Minerva spent the days’ final hours hunched over her books in an attempt to revise for her exams. It was already well into June, and even the threat of Hogwarts’s closure could not prevent her from collect her thoughts and preparing for the NEWTS that were scheduled just days away. Some may have accused her of heartlessness, and indeed they did in whispers between the shelves, speculating how she could keep working in such a time as this, but she thought it a practical sort of distraction.
Yet it was all only an attempt to keep up with her strict schedule of revising. It was one thing to discuss detective work, but to put it into practice was quite another thing, and she did not think herself capable of attempting it alone. She stared and stared at the ink-stained parchments and yellowed textbooks in vain, the words blurring before her eyes into the shapes of monsters lurking in the corners, blood dripping from the corners of their mouths. Dragons, basilisks, manticores, all the monsters of ages past clawing through words for their next feast. They raged between the lines of cramped text, leaping across pages as she turned them, one by one, until at last she slammed the book shut.
The noise it made startled her, and for the first time, she noticed the silence in the cavernous room, still lit by the sun although it was curfew. There were no voices now, no sign of life outside of the books themselves, ancient words echoing through crumbling pages.
Was she suffering from neurosis? It would not surprise her, not after months of what seemed to be unending trials. The whole world was gone mad; why couldn’t she be the same? That might be the only way to survive, to not lose oneself in the turning tides of a war that refused to die, even as it killed thousands. Or was it millions, as they said? Secret millions locked away in distant places, Muggles and Muggleborns whose only crime was their blood?
She could do nothing – no one person could – yet still the monsters were there, ink stains like dried blood.
When the shape of a wizard blocked her exit from the library, her wand was half-out before Madam Pince’s voice crackled through the air.
“Miss McGonagall! There will be no magic outside the classrooms!”
Struggling to maintain her composure, she sailed past the librarian without any blush reaching her cheeks. Madam should worry more for the students’ mental states than the mindless observance of rules.
Alastor Moody followed her outside, unwilling to conceal his amusement.
“You of all people!”
He was about to say more, but one glance at her face and the words vanished. There was a flicker of his eyes as he readjusted the pile of books beneath his arm and matched her pace.
At the end of the corridor, Minerva halted, her jaw clenched.
“We could all die like Myrtle and she wouldn’t care. Be better off for the books, wouldn’t it? No first years ripping pages and giggling over the pictures. No seventh years scribbling in the margins. What are we to her but a great nuisance?”
Her voice echoed against the tapestried walls and hollow shells of armour, mere symbols of the bodies they contained. Coffins for the living.
“And we hate her for it, which only makes her worse. It’s an endless cycle.”
“Like these wars.”
His gaze hardened. “Yes.”
He spoke in his natural accent, a strange blend of colonial English that offered some comfort after Madam Pince’s biting tone. There was no sign that he’d taken offence that she had banished him from her interview with Hagrid. She could even remember if she had thanked him for his help.
She let out a long breath. “I suppose you’ll be going off too.”
There was a twitch above his right eye. “I’ve a year of training first.”
They continued in silence before he added, “They take witches, you know. You’ve got the qualifications, McGonagall. They wouldn’t say no to someone like you.”
She stopped again, this time to make a study of his face. He had almost sounded kind, and while she did not think to distrust his motives, she was not certain of their meaning. Of course she had been warned that there might be no shining Quidditch career for her in times like these, but she had not taken the time to make any other plans for the future. It was reckless. It was out of character. That didn’t matter.
But then what did?
“I don’t want to fight, Moody. I won’t to go to war.”
Her eyes met his, daring him to react with shock, anger, even disgust. They both knew the cost of war, weighed in drops of blood and blackened bone, followed by the silence, the hollow eyes that tried in vain to cry. She thought it all a waste, useless death, useless suffering, useless destruction, whole cities felled by bombs, bodies mangled with bricks. But would Moody understand? Did she even need him to?
There was no discernible emotion in his face, so when his words came, her mind scrambled to make sense of them, and him.
“It’s because you see more important things to do.” His face crunched into thought. “There’s always a need for the people who’ll set things right once it’s over. There are us that fight, and then those–”
“Who clean up the mess?”
He shook his head. “Nah, those who start the world turning again.”
Minerva reached a shaking finger to the nearest tapestry, knights and ladies in a glade of impossible plants. Centuries may have passed since its creation, yet it never showed wear, never faded. The weaver’s magic shone from every stitch, holding the design in place, ensuring no thread strayed from its path. Was that also her purpose?
