Behind the Times
“What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
– T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
He glanced upwards, head tilting as his gaze drifted across the ceiling. His magical eye made a sickening three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn before its penetrating gaze returned to me.
“It’s calling for you.” His voice was eerily calm. “I remember hearing it, long ago.”
“How long?” I forced the words through my throat.
His face shrugged, each of his features possessing an extraordinary malleability. The scars would change him so much, permanently freezing those muscles behind a mask of dead flesh. What could have only been a twitch of the lips for the older Moody was now a complete set of movements from the flaring of nostrils to the raising of brows and even, I was amazed to see, the wiggling of an ear. He was all nerves, every second revealing a new facet.
“You don’t remember?” The Auror was there in a widening of his eyes, the magical one bulging to a dangerous size.
I wanted to pull away from him, but his grasp had not loosened, however level his voice had become. For all that I felt the pull of the cabinet, my dread of being left behind in this time was less than my terror of him, this Moody who could not know his own strength. How could any Death Eater have eluded him. What chance did they have against this wild flame in human form?
“How can you not remember?” he persisted, his voice finally breaking as he leaned toward me. “You know me, but you can’t remember any–”
When he stopped, he closed his eyes and, of all things, shuddered, his hands loosening their grip, anything to refrain from touching me. He swept over to the mantle, regarding me through narrowed, smouldering eyes.
“Who are you? A spy, a spell set to entrap me?”
There had been something in his eyes, just for a moment before he had released me, that should have told me everything, but I had not caught it in time. My brain could not move fast enough on merely two cups of coffee. What time was it now? How long had I been whisked through time on an empty stomach and no sleep?
I had to get away, back to the attic, back to the cabinet. How long would it wait for me? Would the next letter sit there forever, or would it vanish into the next time without me, leaving me stranded at the hands of this... this... what?
He was mad. Already. It was not a future state of mind, but a present one. If only I knew the exact date–
I was too slow at thinking, and he was not a patient man.
“Lily Potter.” My voice wavered, but held. “And you’re Mad-Eye Moody. Satisfied?”
He snorted. “No one calls me that.”
So that is how a person can change time, entirely without intention. It was, of course, a mere detail, and I could not even know what effect it would have on history. We were alone here, except for the painting, but she, having carried out her revenge, now remained silent.
“They will now.” I leaned against the doorframe, wincing at the bolt of pain racing up my leg.
He frowned and turned away, feeling at his pockets until he found his flask. I could not see how long a draught he took, his back an impenetrable black wall. It was curious that he should let his guard down in such a way, facing his back to a potential enemy, certainly a suspicious entity, but then I saw the mirror.
It had been a test. I could have drawn my wand during his so-called moment of weakness. When he caught my gaze in the mirror, I detected a hint of satisfied amusement.
“So you’re from the future.” Standing at the dressing table, he plucked a flower from its stem. “I was never certain, you know.” He looked back over his shoulder, the flower caught between his fingers. “All those years. Most of my life. You knew everything.”
When he looked away, his fingers clamped down, crushing the petals against the palm of his hand. “Even as you look at me now, you know how I’m going to die. Maybe you’ve even seen it happen.”
He spun to face me. “No?”
“No one ever found out what happened.” I struggled to breathe, finding no support in the wood behind me, for all its solidity. “I mean, to you.” Looking into his eyes was like floundering in the ocean. I was dragged beneath the surface, the air thrust from my lungs, the pressure crushing my chest.
“So we’re even then.” He gave a sharp bark of a laugh, tossing his head, curls of too-long hair falling back over his forehead in a ghastly reminiscence of long-departed boyhood. It was difficult to imagine that such a man could have ever been a child.
“We can’t tell each other what we want to know, so we’ll just have to find another subject of conversation.” He kept his eyes upon me, a cat stalking his prey.
I could not move beneath that gaze. There was no chance of escape. That must be it. He could not bear to be alone, whereas I could not bear to be anything but. I would sit in my chair in the sitting room to watch the sun set while the plants crept their way toward me in the waning light. That was my life. Not this. Never this.
I limped out of the room, keeping more weight on the stick than on my own feet, they were so weary. All of my body was weary, dragged down by the force of the ticking clock, the constant reminder that the cabinet was waiting. Always waiting.
“Where are you going?” He had come to the door, bracing his hands on either side of the frame, leaning outwards.
Looking back made me stumble, and the stick wobbled in complaint.
