Chapter Fifteen: Nadine Blocks Her Blessings

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The girls looked at each other. In all the time they’d spent with MJ, she’d never mentioned anything called the Mothers.

“I haven’t kept it from you deliberately,” MJ said as though reading their minds. “I’ve just been waiting for the right time, and it seems it’s finally arrived.” She clasped her hands together in front of her. “Once you understand the myth of the Mothers, you’ll understand the purpose of Witchkind— to protect and defend the Sphere that the Mothers so generously created for us. And once you know this purpose, you are truly one of us.”

There girls leaned forward with rapt attention as MJ spoke.

“Before there was magic, there were the Mothers. Three women, the keepers of all potential. The Mothers did not create the world, instead they gathered it together. For a time much greater than we can know, the Mothers arranged the elements they believed could nourish our world. Fragments of the cosmos, energy of the living sky, tinder of the stars—they drew all together to set their beloved universe into motion. Yet when they were finished, they saw something lacked. Each Mother considered, and brought all she had left to offer. The first mother came forth, and to our world she added love of self. The second mother came forth, and to our world she added love of others. The third Mother came forth, and to our world she added love of knowledge. It was then their conception howled, shaking violently, and before them hatched a new world.

“Yet when the Mothers watched their world, again they saw that something lacked. The Mothers considered, and it came to them that they had filled their whole creation with love, and yet forgotten its absence. Each gathered the absence that surrounded them and buried it into the world they had created. In that place, the Cradle grew, and the Cradle was the anchor of the world.

“As the Cradle flourished, so did our kind. Witches bore witches, and the roots of the Cradle grew deeper and wider; its branches reached toward the sky, growing longer and longer still. Witchkind soared from success to success, bounded from triumph to triumph. Our evolution thrilled The Mothers, but it also portended what they had known all along: that the world would soon no longer need them, that their time was coming to an end.

“So, the Mothers began to search. They sought a witch they could entrust with the power of absence—the power to take away that which the Mothers had bestowed. The search transcended the seasons, but the Mothers trod on, knowing that not just any witch could bear this responsibility. When they found her, they circled the base of the Cradle, drew a fraction of the absence from the ground, and gave the power of absence to her and her lineage. When the power had been granted, the Mothers knew for certain: the time had come.

“The witch climbed to the highest point of the world, and above her the sky shook and swayed. Walls of starlight crowded the sky, and slowly separated into three. It was the Mothers before her. She lifted her arm to them, and the first Mother came forth. She fell like hail into the woman’s palm, then down her arm and into the vessel. The second Mother came forth, and she too fell like hail into the woman’s hand, down her arm, and into the vessel. Finally, the third came forth, and like hail she fell into the woman’s hand, down her arm, and into the vessel. Then the essences of the Mothers were all contained in this single vessel, absent from the world over.

“From then, the essences of the Mothers were contained in a vessel at 33, 26, the headquarters of the Witch Sphere,” MJ said, finally sitting again. “It’s believed that this is the oldest, most powerful magic in the world. It’s sacred, holy, and never to be touched.”

“Where are the headquarters?”

“Are they at the Cradle?

“How long until we’re able to transport there?”

MJ put a hand to her forehead, as if suffering from a headache. “Ladies, I apologize. But I think we’ll have to end today’s lesson here.”

The girls were silent. They knew by now that MJ’s stamina was fragile and unpredictable. Some days, they’d be in her apartment for hours, missing meetings, dates, and other obligations as they delighted in the magic world they couldn’t quite access without her. But on other days, MJ would quickly grow tired and weary, unable to stand straight or give coherent instructions or critique. When she got like this, they knew to leave, so the girls moved to pack up without being asked, gathering their bags and coats.

As they neared the door MJ breathed in deeply, causing the girls to turn, hanging on to the possibility that she’d tell them more. “What’s exhausting me now is the current...political state of the Witch Sphere,” she said finally. “If the three of you wish to transport to the Cradle, as all witches should, I won’t stop you. But I must warn you of what that transportation will entail as soon as my energy allows me to.”

The girls were silent in the hallway and elevator, but as soon as they walked out onto MJ’s stoop, Vic let out a loud, frustrated sigh.

