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She gasped as her body slammed against the wall.

There was no time to react further.

He hitched her upward, pressed his body into hers as his lips assaulted her mouth, her jaw, her neck. She wrapped her legs around him, buried a hand in his hair, encouraged him not to stop.

It was artful, how he managed to unbuckle his belt, unbutton his pants, and push them down without letting her go, without stopping his work along her throat. He didn’t bother with a condom or even fondling her. He knew her body well enough to know she had an IUD and was ready for him. He pushed up her skirt, pulled the lacy panties she was partial to aside, and buried himself in her.

There was nothing sweet about it as he pounded into her, grunting and groaning, driven on by her cries of pleasure, the way she squeezed her thighs around him, how she felt so damn good, better than any other he had been with.

And he had been with many.

Her orgasm ripped through her body. She called his name. It echoed around them. He kept going. A few more thrusts and he let go inside of her, his last pumps slowing down until they stopped. Fully sheathed, her still pressed between him and the wall, he dropped his forehead to her shoulder.

“God, you get better each time, Spellman,” he breathed. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“You keep me on my toes, Scratch,” Sabrina quipped. “Or,” she squeezed her thighs around him to point out their current situation, “maybe not.”

He laughed, nipped her shoulder, slipped out of her, and lowered her to her feet.

“Whether on your toes or not, I never regret it,” he said as he pulled up his jeans and buttoned and buckled himself back up.

“Me either,” she replied as she smoothed down her skirt. He didn’t notice that her smile didn’t quite meet her eyes, too preoccupied with his belt.

“See you at school tomorrow?” he asked.

“Where else would I be?” she countered. “We have young minds to fill with knowledge.”

“Or try to, at least. I’m giving my classes a pop quiz tomorrow, so I believe I’ll have the honor of being the most hated teacher at Baxter High.”

“Hell of a way to start their Monday,” Sabrina quipped.

“They shouldn’t have been pains in the asses on Friday,” he retorted.

“It was the first pep rally of the year. They were excited.”

“You’re too nice. That’s why they all like you.”

“You’ve got your own fan club, Scratch,” she stated. Surely he wasn’t oblivious to the gaggles of teenage girls – and a few teenage boys – that were consistently charmed by his good looks and easy mannerisms.

“Is it safe to assume you’re their president?” he asked with his smug smirk.

“You know what they say about those who assume,” she shot back.

“I do like your ass,” he volleyed back. He swatted at it as thought to emphasize his point. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Spellman.”

“Tomorrow,” she echoed.

She locked her front door behind him and took a moment to lean against it and breathe.

She really hadn’t intended to end the evening with Nicholas Scratch between her legs. The theater in town had ran a Hitchcock double feature of Vertigo and The Birds. She had been hungry afterward, so she stopped at Dr. Cerberus for a burger. Nick showed up for his own meal a few minutes later, one thing led to another, and the next thing she knew, they were rushing out of the diner and barely made it up the stairs and through her front door before he was inside of her, making her feel things that should be illegal.

Every time, she told herself it would be the last time.

And then the next time happened.

With a sigh, she pushed off the door and climbed the dark stairs to her bedroom, taking the headband out of her hair and removing her heels as she went. She was nearly to her bedroom when the hall light flipped on.

“Roz!”

Her best friend stood at the end of the hallway, just outside of her own bedroom, wearing a look of disapproval Sabrina knew all too well.

“I thought you were at Harvey’s,” Sabrina stammered. She would have never let Nick bring her to her place, let alone fuck her in the entry way, had she known Roz was home. Location wouldn’t have mattered. Nick would have still found his way into her panties. It just would have been better if Roz didn’t know about it.

“I was,” Roz nodded once. “But Tommy called, said a waterline broke at their dad’s. Harvey left to help fix the leak and I didn’t want to stay at his place alone. I thought I’d come home, get in bed early, read a book until I fell asleep… Instead, I had to hurriedly find my earbuds to drown out the sound of my best friend being screwed by the town’s biggest douchebag.”

“I’m sorry, Roz,” Sabrina said sincerely. “I didn’t know you were here, or I would have never… I know you don’t like him.”

“It’s not that I don’t like him,” Roz reminded her. “He’s likeable enough, if you can get past the fact that he’s an absolute hound dog, searching for whatever is in heat. It’s that you can’t seem to say no. And you know you should.”

Sabrina let her vulnerability show.

“I know I should,” she admitted. “I just… It’s hard, Roz.”

Roz softened minutely towards her friend. Sabrina was one of the most fierce and independent people she knew, but Nicholas Scratch seemed to be her kryptonite, and it broke her heart to watch it unfold.

“I know it is,” she soothed. “But ‘Brina, we both know he’s not going to change. He’s been like this since he moved here freshman year of high school. I know you. I know you think you can change him, save him. But Nicholas Scratch doesn’t want to be saved. I don’t want you to waste your time trying to save him, not when there is someone out there who will love you the way you deserve to be loved.” She fixed Sabrina with a serious expression. “Treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

Sabrina said nothing. There was nothing she could say. Roz wasn’t wrong.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she finally said, feeling dirty all of a sudden. “I’ll see you in the morning?”

“In the morning,” Roz promised. “I’ll have the coffee waiting.”

Sabrina disappeared into her room and shut her door behind her. She flipped on her bedside lamp to reveal Salem, her cat, lying on her pillow. His green eyes pierced right through her.

“Don’t you judge me too,” she snapped. Salem meowed in response.

She went to her adjoining bathroom and turned the shower on to let the water heat up. It took the old house’s water tank a while to get going, but when it did, the stream of water stayed hot for ages. That’s what she needed tonight – a very long, very hot, shower.

She shimmed out of her skirt, then dropped her panties. She winced a bit, feeling where Nick had been. He wasn’t always so rough, but she didn’t exactly protest when he was, even if she would feel him tomorrow, be reminded of their triste as she stood before her English classes the next day. Sometimes she thought that was what he wanted, to remind her that she had been in his bed – his truck, her bed, the storage closet at school…

His cologne lingered on her shirt and it filled her nose when she pulled it over her head. She made an annoyed sort of face and threw the shirt in the direction of her hamper, damning him to hell, not for the first time, for how he messed with her head. She surveyed herself in her mirror as she unfastened her bra. Her lips were still plump, her hair messy, from their romp. A bright red spot stood out against her alabaster skin, right at the curve where her neck met her shoulder. There was something akin to teeth marks on her shoulder.

“Damn you, Scratch,” she muttered. “There goes the sleeveless shirt I was going to wear tomorrow.”

Under the hot stream of water, she began to wash, scrubbing a little harder than was necessary.

It was a damned shame water couldn’t wash feelings away, too.


She made it until lunch before her path crossed with his.

“It’s a bit warm out to be wearing a turtleneck, Spellman,” Nick commented as he unwrapped a frozen burrito. She glared at him, grateful they were the only two in the teacher’s lounge for the moment. He laughed. He knew exactly why she was wearing the short sleeved mockneck. He had to remind himself it was the middle of the school day as he recalled just how it felt to be deep inside her the night before. But he could have something to look forward to. “Come over to my place after school.”

“I can’t,” she said tersely. “I have cheerleading practice.”

“Now there’s an image to think about it.” He had to banish the thought of Sabrina in a cheerleading uniform from his mind or he would whisk her off to a storage closet. They had only done that once, during a teacher workday, and while the thrill of it had been worthwhile, he didn’t think they would get away with it while the school was packed to the gills with teenagers. “Come over after. I’m not doing anything.”

“No.”

She left it at that. He quirked an eyebrow at her.

“You mad at me, Spellman?” he said it as a joke, but she couldn’t help but think maybe, just maybe, she heard a bit of genuine worry underneath his tone.

“No,” she sighed. She wondered thought if maybe, deep down, she was mad at him for being – him. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were still alone. “We can’t keep doing this…”

“You say that nearly every time.” The microwave dinged. She took her bowl of leftovers out, careful of the hot ceramic. He bumped her hip with his. “You never mean it.”

“Maybe I do this time.” She forced herself to look at him. His eyes met hers and he studied her closely. He knew her better than she thought he did. She was trying to make a stand, but she wasn’t firm in per position.

“You don’t,” he said with confidence. “Come over. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Sabrina’s answer was to roll her eyes and walk away, leaving Nick to microwave his sorry excuse of a lunch. Other teachers filtered in, busied themselves with their own hurried lunches. He had the entire table open to him but of course, he dropped into the seat beside her. She observed his processed burrito and bag of corn chips.

“You eat like crap,” she informed him.

“Not all of us learned to be gourmet cooks from our aunts, Coach Spellman,” he said, taking in the bowl of grains and vegetables she was picking at. It did look a lot better than what he was eating. “What is that, anyway?”

“Quinoa, tofu, and roasted vegetables. And don’t give me that crap. Your mother is an excellent cook and I’ve had your father’s smoked pork more than once.”

“Neither of them are my aunt,” he pointed out. “Besides, why learn to cook when I had them feeding me?”

Sabrina rolled her eyes again. She did that a lot around Nicholas Scratch. He was twenty-five years old, but still acted like the teenage boys he taught, the frat boys she had known in college. It was a wonder he could command a classroom the way he did when his personal life still resembled what she heard he was like in college, what she knew he was like in high school.

“You could learn to cook,” she told him. “YouTube it. Spaghetti isn’t hard.”

“This is easier.” He took a gooey bite out of the burrito to prove his point. She resisted the urge to reach out and brush the cheese sauce from the corner of his lip. He leaned in closer. “Seriously. Couch your squad, then come over.”

Sabrina said nothing, but stabbed a piece of tofu with annoyance.

He sat back in his chair, satisfied.

She couldn’t say no to him.

He damn sure didn’t want her to. She was easily the best sex he had ever had, despite his lengthy resume. It was the perfect set up – good sex, no commitment.

Why say no to a good thing?

Chapter Text

She thought she might hate herself just a little as she knocked on Nick’s front door. She knew better than this. She had promised herself last night’s indiscretion in her entryway would be the last. But then Nicholas Scratch had batted his long eyelashes and asked her to come over and here she was, falling for it all over again. She considered leaving, even as she knocked again.

His roommate, Melvin, swung the door open mid-knock.

“Sabrina!” he greeted in his ever-cheery manner. “Nick said you were coming over. He’s in the living room.”

“Hi, Melvin,” she replied as she entered the house. She made a face. She shouldn’t be surprised by the smell at this point, and yet she was, every single time.

She found Nick where Melvin said he would be. He was slouched on the sofa in gym shorts and a t-shirt, his feet kicked up on their cheap coffee table, a box of pizza open on the sofa next to him, a beer within reaching distance. Melvin entered behind her and flopped unceremoniously onto a worn leather bean bag chair. His own pizza box and beer were nearby. They were in the middle of a video game.

“You came.” Nick glanced her way quickly with that satisfied smirk of his while still focused on his game. “How was cheerleading practice?”

“Fine.” She knew he didn’t actually care as she perched beside him. This was his version of foreplay. “New week, new routine.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Smells like the two of you have had a busy evening.”

“A little recreational use never hurt anyone,” Nick shrugged, his eyes never leaving the screen. If he heard the disapproval in Sabrina’s tone, he didn’t let on.

“You know you could get fired…”

“Relax, Spellman,” he dismissed. “They drug test once a year, at the beginning of the school year. I don’t smoke for a week, I test clean, and we’re good until next summer.”

“I could technically get tested at any time,” Melvin piped up, his own controller in his hands again. “But I’m a nurse. I know how to beat the game. Just a couple of drops of contact solution...”

Sabrina shook her head in dismay. It was hard to believe they lived in a world that allowed Melvin to stick people with needles and Nick to teach children.

“Want some pizza?” Nick offered. “You’ll have to pick the olives off, though.”

“I’ll pass,” Sabrina wrinkled her nose but was begrudgingly impressed he remembered she hated olives. She wasn’t sure how he knew she hated olives, if she thought about it.

There was a loud explosion on the screen.

“You son of a bitch!” Melvin cursed. Nick laughed.

“Every time, Mel,” he said. “I get you every single time.”

Sabrina started to search for an excuse to leave, already over the testosterone of it all. She should have listened to her subconscious and not shown up in the first place.

“Want a beer, Sabrina?” Melvin asked.

“She doesn’t drink cheap beer,” Nick interrupted. “We’ve got water and sodas, though. Orange juice. Milk, but I think that might be expired.”

“It is,” Melvin supplied. “I poured it on my cereal this morning. Massive mistake.”

“I’m going to get a soda,” Sabrina decided, buying herself some time to decide if she stayed. She could take the soda with her for her troubles of showing up if she left. Nick watched her walk out. He wondered if she had any idea how good she looked in the formfitting leggings and cropped Baxter High t-shirt she wore.

“Congrats, Melvin.” He tossed his remote to the couch. “You win this one on a forfeit.”

He gathered his pizza and beer and followed Sabrina to the kitchen. She was standing at the fridge with a soda, studying a messy child’s drawing stuck to it.

“Did your sister draw this?” she pointed to it.

“Yeah.” He dropped the pizza box on the counter and leaned against it, his beer in hand. “Mom stopped by here last week under the guise of bringing some bread she baked, but she really wanted to bitch about how we live in a pigsty. Seems she taught me better than that, but I reminded her we’ve had a housekeeper my entire life so I’ve never really seen her clean either. That was not the thing to do. She gave Amalia some crayons and paper from her purse and sent her to the living room so she could lecture me about my choices for a half hour without the little one hearing what she had to say.”

“You and Melvin are a little – messy,” Sabrina shrugged. Messy in more ways than one.

“I’m mostly curious about the fact that she had paper and crayons in her bag.” He took a swig of his beer. She tried to ignore how the motion made his bicep flex. He did very little outside of school aside from exactly what he was doing right now, but he did workout regularly. She hated him for being able to eat the way he did and still have a washboard for abs. “Is that a woman thing? Just carrying all sorts of random crap around on your shoulder?”

“We tend to carry a lot in our day-to-day bags,” Sabrina confirmed. “All of which are essential. But I think the paper and crayons is a mom thing – something to give Amalia to occupy her if they’re waiting at an appointment.” She eyed him. “Or yelling at older brothers.”

“She’s wasting her breath,” Nick declared. “But enough about my mother.” He put the beer down and approached Sabrina. “Anyone tell you how good those pants look on you, Spellman?”

“They’re an old pair of workout pants I’ve had for ages...” Her heart rate picked up as he approached.

“Never throw them out.” He slipped an arm around her and pulled her into him. “I like them.”

It was his kiss that made her keep coming back. Every time his lips met hers, she felt fireworks. Full on explosions. His kisses made her want more, made her forget that he had no intentions of being anything more than friends with benefits, forget that sometimes she wondered if they were even friends.

She was breathless when he pulled away. He rested his forehead against hers.

“Want to go to my bedroom?”

She said nothing. She put her soda on the counter, took his hand, and led the way. He and Melvin’s house, a few blocks from her and Roz, was laid out almost identically to theirs. His bedroom was the larger one, like hers, but it was located where Roz’s was in her own house. She thought briefly of Roz’s disapproval and valid points as she pushed open his door.

“Did your mother see your bedroom while she was here?” It was in its usual state of chaos, clothing everywhere, clean or dirty, she didn’t know. She doubted he knew either. Magazines littered the floor. The guitar he tinkered with from time to time was propped up haphazardly in a corner. The messenger bag he toted back and forth to school had been dropped just inside the door. Papers spilled out of it.

“She would still be here if she had.” He stretched out on his unmade bed and held out his arm for her. “Join me, Spellman.”

She did, because she couldn’t say no. She lowered her lips to his, and that was all it took. She was on her back, breathless when he finally broke their kiss.

“I’ve been thinking about this since I left your place last night,” he admitted. He removed his shirt and straddled her. “I came home wishing I’d stayed longer, maybe gone for round two.”

His damned lips again, this time working along her throat. She sighed in pleasure and tilted her head to give him more access.

“Roz was home,” she told him. “I didn’t know. She heard us.”

“Bet that won me some points with Ms. Walker.” He knew her best friend hated him. He didn’t much care why, so long as she stayed out of their way.

“Deducted a few more, for sure,” she confirmed, her eyes fluttering closed as he continued to work along her throat.

“Never mind her.” He pushed her shirt up, eager for more of her. She raised her arms overhead so he could remove it. Her sports bra followed. “Better,” he declared.

He took his time, nipping and sucking first one breast than the other, his hand working where his mouth wasn’t. He knew what she liked. She started to squirm under him, press her hips into him. He worked his way down her torso, took care to peel her leggings off like he was unwrapping a gift. In a way, he reasoned, he was.

She was wearing a soft pink lacy thong this time.

“You and this lace,” he huffed. “You’re going to kill me, Spellman.”

“I had a matching bra on before cheer practice,” she said, unable to help herself. He groaned and lowered his lips back to her torso. Her eyes fluttered closed again at the sensation. She decided to ask for what she wanted. Being with him made her bold and it was something she liked about being with him. He lowered her inhibitions, got her out of her head. “Lower.”

He obliged.

He kissed the lace, smiled as she hummed in pleasure. He pushed the panties aside, placed his lips and tongue where she wanted them. Her hand twisted in his hair. She bit her lip, trying not to cry out, not that Melvin was oblivious as to what they were doing in Nick’s bedroom anytime she came over – and she was always gone by morning. He added his fingers. She came undone.

“God, Nick,” she breathed as he stalked back up her body, his smirk back.

“Like that?” he asked.

“Want me to show you how much?” she replied.

“Do your worst, Spellman.”

She leaned up and kissed him, then pushed him to the bed. His hands roamed her backside as she kissed him long and slow and deep, then began her own path down his body. He tucked one hand behind his head and watched her descent. He couldn’t help but feel smug that the petite blonde that caught everyone’s eye even though she had no idea they were looking at her was naked and with him, that he was the one that knew how to make her body buzz, how to make her fall apart.

He emitted a throaty groan when she took him in her mouth. That was one of his favorite things about her, that she was so petite – so kind and innocent – and yet she gave blowjobs like he had never experienced before. He tried not to wonder where she learned all of her tricks. He didn’t much like to think about her being with someone else.

“There you go,” he encouraged, his hand in her hair this time. “Like that.” His eyes tried to roll back in his head, but he made them stay open. He wanted to watch the beautiful creature wrapped around him. For a moment, he considered letting her finish him off, but that wasn’t what he had been envisioning for nearly a full day. “Come here,” he grunted after a few more bobs of her head. She pulled away with a pop and he drew her to him. “I need to be in you.”

“Please,” she whispered. His fingers hooked in the band of her thong. He moved so he was on top of her, then slid the fabric down her legs. She stole a kiss and bent her knees to make room for him.

Sliding into her always felt like home. No other woman had ever fit him quite like she did. He moved in and out of her, deliberate, taking his cues from her, his body instinctively molding to what she needed.

“Nick!” she breathed, digging her fingernails into his back. “More!”

He gave her what she asked for. He couldn’t deny her when they were in bed together. He came first, but she dissolved almost as soon as he did, clamping down around him and making him thank every deity he could list that she had come over that evening.

Afterward, they lay side by side in his bed, naked, him sated, her studying the ceiling. He looked over, watched her for a moment. She was beautiful, hair a mess, makeup a little smeared. He knew she wouldn’t be his forever – some guy would come along and sweep her off her feet and he would become someone she used to sleep with – but he would certainly enjoy her while he had her.

“What are you thinking about, Spellman?” he asked, his voice raspy.

“The homework I need to grade,” she answered.

“Liar.” He didn’t know how he knew she wasn’t telling the truth. He just did.

“My freshman are diagramming sentences,” she told him, undeterred. “It’s super exciting to grade.”

“Shouldn’t they already know how to do that?” he asked.

“It’s the start of the school year,” she reminded him. “It’s a refresher. I’ll have them move on to their first novel next week and start working on their research papers. My sophomores are reading MacBeth and my AP class just started Grapes of Wrath and are already picking their research topics for the semester. I expect more of them so they get a bit longer to work.”

“Fascinating,” Nick quipped, but he was smiling.

“What are you teaching?” she asked.

“My eleventh grade U.S. history classes are starting with Jamestown. The boats set sail from England as of today. My AP class is starting way back before that, with everything in England that led up to the decision to strike out for the new world. World history… We’re going way back. Beginning of time. They hate it.”

Sabrina laughed a bit.

“But you love it, don’t you?” she asked.

“I’m interested in it,” he said casually, making her laugh again. He loved history and philosophy, could often be found sneaking a few minutes to read a book on the Civil War, Socrates, whatever he could get his hands on, a habit he downplayed. He smiled. She really did have a great laugh. “History is easy. You know what happened – no need for guesswork.”

“Isn’t all of history a bit of guesswork though?” Sabrina countered. “You’re relying on the accounts of people who were there to tell how it all happened. You’re really only seeing things from their point of view.”

“We have their accounts, but we also research, field work… There may be a bit more guesswork around the earliest known history, but we’re still pretty damned knowledgeable.”

“Look at you, passionately defending your subject of expertise.”

“You would fight me over your favorite books,” Nick said. “Pride and Prejudice, The Sound and The Fury – which is an awful book, by the way.”

“It’s a brilliant book,” she argued. “It’s about the fall of the aristocratic south…”

“Yeah, yeah,” he cut her off by moving to kiss her. “I’ve heard this argument before. You’re one of maybe three people in the entire world who like that book.”

“You didn’t even finish it,” she reminded him. “You told me so.”

“If Faulkner would have just used a few more page breaks…” Sabrina laughed. He smiled again. He had always liked talking to her. She was smart, funny, passionate. “How has the first couple of weeks of the year been for you, Spellman?”

“Good,” she said. “Really good, actually. I don’t seem to have a problem class this semester. Although I think I jinxed myself.”

“You did,” Nick confirmed. “You’ll have a class riot tomorrow. My world history class is my worst class. They’re awful. I get them right after lunch and it’s like the cafeteria workers spike their food with sugar or something.”

“I have planning period after lunch,” she said smugly. It was the sweet spot, the planning period teachers dreamed about.

“Rub it in,” Nick grumbled. “Mine is after homeroom. It’s useless. I have to be there for homeroom, so I can’t even take advantage to slide in a little late.”

“Poor you, having to show up to work on time,” Sabrina teased. She checked the time on the digital alarm clock on his nightstand. “It’s getting late. I should get going.”

“I guess,” he agreed. He reached out and brushed her hair away from her face. “Thanks for coming over tonight.”

“I must begrudgingly admit that you did make it worth my while.”

He laughed again, nearly leaned in to kiss her once more. Her ruby red lips taunted him. But he was spent from their romp earlier, and the idea of going to bed a bit earlier than he usually did was appealing. He watched her step into those lacy panties, then shimmy into her leggings. Her bra came next, then her shirt.

“It’s a shame you having to wear clothes,” he commented. “A body that beautiful shouldn’t be covered up.” Her cheeks colored with a faint blush, but she still rolled her eyes yet again and made a show of kicking a sweatshirt out of her way as she went to his dresser to fix her hair in the mirror. He continued to watch her. She really was beautiful, especially right now, a little disheveled and dressed comfortable. “I’ll walk you out.”

He tossed the blanket back and pulled on his own shorts, missing Sabrina raise a questioning eyebrow. He never walked her out. She usually slipped out of bed while he slept, regaining his energy after screwing her senseless. If he was awake, he would typically call a goodbye after her from bed as she exited. He didn’t bother to put on a shirt as he led the way downstairs and outside.

“I guess I’ll see you at school tomorrow,” she said, stopping at her car.

“I should probably grade those pop quizzes before I go to bed,” Nick commented, thinking better of his decision to go straight to bed now that he was thinking a little clearer. “I should have done it earlier, but I was distracted.”

“By weed, pizza, beer, and video games?” Sabrina asked pointedly.

“By thoughts of the gorgeous cheerleading coach I hoped would stop by after practice.” He put a hand on her hip and pulled her in to kiss her. Her knees nearly buckled. This was new, too. He never kissed her goodbye. “See you tomorrow, Spellman.”

“Tomorrow,” she echoed. She got into her car, not sure what had just happened. She reminded herself not to get her hopes up. Nick was – Nick.

Nick stood on his porch to watch her taillights disappear down the street. They were mere pinpricks when she reached her house. When they turned off, he went inside, satisfied she was home safely. He did that from time to time – watched to make sure she made it the few blocks down the street without incident. He could see her driveway from his bedroom window, which was rather convenient. Melvin was perched on a barstool in their kitchen, eating crackers from a box.

“I think these crackers are stale,” he announced.

“Then why are you continuing to eat them?” Nick asked. He opened his pizza box and took out a piece. He didn’t bother with the microwave.

“Now that I’ve started, I can’t seem to stop.” Nick rolled his eyes. “I’ve been meaning to ask – what’s with you and Sabrina anyway? Are you two dating?”

“We’re friends,” Nick said. “With obvious benefits.”

“But – you like her.” To Melvin, it was as clear as a perfect day in early spring.

“Everyone likes her,” Nick shrugged. “Name me someone that doesn’t like her.”

“Prudence, Agatha, and Dorcas…”

“They are jealous of her,” Nick corrected. “Mostly because she’s sleeping with me.” He looked smug. Melvin snorted. “But they still like her, albeit begrudgingly.”

“So, you’re not dating?” Melvin clarified.

“Didn’t I just say that?” Nick countered.

“Well, yeah, but you two are always together. And I don’t just mean her stopping by and you two disappearing into your bedroom for anywhere between thirty minutes and a few hours at a time. It looks like you’re dating.”

“We’re not,” Nick insisted, feeling a little uncomfortable. “She knows that.”

“So you’re saying you would be fine if you were to, say, walk into Cee’s for a meal and see her on a date with another guy?” Nick narrowed his eyes at Melvin.

“Are you interested in Sabrina?”

“Not me,” Melvin shook his head. “I’ve known her entire life. We played in the sandbox together. There are photos to prove it. I’m also terrified of her Aunt Zelda. But come on, Nick. Sabrina is the kind of girl guys want. She’s pretty, smart, kind… Like you said, everyone likes her. I’m just wondering how you’re going to feel when she inevitably gets charmed by someone else.”

“Someone will come along and sweep her off her feet,” he said, trying to sound casual about it. He knew that was the deal, after all. It shouldn’t make him feel – weird – inside. “That’s not how it is between us. She knows that.”

“She knows it,” Melvin agreed. “But do you?”

Nick just stared at him.

“I’ve got quizzes to grade,” he said after a moment, not comfortable with the direction the conversation had taken. He and Melvin didn’t talk about this kind of stuff. They talked about video games and whose turn it was to meet their weed supplier, not whether or not one of them would be okay with the girl they were boning seeing someone else. “It’s already late.” He took another piece of pizza. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“No you won’t,” Melvin replied, still eating crackers. “I’ve got to be at the hospital at five.”

“Have fun with that,” Nick muttered. He didn’t envy Melvin’s schedule. He barely made it out of bed and to homeroom before the bell rang. Most mornings, there were already teenagers in his room when he arrived. He would never be able to pull off an earlier wakeup time. “Stop eating those disgusting crackers.”

In his bedroom, he picked up his messenger bag and collapsed on his bed. He dug out the messy stack of quizzes he had collected from his students and found a red pen to grade. He tried to focus on the ten question multiple choice questions in front of him, but his thoughts kept drifting to Sabrina, first considering how she had looked post-sex, his comforter pulled around her, her hair a mess, but then of how she had looked in those leggings and the t-shirt she had cropped herself, of her, earlier that day, standing at the microwave the teacher’s lounge in work pants and that turtleneck that hid the marks he knew he was responsible for…

He had always wanted her.

She caught his eye the first day of football practice his freshman year. He was the new kid, eager to make an impression, to show off. When he laid eyes on the cheerleading squad, he knew right away that she wasn’t one of the popular girls – the so called Weird Sisters were the heart of that group – but she was certainly the prettiest of the cheerleaders, her hair a bit longer back then, but just as blonde, her lips just as red. It didn’t take him long to learn two things: she was the fiery one of the bunch and she was head over heels for that dork Harvey Kinkle. He still flirted mercilessly, even tried to move in on her a few times over the course of their high school career, particularly when she and Kinkle were in one of their “off again” periods, but she always kept him at arm’s length. Then, they graduated and everyone went their separate ways.

When they all ended up back in Greendale with fancy college degrees – he and Sabrina both held master’s degrees, her in education, him in history – with teaching positions at Baxter High, he was quick to learn she was single and he was eager to carry on his debauchery ways. It took him some time, but six months ago, after a barbecue thrown by the gym teacher, both of them tipsy, but not so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing, she had finally given in to him.

He hadn’t slept with another woman since.

He assumed Sabrina hadn’t slept with anyone else either.

She had her moments. She told him often enough that they couldn’t keep doing “this,” couldn’t keep their passion-filled one night stands going. But he wasn’t always the one that convinced her to slip between the sheets again. She had sent her fair share of “come over” texts too.

He didn’t want a relationship. He was sure of that. He had never had one, not a serious one, anyway, and he liked how his life was going. He didn’t have responsibilities outside of his job. There was no one to answer to, no one to check with if he wanted to do something after work. Sabrina judged him for his affinity for recreational marijuana, cheap beer, and expensive bourbon, but she didn’t try to stop him.

No, they were friends with benefits, nothing else. Whenever she did find someone, he would move on to his next triste, maybe even have a few on rotation instead of just one. But for now, he was the one messing up Sabrina’s sheets. As long as she let him, he didn’t plan to stop.

He wrote “80%” on the quiz in his hand and circled it. He sat it aside and reached for the next one.

That weird feeling he had downstairs when Melvin mentioned Sabrina with someone else tried to make a comeback. He pushed it aside.

Sabrina was his for now.

That was good enough.

Chapter Text

She double checked her bag to make sure she had everything she needed before turning off her classroom light. It was later that she was usually here – past six – but cheer practice had ran over and she had forgotten the MacBeth responsive questions she wanted to grade that night so she ended up back in her classroom. As she neared the end of her hall, she noticed the light in Nick’s classroom was on. She peeked in and was surprised to find him at his desk, both hands in his hair, elbows resting on the desk as he read a paper. He wasn’t exactly known for putting in time at school past the final bell. He was usually the first one to leave.

Her tap on his door frame made him jump.

“Sabrina, hey,” he greeted when he saw her. “What are you still doing here?”

“Cheer practice ran over and I forgot some homework I want to grade tonight.” She stepped into his room. “What are you still doing here?”

“Grading AP papers,” he sat back in his chair. “I’ve been putting them off all week. I knew if I went home, I wouldn’t do them.”

“Video games and weed?” Sabrina guessed.

“Melvin wants a FIFA rematch,” he confirmed. “I stayed after to meet with a student, figured I may as well get my grading done, too.”

“Riley Greene?” Sabrina guessed again.

“He’s a smart kid,” Nick confirmed. “He just doesn’t try. We’re on our third week of school and his grades are already awful. He’s disrespectful, late to class. I tried to talk to him today, figure out where his head is. He seems to think football is going to be his ride out of here, doesn’t give a damn about history or any other subject.”

“I had a lot of trouble with him last fall semester,” Sabrina shared. “He barely squeaked out a ‘C’ in my class, and that was with me holding his hand and dragging him through it. You’re right – he’s smart, he just doesn’t try. He doesn’t like school.”

“Any tips?” Nick asked.

This, Sabrina thought to herself. This was why she couldn’t stay away from Nicholas Scratch, even though she knew she needed to. When he wasn’t displaying his usual overly sexual, too forward, devil-may-care attitude to the rest of the world, which was almost always, she saw another side of him, a side Roz swore she was making up. He may have been flippant about his job – about his life – but under it all, he genuinely cared about his students, loved telling them about history. He was a good teacher, well-liked by students, and not just because he was attractive. And sometimes, with her, she saw a sweet, gentle side of him, too.

She wished he would let that side out more often.

“Let him know you care,” Sabrina offered. “His home life isn’t great. His parents are divorced, and he doesn’t really have a relationship with his father. His mom works two jobs, and he’s the oldest of three. He has to make sure his siblings get out of bed and off to school every morning, breakfast eaten, homework done, permission slips signed, lunches packed, and he works part-time on the weekends at the grocery store to help out financially. He’s carrying a lot for a seventeen year old.”

“How do you know all of this?” Nick wondered.

“I ask,” Sabrina perched on his desk. “I might have to ask a few times, but I usually figure out what I need to figure out in the end.”

“I gave him an extra credit assignment, something really easy, if he just does it. I get wanting to play football. I played football. It’s fun, and he’s better at it than I ever was. But he can’t get into a good school on football alone. And what if he gets hurt?”

“Is Tommy Kinkle leaning on you to pass him?” Sabrina asked.

“Guess that’s a known thing he does?” Nick countered, confirming her suspicion.

“Unfortunately,” Sabrina nodded. “He tried it with me. Don’t let him intimidate you.”

“The Kinkles don’t intimidate me.” Sabrina raised an eyebrow at the use of Kinkles, plural. Harvey was a freelance illustrator, had nothing to do with Baxter High and to her knowledge, hadn’t spoken to Nicholas Scratch in years. Still, she got the impression the two had never really liked one another, although now she didn’t know why. “Never have.”

“Just stick with Riley,” Sabrina advised. “He may not act like it, but he responds to people that show they care. That’s part of why Tommy is such a passionate supporter of him. He goes about it wrong, but it’s more than the fact that Riley is the star quarterback of his football team.”

Nick studied her for a moment. She was in workout shorts today, and a long sleeve t-shirt emblazoned with Columbia, her alma mater, across the front. She was as beautiful as ever, but for once, he wasn’t thinking about getting her into bed – or taking her right there on his desk.

“You’re a good teacher, Spellman.”

“So are you, Scratch,” she countered, because it was true. “You actually were a decent football player, too, from what I can recall.”

“I still hold the school record for most rushing yards in a season,” Nick said matter of factly. “I believe my name is listed in the top three positions, in fact. Set the record my sophomore season, then broke it junior year, and broke that one senior year.”

“We won States that year,” Sabrina recalled.

“Haven’t even been to States since then,” Nick pointed out.

“My cheerleading squad has,” she reminded him. “We placed second last year. We’ll win this year.”

“Someone is sure of themselves,” he teased.

“I have a good squad, and I don’t like to lose.”

He laughed outright.

“I’m tied to my papers tonight, but I could come over tomorrow,” he suggested, deciding he wanted to see her soon. “Or if my favorite math teacher is home, you could come over…”

“Sorry, but tomorrow night is friend night,” she informed him. “Roz, Harvey, Theo, and me. Movies and popcorn.”

“Standing me up for friends,” Nick shook his head. “You wound me, Spellman.”

“I’m sure you can find something to occupy your time,” she stated.

“Tomorrow is out, the next day, Friday, is an away game, so I guess that means I’ll have to wait until the weekend to get my fill of you – or for you to get your fill of me, such as it is.”

She kicked him in the thigh, making him laugh.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m going out of this town this weekend.”

He frowned.

“You are?”

“My aunt Hilda is setting up a booth at some festival a couple of hours away with all of her honeys, jams, jellies, whatever else she makes. Ambrose has been roped in to helping her the last three times. I owe him one.”

“I don’t like the trajectory of this conversation,” Nick stated. “I seem to come out on the wrong side of this.”

“I have full faith you can find something – or someone – to entertain you.”

She didn’t like the thought of Nick sleeping with someone else. Not at all. But they weren’t in a relationship and she couldn’t stop him. She was surprised to see him look serious.

“You know I’m only sleeping with you, right?” he asked. “I mean, I know we don’t have – rules – but I’m not sleeping with anyone else. I wouldn’t be bypass a condom if I were. I’m not that guy.”

Sabrina was taken back by his admission. She honestly hadn’t been sure where Nick stood, would have placed her bets on him having more than one partner. Dorcas sure spent enough time flirting with him – and he flirted right back – to make her suspicious.

“Me either,” she said. “I’m not – with anyone else.”

He nodded once. He knew that. Sabrina wasn’t that kind of girl. Not that he had ever pegged her to be the kind of girl who slept with someone casually, but she had proven she enjoyed sex, so he didn’t question it. Everyone had their vices.

“Sunday night,” he said. “You’re mine, Spellman. It’ll have been almost a week.”

“You’ll be just fine,” she informed him, sliding off his desk before things took a turn. “I’m going home. Don’t stay too late.”

“Is it weird?” he asked, a thought popping into his head that he couldn’t help but voice right then. She looked surprised at the question. “Hanging out with Roz and Harry, I mean?”

“Harry?” she replied. “Really, Nicholas?”

“Old habits die hard,” he shrugged with a smirk. He had always purposefully called Harvey by the wrong name, because he knew it drove her insane. And because he had never liked the guy. If asked why, he wouldn’t have an answer – he just, didn’t. “Seriously though – Roz is your best friend, he’s your ex… That’s weird, right?”

“No,” she answered honestly. “Harvey and I broke up my early into our freshman years of college. We grew apart, had different dreams. Harvey and Roz have been together for a couple of years now. They just – make sense. I expect he’ll propose any day now.”

“Well, no matter,” Nick shrugged. “How is Theo? I always liked him…”

Sabrina smiled again, once more noting that softer side of Nick he never let out into the open. When Theo had transitioned from Susie to Theo in high school, he had been bullied, but Nick had always been kind to him, accepting. His acceptance of Theo, coupled with his popularity, had ultimately helped the bullying cease.

“He’s doing well,” Sabrina said. “He runs a growing non-profit for transgender teens. He’s doing really amazing work, even if it has him traveling a lot. That’s part of why we’re getting together tomorrow – Theo is actually home for a few days this month.”

“That’s awesome,” Nick said sincerely. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Sabrina confirmed. She started to walk away, but stopped and turned back to him. “Hey, what do plan to eat for dinner if you’re going to be here a while?”

“Something I can take from the freezer to the microwave when I get home,” he shrugged. “I’ve got a salisbury steak meal, I think.”

“That’s disgusting,” Sabrina declared. “That’s not even real meat.” She reached into her bag and removed a tupperware container that she placed on a nearby desk. “Eat this. Eggplant parmesan. I made it a few days ago before I remembered Roz hates eggplant, so I’ve been eating leftovers. I brought this for lunch, but was so desperate to eat anything else after having it for lunch and dinner for the last few days that I got a salad from the cafeteria. I was going to dump this down the garbage disposal, but you may as well eat it.”

“Thank you,” Nick said with a smile. “You’re too good to me, Spellman.”

She really is, he heard a small say in the back of his mind. He actively ignored it.

“I just took it out of the fridge. Heat it up for three minutes and it should be good to go.”

“Thank you,” he said again. “Have a good night, Sabrina.

“You too, Nick.”

He went back to his grading, but the tupperware container kept catching his eye, almost like it was taunting him. He took a big breath and decided to heat it up.

He opted once more to ignore the small voice that reminded him girls that didn’t want strings attached didn’t leave the guy they were sleeping with leftovers.


Sabrina idly drew random patterns on the notepad Hilda always kept by her pay station. She was bored to tears, cold, and thanks to Nick’s R-rated texts, horny as hell. At this point, the only thing he hadn’t done was send her X-rated pictures. She had, however, snapped a tasteful close up of where her strap met the lacy red cup of her bra and sent it to him. His texts that followed had been enough to assure her he would be all but waiting for her on her front porch with his tongue hanging out when she arrived back in Greendale the next day.

“You look as bored as I feel.”

She looked up to find a guy she could only describe as classically handsome standing before her. She sat up a little taller, taking in his swooped blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and chiseled jawline.

“I’ve had more fun on my weekends,” she replied. He smiled at her. It was quite the smile.

“Working against your will?” he guessed.

“Helping my aunt,” she confirmed. “My aunt who is currently nowhere to be found.”

“Ah, abandoned you just before you died of boredom.”

“More like she knows everyone on the festival circuit, as she calls it, and got sidetracked, likely several times over, on her quest to get us food.” She held out her hand. “I’m Sabrina.”

“Gregory,” he took her hand. “Also here against my will. Slightly, at least.”

“Oh?”

“My grandma likes these festival things.” He pointed to where a put together older woman was browsing quilts a few stalls down. “Her house is full of junk she’s bought from these things. Quilts happen to be a particular favorite. She’ll be a while, so I thought I’d wander a bit, check out the jellies and jams.”

“They are delicious,” she waved her hand around the tent. “Feel free to sample.”

“Which do you recommend I start with?” he asked.

“The peach,” she said easily. “It’s my favorite, and it’s nearly sold out. Hilda’s jams, jellies, and honeys are legendary.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Gregory declared. “Lead the way.”

Sabrina crossed Hilda’s set up to where the dwindling display of peach preserves awaited.

“You take a cracker.” She removed a Ritz from the tray. “Then smear it with brie.” She demonstrated. “Then, a dollop of peach preserves.” She popped the whole cracker into her mouth. “Delicious.”

Gregory followed her lead. He nodded his head as he chewed.

“Agreed,” he said with a nod. “One hundred percent agreed.”

Sabrina led him around the booth, sampling and chatting. She learned he was from Riverdale, that he owned a small construction business and a beagle named Benji. He asked about her, her job, listened to her stories, waited patiently when she helped other customers. She was laughing at a joke he told when Hilda appeared.

“So sorry, love!” she greeted, Styrofoam cartons in hand. “I ran into Frederick, and then Louise… Well, you know how we are when we all get together.” She noticed Gregory then. “Ah, a customer!”

“This is Gregory,” Sabrina introduced. “Gregory, this is my Aunt Hilda.”

“Your wares are delicious,” he took Hilda’s hand politely. “I bought two of the peach preserves, a blackberry jelly, and a jar of honey.”

“Well aren’t you my favorite customer,” Hilda said, eyes shining. She was an easy victim to a man’s charm. “Handsome, too.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said politely. He glanced across the way to where his grandmother was. Sabrina noticed he kept doing that, checking in on her. He liked that. “It looks like my grandmother has made her purchase. I should go over there, help her.”

“It was nice to meet you, Gregory,” Sabrina said with a genuine smile.

“The pleasure was all mine,” he assured her. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

She could only smile.

“My, my, my,” Hilda said, coming to stand next to her. “Rather dashing, isn’t he?”

“He’s definitely easy on the eyes,” Sabrina agreed. “He’s really nice, too. He actually lives in Riverdale.”

“That’s not exactly far from Greendale, now is it?”

“No,” Sabrina agreed. “But I doubt I ever see or hear from him again. It’s not like he asked for my phone number or anything....”

“He has my business card,” Hilda pointed out. “It comes with the bag, and even if it didn’t, the name and contact information is all over my labels and bags. In this day and age, with all the social medias and such, he can find you if he’s interested.” She cut her eye at Sabrina. “Besides, Cee tells me you left the diner with that Scratch character the other night.”

“Hilda,” Sabrina warned. Her aunts knew something was going on between her and Nick, but Hilda would keel over and Zelda would need something much stronger than her usual martini if they ever found out she was willingly climbing into bed with him on a frequent basis.

“I’m just saying, I don’t know how a boy with such wonderful parents turned out so… naughty.”

Sabrina was saved further inquiry by the arrival of another customer. She returned to her position at the pay station, just as Gregory passed by, carrying the bag that contained her grandmother’s new quilt as she walked slowly at his side. He held up the bag of jam and nodded as her as they passed. She smiled back and gave a little wave.

Her phone lit up.

Melvin confirmed blue balls is a thing. Ditch that festival and come save me.

She looked after Gregory, picked out his figure from the crowd. She re-read Nick’s text, couldn’t see Gregory saying anything like, even though she had only just met him. She blew out a breath and put her phone down without replying.

Nicholas Scratch would never change. The sex was good, but she was already dangerously close to losing her heart. Maybe – maybe – it was time for her to reconsider their arrangement.

For real, this time.


Nick looked up at the house his family had called home for the last eleven years with something akin to trepidation. He had always loved that house, or at least he had once he got past the fact that his parents were picking up their Chicago roots and moving to small town Greendale the summer after middle school. It was a bigger house for Greendale, five bedrooms, a big backyard, a front porch for sitting, a back deck for entertaining. It was a quintessential Connecticut home, right down to the American flag flying from the porch. It wasn’t as quirky as the big Victorian the Spellman sisters lived in on the edge of town, but it was home.

The front door opened and a petite little girl with his same dark hair and eyes and olive complexion appeared. He smiled a bit at the annoyed expression on her face and opened his truck door.

“Mommy said to tell you to stop hiding and come inside,” she called, clearly made to do something she didn’t want to do in coming to fetch him. “Lunch is almost ready.”

“I’m not hiding,” he told her as he crossed the lawn. “I’m preparing myself.”

“For what?” she asked curiously.

“You’ll understand when you’re a grown up and Mom and Dad make you come over for lunch.” He scooped her into his arms and tickled her, making her squeal with laughter.

“Put me down!” she demanded, giggling and trying to fight him off. “Right this minute!”

He put his baby sister back on her feet.

“Right this minute?” he repeated. “You’re already starting to sound like Mom.”

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his hand. “I’m hungry and Mommy made me wait for you.”

He chuckled and allowed her to pull him inside.

It was weird, having a four-year-old sister. He had been an only child for nineteen years, Amalia a surprise in every sense of the word. He hadn’t believed his parents when they told him he was going to be a big brother, but then decided it didn’t affect him anyway – he was out of the house, having a bit too much fun at the University of Virginia. He hadn’t even met her properly until she was four months old. He had been studying abroad, studying a loose term for what he’d done across Europe, when she was born and other than a few Skype calls, hadn’t really seen the kid until he ran out of excuses to stay abroad. She was cute enough. Sassy. Spoiled. But he wasn’t especially close to her, given their age gap. She was a kid who happened to be his sister that he saw maybe once a week, and only if his mother showed up at his place unannounced, always a risky move given his lifestyle, or on occasions like today when he could no longer come up with excuses to get him out of a Sunday afternoon lunch.

“Nicholas?” his mother called from the kitchen. “Finally decide to come inside?”

“I was on the phone,” he called back.

“No you weren’t,” Amalia said. “I saw you.”

“Shhh,” he hissed. “You’re not supposed to tell on your brother.”

“You’re supposed to tell the truth,” she informed him. He narrowed his eyes at her. He often forgot how smart she was for her age.

“She’s in a truth-telling phase,” came his father’s voice. The elder Nicholas Scratch stepped out of his study, looking the part of suburban dad with more money than he knew what to do with so thoroughly Nick had to refrain from rolling his eyes. “I have mixed feelings about it. Of course we want our children to tell the truth.” He gave his son a pointed look. Nick did roll his eyes this time. “But she told her mother where I hide my cigars and they have been confiscated.”

“You don’t need them.” Anabelle Scratch joined them in the entry. Both Amalia and him were spitting images of their father, their mother fair skinned with strawberry blonde hair and green eyes. She often joked that it looked like she stole her kids from someone else if her husband wasn’t around. “You’re a thoracic surgeon. I don’t know why I have to tell you this.”

“To hear yourself talk,” Nicholas replied, but with a smile to let her know he was teasing. “Nick, beer or whiskey?”

“Bour…”

“Absolutely not,” Anabelle cut him off with a glare. “It is Sunday afternoon!”

“Fine,” Nicholas agreed to appease his wife. “Nick, we’ll have a drink after lunch, maybe watch some football?”

“Sure,” Nick agreed. His goal, however, was to get out of there as soon as possible, see if Sabrina was back yet. His hand just wasn’t going to cut it for another day.

“I want Nick to play with me,” Amalia declared. “He never plays with me.”

“That’s because he never comes to visit,” Anabelle said.

“Yeah!” Amalia echoed, taking up a hands on hips stance that was eerily similar to their mother’s. “You never come visit!”

“And you wonder why,” Nick muttered.

“Okay,” Nicholas said, stepping in. “I believe I heard something about lunch being ready?”

“Lunch is ready,” Anabelle confirmed. “I set the table on the deck. I thought we would eat outside while the weather is still nice. It will turn cold soon enough.”

“I’m sitting by Nick!” Amalia squealed, running for the back door.

Nick willed himself a seat by the nearest exit.

“You dressed up for the occasion,” Anabelle commented. She reached for a hug even as she scrutinized his gym shorts and pullover.

“I didn’t know I needed to dress up for lunch at my parents’ house,” he hugged her back with one arm. “Especially on a Sunday afternoon.”

“You’re such a handsome boy,” Anabelle told him. “If you just put forth a little effort…”

“Anabelle, he spends Monday through Friday in dress pants and a button down, educating the young minds of Greendale,” Nicholas interrupted. “Let him have his fun on the weekends.” He looked back to his son. “He likely just woke up a bit ago.”

Nick said nothing. It was one o’clock. He had rolled out of bed somewhere around eleven, took care of himself in the shower thanks to visions of Sabrina in red lace, and watched Sports Center until he begrudgingly got into his truck and drove across town to his parents’ house. If he would have had any sense, he would have had a drink first.

“That’s something I guess,” she sighed. She linked her arm through Nick’s. “Come on, sweetheart. I made one of your favorites – apricot and almond chicken salad on croissants with chutney and homemade sweet potato chips.”

“This is why I showed up,” Nick said appreciatively. His mom was hard on him, but she was also an excellent cook.

“Have you eaten anything besides takeout and frozen food this week?” Nicholas asked as they took seats around the picnic table, Nick by Amalia, their parents across from them.

“I had some eggplant parmesan the other night,” he said without much thought. His mother, however, knew her son hadn’t acquired such a decent meal on his own.

“Oh?” she asked curiously. “Surely you didn’t make it. Did Melvin? I’m under the impression he’s not much of a cook either.”

“A friend passed along their leftovers,” he said, hoping his mother didn’t pry further. He noted Amalia’s plate had a grilled cheese on it. “Hey, Mally, why aren’t you eating chicken salad?”

“Don’t call me Mally,” she stated. “That’s not my name. I’m Amalia. And I don’t like chicken salad.”

“Have you ever tried chicken salad?” Nick countered.

“Nope. Mommy said I didn’t have to.”

Nick looked at his mother.

“Seriously?”

“She’s four. Apricot and almond chicken salad is a bit refined for her.”

“As opposed to me as a four-year-old who had to sit at the table until I ate all of my apple smoke porkchop?” he asked. The memories of dinnertime standoffs were still vivid twenty years later. “Smoked salmon? Seared scallops?”

“I’d say look how refined your palate is now, but your father has already pointed out that you have a penchant for frozen food and delivered pizza.”

“So one style of parenting for me, one for her?” Nick continued. “Different rules apply the second time around?”

Amalia stuck her tongue out at him. He raised an eyebrow at his parents. They pretended not to notice. It drove him crazy, the way they allowed Amalia to get away with anything and everything while they ran a tight ship with him. Even now, they tried to keep him in check by commenting on everything from his food choices to his wardrobe.

“We were younger when we had you,” Nicholas supplied. “We had more energy to wait you out.”

“Look how well you turned out,” Anabelle added. “You graduated with honors from the University of Virginia, have a master’s degree, are a teacher… You may still live like a frat boy, but overall, you’re not awful.”

“Not awful,” Nick repeated. “There’s something to aspire to.”

He had been starving when he showed up. Now, his appetite seemed to have disappeared. This was how it went every time he came to his parents’ house. His mother, somehow both mothering him and letting him know how much she disapproved of him in her underhanded sort of way. His father, trying to keep the peace but also letting him know he, too, didn’t approve of his son’s choices. Amalia, running wild, climbing all over him, demanding his attention or else throwing a temper tantrum because of some stupid thing that didn’t go her way. It was easier to just stay away.

But then his mother would drop by unexpectedly if she hadn’t seen him in a week or so. It was a damn near miracle she hadn’t walked in on him and Melvin smoking joints or him in bed with Sabrina. He wasn’t sure which scenario would end worse for him.

“Why don’t we try to have a nice meal, enjoy one another’s company?” Nicholas proposed. “Nick, how is school going? Any problem students identify themselves yet?”

Nick grasped onto the topic he could discuss without disappointing anyone. He knew his parents loved him. He even knew they were proud of him, for the most part. But he also knew they were disappointed that he wasn’t settling down, getting married, having kids. He couldn’t get them to understand that wasn’t what he wanted. They made it almost all the way through the meal without a further incident, even Amalia choosing to behave, before the conversation took another turn.

“How are you spending your volunteer hours this year?” Anabelle asked.

“Same way I have the last two years I’ve taught – chaperoning dances and working the concession stand once or twice.”

Baxter High required their teachers to do a certain amount of volunteer hours. Some – like Sabrina – went far above and beyond by coaching a team or advising a student group. Most of them did, in fact. He himself barely scraped out his hours, doing the bare minimum that would keep him in the principal’s good graces.

“You should coach a sport,” Anabelle suggested. “You played everything in school. Football, lacrosse… Even soccer one season. You would be a great coach”

“The football coaching staff is set,” Nick said. “I spend enough time at school without having to coach a sport or advise a club, too.”

“What else do you do besides work?” Anabelle wondered. “Your hobbies seem to include sleeping in and playing video games.”

“I do stuff.”

He did Sabrina. And played video games. He liked to read, too. That had to count for something.

“Your mom does have a point there,” Nicholas chanced. “You should find a hobby or maybe even coach a team.” He lit up the way he did when he had an idea. Nick braced himself. “Amalia starts soccer next month. You could coach her team…”

“Yeah!” Amalia erupted. Anabelle snatched the child’s drink out of the way to keep it from spilling in that sixth sense sort of way mothers had. “That would be so cool! Please, Nick! Please coach my team!”

“Absolutely not,” he shook his head. “First of all, I wouldn’t get volunteer hours for it at school since it’s not school-sponsored. Second of all, coaching four-year-olds? No. Just no. I barely have patience for teenagers.” He tilted his head towards her sister. “Or her.”

“Nick!” Amalia whined. “Please!” She drew out her please to make it several syllables too long.

“Stop whining,” he told her. “You sound like a brat when you do that.”

“Nicholas, watch your mouth,” Anabelle gave him the warning look she had used his entire life. “She’s your sister.”

Next to him, Amalia was spiraling into a temper tantrum.

“How about some cake?” he proposed, ignoring his mother. Anything to shut Amalia up before she got started, too. “How about that, Mally? Cake and ice cream for dessert?”

She stopped whining and beamed at him. He smirked at his mom, pleased with himself. She glowered at him.

“I’m not sure who the child is at this table,” she stated. “You or Amalia.”

She got up from the table to get their dessert. Nick looked to his father, aware that he had just earned himself a lecture on respect.

“She means well,” Nicolas said to his son. “She worries about you, Nick. We both do.”

“I don’t know why,” Nick shrugged. “Mom said it herself. I turned out not awful.”

“You’ve got a good job, but what else, Nick? You share a house with your high school best friend, sleep the day away if you don’t have to teach, play your video games. I hear the rumors, too, about how you aren’t exactly,” he shot his eyes towards Amalia who was playing with the crust of her grilled cheese and singing to herself, “lonely, if you catch my drift.” Nick squirmed.

“I’m only twenty-five. And I’m a teacher. It’s not like I make a ton of money…”

“You have a trust fund the size of which you could never spend,” he reminded Nick. “Don’t give me that. You could buy a house, at least, start a real estate portfolio.”

“I do just fine on my salary. I don’t need to access my trust fund.” Really, he could comfortably live alone on his salary. Melvin certainly could make it without him with Greendale’s cost of living lower than other parts of the state. But Nick liked living with Melvin, having someone to hang out with. They had a good thing going. “The trust fund is nice, but it’s just money.”

His father was the third generation of world-renowned cardio thoracic surgeons. He had broken the mold, opting for education instead of med school. The Scratch family wealth ran deep and while he couldn’t deny that he had enjoyed a lot of privilege growing up because of it, it had never been what motivated him.

“You’ve got to start making some more adult decisions, Nicholas,” his father continued. “Your mother and I worry about you…”

“I’m doing fine,” he said, working hard to hold in his temper. “I don’t know why you and Mom can’t see that.”

“You’ll understand when you’re a parent,” Nicholas said. Nick rolled his eyes. That would never happen, no matter how promiscuous he was.

“Don’t roll your eyes,” Amalia said from beside him. “They’ll get stuck like that.”

“No, they won’t,” he told her. “For one, it’s when people cross their eyes that people say they’ll get stuck like that. Two, your eyes actually will not get stuck.”

“You’re such a smart ass,” Amalia stated.

“Amalia!” Nicholas exclaimed. “Do not say that!”

She smiled sweetly.

“I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“Don’t say it again,” he repeated. Nick shook his head.

“I have memories of actual bars of soap being put in my mouth for cussing,” he said. “She barely gets a warning…”

“We were younger,” Nicholas said again. Nick considered banging his head against the table.

Anabelle returned with a chocolate cake and a carton of vanilla ice cream. Her arrival was enough to distract his father from continuing their conversation. She served up slices with ice cream heaped on top and the fact that she gave him two scoops and Amalia just one made him soften towards her just a little. He had always begged for two scoops as a kid and she had always told him no, until he was much older.

The conversation went back to a more pleasant topic – not Nick – and he only half listened as his mother went on about some fundraiser gala they were attending that coming weekend, his father making cracks about how beautiful his bride would look in her evening gown. He felt justified when his mother escorted a screaming Amalia inside for a timeout after she collapsed to the deck floor in a full-blown temper tantrum when she was denied another slice of cake. He was almost enjoying himself when his mother returned, sans Amalia.

“So she does get punished,” he observed.

“Contrary to your belief, we do correct her from time to time,” Anabelle informed him. “She’s in her room, thinking about what she’s done.”

“More like plotting what she’s going to do next,” Nick retorted. Anabelle gave him a look. Nicholas snorted into his tea glass. He had to agree with his son.

“So, Nick, tell your father and I – are you seeing anyone?” Anabelle asked, shifting the conversation as casually as if she had asked about the weather.

“No, Mom,” Nick answered tightly. “I’m not.”

Was he screwing Sabrina as often as he could get her? Yes. Seeing someone? No.

“Surely there’s someone you’re interested in,” she pressed. “Maybe another teacher at the school? What’s that pretty redhaired girl’s name?”

“Dorcas, and she’s crazy,” Nick stated. “Trust me, Mom, you want me nowhere near that one.”

“Oh, she can’t be but so bad…”

“What about the Spellman girl?” his father asked. “Is she seeing anyone?” Anabelle lit up.

“Sabrina!” she cried. “Oh, I love her! Nick, you should ask her on a date. She’s a sweetheart. She taught at that dance camp we sent Amalia to this summer. Amalia adores her.”

“She’s a good girl,” Nicholas agreed with his wife. “Smart, too, from what I remember.”

“Yes, she was salutatorian in high school,” Anabelle recalled. Nick willed the earth to open up and swallow him whole. If his parents only knew how well he knew Sabrina Spellman. “Nick, of course, was the valedictorian,” she added with a fond smile.

“Barely,” Nick supplied. “I only beat her out by a tenth of a point.” He still brought it up from time to time. She still got mad about it.

“All the same, you should take her to dinner,” Anabelle continued. “My goodness, Nicholas, that was a stroke of genius. She would be the perfect girl for Nicky…”

“You should think about it,” Nicholas told him. “See if she would be interested.”

“Sabrina wouldn’t be interested in a guy like me,” he said. Because it was true. He was the guy who kept her bed warm. He wasn’t the guy she went on dates with, snuggled under the blanket in front of the fire with. “Now, can we stop talking about this?”

“Fine, fine,” Anabelle agreed, holding her hands up. “What do you want to talk about, then?”

“Dad, how do you think the Giants are shaping up this year?” he asked, seizing his opportunity.

“Well, their offensive line doesn’t look great…”

“And I’ve lost them,” Anabelle said with a fond shake of her head as her boys discussed football. She dug into her cake, thinking it really would be nice if Nick would just take the Spellman girl on a date.

Instead of sleeping with her all over town.

Chapter Text

Sabrina peeked out the window for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last fifteen minutes. Twenty-four hours after meeting Gregory and reconsidering her position with Nick, she was now watching for Nick to pull up to her curb, nearly as desperate to have him as his text messages had been.

His black truck appeared. Her body sizzled in anticipation. She stepped out on the porch to greet him.

“I thought you weren’t coming back,” he stated as he walked up her sidewalk. “I’m not sure I would have made it another day.”

“You succeeded in making me want you, Scratch,” she responded, not bothering with pleasantries. “And I may or may not be wearing lace underneath this.”

He groaned as he climbed the stairs.

“Don’t tease me.” He didn’t give her time to respond. His mouth was on hers, his arms around her. She pulled him closer, sighed into his mouth. “God, I missed you.”

“Me?” she asked when they parted long enough to catch a breath. “Or sex?”

“Both.” His hands were already under her shirt, his fingers skimming along the skin just above her jeans. “I need you, Spellman.”

She didn’t give his words much thought. He was saying what he thought she wanted to hear to get her into bed. He had no idea how little he had to work.

“Inside,” she declared, spinning out of his arms. She pulled him towards the door.

“You or the house?” he asked cheekily. She looked over her shoulder with a coy smile.

“Both.”

He nearly came right then.

“Please say you are, in fact, wearing lace. I’ve been imagining it for days.”

“It’s only a matter of what color,” she teased as she pulled him upstairs towards her bedroom.

“The math teacher is gone?” he questioned.

“Roz is definitely not here,” Sabrina confirmed. “She’s at Harvey’s – for real this time.”

In her bedroom, she unbuttoned her jeans and shimmied out of them. When she turned back to Nick, he was shirtless.

“Royal blue,” he said, taking in her lacy boy shorts. “I like it.” His hands were back on her, sliding up her body. Her shirt came off, leaving her in her bra and panties. “Holy hell, Spellman. You don’t know what you do to me.”

“Show me,” she said boldly. Nick quirked an eyebrow.

“You came to play,” he observed. His fingers grazed along the inside of her thigh. His other hand went up her back, unfastened her bra. “Let’s play.”

A finger slipped inside her panties. She stepped closer to him, him to hold herself upright as the sensation of his finger teasing her almost instantly made her feel weak. She wrapped an arm around his waist, trailed her other hand down his chest.

“Feels good,” she breathed. His finger entered her. “That feels better.”

Her hand crept into his shorts, wrapped around him. Somehow, he felt harder than usual. He added a second finger. She cried out. He dropped his lips to the curve of her shoulder.

“You might have to wear another turtleneck tomorrow,” he warned in a husky whisper.

“Don’t care,” she sighed. “Nick… Nick, please.”

“Begging, Spellman?” His lips skimmed her ear. He pumped his hips against her, relished in how her hand felt sliding around him.

“Inside me,” she demanded. “Now.”

“Your wish,” he stated. “My command.”

He pushed her panties down. She stepped out of them as she pushed down his shorts. He turned her around and guided her towards the bed. She smiled to herself, aware of what he wanted, of what she was in for. She crawled onto the bed. They didn’t assume this position often, but it was one of her favorites. He positioned himself behind her, put his hands on her hips, and slammed into her. She cried out, clutched the sheets as he took command of her body. She could only hold on, cry out his name, beg him to keep going. He lost himself in the feel of her around him, her cries of pleasure driving him on. He had been so hard by the time he got to her place that it hurt and this was sweet, sweet release.

She came hard, clutching around him, but he kept going, still pounding into her, the pressure of his own release building slowly, almost as though there was so much of him stored up it couldn’t quite work itself out.

“Nick!” she called out. “God, you feel good.”

He erupted when she called his name, his stream abundant as he pumped it into her.

They collapsed in a heap, him on top of her, both sticky with sweat. He kissed her bare shoulder.

“You’re a saint,” he declared. “An absolute saint.”

“I needed that after a weekend with Hilda.”

“I needed that after nearly a damned week without you.” He kissed her other shoulder and rolled off of her. “We might need to do that again tonight, Spellman.”

“I could be convinced,” she said. “You’re not so bad in bed, Scratch.”

“Not so bad,” Nick scoffed. “I had you begging for more, didn’t I?”

“Someone is sure of themselves tonight.”

“I’ll take being called ‘not so bad’ in bed over my mom calling me ‘not awful,’” he mentioned. “Mostly because I know you’re joking.” He smirked. “Your cries for more told me that.”

She smacked his shoulder, making him laugh.

“Did your mom really call you ‘not awful?’” she asked a few beats later as she waited for her heart rate to come down, her breathing to return to normal.

“I had lunch with my parents today,” Nick explained. “Mom likes to give me underhanded compliments that aren’t actually compliments, like calling me ‘not awful’ after I pointed out their vastly different parent techniques between Amalia and me.”

“Amalia is a lot younger than you,” Sabrina reminded him. She liked these moments with Nick. She had found he tended to talk to her – really talk to her – while lying in bed after sex. It was how she learned more about him. “Things have changed since we were kids. Everything is faster, more advanced…”

“Mom made her a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch while the rest of us had apricot and almond chicken salad,” Nick said in an effort to defend his point. “When I was her age, we would have standoffs at the dinner table because I refused to eat my trout or whatever the hell Mom made that night. It was eat what she cooked or starve. Amalia has her cooking two separate meals.”

“It took her less than five minutes to make that grilled cheese,” Sabrina pointed out. “You would know that if you knew how to cook.”

“It’s not about the grilled cheese,” Nick informed her. “It’s about the double standard. That kid is a brat, Sabrina. My parents made me walk a tight ship. She stuck her tongue out at me at the table, they said nothing. She called me a smart ass,” Sabrina snorted back a laugh that made Nick glare at her, “and Dad was all ‘don’t say that again’ but that was it. She threw a tantrum over a second piece of cake that at least got her sent to her bedroom for a few minutes.”

“She wasn’t wrong about you being a smart ass,” Sabrina reasoned. Nick pinched her side playfully. She squealed and batted him away. He chuckled. “Nick, she’s four. You’re twenty-five. There is a huge difference between the two of you, between where you parents were when you were born and where they are now.”

“You sound like my dad,” Nick grumbled.

“Amalia is a sweet kid,” she continued. “She’s really cute, too.”

“That cuteness covers up a lot of evil,” Nick stated, tucking his arm behind his head, a little too comfortable in her bed. “They suggested I coach her soccer team.”

Sabrina scoffed.

“You?” She rolled over on her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows so she could look at him. “Do your parents know you at all?”

“Obviously not. I told them I barely had patience for teenagers, let alone Amalia. Give me a whole team of four year olds and I’ll lose my mind.”

“I would show up to watch you try to handle that,” Sabrina mused.

“If I were to coach a bunch of four year olds, you would basically never wear clothes again,” he informed her. “I would need a lot of sex to release the stress I would be under.”

“Whatever makes you tick,” Sabrina quipped. She laid down, noting that Nick’s eyelids were growing heavy. “What else did you do this weekend?”

“Gave myself hand jobs, beat Melvin at video games, and slept in,” he rattled off. “That’s literally it.” He looked at her, her arms tucked under her pillow, her blonde hair mussed. He ignored the faint voice that sounded a lot like his parents telling him to pay more attention to her, not just her body. “How was your weekend, Spellman?”

Maybe he didn’t ignore it.

“It was fine,” she shrugged. “Hilda sold most of her stock, I met some interesting people. Most importantly, I’ve fulfilled my duty to help – save for the fall festival in town in a few weeks. If your last name is Spellman, you’re not getting out of that one.”

“What kind of interesting people come to a craft festival in the middle of nowhere?” Nick wondered. “It sounds like something old people and cat ladies might enjoy.”

“There was a sweet old man who fought in Korea who talked my ear off while his wife sampled,” she recalled. “She bought a lot of jam by the end of it. There was the lady who works for a regional general store that is interested in stocking Hilda’s jams, if Hilda would just commit to producing enough to meet her volume request. There was Gregory who was there with his grandmother…”

“Gregory?” Nick interjected, his attention suddenly piqued. “What kind of guy shows up at something like that?”

“He was with his grandmother,” Sabrina repeated, intrigued by Nick’s response. She was hesitant to mark it as jealousy, but it was definitely – something. “He sampled at the booth while his grandmother looked at quilts across the way. He lives in Riverdale, drives his grandmother to festivals on occasion. It’s sweet.”

“It’s lame,” Nick countered. “No self-respecting male wants to be seen hauling grandma around to craft fairs.”

“He was being kind,” Sabrina said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“Agree to disagree.” Nick stretched his arms overhead and yawned. “Man, Spellman, you took it out of me.”

Sabrina sighed, but said nothing. It was incredible, how fast her opinion of Nicholas Scratch could swing. He was back to being the selfish ass he tended to be. She laid her head down on her pillow, considering her options, debated if she should full on kick him out of her bed.

He fell asleep before she could decide.

She sighed again and pushed herself out of bed. She put her clothes back on and went to the kitchen to brew a cup of tea. She sat down at the rolling kitchen island she and Roz had each gone in half for to wait for her water to boil.

