Chapter Eighteen: Dr. Portillo Takes A Trip

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“You and Faizan?” Vic gaped, barely keeping the scandalized glee out of her voice. She thought she had noticed some vibes between them at her housewarming, at least on Abbie’s end, but she never thought that Abbie, devoted as she was to her boyfriend, would ever act on them. “Abbie, seriously?”

Abbie nodded, sad, but also satisfied with how impressed Vic sounded. She took a gulp from her glass of wine. Vino Vino, the wine bar Vic had chosen on Avenue A, had a bit of an early-thirties divorcee on the prowl vibe, but it fit Abbie’s current mood more than the rambunctiousness of The Bar.

“How long?” Vic asked.

“Like...four-ish months now? We hooked up for the first time in November,” she said, wistfully remembering the cold takeout they’d downed after they’d first slept together.

“Oh my God, Abbie,” Vic said again, squeezing Abbie’s arm. “What about Drew? Does he know?”

“Dan,” Abbie said, pulling it away. “And yeah. I told him before we broke up.”
“Abbie!” Vic exclaimed. “What the fuck? You broke up with Dave and you didn’t tell us?”

“Well, you apparently started dating Tatiana and didn’t tell us,” she countered. “How did that happen?”

“We saw each other at this insane wedding I was working and then...it just sort of happened,” Vic said, an uncharacteristically demure smile at her lips.

“That is so cute,” Abbie said. A hush fell between the two girls and they both knew what the other was thinking, even without Delali’s power: it was crazy how little they knew about each other’s lives, considering that they’d spent several hours a week for the past five months chanting spells together.

Their progress with the binding spell had been slow going so far. With MJ’s distanced guidance, it was hard to figure out where they were going wrong and course correct. At their first post-holiday meeting, they’d had a moment where they’d connected in a way none of them could really articulate: it had felt as though their hearts had begun to beat in unison, matching the plodding rhythm of their chanting. Gripping each other’s hands, they’d recited the spell until thin cords of vibrant gold light bound them, seeming to pull them together. But in the two weeks that had passed since, their progress had become spotty again— sometimes their practice sessions ended with dazzling gold light, others with a cloud of clammy moisture.

“Yeah,” Vic said finally, breaking the silence. “Best thing that’s happened to me in a minute.”
“What’s she been up to since you got fired? Is she working as a bridesmaid too?”

“Ugh, I wish,” Vic said.  She started to explain but broke off as her phone vibrated on the table, Tatiana’s name flashing across the screen.

She got to her feet. “I gotta go,” Vic said. “Tati’s probably back at my apartment, wondering where I am.”

Abbie stood too, stuffing her arms through her jacket as they walked to the door, stopping at the corner before they had to split.

“We should all hang out sometime,” Vic said. She gave Abbie a hug and realized sadly that it was their first since Tompkins. “Like, for something fun and that has nothing to do with our powers,” she clarified. “I’m sure Delali’s more chill when she’s not trying to be valedictorian in witch class.”

Abbie laughed. “Yeah, I’d love that,” she said, and hugged Vic again before heading toward the subway.

The idea had come to Vic the last time Tatiana had slept over at her place, which she always did, because Tatiana was constantly claiming to be “in the neighborhood” or “right around the corner” whenever they made plans. Vic didn’t care, but it was clear Tatiana didn’t want her to see her apartment, and they’d stopped pretending that Vic ever would about a month into the relationship. One morning, Tatiana had asked Vic to detangle the bottom part of her hair, which had become knotted after her scarf fell off in the middle of the night. Their conversation had started out normal enough, but things had quickly taken the familiar sour turn Vic had gotten so tired of.

“Did you do the hair mask from my Cosmetics Cube?” Vic had asked. “Your hair is so soft.”

“Really?” Tatiana returned acerbically, completely ignoring Vic’s question. “You didn’t snag your finger on some dried-up fondant that somehow crusted in there yesterday?” Vic narrowly hid her annoyance. They’d almost spoken for two whole minutes without a mention of the bakery, but of course Tatiana had found a way to work it in.

