Curled in bed, tucked under a mountain of blankets, Minerva relished the freedom of the holiday. However cold the house was, and how cold her family was to one another, it somehow was always a pleasure to return here, to not worry about how one acted or appeared. Her sister – widow to her brother – titillated over the little things, the bits out of place, but even she could not enter Minerva’s realm with all the power of wand and washcloth.
A draught blew through, rustling the parchments on her desk. Her eyes noted the movement, but she did not move to save them from falling to the floor. The floor would be frozen, and rug by her desk was threadbare.
It did no good to close her eyes, she only saw one face reflected on her eyelids, and it was a face she wouldn’t mind forgetting for these weeks of freedom. Of course he had forgiven her right away for that insult, a half-victorious smile lighting his face as they continued in silence through the empty corridors. They had both been careful after that evening, speaking only of neutral subjects. She had never told him about having spoken with Riddle in the library.
All in all, she felt too much like a puppet at the school. When would it come time to cut the strings that controlled her actions?
He had been quiet these last couple weeks, saying nothing out of place, very unlike himself. It could have just been the letter still on his mind, weighing it down with a guilt he was unused to. Or perhaps it was nothing more than fatigue, so many assignments to do before the hols, then on top of that all their duties.
The first hint of his usual self had returned before they had left the castle.
“If you’d like, Minerva, you could come down early and stay a few days. Mother wouldn’t mind having someone else to talk to other than me, Father being away so often now.” All of this was said in a rush, words blending into one another as they forced themselves through his lips.
When she’d looked at him, there was a slight blush on his cheeks.
“That would be nice.” Her words were strained, the invitation not a wholly welcome one. “If my family can spare me those few days. There is much work that needs to be done.”
He took a step back. “Of course, I’d forgotten.”
Silence reigned henceforth. He only managed a subdued farewell after that, Peeves kindly interrupting with loud kissing noises, thus allowing Minerva to escape.
Grimm’s offer wasn’t a particularly bad one. There was shopping she had to do before returning to Hogwarts, some of her supplies being low, and it would be perfect to find a good film playing at the cinema. That is, if they could find one that hadn’t yet been bombed. London was a dangerous city, now more than ever.
She glanced out the window at the fog-and-sheep-ridden hills, so calm, serene. There were dangers here, but ones she could face without fear. In the city.... She suppressed a shudder.
Footsteps echoed down the hall, the firmly booted steps of her brother’s widow.
“Minnie! Will you ever bother yourself to get up? That school’s making you a soft one.”
The door handle, mercifully locked, was rattled.
“What’s this? What sort of thing are they teaching you there? Locking your door, for shame!” The footsteps paced in front of the door, as though Corraline was trying to decide if she should dig out her wand.
“I’ll be out in a minute, Corry. It’s locked because I’m getting dressed.”
It never hurt to lie to one’s relatives, particularly those one does not like.
“Well, don’t be wearing the good bits just yet. It may be a holiday, but you won’t be getting away without working.”
It would not be the first time that Minerva asked herself just where her brother had managed to find this witch. Some Glasgow slum, she imagined, or worse, a Fife mining village. A voice like Corry’s would echo nicely underground, shattering ear-drums and collapsing shafts as it went, much like Corry herself, trampling about.
“I know that, Corry.” A bit of anger slipped into Minerva’s voice. “Don’t you forget that I’ve lived here longer than you, even if I’ve been away at school.” She bit down before she could add that it was more of her home, too, knowing what sort of reaction that would get.
“Oh, you’re a spoiled one, Minnie, that’s certain. Just the same as your brother.”
“Indeed,” Minerva made sure to let her Head Girl voice take hold. “Do not wait for me, Corraline. I will join you when I am ready.”
The loud sniff from outside the door was mercifully followed by receding footsteps.
And that was only the start to the day. It was only going to grow worse from that moment on. Minerva wondered whether or not it was worse to come home or remain at the school. Pulling on her patched work-robes, she imagined staying at the school, so quiet and restful. The library wholly hers, with far less patrolling and far more thoughtful contemplation, not to mention further planning for the remaining Quidditch games.
She glared out the window at the high-piled banks of snow. That was the thing about this time of year, no Quidditch.
It was many days of morning work outside, afternoon work inside, and homework in the evenings. Minerva fully understood her father’s wishes to remain alone during the day, locked up in his study, and she wished that she had the power to do the same. There were a number of things she wanted to study further before heading back to school. Corraline, of course, would purposely keep her away from her books. Anyone with a brain so small couldn’t understand any ambition outside of marriage.
