Chapter 22 : Divergence
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There was only the last day. The last morning by the lake. The last afternoon in the library. They poured over maps of the Continent, Grimm seemingly come to terms with his fate, desiring to know every inch of the land, every village and creek, the mountains and valleys etched across the landscape. They followed the narrow lines of canals in the Low Countries and took note of the standing stones that were scattered along the northern French coast. From this distance, it was a mere exercise in geography, something to pass the ticking hours between this moment and the train’s departure from Hogsmeade Station.
How plain the day, yet sorrow lurked in the corners and regret haunted its halls. Minerva could not prevent multiple hesitations in her words, her actions. She kept stopping, stopping and thinking, thinking and quaking. Soon. It was in the echo of footsteps, the cries from the Quidditch pitch. It was the end, and she was not yet ready for it.
She caught herself also staring at the curve of his ear, the way his hair settled over his temples, the pulsing vein at his wrist. Details. They would be all that remained, when the whole was gone.
It felt like madness, but it was only restlessness. She hated waiting, just as she hated endings.
“Yes, I suppose it’s time for tea. Or something, at least.” Grimm began folding away the maps. “You’ve gone all quiet, and that’s always a sign–” He halted the babble of words, shutting his mouth too firmly.
“That I’ve tired of this?” She took out her wand to send each map to its pigeonhole. “It wouldn’t be incorrect to make that assumption.”
A pause, followed by a sharp rustle of parchment as Grimm threw down the last map.
“We can’t go on like this. It’s ridiculous.”
Minerva picked up the slightly wrinkled parchment, smoothing it between her fingers.
“Being polite to one another? It likely wouldn’t be any different than if we were–”
Married. Had she really almost said it?
“Probably not,” he said without hesitation, glaring into the table. He seemed to take for granted the word she had not spoken.
She rolled the map and placed it with deliberation amongst its fellows. A single thought rose to the surface of her consciousness. Her gaze shifted to Grimm, now tapping his fingers against the table, his face transmuting between expressions as though he was having an argument with himself. One that he was bitterly losing.
A ruffle of fabric from the next row signalled Madam Pince’s presence. She fluttered down the next row of shelves, muttering to the books.
Minerva straightened and brushed a speck of dust from her sleeve. “I should be off. Hetty Crouch has arranged a special tea for the Gryffindor girls.”
He glanced up, no less perplexed than a lost child.
“Oh. Right. Glad to hear it.”
When nothing else was forthcoming, she let out a long breath. “We will meet later for our rounds, I assume.”
There was a nod. “Of course.”
Her exit was perhaps more dramatic than necessary with sweeping robes and perfect carriage, but it disguised her aching nerves and pounding heart. That is not to say she was carried away by fervent passion. Worry ate at her spirit, painting the skin beneath her eyes with shades of violet and washing the colour from her cheeks despite the hours she spent outside the castle walls.
Too many times she felt that he was already far removed, his absence of manner a more effective barrier than an ocean. He refused to speak of the details, the real things that would guide his life for the next months, perhaps years, just as he refused to speak of Myrtle. Minerva knew very well that he was avoiding Ravenclaw Tower, where Myrtle’s sobs and moans rang through the walls. His face was tinged with grey from sleepless nights, his apatite minimal despite frequent exercise. He was a haunted man, even before he’d become a man.
Grimm was only interested in the abstract, whatever was safely removed from himself. He played the game of avoidance, his mind skipping past any topic that caused him pain or disappointment. There were things she wanted him to say, things that needed to be said if there was to be anything–
She looked back from the library entrance though she knew he could not be seen through the labyrinth of shelves.
If he asked, she would say yes.
“How was the tea?”
Grimm’s steps matched her own as they proceeded down some endless sixth-floor hall.
The first word that came to her mind was “nice,” but it was not appropriate. So vague. Subjective. Offering a mere impression of the thing.
“Better than I would have expected months ago.” She did not reveal her belief that the other seventh year girls had their lives in far better order than she ever would. “Alastor arrived in time to steal the last scone.”
His steps fell out of line, and she imagined that she could hear the cogs of his brain clanking as they turned.
“I thought you said it was for the girls.”
“He probably thought we were planning something terribly devious.”
Grimm nodded, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “Ah, yes. That plan to commandeer the train and deliver us all into enemy hands. And he sought to prevent it by stealing your rations.”
