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Chapter 9: A Game of Chess
There was a great lull before the Christmas holidays arrived, a time defined quite well by the term “lull”, which conveniently rhymes with “dull”. The colours of autumn faded into greys and browns that did nothing to inspire the students of Hogwarts. They moved slower across the grounds and through the corridors, as though they walked through molasses, preferring their warm beds and Common Rooms to whatever else the professors could assign them.
The incident of the letter was anything but forgotten, however equally dull Grimm’s interest in the case was becoming. He watched his housemates with a waning suspicion Minerva chided him for over their homework.
“Dumbledore has checked many times. No one from outside of Ravenclaw could have entered the house, Tiberius.” Her spectacles – worn more often now – were slipping down her nose.
Grimm let out an impatient sigh. “There could be another of those secret passages that he doesn’t know about–”
“If neither you nor him have knowledge of such a passage, then you can be sure it does not exist,” she replied, tapping the end of her quill against the ink-stained table. “You are only making up illogical excuses because you’re too afraid to blame someone you trusted.”
“It’s not illogical!” He set down his quill. “This castle is filled with secret passages and Dumbledore is a Gryffindor, so how would you expect him to know of any in Ravenclaw Tower?” A sceptical expression filled his eyes. “Or does he have some omniscient knowledge of the castle that no one since the Founders could possess?”
She gave him a long look, dark eyes staring over the rims of her spectacles. “There are more secrets in this castle than either of us could imagine.”
Silence followed the last echoes of her voice against the shelves. The evening was waning, the already dark sky devoid of starlight. Only the older students still remained in the library, completing the last of their work for the day, some more furiously than others. Minerva let out a breath and glanced down at her unsatisfying potions essay. The structure of her argument was logical, her points sound, but she still felt as though something was missing, that she had not included some significant concept.
The squeak of her pushing back chair made Grimm start.
“Where are you going?”
Minerva sniffed, disliking the note of possession in his voice.
“To get a book.”
His lips tightened, but he looked away, defeated.
She moved away before she could begin feeling sympathy for him. To expect perfect equanimity in their relationship was to be grossly optimistic, and Minerva constantly disturbed herself by never actually becoming angry with him. However unguarded his remarks, however silly his actions, she always came back.
Rather like an ugly underfed cat, she thought. The kind that can never be gotten rid of.
Passing through the shelves, Minerva let her fingers brush against the leather spines, a lover’s caress. The books she was looking for would be near the Restricted Section, which was a dangerous temptation, but one she was willing to take, if only to be away from Grimm for a few moments. It could not be healthy to spend too much of one’s time with a single person.
Arriving at her desired shelf, she carefully removed one book, flipped through with the delicate ends of her fingers, then replaced it. Taking out the next, she repeated these steps until, five books later, she discovered the passage she had been seeking. Very obscure, but it was one of those things she did not want to ignore when it came to her argument.
“Ah, what do you have there?”
If it had been Grimm’s voice, she would have immediately pulled away, dancing around him to regain her personal space. But it was not Grimm who had spoken.
She turned her face to glimpse an aquiline nose and sculptured chin peering over her shoulder. His face was too close to hers; she could smell the strange tinge of his breath, feel it wafting against her cheek. Like the dungeons, thick and oily with hints of... what was that?
“That’s a very interesting topic indeed, Minerva. Going for potions, now?”
Her hands closed the book in a sharp snap, sending dust into their faces.
“If I was more familiar with potions, I would not have needed to look it up.” Only now did she move away from him, ensuring that she could now face him directly.
“You startled me, Tom.”
The smile was fixed on his face. “My most sincere apologies.”
Was he mocking her? It was impossible to tell just by looking at him, or by hearing his voice. There was a certain feeling in the air when he was around, a feeling that both attracted and repelled her from his presence. He was like one of those beautiful flowers in the greenhouses: stunning to the eye, but also fatally dangerous, killing a person even as they still admired the delicacy of the petals.
But what exactly made him dangerous? Or was it only that strange, inexplicable feeling?
She had felt it also when they had danced. He had spoken of his plans, then, telling her more than he seemed to tell anyone else. Many assumed that he would enter the Ministry, become another one of those drones until properly fitted out to become the Minster himself, but such a position was not worthy of Tom Riddle. He did not even need to express that opinion for it to be understood.