“Is it just me, or is she being fucking weird about transporting? And about meeting other witches in general? Like, I don’t doubt that we have magic powers and stuff but shouldn’t we have met other people like us by now?” She directed the question at Abbie, already knowing Delali would defend MJ as their mentor. But Delali, chewing on the inside of her cheek, responded before Abbie did.

“Yeah,” she said. “I agree.”

The two other girls looked at her.

“You do?” Vic asked.

Delali nodded, pulling her cashmere coat closer to her body. “She is being weird. I mean, I don’t think she’s lying to us necessarily but...something feels off.”

The girls looked at Abbie for her opinion, but she simply shrugged in response. “Why don’t we just transport somewhere and see?” she asked, her voice muffled behind the wall of her finger-knit infinity scarf.

“Just… transport somewhere?” Delali asked. “Like, to the Cradle?”

“Yeah, why not?” Abbie placed her Longchamp Le Pliage tote on the stairs and rustled through it, looking for the handbook Delali had cited during the lesson. “Isn’t that where the booklet said we should go?”

“Yeah,” Vic added. “And isn’t MJ always saying we’re gifted and exceptional and all that? Why don’t we see if she’s right?”

“Guys,” Delali said. “MJ just implied that there’s something fucked up or dangerous happening in the Sphere right now.”

“Yeah, and we just agreed that seems like bullshit,” Vic answered. “Come on. Even Abbie’s down.”

“And it’s not like you’re going alone,” said Abbie. “It’s all three of us.”

The way she said this immediately comforted Delali. She knew exactly what Abbie meant. Nothing that happened between them had been predictable or probable or reasonable, but they had all experienced it together. Despite the way the girls felt towards each other on the surface, behind all their bickering and eye rolling and judgement was another thing, an affection that underscored their relationship like the low hum of a harmony. A feeling of absolute certainty and consensus. Delali knew she’d be safe with Vic and Abbie, no matter what happened.

“Okay,” she said finally. Delali directed Abbie to the relevant page, and the girls huddled together to read it.

“So there’s no spell or potion or anything? Just direct magic?” Vic asked.

“That’s what it seems like,” said Delali

“Should we just...go from here?” Abbie asked.

Delali nodded before looking up at MJ’s window. “Well, maybe we should at least go to the street corner. You know, just in case.”

The girls gathered their things and walked to the intersection of Riverside and 114th. They stood beneath the streetlamp that lit the corner, shedding a pale white light over the darkness of the curb. It had turned to dusk while they were inside MJ’s apartment, and the temperature had plummeted ever further below freezing. The street was silent, the shadowy park their only audience.

“Do we need to hold hands?”

“Yeah, I think so. In lesson one it said the shared intent and physical proximity of two witches aggregates toward their common end, rendering acts of magic more attainable for all involved,” Delali recited. She grabbed the other girls’ gloved hands, and they all closed their eyes and focused.

At once, they felt between them a current of heat and a sudden numbness. Everything that surrounded them fell away slowly and deliberately as a whirring noise enveloped them. The sound overtook them, its volume soaring, expanding, surging, until it disappeared completely and the girls entered a loud silence. When they opened their eyes, they were no longer on a New York City street corner. Instead, they were standing between two rows of shelves in what appeared to be a grocery store. Delali’s mood plummeted, her eyes adjusting. She wasn’t sure where they were, but it definitely wasn’t the Cradle.

The girls looked around curiously. On one side was a shelf stocked with pedestrian spices: salt, pepper, Lawry’s; but when they turned to look behind them, they found a shelf lined with tiny glass jars filled with unfamiliar substances. Abbie let out a squeal then covered her mouth. She pointed to the item that had inspired the noise, a jar labeled “Cradlebark.”

“Where are we?” Vic whispered.

“I don’t know... a potion shop?” Delali peered past one of the shelves and into the aisle, her mood lifting again. It seemed they weren’t in a grocery store after all: past the rows of potion ingredients, the room opened into a huge commercial space. Delali could see a section for foodstuffs, and past that, what looked like a clothing section, then hardware. She stepped out into the aisle, and the girls followed her. In front of them, two preteen girls appeared out of thin air, giggling and holding hands. Delali, Abbie, and Vic all let out reluctant shrieks, then turned to each other and burst out laughing as the girls scurried away.

“I think those might be our fellow witches,” Abbie said, her voice giddy. She walked further into the store, gazing around her. “Oh,’ she said pointing upward.

