Hecate appears in front of the greenhouse, her mouth set in a grimly determined line. She can do this. This can’t be allowed to interfere with her work any further: she's already behind in preparation for this class.
Taking a deep breath, she opens the door and steps over the threshold. For a moment she flashes back to the last time, hurrying in here soaked to the skin, and her mind starts down a well-trod path. It might still have happened some other way at some other time. But it happened as it had because of the storm. She was so wet and cold—no. First up, she needs to repot the blueleafs. Where's the compost?
The storm had been threatening for some time but their work couldn't wait. The infestation of magicboring beetles were quite capable of destroying the academy's protective spells within hours if the speed of degradation was anything to judge by. It was a race against time, a more challenging task than expected, and Hecate had begun to doubt her ability to complete it when, finally, everything fell into place. The spells sealed and stayed sealed, the beetles seemingly defeated.
Ada looked about as wretched as she felt but managed a wan smile. "Well done, Hecate," she started to say, then the heavens opened.
Hecate moved to transfer but Ada caught hold of her arm. "Not in this storm!" She had to shout to be heard over the roar of the rain and the rumble of thunder.
With her magic drained to the dregs, unable even to spare enough to shield them from the rain, Hecate didn't argue.
They dashed through the rain and took shelter in the first structure they came to, the greenhouse.
Damp and chilly to the touch, the soil cakes under her nails. She could summon her gardening gloves with a thought but Hecate wants it like this, wants the sensation of the earth against her fingertips. It’s a distraction: something to ground her here, now, to keep her mind on the task. Stop her thinking of what had been and what never could be.
The sound of the rain was muffled in the greenhouse, distanced by the spells wrapped around the structure. Ada sank onto a bench to catch her breath.
“Are you all right?”
“Just winded and wet through.” Ada waved her hands in the motion for a drying spell and sighed. “No good. You try?”
Hecate did. She could barely summon a whisper.
“I meant on yourself but I appreciate the thought, dear.” Ada sighed again and began struggling out of her jumper.
Hecate diverted her gaze, her cheeks flaming. “Ada!”
This was too much. Too much like what they had agreed couldn’t be. She heard the jumper fall wetly to the ground.
“Hecate,” Ada said, the way she lingered over her name inspiring thoughts of Ada’s office, of that one, perfect, cruelly interrupted moment, “I know. I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable. But it’ll be easier without all this sodden material to deal with. You’ll freeze with that much water next to your skin.”
Hecate clutched her arms to her chest, staring fixedly at the corner of the room as Ada divested herself of her skirt and blouse. She accepted the accuracy of Ada’s words but that didn’t mean she liked it. Finally, reluctantly, she reached to unzip her dress and found she couldn’t. Her arms were too stiff, the material too heavy, and when had she last undressed without magic?
“Ada.” She dropped her arms to her side, took a deep breath, turned her back. “I need help.”
She heard Ada’s footsteps behind her, felt her fingers brush the nape of her neck. Remembered those fingers sliding into her hair; Ada’s whispered “Hecate, love”; the promise of a kiss that came so close. Imagined Ada stood behind her in her slip and stockings, carefully pulling down her zip: not here, not for this reason. All would be warm and soft... As the cool air hit her damp skin, she couldn’t hold back a gasp.
“There we go,” Ada murmured and retreated to the bench, giving Hecate space to peel the clammy material off her skin.
Hecate levitates the three full plant trays over to their sunny spot on the right-hand table and pointlessly adjusts them once in place. They'd agreed. She still agrees. As friends and colleagues, they work well together. There’s no guarantee they would be able to navigate an additional dimension (she tries and fails, again, not to think lovers; tries and fails, again, to ignore the corresponding flare in her chest) and it would risk everything. How selfish to endanger the very future of witchcraft to indulge her own desires.
Hecate took her time draping her dress over the table. If she just busied herself, maybe the storm would end before she had to turn and face Ada. As if to disabuse her of that hope, the thunder rumbled particularly loudly.
Magic trickled over her skin and stroked through her hair, wrapping her in wavering warmth. Ada had clearly recovered enough to cast a drying spell, hardly full strength but reasonably effective when not tackling the heavy fabric of her dress.
“I hope you’ve taken care of yourself too.”
“I have my priorities straight.”
“That’s not an answer.” The sparks of her magic were still sleepy, still distant, but Hecate summoned enough to return the favour, casting as she turned.
Ada’s sigh shot through her and immediately made her regret her actions. She couldn’t turn away again. She couldn’t meet her eyes. She certainly couldn’t look any lower, at expanses of skin and curves outlined under pink silk. Instead she focused on the top of her head.
“Thank you,” Ada said, as if her gratitude hadn’t been audible enough.
“You have leaves in your hair,” Hecate said inanely. Of all the things on her mind, it was probably the safest to say.
Ada fumbled in her hair, failing utterly to locate the foliage, an adorable if comical display.
Hecate stepped towards her. “Let me.”
Oh. This was a bad idea, she realised immediately. They were far too close. She was pulling her fingers gently through Ada’s hair and Ada’s face was level with her breasts and they were far too close. Yet she couldn’t stop her hand slipping down to cradle Ada’s face, couldn’t stop herself leaning in even closer as Ada tilted her head back, looking up at her.
