Minerva was surprised at the answer her mind had chosen, or was it her heart? She would help him because it was he who asked for her help, because he had fallen beyond any of her possible imaginings, because she lo–
“Thank you.” His head rose from its pillow, as hard and bony as her shoulder was.
She leaned her head back, eyes shut, mind rushing through every possible reason, anything that could justify her decision to assist him in this doomed venture. Her nerves started when Grimm touched her eyelids, trailing down her cheeks to her lips, his fingers tracing their outline until she gasped and he pulled away, returning to replace fingers with mouth. Minerva felt her stomach drop, her hands reaching for his body, aching for the touch of him, the feeling of wholeness that only he could bring, his mind and body in harmony with her own.
Happiness, that fleeting, endless emotion, so filled with pain and ecstasy that left one fearfully desiring more. This was not the happiness of a winning goal or the sight of a newborn lamb; it was the most caustic of emotions, biting at her heart as a vampire consumes its prey, and she succumbed as her rationality screamed its protest into every cell of her body.
He shifted to unbend his spine, pressing her into the depths of the chair as she pulled him deeper into her embrace, lungs straining for the air that she refused to give them until Grimm drifted downward to her throat, her collarbone. Even then, she could not breathe as he pushed aside the collar of her robes to find some new, untouched portion of skin.
“I missed you.”
She felt more than heard his murmur before he raised himself up on his arms to look into her eyes. There was no fear in her heart in meeting his eyes, though the memory of Riddle’s gaze was never far from her consciousness. Her eyes were reflected in those of Grimm and she almost smiled.
“More than I could bear.”
When their faces touched again, she could feel the wetness on his cheeks. One more lingering kiss between them, his hands in her hair, loosened around them, hers clutching his shoulders, parting only when he moved to his previous position beside her, grasping her hand.
Minerva tried to conceal her inability to breathe, glad that the sound of her heaving lungs was disguised by his own gasping breaths. That they had gone so far– It had not merely been one of the comforting gestures he had offered her in the past. It had been the creation of a bond that could never be undone. Even separated by the furthest of distances, they would not be able to forget it.
The moon now spied through the window, shining a deathly light upon their faces as they sat up in the chair, Minerva smoothed out her robes, covering her nearly-bare shoulder with uncertain hands.
“I’m sorry, Min. About everything.”
He did not look at her, did not dare to. He had just seen into her eyes, but that was under such... different circumstances.
“I’ve treated you horribly. I don’t know how you stand it.”
All I’s. That egotism was wired into his brain so deeply that to try and remove it would cause the whole circuitry to fail. He cringed at his own words, knowing how she would react, how she would continue second-guessing any feeling he may have for her, believing that she was only a challenge to him, a mouse to be caught and then set aside by a pampered tom.
“I’m often told that it’s the woman’s burden.”
Grimm struggled to sit up and see her face, but it was lost in shadow, the chair not quite wide enough to accommodate his desired movement.
“It seems true from what I’ve seen.”
Such hopelessness was not what he had expected from her, the shepherd to his wastrel, wandering lamb. An odd turn of phrase – he thought of his father’s narrow religious beliefs – but he knew that when he was at his worst, she was the reason that whacked him in the head and straightened his spine. He was not loathe to admit just how much he needed her in his life, surely what had just happened between them was enough to win her over.
His need could not be also hers. He was her responsibility, one to care for and push along when he stumbled. She would pick him up when he fell, but not out of free will. She would do it out of duty to– what? Her heart, her conscience?
“Then don’t. Bear me.”
Her silence was answer enough, and he wriggled further toward the edge of the seat.
“We need to speak with Dumbledore.”
Of course she would mention him, the one she worshiped, not the one whose burden she bore. Ha! Grimm should have known better than to reveal his weaknesses before her. She did not give him sympathy, or anything for that matter. Her offer of help was nothing more than a conciliatory gesture. She was just being nice, nothing more.
