· LIBBY ·
FIVE HOURS AGO
The day Libby Rhodes met Nicolás Ferrer de Varona was coincidentally also the day she discovered that “incensed,” a word she had previously had no use for, was now the only conceivable way to describe the sensation of being near him. That had been the day Libby accidentally set fire to the lining of several centuries-old drapes in the office of Professor Breckenridge, dean of students, clinching both Libby’s admission to New York University of Magical Arts and her undying hatred for Nico in a single incident. All the days since that one had been a futile exercise in restraint.
Incandescence aside, this was to be a very different sort of day, as it was finally going to be the last of them. Barring any accidental encounters, which Libby was certain they’d both furiously ignore—Manhattan was a big place, after all, with plenty of people ravenously avoiding each other—she and Nico were finally going their separate ways, and she would never have to work with Nico de Varona again. She’d practically burst into song over it that morning, which her boyfriend, Ezra, presumed to be the consequence of the occasion’s more immediate matters: either graduating top of her class (tied with Nico, but there was no use focusing on that), or delivering the NYUMA valedictory speech. Neither accolade was anything to scoff at, obviously, but the more enticing prospect was the newness of the era approaching.
It was the last day Libby Rhodes would ever set eyes on Nico de Varona, and she couldn’t have been more exuberant about the dawn of a simpler, superior, less Nico-infested life.
“Rhodes,” Nico acknowledged upon taking his seat beside her on the commencement stage. He slid her surname around like a marble on his tongue before sniffing the air, facetious as always. For some, his sun-kissed dimples and charmingly imperfect nose (broken just so) were enough to make up for his unremarkable height and countless personality flaws. For Libby, Nico de Varona was just good genetics and more confidence than any human man deserved. “Hm. Odd. Do you smell smoke, Rhodes?”
Very funny. Hilarious.
“Careful, Varona. You know this auditorium’s on a fault line, don’t you?”
“Of course. Have to, seeing as I’ll be working on it next year, won’t I?” he mused. “Pity you didn’t get that fellowship, by the way.”
Since the comment was clearly designed to annoy her, Libby made the exemplary decision to peer into the crowd in lieu of answering. The auditorium was fuller than she’d ever seen it, the vista of graduates and their families stretching up to the balcony seats and frothing out into the vestibule.
Even from a distance, Libby could spot her father’s one good blazer, which he’d purchased at least two decades ago for a wedding and worn to every mild-to-moderately formal occasion since. He and Libby’s mother were in a middle row, just a few seats off-center, and Libby felt a moment of uncontainable fondness at the sight of them. She’d told them not to bother coming, of course. Inconvenience and whatnot. But her father was here, wearing the blazer. Her mother had put on lipstick, and in the seat beside them—
Was nothing. Libby registered it, the empty seat, just as a teenage girl in high-top sneakers snaked through the row, dodging someone’s cane-assisted grandmother and giving the whole group an antiestablishment grimace. It was such an uncanny juxtaposition, so acutely timed: the familiar sliver of youthful ennui (ambivalence in a strapless dress) and the empty chair next to her parents. Libby’s vision swam with something she worried for a second might be sudden-onset blindness, or tears.
Mercifully it was neither. For one thing, if Katherine were still alive, she wouldn’t be sixteen anymore. Libby had aged, somehow, beyond her older sister, and while the math remained impossible to grasp, it was an old wound by now. No longer fatal. More like picking at a scab.
Before Libby could brood too masochistically, there was another blur of motion from the aisle. A familiar crest of riotous black curls bobbed in apology, then settled into the empty seat. Ezra, who was wearing the only sweater Libby hadn’t accidentally faded that week in the wash, filled the hole where Katherine would have been, leaning over to hand a program to Libby’s father and to offer a tissue to her mother. After a moment’s polite chatter, he glanced up and searched the stage, spotting Libby with a gleam of recognition. He mouthed something: Hi.
The old ache of Katherine’s absence smoothed over into relief. She’d have hated this, and Libby’s dress, and probably Libby’s haircut, too.
Hi, Libby mouthed back, rewarded with the familiar crook of Ezra’s smile. He was slight, almost gaunt despite his constant snacking habits, and deceptively taller than he seemed at first glance. His motions were almost feline and she liked it, the elegance of him. The quietness. It soothed her.
Less reassuringly, Nico had followed her line of sight, half a tick of laughter tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Ah, Fowler’s here too, I see.”
Libby, who’d blissfully forgotten for a second that Nico was even there, bristled at the mention of Ezra. “Why wouldn’t he be here?”
“Oh, no reason. Just thought you might’ve leveled up by now, Rhodes.”
Do not engage, do not engage, do not engage—
“Ezra’s just been promoted, actually,” she said coolly.
“From mediocrity to competence?”
Libby broke off, tightening one fist and counting silently to three.
“He’s a project manager now.”
