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A Witch's Grimoire

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i

They’re fifteen years old and nobody has ever loved a friend more. 

Tomorrow is exams - the last of the year, the last before a long glorious summer descends upon them and they can pretend for the last time that they are young and free and unconcerned by what the future might hold.  And today is almost over: it’s almost midnight but they’re still in the library, and Pippa looks up from her book to see Hecate fast asleep next to her, black hair falling away from her face down across one shoulder.

“Hiccup,” she says softly, unwilling to risk the wrath of the librarian by speaking any louder.  She rests a hand on her shoulder, shakes her slightly - “come on darling, wake up” - but Hecate doesn’t stir.

She leans across, close enough to feel the warmth radiating from her skin, lips close enough to her cheek to just-

Hecate wakes up.  blinks, confused, frowns up at Pippa for a second before her expression clears and she sits up.

Moment over.

ii

Early morning sunlight streams through the faded curtains and onto the bed, and Pippa stirs, pulls the duvet closer around her, and turns over-

-and remembers.

She’s not alone. 

Next to her, Hecate is half awake, watching Pippa through heavy lidded eyes; she smiles with an unguarded warmth that pierces straight through to Pippa’s heart. 

It would be so easy to just lean forward and…

No.

iii

They’ve just finished the final rehearsal for their waterskiing display and Pippa has never felt so exhilarated.  She lands her broom with a slightly undignified finish and runs over to her friend, full of the thrill and excitement of success.

She throws her arms around her.

Hecate stiffens but she barely notices, still caught up in the perfection of their routine.  “Oh, Hiccup!” she says, all affection.  “We did it!”

“Quite,” replies Hecate, and takes a step back.  There’s something in her eyes, something in her expression- but Pippa is too happy to pay attention to nuance, laughs exultantly.

Hecate takes another step back.  the wind tugs at her half-tied hair, blows a healthy pink into her cheeks, and PTppa thinks suddenly that she’s beautiful, skin bright and soft against the inevitable black dress, cut slightly shorter for exhibition flying.

Two steps forward and she could raise a hand to that rosy cheek, brush that errant strand of hair aside…

Hecate turns away, and almost runs to her broom.

iv

It’s the yearly prize-giving for the final years, and Hecate hasn’t once looked in her direction.

She wants to scream at her, shake her, force her to look at her rather than straight through her; she wants to undo that perfect hairstyle and run her hands through the long dark hair; she wants-

She wants to kiss her.

The thought runs through her like a shock, electric and terrifying.

For the rest of the ceremony, she doesn’t even glance her way.

v

“It’s been-”

“It’s been wonderful,” Pippa says, and her entire body attests to the truth of that statement, leaning towards Hecate as if they’re magnetised.  “I’m so glad-”

“Quite,” Hecate interrupts dryly, just a hint of a smile flickering across her lips, and Pippa recognises that tone, recognises that expression, knows that her friend is feeling more and more deeply than she can articulate.

“Don’t shut me out again,” Pippa murmurs, and despite herself she lifts a hand to Hecate’s cheek.  She’s looking at her like she’s something new, something terrifying and wonderful all at once, and it would be the simplest thing in the world to take one step closer - just one -

Fear flickers in Hecate’s eyes, and Pippa collects herself.  “Tea,” she says, letting her hand fall back to her side.  “Next Saturday.  Do come.”

“Of course.”

It’s easier to leave, after that.

plus i

Hecate’s hair is jet black against the soft blush of Pippa’s pink sheets, so delicately coloured that they match the heat in her cheeks; her nightdress covers just enough, white skin against black silk, a study in contrasts as she writhes and gasps under Pippa’s gentle hands.

“I love you,” Pippa whispers, and in that vulnerable moment her fingers move just so between Hecate’s legs.  For one beautiful, breathless second she clutches at the silken sheets, visibly battling with herself until a desperate sound breaks from between her lips-

Pippa steals the cry from her mouth in one glorious kiss, and holds her through the trembling and the tears.

It turns out that having her here, now, is worth all those missed opportunities put together.

Chapter Text

It’s gone eleven, and Miss Hardbroom’s finished pile of marking sits neatly on the edge of the low table in front of her; she shifts awkwardly in the armchair, the soft rustle of her dress lost in the whisper and crackle of the open fire, and speaks thoughtfully into the companionable silence: “Do you remember when we first met?”