Her hand tightened its hold on his. “Stop it, Tiberius. This is more than another of your mad schemes. Myrtle is dead.”
It was so very easy to forget about Myrtle.
Half-despising his own selfishness, he pushed hard against her to rise, but she grabbed his arms, her Quidditch-bred muscles forcing him to stay in place, to stay by her.
“Tiberius!” she hissed in his ear. “You are still in shock, you fool. Ow!”
He pushed again, his hand slipping to land on her breast. They both recoiled, his hands drawing back to his chest, hers releasing him from their bonds Grimm’s hand closed upon itself, as did his face, though it was hidden from her in the darkness.
She let out a long breath. “It will have to wait until the morning, then.”
“What will?” He escaped from the chair at last, legs weak beneath him, but still he stood.
In the chair she remained, stretching her legs out toward the long-dead fire.
“Meet me at Dumbledore’s office in the morning, before breakfast. He must be aware of anything that we do, for our own safety if not for the pursuit of justice.”
Grimm turned to the mantle, his violating hand cleansing itself against the cold marble of ages past. Perhaps Ravenclaw, or even Slytherin, had placed their hallowed hands here, downtrodden by the news that met their weary ears. But Grimm felt nothing of their presence, their strength failing to pass through the centuries to assist those in need.
“If you think it’s necessary, then I’ll go.”
There was silence again, growing more strained with each passing minute, the air thick with discontent, crackling in anticipation. Yet neither moved. They were as stone, awaiting for the other to make amends or leave in distaste, but that did not happen. It could not between two such as they, unveiling to none, least of all each other.
Minerva let out a shaking breath. It seemed ten times as audible when he could not see her. He closed his eyes.
“We should go to bed.”
He tensed as the mouse that has heard the cat at its heels, daring now to turn his head and fix his gaze on hers. It was an unbending gaze. Hers, that is. Gone was any harmony between them, if there had been any at all, leaving nothing but what had been long before, that animosity, that rivalry.
“Not like that. The shock has most definitely gone to your head.”
She stood, legs quaking beneath her. She gripped the back of the chair, placing it between herself and him.
Grimm opened his mouth and closed it again. It took a moment for him to decide whether or not the following statement would be appropriate, but caution was already in the wind, his heart in her hands while hers still roamed free, just beyond his grasp.
“Don’t blame me for trying again, Min.”
“Good night, Tiberius.”
She was at the door; it opened, and she was gone.
He looked at the door for some time, then turned again to stare at the empty portrait above the mantle. The red velvet fluttered in an unseen breeze, but it failed to reach Grimm, and the air around him remained stale, lifeless. The smile he had borne at his last words had not been real. No smile could be now that he had known death, seen it so clearly, all innocence and ignorance fleeing before it.
There was no time for youth anymore, no more useless tricks and inane jests. His hand clenched into a fist as he listened to the heart pounding within his breast.
~ * * * ~
Minerva could not continue up the staircase when she arrived at the second floor. Her footsteps slowed on their own accord, and her eyes could not be torn away from the corridor down which was the second floor girl’s lavatory. She stood looking into the shadows, the corridor’s torches burnt out. Was it in respect of the dead, or something else?
She stepped forward.
The only noise was the distant trickling of water. It brought to mind the image of Myrtle in that lonely stall and the falling of tears, blubbering and sobbing over the latest humiliation. Mortification. Then death itself.
Her acquaintance with death was limited, mostly unknown beyond the deaths of animals on the farm, and only slightly known with the death of her brother on those distant fields, one of the first to fall. The distance of his grave and the difference in their ages made him no more than a faceless image in her memory, no matter how often his wife invaded Minerva’s life.
But this girl’s death was so much more and, yes, she did want to find out why it had occurred, why Myrtle had been the one to die.
