First year exams begin in less than a week, and Hecate (taciturn and awkward, too tall and too smart) spends every hour out of lessons revising in the library. Most girls in the school prefer to stay in their rooms to work, paradoxically turning the public space into one quieter than Hecate’s own; in normal term-time her room is perfectly adequate, but in the lead-up to exams, the other girls turn hyperactive: running down halls, banging on doors, shouting questions to one another, raucous and laughing, that Hecate already knows they don’t want her to answer. The library, however, is bound by rules of silence and respect and anonymity, and nobody notices or cares if Hecate sits there for hours, Eclipse purring contentedly on her lap, surrounded by books. She can work undisturbed, swept up by concentration, just as she likes it.
Sometimes, she even gets lost in reading textbooks and articles unrelated to her revision, opening one for reference and then falling victim to the temptation of the bibliography. But in spite of that recurring weakness, she learns what she must, and she has yet to score less than 98% on a test (though she prefers not to think about that one). The librarian, Miss Philemon, has issued Hecate a special pass that allows her to borrow more books at once than is standard for first year, and even once permitted her to remain fifteen minutes after curfew to finish her notes. (Hecate had asked for that one in writing, just to be safe.)
Perhaps today will be another one of those days. Miss Philemon is nowhere to be seen, and the library is quiet: just Hecate, books and papers spread across her usual desk; a teacher reading J-K from the Encyclopaedia of Magic; and a handful of older girls doing research. Hecate’s first exam is witching history, her least interesting subject, and she ought to get her practice essay out of the way now so she can move on to spell science or chanting. Even potions, dull as pondweed, has a leg up on witchery.
Chapter Five, she reads. The discovery of witching subculture in Europe, 1701-1811. She is already fighting back a yawn when a voice behind her says, ‘Excuse me – Hecate, isn’t it? Do you mind if I sit here?’
Hecate freezes, terrified, and turns slowly to see a girl in her own year: blond hair, pink nails, pink smile. Pink name: Pippa Pentangle. Like Hecate, she often knows the correct answer in the classroom; unlike Hecate, she often puts her hand up to prove it. Now, she is pointing at the chair on the opposite end of Hecate’s desk, and she is smiling. Hecate blinks, swallows, stutters out, ‘No, I – no. Do. I mean, you can.’ Embarrassed, she leans across the desk to tidy her scattered books, to give Pippa more space.
‘Thanks,’ Pippa says. She sets her own (impressive, Hecate notes) stack of books on the desk, sits down, and starts to flip through the pages of Witching History: Year One. Just like that. After half a minute, she seems to realise that Hecate is staring at her and looks up. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers, ‘am I turning the pages too loudly?’
Hecate stares at her a moment longer and then blurts out, ‘No!’ It comes out louder than she wants it to and she bites her lip, lowers her voice. ‘No, just… I haven’t seen you in here. Before.’
‘I usually sit back there,’ Pippa says, gesturing to the far stacks, ‘but Miss Philemon’s cataloguing and I can’t concentrate.’
She is looking right at Hecate with her bright brown eyes, easy and friendly, and Hecate latches onto the first thing she can think of in reply. ‘Why don’t you study in your room?’
In the rush to get the words out, she tangles them up into something hostile, but Pippa just makes a face. ‘I’m on green floor. It can be hard to think before a test.’
Hecate blinks, surprised, and then hears herself saying, ‘My room is on green floor as well. The west tower end.’
‘That’s why I haven’t seen you much outside class, then,’ Pippa says. ‘I’m near the east tower. I suppose the noise is why you’re here too, then. You’ve got Clara and Nancy down that end, don’t you?’
Hecate nods hesitantly, opens her mouth to reply, and then ducks her head as she realises what she had been about to do. This is Pippa Pentangle, a pretty, popular girl with pink nails and a sweet pink smile, and she can’t just—
‘Well,’ Pippa says, like she hasn’t even noticed Hecate’s slip, ‘it makes sense for us to partner up for revision, then, doesn’t it? We’re both here anyway. We can do a few hours and head back together.’
Hecate is near-speechless with disbelief, but dredges up a nod from somewhere and then manages to say, ‘Fine. If you want to.’
‘Good,’ Pippa says. She smiles at her again, honest and kind, and this time, Hecate almost smiles back.
They stay there for hours, revising in companionable silence only occasionally broken by Pippa (always Pippa; though Hecate opens her mouth three times to speak, no sound comes out), and always with a relevant question or comment. Hecate had never imagined that revising together with someone could be anything other than detrimental to the learning process (her mother’s words), but somehow, strangely, it gives her a feeling of ease to look up now and then and see Pippa, frowning slightly in concentration as she moves her finger along the printed words.
When the dinner bell finally sounds and Miss Philemon shoos them out, Hecate packs up her work and her cat in silence, intending to shovel in some food as quickly as possible and then turn to her spell science revision, and then—
‘Ready?’ Pippa asks from beside her, and Hecate straightens in surprise. ‘I said we’d walk back together, didn’t I?’
Hecate nods, doesn’t say, Yes, but I didn’t think you meant it.
‘Come on, then. Did you get as far as the chapter on the medical witches of the Georgian era?’
Hecate’s contribution to the conversation is stilted, at first, weighed down by her expectation that Pippa will draw away any moment, will remember that people like her and people like Hecate are not friends, cannot be friends – but somehow she doesn’t, and gradually, as they walk, the words flow between them with more ease. Pippa is so knowledgeable in her own right that Hecate doesn’t even worry that she’s only talking to her to copy her answers, like what happened with Beatrice last term. No, Pippa really just seems to want to talk to her about schoolwork because it interests her. Because Hecate can keep up.
