This story was written for the 2010 edition of the "Femmefest" femmeslash exchange on LJ. Many thanks to my excellent beta, Tetley the Second.
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Four Colours Poppy Pomfrey Loves and One She Hates
By Kelly Chambliss
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"White. . .is a shining and affirmative thing."
-G. K. Chesterton
Poppy Pomfrey lives her days surrounded by white - her white healer's robes, her white enamel cabinets full of restorative potions and pills, the white iron beds of her Hogwarts hospital wing (beds that she makes as inviting as she can with plump white pillows, crisp sheets, snowy duvets). Her shining white ward is her way of reassuring the ill and the injured that they will be as clean and safe as modern magical healing can make them.
But Poppy is not one of those who mistakes the clarity of white for an emblem of purity or truth. White is also the colour of bone and blankness and bloodless death, and she has seen too much of them all.
No one can be a healer, she thinks - well, not a good one - without being a realist, without knowing that cleanliness is nothing like godliness, that the absence of infection isn't the same as the presence of health, that the white of hope is often not very far from the white of sepulchres.
But then there is the white that Poppy loves best, the white that is revealed every night when the need for sleep overtakes even the dynamo that is Minerva McGonagall, and her lover comes into their bedroom at last, ready to stop marking, stop administering, stop organising. Ready to take off her professor's garb and be gathered into Poppy's embrace.
"Just relax," Poppy says, as she takes the heavy teaching robe from Minerva's shoulders. Later, Minerva will pamper her with a soothing massage or warm drink, but the first part of their nightly bedtime ritual belongs to Poppy, and she looks forward to it all day.
Removing the robe is her first step. Poppy would be content just to drape the thick green wrap over a chair, but meticulous Minerva magicks it into the wardrobe. It's her last chore: after the robe is hung, Minerva is willing to lay her wand aside. The workday is over.
And now Poppy can finally turn to the perfect whiteness that is Minerva's underclothing. The long petticoats are old-fashioned even for witches of their pre-Grindelwald generation, but Poppy appreciates them, relishing the feel of the clean muslin and lawn. She loves to undo the various ties and strings, to tease open the corset laces to uncover the soft pale chemise. If the light is right, or if the fabric falls just so, she can sometimes see a tantalising smudge of dusky nipple underneath.
"They open faster with magic," says Minerva, as she says every night, and every night, Poppy's answer is the same: she presses her lips to the swell of breast rising above the low neckline while she nudges the petticoats off Minerva's hips, letting them fall in creamy clouds to the floor.
Minerva's eyes close and her breathing deepens as Poppy slowly undoes the narrow ribbon at the front of the chemise and slides her hands inside to cup Minerva's breasts and lift them clear of the fabric.
It's one of the most arousing sights Poppy knows, Minerva in her crisp drawers, stepping out of the petticoats pooled at her ankles, her bare breasts just beginning to flush as she reaches for Poppy's hand and leads her to their bed with its pristine white sheets.
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"Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair"
-Scottish Folk Song
"Which one is Minerva?" Poppy's old friend Nelda asks eagerly, scanning the hurrying crowds at the Quidditch World Cup. "I can't wait to meet her, Pops - I mean, when have I ever heard you call someone 'the love of your life'? Well, that would be 'never.' So who is this siren? Is it that one? The black-haired one with the spectacles?"
That's how anyone would describe her, of course: "black-haired." It's one of things people notice first about Minerva McGonagall - the dark hair drawn back from her face and twisted into a firm knot, its surface spelled smooth so that not even the smallest tendril escapes the sleekness.
Minerva. The black-haired one. It's what anyone would say.
Except that it isn't an accurate description at all.
Before she fell in love with Minerva, Poppy gave very little thought to the concept of "black." If asked, she might have said it was the opposite of white, the absence of colour, a practical shade for a winter cloak, a metaphor for human darkness. It is an absolute, a colour unquestioned; everyone, she would have said, knows black when they see it. Like the black of Minerva's hair.
But that was before she had seen that black hair out of its bun, seen it spilling over bare white shoulders, its ends curling round Minerva's breasts like a lover's eager caress. That was before she understood that "black" was as mutable as life, that there were as many hidden shades of black as there were new things to be learned about her beloved.
