The Worst Time
“What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.”
– T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Thud. Thud. Thud.
I was alone in the cottage, the only living thing within its walls, and yet still the knocks came from the vanishing cabinet in the attic. There was something inside of it that could control its door through time, opening and closing it at will, but what, who, and most of all, why?
My eyes drifted again to the empty portrait. I had seen others like it before, but there was always that hint of the sitter, perhaps a waft of breath in one corner or some personal article left behind while the sitter had gone to visit another portrait. But there were no other paitings in the cottage. The walls were mostly empty, and Uncle Neville had said that the plants disliked them.
What if there was another reason? What if something in the cottage, a ghost or something of that sort, would not allow it?
Now I was being fanciful, I thought as I made my slow, stumbling way to the attic. It was just an empty portrait in an empty cottage. Some people preferred not to be surrounded by art, and Moody did not strike me as the artistic type. My mind stilled at the thought of him. Much of his life seemed a mystery. History books were fat with tales of Moody’s bravery and madness, but thin on any other details. This place held his secrets. All of these things – the trunks, the cabinet, the bedroom, the portrait – were all clues to a life largely unknown, but they were only small pieces of a much larger, more complex puzzle.
It seemed to take an eternity for me to cross the attic and place my hand upon the tarnished knob of the cabinet door. It opened without a sound. There was the letter on the floor of the cabinet, as though it hadn't moved at all. With a sigh of relief, I reached down to pick it up, more carefully bracing myself against the frame of the door.
You will discover the method to his madness.
My eyes widened. My head felt light and, for a long moment, I could not breathe.
How had it changed? How did it know how I had changed, that I would continue back in time? Moody had alluded to the fact that we had known one another before, in the past. His past. My future.
I had a terrible feeling that everything around me was being controlled by some unknown force. This could not be fate and fate alone. Fate was too slippery, too entirely based on coincidence. Bad luck had made me get hit by that bludger and fall from my broomstick, a fine example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was different.
I stepped into the cabinet and closed the door behind me.
It did not take long to fall.
When the door popped open, the sun was shining in the window onto an empty floor, thick with dust, even thicker than before. The spiders were enjoying themselves, the intricacy of their webs across the rafters akin to council estates, each one overlapping the next.
But there were no trunks.
Did that make it possible that the woman to whom they belonged was still living? Would I then find her things filling the wardrobes of the bedroom below, some robes perhaps strewn across the chairs by the fireplace, her jewellery case safely tucked in the drawer of the dressing table by the window, its velvet restored along with its glimmering contents?
I snatched myself from the dream, having again ventured too far from reality. I was not a Seer. I could not reach into the lives of the dead through their belongings, and yet those trunks, those things, that ring, had some sinister affect on my imagination.
I suppressed a shiver and sought distraction.
It came upon me while I stumbled back down the stairs, grumbling to myself the whole way, wondering why Moody, knowing of my condition, hadn’t thought to keep the cursed thing in a more convenient location.
There were no obvious alterations to the cottage. The second floor was still largely unused. Two of the rooms were filled with various objects, many of which seemed to be confiscated magical items in various stages of deconstruction. There was a desk covered in tools and probes and whatnots, all neatly arranged, almost to the point of obsession. A foe-glass stood by the window, its surface filled with shadowy figures. I couldn’t imagine anyone with so many enemies, except for my father. It must have been at the height of Moody’s career, the 1970s, perhaps even sooner, but I would have to wait and see to know for certain. His appearance, etched by the passing of time, was a far more accurate form of measurement.
Retracing his steps some thirty years from now – the great paradox of time – I went to enter the bedroom below, meaning to look at the portrait, but I stopped in the doorway, struck by an overwhelming scent of lilies. They had been arranged in a vase on the dressing table by the window, the flowers drooping, beginning to fade. Heavy and white, they caught the light like nothing else in the room.
I entered slowly. I could neither see nor hear anyone, and it felt oddly wrong. There was a presence here, like the imprint of a head in a pillow or the scent of perfume hanging in the air, but it, like the lilies, had faded.
The breeze coming through the window was warm, but still I shivered.
Death. That is what it felt like.
