Chapter 1 : ad memoriam
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Why did it always have to rain at funerals?
The ground was wet. My boots were wet. My feet were wet. It would be a night of huddling before the fire wrapped in a hundred woollen blankets just to keep myself from getting chilblains again.
Mother stood to my left, statuesque. Her face was impossible to see through the thick veil she wore. Perhaps she was crying in her own way. Perhaps she felt nothing. Emptiness. Like Father’s eyes when she found him in his chair, still staring down at his account books. He loved them like the son he’d lost in the war. The son that, maybe, he had found again, if things were like people said. I haven’t believed since the first time I'd seen death, or was it what happened after that?
The stone that marked my brother’s empty grave was to my right. So here we were, a whole family filled with empty holes. Janus’ bones were rotting in the fields of France. My father’s would lie in a casket for however long it took the rot to get in there. More rain poured down. I didn’t think it would take very long at all.
The eulogy ended, the words dying with the wind. Mother nodded her thanks and led the funeral party away. I watched them leave, one by one, through the narrow lynch gate. No one stopped to look my way. Mother understood my hesitancy, perhaps they did as well. I stood between the graves of my father and brother, staring at the muddy soil and wondering why I felt no pain, why I felt nothing at all. They had been family. I should have felt more than my wet feet and the raindrops pouring down the back of my neck. I had barely known them, yet they were the closest kin I had.
Mother might have understood. Or perhaps not. She had been there when the telegram had arrived from London Headquarters. Sir and Madam, We regret to inform you that your son, Janus McGonagall, has been listed as missing in action.... I didn’t hear of it for another week. Even when Father died, I had been at the school and was not told the news until the day before the funeral. The day after Christmas.
Turning away, I left my footprints in the mud. My only offering.
There was a shadow in the lynch gate, even though the sun was buried deep within the clouds. I knew the shape of this particular shadow; it was one that followed me no matter the weather.
“Interesting choice for a Christmas holiday.” I crossed my arms, a failed assertion of confidence.
He stepped out from under the gate. “You shouldn’t be spending it alone, Min.”
I nodded in the direction of the receding figures, the madding crowd. “I have them.”
His eyes followed my gaze. “Why didn’t you follow them?”
Somehow he always knew. “Saying goodbye.” I gestured toward the graves.
He looked back at me and I felt as weak and stupid as the girl I’d once been, too easily moulded in his grasp.
“Ah. You were always better at that than me.”
Best to let the comment pass by. “We should get out of the rain.”
The road was gravel, and far less wet than the graveyard. Our boots crunched on the stones, I wanted to kick one to see how far it would go, but that would have been childish. He said nothing, didn’t even offer a glance my way. I was as unstable in emotion as he had seen me in the past, though I had learned to hide it, all those years alone. It was likely that he could see, if not feel, the conflict raging inside my mind. I wanted him to see it, if only so that he could satisfy himself that everything I claimed to be was a facade.
The rain poured down with greater strength, but we did not quicken our steps.
“Will you stay long?” A banal question, but necessary.
“I’d like to. I’ve never been to this part of Scotland before.”
I looked out over the craggy hills, too familiar, too filled with memory. Even the sheep had forsaken them today, choosing the warmth of their barns to the damp of the hills. They were of greater intelligence than the humans who walked about in the rain, attending funerals and having empty conversations.
“It isn’t at all like the area around Hogwarts. Must be the magic there that makes it different, more unreal.” After some hesitation, he added, “The land suits you, Minerva.”
This startled me out of silence. “How?”
He was still staring at the hills. “It puts up a strong front, full of rocks and obstacles, yet there’s still something here that sustains. That graveyard’s been there for centuries, maybe longer. Your family is the same.” He paused, forehead wrinkling. “Even when everything else is gone, it’ll still be here.” Another pause, this one full of suspense, as he preferred them. “And so will you.”
He was always right.
Night came. The house was silent. The guests were in their rooms or at the pub, raising glasses in morose celebration of Father’s life. Mother had fallen asleep after having said nothing to anyone the entire day. She had spent the last twenty-five years alone, but now it was a different sort of loneliness. There was no longer the hope of hearing his footsteps in the study below, or hearing the clink of his whiskey glass on the table. Once the guests left, once we all returned to our lives, she would still be here, listening for the sounds that would never come.
I gave up on the silence and sat on the front step, letting the night air chill my bones. It was a comfort to stare up at the stars, connecting the dots to form great images of heroes and monsters. They were far away, but they still watched life, death, and everything in between, without making judgement. They watched, but were not affected.