Against the porcelain of her skin, Minerva's hair is the black of a starless midnight; spread across a pillow in the morning sun, it's touched with auburn, rich and warm like the laugh that few but Minerva's intimates ever hear. Run through Poppy's fingers, its silver strands shimmering, it is the soft, gleaming ebony of the lake in moonlight.
And her other hair, the neat thatch that joins her thighs and welcomes Poppy's stroking hand, is the black of napped velvet, the colour of mystery and promise and silken satisfaction.
Poppy loves all Minerva's varied shades, the shadows and the darkness and the shining highlights, and so to Nelda she turns and replies, "Yes, that's Minerva. The black-haired one."
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"God has a brown voice."
"Minerva! The water is brown!"
Poppy looks at the darkish substance flowing from bathroom tap in Minerva's cottage and thinks perhaps she ought to be concerned - clean water is essential to health, after all, and this water, it can't be gainsaid, is definitely brown.
But Poppy doesn't really believe that the water is unsafe. She mentions it just to have an excuse to call Minerva to her: she wants to hear her voice again, see her face again, see the smile that has grown brighter with every mile they passed on the journey to the cottage.
The cottage where Poppy will spend two weeks as Minerva's summer guest.
She believes - she hopes - that Minerva has invited her because she'd like them to be more than friends, but she isn't sure. What if she's misread the signals?
But she doesn't think she has: during this last year, she has spent a good deal of time with Minerva, drawing up a plan for dealing with wounded should Hogwarts be attacked in the war that everyone knows is coming.
Every day, it seems, there are new reports of Death Eater assaults, of Dark Marks burning in the skies, of near-children like James Potter joining the fight. Poppy has never liked James Potter and his gang, having been forced to heal the consequences of too many of their little "pranks," but he's still just a boy, too young to be thinking of battle.
Yet not even a looming war can stop people living and loving, and all term long, Poppy has felt a growing connection between herself and Minerva. More and more often, their talk turns from the school to themselves, and they learn much about each other. Poppy has always known of Minerva's wicked sense of humour, but she thinks Minerva is surprised (and delighted) to discover hers. And Poppy in her turn realises that Minerva is more vulnerable than she appears; she cares more, feels more, than she ever lets her colleagues see.
They are definitely friends now. Sometimes in the staff room, Minerva catches Poppy's eye and smiles when one of their fellow staffers expresses themselves with more than usual foolishness. And sometimes, just sometimes, she lightly touches Poppy's arm or the back of her hand.
Surely this summer invitation cannot be just casual.
Still. . .even though Poppy knows that Minerva has been involved with women in the past, she has said nothing about her romantic life nor asked Poppy about hers. It's possible that she means to continue only as friends. . .
Poppy would like to ask; she wants to know where they stand, but she finds herself unaccountably reluctant to speak. It's not like her, the diagnostician, to be so diffident about questions, but then, it's not often that she cares so much about the answer.
So she doesn't ask. She merely shouts out that the water is brown and feels a little surge of pleasure when Minerva laughs.
"Take care, Madam Pomfrey," Minerva says, her stern tone belied by a puckish grin as she appears in the mirror behind Poppy's shoulder. "You say 'the water is brown' as if that's something unfortunate. But it's not brown, it's peat. I'll have you know that this water is responsible for some of the finest firewhisky ever distilled. I hope you'll join me in a glass this evening."
Poppy chuckles. "Are you planning to get me drunk?" she asks lightly, but Minerva grows suddenly serious.
"No," she says, stepping so close that Poppy can smell her faint perfume. "No, you need to be completely in control of yourself tonight. Just in case someone were to ask something of you. You'd want to know what you were doing."
The mirror offers Poppy the emboldening distance she needs, and she looks directly into the glass. "I'll know," she says, holding Minerva's gaze. "I'll know."
They spend the afternoon in desultory talk and a walk to the nearby village, but all day the heat builds between them, and by the time they leave the dinner table, Poppy can almost touch their desire, squeeze it in her hands like clumps of moist, fragrant earth.
She watches as Minerva pours them each two fingers of the renowned local firewhisky, the amber liquid glowing in the firelight that warms the wood-panelled walls.
