Chapter 21 : An Unraveling Catastrophe
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The sky above the mountain peaks was tinged with light when Minerva awoke, her head still aching, her eyes swollen. She watched the space between the curtains where they did not quite close, waiting for the light to turn gold, but the sun rose scarlet, painting the sky with blood. Beneath the coverlet, Minerva shivered and burrowed deeper into the hollow of the mattress, her eyes drifting from the rising sun to the contents of her room, particularly those she had neglected of late.
Her books were stacked in piles on her trunk, her parchments neatly rolled upon the desk, every inch of paper filled with words, symbols, formulae, enough to fling one to the brink of madness. Despite all that had passed in the last few days, she could not shrink from the exams that were due to begin the following day. Two young lives had already been ruined; hers need not follow suit, not as long as she had the power to control it.
When it came to choosing between mulling over the past and working toward her future, Minerva gratefully chose the latter, pulling herself from the bed as though she had aged a great many years. By the time she had donned her dressing gown and shoved open the window, she had prepared herself for a long day of studying. The rest of the world could, for once, wait its turn.
After a steady hour of working through transfiguration spells, she began to hear the groan of the plumbing in the tower below and a low murmur of voices on the stairs. As the voices approached her door, she set down her wand.
“Minerva?” Annabelle tapped on the door. “Are you coming to breakfast?”
It would do her no good to skip meals. At least she could use the opportunity to check on Hagrid.
“I’ll be down soon.”
The common room was again bustling, the fifth years panicking over their final day of OWLs while the seventh years stared resolutely ahead, muttered incantations to themselves. Moody had taken the window seat for himself to practice his wand-work; he nodded at Minerva as she passed to let her know that nothing untoward had occurred overnight. It was, in all regard, a perfectly normal June morning.
If only she could wipe her memory of the preceding weeks.
She entered the Great Hall in a crowd of Gryffindors, who for the most part shielded her from the curious glances of the other houses. It would never cease to amaze her how quickly news could spread throughout the school, reaching even the most secluded Ravenclaw’s ears within the hour. She took note of Grimm’s position near the door, his shoulders hunched over his plate as he picked at what appeared to be kippers and toast. Flanked by Annabelle and Hetty, Minerva had no choice but to pass him by until she found herself on the opposite end of the Hall, just below the high table.
The usual breakfast clamour was somewhat subdued, the houses ill at ease with one another. Only the presence of the professors seemed to prevent anyone from putting words or actions to their mutinous thoughts. Minerva kept her back to the Slytherin table, and while it raised the hairs on the back of her neck to hear their whispers, she wanted at all cost to avoid the sight of Tom Riddle and his empty, black eyes.
The meal could not end too soon. The students spilled into the corridors, breaking away in small groups to continue their studies in safety or their gossip in privacy. Minerva emerged alone to find the shadow she sought lurking near the door. Without a care for prying eyes, she took his hand, twining her fingers with his.
“Thank you for waiting.”
He nodded, looking at a point somewhere over her shoulder.
“The others are looking after Hagrid, at least until Professor Dumbledore makes his arrangements–”
His eyes met hers, bloodshot and bleary. “They’ll break his wand. He won’t be able to practice magic again.”
She tightened her grip. “I know.”
All Grimm could do was frown, so she pulled his arm in the direction of the stairs, glancing back toward the Great Hall in case Riddle should emerge.
“Would you like to study together today?” Perhaps it will distract you, like it once did. Was it so long ago that they had fought over the use of a desk? She had feared him then, or rather the affect he had upon her, her nerves frayed by his mere presence. Now she was the one seeking him out, offering her hand as though–
If it came to that, would she?
They were halfway up the stairs before she emerged from her brown study, the question still burning through her skull even as Grimm continued on. His footsteps were unsteady, and he clutched her arm too tightly, leaning some of his weight against her.
“How will you make it through tomorrow?” she asked as they waited for a flight of stairs to settle into place.
“I’ve half a mind not to bother with the damned things.” He spoke scarcely above a mutter.
Minerva pulled away. “That’s the half of your mind you should ignore.”
Grimm concentrated on the movement of his feet from one stair to the next.
“You’ll need something to come back to, Tiberius.”
He looked up, and Minerva saw the dejection in his eyes, only the dullest spark, perhaps of hope, perhaps a mere trick of the light.
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
She dropped his arm, leaving him to stagger against the balustrade. Two spots of heat appeared on her cheeks as she turned away, unable to speak around the lump in her throat. Her legs took her up the stairs, two at a time, and for once the staircases aligned just right so that she, blinded by the tears that had sprung to her eyes, could pass freely while Grimm, lagging behind, was caught three times by the changing stairs.