His step came before his voice, but I knew it was him. Sending him down to the pub had made no difference; he had returned like an unwanted cat, ever haunting my days.
“Are you trying to catch pneumonia?”
I smiled, perhaps a genuine one. “I was hoping you would come.”
He snorted, a fog of breath rising above our heads.
“Come for a walk.” He offered his hand. I took it, savouring its warmth.
It was both strange and familiar to walk with him in this alien place that was my home. We had walked together many times, but never among the rocks and walls and flowing heather. My free hand held the blanket around my shoulders, while his brushed the tops of the grass.
“What do you think will happen now?” His question was filled with various meanings.
Two hills and five minutes later, I responded. “Nothing needs to change.”
“Will your mother want to stay here alone?”
“She has family in Edinburgh.” Not that she liked them very much.
“If she asked you to stay, would you?”
Our hands separated. “Why...? I couldn’t....”
“No, leave–” I couldn’t say it. “She would not want me to do that.”
Even though he was standing close to me, his face was hidden in darkness. A wind rustled through the grass. I shivered beneath the blanket. He did not reply.
“Why would it bother you if I left, Grimm? It’s not that great a distance.”
He was looking up at the stars, but he would not trace the lines between them. His mind was too filled with logic for such fancies as that.
“I would miss you.”
“Oh?” I pulled the blanket closer about my shoulders.
That was not the word I would have chosen. I continued walking toward a dry-stone wall halfway down the hill. It could mark the boundary between us. The stones were rough under my hands. He stood beside me, leaning his back against the wall.
“I look at my mother sometimes, and I see myself, what I could have been.” My eyes gazed off toward the horizon, a distant, uneven line cloaked in the black of night.
“You mean if we had....”
“Would it have been so unhappy for you?”
I shrugged, an awkward movement. “Who can tell?”
“Are you unhappy now?”
It was quite a question to speak in such an impassive voice.
His hand touched my cheek, like it had done before it had gone too far, before I had the opportunity to refuse him, before everything.
“It’s not too late.”
I laughed, pulling away from his hand. “Fifteen years now.” Bitterness crept into my voice. And two years since he had returned, changed, but still Grimm-like in a way.
“We’ve already been through this.” Too many times.
“Yes, and we agreed that there was no hope.”
It was too dark to see his face, but I could feel his impatience. “Only that it was inappropriate, not impossible.”
“My father’s death means nothing to what we are, or what we could be.”
“But you just said–”
“That it could, not that it did.”
“You’re being horribly stubborn.”
“Would I have said it otherwise, Minerva?”
Shaking my head, I turned back toward the farm, a too-distant solace. “Of course. You have to be right about everything.” My last hope of companionship, simple friendship, vanished into the darkness around us. We were two figures on the side of a hill, not of one mind.
Things could never go back to what they were, back when we were still in school, roaming the halls together as partners, as friends, as... as.... How could I forget, forgive? He'd left me, naively believing myself in love. Then there'd been the... my failure.
My footsteps took me to the top of the hill before I heard his voice.
I kept walking, choking on the night air.
“I’ve always loved you.”
One foot dragged behind the other. I could not breathe.
“And I came here to ask you to–”
The tears burst out like long-trapped prisoners, eager for escape.
“– marry me. We shouldn’t be alone. Not now.”
I was no longer walking. He must not have seen my eyes dripping tears.
“No.” My voice emerged, carried down to him by the wind.
A pause, then cam his reply. “What?”
“No!” Strength came with more tears. The long grass scratched against my legs.
Only silence. I started walking again. Let him feel the silence closing in. Let him feel the cursed emptiness of my heart.
I was half-way to the farm when he popped out of the air. Glancing sideways at him, I continued past. “Cheater.” How typical of him to Apparate when it did not suit me.
His arms were crossed. Anger, impatience, infuriation in his eyes; all things I had felt because of him.
“What do you want, Minerva?”
I wiped the tears from my face with the rough edges of the blanket, but said nothing.
“I would do anything for you now.”
A snort was the only suitable reply.
“Anything....” He was, perhaps, the only person more stubborn than I.
The tears had not been enough to quell my anger, my sorrow, my passion. I still had one last shot before failure, one chance at victory.
“Would you like to know what I want?”
He started at my voice, cold and stark. His mouth hung open, an unnecessary question caught on the edge of his lips.
“To have my daughter back.”
I watched him crumble, half with glee, half with terror. How cruel it was to hit him with that last, blazing spell, but how satisfying, how fulfilling. His very step faltered. I wondered if he would faint, but of course he wouldn’t.
My upper lip curled. “You were the only one, fool.”
