A/N: This story was written for Tetley the Second (tetleybag on FFN), who submitted a generous bid for it on the Help Haiti auction on LJ. My grateful thanks to you, Tetley!
Beta-read by the incomparable Real Snape.
And, no, I'm still not JKR.
By Kelly Chambliss
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? ……
How do they come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
1 Jan 1995
12:10-12:30 am -- Tended unicorn foal -- sleep cycle disrupted (Hogmanay noise). Potions dispensed: 10 grns UniCalm draught / Chk'd side wound; still healing well; no infect. Return wild soon? NB -- Mon. consult habitat keeprs
6:15-6:30 am -- chk'd JobberKnolls -- eggs fine; females feeding well. Hatch prediction: 2 wks. NB -- owl apothecary; promise feather deliv March
7:30-7:55 am -- routine unicorn care
9:47 am -- owl (T. Alba) frm Dumble. -- Be CMC substitute at Hgwts??
10:15 a.m. -- Sighing, Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank removed her monocle and looked askance at her field journal, as if staring at it sideways would somehow make that last line go away.
But after a long moment, she raised her chin and reached for her pipe, and if the convalescent brown owl on its perch in the corner had been awake, he would have recognized the unmistakable signs of Wilhelmina facing facts.
In this case, the fact was a simple one: Albus Dumbledore wanted her to come to Hogwarts as a substitute professor. To teach "Care of Magical Creatures."
It was a professional request, nothing more, nothing less. That's why Wilhelmina had included it in her journal in the first place -- it was about work. Period. Her field notebook was a professional record, not some kind of navel-gazing diary.
Will didn't hold with personal diaries -- with writing all about one's feelings and what-have-you. Feelings were something to be. . .well, felt. Not spilled out on parchment like a bowtruckle regurgitating woodlouse bits.
Dumbledore's offer, however, was not personal. He needed a temporary professor for Care of Magical Creatures, and she was eminently qualified. Professionally qualified. So the possibility of teaching at Hogwarts involved nothing personal. Nothing personal in the least.
"Bollocks," snorted the little imp of honesty that lived in her head.
Wilhelmina often hated her little imp of honesty.
"Well? Are you going to take the position?"
From the head of her dining table, Amelia Bones cocked an eyebrow at Will as they waited for the soup to finish ladling itself from the tureen into bowls. This dinner was a long-standing tradition: they'd been taking their New Year's meal together for more years than either of them cared to count, and this time, it was Amelia's turn to host.
So here they were, ensconced in her dining nook, enjoying good food and the cozy pleasures of Amelia's tidy, tiny home. It was just the two of them; Amelia lived alone, and that was how she liked it.
Time and experience had taught her not only that she couldn't mix her career with domesticity, but that she didn't want to. The lesson had taken a while to learn, but eventually she'd come to know it by heart.
She clearly remembered the moment of revelation: she'd been standing on her doorstep watching as her lover -- make that her former lover -- Dorella Bolt had reductio'd her trunks and walked out of their three-year relationship. Even underneath the pain and loss, part of Amelia had been relieved to think that she'd be on her own again, and suddenly she'd known that she preferred to be.
Still, the break-up had hurt, and Will had been there to soothe her -- Will, who'd been her best friend ever since they were little girls attending Madam Sinta's primary school. They'd grown up together and gone to Hogwarts together and discovered their attraction to women together, even though they had never been lovers themselves. They were too much like sisters, for one thing, and besides, as Will said, if they tried to sleep together, they'd be forever mixing up their monocles on the bedside table.
But Amelia often thought that she was closer to Will than she'd ever been to any lover. Will had been there every time a romance had wrecked on the rocks of Amelia's Ministry ambitions, and Amelia had done her best to support Will in her turn.
Not that there had been many opportunities: unlike Amelia, Wilhelmina didn't love easily or often, and when she did, she wasn't one to kiss and tell. She'd had her heart broken only twice that Amelia knew of. The first time, the loss had been expected, and her friends had rallied round with sympathy and support. But this last time, Will had chosen to pick up the pieces by herself.
The second heartbreak had happened soon after the dreadful year that all those students (and ghosts and cats) had been Petrified at Hogwarts, which was also the year Will had spent doing field work in Asia. She'd returned toward the end of June, and Amelia had known something was wrong as soon as she'd arrived at Will's cottage to welcome her back.
