Learned Behaviors
by Flourish (flourishnblotts@yahoo.com)

PG. Slight Riddle/McG.-----



The fire in the staff room had died down to embers, black and orange in their grate. Minerva McGonagall thought on Tom Riddle, for a moment, his eyes glowing black and orange, the firelight glinting off them as he stood over her in the Department of Records -

She clutched her green robes about her, then picked some embers from the fire. Spells made her hands impervious to heat as she cupped them, blowing softly through pursed, tight lips in order to keep them burning as she carried them back to her chambers. The cold air made the hair on her arms and neck stand up straight, missing the warmth of the fire, even as she passed the threshold to her parlor. She knelt at the grate there, laid the tiny pieces of flame where they would best light the kindling and coaxed a fire into being. These rituals where ingrained in her as suspicion was ingrained, the sort of suspicion that doesn't show itself unless you are suspected. No house elves were allowed in McGonagall's chambers. She knew too well how the house-elves of the world learned their secrets, and how the secrets you have are the key to your magic, to your soul.

Once, she had learned secrets herself. Later - now- she only kept them.

Settling herself into the chair before the fire, Minerva allowed her face to relax into the worry lines of every day. Her correspondence lay on the table next to her, the only hint of personality in this empty room. There was space enough for her own items, in the warrens behind her door: here, she kept neutral ground. The fire drew her into the past, when she sat in front of a fire much like this one, in a room much like this one. She didn't like to admit how much she drew on her history.

It was a time when Grindelwald was just at bay. Minerva was a few years out of school, working in the Ministry, filing and filing the reports from workers in the field. Nobody took a job at the Department of Records for love of the work. They took it to get the security clearances, to handle the files, to learn all they could from the notes the Ministry so trustingly took down. She certainly had. At the time, she had been studying her Animagus transformation. By the field reports of the Department of Mysteries she had learned the secrets to determining what animal you would change into; she selected a cat, a most useful form. It did not suit her personality. Later, she realized that cats never sat as stiffly as she did, never cocked their heads quite so intelligently. An owl would have been more suitable for her. But she had made her choice.

Then, she had met Tom Riddle, the new employee.

Of all the things she had done, it was opening that file before him she regretted the most. Yes, he was younger than her, but he was dashing and tall and dark and handsome, and he spoke so glibly she was already half in love by the time he had finished his first hour of Banishing documents to their respective shelves. Their station was furnished with two chairs before a fire, where one was expected to review the documents' titles and determine their placement. Minerva saw his eyes moving over each line of text. She knew that he was looking for something. Unless she told him, he would never know it was safe to read them right in the Ministry building itself. He would try to smuggle some out, undoubtedly, and be caught as they screamed their security ratings for all the guards to hear. I have not been authorized to be removed! Thievery! Thievery, traitor! Traitor, thief!

Her course was already set. Deliberately, she picked the document on top of the pile, not caring what it was, and opened it, reading slowly and with great show. He was watching her. Her eyes flicked over the top of the manila folder, met his cool gaze unflinchingly, and returned to the page.

"Nothing here I wanted. Too bad," she commented as she Banished the papers to their place.

"Too bad," he echoed.

She mouthed it, later, when someone made a mistake in one of her classes: too bad. It was never spoken aloud. Instead she excoriated them for being reckless, for mispronouncing, for not studying. In each student's face she saw Tom Riddle's, the Riddle of his sorting, high cheekbones already prominent through the baby fat and dark hair falling insolently into his eyes.

Letters lay unopened at her right hand, and Minerva turned to them, moving closer to the fire. They were everyday things: from her sister, from her niece, from a family friend. Each she dropped back to the table. If she opened them, she would feel obliged to answer, and she did not feel like letter-writing.

The last had no 'From.' It was written in a thin hand with a poorly inked quill, and she recognized the handwriting - just barely, just enough. She didn't need to read it to know what it said.

I told you, you were in over your head. You said it yourself. Still won't listen, will you, Minerva? You listen only to your own heart. That's fine. You know where I am and you know that I'll come for you, soon enough. Hogwarts is in danger as long as you are there. The Potter boy is in danger as long as you are there. Don't think I don't know that you could beat him, if you chose. He loves you, and his little friends will do as you say. Come to me, and you can save them. They'll be prisoners, but they'll be alive. You know my messenger at Hogwarts. The messenger can negotiate our meetings, if you like. Or not. Choose as you will. The waters are far too deep for such as you, kitten, and you're not a strong swimmer.

Yes, she had told Riddle that, once. He was always Riddle to her, although he had told her what he had named himself once. "I don't like it," she had replied. "It sounds too pretentious. People with names like that get themselves killed." Then she had sent away the magical letters he had made to spell Lord Voldemort, and lightly grasped the wand he held, pushing it back to point away from her. "I don't want you to get yourself killed. Ambition is a good trait, but it must be tempered."

And that was what had tipped it. Nagging, like Molly Weasley, the first-year Gryffindor who was always pushing the others about. Riddle had stood over her, using his height to his advantage, towering over even her tall frame and holding her wrists not-so-gently. "Never mother me," he whispered, bending his luminescant face down to hers till their noses were nearly touching. "You may be older but by God you're no Slytherin. You're in over your little Gryffindor head, Minerva, you're drowning when you try to mother me."

Softly, she expelled her breath, knowing he could feel it on his lips. "I know I'm in over my head, Riddle," she whispered in the tone she had never used with anyone but the few boys she had romanced, back at Hogwarts. "I can't stop being who I am - and I can't help but think you'd not want me to be Slytherin."

"Yes," he replied, laughing softly and low, but his eyes were solemn. "I can't imagine wanting you to be Slytherin. I rather like you better offbalance. Unsteady."

One step backwards, and she was falling into his chest, grasping his robes to stay upright. She had glanced up at him and seen the cruel intent in his eyes, felt the power just as she felt the warmth radiating from his body, and she had known that this was someone more powerful than her. She was a plaything, useful sometimes and other times merely amusing. Soon enough she had vowed to be no one's plaything, had taken the teaching position at Hogwarts and removed herself from his intoxicating presence. She knew he would rise to be great - great good or great evil, whichever he chose. The magnetism that surrounded him could hardly produce any other result.

Now she could still feel his power through the thin lines of his handwriting. His face was different: yes, but hers was too, wrinkled and aged by the years. Her hair was still as black as it ever had been, though, and her posture ramrod-straight. She had not shrunk. She could almost - almost - look him in the eye, if she stood on her tiptoes and raised her chin. Of course, she would never get a chance to try, now.

The Department of Records was converted to an all-magic system shortly after she and Riddle had left. He had already learned what he needed to know there: the locations of the darker traders, the libraries that owned the more dangerous tomes, the passwords to enter the secret places where the dissidents gather to grumble and fret over the Ministry's most recent acts. In the long aisles he had found the keys to power, and using them, had casually shackled Minerva McGonagall.

The heat and the embers still reminded her of him, at the staff fire, at her own fire. Minerva ran her fingers over the letter's silver seal and threw the envelope into the flames, watching as the wax melted and the words burned into nothing but hot ash. That for Tom Riddle, she thought. That for keeping me unsteady - that's how much I believe in his words, now.

And yet - as she stood, a little stiff in the joints and creaking round her aging bones, the fire turned deep blue at its heart. While she did not turn back to witness it, the flames congealed and concentrated and returned a yellow parchment letter to its place atop the other post on her table. There was no "From." There never was. There was only the sharp scent of magic upon it. There was only that spidery handwriting, thin and hot as the embers.