He had told the once-thief to meet him in this place, one that was familiar to him, if not to this once-thief. This was no place for him – one such as him was too noble, too perfect to lower himself to this particular spot. The once-thief looked around, lips pursed in confusion, wondering where to wait. It was a small room in the dungeons, smelling in the corners of Merlin knows what. This place was too... too... improper. A word often spoken by the once-thief’s mother, who never saw anything as proper enough, not since the war began.
But the once-thief could hardly remember anything before the war. Too young then. Too young even now.
The dungeons were not the usual place this once-thief met with him, the one so perfect, so much more desirable than the other (the one loved and desired before, but no longer). It was for him that the letter had been stolen and the conversations had been eavesdropped upon.
The spell had almost been broken by that book, that notebook with that picture, so mangled and hated upon. The once-thief had found it up in the second-floor lavatory, tossed behind a toilet. The notebook had to be returned before its absence was blamed upon this once-thief. And so she had returned it.
Yes, she. She would take that name now. No longer a thief, not even a once-thief, she waited for him to come and give her the promised reward for services rendered. That letter had been difficult to find and take without being noticed. It had been equally difficult to hide behind corners and suits of armour to see and listen.
She would deserve this reward.
~ * * * ~
It was a night in early June, the sky awash in stars, each tiny dot bright without the overbearing presence of the moon to catch the eye. Minerva stared out her window, wondering why she was wasting her time like this. Her restlessness had not yet passed, and she itched to be doing something, anything, as long as it was useful.
She glanced toward her books and parchments. No, not right now. Her mind would never settle into whatever subject she chose, and thus her work would not be useful. The work would have to wait.
The clock offered solace. Time for one last round of the castle. Walking was just the thing to clear her head of its troubles, the fog that collected in the corners, obscuring all else. Her fog just happened to have a face.
The common room was far from settling down at this time, but it was not yet noisy enough for her to complain. All the students could feel the end of winter, and thus the end of term, approaching, and their fever for warmth and sunshine increased exponentially, each day bringing more hope than the last. Minerva felt it herself, the satisfying feeling that, soon, one could play Quidditch without being pelted by wind, snow, and sleet. One could venture outside without requiring multiple layers of clothing.
For Minerva, there was one added hope: that no more contact with Grimm was eminent. No more accidental meetings in the corridors (she swore sometimes that he planned his daily course so that it crossed hers as often as possible. No more awkward moments when they had to discuss Heads’ business. No more of anything to do with him.
It was all too painful. That was what she wanted to avoid, not the annoyance, the awkwardness, but the pain.
She took a deep breath as she passed through the portrait door, the Fat Lady calling out a cheerful greeting that went unreturned. Minerva took her usual path, knowing that her presence alone would be a deterrent for any students planning mischief. She would only seek out those places where silence could be found and she could be alone (why had she not been sorted as Ravenclaw with her constant need for solitude?). No distractions. She had almost blocked them all out, those distractions.
A voice was nearby, barely a whisper, a hissing that halted, then started again as they formed words that Minerva could not hear. She stopped, then stepped forward, once, twice, not her feet making no sound on the thick carpet. The portraits were already nodding off, and it was as though she was not there at all.
It should have been annoying how quickly suspicion entered her mind, the possibility that she was coming upon a secret rendezvous of scheming Slytherins or, worse, students using spells in the corridors, dueling or practicing for... for– Those were the thoughts of Grimm. She closed her eyes a moment, blocking out those words, those visions. They should not come forward so easily, and she refused to admit to herself why they still did.
Another voice whispered, higher in pitch, and it drew Minerva’s attention. Her eyes snapping open, she moved closer to the wall, her hands warm against the cool stone. The nearest portrait stirred, snore catching in his throat. Minerva froze as the voice ended in a harsh breath, not quite a gasp.
“Shhh.” The hiss broke the sudden silence.
A long moment commenced, neither side wishing to relinquish its assumed superiority.
