a long pause. "…All right. Look, it's no offence to your parents, okay? And I know they sure as hell didn't ask for it, but everybody on that obelisk is a fucking hero and it's — i-it's not a shared space, you don't just override that and use it for something else."
"But the obelisk is still there, only witches and wizards can—" Hermione began.
"Can not see the obelisk? Everybody should see it. And I bet it was there first. Forget it, this is immaterial. Where are you guys? I can't see you."
"We're still along the edge of town. Doesn't look like there's much magic around here, probably not the right place," Ron supplied.
"Copy. Keep looking."
The church was a typically shaped structure with intricate stained-glass windows and little else in the way of decoration. The front doors were open.
"Do we have to go inside?" Ginny wondered. There was a fence extending from both sides of the building.
"Scott, how do we get in? I'm not climbing a fence with these people around," Harry said.
"I think there's a gate to the right of the steps," Scott told him.
As it turned out, there was a gate there, almost hidden in the shadow of the church and neatly blending in with its dark surrounds. It was partially opened, and squeaked a bit when Harry pushed it. He quelled the impulse to glance around and see if anyone had noticed, keeping his gaze firmly ahead.
Scott had observed his discipline. "Good nonchalance, Harry, but not especially effective when Ginny is walking backwards and glaring everywhere. Why don't you just scream, 'I'm not supposed to be here'?"
Ginny flushed. "Then say something next time!" she snapped, but her defiance was laden with chagrin. "I'm sorry, Harry, I didn't think…"
Harry shook his head. "It's fine, nobody was looking. I should have told you."
"Yes, I know, I mucked it up," she sighed.
"Maybe a little. But I know it's tense out there, and if your first instinct is to keep your head on a swivel nobody's gonna blame you for that. You're doing fine, keep it up."
"Right," she said blankly, apparently unable to deal with encouragement from Scott.
"Also, let's keep things clear. I'm remote switching all channels, separating Red and Gold. Don't panic if I'm not remarking on chatter, and let me know if we need to cross communicate again."
"Good luck, you two," Hermione said, and there was a soft 'click' that Harry assumed meant the radio channel had changed.
"Red-Lead, come back," Scott said.
"What? But we just got… Oh, wait, that means — yeah, we're here. Uh, I copy. …Break."
"Channel is good. Continue progression, check in at intervals."
The graveyard lay serene in the shadow of the parish church. The grass was neatly trimmed and the headstones seemed well cared-for, though a few of the older ones displayed the inevitable ravages of age and weather. Sounds from the village drifted in, mixing with the sighs of the wind through the bushes. It was odd, in a way, to be visiting a graveyard in such a fashion. The sun shone brightly overhead, burning through the damp and casting rainbows where the mist met the horizon. There was no gloom, no cold or dark. Harry's last visit to a burial ground had been in a more classical setting.
It was hard to be overly apprehensive in such surrounds. There was nothing threatening about the scene, no sense of foreboding. It was peaceful, lucent. It made the weight over his heart easier to bear. His parents had found a fine place to rest.
He had no indication as to where his parents' grave was, exactly, but the graveyard wasn't very large and it didn't take him long to find it. There was no ostentatious memorial, in contrast to the square. The headstone was a simple one of white marble, gleaming in the sun. It stood in the middle of a row, without anything to differentiate it save for the names carved there.
"This is it," he said to Ginny, who had been searching a different row.
She approached, her eyes scanning the inscription. "'The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death'," she read.
"First Corinthians," Scott said. "Novissima autem inimica destruetur mors. Always liked that one."
Harry stood over the grave, feeling sort of empty. There was no sense of closure or peace or even just sadness. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel, really. Regret? Loss? When he had been younger, he'd imagined what life would have been like with his mother and father, childish fantasies of perfection to serve as a sharply contrasting escape from the reality of the Dursleys. But by the time he finally arrived to pay his respects, he knew that no matter how he had been raised, he would still be destined for the war. For death.
'The last enemy', indeed. Unfortunately, not the only one. Death had many hooded minions.
Ginny took his hand hesitantly, probably not sure if he wanted to be touched right then. He didn't mind; he wasn't distraught. And, in fact, his lack of any strong reaction was beginning to make him feel guilty. They were his parents. Shouldn't he be grieving?
