“Vic!” Vic heard from behind her, and she turned to see Abbie approaching, on her way out of the subway. She looked at her conversation with Tatiana one last time, checking to see if the ellipsis bubble had turned into a message—it hadn’t—before carefully dropping her phone into the depths of her bag. They had spoken on and off since the weirdness of the other night, but Tatiana had yet to respond to Vic’s request to see each other tomorrow morning before she flew home to Louisiana for Christmas. Vic didn’t want to admit to herself how nervous it made her, and she’d been basically glued to her phone for days.
“Hey,” Vic said, eyeing Abbie’s outfit as she caught up. Abbie wore a pair of tight black jeans, a chic hunter green coat cut close to her body, and a pair of booties with—Vic was shocked to notice—a slim gold anklet over one of them.
“What do you think?” Abbie asked when she noticed Vic looking. “When I had coffee with Yasmine on Thursday, she was wearing one and I thought it was kind of cool.” She turned her foot out to the side, modeling.
“Yeah, I like it,” Vic said, wondering when Abbie had gotten on first name terms with Yasmine Bridges. She’d known Abbie had met her at CurlyCon—Abbie’s selfie with Yasmine was one of her most liked pictures on Instagram—but Vic didn’t know they'd kept in touch.
“Thanks,” Abbie said, giving Vic a small, pleased smile as they turned the corner onto MJ’s block. In the distance, they saw Delali standing at the top of the stoop, a tray of coffees on the arm of the staircase beside her.
It was the first time the girls had seen each other again since their transporting experiment, and their group chat had gone uncharacteristically silent in recent weeks. None of them really knew what to say following MJ’s recounting of the myth of the Mothers and their new awareness of the dark currents running through a magical world they didn’t fully understand. The trip had been bleaker than they wanted to accept, and the story was too fantastical and outrageous—the starfire, a tree sprouting from absence (whatever that meant), and magical essences held in a jar. But then they thought of their lives over the past few months: the way they had yanked Vic’s phone out of midair with a thread of light; the way their individual powers had manifested; the way MJ and her mentorship materialized out of nowhere. That was all ridiculous, too—but it was also all completely true. Accepting the myth of the Mothers seemed no different than accepting the reality of their powers, and recoiling from the Sphere because it wasn’t some enchanted utopia didn’t make sense now, when they were so close to finally attending The Gathering.
“Hey,” Delali said as Abbie and Vic reached her. “I grabbed us all coffees.”
“Ugh, you're a lifesaver,” Abbie said. She took a greedy sip of the skinny caramel macchiato Delali had picked up for her—was it possible that Delali actually could read her and Vic’s minds?—and let the cup warm her fingers. She’d been up late last night working on the special holiday collaboration she was doing with Pusherman, the manufacturer of the hottest new glue gun on the market, which had a special lever mechanism that pushed the glue sticks all the way to the end, so you never ended up with those stubby, unmelted pieces.
“Thanks,” Vic said more coolly, grabbing her Americano. Delali gave her a gracious smile, ignoring her tone. After her 60 Minutes triumph and the Deadline exclusive announcing she’d gotten the role of Lorraine Hansberry in Sit Awhile, Lionel had messaged Delali to say that she was being inundated with press requests for her first back-to-Hollywood profile. That, alongside the news that Celeste hadn’t even gotten to audition before Delali was offered the role, had her feeling particularly charitable—not even Vic’s saltiness could bring her down.
The girls crowded inside the elevator of MJ’s building, taking the now-familiar ride up to her penthouse. She opened the door wordlessly, walking to her armchair without waiting for the girls. Abbie, Delali, and Vic exchanged a look before following her. Things felt different: the energy in the apartment had shifted. Where they usually felt like they were entering the warmth of a coffee with a favorite professor, today they instead felt like they were entering a business meeting, one where they might be scolded for doing something wrong.
“Ladies.” MJ gestured to the couch in front of her. “Please take a seat.”
They looked at each other one last time before doing so, and MJ relaxed a bit, reclining. There was a long, pronounced silence before Abbie broke in, unable to take it any longer. She hated awkward silences more than anything, even more than when tacky glue that was supposedly clear dried white.
“So…,” she said slowly, pushing up the sleeves of her gray-and-white striped sweater. “What’s today’s lesson?”