“I must go.” It emerged as a groan behind clenched teeth. I gasped and tried again. “I must.”
The throbbing in my leg worsened. I did not know whether I could climb the stairs in this state, but still I pressed forward. I had to get away, get back, get somewhere, anywhere. There was too much of him. His passions, his tensions, they seared the air around me and I could not breathe. I thought of the quiet, boring little cottage of the future, when he was gone, leaving only the remnants of a life. Their life. Her life.
Her trunks, her clothes, her jewels, her ring, her portrait, her everything. All of her but herself, a poor substitute for what he truly wanted.
It was a curious thing that he should keep all her things for so long. No one kept the belongings of someone they did not love. No one could forever pretend as though nothing had happened, as though Death had not intervened.
But why then this care for me? If anything was a poor substitute for the living, breathing flesh of a woman, it was me: bored, broken, pathetic Lily Potter, hardly able to walk, going to mental and physical ruin because she no longer cared what she looked like, what people thought of her.
Until now. Until him.
Did he love her or me?
I grasped at my thoughts as they spiralled into madness, weaving untold stories of passion like those favoured by my old housemates. I remember those yellow-back novels, the contents of which disgusted me with their flashy covers and dogeared pages devoid of reason and reality. There was nothing practical about love.
Why should he care, how could he love me?
I crumbled at last, my hands scraping against the walnut panelling, finding no hold. My stick clattered to the floor, but it felt as though I took forever to fall, time stretching forth its greedy hands to arrest me in a painful grasp. I seemed to hang in the air, something preventing my complete fall.
He righted me just as he would in twenty years, the same solidity to his arms, the same firmness in his grasp. The only difference was that, this time, he was steady, his heavy booted feet rooted to the ground. He could have merely set me straight and on my way as a particular nuisance to his peace, but his hands remained in place. I was trapped between the cat's paws, enraptured.
My eyes rose slowly. I took in the details of his thick overcoat, unbuttoned now, revealing plain Ministry-issue black robes, well-worn at the cuffs and collar, his hair brushing against his shoulders.
“I won’t let you leave again.”
At last, his face. He peered down at me, magic and normal eyes examining me with the same curious intensity. Every muscle in his face seemed to be moving, as though reacting to each passing thought, and I was mesmerised by the sight of so much life within a single human being. An extraordinary one, but still human, still mortal.
It was too late for me now. Too late to return. Too late for everything.
His head lowered as mine rose, and in the middle, at the still point, we met, the seconds fleeting past with Mercury’s wings, all of time threatening to crash down upon us because we’d broken its single, terrible rule without a single thought of regret.
That would come soon enough.
I should have rebelled against him, shoved aside all feeling so that I could free myself from his grasp, from the intensity which held me to him like shrapnel glued to a magnet. He was around me in all his power, all his strength, yet I was not suffocated. He could have consumed me, crushed me in his embrace, but although he could not be gentle, he knew better than to squish a bee in his hands, for it would sting.
My breath was weak, my heart pounding in reaction to the kiss, to the feeling of being not merely desired, but needed, a necessity for his existence. Each movement of his mouth against mine was so seeped in meaning and potency to the extent that I find, even now, myself halting to stare off into a corner, experiencing an great emptiness that drains me of language, but fills me with the memory of feeling, of touch and response that sends me back to experience it to be drowned within it, once again.
How long had I known it would come to this?
Perhaps it was the moment that the old man had regarded me with such knowing eyes. That man, what this one would become. This Moody knew less than the old, and I knew more, but still I was clearly at a disadvantage, my youth and confusion belittling my ability in every way possible. He anticipated my every reaction and I knew that, if I was to stay, I would be forever his. Forever not myself.
I did not belong in this place, this dreadful haunted house with a man who sought only the ghost of something always beyond his reach, something he had lost long ago.
“Tell me that you won’t go,” he whispered in my ear.
I could not. I hung in his arms, his lips once more in possession of mine, my hands betraying me by encircling his head to prevent our parting, my thoughts filled with trouble.
She was on my mind, and she was trouble.
Her portrait was still near. Perhaps it could hear us, the sounds this would make, his whispers of my name when he chanced to take a breath, the shifting of fabric when we fought to hold each other, if not our sanity. I imagined her ghost rising between us, or would she only watch from afar, a malicious glint in her eyes? At last she knew the secret of his distance, his remorse, his guilt. Or was it that she had always known and always mocked him for his weakness, the fantasy girl who came out of the cabinet in the attic?