That dreaded word. The thought of it made Minerva slouch off into the barns once again, glad to be among creatures that were happily non-human. Sheep were lovely in comparison to... some others.
Nearer to the end of the holidays, she sat at breakfast with her silent mother, staring into a bowl of porridge. They enjoyed one another’s silence, the only sound the sleet against the windows. Thank Merlin it’d been Corraline’s turn to attend market day.
Minerva took another spoonful of porridge, careful not to hit the side of her bowl.
Tap tap tap tap.
Her spoon clanging into the bowl, Minerva’s eyes rose to meet those of her mother’s, equally surprised. They turned in unison to the window, where a very wet-looking owl perched, one claw tapping the class with increasing violence.
When she didn’t move, her mother gestured at the window. “Let the poor thing in, Minnie.”
But Minerva already knew whose owl it was and why it had come. Why, oh why couldn’t it have gotten lost along the way?
Her fingers fumbled with the latch. The owl known as Nero, just as inappropriately named as its owner, hopped excitedly onto Minerva’s shoulder, spraying water all over her in the process. It nuzzled its beak into her hair in greeting.
“It knows you?” Mother sounded confused, the words emerging with hesitation.
After detaching the hooting bird from her person, Minerva said the first thing that entered her brain.
“Yes. It’s my friend’s owl.”
The non-response this statement received allowed Minerva to feel some measure of relief. It was a good sign when her mother chose not to speak as it signalled her acquiescence to whatever had been said. Now if only Grimm could have been that way....
Nero hooted, staring at the remaining piece of toast on the table.
“Don’t tell me you were sent out without breakfast?” Minerva did not bother to hide her impatience, even in front of her mother.
Eyes wide, Nero turned to her pleadingly.
“Oh right, take what you want. Just give me the letter first.”
Her mother watched her, eyes as wide as the owl’s, curiosity making itself visible in their depths. As Minerva rose, owl in hand, her mother gestured toward the letter.
“Do not forget that, Minnie. It may be important.”
With a nod of acknowledgement, Minerva flew from the room, breakfast forgotten. Nero’s talons dug into her shoulder, and he let out a high-pitched hoot when they walked straight into the person standing just outside the door.
“A letter for you, Minnie? But from who?”
Corraline had returned sooner than expected. She looked hungrily at the letter still hanging from Nero’s leg. Minerva felt the blood drain from her face.
“A friend at school. I have to feed this owl first.”
Eyes narrowing, Corraline took on the appearance of a starved vulture. Her hands twitched at her sides, as though preparing to outright snatch the letter.
“Not from nearby then, if you must feed the owl.”
Minerva straightened her spine. “Why should that matter to you? Now if you’ll excuse me.”
It was as Minerva pushed past her beastly sister-in-law that Corraline took the opportunity to rip the letter from Nero’s leg, causing him to nearly fall off Minerva’s shoulder. His talons buried deep into her flesh, and one can imagine how loud Minerva’s resulting cry became.
“You stupid who–”
The letter was already open in Corraline’s hands.
“An invitation! To go to London! How lucky for you!” Her eyes flew down the lines. “Who from, now who is this friend of yours?” Maliciousness dripped from her mouth. Minerva, feeling an intense hatred rising in her heart, would have preferred to face Dolores Umbridge any day. Bad enough to be ordered about like a slave, but this!
“What is this?” Her father’s rough voice even managed to startle Corraline. “What is it that’s causing all this ruckus at this time of the morning?”
Before Corraline could speak, Minerva spat out, “She has taken it upon herself to go through my post, Father, to the extent that she injured both myself and the owl who delivered it.”
He glared through his spectacles. “Corraline, Perdita’s lambs will need checking up on.”
It gave Minerva a certain satisfaction seeing the expression on Corraline’s face at these words. Her father’s words were a painful reminder of Corraline’s place here: not as esteemed daughter, but as a useful not-quite-servant. Poor with magic, poor with money, poor in choosing a husband, poorly tempered. What place in the world was there for people like that? Minerva certainly did not want to be left alone in the world like that, a bitter woman.
The letter was handed dully over to her father, who watched Corraline’s exit with narrowed eyes like those of his daughter. His gaze turned to Minerva, offering her the letter between heavy-knuckled fingers.
“Bruce will be starting for Edinburgh tomorrow, you may join him if you wish.”
He disappeared back into his study, the door snapping shut on the last syllable of “wish”.
Minerva stared after him, blankly, letter in hand, until Nero hooted impatiently in her ear.
