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The Language of Tea Leaves

Chapter Text

The little tea shop sits nestled in a quiet corner of an otherwise busy street. To many the moonlight blue façade and silver lettering are nothing but a minor distraction as they hurry from one appointment to the next. The city is in a constant state of excitation and few have the time to pause and sit, let alone to savour the intricate flavours of a hand-crafted tea. But Hecate likes it that way, likes knowing that those who venture through her doors are in desperate need of quiet and rest.

She has made it a habit to hover behind the counter, almost ominously so in her buttoned-up black blouse and matching floor-length skirt, deterring the poor souls already plagued by uncertainty who threaten to cross her threshold. Those customers that have found their way inside, she likes to observe closely with her sharp hazel eyes in an attempt to determine what blend would be best suited for them.

Mint lifts headaches and helps with nausea. Chamomile eases muscle tension and calms nerves. Rooibos promotes healthier skin. And Puerh tea cleanses the system. Hecate knows them all, is an expert now at plucking out just the right leaves with her carefully manicured, black-painted nails.

Her little tea shop is busy but never overcrowded, not even when evening breaks, painting the sky in stormy hues of grey, tempting more people into the welcoming warmth of a comfortable establishment. That’s why she feels every vertebra of her spine stiffen when the bell tolls and two new customers spill inside amidst a cacophony of sound. Their squeals and laughter tease the shell of her ear and crack a frown across her forehead that threatens to rival the rolling of thunder outside.

With her back turned to them still, she attempts to maintain her focus on measuring up a fresh batch of leaves. A nearly impossible task as the assault of noise continues. The batch ends up being 1mg heavier than the rest. Hecate exhales sharply through her nostrils and decides to start again. But first…

With a darkening expression on her face, she slowly turns to fix the newcomers with an angry stare. But they’re so wrapped up in their merriment that they don’t seem to notice her. They’re both blonde, the two women. Though one is shorter with almost as little meat on her bones as Hecate herself. And the other is taller with curves that nearly tempt Hecate’s eyes to linger. Nearly. If it hadn’t been for the puddles on her otherwise immaculate floor, the steady stream of raindrops that drip from their clothes. Pink and yellow, both of them painfully bright to her own eyes.

No sense of humility. No sense of tact, Hecate decides, pursing her lips. Precisely the kind of customer she does not wish to entertain in her tea shop.

“May I help you?” The words roll like a warning from her tongue.

“Oh yes, of course. Sorry!” The woman in yellow is laughing, wiping her wet forehead as if she’s never experienced rain before. As if it’s the funniest thing on earth. “One Earl Grey to go. And what about you, Pip?”

Earl Grey, Hecate repeats dismally to herself, and intersects before the woman in pink can add her order, “This is most certainly not the kind of establishment that offers tea in small, disposable paper cups. I do believe there are other…shops…on the high street that will suit you better.”

The woman looks affronted which makes Hecate’s lips curl upwards just the tiniest bit in satisfaction. She can almost taste victory…and peace and quiet. Then another rumble of thunder emanates from outside and suddenly brown eyes are fixed on her own.

“Oh, that’s alright. We can spare a few minutes, can’t we Mirabelle?”

Mirabelle looks unconvinced but shrugs and after another brief exchange trudges off towards a corner table, soaking her precious floors even more. Hecate grimaces then looks back at the woman called – no, Pip is a ludicrous name, she will not be caught calling her that, not even in her thoughts – the woman in pink.

“And what can I get you?”

She smiles in a surprisingly dignified manner for a woman who is dripping from head to toe, and regards her with honest interest. “I’m afraid I’m not really a tea expert.” That means a coffee drinker, Hecate thinks in horror, which is even worse than Earl Grey. “But I’m sure you can pick out something great for me.”

There is something in her broadening smile that makes her cast down her eyes. Maybe it’s a little bit like looking directly into the sun. Maybe it’s because, aged 42, Hecate hadn’t considered she’d ever feel her stomach flutter and dip like that again.

She presses out a rigid “Of course”, then turns her back to the woman and proceeds to collect two wide porcelains cups. She places them down on the counter between them, precisely five grains of wood apart, and moves to focus on the leaves. Water is always boiling nearby and the Earl Grey requires no focus on her part. That’s why it’s so utterly infuriating that she cannot think of the right batch for the woman in pink straight-away. It should be easy to her who knows the language of the leaves, who has made a study of people’s habits and little give-aways.

She glances over her shoulder to find she is still being watched with warm curiosity which only makes her thoughts stall harder. Clear skin and bright eyes suggest a healthy constitution. Her gaze becomes entangled in the long dark lashes, her eyes focused on counting all the little freckles that dot her cheeks. No signs of physical distress or pain.

She looks back at her leaves, can feel their scent infiltrate her nostrils. And for the first time she thinks there’s too much choice. Feels somehow that she has to get this right. Slowly, she breathes in and out, then she begins.

Slender fingers hook around the edge of a transparent box and pull it forward until she can access its contents. Pinched between thumb and index finger she measures fourteen beige-coloured leaves and sets them aside. Next, she reaches for a small brown pot and twists its lid firmly until an opening is revealed. From the depth of the pot the sweet scent of dried cherries, raspberries and other fruit begins to fill the air. She adds one spoonful of the mixture to the beige-coloured leaves. It’s a celebration of autumnal colours, she thinks, as she transfers it all into a mortar and proceeds to grind it down into a fine powder. After years of work, her joints stiffen and lock with every turn of the pestle, but she rubs and massages them with her free hand only once she is satisfied with the result.

The woman in pink is watching on in awe, she notices as she moves to deposit the powder at the base of the cup, as though she has just performed a great feat of magic. It brings a blush to her otherwise pale cheeks and makes her yearn for…well…she can’t quite find the words. But for something more. Something like shared laughter, entwined fingers, engrossing conversation. Something more than tea shop encounters or briefly exchanged pleasantries.

“What did you decide on?”

Thoughts tumble wildly over each other but thankfully she manages to control them before any of them can come spilling out.

“Crushed, immature leaves of Camellia sinensis and a poutpourri of fruit,” she begins.

Pale like the early rays of the sun, may they fill you with warmth. Cherries and berries for sweetness.

She reaches for a kettle and sends boiling water cascading down on the cup, causing the mixture to swirl about in its own little current. She adds five more beige-coloured leaves that sink to the bottom of the otherwise translucent liquid.

“A lighter tea that lacks in bitterness.”

“Perfect!” the woman in pink exclaims and rummages in her purse for her money. “How much is that?”

“£6.30.”

She can see her swallow as her eyebrows shoot up towards her hairline. The price for good tea is steep. Perhaps she realises this too, because she proceeds to pay without further comment.

"Thank you,” she says while scooting her hands under both saucers to balance them precariously on her palms. “And I’m sorry about the mess.”

Well, that’s enough to leave her speechless. Her fingers cling on to the edge of the counter as she finds herself nodding, watching her figure retreat further and further. And it is odd how well the pink mixes with the dark and burgundy hues of her establishment. How at home this woman looks crammed into a corner of one of her wooden benches, a plush cushion on her lap. And it is unnerving how she finds her eyes trailing to her time and time again as though she thirsts to see more of her but knows she cannot compel her to stay.

Nonsense, she pinches her lips and scolds herself; what she really yearns for is the good old silence, devoid of noisy chatter or laughter or – God forbid – unforgivable amounts of milk and sugar in an already sweetened tea!

Chapter Text

 

Hecate opens her tea shop every day at the same hour. Arriving promptly at six, she manifests in the twilight of her establishment amidst a swirl of particles, the hem of her black skirt whispering across the floor. The air around her is still stale and quiet, save for her own magic that ripples still in a faint echo. Outside, the street is already awash with people, and there’s an odd sense of tranquillity in watching them hurry past, nothing more than shadows through the blinds while she remains in perfect silence, separated only by one thin wall.

But the ticking of the pocket watch she keeps looped around her neck by a chain reminds her that time is inevitably moving on, and so she abandons her vigil and begins setting up. Tables and chairs are lifted in the air by a twist of her hand and remain floating while she guides broom and mop across the floor until it sparkles pristinely. A curl of her fingers sees the windows flying open, filling her little establishment with the pitter-patter of rain and a mumble of voices.

It still takes a while, this inviting in of the outside world. Time to prepare and collect herself.

While she leaves the floors to dry, she assesses the cleanliness of the cups and saucers and sets a few aside on the counter for the first customers. The tea leaves require greater care. It’s like an inspection, she thinks, this act of sifting through container after container, examining the smell, the texture and overall freshness. A new batch awaits harvest in her back garden but she’ll have to tend to that later. For now, she is ready to open.

