You thought you had been careful, but no such luck. You had hoped against hope that he wouldn’t find you, that you would never see him again. You doubt now that he had set out to find you. He never was the sort who would seek anyone out. Or at least, he never was the sort to make such a venture publicly known.
You do not normally frequent the seaside; you’ve never had such an opportunity, and besides, you’ve never seen the pull of aquatic activities. The few times you were dragged there, you hid underneath your mother’s voluminous umbrella and read a book, praying that your skin would not freckle even more and that your shoulders, at times dangerously bare, would not burn.
But your poor mother…
“Minerva, she needs you.”
So, resigned to your fate, you have come.
Brighton, you understand, has long been the city of choice for the rich and ailing among the British gentry, and though the McGonagall family does not entirely fit that standard, it has always been your mother’s dream to stay at the shore. The circumstances, though unfortunate, could not have worked out worse. As your sisters hasten to point out, though, this summer is reputed to be the most pleasant since before the War, and they would never let you pass up such an opportunity, sobering as it is. You must, as they say, live a little. Enjoy life while still the skies are clear, though wisps of cloud float swiftly closer, closer.
In fact, Fiona and Silvia are nowhere to be found. Though they profess to love your mother more than you ever will, the girls haven’t even arrived in town yet.
Despite, or maybe because of their absence, your long-suffering father has insisted that you take the day for yourself, for “your mother will be just fine for a day, I expect.”
How feeble that expectation is.
“Promise you’ll stop by later.”
He had nodded solemnly earlier that morning, quiet in the hallway outside of your mother’s room, and you were satisfied.
And so, you wait.
It is a curious thing, being free.
Today resembles any other holiday you have grudgingly spent on the coast. The umbrella is new, but still it shields you from the brightening summer sun, though the breeze threatens to topple the poorly crafted thing. The book is even worse, but it is light reading, meant for the seaside and wicker chairs and to be put down upon catching the eyes of a handsome boy. Today’s sojourn isn’t actually as boring as any other trip, thanks to your recent discovery of a potion to protect your all too delicate skin.
But you’ve never had to live with the knowledge that your mother rots somewhere nearby. Closer and closer she edges to that unknown land, that place that, you understand, is the city of choice for all the dead and dying in this world.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.
You sigh and return to your book. It is some sensationalist novel; it had been sitting with a perky smile on one of the vendor’s shelves. Its very irrelevance is the reason you picked it. Muggles, you reflect, are awfully amusing people.
But they are not amusing enough to hold your wandering attention. You are disgusted at being here at all, on the beach instead of your mother’s room–there is a pool in her facilities, isn’t there? And you never have cared for the beach in the first place–and you’re here, and she there–is she even still there? How dare your father keep you away from her–
You toss that stupid novel into the sand next to your chair; let some dimwitted Muggle adolescent find it. With this bitter thought you stand. The sand itches at your soles now, so you search for your sandals… Weren’t they just there, next to your chair?
“Damn it all, where’ve they got to?” Now unprotected from the sun and the sea breeze, your dark bun starts to loosen even further, blowing into your face and obscuring your already hopeless vision. The feeling at your feet is that of being slowly devoured, and you need to move. Move! Where are those damned sandals–you can’t leave them here, like you can the book–the sun is blinding, brightening, and your hair whips in your face and your eyes can’t stay open–you must get to Mama, you must, because what if, what if… Where are your sandals–
Aha. There. Somehow they’ve glided farther along the beach, in the no-man’s-land between the surf and the sand. You can’t imagine how that has happened, for you had only taken them off for a moment, and the breeze isn’t that strong… But you don’t have the time to contemplate that oddity, because you’ve found them, and your mother is waiting for you, even if your father doesn’t think so. You know it. So you hurry along to them, stumbling in sand dunes and barely avoiding already-crumbling sand castles because you can’t move in your bare feet. Because you don’t deserve to enjoy this pleasant summer’s day while your mother rots away in her health retreat.
“Thank Merlin,” you whisper, and once you reach your errant shoes, you maneuver your feet into them; and yet your feet still itch. You bend forward, aware of the flirting between the breeze and your skirt, to investigate. You assume that it’s only extra particles of sand, and easy enough to clean once the Muggles have been left behind. But it isn’t, because they aren’t yours.
