Chapter 11 : Distractionary Measures
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The train surged forward, but she kept herself firmly upright, watching with some amusement as the younger students around her careened into the compartment doors, the windows, and each other. No one dared careen in her direction.
A satisfied smile on her face, Minerva passed through the crowd of students racing for a free compartment. It was indeed a benefit of being Head Girl that she no longer had to suffer through that process. Sometimes one of her Quidditch team would save her a seat, prepared for a long ride in which to discuss new training strategies. In more desperate circumstances – those in which she was purposely avoided a certain individual – she could subject herself to gossip among her fellow Gryffindors, all of whom would lament the state of England and the lack of available males.
She suppressed a shudder of distaste and moved toward the far end of the train. It would do well for her to check each compartment for trouble, just in case. Playing the avoidance game with Grimm once again, she moved as slowly as her patience would allow, glancing into the compartments as she passed. First years gobbling down chocolate frogs, fourth years playing Exploding Snap – she paused a moment, should she confiscate it or not?
Of course she had to, even if it was someone’s new and shiny Christmas gift. They should know better.
But why had she paused? Going soft, she supposed. That’s what came of spending too much time with Grimm. He would have barged into the compartment and asked to play a round with them in return for their silence. Unprincipled. Irresponsible.
After playing ten games of chess in the last week (and losing all of them), he would be hungry for a chance at winning at something, even against measly fourth years.
A moment later, the contents of the game safely stowed in the deepest pocket of her jacket, she felt a twinge of guilt for the fourth years, who had been very upset indeed. One had even managed a single tear at her exit. All she had to hope for now was that Grimm would not beg it off of her as a gift. No, it would have to go right to Mr. Pringle and that would be that.
Raised voices from the final compartment caught her attention. The door was partially open, letting the sounds carry out into the corridor.
“That was your mistake, Grimm. Making assumptions.”
Minerva’s breath caught in her throat. That cold voice, light and dangerous.
“And you make the mistake of telling lies, Riddle.”
There was a grumbling of outrage and a shuffling of feet, but no sounds of violence.
Riddle gave a low laugh. “I swear on my father’s grave that we were doing nothing. You have gone quite mad over the holidays, Grimm.” Another laugh emerged, this time higher in pitch, his friends joining in with lower guffaws.
“I don’t have time for polite banter, Riddle.” Grimm’s voice was straining. “Magic in the train is forbidden. As prefect, the consequences for you are serious, but you already know that.”
Minerva pulled her wand from her pocket and took a deep breath.
More shuffling of feet, this time more violent.
“You shouldn’t be talking to him like that.” That was Avery’s voice.
Please, Grimm, don’t pull the Head Boy act. In their eyes, you’re nothing.
“Is that a threat, Avery? Or are you going to actually perform a miracle with that wand of yours?” A rather more stupid way to go, but less dangerous. “From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t perform all that well.”
She threw open the door the same moment that Avery leapt up with a roar. Riddle had his hand raised, keeping the others in their seats. There could not have been a more convenient way of getting rid of Grimm than having Avery pummel him senseless.
Her stunning spell hit Avery in the chest, sending him back into the snickering Slytherins.
“That is quite enough, Mr. Avery.” Her voice emerged at a higher pitch than she intended. “Explain yourself, Riddle.”
Grimm opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “Riddle first.” She gestured her wand in Riddle’s direction. “Well? Are these accusations of using magic true? The Headmaster will have to be told of this.”
His eyes held so much condescension that she wanted to hex him into the next century.
“I can assure you that it was an accident, Minerva.” He drew out the syllables of her name. “Rosier can’t control his wand, even when there isn’t a lady to show off to.” He looked into her eyes. “There is no need to see the Headmaster about a little accident, is there?”
How sleepy she felt! Must have been the motion of the train, lulling her off into acquiescence. Grimm must have just been paranoid, spending too much time with Moody, too distrusting of Riddle to see that it was just a little accident, that’s all, just an accident. Now turn away and take that disgusting mud– Wait.
She blinked and looked at Riddle, who was assuming a mask of innocence. How many had he done this to in the past? A chill ran down her spine.
“I’m afraid that we will have to report it anyway, Riddle.”