They meet their flying instructor, Miss Nipper, on the way back to green floor, and she transfers their books back for them so they can get to dinner faster, gives them a wink. Pippa grins and thanks her, but Hecate finds herself almost disappointed that their detour is no longer necessary; after all, the moment they enter the dining hall will be the moment this fragile sort-of friendship will shatter.
Halfway to the door, Hecate stops, and part of her is surprised when Pippa turns to her and asks, ‘What is it?’
‘Not hungry,’ Hecate mumbles.
‘I just heard your stomach rumble.’
‘I need to revise,’ she tries, but Pippa just laughs, grabs her by the arm.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she says. ‘We’ve just been revising for hours. You must be starving.’ She takes Hecate’s silence as an agreement. ‘Come on,’ she says again, and, her warm, thin fingers still wrapped around Hecate’s sleeve, all but drags her into the room. Hecate ducks her head, tries to wish herself a few inches shorter. It doesn’t work, but then, it never does.
They walk past a group of third years and then it happens: someone a few tables over waves and calls out, ‘Pippa!’ Someone else says, ‘Sit with us!’ And someone else: ‘Just you.’
Hecate is already starting to pull her arm away, is already going to leave again – she really does need to revise – but Pippa tightens her grip on her arm and Hecate stops, frowns at her.
‘That’s all right,’ Pippa says, loud enough that others can hear her. ‘I’m sitting with Hecate.’
Hecate feels her cheeks heat but follows Pippa on jelly-legs to a nearby table. It’s almost empty, just a few fourth years finishing their pudding, and when Hecate and Pippa sit down, they smile at them and then continue talking amongst themselves. Hecate stares at the table, jaw working against a sudden burst of anger.
Pippa passes her a basket of rolls and she takes one without thinking, appetite vanished. She glances everywhere but at Pippa – down at the roll, across at the cutlery, over at the oddly blue-tinged soup – and only looks up, reluctant, when Pippa touches her hand across the table. ‘Don’t worry about those girls,’ she says quietly. ‘They’re silly.’
Hecate looks away again. ‘I wasn’t,’ she says. ‘I’m used to being alone. You don’t… you don’t have to sit here just because you pity me.’
To her astonishment, Pippa laughs. ‘Why would I pity you? You’re the cleverest witch in our year, and the second-best flier.’
Hecate stares at her.
Pippa rips a roll in half and pops a piece in her mouth. ‘What?’
‘The second-best flier?’
‘Second to me.’
‘You are mistaken,’ Hecate says as haughtily as she can. ‘And I will prove it.’
‘Fine,’ Pippa says. ‘Saturday morning on the sports field, we’ll compete. Deal?’
‘Deal,’ Hecate says, and she is stretching out her hand to shake Pippa’s before she can really think twice. Awkward and flushed at the contact, she immediately pulls away and covers it by sniffing. ‘You don’t stand a chance,’ she informs her, and though it’s supposed to sound nasty, she feels the corners of her mouth betraying her, curling upwards as though of their own accord.
She falls asleep that night with a feeling she has never known before draped over her, warm, like a blanket. In her mind, the feeling’s name is Pippa.
Hecate is standing in front of her mirror, about to cast the French braid spell, when Pippa knocks twice on the door and walks in. She says, ‘Oh, here you are, I thought we were—’ and then stops mid-sentence and stares.
Hecate raises an eyebrow at her in the mirror, hands poised in distraction. ‘What is it?’
Pippa gestures. ‘Your hair.’
‘I know, I was just about to do it. “Take these tresses, raven black”—’
‘No, stop!’ she says, only she doesn’t really say it, she squeaks it, and Hecate casts her a questioning look as Pippa crosses the room to join her at the mirror.
‘What is the matter with you?’ Hecate asks, more amused than exasperated.
‘Just – just wait,’ Pippa murmurs, and then she does something she has never done before in the whole nearly-three years that they have been friends: she lifts her hand and touches Hecate’s hair, gentle and slow; takes a lock in her hand and runs her fingers down it, all the way to the bottom. She holds the tips, examining them, for a moment that stretches on so long that Hecate’s heart starts to race in anticipation of—
—of what, she doesn’t know, because Pippa lets go, steps back, smiles up at her like everything’s normal. And everything is normal, isn’t it? Why would it not be? Hecate’s pulse, strangely fluttery, will catch up to her reasoning any moment.
‘Go on, then,’ Pippa says brightly, ‘do your spell. We wanted to go to the potions lab before class, remember?’
‘Of course,’ Hecate says. Her throat feels dry, and she murmurs the spell correctly, but the resulting braid is not as neat as usual. As they walk to the lab, a charged kind of silence between them, a lock of hair comes loose at the front and swings into Hecate’s eyes. ‘I ought to redo it,’ she mutters, more to herself than anything, but Pippa surprises her by stopping, by shaking her head.
‘Don’t,’ she says. ‘Leave it.’
Hecate frowns. ‘Why? It looks messy.’
‘It doesn’t, Hiccup. It looks pretty.’
Hecate makes a face, the urge to laugh warring with the urge to deny Pippa’s words. She settles on saying, ‘It’s hardly practical. We have flying later.’
‘So do it later.’
The subject is as trivial as it’s possible to get, but despite her smile, Pippa’s eyes are strangely serious. Hecate knows she’s going to agree even before she sighs and says, ‘Fine, if you insist.’
‘Thank you,’ Pippa says, beaming at her. ‘You see? It does you good to be a bit less proper sometimes.’
‘So that was your reason for trying to stop me doing the braiding spell? You fancied me walking into class with a mouthful of hair?’