It brought her closer to Grimm than even the moments before. It was not about the physical benefits of his... affection, but rather being able to fix herself to his cause, to understand his motives, his eccentricities. Perhaps the understanding of the workings of his mind would hold more meaning than any kiss or embrace. They could do much, but could never prevent any schism from forming. Too much alike, or too different?
It was as good a reason as any to play detective.
She found herself at the doorway of the lavatory. All was cleared away, but one of the toilets murmured and spluttered. Water trailed across the floor, mirror-like in the moonlight.
It did not appear to be a place of death. No blood, no violence, no evidence of anything except broken plumbing, but that was nothing new in this lavatory. That one sink had never worked and now this water everywhere.
Yet she did not enter. She could not even bear to cross the threshold.
Something was there.
No person, she wasn’t even sure that it was a thing, but she could feel something strange here. It was easy to discard as merely the presence of death, so natural and terrifying, impossible and inevitable. She could smell it, that stale, thick and oily and startlingly familiar. But that couldn’t be. No, of course not.
Chiding herself on inheriting Grimm’s overactive imagination, she turned and returned to the stairs, where the firelight still waned, her nostrils relishing the freshness of the living air.
~ * * * ~
The morning dawned without rest. Grimm sat in his tower in the guise of a heroic figure contemplating the faults of the world and how it had, more specifically, faulted him. Another Manfred, he desired to run out into the mountains and call on the world’s powers to bring him justice and redemption.
“Tibbs! Aren’t you coming for breakfast?” Davies poked his head in the doorway.
Blinking, Grimm took time to recollect his ability to speak.
“No, no. Can’t.”
He heard Davies take a step into the room. “Listen, we’re all behind you on this, Tibbs. It’s dreadfully beastly.”
Silence. Grimm swallowed, glad to have his back to the door.
“Well. Featherby and I’ll make sure that you’re not bothered today.”
His footsteps followed. All else was without sound.
The meeting with Dumbledore would soon begin, and he did not know himself, his memories fleeting and confused, Minerva’s face beneath his bleeding into Myrtle’s horror-stricken eyes, her mouth slightly parted as he leaned down for another taste of her lips. Her hands plucked at him, white and hungry.
He opened his eyes, fearing to blink again and see her ghostly image once more, bastardising his reconciliation with Minerva to paint it as cold, heartless. That he should make love to one girl as another lay dead and alone was monstrous, and he felt as though he himself had killed her, welding the weapon, even being the weapon that yielded her destruction.
Minerva had been right. He had always looked down upon Myrtle, could never respect her dwindling confidence and inability to use the wit she had for any good.
It was time.
She was already there, the silence between herself and Dumbledore suspiciously sudden. Talking about him. He should have known it.
“Tiberius, please sit down.”
Grimm hesitated for the right amount of time, Minerva watching him with tense lips and fingers tapping on the chair arm. No blushes or fear of meeting his eyes, and he wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not.
He sat on the edge of the other chair. “Professor, can I ask what is being done?”
Only then did Grimm notice Dumbledore’s hair, unbound and clashing with his robes. He had not seen it the previous night, had seen nothing beyond Myrtle’s empty gaze. No detail came to mind before Minerva’s entrance. His eyes closed for a moment too long. Minerva’s hand encircled his wrist.
Dumbledore spoke before he could look at her.
“Her parents and the Ministry have been contacted, but under the utmost discretion.”
“That is Dip–”
Grimm clasped his mouth shut, eyes widening and hands self-importance.
Minerva’s grip tightened. “Is there any idea how this happened, Professor? I assume that all the students are accounted for during that time.” She did not flinch when he looked to her, then Grimm, then back to her, the slightest flicker in his eyes, otherwise dull and tired.
“The prefects have reported absences. Various ones, in fact.”
Minerva shot out the list. “Avery. Walburga Black. Hagrid.”
It was normally a time when Dumbledore would smile, a reward for her quick answer, but this time he only nodded, hair bouncing against his shoulders. “Miss Umbridge was very eager to report her missing housemates.”