More people trod through the wet sand, eager to breach the surf and fully revel in the ocean’s serene exhilaration. But you stand in their path, staring disbelievingly at your feet. It doesn’t occur to you to remove the stranger’s shoes just yet. That can wait. Your mother cannot. It is a swift decision, and before you realize it, you’re fighting against the inexorable human tide. More sand-structure disasters are averted, and more vacationers miffed, but you don’t care.
“Well, I never–”
“Girls these days!”
“Watch it, sweetie!”
“Are these yours?”
Tom dangles your sandals in his pale hands.
You snatch them from him without words and continue.
These are yours, but you do not relinquish the stranger’s shoes still clinging to your feet. You suspect he follows, but are not sure; there’s no way in hell that you will turn around to see. It is safer to turn your back than to meet his eyes.
“Minerva, is everything all right?”
So he is following you. Was he looking for you in the first place? You don’t know. And not knowing is terrifying, so bone-chillingly terrifying.
You close your eyes to resist the pull to look at him. Even safer. In the split second you had seen him, when your focus was on the face instead of the proffered object, you noticed that he looked older. More mature.
Marble does not mature.
“I didn’t realize that many wizards frequented this place, I’m only here to find a client of mine–Merlin, are you sure you’re–”
You can’t close your ears; otherwise you would drop the sandals. And after all the trouble you went through to find them in the first place, you will not lose them again. But his voice is magnetic, is nature, is law and order and chaos. It rises above the cacophony of unsophisticated Muggle sounds, and it nestles into your ears like it belongs there, and has for many years.
“Look, it’s fine if you don’t want to talk, but if you’re staying here–I am, you see–maybe we could… catch up? Just a coffee on the boardwalk or something would be nice. Or I have some butterbeer, if you’d prefer, whichever works for you. And we could play that game, if you like–”
“Oh, but Tom,” you whisper half to yourself, though he can hear, “I already won.”
You don’t see it, but he clenches his fist as you stumble dazedly to the street.
Perhaps it is for the best that you do not see.
TWO YEARS AND ONE MONTH EARLIER
You realized, with a dull, exquisite pain in your chest, that he would never look at you again. He didn’t care if you had finished it or not. He didn’t care. It shouldn’t have shocked you, and in a way, it hadn’t. You were simply caught off guard by how engrossed you were in that prince’s saga. Not surprising at all, when you thought about it; for you had always been attracted to tragedy. So it made utmost sense that you were fascinated by Tom as well. Tragedy, indeed.
And so, with that knowledge lodged irrevocably in your ribcage, you advanced a piece into dangerous territory.
Tom studied the board. You would have thought that he wouldn’t need to anymore, but it seemed that, as always, you were mistaken.
“I don’t understand why you’d do that,” he said, placidly jumping your piece, thus edging closer to your end of the board. “You knew I would do that.”
You shrugged. “Maybe I hoped you wouldn’t.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” The little ebony object–your little ebony object–fit seamlessly into his palm when he snatched it away. There was a sizable pile of its fellows in front of him, which only now dwarfed the blood red prisoners of war you had taken.
“How should I know?” You were cross. “Maybe because you… Merlin, I don’t know.”
Thankfully, he let the matter go. You were winning, and he knew it, despite the fact that you had fewer pieces in play. It probably bothered him to no end, but it wouldn’t matter now. He would find a way to turn the tables properly. Or at least, he would try. You weren’t sure if he would succeed or not; your heart was not in this game. The play still weighed heavy on your heart, and your tongue kept catching words and phrases and quotations to discuss. Tom would have exquisite opinions, you were sure, but he would never voice them unless asked. And Merlin knew you would never ask. This was to be the last time he ever looked at you, and for whatever reason, you wanted to remember it.
You had forgotten that it was your turn, and darted a furtive, restless glance at the board. You never could understand why the tiles were black and white, yet the pieces black and red. Strange idiosyncrasies, these Muggle games had.