Her brows tightly furrowed, she looked back over her shoulder.
“I never took you for a philosopher, Moody.”
He gave an inelegant shrug. “I just see what’s in front of me.”
There was greater significance to his words than he ever intended. It was the curse of language, meaning spreading like wildfire beyond the speaker’s control. Her mind raced through the possibilities, all the little things she had missed, that she should have seen. But then, she hadn’t really been looking, not really. There had always been something else obstructing her view. She had never seen beyond her own act of the play, if her part was even so long as that.
She rubbed one corner of her forehead. “Have you made any other observations recently?”
A tad clumsy, perhaps, but at least she managed to make it sound innocent enough.
Moody tensed, scrutinizing the apparently empty corridor. The face that had been relaxed in thoughtful contemplation had transformed into a mask of nerves and muscles in constant motion, his eyes flicking back and forth at every creak of ancient pipe. The plumbing had been noisier these last few months, gushing oddly in the night.
“Nothing suspicious beyond the... thing you already know about.” His frown was more than a mere turning down of his lips. “I’ve had my eye on the mark. He’s a careful one.”
“But does he do anything he shouldn’t be.”
Moody’s ears pricked for a moment, but it was only the pipes again. Perhaps one of the prefects was taking a bath below. “He spends too much time in the restricted section for anyone’s liking, I reckon, but–”
“He’s a particularly clever Slytherin, so his interest in advanced magic is hardly out of the ordinary, however worrying it may be.”
There was a pause, and Minerva suspected that he was doing it purely for dramatic effect. It was something Grimm would do, and there were times when Moody differed little from his contemporary. While he looked hard at some non-existent object down the corridor, Minerva compared the rounded face and wide brow with the image she held in her mind of Grimm, brutally honest in its catalogue of flaws. She did not know why Grimm held the greater charm in her eyes – she could now at least admit that much – yet she couldn’t help but wonder why Moody was so often alone. Not that she was any different. It was not hard to convince herself that all the other females her age were like creatures from another planet.
“He’s up to something, but it’s not this something.”
His certainty should have been a comfort, but she swallowed with difficulty, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Whatever it is, you can be sure that it’s not good.”
With another shrug, Moody accompanied her back to Gryffindor Tower. She was sure that Dumbledore had asked him to ensure her safe return, but it was equally true that he had been spending more time in the library of late, the Aurors’ high requirements for acceptance intended to discourage only the bravest and most persistent. As the portrait door closed behind them both, she glanced back into the corridor and thought of Grimm.
The sun had set before a candle flickered to life in his room, its light dancing across the panes of leaded glass.
~ * * * ~
Once he reached the seventh floor, he cursed himself for being a coward. He was no better than a child afraid of the dark, keeping an eye on the shadows, his nerves tingling with every flicker of the torches. The castle had never bothered him in this way before, not even on his first day when the ghosts had performed their usual scare tactic, sending the first years cowering into their oversized robes. This was different, but he could not be certain how. There was a darkness, a depth, a dampness that pervaded every stone, each wafting curtain and worn carpet. It was unlike anything he had known before.
He ascended by a narrow staircase at the far end of the castle, chancing its vanishing step to avoid any proximity to the second floor lavatories. It was time that he needed. Time to think. Time to reconsider all of the options. Time to piece together the things he had seen and heard these last few days. It made his head throb to realise just how much was taking place around him, and how little his was capable of processing.
Rubbing that corner of his brow which always seemed a magnet for pain, he tried to think of what Minerva would do. She always seemed to know the right things to do at the right time, whereas he blundered into everything with no hope in hell of success. Sometimes he achieved it anyway, but he couldn’t continue taking those kind of risks. One day it could mean the difference between life and death, and that was definitely a game he had no interest in playing.
“What is the difference between a raven and a writing desk?” the brass knocker chanted.
Grimm was seconds away from growling out an answer he would regret later when the door burst open.
“It is you! Finally!”
The Ravenclaw prefect was pale beneath her tea-brown skin. Leela Chaudhri pulled open the door, her dark eyes revealing both disapproval and perhaps a touch of fear. Blinking in the common room’s blaze of light, Grimm stumbled past her into a circle of students in various states of deshabille.
“Have I missed something?”
“You must stop running away, Tibbs. We’ve needed you here.”
