Disclaimer: The world and the witches of Harry Potter belong to J.K. Rowling and legal licensees. No money is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Notes: This was written for the 2010 edition of HoggyWartyXmas at LJ. My undying gratitude goes to my great beta, Kelly Chambliss, whose input improved this no end.

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Spinsters on a Sunday Morning

by tetley

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December 2010, London

That Sunday at half past eight in the morning, someone seriously hated being Rita Skeeter.

Scowling at the mirror image that wasn't presenting itself in half the shape it should be, Rita liberally cursed her fate as she downed the last remnants of a triple espresso and Vanished the stub of her early morning menthol cigarette. Witch Weekly, she scoffed, raising her heated wand to tease her O'Reall's blond quasi naturel curls into shape. Meet Rita Skeeter, author of two bestselling biographies and investigative journalist who wrote the truth about Harry Potter, now writing page-filling material for Witch Weekly.

Curse the dratted year of unemployment that had left her with more debt than even the juiciest bits of Albus Dumbledore's past could cancel. Curse the costs of face and hair maintenance, and the price of Elphias Doge's satisfaction. Curse Little Mrs Do-Gooder-Weasley, elf-anointed equal rights champion on paid maternity leave, who had never cared to know what it was like to be a self-supporting woman in the barracuda basin of free-lance journalism.

And since she was at it, curse that young upstart Pansy Parkinson, with her perky tits and peppermint breath and upper class manners that never failed to get her all the good jobs.

Like today. Today, Parkinson was going to cover the Harpies' last match of the year. Chances were that the girls would have reason to let the champagne flow, and Parkinson wouldn't be Parkinson if she didn't get the Potter minx pissed enough to elicit some newsworthy reaction to a question on her husband's alleged leather bar dalliances with the Malfoy tart. A haughty "No comment," or better yet, a punch in the muzzle would be sure to win her the headline. Hell, Pugsy might even get a shot of the Potter minx and that stone-butch fossil of a club president. Touched up with a little Daguerrocharmery, it would make a killer of a title page.

But what are you worrying about, Rita sighed inwardly as she snaked herself into the shimmering, green faux silk dress that … almost … "Expando!" … that still fit perfectly around her still-acceptable hips. Because you, Rita Skeeter, acclaimed author of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

Youare going to Hogwarts to interview the outgoing headmistress about her plans for retirement.

Oh, she could picture the steamy news already.

"It has been a long-standing wish of mine to take a closer look at the paradox in Gamp's Twenty-Second Maxim on Materio-Energetic Relations," the old crone would lecture in that crisp spinster's brogue of hers, manicured old-lady hands steepled in concentration so each sentence would be ready for print as it trickled from her tight lips. "I greatly look forward to that. And I will finally be able to maintain a garden of my own, and to re-read my collection of early 19th century Muggle literature."

Why she'd never had children? Oh, but she had four hundred of them at any given time! No, the issue of marriage had never come up, could Rita imagine a husband who would put up with the working hours of a boarding school teacher? No, she wasn't lonely, she had friends whom she looked forward to entertaining in her cosy kitchen, and no, they couldn't continue this discussion in her private quarters; it would quite defeat the notion of the quarters being private, wouldn't it?

Merlin's Prince Albert, how Rita Skeeter resented the sort.

oOo

December 2010, Hogwarts

That Sunday at half past eight in the morning, someone distinctly enjoyed being Minerva McGonagall.

This someone was currently relishing the feeling of warm satin against her skin, the sensation of the first rays of the rising December sun in her face, and the sound of a sheet rustling softly as the woman by her side turned around with a lazy groan and crumpled her pillow into shape once more.

No, being Minerva McGonagall was not the worst fate in the world on a Sunday morning at half past eight.

Soon, but not quite yet, she would open her eyes to one of her favourite views: Irma Pince, sun-dipped and with tousled hair, face relaxed and lips slightly parted as she drifted out of sleep. She wouldn't be fully covered; she was always too warm for that. It was a running joke between them that Irma Pince had entered menopause at the age of twenty-seven and never quite got out of it.

Her naked arms would hug the pillow, shield her eyes, perhaps, and perhaps a hint of the breast that once had been small and firm (small it still was) would be visible from the side. Strands would have broken free from the loose salt-and-pepper braid she wore at night, curling around her shoulderblades or dancing in her slow, sleepy breaths.

Yes, soon Minerva would open her eyes. But not quite yet.

