Minerva hoped that things would now go back to normal. It was a horrible euphemism, but one that oddly suited the situation. Things this year had not gone as planned, and it would take Minerva a considerable amount of time to set her life straight once again. It was already February, leaving her only a few months to immerse herself in her studies. Wholly and utterly, without distraction.
The little voice in the back of her mind gave a cruel laugh. There were still too many distractions. Nothing could be normal again, not after–
But this was what it meant to grow up, to become an adult and experience the confusing lives adults seemed to live. There was so much in the world to keep track of; wholly immersing oneself in anything meant to disregard – ignore – everything else. And for that, there was always a price.
However, the situation differed for Minerva. She had already paid the price (if one wanted to put it in terms of punishment, the Latin term poena
meaning “to pay the penalty”), so that might actually make things easier, overall. Grimm would leave her alone, she would carefully avoid Riddle, and nothing would get in her way. The best thing would be to repress any thought that came near to possibly being about him.
Repressing all feeling would also be necessary.
All feeling, all those things she had experienced this year and maybe before. Going back to her normal would mean going back to pretending to believe that she wasn’t one of those girls who thought about wizards all the time, who got their minds caught up in the workings of their flimsy hearts.
A little pain in her chest. On the left side, not quite at the shoulder. That was where–
Nothing. It was nothing. All in the head. The heart did nothing but pump blood.
She stopped, realising that she had been walking and walking for Merlin knew how long. Time to go to the library and get some work done. There were those assignments for Transfiguration, not to mention an essay for Defence Against the Dark Arts, that laboratory write-up for Potions, and a star chart for Astronomy....
Too much to do for any distraction to break her concentration. Of that, Minerva was entirely sure.
The work lasted for some time and, each day, there was more to do, which prevented her from thinking of Grimm or Riddle or any mystery-slash-conspiracy that had rooted itself in Grimm’s delusional brain.
She did catch herself pondering it – not him, it, the mystery – once in a while, before she fell asleep at night, or when she was in the bath. Those were about the only times that she didn’t have anything else for her mind to work on. In these moments, and only in these moments, was Minerva willing to admit that it wasn’t all some figment of Grimm’s imagination. There was some basis to his worries. Riddle was up to something, whether it be mere social manoeuvring or worse.
She did not like to think of what the worse would be. When she came too close to it, she would turn over and count sheep or leap out of the bath into the chilled air. Closing her eyes, she made it all go away.
Until the next time.
The next time.
Always around the corner.
“You’ve been really quiet lately, Minerva.” One of her dormmates was peering across the dinner table at her. “Getting bogged down?”
At last she’s failing, falling, the voice in Minerva’s head whispered. They would celebrate your fall, just you see. You’ve been on the top for too long. They want their time in the spotlight of professors’ praise.
“All you do is work, work, work. I don’t know how you find all the time,” another girl said with a sigh. “Especially with Quidditch and your Head duties, too. I’d wonder if you ever slept if I didn’t see you at it.”
The first girl gave a small laugh. “But she’s still the last to bed and the first up in the morning. Wish I could do that, especially on Mondays.”
Minerva felt her face redden. She hated when they talked like this because she could never decide if they were teasing or actually being serious. You always do so much, that is what everyone told her, from these girls to the professors to her parents. You need time for others things, don’t forget. Don’t forget to enjoy life.
Enjoy. The last thing she had enjoyed was–
The feel of being close to Grimm, laughing with him over some joke of his, some clever thing he had said. The fleeting touch of his hand–
“Are you alright, Minnie? You’re so pale.”
She bristled at the name, but did nothing to correct the girl, who was only worried. Oh Merlin, she’d been doing too much lately, trying to distract herself from everything, but it was always there, haunting her. All the things she was avoiding were inside her head, her heart. She could not escape them, no matter how hard she tried.
Rising too quickly, she nearly sent her still-full cup flying. Catching it in a shaking hand, her breath short, she tried to control her consciousness. The light-headedness was painful.
“I’m fine,” she heard herself say. “Just need some fresh air.”
The others looked at one another. One smiled without feeling it. Another nodded while biting her lip.
“Want me to come–”
Minerva shook her head. “No need. Just tired, that’s all.”
They did not need much convincing. Either that, or they respected her too much to follow against her wishes. They weren’t like Grimm. He would have followed, have pestered, have been there to say that everything was alright.
