A/N: So, here's one of my unconventional oneshots. Many thanks to Erin at PI, who helped me with the chronology (and more!). I feel the title requires some explanation; in the Iliad, after Achilles kills King Priam's son, Hector (Oops, spoiler alert. But seriously, guys, it's classic literature), Priam approaches the battle hero to retrieve his son's body, knowing that his son needed a proper burial to enter Hades, and also knowing what Achilles's army has planned for Hector's body. The moved Achilles mercifully grants King Priam not only the right to bury his son, but also a few days' head start, wherein no soldier is allowed to attack the king. I feel that the title, Priam's March, therefore fits my piece because both King Priam and Minerva McGonagall are afforded a generous "head-start" of sorts, during which their enemies, of a certain unexplainable compassion, will not touch them, as they relinquish a part of their lives they once loved.
Pairing: Minerva McGonagall/Tom Riddle
Rating: M, for sex, swearing, mentions of death, etc.
"'Honor the gods, Achilles; pity him.
Think of your father; I'm more pitiful;
I've suffered what no other mortal has,
I've kissed the hand of one who killed my children.'
He spoke, and stirred Achilles' grief to tears;
He gently pushed the old man's hand away.
They both remembered; Priam wept for Hector,
Sitting crouched before Achilles' feet.
Achilles mourned his father, then again
Patroclus, and their mourning stirred the house."
--Homer's Iliad, lines 501-13
February 22, 1957
"Bloody hell, you must be freezing. Please, come in."
She nodded, teeth chattering, and accepted his invitation. The door closed firmly behind her, locking out the cold, and she began to take off her cloak. It caught on the pin that secured her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She tried her best not to let him see her difficulty, but it was a pretense, and he was never one for pretenses.
"Allow me." She smiled toward him graciously as he removed it from her shoulders ever-so-gently, his touch lingering on her skin even after he'd gone to hang it up.
He returned promptly, a look of surprise painted across his visage. "You must think I'm terribly rude. Have a seat, please."
"Mm, yes please."
He snapped his fingers twice and a stout house elf appeared, carrying an ornate tray, atop which rested two porcelain teacups. He took his time in relieving the house elf of her duty; he seemed to enjoy the way Minerva's expression twisted as he wrapped his long fingers around the vessels. He passed one to her so carefully she could have sworn she would have broken it with her own caress. Then came a generous sip of his own before nodding to his house elf, who then scurried away.
"I've heard you've acquired a teaching post at Hogwarts."
"Aye, it's true." She took a sip of tea and felt it burning down her throat. It was far too hot to be soothing.
"Let me guess... Transfigurations," he teased, but something was wrong. His words were too precise, calculated, their accompanying smile cold and uninviting.
"But of course," she replied.
"And you enjoy it?"
Under any other circumstance, she would have told him to cut the small talk. But there was something else. Minerva McGonagall was many things, but a fool was not one of them. She knew this wasn't small talk–it was no secret that Tom Riddle coveted her job. That he was all the more deserving of it was that which puzzled her; surely Albus would prefer his talent–one that had not been matched in decades–to that of the current bumbling imbecile who called himself the Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor.
"Aye," she offered curtly, trying her hardest to avoid his gaze by penetrating her teacup with her own.
She still felt, despite her attempts, his eyes boring into her, and found it rather unnerving.
"Minerva," he said quietly, the syllables rolling silkily off his tongue.
She looked up and his cold eyes pierced hers, searching her thoughts. "Tom, what is it?" she asked brusquely.
She didn't have time for his games.
"Well, if you're that impatient–"
She shot him a stern look that could have killed, and his voice came to an abrupt halt.
"Very well then, I see you've yet to lose your touch. Must keep the students in line, no?"
"I would like to think that it does," she responded coldly.
She would have liked to think that she saw a distant flame in his eyes, but none was there. "Pardon my bluntness, but I always imagined you serving elsewhere."
"If you mean to ask for my resignation–"
"Good heavens, no! My gods, woman, not in my wildest dreams would I–excuse me if my tone came across in such a fashion; I assure you nothing of the nature was my intent. What I meant by it was that you are talented beyond compare, and I..." his voice drifted off and she smiled weakly.
Minerva took the moment of silence between them to study his face. It was still conventionally handsome; his dark features shone prominently against his strong, square jaw. Yes, time had been quite kind to Mr Riddle. But there was something missing that she couldn't quite place.
His voice dropped volumes once more. "Minerva, you could be something great."