That shocked him more. “Never. Minerva, I–”
“They would not let me see her, even when I begged.” He made an illiterate noise. “Yes, I begged. How pathetic.” He must have seen the tears by now. I could hear them in my voice.
“It was a miscarriage.” He sounded like the flat heartbeat of my child.
A deep breath. “I wanted to see if she looked like you.”
Our faces were close by now, his eyes reflecting into mine. I searched for tears in his and found none. No, he never cried. His hands would shake, or his face would take on that blank, distant expression, but emotion never possessed him; he would not let it show. However much I threw at him, he took it without question, another burden for him to bear. I wanted to see him cry. I wanted to see him suffer as I had, as I still did.
That was the cruelty that splintered my heart, and his.
He would not touch me. He would not want to now. I looked back at the footsteps I had made, how our paths in the grass converged to this inevitable point. Everything connected at this point, all the lives and deaths that we carried with us at any given moment. We could walk side by side forever, and still be separated. It was the most perfect, and more terrible, form of love.
There was something on my arm, I moved to brush it away. How had it come to this? All he had asked was for marriage, for the thing I had already given him many times over, and would always give. The blanket must have bunched up on my arm, but would not straighten out. Did he not know that I already had everything? I loved him as much as I hated him. I could never tell him, but surely he knew. He was the only one who ever saw me in a state, had ever seen the face behind the mask, had ever known the actress beyond the role. What in Merlin’s name was on my arm? It would not come off.
Where had I been when he’d touched me?
He knew? Did he?
“...and I'm sorry. I've been a fool...”
It was always about him, but that didn't matter. I'd forgiven him long ago.
“I didn’t come here to ask you to... what I said earlier.” He swallowed, he heart beating against mine. “You needed a friend.” Something wet fell upon my forehead. More rain.
With laughter came my voice. “We could never just be friends.”
Something choked his laugh. I must have been holding on too tight. “No. We can’t.”
I might have whispered the words in the darkness, long after the stars had faded away. I remember him and all that he didn’t need to say, and all the other things that words cannot express, but I could never be sure if I had told him those forbidden, truthful words. Perhaps the silence was enough.
Another mid-winter, another Christmas, another funeral. There was snow instead of rain – a nominal improvement. My feet were cold instead of wet. Perhaps I would catch pneumonia this time. It was a distant possibility. More possible than his promises. Everything had become nothing and I was left here to pick up the pieces. How many more funerals before I learnt my lesson, before I understood all the things he’d said?
I think I only hated him because I loved him. Cause and effect instead of dichotomy.
Should I have felt regret? Sorrow? What was the mourning process? Ought I wear black like a widowed Victoria, retreating into myself where a part of him still lived? No pictures, no mementos, only what I could hold in my memory, and that was never as much as I needed.
Why was it I could only admit the truth when it was too late? Or had I always known?
The idea of need was one I couldn’t grasp when it came to him. We could be apart for so long, thinking only of our work and our purpose. We could be just friends, talk like colleagues, act like there was nothing but time between us. What did that mean? Was it not true love when it could lie dormant, like it never existed? It would take an accident: an unexpected meeting in an unexpected place, a misplaced word that meant something other than what it was, a shared glance that revealed everything and nothing.
The ground was cold, and so was I. How much of me had they buried with him?
Things had changed since that quiet night among the hills. He had forgotten before me, and that was the worst thing of all. Was it more important that I’d always remembered, that I could remain to keep him alive in whatever part of me was left? It couldn’t be, not when I saw his dying face in my mind, flashing past over and over while his living self faded from memory. Why is it so much easier to remember death than life?
Silence was my only companion now.
The others left. I had not even heard their voices, felt their warmth around me. They would be useless in his absence. I would always be cold. Even the tears froze upon my cheeks, and as the ice reached my heart, I knew that I was the only person who had made him cry.
I left more than my footprints at that grave.
Someone else was waiting at the gate. He did not need to hide in the shadows, nor was he anyone’s shadow. He was not one I could confide all my feelings in and however much he observed my actions, he would never see what Grimm had. Greatness could only take a wizard so far, and not always into the heart of a witch.
“There was no need to wait for me, Albus.” My voice took on the flavour of the snow.
The lack of twinkle in his eye was a relief. “Tiberius will be missed by many.”
I looked back at the grave. The letters carved into the stone were outlined by stray snowflakes. Voices from a time past drifted over the hills.
“I would miss you.”
A corner of my mouth rose. Only one would have called it a smile.
“Yes,” I said. “Reasonably.”
Albus nodded, but he did not have the same meaning for those words as I did. Those words were everything. They were all I had left.