Vic and Delali followed her finger to look at the ceiling, which was made entirely of red, yellow, and orange kaleidoscope glass. Sunlight filtered brilliantly through the pattern, and when the girls looked down, they saw that the floor danced with the colors. The whole place buzzed with a barely-perceptible melody that put the girls in a blissful mood. Was that what witch music sounded like? Around them, women milled about, shopping, chatting, and eating, indistinguishable from typic women to the untrained eye, but to the girls, sporting a radiance that immediately exposed them as witches.

“We fucked up,” Vic said as they walked further into the shop.

“Yep,” Delali agreed. She looked around in wonder, enchanted by the witches that moved swiftly and delicately around her, as if walking on air. She’d never seen so many elegant women in one place. Each one carried herself with the authority and grace that she had once attributed to MJ alone. Now she knew she could attribute it to all witches. “The Cradle is a tree. And this is…”

“Definitely not a tree,” Abbie finished. She took a warped glass bottle off a shelf. Inside was some sort of silver powder, which crackled and popped as Abbie turned it in her hand, letting out little beams of light. “Look at this,” she said to Vic and Delali.

“Is that edible?” Vic asked.

“It must be,” Delali answered. She pointed up at something that had just caught her attention— the word ‘Grocery’ in ornate gold script, floating above them as if it had been painted onto the air.

Abbie read the label aloud. “Ameliorator.”

“Well, that can’t be bad,” Delali said. “Open it.”

“You want us to shoplift in the Witch Sphere?” Vic asked. “Do you want to get us smited or something?”

Delali took the jar from Abbie’s hand and twisted it open, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one were watching. The closest cluster of witches was an aisle away, at the edge of the baby clothing department. Delali stuck her pinky in the mixture and touched it to her tongue. “Mmmm,” she sighed, almost involuntarily. “Holy shit, you guys. Try it.” Abbie and Vic tasted it, having the same uncontrollable reaction as Delali.

“Fuck,” Vic said. She took the jar from Delali’s hand, closed it, and placed it in her Prada mini backpack. She shrugged at the girls. “Smite me.”

Awwwwwww,” Abbie crooned, directing the girls’ attention to yet another marvel. A group of witches nearby glanced at them, confused by their enthusiasm. “Look at this!” She picked up a baby’s outfit from one of the racks, an oddly shaped eggplant-colored garment that seemed to have both a bodysuit and a cape.

Delali picked up a tag and read. “For safe and comfortable transportation with your newborn witch. For ages 0 to 3 months.” She couldn’t help but beam as she said it— they really were in a whole new universe.

“Y’all,” Vic said, still sucking down the taste of the ameliorator. “This is so fucking cool.”

I know,” Abbie and Delali answered in unison. The girls sifted through the offerings of the baby section— it didn’t matter that none of them were pregnant or planning to be any time soon. Every inch of the Witch Sphere fascinated them; every tangible piece of evidence that their powers weren’t a fluke was something to savor. After a few minutes of poking around, the Cradle was a distant memory, and the fact that they’d technically failed at their mission became unimportant. The girls were quiet as they read and examined, though every now and then one would gasp and turn to share a particularly weird finding with the others.

Their silence was broken abruptly by the velvety voices of two witches approaching the baby aisle. “Is Gabrielle transporting with us to The Gathering?”  one witch asked the other. She rocked her baby back and forth in one of the weird capes the girls had just been examining, hers in a bright yellow color. The girls glanced up at her before looking back to the shelves they’d been perusing, pretending to shop as they each kept an ear to the conversation, curious what witches spoke about. “I want a big group— you know, for a truly memorable arrival.”

“Gabrielle?” the other witch said in disbelief. “Gabrielle refuses to go. You know how she’s gotten since—”

“I know.”

“I can’t blame her, truthfully,” the second woman said.

The other nodded, conceding. “Things have been terrible. I heard she hasn’t spoken to her daughter in nearly a decade.” She looked quickly down at her baby. “I know it can be difficult, but to leave the Sphere entirely…” She shook her head. “I could never.”

“It’s unthinkable.”

“I thought Gabrielle may come around though, especially now that it looks like things might return to normal.”