Technically.

Her mind has other ideas, however, and so her eyes drift towards the corner recently occupied by the woman in pink, the woman she cannot seem to shake from her thoughts. In the six days that have passed since their encounter, Hecate has tried every trick in the book to deter her foolish, ever-hopeful heart.

She is too pretty. She is too noisy. She is too frivolous and most certainly too pink.

To no avail. Like a silly adolescent she catches herself contemplating the freckle pattern on her cheeks or the precise shade of her brown eyes. Awakening – emotionally, sensually – just as overwhelming at 42 as it was at 14.

Hecate gives a slight shake of the head to chase away those pesky, lingering thoughts, almost grateful when she notices a figure out of the corner of her eye. A customer, she thinks, jolting into motion, although she cannot make out more than a general shape. The front door unlocks with a click and as her fingers draw a semi-circle into the air, the blinds roll up across all the windows, revealing a peaky, freckled face and a dangling mop of braided pigtails.

A child. A girl, of no older than twelve years. She has her nose pressed against the window, leaving it faintly smudged while her breath fogs up the glass nearest to her mouth.

Most certainly not a welcome visitor. Hecate decides to draw herself up to her most imposing height and strides, accompanied by the sharp tick tick tick of her heels towards the door. As if sensing impending doom, the girl shrinks away only to shove her hands into her pockets a second later while stubbornly holding her ground. Only three paces separate them by the time Hecate flings the door open, looming intimidatingly tall. And the girl’s chin quivers yet annoyingly she tilts her chin higher. Still undeterred. Determined if also clumsy, uncontained magic purling off her in waves.

“Have you nothing else to gawk at?” Hecate challenges, unnerved by the stand-off she finds herself in.

“I was just wondering-“

“We are not open for business.”

It happens at once, her own sharp hiss intermingling with a fresh whisper of magic. A rush that fills the air, a whirl of golden molecules. And suddenly there’s a sweetness like honey to the smell of fresh rain that still clings to the cobblestones and buildings around them.

“Not open yet?” a warm voice repeats. “Well, that’s a shame.”

Inside the tea shop, the chairs and tables clatter noisily back to the floor.

“I suppose I could make an exception?” Hecate finds herself saying, fingers stiffening against the fabric of her skirt, seeking to brush out any non-existent wrinkles.

The woman in pink smiles brightly and with a kind of effortless grace straightens her hat. “Really? That would be marvellous.”

She’s wearing her hair in a ponytail today, Hecate notes, with some blonde strands not tied back but framing her face instead, softening it further. And her eyes are brown, light brown like the core of a tree trunk but when illuminated in just the right way, like they are now, there are hues of chestnut and amber.

Bereft of speech, she extends an arm to push the door open once more, inviting her – and, much to her chagrin – the girl into her establishment. It’s almost a relief when she finds herself behind the familiar counter once more, holding on to its edge and breathing in the scent of tea leaves and normalcy.

“Will you surprise me again, Miss…?”

“Hardbroom…Hecate…”  It’s clumsy and foreign, and what’s more the girl knows it. Just about manages to strike the amused, knowing grin from her face when she notices Hecate glowering at her. “It’s all I can strive to do until you share more of your preferences.”

She doesn’t understand why the woman in pink suddenly colours, nor why she looks as though she’s biting her tongue. Confused and nervous, she turns her back on both of them and with a twist of her hand beckons the kettle to start boiling water. Behind her, the conversation continues.

“And what about you, dear? Anything you want, my treat.”

Hecate’s ears prick in something like dreaded anticipation while her spine stiffens in preparation for what is surely to be something terribly predictable like hot chocolate. No child her age would have an inkling about the intricate art of tea making.

“Oh thanks, that’s really nice. But I’m here to…” She stalls and stops. “Well, I was going to ask Miss Hardbroom a favour. But I’ll come back later.”

She hears the shuffle of feet, the drag of ill-fitting shoes across her floor and almost relaxes. The woman in pink has other plans, however.

“Don’t let me stop you. I’ll just be over there in my corner.”

My corner, Hecate thinks, but has barely enough time to reflect how ridiculous yet how accurate a notion that is before realisation sinks in that she is now supposed to listen to the girl and her silly request. Can barely hear anything over the sound of her fluttering, giddy heart.

“Well?” she challenges lowly when the child continues to gape at her like a goldfish.

She has no patience for this, no patience for children in general. They’re too curious and too unpredictable to make her feel at ease. And no matter how hard she tries, she always ends up feeling awkward or gangling around them. No smidgen of maternal ease about her.

Much like Hecate did earlier, the girl suddenly starts to build herself up to her full height, drawing in air like some seek to collect courage, and then pushes out her request in one rush of breath, letters jumbling together.

“I really want to work here. The thing is mum is trying her best and she’s even doing all the long shifts now I’m at school. But she’s wearing herself out and we still only have barely enough money to get by, so I have to do something!”

The woman in pink looks up from the book she has somehow acquired. Behind Hecate, the kettle whistles. She doesn’t know what she is meant to do with all that information, blinks once, twice, her lashes fluttering while she attempts to process it. The woman in pink is watching them still, eyes tender with compassion and something like warm affection that Hecate recognises – if she is honest with herself and if she really focuses on the sensation within her – is softening her heart as well. To be so young and already carry such existential fears… Well, it’s not entirely unfamiliar.

But the truth is that there’s no place for her here where everything is peace and quiet, where the craft is performed to exacting standards. She cannot have a girl of barely thirteen who is all limbs and raw magic bumble about her shop, and she most certainly cannot entrust her with handling her precious leaves. So she must decline. Yet she finds that she cannot. Will go on to blame this on the woman in pink, will say that she feared to disappoint her expectation of kindness. Stubbornly ignoring that it’s the sympathy she suddenly feels for the girl, the deep understanding of precisely that kind of hardship that compels her to accept.

“Once a week,” she answers at last, turning her back to the thousand little nuances of relief that flood the girl’s face, that have her whooping and air-punching in a manner which can only be described as undignified. “The Code condemns further hours at your age. And you oughtn’t to neglect your studies.”

Absent-mindedly, her fingers hook under the handle of another transparent container and tug it out of its compartment until she can access the leaves.

“I won’t, Miss Hardbroom. I promise. When do I start?”

Hecate’s hands automatically wrap around the watch that’s resting against her chest, holding time within her palms, the steady ticking soothing to her even now.

“Tomorrow. 6 am precisely.” There’s no sense putting it off unnecessarily. And the sooner the girl learns, the better.

“Thank you, Miss Hardbroom, thank you!” And nearly knocking her tables over, she flies out of her shop.

There’s a beat of silence that follows, a sigh which Hecate recognises in dismay to be her own. The flurry of young magic still lingers.

“That was very kind of you,” the woman in pink comments and suddenly she remembers that she’s there with her, that they’re alone in her establishment which unexpectedly feels much too cosy and much too small.

The base of her neck prickles, but it is not uncomfortable, this sensation.

“I fear I will come to regret it imminently. I’ve hardly thought to ask for parental permission…”

“I’m sure her mum will be impressed if not a little choked up. Sounds like a hard time for both of them. But as long as she tends to her homework and doesn’t get into trouble…”

Hecate nods, busying her fingers to banish the ever-growing sense of panic that’s threatening to well up in her chest. She retrieves a soft, round pellet of compressed dark and very nearly black leaves from within the container, draws a translucent teapot of glass to her side and permits the pellet to drop to its bottom. Next, she adds boiling water and moves the tea pot in circular motions until the leaves break out of their compressed state and begin drifting freely. She opens her watch, then closes it again. Ensures that the tea is brewed for just the right amount of time while she extracts a bottle from a nearby cupboard that contains a milky pale liquid. She strains the finished tea carefully by use of magic, then serves it still in its teapot to the woman in pink.

“It’s like a ceremony.”

Hecate finds herself hovering by the table, hands now that they are no longer occupied twisting and twitching.

“Every tea requires its own process,” she acknowledges in turn, quite at a loss for what more to say. Expecting the woman to laugh or belittle that which she has come to cherish so long ago.

But she doesn’t. Instead she smiles in understanding and carefully guides the teapot to her cup, sending a stream of dark liquid pouring out.

“Oh?” the woman chuckles, tilting her head as though eyeing up a curiosity. “It’s not the same tea. You are surprising me then.”