What had been the remnants of a smile on her lips quickly transformed into a tight frown. "I've no desire for fame or fortune. As far as I'm concerned, imparting knowledge onto the next generation is something great."
He smiled smugly and she returned his expression with a disapproving look. "Always the righteous Gryffindor, I see."
"I should hope that was not an insult," she intoned playfully.
"Oh, what's a little house rivalry between friends?"
A sudden wave of nausea had her staring at the teacup again. In that moment, everything in the room seemed disturbingly foreign. She needed to get out, and quickly.
Instead, she offered him a polite smile, disgust only woven minutely into the creases of her lips.
"You know, Minerva, there is a surprising lack of Animagi this century."
She stared at him uncertainly. Sure, she'd had her suspicions over the years about what happened in '49, but who would believe her? She wasn't exactly a renowned professor, and, of course, she wasn't exactly a man. With the little leverage she had, she couldn't even risk telling Dumbledore, and he was the most trustworthy man she knew. But there were certain things with which she doubted she could even trust Dumbledore. It wasn't that he would tell–he wouldn't. It was that she wasn't sure he wouldn't go places she didn't want him quite yet.
October 14, 1942
"Macleod! Macleod, wait up!"
"Sod off, Riddle. I've heard enough about my whiskers; it isn't funny anymore."
His footsteps became heavier as he slowed by her side, breathing heavily. "On the contrary," he huffed, "I find them rather endearing."
She stopped only to shoot him a deadly glare. "Arse."
Too late. She'd already turned, and was now walking away briskly.
Her head snapped around. "Get lost, Riddle!"
"Macleod," he groaned, as he ran toward her in a last-ditch effort to catch up.
Thing was, no matter how much of a sanctimonious bitch she could be, he could still run faster. He was always faster. "You know how excellent you are at Transfigurations; why do you let people do this to you?"
She turned toward him and raised a questioning eyebrow. "What do you want?"
"I want your help."
"Aye, and I'm the Queen of Scotland. Good riddance to bad rubbish, Riddle."
"I was unaware Scotland had reinstated its independency."
"Very funny. But I am, under no circumstances, falling for this. I will not stand for green and silver knickers again. Good day to you!"
"Please," he pleaded quietly, and grasped her arm gently to keep her from stalking off. "This is a genuine request; I swear it."
She looked around nervously, and then glanced at her watch. Tom was never like the other Slytherin boys who enjoyed tormenting her above all else. He was reserved and polite, and whilst she suspected his motives were somewhat ulterior, he never gave her reason to believe it. And anyway, if he had really intended to hex her, she'd be burping frogs already.
"All right," she sighed tentatively. "What is it?"
He exhaled so loudly she could have sworn a literal weight was lifted from his shoulders. "Honestly–and I don't like to admit this sort of thing, so bear with me–I'm having trouble with Transfigurations."
"You don't seem like you're having trouble in class," she retorted sternly.
"It wouldn't seem that way, now would it?" He flashed her a smug grin. "You know, I keep telling Black and Parkinson to pay a bit more attention to where they leave their homework..."
"So you're cheating?"
"Not cheating, per se. More like..." He paused thoughtfully for a moment or two, feigning confusion. "Learning. I mean, the answer's the answer, whether you figure it out before the test or whilst taking it."
"You are incorrigible."
"I don't want to cheat anymore," he said earnestly, and it was true. He hated to rely on anybody but himself.
"Oh, but of course," she snorted.
"Honestly, I'd much rather keep my integrity intact. You know where I stand in the class; I'm always at the top, or second to it. You think I'd want to give that up for one lousy test question that Dumbledore finds suspicious? And anyway," he breathed, "I've a few questions and ideas that only someone as innovative as yourself would be able to answer."
"So ask Dumbledore himself, then, if you're so concerned."
"I can't. I mean, I–I'm intimidated by him."
"Oh, bullshite, Riddle."
"Honest! Give me Veritaserum for all I care!"
She stared him down for a good three seconds. "Okay," she said slowly, planning her words. "Let's just say that you do need assistance, and that you, for some reason unbeknownst to me and to the rest of the school, are, in fact, intimidated by Dumbledore, there's still a question left to be answered: why me?"
"Why you?" he repeated in utter disbelief. "Why, you're the best there is! I'd be a fool to think it doesn't take an exceptionally gifted student to become an Animagus at school–let alone during her fifth year! I've known no one to do it before."
Her cheeks flushed a rosy red, but she relented. "I'm certain you could find tutors elsewhere."
"I want you."
"If this is a foolish prank, I swear, Riddle, I'll–"
"So you'll help me?"
