By the morning of the third day of Hecate’s first-ever conference, she was ready for it to be over. Attending had definitely been worthwhile and the last two sessions sounded intriguing but her mind’s eye was fixed slightly further in the future. She and Ada would return home and sit in Ada’s office. Together, they would sort through the mountain of information, making sense of it and deciding what could be applied where. It was something they’d done many times, though before she would have been waiting for Ada to arrive, armed with the handouts and transcripts Ada sent ahead.
Her eye alighted upon Ada, standing near the tea table. A dark-haired witch in a moss-green dress had her head bent close to hers. Hecate recognised her from yesterday’s panel: Millicent Beechwood, worked for an educational publishing company. As she watched, Ada smiled up at her and lightly touched her arm. Hecate hurriedly diverted her gaze. It was probably nothing. Ada smiled at and touched people all the time. Maybe Miss Beechwood was offering the school an increased discount on bulk purchases. Something along those lines. She’d convinced herself by the time Ada returned with their teas. Her fingers grazed Hecate’s as she passed her the mug.
“Thank you.” Hecate took a sip, found it perfect as ever. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
It was nothing, of course it was nothing: she wouldn’t dare ask if it could be something.
“Oh.” Ada’s gaze flicked around the room. “She, ah, wondered if I’d like to meet her. For tea and cakes.”
“Oh.” They hadn’t discussed it, this thing between them, since Hecate had allowed herself to step free of her confinement. There was no reason to, Hecate reminded herself, because nothing had changed in that respect. She was still Ada’s best friend, Potions Mistress and Deputy Headmistress, far too much to risk on her heart’s whim. Yet Ada deserved someone, if it would make her happy. “She seemed nice.” Hecate stared at the back of Millicent’s head, willing her to be deserving of this greatest honour. “You should go.”
“Do you think so?”
Hecate looked back at Ada, made herself smile a little. “Absolutely. If nothing else, there will be cake.”
Ada smiled back. “You make a compelling argument, Hecate. Oh, look, I think we’re going in.”
Hecate hunched further over her work, reconsidering spending time in the staff room ever again. Certainly while the day staff were present. Two of them had apparently visited the tea room at the foot of the mountain at the same time as Ada and Miss Beechwood on Saturday and felt it appropriate to share the news with everyone. How pretty the witch was, how much she laughed, how nice it was that Miss Cackle had found someone and had it been going on all summer?
Hecate gripped her pen tightly, bitterly regretting the business trips on Miss Beechwood’s part that had delayed this meeting till after the start of term. If it had been during the summer holidays, their colleagues might still have witnessed Ada’s outing but at least Hecate wouldn’t have had to hear about it. She didn’t have to hear about it now, a voice in her head pointed out. She certainly didn’t want to. She had avoided Ada all Saturday, not wanting to see if Ada dressed up or where such a vision might lead her mind. She’d asked after Ada’s visit to Mrs Cosy’s at breakfast on Sunday morning, like a good friend would; Ada had given an uncharacteristically brief response and changed the subject, asking about Hecate’s day. Hecate hadn’t pressed. They could do this. Of course they could do this. She just didn’t want to think about it and yet some kind of morbid curiosity pinned her in place, kept her from shutting the discussion down.
As she stared blindly at the page in front of her, someone pulled out the chair next to hers. It scraped over the floor and set her teeth on edge.
“You know, I don’t really think she’s Ada’s type,” Dimity murmured.
Hecate’s head snapped round so fast pain blazed down her neck. If her eyes watered, if her expression fell closer to stricken than murderous, that was why. It was only momentary.
“Are you planning on sharing your insight with Miss Cackle?” Her tone was ladened with as much venom as a whisper could support. “I’m sure she’d be most interested in your opinion of her private affairs.”
With that, Hecate transferred away. She couldn’t concentrate with so many people around.