Somehow that brings warmth rushing to her face and she hurriedly averts her eyes. She studies the grain of the table instead, the little glistening smudge of polish she has failed to wipe away.

“The particular leaves of Camellia sinensis you previously tasted were young and fresh. These are aged and fermented, containing between 30-70 mg of caffeine per cup. You appeared in need of a boost, if I may say so.” She’s still addressing the table but another clear chuckle finally persuades her to look up. “Try adding a bit of the coconut water. You may find it more palatable.”

It’s terribly stilted, this small talk that she presses out. But her thoughts keep circling around tea leaves and handling procedures and proper brewing periods as though they’re her only shreds of security.

“Thank you, Hecate. That’s very thoughtful.”

And her eyes are too soft and her hands too slender as she wraps them around the neck of the bottle. And her lips so…pink. Everything so utterly unlike her world which is cast in more demur tones, all angular and sharp. But temptation whispers in her ear, begs her to consider the creation of something new. Between soft and sharp, pink and black. Something uniquely them.

“You’re really converting me, you know?”

She revels in the mischievous spark that suddenly ignites in those brown eyes. And as her heart accelerates, fluttering and thrumming against her ribcage, her fingers entangle desperately in the fabric of her skirt.

“I like to accommodate those that take the time for something as…simple…” Her mouth curls in distaste at the fallacy of the notion. “As tea…”

“And I’ve discovered that I really need these little breaks. I am the headmistress of Pentangle’s Academy and my schedule is usually…” Here she pauses, rolling her eyes towards the ceiling with a soft little laugh. “Mad!”

Pentangle’s? Pip? Pippa Pentangle? The witch who founded her own school against all odds?

Her eyes slide over her features as though she’s seeing her for the first time. The bright countenance that almost succeeds in disguising the tiredness that sits nestled underneath her eyes. The powerful magic that moves and swishes through the air with every turn of her slender fingers. The stubborn determination that sleeps between her brows.

“I can see why,” she manages to say eventually before excusing herself and returning to her counter.

It appears that there are shades of pink she had never thought possible, Hecate muses while she scrubs and cleans and instructs another kettle to start boiling water, and not all of them frivolous or superficial.

She finds her eyes drawn towards Pippa once more, watches on quite freely as the other witch tastes her tea and skims a few lines of her book, a book whose spine looks deceptively much like a copy of “A Leaf for Every Witch Occasion”. Hecate pauses, her hands stilling mid-air, an utterly confounded expression on her pale face. Because she must be mistaken, because she cannot possibly come up with a sensible reason why Pippa Pentangle would be reading her favourite book. Not when she can barely begin to fathom why she has returned to her tea shop at all.

Chapter Text

It is at precisely 6 o’clock the following morning when Hecate emerges out of nothingness in the silence of her little tea shop to find no curious girl waiting there, no grubby hands pressed against her window. Her lips pinch immediately in disapproval and her entire countenance darkens. Nonetheless, she sets about her business as though it is an ordinary day, as though she hasn’t fretted half the night away with concerns regarding her new helper. How to include a witchling in her establishment, how to excite her for the work and what parts to entrust her with questions that seemingly pervaded her consciousness even in sleep.

She sweeps and mops her floors and polishes the furniture; all twelve tables ranging from round to angular, all the chairs and benches. It is quarter past six by the time she commences assessment of her leaves and when finally a hurried knock emanates from the front door.

“Enter!” Hecate instructs firmly and gives a twist of the hand to open the lock, refusing to look up from her task otherwise.

She can tell by the frantic breathing and the sloppy footsteps that scuff at her floors that the girl has finally deemed to grace her with her presence.

“I’m sorry, Miss Hardbroom. I didn’t mean to be late. I really didn’t. Only Tabby, that’s my cat, he refused to get on my broom so I had to figure something else out.”

With a growing feeling of unease that spells doom, Hecate reluctantly stills her fingers and raises her eyes to meet the girl’s. She is red-cheeked and sweaty, her clothes wrinkled and her socks mismatched. Even her hair which she has tried to confine to the same braided pigtails as the day before looks windswept and unruly. It just won’t do, Hecate thinks, and yet there is worse still to come as she realises swiftly when her eyes finally acknowledge the backpack she’s carrying, a backpack that wiggles and wobbles as though it has been brought to life.

“You have brought your familiar into my tea shop?”

The final consonant pops from her lips with all the intensity of a misguided spell and the girl has the good grace to look embarrassed before she pulls a bedraggled looking cat out of the depth of the bag.

“I had no choice, Miss Hardbroom,” she insists. “Tabby is the stubborn sort. You have no idea what kind of trouble he would have got himself into in my absence.”

“I am fully capable of grasping what you are referring to, Miss-“  She cuts herself off with some disappointment, realises that she doesn’t even know the girl’s name yet. And really, a reprimand sounds terribly empty without the proper finish.

“Mildred Hubble. My friends call me Millie.”

One dark eyebrow rises by its own accord as though it yearns to disappear beyond the safety of her hairline at the implied invitation.

“This is a tea shop, Miss Hubble,” she scolds her sharply, “and as such I absolutely do not tolerate familiars of any kind.”

“Well, can’t we just leave him behind the counter? I’ve brought some sardines and with a saucer of milk he’ll be as good as gold.”

Hecate’s nostrils flare but somehow she manages to refrain from pointing out the gap in the child’s logic. “With my tea leaves? Absolutely not.”

“What about the garden then? I saw you have one when I landed.”

“Which is where I grow my own plants, Mildred Hubble,” she presses out with growing aggravation and swiftly adds before the girl can open her mouth again, “and neither will he be allowed to curl up in one of the chairs like some sort of tea shop mascot.”

“Well, he can hardly vanish now, can he?” Mildred challenges stubbornly and oh the temptation to click her fingers and prove her wrong.

Instead, she stiffly steps to one side and opens the door that leads into a corridor which in turn ends in her garden. She ensures that the final door is shut firmly, before she turns back around. “You may leave him here for now. But if he proves himself to be a nuisance, this arrangement is quite finished. Do you understand me?”

Mildred visibly swallows, shoves her hands deeper into her pockets and nods. “Yes, Miss Hardbroom.”

Rigidly, Hecate by-passes girl and cat and returns to her beloved counter, fingers automatically reaching for the familiarity of her tea leaf containers. There is blessed silence for a couple of minutes while she arranges everything before her until the girl clears her throat and makes her presence known.

“What can I do then? How can I help you?”

There’s something to be said for her eagerness, Hecate supposes, and directs her towards the cups and saucers. She is much too set in her routine to leave any dishes behind unwashed, but an extra thorough polish cannot hurt and, really, it is the only thing she trusts the girl with for now. Still, she is nervous when she turns back to her tea and leaves Mildred to handle her precious porcelain. Carefully, she buries her hand in a container and lifts out her plants, holding them to her nose to examine the scent. She breathes in deeply yet struggles to make her usual notes. Her mind is focused on the wavering energy behind her, on the steady clatter of dishes, half expecting a shriek of dismay as cups and saucers drop to the ground.

It never comes.

The girl is conscientious in her efforts despite her magic that is wild and untamed, that comes in bursts and sometimes diminishes altogether. And soon Hecate adjusts to it. Mind clearing, she tends to her leaves, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as the likes of chamomile and peppermint infiltrate her nose. They’re more cleansing than incense, more warming to her than the softest blankets. They’re her comfort, her home.

She is immaculate in the sifting out of old ones, the bundle in her hand ever-shrinking as she assesses texture next. And there are delights too to be found, in the whistle and crunch she hears or the rough, uneven blades her fingers encounter. Unbidden, her thoughts turn to the woman in pink – to Pippa Pentangle, she corrects herself, lest she forget who it is she is so desperately yearning for. Imposing, inspiring Pippa Pentangle who took on half the Magic Council by herself to create a school that is inclusive of all. Pippa Pentangle who reads “A Leaf for Every Witch Occasion” in her spare time.

Could she interest her in the art of tea making? Woo her even with her knowledge of the craft?

Mildred Hubble’s handling of saucers and cups emanates softly from the background, soothing and almost reassuring, as though it’s been there all along. And Hecate gently shakes her head, banning all images of tea tastings and slender fingers buried in her leaves and brown twinkling eyes from her mind.