“What are you doing, Sabrina?” she asked herself.

She had no idea.


Nick blinked his eyes open and stretched his body in a satisfied sort of way. It took him a moment to realize he wasn’t in his bed. He looked to his right, expecting to see Sabrina. She wasn’t there. He checked the time on his phone, noting it was just after eight. He had texts from Melvin, challenging him to more video games, then asking him if he planned to come home that night. There was a text from his mother, telling him she enjoyed having him for lunch. His dad had asked if he were watching the Sunday night matchup between the Steelers and the Saints. He ignored all of them, opting to find Sabrina.

He heard her before he saw her as he padded down her stairs in just his gym shorts. He stopped in the doorway of her kitchen, taken by her in a sudden way that caught him off guard. She was just sitting at her kitchen island, eating a bowl of pasta, the noise he had heard the clinking of her fork against the ceramic, her other hand holding open a book she didn’t take her eyes off of. She was in another Columbia t-shirt, her hair pulled half back in a messy bun. She was blissfully unaware of his presence, her guard down, her comfort in her surroundings palpable.

The thought of her mentioning that Gregory character floated through his mind. He tried to dismiss it. There was nothing there, but it’s not like it mattered. They had their arrangement. She wasn’t his to keep.

“How long have I been asleep?” he asked, breaking into her reverie.

“A couple of hours,” she answered. “For someone who says they slept in all weekend, you fell asleep fast.”

“Physical exertion wears me out,” he replied. He felt – weird. He was usually pretty confident in himself, in his next move, but something felt off, unbalanced. He didn’t think he particularly liked it. “What are you reading?”

“MacBeth.”

“Don’t you know that play front and back?” he asked. “You teach it every semester.”

“I like to re-read it with my class.”

He frowned a bit. Her answers were a little too short, a little too perfunctory.

“You okay?” he asked hesitantly. “You seem a little - something.” Upset. She seemed upset. But he wasn’t exactly known for being good with feelings, his own or others.

“I’m fine.” She turned the page. “It’s been a long weekend.”

“I guess I should go,” he hedged, trying to feel her out. He wasn’t really ready to leave, though. He wasn’t ready for another round of sex, but he just – wasn’t ready to leave. He couldn’t quite explain why, though. “We have school tomorrow.”

“It’s an early morning,” she agreed. “Well, for me. You tend to get a bit more sleep.”

He frowned at her subtle dig. She was definitely upset.

“Did I do something?” he asked. “If I was too rough earlier…”

No,” Sabrina sighed, finally looking his way. “You weren’t. Like I said – it was a long weekend.”

“Okay.” He bit his lip, not sure how to navigate the awkward tension before him. “I’m going to get my shirt…” She just nodded.

He went back upstairs. Unlike his bedroom, Sabrina’s was as neat as a pin. There weren’t clothes scattered about or a mess of magazines or food wrappers. Her hardwood floors gleamed, accent rugs adding a pop of color. Her unmade bed was the only sign of disarray, and that was at least partly his fault. Her cat, which he was certain hated him, sat on her dresser, somehow not knocking over the collection of photos and knickknacks displayed. He took his time pulling on his shirt and finding his shoes, taking in her room, zeroing in on details he hadn’t noticed before.

She had a lot of photos. Most of them were of her with her friends or with her aunts and her cousin, Ambrose. Some of them were just her, in various places around the globe. She loved to travel, he recalled, took lengthy trips every summer. She had gone on an adventure through South America this past summer, and it had been the longest three weeks of his life without her in his bed.

There was a more recent photo with some of her college friends from a meetup in New York. He remembered that, too. He had tried to convince her to let him tag along so they could have a bit of fun in a hotel room, but she had outright refused, informing him it was girls only. That had been a long weekend, too.

Tacked up on the corner of a corkboard over her desk was a photo from high school of her and Harvey Kinkle at senior prom. Roz was in it with her own date, Theo, too. He himself had gone stag, got wasted, and if he remembered right, had sex with both Agatha and Dorcas in the back of a limo.

He wasn’t as proud of that night as he once was, he realized.

He scanned the corkboard, knowing he was taking too long, but not caring. He was fascinated by all of these snapshots from her life, wondered why he hadn’t really noticed them before.

There was an older photo of a bride and groom. Those had to be her parents. She looked just like her mother. He felt a little bad for how he had sassed his own mother earlier, remembering that Sabrina had lost her parents when she was barely a year old. A few photos were likely the only memories she had of them. The worst thing his mother had done was rightfully question his decision making and encourage him to go on a date.

And there, in the bottom left corner, was a photo of Sabrina with several small children, all wearing matching t-shirts and red shorts. Amalia stood out in the group, and not just because she was the only one he knew. She had a big red bow in her bouncy ponytail and had Sabrina by the hand, smiling big for the camera. She absolutely sparkled in the photo. There was no other word for it. He felt a bit of a soft spot he didn’t usually have for the kid as he took her in.

He pulled himself away, wondering why he felt so melancholy about her photos. He wasn’t in any of them It wasn’t like he expected to be. But even his little sister had a place on Sabrina’s wall and that was – well, he didn’t know what that was, but it set wrong with him.

Sabrina was still at the kitchen island, her attention back on her book, when he came back downstairs.

“I’m heading out,” he said, standing awkwardly in the kitchen doorway.

“Okay,” she answered, hardly glancing in his direction. “I’ll see you at school.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. He didn’t move. “Sabrina.” She looked at him. She was guarded, but he didn’t know why. “Are you sure I didn’t do anything?”

“Long weekend,” she said yet again. “I’m going to take a shower and turn in soon.”

“Have a good night,” he said, not buying her story. “Sleep well.”

She didn’t say anything else. He left, walking slowly back to his truck, his mind racing as he tried to decipher what had just happened, wondered why he even cared.

In his truck, he took out his phone and considered sending her a text. He had just left – really hadn’t even pulled away yet – but things felt unsettled. He opted instead to reply to his parents while he worked out what to do.

I’m going to turn the game on in a few. What’s the score?

He opened his mom’s text.

Thanks for lunch, Mom. Sorry I was an ass.

His dad’s response popped onto his screen.

0-0. Still first quarter. Both defenses look good.

His mom, too, replied.

Of course, sweetheart. Enjoy the leftovers. Even when you’re an ass, you still my favorite son.

She included a heart emoji.

Nick put his phone aside and buckled his seatbelt. He started up his truck and exhaled a long breath. As he put it in drive and pulled away from Sabrina’s house to make the quick drive to his, he pretended not to recognize that the feelings swirling in his chest felt a lot like loneliness.

And maybe, just maybe, guilt.


Sabrina Spellman was avoiding him.

It was Wednesday.

Three days.

She had gone three days without saying more than a few words to him, all of which were short, to the point, and in response to him asking her a question in a setting in which she couldn’t just outright ignore him.

“How was your morning?”

“Good.”

“Did you get all that grading done?”

“Yes.”

“Got cheer practice today?”

“We do.”

And that was how he found himself at a damned meeting for Homecoming planning. He couldn’t give two shits about the theme of a dance or a pep rally or whatever the hell they were going to talk about today, but Sabrina would be there, and he was going to get to the bottom of whatever he had done to piss her off.

“What are you doing here?”

Roz.

Great.

“Volunteering,” he answered. He could do one-word answers too.

“You don’t volunteer.”

“Yes, I do. I have to. We all do.”

“You volunteer for one or two chaperone shifts, work a concession stand, and call it good,” Roz reminded him. “Anything to only do the bare minimum.”

“Maybe I’m trying to knock it all out in one fell swoop this year.” The thought had admittedly occurred to him. Push through this Homecoming extravaganza and he would be home free until the next school year rolled around instead of trying to get everything done last minute.

“Maybe you’re trying to corner Sabrina because she hasn’t been at your beck and call this week,” Roz fired back. Nick glared at her. He forgot how she did that – seemed to know what people were thinking, what their motives were. It drove him crazy in high school and he hated it even more now.

Mostly because she was right.

“I’m volunteering,” he said stubbornly. “Go Baxter High.”

“Do you even know what this year’s theme is?”

“Starry nights, a jungle, something like that,” he shrugged. There were already posters up about buying tickets to the dance. He had seen them all over school, but couldn’t even remember the date on them, let alone the theme

“Alice in Wonderland,” Roz informed him.

“That’s stupid,” he stated.

“Should have joined the committee earlier,” Roz informed him. Nick made to retort, but Sabrina walked in. She paused for a moment at the entrance when she spotted him. He sat up taller, willed her to the desk next to him.

She took a seat at the front of the room, as close to the door as she could.

“Ouch,” Roz commented. He glared at her again. She smirked and left to sit by Sabrina.

Nick couldn’t have been more bored if he tried. The meeting dragged on forever. There was a debate of epic proportions over refreshments, but that had nothing on the arguments that erupted over Spirit Week themes. He stayed quiet, kept his eyes on Sabrina, only truly listened when she interjected her opinion, which was frequently and often accompanied by some reference to the fact that she was the cheerleading coach and had a large stake in this operation.

When it was finally over, he jumped from his seat to catch her, ignoring the call from the teacher sponsoring the committee to sign up for duties if they haven’t already.

“Sabrina!”

He caught up to her in the hallway and didn’t bother with pretenses as he took her by the elbow and pulled her into an empty classroom.

“What the hell, Scratch?” she demanded, jerking away from him. “And what are you doing, showing up at a Homecoming committee? You don’t give a damn about anything we discussed in there.” She eyed him. “Can you even tell me what we discussed in there?”

“Fruit punch and Decades Day,” he dismissed. “Why are you avoiding me?”

“I’m not…”

“You’ve barely spoken to me since I left your place Sunday night,” he broke in. “Hell, you hardly talked to me then, and I was standing in your kitchen. You haven’t responded to my texts, ignored my call last night. What’s going on, Sabrina? What did I do?”

“Nothing,” she said, exasperated that he couldn’t seem to figure it out for himself. “You did nothing.”

“I clearly did something…”

“No, Nick,” she shook her head. “You did nothing. You do nothing.”

He furrowed his brow in confusion.

“I don’t understand.”

It would be one thing if she was never satisfied after their time together, but if nothing else, he was diligent about making sure she got her own release. Often more than once. What else could she be talking about?

“I’ve got to go, Nick.” This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have at school and it seemed he was incapable of seeing what she thought was so plainly spelled out right in front of him. “My squad is practicing without me. I’ve already missed an hour and they’re working on a new stunt. I need to be there.”

“Talk to me,” he grabbed her hand. He felt a little desperate. “I’m confused, here.”

“So am I,” she said, letting a little of her hand show. She pulled away from him. “I need to go.”

“Come over after practice,” he tried. “We don’t have to – do anything. Just come over and tell me why you’re so damned mad at me all of a sudden.”

“Not tonight,” she shook her head.

“I’ll come to you then,” he offered. “Even if Roz is home…”

“Nick, no.” She was firm in her stance. “I’ve told you before that we can’t keep doing this. I mean it this time.”

His frown deepened. His confusion grew.

“What’s going on, Sabrina?”

She looked sad as she studied him. He felt the odd desire to pull her to him, hold her, try to take away the sadness. He refrained. That wasn’t part of their relationship, for one, but he had a feeling he was somehow responsible for making her feel that way in the first place. A weird sort of knot formed in is stomach.

“You’re a smart guy, Nick.” Her voice was calm, her tone soft, but she sounded disappointed. “You should be able to figure it out.”

She left then, careful not to look back, half expecting him to follow her. He didn’t, but she still walked with purpose until she was out of the hallway and could disappear in another direction. She brushed away a stray tear and reminded herself she was doing the right thing. She deserved more than a guy that would never be able to return her feelings, that lacked ambition, direction. No matter how good the sex was, no matter how often she found herself hoping he would change, it wasn’t worth what she was putting herself through now.

She took her phone from her bag and opened her email. She scrolled through them, ignoring one Nick had sent her earlier that morning, asking her if she wanted to order anything from the Chinese place down the street. She had ignored it then, too, seeing it for what it was – another attempt at getting her to talk to him – and ate lunch outside, alone, on the bleachers to avoid him. She opened up the email she had received the night before, the one that made her double down on her efforts to put some distance between herself and Nick.

Hi Sabrina,

It’s Gregory, from the festival. I hope this isn’t too weird or stalkerish, but you said you were a teacher in Greendale and they list your email address in the online directory. Anyway, I’m driving through Greendale next Wednesday and I thought, if you were available, maybe we could have dinner?

That is, of course, if I didn’t creep you out by finding your email, but I’ve been kicking myself for not getting your number and this is still somehow less awkward than calling your aunt and asking for it. It’s also a little more adult that DM’ing you on social media. I hope.

Anyway, the offer is there. Let me know if you’re interested.

Hope your week is going well,

Gregory.

She hadn’t responded yet, but as she approached her squad, she tapped out a reply.

Hi Gregory,

Not weird at all – it’s nice to hear from you.

I have cheer practice after school on Wednesday, but I could meet you around six if that works? You can text me if you’d like - 555-110-2134.

My week is okay enough. Hope yours has been okay too.

Sabrina

She blew out a breath once she hit send, pushed down thoughts of Nick, and dropped the phone back into her bag before she set it down on the bleachers. She clapped her hands together to get her squad’s attention.

“Okay, girls,” she called out. “Let’s see what you’ve been working on while I was gone.”

Chapter Text

It had been a very long week.

In an effort to relax, Sabrina found herself in a massage chair at Greendale’s only nail salon, her fingernails now a deep red that would soon match her toes. The salon was busy, women from all over Greendale getting their nails done for the fundraising gala that night, and Sabrina had told her technician she was content to sit and let her feet soak in the hot water while she bustled about with other clients. She had the massage chair perfectly programmed and was deep in her book when she was interrupted.

“Sabrina, hello.”

Annabelle Scratch settled into the chair next to her. Even in capri leggings and a light long sleeve athletic shirt, the woman was effortlessly beautiful. Her smile was kind and Sabrina found herself smiling back at her.

“Mrs. Scratch, hi,” she greeted. “Getting ready for the gala tonight, I’d guess?”

“I am,” she confirmed. “I’m taking full advantage of leaving Amalia with my husband to enjoy some quiet time.” Annabelle looked at her. “Will you be attending the gala tonight? Your Aunt Zelda has been such a godsend with planning…”

“I won’t be,” Sabrina shook her head. She wouldn’t tell Mrs. Scratch how her aunts had begged her to attend and she had outright refused. Formal gowns and raising funds for one cause or the other wasn’t especially interesting to her. “I’m going to spend the evening with my friend Roz – girls’ night.”

“I’m sure the pair of you will have a great time.” She paused her conversation to direct the technician as to which type of pedicure she wanted. Sabrina wasn’t surprised to hear her rattle off the most expensive and indulgent package. “I invited that wayward son of mine to attend, but he’s managed to dodge my calls and texts about it.”

“That sounds like Nick,” Sabrina muttered.

Annabelle glanced at Sabrina again. She was a beautiful young woman, effortless pretty even on days like today, when she was dressed down and sans makeup. There was something about her that radiated warmth, that made those around her comfortable, want to be in her presence. It baffled her, that Sabrina would sleep with Nicholas so frequently without a commitment, but perhaps the reason went deeper.

“Do you see Nicky much at school?” she asked, trying to sound casual. “Or, sorry, Nick. He absolutely hates when I call him Nicky in front of people that aren’t his father or his sister. He doesn’t exactly like it then, but he’s my child and I’ll call him what I want in my home.”

Sabrina snorted back a bit of a laugh.

“We have the same lunch period this semester,” she said, figuring it best to be vague about just how often she had seen Nick until this last week.

“Let me guess. He’s heating up something frozen most days?”

“Nearly every day,” Sabrina confirmed. “Sometimes its leftover pizza or Chinese though.”

“That’s my boy – whatever is quickest and easiest,” Annabelle shook her head. Still, Sabrina sensed a certain fondness from the woman when she talked about Nick. “How have you been, dear? I haven’t seen you since the recital at the end of dance camp a few weeks ago.”

“I’m doing well.” Sabrina’s smile was genuine. She had always liked Annabelle Scratch. She liked all the Scrathes – one perhaps a little too much. “It’s hard to believe summer is over and school has been in session for a month now.”

“Time flies,” Annabelle nodded. “Amalia still talks about dance camp. She adores you.”

“She’s a great little girl,” Sabrina replied. “She’s a really talented dancer, too. I’m not teaching right now – I’m coaching the Baxter High cheerleading squad – but I hope I see her in my classes in January.”

“We’re going to sign her up for more dance,” Annabelle nodded. “Nicholas wanted her to try soccer, so we’re doing that this fall, but,” she leaned towards Sabrina a bit, “between us? I’m fairly certain Nick will be my athletic child.”

Sabrina laughed.

“Nick was good at sports,” Sabrina recalled. “He told me UVA showed interest in him playing lacrosse for them.”

Annabelle raised an eyebrow. Sabrina seemed to know a few details about Nick, at any rate. That gave her hope Nick was doing more than just taking her clothes off.

“They scouted him,” she confirmed. “But he wasn’t interested. He said he wanted to focus on his studies.” She had to fight a smile when Sabrina coughed to cover up her scoff, further assuring her Sabrina knew her son better than she was letting on. “I think Nicky really just wanted more time to have a bit too much fun and skip off to Europe under the guise of a study abroad program for so long his father had to threaten him to get him back home.”

“I was abroad at the same time he was,” Sabrina heard herself saying. “But I studied and taught English in Southeast Asia. I loved it, but my aunts didn’t have to issue any threats to get me home. I was ready to get back to my normal life by the end of my time there, even if I do miss some of my students, not to mention the Vietnamese food.”

Annabelle’s smile grew. Sabrina really was perfect for Nick, if he would just pull his head out of the ground and see it. She was smart, well-read, well-traveled. She was kind and genuine, easy to talk, interesting. Annabelle nearly longed for the days when arranged marriages were considered the norm. She would have paid Zelda Spellman whatever dowry she demanded to marry Nick off to the youngest Spellman.

“You and Nick have a lot in common,” she mentioned, deciding to play matchmaker herself.

Sabrina’s senses heightened. She was all too used to people trying to set her up. She could see it coming from a mile away. If she weren’t trying to move past Nick – and hadn’t been sleeping with him for the last six months – she would consider letting Annabelle do it. On paper at least, Nick was everything she wanted in a man. It was a shame that resume didn’t translate into actions. She decided to proceed with caution.

“I don’t know about that,” she hedged. “I’m more into literature and cooking, he likes – history and sports.”

“Oh, but he loves to read,” Annabelle said, seeing through Sabrina’s weak protest. “He may not be able to cook, but he certainly likes to eat.” She smiled at Sabrina again. “I know he’s a bit, shall we say, messy, but I think he just needs someone to help him get on track.”

Sabrina chose her next words carefully.

“Messy is a word,” Sabrina agreed. “Mrs. Scratch, Nick is – a great guy…”

“But?” Annabelle prompted when Sabrina trailed off.

“But, I think he needs to – figure some things out.” She wanted Annabelle to know she didn’t think badly of Nick – it was quite the opposite – but that she wasn’t going to drag him along either. “On his own.”

Annabelle considered Sabrina. As much as she wanted to see Nick settle down and live up to the potential she knew he had, she found herself proud of Sabrina for essentially putting her foot down and refusing to drag Nick along until he caught up with her. Sabrina was strong, independent. If Nick wouldn’t rise to the occasion, she wasn’t going to wait around for him.

“I suppose you’re right,” she said as Sabrina’s nail tech returned to finish her pedicure. “For what it’s worth, Sabrina?” She gave the girl one more friendly smile. “I think it’s Nick’s loss.”

Sabrina chanced the smallest of smiles before giving her attention to the technician. Still, Annabelle’s words stuck by her.

It was definitely Nick’s loss, she decided. Maybe one day, he would realize that.

But by then, it might be too late.


Nick spun a socket wrench around, watched it twirl, then placed it back on his father’s workbench. He flicked through a small container of mismatched nuts and bolts, picked up a Phillips screwdriver and tossed it from hand to hand. Nicholas eyed his son suspiciously. He had been suspicious of him since the moment his black truck rolled to a stop in front of the house. Nick never showed up unannounced. He had spent the last fifteen minutes poking around the garage, making small talk and avoiding the real reason he had stopped by, whatever it was.

“Do you need any of those tools?” he asked Nick. “Or do you just want to monkey around with them? If it’s the former, you’re welcomed to borrow what you need. If it’s the latter, leave them alone. I’ve got everything where I want it.”

“You call this mess organized?” Nick asked, putting the screwdriver back on the tool bench. While the garage was largely organized, his dad’s tool bench closely resembled his bedroom floor.

“I know where everything is,” Nicholas assured him as he worked to put air in Amalia’s bike tire.

Nick perched on a stack of storage boxes lined along one wall. His father’s sleek SUV was pulled to the curb, the spot where his mother’s own luxury SUV was usually parked vacant, her out getting her hair and makeup done for the gala that night. He had purposefully waited until she was gone to come over, both to talk to his dad in private and to avoid her attempts to rope him into the gala.

“Do you still play golf?” he asked his father.

“Nearly every Saturday, unless I’m at the hospital,” Nicholas confirmed. “Or your mother has other plans for me, like today.”

“Think I could come with you sometime?” Nick asked. Nicholas looked at him in surprise.

“If you want to,” he said slowly. “I’m going this coming Saturday. Early tee time – nine o’clock, can’t be late. But you’re welcomed to join me. It would be nice to have you out there.”

“I can make it,” Nick nodded. He had been up since seven that morning as it was, unable to sleep despite his efforts. He hadn’t slept well all week. He was going to bed earlier than usual, exhausted from the previous night’s lack of sleep, only to toss and turn as his mind tried and failed to work through his current dilemma. He could manage to wake up to go golfing on a Saturday. “I might be a little rusty. I haven’t played in a while.”

“I don’t think you’ve played with me since you were in college,” Nicholas mused. “And even that was because I made you.”

“I think that was the last time I played,” Nick admitted. He recalled the outing. He had gone out with Melvin and a few high school friends the night before, had too much to drink, and was pissed off at his father for getting him out of the bed and onto a golf course against his will. It had been a miserable outing, but the drive home in which his father had lectured him about making better choices had been still worse. “I’ve still got my clubs though.”

“Why don’t we go to the driving range one evening this week?” Nicholas offered. “Wednesday, maybe? Let you get some practice in, shake the dust off.”

“That’s a good idea,” Nick agreed. Nicholas raised his eyebrow in further surprise at his son’s sudden desire to spend time with him. His suspicions grew. Something was going on with Nick, and his only hope was that it wasn’t something serious. Nick watched Amalia leaping around in the front yard with a ribbon attached to a baton in her hand. “What’s she doing, anyway?”

“I have no idea,” Nicholas admitted. “Honestly, she’s entertaining herself and not doing anything dangerous, so I’m not going to stop her.” Nick chuckled. Amalia had been prancing around the yard the entire time he had been there, barely stopping to tell him hello before going right back to it. He tapped the box he was sitting on with his heel and worked up the nerve to bring up what he had really came over for – in a roundabout sort of way.

“So, Melvin is in a bit of a tight spot,” he started.

“Oh?” Nicholas asked, playing along for the fun of it – and because he knew Nick would shut down if he let on that he was aware that they weren’t talking about Melvin. “Melvin has always struck me as a little more straight laced. He’s a bit odd, but a good citizen nonetheless. What’s he done?”

“Well, he was seeing this girl. Casually. Nothing serious. No commitment, nothing like that.” Nicholas nodded, continuing his ruse. “But she got all weird the last time he saw her and hasn’t really talked to him all week. He was asking me for advice, but you know I don’t know a damn thing about women so I thought I’d ask you what I should tell him.”

“Melvin – Melvin – has been casually seeing a girl?” Nicholas clarified.

“Nothing serious, but yeah. They had an – agreement.”

“An agreement, huh?” Nick nodded. “Well, Nicholas, it sounds like this girl has decided she’s over this agreement of theirs.”

“Then she should of said something,” Nick stated. “Not gone from hot to cold in the span of an hour. He’s been trying to get her to tell him what’s going on with her all week and she’s been all ‘you’re smart. You should be able to figure it out.’ What am I – he – supposed to do with that?”

Nicholas sighed and gave up playing along. His son was an idiot.

“What I’m hearing is that Sabrina Spellman finally got tired of your shit.”

Nick looked like a deer in the headlights.

“No… Melvin…”

“Save it,” Nicholas interrupted. “Your mother filled me in after you left last weekend.”

“How does she know?” Nick asked, surprise evident. “I mean, I know people know, but I didn’t think…”

“Do you honestly believe your mother’s book club meets to discuss the books they read?” Nicholas asked. “Zelda Spellman is in that book club. Loves your mother. Doesn’t like you very much, though.”

“Fine,” Nick gave up, a little embarrassed that his parents knew more than he thought they did about what he was up to. “We’re not talking about Melvin. We’re talking about me.”

“And you want to know why Sabrina won’t talk to you.” Nick looked at his father expectantly. Nicholas checked on Amalia who was still dancing around the yard, then perched on a nearby stool to have a heart-to-heart with his firstborn that had been a long time coming. “She’s right, you know. You’re smart. You should be able to figure it out.”

“I wasn’t lying when I said I know nothing about women,” he reminded his father. “She was fine and then she wasn’t. She’s been avoiding me all week, ignoring my texts, calls.”

“You’re rather bothered by all of this,” Nicholas observed.

“I’d like some answers,” Nick said. “She’s the ice queen all of a sudden.”

“One of three things happened,” Nicholas started, wondering why Nick couldn’t see it for himself. “Either she met someone else who is willing to give her what you won’t,” he watched Nick squirm uncomfortable, “she realized she deserves better, or, the one I’m going with, she has feelings for you that she knows you don’t return and so she’s cut you off for self-preservation. It might be a combination of those things, but I believe that should sum things up.”

Nick thought of her mention of some guy named Gregory, but dismissed it. He didn’t even live in Greendale. Sabrina wasn’t seeing him. That stupid small voice in the back of his reminded him that Riverdale wasn’t that far away though. He latched onto something else.

“She doesn’t have feelings for me,” he said. “She knows I don’t do that.”

Nicholas wondered if it would be worth the consequences if he strangled his son for being both an asshole and completely oblivious.

“You sure about that?” he asked. “I don’t know the girl all that well, but I know of her. I don’t think she would have spent this much time being ‘casual’ with you if she didn’t hope you would change your mind about your stance on relationships.”

“She wouldn’t... “ Nick faltered. He thought about all the times she had done something genuinely nice for him, like leaving the leftover eggplant parmesan or covering for him when he was running late. He thought too of how gentle she could be, the way she looked at him. Had Sabrina really developed feelings for him?

“Nick, son, I love you,” his father said. “I am incredibly proud of you.” Nick waited for the other shoe to drop. “You are whip smart and a wonderful teacher. I can’t tell you how many people have told me how my son helped their child in his class.” Nick looked almost bashful at the compliment. “So keep that in mind and forgive me now for what I’m about to say to you.” Nick raised an eyebrow, waiting. “Nick, as proud of you as I am, you absolutely suck as a person.”

“Dad!” Nick exclaimed, taken aback by the comment. “What the hell…”

“Don’t try to fake indignation with me,” Nicholas said. “We both know I’m not making this up. You suck as a person. You’re lazy…”

“I am not!”

“You go home and play video games every night,” Nicholas pointed out. “I don’t know that you have ever even mowed your own lawn…”

“The kid down the street does that…”

“You certainly don’t clean up after yourself. Your mother considered hiring someone to clean your place, but decided it would be easier to just bulldoze it over should you ever move out of it. You don’t have hobbies…” Nick opened his mouth to protest. “Don’t say video games, that’s not a hobby.” Nick stewed. “You eat like crap, you do the bare minimum at work, I’m not sure you even have friends…”

“I have friends,” Nick interjected.

“Melvin,” Nicholas amended. “And your frat brothers who are spread all over the country, climbing the corporate ladder, settling down, getting married, having families… I’m not going to touch how you avoid your parents and your sister right now, but the worst of it is how you treat women.”

Nick was stunned into silence. His mother had certainly told him off a time or two, and his dad had doled out his fair share of warnings and punishments over the years, but he had never been this direct, this blunt.

This truthful.

“I don’t know where we went wrong,” Nicholas sighed. “We didn’t spoil you, made sure you had the best education. You were a bit wild in high school, but you got good grades, never missed curfew, didn’t get into serious trouble, so we let it slide. Same in college. I know you had a little too much fun at UVA, but again, good grades and no phone calls for bail money so we let you have your freedom. Where did you get the idea that it was okay to treat a woman like her feelings don’t matter?”

“I’ve never treated Sabrina badly,” Nick argued, feeling sure of that. “We had a casual arrangement…”

“So you never once thought about how she must feel when you get what you showed up for and then leave before the sun comes up?”

Again, Nick was silent.

“Nick, son, that is no way to treat a woman,” Nicholas continued. “It’s not like you’ve had a bad example to go off of. I do everything I can to be a good husband, a good father…”

“I know,” he admitted. That was true – his father was the epitome of a loving husband and dedicated father.

“You have to get yourself together,” Nicholas pushed. “I love you, Nick, but it pains me to see you wasting so much potential. You have no ambitions, no plans for anything more than what you’ve got going on right now, which we’ve established, isn’t much. It does give me a little bit of hope that you showed up here today, unannounced, looking for advice – even if you were going to try to lie about it being for Melvin.”

“I didn’t realize how public my love life is,” Nick grumbled.

“Calling what you’ve been doing a ‘love life’ is quite the stretch, Nicholas.” Nicholas checked on Amalia. She had wandered into the neighbor’s yard. “Amalia! Back in our yard!” She danced her way back into their front yard. “Now what are you going to do about Sabrina?”

Nick raised an eyebrow.

“That’s what I was asking you. Before you decided to list all my flaws, in great detail.”

Nicholas sighed again and ran a hand through his hair.

“I think you need to start by figuring out why it bothers you so much that she won’t talk to you.” He thought it was rather obvious why his son was so bent out of shape. Nick had feelings for the girl, even if he didn’t realize it. “If it was as casual as you say it was, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to you.”

Nick kicked at the storage container again. He wasn’t quite ready to admit – to his father or to himself – that maybe, just maybe, he missed talking to Sabina. Sleeping with her, definitely, but talking to her… He might miss that. He wasn’t ready to admit he had asked about golfing because he was feeling a little lonely, either. Even Melvin had hobbies, playing in a recreational kickball league and going to a weekly trivia night with a group of friends from work. Without Sabrina to fill his time, his life felt oddly empty. He had liked playing golf once, thought he might as well give it a try now, see if he still enjoyed it.

“Am I really that bad?” he asked. “I know I’m not perfect, but I think I do okay…”

“You do okay as a teacher,” Nicholas said. “But I maintain my position that you’ve got a long way to go as a man.”

Nick looked crestfallen. Nicholas felt terrible. He had been hard on his son, but he had to be – nothing else was working. Still, he could see Nick was struggling with his current state and no father wanted their child to struggle. He stood from his stool.

“Come here,” he said, pulling Nick to his feet. “Give your old man a hug.”

“Dad…”

His protest was weak. He found himself leaning into his dad’s embrace.

“I am proud of you,” Nicholas told him again. “I really am. But I do think the first thing you have to figure out is why it bothers you so much that Sabrina has stopped talking to you. You figure that out, the rest of it will likely work itself out.”

“Yeah,” he agreed without offering more. That was a can of worms he was afraid to open. Nicholas squeezed him one more time, then let him go. He checked the time.

“I’ve got to take Amalia to a birthday party for one of her classmates. I thought I was going to get to drop her off and maybe sneak in a few holes of golf, but your mother was concerned there wouldn’t be enough adult supervision, so I’m stuck. Want to tag along?”

“Absolutely not,” Nick shook his head. “I know you want me to be a better person, but a preschool birthday party is a stretch.”

“I won’t disagree,” Nicholas said. “Amalia! Time to get changed for Roma’s birthday party.”

“Yes!” She dropped her ribbon and took off at a run for the house.

“Pick up your toy!” Nicholas called after her. She looped around, still running, and grabbed it mid stride. “Never stops, that one,” he said. “And come tell your brother goodbye!”

She continued into the house.

“I don’t think she likes me very much,” Nick observed.

“You’re her big brother, she loves you,” Nicholas said. “She just doesn’t know you very well.”

Nick heard the implications. He needed to be a better brother. He added that to the list of things he was supposed to fix about himself.

“Thanks for the talk,” he said to his dad. “I think, at least.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Nicholas clapped him on the shoulder. “To love you and tell you to get your shit together.”

“You and mom have fun tonight.”

“A black tie gala,” Nicholas mused. “Exactly what I want to do tonight. I meant what I said about the driving range this Wednesday. Maybe we can grab a beer after?”

“That would be cool,” Nick agreed. “Tell mom I stopped by. Maybe not why…”

“I’ll keep your secrets, but the Spellman sisters will be at this thing tonight, so I make no promises.”

“Great,” Nick muttered.

In his truck, Nick considered his options. He really didn’t have many. It was Melvin’s turn to be on call for the weekend and he didn’t think it wise to call Sabrina again at the moment when his head was full of what his dad had just told him. He decided it might be time to clean his room. It was something he could do that didn’t require him to dig into his feelings, but it would make him feel better – maybe. It was action, at least.

But first, he had to stop at the grocery store for cleaning supplies. And food.

He thought he might even try to cook a real meal for dinner.

Chapter Text

“You okay?”

“I’m fine…”

“Sabrina.”

“I’m – doing what’s best,” Sabrina amended. She couldn’t lie to Roz. They were camped out in their living room, watching movies and eating junk food for dinner. Harvey was working on a tight deadline for a project and since she had put a stop to whatever she and Nick were doing, Sabrina herself had nothing to do. She had moped around most of the week, cooked a lot more than usual as she tried to distract herself. Even her grading was caught up. Girls night seemed to be the solution.

“Have you heard from him today?” Roz asked, well aware of Nick’s attempts to get Sabrina to talk to him which in turn, meant get her into his bed. She was proud of Sabrina for holding strong.

“He called this morning, actually pretty early for him – nine o’clock – but I didn’t answer.”

“You’d think he’d get the hint,” Roz mused.

Sabrina pretended to busy herself with adding M&Ms to her popcorn. She had been mildly surprised Nick hadn’t turned up at her house after their confrontation at school despite her telling him not to. There had been a coffee waiting for her at her desk the next day with a sticky note that read “Talk to me? – N” that had prompted her to take her lunch outside again and wonder at the fact that Nick had beaten her to school for perhaps the first time ever. He had tried to DM her on the school’s Slack account during the day, stopped by her classroom after school but had been thwarted by a student that stayed after. Another away football game the day before had allowed her to leave school before the day was over, helping her avoid him once more. His persistence could only mean he was desperate for sex. He had proven he wasn’t capable of much else.

She hadn’t told anyone, not even Roz, about her plans with Gregory this coming Wednesday.

Gregory, who was so much different than Nick. Who actually asked about her day and meant it. Who sent her photos of his beagle and funny memes he thought she would like.

All Nick had ever texted her was some version of “come over.”

“He’ll get over it,” Roz declared. “He’ll lick his wounds for a bit and then be on to the next.”

Sabrina cringed in spite of her dedication to putting space between her and Nick and her own pending date with Gregory. She didn’t want to think of him with someone else.

“I saw his mom when I was getting my nails done today,” she shared. “She tried to set me up with Nick.”

Roz snorted at the absurdity of the idea.

“Do you think she knows her son is an absolute horndog?”

“She said he was a bit ‘messy’ and implied that he just needed someone to drag him along. I politely told her I thought he needed to get himself together, by himself.”

“Good girl,” Roz nodded appreciatively.

“She did say it was Nick’s loss,” Sabrina confided. “That made me feel a bit better.”

“Of course it’s his loss,” Roz declared. “You’re a catch, Sabrina. It’s his own fault he can’t recognize that.”

Sabrina didn’t bother with a reply. She agreed completely.

“What should we watch next?” she asked Roz, changing the subject. “You pick. Something funny – that’s the only criteria.”

“Something funny…”

Sabrina watched as Roz flicked through the available movies on first Netflix and then Hulu. Her phone rang out, breaking the peaceful silence. She read the screen.

“Who is it?” Roz asked.

“I don’t know. It’s a Greendale number though.”

“Maybe Nick borrowed someone’s phone. Decline it. Girl’s night.”

Sabrina ignored Roz. Something told her to answer.

“Hello?”

“Sabrina?”

She frowned.

“Melvin?”

“Melvin?” Roz repeated. “Really?” She was certain he was doing Nick’s dirty work.

“Sabrina, I didn’t know who else to call…”

“What’s going?” Sabrina’s frown deepened at Melvin’s urgent, frantic tone.

“It’s Nick. Or, well, his parents…” He paused for a breath, steeling himself.

“Melvin!” Sabrina exclaimed during the silence. “What’s going on? Is everything okay? Is Nick okay?”

“Nick’s parents were in an accident.” Sabrina gasped. Roz’s face shifted to one of concern as she watched her friend. “It’s bad, Sabrina. Nick is here. He’s alone, upset. He’s been a little weird all day, but then this happened… I know there’s something going on between you two, a fight or something, but I’m worried about him and didn’t know who else to call. I got called in and we’re slammed. I can’t sit with him…”

“I’ll be there,” Sabrina was already standing, all thoughts of staying away from Nick abandoned. “I’m on my way.”

“Thank you,” Melvin breathed out. “He’s… I’ve never seen him like this, Sabrina…”

“I’m on my way,” she said again. “I’ll be there within twenty minutes.”

“What happened?” Roz asked, taking in Sabrina’s drained appearance as she hung up.

“Nick’s parents were in an accident.” She rushed for the stairs to put on something that wasn’t the pajamas she had already changed into. She felt the urgency in Melvin’s words. She couldn’t get to Nick fast enough. “Melvin said it was bad and that Nick is at the hospital, alone and upset.”

“Go,” Roz nodded. She didn’t like Nick, but she didn’t think he should be alone either. “Call me if I can do anything.”

Sabrina frantically changed into leggings and a sweater, slipped on a pair of tennis shoes, grabbed her bag and phone, and ran for the door. She got to the hospital in record time. She rushed through the emergency room doors, eyes searching.

She found him easily.

He sat alone in the front row of chairs in the waiting room, head bowed, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together. As she got closer, she noted he was shaking slightly.

“Nick.”

He looked up as she lowered herself to the seat beside him. His eyes were red, swollen, and full of unshed tears. His bottom lip trembled.

“Sabrina.”

She could only pull him to her as best she could in the plastic chairs. He leaned into her awkward embrace, comforted by the familarness of her. He shook as a sob worked through him. She held him tighter, trying to relieve some of his pain.

“How are they?” she cautiously asked after a few minutes. He sat up and wiped his forearm across his face.

“Um, my dad…” He breath hitched. “He didn’t... “ Another hitch. Sabrina’s stomach plummeted. “He didn’t make it.” She took his hand. He laced his fingers through hers and held on tight. “My mom… She’s in surgery, but her injuries are extensive.”

“Oh, Nick…”

“A witness said a herd of deer ran out in front of them. They swerved and overcorrected. The car flipped…” He couldn’t continue.

Sabrina pulled him to her again. His tears soaked into her sweater. Her own rolled down her cheeks as she ran her fingers through his hair over and over, feeling incredibly useless. All she could do was hold him. Several more minutes passed before he sat up again and took a shaky breath, trying and failing to compose himself.

“How did you know I was here?” he asked.

“Melvin called.” She brushed a tear from his cheek. “He was worried about you, said you were upset and shouldn’t be alone.”

“You came,” he said more to himself than her.

“Of course I did.” She surveyed him. He was a mess. Wearing gym shorts and a sweatshirt, his hair was in disarray, his eyes bloodshot and swollen, his nose red and raw. “I’m going to get you some water.” It was the only helpful thing she could think to do. “I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed with small nod.

She left him begrudgingly and hurried to the vending machine down the hall for a bottle of water. She didn’t see how his eyes followed her until she was out of sight, but the tug to get back to him was undeniable.

“Sabrina, hey.” Melvin appeared in the hallway from a patient’s room. “How is he?”

“He’s a wreck,” she answered. “Thank you for calling me, Melvin. You’re right, he doesn’t need to be alone.”

“You were the only person I could think of. I would have stayed with him if I could, but I have patients…”

“I’m glad you called,” she said again. “Any updates on his mom?”

“I don’t know anything new,” Melvin shook his head. “She has a lot of internal injuries, possible brain damage. Dr. Scratch died at the scene. I was already here, but apparently a police officer went to the house to tell Nick.”

Sabrina remembered something.

“You said he’s been weird today. What do you mean?”

“He’s been weird all week,” Melvin shrugged. “I figured it was something to do with you two not speaking, but he was just – especially weird today. He left for a while, came back with a bunch of grocery bags, was kind of quiet, put stuff away, went upstairs, and started cleaning his room. I didn’t see him again before I got called in. He’s just been to himself all day, you know? He was awake before me this morning, and I got up at half past seven.”

“Nick cleaned his room?” Sabrina clarified, recognizing that for the noteworthy moment it was. “And woke up before noon on a weekend?”

“Like I said, he’s been weird.” Melvin sighed. “I should get back to my patients, but I’ll keep you posted if I find out anything.”

“Thanks, Melvin,” she nodded.

She returned to Nick. Her heart broke all over again as she took in how sad and lonely he looked. She uncapped the water bottle and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he sighed. He took a small, measured sip and then another. “I can’t believe this is happening. I was with Dad a few hours ago. We were going to the driving range on Wednesday, then to get a beer. We were going to play golf on Saturday. I wanted to talk to him about stuff…”

“I wish there was something more I could do,” Sabrina offered, not bothering to tell him she saw his mother earlier. It would just be salt in his wounds. She was curious about Nick’s sudden plans with his father, the mention of wanting to talk to him, but she didn’t dwell on it. Nick would be at a funeral instead of on a golf course. Her heart broke all over again at the thought. “I’m so sorry, Nick.”

“You’re here,” he said, eyes on her. She had never seen them so full of sincerity. Her heart clenched. “That’s… I need you here.”

He left it there and she didn’t push. Now wasn’t the time. She rubbed his back in an effort to comfort him. He was back to resting with his elbows on his knees, head hung low, the water bottle between his hands.

He sat up suddenly.

“Amalia!”

“What about her?” Sabrina asked, sitting forward on her seat.

“I don’t know where she is.” Panic was evident in Nick’s features. “I have no idea… What if she was with them, Sabrina? What if she was with them and the first responders didn’t see her? She’s little and it’s dark. She could be lying out there in the cold, hurt…”

“Nick, if Amalia were with them, they would have found her,” she soothed him.

“It happens,” Nick continued. “You hear about it on the news all the time, people overlooked at accident scenes or thrown from vehicles and hidden by brush…” He was going to an extreme place, but Sabrina couldn’t fault him after what he was experiencing.

“Your parents were going to that charity gala thing tonight, weren’t they?” she asked, working to reason with him in a gentle manner.

“Yeah…”

“She’s probably at home with a babysitter. I’ll find her…”

“How are you going to do that?” Nick asked. “You don’t know where she might be any better than I do.”

“I’ll call Ambrose,” she said patiently. “He knows everyone in Greendale. He’ll be able to find her.”

“Okay,” Nick agreed after a moment because he didn’t have another solution. “Okay.”

She squeezed his knee then stepped away with her phone. She dialed Ambrose. His voicemail picked up. She hung up and called right back. He answered on her third attempt.

“You better have a damned good reason for the excessive phone calls,” Ambrose greeted. “I’m at this stupid gala, and if you saw what Prudence is wearing…”

“Ambrose, this is important,” she cut him off. “I need your help.”

Something about her tone made him stop teasing.

“What’s going on, cousin?”

She swallowed hard and looked across the waiting room at Nick. He had resumed his defeated position.

“Ambrose, the Scratches were in an accident.”

“We were just wondering where they were,” Ambrose commented. “They are supposed to be at our table, and it’s not like them to be late.”

“Dr. Scratch didn’t make it.” Stunned silence met her ears. “Mrs. Scratch is in surgery, but her injuries are critical. I’m at the hospital with Nick, but we don’t know where his little sister is.”

“I’m on it,” Ambrose understood her request. “Her name is Emily, right?”

“Amalia,” Sabrina corrected. “She’s four years old…”

“Damn,” Ambrose sighed. “I’ll make some calls.”

“Keep this quiet for now, okay?” she asked. “Don’t tell the aunties or anyone at the gala. They will find out soon enough, but Nick doesn’t need people inundating him right now.”

“I’ll keep it on the down low,” he promised. “I’ll call you as soon as I know something.”

“Thank you, Ambrose.”

She hung up and returned to Nick.

“Ambrose is making some calls,” she reported. “He’ll call me when he knows something.”

Nick could only nod. Sabrina took his hand again.

An hour passed.

Melvin joined them for a few minutes, but had nothing else to offer. Sabrina checked at the desk for an update, but no one had one. Nick didn’t say much, but he held her hand like a lifeline. Her phone lit up with Ambrose’s name. She excused herself and walked away from Nick, just in case the news wasn’t good.

“Hey,” she greeted. “Any news?”

“Amalia is at the O’Keefes,” he reported. “The Scratches dropped her off on their way to the gala for a sleepover with their daughter Polly. The O’Keefes are here, they have a babysitter for the girls.”

“Thank you, Ambrose,” Sabrina breathed. “Nick will be relieved.”

“Any updates on Mrs. Scratch?”

“No,” she sighed. “‘No news. All we can do is wait.”

“Everyone here is still blissfully unaware,” Ambrose reported. “A few inquiries about where they are – Anabelle was on the gala board with Zelda – but no one seems to know about the accident.”

“Thank you again, Ambrose. I really appreciate it.”

“You know my feelings on Scratch, but I like his parents,” Ambrose replied. He knew a lot more than he wanted to about Sabrina’s relationship with Nick and he had been clear several times over that he didn’t approve of her allowing him in her bed this long without a commitment. “And his sister is just a little kid. This is a horrible situation all around. Call me if you hear anything, if there is anything I can do…”

Sabrina thanked him again and returned to Nick.

“Amalia is at the O’Keefes. Your parents dropped her off for a sleepover with their little girl, Polly.” She tried to smile. “She and Amalia are best friends. They told me so at dance camp this summer.” Nick just looked at her. He had taken her hand again as soon as she sat back down. She squeezed it now. “The O’Keefes are at the gala. They have a babysitter with the girls. Ambrose says no one at the gala knows about the accident yet.”

“Amalia is okay?” he confirmed.

“She’s okay,” Sabrina assured him. “She’s fine.”

He slumped back in the chair.

Another half hour passed.

The doors at the end of the hallway swung up. They sat up, noting the doctor walking towards them. Nick’s grip on her hand tightened to a point that it almost hurt.

“Mr. Scratch?” the doctor asked. Nick could only nod. “Mr. Scratch, I’m Dr. Harrison.” She paused for a moment. Sabrina knew what was coming. Nick started to tremble beside her. “I am so sorry. We did absolutely everything we could…”

Nick dropped his head to his free hand. Sabrina doubted he heard anything else the doctor said. Her own tears fell hard and fast. All she could do was hold Nick’s hand.

“Would you like to see them?” Dr. Harrison asked gently. Nick took his time forming a response. No one rushed him.

“Yes,” he finally breathed. “Please.” He stood. Sabrina tried to let go of his hand. “Sabrina…”

“I’ll be right here,” she promised. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Come with me,” he nearly begged. “You don’t have to go in with me, but if you would just walk with me…”

She couldn’t tell him no. He didn’t ask her to go into the room where his parents’ bodies were, but he had to physically make himself let go of her hand when he stepped inside with the doctor. She leaned against the wall to wait. Melvin joined her.

“Unbelievable,” he commented.

“He’s devastated,” she replied. “Melvin…” Her tears came back. Melvin said nothing, but hugged her, trying to comfort her.

“I can’t leave,” he said when she pulled away to wipe at her eyes. “He shouldn’t be alone…”

“I’m not going to leave him,” Sabrina assured Melvin. “I’ll take him home and stay with him”

Melvin considered her for a moment.

“I know he can be an asshole,” he started. “Especially to you. I know, too, that you have feelings for him. It’s pretty obvious.” Sabrina averted her eyes, a bit embarrassed at how transparent she was. “But the thing is, I think he has feelings for you, too. He may not know it yet, but he does. He’s been beside himself this week over you not talking to him. I mean, he cleaned, Sabrina. He didn’t do that because he was bored. He did that because he didn’t know what else to do when you wouldn’t take his calls.”

“Our feelings for one another – or lack thereof – don’t matter right now,” Sabrina shook her head. She couldn’t think about what Melvin was implying when Nick was falling apart. “What matters is getting him through the next day. The next hour.”

For now, that was her priority – getting Nick to put one foot in front of the other as best he could. His world had crashed down around him and nothing would ever be the same. Her feelings didn’t matter right then. He was what was most important.

Melvin’s pager sounded. Sabrina took just a moment to think of it as almost comical that in spite of all the technology around them, the staff still used pagers.

“I’ve got to go,” he read the display. “If I don’t see Nick before you take him home, tell him – well, I don’t know what you tell someone who just lost their parents. Just let him know I’m here for him.”

A long while passed. Sabrina made a few phone calls, checked in with Roz. Ignored a text from Gregory. When Nick emerged, he made it as far as the doorway before he sank to the floor and rested against the wall, overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions he couldn’t process. Sabrina was at his side. She said nothing, but wrapped him in her arms and let him cry. She cried with him as he clung to her. She didn’t bother with soothing words. Nothing would help right now.

Eventually, he pulled away and wiped at his eyes.

“I’m going to the restroom,” he said. “Wait here?” Sabrina nodded, noted how he looked like he was almost afraid she would disappear. He stood and offered her his hand. She took it and allowed him to pull her to his feet. He squeezed her hand before he let it go. She watched him walk down the hall, a ghost of himself in his own right.

“He shouldn’t be alone tonight,” came Dr. Harrison’s quiet voice.

“I’ll be with him,” Sabrina turned to her. “He won’t be alone.” The doctor nodded her approval.

“He said his girlfriend would be with him.” Sabrina’s eyes widened at the label. “I just wanted to make sure. I offered to give him something to help him sleep, but he refused.” Still, she reached into her pocket and took out an orange bottle. “Still, if he needs them, there are a couple of doses in here.”

“Thank you,” Sabrina took the pills. She tucked them in her purse, just in case. Dr. Harrison sighed, letting some of her weariness show.

“I’ve known Dr. Scratch for a long time,” she said. “He was a good man, loved his wife and children. Amalia is accounted for?”

“She’s at a friend’s house,” Sabrina nodded.

“Take care of him,” Dr. Harrison said, referring to Nick. She took a card from her coat pocket. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”

When Nick reappeared, Sabrina was alone once more.

“Ready to go home?” she asked gently.

“I have to tell Amalia.” His voice shook. “I need to go get her…”

“Not tonight. Ambrose quietly told the O’Keefes what happened, and I talked to Mrs. O’Keefe a bit ago. Amalia and Polly are sound asleep. She offered to let her stay as planned and bring her home in the morning. Let her sleep, Nick. Let her have a few more hours.”

Slowly, Nick nodded.

“Okay,” he agreed. “That’s a good idea. It will give me time…” He trailed off and ran a hand over his face. “God, Sabrina, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. She’s four years old. I don’t even know if she knows what death is...”

He was spiraling. She put her hands on his arms to steady him.

“How about right now, we focus on the next thing?” she asked. “You’ve been through a lot tonight, Nick. You don’t have to figure it all out right this second. Right now, let’s just do the next thing. How does that sound?”

“The next thing,” Nick repeated. “Okay.” He looked at her, hopeless and lost. “What is the next thing, Sabrina? Because I don’t know… Nothing makes sense right now...”

“I think the next thing should be going home,” she suggested. She didn’t want to tell Nick what to do – grief was individualized and while she could guess, she was careful not to tell him what he needed. “What do you think?”

“You’re coming with me?” he asked.

“I am,” she promised. “I’ll stay with you tonight – if you want me to.”

“Please.”

It was a whispered plea.

“I won’t go anywhere,” she assured him. His arms wrapped around her and pulled her in. He held her tightly, desperately. She hugged him back, her embrace reassuring. “Come on,” she said after a few moments. “Let’s get you home.”

She held his hand and led him from the hospital. In the parking area, he stopped.

“I can’t remember where I parked. In the garage, but I don’t know what floor. I was in a hurry…”

“You’re not driving tonight,” Sabrina told him. “We’ll get your truck tomorrow.”

He didn’t protest.

The drive to his house was quiet. Nick stared out the window, lost in thought, his knee bouncing as anxiety and grief washed through him. Sabrina kept sneaking peeks, checking in on him, wishing yet again that she could do something more for him.

She had no idea that she was the only thing keeping Nick grounded.

She pulled to the curb at his place and watched him fumble his keys to find the house key. She refrained from taking them from him, knowing it was something he needed to do himself, as simple of a task as it was, to feel like he was in control of something.

Inside, it was evident that he had been in the middle of what he had known as normal life when the police showed up. The television was still on, ESPN showing a highlight reel from the day’s college football games. There were pots on the stove, dishes in the sink, lights still on throughout the house. Nick had clearly left in a hurry.

“What now?” he asked. He didn’t want to make decisions. He didn’t want to think. He wanted Sabrina to tell him what to do. “What’s the next thing?”

“I think a shower would help,” she suggested. “Why don’t you go upstairs and do that? I’ll turn the lights off down here, and then come up.”

“A shower,” he nodded. “Yeah. That would be good.”

He took a few steps towards the stairs, but stopped. He turned back to Sabrina. She waited, expecting him to have another question, another concern. Instead, he came back to her. He cupped her face in his palms and just looked into her eyes for a moment. He kissed her forehead, brushed his hands from her cheeks, down her neck, and along her shoulders.

He went upstairs.

She stared after him for a moment, dumbstruck by his behavior, even if she knew it came from a place of grief. He had apparently called her his girlfriend earlier, which she supposed was easier to explain than “the girl I screw on a pretty regular basis – at least until recently.” She knew it meant nothing, but the awful feeling of hope still tried to creep into her chest.

She gave her head a shake and went to the kitchen. From what she could tell, Nick had tried to cook spaghetti. Noodles had congealed in a pot. Meat and sauce had turned cold and mushy in a pan. An entire loaf of burnt garlic bread, the kind from the frozen section, sat on the counter untouched. The dishes in the sink told her he had at least eaten dinner.

She tidied up as best she could without washing the dishes, opting instead to dispose of the leftovers and soak everything overnight. She went to the living room. There was an open bag of chips and an empty beer bottle. She noted a stack of tests Nick must have been planning to grade. Sure enough, there was one test on the couch, a pen perched atop it. His planner was there as well, open to the month of October, which was just two days away. She glanced at it as she stacked his papers neatly, separating them into graded and ungraded piles. His planner noted where he planned to give tests, assign or collect papers. She was surprised to see “Sabrina’s Birthday” written on the 31st. She turned off the TV, collected his beer bottle and chips, and returned to the kitchen. When the lights were off downstairs, she went to find him.

He was in his bedroom, hair damp from the shower, a pair of shorts slung low on his hips. Melvin had been right about him cleaning. The room was as neat as hers and smelled faintly of lemon. It seemed unnatural.

“Here’s a shirt for you to sleep in.” He offered her a navy University of Virginia t-shirt.

“Thank you.” She looked him over as though checking for signs of injury. She knew the moment he stopped moving, he would collapse, feel everything. She thought he knew it too, which was why he was just standing there as though searching for just one more thing to do before he laid down. “I’m going to change…”

He stopped her on the way to the bathroom.

“Thank you.” A hand went to her waist. “I don’t know what I would have done without you there.”

“I couldn’t leave you alone,” she said, her own voice barely a whisper. His hand cupped her cheek. He looked at her with an intensity that made her knees weak. He lowered his lips to hers.

For a moment, she let herself feel. Then she considered their circumstances. This was the last thing they needed tonight. Both of them were too raw, too confused.

“Nick…” She pulled her lips from his. He kept her close, rested his forehead against hers.

“Please, Sabrina,” he whispered. “I need to feel – anything else. Anything other than what I feel right now.”

She couldn’t deny him. She didn’t want to. She kissed him, let him know it was okay. His hands were slow and gentle as they brought her sweater up over her head. She hadn’t taken the time to put on a bra in her rush to get to him earlier. Her skin against his bare chest was comforting, familiar. He moved to kiss her deeper.

But then he heard his father’s voice.

But the worst of it is how you treat women.

He pulled away abruptly.

“I can’t,” he collapsed to the edge of his bed. “I can’t do this.”

He dropped his head to his hands, remembering how he had vowed he would do better, be better while he was cleaning his room earlier, rise to his father’s challenge. Using Sabrina’s body as a bandage for his feelings wasn’t him being a better man. It’s not what his father would have wanted.

Sabrina said nothing, surprised by the turn of events, but undeterred. She picked up the t-shirt he had offered and slipped it on. It hit her mid-thigh. She perched next to him.

“Nick.” She took his hand, relieved he let her. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“Yes, I do,” he said. “I have to tell my baby sister her parents are dead. I have to plan funerals. Figure out where to bury them.” He looked thunderstruck. “I have to raise Amalia.”

It hadn’t occurred to either of them until right then that Nick was Amalia’s next of kin now. It would likely fall to him to make decisions about her care.

“Let’s go back to focusing on the next thing,” Sabrina suggested after a moment, because the idea of Nick being responsible for a young child was more than she could wrap her head around after everything else that night. “There’s nothing more you can do tonight, Nick. It’s nearly midnight. Let’s lay down, try to get some sleep. In the morning, we’ll figure out what the next thing is, okay?”

It took him some time, but he nodded. Sabrina was right. There was nothing else he could that night. He looked at her, back to feeling vulnerable.

“You’ll still stay?” he asked. “Even though I…”

“I’m here, Nick,” she reassured him. “Whatever you need, I am right here.”

He stood and pulled the covers back. Sabrina stood as well and opted to shimmy out of her leggings. It occurred to her that she had never actually slept – just slept – with Nick. He knew every nook and cranny of her body, had sent her to places she didn’t know she could go physically. But never, not once, had they spent a full night together.

They settled in, side by side. Nick turned the lamp off and for a while, there was quiet, but neither of them slept.

“Sabrina?”

“Nick?”

He rolled over and rested his head on her chest. She instinctively wrapped an arm around him, let her fingers start dancing through his hair with her other hand.

“My dad told me off today,” he confessed. “I stopped by and asked him for some advice. He told me he loved me and was proud of me, but he then he ripped into me. I’ve been disappointing him for years.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Sabrina soothed. “You just said he told you he loved you and was proud of you...”

“He wanted me to be better than I am. I’ve been thinking about it all day, what I could do to be a better person.”

Sabrina searched for the right thing to say. She certainly agreed that Nick could be a better person, but that was the last thing he needed to hear right now.

“He told me I suck as a person,” Nick continued. “Those are the exact words he used. ‘You suck as a person.’ He’s right. I do.”

Still, Sabrina said nothing. Even in his current state, Nick was no fool. He knew she agreed with his father. He snuggled closer to her, as though that could somehow make things better.

“Amalia doesn’t like me,” he continued. “I told him that today, too. He said she just doesn’t know me. Something else he’s right about. I wasn’t a good son. I’ve been a terrible brother.”

“Nick, don’t go down that road,” Sabrina warned. “Your parents loved you so much. Amalia loves you.”

“Will it get better?” he asked. “Will it hurt less?”

Sabrina knew what he was asking. He wanted to know, from someone who had lost her parents, if it would get easier.

“I don’t know if better is the right word for it,” she hedged, choosing honesty. “It will change though. I was a year old when my parents died. I don’t remember them, never really knew them. But even two dozen years later, I still miss them. There are times when I want my mom, especially. When I have questions or want advice on something a mom should be there for. I feel her absence strongly in those moments and I’ve learned I have to just let myself feel sad and miss her when those moments come.”

“I wanted to talk to my dad about some more stuff on Wednesday,” he said. “We were going to the driving range.” Sabrina nodded. He had already told her this. “We were going to play golf on Saturday. I haven’t played since college and he made me go with him, but I thought I might like to pick it up again.”

Sabrina struggled to follow Nick’s rambling. From what she had pieced together, he had ended up as his parents’ house earlier in the day, asked for advice about something, and made plans to play golf, all things out of character for him. It seemed like he had been lectured, and that whatever his father had said had stuck with him enough to get him to come home, cook for himself, clean his room, and apparently pick up a hobby. She opted out of asking for clarity. Nick was vulnerable and if rambling was what he needed, that is what she would let him do.

“I wanted to call you,” he continued. “Once the police told me what happened and I got to the hospital and found out my dad was gone and my mom was hurt, I wanted to call you. I didn’t think you would answer though. Not after this week. So, I didn’t.”

“I probably wouldn’t have answered,” Sabrina admitted, feeling guilty even though that wasn’t the scenario that played out. She would have never forgiven herself had Nick called when he actually needed her and she ignored him. “But Nick, I would have shown up. The moment I found out, I would have been here for you.”

He moved still closer. His larger frame dwarfed her petite one, but she was the only solid thing he had to hold onto.

“I don’t deserve you,” he said so quietly she barely heard him. “I never have.”

Neither of them said anything further. Sabrina couldn’t. She didn’t know how to respond, what was appropriate to say, how not to reveal all of her feelings, the good and the bad, right then, when he least needed to hear them. She just held him, continued to run her fingers through his hair, noting that it seemed to comfort him. Eventually he fell asleep.

She lay awake for a while longer, her mind buzzing with conflicting thoughts, wondering what he meant by calling her his girlfriend, what Melvin meant by saying Nick had feelings for her, even if Nick himself didn’t know it, how they were going to get through the coming days, the coming weeks, how she fit into all of this, on and on it went.

When she finally did fall asleep, it was with Nick still wrapped in her arms and him still clinging to her, even while he slept.

Chapter Text

She knew it early as she blinked her eyes open.

It took her a moment to figure out she was in Nick’s bed.

The events of the previous night crashed down around her. She looked to her right, expecting to see Nick, but the bed was empty. She got out of bed, found her leggings, and padded downstairs in search of him. He was on the couch, sitting in the dark, the television on but muted.

“Hey,” he greeted in a flat tone.

“Hi,” she replied carefully, assessing the situation. He was nearly catatonic. Her heart hurt for him.

“I didn’t wake you, did I?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“How long have you been awake?”

“A couple of hours,” he shrugged. “It was around four when I gave up lying there.”

Sabrina saw the time on the sports news ticker scrolling at the bottom of the screen. It was 6:13 AM. It had been after midnight when they got into bed, and he had talked for a while before he fell into restless sleep. If had been up since four and lying awake before then, he had barely slept.

“I made coffee,” he continued. “It’s awful. Melvin usually makes it, but he didn’t come home from the hospital last night.”

“I’m sure it’s not terrible,” she offered.

“It is,” Nick assured her. “But you can try it if you don’t believe me.”

“I’ll be right back.” She went to the kitchen intending to pour herself a cup of coffee. He followed her, trailing behind her like a lost puppy. “How are you feeling?” she asked carefully.

“I don’t know.” He stood in the kitchen looking hopelessly lost. “Numb. Confused. Maybe a little angry.”

“All valid,” she assured him. She realized she didn’t know where his coffee mugs were. “Where are…”

“I got one out for you.”

A Phi Gamma Delta mug sat by the coffeemaker. It was a small gesture, but it was thoughtful, especially in a time when she didn’t expect Nick to think of anyone other than himself. It reminded Sabrina that deep down, he could be a good guy.

“Thanks, Nick.”

“There’s cream and sugar, too, if you want it. Melvin likes all sorts of creamers, so we’ve got a lot of them.”

He seemed almost nervous at having her in his house in the morning not quite light.

“Okay,” she said simply. She felt a little nervous herself. This was uncharted territory for them, on top of his parents’ deaths.

She poured coffee into her mug. It was thick, smelled strong. She used cream and sugar in her coffee, but she took a tentative sip of the liquid to see if it could be salvaged. She tried to hide the face she made from Nick. It was beyond horrible.

“Told you.” He sounded disappointed.

“Why don’t I make a fresh pot?” she suggested. Nick only nodded. She busied herself with washing out the coffeepot and starting fresh. She pushed the brew button and turned her attention to Nick, deciding it best to lay out the next steps now. “The O’Keefes plan to bring Amalia to your parents’ house around ten. Is that okay? Or do you want them to bring her here?”

“There,” Nick decided. “It’s familiar. She should be in her home.” He looked at her. “You’ll come with me, right?”

“If you want me to…”

“I need you to.” He emphasized ‘need.’ “Please, Sabrina…”

“I’ll come with you,” she agreed. “But Nick, I do think you should tell Amalia alone. She barely knows me.”

“I don’t know how to talk to her,” Nick confessed. “I don’t even know how to play with her. She kept asking me to play with her when I was there for lunch and I kept blowing her off because, well, I didn’t want to play with her for one, and she had all these dolls and plastic pink crap. Yesterday, she barely paid attention to me. She was running around in the yard with a ribbon on a stick trailing behind her and I just thought to myself how weird she is.”

“Four-year-olds are weird sometimes,” Sabrina said with a faint smile. “I’d bet she was practicing rhythmic dancing. She loves dance. She happens to be really good at it as well.”

“See?” Nick asked. “I didn’t even know she likes to dance, that it wasn’t just some extracurricular my mom put her in because she liked for us to try things.” He paused for a moment. It was odd, referring to his parents in the past tense. “You know more about my sister than I do.”

“I know that she’s your sister,” Sabrina soothed. “And that you are her big brother. I know that today is going to be really, really hard. But you are strong, Nick, and I know it sounds crazy for me to say it right now, but you’re going to get through this.”

He looked at her for a long moment. She waited.

“I know I’m asking a lot of you,” he admitted. “I know I am, Sabrina. But I can barely put one foot in front of another right now. I don’t know what I’m doing. You being here… I don’t feel as alone as I actually am.”

That voice again, the one that sounded like his father, tried to get his attention, tried to point out what he should already know. But he pushed it down. He couldn’t think about his feelings for Sabrina, whatever they were, right then.

“You’re not alone.” She went to him. “I’m here.” She pulled him to her as he reached for her. He closed his eyes and breathed her in. Absolutely nothing was okay, but when she was with him, in his arms especially, the world stopped spinning so fast. It seemed to slow down to a manageable pace, one he could navigate, even if he felt unsure on his feet. She was his solid reminder that life still had to move forward, even though it felt impossible right now. “How about a fresh cup of coffee and something to eat?”

“I don’t know if I can eat…”

“Toast? Maybe some eggs?” She rubbed his arms. “You should try to eat, Nick.”

“I’ll get the eggs out,” he nodded, deciding if she thought he should eat, he would try to. “Do you want creamer? While I’m in the fridge?”

“Half and half, if you have it.”

“We have it,” he said with confidence. Melvin used it pretty often. He checked to make sure the date was still good before he brought it to Sabrina. She had already poured him a fresh cup. “Can I help?”

“No,” she gently guided him back to the kitchen table. “Sit down, drink your coffee. This won’t take long.”

She cooked in relative silence, asking Nick where things were on occasion. He sipped his coffee slowly, mind spinning as he tried to figure out what to say to Amalia. He also couldn’t help but watch Sabrina. She looked right at home, cooking in his kitchen, wearing his t-shirt. She placed a plate in front of him with toast and eggs, then joined him with her own plate. He bit into a piece of toast. His eyes grew big.

“Cinnamon and sugar toast?”

“Is that okay?” Sabrina replied. “I didn’t really think to ask… It’s just what I usually make…”

“It’s…” He smiled a bit sadly. “My mom made it for me on Friday mornings when I was in elementary school. It was a ‘special treat’ – she wasn’t big on letting me have sugary cereal, stuff like that. Maybe on the weekends, or if Dad was in charge of breakfast, but as long as I behaved myself during the week, she would make this for me on Friday mornings.”

Sabrina reached out and squeezed his hand.

“I won’t be offended if you don’t want to eat it,” she said, wondering if it was too much of a memory for him.

“No, it’s really good,” he said sincerely. “Thank you, Sabrina.”

They are in companionable silence. He realized he was actually hungry. Her toast was good – maybe even better than his mother’s – and her eggs were fluffy, flavorful. Anytime he had ever tried to scramble eggs, they came out tough and needed a lot of hot sauce to be edible. When she started washing dishes, including his mess from the night before, he found himself standing to help.

