Chapter 20 : Grim Defeat
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“He must be expelled.”
The Headmaster’s Office echoed with raised voices long after the students – and even the professors – were meant to be abed. The complaints of the portraits only added to the chorus of voices, some arguing, some reasoning, while one large lump of a boy in the corner of the room was sobbing out the remnants of his not-quite-human heart. Not human enough for some, that is. The sounds he made were all too human for Minerva’s ears.
Hagrid clutched his wand, already knowing what they’d do, to it, to him. His life as a wizard – a real wizard, like the others, the normal ones – was over before he’d had a proper chance. You know, a real go at it. At least his dad wouldn’t have to see this. He’d never have to know that his son was a disgrace.
But not a murderer.
If Rubeus Hagrid was going to put his trust in anything, it was that Aragog was innocent, as innocent as he.
Minerva stood near him, looking for all the world like her namesake, the only pillar of wisdom in the room. She cast her eyes on the others, all wizards, all meant to be logical, reasoning beings, all of whom were failing miserably. She had half a mind to smuggle Hagrid out from under their noses and tuck him safely into bed, where he belonged. It wasn’t as though any were asking his opinion on the subject of his expulsion from Hogwarts.
However, there was no way that she could leave and allow Grimm to bury himself any deeper in the pit of disgrace. If he continued hurling insults at the Headmaster, there would be more than one expulsion that night. He had more than overstepped his role as Head Boy, and she was sure that his next step would be to outright accuse Riddle based on the most circumstantial evidence, which was the only evidence they had. The Headmaster would throw it out in the blink of an eye, and would just as likely throw Grimm out with it.
She took a step forward. “But as you have already noted, Headmaster, there is no evidence of malice on Hagrid’s part. At most you can claim is that Hagrid lost control of Ar– the acromantula, but even that requires evidence that the creature was indeed the one responsible.”
“And such evidence does not exist,” Grimm added with an air of finality.
At last Dumbledore spoke up. “They are correct, Professor Dippet. None of the usual signs of acromantula poisoning are present.”
“Then it is one of the unusual signs!” Dippet’s voice to an even higher pitch. He was nearly as red-faced as Grimm, and the strength with which he clenched his fists on the desk made it apparent that he would not take into consideration any notion that countered his own. “The most likely case is that Miss Myers died of shock from seeing it. Girls are delicate creatures, Dumbledore, as you know.”
Minerva bristled, but her attention was caught by Grimm’s mouth opening, ostensibly to toss forth some unforgivable abuse. She reached for her wand and performed the Silencing Charm, half-wishing that she could equally apply it to the Headmaster. It did not, but she did have the satisfaction of seeing Grimm struggling against it.
She glanced toward Dumbledore, but he was occupied with relating to the Headmaster all he had told her a few days before, carefully laying out all of the facts in a low, almost hypnotic tone. Across the room, Tom Riddle observed them all with ill-concealed delight. He kept his face enough in the shadows so that the professors could not see him, but Minerva caught a single glimpse of it when Dumbledore stepped back from the desk, causing a distortion in the light from Dippet’s lamp. It cast Riddle’s face, with its marble whiteness marred only by his wide, black eyes, in a sickly, almost daemonic glow.
He had won, and he knew it.
She neither felt surprise nor disappointment, only acceptance that all along, Grimm had been right. Yet they still had nothing, and another innocent student would pay the price.
She looked back at Dippet, vaguely hearing the steady rhythm of Dumbledore’s voice as it spilled unheeded reason at the Headmaster’s feet, knowing all too well that Riddle’s work was complete. Perhaps he had not even needed to put forth an effort with the Headmaster, who had always been prejudiced against Hagrid and others like him. He was made of much the same material as Professor Slughorn – easily charmed by a name or handsome face – only he lacked the Potions Master’s reluctant kindness. Slughorn was also not so prejudiced against those of mixed heritage, accepting even Muggleborns into his Club, if they possessed the kind of talents he admired. But Dippet was more clearly aligned with the old ways. Perhaps it was the influence of the old Headmaster whose portrait leered down at them from his lofty position.