Yet I could not leave this place. My feet took me unbidden to the wardrobes. The doors opened at my touch to reveal robes of various degrees of formality and age. I fingered the embroidery along the cuffs of emerald robes and recognized them from the motheaten remnants I’d found... would find in the trunks. It was a shame to think that they'd all go to waste, lying in an attic for decades, as forgotten as the witch who’d once worn them. That was the bitter heart of memory. So quick to forget.
“You should not be here.”
It was hardly more than a whisper, but it was a woman’s voice, coming from somewhere in the room.
No one was there.
“He will soon return, and he will not be happy to see you. Not this time.”
There was something about that voice. I knew it, but I did not know how. I had never heard it before, yet it felt as familiar as my own.
“Who are you?” It was maddening, speaking into the air, but perhaps I could follow the voice to its origin.
“I was his wife. You should have deduced that by now.”
My eyes drifted toward the portrait. She was out of sight, just behind the frame, but there was a scarf hanging over the back of the chair like a silken bloodstain.
I walked toward it, my heart beating loudly in my ears. “Why are you hiding, then? Surely he would want to see you?”
She gave a low laugh. “Aren't you surprised to hear that Alastor Moody had a wife? I was certain you would be.” Her voice was cruel, but it was the cruelty that came with bitterness, something that I could understand.
“It just makes sense.” I placed my hand on the back of the real chair. How long since she had last sat there, sharing coffee with Moody as I would do in the future, his future? “The clothes rather gave it away, but there were other things. I assume that the gold ring was yours?”
“Mine, hers, it makes no difference.” A hand appeared in the left side of the painting, and there was the ring I had held some fifty years in the future. “But you really ought to take heed of my words. Alastor should not find you here.”
“Why not?” Perhaps she would show her face. For all that her words triggered twinges in my nerves, I wanted to see the face of the woman who was his wife just as much as I was curious for a glimpse of his so-called madness.
There was a long pause in which the hand was withdrawn and I could hear her moving about just out of sight.
“You always had poor timing.”
It was not her wvoice. How he had come to the door without making a sound, I could not imagine, not with–
I looked down, expecting to see his wooden leg, but it was a leg like any other ending in a large black boot. He must lose it later, during the first war with Voldemort. Something in his gaze pulled mine to meet it. His face was less scarred and clean-shaven, his nose whole and unexpectedly small, his hair peppered with grey and roughly cropped.
“Hello, Lily.” There was a strange twist to his lips as he leaned against the door frame, hands in the pockets of his long black coat. He must have boiled under the summer sun.
I could not think how to respond. Even a simple “hello” would not do, and he didn't seemed to expect it. There was not a hint of anger in his face, nor tension in his muscles, but he was surrounded by a frisson of electricity that sent Dark Wizards running for cover, throwing down their wands in surrender.
“You’re quiet today.” His eyes flickered up at the portrait. “I take it she’s been telling you to be frightened of me. She’s right, in case you were wondering.” A note of sadness shook his resolve, and when he looked back at me, there was a strange lift to his brow. “It’s the worst possible time for you to be here–”
“Then I’ll go.” I took a step toward the door, but hesitated, refusing to come too near him.
He did not blink. “Must you?”
If this was his madness, it was surprising that the Ministry would force him to retire. He was too careful and measured, all that obsessive paranoia radiating forth, ordering and reordering the world around him, no matter how often and how much it would resist.
“Yes.” I took another step forward, defying the raging butterflies in my stomach. “It's not appropriate for me to be here. You’re in mourning.” It was difficult to speak while his eyes took in every detail of the room, its objects, and me.
His eyebrows lifted. His gaze did not. “Aren’t you the perceptive one. If only you’d thought of becoming an Auror. We could use more sharp ones like you.”
I could not tell whether he was serious or mocking, but there was some measure of both in his tone that lead me to wonder whether it was all an act, a well-wrought mask that disguised what I knew to lie beneath. The old man who had sat with me in this same room had long ago dropped that mask, but the present Moody was different, at the height of his powers, just at the moment before his sanity would collapse.
“Why so silent, Lily? One might think you’re afraid of me.”
His lips turned up into a smile and I could no longer remain befuddled and silent. He was too casual in the face of death, the scent of Easter lilies still pervading while the dust had not yet settled on his dead wife’s clothes, that I was disgusted by him. Either he had not loved her at all or he had loved her too much. I could only guess at a certain feeling he had toward me, as mystifying as it was terrifying.
