It takes hours to get everything in order. Witches and warlocks are stuffed into every spatial interlude of the Spellman Mortuary, filling the cracks and spilling over. The whole evening is a mad flurry of activity, Zelda clashing with Sabrina, Sabrina clashing with Prudence, Prudence clashing with Zelda, a perfect circle of self-righteousness. They all think they know best, and they all think everyone else should agree with them.
Only when Hilda wades into the heated conversation do people fall in line with the eldest Spellman, some albeit with reluctance. Ambrose throws a strop about it, smitten as he is with Prudence, and disappears off to his room for an hour, Weird Sisters in tow. Fine, thinks Hilda, that’s just one less mouth to feed. But when the scent of her cooking drifts up to the attic, Ambrose skulks back downstairs, mumbles an apology, and begins passing the soup around.
That was hours ago.
Outside is dark and cold now, but the sitting room is tender, and the dust is finally, finally, beginning to settle. The coven is seated, many on the floor, quiet and subdued. Most are wrapped in blankets, others curled into the litany of armchairs; they talk in hushed voices, whispering to one another, holding each other gently. For many, the full weight of the situation is only just beginning to dawn, and they seek comfort wherever they can. Some have already fled to sleep’s reassuring embrace, and those who are still awake do not seem set to stay that way. Even Prudence and Sabrina, at each other’s throats only hours earlier, are whispering sedately, Agatha and Dorcas sleeping side by side next to them.
If anyone notices the Spellman sisters holding hands, they do not comment.
Hilda sits alongside Zelda, tucked close together on the settee, and although there’s space for someone else, no one has encroached. Even the fire before them seems reluctant, crackling quietly so as not to intrude. They haven’t shared this much stillness since Edward died, and perhaps, thinks Hilda, the universe can tell.
The flames burn low under their steady gaze, and Hilda can hear her sister’s shallow breaths. Hilda’s breathing deeply – diametrically opposed, as usual – and she regards the fire with cautious pity. She feels as if she’s drowning. There’s still so much to do, even simple things, the washing up, the laundry, the food, and Hilda doesn’t know how she’s going to do it. Doesn’t know how they’re going to do it. Zelda has always been so good at compartmentalising, at segmenting and separating and creating her own internal graveyard, thoughts and emotions buried beneath mountains of dirt. But Hilda has never been like that at all.
She hears Sabrina stand up, and they both look round, peering over the back of the settee.
“I’m going to bed,” says Sabrina gently, “You guys should too.”
She gives them each a quick peck on the cheek, and although Zelda’s scoffing, Hilda knows she will likely heed her niece’s advice.
“Goodnight,” says Zelda.
And Sabrina slips from the room.
Hilda glances round, looks over the coven before reaching her sister’s face. Zelda does not look away from the fireplace, but sighs deeply, swallowing with eyebrows knit. For a brief instant Hilda considers trying to read her thoughts, but Zelda would be sure to notice. Or perhaps not, thinks Hilda. She looks exhausted, and even the most resilient soldiers grow weak without rest. Hilda squeezes her hand and Zelda looks up, cautiously, as if she’s trying to avoid facing her.
“She’s right, you know,” says Hilda, nudging her on the shoulder.
“I know,” says Zelda, and she closes her eyes, taking a long deep breath and galvanising her strength. “Come on,” she says, opening her eyes and standing, “Let’s go.”
She does not release Hilda’s hand.
They step gingerly around their peers, Zelda nodding to Prudence, Hilda casting her eyes over the room and smiling reassuringly at anyone still awake. Even in the hallway Zelda does not relinquish her grasp on Hilda, nor when they climb the stairs, nor when they walk past Hilda’s room. There’s no question of them sharing this evening; to do otherwise would be criminal.
Only when they enter the bedroom does Zelda set her sister free. She sits down at the vanity, begins to take off her makeup and rearrange her hair. Hilda turns her back on Zelda and rummages in the chest of drawers, finding a nightgown and then changing without turning around. She can hear Zelda moving about, slowly, and when Hilda’s finally got herself adjusted, clothing-wise at least, Zelda’s somehow slipped into her nightdress too.
