Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by J.K. Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This fic takes place after "If We Survive", the third and final part of the Darkness and Light trilogy, and contains some major spoilers for the trilogy. It is not absolutely necessary to have read D&L before reading this, however. What I do recommend, though, is that you have a look at this picture of Alastor Moody before beginning the story ( art/Alastor-Mad-Eye-Moody-3195976). It might help.
by R.J. Anderson
It should be about the right time, he thought. The Battle of Hogwarts had ended two weeks ago, and she'd been out of the hospital for a good few days now. Of course, the doctors had told her to go easy for a while yet, but that was fine with him; he'd no intention of taxing her strength, just taking her for a bit of an outing. She needed that, whether she knew it or not. And if she got to feeling a bit wobbly she could just lean on his arm, and devil take what anyone might think of it.
He knocked, two smart raps of his knuckles, on the door of her flat.
"Just a minute, please," called her voice from inside, sounding a little testy - which was not like her. She had not been herself, these last few days, at all.
He waited, shifting his weight restlessly off the rough-hewn wooden leg, which chafed, onto his good leg, which ached. The silence lengthened, and he narrowed his eyes; his magical vision shifted, and the door ceased to be a barrier to his sight. He could see her now, hurrying about the main room of the flat, straightening cushions and picking up discarded magazines. At last she straightened up, giving the belt of her dressing gown an irritable tug and pushing her hands through her hair.
She had lost a few pounds, he noticed; her face was more oval than round now, her curves a little less ample. Pity, that, but after what the Gut-Wrencher Curse had done to her, it was no surprise. Nasty spell, that one. In his younger days, he'd seen one of his fellow Aurors hit by Intorqueo, and the man died screaming.
The short brown-haired woman he was looking at would have died too, if he hadn't been able to see her internal injuries with his magical eye, and fix the worst of the damage. He'd carried her across the battlefield, through blood and fire, to get her to the medics before it was too late. Bit of a give-away, that was; there'd been plenty of others just as badly hurt, and some worse. But she'd come by her injuries saving the life of his niece, so no one would question his motives for wanting to save her life in return.
"Right, I'm coming," she said, with a cheerfulness that was more like her old self but sounded forced, and he saw her walk toward him. He gave a twitch of his eye, restoring his normal vision, as she opened the door and looked up into his face.
She was only six years older than Maud, the niece who was like a daughter to him; and like Maud, she could have easily been his granddaughter. But there was something ageless about Imogen, and he'd never really thought about her that way before.
High time he started, then.
"Hello, lassie," he said, giving her a lopsided grin.
Her eyebrows shot up, and she turned to look behind her. "Sorry?" she said, affecting innocent curiosity. "Is there a child in here?"
He let out an exasperated breath through his nose, or what was left of it. "Imogen -"
"Oh, so it is me you want." She beamed at him. "How nice. Do come in, won't you? Unless you think it might cause a scandal to be seen in the company of a woman en deshabille..."
So it had started already. He met her arch, teasing gaze without blinking. "At my age, and with this face? Not likely. But I've not come to sit on your sofa, Imogen. I'm on my way to Diagon Alley. And I thought I'd see if you'd be up to coming along."
Her smile flickered. "Diagon Alley? What for?"
He'd known it might not be easy to persuade her. Going out in public at the moment would be the last thing she wanted, and she'd never do it for herself. But for someone else, now - that was different. Imogen was dead loyal: she'd do anything to help a friend. Especially if she thought her company might not just be welcomed, but actually needed...
He slapped his crudely carved wooden leg. "Got to get a new one of these," he said gruffly. "I could use another opinion - and a shoulder."
A faint flush coloured her cheeks, and he knew he'd won. It was on her account that his old leg had been damaged beyond repair, so she was bound to feel obliged to him. But there'd be other thoughts in her mind, too: the knowledge that in his niece's absence Alastor Moody had no one else, figuratively or literally, to lean on; surprise, that tough old Mad-Eye was showing some vulnerability; and no doubt a touch of morbid curiosity as well - after all, it wasn't every day one went shopping for a wooden leg.
"Oh, of course," she said, a little too quickly, and stepped back from the door. "Right, then, why don't you come in and sit down a minute, while I pop off and get dressed?"
"All right." He limped past her, into the flat. "But no fussing, mind. I'm not taking you to a show."
She gave him a sly, sidelong glance. "Oh, I won't fuss," she said. "Never fear. But as it happens, I've no plans of treating you to a show, either, so..." She stretched up on tiptoes, whispered in his ear, "No peeking."
For a moment he was tempted to pop his magical eye out and hand it to her, but he restrained himself; not even Imogen's sense of humour, he suspected, was quite that robust. "Get on with you, woman," he growled.
She gave a throaty chuckle, and sashayed off down the hall.
The battered and faded sign outside the shop read U. MARCH, WOOD-WITCH. The space inside was narrow and dimly lit, with only a single multi-paned window looking out onto Diagon Alley. "I never even knew this place existed," said Imogen, raising her eyebrows at the haphazard, rather dusty assortment of chairs, tables, wardrobes and other furniture that lay before them. "Come to that, it doesn't look as though too many other people do, either."
"It's not about presentation," Moody said gruffly. "It's about quality."
Imogen gave him a sideways glance, with just a hint of a wicked smile. "Words to live by." She bent and brushed a thin layer of dust off the nearest table, then drew her wand from her sleeve and said, "Lumos." Radiance burst from the wand, lighting up the table's surface, and Alastor gave a twisted grin as Imogen's mouth dropped open in surprise.