It took her a few seconds, but she finally reluctantly admitted, "Aye."
"Minerva, you have no idea how much this means to me, I–"
"Under one condition," she interrupted, her voice icy.
"Tell Malfoy and Nott to back off. I don't need them hampering my studies any longer."
"I mean, for Merlin's sake, at least I can turn into a cat. That's more than can be said for those two ruffians."
"What they lack in skill, they make up for in sheer stupidity," Tom pointed out, and for a second–just a second–a smile lit up Minerva's face.
"That's an understatement if I ever heard one." Her comment elicited a hearty laugh from him, and it was beautiful to hear. She couldn't tell what was more appealing about it–its actual sound or the fact that its presence made her feel wanted, accepted. And to think, it was at the expense of his would-be friends!
The sound didn't please her. It entranced her.
October 17, 1942
Rain pounded the grounds outside in an angry torrent, decorating the library windows
with mist, and tiny, excess droplets from its fall. It seemed to shroud the castle in a sense of gloom and foreboding, which was fitting, considering the circumstances.
This was a mistake. This was a huge, irreconcilable, gigantic, monstrous mistake.
There was nothing she could do about it now.
It was a trick. He would show up with his Slytherin-boy entourage, and they'd all have their laugh before conveniently "misplacing" her things. She didn't know how she could have let herself be so easily manipulated by him. She should have just stayed back in the Gryffindor Commons, and perhaps played a game of chess with McGonagall. He was nice enough, and seemed to fancy her. And plus, he would never, in a million years, pull something like this. How could she have been so stupid?
Something in the very, very front of her mind told her to get up and leave. Just pack up her things, take her knapsack, and go. But something more devious in the very far back compelled her to stay. Those two things were in the process of engaging each other in battle when Tom actually showed up. He was alone.
"Riddle," she acknowledged, fear in her voice.
"Please," he smiled, "call me Tom."
"Likewise." She shook her head, embarrassed. "I mean, don't call me Tom, call me–"
"Minerva. Got it."
"Yeah," she said sheepishly, silently admonishing herself for appearing so... girlish. If there was one thing she could not stand, and did not want to emulate, it was the harem of girls who seemed to follow Riddle around wherever he went. Fawning over him, giggling, whispering, sending love notes... you'd think they had been Imperio'd. But, alas, no such crime had been committed; those girls were just naturally tactless.
She could understand it to some extent–he was quite good-looking, very intelligent, and well-mannered–but she hardly thought that required such an avid following. Not that she was jealous or anything, because she wasn't, but–
"So. I figured we should start with this," he drawled, and dropped a book onto the nearest coffee table. Its spine read: Theories of Transubstantial Transfiguration.
"I didn't know you were taking Transfiguration as a N.E.W.T. class, Ri–Tom."
He shrugged his shoulders. "What can I say? I was good until I realised what I'd gotten into."
She eyed him suspiciously, then pointed to a broken quill left lackadaisically strewn on the floor. "Let's see what you can do."
"All right." With a few waves of his wand and a murmur later on his lips, a snow-white dove perched on her shoulder, singing sweet lullabies into her ear. Shortly thereafter, it settled into a pearl necklace along her collarbone, and she blushed furiously. "For you, madam," he offered.
"It's still got a bit of a feathery feel to it," she lied, snottily.
To her surprise, he laughed. "Only you, Minerva. Always the perfectionist."
"If you'd like to discontinue our–"
"It wasn't an insult in the least. I like that about you."
Well there was something she'd never heard before. In fact, she usually encountered just the opposite reasoning. (In the words of her first and last boyfriend, Louis MacMillan, "I can't bloody well think when you're not only doing it for me, but pointing out just where I've got it wrong!")
When she said nothing, he reached out to touch the pearls, his fingers dangerously close to her skin. "They suit you."
"I'm glad you approve of your own creation," she snorted, amused.
"Love thyself," he affirmed officially, lighting another smile on her face.
After a few moments of silence–something that had apparently become a staple of their conversation–she cleared her throat and turned away from the distraction. "Well, the important thing to understand about Theories is that it deals in non-absolutes. We're no longer talking about turning clocks into cuckoo birds. It's a bit more... abstract, if you will."
"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "That's exactly my problem. I can't seem to look past the concrete."
"Well, you're going to need to if you expect to start materialising things from mid-air."
"Why else would we be here?"
"You make a good point," she conceded. "To tell you the truth, I was the exact opposite. I could go on for hours explaining these theories, but when it came to the simple things, I was rather lacking."
