Mid-May, about five months later, on a rainy afternoon, at Hailey's apartment.
Hailey loved the clouds, but hated the rain.
A breathtaking layered wall of clouds rolling through the endless expanse of blue was something to be cherished, but this solid blanket of grey? Where there was no light to be found, and sheets of water fell in droves to soak everything through? This was just depressing.
It didn't help that she was staring out the window of her small kitchen with the smell of burned chocolate fudge filling the room. Hailey had been stirring a batch as a treat for Jessica's birthday, which was coming up soon, but she'd gotten distracted by a fleeting glimpse of a bird on the balcony. She'd rushed to the door, trying to catch it by flinging a pocket of air around it, but it had jumped away too fast. Hailey had only just managed to clip off a few feathers as it took to the skies.
They'd attempted the ritual several times since December, with no success. Jessica's current theory was that the feathers they were using were no good, and that it had to be from a wild bird, or perhaps the right type of bird. She'd drawn out several different species for Hailey to pursue, and the red-tailed hawk on the balcony had definitely been on the list. Hailey was shocked it had perched so close—from what she'd researched online, she hadn't expected one to come to her. She only hoped the feathers she'd managed to gather were enough.
More importantly, she hoped that she wouldn't let Jess down again.
Hailey still wasn't sure if the ritual was failing because of the feathers. No, Hailey believed it was her own fault. Every time they started, Hailey took one look at Jessica, whose voice she was actually beginning to forget, and her heart seized up. She lost all confidence, all drive. Without it, the ritual may as well have been a wish on a star for all the good it did.
Hailey clenched her fist tight in frustration. A wind picked up in the kitchen, the edges of papers flapping noisily. She flicked open the window latch and slid it aside with her mind, and the air quickly carried out the scent of burned fudge before it could spread through the house and Jessica noticed it. Hailey would do it again, and do it right this time.
Just not right now, Hailey sighed as she heard a thump from upstairs. Jessica was rushing down to meet her. Must have smelled it anyway. But to her surprise, Jessica wasn't looking for the source of the smell. No, she was holding a fistful of feathers from the red-tail that Hailey had scared away only moments earlier.
"You caught it, Jess?" Hailey asked, pointing at her. Jessica nodded, miming catching something out of midair with her hands, then pointing to her head with a flutter of her fingers. "With magic. Nice."
Jessica drew a circle in midair, then cocked her head to the side with a "Hmm?"
Hailey sighed. "I don't know. I really don't think it'll make a difference." She shrugged. Jessica shook her head and grabbed Hailey's arm, pulling her to the staircase. "All right, all right," Hailey conceded. "I'll give it another shot." She let Jessica lead her upstairs to the empty bedroom, where their ritual circle awaited.
A near-permanent dusting of chalk in various colors formed a neat, perfect circle in the center of the wooden floorboards. Jessica had taken to decorating the room while Hailey was out with various gemstones set in silver candle holders, while actual candles formed a large ring outside the circle. A twinned set of astroids surrounded the circle, with empty holders at each point where Jessica could fill them as needed. Various pouches and boxes lined the edges of the room with all the different stones and materials Jessica had ordered online (through the concerted efforts of Hailey and the least entertaining game of pictionary imaginable).
As the decorations grew more detailed and complex, Hailey wondered what an outsider might think of the place. It looked like something out of an occult daydream, between the wax candles, chalk symbols and glittering stones, but the vibe didn't feel creepy or off-putting to Hailey. It felt comforting, in fact, with the attention to detail and the mix of colors and shapes that Jessica had put into the room. Compared to the bare walls and cold empty floor it had once contained, Hailey now saw it as Jessica's place—something sacred and special. She hoped animal skulls weren't next on the decoration list though, or she might have to start miming to Jessica about what they could get away with.
Hailey never entered if she could help it, but Jessica seemed to live in the room when she wasn't sleeping or eating. They occasionally spent time relaxing together after Hailey got home from work, but without fail she'd spring up with some untold inspiration that Hailey could only guess at and retreat back to her circle to meditate. Hailey had only used the room three times, for each of the previous attempts at the flight ritual Jessica had devised, but each had ended in stuttering failure.
Hailey supposed she should be grateful nothing worse had happened.
