Josie is a witch and a waitress and usually, she’s damn good at being both. On what’s shaping up to be a very bad day for her, someone from Josie’s past walks into the cafe and makes everything that much harder to deal with.
No matter how many times she gets the same lecture from her boss and her cousins every day, Josie just can’t keep from fiddling with her wand even when she’s surrounded by folks that aren’t magically inclined.
Stroking thin brown fingers over the wand holster currently hidden underneath one of the cinched sleeves of her plain blue dress, Josie focuses on the powerful hum of magic that surges up just out of reach instead of on the mundane folks that think that the small cafe is just an out of the way place for tourists and slumming socialites to try the local grub.
None of them would ever believe that they were sitting in one of the few gateways to New York City’s magical underworld.
Looking around the café’s dimly lit front room, Josie can count on one hand the amount of witches and wizards that she recognizes from one the local school down the block. Everyone else is null, so without magic that it makes Josie’s own react in response.
Instead of doing her job by Ricky and making sure everyone has a full plate and a cup of their beverage of choice, here Josie is sitting in a corner on a barrel and trying not to ruin everything by flaring up in the middle of a mostly mundane gathering.
It’s Wednesday, the café’s busiest day and what usually is Josie’s favorite day to come in to work, but for once, things feel different.
The café feels too small and too hot, too full of mundane humans for Josie to even cast a little charm to clear the air around her. Josie’s fingers twitch toward her wand holster, but then she stops herself mid-gesture and forces her hand back down to her lap.
A moment later, Josie feels a hand close around the bend of her elbow and she nearly falls over from shock. Turning around, Josie’s mouth is already open with a blistering curse on the tip of her tongue. “Excuse me, I –”
The words dry up in Josie’s throat when her gaze falls on the last person she expects to see at Ricky’s place.
Naeem Daniels was at the top of their class when they were kids, a quick draw with his wand and from a family so good that he was guaranteed a place in the top of their society after graduation. He was also her friend, one of the few from their year that’d bring themselves to slum with a witch from the wrong side of the tracks.
But he doesn’t have to wait tables for a living, Josie thinks to herself in a brief moment of bitterness towards one of her own.
Keeping the bitterness from showing on her face is easy enough, keeping it out of her voice is more difficult. Especially when she notices the way that Naeem’s fingers and wrists glitter with the polished sheen of more charmed jewelry than Josie sees on a single day.
Unbidden, Josie lifts one hand up to touch at where her only piece of charmed jewelry – a bracelet made out of a fine silver wire – is wound around the base of her bun.
The lone piece of jewelry is the most basic type for their kind and in the face of Naeem’s glittering jewelry, Josie feels at a loss. With her tightly curled hair and the lack of jewelry, Josie barely has anything that allows her people to tell her apart from the mundanes around her. It’s… embarrassing to a point and Josie doesn’t know how to handle that feeling.
“What are you doing here, Naeem?” Josie asks in as nice a tone as she can with her nerves on edge and her magic reacting to his.
She doesn’t budge from her perch atop an empty barrel, not even when Naeem comes closer and rests one big hand on the top mere inches away from her hip. Lowering her voice when a mundane turns to glance in their direction, Josie leans forward so that her words won’t be overheard.
“I thought you warlocks had better things to do than go slumming on this side of the gate.”
The words come out with a sullen edge to them as Josie tries and fails to remember the last time that Naeem had come to this part of the city. It’s been months. Years maybe. If Naeem is around now, it probably isn’t for anything that Josie wants to be a part of.
“I came to see you, little sister.” Naeem says with a kind smile that reaches all the way up to his dark brown eyes as he looks at her and greets her properly, the way most warlocks wouldn’t do for a working witch. “And I wouldn’t call Ricky’s slumming.”
Naeem pauses as a sudden and wicked smile tugs his mouth out of shape. “At least, not where he can hear me.”
Startled by Naeem’s teasing, Josie bursts into a fit of laughter that she has to work to tamp down. When she calms down again, Josie shifts atop her barrel, eyeing Naeem’s handsome features as he watches her with an unreadable emotion in his dark gaze.
“You’ve seen me,” Josie says in a soft voice before she hops off the top of her seat and dusts off the back of her work dress. “Now you can go. You know the council doesn’t like its enforcers getting’ cozy with just anyone and I have work to do.”
