Time is Running Out
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened...
– T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
The seconds ticked past, swiftly turning to minutes before I noticed the force with which I clutched at his robes, my fingers growing numb with the effort. But when I attempted to pull away, I found that I was not the only one under such a strain. His arm was a vice; movement, particularly movement away, was impossible.
The rain trickled down the back of my neck as I buried my face against his shoulder, wet as it was. My heart refused to slow, fear still driving its relentless pace. His was no different, though, and that made me feel less of a fool. Had we been standing any closer to that tree... I did not want to think of it.
But that, of course, meant that it was all my mind could ponder.
To have died now, more than seventy years before I would be born, would it have changed anything? What would people in my own time believe? That I had simply run away? There was that lake across the field, but I would never–
Would they know that? Could I be certain?
I closed my eyes tight at the thought of my mother’s face if she heard of my disappearance.
“Hell, Lily. I can hardly breathe.”
Stepping back, I tottered on my good foot, searching the ground for my stick. He found it first, pausing to examine the metalwork at the handle, his fingers probing the filigree until, with a tiny click, my wand emerged. It was a trick my dad had learned from Hagrid, of all people, whose own wand was not-so-secretly hidden in a shockingly pink umbrella.
“It must have happened a while ago, if you could get this made.”
I took it from his hands with a little less grace than he deserved, carefully slipping the wand back into its secure position
He shoved his hands into his pockets, thinking, before he kicked at a smoking pile of leaves, his voice lowered into a state of brusque petulance.
“I need a drink.”
Without a glance in my direction, he started walking away, leaving me, I supposed, to follow, keeping up with him as best I could. He seemed to be thinking, from the tilt of his head, thrust forward, eyes downcast, but watchful. I could tell.
After a hundred feet or so, he halted, both feet coming together in a soldierly pose. That should have told me everything, but I was too busy attempting to make my way down a small hill without sliding on the slick grass. Perhaps I was haunted by the ghosts of my parents, my family, even the friends I had abandoned those months ago, pretending to sleep each time they came to visit so that I would be spared the sight of pity in their eyes. For some, it only took a week, for others, slightly longer, but eventually, they all understood the truth, or some semblance of it. I had come to believe that I was destined for loneliness, a future that held nothing and led nowhere.
“Just look at us, a regular pair of fools.”
My head snapped up to find him in front of me, and by some miracle, I managed to keep my balance.
“I’m going to tell you straight out what I should have said at the beginning.” His eyes passed across my features, observing, measuring.
His pause was more than pregnant. I could see his chest labouring with every breath.
“In the morning, I’m going to war.”
I did not, at first, understand his meaning. My time was one of peace, not perfect, blissful repose, but rather a carefully maintained truce between all sides of the political and social battles that had rippled beneath the surface for centuries. To imagine a world at war was only to imagine, never to experience, and yet this would be the second time he had left me to fight a battle, to partake in the horrors of war. That other time, he would die. And this time?
Blinking rapidly, I stared at the ground, unwilling to meet his eyes and reveal my foreknowledge of his fate.
“It’s been planned for months. I couldn’t change those plans, even if I wanted to.”
He sounded far away, my thoughts so loud, so demanding.
I should have expected this. Had I caught myself dreaming that I would remain here with him, for– not forever. Never forever. This was our brief moment in time, one that would haunt and plague him until the last of days, my ghost chasing him through the years of his life, never aging, never changing, while he grew to be a crippled old man, ugly with time and scars and pain. The pain of having one’s heart ripped away, again and again, torn clean out of his chest each time he saw–
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
No. I hadn’t.
But I did have something else.
Stepping forward, damning my leg to hell and back, I placed one hand on his shoulder and, with the other, cupped his cheek, rough with pale stubble. I brought my mouth to his and finished what had begun in a distant future, some hours ago, many years ahead. He did not resist, but he was taken unawares, his jaw tense and unmoving until I stepped closer, closing the distance between us. When he did at last respond, it was to grip my waist, tilting me back in so much the same way as the before he did not yet know.
How could this happen? How could it feel as though past was future, that all was present?
I lost myself against him, unwilling to return to his words of earlier, the reminder that time controlling our every moment together, always dividing us, for never the twain shall meet for long, never for long enough.
If he had asked, would I stay? If he was not leaving, if I asked him to stay–
“You’ll go, Lily, and so will I.”
I wished that I could consume those words, suck them from his lips and make him forget that they’d ever been spoken, but I could not stop time. I could not change the time in which he lived. There was no stopping this war, no preventing his participation, however dangerous, however dire the threat it held over his head, now as precious to me as life itself.
“As soon as possible,” came my whisper, barely a breath against his cheek.
He pulled away to regard me with a face too grim for one as young as he, but I knew that my own face carried the same expression. I don’t know for how long we looked at one another. It was as though we sought to make up for all of the lost time between us that was and would be. After a time, he nodded in response to my words, both spoken and unspoken, before holding me close once more. I felt finality in his every nerve, and I could not shut my mind against it.