She wanted Ada to be happy. Of course she did: she loved Ada. The problem was she’d accepted the converse, that Ada loved her. The weight of it had settled against her bones, borne her up on the worst of days. The prospect of a future where that was no longer true filled her with a sick kind of desolation. Perhaps Ada even thought Hecate no longer loved her, for she had encouraged her to accept Miss Beechwood’s advances. Not that that should influence Ada’s actions one way or another. If they could not be together—and they’d agreed they could not, for the good of the school—then Ada was at perfect liberty to move on.
Abandoning all attempts at sleep, Hecate left the bed, quietly so as to not disturb Morgana. In lieu of dramatic throwing off of the covers, she expressed her exasperation in the length and speed of her stride, pacing up and down her living room.
She had no right to feel this way. It was entirely her fault to not have anticipated this eventuality, to have imagined somehow that everything would stay exactly as it had these last few years, to think Ada would always want her as she wanted Ada regardless of the impossibility of fulfilment. She had lived nearly two decades believing her feelings were unrequited. She could do it again, in certainty this time, knowing what she had lost.
This wasn’t losing her, Hecate told herself. They were still close, still an excellent partnership, Headmistress and Deputy. That was the important thing, after all, what they sought to protect.
The sun rose as she argued with herself.
It was easier during the week. Hecate occupied herself with her classes. The new first years were proving challenging while the second years seemed so spectacularly blank on everything covered last year she almost suspected the widespread use of forgetting powder. At least neither the third or fourth years had disgraced themselves spectacularly yet (Indigo’s sleeping draught had been exactly the right shade of purple and she'd grinned widely at Hecate’s quiet praise). Then again some of the fifth years seemed not to have grasped the seriousness of their situation: it was only nine months till their final, external exams. Against the backdrop of such concerns, it was easier to ignore the ache in her chest at the accidental brush of Ada’s arm against hers at mealtimes, to pretend that nothing had changed as they took tea in the evening and Ada’s eyes rested fondly on her.
Saturday rolled around again all too soon. Steeling herself, Hecate walked to Ada’s rooms shortly before Ada was due to leave. She would wish her well; she would compliment her—of course she would look beautiful; she always did—and whatever else a friend might say on such an occasion. That was what they were. It would have no deeper meaning than that.
The door was ajar and there were voices inside. Hecate hesitated.
“Stop fiddling: you look lovely.” Miss Bat. There was a pause; perhaps Ada sighed. “What is it?”
“I just... I’m not sure I'm doing the right thing.” Were they talking about Ada’s appearance? Hecate longed to see. She recognised the tone well: Ada had second-guessed herself into knots.
Apparently so did Miss Bat. “I always think it is best to take your happiness where you find it, for you never know when it may go.”
Wise words from the still-radiant newlywed. Ada would take her happiness and Hecate would smile and congratulate her on it. Just not this week. She couldn’t face it.
On Monday morning, Mabel Tapioca’s potion blew up, turning herself, a sizeable portion of the potions lab and her nearby classmates green. The nature of the mixture meant such staining was fairly easy to remove from organic matter but Hecate declined to expend the minimal effort for Mabel.
“Perhaps this will remind you to pay attention to instructions in future.”
Inorganic matter— including the walls, the floor, and the cauldron—required a deep cleaning spell carefully and attentively applied in sections, which took a chunk of her free period following and set her schedule back.
At lunchtime, Ada didn’t appear, having sent a maglet message to say the Council had demanded a comprehensive report on their progress against several different metrics to be delivered in time for their session on Wednesday morning. It wasn’t the first time they’d had unrealistic demands dropped on them from a great height but somehow her resentment this time was sharper, Ada’s absence keener. By the time Ada surfaced, having caught up on all she’d put aside for the report, the week would be all but over and the prospect of the weekend hanging heavy over Hecate again.
Mabel was there, still green.
“You look ridiculous,” she overheard Miss Tapioca say. “What were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Mabel protested, entirely untruthfully.
The afternoon continued in this dispiriting fashion with less than half the second years passing a simple recap test. She gave them detention for a week from tomorrow and began planning a week’s worth of remedial basic potions.
