Finding Time Again
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste, sad time
Stretching before and after.
– T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Two sets of damp footprints crossed the attic floor, halting at the cabinet. They dried before the dawning of the sun, and it was as though she had never been. Lily Potter was never seen again.
I: June 1971
Stepping through the cabinet doors one final time, the woman gasped at the sudden pain in her chest. It was like a giant’s hand gripping her heart, slowly squeezing the blood from its throbbing veins. She did not pause to let it pass. It never would. The end had come at last.
Many years had passed since she had last entered the cabinet, long, fleeting years of wasted moments that she would give anything to live again and again. The warmth of the sun, the smell of the air before it rained, the breath of a lover, all would be lost to her in a short time, and she was powerless to prevent it. She had pushed time too far, crossing the timelines of her own life to ensure her past at the cost of her future. Now, back in her own time–
Or was it?
Twenty-seven years in this time – his time – living out her days as though her date of birth was not in some distant future. She had lived a lie. She was outside of time, living before she was meant to be born.
And now that it was the end, the hourglass run down to its final grains, she would die before that future date, some thirty-seven years in the future.
Did that make her age a negative number? Is that what they would put on her grave, if only they knew of her secret? Forty-seven was the number engraved upon it. She remembered it twice-over, from this final journey through time, and also from those years ago. A mere child she had been, still scared and scarred, the light in her eyes dulled by the things she had seen and done and felt. The things she had felt! A mess of emotion that overwhelmed the soul and flooded the mind so that it cracked. Not shattered, not yet.
The pain came again, a crack of lightening split through her nerves, seeming to tear them from her flesh, but no wound was visible; it all came from within. Her heart at last was breaking.
She stumbled down the stairs from the attic room, her hand caressing the wall where she would one day stumble into his arms for the first, last time. Hand clutching her chest, she continued on to the next set of stairs, gasping for every breath. Her ears were deafened by the erratic beating of her heart, her eyes going dim, blinded by shadows and stars.
Still fresh in her memory was the sight of her parents. There they had slept, looking just as they had always been in her mind, frozen in time. She had sacrificed her life for that glimpse, such a selfish thing to do, but then again, everything she had done in her life was selfish, all for her own benefit, not that of others. For Alastor she had done much, she supposed, but even when she had returned to him, it had been for herself, to fill the spaces between, all those empty gaps in her existence. He had loved her. So much.
In return? Had she–?
Could she ever love him enough?
She stopped in the corridor above the final staircase, one hand upon the walnut balustrade. Below there stood a man framed by the open door, the light streaming in around him.
Death had come to call.
She watched as he rushed forward at the sight of her, exclaiming words she could not hear. All she could think was that she did not wish to die here, and so she pushed on toward the bedroom with its worn chairs and heavy bed, the open window staring down into the garden and beyond to the place where she would lie for eternity, where her footsteps would one day tread in the veil of ivy.
A pair of hands guided her on her way, their grip firm, a warm breath against her hair, all so familiar. How kind of Death to take on this shape and bring her comfort at the end.
Limbs tingling and chilled, her lips fading to blue, she shuffled into the room, past the chairs, beneath the watching portrait, to sit on the edge of the bed, blind to the face that looked down into hers, deaf to the voice that said her name once and again, her tongue unwilling to twist itself into speech.
One hand took her pulse while its twin pulled down the lower lids of her eyes so that he could see into their depths, his giant blue eye still and intent, his small dark eye flooded with emotion. His hands were shaking, his jaw could not help but quaver. He, of such ruthless courage, was afraid. What if... She had been pale for many months, her appetite decreasing day by day, her eyes bloodshot from the sleep she never had. And now... now....
He helped her to lie down, cradling her head upon his hand until it could rest on the pillow. She heard the echo of his heart and wondered how Death could be so human. He felt the faint throb of her heart as it wavered on, tremulous and erratic, until it should stop completely.
The drumming in her ears faded, and at last she heard his voice.
“Lily, are you–? Lily!”
Her eyes blinked, her vision cleared.
He loomed overhead, hand gripping hers, still wearing his overcoat, hat discarded somewhere on the floor in his haste, his eyes wild, his breath tinged with peppermint to disguise the Firewhiskey he always carried in his pocket. But he was there now. He had come for the end, driven on by fate to be there as she died, just as she had been there at his own death, those last confused minutes, time continuing on its endless cycle.
How could she have doubted, even for the briefest moment? To him here, now, at the end, it meant so much, far more than she could ever express.
When she did speak at last, the words were not even her own, but his, to be spoken to the youthful shade of herself that would appear in the coming days. They would hang about in his mind and, at last knowing the truth, the intertwining cycles of their lives brought to light before his eyes, he would recite them.
“Strange that it should come to this.”
Yes, so strange. That all things should run in a circle as unending as her love.
His good eye widened as he comprehended the words; he felt the shadow of Death draw over them, dragging her drifting spirit from its reluctant shell. She lifted a wavering arm to caress his face and feel his rough scars – a mirror to her own – against her palm, her thumb just touching the corner of his mouth, his jaw shuddering beneath her fingers.