The rain had come to a slow, dripping halt, leaving only the sounds of night to resound against the shadowed trees. We were now on the edge of the park, within sight of a bordering street, but no person could be seen. I suppressed a shiver as the cool night air penetrated my sodden robes. His scarf was no protection against the damp of a summer night. Even he could not keep me warm for he was equally drenched.
Despite myself, I laughed, a high-pitched, nervous sound, but a laugh nonetheless.
“You know what?” I murmured against him.
His arms tightened, but I knew that he was watching me with a suspicious uncertainty when he responded in the conventional way.
“I think I need a drink too.”
His laughter was low, a rumble of thunder that neither threatened rain nor lightning, only another brush of his lips against mine, so fleeting that it felt as though every nerve in my body was concentrated on that single point of contact.
“I think I can arrange that.”
When he apparated this time, I was prepared, and while my stomach protested mightily, I was able to forestall complete rebellion, gasping for breath against a cool brick wall in an alley not far from his flat. In the dim light I could just discern the lettering of the bright advertisements for Pears soap and a highly suspect romantic melodrama. Perhaps all fictional romance seems suspect once one has experienced it for one’s self.
My hand imprisoned in his, he led me through a hidden door in the wall to a tiny lift that rattled all the way up to his floor. All else was silent. He listened at each corner, half-pausing at every door as though every shadow was an enemy, the slightest of sounds the signal of attack. I did not care. Beyond danger, I had fallen into peril and was falling further still. I would leave and he would leave, but not until the morning.
At the door to his flat, he paused again, hand in his pocket for the latch-key, his ear against the flimsy wood panel. My patience was wearing thin, each passing moment another lost to gluttonous time, and now what had first seemed to be obsessive precaution verged on outright paranoia. What could have been the cause of this, and so soon in his life? He would hardly have completed preliminary Auror training by this time. There must have been something else, something that made him fear... no, distrust, to such a degree.
He turned back to me as though my thoughts had spoken themselves into sound.
“Just checking to see if Mum’s come home. That’d be awkward, don’t you think?”
The door was open and he was ushering me inside before I could bring forth an answer.
The word was lost on his back as he poured an overly generous amount of Firewhiskey into two glasses, their crystal facets gleaming in the electric light glaring out from beneath a garish yellow lampshade. When he placed the glass in my hand, I was longer falling. The crisis has passed, and I was in the realm of practical thought once more.
My fingers tugged at the sodden silk scarf to lay it across the back of my chair. Let it be in trust for his future wife, whoever she may be. Let him tie it around her throat, the yoke, nay, the noose of marriage, the condemnation of a life into a loveless union.
I sipped at the whiskey, glad to have something that finally warmed my bones, even as my soul remained thoroughly chilled.
Perhaps the cabinet would knock again and save me from this silence.
“Do you leave in the morning, then?” My voice was unfamiliar, so changed. The park was far away now.
He drained his glass, standing by the sideboard as though contemplating a refill.
“By the first train. It won’t be long now.”
My heart shrivelled at those words. He would say them again, one day, to the same girl, the girl who never changed, never seemed to age because she was, in fact, growing younger as he grew older. Knowing less as he knew more. Was this all that we would share?
I looked at the clock on the wall. Nearly three. The sound of its ticking filled my ears. I took another sip as he refilled his glass.
Perhaps I felt it already, even before it was about to happen. The air was thin, giving the lungs so little on which to thrive, but it was filled with such electricity that it felt as though that lightning bolt had struck again, this time to stop my heart before it leapt into his hands, sacrificing my soul in the name of love.
And then it came.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
My eyes focussed on his spine as it straightened, stiffened, the glass clunking loudly against the surface of the table before his arms dropped to his sides. I thought – feared – that he would turn toward me, but instead he stepped across to the window, pulling at one corner of the dark curtain so that he could look down upon the empty street.
“Will I see you again?”
His voice was lighter than I had yet heard, raised an octave, the accent mellowed. Had he spoken my name, had he called me to him in this voice, I could not have resisted, it so painfully tore at my resolve.
A resolve already torn. In that one syllable, I gave myself away.
“But not soon.”
I looked down at my hands. “No.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the ticking of the clock. The cabinet had called, but I could not move. The silence was not absent of intention, of those words that remain to be spoken, but have not yet come into being.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I’ll probably regret this for a very long time, but I get the feeling that you know that already, that you know a lot about me, more than I’d like.” Taking a long draught, draining the glass, he set it on the sill. “It’s easiest to put it down to fate, isn’t it? Safest too, I’ll reckon.”
At last he turned and, as one willed, I slowly rose my eyes to meet his.
“Fate explains a lot of it,” I said quietly.
His eyes narrowed. “But not all?”
“No. Not all.”
Fate alone could not have led me to him, placing all those clues in my way, knowing that I would follow, the mule lusting after the carrot, always just out of its reach, just as he would always be just beyond mine. I could hold onto him, could touch my lips to his, but I could not have him. Fate would not allow it.
But there was something else. Those letters, charting my course, they were more than fate, far more. It was the mystery that lay at the heart of this journey, of that I was certain.
“What do you think it is that makes this so hard?” His voice broke.
I turned my eyes away to struggle to my feet, grasping at my stick.