The sitting room had been chilly and dusty, even though Will had been home for over a week. She'd obviously started her healer's work again -- or so Amelia judged from the number of on-the-mend creatures that filled the house -- but even they had seemed subdued, most of them sleeping or hiding under the furniture.
"Come on, then," Amelia had said, shooing an enormous bandaged cat off Will's sofa and plumping down next to her. "What's wrong? Spill. Has she dumped you, is that it? Found someone else? Couldn't be bothered to wait for a year? Or what?"
"Nothing serious," Will said, flipping a dismissive hand.
But Amelia was not about to be put off. "Oh, please. None of that stiff-upper-lip. You tell your Agony Auntie Amelia all about it. I can at least help you think up some good hexes for the Other Woman, if there is one. Or are you just going to sit there and smoke yourself blue?"
"No," Will had said. "Going to get pissed, too."
And she had.
That had been over a year ago. Now, watching Wilhelmina methodically spoon up mulligatawny soup as a way of refusing to answer any questions, Amelia wondered if she ought to open a second bottle of Ogden's Old. Because this could easily turn out to be one of those nights.
Still, if Will thought Amelia was going to be deflected by soup-laden silence, she could think again. Amelia Susan Bones hadn't got to be Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement by sitting still and being quiet, and Wilhelmina knew that better than most.
"So?" Amelia persisted. "Are you going to Hogwarts or not?"
"Haven't decided," Will muttered. "Got the unicorn to consider. And the jobberknolls."
"Can't you just get an apprentice from the Institute to come in and look after them, the way you usually do? It's not like anyone needs to be there twenty-four hours a day. And I thought you said you'd be returning the unicorn soon, anyway."
"Yes, but. . ."
"There, see? Everything will be fine. You'd better owl your acceptance to Dumbledore right now; term starts in two days."
"Three," Will corrected. "Plenty of time."
Amelia snorted. "It's not like you to put things off, Will. Not professional things. Especially for personal reasons."
Wilhelmina deposited her spoon in her empty soup bowl with a determined clatter that said, "don't push me" -- or Amelia assumed that's what it would have said, had she been inclined to listen to soup spoons. But honestly, it had been eighteen months since Will's break-up. It was about time she moved on.
"See here, Will," Amelia began again, but Wilhelmina interrupted.
"Now don't start, Madam Bones. I'm not some witness you can badger at a Wizengamot hearing." She grinned at Amelia's offended expression. "Question asked -- Will I take the job? Question answered -- Haven't decided. Leave it there. Please."
Thinking that it might be wise to yield -- for the moment --Amelia wanded the empty soup bowls in the direction of the kitchen and Summoned two small fish pies from the sideboard, relishing the sight of savoury gravy bubbling through golden crust. No one sold better pre-made meals than Gorfin's of Hogsmeade -- and always delivered right on time, with warming charms perfectly set. It made Amelia wonder why anyone would ever bother to cook even if they didn't have a Ministry career to save them from it.
Or a Hogwarts career. Which brought her back to the issue of Wilhelmina and Dumbledore's job offer. Of course she should accept. The commitment was only short-term; plus, if she took it, then Dumbledore would owe her a favour, which was never a bad thing. . .
Will's voice broke into her thoughts. "Stop it, Amelia."
"Stop sitting there plotting how to force me to say 'yes' to Hogwarts."
Amelia drew herself up and spoke with dignity. "I was merely thinking about its possible effects on your career. Dumbledore's a good man to have in your corner, you know."
Will shrugged. "My career has been fine without him up till now."
And you've been fine without Minerva McGonagall, too, Amelia thought. She wanted to say it aloud, but restrained herself. Just because something was true didn't mean people wanted to hear it.
Still, she wanted to get the whole Minerva thing out in the open. Really, the way people avoided saying her name around Will, it was getting to be as bad as You-Know. . .as Voldemort.
She tried to introduce her neutrally. "You don't have to worry about seeing much of Minerva, you know. It's a huge castle, and you'll be outside most of the time in any case. So you won't have to deal with her at all if you don't want to."
"You've never liked Minerva."
"Don't change the subject," Amelia retorted, even though Will was right. She'd disliked Minerva ever since she and Will had started as Hogwarts first-years, and Minerva had been the bossiest, most self-righteous third-year imaginable.