His eyes widened for a fraction of a second. She placed her hand on Grimm’s arm, wondering how he had managed to remain silent for all this time. He took the hint, muscles relaxing under her touch.
“Thank you, Minerva. This is not your first warning, Riddle, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Just had to slip that in, didn’t he? Her face must have revealed something of this; Riddle’s nostrils flared with interest, a small smile playing at his lips.
“Of course, Grimm. I always keep aware of things.”
A double entendre, one that Minerva hoped Grimm had neglected to notice.
She inclined her head at Riddle, and he returned the acknowledgement before she slammed the door shut behind herself and Grimm. Her hand was shaking. There was no point in hoping that Grimm wouldn’t notice that. While she kept her eyes firmly away from his – and would avoid eye-contact with anyone for some time – she felt his gaze upon her.
“He used that trick of his on you. Just the way he spoke....”
“It almost worked, too.” She managed a half-whisper, dropping her hand from his arm.
His footsteps slowed, too deep in thought to concentrate on walking.
“What broke the connection? Once one becomes mesmer–”
Her stomach lured as the train rounded a corner. “I need to sit down.”
And she threw up in the direction of his feet.
Some minutes later, she was leaning her face against the cool glass of a window in their compartment near the front of the train. Grimm’s prodigious use of Scourgify had cleaned things up, while a chemical packet from his pocket had prevented her from fainting outright. She felt disgusting on both the physical and emotional level.
She sent a sideways glare in his direction. Not going to touch any of his concoctions, thank you very much.
The train lurched as it went over a bridge. Grimm let himself fall into the seat beside her, taking a swig of the drink himself.
“It’s just pumpkin juice, Min. Rather hard to mix a potion on the train.”
She closed her eyes before responding. “I’m not used to being ill. Forgive me.”
It was easier not having to look at him. What had happened in Riddle’s compartment kept repeating itself in her memory, not improving the state of her stomach. It had been far too easy for Riddle to get inside her head, not to remove her thoughts, but to add his own. It had only been when he had thought about–
Oh Merlin. “Disgusting mudblood.”
She didn’t realise she’d said the words aloud until he stiffened beside her.
Turning away from the window with reluctance, she met his eyes. “That’s what Riddle was thinking, trying to make me think.” She paused to swallow. “It’s how I knew what he was doing to me.” The admission was not so painful to make as she had feared. He seemed to miss the implication that the insult had affected her so deeply.
Grimm took in a breath, lips turning back in a snarl. “Damn him.”
He moved to rise, Minerva put her hand on his. The touch shocked him into stillness.
“He wants you to be angry, Tiberius. Remember that.” For the first time, she noted how similar in size their hands were, hers rougher in texture. “It would give him pleasure to see you stripped of your Head Boy badge.”
The sharp laugh that rose out of his throat echoed in the compartment.
“You think that’s all he wants?”
She tightened her fingers around his. “For now, that’s all I can see him wanting.”
The noise he made was even worse than the laugh. He shook off her hand and got to his feet, pacing the tiny compartment. Three steps from window to door, then back again, the hem of his robes brushing against her feet as he passed.
“All those Slytherins who follow him. You saw the two Black boys there? They’re hardly twelve and already eating out of his hand.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Calling me of all people a mudblood. You know that he’s half-blooded, too. No different from me. At least that's what I've heard.”
She closed her eyes again, dizzy at the sight of him. Back and forth, back and forth.
“He must have something else that makes him a leader,” she said.
He stopped. “But what? He’s the best of his class, but that hardly does anything these days.”
Her answering snort made him rush back into pacing. Of course being top of the class would mean little to him, seeing that he wasn’t there himself.
“He’s good at magic, more advanced than his pureblooded friends.” She might as well continue throwing out random ideas for him to work through. At least it prevented him from rushing off and doing something utterly illogical. And to think him a Ravenclaw!
“But that would make them jealous.” From the sound of his voice, she deduced that he was frowning. “There’s something else, I know it.”
He fell silent, probably deep in thought. She heard him collapse in the seat across from her and opened her eyes to watch him. It almost felt strange to be working in harmony with him; it happened so rarely, always unexpectedly. He was squinting out the window, lips moving to a silent pattern of words. His brown hair was sprouting in all directions, tussled by his nervous hands. It made him look like he had only freshly woken from a long night’s sleep, something she was starting to contemplate for herself.