There was no hurry. There never had been. If Minerva McGonagall had learned one thing in the eighty-five years of her life, it was that there could be great pleasure in anticipation.

Even if you didn't quite know what you were waiting for.

There had been a time when she'd been an expert at not knowing what she was waiting for. Not when she was a child, oh, no. As a child, she had been dead certain where she was going. With the wisdom of an eleven-year-old, Minerva had known that she would be a teacher, at Hogwarts, of course. She would spend her free time working on her Morgan manoeuvre with Miss Hooch, who would then hopefully still come by for the weekly coaching sessions.

With the worldliness of a fifteen-year-old, Minerva was determined to become not only a teacher but one of the best. She would help shape young minds so that they would never succumb to dark wizards, and in her free time, she would study Gamp's paradoxes, perhaps with some help from Professor Marchbanks, and read books written by women as unmarried as she herself was going to be. Certainly Mother would understand that when one's brains gave one the opportunity to serve the community by contributing to the state of academic knowledge, one couldn't possibly think of a husband.

With the realism of a twenty-year-old, Minerva was sure that solitude was the price a woman had to pay for her brains.

And then, one day, about two months after she'd started teaching at Hogwarts, on a sleepless night in the dead of winter, her steps had taken her to the library wing for a bit of light, late-night reading.

That was when she'd begun not knowing what she was waiting for.

It had been cold in the corridors. The library door had stood slightly ajar, and the warm ray of light that slanted through it made her quicken her pace. She pushed the door open, peeked inside, half curious, half fearing to interrupt a private moment. Perhaps it was a reader who didn't want to be disturbed. Minerva knew the feeling. She, too, liked to be alone with her books, especially when it was dark outside and the storm whipped the branches of the lime tree against her window. Perhaps she had better return to her chambers?

But then she saw Irma Pince. Hunching over a desk by the window, in the halo of the light of a small reading lamp. Her long neck was bowed, and a small, pointed vertebra peeked out of the high, black collar. A few wispy curls had broken free from the bun, thick and jet-black at the time, and her hand reached up to loosen a neck muscle that must have grown stiff from hours of reading.

Had anyone asked, Minerva couldn't have said why she hadn't simply said good evening, asked for help, perhaps, or just quietly slipped in and tiptoed to the early 20th century section, why instead she'd just stood there motionless in the freezing cold, gazing at Irma's illuminated silhouette until a rustle of paper made her withdraw and softly close the door behind herself.

Something had struck a chord within her. Something in the way Irma had sat there, concentrated and high-collared, the starched robe seeming garment and armour alike, the pince-nez bringing the world as much closer for scrutiny as it distanced its wearer from it. To Minerva, it had felt almost like looking at herself. No - better than that. It had felt like looking at the living proof that there was another grown woman in the world who preferred books to the company of a suitor, who spent her evenings with a novel or a textbook and her nights all by herself and probably found that the lesser evil.

It soon occurred to Minerva that the affection was mutual. There was just this much less edge in the voice, this much less tension in the shoulders when Irma spoke to her. A friendly word in the corridors, a book order brought to her study before she'd had time to pick it up herself, and sometimes, when they swapped stories of childish first-years and even more childish sixth-years, a sudden drop in the voice and a throwaway remark so dry that it had Minerva choking with laughter.

The next thing Minerva remembered was that they were taking their Sunday walks together.

Nobody had found it anything but perfectly natural for the two spinsters to grow into companions. There weren't many eligible bachelors around, not at Hogwarts, where love affairs between staffers were frowned upon anyway. And certainly nobody would have expected a Hogsmeade shopkeeper to go for a bluestocking, or vice versa.

Which of the two, the shopkeeper or the bluestocking, was considered to get the short end of the stick in a constellation like that - it greatly depended on the thinker.

The sheets rustled again.

Slowly, Minerva's hand wandered over for their Sunday good-morning. Touched the arm, the tissue that had begun to sag a bit of late, even though in terms of upper body strength, Irma could probably hold a candle to Rolanda Hooch any of these days.

A wrestling match between Irma Pince and Rolanda Hooch. Now, there would be a Christmas present.

"Chu laughing at?" came the sleepy question from the other side of the bed.

"Nothing," Minerva whispered, and let her hand trail across a prominent collarbone and down to the breasts.

"You can laugh all you want if you keep doing that," Irma mumbled.