"…I don't know what I expected," he said finally, staring at the headstone but not really seeing it. "It's hard to feel like they're here."
"They aren't. The body is a vessel for something more complex," Scott stated. His confidence in such a belief wasn't difficult to understand: he was living evidence.
"Don't feel bad about it. You never had a chance to know them," Ginny said, leaning against him. "He took that from you, too."
"Yeah," Harry muttered, feeling dark strands of hatred cut at his heart, "he did."
The grave looked pristine. Not that he had expected it to be vandalised or covered with graffiti, but he had thought that there might be more signs of visitation. Perhaps the magical population was discouraged from coming to the graveyard, and that was the purpose the statue served. Most would likely assume that the square hosted the primary memorial.
He let a few minutes tick by, but no sudden onslaught of emotion assailed him. He was almost disappointed. There were no answers here, no memories. Just a marker for people he had never known, even if he should have known them, in a better world. He thought about what Scott had told him after Dumbledore had been killed, how the dead didn't miss the living and grief was a sadness for the self. James and Lily Potter were long buried, and Harry was the one who had been left to suffer. He could try to miss what he'd never had, but that was pointless and at least partially impossible.
He'd spent more than enough time feeling sorry for himself as it was.
"Let's go," he said to Ginny.
She hesitated. "I found something else you might want to see," she said.
She led him past a few more graves until she stopped and pointed at one carved from granite. From the angle of his view he couldn't read all of it, but the name 'Dumbledore' immediately caught his eye.
He hurried forward and stooped down, studying the stone. "'Kendra Dumbledore'… 'And her daughter Ariana'…"
"Not a common name. I assume there's a relation," Scott said.
Harry had never discussed the upsetting rumours he'd been told during the wedding. Scott didn't know anything about Dumbledore's apparently troubled past. But, then, did Harry? Dumbledore had never even hinted that he'd had a sister. It was frustrating (and still hurtful) to consider just how secretive the Headmaster had been, and how little Harry had been entrusted with.
"I think so," Harry said, opting not to get into the details.
Scott either didn't pick up on his reluctance or didn't care. "I can lead you to the cottage whenever you're done there."
Harry looked to Ginny. "Ready?"
"If you are," she said, glancing back at the Potter grave.
He knew he would return someday, assuming he lived long enough to do so. "Yeah, let's move on."
The Potter cottage, or whatever might be left of it, stood on the southern border of town. Harry had been wondering if the Fidelius might still be active on the property, since a lack of occupants didn't seem to matter. If that were true, they would need Scott to abandon his post and assist them directly. Instead, Harry was mildly surprised to see the upper level of the cottage rising up from behind the hedges of the front garden.
It appeared largely intact, save for one section of the first storey that had been utterly destroyed, leaving the inside visible through the shattered walls. The weeds and hedges were overgrown and the wall around the front garden was vine-covered with crumbling mortar, but, despite those flaws, it seemed otherwise sound.
Harry stopped in front of the rusting wrought-iron gate. "It looks better than I expected," he said.
"I'll bet it used to be lovely…" Ginny said softly, and in her eyes Harry could almost see the reflection of what she imagined.
"Needs some work at the moment," he said. He didn't want to envision the house as she was, before it had been made a ruin. He didn't want to become attached or nostalgic for a time he couldn't even remember.
She looked at him knowingly. "You don't have act like this."
"Like what?" he said defensively.
"Like you're so tough."
He glared at her. "Maybe I am so tough."
"I know you are, you prat, it's part of what I like about you! But it's okay to feel something, it was your parents' house."
"So, what? I should throw a wobbly, right here?" he demanded.
"Just forget it," she muttered with a huff.
"Let's save the hysterics for Grimmauld, Red-Lead," Scott reminded.
"Sure," Harry said shortly. He reached out and grasped the gate to see if he could pull it open, and then immediately rebounded when a sign with golden letters appeared out of nowhere in front of him. "God — can't I touch anything around here without it turning into a fucking memorial?!"
"No. Just another marker," Harry said, trying to calm down. Given the situation, he really couldn't afford to be fighting with Ginny and lashing out at inanimate objects.