“Af..ter all... this... time.”
A brief spasm ensued.
No matter how hard he gripped her limp form, no matter how many times he planted kisses on her lips, no matter how many often he spoke her name, she was gone, released by time’s aching grasp neither to sleep nor to dream, but to die.
The hand dropped from his face, an eternity passing before it landed on the rumpled coverlet, the ring on her finger glittering in the last rays of the dying sun.
* * *
II: August 1945
I pushed open the door with a trembling hand and was blinded by the sun. It shone in through the window, but it was not the tiny attic window, nor was this the attic at all. The panelled walls and heavy mantlepiece were walnut, the draperies, roughly shoved back from the window, were a dreadful red velvet. They had been covered in dust, for it still floated in the air, catching the sunlight in a delicate array of beams.
A number of trunks filled the corner beside the cabinet, each battered, but clean, their brass corners and locks gleaming. Stickers from locations across the Mediterranean covered their leather facades in bright colours and garish designs. Some trunks were thrown open, revealing messy piles of clothing, books, and odd items, things he must have collected in exotic bazaars and those shops that lurked in darkened alleyways: a foe glass wrapped in oil cloth, a statue of Anubis, its paint chipped and faded after many centuries of wear, a sneakoscope, a miniature weather vane like those used by long-distance travellers by carpet or broom. I picked up a book on demonology and flipped through its pages, annotated by at least three hands.
The cottage itself was silent. It was outside that I heard the sounds of the passing world, the birds’ gleeful melodies, the wind funnelling down from the hilltops, the distant halloos of the lumbermen at their work, soon followed by the crash of a felled tree. I did not even need to look out the window to imagine the tree-covered hills stretching out on all sides, emerald in the morning light, the fields, thick with maturing crops, dotting the landscape. On the other side of the cottage, the lake would placidly sit, reflecting the impossible blue of the sky, even darkening its shade so that it seemed of endless depth.
I scarcely wondered how such a place as this could exist. I saw each flaw, yet I wished to call it perfect, not in spite of those flaws, but because of them.
A smile drifted over my face. For all the things I had seen and done, the pain and the guilt, the constant knowledge of something always lost, fleetingly retrieved, I looked at this place and felt something I had not in a very long time, so long that it could have never been. The darkness of my past life in a distant future faded. It would always be there, the shadow rising to greet me each twilit eve, but for a time, I could ignore it. I could revel in something more. I could be something more.
My stick tapped upon the floor as I made to descend the stairs. The sitting room was dark, being on the west side, its furniture dull and forlorn, no plant in sight. That would change, soon enough.
Stepping outside, I entered the formal garden where visitors long ago would sit with tea and cakes to speak of the latest fashion and the doings of the poets who still nestled betwixt lake and trees, denying the call of the London bustle. Gravel paths were lined with overgrown hedges that had once traced decorative patterns in green and red, looping around stone flower pots, all chipped and worn with time. The whole garden sloped downward toward the lake and so was terraced with low walls that ran parallel to the length of the cottage, and it was there that I found him, sitting upon the furthest wall, staring across the lower fields.
I paused and the sunlight rose above the old watchtower from which the cottage was made, setting the fields aglow and him into shadow.
He was young, but not too young, his back straight and shoulders squared, a brimmed hat pulled down low over his hair. He could not have missed the crunching of my feet in the gravel, but he did not turn to look. There was a twitch of his arm as though it pained him, but he made no other movement.
It was too easy to question, to doubt, to wonder whether this had been the right choice.
I had acted without thought, charging through the cabinet doors, my heartbeat raging in my ears, not bothering to wonder if I was returning to the proper time or making some gruesome error. I would live with that vision of my own grave and the date carved upon it for the remainder of my life. There was his death too, but that was different. I had been there... would be there beside him as he drifts away. My own death would be the ghost that lurked just past the length of my shadow, never far enough from sight to be out of mind.
I found myself standing before him.
My legs, so often a liability, at last proving an asset, carried me to the place I most wanted to be.
He turned his face, and I knew he had been watching me all along.
A thick scar sliced across the left side of his face from his temple to just past the bridge of his nose, passing right through his one eye. Where it once had been black, it was now brilliant and blue, endlessly twisting and turning, all the world laid bare before its gaze.
We were a mirror image, his left to my right, reflections of experience inscribed upon our faces.
He frowned, expecting me to flinch, to react, perhaps in fear, to the sight of the strange eye and its accompanying scars. He could not know that the reverse was the truth, that his face, when whole, had seemed the more uncanny. Or was it my own change that affected him so? My scars were still tinged with purple, set in stark contrast to my pale skin.
Once he had said that he could look at me forever.
I needed acceptance, but why? I could call myself disfigured and many other things, but it was merely a rearrangement of features, a change in measurements. All the necessary parts were still there, still functioning as they should. The loss was all within, merely within. I could see that now. The scars of old injuries showed that I had lived, that I had accomplished something with my otherwise useless life.
