In retrospect, Ada should have known it was a date.
For once, the problem hadn’t been Hecate’s inability to communicate; rather, it had been Ada’s inability to see what was happening right in front of her.
The first clue should have been the fact that Hecate had been a nervous wreck when she’d asked. At the time, Ada had simply attributed it to the fact that Hecate so rarely expressed interest in social events.
“Ada,” she began, rubbing the tips of her index fingers against the pads of her thumbs. “I’ve just received an invitation to Alice Mugwort’s Midsummer’s Eve party. It mentioned that I could ah, could bring a plus one, and I was wondering if, well if...you would like to accompany me? As my date?”
Ada smiled. “I’d love to.” Alice’s Midsummer parties were the stuff of legend, and Ada had tried many times to get her name onto the exclusive guest list. And this was a perfect opportunity, those sorts of parties were always more fun when your date was a friend rather than a romantic partner.
“Really? You want to go?” Hecate asked, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. “You want to go...with me?”
“Of course,” Ada said. “I’ve wanted to for ages.”
“Oh.” Hecate cleared her throat and looked away. “So have I.” The corners of her lips tugged upward in the tiniest of smiles.
Ada’s heart swelled. She knew Hecate strongly disliked crowds and refused to go to events where she didn’t know anyone. Judging by how nervous she seemed, Hecate must have wanted to attend this party for some time, but hadn’t had anyone to go with. Ada felt honored to know that Hecate felt comfortable around her, and that she wanted to spend time with her away from school. It had taken over two years for her to warm up to Ada, and now it seemed as if they were finally becoming true friends. If Ada was honest with herself (which she so rarely was), she wished they could be more than friends, but that was clearly never going to happen.
The second clue should have been Hecate’s attire. Her dress that night was softer-looking than her usual, with a lower neckline and a plum-colored sash. Her hair was also looser, pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. The whole effect was breathtaking.
“Oh Hecate, you look lovely,” Ada had gushed, looking her up and down. She glanced back up at Hecate’s face, trying to avoid staring at the hint of cleavage that the dress revealed.
Hecate’s cheeks pinked. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “So do you.”
Ada beamed. “Shall we?” she asked, gesturing towards their brooms.
Fortunately there were only a handful of guests in the back garden, though it was just as done up as the interior of the house. The trees were strung through with tiny twinkling fairy lights, giving a beautiful warm glow to the deepening twilight.
Ada looked over to see Mona and Mortimer Spellbody waving to them across the garden.
“Hello you two!” she called, making her way over to the pair. Hecate followed, just a step behind as usual.
Mona gave Ada a warm hug. “I didn’t know you were coming. How do you know Alice?”
“Oh I don’t,” Ada replied. “She and Hecate were at school together, and Hecate was kind enough to let me tag along.”
Hecate frowned. She looked like she was about to say something, but thought better of it.
Mona glanced between the two of them, then at Mortimer, before turning back to Ada. “Right. Well, how are things going at school?”
As she and Mona caught up, she was delighted to see Hecate start talking to Mortimer. She hated talking to strangers, men especially, but it seemed she was making a conscious effort to converse with him. It helped that he had brought up one of her favorite topics (botany) and they were both avid readers of Potion and Poultice magazine.
After a few minutes of chatting, Ada felt a small tug on her skirt and looked down to see Esmerelda, the Hallows’ eldest daughter looking up at her expectantly.
“Hello dear,” Ada said, smoothing her hair. She’d known the girl since she was an infant, when Ursula would bring her to council meetings swaddled in a sling on her chest.
Esmerelda folded her hands behind her back and shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Mummy had to go upstairs to feed the baby, she said to come find you.”
“Of course she did,” Ada said with a sigh. While she was of course sympathetic when it came to the difficulties of arranging child care, Ursula Hallow had a marked tendency to pawn her children off on others (usually Ada) during social gatherings.
“Will you come play with me?” Esmerelda asked.
Ada glanced over at Hecate and smiled. “It seems I’m being summoned. You don’t mind, do you?” She knew that Hecate was the type to go to a party and stick close to the person she came with, though it seemed she was getting along with Mona and Mortimer.