The first couple of months of their relationship, Tatiana almost never mentioned her job, sidestepping mentions of work and occasionally handpicking pleasant anecdotes to share. But sometime in mid-March, as their relationship cruised out of the honeymoon phase and into the trenches of real relationship shit, the gloves had come off. She’d assigned every part of her job some sort of petty nickname (Fake Maestro for Cake Maestro, Roachel for her supervisor Rachel, etc etc. ), and become incredibly cynical about the job market, submitting fewer and fewer applications.

Essentially every conversation they’d had over the past month had somehow morphed into a venting sesh. Vic was beyond tired of consoling Tatiana while at the same time biting her tongue and refraining from giving Tatiana the advice she felt someone as smart as her should be able to arrive at on her own— just quit. Besides the fact that Vic was totally unequipped to be the chill person in a relationship, it also upset her to see Tatiana perpetually unhappy, crankier and mean than she was playful or fun, wasting her wit on corny work-related nicknames, and taking less pride in the outfits she once obsessed over, instead throwing on shitty wide-legged jeans and a T-shirt from the local coffee shop every day. “It’ll just get flour on it,” she’d say, and Vic would wonder if this was the same Tatiana who used to re-iron her blouses during her lunch break at CS.

Tatiana’s personality change had become so dramatic that Vic was genuinely worried for her, so when the idea had come to Vic to transform herself into Tatiana’s boss and fire her, it was easy to convince herself to do it. It would free Tatiana from her complex about leaving a regular paycheck, and maybe give Vic a chance at getting her girlfriend back. She went back and forth on the idea until one day she heard Tatiana quietly crying in the bathroom as she got ready for work. She’d pretended she was still asleep when Tatiana stepped into the bedroom to grab her backpack, and when she’d left, Vic had immediately begun to practice transforming into the 5’8” militant Sicilian pastry chef who apparently bossed her girlfriend around every day. Attempting to transform into a man she’d seen hundreds of times on television but only once in real life proved to be the only magic effort that really challenged Vic, aside from the elusive binding spell MJ had given the girls essentially no information about. But at least with that she had Abbie and Delali: they forced her to practice when she didn’t want to; their intention picked up the slack when she couldn’t focus as much as she needed to. With this, she was completely alone.

She started skipping her fitness classes to squeeze practice sessions in between weddings, focusing all her mental energy on the tiny sliver of Gio she’d seen through the bakery storefront window one morning while walking Tatiana to work. She’d once ended up with just one of his arms, her collarbone suddenly becoming his fleshy shoulder, beneath it his hairy forearm and short, yellowing nails. Even though she thought she thought she’d prepared herself for a full body transformation, that first partial one had scared her so much that she’d screamed (luckily in her own voice, not Gio’s) and Elise had come running to her door to see what was wrong. Vic had convinced her, with the Gio arm hidden beneath her duvet, that she’d just seen a millipede.

Vic partially transformed into witch

After several partial transformations, Vic had finally closed her eyes, focused her intent, and fully transformed into Gio deRossi, beloved pastry chef and token rude European judge on every cooking show she’d watched while stoned in college. She stood in front of the mirror, turning and looking at herself from every direction. She was in one of his baker’s uniforms, thankfully, and she could feel the foreign rub of undergarments she’d never worn— boxer briefs that cut into her substantial thighs and a thin undershirt that grazed her notably sensationless nipples. She took three steps towards her mirror, gazing into unfamiliar frigid blue eyes and examining her receding blond hairline. She touched her protruding stomach, and the feel of her stubby hands on her foreign, hairy flesh scared her so badly that she immediately changed back to herself.

Sitting on her bed, hugging her own lean body, Vic resolved not to change back into Gio until the day she’d already planned to fire Tatiana, the following Friday. She made sure Tatiana didn’t sleep over the night before and, more importantly, that the real Gio wouldn’t be at the bakery: he’d be opening his newest patisserie in Tokyo instead of drawing obscenities on the foreheads of his bakers in royal icing or sticking non-pareils to their noses whenever they fucked up. Maybe for other witches the transformation would require more practice, but Vic figured if she’d done it once she could probably do it again.