His ideas – and she did think them ideas, however much she distrusted Riddle – were taking him into some deep location within his mind; he seemed to forget that she was even there. Since that night in his makeshift laboratory, he had made no advances toward her, remaining distant and distracted, but never cold. Perhaps ashamed was the right word?
“How do you think he’s managed to learn Legilimency so well? That’s what it is, isn’t it?”
Grimm’s voice broke into her thoughts, bringing them back to a subject she would have rather avoided.
“It would seem that way,” she replied. “He did not break eye contact, not even to blink.”
He tapped his fingers on his knees. “Just like a serpent. The cobra stares into his victim’s eyes, calming them into submission.”
She failed to suppress a shudder. Hugging her arms around herself, she looked up at him.
“That’s what it felt like.” She sounded so pathetic to herself, like she was asking for Grimm to comfort her. She wasn’t though, was she? Lowering her eyes, she couldn’t be certain. “He has been trying, these past few times we’ve spoken, to do the same, but more subtly.”
Riddle’s scent returned to her senses, memory making her smell what was not there.
She must have shuddered again because Grimm came to her side. She leaned into him, feeling disgustingly weak. This must have been what Riddle had wanted, to remove all her defences, to make her putty in his hands. However, the affect of the power of his mind had been delayed. She didn’t need to ask why.
The fury of hearing Grimm called a mudblood had given her the strength.
Godric’s girdle, this was getting to be too much.
“It scares me that he’s done this to you,” he whispered against her hair.
She tried to laugh. “I would have thought you’d be pleased to have me like this.”
He pulled back too suddenly, leaving her to regain her own balance on the seat. She disguised her difficulty by smoothing out a crease in her robes and reaching up to check her bun. Still tightly secured. When she looked over at him, her throat went tight.
“Do you still think that he is using me against you, Tibeirus?”
A quick shake of a head preceded his answer. “No. But it did help get rid of me.”
Leaning back against the window, she let out a small sigh. “He was meeting with his minions, then?”
At the final word, he scowled. “Am I paranoid, then? A madman out to get Riddle out of pure jealousy. Is that it?”
She paused before answering, letting out a slow breath to prevent herself from snapping at him. Illogical. Impulsive. Letting emotions control him. Yes, Riddle was doing a very good job at bringing out the worst in Grimm, making him appear entirely uncreditable.
“No. That is not what I said.”
Something in her voice caught his attention; he gave her a long, hard look, lines appearing on his forehead. He was trying to read her expression, or maybe even her mind. The fog in her head from her earlier disgust was fading, but another thing came to replace it. He was still sitting beside her, one hand braced on the edge of the seat, the other on his lap. She sat a respectable distance apart, but she wanted to change that. It was... impossible that she should want such a thing.
“Tiberius.” She meant to say more, but only his name emerged.
The sound of the train engine roared in her ears, a most disconcerting noise.
“I trust that you know what you are doing about Riddle,” she continued, enunciating the words with care. “But you are lacking in evidence, something convincing to prove that Riddle is more than just popular among the Slytherins.”
He frowned, but she cut him off before he could protest.
“Like you said, it’s strange that he’s gained their loyalty so easily. Instead of antagonising him, chasing him down across the school, you need to start with the basic question of his popularity.” She paused, frowning herself. “I currently have little idea what you’ve even done thus far.”
His ears turned pink. Whether it was with shame or something else, she could not tell.
“I was too busy looking for signs of what he was doing.” He said the words quickly, his voice low enough to make them difficult to hear. “Should have asked for your help ages ago.”
She made an attempt to raise her eyebrow. “Indeed. From the beginning.”
Then it happened. Her mind filled with cliched lines from those romance novels her mother delved into during the darkest winter nights. The air was run with currents of electricity... the world around them seemed to shrink into darkness, insignificant... He had moved closer... no, she had as well. They had moved toward each other, facing the inevitable at last.
It was the optimal moment for them to be interrupted by someone inconvenient like Umbridge or Moody, but no one appeared at the compartment door. The inevitable was occurring, but at a very unexpected moment. Their conversation from some days past echoed in her ears.
“I would never betray you.”
“I want to think that.”
