A/N: This was written for Kelly Chambliss in the framework of the 2010 Winter Fic Exchange on the Rarepair Shorts LJ community. With great thanks to my fab beta The Real Snape.
Sous le ciel …
People who didn't know the woman who strode down rue Chabanais one morning in May would naturally have thought that she was going to work. Not in one of the fashion shops of avenue Montaigne or even the less upmarket Forum des Halles, for sure, given that neither the cut nor the shade of her dress were exactly what you wanted that season, but perhaps a desk job at the Hôtel de Ville or the Palais de Justice. Or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Senior level, on the homestretch to retirement. She had that slightly weary look, despite the briskness of her gait.
They'd have attested her confidence and probably brains. And they might have thought that she'd spent a quiet night in a single bed, with a book or a cat at most, unless they were the types who couldn't look at a woman with a bun and an upright posture without their fancies taking wilder flights. But however their minds worked, they probably wouldn't have believed her to have evacuated a school, organized and fought a life-and-death battle, duelled scores of enemies and one dear friend, experienced mortal fear, white-hot rage, relief and deepest grief - all within the last nine hours.
How could they.
She hardly believed it herself.
Minerva McGonagall slowed down as she reached a building whose blue neon lights identified it as a bar. This had to be it. She unfolded a small piece of parchment.
La Licorne qui rit.
Poppy had said that it was enough to think it.
She stepped back.
No-one of the people who pushed past her on the pavement with a "pardon", an "excusez-moi", or a simple "tut" took any notice of the two tenements that contracted with deep, nasal moans, much like accordions in the hands of a non-player. They paid no mind to the soft shimmer in the space that emerged between the buildings, or the façade that appeared where seconds before there had been nothing but a copper pipe and a crack in the plaster. It was light grey, like all of them, and moderately clean. Slightly rusty wrought-iron banisters and a petunia here and there adorned French windows, and a relief of a laughing unicorn greeted from above the door.
So that was it.
That was where Wilhelmina had spent the last eight months.
Minerva reached into her bag for a handkerchief.
Curse the lime-tree flowers.
Poppy and Pomona had kept the secret. With the Carrows at Hogwarts, with Minerva as exposed as she was, and with Wilhelmina refusing to register with Umbridge's office, the four of them had agreed that it would be best for Minerva and Willa to part until all of it was over. For better or for worse. And Minerva had agreed, reluctantly, that she shouldn't know Willa's whereabouts until it was safe for both. Legilimens and lack of scruples were a lethal mix. They'd seen its effects.
As to fleeing together, they hadn't even discussed that. Neither woman would have forgiven herself, had Minerva abandoned Hogwarts. And, quite honestly, neither was sure if being on the run together, sharing cramped hotel rooms, guilt and paranoia, being forced into inactivity and dependence on a few good souls was good for the love of two headstrong elderly ladies, each of whom needed her space. And one of whom bore the nickname Snore-kack.
So they had endured it. Sending letters, on occasion, letters that carefully (if not always successfully) tried for the fine line between sparing the other unnecessary worries and taking her for a fool. They'd sent them through Pomona, who'd passed them on to Olympe through some channel or other. As long as Olympe had been alive, that was.
And then, suddenly, the battle was over. The dead had been recovered, the injured tended to, the survivors safely assembled, and Minerva had slumped down on a chair in a corner of the Great Hall, well out of sight from the crowd. Feeling frail, exhausted, older than ever. Old.
Poppy had caught her eye and approached her, holding a small piece of parchment that she slipped into Minerva's hand. "I trust you'll be fit for long-distance Apparition, my dear."
Minerva had refused at first. So soon. She hadn't even collected her thoughts. Would probably be needed around here, just wanted to catch a breath. There would be matters to… But after a stern glance from Pomona, who had already given the spokes of her wheelchair a hefty spin in order to head off Kingsley, ("My most hopeless charge a Minister now! Oh, if the Mimbulus Mimbletonia you traumatized into premature shrivelling had lived to see the day!"), Minerva disappeared behind the small door near the High Table and pictured a tiny alleyway behind the Old Paris Stock Exchange.
That had been half an hour ago.
A bell rang as Minerva entered the narrow, gloomy reception area.
When her eyes had adjusted to the dark, she saw a woman sitting behind the desk. Not a girl any more, judging by the fine lines around her dark eyes, though a thick shock of shoulder-length, blond hair and smooth, full cheeks spoke of either a dab hand at preservation charms or remarkably good genes. Both, most likely. The woman was leisurely leafing through an issue of Sorcière-Hebdo, a cigarette in a perfectly-manicured hand. From the wireless on the counter, a voice like a bubble bath was praising some new dairy product that tasted of baby chicken, or whatever coquelicots were. It had been a while since Minerva's last French lesson.
The woman looked up, a pleasant but distant expression in her face. "Oui?"
Minerva took a breath. Paris could be so lovely. If only … "Je… je voudrais voir Mme Grubbly-Plank, s'il vous plaît."
The woman put aside her magazine and gave Minerva an intense look.
"So you're the one."
Orange-coloured lips let out a plume of white smoke.
"Difficult colour, green."
Minerva raised an eyebrow. It would be a cheap pleasure to tint her emerald dress just a tiny bit toward the common-tree-froggish. A temptation she could easily resist.