“No,” the other witch said, and Vic stole a quick glance at the woman’s face as she shook her head. “She’s too angry—and unsure. Everything with...the Council is so up in the air these days. The last time I spoke with her she said it just felt risky with all that’s going on.”

The first witch groaned. “Enough with the circumspection, Thea. You can just say Charlotte’s name. No one cares.”

“You say that, Claudia, but it’s not true. For a lot of people this is a big deal.”

“A lot of people?” Claudia repeated. “A lot of people like me, you mean?” She gestured to the gurgling little girl at her hip. “A witch with a typic baby?”

“Oh,” Thea said with embarrassment, realizing her mistake. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—that’s not what I— of course you can refer to her...the happenings….in whatever way makes you comfortable. I didn’t want to—”

“It’s alright,” Claudia said. “It’s fine. This whole thing has just made me— has made all of us— a bit too touchy. I just can’t wait for them to get rid of her.”

“Claudia—”

“I mean it. And I hope they’re able to do it at The Gathering like I heard,” Claudia said darkly. “I hope it’s a big spectacle and we all get to see the look on Charlotte’s face when she finds out that her citizens are finally paying her back. I can’t wait to walk into 33, 26 and not see her stupid, horrible mug.”

Thea took in Claudia’s words. “If they can manage to get her out,” she responded finally.

“They can,” Claudia bluffed. Then she added, “I pray they can.”

Thea and Claudia were quiet for a charged minute before Thea let out a loud sigh. “Okay,” she said, obviously desperate to change the subject. “I’m starving. Can we get something to eat? The food court’s just downstairs.”

Claudia stared off into the distance, distracted by her anger, until Thea touched her arm. “Yeah,” she said, startled back to attention. “Yeah, that’s fine.” Thea nodded, silent, and followed Claudia as she began to walk. The witches sauntered past the girls, not paying them any mind, and the girls watched the pair until they disappeared.

After a while, Abbie spoke. “I wanna go back,” she said quietly.

“Yeah,” said Vic, her voice uncharacteristically small. “Me too.”

“Okay,” Delali answered. She understood the girls’ darkened mood instantly. Though she wasn’t as shaken as the others, the sudden reality of the Witch Sphere, a world with its own troubles and dangers, had brought her forcefully back to reality, too. The girls looked at each other, knowing they were all thinking the same thing: what the fuck are we doing?

The girls grabbed hands, performing their magic robotically, and transported back to the city, where they found themselves several blocks away from MJ’s apartment. There was hardly any need to debrief— they’d all the heard the same thing. The Gathering they had been looking forward to with the excitement of schoolkids awaiting a field trip wasn’t a safe place. In fact, it sounded like it would be the site of some sort of political confrontation. MJ hadn’t lied about trying to protect them— maybe she’d even wanted to keep them from The Gathering altogether. The girls walked silently towards the 96th street subway station, shivering as they felt the cold of the night fully for the first time.

Although Nadine tried to be modest about her intelligence, she had always prided herself on being a bright young witch—she’d graduated at the top of her class at 81, 22 and secured one of the few entry level research positions at the WIH without the influence of her family. But after her first trip to New York with the intention of finding the Mothers, Nadine realized that it was foolish, bordering on arrogant, to believe that her intellect alone could help her identify the Mothers in a city of almost nine million people.

She’d transported from her apartment to a dark alley before stepping out into the swirling masses of people, trying to identify among them the three women who’d been honored with the magic of the Mothers. But immersed in the chaos of the Lower East Side on a Friday night, she immediately realized what a stupid assumption she’d made. The Mothers could've been anyone—the woman draped in a bachelorette party sash and the two friends she linked arms with; the three toddlers a frazzled nanny was pushing in a wide stroller; three generations of women, grandmother, mother, and daughter, descending into the subway. Or they could have been three women with absolutely no connection to one another—a fortune teller living in Flushing, a flight attendant who’d spent just an hour in New York the weekend of September 1st, a little girl on her first day of 4th grade at an UES prep school. The sheer enormity of the task Nadine had undertaken overwhelmed her. Before launching herself even further into the chaos of the night, she took refuge in a nearby cafe, attempting to calm herself down. Once she felt she was ready, Nadine had wandered aimlessly for an hour or two, making weird eye contact with random women on the street before transporting back to her apartment, both defeated and determined to think of a better plan.