He did not need to offer his usual biting words. Dippet was doing very well on his own, and Grimm was little better.
Minerva clenched her fists, trying to swallow the ill-will she felt toward the Headmaster. If only– But that could not change things for Hagrid, for any of them. Dumbledore could only soften the blow. He did not have the final word, and Dippet would ensure that it remained so.
Dippet’s spectacles slid down his nose and he shoved them back up again.
“As I have already told you, Dumbledore, this is not the first time that young Hagrid has been in possession of an illegal creature. And now that the creature has killed a student!” Dippet ignored Dumbledore’s protests with a raised hand. “There is no possible way you can prevent this... this...” His eyes flickered toward the corner of the room. “Hagrid’s expulsion.”
He could not even call him a boy.
“We have Mr. Riddle’s own testimony, and that will be more than enough to satisfy the Governors, just as it satisfies me.”
Grimm’s eyes were bulging dangerously, his face turning a new shade of maroon, but Minerva’s jinx held. There would of course be consequences, but the alternative would to be allow Grimm to speak his mind, and to what purpose? If Dumbledore’s subtle manipulations could not persuade Dippet to see reason, then there was no way in which Grimm could hope to alter the Headmaster’s decision.
She knelt to help Hagrid to his feet, eyes hardening as she looked toward the wizards gathered around the desk.
“I will take Hagrid to his room.” A spark of courage, fuelled by ire, gave her the strength to add, in an increasingly accented voice, “You certainly won’t be turning him out at this time of night.”
They all stared at her, and only one of them had an excuse for remaining silent.
“It’s true, Headmaster. Hagrid has no home, and in case you’ve forgotten, he’s still underage. Since he hasn’t been left a guardian, he’s under the charge of Hogwarts. The governors would be aware of this–” She clamped down on her mouth before she could finish her sentence with an insult worthy of Grimm.
There was a flash in Riddle’s eyes, his amusement transmuting into something even less appealing, but Minerva’s attention was drawn away by Dumbledore’s eyes fixed upon her.
“Dumbledore? Did you know this?”
“Yes, Headmaster.” He did not at first look away from Minerva. “Mr. Hagrid’s death was unexpected, and due to... recent political events, the Ministry has not yet appointed an appropriate guardian.”
The war. Minerva let out a hiss of breath, and Grimm looked toward her, brow furrowed in confusion. How many orphans, magical or otherwise, were there now in Britain, in Europe, in the world? How many more were there to be before this war was done? It was not so great a wonder that the Ministry had fallen behind in its paperwork or that a half-giant had fallen through the cracks of bureaucracy.
Some degree of tension receded from Dippet’s frame. A displeased frown replaced the anger that had unrecognizably twisted his features. When he spoke again, it was in a more carefully moderated tone.
“I will leave those details to you, Professor Dumbledore. Make whatever arrangements are necessary for Hagrid’s keeping.”
He turned to Grimm and Minerva, the frown deepening once more.
“Do not think that I will forget your behaviour tonight, Mr. Grimm. All I will say is that you are fortunate that the year is nearly at an end, otherwise your position as Head Boy would have been in grave danger.” He paused, wheezing for a moment, and Minerva half-expected to receive an admonition herself, but Dippet passed over her and Hagrid as though they were not there at all.
“Mr. Riddle, I would like to speak further with you. There are... certain arrangements to be made for you...” As his sentence trailed off, Riddle’s face lit up, his features aligning themselves into an irresistibly charming smile.
Grimm’s fists clenched so hard that Minerva could see the veins pulsing within his flesh, straining for release. She could feel the same rage surge through her own veins, but she bent to help Hagrid to his feet, glancing once at Grimm to catch his eye. They each took an arm and lead the boy to the stairs. Hagrid gasped out every breath, no longer sobbing because there was simply nothing left. No tears. No emotion. Even the pain was dulled by the emptiness that had taken hold, filling his very heart.
They heard Dippet’s voice, but it was soon muffled with the shutting of the door.