The next breath came as a half-strangled sob.
She had to get away before anyone saw her like this. A mess. An absolute mess. And all because of him, a boy! What was happening to her that she acted in this way? It had been her choice to walk away from him, after all. He had been an idiot, an unfeeling prig. How could she regret leaving him behind?
Had he been in the Great Hall that day? She could not be sure. She sat so often with her back to Ravenclaw table that she never managed to see him. Even when leaving or entering, she kept her eyes averted from where she knew he would be. It was all very silly. She should be able to face him, to look into his eyes and feel nothing, nothing at all.
It was too easy to hate herself for this weakness.
Climbing the stairs, she passed by the first floor lavatory without really aware she had done so. Perhaps she thought that the others would look first for her there. The second floor lavatory was older and rather less pleasant, which made it the perfect place to spend some time to think. It was dimly lit and one of the sinks didn’t even work, very puzzling in a magical castle, but Minerva was not in the mood for rational discourse.
For what had to be the first time in her life, she wanted to wallow in self-loathing.
Standing in front of the mirror – spotted and ancient – she looked at the reflection of herself. Too long a face. Hair black and thick, not that inky silk of the East, nor the luxurious locks of the Continentals. Dark eyes, almost black with no pupils. How did she come across such colouring? It was like everything about her was an exaggeration of her parents – darker, taller, longer, thinner, more pronounced.
She looked so severe, even with tears threatening to blind her. What must she look like with her spectacles? Like a professor, perhaps, staring down her nose at a world that never satisfied, never meeting her expectations. No feminine shape whatsoever, which explained her ease at Quidditch as much as it explained her inability to act socially normal.
Bloody hell. She was a mess. Shaking away such fantastical thoughts, she threw water on her face, feeling its chill penetrate her fevered skin, shocking the emotion, calming it, killing it. She dried her face and robes (splashed down the front) with her wand and took a deep breath. Yes, much better.
Someone entered the room. Blinking, Minerva looked into the mirror, not wanting to appear surprised (but who else would come to this lavatory at this hour?).
It was Myrtle, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy. Her hair stuck out in all directions, as though she had been electrocuted. Her robes looked misshapen, like someone had spelled them to shrink, then had reversed the spell too soon, causing them to stretch in some places and shrink in others, leaving the fabric a complete mess.
“Myrtle?” Minerva turned from the mirror. No, it had not exaggerated things in its spotted surface; the girl did look awful. “Are you alright?”
Standing there, open-mouthed, Myrtle did not speak right away. She did not need to.
“It was Hornby again, wasn’t it?”
Another useless question. The answer was too obvious. There was no one else at Hogwarts who could cause such mortification, such painful suffering to a girl who was not only undeserving, but incapable of retaliating.
There was a terror in Myrtle’s eyes, the sort of terror that was raw and felt to the core of one’s being.
“I said no.”
Her voice was not shaking or stammering as it usually did. In her terror, she was being more assertive, more unlike herself, than Minerva had ever seen.
“You can’t let it go unchecked, Myrtle.”
Myrtle shook her head and sniffled. Back to normal.
“It’s not that.”
Minerva frowned, stepping forward.
“What is it, then? You can tell me, Myrtle. I only want to he–”
But Myrtle took a step back.
“Don’t. Please. Leave me alone.”
A half-crazed sob wracked through her body and she darted for one of the stalls. Before Minerva could stop her, the door was slammed shut and the lock thrown home. The sobs only grew in intensity. She shuddered to hear them.
It was too easy to leave, but what could she do? How can you help someone who didn’t want to be helped? That was Minerva’s excuse for leaving, how she convinced herself when her conscience reared its ugly head, chastising her for leaving a fellow being in such a state. It did not help to remember that Minerva herself had been in that situation just moments further. Not so emotionally stricken, perhaps, not visibly, but still– She had gotten over it, hadn’t she? Had been able to force down the emotion and find her way back toward calm and composure, making herself human again.
Or machine again? Was one only human when feeling those dreadful emotions?
She turned down the corridor, deciding to ignore these questions.
There was too much in their answers.
~ * * * ~
Like Minerva, Grimm sought distraction. Abominable female! He admitted that he was wrong about one thing, and she expected him to make the same admission for everything else. Yes, he had been wrong about Myrtle, poor girl, but that was an entirely different matter from Riddle, about whom Grimm was mostly definitely not wrong.