When the day finally came, Vic waited for Diane and Elise to leave before locking herself in her room, just in case they came back for some reason. She texted Tatiana to make sure she’d gotten to work okay, then stood in front of her mirror and focused. She needed to nail the transformation because this was the only day she knew for sure that the real Gio wouldn’t be in the bakery. When she walked into the bakery she planned to lie and say the opening had been moved or cancelled, knowing that  even if the internet proved that false, it would never implicate her in any way.

Vic took a deep breath and looked at her reflection, channeling her all her best intentions— help my girlfriend out of a bad situation, make my girlfriend happy, advance my girlfriend’s career, preserve my girlfriend’s mental health— and leaving out all the ones that were self-centered or petty. She felt the transformation begin immediately, her arms, legs, feet and chest swelling, a deep pressure that threatened to turn into pain spreading through her. Then her body settled into Gio’s form, morphing before her eyes. She coughed, and it was like thunder deep in her chest. Vic ventured to touch herself again, running her fingers through the dusty brown hairs on her arms, touching her calloused fingertips to her pockmarked cheeks, even touching the stomach that had disturbed her so much last time, still too scared to move any lower.

“I am Gio de Rossi,” she said to the mirror, and immediately felt embarrassed. A redness leapt onto her face, and she slapped her hands over her cheeks to cover it, but her alarm only made them redder. She cleared her throat and straightened. “I am Chef Gio de Rossi, head of Cake Maestro on Broome Street.” Vic couldn’t help but laugh at herself, letting out a dry croaking noise that sounded more painful than mirthful. “I am the best pastry chef in the world. Kapow!” Then, noting her accent, she added, “Waaaluigi.”

On the way to Cake Maestro, Vic kept expecting people to stare at her or call her out for stealing another person’s look, body included. But, of course, nothing like that happened. Instead she had a little girl approach her to ask for an autograph, and Vic agreed, scribbling on her iPad case in hot pink Sharpie. When she finally arrived at the bakery, she stood outside to gather herself and calm her nerves. Even though she knew her plan was foolproof, she worried that people could somehow see her, Vic, inside Gio’s body.

Vic entered the shop, looking around as the door released a jingle that sounded like La Donna è Mobile. Inside, there was a neat cluster of tables where patrons could sit and eat their pastries with house-made Italian coffee. Beyond that was a display counter with rows and rows of exquisitely decorated pastries— cannolis, rainbow cookies, miniature tiramisu, biscotti—and on top of that counter sat Tatiana, her hair out of its depressing workday pineapple and her face alive with the blushy no-makeup makeup she’d eschewed for the past several months. Vic took her in, then steeled herself. Tatiana and a coworker had been looking at something on Tatiana’s phone screen, but they’d looked up immediately when they heard the chime, jumping down from the counter and fishing their hairnets from their pockets. Vic locked eyes with Tatiana, and for a second she was sure that Tatiana could see her, that she’d been caught. But then Tatiana cleared her throat and spoke.

“Uh, excuse us Maestro. We were just taking a quick lunch break while the rolls were in the proofing drawer.” Her coworker nodded meekly. “What are you doing in New York?” she asked brightly. “Did something happen with the opening?”

Vic hesitated, struck by Tatiana’s sure smile. She hadn’t thought her opportunity to fire Tatiana would come so immediately, but here it was, and she had no choice but to take it. Vic lumbered toward her girlfriend, uncertain on her newly thick legs and heavy frame, and completely preoccupied by the fact that she was definitely scaring the shit out of Tatiana.

“How dare you,” she began, in the deepest, angriest voice she could manage. “How dare you question the whereabouts of the Maestro? You thought today was just an off day, a day to relax and run my store into the ground while I was overseas expanding my empire?!” The look in Tatiana’s eyes made Vic want to stop, but then she remembered all the anecdotes she’d heard from Tatiana since she'd started being honest about her job. As wrong and unnatural as all of this felt, she knew she needed to take it a step further if she wanted to be convincing. Vic stepped forward  and slapped Tatiana’s phone onto the floor, prompting her coworker to flee to the kitchen. Tatiana jumped back. “Do I need to spell it out for you?” Vic asked. “You’re fired Tati.” Then, catching herself, she added, “ana.”