Minerva needed no more invitation. There was the stomach, a bit round now, bowing to gravity as was proper for a woman in her seventies. There was the hipbone, sharp and prominent as ever. And a few inches further, there was the place where Minerva's hand liked most to rest. The curls, that black, tousled patch just big enough for a palm to lie on, thick enough for fingers to run through. Irma Pince didn't hold with the styles that the young girls wore these days. "Don't you everdare get one of those," she'd once said when, one night, they'd spotted a group of midnight-swimming Hufflepuffs with barely more than matchbox-sized strips between their legs. "It'd feel like kissing Barty Crouch."

There was a soft moan from between the pillow and the sheet as Minerva's hand slowly moved on.

Irma didn't open her eyes as she arched into Minerva's touch, and Minerva closed her own in response, allowing nothing but Irma's movements to guide her.

They'd come a long way since the first time they'd done this, fifty-three years ago, almost to the day. The first time they'd let their tentative hands dare explore the unknown, the barely thinkable and certainly not speakable.

It had been about a year after Minerva had taken up her job. Christmas break had been looming, and with it, the prospect of the annual McGonagall Hogmanay gathering. Over the past years, the number of infants in the family had increased as steadily as the frequency of questioning looks at the sole remaining spinster, which had somehow made holiday duty at the school seem a most attractive alternative. "I'm terribly sorry," was how she'd broken the news to her mother, "but someone has to stay with the children, and the poor ones who cannot be with their families at least should have a woman around."

That had settled it. Mrs McGonagall did not have to know that Christmas actually saw plenty of women around at Hogwarts. Minerva was not the only unmarried one, albeit one of the youngest.

Something else Mrs McGonagall did not have to know was that Minerva had absolutely no intention of spending Christmas at Hogwarts.

The walks with Irma had become her highlights of the week, and from the way Irma wouldn't let rain nor temperatures deter her from knocking at Minerva's door each Sunday at three, Minerva could tell that Irma didn't feel very different. One gets out of the castle so rarely, they kept telling each other, dutifully concealing that neither of them was angry when the weather was less than clement, when the conditions forced them to link arms under an umbrella, to lend a hand by a slippery patch, or to warm up afterwards with a cup of strong tea and a fire flickering in the hearth to dry the soaking cloaks and drenched boots and warm their cold feet, cheeks, and ears.

One had so little physical contact on a job like that.

Minerva wasn't even sure if she knew back then how deeply she had already fallen in love with Irma. It had puzzled her often in quiet moments, moments in which she watched Irma unnoticed, sleeping, talking back to a book, or scribbling forceful reminders to late returners of library material.

Irma had never been just any friend. There had always been something else, some deeper familiarity, but Minerva had simply attributed the feeling to the fact that she'd never had a friend with whom she'd shared so many similarities. Something had always set her apart from the others. First, her love of Quidditch. Then her love of learning. And, later yet, her persistent unmarriedness and her preference for high collars and no-nonsense hair.

Not so with Irma.

And so Minerva had never thought twice about the touches that became more frequent, the arms that began to link up even when it wasn't raining, and the occasional, teasing comment from Poppy that they were almost like a married couple.

Indeed, sometimes that was what it felt like.

Thus, it was perhaps only natural that one windy day in October, over a cup of Assam and a wee dram of Ogden's, Minerva and Irma had decided to skive off Christmas among the compassionate cousins and worrying mothers and to rent an affordable double room in a small guesthouse on the outskirts of some Austrian mountain village.

oOo

December 1957, Oberdorf

It was cold in Carinthia.

The pale grey tops of the mountains were covered by thick, white caps, and thick, white coats weighed down the dark branches of the pine trees. The early morning light was pale, and the world around them seemed dipped into a cold, bluish gleam.

Their Portkey had dropped them off in the forest by a nearby train station at the most ungodly hour, and from there they'd taken a post bus to the village. After a stiff walk of twenty minutes, they arrived at a small guesthouse with sturdy, wooden balconies and a roof whose snow-covered shingles were kept in place by heavy stones. Tired and cold, they gratefully downed the hot coffee that their dirndl-dressed hostess brought to their room. But a nap wouldn't do when there were walks to be taken, so they pulled on three pairs of socks as soon as their feet and cheeks had returned to normal temperature, buttoned up their boiled-wool cloaks, pulled the mufflers tight, and ventured out into the Carinthian winter.

They didn't have a map. They didn't want one, either, preferring instead to let their fancies take them up and down the snowy hills that sparkled brightly in the morning sun. Staying on the paths held no appeal for them; it was much more fun to plough through the deep snow, virginal save where there were tracks of a rabbit or cat (they never could agree on such matters). There wasn't an even surface anywhere around, and at one point Irma wondered how cows might manage to graze on such steep slopes in the summer. It was solemnly agreed that Alpine cows probably had longer legs on one side.