In the chair opposite, Miss Cackle chuckles, looks up from the stack of papers in her lap with a knowing smile.  “Meeting you isn’t something I’m likely to forget,” she says, sees the way her deputy’s eyes almost sparkle before she looks shyly down to where her hands are folded neatly in her lap, and adds, “You gave a very impressive presentation.  Potions teaching in the modern classroom, as I remember.”

“You practically offered me a job on the spot.”

“Yes, I do consider that one of my finest decisions.”  She grimaces. “Although I will allow that given my record for misjudgements, that is perhaps not the most appropriate compliment.”

A slight frown appears on Hecate’s face.  “Were you-” she hesitates, stumbling over unfamiliar territory.  “That is.  At the time.  Did you think-”

Ada takes pity on her.  The linguistic knots liable to need untangling should she be allowed to continue are not worth the momentary amusement of seeing Hecate Hardbroom lost for words – and besides, she knows exactly what is being asked of her.  “You want to know if I was attracted to you,” she says bluntly.  “Perhaps even if I employed you for more…personal reasons than your qualifications?”

Hecate blushes a little, but nods.  “The former,” she says.  “I have no concerns about the latter.”

“In truth, my dear, it didn’t even cross my mind.  I was certainly impressed by you.  Your passion and commitment were obvious, as was your intelligence.”  A mischievous expression comes over her face. “The rest came later, as well you know.”

Hecate looks, curiously, pleased, and smiles – a brief flicker of her lips – as if Ada has passed some sort of private test.  The matter, whatever it was, seems to be resolved: she stands and tilts her head gently from side to side, arches her neck to counter the weight of two hours ensconced over marking in Ada’s comfortable armchair when her own desk would have been far more sensible, and tries her level best to look stern as Ada doesn’t even pretend to hide her contented look of appreciation.  “It’s late,” she says pointedly.

Ada sets her papers aside.  “It is.”

“You can finish your work in the morning.”

“Hecate-”

“Bedtime,” she says firmly, holding out her hands.

Ada raises an eyebrow.

“To sleep,” Hecate clarifies, and helps pull her to her feet.  

They’re standing just an inch closer than is entirely proper and Hecate hasn’t let go of her hands, looks down at her instead with serious eyes brimming full of all the things she has no need to say out loud.

“I know, dear,” says Ada gently in response to the silence.

“Of course you do.”  

She sounds…happy, Ada realises, and so it’s not entirely a shock when she leans down, hesitating as if to give her time to object, before meeting her lips in a soft kiss.

Hecate’s kisses are rare, even rarer in term-time, and Ada tries to treasure every one equally but these – these are her favourite, bestowed in pure affection rather than in need or want, the gentleness of her lips and of her hand on Ada’s cheek in direct contrast to the sharp angles of her body.

When she pulls away, it’s just far enough that Ada has space to read the controlled intensity in her eyes: “I would like to come to bed with you,” she says, her voice almost approaching tenderness.  “But the girls-”

The look Ada gives her is half-fond, half-resigned: “I understand.”.

And Hecate smiles.  Not the wry, sarcastic twist of her lips that she usually uses to denote humour, but a real, joyful, slightly shy smile that shines in her eyes and lights up her entire body.  “Of course you do,” she repeats softly.

And then she’s gone.

Chapter Text

Looking back, it’s unclear which of their earliest three meetings really counts as their first.

i

Pippa Pentangle cries on her first day at school.

It’s not that she isn’t excited – she’s been looking forward to it for months, to new classes and new friends – but there’s something dreadfully final about her mother’s cheerful wave as she flies off.  She stands forlornly, playing with the end of the bright pink ribbon keeping her hair back from her face, and watches her mother’s silhouette disappear behind a bank of iron-grey cloud.

A sob bubbles up into her throat.

Behind her, she can hear the other girls laughing and chatting, a carefree excited babble that she longs to be part of.  She wouldn’t feel so alone in the middle of a friendly group, she’s sure of it – but even her best attempts at positivity can’t stop the tears from trickling, wet and unwelcome, down her cheeks.

“Are you okay?”

The soft voice is tentative, almost shy – and just as unwelcome as the tears.

“I’m fine,” Pippa says sharply, not turning round.