“There is your wife,” I said at last as his breath faltered.
He nearly dropped me then, his face and hands retracting as though I had transformed into Voldemort before his very eyes.
“What the devil can you–?” He stopped, cutting off the ferocious words to set me on my feet, reaching down to retrieve my stick. He thrust it in my direction and moved away so soon that it nearly clattered to the floor a second time.
I took a few experimental steps to test the strength of my foot. The staircase was not far behind me, but the potential of my reaching them and scaling their heights before he could stop me was extremely low. Although I could not be sure whether he would try to stop me at his present moment, I did not want to take such a risk.
“It’s only right that someone thinks of her.” My voice emerged with a cruel bite I could not repress. “You keep her things, everything about her, just as it always was. Why? If you can make love to me so easily right outside her door–”
His eyes turned wild, the magical one spinning madly into his head while his dark eye flashed a warning. Reddish spots flared upon his cheeks and his hands clenched, but he neither reached for his wand nor moved toward me. Rooted in place, he regarded me, his lips twisting without settling on any particular expression.
“Don’t come to conclusions ‘till you’ve all the evidence,” he growled. “And you’re obviously lacking most of it.”
I yearned to ask what those things were, but if he was to tell me about my future, what would happen? I had already changed history in some way just by being here, just by being part of his life. It was a terrifying thought, a question that I could not answer until I returned to my own time.
If I returned.
“At least you know better than to ask for it.”
As my mind churned and turned in an endless gyre, he took it upon himself to relax, if only a little, retrieving the flask from his pocket and taking another, deeper draught, his magic eye unceasingly focused on my face. When he finished, it spun upwards, staring through the ceiling.
“Still waiting for you, I see.” The flask safely tucked away, his eyes met mine. “It’s too bad, really. Too bad that it can’t forget you.” A hoarse laugh rattled through his lungs. “Just like me. I’ll never forget.”
I could not speak. I could not even think of anything to tell him. No platitude could express the truth. He could not know the truth. He must not know it.
That kiss. The first time that he would kiss me, but, for him, it would also be the last.
My legs moved once, then again, feet shuffling toward the staircase. I clamped my jaw to suppress the pain, but the memory of the older Moody’s eyes made my pain seem insignificant, a temporary suffering. It was not a pain of the heart, buried so deep within the mind that there was no cure. It would cripple him from the inside out.
When, at the bottom of the stairs, I looked back, he was no longer there, the hallway stood empty, as though he had never been there at all.
Only at the top of the stairs did I hear him.
A voice, hardly more than a muttering, perhaps more of a moan, arose from the bedroom, echoing against the hollow stone of the fireplace. I leaned against the balustrade, imagining the way he would stand, his forehead pressed against the cool, motionless stone, the empty portrait gazing down in bitter judgment.
I could save him. There was still that possibility. I still had that choice.
Another spate of muttering, growing louder now, reached my ears. Then a smash, a breaking of glass, a furious cry.
The attic door was there, so close now, its knob within my reach.
My choice was made when the very sound of my name spurred my aching body into movement, pushing my feet across the floor until I could push through the door and climb the dusty attic stair on hands and knees.
He was coming.
The cabinet. I could see it now, sitting in shadow.
He was on the lower stairs, his heavy boots thumping on the carpet as he rounded the corner, neared the attic door, which I had only shut, not closed.
I reached the cabinet door, had pushed it open, stood hovering before it, my head betraying me at the last.
When he burst into the attic, feet clattering on the floorboards, chest heaving with loud, gasping breaths, I could almost hear his heart pumping, could see it throbbing at his temples, on his neck. His face was oddly white for one who had been running up two flights of stairs, and there was something in his eyes that I had never thought to see from the likes of him.
If I was to reach out to him now, there would be no recompense, no one but an empty portrait to complain of an injustice. He needed me, so much so that it drove him mad, and it would only drive him to complete ruin if I left him. He would lose everything, and it would all be because I turned away when he needed me most.
But he was supposed to go mad, supposed to lose his position at the Ministry, supposed to join the Order of the Phoenix, supposed to fight against the Death Eaters, supposed to help my father win the war, and supposed to die doing so.
Would any of that be possible if I remained?
There was too much at stake. Too much of a price to pay.
When I stepped into the cabinet, he lunged forward, calling out my name. I met his eyes just before I shut the door and wished that I hadn’t looked back. He was so close that I could see myself reflected in his eyes, but then the door came between us, sealing history in place.