 

* * *

The following week Mildred Hubble is punctual and arrives with a wiggling backpack she’s struggling to contain, as her arms are laden with a large box that emits a strange tinny sound whenever she presses her fingers too much into it. She is cheerful in her greeting – almost too cheerful, Hecate thinks, who is unaccustomed still to having her peaceful morning punctuated by noisy chatter – and clumsy in her movements – probably from lack of sleep – elbowing a whole row of cups from the counter in her attempt at setting down the box. Hecate barely manages to freeze it all before it shatters into a million pieces.

“Move away from the counter. Then let that cat out of the bag and into the corridor,” she instructs through gritted teeth, her fingers spread wide and rigid while she retains control over her porcelain.

“Miss Hardbroom, I’m really sorry. I-“

“Do not care. Go, Miss Hubble.”

She waits until the footsteps subside, then breathes out through her nose and gently assembles her cups back on the counter, a good distance away from Mildred Hubble’s blasted box. She tries her best to ignore the mixture of shouts and meows that echoes from the hallway, moves on to tend to her furniture and before she realises how she got there, finds herself in Pippa Pentangle’s corner.

It’s been eight days since she last visited her establishment. She hasn’t intended to keep track. Doesn’t think so at least. But so much of her life is organised around the concept of  time which she wears as a steady reminder in the shape of the pocket watch around her neck that it’s impossible not to. Eight more or less ordinary days, following their ordinary flow which she is somehow suddenly tired of. Her hazel eyes slide over the empty bench while her hands absent-mindedly tighten her bun.

“Uh…Miss Hardbroom?” Mildred Hubble is almost sensitively tentative and Hecate stiffens, because she knows that the girl isn’t stupid, that despite her twelve years she can draw her own conclusions as to why her employer is standing frozen in that particular corner like some doe-eyed adolescent.

So Hecate turns slowly until they are face to face, eyes glistening dangerously.

“Yes, Miss Hubble?” she drawls in her lowest voice that still has regrettably little effect on the girl.

“I just uh…wanted to apologise again for being late last week and for nearly destroying your stuff just now.” Puzzled, Hecate watches her struggle to peel the lid from the tin box and clenches her hands at her sides to refrain from assisting her with magic. “I really appreciate you giving me this chance. Not everyone would’ve.” She is most certainly right. Not everyone would have and neither would she had it not been for Pippa Pentangle. “So I’ve made you these. I hope you like chocolate.”

There’s a brief pause in the narrative, long enough for Hecate to steal a glimpse of the contents of the box. Little round biscuits decorated with surprising skill in streaks of milk, dark and white chocolate.

“I thought if they’re any good, you could start selling them too. I mean I had to stop by mum’s yesterday to bake these, but I’m sure we could find a way to-“

The stream of sentences seems never-ending and with a swift twist of the hand, Hecate transfers in front of the girl to make her cease talking. The little trick is cheap but effective and for a second or two there is only silence in the establishment while Mildred Hubble stares up at her wide-eyed, her mouth hanging open.

“I do not sell biscuits or any other baked goods nor will I ever.” She cannot bear the way the girl’s eyes dim, the way her shoulders sag. “But thank you, that’s very kind. Now get to work or we shall be late again.”

The embrace happens so quickly Hecate cannot be certain it actually transpires. But suddenly there is a mop of dark hair tucked away under her chin, gangly arms wrapped around her middle, squeezing the air out of her body. Or perhaps it’s the shock, the sheer unfamiliar sensation of being hugged affectionately. But she cannot deny that it fills her with something like sunshine and topsy-turvy giddiness that steadfastly refuses to be suppressed. And the biscuits? Well, they aren’t half-bad either.

 

* * *

  

Another Pippa Pentangle-free week passes and Hecate begins to tell herself that she has stopped expecting her. When her gaze strays towards the door it is solely to monitor the weather which has been tempestuous of late and when her thoughts wander to honey, fruit and other sweeteners it is only with her regular clientele in mind.

She has never been good at lying.

Now in the third week of their collaboration, Hecate must admit that she has settled in a strangely comfortable routine with the girl, though that does not mean that everything runs smoothly. In fact, the comfortable routine requires constant vigilance on her part, for Mildred Hubble is prone to day dreaming and surprisingly clumsy mishaps which she certainly tries to make up for in dedication. Still, it follows its own predictable pattern which is why Hecate reacts with steadfast refusal when the girl suddenly begins to ask questions.

It is late that Saturday afternoon, the stormy sky streaked with amber and orange of the setting sun and the tea shop is only operating by candlelight. Halloween is fast approaching and Hecate is conscientious of embracing the twilight and celebrating the simple pleasures of her youth.

“Perhaps they think we’re closed,” Mildred Hubble breaks the silence and gestures with soapy hands around the empty establishment. “It’s so dark they might think we’re shut for the day.”

She doesn’t know what appears first, the headache or her temper that flares up with sudden force. It takes effort reining it in, because it rouses her magic also and has it whistling in her ears.

“Rest assured, Miss Hubble, the appropriate customers will still find their way inside.”

“Well, in the meantime while no-one’s around, can’t I do something else?”

Her energy is running hot inside her, crackling and bristling like electricity between her fingers. Sharp and insistent, very nearly impossible to control. “No. We have agreed that this would be your task.”

“I know, but it’s been my task for every single weekend now and it’s boring. Can’t I serve people when they arrive? Or make tea or even just see the leaves outside?”

It doesn’t occur to Hecate that the girl is expressing genuine interest in her craft or that her recent lack of attention might be linked to the aforementioned boredom. Trapped in her own miserable mood, she only sees an impertinent child who is trying her patience.

“No!” she hisses and that is that.

Well, for another hour or so by which time she is in her garden and doesn’t hear the tolling of the bell that finally announces the arrival of business after what has been a rather sluggish day. Hecate is kneeling in the soft moist soil, her skirt protected by a white apron. She is relishing the fresh, cleansed air which is still fragrant from the rain, and the feel of the crisp leaves she keeps plucking from the shrubs and dropping in her basket. A steady motion of back and forth, give and take. A leaf in exchange for gentle care. And the darkening night mild and soothing around her, easing away her headache.

“Miss Hardbroom?” Mildred Hubble calls, as she comes bursting out of the shop behind her. “Miss Hardbroom, there’s a whole group of people!”

Hecate tries her best to ignore the sounds that follow, the scraping and meowing, the soft crash and pleading words as the girl struggles to keep her cat inside.

“Close the door, Miss Hubble, and tell them to take a seat. I shall be with you imminently.”

“But…but Miss Hardbroom!”

“Go, girl!”

She hears the door slam shut, then hears it creak as though it’s been propped open again.

“It’s Miss Pentangle,” whispers Mildred Hubble and then she vanishes for good.

The reaction is instantaneous, as Hecate’s spine stiffens. Her fingers still against the leaves, her heart beats treacherously in her throat. Somehow she rises with dignity and twirls herself into the gentle breeze until her body dissolves into particles of air. It’s a split-second’s worth of travel. A nervous inhalation, a plunge into nothingness, a sharp exhalation and suddenly they are face to face again and her face burns with heat.

She is still carrying the basket and has forgotten to banish her apron which clearly shows imprints of dirt from where she has been kneeling. Her hair is mussed and slightly damp and stubborn strands have escaped the tight bun atop her head.

“Ah, Hecate!” Miss Pentangle smiles and she cannot tell whether she doesn’t mind her dishevelled appearance or is too polite to mention it. So she hooks her fingers under the straps of her apron and evicts it into oblivion.

The girl wasn’t lying, Miss Pentangle really has arrived with a whole group of friends which is…regrettable.

“I wasn’t sure whether you were still open or not, but we’ve just come back from a week-long conference and I couldn’t think of a better place to replenish our energy than your little tea shop.”

Hecate pretends not to see the smug look Mildred Hubble is giving her and nods her head in assent. “What would you like?”

Miss Pentangle angles her body towards the rest of the women as if to pass on the question and Hecate can’t stop her eyes from skimming over her profile, from dipping down her neck that is revealed to her thanks to a low twisted bun that’s keeping her hair out of the way. One by one she takes their orders, pleased to see that some are more imaginative in their selection than others (like Mirabelle who earns a look of contempt for her repeated order of Earl Grey) and almost makes to turn towards her leaves when she remembers that Pippa Pentangle hasn’t yet given hers.

“A surprise?” she asks automatically, delighting in the way her lips twitch into a smile.

“I’d like that, Hecate.”

Well, that’s enough to cause her hands to shake when she finally hastily averts herself to work on the orders. It is almost a blessing that Mildred Hubble is there to line up cups and saucers and deliver them to the women, and Hecate is much too preoccupied to stop her from taking such liberties. For the most part, her fingers work by their own accord, slowing only when it comes to the preparation of Miss Pentangle’s tea. It isn’t as challenging as the last time or the time before that, but Hecate believes in careful selection and is dedicated to picking the correct leaves.