But Wilhelmina hadn't minded her. "You just hate to meet someone who can out-boss you," Will had laughed to Amelia then, but of course that hadn't been it at all. Amelia would never deny that she herself had. . .all right, call it a "strong personality." But Minerva was something else again. As Amelia often tried to explain to Will, Minerva's sort of inflexibility was dangerous.
Take the Order, for instance. To have an effective underground organization, one had to be able to think fast -- to change course, if necessary, like the slipperiest of Seekers. But Minerva was too hide-bound; she had a hard time seeing other points of view. (And no, Amelia told herself, she was not saying thisjust because the points of view Minerva couldn't see tended to be the ones Amelia held.)
Plus, such stubbornness had personal consequences, too -- and hadn't Will learned that lesson to her own great cost? She'd endured almost two lonely years now, and for no other reason, as far as Amelia could tell, than the unyielding arrogance of Minerva Bloody McGonagall.
Amelia opened her mouth to make these points and then forked in a large chunk of pie instead. Why say anything further? It would only hurt Will, and it wasn't as if she didn't already know Amelia's thoughts on the matter. Being outspoken was all very well, but Amelia knew she'd already said too much. There was a time for shutting up, too.
So she asked merely, "When was the last time you saw Minerva, anyway?"
"Don't remember," Will replied, a little too casually. "Excellent pie, m'dear. Gorfin's comes up trumps again, what?"
Amelia raised an ironic brow, but she let the conversation to turn to food, and Will tried not to look too obviously relieved. She loved Amelia, but tact had never been her friend's strong suit, and Amelia was never quite willing to believe that Will genuinely didn't like to discuss her every twinge of feeling.
Nor did Will like to lie, the way she'd just done. For it was a lie, as Amelia was no doubt fully aware. Of course Will remembered perfectly well the last time she'd seen Minerva.
It had been last summer, in Diagon Alley, just a week or so before the Hogwarts term started. . .
The afternoon was hot, and the pavements were a-swarm with Hogwarts students and their wilting guardians. Cursing herself for having forgotten how impossible it was to shop in the Alley so close to term, Will had just narrowly escaped being run down by a pack of squealing children when she turned a corner and found herself face to face with her old nemesis, Augusta Longbottom.
As usual, Augusta was wearing her stuffed-vulture hat, and Will bit back a sharp comment. Few things made her blood boil like the sight of dead animals used for fashion, although, as Minerva had once observed, the words "fashion" and "Augusta's hat" didn't really belong in the same sentence.
But it had been more than two years since she and Minerva had laughed together like that, and there was no point in dwelling on what used to be. Will forced her mind away from the past and focused instead on the scowling woman in front of her.
Augusta was accompanied by her round-faced, sweating grandson, who was clutching a rather pitiful toad and looking as if he wanted to be as far away from Diagon Alley as Will did. Poor little sod, Will thought, and tipped him a wink. He offered a small, shy smile in return, but took a step backward as Augusta cleared her throat.
"Wilhelmina." Augusta always managed to say her name as if it was a hex.
"Augusta." Will did a fine line in dry deadpan herself.
"Here to meet someone, are you?" Augusta said, as if this were a highly questionable reason to be anywhere.
"No. Why do you ask?" There were times Will was glad to have a reputation for brusqueness; it let her be impolite without anyone realising.
Augusta lifted her chin and looked down her nose with the sort of pureblood expression of superiority that made Will want to spit on the pavement and blow smoke in her face, just for the half-blood joy of it.
"I ask," Augusta snapped, "because I noticed Minerva McGonagall in the Leaky. So of course I assumed. . ." She pursed her lips and let her voice trail away, her look saying plainly that any assumptions that involved Minerva and Will would be unfit for speech.
Merlin! And some people thought Minerva was judgemental and prim; well, they'd obviously never met Augusta. Of course, they'd never seen Minerva in bed, either, her long hair spilling softly across her bare shoulders, her lips parted, her legs. . .
Augusta was clearing her throat impatiently, and Will became aware of herself standing dumbly in the middle of the pavement, wearing an expression that probably left little doubt as to what she was thinking about.
"Yes, well," she said. "Nice to chat, Augusta. Be on my way now." Before Augusta could respond, Will strode off.
. . .And went straight to the Leaky Cauldron, telling herself even as she walked that she was making a mistake. Being foolish and sentimental. Just asking to be made miserable. Heading for. . .