When they became tired of hills, they ventured out on the frozen lake. It was a long and narrow one, snaking itself through the valley between the pine-covered mountains. The ice was so slippery that they had to hold on to each other tightly, which still didn't prevent them from tumbling into a pile of limbs, skirts, shawls and coats more than once.

At lunchtime, they stopped in a restaurant on the other side of the lake. After thoroughly shaking the snow from their boots and cloaks, they found themselves a place by the window, from where they could watch a group of people who obviously found considerable amusement in making what looked like umbrella bases skid across the ice.

They ordered a lunch of roast potatoes and paper-thin, breaded scallops that took up the better part of the plate, followed by a mountain of shredded pancake with raisins and a snow-white cap of sugar that they shared between them, and two tall porcelain cups of strong coffee topped with whipped cream. And when at last they felt ready to move again, they returned to the slopes to watch the skiers, keeping warm with rum-laced tea, before they slowly made their way back through the pine forest, the gleaming snow on the branches illuminating their path in the darkening afternoon.

Thoroughly frozen, they arrived back at the guesthouse. Their hostess had fired up the tiled stove in their absence, but the space around it was so soon taken up by boots, stockings, cloaks, skirts and shawls that they decided to resort to the fluffy duvets to get warm again.

Whenever she'd think back of those early days, Minerva would always have to smile at how conveniently they sometimes forgot that there were such things as drying spells.

"Come over with your feet," Irma murmured. Minerva didn't need to be invited twice and edged closer, slipping her icy toes between Irma's calves. She didn't complain when Irma's arms wrapped themselves around her, didn't notice any hesitation when her own hand, warmed up by Irma's, found its way to the small of Irma's back, to the spot that often gave Irma trouble, and began to move in small circles.

"Mmmmh."

She felt the muscles around Irma's spine relax, felt Irma's arms - proof that heavy literature didn't just exercise your brain - pulling her closer, felt the warmth returning to her body. And when a thigh, inadvertently, for certain, came to rest just against the spot where Minerva's own legs touched, she felt a rush of pleasure gripping her so suddenly and so unexpectedly that she quickly buried her face between Irma's neck and shoulders for fear that she couldn't withstand the impulse to kiss her.

Surely that wouldn't do.

oOo

Their routine didn't change much in the days that followed. They took walks in the snow, had a Christmas dinner of duck, red cabbage, and dumplings, and tried ice-skating, which warranted thorough massages of ankles afterwards, and the tender rubbing of ointment on bruises. Once, they even strapped on the skis and hit a beginners' cross-country trail.

What changed, however, was how Minerva felt about it.

They had taken to spending their whole evenings under the eiderdown. At first it had been just to warm up, tend to tense spots and bruises and twisted or allegedly twisted ankles (Irma was later to admit that she had faked at least one and dramatised another, unlike Minerva, who didn't admit it and instead just raised an eyebrow. "Did you now?") Yet taking the ice flowers on the windowpanes as proof that the room wasn't warm enough for comfortable reading in the armchairs by the stove, they proceeded to taking their books to the bed, reading in silence, or sometimes to each other, getting up only to make tea or tiptoe to the washing rooms on the far end of the corridor. For reasons of convenience and economy, they usually picnicked on mountain cheese, cured sausage, and hard-crusted brown bread in the evenings, but if they went out, for dinner or a late walk, they simply repeated the warming procedure afterwards.

Minerva couldn't remember enjoying a holiday so much in her life. She relished the laughs and the quietness, the two forks that stabbed their daily pile of kaiserschmarrnand the snowballs hitting a rear end here and missing a shoulder there, the embraces and always, always the growing excitement when their legs touched, brushed each other, sometimes even intertwined because, sweet Morgana, could the human thigh become cold. In fact, Minerva relished it so much that more and more often, she found herself thinking that this was how she'd want things to be with the person who could - who might - be the One for her.

And yet, she couldn't help gradually feeling her ease slip away. The warm rush that had taken her so much by surprise the first time it had happened, and that she hoped, even yearned for every evening, had become far more than a beautiful sensation in itself. It had become a thrill that made her want more, not hold still like she forced herself to do, concealing with more and more effort the pleasure it gave her. She wanted to roll onto her back and pull Irma on top of her, or push Irma into the cushions, and kiss her, everywhere, and slip a hand under the off-white chemise and perhaps, perhaps ...