Riddle was up to something, and Grimm was going to be the one who figured out what, how, and why. Without help. Alone. It would be far easier this way. No distractions, no one getting in his way, blinding him to what could be the most significant details....
It was too easy to convince himself of this. It revealed just how desperate he had become.
Desperate in what way? He did not like to think of the answer to that question; it would just complicate things.
“So, Tibbs, is the thing with McGonagall on the rocks, then?”
Featherby was sprawled across a chair, looking at Grimm over the top of his book.
Grimm stretched his arms, cramped from writing. “What makes you think that?”
Davies threw a crumpled bit of parchment at Grimm’s head. It bounced off an unamused nose. “You’ve been in the dumps these last weeks, Tibbs. Don’t think we haven’t noticed.”
“Or that the whole school hasn’t noticed,” Featherby chimed in.
“It has to be your fault, of course, since McGonagall’s the one going about like the world’s going to end.” Davies sighed dramatically. “It’s obvious that she’s going through the pangs of foresworn love.”
He and Featherby burst into the laughter. More of the seventh years started to join the conversation, one of the girls, the unfortunately-named Bronwyn Brocklehurst, thrust her long neck around the wing of a chair.
“She’s pining over you, Grimm. It’s so romantic.”
“Oh come on, Bronty,” her friend Leela said. “How can it be romantic when she rushes around doing more work than any of us combined? She’s giving us ‘claws a bad name, taking all the highest grades for herself.”
Grimm stared down at his essay. Almost done, now if Min would look it– Oh. She wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t now, should she? The enemy, a Gryffindor.
“How long were you two together, anyway?” Bronwyn’s eyes widened in expectation.
Not long enough. No, no, don’t think that. Such a thought meant that he regretted being an ass to her, which he had been, completely and utterly, but to admit it would cost too much pride, and surely she wasn’t– She was worth it, actually. That’s what bothered him so much about the whole thing, that she mattered to him. That not being with her now mattered.
But together? As a couple? They had never been official, had they, if one wanted to put it in such vulgar terms. Just friends, close friends, the best of friends.
“We were not together. Not in the way all of you mean.”
His voice emerged so quietly, a mere whisper.
“Damn.” Davies’s voice was the first to break the disappointed silence. “I had my bets on a week.”
“A month,” Lydia sighed.
“I win!” Featherby leapt from his chair, the book – battered and dogeared for good reason – falling to the floor in a heap.
Everyone, including (especially) Grimm, glared at him. It was ridiculous enough that all of these supposedly logical and cold-hearted Ravenclaws had placed bets on how long he could date (that was the word, yes?) Minerva McGongall, but that Featherby hadn’t even had the decency to think he could manage it at all....
“I appreciate your faith in my abilities, Featherby.”
Everyone except for Grimm laughed at this.
“Let’s have a hand for our very own Lothario, Tibbs Grimm!” Davies cried, clapping his hands wildly. Featherby let out a hoot in response and the laughter of the others increased in volume until a courageous fifth year told them to hush up we’re trying to do work, you know.
They did not quiet until Grimm rose. The door snapped shut behind him, leaving the room in shocked silence.
~ * * * ~
He kept to himself for the next month, wandering from class to class, taking notes only to keep himself from thinking about anything else, and putting a complete lack of effort into his actual assignments. They didn’t matter that much, really. He wasn’t like some of them who were going in for Ministry jobs or Healers or whatever else magical people did. He still harboured the idea of attending some Muggle university with magical sympathies (to conceal his decided like of any practical classes), but even that was a distant thought.
Apathy had become his mantra. A lack of feeling was far preferred to the overwhelming emotions that had haunted him these last months... years.
Sometimes, he found himself in the dungeons, far beyond the Potions classroom and the kitchens. The Slytherin common room was somewhere about, he supposed, but he would not allow himself to go looking for it, a uncharacteristic act of self-control. To be a fly on the wall in that room....
It wasn’t going to happen. Just like him and Minerva would never happen.
Oh no, not that again.
It was a perfectly convenient time for Riddle to go sauntering past, acting suspicious and heading straight toward trouble. Instead, a pair of third year girls stared at Grimm from across the corridor, eyes wide at what must have been his mad expression. His wan smile only made them scuttle off, whispering to one another.