Will stepped into the dark, yeasty pub, and saw her at once. Minerva, sitting alone at a small table near a window, nursing the gillywater that was the only drink she'd ever touch if there was even a chance that students might be about.
"Minerva!" Will cursed inwardly as soon as she heard herself speak, hating her over-hearty tone and hoping like hell that Minerva couldn't hear the yearning underneath.
"Will. How are you?" It was Minerva's teacher voice, her talk-to-officials-from-the-Ministry voice, brisk and cool and impersonal, and it would have stabbed Will's heart if she hadn't seen the quickly-hidden flash of pain that crossed her old lover's face.
"Fine. Are you going to ask me to sit down?" It was one of the things they had in common, she and Minerva -- they preferred directness, saying what one had to say. No beating around the bush, not even if what you had to say was "I'm leaving you."
Minerva gestured towards an empty chair, but Will would have taken it even without an invitation; suddenly her knees were shaking too much to hold her up. "A pint of bitter, Tom," she called toward the bar. At least she didn't have to worry about students watching her. Although why they would care. . .
But that was an old discussion, one she and Minerva had had many times before, and it wasn't important now.
Now, she only wanted. . .well, she wasn't sure. To talk with Minerva, and laugh, and sit next to her, thigh pressed to warm thigh, and hear all about Snape's or Dumbledore's latest outrageous. . .whatever-it-was; there was always something. Or about whether the decades-long, on-again-off-again romance between Poppy Pomfrey and the travelling potions rep was on again or off. She even wanted to say what Pomona always said -- "Poor Poppy!" -- just so she could hear Mineva huff, as she always did, "Nonsense, there's no 'poor Poppy' about it. If she'd wanted to settle down with that man, she'd have done it years ago. She's perfectly content."
In other words, my girl, Will thought, downing a substantial portion of ale, you want everything to be the way it used to be. But that's not going to happen, so stop feeling sorry for yourself. And Will shook herself slightly, feeling like a shaggy old dog who'd been too long out in the rain.
"All set for term, of course?" she said, to show that she could do brisk-and-impersonal, too.
Another mundane remark followed, and then another, and it was all right, they were handling it, and Will could almost make herself believe that it didn't hurt.
Until Minerva stopped in mid-mundanity, touched Will's arm, and whispered, "Will, I'm so. . .I'm really sorry, you do know that, don't you?"
With some part of her surprised that she could speak so calmly with her heart suddenly hammering in her ears, Will asked the only question that mattered. "Have you changed your mind, then? Is anything different?"
"No, of course not, I. . ."
"Then don't, Minerva." Will knocked back the last of her bitter and stood. "Just don't."
And she must have turned and walked out, because she found herself back in the din of Diagon Alley, the sun burning her face.
"Will?" Amelia resisted the temptation to snap impatient fingers in front of her friend's eyes. "Are you going to eat any of this stuffed pork? Or are you going to spend our entire dinner mooning over Minerva?"
"I wasn't. . ." Will began, and then laughed ruefully. Amelia grinned back. Dear Will was nothing if not honest, so Amelia wasn't surprised when she went on, "Oh, all right, I was. But you brought her up."
Indeed she had. "Well, as long as you're thinking about her," Amelia said, waving her wand so that steaming, pork-filled plates appeared in front of both of them. "You might as well talk about her, too. Don't you think it's time that you told me just what happened between the two of you?"
"Nothing happened. Not really. We just. . .things changed, that's all. I was gone a long time."
"Wilhelmina G-P! You were gone exactly ten months! You can't seriously believe that's too long to expect someone to wait for you. Minerva's not some fickle teenager -- she's a mature woman who should have been able to cope with you being away for a while. I mean, you'd been lovers for ten years, and it's not as if you even lived together most of the time."
Taking a deep breath, Amelia put on her best flashing-eyed glare (the one that had convinced any number of Magical Law offenders to surrender their wands quietly) and jabbed a sprout-tipped fork in Will's direction. "But she had to go and cheat on you, didn't she? I'm sure that's it, Will, what else could it be? Who was it? You can tell me; I'm no gossip."
Will tilted her chair backward in sharp annoyance. "She never cheated! Merlin, Amelia, why do you always have to think the worst of her?"
"Well, what was it, then? She finally got tired of the endless smelly creatures?"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Amelia regretted them; she could have hexed herself. She'd only meant to prod Will into denial and explanation, not hurt her.