A line appeared on her forehead. “Ack, just like your master you are.” The thickness of her accent sent Nero flapping into the air. “Wheedling yourself into things like this. Just like him.” Furious now, Minerva snatched Nero from the air. “The sooner you leave, the sooner I can pack.”
The voice ringing in her mind, however, was not her own, nor that of anyone in her family.
“...if you do not take advantage of it now, it may not be there when you come to desire it.”
It seemed that there was no doubt what was going to happen. Everyone else had already decided things for her. Damn them all. She would go. She would spend time with Grimm. But that did not mean she had to enjoy herself.
~ * * * ~
She watched the London suburbs pass by the window, hearing her mother’s final words about being nice to Corraline, who was most unfortunate in her position. Yes, like Minerva would be “nice” to someone who treated her worse than a house elf. Her parents should have gotten rid of Corraline ages ago, after the news of her brother’s death had arrived.
The scenery changed abruptly. A mutilated neighbourhood appeared: burnt-out houses and mangled structures. The war could not be forgotten. Muggles, wizards, it affected everyone the same. Grindelwald had somehow gotten into the mind of a ruthless Muggle, leaving the Continent ravaged like this one little London suburb.
The train was slowing, pulling away from disaster and into the station. Gazing around the milieu of people and baggage and children and trunks, this place might have been just as much a mess. Minerva did so hate coming into the city, with its noise and overpopulation. Just like Grimm to live in the place most inconvenient for her to come to.
A woman bustled forward, as extravagant in taste as she was emotion. Her smile looked about ready to burst open her face.
“You must be Minerva! He was very exact in his description, I assure you”
Minerva was thankful that she was not left sufficient time to reply to such a statement.
“He couldn’t come himself, of course, not with the way people are acting these days, handing feathers around like that. Their pillows must really be thin by now. Can’t be at all comfortable.” Lady Grimm managed to take a breath before charging back into her monologue. “Now where’s your trunk, dear? Oh yes, I see.... There’s already a cab waiting for us, so no need to rush.”
Minerva had not yet moved.
“It’s so wonderful that you were able to come. Tiberius will be so pleased. He’s been anxious about it the entire holiday....”
They started to walk along the platform, Minerva dragging her trunk along. People milled around them, but she kept her attention on Lady Grimm, the perfect distraction for those with a dislike of crowds. By the time they reached the waiting cab, Minerva had already heard more about Grimm than he’d ever bothered to reveal.
“He says quite a bit about you, dear. I’m so pleased that he has such a close friend....”
The drive through London was almost enjoyable. She was starting to quite like Lady Grimm, whose conversation was neither condescending nor self-promoting, but instead pleasant, like listening to a soothing piece of music. Nothing like she expected. Their home was equally unexpected. Unobtrusive, set on a backstreet in Richmond. Just another row house, nothing to show that within its walls lived a very strange family.
“Oh, and here we are. Not very romantic, of course, but homey enough. It’s larger on the inside, as you can guess. Bothers my husband to bits, but I did make all the necessary precautions....”
Grimm himself opened the door, positively beaming with happiness and failing to conceal any of it. A house elf peaked out from behind him, clutching his trouser leg like a shy child. It took moments for her trunk to vanish and to find herself handed a cup of tea by Lady Grimm. For all of these moments, Grimm had been silent, his greeting no more than an embarrassed half-smile. Perhaps he was wondering just how much his mother had said of him. Minerva hid a grin behind her teacup. It would be fun to keep him guessing.
“And dinner will be at eight, dear, after Sir Percy returns from work. I’m sure he’ll be happy to meet you.” After an impossibly short breath, Lady Grimm added, “And now I have to check with Tweedy about her menu. I’m not at all sure about that fish she got in this morning....”
Leaving the sentence without a proper end-stop, she rushed from the room.
Minerva felt Grimm’s eyes upon her, but did not return his glance.
“I rather like your mother.”
His answering snort turned into a choking cough.
“I knew you’d say that,” he said a moment later. “Probably told you everything you were dying to know.”
Now she did look at him with that famous glare.
“So I spend all my time thinking of you?”
His eyes held steady on hers. Being on home ground must have given him strength.
“More than you want to, I can guess.”
She put down her teacup. “That is a very poor guess.”
The silence could be cut with a knife. There was more than a bit of amusement in his eyes as he reached down for a biscuit.
“I am glad that you came.”
“You had doubts?”
Surprise registered on his face. “Definitely.” His lip crumpled and he fell silent again.