The criticism bit at his conscience, and it took much of his effort not to wince. It was the Ravenclaw way to make speech as brief and straightforward as possible, no matter how cruel the result may sound. He looked into their faces, all marked with the same brush of horror, of things that could not be unseen, hard as one may try. He knew that should he close his eyes he would see Myrtle’s face and that blank expression, neither terrified nor enraptured, only empty. There had still been tears drying on her face....
His jaw hardened, cruelty filling his heart. “If it’s about Myrtle, why bother me now? It’s not like any of you were concerned about her yesterday.”
Leela’s eyes flashed. “Don’t you dare impose your own guilt on the rest of us.”
One of the younger students gasped. Grimm bit back his scathing reply to the prefect, who glared at him, her hands in fists. Why must he be surrounded by women who found it necessary to put him in his place at every turn? He didn’t need to be told that he was an avoider, a procrastinator, a coward. He knew his flaws painfully well.
A small girl, shaking from head to toe, could not repress her terror any longer. “But it is Myrtle! She’s back!”
The anger dropped from Grimm’s countenance. It seemed that the blood slowed its relentless race through his veins. Mrytle. Returned. It wasn’t possible, was it?
But it was. The castle was as occupied with the dead as it was with the living, ghosts hovering through the corridors, their bodies like warped glass. It gave him pause that he did not know exactly how ghosts were formed. Somehow he had never thought to ask.
“There was crying in the pipes,” a third year offered, twisting the end of her braid round and round. “We didn’t know what it was at first.”
“But then Nora couldn’t hold it any longer.”
One blonde girl blushed to the roots of her hair and shrunk behind the others.
“And?” It didn’t matter to Grimm which of them had made the discovery, as long as they managed to get to the point before they all turned to ghosts.
The third years fell silent, their mouths quavering as they drew closer to one another, gripping the sleeves of their nightdresses with white-knuckled fists. Grimm could not help but look up at the ceiling, as though he expected a spectral Myrtle to drop down and berate him for his unforgivable slurs, his neglect, all the silly things that did and didn’t happen.
Leela met his eyes, their gravity dragging him from his egocentric struggles.
“There was a face in the water.”
“Of the sink?”
There was a tick above her right eye which betrayed the anxiety she dare not otherwise show.
“No. The WC.”
If it had been any other night, he would have burst into laughter, probably of a cruel sort, too amused by the ridiculousness of the situation to take seriously the fear of a bunch of schoolgirls. But one of them was dead. They may not have cared for Myrtle and her awkward ways. They may have made fun of her thick spectacles and pig tails. Yet in the end, she was still one of them, a thirteen year old girl who should have still had her life spread open ahead of her, endless potential within her grasp.
He hurried toward the stairs, pushing past the girls with Leela in his wake, pausing only to tap the bricks of the girls’ dormitory stair so that he could pass through the charmed entrance unscathed. Leela waited and nodded for him to take the lead. She need not have worried, despite his reputation, and his face crunched in momentary frustration before he shook it away. He would soon be finished with all of this, with this place, with the final reminders of his adolescent folly.
Each dormitory had its own washbasin and toilet, and Grimm assumed that they would be in the same position as those in the boy’s tower. However, he only had to follow the sound of wet sobs that trailed down from the third floor. The dormitory door was thrown wide when the girls made their frantic exit, and while the curtains shut out the setting sun, there was enough light from the lamps to illuminate the only bed that was undisturbed. It thrust toward him like an accusing finger, and he stood mesmerised until Leela touched his arm.
“It could be Peeves, but–”
Grimm turned to the narrow facing door. “He wouldn’t sound like this.”
The crying was loudest here, a wavering note as piteous as a violin player left on the streets to die, his instrument falling to pieces in his hands.
“I didn’t think so, but we ought to check before sending for Flitwick.”
He swallowed before he stepped into the white-tiled room and let the wails envelop him.
~ * * * ~
There were students missing at breakfast. Their housemates reported that they had been whisked away at dawn by parents so pale and silent that they might have counted among the dead. It was strange to see those empty places in the grey morning light, and even stranger was the silence, broken only by furtive whispers and the clinking of cutlery. The previous day was as good as forgotten, the laughter and spirits stilled at last by the weight of death. Rumours of a vicious creature spread with greater force, stretching even into the myth of the Chamber of Secrets. While many scoffed at that, no more than a tale worthy of Beedle the Bard, something of its mystery, its hint of dark, unknown things in the bowels of the castle cast a perpetual chill over the students, whose hands never seemed to stray far from their wands, in spite of the rules.