In the semidarkness, it had looked like a very ordinary piece of furniture. Now, however, they could see the elegant curves of its legs and the exquisite pattern of inlay on its top, with pale traceries of leafy vines around the edge of the table and a cluster of grapes at each corner. "It's - beautiful," said Imogen in a hushed voice.
"It's a nice little piece," agreed Moody equitably, "but I've seen Ursula do better." He stooped a little and squinted at the table. "Aye, that's what I thought. It's her son's work." He gave a snort of grudging approval. "The lad's improved. Still -" he straightened up and took Imogen by the arm (a nice, soft, pleasingly round arm, and he cursed himself mentally for noticing it) - "we're not here to buy furniture. Ursula'll be working in the back, no doubt, so we may as well go and find her."
The workshop was hidden behind a thick layer of draperies and a Silencing Spell, but the smell of sawdust and polish gave it away. Pushing the curtains aside, Moody clumped into the room, Imogen following with uncharacteristic quietness in his wake, and bellowed, "Ursula!"'
"I'm busy," came an irritable, cracked-sounding voice from the corner, accompanied by the rhythmic rasp of a blade on wood. "Come back later."
Imogen gave him a resigned look and turned to leave, but Alastor shook his grizzled head at her. "She's always like this," he said, and raised his voice again. "Deny an old cripple his support, Ursula? I'd thought better of you."
The rasping sound stopped abruptly, and from behind a half-finished cabinet, a head popped out. With her wild white hair, a face like a withered apple, and her mouth twisted into an expression of mingled amusement and scorn, Ursula March had not changed a whit since he had last seen her. "Oh, it's you," she snorted. "Should have known. All right, keep your leg on. I'll only be a minute." She disappeared again, and a fresh cloud of sawdust filled the air.
Imogen's face took on a peculiar expression, and Moody was just about to ask her what was wrong when she gave a violent sneeze, followed by a bitter oath as she clutched at her still-tender stomach. Hastily he Summoned a couple of chairs from the other side of the room and made her sit down, then cast a Filtering Charm over her to protect her from the dust.
Old fool, he told himself fiercely. Should have thought of that. Shouldn't have brought her here in the first place, there would have been another way - but then Imogen gave him a grateful smile, and the recriminating voice in his head fell silent. He lowered himself into the chair opposite her, stretched out his aching legs, and together they waited for Ursula to finish her work.
True to her word, the wood-witch did not take long. A few minutes later she marched up to them, brushing her hands off on her apron, and said, "Right. I've got three you can look at; decide which one you like and I'll give you a proper fitting. What'd you do with the old one, anyway? That was good work, that was; should have lasted years."
"Burned it," grunted Moody, "fighting Voldemort."
"Hmph. Never thought to put a Fire-Proof Charm on it, I suppose. Well, isn't that just like a man - no common sense at all." Her shrewd eyes flicked to Imogen, and the shaggy white brows shot up. "This is never little Maudie? She was a skinny little pale thing - can't have changed that much in ten years, surely."
"Oh, she hasn't, believe me," said Imogen, with something like her old cheerfulness. "I'm just a friend, helping Alastor out while Maud's on her honeymoon. Imogen Crump." And she stuck out her hand.
"Honeymoon," said Ursula with a snort. "She's too young for that nonsense. And you're too young, missy, to be first-naming an old dog like Moody. Make those sheep's eyes at someone your own age." Ignoring both the proffered hand and the sudden, dangerous set of Imogen's jaw, she made a brusque gesture with her wand; three intricately carved posts came flying off a shelf and clattered to the floor at their feet. "There," she said. "Take your pick. Just don't take forever about it. I've got work to do." She stomped off again.
"It's not about presentation," said Imogen acidly, "is an understatement. Where on earth did you dig up this madwoman?"
Alastor leaned over and picked up the three pieces of wood, weighing them in his hands. "Never mind, Imogen. She does good work - the best - and that's what I've come for." He squinted down the length of the first leg, which was of cherry wood inlaid with gold and ending in a phoenix claw. "Bit flashy, I think." He set it down and examined the second, a stout piece of dark, smooth-sanded oak, subtly chased with silver and footed with a dragon's talon. "Hm. Not bad..." The third was the simplest of all, maple wood banded with iron, with a lion's paw for the foot. Perhaps too simple?
He looked from one to the other for a moment, undecided, then turned abruptly and held both of them out to Imogen. "Well? What do you think?"
For a moment her face went blank with surprise, but true to form, she quickly recovered her equilibrium. "Well, it's not me that'll be wearing it, but... I rather prefer this one." She touched the dragon-footed leg.
"Not the other? You're sure?"
She looked exasperated. "Look, if you've already made up your mind, why bother asking me?"
He gave her a lopsided grin. "Don't be so touchy, lass. I'm just wanting to know what you think."
Imogen sighed. "The other one's too dull. It's not... it doesn't suit you, any more than the phoenix does." She hesitated, then added with a hint of defensiveness, "Not that it matters. With your robes, nobody's ever going to see it anyway... right?"
"Hm," said Alastor reflectively, and put the maple wood leg down on the floor.
"Well?" came Ursula's strident voice from behind them. "Found the one you want?"
"Aye." He held it out to her.
"Good choice," she said, with grudging approval. "The oak's a fine strong wood." She hefted it, then stuck it under her arm and pulled out a wad of some greyish, puttylike substance from her pocket, kneading it soft in her big, gnarled hands. "Right then, take off that old piece of rubbish you're wearing, and we'll make sure this fits." She slapped the putty onto the cup of the new leg, spreading it thickly over the surface.