Destined for greatness was what people said of him. He seemed to expect it.
“Is there something in particular you wanted to talk to me about, Tom?”
His left eye twitched as she said his name. “Not in particular. I was just... curious about your chosen reading. It is not a common book to consult for potions essays.”
How had he known that? A year behind, even in potions, he could not have known why she had been consulting that book. Unless the reason was completely obvious, and she was to him as dull as a frightened sheep.
“It is a helpful book, however, as you seem to know.” She chose her words with care.
The sound that escaped his lips may have been a laugh. “Oh yes. You should read it in its entirety, Minerva. You might find it... illuminating.” A second almost-laugh followed.
She made a point of returning the book to its proper place on the shelf, making sure that it lined up perfectly with the books on either side. Straightening her spine, she raised a sceptical eyebrow. “I will remember that when I have the time. Thank you, Tom.”
A definite dismissal. Riddle vanished into the shadows from which he had come, leaving her to let escape the breath she had not realised had been held in her lungs for too long. Her steps swayed as she returned to the corner desks, Grimm’s familiar hunched position guiding her in the right direction.
He must have heard her approaching footsteps. It was not beyond him to have memorised their exact pattern and sound. Without looking up, he asked, “Did you find what you needed?”
She sat and stared down at the words she had inscribed not long before, the idea they were leading to now forgotten. “Rather more, I think.”
There must have been something in the tone of her voice that alerted him. The quill fell neglected from his hand as it reached for hers, unbidden. “Are you ill, Min? You’re so pale. Was there something in one of the books? They’re so ancient, who knows what’s been spilled into them.”
The rambling rhythm of his voice was disconcertingly comforting.
“Just tired. Don’t worry so much, Grimm.”
His hand was squeezing hers. “This looks more than a little tired, Min. You were fine when you left.”
So even his mother-hennish attitude could not distract him from the churnings of his oversized brain. He was speaking in no more than a whisper, almost drowned out by the roaring in her ears. What was this that had overcome her so easily? Riddle had not said anything of note, it was only that feeling. That terrible feeling.
“It was nothing. You are far too sensitive.” The words sounded hollow in her ears.
He released her hand, his gentle fingers brushing against hers.
“One of us has to be.” He paused, still observing her expression, then began packing up his things. “We’ve been working too long, anyways. It’s not a wonder you’re tired, especially with all this potions work.”
It was a marked improvement in his manner that he did not pursue the subject of her sudden illness further, but he was trying too hard to avoid it, adopting the attitude that almost annoyed her more than the persistence of his curiosity, quite a feat in itself.
“Because it is not my best subject, you mean?”
He coloured slightly. “I wasn’t going to say it.”
“But you thought it.” She felt herself begin to relax once more.
“I did tutor you in potions, at one point.”
They walked step-for-step towards the library entrance, remaining silent as they passed Madam Pince’s sharp vigilant gaze.
“Yes, and look how well that went.” Minerva couldn’t help the note of sarcasm. She suppressed a shudder as the memory of Grimm’s face against hers three years ago – how clumsy he had been, hardly reaching her lips with that wet kiss – transformed into the recent encounter with Riddle. Even the smell of his breath returned, violating her consciousness.
Darkness filled the corners of her eyes. The weakness was frustrating, but her senses were unwillingly slipping away and there was nothing she could do about it.
The touch of his arm around her waist roused her far more effectively than any smelling salt. He had nearly caught her, as she had nearly fallen, but not quite. They had, however, become scandalously close in the process, his face staring into hers with more shock than she had ever seen upon it before. The heavy-lidded eyes were wide; his front teeth appeared between the parted lips. Her eyes came into focus looking up at him – how was he taller now? – spying the spider web of red in his eyes – was he losing sleep over that damned letter again? – and the adolescent sprouting of hair across the line of his jaw.
He said her name again, more quietly now. She hardly heard it, her senses reeling again.
For a different reason? She could not be sure.
“I should take you to the Hospital Wing.”
It was not the words themselves, but the way he spoke them, that made this phrase the most seductive she would ever hear him speak. Everything settled on the strange choice of “should” over “must” or “could”. One word changed so much.
“But you won’t, Tiberius.” Her hand rested on his arm.
He blinked. “No.”