Minerva picked at her breakfast, biting her lip more often than her food. She kept an eye on the doorway as she moved the eggs and sliced sausage around her plate and crumbled the tattie scone into microscopic bits. Moody sat across from her, frowning over the Daily Prophet’s latest reports from the Continent. More bombings, more Muggleborns slain. It was easier not to know.
One newspaper headline caught her eye: Hogwarts Student Found Dead. It sounded uninspired, as though they only received the report minutes before the paper went to press. Would that have been enough to strike fear into its readers? Perhaps. Hogwarts was supposed to be a safe place, far from London, far from the Continent, hidden from Muggles and protected by all sorts of charms. There were multiple reasons why someone might die, but in times like these, the mind had a tendency to leap to the worst of conclusions.
By tomorrow, or even by that evening, things would be different. The late edition would include the Headmaster’s official announcement regarding the safety of Hogwarts. There were obviously many parents unwilling to risk the wait.
Her fork clattered onto the plate.
Curious faces turned her way, but she looked straight at Grimm as he dropped onto the bench beside her. She struggled to ignore the wild beating of her heart. His face was haggard, with dark splotches beneath his eyes and a pale stubble showing around his mouth.
“What is it?”
His mouth twisted in a grimace. “Not here.”
She did not regret the nearly-full plate she left behind. Her stomach was clenched as tightly as his fingers around her arm. No thought was spared for the rumour-mongers who remained in the Great Hall, the whispers that once flamed her cheeks now fell on deaf ears. Those things had mattered for too long.
They passed students with their trunks and parents speaking in lowered voices.
He nodded, avoiding eye contact.
While it was far from a bright day, the wet, heavy clouds of the previous week had at last begun to fade. The sun was a white globe attempting to assert itself against the pervading grey, but it lacked the strength to dry the landscape, leaving it a sodden masterpiece in shades of brown and sickly green. Minerva pointed him toward a rocky outcropping between the vegetable patch and the lake, an unromantic spot that no one could approach without notice.
He did not begin to speak as quickly as she had hoped. She tapped her fingers against the damp stone, unwilling to rush to him, but equally unwilling to wait. Once, then again, his mouth opened and shut, and finally, he put his head in his hands, biting at his raw lips.
His voice was obscured by his fingers, but the low whisper was like a cold finger against Minerva’s spine.
She moved to pull his hands away, and he did not resist, his hands shaking within hers, his jaw shuddering as he struggled to shape the necessary words. At last he met her gaze.
“Myrtle’s come back.”
The little food she had consumed bubbled up her throat, and her hands clasped his tighter and tighter until he winced. He could not say more. She would not ask. There was no hint of any night’s rest in his face, even more haggard in the daylight, the harsh white rays outlining every line his forehead and the slight bulge of his neck over the high collar of his robes. A mountain breeze picked at the hems of their robes and the strands of their hair. From afar, they seemed only a pair of lovers stealing a moment’s retreat, but Grimm kept his back to the castle, and no one would see his twisted features and red-rimmed eyes.
He told the story in halting, fractured sentences, his tenses confused, his words without art. It would make little sense to those who did not know him as she did, mind racing at the same pace, leaping to conclusions from the smallest of clues, guiding him through the labyrinth of his spent mind with a thread that seemed pitifully thin.
“She wouldn’t talk. To me. She said something about getting back at Hornby, but when I kept asking about what happened, she flew back into the u-bend and no one could get another word out of her. Not even Flitwick.” Grimm shook his head. “She spent the night moaning in the pipes. Most of the girls have gone home.”
Minerva sat very still, face set in concentration while everything beneath threatened turmoil. What did all of this mean?
“It’s her unfinished business.”
Grimm’s head reared up, nearly colliding with hers. “What?”
“People must choose to become ghosts, some because they fear death, others because they’ve left something or someone behind–”
“And those who want revenge.” His voice was little more than a hollow echo.
She took up his hand in both her own. “But don’t you see, Tiberius? If she was... If she knew who caused her death, would she not instead refer to them?”
“It doesn’t rule it out completely, though.” His hand hung lifelessly in hers, his eyes focussed on some distant point. “It only means that she doesn’t know either. Nor does it explain why she’d purposely avoid me.”