It looks less like armour than it used to. Before, Zelda wore her nightclothes like a model, as if the garments were only there to enhance what came underneath, but now, shuffling warily around the room, she looks almost dejected to be in familiar fabrics at all.
“Are… Are you okay, Zelds?”
Zelda glances up, her neck jerking with a movement so unexpectedly rapid Hilda’s taken aback. For a moment she thinks Zelda’s about to cry, but Zelda looks away before she can get any confirmation.
“I’m just tired,” she says, tugging back the sheets and getting into bed, “I’ll be fine in the morning.”
“It’s been a difficult day for all of us,” says Hilda carefully, peeling her own bedcovers back and slipping between them. “I think you did very well, by the way.”
“With the coven,” says Hilda, “Especially mediating Prudence and Sabrina. Leadership suits you, you know.”
Zelda gives a joyless chuckle.
“It’s true!” says Hilda.
“Well,” says Zelda, and she reaches over the gulf between their beds for Hilda’s hand once more, “I couldn’t have done it without you. Best damn healer in the coven.”
And Zelda smiles, genuinely this time.
“Oh?” sings Hilda, “Is that a compliment? Remind me to bring about Armageddon more often.”
Hilda takes her hand and squeezes, but when she goes to pull away Zelda holds fast. Hilda looks up in alarm – Zelda’s still smiling, but it’s faltering, twisting downwards, and though she’s trying to hold it up Hilda can tell it’s forced.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Zelda lets go of her sister and tucks her hands under the covers.
“I’ll be fine.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
She can see Zelda deliberating again, looking into her lap, clenching and unclenching her jaw.
“It’s okay to not be fine,” says Hilda quietly, “You do know that, don’t you?”
“Of course, I know!” snaps Zelda, but she doesn’t look at Hilda, and she’s wiping her eyes with the palm of her hand.
Hilda sighs and turns off the bedside lamp. The room is bathed in moonlight, pouring through the window and turning alabaster skin ashen grey.
It makes sense, Hilda figures, for Zelda to collapse now.
Zelda’s had no respite since her wedding – there’s been calamity after calamity and she’s soldiered on because there was nothing else she could do. But now the danger has rescinded, and they’re sitting alone in their room; there’s no one for Zelda to boss around, no excitement for her to commandeer, and no disaster for her to subdue. In the stillness, in the silence, Zelda Spellman has been stripped of her most fundamental crutch.
Hilda has had Cerberus, she has had her family, and above all she has been free from the machinations of Faustus Blackwood. But Zelda has had no such luck. She’s had a husband who controlled her like a human puppet, a niece so self-obsessed she never once considered her at all, and a God, whose holy words had hitherto brought Zelda more comfort than any living person, that was content to let everything she cared about perish. The rug has been pulled from under her feet, and the floor is made of broken glass.
It's a miracle she’s gone this long without breaking, thinks Hilda.
She swallows, observes her sister warily.
“Do you want to share a bed?”
Zelda looks up, and Hilda sees moonlight reflecting off her sister’s silent tears. She can cry quieter than anyone Hilda knows.
“We can push them together, if you like, make it more comfortable.”
Zelda snivels slightly, wipes her eyes again.
Then she looks into her lap and nods.
Hilda shifts the bedside table, loudly and with a fair amount of discomfort, before pushing her bed up against Zelda’s and rearranging their respective duvets. She gets into bed and Zelda all but falls into her, turning and pressing their bodies together. Hilda puts one arm over her, rubbing Zelda’s shoulder with her thumb. She can feel her sister’s breaths now, shaky and constricted, damp face pressing into the fabric of Hilda’s nightgown. Hilda doesn’t speak because she doesn’t need to. She kisses Zelda’s hairline, offers her free hand and lets Zelda cling to it with sweaty, clammy fingers.
In the morning Zelda Spellman will be High Priestess; virtuous, self-assured, and powerful beyond measure.
But tonight, for this one fleeting moment, she will allow herself to be human.