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Chapter 9 : Borrowed Time
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“Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.”
– T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
I waited, but nothing seemed to happen. No movement. No sound. The same light burning in around the edges of the door.
Something was wrong. Something was missing, but what? He had told me before that he had tried to make use of the cabinet, entering it with curiosity and intention alike, but there had been no response. I thought back to all of the occasions when I had–
No. I had never made use of it either.
It had made use of me.
The knocking. Something within had knocked upon the cabinet’s ancient wood to call me forth, the siren song that controlled my time and thus controlled all of me. For what was a person but their time? The times they failed. The times they succeeded. All action, all feeling, was based on time.
But I would change that, no matter the cost.
My closed fist came down upon the floor of the cabinet in three loud knocks.
Never could I be sure how much time passed in that moment when I closed my eyes and waited for the end to come. There were two options for the end: his or mine. His death or my return to the Longbottoms’ cottage to forever wonder if it all hadn’t been just a dream, a nightmare, a desperate fantasy.
I let my heart decide my destination.
The cabinet made no sound, not the slightest movement. The only change was that the desert light faded to grey. The door opened at the pressure of my hand, and once more, I found myself in the attic, the dust on the floor disturbed by my own footsteps. Night was falling outside the window; we both had left some hours before.
The same attic, the same cabinet, but not the same Lily Potter. No. She was gone forever.
I made my way down the stairs, taking care to miss the slippery spot where I had fallen; he would not be there to catch me this time. He had gone to die, and I had let him. For all the right reasons – that I had to remember – but were they correct now? That question drove me forward.
I hesitated on the first floor. I could still catch the stale scent of roasted coffee in the air; my memory reminded me of how it had tasted, how perfectly he had made it. My feet, ever rebellious, took me to the room where the empty portrait hung above the cold embers in the grate.
I stared up into its painted depths and saw the slightest shadow cast upon the chair.
“So you figured out how to use it.”
She kept her voice low, its huskiness seeped in cynicism.
I leaned on the real chair, looking down at the abandoned cups.
“The cabinet? How to....” What? Control it? But it failed to make any sense. How could one control a vanishing cabinet with written directions? And yet that was what worked, what had worked this entire time, but I had been unable to understand.
“He would have told you if you’d bothered to ask. He always knew.”
I shook my head. “But he said–”
“That he had not been successful at using it himself. That was all.”
When I peered deep enough into its depths, I could discern a figure standing much in the same attitude as I, but hidden in the portrait’s shadows, or was it filth? Decades of smoke and neglect could have decayed the paint, even magical paint, particularly if neither owner nor sitter cared whether the portrait was seen.
Or if neither wanted it to be seen.
“You don’t know yet, do you?” Her voice emerged once more, smugly, mockingly, ever sharp. “You still don’t understand.”
She took a step forward, but the light was still too dim. I could not see more than a shadow, her form strong, yet unbalanced, as though she could not easily move.
A shiver ran down my spine.
Perhaps some things are better left unknown, at least until one is prepared to face them, and I was not yet ready for her, to see those mocking eyes and crooked lips, cruelty written across her brow, disdain in the set of her jaw. Every word that left her painted lips was filled with hatred for the living lover while she, the deceased wife, remained trapped on canvas, forced to witness my return again and again, completely powerless to prevent it. But she was wrong to think that I held victory in my hands. That engraved ring had been on her finger. She had been the one to sleep at his side each night, to greet him each morning. She had won; she would always win, filling that place which forever lay beyond my reach.
I turned on my heel. There was too much to do; time was too precious.
Her voice followed me from the room. “I know what you’re going to do. You won’t be–”
I did not stop. To do so would be to give her satisfaction; she already had too much of that.
Only on the ground floor did I pause. How would I find him? How would I reach him? Even my father’s memory of that night was not clear; or at least he refused to elaborate on that battle in the sky. I knew of Uncle George’s ear and Hedwig the owl and Mundungus Fletcher’s cowardly escape, but not of Alastor Moody. He had simply vanished.
He would be at Privet Drive now, but it would be far from prudent to appear there, even if I could reach him in time. I would have to find him where no one else would see, where I could be hidden from view, and as far as I knew, there was only one location where that would be possible: the place of his death.
There was no way that I could simply apparate there. I didn’t dare apparate in a time not my own, not knowing whether it could go wrong, splinching me across time and space; I may have travelled side-along with Alastor in his youth, but on my own, even at the best of times, my apparition skills were uncertain. I needed another way–
“A broom.” The low voice emerged from a painting of the cottage that was hanging near the door. “You haven’t forgotten how to fly, have you?”
I stared at the face that appeared against the sky, the breath catching in my throat.
“Time,” she whispered. “You mustn’t forget how little of it you have.”
The far side of her face was misshapen like melted wax. The scar shone in the final rays of evening light, her eye glittering amidst that misshapen flesh. Her hair had been arranged to cover much of the damage, but in her flight from the upstairs portrait, it had flown back. It was red, her hair, and her eyes–
“Do you see it?” her voice had dropped even lower.
I did. Oh, I did.
“Do you see why I have hated you?”