"What's the sign? I can only see the back of it."
"Uh…" Harry quickly read through it. "It just says that this was the Potter cottage and that they left it like this in memory of what happened." Another fragment of his life, preserved in amber for the consumption of the masses.
Scott unwittingly echoed Harry's thought. "Nothing like seeing your tragic past reduced to a tourist trap, huh?"
"At least Uncle Vernon would charge," Harry said, amused at the thought of the Dursleys ever attempting to capitalise on their wizarding connections.
"When this is all over, I'll show you how to make some real money online. The obsessions of modern society ensure that there will always be some pitiable freak willing to pay a premium for your nail clippings and-or pubes."
Harry didn't want to know what they might do with either item. "I'd rather not."
"Did you see this, Harry?" Ginny was asking, pointing at the sign.
Harry looked to where she was indicating — on closer inspection, he saw that the sign had been repeatedly vandalised. There were all sorts of carvings and inscriptions in magic ink. Some of them were just the usual 'X Was Here' nonsense, but others were words of encouragement and hope. There was an old and faded 'Please come back Harry' on one side, and a much newer 'be careful out there, Mr. Potter' on the other. There was a 'SOD YOURSELF MUGGLELOVER' as well, but he ignored that one.
Ginny was looking at the top left corner with a grin on her face. "Someone carved a todger right here," she sniggered.
"Ah, the ol' line-drawing penis… Classic mainstay of every vandal. When in doubt, draw a dick."
"It's a touching tribute," Harry said, looking at the crudely etched genitalia. At the very least, it was better than the Death Eater-derived messages.
The gate proved resistant to their efforts, but after a couple minutes of investigation they were able find a spot in the wall where erosion had left a foothold. The grass in the front garden reached his knees in some places and the ground squelched beneath his trainers. It was almost like a marsh. All of the windows were shattered and there was no front door. Rubble clacked in time with his steps as he went inside, echoing from the bare walls. There was no furniture or ornamentation left.
Graffiti covered everything: scrawled names and dates, crude drawings and profanities, even a few professional-type multicoloured tags like the ones Harry had seen in the city. He examined one that appeared to be a quote, written in a loopy, elaborate hand that was difficult to decipher, and covered by other markings towards the end.
"'Come away… human child, to the waters and the wild, with a faery, hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand…' Sounds weird, doesn't it?" he murmured to Ginny. There was a hollow quality to the acoustics as he'd read it to himself. "I guess having carpet and furniture makes a difference."
"I wonder what happened to all of their things?" Ginny said. She brushed her foot across an indentation in the floor where something heavy must have once rested.
Harry frowned. "I don't know. Maybe some of it's in the vault… I've never looked."
"Are you going upstairs?" Scott asked.
"Be careful, there could be water damage."
The steps upwards were solid enough, save for some loud creaking. All of the rooms were so barren that Harry couldn't tell what any of them had been used for. There was a larger one with what had to have been a toilet attached (it was tiled, and there were pipes exposed in the floor). Perhaps it had been his parents' room. There wasn't enough evidence to imagine what it could have been like. He made a mental note to go back through the pictures he had; some of them had definitely been taken in the cottage.
In the middle of the hall were large, rigid letters carved deep in the wood of the wall, graceless and dark, like a warning. 'THIS IS HARRY'S ROOM', they starkly proclaimed. There was a crude arrow underneath, pointing the way, though there was no other way to go.
Through the doorway indicated was the destroyed room. The wall nearest the street was completely gone, blown outwards into the garden. Half the adjoining section was missing, and the back wall had been bent under the force of the explosion; it leaned in the middle, exposing the joists where it connected to the ceiling and leaving a gap between it and the floor. A great deal of the roof was piled here and there in musty puddles of rainwater.
The baby's cot in the middle of the room was the first piece of furnishing Harry had seen. He felt a chill run up his spine at the sight; there was no question that the cot had been his, and the state of the room was testament to what had happened there. What he couldn't understand was how it was still there, after so many years.
Behind him, Ginny gasped. "Harry… Is that…?"
"It's mine. Has to be," he said in a strained voice.