Contrary to their name, they are of either pale or burned green colour and do not contain caffeine. When she has accumulated the precise amount, she adds another handful of magenta-coloured leaves, then pours hot water over it, strains and stirs until the faint scent of hibiscus infiltrates her nostrils. Satisfied, she leaves it to stand, draws a fresh lemon out of a container and cuts it to add a slice to the finished tea. A small content smile is playing on her lips that vanishes when she turns back, cup in hand, to finally realise where Mildred Hubble has gone.

“No, I’m afraid we don’t sell donuts or cupcakes,” she is saying as she draws closer – rather noisily, Hecate thinks and with yet another insufferably smug smile which she must ignore again, for the women erupt in plaintive sighs and the last thing she wants is another discussion in front of them.

“Here is your tea, Miss Pentangle,” she settles for instead, placing the cup down in front of her with delicate care. “Aspalathus linearis, or commonly known as Rooibos tea. Unoxidised, infused with a hint of hibiscus and for sharpness, a slice of lemon.”

A malty beverage yet of delicate sweetness. Not to rouse but to soothe and unwind.

“Thank you,” Miss Pentangle smiles in return and takes an almost tentative sip.

All eyes are on her, including Hecate’s and with a chuckle that’s very nearly bashful she announces it palatable. In fact, she is terribly complimentary, but Hecate insists on downplaying her words. She wants to retain her footing, after all.

With some strictness, she succeeds in coaxing Mildred Hubble away from the group and with her well-earned wage in hand, she sends the girl home. Then she wipes and cleans the counter, acting as though she cannot hear the women’s lively conversation or Miss Pentangle’s laugh which is surprisingly brash and throaty.

It’s rather late in the evening and her little tea shop open far longer than usual, when the women eventually rise one by one and filter out into the ink-black air. She offers brief albeit polite farewells but remains perfectly rigid behind her counter, fingering the sleeves of her blouse. Because there’s only Pippa now, her and Pippa like the last time. But today the mood is different.

Perhaps it’s the lateness of the hour, her own fatigue or the way Miss Pentangle's eyes glow in the warm light of the candles. Hecate doesn’t know, can barely consider how to occupy herself and occupy herself she must if she does not wish to be caught staring. Miss Pentangle is arranging notes on the table, occasionally running her fingers through her hair. Unfurling golden strands one by one that whisper across her cheek as they tumble. Creating a lump in her throat and a tightness in her belly, drawing out a blasted, aching sigh that’s surely too husky to be her own. Then their eyes meet across the room and the air thickens further until Hecate can only smell hibiscus and lemon, wax and a faint overtone of rain.

“We must have kept you terribly long, Hecate. I’m so sorry. I really must try to be more considerate next time.”

Slowly, she manages to release the breath she was holding, watches as Pippa makes her way towards her. “You seemed in need of some refreshments and, to be perfectly candid, there haven’t been many customers today, so you have done me a favour.”

Miss Pentangle continues to hold her gaze as though there’s nothing else to look at, not even as she places the money on the counter between them. “Well, I’m grateful anyhow.”

She looks as if she’s about to smile but somehow her lips only twitch nervously and her chin trembles. Hecate cannot be certain but in the twilight she seems to be twisting her fingers above her stomach. Nervously? Shyly?

“I was wondering if I could offer a comment in regards to the tea you served me today.”

Hecate’s forehead creases into a frown and automatically her shoulders brace for rejection.

“Of course,” she invites nonetheless, her voice betraying her caution.

“Well, it really was delightful. But I was wondering if perhaps some honey could have completed the balance.”

It takes her a minute to process that the insult she was anticipating did not come and it’s with a slow, sluggish brain that she processes the suggestion.

“I suppose for those customers like yourself who favour a sweeter flavour that would be a plausible option.”

Miss Pentangle nods, her eyes dipping to her feet, then suddenly fixes her again and adds evenly, “A friend of mine is an avid bee-keeper who produces his own honey. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with chapter 9 in “A Leaf for Every Witch Occasion” and the beneficial properties of honey. From what I understand it’s quite the art of its own, delicate variations of flavour garnered from different blossoms. Perhaps I could persuade my friend to supply me with a sample of his products and we could savour them together?”

Her tongue feels too clumsy to wrap around the words she yearns to utter. So she settles for a stiff but enthusiastic nod instead. Her fingertips have grown quite numb.

“Wonderful!” Miss Pentangle exclaims. “How would next Sunday suit you? I could arrive after dinner time, around 8 o’clock?”

“I’d like that,” Hecate finally manages to say, her voice as tender as the heart that trills in her chest.

“Then it’s all settled. I’ll look forward to it and thank you again for your hospitality today.”

“The pleasure was all mine, Miss Pentangle,” she squeezes out nearly breathlessly with words that warble and tremble and shake. Hecate all the while in quiet disbelief at the confidence she has suddenly acquired.

But then all capacity for thought vanishes as Miss Pentangle leans across the counter and steadying herself on her arms presses a chaste but gentle kiss to her cheek. “Do call me Pippa, Hecate.” And with a rush of warmth she vanishes into thin air.

Chapter Text

The little tea shop is cloaked in silence when Hecate appears amidst her twelve tables on Sunday evening. Steady breaths guide her as she manifests and takes on form, still swaying from the momentum of her own motion. Long fingers swiftly capture the watch that is threatening to swing out of reach and draw it back to the safety of her chest. Time ticks in her bones.

Around her, the air is heavy with the smell of tea and warmth and wood, reminiscent of the forest of her youth, she thinks and smiles a little to herself. Then reason resurfaces unbidden and reminds her of the meeting that’s yet to take place, a meeting she feels decidedly unprepared to navigate, and so it is with trembling hands that she sets about her preparation.

Ordinarily, the tea shop isn’t closed on a Sunday, but Hecate knows how feeble her focus has been of late and how unfortunately closely it’s linked to her magic which can be wild and unruly if not carefully managed. She finds that the peace and familiarity of the place help her unwind (if also slowly) and somehow she manages to lift chairs up onto tables, save for the one in the corner, without spending too much thought on Miss Pentangle’s imminent visit. Instead, her mind wanders to Mildred Hubble and the surprisingly pleasant time she has spent with the girl just a day prior.

 

She arrived in a flurry of peculiar energy that Hecate couldn’t initially place, thrumming with magic, nearly brimming over. Incapable of adequate levels of control - Hecate had decided after three isolated incidents of particular clumsiness and a fourth involving that blasted cat - she’d admonished the girl soundly only to close up shop early for the safety of all involved. Mildred had been obviously mortified and no matter how often Hecate had tried to avert her eyes from the trembling chin or the sagging shoulders, she could not divert herself from the shame she had so inadvertently created.

“Is something the matter, Miss Hubble?” she’d enquired in the end, just about managing to pass off her tone as nonchalant. She really wasn’t fond of this feeling, compassion, sympathy, guilt – whatever it was – that continued to squirm around in her belly.

And slowly, gradually with much effort, it seemed, the truth had emerged. “I just…I’m bored, Miss Hardbroom. I can’t stop my mind from wandering.”

No surprise then that her familiar had been acting similarly restless.

“While I appreciate your candour, Miss Hubble, I’m afraid such behaviour just won’t do. The running of a tea shop requires keen focus on everything. Repetitive some tasks may be, but nonetheless they form the vital basis for the smooth running of the business.”

It was halfway through the girl’s first or second diligent albeit half-hearted nod that Hecate realised how desperately tired and stale her answer had been. And what was worse, how bored she herself sounded. It was a frightening thought that had the potential to shake up her carefully crafted routine, but it was useful too. Useful to know that she was not tired of her shop or her tea but nonetheless in need of change, a breath of fresh air. A tint of pink in the calming, reassuring black.

Without wasting another moment’s worth of consideration on it, Hecate curled her finger and beckoned the girl to follow her. Together, they had emerged in the brisk evening air, buoyed by the freshly found determination that now united them both. She heard the inhalation, rather than saw Mildred open her mouth and bade her to remain silent as she gently coaxed an opening into the shield that surrounded her precious plants. It glimmered lightly against the backdrop of the darkening sky and the girl could not stop herself from uttering a sound of delight. And begrudgingly Hecate had to admit to herself that she liked it, that it was in fact nice to share a piece of herself with someone who surprisingly seemed to appreciate it also.