I took a step back from that face. Of course it couldn’t be.... No. A trick of the light and nothing more. I shook my head.
She pointed toward the door of a small closet. “Because you are free to go to him. Now!”
The final word became a scream, echoing down the corridors, through the rooms, up into attic, rattling the door of the cabinet that waited there, the sentinel of time. I held my hands over my ears and wished that I could run, run away to escape the madness taking root in my brain, the madness that had long polluted her. Love was the greatest madness of all.
With a wave of my wand, the closet flew open to reveal a single broom. A flying broom, old, but sturdy, well-used, but well-cared for.
There was no time for more questions. This was a world of questions, few of which possessed reasonable answers. All my nerves were shaking as I stood at the door to the outside world, unable to push it open as much as my ears still rang with her cry. I still saw her eyes watching me from the painting, their acid depths filled with envy.
Still, I could not move. Even fear of her could not release me from the paralysing terror that froze my muscles in place.
To fly again. I couldn’t. But to reach him? Would I risk it for him? What was I risking, and for what reason except for... for love? Was it that? I hardly knew. I hardly knew anything, least of all about myself.
I only knew that I would do this for him.
The thought was enough. I lifted off, only just maintaining my balance, straining one leg so that the foot of the other could uselessly dangle. With clenched teeth, I rose higher and higher, my knuckles white in the darkness that surrounded me. Only the stars lit the way, but to where?
“Oh you fool,” I muttered aloud. It was as though Her voice was in my head, goading me on, her scream still resounding in my ears. “The charm! Your wand will remember.”
Soon, I shot forward, awkwardly balanced, holding my wand forth so that its slowly pulsating glow guiding me further into the night, closer to his doom. Would it also be my own? Yet it gave me no pain to imagine that this could be my end as well as his. It was an inheritance from my father that I did not fear death as others did. Perhaps I would quaver if I looked into Death’s cavernous eyes, but now I pushed onward, the wind against my face and rushing through my hair. I had forgotten what it was like to fly.
It once had been the only thing that I loved, to be part of the wind, to be far from the grounding, pounding earth and find at last that freedom which seemed forever out of reach. In the sky, there was only forever, the clouds above and the ground below, leaving all the space in between. There was nothing in the air to obstruct my course, no obligations, no responsibilities, except for the obvious: to remain afloat.
But at that single, simple obligation I had failed. I had fallen.
The wandlight grew, then vanished. I sank toward the ground, peering into what appeared to be field, its crop swaying in the night breeze to an unheard rhythm. At last I saw it, a darker region like a long gash in the side of a sleeping giant.
He had fallen, too.
My landing was anything but light, a far cry from what I had once been capable of, but what did it matter? There were no crowds to witness, no opponents to mock, only him, and he would not see, would not care about my technique, or rather the lack of it. I did not think he would be alive now. I had come too late.
Struggling to stand amidst the sea of grass, I caught sight of his prostrate form. On hands and knees I crawled toward him, the air near the ground feeling impossibly thick as it caught in my throat. The sound of the wind and the crickets was drowned out by the pounding of my heart, and when I finally fell against his side, that pounding disguised the faint beat still echoing in his chest. Taking up his wrist, my thumb detected a light flutter, too light for his size, but there all the same. Yes. Yes, it was true.
He was alive.
But only just. His one good leg was broken, the pegleg still attached, but the wood had split upon impact, or had it been before? One arm was pinned beneath him, but the other seemed whole, the hand stretched flat against the earth, a restless finger twitching an irregular beat, a reflection of his fading heart.
I touched his face. There was blood there, at the mouth, a few sticky droplets that stayed my hand. These gashes were not scars; they were fresh. The curse had hit his face, ripping apart the little flesh that remained. I was glad for the darkness now, glad that I would not have to see and remember his face as the curse had made it.
He made a sound, a half-formed word that only spluttered against his lips. The fingers of his free hand contracted as though to clasp a wand. I leaned over his face, my hair wafting over his cheek, and saw how a quiet gleam of starlight glinted against his magical eye.
“Alastor.” My whisper seemed a cry in the ghastly silence. “I couldn’t let you... go alone.”
I placed my hand over his. What more could I do?
He murmured something more, but it remained unintelligible.
A sour smell tinged the air. Not the smell of death or decay, merely that of firewhiskey. It was there in his front pocket along with other little things, those strange objects that people carry in their overcoats. I transferred them into my own before pulling out his flask. Dented, but nothing more serious.
Yanking out the stopper, I put it to his lips. A few drops found their way between their cracked surfaces before he shook his head and winced. His lips moved again and I leaned closer.
He smelled strange, like the earth and the alcohol with something else that I could not name. His breath came heavy and was loud in my ears, louder even than my heart, which pounded more to be near him; it replaced this dying form with the young wizard from the park, soaring with recognition, unable to understand that this wizard was no longer the same. How age can transform the body and mutilate the soul!
“Not... ‘lone.” He took a deep breath, then another, lungs straining with the effort of speech. “Find. You....”
Or was it? Something off in the distance was approaching. Heavy footsteps in the field. Loud voices carousing, carried closer by the wind. There were many of them combing the land in search of him. Even his body would be a prize, a show of strength for the other side.