The frown that settles on Naeem’s face is startling in its intensity. He takes a step forward, trying to close the distance between them before Josie shakes her head and he stops just shy of touching her.
“Josie,” Naeem says in a rough voice. “You’re not just anyone. I came to see you, Josie, and I’m not leaving ‘til we get a chance to talk.” When Josie shakes her head again, Naeem’s face falls and he looks down at the glossy tips of his polished shoes. “I thought we were pals, Josie –”
With his slicked back black hair and strong features, Naeem looks like someone that should be starring in flicks, not spending time trying to chat up a witch like Josie.
Frowning, Josie opens her mouth to send Naeem back through the gate or out on the street – anywhere but standing in front of her like it hasn’t been years since their last meeting. She wants him anywhere else but here at Ricky’s where she has to bite her tongue at every reminder that they’re living in very different worlds now.
“You should go, Naeem.” Josie drops her head to her chin, feeling small for wanting Naeem gone without giving him a chance to explain himself. “You wouldn’t want any councilmembers to come through the gate and catch you here talking to me. It’s for your own good.”
Naeem shakes his head, frowning in a way that sets wrinkles into the once-smooth skin of his golden brown brow. “I need to talk to you, Josie. It’s important.” Naeem’s voice drops down low until Josie has to strain her ears to hear him. “It’s about your parents.”
The world around Josie seems to slow to a crawl.
“My… parents,” Josie says, forcing the words out past the lump in her throat. “But I don’t –”
The rest of her sentence goes unfinished, but they both know what Josie had been about to say. Josie doesn’t have parents. For as long as Josie can remember, the closest thing that she’s had to a parent is her aunt Selma. Everything that she knows about her parents could fit on one page of the book she keeps to take orders.
That isn’t much.
Josie glances around the café at where more than a few people don’t know the meaning of minding their beeswax and scowls. If she takes Naeem in back, people will talk. If she sends him out with a scolding, other people will talk. There’s no winning either way.
“I get off at sunset,” Josie says, going against her better judgment as curiosity rears its ugly head inside of her. “We can sit here and you can tell me everything you know.” When Naeem winces, Josie narrows her eyes at him and puts her hands square on her hips as her magic buzzes in response to her frustration. “You have something else in mind?”
“I have tickets for the theatre tonight,” he says quickly, avoiding Josie’s eyes. “It’s so we won’t be overheard. This close to the gate anyone could have an ear to the ground. At Lafayette, the private boxes are warded.”
“I don’t have anything to wear,” Josie says. “Girls like me don’t make a habit of going to swanky places like the theatre. I don’t want to embarrass you.”
“You wouldn’t,” Naeem says. “You couldn’t. I – I’ll bring you something suitable once you get off. It’s not a problem.”
“Why not make Malachi run your errands for you,” she asks, referencing the silent warlock that has served as Naeem’s valet for as long as she can remember. If anyone should be bringing her clothes or coming to Ricky’s to play messenger, it should be Naeem’s tall, dark, and silent servant.
That he isn’t shadowing Naeem now makes Josie worry.
“You don’t have to go through all this trouble for me. I’m sure the council has more important things for you to focus on.”
Shaking his head, Naeem frowns. “This is important,” he insists. He pulls off one of his charmed rings and presses it into Josie’s hands, pressing her fingers around the warm metal. “I’ll return tonight. Keep this close, Josie. It’s all the protection I can give you.”
Before Josie can try and give Naeem back his ring, Naeem steps around her and leaves through the front of the café. Naeem’s magic lingers for moments after he’s left and Josie almost finds herself wanting to chase after him.
Ricky’s interjection ends that thought.
“If you’re done, Jo,” the older wizard calls out from behind the counter. “You have a job to do.”
Josie tucks Naeem’s gleaming silver ring into one of her dress’s deep pockets instead of slipping it onto her thumb the way she wants. It’s too big for most of her fingers and besides, whatever protections are on the ring should still work as long as it’s near her body.
“I’m coming,” Josie shouts back at her boss, reaching up to tuck a frizzy strand of black hair back into her bun. “It won’t happen again.” Glancing back at the front doors, Josie frowns, filled with a twisting anxiousness that coils tight in her chest.
“Ricky, I need you to do me a favor.”