“Good.” She stepped back, glad to catch her breath again. “I’m not a damsel in distress.”
Shaking his head, he managed a snort. “Definitely not. Otherwise you would have let me kiss you, and have enjoyed it, too.”
It was best not to reply to such an idiotic remark. She straightened her robes, the fain– whatever it had been now gone just as quickly as it had come upon her. Grimm was certainly useful in that way, being so skilled at distraction, just another of his magic tricks. Height and health restored, Minerva started on her way, leaving Grimm still awaiting her answer.
“You can’t just walk away, Minerva.” His voice took on a measure of sternness, utterly undermined by the equal note of hurt. “That was a moment–”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Of weakness.”
He took long steps to catch up. “Nothing else?”
“No.” Her voice fell flat.
Minerva took longer steps and pulled ahead, but even without glimpsing her face, Grimm knew the reason for that flat answer, the tone that was more harsh than it needed to be. It was something of a success, to have her so flustered in this way, yet at the basis of things, her present stated was not entirely because of him.
There were two choices for him now. The first was to continue passively, allowing her to run away and work through whatever it was that had happened. This would not be too different from how he had acted toward her lately, allowing her to make the decisions, with him acting only as a friend, perhaps of the clingy sort. The second would be to actively pursue her, assert himself against her will with potentially disastrous results – she was already trying to shut him out.
It was a risk he would have to take.
Running forward, faster than he tended to enjoy moving, he whipped around and stopped directly in Minerva’s path, baring her way.
“If you refuse to tell me what happened, if anything, that’s fine. Just don’t run away from me, Minerva.” Arms crossed, he imagined that he depicted some great figure of authority.
She stopped up short, eyes not blazing or glaring, only troubled. But still silent.
“There’s bound to be something we can do as a distraction,” he continued in a ramble, painfully aware of his flushing cheeks. The alternate meaning of his words only realised after they had escaped his lips. “A walk around the grounds....?”
“At night?” Her voice was just above a whisper.
“Raiding the kitchens for dinner’s leftovers. That custard was especially delightful....”
“You said it tasted flat.”
Had he? Couldn’t remember.
“You see where I’m trying to go with this, don’t you?”
There was the hint of a smile in her eyes. “Yes, and you’re doing it very badly.”
He relished the expression growing on her face that dispersed all the horror and frustration of a few moments previous. How many poets had claimed they could stare at their lady’s face for centuries? Were all those centuries worth a single moment of perfection?
“But I did make you smile.”
A crease appeared on her forehead. “Perhaps you’re more skilled than I had thought.”
He laughed at that, impulsively reaching out his hand to hers, feeling the thrill in his heart at the feel of her fingers twining about his. It was an impossible thing, that she should have responded in this way. She that, only just before had nearly... but had refused. He wanted to see inside her head to understand her moods, all her thoughts of him and of everything.
None of which she would have wanted him to know.
The prime thought residing in Minerva’s head just then had more to do with how easily distracted Grimm could become with the right provocation. It was, however, somewhat of a comfort to be in possession of his hand, not that she would ever admit such a thing aloud. The smell of the dungeons still permeated in her nostrils. Why had that simple conversation with Riddle bothered her so much? It made no sense at all.
Grimm was babbling on about that Potions essay now, she listened abstractedly with the knowledge that she should really be paying attention. Her grade in that class was a steady Exceeds Expectations, a failure in comparison to Grimm’s Outstanding.
Her eyes wandered as they passed down the empty corridor, resting on a shadow lurking in some classroom entryway. The flash of coalblack eyes met hers, then vanished into the darkness. A vision? It could not be possible, more likely a ghost, the Baron, perhaps? A pull on her hand warned Minerva of her unconscious hesitation.
“What is it now?” She heard a note of impatience in his voice that wasn’t really there.
There was no point in trying to pretend it had been nothing. “I saw someone in that doorway, that’s all.”
Grimm’s eyes narrowed. “That’s the Dark Arts room. No one should be there.” Their hands parted as he entered the classroom, lit-wand extended. “The door shouldn’t be open, either.” He looked back toward her. “It was not a ghost. We should tell Professor Merrythought.”