Ada skipped dinner too but at least Mabel was no longer green. Hecate was pleased to see that someone in Mabel’s vicinity had done the rudimentary research to resolve the issue but as the peak of her day, it set a low bar.
To round off the day, there was a staff meeting about the two-day half-term trip. Dimity was in charge of organising it but Hecate was gratified to see Ada had excavated herself from her office. Ada’s smile and light touch to her arm in greeting as Hecate took a seat next to her immediately improved her day tenfold.
Dimity briefly recapped: the plan was to visit non-magical sites in the interests of education and integration; girls from non-magical backgrounds would be encouraged to take the lead; Julie Hubble would be attending as a parent volunteer and native guide.
“I've booked rooms in a magical hostelry,” Dimity explained. Hecate nodded slightly in approval. This was very much first steps for most of the girls. Spending the night in a magical hostelry would give them all a chance to breath. They would only need to be alert for inadvisable magic, as usual, rather than any at all. “Unfortunately they’re a little stretched as there’s a conference on nearby so we have to double up on rooms: I thought Gwen and Algernon, Hecate and Ada, me and Julie.”
“Sorry, dear,” Algernon said mock-dolefully to Gwen.
She tapped him on the arm. “I daresay I'll struggle through.”
They smiled at each other, affection shining bright. The juxtaposition between them and the dismayed intake of breath from Ada hit Hecate, a sharp accurate blow to the chest that left her winded.
“Is there no other way?”
“Sorry, HB.” Dimity shrugged. “It’s the only establishment in the area to have free rooms at all and we got the last few. I did check.”
“Thank you for your hard work, Dimity,” Ada said, and her hand lingered on Hecate’s arm in acknowledgement and warning. Hecate held her tongue. No point in causing a scene, no matter how much she wanted to protest further. While sharing with Dimity or Julie Hubble might actually be preferable, it would only draw questions. Why shouldn’t she and Ada share a room? They were friends.
Dimity nodded and passed out papers. “I've drawn up a draft itinerary.”
Hecate bent her head over it, trying to concentrate on what Dimity was saying about travel times, trying not to dwell on how close Ada was, how close she wanted her, visions of Ada soft and sleepy in her nightwear swimming in her head and making her belly clench.
Ada didn’t want that anymore, she reminded herself, viciously poking the bruise to distract herself. And it was for the best.
The meeting passed by in a blur: suddenly chairs were being pushed back and people were standing.
Ada turned to her. “I wondered if you had a little time to look over the report so far?”
Hecate nodded. “Of course.”
They could do this.
Ada finished reading through Hecate’s additions and amendments. “Wonderful. Thank you so much. This is going to be a busy week but it’s good to be that bit more on top of it.”
“I'd characterise it more as coming up for air.”
Ada laughed. “Whichever. As long as we get through it. So thank you.”
“Anytime,” Hecate said softly. Times like this she could believe it wouldn’t be too bad. As long as Ada still understood her, as long as Ada still smiled at her, she could cope.
Ada put the papers down on the desk. “I wondered if I could ask for a bit more of your time?”
“A game of chess in the staff room Saturday night? We haven’t played for a while.”
Happiness was quickly overtaken by confusion; Hecate frowned. “Won’t you be busy?”
“No.” Ada cleared her throat. “I, ah, won’t be seeing Miss Beechwood again.”
“Oh.” Distantly, Hecate admired how the lamplight caught Ada’s hair.
“Yes.” Ada’s hand rested very close to Hecate’s on the desk. With a slight crook of her fingers, her fingertips grazed Hecate’s.
The touch jolted Hecate’s mind into action. She should say something. “I'm sorry.”
“It’s for the best.” Ada smiled, crow's feet creasing softly. “You see, I'm in love with someone else.” You, her eyes said.
Hecate curled her fingers around Ada’s, pressing the pads together as emotion unfurled and bloomed within her, choking any words. There might well be another, of course—who could fail to love Ada?—but this was a reprieve.
“I thought my presence in the staff room might discourage gossip on the subject.”