“Just once?” she found herself asking, begging, a whisper away from Ada’s lips.
“Please,” came the fervent reply.
Hecate moves along the table, directing the bag of soil to fill up the rows of small pots, ready for the next generation outgrowing their seedling cells. Tip, pour, straighten, next. The fourth years will be harvesting the mature plants next week. Maybe by then she can look over to that bench without flushing.
She'd thought, naive, idiotic fool that she was, that it might be easier like this. They couldn’t risk it: it was a sensible conclusion and the only possible course of action. Really, the interruption had come in the nick of time. But her head couldn’t stop her heart wanting—Ada’s eyes so blue, her heart so kind, her smile so bright—couldn’t stop it aching for the missed potential of that night in Ada’s office. If only they’d had one kiss, one night, one shining memory to hold onto: it might make this mutual denial more bearable.
It does not.
The kiss was sweet and slow and short. Far too short.
“Hecate.” And there it was again, that lingering caress of the syllables, and imagine, imagine the care and tenderness embedded there translated into attention lavished on her body. Ada’s hands were on her waist, pulling her even closer; Hecate willingly sunk into her lap, her thighs bracketing Ada's hips, and sought her mouth again.
It was still only once. It didn’t matter how many kisses Ada placed along Hecate’s collarbone, how frequently Hecate shivered with pleasure rolling her hips against Ada's, how their mouths repeatedly returned to each other. It would happen tonight and never again. Once.
“I want,” Hecate murmured against the corner of Ada’s mouth, pressed her lips to her flushed cheek. “I want.”
“What do you want, darling?”
“You.” Her fingers toyed with the strap of Ada's slip. “May I?”
Ada sighed, longing that sunk straight through Hecate. “Just once.”
Hecate quirked an eyebrow as she pushed the strap off Ada's shoulder. “There are two straps.”
Ada’s laughter abruptly dissolved into a moan as Hecate’s mouth found her breast.
Before, her imagination had tormented her. Now it has a full sensory soundtrack to draw upon: the quiet hitch of Ada's breath; the whisper of silk against skin; soft curves under her fingers, skating over, pressing in; a groan reverberating through the both of them, so deep within she couldn’t tell if it was hers or Ada’s or both.
Just this morning she had woken wet and wanting. Her body thrummed with thoughts of riding Ada’s fingers and welcomed the touch of her own. Remembering Ada’s eyes intent upon her, Ada’s mouth shaping soft encouragement (yes, like that, come on sweetheart), it didn’t take her long to reach her peak. Then she had to get up, go sit by Ada’s side at breakfast. The small space between them felt like a chasm. At least none of their colleagues suspect anything amiss: they held a perfectly innocent conversation, attracted no curious looks.
They can do this. They have no choice. It may not have been the wisest decision but Hecate will never unwish it. She accepted long ago that loving Ada was part of herself, that there was no way to forget it, that it was futile to even try because she only fell further. Now she knows that Ada wants her as she wants Ada, by her side in all things; has witnessed Ada arch her head back and cry out, the length of her throat pulled taut as she comes, and all because of her. It’s a painful gift, its true potential held out of reach by circumstance, but a gift nonetheless.
Afterwards, Hecate curled into Ada’s side, her fingers playing with the pink silk rumpled round Ada’s waist. The rain still drummed distantly on the greenhouse roof.
“I love you, Ada.” She had spent years trying to hide the fact, worrying that her eyes and her actions would betray her. Now it seemed important that Ada hear the words, clear and unmistakable.
“I love you too, Hecate,” Ada murmured and Hecate ached at the softness of the sound.
Hecate lifted her head and pressed a kiss to the freckles on Ada's shoulder. “You’re so beautiful.”
“As are you.” Ada must have heard the goodbye in her voice for she added, “We don’t have to leave yet. We can have till the rain stops.”
“Till the rain stops,” Hecate echoed in agreement, settling back down. There was no harm in that.
It seemed like hours. It might not have been. Hecate dozed, close and comfortable, wrapped in the warmth and softness of Ada’s body next to hers and the spell draped over them like a blanket. Maybe the rain would never stop. They would live under a permanent storm cloud but it would be all right, if she could have this.
It didn’t last, of course. The sound of the rain faded and stopped. Hecate held her breath. Just a bit longer... A weather spell would be cheating but it might return on its own. The silence stretched, seeming very big without the background noise.
“We should get back,” Hecate said, hating the shape of the words in her mouth, hating how hollow they made her feel.
“You’re right,” Ada admitted, lifting her arm to let Hecate up.
They rose stiffly from the bench. Clad with a wave of her hand, Hecate shuddered at the clammy touch of her dress but made no attempt to dry it. It would cool her flush, that lingering and forbidden warmth.
Ada met her eyes, swallowed. “You go first. I’ll give you ten minutes.” She sat back down on the bench.
Hecate wanted to kiss her goodbye. Instead she nodded.
It occurs to Hecate, as she sets a plant securely in its new pot, that these plants were here then. They were witnesses, sharing in the secret. She’s careful and attentive with all she grows but perhaps now her touch is just a little gentler, her progress a little slower, her usual health checks a little more thorough. No-one is watching and, after all, it’s all for the good of the school.