If he was capable of joking about such things, then he must have wrestled with whatever demons taunted his conscience. Had he too wandered the castle, or had he ventured only into his favourite haunts, the potions rooms, the darkest corners and quietest passages? Had the same questions tormented him? The same fears, the same restless speculations? She could never know.
“Yes, that one. How did you guess?”
“Some people never change.” There was a rough edge to his voice.
Not like you, chimed a voice in Minerva’s head.
They turned a corner. Suits of armour stood guard beside pastoral landscapes and snoring portraits. The Grey Lady passed near the stairs, her transparent skirts whispering, her head down, covered by long streams of hair. Voices echoed down from upper floors, students making their way into their common rooms at long last. Olive Hornby’s voice was loudest among them, balking at the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower, hoping to forestall another night of clanking pipes and ear-piercing wails.
He looked up at the sound, making no attempt to disguise his vexation. With Olive. With the spectral Myrtle. With Dippet. With Riddle. With a world did not concern itself with what was fair and just.
Dinner had been excruciating in its length, filled with constant reminders of what had passed. The speeches, the commendations, the announcements, and all the while Minerva had watched. Dumbledore’s stone-carved face. The award glittering on Riddle’s chest. The silence from some and the noise from others. And the Head Boy as he sat apart from the other Ravenclaws, glaring holes through Professor Dippet’s lopsided hat.
Minerva had left at exactly the moment she was expected to, doing all she could to appear indifferent, untouched. It was becoming easier, and that ease disturbed her beyond anything else. She could not repress the shudder that crept down her spine.
“Min?” He touched her arm.
When she turned, it was impossible not to take note of his proximity, of the warmth that radiated from his body and the unmistakable scent of him filling her nostrils. Through her spectacles she saw him in painstaking detail, and yet around the small circles of glass, he was a blur of beige and brown.
“I asked where we should go next.”
“Have we already finished?” Her voice wavered. How long had she been lost in thought?
He shifted position and his eyes came into focus. “And if we have?”
Then it would be over. The year she thought would be a disaster. It had been exactly that, but not for the reasons she had feared. There was something else she ought to have feared more.
“It’s too early.”
It was not until he stepped away that she realised how closely he had been holding her. His arms fell to his sides, soon plunging into his pockets.
They walked on in silence, venturing down corridors that Minerva was sure they had not yet patrolled. He must have been mistaken, if he had been paying attention at all. Their robes kept brushing together and she felt the castle’s silence bearing down upon her as her every sense seemed focused solely on his presence. It was illogical. It must have been an illusion, an exaggeration of her nerves, a hyper-sensitivity brought on by her morbid thoughts. She glanced toward him only to catch his eyes upon her, and she immediately looked away, squinting into the corridor. No blushes came to her cheeks, but she nonetheless felt a surge in her pulse and a quickening of breath. Mere anticipation, a knowledge of what was inevitable, of what must be. She expected, but did not fear.
A figure in one painting cried out to them, the brave and foolhardy Sir Cadogan brandishing his sword as he ran into the next landscape, and then the next. The knight challenged them both to duels and cried out insults in spite of the angry glares he received from the inhabitants of other paintings.
Grimm winced at each insult thrown his way. “I can’t decide if he’s annoying or just ridiculous.”
Laughter came unexpectedly to Minerva’s lips. “I thought much the same of you once.”
Sopping so short that they nearly collapsed in each other’s arms, he turned to face her, his eyes widening.
“But not now?” He raised his voice over another deluge of “wanton scullions” and “finical codpieces.”
She imagined him as he had been. That boy carelessly wielding a pack of cards and calling it magic. Overbalancing on a stool as he planted a wet kiss on her mouth. Bickering with her in the library. Seething over a bowl of murtlap essence. Tripping over his feet as he danced. But that was once.
He had changed, most certainly so. Yet there were still glimpses, hints of the old humour and lightness lingering in his features. There was more polish, a smoothing of the awkwardness, the gawky adolescent moulded into a new shape. Horror and grief had quickened the process, had stamped him with age and care before his time. Now, however, she felt a little leap inside to see the joy that blossomed in his face, joy at her words, joy she could offer again and again, if only to raise that light to the surface.
“No. Not now.”
Minerva supposed that this was what some would call a softening of the heart. Though in technical terms, the heart was always already soft, strong with the rhythm of life yet too easily punctured and broken. Hers had never been very strong. Would it ache in his absence? She thought it might. There it was, heavy against her chest, growing heavier with each moment that drew them nearer to the end.