She'd heard of women like that. Women who lived like husband and wife. Rumour had it that Miss Hooch and Miss Morgan did, and Miss Grubbly-Plank and Mrs Vance. It wasn't as if Minerva found it a scandal. After all, she'd always liked Miss Hooch, had had more than a little crush on her when she was eleven and the no-nonsense Quidditch mistress had ordered extra coaching because it wouldn't do to let such talent go unused. And Miss Grubbly-Plank with her large hands and flannel trousers, and the quiet manner that made every Hippogriff bow to her without hesitation - who couldn't possiblywant her for a husband? Well, of those who were looking for a husband, of sorts.

But were Irma and she like that?

Neither of them had short hair; neither wore men's clothes, or had any interest in doing so. Or at least Minerva didn't, and Irma didn't look unhappy in her black, high-cut robes and the woollen costumes she wore here in the Muggle environment.

And even if she, Minerva, was like that - what were the chances that Irma was? Did she really want to risk the friendship, ruin the companionship that she cherished more than anything in the world, by scaring Irma away because she had designs on her body? When they had both told each other so often that they didn't want to be desired for their bodies?

"You're tense," Irma said. She sat up in the bed, placing her warm hands on Minerva's shoulder and began massaging gently.

That did not help.

"What is it?" Irma stopped mid-rub and cupped Minerva's chin with her hand.

"Nothing," Minerva said, avoiding Irma's eyes.

"There's no such thing as nothing. Gamp's Second Maxim on Conjuring, as you very well know."

Minerva sat up and took a deep breath. "I'm ... I'm not sure, Irma ... I can't help wondering if what we're doing here is right."

Minerva saw Irma's spine grow rigid, and it suddenly seemed as if the nose had become just a tad thinner, the mouth a bit smaller.

"I don't mean to say I don't like it!"

"You don't?" Irma asked, probingly, her eyebrows almost touching in the middle. She reached for her pince-nez, which she'd deposited on the nightstand. "Then why are you wondering?"

"I don't know. I like being with you the way I am now. It just seems so ... unheard of."

Irma got up from the bed and walked up to the frost-covered window. Even the view of Irma's bare feet on the cold floor made Minerva shiver, and she pulled the duvet more tightly around herself. It was so quiet in the room that Minerva could hear Irma's breaths, deeper and quicker than usual, and it seemed to her that one of the tell-tale red spots that betrayed agitation had appeared on Irma's cheek.

There she stood now, shoulders trembling, releasing her crossed arms to rub the windowpane until a small hole appeared in the frost. Irma looked out across the lake, where lanterns illuminated a few late-afternoon skaters. Slowly, the trembling subsided, and when she spoke, her voice was calm again.

"Let me ask you a question," she began, "and tell me if you agree with me." Her finger traced a pattern in the frost on the glass.

"If you like being with me, as I like being with you," she continued, "and if I can trust you to be a friend who doesn't run away screaming at an unexpected touch just as you can trust me ..." - She turned around to face Minerva - "... then why shouldn't we listen to this unheard-of friendship and find out where it wants to take us?"

"You really do mean that, don't you?

"I do." Irma stepped up to Minerva's side of the bed. "What do you say?"

Minerva nodded. She felt for Irma's hands and was surprised to find them cold. "I would like that."

They went to dinner after that, in the small restaurant by the lakeshore. From their table by the window, they could watch a lone man in a thick cloak, who patiently dangled a fishing rod above a hole in the ice. Neither of them felt hungry, but it had seemed to both that they needed a break from the room and the bed and the conversation that had somehow seemed rather difficult to continue.

Their hands touched when they clinked glasses, and their smiles at the sensation were insecure. Yet little by little, when Minerva noticed a foot brushing past her leg as if casually, when the slice of lemon disappeared from her scallop - "Thief!" - to end up well-squeezed on the rim of Irma's plate, Minerva felt the warmth in her stomach coming back, and it wasn't just from the spiced wine.

Even more than fifty years later, Minerva would still remember that night and the following nights with as much detail as if it had been yesterday. Would remember kisses, embraces, warm hands and glowing cheeks. Legs that parted to allow a thigh to slip between them, hips that didn't stay still as the rushes grew warmer and more intense. Hands under chemises, touching breasts and legs, pushing up fabric, undoing buttons, breath that grew quicker, flesh that grew more demanding, until one of them - who it was would be the only thing Minerva wouldn't remember - was the first to speak the plea.