MJ took a breath. “There isn’t one,” she said. “At least, you won’t be mastering a new skill today.” She let the girls stare at her in confusion before she continued, folding her hands on her lap. “I’m sure you all remember that in one of our earliest lessons, we discussed governance in the Witch Sphere—who makes sure that we’re following the rules, and how. You had many questions about the Regent and her Council— how they’re elected, how long they serve, even how they dress— and I attempted to answer them all in stride.” The girls nodded, quietly fearful of what this retracing might signify. “But I wasn’t totally forthcoming with you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Delali, an accusatory edge to her voice.
MJ looked at Delali, then the other girls, with a disturbing sobriety. “Despite the… antiquated arrangement, the government has typically operated without great conflict. While the Regent’s word is generally law, the Council has always had a very material impact on the governing of the Sphere. They have functioned as the only true limit to the Regent’s power. But that all changed when Charlotte ascended the throne,” she said.
“What’s wrong with her?” Vic asked.
MJ laced and unlaced her fingers while she thought of what to say next. She dug a hand into her curls and fluffed. Then finally she stood, circling her chair in a tight path before pacing the perimeter of the room. The girls leaned back on the couch, quiet with confusion. They had never seen MJ so clearly at a loss for words. Even when she went off plan, there was always a seamlessness to the way she spoke to them, the vague sense that she had anticipated this possibility and already prepared for it, something they had always chalked up to her Seeing ability and competence as a mentor. But this was nothing like that. It seemed, for the first time, that MJ was truly off book.
“Charlotte wasn’t ready for the regency when she ascended the throne.” MJ said finally. “It’s possible that she could have gotten a handle on things, but certain events early in her reign made it impossible for her to grow into her power in a healthy way. There was a failed campaign to force her to abdicate, and since then, she’s felt threatened by the Council and their influence. She’s become a tyrant,” MJ said gravely.
She made a last lap around the living room before settling back into her chair. “She uses her position to terrorize witches across the Sphere. She’s padded the High Council with her friends and their daughters, making them act as a network of spies to draw out and dispose of all her dissidents. What’s most dispiriting, however, is that, she is the reason magic is dying out.”
Delali held up her hand, swallowing before speaking. “Magic is dying out? How?”
“Yeah,” Abbie jumped in. “How is that possible? We just got our powers.”
“Yes,” MJ conceded. “You can see why I left this out of your early lessons. But you girls are an anomaly; surely you’ve realized that by now. Most women don’t suddenly come into their powers—they’re born with them, marked with them from birth. But ever since Charlotte took power, the number of babies being born with magic has steadily declined. There is reason to believe she’s harvesting the powers for herself and her lackeys. Girls,” MJ said. She moved to the edge of her chair and looked at each of them in turn. “The Cradle is dying.”
“Wait, sorry,” Vic said. “The tree is dying?”
MJ nodded. “The Cradle, yes.”
“Okay,” Vic said. “Which means what exactly?”
“It means that we’re all at risk,” MJ said somberly. “The Cradle is the anchor of our world, yes, but it also is our world. I am a branch on the Cradle. And so are you,” she said, gesturing at Vic. “As are you and you.” She pointed at Abbie and Delali.
“So if the Cradle dies…” Abbie began.
“Every witch will lose her powers,” MJ finished. “The way my powers are weakening with age— as the tree dies, that will be the fate of every witch, her powers slowly diminishing until one day they disappear completely.”
The girls considered this quietly, realizing that this is what they must have overheard when they’d transported.
“That can’t happen,” said Delali, sitting up straighter. They’d only had their powers for a few months, and Delali had only gotten proficient in picking and choosing what minds she wanted to read a couple of weeks ago. She couldn’t lose her powers now.
“I agree,” MJ said. “And it appears that the universe feels the same,” she continued before pausing briefly. “I had a vision about you girls this morning.” The girls all leaned forward on the couch, even Vic’s attention captured.
“It told me what I’ve suspected since I saw you that day in the restaurant. This is why you girls came into your powers. Why I was led to you. You three are destined to liberate the Witch Sphere from Charlotte and her High Council’s tyranny.”
There was a long moment where none of the girls knew how to react. They knew, with a reluctant certainty, that what MJ said was likely true. Over the last few months, they had slowly begun to question whether there really was such a thing as coincidence, considering all that had brought them together and everything that had happened since that night in September. Now, with MJ’s vision, it seemed there was no way they’d overheard what they had by accident, but it was also hard to believe that the vague ‘they’ the witches had ominously said would “take care” of Charlotte could be the three of them. Abbie reached to toy with the braided bracelet she usually had around her wrist, clenching her hand into a fist when she remembered she’d pulled it off earlier that day. Vic fought the urge to whip out her phone and scroll through Twitter, which is what she usually did when she was confronted with a task she didn’t want to deal with. Only Delali tried to respond, though no words came out: she let out little stuttering sounds as she thought of what to say.