The stairs proved an agonizing feat even once Hagrid roused the strength to make the descent. Grimm was soon panting and once they emerged beside the statue of the gargoyle, he, pulled away to lean against the wall, chest heaving. Minerva remained at Hagrid’s side, gripping his arm as much to support him as to restrain herself. She could too easily imagine her fingers around her Riddle’s throat, squeezing and squeezing until... until–
“I think it would be appropriate to release Tiberius from the charm now, Minerva.” Dumbledore came up behind them, his footsteps making no sound on the stone floor.
She blinked, then took out her wand to perform the countercurse.
“Thank God for that,” Grimm said, rubbing a head across his forehead. “Though I’d have been happy to give him a piece–”
“That was what I was afraid of.” Minerva jammed her wand back into her pocket, poking her hip in the process, but she swallowed her pain with her last ounce of strength.
“Damn that Riddle.”
Minerva shook her head, not daring to look toward Dumbledore. “Not now, Tiberius.” She swallowed and added, raising her voice, “I’ll take Hagrid up to bed, Professor.”
“Do you require any assistance, Minerva?”
“No, thank you, sir. Moody promised that he would wait up for us.” She attempted a comforting smile, patting Hagrid’s arm. “Ready, Hagrid?”
He moved his head up and down in some semblance of a nod, refusing to raise his eyes, not even trusting himself to speak. They shuffled down the corridor toward Gryffindor Tower, Minerva’s hand again on Hagrid’s arm, her face grey with fatigue. The light from the dimmed torches flickered uncertainly on their retreating forms so that they took on the shapes of all the monsters Grimm knew and many more than he did not. For the very first time, he wished that he was a Gryffindor too, but he shoved that thought aside when he remembered the maddening pain of silence. Let Dippet strip him of the Head Boy badge. Let him be expelled. It was better than letting that damned Riddle get away with murder.
It was the only answer now. Why else accuse Hagrid except to exclude himself from all suspicion? And he’d be rewarded for saving the school and its inmates from further harm while Hagrid was thrown out into the streets. It was too easy to play off Hagrid’s love of dangerous creatures – understood by few – and Dippet’s prejudices – shared by many. How long had Riddle been working to tie Dippet around his little finger? How carefully he must have planned it all, manipulating all the pieces on the chess board so that, no matter the skill of his opponent, he would always win.
“I would like to speak with you on the subject of Miss Myers, Tiberius.” Dumbledore’s voice cut across Grimm’s drifting mind. “Unless you would prefer to wait until the morning.”
Grimm shook his head. “Best now, Professor.” He wouldn’t sleep anyway.
Dumbledore waited for Grimm to leave first. With a long look at the entrance to the Headmaster’s office, his mind filled with all the curses he would use against Riddle if he could, Grimm made his slow way to the main staircase, stopping only to await the next flight of stairs as it shifted from the other side of the landing. He heard the whisper of Dumbledore’s robes just behind him, but he purposely kept ahead, mind continue to rage against the injustice of it all, against a world that would accept silken words over the plain, if crude, truth.
It was for the worst that he had been silenced just as he was about to reveal all of his evidence against Riddle. Much may have still been circumstantial, but no less than that against Hagrid and the acromantula. The one thing he did not know was how Riddle had kil– caused–
Still too much unknown. Too much unaccounted for despite his efforts to uncover Riddle’s activities.
What spell had Riddle used against Myrtle? Or had it been a potion whose effects were undetectable after d– afterward? What trick had he played to frighten her to such a degree? Could it have been a creature? That one legend said lurked in the distant corner of the dungeons? Or another lured into the castle? An insect? A snake? A monster?
Perhaps Minerva was right to have silenced him. He could offer little more than questions.
Riddle could offer a complete story, all wrapped up in a bow.
Grimm’s shoulders sagged as they reached Dumbledore’s office, tucked neatly into the wall behind the Transfiguration classroom. The room illuminated as they entered, the light glittering off the titles of the thousands of books that lined the walls as well as off the scarlet feathers of the phoenix Fawkes.
“Would you like some tea?” Dumbledore asked as he gestured toward an empty chair.
“No, sir. Thank you.” Grimm remained standing.
“Please sit down, Tiberius.” His blue eyes were unflinching. “You are here to inform me of everything you know regarding the events surrounding Miss Myers’s death.”