Tatiana’s face crumbled in a way that Vic had never seen, and for an instant she considered breaking into a smile and saying she had just been joking. But then she thought to all the times Tatiana came home from work, covered in pastry, her expression just a few steps away from this tortured look, and she stood firm.

“Leave! Before I have to call security,” Vic bellowed.

“Fuck you!” Tatiana sputtered, bursting into tears. She reached down to pick up her phone, too distraught to notice the screen’s fresh spiderweb crack, and stormed out of the bakery.

Immediately after, Vic’s phone began to vibrate in her apron pocket and she panicked. She hadn’t considered that Tatiana might contact her after such a crazy, traumatic experience, though now it seemed obvious. Ignoring Tatiana’s whimpering former coworker, Vic rushed out of the bakery and into the bathroom of the Starbucks next door, locking herself in the handicapped stall. She hugged her arms around her body and paced the area of the bathroom stall, imagining herself in her riding boots, leggings, and favorite FAMU half zip. She soon felt the same pressure and tightening again before she transformed back into herself. She gave herself some time to relish the feel of being back in her own body again before stepping outside and calling a Süper. The car arrived quickly— it had only been two minutes away— and Vic settled into the back seat. “I’m Vic,” she whispered quietly to herself, making sure she had her voice back.

“Excuse me?” her Süper driver called over his shoulder.

“Nothing,” she replied before calling Tatiana back.

“Hey babe, what’s up?” she asked, trying to sound sunny despite how shaken she was by the whole episode.

“I…I don’t know,” Tatiana said, through a torrent of tears. “I just got fucking fired.”

“What?” Vic asked, feigning shock. “Fired? I thought you were one of the best bakers there. Are you sure?”

There was a string of hiccups and gasps before Tatiana responded. “I don’t know I just— he was supposed to be in Tokyo! And he just showed up! Like it was a setup or something.”

“Tati, I’m so, so sorry.”

“All I did was ask him why he was in the city and he went fucking ballistic.”

“Ugh, he’s always been such a shitty, unreasonable boss—I’m not surprised. Do you want to come over?” Vic asked as she stepped out of her Süper and into her building.

“Yeah,” Tatiana said after clearing her throat. “I’m on my way now.”

When Tatiana walked through the door she wasn’t wearing her baking outfit— apparently, she’d torn it off in the middle of the street and thrown it in front of an oncoming cab. Now she was rocking her Gio’s-away-Tati-will-play look, a form-fitting black turtleneck dress, sheer black tights, and pink floral brocade booties.

She started venting before Vic could even open her mouth. “What the fuck is wrong with him? Does he even know what his Chantilly cream looked like before I started working there? His fondant cutouts? His gummy-ass puff pastry? He’s a fucking hack who was lucky to have me! And Rose? Fucking Rose? That punk-ass, fake-ass, bitch just ran out of the room as soon as he started accusing me of things! I should sue his ass!”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Vic said, putting her hands on Tatiana’s shoulders and holding her still. “Look on the bright side—”

Tatiana’s eyes filled with rage. “What bright side?”

“I mean, he basically did you a favor. Isn’t this what you wanted in the first place?”

Tatiana opened her mouth, but no words came out, and instantly, Vic knew she had fucked up. “What I wanted?” she hissed. “How the fuck is this what I wanted, Victoria?”

“Well, you were always complaining about your job,” Vic said. “And since it looked like you weren’t going to do anything about it, at least de Rossi helped you out. Now you can—”

“I knew it,” Tatiana interrupted.

“Knew what?”

“I knew you were walking around here looking down on me because I didn’t immediately hop out of one dream job into another. You don’t fucking get it, Vic; I can’t just sit around all day hoping Ralph Lauren calls me back. I can’t just call my parents and ask them to spot me rent for a couple of months while I take an internship and build a new skill set. Not everyone’s parents run around treating their kids like infants at the age of twenty-two!”

“My parents don’t pay for shit here!” Vic said angrily. Again, she conveniently left out the detail about Diane’s parents.