Pippa laughs at her, shakes her head, her eyes sparkling with something elusive. ‘I’ve just never once seen you with your hair down. In all this time! I know it won’t ever happen again, so I wanted to… savour it.’
She sounds almost shy, a word Hecate has never once associated with Pippa Pentangle, and she scrabbles about for something with which to deflect it. ‘That explains your shock, then. You ought to have heard the sound you made.’
Pippa blinks, faux-innocent. ‘What sound?’
‘You shan’t trick me into demonstrating, but you squeaked like a tiny little mouse.’ It’s then that Hecate makes the connection, and she can feel herself smiling, too wide, as the perfect response to Pippa’s ridiculous insistence on calling her Hiccup flutters by and lands on her shoulder. ‘You pipsqueak.’
By the time she goes to bed, that persistent interloper of a smile still lingering, the nickname has stuck.
‘I can’t understand it, Hiccup. There is no good reason at all for you to hate potions.’
‘I don’t hate it,’ Hecate sighs, tired of having this same conversation yet again, and to a purpose she truly cannot fathom. ‘I just think it dull.’
‘That’s because Miss Blackpool makes it dull, but I promise it isn’t.’ Pippa says this as she all but bounces in front of Hecate, the ribbon in her ponytail flying. ‘Truly. It’s wonderfully intricate and precise, and it’s so very satisfying to learn and recall all the properties of the ingredients, and to correctly brew the perfect potion. I’d have thought it were right up your alley! You do so love to be perfect at everything.’
Hecate smiles sideways at her, indulging her teasing, and says, ‘For the twentieth time, I do not have to like something to excel at it.’ She sniffs. ‘As my marks on our last exam would seem to indicate.’
‘Indeed, your genius is a terrible inconvenience.’ Pippa laughs, linking their arms together as they reach the castle doors and head onto the lawn, the sun bright and clear overhead for the first time in a week of rain. It takes a few moments for Hecate to relax into the feeling, into the length of Pippa’s body against her own; it always does, though Pippa never seems to notice.
Technically, classes are over, but Miss Nipper has called them out for a mysterious meeting that is likely the primary cause of Pippa’s manic energy. She always gets like this when she’s excited about something, but anticipation of the unknown just makes Hecate tense. Tenser.
Miss Nipper is waiting for them by the broom-shed when they arrive, along with… oh, marvellous. Hecate’s heart capsizes and sinks at the sight of Clara, Beatrice, and Nancy, her three least favourite people in the world, all of them giggling. Suddenly self-conscious, she drops Pippa’s arm and fists her hands at her sides instead.
‘Good, you’re all here,’ says Miss Nipper. ‘Thank you for coming. I want to talk to you about competing in a broomstick water-skiing display that will be taking place in the last week of term. The first years will be performing a group routine, and Margot Sandweed from fourth year has put together a small racing team, but I hoped I might convince you girls to participate as well.’
Clara manages to sneer and look disinterested at the same time as she casts a look over at Hecate. ‘You expect us to fly with her?’
‘You’re just jealous of her talent,’ Pippa snaps, and Hecate clenches her jaw. Pippa is only trying to be supportive, but doesn’t she realise that Hecate allowing someone else to defend her only makes her look weaker? That it would be better not to engage?
‘That’s enough,’ Miss Nipper says. ‘And no, I had hoped you three would perform together, and that Pippa and Hecate would take on the doubles routine.’ She turns to smile at them, and at least there is no pity in her eyes where Hecate expects it. ‘These two are the best fliers in fifth year, after all, and they already work well together.’
‘Yes,’ Beatrice mutters, ‘but only because poor Pippa is too nice to drop her.’
Hecate gives them a disdainful look, the one that makes them call her arrogant, but she has learnt that arrogant is preferable to pathetic. She says nothing; Pippa is already thanking Miss Nipper for asking them and promising that they’ll give her their answer soon. Then she takes Hecate’s hand and, to her surprise, starts to lead her away from the castle.
‘Girls?’ Miss Nipper calls, and Hecate freezes, sigh on her lips – Pippa’s act-like-everything’s-allowed-and-you-won’t-get-caught attitude has always been an accident waiting to happen – but she just says, ‘I do hope you’ll agree to perform; you’ll do splendidly, I’m sure of it,’ and then heads off in the opposite direction.
Hecate is silent for a few moments, conscious of the warmth of Pippa’s hand in her own cool one, until she realises that Pippa’s purposeful strides are leading them off the school grounds. ‘Where are we going?’ she hisses. ‘We don’t have permission to leave the—’
‘I know that,’ Pippa replies, turning to look at her for the first time since she dragged her off. ‘I’m not going to leave, I just want to show you something.’
Hecate frowns – this explanation is far from sufficient – but her trust in Pippa has never yet failed her, so she follows her across the lawn, down a winding path, and through a thicket of birches until they reach a small house with windows for walls, and Hecate understands: this is the school conservatory, the place they grow the ingredients that are rarer or more precious or more dangerous than average garden herbs.
‘How did you—’ Hecate starts, then breaks off the question as she sees Pippa cast a quick unlocking spell over the door and then murmur a password. Hecate stares at her, her blond-haired, pink-ribboned best friend with the tinkling laugh, and thinks that she has never seen her before. ‘What in the name of magic are you doing?’ she finally asks, when she finds her voice. ‘We could be expelled!’
But Pippa just shakes her head, smiles enigmatically, and goes inside. Hecate huffs a frustrated sigh and goes in after her.