A closer look at the legs of the cot answered his question. The paint had been blasted off of them, and though the iron was rusted he could still see the clumpy drops and streams where the metal had melted and fused to the floor in extreme heat. The cot hadn't been moved because it couldn't be moved, not without tearing up the floor itself.
He stood back up from his examination. He touched the edge of the infant bed hesitantly — it was cold beneath his hands, unpleasantly rough and corroded. The empty space within where he had once rested was full of still water. He stared at his reflection, an odd mirror of the past where he was once again in the cot. A mirror, liquid and somehow not at the same time, a pool of everything that had gone wrong and still could. He had the vague, horrified sensation that some part of him lay drowned there, beneath the mirror, scratching against the other side… That, perhaps, if he reached into the water, a tiny hand might grip one of his fingers…
Ginny's footsteps crunched over the nearby refuse. "How did you survive this?" she said wonderingly.
"Maybe I didn't," he said dully, still staring into his own green eyes.
Ginny stopped moving for a moment. He heard her walk over to him, and then she took his hand. "Harry?"
He blinked, moving his jaw as words flitted near his tongue; none of them seemed quite right. The mirror in the cot wasn't helpful, offering nothing but his own silent visage.
She tugged at him insistently. "Are you trying to scare me? Because it's working."
"…I guess I'm feeling something," he said.
"Take your time," she said quietly.
He didn't think he could express it properly. The cot, the mirror, the hand in the water… It would all just sound mad once spoken. "This is just really damn strange," he finally mumbled. "Forget it. It's not much different than my cot under the stairs."
"Your cot where?" she said curiously.
With a start, he realised he had never told her about his old 'room' on Privet Drive. He had no intention of correcting that oversight. "Never mind. Scott, are you there?"
"Still here. Gold-Unit is mobile, how about you?"
"Almost." Harry glanced around the room. "Did you see us come in?"
"I'm on an angle, comparatively. I can see the back of the memorial sign through the gap in the second storey."
Harry was confused for a second before he remembered that Scott deviated from the usual method of numbering floors; the Kharadjai considered the ground floor to be the first. Harry stepped over a mouldering heap of roofing and went to the half of the wall remaining at the side of the cottage. Placing one hand against it, he leaned out through the empty space and peered up at the elevated trees in the distance.
"See me?" he asked Scott.
"Hello. Did you find anything in there?"
Harry searched the forested hill for any sign of Scott, though he knew it was futile. "Weren't you listening?"
"No, I was talking to Gold-Unit. You weren't yelling so I figured it wasn't important."
"Good to know you'll listen up if I start screaming."
"So did you find anything or what?"
"Not really. We're about ready to leave."
"Okay, get back to the square when you can. Gold-Unit is narrowing down the objective."
Harry waved his hand in acknowledgement. "We're going."
He avoided looking at the cot on the way out. Whatever it might represent or mean to him, it didn't much matter for the foreseeable future. He'd be better off without the burden of sentiment, that was clear enough. He almost regretted visiting in the first place. But not quite, since he wouldn't have wanted to face such a high probability of death without seeing the cottage and the grave (the cottage was really a grave all its own) at least once.
So that was one burden eased, if only slightly.
"How is the Red Team doing?" Hermione asked, looking towards Ron so it would seem to any observers that she were talking to him instead of radioing Scott.
"Red-Unit. They're still inside the cottage."
Red Team, Red-Unit — as if it really mattered. It was amusing to find that Scott, who had so often chafed beneath the restrictions of Hogwarts, was dedicated to such pointless protocols. "I wish we could see it," she sighed.
"Not to belittle Harry's deep psychological traumas, but your half of this mission is actually important."
"That was belittling."
"I was just being polite."
The Hollow was a lovely village, and ordinarily Hermione would have appreciated the opportunity to explore it further, especially considering its rich history. But the mission had cast an anxious pall over the day, and she'd hardly been able to relax enough to enjoy the architecture. Quite the shame, that. So many wonderfully quaint English cottages…
It didn't help that every time she saw Ron out of the corner of her eye she involuntarily tensed, thinking it was a stranger. His beautiful copper hair had been replaced with a dull brown, his blue eyes darkened to hazel. He had rejected some of the more atypical Muggle attires offered by Sophie and was clad in a jacket, t-shirt and trousers.