“Mind your step, Miss Hubble,” she had nonetheless instructed sternly while following her inside the shield.

With hawk’s eyes she watched her dance around the shrubs until she discovered a suitable spot on the ground to sit. There she had remained and waited until Hecate had knelt down by her side.

“You’re using a weather spell, Miss Hardbroom?”

“Tea can be very delicate if not handled with care. It is the easiest way to maintain the perfect conditions while I am not present to tend to them by hand. Where I can, of course, I water them myself and I always make time to assess development or disease.”

In the end, they had sat together for two hours, learning and teaching. There was something rather special, Hecate had thought, about watching Mildred Hubble’s small fingers tentatively examining the leaves while the maelstrom of her uncontained magic slowly settled and eased. A privilege she might have called it had she been more tenderly inclined, to answer questions that were surprising and oftentimes terribly clever.

 

“Hecate?”

It’s a muffled sound that jars her out of her memories, but it is undoubtedly Miss Pentangle who has courteously appeared outside rather than insight her establishment and is now watching her through the window. She hasn’t even lit her candles yet and only just remembers – with a twist of her pinkie - to start the kettles boiling, thinks now furtively how she wanted to assess her appearance once more and touch up her lipstick. Instead she remains in the middle of the tea shop, transfixed, watching Miss Pentangle who stands surrounded by mist almost like a godly apparition. No longer in pink but in a white blouse of silk and black pencil skirt, her blonde hair cascading softly down her shoulders.

She doesn’t know how she finally cranks into motion and strides across the tea shop to unlatch the door. The cool night air and the smell of rain sobering to thoughts that have become a knotted tangle. Until the scent of flowers and honey drifts to her and intoxicates her senses, turning her brain sluggish and slow once more.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that her greeting falls out rather more formal than planned. “Well met, Miss Pentangle.”

“Pippa.”

“Pippa,” she rectifies gingerly, quivers almost bashfully when her name comes out in a tentative exhalation. Tender and soft, quietly affectionate. “Won’t you come in?”

She turns stiffly and props the door open, holds it like this while Pippa slips past her. Caught in the doorway she brushes against her, the merest of touches but she burns from within, channels her magic to light the candles in the establishment which shine far more brightly than she’d intended.

“I seemed to have caught you rather deep in thought,” Pippa says, already half-way to her table. Her tone is apologetic, her gaze gentle.

“I was considering Mildred Hubble and reflecting how I appear to have acquired a pupil rather than an employee.”

Merlin help her, they’ve hardly been alone together five minutes and already she can only produce stilted sentences.

“Yet I detect fondness in your tone. I don’t think you’re nearly as displeased about it as you make out to be, Hecate.”

Hecate. The significance of her name, the heritage, the importance is nothing compared to the way it sounds coming from Miss Pentangle’s lips. She softens the staccato of consonants somehow and evokes a sense of familiarity that she has only yearned for so far.

“No,” she concedes carefully, “it has been agreeable, save for the odd occasion in which Miss Hubble failed to control her magic. Perhaps I am growing soft at my old age, or perhaps I’m just not used to someone showing such keen interest in my craft.”

“You’re hardly old,” Miss Pentangle chuckles and makes her flush with a kind of embarrassment (as though she was fishing for a compliment which she absolute was not!) until she notices something else in her gaze. It’s a tender look of understanding that requires no words, and Hecate stands straighter, finally seen.

“Thank you,” she replies quietly, barely above a whisper, gestures feebly for her to take a seat and then hastily turns to her kettles and leaves before the dampness in her eyes can start to form tears.

Neither of them speak for several minutes, but she hears Miss Pentangle settling down, notices the clink as jars meet wood and slowly permits her body to relax. Her shoulders soften, her spine releases its rigid tension. She catches her reflection in one of the cabinets, conjures up her lipstick and re-traces her lips. She smiles, tentatively.

“I have brought three samples of honey. We can savour each one in turn and then I’ll leave it to your palate to decide if one of them would be suitable.”

“I’d like that,” she agrees with a swift glance over her shoulder, then changes her mind about the tea she was going to prepare. Tonight, she wants something different. Something a little more exotic when compared to her usual preferences. It takes her a little while longer, because her fingers need to find the rhythm again, but soon she makes her way to their table, a tray floating securely behind her. It carries two silver kettles stacked on top of each other, as well as two small glasses and a jar with brown, sandy sugar. She arranges them carefully next to the three pots of honey and then sinks down on her chair.

“Elma çayı,” she explains slowly, “Turkish apple tea prepared the Turkish way.”

“Next you will ask me if I prefer koyu or açık, dark or light. Aren’t you?” Miss Pentangle probes and there’s a gleam to her eyes, because she knows that she’s matching her every step of the way.

“Oh, I don’t need to ask, Pippa,” Hecate returns fondly and pours the lighter, diluted tea into one of the glasses, before adding the darker version to her own glass. It’s as though they have done this before.

In the twilight of the tea shop the apple tea shines amber and golden. Miss Pentangle lifts her glass to her lips and takes a careful sip, then she smiles.

“You seem to possess a sound knowledge where teas are concerned. More than most I would say.”

Miss Pentangle’s brown eyes suddenly cling to the edge of the table as though captivated by the grain of the wood. They seem shyer, nervous almost the way they flicker back and forth. Her fingers tap against the glass, teeth capture her bottom lip and then release it again in a manner which Hecate can only describe as shamefully becoming. They leave a small groove, she notices, that begs to be soothed.

“Oh, Hecate, my mind is strange thing. Even as a student I’ve found it difficult just occupying myself with one subject. I get bored easily and when I do my attention wavers dreadfully.”

She tears her eyes away from Pippa’s bruised bottom lip, embarrassed and shocked by her own overwhelming desire.

“So I’ve learned to be on the lookout for new stimulation, the more unusual the better. And since I wasn’t overly familiar with tea leaves and magic, I was quite happy to throw myself into the research.” She pauses, glances back up at her and then adds bravely, “Though I wanted to impress you. That’s how it started.”

Hecate blinks amidst a flutter of lashes, her forehead draws into a puzzled frown. Her heart feels strangely light in her chest, is all a-tremble. Feeling flattered and appreciated a foreign notion still.

“I-impress?” she questions.

“I suppose it’s silly, really. But when I saw you I felt I wanted to get to know you. You were so composed and knowledgeable, your eyes so soft. I felt you knew me somehow.” She chuckles, her eyes flickering back down to the table. “Oh, don’t listen to me. I’m terribly rusty it seems. It’s been a long time since my last date.”

Hecate’s spine seizes up; one by one each vertebra freezes until she sits tall and rigid in front of Pippa. There is no more space for breath in her chest, not when hope and longing fill her so completely. This is what it feels like then, she thinks, to be desired and wanted. This is the whirlpool of emotions she has always denied herself.

“I can assure you, you’re doing just fine,” she manages breathlessly. “I am grateful...flattered...and a little incredulous. You come with such high credentials, Pippa. Everyone in the witching community knows your name, knows what you have achieved against all odds and rules. That you felt the need to impress me is quite frankly baffling.”

“I could say the same to you,” Miss Pentangle returns lightly. “There are not many witches who would decide to open their own tea shop, not with such stigma attached to it.”

Hecate knows it well, this label that has been following her since young adulthood. Wasted potential. No function. Frivolous pleasure. But the peace and calm of the establishment, the quiet confidence she has gained from working with her leaves, she wouldn’t have traded for anything.

“Let us agree then that we’re both brave and courageous and more than a little foolish and rusty where matters of the heart are concerned.”

Hecate chuckles warmly, a sound she barely recognises as her own and nods.

“Shall we savour the honey?” she proposes and Pippa agrees, uncapping each of the three jars with a twist of the hand and the force of her magic. She extends a small silver spoon to her next and Hecate pretends not to notice the way her skin crackles wherever they’re touching.

Under Pippa’s careful observation, she lowers the spoon into the first pot. It sinks slowly deeper and deeper into the sticky golden sea of honey until she lifts it back out. She guides the spoon to her nose and inhales carefully, notes the familiar scent of rosemary before taking a small mouthful which she allows to melt on her tongue. It’s thick and sweet with traces of spice that just about make it palatable for her. Pippa is watching her as though mesmerised.

“It’s very, very sweet,” she explains while her face contorts accordingly. “But I imagine you’d enjoy it.”

They exchange the spoon again, and suddenly Hecate understands the lingering looks. It is quite something to sit and observe how Pippa’s lips close around the spoon, how they glisten coated in honey, how her tongue darts out briefly to lick away the last remaining residue.