There was a pause as Grimm eased himself into the chair, unable to look away from Dumbledore’s eyes.
“I would also like to hear what you have learned about Tom Riddle.”
Grimm blinked. “Why, Professor? It’s all... well, most of it is conjecture. Hardly enough to go on.” His voice trailed off. He looked down at his hands. “She... Minerva was right. I had nothing, certainly not the sort of thing that Dippet would believe. Professor Dippet, that is.” His face fell into a grimace at the sound of his blundering.
Dumbledore leaned forward, hands folded in front of him. “Perhaps it would help if I were to first relate to you my own discovery, made with help from Professor Flitwick. This regards a certain article of yours.”
Uncertain of whether he was meant to speak or not, Grimm merely nodded. The return of his journal had not marked a high point in his existence, and he had since shoved it away in some corner of his trunk. But he had never learned who had taken it or why. It seemed too long ago now to even matter.
“Not long before Halloween, there were reports from the portraits in the upper floors that a younger student was often seen wandering at night. From these reports, it would seem that the student was sleepwalking, but as she did not do such things the previous year, a fact corroborated by her parents, I suspected that something was afoot.”
The light glinted off Dumbledore’s spectacles as he spoke, nearly blinding Grimm.
“It was curious to discover that no one in Ravenclaw noted these absences. The prefects were certain that all of the students were in the bed, and remained so the entire night, on the occasions when Miss Myers was seen in the corridors.”
Grimm sat up straighter, eyes widening.
“Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest where she went on these nocturnal adventures, nor was there enough light for the more observant portraits to take note of Miss Myers’s condition.”
“Do you believe she was mesmerised, Professor?” Grimm swallowed uneasily over the increasing lump in his throat.
There was a rustle as Dumbledore’s phoenix stirred on its perch.
“It is one possibility of many.”
“And you also believe that Myrtle went through my things and stole my journal?”
The slightest of nods stood for an answer.
“That is the event which lead me to believe that she was a willing subject.”
The wording of that statement set Grimm shifting in his chair, his hands clasping over sweaty palms.
“Of what, Professor?”
Dumbledore’s eyes met his, and Grimm felt as though he was drowning.
“Or of whom.”
The silence in the room pressed around him, his breath growing shallow as his heart forgot how to keep time. Before him hung the defaced drawing of Minerva, the scratches like the cut of a sword, hacking again and again across the body, the gouges like bullet holes that grew and grew until they became Myrtle’s eyes, dead and empty, staring up into his.
When he opened his mouth, he was surprised to find that he could still speak, even as the nightmare threatened.
“And the... message to Minerva? Was that also the work of a willing subject?”
Dumbledore did not reply. It was enough.
Grimm lowered his eyes, sinking into himself. If he had taken the time to be kinder to Myrtle, pay more attention to the things she said and the ideas she must have had, would that have made a difference? Would she have gotten mixed up with Riddle? How much could have he prevented if only he had thought more of someone else, and less of himself?
Minerva’s words echoed through his swirling mind. “You’re blinded by your arrogance, your own stupid pride.”
At the sound of his name, Grimm stirred. He looked across at Dumbledore, his breath catching at the anguish he saw etched across the professor’s face. He knew. He understood what it meant to remember too late, to feel guilt and regret for things left undone and things shoved aside. A chill ran down Grimm’s spine at the thought of sharing such guilt with Dumbledore, of being no different from one he had never found himself capable of admiring.
Now he knew the reason why.
A shadow exited the room hours later, his voice exhausted, his heart numbed, his boyhood at last vanquished. The hollow-eyed spectre who looked back at him in the mirror was a stranger.
There was nothing now and nothing ever after.
Minerva heaved through the portrait door in Hagrid’s wake, half shoving him into the Gryffindor Common Room. The fire calmly flickered in its grate, throwing cheerful patterns on the wall tapestries. This same light made Moody appear slightly golden in shade as he stepped forward to take Hagrid’s other arm. Minerva looked toward him in an attempt to understand his silence, but then she took note of the other faces behind, equally tinged in gold. A handful of Gryffindors, wrapped tight in their dressing gowns, were gathered by the fire. Minerva felt her stomach drop at the sight of her housemates.