His last word emerged, and I nearly missed it.
I stared down at him as the word, and those that came before, sunk into my mind. In the maelstrom of thoughts there, it was at first too hard to comprehend their meaning.
“Of course I’m here. I... I–” A tear fell onto his face; I saw him wince as it hit a wound.
He was dying. This could be the last time I would ever see him alive, the last time we would speak, when I could tell him–
The voices drew closer. On the edge of my vision, I could see the glow of their wands, the only light in this shadowy world of war and death. My father’s world, the one he fought to save, and here was the final resting place of Alastor Moody, Auror, alone in the darkness. Yes, alone, for what was I but another pale shadow of time, taunting, haunting, no different from the portrait.
When the eye looked at me, it was without full recognition. It was like seeing his face as a child once more, the first time he had seen me emerge from the cabinet. It was like I had never existed for him. This borrowed time had been a waste. Those Snatchers would come and take his eye to the Ministry, doing Merlin knew what to his body. I did not think of my own escape; it seemed too late for that. I had been too late each time, never able to keep time in order, to wisely conserve it as the professors always told us. It was gone. He was gone. There was nothing left.
Time had not been kind to him, stealing away his youth, his strength, even his sanity, and all for what?
The word was a mere breath against my forehead where I had laid it against his chest. I rose to see his eye, not trained on me, but watching the Snatcher’s approach, ever vigilant to the end. He was, somehow, coming to the surface of life as one emerges from the water. Perhaps it was the firewhiskey that warmed the flesh beneath my hands.
“I’m here,” I said, brushing a hand along his jaw. “I came back.”
He blinked once, then again, a haze growing across its surface.
“Do... you... know?”
I hesitated before replying. “Yes.”
A smile drifted across his face. “Good.”
The Snatchers drew nearer, but their random pattern of pursuit betrayed their ignorance of our location. Someone may have seen Alastor’s fall, but they did not know exactly where he could be found. I still had time, perhaps not very much. I hoped that it would be enough.
When I looked back at Alastor, the smile had become a grimace, the full-extent of the pain finally setting in. If only I had returned to another date, another time, then he could have known and used the cabinet for himself, but fate had not allowed it. He was always meant to die in this place, just as I was always meant to be here at the end, his imaginary friend, his ghost.
“What did you mean?” I clutched at the collar of his greatcoat, the leather supple between my fingers.
There was a confused silence, the magic eye spinning to light upon me.
“That... you... are...” he began, only to be cut off by a mouthful of blood.
My breath came in gasps more ragged than his own as I waited for that last word, a word that was to never come. He formed it once, then again, but no sound accompanied it, his life at last receding with the last ripple of the wave. I felt his breath slow as I touched my lips to his forehead. A fine rain of tears whetted the ground around his head, glistened against his thin, greyed hair, and dripped onto his face; I could not stay their flow. Sinking down to lay against his heart, I listened for the final contraction of that muscle, the final pound against his hollow chest.
Soon, the only sound was that of the Snatchers making their listless progress across the field like sharks maddening with the scent of blood, their cries growing sharper, more savage. Yet still I felt no fear, nothing more than grief, that wretched state of sadness that consumes, nibbling away at the mind, devouring the soul.
“You sure he’s here? They could’ve had it wrong.”
“They was watchin’ it from afar, but she paid ‘ticular ‘tention to this’un.”
“Revenge it is, then. How typical of her ladyship.”
The others laughed hideously, a sound too grating to be lost in the wind.
Cowering over Moody’s body, my heart beat while his did not. I could not leave him. Whatever my father had told me of the soul, its strength and its potential for renewal, so like the life of the phoenix, I would not allow a lifeless body to be ravaged by wolves in human clothing. If there was one thing I could do to save him now, it was to destroy his body myself.
A single image flared into my mind. I touched his hand and began to crawl away toward a tree in the field, a great tower that loomed above the crop like a dark sentinel. It would offer some shelter from prying eyes.
“You hear that?”
“Something moving down over there.”
They took some hurried steps forward, but stopped short, still some distance away.
“Don’t see nothin'. Must’ve been a rabbit.”
There were mumbled agreements. Little time remained before they would see the gash across the field in which lay their prize.
Curled against the base of the tree where the old shells of chestnuts matted the ground, I looked down the path I had made to the shadow I knew to be him, a mere lump on the face of the earth, but so much more to me, so much more to history. I pictured him as he had been and raised my wand.
Always scarred, but never scared. An imposing presence, some would say intimidating. I wouldn’t, but I was different. I knew his secret.
The flames rose, hungry, blind. I heard the Snatchers’ cries, their footsteps, their spells, but the fire was greater than they. Helped by the wind, sparks and ashes dusted the field, even reaching the tree.
How could I have known? How strong the wind was; how little effort it took for fire to consume, to ravage, to burn; how desperate men will do anything to save themselves; how a broken heart can melt with flame; how bright the flame is; how fast it moves.
How a magic eye does not burn.
How could I have forgotten?
Author's Note: the second-to-last line refers to the fact that Harry sees Moody's eye in Umbridge's office door a few months later (Deathly Hallows, chapter 13).
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