Constance Hardbroom, feared deputy headmistress of the Cackles Academy for Witches, whose lightning stare could instil the fear of doom into the souls of even the most hardened of troublemaking young witches, leaned against the closed door of her room with what sounded remarkably like a sob of relief.
Her nerves were shot. Utterly shot. She had tried to conduct herself normally, but her tension must have been evident to any student who had dared to look at her. She had moved through the corridors of the castle fighting the urge to glance behind her every few steps - an urge she knew to be utterly pointless even as she gave into it, for who had taught her to vanish but the person she feared to see? In her classes, she had a sense of frail safety, until she looked up at the doorway and saw the figure standing there, her arms crossed, acid contempt in her eyes. Mealtimes had been a torture; those gimlet eyes had seemed to watch her every nervous bite, and a sneering half-smile had been visible on that face when Constance had finally put down her fork after only a few half-tasted mouthfuls. Now in her own rooms, she felt no safer. Any safety was temporary and could be removed at any time. Mistress Hecate Broomhead was running Cackles.
Merlin protect her. But he wouldn't. He hadn't all those years before, when Hecate Broomhead had been her tutor at Weirdsister College, and she had passed years - years - just like this. Her heart racing, eyes wide and her work utterly perfect, because failure just was not an option.
She'd relaxed - a little - through her years at Cackles. She had been the creator of order, of rules, of certitude. The girls mightn't like her, but they knew the worst thing they had to fear from their school was HB's anger, which was nothing, always kept within the bounds of lines and detentions. They did not know fear like she did then - and now.
Her lips, usually pursed, were half open as she drew in calming breaths, and slowly - slowly - let the tension drain. She relaxed against the door, breathing deeply, filling her lungs with the cold air, letting her long lean body rest against the wood, the buttons on the high collared dress rising and falling as she let the stress go, let it go…
The voice came from only a few feet to Constance's right. "Comfortable, are we, Hardbroom?"
Constance jerked upwards as if she had been hit by a lightning bolt. Her head whipped round. Hecate Broomhead was in her bedroom, her arms folded, eyebrow raised in dark amusement.
"Cat got your tongue, Hardbroom? Or perhaps I should call you Constance, now that we're colleagues? Constance…" Her voice seemed to taste the syllables. Constance felt a flutter in her stomach. "Perhaps not. I have always preferred surnames. Except in exceptional circumstances."
She moved further into the room, looking around. "You've developed a taste for feminine frippery, Hardbroom," she observed, picking up the only ornament on the desk - a silver framed photograph that Amelia had given Constance one Christmas. She put it back down with evident distaste and moved away, seating herself arrow-backed on the narrow ironwork bed. "I thought you'd grown past such foolish things after your time at Weirdsisters. Obviously not." Constance would have sworn Hecate Broomhead had not lifted a single finger to cast the spell, but the sound of the glass smashing in the silver frame was brightly clear. "Amelia Cackles is obviously encouraging you to be… sloppy. Wasting your time with foolishness. Had you stayed at Weirdsisters, you would have more time to properly develop your talent. Rather than teaching cloth-headed charity students, you could have been teaching the best."
Constance finally found her voice. "Our 'charity students', as you call them, Mistress Broomhead, are often among the best that come to Weirdsisters." She wished that voice she had found was not quite so breathy. She tried to firm it. "And I do not recall ever inviting you to my private rooms." There. That sounded better. And terrifyingly like a challenge.
The older woman was off the bed with stunning speed. Not a second seemed to pass between her sitting on Constance's bed to being only a few inches in front of Constance's wide eyes. "As headmistress of Cackle's Academy, I do not require an invitation to go anywhere I choose, Miss Hardbroom." Her eyes blazed like those of Medusa, and had a similar effect - Constance was as immobilised as if she had been turned to stone. "Or are you questioning my authority?"
"No, Miss Broomhead!" And with that frightened gasp, time reversed. Constance was eighteen again, and the woman in front of her, so close she could feel her body heat in the chill of the room, was the person who knew her every flaw, every fault, every weakness… Still backed up against her own door, Constance Hardbroom felt her own breath coming quicker, and knew the other woman had noticed.
