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Chapter 7: Verbal Duelists
She outright refused to let them drag Grimm off to the Hospital Wing. The feud between him and Madame Nuttcombe was so serious that he would likely suffer more under her care. The very fact that he had fallen into a swoon demonstrated his sensitivity. However much she was to take care of the students, Madame Nuttcombe was not one to be humiliated, but that was another, very different story.
Having resolved to care for Grimm herself, she guided the wizards who were carrying the prostrate Head Boy into the potions laboratory. The door slammed closed behind them, and Minerva made sure that it was locked – loiterers would only make the situation worse, particularly if they were ones robed in pink.
She searched through the stores for any pre-made potion that could be of possible use. Even just a little bottle of smelling salts would do. Once she got Grimm awake, she’d get him to tell her which potion would do best to help his hand.
There! A gross-smelling ingredient which Grimm himself had shown her during one of their tutoring sessions. Yes, that was how this mess had all started, when the silly boy and the naive girl had been thrown together in the evenings. She helped him with Transfiguration, at which he was hopeless, and she in return received assistance with her Potions, at which she was not so hopeless. And from there, Grimm had gotten ideas.
He stirred now, his injured hand tensing.
Minerva took a full bottle of the smelly ingredient and a pair of tweezers she had found stuffed in a container of porcupine quills. At least they would not be too dirty from sitting in such a place, certainly not poisoned.
He muttered something between groans of pain. His eyelids flickered, like those of a Victorian woman in a melodrama, but they did not fully open. Such was not the case when Minerva placed the opening of the bottle near Grimm’s nostrils.
“Merlin’s pants!” he cried, nearly leaping from the bench upon which he lay. “What the bloody hell are you trying to do, woman!”
Without much difficulty, Minerva maintained a straight face.
“I need you to tell me which potion to use on your hand.” When he began to look down, she took his chin in hand, forcing his eyes to meet hers. “Don’t look at it. Goodness knows I don’t need you to faint again.”
He gritted his teeth, whether in pain or anger, she could not tell. “I did not faint.”
Each word was pronounced as though it were its own sentence, leaving Minerva in little doubt that he was indeed in pain. She should have started on his hand right away, bollocks checking with him first. Why did she do such a thing, waiting to rely on the mind of a boy who couldn’t even stand the sight of blood?
Releasing his chin, she grabbed his injured hand and raised the tweezers. Grimm’s eyes widened and she heard him swear in three different languages.
“Are you afraid of this too, Grimm?”
“Murtlap.” The two syllables came out in one breath.
She paused. “Pardon?”
He sighed. “Essence of Murtlap. Healing salve. I need it.”
Her memory of the word returning, she shook her head. “Not until I remove the shards.”
The noise he made was somewhere between a growl and sob, but he did not pull his hand away. When she began tugging on the first shard of glass, he looked over at the shelf of books across the room, no doubt reading off the titles he had read or had yet to read. There were not too many pieces of glass puncturing his skin, and it did not take Minerva very long to remove them all. It was only after she finished that she dared to glance at his face.
Beads of perspiration slowly dripped down his brow and over his temples. His eyes were glazed over, trying to forget the pain that overpowered his senses and sent him back into a near-swoon. Minerva felt a terrible and utter pity for him. Her hand reached out to touch his cheek, but she hesitated before her palm reached his face. Instead, she laid her hand on his shoulder.
“Tiberius,” she gazed earnestly into his face. “Tiberius, please say something.”
He blinked once before his eyes focussed upon her. “I’m not dying.”
She sat back on the stool. “Of course not. It was not–”
“Not that bad, I know. But it hurt like hell.” His voice was still weak, a quiet rasp.
Rolling her eyes, she rose and returned to the potions cabinet. “It was your own fault. Now tell me, where is the Essence of Murtlap?” When he hesitated, she added, “Is there even any here?”
He gestured with his intact hand towards a locked cupboard. “There.”
She examined the lock. “This isn’t helping, Tiberius. I will have to go find Slughorn.”
“No!” Sitting up, Grimm watched her with widening eyes. His face was pale. “The key is there. I’ll get it. Just don’t go. Don’t leave.”
Already half-way to the door, Minerva stopped at the note of desperation in his voice.
“Why not? Tiberius, you’re in pain. You need something to help, and Murtlap would do the job very well. You know that as well as I do.” She had turned to face him, her voice hardening in disgust at his too obvious weakness. What the in Merlin’s name was wrong with him?