“My goodness,” Nico said dryly, “how impressive.”
She shot him a glare, and he smiled.
“Your tie’s crooked,” she informed him, giving her voice a lilt of impassivity as his hand reflexively rose to straighten it. “Did Gideon not fix it for you on your way in?”
“He did, but—” Nico broke off, catching himself, while Libby silently congratulated her success. “Very funny, Rhodes.”
“Gideon’s my nanny, hilarious. Something new and different.”
“What, like mocking Ezra is suddenly revolutionary?”
“It’s not my fault the subject of Fowler’s inadequacy is evergreen,” Nico replied, and were it not for the fact that they were directly in front of all of their classmates and a great number of their faculty and staff as well, Libby would not have paused for an additional centering breath and instead entertained whatever her abilities compelled her to do.
Unfortunately, setting fire to Nico de Varona’s undergarments was considered unacceptable behavior.
Last day, Libby reminded herself. Last day of Nico.
He could say whatever he liked, then, and it meant nothing.
“How’s your speech?” Nico asked, and she rolled her eyes.
“Like I’d discuss it with you.”
“Why on earth not? I know you get stage fright.”
“I do not get—” Another breath. Two breaths, for good measure. “I do not get stage fright,” she managed, more evenly this time, “and even if I did, what exactly would you do to help me?”
“Oh, did you think I was offering to help?” Nico asked. “Apologies, I was not.”
“Still disappointed you weren’t the one elected to deliver it?”
“Please,” Nico scoffed under his breath, “you and I both know that nobody wasted any time voting on something as idiotic as who should give the commencement speech. Half the people here are already drunk,” he pointed out, and while Libby knew he was more right than she’d ever admit to him being, she also knew it was a sore subject. He could pretend at nonchalance as much as he liked, but she knew he never enjoyed losing to her, whether he considered it a subject of importance or not.
She knew it because in his position she would have felt exactly the same way.
“Oh?” she prompted, amused. “If nobody cared, then how did I win?”
“Because you’re the only one who voted, Rhodes, it’s like you’re not even listening to me—”
“Rhodes,” cautioned Dean Breckenridge, breezing by their seats on the commencement stage as the processions around them continued. “Varona. Is it too much to ask for you to be civil for the next hour?”
“Professor,” they both replied in acknowledgment, forcing twin smiles as Nico once again fussed impulsively with his tie.
“No trouble at all,” Libby assured the dean, knowing that even Nico would not be so idiotic as to disagree. “Everything’s fine.”
Breckenridge arched a brow. “Morning going well, then?”
“Swimmingly,” said Nico, flashing her one of his charming smiles. It was the worst thing about him, really, that he could be such a non-headache with everyone who wasn’t Libby. Nico de Varona was every teacher’s favorite; when it came to their peers, everyone wanted to be him or date him, or at the very least befriend him.
In some highly distant, extremely generous sense, Libby could see how that was understandable. Nico was enormously likable, unfairly so, and no matter how clever or talented Libby was, students and faculty alike preferred Nico to her. Whatever gift it was he had, it was like Midas’ touch. Nico had an effortless ability to turn nonsense into gold, more a reflex than a skill, and Libby, a gifted academic, had never been able to learn it. Nico’s brand of easy charm had no metric for study, no identifiable markers of finesse.
He also had a monstrous capacity to fool people into thinking he knew what he was talking about, which he resolutely did not. Sometimes, maybe. But certainly not always.
Worse than Nico’s catalogue of ineptitudes was what he had, which was the job Libby had really wanted—not that she’d ever admit that. Sure, being hired at the best magical venture capitalist firm in Manhattan was no small thing. Libby would be providing funding to innovative medeian technology, able to choose from a portfolio of exciting ideas with massive potential for growth and social capital. Now was the time to act; the world was overpopulated, resources drained and overused, alternative energy sources more imperative than ever. Down the line, she could change the very structure of medeian advancements—could choose this start-up or that to alter the progression of the entire global economy—and she’d be paid well to do it, too. But she’d wanted the research fellowship at NYUMA, and that, of course, had gone straight to Nico.
As Dean Breckenridge took her seat and Nico pretended to be reasonable, Libby pondered what it would be like in her blissful future where things didn’t always come down to the two of them competing. For four years Nico had been an inescapable feature of her life, like some sort of bothersome vestigial organ. Physical medeians with their mastery of the elements were rare; so rare, in fact, that they had been the only two. For four long, torturous years, they’d been shoved into every class together without respite, the extent of their prowess matched only by the force of their mutual antipathy.
For Nico, who was used to getting his way, Libby was purely an annoyance. She’d found him smug and arrogant from the moment they met and hadn’t hesitated to tell him so, and there was nothing Nico de Varona hated more than someone who didn’t adore him on sight. It was probably the first trauma he’d ever suffered. Knowing him, the idea that a woman could exist who didn’t worship at his feet must have kept him up at night. For Libby, however, things were far more complex. For all that their personalities clashed, Nico was something far worse than just an average asshole. He was also an obnoxious, classist reminder of everything Libby failed to possess.