Minerva heard the long breaths released before she made her move, taking the advantage with wand in hand, her actions slow and measured, near, but not too near, the wall. Hardly an intake of breath she took as she drew toward the corner of the corridor. They were there, still, as though waiting– No, not waiting. They could not know she was there.
She rounded the corner. Now they knew.
The girl gave a low cry, the boy pushing her away with too much force. Minerva knew their faces, his more than hers, and he reacted in return, a dark expression overwhelming his clumsy features.
“McGonagall. Lovely timing.”
Minerva lowered her wand, but did not put it away. “You know the rules, Avery, and you know where you should be.” Her eyes flickered toward the girl, now suavely arranging her robes, all composure regained and a thick scowl taking root.
“Well, well, McGonagall. Can’t get your own, so you have to go after us?” Walburga Black could not have sounded feminine if she tried, her tone deeper than most boys at the school. And yet, here she was, snogging the face off Avery, of all people.
Minerva swallowed, trying to keep her supper down.
“I’m sure that you’re intended will enjoy hearing of this encounter,” she said quietly, allowing the full weight of her words to hit them.
Avery took another step away from Walburga, knowing that he, not she, would be the target of Orion Black’s ferocious temper. The younger boy was already too much in love with the well-proportioned Walburga, worshipping her with awe-filled eyes. And, of course, Walburga adored that adoration, thinking so highly of herself as she did. For her to be here, with Avery, it seemed so off to Minerva. There was something highly suspicious of this, there had to be, especially with these two in this place, as though they–
“Go back to your Common Room.” Her voice was harsh, unbending. “Do what you want there, but you cannot be in the halls after lights out.”
Avery grumbled, but Walburga, pale-faced and clenched-fisted, stalked away, no longer caring for her paramour, if he was even that. He was not the most intelligent of wizards, his bulging Beater’s muscles more renowned than his mental capacity, but that was more typical of the Slytherins in recent years. There was only one with admirable intelligence, one who spoke with a perfect accent, as though he was the most sophisticated, most high-born of purebloods. It was impossible that Tom Riddle should not be pureblood, no matter what Grimm and Dumbledore said. An orphan, yes, but there was something unreal about Tom.
Minerva shuddered as the memory of his proximity rose to the surface. It was more vivid than any memory of Grimm, who seemed so ordinary – comfortable and familiar, but lacking in that spark, the fire that burned within Riddle. No, Riddle was extraordinary, and none could be compared to him.
She looked up and Avery was gone. Had they even been there at all? No sign of their presence, no sound, no mark, nothing. Was it all a dream?
The torches had dimmed and most of the portraits were snoring gently. How late was it now? Not too late, as the torches were still lit, but their very dimness signalled how near it must be to lights out. She remembered the blackness of the London night, the thick curtains the Grimm’s house elf pulled across the windows to match the windows of every other house on the street. Sometimes, at Hogwarts, it was easy to forget the war, the anxieties of the people outside the castle walls. The school was like it had been these past seven years. She doubted it would ever change, however many students walked through these corridors.
Blinking, she caught herself once more from falling into memory. Why this and why now? Was she getting old, was that it? All this reminiscing was illogical and there was no grounds for it at all.
With purpose, she continued on her way through the corridors, seeing no one and being seen by no one. It left her to her thoughts, swirling and whirling as they were, a maelstrom in which she could too easily lose herself, the walls crashing down all at once, leaving her without defence, without sense.
Not that she had any left to lose.
~ * * * ~
“Oh,” he said, entering the room. “You’re early.”
He held nothing in his hands, and she bit her lip, suddenly uncertain.
“I couldn’t wait any longer.”
A little twitch in the corner of his mouth made her think he was going to smile, but it did not come. His face held no emotion.
“Do you have anything else for me?”
Her face creased into a worried pout. “But–”
“Do you?” His voice deepened, annoyance in its notes.