The next thing she knows, she is in Minerva's arms, with the burn of the liquor - or maybe it is Minerva - on her lips, and the rich brown scent of peat filling the room.
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"But he that dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose."
- Anne Brontë
Sometimes when she has a quiet moment in the hospital wing - the Quidditch season is over, or the need to study for exams has (briefly) distracted the children from their hormone-driven hexing, or Albus has (equally briefly) stopped putting his students and staff in harm's way - Poppy likes to let her mind turn to Minerva.
The woman Poppy knows in private is not nearly as prim and rule-bound as the Deputy Headmistress-slash-professor (who is nonetheless perfectly willing to break rules when it suits her). But even the private Minerva would probably disapprove of spending one's work hours indulging in sexual fantasies.
Poppy grins. Lovers don't have to tell each other everything, and at least in this case, what Minerva doesn't know won't hurt her. She doesn't have to know that Poppy likes to imagine her lying on her back atop one of the neatly-made infirmary beds, her teaching robes still carefully fastened, her hair still tightly-bound. Waiting for Poppy to tend to her.
In her mind, Poppy plays with different entertaining scenarios to account for how Minerva comes to be there, ready for sex, but in all of them, it's drowsy late afternoon, warm sun is slanting through the leaded windows, and the hospital wing is patient-free.
For the moment. But someone could come in at any time, and Minerva will know it; Poppy imagines how her breathing will quicken, how she will be attractively anxious despite the screen Poppy will draw around the bed.
She'll probably try to cast a silencing charm, but Poppy will shake her head and take Minerva's wand, and Minerva, after levelling her best classroom glare and huffing a little, will yield. She'll give herself over to Poppy's ministering hands, and she will not make a sound, because this is Poppy's domain and here, the Healer is in charge. After all, one of the things each loves about the other is the respect with which she treats her work.
Then the fantasy Poppy spells off Minerva's clothing, one garment at a time, for how can a healer diagnose her lover's needs without a hands-on examination?
At this point, she usually pauses, holding the picture in her head: Minerva naked before her (sometimes the fantasy involves removing the calf-high heeled boots, sometimes not), her skin so fair that it blends into the bedding, leaving only the blackness of her hair to mark her presence.
And sometimes Poppy lets her mind recolour the scene, changing the virginal white sheets to a dusty rose, a shade light enough and dark enough to throw both Minerva's hair and her limbs into enticing relief, the warm pinkish tone mirroring the blush of arousal that begins to tint the pale face.
What happens next varies - over the years Poppy has come up with any number of delectable scenes - but there are several constants, memories she holds of real nights spent with the real Minerva in their real bed.
At some point, she will trace her fingertip along the underside of Minerva's breasts; Minerva never fails to gasp and yearn upward into the touch that Poppy will sometimes obligingly deepen and sometimes not.
And she will always smooth her hands down the long lines of Minerva's body, from neck to collarbone and then to the creamy curve of waist into hip, pausing to kiss the sharp hipbone before trailing just one teasing finger across the bare thighs.
But no matter what form Poppy's attentions take, Minerva is soon flushed and panting, and the image of her, real and imagined, her hair now falling half out of its bun, the sheets now tangled beneath her, never fails to start Poppy herself panting.
She loves that she can do this, not just in fantasy, but in reality: that she is the one for whom Minerva loses control, the only one for whom she quite literally lets her hair down. Poppy loves her wry and thorny professor; she loves her stern and strict Deputy Headmistress, who is nonetheless so human as to sometimes let the students see her cry.
And she loves this wanton, this feeling and passionate woman who so freely gives herself to pleasure and to Poppy.
The fantasy ends as such things usually do, and for the rest of the day, Poppy carries in her mind the picture of Minerva spread across the rose-coloured bed, her pale legs open, her hair lying dark in heedless tumbles across the pillow and her breasts, her whole being wanting nothing more than what Poppy stands ready to give her.
And when Poppy's workday is done, and she leaves her hospital wing, the wards carefully set to alert her to any emergency, she sometimes postpones her dinner long enough to stop at the rooms she shares with Minerva and transfigure their bedsheets from white to rose.
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"Their graves are green, they may be seen."
On those rare occasions that people ask Poppy about her favourite colour, they often assume it must be green.