“Yeah, I’m sure your weddings pay for a fucking LES loft all on their own— give me a fucking break,” Tatiana huffed.

Vic tried to calm herself but it was too late. “Okay, for the record, you didn’t hop out of CS, you got us both fucking fired for stealing a dress because apparently psychotic is your baseline mood.”

“Oohhhh my GOD,” Tatiana rolled her eyes, exasperated, her voice growing louder. “Are you really going to bring this up again? Should I just leave? Are you gonna bring this shit up again every day until the day I fucking die? Either you’re over it or you’re not— you don’t get to pick and choose!”

“I’m sorry if it’s hard for me to forget that you got me fired and I’m sorry if it sometimes feels like poetic justice that your little stunt didn’t reap whatever rewards you thought it would,” Vic said cruelly, giving voice to a thought she didn’t even known she had.

Tatiana was quiet. “You know what?” she said. “Fuck you.” She picked her bag off the couch and turned toward the door. “I should’ve trusted my instincts. I should’ve known I could never be with a spoiled princess-y bitch like you.” With that, she stormed out of Vic’s apartment, slamming the door behind her.

Being back on campus after staying away for so long was much easier than Delali had expected. She’d thought that being at school would fill her with a sadness or make her regret her decision to drop out—but seeing things unfold in the middle of finals week just bolstered Delali’s belief that she’d made the right choice. The campus was arrested in a mid-point between depression and elation. Every couple of minutes, a group of students who’d just taken their last exam spilled out of a classroom, exhaling with happiness as they passed a despondent crowd heading into the library, hoping to stave off their emotional breakdowns until the end of the week.

Delali slid her sunglasses on, basking in the warm spring weather as she climbed the marble stairs that led to upper campus. She’d just had an amazing meeting with Eloise Robertson, who’d written the biography on which the Sit Awhile screenplay was based, and was feeling generous. Refreshed and ready to tackle her chemistry reads with the two finalists up for the role of Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nemiroff, Delali had hopped into a cab and zipped up to campus to tie up some loose ends.

She hadn’t planned on coming back until graduation, to support Safiya and her other friends, but Dr. Portillo was holding his last office hours of the year, a time for students to come by and discuss the final. Following her 60 Minutes appearance, President Toggsworth had personally emailed her an image of his computer screen reading Delali Serwah Tamakloe is no longer enrolled, but she had still completed her Integral Transforms take home final, emailing it directly to Dr. Portillo with a note saying she’d be stopping by. It had been her hardest class of the year, and despite leaving school early into the course’s second semester, she’d embarrassingly kept up with the coursework. She wanted to see if she could actually keep learning the material if she taught herself.

“Delali,” Dr. Portillo said warmly when she poked her head into his office.

“Is now still a good time?” she asked. Dr. Portillo’s office hours had ended eight minutes ago, and she knew, from the few times she'd actually made herself go to lecture, how much lateness annoyed him.
“Come in, come in. I’ve just graded my last my final,” he said as she dropped into the chair. “Yours.” He slid the exam across the desk to her, and Delali tried not to be bothered by the B he’d circled in red ink at the top of the page.
“Not bad,” he said. “Still among the highest in the class.”
“But it could’ve been better,” Delali muttered, more to herself than to him. She took the paper and looked it over, making note of the questions she’d missed.

“Probably,” he said. “But I imagine there isn’t much time to study up on the Laplace transform when you're running around set or preparing for a 60 Minutes sit down.” He gave her a wry smile before swiveling away from her and standing to open the window behind his desk, which faced the Mathematics lawn.

Delali looked down at her hands, embarrassed, though she knew Dr. Portillo was just teasing. Beyond wanting to test her ability to grasp the material, she also felt some level of obligation to Dr. Portillo. She felt that if she was going to abandon the thesis he’d spent the last eighteen months working on with her, the very least she could do was take the final for his class. “I meant to come by when I made the decision to leave,” Delali said. “But things kicked off so quickly with the film, and with Toggsworth breathing down my neck I had to get a jump on things in the press.”

“I understand,” Dr. Portillo said, and Delali was glad that he did. “I watched your interview with my family. It was impressive, the way you spun things. Toggsworth threw a complete fit.”