It’s a lovely place, really, peaceful and warm with the steady energy of plant life and rich with the scent of blossoming flowers and drying herbs. The door swings shut behind them, sealing out the chill, and Hecate feels a funny mix of emotions – calm and wonderment and adrenaline, and, when she looks at Pippa, a foreign spike of fear. She swallows it down as best she can and says, ‘Pipsqueak?’
‘You know, Miss Blackpool really does know an awful lot. She’s just rubbish at teaching it.’
Hecate blinks. ‘Miss Blackpool let you come here?’
Pippa nods, eyes bright, as she turns to run her fingers along a bunch of lemon myrtle hanging from a hook on the wall. ‘Since last year, when she was away and I wanted to work on that extra project for potions. She let me have the password.’
‘As a fourth year?’
‘The really dangerous ingredients are spell-protected, I think.’ She looks a little guilty, though, and doesn’t meet Hecate’s eyes. ‘She made me promise not to tell anyone, but I… I trust you not to tell.’
Pippa looks up and smiles. ‘I know.’
Her heart pressing uncomfortably into her ribs, Hecate adds, ‘I didn’t hear what you said, anyhow.’
Pippa walks along the far wall, examining the ingredients, her hair haloed in a golden beam of sunlight that crosses her path, and Hecate’s throat closes up, her chest tightening further – the air is too thick and too sweet; she can’t breathe – and then Pippa’s voice cuts through as she beckons Hecate to join her. ‘Oh, Hiccup, come and look at these, won’t you? Thistles picked at twilight on a full moon -- you know they’re ten times more powerful than the usual variety?’
Hecate, who has grudgingly learned to accept Pippa’s magnanimous superiority at potions, forces herself to straighten, to walk over and peer over her shoulder, and, ‘Oh,’ she breathes, resisting the urge to reach out and touch the powdery flowers, sparkling silver with harnessed magic. ‘Oh, they’re quite beautiful.’
Pippa turns, their faces suddenly close, and beams at her. ‘Aren’t they?’ A second later, she turns away again, taking Hecate’s breath along with her. ‘This is why I love potions, you see. Every ingredient has its own story to tell. Look at these feathers – these two look almost identical, don’t they? But if you were to confuse the feather of the purple finch with the house finch, a simple anti-freezing potion would turn into a revenge potion, and that’s—’
‘Against the Code,’ Hecate murmurs, and Pippa nods. She listens, caught up in the subject despite herself, as Pippa points out rare and commonly-confused ingredients for potions so advanced that even Hecate is enthralled. Then, Pippa leads her into a darker corner of the conservatory and shows her the mandrake roots Miss Blackpool has allowed her to grow from scratch.
‘I suspect she checks on them for me, now and then,’ Pippa confesses, ‘but it’s awfully kind of her to let me pretend.’
Hecate snorts. ‘Perhaps, but she is still an abysmal teacher.’
‘She is, rather. I dare say I shall manage it a bit better.’
‘You shall excel in teaching as you do in your lessons,’ Hecate says, the words firm with her belief in their truth. ‘No doubt you’ll be far too lenient, and likely welcome even incompetent witches into your school, but you shall excel.’
She feels more than hears Pippa’s soft laugh as they stand, shoulder to shoulder, and watch the flicker of life as Pippa tends to the roots. Eventually, Hecate says into the quiet, ‘I am… beginning to understand what you see in this subject.’ And when Pippa smiles at her, Hecate feels that same pressure deep in her chest, that one that seems to constrict her lungs. It must be gratitude, she thinks, that Pippa is her friend.
By the time they return, dinner is over, and Hecate cannot pretend to herself that she isn’t relieved. Meal times have always been the most tiresome part of the day, and missing one will do her no harm; it is hereditary, her father has told her, that the women in the Hardbroom family remain forever as thin as their namesakes.
Pippa is hungry, though, and invites Hecate back to her room to eat some of the fruitcake her mother had sent by flying post the day before. Hecate, who wishes neither to run into Nancy and Clara – likely, at this hour – nor to say no to Pippa, agrees. They sit on the bed, Pippa at the head and Hecate at the foot, and eat the fruitcake paired with conjured tea. ‘I know it’s like drinking air,’ Pippa says, ‘but it just won’t do to have one without the other.’
‘No indeed,’ Hecate says, and when she takes a sip of the tea, she enjoys it even though it’s not real. Here, away from the dining hall and the mocking looks of her classmates, she finds she really was rather hungry. She is overcome by a wave of sleepiness and only half-stifles her yawn.
‘Come up here,’ Pippa says, shuffling over and patting the space beside her. ‘It’s far more comfortable.’
‘I ought to get back,’ Hecate protests, though it comes out muffled through another, more insistent yawn. ‘Eclipse will be wanting her dinner.’
‘Oh, we’ve hours until curfew yet. It's only half six.’
‘Very well.’ Hecate sighs as she says it, but still moves stiffly up the bed to rest against the headboard next to Pippa, long legs stretched out in front of her. There is a little space between them, for which Hecate is inexplicably thankful, but then Pippa curls up and in towards her, glances over.
‘Do you think you’d like to do the broomstick display, then? With me?’
It’s the last part that does it, Hecate thinks later. If she had only left that part off, not asked so directly, then Hecate would have been able to say no, and nothing would have changed. But she doesn’t leave it off, and she does ask, and Hecate says yes.
‘Oh, thank you, Hiccup! You’re the best!’ Pippa cries, and flings her arms around Hecate right there, on the bed, Pippa’s heartbeat light against her own erratic one, blond hair soft and fragrant against Hecate’s cheek. Hecate is rigid with surprise, but after a moment lifts one hand to pat Pippa awkwardly on the back. This isn’t the first time Pippa has hugged her, of course, Pippa being who she is, but it is the first time Hecate has felt this restless sense that something is wrong, that she needs to escape it or something bad might happen.