Finally, she asked, “How?” surprising even herself with the implicit acceptance of the task.
The question stirred MJ to action. She stood and turned away from the girls, examining the long rows of the bookshelves as she muttered to herself. “It’s here somewhere…” she said, reading the spines of the books. She walked along the room until she found what she was looking for, a thin book bound in worn burgundy leather, wedged between two massive tomes on the shelf above her crystal ball. “There’s an old binding spell,” MJ said as she made her way back over to the girls. She flipped through the book’s old pages. As MJ sat, Vic caught a large, dark embossed X on its cover, but couldn’t make out any of the other letters, even when she squinted.
“If done correctly, it will temporarily strip Charlotte of her powers, providing some time to remove her from power and end the Regency. The words and accompanying ritual are fairly simple, but it’s difficult to cast correctly,” MJ said, her head bent toward the book. “No one is sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with intent, the level of singular focus a witch needs while performing the ritual. Your mastery of intention is probably the reason you’ve been called to this.”
“Called to this…” Vic repeated, just as Delali said, “I’m confused.”
Delali placed a steadying hand on the couch as she leaned forward, grasping at some of the loose threads in MJ’s words. “When?” she asked. “And what happens after she’s removed?”
MJ stopped flipping and held the book open on her lap. “The Council, I’m sure, will step in and hold elections for a temporary leader while they can organize more comprehensive elections for all residents in the Witch Sphere. “And to your first question, in my vision I saw a party, which I suspect is The Gathering. It makes sense...the event has always been a New Year of sorts for us, a time to celebrate new beginnings. The removal of Charlotte surely fits the bill.”
Abbie looked at her, doubtful. “So, we’ll be casting the spell at The Gathering? That sounds... chaotic.”
“It would be,” MJ agreed. “But binding spells don’t take effect immediately. It takes a lot to bind a witch's magic. You’ll have to do it a few days beforehand.”
“How long will they lose their powers for?” Vic asked.
MJ glanced down at the open pages of the book before looking back up at the girls. “Well, that depends on you girls. Binding is always temporary, but how long the spell lasts comes from a combination of things: the power of the witch casting the spell and her intention. Between the three of you, I’m sure you can bind them for a year—”
“A year?” Abbie cut in. “That’s so long!
MJ crossed her legs and gave Abbie a long look. “I suppose it’s a matter of perspective,” she said. “To me, a year without powers for Charlotte is much less than a lifetime without powers for all of you.”
The girls were silent, looking at MJ before they turned their gazes to the floor, and then, finally, to each other. Abbie caught Delali’s eyes, her mouth stuck at something between a grimace and a frown. When they turned to Vic, she stared blankly back at them for a while before sighing and giving them a resigned eye-roll.
“Fine, I guess,” she said to no one in particular. She turned back to MJ, sliding her rose quartz ring up and down her index finger. “How does the spell work? Are we going to start learning it today?”
MJ stood again, this time crossing the distance to the girls. “Unfortunately, this is something I can’t teach you three,” she said, handing Vic the book. She took a step back to address them all. “In fact, the nature of the spell means I can’t even be in the same room while you all practice it. This is something you’ll have to do on your own— but I believe in your abilities. You girls are special, you’ve trained well, and the timing of my vision has made it clear that you are ready. Whatever direction I’ve given pales in comparison to the natural abilities that have caused the universe—the Mothers— to entrust you with this duty. You’ve come a long way from your first lesson, and I’m certain you are capable. I’ll see you three on the first of February.” MJ concluded with a proud, encouraging smile that quickly disappeared from her face as though it had been an accident. She stood, and though she didn’t dismiss the girls, they knew she wouldn’t field any more questions, and they gathered their things before heading to the elevator.
“Okay,” Vic said as they spilled out of MJ’s building and onto the stoop. “What the actual fuck?” she demanded as she stomped down the stairs. “I don’t know about y’all, but I didn’t sign up for all this.”
“But you just agreed,” Delali countered. It wasn’t accusatory, and yet, Vic took a step away from her as though she’d been attacked.