“Let me do this,” he gently pushed her aside. “I made most of this mess last night, and you cooked breakfast.”

“I don’t mind…”

He looked at her with a serious expression.

“Let me do the dishes.”

Sabrina didn’t understand it, but she somehow knew he needed to wash the dishes. It was something he could do, something he could control. She stepped away from the sink.

“I’m going to go to my house and change clothes,” she said. “I won’t be long. Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” he nodded, trying to sound more confident than he felt. He hadn’t been truly alone since he found out both of his parents were gone. Even earlier, when he was on the couch and Sabrina still upstairs asleep, he hadn’t felt alone, the knowledge that she was nearby keeping him grounded. Sabrina distracted him, kept him moving. But she couldn’t stay with him forever. “I’ll be here.”

“I won’t be long,” she repeated. “Then we’ll go pick up your truck?”

He nodded. He wanted to kiss her, but he refrained, not sure if it was appropriate.

He missed her when she was gone.

In the silence, there was no hiding from the last twelve hours. He turned off the water and leaned on the sink, letting his mind run where it wanted to.

He had been on the couch, grading tests and avoiding thinking about his own big life questions when two police officers showed up at his door. It dawned on him now that his first thought upon seeing them had been ‘Sabrina,’ as though he were the one they would come to if something happened to her and not her aunts who raised her. When the officers told him his parents had been in an accident, his only thought had been ‘get to them.’

At the hospital, another doctor whose name he couldn’t remember now delivered the news that his father didn’t make it. He had fell into a chair, stunned. His father was a doctor. He saved lives every day. Why couldn’t someone save him?

His only thoughts while he waited for news on his mother were of calling Sabrina to be with him, telling himself she probably wouldn’t answer anyway, and of using the logic that told him his mother would live because surely God or whoever was up there wouldn’t take both of his parents from him in the same night. When Sabrina somehow magically appeared, he had lost what little composure he had.

Now, he had to figure out – everything.

He had been in a weird place all week, trying and failing to figure out why Sabrina had shut him out, why it bothered him so much. That had led him to realize that other than Melvin, he didn’t really have someone he could talk to. He probably could have texted one of his frat brothers, but that felt like a bad idea. They would give him a hard time, tease him for being rejected when he was notorious for getting the object of his temporary affection in bed. That was what sent him to his dad, the desperation for answers, the hope that he could shed some light on whatever the hell was happening.

He had spent the rest of the afternoon stewing on his father’s tough love. He had cleaned his room for the first time in ages, a little disgusted that he let it get that messy, had tried his best to cook spaghetti using YouTube like Sabrina suggested. It hadn’t been great and he had burned the garlic bread past being edible, but it had still felt like some weird minor victory. He had decided to grade his tests in an effort to distract himself from all the shit his dad had brought up for him and had a few minutes of peace before the knock on the door came.

Now, his parents were dead and he had to bury them. He had a little sister he would be responsible for.

He could barely take care of himself.

How on earth was he going to take care of a child?


“I don’t have a key.”

Sabrina looked at Nick.

“What?”

“A key,” he repeated. “I just realized. I don’t have a key to their house. I did, but Dad locked himself and Amalia out and mom was out of town a couple of months ago. He came to my place and got my key from me. He never gave it back.”

Sabrina frowned. They stood in the yard of his parents’ house, their vehicles parked on the curb. The O’Keefes were due in a few minutes and it had taken her most of the morning to get Nick dressed and back to the hospital to pick up his truck. Melvin had come home before she returned and the two were playing video games when she walked in, freshly showered, minimum makeup, clean clothes. She had let it go for a while, knowing the distraction was needed, but as the clock crept closer to ten, she started prodding him along and they had ultimately exchanged a few tense words before he put his controller down and got a move on. Neither of them had apologized, but they had both moved past the incident.

“Maybe there’s a key hidden somewhere outside?” she offered.

“Maybe…” He studied the house he grew up in. It seemed foreign now. “Where would it be?”

“Under the doormat or a planter, maybe hidden somewhere around back, under a rock… It could be anywhere.”

“Great,” he grumbled.

“Let’s look,” Sabrina suggested. Nick didn’t have a lot of faith, but he didn’t have a better option. It took several minutes, but she unearthed the key from beneath a stone that created the border of the flower bed that ran the length of the front porch. “Found it.”

She gave it to Nick. She noted his hands shook as he operated the lock. He hesitated on the doorstep. Sabrina understood. His parents were alive and thriving when they walked out the door the night before. They would never come back to their home. She took his hand in silent support.

Nick took a big breath and stepped inside.

His knees nearly buckled as memories of his parents slammed into him. How was it that just a week ago, he was standing in this very entryway, dreading lunch, arguing with Amalia, thinking about how he could get out of there as quickly as possible. Sabrina dropped his hand but slid an arm around his waist. He responded by pulling her into him for a long, tight hug.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted into her hair. “They should be here…”

“They should,” Sabrina agreed. “What can I do for you? How can I help you?”

“This,” Nick held her tighter. “Let me hold you.”

She did just that, again tossing aside thoughts of what it all meant. She gave him a squeeze to reassure him, comfort him. He held her still tighter. She had to be the one to pull away, even if she didn’t want to.

“Is there anything you want to do before Amalia gets here?” she asked.

“I should go through the house,” he decided, because it was something to do. Then frowned. “But I don’t know why.”

Sabrina didn’t either. She decided to get him talking, see if that helped settle him down any.

“You moved here the summer before freshman year, right?”

“From Chicago, yeah,” Nick nodded. “Dad got the Head of Thoracic Surgery job at Hartford General. They didn’t want to live in the city anymore, so they bought this house, even though Dad had a bit of a commute. He always said he didn’t mind. He listened to podcasts and audiobooks in the car.” He smiled ruefully. “He somehow never missed a game. He had this big, important job forty-five minutes away, more when there was traffic, but he was at every game or school thing I ever had.”

“Your mom was really involved in the community,” she continued. “She was friends with my aunts.”

Nick’s small smile grew just a little. He wouldn’t tell Sabrina, at least not right then, that his mom and her aunts gossiped regularly about their sex life. He didn’t want to embarrass her – or risk her leaving.

“Mom was always on this committee, that board. She was like that in Chicago, too. She loved being involved.” He bit his lip. “She was a good mom. I gave her hell, but she was a good mom. A really good mom.”

“Your parents were good people,” Sabrina told him. “They did a lot of good in the community.”

“Unlike me,” Nick said ruefully. The fact that Sabrina didn’t correct him told him he was right. He sighed. One more thing to add to his very long list of things he needed to evaluate about his life. “Any advice for telling a four-year-old her mother is gone?”

“Be honest with her,” Sabrina advised. “But remember that she’s four years old. She may not understand.”

“I don’t understand,” Nick sighed.

Sabrina took his hands.

“You never will,” she told him, opting for honesty. He squeezed her hands.

“Want something to drink?” he asked. “I have no idea what’s in the kitchen, but Mom kept the fridge stocked. I’m sure there’s something.”

“I’m okay,” she told him.

“I’m going to get myself something,” he sighed again. “You’re sure you don’t want anything?”

“Positive.”

He left her in the entryway. She wandered towards the photos lining the wall. There were three photos in identical gold frames. There were clearly from a family photoshoot, all four of them dressed in coordinating outfits. She remembered seeing another photo from the shoot on a Christmas card from the Scratches on her aunts’ fridge last year. She had noticed it because of how Nick stood out.

The first photo was of Amalia, dressed in a blue and green plaid dress, a sharp white Peter Pan shirt under it, a bright red bow in her shiny hair. She smiled big, looked to be having the time of her life in the wooded setting.

The middle photo was of all four of them. Dr. Scratch held Amalia in the crook of his arm. Anabelle Scratch stood at his side, but her eyes were on her daughter. The three of them were laughing. Nick stood on his father’s other side, smiling a bit, but not laughing. With a hand in his pocket, he looked like he was trying to fight the urge to join in on the laughter on purpose. She would bet her last dollar he was at the photoshoot against his will.

The last photo in the row was of Nick. He wore jeans and a navy thermal shirt. His hair was coiffed, his head down, but in the photo, taken mid stride as he walked towards the camera, he had looked up, his eyes full of mischief, his lopsided smirk on his face. The photographer had captured him perfectly, likely in a candid moment when he hadn’t known his photo was being taken. She understood why Anabelle had framed it.

The doorbell rang.

Sabrina took a deep breath.

Amalia was home.

She glanced towards where Nick had disappeared, expected to see him walking towards her to answer the door. He wasn’t there. She took a couple of steps in the direction she thought she remembered the kitchen to be – it had been years since she had been in the Scratch home – but the doorbell sounded again. With one last look for Nick, she went to the door.

“Sabrina,” Mrs. O’Keefe greeted in that sad sympathetic tone people used when they talked to someone who was grieving. “Hi…”

“Sabrina!” Amalia’s excited shriek filled the air. The child lunged for her. “I didn’t know you were gonna be here!” She wrapped her small arms around Sabrina’s legs. “I haven’t seen you since dance camp!”

“Hi, Amalia,” Sabrina greeted as normal as she could. She stooped down so she could hug the child properly. “Did you have a good sleepover?”

“So much fun!” Amalia said. “I’ll tell you everything! Me and Polly made slime!”

“Wow,” Sabrina exclaimed. “That does sound fun.” She smiled at the beautiful little girl, her heart crumbling as she thought of how in just moments, she would learn her world had changed forever. “Your brother is in the kitchen. Why don’t you go say hi to him?”

“Nick is here?” she asked, clearly surprised. “Nick is never here.” She shrugged off the backpack she was still wearing, her young mind not calculating that it was odd to find Sabrina in her home, for her brother to be there, even. “I’m gonna go find Daddy first and ask him if we can make slime. Mommy always says no, ‘cause its messy, but I can talk Daddy into it ‘cause he usually says yes to me.”

With that, she skipped off. Sabrina let her go, feeling conflicted. She couldn’t be the one to tell Amalia her parents were gone, but she hated that the child was going to skip through the house, searching for her parents. She hoped Nick found her first, but he still hadn’t emerged from wherever he had disappeared to.

“Thank you for bringing her,” Sabrina said to Mrs. O’Keefe. “For letting her stay last night.”

“It was the very least I could do.” She looked sad. “It felt like nothing. Anabelle was one of my best friends. We spent a lot of time laughing at how we both ended up with surprise babies later in life and now…” She shook her head. “How is Nicholas?”

“He’s – doing the best he can,” Sabrina hedged. “I’m not sure what he’s doing…” She glanced over her shoulder. There was still no sign of him. She could hear Amalia, running through another part of the house. The child called out for her father. Sabrina blinked back tears.

“No need to bother him,” Mrs. O’Keefe said, looking like she was on the verge of tears herself. “He’s got enough going on right now.” She held out a dish. “I couldn’t sleep after your cousin called, so I made a lasagna for Nick and Amalia. I know they will be flooded with food, but I felt so helpless…”

“Thank you,” Sabrina accepted the dish. “I’m sure he will appreciate it.” She thanked Mrs. O’Keefe one more time for watching Amalia, then made her way through the house to the kitchen. She found Nick there, leaning against the counter, a glass of water next to him, seemingly untouched. His eyes gave away the fact that he had been crying. She put the lasagna down on the counter. “Nick?”

“Their dishes are in the sink,” he said in a rough voice. “Two glasses, a plate, a fork. Mom hated dishes left in the sink, so I bet they were Dad’s…”

“Oh Nick…”

“There’s a strawberry pie in the fridge,” he continued. “Mom always made a nice dessert on Sundays. She texted on Thursday, told me to come over for lunch again this week. I didn’t reply. It’s the last text she sent me and I didn’t reply.”

He was spiraling again. She heard Amalia call for her mother. It sounded like she was upstairs. She steeled herself and went to Nick. He needed to pull himself together, as best he could, and talk to Amalia. She couldn’t keep looking for her parents. Sabrina put her hands on his shoulders.

“Nick, I need you to listen to me.” He looked at her, waited. “I cannot fathom how hard it is for you to be here right now, in your parents’ home, around all of their things. I know you see them everywhere you look. I know there are little things everywhere that show they had every intention of coming back when they left.” He nodded, his eyes glistening with a fresh round of unshed tears. “But your little sister is running around the house, looking for her mommy and daddy. I know it is the very last thing you want to do right now, but you have to tell her, Nick. You can’t let her keep looking for them. She needs to know what happened.”

“Okay,” he breathed after a moment. “You’re right.” He wiped at his eyes. “I’ll tell her. I have to.” She squeezed his bicep in support. Amalia skipped into the room.

“Where is Mommy and Daddy?” she asked in a sweet singsong voice. “Are they home from their party yet?” Her eyes lit up. “Is Sabrina babysitting me? We can dance!” She ran to Sabrina and took her hand. Sabrina noted Amalia hadn’t truly acknowledged Nick yet, remembered that Nick had expressed that he hadn’t been a great brother to her.

“Mally,” he started, hands in his pockets. “Can you come with me to Dad’s study?”

“I want to play with Sabrina,” she said stubbornly. “She’s never been to my house before and she’s my favorite teacher from dance camp.”

“Maybe you can play after,” Nick tried. He wished he remembered more from the couple of childhood psychology classes he had taken in college. There was a reason he taught teenagers. He had more patience with them, even when they came at him with an attitude. “I need to talk to you first. Come with me right now, then you can see Sabrina.”

He tried to take her free hand. Amalia jerked it away. He looked helplessly at Sabrina. She stooped down to Amalia’s level in an effort to diffuse the situation.

“Amalia, Nick has something really important he needs to talk to you about,” she said gently. “Can you go with him to your dad’s study? I’ll still be here when you’re finished talking, and if you want to play then, we can, okay?”

Amalia looked at Nick, then huffed with an attitude that reminded Sabrina of her older brother.

“Okay,” she agreed. Nick seized his opportunity. He scooped Amalia into his arms.

“Thank you,” he said to Sabrina.

“You can do this,” she replied, hoping to encourage him. “I’ll be right here.”

His steps felt heavy as he walked towards his father’s study. At the last minute, he changed course for the living room. If the kitchen had overwhelmed him, his father’s study right now would cripple him, and he needed to be strong for Amalia.

“Where’s Mommy and Daddy?” Amalia asked again. “Are you staying to play with me and Sabrina?”

“I’m staying,” he confirmed. He would be staying a lot longer than Amalia knew. He sat down, Amalia in his lap, and prayed to whatever was listening that he would get through this. “Amalia, do you know what an accident is?”

“It’s when you do something you didn’t meant to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “Like spilling my juice at dinner. That’s an accident.”

“Right,” Nick agreed, deciding to go with her overly simplistic explanation. “Last night, Mom and Dad… They had an accident.”

“Mommy and Daddy went to a party last night,” Amalia told Nick. She liked to know things, to feel like she was involved in adult discussions. “Mommy had on a sparkly dress. She looked so pretty.”

“She did,” Nick agreed sadly. He had seen a photo of their parents, all dressed for the gala, that his mom had posted to Facebook while scrolling to see if Sabrina had posted any updates just a half hour before the police arrived at his door. He wished that was the last memory he had of his mother, not the image of her on a stretcher, bloody and bruised, her lips blue, her husband in a similar state next to her, both draped in hospital-issued sheets, life gone from them. He shuddered at the image he would forever be able to conjure with clarity and refocused on his sister. “Amalia, Mom and Dad had a really bad car accident.”

“Is Mommy’s car okay?” she asked, concerned. She had seen her father’s car outside and was smart enough to deduce that they had been in her mother’s car. Nick shook his head.

“No, Mom’s car isn’t okay.” His throat seemed to close up, but he pushed forward. “Mally, Mom and Dad… They died last night.”

It was the first time he had said it out loud. He had told Sabrina his dad had passed, but right now was the first time he had said out loud that both of his parents were gone. It tore through him in a way he would never be able to heal from. His eyes burned with tears, but he had to focus on Amalia’s confused features. He would deal with his own wounds later.

“They didn’t die,” she shook her head with certainty that her brother had it all wrong. “People go away forever when they die. Mommy and Daddy didn’t die. They wouldn’t go away forever and leave me.”

“I’m so sorry, Amalia,” he said, using every ounce of strength he had to keep himself together. “The doctors did everything they could to save them, but they were just hurt too badly. They died last night.”

“No,” Amalia shook her head stubbornly. “Me and Mommy were going to make cookies today. Chocolate chip peanut butter ones. Mommy promised because we couldn’t do it yesterday because I had to go to a birthday party and Mommy had to get her hair fixed and her nails made pretty. Mommy always keeps her promises to me, so she didn’t go away.”

“I’m so sorry, Amalia,” Nick said again. He tried to hug her. “Mom is gone. So is Dad. I’m so sorry.”

“No!” She pushed him away, her tiny body stronger than it looked. “You’re lying!”

“I wish I were.” He grabbed for as she slid off his lap. “I wish I were, Mally…”

“Don’t call me Mally!” she screamed, dodging him. “You’re lying, Nick! You’re not supposed to lie! You have to tell the truth! Mommy said people always have to tell the truth!”

She ran from the room, ignoring his calls after her. Sabrina was sitting at the kitchen island, trying to talk herself into sitting there in spite of hearing Amalia’s screams, when Amalia herself tore into the kitchen, her hair wild, her eyes wet.

“Sabrina!”

“Amalia!”

She swiftly moved off the stool and dropped to her knees just in time to catch Amalia in a hug. Amalia curled into her.

“Nick is lying!” she cried into Sabrina’s shoulder. “He said Mommy and Daddy died, but dying means you go away forever and they wouldn’t leave me! Ever!”

“Oh, Amalia.”

She sat down on the floor and brought Amalia into her lap. Nick stood in the doorway. He looked on, helpless, his own eyes full of tears. Sabrina looked at him in question. He could only shrug, no idea what to do now.

“Sabrina?” Amalia lifted her head from Sabrina’s shoulder. “Is Nick lying?”

The innocence of her question ripped through both Sabrina and Nick. The little girl wanted nothing more than for Sabrina to say her big brother wasn’t telling the truth. Sabrina wished she could, just to take the pain away from the child. She looked at Nick again. He could only nod, giving Sabrina the okay to confirm Amalia’s worst fears. She returned her attention to the girl, a tear escaping her own eyes as Amalia looked at her, hopeful her dance teacher was going to confirm her big brother was a liar.

“I’m so sorry, Amalia,” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick is telling you the truth. Your mommy and daddy died last night.”

The child let out a guttural wail and collapsed against Sabrina. Sabrina held her tightly, her own tears mixing with Amalia’s, offering her any comfort she could through her embrace. In that moment, she was grateful her parents had died when she was so young – she wouldn’t have understood as a one year old. To her, her parents had been there one day, gone the next, and she didn’t remember anything other than her aunts raising her, her cousin playing with her. She didn’t remember the days in which her parents had filled her life. Amalia’s memories would be minimal, but they would still be there and it would make the deaths of her parents all that much harder.

In the doorway, tears poured down Nick’s cheeks. He leaned against the frame for support, not trusting himself to take even a step towards Sabrina and his sister. But when Sabrina met his eyes and crooked her finger for him to come to her, he did. He understood what she was trying to convey. He was Amalia’s brother. He needed to be there now. He knelt next to them.

“Come here, Mally,” he said gently, trying to pry her out of Sabrina’s arms and into his. Amalia held onto Sabrina even tighter. Nick understood – Sabrina was his rock, too. Still, he needed to be Amalia’s brother. He reached for her again. With Sabrina’s help, he managed to get her into his arms. He held her tightly, let her cry. “I’ve got you,” he soothed. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Amalia cried harder. Sabrina got to her feet and stood nearby, her arms crossed, looking on. Nick met her eyes. Amalia needed him, but he needed her. He held out an arm to her. She went to him, seeking his comfort as well.

They stood like that for a long time, Amalia sobbing into Nick’s shoulder, Nick with his arm around Sabrina, her tucked into his chest, soothing him with her presence, soothing Amalia with a hand rubbing circles on her back, whispering comforting words to both of them. Still trying to be the strong one, Nick eventually ended their embrace, even if it was the last thing he wanted to do. He put Amalia on her feet. Her innocent face was beet red, streaked with tear stains.

“Did you eat breakfast at the O’Keefes?” he asked, because that felt like it was an important thing right then – make sure she ate something. Amalia nodded solemnly. “Are you hungry now?” She shook her head. “Thirsty?” She shook her head again. “Do you need anything?”

“My mommy,” she barely whispered.

“I know,” NIck agreed. “I want Mom and Dad, too.” He brushed a tear away with his thumb. “It’s you and me now, though. We’re going to figure this out, okay?” It took Amalia a moment, but she nodded, even if she looked unsure. Nick couldn’t blame her. “It’s going to be okay,” he promised her. “I love you, Mally.”

Sabrina’s breath hitched. She didn’t know Nick was capable of using those words, but she felt an odd sense of pride flow through her as she watched him with Amalia.

“I love you too, Nick.”

He pulled her into another hug.

“Why don’t you go watch some TV?” he suggested when he pulled away. “Do you know how to work it?”

“Channel 73 is Disney,” she responded with a sort of attitude that said ‘of course I know how to work the TV.‘ “It’s the 7 and the 3 on the remote. Daddy taught me.”

“Go on,” Nick encouraged, pushing her gently towards the door. Amalia took a few steps, but then turned back to them.

“Sabrina, will you watch Disney with me?”

Sabrina would buy the child a whole herd of ponies in that moment, if it would take even a fraction of the sadness away.

“Of course,” she agreed. “Go ahead and turn on the TV, okay? I’ll be right there.”

Nick held it together until he was certain Amalia was gone.

“God,” he exhaled, leaning on the counter. “Sabrina… I can’t do this…”

He was panicking. She saw it in his dilated pupils, his shaking hands, the light layer of sweat that peppered his forehead.

“Sit down,” she coached, guiding him to a stool. She stood between his legs, put her hands on either side of his face. “Breathe. Deep breaths. In and out.” She breathed with him, watching closely as his features relaxed. “You did great, Nick,” she told him once he was calm enough. “You did the very best you could just now.”

“I feel like I ruined her life,” he confessed.

“No,” Sabrina shook her head. “You told her something horrible and then you comforted her.”

“She came to you for comfort,” Nick corrected. “Hell, we both did.”

“You comforted her,” Sabrina said again. “You were the strong big brother she needs you to be, even if you’re falling apart right now.” She brushed a curl from his forehead. “You told her everything is going to be okay. And now I’m telling you that. It won’t be the same, but you will find a new normal and it will be okay.” She kissed his forehead out of instinct. He closed his eyes, grateful for the contact. “I also know it doesn’t feel like that right now, and that’s okay, too.”

He drew her in, held her for a few moments.

“We should go watch Disney with her,” he said into Sabrina’s hair. He didn’t want to let go.

“We should,” Sabrina agreed, pulling away.

The doorbell rang again. Nick sighed.

“I know people are going to start coming over, visiting, offering their condolences. They’ve already started calling, so I turned my phone off and unplugged the house phone. I know I have to face them, but I just can’t right now…”

“I’ll turn them away,” Sabrina nodded. “Go be with Amalia. I’ll be there as soon as I get rid of whomever is at the door.”

In the hallway, Nick caught a glimpse of who was on the other side of the door through the window.

“That’s Bill Stanley. Mom and Dad’s lawyer.” He sighed again. “I probably should talk to him.” Sabrina nodded her agreement, sure the man held information Nick would likely need in the coming days. “Go on and watch TV with Mally. She asked for you, anyway.”

“Okay,” Sabrina agreed.

Nick caught her by the hand as she turned to leave him. He didn’t say anything, but he stepped closer, leaned down, and brushed his lips across hers. It was hint of a kiss, but it was loaded with meaning – and questions. Questions neither of them could even begin to address right now.

He let go of her hand and let her leave him in the entryway. The doorbell rang again. He had faced Amalia. He could do this, too. He took a deep breath and opened the door.

Chapter Text

Sabrina found him in his father’s study, nursing a glass of bourbon. She stood in the doorway and waited for an invitation. The study felt personal, private. She didn’t want to intrude.

“Where’s Amalia?” he asked without looking at her.

“She fell asleep on the couch,” Sabrina answered. She still didn’t move from the doorway.

“How is she?”

“Subdued. Sad.” She bit her lip. “She said she wanted her mom a few times.”

“She’s four.” He took a sip of bourbon. “Of course she wants her mom.” He blew out a breath. “I’m twenty-five and I want my mom right now.” He looked at her then. He appeared utterly and entirely exhausted, mentally and physically. “You going to stand there or come in and sit down?”

“I didn’t know if you wanted to be alone.”

“I do, but you’re not included in that wish.”

It was one more thing to add to her list of things to consider sometime down the line. Still, she went to him and settled by him on the leather couch. She took a moment to look around the room. It was all quality leather and dark wood, a fully stocked bar on one side, an imposing desk across from it, a large TV mounted over a stone fireplace. It was his father’s study, but it reminded her of – Nick.

“Want a drink?” he asked. “Doesn’t have to be bourbon. Dad has everything. Had.”

“None for me,” she shook her head. She decided to monitor the situation, make sure Nick didn’t get too far in the bottle. “A few neighbors dropped off food while. I finally put a polite but pointed sign on the door that says they can come back tomorrow. I don’t think it’s going to deter my aunts, though. Hilda is bringing over a full dinner later. She called to ask what Amalia might like, and Amalia gave her an eclectic list. I can’t promise it won’t be fish sticks, macaroni and cheese, and tater tots.”

“That’s fine.”

He took another sip. Her concern grew.

“The lawyer left a while ago,” she chanced, trying to figure out where things stood. Nick sighed and let his head fall back on the sofa.

“The good news is, Mom and Dad had planned for something like this. The bad news is, they put me in charge of all of it.”

“Why is that bad news?” she pushed gently. Something was working through his mind and it had him teetering on the edge. She knew him well enough to know he was once more spiraling and she wanted to steady him as best she could.

“My dad just told me I suck as a person, and then he puts me in charge of his entire life – house, checking accounts, savings accounts, hedge funds, trust funds, retirement funds, funds I’ve never even heard of before. Life insurance policies, Amalia’s college fund, the townhouse in Chicago they apparently never sold but rent out, my grandma’s house on the Cape that Dad inherited when she died. On and on it goes. Oh, and Amalia. I am, officially, Amalia’s legal guardian.”

“That’s… Overwhelming.”

“It’s fucking ridiculous,” Nick corrected. “Who in the hell do they think they are, putting me in charge of all of this without mentioning it to me? They put forth this much effort into arranging all of it, but didn’t think to tell me ‘hey, if we happen to both die, you get the house, the finances, and the kid. Have fun.’ Like I know what I’m fucking doing.”

Sabrina sighed. Anger had set in, and it was clear now that he was more than just a glass of bourbon deep into the bottle.

“They didn’t know they were going to die so soon,” Sabrina reminded him. “They probably made these plans, just in case, because that’s the responsible thing to do. I’m certain they never thought they would die at the same time, suddenly…”

“Dad literally told me I suck as a person,” Nick continued, as though he didn’t hear her. “He told me I have a long way to go as a man. Yet he gives me his daughter to raise? I have no fucking business raising a child. I can’t even take care of myself. I found chicken bones from weeks ago under my bed when I cleaned my room. I don’t remember eating chicken wings in my bed, but apparently I did, and if I don’t remember it, it was probably because I was high, drunk, or maybe even both.”

Another sip of bourbon.

“This is a lot to absorb,” Sabrina tried. She worked to remain calm. “Again, Nick, you don’t have to figure it all out today. You’ve already had a lot happen today…”

“Apparently I do,” he cut her off. “Or at least in the next few days. They had bought burial plots, so that decision is made for me, but I have to pick out two caskets, a date and a time for the service, write their obituaries… I’ve got a shit ton of papers I have to sign, taking ownership of all of this.” He waved his arm around, indicating the Scratch home and all it entailed. “The best part? I have to sign legal documents to officially take custody of Amalia. Custody, Sabrina. Hell of a legal system we have, giving me custody of a four year old that would rather be anywhere else than with her brother.”

He downed the last of his bourbon and stood up, a little wobbly on his feet.

“Nick, maybe you should…” She trailed off as he stumbled a few steps, then righted his gait.

“You sure you don’t want a drink? I opened the good bourbon, but there’s vodka, scotch, gin, you name it, it’s over here. Wine, too. You like red wine. Want a glass?”

“No.” Sabrina weighed her options as he poured himself a bit too much of the amber liquid and stumbled back to the couch. It was mid-afternoon. None of them had eaten lunch, but she and Amalia had snacked on Cheez-Its and grapes she found in the kitchen when Amalia asked for a snack. All Nick had on his stomach were the eggs and toast from that morning. The liquor would work faster. She needed him to put the bottle down. “Nick, today has been hard…”

“Today has been a fucking disaster,” he corrected as he sat back down. “My parents are dead. That’s bad enough. But then there’s all the shit that comes after it. No one asked me if I wanted this. No one asked if I wanted to inherit their estate, become a de facto parent overnight. What if I don’t want to do it, Sabrina? What if I don’t want custody of Amalia?”

“You’re her brother, Nick,” Sabrina stated. “You are the one person who might have an idea as to what she’s going through right now…”

“I’ve got an aunt and uncle – mom’s sister and husband. They live out west somewhere. Seattle or San Francisco or San Diego… I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them since Christmas last year. I don’t especially like my aunt. She’s a real bitch. But they would take her. Hell, my aunt would probably love to take her – taking in her dead sister’s kid would be such a show of generosity and she’s all about appearance…”

Sabrina’s heart sunk.

“You would sign away custody of Amalia?”

“No one asked me if wanted custody,” he repeated. “It was just assumed…”

“You already told her it was you and her,” she reminded him. “And that everything was going to be okay. She’s had her whole life turned on its ear. Do you think shipping her off to an aunt and uncle that you don’t even know the location of nor like is a good idea?”

“I told her what she wanted to hear right then,” Nick said. “That’s what I do, Sabrina. I tell people – girls especially – what they want to hear.” He looked at her with glassed over eyes. “It works on you every time.”

He may as well have slapped her.

She recoiled from his words, wounded even if she knew they came from the dark place he had accessed in his grief. She watched him turn up the glass again and her own anger filled into place.

“I think you’ve had enough of this.” She tried to take the bourbon from him, but he managed to fend her off. “Fine.” She stood. “Stay here. Drink the whole damn bar if you think it will make you feel better. Be the asshole you want to be.”

“I get to be an asshole right now,” he informed her. “My parents are dead.”

“You get to be upset,” Sabrina said. “You get to be angry, and you get to grieve. But you do not get to act like this, say things like this.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” he retorted. “You always think you know what’s best. You always think you’re right. I don’t want to hear what you think, Spellman. I want to sit here, in my dead dad’s study, drink his expensive bourbon, and damn him to hell for doing this to me.” He took a swing of his bourbon to accent his point. “My mom, too.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Like hell I don’t.” Another sip of bourbon. He was rapidly getting out of control. “Know what would help though?”

“What?” she asked wearily.

“Let me fuck you.” Sabrina’s eyes widened. He nodded toward’s his father’s desk. “Right there on that desk. Hell of a way to honor my dead dad’s memory.” He tried to get to his feet but swayed. He sat back down.

“You’re drunk,” Sabrina stated.

“I was drunk the first time I got you into bed,” he reminded her. “Or I suppose that was the backseat of my truck. Remember?”

Sabrina’s cheeks flushed.

“We weren’t drunk. Tipsy, yes, but not drunk. Regardless, I am not having sex with you right now. Not like this.”

Nick tried to unbutton his pants.

“Come over here, Spellman. Use that pretty mouth of yours to make me feel better.”

Sabrina felt sick. She needed to get out of there.

“I’m not staying here and allowing you to disrespect me. I don’t care how upset you are. You do not get to act like this.” Nick was still struggling to pop the button on his jeans. “I’m not leaving Amalia here either. She doesn’t need to see you like this.” She glared absolute daggers at him. “She doesn’t need to overhear her brother – the only person she has – say he doesn’t want her.”

She turned on her heel and didn’t look back. She shut the door to the study with a firm click instead of the slam she wanted. She checked on Amalia who was still sound asleep, sucking her thumb and hugging a worn rag doll. She realized the kid was still in her pajamas.

Blowing out a breath, she picked up Amalia ‘s tiny backpack from where she had left it at the foot of the stairs, telling Sabrina that’s where things that needed to go upstairs to bedrooms went so you didn’t forget. The bag held a dirty outfit, a few small toys, and little else, evidence the Scratches hadn’t intended for Amalia to stay at the O’Keefes more than overnight. She took the bag and climbed the stairs.

Amalia’s room was easy to find. There was a bright ‘A’ on the door, a “the princess is in” sign hanging from the doorknob. She didn’t take much time looking around, noting that it was a girly room all the same, and rummaged through the dresser in search of a change of clothes for Amalia. She found both an outfit and a pair of pajamas. She found clean socks and underwear, added a tiny pair of brown leather boots, and went back downstairs.

“Amalia?” She knelt by the couch and gently shook Amalia awake. “Time to wake up, sweetheart.”

“Sabrina?” she asked sleepily, wiping at her swollen eyes.

“It’s me,” Sabrina confirmed. “You like hanging out with me, don’t you?” Amalia nodded. “Do you remember my aunt Hilda? The woman who brought all the cupcakes the last day of dance camp?”

“Those were really good cupcakes,” Amalia said sleepily. “They were pink and red.”

“They were and they tasted delicious,” Sabrina confirmed. “You and I are going to go hang out at Hilda’s house, have a sleepover. Hilda will make us really good food and my cousin Ambrose knows all sorts of games we can play. My aunt Zelda can be fun, too. She really likes kids.” Zelda was the opposite of Hilda in every way, but she did have a soft spot for children. She would welcome Amalia into the house with open arms. “What do you think? I already packed you a bag, but if you want to take a few toys, we can go get them.”

“What kind of games?” she asked curiously.

“All sorts,” Sabrina promised. “You’ll love Ambrose.” She had another idea. “They have a fire pit in the backyard. We’ll build a fire and make s’mores after dinner.”

“What’s a s’more?”

“You roast a marshmallow over the flames, put it on a graham cracker with chocolate, then add another cracker to make a sandwich. They’re messy and sticky and delicious.”

“Okay,” Amalia nodded. “Let’s have a sleepover.” She allowed Sabrina to take her hand and lead her out of the living room. She stopped in the entry however. “What about Nick? Is he coming?”

“Nick doesn’t feel good,” Sabrina told her, because it was the truth, all things considered. “He’s going to stay here and rest.”

“Okay,” Amalia shrugged.

Outside, Sabrina strapped Amalia into the backseat of her small sedan, recognizing she really should be in a car seat of some sort, but she didn’t have many options at the moment. She pulled away from the curb, listening intently as Amalia pondered what games this “Amber” person might want to play and if Hilda might have cupcakes. If Hilda didn’t already have cupcakes, Sabrina had a feeling they would appear on the table by dinner.

“If Hilda has cupcakes, maybe we should bring Nick one,” Amalia continued. “It might make him feel better. Cupcakes make me feel better.”

“A cupcake might help,” Sabrina agreed.

Except she knew it wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t help her, either.


“I’m skeptical.”

“Of?” Sabrina asked. She picked up her cup of tea and sipped to buy herself time for the inquisition she knew was coming.

“You bought Amalia here for a break?”

“Her parents just died,” Sabrina reminded her aunt. “I knew she would have fun here.”

“She just told me Nick was sick,” Zelda informed her, her voice ripe with suspicion.

“Sick?” Hilda repeated as she stirred cupcake batter. As Sabrina had expected, Hilda had jumped right to the kitchen when Amalia asked if she had any cupcakes. She had promised the child she could help her decorate them when they cooled. “On top of everything else?”

“He’s not sick,” Sabrina admitted, knowing she couldn’t lie. She also couldn’t tell the whole truth. Not to her aunts. “He’s drunk and he’s not in a good headspace.”

“So, you took his little sister and left him alone?” Zelda clarified.

“Amalia doesn’t need to be around him right now,” she said. “Neither do I.” She sipped her tea again. “I don’t want to be around him.”

His words had hurt. They came from a place of grief and alcohol, but they landed on a raw part of her that struggled with her feelings for Nick, feelings she didn’t quite know how to identify, feelings she had been trying to move on from until Melvin’s call the night before. It hurt, too, to be propositioned the way she had, for him to be so vulgar. He was a lot of things and he had certainly said filthy things to her in the midst of sex, but he had never, not once, been so crude. She didn’t like it.

“So, something more than Nicholas having a bit too much to drink happened,” Zelda surmised.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she shook her head.

“Sabrina!” Amalia ran into the kitchen. “Come play Candy Land! Amber found it!” Zelda snorted at Amalia’s way of saying Ambrose’s name. “Zelda, you too!” She looked at Hilda. “You can play, too, Hilda. But if you want to make the cupcakes instead, that’s okay.”

Hilda chuckled in amusement. Despite the circumstances, the little girl had brightened their moods. She had been quiet at first, solemn. She still looked a little sad, but they had all pitched in to make sure she was well-cared for while in their home and she had come around, resilient as ever as children tended to be.

“Thank you, love,” Hilda said, “but I think I’ll finish these cupcakes, that way they can cool and after dinner, be ready for us to decorate them.”

“Good idea,” Amalia nodded, drawing another round of soft laughter from the adults. She turned solemn once more. “My mommy said we should tell people when they have good ideas.” Her eyes were big and round. “But she died yesterday.”

“Oh, sweet girl,” Zelda breathed out.

“Your mommy taught you a lot of things, didn’t she?” Sabrina asked, springing into action. “Like how to be kind to people.”

“She taught me how to play Candy Land, too,” Amalia said with a small smile.

“Did she now?” Sabrina asked with a raised eyebrow. “Well, Amalia, you are going to have to show me. I happen to be very good at Candy Land.”

“So am I,” Amalia informed her. She grabbed Sabrina’s hand. “Let’s go.”

“Are you joining us, Zelda?” Sabrina asked as Amalia led her from the room. Zelda appeared to hesitate, but Sabrina knew it was all a show.

“I suppose I have nothing better to do than play a silly child’s game,” she said as though she were doing them all a favor by agreeing to play. “I’ll take the red figurine, if you don’t mine. It’s my lucky color.”

They played two rounds of Candy Land, Amalia winning one round, Zelda the other. Even as she played with her family and Amalia, Sabrina’s thoughts wandered to Nick. The anger had ebbed and been replaced with worry. He was drunk when she left and showed no signs of slowing down his intake. She waffled throughout the dinner Hilda had intended to take to Nick and Amalia but now served in her own home as to whether she should check on him, at the very least make sure he hadn’t choked on his own vomit, no matter how upset with him she was.

She stepped outside when dinner – chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes at Amalia’s request – was cleaned up and dialed Melvin, deciding to go the middle ground – check on him, but have someone else do it for her.

“Sabrina, hey. How is he?”

“I was calling to see if you would find out,” she admitted.

“I thought you were still with him?” Melvin wondered. “I almost stopped by, but thought maybe he needed some time, you know, with Amalia and all…”

“I was with him,” she leaned against the railing. “He took a turn though, got drunk and angry. He said some things… Amalia didn’t need to be there. I brought her to my aunts. She’s okay, distracted enough from everything that’s going on. I’m planning to stay here with her tonight, but my anger at Nick has worn off. Now I’m just worried...”

“He’s at his parents?” Melvin asked. “I’m at home and he’s not here.”

“That’s where I left him,” Sabrina confirmed. “I hope he’s still there. He has no business getting behind the wheel of vehicle.”

“I’ll go check on him. I’ll leave now.”

“Thanks, Melvin,” she sighed. “Let me know how he is?”

“I will,” he promised. “What did he say?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she shook her head, not wanting to repeat his words. “He may or may not remember it in the morning anyway.”

She wouldn’t forget, even if he did.

“I’ll call soon,” Melvin promised.

She went back inside and joined Amalia in decorating cupcakes.

“I like this house,” Amalia said while messily frosting a cupcake. The kitchen was a wreck, sprinkles and candies everywhere, but Amalia had all four Spellmans wrapped around her pinkie. “It’s fun here.”

“That’s because cool people live here,” Ambrose said. “Sabrina used to live here too.”

“You did?” Amalia asked.

“I did,” Sabrina confirmed. “You and I are going to sleep in my old bedroom tonight.”

“My bedroom used to be Nick’s,” she told them. “Mommy told me so.”

“What does your bedroom look like, dear?” Hilda asked, carefully navigating the subject of her mother.

“It’s a princess room. Mommy decorated it. Daddy said it was too much pink, but we like it. Me and Mommy, I mean.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Who is gonna sleep in my mommy and daddy’s room now?”

None of them had a good answer.

“Say, I know we’re icing cupcakes, but Sabrina mentioned making s’mores,” Ambrose said, seeking to change the subject. “How about I go start a fire while you finish up in here?”

“Yeah! I forgot s’mores!” Amalia’s mood had shifted right back to happy go lucky. “Can we do that?”

“We’re going to have you on such a sugar high,” Ambrose said with amusement. “One fire, coming right up.”

They finished decorating the cupcakes and Hilda allowed Amalia to take one outside with her to make s’mores. She insisted on taking one to Ambrose, too, choosing one absolutely covered with gummy candy for him. Sabrina’s phone lit up with a call from Melvin.

“I have to take this,” she told her aunts. “I’ll be there in a minute. Keep an eye on Amalia?”

“Of course.” Hilda had her by the hand, the pair already thick as thieves. Sabrina stepped to the corner of the back porch as her aunts filed into the yard.

“Melvin?”

“He’s a bottle of bourbon in,” he reported. “The only reason he hasn’t opened another is that he’s too drunk to unscrew it. He’s tried, though. Twice, just since I’ve been here. I can’t pry it out of his hands, but I don’t think he’s going to get it open before he passes out.”

“Is he still in his father’s study?”

“He is. He’s a disaster, Sabrina. He’s alternating between being listless and rambling about stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Such as?”

“Custody? Telling women what they want to hear? You apparently turning him down?”

“Sounds about right,” Sabrina sighed. “His parents’ lawyer stopped by today. Nick is the executor of their estate and Amalia’s next of kin.”

“Making him her legal guardian,” Melvin understood. “Who in their right mind would give Nick custody of Amalia?”

“Please don’t say that where he can hear you,” Sabrina nearly begged. “He was talking about signing her over to his aunt and uncle out west. He can’t even remember where they live, said he didn’t like them, but in that moment, I think he really meant it.”

“He’s her brother,” Melvin said, clearly conflicted. “But – he’s Nick. Why do you think I still live with him? I mean, he’s a good roommate as far as paying his part of the bills on time, that sort of thing, but it's a good morning when I don’t have to pound on his door because he’s sleeping through his alarm. When I leave before him, I wake him up, even if I know he’s going to fall back asleep, because at least he won’t be so deep in sleep he doesn’t hear his alarm. I don’t know that he can take care of himself without some level of supervision, let alone a child.”

“It’s an awful situation,” Sabrina acknowledged. “I hate to ask, Melvin, but he shouldn’t be alone and I don’t want to be around him right now, especially with Amalia…”

“I’ll stay,” Melvin assured her. “I guess it’s my turn, so to speak. What’s the rambling about telling women what they want to hear? So I know what I’m getting into?”

“Long story short, he said he tells women what they want to hear – and that it worked on me every time. He said some vulgar things, propositioned me. He wasn’t himself, but all the same…”

“That douche,” Melvin commented. “I’m sorry, Sabrina. I know he’s drunk and upset, but that’s no excuse for him to talk to you like that.”

“No, it’s not,” she agreed with a heavy sigh. “Call if you need anything.”

She hung up and took a breath. She could see Amalia through the window, standing close to Ambrose as he squatted beside her and helped her steady a long stick with a marshmallow on it. She looked positively delighted and Sabrina had to blink back tears. The child had lost her parents and was now the charge of a brother that couldn’t take care of himself, let alone her.

Fate was cruel.

“Sabrina!” Amalia called, spying her. “Come on! I’ll make you a marshmallow! Amber showed me how!”

“Coming!” she called back.

She took another breath and put on a fake smile. Amalia’s brother might not be able to pull himself together. But she could – if only on the outside.


Nick was aware of his hangover before his eyes fully opened. He groaned and brought an arm across his eyes. It had been a long time since he took alcohol this far. His college graduation had been the last time he had gotten this blackout drunk. Not even his reunion with his frat brothers last fall had gone this far, even if they had all staggered back to their hotel rooms as the sun came up and shown up to suffer through an alumni breakfast a few hours later with massive headaches and dry mouths.

He took several minutes to pull himself together enough to sit upright. He was still in his father’s study. Reality started to sneak in around the edges of his pounding headache. He shoved it away for the moment, not ready to deal with it. He moved himself to a standing position, winced as his temples throbbed and the room spun. When he felt steady enough, he navigated out to the half bathroom in the hallway where he emptied his bladder and splashed water on his face. He avoided looking at himself in the mirror. In need of Tylenol and water, he made it down the hall to the kitchen.

He stopped in his tracks.

“Melvin?”

“Nick,” Melvin replied from where he sat at the kitchen island, eating his way through a bowl of cereal. “Nice of you to join me. I was going to give you another half hour to sleep it off, then I was going to set off a bomb or something to wake you up.” He surveyed Nick. “You look like shit. But if it’s any consolation, you probably feel worse than you look.”

“When did you get here?” Nick moved into the kitchen and went straight for a glass. He filled it at the tap.

“Last night, around dinnertime. You were well past drunk by then, so I’m not surprised you don’t remember.”

Nick chugged back the water, recognizing the annoyance in Melvin’s voice. He refilled the glass and found the Tylenol his mother kept on a top shelf of a cabinet. He popped two pills, then leaned on the island across from Melvin. Melvin looked at him expectantly.

“What?” he asked after a few moments.

“Do you remember anything from yesterday?” Melvin prompted. “Like, anything at all?”

“My parents are dead,” Nick stated. “Hard to forget that, Melvin.” His eyes widened. “Where’s Amalia?” He made to go search the house for her, feeling an odd sort of panic that he once again didn’t know where his sister was.

“Sit down, Scratch.” He did as Melvin directed without much thought. “Amalia is at the Spellmans.” Nick frowned in confusion.

“Why is she at the Spellmans?”

Melvin looked dumbstruck.

“Seriously, Nick?”

“Things are a little hazy,” he admitted. “Mom and Dad’s lawyer was here. He told me they named me as the executor of their estate and Amalia’s guardian. I opened a bottle of bourbon and… well, it’s pretty blank after that.”

Melvin wanted to bang his head against the expensive marble countertop.

“Shit, it’s Monday,” Nick suddenly realized. “I’m supposed to be at school. I didn’t get a substitute…”

“Sabrina took care of it,” Melvin informed him. “All of Greendale knows about your parents by now and no one expected you to stand in front of a classroom today, but she still took care of telling the right people, making sure you have a substitute.”

“I guess she’s at work?” Nick asked.

“Where else would she be on a Monday morning?” Melvin countered.

“So that’s why Amalia is at the Spellmans,” Nick reasoned. “Because Sabrina can’t take her with her to school…”

Melvin lost all patience.

“Amalia is at the Spellmans because she and Sabrina spent the night there last night,” he informed Nick. “You were too drunk – too belligerent, from what I understand – for to stay here. While I think Amalia was spared the worst of it, you will be lucky if Sabrina ever speaks to you again.”

Nick’s stomach churned.

“What do you mean?”

A sense of dread settled in the pit of his stomach. Something tugged at the back of his memory, but he couldn’t quite pull it to the forefront.

“I’m not entirely sure what you said to her, or the context in which it was said, but apparently you told her something about telling women what they want to hear and how it worked on her every time. There was something about you propositioning her and sending Amalia away to an aunt on the west coast, too.”

Everything came crashing back to him in stunning technicolor. The words he had said, the thoughts he had…

“Oh God…”

Panic rose in his chest. His stomach churned.

“Oh, God…”

He ran for the back porch. He barely made it to the railing before he was vomiting. There was little on his stomach – he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day – but anything he did have in him came out. He folded his arms on the railing and dropped his forehead to them when he was empty, breathing hard, the world spinning fast, his stomach tumbling over and over itself.

Melvin was right.

Sabrina would likely never talk to him again. Not after what he had said, how he had talked to her. He would have never said those things, not in his right mind. That didn’t make what he had done okay though. She hadn’t deserved his words.

He had to try though. He had to try to get her to talk to him. He had to try to make things right. There was no way he could get through this without her.

He pulled himself out of his desperate reverie and went back inside to face Melvin who, while mad at him, would at least listen to him.

“I have to talk to her,” he said. “I have to apologize…” His mind raced. “I need to get Amalia, too. God, the Spellmans are going to kill me…”

“Sabrina is at school and Amalia is being taken care of,” Melvin said. “Neither of them are your concern right now…”

“They are both my concern,” Nick interjected. “I fucked up, Melvin…”

“You did.” Melvin cut him no slack. “But it’s not going to win you any favors to show up at Baxter High in the middle of the school day to beg forgiveness and not in the least because you also happen to work there. That’s the last place you need to go to make a scene, because I’m fairly certain whatever conversation you have with Sabrina next will likely be a scene. You have other things you need to take care of right now and you need to do them while Amalia is in someone else’s care because she’s four freaking years old and needs someone to be an adult. Right now, the adults are the Spellman sisters. They will take care of her today.”

Nick just looked at him. He was right in the fact that showing up at the school right now probably wasn’t in his best interest. But he thought he did need to pick up Amalia. She was his responsibility now. She should be with him. Melvin sighed in frustration.

“Nick, you have to plan your parents’ funeral.” He was as gentle as he could be in the delivery, but he still saw the pain in his friend’s features. “Their bodies are still in the hospital morgue. You need to sign papers to release them to wherever they’re going…”

“The Spellman Mortuary,” he said automatically. There was one other funeral home in town, but there was no one else he would trust with his parents.

“Fine. But you have to sign the papers to make that happen. You have to make the arrangements. I imagine there are quite a few things you need to do today that don’t involve trying to convince Sabrina you aren’t a total asshole. You definitely don’t need to take a four-year-old along with you. Amalia is too little to see her parents in a hospital morgue, to be able to decide what casket they should be buried in.”

Nick said nothing. Melvin was right again. He didn’t want to face reality, but he couldn’t leave his parents in the morgue.

“Nick, you’re one of my best friends,” Melvin said in a tone so serious Nick wouldn’t have believed it were Melvin speaking if he hadn’t been sitting right in front of him. “But you have to grow up. You have needed to for a while, but you don’t have much of a choice now. You have some hard decisions to make. You have a little sister to think of. For once in your life, you need to think of someone besides yourself.”

Defeated, Nick sat down at the island, still quiet, still in his head. He reasoned he should eat something, but he just couldn’t. He inhaled and exhaled, trying to choose a next step. He found he couldn’t without Sabrina there to tell him what to do.

“Go take a shower,” Melvin supplied as though he could read his mind. “Clean yourself up. Literally and figuratively. You stink and you really do look like shit.”

“I should go home,” Nick nodded. “Shower, get some clothes.”

“Not a bad plan,” Melvin agreed. He stood and busied himself with rinsing his few dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. Nick had to ask.

“How mad is Sabrina?”

Melvin turned, leaned against the counter, and crossed his arms.

“I hope the last time you screwed her was good,” he said bluntly. “Because I don’t know that you’ll ever get her in your bed again.”

“I don’t care about that,” he said, because in the moment, he didn’t. He wasn’t concerned about sex or getting Sabrina into his bed. He was concerned about her. He needed her. “I can’t do this without her…”

It was a moment of weakness, the first time he confessed to someone – even himself – that she was more to him than what it appeared. His father had known what he didn’t all along. He was only just starting to figure it out, but his feelings for her were deeper than good sex. It was a hell of a time for him to put the pieces together, but she was as integral to his life as breathing. That’s why it had been so hard for him in the week she hadn’t talked to him – she hadn’t been there.

“Sabrina won’t abandon Amalia,” Melvin said with certainty. He had known Sabrina his entire life. She wouldn’t let the child suffer because of her tumultuous relationship with Nick. “But I think you’re on your own.”

Nick felt sick again.

“I’m going to go home,” Melvin said. “I guess I’ll see you there?”

“I’ll be there shortly,” Nick nodded.

Melvin left without further comment.

Nick sat at the island for several minutes, trying to decide on a plan of attack, how to approach his day, get all the awful things out of the way before the school day ended and he could try to talk to Sabrina. After a while, he gave up and went back to the study in search of his phone and keys. Both were laying on the trunk that doubled as a coffee table. He scanned the dozens of texts, some from people he didn’t even know expressing their condolences, searching for Sabrina’s name. He found it, but there weren’t any new texts from her, just the last one he had sent her from Friday evening, asking her if she would meet him somewhere to talk. She hadn’t responded. He clicked on her name.

I messed up…

He deleted the text.

I’m so sorry…

He deleted that as well.

I didn’t mean…

He pocketed the phone. He couldn’t apologize over text. He had to face her.

He sighed as he picked up his keys.

He had to face everything.


“I think that’s everything,” Ambrose sat back in his chair. “Any questions?”

“None you can answer.” Nick rubbed his temple, his headache still present, but he didn’t think it was from the bourbon now. He had spent his day making hard decisions and he was mentally and physically drained. This would easily go down as one of the worst days of his life. “Can I go head and pay for everything? Get it over with?”

“Sure.” Ambrose wrote down the large total on a sticky note and passed it to Nick. He watched him take a checkbook from the inside of his jacket and write out a check. He didn’t especially like Nicholas Scratch, given how he used his cousin, but he felt compassion for him. He had spent the last two hours choosing caskets and trying his best to plan a service worthy of his parents. The only bright spot as far as Ambrose could come up with was that Scratch didn’t have to worry about the price tag of a funeral like many of his clients. He accepted the check Nick slid across the table. “We’ll do them justice, Nick. I know it’s hard, but we’ll honor them.”

“I know,” Nick nodded. “Thank you, Ambrose. For everything.” He raised his eyes to meet his, wondering just how much he knew. “For helping with Amalia last night and this morning.”

“Your little sister is a great kid, Scratch.” Ambrose knew more had happened between Nick and Sabrina than just Nick having too much to drink, but it wasn’t his place, nor was it the time, to press the matter. “Remember that when things get tough.”

“Is she upstairs? I should take her home…”

“Hilda took her to meet Sabrina at cheerleading practice,” Ambrose said. “I’m supposed to tell you you can pick her up from there.”

Nick checked the time.

“I should get going then. Thank you again, Ambrose. If there are any other expenses or anything like that…”

“Your parents are in good hands,” he replied. He hated this part of his job, working with people he knew well. He liked the Scratches, minus their son. But it only inspired him to make sure their memories were honored to the best of his ability. “We’ll take care of them.”

The drive to Baxter High went far too quick for Nick’s liking. He had used the few quiet moments he had that day, in the shower and then driving from one appointment to the next, to figure out what to say to Sabrina. So far, he had come up blank. He had to rely on whatever he came up with on the spot to make things better.

Cheer practice had just wrapped up when he arrived. Amalia was with Sabrina, holding a pair of red and gold pom poms and watching Sabrina’s every move. Sabrina herself looked perfect, he thought, in another pair of leggings and a pullover to ward off the early fall chill. He approached them with trepidation. Amalia saw him first.

“Hi Nick!”

He was surprised when she ran to him, having expected her to ignore him the way she usually did. He stooped to meet her and pulled her into a bear hug. It was another surprise, how much sudden comfort he found in the child.

“Hi, Mally. Amalia,” he corrected quickly. He hugged her tighter. “Have you had fun today?”

“Sabrina let me cheer,” she reported. “I want to be a cheerleader, Nick.”

“Okay,” he agreed. “You can be whatever you want.”

“Hilda made pancakes for breakfast,” she continued. “And Amber taught me how to play Go Fish. Oh, and Zelda and I went on a walk and picked flowers.”

“Sounds like a good day.” He still had her in a hug. He didn’t want to let her go, but she started to wiggle. “You ready to go home?”

“Can I play cheerleader for a few more minutes?” she countered. “Please, Nick?”

“I do need to talk to Sabrina,” he agreed, aware of Sabrina cautiously approaching them. “You can play while we talk.” She made to pull away and rush back to her pom poms, but he stopped her. “Amalia?”

“What?” she asked impatiently.

“I’m really sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” she asked innocently, naive to her big brother’s behavior the day before. He smiled sadly, felt tears sting at his eyes as he thought about how unfair it all was, but how thankful he was that she still remained innocent in it all.

“Everything,” he said with a shake of his head. “I love you, Amalia. You know that, right?”

“I love you too,” she said with a confidence that only a four year old could muster. “You’re my brother, so I have to.”

With that, she skipped off. He let her. He braced himself with a breath and stood to face Sabrina who had stopped several feet away, her arms crossed over her, her entire body closed off to him. He didn’t blame her. His hands shook at his sides, whether from nerves or low blood sugar from not eating all day, he didn’t know. He put them in his pockets to try and steady them.

“Sabrina…” He took another breath. “I have been trying to figure out what to say, how to apologize, all day. I’m so sorry for what I said yesterday – for all of it. I would never… I didn’t mean…”

The words still wouldn’t come.

“I know the last couple of days have been hard,” she said. “I don’t want to take away from that. You’re allowed to be a jerk right now. But you took it too far yesterday, Nick.”

“I know,” he nodded. “I am so sorry, Sabrina. Bill overwhelmed me and I didn’t know how to process it all. I chose poorly.”

“You’re lucky Amalia didn’t hear anything you said. She’s trying to comprehend that her parents are gone. She doesn’t need to hear her brother say he doesn’t want her.”

“I do want her,” he said with certainty. He had known it before he started drinking, was even more sure of that fact now. There was absolutely no way he could send Amalia to live with his aunt and uncle. “I’m signing the custody papers tomorrow morning. Bill is having them drawn up and will bring them over. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I can’t… She’s all I’ve got.”

The now familiar sense of panic started to bubble again.

“And you’re all she’s got,” Sabrina reminded him. “Don’t forget that.”

“She has you,” Nick countered.

“I’m not her family,” Sabrina shook her head. “I care about her – I think after last night, all the Spellmans do – but we’re not her family, Nick. You are.”

“Will you come back to my parents’ house with us?” he nearly begged. “We can have dinner and once Amalia is in bed, we can talk.”

“No,” Sabrina shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Sabrina...”

“No,” she said more sternly. “I can’t do this for you. If you’re going to step into the role of her guardian, you have to figure things out.”

“I know,” he nodded, because he did. “But you and I need to talk…”

Sabrina looked at him for a long moment. He waited, anxiety filling him as he prepared himself to hear whatever she was going to say. Instinct told him he wasn’t going to like it.

“I was supposed to go on a date on Wednesday.” Something in his stomach clenched and didn’t let go. “I canceled. I told him my friend’s parents just died and he needed me.”

“I do,” Nick seized his opportunity. “Please, Sabrina…”

“But I intend to reschedule.” He felt like someone had sucked all the oxygen from the air around him. This was the last thing he needed. If he were honest, it was the last thing he expected. “That’s why I was distancing myself from you last week. I realized that no matter what I want or what I feel, I am doing myself an incredible injustice by waiting around, hoping you do, letting you use me for sex whenever you feel like it… “

“Sabrina…”

He stepped forward, intending to pull her to him, to hold her until he figured out what to say, until she figured out she didn’t want to go on a date with whoever this other person was. She took a step backward.

“No, Nick. I know you’re hurting right now. I know that your world has been completely rocked. I will be there for Amalia. I’ll be there for you, too. As a friend. But I can’t keep letting you lead me on. I can’t keep being friends with benefits or whatever we are.”

“You know we’re more than friends.”

Another first for the day. He couldn’t pinpoint when, but at some point, Sabrina had become so much more to him than just a warm body. He hated himself for not figuring it out sooner.

“I don’t know if we’re even friends,” she said honestly. “It’s only ever been about sex for you.”

“That’s not…” He faltered. It wasn’t just sex, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on right now to prove that. His actions – all the times he had called her in the middle of the night, then was gone by morning, the way he took her for granted – all stacked against him in his quest to prove to her she was more than his friend.

“Take Amalia home, Nick,” Sabrina said. “Make dinner, spend some time with her, put her to bed at a decent hour. She has a ragdoll she carries around named Annie. Make sure she has it when you put her to bed. Don’t give her a lot of sugar, or she’ll be up all night, like she was last night. Hilda let her take a nap today, but made sure it was short so she’ll sleep better tonight. There should be plenty of food at your parents’ house. Amalia is a picky eater, so keep it simple. Kid friendly food. If there isn’t anything the neighbors dropped off that she’ll eat, there is plenty of stuff in the freezer and pantry. And she needs a car seat. She can’t keep riding around in vehicles without one. She’s too little. I’m sure there’s one in your dad’s car.”

“Please, Sabrina,” Nick begged, overwhelmed by everything she had said and by the fact that she was pushing him away. “Come back to my parents. Talk to me.”

“No, Nick.” She was steadfast. This was the right thing to do, even if she was crumbling on the inside. He didn’t need to worry about her. He needed to focus on himself, on Amalia. “Whatever there is or isn’t between us isn’t what you need to be worried about now. That little girl is your priority.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admitted. “All I know is that I have to take care of her…” He swallowed back a ball of emotions. “She’s all I’ve got.” He had thought those words all day, said them twice in the few minutes he had been with Sabrina. Amalia was all he had left, and it wrecked him.

He had thought, maybe, he had Sabrina, too. But it seemed like that wasn’t the case.

“And you’re all she’s got,” Sabrina agreed again. “Take her home, Nick. Start figuring out what your new normal looks like.” She turned away. He tried to reach for her, stop her, but she had anticipated his movement and kept herself out of reach. “Amalia!” she called. “I have get going. Can I have a goodbye hug?”

Amalia ran to her.

“Am I going with you?” she asked.

“No, sweetheart,” Sabrina stooped to her level. “It’s time for you to go home with your brother. I’ll see you soon though, promise.”

“I have to go with Nick?” she clarified.

“You do,” Sabrina nodded. “He’s going to make you dinner and then you’re going to hang out for a little while before bedtime. But, why don’t you take those pom poms home with you? You can practice what you learned today.”

“Can I come to cheer again?”

“Of course,” Sabrina said. “Be good for Nick, okay? And cut him some slack. He might not know exactly what he’s doing, but he’s trying really hard.”

Nick had to look away so Amalia wouldn’t see the tears that sprang to his eyes. Even if she were mad at him, even if he had hurt her, Sabrina was still giving him grace, still trying to help. He heard that stupid voice again that reminded him he didn’t deserve her. He had to agree with it.

“I’ll be good,” Amalia nodded. “Where is my backpack? Annie is in it.”

“Your backpack is right over there,” Sabrina pointed to the edge of the field where her own bag was. “I had a lot of fun with you last night.”

“I want to spend the night there again,” Amalia declared. “Hilda and Zelda and Amber are fun.”

“We’ll have another sleepover with them,” Sabrina assured her. “Go get your bag, okay?”

Amalia did as she was instructed.

“I know what you’re going to say, but I have to ask, one more time,” Nick came to stand beside her. “Please, come with us.”

“No, Nick.”

It was the last thing she said to him.

She made sure Amalia was in the truck and buckled in, then got in her own car and drove away. Nick got behind the wheel and just sat there, staring out the windshield, feeling like his entire world had somehow fallen apart a second time over in the span of two days. The ache in his chest was the kind no medicine could heal.

“Are we gonna go?” Amalia asked from the backseat with an air of impatience.

“Yes,” Nick agreed, coming out of his reverie. “We’re going.”

He put the truck in drive and headed towards his parents’ home.

Without Sabrina.


“The end.” He closed the book and dropped it to the floor. “How was that?”

“I love Fancy Nancy,,” she sighed. Nick kept his thoughts on the overly glittery and pink book to himself. “Nick?”

“We’re not reading another book,” he stated. “We’ve read two. You need to go to bed.”

“I wasn’t gonna ask,” she retorted with enough sass that he had to fight not to smile. She reminded him a bit of himself right then. “Where am I gonna live now?”

He frowned.

“What do you mean, where are you going to live? You live here…”

“But Mommy and Daddy died,” she said. “I can’t live by myself. I’m too little. I don’t want to live by myself.” There was a hint of panic in her voice.

“You’re not going to live by yourself. I’m going to live here too.” He had realized that when he went home to shower and change clothes. He could no longer live with Melvin. He had to move into his parents’ house where he could take care of Amalia. “How does that sound?”

“Where are you gonna sleep?”

“Well, I guess I’ll take the guest room.”

He couldn’t bring himself to go into his parents’ room. He needed to. He needed to pick out outfits to bury them in and bring them to Ambrose the next day. But he just didn’t know if he could do it.

Except, he had to.

Doing things he didn’t know if he could do seemed to be the order of the day these last few days.

“Mommy said this used to be your room.”

“It was,” Nick confirmed. “Then I came back from studying abroad in Spain and there was this tiny baldheaded baby named Amalia sleeping in it.” She giggled a bit which made hm smile just a little. “It looked a lot different than when I left.”

“Where is Spain?” she asked.

“A long way from here. You have to fly there. I’ll show you pictures sometime.”

“Now?” she asked hopefully.

“Nice try. It’s bedtime, Amalia.”

“What did this room look like when you lived in it?” she pressed.

“It was a lot less pink,” he informed her.

“Tell me about it,” she requested. She yawned. He hoped that was a good sign. He had been trying to get her into bed for a half hour, but it she was a champion at fighting sleep.

“Well, the walls were navy,” he remembered. “I had posters of my favorite sports teams all around. A lot of books.”

“I have a lot of books,” Amalia supplied.

“You do,” Nick agreed. “Do you like to read?”

“I don’t know how to read. I want to learn.”

“I’ll teach you,” he promised.

“I know some words,” she offered. “Like ‘cat’ and ‘dog.’ Mommy and Daddy were teaching me. Daddy has flashcards for me.”

“I’ll help you learn,” Nick said again. That was one thing he knew he could do. He could teach his sister how to read. “Now, do you have Annie?” She lifted the doll up so he could see. He pushed himself upright and stood. “Okay. I’m going downstairs for a while, and then I’ll be in the guest room across the hall. Call for me if you need anything, okay?”

“Mommy and Daddy use that.” She pointed to a monitor on her nightstand. “And don’t forget to turn on my nightlight.”

“Where’s the other part of this?” he asked, pointing to the monitor.

“How am I supposed to know?” Amalia countered.

“Fair enough,” Nick sighed. He flipped on the monitor with the intention of finding the receiving half of it. He had no doubt it was some high-end piece that likely involved a phone app or something similar. His parents never did anything small. “Door open or closed?”

“Almost closed but not,” she answered.

“Fine. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Okay.” Amalia rolled over and hugged her doll. “Night, Nick.”

His heart tugged a bit. He pulled the blanket around her and leaned down to kiss her hair.

“Good night, Mally.” She didn’t correct him. “I love you, kiddo.”

“Love you, too.”

He flipped on her princess nightlight on the way out and cracked the door. He stood in the hallway for a moment, talking himself into doing what he knew he had to do. He turned to face his parents’ bedroom door at the end of the hallway. He needed to get their clothes, but he also had a feeling the other end of Amalia’s monitor was in there.

He nodded once, to give himself courage, and approached the door.

At first glance, the room was pristine. The bed was made, down to the coordinating pillows. Everything seemed to be in its place, almost as though the room were staged for a real estate listing. But after he had a moment to take it in, the rest of the details came into focus.

His dad’s eyeglasses that he wore for reading were on his nightstand, on top of a book he would never finish. His tablet was there, a water glass still half full perched on a coaster. On his mom’s side of the bed, her Kindle lay with its cover folded open. A photo of him and Amalia sat framed. A digital alarm clock blinked that it was just after ten o’clock. He reasoned they were probably upset with him for letting Amalia stay up so late. The portable receiver for her monitor was there as well. He picked it up and flipped it on. Amalia was already asleep, hugging her doll. He breathed a sigh of relief. He had done something right, at least.

He crossed to their bathroom. While their bedroom was flawless, their bathroom showed signs of life lived. His mom’s side of the sink was littered with makeup and hair products. Her curling iron was there, unplugged, but reminding him that she had curled her hair in the photo she posted before their accident. His dad’s side, too, was peppered with aftershave, a razor, his comb, toothbrush, toothpaste. A set of clothes, the same clothes Nicholas had worn while Nick was there, were piled in the floor. A towel was draped over the shower door.