“What about Riddle?” Grimm felt a flash of anger as he spoke the name, eyes narrowing.
Minerva removed her hand and placed it on her lap, flaring her nostrils.
Dumbledore did not see, having looked down at his desk, the parchment stretched across it, his elegant script showing off every bit of strength to the Ministry of Magic. Of course Dippet would leave all public relations to Dumbledore since the Headmaster always required a stepping stool when addressing a crowd, and it did nothing to bolster his self-esteem.
“No one can account for his presence, but any accusation against him could as easily apply to the both of you.”
Grimm tightened his jaw, but said nothing.
Minerva likewise stiffened, but silence could not be her friend.
“Is the belief that this was caused by a spell or potion? Something that required the presence of a person in the lavatory.”
Although Dumbledore could respond, Grimm leaned forward, hands clenched.
“No potion would remain undetected in the body after death.” His eyes glittered dangerously. “Even the common poisons leave signs. A certain smell. A colouring of the–” He drew in a sharp breath and fell silent, eyes bulging with the memory of her face.
He shook his head before looking at Minerva, his eyes out of focus. “She was terrified.”
“Some poisons can cause madness, hallucinations....” Dumbledore steepled his fingers.
“Not without other recognizable symptoms,” Grimm bit his bottom lip before continuing. “There was no sign of–”
“You made a thorough examination of the scene, Tiberius?” He could not repress the small twinkle in his eyes “Was this before or after you had called the alarm?”
“Be–” Grimm coloured.
Minerva crossed her arms and avoided a glare only by studying the objects on Dumbledore’s desk.
“Then there must be something else, Professor. An Unforgivable?”
He let out a breath, and his gaze faltered. Minerva tried to look closer, to see more of him, but he was in hiding, keeping his cards too close to his chest. All she could discern was that he seemed torn in too many directions, his focus not entirely on this... case (it was a safe term for now). She tilted her head as one of his hands reached out for a smooth marble globe, his fingers settling around the cool stone.
It was some moments before he responded. “It cannot be discounted.”
“However much it narrows the field?” Grimm asked, his voice high and biting.
Minerva knew how narrow that field would be: any upper-year Slytherin, specifically one.
“It requires an intense burst of fury.” She heard her own voice in the room, but could hardly feel her lips forming the words. “Such extreme passion is difficult to experience, unless–”
“But it could equally be an utter lack of feeling, no conscience whatsoever.” Grimm did not even turn to her now. His hands flailed about as he tried to make his case to Dumbledore without even naming the one he made the case against.
Dumbledore’s already-light skin paled a touch, a greenish tinge spreading across his face.
“It is not wise to make accusations so soon, Tiberius.”
His voice was impossibly quiet, yet Grimm heard it as clear as though it had been screamed into his face. No, not just heard it, but felt it. The words drifting through his ears and into his mind, working their power on his rational side, even his emotions. But could it be of enough strength to cool such an impassioned mind, one who could only see one answer amid all of these questions?
No. It could not. All he could see were her eyes, forever captured in that state of abject terror, the knowledge of inevitable death, something no child should have known. It was easier to think of her as a child, though she was only four years younger. It made things better, somehow, to think of her that way.
A child until she saw death standing before her.
He rose from the chair, eyes staring at a point behind Dumbledore, to the window where the sun shone and the clouds hung in the sky. A bird flew past. He could see the smoke from Hogsmeade chimneys just above the trees, and he could not understand why. There were no mourners for Myrtle, no one really missing her, even him.
Yes, he felt nothing but horror at her death, not pain at her passing.
The only thing passing was the shock of it all.
Now he was left with only reality, the stars (of her wide and staring eyes) fadng. It had been childish to crawl into that chair and cry, sob his heart onto Minerva’s chest, then make feeble love to her in the moonlight. It was an awful, terrible thing.