The first to rise was Hetty Crouch, she nodded toward her younger brother and one of his friends, both in Hagrid’s year.
“Barty and Anwar can help get Hagrid up to bed. There’s some tea here for you, Minerva.”
Her mouth did feel dry. She stepped further into the room.
“Thank you.” She glanced at Moody, but his face remained impassive. “I didn’t think anyone would still be awake at this time.”
Hagrid had turned a brilliant red, and she squeezed his arm for reassurance as the two third-years approached. Barty hesitated a moment before offering a smile, but Anwar seemed to have no qualms about helping out, giving Hagrid a firm nod before taking Moody’s place.
“We’ll get you right fixed up, Rubeus. I left some biscuits for ye, the chocolate ones you always like.”
Minerva heard Hagrid’s slow release of breath.
She released his arm, unable to open her mouth to say the words that echoed in her mind. It will be okay. We should have done more. There must be something we can still do. We can fix this. No words could heal this wound. Time would seal the flesh, but the scar would neve fade.
“I’m sorry, Hagrid,” she at last said.
When he did not respond, but rather lumbered forward a step, she thought that he must not have heard. He turned before Anwar could grab his arm, black eyes, still rimmed in red, meeting Minerva’s.
“Thank ye both, Miss McGonagall. You and Mr. Grimm alike. Ye’ve done fer me well as ye could. There jus’ weren’t–” His voice broke.
Anwar spoke to him in a low tone, and soon the three boys left for the dormitories, Hagrid once again heaving with ill-concealed sobs. Minerva watched them ascend the stairs, unable to move, even to wipe away the tear that had gathered in the corner of one eye. Once they were out of sight, she turned toward the others, none of whom seemed capable of meeting her eyes.
“He’s been expelled,” she said in a low tone. “Tom Riddle claimed to have found him in the dungeons with a... an illegal creature. The Headmaster believes this creature responsible for Myrtle’s death.”
A fifth-year girl let out a sharp breath. “Sounds like poppycock to me. Hagrid’s a strange ‘un, but he wouldn’t kill anyone.”
Hetty shook her head, blond hairs falling across her face. “Except it was the creature that did it, not Hagrid.”
“If it was the same creature at all.” Moody took the seat next to Minerva and began fiddling with the tea things. “The problem being that, if Hagrid simply lost control of it, I doubt it’d run for the toilets rather than the exit.” At the blank looks he received, he added, “Why would it go to the second floor lavatory when it was being kept in the dungeons? And why did no one hear anything? If the girl had seen a creature, wouldn’t she have screamed first?”
A number of heads were nodding, Minerva's among them.
“I heard nothing when I passed that area on my rounds.”
But as soon as she spoke, Minerva remembered something else. She had met Hagrid in the Entrance Hall that night. He must have just been coming up from a visit with Aragog. Could it have somehow followed him and become lost on the way, straying into the lavatory? Or could he have set it loose on purpose, for some unknown reason? She shoved these doubts aside. Riddle might even have done it, knowing that no one could possibly trace the creature back to him.
Her fists clenched. They would likely never know, and that’s what was worst of all.
“It’s simple.” Hetty leaned against the mantlepiece. “Riddle didn’t want the school to close, and we all know that it would have if he hadn’t gone looking for a solution.”
“A scapegoat,” someone else muttered.
“He wasn’t wrong to report the creature, though.” Annabelle Frobisher leaned forward, hands on her knees. “Whatever it was.”
“But he wouldn’t have said a word if things weren’t as they are,” another boy shot back.
Minerva wasn’t sure whether she was hearing them all correctly. Her temples were throbbing in a way that threatened to churn her stomach.
“Do you believe that Hagrid is innocent?”
The others looked at her. To Minerva’s surprise, Annabelle was the first to speak.
“What reason would we have to believe Tom Riddle? Just because he’s good looking...”
“If you’d call him that.” Hetty rolled her eyes.
“He wouldn’t give the King the time of day, much less any of us.”