She pulls back gently but firmly, and is equally firm in ignoring the flash of hurt confusion on Pippa’s face when she does. ‘I will do it,’ she says. ‘Miss Nipper is right that you and I are the two best fliers in our year.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Pippa teases, back to normal in a blink. ‘One,’ she says, pointing to herself, ‘and two,’ pointing to Hecate, who has to roll her eyes.
‘I seem to recall us settling that question back in our first year, Pippa Pentangle.’
‘We did, it’s true, but I’ve improved since then so now I’m better than you.’
Pippa is smirking at her, easy and cheeky as ever, and as Hecate smiles back, that knot of something starts to loosen in her chest. This is Pippa, she thinks – just Pippa, her best friend. Nothing has changed. Nothing is going to change. ‘Believe what you like,’ she replies, settling back against the headboard and closing her eyes, just for a minute. ‘But I know the truth.’
They doze off like that, Hecate resting against the headboard, Pippa breathing even beside her. When Hecate wakes an hour later, fifteen minutes before curfew, Pippa’s right hand is curled on Hecate’s stomach. She is fast asleep. Hecate pulls away slowly, careful not to wake her, and slips back to her own room with as little noise as possible, guilty for a reason she can’t name.
It’s the morning of the display. Hecate wakes before the sun, and a cold certainty settles onto her shoulders as she knows: she is not going to go. She is going to break her promise, to intentionally let Pippa down, but she is going to do it for Pippa’s own good. Better Pippa hate her for this tangible betrayal than for… for something else, something far more sinister and dangerous. She pushes the sudden images of Pippa’s hurt eyes, of Miss Nipper’s disappointment, of the other girls’ jeering out of her mind and rises, dresses, strides straight to the head teacher’s office. She has no idea what she will say in explanation, but no doubt she’ll think of something. She is the cleverest witch in her year, after all.
She returns to her room well before the other girls have awoken and goes back to bed. For the first time in her life, she casts a muting spell on the room, draws her curtains against the sun, and sleeps until lunch. It is the only period of mourning she allows herself. She sleeps and sleeps and dreams of Pippa, pink lips and bright eyes and soft skin, warm fingers twining with hers, touching her cheek—
—and wakes in a sweat, heart pounding, hands shaking, and knows she has done the right thing.
Hecate and Pippa are standing on the sports field at the back of Pentangle’s Academy, watching their respective colleagues coaching their respective teams for tomorrow’s show-flying final. The other four competing schools well and truly knocked out, only Cackle’s and the home team remain to fight for the trophy.
(When Ada had announced her unprecedented intention to remain at Cackle’s this year, insisting instead that Hecate accompany Miss Drill to sit on the panel of judges, Hecate had narrowed her eyes and asked, ‘What are you after?’
‘I wish only to provide you the chance to view a rival institution,’ she had said primly, ‘and to support our pupils in their efforts against Pentangle’s.’
This was easily translated as yet another meddling attempt to push her back into friendship with Pippa, and incapable as she is of refusing Ada anything, Hecate had agreed. The most absurd thing about the situation is, of course, the fact that she and Pippa are already friends again. Since their chance reconciliation five months ago, they have been meeting with weekly regularity during term-time, and even managed three afternoon teas in the holidays. Furthermore, there is no chance that Ada has failed to notice.)
And now they are here, standing together, watching Ethel Hallow glide through the air on a brand new broomstick worth approximately as much as Hecate’s library.
‘Well done, Ethel,’ calls Miss Drill, giving her the thumbs up. ‘You too, Enid, but watch your speed at the end of that last turn; you’re racing a bit.’
‘Yes, Miss Drill,’ Enid says, and dismounts to confer with the others.
‘I did keep up with your career, you know,’ Pippa says, eyes still on the team from Pentangle’s, who have just performed a complex series of drills that leaves even Hecate impressed. ‘Read all your articles.’ When Hecate says nothing – can say nothing, tongue heavy and mute – Pippa turns and smiles at her, and for a moment, they are fourteen again and all is right with the world. ‘They were wonderful, Hecate. You have a true gift for writing. I was so delighted to see that you had specialised in potions.’
Hecate feels her cheeks heat, both at the praise and the memories the words invoke. ‘Yes, well,’ she says, and clears her throat. ‘I dare say I had a good teacher.’
‘You mean Miss Blackpool?’ Pippa teases, and Hecate glances sideways at her, eyebrows raised.
‘But of course. I regard her as my central inspiration for teaching, particularly in her unrivalled ability to spend an hour quoting aloud from a textbook her pupils have already read.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Pippa laughs, ‘I do remember how furious that made you. It was quite a sight to see the steam coming out of your ears.’
‘You exaggerate abominably, as usual,’ Hecate murmurs, but she cannot prevent the half-smile forming on her lips as she draws on the warm shawl of their renewed banter, more comfortable and more fitting every day. Pippa is smiling at her, open and fond, and Hecate’s heart trips and falls in her chest. She breathes through it, sets about reminding herself that no one can see what she’s feeling, that no one can read her mind – never mind her suspicion that if anyone could, it would be Pippa.
Mr Dustin, the flying instructor, approaches to speak with Pippa, and Hecate draws away, unwilling to interrupt for so trivial and unnecessary a purpose as a goodbye. But when she returns to her temporary quarters in the dormitory wing, there is a message waiting for her: Join me for tea in my office at 8pm?