Jessica dug through one of the boxes at the edge of the room and came up with a mix of tourmaline and sapphire, which she started placing in the simple silver candle holders at the points of the star. Hailey took a handful of feathers and walked to the center, clutching them gently in one hand while her other went to the perfectly cut and polished tourmaline that hung from a chain around her neck. It was her favorite stone, and one that never seemed to darken when she drew wind out of it. Sometimes it felt like an old friend holding her hand in return. Hailey tried to feel something out of the feathers as well, sending her mind down through her fingers and into the rachis of the feather, hoping to sense anything. All she got back was a vague sense of the animal it belonged to, probably flapping away somewhere in the forest and hopefully far away from the two crazed girls in the apartment trying to catch it by summoning up air currents.
So Hailey imagined. It didn't really give her any idea of the bird's thoughts, just its essence.
Jessica was tugging at her shirt sleeve. Hailey had been lost in her thoughts again. She looked around at the circle, where all the gemstones and feathers had already been put in place. "Well, Jess, here we go again." Hailey began shrugging off her clothes while Jessica turned away, giving her some privacy. When she was ready, Hailey tapped her on the shoulder.
Jessica took the pile of clothes and set them neatly in the corner of the room. Hailey stretched out her arms for a moment before sitting down cross-legged, as she'd seen Jessica do so many times, and closed her eyes. She pressed her hands to her face, warming herself from the chill in the room by setting her skin alight in the way she'd learned from Weston, so many months back. She put her hand to her chest and grasped the tourmaline stone hanging there for luck, while her other hand clenched the feathers tight.
Hailey sent out her mind, letting it loose like a hook on the end of a line. It was still her, of course, but she no longer felt like she was inside her own body. Instead, her mind floated free in the room, bathing in the air currents that poured forth from the tourmaline and sapphire gems encircling her. Hailey had set them humming, and in response the feathers between each gem stood up straight. She sensed that there was something she was supposed to do to them, mentally draw from them somehow, but Hailey couldn't figure it out. She clenched her hands tight and threw her mind at them, but only met with a sheer wall of resistance. The feathers were impenetrable to her.
Hailey knew they held the secret, but she just couldn't muster the strength to break through. She didn't have the ability, no matter how much she practiced. There was still only so much she could accomplish alone.
Hailey's eyes flew open and she released the energy as quickly as she could. She pulled her mind back in and closed off her body to seal away the energy in the room before she interrupted the flow in a dangerous way. Would her idea work? Was it even possible?
She didn't know, but something about it felt so right that she had to try.
"Jess." Hailey said, drawing her attention. Jessica had been looking at the nearest feathers with a frustrated look, while determinedly avoiding gazing at Hailey directly. Jessica looked up, then immediately away while her face blushed red. Hailey leapt out of the circle impatiently and grabbed her hand.
"Mm?" Jessica squeaked in surprise and confusion.
"I think you can help, Jess!" Hailey said, excited. She pointed at the circle, then at herself and Jessica in turn. To try and emphasize the point, she waved a circle around the both of them, then pointed at Jessica's head, drawing a line from her temple to one of the feathers. "You can help me break into it."
Jessica frowned. She looked at the feather, then back at Hailey. Her mouth formed a small "oh!" in surprise. She nodded frantically, and Hailey grinned.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Jess, because I sure as hell don't."
Jessica took off her clothes, forgetting all about modesty in her haste. Hailey took hold of each piece with her mind as Jess tossed it aside, and flung it into the corner where it landed atop her own, keeping them well clear of the circle. Once she'd stripped down, they both sat cross-legged in the circle. Jessica only just managed to fit inside, her knees pressed up against Hailey's own. Somehow that felt right, as if the physical connection might help them.
"Ready?" Hailey asked, giving a slight nod. Jessica nodded, her eyes already screwed up in determination. Hailey closed her eyes and once more cast out her mind into the room. Immediately, she ran up against the wall formed by the feathers again, and the frustration almost sent her out of the trance, but a sudden presence held her from breaking.
It was warmth and love incarnate, this new sensation that flew through the air to meet with Hailey's mental projection. For a brief moment, she could sense Jessica herself, down to her essence. Her passion for knowledge, her inquisitive drive, her bashful nature still pressing at her under the surface even now, and her deep love for Hailey. It was like a glimpse into her very soul, and in that moment Hailey could see a line that stretched out between the two of them, like a thick hazy thread that held taut between their minds. It was exciting and thrilling, and yet deeply personal and embarrassing. Hailey pulled away before she felt like she had felt too much and too intimately at Jessica's mind, where she could sense many more layers beyond the surface.