Did he trust her now? Had her memories and today’s experience changed his mind as to her loyalties? The repulsion inside of her when Riddle had called him a mudblood. That had to mean something. And the way he always seemed to take care of her, hiding her weaknesses from others so that she could always appear the stronger of the two. She felt infinitely weak around him, but knew that he was the same. What had it been like for him to, for that short time, distrust her, feel betrayed by her?
Knowing him, it would have been painful.
Her memory reached further back as his face approached hers.
“I don’t think we can be just friends, Minerva.”
Friends. Good friends, perhaps. The best sort of friendship any two people could share.
Oh, don’t be such a romantic, Minerva. Grimm’s not your best friend; he’s the only one.
Their lips met somewhere in the middle. Her hand reached up to touch his face, enjoying the smoothness of his skin beneath her fingers. His hand gripped her shoulder, as though he feared one, or even both of them were in danger of falling.
But it was too late for that.
When the moment ended, they simultaneously moved away from one another: Minerva rising to fish an uncomfortable box from her pocket, and Grimm to shove across the seat toward the door. The silence between them was not disconcerting nor embarrassed. Not that the compartment was empty of tension; the hairs of the back of Minerva’s neck prickled when she turned her back to him.
Slipping the Exploding Snap box into her carry bag – kissing him didn’t change her principles – she took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves and slow her heartbeat. It had not been like the time before; no clumsy, slobbery kiss. She could taste pumpkin juice on her lips, reminded that the last thing that had passed through her own lips was vomit. That could not have left a pleasant taste in Grimm’s mouth.
“Minerva?” His voice quavered.
She set her bag back in the luggage rack and turned to sit across from him.
“Yes, Tiberius?” Her voice maintained a degree of steadiness.
He fiddled with the badge on his robes. “This won’t change anything, will it?”
No questions about why she had changed her mind – had she actually changed anything, or just stopped resisting? – or why she hadn’t yet hexed him across the Channel. The whole time she had her back turned, he must have been waiting for the wand to come flashing out, pointed at his throat, or worse.
She bit back a laugh. “It will take time to get used to, I expect.”
After some hesitation, Grimm smiled in a way that quickly became a grin.
“Would you like an agreement in writing, Minerva? That I, Tiberius Grimm, am now entirely in the thrall of the most beautiful and brilliant witch to grace the–”
He was interrupted by her unbridled laughter.
And to think that they had Riddle to thank for this moment.
It was widely noted throughout the Great Hall that, following dinner, the Head Boy and Girl met in the centre of the room, each going in a different direction: she to the head table, and he toward the door. The Head Girl lightly touched his arm in an altogether neutral way (though the gossips would impose something romantic on the gesture) and leaned over to say something in his ear.
“Refrain from doing anything stupid. Just discover the origin of his popularity.” She paused to take a breath. “I don’t want to hear of you duelling in the dungeons.”
Grimm raised an eyebrow; for him the action was natural. “And why is that?”
Although her eyes were watching Dumbledore speak to the Astronomy professor, a smile played about her lips. “Because scraping you off the floor would be quite repugnant.”
He paled at the thought, and her smile widened before she continued on her way without looking back. Grimm straightened his face, gaining an expression that best suited his name. She was downright menacing in this playful mood. Could he even call it playful? She knew his weaknesses too well, and he wasn’t sure that it was a particularly good thing.
Not daring to watch her for too long, he wove through the lagging students, giving muted greetings to some and looks of warning to others. He couldn’t quite reproduce a glare of McGonagall-esque proportions, but it was enough to send a group of Hufflepuffs scurrying down the kitchen stair.
Moody was waiting for him beneath the House hourglasses, twitching at every student who passed, his dull eyes following their movements. Now if anyone was paranoid....
“Have a good holiday, Alastor?”
Grimm remembered too late that such a question was not entirely wise.
“Mum’s gone back to Egypt,” Moody finally said, eyes flickering over to Grimm. “They found a new tomb for her to break.”
“She’s alright, then?” Not that alright was the best word to apply to the newly-widowed Mrs. Moody. He didn’t want to imagine his own mother in that position.
Moody shrugged. “She's got her work.” His eyes wandered around the entrance hall, checking the faces of anyone who remained. “Where’s McGonagall gone?