With the pupils as settled as they are going to be in strange rooms, Hecate leaves Miss Drill running curfew patrol with Mr Dustin, the two of them happily discussing broomstick technique, and transfers to just outside Pippa’s office. She has been here once before, when she visited Pippa in the holidays, but they did not remain long. Now, standing before the closed door, despite knowing that she is welcome, Hecate requires a moment to collect herself, to organise her face into appropriate passivity and knock with a convincing air of confidence.
‘Come in,’ Pippa calls right away, and Hecate does. The office is smaller than Ada’s, with slightly more modern furniture and a great deal more pink, but the fireplace in the corner and the botanical drawings dotting the walls lend it a comfortable character fitting to Pippa.
The autumn day has been unseasonably warm, so they sit in the armchairs by the window, cradling cups of tea and the homemade pink biscuits originally responsible for Hecate’s silly nickname. She almost smiles when she sees them, almost opens her mouth, before she realises that Pippa can’t possibly remember; that Pippa cannot have filed away all the insignificant details, the tiny fragments of memory and emotion, that have inhabited Hecate’s more vulnerable moments since they first began speaking again.
Their first few meetings were brimming with awkwardness – Hecate tense and combative, Pippa careful and unsure, both of them wounded and guilty – but they have persisted to a point where they can sit together in silence, as they used to do, without the hovering insinuation that they owe one another. Today, however, Pippa is chatty, and launches easily into a discussion of her new spell science mistress, of the competition tomorrow, of the current head of year one, a talented witch quite incidentally of a non-witching family background and fancy that, Hecate. Hecate speaks rarely but listens with avid interest, her gluttonous eyes drinking in the melody of Pippa’s voice, the elegance of her hands as she gestures, and the sight of her face, as lovely as ever even after three decades.
Indeed, it is with some embarrassment that Hecate realises Pippa has asked her a question, that she seems to have asked it at least once before and received no response. It is not in Hecate’s nature to allow her attention to wander, and she swallows the last of her tea, purses her lips. ‘Forgive me,’ she says. ‘I was… preoccupied. Do tell me what you were saying.’
‘It was of no importance,’ Pippa says, smiling slightly. She shifts forward in her chair and watches Hecate with piercing eyes. ‘What were you thinking?’
She considers a lie or a deflection only briefly; Pippa’s eyes, so lovely and honest, seem to compel her to tell the truth. ‘I was merely contemplating how little you’ve changed, over the years, and how,’ she coughs, embarrassed, ‘how pleased I am for it.’
Pippa laughs. ‘You really think me so similar?’
‘In many ways,’ Hecate manages, fumbling around the words, ‘though of course some things have altered by necessity. Your intelligence was always a force to be reckoned with, but now, paired with your authority, I find I am… that is, that you…’ she trails off, mortified by her own inarticulate lack of self-control, and the feeling only multiplies when Pippa reaches over to take her hand. She says nothing, though, merely waits until Hecate can continue, her patient presence a source of calm. Hecate cannot bear to look at her, can only look down at their joined hands as she says, ‘I am so very impressed by your accomplishments, Pippa. I am so very glad that you achieved what you always wanted to, starting your school and passing down the teachings you always believed in.’ She fears every damning emotion is on display in her eyes as she adds, ‘I know I’ve no right to be so, but I am proud. I am proud of you for fulfilling your deepest desires.’
Pippa stands, suddenly, and Hecate shakes her head and murmurs again, ‘Forgive me, I – I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘No,’ Pippa says gently, ‘darling, no.’ She walks around her own chair and perches on the edge of the table, directly in front of Hecate, their faces level. Her blood is thrumming through her veins with something that feels like inevitability, and when Pippa smiles, Hecate chokes out an uncharacteristic chuckle, surprising them both. Then Pippa takes both of her hands, stroking in a way that is rather more stimulating than comforting, the motion tingling sensation up Hecate’s arms. ‘Do you know what?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘I’m glad that you’re proud of me. I’m glad that you’re happy for me. But I’m afraid you are wrong.’
Hecate looks up, meets eyes that are darker than she ever remembers them being; has to swallow, throat dry. ‘Wrong?’
‘I have fulfilled many of my deepest desires, it’s true. But not all.’ She raises a hand and touches Hecate’s jaw, her cheek, and lets go; her meaning is unmistakable, and the understanding sets Hecate’s blood on fire, her skin alive. Pippa stays where she is, close but not touching, giving Hecate space, space to think, and she takes it. What will become of them after this, her brain demands of her – what next? Can this road lead anywhere but disaster, but heartbreak? Can she really remove one precious thing from the shelf and risk shattering everything else? This feeling is powerful and seductive but with fire comes ash and with life comes death – it must be so – and even Pippa Pentangle cannot change that.
As though Hecate had spoken the words aloud, Pippa says, ‘I lost you once, Hiccup, and I don’t care to do it again. I will take your friendship in whichever form I can get it, and I will treasure it. But I believe I owe it to myself, and to both of us, to be honest.’ She smiles, and Hecate is momentarily paralysed by her openness, by her beauty, by the coalescence of thirty years’ worth of feelings in one conversation. ‘Dear, dear Hecate,’ Pippa murmurs, shaking her head on a laugh, ‘I do hope I won’t frighten you away with all this. I’m only afraid we won’t get another second chance.’
It seems that even thirty years spent apart has not subdued Pippa’s inherent knowledge of Hecate’s heart – instead of demanding that she speak, that she respond to this declaration, Pippa merely returns to her chair, pours them more tea, and turns the topic of conversation to her research. If it weren’t for her new awareness of how Pippa’s eyes flash with heat when she smiles, of how those eyes track her neck and hands when she moves and her lips when she speaks, Hecate could almost convince herself that nothing had happened.