And, oh, she had. Hecate Broomhead's mouth stretched in a thin smile that Constance immediately remembered, and a flush mounted itself in Constance's pale cheeks. "So quick to concede, Hardbroom? I thought we'd at least have a discussion first before we began anything else. And yet I've been in your room for only a few minutes and you're already panting like a cat in heat."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Constance forced the lie out, willing her voice to be firm.
"Mewling like a cat in heat too." Broomhead hadn't moved away an inch, eyes boring into Constance's. But now she moved closer still and whispered, so that Constance felt her breath against her bare neck, "I wonder, Hardbroom - are you as ready as you used to be? Will age have made you less eager?"
Constance's eyes were locked forward, wide, in a desperate stare. She did not dare look at the other woman as Hecate Broomhead moved back a pace.
"Will you still moan when I touch you?" Broomhead mused aloud. "Will you beg me not to stop? Really, I suppose there is only one way to find out."
Her hand moved, just slightly, and Constance felt the chill of the castle air on her legs as her skirt neatly split itself up to the centre of her thighs.
"If I put my hand on you, Constance Hardbroom, what will I feel?"
Suddenly the chill wasn't just on her legs. Constance knew without looking that her underwear had just fallen into pieces on the floor.
"Better still, what would I taste?" Slowly Hecate Broomhead moved that pace closer and knelt in front of Constance.
"No… please," Constance whispered, but she wasn't sure herself that anyone could have heard her speak. And when Hecate breathed against Constance's centre, her legs opened seemingly of their own volition. Her hands flattened themselves against the wood of the door and her eyelids fluttered closed as Hecate began that slow, delicate exploration of Constance; mouth and tongue moving slowly and softly against and within her. A sudden aching craving from the first touch drove any thought out of Constance Hardbroom's mind except how long it had been since she had felt that way, how incredibly, insanely good it felt, that familiar knowing touch, that knowledge of pressure and movement that the woman had, to bring her, without haste, into that luxurious spiraling darkness where the only things that existed were the thunderstorm of her heart sounding in her ears, the slow tightening coil of desire holding her body and the heat and sensation of Hecate Broomhead's mouth on her.
She didn't know herself how much later it was when her cheek was flattened against the door, her eyes wide but seeing nothing, and her mouth open in small panting gasps. "Please… oh… please, Hecate, please…" she said, without knowing it, her back arched in her high necked dress, her naked hips trying to move in a rhythm beyond her control, her ruined skirt moving with her. Hecate's hands held her still as her mouth continued its work, pausing only to voice a low chuckle. "I knew you'd beg, Constance Hardbroom."
Constance heard her, but did not recognise the words, because at the same time as she spoke, Broomhead placed two long fingers within her and pressed - just there - and Constance Hardbroom could not have stopped for anything as her world broke apart and shattered. She cried out as she came, a loud shriek of mingled emotion she could not even identify herself, and would have fallen to the floor if Broomhead's hands had not supported her and gently brought her down to the floor. She sat there in a collapsed tangle of limbs, gasping for breath and limp.
Broomhead sat back on her heels and, using Constance's skirt as a napkin, wiped her lips with as much dignity as a lady at tea. "It appears some things don't change with the years," she observed calmly. "You still have no self control, Hardbroom."
The old humiliation flooded Constance with that single sentence, and her cheeks flamed as she tried to get her sobbing breath back under control.
"Onto the bed," Mistress Broomhead's voice was almost bored. "Let's see if you can do better this time."
It was later - much later. Constance Hardbroom's navy silk slip was tangled like a soft belt around her waist as she shuddered in a last exhausted ecstasy and fell back against her pillow. Her bun hadn't survived the evening and her long dark hair streamed down her body, giving her something of the look of a mermaid.