But hurt Will clearly was; her normally-ruddy complexion paled, then flushed again. "Yes, I expect that was it," she said, standing up dropping her napkin to the table. "Grand dinner, Amelia. Have to run, though."
Amelia was contrite. "Oh, Will, love, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean that. It's Minerva I'm angry with, for not appreciating you. I just want you to be happy again. With Minerva or without her, I don't care which, but if it's really over, then let me help you get past it. That's all I'm trying to do."
Will's sturdy jaw relaxed, but she didn't sit down again. "I am past it," she said. "Mostly. I'm all right, really. And now I'd better go."
"Not yet you aren't." Ministry politics had long ago taught Amelia that often the best way to get someone to do what you wanted them to do was simply to act if there was no question that they would. "There's still pudding -- chocolate gâteau. Sit down, Will. Please?"
Will did. But though they finished their meal and even took a brandy afterward, their earlier camaraderie was gone, and conversation faltered. Finally Amelia had enough of trying to ignore the metaphorical dragon under the carpet.
"Will, listen. About what I said before: it was stupid, and I'm really sorry, and I hope you can forget it. I know this sounds hard to believe, but I was only trying to help. To stir you up or something. Get you to move on. But if you want me to stop prying, I will." Then, since Will could always see through any of her posturing, she added, "Well, for now, anyway."
Will snorted, but to Amelia's relief, it was with amusement, not anger. "Right," Will said. "We'll see. I do need to go now, though; I should have checked on the unicorn an hour ago."
"All right, but just answer me one question. . ."
Will rolled her eyes at this, but Amelia ignored her and kept talking; she'd already mucked things up, so she might as well finish the job. And this was important. "Do you really want to be back with Minerva? I mean really? Because if you do, then you should fight for her. If you truly think she's made a mistake in leaving, then make her fix it. Don't be so damned stoic."
Beyond a slight tightening of her lips, Will didn't respond -- though at least she didn't offer an outright objection. But at the door, bundled into her winter cloak and already fishing for her pipe, she said, "You mean well, my friend. I know it. Appreciate it. But. . ."
Their parting grins might have been tentative, Amelia thought, but they were grins all the same.
Then there was a crack of Apparition, a light swirl of snowflakes, and Will was gone.
Wilhelmina always Apparated to a spot a couple hundred metres from her property; she didn't want the travel sounds to disturb the animals, especially not when there were unicorns on hand.
Tonight, she enjoyed the walk to her stables through the brisk, clean air. It helped balance the heavy food -- not that dinner hadn't been tasty, but she was used to plainer fare. Some chicken soup, maybe a bit of toasted cheese: that's what she usually fancied of an evening.
Minerva never cared much about food, either; she was one of those people who ate only because she had to and sometimes could forget to do even that much if she had other things on her mind. Like the damned "other thing" that had caused their break-up. . .
Stop it, Will told herself firmly as she pushed open the half-door to the unicorn's stall. It's over, it's done. You need to move along.
And then a soft muzzle pushed into her hand, and for quite a few minutes she thought of nothing but the beautiful creature entrusted to her care.
Yet later, when the mucking-out was done, and the feeding, and the dosing, and Will had sat down in the fragrant fresh straw to stroke the unicorn to sleep, the thoughts of Minerva returned unbidden.
Will hadn't been young -- neither of them had -- when she'd fallen for Minerva. They'd both had long and serious relationships with others, and both had lost their partners to death: Will's beloved Odelle had succumbed to a cancer beyond any healer's skill, and as for Minerva's lover Denita. . .
She had been lost to a deliberate ambush by Death Eaters, an ambush meant mostly for Minerva, who escaped only because an unexpected summons from Dumbledore had taken her to Hogwarts instead of to the flat she and Denita shared over Denita's millinery shop in Perth. The DEs hadn't managed to get past the flat's wards, but they had been waiting in the road. Denita had probably never even seen them.
So she had died -- a quicker death than Odelle's, but that fact probably hadn't been much comfort to Minerva, any more than being able to say goodbye to Odelle had soothed Will. Dead was dead.
But time, as always, went on, and in the summer of 1983, two years after their lovers' passings, Will and Minerva found themselves renewing their old acquaintance.