“I mean, yeah,” Vic said as though it were obvious. “Now that we have our powers, we can’t just lose them. That would suck.”
“I know,” Abbie said. “And I just keep thinking of those little babies without magic.” She pressed her hand to her chest, frowning. “We have to help them.”
“I guess,” Vic grumbled, pulling up the Rydeäp app on her phone. “Mine?” she asked.
Delali blinked at her. “You wanna start practicing now?” she asked, surprised.
Vic shrugged. “Why not? We’ve already blocked off this time for a lesson,” she said. “Besides, we’re not going to be able to see each other again for a few weeks. I go home for Christmas tomorrow.”
“True, I fly home on Monday night for three weeks,” Abbie said, thinking anxiously of all the DIY ornaments she had yet to finish. “This is our last session for a while.” She crossed her arms over her chest as a stinging wind whipped across her face. “Weird.”
An odd somberness settled over the girls as they took the short car ride from MJ’s apartment to Vic’s. She had confirmed her roommates weren’t home, and the girls all sat around Vic’s chrome and glass coffee table, Abbie and Delali on the gray leather sectional and Vic on the chevron-patterned accent chair.
“So,” Vic said as she pulled the book from her purse. It was heavy, despite it slim appearance. “This is it, I guess.” She looked for the page MJ had dog-eared and opened the book, placing it on the coffee table. The three girls leaned inward, crowding around to read the page. It didn’t say much. The spell was untitled and handwritten on the page in a fine, swooping print.
To perform the perfect binding
Question all that you are finding
Handed to the one we trust
Use it only if you must
Should you choose that this is best
Say it loudly from your breast
“That’s it?” Abbie said. In their second lesson, they’d learned that spells, especially difficult ones, often came with lengthy instructions dictating the position of a witch’s head, hands, and body, sometimes even specifying her volume or pace. “It doesn’t even say how many times to repeat.”
“Well, MJ did say it was more about intention than anything else,” Delali said, though she too felt unsure. “Let’s just try it.”
Vic and Abbie nodded, and, focusing intently on the page before them, the girls began to chant. They said the words in unison once, but felt none of the usual sensations— the heat, the white noise, the weightlessness. They tried again, only to be met with more of the same: nothing.
“Ugh,” Abbie groaned dramatically.
Delali and Vic looked at her.
“What?” she said, defensive. “It’s just so effing annoying that MJ won’t help us. And this book isn’t any better— it’s like taking a test with no study guide!” She neglected to mention that she was struggling partly because she kept getting distracted by a picture on the mantle of Vic’s fireplace. In the photo, Vic was at The Bar, surrounded by a group of pretty girls wearing head-to-toe lavender and turquoise, but Abbie’s eyes were immediately drawn to Faizan in the background, grinning wolfishly at something—someone, probably—just outside the frame. She would never be able to effectively hone her intention with thoughts of Faizan’s continued radio silence weighing on her.
“Okay, we can’t just get frustrated because a spell didn’t work the very first time,” Delali said, her tone sharp.
“Wait,” Vic said. She held her hands out to Abbie and Delali. They both stared at her. “Come on,” she said. “Did you guys already forget about shared intent, physical proximity, and all that?”
“Oh, duh,” Delali said, taking Vic’s hand. Her brain was so full of Sit Awhile obligations that she could barely think straight.
Abbie took Vic’s other hand and closed her eyes. “It’ll help me focus better,” she explained, which wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Good idea,” Delali said. She closed her eyes too, and Vic followed suit. Delali counted quietly, and on three, and the girls started to repeat the words for a third time. They felt the difference immediately, a tickling pressure spreading over their arms and the familiar warmth growing in their chests. They repeated the spell again and again, their voices falling into an eerie chant. With each repetition their chanting was faster, and the warmth, now running through them, grew hotter and hotter with each word. Then, abruptly, the heat flooded from their bodies, and a damp coldness rushed in to take its place. The girls stopped chanting mid-verse and opened their eyes, disoriented.
“Ew, what the fuck?” Vic said, rubbing her arms. Though they were perfectly dry, her whole body felt slimy and wet. She looked at Delali and Abbie, and from their disgusted expressions guessed they felt the same way.
“Um,” said Abbie. “I don’t think that was supposed to happen.”