"Says the sixteen-year-old Animagus."
The creases of her lips curled upward in a half-smile, and she rested a small finger on her nose. "It took Pomfrey two days to remove those horrid things. I've still quite a ways to go in my Transfiguration education." She paused, and almost as an afterthought, added, "Dumbledore nearly died of laughter. Strange fellow, that one. We've arranged private lessons."
"Gods, Minerva, if I had half your talent–"
"Oh, quit your arse-kissing."
"I'm not arse-kissing; I'm stating the truth. Isn't that what you care for above all else, Miss Fair and Righteous Gryffindor?"
"Yes," she hissed, "it's true that Gryffindors have some sense of decency, if that's what you're asking. It's something to which you, as a Slytherin, might be frightfully unaccustomed."
Where any other Slytherin would have hexed her knickers off, he merely smiled. "You know, it's said that Salazaar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor were the best of friends prior to their split. And it's ever-evident–both houses are eerily alike, if you care to notice. We're both fiercely loyal–"
"–Stubborn, daring, innovative..."
"Okay, I get your point. Still doesn't change the fact that you're a slimy prat."
"Am I?" His eyes sparkled something fierce, boring into hers like daggers.
"Oh, I–I'm terribly sorry. I fear I've gotten carried away. It's just that, well..."
"No, I understand. I'll be the first to contend, my Slytherin cohorts are not exactly... the most amicable of sorts. It's tough love in that house, let me tell you."
Another smile and more silence. Damn him, damn him and all his charisma. She shouldn't be letting him get to her. She was stronger than that.
"As I was saying, when you're learning to harness the abstract, it's very easy to revert to the same techniques used in previous years. But transubstantial feats are quite different; it's something anyone is bound to forget."
"But not you."
"Er..." Her cheeks flushed a warm rouge. "Well, yes. I suppose so."
"I have a question, Minerva," he announced, sitting up straight in his armchair. "Related to Animagi, of course."
"Is it possible for a wizard to become a magical creature? I mean, obviously it's possible for us to become typical animals like rats and dogs, but what if one were to morph into, say, a phoenix?"
Her eyebrows furrowed as though in deep thought. The puzzled expression remained on her face for a few moments before she admitted, "I... I don't know. I guess I never really thought of that."
"Well, now that you have, do you think if a wizard were to transform into something like a phoenix, that he would assume its magical properties?"
"Like the ability to 'rise from the ashes'?"
"That too. Or the ability of any other magical creature, like a kneazel, or even a house elf."
"I... I don't... honestly, Tom, I've never thought of that. But you do beg some infinitely interesting questions... you'd have to take it up with Dumbledore."
He gave her a pleading, oh-no-did-you-really-just-go-there look. She gave him a generous roll of the eyes. "Or I could take it up with Dumbledore."
"I... I suppose."
His eyes widened and he smiled exuberantly.
"But don't be expecting these sorts of favours on a regular basis!"
"I never would."
October 20, 1942
"Have you spoken to him yet?"
A wave of guilt washed over her, though she knew she was hardly at fault. To make sure he knew, too, she made a face like she'd swallowed a lemon–her eyebrows furrowed and she pursed her lips. "No, I've not. Not that it's any of your concern, mind you, when you still haven't got a clue with the intraspecies eccentricities. Here, it's like this–"
She made to attempt the spell, but he beat her to it with a few flicks of his wand. The toad sprouted wings. "Won't you kiss your Prince Charming?"
She did not look amused. No, not in the slightest. "You couldn't give that toad purple warts to save your life just a minute ago, and now it's got wings? Unbelievable, Riddle. You must really want this from me."
"I want nothing of you. And to address your finer point, what can I say? I've learnt from the best."
She turned away to hid her flushing cheeks, just in case he'd think her anything but painfully annoyed.
"He wasn't there when I checked. Where do you suspect he goes, anyhow?"
"Rumour has it he's got a case against the Dark Lord. Hell, if I were Grindelwald, I'd be scared shiteless. Have you ever seen Dumbledore duel?"
"Once, but I fear it was an accident. I didn't see much."
Riddle's voice fell. "The man's a genius. Totally fearless, even of death."
"I'd suppose that's the way to do it."
"I can't say I know how he does."
November 1, 1942
"You look like hell, Tom."
He flashed her a wide, sheepish grin. "What can I say? Slytherin doesn't exactly host a... demure Hallowe'en party." He clutched his forehead between two fingers. "No, not in the least..."