Minerva stared at him as though she knew, could read the thoughts in his head as clearly as she could see the emotions on his face. He did not dare look at Dumbledore whose blue eyes would see the wrong things and make the wrong assumptions. Minerva’s eyes were more consuming. They still contained life. But what–?
“Excuse me. Please. I.... I–”
Grimm stumbled toward the door, Minerva’s hand on his arm until he drifted away, eyes still unfocussed, still seeing– It hadn’t been that great a leap to– no, he couldn’t– yes, it was true – to see the wrong eyes staring into death. She whispered something to him about seeing him after said class, but he seemed not to hear, once more consumed by the workings of his mind and the raging of his emotions.
Minerva stayed in the doorway, her hand still raised to give what was not wanted.
“You will not follow him, Minerva?”
Dumbledore’s question seemed very odd to her.
“What do you mean, Professor”
She did not move. She felt very small.
“Would you like a sherbet lemon?”
For the first time since, as an eager-to-please first year, she had sat before him, in awe of such a being, she took one, sitting down again, the pain in her cheeks from the tart sweet a welcome distraction.
It was some time before either spoke.
“I had, last night, hoped that your presence would soothe his nerves.” He was looking down, hands folded in front of him.
Minerva swallowed the last taste of the sweet. “Never for very long.”
His eyes met hers sharply, his hands separating.
“You find that worrying?” She frowned, shrinking even further. “Surely you don’t expect that–”
“I fear that I have misjudged him.” Dumbledore stood, his robes settling around him with what could only be called grace. They were of a dull lavender, only working to emphasise the brilliant shade of his hair. “It seemed for so long that his heart ruled his head, and now I see that it is not the case.”
Minerva coloured, then paled, taking in a deep breath as her head swum, her thoughts splashing from side to side against her rocky skull. She closed her eyes, no longer able to hold herself in check; there was simply too much to feel.
“If I have used you unjustly–” Dumbledore was nearer to her now.
Her eyes flew open. “No, Professor. No.” She blinked. “Never.”
After a moment, she swallowed and struggled to put her thoughts into being.
“I had the choice, and I believe that I made the right one.”
All he did was nod, backing away – how close he had come, his robes brushing against the toes of her shoes – and she receded back into herself, still seeing Grimm leave her, shaking her off when only hours before he had been as much a part of her as her own hand. She looked at the limb now, wondering how time could move with such speed, how she could go from loved to rejected in almost the same breath.
She looked up at Dumbledore, suddenly so much older. “I will be fine, Professor. It is Tiberius who’s not.”
His gaze was fathomless She could sense him sorting through emotion and thought until something could be made of her disordered mind. It was Legilimancy again, but utterly unlike Riddle’s corruption of the art. At once determined and gentle, Minerva did nothing to prevent it before the touch retracted and distance was restored between them.
She was the first to turn her eyes away, the colour returning in too profuse an amount. She heard him rustle about some parchments on his desk, picking up a book to move it from one side to the other.
“What can I do now?” Her voice was dry and tired.
Dumbledore gazed down on her with what could only be pity in his eyes. She was not interested enough to really be sure.
“It seems there is another choice for you to make, Minerva.” He let out a long breath. “You could save yourself.” He paused.
She shut her eyes once more, this time to hold back her building emotion.
“Or you could save him.” He spoke in a whisper.
Minerva put her head in her hands, hardly able to control herself any longer.
He stepped toward her, but stopped and moved away, heading for the hearth where a kettle of water awaited his command. It practically leapt upon the fire, and Minerva waited not long for the whistle screaming its completion. He poured out the cups with painstaking care and she heard the chink of the cup being set down on the desk in front of her.
Dumbledore touched her shoulder briefly. “It is said that a good cup of tea can heal the worst of ills.”
She ventured to pick up the steaming cup. “For the English, maybe.”
He nodded and sat down across from her, seeming more relaxed.