Hermione had been transformed into a dishwater-blonde with hair so limp and straight that it felt very odd where it brushed her shoulders and back. Her eyes were blue, and she wore a baggy black hooded sweatshirt over form-fitting jeans surmounted with a wide, button-studded black belt. She supposed it was a sort of university fashion? She wasn't really sure what Sophie had been going for. The important thing was that she looked very little like her usual self.
"Where is this bloody place?" Ron grumbled. He was counting the addresses as they walked down the street, making sure they didn't miss any.
"Professor Bagshot must live on the very edge of the village… We aren't far from the cottage at this point," Hermione said.
They were having great difficulty in locating the house because the address Hermione had found did not correspond to any areas they'd seen. Instead, they kept an eye out for anything obviously magical, structures or signs that were hidden from Muggles. Thus far, all the streets they had walked had been entirely normal. If Bagshot's house hid under a Fidelius, then they were out of luck. It would be down to Scott to determine things then, if he could.
"Scott, can you point us towards any magical concentrations now?" Hermione asked for what was probably the third time.
"We've been over this. Not from up here."
"Then get your arse down here, because we are so effing lost right now," Ron complained.
"I'm where I need to be. You're walking west along the south edge of town. There's a dead end coming up on your left through that group of trees, don't miss it."
When they reached the trees, they turned down the narrow street that was nearly hidden in the shadows of the pines. The curving hill to the south and west of them loomed closer, gaining a detail it had lacked when they had been at the bench on the opposite side of the village.
Hermione squinted at the ridge, thinking there might be some slight chance she could pick out Scott's hiding place. "Scott, where are you on the ridge?"
"To your eleven o' clock high, where the oaks are clustered and lean out."
A fairly specific hint, but between his camouflage and the constant motion of the leaves in the wind it quickly proved to be useless. "Hmmm… Well, so long as you're there, I suppose it doesn't matter exactly where."
Ron started to raise his hand, and then just as quickly dropped it. "I probably shouldn't point," he said wryly. "I can't see him, but I thought I saw the trees he's talking about."
"I'm close enough to track you without the scope. About… a hundred and fifty yards. Southward wind, six miles per hour. Minute of arc, six clicks up, left… Well, south-west, so maybe one-fourth MOA and I'm not going to get a chance to…"
Hermione was impressed at the amount of maths that was being implied. "Seems like a bit of calculation involved!"
"It's not too bad at this range, you can ignore a lot of variables and wing it. I just hate having to do it all in my head. I need Sophie to spot for me. Or, you know, some actual Kharadjai tech."
"And I need to find Bagshot's gaff, so I guess none of us get to be happy today," Ron said.
He was right. Hermione needed to get back to the important things. As soon as she studied her surroundings more closely, she found reason for encouragement: the street they were on was quiet even compared to the rest of the small village, shaded by trees and suffused with an air of seclusion. There was magic in some of the houses, she could tell.
"I think we're close," she said to Ron. "There! Lying on that windowsill, is that a Sneakoscope?"
"Blimey," Ron muttered, wrapping an arm around her waist and hurrying her past the house with its makeshift burglar alarm, "if it is we should stay clear!"
"Scott, we must be in the right place." It made sense that they would be so close to the cottage. The magical inhabitants of Godric's Hollow lived near each other along the southern part of the settlement, likely for the sake of convenience and safety.
"The Repelling Charm extends at least partially down the hill. It might run up all the way to the houses — could just be a Muggle-proof backyard."
"We probably should have checked here first, then."
"Might have saved us some time, but we were being careful. If you have to— movement behind you." Scott broke off mid-sentence, his voice instantly gaining the cold, unwavering tone Hermione had begun to associate with danger. "About fifteen yards north, where the trees end."
Hermione snaked her hand out and grasped Ron's sleeve before he could turn. "Slowly," she whispered. "Let's finish walking around."
"Yeah, brilliant. I can't get enough of that awful, crawly feeling about my shoulders," Ron said unhappily.
The half circle at the end of the street would bring them back around to face whoever was approaching. Hermione knew that such casual subterfuge might be necessary, but she was of the same mind as Ron when it came to how she felt about it. Becoming deliberately vulnerable to maintain their ruse was not a pleasant sensation, even if Scott was keeping watch from his perch.