Ridicule of recent publications by the windbag wizard Mr Waterthorn takes them through twilight and into darkness, and it is only when Pippa’s candles interrupt them, spelled to flicker on at moonrise, that they see just how much time has passed. Hecate stands, abrupt, smooths her hands down her dress and then wrings them together. ‘I fear I’ve kept you far longer than intended, and no doubt we both have to rise tomorrow in time to marshal the children…’
‘Of course,’ Pippa says, standing and leading Hecate back to the door. There she turns to her, brisk to coy in two seconds flat, and glances up through her lashes; the effect is immediate, and Hecate feels a pointed stirring of interest deep down, the kind she hasn’t felt in a very long time. ‘It’s been just lovely to have you here, Hecate,’ Pippa says. ‘I’m so glad you came.’
‘As am I.’
Pippa extends her hand and Hecate takes it, holds it; allows herself, for once, to enjoy the feeling of closeness and promise the gesture inspires. ‘I suppose I should say goodnight, then,’ Pippa says, and Hecate feels a flush of pleasure at the hint of reluctance evident in her voice. ‘Is there anything I can get you? Anything you need?’
‘No, thank you,’ Hecate says. ‘Everything is… just right.’ She drops Pippa’s hand and then, seized by a sudden fit of daring, steps forward and presses her lips to Pippa’s cheek, lingers a few moments longer than she must. ‘Goodnight, Pipsqueak,’ she whispers, and transfers away before she can see Pippa’s face.
Tossing and turning that night in her foreign bed in her foreign room, Hecate thinks and thinks some more. Then, when dawn is teasing at the navy seam of the sky, she makes a decision, and finally falls asleep.
On the morning of the competition, before breakfast has even begun, Enid Nightshade turns Ethel Hallow’s expensive new broomstick into a mouse, and then loses the mouse. Hecate is livid, not least because she is forced to suspend Enid’s punishment until they return to Cackle’s. She would have Enid not be allowed to fly in the final, but allows herself to be swayed by Miss Drill’s pleading eyes and reasonable arguments about Enid’s absence punishing all the others and, worse still, all but ensuring a victory for Pentangle’s.
‘Very well,’ Hecate says, voice icy, after she has summoned the mouse to the floor at her feet and had Enid reverse the spell. ‘When we return to Cackle’s, you shall serve detention every afternoon for a fortnight, and write me an essay on the practical application of section ten, paragraph eight of the Witches’ Code. Understood?’
She rather suspects Pippa’s influence as the cause of her sudden leniency, but should sooner adopt Mildred Hubble than confess it aloud.
Her schedule clear for the hour until the show, Hecate finds herself truly restless for the first time in years; her bold new thoughts of Pippa have jumped the proverbial fence and are galloping wild across the landscape of her mind. She has missed breakfast in all the fuss of the broom-mouse but finds she cannot care, not when her stomach is full of startled bats that are flapping against her ribcage and jostling her heart. She marvels silently at the fact that everything can change overnight, that it is possible to wake up and see the world in a different light, and Hecate harbours equal measures of terror and hope that Pippa, with all her sharp, attentive insight, will take one look at her and know.
Faintly disgusted by her own turn to the sentimental, and determined to put Pippa out of her mind until she encounters her, Hecate transfers out to the sports field to watch the girls train. If she can terrify some competence into someone before the performance starts, this absurdity of a day may yet be saved.
It is, of course, just as she has achieved some vague sense of equilibrium that Pippa appears, a shock of pink transferring onto the field a little way off. Hecate’s perfidious heart takes immediate notice and stares, drags her eyes along with it, and she is still staring when Pippa turns to look at her, smiles wide and waves. Afraid of blushing, Hecate manages a formal nod in response before she returns her attention to the team. A few moments later, Pippa finishes conferring with Mr Dustin and strides across the field, offering Hecate – perhaps intentionally – every opportunity to admire the slender curve of her hips and shoulders. The pink is a true atrocity, but one she must reluctantly admit that Pippa wears well, and Pippa’s knowing smile as she reaches her only illuminates Hecate’s failure to hide her regard.
Fighting for normalcy in madness, hands clasped in front of her, Hecate clears her throat and says, ‘Good morning, Miss Pentangle.’
‘Good morning to you, Miss Hardbroom.’ Pippa semi-bows at her, eyes sparkling with secrets. ‘I trust you slept well?’
Not in the slightest. ‘Yes, thank you,’ she manages. ‘And you?’
‘Oh, yes, I always sleep well. And last night I had a… most pleasant dream.’ These words are accompanied by a sly look at Hecate, but she says nothing more.
Hecate has promised herself to make her intentions known one way or another before the conclusion of this visit, and here is a chance, right before her, already – she considers and discards several responses in less than a second before realising she can’t do this, not here; it will take time, it will take effort, and she doesn’t want her verbal acknowledgment of this palpable thing between them, awkward as it shall undoubtedly become, to occur in a public location full of children. She settles for saying, ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ for smiling slightly before she glances away, and is rewarded by the brush of a warm arm against her own as Pippa shifts closer, subtly, as though by chance.
The competition runs smoothly; all the pupils are proficient fliers, and Hecate soon begins to enjoy the rare opportunity to spend several hours out in the sunshine, comfortably silent behind the judges’ table. She sits on the left, Pippa in the centre, the visiting witch from Crestwood’s on the right. The performance programme affords them little opportunity to speak privately, but Hecate is pleased to discover that they don’t need it, that Pippa is able to communicate her contentment in Hecate’s presence through a well-timed glance, a layered smile, a lingering touch on her wrist where none is necessary.