“Oh.” Without a care you pushed forward one of your guardians, one of those whom common sense dictated to never relinquish. Though you captured Tom’s piece, and felt something like a pulse throbbing, satisfied, inside of it, you knew you had lost. And a good thing it was, too, because you were tiring of this dreadful game. Why he insisted on playing, you had no idea. “There you go.”
Tom did not move for a few moments. He blinked at the blank space in the heart of your territory, then at one of his remaining game pieces, then at yours. Then, mastering his incredulity, he jumped that one you just moved, and landed at last in the coveted spot. It was black.
You glanced up, and matched his lazy, triumphant grin with one of your own. Suddenly you were very happy to be rid of him, and the pain–was it really pain?–was gone.
NINE DAYS EARLIER
He never greeted you anymore, so you said nothing in return. An eye for an eye. A curious way to execute such a harsh philosophy, but you had always been curious. And yet the raw hunger in his eyes was much more potent than your childish nosiness.
“You know, you’re starting to bore me,” you said as you settled across from him. The clock, carelessly shoved in the corner of the unused classroom, clanged twice. On cue, a sunbeam pierced through the high covered window, but it fell on you. Rarely did the sun fall on him anymore.
“How so?” Before him sat a fat volume with tiny print and worse binding. He had not removed his eyes from it since you entered.
“That’s how so.” You pointed imperiously at the book. “Instead of talking or being outside or anything, you choose to hole yourself up in dust and meaningless words. What fun is that?”
He glanced up at last, a smirk on his thin lips. “Meaningless words? Minerva, haven’t you heard of William Shakespeare?”
You shook your head. Muggle authors did not interest you. Since when did they interest Tom?
“He is the Muggles’ greatest playwright. This is a volume of all of his works.”
No wonder the book was so large.
“Is it any good?”
“I think you would enjoy it.”
“It’s worth a read.”
“Precisely why you bore me. Since when do you read Muggle classics?”
“Since they were brought to my attention.” He pushed the compilation in your direction; dust ingrained in the pages rose up and you coughed meekly. “Take a look at it, Minerva. I think you’d like this one.”
Curious, you strained your eyes to see the title. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. “How very quaint. A tragedy. No wonder you like it so much, Tom.”
He pursed his lips, and a shadow passed over his face. “I never said I liked it. I just said that it was worth a read.”
You were confused. He saw it but didn’t deign to explain; in fact, he was more than a little angry with you, though you couldn’t imagine why. So to avoid angering him further, for his moods, as you now knew, were rather mercurial, you skimmed through the character list and squinted and read the first page of the first act. The language was difficult to decipher and the action nigh impossible to make out, but you struggled through the scene under his critical eye. You wondered for a moment if he realized it when you simply scanned the words without knowing what they said, when you had given up.
“Well?” he asked presently.
Startled, you looked up and found him staring at you. Of course, you had known he was doing this, but seeing it for yourself was a strange thing. Chilling. “I don’t quite get it, I’m afraid.”
He shrugged. “You will. It’s rather fascinating, once you get the hang of it.” He pushed his chair out, stood up, pushed the chair back in. You were left to marvel at his height–normally you matched him inch for inch, but you were in your seat and he above, towering over you and your pathetic inability to read a Muggle’s play. “I’ll see you around, Minerva.” He walked to the door, unaware that you turned back to the book and didn’t watch him leave. He, however, threw one last glance at you. A thoughtful kind of grimace fluttered around his lips, and he sighed. “Good luck.”
As he left, a more intense sunbeam fell upon his vacated desk.
You picked up the book and strode quickly to your room.
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
The prefects’ bathroom, one of the few tangible privileges they had, was quiet today. The undeserving students were probably outside, frolicking with the plebeians in the first of the year’s true sunshine and fair weather, but you were content with seeing the sun through glass. The beginning of March only heralded more sun to come, in April and May. You could survive without the sun for a little while yet. Besides, you hadn’t been here since… oh, dear, you couldn’t even remember how long it had been since you truly treated yourself. That day in Hogsmeade? No, no, that wasn’t your doing, not entirely. And surely not at the start of term…
“Very well then,” you muttered to yourself, and without further ado stepped into the bathroom. Even the mermaid was lethargic today. All the better. Upon reaching the tub, you twisted various spouts and watched the giant-sized tub fill with water and iridescent bubbles. Soothing scents–lavender and chamomile and vanilla, and something else you couldn’t put your finger on–suffused the vast space, and the sunlight shone through the fragrant haze.
