Returning from the bathroom to Hilda’s bedroom, Nell snorted at the sight of her partner carefully tucking the covers under the mattress on her side of the bed.
“There is such a thing as exaggeration, Hilda,” she remarked as she replaced her bathroom things on the dressing table. “You can’t possibly have been at that since I left the room! Or are you trying to make a point?”
“Well, I really don’t want to wake up freezing in the middle of the night because you’ve pulled all the covers off me yet again,” Hilda replied.
She hoped the last two words would distract Nell from the fact she hadn’t answered how long she’d been working on the bed. In fact, she had gone hastily to it only a minute before Nell returned; before that, she’d taken advantage of her friend’s absence to work on a surprise that was now residing at the back of her wardrobe. The Maynards kept to the custom of leaving shoes for the Christ Child to fill, but even in that generous household the chocolates could sometimes run short, so Hilda had had some bonbons ready to cover any sudden need. Since they were stuck in the School for the night at least, she had repurposed them to fill one of her own shoes and one of Nell’s, and intended to lay the shoes out early the next morning.
As she’d expected, Nell rose to the bait, forgetting her previous questioning. “Yet again? You make it sound as if I did it every single night!”
“You might, if I didn’t take precautions.” As she spoke, Hilda hunted for the cushions they always knelt on to pray. Locating them at last hidden under Nell’s clothes, she handed one over, giving her partner her sweetest look.
Nell grimaced back at her. “Cheek! Absolute cheek, Hilda Annersley! I only do it when it’s really cold, and you can’t blame me for what I do in my sleep, anyway.” Huffing, she dropped her cushion to the floor.
“I don’t blame you, but I’d rather it didn’t happen if it can be prevented. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to say my prayers.” With that, she knelt down, folded her hands on the bed, and closed her eyes.
Thus forestalled, Nell was left with no option but to keep silent, and content herself with a glare. Mirroring Hilda’s actions, she too dropped to her knees to pray.
Finishing first, Hilda quietly got into bed and slid over to her own side. As she did, Nell rose to her feet too, flashing her a look that said clearly that she hadn’t forgotten they were arguing.
“Oh, Nell, surely we have more pleasant things to do than argue over whether you steal my blankets every night or not?” Hilda asked quickly.
Her conciliatory smile was met by a defiant scowl. “There’s nothing to argue about, because I don’t!” Then Nell’s expression became suddenly downcast. “Half the time I don’t even have the chance to,” she said quietly, sinking down onto the bed.
Hilda moved over to hug her, her heart suddenly aching for them both. It was so hard, sometimes, having to keep their relationship a secret; it robbed them of so much time they could have spent together. Neither said anything for a little while, just clung to each other tightly. Then Nell took a deep breath and turned to her partner with a smile.
“I’m sorry, my love. I didn’t mean to upset us both. Let’s not think about it, and enjoy the time we can spend together.”
Hilda lifted a hand to cup Nell’s face. “We will, love; all the more because we know how precious it is.”
Gently, Nell leaned forward and kissed Hilda’s lips, and Hilda responded in kind, twining her hands in Nell’s hair. And for that moment at least, nothing else mattered.
Moving quietly, an inch at a time, hardly daring to breathe, Nell slowly disentangled herself from Hilda’s hug. If she woke… but no, she was still fast asleep, and barely stirred as her partner slipped out of the bed. Cursing her own habit of kicking her slippers off and leaving them where they fell, Nell felt around until she’d located them, not daring to turn on her torch lest the light should wake her partner. Her dressing gown, luckily, was easier to find where she’d thrown it over a chair. Pulling everything on, she tiptoed to the door and carefully eased it open just far enough to let her pass through.
Only when she was safely outside did she switch on her torch, judging that the risk of its waking Hilda was now much smaller than the risk of making a noise by trying to move around in the dark. Still on tiptoe, she went first to the guest room where she was officially staying, and where several of her things had been left so as not to clutter up Hilda’s room too much. Quickly locating the things she wanted, she placed them in the ample pockets of her dressing gown so as to have both hands free, and slipped out of the room again, heading down the corridor.
Some minutes later, having visited the kitchen and the entrance hall, Nell made her way back to the bedroom. This time she wasn’t quite so cautious, and the door creaked as she pushed at it, causing her to freeze in dismay. But there was no sound from the room other than the quiet breathing of someone sleeping soundly, so she stepped carefully in. Hilda didn’t stir as she removed her dressing gown and slippers and got into bed; when Nell lay down, however, she cuddled up to her in her sleep. Smiling, Nell slipped her arms around her and closed her eyes; and soon, they were both away in dreams.