“Obviously,” said Delali with an eye-roll. “But we did everything right. ”
Vic sat back down in her chair, eyeing her messy bedroom through the open doorway. “Well, I know I’m not giving a hundred percent of my intention. I can’t stop thinking about how I haven’t even finished packing for my flight.” That and she was desperate to charge her phone and see whether Tatiana had texted her back yet.
“Same,” Abbie sighed. “I still have so much Christmas shopping to do.”
“Well, I’m busy too,” Delali said, surprising herself with the frustration she felt at MJ suddenly dumping this on them. Her parents were coming to New York for the holidays, and she still needed to do a sweep of her apartment, hiding and throwing away things she didn’t want them to see. “Maybe we should just hit pause until we’re all back in the city?”
“Yeah,” said Abbie, taking one last look at Vic’s fireplace mantle before standing to grab her coat. Vic nodded in agreement.
Delali and Abbie gathered their things and hugged Vic before leaving her apartment, the unpleasant sensation of the failed binding spell still clinging to their skin.
After the holidays, it took Abbie a little while to get used to her life in New York again. She hadn’t realized how desperately she needed to get out of the city until she left and was sleeping in her old bed, eating her dad’s cooking, and hanging out in downtown Burlington with her high school friends, thoughts of magic, Dan, and MJ firmly out of her head. She only used her magic once during her three-week vacation from the city—to drain her younger brother’s glass when he was getting too drunk at Christmas dinner—and she’d relished the banality of it all, even though she never got her eyebrows perfectly identical without the extra help of her powers. Her group chat with Vic and Delali slowed to a crawl, a break that secretly thrilled her, and it had been so nice to just get in her car and drive, free at last from the screech and lurch of the unpredictable subway.
When Abbie got back to New York, she felt totally refreshed. Over the break, she’d completed all of her lesson plans through the end of the school year, and she and Yasmine had developed a new YouTube challenge they planned to film together before tagging all of their other fave natural hair bloggers. But, Abbie remembered as she passed The Cheesecake Factory during a hellish visit to return a Christmas present to the Forever 21 in Times Square, all kinds of uncomfortable, unresolved situations still waited for her in the city. After her tentative Happy Hanukkah text to Dan went unanswered, she’d opted not to send him a Happy New Year message. Faizan, at least, had replied to her Happy New Year WhatsApp, but his subdued “you too.” didn’t exactly put her at ease.
She and Faizan had tried to talk things through on the phone once, when he was in London and she was back in Vermont, but the conversation had been so uncomfortable Abbie had ended the call early, saying she had a family party to get to. She had, mistakenly, assumed that her ability to influence people’s emotions erased their original feelings. Instead, her power just made it more difficult for them to understand their emotions once they finally accessed them again. Hearing the detached, robotic nature of Faizan’s voice as he talked about how hurt he ‘remembered feeling’—as though those feelings had happened to someone else entirely—was just too weird.
Abbie knew he’d been back in New York for a few weeks. The BARber Instagram was flush with pictures of the new cuts he’d done in his living room, and his personal account was filled with his usual #trusttheprocess and #riseandgrind selfies as he went around the city #hustling. As much as she wanted to reach out, Abbie had forced herself to stay away, letting Faizan decide when he wanted to talk. Or not talk, which Abbie would have been okay with too. But then, a couple nights ago, he’d posted a shirtless mirror pic of a new tattoo he must’ve gotten while he was in London, a slender Quran verse following the curve of his ribs. Abbie guessed the caption was an English translation: So let not this present life deceive you.
The word ‘deceive’ caused a pang in her stomach, and the mild thirst trap had Abbie guessing at Faizan’s motives for hours. Did he want her to see the picture and hit him up so they could start hooking up again? Or did he want her to see the picture and hit him up just so he could ignore her? Eventually, Abbie, energized by a sip of Daring Draught, had decided to send him a DM complimenting him on the tattoo, surprising herself with the sharp flare of excitement she felt when a text notification from Faizan popped up a few minutes later. They’d started talking on and off again—a slower, more stilted conversation than how things had been before the Dan reveal, but a conversation nonetheless. Last night, when Abbie had hinted at them seeing each other again sometime soon, Faizan had suggested that she swing by The Bar towards the end of his shift and they could “see what happened,” which is how Abbie found herself on the Lower East Side at midnight on a Thursday.
Abbie stomped the snow out of her Hunter rain boots in the doorway of The Bar, glancing quickly around the room. The space was filled with people taking advantage of the Thursday late night happy hour drink deal, many of them drunkenly jeering at the TV as it replayed the truly disappointing game the Nets and the Knicks had played earlier that night.