Mistress Broomhead withdrew her hand and gazed at the woman lying on the bed with considering eyes as she idly sucked her fingers clean. "It appears you've reached your limit for tonight, Hardbroom." She herself was as impeccably neat as she had been when she had appeared in the chamber. Not a hair was out of place, and her dark robe was still buttoned up to her neck. "Pity. Still, there it is. I'll do the corridor patrol tonight. Pleasant dr -"
Before she could vanish, Constance reached out and clasped her hand. Hecate Broomhead looked at the joined hands in obvious surprise. Then, with a clear effort, Constance pulled herself up and, her fingers gently cupping the back of Broomhead's neck, pulled the other woman slightly towards her and kissed her. A soft, gentle pressure of lips upon lips. The first time they had ever been pressed together.
At first, Broomhead's mouth under her own was granite, unyielding. Filling with sudden fear, Constance began to back away - then Hecate's hands moved, one to support Constance's naked back, the other to tangle itself in her long hair; and the thin hard mouth softened and moulded itself to Constance's with a sudden aching eagerness. Constance was pulled forward, pressed firmly against Hecate, who wound her arms tightly around Constance's bare body as their lips moved and tasted, hands gripping her with an almost painful possessiveness. Constance's own hands found themselves sliding into the other woman's hair, disarranging the tight bun, as she tasted traces of herself on Hecate's tongue.
A sound pulled deep from her throat - it couldn't be a moan? - came from Hecate Broomhead at the meeting of their tongues, and the sound seemed to shock her more than a gunshot. She ripped herself from the embrace and was suddenly at the foot of Constance's bed, staring at her with something approaching horror on her face.
"Damn you, Hardbroom," she said venomously and with a flash of light was gone.
Utterly confused and exhausted, Constance Hardbroom fell back on her bed with a strong desire to cry, but her tired body claimed her for sleep after only a few tears had fallen to her pillow.
Mistress Broomhead overheard the conversation between Mr Hallow and his daughter and, safely invisible, nodded in satisfaction. Exactly as it should be. She would graciously accept his offer of employment. As permanent head of Cackles, she would soon have the student body stepping smartly. The troublemakers would be broken quickly enough, and once she had replaced several members of the staff with some of her more promising students from Weirdsister College, the teaching standards would soon reach her standards of excellence.
And she would have Constance Hardbroom. Which was, she admitted only to herself, the real point of all this.
Oh, there had been others, over the years. Other girls who had needed her special attention. They had come, they had gone, and she really didn't spend any time thinking of any of them. But Constance…
Hecate Broomhead reappeared next to a window overlooking the courtyard and seemingly idly glanced out. There she was, talking with the other staff. Dark hair back in an impeccable bun, lipstick clearly outlined in the dramatic paleness of her face, body - tall and lean - covered from neck to foot in a gown that moulded her spare curves in a way that made Hecate's breath come slightly faster. A different gown to yesterday's, of course. Magic could reweave the tear she had ripped in it last night, but you would always know it had been torn.
This gown, she decided, was going to suffer a similar fate this evening. Constance Hardbroom's wardrobe was going to take a terrible beating in the months and years to come. The thought twitched the corners of her mouth upwards.
Constance was something quite remarkable. From the very beginning, her fear and her need had made her compelling. Her desperate poise, so at odds with her passionate nature, so perfectly shattered by the passion Hecate could bring her to, again and again. Watching her face in the agony of ecstacy was an utter fierce joy that frequently revisited Hecate in dreams that left her waking furious with frustration. The years Constance had spent at Weirdsister College had been sublime - and the years since she had left had been grey in comparison. Knowing she was close by - and available to her yet again - made Hecate Broomhead's blood sing in her veins. Even her magic had a tang and savour this morning that it had not had for years.
Just watching her from the window made her desire surge forward. She wanted her again. Now. It would be an easy matter to inform her that she wished to speak to her in the Headmistress's Office. There, with a locking spell and a soundproofing spell safely in place, she could berate her for daring to kiss her last night. In minutes, she could have Constance groveling for forgiveness - and soon after that, Constance would be writhing against the desk, Hecate's fingers in her, stroking her in that slow, maddeningly gentle fashion that had always made the blood rush to Constance's cheeks and her back arch forward, her reddened lips parting in those soft pleas that she didn't even know that she was making.