He backed out of the bathroom, fighting down the urge to run from the room, from the memories it held. He had to do this.

Their walk-in closet was overwhelmingly his mother’s clothes. It smelled like her, her perfume hanging on the fabric. His dad’s pressed shirts hung in a neat row, his pants folded neatly on hangers below them. Nick nodded to himself.

He could dress his dad. Dr. Nicholas Scratch wore the same thing most days, a dress shirt and khakis. He selected a pair of khakis, then turned his attention to his shirts. He ran his hand over several of them, deciding. He chose a sky blue shirt he knew he had seen his father wear. A pair of shoes – again, the choices were simple, brown loafers, tennis shoes, a pair of work boots. He chose the loafers Nicholas wore to work most days.

His mom, however, presented an entirely different problem. Anabelle Scratch was always put together, always fashionable. There were dresses. Skirts. Pants. Jeans. Long sleeves. Short sleeves. Sleeveless tops. The choices were endless. He couldn’t even consider her shoes. He didn’t know where to start.

For a while, he stood in the middle of the closet and debated on calling Sabrina. She might answer. She might think it was about Amalia. Maybe he could text her, see if she would help him, frame it in a way that was strictly, for lack of word, business. Finally, he sighed and shook his head. He needed to be the one to do this. Anabelle was his mother, for one, but it was the responsible thing to do. This one was one more thing he needed to take responsibility for. And deep down, he didn’t want anyone else, even Sabrina, to choose his parents’ final outfits.

In the end, he used advice Ambrose had gently given him when suggesting clothing. He had said to recall something his parents wore in a good memory as inspiration. His last birthday came to mind, when his parents had taken him – and Amalia – to dinner at an upscale restaurant in Hartford. He hadn’t wanted to go. He didn’t much care for high-end dining for one, but he had other plans for how he wanted to spend his birthday. He had just started sleeping with Sabrina and he wanted to go out with his friends, her included, have a few drinks, and take her back to his place. He had no choice in the matter, however, and ultimately had enjoyed the time with his family. He wrapped his hand around his wrist, feeling the expensive watch they had given him as a “quarter century old” gift.

If he took it off and turned it over, he would see “I’ll even answer at 3am” engraved. He had laughed at the time, but now, it made his eyes burn with tears. It was a phrase his mother especially had said often to him, especially when he was in college. It was their reminder to him that no matter how old he got, he could always call them.

Except he couldn’t now.

He found the dress she had worn that night, shoes he thought were close enough. Her jewelry was surprisingly easy to choose. Her diamond studs, a gift from Nicholas. The dainty necklaces she wore day-to-day, both gold and fine, one each with their names – Amalia, Nicholas. The hospital had given him the property that had on them – his dad’s wallet, their wedding bands, his mother’s engagement ring. He considered burying the rings with his parents, but put them in his mom’s jewelry box for safe keeping instead.

Amalia might want them, he told himself. He ignored the thought that maybe the engagement ring, a simple solitaire with a delicate band, would look perfect on Sabrina’s dainty finger as quickly as it popped to mind. She wasn’t even speaking to him, didn’t even think they were friends. It was a stupid thought.

With one foot in front of the other, he went back downstairs, Amalia’s monitor in hand, and cleaned up their dinner plates. Amalia had refused anything he offered, so he ended up making her a can of spaghetti-o’s in the microwave with the promise to himself he would do better with meals after this. He himself had picked at a slice of lasagna, not really tasting what little he had eaten, before giving up, scooping Amalia a bowl of ice cream, and sitting down to watch some dumb animated movie with her.

When he ran out of things to do, he dragged himself back upstairs. He peeked in at Amalia, because it felt like what he was supposed to do, and found her sound asleep. When he finally crawled into the guest bed, he let go of the rope he had gripped to all day, trying to hold himself together.

Tears fell freely.

When he finally drifted into a restless sleep, it was with thoughts not of his parents’ absence, but of Sabrina’s.

Chapter Text

The doorbell echoed throughout the Spellman Mortuary.

“I’ll get it!” Sabrina called. She had arrived early with nothing better to do and was sitting at the dining room table idly trying to finish Zelda’s crossword puzzle from that morning. Hilda and Zelda were elsewhere in the mortuary, getting dressed for the Scratch visitation. Ambrose, too, was busy, him preparing the sanctuary where their caskets were on display.

Sabrina wandered towards the door, vaguely wondering who it might be more than a half hour before the visitation was scheduled to begin. She swung the front door open.

“Nick!”

He looked worse for the wear, right down to the dark circles under his eyes and the clear weight of weariness he carried. At his side, clutching her doll in her crossed arms, stood Amalia in a sleeveless dress and no jacket, her long hair tangled and messy. She had clearly been crying, her cheeks red, her eyes puffy and wet.

“I don’t know how to do her hair,” Nick said by way of greeting. “It was all I could do to get her dressed and then she started screaming…”

He was on the verge of his own break down.

“Come inside,” Sabrina stepped aside to let them in. Amalia came to her and leaned into her legs, but didn’t uncross her arms. Sabrina put a comforting hand on the child’s shoulder.

“She didn’t want to wear anything I got out of her closet,” Nick said, feeling like he had to explain Amalia’s disheveled state. “I told her it was too cold to not have long sleeves or a jacket, but she refused and then she got mad because I didn’t know how to put a bow in her hair. I tried to brush it, but it’s all tangled…”

“Okay, we can take care of this,” Sabrina took charge. It was clear Nick had no more fight left in him. “Amalia? You and I are going to go up to my bedroom and I’m going to get the tangles out of your hair. We’ll worry about a bow after that. Okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered in response.

“Nick, take a few minutes to yourself,” she advised. He, too, looked disheveled, his shirt untucked, his hair messy. “Take a few deep breaths and try to calm down. I’ll take care of Amalia.”

“Thank you,” he breathed. “I tried…”

She softened towards him. He was desperate to let her know he had done his best.

“I know,” she nodded. “You did okay, Nick. You really did. There’s a bathroom just down the hall if you want to freshen up.”

“Thank you,” he said again. “I brought this…” He held out a small jacket. Sabrina took it, noted he himself wasn’t wearing a jacket. “I forgot my own.”

She smiled just a bit, as though he were reading her mind.

“You both made it here,” she said gently. “Focus on that.”

With that, she steered Amalia up the stairs.

“Nick is mean,” Amalia told Sabrina once they were in her bedroom, her lip stuck out, her arms still folded over her chest.

“How so?” Sabrina asked. She pulled out a chair at her old vanity that was still in the bedroom. “Have a seat.”

“He wouldn’t let me wear what I wanted to wear,” she informed Sabrina as she climbed onto the chair. She made it sound like Nick had committed a war crime.

“What did you want to wear?” Sabrina asked curiously.

“My Belle dress.”

Sabrina bit her lip to keep from laughing. Nick had been right in not allowing her to wear a dress up gown, but she nearly wished she had been there to witness the argument. Amalia had clearly been a worthy opponent.

“I’m sure you look beautiful in your Belle dress,” Sabrina told her diplomatically. “But this isn’t really a Belle dress occasion. You have to save that for when you go to a very fancy party – or you’re playing pretend in your playroom at home.”

“I don’t want to wear this dress, either.”

“You look very pretty in it,” Sabrina said. It wasn’t the most appropriate dress for the occasion. It was soft pink and sleeveless, more of a dress for spring, not early fall and certainly not a dress for a somber occasion like tonight. Her feet were clad in brown boots that didn’t match her outfit. She at least needed tights and a long sleeve shirt, but Nick had done the best he could. Surely no one would judge him for it. “I’m sure Nick didn’t mean to upset you.”

“He hurt me when he brushed my hair.”

Again, Sabrina saw the truth. Amalia’s hair was long and thick with Nick’s same curls and from what she could tell, it hadn’t been brushed recently. She was sure she wouldn’t be able to untangle it without causing at least a little pain herself.

“Amalia, Nick is a boy,” she chose her words carefully. “Some boys are very good at brushing hair and putting bows in it. But Nick isn’t. He has to learn how to do this sort of thing, and it might take him some time. You have to be patient with him.”

“I hope he learns fast.”

Sabrina snorted back a laugh. Amalia was more like Nicholas Scratch than she or her brother knew. It would likely be a recipe for disaster at some point, but it was also rather amusing. She told Amalia to stay put, went to her bathroom, and scrounged up some leave-in conditioner and a brush. She hadn’t lived with her aunts in years, but she somehow still had a number of products at their house from her various sleepovers.

“Okay, Amalia. I’m going to spray this in your hair to help untangle it, but I have to warn you, brushing out these tangles probably won’t feel very good. I’ll do my very best to be gentle though, okay?”

“Okay,” Amalia nodded.

“Sit still for me.” Sabrina sprayed her hair with the conditioner. There was a tap on the door frame. She looked to find Nick standing there. He had tucked in his shirt and arranged his hair, but he couldn’t cover up his weariness.

“I thought maybe I should watch,” he said awkwardly. “Try to learn…”

Again, her heart went out to him. He really was trying and doing a four-year-old’s hair was about as far outside of his comfort zone as things could get for him.

“Come in.” He said nothing but perched hesitantly in her window seat. “Her hair is long and thick,” Sabrina explained as she worked the tangles through with her fingers, a gentler approach than the brush. “You’ll have to brush it while it’s wet, fresh out of a bath. Make sure to use conditioner – but wash it out well or it will make her hair look greasy. You can buy combs made for wet hair – I bet your mom already has one if you look. You can also buy detanglers or leave in conditioner to help with the tangles. With her loose curls, tangles tend to be that much worse.”

Nick looked terrified.

“If it get really tangled like this again, use one of those, then start detangling by using your fingers, like I’m doing now.”

“She screamed bloody murder when I tried to brush it…” he offered.

“You’ve never had your hair brushed while tangled,” Sabrina said knowingly. “I know the pain. Why do you think my hair is so short?”

“Because it looks good like that?” Nick suggested, not thinking about his comment. He was too tired to think about much more than what was right in front of him. Sabrina felt a weird sort of warmth inside but pushed it down. Nothing had changed in the two days since she had seen him last.

“Ow!” Amalia flinched when Sabrina hit an especially gnarly tangle.

“Sorry,” she apologized. “This is a big one.” She gently worked at the tangle. “She told me she wanted to wear her Belle dress,” she said to Nick.

“I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the cops,” Nick sighed. “My ears are still ringing from her shrieking.”

“You let me wear it yesterday!” Amalia stated, arms back to being crossed, still with her doll in them.

“We never left the house yesterday,” Nick fired back. “We still managed to see all of Greendale though.”

“A lot of visitors?” Sabrina guessed.

“Mostly women, all with covered dishes and stories about my parents,” he confirmed. “I know I should be grateful, but I just wanted to be left alone, especially after the fifth or sixth one dropped by unannounced, but they kept coming. Then my aunt and uncle showed up. They live in Anaheim, by the way. I was incredibly wrong.”

“Are they staying with you?” she asked.

“No, thank God. They got a room at the bed and breakfast. I’d get a room at the bed and breakfast if they stayed with us. I can’t handle them.”

“Things will start to settle down,” she offered. “After tomorrow.”

“After their funeral,” Nick amended. “It’s okay to say it, Sabrina.”

She caught his eyes in the mirror and willed him to be strong. He had to look away. He wanted her to hold him, tell him things would be okay. If he held her eyes too long, he would break down and ask her to do just that.

“It’s going to be okay, Nick,” she said. “Not right away, but it will be.”

“It doesn’t feel like it,” he said. “Absolutely nothing is okay.”

Sabrina focused on Amalia, even as her mind wrestled with her feelings for Nick once again. The urge to comfort him was strong, but for her own self-preservation.

“Okay, Amalia, I’m going to brush your hair now, but remember, it might not feel great – just hang in there with me and know I don’t mean to hurt you. Deal?”

“Deal,” Amalia agreed. Sabrina picked up a brush.

“Start at the ends,” she told Nick. “Work in small sections. As the tangles come out, you’ll be able to brush in longer strokes.” Nick watched her brush Amalia’s hair like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. Amalia winced. “Sorry,” she apologized, but kept brushing.

“So, you’re perfectly calm when Sabrina brushes your hair, but for me you scream like a banshee?” Nick asked Amalia.

“Sabrina is nice,” Amalia informed him. “You are mean. And what’s a banshee?”

“Amalia, didn’t we talk about Nick being mean?” Sabrina asked, interjecting before Nick could respond and make things worse. Begrudgingly, Amalia nodded. “And what did I say?”

“That he’s a boy and doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Nick raised an eyebrow.

“Not exactly,” Sabrina said, even though she didn’t think Amalia was entirely off base. “I said to be patient with him, remember?”

“Yes,” Amalia grumbled. “And that he’s a boy.”

“I did say that,” Sabrina amended, throwing Nick an apologetic look. “But I also said he’s learning, so you have to give him some time.” Amalia winced again. Sabrina kept brushing, knowing she wasn’t hurting the child, not really. “I think you should apologize for getting so upset with him.”

“You do?” Amalia asked. Nick raised both eyebrows in surprise himself.

“I do,” Sabrina nodded. “You have to help each other out. Sometimes that means putting on the dress Nick picked out and not what you want to wear.”

“I’m sorry Nick,” Amalia grumbled.

“It’s okay,” Nick told her. “I’m sorry, too.” He stood and came to Amalia. He squatted in front of her, so he could see her face while Sabrina worked on her hair. “We’ve got a lot to figure out, but we’re going to be okay, Mally. I might need you to help me out sometimes, though, like Sabrina said. I don’t know how to do hair or pick out dresses, but I do know that you probably need long sleeves under that and should have worn your jacket.”

“I’ll wear my jacket when we leave,” she promised. He stood and kissed her forehead. Sabrina tried not to be swayed into Nick’s arms by the sweet gesture. “But what’s a banshee?”

“Another name for a dog,” Nick said, opting for a white lie rather than the truth. It was hard enough to get her into bed without telling her about an evil spirit that warned of death with its howl.

“There,” Sabrina declared. “No more tangles. Did you happen to bring the bow that caused all of this in the first place?”

“No,” Nick and Amalia said at the same time. Amalia looked on the verge of tears once more.

“But I always wear bows,” she said in a near desperate whine. “Mommy said ‘no bow, no go.’ I need a bow!”

“I have a solution,” Sabrina said quickly, working to diffuse the situation before it happened. “See that box over there?” She pointed to an old hat box on a nearby shelf. “That has tons of bows in it from when I was a little girl. You can go pick one out – any one you would like. I’ll put it in your hair and we can all go downstairs.”

Excited by the prospect of rifling through someone else’s bow collection, Amalia leapt from the chair, holding onto Annie with one hand.

“‘No bow, no go,’” Nick repeated. “Fantastic.”

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Sabrina promised. Nick held her eyes for a beat. She couldn’t quite identify the swirl of emotions reflecting back her.

“Thank you,” he said with a nod. “For this. And everything else. I know you’re mad at me…”

“I’m not mad at you,” Sabrina corrected, because she wasn’t, not anymore. Hurt, but not mad. “I just – can’t, Nick.”

“What if I wanted to?” he asked in a soft voice that bordered on pleading. “What if I wanted to put labels on it, stop treating this like it’s a casual thing between friends when we both know it’s not?”

“You have other things you need to prioritize right now,” she told him, tilting her head towards Amalia. “And I have my own stuff to figure out.”

“I’m sorry, Sabrina...”

She wanted to believe him. She wanted to forgive him. But he was lost and vulnerable and she was there, someone he had been able to call up at any time, day or night, when he wanted a release. She couldn’t help but think that that was what this was now – him wanting someone to be there, not really thinking about the consequences of his words. She couldn’t let herself be swept up by him again, not when he was grasping at anything remotely familiar to hold onto in this new world he had found himself the center of. He had to get himself through this and not count on her to tell him what to do. He needed to find himself in the middle of all the chaos. Maybe, when things settled down…

She stopped her thoughts there.

“This is what’s best,” she said quietly. “Please, Nick, focus on Amalia. On yourself. That’s what’s most important right now.”

“I know,” he admitted. He hadn’t quite identified what he felt for Sabrina, but he knew he felt something more than friendship. He knew there were three holes in his heart, two shaped like his parents, one shaped like her. He promised himself he would try to figure out his feelings for her once his parents were buried. “I really am trying, Sabrina. With all of it.”

This she did believe. But his parents had passed four days ago. Of the four, he could only claim two in which he acted with some level of responsibility, maybe three if she gave him the part of the day he hadn’t slept away after his drunken spiel.

“I know you are,” she assured him. “But you’re going to have to keep trying, Nick. And I don’t mean just with me.”

“What about this one?” Amalia asked, producing a bright blue bow, effectively interrupting their conversation just as Nick opened his mouth to reply. It didn’t match, but Sabrina didn’t bother to point it out.

“That one is perfect,” she took the bow from her. “Back to the chair. Let’s finish your hair.”

Nick tried to note how Sabrina brushed Amalia’s hair back, how she artfully clipped the bow in place. It seemed so effortless and yet he was sure his hands wouldn’t move with such assuredness. He had had moments over the last couple of days in which he thought he could do this – he could raise Amalia, get them both through this. But then there were moments like now in which the pendulum swung back in the other direction, reminding him he was woefully unprepared to take care of a small child, let alone a little girl. He couldn’t even figure out how to get the older of the two girls in front of him to talk to him.

“Is she dressed okay?” he asked, suddenly nervous about her appearance and what people might think. “I don’t know much about fashion, but I know her outfit doesn’t exactly match, nor is it what people might deem appropriate for a visitation.”

“She’s fine,” Sabrina soothed. “No one will judge her outfit tonight.”

“They’ll judge me,” Nick said. “I know everyone thinks I have no business raising her.”

“You’re her brother,” Sabrina said again with an authority that gave Nick the smallest boost of confidence. “She’s where she needs to be. I believe that.” She gave Amalia’s hair one last brush and deemed her all set. She asked her to pick up the bows scattered about the floor, then gave her attention back to Nick. “Does she have a dress for tomorrow?”

Nick looked thunderstruck.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t think I saw a black dress…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I need to find something. How late do stores stay open? What size do you think she wears? I don’t think I have ever bought clothes for someone besides myself…”

“I’ll take care of it,” Sabrina said. “I’ll come over tomorrow, before the funeral.’

“Sabrina, I should…”

“You have to take responsibility, Nick,” she cut him off. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t accept help. You’re going to have to ask for help sometimes – and accept it when offered.”

“How am I supposed to know what to do?” he asked. He had asked her for help, asked her to be with him. But she kept pushing back, telling him he had to figure it out, had to navigate this alone. He didn’t understand. “How am I supposed to know when to ask for help when I feel like it’s always ‘figure it out, Nick?’ I don’t know what I’m doing, Sabrina!”

“Tell me what you two did today,” Sabrina countered, pushing past the panicked note she heard in his voice. Nick raised an eyebrow, but shrugged.

“She woke me up by jumping on my bed. It was early – like six-thirty. I tried to get her to go back to sleep but she was hungry so I made her breakfast. Or, well, I poured a bowl of cereal, realized there wasn’t any milk, listened to her complain about that, but I found Pop-Tarts and managed to sell her on those. I let her watch TV while I made some phone calls, tried to take care of a few pieces of paperwork. We had a few more visitors, including my aunt and uncle. I decided if we wanted a few minutes of peace and quiet, we needed to leave, so I took her to Cee’s, picked up lunch to go because I knew if I sat down, I’d have people coming up offering their condolences. We went to the park, ate our lunch, I let her play for a while. Then we went home, we both took baths, and then bow gate broke out.”

“See?” Sabrina asked with a small smile. “You knew what to do – you fed her, entertained her, got her into a bath, got her dressed. You didn’t do too bad, Nick.”

“I fed her Pop-Tarts and chicken nuggets and let her leave the house dressed like that,” he nodded towards Amalia, “without a jacket on and its 45 degrees outside.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Sabrina encouraged. “This is brand new to you, Nick. You’re doing fine, all things considered.” She couldn’t help herself. She squeezed his shoulder. “You don’t have to be perfect.”

“I feel like I do,” he admitted. “Everyone is watching, everyone expects me to mess up.”

“I think a lot of that is in your head,” Sabrina countered. “This is Greendale, Nick. No one is going to expect you to be the perfect guardian overnight.”

“This is Greendale,” Nick repeated. “Everyone knows how big of a screw up I’ve been for the first twenty-five years of my life. Now they pity the history teacher who lost his parents and got stuck with his kid sister who they really feel sorry for because look who she got stuck with.”

“Stop that,” Sabrina chided. “You’re talking yourself down, and that’s not helping.”

He looked at her for a long moment.

“It finally dawns on me that I needed to grow up and hours later, the universe forces my hand, ready or not.” He didn’t offer anything else, but again, Sabrina wondered about the day his parents died, what exactly had transpired between him and his father. She felt like she was missing a large part of the puzzle. “Amalia? We should go downstairs.”

“If you need anything tonight, Nick…”

Again, he looked at her for a moment longer than was necessary.

“I don’t think I’ll get what I need,” he said, his words loaded. He turned his attention to his sister. “Amalia? Can you thank Sabrina for helping with your hair? And the bow?”

“Thank you, Sabrina,” she said sweetly. “You did a good job.”

“Anytime,” Sabrina smiled. “You look beautiful.”

Together, they went downstairs. Nick took Amalia by the hand but looked to Sabrina.

“I’m going to take her in to see them.” His voice shook and again, Sabrina fought her instincts to comfort him. “I think it would be good for her to see them. It’s closed casket otherwise, but I was reading…”

“Do what you think is best,” Sabrina encouraged, touched that he had taken the time to research how to handle death and children. “Take as much time as you need. I’ll stay out here in the entry, keep any early arrivals out of the sanctuary until you’re ready.” Nick could only nod his thanks. She watched him lead Amalia away, her heart in her throat. He disappeared into the sanctuary. A couple of minutes later, Ambrose walked out of it. He looked grieved, more so than he usually did in his role of undertaker.

“This is gut wrenching,” he said by way of greeting. “It’s never easy, this job, but when it’s people you know, two of them at that…”

“It’s awful,” Sabrina agreed. “Nick is barely holding it together.”

“I’ve never been his biggest fan, especially recently,” he gave Sabrina a pointed look. She glared at him. “But this isn’t something I would wish upon anyone. I’m impressed by how composed he has been.”

“You should tell him that,” Sabrina suggested. “Because he’s feeling anything but.”

“Did I hear Amalia?” Zelda came down the staircase.

“There was a hair emergency,” Sabrina explained. “And apparently a fight over her outfit, so we’re not judging.” She gave Zelda a warning look. “She’s not wearing the princess dress up gown she wanted to wear, so we’re calling that a win.”

“Understood,” Zelda nodded. “How is Nicholas?”

“Treading water, at best,” Sabrina answered, wondering how many ways she could frame Nick’s current state of mind. Hilda joined them, but before she could speak Amalia’s shriek filled the air.

“What on earth?” Hilda asked, her hand clutching at her chest. Ambrose made to go to the sanctuary, but Sabrina stopped him.

“Give them a minute. Let Nick have the chance to handle this. He needs this. Trust me.” She firmly believed that Nick needed the chance to soothe Amalia, to prove to himself that he was capable of taking care of her.

The shrieking continued. Hilda chewed her nails. Ambrose bounced in place, his hands deep in his pockets. Zelda fiddled with the pack of cigarettes hidden in the folds of her dress. Sabrina wrapped her arms around herself to stop herself from barging in.

“Mommy! No! I want my Mommy!”

Amalia’s wailing continued with no signs of stopping.

“Wake her up, Nick! Wake her up right now!”

The first guests appeared on the porch. Sabrina couldn’t take it any longer.

“Aunties, keep the guests occupied,” she ordered. “Ambrose, you stay out here, but stay close, in case I need your help.” She left them and pushed through the sanctuary doors.

She stopped in her tracks.

Nick was on his knees between the two coffins, tears pouring as Amalia screamed at him to wake up her mom, to make Daddy get up. He was trying to explain, to reason with her, but neither of them heard the other right then.

“Sabrina!” Amalia broke away and ran to her. Nick slumped, his head on his chest, not bothering to stand. Sabrina’s heart ached for him, but she had to help Amalia first. “Sabrina! Wake my mommy and daddy up! They’re right there in the boxes! Wake them up! Nick won’t do it!”

“Come sit with me.” Sabrina led Amalia to a pew and pulled her into her lap. “First things first. Let’s try to calm down.” Amalia was nearly hyperventilating. “Let’s take some deep breaths, okay? Like this.” She breathed in and out, watched as Amalia mimicked her actions, her small body shaking. She didn’t see Nick doing the same thing, relying on her soothing words to get him through, too. “That’s it.”

“Why won’t they wake up?” Amalia asked quietly when she had settled a bit. “Why won’t Nick just wake them up? He’s bigger than me. He can do it. I tried, but I’m little and Nick told me I couldn’t keep shaking Mommy’s arm.”

“Sweetheart, your parents died.” The bluntness of the statement crushed Sabrina all over again, but honesty was the only thing she could give Amalia. She tried and failed not to picture Amalia in Nick’s arms, trying to shake her dead mother awake. It was a heart wrenching image. “They might look like they’re sleeping, but their souls have left their bodies. They are angels now, watching over you.”

“Angels?” There was a curiosity in the way Amalia said it, a hope that it may well be true.

“I like to think so,” Sabrina nodded. “Did you know my parents died too? When I was a little girl?”

“Little like me?” Amalia asked.

“Little like you,” Sabrina confirmed. There was no point in explaining that she had been even younger. That didn’t make her loss any better or worse than Amalia’s. “My aunts, Hilda and Zelda, took care of me, like Nick is taking care of you. But I think my mom and dad watch over me. They may not be here with me like I want them to be, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still here. I can feel them, right here.” She pointed to Amalia’s heart. “I bet you’ll feel your mommy and daddy there, too. Always.”

“I don’t want them to be dead,” she said, her voice cracking, tears on the brink once more.

“I don’t either,” Sabrina soothed. “But they loved you very much and if it were up to them, they would have never ever left you. I know that you’re sad and that you miss them. But it’s going to be okay. Know why?”

“Why?” she asked in a small voice.

“Because you have Nick.” She looked at him then. He had stood, but he still had tears in his eyes, still looked like he wanted to just give up. “And you and Nick have a lot of people who care about you.”

“Like you?” Amalia asked.

“Like me,” Sabrina confirmed.

She stood and, with Amalia in her arms, walked to Nick. She didn’t say anything, but held an arm out to him. He moved quickly, pulling her to him, wrapping his arms around both of them. She had no idea how much he needed her right then. Just the simple act of hugging her helped him feel calmer than he had felt since the morning Mrs. O’Keefe dropped Amalia off to learn her parents were gone. “It’s going to be okay,” she told them. “I promise.”

It took several minutes for Nick to feel brave enough to pull away.

“I didn’t know what to do.” He felt like that was all he ever said. “I thought I was doing the right thing…”

“I think you did do the right thing,” Sabrina told him. “I think she understands – really understands – now.”

“You knew what to say,” Nick shook his head. “I didn’t.”

“I lost my parents,” she reminded him. “We all grieve differently, but I still understand more than most might.” He could only nod.

“Come here, Amalia.” He took her into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. He hugged her back, just as firmly. “We have to be brave now, okay? Just like we talked about earlier. We have to be as brave as,” he faltered, trying to remember the name of the character he was talking about from the movie they had watched the night before.

“Merida,” Amalia supplied, her voice muffled against his shoulder. “From Brave.

“Merida,” he agreed. “We can do it, can’t we? Be brave together?”

“We can do it,” she agreed. She lifted her head from his shoulder. “I can be brave.”

“I can too,” Nick agreed. He had no choice. “Ready?” Amalia nodded. “Okay.” He blew out a breath and looked back to Sabrina. “Can you tell Ambrose he can close the caskets and open the doors for visitation?”

“Are you sure?” Sabrina asked. “If you want a few more minutes…”

“No,” Nick shook his head. “It’s time.” He had another thought though. “Actually… Could you… Take Amalia? I want to be the one…” He swallowed hard. “I want to close the caskets.” Tears welled in Sabrina’s eyes. “Don’t do that.” He reached out and brushed a tear from her cheek, his touch soft. “I’ve cried enough for both of us today.”

She didn’t trust herself to speak. She reached for Amalia. Nick passed her off to Sabrina and turned to his parents. Sabrina herself started to leave the sanctuary to give Nick some privacy.

“No,” Amalia said, lifting her head from Sabrina’s shoulder. “I want to stay with Nick.” Sabrina looked to Nick for a decision.

“If she wants to,” he nodded. He locked eyes with Sabrina. “If you want to.” She turned back to him, nodded once, let him know she would stay. She couldn’t deny that he looked relieved. Amalia wiggled to be put down. Sabrina did so, but held her hand. “Okay,” Nick breathed.

He hesitated for just a moment before going to his father’s casket. He stood for a moment, took in the man he had always aspired to be.

“I’ll do better,” he said so quietly Sabrina couldn’t hear him. “I promise.”

The lid closed with a resounding snap. He pivoted to his mother and again, took another moment to take in her beautiful face one more time. Ambrose had done a masterful job of hiding the signs of her injuries. He owed him more than a thanks.

“I’ll do my best,” he said. “I’ll take care of Amalia.” He swallowed down the lump in his throat. “I promise.”

Another snap.

He would never see his parents again, alive or dead.

When he turned back to Sabrina and Amalia, they were both crying silent tears. Amalia dropped Sabrina’s hand and ran to him. He stooped to greet her and hugged her to him.

“We have to be brave,” she told him. “Like Merida.”

“Like Merida,” he agreed, hugging her even tighter. He held Amalia’s hand and walked to Sabrina. “I think we’re ready.”

“You are brave, Nick,” she told him. “So brave.”

“This is only the beginning,” he said. “But I made them each a promise.” He looked into her eyes. “And I intend to keep them.”


“Have you seen Nick?”

Sabrina continued moving leftovers into a tupperware container under Hilda’s direction, but gave Melvin her full attention.

“Not in a while,” she realized, answering in the same hushed tone Melvin had used to voice his own question. “Where’s Amalia?”

“In the playroom with her cousin and Ambrose. They’re playing Go Fish or something.” Melvin looked worried. “He’s not doing well, Sabrina. I know that’s obvious, but I’m really worried about him. Last night and today…” Melvin trailed off, but Sabrina felt his worry too.

The mortuary had been packed the night before. For more than two hours, Nick was subjected to a constant stream of mourners, all expressing their condolences, all bringing stories of his parents. Most of Greendale had shown up, but so had many of his father’s colleagues, friends of his mother, people he didn’t know. She had watched from afar as he faltered a little more with each visitor, had intervened when it got to be too much for Amalia and taken her to the kitchen where she fed her dinner and entertained her for a while. Nick had refused to eat, and she found herself wondering if he’d eaten much of anything in the last few days.

And she had wanted to strangle his aunt.

She understood the woman’s sister had just died, but Alice – whatever her last name was, she didn’t much care to find out – was loud, bossy, intrusive, and an all-around awful person, as far as Sabrina was concerned. She was very certain that she knew what was best for all involved and had loudly questioned Nick’s choices in everything from the flowers, which were beautiful, to the caskets, which were as perfect as a casket could be. When she started in on Amalia’s outfit and Nick’s disheveled appearance, Sabrina had interjected herself and informed her she didn’t know what the last few days had been like and could she please take a seat.

Alice probably wanted to strangle her, too.

Alice’s husband wasn’t awful, and their little boy was cute, but she was more than willing to help them pack for their trip back to Anaheim. She would even drive them to the airport. Assuming Nick didn’t murder Alice first as she had been asking too many questions about his plans moving forward and hinting around as to which of her sister’s belongings she thought she should be gifted as soon as their coffins were lowered to the ground.

After the visitation, she had walked with Nick to his father’s SUV – driven because it had a car seat – and once a sleepy Amalia was secured, he had broken down completely, sobbing on her shoulder and holding her tight. She had only been able to hold him, reminded herself that it didn’t change anything while she offered him comforting words. She had ended up following him home to make sure he made it okay, then laid awake exchanging meaningless texts with him until the early morning hours. She had fallen asleep first and woken up to a simple “sleep well.”

“Did you check upstairs?” Sabrina asked.

“Every room,” Melvin confirmed. “Even his parents’ bedroom, which was a little awkward.”

“The study?”

“Checked. I even went down to the basement. He’s not in this house.”

“His truck is here.” She had just seen it, parked on the curb. “So is his father’s SUV.” That was in the garage. She had just come back from taking leftovers to the fridge out there. “I suppose he could have left on foot…”

Her stomach turned with worry. Nick had been in a fog all day. He had looked like a zombie when he opened the door for her that morning, her armed with an outfit for Amalia and breakfast for both of them and had admitted to not sleeping well. He had taken maybe two bites of the bagel she brought him, then disappeared upstairs to take a shower. She hadn’t seen him again until minutes before it was time to leave. She had found him then too, standing in the hallway bathroom, trying to knot his tie with shaky hands. She had tied it for him, tried to convince him to let her drive them to the funeral, but it was something he insisted on doing himself.

He had asked her to sit with them at the funeral, using Amalia as leverage. He didn’t want her alone in the pew – or left with their aunt – when he stood to give a eulogy. She wouldn’t have refused had Amalia not been brought into it. Despite her belief that she needed to keep space between them, she couldn’t quite stay away. He needed her.

Tears burned at her eyes when she thought of his eulogy, how he had stood strong and spoke as confidently as he was capable of, even though she saw his hands gripping the podium to hold himself upright. She had admired his strength, his ability to use words to memorialize his parents so eloquently. He had later lingered at their graveside until she finally managed to be the one to pull him away with a gentle hand on his forearm.

“Can you help Hilda?” she asked Melvin, blinking away her tears. “I’ll look for him.”

She paused outside of the kitchen, debating. Something beyond herself pulled her outside, onto the deck. It was dark out, the porch light not stretching into the yard much past the stairs, but she still saw him, perched on a wooden platform of Amalia’s elaborate play set, his legs swinging. She went back inside and into the study which was blissfully empty where she poured two glasses of bourbon, neat.

“I thought you could use this.”

The dark didn’t hide his tired, swollen, bloodshot eyes. She held a glass out to him.

“You’re pouring me bourbon after the way I acted the last time I had it?” he asked.

“There’s a big difference between a glass of bourbon and a whole bottle of it.” She tilted the glass side to side, indicating he should take it. “I poured myself a glass, too. So you don’t have to drink alone.”

He sighed and took it from her. He watched as she artfully climbed the ladder to reach him, holding her own bourbon. She settled next to him. The small space insured their arms and thighs brushed against one another. The light floral scent he associated with her filled his nostrils, comforted him. He sipped his bourbon.

“I meant to just take a minute,” he said, his voice rough. “But then I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside, face everyone.”

“It’s been a long day,” Sabrina offered. “A long few days. No one can blame you for wanting a few minutes to yourself.” It occurred to her that he may not want her presence either. “I can go back inside…”

“No,” he said a bit too quickly. “No,” he corrected. “Please, stay.” Sabrina responded by clinking her glass with his and taking a sip. Her grimace made him smile just the slightest bit. “Not a bourbon drinker either, huh?”

“It’s not something I frequently partake in,” she agreed, recalling how he had remembered she didn’t like cheap beer. “It’s not all that bad though – it just burns a bit more than I anticipated.”

“You picked the Elijah Craig small batch barrel proof,” Nick said knowingly. “It comes straight from the barrel so it’s uncut – you taste it just like the distillers do. It’s the black pepper finish causing the burn.”

“You know all of that from one sip?” Sabrina asked, impressed.

“My dad taught me how to drink whiskey. He gave me a bottle of Eagle Rare 17 Year for my 21st birthday. I’ve never opened it. He told me to save it for a special occasion.”

“So that would be a good bourbon?” she asked, trying to keep him talking.

“It’s part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. It’s a limited release, hard to get your hands on, wasn’t cheap. I left it here, didn’t take it back to UVA with me as a safety precaution – didn’t want my frat brothers to drink it, or myself to open it one night when I was too blacked out to know the difference. I always assumed he and I would drink some of it on my wedding day, maybe again when I had kids.”

Sabrina was lost for words. Nick had never shown any inclination that he might want so much as a girlfriend, let alone a wife or children. She couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was just her he didn’t see those things with. She had no idea that Nick himself was pondering why he had just said that, realizing it was the truth – he had always assumed someday, his father would be there when he twisted the cap off the bottle to celebrate a major life moment.

“You can drink it in his memory,” she finally said. Nick sighed heavily.

“Is my aunt still in there?” he asked.

“She is…”

“I know she’s my family, but I can’t…”

“She’s a witch,” Sabrina said bluntly. “I’m willing to drive her to the airport myself, just to make sure she gets on a plane headed west.”

Nick chuckled a bit.

“What about Amalia? Is she okay?”

“She was playing GoFish with Ambrose and your cousin. I think it’s fair to warn you that she’s had a lot of sugar. My aunts keep giving her things and I know other people did, too. She did eat her dinner, though. For the most part at least.”

“I’ll give her a pass tonight,” Nick said. “You should be able to eat all the cupcakes you want after your parents’ funeral.”

“What about you?” she prompted. “Did you eat something?”

“I had a plate…”

“Having a plate of food and eating the food on it are not the same.”

“I didn’t eat much,” he admitted. “It’s like my stomach has clenched and it won’t unclench.”

“You didn’t eat breakfast either,” she said knowingly. “We were at the funeral during lunch. I doubt you had dinner last night. You have to eat, Nick.”

“I haven't had much of an appetite,” he confessed. “I haven’t been able to sleep, either. I’m exhausted when I lay down, then I just – lay there. My head goes to all these places and my mind spins out of control. Sometimes I work myself up to a point of feeling like I can’t breathe. I usually give up then, get out of bed, go find something to do. Or not do, depending on how you look at sitting on the couch watching reruns of college bowl games from ten years ago on ESPN Classic.”

“It will get easier,” she promised. “You will find a routine. Each day will be a little bit better than the next.”

He didn’t think. He laced his fingers through hers as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Because to him, it was.

“There’s no way I can thank you for everything you’ve done today. Yesterday. Every day, honestly.” His grip tightened. He decided now was as good of time as any to come clean about everything else. “My dad knew about us.” Sabrina looked at him in surprise. “My mom did, too. Apparently, it was a hot topic of gossip at her book club meetings. Your Aunt Zelda, to quote my dad, loves my mom, doesn’t like me very much. I suppose that’s appropriate.”

“Nick...” She didn’t know what to say, caught entirely off guard by the change in topic. He didn’t seem to hear her.

“Mom asked me if I was seeing anyone at lunch last week,” he shared. “I told her no, which was a lie. I’ve been seeing you for months. She suggested I ask someone I work with on a date, even suggested Dorcas.” Sabrina made a face, a physical manifestation of what she thought Nick with Dorcas. “Then Dad said ‘what about that Spellman girl?’ and both of them were off, telling me how great of an idea that would be, how wonderful you are.”

He gave her a sad, long look.

“I didn’t want to leave you that night. I woke up in your bed and I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to stay, but not because I wanted sex. I just – wasn’t ready to leave you. I’d missed you that weekend. When I got in my truck, I felt guilty. Lonely, even. Then you shut me out and I thought I might lose my mind, trying to get you to talk to me again. It was never – ever – about the lack of sex. I hated not having you to talk to, sit with at lunch, flirt with between classes, after school. That’s why I went to that damned Homecoming meeting – and why I showed up here Saturday afternoon to talk to my dad – because the girl I like wouldn’t talk to me and I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Sabrina looked on in genuine surprise at his admission.

“I tried to swing it as though I were asking for advice on Melvin’s behalf, but Dad called me out, said ‘what I’m hearing is that Sabrina Spellman finally got tired of your shit.’ That’s why he told me off. He said I suck as a person and he listed all the supporting attributes – lazy, no hobbies, no friends outside of Melvin, not a great son or brother, but he really went all in on how I’ve been treating you and he’s right. About all of it, but especially about how I’ve been treating you.

“I left here determined to do better. I figured you wouldn’t speak to me, so I did the next best thing I could think of which was clean my room and cook dinner for myself. I YouTubed how to make spaghetti like you told me to. It was awful, but I did it. I figured it was a step in the right direction and would count for something in the long run. I sat down to grade tests and make a plan for winning you over, but the police knocked on the door.”

His anxiety has skyrocketed during his monologue. He pushed a rough hand through his hair, as though he were angry with himself. Sabrina had no way of knowing he truly was.

“I’ve lost my parents, lost you. You’re going to go on a date with some other guy – probably that Gregory guy – and he’ll treat you better than I ever did and I’ll lose any chance I had at getting you back, showing you I’m capable of being a decent guy. Amalia will grow up on Spaghetti-Os and diner food, probably resent me, and I’ll die alone in this big empty house.”

He was full on panicking now.

“Nick,” Sabrina started, “I don’t know what to say…”

“Say you don’t think I’m a terrible person,” he nearly begged. “Say you can find it in yourself to let me prove it.”

“I don’t think you’re a terrible person,” Sabrina said softly. “I wouldn’t have let you sway me into your bed if I thought you were a terrible person. I wouldn’t be fighting so hard for you to see how capable you are of taking care of Amalia if I thought you were a terrible person.”

“What can I do?” he asked with a desperate tilt to his voice. “What can I do to show you that I want this? That I want us?”

Sabrina took her time forming her response. It wasn’t the one she wanted to give him. It certainly wasn’t the one he wanted to hear. But it was the right one, for both of them, for now. She was sure of that.

“Nick, a relationship is not what you need to focus on right now...”

“Sabrina…”

“Hear me out,” she said gently. “Your life has been flipped on its ear. You woke up on Saturday morning, less than a week ago, with your biggest care being how to get the girl you’ve been sleeping with to talk to you again. By that night, your parents were gone, and you were the guardian of a four-year-old. Your life is entirely different than it was five days ago. You’re not in a place to figure out how to be in a relationship on top of everything else you’re dealing with.”

“I want to…”

He looked so sad she nearly caved, but she knew in her heart this was right. Nick needed to find his footing and figure out his own life. Adding her to the equation was too much. It would end in disaster. She herself needed some time. She had spent the better part of six months sleeping with Nick, fighting her feelings, and hoping against hope that he would change his ways.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Nick, but I need some space to figure things out too.” Still, she tightened her grip on his hand. “I’ve had feelings for you for a long time. I held onto hope that maybe I would be the one to change you…”

“You have,” he interjected. “Can’t you see that, Sabrina? I’m sitting here, asking you for a relationship…”

“You buried your parents today, Nick,” she said gently. “I’m something familiar in this new world of yours where nothing else is the same. No matter how I feel about you, I can’t say yes to a relationship with you right now. You need to figure out what your new normal looks like. You don’t need the added pressure of trying to figure out how to be a boyfriend.”

Nick sighed heavily.

“You think I’m just saying the things you want to hear,” he said. “Or that I don’t really want to be in a relationship, I just want something familiar.”

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “This is hard, but it’s the right thing. For both of us. We both need some time.”

He was quiet for a long time. She didn’t let go of his hand. Her own feelings waged war in her chest, but she held firm.

“You’re going to go on a date with that guy, aren’t you?” he asked after a while. He was resigned to the answer he knew was coming.

“I think I have to,” Sabrina confessed. “I owe myself that.”

“I can’t just cut you out of my life, Sabrina. You’re too important to me. To Amalia.”

“I’m not asking you to,” she shook her head. “I can be your friend…” He cringed at the word. “And I will be there for Amalia. But I can’t be a warm body for you anymore.”

He said nothing.

He didn’t want to admit it, especially not when he had only just realized she was more than, as she put it, a warm body, but she was right. He had a mountain ahead of him in the form of a four-year-old child. He could barely take care of himself, let alone Amalia. He had no idea how to be a boyfriend and this wasn’t the time to figure it out. He could only hope that Sabrina didn’t fall for this guy, that he was the one she turned to when it didn’t work out. He squeezed her hand and let it go.

“Let’s go inside.”

He jumped down from the platform and offered her his hand. She accepted it, allowed him to help her down, their bourbon glasses long forgotten. He dropped her hand as soon as she was on her feet and started for the house.

“Nick…”

Sabrina looked torn. He sighed and turned to her.

“I get it, Sabrina,” he admitted. “I’m a mess. My life is a mess. It was before my parents died, and now it’s a full-on disaster zone. I don’t like it, but I get it.” He tucked a chunk of hair behind her ear. He fought the urge to kiss her red lips, tried not to think about the contrast of her black dress and fair skin. “Even if you have to keep me at a distance, please, just promise me you’ll be around for Amalia.”

“I’m here for Amalia,” she promised. “I’m here for you too, Nick.” She pierced him with a look. “As friends.”

“Friends,” he agreed begrudgingly. He sighed again and looked over his shoulder. “You might be the kind of friend that needs to bring bail money if my aunt starts in on me again.”

“We’ll have to call my aunts for that,” Sabrina quipped. “Because I’ll help hide the body.”

He smiled a bit, in spite of everything. Together, they walked towards the house, both unaware that they were thinking the same thing:

They didn’t really feel over.

Not by a longshot.

Chapter Text

It felt odd, holding someone else’s hand. But there she was, her small hand wrapped in Gregory’s big, callused one, walking down the sidewalk to her door.

It was okay.

Different.

But okay.

He was a much bigger guy than she had realized, too. Tall and well-built, solid and strong. His construction job showed in his physique. Next to him, she felt small, protected, perhaps. That was a different feeling, too, but again, not entirely unpleasant, even if she didn’t feel like she needed protection.

“I enjoyed spending time with you tonight,” he said as they reached her front door. “I’ll admit that I didn’t think you really would reschedule.”

“Things got pretty crazy for a few days,” Sabrina replied. “I was surprised you were free so soon.” She had texted him the day before, asking if he wanted to reschedule their dinner plans, had been surprised when he said he was free the very next night. She had said yes to dinner before she could talk herself out of it again.

“I canceled on some buddies of mine,” he admitted. “I’m going to choose to have dinner with a pretty girl over drink a few beers with them any day.” She found herself smiling. It was nice to have someone call her pretty, to cancel plans to spend time with her. “How is your friend doing, anyway? I can’t imagine it’s been easing, losing her parents like that.”

“Him,” Sabrina automatically corrected.

“Oh,” Gregory said. “Sorry. I just assumed…”

“It’s fine,” Sabrina shook her head. “And he’s… Doing as well as can be expected. The funeral was a couple of days ago. He’s setting into a new normal with his little sister, learning what that looks like for them.”

“How old is his sister?” he asked curiously.

“She’s only four,” Sabrina said. “He’s her guardian now, so there’s a lot for them to figure out.”

She thought briefly of Nick, how she had texted him earlier in the day to ask how he was doing. His response had said “been better, been worse.” She had asked if she could do anything, but he had never responded. She tried not to worry, tried not to think of him trying to face the one week mark of his parents’ deaths alone. She had asked for space and he was giving it to her. But she had to remember that – she had set the boundaries, and she had to abide by them too.

“That’s terrible,” Gregory sighed. “I’m so sorry.”

“His life looks very different now,” Sabrina said. “It’s going to take him some time to adjust. He’ll be okay, though.”

“You’re a good friend,” Gregory said with sincerity. He reached out and with his free hand and brushed his thumb along her cheekbone. “Would it be okay if I kissed you goodnight?”

Her heart rate picked up. She hadn’t kissed anyone besides Nick in a long time. She reminded herself that she owed herself – and Gregory – the chance to see where this could go after so many months of casual sex.

“That would be okay,” she agreed. He smiled and leaned in.

His kiss was – nice. There wasn’t the explosion of fireworks she had come to expect when Nick kissed her, but fire and heat hadn’t gotten her very far in the past. Nice and sweet could be a good change of pace. He didn’t push her boundaries, but pulled away with a kind smile. He bid her goodnight with a promise to call the next day and the hope of seeing her again. She watched him cross her yard and climb into his truck – perhaps the only thing similar between him and Nick was their vehicle – then let herself inside.

“Hey!” Roz greeted when she walked in the kitchen where she and Harvey were digging into an assortment of Chinese food containers. “How was it?”

“It was – nice.”

“Nice?” Harvey repeated with a raised eyebrow. Roz had filled him in on Sabrina’s date. He was just as curious about how it had gone. “Guys never want a date to be nice. Nice is the kiss of death. Our entire relationship was ‘nice’ and look where that got us.”

“Nice is good,” Roz argued without letting Sabrina get a word in. “Sabrina needs nice after Nick.”

“But Sabrina’s not a ‘nice’ kind of girl…”

“Can we not talk about Sabrina if she’s not standing right here?” Sabrina interjected. “And I’m eating this.” She took an egg roll from one of the containers. “You know they’re my favorite.”

“Sorry,” Roz apologized. “I’m just really happy that you’re giving Gregory a chance.”

“But how was it?” Harvey asked again. They had long since passed the awkward stage of skirting around their dating choices. He was like her brother now. “Besides nice?”

Sabrina slid onto the counter.

“It was different,” she admitted. “It was normal, I guess. I didn’t exactly date Nick, you know? A one night stand turned into six months of one night stands, but we didn’t go on a date. I’d never even spent the night with him until I stayed with him last weekend.”

“Gregory picked you up, took you to dinner. I bet he paid?” Roz asked. Sabrina nodded. “And then he walked you to your door and I’m willing to bet he didn’t maul you the way a certain history teacher would.”

“He asked before he kissed me goodnight,” Sabrina shared. “He said he would like to see me again.”

“Are you going to go out with him again?” Harvey asked. Sabrina shrugged.

“I don’t have a reason not to.”

“But?” Roz prompted, sensing Sabrina was holding back. Sabina sighed.

“I felt a little guilty,” she admitted. “Nick’s parents died a week ago. I feel like I left him to fend for himself. Gregory is perfectly nice – wonderful, even. Everything was just – nice. Different. He held my hand, was a total gentleman. I enjoyed talking to him. But I couldn’t help but think about Nick and wonder how he’s doing.”

“It’s a complicated situation,” Roz offered with more sympathy than she usually showed when Nick was involved. “But I do think you owe it to yourself to give Gregory a fair chance. Nick messed with your head. I know you care about him and that he’s having a really hard time right now, but you have to protect your heart, too.”

“I know,” Sabrina sighed. “It might be easier if he didn’t have Amalia. It would definitely be easier if I didn’t care so much.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you cared so much,” Harvey told her. “You’ve always followed your heart and I don’t know that it’s ever led you wrong. Keep doing that, and you’ll come out okay.”

Sabrina smiled at him.

“Thanks, Harvey.” She slid off the counter. “I think I’m going to head upstairs and read for a while before bed. Thanks for letting me steal an egg roll.”

“Anytime,” Roz replied. “We love you, Brina.”

“I love you guys, too,” she assured them.

Upstairs, she changed into pajamas and crawled into bed with the book she had started the night before. She got comfortable, then picked up her phone to check her messages for the first time since before her date. Roz had wished her good luck on her date. Theo had checked in from his travels to St. Louis, aware his friend was likely conflicted about going on the date in the first place. Hilda invited her for lunch the next day. Ambrose sent her a photo of a Halloween costume he was considering and wanted her opinion. But there were no texts from Nick. She found that she had expected there to be and was a little disappointed to find he hadn’t replied to her earlier text.

She opened her Instagram app to distract herself. Of course, the first photo in her feed was one of Amalia, curled up in a beanbag chair, wearing a princess nightgown, her hair damp from a bath. She was clutching her doll and sucking her thumb, a habit she had either never broken or resumed after her parents died. Sabrina’s heart banged with something she could only identify as longing. She missed the little girl.

Saturdays look a little different now.

That was all Nick had written as a caption, but there were dozens of comments, most offering their condolences, thoughts, prayers, a few offering their help if he needed anything, a couple, including one from Dorcas, commenting on how cute Amalia was. Nick hadn’t commented on any of them, hadn’t even clicked the ‘like’ button. Sabrina tapped the comment bubble, then clicked the heart emoji. She went back to scrolling, only to see the banner appear at the top of her screen informing her that ‘nickscratch’ had liked her comment. She chose not to read into why he had liked her comment. She spent enough time overhearing her students debate that very topic regarding their crushes of the week – she didn’t need to stoop to the level of teenage girl.

She put the phone down and tried to read her book, but she couldn’t focus on the words. Her attention was scattered, her thoughts everywhere, not settled on one topic. She felt tense, stressed. For just a moment, she considered calling Nick, but then reminded herself it wasn’t a good idea. Instead, she rolled over and opened her nightstand drawer.

She hadn’t used her vibrator much over the last several months, given that her sexual desires were more than taken care of by one Nicholas Scratch. But she thought, maybe, this would help. She shimmed out of her panties – lace, of course – and turned the vibrator on. She let the sensation take her away. Her mind conjured images of dark skin against her fair color. She could imagine the feeling of lips against her chest. She gasped softly when the vibrator slipped lower. She added her free hand to further stimulate herself.

The orgasm she brought herself to was just okay. She put the vibrator aside and lay on her back, breathing deep.

It was only then that she realized the images her mind conjured had been of one Nicholas Scratch.

And her vibrator was certainly not Nicholas Scratch.

She picked up her phone and found Nick’s name in her texts. She stopped herself just before she hit send, inviting herself over. She deleted what she wrote and tried to resume reading.

When she finally drifted off to sleep, it was with the thought that she wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to work her body the way Nick could.


“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m grading tests,” Nick answered, never looking up from systematically reviewing the multiple choice questions before him.

“Can I help?” Amalia persisted.

“Do you know anything about Jamestown?” Nick countered.

“Pocahontas lives there,” Amalia said proudly. “So does John Smith and Governor Ratcliffe and Chief Powatan and Grandmother Willow and Flit and Meeko.”

Nick frowned and finally looked at her.

“Who is Meeko? And Flit and Grandmother Willow for that matter?”

“Meeko is the racoon and Flit is the hummingbird and Grandmother Willow is the tree,” Amalia explained as though Nick should know that.

“And how, exactly, are they connected to Pocahontas?” he asked, thinking he might regret engaging in this conversation.

“They’re her friends,” Amalia said with a hint of annoyance. “And Grandmother Willow gives her advice.”

“I know a very different Jamestown than you do,” he stated. “Your Jamestown is a cartoon. Mine is real.”

“Mine is real, too,” she informed him. “Mommy said so.”

“Your cartoon is based on a real place,” Nick explained with more patience than he felt. He was trying to catch up, get ready to return to real life the next day, but Amalia wouldn’t let him focus. “It’s in Virginia. I’ve been there.” Amalia’s eyes grew big.

“You have?”

“I have,” he confirmed. “A few times when I was in college. I went there to study.”

“What’s it like?” she asked curiously.

“It’s pretty cool,” he admitted. “You get to see all sorts of historical sites, places where archeologists are digging to learn more about the settlers and the Paspahegh tribe. You can even walk around on boats like the ones that brought John Smith and Governor Ratcliffe to Virginia.”

“Is Pocahontas there?” Amalia asked with shining eyes.

“There’s a statue of her,” Nick shrugged. “You can learn a lot about her – the real her, not the cartoon version.”

“Why did you study there?” Amalia continued with her questions. “Don’t you study at school?”

“I studied history in college,” Nick explained. “Because I was in Virginia, I got to go to a lot of historical places – Jamestown, Yorktown, presidents’ houses…”

“You’ve been to the president’s house?” Amalia gasped.

“Not the White House where the current president lives. Places like Monticello and Mount Vernon, where former presidents lived when they weren’t running the United States.”

“What’s Yorktown?” she continued.

“You’ve got a lot of questions,” Nick countered.

“What is it?” Amalia pressed. “Another house?”

“It’s a town in Virginia,” he told her. “It’s where the Battle of Yorktown took place more than two hundred years ago.”

“What’s that?”

“A battle. Seriously, Amalia, I need to get this done…”

“What kind of battle?” she continued in a nagging little voice. “Was it like in Mulan?”

“No.”

He wasn’t even sure what Mulan was. Some movie, he thought.

“Then what was it like?”

“You’re persistent,” he informed her.

“Just tell me!” she needled.

Nick sighed. If she wanted to know about the Battle of Yorktown, he would give her a detailed account in hopes of boring her enough that she would leave him alone.

“The Continental Army led by George Washington and the French Army troops led by the Comte de Rouchambeau defeated the British Army led by General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. It was the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis surrendered and the capture of him and his army caused the British government to negotiate an end to the conflict. But the war officially ended almost two years later when the Treaty of Paris was signed.”

Amalia looked at him in wonder.

“You know a lot,” she stated.

“I know a lot about history,” he corrected. “There’s a whole lot more I don’t much about.”

Like raising four year old girls and relationships, he thought to himself.

“What happened when they signed the Treat of Paris?” Amalia wondered. “And where is Paris? Who signed it?”

“Treaty of Paris,” Nick corrected out of habit. He continued his history lesson. “A treaty is an agreement between two countries. In this case, it was between Great Britain and the United States. Representatives of King George III – David Hartley and Richard Oswald – and of the United States – Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and John Adams – signed it. It basically set up rules between the two countries, like Britain had to acknowledge the U.S. as a country and what land belonged to them and where they could fish. And Paris is in France. It’s across the ocean. Here, look.”

He put his tests aside and picked up his phone. Amalia scooted closer to him.

“Is that Paris?” she asked as a map filled her brother’s phone.

“That’s France,” he said, pointing out the country. “This is where we are.” He used his finger to move the map to the U.S. and pointed to roughly where Connecticut was located. “This is Paris.” He did a quick google search and images of Paris filled his screen. Amalia’s eyes got big again.

“That’s where the Hunchback of Notre Dame lives!” she exclaimed. “That’s his house!” She pointed to an image of Notre Dame. Nick chuckled at her wonder.

“That’s a church,” he told her. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

“You’ve been to Paris?” she exclaimed, clearly impressed by her brother.

“I have,” Nick agreed. “You were a tiny newborn baby when I was there.”

“Can we go to Paris? I want to see his house.”

“One day,” he nodded. “Mom and Dad took me a lot of places. They’ve taken you a few places, too, but you’ve been too small to remember until recently. I’ll take you places like they took me.”

The idea of traveling with her was intimidating, but he owed it to her to show her the world the way their parents had shown it to him.

“We went to Disney World,” Amalia said. “Best days ever.”

“They took you to Disney,” Nick nodded. They had just gone a few months ago. He had been invited but refused to go. He regretted that now. “They also took you to London to visit some of Mom’s friends when you were really little. We’ve all been to Cape Cod together, to Grandma’s house.”

“I like that house,” Amalia said. “We should go there, too.”

“We should,” Nick agreed. “Now, I really need to finish grading these tests. I have to go back to work tomorrow morning and I’ve had these tests for almost two weeks now…” It dawned on him that he had to figure out what to do with Amalia. He couldn’t exactly take her to school with him. “What do you do during the day? Do you like, go to school or daycare or something?”

His mother was a stay at home mom, but she was always at this committee meeting or that board meeting. Surely she didn’t take Amalia with her to all of those things. He thought he remembered his dad mentioning preschool last weekend, too.

“I go to school,” she told him, sitting up on her knees. “Am I going to school tomorrow?”

“You absolutely are,” Nick confirmed, relieved he had somewhere for her to go. “What school do you go to?”

“I don’t know,” Amalia shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

“I know where my classroom is,” she offered.

“That will be helpful tomorrow,” he sighed. “Right now? Not so much. What’s your teacher’s name?”

“Ms. Erin and Ms. Judy.”

“First name basis. Again, not helpful.” He blew out a breath. “Okay. I’ll figure it out. Now, I need to go back to grading these tests. Can you – play or something?”

“I’m bored,” she informed him. “Play with me.”

“I can’t right now. I need to get some work done.”

“But I want to play!”

“Watch a movie,” Nick tried. “I’ll play with you after I finish this.”

Except he had to figure out what school she went to. Figure out dinner. Try to figure out what the next day looked like. He didn’t have time to play. There was just too much to figure out to play.

“I’ve watched too much TV,” she informed him. “Mommy and Daddy didn’t let me watch a lot of TV. Mommy said screens were bad for kids.”

“I’m making an exception,” Nick said. “Pick out a movie or something.”

“I don’t want to!” Amalia lit up with an idea. “We can go see Sabrina!”

“We can’t,” Nick shook his head. “She’s – busy.”

He was trying hard to abide by her wish for space, but he didn’t much like it.

“Fine. Zelda and Hilda and Amber then.”

“We’re not going to the Spellmans.”

“Melvin’s! We can go to Melvin’s!”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Nick said more sternly. “Amalia, I’m serious. I need you to cooperate with me. I need to get caught up on work and then I’ve got a lot of other things to do. You can help me out by watching a movie or finding something else to play with.”

“Fine,” Amalia huffed. “You’re no fun.”

“I’m not,” Nick agreed. “Get used to it.”

She slumped off, her doll dragging behind her. Nick felt a pang of guilt. He had a running to-do list that seemed to get longer instead of shorter. He had planned to conquer a lot of it today. Still, as he took in Amalia’s slumped shoulders while she dug through Blu-Rays, he realized his priorities, as conflicted as they were, needed to be rearranged.

“Come on, Amalia,” he said, standing. “Let’s go – somewhere.”

“Where are we going?” she asked, jumping to her feet. “Sabrina’s?”

“Not Sabrina’s,” he shook his head. “How about the park?”

“I’ll get my soccer ball! I can practice!” She ran from the room. Nick’s head fell back.

“Soccer,” he remembered. “She’s signed up for soccer.”

He went to the kitchen and found the list of things he needed to do or figure out. He tacked on “find Amalia’s school” and “soccer” as the sound of Amalia thundering back down the stairs echoed through the house.

“Ready!” she declared

“Me too,” Nick decided. He took the pink soccer ball from her. “Your jacket is by the door. Put it on on the way out.”

As he buckled Amalia into her booster seat – on his dad’s SUV – he considered sending Sabrina a text to see if she wanted to join them. It had been three days since he last seen and he missed her. He shook his head as she shut the door. Sabrina wanted space. He had to give it to her.

Even if it was the last thing he wanted to do.


Sabrina stopped short.

“Nick!”

He looked away from the notes the substitute had left for him to find Sabrina in the doorway of his classroom, two cups of coffee and a brown paper bag in hand.

“Good morning, Sabrina,” he answered in a careful tone, not sure where things stood between them.

“You’re early,” she stepped into the room. He was never at school before the first bell rang. “I brought you some coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Cee’s. I thought you might need it – being Monday and your first day back.”

“Thank you,” he nodded. There was tension between them, and he hated it. This was the first time he had seen her since his parents’ funeral. He couldn’t help but remember their conversation, how she admitted to having feelings for him, how he had asked her for a chance and she had told him ‘not right now.’ “That was nice of you. And needed, honestly. Getting out of the house was rough this morning.”

“Amalia?” she guessed. She put a coffee and bag down on his desk.

“I guess we did okay, all things considered. She’s dressed, has her shoes on the right feet. I managed the same. I almost forgot her lunch, but she reminded me. I hadn’t thought to pack it, so she’s got an assortment of pre-packaged foods that I’m sure her teachers will judge me for.”

“Maybe try packing her lunch the night before?” Sabrina suggested gently. “It might make things easier in the mornings.”

“Amalia suggested the same thing,” Nick sighed. “Apparently that’s how Mommy did it. Mommy set her clothes out too. Big brother? Didn’t do any of that. She let me know all about it this morning”

“What time do you have to pick her up?” Sabrina asked.

“3:30. I have just enough time to leave here and get there, but the school said I need to update all of her emergency contact information tonight. I’m not even listed as a relative on the current one.” A thought occurred to him. “Would it be okay if I put your name and number down as an emergency contact? Just in case they can’t get ahold of me and she needs something?”

“Of course,” Sabrina agreed. She would drop everything for Amalia. “How was the weekend?”

“Okay enough,” Nick shrugged a shoulder. “My aunt and uncle went back yesterday morning, so the last I had to see of them was Saturday night. They took us to an early dinner and everyone was polite enough. I let my aunt take a few trinkets of my mom’s back with her, things I knew didn’t really mean a lot to Mom.”

“They probably mean a lot to your aunt,” Sabrina reasoned. “Even if she’s awful, she did lose her sister.”

“I’m just glad they’re gone,” Nick sighed. “I tried to get caught up on grading and just – life – but Amalia asked if she could help and the next thing I know, she’s telling me about Meeko and Flit who apparently lived in Jamestown.”

“Pocahontas’ furry friends,” Sabrina said knowingly. “Or in Flit’s case, feathered friends.”

“How do you know all of this stuff?” Nick asked. “You’re like a vault of Disney knowledge.”

“I loved Disney movies as a kid,” she admitted. “Honestly? I still do. I went to see both Frozen and Moana in the theater by myself.”

“I’ll send Amalia with you for the next one so I don’t have to go,” Nick quipped, making Sabrina laugh a bit. “But she does know a lot about Jamestown and the Battle of Yorktown now.”

“How did she get from Jamestown to Yorktown?” Sabrina wondered.

“I told her about studying at historical sites like Jamestown in college and mentioned Yorktown. She was telling her teacher about the Treaty of Paris when I left this morning.” Sabrina smiled.

“You’re a little proud, aren’t you?” she guessed.

“A little,” Nick admitted with his own hint of a smile. “She had the names mostly wrong, but it wasn’t a bad telling for a four-year-old.” He took a sip of coffee. It was exactly how he liked it – strong with a splash of creamer. Of course she remembered. “I ended up taking her to the park. She decided to practice soccer and I hope you’re right when you say she’s good at dance because she’s absolutely terrible at soccer.”

Sabrina laughed outright.

“She’s a very good dancer for her age,” she confirmed. “I’m not teaching dance classes this fall because of cheerleading, but I will this spring. I’d love to have her if you decide to enroll her.”

“She’s playing soccer, starts Thursday evening. Figured that out last night after digging through some papers and looking through Mom’s planner. My own planner went from a few test dates and birthdays to pediatrician appointments, soccer sign ups, school dates…”

“You’re doing it though,” Sabrina pointed out. “So far, so good.”

“I managed to clip a bow in her hair this morning,” he shared. “That was a pretty big personal victory.” Sabrina smiled again. She was close enough that he could smell her perfume and damned if he didn’t want to kiss her. “If I could get her to sleep past six-thirty on weekends, that would be a real win.”

Sabrina considered him. He looked tired, his burden heavy.

“Why don’t you bring her to the game Friday night?” she suggested. “Pack her an overnight bag and she can come home with me. I’ll take her to see my aunts on Saturday, find something for us to do, give you a chance to sleep in, maybe do something you want to do.”

“She has soccer practice Saturday morning,” Nick said. “Nine o’clock. I can’t ask you to take her…”

“You’re not,” Sabrina shook her head. “I asked.”

“I do need to move the rest of my stuff into my parents’ house,” he reasoned after a moment. “It would be easier to do without Amalia. If you don’t mind…”

“I don’t mind,” Sabrina told him. “Really, Nick. I kind of miss her, if I’m being honest.”

“I think she misses you,” Nick said. He missed her, even if Amalia didn’t. “She wanted to come see you yesterday.”

“You should have brought her by. I was in my PJs, giving feedback on my students’ research topic ideas. I would have welcomed the distraction.”

“I didn’t want to intrude.” He was the one that looked at her for a long moment this time. “I’m sorry I didn’t text you back on Saturday. There was a lot going on, with my aunt and Amalia and just – life – and I wasn’t in the best mood.”

“It’s okay,” she shook her head. “I just wanted to check on you. On both of you.”

A couple of students filtered into Nick’s room.

“Good morning, Mr. Scratch,” one said.

“Welcome back,” the other added.

“Good morning Jasmine, Rachel,” he answered politely. He turned back to Sabrina, knowing their few minutes of quiet were over. “Thank you for breakfast, Sabrina.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “If you need anything…”

“I know,” he nodded. “I’ll see you at lunch?”

“I’ll see you at lunch.”

She left, but her perfume lingered.

It’s what got him thorough homeroom announcements.

Chapter Text

“Sabrina!”

Sabrina spun at the sound of her name. Amalia ran towards her, long hair flying, her bow – pink today, and matching her outfit – barely clinging to her strands.

“Amalia, hi!” She caught the little girl in a big hug. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Nick said I get to spend the night with you!” she said excitedly, eyes shining. “And that you’re taking me to soccer tomorrow! And to see Hilda and Zelda and Amber!”

“All true,” Sabrina’s smile grew. “We’re going to have so much fun. Are you excited?”

“So excited!” She jumped in place. Sabrina laughed.