Alastor could feel Imogen's gaze burning on the back of his neck as he stooped and pulled up the hem of his robes, tapped his temporary leg with his wand, and muttered "Resolvo." It clattered to the floor, exposing an inch of scarred, hairy thigh and the shiny-skinned end of the stump that had once been his knee. Automatically he found himself listening for Imogen's intake of breath, but she made no sound.
"Don't get too comfortable," Ursula directed, plucking at the shoulder of his robes for emphasis. "I need you to stand up and put your weight on this." As Moody heaved himself to his feet, leaning hard on the back of the chair for support, the wood-witch added sharply, "Here, girl, make yourself useful." She thrust the new wooden leg at Imogen. "I'm too old to be crawling about on the floor."
Imogen's mouth flattened into a straight line, and for a moment she appeared to be struggling with dangerous impulses. But in the end, without a word, she got off her chair and knelt on the floor in front of Alastor, holding the leg upright for him.
Obviously, thought Moody, it was high time someone lightened the mood. "Oh, and while you're down there, lass," he said to her conversationally, "d'you mind fetching my slippers?"
"Don't you mean slipper, Admiral Nelson?" she shot back, and then grinned up at him, her spirits visibly improved. She had taken his joke exactly as he had known she would - as evidence that he knew how she felt, and that he appreciated the sacrifice she was making for his sake.
"Nelson lost his arm, woman, not his leg," he growled, shifting his weight gingerly onto his stump. It wobbled dangerously, but Imogen's hand shot out and gripped his arm, steadying him. She'd known full well about Nelson, of course: she'd been teasing him, knowing Muggle naval history was one of his guilty pleasures, and that he wouldn't be able to resist correcting her. He could see it now, in the mischievous twinkle of her eye.
"Hm," said Ursula, squinting at her handiwork. "Not a bad fit, just needs a little off the left side there. Right, get off."
Leaning on Imogen's shoulder, Moody shifted his weight to his good leg. He had barely done so when Ursula whisked the wooden leg unceremoniously out from under him, peeled off the putty, and strode off to her workbench. Squinting at the mould she had taken of his stump, she muttered a spell and tapped her wand against the cup of the wooden leg. A few shavings flew into the air, then a shower of fine dust, and with a brisk rub of her apron to polish the newly reshaped wood, Ursula's work was complete.
"There," she said, stalking back to them and thrusting the leg into Moody's hands. "Wear it in good health. And get a better Cushioning Charm put on that one, this time. No sense being a martyr."
"I can do it," said Imogen, meeting Ursula's gaze squarely with her own. "Charms are a speciality of mine."
"Hmph," said Ursula, looking her up and down with evident scepticism. "That's not for me to say, girl - but Alastor always did like 'em plump."
"Enough," grated Moody, taking a firm hold of Imogen's arm as the younger woman stiffened in outrage. "Stop baiting the girl, Ursula, and let's have the bill. The sooner I'm paid up the sooner we're out of your way."
Ursula's head came up sharply on its seamed and withered neck. "Don't insult me, Alastor. I've not forgotten-"
"Right," he replied in a deliberate tone. "Then you don't insult me, either. Or my friends."
For the first time, the old wood-witch actually looked abashed. Her gaze slid away from his, embarrassed, and she chewed on her thin lower lip.
"We won't keep you, Ursula," he told her more gently. "This is a fine piece of work, and I'm grateful for it. Take care of yourself, and that lad of yours, wherever he is. No doubt we'll meet again."
Ursula gave a jerk of a nod, and her eyes flicked briefly to Imogen. Then she sniffed, turned, and strode away. When she had disappeared once more behind the cabinet and the dry rasping sound of her plane had resumed, Alastor sank heavily back into the chair and looked up at Imogen.
"I'll take you up on that offer," he said. "A Cushioning Charm and a Hold-Fast Charm, if you're up to it - and then we'll be on our way."
"All right," said Imogen as they slid into a booth at the Leaky Cauldron some minutes later. "There's something going on, I can tell. So... out with it."
Moody raised his eyebrows. "Going on?" he said, keeping his voice mild, though inwardly he was cursing himself. He should have known better than to try and hide anything from Imogen.
"You and that wood-witch. Please don't tell me she's an old flame."
He threw back his head and laughed aloud, as much from relief as from amusement. "Ursula? Great Merlin, no!"
"Well, she certainly seems to have appointed herself your Chief Protector." She sipped her drink thoughtfully. "Not to mention free leg-supplier."
His face sobered. "Aye, well, there is an understanding of sorts between us. Her husband, Obadiah - he was an old Auror mate of mine. We fought together against Grindelwald, when we were both green as new shoots, and for a good many years after. When he was dying, I told him I'd look in on his widow and his lad now and then, make sure they were all right." It was less than half the story, but all that he could easily tell. Even now, the thought of Obadiah March's death pained him, physically as much as mentally, and he found himself rubbing his thigh in a reflexive gesture.
Imogen's brown eyes met his, shrewd and unwavering. "So that was how you lost your leg. Saving Obadiah - or trying to."
He nearly spit his Firewhisky across the table. Wiping his ruined mouth on the back of his hand, he managed to choke out, "How in the name of -"
"Well, it's the only explanation that fits the facts, isn't it?" said Imogen calmly. "Ursula seems to think she owes you a lifetime supply of wooden legs, and takes offence at the mere suggestion of payment. And based on what I've seen of her, I highly doubt she makes that kind of offer to every retired Auror and ex-comrade of her late husband's who comes around."