He reached into his pocket to pull out a sickle, not blackened by time and filth like Muggle coins. Slipping the coin between his fingers, in and out and in and out, he remembered the first time he’d shown Minerva his Muggle money. Some shillings and pence, things she’d never seen before, and the first thing she’d asked was why they looked so dirty. He had never noticed it before. The dirt of Muggleness, the way that, no matter how hard a Muggle scrubbed, the dirt never came away. Some always remained.
He would always be a half-blood, muddy blooded. Not that he would ever change that; there was something more in knowing both sides of the coin, of understanding what it meant to be with and without magic. The ignorance of Muggles and wizards alike would keep them both at a stalemate; never able to do more than imagine, dream of being the other.
“Merlin, Tibbs, what are you doing here?”
Another reason not to wander too closely to the Slytherin entrance: Dolores.
Grimm blinked as she came into focus, her bouncing curls and heavily made-up face to the giant pink bow balancing precariously on her head. She was, unfortunately, not a dream.
“Hello, Dolores. Just doing my rounds, you know.” Try to sound calm, as though nothing is amiss (even when everything in his mind was amiss – madness would set in soon, he was sure).
“Really? I’ve never seen you down here before, though! If only I had–”
He cleared his throat, cutting her off. “There have been reports of problems down in these corners. I’m surprised not to see more...” More what? He needed time to think, but there was no time, not when she was staring up at him with such hungry expectation. Was she still trying to pursue him, even after that fiasco at Sluggy’s party and all those months of outright ignoring her existence?
“More couples snogging and the like. It’s very dangerous to have places like this with all these adolescents in the school.” Bloody hell, he sounded like a pompous git, something that she would find absolutely alluring.
A vicious glint appeared in her eyes. “Oh yes, of course! It would be excellent work to root them all out.” And blackmail them to their last knut, Grimm added for his own amusement (and horror – foolish of him to string her along in this way. So much for only trying to make conversation).
“Anyway.” Time to put a stop to this. “I should move along. Can’t let them get away.”
His stupidity was only increasing. Minerva would–
No. No. She wasn’t here, was she?
But she was inside his head, her voice chastising him at every turn. He could not escape her, even when she had forsaken him, had tossed him away for being defective, not good enough for her impossibly high standards. Never would he live up to what she desired– no, deserved. She deserved so much better, yet he was the only one for her.
“I’ll come. You will definitely need assistance, Tibbs.” Dolores was grinning. Grimm would not have been surprised if she had been rubbing her hands together like a cinematic villain.
Grimm froze, eyes looking at everything but Dolores and her pink bow. Then an idea hit him. Pulling out his watch in an exaggerated manner, he affected shock at the placement of the hands (he had, actually, forgotten to wind it).
“Dear me, is that the time?” He sounded like a Victorian old maid. How quaint. “I’m supposed to meet... Featherby for a... chess tournament. Wizard’s chess, you know.” He tried to smile, but it faltered.
Her grin equally faltered, though for different reasons.
“Well, I’ll have to go root them out myself, then.” She sounded suitably martyred. Turning on her heel, she vanished into the shadows rather too quickly for Grimm’s taste. The Slytherins must have multiple passages and entrances to their room; it was the only logical way for them to disappear like that, lurking about like criminals.
He suppressed a shudder and left the dungeons, deciding not to continue his wanderings through that place. Too many dangers lay in wait, particularly for those alone. He more feared the inside of his head than the things any Slytherin, even Riddle, could do if he was properly incapacitated (highly unlikely, whatever Minerva would say about his lack of courage).
What it would mean to prove to her that he was capable and worthy! It was very medieval of him, but all the same, satisfying. In times of weakness, such as this, he knew how wrong he had been. All those evenings wandering the dungeons had provided no further evidence of Riddle’s activities. Indeed, nothing about Riddle seemed to be of note; he went about his business like every other sixth-year Prefect, following the rules straight as a razorblade. It made Grimm feel inadequate in comparison. His lines were always a bit wobbly.
Which was why he needed Minerva.
Needed her. The longer this separation went on, the weaker he became.