“I will never tell her good news in advance again,” came Nick’s voice. He had changed out of his work clothes from earlier and wore jeans and a navy henley, a leather jacket thrown over it. “She’s asked me a hundred times since Monday night if it was time for her to stay with you.”

“She’s been excited,” Sabrina squeezed Amalia in another hug. “I’m excited, too. I’ve got stuff to make us waffles in the morning, before soccer. Did you bring your pom poms?”

“I did,” Amalia confirmed. “Nick said you said I should.”

“That’s what I told him,” Sabrina nodded. “Have you had a good week?”

She was curious. She knew from her brief conversations with Nick in the mornings and at lunch that it had been up and down, but she wanted Amalia’s take on things. She had a feeling it was very different than Nick’s which focused on all the things that had gone wrong, things that in Sabrina’s opinion, were minor, all things considered, but to Nick, felt like major failures. She was starting to realize he was putting a lot of pressure on himself and that failure was not something he dealt with well.

“It’s been okay,” Amalia answered. “Everyone was really nice to me at school and when Nick was late to pick me up, I got to play on the playground with Mrs. Erin and Joseph.”

Sabrina knew all about that. Nick had gotten caught up talking to Riley Greene after school in an attempt to help him understand why he needed to turn in his missing homework assignments, but his effort to help one student had resulted in him being nearly a half hour late to pick up Amalia. Her teacher had stayed to wait and allowed Amalia to play on the playground with her own son, but Nick had still been upset about the mishap the next day.

“That was okay, wasn’t it?” Sabrina asked Amalia.

“No harm, no foul is what Mrs. Erin said,” Amalia shrugged. “Nick is teaching me how to read, too.”

“Is he?” Sabrina glanced at Nick.

“Trying to,” he amended. “Lots and lots of flashcards this week. She’s picking it up pretty fast though.” Again, she thought Nick sounded just a little bit proud. He was a good teacher and teaching Amalia how to read and about history was something he felt confident in during a time in which he wasn’t confident about anything else. It would be good for both of them.

“He taught me about Paul River, too,” Amalia continued.

“Revere,” Nick corrected. He noted how Sabrina’s eyes sparkled under the stadium lights.

“Oh?” Sabrina asked. “What did you learn?” She was still squatting on Amalia’s level, talking to Amalia like she was an adult.

“He was a silversmith,” Amalia said seriously. “I don’t know what that is, but that’s what Nick said. But then he became a parrot…

“Patriot,” Nick corrected with a small grin.

“...and he rode his horse to tell people the British were coming.”

“That sounds exactly right,” Sabrina nodded. “You’re learning a lot.” She stood then and gave her attention to Nick. “What else have you taught her this week, Scratch?”

“We went over the Boston Tea Party last night,” he admitted. “She likes to ask questions while I’m grading papers and as a delay tactic at bedtime. By the end of the semester she will be well-versed in everything from the founding of Jamestown to the Cold War if she keeps this up.”

“You’re kind of a nerd, Nicholas Scratch,” Sabrina teased with a smile.

“If she comes home telling me about the themes found in Faulkner, I’m going to know where she got it from,” he teased back with a hint of a smile. “You sure you don’t mind hanging out with her tomorrow?”

“Nick, I offered,” Sabrina said for what felt like the millionth time that week. She was also learning it was hard for Nick to accept help. “You do what you need to do. I’ll bring her back to you sometime tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he agreed. “Thank you, Sabrina. It will make moving a lot easier…”

“Anytime, Nick. I mean that.” She caught Amalia by the hand. “Tell your brother goodbye and goodnight, Amalia. You and I have a football game to cheer for.”

“Bye, Nick!” Amalia said, already turning towards the field.

“Hang on,” Nick replied. “Don’t I get a hug?” Amalia went to him and he squatted down to hug her. “Be good for Sabrina.”

“I will,” she promised. She tried to pull away, but Nick held onto her.

“If you need anything, or you decide you want to come home, just tell Sabrina and she’ll call me, okay?”

“Okay.” She tried again to pull away, uninterested in her brother when there was the prospect of being a cheerleader for the night ahead of her.

“Listen to Sabrina. And don’t eat too much junk food.”

“Okay.” She tried with more vigor to pull away. Nick held on.

“I love you, Mally. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Love you too.” She tugged her arm free. “Can I go now?”

“Yeah, you can go.” Nick released her with a sigh and stood upright. Sabrina was smiling at him. “What?”

“She’ll be okay.” She understood. He was having a hard time letting Amalia go after everything they had been through over the last two weeks. “You know you can call whenever to check on her.”

“I know she’s in good hands.” Nick passed Sabrina the sparkly unicorn backpack he had been carrying around. “I don’t think I’m going to stick around for the game.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s – been a long week.”

“Go home,” Sabrina nodded in understanding. “Amalia and I will be fine.”

Nick left, but stopped near the exit to check on Amalia one more time. She had her pom poms out, marching along beside Sabrina as she made her way to the edge of the field where the cheerleaders were gathering for kick off. He watched Sabrina show Amalia how to put her hands on her hips like the girls. Amalia was radiant, but so was Sabrina as she gave last minute instructions. He blew out a breath, knowing Amalia was okay, happy, that Sabrina wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Still, however illogical it was, he couldn’t help but worry when his little sister was the only family he had.

He dragged himself back to his dad’s SUV. Behind the wheel, he reminded himself yet again that he needed to either move the booster seat or get a second one so he could drive his truck again. He hated driving the luxury SUV. It handled differently and it was too flashy for his taste.

It reminded him too much of his father.

He hadn’t even changed the radio station. It was still set to the classic rock station his father always listened to. There were coins tossed into the console, a travel coffee mug in the cup holder. Nicolas’ golf clubs were in the back, along with a change of clothes. As a doctor, a surgeon at that, he had always kept a change of clothes in his car, “just in case.”

Nick blew out a long breath, painfully aware of both the coffee mug and Amalia’s empty booster seat, and cranked up the SUV.

His intention had been to go home, but he found himself at Cee’s. He had fed Amalia- macaroni and cheese this time, he really had to get better at cooking – but he hadn’t eaten himself. His appetite was still non-existent, but he was trying to eat when he should, for no other reason than he had to.

“Scratch.”

Nick looked to his left to find none other than Harvey Kinkle taking a seat at the counter beside him.

“Kinkle,” he replied.

“I’d ask how you’re doing, but I know that’s a pretty bullshit question,” Harvey said.

“You mind spreading that news around to the rest of Greendale?” Nick countered. “Because I could really stand for them to get the memo.”

“I wanted to punch them in the face,” Harvey shared. “It was awful.”

“That’s right,” Nick remembered. “You lost your mom.”

“Freshman year,” Harvey confirmed. “It sucked. It still sucks, honestly.” He paused to place a drink order with the waitress. “I know it’s bullshit to say, but I really am sorry about your parents.”

“Thanks,” Nick said with an appreciative nod. He didn’t mind the condolence from Harvey the way he did from others. Harvey knew what it was like to lose a parent. When he said he was sorry, he meant it.

Nick considered Harvey for a moment. He had never really talked to the guy outside of the occasional school project when they were in high school, but he had the impression the goofy guy didn’t much care for him back then. He knew he dated Sabrina’s friend Roz now and he was pretty sure he was an illustrator or something these days. He decided there was no harm in talking to him while he picked at his dinner.

“Not at the game tonight?” he asked.

“Football – high school or otherwise – isn’t really my thing,” Harvey admitted. “My girlfriend is working the concession stand and my brother is the coach, but I’d rather eat diner food, then go home and watch a bad sci-fi movie.” Nick chuckled just a bit. “What about you? Skipping out on Baxter High’s match against East Ridge High?”

“I dropped my little sister off with Sabrina,” Nick shared. “She’s going to stay with her tonight, hang out with her tomorrow. I figured I’d take advantage of the peace and quiet.”

“Can’t blame you there,” Harvey said. “I don’t want to be at a Baxter High football game on my best days. Never have. Football is Tommy’s thing, not mine. Sabrina and I used to fight about it in high school because I wouldn’t go watch her cheer.”

“And now she’s the cheer coach,” Nick said. “Full circle.”

Harvey placed his food order, then decided to run the risk of pissing Roz off, not to mention Sabrina. He could see it, even if they couldn’t – or opted not to.

“You have feelings for Sabrina, don’t you?” Nick pursed his lips at the bold question. “It’s just – you chased after her relentlessly when we were in high school, even though she was dating me. Then, when we all ended up back here after college, you went right back to pursuing her. Once she gave in, you quit sleeping around. I saw how you leaned on her last week, reached for her.”

“Sabrina wants space,” Nick said carefully, not comfortable discussing Sabrina or his feelings with Harvey Kinkle of all people. “I have to give her that.”

“Sabrina doesn’t want to run the risk that she’s something familiar for you to hold onto when everything else is such a mess,” Harvey said knowingly. “I think she’s afraid you’ll wake up one morning and realize you made a mistake.”

“I’ve made mistakes,” Nick confessed. “A lot of them. But being with her wouldn’t be a mistake.”

“She had a really shitty relationship in college,” Harvey offered. “The guy treated her awful. You know how she is – she wants to help everyone, save everyone, and I’ll admit, he did have a really awful childhood, not that that’s an excuse for how he treated her. Ambrose got involved eventually when he pushed her around one night, but she spent nearly two years with him, trying her best to help him see the world wasn’t the dark place he thought it was. She hasn’t really dated anyone since.”

A sort of rage went through Nick as he thought of anyone – anyone – hurting Sabrina.

“I’m surprised Sabrina put up with that,” he said after a moment. “She’s always been so independent, sure of herself…”

“Love makes people blind,” Harvey shrugged. “I know you and I don’t really know each other that well, but I know Sabrina pretty well and I think if you can make her feel safe, show her you’re genuine, she would give you a chance.”

“Why are you offering up all of this advice?” Nick asked suspiciously.

“Like I said, I know Sabrina pretty well.” He paused a beat, considering his next words. “After her last relationship, her foundation is a little shaky. If you do want a relationship with her, don’t give up just yet.”

Nick turned over Harvey’s words. Make her feel safe… He didn’t think that meant physically safe. It was emotionally safe. He thought, maybe, he could do that.

“Thanks, Harvey,” he nodded.

“And hey, if you ever want to grab a beer or something with someone who isn’t going to ask you how you’re doing,” Harvey shrugged, “I drink beer.”

Nick nodded again, the smallest of smiles tugging at his lips.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He thought about his lack of friends aside from Melvin. His high school ego wouldn’t have been friends with Harvey Kinkle, but that was a lifetime ago and things had changed drastically. Maybe the adult version of him could forge a friendship with Harvey. “What are you doing these days, anyway?” he asked. “I think Sabrina said something about you being an illustrator?”

Cee brought Harvey’s food and noted the weird sort of friendship forming before him as the two men talked about their jobs over burgers and a beer. Hilda didn’t care for the Scratch boy, but he found himself wondering if, maybe, just maybe, Nicholas Scratch wasn’t so bad after all.


“So this is the famous Amalia, huh?” Roz held her hand out to Amalia. “I’m Roz, Sabrina’s friend.”

“Hi,” Amalia said sweetly, accepting the grownup’s hand. She liked to be treated like an adult. “I’m Amalia, Sabrina’s friend.”

Sabrina grinned at Amalia’s reply.

“And I’m Harvey.” Harvey stepped into the hallway to greet Amalia, having just arrived. He decided not to tell Sabrina and Roz, at least right now, about his conversation with Nick. “I’m also a friend.”

“Harvey,” Amalia repeated, shaking his hand like the tiny adult she was trying to be. “I’m Amalia.”

“Amalia is staying with me tonight,” Sabrina said, even though Roz was well aware of her plans. “We’re going to have some hot chocolate before we go to bed, try to warm up from the football game. Want to join us?”

The four of them congregated in the kitchen, catching up on their days, Amalia providing plenty of chatter to keep them entertained. Sabrina noted how Amalia tried to sit up taller, sip from her mug like she was older than she was. It made her smile, but also made her a little sad. Amalia would likely grow up faster than she should without parents, no matter how well Nick filled in for them. She herself had been raised by the best two aunts anyone could ask for, but she, too, had grown up a little too fast.

Once they got into bed sometime later, Amalia cuddled up to Sabrina.

“Sabrina? Is Harvey Roz’s boyfriend? Just ‘cause he had his arm around her...”

“He is her boyfriend,” Sabrina confirmed.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Amalia continued.

“I don’t.” An unbidden image of Nick popped to mind. “Do you?”

“I’m only four!” Amalia exclaimed, making Sabrina laugh. She wondered how Nick would cope with the inevitable idea of Amalia dating down the road. Something told her not well. Amalia snuggled closer. She loved being with Sabrina. She was a girl, for one, but she reminded her of her mother because she was kind and took care of her, just like her mommy had. “Does Nick have a girlfriend?”

Sabrina’s stomach flipped.

“He doesn’t,” she said.

“He should,” Amalia decided. Her eyes lit up. “You can be his girlfriend!”

“Nick is my friend,” Sabrina offered, her stomach doing that weird sort of flip again.

“But he likes you,” Amalia said with certainty. “He always hugs you and holds your hand. That’s what boyfriends do, isn’t it?”

“Friends hug and hold hands,” she said, treading lightly. “And it’s getting late, missy. You’ve got soccer practice early in the morning.”

“Are you still going to make us waffles?” Amalia asked, changing subjects, much to Sabrina’s relief.

“I am,” she confirmed. “I’ve even got chocolate chips for them.”

“Yes!” Amalia pumped her fists overhead, making Sabrina laugh. “I love chocolate chips! And waffles! Nick doesn’t know how to make them. I asked. He put some in the toaster, but they weren’t the waffles I wanted.”

“Nick is trying really hard,” Sabrina reminded her. “He’s good at a lot of things, but not cooking. He’ll get better, but sometimes, you might have to eat frozen waffles.”

“He told me I could eat the waffles or not eat anything at all,” Amalia told her. “So, I didn’t eat breakfast that day and was really hungry at lunchtime.”

“You two are quite the pair,” Sabrina sighed. She had heard about that argument, too. Nick had been fretting over it when it happened two mornings ago and it was still on his mind at lunch later that day as he worried about if she was hungry and if she had enough in her lunchbox. “What have you been eating for lunch anyway?”

“Uncrustables and yogurt,” Amalia told her. “And sometimes Nick puts cookies or Teddy Grahams in my lunchbox, too. Oh, and a juice box. But he forgot that one time so I had to drink water instead.”

It wasn’t the best lunch Sabrina had ever heard of, but it was better than what she had expected.

“What would you like to have for lunch?” she asked, hoping to get ideas that she could slyly pass on to Nick when she had a chance.

“Ham and cheese wraps,” she said. “I don’t like sandwiches, so Mommy made me wraps. Sometimes I like turkey. Or cheese quesadillas. I like bananas and oranges and grapes. One time, Mommy cut up a hot dog and that was good. Mommy always put a treat in my lunch, too. Like a cookie or a brownie.”

“If you don’t like sandwiches, are you eating your Uncrustables?”

“No,” Amalia admitted. “I try to trade with my friends.” Sabrina sighed. She could guess Nick bought the box of frozen sandwiches because it was easy. She would have to break the news to him that Amalia wasn’t eating them. “The only sandwich I like is grilled cheese.”

“Grilled cheeses are good,” Sabrina said. “Especially with tomato soup.” Amalia made a face at the idea of tomato soup. Sabrina laughed. “It really is late. Let’s turn off the lights and try to get some sleep. You’ve got Annie?”

“I’ve got Annie,” Amalia confirmed. “But…”

“What is it?” Sabrina prompted, hearing the hesitation in her voice.

“I don’t have my nightlight,” she said. “And Nick reads to me. But only two books because I can’t trick him into more.”

Sabrina smiled a bit at the thought of Nick reading to Amalia in her pink bedroom.

“How about this?” she bargained. “I’ll leave the bathroom light on and crack the door so you’ll have some light. And I happen to have lots and lots of books. They’re big books though, so we can’t read a whole book tonight, but we can start one and read some of it tonight, and then read more each time you’re here, until we finish it?”

“Okay,” Amalia agreed. Sabrina got out of bed, flipped her bathroom light on, and found the book she wanted. She joined Amalia back in bed. “What’s that book?”

“This is one of the best books of all time,” Sabrina said. “It’s called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It’s about a boy who learns he’s a wizard. It’s one of my very favorite books. There are six more books after this one, and movies, too.”

“I think I want to read that one,” Amalia nodded. She snuggled close to Sabrina again. “I’m ready.”

Sabrina opened the book and began to read. She didn’t finish the first chapter before Amalia was sound asleep next to her. She smiled, marked their place, and placed the book on her nightstand. She picked up her phone to set an alarm for tomorrow morning and found a text from Nick.

Is Amalia doing okay?

Sabrina smiled slightly, thinking of how he had been reluctant to let Amalia go at the football game. She held out her phone, smiled, and snapped a selfie of Amalia and herself, Amalia curled up beside her, sharing her pillow. She sent it to Nick. He replied almost instantly.

It’s quiet without her here.

Sabrina’s smile wavered. She could imagine him sitting alone in that big house, watching TV or, worse, sipping bourbon. He seemed sober though, and she had to believe he was.

Try to enjoy it, she typed back. I’m taking her to my aunts’ for lunch and they will make sure she has plenty of sweets before I return her.

I’ll forgive you if you bring something Hilda baked when you bring her back.

I’ll see what I can do, she replied. I hope you had dinner? She had asked Amalia about dinner that night and Amalia had confirmed she had eaten macaroni and cheese, but Nick hadn’t had anything. He was losing weight and it was becoming obvious.

Burger and fries at Cee’s. Actually ate it.

Good.

Sleep well, Sabrina. I’ll see you tomorrow.

Goodnight, Nick.

She set the alarm and turned off the lamp. Her phone lit up in the dark. She reached for it, thinking it was Nick again. It was Gregory.

Any chance you’re free tomorrow? Dinner, maybe a movie?

Sorry, she wrote back automatically, not considering the fact that she would actually be free by dinner, Amalia returned to Nick and nothing else on her schedule. I’m hanging out with my friend’s little sister. We’ve got big plans for our Saturday.

That sounds fun. Maybe sometime this week?

Sure. I’ll text you.

She put her phone down again and settled into her pillows. Not for the first time that week, she fell asleep with thoughts of Nick dancing through her mind.


“I really like my ponytail,” Amalia said, swinging it from side to side. Sabrina had pulled it high on top of her head and clipped in a bow. She had never had a ponytail like this one and liked how it swished from side to side. “It’s really cool.”

“You asked for a ponytail like the cheerleaders, and that’s what you got,” Sabrina said. They walked towards the soccer field at the park, their linked hands swinging between them. Sabrina had found a water bottle for Amalia in one of her and Roz’s kitchen cabinets and Amalia had it in her other hand, looking the part of a sporty soccer player. “You look very pretty.”

“So do you,” Amalia smiled back at her. “You’re the prettiest girl I know, Sabrina.”

“Well, she’s one of the two prettiest girls I know,” came a voice. Both of them spun around. Nick was there, wearing athletic pants and a UVA zip up jacket. His smile was almost bashful, but his eyes were on Sabrina.

“Nick!”

Amalia released Sabrina’s hand and ran to him. He hugged her, dropped a kiss to the top of her head. Sabrina was thankful for the distraction so she could pull herself together after his comment.

“Have you had fun with Sabrina?” he asked.

“She made waffles this morning,” Amalia informed Nick. “Real ones. No toaster.”

“I’ll buy a waffle iron,” Nick promised.

“And she gave me a cheerleader ponytail.” She swished it so he could see how it bounced.

“I like it,” Nick nodded. “You ready to play some soccer?”

“It’s not as fun as cheerleading, but I guess so,” Amalia shrugged. She eyed him suddenly. “It’s not time for me to go home with you. I’m going to see Hilda and Zelda and Amber after soccer. Sabrina said.”

“You are,” Nick nodded. “But I’m coaching, remember?”

“Wait – you’re coaching soccer?” The words tumbled out of Sabrina before she could stop them. Nick stood then, his attention back on her.

“I got suckered into it at the first practice on Thursday,” Nick confessed. “My dad was going to be an assistant coach and when they mentioned needing a volunteer, I heard myself agreeing to take his place.”

“You played soccer in school, didn’t you?” Sabrina asked.

“One season,” Nick shrugged. “I preferred lacrosse. I have no idea what I’m doing and as luck would have it, the head coach isn’t here today. I’m in charge of all of them.” He glanced across the field to where a small congregation of four and five-year-olds were gathering with their parents. “Add it to the ever-growing list of things I’m making up as I go.”

“You really are doing a good job, Nick,” she told him. “Did you eat breakfast?”

“I had a bowl of cereal,” he said, appreciating how she continued to check on him. She had brought him a baked good or leftovers nearly every day that week. “Even remembered to write down milk on the grocery list.” He caught Amalia by the hand. “Come on, Mally. Let’s go kick a ball around.” He glanced at Sabrina. “Any chance you want to help me coach?”

She smirked and shook her head.

“I told you I would make sure to show up to watch this,” she said. “Turns out it’s not a hypothetical situation.”

“You’re pretty, but you’re a little bit evil,” Nick stated, making her laugh. “If this goes down in flames, can you at least call the fire department?”

“911 is on speed dial,” she retorted. “But I think you’ll be just fine.”

She found a seat on a bench near the field and settled in, content to watch, a travel mug of coffee in hand. In spite of his fears and her teasing, Nick easily took command of the group of a dozen or so kids. He started them off in a circle, kicked the ball to each of them in turn with instructions to share their name and kick the ball back to him. Some of their kicks were better than others, but his athleticism showed when he would dart out of his spot in the circle to stop the ball.

He had clearly done some research on how to coach young children. When he wanted their attention, he called out “ball on the head!” and they would pick up their balls – the only time they were allowed to touch the ball with their hands – and place it on their heads, understanding it was time to listen. Sabrina’s fascination grew as he set them up with a game of “Red Light, Green Light,” lining them up along one side of the field, then calling out stop light colors, green for fast, yellow for slow, red for stop, foot on the ball, to help them learn ball control. Some were better than others – and he wasn’t wrong that Amalia’s forte wasn’t soccer – but they all seemed to be having fun.

Sabrina couldn’t help herself. She took out her phone and snapped a few photos of both Amalia and Nick, took videos of them. He had each child practice kicking the ball into the goal, then ended practice by having them play a brief game which was really a gaggle of small children chasing after a ball and Nick running around them to keep them all within the field and accounted for. By the time he had turned over kids to their parents, he had taken off his jacket and was down to a plain gray t-shirt.

“Nicholas Scratch,” Sabrina approached him as he finished a conversation with a boy’s father, “don’t you ever try to convince me you can’t coach a soccer team again.”

“That wasn’t bad,” he admitted. “A little exhausting, but not terrible.”

“You were really good with them, Nick,” she said sincerely. “I’m impressed.” She was certain he blushed. “Is Amalia ready to go?”

“She’s already triple checked that she’s going with you and not me,” Nick nodded. “You say the word, she’s in your car.” He ran a hand through his hair. It messed it up in a way she had to call attractive. “I’m going to head to Melvin’s and get the rest of my stuff. See you later?”

“I’ll bring her home around dinner,” she confirmed. “Amalia!” she called. “Ready to go?”

“Are we going to see Hilda and Zelda and Amber now?” she skipped up to them.

“We’re going to drop some books off at the library first, but yes, we’re going to my aunts’ house after that,” Sabrina confirmed. “It seems Hilda has an activity.”

“Dare I ask what it is?” Nick wondered.

“You can ask, but I don’t know,” Sabrina admitted. “It sounds like something she been planning for a few days at any rate.”

“Tell them thank you from me,” Nick said. “I can’t thank any of them enough…”

“No thanks needed,” Sabrina shook her head. “They love her, too.” He nodded at her, then stooped to tell Amalia goodbye. He seemed more relaxed this time, less worried about her. With Amalia’s hand in hers, she started towards the parking lot.

“Sabrina.” She turned back to him. He smiled a bit. “I meant what I said earlier. You look beautiful.”

Her heart fluttered. She was wearing leggings – ironically the pair he liked – and a monogrammed pullover, her hair held in place with a headband, not a stitch of makeup on. She didn’t feel especially beautiful. And yet, she was certain he meant it.

“Thank you,” she said with a soft smile, because there was nothing more she could say. “I’ll see you later, Nick.”

“You will,” he agreed.

He watched her walk away, a plan forming.

Harvey said to make her feel safe.

So, he would.

One small action at a time.


“Nick?” Sabrina called as she opened the front door. “We’re here!” The smell of something cooking – she thought she could identify oregano and garlic – filled the air.

Amalia looked up at Sabrina.

“It smells good in here.” She sounded suspicious. Sabrina couldn’t blame her. “What is that?”

“Dinner.” Nick appeared from the kitchen. “Spaghetti. Don’t tell me you don’t like it either. I know you do. I’ve seen you eat it.”

“I like good spaghetti,” Amalia informed him. “Not spaghetti from a can.”

Sabrina pursed her lips in a poor attempt to choke down a laugh. Amalia really was sharp.

“I cooked it myself,” Nick stated. “It even tastes okay this time, didn’t even burn the garlic bread.”

“I don’t like garlic bread,” Amalia told him.

“We’ll have that argument in a few minutes,” he replied, then shifted his eyes to Sabrina, noting how amused she looked. “Want to stay for dinner? I made plenty – or, well, I’m making plenty, it’s technically still cooking – but you’ve done so much to help with Amalia…”

Sabrina felt conflicted. She knew she should say no. She should go home and continue to put some space between her and Nick. It was one thing to talk to him at school or even to help him with Amalia like she had today. It was another to stay for dinner. She really should go home. But, as she thought about his flirty comment at the soccer field earlier, she didn’t want to. She wanted to stay for reasons she decided not to delve into. Still, she hesitated.

“Stay!” Amalia interjected. “Have dinner with us! You can cook us something else if it’s not good.”

“Hey!” Nick exclaimed. Sabrina laughed despite her conflicted feelings. Amalia looked so hopeful. She couldn’t tell her no.

“I’ll stay,” she agreed. “And as promised…” She held up a pound cake. Her aunts didn’t care for Nick, but they felt for him. It had been easy to acquire the cake. “From Hilda.”

“Bless that woman,” Nick declared. “I bought vanilla ice cream today. That will go well with this…”

“It will,” Sabrina agreed. “Let’s go to the kitchen, see what you’ve done.”

“No faith,” Nick shook his head.

“No track record,” Sabrina fired back. He winked at her.

Sabrina tried to place when things had shifted, when he became so much more – flirty wasn’t quite the right word as he had always flirted shamelessly, but there was something different about the way he was going about it now. He had called her beautiful earlier, winked at her playfully just now. She couldn’t take the time now to decipher what it all meant. And if she were being honest with herself, she was afraid to get her hopes up.

“Can I watch TV?” Amalia asked.

“Until dinner,” Nick agreed. “Put your backpack in your room first, please.” She dropped it on the bottom step as she passed it on the way to the living room. Nick sighed. “She at least does take her things up with her when she goes up the stairs. Mom taught her that.” He tilted his head, indicating Sabrina should follow him. “What was the project your aunts had for her?”

“They built gingerbread haunted houses,” Sabrina told him. “For display at Cee’s, so you will have to make sure you go by and see Amalia’s. Trust me, you won’t miss it.”

“Did she eat as much candy as she used to decorate it?” Nick guessed.

“She had a fair amount,” Sabrina admitted. “I cut her off though. There was only minor protest.” She wandered towards the stove where Nick had meat and sauce simmering. “Did you get your things moved?”

“I did,” he confirmed. “Melvin helped. You just missed him, actually. All my bedroom furniture is in the garage along with a whole bunch of boxes and my room upstairs is a disaster, but I’ll get some things put away tomorrow.” He leaned against the counter, watching Sabrina. He was nervous for her verdict. He wanted to do a good job, impress her. “How am I doing?”

“This doesn’t look terrible,” she announced. “Mind if I taste it?”

“Go for it. Don’t get too excited, though. The sauce is from a jar. Baby steps.”

Sabrina tasted the concoction on the stove. Nick was right. It wasn’t terrible. She checked the noodles, which weren’t quite done, and thought the garlic bread could have used another minute or two in the oven, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. No one would die from eating it a little less toasted.

“You did okay, Scratch,” she declared. “Amalia will be pleased it isn’t from a can.”

“She’s so picky,” he shook his head. Sabrina decided now was as good of a time as any to break the news to him about her lunches.

“Did you know she doesn’t like the Uncrustables you’re packing in her lunch?”

He frowned.

“She doesn’t?”

“No,” Sabrina confirmed. “She said she likes ham and cheese wraps, sometimes turkey. And that the only fruit she likes are bananas, strawberries, and grapes. Your mom cut up a hotdog for her once and that was a big hit. She also likes cheese quesadillas.”

“Crap,” Nick sighed. “Is she not eating lunch?”

“She says she trades with her classmates,” Sabrina told him. “But maybe take her with you the next time you go grocery shopping and let her pick out a few things she would like?”

“She’s going to try to fill the cart with sugary cereal and corn dogs...”

“Sounds like she eats like her brother,” Sabrina quipped.

“Fair enough,” Nick admitted. “I thought I was doing okay, at least with lunch…”

“You’re doing fine,” Sabrina assured him. “She’s not starving and everyone made it through the week. Take that as a win, Nick.”

“I’ll take them where I can get them,” he said.

“How are things going?” Sabrina asked. “The truth, please. Don’t try to paint a pretty picture for me. I know this wasn’t as easy of a week as you tried to make it look like.”

Nick sighed and slumped against the counter.

“It was tough,” he admitted. “I thought each day would get a little easier as we figured out a routine, but by yesterday evening, I was at the end of my rope with it all.” He looked at her. “I really did need some time to myself. Thank you for taking her for the night. I just sat on the couch and watch a bad movie after I got home last night, but I needed it.”

“I thought you might,” Sabrina admitted. She had seen from a mile away that Nick needed some space from Amalia and his new responsibilities. She wondered if he had even truly grieved, so caught up in first the immediate aftermath of his parents’ deaths and then pushing through his first week of whatever “normal” was now.

“Getting up earlier hasn’t been as terrible as I thought it might be,” he confessed. “I kind of like the quiet in the house before Amalia gets up. But once she’s out of bed, you don’t know what you’re going to get. One morning she’s sweet and obedient, the next she’s like a child possessed. What worked the day before doesn’t work that day. The clothes she picked out the night before aren’t right. I’ve forgotten something every day this week. Did you know they give preschoolers homework? I didn’t, and I got treated to an Amalia meltdown three nights ago because everyone else had their homework that day and she didn’t.”

“I know it’s hard, but you have to give yourself some grace,” Sabrina offered. “You can’t expect to have it all figured out in the two weeks you’ve been her guardian.”

“I know,” he sighed. “I do. It’s just – she lost her parents, Sabrina. I lost them, too, but I’m an adult. Not a great one, as we’ve established, but I didn’t need them the same way she does.” He rubbed a weary hand down his face. “She’s got this Dads and Donuts thing at school in a couple of weeks. I’ll go, because I can’t stand the idea of her not having anyone there, but I’m not Dad. I’m damn sure not Mom. It just doesn’t feel – good enough.”

Sabrina let her instincts take over. She went to him and took his hands.

“When I was twelve, the elementary school had a daddy/daughter dance. My dad was gone, so do you know who took me?” He waited for her to answer. “Zelda. We got all dressed up and we danced and had the best time. She took me for a milkshake after, and it’s still one of my favorite memories with her. It did bother me a little that my dad wasn’t there when everyone else had a dad, but Zelda was. She loved me enough to be there for me. You’re doing the same for Amalia. When she’s all grown up, she’s going to look back and realize just how incredible of a brother she has.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Nick said. His grip tightened on Sabrina’s hands. It felt good to touch her again. “She got upset the night before last because Mom wasn’t here to tuck her in. She cried herself to sleep and I ended up doing basically the same.”

“That’s probably not the last time that will happen,” Sabrina said knowingly. “It’s okay to feel things, Nick.” She squeezed his hands. “It’s okay to not have it all together.”

“I promised Mom I would take care of her and Dad that I would be better before I closed their caskets,” he revealed. “I don’t want to screw her up.”

“You won’t,” Sabrina assured him. “You love her, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.” She chanced a smile. “If nothing else, she will absolutely ace her history classes.” Nick chuckled a bit.

“I’ve got to be good for something.” He took a chance and pulled her into an embrace. Relief flooded through him when she wrapped her arms around him. He bit his lip to keep himself from saying anything that would send her away. “I keep saying thank you, but I mean it every single time. I wouldn’t have gotten through the last two weeks without you.”

“You would have,” Sabrina said. “I know that.”

He begrudgingly let her go. She missed his warmth immediately. He missed – her.

“Think she’ll eat my spaghetti?” he asked.

“It didn’t come from a can. Your odds are better than fifty percent at any rate.” Nick chuckled again.

They moved in an easy sort of rhythm. He got out plates and silverware while she turned off the stove. He argued with Amalia who wanted to eat dinner in the living room but got her to the kitchen table by reminding her Sabrina was there. The spaghetti wasn’t awful, all things considered, and Amalia even tried the garlic bread, but declared she didn’t like it. Amalia monopolized the conversation, filling Nick in on her day, and Sabrina served Hilda’s pound cake with ice cream. It was the most relaxed meal Nick had sat down to in the two weeks his parents had been gone. It was easily the most he had eaten in one sitting.

“Can we watch a movie?” Amalia asked after dinner was over and the dishes cleared. “Please, Nick?”

“Fine,” he agreed. “Pick something out.”

“I should go,” Sabrina said, folding a dish towel. “I’ve already overstayed my welcome.”

“Hardly,” Nick scoffed. “Stick around…”

“Watch a movie with me, Sabrina!” Amalia interrupted. “I know exactly which one! Pocahontas! We can see Jamestown and everything!”

Sabrina felt torn. Again, she wanted to stay. She knew she should leave if she was going to keep space between her and Nick, and she had already caved by hugging him, staying for dinner. But, she reasoned, she had already given in. What would it hurt to round out the night with a movie?

“I don’t know…” she hedged all the same.

“Please, Sabrina!” Amalia begged. Nick stood back and let his little sister do the work for him. “You like Disney movies! You told me so!”

“Okay,” Sabrina agreed, swayed by the child’s puppy dog eyes. “I’ll watch a movie with you, but then I really do have to go home.”

“Yes!” Amalia cried out. “Nick, make popcorn.” She tore out of the room to set the movie up.

“Bossy,” Nick muttered under his breath. “I shouldn’t… She just ate ice cream…”

“You can’t have a movie night without popcorn,” Sabrina reasoned.

“Like I said earlier, you’re pretty, but you’re a little evil.” She laughed as Nick moved to find the popcorn. A loud crash sounded from the living room.

“It’s okay!” Amalia called out.

“I’ll go see about that,” Sabrina said. “You work on that popcorn, Scratch.”

Alone in the kitchen, Nick blew out a breath.

So far, it was working. He had Sabrina there, had cooked her dinner, got her to stay, watch a movie with them. His plan was to show her, little by little, day by day, that he was changing, that he could be responsible, be the kind of person she seemed to believe he was capable of being. He hadn’t labeled his feelings – one thing at a time – but he knew he wanted her. He wanted to see what they could be.

He thought, if they could just get past the hurdle in front of them, they could be something great.

Amalia calling for him to hurry up pulled him out of his reverie.

“One bowl of popcorn, a cup of juice for the kid, fancy water for the adults.” He passed Sabrina a can of the flavored seltzer water he knew she liked – it had been in the fridge, purchased before his parents died – gave Amalia her juice, and sat down on the couch, Amalia between them. He looked around. Nothing seemed amiss. “What was the crash?”

“Nothing,” Amalia answered in a singsong voice. Sabrina winked at him, but subtly nodded towards the rack that held blu-rays, indicating Amalia had pulled it over. Nick nodded his understanding. “Can we start the movie now?”

“Go for it,” he agreed.

“Alexa, lights down,” she said. The room dimmed.

“Wait, we have that?” Nick asked, surprised. He hadn’t noticed any sort of voice command anything.

“Duh,” Amalia said. Nick bumped her shoulder.

“Don’t say that. That’s rude.”

“Alexa, play movie,” she ignored him.

“She will never know how to use a remote control,” Nick wondered. “What a world…” Sabrina chuckled and reached for the popcorn.

“Shh,” Amalia hushed. “It’s starting!”

On the screen, settlers boarded boats for the New World, talking about the gold they were going to find and the heroism of John Smith. Nick watched as John Smith rescued someone who fell overboard in a storm and Governor Ratcliffe pondered the fact that the others liked John Smith.

“This is so inaccurate,” he couldn’t help but point out. “Smith was arrested for mutiny on the voyage over. He was due to be hanged the day after they made land, but when they unsealed the documents sent by the Virginia Company of London and found he was named as one of the members of the founding council, Captain Newport freed him…”

“Nick, it’s a movie,” Sabrina reminded him, trying hard not to smile at his indignation over the liberties taken by Disney.

“Still…”

“Shh!” Amalia commanded.

Nick couldn’t help himself.

“This is just so factually inaccurate,” he stated as Pocahontas and John Smith’s romance blossomed. “The real Pocahontas was like eleven…”

“Stop taking!” Amalia demanded, her eyes on the screen. Sabrina bit her lip to keep from laughing. Nick stayed quiet until Kocoum was killed on screen and John Smith took the fall.

“That’s wrong, too. Pocahontas did marry Kocoum…”

“Nick!” Amalia chided.

“She did,” Nick insisted. “And that’s not why Powhatan was going to put him to death. Kocoum was either killed by Captain Samuel Argall or else divorced Pocahontas. No one is entirely clear. But Smith was captured by Pocahontas’ brother and sentenced to death by Powhatan and Pocahontas did save him, but there is doubt around Smith’s account of things...”

“Nick,” Sabrina interrupted, smiling. “It’s a movie. A Disney movie. You can educate us on the life and death of all involved when it’s over.” He shot her a look, but stayed quiet through the rest of the movie. Neither of them realized Amalia had fallen asleep until Nick tried out the Alexa voice command to raise the lights.

“Think she would take it well if I woke her up and told her all the ways in which that movie was incredibly off base?” he asked Sabrina.

“I think I know what your breakfast conversation will be tomorrow,” Sabrina replied. He winked at her for the second time that night. She reluctantly sat up from where she had lounged into the cushions while watching the movie. “It’s late. I really should get home.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Nick moved carefully to avoid waking Amalia. He desperately wanted the mere minutes it would take to walk Sabrina outside to himself, no Amalia to intrude on his moment. Sabrina was surprised when he didn’t leave her at the door like she expected, but instead walked with her out to her car. It reminded her of the night at his house, just before his parents died. “Thank you again, Sabrina. Amalia loves spending time with you and I really needed the break.”

“Anytime. I mean that, Nick. I love spending time with her, too. She’s a great kid.”

“She is,” Nick agreed. “If there’s a bright spot to these last two weeks, it’s been getting to know my little sister.”

“You’re doing great, Nick,” she assured him. “I know it’s hard to see because you’re in it, but you really are. I’m proud of you.”

He couldn’t help but stand a little taller. Her praise gave him a certain confidence that he wasn’t completely screwing up.

“I’m glad you stuck around tonight,” he confessed. “It was good, getting to spend some time with you.”

“It was a fun night,” Sabrina said carefully, sensing the conversation veering from center.

“I’ve missed you, Sabrina,” he admitted in a vulnerable moment. “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, given where things stand between us, but I have.”

“Nick,” she sighed. She had missed him too, but she couldn’t voice it. Not right now.

“It’s okay,” he shook his head. “I know nothing has changed between us. But I want you to know I’ve missed you and how thankful I am for you, for everything you’ve done for us. You’ve been my way forward these last couple of weeks. I wouldn’t have made it without you.” He tucked his hands in his pockets to keep from reaching for her. “You have no idea how the five minutes of conversation we have in the mornings or the twenty minutes of small talk at lunch helps me. If that’s all I can have right now, I’ll take it.”

Sabrina found herself speechless. The person in front of her looked like Nicholas Scratch, but he didn’t sound like him. The Nick she knew made crude comments and said dirty things in her ear while he was making her lose her senses. This Nick was – different. This was the Nick she believed was hidden underneath his suave mannerisms and deadly lips.

“I should get back inside,” he said, not willing to give Sabrina the chance to tell him one more time that they couldn’t be together right now. “I don’t want Amalia to wake up alone in the house.”

“Tell her goodnight for me?” she asked quietly.

“Of course,” Nick nodded. They gazed at one another for a long moment.

“Sleep well, Nick,” she said, her tone still soft.

“I will one of these days,” he said, some of his weariness showing through. He gave her a single nod. “Goodnight, Sabrina.”

In her car, she sat behind the wheel, her mind tumbling over what had just happened. The Nick she was used to was brash, sometimes inappropriate, always surface level. The Nick that had just went back inside had been vulnerable, honest. She considered going to the door, asking him what he meant by it all, if that version of Nick was there to stay or if the other version of him, the one that was great in bed but refused to commit, would return.

Because there was one of those two Nicks she would be willing to give a chance.

Instead of confronting him, she put her car in drive and drove home, wondering how it was possible to house so much conflict in one heart muscle.

Chapter Text

The TV hummed in the background, some musical number or another unfolding. Amalia sat next to Nick on the couch, enthralled by it all, but he was only barely aware of what was happening, he himself wrapped up in the papers he was grading. He didn’t notice how Amalia’s lips turned into a frown that grew ever deeper, or how tears sprung to her eyes.

Without warning, Amalia sprang from the couch and ran from the room. He glanced after her, but returned his attention back to his student’s attempt to explain the causes of the Revolutionary War. He made a note on the essay and continued to read.

A few minutes passed. He glanced towards the doorway. No sign of Amalia. It wasn’t entirely unusual for her to disappear upstairs, though. She was good at playing independently when she wanted to be. He often found her in her bedroom or playroom, deeply involved in a game of make believe. He figured she had gotten bored of the movie and went off in search of something else to do.

He finished reading the essay, wrote a long note at the end explaining his reasoning for his grade, then wrote a “B-“ on the front and circled it. He sat it aside and reached for the next one. On the screen, Daddy Warbucks announced a search for Annie’s parents. Nick glanced at the ceiling as though he could see through it, his curiosity about where Amalia had disappeared to growing as the minutes ticked by.

“Amalia?” he called.

Silence.

“Amalia!”

Nothing.

He sighed and put the essay aside. Silence and Amalia never went hand-in-hand without consequence. He made his way upstairs and to Amalia’s bedroom, expecting to find she had done something disastrous she didn’t want him to know about. The door was closed.

“Amalia?” No answer. He tapped the door with his knuckles. “Amalia? You in there?”

“Go away.”

Her voice was muffled, far away. He turned the knob. It was locked. He knocked again.

“Amalia? Open the door.”

“Go away!”

He sighed.

“Amalia, that’s enough. Let me in. Now.”

“No!”

“Amalia, I’m not playing around. Let me in.”

“Go away, Nick!”

He sighed. He had no patience for her locking him out. He thought he had some time before she figured out slamming and locking doors.

“You’re not as smart as you think you are,” he grumbled to her door.

He went down the hallway to his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t go inside, but instead reached his fingers along the top of the doorframe. They landed on a thin medal key. He had tried the very same trick as Amalia several times over and his parents, usually his dad, had always found their way in. He had thought his father could pick locks for a full year before he discovered the universal key they kept hidden over their bedroom door for reasons he never asked about. He was curious as to their reasoning now, but he would never know.

He unlocked the door and pushed it open. Amalia was sitting in the middle of her bed, tears streaming down her face.

“Mally? What’s wrong?”

He was a few steps into her room when she leapt off the bed.

“I said don’t come in here!”

She ran for the door. He grabbed for her as she passed him, but she dodged him and kept going. He blew out a frustrated breath and followed her. She disappeared into the master bedroom and slammed the door behind her. He heard another door slam before he got to the end of the hall.

He tried the knob. She hadn’t locked it.

“Amalia, what the hell – heck – is going on?” he half asked, half demanded. He looked around for her. The bathroom door was open, but the closet door was shut. He went to it. It didn’t lock. He pushed it open and turned on the light.

“Go away!” Amalia screamed in a voice that didn’t seem to belong to her. She backed into the far wall, disappearing into their mother’s dresses. “Go away, Nick! Go away!”

He stooped down, trying to see her through the fabric wall.

“Amalia, what’s wrong?” he tried. “Why are you so upset?”

“I hate you!”

Nick frowned, confusion growing.

“What did I do?”

As far as he knew, he had done nothing all that wrong in the last twenty-four hours, save for give her “purple juice” instead of “red juice,” a situation rectified by swapping out the grape juice for cranberry in the name of keeping the peace.

“I want Mommy!”

Nick sighed.

“Enough of this, Amalia. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Go away!”

“No!” Nick tried to move closer. Amalia slid to the floor and kicked at him. He dodged her. “Hey! Absolutely not! We don’t do that.”

“Leave me alone!”

“Come out of there and tell me what’s wrong.” She didn’t reply. He tried again to get closer. She kicked with more vigor. “Amalia, I don’t know how to help you if you won’t tell me what’s wrong.”

“I hate you!” she cried again. “You’re going to give me away!”

Nick frowned deeply.

“What?”

“You’re going to give me away!”

“What in the hell are you talking about?” Nick asked, not bothering to correct his language. “No one is giving you away.”

“Yes, you are!”

“I kind of want to right now,” he said without thinking. Amalia wailed. He sighed heavily and mentally berated himself for his mistake. “I’m sorry, Amalia. I didn’t mean…” He tried to reach for her. Again, she kicked vigorously. He tried to preserve. She threw a shoe at him. His temper bubbled. “Amalia! Enough!”

He grabbed for her with the intention of physically removing her from the closet.

Chaos erupted.

He didn’t know she was capable of a tantrum like the one she launched into. She screamed at the top of her lungs, cried, threw whatever she could get her hands on, mostly shoes. She kicked and smacked whenever he reached for her. He tried to reason with her, talk to her. She only screamed louder. Frustrated, he retreated to the bedroom several minutes later, Amalia’s cries dying down as he distanced himself, and did the only thing he knew to do.

She answered after two rings.

“Nick?”

“Please say you’re not busy right now.”

Sabrina could tell by his desperate tone that things weren’t okay.

“What’s wrong? Is Amalia okay?”

“No,” he sighed. “I mean, physically, she’s fine. At least, I think she is. But she’s in our parents’ closet and losing her mind. She’s screaming at me, telling me she hates me, that I’m going to give her away… I’ve tried everything, Sabrina. I can’t get her to come out. She’s kicking me, throwing things at me… I don’t know what else to do…” He was nearing a panicked state now.

“I’m almost home,” Sabrina said. Nick noted the time. It was nearing nine o’clock. It was Friday night and a bye week for football. He knew without her saying as much that she had been on a date with Gregory. “I’ll turn around and head your way. I should be there in about fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” he sighed, pushing aside thoughts of her on a date with someone else. He had bigger problems right now, as big of a problem as that was. “I can’t talk to her. She was watching a movie and then she wasn’t…”

“I’ll be there,” Sabrina soothed. “Let her be until I get there. Give her some space to calm down. We’ll figure it out.”

Nick hung up and sat down on the top stair to wait, his head in his hands. He had no idea what had happened, no clue as to what had set Amalia off seemingly out of nowhere. It stung, hearing her say she hated him, being pushed away. For every step forward, he felt like he was getting pushed back five. Pushed, because he certainly wasn’t trying to go backwards, but it felt like life was intent on setting him back.

Sabrina was on his doorstep ten minutes later.

“Thank you,” he breathed as he opened the door.

“Where is she?” she asked by way of greeting. “Still upstairs?”

“She’s still in the closet,” Nick confirmed. “I left her alone, like you said. She won’t come out. I don’t know what else to do.”

“I’ll try to talk to her.” Sabrina appraised Nick. He looked worse for the wear, but she would have to deal with him later. One Scratch at a time. “Can I go up?”

“Of course,” Nick nodded. “I should probably – not.”

“Stay nearby,” Sabrina instructed. “In case.” Nick nodded and led Sabrina upstairs. She squeezed his arm briefly before disappearing into the closet. She didn’t see him rub the place her hand had been, comforted by her touch. “Amalia?”

“Sabrina?”

Amalia, eyes bloodshot and red, peeked through a curtain of dresses.

“It’s me,” Sabrina confirmed. She kicked aside an assortment of thrown shoes to clear a space and sat down a few feet away from Amalia’s hiding spot, crossing her legs under her. “Nick said you’re upset. Can you tell me what’s wrong? So I can help you?”

Outside, Nick leaned against the wall next to the door, listening in.

“Nick’s gonna give me away,” Amalia said in broken little voice.

Nick clenched his fists to keep himself from going into the closet and setting her straight. She had finally stopped screaming. He didn’t want to set her off again and Sabrina was a hell of a lot better at this stuff than he would ever be.

“Why do you think that?” Sabrina asked, all diplomatic and kind.

“Because…” Amalia faltered. “Because…”

“Because?” Sabrina prompted.

“Because I don’t have parents.” Amalia’s voice cracked. “I’m an orphan.”

Sabrina frowned.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Annie doesn’t have parents,” Amalia explained. “They said she was an orphan. Her parents gave her away and now she has to live with Daddy Warbucks. I don’t have parents and now I have to live with Nick, so I’m an orphan, too.”

For one wild moment, Sabrina thought Amalia was referring to the ragdoll she dragged around. But her brain caught up quickly. It wasn’t Annie doll that had set her off.

“Were you watching Annie earlier?” she asked. Amalia nodded sadly. Sabrina sighed and scooted a little closer. “Amalia, Annie is just a movie. And, it has a happy ending. Annie gets to stay with Daddy Warbucks and live happily ever after. I don’t understand why you think Nick would give you away though. Can you explain that to me?”

Amalia shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I just got upset.” She chewed her lip. “I miss my mommy and daddy, Sabrina.”

She started to cry. Sabrina blinked away her own tears. She couldn’t cry right now. Amalia needed her.

“Come here,” she said softly. Amalia crawled out of the dresses and into Sabrina’s arms without hesitation. Sabrina hugged her tight as Amalia curled into her. “I know you miss them, and that’s okay. My mom and dad have been gone a long, long time, and I still miss them. I always will. But you have a brother who loves you so much. He would never, ever give you away.”

Nick blinked back his own tears outside the closet door and debated on whether to go into the closet. Still, he held himself back, waiting for Sabrina to tell him what to do.

“Maybe he will…” Amalia hedged.

“Absolutely not,” Sabrina shook her head. She was sure Amalia didn’t know about the day after their parents died when a drunk, angry Nick had declared he would give Amalia to their aunt. She had been sound asleep in the other room. “Nick would never, ever give you away. He loves you too much.” She jostled Amalia playfully. “Besides, you have to teach him about Disney.”

Amalia giggled just a bit. Outside the closet, Nick’s lips turned into a hint of a smile.

“He doesn’t like Disney,” Amalia said. “But he did say Cars wasn’t awful.”

“You’ll have to ask him to show you Star Wars,” Sabrina told her, glad she seemed to be settling down. “He’ll never admit it to anyone, but he loves those movies. Your brother is a total nerd at heart.”

Nick chuckled despite the situation. Sabrina wasn’t wrong. He wondered how she knew he loved the Star Wars movies though. He didn’t think he had ever told her. He tried to keep that fact about himself under wraps.

“What’s Star Wars?” Amalia asked.

“Some movie about space and a galaxy far far away,” Sabrina dismissed. She herself had never actually seen a Star Wars movie and had no plans to see one. “You know, Nick is pretty upset about how you acted earlier. He said you said you hated him.”

“I don’t hate him,” Amalia said quietly. “I love my brother.”

Nick couldn’t take it anymore. He appeared in the doorway, ready to go to Amalia. He stopped short however. The scene, Sabrina sitting on the floor of his parents’ closet, Amalia in her lap snuggled close as Sabrina played with her hair and comforted her, took his breath away. Something he couldn’t identify surged through him.

“You owe him an apology,” Sabrina continued, glancing his way. “A big one. It’s okay to get upset, but it’s not okay to run away from him. It’s definitely not okay to say you hate him and throw things at him.”

Nick came to his senses and stepped into the closet.

“Amalia?” he asked in a hesitant tone. “You okay now?”

“I’m okay,” she nodded. “I’m sorry, Nick. I was upset.”

“I know.” He lowered himself to the floor, pushing aside one of his mom’s high heels. His knees touched Sabrina’s in the space. The contact comforted him. “Can I give you a hug?”

Without a word, Amalia crawled from Sabrina’s lap to Nick’s. She curled into him the way she had Sabrina. He hugged her maybe a little too tight, but she didn’t complain.

“I love you, Amalia,” he said into her hair. “I would never, ever give you away. You’re my baby sister. I couldn’t do that.”

“Promise?” Amalia whispered.

“I promise.” He hugged her still tighter, still not really understanding how she had gotten that idea from the movie. “I absolutely swear it.”

Amalia moved in his lap so she could wrap her small arms around his neck.

“I’m sorry I threw things.”

“Let’s not do that again, okay?” he asked, still hugging her tight.

“Okay,” Amalia agreed. She rested her head on his shoulder. Sabrina sat on her hands to refrain from reaching out, from wrapping her arms around the both of them. They needed this moment together. She already felt a bit like an intruder. “I miss Mommy and Daddy, Nick.”

“I do, too.” He pulled away enough so he could see her, remembering some of the unsolicited advice a well-meaning family friend he was fairly sure was a child psychologist at the same hospital his dad had worked at had given him at his parents’ funeral about getting Amalia talk about her feelings. “What do you miss the most about them?”

Amalia thought for a moment.

“I miss Mommy holding my hand,” she said with a certain type of confidence that most four-year-olds didn’t possess. But most four-year-olds hadn’t lost both parents suddenly. “I used to get mad because she wouldn’t let me walk by myself when we went places, but now I miss holding her hand.”

It was such a profound statement for a four-year-old that Nick was momentarily lost for words. He met Sabrina’s eyes and saw she, too, was struck by the comment. Before he could reply, Amalia continued.

“And I miss sitting in Daddy’s lap at his desk while he read things and wrote things. It made me feel like a big girl.”

It was all Nick could do not to cry. Sabrina wiped at the tears that fell freely down her cheeks. Nick didn’t think. He reached out and wiped one away with his thumb. She smiled at him and he swore she leaned into his touch.

“What do you miss the most, Nick?” Amalia asked.

“I miss how mom used to show up at my place without calling first,” he shared without hesitation. “It used to annoy me so much when she would do that.” He gave Amalia a playfully little jostle. “You were usually with her.”

Amalia giggled a bit.

“You would get so mad!” she said, a hint of happiness coming in her voice. “Mommy said you were the messiest person she knew. I asked her if you were as messy as Oscar the Grouch and she said messier.”

Sabrina snorted back a laugh. Nick had to smile.

“I can be pretty messy,” he admitted. “I think I’m doing better though.”

He could see the floor of his bedroom at any rate, and the dishes got done most nights.

“What do you miss about Daddy?” Amalia prompted.

“Talking to him,” Nick said easily. “He had all the answers.”

“He knew everything, even where Jasmine lives. He showed me on a map. It’s a long way away from here.”

“He knew everything,” Nick agreed. Amalia had no idea how right she was. He glanced at Sabrina. She was watching them with contemplative eyes. He would give absolutely anything to talk to his dad about Sabrina now, get his advice on the mess of things he felt. “I miss them too, Mally. It’s okay that we miss them. We’re always going to miss them. But we have each other and we’re going to be okay.”

“We could have a puppy, too,” Amalia said seriously, changing the direction of the conversation on a dime, reminding both Nick and Sabrina that, despite her intelligence, she really was just a small child. “It could be three of us.”

“I think it’ll be a while before we have a puppy,” Nick said. He could barely keep them alive, let alone a dog. He hugged her again. “I love you, Amalia, and I promise you, I’m not going to give you away. You have me and I have you. We’re going to be okay.” He kissed the top of her head. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Nick could tell by the way her words slurred that she was tired. “Can we watch the Star Wars movie Sabrina was talking about?”

“Not tonight,” Nick shook his head. “Maybe tomorrow, though. Right now, I think it’s time for bed.”

“Can’t I finish Annie?”

Nick nearly gave in. He wanted to, to make her happy after a rough moment. But he knew enough from his few weeks as her guardian to know Amalia was a nightmare if she didn’t get enough sleep. He had to do the responsible thing instead of the fun brother thing.

“Not tonight,” he said again. “You’re sleepy, and you have soccer in the morning. You need to get some rest. You’re already in your pajamas. Why don’t you go pick out a book? I’ll be right there.”

“Can Sabrina read to me?” Amalia asked.

Nick looked to Sabrina to answer.

“Of course I will,” Sabrina nodded. “Go pick out a book, like Nick said. I’ll be in in a minute.”

“Nick, you have to come too,” Amalia said as she stood from Nick’s lap. “You have to tell me about history things.”

“I’m coming, too,” Nick agreed. “Go on. We’ll be right there.”

Amalia left the room. Nick sighed a heavy sigh and rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. When he looked at Sabrina, she was watching him with concern.

“You okay?” she asked in her gentle way.

“I’m – better,” Nick said after a beat. “I didn’t know what to do. Thank you for coming, Sabrina. She was out of control. I’ve never seen her throw a tantrum like that. I don’t think she did that for my parents, even. It was either call you or let her scream it out and at the rate she was going, it could have been a long time.”

“I’m always here, Nick.” She put her hand on his forearm. Nick felt something inside himself settle. “You know that.”

He covered her hand with his.

“Thank you, Sabrina.”

It was a loaded thank you. He thought she understood.

“We should probably go put her to bed,” Sabrina suggested, aware that there was something bubbling between them. “While she’s being cooperative.”

“Take this window of opportunity while its open,” Nick agreed. Begrudgingly, he stood and offered Sabrina his hand. He held onto it until they stepped out of the bedroom and the feeling of stepping back into a reality in which they were just friends settled around them.

Together, they entered Amalia’s room. Sabrina brushed out her hair while Nick pulled down her blankets. Sabrina was halfway through the first of the two books Amalia had picked out before she was sound asleep. Sabrina felt something stir inside her as she watched Nick tuck Amalia in, turn off her light, kiss her forehead. She hugged her arms around herself, willing the feeling to go away. He turned on the monitor by Amalia’s bed then her nightlight by the door. He closed her bedroom door almost all the way.

“I guess I should go,” Sabrina said when they reached downstairs.

“I was going to make some coffee,” Nick said in reply. “Want a cup?”

Sabrina frowned.

“Coffee? It’s after ten o’clock, Nick. You’ll be up all night.”

“I’m not going to be able to sleep,” Nick shook his head. Again, Sabrina noted the circles under his eyes. “May as well grade some papers. How about a cup of tea? Mom had a whole drawer of tea and I don’t drink the stuff. I’m sure there’s decaf in there. I’ll put on a kettle.”

Sabrina sensed he didn’t want her to go. Against her better judgment, she nodded.

“I’ll have some tea.”

Nick looked relieved.

“To the kitchen, then.” She followed him down the hall. “Look in the second drawer from the fridge,” he directed. “Pick out a tea bag. The coffee pods are in there too, if you wouldn’t mind grabbing me one. I don’t care what kind – just not the caramel one. Coffee shouldn’t taste like a pastry.”

Sabrina had to smile a bit.

“Not a fan of the sweetness, huh?”

“Not even a little bit.”

Nick busied himself with the tea kettle, rinsing it well before filling it for Sabrina. He had never used it, didn’t know how long it had been since his mother had. He put it on the stove, then took the pod Sabrina offered. A few minutes later, he placed a cup of tea in front of Sabrina where she sat at the island, then leaned on the counter across from her with his own mug for steaming coffee.

“You saved me tonight,” he said. “Thank you, Sabrina. I mean it.”

“I told you, Nick. I’m here – whenever you need me.”

He stopped himself from saying what he really wanted to say – that he needed all of her, not just the friendship she offered. Now wasn’t the time.

“She was so upset, Sabrina,” he said instead. “I didn’t know she could get that upset. I didn’t know what to do. And how she inferred that I would give her away from watching Annie…”

“Kids’ minds work in weird ways,” Sabrina offered. “She identified with Annie because she doesn’t have parents. She may have twisted the story a bit, but it makes sense, at least to a point.”

“She broke my heart, telling me what she missed about them,” Nick continued. “I thought she would say something like mom’s cookies or dad’s jokes. I wasn’t ready for her to say she missed holding hands and sitting in laps.”

“Amalia is a lot smarter than most kids her age,” Sabrina reminded him. “For better or for worse, sometimes.”

“She’ll be five in February,” Nick mused. “I have to register her for kindergarten. I thought about that last week, so I looked it up. I need to do that in April. I don’t know where Mom and Dad wanted her to go to school. Maybe public school, maybe private school. I just don’t know. I went to public school my whole life, but look how I turned out. Maybe they took one look at me and decided Amalia needed to be in private school if there was any chance in hell for her.”

“You’ve got plenty of time to make that decision,” Sabrina reminded him. “And I think you turned out okay, Nick.”

“Agree to disagree,” Nick shook his head. Sabrina wondered where his head was, but didn’t press. He had been exceptionally hard on himself lately and she wasn’t sure how to navigate those waters, help him see he was doing okay, that he wasn’t this awful person he seemed to think he was. “There’s all this stuff at her school, too. Classroom volunteering, a field trip to the pumpkin patch in a few weeks, Spirit Week during the high school’s homecoming… I can barely keep up with it all.”

“No one will judge you if you don’t send her to school dressed for each day of spirit week,” Sabrina told him. “You can’t do it all, Nick, and that’s okay.”

“Mom did it all,” he reminded Sabrina. “She would never send Amalia to school not dressed in that day’s theme. And have you met Amalia? She would lose her shit if she went to school on Crazy Sock Day in her regular socks.”

“True,” Sabrina said with a half-smile, because he was absolutely correct. “Want me to help with Sprit Week? That’s kind of my thing, after all.”

“Tag team it?” Nick countered. “I can handle Crazy Sock Day and Pajama Day. I’m relatively confident about Baxter High Day, too. That’s the same day as Homecoming and she just has to wear school colors. But Crazy Hair Day and Favorite Character Day? I can’t, Sabrina. I already said she could wear her Belle dress for Character Day and she informed me that Belle was not her favorite character and she simply could not wear her Belle dress to school. That’s what she gives me after the fit she threw before our parents’ visitation. And Crazy Hair Day? I barely manage to get a bow in her hair. It’s fallen out by the end of the day most days.”

“I’ll handle those,” Sabrina said with a smile. “I’ll come over before school on those days and get her ready. I’ll help you out with Baxter High Day, too. I know you can put her in a t-shirt and call it a day, but as the coach of the cheerleading squad, I simply cannot allow my favorite four-year-old to go to school looking anything less than over the top for my favorite day of Spirt Day. I won’t allow it.”

“You really are Heaven sent, Spellman,” Nick shook his head in awe. Thoughts of her on a date with Gregory earlier that night tried to push to the forefront of his mind again. He refused to let them take over, not after the night he’d had. He wanted to pretend everything was fine between them, that he wasn’t in some sort of odd, seemingly lopsided competition for her heart. Not tonight. Tonight, he just wanted to – talk to her. Pretend it was all okay between them, that there wasn’t a tidal wave of feelings and emotions speeding towards them, threatening to wipe away whatever shaking foundation they were on. “Speaking of school spirit, I really fell short on my Homecoming duties.”

“I think you get a free pass, Scratch.” Sabrina took a sip of her tea. Peppermint, to help her wind down, a favorite she reached for most nights. “You’ve had a lot going on. No one expects you to volunteer.”

“I’m volunteering at the dance,” he said with a certain determination. “I went to that meeting with the intention of volunteering. I have to do something.”

Sabrina raised an eyebrow. She was certain she was the reason he went to that meeting. His parents had died a few days later, but she had a feeling she would have seen a lot more of him at Homecoming ¬meetings had things been different.

“You’ve really impressed me, Nick,” she told him with complete honesty. “I know these last few weeks have been absolute hell, but you have shown up each day, even when I know there were at least a handful when you probably didn’t want to.”

“I want to do things right,” he said by way of explanation. “All of it.”

“You’ll have to sleep at some point to do that,” Sabrina reminded him pointedly.

“Sleep has been elusive,” Nick admitted. “My mind works at a hundred miles an hour all day. As soon as I lay down, it kicks up another notch or three and I just can’t fall asleep.”

“You have to take care of yourself,” Sabrina said gently. “You’re not going to be any good to us if you crash and burn from not sleeping or eating as well as you should.”

“I’ll sleep one of these days,” Nick shook his head. “When Amalia is a moody teenager and doesn’t want to get out of bed at all.”

Sabrina smiled a bit, but it was tinged with sadness.

“How are you doing?”

She continued to ask that question and Nick appreciated it more every time. The rest of Greendale had moved on from his parents’ death. The casseroles were gone, the condolences no longer issued at every turn of the grocery store. His parents’ death was a thing that happened, a tragedy, certainly, but not one that affected the majority of Greendale directly. But Sabrina remained steadfast, there to ask him how he was doing, what he needed.

“If I take a step back, I think I’m doing okay.” Sabrina nodded, but she didn’t say what she wanted to – that he was focused wholly on the “stuff.” For him, right now, doing okay was homework assignments graded and preschool Spirit Weeks completed. It was checking off a to-do list of tasks with relative correctness, not worrying about his own well-being. “But when I’m in it, it feels like it’s all falling apart.”

“I don’t think it is,” Sabrina shook her head. “You haven’t burned the house down at any rate, and apparently you tell Amalia ‘history things’ at bedtime.”

Nick smiled a bit.

“She always wants another book at bedtime to try and stave it off, but I won’t cave so she tricked me into telling her about history and now it’s a thing we do. It’s like another story, but true.”

“You really are such a nerd,” Sabrina said seriously. Nick laughed just a bit. “I noticed she’s not correcting you when you call her Mally anymore.”

“I don’t know when that changed,” Nick shook his head. “I’ve called her Mally her whole life and she’s never liked it for some reason. But recently… I guess she decided its okay.”

“I think it’s a cute nickname.” Sabrina finished her tea and stifled a yawn. “I should go. It really is late now.”

Nick nodded begrudgingly. He wanted her to stay, but she was right. It was late and she had yawned a couple of times. It was time for her to head to her own home.

“I’ll walk out with you.”

It no longer surprised Sabrina to find Nick walking her to her car. She liked it, all things considered. She turned to him when they reached her vehicle, parked in the Scratch driveway beside his truck. She felt the pull, the want to wrap him in her arms. It was as strong as it had ever been. She tucked her hair behind her ear to stop herself.

“Thank you again, Sabrina. I know you weren’t planning on coming over here tonight.”

Again, he pushed down thoughts of her being on a date with Gregory. He didn’t know that’s where she had been for sure and he wasn’t going to ask but he was still certain all the same.

“You needed me,” Sabrina shrugged. “I’m here for you, Nick.”

He didn’t give a damn right then about where things stood between them. He reached for her, because it was the only thing he could do.

Sabrina looped her own arms around his neck as though it were the most natural thing in the world. She leaned into the hug. His hand ran up and down her back. Having her in his arms did something to him, settled him in a way he knew he needed to pay attention to, understand. He pressed a kiss into her hair that was so soft Sabrina didn’t know if he had actually kissed her or not before he pulled away.

“Text me when you get home?” he requested. “Just let me know you got there okay?”

“I will,” Sabrina nodded, pushing aside her own confusion. It would bite her in the ass eventually, continuing to push away her confusion where Nick was concerned, but tonight wasn’t the night to delve into it. “Get some rest, Nick.”

He opened the car door for her. She slid into the car and was pulling on her seatbelt when Nick spoke again.

“How did you know I like Star Wars?”

Sabrina looked up at him. It was dark, the garage floodlight barely reaching them. His guard was down, his emotions on his sleeve. She shrugged a shoulder.

“I guess you told me once.” She couldn’t remember how or when she learned that little fact about Nick, but she knew it all the same. “I’ve never seen a single movie.”

“We’ll have to fix that,” Nick mused. “Drive safe, okay? Text me…”

“I’ll text you,” Sabrina nodded, knowing he needed it for his sanity. “Goodnight, Nick.”

“Goodnight, Sabrina,” he replied. “Thank you again.”

Nick stood on the porch and watched her taillights disappear before he went back inside. He tidied the kitchen and returned to his essays. His phone lit up a few paragraphs in. He noted that it was after eleven before he read the screen.