"Touch me."

oOo

December 2010, Hogsmeade

Bloody hell.

Rita Skeeter was not amused. Bad enough to be sent to interview an ageing spinster teacher on behalf of a magazine for the proud housewitch. Being sent to do it in Decemberwas adding insult to injury. Muttering a stream of invectives, Rita bowed down and pulled a small silver object from a crack between the cobblestones. Damn. This was the second time that her left heel had broken off. She'd charmed the soles of her boots with antislip spells, but that didn't prevent the three-inch spikes from sinking into the ice every now and then, which wasn't only hell on the calves and the posture but, as it turned out, also on the heels themselves.

However, there was a limit to how low Rita Skeeter would sink, and said limit ended mid-calf and had a green crocodile pattern. She would do boring interviews while Parkinson was out in bisexual adulteryland. She would accept line prices that, in better days, would have elicited no more than pitying smiles from her. She would even consent to submitting the literal quotes for verification to the press-savvy interviewee before turning in the piece for publication.

But she would do it in proper shoes.

Rita took her wand out of the folds of her lime-green trench-coat (couldn't those twits at Salvatore Poochie ever produce a winter garment that was both fashionable and warm?) attached the heel back to her boot with a flick of her wand - firmly, as she convinced herself with a few determined stomps. She then took out her pocket mirror, checked the damage the stress and the cold and the wind and the humidity had done to her appearance, muttered a curse because the situation was beyond quick spellwork, and resumed her way up the castle.

Damn, she hated walking.

oOo

December 2010, Hogwarts

Outside, a light snow had begun to fall, dipping the bedroom into whitish December light. Minerva lay on the crumpled sheets, spooned against Irma, heavy and sated, and it wasn't just for the fire in the hearth that she was feeling so thoroughly warm.

"Shouldn't you get up soon?" Irma whispered into her neck.

"Mmmmh," Minerva mumbled, and made no move to do so. The sensation of the pillow against her cheek and Irma's body against her back was too good to be given up right now, and so was the feeling of Irma's soothing hand that still rested on the warm, soft spot between her legs.

Gentle now, but not a while ago.

Anyone who might have peeked into the room just a while ago would have seen quite another side of Irma Pince, a side that Minerva loved just as much. Yes, Irma Pince knew exactly when to do what. When to be tender, and when to turn Minerva around on the cushions with not much ado (and with the help of those biceps), hold her there, face down, quietly instructing her neither to move nor raise her voice or, alas, there would have to be a little punishment. Of course, Minerva's inquisitive mind hadn't rested until she'd found out what the punishment would be, but when she noticed that her moans resulted in Irma instantly withdrawing her hand from where it was wanted so badly, she disobeyed no more.

It had taken Minerva a while to acknowledge just how much she enjoyed it when Irma was not gentle. When the Deputy Headmistress was, for once, not the one in charge, but the one allowed to give herself up to a firm hand that knew its business. A hand that set her limits within which she could abandon herself without feeling she'd go to pieces, a hand that could inflict just the right measure of pain to sharpen the senses for the pleasure it gave.

Oh, they had come a long way from their first, tentative explorations under the Austrian eiderdown. From touches both timid and eager, from arousal mingled with nervousness, from desires voiced only hesitantly for fear that they might not be shared.

Or simply for lack of words.

"What are you smiling at?" Irma asked.

Minerva rolled onto her back. "Words," she said, looking at Irma. "Isn't it funny how having them has changed us?"

Irma nodded. It was true. They had considerably expanded their vocabulary over the years, with words they'd discovered together, and words they made up because they found the concepts in no dictionary. With words they looked up, and words they came across in conversations with Miss Hooch and Miss Grubbly-Plank, who had long become Rolanda and Wilhelmina. And still, part of Minerva sometimes couldn't help missing the days before they had words - the days when the boundaries between love and friendship, between tenderness and sex had yet been undefined, when the arousal of the touches had met with the excitement of the uncharted territory, and when two spinsters could still walk arm in arm because nobody would even thinkthat they were kissing far, far more than each other's cheeks when the door was closed safely behind them.

"It's what words do, Minerva," Irma said. "Change things. Irreversibly, sometimes. But if you use them well, they can make things a lot better." She Summoned her pince-nez from the nightstand and clipped it on the bridge of her nose. "Even sex," she added.