She raised her eyebrows disapprovingly. "If you're not ready to continue–"
"I was wondering, Minerva," he slurred, still too obviously feeling the after-effects of a night of drunken debauchery. "Just what do you think of this war?"
The comment caught her completely off-guard. "Um," she said quietly. "I think–I wish it would end soon."
His eyes narrowed and he studied her for a long time after that. "I mean ideal-wise."
She stared hard into her lap, trying her best not to think of her father, trying her best not to cry. "I think they're scared. The Knights, I mean. Aye, it's swell now for them to think of the power, but if Grindelwald succeeds, they'll have none. And I think they know it. There's just no mark of loyalty."
"Hmm," he breathed, staring not quite at her, but perhaps at a point somewhere behind her.
November 25, 1942
"Well, what'd he say?"
Her heart leapt into her throat and she spun around. "Merlin, Tom, you scared the hell out of me."
He seemed to ignore her admonition, instead backing her against the library shelf. Was this a game? "You did meet with him today, didn't you?"
"Aye," she breathed. Her heart had settled back into its rightful place in her chest cavity, but it was now beating a mile a minute. He was standing awfully close to her–so close, in fact, that she could smell his cologne and feel the warmth of his breath against her skin.
She looked away. "He wouldn't give me a straight answer. Sort of looked at me funny, like he was reading my mind, and said, 'That's enough, Miss Macleod. No need to venture where the mind isn't ready.' Then I left." She looked back toward his face, and it reflected for just an ephemeral moment the purest anger imaginable. It was gone, however, in the instant it came, and soon took on the expression of curiosity, like he'd somehow gotten his answer. His dark, cold eyes widened, and he inhaled sharply.
"As I've said before, he's brilliant, but there's something off about him." She was just rambling now, as was her nasty habit. She only started up when she was nervous, when she knew something was going to happen that would make her feel uncomfortable in the slightest, whether it be good or bad. Minerva Macleod liked her situations predictable, without the calm before the storm. The feeling that she was so small, that she was too painfully powerless to stop whatever powers were at hand. The subtle glance, the rush of adrenaline, the–"I can't–"
He backed her farther into the bookshelf, and silenced her with his kiss. She pulled away just as fiercely as he'd crushed his lips onto hers, and he resorted to kissing her neck, her chest, and she failed to hold in that slight whimper. His eyes returned to hers, and they stared at each other for a moment before he leant in to kiss her once more. This time, she didn't resist. She couldn't resist.
"You didn't really need help with Transfigurations, did you?"
He shook his head.
June 12, 1948
A thousand apologies would do my betrayal and your heartbreak no justice. I barely
know where to start. Appease me, will you, in reading this letter. You do not have to, of course, and I would understand if you refuse.
You know how I felt about the war. We disagreed upon it many and sundry a time, but in the end, I knew I had to leave. I think you knew it, too. And I've gone over that night a hundred times in my head, and there's not one second of every minute of my life when I don't wish so fervently that I could have changed it. That I could have said good-bye.
I wish you would believe me when I say that I fell in love with you. I know it's been too long, and I do want to tell you everything I've done since we last saw each other, but I simply cannot risk it in this correspondence. You know how hard the Ministry's come down on rumours. I would hate for my owl to be intercepted; I would hate for you to be persecuted at my expense.
I can assure you, my love, that I've effectively 'stayed out of trouble,' as you so affectionately deemed it. I'd love to go into elaborate detail, and I'd love to see you–that is, if you'll have me. Everything will be according to your terms. I am staying temporarily at the Hog's Head. The room's 407.
She twisted the parchment between her fingers, standing outside the door to his hotel room. If this wasn't the most ridiculous idea she'd had in a long time, she didn't know what was.
She should have stayed away. She should have thrown the letter into the fire, and looked on triumphantly as she broke his heart right back. What did she expect? By the time he left, he had already changed so much... what became of him in his absence? What became of her? She didn't know what he had in mind. They certainly couldn't just start all over again, like the pair of in-too-deep adolescents they were.
Times had changed.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. His words echoed in the back of her mind like distant elegies. Damn William and his honed knowledge of the French language. His very endearing, wildly attractive knowledge of the French language.
She'd be lying if she said she didn't feel like a schoolgirl again–young and in love.
The door opened swiftly and she gazed upon the figure in the doorway, as he stared right back. His lips gaped like a fish out of water, and a lump in her throat suddenly made it uncannily impossible to say anything–not 'hello,' nothing. It was as if she'd been hit by a train.
What did you say to living ghosts? She couldn't very well leave, and she couldn't say "good evening" and get right to discussing the good old days.