“Hey Joe,” Abbie said, unzipping her maroon down jacket. She settled on a stool near the door before pinching at the cheap red and pink tinsel lining the bar. Abbie wrinkled her nose. If Faizan and Joe had let her know they planned on decorating The Bar for Valentine’s Day, she would’ve worked her connections at Chenillionaire to get them some higher quality stuff.
Joe nodded at her. “Hi.” He turned to open a Modelo and place it in front of a white guy wearing a visor.
Abbie straightened, taken aback by Joe’s sudden coolness. She hadn’t considered that Faizan would tell Joe about their disastrous dinner, but Joe’s standoffish behavior suggested that he had.
She pulled her phone out of her bag and shot Faizan a “where are you” text, looking around the room again.
“He’s downstairs getting some stuff out of storage,” Joe said as though reading her mind. “We ran out of Fireball,” he explained.
“Oh,” Abbie said. So Faizan was telling Joe everything. “Cool, thanks.” She ordered an Angry Orchard and looked at the clock, watching as it ticked from 12:10, to 12:15, to 12:30. Abbie yawned, swiveling back on forth on her stool. As she swung to face the bar again, she made accidental eye contact with a guy sitting at one of the long, rectangular tables. She looked away quickly, but, against her better judgement, turned back around to see if he was still looking at her, only to find he was. She turned again, letting out a quiet breath when she heard him sit on the stool beside her.
Abbie looked at him, feeling her mouth stretch into a small involuntarily smile. “Hey,” she replied, giving him a discreet once-over. He was cuter now that he’d shed the pack of guys in gingham shirts and fleece hedge fund vests hooting at the basketball game. She liked the dark blue of his crewneck sweater and the clean line of his shape up, sharp enough that even Faizan, who shit-talked almost every haircut he didn’t give, would probably grudgingly praise it.
“This might sound kinda weird, but I feel like I know you from somewhere.” He spun his beer on the bar’s surface, leaving a wet circle behind. “Did you go to Penn State?”
Abbie shook her head. “Nope.”
“I’ve definitely seen you before,” he said, squinting at her for a long, uncomfortable moment before snapping his fingers. “TFA—we met at training. Abbie, right?”
Abbie stared at him before recognizing him. “Oh my God, Vince, hey,” she exclaimed. She gave him a quick hug. In the months since they’d last seen each other, he’d put on some muscle and swapped out his Arthur glasses for a chicer black-framed pair, rendering him almost unrecognizable. “You’re not teaching in New York, are you?”
He shook his head. “I’m in Arkansas.”
“Oh yeah, I remember you saying that.” After they’d bonded over being real New Englanders (he was from Maine, none of that fake Connecticut stuff), Vince had told her how bummed he was that he’d gotten placed at a school in Arkansas, since he was hoping to stay in Philly. “How do you like teaching?”
“I love it, honestly,” Vince said, taking a swig of his beer. “I kind of thought of this as a sort of gap year while I figured my shit out, maybe applied to B-school, but I don’t know, now I think I might be in it for the long haul.”
Abbie held in a squeal. She loved it when people discovered the thrill of teaching. “That’s so amazing,” she gushed. “I love my kids too. They can be crazy but they’re such a good bunch. What are you doing in the city?”
“Just seeing some friends,” he said, tipping his bottle in the direction of the table he’d come from. “It’s my buddy’s 25th.”
“Cool, cool,” Abbie said, nodding. She looked him up and down again, her eyes lingering at his biceps. “Wow, you look so different,” she blurted, and then bit her tongue, embarrassed.
“Well, there’s not a ton to do in Arkansas outside of Little Rock so...hashtag gym life, as they say,” Vince replied with a laugh. “You look different, too. Like, good, I mean,” he murmured before taking a sip of his beer and grinning at her from behind the bottle.
Abbie returned his smile. “Thanks,” she said. They shared a long look before they were interrupted.
“Vin!” One of Vince’s friends called drunkenly from their table. He bounded across the bar and slung an arm around Vince’s neck, nearly jostling Abbie off her stool. “We’re gonna bounce,” he said. “Nick’s at The Grayson and said we should come through.”“Yeah, sounds good, just gimme a sec,” Vince said. “Sorry about that,” he added once his friend had started pushing his way back to their table to rally the rest of the group.