Minerva laughed. Irma had always been the more outspoken one of them. Whatever word they'd discovered, Irma had usually been the first to adopt it. Clitoris, cauliflower, categorical imperative. For Irma Pince, a word was a word.

And there was no denying that some of those words had indeed made their lives a lot better.

"You should get dressed," Irma said. "Or do you want to meet the press like this?"

"Why not?" Minerva gave a lazy stretch. "Might set the mood rather nicely."

Irma smirked. "Above all, it would make for a nice title page."

She let her finger trail along Minerva's stomach. "Are you ready for the interview?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," Minerva sat up to reach for her glasses. It was the truth. They had discussed the matter so often, and so often, Minerva had been the hesitant one. But it was time, and her retirement interview was an opportunity not to be missed.

"You know that I've often been impatient with you for not having done this years ago," Irma ventured. "But if you'd rather not ..."

Minerva reached for Irma's hand and shook her head.

She remembered the first of their many debates on how to handle their relationship as if no time had passed. It had been just a few weeks after they'd discovered their love for each other. Back at Hogwarts after their Austrian holiday, under the constant scrutiny of well-meaning colleagues and gossiping students, Irma had found it hard to pretend that Minerva was still no more than her dear lady friend. Irma Pince hated being dishonest, even if honesty came at the price of solitude. If she'd had her way, she'd have quit her job and moved to the countryside in an instant. She'd had it all in her head: Minerva could have Flooed to a day job - research institutions and Ministry Departments would have been queuing for her - and Irma could have set up an owl-order bookshop-cum-lending library. Yet Minerva wouldn't hear any of it. For Minerva, giving up teaching was not an option even if it meant feigning spinsterhood forever.

Eventually, they had agreed. After all, Irma did love her job just as Minerva loved hers, and anyway it wasn't as if they'd been planning to hold hands at Madam Puddifoot's. So they'd decided to stay, at Hogwarts and in secret, until a time would come when they'd be ready, and the world would be ready for them.

Still, the thought of living in the open, or at least with an open secret, had continued to flare up on occasions. In the seventies, when it was still a bit early. In the eighties, when the conservatism of the post-war society didn't make it seem advisable to flaunt one's difference. And in the nineties, when it had become downright reckless for any member of the Order of the Phoenix to advertise a loved one of anykind.

Yet now, it was time. High time, in fact.

A Witch Weeklyarticle had helped Minerva make up her mind for good. It had been a piece on what would have been Amelia Bones's seventy-fifth birthday last summer that had sent Irma into a fit of red-cheeked rage.

"Not a word!" she'd huffed. "Not a bloody word. They say that she collected early 20th century Muggle detective novels and that she survived breast cancer." An agitated finger had stabbed at the offensive piece of writing. "They even write about her alleged passion for cooking, my foot. And not a wordof Dorcas."

"You know she never wanted to make it a public issue," Minerva had ventured

"Of course not. She had a job and a mission and all the things one has when one is Amelia Bones. But this is now." The last word had been accompanied by Irma's teacup clunking down hard on the table. "For the love of Morgana, it can't have escaped these people that Amelia Bones was the biggest dyke this side of the IJsselmeer. Can't they even acknowledge her for it when she's dead?"

"They may have found it intrusive, given that she'd never talked about the matter herself."

"Intrusive, is that it?" An edge had crept into Irma's voice. "They wrote that she's one tit short, for Merlin's sake. Might as well add who got to enjoy the remaining one!"

"The whole list?" Minerva had asked with a chuckle.

"Well, perhaps not the whole list," Irma had conceded. "But I'm serious, Minerva. She'd never have wanted to live in secret if it hadn't hurt her career. And she'd want it to be known now. She no longer needs her privacy, but someone else might need a role model."

A role model. That had settled it.

Minerva had never been one for public displays of affection. Truth be told, she didn't even really mind the secrecy. It made things difficult, and sometimes exasperating, especially when she had to fend off Molly Weasley's periodic attempts at setting her up with some old bachelor. But one could not deny that a bit of secrecy also provided considerable spice for a relationship.

Still. Would she want an obituary with some cock-and-bull story that portrayed her as a confirmed bachelorette, for fear that the truth might besmirch her reputation?

What about Irma?

What about the Minervas and Amelias of the future?

Words, if used well, could change things for the better, was what Irma had said.

Summoning her dressing gown from the armchair where she'd deposited it the evening before, Minerva sat up in the bed and kissed Irma's cheek.