"It's not too hard to guess what colour you're fond of," Pomona Sprout had said in the staff room just last week, nodding sagely toward Minerva in her ever-green robes. Poppy had merely smiled and hoped Pomona wouldn't notice that she didn't answer.
Because no one other than Minerva will ever know how much Poppy hates green. Or how much Minerva does. Or why.
Only too clearly does Poppy remember the day she found out why. She and Minerva had been together nearly a year when they'd gone shopping for new bed hangings, and Poppy had been taken with a soft moss-coloured velvet.
"What about this?" she'd asked, but Minerva had simply said "no" and turned away. To Poppy's surprised, "But I thought you liked green," she hadn't replied.
Then later that night, when they were in bed, Minerva said into the darkness, "It was after Tom Riddle killed my brother. That's when I started to wear green robes."
She spoke as if she were already in the middle of a conversation, and she moved away from Poppy to sit up against the head of the bed.
Poppy had sat up, too, and even all these years later, she can recall exactly how Minerva looked, her white nightgown turned a pale blue by the moonlight, her face hidden by the shadow of the curtains, her hands completely still in her lap.
Poppy remembers it like yesterday, like today, like always. . .
"They were at Hogwarts together, Tom and my brother," Minerva continues. "Lyall, he was called. He was younger than I; I'd left school by the time he started. I don't know what happened between him and Tom; Lyall never spoke of it. But whatever it was, it marked his whole life. He was one of the first to see the danger Tom represented, although I fear we in the family thought Lyall was a trifle obsessive about it."
There is no regret in her voice; she speaks matter-of-factly, as if all her emotion on the subject has long been spent. Throughout the entire painful recital, her tone never changes, her eyes remain dry. But her fingers gradually twist themselves tight into the moonlit hem of her gown.
"My brother was one of the first people Tom killed. He went to Lyall's flat with three Death Eaters, though they weren't called that at the time. Tom was just beginning to gain a substantial following then; I think his attack on Lyall might have been a sort of training run for his recruits.
"Lyall managed to send me a Patronus, but I was too late; he was already dead by the time I arrived."
She falls silent, and Poppy waits, knowing there must be more.
"When I got there, one of Death Eaters was still standing over Lyall, waving his wand. And I killed him, Poppy. As soon as I realised Lyall was dead, I never thought twice; I just raised my wand and shouted the spell, and the Death Eater dropped where he stood, on top of my brother. I had to move him aside later."
"You had to defend yourself. . ." Poppy says, but she can tell by the movement of the long black hair that Minerva is shaking her head.
"That's what the Aurors said, too, and the Wizengamot, and at first, it's what I let myself believe."
Another pause, and then, inexorably, she goes on. "But it wasn't self-defence. I've relived that night in my mind over and over again, and I know now that no one attacked me; they didn't have time. I was there and cursing them before they knew what was happening. I think I would have killed them all, Tom included, if they hadn't Apparated away before I could.
"No, I didn't do it to protect myself. I did it to make him pay. I can't even say I did it for Lyall; I killed that man for me. I filled the room with green light, and it was easy. Easy. It felt good then."
"But later?" Poppy whispers.
"No, not later. It wasn't good later. Later, I. . . Well, I had a great deal to come to terms with."
"And so you wear green."
"I wear green. To remember. There will be another war, Poppy; we all know that. And I'll fight in it. But I won't let death be easy again."
You'll never let yourself be easy, either, Poppy thinks. The green, she understands, is a punishment: Minerva's constant reminder of her own worst self.
She reaches over to clasp her beloved's icy hands and to free them from the fabric that Minerva has twisted round them tightly enough to impair her circulation.
"You're frozen," Poppy says, rubbing the thin fingers briskly. "Get under this duvet before you lower your resistance and catch something."
And she pulls Minerva into her arms, holds her, kisses her cheek and throat and shoulder.
Tomorrow she will think about what she has heard, will sort it out, make sense of it. As Minerva has done, Poppy will come to terms.
But not now, not tonight; those are thoughts for the light of day. Tonight, she only sings Minerva softly to sleep, the notes curling round them like vines.
"Black is the colour of my true love's hair. Her face is like some roses fair. . ."