The lass was sharp, no doubt about it. He watched her sidelong for a moment as she stirred her drink - some multicoloured concoction with fruit on a little stick - and not for the first time, found himself regretting that he was not fifty years younger and a good deal better-preserved. At last he cleared his throat and said, "Well, you'd be right about that."
"Tell me," she said, her voice soft yet somehow commanding, and he found himself answering almost before he could think.
"It was a good many years ago, early in the first war against Voldemort. I'd both my own eyes then, and both legs to go with them, and only a few of these scars." He'd even been reckoned handsome in those days, impossible as that seemed now. "We were out on patrol, on a quiet night, and then all of a sudden four Death Eaters Apparated right in front of us. They'd been tipped off by a spy in the Ministry, knew where we'd be heading - we didn't have a chance. They got Obadiah first - hit him with -"
He broke off then, and took a deep swig from his hip-flask. To end up telling this story, of all stories, to Imogen especially, was more than he'd bargained for. And yet perhaps it was the one she needed most to hear. He cleared his throat and continued roughly, "It was a Dark curse I'd not seen before, and I'd no way to stop it. All I could do was fight, for both our lives, until help came. And by the time the other Aurors arrived, the same black-robed devil that cursed Obadiah had blasted off my leg, and all I could do was lie there like a useless bloody lump while the fighting went on... and listen to my best friend die."
"Intorqueo," she said, her voice barely audible. "The Gut-Wrencher Curse. Wasn't it."
Moody swallowed hard, feeling the whisky burn the back of his throat. "Aye."
Imogen pushed her drink across the table. "I need to get out of here," she said flatly, wrapping her crimson and gold robes more closely about her, as though feeling a sudden chill. "Can we - would you mind if we went for a walk?"
This was it, then. If it didn't happen now, it never would. "Course not," he said, more gently than was his wont, and dropped a handful of Sickles onto the table. "Let's be off."
It was no good hanging about Diagon Alley on a Saturday afternoon, of course; and the streets on the Muggle side of the Leaky Cauldron were sure to be even more crowded and noisy - not to mention that the two of them were hardly dressed for it. So in the end, after a brief conference, Alastor and Imogen Apparated to Richmond Park, just outside of London.
Once there, Imogen cast a quick Muggle-Locating Charm and, having found a path on which few people appeared to be present, they walked for some minutes in silence, following a winding course that led them in and out among the trees. At last, in a low voice very unlike her ordinary effusive, rather brash tones, Imogen spoke:
"Thank you, Alastor."
He was surprised. "What for?"
"For... oh, don't be silly. You know. For everything." She laid a hand on his arm, making him stop and look down at her. The eyes that met his were dark and serious, oddly intent. "For saving my life. For being a friend. For getting me out of the flat today, giving me a chance to do something... it was what I needed, even if I didn't know it."
"It was nothing, lass. You've done me more than one favour yourself, if it comes to that." Oddly, he found himself almost embarrassed; there was such earnestness in her face.
"Maybe." Her gaze held his. "But I've never thanked you properly, and..." Her voice trailed off. Alastor barely had time to reflect that it was not like Imogen to leave a sentence unfinished before her fingers laced themselves into his hair, pulling his head down, and her soft, half-parted lips met his.
His first, unworthy impulse was to be fervently thankful for the Nerve-Regenerating Potion that his niece and her new husband had invented between them, which had restored movement and sensation to the left side of his face. His second thought, equally inappropriate, was that he could not remember the last time he'd been kissed, especially with this kind of zeal and thoroughness, and that he would remember this moment for the rest of his not-likely-to-be-very-much-longer life. Those two thoughts together kept Alastor Moody standing quite still for several delicious seconds before his reason and his better judgement took over: then, reluctantly, he pulled away from Imogen and shook his head.
"There's no need for that," he said, his voice rough with the effort of holding himself back: she'd felt so good in his arms, he wanted more than anything to have her there again. "Though it's most kind of you -"
"Kind!" Her tone was incredulous. "You think that was an act of charity?"
Moody was flabbergasted. This was not what he had expected from Imogen, not at all. It was certainly not why he'd invited her out today, or brought her here; until thirty seconds ago he'd not have thought it possible, let alone likely, that events would take this turn. Not knowing what to say, or even to think, he looked into her upraised face, taking in the flush in her cheeks, the almost feverish intensity of her gaze...
And all at once he knew.
"Lass," he said very gently. "Don't do this to yourself. You've your whole young life ahead of you. And you're worth more than this, much more. No matter how you might feel like doing something rash and impetuous -"
"It's not impetuous." Her voice was as quiet as his. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, Alastor. Longer than you know. And I'm not the only one, either - or were you just flirting with me, that day at Hogwarts?"
It took him only a second to remember that conversation, two weeks ago. Lying on a cot in the field hospital, white with pain and barely clinging to consciousness, she'd still had enough spirit left to make one of her characteristic flirtatious remarks to him.
"Irrepressible wench," he'd growled at her. "You never take anything seriously, do you?"
"Who says I don't take you seriously?" Her voice had been hoarse, barely audible, but her smile had wrenched at his heart.
"I do. But if I were you, woman, I wouldn't be so sure you shouldn't..."
Battle-weary, weak with relief that she would live, he'd spoken more than he meant: the words had been a joke, but they were also a warning. You're only having a bit of fun with an ugly old man, lass, and you mean no harm, I know. But ugly and old as I might be, a man I still am, and I'm neither blind nor dead... so have a care.
