He followed her back to the castle. They spoke of nothing, and this, more than anything else, revealed the depth of friendship they shared. Neither was particularly skilled in the art of speech-making, and at that moment, anyone who felt the need to fill each passing moment with useless words would have been unwelcome on that long, mist-ridden walk. To have found such a peace weeks, even days ago would have meant the world. He had changed since then. He felt older, somehow, marked by some passing hand of time
There was more silence within the ancient walls, but it was of a dark sort that drowned out the giggles of the youngest students as they played exploding snap in the Great Hall beneath the watchful, bloodshot eyes of their professors. Death deadened every sound, even those made by ones who did not yet understand that, each morning, one bed would be left undisturbed, one of each meal would remain unconsumed, and one desk would forever be unoccupied. One of their own was dead, but there were few who knew how to take notice. Dead, as alive, Myrtle was all but forgotten by the majority of Hogwarts students.
The danger, however, remained. While they did not care about the girl, they did care about what happened to her. A death like that within an isolated castle school was something from the pages of Amazing Stories
, a horror tale in bad prose.
It was a small wonder that he and Minerva seemed to maintain their freedom, no professor having come forward to question their long absence. The other, particularly younger, students were kept just short of lock and key under the watchful eyes of the professors. Even the prefects were not allowed out to wander by themselves, but were forced to travel in herds as though they were little more than cattle. The students did not seem to be complaining about these demands. For once, they welcomed such oppression because it gave them the illusion of safety. Because, of course, monsters only snatched the lonely and pathetic, never the popular, never the loved.
No one quite knew where the monster theory had originated. It was the type of rumour that emerged slowly, leaking from one ear into the next until its source was forgotten.
It is perhaps needless to say that Grimm had his own ideas. It was, at the very least, a welcome distraction to return to the work of a detective, but this time, he was sure not to reveal his intentions to Minerva. She may have stated her desire to help, but he was too uncertain of the result. He could not risk her reputation as well as his.
The letter had given him something, after all. There was now much less to look forward to. A soldier needed no scholarly reputation, no neat list of As and Os to launch him into a distinguished career. He needed only his strength and his wits, and if he was lucky, someone back home on whom he could rely. Someone to remind him that the sun would still rise no matter how many died by his hand. Someone to–
No. He was getting sentimental. And yet–
She had paused at the bottom of the staircase, looking back toward the Great Hall. A great noise of cheers had erupted, ruffling the sombre mantle of mourning she wore. Her shoulders bent beneath its weight, beneath the weight of Grimm’s troubles. He should never have... but how could he avoid it? How could he have not told her? That would have been worst of all, to look into her face and deny that his world was shattering to pieces.
All of his world, but not her. She remained whole.
Her profile was beyond the scope of art. The razor’s edge nose, slightly snubbed at the end. The equally sharp cheekbones merging into the smooth line of her jaw and her smoother lips. Upon those his eyes lingered.
It was a face that revealed the soul within, an astute mind in partnership with an extraordinary heart. Neither soft nor weak, but sensitive to feeling, overwhelming in its capacity. Behind every twitch of her lips, every bending of an eyebrow, was a hundred million atoms striving for perfection, hungry for acceptance.
He had spent months, even years, trying to turn that heart his way, to make her love him, but to his horror and delight, she had returned it with an intensity he could never have imagined. Her heart was the greater, the stronger, the more constant. He would, one day betray that love, and it would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The ending had already begun The pieces were finally fitting into place. He could see it so clearly, his future spread out wide before him. But was she there? The vision remained, but the reality, could it?
Grimm paused, the strength of resolution – inevitable as it was painful – lending the appearance of confidence to his frame. He needed closure, a solution. His mind hungered for it as much as his heart did for her. If he could only do one thing, one good and real thing, he would no longer feel so painfully worthless. .
“I have to catch up on some potions work.”
It was not entirely a lie. He did indeed have such work; it simply wasn’t the only task he planned to perform.
Her eyes flashed across his face in brief study. Distracted by thought, she saw nothing.
“Will you be alright, Tiberius?”
He raised both his eyebrows. “I assure you that no monster has any interest in me.”
She grasped his arm even as her lips twisted in disapproval. There was some real worry of a something
wandering through Hogwarts, something that the professors had not yet discovered, though Grimm knew for certain that they would patrol the corridors every night, awaiting a second attack, unless of course the Ministry stepped in first. But to close the school.... Where would they all go? Those who lived in the countryside would be safe at home, but what of those from the cities, from London? Would they return home only to be welcomed by another Blitz? Another rain of bombs, the roar of aeroplane engines in the night, the sound of guns drumming in their ears?