Jessica hadn't seemed to notice Hailey brushing up against her, as her presence slammed against the feather with the force of a hurricane wind. Hailey saw what she was doing and joined her, pressing against the feather with the strength she could muster. It still wasn't enough.
As if out of the corner of her eye, Hailey saw Jessica's arm reach out to pluck the stone from Hailey's chest. She could sense Jessica wanted her to grab it as well. It felt like Hailey was giving an order to her arm to rise, rather than actually moving herself. It took a great deal of effort, but Hailey managed to lift her hand and take hold of Jessica's with a firm grip.
The wind immediately burst forth, whipping through the room and sending their hair fluttering wildly, Hailey's long straight blonde and Jessica's wavy brown and blue in unison. The tourmaline around the edges of the circle began to glow bright, and the feathers between each stone spun wildly around, lifting into the air with a power neither of them had consciously set forth.
Hailey could feel something emerging from the feathers, a new sensation she didn't recognize. It began to flow toward the two of them in the center, filling them up with something she didn't yet understand. Jessica's mind made a strange movement, and suddenly the energy was all flowing directly to Hailey.
It spread through her like a chill without cold, running up her spine and following her blood out to the very tips of her fingers and toes. Hailey had to resist the urge to flinch as it rolled through her. She couldn't mess this up, not now. Not when they were so close. Hailey felt like she was floating in midair and didn't want the sensation to ever stop.
The feathers stopped spinning, all resistance gone, and Hailey saw her moment. She grasped at them with her mind and pulled their essence away, like grabbing something out of a deep pool of water. The feathers vanished into thin air with a hiss. The gemstones pulsed and lit up the room, then went deep black, completely spent. The wind coursing through the room faded and stilled, and the room was silent.
Hailey let out a deep breath. She hadn't screwed it up at least. They'd made progress. Maybe next ti—
"Ooh!" Jessica squealed, poking Hailey's leg excitedly. Hailey's eyes flew open.
She hadn't felt like she was floating in midair; Hailey was currently hovering a good several feet above the floorboard, still cross-legged like she were seated on a invisible platform.
Jessica took a few steps back, giving Hailey some space. Hailey felt panic rising in her chest, but that was nothing. She knew how to handle panic. She'd jumped out of airplanes and ridden down steep slopes at breakneck speeds. Panic was nothing.
But this? This is something fantastic.
Hailey laughed. She couldn't help it. She was up in the air, with nothing supporting her, and only the barest effort keeping her aloft. It wasn't like she was simply aloft at will; even now she could feel it beginning to drain her physically, but it was like she were out for a jog. She could keep it going if she needed to. Hailey was simply manipulating the air in a constant loop, like Jessica had said. Her position was never quite steady, as she had to constantly adjust the air and her own body weight to compensate for gravity, the earth spinning around madly beneath her, and any number of other factors, but it was somehow a barely conscious process. As if the magic were helping her figure it all out.
Hailey tried to move herself, and found it a curious challenge. She could gain momentum in a direct line, but it wasn't easy. Going straight up was much harder than going forward, then up at an incline - like she were swooping. She tried a brief dive from the edge of the room, and almost clipped the floor before rising up on invisible wings and thudding hard against the far wall, laughing hysterically.
Jessica ran over to check on her, making sure she was all right, and Hailey took her hand. She tried to lift Jessica into the air, but the weight was too much. Hailey ended up falling atop her instead as the magic broke. She was quite suddenly earthbound and back to normal.
"Mmm!" Jessica sounded heartbroken, like she thought she had ended it. Hailey shook her head and called back to the magic, picturing it mentally as a pair of majestic wings in the exact brown and blue highlights of Jessica's hair. The image sprung into her mind fully-formed as though it wasn't quite her own design, but Hailey didn't question it. It just felt right.
With a mental flap of her newfound wings, Hailey was suddenly aloft again, quivering in midair while the downdraft sent Jessica's hair fluttering. Jessica giggled and jumped with her arms up, catching Hailey in a brief hug while Hailey floated gently a foot or two above her, sending them spinning around briefly in midair before the weight brought Jessica's feet back to the floor once more.