As the water level reached its zenith, you shrugged off your robes, hesitant though alone, and dipped your toe into the tub. Just as you suspected, it was the perfect temperature, cool but gently so. First you turned the taps so that the water ceased to flow, and then, unable to shake off the feeling of forsaking morality, you slipped into the tub. Some liquid was displaced upon your entry, and sloshed over the edge, but you didn’t care; the house-elves would be quick to clean it once you had your fill of indulgence. You sank deeper and deeper into that heavenly pool, until your head rested pleasantly on the edge, your hair dampened but your underclothes–for you would never reveal your bare body in such a place–stuck to you like a second skin. A luxurious moan of content slipped from your lips like so much perfumed air.
You were that close to peace.
The door to the prefects’ bathroom creaked open–slowly, slowly. Footsteps, graceful and self-assured. In the corner of your eye, a boy with dark hair and pale skin sauntered to the tub, humming a simple melody that managed to chill you through the curtain of water.
“Tom?” you squeaked in surprise. Though you still were clothed, it felt–again–like a second skin, one easily discarded; you wrapped your arms around your torso in a meager, useless attempt to block him. He of course wasn’t looking at you in a lewd manner. In fact, you doubted he saw you at all. You hadn’t spoken that day; your mind flew guiltily to the unworn sweater sitting in your closet, still in its wrapping paper. To distract yourself, you stuttered with genuine shock, “What are–I mean, I didn’t think–”
“Neither did I,” said he with a knowing smirk on his thin lips. “But then, don’t they say that great minds think alike? And what are we if not great minds?”
You blushed. Your mind was nothing compared to the younger man’s. Even more self-conscious, you weighed your options: you could either rise from the tub (like a bloody mermaid, you thought derisively) and let him gawk at you, or wait until he left (for he would leave, you knew–hoped–) so you might exit in peace. “You don’t mean that.”
If you had hoped to buy some time, it worked. His eyes rested on yours, not on your submerged body. And yet this was no comfort to your sense of modesty. “Oh, but I do, Minerva. I do,” he repeated, and now his gaze drifted downward, taking in your freckled neck, and bare arms, and–
“Could you hand me a towel, Tom?”
He blinked before his eyes finally abandoned their scrutiny, and tossed you a fluffy towel scented with lemon. With some difficult maneuvering, you positioned yourself so that your body would be exposed for only the least amount of time. Water dripped off, droplet by droplet by crystalline droplet, as you picked up your robes from the floor. With a pointed glance from you, Tom turned around gentlemanly as you performed a Drying Spell on your person and redressed yourself. It felt strange to be dry again, after so little time being wet. That second skin was no longer as suffocating, but you knew how fragile it was. How easily broken, discarded. How unnecessary.
It frightened you.
“I’m awfully sorry, you know,” he said suddenly, softly, even modestly. “About interrupting you. I’ll leave you now. Goodbye, Minerva.” He held out his hand for you to shake, though you couldn’t imagine why he would do such a thing, and you obliged him. Compared to your rough, clean hands, his palms were smooth and cool. Unfettered, unperturbed by seeing you in the bath, unruffled by any reaction you might have had upon his undressing you–gentlemanly, oh so gentlemanly–with his eyes.
He threw one last appraising glance your way before turning away.
Your dry skin burned where he touched you–burned away that old tired skin, revealing something new and beautiful and flushed and, above all, foreign.
He didn’t hear you at first, but at the sound of your shoes against the marble tiles and the curious quavering of your voice when you said his name, he stopped, and allowed you to catch up to him.
THREE DAYS EARLIER
“Oh, you must be awfully excited!” squealed Siobhan. “Just think! All the ice cream and sweets and–oh, there he is now! Morning, Tom!”