“I’m afraid of what you’ve become.”
I had no control of the words; they spilled from me as though they came from another time, another version of myself that would come to know this wizard whose fate was oddly intertwined with my own. But I could not know where fate would take me in the end.
His reaction was immediate. He drew himself up to his full height, eyes black coals boring through my skull. His muscles tensed, his eyes widening, the magic one bulging, his nostrils flaring with every ragged breath. The seconds, then minutes ticked past. We waited. Then, without warning, he relaxed, if only a touch, his eyes lowering.
“Yes, perhaps you’re right after all.” His voice rose a pitch higher, softening. He moved into the room, drifting past me to stand at the fireplace, hand negligently resting on the mantle. “Strange that it should come to this, after all this time.”
He looked up at the portrait, but it remained silent, empty.
“It wasn’t meant to be like this.”
Though his voice was low and his eyes were no longer upon me, I still felt overwhelmed by his presence. He had not even approached, yet he seared through my flesh with his gaze. Though burned, I did not stay my hand from reaching toward the flame once more.
“I will see you again–” I did not know what to call him. Moody was too impersonal Alastor was too strange, as though I was taking on a role larger than I could bear.
“Why do you never age, Lily? Why do I change, yet you remain the same?” He braced himself against the mantle with both hands, head turned my way, his magical eye hidden in shadow. Even this way he did not appear normal. He could never be normal.
And there it was, the moment when I would tell him what he would relate to me in his future, my past.
“Time is out of joint. I keep going back in time.”
“Through my life. Yes, I know that.” He tossed aside my words with a wave of his hand and flung himself into the chair. A purple vein in his temple was throbbing. “But the question is why. Why you? Why me? Why now?”
It was a mystery beyond him, as it was beyond me.
“I don’t know.”
There was a sharp intake of breath in one corner of the portrait. One edge of the scarf fluttered in response. She did not speak, only hovered just out of sight, listening, waiting, for what, I could not guess.
Moody glanced at it, his lips curling. “You have the answer, don’t you? That wouldn’t surprise me.” The colour rose in his cheeks.
It was a hatred that I could not longer bear to witness. He hated her, hated the power that she held over him, hated the way that she lived, so different from he. There were no books in this room, only her glorious clothes and jewels, the sickening smell of lilies and lavender hanging in the air. She had been a woman, tall and dark and extraordinary, loved by all. All but him.
How much further would I need to go to discover the rest of the story? How far would I have to venture before I found the beginning?
He was watching me again. Spots of passion flamed his cheeks, but it was the tenderness in his eyes that sent me back a step. I was almost at the door. Even with my leg– No. I could never get away, not up two flights of stairs and through the the door of the cabinet, my only refuge.
“This doesn’t need to be the end.” He rose to his feet, something of the panther in his limbs. Nothing could keep him still for long. “Time will not have you. Not now, not again.”
He came forward, eyes intent on their prey.
“Moody, stop this.” I stepped back, wincing as I came down awkwardly on my ankle. “It’s not the right time.” Or was it? He needed me, needed someone who cared more for him than she ever could. And I, who had only met him once before, cared more than she who had known him, been married to him, for years, decades.
He moved faster than I imagined, feet impossibly light on the old floor boards, making hardly a sound.
“How do you know? Tell me!”
He was upon me now, hand gripping my shoulder, face thrust toward mine. All my nerves shuddered at his ear-shattering tone and the desperation that reverberated in every note. I would show no weakness. I was the daughter of the Boy Who Lived and the first Weasley girl in generations. I could be as strong as this Auror. This madman.
“How can I tell you what I don’t know myself?”
My voice sounded so calm, so collected, everything that I could not feel.
His eyes widened, but his jaw remained set. His grip on my shoulder loosened, but his hand did not fall. His face neared, and I waited for what felt to be inevitable.
“Would you condemn me to madness?” he whispered, his breath wafting against my cheek. “Forever wanting the one thing beyond my reach?”
My own breath was caught in my throat, my lungs set to burst at any moment. I closed my eyes, head spinning.
And then it came, the sound from above.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Author's Note: There are two inspirations for this portion of the story: Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca", particularly the scene in which the narrator explores Rebecca's bedroom, and to a lesser extent (for now) Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre".