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Ellsworth

Chapter Text

Everyone’s always so quick to tell you you have so much potential but really that’s just code for you’re currently a shitty waste of space but with some grooming you could maybe be a human I’d be half-proud to stand next to.

“All personal items here, please.”

It’s so easy to have friends when you’re willing to do any and everything they want you to at all times. It gets less easy the second you suggest something different, the second you disagree. Then you’re unreasonable. Then again, not everyone can have a singular subset of ‘peculiar’, ‘childish’ interests so it’s probably just my fault.

“If you have any weapons, sharp items, medications and the like, please surrender them now.”

God forbid you have a hobby or interest that your friends find nonsensical, you may as well hang a big sign on your back that says kick my ass, I deserve it and while you’re at it just don’t bother inviting me to anything, I’d bring the whole mood down.

‘I’m just trying to help’ is code for ‘You’re pathetic. You should really take my advice.’

‘No offense’ means ‘of course this is offensive, but I’m gonna say it anyway and if you don’t want to be offended then maybe you should be more normal’.

And ‘I’m worried about you, Quentin’ when it falls from Julia’s lips as she cuts off another Fillory conversation means ‘for the millionth time, Quentin, get a fucking life.’

“Name?”

“Quentin Coldwater,” I say between thoughts. My mouth is dry and there’s a funny tingle in my head, like cotton, foaming up my thoughts.

“Are you visiting or checking in?”

I take a deep breath. I’m not nervous, just overwhelmed by the fact that I belong here. I give my answer.

“Checking in.”

Chapter Text

“Hello, Quentin. I’m Dr. London, how are you today?” She has a friendly smile. It’s ruined by the fact she’s in a white coat and has access to about a hundred different prescriptions that could render me catatonic.

“I’ve been better.”

“I’m sorry, that was a silly question. Why don’t we start by talking about why you’re checking in?”

I push my hair behind my ear and sit up straighter in the stiff chair. She watches the movement like it’s a threat. “I can’t concentrate or-or eat or get out of bed somedays.”

And even when I manage to do any of the three, it’s energy wasted because all that comes from the day is more judgement veiled as concern. Or side eyes like I’ve suddenly sprouted another head.

“I just,” I go on as the feelings come back up and wrap themselves around me. “The feeling of not belonging is…overwhelming. I just feel like –no, I am the most useless person who’s ever lived.”

When I look back at her, she’s got that pinched look on her face that Julia always does. Like I’m a wounded animal, some pitiful roadkill that she’s trying to will back to life just with the sympathy on her face.

Oh my god.

That’s what I am.

I’m roadkill.

-E-

My room is small. I didn’t expect it not to be but I'm still underwhelmed by the tight space. It's much too small to have two beds but it does. My roommate isn’t here but the orderly that leads me in tells me they exist.

“You came at a weird time so everyone’s eating in the lunchroom. Are you gonna eat, too?” he asks and I check his name tag. Penny.

“Uh,” I weigh. “They’re not- I didn’t check in because I- So, they’re not-”

He rolls his eyes. “If you’re trying to ask if you’re gonna walk into some Cuckoo's Nest bullshit, then no. Crisis stabilization is two floors up. Now, are you eating or not?”

I can’t decide to be offended or refreshed by his short temper. I mean everyone else talks to you like you’re a fucking toddler. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll eat.” He takes my Fillory books I asked to keep from under his arm and throws them on my bed. One bounces off the white sheets and onto the floor. “Jesus-”

“Just go, Matilda,” he says, pushing me out of the room before I can pick up the book.

He leads me down hallway after hallway in silence. There’s nothing but random potted plants and bleak paintings for decoration. All the walls are white which I think is supposed to be comforting but all I can think about is how I feel like they’re expecting me to feel something I need comfort for. Like they want me to freak out otherwise the wallpaper goes to waste.

“What’s the crisis stabilization floor?” I ask, walking quickly to keep up with him. I can practically hear him roll his eyes again.

“It’s for the ones who are a danger to themselves or others.”

“Right,” I say. “So, this floor is for…?”

“Apparently, it’s for book nerds who ask too many fucking questions.” I’m definitely offended, I decide. “This is medium-term slash open unit.”

“So, no one here is like...dangerous?”

“No. It’s like a fucking retreat,” he says as we reach two large grey double doors. They look like high school cafeteria doors and suddenly I feel like I’m back in school sitting in the corner of a large room full of people who are allergic to me. Julia’s there though. And James. Like they always were.

Out of pity or dedication, we'll never know.

Penny puts a hand on the door to push it open then pauses. “Well,” he starts. “No one’s dangerous except The Crew,” he smirks.

“What’s the Crew? Who’s The Crew?” I ask and the feelings that I’d been really proud of not having thus far start to creep up. Doubt and its cousin, Fear.

“Later, Coldwater,” he says as he walks away, laughing.

He's probably fucking with me, I think. I square my shoulders and fight the urge to about-face. I reach for the door but it flies open and hits me in the face before I can stop it. I clutch my nose as pain shoots through it. Great start.

“Sorry,” I hear someone say. I look up. She’s a tiny pale woman, wearing the same starchy sweatshirt and pants that crunch with every move you make.

“It’s fine,” I say, checking my hand for blood. “No harm, no foul.”

“Are you going in?” she asks, holding the door open. It looks busy inside and I take another second to consider the question.

Jesus, Quentin, what do you think they’re murdering someone in there?

“Um,” I pause. “Yea. Yea I am, thanks.” She smiles and ushers me in before walking off.

It’s spacious inside. More white walls and stupid paintings. It’s set up buffet style, a food bar in the middle and long tables surrounding the room. There are maybe a dozen people, some sitting alone, a few in small clusters.

I make a plate quickly, some salisbury looking meat and gravy with potatoes, before sitting off in the corner of the room at one of the empty tables. It all feels much too familiar and I contemplate sitting next to someone but rethink it.

It’s my attempt at socialization and subsequent failing that got me in here.

There’s a range of people, some old, some young. I wonder what their stories are. I see a middle-aged woman laugh with the man she’s sitting with and wonder what her deal is. For a second I think if she’s smiling, it can’t be that bad then I remember all the times I went bowling with Julia and James and literally would rather have died but never said anything-

“That was quite an entrance you made,” I hear someone two tables over yell. It’s a boy I passed on the way in. He’s sitting with two girls. They all look my age. The blonde has her head down, hair blocking her face as she scribbles in a notebook and the brunette looks fiercely annoyed at the boy.

“Me?” I reply lamely.

The brunette looks at me like I’m stupid and cuts in. “That was you that took a door to the face, right?” she asks dryly.

“Hey, play nice,” the boy reprimands but he’s smiling. “Do you want to sit with us?” The blonde looks up sharply. She’s wearing glasses and looks exhausted. She gives me a cursory glance then looks to the boy pointedly as the brunette hits his arm, obviously not wanting me to join them.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I respond, wondering how I’ve already put people off.

“Suit yourself,” he says and gives his attention back to the girls as they talk to him in hushed voices. The door opens a while later and Penny sticks his head in.

“It’s 7:30, let’s wrap it up. Recreation or go the fuck to sleep, come on,” he claps, and everyone starts gathering their things, stacking their trays on a cart by the door.

“Twat,” the brunette says as the three of them get up and make their way out, earning a laugh from the boy. I’m the last one to leave as Penny holds open the door.

“Took your sweet ass time, Coldwater,” he remarks, as he holds the door open for me, a broom in his other hand. He moves around me the second I’m out of the way. I watch through the tiny glass window as he starts sweeping the room.

I decide to go back to my room to read before I sleep. I navigate the halls, recreating the route Penny took me to the best of my memory until I arrive back in front of my door, Number 305. I turn the handle, completely forgetting I have a roommate until I’m scared half to death by the sight of a half-naked man in the middle of the room.

“Jesus!” I exclaim. He turns around and it’s the guy from before. “Hey,” I make out, pulling my eyes from his torso to close the door behind me. He grabs a new shirt from the tiny dresser on the only empty wall and pulls it over his head. It looks softer than my sweatshirt but is the same miserable grey.

“Hey,” he says, flopping down on his bed. “Alone at last, huh?” he jokes, sliding back against the headboard on the bed adjacent mine.

“Yea, I guess.” I pick up my book finally and groan. It’s paperback and landed in a way that’s bent the front cover. “Fucking great.”

“Is that one of those kids books? What is it- Fillory or something?”

“Yea, it is,” I grumble. “Wait, you’ve read them?” I ask with a bit too much excitement.

“Not as much as I’m guessing you wish I did. I think I made it to book three when I was like…thirteen?”

“Right.”

“Sorry,” he adds. “I’m sure they still hold up.”

I don’t respond, instead focusing on stacking the books on my bedside table, putting book one on the bottom so maybe the weight of the others will straighten out the bend in the cover. I move to my dresser beside the door and find a stack of three t-shirts and four pairs of pants and underwear neatly folded. I grab a shirt and start to pull my sweatshirt over my head before I feel his eyes on my neck. I swivel slowly and his eyes meet mine.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he says casually, not looking away.

I turn away and switch shirts as quickly as I can, crawling into bed after. I take the hair tie off my wrist and twist my hair up into a knot, reaching for The Wandering Dune, book five.

“So, what are you in for?”

I close the book and glance at him. He's leaned against the headboard, head lazily sideways as he watches me. “I’m just feeling a bit off.”

“Wait, so you checked yourself in?” he asks like he can’t fathom the thought.

“Yes,” I say, feeling self-conscious. “It’s just a 72-hour hold.”

“Hardcore,” he nods. “So, you’re what? Depressed, anxious, into pills, bored…”

“Uh, the first one, I guess. What about you?”

He sits up quickly. “I thought you’d never ask. I killed someone.”

“What?” I choke out, backing against my headboard.

He laughs. “I didn’t touch them if that’s what you’re thinking. I did it with my mind. With magic.” He wiggles his fingers at me teasingly. I breathe again, shoulders sagging.

“That’s funny. Make fun of the fantasy freak. Nice one,” I say, opening my book to block him out.

“Shock value, not the way to go,” he mumbles to himself. "I wasn’t trying to offend you,” he says. I don’t respond, eyes moving over the page but not absorbing anything. “Would you feel better if I said it was true?”

I turn the page as if I’m reading and I hear him sigh. “There’s nothing I can do to make it up to you?” he asks lowly and I can hear the grin in his voice.

“Actually, yea,” I say, closing the book again. “Tell me about The Crew.”

His brows raise. “The Crew?” he runs his tongue along his teeth, thinking, and draws his knees up. “Who’s been talking about The Crew?”

“Penny,” I tell, “the orderly.”

“The dick,” he amends. “Okay, fine, I’ll tell you. The Crew are a bunch of murderers. Absolute lunatics. I heard they used to be on the crisis stabilization floor but got moved down here for good behavior.”

“Good behavior?” I repeat. “They killed people. Who the fuck cares about good behavior?”

He laughs like he can’t help it. “No one had any evidence they did anything. It's a whole thing.”

“So, why are they here then?” I wonder, confused. “Why not let them go?”

“Because all three of them swore they killed the people with magic,” he explains, his eyes watching me closely.

“Magic?” He nods, brown eyes calculating like he’s daring me not to ask more. Like he's drawing it out for dramatic effect. “Who are they?”

“Margo, Alice and Eliot.”

I swallow, catching on. “And so you're...?”

He smirks and sticks out a hand to shake even though he’s too far away. “I’m Eliot.”

“Is this a joke, too?”

He shakes his head. “You scared, roomie?”

“Considering you just told me you're a murderer? A bit,” I admit shakily.

He smiles and stands up, closing the distance to hold out a hand for me to grab. “Wanna meet two more?”

The word spills out of me before I can parse out what it means. “Ok." I take his hand and let him pull me to the door. “Wait,” I stop and he looks back. “Why'd you give yourselves a name?”

“My idea. Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,” he recites with a shrug.

“That’s from Harry Potter,” I say, surprised. They were no Fillory and Further but they were good books in their own right.

“It is. Now that,” he says, “I finished the entire series of. Now, come on, let’s go make you some friends,” he grins.

Chapter Text

“I don’t think your friends like me very much,” I say as Eliot leads the way down the halls. We’re headed the opposite way of the lunchroom and we pass a few patients who quickly move out of Eliot’s way.

“Oh, the lunch thing? No, that’s pretty much Margo all the time, I wouldn’t take it to heart,” he explains as he stops in front of a door at the end of a hall. He knocks twice. “I promise I won’t let her bite,” he smiles as the door swings open.

It’s Margo. She looks at Eliot then me then back to Eliot with a glare but moves aside to let us in regardless. The room is identical to ours, white and essentially empty. Behind her the blonde girl, Alice I guess, sits on her bed, looking curious. When she sees Eliot isn’t alone, she sits up straighter, a confused look on her face.