Hecate found her voice. “A most astute plan.”
They sat and smiled at each other, their hands curved together, and for an instant Hecate thought of standing, of leaning over and again, again—
Then came a knock on the door. They sat back. The school came first, as ever.
The dreams were back with a vengeance. It was harder to ignore her desires when Ada was so close, without the distance of an unattainable fantasy. If she just reached out... But their concerns were still valid. What they were was too important to imperil. She already had so much: it was greedy to want more, to want everything. Yet sometimes, often when she was tender and raw with fear of losing Ada, she couldn’t stop these feelings spilling out from their box. It was this lack of self-control that forced her to compromise. As Ada’s deputy and best friend, she might ache to soothe her but she offered only smiles and reassuring words, didn’t dare to reach out to comfort her in the way she knew Ada craved. They hadn’t held each other since that night in the greenhouse, five years now. They hadn’t shared a hug since before that. They knew all too well where that might lead.
Hecate let herself imagine it. Ada’s arms around her and the softness of Ada’s body pressed against her. How bright Ada’s eyes would be as they leant together for a kiss. Would they undress each other slowly, by hand, full of anticipation, or by magic all at once, desperate to drink each other in? Oh, how Ada’s skin would flush; how striking the contrast of her hair against the dark pillow; how pretty the shape of her mouth as she pleaded. Ada still loved her: did she contemplate such scenes? Maybe, across the castle, Ada was touching herself too and wishing for Hecate’s hands on her. Pressing her face into her pillow, Hecate came with a noise equal parts pleasure and frustration, her mind gloriously blank for some moments.
She caught her breath and turned over, staring at the darkened ceiling. Aftershocks rippled through her, slowly fading. Things would calm. They would settle back into their equilibrium with time. It was a month before the half-term trip. It was just one night. Let her find her balance and she would be fine, at least until the next time something overwhelmed her with the enormity of everything she had, wanted, and could lose with Ada.
If it came to it, could she feign sickness? Hecate considered and quickly dismissed the idea. She only ever admitted to physical infirmity when absolutely forced to and Ada would worry so. She'd hardly be happy leaving Hecate alone in an empty castle in such a state. Best case scenario, she'd pop back a few times to check on her. Worst case, she’d stay to be sure she was fine. The student-staff ratio on the trip would still be acceptable.
At some point she must have drifted back to sleep because she dreamt of Ada again, blue eyes soft with care, reaching towards her.
Hecate would not have chosen a toy museum as an educational outing but she admitted, privately of course, that it had seemed to achieve the trip’s goals. The girls from witching backgrounds had been fascinated by the differences and similarities between their childhood toys and these, exclaimed over the descriptions given and listened attentively to their classmates’ explanations. Mildred, Indigo, Maud and Enid had held an animated discussion around a packet of holographic stickers. Rosie James, one of their quietest first years, had positively bloomed talking about playing the card game Old Maid with her great-grandparents. The idea was to pair up the cards in your hand with the loser being the one holding the Old Maid: a ridiculous premise. The Old Maid in the pack on display had a straw hat, grey hair in a knot and a sly, pleased expression. Hecate rather liked her. Her gaze drifted—didn’t it always—to Ada, absolutely in her element talking to Rosie.
“Well, she has a secret.”
“What?” Hecate jolted.
Dimity looked slightly quizzical. “The card, HB. Don’t you think? She’s positively smirking. Reminds me of someone.”
Hecate stared at the card in the case. Of course the card. Dimity didn’t mean anything else. She was saved from finding a response as Ada joined them.
“An excellent excursion, Dimity, thank you. I think we all need to be reminded from time to time of the value of the knowledge our students from Ordinary backgrounds already have. We should discuss doing this again.”
Hecate raised an eyebrow. “There’s still tomorrow to go.”
“Hecate,” Ada chided, laying a hand on her arm.
Dimity grinned, cheerfully unaffected by Hecate’s barb. “Ever the pessimist, aren’t you? I think we’re about ready to head back to the hotel. I’ll just go check with our navigator.”
She headed off towards Julie but was intercepted by Enid, followed by Mildred, Indigo and Maud.
“Miss Drill, we were wondering whether we might all have dinner in an Ordinary restaurant? In the interests of our education, of course.” Enid smiled cherubically; Mildred and Indigo looked hopeful; Maud less so.
“Nice try, girls. Dinner is at the hotel, in the interests of not bankrupting your school. It’s already been paid for so I hope you all have big appetites.”
“See?” Ada smiled up at Hecate. “Dimity has everything well in hand.”
“Ever the optimist, aren’t you?” Hecate intoned, deliberately overdramatic just to see amusement shine in Ada’s face.
It wasn’t until well after dinnertime, as the door to their room shut behind them, that Hecate realised Dimity definitely did not have everything well in hand.
The room contained one wardrobe, one desk, one unforgiving-looking wooden chair pushed under the desk, and a double bed.
“Miss Drill assured me this was a twin room,” she hissed.
“Mistakes happen.” Ada chewed worriedly on her lip.
Hecate attempted to transform the bed. The chair. The desk. Even the wardrobe. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work. She knew, theoretically, that it was fairly standard practice for magical hostelries to charm their furniture to be resistant to spells as well as placing restrictions on the dimensions of things conjured inside rooms. It made sense: there were occasionally newspaper articles about the nonsense guests got up to when the proprietors neglected to set or refresh the charm. In that moment she deeply resented the idiots in the general population whose behaviour forced such precautions.
“Well then.” Hecate swallowed. “I shall sleep on the floor.” She could conjure a sleeping bag. That should fit within the dimensions allowed.
Ada shook her head. “How many pain-relieving potions did you pack? You’ll be good for nothing in the morning and I won’t be able to sleep for worrying.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“All right.” Hecate relaxed a fraction; Ada walked to the other side of the bed and put her bag down on the carpet. “So we’re both sleeping on the floor tonight.”
“Yes, Hecate. Either we both sleep on the floor or we both sleep in the bed.” Ada knew exactly what she was doing, Hecate realised. If Hecate would not take care of herself for her own sake, Ada would ensure that at least she would do so for Ada’s sake. “Unless you prefer the bed alone.” Ada smiled, a little wryly. “At least I have padding.”
Hecate tried to keep her face neutral, to not betray the pull of desire in her belly at Ada’s words, the sudden image of the generous curves of Ada’s body, uncovered for her. “No. The bed, then.”
“Do you want to use the bathroom first?”
When Hecate returned, Ada slipped past her with a smile; when Ada returned, Hecate pretended to be asleep. She concentrated on breathing slowly and deeply as the blankets were lifted and cool air accompanied Ada into the bed. As Ada settled without even brushing against Hecate, Hecate tried to quash the pang of disappointment. The space between them might ache in her chest but no, it was good. It would be morning before they knew it.
Somewhere, someone was keening, a thin, high, quiet sound of desolation. Hecate drifted along the edge of sleep, sinking as the sound stopped, rising again slowly as the mattress shifted and shook with muffled sobs. Ada. Ada was crying.
Hecate rolled, finding Ada much closer than she'd been before. Still half-asleep, desperate to comfort, she rubbed her hand along Ada’s side soothingly.
“Ada. Ada. Ssh.”
“Hecate?” Ada turned her face from the pillow and reached out, pressing her hand to Hecate’s sternum. It seemed to reassure her for she took a shaky breath and curled close enough for her words to whisper across Hecate’s skin. “I'm sorry. I dreamed...”
Hecate could guess, the memory of fear sour at the back of her throat. “Everything’s fine. Everyone’s safe.”
“You’re here,” Ada whispered.
“Always,” Hecate vowed and woke in that breath to the promise of their position: the curve of Ada’s hip under her hand; Ada's fingers grazing the hollow of her throat. She stilled.
Ada looked up at her. “Hecate?” Half a question; half a plea.