“They don’t talk anymore. There’s been nothing to see.”
He waved his hand, stepping closer, towering above her. “They haven’t stopped pursuing me, neither of them. You must have seen something, heard something that they’ve done, especially him.”
She opened her mouth, but faltered, unable to speak. There was too much fear in her heart, the perfection of his image shattered by the cruelty in his voice. He had never been cruel before, always being kind, gentle, that silken voice wrapping her heart in its softness, its beauty. She had upset him. She could feel her reward slipping away.
“I should have known better than to use you.”
“Get out of here, stupid girl!”
That was enough. She ran from the room, hands over her face, tears streaming from her eyes. Rejected by perfection, she had no one else and only one place to go.
~ * * * ~
She stopped abruptly in the Entrance Hall. Her hand was already reaching toward the staircase rail; her foot had lifted to start back up toward her room, her bed, toward sleep. It was a feeling that made her stop, that was all. Just a feeling, a strange feeling, a prickling on the back of her neck, a chill down her spine.
A pair of eyes, watching from the darkness?
A whisper, not quite audible, its snake-like hiss vibrating through the air?
An exhaled breath, silent and gentle, but filled with expectation?
Statuesque, Minerva listened, feeling the very air for something, anything to validate her hesitation. If she moved, it would be lost, and she would be left only with her nerves still tingling and shaken.
But nothing, nothing was there. The ticking of the clock counted past the seconds, the minutes. Her muscles twitched in complaint, her lungs demanding deeper breaths, her whole body demanding movement, life. Her mind bit back angry replies, her will weakening under the onslaught of physical need.
Shuffling footsteps approached at last, and Minerva took a tremulous breath.
“Somethin’ wrong, Miz M’Gonagall? You dun’ look well.”
She turned toward the dungeon stair, from which Hagrid had emerged, brow furrowed with some form of anxiety. Minerva blinked, unsure of why he would have been there, or why he was even out of Gryffindor Tower.
“Hagrid! You should not be down here.”
He flushed a little behind his adolescent tuft of a beard, opened his mouth once, twice, then decided to say nothing, instead looking at the floor.
“Come up with me, then.” Minerva attempted a smile. “If anyone asks, you were in the kitchens. How does that sound?”
“‘Course. But ‘ow–?” He scratched his head.
“Best to go before the lights go out.” She cut him off, stepping aside so that they could walk together.
They did so in silence, but Minerva was afraid that the sound of her mind’s gears turning, creaking, would be heard. It had not been difficult to see that he’d been no where near the kitchens – no smell, no crumbs, no sign of food whatsoever – but she could not ask where he had instead been. The answer would not be one she wanted to hear, and if Hagrid was hiding another creature in the dungeons, then it was better if Minerva did not know. Then she would not have to lie to Dippet, or worse, to Dumbledore. That was unimaginable.
She was half asleep by the time they passed through the portrait door – the Fat Lady glaring down at them both, hardly wiling to open the door for them – and entered the now-empty Common Room. The fire had burned to almost nothing, the final ashes filing the air with popping and crackling.
Pushing Hagrid in the direction of the boy’s dormitories, Minerva turned toward the fire, holding out her chilled hands. He may have said a goodnight, but she heard nothing, preferred to hear nothing. And so he went up the stairs with slumped shoulders, leaving her alone once again.
Minerva picked up the poker, sticking it into the fire with surprising energy. The flames flickered back to life and she took a seat nearby, curling her feet beneath her like a cat, eyes never stirring from the fire. Her mind had gone blank with fatigue, and had she been more awake, she would have been thankful, but as she was now, the feeling did not process. It had been coming all evening, this mind-numbing tiredness, and she could not resist giving into it. But it was also the sort that would not allow her sleep, not willingly. And so she sat on as though turned to stone, the embers reflecting off her glazed eyes.