After all, she couldn't possibly have meant anything by what she said...
No, of course not, the very idea was nonsense. Alastor was no fool; he knew what he saw in the mirror every morning. Whatever Imogen might think she felt for him just now, whatever she might believe herself prepared to do, she wasn't thinking clearly, and that was that. He put his hands on her shoulders, looking at her soberly.
"Imogen. Don't think I don't know what you've been going through, this past week. I've not forgotten what it was like, the first time I had to kill someone."
The colour drained out of her face. "What does that have to do with -"
"Everything, love. Trust me." He'd made a slip there, but there was no time to reproach himself for it; he was speaking too rapidly, willing her to listen, to believe. "The moment you've time to think about it, it makes you sick inside. You ask yourself if there couldn't have been some other way... and it's a question you can't answer. If you've a conscience at all, it eats at you, night and day, until you start to feel you don't deserve to be alive yourself."
She said nothing, simply stared at him, her eyes huge and haunted. He steeled himself and plunged on:
"That's when you start wanting to do some mad, foolish thing, something impulsive and dangerous. I've seen more than one young Auror ruin their careers, their families, their lives, in that state of mind." He drew a deep breath. "And I'll not sit by and let you do the same."
"I don't..." Her voice shook. "I don't know what you're talking about."
It was a brave show, but her face was ghastly white. She'd collapse in a minute, he felt sure of it. Gently but inexorably he took hold of her arm, led her along the path to where a wrought-iron bench sat half-hidden in the shadow of the trees, and made her sit down before he spoke again.
"You're not being sensible, lass. You know that as well as I do. You're young and comely and you've a sharp mind: it'd be a crime to throw all that away. And whatever it is you think you want, just now, it surely isn't an old ruin like me."
She drew in her breath, spots of hectic colour rising in her cheeks. "What makes you so sure you know what I want? Or why?"
He was silent, his eyes holding hers. She shifted uncomfortably on the bench, looked away from him and went on with obviously forced calm: "Right. Well, I can't fault you for modesty, can I? So it makes no sense, to your mind, that I'd care for you. But Alastor -" her eyes flicked back to his, pleading - "you have no idea how remarkable you are."
"Oh, I've no doubt I'm a singular sort of fellow," he said gruffly. "I've made a career of it, you might say. But that's no good reason for a pretty young woman like yourself to -"
She laughed, a little bitterly. "Pretty young woman. Now there's a phrase I don't often hear. You've no idea, do you? From your perspective it must look like I've got every opportunity in the world to meet someone I could share my life with. Hordes of eager suitors knocking on my door." Her lips formed a hard line, and she shook her head. "No, Alastor. Believe it or not, you are the only man I've ever met who isn't afraid of me."
"Afraid of you?" He was taken aback. "Lass, what d'you mean? You've any number of men who'd call you friend. Any fool can see they like you - enjoy your company."
"Oh, yes. Imogen Crump, the Life of the Party. The One You Can Count On. Tell your troubles to, even, in a pinch. But never anything more." Her voice lowered. "And that's just as well. Because they're lovely boys, but that's all they are - boys. And it'll be a long, long time before they've grown up enough not to be intimidated by someone like me."
Now he was beginning to understand. It was true enough that Imogen had a poise and intelligence that made her formidable: though her manner was easygoing and her wit good-natured, she was all too quick to see and comment on the follies and foibles of those around her. If she'd had a magical eye like Moody's own, her perceptiveness could hardly have been more acute - or more disconcerting to the average young man. In fact, when Alastor thought back to what he'd been like at twenty-five or even thirty, he doubted he'd have been up to facing a girl like Imogen himself.
"But you're different," she went on passionately, "don't you see? You're not put off by my teasing - you can give as good as you get. You know who you are and you know what you want out of life, and you're not threatened by someone who knows the same things. And you've got fire, you're ready to fight for what you believe in and defend what's right no matter what the cost - do you know how rare that is?"
"Rare, maybe," he growled at her, determined not to show how much her words had shaken him. "But that doesn't make me the only one. And at twenty-six years old, lass, you've not lived long enough to give up hope of meeting someone your own age - and a sight better looking than me."
She was silent then, but the mulish set of her jaw told him he had not really convinced her. He went on more gently, "There's no sense in it, Imogen. You're not thinking straight right now, however you might tell yourself otherwise. Give yourself a few weeks, and you'll see -"
"A few weeks?" She shook her head vehemently. "You've really no clue, have you? This isn't something I cooked up in my guilty imagination as a form of self-punishment. Yes, it's true I can't get Muriel Groggins's death out of my head, but -" She stopped, swallowing hard, and finished in almost a whisper, "I've been thinking about you for a long time, Alastor. Whatever you may think, what happened at the Battle of Hogwarts isn't the reason."
"Maybe not," he said, as a new realisation began to form itself in his head, "but I'll doubt you can say the same about what happened afterward."
When she'd said the Battle of Hogwarts, his mind had gone back to the memory of Maud standing on the Quidditch pitch: pale, bedraggled and weary-eyed, yet somehow transcendently beautiful, as a bride ought to be. Her face was lit with joy as she held the hands of the tall, dark-haired man before her, speaking with him the ancient vows that would bind them together for life.
In that moment, Moody had glanced down at Imogen lying on her cot, and saw her smile tremble suddenly, her eyes glimmer with uncharacteristic tears. At the time he'd taken it as evidence that her internal injuries still pained her, or else that she was crying with happiness at the wedding, as women often did; but now...