When they finished the partial circuit they could see back down the pavement. The figure coming towards them was short and stooped, and wasn't walking so much as shuffling. The person was draped in enough clothing that there wasn't much else to discern at a distance.
"Stop and pretend to enjoy those flowers. Make them come to you."
It seemed wrong that they should have to pretend to enjoy some fragrant flowers, but there they were. They stood close together under the pretence of examining the bed of bright blooms decorating the front garden of the nearest house. "Here, lean on me," Ron said quietly. He raised one arm up and put it around her shoulders. "Can you get your wand out under my jacket?"
"What about you?" she whispered back as she carefully extracted her wand, using him as concealment.
"I've got my hand up my sleeve." He waved his right hand at the flowers as if he were pointing out some of particular interest, showing her the empty cuff. The elastic wrists of the garment had allowed him to hide his wand inside.
The gaunt figure tottered to a stop next to them. Hermione took a quick breath through her nose and turned towards the stranger.
The black shawl wrapped tightly around the person's head made it hard to distinguish anything at first, but when a cloud shifted overhead the increased light revealed certain key features. It was an old woman.
"…Professor Bagshot?" Hermione said tentatively.
Bathilda Bagshot nodded her head in a stilted affirmative, swaying strangely with the motion. She said nothing, but raised a hand as crooked and gnarled as an old stump and gestured at them.
Hermione was momentarily transfixed at the unhealthy, almost corpse-like grey of the appendage. She blinked, trying not to stare. "Professor, we've been looking for you. Did… Do you want us to follow?"
Bagshot motioned again. She was clearly ill, perhaps even close to death. Her clothing alternated between being loose and lumpy, caught up in odd knots and tied together in such a way that it didn't look as if it could be removed. The garments were also wet, as if she had been standing out in the rain. One of her eyes was unfocussed and had a white tinge to it, and the other was dull like an old marble. When the breeze wafted through, a very unpleasant smell came with it. Ron coughed a bit, though he covered his mouth with one hand and tried to pass it off as unrelated.
"Tell her you'll follow," Scott said.
Hermione smiled tightly at the ancient witch. "We'll be right behind you, Professor."
Bagshot turned on unsteady legs and began to limp back the way she had come. Hermione and Ron followed at a distance.
"This isn't right, there's something very wrong with her," Ron hissed in Hermione's ear.
"Well, she is supposed to be a bit batty by now," Hermione said weakly, but in truth she agreed.
Ron had to take almost comically small steps to match Bagshot's pace. "If she wasn't walking, I'd swear she'd already snuffed it. You can't Imperius a corpse, can you?"
"No, and she doesn't look like an Inferi." Hermione gnawed at her lower lip, feeling with every step that they were being led into a trap. "I don't know what happened to her, but you're right, this is wrong."
"Listen very carefully." Scott's voice came back over the radio with enough abruptness to make Hermione jump. "Whatever you're following is not human."
Ron swore under his breath; Hermione's heart skipped a beat. "How do you know?" she said tightly.
"Because it's the same temperature as the sidewalk."
The infrared spectrum: as Scott had described it, the world in greyscale, bright and dark representing the contrast of thermal emissions. A chill ran down her spine. If Bagshot was emitting the same heat as the wet pavement, then she — or it — was not living by the standard definition of the term. They were following a ghost. She drew closer to Ron, her footsteps faltering.
Scott was still talking, his voice ringing through her distress. "I could put a shot in it, but I don't know what kind of magic could do this and I'm too far away to look at it myself. I need you to make a call."
A call. She needed to make a decision, she needed… To hear what Ron had to say, first, she wasn't alone in her distress. "Ron?" she said faintly.
He was pale, but his stance was strong. "I say Stun her, find out what we're walking with."
"…On the count of three, then," she said, tightening her grip on her wand. "One…"
"Shift right after your shot. Do you copy? Take cover, right side, after your shot."
"Yes, I hear you…" Hermione affirmed. "Two…"
"Scott, if you put one of those bleedin' bullets in me…" Ron said, his wand held so tightly in his hand that it was shaking.
"Three," Hermione breathed, and then she swept her wand up and shouted "STUPEFY!" in tandem with Ron.