Without a word to her, Grimm struggled off the table, holding his one hand close to his chest to avoid touching anything with it. His footsteps were surprisingly steady as he moved towards the potions cabinet. Standing on tiptoe so that his eyes could barely see over the top of the cabinet, he reached with his free hand for a tiny silver key.
“Do you really believe, Minerva, that Sluggy would take such a precaution?” He stared hard at her, his chest heaving.
It did not take him long to set up the bowl of Murtlap, even with only one hand to spare. Minerva carried it to one of the desks and watched as he took the stool beside her, his breathing still hard, but a greater clarity in his eyes. There was a small smile on his lips when he caught her watching him.
“I’m not going to die yet.” His speech was still hesitant, but that was from the alcohol, not merely the pain, which could not have been that severe.
When she did not reply, her observant gaze transforming into a glare, he added, “I did over exaggerate just a bit. Had to get out of there. Away from her.”
Minerva swallowed. “And get me away from Riddle?”
The room filled with a heavy silence. He stared at the Murtlap and she stared at him. The sounds of the continuing party droned in the distance, but no one had followed them to this place. Not yet, at least.
When he finally spoke, it was not to answer her question.
“I’ve been thinking about how this all began. This being the... the thing between us.” He stopped to wet his lips and take a deeper breath. “How I made that mistake in fifth year, thinking that you... me... that it would work and... and I’m sorry.” Pausing again, he turned his face towards her, the pink spots in his cheeks visible even in the dim light. “You’ve got your own plans, and all I do is meddle with them.”
She sat stiffly, her hands folded on the table. “What plans are those?”
“University, Quidditch, that sort of... Ow!” He had raised his hand from the liquid while speaking to gesture, but the endeavour failed.
There were footsteps in the corridor, but they passed by the room.
“Whatever you were drinking has rather loosened your tongue, Tiberius,” Minerva said, keeping her voice low and steady.
“I’m not drunk, for Merlin’s sake. Is my honesty, my humiliation, not enough for you?”
It was an honest question which demanded an honest answer.
He stared at her, his jaw loose on its hinges. It was difficult at times such as this to not see him as an overgrown, naive child, too selfish to see beyond the things he desired and demanded. It was at times such as this that she could see little within him that attracted her interest. He was no more than a spoiled only child.
“It wasn’t out of jealousy that I lost my temper,” he said. At her disbelieving glance, he added, “Not entirely, at least. There is something about Riddle that can’t be trusted, Minerva. He’s got too much power over others. You’ve seen what happened to the girls he’s been with. How they’ve lost part of themselves....”
She rounded on him. “Oh, and so you were trying to find a way to rescue me from his clutches. I’m not a stupid girl looking for a good snog here and there. You of all people should know that.” Her anger poured out all too easily. The recognition that he was right only increased her frustration with him. He always had to be right. He always was right.
He shifted in his seat, moving his hand in the bowl with care.
“I do. Know that, I mean. Your knowledge of jinxes is extensive.”
The words were spoken with such a straight face that Minerva felt a smile pulling at the corners of her lips. However infuriating, he could make her smile. It was a somewhat redeeming characteristic.
The memory of that day was still prevalent in her mind, much as she begrudged its presence. It had been near the end of fifth year while they were studying for exams. She had been uptight, stressing over the OWLS and he had been, like now, trying to make her smile with silly stories and exaggerated imitations of the professors. The memory was so close that she could still feel the breeze against her face and hear the willow’s leaves rustling around them.
For some peculiar reason he had kissed her, a rather wet caress of her lips that was unlike what either expected. Any degree of respect she had for him died at that moment. She reacted with a resounding slap against his face which he swore moved his nose to the left a full quarter-inch. It was only then that she had jinxed him.
“You deserved it, Grimm.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so it’s back to Grimm again, is it?”
Rising from the stool, Minerva swept towards the door, admiring the sound her skirts made upon the floor. “I won’t remain here any longer. You lured me into this room so that you could torture me some more, and I won’t have any of it.”
She paused for effect in the same way he often did, but it did not seem to affect him very much at all. He sat there, staring at her with his eyebrow still raised. Mocking her, that’s what he was doing, just mocking her some more. He did that in his mood of his, watching her with that expression that enforced all his social superiority – wealthier, male, polished manners, all the things in the world he could have wanted, all at his fingertips.
The acid seeped through her voice. “Good night, Grimm.”
Her hand was upon the latch.
“What did you mean that we were even, Minerva?”