She brought her face as near to his as she dared. Her next words were little more than a breath against his cheek. “I love you. Despite myself. Despite everything. And even” – her voice rose, colour pouring into her cheeks – “despite this bloody din.”
It required only a flick of her wand to silence the portrait, who continued to wildly brandish his sword in a threatening manner, his mouth flapping open and shut.
Minerva was about to turn back, a satisfied smile on her face, when she was unexpectedly lifted and swung around, her wand dropping from her hand, its fall muffled by the thick pile of the carpet. She fell against Grimm, gasping, grasping, laughing at the novel sensation of being held in this way, of feeling his laughter vibrate against her chest. He laughed in a way she had never heard from him before, light and without irony.
Only then did she realise that even when he had seemed gleeful and silly in the past, it had never really been genuine. So much of him had been a mask, one that had throughout the year been stripped away, piece by piece, revealing a painfully fragile being, desperate and afraid. It was this being who had pursed her, who imagined he saw in her all the things he lacked, the things he desired.
If only he knew. Perhaps by now he did.
He set her down, and they stood very simply wrapped together, her nose against his ear, his chin nestled into the hollow of her collarbone. She breathed in his scent and marvelled at the rapid drumming of his heart.
“I want to ask you not to go,” Minerva whispered.
Grimm’s breath was warm against her skin. “But you of course know better.”
“Oh to be cursed with good sense!” Her voice broke, its laughing notes fractured by the threat of tears.
“Minerva” – there was a brush of lips on her throat – “imagine running away, disappearing to somewhere else...”
“The Argentine? Some forgotten isle?”
“Warm, dry, and far from everything.”
“Where we would live with only each other for company.” It was a struggle to keep her voice level with his every touch.
“And find each other intolerable by the end of a month.”
She shivered as his mouth caressed the pulsing vein in her neck. “As long as that?”
Grimm pulled back, his hands gripping Minerva’s arms. The sight of his face shook her more than the sudden distance between them. He had been so happy only a moment before, but now there was a raw quality to his expression, a hollowness that penetrated every aspect of his being. Yes, he could feel joy, he could laugh and tease, but it was like water in her hands.
“It’s just imaginings. That’s all it can be. No, Min. You have yourself, your freedom. Keep it. Relish it.” He paused, lifting a hand to touch her cheek. “I envy you that.”
Freedom. The word was as bitter on her tongue as the lies she could have offered as comfort. If she possessed freedom, she could leave without guilt or shame. She could take his hand and apparate to the ends of the earth without worrying about the consequences, where they’d live, what they’d do, how they’d survive. That was freedom.
But when she spoke, her words revealed nothing of her thoughts.
“Don’t envy me, Tiberius. I’ll be in Wales.”
He gave a sharp bark of laughter in response, his hand falling away from her face.
She wanted to say more, that however much she might have the ability to choose what she did or with whom she did it, there would always be that unasked question hanging in the air. What if? It would follow her everywhere, the ghost of him, asking her what she would have done had circumstances been otherwise. If he had not gone. If she had gone instead. If they had run away. If none of this had ever happened.
Even now, she could not tell him these things. She could not break down that particular wall. Enough that he knew of her love. Let that keep him warm at night.
“There is something else...”
Grimm let the sentence trail off as he pulled away to search through his pockets. All sorts of random objects passed through his hands – some string, a vial of blue liquid, a stained handkerchief, old sweets, and a sprig of valerian that crumbled between his fingers – before he smiled, at last retrieving what he wanted. The object glinted in the light from a nearby torch before it disappeared into the palm of his hand.
“What is it?”
Why even ask? Something twinged within Minerva’s stomach. Her weight shifted from one foot to the other, and she bent to retrieve her wand, keeping her face turned away. An itch bit at her scalp.
He raised his arm, reaching beside her head, to the very ear that itched, and for an awful moment, she thought that he had somehow sensed it and sought to relieve her discomfort. When the arm retracted, leaving only the wafting of air against her temples, the object was visible between his fingers, beyond which she could only see his smile, disarming in its open expression of hope.
“This is a mad question, and I wasn’t going to ask. I’ve had this... thing with me for... it doesn’t matter how long.” The flush that spread across his cheeks said otherwise. Christmas? Easter? What if it had been even sooner? Had he been hopeful or presumptuous?