Hecate Hardbroom walks away.

ii

They share the same potions class.

Hecate sits alone at the back, a silent ghost in black, and watches her classmates from the safety of her vantage point, the correct answer to every question on the tip of a tongue too used to silence to dare to speak up.

Pippa, she notices, has no such problem.  She sits right at the front of the class, blonde hair shining, and offers her opinion and knowledge freely in the certainty that no-one will laugh if she makes a mistake.

Hecate envies her confidence, envies the ease with which she wields her intelligence and the friendly respect she garners from the rest of the class.  Spends more time wondering how she does it than paying attention to the teacher.

iii

Their potions teacher, Miss Hawthorne, likes to end class with a quiz, and today is no different.  “Can anyone tell me the ingredients needed for a peacefulness potion?” she asks, one eyebrow raised in wordless challenge.

Silence. Even the usually irrepressible Pippa shakes her head, loose curls sweeping at the base of her neck.

“Come one, surely somebody can at least have a go?”

There’s no response; Hecate takes a deep breath, and raises her hand.

“Yes- Hecate, isn’t it?”

Twenty-four heads turn to stare at her and she nods, already regretting her decision.  “Cherry bark,” she says, staring at the worn wooden surface of her desk as she speaks, “rose petals gathered at dawn, moon water, and the powder from the wing of a Brimstone butterfly.”

“Exactly right,” Miss Hawthorne says approvingly.

Pippa stares at her, frowns as if to say, where did you come from, and then flashes her a brilliant smile that lights up her entire face.

For a brief moment, Hecate smiles back.

At the end of the class, Pippa is waiting for her outside, and there’s a curious expression on her face.  “I don’t think I’ve noticed you before,” she says, all her considerable attention focused on Hecate.  “I’m not sure how.”

“I’m quite unremarkable.”

“No,” says Pippa.  “You’re really not.”

And for the second time that day, Hecate smiles.

Chapter Text

The world has gone to hell.  

It’s been twelve years since it happened: twelve years since everything the world thought it knew was turned on its head, twelve years since life changed, twelve years since a tiny vulnerable five percent of the planet’s population awoke to find nothing could ever be the same again.

Before, Cackles Academy was a boarding school, and a prestigious one at that: it boasted pupils from all over the country, from council estates to aristocratic families, and its imposing skyline adorned more postcards and instagram posts than you could keep track of.

But now…now it’s nothing more than an orphanage.

Ada Cackle awoke on that morning twelve years ago to the sound of shrill, childish screams, and she’s heard them echo through the castle walls ever since.  Life has taken the innocence of so many children, but within the castle’s protective shadow she nurtures those she can, does her best to give them the life they should never have had to question.  Half her staff succumbed to the disease on the first day, and those who remain are changed.  Darkness is full of fear now, full of whispers and rustles and a desperate foreboding of evil, and if you were to look over the castle walls at midnight- well.  Thousands of hungry eyes stare, unseeing, back at you.

Hecate Hardbroom would like to think that she could thwart those eyes singlehanded; instead, she stays close to Ada, a hovering protective presence that cannot (or will not) leave her headmistress vulnerable for a second longer than necessary.  Fierce, loyal, and brave, she is determined that these few lucky children will live their lives as safely and happily as possible.

And then, one day, for the first time since this whole thing started, there’s a deliberate knock on the thick wooden door that marks the boundary between the castle grounds and outside.

They don’t knock.

They don’t beg, in a trembling, terrified voice, to be let in to safety.

Miss Hardbroom is the one who opens the door, half convinced that she’ll be met with a vacant-eyed horde of once-people, half convinced that this might be the last thing she ever does-

-but on the other side of the door is a girl.  A young girl, all long plaits and earnest eyes, clothes covered in mud and carrying a small, ragged tabby cat.

“Let her in,” says Ada, suddenly at her side, and Hecate has more arguments lined up than there are people within the castle walls, but there’s something in Ada’s eyes that she hasn’t seen in all of twelve years.

“What’s your name, dear?” the headmistress asks.

The muddy child looks between them and clutches her cat close against her chest.  “Mildred Hubble,” she says, quiet but clear.

“And you've been out...there?  Alone?”

"I don't think they like me,” Mildred says diffidently. "They ignore me."

It’s impossible.

It’s hope.