Delali leaned in, intrigued. “Really?” She’d read the statement he’d issued in The Times, which was, in fact, essentially a non-statement. He’d said he didn’t feel the need to publically engage with a disgruntled former student who had been asked to leave, but it only helped Delali’s cause. The Washington Post had hired two English language experts to dissect the statement, and one of them had said that Toggsworth’s word choice “hinted at a wounded hostility floating just beneath the surface.” The second wondered if he’d even run the statement through the university’s PR department, since the grammatical errors coupled with the random punctuation and capitalization made it seem as though he’d emailed the reporter a hastily drafted message from his Notes app.

“Oh yeah,” Dr. Portillo said. “He sent an email out to the entire university attacking your decision to take ‘an internal matter public,’ and warned your professors not to speak favorably of you to any outlets.”

“Wow,” Delali said, crossing her legs. “How did he stop that from leaking?”

Dr. Portillo shrugged. “Students are afraid to be expelled; professors are afraid to lose tenure. Personally, I’ve found it thrilling to watch Ingram self-destruct. He’s a dick.”
Delali let out a surprised laugh at Dr. Portillo’s newly conspiratorial tone. As closely as they’d worked over the past year and a half, they’d never moved past reserved affection, even as Delali began to privately consider Dr. Portillo a mentor. But it seemed the heady pull of summer, coupled with Delali's expulsion, had broken down the sometimes-dour energy Delali had come to expect from her interactions with Dr. Portillo.

“So, you’re finished with school,” Dr. Portillo said after her laughter died down. “I can’t lie: I’m a little disappointed.”
This time it was Delali’s turn to shrug. “I’d hoped to take a year leave but Toggsworth forced me out. But I’m only a few credits away from graduating so it seems like a waste to not get my degree eventually…” she trailed off. “Maybe I’ll finish up at USC or something, if I end up moving back to LA.”

Dr. Portillo nodded, humming. “That sounds like a good plan,” he said. He waved his hands defensively. “Not to be a dad.”

Delali laughed. “For what it's worth, my actual dad agrees with you,” she said. She and Dr. Portillo chatted briefly about some of the questions she’d gotten wrong on the exam before he changed gears, becoming very serious.

“Delali,” Dr. Portillo said, and Delali straightened, wary of the change in his tone. “I’m going to ask you something I’ve only asked a student once before, but I think our relationship has gotten to the point where I feel it's appropriate.”
Delali stared at him, alarmed. She gripped the arm of her chair and reached for her bag, wondering if she should throw it over her shoulder and escape. Although she’d long decided Dr. Portillo was harmless, she’d wondered if she’d misread, and looked quickly over her shoulder to see if she had closed the door completely behind her. She had.

When she turned back around to face him, he had placed a slim teal cylinder on his desk. Delali looked from the desk to him and back again.

“Is that—”
“A marijuana vaporizer, yes,” Dr. Portillo said. “I rarely partake when I’m at school, but today feels like a special occasion. After all, it’s not every day one of my students is cast as a lead in a Hollywood film. What do you think, Delali?” he asked, offering her the pen. “Shall we smoke to Lorraine?”

Delali blinked at him. When she’d set out for this meeting, she hadn’t anticipated...this. But it wasn’t a wholly unwelcome turn. At the very least, she’d have an interesting story to tell when she was recounting her wild youth to a memoirist at 102. Delali uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “What strain?”

“Just your standard OG Kush,” Dr. Portillo said as she took the offered pen. “I’m sure you’re familiar with it.”

“Awesome,” Delali said, taking a deep pull. “I hate that you can’t get good OG in New York. Everyone here’s just smoking shitty Sour Diesel and I’m just like...do you guys even know you’re missing? What life is meant to be like?” She paused, wondering if she’d revealed too much about her habits, but then remembered the situation. She was getting high with her former Integral Transforms professor after he’d whipped out a vape while they discussed her final. Things had already slid firmly into the bizarre. She handed the vape back to Dr. Portillo, who laughed and nodded before he took a deep drag. “Oh I know. It’s one of the many things I miss about Berkeley.” He looked around his office and sniffed disdainfully.