Imogen was looking at the ground, not speaking. He said in as soft a voice as he could muster, "Were you in love with him?"
She blinked, and her head came up. "Who?"
Her mouth dropped open, and she stared at him wide-eyed. Then, all at once, she sputtered into helpless laughter, one hand clutching her tender stomach for support. "Severus Snape," she choked out, when she could speak. "Oh, dear heavens, have mercy, no."
"Well, he's not one of your shy laddies with no sense of direction, is he? And Maud certainly didn't seem to mind his looks, even if they aren't that much better than mine -"
"I would drive Severus Snape around the bend," gasped Imogen, "in about two hours. And he wouldn't deny that, either." She took a handkerchief out of her sleeve, blew her nose, and went on in a calmer tone, "No, believe me, the thought has never crossed my mind. Maud can have him and good luck to her - but that man is definitely not my type. Whatever made you think...?"
Obviously, he'd missed the bull's-eye; but he was still convinced he had the right target. "But you envy her, just the same - don't you?"
She bit her lip and looked away, unwilling or unable to speak.
"You needn't fear I'll think less of you for it, if you do. In fact-" He rubbed his ruined nose, a little awkwardly - "you wouldn't be the only one, come to that."
Imogen let out a sigh of resignation, and her shoulders slumped. "It's so stupid to be jealous of Maud," she said in a pained voice. "I mean, what she's been through the past couple of years, and Snape too - I think I'd have gone mad, or given up altogether, long before I ever got to the wedding."
Moody doubted it - Imogen was every bit as tough and resolute as his niece, or more so - but he kept silent, letting her talk.
"And I am happy for them, really I am, or at least I think Maud deserves to be happy, but..." She made a helpless gesture with her hands. "I can't help envying them, too. Because I know I'll never have anything like..." She took a deep breath. "Oh, curse it, I hate self-pity," she burst out, and dashed at her eyes angrily with the handkerchief.
Silently, knowing it might not be the wisest move yet feeling that he could hardly do anything else, Alastor reached out and put his arm around her. She went stiff for a moment, as though about to pull away; then all at once she melted against him and buried her face in his robes.
This, at last, was what he'd brought her out for - a good cry on a trusted shoulder, a chance to let out the pent-up grief she'd been holding ever since the battle. Whether it was guilt over Muriel's death or the unreasoning jealousy she'd just confessed or some tangled combination of the two, something had been poisoning her inside, and she'd needed to let it out. This afternoon, and their conversation, certainly hadn't gone the way he'd expected, but if it came to the same thing in the end...
Imogen was saying something in a thick voice, her face muffled against his shoulder. He drew back a little, said in a voice that was rougher than he'd intended, "What's that, lass?"
She shifted a little, sniffing. "If I hadn't fought Muriel, she'd have killed Maud... there wouldn't have been a wedding for me to be jealous about. I keep telling myself that, and yet... it doesn't help. "
He tightened his arms around her, not speaking, just listening. After a moment she drew a shuddering breath and went on:
"I can't help thinking... I should have been able to stop Muriel without killing her. But when she hit me with the Gut-Wrencher Curse... and I couldn't even see straight for the pain... she told me she'd just spotted George Weasley in the battle and she was going to kill him, too... she raised her wand, pointed it at the fighting, and said 'Avada -'"
He felt her swallow, and her hand knotted in the shoulder of his robes. "All I could think was, I wasn't going to save Maud's life and not save George's too... I had to stop her. I could have used a Silencing Charm, but I was afraid she'd counter it somehow and try again, and I knew I only had strength for one more spell... so I put a Suffocating Hex on her instead. And she went down. And when I managed to pull myself up and crawl over to her... she wasn't just unconscious. She was... dead."
Moody nodded slowly. It was much as he'd thought; more accident than design. Imogen simply wasn't the type to kill someone thoughtlessly, even an enemy. But even at that, something in her story didn't quite seem to fit.
He cast his mind back to the battle, replaying his own memories of that night. He'd seen Imogen and Muriel's duel from a distance, though he'd been too far away and too busy fighting himself to do anything about it. They'd been high up the slope, by the castle wall, while he'd been down at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, and it was then that he'd seen...
She raised a blotchy, tear-stained face to his. "What?"
"George Weasley wasn't anywhere near you, when you were fighting. I saw him myself, running off toward the Quidditch pitch. Whatever Muriel said, she couldn't have seen him, much less put the Killing Curse on him."
He'd expected her to look relieved, but she only lowered her head again. "I know that. Now."
"Then for pity's sake, woman, stop blaming yourself. Muriel put a slow, vicious curse on you and then deliberately baited you into killing her. She made the same choice that half of Voldemort's army did that night - to die, rather than go back to Azkaban." He shook his head vehemently. "You didn't commit murder, Imogen. Muriel Groggins committed suicide."
"I know - but it was such a bloody, stupid, useless waste!" Her body had gone stiff with anger, her fists clenching as though she were resisting the impulse to beat them against his chest. "All of it - so much lost - I didn't even save George, he didn't need saving - and for the rest of my life I'm going to see Muriel's dead face in my mind -"
"Enough." He caught her face between his hands, looked her in the eye. "You're right enough, that memory won't leave you. But if you give it time enough, it will fade. Don't let Muriel have the last word, d'you hear? She meant you to suffer until you died, with killing her the last thing on your mind - but you lived." He shook her a little, not roughly, just enough to be sure he had her attention. "You're alive, Imogen. So live!"