His voice had changed, again, raising to that aristocratic tone and clipped syllables which reminded her of all he was. She thought of ignoring him, just opening that door and walking away. That would have been the best, and easiest way. It was what she should have done, what both pride and propriety would demand of her.
But she stopped, hesitating. Something kept her there, preventing her from attaining that freedom she had felt in Slughorn’s office as the single unescorted witch in attendance. Perhaps it was the realisation that, by asserting herself with risque robes and a haughty air, she had become the very female best suited to Grimm’s aristocratic upbringing. Her own freedom had turned against her, bringing her back into his grasp.
Upon turning, she saw that he had risen from the stool, his hand still plunged into the Murtlap, the rest of him the perfect picture of a high-class wizard. His mother – for it was impossible that he would shop for dress robes – had chosen his robes well. Minerva thought with dread about the picture she and Grimm had made upon the dance floor at that moment she had laughed aloud.
“I ask only because I can’t recall anything you would feel obligated to repay me for.”
He sounded worried. She should give him an answer soon, but how to word it without him finding some ulterior motive trapped between the words?
Taking in a breath, she said, “It was repayment for how you handled the headmaster’s accusation. You took the blame, when it should have been split between us.”
Grimm’s mouth formed a distinctive o-shape. The memory must have returned to him.
“I see.” He looked down at his hand in the Murtlap. The way he spoke the words denoted that he, in fact, did not understand at all. “You didn’t have to do it, Minerva. We probably made quite a... spectacle out there.” There was no hint of humour in his voice. He was probably thinking about the sorts of rumours that would be flying about at that very moment and their probability of reaching his parents.
Without glancing at her, he removed his hand from the bowl and flicked his wand to clean away any clinging bits of the essence. His brow was furrowed, but he added nothing to his comment.
Minerva was, by now, at a loss for everything. The Grimm standing before her now – somewhat embarrassed and thoughtful – was not the one that ever infuriated her with questions about friendship or strange glances. His wound and their conversation had quickly sobered him up, and now she felt far less of a desire to leave him. Some part of her resolve was softening, some of her heart’s ice was cracking.
When he did finally look towards her, it was only to ask, “Could you perhaps help me with bandages? Sluggy keeps them in the top drawer of his desk.” There was a small smile appearing on his lips.
It took little thought for her to move towards the desk, albeit slowly. The movement helped remove her concentration from his mouth. There were two possibilities for his change in behaviour. Either he was desperately trying to appease her by sincerely acting helpless and polite, or he was bating her, using her for his own purposes, luring her closer to his web.
Minerva shook the thoughts from her head. Grimm trying to bait her? Grimm a spider? Never. She stole a glance towards him. Even at his worst, he never did anything that would harm her; most of his plans seemed to harm himself more than anything.
Her hand came upon the stiff and yellowed bandages. “These don’t look very sanitary.”
Grimm shrugged. “They’ll do for now. Myrtle can nick some from the Hospital Wing for me in the morning.” At her answering disbelieving look, he added, “I won’t go in there, Minerva. I just won’t.”
She was laughing silently when she sat beside him. It certainly did not take him long to disarm her anger. He must have known the correct wire to cut in the bomb of her Scottish Gryffindor temper. Probably the red one.
If she did not stop these thoughts, she’d be laughing all night, and there were to be classes in the morning.
“Hold still,” she muttered at his twitch. The bandages were horribly stiff; they could not have been very comfortable on the wounds, however much those wounds had been cooled by the Murtlap.
“I am. It’s shaking without my assistance.” He was sounding peevish now.
“Petrificus Totalus would prevent this problem.”
“You like using spells on me too much.”
“I admit that it’s amusing to watch you squirm.”
He stared at her, open-mouthed. “Minerva!”
She focussed her attention on what she was doing, hiding her smile.
Grimm sat in silence for some time, his eyes watching her hands wrap the bandages around the base of his fingers.
“All finished,” she said, tucking the end underneath the other folds. “Now we can go.” She turned on the stool to rise.
“You sound relieved to say that.”
She did not look back at him. “Don’t start this again, Tiberius. I’m tired.”
He raised his uninjured hand. “Alright, alright. What would you rather talk about?”
With a sniff, she stood, adjusting her skirts around her. “I’d rather not. Now come. We'll walk up together.” She nodded her head towards him. A command. Oh yes, she was back in command of the situation.
Shoulders bent, he followed her from the room, remembering to shut off the gas before he shut the door. Instead of feeling like a puppy trailing in Umbridge's wake, following Minerva filled him with a greater hope. This was a step in the right direction. It was always a good sign when she started ordering him around.