Her face strains into a neutral expression but no efforts can stop the heat from pooling at the junction of her thighs, ashamed though she feels.

“Oh yes, I like this one.” A sigh of contentment that nearly proves enough to be her undoing.

“Shall we move on to the next?” she asks desperately, cutting Pippa off mid-sentence.

She looks perplexed for a moment, then seems to chalk it up to enthusiasm rather than rudeness. And so they continue, tasting the second, thicker and darker honey and then the third which is pale and white and carries heavy flavours of anise and spices. And Hecate tries and tries to clear her mind of inappropriate, intrusive thoughts, like ridding Pippa’s mouth of the pesky lingering traces with her own mouth. Of drizzling sticky traces down her body, lapping it up until her nipples are taut and stiff, salt and sweetness intermingling on her tongue.

“Hecate?”

Heat rushes to her face like a hot wave from within. Not since she was an adolescent have her thoughts strayed down such dangerous paths.

“Sorry,” she whispers and means it for so much more than being absent-minded.

“I was just wondering which one you’d like to keep.”

The hunger within roars angrily when, with force, she turns her thoughts away to safer shores. “The Buckwheat honey,” she answers pointing at the dark one first, then the white, “and the Sourwood honey. Something for the extraordinary palate and something heavy with spices to infuse my teas at Yule.”

“Which leaves the rosemary honey for me,” Pippa remarks, an impish grin on her face, “which I am pleased about – entirely selflessly, of course.”

Hecate chuckles and quickly raises her glass of apple tea to her lips to stifle the sound, drinks more to occupy herself and only lowers it when every last drop is gone. The light of the many candles trembles and casts minuscule shadows against the walls. Outside, the waft of mist leaves beads of rain on the window panes.

“Would it be too bold of me to ask about your craft, Hecate?”

She draws her eyes away from the weather and the warm cocoon of her establishment, still shivering with a kind of contentment. “I fear there might not be much you haven’t already read about.”

“Nonsense,” Pippa chuckles, swatting her hand playfully, “I have only read one book and dipped in and out of a couple of others. And believe me, none of them have given me the sense of pleasure I’ve felt when watching you work.”

Hecate casts her eyes down modestly, then gives the smallest nod of agreement and rises to her feet. She can feel Pippa’s presence as she walks, like a whisper of promise in the back of her neck.

They squeeze themselves behind the counter which barely offers enough space for Hecate and her apprentice, let alone two grown witches. So when their bodies graze each other it is purely for those reasons, she tells herself.

“Outside in the garden I grow my own leaves,” she begins, telling Pippa everything about the types of shrubs, their care and maintenance. “And here I only store the finished product.” She curls her index finger and draws each and every container out onto the counter. “Young leaves and old leaves, fermented leaves, oxidised and unoxidised leaves. Fruit and spices are here, and sweeteners at the back. As you well know, this isn’t a desirable profession because of the common belief that it requires very minimal use of magic.” She tilts her head briefly to see if Pippa is following. “I find, however, that it isn’t so different from potion making, for instance. You must handle each ingredient carefully, must measure it, assess it. You must know its healing properties, like your Sourwood honey which, I believe, has a particularly high amount of antioxidants and as such vast health benefits. And, of course, each cup of tea that I brew is infused with my magic, with an incantation of my choosing.”

“Which incantation did you use for me?” Pippa asks; her voice has dropped to a near whisper, her eyes are wide and glistening. She suddenly looks much younger.

“Love and light on the first,” Hecate returns stiffly, twisting her fingers against the edge of the counter, “strength and rejuvenation on the second, and tranquillity and peace on the third.”

“Just what I needed,” Pippa says, and Hecate doesn’t know whether she’s referring to her or to the tea.

“Would you like to feel them?” she offers hopefully, because now that they have begun, she doesn’t know how to stop sharing parts of herself, doesn’t wish to stop, in fact.

“As long as you’re certain I can’t mess up your work somehow?”

“I promise,” she says, “I’ll guide you.”

Carefully, she takes Pippa’s hand into her own and turns it so that her palm is facing upward. She tries to ignore the softness of her skin, as she lowers her hand into the first container and lets her scoop up a bunch of leaves.

“Pay close attention to the texture,” she instructs, turning to watch Pippa’s profile as her fingers close gently around the plants. “These are young leaves, so they will be soft and bendable to the touch. They are soaked full of water and beautifully green. Lift them to your nose...what do you smell?”

Pippa’s lashes flutter as she closes her eyes as though enraptured, her nostrils flare, she smiles, then frowns.

“Tea?” she replies after a moment when a flush of embarrassment has already graced her cheeks. “Nature and grass. Citrus notes.” She opens her eyes, her pupils have widened. “I’m sorry, I must sound stupid.”

Hecate’s mouth has run dry; it takes one, two attempts to coax her tongue into cooperation. “Not at all. It takes time and practice to detect all the notes within a single leaf.”

She cannot tear her eyes away from Pippa whose long, blonde hair frames her face as though she was a fae, whose blush is so becoming it makes her shine. Magic moves and fizzes between them, crackles the strongest where her hand is still supporting Pippa’s. Breath stalls in her chest.

“I’d quite like to kiss you now. May I?”

The question hangs in the air until Hecate realises that it’s Pippa who has asked it, Pippa who has put words to her own thoughts.

“I’d like that,” she whispers in return, her foolish heart at last exposed on her tongue, and then Pippa is flush against her amidst a tumble of tea leaves.

She can feel each inhalation as though it was her own. Brown eyes cling to her lips and want spirals hotly through her body. She urges herself to move, to bridge that damnable gap that still exists between them, but finds herself frozen instead. Until Pippa does it for her, drawing closer until their foreheads gently meet. Nose brushes against nose. Warm breath tantalises her lips into parting.

“Oh, darling,” Pippa begins, sounds like she wants to add more but cannot.

Then there is a brief, cool distance until her hands cup her face. And then at last lips meet lips. The scent of tea leaves fills her nostrils; it mingles perfectly with the taste of honey she steals from Pippa’s mouth. One caress chases the next until the air around them swells with sighs. The flames of the candles dance and tremble, sole witness to a newfound form of magic.

Chapter Text

The air has long since turned cold and sharp when finally the first snow of the year begins to fall. It drifts serenely from the pitch-black heavens in intricate flakes that settle cautiously on buildings and sidewalks, then crumble and melt under their own weight. There is but a light breeze about that sends the snow dancing here and there, almost surprising in its calm. The world has surrendered to darkness and night and the weather too is slowing its pace. It takes days, weeks even before the flakes are strong enough to last, huddled together as they are. By then the air is rich with the aroma of cinnamon, of pine trees, mulled wine and ginger that whisper of Yule. Children’s laughter resounds more frequently, even in the quietest corner of an otherwise busy street that the little tea shop calls its own, and people who might have hurried past it from one appointment to the next now stop and stare in awe at the moonlight blue façade that’s elevated thanks to the layer of beautiful white snow which frames it.

Inside, the scent of Yule has made its home as well, the perfect accompaniment to tea lights glowing softly in the twilight of the establishment and the gurgle of kettles in the distance. There’s a gentle hum, too, that ebbs and swells from time to time as the patrons that crowd around the twelve tables steer their conversation from one topic to the next. Unaffected by the serene atmosphere (or perhaps more moved by the infectious cheer of the season), a young girl darts between furniture, carrying trays with tea and biscuits that sometimes rattle precariously.

“Mildred Hubble!” she gets admonished for precisely that when she next returns to the counter behind which a tall, dark-haired woman in a buttoned up black dress hovers ominously. “I believe we have talked about this. The customers will wait. If you rush and fall-“

“They won’t have any tea at all, yes, I know, Miss Hardbroom,” intones the girl promptly, earning a scowl as well as the hint of a smile from the woman in black.

Between the both of them, a tabby cat lazily lifts its head from its paw as if to study the exchange.

“And do pay some mind to your appearance.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“You are a witch, not some ludicrous…elf,” the tea mistress points out, already occupied with another batch of leaves and therefore missing the provocative little flourish with which her charge tilts her Santa hat at just the right askew angle. “I suppose I ought to be grateful that you’ve mastered the art of matching socks by now, and that your clothes are no longer wrinkled.”

“Well, that’s just because mum irons them for me now before I come here. And mismatched socks are a statement-“

“That the world just isn’t ready for.”

Both witches lock eyes in a playful struggle of power that neither of them wins because the next kettle whistles noisily, requiring imminent attention.