Grimm recognized the forced change in subject. “To see Dumbledore. There was an... incident on the train.”
Moody’s face seemed set in stone. “Ah.”
As they made their way to the seventh floor, Grimm quietly related the events of the train under the safety of Muffliato. Moody spoke only to ask for clarification on certain matters, particularly Riddle’s use of Legilimency.
“D’you think he’s done that to all those Slytherin friends of his? Made them all think he’s their chosen leader?”
“Or that he is in fact a pureblood.”
Moody’s eyes narrowed. “Even as a half-blood he could be descended from a great family.” His voice was a growl, warning Grimm off personal territory once again.
“So he’s definitely not a Muggle-born?”
“That’d be a laugh.” Moody himself did not bother to do so.
They halted at the intersection of two corridors.
“Any evidence you can find–”
Moody waved off Grimm’s words. “Yeah, I’ll find it.” The hint of a smile pulled at the corner’s of his lips. “Good to hear that you’re finally listening to Reason, even if she comes from my House and not yours.”
Grimm scowled at his retreating form. He should have thought of it sooner, yes, but he had been distracted....
Today she had kissed him, and he had been too distracted by this mystery.
Distractions. Always distractions.
“Is this... power Tom has something we should worry about, Professor?”
Dumbledore was sitting back in his chair, eyes focused on Minerva, watching her face as though with a scientific interest.
“He attempted to use you in the same way he has used many others in the past, and will come to use in the future. It is a disturbing thought, but there is little that could be done to prevent it.”
Minerva pounced on the only hopeful word he had spoken.
“Little? So there is something.”
He smiled in that way that used to make her breath catch.
“Only if Tom becomes reckless enough to perform Legilimency in sight of a professor.”
Minerva shook her head. “He’s too intelligent for that.”
It was the answer he seemed to have expected. He nodded once and rose from his seat, crimson robes tailor-cut to his figure. “Precisely. Even the evidence of your own experience you have presented me is–”
She cut him off, hands clenched. “Tainted by Grimm’s paranoid suspicions?”
His answering gaze was serene. “I would not have put it that way.”
“But that is what Riddle claims!”
“Peppermint humbug?” He held out a bowl of neatly wrapped sweets.
Minerva looked at him as though he’d gone mad. “Professor?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He took his time unravelling the noisy wrapper. “I find their sweetness quite gratifying, even if they are unfortunately short-lived.”
Another of his riddles, the answer always just beyond her reach. She tossed her confusion aside and attempted to get to the point.
“Did you know Tom before he came to Hogwarts, Professor?”
Dumbledore paused, tension entering his frame.
“It was I who first told him of magic.”
What was that expression on his face? Pain? Regret?
One thing she did know for certain: Riddle was no Muggle-born. But if Dumbledore had first told him of the Wizarding world, then....
She sat up in the chair, curiosity raging. “Why is he so popular among the Slytherins, let alone everyone else in the school? Even the Headmaster–”
Dumbledore raised his hand and she went silent, straining to keep the accusation from bubbling through.
“There are some things that even I do not know, Minerva. Some months after arriving at the school, Riddle came to know something that has compelled the Slytherins to follow him.” He took a breath, but continued before she could interrupt. “As for his powers, he had knowledge of them long before coming here.”
So where had Riddle spent his childhood? Somewhere without influence from the Wizarding world, seeing himself exceptional – superior – among the Muggles around him, knowing he was made for something more than– than what? Would it have been an orphanage, or a Muggle relative’s home? He did despise having to return for the summers, but either place could instill such a hatred.
“That is all I will, and can, say. If you mean to pursue this question, and I can see that you are” – was that a warning in his eyes? – “then you must take care. Both of you.” He sounded grave. “Too often I have underestimated that boy.”
She rose to leave soon after. Dumbledore’s voice stopped her at the door.
“If there is anything one can be thankful for” – a note of light amusement entered his voice – “it is that this... problem has lead to greater harmony between the Heads. Wouldn’t you agree?”
At the sight of the familiar twinkle in his eye, Minerva felt a resurgence of her earlier happiness – was it as simple as happiness? did Grimm have the power to make her happy? – and left his office, momentarily distracted from her uncertainties.
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