Chapter 1 : Prologue
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He moved like a ghost.
It wasn't as if he could help it, really. It was all that he had been taught, all he had ever been careful to do. Footsteps whispering over the snow, breath fogging forward, head tucked beneath the haven provided by the collar of his coat, he advanced as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Two houses loomed before him, each cloaked in sheets of snow, their lights illuminating the lawns that sprawled beneath them. They sat tall and slim, sisters in design and maker, but not twins in their inhabitants. Heat swelled from one of them, beating out the window panes and through the cracks under the door. This was the house he chose, the house that looked like a home, the house where the warmth would great him and the winter would fade into the night behind.
The rap on the door, made by his own knuckles, made him flinch. Loud noises, those intentional and not, were something to be avoided at all times, at least in his profession. However, the dweller inside didn't seem to mind the knock a bit, and came straight to the door when she noticed him standing outside. "May I help you?" was her curt reply, wrinkles creasing her eyes as she squinted out in the cold at him.
"Um, yes." He shifted his weight from foot to foot, numbness begining to creep into his toes. He had dressed in his best Muggle clothes for the occasion, though had forgotten proper socks in his haste to leave. "I work with Fiona," he breathed, hunching further into his collar, "and she hasn't been around in the past few days. I... just wanted to make sure everything was OK, but I don't exactly have a key to her house."
She crossed her arms over her chest, the breeze whispering over her skin in twisted winter kisses. "Might be best," she muttered. "That bloody dog's been barkin' for days now." She turned for a moment, venturing into her kitchen and returning with a small brass key. "What's yer name, boy?"
He was no longer a child, but he payed the title little attention. "Amery, ma'am. Casper Amery."
"You best let me know if anythin' is wrong."
He nodded gratefully, taking the cold contraption from her hand and stepping off the porch. He wasn't used to keys, as a wand would do the trick with any normal lock on any normal door, but he knew that Fiona's would be different. Careful to the point of being eccentric, she would have enchantments that safeguarded her entire house. He couldn't blame her, really. Not when he would have done the same thing.
The snow stung at his ankles as he shuffled through it, crossing the short distance between properties with fast, pointed steps. There wasn't much light echoing from the windows, save for a flickering that could have only been a sad, lonely candle. He approached faster, heartbeat ringing in his ears.
"Fiona?" he called, clinging to the faint fire of a hope that feebly scorched his chest. "Fi, are you home?"
He stuck the key in the lock, fumbling as it tangled with his trembling fingers. It turned cleanly, a resounding click assuring him that the door was unlocked but making him shudder all the same. The next step was a leap - more of a throwing of one's self into a black abyss - as he stepped into the house.
It was cold. That was what scared him first. He glanced around, eyes resting on a lone candle that had burned to its base and flickered weakly. It cast his shadow among the wall, making the dark space even blacker than before. "Fiona?" he tried to whisper, but his voice died in his throat. The tone that managed to escape was lifeless, full of air and empty promises, that sunk to the floor in disgust.
He wasn't a timid man, nor was he easily frightened. He had seen things, let his eyes wander onto sights that no soul still walking should have to endure, that had clouded the joy misting in his eyes and had set all views of human decency aflame. And yet, as he stepped deeper into the house and his footsteps played across the walls, something strange and foreign coasted through his veins.
The dog Fiona's neighbor had spoken so poorly of was nowhere to be seen, which did nothing to assist extinguishing the pounding feeling of dread that was beginning to flush through him. The kitchen counters he approached were littered with things one might find in any home: a Prophet (though two days old) with a brash headline stamped across the front, a shopping bag containing wilting lettuce that had yet to be put away, candlesticks that had been knocked over and lay with waxy finishes across the tile. It was as if someone had paused the life inside the abode, setting a clock that didn't tick on top of the roof.
"Fiona," he said again, this time with no if or when or how to tag the phrase's ending. The word hovered in the air, drifting along an unseen current away from him, fluttering with fickle wings before sinking into the chill of the night.
The floorboards creaked underneath him as he took fragile steps around the corner. He wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, pull his arms around his shoulders and leave before he saw something horrible, but he pushed forward, fearing that he was nearing the one thing he had desperately hoped to avoid.
Whatever training he had gone through when he had applied for his position, whatever sights he had all ready seen on the job, whatever warnings anyone had given him in his entire lifetime, did nothing to soften the blow of what he saw next. There she was, lying on the floor with her cardinal hair fanned about her face, eyes gazing with a blissfully unaware - yet totally empty - stare up at the ceiling above. Her arms and legs, wrists and ankles, fingers and toes, lay at odd and unnatural angles, and to see her in such a state was strangling him.
It wasn't as if he hadn't expected it. In their profession, it wasn't unusual for someone to turn up cold and gray and completely void of a heartbeat. But it was Fiona, his Fiona, the darling Fi who had laughed and smiled, cried and shook, yelled and sprinted and dueled with the rest of them.
He knelt, biting back the sour tears that were rising in his throat for as long as he could, bending to examine her sorry state. "Oh, Fiona." It was all he could say, the only words that would grace his lips while he gently tucked stray wisps of her hair behind her ear. Before he could let the mists of grief and frustration swell to greater heights, he grasped her fragile, broken form beneath her shoulders and lifted her to his chest, hugging her like he would if she were still alive, if her heart was beating just as quickly as his.
His eyes closed, the darkness that hung in the air enveloping him in one throaty swallow. Air pulsated out of him in uneven beats, coasting through his lungs with fickle fingers that brushed against his chest in whispers and sighs. He'd seen people dead, seen people killed, but never had it hurt like this. Sadness pressed against his throat, pushing its way into every crevice of his mind until the thought of her consumed him.
The tears came swiftly, as he had been expecting. He just sat and held her, rocking back and forth against his heels, burying his face inside the dip of her shoulder and breathing in what scent was left of her. He hadn't cried much in his life, but the salty water dripped down his cheeks, leaving their pink ribbons behind, all the same. Forward and back, back and forth, he cradled her as best he could, weeping for her life, her friendship, her memory.
A breeze flushed through the house, finding entrance through the door left open and chilling him deep to his bones. It fluttered her hair, wisps of it dancing around his own, claiming life it didn't have while the night waited for it to settle. His hands gripped her closer, as if somehow holding her broken figure tighter would protect the already frigid skin from the bitter frost.
The single candle, fragile with its mourning flame and slumping wick, was strangled by the cold.
A/N: Just a few quick notes before I let you go on your merry way. I need to offer huge thanks to both Molly (SnitchSnatcher), Gill (butterbeergal), and Becca (magicmuggle), who have helped immensely with working the plot, wording, and characters out. Also, I'd like to promise anyone who has made it this far that the chapters will pick up in pace and length, and this was just a little starter to get the ball rolling. Anyway, have a lovely day, and feedback is always appreciated!