“Won’t you sit? The sun’s just coming over the house now.”
Over the field, the tower cast a shadow that receded like the changing tide.
“I’ve watched it everyday now, since coming here. Gives one something to look forward to, you know.”
It was the sunset I had always watched, never the sunrise. I had thought that there could be nothing for me in the world, thus I saw only endings – the closing of the day, the dying of the light. And here I was – we were – here for the beginning.
I settled onto the wall beside him. “Have you been here long?”
He shrugged. “A few months. They said I needed a quiet place after... well, you saw it.”
“I rather like it.”
It was impossible for him to have missed my words, and when I looked toward him, I saw the slight smile twisting the corners of his lips.
“Do you need me to say it again?”
An arm curled around my waist. The air in my lungs became an impossible weight to bear.
“I wasn’t sure how it’d go over. Even in Diagon Alley I was getting funny looks.”
I nudged him with my elbow, all anxiety ebbing away in another turn of the tide, the need to be wanted swiftly becoming the need to close the distance between us once and for all. The banalities of conversation could hold little charm when we had been parted for so long, the waves of time crashing between us no longer. We would drown together.
“It’s because you look so distinguished.”
The arm tightened as he brought his lips close to my ear. “Maybe now I’ll look my age.”
I looked down at the shrinking shadow and the golden light that was settling upon the far edge of the field.
“As old and hideous as me.” My voice shook.
“Maybe one day you'll be, but not now. Not for a long, long time.”
I could not move. I could not even close my eyes against the light that shone about us while we remained in the shadow of the cottage where the cabinet stood guard over a crossroads of time, a silent sentinel to times past and times to come, all the time that he and I would have together and all the time we would not.
He will grow old alone.
A pair of lips teased the flesh behind my ear, kisses planted down my neck while my eyes filled, blurring gold with blue and green until the world was no more than an impressionist palate, my heart bleeding more than it had those months of shadow and darkness for it was here that the greatest wound was inflicted. It was here that the end began.
The shadow was lapping at our feet, the light blinding, his body warm against mine, his heat firmly beating, confident of long life and all that came before the end, when he would lie in that field and stare up into the empty sky, waiting the final grain of sand to fall.
I tilted my head to see his face and witness the sensitive motion of the numerous muscles and tendons beneath the flesh.
“Do you regret it, the thing you did to get that wound?”
He did not even need to think. “No reason to. A bit of bad luck. Happens to everyone.”
After a pause, he reached up to wipe a tear from my cheek with a calloused thumb. “It’s impossible to forget the feeling of it, the burn of the spell so strong that it makes you faint, but you can’t stop. It’s stop or die, and I couldn’t die, not then. That was the feeling I held on to, the one that told me it wasn’t yet my time.”
I traced the lines of his scars with my eyes. The war. He was describing how it had been in the war: the clash of bodies, the screams of the dying, the flash of curses, too many green, the silence that came after, that hollow absence of noise in which one’s thoughts echoed louder and louder until they drowned out all the world. He had been in the midst of it, his eye as his only sacrifice for he had not lost his strength. He had not lost his mind.
He was not yet Mad-Eye Moody. Many years would need to pass, those years that we would hold close to our hearts.
My chest rose and fell. My heart beat on. I lifted a hand to his face, the tip of an intrepid finger brushing against his cheek. Inside was all confusion, fear mixing with desire, grief subsiding into joy, guilt and sorrow flowing back into the dark corners of my mind with the hope that there they would die, that I need never feel as I have again. Here was purpose. Here was colour. Here was life.
“Will you stay this time?” His voice was little more than a breath against my eyelashes.
The gravestone was far away, locked in a future that should no longer concern me. There was so much else. The lake and the sky, the fields and trees, the world all around and the two of us in this place that was our home.
I leaned closer, and would have leaned closer still were such a thing possible.
“Good.” The word tasted sweet against my lips.
We did not see when the shadow made its final retreat, nor when the sun streamed over us in a dazzling light. We felt its warmth, perhaps, but it was peripheral to a great many thoughts and feelings that swirled about us until we were lost, cast adrift, but no longer alone. Time halted its course for the briefest, most dear of moments, then flowed on, never once daring to turn back and regret its twisting path from future to past and back again.
There are no beginnings and no endings, only time streaming onward. Not forward. Not forever. Just onward.
Author's Note: It's strange to complete any story, always wondering whether things could not have somehow gone better, but even more strange to complete such a story as this. It's the story I've wanted to write for a very long time, and now that I have, I don't know what to do. Lily's story never really ends because, in each case, what is the end for one thing is the beginning for another.
One thing I can do is thank anyone who has made it all the way to the end. I hope that you have enjoyed reading this story, perhaps even as much as I've enjoyed writing it. To those who have been reading along throughout the writing process, thank you for all of your support, suggestions, and for giving me a reason to continue writing on.
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