If he had not seen Myrtle’s body for himself, Grimm would have believed her death to be an accident, just as did the others. It was an easier answer, and in times such as this, the line between right and easy was blurred.
“I should go with you. It’s typically foolhardy for you to think of going alone.”
He tugged at the corners of his lips and hoped it appeared to be a smile.
“The Slytherins seem to be managing it quite well.”
As he spoke, a convenient young Slytherin emerged from the lower stair, barely visible from behind a towering, nearly toppling pile of library books. Doubtless she would next accuse him of having bribed said Slytherin, that Prince girl, to appear at such an opportune moment, but she gave no such caustic reply. There was the slightest pursing to her lips, a tightening and loosening that momentarily mesmerised him. He did not observe the figure who lurked in Prince’s shadow and slipped into the antechamber as the girl struggled to mount the marble staircase without dropping her load.
With scarcely a nod to Grimm, Minerva turned to assist young Prince, who offered a small smile of thanks, only too glad to share the burden of ancient tomes on potions-making. They were just the sort of thing Grimm would have liked to see. Eyes brightened, Minerva looked to where he had stood, only to find him gone. Her expression altered, muscles tightening and eyes narrowing, but she had no desire to follow him into the castle’s depths. As she ascended the stairs, her gaze flickered downward as though hoping to penetrate the flagstone floor and the layers of stone beneath, where a lone wanderer set his jaw against the vision of her that remained before his eyes.
~ * * * ~
The dungeons were never silent. Even from its darkest, deepest corners came the slow dripping of water from the lake above draining into distant caverns. Then there was the crawling, the whispers of insects and rodents as they passed through the corridors and nibbled at the edges of castle life. All the magical wards in the world could not prevent nature’s steady assault upon mere mankind’s creation.
Grimm saw none of this. He heard not a thing as he passed between dry walls lit by flickering torches that cast a sickly glow upon his face. With no one to see him, he dropped his mask, age creasing his brow and creeping beneath his black-smudged eyes. He felt thoroughly ill, the late night, the day’s climb, the endless pounding of reality crashing against his brain. Myrtle was dead, and he could not forget that. He could think of other things, not until he had redeemed himself, not until he had found justice.
He could never be young again. This was no world for youth, for innocence. They withered in the light of greed and corruption like soldiers falling at the sound of guns.
The potions laboratory opened at the touch of his wand and he soon buried himself within its comforting gloom. Perhaps he would complete that work after all, proving his mastery over his favourite subject, losing himself in its endless complexities and formulae. He tested himself for the upcoming NEWTs by making all of the required potions, one after another, with hardly a break between. This was the life he wanted most, and yet it was being torn from his grasp. They would not let him be. They would not give him the freedom to choose. Like so many other sorry bastards, he would be shipped away to fight and die upon alien fields ravaged by false ideals and twisted dreams.
What he did now, did it matter at all? Or was it the only thing that mattered? To live for today or die with regret, was that the only choice he was allowed to make?
He sat over his unfinished potion and despaired, the bottom falling out of his heart, his stomach, his mind. Feeling overwhelmed all thought until he felt as though he would burst. The long day had passed and he had kept his strength, the night before a mere passing horror, but now his world came crashing down. Alone, he covered his face with his hands and wept, the tears dripping down to mingle with the still-steaming potion.
~ * * * ~
Gryffindor Tower blazed with light and warmth, the noise of its occupants echoing beyond the castle’s heights. Many shamelessly gossiped while others tirelessly theorized over the probable causes of the girl’s death. They hardly even knew her name. Minerva was tempted to scold them, her patience wearing thin at the irreverence toward death she had found throughout the school. One of their own could die beneath their noses, and it was as though she had never existed at all. Poor Myrtle. She was in death as she had been in life: forgotten.
Guilt kept a tight grasp around Minerva’s heart. She had forgotten too. She must not let that happen again, though it was too late, was it not? As her father would say, there was no point in closing the gate once the sheep had passed through.
With quickening steps she crossed the room to the dormitory stair. She wanted only to be alone, to see no more of others and their selfish ways. Even if she could not run away from herself, she could at least escape them. Perhaps Grimm was correct in that desire, as dangerous it could be to disconnect oneself from the outside world. At that moment, the outside world was proving itself undeserving of regard.