Home safe and sound. Go to bed, Scratch.

He smiled a bit.

Sleep well, Spellman.

He was asleep on the couch thirty minutes later, an essay in his lap, a pen in his hand.

Somehow, despite the crick in his neck the next morning, it was the best night’s sleep he’d had since his parents died.

Chapter Text

Nick was at the microwave, tapping out a beat on the linoleum countertop while he waited when Sabrina walked into the teacher’s lounge. She smiled a bit at the sight of him.

“What is it today?” she asked. “Frozen or leftovers?”

“Leftovers,” he answered. “I tried chicken alfredo last night. Amalia wouldn’t touch it, but with enough cheese added on top, it wasn’t half bad.”

Sabrina laughed.

“Sauce from a jar?” she guessed.

“And pre-cooked chicken and that broccoli you steam in the microwave,” he confirmed. “Amalia said the broccoli was offensive. I was pretty annoyed with her in the moment, but later? I was impressed with her usage of the word.”

Sabrina laughed genuinely then and busied herself with her own lunch, a salad today.

“What did she end up eating?” she asked.

“Fish sticks and sweet potato fries. I lied to her and told her the fries were dyed orange for Halloween. She bought it, hook, line, and sinker. But I figured she needed to eat some vegetables and I was running out of options.”

Another laugh emitted from Sabrina. Nick smiled. He liked when he was the one that made her laugh. It had been nearly two weeks since Amalia’s outburst and while they continued to have their moments at school and Amalia had spent time with her, he missed Sabrina’s presence around the house. The place felt big and empty without his parents, and when she was there, it seemed a little more okay. A little lighter. He was still intent to show her that he was changing, and he thought, maybe, she was starting to see that. He felt like he had things a lot more together at any rate, even if they weren’t perfect.

“How was the donut thing this morning?” she asked. He ignored the ding of the microwave and took out his phone.

“Okay enough.” He passed the phone to her to her so she could look at the photos he snapped that morning. “She didn’t want to go to school at first because everyone else’s dads would be there, but I got her out the door and things were okay. There’s a boy in her class with two moms and another kid that’s being raised by her grandparents and an uncle came with her, so she got to see she’s not alone in having an odd family unit.”

“You look proud,” Sabrina commented as she flicked through Nick’s photos. Most of them were of Amalia, but he was in a couple, sitting with her at her child-sized table, one with them holding up donuts, Amalia proudly wearing a hat made from paper that she had decorated herself.

“I was,” Nick shrugged. “She just seemed so – big – sitting in her classroom, showing me where her cubby is, taking me around to the different stations, showing me her work… It was like my obnoxious baby sister had been replaced with this grown up little girl.”

“You’re going to be a mess when she goes to kindergarten,” Sabrina predicted. She slid her thumb to the next photo, but instead of one from that morning, it was one of Amalia at soccer practice, standing with her foot on the ball and looking every part the athlete, even if she wasn’t the best on the team by far. “She’s so cute.”

Nick removed his food and stepped out of the way for another teacher to get to the microwave.

“I waffle on my opinion of her cuteness,” Nick said. “She’s cute when she’s being sweet, but then another side of her comes out and I’m pretty sure she’s possessed.”

“Not Amalia,” Sabrina said with a note of sarcasm that made Nick smile. She skimmed her thumb across the screen again, not thinking of it being Nick’s phone. Her eyes widened in surprise. It was a shot of her with Amalia, taken earlier in the week when Nick had dropped her by cheerleading practice. She was on Amalia’s level, talking to the little girl animatedly. Amalia stood before her, beaming, her pom pom-clad hands on her hips.

“I couldn’t pass that moment up,” Nick extracted the phone from her. If she kept scrolling, she would find other pictures he had snuck of her, including his favorite, one of her and Amalia’s side profiles, both of their eyes trained on that dumb Pocahontas movie like it was the most fascinating thing in the world. There were more photos of just Sabrina, all snapped in moments when she was doing ordinary things, like grading at her desk when he stopped by her room or picking at the last of her fries at Cee’s the night he had pushed her up against the wall of her entry and had her crying out his name. He hadn’t realized he had taken so many until he was forced to spend time without her. He was grateful for them now, had started to understand the reason he had taken them in the first place.

“Will you send that one to me?” Sabrina asked.

“Of course.” He tapped his screen a few times, then leaned against the counter to eat his lunch. Sabrina did the same, neither of them feeling like joining the other teachers gathered around the breakroom table. “Would it be fair to assume you know who Elsa is and how to do her hair in some kind of braid thing?”

“Elsa?” Sabrina repeated. “As in the princess from Frozen?”

“Sure,” Nick shrugged with the assumption Sabrina was right. “Amalia informed me that’s what she wants to be for Halloween. I guess I can order a costume online?”

“You could,” Sabrina hedged, a thought forming. “But let me look in my aunts’ attic first. I think I’ve got an old dance costume that would be perfect. It might need to be altered a little, but Hilda could do that easily.”

“That would be incredible,” Nick said, grateful and plotting. Halloween was Sabrina’s birthday. If he could get her involved with Amalia on Halloween, he would be able to both spend time with her and give her the gift he had picked up for her weeks ago in a more – private – setting. “Where do kids go trick-or-treating, anyway? I guess around my parents’ neighborhood?”

“You could do that,” Sabrina nodded. “But the good candy is on our neighborhood. Make sure you take her to my aunts’ house, too. They go all out and they would never forgive you if you didn’t bring her by.”

“I’ll do that,” Nick confirmed, hoping she would be with them if all went well. He took one last bite of his lunch. Sabrina noticed he didn’t quite eat it all. She wondered if he was sleeping better, eating better. She had a theory he wasn’t, based on appearances alone. “I’m going to get back to my classroom. I’ve got two more quizzes to grade before my next class and I really need to get them back to students.”

She should have let him go, but she stopped him with a soft hand on his elbow. He raised an eyebrow in question.

“How are you sleeping?” she asked.

“A bit better.” Not entirely a lie, but not the truth either. He had a hard time falling asleep and his sleep was restless, at best. Just the night before, he had laid awake until after midnight, trying to talk himself off a ledge. It had been a rough evening with Amalia and Dorcas had been all too happy to report via a Facebook message that she had spied Sabrina on a date with that Gregory guy. He knew she had been seeing him some, but it stung all the same. So much so he couldn’t stop himself from making a subtle dig now. “You were out pretty late yourself, so I guess you didn’t sleep enough last night either.”

“Nick,” Sabrina warned. She knew exactly what he was talking about. She had met Gregory on the outskirts of Riverdale for a quick meal post cheer practice and Dorcas, who was casually seeing someone from the town herself, had walked in. Of course she had been quick to report her sighting to Nick.

“It’s fine,” he shook his head, hoping he was doing a good enjoy job hiding his feelings on the matter. “We’re friends.” He pretended to check the time. “I have to go. I’ll see you later.”

He left that time and she didn’t stop him. He must have taken her own appetite with him, as she was no longer hunger. She put the lid on her salad and put it back in the fridge. She had a planning period next and a lot she wanted to get done, given that she had in fact been out late the night before, but she found herself desperate for fresh air. She left the teacher lounge and went outside, grateful to find the track empty. There were no gym classes using it and the teachers that sometimes walked the track and gossiped during their lunch were blissfully absent. She started to walk.

She liked Gregory. He was kind, thoughtful. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word, holding doors and pulling out chairs. He was charismatic, sweet, easy-going. He was easy to talk to, always listened, always asked about her day with genuine interest. He walked her to her car, held her hand, kissed her sweetly. He texted her good morning and good night, genuinely cared about what she was teaching, what she and Roz had gotten into, how Theo and Harvey were, even though he hadn’t met Theo and had only said hello to Roz and Harvey briefly when picking her up the previous weekend.

But he didn’t set her on fire. There wasn’t passion there, not like there was with Nick. They had only kissed, but his kisses were just – okay. They were textbook, decent enough, but they didn’t make her have to pull him back for more the way she did with Nick. He had kissed along her neck the previous night, a small step towards something more physical than what they had going at the moment, and even when his lips found a place she usually liked, all she could truly focus on was how his beard made her itch.

Her feelings for Nick were complicated. She liked him. She was sure of that. She had told him as much. She may even love him, if she let herself truly think about it. But were her feelings based solely on the passion between them? He hadn’t done much outside of make her toes curl and swear on all things holy and unholy when they were in bed together to show her there was more between them than lust. She had always thought he was capable of being better than he was. He was young, after all, twenty-five, a swinging bachelor. He was allowed his fun. But once in a while she would see a side of him peak out and think of how nice it would be if he would just grow into that person, be that guy. It was part of what kept her holding on for so long.

He had left her more confused than ever over the last few weeks. While his parents’ deaths had certainly forced his hand, she couldn’t dismiss the fact that in the week leading up to their accident, the week she had avoided him, he had seemed genuinely rattled. He had gone to his father for advice and she thought she knew him well enough to know how hard that was for him. There was no use in wondering what could have been had his parents not died, but she couldn’t help but be curious as to whether he really would have stepped up to the plate past cleaning his room one time to show her he could be – more.

And now they were in this complicated place of him insisting he wanted to be more than friends while she kept him at arms’ length and dated someone else she couldn’t quite see herself committed to in spite of his many good qualities. She was certain she saw a flash of hurt fill Nick’s eyes before he pretended to check his watch and made a quick exit. It made her queasy, the thought of hurting him, but she still thought she was doing the right thing.

Wasn’t she?

She wanted it all. She wanted the passionate, can’t keep hands off one another lust that came with Nick, the genuine interest in her that Gregory displayed. If she could mold them into one person, she would.

She refused to admit that it was Nicholas Scratch she thought about in the moments before she fell asleep each night.

She refused to admit that it might take her a few hours to reply to texts from Gregory compared to the mere minutes in which she would respond to Nick.

She refused to admit that it was Nick who popped into mind throughout the day, Nick she thought of when Gregory ordered spaghetti at dinner, Nick that knew she didn’t like cheap beer, even though she couldn’t remember ever telling him – he had somehow always known – and that Gregory had offered her a taste of his cheap beer over dinner.

She couldn’t admit to anything.

Because admitting to anything would mean admitting that her feelings for Nick went past like and lust.

Admitting that she might love him would mean admitting he could break her heart.


“Amalia!”

Roz descended upon the girl, hugging her tightly. Amalia returned the hug with vigor.

“Hi, Roz!” she greeted. “Where’s Sabrina?”

“I’m right here.”

Sabrina appeared in the hall, smiling bright.

“Sabrina!”

Amalia pushed away from Roz and ran to Sabrina with open arms. It was like she hadn’t seen Sabrina in years instead of just that morning.

“Your hair stayed put,” Sabrina observed, hugging her tight. “It still looks good.”

“Everyone loved it!” Amalia enthused, shaking the mess of braids and bows Sabrina had constructed for Crazy Hair Day early that morning. “I had the best hair in class!”

“Where’s your outfit, Spellman?”

Nick stood in the doorway of Sabrina’s house, feeling slightly out of place, but his eyes were trained on her. She was wearing those damned leggings she looked so good in, and an oversized Colombia sweatshirt. She was beautiful.

“I changed as soon as school was over,” Sabrina answered. She was aware that Roz hadn’t spoken to Nick yet, but figured no greeting was better than a rude one. “A day spent in a poodle skirt is enough.” It had been Decades Day at Baxter High and for the third day in a row, Sabrina had gone all out. “I see you’re still in your costume.”

Nick grinned. He had gone as far as wearing his leather jacket instead of his usual tailored overcoat, but that was the most effort he had put into Homecoming festivities so far. It was all he could do to get Amalia out of the house in costume for her own Spirit Week, and even that came with Sabrina’s help.

“I’ll wear a Baxter High t-shirt on Friday. It’ll be great.”

Sabrina rolled her eyes, but with a playful glint. Roz rolled her eyes too, but not from amusement.

“Okay, Amalia, you ready to make your costume?” Sabrina asked.

“Yes!” Amalia jumped up and down. “I told Nick he can’t see until its done.”

“Nick can stay downstairs,” Roz agreed. Nick barely refrained from rolling his own eyes. “Come on, Amalia. Up to Sabrina’s room. We already started working on your dress.”

She led Amalia away, Amalia chattering happily about her day.

“Roz is still my biggest fan,” Nick observed.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Sabrina shook her head. “Will you be okay hanging out down here? Amalia told me this morning she wants to surprise you.”

“I’m a big boy, I can entertain myself,” Nick said with a nod. “I’ll just hang out in the kitchen, if that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Sabrina confirmed. “Help yourself to something to eat or drink if you want.”

She made to follow Roz upstairs. He started towards the kitchen, but couldn’t help himself.

“Spellman?” She paused and looked at him from her spot on the stairs. He grinned a bit. “I still like those leggings on you.”

Sabrina’s cheeks filled with pink. He smirked in a self-satisfied sort of way.

“Just yell if you need anything,” she said, knowing in the moment she needed to put some distance between them before something more happened. The past had proved she couldn’t trust herself around Nick’s flirty comments. She hurried upstairs.

Nick took a seat at the kitchen island, content to wait for Roz and Sabrina to do whatever they were doing for Amalia’s costume the next day, satisfied with himself for leaving her flustered. He was reading emails on his phone when the front door opened and closed. A moment later, Harvey Kinkle appeared in the kitchen.

“Thought that was your truck out there, Scratch,” he greeted.

“Kinkle,” Nick nodded in greeting.

“Operation Amalia’s Costume, right?” Harvey continued.

“Yeah, she’s upstairs with Roz and Sabrina. I’m not allowed to see the costume until it’s done.”

“What’s she dressing up as, anyways?” Harvey wondered. “Those two were plotting last night like they were planning to invade a foreign land.” He opened the fridge. Nick felt a certain envy towards the guy. He was comfortable in Sabrina and Roz’s house, knew his place. Nick felt like a guest. He didn’t want to be a guest. “Want a beer?”

“I do, but I shouldn’t,” Nick shook his head. “I’ve got Amalia. I know I can hold my alcohol, but still – getting behind the wheel after a drink probably doesn’t set the best example.”

“Soda then?”

“Sure,” Nick nodded. “Amalia’s going to be the Queen of Hearts. Sabrina’s idea, so of course it was a great one in Amalia’s opinion.”

“Queen of Hearts? From Alice in Wonderland?”

“I’ve got mixed feelings on the subject, but Sabrina has some grand idea and of course if Sabrina thinks it’s a good idea, it’s absolutely the only idea.”

“Sabrina’s usually right,” Harvey mused. He sat down across from Nick and glanced up at the ceiling as though to ensure they were alone. “Don’t dare let her know I said that.”

“I’d never,” Nick assured him. “I don’t need to. She already knows she’s always right.”

Harvey snorted into his beer.

“You’re not wrong,” he admitted. “How are things between the two of you, anyway?” Nick raised an eyebrow at the intrusive question. Harvey was unfazed. “We’ve established that you’re into her. I know she’s still dating what’s his face, but all I’m saying is she spends a lot more time with you than she does with him.”

“Things are – the same,” Nick offered. It perked him up a bit to know that Sabrina saw him more than she saw that Gregory guy. “It’s been good to have her around, spend some time with her, have her help with Amalia.”

“You two are so hung up on one another,” Harvey said knowingly. Nick decided it was time to change the subject.

“I saw that piece of your work you posted on Instagram last night. It was good. Really good.”

“Thanks,” Harvey nodded. “I don’t get to do a lot of stuff for fun these days, what with my job illustrating, but I still like to finish a piece now and then.”

“It was rather impressionistic. Reminded me a bit of Renoir’s work.”

“That’s right, you minored in art history.”

Nick again raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“How did you know that?” he wondered. It was true, but it wasn’t something he talked about often. Through his historical studies, he studied a lot of art and ended up getting a minor. He had a healthy appreciate for art, but it was nothing to write home about.

“Sabrina mentioned it,” Harvey shrugged. Again, Nick wondered how she knew that small detail about him. Had he told her? He didn’t remember. “Speaking of Sabrina, have you seen the new Star Wars trailer yet? I saw it last night while her and Roz were watching some stupid reality show and got super pumped about it. Sabrina rolled her eyes and said I should talk to you about it.”

“I saw it,” Nick nodded. “It’s going to be a good movie.”

“Any theories?” Harvey wondered.

Nick considered Harvey. He was perplexed by this newfound sort of kinship with Harvey Kinkle. They had a lot more in common than just Sabrina, it seemed. And, Nick reasoned, being on the good side of at least one of Sabrina’s friends could only help him.

“I mean, I know what I think should happen…”

“Harvey!” Roz called from upstairs.

“I’m here!” Harvey called back.

“We need you to come up here and draw a crown!”

Harvey frowned.

“Draw a crown?” he asked Nick. “Surely Amalia has a toy tiara…”

“At least five of them,” Nick confirmed. “Don’t ask me. This is all Sabrina.”

“Harvey!” Roz called again, this time with less patience.

“Coming!” Harvey called back. They heard Amalia say something unintelligible.

“Nick, stay downstairs!” came Sabrina’s voice.

“Wouldn’t dream of coming up there,” Nick called back. He looked at Harvey with a small smirk. “Have fun.”

“Just when I was starting to like you,” Harvey joked. “You good down here?”

“I’ve got plenty of emails to catch up on,” Nick picked up his phone.

Harvey left him alone in the kitchen. He replied to a few emails from parents and students, read one from his parents’ lawyer, Bill, confirming the completion of yet another set of paperwork he had to send in to take control of his parents seemingly endless assets. He googled the Star Wars trailer and watched it again, forming his own opinion should Harvey ask about it again.

There was a knock at the door. He sat up straighter and looked around, expecting Sabrina or Roz to thunder down the stairs to answer it. Whoever it was knocked again.

“Nick!” called Sabrina. “Could you get the door, please? Our hands are full at the moment.”

“Got it,” Nick called back.

He hoped like hell it wasn’t Zelda Spellman. He didn’t think she was one to knock, exactly, but of the Spellmans, she was the one who certainly disliked him the most. He didn’t bother to look through the peephole. He swung the door open and startled to a stop. He had never seen the tall, broad shouldered blonde on the other side of the door, but he knew who it was all the same.

“Hi,” the blonde said. He looked as surprised to find Nick in the doorway as Nick was to find him. “Um, I was looking… Is Sabrina home?”

“She’s upstairs, helping my sister.” Nick begrudgingly extended his hand. “I’m Nicholas Scratch.” He saw the guy’s eyes flicker in recognition.

“Gregory.” He shook Nick’s hand. “I’m Sabrina’s – friend. You’re Amalia’s brother.”

“That would be me,” Nick nodded. He still stood in the doorway. Everything in him wanted to shut the door in Gregory’s face, tell Sabrina it was no one, a door-to-door salesman, anything. Except he couldn’t, not if he was trying to show Sabrina he had changed. She would find out anyway and it wasn’t worth the fight it would cause. “Come in.”

He let Gregory in the house. It made him happy to see Gregory looked uncomfortable.

“Sabrina wasn’t expecting me,” Gregory told him. “I was passing through and thought I’d see if she was home.”

“Well, she’s home,” Nick said. “Like I said, she’s helping my sister. It’s Character Day at school tomorrow. Sabrina has some idea for a costume for her.”

Gregory considered him. Nick waited for whatever was to come.

“I’m sorry about your parents,” he offered. “Sabrina told me.”

“Thanks,” Nick said with a single nod. He sized Gregory up. His conclusion was quick. They were exact opposite. Of course Sabrina would be interested in him after six months of being a warm body for him. “Sabrina is in her bedroom, I think.”

“Upstairs?” Gregory asked, glancing to the second floor landing. Nick took the question to mean Gregory hadn’t been upstairs yet. That gave him a sense of comfort. Maybe Sabrina was dating him, but it didn’t appear they had slept together – yet. With luck, it would stay that way.

“Gregory!” Sabrina appeared at the top of the stairs. “What are you doing here?”

Nick’s brain worked overtime to decipher her tone. Was she happy to see him? She didn’t look to be. She didn’t look upset, exactly, but he knew Sabrina. She had her evening all planned out and she didn’t like it when things went off course – a surprise visit from the guy she was dating was not part of her plan. Add in the fact that he was there and he could practically hear the explosions going off in her head.

“I was passing through – I put in a bid on a job the next county over – and thought I’d stop by, say hello,” Gregory answered.

“Oh, well, hi.”

She came to a stop next to Nick. Nick stuffed his hands in his pockets to fight the urge to put a possessive hand on the small of her back. The sudden awkwardness in the room was palpable.

“If it’s a bad time…” Gregory began.

“No!” Sabrina came to her senses. “Sorry – no. It’s great to see you. It’s just – we’re in the middle of making a costume for Amalia.” Her eyes grew big. “Oh! I haven’t introduced you… Nick, this is…”

“Gregory,” Nick finished. “We introduced ourselves.” Sabrina caught his eye for the briefest of moments. She looked away quickly. Nick wished he could read her mind.

“Oh, well, that’s done then.” Sabrina felt firmly in the middle. She could feel Nick’s dislike for Gregory rolling off him in waves, even as he appeared perfectly cordial. She could sense Gregory’s uncomfortableness too. “We’re going to be a few more minutes on this costume. It’s more time intensive than I thought…”

“Meaning its more elaborate than it needs to be,” Nick translated. Sabrina shot him a look but didn’t deny it.

“I can wait?” Gregory wondered. “Maybe we can get something to eat when you’re finished?”

“If you want to wait,” Sabrina hedged. She hadn’t planned on Gregory’s visit. Even without Nick there, she wasn’t sure she would have been over the moon at his unannounced arrival. It was a busy week with Homecoming festivities, and she needed her evenings to grade and prepare for the next day, especially when she was due to help Nick with Amalia. “It’s going to be at least another half hour…”

“I can wait,” Gregory nodded with a smile. “I don’t mind.”

Nick again refrained from rolling his eyes. Gregory reminded him of a Labrador, eager to please, perhaps a bit dumber than his current counterparts but still loveable enough. He had no idea that his presence was causing Sabrina a certain level of stress.

“Okay then,” Sabrina said. “Um,” she glanced at Nick, “I’m going to go back upstairs…”

“I’ll hang out down here,” Gregory said with a nod. “Take your time, Sabrina. I’m in no hurry.”

Sabrina’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Sounds good.” Again, she glanced at Nick. “If you want to help us…”

“Amalia doesn’t want me to see her costume until it’s done,” Nick reminded her. He knew what she was doing – she was trying to keep him and Gregory apart. He wasn’t going to allow it. “We’ve had a good week, all things considered. I don’t want to ruin it. Surprising me with her costume seems like a big deal to her.” He tilted his head towards Gregory. “I’ll hang out with Craig.”

Sabrina narrowed her eyes at Nick.

“Gregory,” She corrected with a warning look. It was just like when he called Harvey “Harry” in high school. He smirked at her.

“Same thing.” He gave his attention back to Gregory. “I was hanging out in the kitchen. Want a soda or something?”

“Um, sure,” Gregory agreed. He turned towards the kitchen. Sabrina gave Nick another look before she climbed the stairs. Nick blew out a breath and followed the guy. He was standing awkwardly in the center of the kitchen when Nick walked in.

“Soda or beer?” Nick asked.

“Soda,” Gregory said automatically. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

It was Nick that knew his way around now. He moved with the same confidence Harvey had when he arrived. He found a soda, passed it to Gregory, and took up his same seat at the counter. Gregory hesitated before sitting across from him. Nick waited for him to speak.

“So, how long have you known Sabrina?” Gregory asked in an effort to make small talk.

“Nearly ten years,” Nick shrugged, realizing it was true. He had been fourteen when he met thirteen-year-old Sabrina Spellman, both freshman, him new in town, her a little younger than most of their classmates but her intelligence swinging the Greendale Public School system into letting her start kindergarten two months before she turned five. They had spent half of those years apart, both away at college getting master’s degrees, but she had been a large part of his life for a long time now.

“That’s a long time,” Gregory mused. “How did you meet?”

“High school. I was the new kid freshman year and she was the cute cheerleader. She was dating Harvey at the time though, so nothing ever happened.”

But when it did finally happen… he thought to himself. He shook his head a bit to clear his thoughts.

“She used to date Harvey?” Gregory asked.

“A long time ago,” Nick nodded. “They were on and off all through high school.”

“Huh,” Gregory said. “I wonder if it’s weird for her, that he dates her best friend now.”

“It’s not,” Nick shook his head. He didn’t offer anything further. What would be weird would be if Gregory knew all the things he had done to Sabrina, the number of times Sabrina had called out his name, begged him for more. “Harvey is with the person he should be with.”

Sabrina wasn’t, but Nick could only bide his time.

“Guess things always work out however they’re meant to,” Gregory mused.

“Sure,” Nick nodded. He took a sip of his soda and checked his phone. Sabrina had texted him from upstairs.

Please be nice.

He smirked.

I’m always nice, Spellman.

He put his phone aside.

“It’s really cool of you to raise your sister,” Gregory continued. “I mean, Sabrina told me a little bit about how you’re her guardian now. I imagine that’s been quite the change.”

Nothing Gregory said was incorrect, nor was it something others hadn’t told him before, but there was something about Gregory saying it that made him bristle.

“She’s my baby sister,” he said with a bit of a bite. “I wouldn’t dare let someone else raise her.”

“Of course not,” Gregory shook his head, sensing he had crossed some sort of line. “I’m just saying I admire what you’re doing, is all.”

“Sabrina has been a huge help,” Nick said, working to both control what he said and cover up how much he disliked Gregory. “I wouldn’t have gotten through the first weeks without her.”

“She’s been a good friend,” Gregory nodded. “She talks about your sister a lot. You come up on occasion, too.”

“She’s – special.” Nick was toeing into dangerous territory and he knew it. He opened his mouth to say something further – what, he didn’t know – but Harvey appeared, his hands full of craft supplies.

“There’s too much – girl – up there,” he stated. “And I need some space to create this damned crown I’m supposed to concoct from cardboard, aluminum foil, and construction paper.”

“Pull up a stool,” Gregory said. Nick kept quiet while Harvey returned to the stool he had abandoned when Roz called for him. Gregory was oblivious, but Nick wasn’t. Harvey was on babysitting duty.

“So, anything exciting happening down here?” Harvey asked, spreading out his supplies.

“Nothing as exciting as this,” Nick nodded towards the mess of material spread before Harvey. Harvey caught his eye and winked, confirming his suspicions.

“This will be the best aluminum foil crown that ever existed,” he declared.

Time ticked by at snail’s pace. Gregory grew more comfortable, chatting away about mundane topics like the cooling weather and the lunch he had at some diner that day. Nick, however, grew quieter.

It hit him like a ton of bricks that Sabrina was dating this guy. Gregory was almost completely his opposite. Tall, blonde, all around decent. Nick himself was maybe a hair shorter than average, his features dark, his past checkered. Gregory worked with his hands. Nick’s mind was his greatest asset. Gregory didn’t have a little sister relying on him.

Gregory hadn’t taken a tipsy Sabrina to his pickup, pushed up her dress, and had his way with her. If and when they did sleep together, Nick was sure it wouldn’t go like that – Sabrina had deserved more from him than a half drunken joining of body parts in an uncomfortable backseat of a Chevy.

Still, he couldn’t quite regret it.

That alcohol-infused rendezvous had been a long time coming and the start of – something.

He was pulled from his reverie by the sound of three pairs of footsteps on the stairs. Roz appeared first, followed by Sabrina.

“Make way, make way!” Roz called out.

“The Queen of Hearts is here!” Sabrina finished with a flourish of his arms.

A glowing Amalia appeared then, her smile so big it nearly reached her ears. She was dressed in an elaborate red dress up gown. Roz’s sewing skills had transformed the piece into something more fitting for Amalia and her age while Sabrina had embellished it with glitter, rhinestones, and hearts cut from various fabrics. Nick stood from his stool as Amalia did a little twirl, complete with a wand adorned with a heart in hand. Its ribbons fluttered behind her as she spun.

“Amalia, you look beautiful,” he said. “There has never been a more beautiful Queen of Hearts.”

“Thank you,” she beamed. “I love it!”

“You do look beautiful,” Sabrina agreed. “The real Queen of Hearts would be jealous.”

“As beautiful as you look, I have the finishing touch.”

Harvey produced the elaborate crown he had constructed. He had first drawn a pattern of tangled hearts on the cardboard which he shaped to fit Amalia’s head. He had then covered it with the aluminum foil so it shined.

“Your crown, milady.” He placed it on Amalia’s head with a little bow that made her giggle. “And, perfect.”

“Perfect,” Nick agreed.

“You’re a really pretty queen,” came Gregory’s voice. Nick was pleased to see he once again looked like the outsider he was as he hung on the periphery of the group. Amalia looked at him then, seeing him for the first time.

“Who are you?” she asked boldly.

“Oh!” Sabrina seemed to remember Gregory was there then. “Amalia, this is my – friend – Gregory. Gregory, this is…”

“The famous Amalia,” he finished with a smile. “I’m happy I finally get to you meet you.”

“Okay,” Amalia shrugged a shoulder, already uninterested. “Nick, can I wear this to school all day tomorrow?”

“That’s the general idea,” Nick confirmed. “We’ll talk about the wand though. I have a feeling you may get yourself into trouble with that thing.”

“The wand completes the ensemble, Scratch,” Roz stated. It was easily the nicest thing she had ever said to him. “It’s a must have.”

“You won’t be the one fielding the teacher’s complaints about her cursing classmates and trying to do magic in the middle of class,” Nick fired back. Sabrina, however, was looking over Amalia with a critical eye. “I know that look, Spellman. What is it?”

“Her crown needs something.” She stooped down for a better look.

“That crown is flawlessly executed,” Harvey stated. “Don’t you dare…”

“The crown is beautiful,” Sabrina appeased him. “It just needs more – sparkle.”

“She’s going to be a walking glitter bomb,” Nick said.

“And that’s a problem?” Sabrina asked with a raised eyebrow that dared him to disagree.

“Do your worst, Spellman,” he amended. Sabrina plucked the crown from Amalia’s head.

“Amalia, I’m going to keep this with me tonight and make it even more sparkly. I’ll bring it with me when I come over in the morning to help you get ready.”

“You’re coming over in the morning?” Nick spoke up. He had thought he would be responsible for getting Amalia into her costume once Sabrina and Roz were finished with it.

“Of course,” Sabrina said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “You’ll never get her hair to look right with this outfit.”

“It’s preschool spirit week, not a beauty pageant.”

“We don’t do things halfway, Scratch,” Sabrina informed him.

Nick bit his lip. He could thing of a few things they were doing halfway, namely their – whatever their relationship was. He checked the time. It was well past dinnertime and he still needed to feed Amalia, get her in a bathtub and then to bed, and then attempt to do some grading before he went to bed.

“We should probably get going,” he hedged. “It’s past dinnertime, and we still need to do dinner, a bath, bedtime…”

Sabrina checked the time herself and saw he was right.

“Amalia?” she asked. “Let’s go upstairs and take your costume off so it doesn’t get messed up.”

“I’ll take her,” Roz chimed in. “You have – company.”

“Thanks,” Nick nodded. “And thank you, Roz, for helping Amalia. I really appreciate it.”

It was his effort at extending an olive branch.

“Anything,” Roz replied, eyes on him, “for Amalia.”

Nick bit his lip. He understood loud and clear that she had taken his olive branch, snapped it, and handed it right back to him. He said nothing further as she took Amalia’s hand and led her out of the kitchen.

“What are you planning to do to my crown, Spellman?” Harvey asked. “I worked hard on that masterpiece.”

“I’m just going to add some glitter,” she said. “You did a great job on it – it just needs to sparkle like the rest of the dress.”

“The dress looks amazing,” Gregory supplied. “You’re a woman of many talents, Sabrina.”

“I do have a number of tricks up my sleeve,” Sabrina teased.

“There’s nothing Sabrina can’t do,” Nick said before he could stop himself.

Sabrina realized then that she stood between Nick and Gregory. Gregory, who was so unlike Nick and so oblivious to the tension filling the room. Even Harvey felt it, watching them like an intense tennis match.

“Amalia will be the hit of the preschool tomorrow,” Sabrina predicted. “It’s admittedly quite the interpretation of the Queen of Hearts, but she loves it.” She slid onto a stool, still between the two men in her life. With her ex there, too, it was almost comical. “What’s on your menu tonight, Scratch?”

“Given the time, tonight looks to be a chicken nuggets and fries kind of night,” Nick admitted. “You win some, you lose some.”

“At least you know she’ll eat it,” Sabrina reminded him. Nick winked at her.

“Speaking of dinner,” Gregory spoke up. “You still want to go out, grab something? Maybe you could take me to that diner you talk about?”

“Dinner,” Sabrina repeated. Nick saw her check the time again. “Um, yeah. We’ll figure that out in a few minutes.”

She was saved from further inquisition by the return of Roz and Amalia. Nick stood, knowing he needed to be responsible and take Amalia home, even if all he wanted to do was stay there and keep Sabrina and Gregory from going to dinner or anywhere else.

“Amalia?” he asked. “We’ve got to head home. Can you tell Sabrina, Roz, and Harvey goodbye and thank them for helping with your costume?”

Amalia surprised him by doing as he asked without protest. He had mentally prepared for a showdown. She hugged and thanked first Roz then Harvey who made her giggle by attempting to do a “cool” handshake he had been trying to teach her upstairs earlier, all fist bumps and wiggling fingers. She spun towards Sabrina, but stopped short when her eyes fell on Gregory.

“You didn’t help with my costume, but it would be rude not to tell you goodbye,” she said in a tone that sounded older than her years. Nick bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. She was trying to be polite – and he was proud of that – but he couldn’t help but think there was a little bit of sarcasm hidden under her politeness.

“That’s very nice of you,” Gregory said kindly. “It was good to meet you, Amalia. I’ve heard a lot about you from Sabrina.”

“I haven’t heard anything about you from Sabrina,” Amalia replied without missing a beat. Harvey choked on his drink. Nick bit the inside of his cheek harder. Right now, in this moment, he wasn’t sure he had never loved his sister – and her innocence – more. “Bye – I forgot your name…” She squinted her eyes in concentration. “Craig?”

Harvey coughed in an effort to hide his laugh, then gaffed when Roz elbowed him to show her disapproval.

“Gregory,” Sabrina corrected, shooting Nick a disapproving glare. He covertly held his hands up in a peace gesture. This wasn’t his fault. It was an honest mistake on Amalia’s part, one he couldn’t help but approve of. “His name is Gregory.”

“Gregory,” Amalia repeated. “Goodnight, Gregory.”

“Goodnight, Amalia,” he replied, as kind as ever.

“I’ll walk out with the pair of you,” Sabrina said, catching Amalia by the hand. “Nick? Her dress and backpack are on the bottom stair, if you don’t mind grabbing them.”

Nick said another round of thank yous to Roz who barely refrained from making another jab at him and Harvey who reminded him he was around if he wanted to grab a beer sometime. That earned him a look of death from Roz that seemed to roll right off him. He said a quick but polite goodbye to Gregory – making sure to call him by his actual name in case Sabrina could hear him from the hallway – and followed her outside.

When Amalia was safely buckled away in her booster seat in the backseat of Nick’s truck, Sabrina turned to Nick.

“I didn’t know he was coming,” she said right away. “I’m sorry. I know that was probably awkward for you.”

“It may have been more awkward for him,” Nick countered. “You basically blew him off and left him to sit in the kitchen with a guy he doesn’t know – the same guy you were actively sleeping with until nearly two months ago. He has no idea.”

“I’m not exactly sharing stories of my sex life with him,” Sabrina said with a pointed raise of her eyebrow.

“He’s the opposite of me in every way,” Nick mused. “If that holds true in the bedroom, you’ll never be satisfied.”

“Nick.”

It was impossible to miss her warning note this time. Nick decided to just go for it all the same. He had nothing to lose.

“He’s not the guy for you, Sabrina,” he informed her. “He’s nice enough, normal. If the circumstances were different, I might even be his friend – not his best friend, by any means, but I’d have a drink with him. But he’s boring. Vanilla. I got that from just the few minutes I talked to him before Harvey showed up to babysit us. Nothing about you is vanilla.” He reached out and pushed a chunk of hair behind her ear. “He won’t make you happy.”

“Nick…” Sabrina sighed.

“I know,” he shook his head, aware that he had overstepped. “But Sabrina? You barely said hello to him. You clearly don’t want to have dinner with him.” He held her eyes with his, daring her to tell him he was wrong. “Now you’re outside, with me, while he sits at your kitchen counter.”

“We can’t do this, Nick,” she said softly.

“I know,” he said again. “I’m simply pointing out the obvious.” He still held her eyes. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t face the fact that he was telling the truth. “That’s what friends do.”

Sabrina blew out the breath she was holding.

“I should go back inside,” she said, still quiet.

“I’ll see you in the morning?” Nick asked.

Even as she nodded yes, Sabrina knew the answer should be “no.” She shouldn’t be running to Nick’s at six-thirty in the morning. She shouldn’t be standing on the curb with him while the guy she was dating waited inside. She shouldn’t do a lot of things when it came to Nick.

She couldn’t seem to stop herself.

“I’ll be there around six-thirty,” she said quietly. “I’ll bring the crown.”

“I’ll have breakfast,” Nick countered.

“A bowl of cereal or frozen waffles?” Sabrina asked, a playful tone creeping back into her words.

“I may just surprise you, Spellman.” It was already late, but he would stop by the grocery store on the way home and get something for tomorrow’s breakfast that would be more than what she expected. “Thank you again for everything tonight.”

“You know I’ll do whatever I can for Amalia,” Sabrina said. “I’ll see you in the morning, Nick.”

“Goodnight, Sabrina.”

She smiled just a bit.

“Goodnight, Nick.”

Something in her stirred as she walked away from Nick, back towards Gregory. It felt like – longing. He wasn’t entirely wrong in his observations, particularly around the fact that she wasn’t excited to see Gregory, but she told herself it was because she wasn’t expecting him and had a lot to do that night, not that she just wasn’t into him.

Inside, Gregory smiled when she entered the kitchen. She noted how his smile lit up his face. Hers didn’t quite meet her eyes – even though she didn’t think Gregory realized it.

Nick would have, she heard a little voice say. She mentally shoved it away.

“So, dinner?” Gregory asked. “I’m starving. Hence the constant mention of food.”

Sabrina could recognize the fact that she didn’t want to go out to dinner with him. She had to work on her costume for the next day, finish Amalia’s crown, grade a few quizzes. She didn’t have time to go out to dinner. Still, Gregory had stopped by to surprise her, something most girls would love. She had to give in, at least to a point.

“How about we order a pizza?” she suggested. “I have a lot to do – Amalia’s crown, grading, tomorrow’s costume… Let’s eat here.”

“Okay,” Gregory said slowly, finally catching on to the fact that he had effectively interrupted Sabrina’s night. “I can go if…”

“No,” Sabrina said quickly. “Just – we’ll eat while I work? Multitasking.”

“Okay,” Gregory said again. “Roz, Harvey, do you want to order with us?”

Sabrina registered her friends then. They were still in the room, leaning against the counter and watching the exchange with interest.

“Sure,” Harvey started.

“I actually need to run to the grocery store,” Roz spoke up. “I need something for lunch tomorrow. Harvey, we can just grab something while we’re out.”

Sabrina saw right through Roz’s white lie. So did Harvey, but he nodded his agreement and they left the room.

“Shall I order?” Gregory asked, taking his phone from his back pocket. “Pepperoni, peppers, and olives okay with you?”

“I hate olives,” Sabrina said. Nick knows that, said the same voice she was trying to ignore. “Half what you want, half pepperoni and cheese?”

“Deal,” Gregory nodded.

Sabrina busied herself with tidying up the already tidy kitchen while Gregory called in to the only pizza place in town that delivered. When he hung up, she made herself sit down at the counter with him and ignore her to-do list for a few more minutes.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“It was good – I think we’ll win that job I went to look at.”

“That’s good,” she nodded.

“How was yours?”

“It was fun,” she shrugged. “Spirit Week is my favorite week of the school year and the kids had a lot of creative costumes today. Cheer practice was really great – the girls are going to nail their routine on Friday. And of course, any day I see Amalia is generally a good day.”

“She’s a precocious little girl,” Gregory observed.

“She’s spent a lot of time with adults,” Sabrina said. “Being so much younger than Nick, she was kind of like an only child. She picked up a lot of mannerisms from her parents. Now, with them gone, no matter what Nick does, she’s going to grow up faster than most.”

“Nick is an – interesting guy,” Gregory continued.

“He’s adjusting to a lot,” Sabrina said diplomatically. “His parents’ death, raising Amalia… Two months ago, he was doing whatever the hell he wanted. Now, he’s dropping Amalia off at play dates and trying to keep Disney princesses straight.”

“He seems – protective of you.”

Sabrina worked to hide her surprise that Gregory had picked up on something between them. He had seemed oblivious.

“I’ve known him a long time,” she said in a dismissive sort of way. “Tell me about this job of yours?”

Gregory launched into details about something she had no real interest in but tried to follow along with anyway. But as he talked, all she could think about was Nick’s words about Gregory not being the right guy for her. The way Nick’s fingertips brushed against her temple as he tucked her hair back. The conviction in his voice that Gregory wouldn’t satisfy her should they make it to the bedroom.

For just a moment, she considered sending Gregory on his way. She could let him down gently and go back to the drawing board when it came to her personal life.

But then she remembered how – nice – he could be. How uncomplicated things were between them. How so very complicated all things concerning Nick Scratch seemed to be.

She needed uncomplicated. She needed vanilla.

When Gregory reached for her hand across the kitchen island, she let him take it.

It didn’t burn her skin the way Nick’s touch did.

But heat hadn’t gotten her very far in the past.

Maybe vanilla was the way to go.

Chapter Text

Sabrina Spellman was stunning.

It may have been a high school dance and he may have been serving as a chaperone, but that didn’t stop him from stating the obvious.

She was stunning.

And Gregory wasn’t worthy of her.

He was doing all he could to appear unaffected by the fact that Sabrina had brought the guy to the homecoming dance as her date, but under the surface, he was raging. He had no right to be – Sabrina wasn’t his – but he didn’t like it. He especially didn’t like that the guy was perfectly nice, perfectly decent.

Perfectly his opposite.

It had been one thing to know she was dating someone. It was something else to have a face to go with the name. It made Gregory real and not a figment of a reality outside of the one he lived in. He had stewed on that since Gregory’s unannounced appearance at Sabrina’s three days earlier. The more he thought about Gregory, the more irritated he got. Sabrina knew he wanted her. He had been clear on that. But she was with Gregory, not him. And it stung.

It was one more blow to a man that was already down.

That’s why he found himself manning the refreshment table while she monitored the dance floor. He had intended to manipulate his way into volunteering alongside her so he had her attention all night, but then she waltzed in on the arm of Gregory and he had practically begged the chemistry teacher to switch roles with him. Perhaps the old man had pitied him, given that he had just lost his parents and all, but he hadn’t put up much of a fight and making sure the chips were full and the punch remained unspiked was mindless enough that he could stew in private from across the room.

He watched as Gregory leaned in and said something that made Sabrina smile. He thought about how nice it would be to pick up one of the stupid paper mache hearts doting the Alice in Wonderland-themed gym and throw it full force at Gregory’s head. Or maybe a paper mache spade. Those had a pointy edge.

Of course Sabrina had the decency to warn him in advance that she was bringing Gregory because she was thoughtful but he had to wonder just how considerate she was. She had to know how hard it was for him to see her with that guy. He had played it cool, politely shook Gregory’s hand in greeting, but he had been burning with something that could only be jealousy since Sabrina told him she was bringing the construction worker the day before. What had started as a smoldering campfire was now a full-fledged out of control wildfire. He had to keep his distance to avoid burning anyone or anything else down.

Gregory popped a few cheese puffs into his mouth from the plate he had piled up earlier during an uncomfortable visit to Nick’s refreshment table. He had been eating them the way a chain smoker blew through cigarettes ever since. Nick hoped he choked on one.

He grimaced as Gregory placed a powdered cheese covered hand on Sabrina’s back. How dare he get cheese all over her dress? He would have had the good sense to wipe his hands off. But he also wouldn’t be eating cheese puffs. Even the teenagers were passing those over. Sabrina nodded at whatever Gregory said and led him away. Relief washed over him when she reappeared without him.

That relief rapidly became anxiety as Sabrina caught his eye, smiled a bit, and started towards him. He braced himself, reminded himself that being rude now would do him no favors later.

“Hi,” she greeted.

“Hey,” he replied evenly.

“How are things going over here?”

“Chips are full and the punch remains unspiked, so I’d say okay.”

She smiled at him and he felt a weird sort of anger towards her. He pushed it down. She had done nothing wrong, really, but he hated their current situation all the same.

“I would have thought you would be the one to spike the punch,” she teased in an effort to lighten the mood. She sensed he was annoyed with her and she was certain it had to do with Gregory. She reminded herself she had no reason to feel guilty.

Except she did.

“Maybe in another time,” he shrugged. “Not now.” He had to be nice. “Where did Gregory go?”

“Bathroom,” she answered in an uninterested sort of way. “I didn’t get a chance to ask earlier – where is Amalia?”

“At the O’Keefes. Polly asked her to sleep over. I’ll pick her up for her soccer game in the morning.”

“I’m coming to that,” Sabrina told him. “Roz, too.”

“She’ll love that,” he said.

He busied himself with adding more chips to the already full bowl, aware of Sabrina’s eyes on him. He hated how she could always see right through him.

“You’re upset with me,” she said quietly, bringing the truth to the surface.

“No,” Nick shook his head. “Upset with myself, maybe, but you’re in the clear.”

That was it, really. He could have been the one who walked in with Sabrina on his arm if he had only figured himself out sooner. He couldn’t be mad at her when he was the one who fell down on the job.

“You sure about that?” Sabrina asked, pressing in the way she always did. “You won’t even look at me.” He had yet to make eye contact with her as she stood before him. Nick sighed and finally turned his eyes to hers.

“I’m at a high school dance, pretending to give a damn, watching you with some guy who is infinitely better than me and acting like I’m not bothered by it. All of that, and somehow I’m still thinking about the mountain of laundry piling up at home, how woefully behind I am in grading, and that if I don’t stop for milk on the way home tonight, I won’t have any for the bowl of cereal I’ll pour tomorrow morning and probably not eat much of anyway. I’m not upset with you. I’m upset with myself. And honestly? I’m pretty damned tired.”

There it was.

The truth.

She knew he didn’t like that Gregory was with her, but after a lot of debate with herself, she had decided to invite him, give him a chance to get to know some of her friends, and her the opportunity to get to know him better, see him in her world a bit more as she tried to work out how she felt about him. She had told Nick he was coming, thinking it not right to blindside him, and while she could tell Nick wasn’t happy about it, he had been gracious enough, at least as much as he was capable of being in the situation.

But the real truth behind his attitude, aside from how he felt about Gregory, was related to the fact that he was overwhelmed and stretched thin. She had suggested a few times that he hire some help, someone that could pick Amalia up from school and spend a couple of hours with her in the afternoons so he could get other things done, or else someone that could help around the house more than the housekeeper that came every other week to do a deep cleaning, just as she had done when the Scratches were alive. He refused, determined to do it all himself, but he was faltering a little more each day and it concerned her. She wanted to ease his burden.

“I can take Amalia tomorrow…”

“No,” Nick cut her off. “I’m taking her to Imagine Nation in Hartford after soccer tomorrow, let her play for a while, burn off some steam. I might take her to Sonny’s Place afterward and let her play some arcade games.”

“She would love that,” Sabrina said sincerely. “If you want me to pick her up for a few hours on Sunday…”

“She’s got a birthday party,” Nick interjected. “Then we’re going to watch a movie and eat popcorn. It’s our end of the weekend thing now.”

Sabrina worked to hide her disappointment. He was pushing her away, and though she thought she might deserve it – and had even asked for the space – she didn’t like it. For the umpteenth time, she wished things didn’t have to be so complicated.

“Gregory’s back,” he said, nodding at the door. “You should claim him before Dorcas does.”

Sabrina sighed at his obvious dismissal.

“Nick…”

“It’s fine, Sabrina,” he said. “Really. Go. Have as much fun with the guy as you can at a high school homecoming dance.”

She gave him a lingering look, but with a resigned breath, turned away and walked back to Gregory. Nick let out a long exhale of his own, rattled from the exchange.

“Now you know what it felt like watching you try to move in on her every chance you got.”

Harvey Kinkle had appeared at his side.

“What are you doing here?” Nick asked a bit less friendly than he meant to. He liked Harvey well enough, had thought more than once about his offer to grab a beer, but he just wasn’t in the mood to make small talk.

“Roz dragged me,” Harvey answered, undeterred by Nick’s attitude. “The good news is, if I come to this, I’m home free until prom. The bad news is that I’m here on a Saturday night – after coming to the game yesterday.”

Nick snorted. Harvey had put words to his sentiments.

“I’m just trying to get volunteer hours,” he admitted. “I’m currently wishing I’d chosen just about any other school event however.”

“Like I said, you know how I felt when you were blatantly chasing after my girl,” Harvey said, nodding towards where Gregory and Sabrina stood a respectable distance apart across the room. “I hated you in high school for that sole reason. I guess this is a little different – another guy has what you want while I was the guy with what you wanted – but it sucked, watching you flirt with her all the time.”

“I guess I did overdo it with trying to get her attention when you were with her,” Nick admitted, thinking back to some of his more brazen teenage moments with Sabrina. “Sorry about that. I did have a tendency to take things too far back then.”

“No harm, no foul as they say,” Harvey shrugged. “Just so you know, I don’t think her and Gregory are going to be a long term thing. He’s boring as hell and you know Sabrina is anything but.”

“He might be boring, but he treats her the way she deserves to be treated,” Nick countered.

“He’s too nice,” Harvey insisted. “I don’t like him. Or, I guess I do like him, but I don’t like him for her. He’s too complacent.”

“Sabrina likes him,” Nick pointed out. “That’s all that matters.”

Harvey felt sorry for the guy. He could tell Nick was having a hard time, and not just with Sabrina being on a date with someone that wasn’t him. He wanted to help him, encourage him. He didn’t really know how, though. Sabrina was the one in their friend group that always knew what to say, how to help. He caught Nick sneaking a glance at Sabrina and an idea fell into place.

“You should ask her to dance.”

Nick looked at Harvey.

“You’ve lost your mind, Kinkle.”

“Ask her to dance,” Harvey encouraged. “You’re friends, right? Friends dance together. Hell, I’ll go ask her to dance and you can cut in if you want to avoid Gregory…”

“I’ve got to watch the refreshments.” Even he knew it was a weak argument. “You know high school kids. They’ll spike the punch. I mean, I spiked the punch in high school…”

“Go ask her to dance,” Harvey said again. “One song. I’ll watch the table. I won’t even spike the punch.”

Nick wavered. Sabrina was breathtaking in her red dress, her lips the same color as the fabric. He wanted one dance with her. He wanted to hold her for one three-minute song and just forget about everything else. After the month he’d had, he thought he deserved that. The deejay switched to a slow song and he decided that was a sign from the universe.

“Keep the chip bowl full,” he directed Harvey. “I’ll be back.”

“That’s the spirit,” Harvey nodded in approval. Nick gave him a weird look before he walked away. Roz appeared at Harvey’s side almost right away.

“What did you do?” she demanded, watching Nicholas Scratch make a beeline for Sabrina.

“I offered to watch the table while he asks Sabrina to dance,” Harvey told her. “The guy has had a rough go of it. Let him dance with the girl he likes.”

“He doesn’t like Sabrina,” Roz said. “He likes sex with Sabrina and he’s jealous that she’s with Gregory.”

“I’ll give you that he’s jealous, but he likes Sabrina,” Harvey said with certainty. “And Gregory is the equivalent of wet paint. You can’t think he’s a good match for Sabrina.”

“He’s a nice guy,” Roz argued.

“Nice? Yes. Boring as hell? Also yes.”

“You better hope this doesn’t go up in flames tonight,” Roz warned. “You will be cut off for the foreseeable future if it does.”

“I am confident in my decision,” he said. “I’m not saying she should marry Nick, but I’m not not saying that he’s a better choice for her than Gregory. I know you don’t like the guy, but cut him some slack.”

Across the room, Nick took a deep breath as he approached Sabrina. Gregory had blissfully struck up a conversation with the gym teacher and was distracted for the moment.

“Sabrina?” She looked at him with questioning eyes, unsure of where she stood with him at the moment. “Will you dance with me?”

It felt like an eternity rather than a few seconds before she nodded with a tentative smile.

“Okay.”

She accepted his arm and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. He put a hand on her hip and took her hand with his other. Her free hand settled on his shoulder. It wasn’t the way he wanted to dance with her – he wanted to pull her in close and feel her arms wrap around him – but it was polite, professional. That’s what they needed right now, given their setting and how things stood between them.

“I’m sorry I was an asshole earlier,” he said, his lips near her ear. “I know I don’t have the right to be jealous, but I am.”

“I shouldn’t have invited him,” Sabrina replied. That was clear to her now. “I’m sorry, Nick.”

“No, you should have.” His hand slipped from her hip to her low back, pulling her closer. “You’re dating him and I have to be okay with that.”

“I was more upset about how you were pushing me away,” she chanced. “I wanted to help with Amalia, give you a chance to have a few hours to yourself. It seems like you could use that.”

“I was less than tactful in my delivery, but I’ve already made plans for us.” He didn’t realize that he had pulled her still closer. She didn’t realize that her hand had slid from his shoulder to the nape of his neck. “She’s had a rough couple of weeks,” he confessed. He had tried to keep their struggles on the down low and handle them himself, but it was proving to be too much. “Trouble at school, acting out at home. We’re working through it, but I thought it might be good for her to spend some time with me doing something fun this weekend instead of me standing on one side of the kitchen island and her on the other, arguing over what she’s going to eat or else fighting her out the door in the mornings and into the bed in the evenings.”

“Can I help?” Sabrina asked.

“Unless you can turn back time, I don’t think so,” Nick sighed. “We’ll get through it. The laundry might never be caught up, but we’ll get through it.”

“Do you know how to do laundry?” Sabrina wondered, a note of teasing in her tone.

“I’m getting better. I’m not great at getting stains out, but when things come out the same color they went in, I’m considering it a success. I’ll conquer stains some other time.”

“You’re doing a good job, Nick.” Her fingers played with the curls at the nape of his neck without her thinking about what she was doing. She knew he liked that when they were in bed together. He still liked it, but now, he found comfort in it, too. “I know I say it a lot, but you are.”

“I’m doing the best I can,” he said. “That has to be good enough.”

“It’s more than enough,” she assured him.

The song ended and transitioned into something faster that made the kids around them squeal in delight and rush to the dance floor, but they didn’t part.

“You look stunning tonight, Sabrina,” he said. “Truly, I’m stunned.”

“Thank you,” she said with a soft smile. “You cleaned up well yourself.” He was drop dead gorgeous in dark blue dress pants that fit him just so and a lighter blue shirt, tucked in with the sleeves rolled up. Professional. Casual. Handsome.

“I should relieve Harvey of the refreshment table,” he said, begrudgingly letting her go. “Thank you for the dance.”

“Thank you for asking.” She smiled at him one more time and let her eyes linger a little too long before she turned to walk away.

“Sabrina?” She stopped and turned back to him. He reached behind her and dusted her hand along the back of her dress. “You had some kind of orange dust on you.”

“Gregory’s cheese puffs,” she sighed. “Thanks, Nick.” He winked at her and made sure he was the one that walked away.

Their paths didn’t cross the rest of the night, but Sabrina noted that Harvey hung around the refreshment table most of the evening, chatting with Nick while Roz manned the homecoming king and queen voting booth. She hoped the two would become friends. Nick could use a friend and Harvey was a good one.

“Thanks for coming with me tonight,” Sabrina said, turning to Gregory on her front porch as the clock approached midnight. She was certain he was hoping to be invited in, but she just didn’t want to. Not tonight. “I hope you had fun, even though it was a high school dance.”

“I was with you,” he said in his kind way. “So of course I had fun.”

“You’re a liar,” she said with a smile. “But thank you for coming anyway.”

He took her hands and brushed his thumbs along the backs of them. He raised his eyes to hers.

“Can I ask you something?” he questioned.

“Anything,” Sabrina nodded, sensing he was nervous.

“You and that Nick guy…” Sabrina held her breath. “Are you sure you two are just friends?”

“We’re just friends,” she said, not entirely sure if she was telling the truth. She didn’t know what they were. ‘Friends’ didn’t seem appropriate, but neither did any other label. “I’ve known him for a long time. We work together, went to high school together.”

“It’s just – he kept looking at you all night. I can’t really blame him for that. You’re beautiful.” She smiled a bit. “But when he asked you to dance... He was holding you close, closer than a friend should hold someone. And you seemed upset when I got back from the bathroom, mentioned that you’d talked to him… I don’t know. I guess I’m just trying to understand your relationship with him.”

“We’re just friends,” she said again, not sure which of them she was trying to convince. “We’ve always had an interesting relationship, but with his parents dying, I’ve been spending more time with him, helping him with his sister. He’s needed someone to lean on. So has Amalia.”

“You’re a really good friend, then,” Gregory said. He didn’t quite buy her explanation, but he let it go. He really liked her, and she seemed to like him, too, even if she was a bit more reserved than he expected her to be. “Did I tell you how beautiful you look tonight?” He pulled her towards him, happy to see her smiling.

“You mentioned it a time or two,” she confirmed. “You look sharp yourself.”

“You’re beautiful,” he said again.

His lips landed on hers and she let her body react, pressing against him, her hands on his shoulders, his tongue dancing along her lips, asking for entrance. His hands slid down her back and to her backside. She made a selfish decision in that moment. She had no intentions of inviting him in, but she hadn’t realized how used to being well-satisfied frequently she was until she was no longer sleeping with Nick. Her vibrator just wasn’t doing it for her.

His hand slipped under the skirt of her dress and as she’d hoped, it trailed along the inside of her thigh.

“This okay?” he asked between kisses.

“Yes,” she sighed, her lips against his.

It felt foreign as he touched her, but she focused on the friction, adjusted her hips so he was touching her where she wanted. She couldn’t help but compare him to Nick. He was more hesitant, less sure of himself than Nick was. Nick didn’t need to ask if something was okay – he knew. She wouldn’t have had to shift around with Nick to get his touch where she wanted. He had always just known. Gregory’s touch didn’t feel bad, exactly, but it didn’t feel the way she wanted it to.

“Crook your fingers forward,” she directed. “No, the other way.” It was still not quite there, but it was – better. “There.”

Her orgasm was just enough. He looked at her expectantly.

“Was that okay?” he asked.

“Quite,” she nodded. ‘Okay’ was exactly what it was. “It’s getting late, and I know you have a drive back to Riverdale. I’ll let you go.”

Gregory frowned.

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine,” she confirmed, realizing she was blatantly turning him away. She had to soften the blow. “It’s just… I need to take things slow. My last relationship didn’t end well. It was a pretty big deal for me to let you do – that – just now.”

His face softened, reminding her he really was kind and genuine. She tried not to stew on the fact that she had just called whatever she and Nick had a relationship.

“Of course.” He would need a cold shower when he got home, but he was nothing if not respectful. “We can go slow.” He kissed her cheek. “I’ll let you go inside, get some rest. Thank you for letting me be your date tonight.”

“Thank you for being my date tonight,” she replied.

She bid him goodnight and let herself in. She didn’t bother with a light as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She unzipped her dress, stepped out of it, and fell to her bed in nothing but her underwear.

She should have felt relieved, relaxed after an orgasm. She usually did, even when she was the one bringing herself to climax.

Except she felt dirty.

Guilty.

So very guilty.

“Damn you, Scratch,” she whispered through the night. “It’s always you.”

Chapter Text

Sabrina was taking a risk, showing up at Nick’s unannounced, but she had driven straight from her aunts’ house without thinking much about the fact that it was dinnertime, too excited to so much think to call Nick and give him a head’s up. She walked up the porch stairs and rang the doorbell. She heard footsteps running, muffled voices. The door swung open wildly, rebounding on its hinges.

“Hi, Sabrina!” Amalia exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were coming to my house today!”

“Amalia, you can’t just open the door…” Nick emerged from the kitchen wearing gray sweatpants and a black t-shirt. He stopped when he saw Sabrina, surprise at her arrival evident on his features. He blinked and seemed to remember himself. “It could have been a stranger!”

“It’s Sabrina,” Amalia informed him matter-of-factly. “She’s not a stranger.”

“You’re missing the point. You don’t just open the door for people. You have to at least look through the window... “ A fire alarm went off. “Dammit!” He threw his hands up. “Come in, Sabrina.”

With that, he turned and rushed back to the kitchen. Sabrina looked after him, taken aback by his abrupt departure.

“He’s in a really bad mood,” Amalia supplied. “Like, a really bad mood.”

“Why is that?” Sabrina asked. Amalia shrugged.

“He said we live in a pigsty, but we don’t have pigs. And he got mad at me because I told him I didn’t want spaghetti for dinner again. All he makes is spaghetti. Oh, and he tripped over my Barbie camper. That made him real mad.”

Sabrina sighed and looked around the space. While ‘pigsty’ was a stretch, the house was certainly messier than it normally was. Shoes and toys were littered as far as she could see. Nick’s bag and jacket were haphazardly thrown over the banister, several of his own pairs of shoes kicked off at the door. She thought of his room at Melvin’s and felt sorry for the housekeeper when she came next.

“Hilda finished altering your dress for your Elsa costume,” she told Amalia, deciding it would do Nick the most good for her to occupy the child for a few minutes. “Do you want to try it on?”

Amalia lit up.

“Please!” She jumped in place excitedly.

“Come into the living room with me, then.”

The living room was an even bigger disaster than the entry. Amalia’s toys were everywhere. The remnants of what looked like a blanket fort were piled in a corner. Every single Blu-ray the Scratches owned were strewn across the floor. What looked to be several baskets of laundry were dumped on one end of the couch, a few pieces folded on the coffee table. She could see papers peeking out from under them. A cartoon played too loudly on the television. It looked like Nick had simply given up.

“Can I try it on?” Amalia wheedled. “Please?”

“Let’s get you into it,” Sabrina nodded, pulling her attention away from the mess.

She helped Amalia into the blue gown. Hilda taken it in so it would fit her and shortened the hem. She had also added details that took the blue dress from dance costume to ‘Elsa.’ It fit Amalia perfectly.

“I love it!” she exclaimed with a twirl. “I don’t even need a mirror to know I love it!”

“You look beautiful,” Sabrina smiled. The costume really was perfect. “You will be the most beautiful Elsa there ever was.”

“I have to show Nick!” Amalia ran from the room. Sabrina followed at a much slower pace. Something told her to proceed with caution, given Nick’s mood. “Nick!” Amalia called. “Nick, look!”

“Look at you,” Nick said, trying to put on a happy performance for her even though the desire to get in his truck and drive far, far away was strong at the moment. “You look beautiful, Mally.”

“I know!” She twirled again. Nick smiled a bit in spite of his mood. Sabrina laughed quietly.

“Thank Sabrina for bringing it over for you, please,” Nick prompted.

“Thank you!” Amalia threw herself at Sabrina. “I love it! I love it so much!”

“You are so welcome,” Sabrina hugged her. “Make sure you stop by my house while you’re trick-or-treating, okay? I have something special for you.”

“Really?” she asked, eyes shining.

“Really,” Sabrina confirmed with a wink. She glanced at Nick who looked disheveled and on edge. She had intended to leave but seeing Nick like that did something to her. She needed to stay, at least for a few minutes, and see if she could help him with whatever was going on, ease his burden. “Why don’t you go pick up your toys in the living room and clean up those Blue-rays?” she asked Amalia. “Elsa likes a clean castle.”

“Okay!” Amalia skipped away happily. Sabrina gave Nick her full attention.

“What happened in here, Scratch?” she asked. She was surprised to find the kitchen less of a mess than she had expected, despite the pile of dishes in the sink and the food wrappers on the counter. A burnt smell lingered.

“I forgot I put chicken nuggets in the oven for Amalia,” he answered. “I made spaghetti again, but apparently she doesn’t eat that anymore. Except I got distracted by the smoking oven and didn’t turn the noodles off, so I’ve ruined that too. I’m ordering a pizza and calling it a day.”

“Things happen,” Sabrina shrugged. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

“I wish you would have warned me you were coming over,” he said with a bit of an edge to his tone. “I would have at least cleaned up the entry a little, put the laundry back in baskets and hid them in the laundry room – probably where they’ll end up anyway by the time I get dinner figured out and fight Amalia into bed.”

“There’s no need to clean up for me,” Sabrina shook her head. “You know that.”

“Still, you walked into chaos.”

“I wanted Amalia to try on her dress, in case there needed to be any other alterations before Halloween,” she told him. “It’s perfect, though. Hilda did a great job.”

“Thank you,” Nick sighed. “I really do appreciate it, Sabrina. You have no idea how much trouble you saved me by pulling that costume together.”

“It was nothing,” Sabrina shook her head. All she had done was scavenge a dress from nearly twenty years ago, when she had been close to Amalia’s age, from her pack rat aunts’ attic. Hilda had done the hard work, which for Hilda, wasn’t hard at all. “How was your trip to Hartford yesterday?”

“She had a blast. She went to bed early, which was fantastic. I thought I’d stay up and get some work done, but I ended up falling asleep, too. We’ve had a rough day today, though. The birthday party was chaotic, she had a lot of sugar, she’s not listening… Hence the state of the house and my attitude. I know its Sunday and we’re suppose to have our movie night, but I’ve already told her it’s not happening. Not tonight, not after the way she’s acted all afternoon.”

“Anything I can help with?” she offered. “I’m particularly skilled at folding laundry.”

Something snapped in Nick.

He had been spending more and more time stewing over his relationship with Sabrina, wondering what his place was, how things had gotten to this point. She was there, always, would drop what she was doing and come help him if he called. In a lot of ways, she was the only thing holding him together during a time when little made sense.

But she wasn’t his girlfriend.

She wasn’t willing to be his girlfriend, wouldn’t even consider the idea of exploring what a relationship between them could look like. It was wearing on him, even if he still hadn’t quite labeled his feelings for her past acknowledging that there was something there, something about her. He couldn’t keep things as they were, not while she was dating someone else and he was barely hanging on. Their complicated relationship was one more thing on his ever-growing plate that needed to be addressed. He sighed and leaned against the counter, hardly able to believe what he was about to say.

“I can’t do this, Sabrina.”

“Nick.” She came close, rested a hand on his forearm. He cringed a bit, wishing he didn’t find so much comfort in her touch. “You’re doing a great job…”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” He pushed her hand away. Her features shifted to a confused expression. “I can’t do this, Sabrina. You. I can’t do it.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, her confusion growing.

“You’re leading me on,” he stated.

Sabrina’s jaw dropped in disbelief.

“I’m leading you on?” she repeated. Surely she hadn’t heard him correctly. “Me?”

“You told me we can’t even try to figure out what a relationship looks like between us. You say you need space. You’re dating this Gregory guy, bringing him to the Homecoming dance. But you also show up in my classroom nearly every morning to chat, often with breakfast. You seek me out at lunch, give me leftovers half the time. You’re always texting, asking how I’m doing, doing things like this, today, just showing up and offering to help, making yourself at home. I can’t do it, Sabrina. My emotional health is fragile, at best, and I can’t deal with you yanking me around anymore.”

“I’m not yanking you around,” Sabrina shook her head. “I’m trying to be your friend…”

“I don’t want you to be my friend,” he shot back. “I want you to be my girlfriend. You don’t want that, though, and that’s fine, but if that’s the case, I need you to stay away. I need space, to use your favorite term. I can’t have you hovering around, just out of reach, all the damned time. Not right now, not like this.”

Indignation filled Sabrina. After months of casual sex, how could he say she was leading him on? If one of them was guilty of that, it was him.

“You are accusing me of leading you on?” she asked. “Seriously, Nick?”

“What else am I supposed to call it?” he threw his hands up. “Do you know how much it sucked to see you with Gregory on Friday night? Do you know how badly I wanted to take you to a dark corner of the school and take that damned dress off you, make you forget all about that guy? It was hard enough, seeing you with him, but then you’re there, worried that I’m upset with you while he’s in the bathroom or wherever the hell he went. Yes, I was upset with you. I wasn’t exactly in a position to show it though, was I? A high school dance isn’t the place to make a scene. If I’m being honest here, I’m still upset with you, Sabrina. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t let you keep me at arm’s length, no further, but certainly no closer, while you’re off dating someone else.”