“Will you take this–”
The word fell out before she could prevent it. His eyes widened.
There was no air. She was deafened by her heartbeat, weakened by its pressure against her chest. The only other sound was a memory, her own voice. I won’t tie myself to anyone.
Not even you.
He wasn’t the only one who had changed.
She stared at the ring, small and gold with a smooth black stone. It came closer, and she could not look away.
“Something to remember me by. A what-do-you-call-it?”
Her jaw was heavy as though she’d swallowed a mouthful of treacle. What had he truly asked her? What had she accepted? It was unexpected that she should not know these things.
He was looking at the ring, too. Twisting it between his fingers. “Yes. It’s from the family. Very old, not that that matters. But it would mean a lot to think of you having it, and... and...” The flush deepened. “It matches your eyes.”
It was cold in this corridor. She could not stop her nerves from tingling nor her muscles from shuddering. Even the hairs on the back of her neck were raised.
Terror or anticipation?
How was she to tell the difference?
The metal band was warm from his touch. She slipped it over her knuckle and looked down into the opal, a paradox of night and rainbows. Could he really see that in her eyes? His romantic tendencies were painful to note.
Minerva raised her gaze to his. “I’m sorry that I’ve nothing for you, unless you want to be old fashioned and keep a lock of hair in your watch.”
“If I carried a watch, I’d take up your offer.” He matched her tone, a theatrical lightness, as though neither of them cared.
They watched one another, she with her hands folded in front of her, he with a twitch below his left eye, both pale and flushed like victims of a wasting disease, fevered and dying. Grimm’s breathing increased its pace, more twitches visible around his mouth and along his jaw as he thought and thought and finally chose.
Two steps brought him near, reaching without restraint, and she closed the distance, their bodies moulding together. They touched foreheads, listening to one another’s breathing, only a distant clanking of pipes from above breaking the stillness. The portraits had emptied, a sizable lady in petticoats having lifted Sir Cadogan off his feet, his painted armour clanging as he was carried away to another corridor. It seemed that even Peeves had been distracted in some other corner of the castle, most likely using the remnants of that night’s feast for target practice. The Slytherins and Hufflepuffs would get little sleep unless the Baron prevented it, and his whims could never be relied upon.
This was not a night to waste in sleep. Only a handful of hours remained until dawn, and then it would be too late.
Then he would be gone.
“How does one say goodbye in these situations?”
She ran a hand along his shoulder, sensing the gentle ripple of muscle beneath the surface. There was the slightest catch in his breath. Her other hand rested against the curve of his neck, and again his body responded, his jaw twitching.
“We’ll find a way.”
Another moment passed before he moved, his arm tightening around her waist. She felt him kiss her brow, her eyes, her nose, every cell in her body straining toward him until at last he came to her lips. Her hand slid behind his head, cradling his skull, her fingers threading through his hair. One day she ought to tell him to use less pomade. Yes, one day...
The thought faded. It seemed that all thoughts faded off into the corridor, the torchlights dimming to mark the late hour and the painful, steady pace of time.
The sky was grey when he rose. The expanse of green spreading below him was dulled by the early morning mist that obscured the mountain peaks. The glass was cool, fogging with his breath. House scarf grasped in his hands, he looked into the small room, now emptied of him. And yet in the curve of the bedpost he saw her form. In the whiteness of the sheets he saw the pallor of hidden flesh. In the blackened corners of the room he saw her hair running through his hands.
What had he done?
Grimm shook his head as though it could erase everything from his mind, his memory.
Not a mistake. Never that. Only rash. Even reckless.
Nor would he deny that he had wanted it. If only he had known–
Then a glitter of metal. The ring on her finger, catching the light. The metal had been warm against his skin. But the sight of it, or rather of her wearing it, had disturbed him. It had meaning, a strange permanence. A link. Of what, he still wasn’t sure.
It already felt far away. A dream, perhaps. One so good it was almost a nightmare.
He shuffled to the door, reaching down for his trunk. His feet made the only discernible sound. Even Myrtle-in-the-pipes had vanished, for the time being. Grimm had tried to whisper something into the lavatory drain, but there was no response apart from the gurgling of the drain. The thought of her yanked at his conscience, thrusting sharp pains into his head. Flashes of her face reflected on the lavatory mirror, looking as he remembered, still alive, but never happy. Never wanted.
He had turned away, snapping the door shut behind him.