Even though they'd attended school at the same time and were among the fairly small number of lesbian witches in Britain, they hadn't known each other well before that long, warm summer when they worked together at Hogwarts revising the Care of Magical Creatures curriculum. Will had been invited as an outside consultant by the CMC professor, Coslo Kettleburn, but when she looked back at that time, she honestly couldn't remember whether he'd been part of the discussions at all.
Memory was a funny thing, Will mused, smoothing the unicorn's coat. It was perfectly possible that that summer hadn't been as soft and warm as she remembered; perhaps its unusually fine weather existed only in her mind -- but there, the summer lived as an endless succession of limpid, sunny days and twilight-clear evenings.
Will's attraction to Minerva had built slowly, over the course of pleasant walks taken to Hogsmeade for a drink after their day's work and quiet dinners eaten in the small dining room off the Great Hall, where the staff usually took their meals during the school hols. She grew to enjoy Minerva's company, to consider her not merely a congenial short-term colleague, but a friend.
And then, as was so often the way of such things, she seemed to fall in love in an instant. One minute, she was simply chatting with a new friend; the next, she was head-over-sensibly-booted-heels.
It was one of those clear evenings when the long, pearly gloaming of high summer made it a punishment to stay indoors, and Pomona Sprout suggested an impromptu picnic. She and Minerva and Will charmed their dinners and a bottle of wine to follow them out to the lake, where they sat on conjured cushions and ate and talked.
After a glass or two of wine, Minerva launched into a series of hilarious and acerbic observations, complete with spot-on imitations of the dramatis personae, on topics ranging from Dumbledore's footwear to the 'wisdom' of various decrees from the Department of Magical Education to Madam Puddifoot's choice of teashop décor.
Pomona and Will laughed until they choked, and after Will nearly aspirated a bite of apple crumble, she had to beg Minerva to stop. "Honestly," she croaked, once her voice returned, "You should be one of those -- what do the Muggles call them? Stand-up comedians."
Minerva shook her head in amused self-deprecation. Will looked at her -- her eyes brimming with humour behind her square glasses; her fine-lined, pale skin becomingly flushed; her normally-stern lips curved into a smile -- and all at once Will wanted her with a sharp longing that she'd never expected to feel again.
It was desire, yes, and more. . .it was. . .not exactly love, not yet, but she knew that someday it could be.
Next to Will, Pomona yawned and stretched. "Well, it's been a pleasure, dears," she said, gathering her skirts and rising. "But I've got a pair of Pomeranian KillerTwin Orchids that are about to bloom. I need to be there as soon as they open, or they'll eat each other."
"Won't they just eat each other later, after you leave?" Minerva asked. She sounded as if she were quizzing a student, and Will hid a grin. Ever the teacher.
"Oh, no, they can be reasoned with," Pomona replied as she Vanished her cushion. "But you have to talk with them as soon as they flower. So I'd better get a move on. Good night, girls. See you at breakfast."
And Pomona hustled away towards the castle, her tuneless whistle carrying cheerfully across the evening stillness. Will leant back on her elbows and watched, her eyes on Pomona, but all her thoughts on the woman sitting on the grass beside her, relaxed and warm and so close.
Something shifted next to her, and Will jerked awake with a start. For a wild moment, she thought it was Minerva curled up against her, but it was the baby unicorn, his head now in her lap, his not-yet-stiffened horn poking her side lightly.
I should get up, Will thought, but she felt too cozy to move. The barn was warm, full of the scents that comforted her, and somehow, here in the lantern-lit dimness, the past seemed closer: that long-ago, smiling summer night was almost real again.
They'd been as skittish as any unicorn, she and Minerva, as they made their first tentative gestures toward romance, the ghosts of Odelle and Denita never too far from their minds.
Will had known about Denita's death at the time it happened. The story had made the front page of the Prophet, not because a single Death Eater killing was front-page news in that dark summer of 1981, but because of Denita's association with Minerva (presented by the Prophet as purely professional) and Dumbledore and all the swirling rumours about their connection to a secret resistance organisation.
But even in those cautious days, when being thought to love members of your own sex could be as professionally ruinous as being linked to Death Eaters, Will had heard, through the always-efficient lesbian grapevine, that Hogwarts's Transfiguration professor was one of their number. So she'd put two-and-two together about McGonagall's probable relationship with Denita Mainwarer. Amelia, to whom gossip was a currency as valuable as galleons and who consequently knew everything worth knowing and quite a bit that wasn't, had confirmed her suspicions.