“Isn’t that what you did to me for the last six months?” Sabrina asked. It took everything she had to keep her voice at a normal volume. “Kept me at arm’s length? It was supposed to be a one-night stand and yet I kept ending up in your bed.”

“You called me, too,” Nick reminded her. “Don’t you dare try to place the blame fully on my shoulders for the casual arrangement we had.”

“I know that,” she nodded, owning her part. She was woman enough to admit that she wasn’t innocent. “But why do you think I kept allowing it, Nick? Why do you think I kept coming when you called? Calling you?”

“Because the sex was good?” Nick asked. “You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it.”

“I had feelings for you!” Sabrina erupted. “Every time I thought I might be able to put a stop to it and move on, you would do something that made me think maybe, just maybe, you cared about me…”

“I did care about you,” Nick interrupted. “I do care about you. That’s why I can’t do this. It’s too damn hard to be around you.”

“Your parents just died, Nick,” Sabrina tried to salvage the conversation, sensing it was already off the rails. “You went from ‘come over to my messy house that smells like marijuana and I’ll screw you between rounds of video games’ to ‘please, Sabrina, be my girlfriend’ in the span of a week. Why am I supposed to believe that you’ve changed so suddenly?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” Nick asked. “You’ve been clear about what you want. Now I’m being clear about what I want. I can’t do this. I can’t have you in my life right now. It’s too hard. Too confusing.”

“So, you’re cutting me out of it?” Sabrina asked, sure he didn’t mean it. He couldn’t. “After everything…”

“I guess that’s one way to put it,” Nick nodded. It pained him to do it. It hurt to see her eyes sparkle with unshed tears. But he couldn’t allow things to continue as they were when he was barely getting by as it was, trying to cope with his parents’ death while raising a child. It was just too hard to add watching her date someone else to his list, especially when he got his hopes up every time she talked to him at lunch or sent him a text message, which was almost daily, only to have Gregory reappear in the picture. “Go home, Sabrina.”

“Nick…”

“Go home,” he said again, this time with more force behind his words. “Don’t stop by my classroom tomorrow morning. Don’t talk to me at lunch or after school. Don’t text me, call me. Just – go home. Give me the space you said you needed but never actually took.”

A single tear rolled down her cheek. He had to look away.

“But...” her voice shook, Amalia…”

“She’ll be okay,” Nick cut her off. “I won’t stop you from saying hello to her if you see her out somewhere, but there’s no more coming to her soccer games. No more picking her up for the night. No more coming over to watch a Disney movie. She’s my responsibility, and your relationship with her just makes this harder.”

“That’s not fair…”

“Absolutely nothing about my life is fair right now, Sabrina,” Nick stated, his voice rising. “So forgive me if I don’t give a damn if you think me asking you to leave me and my sister alone isn’t fair. You’ll run home to Roz and tell her how horrible I am. She’ll agree because she’s never liked me anyway. You’ll have Gregory to lean on. You’ll be just fine.”

He turned away from her and busied himself with pouring the pot of noodles down the garbage disposal. He willed her to leave, to not say anything further. He also knew that wasn’t how she was wired.

“Nick, please…” She wiped at another tear. She was trying to hold them back, but the dam was rapidly deteriorating. “Talk to me…”

“Leave, Sabrina.” He didn’t turn around. “This thing between us – all of it – is done.”

He turned on the garbage disposal.

She stood there for a moment longer, lost, confused. Then, because it was what he wanted and she didn’t have a choice at the moment, she turned and quietly left the kitchen. She had intended to sneak out of the house unnoticed by Amalia, but of course Amalia appeared just as she opened the door.

“Are you leaving?” she asked.

“I am,” Sabrina blinked away her tears. Amalia didn’t need to see them. “I need to go home and get a few things done before bed. I just wanted to bring your dress over.”

“Why are you crying?” Amalia tilted her head a bit to study her, not fooled by Sabrina’s act.

“That’s nothing for you to worry about,” Sabrina forced a smile. Can I have a hug before I leave? Please?”

Amalia embraced her. Sabrina squeezed her back, unable to stop the tears. It wasn’t just Nick she was losing. It was Amalia, too. She didn’t know when she would see Amalia again, let alone hug her.

“Try to be good for Nick, okay?” she asked, still hugging the child. “He really loves you, even if he’s cranky tonight.”

“Okay,” Amalia promised. “Can I come to your house again soon? I like it there.”

“We’ll play it by ear,” Sabrina said, not able to tell the child her brother had effectively ended not only his relationship with her, but his sister’s as well. “Goodnight, Amalia.”

Sabrina cried the entire drive across town, her heart hurting in a way she had never felt before. Even her breakup with Harvey hadn’t been this excruciating. She didn’t understand it, didn’t know why it hurt so much, but all she wanted was to get home, crawl into bed, and cry herself to sleep.

Of course, Roz was home.

“Sabrina!” She put the plate of food she was holding down on a side table in the entry and came to her when she spotted her tearstained face. “What happened?”

Sabrina brushed at her tears, as pointless as it was. They wouldn’t stop coming.

“Nick…” She took a ragged breath. “He… I guess he… broke up with me.”

Roz frowned.

“What?”

“He said I was leading him on and he couldn’t do it anymore.” She shuddered as another sob tried to rake through her. “He cut me out of his life, and Amalia’s, too.”

“Oh, Sabrina.” Roz held her friend while she cried. She couldn’t recall a time she had seen Sabrina this upset, not even when she broke up with Harvey or in the aftermath of her college boyfriend. “Come on,” she said after a few minutes. “Let’s sit down. Tell me what happened.” Her dinner forgotten, she led her best friend to the sofa. She offered her the box of tissues from an end table. Sabrina pulled one tissue, then another, then another and blew her nose, wiped at her eyes. “Talk to me, Brina.”

Sabrina related the story through tears, the reality of it all sinking in more and more as she re-told what Nick had said to her.

“I don’t understand,” she shook her head once she was finished. “He led me on for months and now he’s accusing me…”

“He’s not entirely wrong,” Roz said gently. “You know I don’t like him, especially given how he’s treated you, but he’s not wrong in saying that you were asking him for space yet not actually taking it. You were seeing him on your own terms, when it suited, but then you’re at the dance with Gregory and telling Nick you can’t be more than friends when he asked for more. I’m on your side, entirely, but I do see where he’s coming from.”

“His parents just died,” Sabrina tried to explain. She could see it too, but that didn’t mean she wanted to admit to her wrongdoings, not right now when the wound was fresh and gaping. “I couldn’t leave him out to dry. And he couldn’t have possibly gone from ‘girl I sleep with’ to ‘girlfriend’ in the span of a week, not the way he was acting and living before his parents died.”

“I was afraid something like this would happen,” Roz admitted. “You two have this pull towards one another, no matter how unhealthy it is. You seemed to just be getting closer instead of doing the healthy thing and moving on separately these last several weeks.”

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now,” Sabrina sighed. “It’s done. Whatever it was.” She picked at the thread of the throw pillow she had started hugging at some point. “Amalia doesn’t deserve this, though.”

“Maybe not,” Roz agreed. “But Nick’s her guardian. He has the right to make this decision.”

“I can admit that I wasn’t great at the whole space thing,” she said. “But I care so much about him… I wanted to help him…”

“Now he has to help himself,” Roz supplied. “I think this might be a good thing, Sabrina. For both of you. Nick has his own issues to work through and if he’s not leaning on you, maybe you can detox and get him out of your system, too.”

“Maybe,” Sabrina said, because there was nothing else to say. They fell into silence, Roz wishing she could do more to console Sabrina, Sabrina replaying every moment of her relationship with Nick, from earlier that night backwards, looking for any sign, any answer, in the rewinding footage.

“What about Gregory?” Roz asked after a few minutes. Sabrina frowned.

“What about him?”

Roz sighed. She had been debating bringing this up to Sabrina. Now seemed to be the right time, even if Sabrina’s heart was broken. Given the circumstances, she reasoned it was the perfect time.

“Sabrina, do you like him?” she asked.

“I like him…”

“But do you like him?” Roz emphasized ‘like.’ “Can you see yourself with him?”

Sabrina sighed heavily.

“I should like him,” she confessed. “On paper, he’s everything any girl would want. He’s kind, respectful, handsome. But…”

“But he’s not Nicholas Scratch,” Roz finished. “I don’t like Nick and I don’t know that he’s the right guy for you, but I do like Gregory. The thing is, it doesn’t matter if I like him. He’s a good guy, Sabrina, but if you don’t see yourself with him, you owe it to him to let him go. You’ve been treating him like a bandage for Nick and that’s not fair.”

Sabrina dropped her head to her knees, recognizing the truth in Roz’s words. Deep down, she had already known that. Gregory was never going to be Nick. She was never going to feel her heartbeat pick up or her breath catch the way she did with Nick. But he was nice and good and kind and she wanted to want him.

She just – didn’t.

“How did I end up here, Roz?” she lifted her head. “I’m so practical in every other area of my life. I’m so put together, organized, independent. But when it comes to relationships, I’m an absolute disaster.”

Roz had theories on the matter. Sabrina had raised by two independent aunts, neither of which had really had a relationship while raising her. Zelda had a fling with Father Blackwood that scandalized the town while they were in high school. Sabrina had stood up in the middle of biology class and told off the whole room when the teasing became too much – and happily sat in the front row of detention every day for the next week. Hilda dated Cee now, but had been largely single for many years before him. There was no example for Sabrina of what a relationship should look like, nothing for her to base her own experience on. Sabrina had done okay enough when she dated Harvey, but even their relationship had lasted a little too long and become a bit unhealthy, just because they were both comfortable in it.

When it came to Nicholas Scratch, the pull she had referenced earlier was undeniable. Roz had seen it from afar in high school, the way Nick seemed to zero in on Sabrina like a moth to a flame. Back then, she thought it was simply the fact that Nick couldn’t have her and the privileged boy wasn’t used to not getting what he wanted. Now that they were older, there was no denying that there was something between them. But passion alone couldn’t build a relationship. The pair certainly had proven that.

“You’re not a disaster,” Roz offered. “Maybe you care too much, but if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be you.” She squeezed Sabrina’s hand. “I know the next few days are going to suck, but you’re going to get through this, Sabrina.”

“Rationally, I know that,” she sighed and leaned into the sofa cushions. “But my head and my heart just don’t agree right now.”

“I know.” Roz squeezed her hand. “I’m here for you, Sabrina. If you want to talk, we can talk. If you want to eat ice cream and watch sad movies, we can do that, too.”

Sabrina smiled the smallest of smiles.

“Thank you, Roz.” She squeezed her hand back then sighed again. “I suppose I should break up with Gregory while I’m at it.”

“Maybe,” Roz shrugged. “But I don’t think you need to do that tonight. Let yourself feel everything that happened with Nick tonight. Make decisions about Gregory when your brain is a little less cluttered.”

“Thank you, Roz,” Sabrina said again. “For talking, for not judging me, even if I know you can’t stand Nick.”

“You’re my best friend, Sabrina,” Roz reminded her. “I just want you to be happy.”

Sabrina put the pillow she had been hugging aside. She was emotionally and physically drained, not just from the day, but from the last several weeks. She wanted to be happy too, but that seemed like such a far off concept right then.

“I’m going to bed,” she said. “I know it’s still pretty early, but I just - can’t.”

“Okay,” Roz nodded. “See you in the morning?”

“When I get to go to school and pretend to not notice Nick everywhere I go?” she countered. “I can hardly wait.”

“I’ll be there to get you through it,” Roz promised. The two friends shared a long hug before going their separate ways for the evening.

Upstairs, Sabrina did what she said she would. She crawled into bed, pulled the covers around her, set an alarm for nearly twelve hours from then, and let the tears fall.

In the darkness of her room, her pillow damp and now stained with her mascara, she faced the facts.

She loved Nicholas Scratch.

She had for a long time.

And now it was too late.

She cried until she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

A week.

It had been a week since he turned Sabrina away.

Nick sat at the kitchen island with a cup of coffee, trying to savor the early morning quiet that permeated the house. Amalia was still asleep, the house dark save for a single light over the kitchen sink. The days when he would sleep until the last possible minute before he had to rush out the door to work or seemed forever ago instead of just two months ago. It seemed impossible that he had ever slept until noon on weekends. Now, he almost lived for these rare quiet moments, even on Saturday mornings when he could have been asleep.

Except he hadn’t slept much, last night or the entire week, not that that was anything new. The insomnia had been worse this week though, driving him out of bed in the early morning hours for a cup of caffeine as there was really no point in lying there, staring at the ceiling.

It was Halloween.

It was Sabrina’s birthday.

He thought of the gift he had for her, buried in one of the boxes of his things still piled up in the garage. For a brief moment, he considered digging it out, leaving it for her on her desk or perhaps on the seat of her car since she never remembered to lock it. But she would know it was from him, no matter how anonymous he tried to make it. It would have to stay buried in his belongings, belongings he still needed to make time to go through and unpack.

A week ago, he was sure in his choice to cut Sabrina out of his life. He needed the space. Battling his feelings for her and trying to navigate their complicated relationship was taking too much of his energy, energy he needed for figuring out – everything else. It was exhausting and hard and he just couldn’t do it anymore.

Still, he had woken up with his heart heavy, Sabrina on his mind. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he had dreamed of her.

He told himself it was just that it was her birthday. She loved her birthday, always had. She loved that it was on Halloween, that she had an excuse to dress up in an over-the-top costume. Growing up, the Spellmans had allowed her to throw elaborate birthday/Halloween parties, pulling out all the stops for an epic celebration. He had gone to all of them, shamelessly flirted with her regardless of where her relationship with Harvey stood at the time. Twice, he had offered her a birthday kiss. She had refused him, like he knew she would, but that hadn’t stopped him.

It had only been a week, but everything felt – dull. That was saying something, given as he had felt like he was walking through a heavy damp fog since his parents died in early September. He hadn’t realized how much light she brought into his life until he snuffed that light out.

Seeing her the morning after he told her to leave had been excruciating. He got to school much earlier now that he had to drop Amalia off at preschool and in an effort to get to his classroom without running into Sabrina, the universe had made sure to put her directly in his path. Her eyes had met his for the briefest of moments and the vacant expression in those dark orbs of hers nearly did him in. The dark, swollen bags under them told him she hadn’t slept well the night before, that she had been crying. She looked how he felt. Before he could react – however he would have reacted – she had ducked into her classroom, leaving him alone in the hallway and the large gorge she had left in his heart got wider, longer.

That had been the last time he had been even remotely close to her. He hadn’t changed anything about his routine, save for taking his lunch to his classroom, but Sabrina had virtually disappeared.

At first, he found himself waiting, expecting her to pop into his classroom, ever defiant, ever certain of herself and determined to have her way. He had expected her to show up in her usual blaze of fire, tell him off, and let the pieces fall where they may. That was her – fearless and sometimes a little reckless but always with the best of intentions. By the third day, when she didn’t appear, he had accepted that she wasn’t going to show. But the fact that he hadn’t spied her around school left him unsettled.

He knew she was there. The administration sent out a daily email of announcements to teachers, noting who had a substitute, what events were going on. Her name was never listed unless related to an event with the cheerleading squad. She had disappeared, at least from his orbit. He had told her to, but when he didn’t see her, he realized he was expecting to still get glimpses of her, to have that sort of fix, however unhealthy it was. That gorge – certainly a gorge because it was much larger than a hole – seemed to grow larger by the day.

In a moment of weakness, he had gone as far as stalking her social media accounts. She hadn’t posted a single update since she left his house in tears. He was smart enough to know she wasn’t doing well, but he stood by his decision, no matter how much it was hurting either of them. It was what was best, for both of them. Even if he had to remind himself of that frequently.

He hadn’t seen Sabrina, but he had certainly seen Roz. She hadn’t said anything, but the stare of daggers that pierced through him was all he needed to know that if they hadn’t been in the halls of Baxter High, she would have made sure to tell him what she thought of him. He was thankful Roz had a different lunch period, and that her classroom was on another hallway.

Amalia’s footsteps echoed through the upstairs. He glanced at the clock. Seven o’clock on the nose. She had slept in, for her. He listened to her thunder down the stairs and waited for her arrival. She blew into the kitchen in a flurry of excitement.

“It’s Halloween!” she squealed, sliding to a stop, hair a mess, her pajamas mismatched.

“It is,” Nick agreed. “But you’ve got hours before you go trick-or-treating. We’re going to hang out around here, be chill, maybe take a nap later…”

“No nap,” Amalia stated. “Why are the lights off?” She danced over to the wall and flicked on the lights, not waiting for an answer.

“I was enjoying the peace and quiet,” Nick answered anyway, releasing a heavy sigh that the moment was over. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“Something Halloween.” Amalia climbed onto a stool across from him and looked at him expectantly.

“And what, exactly, what something Halloween look like for breakfast?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Amalia shrugged. “Mommy made me pancakes that looked like pumpkins one time. You can do that.”

“No, I can’t,” Nick muttered. “How about regular pancakes?”

“That’s not Halloween.”

He thought fast.

“I’ll – use chocolate chips to make them look like a carved pumpkin.”

“But pumpkins are orange.”

Nick wanted to beat his head against the marble countertop, already annoyed and he had the whole day ahead of them. Instead, he came up with a different idea, because he had to.

“How about we go get Halloween donuts for breakfast?” he proposed. “They have all kinds – orange with sprinkles, purple with sprinkles. I’ve even seen one with a spiderweb.”

“That’s a good idea,” Amalia approved. “Go get dressed.”

Nick furrowed an eyebrow.

“You’re rather bossy this morning.”

“You’re in your pajamas.”

“So are you,” he pointed out.

“But you let me wear my pajamas out of the house. You never wear yours out of the house.”

“I’m not even going to try to argue with you,” he sighed. “I’m going to run upstairs and change. Put your shoes on and find your coat. I’ll be ready in a minute.

He made quick work of shedding his pajamas only to pull on sweatpants and a long sleeve shirt. He found Amalia waiting for him by the door. She had pulled on a pair of rainboots, likely without socks, her pajama bottoms stuffed into them, and her coat was on, but unzipped.

“Zip that up before we go,” he told her. He busied himself with his own coat. When he turned back to Amalia, she was fumbling with her zipper. He watched for a moment as she struggled before he stepped in. “Need some help?”

“I don’t know how to do it,” she whined.

“Here.” He kneeled down. “See this?” He tugged on her zipper. “This is the alligator.” He took the other half of her jacket in his hand. “These are its teeth.” He threaded the teeth into the alligator. “Put them together like this…” He pulled the zipper upward. “And then you zip his mouth closed.”

Amalia giggled.

“That’s silly, Nick.”

“That’s how Mom taught me,” he told her with a wistful smile. He couldn’t believe he had remembered the semi-riddle from more than twenty years ago. He felt the usual pang in his chest as he thought about their parents, how they should be the ones taking Amalia out for Halloween donuts, dressing her up in her Elsa costume that evening.

“I’ll try next time,” she said, breaking into his reverie. “Can we go? I’m hungry.”

“We can go,” Nick confirmed. He opened the door and Amalia ran across the yard to his truck. He followed at a slower pace and helped her buckle in before he slid behind the wheel.

“Hey! I have an idea!” Amalia exclaimed from the backseat.

“Dare I even ask?” Nick wondered as he looked both directions at a stop sign.

“We can pick up Sabrina and she can come with us to have Halloween donuts. I haven’t seen her in forever!”

“We can’t do that.” His stomach clenched. A week ago, he would have absolutely called Sabrina and asked if she wanted to join them. Today, that wasn’t an option.

“Why not?” Amalia wondered. “She likes donuts.”

“Sabrina is – busy.”

His stomach clenched again.

“Busy doing what?”

“Halloween stuff,” Nick answered, praying he could hold up under Amalia’s inquisition. “She’s really busy.”

Relief filled him when Amalia didn’t question him further.

The rest of the day passed by quickly. He managed soccer practice and a trip to the grocery store without too much drama from Amalia. He finally managed to fold and put away the clean laundry, ignored the large pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room deciding that was tomorrow’s problem. He even graded a stack of tests while Amalia, against all odds, actually took the nap he negotiated with her to at least attempt if she was going to go trick-or-treating.

“I thought Sabrina was going to do my hair,” Amalia questioned as Nick worked to secure a blonde Elsa wig to her head after an early dinner of hot dogs and potato chips.

“She’s – busy.”

“But…”

“Stay still,” he directed, pushing another bobby pin into place. She winced and tried to pull away. He steadied her head with his free hand. “I’m almost done.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Amalia asked.

“I know enough.” He had watched a YouTube video on how to put on a wig. “Last one.” He pushed the last pin into place and took a step back to admire his handiwork. He had to smile. He had done okay, all things considered. You can thank Sabrina for the dress a small voice reminded him. He blew out a breath and ignored it. “You look just like Elsa,” he told Amalia. “Go look in the mirror.”

He watched her skip across her bedroom to the full-length gilded mirror propped against the wall. She beamed at her reflection as she swished her dress back and forth.

“I look just like Elsa!” she confirmed. She burst out into a rendition of “Let It Go.” Nick cringed, not because her voice was all that terrible – she sounded like a four-year-old – but because he couldn’t stand the song.

“Let’s go downstairs and get your trick-or-treat pail,” he broke into the song after a verse. “Then we’ll get going.”

For the next two hours, he walked what felt like all of Greendale with Amalia, reminding her to say trick-or-treat, to say thank you. He had allowed her a couple of pieces of candy, stolen a few for himself while she skipped to one house to the next. He had her in the truck ready to go home when she remembered something.

“Nick! We have to go to Sabrina’s! She has something special for me! She told me so!”

His stomach clenched again.

“It’s getting late,” he tried. “Maybe we can…”

“It’s not late! People are still trick-or-treating!” Her logic, Nick reasoned, wasn’t wrong. “Please, Nick! We have to go! She told me I had to come see her!”

“Amalia…”

“We have to! She said!”

Nick heard the ever more familiar notes of a pending temper tantrum brewing in Amalia’s tone. He couldn’t deal with it tonight. He blew out a breath. There was only one solution.

“Fine,” he agreed.

Without another word, he turned his truck towards Sabrina. His stomach churned as he thought through the best course of action. By the time he reached Sabrina’s, he felt nearly sick. He pulled to a stop on the curb, hyper aware of Sabrina, Roz, and Harvey on the porch handing out candy to a few neighborhood kids. Amalia was already unbuckling her booster seat.

“Wait, Amalia.”

He got out of the truck and worked hard to not look Sabrina’s way. He thought Harvey might have waved, but he didn’t dare check to confirm. He squatted to Amalia’s level and straightened her wig.

“Go to Sabrina’s porch, say trick-or-treat, thank her for whatever she gives you, and come right back to the truck,” he directed. “We really do need to get home. We can’t stay here all night.”

Amalia frowned in confusion.

“You’re not coming with me?”

“No,” Nick shook his head. “I need to stay back at the truck. Just – be quick, okay?”

Amalia studied him. She was perceptive, could sense something was off with her brother.

“But… Why?”
“I just – need to stay at the truck,” he repeated, not offering more. “Go on, see Sabrina. Just – hurry back, okay?”

Slowly, she nodded, even though she didn’t look convinced.

“Okay,” she agreed. She skipped off to where Sabrina stood on her porch, watching them.

With a heavy sigh, Nick stood and ran his hand through his hair. He turned and leaned against his truck, eyes diverted from Sabrina. He could sense her, however. She was looking his way, wanted him to look hers. He clenched his jaw and stuffed his hands in his pockets, refusing to bend. A minute passed, and then another. He turned his head just enough to see Sabrina in his peripheral vision.

She was stunning.

Her witch costume was simpler than costumes from previous years, but the way she had cinched the black dress around her waist tried to make his mind go to other places, places where they were the only two that existed and their relationship wasn’t in shambles. He had a feeling the costume wasn’t as elaborate because of the week she’d had. He tried to shove down the pang of guilt that threatened to overtake him. He couldn’t help but wonder where Gregory was, why he wasn’t there to celebrate her birthday with her.

He watched from the corner of his eye as she made over Amalia and Roz dumped far too much candy into her pail with Harvey adding still more. Sabrina gave her a gift bag brimming with Halloween treats. He swallowed hard as Sabrina hugged Amalia a little too long. He saw Sabrina gentle turn Amalia towards his truck and encourage her to go back to him.

Amalia didn’t protest. He kept his eyes adverted, but he could still see Sabrina. He could see the hopeful expression on her face, the hope that he would look her way, give her some sort of reaction. He was steadfast in his refusal to meet her eyes. He turned and opened the truck door for Amalia. He barely comprehended her excitedly chattering away about all the candy they had given her and her special present from Sabrina. When he was behind the wheel, he wasted no time in putting the truck in gear and pulling away.

He hadn’t made eye contact, but he had seen it all the same.

His refusal to look her way had been the final straw.

Whatever slim thread of hope she had held onto for reconciliation had snapped.

She had given up.

They were truly done now.

He exhaled a long breath as Amalia still rambled on, telling him what was in the bag, a book, more candy, a stuffed black cat that looked like Salem.

He had made his choice.

He still believed it was the right one.

But it hurt like hell.

He could only pray that hurt would fade with time.

Because he wasn't sure how much more he could take.

Chapter Text

She thought it would get easier.

It had been nearly a month since Nick pushed her out of his life, but the wound was still fresh. She had stopped dropping by his classroom in the mornings and she wasn’t sure who was avoiding who at lunch as she made it a point to take her lunch out of the lounge and eat literally anywhere else while the rumor mill swirled that Nick was eating his own lunch in his classroom, citing he needed the time to get work done as an excuse. She laid low at school, altered her routes in the hallway so she didn’t run into him during the day. She had even ducked into a bathroom to avoid him in the hall a week into their, for lack of a better word, break up.

There was a moment, the morning after he had dismissed her, when their paths had crossed. She had met his eyes for the briefest of moments. He looked exhausted, bone weary. He had seemed as though he were about to speak, but her flight response kicked in and she practically dove into her classroom, not strong enough to hear whatever he had to say to her that he had forgotten to say the night before.

She had only seen Amalia once.

She had been surprised to see the little girl running up her sidewalk on Halloween, dressed as Elsa, right down to the blonde wig that Sabrina guessed Nick had bought as a way around braiding Amalia’s hair the way she had planned to do before Nick pushed her out of the picture. She had looked for Nick, thinking maybe, just maybe, it was a peace offering a week after their fight. She had found him, leaning against his truck on the curb and actively ignoring her. She had put on a brave face for Amalia, gave her the overflowing bag of Halloween goodies she had put together just for her while Roz and Harvey filled her pail with candy. She had hugged her a little too long before sending her back to Nick.

She had tried to catch his eye, get something from him, any sort of reaction to tell her where they stood or even how he was doing, but he had dutifully continued to ignore her, helped Amalia into his truck, and drove away. She hadn’t touched the birthday cake her friends had gotten her and had cried herself to sleep again that night, in spite of the thoughtful gifts everyone, including Gregory whom she hadn’t had the heart or perhaps the strength to breakup with yet, had given her and their obvious attempts to cheer her up.

It was easily her worst birthday ever.

She had ended things with Gregory a few days later, many days past when she should have. If she were honest with herself, they should have never started, or at the very least, gone past the first date. She had told him she and Nick had a fight and that she was struggling with not seeing Amalia, some of the truth, when he asked why she was so down, but just as the words to to things were forming, she had lost her nerve and closed her mouth.

A few days after her birthday, in a moment of ‘screw you, Nicholas Scratch,’ she had thought maybe she could sleep with Gregory, let him be the distraction she needed, the relief from the heartache she was buried under. It was selfish and wrong, but in the moment, she hadn’t cared.

Except when his hand slid under her shirt and he whispered her name, her brain caught up with her heart and she knew she couldn’t. He didn’t deserve that and neither did she. She had pushed him away, righted her clothing, escorted him downstairs, and let him down as gently as she could.

“It’s that Scratch guy, isn’t he?” he had asked her, just after she had told him she couldn’t keep seeing him.

“Yes,” she had admitted. “Even if it doesn’t matter to him.”

Today, the Monday before Thanksgiving, she at least had the luxury of Nick not being at school. He had taken his history classes on some field trip or other and had left early that morning, before school started, and wouldn’t be back until late in the evening. She tried not to wonder who was helping him with Amalia. It wasn’t her concern anymore. If anything, it was nice to be able to wander through the school without being on high alert.

With just two and a half days of school before a four-day weekend to celebrate the holiday, she was content to let her classes work on their research papers or read their assigned novel without doing any real teaching. She was grading a reading comprehension assignment for another class when her phone lit up. It was a Greendale number, but she didn’t recognize it. She let it go, not able to answer her phone during class. They called right back. When they called a third time, she decided it was important.

“I’ll be right back,” she told her class, picking up her phone. “I’m just outside, so don’t even try to get out of hand.” In the hallway, she tapped her screen. “Hello?”

“Hi, I’m looking for Sabrina Spellman?”

Sabrina frowned at the unfamiliar voice.

“This is she…”

“Ms. Spellman, I’m Martha Hemmings, the school nurse at Greendale Preschool. I have you listed as the emergency contact for Amalia Scratch?”

“Yes,” Sabrina’s heart rate picked up slightly. “Is she okay?”

“She’s come down with what looks to be the flu,” the nurse explained. “She has a high fever and she says she’s cold and achy and has a sore throat. I’ve been trying to reach her brother to no avail…”

“He’s on a field trip with his classes,” she replied. “Even if you had reached him, he’s a few hours from Greendale. I’ll come pick her up. It will be a few minutes – I need to find someone to cover my classes – but I'll be there as soon as I can.”

She didn’t hesitate to go straight to the office. The principle was understanding, given she knew of Nick’s predicament, and within fifteen minutes, she had coverage for her afternoon classes. She left school and hurried to Amalia’s preschool. She burst into the office, startling the older lady working behind the desk.

“Hi,” she said a bit breathless and aware that she was likely over dramatic for what the situation called for. She didn’t care. “I’m here to pick up Amalia Scratch.”

“One moment,” the woman said kindly.

Sabrina waited impatiently for the woman to buzz the school nurse. It felt like an eternity before the nurse appeared, leading Amalia by the hand. Sabrina’s heart sunk at the sight. The usually vibrant little girl was pale, her eyes droopy. She sucked her thumb and dragged her jacket behind her.

“Amalia.”

Amalia perked up a bit when she saw Sabrina.

“Sabrina!”

She didn’t run to her with full force the way she would have if she didn’t feel so poorly, but she quickened her step and threw her arms around Sabrina’s neck. Sabrina hugged her tight.

“Hi, sweet girl,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

“I don’t feel good,” Amalia muttered into her shoulder. “Can we go home?”

“Of course we can.” Sabrina hugged her still tighter. “We’ll curl up on the couch and watch movies until Nick gets home, okay?”

“Okay,” Amalia agreed.

Sabrina listened as the nurse advised her to pick up some Tylenol and to keep Amalia hydrated. She bundled up the sick little girl and took her home, making a pit stop at the pharmacy. Once Amalia was settled in and given a dose of cold medicine, she texted Nick.

Amalia’s school called me – emergency contact. She’s sick, probably the flu. I’ve picked her up and she’s at my house. I’ve given her medicine and she’s resting. No need to rush back, just wanted you to know.

A couple of hours went by before Nick replied.

How is she?

Sleeping. Has a fever. Body aches and chills. Definitely the flu.

I’ll be there to pick her up in a couple of hours.

Then, nothing.

Sabrina sighed and put the phone aside. Her stomach churned at the prospect of seeing Nick again soon. For a wild moment, she thought about disappearing upstairs and letting Roz hand off Amalia, but she shut down the thought before it could take hold. Amalia was sick and she and Nick could be adults long enough to take care of trading care of the little girl.

Still, her nerves were on edge as she worried about facing Nick for the first time since he told her he was done. She vowed to herself that she wouldn’t do anything brash, that she would keep her composure and not try to talk to him about things or, perhaps worse, flee the room.

She was cuddling on the couch with Amalia, enjoying the time with her in spite of the circumstances, when a knock sounded at the door. Roz called out that she would get it, but Sabrina knew who it was. She gently disentangled herself from the sleeping child and stood as Nick walked in.

She didn’t know what was more palpable. The tension or the awkwardness between them. Roz must have felt it, too, because she made herself scarce.

“How is she?” Nick asked. She noted how he had stopped several feet away, purposefully keeping the distance between them.

“She went from icky to crummy,” Sabrina answered, crossing her arms over her chest in a protective sort of way. “I’m not sure if that’s an upgrade or a downgrade. Her fever is still pretty high. I picked up some children’s Tylenol at the recommendation of the school nurse. She’s due for another dose. It’s in her backpack.”

“Thanks,” Nick nodded. He moved to the couch and squatted beside Amalia. “Amalia?” he shook her gently. “Wake up. It’s time to go home.”

Amalia groaned and rolled over. Nick sighed as he felt her high temperature, his mind already spinning through what he would do with her the next day as she surely couldn’t go to school and he couldn’t take the day off as he was giving his AP students a practice test he needed to be the one to administer.

“Come on, kid.” He scooped her into his arms. Amalia wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder, too out of it to protest leaving Sabrina’s house the way she normal would have. “Thanks for picking her up,” he said to Sabrina, his desire to get out of there strong. He didn’t trust himself around her. “Sorry you had to.”

“I was happy to do it,” Sabrina said, trying not to show how very affected she was by his clipped tone. “I didn’t mind.” She smiled just a bit. “It was good to see her, even if she’s sick.”

“Where are her things?” he asked, in a hurry to get out of there.

“Right here.” Sabrina was careful to give Nick a wide margin as she navigated around the room to Amalia’s bag. She checked to make sure everything was packed, took a big breath, and turned back to Nick. “All of her stuff is here.” She held out her coat. “Here’s her coat.”

“Thanks.” Nick accepted the backpack. Sabrina held her breath as she draped the coat over Amalia’s shoulders. “I’ll update her emergency contact,” Nick said as he took a step back to put more space between them. “Thanks again for picking her up.”

Sabrina sighed, her heart filling with hurt all over again. She had to say something, anything. It was just too much and she missed Amalia – missed him – too much to let the chance pass her by.

“Nick… I…”

He left, no goodbye, no other acknowledgment. He had simply turned on his heel and walked out.

Sabrina collapsed to the sofa and dropped her head to her hands. Perhaps it had been selfish, but she had thought, maybe, this would soften Nick up, open the lines of communication just a bit, or at the very least, allow her to see Amalia more. Instead, she was back to fighting off tears. Roz saw her friend’s despair and followed Nick outside to give him a piece of her mind.

“She went out of her way for you, Scratch.” Nick turned to find Roz on the porch, glaring at him. “You could have at least shown a little more gratitude.”

“I thanked her,” Nick said, in no mood to deal with Roz. “I’m sorry she had to interrupt her day to take care of my sister. Like I told her, I will change Amalia’s emergency contact info so it doesn’t happen again.”

“I’ve always thought you were an asshole,” Roz shook her head. “But you really like to prove it, don’t you?”

“I’m not doing this, Roz.”

“She’s been devastated, Nick,” Roz pushed on. “For nearly a month now. Because of you.”

“This isn’t my fault.” Even he knew that wasn’t true. “I’m not standing out here to argue with you over it. My sister is sick and I need to get her home.”

“You’re an idiot, Scratch. Both of you messed up, but you’re the one that took it too far.”

With that, she went inside.

Nick blew out a frustrated breath and put Amalia in her booster seat. She groaned a bit and wiggled to get comfortable but didn’t wake. Once he was behind the wheel, Nick let his head fall back. Things seemed to be getting worse instead of better without Sabrina around. He had been sure of his decision to cut her out of his life in the days immediately following him actually doing it, but he found himself doubting that decision more and more, wondering if he could have done things differently, if it was too late to change course now.

He definitely could have handled things better just now. He knew Sabrina had never hesitated to pick up his sister and take care of her while he was away with his classes. She had even called the O’Keefes to let them know she had picked up Amalia once she found out Amalia was supposed to go home with Polly until he could pick her up. He knew, too, that it had been a low blow, telling her he would change Amalia’s emergency contact information. Sabrina loved his sister almost as much as Amalia loved her.

Still, what’s done was done and he had a sick child to worry about right now, something else that was out of his league but that he had to deal with anyway.

Sabrina would have to wait.

He pulled away from the curb, mind racing ahead to figure out what to do with Amalia the next day, wondered how much medicine he was supposed to give her, if he needed to take her to a doctor. He decided to call Melvin when he got home, ask him what to do. He was a nurse. He would know.

“Sabrina?” came a groggy voice from the back seat.

“You’re with me,” Nick replied, glancing in the rearview mirror to he could see her. “We’ll be home in a few minutes. You can lay down on the couch and watch a movie.”

“I want Sabrina,” she mumbled, already nearly asleep once more.

“I know,” Nick sighed.

Amalia fell silent once more. Nick drove on, not quite willing to admit he, too, wanted Sabrina.

“You okay?” Roz asked gently, walking into the living room after she was certain Nick had left. Sabrina lifted her head from her hands. Her eyes were wet, but she was no longer crying.

“I should have expected that.” She shook her head sadly. “It doesn’t matter.” She wiped at her eyes. “I have to start wearing waterproof mascara if I’m going to cry this much.”

She didn’t like it, the amount she had cried over the last three weeks. She was strong, independent. She cried at sad movies, not over men, not anymore. Yet she felt like she was always on the verge of breaking into tears these days.

“How does that saying go?” Roz asked. “Something about being with a guy that messes up your lipstick, not your mascara?”

Sabrina gave her a faint smile.

“Nick has done both,” she said, offering no other explanation. She got to her feet. “I’m going to make a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner. Want some?”

“No,” Roz shook her head. “I’m actually going to head over to Harvey’s, unless you want me to stay?”

“Go,” Sabrina shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” She gave another small smile to encourage Roz to follow through on her plans. “Honestly? I’d welcome the alone time.”

Roz nodded in understanding.

“I’ll leave you to your comfort food.”

Sabrina followed her out of the room. Roz went upstairs to get her things while Sabrina made her way to the kitchen. She turned on the water and filled a pot with water. She put it on the stove, then sat down at the kitchen island to wait for it to boil. For a moment, she considered texting Nick, asking him to let her know how Amalia was feeling.

She didn’t.

She couldn’t.

She had to move on.

She had to close the book on Nicolas Scratch.

It would be a lot easier to do if it felt like the last chapter had been written.

Chapter Text

Nick’s stomach churned as he approached Sabrina’s classroom. He hadn’t sought her out in nearly a month, but he had gone to bed with a guilty conscious and woken up with it still firmly in place. He owed it to her to thank her properly for her help with Amalia the day before. She could have easily refused, but she was her.. She would never let Amalia suffer because she was angry at him.

He paused in the open doorway. She was there, at her desk, oblivious to him as she read emails on her computer. She looked as tired as he felt. She was still beautiful. Maybe even more so, given how long it had been since he had been this close to her. He swallowed past the lump in his throat that seemed to be formed from his pride.

“Sabrina?”

She startled and turned in her chair.

“Nick.”

He could practically see the guard she threw up in front of her when she realized he was there. He couldn’t blame her. His was firmly in place, too.

“I wanted to thank you again for helping with Amalia yesterday, taking care of her,” he began. “I was tired and stressed last night and I don’t think I showed my gratitude appropriately.”

“It was nothing,” Sabrina shook her head. She wanted him to leave. She wanted him to come closer. “I was happy to help.”

“Still, I know you had to leave work in the middle of the day, get substitutes…”

“That’s what comp time is for,” Sabrina shrugged. Her tone wasn’t dismissive, but it was clear that she was keeping her distance. Nick remained rooted firmly in her doorway, waging his own internal battle. “Benefits of coaching the cheer squad. I’ve got a lot of it built up.”

“Thank you,” he said again. “Really.”

“How is she feeling?” Sabrina dared to ask.

“Yucky was the word this morning.” Nick stayed in her doorway, but leaned against it, almost like he planned to stay for a few minutes the way he would have when the school year began, when his parents were still alive, he lacked responsibilities, and he was trying to convince her to see him after cheer practice. “I let her sleep in my room last night. Her fever is high, and I was worried. She kicked me all night long.”

“Where is she today?”

“At home.” Nick smiled just the tiniest of bits. “Melvin is with her. He’s off today and I figured who better to stay with her than a nurse?”

“He’ll take care of her,” Sabrina said with confidence. She may not have said that two months ago, but she had seen a different, more mature side of Melvin after Nick’s parents passed. He wasn’t as immature as she had believed. She had a theory that Melvin and Nick had influenced one another’s behavior, at least to a point.

“He will,” Nick agreed. “I’m giving an AP practice exam today and you know how they are about who proctors those. I couldn’t miss it, and I didn’t want to reschedule it until after the holidays. I figured it would be mean to make them study over Thanksgiving break when they are already writing papers, too. I’m going to stay home with her tomorrow though. Half day, and all, so it wasn’t a big deal to get a substitute.”

“I hope she feels better soon,” Sabrina offered. She bit her lip to keep from offering her help.

“Me too,” Nick said. “She’s going to have to be really sick to sleep in my room tonight though. I can’t do that again.” He checked the time. “I should get to my classroom. Riley is supposed to come in to talk about his grades.”

“Okay.” A thought occurred to her. She was putting words to it before she could stop herself. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

“We’re going to Melvin’s parents’ house,” Nick answered. Sabrina nodded.

“Good.” She was grateful they wouldn’t be alone, and Melvin’s parents had always been kind to Melvin’s friends, her included. Still, she couldn’t not address the elephant in the room, not when her head was spinning, and her heart was hurting. “Nick, I…”

“This doesn’t change things, Sabrina,” he cut her off without waiting to hear what she had to say. He couldn’t have this conversation right now, whatever it was. “I just thought I owed you a better thank you than what I said last night. You went out of your way and I wasn’t exactly grateful last night.”

She could only nod with no way to hide her wounded reaction. If she spoke, she would cry, and she couldn’t cry at school. At least not until her lunch break when she had time to pull herself together afterward. She bit her lip, telling herself no, she wouldn’t cry at all. It was time to get past the tears and figure out what she was doing with her life.

“I’m going to go,” Nick said, aware that she was close to breaking down. He wasn’t far behind her. “Have a good Thanksgiving.”

He left, again feeling guilty about the way she slumped her shoulders, the guarded expression she wore, the tired flush to her beautiful face. He knew it was all she could do, not to offer to help with Amalia or invite him to Thanksgiving with her family. But he had pushed her away for a reason and he had to remember that. He had to stick by his decision.

Still, it wasn’t entirely terrible to talk to her again.

He nearly turned and went back to her classroom to say – something. Or maybe hear whatever she had to say. He hesitated, debating. He blew out a breath.

He kept walking.


Enough was enough.

Sabrina had spent most of the last two days stewing over her situation with Nick. For nearly a month, she had wallowed in self-pity. She had gone against all of her instincts and stayed away from Nick, let him have space. She didn’t like who she had become. She didn’t like that she was altering her day-to-day to avoid him, that it was so easy for her to break into tears. If she were honest, she didn’t like who she had become while she was sleeping with Nick.

If she were looking for a silver lining, it would be that she had faced a few facts.

First, she loved Nick. It wasn’t just lust or like. She loved him. Somewhere along the line, she had fallen in love and while she couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, she knew, without even a hint of a doubt, that what she felt for Nicholas Scratch was love. Deep, real love. The kind that made losing someone that much more painful, that much more heart wrenching.

Second, she had recognized that her feelings for Nick had driven her to a place she wasn’t proud of. She had always been strong, stubborn, fiercely independent. She had always demanded the best of herself, expected the best of people. That was how she had ended up with her college boyfriend. She had been wooed by his good looks and easy charm, and as she got to know him, she learned about his awful childhood, the abuse he had suffered, the conditions he grew up in. When his true colors started to show, she had seen him as a wounded soul who simply needed someone to love him. She had tried her damndest, but he just got meaner, his words harsher. He had broken her spirit little by little, until he raised his hand at her and that was enough to shake her out of her haze and realize she couldn’t save him. She had called Ambrose and he stood by her side while she ended the relationship and helped her take the necessary steps to move on.

With Nick, there had always been something there. Even in high school, there was a pull. When she finally gave in to him, that pull had only grown stronger until it had wrapped her up and refused to let her go. When he let her see the side of him that wasn’t all smooth words and selfish actions, she fell deeper. She saw his potential, what he could be if he only tried. And so she had fallen back into the trap of thinking if she could just be there, he would grow into the man he was capable of being – and realize he cared about her.

She cared so much, and in the end, she had gotten hurt. Again. Because she had continued to sacrifice herself and her feelings in hopes that she could help someone become better, that they could love her in return. It hadn’t made her feel all that good about herself in the end. She wasn’t that girl. She was stronger, didn’t allow a guy to have such power over her. She had trusted Nick with her body and without ever meaning to, had given him her heart, too.

He had broken it.

Both her heart and her body were precious. She should have protected them better.

Third, she wasn’t innocent. She had known right away that she was walking a slippery path with Nick. The sex was good and she wasn’t ashamed to admit she liked it. It was okay to like sex, to like how Nick made her feel, how he worked her body, how he knew just how much to push her. He did the majority of initiating their encounters, but she had called him too. There were times when all she wanted was for Nick to mess up her sheets and send her to a place where she saw stars. He had never turned her down.

When she asked for space, she had never taken it. She saw now how confusing it must have been for Nick in the midst of everything else had had going on his life. He had asked her to be his girlfriend and she had said no. She still thought that was the right thing – he had been in no position to navigate a relationship then – but she had remained right there, perhaps closer than ever, even if they weren’t ripping each other’s clothes off at every turn. She had given him hope and then paraded Gregory in front of him without ever meaning to.

The guilt had built over the last month, right along with the heartache. She had hurt him and she had never, ever, wanted to hurt him. She had only wanted to love him – and be loved in return.

Now, they were both miserable.

It was time to do something about it.

She couldn’t keep this up.

She couldn’t keep hiding in her classroom, lying awake at night, playing things over in her head, wishing things had gone different, wishing that Nick would just talk to her.

She needed to put an end to this.

She needed to apologize.

She needed closure.

She needed to start to move on, heal.

After Nick’s cold shoulder when he picked up Amalia and his attempt to apologize for that shortness the next morning, she was on edge. He had stayed home with Amalia for the half day and Sabrina had gone through the early dismissal day in a daze. She had spent the afternoon helping Hilda bake pies for the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner where she had been called out several times for being distracted and then came home to stew in peace, Roz out with Harvey, the house quiet.

She had acted before she thought through the potential consequences and now she was sitting in her car in front of Nick’s house. There was no going back now. She had to do this.

She dug her phone out of her bag and sent a text.

I’m outside. Can you come out? I just need a few minutes.

She got out of her car and walked up the sidewalk, purposefully stopping before she got to the porch. The sidewalk felt more neutral, a little safer. She waited, curious as to whether he would actually come. Several minutes passed. She was considering if she was going to give up or call him when the door opened. Nick walked out in his standard at home outfit of sweatpants and a t-shirt. He pulled on a hoodie to ward off the cold as he descended the stairs.

“Sabrina?” he asked, surprise at her arrival clear. Good, she thought. She had caught him off guard. If there was ever a moment in which she needed the upper hand, this was it. “What’s going on?”

She took a deep breath. It was now or never as far as she was concerned. She would say her piece and walk away. He needed to know how she felt and she needed to tell him. It was the only way she could begin to move on – by knowing she had put everything on the table.

“I came to apologize.” Her voice was steady, not betraying how nervous she was. “You were right. I asked you for space yet didn’t take it. I kept inserting myself into your life while telling you we couldn’t explore a relationship. I recognize now that I was wrong and that I may have led you on, hurt you. I’m sorry, Nick. That was never what I wanted. I wanted to help you, support you, do what I could to make things easier for you. I would never hurt you, not on purpose.”

“Sabrina,” he sighed and shook his head, looking weary. “I can’t do this…”

“Let me talk.”

She held up her hands and he fell quiet. There was something different about her. Something resigned. She had a purpose and she wasn’t going to leave without fulfilling it. His heart rate picked up as his flight or fight response revved up in anticipation of whatever was to come. He swallowed down his nerves and listened.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you and I’m sorry if I led you on,” she continued. “I know I’m not innocent in getting us to this place. I did call you to come over. I did push you away only to continue to be right there. I take full responsibility for my part in what we were.”

She took a shaky breath. She pressed forward as tears burned at her eyes.

“I know it hurt you, to see me with Gregory. I didn’t know he was coming the night we were working on Amalia’s costume, but I shouldn’t have brought him to the dance. That was salt in your wounds and I am so sorry.”

Nick sighed. It was getting late and he was tired. He had spent the day at home with a whiney Amalia, giving her medicine every four hours, trying to get her to eat, drink, all while washing his hands constantly and disinfecting everything she touched, all while trying not to dwell on the fact that it was the day before Thanksgiving and instead of getting calls from his mom asking him to run to the grocery store and pick up whatever ingredients she had forgotten for whatever she was making for the next day’s dinner, he was facing down his first Thanksgiving without her, without his father. He couldn’t deal with Sabrina right then.

“Sabrina…”

“Nick, please,” she cut him off with a stern tone that left no room for argument. “I need to say this. Give me five minutes. That’s all I need.”

He could only nod. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

Sabrina drew in another breath. This was the important part. This is what she wanted him to hear, no matter how hard it was to say.

“Nick, I love you.”

Nick’s breath caught in his chest and his eyes widened. Sabrina plowed on, made herself ignore the look of surprise on his face at her revelation.

“I spent six months hoping you would change, that you would see that I was falling for you,” she told him. “Towards the end, I felt terrible about myself, that I, Sabrina Spellman, would lay down with a guy for great sex and hope that maybe it would be the time he realized he loves me too.”

Nick’s mind raced. Sabrina loved him. That’s what she had said. She loved him. She had hoped he would fall in love with her… She loved him.

“But you would get what you wanted and leave and I’d be left to wallow in my choices and wonder why I couldn’t just cut you off and move on.” Her words were steady, but her tone was somehow full of both hurt and accusation. Nick felt as though he were struck dumb, unable to respond, unable to comprehend it all. “I knew I deserved better. Because I do deserve better, Nick! I deserve someone who will stay. Someone who will still be there when I wake up in the morning. I kept asking myself – why was I making decisions that I knew would leave me hurting in the end? I loved you, but you didn’t feel the same way and I shouldn’t have kept holding on, hoping.”

Her tears fell freely now. Nick took a step forward, not sure what to do, what was happening, but positive he needed to do – something. He hated to see her cry. It was the hardest of punches to his gut. She was too beautiful to cry, especially because of him.

And she said she loved him.

What in the hell was happening?

Why did he want to turn tail and run from her confessions?

Why did he want to pull her into his arms and hold her until she stopped crying?

“What made it even harder to walk away was how you started doing things like walking me to my car, kissing me goodbye. I would get my hopes up that maybe things were changing. But then you would be an asshole, thinking about yourself or making fun of the fact that Gregory, a perfectly nice guy, spends time with his grandmother and I would remember that you only wanted me for sex and I’d go right back to having my hopes dashed and feeling worthless again.”

“Sabrina…”

His heart sunk. Worthless? Had he really made her feel that way? She was absolutely not worthless. She was priceless, not only to him, but to anyone who was lucky enough to know her.

“It hurt, Nick!” She was mad now, even as her tears fell harder. “I can’t pinpoint when I fell in love with you, but I did, and it will probably go down as one of the stupidest things I have ever done. I did nothing but give myself to you and hope you would see me, standing right there, ready to love you, but what did I get in return? A few orgasms and the tables turned on me being the one who hurt you, and you being the one who cut me out of your life because I wouldn’t be your girlfriend. Irony is cruel!”

“Sabrina, I don’t…” He was at a loss as to what to say. Everything was coming at him hard and fast. She said she loved him. She was so upset. He couldn’t comprehend it all. He reached for her hand. He needed to touch her, needed to be grounded by her so he could make sense of his own thoughts. She smacked his hand away.

“No!” She took a step back. “I’m talking Nick. You had your turn. This is mine.”

“Come inside,” he tried, not deterred. “It’s cold out. We can talk in Dad’s study…”

“I’m not coming inside,” she shook her head, as steadfast and stubborn as ever. “Just let me talk.”

Nick took a breath, shoved his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, and nodded, accepting that she was the one in charge right now. He had no choice but to listen.

“I ended things with Gregory,” she continued. “A few days after my birthday. He was wonderful and patient and kind and everything I should have wanted, especially after you. Nick recoiled as though she had slapped him. “But he wasn’t you! It wasn’t fair to him when I was comparing him to you. And the worst part? He knew I was ending things because of you – even if you and I aren’t speaking.”

“I don’t know what to say, Sabrina,” Nick shook his head. He was rarely at a loss for words, but right now, they simply wouldn’t come. Even if they would, he didn’t think she would listen, not right now. “I wasn’t ready for this…”

“You don’t have to say anything.” That had been the point of just showing up – to catch him off guard. “That’s not why I came over. I need to apologize for my part in this. I needed you to know how I feel – the good and the bad – so I can start to move on.” She took a shaky breath, then nodded once, satisfied that he now knew both how she felt and how he had hurt her. “That’s all I needed.”

She started to walk away. Nick came to his senses. If he let her walk away now, the damage between them might not be repairable.

“Sabrina, wait.” He grabbed her hand to stop her. She looked so sad when she turned to him that his heart, still in a thousand pieces from his parents’ deaths, shattered all over again.

“This doesn’t change anything,” she said in the quietest voice he had ever heard her use, throwing the words he had said from her classroom doorway the day before back at him. “I know that. I just needed to apologize and to let you know how I feel. I needed closure so I can move on.”

She pulled her hand away. He had never known the loss of physical contact to hurt so much.

“I don’t know what to say,” he admitted. His worlds held a sense of urgency. “I wasn’t expecting...”

“You should go inside before Amalia realizes you’re not there.”

She was the one pushing him away now. He could hardly blame her.

“Amalia is asleep…” he tried, his desperation to keep her from leaving growing. “Come inside…”

“She could wake up,” Sabrina shook her head. “I don’t want her to know I was here. It’s better that way.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Goodnight, Nick. Happy Thanksgiving.”

He let her go this time.

He stood on the sidewalk, watched her climb into her car. She sat there for a few minutes before she cranked up the car and drove away. He stayed outside, glued to his spot, until her taillights disappeared into the night.

He was certain she took what was left of him with her.

His father’s words echoed in his head, asking him if he had ever thought about how Sabrina felt when he left her after sex. Worthless, she had said. He remembered, too, that Harvey said she had an emotionally abusive boyfriend in college. He hadn’t treated her any better, all things considered, had likely opened old wounds she had never told him about. He had hurt her in ways he couldn’t fathom. The thought made him sick.

All of that and she said she loved him.

He ran a hand down his face, his thoughts swirling, his stomach churning.

How could he do this to her?

How had he been such a fool?

How had he missed the fact that she loved him?

It was so clear now, so obvious. It was written in her every touch, in every little thing she did for him – giving him her leftovers, covering for him when he was late to school, listening to him vent about problem students, offering advice on how to reach them.

Her love for him was a glowing neon sign when he thought back to the night his parents died, the next morning, the days after. She had been right there, holding him up, encouraging him to put one foot in front of the other. Even after he had gotten drunk and spoken so crudely, she had still been there, had done everything she could to make things easier for him.

Even when she was with Gregory. Even though she was supposed to be with Gregory. She had been there. With him. For him.

And he had never realized that she had been fighting her feelings for him for months. Fighting until it was too much. Until she had cut him off, only for his parents to die, for her to do the right thing and not allow a relationship when he himself was a wreck. She had been with someone else, but she had loved him.

How had he missed it?

How had he never realized how she felt about him?

Of course she had dated Gregory. He had practically pushed her into the guy’s arms with his inability to recognize what was right there all along. He had admitted to having feelings for her, but right now, in this moment… Did he love her, too?

He had no idea.

All he knew was that she loved him. Had loved him for months. And it had finally become too much, just like her constant presence when he knew he felt – something – had become too much when he couldn’t have her.

His head hurt from trying to make sense of the tangled web of feelings, of who did what, who said what, who felt what.

He debated on what to do. He wanted to jump into his truck, follow her home, and make her listen to him. Except he didn’t know what to say, never mind the fact that he had a still sick Amalia inside. He couldn’t go anywhere, even if he wanted to.

“Shit,” he breathed.

He went inside and sat down on the living room couch, his head in his hands, his heart in his throat. He stayed like that for several minutes, trying to figure out what to do, what to say, how to fix things, if they could be fixed at all. He had known right away that something was different and now he knew what that was – she had shown up with every intention of laying her heart on the line before walking away. She had said she needed closure. She had never intended to let him have a say. She came with a purpose: to put him behind her, once and for all.

“Nick?”

He lifted his head to find Amalia sitting up on the couch from where she had been sleeping, her hair a mess, her always present doll in her arms.

“Hey, Mally,” he said, trying to appear normal. “How are you feeling?”

“Sleepy,” she answered, peering at him with a critical eye. She didn’t miss anything. “Are you sad?”

“I am,” he chose honesty. “But it’s nothing for you to worry about.” He pulled her to him, wondering again at the fact that he found so much comfort in his baby sister these days. In the moment, she truly was all he had. He hugged her tighter, blinked away a stray tear. Whether that tear was for Sabrina or his parents, he didn’t know. “Are you hungry? You slept through dinner. I can make something… It’s late, but we could probably still get a pizza delivered if you’d rather have that…”

“No,” she shook her head and lulled against him. “I think I want to go to bed.”

“You really are sick,” Nick commented. He hadn’t eaten either, but food was the farthest thing from his mind. “You need another dose of medicine before I tuck you in.” Still, he couldn’t forget the image of Sabrina’s tear-filled eyes, of her walking away, driving away. He had to check on her. Knowing she was home safe suddenly felt like the single most important thing in the world. He released Amalia, picked up his phone, and found her contact.

Will you let me know you got home okay? Please? You were so upset…

He sent the text before he could overthink it.

He carried Amalia into the kitchen and thanked his lucky stars she took her medicine without complaint. He checked his phone. No reply from Sabrina. He scooped up Amalia and took her upstairs. He read to her, told her about the Gold Rush that sent settlers west. He checked his phone again after turning on the nightlight and closing Amalia’s door not quite all the way. Nothing. His heart sunk even lower.

Sabrina?

He tried to distract himself from both his increasing worry over her silence and everything she had said on the sidewalk by picking up the house, putting Amalia’s toys away, the dishes in the dishwasher. He checked his phone yet again. Still no response.

“Dammit,” he muttered. He was certain she wouldn’t answer, but he called her anyway. It went straight to voicemail.

“It’s me,” he said. “You were upset when you left and I... “ He hesitated. “Just text me, let me know you made it home? Please? I’m worried…”

Unbidden images of her car crumbled in a ditch formed in his mind. It was the irrational aftermath of his parents’ accident coming to the forefront, the now always present worry of something happening to the people he cared about. As upset as Sabrina was, she had no business driving. He should have never let her get behind the wheel. He was bigger than her. He could have stopped her, made her let him drive her home, even. It was cold out. There were patched of black ice. She wouldn’t see them in the best of circumstances, let alone when her vision was blurred by years.

He crossed his arms on the kitchen counter and rested his head on them. He took a few breaths to steady himself. He felt like he was spiraling, losing what little control he thought he had. He had to pull himself together, if not for himself then for Amalia.

He considered waking Amalia and going for a drive, but she was asleep, sick, and it was cold out. He couldn’t drag her out of bed just to do a drive by to see if Sabrina’s car was in her driveway. Growing more irrational, more paranoid, he dialed Melvin.

“Yo Scratch!” he greeted. “I was just practicing Madden for tomorrow – consider your ass kicked after dinner.”

“I need a favor,” he said, ignoring Melvin’s video game trash talk.

“You okay?” Melvin asked, picking up on Nick’s urgency. “Amalia?”

“We’re fine,” he sighed. “Sabrina was here…”

“Oh boy…” Melvin commented, aware of some of what was going on between the two of them, although he was sure he was missing a lot of the story. All Nick had given him when inquired about Sabrina’s whereabouts was “she and I are done.”

“She left upset,” Nick pushed on. He shoved a hand through his hair in frustration. “I texted her two hours ago and asked her to let me know she made it home. She hasn’t responded, didn’t answer when I called. Could you…”

“Do a drive by and see if her car is in the drive?” Melvin guessed.

“Yeah,” Nick sighed. “I know it’s ridiculous, it’s just that she was upset when she left and my parents’ place is on the other side of town… I shouldn’t have let her drive… And there’s black ice…”

“I get it.” Melvin knew it went deeper than Nick just being concerned about Sabrina. His parents’ accident had shown him that nothing was certain, not even waking up the next morning. “I’ll text you in a few.”

He hung up and Nick bowed his head at the kitchen island once more, waiting, wondering, worrying. It felt like a lifetime instead of ten minutes before his phone chimed.

She’s home.

Relief filled him.

Thank you, Melvin.

NP. See you tomorrow.

He hovered in the kitchen for a few more minutes, trying and failing to find a solution. Giving up, he went upstairs, brushed his teeth, and got into bed. He checked his phone again, just in case, but wasn’t surprised there was nothing from her. He turned off the lamp and lay in the darkness, staring up at the ceiling.

The fan wasn’t on.

Nick tossed his covers back, got up, and flipped the switch to make it spin. His father had always slept with a ceiling fan on, no matter the temperature outside. He had made fun of him for as long as he could remember. He didn’t remember starting the habit himself, but since moving into his parents’ home, he couldn’t sleep without the soft hum of the fan, not that he slept much anyway. He had to have it. It had become nonnegotiable. He got back in bed and watched the fan spin around and around. Its consistency spinning around and around at the same speed was oddly comforting. So was the soft puffs of air that brushed across his cheeks.

“You were right, Dad,” he said out loud as he watched the fan spin. “I suck as a person.” He blew out a breath. “What do I do now?”

He listened for the answers in the silence.

None came.

Chapter Text

“And, time!” Melvin tossed his controller aside and raised his arms in victory. “I win again! What the hell, Scratch? You’re oh-and-three.”

“It’s an off day,” Nick muttered. He tossed his own controller aside. “I’ll get you next time.”

“I think my luck has changed,” Melvin stated. “I’m going to win Madden from now on.” Nick only quirked a half-hearted half smile. Melvin noticed. Nick had been uncharacteristically quiet most of the day, but Melvin was certain there was more than just the loss of his parents weighing on him. “Want anything else to eat?”

“God, no,” Nick shook his head. “Your mother has stuffed me full.” He ran a hand over his face. “Thanks again for inviting us over, Melvin. I really appreciate it. Amalia’s having a blast with your mom. If I was left to fend for us, we would have had those turkey TV dinners. And I probably would have ruined at least one of them.”

“No need to thank me,” Melvin shook his head. “You’re always welcome here, Scratch. Besides, Amalia distracts my parents from complaining about my wayward ways.”

As though on cue, a shriek of laughter rippled through the house. Melvin’s parents were playing a kids’ board game in the dining room with Amalia. Nick’s gratitude for Melvin’s family grew. He was painfully aware of his parents’ absence today. His mom would have cooked a massive meal and him and his dad would have capped it off by sipping bourbon in the study while watching football. Instead, his parents had been dead for nearly three months, they were spending their first Thanksgiving without them across town with Melvin’s family, and all he could think about was both the ache of their loss and the fact that twenty-four hours ago, Sabrina Spellman had stood on his sidewalk, told him she loved him, and he let her drive away.

“I’m just glad she’s feeling better,” Nick said, trying to shake the image of Sabrina turning away from him with tears in her eyes. “Her fever broke last night and she’s been a little more herself today, even if she just pushed her food around.”

“She took care of dessert though,” Melvin pointed out.

“Of course she did,” Nick sighed. Amalia had been all too happy to eat her way through a slice of chocolate pie far bigger than what Nick would normally allow, ice cream on the side. He had let her. He didn’t have it in him to try to pseudo parent today.

He couldn’t help himself. He slipped his phone from his pocket and checked the screen. There were no new messages since he checked it an hour ago. He hadn’t really expected there to be, but he was disappointed all the same. He had texted Sabrina again that morning.

You caught me off guard last night. Are you okay?

No response. He didn’t really expect one, but that hadn’t kept him from hoping. He slipped the phone in his pocket and didn’t bother to try to hide how the silence was one more blow to what was already a terrible day.

Melvin noticed. He sighed and sat back in his chair. He couldn’t stay quiet anymore.

“Okay, Scratch. Start talking.”

“About what?” Nick countered. He didn’t want to talk about any of it.

“How about the part where I had to do a drive by past Sabrina’s last night to see if she was home?” Melvin asked. “What happened there?”

Nick made a sound that sounded a lot like avoidance.

“It was a five minute round trip, including the time it took me to put on pants, and I was happy to do it, but what happened?” Melvin pressed. “You have checked your phone a dozen times in the few hours you’ve been here. You said she was upset when she left your place, so my deductive reasoning skills lead me to believe you two had another fight.”

Nick blew out a breath. Melvin wasn’t going to let it go and it wasn’t like he had anyone else to talk to about his problems now that his father was gone and Sabrina was out of his life.

“Sabrina showed up at my place last night,” he confessed. “She apologized for her part in everything that’s happened between us, then told me she loves me.”

Melvin’s eyes widened.

“She said that?”

“She did,” Nick nodded. “She also told me how she spent the time we were together hoping I would wake up and realize what was right in front of me.” He drummed his fingers against the arm of the sofa. “She let me know exactly how she felt about our arrangement, and it wasn’t good.”

He couldn’t bring himself to put the words out there – that she had felt worthless, that even though she hadn’t said as much, he heard it loud and clear: she regretted ever getting involved with him. The sting of that revelation was deep and acute.

“Damn,” Melvin whistled. “What are you going to do?”

“I have no idea,” Nick shook his head. “She hasn’t replied to my texts. I tried to call her last night, before I called you, but I knew she wouldn’t answer.”

“I have to ask.” Melvin leaned forward to make sure he didn’t miss the answer. “Do you love her?”

“I…” Nick faltered. He had been asking himself this very question since she left. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve never been in love. I don’t know what it feels like, how I’m supposed to know if what I feel for her is love.”

Melvin gaped at him.

“You can’t be serious.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick countered.

“Do you remember the last time Sabrina was at our place before your parents died?”

“She had on those leggings I like,” Nick recalled. He left out that she was also wearing a pink lace thong when he stripped them off. He remembered it vividly. “You were eating stale crackers.”

“And while I was eating those stale crackers, you were standing on the porch making sure she got home okay,” Melvin countered. “Then you came in the house and got all defensive when I suggested that you might not like it much when she found someone else.” Melvin pointed a finger at Nick. “Insert Gregory, and my prediction proved true.”

“I care about her,” Nick said. “A lot. I asked her to be my girlfriend and she refused. I can’t really blame her, now that I know how she feels, but I haven’t had the chance to figure out how I feel about her. There’s been too much other stuff going on for me to think about that.”

Melvin wanted to bang his head against the wall.

“You’re miserable without her,” he pointed out.

“I’m miserable regardless,” Nick countered. “I’ve had a really shitty few months, Melvin, even if you take everything with Sabrina off the table.”

“True,” Melvin nodded. “But Nick? You love her. I might not be an expert. I’ve only ever been in love with Elsbeth back in high school and that ended in a dumpster fire after graduation. But you love Sabrina, have for a long time, and the fact that you can’t see it makes me question how intelligent you actually are.”

Nick sighed and sat back against the cushions.

“She won’t talk to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how I feel.” He checked the time. “It’s getting late. I should probably get Amalia’s stuff together and head home.”

Melvin saw through Nick. He didn’t want to keep talking about Sabrina.

“You don’t have to leave, Nick. We can play another round…”

“Honestly, Mel? As grateful as I am for you and your family for having us over, I’ve had just about all the social interaction I can take today. I want to go home, fight Amalia into bed, and just – sit on the couch in my dad’s study with a glass of bourbon and sulk.”

Melvin raised an eyebrow.

“Do you think the glass of bourbon is a good idea?”

“My dad and I used to have a glass of bourbon after Thanksgiving dinner,” Nick explained. “Don’t worry – I’m not going to drink the bottle and say awful things again. I just want to honor at least one Thanksgiving tradition my family had while I wallow in self-pity until I fall asleep.”

Melvin knew there was no changing his mind.