But Minerva McGonagall felt that she had done her share of resisting for the day.
The blonde broke into a hint of a one-sided smile, deposited her cigarette in an ashtray, and scribbled something on a notepad.
"No need for a security question, I see. Medium emerald to deep lime without a wand; you must be the professor herself."
She ripped the sheet off its pad and handed it to Minerva.
"Jardin des Tuileries. One of the park benches on the southern flank. That's her place on Mondays. Just follow the dogs."
She took a last puff of her cigarette, stubbed it out, and took the magazine back to hand.
"About time you came."
Paris in May was lovely. There was nothing yet of the stifling summer heat that drove all Parisians who could afford it out of the city each mid-July. Trees in bright shades of green lined the river and the parks, and fathers had come out with their children to let small, wooden sailboats crisscross the minuscule pond in the Tuileries.
Buses discharged their loads of Italians, Germans, and Japanese at rue de Rivoli. A small group of middle-aged Dutch was conferring over a map. Two backpackers were kissing by a bus-stop.
Minerva had no eyes for them.
She strode along the streets, tapped her foot at a traffic light that took forever to change - she didn't dare interfere with it; some things were better left to Muggles - and crossed the Tuileries, circling tourists, construction sites, and ice-cream vendors with little patience but nearly unfailing composure.
At the southern side of the park, something caught her eye. An old man in a shabby coat, carrying a scruffy mutt of an indefinite colour. A young woman with untidy hair and torn clothes, walking slowly next to a large, limping mongrel.
Follow the dogs.
Minerva looked down the tree-lined gravel path. What she saw there was almost a procession. A tiny yelper in the arms of an almost-as-tiny old woman. A Great Dane of monstrous proportions, with a gash on its too-skinny flank, wincing as its owner, who looked barely fit to be out of a hospital himself, tried to coax, lure, and pull it onward.
And there, on a bench...
She stopped still. Hardly felt how someone bumped into her, muttering an excuse in some Slavic language. The chatter, the honking of the cars on rue du Quai, the chipper tone of a tour guide blended into each other, faded into background noise for the pulse in her chest and her temples, for her breath that she forced to keep going.
For there, on a bench between two cherry trees, frowning as she examined what must be the front end of an exceedingly hairy dog, then taking off a thin glove as she began rummaging in her healer's bag, was Willa.
A guardsman with a Rottweiler caught Minerva's gaze and approached her.
"Quite a sight, isn't she? Comes every week. Attracts quite a colourful crowd. Homeless people, poor people, runaway teenagers. It's forbidden, but I leave her." He looked at his dog. "Saved him once, too. Poisoned treats." He shook his head. "Some people…"
"Yes," Minerva said, absent-mindedly. "Quite a sight."
She left guardsman where he was and took a few more steps.
Willa had grown thinner. Greyer, too, her back a bit rounder, her chin a bit more prominent. She wore a pair of Muggle khakis, light brown where they weren't sprinkled with the imprints of paws and muzzles in all sizes. And a white shirt, sparkling clean, its sleeves rolled up. The sight made Minerva's fingers clench around the crumpled handkerchief in her bag. "Nonsensical colour for a shirt, white," Willa had always said. "Can't wear them for half a day." She'd continued to hold that opinion even after she'd learned what the sight of her in a white shirt did to Minerva. But once in a while, she would wear one. Though not for more than half the day if Minerva had a say in it.
She didn't know how long she stood there. Watching Willa apply a liquid into the dog's eye. Check the pupils of a scrawny young girl; give her a satisfied pat on the cheek and a word of praise before turning to her Shepherd mix. Distract the owner of the Great Dane so he wouldn't notice the flick of her hand that numbed the flesh around the gash.
All she knew was that all of a sudden, Willa looked at her.
Double-checked the bandage and handed the leash of the Dane back to the owner.
And slowly, Minerva and Wilhelmina approached one another.
Step by step. Just as they'd circled each other during all those years. The seventies, when one was in a relationship and the other available, then the eighties, when it was the other way round. And later, when one was the other's superior, not knowing if an advance would be proper, albeit probably welcome.
Inch by inch. Like their hands that had found each other at last, one Monday morning, when Willa had been examining Potter's owl and asked Minerva to hold its wing. Inch by inch, like their lips had come together, almost, had it not been for Minerva accidentally leaning on the owl's bad wing.
And breath by breath, as slowly as they had undressed, kissed, loved each other, first once, then night after night, two bodies that bore the marks of the years, two minds, independent, stubborn, unalike yet kindred.
Like that, they approached each other.
Their hands touched.
They looked into each other's eyes.
And there was nothing slow about the way in which Minerva flung her arms around Willa's neck, and they held each other, closely, tightly, kissing a cheek, the corner of a mouth that had acquired another crease or two, a pair of lips that had become a bit softer, gingerly, fondly, then ardently, celebrating the touch and the warmth and the aliveness of each other, right on the gravel path of the southern flank of the Jardin des Tuileries.
"Shameless display," growled a man as he walked past the two strange-looking, elderly women who were kissing - passionately, his wife would say - in the middle of the park alley.
"Yes, Vernon," his wife said.