You followed her flailing arm to find your defeated opponent. He stood just beyond the Entrance Hall, wrapped warmly, though his style had some sort of cavalier nonchalance to it. As if he was impervious to the cold. You were nothing of the sort, and looked forward primarily to a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
“Do get some extra sugar quills, won’t you? Haven’t had one since Christmas, since Mother thinks I eat too–oh, well, have fun!” Siobhan skipped back inside, for she had too much work to waste loitering in the village.
Tom waited patiently as you made your way to him. He had a warm smile ready for you. “Ready for a day of unchecked indulgence?”
“Ready to finance it?”
The smile drooped and he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “I certainly hope so. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being in debt for very long. But we had an accord, did we not?” He buried his hands in his cloak pocket and cut through the wind like a denizen of the sky himself. “Coming, Minerva?”
Well, there was no way you wouldn’t, so you trotted forward with all due haste to his side. As Ogg waved you through to the road, you settled into an uneasy silence, punctuated by heavy footsteps and slow breathing. Maybe this was a mistake after all. You hardly knew the boy, still didn’t know how he’d found you. The rumors all hinted of some preternatural intelligence–that was clear enough, always had been. But it seemed he was no great conversationalist, or maybe he just wasn’t the type, and you were left to calculating the anticipated expenditure of the day, and whether Tom could afford it.
The day went by slowly, painfully slowly, and though you established an awkward rhythm to structure the shopping trip, it didn’t feel satisfactory. Tom never objected to anything you wanted, though he did slip in words edgewise about possibly getting this higher quality candy, or that more reliable broom-polishing kit, all of which proved detrimental to his wallet. You couldn’t understand it, but didn’t ask the questions at the back of your tongue, and stuffed your mouth instead with freshly made Honeydukes chocolate.
“Want some?” You held the bar out, and he deferentially took a piece, laden though he was with the bags holding your purchases.
“Delicious,” you commented.
He made some affirmative noise as he chewed, and paused a minute to rest. Although he never seemed to slouch, per se.
“Have you had enough quite yet?”
“Oh, no, I’m having a glorious time buying you things and carrying your bags, Minerva.” A grim smile, or was it a wry grimace? One or the other, the good-natured sarcasm was clear, and you were relieved to hear it. The mechanical courtesy with which he had spoken all day had put you off; now you had proof that he was normal. “I do hope you’ll actually use all of this.”
You doubted you would, but grinned back at him without words. You weren’t sure if he understood you–he probably hadn’t, considering your superior intelligence–but he chuckled at himself a little before shouldering his burden once more.
“Ready for more?”
Winning was so awfully sweet, you reflected.
SEVENTEEN DAYS EARLIER
Seven games in the past hour, and still you hadn’t lost. You, lose? Entirely possible. Oh, so horribly possible, but you didn’t give thought to that. You didn’t allow that to paralyze your senses and transfix your logic because you knew that would be your end. Don’t think. Never think.
Three feet in the past day, and still it hadn’t stopped. The winter had been quiet, festering in the heavens like an ailment. It chose now to unleash the wrath of its fury, drowning the grounds and greenhouses in ice. Outside all was dead, and you–well, if you were dead, you didn’t know it. You didn’t allow sense and logic to cloud your judgment, because then you would lose the game. And losing was entirely possible, too horribly possible.
You glanced down at your hands, at the game board. Slain soldiers, valiant but worthless, lay on your side of the battlefield. None were yours–your men, those brave, brave men, stood sentinel on conquered territory.
Your opponent threw you a nasty glance. You met it calmly, clearly, almost condescendingly, but not quite. She was too weak and humiliated to continue another contest, one you would win, and so she left.
“Anyone else want to play?” As murmurs arose and swelled, you went to work and set up the board again. In moments it was as if no battle had been fought, no victory proclaimed.
“Ah, but only if you go easy on me,” Siobhan Finnegan grinned.
“I couldn’t do that!” Scandalized, you threw your head back in laughter. And what authoritative laughter it was! Your mother found your lack of feminine wiles, as she called them, distasteful. You preferred your independence. “But I’ll give you and everyone else this: beat me, and I’ll write Slughorn’s essay for you.”