So this was it, was it? He had given the invitation thinking that she wouldn’t even come. What did that say about her? His mother had said she was such a good friend to him, yet this is what she did, made him doubt himself, doubt her. It didn’t make sense at all.
The cushion of the couch shifted under his weight, his cool fingers encircled her wrist. How he had come to sit beside her so fast, she could not be sure, but he was there, guilt etched upon his face, his hand grasping hers.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
A flair for reading minds, perhaps he was a Legilimens, sneaking into her thoughts. She pulled her hand away, leaving it on her lap, disregarded.
“It reminds me how horribly I treat you, Tiberius.”
She heard his sharp intake of breath. Just do not look his way....
“Sticks and stones, darling.” His voice sounded strangled, out of breath.
The sharp footsteps coming down the hall sent him back to his own chair. Minerva took a deep breath, madly trying to collect herself, at least on the outside. She could feel the hot flush on her cheeks, could hear the same heat in Grimm’s running breath.
“Do you know of any new pictures showing?” she asked, just as his mother swept through the doorway.
Lady Grimm’s “Well, that’s all settled” cut across Grimm’s “Yes, I think so.”
An awkward moment of silence followed, in which mother and son exchanged glances of an indeterminate emotion. Minerva drained her cup and rose. She should not have come.
“I should unpack my things.”
Or, rather, grab her trunk and run back to Scotland.
Grimm leapt up. “Yes, I’ll show you up.”
Lady Grimm’s smile appeared highly suspicious to Minerva.
“Oh yes, of course! Tiberius can show you around.”
She let Grimm lead her from the room as his mother stood nearby, hands clasped with delight. It was all too obvious what was going through her mind.
Minerva waited until they had reached the first floor before speaking, keeping her voice low.
“Your mother has an idea about us.”
He hesitated at the bottom of the next stair, but did not reply.
“She thinks we’re already more than friends, Tiberius. At hearing us talk about going to the pictures, she seemed to believe we were going there to snog.”
He winced at the final word.
“When you put it that way, it sounds disgusting.”
Minerva snorted. “Finally, you’re starting to understand the issue here. Even my father didn’t blink an eye about me coming here.” She stopped halfway up the stairs, turning to face him. “If anything happens between us, Tiberius, we will have to marry.”
Face tight, he swallowed with difficulty.
“I never thought about it in that way.”
“But I’d rather marry you than anyone else.”
She felt her face flushing again. “That is not the point! You do realise what comes with marriage, don’t you?”
The expression on his face said plainly that he had not had any such realisation.
“How old are you?” she persisted, hands now clenched.
“I turned eighteen just last month, before the holidays. You know tha–” He cut off, mouth turning into an O. “It would seem a bit young.”
Her jaw was set firm in anger. “I do not want to become like my useless sister-in-law, nor like my mother, not even like yours.”
Grimm was staring over the bannister, brows tightly knitted. “It makes sense. Though you know I’d–”
“It doesn’t matter what you would or wouldn’t do, Tiberius. I won’t tie myself to anyone, not even you.”
She continued up the stairs, leaving him to take in the words, the best compliment she had ever given him. He followed – there was no choice, she not knowing where to go – but said nothing more on the subject, unwilling to let the compliment fade from his ears. It was not until he had opened the door to her room that he spoke, leaning toward her as she passed by him.
“If we do go to the pictures, Min, I promise not to snog you.”
The door closed in his face with a sharp click. At least she had not slammed it. Things were certainly improving. He formed his lips into the shape of a kiss, imitating Peeves. At the sound of a book being thrown at the door, he made his escape.
~ * * * ~
The cellar door had been left open. The fumes of whatever he was making wafted out into the dark anteroom, filling the air with an unpleasant scent. Lady Grimm had guided her to this place in the basement, leaving Minerva at the top of the stairs to find her own way, not that doing so was very difficult. Covering her nose with a handkerchief, Minerva stopped in the doorway, peering in through the steam.
Grimm was standing over a cauldron, his head moving side to side as he glanced from the cauldron to the book on a nearby table and back again. His lips formed silent words, reciting the instructions, but the lines on his forehead bespoke of some frustration.
“It’s this damn book!” He turned to her without warning, holding the spatula aloft.
Minerva stepped into the room. “The Borage one again?”
“Of course.” He looked back down at the cauldron. “Never should have been published. Everything in it is somehow incorrect.”
Her eyes followed his into the cauldron, then quickly moved toward the book. “Yet Professor Slughorn continues to make use of it.”
“Yes, and you see how many potions he makes himself.” The spatula dropped from his fingers, splattering drops of ruined potion onto his robes. “Gets Riddle to do most of them, from what I’ve heard.”