She'd gone armed with the brief that Camille and the other agents had prepared, which detailed the locations and levels of the spikes, but once she failed, Nadine realized there was no way the agents had simply set out on foot with nothing else to aid them, not with the full support of the Regent behind them. Nadine’s work with the WIH didn’t confer her any special access to the internal happenings of other Council-affiliated bodies, but the charmed keychain she had as a Council employee did allow her entry to all the major government buildings. A few days after her first failed trip to New York, she resolved to abuse this privilege for the first time.

Nadine waved her WIH keychain in front of the rippling pad before her, hoping that its surface would flatten and flash a bright blue before granting her access to the room. But she had no such luck. Not even Nadine’s clearance level, elevated because of her special work on the AME, could get her into the room that housed the special tools used by agents on the Shrouded Vow Taskforce. Nadine felt her shoulders drop, discouraged, as she stared at the oscillating pad before her, but then she had a thought. She rolled up one of the extra-long sleeves of her sweater, concentrating as she gently touched the tip of her index finger to the access pad. She muttered quietly to herself, finishing with a confident, “Say it loudly from your breast.” The warbling of the pad slowed then stopped, the light going dead entirely. Nadine grasped the handle of the door, letting out a long breath as it clicked open in front of her.

Before she’d started working at the WIH, Nadine had never really thought about the unconventional ways the Executioner power could be used, but now she thought of almost nothing else. The idea of stripping someone of their powers still unsettled her, but as she meditated more and more on her family’s history—and on the Mothers—Nadine could feel herself beginning to warm to the idea, if only in a single, very specific context. It was the one thing she couldn’t bring herself to speak to either her mother or Dr. Diop about: the possibility that perhaps Nadine’s role in all this, from her research to her discovery of what she was convinced was a new Cradle, was to find the Mothers and execute them, as her ancestor had done in the myth. The thought made her stomach turn, but she had grown up in a world that believed in prophecy, relied on destiny. Perhaps the Betrayer had only done what she had been destined to do, in turn leading Nadine to her fated duty— her duty to harness the powers of the Mothers and restore the Witch Sphere to its pre-Shatter balance. She’d thought she was crazy at first, but with her new knowledge of the earthquake, Nadine had steadily convinced herself this was how things needed to be—that the Mothers had returned because they felt the Witch Sphere needed them again, and they were waiting for her to act out her portion of the myth, the portion that came once they decided their work was done.

There was a tool members of the Shrouded Vow Taskforce had access to that Nadine was vaguely aware of, and that was only because it was the product of a joint venture between them and the WIH. Years ago, when Nadine had first started working, the taskforce had approached Dr. Diop with a plan to develop a new kind of recorder, a mobile tool that could quantify the magic in a radius as small as one square block. It was supposed to help agents as they investigated on foot, when they didn’t have the benefit of the map or the older, clunkier apparatuses they kept in the office.

Nadine stepped into the dark room, letting out a quiet yelp when the overhead lights turned on, sensing her presence. In the light, she could see the rows and rows of shelves displaying tools in duplicate, some of them small and compact and others so large and sprawling Nadine couldn’t imagine how they’d be useful to a mobile team. She wandered through the rows, lights flicking on above her as she walked, looking for the recorder as she remembered it, a slim golden rectangle that resembled a smart phone. When she spotted it, there were only two on the shelf. Maybe Camille and other agents were out right now, using the others; maybe they had been quietly investigating the earthquake, unbeknownst to the rest of the Council. Nadine had never done anything like this before—she wasn't one to break rules— and a rush of excitement gripped her as she snatched the recorder and ran out of the room, looking twice over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching her.

Nadine transported from the hall outside the room directly to the alley on the Lower East Side, rather ungracefully. Because of her excitement, she hadn’t taken the requisite time to center herself beforehand, and her knees buckled as she landed, sending her crashing into the wall. After she recovered, Nadine pressed the small, round button beneath the recorder’s black screen, becoming frustrated when it didn’t turn on. Then she remembered that this was a defense mechanism, to impede any typic’s attempt to use the tool. Nadine sent a targeted jolt of magic through the button and three lines popped up on the screen; the one at the bottom a pale lavender, the second a deep, rich purple, and the topmost a thick line of glowing gold: atmospheric magic, the magic of witches, and the Baseline composite.