~ * * * ~
Olive Hornby caught her on the stairway, her ham-like fists resting on her considerable hips. “Oh look who it is. Hello, Myrtle, nice glasses.”
The other girls, the ones who always surrounded Olive, smothering her in their fealty, snickered, not even bothering to hide their laughter behind their hands. They stood behind their leader, waiting for her command as to their next action.
Myrtle, the once-thief, and now the rejected runaway, clenched her hands until the nails dug into her palms, gouging the soft flesh. “Thanks, Olive. N-nice of y-y-you t-t-to s-say s-so.”
This made them laugh again, Olive’s boom deafening.
“Maybe you need stronger ones, if you can’t see how ugly they make you look!”
Myrtle began to crumble as the laughter grew louder, overwhelming her senses.
“Oh wait! I forgot, you were ugly to begin with!”
She had to get away, to escape this. The insults, they were no worse than usual, but today of all days, she did not need them. Her mind came to a quick conclusion based on Olive’s taunt: her ugliness was the root of all her problems. She had no friends. Her family ignored her. He had liked her for a while, or so he’d once professed, and she had loved him for loving her, but all that had been wrong. Stupid, ugly Myrtle. She had no one. Nothing. She never would.
It was this and not Olive herself that made her start to cry. The laughter rang in her ears, and she ran, hands over her ugly face, all the way to her safe place, the place she liked best because in it, she could be alone.
The lavatory was empty, the only sound a quiet drip drip drip from the sink at the end, beside the one that never worked. This annoyed most of the girls, who complained loudly that a school of magic should at least be able to fix itself, but Myrtle disagreed. She knew too well the limitations of magic, the way it couldn’t fix all things, if anything. It more often made things worse.
She moved off into her favoured stall, snuffling and sniffling and feeling miserable. No one would find her here, even if they looked.
Time passed, she did not know how long. She did not care. Let time pass, let everyone forget about her. She was nothing, no one. She wished that she could disappear forever.
Then the door opened, and someone entered.
Myrtle would get her wish, and her reward.
~ * * * ~
Sleep came eventually, but she did not know it until a hand touched her shoulder, quickly retracting once she stirred.
She started, half-leaping from the chair. The fire was long dead, the moonlight falling in a pool on the floor by her feet. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she stared at the pale light before turning her gaze on the wizard beside her.
“Professor? What is it?” She yawned and was unable to politely cover her mouth in time.
Dumbledore’s auburn hair hung loose over his shoulders and his robes were rumpled, as though they had been donned quickly with less care than usual. Her sleepy eyes took in the details of the creases on his robes and the matching ones on his face.
“You must come at once,” he said in a low voice, eyes glancing toward the dormitory stairs. “It is fortunate to have found you here. None of the students can be disturbed.”
His footsteps were silent as they left the Common Room, Minerva tripping on the edge of a rug as she went, her body not satisfied by her few hours of sleep. How long had it been, anyway? She dared not ask him; it did not seem important, not in comparison to what she had seen in his face, heard in his voice. He had never been like this before.
Dumbledore was afraid, chilled to the core of his being.
She walked beside him down the endless corridor, watching him from time to time, her heart pounding more with each step. Her conscious was waking, but it did not rush itself, and so her mind passed through various thoughts, most of which she would, at any other time, keep firmly repressed.
His silence was filled with intensity, and she cowered beneath it, fearing its meaning. Never was he so silent with her, and now, strangely, he reminded her of Riddle, for whom silence was everything, a tool he could wield to entrap his victims. With Dumbledore, silence was a tool for trust, an unspoken pact sealed between himself and her. He did not need to speak to reveal his thoughts to her; it was an assurance of her intelligence and stolidity.
They reached the stairs, and he turned to her once more, beyond the ear-shot of all portraits, suits of armour, and sneak-by-night students.
“There has been an...” he broke off, face contorting with the frustration of lacking the right word. “Incident in the second floor lavatory, but it is not that which I have come to you for help.” He paused, watching for her reaction. “It is to the staff room you must go, Minerva. There you will find Tiberius.”