“You taught at Berkeley?” Delali asked, discreetly wiping the mouthpiece of the vape on her jeans before taking a hit. “I grew up in Walnut Creek!” she exclaimed. She could already feel her mood lifting and her limbs relaxing.

“Oh wow,” Dr. Portillo said. “We looked for houses there but my wife just fell in love with Lafayette.”

She and Dr. Portillo continued on like that for a while, taking hits of the vape and talking about the things they missed about California (nonexistent winters, good Mexican food, and driving, in that order, before Dr. Portillo pulled out his laptop and put on his Planet Earth DVD.

“It’s my favorite thing to watch while stoned,” he explained, and Delali was too high to be bothered. Two hours later, Delali walked down the steps to lower campus on wobbly legs, marveling at the fact that New York City had the world’s highest density of peregrine falcons. She was heading toward the gates to exit campus when she heard someone call her name. Delali knew without turning around that it was Darren because, well, of course it was.

She turned to him, smiling, and waved.  “Hey,” she said, hugging him as he approached. “Are you done?”

“Just took my last comp-sci final,” he said with a smile.

“Congrats,” Delali said.

“Thanks.” Darren unhooked his Ray-Bans from the neckline of his shirt and put them on. “I’m surprised to see you on campus,” he said. “I heard you got kicked out?”

“I decided to leave the university,” Delali said theatrically, reciting the line she and Gracie had decided on.

“Ok,” Darren said. He gave her a small grin that suggested he thought there was more to the story. “But I heard your meeting with Toggs was epic. Did you really tell him to 'catch this L?’”

“You really shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Darren,” Delali told him, her voice taking on a teasing lilt, although she wondered how he could’ve found out about that—and scolded herself for letting Toggsworth and his damn Raisinets get so under her skin. She shook off the rest of her high. “I’m here because I just met with Dr. Portillo.”

“Why?”
“I took the final. I just wanted to see what I’d get.”

“And?”

“A B,” she sighed. “Not my best work. You?”

“A minus,” Darren grinned.

“Well, you did have a semester more of class than I did.”

“Barely,” Darren said, and upon seeing Delali’s look, continued. “Come on, second semester senior year? I was barely on campus. Just admit that I’m better at transforms than you are,” he added playfully.

“Ugh, fine,” Delali said. “If I must.” She and Darren laughed, sidestepping a group of freshmen spilling out of their dorm, high off the feeling of finishing their first year of college.

“Are you coming to graduation?” he asked as their laughter died down.

Delali nodded. “Of course. Saf would kill me if I skipped it.”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Darren said, laughing. “ What about senior week?”
“I’m hoping to go to some stuff,” Delali said. “But honestly things will be crazy for me then. I’m doing chemistry reads for Sit Awhile and then we start filming as soon as the cast’s finalized.”
“Oh yeah,” Darren said. “I heard about that. Congrats on getting the role.”

Delali gave him a contrived little bow. “Thank you.”
“So are you, like, totally back to Hollywood now? Like...including back with your ex?” he added inelegantly, biting his lower lip to hide his embarrassed smile.

Delali gave him a long look, considering her words. She knew that pics of her and Adrien leaving art events together had started popping up on the occasional gossip blog. Adrien only drank at gallery openings (he said it helped him connect with the art better), which made him sloppier with his exits than usual, but she hadn’t expected Darren to be up on that kind of thing.

“I didn’t know you read Gossip Colonel,” Delali said lightly, dodging the question.

“I don’t,” Darren said quickly. “I mean, the occasional story pops up on my Instagram explore page every once in a while.”

Delali smiled. “I’m back acting right now,” she said. “My ex…” she trailed off, thinking first of Adrien pacing off camera while Lesley interviewed her, then of him trying to convince her to accompany him to New Mexico for a peyote-fuelled spirit journey. “Not exactly.”

“Good to hear,” he said, giving her a sheepish smile before glancing at his watch. “I gotta go— it’s the last caviar and cocktails night at the dining hall and I don’t want to miss it.” He drew the straps of his backpack close together over his chest. “But see you at graduation?”