For a moment she looked back at him, flushed and a little abashed. Then she said in a strained voice, "What do you think I was trying to do when I kissed you?"
He blinked at her, startled.
"I'm not trying to run away, Alastor," she went on softly. "I'm not giving up hope - I'm reaching for the best chance I've got. Why can't you believe that I really, truly care for you? That I might actually want you as something more than a dear and trusted friend?"
"Imogen." His voice was hoarse, and it was all he could do to find the next few words. "You're... a sensible girl. It's best we both face the facts." He cleared his throat. "Look at things as they really are."
"Things." She tilted her head to one side, her fingers winding and unwinding a strand of his long grey hair. "Like..."
His mind went blank. He caught her hand, said gruffly, "Stop that."
She nestled down against him, and he felt her smile. "Just checking. Go on."
"Aye. Well..." What had he been about to say? He looked down at the top of her head, the shining bob of brown hair dappled in the sunlight, and felt an ache in his heart he'd not felt for years. He'd never looked for something like this, never even imagined it possible, and now here he was having to give it away. Something in him broke then, and he found himself speaking with a raw honesty that went against all his native caution and restraint:
"If I'd the cheek to offer this wreck of a body and the few years I've got left in it to anyone, lass, it would be you. But I'd not burden any woman - least of all one so young and full of life - with my old age, or ask her to share the enemies I've made over the years. I can ward my house with a hundred spells and keep as fit as my one good leg will let me, but even so it won't be long before something inside me gives out, or somebody finally catches me off-guard. And when that happens, I can't bear the thought of you grieving."
"Alastor." She touched his face very gently, her fingers tracing the scar that ran across his cheek. "It's too late for that. If you died this moment, or an hour from now - I would grieve."
"I... appreciate that, lass. But there's no sense making it worse. And it's not just that, either." He shook his head. "There's so much I can't give you."
"What?" Her mouth quirked. "Diamonds? Furs? Trips to the Riviera?"
That brought her up short, looking at him with eyes that were suddenly sober. "I know," she said. "That's another reason I've been thinking about you."
This was not the answer he'd expected. He frowned at her, bemused. What on earth did she mean by that? She felt sorry he'd not have youngsters about to brighten his old age? Well, he'd already raised Maudie, and her children - if he lived long enough to see them - would be all he could want in that way. Surely Imogen must know that as well as he did.
"You see," Imogen went on quietly, "children aren't... exactly in my plans for the future, either."
"Well, now, it's too early to be sure of that, isn't it? You might think so now, but I've seen many a young woman change her mind, a few years down the road -"
"No." Her voice was flat. "You don't understand, Alastor. After what Muriel did to me - the mediwizards did the best they could, but there was too much scarring inside -"
He stared at her, appalled into speechlessness.
"I can't have children," she said simply. "Ever."
"Oh, love," he said, his voice cracking on the second syllable, and gathered her back into his arms, holding her tightly. "That's a hard thing, that is."
If she were weeping, she gave no sign of it, but she laid her head on his shoulder, and he felt her slow exhalation of breath against his cheek. "Don't tell Maud," she whispered after a moment. "I don't want her ever to feel... that I've any cause to regret taking her place."
And that, too, was so very like Imogen. "I won't," he said, and meant it: there was simply no point burdening Maud with guilt, when she was already so deeply in Imogen's debt, so grateful to the woman who for the past two years had been in every way her best friend.
"But you must see it now," Imogen went on softly. "Even if by some miracle I met a man I could respect, someone who would accept me as I am, what are the chances he won't want children? Oh, he might say it at first - even believe it - but in a few years' time..."
He pushed a sceptical sound past the ache in his throat. "Rubbish. You could always adopt one or two, if it comes to that. And who's to say that this future husband of yours might not have his own problems fathering children? He might well be grateful for a wife who'd let him off the hook."
That got a little snort out of her, almost a laugh. "You've an answer for everything, don't you? All right, I'll stop painting my future in shades of hopeless gloom. But -" She drew back, looking into his face - "accepting that you might not be my one and only hope doesn't change the way I feel about you, right now."
"No, just listen. I haven't come to this lightly, you know, or even just by process of elimination. I know you're a great deal older than I am, and there's not much left of whatever looks you used to have, and frankly, most people think you're stark staring mad. I've considered all that. I've even thought about what it might be like to wake up next to you in the morning and find your wooden leg propped against the wall and your mad-eye rolling about in a glass on the night-stand."
Alastor winced involuntarily; that particular image was all too close to the truth. Still, Imogen went on:
"And of course, I've thought about the snide comments I'd get on a daily basis from people who'd think I could only have chosen you for your notoriety - or your money." She paused, frowning a little. "Do you even have any money?"
He made a derisive noise. "Not much."
"Good," she said, sounding satisfied. "That would have complicated matters. Anyway, the point is - I thought about all those things, and do you know, I surprised myself by coming to the conclusion that I really, truly, don't care. Because I've come to know the man in here -" She tapped his chest emphatically - "and that man is one of my dearest and most valued friends, a man that I deeply respect, and admire... and love."
He would never forget those words, or the look on her face as she said them. There was no doubting her sincerity, and in that moment he realised that all his arguments up to this point had been wasted. Try as he might, he had no hope of convincing her that he was unfit, or unworthy, or even undesirable as a suitor. And there was no point pretending he didn't care for her; she knew better than that already.