No words. There could be none. After all this time, that he should– That he could woo her, win her, and forget it all. Was there anything in it? Ever? Or was it merely another thing, another victory, another notch in the bedpost before he moved on and on and on again?
She would go. She would live. And she would never look back.
At the top, the gaping hole beside her reaching down a hundred feet or more, she stopped. Her breath was heavy, but not overwhelmingly so. She could hear him not far below, every heave of his lungs, every uncertain step. There were also the echoes, the words spoken, the lies and truths, biting, pained, embittered, hardly more, so rarely kind.
Myrtle was dead. Hagrid would soon be gone, and Riddle would be rewarded. Exams and wars and leaving Hogwarts forever, a place that, in spite of its goodness, of all the things it could give, it had taken much more. To return would be to live it all again, to see in every corridor, every corner, this scene or that, one memory or another. New memories would come to be, but the old would linger, sweet and malignant.
A figure shuddered onto the landing beside her, his face beet red, grey eyes wild. He mumbled something lost in his gasps for air.
Minerva watched him, her hand hovering over his shoulder as he bent, hands on his knees.
“How dare you think that you’re going anywhere without me.”
Grimm raised his eyes at something in her voice.
“That’s what... I was going... to ask.”
But it wasn't. She knew it as well as he did. She knew as she looked upon a body incapable of physical strain, his lungs weak and his muscles flaccid. What chance of survival did he have on the battlefield, the German guns blasting holes in the sides of his fellows as they ran through rubbled streets in foreign towns? When he said that he would not come back, was it because he understood–?
No chance at all. Cannon fodder.
It was a place she could not go. She, who could survive, who could fight her way through line after line, fearing, but overcoming that fear and pushing on until the end. One thing alone prevented her, taking him in her stead.
When Grimm at last straightened, Minerva stepped closer, her arms wrapping around him as though offering her strength, her courage. Yet there was a certain strength in his embrace that gave her hope. Maybe. A possibility. She squeezed her eyes shut, taking in his scent, the feel of his body beneath her hands, the warmth of his touch, the sensation of his breath against her skin, teasing the tiny hairs. He still breathed deeply, his heart pounding against her chest. If it were to stop–
Minerva held him even tighter, biting down on the words that threatened to escape her lips, burying her face against his neck.
They spoke little afterwards. There seemed to be no words, whether it was because none were necessary or none existed neither knew or cared. It was a new silence, comforting, words spoken in faces, sentences in eyes, and pages in the touch of a hand. Minerva woke the morning of her first exam with a greater sense of quiet than she’d known that whole long year.
As exam after exam passed, Minerva could not remember any with great clarity, standing half-confused as examiners wrung her hand, faces slashed with garish grins. Her ears rang with congratulations and compliments until she would slink away to delve into the next set of books, the next set of notes, the next this or that necessary for another victory. She lived in the library with parchments for food and ink for water, back stiffening as she bent low, fixed upon the words and figures that blotted out an unforgiving world. By the time she returned to Gryffindor Tower each night, she saw only others like her, pale and worn with the knowledge that this was the end. Everything they would become relied on these things, these letters, these judgements, arbitrary and denigrating.
One day bled into another and she was hardly conscious when Moody approached her one morning as she brushed crumbs from her lap.
“It’s done,” he said, setting himself on the bench beside her. “He wants to see you.”
The air went cold.
In the entrance hall, it was even colder. Hagrid’s trunk was already gone, all signs of his role of student, his position as a wizard, stripped away. He wore his old clothes, patched fustian and leather, his eyes dark and swollen, but dry. There had been no tears since that night, only a heaviness that hung across his shoulders, his head bowed beneath its cruel weight.
Minerva hurried to him, taking up one large hand in both of her own. “Hagrid, I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “Nothin’ to be done ‘bout it now. I’ve got a proper job, ‘sstant gamekeeper. More respec’ble tha’ most.” The cheerful notes in his voice sounded forced, laden with heartache.
Her mind scrabbled for the right response, but the only one bubbled to the surface. It shouldn’t be this way. You shouldn’t have to give up being a wizard. This is madness.
She bit back the words and they died in her throat. Goodbye could only be said in a smile, then he was gone. Her eyes followed his retreating form as he passed through the doors and out into the bright morning, leaving her in shadow, the sunlight pooling at her feet.