The hand fell through her fingers to land upon the rock. She watched him, a sadness welling up within her like none she had ever felt before. He was miles away, and she was utterly alone. When she tried to think of Myrtle, she could only despise the girl’s selfishness, mere vanity calling her back from the realms of the dead. It would not bother Minerva’s conscience if Myrtle haunted Olive Hornby for the rest of that girl’s miserable existence, but she could not help but be disappointed that everything – the suspense, the speculations, the discoveries – had all lead to this: a girl who wanted revenge on the schoolyard bully. Nothing more. And nothing at all to do with Tom Riddle.
“Because the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
She could not stop the words once they began, nor did she want to. It was one thing to pity him as he related the events of the previous night. She was not heartless, no matter what some might say. His grief had been real, but this now... How different was it from the petty vanity that had brought Myrtle’s spirit into Ravenclaw Tower?
“So you still think it’s hopeless, even after what you said, that we were in this together?” His voice rose a semitone.
“No. I only think you should consider why you’re doing it.”
That silenced him.
There was a time when his face would have hardened, when he would have spoken too quickly, she would have responded as like, and they would have gone their separate ways like they had many times before. But the pendulum stopped on its course. There would be no more back and forth and back again.
“If not for her, then who?” A sharp bark of a laugh sounded too close to Minerva’s ear. “Don’t think I haven’t been asking myself that.”
She shifted in a new position under the guise of stretching her legs. “And?”
It seemed as though a shudder ran through his body, but while his jaw tensed, his face revealed nothing.
“Anything’s better than not knowing at all.”
Minerva pushed strands of hair out of her eyes. “And anything is better than Hogwarts closing. I don’t believe this dangerous creature thing for a bit, do you?”
She hoped that he would not. There was still the problem of Hagrid’s pet, a subject she was unwilling to breach at the present moment. If Hagrid upheld his end of the bargain, his secret need never be known beyond herself and Moody. Anyone with half a brain knew that Acromantula venom caused intense physical pain, comparable only to the Crucio
curse; there was nothing in the books about it causing neurosis. And if Hagrid could control Ara– Aragog, then it must not be full-grown, and thus more frightened than frightening.
Doubt. It was everywhere, pushing against her resolve, dragging at her conscience.
“I don’t know. It made more sense when– I don’t know.” He squeezed his eyes and fists shut. “Maybe there’s nothing we can do. She’s dead, and couldn’t care less how or when or why. Hogwarts will close. I’ll go to that damn war. And you...” At last he paused.
Now it was Minerva’s turn to stare off into the distance, the woods, the mountains, the sky all failing to provide an answer. They could not. But neither could she.
~ * * * ~
The pieces moved across the board. Endgame was near.
A lumbering shadow took to the dungeon passages, pausing often to check his surroundings. His footsteps made too great a sound, but he could not help it. The quieter he tried to be, the more noise he seemed to make. It was not long now. He would not disappoint Miss McGonagall. Aragog would understand.
It would be something to set his friend free. He wished he could do it for himself.
At the base of the Headmaster’s Tower there lingered behind a column another shadow. The frown etched on his face destroyed the otherwise-pleasing alignment of his features, a mask of alabaster set in sharp contrast to the curls of black hair that dangled over his brow. As a group of fourth-years passed in a flutter of whispers and glances, his frown deepened.
He thought of all the things he had seen and heard these last few months, each detail processed by the delicate mechanism of his mind. A little thing. A very little thing.
It did not take him long to reach the first floor, his feet gliding over the smoothed stones of the Entrance Hall until–
“What are you doing, wandering around this late, Tom?”
High above in the plumbing of Ravenclaw Tower, the ghost settled into her u-bend, transparent mind a whirl. She could not remember. She must not remember. Better to forget the things one could not help. Someone had told her that once. It mattered not who. All she had now was this strange liberty. She could do what she liked. And no one, not Mummy, not Daddy, not Flitwick, not Leela, not the other girls, not the professors, not no one, not–
Olive. Yes. It would be fun.
Her ghostly lips turned up in a smile her living body had not made for some time. And would never make again.
But even she was startled by the cry that erupted from the dungeons. The roar of a dragon, it seemed, low and hollow, arching into despair. Except that dragons did not speak. They could not say no.
The line of dialogue near the end is taken directly from "The Chamber of Secrets", pg. 183 in the British hardcover edition. I've tried as much as I can to follow the canon timeline for this chapter, though at times I had to manipulate it to best fit it to my plot.
Many thanks to those who have read and reviewed this story! You've been a great help, and I hope to at last finish this rambling novel sooner rather than later.