She caught the hint of jealousy in his voice. Riddle was the perfect student in the eyes of all but one of the professors, consistently scoring top marks and impressing everyone with his decorum and confidence. The memory of his nearness made her shudder once again, the potion’s smell fading into that dungeon-like stench. Shoving the memory away, she moved to examine the shelves of ingredients near the door.
“This is where you experiment, then?”
A banal question. One was always safe within the realms of banality.
His “yes” became mangled with a swear word when he realised that the potion was actually eating holes through his robes. He held the fabric away from his skin, reaching wildly for the wand he had left on a table across the room.
It was a suitable distraction. Minerva shook her head with pity while attempting to hide her amusement. When he looked up at her, equally abashed and demanding, she struggled to put on a stern face.
“You should have been more careful.”
His mouth opened to protest.
“And don’t blame the book.”
He was turning red, at last showing some real emotion. Marching over to his wand, he mended his own robes, the threads knotting with his anger.
“If I’d wanted another mother, I would have asked for applications.”
Clutching her handkerchief to her nose, Minerva moved closer to the steaming cauldron, peering down into its contents. Without her spectacles in this dark room, it was difficult to see just what had gone wrong.
She glanced over to where he stood, still furiously failing to fix his robes.
“Have you heard from your uncle lately?” A casual question, meant to distract. She was, after all, staying at his house. Being nice to him wasn’t too much of a chore.
Grimm shook his head, reaching for a pair of Muggle scissors on the shelf.
“Not since the holidays began.” After a moment of silence in which he snipped off any loose threads, he added, “He wasn’t that angry about having lost the letter. Said it could actually be a good thing to stir up trouble.”
“To set a trap you mean?” She waved her wand at the cauldron. “Can I clean this up?”
Another thread, snip. “Might as well. And yes, a trap. I have my doubts, but still....”
She made the potion vanish, but something he’d said wasn’t fitting right. “So your uncle doesn’t suspect... anyone in particular?” She refused to say that name aloud.
Her voice must have revealed something of her fear – or was it merely disgust? – as Grimm looked at her, not a casual glance, but one of those keen glances that pierces through the facade.
“Riddle’s too popular, too well-liked. No one would believe he’s up to something less than honourable.”
“Except for you.”
She paused. “Not me?”
He did not blink, his face stony. “I’m not sure yet.”
There it was, an admission that made everything else unimportant. It didn’t matter that Riddle could be planning to take over the wizarding world, not when her own loyalties were uncertain, or at least appeared so. This is what came of hiding from Grimm her strange conversations with Riddle, all those times he had come upon her unawares.
Riddle had planned all of it. He had meant for this to happen.
Grimm was no longer looking her way. He must have seen the abjection on her face. The thoughts that raced through her mind now filled her with a deep, painful dread she could not – did not want to – explain. Riddle greeting her at the entrance to Dippet’s office; coming to request a dance, knowing that Grimm would be seething from the other side of the room; finding her in the library on purpose, hoping that Grimm would be listening. The only thing about her that interested Riddle was that she was interesting to Grimm.
What had it been like for Grimm to have found this out? He had known when she had seen the shadow in the empty classroom, perhaps thinking that she was getting rid of him in order to meet Riddle. All the time, she had been terrified of Riddle and Grimm had suspected her....
“I would never betray you.”
The words came out in a whisper before she could stop them. Their sound filled the room, but not her ears; the droning of her heart made sure of that.
His eyes met hers.
“I want to think that.”
Now she was trapped. He had brought her here, lured her into a false sense of security, then hit her with the greatest weapon he possessed. No matter what, she had to give into him, had to either tell him everything and be redeemed – a demeaning act – or turn and leave, admitting to her guilt, but keeping her pride.
“You can’t do this. I won’t– it’s not–” She broke off, hand clasped around her wand.
There was, perhaps, another way. The clean cauldron would do well enough.
Placing the tip of her wand against her temple, she saw Grimm stiffen. He had never seen this before, would think that she was going to do something rash. Under the Imperius curse, perhaps, sent here to wheedle out just how much he knew....
The thin wisp of memory fell into the cauldron, a silvery liquid forming within. There was a strange feeling upon its removal of being lighter, less bogged down with all the cares of the world. She took a deep breath, a hint of amusement bubbling up within her at the sight of Grimm’s shock.
“The memories are there.” Her voice emerged cold, hard. “Try to be kinder to your house guests in the future, Tiberius.”
She left the room, not sure how to feel.