Minerva looked over his shoulder into the room. Nothing appeared to be disturbed, but that meant little. “But we should not leave the room, not without properly locking it.” After a pause, she added, “It would be better to get Dumbledore, this could be related to... that other... thing.” Not the best choice of words, but it was enough to make Grimm turn a shade paler.
He swallowed awkwardly, then licked his lips before speaking. “You should go.”
It was the most logical decision, but the desire for resistance pulled at her consciousness. “If you’re only saying that to be chivalrous, then it would be better if you went. I can take care of myself well enough.” She crossed her arms to assert her point.
His next movements came swiftly, and before she could react, Grimm’s face was inches from hers, his hands clutching her shoulders. The last time they had been this close he had–
“What in Hades’s name is wrong with you? You can claim all you want that it was a case of the vapours earlier, but now I think you’re just being idiotic.” The very word she had used on him many times, strange to hear him say it to her in return. Perhaps it would have been better if he had presumed to kiss her instead.
No. No, definitely not. Perhaps she was becoming idiotic, after all.
A stubbornness took root in her mind. “You are wasting time, Tiberius. Go.”
Lips twisting in anger, his eyes taking on a furious glint, he did not budge. “And if someone or thing comes out of there when you’re here alone?”
She pulled away, her words coming out in a snarl. “I can take care of myself. What help could you possibly be if something did happen?”
It was a well-known fact that Tiberius Grimm was not the bravest of wizards. He was, after all, quite sensitive to the sight of blood. He knew this as well as anyone, and did not bother to deny the truth of it. However, he had not expected Minerva to throw it in his face with such spite. Setting his face in a grim mask, he turned and left in silence, soon disappearing around the next corner.
Letting go of a breath she had not been aware of holding, Minerva stepped into the classroom, igniting the torches with a flick of her wand. There would be no one inside; the spectre would be far away, having vanished as the two of them had argued. She half-collapsed into a chair, head pounding with all the emotion she had felt in too short a span of time. There had been enough trouble without that last altercation with Grimm, but that did not bother her. He would return and there would be no need to forgive; she had only told him the truth, after all.
Rubbing one temple, she looked at the room once again. What was here that would have interested him? In her mind, the pronoun confusion barely registered. All she had seen were the eyes in the shadows, nothing more, and from that, she had made her assumption. There would have been enough time to reach here from the library long before she and Grimm had passed this room, especially with all their various.... hesitations (were they only that? again she could not be sure). The question was, however, what of interest would have been found here? Merrythought did not keep anything dangerous in the classroom, those items remained safely stored in his office. So what could it have been?
Indeed, that was the question. What could it have been that had led him to her in the library, had made him act in that strange way toward her? He was always more than a bit queer in that way, something about being an orphan, she thought. Too much time spent alone inside of his own head, with nothing else to occupy him. Not to mention that smell. None of the other Slytherins carried quite that much odour of the dungeons.
That feeling she’d had when he stood too near her, it somehow felt very wrong. She had thought then that if it had been Grimm, following her out of nothing more than curiosity – and perhaps interest for the books she was looking in – she would have easily evaded his closeness, an act of habit, now. Yet when Riddle had stood there, she had frozen, as though mesmerised. His eyes did have that quality, another strange aspect of his features. But that alone could not make him as dark as Grimm seemed to think he was. That had to be just Grimm’s jealousy coming to light again, first Dumbledore, now Riddle.... Oh, he was so infuriating, wanting all of her when she did not even know who she yet was, nor wanted to be.
One set of footsteps approached. She recognized the sound of Dumbledore’s walk. So he had sent Grimm off, probably to do what should have been their rounds. Poor Grimm – she managed a weak smile at this – having to do them all by himself for the first time in over a month.
“Ah, still here, Minerva?”
She rose quickly, aware of what must have seemed a horrid red blotch on the side of her face where her hand had been. “Yes, sir. I didn’t think it wise to leave the room unattended until you were able to arrive.”
He nodded, looking around the room as she had some moments before. “Certainly nothing appears out of place, but we know better than to be fooled by a such a thing, don't we.” It was not phrased as a question.
Moving to the other side of the room, he began looking into cupboards, long fingers poking into dark corners. Minerva watched him, wondering where he could have found such an absurd fabric for his robes; she’d never seen a celestial brocade design before, particularly one in lavender. It clashed quite perfectly with his auburn hair.