So Will had known about Minerva, but she didn't know if Minerva knew about her, and even less did she know if Minerva felt ready to try another relationship.
But she was beginning to understand that she herself did. And that she very much wanted to try with Minerva.
Not until two days after the lakeside picnic had Will plucked up her Hufflepuff courage sufficiently to invite Minerva to dinner (and that was another of Minerva's attractive qualities -- that she saw no contradiction in the phrase "Hufflepuff courage"). In asking, Will had been as direct as she knew how, since it was always best to begin as you meant to go on, and she wanted to make her romantic intentions clear.
"Minerva," she'd said. "If you're free, I'd like the pleasure of escorting you to dinner on Friday. I know a quiet little Muggle place in Edinburgh."
Minerva's face had been momentarily blank, and Will felt her resolve crumble a bit. "I mean, that is," she pressed on, more stiffly than she'd intended. "If you'd do me the honour of being my date."
"Your date," Minerva repeated.
Will had known then, known without a doubt, that Minerva was going to say no. She watched that prim, enticing mouth open and steeled herself to hear the polite refusal.
"Thank you," Minerva said. "I'd like that."
It had been another few days after that wonderful dinner, which Will assumed she must have eaten although she remembered not the slightest detail of the food, that she had taken Minerva to her bed.
The weather had turned; the fine, clear skies had given way to a rainy chill, and for the first time since she'd arrived at Hogwarts for the summer job, Will lit a fire in her guest-wing room. She'd invited Minerva for a drink after dinner, and she wanted everything to be cozy and welcoming and perfect.
But by the time Minerva arrived, the room had got a bit too warm. At least, Will felt flushed and hot as she watched Minerva's thin fingers curl around the brandy globe. And then, when Minerva sat down next to her on the sofa and placed her brandy carefully on the side table, Will wanted to take off her heavy robes completely.
There was no doubt in Will's mind as to what they were about to do, what Minerva obviously wanted to do as she slid a cool hand behind Will's neck and drew her head forward. And what Will herself was dying to do.
Nevertheless, just before their lips met, Will moved back. "I want you to know," she said a bit thickly, hoping she didn't sound as awkward as she felt. "I don't do this sort of thing easily. Without thought, you know. I mean, never just for the hell of it. I don't. . ."
She faltered to a stop, silenced by Minerva's expression, serious and full of longing, and somehow comfortingly fierce.
"You don't come to the still waters," Minerva said softly, "and not love the one who came there with you."
Before Will could sort out the words, Minerva leant forward once again, and then they had no need of words; there was only the heat and sweetness of Minerva's mouth on Will's own. It wasn't their first kiss -- they'd shared that after their Edinburgh dinner -- but it was purposeful in a way the earlier one hadn't been.
They removed each other's clothing slowly, and Will spared a moment to hope that the thin, lacy chemise under Minerva's robes had been donned with Will in mind. It slipped easily from her shoulders, revealing small breasts that fit snugly under Will's palms, and Will would have been content to touch and explore forever.
But Minerva had other ideas.
Her hands moved deliciously all over Will, tugging off her undershirt, sliding under the waistband of her loose shorts, exposing, revealing, freeing. . .
It had taken Will a long time to learn to accept pleasure at another's hands. She'd always felt more comfortable giving than receiving, gaining her satisfaction from watching her lovers gasp and arch as they opened themselves to her, knowing that it was her touch, her gift, that brought them to their brink.
But in their long years together, Odelle had gradually taught her that the sight of her passion could be just as great a gift to her lovers as the experience of their own, and now, as Minerva's fingertips ghosted over her breasts and down the length of her body, Will let herself relax, let the surge of feeling flood her, and ebb, and build again.
When she felt those deft fingers feather the insides of her thighs, she reached down to capture Minerva's wrist and waited until Minerva looked at her.
"Don't be soft," Will said.
Minerva smiled her cat's smile. And wasn't.
Later, though, she was. . . Later, after Will had come with a bucking, shouting abandon she'd rarely known before, after she'd surfaced, breathless, from a cascade of pleasure. Then, encircled by Minerva's soft arms, her head pillowed on Minerva's breast, Will knew that she'd reached the still waters.
And that she would love the one who'd come there with her.