“Yeah, totally,” Delali said, and she watched him peel away, wondering yet again if there was a missed opportunity there. But then her phone vibrated with a calendar reminder, telling her she needed to jet back downtown for a fitting and she decided no, there probably wasn’t.

MJ had hardly mentioned the binding spell at their meeting on the first of February, simply urging the girls to continue practicing on top of their weekly lessons. They did as they were told, working on it after that meeting and all those that followed it. Over the course of the past week, however, the girls had picked up their pace since The Gathering was in a few days, fitting in additional practice sessions where they could. After the girls’ most recent meeting with MJ, they'd gone back to Vic’s and practiced the binding spell to perfection, falling asleep in her living room and waking up the next morning to the sound of Diane doing HIIT in her bedroom. They quietly recited the spell to themselves whenever they could, repeating it as they brushed their teeth or did their hair or lay in bed waiting for sleep.

So, when MJ called an odd Thursday meeting, the girls assumed it was because The Gathering was fast approaching, and she wanted them to present their progress. They arrived at MJ’s apartment, thinking they would do the spell right then and there, stripping the evil regent of her powers, and then move on, finally learning how to transport correctly in preparation for The Gathering. But once everyone had taken their usual seats, MJ seemed distracted. When Abbie asked MJ about the spell, she stood and turned toward the bookshelf. “You won’t need the spell just yet.”

The girls looked at each other, annoyed, and Vic rolled her eyes. “What now? We’ve been practicing for weeks. The Gathering is in three days.”

MJ spared Vic a tight-lipped smile. “If you read the surrounding pages of the spell carefully— which I imagine Delali did— then you noticed that there are special parameters to the spell. You cannot perform a binding remotely and expect it to affect each person you intend it to. All subjects of the spell must be in the same space at once—”

“So there has to be a Council meeting,” Delali finished. She had read the surrounding pages, but had been confused by the sparse instructions.

“Big deal,” Vic said. “There’s a Council meeting every month.”

“Yes, however—” MJ began.

“The next Council meeting is June 1st, after The Gathering,” Delali interrupted. “It would be too late by then.”

“Exactly, Delali. And do you remember how we can get the Council to call an emergency meeting?”

Delali thought back to their earlier readings, about the governmental structure of the Witch Sphere. “They call meetings when there’s a birth in a Council family…”

“Good, but there’s nothing you can do with that, is there?”

Delali shook her head, annoyed at the answer she’d given.

“When there are elections,” Vic added.

“Yes,” MJ replied. “Anything else?”

Then Abbie remembered something that had worried her when she’d first done her readings, mostly because it made her wonder whether she, Vic, and Delali were going to get in some sort of trouble. “When a witch performs magic in a way that is...conspicuous, you know, noticeable enough that a typic might notice it and find out about the Sphere,” she said. “Then the Council holds a meeting to attempt to diffuse the magic or administer a warning to that witch.” Delali and Vic looked at Abbie, surprised. “It just always made me worry, since we saved Vic’s phone, like, right in front of that Süper driver.”

“Perfect, Abbie,” MJ said. “But the concern is not just conspicuous magic; it’s magic performed at a certain scale. Something like your act with the phone, for example, is far too elementary to trigger any sort of spike on the map. Whatever magic you choose to perform today must be much grander than that, as you’re only three. It must be something completely public and genuinely spectacular.”

“I— are we capable of that?” Delali asked. She knew MJ would just encourage them, but after all she’d said when she’d told them at the December meeting, the girls had only a handful of successful attempts at the binding spell. Sometimes, Delali wondered if MJ had a little too much confidence in them.

“We won’t know until you try.”

“Try...what?” Vic asked. “I mean, what kind of magic act should we try? Fixing our eyeliner in unison?”

MJ laughed. “You’ll certainly have to go larger than that. But unfortunately, I can’t help you choose what act to perform. Just as with the binding spell, it may muddle the intention of the action and render it less effective, which is not a risk you can take with this assignment. If you’ve completed your readings along the way, you shouldn’t have any trouble thinking of something.” She folded her arms across her chest. “That’s all for today.”