She found, as of late, that she couldn't do very much at all.
"Minerva," he whispered, melting the silence like a blow-torch. "Minerva," he repeated.
"Oh, Tom," she murmured, as he pulled her into an embrace, shutting the door behind them. "Oh, gods, it's been so long." She stayed in his arms long enough to imprint his scent into her memory, then pulled away. "Look at you."
He put a roughened finger to her lips. "Later," he instructed, hastily unbuttoning her cardigan. She moved her hands to stop his, but found they were too weak and woozy to forcefully resist. She doubted she actually wanted to, anyway. Then came the hot breath on her neck and the kisses on her chest as clothing pooled at their feet.
He cupped her breast just before she felt his erection against her stomach. "This is obscene," she whispered between his hungry kisses. Despite her affirmation, she wrapped a leg around his back.
"Not here," he breathed in a tone that made the comment slightly resemble a question. She nodded vigorously. "All right." Soon there was another leg wrapped around his back, and she was kissing him as he carried both their weights backwards, grasping her arse with unnecessary firmness. Kissing, walking, navigating, groping–it was like he could see through the back of his own head.
He finally rested her on his bed, and her arms quickly enfolded themselves around her bosom.
"No," he said softly–slyly, like he had a secret. "No, let me look at you."
She looked at him questioningly and hesitated for a few seconds, but then, one by one, she lowered her slender arms. She knew he wouldn't approve; she'd lost weight during the war (who hadn't?), and had never managed to put the pounds back on.His burgeoning stare made her uncomfortable, and her stomach began to do somersaults once again, but just when she was sure she would curl up within the sanctity of her own embrace, he bent over her to kiss her mouth, her neck, her shoulders–and then came the slick tongue on her collarbone, and the toughened hands on her hips, and she believed everything would be all right. Any coldness in his grasp was melted by the grinding of their pelvic bones against one another; she felt him stiffen against her, his erection grazing the skin on her stomach. He moved his thumb over her nipples, and they, too, hardened against his chest. Until middle age, she always had small breasts, but they were perfect for pinching, cupping, oh–oh, he rolled his tongue over them before he eased into her. She wasn't paying attention to the slight pain and tightness, just the look in his eyes and the severity of his expression. He always had a way of putting her in that sort of trance, and she lay helplessly at his mercy as he made love to her, their bodies pulsing rhythmically to his thrusts.
"Minerva," he panted, just when she thought he'd fallen asleep to let her confront her daemons alone. "I've waited so long."
She stared up at the ceiling, her too-thin body layered under the comforter, and didn't say anything for a good ten seconds. "Me too," came the frail sound of her waning voice. "Oh, Tom."
And she thought that would be it, and she could fall asleep to the symphonies of her myriad thoughts and his rhythmic breathing, but he had other plans, the stubborn fool. "I stayed away for you, Minerva. I took no part in that war for you."
"I never asked that much of you, Tom."
"You never had to ask."
"And now that it's over, now that we've nothing to disagree over, we can finally reclaim that man's house, and I can study."
She turned her head, which had been previously facing upward, away from him. Ever since his father died, Tom had never quite been the same. It wasn't that he was particularly close to his father–on the contrary, he despised "that man." Which was, of course, the name with which Tom referred to the man who made him, his own flesh and blood. And so, he never grieved, but he never quite got over it, either. She'd seen the same reaction in soldiers when she worked as a mediwitch for the war effort–the same cold, glossed eyes of circumstantial killers that always read, "I don't know what 'sorry' means, but I'll forever remember what death looks like." But they were murderers, and this was... well, this was Tom. It didn't change the fact that whenever he spoke of his father, it made her sick to her stomach. There were no stories; he never had stories of growing up with his father, or of his father growing up–only fantasies of death.
"Tom, I somehow doubt–"
"We can pick up where we left off, in that house. I promise you, Minerva, I'll never leave you again, so long as I live."
"How can you say that?" she snapped, all fire and brimstone unleashed. "How can you act like we can just start over?"
He sat up, buttressing his abdomen with the stable ninety degrees of his forearm and biceps. "Because we can! Damn it, woman, look at me! We can!"
She jerked her head to face him, finally. "Tom." She pursed her lips so tightly for effect that she thought there was a pretty good chance they might fall off. She willed a shaky ring finger into sight, and urged it further toward his face. "Tom, things have changed. I waited for you, but there's only so long a woman can wait."
He stared at her finger in utter disbelief, and she could see the anger registering in his eyes. "Who is he?" he asked softly, his voice acerbic and cold. For a fleeting moment, the whole room went red.