More days passed into weeks, the winter thawing ever so slowly, as though the frigid relations between them were preventing spring’s arrival. Still she ruled his mind. He thought of her in the library (buried deep in a dusty mouldering tome), in Potions (spilling some shrinking solution on his hand to ill effect), while eating (spilling again, this time his pumpkin juice on Davies’s lap), and before falling asleep at night (the chill permeating his skin, even through the thick blanket). How he could spare so much time for her, he did not know, not with all the things he was always seeming to do. But she was there, always. Everything else faded to the margins, and it showed all too clearly.
“If anyone’s pining now, it’s Tibbs,” Bronwyn whispered to her friends, who shook their heads at his plight, then whisked off to do their homework.
The greatest consequence was not the effect on his schoolwork (which suffered only a bit, her voice in his head goading him on), but his pursuit of Riddle. There was nothing to back up his theories. She had been right all along. Of course she had. Riddle was a fifteen year old wizard; however much power and talent he had, there was still not that much he could actually do, even if he raided the Restricted Section of the library.
No, Riddle couldn’t be up to more than trying to prove himself to his fellow Slytherins. He was a nameless, history-less wizard in a house where names and history mattered more than anything else.
Let the professors deal with him, if they would. Grimm would no longer care.
He told himself that whenever Riddle appeared in sight. It didn’t matter to Grimm what Riddle did or said or who he spent time with. Not if it had cost him Minerva.
As though his thoughts had conjured her from the air itself, she passed by him as he shuffled through the Entrance Hall. His eyes followed her, devouring every inch. A keen glance it was, only a moment come and gone again.
He coloured at the sound of his name. How long since she had last spoken it? And she was speaking to him, had actually stopped to look and say something and act as though he did, indeed, exist. What had prompted this? he wondered.
Her name emerged appropriately breathless. He tried a smile, failed, then succeeded the second time, his chin trembling.
“How are you?”
Perhaps not the best question for the middle of March, when winds howled and winter seemed an eternity. As for their workload, it increased exponentially by the day (perhaps the hour, as some claimed).
She narrowed her eyes at such a banal question. “Well enough. And you?”
He swallowed. “Fine, thanks.”
That should have been it. If they had known each other less, nothing more would have been necessary, but in knowing one another so well – too well – they were doomed to this inability to walk away and pretend that their acquaintance was inconsequential.
Apology was an idea. Grimm looked at her with pleading eyes, as though he wanted her to ask for it, which was impossible. She would give him the opportunity, but that would be all. He would have to take that next step on his own, an equal impossibility. It was no longer a matter of pride (his was long ago shattered by his realisation that he needed her), only cowardice, and that was something he could not be cured of.
“I should be getting to practice,” she said, her voice flat.
Say it. The words were there, waiting to be spoken. I was wrong, forgive me. Simple words, difficult meaning.
Say it. She would be gone soon, leaving him floundering in the waves, a lost sailor with the ring floating the other way.
“Will you do the rounds tonight, Tiberius?”
Speaking to him, almost sounding friendly.
“Yes, of course.”
Now was the time. Say it. She was walking away toward the door, footsteps slow, hesitant, waiting for him.
She stopped and turned her head, face pensive.
He opened his mouth, but no words were there. No words would suffice, could ever describe the things he needed to tell her.
“Good luck. At practice, I mean.”
She blinked. Was that sadness in her eyes? Disappointment? He would not be surprised if it was either, even both. What else did he deserve for his weakness?
Then she was gone, the door shutting behind her. He watched it close, the air pressure sucking around its edges, a tiny breeze wafting against his face like her touch once had, forever ago on the train after Christmas. Some moments passed before he could rouse himself into any sort of action beyond painful reflection.
Even without Riddle on his mind (he was still trying to convince himself that the Slytherin prefect was entirely insignificant), Grimm was unable to prove to her that he’d changed, that he wasn’t unnecessarily obsessed, wasn’t blinded to the rest of the world. The only problem was that, in removing one set of blinders, he had put on another. The air around him was still filled with her. He should run out the door and chase her down and say that he was sorry and she would forgive him and all would be fine again. Yes, all would be well.
He stared at the door for one moment longer. Other passed by, but he did not see nor hear them. Further away than ghosts – he was a ghost himself – they were part of another world.
Go to her. Go Grimm, you must.
But he couldn’t. He still wasn’t convinced.
He turned and went up the stairs. Away. Back to his hole.