“Maybe you’re in love with me.”
He stepped forward suddenly, then stopped, one hand clenching with the exertion of will.
Leaning heavily on my stick, I watched him with a tilted head. “Maybe you’ve always been in love with me, but couldn’t be certain until now. I only found out when we were there, in the park.” I took a breath. “Not when you kissed me, but when I walked away, just before the storm came.”
The clocked ticked. I waited for the cabinet to show its first sign of impatience.
“I don’t know how it happened. I don’t even know why or how I came here, to you.” Here I paused to think over what it was I wanted to say. It was dangerous, but not too dangerous. “But I do know that, in the park, had you asked me to stay, I would have without question, without regret.”
“Not now?” He laboured over the words, only to shake them away with a toss of his head. “No, no, of course not. People like us don’t throw everything way.”
One corner of my lip twitched. “Many have.”
“But they’ve hated themselves for it, and the other person too.”
I glanced toward the door. After he failed to continue, I swallowed with difficulty.
“So that’s it, then.”
He nodded, his jaw set like iron. “For the present.”
The present, but not the future, not even the past. We were far from finished.
I passed into the other room, where the papers still littered every surface and the cabinet loomed against the wall, surrounded by photographs of temples, tombs, and treasures, all of the things that the usual occupant wished never to forget. My hand had touched the cool brass knob when I heard the papers rustle as he came up behind me.
My hand retracted in a tight fist. I closed my eyes, unwilling to let him see my face.
“Or are you one of those people who aren’t good at it?” When I didn’t reply, he said my name in that low tone. “Would you like me to show you how?”
A tear found its way out of my eye. The way that we would part in his future–
“I think we still have time for it.” His hand touched mine.
I thought that my heart would stop forever, it was so slow and heavy.
“Let me go.”
“Not until we say goodbye.”
With upraised chin and quavering jaw, I faced him. “Goodbye, Alastor.”
His eyes flickered across every contour of my face, their brown depths betraying only the slightest hints of the passion that would, one day, overwhelm him.
“So cold now? It makes no sense....”
He touched a finger to my cheek, collecting the stray tear upon a fingernail.
“Will you change your mind?” My words sliced through the air between us, air that I preferred did not exist, but I could not think of that. It would do no good now that we were to part, not when I already knew his answer.
And he did not waste his breath in giving it. A slight shaking of his head sufficed. My hand was released, but he refused to relinquish his gaze.
“You’re the only one I’ve ever thought I could look at forever.” He snorted at the ridiculous cliche he was obliged to use, but there was a painful honesty in his eyes as they memorised each facet, every cell. “It was never the same after I saw you.”
My cheeks flushed, and I stepped back against the cabinet, my hand feeling for the knob once more. Compliments did not suit him. I did not want them. What I wanted could not be had. All I could do was satisfy his one request, and then I would be free, for the present..
“I will see you again. I promise..”
The words emerged with too much effort. He stepped forward, his gaze sharpening, but youth made him hesitate, made him think about the time that neither of us could waste. Something changed in his face, and I did not like to see it. No matter what passed between us now, at the end, I would not repeat my previous mistake. I would not hurt him.
My lips clamped down before I made it impossible for me to leave, before I revealed to him his own future, his failures, his trials, his death. He could never know any of it, but I would.
I would always remember.
There he was, coming forward again at the last, when I had looked away, to plant firm hands on my shoulders, pressing me against the cabinet that held my fate, and his, within its worn, lacquered walls. More was spoken with locked eyes than all the power that mere words could offer, and once I was as sure of myself as I was of him, I tilted my chin upward to receive a final parting kiss. Restrained, but only just.
He fell away before the walls of resolve could crumble, his last words emerging with a gruff forbearance.
“Go. I swear that you, you alone–”
I shut the door upon him before he could perjure himself, before he could tell an untruth that was not yet a lie. The other, she would come between us, just as I would always come between them, but that was for another time. It was, for me, in the past, and that is where it was going to remain.
Blackness surrounded me, the light from the room beyond fading as though the cabinet could sense my presence of mind, enhanced rather than inhibited by the emotions raging through my indelicate frame. I had been on time; the cabinet was already on its way.
I spoke to the thing, not out of frustration, but because I knew it could respond.
Crouching as best I could, I fumbled about the floor, splinters cutting into the flesh of my palms, pricking the pads of my fingers. I was no sleeping beauty; I would find what I–
The paper crinkled against one hand.
It felt like an eternity had passed before I, now settled in a corner, wand lit, my eyes squinting down at the tiny slip of paper, could read its contents.
You will go back to the beginning.
Another line, in smaller writing, but still the same hand, was scrawled beneath.
For his sake, be prudent. Time is running out.
The cabinet shuddered once, then again. A small strip of light suddenly shone through the gap left by the joint between the two doors. Alien smells wafted through the gap. For the first time, I had experienced the cabinet’s mysterious actions, witnessed its impossible powers, but still I had not seen the hand that guided it. That had eluded me once again.
The beginning. I had seen the end, of him, of this. I knew where the story had gone, but not where it had begun.
There was a rattling of the handle. My breath caught.
Someone else opened the door.