And if she leaned over her then, would Constance's arms reach around her again? Would she feel those lips against her own, be able to dive into her mouth like a woman dying of thirst diving into water, lose herself in Constance as she came, swallowing her cries with her own mouth and thus taking part of Constance into herself?
She realised she was gripping the stone of the windowsill so hard the old stone was crumbling under the pressure of her fingertips. "No," she said aloud. "Such vulnerability is absurd. Foolish!" A noise came from a classroom that she knew was supposed to be empty at this time, and leaving her ruminations behind, she vanished into the air in order to deal with it.
Amelia was back. The nightmare was over. She could breathe easily again. Mistress Broomhead was gone.
And yet, alone in her room that night, Constance Hardbroom could not breathe easily at all. The tears wouldn't let her. Every time she thought she had it under control, that this foolish, inexplicable fit of sobbing was over, a new spasm would seize her chest, tears would force themselves from her eyes and run down her burning cheeks, and she could not breathe except to sob. She was helpless to do anything but sit on the edge of her narrow bed, her arms wrapped around her aching stomach, and cry.
A soft knocking was coming from her door. She could not answer it, terrified her shaky voice would give her away, whatever she said. She heaved with the silent sobs she tried to trap in her throat, and just hoped whoever it was would simply give up and go away.
Through tear blinded eyes she saw the door open and shut, and heard the footsteps cross the floor. Then there was a presence sitting on the bed beside her, making the bedsprings creak alarmingly.
"I thought so. My poor Constance. I am so sorry."
With a great amount of caution, but a greater amount of tenderness, Amelia Cackle put her arms around her bereft colleague. Stripped of resistance, Constance Hardbroom clung to her and let the dam burst in racking sobs, while Amelia gently patted her and murmured nonsense sounds of comfort. When the flood showed signs of abating, Amelia said softly, "I am sorry, Constance. Love is sometimes very hard."
Constance snapped straight up in shock. "Love? What do you mean - love!"
Amelia looked at her with that infuriatingly patient expression that generally meant Constance was going to be taught something that was completely obvious to everyone else. "I may be old, Constance, but I am not yet entirely blind. You have an extreme reaction to even the mention of Hecate Broomhead's name - and no reaction to anyone else at all. And she certainly has an extreme reaction to you."
"I don't understand," Constance said blankly. Her head was beginning to ache.
Amelia blinked twice. "While I am very fond of you, Constance, I would not consider coming out of retirement simply in order to be your colleague again. And yet, when she couldn't get you to return with her to Weirdsister College, Hecate Broomhead was willing - more than willing, very eager - to come here to Cackles. No one," she added dryly, "is that fond of teaching that they would give up a comfortable retirement for it. She came here because it was the only way she could be with you. "
"You don't understand." Constance's voice was dulled. "It isn't love. It's fear. It's humiliation and belittlement. And it's -" she stopped herself, ashamed.
Amelia took both of Constance's hands in her smaller ones. "Tell me," she commanded softly.
And, lost and abandoned, Constance did. She told Amelia everything, right down to that last (first) aborted kiss. When she finished, there was a long silence.
"It is still love," Amelia said gravely. "A twisted love, yes, a love not good for you to pursue, a love that will give you no good; but it is still love, Constance, and you have the right to grieve a lost love." She helped Constance to her feet, and then pulled back the covers of the bed. "Take off your shoes and gown, dear, and get to bed."
Too exhausted and wrung out to feel any further embarrassment, Constance Hardbroom undressed and, clad in her slip, got into her bed like a tired child. Amelia tucked her in, and dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead.
"You are loved by many people, Constance Hardbroom. Let go of the pain, remember the tenderness, and know that you are worthy to be loved by someone willing to give themselves entirely to you." The old headmistress blew out the candle and quietly shut the door behind her.
Tired, free, Constance quickly drifted into sleep. In her dream, familiar arms held her tightly, and her lips were blessed with gentle kisses.