When all left this place, when she herself passed through those doors for the last time, what emptiness would fill her soul? What skeletal face would look back at her in the mirror, what spectral pallor would stain the skin around her eyes? The darkness was all around. It had leaked into her bones and would not be excised. No reassurances, no words of wisdom, could erase it. Hagrid would ever live beneath that blot of disgrace, forever clutching at the fragments of his wand, the magic they forbade him from ever practising again. He would live in the shadow of Hogwarts, to look up at those walls and remember. It seemed a worse punishment. Perhaps the worst of all.
Minerva turned away from the door, back ramrod straight, head high, anything to pretend that she didn’t wish her NEWTs away, that silly column of vowels that would throw open the doors that would remain firmly locked against Hagrid.
That morning she had packed away her books and parchments, the ink pots and quills. Exams had offered a reprieve, but she had not enjoyed them. They had been merely another thing that needed doing, like feeding the livestock or scrubbing the floors. How did it make her a better witch to have done them, to have succeeded at them?
Her feet took her through the castle, the corridors and rooms she had come to know well, the places still alien, the little holes she’d never seen before, filled with strange paintings and fraying tapestries. Less than a week remained, and then her time at Hogwarts would be at an end. Most of the other students were outside, sitting by the lake, loitering in the courtyards, running across the grounds under skies that did not know the sound of aeroplanes or bombs. She ought to be practising her Quidditch, preparing for the next season. A frivolous thing it would be with the war raging on, but there needed to be some light, did there not? Some way to help people forget, only for a little while. It was now the one way she could justify her choice of career. She had not thought enough about it these last few weeks, and it occurred to her that she had been glad not to.
“What shall I do?”
Her voice was met with the strange silence of the castle, distant creakings, vague shufflings, the whine and groan of pipes. Hogwarts answered in a language she could not understand.
She caught herself before despair took her whole. It was not up to Hogwarts to provide an answer. It had to come from within.
One hand resting on the sill of a window, she gazed out into the world, the forests and mountains and sky, a twirl of smoke rising from a Hogsmeade chimney, a flock of birds passing through a cloudless sky.
There was no stillness here. No emptiness. Only life. A sunny patch of earth that may have known death, but lay outside his kingdom. The light touched her hand, and with it came a flood of warmth.
Live. She had to live.
And she would leave regret behind.
It was duly noted by those who witnessed the Head Girl’s belated escape from the confines of the castle walls that her attitude had undergone a slight alteration. Although her back was still straight and her head still held high, there was something more genuine about her manner, the mask of stony self-assurance set aside so that she could show her face to the sun. She greeted other students as she crossed the courtyard, offering congratulations or other words of encouragement, including Dolores Umbridge, whose eyes flashed even as her face crumpled in a simper and her mouth gave a flattering reply.
Minerva saw these things, but they did not touch her. She turned her attention to Eileen Prince, who, after a few words about exams, sombrely pointed down at the lake, where a figure stood, half-obscured by the line of trees, hands in his pockets as he stared off into the distance. With a brief squeeze of the younger girl’s shoulder, Minerva thanked her as passed beneath the archway, skirting the curving path for the steeper, grassy hill to relish the feel something other than stone beneath her feet.
Grimm did not look up as she came to stand beside him, the water lapping against the toes of her boots.
“Did you see him off?”
She squinted in the glare of sunlight off the water. “Yes. Not that he’s going far.”
“But is it a blessing or a curse?” Grimm’s brow lowered.
Minerva resisted the urge to glance back at the castle’s long shadow. “A bit of both.”
He did not reply and they looked out across the lake, not moving, not speaking, not wanting to think about what had been and what would be, of the world that lay waiting for them, hungry for their youth.
“It’ll either feel damnably short or disgustingly long.”
Had she spoken the words aloud? Surely Grimm wasn’t yet in the habit of reading her mind. There indeed was something she still wished to avoid.
“What is it, Min?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t mean to say it.”
He looked toward her, the tiniest glitter of amusement in his eyes. “I’m glad you did. Otherwise I’d have had to.”
They fell silent again, the minutes passing by until their distant observers grew bored and drifted off to find more interesting pursuits. She did not realize how closely he was listening for the other students’ departure until he glanced back to ascertain that no one was watching. Then, and only then, did he wrap his hand around Minerva’s. Strangely, she relaxed at his touch, already half-fearing its absence.
“If we were in London, even with–” His voice faltered. “With the way it is now, I can think of a million things we could do. The theatre, concerts, museums, all the things that people... in our position do.”
She shook her head, unbidden laughter pulling at the corners of her lips. “I can’t imagine you putting up with that. We’d be more likely to spend it hunched over your laboratory table, arguing over some experiment of yours, the room reeking from the fumes. And of course you would refuse to stop for tea.”