Nico came from a family of prominent medeians, and had trained privately from his opulent palace (she assumed) in Havana since he was a child. Libby, a Pittsburgh native whose suburban lineage had no medeians or even witches to speak of, had planned to go to Columbia until NYUMA, via Dean Breckenridge, intervened. She had known nothing of basic medeian principles, starting off behind in every aspect of magical theory, and had worked twice as hard as everyone else—only for that effort to be dismissed in favor of Yes, that’s very good, Libby … and now Nico, how about you try?
Nico de Varona would never know what that felt like, Libby thought again, as she had countless times. Nico was handsome, clever, charming, rich. Libby was … powerful, yes, equally as powerful and likely to become more so over time given her superior sense of discipline, but with four years of Nico de Varona as a yardstick for magical achievement, Libby found herself unfairly measured. If not for him she might have breezed through her studies, perhaps even found them dull. She would not have had a rival, nor even a peer. After all, without Nico, who could even hold a candle to what she could do?
No one. She’d never met anyone with anything even close to her or Nico’s proficiency with physical magic. The little tremors from the slightest flaring of his temper would take a lesser medeian four hours and herculean effort to create from nothing, the same way a mere spark of flame from Libby had been enough to secure a full scholarship to NYUMA and lucrative full-time employment after that. That sort of power would have been revered, even exalted, if either of them had been singularities—which, for the first time, they would be. Without Nico for comparison beside her, Libby would finally be free to excel without having to push herself half to death to stand out.
It was a strange thought, actually, and strangely lonely. But still, thrilling all the same.
She felt a little rumble under her feet and glanced over, noting that Nico looked lost in thought.
“Hey,” she said, nudging him. “Stop.”
He gave her a bored glance. “It’s not always me, Rhodes. I don’t go around blaming you for forest fires.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know the difference between an earthquake and a Varona tantrum.”
“Careful,” he cautioned, gaze flicking to where Ezra sat beside her parents. “Don’t want Fowler to see us having another row, do we? Might get the wrong impression.”
Honestly, this again. “You do realize your obsession with my boyfriend is childish, don’t you, Varona? It’s beneath you.”
“I didn’t realize you thought anything was beneath me,” Nico replied lazily.
Across the stage, Breckenridge shot them a warning glance.
“Just get over it,” Libby muttered. Nico and Ezra had loathed each other during the two years they’d all been at NYUMA together before Ezra graduated, which happened to be a separate matter from Nico’s opposition to her. Nico had never met a hardship in his life, so the complexity of Ezra’s resiliency bore no consequence to him. Libby and Ezra both understood loss; Ezra’s mother had died when he was a child, leaving him without a parent or a home. Meanwhile, Nico had probably never even burned his toast. “As a reminder, you and Ezra never have to see each other again. We,” Libby amended belatedly, “never have to see each other again.”
“Don’t make it sound so tragic, Rhodes.”
She shot him a glare, and he turned his head, half smiling at her.
“Where there’s smoke,” he murmured, and she felt another rush of loathing.
“Varona, can you just—”
“—pleased to introduce your co-valedictorian, Elizabeth Rhodes!” came the voice of the commencement announcer, and Libby glanced up, realizing that their entire audience was now staring expectantly at her. Ezra was giving her a little frown from the crowd that suggested he had observed her bickering with Nico yet again.
She forced a smile, rising to her feet, and gave Nico’s ankle a kick as she went.
“Try not to touch your hair” was Nico’s parting benediction, muttered under his breath and of course intended to make her fixate on her bangs, which for the entire two minutes of her prepared speech threatened to fall into her eyes. One of Nico’s lesser magics, getting under her skin. The speech itself was fine (probably), though by the time she finished, she wanted very badly to kick Nico again. Instead she fell back into her seat and reminded herself how marvelous life was going to be in approximately twenty minutes, when she would be free of Nico forever.
“Well done, you two,” Dean Breckenridge said wryly, shaking their hands as they departed the stage. “An entire commencement ceremony without incident, impressive.”
“Yes, we are very impressive,” Nico agreed in a tone that Libby would have slapped him for, only Breckenridge gave a low chuckle of amusement and shook her head fondly, departing in the opposite direction as Libby and Nico made their way down the stairs.
Reaching the crowd of graduates and their guests, Libby paused to conjure something terrible; a final, devastating parting malediction. Something to say that would haunt Nico as she walked away, out of his life forever.
But then instead, she held a hand out to him, deciding to be an adult.
Copyright © 2021 by Alexene Farol Follmuth“Sacred Hospitality” © 2021 by Alexene Farol Follmuth