“You will wait in the morning?” She held his face between her hands.
He nodded, unable to speak.
A smile. “Good.”
He paused on the stairs, hand clenched around the handle of his trunk until his knuckles showed white.
The other Ravenclaws seemed to be taking advantage of the spectral Myrtle’s absence to catch up on whatever sleep they’d missed. There must have been an unruly party, or at least as unruly as any Ravenclaw party could be. They had concealed empty bottles of butterbeer behind a chair and rearranged the tapestries to disguise the burn-marks from a particularly flammable game of Exploding Snap. The cover of the gramophone was crooked, the needle still warm.
They had abandoned the Common Room by the time he had entered from–
He hadn’t even known the time, but he could smell the spilled drinks and singed fabric. It had turned his stomach.
“Did I hurt you?”
“Of course you did.” She was never one to soften the blow. “Did you expect otherwise?”
He flushed and was glad for the mask of darkness.
“I don’t know what I expected.”
The scent lingered in the air as he passed through the room, dragging his trunk behind him. He could not help but look around the Common Room one last time, but it offered no comfort. The morning light offered no illusions, carving out the lines of each object to reveal its truth. What would it show of him?
This was for the best.
He though of what it might have been. Her eyes upon him. Her final bid farewell. Good luck. Don’t die. Come back. Her gloved hand against his before she turned away, no falter to her step, no pause to look over her shoulder.
And he? He would break. The cracks were already in place. One blow and he would shatter, a china doll in a hail of bullets.
She had said that she loved him.
Past the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower, he stopped, staring ahead into the dark corridor.
That part could not have been real.
He remembered the feel of those words on the shell of his ear. Too freely spoken. They could not have been her words, or anyone’s words. Only his conceit could have bred them. There were a thousand other words and phrases he could imagine her saying, but not that.
With a painful slowness, he turned to look down the corridor toward the entrance of Gryffindor Tower, just hidden around a corner.
That goodbye had already been said, and with more than words.
It would have to be enough.
He took the back staircase, that tiny, twisting passage with its trick steps and steep incline. The trunk, levitating behind him, kept bumping into the small of his back, shoving him forward, onward, downward. With each step toward hell he thought of the things he had left behind in the floors above.
Yes, at least he had had this. A year of things both terrible and extraordinary. Things that had shown him what it meant to live. Both sides of the coin. The loss and the gain. He should think of the good, of Minerva, of the other Ravenclaws, Featherby, Davies, and Leela, even of Moody, odd fish that he was. Of freezing his arse off in the Quidditch stands and sitting beneath the willows. Of his mother fussing over Minerva’s tea. Of discovering that one compound necessary for his latest set of experiments, and he thought of what the results might bring if–
He shut his eyes and more firmly grasped the handle of his trunk.
If he returned.
When Minerva awoke, a pale sun was attempting to burn through the mist, but it remained a lighter circle against the grey sky even once she had dressed. She had to pull back the velvet curtains to their furthest extent, and even then she had difficulty seeing into the darkest regions of her trunk. Each item had its place so that the inside of her trunk resembled a child’s puzzle, books wedged against boxes, buffered by stockings and winter garments. At one point, she caught herself humming to some half-forgotten song of her childhood, and that was when she paused.
She picked up the ring from the bedside table, turning it round in her fingers.
Strange, how it could feel like a dream. She was unable recall how she had made the journey back to her room afterwards, as though the mist outdoors had shrouded her mind. As to what had occurred before, the physical signs could not be ignored, despite the surreal qualities of the scene in her memory. The images were too sharp, the sounds too clear. At times she had imagined herself to be the object of one of his experiments, a fragile substance known for its volatility, to be handled with the utmost care. And she had melted, frozen, burned, traversing all the states of matter before being released into the ether to float back to her room.
Even now, if she closed her eyes for too long, she could feel a finger stroking the curve of her jaw, a hand pushing cloth aside, brushing against exposed flesh. She did not shake away these sensations, but let herself be taken by them again until someone below, rather too loudly, called out for their lost underclothes.
“Are you sure they’re not in the other side of the tower?”
There were gasps and laughter, free in the comfort of a mere joke.
Minerva frowned. Her feet were on the stair when she stopped, face reddening. She turned back to her room, the scold on her tongue turning to dust.