A moment later, Jessica's face turned bright red. She turned around, grabbing desperately for her clothes. Hailey cackled aloud—having long since gotten over feeling shy around her best friend—and decided to try swooping through the room again. It ended in quite the same way as before, with her thudding against the far wall, but with noticeably less painful an impact.
Jessica, having tossed on a loose shirt and pants, held up Hailey's clothes and made a noise. Hailey looked over, and Jessica pointed at them, then mimed flapping wings, then at the clothes again.
"Mm, yeah. I should probably try that," Hailey laughed, still feeling euphoric from finally accomplishing her dreams. She sent herself flying over to Jessica, but overshot and almost crashed into the wall again. Jessica was looking down at the floor pointedly and missed the entire thing. With a clumsy turnaround, she managed to snatch her clothes from Jessica and put them partially on.
To her relief, the weight of the clothes didn't seem to be enough to pull her down much more than her own weight. It was a noticeable addition, but not so much that she started losing altitude. Hailey felt fatigue beginning to creep into her muscles, particularly her arms, but stubbornly kept swooping around the room as long as she could, while Jessica watched her with delight, making contented chirping noises.
After she felt like exhaustion was really starting to set in, Hailey finally brought herself to a stop, flaring out her mental wings in a move she'd just figured out. She released them, letting the wings in her mind vanish in a puff and immediately dropping to the floor below. Hailey could almost feel them disappear from her real shoulders, but it could have just been her imagination. Jessica ran to her side and hugged her.
"Yeah, yeah, that was awesome," Hailey laughed, wrapping her best friend up tight. Jessica nodded and smiled. "Someday I'll figure out how to take you with me."
Jessica cocked her head to the side, indicating she didn't understand, and Hailey felt her heart sink a little. Here she was, celebrating, and Jessica still couldn't speak a word. What were they wasting time on? Silly flying tricks around a room?
The joy she'd felt only moments before began draining out of her like a deflating balloon.
She looked at Jessica, and pointed at her mouth, then her head. Jessica looked confused.
"I've been trying, Jessica," Hailey said, the delight completely gone from her voice. She felt like her emotions were on a pendulum. She'd pulled it so far to one side, feeling such unbridled joy, that she was now paying the price. Tears sprung to her eyes as she recalled that Jessica hadn't spoken or understood a word in nearly eight months.
Jessica shook her head frantically, and hugged Hailey tight. She pointed at her mouth, then at her head, then held out her hand and made a 'so-so' gesture.
"No, it's not all right," Hailey said, tasting salt on her lips. "You deserve so much better than being locked up in here day and night. And I just don't know what to do for you." Hailey remembered the fudge she'd been cooking for Jessica's birthday and felt even worse. "It's almost your birthday and I'm sitting around making snacks and wondering what you'll want to watch tonight. I should be out researching or doing something."
Hailey laughed bitterly. "I can't even do that though. I accused Wes of breaking us apart, and then I went ahead and did the same damn thing. I drove him away. I'm the only one left, and I'm the worst one at magic out of all of us. I can't fix you, Jess."
Hailey sat down against the wall and buried her face in her hands. Jessica sat beside her, putting an arm around her and pulled her close.
"I'm so selfish and worthless. Here I am enjoying myself and letting you help me with learning how to fly when you can't even talk to your friends anymore." Hailey dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. "I feel like I'm the one that needs you to sleep now. I can't sleep a wink without you next to me. How can you even stand sleeping by someone every night you have a massive crush on that won't ever return it? I feel like I'm taking advantage of you."
"Was it a mistake?" Hailey rambled on. "We could have stopped whenever we wanted. Maybe Hugo was right." She shook her head. "You'd say that was stupid though. You'd tell me that sort of hindsight wouldn't get me anywhere. Then you'd tell me to think about all the good things it's brought and to focus on what to do next."
"I don't know what to do next, Jess," Hailey croaked, looking up at her. Jessica's eyes were full of sympathy and concern, but Hailey had no idea how much she actually understood, or even how much she wanted Jess to understand. Hailey had given up.
"I don't know how to do this alone." With her greatest fear spoken aloud, Hailey felt despair overcome her. Her throat choked up and her voice cracked. She buried her face in her hands once more. Hailey couldn't bear to see Jessica's face in that moment, comforting and forgiving and warm. Hailey had failed her. Hailey didn't deserve her love.
Hailey Winscombe was meant to be alone.