Nadine wandered aimlessly for a while, testing the recorder and making sure she knew how it worked. As she neared a couple on the sidewalk, leaving what appeared to be a successful first date, the atmospheric magic line spiked, sending the Baseline minutely  higher before it leveled out again. When she accidentally bumped into a woman in a sleek, dark trench coat, her short, natural hair dyed an inky blue-black, the line representing the magic of witches flashed quickly, letting Nadine know she was in the presence of another witch. It seemed simple enough, so she decided to head back to the places where disturbances had registered on the map, hoping, even praying, that the women who housed the magic of the Mothers had decided to retrace their steps.

She was close to Tompkins Square Park, where one of the highest spikes in the Baseline had occurred, but upon investigation, the park was unremarkable. It wasn’t as late as it had been the first night Nadine had come searching for the Mothers, so the park was not yet filled with drunken revelers, and it was too cold for people to gather on the benches the way they would in the summer. Only a handful of people dotted the sparse landscape, and when Nadine glanced at the recorder as she traversed the park, the lines all stayed essentially flat, the atmospheric magic line warbling minutely as she walked. She paused in front of a cafe called IQ Espresso, where another disturbance had been logged back in September, but quickly walked away when the measure of the magic of witches declined sharply. Plus, the coffee shop had a B health grade.

Nadine’s resolve and excitement begin to dissipate. She had almost exhausted all the disturbance sites in the Lower East Side, and there was nothing to even suggest she was on the right track. The recorder was useful in identifying when she crossed paths with a witch, but they’d been few and far between considering the dreary weather, and for the most part the night was identical to her trip without the recorder: she wandered around the city retracing the steps of Camille and the other agents, naively hoping that she would catch something that they had not.

The last site on the Lower East Side was the stretch of sidewalk outside a drab looking place called The Bar. Nadine looked at the screen of the recorder. The atmospheric magic line jerked upward as Nadine stepped into the room, but it quickly settled back to normal as she looked around at the thinning crowd of students. There was nothing out of the ordinary in The Bar, but she felt compelled to stay. After all, it was here where the first disturbance had registered on the map, the first of those spiky dots that shocked the Council.

She settled on a stool at the bar, pulling off her dark cape and hanging it on a hook beneath the counter. She figured if she was going to spend some time waiting here, she may as well have something to drink. Nadine signaled to the bartender, glancing admiringly at his strong jawline and the elaborate siren tattoo that climbed up his forearm before ordering.

“Could I have a soda water?” she asked.

“Soda water…” he repeated, looking at her quizzically. “Like a vodka soda, without the vodka?”

Nadine nodded. She didn’t want anything that could dull her senses.

He chuckled. “Yeah, sure.” He filled a glass with seltzer and set it down in front of her. He locked eyes with Nadine, their fingers touching against the glass, and she felt heat prickle all over her body.

“Thanks,” Nadine said, working to keep her voice even. She swiveled around on her stool and took a sip from her glass, ignoring the sharp increase in atmospheric magic that registered on the monitor’s screen, too focused on finding the Mothers to think of anything else.

Nadine at a bar

A petite girl in a boxy navy coat ducked into The Bar, shaking snowflakes from the soft cloud of tightly curled hair framing her face. Nadine looked down at the tool in her hand, expecting to see the dark purple line blaze to inform her that a witch had just walked into The Bar—that perhaps, one of the Mothers had arrived—but nothing happened. The lines continued to jut up and dip down around their averages. Disappointed, Nadine drank the rest of her seltzer and sent another jolt of magic into the tool, turning it off before standing to leave.

She opened the door and immediately collided with a girl heading into The Bar, charging forward brusquely.

“Oh sorry,” the girl said to Nadine without looking at her, instead peering into the bar intently as though looking for someone.

“No problem,” Nadine said, and she made her way outside, heading back to the alley so she could transport home.

Vic felt her cheeks begin to thaw as soon as she entered The Bar, a welcome change from the icy weather outside. She unwrapped her oversized burgundy scarf from her neck, apologizing to the woman she’d practically knocked over in her haste and smoothing the snowflakes that dotted her hair until they melted. It had begun to flurry on her walk from the subway to The Bar, and while the thin white sheet of snow blanketing the city looked beautiful now, it made Vic sick to think about the dirty gray and yellow slush it would be by the morning.