“I was trying to be romantic.”
He released a long breath. “It is hard.” It seemed that he wanted to say something more, but he turned his gaze to the lake, his hand tightening over hers.
She thought of teasing him further, but something in the pressure of his hand changed her mind. His fingers moved against hers, shaking, shuddering, the one outlet for emotions the world would not permit him to express. Frustration. Anger. All must be reserved for that enemy across the channel, that mustachioed fury and his bland-faced lieutenants. There was no place for the individual, the personal. He must not always be looking back. Back to the past. Back to home. Back to–
Her words refashioned themselves with care. “I think it will always be.”
Some of the tension in his hand eased. His mouth opened and closed before he was finally able to say, “Not for the next four days.” He turned to her, reaching for her other hand. “We can do as we like. That is, whatever we agree upon.”
There was a light note in his voice that she found encouraging.
“That rather limits things, does it not?”
He swallowed, his throat flushing red beneath the tight collar.
“I might– I’m sure I can... perhaps... venture a few suggestions.”
They faced each other, there down by the edge of the lake, just beyond the shadow of the castle’s towers that stretched forth like grasping fingers. Minerva looked into his face, her eyes tracing its contours, its light trace of freckles, the dimple in one cheek as he began to smile, his eyes catching hold of hers. The bottom dropped out of her stomach and she stepped forward, not giving a single care that anyone saw, what anyone thought. She concentrated solely on the texture of his lips, the nose pressing hard against her cheek, the fingers clasped tightly around her own. When he leaned further into the kiss, she responded in kind until their whole centre of balance relied on that single point of convergence. Even after, when with straining lungs they gasped for air, they remained in place, brow against brow, tasting each others’ breath.
“So. We agree on something.” He spoke with difficulty.
Minerva could not repress a small laugh. There was no room for repression of any kind in her now. She felt as though anything was possible, that she could do anything, be anything. Was this what it felt like to live? This strange liberty that consumed her made everything light; it wiped away the guilt, the fear. There were too many other emotions to experience. Too many things she did not want to miss.
But still she exercised caution, some portion of her brain still guided by reason. She dared not release his hands, trusting neither herself nor him to hold and hold alone. One touch would lead to another, and... and...
She pulled back to look into the water as though in the shallows she could scry for her answer. Her freedom seemed to recede and advance like the lapping waters at her feet. She was too full of feeling, too confused by its power and where it might lead her. She loved him, yes, but she was not yet sure what that entailed, or how far it should take her.
“What will become of us?” Her smile shook at the corners. “It’s too easy sometimes, and yet it’s also very hard.”
Grimm frowned, looking out toward the lake’s depths. “We disagree. We argue. We...do this, and we move on.”
“You must admit that it makes for a strange sort of relationship.”
He shook his head. “Not strange. Just not particularly simple.”
Minerva clutched her arms around herself, shivering in a wind come down from the north. “And do you want simple?”
Again he shook his head, one arm snaking around her waist. “Only you, my–”
The final word was lost against her skin as he touched his lips to the nape of her neck. She released a long breath, feeling her body sink into his embrace. To be loved– no, adored – in this way was the truly strange thing. How two people could come together and smash themselves to pieces again and again like ships upon the rocks... it made no sense at all. Perhaps that was what made it feel sweeter, the knowledge that it could never have lasted. Four days was all they would ever need.
Neither strove to please the other as the hours faded into days. There was no bending over backward or willing servitude to characterise their limited time together. They still argued, disagreeing over the smallest of things so that Minerva suspected that Grimm did it on purpose, if only for the reconciliations, during which he could easily be assured of a kiss, each deeper than the last. The last would come soon enough.
They sat beneath the willows, she to read of advanced transfiguration, of the ultimate feat of transforming one’s body, and he to read of arcane theories of alchemy, older than time itself and mostly useless in the blossoming of the nuclear age. Or they would walk through the grounds, though they never once climbed toward the mountains, and never once did Minerva take Grimm’s arm as he had often dreamed. There was wizard’s chess in the Great Hall, with Moody beating them both without any perceptible display of effort. And there were their nightly walks through the castle itself, Minerva catching herself listening for any signs of monsters lurking in corners or behind seemingly-solid walls. They talked of many, but not all things, the unspoken topics ever lurking at the corners of their minds, silent, ominous.
Riddle was often too present, too visible, his face arranged in a mask of charm, his voice oozing with pleasantries.
“He disgusts me.”
Grimm’s eyes followed Riddle down the corridor late one evening. There were even Ravenclaws amongst the group that followed in Riddle’s wake, talking and laughing as they made their way to the last of Professor Slughorn’s little parties. Although both the Head Boy and Girl had been invited, neither wished to subject themselves to fake smiles and inconspicuous stares.