"It's time," she said.

oOo

December 2010, Downstairs

Breathing heavily and legs aching like crazy, Rita Skeeter reached the gate of the school. The filthy git of a caretaker received her with a bandy-legged bow and a lopsided leer, that scruffy cat of his sitting by his side as always. Rita condescended to a twitch of the left eye and considered it her charitable act of the day.

Had anyone ever found out if it was true what they said about him and Old Pince?

"This way, Ma'am," he said as he bowed again and bade her go ahead. Prat, Rita thought when they had reached the bottom of the staircase. Don't you think I believe that this is pure gallantry.Still, she was feeling merciful today, and so she went ahead, just two steps or three in front of the old lecher, hips swaying a little less than gently as she made her way up the stairs.

"One more," Filch huffed when she wanted to turn left on the first landing.

One more? Didn't the staircase to the Head's office go off the first floor?

They went down a long passage, around a corner, and another one. This certainly didn't look like classrooms, nor did it look like offices.

Merlin's arse tattoo, were they going where Rita thoughtthey were going?

They stopped in front of a heavy door. There was a window to their right, and Rita saw the Lake through the bare crown of a tree. Not the worst view one could have from a boarding school window. She wondered if the sixth-year girls still honoured the tradition of the midnight skinny-dip at the end of the school year.

Filch tapped his cane on the door. Not ten seconds later, it opened, and McGonagall appeared. In emerald green, as was to be expected, and with her trademark, silver-lined bun. It was a bit looser than Rita remembered it, and had the old crone always had a complexion?

"Thank you, Mr. Filch. May I call you when we're done, if it's not too much trouble?"

"No trouble at all, Ma'am." Bowing once more, he retreated down the long corridor.

And thus, for the first time in her life - perhaps in any journalist's life - Rita Skeeter stepped into the private quarters of Minerva McGonagall. Phrases darted through Rita's head as she took in the surroundings with a few quick glances. Immaculately kept, predictably. The cosy den of the intellectual single woman, walls lined with bookshelves from left to right, a gramophone in a corner, and, oh, please, not a faint scent of lavenderin the air? Not a frill of the Persian rug was out of line, not a tea stain marred the oaken desk by the window, although a few biscuit crumbs told Rita that if she was looking at a compulsive nature here, it wasn't a pathological case. There went that angle.

"Tea?" asked a voice from the doorway, and Rita turned around with a start.

It was a voice she remembered only too well. Its brittle soprano had rung in her ears often during her Hogwarts years, with phrases that Rita could still hear in her head as if they had been shouted yesterday. "You will cut your fingernails before you touch that book or I'll do it for you!" was one of them, and another: "This is a library, not a bawdy-house!"

Her spine grew rigid, and if she wasn't much mistaken, so did Old Pince's. But she had visibly improved since the late sixties; there wasn't a single red spot in her face as she actually bade Rita a good morning, set a tea-tray on the small side table, and sat down on the two-seater.

What the hell was the old shrivelfig doing here?

"Please," McGonagall said as she directed Rita to an armchair by the bay window. One had to hand it to her; she still hadn't lost any of that teacher's poise that had affected even young Rita to such a degree that she'd regularly buttoned up her school robes all the way before entering McGonagall's classroom. Rita couldn't help a polite tone as she thanked her hostess and opened the clasps of her crocodile handbag to retrieve notepad and acid-green quill. If Rita hadn't known better, she'd have sworn that the quill wanted to dive right back into the handbag when it caught the first sounds of McGonagall's voice. Understandably, Rita thought, with that one's record of pitch-perfect multi-clause sentences so dry that they made even the quickest quote quill wilt in agony because there was just nothing to be done about them in the way of spicing up. And yet, it couldn't be helped. The quill would have to work with her on this one, so she tugged at its barb until it complied.

McGonagall gave a slight 'tut' and placed a hand on Rita's shoulder.

"I don't think you'll be needing this one today," she said, unusually softly by her standards.

Was there a hint of amusement in McGonagall's eyes?

Hell, there was. Believe it or not, the old crone looked as if she were actually looking forward to the interview. A genuine smile playing around her lips, she sat down on the two-seater, and poured herself a cup of tea. She took Irma Pince's hand, pressed it gently before she let it sink into her lap together with her own, and leaned back.

Sweet Merlin.

Parkinson, there goes your headline.

"Well, Madam Skeeter," McGonagall began. "I take it you have some questions?"

That Sunday at half past ten in the morning, someone decided that being Rita Skeeter probably wasn't so bad after all.

oOo oOo oOo