Tea-time with the Great Wizard is as pleasant as it can be following the afternoon’s chaos. Ada conjures more chairs than she has had cause to in several months, and the seven of them – four pupils, two witches, one wizard – sit around the fire in the warmth of her office, allowing Miss Tapioca’s homemade jam and crumpets to cast off the last of the autumn chill. Enid’s unintimidated chatter with the Great Wizard serves to put Maud at ease; Ethel, whose bout of humility will last at least until the evening meal, is uncharacteristically quiet and respectful; and even Mildred manages to only spill one cup of tea. An hour later, sufficiently warm and full of food, the Great Wizard bids them farewell and resummons his taxi in the assurance that Cackle’s Academy is safely back on track. Everything is fine.
It’s just that since helping bind Agatha and establishing that the trance spell has caused Ada no permanent damage, Hecate hasn’t looked at her once.
Ada plans to draw her aside after their party has disbanded, but Hecate has transferred away before she can even open her mouth, and then doesn’t come up for dinner. She stays out of the staffroom. Ada’s maglet message goes unseen and unanswered.
After curfew, the castle groaning as it settles in for the night, Ada re-warms a plate of food from the kitchen and transfers to the hall outside Hecate’s rooms. She raps three times on the door, one long and two short – their code – but still says, ‘It’s me.’
There is a moment of quiet, as though Hecate has stopped whatever she’s doing to listen, and then her crisp voice says, ‘Enter.’ The door swings open to admit her, swings closed again.
Ada is surprised to see Hecate already in her nightclothes and dressing gown, dark hair falling long and loose down her back. Though she has been privy to this softer, more intimate version of Hecate for years, seeing her here, like this – dimly-lit and dressed for bed, free of the armour of hair and makeup – never fails to pulse something deep and warm and instinctive through Ada’s veins. Her awareness of Hecate’s beauty is tangled up in their connection, their trust, and that makes her shuttered, lifeless expression right now the more painful to see. She stands military-rigid beside her bed, looking not at Ada but through her, her every muscle engaged in wrestling emotion.
‘Something to eat,’ Ada says, moving inside to set the plate on the small round table next to the window. ‘I was sorry that you didn’t come to dinner. I’d hoped we might talk.’
‘I had thought it – I didn’t wish to – that is to say, I had a great deal of work to catch up on,’ Hecate says, hands clamped at her sides, her voice as stiff as her posture. ‘We did miss a day of lessons in all the commotion, after all.’
‘Indeed,’ Ada says, ‘and I missed more than that, didn’t I?’
The flash of betrayal in Hecate’s eyes at that is no less than what she expects, but still it makes Ada step forward, the urge to comfort her, to be near her, primal and fierce. Hecate tends to recoil against the blunt introduction of subjects she’d rather avoid, but Ada knows that these things must be said; that she must be the one to say them; that neither she nor Hecate wish for things to go on in this manner. They have never yet gone to bed, apart or otherwise, on a disagreement, and Ada has no intention of starting now. She takes a breath and says, ‘I don’t blame you, Hecate. It wasn’t your fault.’
Hecate’s jaw tenses and she looks away. ‘Whose was it, then – the Great Wizard’s? Ethel Hallow’s?’
‘Agatha’s, I should think, but also mine. It was I who admitted her into the school again, who gave her the opportunity to trap me. I ought to have banished her on the spot, but my naïveté proved a danger yet again.’ She shakes her head and moves closer. There is only a foot of space between them, now, and it crackles with energy, with the surprising force of Ada’s desire to close it. ‘Do try not to blame yourself, darling,’ she murmurs. ‘Hecate.’ Now Hecate does look up, looks at her for the first time in hours, and Ada sees plain the storm of emotions so carefully guarded in her dark eyes – judgement disproved, pride battered, love exposed – all of them terrible things for Hecate Hardbroom. ‘You couldn’t have known.’
‘But I ought to have known. I ought to have seen it.’ Her voice is forceful, hands balled at her sides. ‘For if not I, Ada, then who? Had Agatha – had you not – had she been allowed to—’
Ada crosses the distance between them and takes Hecate’s hands in her own, says firmly, ‘But she didn’t. She didn’t. The girls are all safe, Agatha is locked away where she can’t do any more damage, and I am still here.’ She chuckles, shakes her head. ‘For better or worse.’
Laced into Ada’s, Hecate’s ever-cool fingers squeeze once. ‘For better,’ she says. The ghost of a smile twists her lips as she adds, ‘I truly believe that, your occasionally worrisome naiveté aside.’
Ada steps closer still and lifts her hand, still joined with Hecate’s, to caress one angular cheekbone. Hecate allows it, her eyelids flickering briefly closed. ‘Dimity told me what you said to the Great Wizard,’ Ada murmurs. ‘I didn’t have a chance to thank you earlier, to… to tell you what it means to me.’
‘Ada…’ Hecate glances down, self-conscious, and doesn’t continue.
Ada watches her for a moment, watches the shadow of her eyelashes falling against her pale skin, and lowers their hands but doesn’t let go. ‘I don’t know exactly what Agatha said to you, before the broomstick display,’ she says gently, ‘but she only did it because she understands that you are her greatest threat.’
‘I can’t believe—’
‘Ah, my dear, but you are. You are the most powerful, capable witch I have ever known, perhaps even including myself. Furthermore,’ she continues, when Hecate opens her mouth to protest, ‘you hold no emotional attachment to my sister, and do not suffer my own incurable hope that she might yet change her ways. She is my Achilles’ heel, Hecate, and I begin to fear I am yours.’
In complete contrast to Ada’s expectations, Hecate smiles at that, a small but lovely thing that infects Ada’s own lips as ever it must. ‘There you are mistaken, Miss Cackle,’ Hecate says, but her tone bears a lilt of affection she hasn’t allowed herself to demonstrate until now. ‘How can that which strengthens me and guides me be my weakness?’
No verbal response can suffice to such words from Hecate Hardbroom’s lips, to the warmth in her eyes as undefended as Ada has ever seen; the only response can be to reach up, to touch, to draw Hecate’s face down and kiss her.
The brush of long hair against her fingers some moments later awakens Ada to their location, their situation, the time, and it is with some reluctance that she smooths a thumb across Hecate’s lips and pulls back. They are still standing close, and when Hecate drops her hand from its place on Ada’s shoulder, she feels it immediately. They lose a few seconds to gazing at one another, warmth thick between them, and then Hecate clears her throat and says, ‘It’s been quite a day.’
‘Indeed it has. You will eat something, won’t you?’
Hecate lifts an eyebrow, twists a smirk at her. ‘Yes, Headmistress.’
Ada smiles, affection blossoming anew. ‘Goodnight, then, Hecate.’
‘Goodnight, Ada. Perhaps—’
Ada pauses. ‘Yes?’
‘Perhaps we might spend some time together this weekend. Miss Drill will be accompanying the first years on an excursion to…’ she trails off, blushing, words lost, and Ada forces herself not to smile; it would not do for Hecate to think she is being laughed at, not when she has dared to proposition Ada a grand total of three times in a decade.
‘I look forward to it,’ is all Ada says, and as she transfers away, the last thing she sees is Hecate’s smile.