"It's William McGonagall. He treats me well, and I love him. He would never leave me, Tom, he'd never leave me, I'd take that to the grave."
He stared at her hard, eyes piercing her body. She could see everything about him tense–his teeth clenched with his muscles, his breath stopped short, and his nose twitched. After a few seconds he stood up, neglecting any sense of modesty, and she thought he was going to walk away.
She thought wrong. He turned around in a fury and threw the comforter off the bed, leaving her shamed and exposed.
She'd never meant to hurt him, but when the ends came chasing down the means, he had
been the one to hurt her.
Liar! Slut! Traitor!
Everything that followed happened in sort of a haze, and the last thing she remembered was trudging away from that hotel, emotionally bruised and battered, deserting her destiny and things she had once held dear. And she remembered that tear, that sole tear that trickled down her cheek and fell upon the ground with the softest, near-noiseless sound that she thought it was too perfect, too pure to have come from her tear ducts, from her eyes.
She disgusted herself.
March 7, 1942
Sometimes when she watched him, she had to pinch herself just to make sure he was real. He was poring over a tattered copy of what appeared to be Runes in Ruins: Decoding the Partially Restored, and she couldn't help but stare. He always studied with such ardour and determination that the only difference between them was his beauty.
Not that she was hideous or anything. She was appropriately pretty, or so he told her. His was just a remarkable sort of appeal that few could match. Especially when he read.
He caught her staring and smiled, closing his book. "I was thinking," he began, his voice airy and hopeful, "I might go visit my father."
"You hate your father. Don't be pulling my leg, Mr Riddle," she warned playfully.
"I'm not," he insisted wistfully. "What with this war going on, you never know which visit could be your last." His comment was spoken with a certain morbidity that clung to her bones, and she knew it had nothing to do with the war.
"Aye, seize the day," she agreed reluctantly.
"About that." He paused tentatively, the way a bearer of bad news would. "I've been toying with the idea of offering my services in the war effort."
Her eyes lit up like Christmas trees. "There are plenty of ways you can contribute. I was reading up on it in A History of Modern Wizarding Warfare and, of course, Witch Weekly, and did you know that you can–"
"It would be for the Knights of Walpurgis, Minerva."
Her exuberant smile fell into a frown, and the only expression she could muster was one of severe disappointment. She knew some of his ideas aligned with those of the Knights, but whose didn't? Aye, even the Resistance harboured ill will toward the New Radicals every now and then. But to join the Knights for it? That was unheard of.
"You can't be serious."
He smiled faintly. "No," he lied. "Just thinking out loud."
And she believed him. Not because she thought he was being truthful, but because she wanted to.
"All right, that's enough. If I look at another page of runes, I think my eyes will begin to bleed." He got up, gathered his books, and kissed her forehead. "Good night, Minerva."
She watched him walk away, toward the Slytherin Commons, from the safe confines of her armchair. Just as he was leaving the library, however, she noticed he'd dropped a book. It had fallen ope to a random page, so she couldn't help but examine it as she went to pick it up.
She did a double-take. Those were definitely not Ancient Runes.
She studied the moving calligraphy for a few seconds and scanned the type.
In the case of a misfire, the caster would be subjected to his own curse, whereupon the unstable aura would assume the doppelganger of the wizard, as seen below:
She couldn't make out the figures in the image because the book was so worn, but the action didn't look pretty; there was a slicing movement and a dreadful hissing sound that seemed to jump out of the page.
When she thought she couldn't look on anymore, she slammed the book shut. She'd give it to him in the morning.
Perhaps there were things better left untouched.
February 22, 1957
"Tom, why am I here?"
"Why are you here?" he echoed, though the repetition sounded far less like a question.
"Colour me impatient," she elaborated, not in the mood for any attempts at subtlety.
"Yes," he said softly, prolonging the "s" the same way a snake would hiss. He paused and touched two fingers to his forehead pensively. "There's a revolution on the horizon. I don't think I can face this new day without you by my side."
"Tom, what are you going on about?" she asked with a measure of uncertainty; she found the cold, distant glimmer in his eyes disconcerting. They were the emptiest she'd ever seen them, and yet, they still managed to evoke a sort of sparkling lustre.
"I've spoken to at least a hundred men so far who are willing to fight, willing to die for this. And those are just the ones I've approached directly."
"For what? Fight for what? Die for what, Tom?"