Her girls perform admirably, but the team from Pentangle’s just edges them out in the final manoeuvre. Hecate feels a surge of honest disappointment for the sake of the pupils and Miss Drill, who have all tried so hard, but must still take pleasure in the joy and pride on Pippa’s face as she rushes over to congratulate her own students. (When Miss Drill catches her looking and waggles her eyebrows, Hecate makes sure to scowl.)
Both schools congregate in the magically-enlarged dining hall at Pentangle’s for the final feast – they will spend one more night before setting off early the following morning. Hecate sees her still-manic girls off to bed with the expected number of threats and insults, then heads back down the corridor, turns a corner—
—and finds Pippa, leaning against a wall, waiting. Though she does nothing but stand and smile, Hecate still feels the suggestiveness of her body like an attack on her nervous system, and stops in her tracks. ‘Good evening,’ she says. The words sound stilted to her own ears, but Pippa only smiles wider.
‘Would you care for a walk?’ she asks. ‘It’s not yet dark.’
Hecate thinks, no. She thinks, I mustn’t . She thinks, it’s too dangerous.
She says, ‘Yes.’
Pippa transfers them to the mouth of a narrow stream just outside the school grounds and gestures for them to follow its path. They walk close but stay silent, the only sound the rustle of changing leaves in the trees around them, the gentle trickling of water near their feet. Despite her prickling awareness of Pippa at her side, despite the anticipation curling insistent between them, the air is cool and sweet with honeysuckle, and it acts as a balm to Hecate’s jagged nerves.
They have been walking for several minutes when curiosity overcomes her. ‘Have you some particular destination in mind?’ she asks, her voice piercing clear through the evening quiet.
‘That’s the Hecate I know,’ Pippa teases, nudging her. ‘Always trying to get to the end without completing the journey.’
‘I see no fault in wishing to establish my heading, nor in planning for foreseeable eventualities.’
‘Oh, dear, but doesn’t knowing what’s going to happen next take all the fun out of life?’
‘Only the anxiety,’ Hecate counters drily, then, ‘but we never did see eye-to-eye on that point.’
The trees have grown denser now, wilder, a shield of nettles as tall as Hecate growing out of control to their left, a willow dipping into the stream on their right. ‘On which point?’ Pippa asks.
‘Your spontaneity, which I recall was our most common source of disagreement.’
‘That and your insistence on adhering to every rule there was at all times, no matter how antiquated or senseless.’
Hecate shakes her head, has to smile – even after so many years, she can still recognise the special tone of voice Pippa employs when she is trying to goad her into reacting. ‘That won’t work on me this time,’ she tells her, fondness creeping in in spite of herself. ‘You forget I know you, Pippa Pentangle.’
‘Yes, you do,’ Pippa says, ‘which means you know that I am going to try my best to change your mind.’
Hecate stops and turns to her, blinks. ‘About what?’
‘The virtues of spontaneity.’ She takes one deliberate step closer, her eyes never leaving Hecate’s, and smiles. ‘If you comprehend my meaning.’
It could scarcely be possible for her not to comprehend it – Pippa’s eyes bright and heated, her curved lips an open invitation – but her forwardness is still enough to rob Hecate of speech, of breath. She cannot answer verbally, but there is no need to; her hand has already done it for her. Her fingers rise to meet Pippa’s cheek, soft and hesitant, to trace across her jawline, down the curve of her neck; to follow the jutting line of her collarbone and the slope of her shoulder; to finally drop. Hecate searches the melted ruins of her mind for words and eventually uncovers the ones she is looking for. ‘I do,’ she says, voice unsteady. ‘I comprehend it.’
Pippa takes the hand Hecate has just dropped in her own and intertwines their fingers. Hecate doesn’t know how Pippa manages to infuse the motion with such love, such promise, but she is horrified to hear herself make a strangled noise of want in response. Pippa squeezes her hand, gentle and encouraging, and says, ‘Then you comprehend what I am asking, Hecate?’
‘And you accept it?’
‘Yes.’ Her voice is stronger this time, but her patience is weakening. ‘Yes.’
‘Then you would pose no objection to my—’
Hecate kisses her. It must be done; it is a compulsion akin to the magic in her blood. Hecate kisses her, kisses the words from her breath, little more than a gentle, soft-moving pressure of lips against lips but so full of meaning. Then she draws back, wary, struck with the sudden fear that she may have misjudged Pippa’s intentions after all—
—and is met with the same secretive, slow-growing smile she is only now beginning to recognise as the smile that Pippa has always worn for her.
‘Oh,’ Pippa breathes. ‘Oh, it’s about bloody time.’
The profanity, so rare from this woman, startles a laugh from Hecate’s still-tingling lips. ‘I beg your pardon?’
Pippa steps closer until they are standing body to body, warmth to warmth, and runs her hands slowly up Hecate’s arms and neck to cradle her face. ‘Oh, darling,’ she murmurs, half-laughing, ‘I fear I’d have died if I’d had to wait even one minute longer to touch you.’ She presses one soft fingertip to Hecate’s lips. ‘I want you so.’
Her heart brimming with disbelieving desire, Hecate slides her own arms around Pippa’s slim waist –gingerly, experimental – and spreads her hands against the ghastly pink fabric to feel the heat of her body bleed through. More than anything, Hecate is shocked by how natural this feels, how normal, the closeness foreign but also familiar, like coming back years later to cast an old favourite spell.
Her fear and uncertainty are still present, still lurking in the shadows of her mind, but for now, Pippa’s light is enough to keep them at bay. For now, Hecate tips her forehead down to rest against Pippa’s and, the words catching ragged on the edges of desire, says, ‘Then perhaps you ought to do something about that.’
‘Perhaps I ought to,’ Pippa says, laughing, and promptly does.