The whispers were the worst. Minerva felt her stomach sink each time she saw the raised hands and furtive glances. The hissing filled her ears as her hand clenched around Grimm’s arm, but she met Riddle’s eyes without flinching. It was not until he turned the corner to Slughorn’s rooms that she dared breathe again.
“It’s too bad that he fails to have that affect on others.”
“Hence my disgust.”
There was a dangerous twist to his lips, but then he glanced down at where she held him, and his face relaxed. After a minute, he placed his hand upon hers, running his fingers along the ridge of her knuckles. His brow was crinkled, his eyes slightly unfocussed as the thoughts spun about his brain.
“I am pleased to see that you’re able to restrain yourself, Tiberius.”
They could still hear the laughter and voices, now combined with the distant strains of music. It was strange to hear it after weeks of jumping at shadows and long nights of huddling before the common room fire tossing around wild speculations of monsters and murder. Minerva did not entirely approve. The thought of such merrymaking left a sour taste in her mouth. Hagrid’s tears were too lately shed.
Yet she did not protest when Grimm wrapped his free arm around Minerva and swung her into a dance. She could not be sure what kind of dance it was, somewhere between a waltz and a two-step, very much out of time, purely of his own making.
“I can restrain myself in some things, if not in others.” His arm tightened around her. She could not clearly see his face.
They drifted down the corridor, all sound fading around them. Grimm’s steps improved, if only a bit, and Minerva distinctly felt the pressure of his hand at her back, his thumb stroking the hollow of her spine. It was a curiously intimate gesture, sending her nerves tingling despite the thick fabric of her robes. She could not be sure whether he was even conscious of it. He had closed his eyes, head leaning against hers, breath wafting against her hair. It seemed to soothe his nerves, cutting him free of Riddle’s dark spell.
Sending him into her own? Did she have a spell she wove tight around him, ever luring him closer... to what? Prudence and reason? Yet also jealousy and overwhelming feeling. It made no sense, no logic to it...
“If I could stay....” The words were mere breaths in her ear. “Minerva...”
She still did not know why. Why her? Whatever had she done to find herself in this circumstance? His feelings were unmistakable, her own still mysterious, protean. To want and not want. To feel... but love?
“No.” Her hand curled behind his head. “You mustn’t think of that.”
His arm tightened further. “What then?”
Hesitation. The dangerous closeness of his flesh to her lips. The warmth of bodies meeting, the pulsing of blood, the endless movement of cells and growth and life beneath the layers of cloth and skin. When she touched her lips to his jaw, she was surprised by the prickly hairs, too pale to be seen. She tried again, meeting the hard cartilage of his ear. Then again, the softer flesh beneath his eye, even softer at the mouth. Could he even breathe at all, now? She felt like she was all breath, all life, and that if she opened her eyes, the illusion would fade and he would be no more.
A flurry of footsteps, restless giggles as two fifth years turned the corner, hand-in-hand. They were too occupied to take much notice of the corridor’s current set of occupants, who broke apart with scarcely a blush.
“And what do you think you’re doing?” Grimm’s voice rang sharp in Minerva’s ears.
The boy gave a little cry and tripped into a suit of armour. The girl wrenched her hand away, giving a little toss of her head, her Hufflepuff badge glittering in the torchlight.
“Robbie was just seeing me back, Grimm. No harm in that.”
Grimm turned to catch Minerva’s eyes, raising his eyebrows. She arranged her features into an expression of impassivity.
“Sprout should at least try to treat you appropriately, Denbright.”
“He does very nicely, McGonagall.” The chin rose an iota higher. “I wouldn’t ask for anything else.”
“Very well, then,” Grimm said with a wave of his hand. “Get along.”
“You’re letting them go too easily.” Minerva maintained a safe distance from Grimm even once the fifth years had hurried away.
He leaned against the wall, running a hand through his hair. “I’m not a hypocrite. They were really no different from–”
“It’s time for us to be completing our rounds.” Minerva adjusted her robes to settle neatly around her feet, like a cat with its tail curled around its body.
They looked at each other as they stood on either side of the long hall, waiting for the castle’s silence to settle around them once more. Grimm was the first to look away, his jaw muscles going tight.
“If we split up, we can finish sooner.” His voice was strained. “I’m a little tired.”
Two meanings. Two sides. Always divided. Only now it was a wound, bitter and festering, the kind that may heal, but would also certainly scar.
They did not say goodnight. The ending was too close upon them.
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