“If I may ask, Minerva, are you quite sure that you saw someone in this room? Or was it merely that the door was open, and you desired a form of escape?” He did not even look at her as he spoke.
She ran her tongue along the inside of her closed lips, now doubting her own eyes.
“There was someone, I’m sure, Professor.”
He glanced over at her now, spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. “And is there something else you should wish to tell me, Minerva?”
It always disturbed her when he proved able to read minds, especially her mind. Even Grimm could not reach so far into her consciousness. It would likely be wise to tell him of the altercation with Riddle in the library, but what if it has only been her paranoia that had made that whole scene suspicious? There had been nothing wrong in what he had said or done, it had merely felt that way.
“No, Professor. Perhaps it was just a younger student having forgotten a book or parchment in here. Grimm and I must have frightened him or her as we passed.”
Dumbledore’s eyes revealed nothing. “Of course. That is certainly the most logical explanation for things.” He was looking now into the drawers of the professor’s desk, flipping through pages of scribbled-upon parchments and broken quills.
She wanted to ask him something, but he found the words before she did.
“Tiberius has gone ahead on his rounds, in case you were curious as to his whereabouts. He was far too distraught to accompany me here.” He paused to open another drawer. “And, admittedly, quite unwilling to return. As he left, he seemed to mutter something about gorgons and dragons, if that carries any particular meaning.”
A note of guilt bit into her heart. She had been too cruel to him, quite undeservedly.
“I was a bit short to him.”
He closed the final drawer and looked straight at her, though it felt more like straight into her.
“What is it that you fear in him, Minerva?”
She dropped her gaze to stare at her hands. It had been revenge of a sort for coming too close, for making her feel both terribly happy and outrageously spiteful in one moment, for making it obvious that he was infatuated with her and expecting something of that nature in return. If only she could will herself to give it. Was it even love when she could feel only pain?
Dumbledore nodded gravely, his eyes hard as stone. “You are still very young, but if there is something I have learned about this, it is that, if you do not take advantage of it now, it may not be there when you come to desire it.”
Was he speaking from experience? It was a mad idea that Dumbledore, with all his artfulness and brilliance, could have ever felt the same way as she did now, so confused, lost in the labyrinth without a string. She longed for the familiarity and novelty that was Grimm, but to admit that was to admit weakness, defeat.
“Are you playing matchmaker, Professor?” The words, meant to be in jest, emerged from her lips sounding strained, strangled.
He allowed a smile, a spark of humour lighting his eyes. “One has to continue the tradition of these things between the Head Boys and Girls.”
“Is it always this difficult?” She must have sounded wistful, yielding. She felt pathetic.
The eyes remained steady. “Perhaps that speaks of something greater.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, Minerva picked up her old bag of books from the floor.
“I should join Grimm on his rounds.”
It was not an admission to anything, merely a statement of fact. He should not have to face the work alone because of her cruelty to him. If he refused to speak, or even look at her, she would take it as her punishment for selfishness and childish fear.
Dumbledore did not reply, but stared abstractly at the windows, as though a memory had caught him in its cloying grasp. Had he, too, been like a Grimm, thinking himself in love or lust or whatever it was, then discovering that his beloved was just as scared and unwilling as her? How much pain had he known in the secret life he had lived?
Curiosity gave her courage. “Professor?”
He blinked, turning to her with raised eyebrows. “Yes, Minerva?”
Now that she had his attention, her courage changed to embarrassment, a rush of blood flushing her cheeks. It was too personal a question to ask of him, the model of Gryffindor perfection. She could not destroy that idol, but now it seemed she had to ask.
“Your advice, sir, is it... I mean, were you like this once, too?”
Dumbledore seemed amused, but there was something else in his expression too. “Yes, and it was not always the most pleasant of experiences.” He paused a moment, brows furling. “As with you and Grimm, I had the misfortune of having too great an affection for a friend.”
“What happened, sir? Did she–” She caught herself. “Sorry, that was too forward.”
The amusement in his eyes had only grown, but at what?
“Admittedly, it did not go well. That is why you must take care, Minerva.”
She left the classroom, feeling more perplexed than ever. Why would any witch, even a close friend, turn down the likes of Albus Dumbledore? It was madder than the thought of him being in love at all.
Thanks to everyone who has read and/or reviewed this story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. ^_^