A harsh whisper from the boy’s stair halted her course.
Moody was not well-skilled at the art of the whisper, but there was no one in the near vicinity who took notice of the sound that must have, to undiscerning ears, sounded like the hissing of a wet log in the fireplace.
“What is it?” She leaned toward the figure who stood half in shadow, the light glinting off his hair.
He twitched his head, gesturing up the stairs. “Finally got him to talk.”
She pursed her lips, but her feet remained glued in place. “Who?”
There was a dangerous spark in his eyes. “Hagrid, of course!” He almost neglected to lower his voice another degree, but caught himself in time. “Come before he clams up again.”
With a glance toward the Common Room to ensure that no eyes had seen and no ears had heard, she slipped into the shadowy stair. Leave it to Alastor Moody to use the most ridiculous expressions. Even Grimm would have hesitated to speak such a visually evocative phrase. She too readily imagined Hagrid as a giant clam with his shells locked tight. On any other day, in any other mood, she could not have restrained her laughter, but she was not able to do the same for her curiosity.
The third year dormitory was empty but for a large lump upon one bed. He had wrapped himself in a thick red blanket, his shaggy head his only identifying feature.
Minerva sat on one corner of the mattress, leaning forward to place a hand on his knee.
“Hagrid? It’s McGonagall.”
A pair of dark eyes looked out from the shadows at the head of the bed. There was a mumbling of words that could have been his usual offer of assistance. The others may not have accepted him as a friend, but they weren’t so discerning when it came to reaching for objects on high shelves.
“I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”
“Wrong?” The eyes flickered toward Moody, who shrugged.
“I said nothing, though it’s pretty damn obvious that’s something’s up.”
Minerva glared a warning, but as usual, he paid no heed.
“So spill it, Hagrid. If not to us, then it’ll be to Dumbledore.”
Hagrid made a pathetic sound, and nothing more. His loud breathing gave away his half-tearful state. Minerva wouldn’t have had difficulty in hexing Moody then and there. Such tactics might have worked on a Dark Wizard, but this boy, whatever his size, had a heart like a cotton wad. No threat would induce him to speak.
“Hagrid? Listen to me, please.” She spoke in a low tone, emphasising her accent to soften to sounds. “You’re not in trouble. We’re worried about you. Both of us.”
Moody grumbled, and she shot him a piercing glare over Hagrid’s feet.
“If you tell us, we can help you.”
It was an oddly maternal experience. For all that she had no wish to join the ranks of mothers, particularly in a time of war, some foreign part of her anatomy welcomed the opportunity to provide comfort and even, if she dared go that far, affection. It was different than her treatment of Grimm. The night before – only then? Bare hours had passed since the sky had fallen and they had clung together in the darkness. He had no more need of a second mother than she had a desire to be one to him. Hagrid was still so young and always very much alone.
The bed creaked as its occupant shifted his weight. Facing Minerva, Hagrid let the blanket fall away from his face, revealing a quavering mouth.
“I’ve been– I’ve got– I– I–” He put his shaggy head in his hands.
Moody leaned forward, a mad ferocity moulding his face into a terrifying mask.
“Out with it!”
Minerva’s wand was half out before she recalled that it would do more harm than good. An offensive spell in the dormitories would set off all the red lights and buzzers the castle could hold. There was no time for a duel between allies. Far too much was at stake.
Her voice was just short of a growl, but she felt more worry than anger. Moody was not one to lose his temper, and it made her wonder how long it had taken him to get this far, to obtain as much as knowledge has he had in... how long? Since last night, or longer? She watched his retreating back. He had not argued, perhaps realising his error. It would not happen again.
Hagrid had hidden himself beneath the bedclothes once more.
“We have to be patient, don’t we?” she said aloud in a bland attempt at consolation. “In times like these, there will always be people accusing one another, leaping at each others’ throats at the slightest word, but it’s not their fault.” After a long pause, she added in a softer voice, “It’s no one’s fault.”
She sat with her hands folded in her lap, staring out the facing window. Night had fallen before she had even been aware of it. She never should have let Grimm go into the dungeons alone. It simply was not safe. Nowhere in the castle in the safe.
Half-rising from her seat, she was arrested by a coarse hand on her arm. Hagrid had thrown back his covers and reached out like a drowning sailor for the final raft. There was no wild look in his eye, and no more than a hint of fear. It was not for himself that he was afraid. Something more was going on, something that Minerva dreaded would tip the balance, and not likely in her favour.