“And,” Hetty said, drawing out the word into multiple syllables. “He’s a Slytherin. We mustn’t forget that.” She glanced over at Minerva. “Us Gryffindors must stick together, and Hagrid is one of us.”
Minerva accepted the cup of tea that Moody offered only to wince at its flavour. But it was wet, and it gave her something warm to hold.
“What do you think Dumbledore’s going to do?” Annabelle still gripped her knees.
“From what I understood, Professor Dumbledore will take care of Hagrid until he’s of age.”
Hetty gave a sharp nod. “We’d best arrange to keep Hagrid safe up here. Regular meals, distractions, the like. There will be a lot of ill feeling toward him, especially from the Ravenclaws.”
“And the Slytherins,” someone grumbled.
Minerva drained her cup of tea, hardly noticing when Moody plucked it from her fingers, refilled it, and returned it to her numbed hands.
“Dumbledore’ll have made his arrangements by the morning. Until then, no one need worry about Hagrid.” No one could mistake the threatening note in Moody’s voice. A moment later he had slipped away, up the dormitory stairs.
The other students looked at one another, then followed his lead, leaving in twos and threes with whispered good nights until Minerva and Hetty were left before the fire. Minerva took a sip of the tea and grimaced at its syrupy sweetness, setting down the cup at her side to watch the flames as they licked against the grate.
Her books awaited her, yet she did not care to move. A weight pressed against her temples, making each thought more difficult to grasp. She ought to have gone to bed and take refuge in oblivion, but she did not want to think about what visions would pass before her eyes when she at last lay in the darkness. She did not know what it was about the Common Room that differed, why it offered comfort even on the bleakest of nights. The red tapestried walls never seemed to fade. The laughter of centuries of students still echoed in the corners. She would miss this place, all of Hogwarts. In spite of everything, she had been happy here.
“Will you be alright, Minerva? You’ve been through nearly as much as Hagrid.”
Minerva blinked the sleep from her eyes.
“I will be fine, thank you.”
Hetty let out a breath with what sounded like exasperation. “You’re not blaming yourself for this, are you? You did what you could, far more than any of the rest of us.”
There was a long pause, during which Minerva’s brow lowered further and further.
“I’ve no reason to blame myself. I just wish–” She cut off the words before they came into being. Why make any confessions, and to Hetty Crouch of all people? She had never felt inspired to share confidences with the girls in her year before and she saw no benefit in doing so now.
But there was something in Hetty’s silence, the lack of prompts to continue, the patient expectancy of her manner, that brought words bubbling to Minerva’s lips.
“The Headmaster was clearly prejudiced against Hagrid because of his background. I hoped Professor Dippet would be above such things.”
“As Headmaster he should be, as should the Minister of Magic and his people.”
“But they aren’t,” Minerva said, feeling her hands clench again.
Hetty watched Minerva through narrowed eyes. “It’ll change. Just you see.” She gave a little laugh. “You’re sure to become Headmistress one day, or something like that, and you’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Minerva gave her a sharp look, but Hetty’s smile held no trace of irony. It was almost a sad smile, far-off and dreamy, reaching for a future beyond the war, beyond a world filled with Dippets and Riddles. She shifted uneasily, not knowing how to respond. Once she had thought that girls like Hetty and Annabelle whispered behind her back, waiting for her to falter, to fail, but she had misjudged them. No better than Grimm, she had seen foes in every corner, isolating herself from those who might have been her friends.
It was too late now. Too late for many things.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.” She swallowed, scrambling to find the right words. “Thank you. It’s... nice of you to say it.”
Hetty raised her eyebrows. “I mean it, too.”
A few more minutes ticked by before Minerva roused herself again.
“Thank you for your help tonight. I hadn’t expected it. Neither, I think, did Hagrid.”
The chair groaned as Hetty got to her feet. “Like I said: Gryffindors must stick together. It’s very hard to accomplish things without help of some sort.”
With a final goodnight, she disappeared up the dormitory stairs.
Minerva sat on until the last, lingering flame flickered out, its sparks reflecting against her eyes and the tears that dripped, one by one, down her cheeks.
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