Would it show upon her? Some red letter etched across her brow? Or, as she’d heard in crude rumour, would she somehow move in a different way, her whole body supposedly rearranged? She did not care if they condemned her or if they pitied her, but she did not want to hear the laughter, the whispers. Rumour. Ruthless speculation. Yet this time it would be true.
When she did finally descend, she was not wearing the ring.
Among the others, she could almost pretend that all was as usual. She neither caught any suspicious glances nor whispers of scandal. If her silence was noted, it was regarded as the inevitable result of one’s final day at Hogwarts. There was to be no return, and although for some this may have meant an escape, for others it was a loss, a stepping forward into the unknown, that nebulous state called adulthood.
“At least we can be assured of jobs at St. Mungo’s, terrible as it is to admit.” Hetty Crouch never hesitated to say what others wouldn’t, even if they secretly agreed.
“There’s nothing terrible in saving lives,” Minerva said with a hollow voice.
A few of the witches paused, mid-step. Hetty did not miss a beat
“Even when I’m taking their pulse and administering potions, you can be sure that the first thing they’ll want to hear about are the Quidditch scores.”
Annabelle was clutching her quick-dry handkerchief, her eyes red-rimmed. “It cheers them up. Something to think about other than... you know.”
Minerva looked away. What kind of future could there be? The lack of certainty was a desperate itch that could not be scratched, a restlessness that could not be quashed.
No one said anything more until they reached the Great Hall.
The Ravenclaw table was still partially empty. Some had not bothered to return even once the danger had passed, but their absence made it only more obvious that Grimm was not there.
Her jaw stiffened, but she gave no other sign of the confused mass of emotions that whirled inside. If other Gryffindors observed that she set upon her food with unnecessary violence, they did not remark upon it. A set of younger Quidditch teammates requested advice regarding tactics and formations for the coming year. The prefects reported on the lack of anything to report. And all the while, Minerva felt a heightened awareness of the doorway and all who passed through it.
Grimm’s continued failure to appear grated at her nerves. It was just like him to find other occupations during breakfast. Likely he was lost in one of his books or parchments, something he had found in his room as he packed that swept his thoughts away.
She stabbed at a sausage, her fork clanging against the plate.
“Minerva?” came a voice from just behind.
When she turned and saw Leela’s face, she knew.
“I’ll take the risk of jumping to conclusions and assume that you’re looking for Grimm,” but here the prefect’s voice, usually so matter-of-fact in tone, lost its momentum. “I’m sorry, but he’s gone. He must have left early this morning. Though no one heard him come in last night, so it might have even been sooner.”
Minerva schooled herself to show nothing, to believe nothing, to feel nothing.
“Oh. I see.”
It was more comfortable to speak in monosyllables. If she tried to explain, if she said that they had not yet said goodbye, that he had promised, that she had wanted to see whether he regretted what had happened, she would be lost.
But Leela did not move. Her eyebrows came down in sharp disapproval.
“Typical Grimm. You might think he’d been raised in a barn. But come to think of it, the animals would have taught him better manners.” She shook her head. “I really am sorry, Minerva. He gave none of us a chance to wish him good luck.”
Minerva swallowed. “I don’t think he wanted any.”
Leela took in a sharp breath, but before she could reply there was a minor outcry among the younger Ravenclaws, and she hurried back, robes flapping around her legs. Minerva glanced over to witness Olive Hornby scrambling over the bench, ashen grey and shaking at the sight of something on the table behind her, now hidden by the press of bodies.
“It was her! Didn’t you see?”
Peeves was performing somersaults in the air, pointing and snickering at the Ravenclaw table, only to find his course halted by the looming presence of the Bloody Baron. One glower from the ghost sent Peeves rushing off through the nearest wall.
“Now, now, what is this?”
But Professor Flitwick failed to have the same effect upon the students of his house. Eventually most found their seats, pushing down the bench to leave a wide space where Olive had sat. Minerva did not know where the girl had gone, and found that on the whole, she did not care. She turned back to the remainder of her meal, not wanting to waste any as she could not be sure about the rationing at home. Her mother’s last letter had not sounded optimistic on the subject.
The seventh-years sitting across from her were staring, but she could not bring herself to react. What was this... emptiness?
Her actions were mechanical. Cut. Stab. Bite. Chew. And so on. She took up the napkin to wipe her lips. She set it down again. She left the table with a nod to the others, her back painfully straight as she exited the hall.
Gone. This morning. Early. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps right after–
She halted, her eyes closed as she breathed in and out. In and out.