The moment stretched, trembling between them. She should turn away, Hecate knew.
She did not.
Instead she found herself pressing kisses all over Ada’s upturned face, to the corner of her eye and the tip of her nose, to her cheek and chin and finally her lips. Ada whimpered into her mouth and slid her leg over Hecate’s.
So much had been lost, found, changed in the turmoil of the last few years yet here they still were. They clung together as if being close enough would mean they never had to let go, could not be parted, could shield each other from whatever chaos was bound to come.
“Just tonight,” Ada begged.
“Yes,” Hecate answered, a hiss heavy with longing, and stifled a moan against Ada’s cheek as Ada’s hand found her breast, rubbing her through the fabric.
They would have to be quiet. This was hardly as private as the greenhouse, not with Dimity and Julie just the other side of a wall of indeterminate thickness. Casting a silence spell would leave a trace, meant accepting this was happening and they couldn't. They might let themselves want but they could not let themselves have, not in any way beyond this, pale shadows in the dark away from home and the normal course of their lives.
They found each other’s mouths again, and again, pleasure reverberating between them as their hips rolled and hands roamed, refreshing mental maps: whorl of ear, line of collarbone, curve of breast. The darkness focused senses on skin and sensations, let memory and imagination fill in the rest. Hecate couldn’t make out Ada’s eyes, not properly, but she knew what she would see there. She shivered. She knew Ada would see the same in her.
Trailing her fingers up Ada’s leg, Hecate hesitated, caressing the skin at the back of her knee. Ada murmured assent and shifted her leg higher, opening herself more. Reaching Ada’s inner thigh, Hecate slowed, teasing for a few moments, briefly pretending they had endless time, freedom to explore, the promise of a future. Only briefly. Ada's fingers bunched in Hecate’s nightdress in silent frustration and Hecate relented. Teasing belonged in her fantasies, not to this, snatched in a moment of mutual weakness. Ada’s head fell forwards onto her shoulder as she reached her target.
The memory paled against the reality. That or she'd simply forgotten (self-preservation, perhaps) just how good this felt, to have Ada slick under her fingers, her desire for her so plain. Ada rocked her hips with Hecate’s rhythm; Hecate stroked Ada’s hair and urged her back to a kiss, letting her moan into her mouth. As Hecate’s fingers sped, the noises low in Ada’s throat became increasingly desperate and her hands stopped wandering, stopped plucking at Hecate’s nightdress (longer and less inclined to conveniently ride up to the waist) and simply clutched Hecate to her. Soon, Ada shuddered, choking back a cry that dissolved into soft sighs as Hecate brought her through the aftershocks. There was a long moment where the only sound was their breathing, loud in the surrounding silence, then the whisper of Ada’s palms over Hecate’s nightdress, tracing the lines of her body.
Ada's breath brushed the corner of Hecate’s jaw, her voice reverberating through her. “Please, darling. Let me feel you?”
Oh. Ada’s words slammed into her, setting her alight. She was already wet, of course she was, but suddenly it was overwhelming, intolerable not to have Ada’s hands on her skin. She wanted this too much, more for every year without.
“Ada,” she managed, and kissed her, and kissed her, and pressed full length against her, nightgown discarded.
Ada gave a little burble of delight and rolled onto her back, tugging Hecate on top of her. Hecate arched against her, Ada’s thigh between hers. Ada’s nightgown had gone entirely now too and they were skin to skin and Ada’s touch seemed a searing sheet from her head—dragging fingers through her loose hair—to her hips—curving round with promise—to her curling toes. She buried her face in Ada’s neck and bit her lip, swallowing gasps and groans (so good, Ada, so good). Pleasure rolled through her yet barely seemed to retreat.
She lifted her head. “More, Ada, Ada, please.” If she were to be greedy, let it be now, on this aberrant night. She would never have her fill of Ada but let her have as much as she could: the memories would keep her company. With a kiss, Ada obliged.
Hecate woke as the birds were singing, briefly resentful that sleep had robbed her of time with Ada.