“No worries,” Abbie said. “Was that the birthday boy?”
“Yeah,” Vince said, chuckling. He downed the rest of his beer before standing to leave as his friends moved toward the door, rowdy and boisterous. “Could I maybe have your number?” he asked, pulling his cell phone out of his back pocket. “I’m not sure when I’ll be in New York next, but maybe we could hang when I am?”
“Sure,” Abbie said, taking the phone. “I’ll definitely hit you up the next time I’m in Little Rock,” she added with a teasing smile.
“Please do,” Vince said, and then his friends swept him up in their wave. Before he exited, he turned to wave at Abbie over his shoulder, and she raised her cider at him in a good bye. As if on cue, Faizan emerged from the basement, holding a box full of red-capped bottles. He faltered on his feet when he spotted her, but caught himself almost immediately, and Abbie averted her eyes to make him think she hadn’t seen.
“Hey,” he said as he placed the box on the bar. Faizan turned to Joe before Abbie could even reply. “Sorry it took forever. For some reason, they were locked in the vault with the good stuff and I forgot the code.”
“No worries,” Joe said. “Can you help me take care of those guys?” He gestured to a pair sitting at the other side of the bar.
“Uh, sure,” Faizan said, confused, and followed Joe to a table where they each opened a beer. Abbie watched Faizan’s back and Joe’s face as they served the guys, anxious to get some facetime with Faizan... She hoped that when they finally got the chance to talk properly, she’d be able to convince him to go back to her apartment and something pleasant would come from the ridiculously long subway ride she’d taken from her school in the Bronx to The Bar.
“Hey,” Abbie said when Faizan neared the counter again. “You almost ready to go?” When he didn't reply, she tried again, waving her arm. “Hey,” she said.
“Not sure,” Faizan answered, avoiding eye contact. “Things are still kind of busy here.” He wiped his damp palms on his jeans before pouring a glass of wine for one of his regulars. “Maybe you should go and we can talk another time.”
“But your shift ended like, half an hour ago. And you’re the one who asked me to come down here,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, I know, sorry,” he said insincerely. “I’ll text you later.”
Abbie stood. “Faizan,” she said firmly. She stared at him until he looked up from the stack of coasters he kept straightening. “Can we go outside and talk?” Faizan reluctantly made eye contact with her.
“Abbie, I'm working,” Faizan said, wiping down the bar for emphasis.
“Just for a second,” Abbie pleaded. She stood and put on her coat and hat without waiting for a response, watching expectantly as Faizan’s internal debate played out on his face. “Please?” After her breakup with Dan, she was wary of having these kinds of conversations in public. The pseudo-privacy of the sidewalk would be better than inside The Bar, where she could tell the people sitting around her had already picked up on the tension and were trying listen in.
“Fine,” he said with a sigh, walking around the bar to get his things. Abbie waited near the door as Faizan slid his arms into his black parka and shouldered his Nike backpack. “See you tomorrow,” he called to Joe, who nodded a goodbye.
Abbie and Faizan were silent as they exited The Bar and walked away from the crowded entrance, Abbie leading the way. She stopped when she got to the corner, maybe half a block away from the drunk college kids stumbling out of The Bar and into their Tripps.
“So…,” Abbie trailed off, realizing that she had no idea what she wanted to say. She’d already apologized a thousand times, and Faizan had already forgiven her once, under bizarre circumstances that Abbie wasn’t entirely sure counted.
“So, what?” Faizan asked.
“I guess I just wanted to tell you I broke up with Dan,” Abbie said lamely. “And apologize. Again. So...yeah, I’m sorry about everything.”
Faizan let out a strange little laugh, turning toward the street briefly before facing her again. “Sucks for Dan,” he said. He rubbed at his eye with the back of his hand. “Honestly, Abbie, what exactly is it that you want from this?” He gestured to the space between them. “It’s not cool that you would come to my workplace, talking about how sorry you are, but spend the night flirting with other guys and then front like you weren’t the second I show up.”
“I wasn’t flirting,” Abbie said, mentally cursing Joe for snitching. “I happened to see some guy I did TFA training with over the summer and we talked for a second. It was literally nothing.” Her conversation with Vince was, truthfully, not nothing, but it certainly wasn’t enough to justify all this.