It was no more than she ought to have expected.
Why then did she feel pain? Why did she want to run and scream and hit? Anything to let it out, to let him go.
The doors were open to the courtyard beyond, beckoning her toward the threshold of the world. The mist was fading, rolling back up into the highlands, but still the edges of every object remained out of focus. The trees in the hollow by the gamekeeper’s hut blurred together in a dark mass, beyond the reach of the weak sun, and the road to Hogsmeade Station was a dull scar across the landscape. Dead stone marking the path of no return.
Her hand curled into a fist. No return. She must not regret. She must go on.
“What is it, Minerva?”
A flash of auburn hair and cerulean robes at the corner of her eye did nothing to relieve her straining nerves.
“I thought it would be obvious, Professor.”
He stood beside her, hands clasped behind his back, looking out at the courtyard. Some minutes passed before he spoke again.
“Tiberius left the castle just after dawn.”
Minerva glanced up at him, expression darkening. “How–”
“He did not make prior arrangements for his departure, if that is what concerns you, Minerva,” Dumbledore said, his voice too apologetic, too sympathetic. “Our young gamekeeper observed his departure.”
She took in a breath, her nose filling with the scent of the old castle, but also something else brought in by the wafting breeze. Dark peat and mountains. The scent of home.
“It shouldn’t have been necessary for him to go at all, Professor.”
The tension that suddenly radiated from him was like a cracking of a whip beside Minerva’s ear. She stepped aside and looked toward him, but he had already rearranged his face into its usual mask of equanimity.
“It is a decision well-beyond our control.” Something shook deep within his throat.
“That doesn’t make it right.” A flare of anger once again pulled at the edge of her vision. “What made him believe that this was the only way? That he should break a promise rather than–” She clamped her fists more tightly shut, wishing she had kept all of herself that way.
Dumbledore’s eyes narrowed behind his half-moon spectacles. “There are actions that, despite all appearances of selfishness and deception, are yet borne of love.”
Minerva froze. It was almost as though the blood paused in its course through her veins.
His next words emerged with difficulty. “There are those who cannot bear to see pain in the eyes of a loved one, and thus they do anything to avoid it.”
“Even avoid a goodbye?” She spoke as with another’s voice. Far away. Indifferent.
A silence stretched between them, soon broken by the stream of students leaving the Great Hall, their voices echoing against the castle’s hollow stones. Their laughter rang in Minerva’s ears, drowning out the whispers of the night just as the morning breeze erased from her skin every love’s caress.
She stared into the light even as her memory still lurked in darkness, failing to notice the twist of his features as he swallowed all feeling, all signs that he knew too well how she suffered within.
“We never truly say goodbye. Not to those we love.”
Someone called out his name, and he turned, pausing only to press Minerva’s shoulder before he strode away.
Minerva continued to watch as the mist cleared beneath a strengthening sun. The grey tinge faded from the trees, leaving a depth of green that, in full sunlight, would dazzle the eyes and draw forth the dark scent of pines. She thought she might shake and sob, the memory of these last few days, of the previous night, pounding between her ears, but her breathing was even, her eyes dry. She felt nothing more than the open sky, grey and thin and endless.
No one came near and thus no one heard the whispered words.
“If not in this world, then the next.”
Only then did she move, the heels of her shoes clicking across the floor until she disappeared once more into the castle.
The platform was a mass of bodies and trunks and animal cages, everyone shoving together for space in the queue for each carriage. The first-years were lost in the crowd, most still too small, crying out each time a larger foot came down on their own. Some called out farewells in heavy Scotch accents, having optioned to travel home using alternate means, anything to avoid the dangers of London air raids. The Hogwarts Express would also stop at various isolated stations for those students from the north and midlands, as well as for those whose families had taken refuge in a countryside that was itself only too-familiar with the whirring of aeroplane motors and the echo of firing ranges.
A group of seventh-years had gathered at one end of the platform, offering handshakes and good wishes with concern etched across their faces. Even those better skilled at dissembling could not conceal their foreboding.
Moody stood with arms crossed and head uncovered, looming over the other Gryffindors as a sultan does his subjects. He only betrayed his impatience with a finger that relentlessly tapped against his sleeve.
“If you should hear anything–” Minerva began, keeping her head high despite the lowness of her mood.