That could not be right. She must not have heard it correctly.
“What did you say?”
His face crumpled in childish frustration.
“Aragog! ‘e’s my... my....” He flushed and pulled his hand away.
Minerva’s stomach dropped. She ought to have known. It explained too much: his penchant for taking in stray creatures, his absence from the dormitories the previous night, his strange unwillingness to speak....
Was it guilt? Did he believe that his creature was the monster? He had never been known to conceal anything particularly dangerous, usually orphaned or maimed creatures from the forest, unable to fend for themselves. He was never allowed to keep them, but Professor Kettleburn claimed it would “do the boy good” to practice at caring for magical creatures, conveniently allowing the professor to avoid such work himself. It was the only thing at which Hagrid excelled, and no matter how many detentions he received for sneaking out after hours to visit his “pets”, no matter how many were sent back into the forest against Hagrid’s will, he never considered stopping what the staff saw as an unpleasant habit. Let it be stamped out of the boy, one of them had said in Minerva’s hearing. They might as well have said let his goodness be stamped out. There were few who had as much heart as Rubeus Hagrid.
It took too long for Minerva to understand what his next word was meant to be, but when realisation hit like a slap on a face, she felt her flesh grow cold.
“Oh lord. Please tell me you don’t mean this... Aragog is your–”
She set her jaw, struggling to maintain a face of stone.
“And may I ask what...” She swallowed. “It is?”
“‘e.” A defensive note entered his voice.
Her eyes snapped open. “I beg your pardon?”
“‘e’s an Acromantula, Miss McGonagall.” Hagrid shoved away the blankets to lean forward as though in prayer. “Please, please don’ ‘urt the poor feller. ‘e’s jus’ a baby, ‘atched las’ year–”
Minerva pushed up her spectacles to message the tired eyeballs with her fingertips. This was too much, simply too much.
“Bu’ it weren’t ‘im that’s done it to poor Miss Myers, I swear!”
At this point, she wondered whether Moody’s approach would not prove more beneficial. It would certainly do her nerves good to take Hagrid by the shoulders and give him a hearty shake. “You stupid boy,” she would cry to the rafters. “Don’t you realise what they’ll all think? What they’ll all say?” A giant spider would be the perfect creature to accuse of Myrtle’s death, whether or not it was true. And Hagrid, with his history, with his predilections, would receive as much, if not more blame than his pet.
She dropped her hands into her lap where they clenched into white-knuckled fists.
“You’ve told no one else?”
He shook his head. “Not a soul.”
“Good.” Her mind was set. This would be the best way. Not even Moody should know. “You must set him free.”
Hagrid shifted, though whether it was to race off to the hiding place or to protest, Minerva did not care to know. She reached out a hand to quiet him.
“Not tonight. It’s too late.” She wanted to run, to scream, to cry, anything but this, anything but take on such responsibility when she least desired it. But who else was there? She was the Head Girl. The Headmaster and Dumbledore had placed their trust in her, but was she about to earn it, or betray it? If only she knew more! If only she had all the clues before her, then she would not feel so scared.
It was fear that ate at the corners of her soul. Fear of being wrong. Fear of allowing a murderer, be their act intentional or not, free. Fear of disappointing everyone, above all, herself.
After taking in a deep breath, she continued. “Promise me that you’ll do exactly everything I tell you. Hagrid, this is very important, perhaps the most important thing you’ve ever done.”
~ * * * ~
This had become so much more than the death of a lonely girl, but it was for her that Grimm mourned, for her that his grief, all the tensions preying upon him, spilled out onto the table before him. She would never know the things he knew, the things he felt. She would never have the chance to grow up, to feel her mind and body in bloom, the clumsy, awkward childishness fading into something more.
His lips twisted as tears turned to fury.
With shaking hands, he set aside the potions and made the final corrections to his notes, disregarding their lack of organization and coherence. Yes, he would do what he’d intended. No more fiddling over silly potions. It wasn’t as though anyone else cared. Those potions may one day save their lives, yet they would still laugh and roll their eyes. They would jeer simply because of him, the ridiculous boy too cowardly for anything else. Watch him hide himself away in the darkness, huddled over a cauldron. Yet he could kill them with a single drop, if he wished.
The thought stilled his nerves and chilled his veins. That was not who he was. There may have been many things of which he was uncertain, but not this.
His movements slowed as fatigue began to grasp him by the throat. Had he wasted his energy on schoolwork rather than searching for clues? He hardly knew where to begin, and now at least he could prove to Minerva that he had his priorities in the correct order, on an academic if not a moral level.