When they reached the stairs, somehow not assaulted by any partygoers, she slowed to walk beside him, matching her pace to his. Grimm thought of offering her his arm, but set the idea aside in case it would once more ignite her temper. He imagined one day walking with her down some tree-lined street, holding her arm tight against his side – the moment would be one of great pride and success, but of course he couldn’t rush things, could he?
They walked in a sort of comfortable silence. He could not tell what she was thinking and yearned for the day when he might read her as clearly as she seemed to be able to read him.
“There is something I wish to ask you.” Her words came so suddenly that he only just prevented himself from tripping up the stairs.
What in Merlin’s name could she want to know of him? “Um, sure. Ask away.”
“Why did you have such a reaction to the sight of blood? Or was it more that you hate to see your own blood spilt?” Her voice betrayed no emotion. It was like she was talking among a group of scientists, not to the injured party.
They were going up the next flight of stairs before he answered her. His voice came heavy with rasping breath. Could they have honestly put more stairs into this bloody school? He'd grown too out of shape these last few years.
“It’s not so much the blood, but the idea of violence, all the anger and emotion that causes it and comes from it. I just don’t–”
His words were cut off as they rounded the next flight and came face-to-face with the pink-clad witch he had escorted to the party, but had neglected to escort her away again.
“Ha! I knew it!” she cried, pointing a ring-clad finger at them. “It was all a distraction so you two could run off together, and I have caught you in the act. Just wait until everyone else hears of this.” There was, now, a decided harshness to her voice that sent chills down Grimm's spine.
Grimm and Minerva exchanged glances. She moved closer to him, not out of fear, but to cover the movement of her hand reaching for her wand. Grimm’s eyes flicked back to Dolores.
“I’m afraid you must be mistaken. It was Minerva who came to my assistance to fix me up.” He raised his bandaged hand for her to see. “I didn’t exactly see you offering to help with this.”
The tone in his voice was easily matched by Minerva. “As I remember, you were too busy screaming about the glass and blood everywhere.” Her face betrayed nothing, but her words were filled with mirth.
Dolores’ cheeks began to burn red. “It was a traumatic moment.”
Minerva’s lips twitched. “Indeed. It’s very fortunate that Tiberius’ injuries were not life-threatening. You would have been even more useless then.”
Dolores was, by now, too angry to reply.
The two witches faced one another down, Dolores having only the advantage of the upper stair. Although Minerva’s face appeared to be set in stone, her chest rose and fell with anxious breaths. Grimm stumbled backwards, eyes wide and voice silent, as though he wanted to fade into the stonework. Leaning against the balustrade, he prayed that no one else would be witness to this duel.
If, of course, it even came to that.
Grimm noticed that there was the clear shape of a wand showing through Minerva’s skirts. He reached into his own pocket... the witch! She’d snatched his wand!
This was not going to go well. Unless, of course, he intervened. The very attitude Minerva most despised - but Dolores most admired - gave him the strength to step forward and address the warring parties.
“I’m afraid that there’s to be no magic in the corridors, ladies. You’ll have to put those away.” He winced at his own condescension, happy that he had not added “in case someone gets hurt” or that person would have likely been himself.
“Go away, Tiberius.” Minerva did not even look his way.
If he couldn’t handle this politely, then he’d have to try another method.
“It would help if I had my wand, darling,” he said, drawing out the syllables of the last word. You seem to have borrowed it.”
He saw her deep intake of breath, but the noise Dolores made captured his attention.
“You reached into his pocket? But.. but....” Her own wand was lowering as shock faded her angry flush.
Minerva held Grimm’s wand between two fingers, her face a mask of disgust. “I meant to reach for mine.” She turned to Grimm. “This is your fault.”
“My fault?” The words came out as a squeak.
Dolores’ mind had settled upon one topic. “Was it his trouser pocket? How could you not notice–”
Grimm’s wand found itself pointed at the space between Dolores’ eyes.
“Please stop talking, Umbridge.” Minerva kept her voice low. “Because you have threatened the Head Girl and Boy with your wand, I will be speaking to Professor Slughorn in the morning about your behaviour. Now return to your House and expect Slytherin to have fewer points by breakfast.”
Blinking, Dolores stared across at Minerva, the advantage of the upper stair hardly paying off in opposition to Minerva's exceptional height. It was not difficult for Grimm to see that pink-clad mind calculating and failing to come up with a suitably scathing reply. With a flourish of her wand – too nimbly used by fingers Grimm had believed were uselessly fat – she disappeared down the staircase. Minerva watched until the Slytherin girl was well out of ear-shot.