This was not what Minerva had expected. A problem with a student, perhaps, not a midnight assignation with the Head Boy.
He looked away, stepping down the stairs.
“This is a very serious issue, Minerva. A student is–” he held his breath before finally releasing the word, bringing its meaning to life. “Dead. Tiberius made the discovery.”
“Dead?” Minerva spoke the word in a breath, the air in her lungs expelling.
Dumbledore’s eyes met hers at last, and in them, she could see the truth.
“Who?” She stepped toward him, hands clenched together.
He shook his head. “Not yet. We must go down.”
Minerva followed him, bewildered. As they neared the second floor, she heard voices, hushed and trembling. Dippet’s squeaks were nearly hysteric, Madame Nuttcombe attending to him rather than the victim, whoever it must have been. They stood outside the lavatory door, but Dumbledore stopped beyond their range of hearing.
“Continue down to the staff room, Minerva. There is nothing you can do here.”
Before he turned away, Minerva reached out and grabbed his sleeve.
“Professor, tell me who it was. Please.”
Dumbledore’s eyes grew sad, their blueness threatening to leak down onto his cheeks.
“It was Myrtle Myers. They reported her missing from Ravenclaw Tower late this evening.”
His voice was so bleak, shaking at the edges, that Minerva wanted to say something, anything, but what could she say? There was no possible way of making this disappear. Once someone was dead, that was it; time could not be changed, even with magic. It was the curse behind the blessing.
Minerva continued down the staircase, her head turned to watch Dumbledore walk away, his movements purposeful, taking on the role of leader, knowing that the others would look to him for assistance. How he could hold all of that on his shoulders in addition to all those other things – the popular perception being that he could end the war, all his power and ability against that of Grindelwald – Minerva could not understand. It seemed so unfair that he should have to deal with all of this.
Not as unfair as Myrtle’s death. Poor girl. Imperfect in so many ways, but not deserving to die, not deserving to suffer as she did. And why? Why did some people have to suffer more than others? Or, better yet, why did they have to suffer at all?
She approached the staff room with uncertainty, hesitating under the stern gaze of the two gargoyles that guarded the entrance. She knew the password – it was part of her duty to be aware of them all – but she could not utter it; her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, her voice knew no sound. The knowledge of death was too overwhelming.
“Hinkypunk.” She started at the sound of her own voice blandly reciting the password.
The gargoyles moved aside, their usual sarcastic comments silenced by the gravity of the school’s atmosphere. They must have known the state of the room’s sole occupant. The thought almost made her stop, but she pushed herself through the doorway, listening to the door shut behind her, the gargoyles scraping back into place.
The room was dark. It was similar to the Gryffindor Common Room, the same scene, the same shadows, the same silhouettes of furniture against the dim moonlight. There was no fire, no sign of life. No, how could there be after that news of death? Grimm had found the body, seen the wide and staring eyes of a girl he had known. How could anyone reconcile himself with that image?
Minerva swallowed, then spoke. “Tiberius?”
There was a stirring in a chair near the fireplace. A deep and plush chair, usually inhabited by Professor Binns, said to be where he had died, waking one day as a ghost. How appropriate that Grimm should sit there.
She moved closer, holding out her hands and taking careful steps to avoid a fall. He said not a word, but she could feel him there, hear his breath, harsh and aching. It was better that the light was so dim, for if she found him crying– No, Grimm did not cry. He would suffer in silence, his eyes dry.
In front of his chair, she knelt, staring into the shadows.
“Did you see her?” His voice was so soft that she had to lean forward to hear.
Minerva began to shake her head, then stopped, remembering he would not see her.
“No. Dumbledore would not let me near.”
A hand reached out for hers, and Grimm collapsed her fingers tight within his. “That is for the best. It was like she’d been turned to stone.”