Hecate smiled softly. “No, I don’t mind sharing your attentions.”
Ada gave her forearm a gentle squeeze. “Wonderful. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Esmerelda pulled Ada away to the side of the house, were there was a small patch of clover blooms. She started picking the “flowers” and laying them in Ada’s lap, chattering away about how her sister Ethel was a fussy baby who seemed to never stop crying. Ada listened attentively, looping the stems of the clover together in a chain. Esmerelda had been fascinated by this, and asked Ada to teach her how to make one herself.
About a half hour later, Hecate came looking for them.
“There you are,” she said, coming to a halt next to Ada.
Ada looked up at her and smiled. “Sorry to have abandoned you. I foolishly assumed that Ursula would have come back to fetch her by now.”
“A foolish assumption indeed,” Hecate drawled. She glanced down at the patch of grass they were sprawled on and bit her lip. After a moment’s deliberation she lowered herself to the ground, tucking her feet under herself.
“Esme, do you remember Miss Hardbroom?” Ada asked.
Esmerelda looked up at Hecate and nodded slowly. “Well met, Miss Hardbroom.” She pressed her hand to her head, a clumsy attempt at the appropriate gesture.
Ada chuckled. She had always been a precocious child, and at four years old she was already using a formal greeting with adults.
Hecate smiled and mirrored the gesture. “Well met, Esmerelda.”
Ada had been surprised (and secretly delighted) to learn that Hecate had a fondness for small children. She had learned this the summer before, when Hecate’s sister had brought her two year old niece to the castle for a visit. (Ada would later learn that the sole purpose for the “visit” was for Hestia to beg Hecate for money; she would also learn that this was not an uncommon occurrence.)
Ada had watched in awe as Hecate listened patiently to little Helena as she babbled, nodding and acting as if she was telling her something very important. Later Ada had gone to the potions classroom and found her standing at her cauldron with Helena perched on her hip. The toddler held a wooden spoon, and Hecate had her free hand gently covering hers as she guided her in stirring the potion.
When Ada had asked her about it later she had become defensive, crossing her arms across her chest and tapping her fingertips against her elbows.
“One has to admire children at that age,” she had said, pursing her lips. “They have an unparalleled curiosity and determination, they’re willing to fall down as many times as it takes in order to learn how to walk and to sound out a word for an hour until they can say it properly. It’s only later that they develop laziness and a careless attitude towards producing sub-par work, which are dangerous traits in young witches just beginning to develop their powers.”
Ada really couldn’t argue with that logic.
From the other side of the garden, Ursula Hallow’s shrill voice rang out. “Esme? Esme? Come to Mummy dear.”
Esmeralda stood up, ever the obedient child. She looked from Hecate to Ada, then back to Hecate. After a moment, she held out the clover wreath she had made.
Hecate blinked. “For me?”
The girl nodded solemnly.
Hecate was clearly taken aback as she held out her hands and took the ring of flowers.
Satisfied, Esmerelda turned and dashed off to her mother.
Hecate watched her with an expression that seemed to be equal parts confusion and soft wonder.
Ada chuckled. “She seems quite taken with you.”
Hecate arched an eyebrow. “Considering who her parents are, one can only imagine that any other adult might seem preferable.”
Ada giggled. “You have a point there.”
Hecate smirked and looked back down at the ring of blossoms in her hands, fingering one of the delicate white petals.
“Would you like me to..?” Ada asked, gesturing to the flowers.
Hecate considered her for a moment before nodding, shyly shifting her gaze back to the grass.
Ada took the wreath and delicately placed it on Hecate’s head, weaving a few dark locks through to secure it. She sat back on her heels to admire her work, not quite realizing how close her proximity still was to Hecate.
Hecate’s eyes were wide but soft, and there was a gentle crinkle in her brow. Her gaze dropped from Ada’s eyes to her lips, then back up.