“Fine.” He pushed himself out of the chair. “Come on. I’ll help you wrangle Amalia and the food I’m certain Mom is sending home with you.”

Nick stood to follow, but he stopped in the living room doorway.

“Melvin?” Melvin looked back at him. “You’re a good friend. I mean that.”

“It’s going to work out,” Melvin assured him with a single understanding nod. “Talk to Sabrina, even if it means showing up at her house and making her listen this time.” He smiled just a bit. “I really love being right, you know.”

“Don’t make me take it all back,” Nick warned. Melvin chuckled.

“Come on, Scratch.” He jerked his thumb towards the dining room. “I have a feeling it’s going to take both of us to get that kid out of here.”

Nick followed Melvin without another word.

Talk to Sabrina.

If only it was that simple.

It was easier for him to get Amalia out of the house than he expected. She was more subdued than usual, likely a combination of getting over the flu and the absence of their parents. Melvin’s mom sent them home with enough food to sustain them through the weekend and once home, he watched a Christmas movie with Amalia, doing his best to focus on her and not everything else rushing through his head. Bedtime, too, was easier than he had expected to be. It felt like forever until he could sink into the leather cushions of his father’s study with Amalia’s monitor nearby and sip an expensive pour of bourbon.

He didn’t go in the study much. From time to time, he would tuck away in the room to grade papers or have a glass of bourbon, usually when he especially missed his father, but he tended to give it a wide berth. Like the master bedroom, it hurt too much to be in there. Tonight, it felt like the only place he could go.

His thoughts drifted as he sipped. He found himself thinking about that night – the first night he had been with Sabrina. That night had changed everything.

He didn’t know she was on the back porch, but he wasn’t surprised to find her there, he himself eager for a few minutes of respite.

“What is it with you and back porches, Spellman?”

He joined her at the railing, turning his back to it to lean while she rested her forearms on the white rail and faced forward.

“What do you mean?” she asked, not surprised by his arrival the way she probably should have been. It had been quiet, peaceful. Nick’s appearance should have startled her. Instead, it felt – expected.

“I always found you on the back porch at these things in high school,” he reminded her. “I remember one time in particular that I found you outside after a fight with Harvey. I listened to you rant about how stupid boys were and then drove you home.”

“I remember that,” Sabrina nodded. “I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I remember you driving me home.”

“I’m a memorable guy,” Nick said seriously. Sabrina rolled her eyes, but she wore a faint smile. “It suffices to say you remember the most important part.”

She laughed a bit. Her laugh made him smile. He noted her cup was empty. His was too.

“What are you drinking, Spellman? I’m getting a re-fill. I’ll get you one as well.”

“Wine,” she answered, holding her cup out to him. She knew she should probably cut herself off, but she figured she had walked there and one more wouldn’t hurt her. It wasn’t exactly fine wine she was drinking anyway. “Red.”

“Still don’t like cheap beer?”

She shook her head, then jerked her chin towards his cup.

“You still do, though.”

“I prefer expensive bourbon, but our resident gym teacher only has Fireball.” Sabrina made a face. Nick laughed again. “Be right back, Spellman. Stay put.”

He wasted no time refilling their drinks. He was back within minutes. She was the only one at the party he wanted to talk to anyway.

“That’s a generous pour,” Sabrina commented, noting the amount of wine in her plastic cup when he handed it to her.

“Are you at the same cookout I’m at? I think a generous pour is necessary.”

“I’ll cheers to that,” Sabrina agreed. She clicked her red cup with his and took a sip. “I’m surprised you’re here. This isn’t exactly your scene.”

Nick shrugged.

“I didn’t have anything else to do. Figured I may as well put in an appearance.” He had known she would be there. That was reason enough for him to consider showing up. “Where’s Roz?”

“She’s out of town. Her and Harvey went on a weekend getaway since he had to work all week.”

“So you’ve got the place to yourself,” Nick mused.

“I do,” Sabrina nodded. She eyed Nick. “You’re not inviting yourself over.”

That had been exactly his intention. He kept his expression neutral so she didn’t know she had guessed right.

“Relax, Spellman. I’m merely making conversation.” He leaned on the railing again. “Why are you out here anyway? All the action is in the front yard. Which makes no sense as the email inviting us called it a ‘backyard barbeque,’ but I suppose Mr. Pruitt has been hit in the head with one too many playground balls during his tenure.”

Sabrina laughed again.

“I needed a break from everyone,” she admitted. “I’m tired from my trip and I was bored out of my mind with Mrs. Foster rambling on about how she adopted another cat over spring break.”

“I don’t understand why we’re celebrating the end of spring break,” Nick said. “The day after tomorrow, we’re back in the classroom with our heathens after a week of freedom. Then we push to the end of the year where we all lose control of our class and/or give up on keeping them under control as we approach the last day.”

“Mr. Pruitt has never made a lot of sense,” Sabrina reminded him. “Like you said – too many playground balls to the head.”

“I pegged him with one once,” Nick recalled. “During a game of kickball sophomore year.”

“You bloodied his nose,” Sabrina remembered. “And got in trouble for calling it a homerun because you busted the teacher in the face.’”

“Mom was pissed about that,” Nick grinned. “Something about how I knew better than to make fun of another human, especially one I’d hurt, intentional or not. She made me apologize to him the next day.” He shook his head. “Crazy that we work with him now.” He took a sip of his beer. “How was your trip anyway, Spellman? You went to Peru, right?”

“I did and it was amazing,” Sabrina confirmed. “I hiked Machu Picchu at sunrise. I need to post my photos – it was incredible.”

“Did you try guinea pig?” Nick asked. Sabrina made a face.

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s not bad,” Nick told her. “It doesn’t exactly taste like chicken, but it’s not bad.”

“You’ve been to Peru?”

“Spring break during my third year of college,” he confirmed. “Some of my frat brothers and I went. We had a blast.”

He left it at that. Most of their activities were barely legal. There were parts of the trip he didn’t entirely remember. It had been a great week, all things considered. None of them were retained at customs at any rate – and at least a couple of them probably should have been.

“I didn’t realize you had been somewhere outside of Europe,” she teased. She liked to give him a hard time for his extensive travels through Europe, reminding him there were other parts of the world he was missing out on. He insisted it was Europe that held all the history – or at least the history he was interested in.

“Peru, Colombia, and a few Caribbean islands,” he nodded. “I’m still reeling from you telling me you hated Rome though.”

“I didn’t hate it,” Sabrina amended, remembering their lunchtime debate from a few months ago. “I just didn’t get the hype. It was pretty…”

“Pretty,” Nick scoffed. “Rome isn’t pretty. It’s actually pretty damned dirty, all things considered. But it’s ancient. Historic. There is just so much history there…”

“Easy Tacitus,” Sabrina put a hand on his arm to silence him. “I know you love the place.” She removed her hand. The skin under his t-shirt felt warm to the touch where her hand had been.

“Tacitus, impressive,” Nick approved. “Most people don’t pull out the name of a historian who died in 120 AD in casual conversation.”

“You ranted about how influential his work is in the historical world for ten minutes while we argued over Rome,” Sabrina reminded him. Nick smirked.

“Didn’t learn that in AP History, did you?” She popped his shoulder with the back of her hand, making him laugh.

“You only got a better grade than me because the teacher…”

“Liked me better, I know, I’ve heard it before.” Sabrina narrowed her eyes at him. He laughed. “Admit it, Spellman. I’m better at history than you.”

“You are now,” she said, not quite willing to admit he was right. “You have a master’s degree in it. But back then…”

“Back then I was still the history genius.” He bumped her playfully. “You would have lost out on Valedictorian by more than a tenth of a point if you had a different partner for the final project.” Sabrina rolled her eyes again. He laughed again. He did a lot of laughing when he was around her.

“How was your spring break, Scratch?” she changed the subject. “Did you do anything besides play video games and smoke pot?”

“I actually went to Cape Cod.” During the course of their conversation, they had moved closer to one another, their arms brushing against each other. “My grandmother lived there, left her place to my dad when she died.” He leaned still closer in a conspiratorial kind of way. “Don’t tell anyone, but I used spring break as my excuse to disappear, not talk to anyone, and read a massive book on the Civil War.”

“You’re such a nerd,” Sabrina teased, smiling at him.

His eyes met hers and held them. He licked his lips. He had spent years wanting to kiss her. He had never taken the time to wonder why, but he was drawn to her, had been since the moment he saw her at cheerleading practice the summer before freshman year. He noticed she had a fleck of mascara resting on the soft skin under her eye.

“You’ve got…” He cupped her cheek with his hand and brushed his thumb across the skin. The fleck of mascara floated away, but he didn’t remove his hand. Her eyes were on his and he couldn’t look away. When she caught her bottom lip between her teeth, he threw away all pretenses. “Fuck it,” he breathed.

He leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. There was no denying the fireworks that exploded between them.

Except she pulled away with a sharp exhale of breath. Nick came to his sense.

“Sabrina, I…”

She didn’t give him time to finish whatever he was going to say. She pulled him back to her, throwing caution to the wind. He took her wine from her hand and set it on the railing beside his beer before he lost himself entirely. Hands free, he pulled her in as she fisted his shirt to bring him closer. He ran his tongue along her lips, and she parted them to allow him access.

Kissing her was unlike anything he had experienced before. He had certainly kissed his fair share of girls and then some, but something about Sabrina Spellman made him want to vow to never kiss another girl that wasn’t her again. The soft sigh that emitted from her as she pressed herself closer told him she felt the same sort of connection.

They only parted when they needed to take a breath. Nick rested his forehead against hers as they breathed heavily.

“That was… Something else…”

Sabrina nodded.

“Kiss me again,” she demanded in a soft voice.

He was powerless to deny her. He didn’t want to. He had waited nearly ten years to kiss her. He wasn’t going to tell her no now.

He got bolder, pressing her between his body and the railing. Her hands trailed down his chest. Her fingers slipped through his belt loops and pulled him still closer. He broke away from her lips and peppered kisses along her neck. Her hand slipped into his hair to hold him in place. She felt the familiar tingle of desire brewing. It had been months since someone had made her feel this way. Not only did she feel desire, she felt – wanted.

She threw away any last whispers of caution.

“Nick,” she breathed, “want to get out of here?”

He pulled away and looked her in the eye. His own eyes reflected lust, desire. He raised an eyebrow.

“Are you asking me to go somewhere more private?” He needed her to confirm before he screwed up by assuming. She nodded with a coy smile. He returned it with one of his own. “Then allow me to lead the way.”

He laced his hand through hers. She followed without protest. He was smart, navigating through the neighbor’s backyard so their fellow teachers wouldn’t see them leave together. He had parked down the street in front of a house with a for sale sign, near the cul de sac. It was already dark, the early spring nights still short.

“My place or yours?” he asked.

Sabrina considered him for a moment. He thought she was about to slam on the brakes when that coy smile returned.

“Your truck has a backseat.”

Someone could have knocked him over with a feather.

“I didn’t expect that,” he admitted. They were alone as they could get, but it was still a risk. He liked it. He slid his arm around her to pull her into him. He kissed her briefly, but strongly. “But I’m not against it.”

He kept his arm around her and led her to his truck. To test if she was as willing to go as far as he thought she was, he pressed her against the truck and let her feel his body against her. He kissed her again, felt her pull his belt loops again to bring their hips closer.

“Nick,” she breathed into his ear.

That was all she said and all he needed to hear.

He unlocked his truck and opened the back door. She smiled at him before climbing into the backseat. She reached for him as he followed in after her. He had barely shut the door before she was pulling him to her.

It was a tight fit, them in the back seat, but Nick found he liked it. He liked having her this close, with nowhere to go. He sat in the middle of the bench seat and swung her legs over his lap. His arm around her waist, he resumed his mouth’s assault on hers. His other hand started to explore.

He had fantasized about having her, imagined how soft her skin was, how she tasted. Reality was infinitely better than any dream he had ever had.

“This needs to come off.” He tugged at her shirt, an elaborate lacy overlay thing with buttons down the back.

“Take it off then,” Sabrina breathed.

He went to work on the delicate buttons down her back as her mouth started its own exploration. He groaned as she found a place along his neck he especially enjoyed, his fingers fumbling with the buttons. He couldn’t get her shirt off fast enough.

“Better,” he huffed when she was rid of it. She was wearing a lacy bra that was such a soft blue it was almost white. He openly stared. “God, you’re beautiful.”

Her cheeks flushed, but she pulled him back in. His shirt came off – he was so wrapped up in her that he hadn’t noticed her hands dragging it over his head – and her fingertips left a trail of fire down his chest. He undone her bra and palmed a breast. She groaned in his mouth.

“Do you have a condom?” she asked between kisses. “Before this gets any further?” She had an IUD, but she knew Nick’s past. She didn’t want to assume anything.

Nick kept an arm around her, kept kissing her, but lifted his hips enough to dig his wallet form his back pocket. He fumbled with it, blindly pulled a piece of foil from it.

“We’re covered,” he confirmed. His eyes tried to roll back in his head as she worked along his throat again. “Those lips of yours are sinful, Spellman.”

She moved so she could straddle Nick’s lap. She could feel him through his jeans. She rocked against him, kissed him.

“I’ve always thought you the devil himself,” she replied. “All good looks and too charming for your own good.”

“You think I’m charming?” he asked.

“I think you’re too smooth talking for your own good,” she retorted. She smiled her own devilish smile. “And here I am, falling for it.”

She popped the button on his jeans. His hand slid up her thigh and under her skirt.

“You won’t regret it,” he promised her. “And I’m damned glad you wore a skirt.” Her gasp filled the truck cab and her head fell back in pleasure as his fingers teased the soft skin of her inner thigh. Even if he was fulfilling every teenage dream he had ever had about her – and amazingly, a lot of them had taken place in the backseat of a vehicle – he still had to ask. “Can I touch you?”

“You better,” she breathed.

“Sinful,” he said as he pushed the fabric of her panties aside. It was too dark to be sure, but he was certain they were made from the same lace as her bra. “Absolutely sinful.”

Sabrina gripped Nick’s shoulder with one hand, her nails digging in, the back of the seat with the other. She knew Nick’s reputation as a Casanova, heard through the small town grapevine that he was good in bed. His fingers were enough to make her believe what she had heard as he rubbed against her most sensitive parts. She tried to pull down the zipper of his jeans, but his thick finger pushed into her and she could only hold on as his lips, perfectly aligned with her chest in their current position, started to kiss and nip her breasts.

“Oh, God,” she breathed. She was certain Nick smirked against her collarbone. She was also certain he was leaving marks. She would worry about that tomorrow. “More.”

Nick was sure he had never wanted someone more. He was so hard it hurt, but he wanted to make sure she was ready for him. He was generally selfish in bed, but Sabrina was – different. He added a finger, curled them forward, searching. He knew when he found the spot he was looking for. Sabrina gasped and tightened her grip on his shoulder, her nails digging in. Her head fell back, her eyes squeezed shut in pleasure.

If there was a sight more beautiful than Sabrina Spellman coming undone, he didn’t want to see it. She was enough for him.

“God, Nick,” she breathed when she returned to her senses. “That…”

“Speechless?” he smirked. He stole a kiss.

“Don’t be so cocky,” she admonished, returning his kiss. Her hand slid from his shoulder to fumble in the dark. Her fingers closed around the foil packet. “It was just your hand.” She held the condom up. Nick’s smirk was wicked as he took it from her.

“You’re quite the temptress,” he said. “Something else I didn’t expect, but I like it.”

He liked it a lot.

She helped him pull his jeans down enough to let himself free. Her hand wrapped around him and stroked. He could only allow her a few passes before he removed her hand and rolled the condom on.

“Come here, Spellman.”

He guided her onto him. He swore as she sunk down. She cried out his name as he filled her. He held her in place, took just a moment to catch his breath, gather his composure. He pushed her hair back from her fair with a delicate touch.

“You are beautiful,” he declared, completely taken by her. “Stunning.”

Her response was to kiss him.

They dissolved, losing themselves in one another. She felt every touch, every kiss, every pulse. Nick held her tightly, pumped his hips into her as she rode him. He buried his face in her neck, let himself get lost. He had had plenty of sex, but this… This was something else entirely. This went past his fantasies come true.

“Sabrina…” he breathed. “I can’t… Much longer…”

“Please, Nick,” she nearly begged. “Feels… So good…”

It did.

She could count the number of guys she had slept with on one hand and didn’t need all five fingers. Harvey. Her college boyfriend. A one-night stand during the yearly reunion with her college friends a few months ago. If she had known sex could feel this way, this good, this otherworldly, she would have had a lot more of it.

Nick sat forward, shifting the angle of his hips as he pulled Sabrina somehow even closer. Her lips found his even as she groaned at the pleasurable change. She felt the pressure building deep in her stomach. She quickened her pace, felt Nick match her.

His orgasm, him calling out her name, brought about hers. When she came down, she collapsed against Nick. He held her, still buried in her, still completely wrapped up in her. Together, their breathing slowed back to normal. Nick’s hand ran up and down her back.

“You were so much more than I imagined you would be,” he confessed in an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment. “Trust me, Spellman, I’ve imagined this moment with you a lot.”

“You have?” Sabrina asked, pulling away just enough to look at him.

“I have.”

He didn’t elaborate, but he did kiss her again.

“I take it I surpassed your expectations?” she asked, teasing again. This wasn’t like her, to be so bold, to have sex in the backseat of a truck. But something about it being with Nick made it – okay.

“Surpassed.” He kissed her collarbone. “Exceeded.” He kissed her jaw. “Eclipsed.”

“Always ones with the words.” She kissed his forehead just as his lips grazed her chin. “You weren’t so bad yourself, Scratch.”

“A glowing praise,” he quipped, making her laugh. He tucked her hair behind her ear again and kissed her lips. “You really are beautiful, Sabrina.”

She smiled softly, her blush covered by the darkness. It was the way he called her beautiful, the way he used her name instead of his usual “Spellman,” that made her flush. When she had suggested they go somewhere else, it had been with the intention of simply getting some of her needs taken care of. She was just tipsy enough to be brave in her request, and she had always known Nick wanted her. He had never been shy about it. But now that she had been with him… she thought she might want him again.

“I should get dressed.” Nick thought there was something almost regretful about how she said it. “Where is my shirt?”

Nick found her shirt and bra and passed them to her. He felt her absence when she finally left his lap. He discarded the condom and got dressed himself, all the while watching her pull her clothes on, covering a body far more beautiful than his teenage – and more recent adult – dreams had ever conjured.

Fully clothed, the awkwardness settled in.

“Where did you park, Spellman?” Nick asked after a moment, deciding it best to be a gentleman instead of making his usual quick exit. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

“I walked here,” she shrugged.

“From your place?” Nick clarified. “That’s like a twenty minute walk.”

“And?”

“And I’ll be driving you home,” he declared. “It’s dark out, not to mention a little chilly. I don’t care how safe Greendale is. You’re not walking home alone.”

“You do live just a few houses down from me,” she mused. She hadn’t considered the walk back when she made the trek to the gym teacher’s house. But she hadn’t been planning to have sex with Nicholas Scratch when she left her house either. Now, the idea of walking home felt like too much effort. He grinned a bit and brushed his fingers along her cheek.

“We should probably get in the front seat,” he pointed out. Sabrina rolled her eyes yet again and opened the door. He followed with a cheeky laugh.

The drive to her house was brief – less than ten minutes – and they rode in companionable silence. He pulled to her curb and put his truck in park.

“Thank you for the ride home,” she said, suddenly shy as the reality of what the pair of them had done in the back of his truck mere minutes ago began to sink in. She hadn’t looked in a mirror, but she was certain her hair was a mess and her makeup likely smeared from their romp. She was glad Roz wasn’t home.

“Anytime.”

His eyes were on hers again. Now that he had had her, he wanted more of her. He took the chance and leaned across the console to kiss her. The kiss quickly escalated, the heat between them crackling.

“You could come in,” she ventured between kisses, not quite believing she was so easily inviting him in after spending all of high school and most of the last couple of years resisting his charms.

“I can’t invite myself in, but you can invite me in?” he teased.

“Shut up,” she snipped back, but kissed him again anyway. “Want to come in or not?”

“Yes, Spellman,” he nodded, “I very much do.”

He shut off his truck and got out. He met Sabrina on the sidewalk and rested his hand on her low back as she led them across the yard and up her porch. She unlocked her door and he trailed behind her as she wandered through the house to the kitchen. He had been in her house before – she had hosted a Christmas party for the teachers of Baxter High – but this felt different, more intimate.

It was different. It was certainly more intimate.

“I’m going to make some tea,” she decided. “Want some?”

“No thanks,” Nick shook his head. “I’m not much of a tea drinker.”

“Coffee?” she continued. “We’ve got some orange juice and sodas, too.”

“I’ll take a soda,” he agreed.

“Help yourself,” she tilted her head to the fridge as she picked up her kettle from the stove to fill it with water. “There’s half a pie in there too – my Aunt Hilda’s peach pie. Can you get that out? I’m hungry.”

Nick did as she instructed. He watched as she flittered around the kitchen, making tea, heating the pie in the oven because she swore it was the best way to warm it when he suggested the microwave. He approached her as she took the pie out of the oven. His hands had been idle long enough.

“That just needs to cool for a few minutes,” she said, turning to him. “Then it will be the perfect temperature to eat.”

“I know how we can pass the time…”

He picked her up and sat her on the counter. Her hands framed his face and she pulled him in. They made out like teenagers, a little sloppy, full of passion. It was Sabrina that pulled away with a big breath a few minutes later.

“Sustenance,” she exhaled. “We need sustenance.”

“You just want to eat that pie,” he teased.

“I do,” Sabrina said with such a serious expression he had to chuckle. “I really do.”

He kissed her again.

“Pie now then,” he agreed.

He helped her hop down from the counter. She took two forks from a drawer and joined him at the kitchen island with the pie. He took a bite and groaned audible.

“That’s freaking amazing,” he declared. He had heard tales of Hilda Spellman’s cooking, but had never experienced it for himself. Already, he was wondering how he could get his hands on another one of her pies.

“That’s Hilda,” Sabrina countered. She held his eyes as she popped a bite into her mouth. She made a show of licking the sticky syrup from her lips. His eyes darkened as he watched. She was sure she was having her desired effect on him. “Eat up Scratch,” she said. “You’re going to need your energy.”

Sabrina pushed her fork into the thick chocolate pie and scooped out a substantial bite. She squirted a healthy dollop of whip cream on top, then popped the whole thing in her mouth, working hard not to think about that first night with Nick, when he had sat across from her and shared a peach pie before she led him upstairs for the second round of the evening. She savored the bite, chewing slowly and forcing her brain to focus on the rich taste instead of events from nine months ago, then went in for more.

“Hey, ‘Brina.”

“Jesus!” she startled. The bite on her fork fell back into the pie tin. “Harvey! You scared the hell out of me!”

“Sorry.” Harvey held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but you were in your own world.”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.” She motioned to the pie with her fork. “Want some? Please say yes so I don’t eat this whole thing by myself.”

“I should say no,” he countered. “Roz’s family stuffed me like the turkey we ate. But, well, is that Hilda’s chocolate pie?”

“It is,” Sabrina confirmed. “Grab a fork, Kinkle. We’re eating this thing straight of the tin.”

Harvey found a fork and leaned on the kitchen island across from Sabrina. He dug into the pie and groaned audibly when he tasted it. Again, she had to push down memories of Nick.

“No offense, but sometimes, I think the worst part about breaking up with you is the loss of Hilda’s cooking,” Harvey declared.

“That’s hard to argue with.” She squirted more whip cream onto her fork. “Where’s Roz?”

“Shower.” Harvey took another bite. “I came down for something to drink, but it would be rude to refuse Hilda’s pie.” He glanced at Sabrina as he went in for more pie. He could tell she was upset. The fact that she was eating pie straight out of the tin was indicator enough, but her whole demeanor was defeated. “Roz told me about what happened between you and Scratch last night,” he ventured. “You okay?”

“No,” Sabrina admitted. She stabbed the pie with more force than necessary. “Why else would I be sitting in my kitchen at nine o’clock on Thanksgiving night, eating pie straight out of a tin?”

“Holiday memories?” Harvey tried in an effort to lighten her mood. It didn’t work.

“Some holiday,” Sabrina sighed. She looked at Harvey. “Why are guys such idiots?”

“That’s a sweeping generalization,” Harvey commented.

“Did I do the right thing?” she asked, ignoring him. “I know I can’t undo it, but did I do the right thing by apologizing for my part in all of this and telling Nick how I feel?”

Harvey was careful in forming his answer.

“In a word, yes.” Sabrina looked relieved. “You’re, oh, four, five, maybe even six months late in doing it, but telling him how you feel wasn’t the wrong move.”

Sabrina looked at him suspiciously.

“I hear a ‘but’ coming.”

“But,” Harvey nodded, “you unloaded a lot on the guy. It would be a lot for any guy to take in, a girl showing up at their house and confessing their feelings, but Nick is barely hanging on and you’re dumping ‘I love yous’ on him.” He ate another bite of pie, letting his words sink in. “What were you hoping would happen when you went over there?”

“Closure,” Sabrina admitted. “He was such an asshole when he picked Amalia up the other day. He was only marginally better when he stopped by my classroom the next morning. Something in me just – snapped. I’ve tried everything, Harvey. I tried and dramatically and entirely failed to keep my distance. I tried dating someone else. He kicked me out of his life. Nothing is working. I’m sitting in my kitchen stuffing my face with pie because I was too upset earlier to do more than pick at my dinner. Confessing everything doesn’t seem to have done much for me either.”

“Has he reached out?” Harvey asked. “Sent a text or anything?”

“Yes,” Sabrina sighed. “He sent a few last night, trying to make sure I made it home. He called once, left a voicemail. I maybe should have let him know I did make it home – he has this irrational worry about people now that he’s lost his parents so suddenly – but I just couldn’t open up the line of communication. He sent another text this morning that just said he was caught off guard and asked if I was okay.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t reply to that one either?”

Sabrina shook her head.

“Closure,” she said again. “I’m trying to gain closure.”

“Would it hurt to text him back?” Harvey asked carefully. “I mean, he’s not ignoring you, right?” He reached for the whipped cream. “And Sabrina, speaking from experience? Today probably hasn’t been great for him. I wouldn’t expect much from him today.”

“I lost my parents too,” Sabrina reminded Harvey. “I know today was hard for him. Despite my own self-pity, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how hard today was for him.”

In actuality, it was her predominant thought. She had even shed a few tears as she got ready that morning, thinking about how Nick and Amalia were spending the holiday without their parents.

“No offense, Sabrina, but you never knew holidays with your parents,” Harvey said. “Not that it makes things easier, but you don’t have memories of the holidays with them. You were so young when they died. I’ve been in Nick’s shoes, losing my mom as a teenager and having to deal with first holidays without her. That first Thanksgiving without her, my dad opened a canned ham because it was the best he could do. Mom used to make a feast, but Dad, Tommy, and I ate slimy canned ham, soggy stuffing, and stovetop macaroni and cheese. Nick? He’s got a quarter of a century of Thanksgiving memories with his parents. Today really really sucked for him.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Sabrina sighed. “I think a part of me might have expected him to say ‘I love you, too’ when I went over there. Because sometimes it seemed like he might care about me too…”

Harvey snorted in disbelief.

“The guy was seeing red at the homecoming dance, and I don’t mean your dress,” he said. “Any outsider would have believed you two are madly in love, had they seen you during the days around his parents’ deaths. From what I understand, he wasn’t taking it too well when you cut him off the week before they died either. Roz said he was desperately trying to get you to talk to him. She thinks it was because he wanted sex, but I think it was because he wanted, well, you.”

“This is a disaster,” Sabrina declared. “All of it.”

“It’s going to work out,” Harvey promised her. “I do think Nick cares about you, Sabrina. He’s been through a lot and maybe the timing isn’t good, but I think he cares about you.”

“I miss Amalia,” she confessed.

“I know,” Harvey nodded. “Just – give it some time. I know that’s exceptionally hard for you.” Sabrina glared at him. “But let Nick have some time to take it all in and to cope with the holiday season.”

“Patience isn’t my strong suit,” she agreed. “But you’re probably right.”

“I know I am.” Harvey motioned to the last bite of pie as he stood. “That’s yours. I’m heading back upstairs. See you in the morning?”

“Thanks, Harvey,” she said with a small smile and a nod.

“Anytime, ‘Brina.”

He put his fork in the sink and disappeared. Sabrina finished off the pie, then squirted the remainder of the whipped cream into her mouth. She cleaned up after herself, then wandered upstairs to her bedroom. She changed into pajamas, found the book she was reading, and climbed into bed. But instead of opening her book, she picked up her phone. She opened Nick’s text messages and re-read them.

His worry came through. She had heard it in his voicemail, how his voice cracked. It made her stomach flutter to think maybe he did care enough about her to at least worry about her safety. Or, she reasoned, he could have just felt guilty.

You caught me off guard last night. Are you okay?

No, she wasn’t.

She wasn’t innocent. She may not have struck the match that set fire to the now smoldering remains of whatever relationship she and Nick had, but she had certainly helped lay the brush to make it go up in flames when Nick dropped the match before Halloween.

But she had done everything she knew to do to show Nick she cared for him. She had been there for him at the hospital and the days after his parents’ death. Before that, she had constantly covered for him when he was running late to school, gave him her leftovers because she knew he ate like crap, left a cupcake on his desk on his birthday, even brought him soup when he had been the one down with the flu. Not to mention that she had trusted him with her body time and time again.

She really had meant for it to be a one night stand. He had been hitting on her for months before that damned barbecue at the gym teacher’s house. She didn’t drink much, but she had a couple of glasses of wine that night and she had no idea what Nick had been drinking, but he’d had enough of it to be even bolder than usual. He had kissed her in a dark corner of the back porch, and she had been the one to ask him to leave.

Their first time in the backseat of his truck had been her first hit of a drug she couldn’t get out of her system. She would have never allowed him to lead her away from the party if she had known how hard the detox would be.

She opened Nick’s texts again and typed two letters in response to the last one.

No.

Her thumb hovered over send.

She deleted the message.

Chapter Text

“I don’t want to go back to school tomorrow.”

“Neither do I.” Nick pulled papers out of Amalia’s backpack in an effort to sort through what the week ahead might look like. Sabrina was at school and while she was doing an excellent job of avoiding him, he wasn’t sure he could avoid her.. He still had no idea what to say, how to take her confession, what to do with it, but he did know he wanted to see her. He desperately wanted to see her. “But here we are.”

“Can’t I stay home one more day?” Amalia pressed.

“Are you still sick?” Nick countered. Amalia faked a cough. He raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“That was a real cough!” Amalia insisted.

“Don’t tell fibs,” Nick admonished. “You are going back to school tomorrow. You’re absolutely fine.” Her fever had broken the night before Thanksgiving – perhaps the only good thing that came out of that night – and by Saturday morning, she was back to her crack of dawn wake up calls and ravenous enough that she put up little fight over food for a full twenty-four hours. “Do I need to sign this?” He held up a form.

“How am I supposed to know?” she countered.

“Fair enough,” he amended. He read the form quickly. It was about a school holiday celebration which included a performance from her class in the evening. It also asked for volunteers for a classroom party. He assumed that was something he needed to look into. He was quickly learning there was a certain level of expectations from parents or in his case, guardians, to bring refreshments, volunteer in the classroom, and, it seemed, make sure their respective child showed up on performance day in a white turtleneck and reindeer ears. “Do you have a white turtleneck?”

“You’ll have to check,” Amalia said. Nick glared at her. He wasn’t in the mood for her sass.

“You have a smart mouth,” he informed her.

“So do you,” she retorted. “You’re always telling me smart things.”

“Like what?” he wondered, although he could acknowledge the fact that he had been a smartass to her on more than one occasion, especially lately. He supposed he needed to be better about that, too.

“Last night, you told me about how that city burned down. That’s smart.”

Nick grinned a bit at her interpretation of “smart mouth.”

“You mean the San Francisco Fire of 1851,” he said. “And that’s not what I meant by ‘smart mouth.’”

“What did you mean then?” Amalia pressed. Her feet kicked against the counter again.

“Stop kicking the counter,” he said for what had to be the five hundredth time. The kicking ceased. “I meant that you’re a little too sharp witted.” He removed a turkey made from a handprint and placed it aside, figuring that was something he was supposed to keep as a pseudo parent. His parents had kept a lot of his crap, after all. He had to do the same for Amalia. “A bit too sassy.”

“Mommy said I’m strong-willed and that’s a good thing.” Amalia looked smug. Nick sighed.

“Glad you’re modest.” He pulled out another piece of artwork. At first, he thought it was supposed to be a self-portrait, but the figure, which took up much of the page, had yellow hair with an unmistakable black band through it. He turned it around and held it up. “What’s this?”

“That’s Sabrina,” Amalia spun from side to side on the swivel stool she was perched on as she picked at her chicken nuggets and the sweet potato fries she still hadn’t figured out were vegetables. “We had to draw something we were grateful for and I drew her. There’s a story, too.”

Nick laid the artwork down and searched for the story. He found a small piece of purple paper with Amalia’s four-year-old handwriting, a jumble of various letters, on a still smaller piece of lined white paper glued to it. Her teacher had transcribed what Amalia was trying to write below it.

I’m grateful for Sabrina because she is nice to me and lets me play cheerleader with her and watches movies with me and helps me. And she doesn’t hurt my hair when she brushes it.

Nick’s heart squeezed.

He hadn’t spoken to Sabrina since Wednesday night, save for his text Thanksgiving morning, and now they were four days past her apology and confession of how she felt, how he made her feel. She had never replied to his texts and while he had thought about reaching out again, he hadn’t. He just didn’t know what to say, no matter how badly he wanted to see her, talk to her. This child drawing of her and the reminder of everything she had done for him – for them – when she herself was suffering only strengthened his desire to see her.

“I want to give it to her,” Amalia continued, oblivious to her brother’s reaction to her artwork. “But I haven’t seen her in a long time.” She kicked at the kitchen island again. Nick gave her a look. She stopped. “Why did she stop coming over?”

Nick sighed again.

“Sabrina… is upset with me,” he said, going for honesty. “That’s why she hasn’t been here in a while.”

“Is that why she was crying when she brought me my Elsa dress?” Amalia wondered.

“Yeah,” Nick admitted, feeling even worse. He hadn’t seen her cry when she left that night, but he knew her well enough to know she wore her heart and her emotions on her sleeve. Of course she had left in tears. It seemed she usually did when he was involved. “It was.”

“Well, you should apologize,” Amalia said matter-of-factly. “That’s what Mommy and Daddy said to do if you hurt someone’s feelings. You say you’re sorry.”

“I think it might take more than an ‘I’m sorry’ to get me out of this one,” he told her. “I really hurt her feelings.” And then some, he added to himself.

“Then you should say a lot of sorrys,” Amalia suggested as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I miss Sabrina. She’s fun. She doesn’t talk during movies like you do and she makes real waffles not frozen ones and takes me to see Zelda and Hilda and Amber. I miss them, too. Oh, and her cat! I miss Salem. He likes to play with me. Can we get a cat?”

Nick considered his little sister. He realized in that moment that no matter how bad things were between him and Sabrina, he was doing Amalia an incredible disservice by keeping her and Sabrina apart. She had lost her parents, been forced to be raised by her irresponsible brother. She was proving resilient, but Sabrina was more than just a friend to Amalia. She was someone who understood Amalia in ways he never would. She needed Sabrina in her life, no matter what was going on between them.

He made a decision. If nothing else, he had to make sure Sabrina had a relationship with his sister. Amalia deserved that. He reckoned Sabrina did, too.

“Hold this up,” he passed the drawing to Amalia and hoped the question of a cat didn’t come with follow up. He couldn’t keep one more living being alive right now. He picked up his phone and opened the camera. “Okay, smile for me.” Amalia did as instructed, her smile big and bright. “I’m going to send this to Sabrina.”

His hands shook a bit as he typed out the text.

Amalia had to draw something she’s grateful for at school. She chose you.

He attached the photo, then took another of Amalia’s writing and sent that as well.

“How about I take this to school tomorrow?” he asked Amalia, an idea forming as he sat his phone aside. “I can give it to her there, see if she wants to hang out with you soon.”

“Please!” Amalia lit up, all thoughts of a cat forgotten. “She can come to my performance at school!”

“We’ll see,” Nick hedged. He would ask Sabrina, but he wouldn’t make any promises. He would be there, and he imagined Sabrina preferred to be anywhere he wasn’t right now. “Now, eat your dinner. You still have to take a bath and brush your hair before we watch our Sunday night movie.”

“Sabrina could come watch the movie,” she ventured with a hopeful sort of smile. Nick shook his head.

“Not tonight.”

He didn’t bother with an explanation as to why. Everything had gotten too complicated for him to make sense of himself, let alone explain it to Amalia in a way she could understand.

“Sabrina’s not mad at me, is she?”

Nick looked up from reading through the papers from Amalia’s backpack. He met her eyes. She looked concerned. Guilt settled around Nick’s shoulders. Amalia shouldn’t have ever had to ask that question. He should have never kept them apart.

“She’s not mad at you,” he assured her. “I promise, Amalia. She’s upset with me, but she still adores you. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Then why won’t she come see me?” Amalia continued.

For just a moment, Nick considered telling Amalia the truth. That he was the one who told Sabrina she couldn’t see Amalia. But Amalia would be devastated, and he couldn’t do that to her. Or to himself.

“I really hurt Sabrina,” he told her again. “It’s hard for her to be around me. So she’s stayed away, and that’s why she hasn’t spent time with you. Because I’m always with you. I promise you, Amalia, that Sabrina isn’t mad at you.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Because if she is, I will say I’m sorry.”

Nick put the stack of papers aside and reached across the counter to ruffle her hair. She pushed his hand away with a giggle.

“I’m positive,” he told her. “Eat your dinner, please. If you want enough popcorn with the movie, you have to finish dinner.”

“How about I eat one chicken nugget and five fries?” she bargained.

Nick surveyed her plate. He had given her five nuggets. She had four and a half left, and most of her sweet potato fries.

“Three nuggets, half of your fries,” he countered.

“One nugget, seven fries.”

“Two nuggets, all your fries. That’s my final offer.”

Amalia considered.

“So, like, all of my fries?” she asked.

“That’s the deal,” he nodded. Amalia sighed dramatically.

“Fine,” she huffed. She picked up her remaining half of a nugget and forcefully pushed it through the large blob of ketchup on her plate. Nick stifled a chuckle despite his melancholy mood. He was becoming more and more convinced his baby sister would rule the world one day.

He busied himself with poking at a store-bought salad and some now cold shredded pork he had picked up from the hot bar when he went grocery shopping earlier. His appetite remained nonexistent, but the loose waistbands of his jeans told him he needed to eat more. He was more or less force feeding himself when his phone lit up. He grabbed for it.

Sabrina has loved a message.

No response, really, just an alert that she had held her thumb down on his text long enough to choose the heart reaction. He watched his screen for a few moments, hoping for something else. Nothing came. He sighed in defeat and put his phone aside.

For the next little while, he made himself eat a decent meal, then wrangled Amalia upstairs and into a bath. He managed to brush her hair with minimal drama before they settled on the couch to watch a movie like they did every Sunday night. She had picked Moana tonight.

“Sabrina likes this one,” Amalia commented as the opening scene began.

“She does know her Disney movies,” Nick agreed.

“She told me Hei Hei is her favorite character from this movie,” she continued. “Hei Hei is my favorite, too.” She looked at Nick. “Who is your favorite?”

“The big guy,” he answered, hoping that would be enough. He had no idea what the character’s name was. He was simply the first character from the movie had had seen too many times for his liking that came to mind.

“Maui?” Amalia asked. “Or Chief Tui?”

“The one with the tattoos.”

“They both have tattoos,” Amalia said with dramatic exasperation. “Which one?”

“Whichever one she finds while she’s out on the raft,” Nick said, working to hold onto his patience. It seemed to be thinner than ever these days. He snapped at Amalia a lot more than he meant to, and he knew he needed to be better. There were a couple of times when she had sulked away and he had felt horrible. If his sister turned on him, he would be truly alone. He couldn’t take his bad days out on her.

“Maui,” she nodded, satisfied. “Good choice, Nick.” Nick had to chuckle. She reached into the popcorn bowl between them and chewed a mouthful. “Hey Nick?”

He held back a sigh.

“You get mad at me for talking during movies and yet you haven’t stopped talking since the movie started.”

“It’s just the beginning,” Amalia shrugged. “But I was thinking. When you give Sabrina my picture, will you ask her if she can come over soon?”

“I’m going to ask her to come to your performance,” he reminded her.

“I know, but I want her to come over to my house,” Amalia continued. “She hasn’t been here in forever and I want her to come over and play with me like she used to. Since she’s not mad at me, just you, I think she’ll say yes.”

Amalia had no idea that Sabrina had been there just four nights earlier, pouring her heart out while he stood there like a dumbstruck fool.

“I told you, Sabrina is mad at me right now,” Nick hedged. “Let’s start with asking her to come to your performance and see how that goes, okay?”

“Fine,” Amalia huffed. “I miss her.”

“I know you do.” Nick moved the popcorn bowl, put his arm around her, and pulled her into his side. He wasn’t sure which one of them needed the comforting more.

“I love Sabrina,” she continued, leaning into him. Nick sighed.

“So do I.”

His heart stopped.

Or at least it felt like it did.

The realization struck like lightning, hot and searing as the truth ripped through him and left an open, smoking wound in its wake.

He loved her.

He completely, wholly, and entirely loved Sabrina Spellman.

He had for a very long time.

She loved him.

Or had loved him.

She had loved him until he had hurt her beyond repair.

He loved her and he had lost her.

He couldn’t breathe.

The world spun.

He stood abruptly.

“Where are you going?” Amalia asked.

“I’ll be right back,” he managed, trying to appear normal for her sake. “Just – watch the movie.”

He rushed from the room, no destination in mind. His eyes fell on the French doors to the back porch and he made for them. He turned the gold handle and pushed through one of them. The cold late November air slammed into him, but he paid it no mind. He gulped for air, gasping as the burning cold filled his lungs.

He loved Sabrina.

He didn’t know when he had fallen in love with her, but he loved her. He had already been in love with her the night she climbed onto his lap in the back of his truck. That’s why sex had felt different – had always felt different – with her. Not because she was skilled in bed, which she certainly was, but because he loved her.

He had to lean on the railing to remain standing as his head and heart finally connected.

He had ruined everything.

She was no longer at fault, as far as he was concerned, and not in the least because she had the courage to face how she felt, tell him, and apologize for any of her wrong doings. This was entirely on his shoulders now.

He saw everything with a sudden high definition clarity that made him physically ill. He could see every flash of hurt that passed before her eyes when he left her after sex, flashes he hadn’t noticed at the time but could recall now. He could feel every gentle touch, every soft kiss. She had poured everything she had into him and he had given her nothing in return. He had been selfish. Blind. Utterly and completely stupid. The fact that he could have ever thought it was just casual sex between them made his head throb.

He stayed outside for several minutes, trying to take deep breathes, trying to calm the storm of emotions waging war on his insides. He didn’t hear the door open.

“Nick?”

When his eyes fell on Amalia, he felt a little calmer. She needed him. She needed him to at least look like he had his shit together, even if he was falling apart on the inside.

“I thought you were watching the movie,” he said.

“I was, but you didn’t come back,” she shrugged. He heard the note of worry in her little voice. He had learned he wasn’t the only one who struggled with anxiety where their loved ones were concerned. Amalia panicked if he didn’t show up to pick her up on time or if he left her in a room alone too long without clearly communicating he was going to be elsewhere. She needed to know where he was, to show up.

He took her in, standing in her Disney nightgown, her hair still damp, her feet bare, doll in her arms. He took a big breath and stooped to her level.

“I’m sorry.” He could at least apologize to someone. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I just needed some fresh air.”

“You look sick,” she informed him.

“I feel sick,” he confirmed. “Remember how I said Sabrina was upset with me?” Amalia nodded, listening. “I just realized that I did a lot more damage than I realized.” He smiled sadly at the fact that he was confiding in a four-year-old. “I’ve hurt myself a lot, too.”

“You have to apologize,” Amalia said simply. “Just say you’re sorry.”

Nick took her hands. He remembered taking Sabrina’s hand to stop her from leaving, how much it had hurt when she pulled away. That had been his heart, crying out for him to stop her, to hold onto her, to see what was right there in front of him. He swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat as he thought of her that night, how she had sat in the car while he stood on the sidewalk, just watching her. He should have gone after her. He should have never let her get as far as her car in the first place.

“Sometimes ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough,” he told Amalia as gently as he could. It was a lesson she was too little to learn. “I don’t think it’s going to be enough for Sabrina, no matter how many times I say it.”

“But don’t you want her to not be mad at you anymore?” Amalia questioned.

“More than I have ever wanted anything in my life,” he answered honestly. “I just don’t know how to get her to forgive me.”

“I still think you should say I’m sorry,” Amalia told him. “Mommy and Daddy said people like to hear apologies when you hurt their feelings.”

“I have to do something,” Nick agreed. “I just don’t know what.” He watched the puffs of Amalia’s breath freezing before her. “Let’s get back inside. It’s too cold for you to be out here with no shoes and wet hair.”

He kept one of her hands in his and lead her indoors. He started the movie over, deciding he would suffer the consequences of letting her stay up a little later, her company now more valuable to him than a smooth go of things would be in the morning, and ignored the bowl of popcorn between them while she shoved her hand into it repeatedly.

He loved Sabrina.

He had to tell her.

He had to apologize.

Over and over again.

He had no idea if she would listen.

And even if she did listen, he was terrified it wouldn’t be enough.

Chapter Text

The increasingly familiar flutter of nerves rose in Nick’s stomach as he approached Sabrina’s classroom. He had half hoped he might beat her there, leave the drawing, and not have to talk to her, but the odds of that weren’t in his favor. She was notoriously one of the first people at school every morning and Amalia had delayed him while searching for a very specific pair of socks that morning.

He wanted to talk to her, but he was still reeling from his realization the night before, didn’t trust that he wouldn’t make things worse by trying to say – anything – to begin to mend things between them. He couldn’t say or do the wrong thing, risk driving her even further away, and he was utterly terrified that he would do just that as he prepared to face her. He peered around her door frame in an effort to size up the situation before making his presence known, but luck wasn’t on his side. Sabrina was there, but so was Roz.

“What do you want, Scratch?” she demanded, seeing him first. Sabrina turned to him in surprise. He stepped into the classroom with more courage than he actually had and held up the drawing as a sort of peace offering. What neither of them saw was the utter amount of pain he was in, the crushing guilt he felt, the offer of his whole heart if only Sabrina would have it.

“Amalia wanted Sabrina to have this,” he spoke to Roz as though she were a guard he had to convince to let him pass. He imagined she was. And it was still somehow easier to talk to her than it was to face Sabrina. “I promised her I would bring it to school today.”

“Thank you.” Sabrina’s voice was barely above a whisper when she finally spoke. With one last look at Roz, Nick dared to turn to Sabrina. She wouldn’t meet his eyes as he approached her desk, the drawing held out in front of him like the white flag it was. She accepted the portrait and peered at it. A small smile graced her lips as she read the written piece Nick had stapled to it. He waited with bated breath for Sabrina’s reaction.

“Is that all?” Roz asked pointedly, interrupting his anticipation.

“Amalia has a school performance thing,” Nick continued, remembering himself and wishing Roz would disappear. It was hard enough to face Sabrina. He didn’t need her there too. “It’s next week, on Thursday at six o’clock. She asked for you to come, Sabrina.”

“So she’s allowed to come to Amalia’s things now?” Roz asked. “I thought that was against the rules?” She glared daggers at Nick.

“Roz,” Sabrina said quietly, “it’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Roz shook her head but didn’t say anything more.

“It would mean a lot to her,” Nick ignored Roz. He cleared his throat. “She misses you.”

They both did, but this moment was about Amalia’s need to have Sabrina in her life, not his own desires to have her in his.

“I cannot believe this…” Roz huffed.

“Roz, I appreciate you,” Sabrina said. “You know I do.” A meaningful look passed between them. Nick was no fool. He was sure Sabrina had been leaning on Roz. “But maybe you could leave Nicholas and I alone for a minute?”

Nick cringed at her use of his full name falling from Sabrina’s lips, a sure sign she was distancing herself from him. It was ‘Nick’ when they were on good terms, ‘Scratch’ when she was teasing him. It was only ‘Nicholas’ when she was upset with him. Roz hesitated. Sabrina gave her a pointed look. She sighed.

“Fine.” Roz stood from the student desk she had perched on. “But if you’re going to kill him, make it quick. We don’t have much time before the first bell to hide the body.” She left, glaring at him as she went.

“She still hates me,” Nick commented.

“I can’t say either of us are a big fan,” Sabrina replied. She didn’t see Nick wince at her words. She refused to make eye contact. Going to him, followed by his lack of response past a few texts to ease his own worries, had done what she needed it to over the last few days. She had said what she needed to, and Nick had done nothing with her confession. That told her all she needed to know. She was finally, finally starting to find some peace with their lost relationship. “She’s right, though. Why the sudden change in heart?”

“I realized last night that I’m doing Amalia a disservice by not letting her spend time with you.” That barely scratched the surface of what he realized the night before, but it was a safe place to start, especially when she was so intent on keeping him at a very far distance. “She’s been through so much, and you’ve been there for her. She asked where you’ve been and, well, she wants you to come to her performance. I’m sure it will be cheesy and not all that great, given it’s a group of four year olds, but it’s a big deal to her.”

“You were pretty clear on what you wanted,” Sabrina reminded him. “Me out of your lives.”

Nick felt the wall between them getting not only higher but wider the longer he stood there. She was hurt, but she was angry, too. It wouldn’t matter what he said right now. She wouldn’t listen. But he had to think of Amalia. This wasn’t about him at the moment, not really.

“Please, Sabrina.” She heard the tremor in his voice. She had to fight not to meet his eyes. He silently begged her to meet his eyes. “I’m asking for Amalia. Don’t punish her because of my mistakes.”

It felt like an eternity before she exhaled a long breath.

“You can’t have it both ways, Nick. You can’t tell me I can’t be in her life, keep me out of it for more than a month, and then ask me to be a part of it again. That’s not fair to her either. You can’t keep putting people in her life and taken the out when the mood strikes you.”

That’s what had gotten them here – both of them saying one thing and doing something different, wanting one thing, getting something different.

“She asked if you were mad at her last night,” he shared, trying his best to keep things focused on Amalia. “This has nothing to do with you and I and everything to do with her. She needs you in her life. It was a grave mistake on my part, to come between the pair of you. I see that now.”

And it still wasn’t the gravest of his mistakes.

Another long moment of silence stretched between them.

“I don’t want Amalia to suffer any more than she already has,” Sabrina finally ventured. “I’ll be there.” She still wouldn’t look at him. He willed her to. If he could just see her eyes, perhaps he would find the right words to begin to repair the damage between them. “For Amalia.”

A sense of relief washed through him. It was the smallest of wins, but it was something. It would start to bring her and Amalia back together again. It would at least get her in the same room with him.

“Thank you,” he said, hoping she heard that relief. “I was prepared to beg.”

He had hoped she would smile, just a little, at his poor attempt at making a joke out of how he had, in fact, just begged. She didn’t so much as blink.

“I have to catch up on my attendance reports before homeroom,” she said, effectively dismissing him. “Thanks for bringing her drawing by. I’ll see her next week.”

Nick sighed. He had done this to himself – and to her – but it didn’t lessen the sting of her turning him away, no matter how many times he had done the same to her. She wouldn’t listen and he had no idea what he was going to say, but he had to try to say something.

“Sabrina…”

“Don’t,” she shook her head, eyes on her computer as she logged into the school’s record keeping software, completely closed off to him. “Whatever it is – don’t.”

“Okay,” he agreed in a quiet voice. This wasn’t the place and he still didn’t have the right words to start to right his wrongs. He had to walk away – for now. “I’ll go. I’ll tell Amalia you’re coming next week.”

She said nothing further.

He walked slowly back to his room, nodding politely at students who said hello as he passed, trying to decide if that had gone well or not. She had agreed to come to Amalia’s performance, at least, but she clearly wanted nothing to do with him now. It was a draw, at best. Amalia won, but he was still in the loss column.

His room was still blissfully empty when he arrived. He started towards his desk but stumbled suddenly. He caught himself on his desk, but his coffee tipped over, soaking the papers covering it and his keyboard. He sighed and dropped his head in annoyance, noting his untied shoelace as the culprit for his trip.

“So that’s how this day is going to go,” he grumbled. “Fantastic.”

His prediction turned out to be true. He got a papercut during his first period class. A parent, angry that he had given their child what Nick considered a generous ‘B’ on an AP paper, sent him a flaming email criticizing his teaching. He bit into his microwaved burrito while eating lunch in his room – no Sabrina in sight while he had microwaved it, and he had certainly lingered long enough for her to turn up – and first burned his mouth, then the filling had oozed out and dropped on his pants. Two students got into a fight outside of his room before the last class of the day and he caught an elbow to the stomach while helping break it up. When the final bell rang, he packed his bag, picked it up, and the strap broke.

He gave himself a pep talk as he walked to his truck, reminding himself he needed to shake off the attitude and be in a better mood, or at least pretend to be, when he picked up Amalia. He was contemplating whether it would be worth taking her to Dr. Cerberus for dinner instead of cooking, thinking he was likely to burn the house down at the rate he was going, when he spotted Roz waiting by his truck. He sighed. The universe wasn’t done with him yet.

“I have to pick up my little sister,” he said by way of greeting. “So whatever you have to say to me will have to wait.”

“I won’t keep you,” Roz shot back. “Leave her alone, Nick. You have hurt her enough. She’s finally starting to move on. Don’t pull her back in.”

“I know I hurt her,” he admitted, deciding if he had any luck at all, Roz would go back and tell Sabrina he was aware of the hurt his actions had caused. “I’m trying to…

“Use your little sister to get back in her good graces?” Roz cut him off. “You’re transparent, Scratch.”

“Amalia misses her,” he said. “It’s not fair for me to keep Amalia from her.”

“Nothing about your situation is fair,” Roz pointed out. “I always knew Sabrina would get hurt if she kept sleeping with you. I had no idea the devastation would be to this level though. You wrecked her, Scratch.”

Nick wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole. Roz wasn’t saying anything he didn’t know, but it hurt to hear all the same.

“How has she been?” he heard himself ask. He found he needed to know the truth. Roz would tell him. He sensed she wanted him to know exactly how badly he had hurt Sabrina. He was certain it would rip him open even more, but he had to know how she was doing – he had to know what he was up against.

“She’s cried a lot,” Roz told him. “She’s doubted herself, wondered what she did wrong, why you couldn’t return her feelings.” Nick pursed his lips. It was his own damned fault Sabrina had no idea he loved everything about her, right down to the mole on left shoulder. “She gives herself entirely to the people she loves, and when they return that love, she’s at her best. When they don’t…” Roz trailed off and gave him a pointed look. He had to look away to keep his emotions in check, at least on the surface. “She poured her heart out to you last week, and you did nothing. She had a rough day on Thanksgiving, but as the weekend wore on, I think she finally got it – you don’t love her, never have, and never will. She’s getting her feet under her again. Don’t you dare swoop back in and mess her up again.”

Nick took a deep breath. He didn’t want Roz to be the one who told Sabrina he loved her. It had to be him. She deserved to hear it from him. He needed to be the one to tell her. But maybe – maybe – he could say the right thing that would get back to Sabrina, the one person who knew him better than anyone. Maybe, if Roz gossiped his words back to her, she would hear what he wanted her to. It was a bit like sending a secret message in hopes that the receiving party could decode it, should it be delivered safely.

“Sabrina – is entirely wrong about how I feel about her,” he chanced. “I never wanted to hurt her. Believe me, Roz, I did a number on both of us. And my sister, for good measure. I’m – trying to figure things out. So I can make them right.”

Roz considered him. For a wild moment, he thought she might soften towards him. But then she took a breath, stood straighter, and squared her shoulders.

“Leave her alone,” she repeated, “unless you can prove to her – to all of us – that you love her even half as much as she loves you. She’s finally starting to move past you. Don’t hold her back if you can’t give her what she deserves.”

She started to walk away. Nick reached for his door handle, but stopped.

“Roz.” She paused and turned to look at him, eyebrow raised. Nick was solemn. “Thank you – for being there for her. You’re a good friend, and she deserves that.”

Roz looked dumbstruck. He didn’t wait for her to reply. He got into his truck and exhaled a long breath. He wanted to sit there and stew on Roz’s words, but he had to get Amalia or else risk her tantrum if he was late. He cranked up his truck and put it in reverse. He barely missed backing into a student pulling out of the parking lot behind him. He hit his steering wheel in frustration and considered how good a tumbler full of bourbon would be right then.

Instead, he put his truck in drive and headed to Greendale Preschool.


Sabrina beamed as she clapped for Amalia’s class. Their performance had been cute and full of holiday spirit and Amalia clearly loved the spotlight, standing out in the front row, whether because Sabrina was biased or because she was just that charismatic, Sabrina didn’t know. She was glad she came, even more glad Roz had a conflict and couldn’t join her, that Theo had told Roz she was insane when she tried to convince him to tag along with Sabrina as moral support. He understood even if Roz didn’t – she needed to fight her own battles when it came to Nick.

Nick, who had confessed to Roz that he knew he had hurt her, that he was trying to figure things out. The same Nick who had told Roz she was a good friend.

She refused to stew on what Roz had told her about their parking lot confrontation. She was trying to move on, and she didn’t need Roz to run interference. She had to live in the same town as Nick, work with him. She had to find a way to co-exist and putting whatever they were behind her was the only thing she could do.

She waited near the back of the cafeteria turned performance area while kids were reunited with their parents. She watched Amalia looking for Nick, could see Nick trying to navigate his way through the crowd to meet her. She purposefully kept herself out of the way, determined to buy herself a few more minutes before she had to face Nick.

Her heart skipped a bit when Nick wrapped his arms around Amalia in a big hug. Their bond had strengthened in the last few months, Nick becoming the big brother Amalia needed, Amalia cementing herself in his heart as so much more than his much younger, often annoying, baby sister. The sight made her smile just a bit, despite her mess of emotions where Nick was involved. She had always known Nick could be a good guardian, a good big brother. It was nice to see it unfolding in the midst of everything else.

Melvin was there too. He did a choreographed handshake with Amalia that made her giggle. Sabrina’s smile grew a bit. Amalia had been through a lot, but she was well-loved by the adults in her life, as dodge podged of a group as they were. Nick was her guardian, but she was being raised by a village.

Sabrina was taken by surprise when Nick raised a hand and pointed towards her. She didn’t think he knew she was there. She had slipped in at the very last minute, in spite of being one of the first cars in the parking lot, all in an effort to avoid Nick, and sat near the back on the opposite side of the room from him. She didn’t plan to speak to him, just to say hello to Amalia, tell her she done well, and leave. She was there for Amalia, not Nick.

Amalia wasted no time once she spotted Sabrina. She tore through the crowd, dodging parents and classmates, eyes shining as she ran for Sabrina.

“Sabrina! You’re here!”

Sabrina pushed aside any residual thoughts of Nick and caught her in a hug.

“You were wonderful!” she hugged Amalia tight. “You did such a good job!” She squeezed her again, blinking away a few happy tears at the reunion. It had been far too long since she last saw Amalia. “You look so pretty!” She could tell Nick had done her hair. The bow was barely holding on, a lot lopsided, but it was there. Amalia was clean, however, and wearing the prescribed outfit of a turtleneck and reindeer antlers. He had even matched it with a plaid skirt, tights, and shiny black Mary Janes.

It looked like something she would wear.

“I had so much fun!” Amalia said. “But I’m so happy to see you!” She bounced in place, then hugged Sabrina again. Sabrina laughed at her enthusiasm.

“I’m so happy to see you, too.” She hugged her one more time. “Thank you for the picture you drew of me. I love it. I have it hanging up in my classroom where everyone can see it.”

Sabrina was aware of Nick and Melvin approaching, but dutifully ignored Nick. She focused on Amalia, asking her about school and her favorite part of her performance. She didn’t see Nick elbow Melvin and nod at Sabrina. Melvin rolled his eyes but stepped forward.

“Amalia! My girl!” He scooped her into his arms. “I saw a bake sale in the lobby. I’m stealing you away from your favorite person and your brother for a few minutes and buying my favorite reindeer some cookies. That you can eat now because I think it will be funny to get angry texts from your brother when you’re still awake at midnight.”

He disappeared through the crowd with a laughing Amalia. Sabrina blew out a breath. She could read Nick like a book. He had put Melvin up to taking Amalia for a few minutes. What she didn’t know was why. There was nothing left for them to say to one another.

“They bonded when she was sick and over Thanksgiving,” he said, trying to act as though Melvin had snatched Amalia on his accord. “He plays with her like he’s her age, though, so I guess that’s why she likes him.”

“Save it, Scratch,” Sabrina stated. “What do you want?”

“Can we talk?” he asked cautiously, sensing there would be no pleasantries exchanged. It was now or never if he wanted to talk to her tonight. He was desperate to talk to her, had been on pins and needles waiting to see if she would actually come, all the while knowing she would because she wouldn’t let Amalia down. He had gone as far as sending her an email at school that day, reminding her of the night’s performance – she had read it, but hadn’t replied. He had felt relief when he saw her car in the lot, her sitting in it, when he arrived with Amalia, but that relief had been replaced by near crippling anxiety as he thought about this moment throughout the night’s program. It was taking all he had in him not to cave to that anxiety now. “Please?”

“What’s there to talk about?” she wondered. Nick felt that high, wide wall between them again. He thought he might even be able to touch it if he reached his hand out, it was so tangible. “You can’t do this, remember? Neither can I.”

“Sabrina, if we could just talk…” He paused and took a breath. He had a whole speech dreamed up, had finally settled on what to say, and couldn’t remember any of it, couldn’t even form sentences now that he needed to. “We need to talk. Or at the very least, I need to talk to you, even if you have nothing more to say to me. I need to know if we can fix this, start over.”

“Start what over?” she questioned. “There was only ever sex in the first place.”

Nick sighed again. He had been worried he waited too long to apologize, to present his case, especially after Roz had told him as much. His concern grew that he was right. It had been two weeks since she had shown up at his place and told him how she felt, ten since he had realized he loved her. He should have acted much sooner. He only had himself to blame for being a coward. He had to step up now, be the brave one.

“Come on.” He took her by the elbow, careful not to hold on too tight in case she wanted to pull away. She followed him though, and for that he was grateful. He led her through a door and found themselves in a small rec room used for gym classes. Satisfied they were alone, he turned to her. “Sabrina, I’m sorry,” he started, the words coming out in a rush. “For a lot…”

“Is this the part where you confess your feelings for me?” Sabrina interrupted. “You’ve realized you’ve had feelings for me for a long time, but you were oblivious because of whatever reason you came up, but then you lost me, which made you realize what you had, and now you’re trying to make amends so I’ll take you back. Did I cover it?”

She had, if he were being honest with himself.

“I know I hurt you,” he said, pushing forward despite the fact that the odds didn’t look to be in his favor. “I know I didn’t treat you well. I know, too, that I miss you. Not sex, Sabrina. You. I want to talk this through, try to explain. I want to have a chance…”

“Nick, I came here for Amalia,” she cut him off again, feeling weary. This wasn’t one of the cheesy holiday movies she watched with Roz. This was real life. No matter how close Nick’s realization fell to a Hallmark script, she wasn’t falling for it. “I didn’t come here for this.”

“You won’t talk to me…”

“Because you asked me not to!” she erupted. “You have been all over the place, Nick. I know your parents died and it’s the holidays and that has to be so hard for you. But it’s December. In September, we were pseudo friends with benefits. Your parents died and you suddenly wanted me to be your girlfriend. By the end of October, you had cut me out of your life. I finally say what I’ve needed to say to you for months and you have yet another change of heart. You don’t know what you want.”

“I want you,” he said with absolute confidence. “You, Sabrina. Maybe I don’t know how to be a boyfriend, but I didn’t know how to be a guardian to a four-year-old either and I’m figuring that out. I can figure this out, too. Because I would be with you, and that’s all that matters. I’m asking you for a chance to talk this out. Not right now – I have to get Amalia home and there’s too much to say for us to have this conversation right now – but I have a lot I need to say to you. Beginning and ending with the fact that I want a chance with you.”

Sabrina looked at him for what felt like an eternity.

“Forgive me for not believing you.”

He frowned, taken by surprise at her choice of words.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Why should I?” she asked. “You have done anything to warrant me believing you want a relationship – with me or otherwise.”

He saw with that same sudden clarity that had happened the night he realized he loved her that she was right. If he documented his actions, he had very little evidence to present to her that would prove he had feelings for her, that he loved her and had for a long time. She, on the other hand, had done nothing but give herself to him, both heart and body, even well before his parents died. He had taken her for granted, and he was paying a very high price now. He swallowed past the lump in his throat and went for broke.

“I love you, Sabrina.” He had never met four words more. He had never said them to someone that wasn’t his parent or sister, either. She looked at him for a long moment, her eyes betraying her surprise at his words. He decided to say it again, to try to drive the point home. And simply because he could and knew he meant it with every fiber of his being. “I love you.”

Her lip trembled.

“I don’t believe you,” she said again, her voice shaking this time.

He nodded, feeling eerily calm. He had expected as much, but he had wanted to her to hear the words all the same. They were out there now, and now that she knew, he could figure out what came next, how to help her believe him.

“I didn’t think you would. But I’ll figure out a way to prove it.”

It was a promise, whether she knew it or not, and he would keep it. If things still didn’t work out between them, it wouldn’t be because he hadn’t done everything in his power to right the ship. She had been the one investing in their relationship for a very long time with no return on that investment. It was his turn now. He would give her his all in hopes that one day, hopefully soon, she would see it and that they could finally be a real, genuine couple.

Sabrina blew out a long weary breath. She was exhausted, emotionally and physically. The last few months had tried her in every way possible, and she just couldn’t stand there with Nick any longer. A month ago, she would have jumped into his arms at hearing his confession. Now, she just wanted to go home.

“I’m going to find Amalia and tell her goodbye,” she said, effectively dismissing him. “Thank you for letting me come tonight.”

She made to leave.

“Why don’t you pick her up Saturday morning?” Nick asked in an effort to stop her, switching gears from himself to Amalia at warp speed. “Spend some time with her? She would love that…”

Sabrina looked at him.

“Don’t use your little sister to get to me, Nick,” she called him out. “That’s not fair to me or to her.”

“I’m thinking of Amalia,” he said with almost complete honesty. He did have ulterior motives, but Amalia’s needs were important. He thought fast. “You don’t have to come to the door. Just pull into the drive and I’ll send her out. You don’t even have to speak to me if you don’t want to, I promise.”

It felt like a bad divorce. In some ways, it was.

“Fine,” Sabrina agreed after a moment. “I’ll pick her up around ten.”

“Do you want her to spend the night?” he asked, offering another olive branch. He would continue to offer them, until there were enough to bundle together in a rope strong enough to bring her back to him.

“Sure,” Sabrina nodded. “I’ll bring her back to you around lunchtime on Sunday.”

She left then, leaving him alone. He didn’t have long to wallow in self-pity, but he sat down on a small set of risers and rested his elbows on his knees. He kept finding himself here, alone, in his head, reeling from a confrontation with Sabrina.

He kept trying to pinpoint the moment he fell in love with her. There was no defining moment, no moment in which he looked at her and realized she was it for him. It was a million little things that added up to a fact so big and bright and glaring that the fact that he didn’t realize it until it was too late left him dumbfounded.

He didn’t regret telling her he needed space from her. He had meant it when he said his emotional health was shaky at best. Those words were some of the most honest ones he had ever spoken. The space had given him clarity on his feelings, caused her to come to him and confess all. But now, he saw how poorly he had treated her, disrespected her, hurt her. He understood exactly what his father meant, and he hated himself for it. He was better than that, and she deserved more.

Knowing his pity party needed to come to an end – at least until Amalia was in bed for the night – he breathed out a slow, frustrated breath and stood. He had to return to reality, get Amalia home, get her to bed, accept the fact that tomorrow morning would be a disaster as it already past her bedtime and she would fight sleep for hours, especially now that Melvin had stuffed her with sugar. He himself would probably lay awake staring at the ceiling fan, fretting over Sabrina, running through his ever-growing to-do list, and wondering how life had become this complicated, this difficult.

He could only hope his reality wouldn’t always look so bleak.