She placed her other hand on his. “I would have handled it better, you know that.”
His laugh was painful to hear. “I’m sure that’s true.”
A shudder ran through her body, and she moved to pull her hand away. “Let me light the fire. We’ll catch cold.”
He gripped her hand with surprising strength, bringing her closer to him. “Don’t leave me.” There was a small noise, half a sob, perhaps. “Minerva, I–”
Here it came, all that pent up guilt bursting him at the seems. He would erupt into a tirade she did not want to hear, not when it would so much echo her own, the guilt of not having been there, of having been helpless and useless, unable to have saved the life of a young witch, undeserving of her fate.
She responded by placing her free hand over his mouth. It had been odd to reach into the darkness, touching a face she could not see. The window was behind him, and she knew that her own face was visible, if only slightly. It was enough to reveal what she would not say aloud. The darkness, this night, had brought her to a crossroads, and without thinking, without truly pausing to rationalise her decision, she had slipped down this path. She felt the ghostly touch of his lips against her palm before she removed it to rise. He made another sound, this time of protest, but it was unfounded.
“Make some room for me.”
She sat down before he could push himself further into the corner of the chair.
“Ouch. That was my arm.”
“You have very slow reflexes.”
“I’m not a Quidditch player.”
“But you are very easy to divert.”
He did not reply, and they fell into an awkward silence, heavy with unspoken words, his reply and her counter reply, and all the conversation that should have evolved from that point. Instead, they were just two people sharing a chair. They were touching, his hand refusing to release hers, but there was a wall between them that could not be felled in so short a time, even under these circumstances.
Minerva felt at a loss for words. What could she say to him that would not sound cliched or meaningless? Of course he was not fine, and would not be. Of course he blamed himself, and there was no removing that blame. It was also, in part, due to her growing awareness of him beside her. It was not the same feeling as it had been once – she vaguely remembered sitting with him on the Quidditch stands, keeping close for warmth, he only there for support.
As she was now.
Perhaps that was all he needed.
She heard his breathing change its rhythm. “Yes?”
“I will not leave you.”
The words, they felt so natural, but why? She held her breath, not knowing if he would respond, or if he did, what he would say. His breathing changed again, and she tensed, waiting.
He shifted and rested his head against her shoulder. The movement made her take in breath deeper, uncertain of how to react, what she should do. She could not bring herself to look at him, see his face and whatever weakness it may reveal. All of this was already beyond any vision of Grimm she had imagined.
“This is real, isn’t it.” His words were stretched, shaking like a child’s.
She touched his head, fingers sorting through his hair.
“If only it was.”
He raised his head, eyes meeting hers. At last, she saw his face, the reddened eyes, bloodshot and terrible. Minerva felt a lift to her heart, a contraction that gripped her, churning her stomach and making her head ache. His pain became hers.
His mouth opened and closed; when it opened again, his voice came forth.
“I have to find out why.”
Minerva reached out to touch his face, her hand retracting just before it made contact. She hesitated, neither dropping her hand nor bringing it to touch him.
The single syllable startled him. He looked up at her with narrowed eyes and a suspicious twist to his lips.
She turned her gaze to the empty fire. “We will find out why.”
A hand touched her cheek, and she felt all her nerves tingle, as though each cell of her being focused on that single point of contact.
His voice had gone so soft, so gentle; she had never heard it like this before. It was as though he had completely fallen with this bitter blow, Myrtle’s death changing him, making him into something malleable, impressionable.
Minerva frowned, keeping her face turned away. She had meant to suggest that they work together out of shared guilt, not anything remotely romantic. But Grimm, it was as though he needed it to be something deeper, something more significant, becoming a partnership in all meanings of the word.
Or did she want it too?
At last she closed her eyes, letting her muscles relax one by one. She took deep breaths, feeling him settle against her, his head over her heart. Did he hear its crisis, its fear? Or did he only know of its rhythm, its life?
Either way, she had to respond.