“Ah, I forget. My apologies.”
She took a long sip, the liquid scorching her tongue and throat and down to her stomach, burning away the sour flavour of the sherbert lemon.
“I’ve worked on my accent, Professor. There’s no need to apologise.”
It was disconcerting to chat with him over tea while Grimm wandered through the castle in search of revenge and Myrtle lay on a cold slab in the hospital wing.
“How unfortunate it is that you feel the need to do so.”
She could not imagine telling him that it made her feel more intelligent to attempt a proper English accent. Even Moody could speak properly when he wanted to, leaving Minerva to feel coarse and provincial beside the rest of her year. But she did not want to talk to Dumbledore about this. Not now.
“What should be done about Tiberius?” she asked, leaning forward, hands clasped. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s right or wrong, only that he doesn’t do anything incredibly stupid.”
For a moment, there was a strange smile on Dumbledore’s face, which, although strained with the previous night’s events, brought the tiniest ray of light into Minerva’s cooling heart. Her feet and hands were cold though winter was long past, the spring bulbs poking their way out of the ground to face the sun with expectant faces.
“I will not ask you to watch over him, Minerva.”
She lifted up the corners of her mouth. “Moody will be happy to help. Even Umbridge might be–”
“Surely that would be going too far.” Dumbledore’s eyes now twinkled, the wrinkles around his lips smoothing away.
She allowed herself to laugh, the ringing sound lifting to the ceiling, consumed by the dark shadows of the castle, the rustling of scaled limbs within the pipes and the scurrying of hairy arachnoid legs in the dungeon, terrified and pitiful. Her laughter could not be anything but short-lived and pained.
When she stopped, sudden and breathless, she caught some expression upon her face, one that she could not have expected from him: evasion.
She took in a sharp breath and waited for its repetition, but there was nothing. Biting her lip and thinking of Grimm, she wondered how far she could go with Dumbledore, how far she could probe him and try to understand what he was seeing in all of this mess.
“Professor, is there something else?”
He opened his mouth and she knew he would deny it.
Minerva placed her hand on the desk beside her teacup, meeting his eyes without fear, but with trepidation.
“There is. I know it. Pr– Albus, please.”
She could see nothing else but his eyes, which gave away everything and nothing. There was no other sound in the room but that of their breathing, hers ragged, his sharp. There was a very distant sound of students in the corridors, wandering about, hearing the latest gossip, but it could not enter this room, this moment.
Minerva had crossed a boundary. That could never be forgotten.
“You are older now,” he said, so quietly she could hardly hear his words. “No longer a child. A single night can force one to grow old so fast.”
She watched him, unable to understand. Did he think that she and Grimm had–?
“No, Professor, Tiberius and I did not–”
But he was shaking his head. “I meant something else, Minerva. Forgive me.” After a pause, he continued. “There are more things occurring within Hogwarts than most do not know. Only myself and the Headmaster have complete knowledge of these things, and even then, I doubt its completeness.”
Like a statue she sat, all attention on him.
“There have been minor attacks on students since the Christmas holiday. Small bites contracted in the baths, as though some creature was in the water. Noises in the lavatories that cannot be traced to any particular source. Whatever it is, it knows how to hide.”
Minerva swallowed. “Until now.”
Dumbledore reached for his quill, looking down at the parchments on his desk.
“It was thought, at first, to be doxies or pixies, one of those vengeful creatures. Even Peeves was watched for days, but with this last attack....” He held the quill over the parchment, holding his breath.
“Everyone is in danger.” Minerva’s eyes were wide, every muscle tense.
He closed his eyes, putting a hand to his temple. “That is what I am writing to the Ministry, Minerva. Hogwarts will have to be closed.”
She rose from her chair once more, turning toward the door, her voice muffled. “Then Tiberius and I have a lot of work to do.” When she looked at Dumbledore, her hand on the doorframe, there was sadness in her eyes.
But there was also something else.