“Then I’ll write. They won’t be letting me cross for a while yet.” He shrugged, his eyes taking note of every face in the crowd. “But if there’s word, I’ll pass it along.”
Minerva nodded as though they had conducted a business contract.
“Thank you, Alastor.”
His gaze flickered toward her, then back again to the crowd. “Word is they’ll be assembling a special force. From all countries, witches and wizards alike. Only the best.”
“We’ll see,” she said, though his compliment did not pass unheeded. “It all depends, doesn’t it?”
One corner of his mouth twitched in assent, then he extended his hand.
They shook hands without smiling, Minerva not daring to wonder if this would be the last time she would see him. Any one of those upon the platform could fall in one snip of a thread. Air raids, disease, random accidents, all things that snatch away lives in a single breath, leaving what?
Her eyes met Moody’s and he gave a nod before slipping into the crowd. She wished she could have said something more. Good luck. Take care. But he didn’t need to be told those things. Luck is wasted on the proficient, the self-possessed. And so she bid farewell to the one who needed nothing from her while he who needed everything... he who had desired her love, drawing it from her as one draws yarn from wool–
A knot clenched in her throat. The blood pounded in her ears.
How could it strike so deeply? How could pain exist without a wound? Unseen, imagined, impossible.
She breathed slowly, deeply, a lungful of adolescence and steaming engine. Soon it would be only mountain and unwashed wool, rustling grasses and standing stones. Distance would heal and time would scar. Memory would fade.
To her left, Annabelle was sobbing into another Gryffindor’s shoulder. Hetty pushed around them, patting Annabelle’s arm with easy familiarity.
“So this is it then,” she said to Minerva, tossing back strands of hair from her face. “I can’t blame you for taking the short route home. I’ll be stopping in York myself.” When Minerva narrowed her eyes, Hetty added, “They’ve stationed me at the hospital there, though it’s said to be in a deplorable state. I assume they’re in need of magical assistance.”
Minerva nodded, but there was a disembodied quality to her manner, her gaze continually drifting, following her nomadic thoughts down the winding, narrow road. Away. One step after another and she too would be gone.
Hetty leaned closer, and Minerva could smell her perfume, a soft lavender that would be as out of place among wounded soldiers as it was among the throng of students.
“Will you write? Or at least let me write to you?” There was a hint of forlornness in Hetty’s voice that surprised Minerva, a looking forward into a future that seemed overwhelmingly bleak. “It’ll be nice to hear of something that doesn’t have to do with potions and bandages.”
The platform was beginning to empty as students shoved their way onto the train, its engine already building up steam.
“None of us are going the same way,” Minerva said at last, watching as students settled into the compartments, some talking and laughing, others quieter, more pensive.
Hetty sighed. “I know. Seven years falling over each other, and now we’ll be spread across everywhere.” She frowned as Dolores Umbridge and Walburga Black passed by, their stage whispers and laughter not lost on the Gryffindors’ ears. “Though personally I wouldn’t mind if some could be spread further away than others.”
Minerva offered her hand, and Hetty shook it vigorously, her eyes bright behind wafting strands of hair.
“I look forward to hearing the latest Quidditch gossip.” Even Hetty’s wryness held a wavering note.
“And I about your crumbling hospital,” Minerva replied with a lightness she did not entirely feel.
Yet she felt Hetty’s absence once it surrounded her. The last compartment door slammed shut, the noise lost in the roar of the engine as the wheels began to creak and turn. A great cloud of steam filled the platform. Its heat burst against Minerva’s face, so unlike the soft mist of dawn. The platform was awash in sound and steam, and she was lost within it, her feet carrying her away from the heaving machine bound for the south.
Steam still clung about her legs as she stepped onto the road, the gravel crunching beneath her feet.
One day, she thought. One day she would go. She would follow.
With another step, she turned and vanished, leaving behind only the ghosts that would, one day, rise to greet her once more.
All done at last! It only took seven years. Many thanks to those who have offered assistance and feedback as I was writing this story, and also to everyone who has read this story all the way through. Thanks for joining me on this crazy journey - I could not have managed to complete this story without you.
Sequels and related stories for the curious:
- "For the Greater Good" (appears in the HPFF United Collaboration) about Minerva and Dumbledore during the war
- "Ghosts of You", "ad memoriam", and "Good Night Dr. Jekyll" complete Grimm and Minerva's story
- Moody's story continues in "Ashes of Dust" and "Out of Time"
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