The two Stunners shot out with a bright red glare and impacted perfectly into Bagshot's back, sending the old woman crashing to the ground with an audible thud.
For about a second they just stood there, staring at the woman they had Stunned. Scott swiftly interrupted the moment. "I said shift right, Gold-Unit," he told them with a clear note of censure in his otherwise flat tone.
Ron grasped Hermione's arm and kicked open a nearby garden gate, hurrying both of them inside and crouching behind the fence. They faced each other in the shade of the slatted barrier, breathing hard.
"Tell me we didn't just kill an old lady," Ron panted.
Hermione peeked over the top of the fence, wand at the ready. Her eyes widened. "We didn't," she said, immediately dropping back down. "She's getting up."
Ron squeezed his eyes shut. "Bloody hell. I sort of wish you'd said 'yes'."
Bagshot was slowly regaining her feet, moving with the same bizarre, uncomfortably jerky motions that she had before, except even more pronounced. There were several horrible grating noises that reverberated in the silence, like bones that hadn't set properly, unnatural joints clacking and grinding against each other. It made Hermione flinch just to hear it.
"Fuck this," Ron said through gritted teeth. He hopped up into an extended crouch and levelled his wand over the fence. "STUPEFY!" The red light hit Bagshot right in the torso, but, save for making another wince-inducing sound, produced no results. "DIFFINDO!"
The cutting spell sliced across the woman's shoulder, sending tatters of cloth fluttering to the earth. A thin portion of dead grey skin was revealed, sporting a nasty deep cut — and no blood.
"Settles that," Ron said, dropping back down next to Hermione. "She's an Inferi or something."
A rather dramatic way to seek proof, considering an alternate scenario would have resulted in a badly wounded Bagshot, but Hermione couldn't argue with results (not until later, anyway). "They're vulnerable to fire! I'll cast low, you cast high, Incendio should—"
"I'm firing, stay clear of the target."
Ron looked at her in confusion. "How clear? Should we run?"
Hermione pressed her eye to one of the gaps in the fence. "I—"
Bagshot took a step towards the fence — her ankle turned in the wrong way, and she stumbled forward. She started to raise her head again, and then… And then there wasn't much of her head left to raise. There was a HISS-SNAP and a THUNK and sort of a wet cracking noise beneath all of that, like an old fruit rind being smashed, and the left side of the woman's head and a bit of her face just sort of… blew away.
As Bagshot collapsed, a sharp, ringing report echoed out from the trees and drifted over the street.
"Effective fire, target is struck."
Hermione clamped her jaw until her teeth ached and furiously fought back her gag reflex, the bile burning the lower reaches of her oesophagus. She would not embarrass herself in front of Scott, she would not, she would not, not, not…
"Bloody hell…" Ron groaned in some terrible mixture of appreciative awe and sick horror as he took his own peek.
And then, though she would not have thought it possible, some even worse sounds emerged from Bagshot's ruined body. Hermione didn't want to, but she forced herself to look. Bagshot's jaw widened impossibly, yawning open like a sickly dry cavern, the flesh of her cheeks stretching until they tore, leaving wiggling strings of skin clinging to her yellowed teeth. Her throat bulged as something came up it—
The largest snake Hermione had ever seen burst from the dead woman's mouth in a flurry of scattered teeth and slithered into the nearby bushes with incredible speed. She gasped when a bullet impacted against the concrete where the snake's tail had been less than a second before, shattering the material with a sound loud enough to hurt.
"Traversing right, stay down… Lost visual. I've lost visual. I lost the snake, guys, I don't know where it is, get out of there. Move it."
They ran. Back out the gate, back down the street, past the houses and narrow alleyways. Hermione hadn't heard the staccato cracks of Apparition, but she knew they were coming if they hadn't already. "We're going to the square!" she said between desperate lungfuls of air as she did her best to keep up with Ron's long gait. "Where are Harry and Ginny?"
"They're on their way. I'm repositioning, thirty seconds."
Hermione just needed to know that Harry and Ginny were okay. Once that was ascertained, they could all leave without worrying if someone was being left behind.
Hopefully such information wouldn't take long to acquire, seeing as she wasn't sure they even had thirty seconds.