"For their dignity and my immortality. There's really nothing more to it. But not one of them is nearly as intelligent or resourceful as you. Minerva, you could be a true asset to this cause, to me."
This was it. She was going to vomit. There was no denying it now; he was a murderer. A bat-shite crazy, not-fully-there, yet somehow enchanting murderer.
"You must be out of your mind." It took a bite of the tongue not to say what was really on hers–not to accuse him of that heinous crime.
"On the contrary," he elucidated, his lips snaking upward into a smirk, "I am quite sane. And I need you, Minerva. I need you."
A thick lump blocked her airway, and her eyes widened. "Tom, that's preposterous. I've my job–the children–Albus–"
"Albus Dumbledore is not a fool," she spat, a bit too quickly and a bit too defensively for him to take the comment on face-value.
He raised an eyebrow and looked her over once. "Sleeping with him already, are you?"
"That is absolutely none of your business!" she shrieked.
"Oh," he snarled, his voice quiet and menacing, "I think that it is. And I'll have you know, there are ways of dealing with men like Dumbledore."
"I'd like to see you try," she sniffed. "You could never touch Albus. Not like you touched William–"
"Oh for Merlin's sake, Minerva, would you let McGonagall go?"
"He was my husband!"
"He was a half-blood!"
"So. Are. You."
At that, his dark eyes narrowed considerably; they were almost slits by the time she'd unclouded her vision of tears. The whole room went cold before he spoke. "Can't put anything past you, Minerva, can I? I was wondering when you would figure it out. Pray tell, what else do you know about me, my clever Gryffindor?"
"I know that you are the heir of Slytherin," she said softly, slowly, staring into her lap like a guilty child.
"I am not ashamed."
She raised her eyes to his in defiance–molasses orbs against unreadable voids. There had been a time when she would never have considered challenging him, a time when she had been timid, afraid, needy–when she'd let him take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right. And no matter how fervently she thought different, she would melt into him because he could protect her.
Minerva McGonagall didn't need protecting, not anymore.
"And I know that you can't win, Tom. You can't win."
There was a time she loved him, but that time was gone, too. It had moved on with his priorities; she couldn't possibly love a man who loved something more than her, more than himself–something dark and terrible. Something for which he'd be willing even to sacrifice her. And she couldn't love a man she didn't know how to love.
His eyes blazed and she knew she'd hit a nerve. "I will win," he hissed. "And no one can stop me."
"I can stop you," she countered with an impenetrable resolve. It came out too quickly; perhaps she hadn't meant to say it. But she finally realised the magnitude of her statement, and it scared the hell out of her. Her eyes widened as she willed the words back into her mind, but judging by the look on his face, she'd failed. There was only one thing she could do. She got up and leant next to him, trailing her fingers along his jaw line. "Tom, what have you become?"
"I will kill you if I have to." She flinched and retracted her hand like she'd touched a flame.
"How can you... how can you say that?"
"And I promise you, Minerva, I am good for my word."
"Don't!" he shouted, turning his cheek toward her. His breaths became heavy shrouds of foreboding, and it took all that was left in her not to scream.
And then it came to her, and she spoke with renewed conviction. "Why don't you just kill me now, then? Go on. You've got your wand. And Lord knows you're no less than ten times as powerful as I; you probably don't even need it. So go ahead," she taunted him. "Give me your best shot."
Silence hung in the air like his musky cologne.
"Are you afraid?"
"So it's an empty threat, then?"
"Get out!" he bellowed. "Get out, and never come back, because the next time I see you, I will kill you!"
"You can't do it because you love me!"
"I love nobody, and I never have! Love is weakness, and I," he stood up abruptly from his chair, "am not weak."
"Tom, you don't want this. You can still–"
She turned her nose up to him and gathered her things, moving more quickly than she'd ever moved before. And yet, her life seemed to be moving in slow-motion when she turned back–just once–to study him, to see a deep and pure hatred in his eyes. Maybe he couldn't love (anymore), but he most certainly could hate, and in that moment, in that one backward glance, he hated her in ways she didn't even want to consider.
"And don't make me have to tell you again!" he called out to her.
As though in fear of being transformed into a pillar of salt, she never looked back. She couldn't feel herself running, but the constant trudging noise her feet made when they met the cheap linoleum floors indicated she was.
All she could see was the door, and when she shut it, she closed a chapter in her life that she refused to name. And soon all there was to see–to feel–was the pale moonlight against her skin and on the snowy sidewalk. It was the end of something beautiful, and the beginning of something terrible. There were many things Minerva would have changed about it, if she could have. But not one:
She had loved him.