The unicorn stirred and snuffled into Will's lap, but she hadn't been asleep this time, just adrift on the tides of the past.
That summer at Hogwarts had been the start of one of the best decades of Will's life. Beneath their differences, the bluff, hearty animal healer and the proper, private schoolteacher had matched each other in stubbornness and loyalty and passion; they'd argued and laughed and most of all, had loved so deeply and so well that Will had believed they would never part. Could never part.
"Well, and that was foolish of you, old girl, wasn't it?" she said aloud, rubbing the unicorn's velvety ears. He sighed, and Will sighed with him.
She had been foolish -- or naïve or blind or something, but she simply hadn't reckoned with You-Know-Who's return or with what the threat of him might represent to a woman who had already lost one lover to that madman's darkness. And who had never stopped blaming herself.
On the night Will had returned from her year in Asia, Minerva had stood in their sitting room, deathly pale and painfully upright, and said she was leaving. That the events in the Chamber of Secrets had shown that Voldemort was back, or would soon be back, and that their world would once again be too dangerous for love.
So she was ending their lives together, ending their future, ending it all. To keep Will safe, she said. For Will's own good, she said. Said, and no doubt even believed.
Numb with shock, Will had first tried joking, then reasoning, and then she'd simply started yelling, her voice thick with a Yorkshire childhood that surfaced only in moments of extremity, "Don't tha dare think this gallant! 'Tis nobbut damned pig-arsed selfishness!"
In the end, she had begged, but it hadn't helped, as she'd known it wouldn't. There was only one thing more immovable than a Gryffindor in a fit of noble sacrifice, and that was when the Gryffindor in question was Minerva McGonagall.
So Minerva had left her -- for her own good -- and Will had managed to go on, somehow, and now here was Dumbledore, and Hogwarts, and Amelia, saying. . .
Fight for her. If you really want her, fight for her.
Oh, she wanted her. No question whatever about that. But. . .fight? Should she? Not that she and Minerva hadn't fought in their time; they certainly had -- sometimes spectacularly. Minerva was a shouter, while Will hexed any pillow or potted plant within range of her wand (and then later had to go about sheepishly reparo'ing while Minerva affected not to notice).
Yet the sort of battle Amelia meant wasn't the sort Will knew how to wage. She'd already said everything she could think of to say. Minerva was no child; she knew her own mind, and once it was made up. . .well, Gryffindors might call themselves "resolute," but Will thought "mulish" was more apt. Minerva had turned her heart into a fortress, and just now, Will couldn't see the footholds that might let her scale its walls.
The unicorn gave a light whinny, and Will realised that she'd been tugging his ears a little too firmly.
"Sorry, bucko," she whispered and straightened her stiff back. Merlin, but she was getting too old to sit up all night in an animal's stall. And she had been sitting here all night -- it was nearly dawn now, the far wall of the stable coming into silvery focus as the air slowly brightened.
Then the foal came fully and athletically awake.
His eyes wide, his spindly legs working for purchase in the straw, the unicorn pushed himself to his feet and stared at Will, his nudging horn and insistent bleat saying "breakfast!" as clearly as if he had spoken the word.
Will laughed and got to her feet, too. "All right, Impatient," she said, filling the feeder with a healthy portion of UniCorn First-Year Formula and sending the water bucket to fill itself at the pump in the stable yard.
She watched the foal as he ate, his pale flanks glowing in the first rays of the sun, and she marvelled anew at how beautiful a creature a unicorn was. As soon as he finished, he stepped smartly into the yard, and Will followed, cancelling her warming charm in a sudden desire to feel the crisp cold of the winter morning.
He's going to be fine, she thought, as the unicorn lifted his head high and broke into a jog around the exercise pen. Just fine. He'd grow up healthy and strong, she could tell. He was a fighter.
A fighter. Yes, he was.
And so was she. The conviction was sudden and strong, and she wondered now why she'd ever questioned herself. She knew what she wanted -- who she wanted -- and she was going to fight for her. Because that's what fighters did.
The sun was bright in the sky now, and Will let it bathe her face for a moment before she headed back into the stable to fetch the unicorn's morning dose of potion. And to wake her fastest owl.
For she had a message to send.
Dear Dumbledore, she would write. Expect me Hogwarts today; will arrive in time for dinner.
Signed, Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank
Professor, Care of Magical Creatures