“Whoa,” Faizan said. He carefully placed a drink in front of a girl sitting at the bar, ignoring her breathy thank you. Vic blinked at him, surprised he didn’t take the easy bait. “Who’s after you?” he asked with a grin.

“I was supposed to meet someone like half an hour go,” she said, scanning the room. She caught sight of Tatiana seated at a two-person table in the back, raising her manicured hand to get Vic’s attention. “Talk to you later,” she said to Faizan, turning to push through the crowd of people. The Bar was in that transitional late afternoon to evening period, where people started ordering alcoholic drinks but the wifi had yet to be shut off, the space filled with a mixture of students and young professionals who’d just gotten off work.

“Hey,” Vic breathed as she reached the table. “Sorry I’m late. The wedding I was working ran over.” Earlier in the day, she’d been a bridesmaid at a weekday wedding between two teachers who wanted to get married at the school where they worked. The reception had been held during a pep rally, and Vic had had to dress up as cheerleader, since the varsity squad refused to support the union.  

“Hey,” Tatiana said, standing. “No worries.” They hugged, and when Tatiana pressed a brief kiss to Vic’s cheek, Vic felt a flare of nerves rise up in her stomach. Tatiana sat back down, and Vic hung her Moncler coat on the back of her chair.

“So,” Vic said, sitting. She caught Tatiana’s eye and gave her a shy smile.

“So,” Tatiana replied, smiling back. It had been three weeks since they had run into each other at Maya and Jerome’s wedding, three weeks since their unexpected kiss. They had tried to meet up twice in the interim—once for drinks and once for dinner—but Vic had had to cancel both times because of her busy work schedule. Before Vic agreed to her first wedding around a month ago, Penelope had warned her that she was signing on at a busy time—there was always a rush of people trying to get married before the holidays, and Vic wanted to work as much as possible before things slowed down over the winter only to ramp up again in the spring. She’d been working three, sometimes four weddings a week, but despite her exhaustion, Vic had texted Tatiana early in the afternoon, asking her to meet at The Bar: she really wanted to see her again. But sitting here, at this table, surrounded by all these people, didn’t feel quite right to Vic. All she wanted to do was lie down on her couch and take off the yellow press-on nails she’d had to wear for today’s wedding; and after she and Tatiana had dissolved all the pretenses of their relationship at the wedding, the last thing Vic wanted to do was build them back up with a forced, formal first date.

“Not to be annoying, but do you mind if we just hang out in my apartment instead?” Vic asked, nervous that she might sound too forward. “I live just upstairs and I’m dying to get into a pair of leggings. Plus, I have tons of wine. My roommates and I got like, thirty bottles for our housewarming.”

Tatiana laughed. “Yeah, sure, that’s fine.”

Vic’s shoulders dropped in relief. “Awesome,” she said, gathering up her things. She and Tatiana exited The Bar and walked around the corner to the residents’ entrance, Tatiana shifting her weight from foot to foot as Vic rooted around in her bag for her keys. “Sorry,” she said as she finally pulled them out. She opened the door, and the pair stepped into the elevator, Vic leaning against the back wall.

“So how was work at the bakery?” she asked as they reached the fifth floor.

Tatiana made a noncommittal noise at the back of her throat, following Vic to the door of her apartment. “Tolerable,” she said. “There were no helicopter parent meltdowns, which always marks the day as a success in my book. Shoes off?” she asked as they walked through the doorway.

“Yeah, please,” Vic said, sliding out of her own snakeskin slip-on sneakers. “My roommate is crazy about germs,” she added with a laugh.

“Same, to be honest,” said Tatiana, and there was a small lull in the conversation as  they took off their coats and bags.

“You can make yourself comfortable,” Vic said, pointing to the Chateau D’ax sofa. “I’m just gonna run to my room for a sec.”

“Sounds good,” Tatiana said. She settled on the edge of the couch.

Vic rushed into her room, stripping off her jeans and sweater before turning to poke around her closet in search of her favorite pair of black leggings and one of the many KBA T-shirts she’d accumulated over her four years of college. When she walked back into the living room, Tatiana was standing in front of the sliding door that led out to the balcony, watching the snow settle over the city in a thickening sheet.