“Awake?” Ada said from somewhere in the vicinity of her shoulder blade.
Hecate rolled to face her. “Yes.” Giving into the impulse, she leaned forward and kissed Ada good morning. Ada murmured appreciatively. As the kiss came to an end, Hecate tilted her head just a fraction to press their foreheads together. She couldn’t bear to let her go just yet. “We can’t do this,” she said, more as a reminder to herself than anything else.
Ada clasped Hecate’s hands, curled by her chest. “I wish we could.”
This soft morning was a temptation, an invitation to imagine years of waking up like this. It was too much to ask for. They could not risk unbalancing their lives and their work.
“Maybe when we retire.” The words left her mouth without conscious thought. Hecate had never thought of it before. Happy where she was, satisfied with her work, she hadn’t wanted to see an end to it. Now the image tumbled into her mind, complete and shining. There could be a cottage, a garden. There could be roses and a greenhouse and rooms lined with shelves that Ada could fill with trinkets, Hecate with potion bottles, both with their varying taste in books. She could leave the castle with Ada. They might have that. Hecate caught her breath, dizzy with the possibility.
Ada’s eyes widened. She bit her lip and didn’t say anything.
Overcome by her own presumption, Hecate pulled back. Of course not: this was a reprieve, not a promise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
She stopped as Ada squeezed her hands quickly, just once, then loosened her grasp. Her hands just rested on Hecate’s, offering Hecate an easy retreat if she so wished. Her gaze stayed steady on Hecate’s face.
“I think that sounds wonderful, Hecate. I can’t ask that of you, though. It’s such a long time yet and you will have... greater opportunities. I never want to hold you back.”
As if Ada would ever represent anything but freedom. As if anyone would offer greater opportunities to be her best self. Hecate reached to tuck Ada’s hair behind her ear, her fingers trailing round the shell, and took a deep breath. “You’re not asking: I am.” She sought words. “Without obligation on either side and assuming all remains as it is, might the notion of a shared retirement be worth exploring when the time comes?” It sounded like an exam question. “Would you want that?”
Ada smiled and pressed a kiss to the corner of her mouth. “I would.”
Hecate closed her eyes, breathed. She could cope with another five years, and five after that, knowing Ada loved her, sharing it between them with smiles. If another Miss Beechwood came along, she could deal with it then. Until Ada was dancing at her own wedding, she could live in hope.
An ear-splitting alarm shattered their peace.
“Oh dear,” Ada’s lips shaped.
Hecate rolled her eyes and from the bed, clothing herself in nightgown and dressing gown and transferring to the corridor. All along its length, doors were opening. She stalked towards the room at the far end. Maud and Enid were outside, hands clamped to their ears; inside, Mildred and Indigo were yelling at each other, inaudible under the din of the alarm.
With a snap of her fingers, the alarm ceased. Mildred and Indigo turned to her.
“I’m sorry, Miss Hardbroom!” Indigo said. “I tried to set an alarm spell but something must have gone wrong.”
“Is this the time you meant to wake?”
“Then your alarm spell is merely overly effective. When term resumes, I will teach you how to craft something more socially acceptable.” Indigo grinned; Hecate raised an eyebrow. “In the meantime, Indigo Moon, you will apologise personally to every resident of this establishment at breakfast for the abrupt beginning to their day.”
“Yes, Miss Hardbroom.”
Hecate swept back down the corridor. “You may as well dress,” she said to the girls clustered in the doorways to their rooms. “Breakfast starts in half an hour.”
Dimity leaned out of her room. “Good night, HB?”
“Would never have guessed.”
“Your cheeriness at such an hour is the aberration.”
“It’s called being a morning person. You should try it.”
“No, thank you.”
Hecate shut the door. Ada looked up. She was sitting up in bed, nightgown donned, yesterday’s newspaper spread over her lap as her pen hovered over the crossword.
“Yes, it seems the spell worked a little too well.” Hecate walked into the bathroom to ready herself for the day.
Business as usual.