Ada’s stomach flipped. Goodness, if she didn’t know any better, she would say that Hecate looked like she was about to kiss her. But she did know better, and she knew that was a ridiculous thought.
“Ada,” Hecate murmured. She raised her hand, pausing for a moment before bringing it up to cup Ada’s cheek.
Ada’s heart began to race.
What was happening? Did she have an eyelash on her cheek? A bug in her hair?
Hecate looked back down at her lips and leaned in closer. She was close enough for Ada to be able to smell her perfume, something subtle and earthy. Did she always wear perfume? Ada had never smelled it before. Then again, she had never been this close to her before. And she seemed to only be getting closer.
“What are you doing?” Ada blurted.
Hecate froze, just a few centimeters shy of Ada’s lips. “I er, I was going to kiss you? Is that not alright?”
Of course it’s alright! Ada’s brain screamed. There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between her brain and her lips though, because what actually came out was, “why?”
Hecate was clearly taken aback. She shifted back on her heels, mouth agape. "I..." she trailed off. Her hands dropped back to her lap, where she began twisting them in what looked to be a painful fashion.
“I’m doing this wrong, aren’t I?” she asked. Her voice was small and defeated, a tone that Ada had never heard from her before. “I’m sorry Ada, this was a terrible idea for a first date-”
“First date?” Ada knew she was only speaking in questions but she couldn’t help it, her thoughts were a swirling mess of confusion and half-formed queries.
Hecate looked as if she had been slapped. “I thought…” she trailed off again, cheeks reddening. “I...I apologize, I must have-”
“It’s fine, Ada,” Hecate said, scrambling to her feet. She crossed her arms over her chest and began to back away. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“No, Hecate-” Ada jumped up and stepped forward, resting the tips of her fingers on Hecate’s forearm.
Hecate jerked her arm back as if she had been burned. “Please, don’t.” Ada could see she was trying desperately to build her walls back up, but the tears in her eyes betrayed her. She trained her gaze so it fell somewhere over Ada’s left shoulder. “It was foolish of me to think-”
Ada knew better than anyone how quickly Hecate could fall into a spiral of shame and self-loathing, and she knew she couldn’t let her finish that sentence. Before she could second-guess herself she reached up to cup Hecate’s cheeks and pull her down into a firm kiss.
Hecate let out a small squeak and went rigid; for a moment Ada thought she might pull away, or even slap her. But after a moment she softened, and tentatively began to kiss Ada back. Ada shuffled forward and buried her hands in Hecate’s hair, finding that the smooth strands were just as silky to the touch as they looked. Hecate’s trembling hands found their way to Ada’s hips, bunching in the material of her dress and tugging her so they were flush against each other. They stayed like this for several minutes, trading kisses infused with equal parts urgency and tenderness.
Finally Ada forced herself to pull back, knowing there was still much that needed to be said. She couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Hecate, slightly dazed with kiss-swollen lips. The clover wreath had begun to sag to the side, Ada tucked it back into place and took a deep, shaky breath.
“I have wanted to do that for nearly three years.”
Hecate blinked, still a little dazed. “Really?
Ada nodded. “I’ve spent so much time trying to tamp down my feelings for you, I suppose it just never even occurred to me that you might, well…”
“That I might also be trying to tamp down feelings for you?” Hecate asked. The corners of her lips ticked upwards into a gentle teasing smile.
Ada reached up, tracing the corner of Hecate's smile with her index finger. She still couldn’t quite believe this was real. Ten minutes ago she had been babysitting Esmerelda Hallow, and now she was on a date with Hecate. Although apparently she had been on a date then too, she just hadn’t known it at the time. Her stomach sank as she realized what the past hour had been like for Hecate, being ignored by her date while she spent time with a childhood friend, then with an actual child.
“I think I owe you a second first date,” she said, running her hands down Hecate’s arms and taking both of her hands. “Since I mucked up the first one.”
Hecate smirked and leaned forward to rest her forehead against Ada’s. “I don’t know about that. It’s not over yet, is it?”
Ada grinned. “You know, I don't think it is,” she said, leaning forward and kissing Hecate once more.