Michael Cunningham rolled his eyes. “You’ll just do a shoddy job of it, that’s what you’d do, Minerva.”
“Guaranteed Outstanding.” Your credentials could back up the guarantee. Michael whistled, Siobhan tittered, and the rest of the crowd worked up the courage to step up to your desk and the board.
“Wait, wait! Wait! But if you lose… you buy me anything and everything I want next Hogsmeade weekend.”
In issuing the challenge, you had weeded out the casual players, looking for some fun in the wrong place. You’d been playing gently for the past hour, laughing and booing with the rest of them, enjoying yourself. But even winning got boring for you, and you wanted a contest. Or at least, that broom, and those quills…
“Don’t tell me you’re all too scared to play!” you cried, bubbly despite the serious subject. “Come now, don’t tell me you can’t beat me!”
Siobhan laughed. “Oh, but we can’t, Minerva! And besides, we all know how badly you want that broom, whatever it’s called!” The rest joined her kindhearted laughter. You were put off by their nonchalance, and considered retracting the second part of your challenge. After all, who among your friends could possibly finance your wild romps through Hogsmeade? And in the end, would you really force them to buy things for you? Or should you simply take back the entire idea, and return to beating people for the fun of it? Because it certainly was fun, after all…
Someone cleared his throat. You perked up, your ears following the cadence of the challenger:
“I’d like to try, if you don’t mind.”
The voice tickled at your memory, and you frowned. You couldn’t see his face, but he sounded so familiar… Deep but unassuming, strong without having to assert it, a timbre of power wreathed in humility.
Your friends, your waiting audience, parted down the middle to let him through, making way for the someone who might finally beat you. Mutters were formed in his wake, deep-seated whispers of doubt and awe. If anyone could beat Minerva, it was he.
It took you a moment to recognize him.
The sixth year with the striking figure and captivating tone nodded. He likely had a free period now, which was rendered useless by the inclement weather. How he had managed to find your group of friends, you didn’t know, but didn’t bother asking. A challenger was a challenger.
“Do you mind, Minerva?”
You shook your head, put off but not enough to show it. “I didn’t know you could play checkers,” you said in place of anything else.
He frowned. “I used to… a long time ago, back when… never mind.” His eyes flicked to yours, and the corners of his lips curled up in a lazy half-smile. It irked you.
“Did you hear what I said earlier?”
“If you win, I take you to Hogsmeade, and if I win, you write me an essay.”
“Do you agree to those terms?”
Tom did not hesitate, and for answer, glanced at the playing board, ghostly white hand hovering over his game pieces.
“Very well then. Your move.”
He did not appreciate your generosity, and it took an extra moment, better suited for play, for it to sink in. Once it had, he hung his head lower, hiding the politely intrigued visage from prying eyes, and moved a piece.
You reached your hand out to counter his move, but then he gasped, and you stopped, perplexed.
“Something wrong, Tom?” It wasn’t you who asked, it was Siobhan.
“I…” He gulped. “No, no, it’s just… nothing happened.”
“We’ve barely started,” you gently rebuked him.
“Yes, but… this isn’t like wizard’s chess, then?” Though his voice quavered subtly, no one else noticed it, and his clear black eyes drilled into the space between your eyes and eyebrows–pretending to make eye contact, but avoiding it. Curious. “This is… the Muggle version, is it?”
He exhaled and reverted his eyes once more to the game, though he focused on your half. “Sorry. Your move.”
So it was.
KING ME songbird in a silver mine
Disclaimer There are many things I do not own. Amongst those numerous things which I do not own are Harry Potter and Hamlet, by J.K. Rowling and William Shakespeare respectively. Please don't sue me.
Author's Note Welcome, brave reader, to King Me! I do so appreciate your being here, especially if you make it all the way to the end of this awfully confusing story. You'll see why it's confusing once you finish. Any questions upon completion, feel free to ask.
I would, though, like to extend my deepest thanks to Violet and Gryffin_Duck (Susan and Sarah) for their help in writing Minerva's character, and for psychée (Kalina) for her very encouraging cheerleading. (All of these wonderful people are at TGS.)