But he didn't dare hesitate, especially not now. He had only one card left to play, one last hope of persuading Imogen to see reason, and if he didn't use it straight away, they'd both be lost. Looking into her ordinary, yet somehow infinitely loveable face, willing himself not to weaken or falter, he spoke with blunt conviction:
"Even so, Imogen, it can't be. If there was only my own selfish heart to think of, I'd be honoured to call you mine, and let the rest of the world go hang. But the minute we're seen to be more than friends, my reputation, and my enemies, will be yours. And that's something you can't afford."
A spark of defiance lit her eyes. "I'm no easy target, Alastor. I can take care of -"
He put a finger to her lips. "Hush, love, I'm not finished. Not by a long road. I'm not doubting your spirit, or your capability. You're a better fighter than my own Maudie, for all that I raised her and taught her the best I could. But that's beside the point." He drew a deep breath. "What I mean is, you've work to do with the Ministry, important work, and people are counting on you. Before much longer you'll be in a place to do a powerful lot of good, if you keep on the way you've been going. But if you take up with me, all that'll be ruined."
"I don't understand." Her voice was flat.
"Well, you said it yourself, didn't you? I've what you call notoriety. And so would you have. Which is all very well if you're just a junior researcher in an unimportant Ministry office, but when you're in line for a top spot at the Department of Mysteries -"
He had to give Imogen credit, she'd been well trained. Her mouth didn't so much as twitch, and the colour in her face stayed steady, as she raised her eyebrows and said, "Alastor Moody, where do you get these ideas?"
"Don't be a fool, woman," he said, not unkindly, but firmly nonetheless. "No sense wasting each other's time pretending. I've my sources, and they're good ones. You're Euphemia Glossop's apprentice, hand-picked and trained, and when she retires in a decade or two, there's no one better fit to take her place. But you can't do that if you've made a spectacle of yourself and caught the attention of every Dark wizard in the British Isles."
She was silent, her head bent.
"That's why it can't be between us, love," he said. "It mustn't be. My work with the Ministry's over - yours is just beginning. You've a lot of fine people depending on you, and the chance to do more good than I ever did. I can't let you throw all that away."
There was a long pause after he had finished. At last she raised her head and said very quietly, "I was afraid you'd say that."
He opened his mouth, to explain or apologise, but she held up a hand and went on in the same subdued but resolute voice:
"No, don't. You're right. I do have a responsibility to the Ministry, and it would be foolish - and selfish - for me to walk away from it. And if I'm going to be totally honest, Alastor, with you and with myself, I know I'm not really prepared for a life of Constant Vigilance - at least not your kind." She sighed. "I've no right to burden you with worrying about me and trying to protect me as well as yourself, and I'm afraid that's what you'd have to do."
He knew, then, that he'd won - if one could call it winning. If she was beginning to think of objections on her own, it was obvious she no longer intended to fight. Which was a good thing, because if she'd kept pressing the issue he might very well have given in. Even now, it was hard to make himself let go of her...
In fact, it was impossible, because she'd planted her hands firmly on both his shoulders and brought her face close to his, a glint of old mischief in her eye. "All right then," she said, "so you won't marry me. Obviously, we'll have to settle for a torrid six-week affair -"
He gave a bark of laughter. "Six weeks! At my age I'd be lucky to survive a day." Then his face sobered and he added, "And that's not what you're after anyway, love. Not really."
She smiled, a little ruefully. "You know me too well. No matter how I try to be outrageous and daring, I'll always be stuck with this respectable Hufflepuff core."
"Aye, well, there are a lot worse things than being loyal and hard-working." He gave her back his habitual lopsided grin, trying to ignore the ache inside him, knowing she must be doing the same. Best to put a brave face on it, to go on without more cause for regret...
Her hands framed his face, gently. "Just once more, Alastor. For old times' sake." And before he could reply, either to protest or agree, she leaned forward and kissed him full on the mouth.
This time there was no reason not to respond in kind, or so he told himself; he had no secrets from her now, either about his feelings or his intentions. So he held her in his arms and kissed her for the last time, savouring the softness of her, the warmth of her embrace and the fragrance of her hair, memories he would keep with him until he died.
As would she, he felt sure; even if she found a good man with whom to spend her life - and he sincerely hoped she would - he knew she would not forget him, or what they had shared this day. He could only hope that she would look back on that memory with fondness, and not with regret.
At last he let her go, and she drew back with a smile that wavered a little, but was no less genuine for it. "Friends, then," she said. "Not quite as before, I know - but I'm sure we can manage it, even at that?"
"Aye," said Moody, swallowing back the lump in his throat. "You'll not get rid of me so easily, lass."
"Oh, no?" she asked, getting up from the bench and smoothing the wrinkles from her robe.
"Well, for one thing, I've every intention to come and do a wild dance at your wedding."
She looked back at him and grinned. "You just want a chance to show off that fancy new leg of yours."
He heaved himself off the bench, stumped after her. "Well, it's like you said back at Ursula's. How else is anyone going to see it?"
Imogen laughed then, a genuine and unforced laugh that sounded - almost - like her old self again. "Then I'll make sure to put you in the front of the conga line," she said, and they walked off down the path together.
As always, infinite thanks are due to my wonderful, insightful, ever-faithful team of betas, all of whom are splendid authors in their own right - Erica H. Smith, Teri "Lyda Clunas" Krenek, Melanie "DrummerGirl" Seibert, and Melissa A. Further encouragement was provided by Cally Perry, Alec Dossetor, Lori "Rosmerta" Schwabenbauer and the good folks on the HPC "Fan Fiction" forum.