Chapter Text

The potions garden surrounds the old gatekeeper's cottage, just behind the castle's outer walls. Edged in by an overgrown wooden fence, the whole spot has a rather rustic air, all thatched roof and low interior beams, honeysuckle climbing up the north-facing wall and exploding with a heady summer scent that carries delicately on the breeze all the way up to the castle itself.

Inside the cottage, the air flows cool between the open door and the unfastened window, bringing with it all the scents and sounds of the garden beyond.

“I have to admit, Hecate, I'm impressed.” Pippa Pentangle turns in a slow circle, taking in the contrast between the dry, dim room and the riot of texture and colour visible through the window. “We have a kitchen garden at Pentangles, of course, but the more complex ingredients have to be bought from wholesalers.”

“Ingredients are so easily obtained these days that I worry the art of cultivating them is being lost.” Hecate ties her herbs with ribbon, matches a colour to each variety and hangs them to air in a strict order that manages simultaneously to be pleasing to the eye. She gathers thirteen stems of lavender from the cut pile. “I've been intending to write an article on the different magical applications of shop-bought and home-grown plants.”

Pippa smiles. “It's lovely to see you outside of the castle,” she admits. They've been seeing each other regularly for almost a couple of months now, mostly over tea in the relative safety of Hecate's office. “You seem very-” She looks around the room, taking in the neatly aligned seed trays and carefully arranged collections of cut herbs, and settles back on Hecate's face with an admiring smile. “-at home,” she finishes.

“The cottage is as much a part of the castle as the towers or the dungeons,” comes the somewhat amused response. “Besides, the girls come here for a lesson on occasion. They enjoy being out of the classroom, and I-”

“You what?” Pippa prompts when she falls silent.

“I like it here,” Hecate says softly, raises an eyebrow as if daring Pippa to laugh.

But Pippa doesn't laugh. “I like it here too,” she breathes, and steps closer, her eyes never leaving Hecate's face. “Although I suspect that's not entirely down to the charms of the garden. Hecate-”

Whatever admission might have been about to follow is cut off by the sudden drift of Hecate's fingertips feather-light across her cheek, a gentle caress that causes Pippa's eyes to flutter involuntarily, momentarily, closed. The air is heavy with lavender and honeysuckle, and when she opens her eyes again Hecate is looking at her with a painful honesty and an openness that makes her heart catch in her throat.

It seems like the most natural thing in the world for Hecate to lean in and kiss her.

The kiss is tentative, questioning, a barely-there but undeniable pressure that tarries on her lips like a butterfly settling itself briefly on soft petals; by the time Pippa realises it's happened there's already a couple of feet of defensive air between them.

“Did you know,” Hecate says, a slightly shocked look on her face, “that dried calendula petals are quite superior to rowan berries in complex protection rituals?”

Pippa stares at her.

“I have a whole bank of them in the garden that will require harvesting soon. I thought maybe-”

Pippa is still staring at her.

“-I'm sorry,” she says, her mind finally catching up with her voice. “I- I shouldn't have-”

“Yes, you should,” Pippa says softly. She takes the half-tied bunch of lavender from Hecate's unresisting grasp and places it safely on the side with the others before taking her hands, her thumb rubbing slow reassuring circles against Hecate's skin. “Hiccup, darling, you did exactly what I should have been brave enough to do years ago.”

A breeze dances in through the open door, rustles its way through the drying herbs that hang in neat bundles from the rafters and plays softly with the bright baby leaves of the seedlings just coming to life in small trays next to the window, and Hecate takes a deep breath, lets the familiar intertwined scents of herbs and earth and flowers settle deep in her lungs. She stares down at their joined hands. There's mud around her nails, caked invisibly underneath the smooth veneer of black polish, and it should look out of place next to Pippa's elegant manicure but somehow-

She raises her eyes to meet Pippa's candid gaze and allows herself the briefest flicker of hope.

“If we're continuing the potions lesson,” Pippa says, “primroses are the key ingredient in honesty potions.” She smiles up at her with all the joy of a lazy summer evening. “And as any self-respecting witch will tell you, rose petals are absolutely essential to a love potion.”

Hecate stares at her, eyes shining. “I don't grow roses.”

“Ah, well. The wholesalers, perhaps?”

But Hecate shakes her head. “I have no need of them,” she confides, and pulls Pippa into her arms.