Grimm plucked his wand from her fingers. “Next time, don’t do that.”
“There won’t be a next time.” She was already walking away.
She kept walking.
Grimm shook his head. All the work he’d done to break the barrier... and the damn thing had built itself up again. That stupid, stupid Umbridge. He never should have–
He had to say something to Minerva before she got too far ahead.
“You might as well let me know just how that was my fault.” His voice echoed down the corridor, ringing against the suits of armour. “So I can improve for the future.”
She stopped and turned her glare upon him. “If you hadn’t asked her to go with you to that idiotic party, then perhaps I could think about forgiving you. But that... that embarrassment and all of those to come as our names become more linked in rumour, I can’t fathom–”
“Why does it matter what people say?” He had caught up to her and now stood some few feet away, afraid to get too close. “If you like me, and I know you do, Minerva, then you will be embarrassed by them, even harassed by them in Dolores’ case.” He paused for breath, wondering how long until she ran off again. “We are good together, just think–”
“They mock me when they think I’m not looking. I’ve heard them.”
The change in her voice was not only unexpected, but entirely like anything Grimm had heard before from her in the past. She sounded hollow, all her masks ripped away.
“Do you mock me too, Grimm?” she asked in his silence. “You would of course be better at hiding it than any of the others. But why else would you bother with the penniless daughter of a sheep farmer?”
Grimm was once again speechless. He felt incapable of ever answering her last question, however much he desired to adamantly deny the first. The truth was before him and its bitter tinge left a sour taste in his mouth. Minerva’s background was pure, but not in the same way as the southern purebloods who hoarded piles of gold in their vaults and looked down upon anyone who could not do the same.
“You forget the nature of my household.” He kept his voice equally quiet.
She refused to meet his eyes. “Yet even without actually being a pureblood, you live like one.”
It was time for him to lighten the mood. “Ever noticed how only the desperate ones go after me? It’s rather depressing at times.” To his ears, the nonchalant tone itself sounded desperate.
She looked at him then. “It’s not a wonder that she would duel me for you, then.”
He grimaced. “She likes my parents’ money, that’s all.”
A tendril of hair, having escaped from the clutches of her pins, snaked over her shoulder. Grimm kept his eyes upon it, imagining the feel of those inky strands between his fingers.
“And am I one of those poor desperate witches?”
It was spoken in her usual voice, all visible signs of her admitting had vanished.
His eyes met hers. Grimm stepped forward, magnetised, mesmerised. “In this situation, I rather think I'm the desperate one.”
The sadness returned to her eyes. “But why, Tiberius? Why me?”
Oh no, not that question. An inquiring mind was a great thing, but not at times like this. There was a selection of answers for him to choose from; if only he knew which one would please her most.
“You are the only female in the world that I can stand to be in the same room with, other than my mother, of course.” It came out in a blabbering rush and was entirely not the sort of thing he’d wanted to say. Off she would go now, thinking him even more of a fool than she’d imagined.
When he looked at her, he caught her assessing gaze.
“I seem to be learning more about you in one evening than I learned in the past three years of our friendship.” Her words were all neatly clipped, but she tripped over that last word, the one she had to know would set Grimm off like a spell from a broken wand.
He found the power to speak. “We’re well schooled at dissembling.”
She nodded, then noticed the loose strand of hair. As she replaced it, she said, “It's been a very long evening.”
Weariness was setting in; the throbbing in Grimm’s head was spreading.
“Thank Godric there are no classes tomorrow.” He rubbed his forehead.
Her laughter was strained, but sincere. “There is a Quidditch game.”
Grimm had never attended a single Quidditch game, even with Minerva as Chaser. She knew that as well as anyone else did. He didn’t exactly hide in the library when they were off making their din on the grounds. But it was all too clear what her statement implied.
“It better be against Slytherin,” he groaned.
Her smile was widening. “It is.”
Grimm had no choice in this matter. He was to go and cheer for Gryffindor, however much of a damned idiot it would make him look to everyone who knew he thought it a dull waste of time.
“I will be there.” He did not bother to hide his lack of enthusiasm.
It was worth it, if only for the touch of her hand against his before she disappeared behind the portrait entrance to Gryffindor Tower. He watched her go, his hand still held out to grasp hers. Foolish. Romantic. But he was absolutely pleased that his plans had, after many obstacles and detours, had worked out to perfection.