“You may tend to those glasses, Mildred,” Hecate instructs, busying herself with another batch of leaves. She holds them up to her nose for inspection, then peers across each blade as if to study the very structure of each fibre.

While Mildred Hubble works next to her, she tries not to dwell too much on the day nearly two months ago now, when a blonde, curly-haired woman flew into her establishment like a force of nature, nearly burning her alive with the heat of her eyes.

 

 

“Where is she?” she’d demanded and Hecate had been so perplexed by this whole dramatic entrance that she’d failed to realise at first how her arrival and Mildred Hubble’s sudden ducking behind the counter were connected.

“How may I help you?” she’d asked in a tone that was as coolly polite as it was challenging which had only served to ignite the blonde woman’s anger further.

“My daughter, Mildred.”

Well, that had helped connecting the dots rather swiftly and also led to a rather uncomfortable conversation with terms like child labour being flung around far too loosely for her liking. But for all her temperament and maternal protectiveness, Julie Hubble had soon understood why her daughter had taken up work in the tea shop, had perhaps even realised how much she enjoyed herself. And after insisting that they draw up a written contract, she had blessed the whole arrangement.

Despite her indignation, it hadn’t taken Hecate long to see that Julie Hubble was precisely what a mother ought to be. Terrifying if challenged, infinitely strong and imbued with kindness and warmth that ran deeper than blood. More than her sudden appearance, Hecate could remember the way she had taken Mildred aside, how she had knelt before her so that they drew level, how the words of admonishment she’d doled out were edged with concern and regret. She could envision the moisture that shone in her eyes which had softened when her daughter had laid out her side of the story. She could almost feel the firm embrace that had transpired soon after. Hecate knew a good mother when she saw one, because only love like that could make her feel the void in her bones where her own mother’s affection should have been.

 

 

“Miss Hardbroom?”

She blinks once, twice until her shelves and walls come back into shape. “What is it, Mildred?” Her hands guide up the leaves to her nose once more, this time to settle herself rather than to assess.

“I’ve finished the teas but uh…I overheard the lady talking.” She has the good grace to blush and lower her eyes.

“And?” Hecate drones slowly.

“Well, she’ll be all alone at Yuletide, and I just don’t think it’s right.”

Hecate sighs slowly and turns away from eyes that are too bright and a frown that’s much too stubborn. “We are a tea shop, Mildred, not a-“

“I know. I just thought she could use some sweetness…in her tea at least. Which honey would go best with this?”

Damn this season, Hecate thinks, damn this child with her lion’s heart and damn Pippa Pentangle for turning her so soft.

“The Sourwood,” she replies simply, twisting her hand to make the relevant jar appear, “but you mustn’t add more than a spoonful.”

The girl follows the instructions diligently, leaving a sticky trail of pale white honey on her counter which Hecate acknowledges with a roll of the eyes and then banishes with a flick of her finger. Then she turns back to her own work and remains engrossed in it until afternoon passes into evening and even the last customers begin to clear out. The tea lights on the tables are starting to fade one by one and Mildred Hubble can barely suppress the yawns that keep pressing against her mouth.

“I understand your mum has managed to acquire a few days of leave?”

The girl deposits a few more cups in the sink and then pauses to nod at her over her shoulder.

“Then don’t you think it’s about time you headed home?”

“But Miss Hardbroom, I-“

She squeezes her lips shut when Hecate draws close enough to loom over her.

“Go, I’ll finish up.”

At the gentleness of her tone her shoulders relax and her mouth twitches into a smile that mirrors the warmth in the depth of the tea mistress’s eyes.

“Merry Christmas, Miss Hardbroom,” she whispers, wrapping her gangly arms around her middle, “and a happy Yule.”

Hecate’s hand pat the girl’s back stiffly and somewhat uncertainly before she steps away and watches her fly out of her shop, backpack and cat in hand. For a moment there is only silence in the dimly lit space, silence and a rush of cold, a breeze blown in through the front door. Then the air around her becomes charged with magic and she smiles, stretches out her hands until a blonde woman in a beautiful burgundy dress materialises before her.

“Sorry I’m late. The grading…you would not believe…”

Hecate’s lips rob her of further words and silence falls in the little tea shop once more.

“Mmh…well…I’m happy to see you too, Hecate.”

Pippa’s smile is luminous and even when their kiss ends, she keeps one hand cupping her cheek as though reluctant to break contact altogether.

“I let Mildred go early, so I’m afraid I still have to tidy up before we can go home.”

Home isn’t a steady place yet, it’s either the rooms at Pentangle’s or Hecate’s own flat. But it’s enough.

“No problem, I can help,” Pippa says, removing her travelling cloak and rubbing her hands together.

“You will do no such thing. I know how busy you’ve been. Go and sit down, I’ll make some tea and when I’m done we can take a moment to savour it together.”

“The last tea of the year,” Pippa whispers ominously and Hecate chuckles, swats her arm lightly to send her on her way. The idea of a vacation is foreign to her still. But then again many things that were foreign to her in the past have become wonderfully familiar by now.

“How did she react then?” Pippa inquires after a while, abandoning her seat to snatch the last remaining square of Tottenham cake from the counter. It’s gobbled down with surprising swiftness, leaving a sticky trail of pink icing behind on her fingers which she proceeds to lick rather unceremoniously.

“I didn’t tell her,” Hecate answers, so absorbed in the cleaning of the dishes that it takes her a second to notice Pippa’s mess. With great restraint, she manages not to comment on it but instead rolls her eyes towards the ceiling and makes sure that a napkin manifests in her hands. “I just slipped it into her backpack along with that Christmas card you insisted on buying.”

Pippa produces a scoff that sounds more like a chuckle, wipes herself clean and then rounds the corner to stand behind Hecate, wrapping her arms around her middle. She smiles when Hecate no longer stiffens at the contact but leans against her, as though seeking to melt their magic into one.

“I don’t know what you’re so afraid of,” she murmurs softly into her ear, delighting in the way a few errant tufts of hair tickle her nose. “It’s a lovely gesture giving her that bonus for all her hard work.”

“Precisely. Which is why I hardly think it necessary to announce it with fanfare and balloons. Mildred will find it and she will be pleased.”

“And you still get to hide just how big and gooey that heart of yours is because you won’t have to face her for a while.”

When Hecate clicks her tongue impatiently she chuckles again and allows her nose to draw a further trail along her neck, barely skirting the edge of her hairline. It’s where her skin is the softest, it’s where her skin smells like home. And it’s thrilling too, how Hecate arches into her, how her hands still in the sink and the barest of sighs escapes her lips.

In the two months since their initial date, Pippa has made it her mission to discover all the secret spots and places that open her up and it would be so simple now to just-

“Miss Pentangle, you are undermining my efforts of cleaning and you know it. Cease at once or be removed from the premises.” Her voice fails to retain its sharp edge, catches in her throat with every skilful touch of Pippa’s fingers.

“I know you’re only being half serious, my darling, but I will oblige. In fact, while you finish that, I’m going to make us a tea.”

Hecate’s eyebrows rise as though she is tempted to object, but soon she reconsiders and lets Pippa get on with it. After all, they have spent copious amounts of time out in her garden studying the leaves. But when she turns around to lift all chairs up onto the tables and finds Pippa’s eyes nearly brimming over with mirth, she realises she’s made a dreadful mistake.

“The last tea of the year,” Pippa repeats, solemnly extending the mug to her while her lips twitch nearly uncontrollably.

It’s long before her fingers have closed around the porcelain that she has identified the offending aroma. “Earl Grey.”

“Yes, isn’t it lovely? A firm and solid staple. Can’t go wrong.”

Hecate tries to regard her with all the annoyance she can muster, but it’s terribly hard when her eyes are warm like molten chocolate and shining brightly with joy. So she takes a sip and grimaces when the simplicity of the tea assaults her taste buds.

“Mirabelle says that you can’t be much of a tea mistress if you hold such contempt for something tried and tested. Not everything has to be complex to be enjoyable.”

She hates to admit it, but there’s a truth to that. Still, another sip of the tea is enough to make up her mind and she swiftly returns the offending product to the sink.

“I will keep it stocked for my customers,” she says, reaching out for Pippa’s hand to draw her closer again, “for those poor souls of lesser taste, but I will never grow to like it.”

Further words are swiftly drowned in another slow, lingering kiss that tastes sweet like icing. The only witness – to love and change and growth – as always just the little tea shop that Hecate calls her own.