Abbie felt the pull to use her power again, just enough to get Faizan to relax so they could hash things out, but she resisted. After all, her powers had gotten her into this mess in the first place (partially, anyway—Abbie was ignoring the part of her brain that kept trying to remind her that she was a cheater, something she’d never, ever, ever, thought she was capable of). “Besides,” Abbie continued, jamming her hands into her pockets as a strong wind stung her face and fingers. “We’re not, like, in a relationship or anything, right? I mean, we never talked about that,” she added quickly, seeing the change in Faizan’s expression.
He took a step away from her, blinking. “I mean, I guess, yeah, you’re right. We’re not in a relationship.” Abbie pressed on, ignoring the feeling that he was faking his nonchalance.
“Soooo could we maybe go back to the way things were before?” She bit her lower lip. “I think we were good...friends with benefits,” Abbie said, trying out the unfamiliar phrase. Of course she wanted to start hooking up again, but she also missed being able to talk to Faizan about all her ideas for Crafting & Coconut Oil. Plus she wanted to finish her mission to convince him to diversify his wardrobe to include pants other than black joggers and a single pair of jeans. She stepped closer, reaching out to touch his arm, and he let her.
“Friends with benefits,” Faizan echoed.
“Yeah,” Abbie said, and then unsure, “that’s still a thing, right?” She wasn’t used to this gray area of “seeing someone.” She’d only ever been single, and then, in a way that felt like it came out of nowhere, in a relationship.
“Yeah, that’s still a thing.” Faizan said. He grinned despite himself but caught it, stopping abruptly. “But I don’t know. I have my romantic faults but I don’t go after girls with boyfriends.”
“No, yeah, totally,” Abbie said, nodding vigorously. “You’re principled.”
“Yeah, exactly,” said Faizan. “And you like, made me violate my principles and that’s not cool. ”
“You’re right,” Abbie said. “I won’t do that again. I’m sorry. I guess you can just...call me when you’re ready?”
Faizan nodded. “Yeah. That sounds good.” And the way he said it made Abbie believe that she was really, finally forgiven. There was an awkward lull as they looked from each other down to their slush-covered shoes. Faizan watched Abbie hesitantly before holding his arms out, and she stepped into them, wrapping him in a hug. Abbie closed her eyes for a second before beginning to pull away, halting when she heard someone call her name.
She stepped quickly away from Faizan, fluffing her wilting twist-out. Vic stood a few paces away, just outside the tenant’s entrance of The Bar’s building, her arm intimately linked with that of a beautiful girl Abbie had never seen before.
“Vic, hey,” Abbie said as the pair approached. Faizan peeled away with a quick ‘see you’ and Abbie caught Vic’s eyes slide from him to her curiously.
“Hey, I’m Tatiana,” the girl said. She extended her hand, playfully bumping Vic with her shoulder.
“Oh, sorry.” Vic shook off her confusion and smiled. “Tatiana, this is Abbie. Abbie, this is my girlfriend, Tatiana.” Saying girlfriend was still a bit weird—Vic hadn’t dated anyone seriously since her freshman year of college, if that even counted, but Tatiana was a labels person. Now that they had crossed into sober, weekday sleepover territory, there was no reason to pretend they weren’t in a relationship. After Tatiana had finally texted Vic back the morning of her flight, she’d stopped by Vic’s unannounced, catching her just before she left for the airport and almost making her miss her flight.
“Tatiana…” Abbie said slowly, shooting Vic a look. “Like, from Clarke Stein?” Vic gave her a sheepish smile in return.
“Formerly, yes,” Tatiana said, looking down as she shook Abbie’s hand. When Abbie thought about it, she realized it had been a while since Vic had bitched about the annoying overachiever who’d gotten her fired from CS, but she’d neglected to mention that somewhere between getting fired and beginning her new job, she started dating her.
“Was that Faizan you were just with? From The Bar?” Vic asked.
“Um,” Abbie said, and, sensing Abbie’s reluctance to continue, Vic turned to Tatiana, pressing the apartment keys into her palm.
“Do you mind picking up the pizza alone?” she asked. “Abbie and I are gonna catch up really quick.”
“Um, sure,” Tatiana said, glancing at Abbie. “Nice meeting you,” she called over her shoulder as she headed off.
“Are you down for a drink?” Vic asked once Tatiana was out of earshot. “I feel like we have a lot to talk about.”
“Anywhere but The Bar,” she said, thinking of judgey Joe.
“I got you,” said Vic, and she grabbed Abbie’s arm, leading her down 1st.