“Procrastinating, Grimm? Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
The jar of flobberworm mucus in Grimm’s hand fell to the floor, green liquid oozing over his shoes.
A low laugh emerged from Riddle’s throat as Grimm stood frozen in place. Say something, do something
, Grimm told his body, but it did not respond. Trapped within a body too reluctant, too – dare he say it? – too cowardly to act, he stared, helpless and pathetic.
Riddle leaned across the desk from Grimm, his strange dark eyes failing to reflect the light from Grimm’s candle.
“I hadn’t been planning on speaking to you.” He stepped forward as he spoke, running his long fingers over the age-smoothed surface of a desk. “But now that I’ve found you here, how can I resist?” A smile flashed across his sculptured ivory face. “It is a great relief to see you working so hard to avenge your fallen housemate. Poor girl. She never really stood a chance, did she?”
Grimm pressed his lips together, his jaw muscles shuddering with the struggle to remain silent. There could be nothing gained from speech now; at most, he would utter ridiculous cliches that would only call forth that fiendish laugh once more. His blood was already cold, his head faint from the heavy smell of damp and decay that clung to Riddle’s robes....
So that was what Minerva had spoken of, that scent, so cloying, nauseating. It reminded him of something. He was sure that–
But how was that important? A smell, what was that compared to Riddle’s talk of Myrtle’s ill luck – wrong place at the wrong time, or was it? – he could only guess. His mind had grown murky, his thoughts jumbled, probably beneath the strain. He had not even slept the night before, sitting alone in his room, watching the night sky through his window, too afraid to close his eyes lest Myrtle’s face appear.
He felt as though this was still part of a terrible dream.
“That is a job for the proper authorities, as you well know.” A ripple of surprise ran through his nerves at the sound of his own voice, impossibly steady. “If you can shed any light on the matter, then I suggest that you speak with Professor Slughorn, if not the Headmaster himself.” He took a breath. “Now return to your House. It is past curfew.”
There was the slightest narrowing of Riddle’s eyes, but Grimm blinked, and it was gone.
“I’d have thought you would leap at the opportunity to make yourself useful, but I seem to have been mistaken.” Riddle straightened, breaking eye contact.
Grimm did not move. “What would make you think that?”
Riddle only shrugged, a distant smile playing upon his lips as he turned away. It was only once he reached the doorway that he paused.
“I would take care wondering the dungeons alone, especially at night.” His smile widened, reaching his eyes. “You never know what could happen when you turn your back.”
Another blink of Grimm’s eyes and the vision of Riddle was gone. It could not have been real. He must have fallen asleep for a moment, that was the only logical answer. Riddle never would have spoken thus; he never would have lain down his cards so obviously. It too easily fit his suspicions. If he had doubted once, he could not doubt now. Perhaps it was all part of Riddle’s cunning plan, but Grimm did not want that to be the case; he wanted Riddle to have made an error like the clumsy thief leaving behind a cuff-link or a shoe-print caked in mud. All he wanted was a clue, a desperate want that made him ache through and through.
Rubbing at his eyes with twitching hands, Grimm felt the drying flobberworm mucus stick against the bottom of his sole. It was only once he had cleaned it away that he took note of the smell that lingered in the air.
This time, his lagging mind caught hold of the thread of memory. He had smelled it before. Only once. In the second floor girl’s lavatory.
The potions classroom faded before him. He could see Myrtle’s body. He could hear the water dripping from the broken faucet. He could feel a sharp chill in the air. He could smell.... yes! He could smell a damp far removed from that of an upstairs lavatory, however flawed the plumbing may be. It was the smell of sewers and caves, of stagnant water and dead fish.
And that smell had been on Riddle’s robes.
No, it could not have been a dream. Riddle had sought him out and found him, playing as a cat plays with a mouse, but Grimm would not admit defeat. He had no evidence, no hope of convincing anyone that an upstanding student like Tom Riddle could possibly have been involved. Yet he must make them believe.
She never really stood a chance, did she?
There was something just beyond his reach. Something he was still missing. He had to find it. He had to think.
With a wave of his hand, the lights in the room snuffed out and he hurried through the corridors, the torch-fires bending as he passed, deaf to the whispers in the ancient pipes that lined that walls. The only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps pounding against the stone.
Kill. Kill. Kill!
But the whispers faded and he continued on, never to know the truth.