“Am I allowed to be in here?” I ask. “Is there a rule or-”

“No, you spaz,” Margo starts. “You got yourself into an adult day care. No one gives a fuck what we do so long as we take our meds and keep our hands to ourselves. Now shut up so Eliot can explain why exactly you’re here.” Everyone’s looks to him.

Eliot shrugs and widens his eyes pointedly. She scrunches up her face in confusion. He widens his eyes even more, jerking his head in my direction. She understands something, scoffing.

“Are you serious, Eliot? What are you gonna do, pull him into a storage closet?”

“We’re roommates, actually.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“You could always go Sappho with Alice,” he suggests as Margo readies to yell some more.

“Am I missing something?” I interject. “And…did you…did you guys really kill people?”

Margo hits Eliot’s arm –hard. “You told him?”

“Ow!” Eliot says, rubbing his arm. “He has kind eyes,” he defends. “I thought maybe he could help us.”

“Help you how? And did you really kill people?” I try again.

“How much did he tell you?” Alice speaks up, sliding off the bed to approach me. She’s got half her hair tucked behind her ear and the other half in her face. She sweeps it away to peer into me with her wide blue eyes. She’s pretty, I notice. Actually, they’re all annoyingly gorgeous for three homicidal maniacs.

“Just…just that you killed people, all of you. And you think it was an accident caused by magic.”

“It was caused by magic,” Margo corrects, folding her arms.

“Right,” I say, ready to make a U-turn and leave. “Is this like a group psychosis?”

“If you don’t believe us, you can walk your skinny ass back out the door-”

“Jesus, Bambi, if you were any more welcoming, I think I’d explode,” Eliot chides. “Look,” he turns to me, “I get this sounds batshit but hear me out. We’re magicians, we go to a school called Brakebills. Well, Margo and I do, Alice doesn’t, and we’ve all killed people but we never laid a hand on them. It did happen by magic. With your whole fantasy book love, I thought you’d understand,” he says with an exaggerated fake pout, his eyes making me feel guilty, a loose dark curl falling down his forehead.

“Say I do want to believe you,” I begin. “Can you prove it?”

“Prove it?” Alice asks.

“Do a magic trick.”

The room goes silent. “Here’s the thing,” Eliot explains. “We don’t have powers anymore?”

“You don’t-” I squeeze my eyes shut because I was so ready to believe. Some part of me was so ready. “Can you at least tell me a spell?”

“Yes!” Eliot says eagerly. “That we can do.” He grabs my shoulders, sits me on Margo’s bed and flexes his hands. He does some intricate hand gesture and goes ta-da with his fingers like he’s done something.

“That’s it?” His face falls. “That’s magic?”

“Well, what were you expecting?” Alice asks. “Phoenix tails and deep chants? Are you going to help us or not?”

“How could I possibly help you?”

“We need to get our magic back,” she clarifies. “If we can get it, we can break out of here.”

“Why not just make a run for it?”

Margo rolls her eyes. “Novel idea, we never thought of that, thanks. We’ve tried, numbnuts, there’s a warding keeping us in. We need the counter-cast to break it.”

“A warding? Like a barrier?”

“Exactly,” Eliot says. “Someone is Dobby-ing us on Platform Nine and Three Quarters.”

“Is that Harry Potter?” Alice scoffs.

“Oh, like you didn’t read the books-”

“They’re overrated. Not to mention full of-”

“Don’t you dare say plot holes-”

I thought she was gonna say shit,” Margo cuts in.

“You can both-”

“Hey, guys,” I interrupt. They look at me like they forgot I was in the room. “I’m okay with maybe believing you’re not crazy but I don’t think I can help you. I’m sorry, Eliot,” I say and he nods.

“Right, understandable. Come on, I’ll walk you to back to our room.”

“Thanks. Look,” I say to the girls. “I hope you find your Obi-Wan, I just don’t think it’s me.”

“Can we stop with the nerd references, dear God,” Margo groans. “See you around the water cooler.” She fans a hand at me and slides back on her bed, opening a magazine. Alice says nothing but retreats back to her bed.

Eliot doesn’t say anything on our walk back, I just trail behind him feeling guilty. But I didn’t check into this place to get sucked into more insanity, I came to escape my own. He gets under his covers with a mumbled goodnight once we get back to the room and clicks off the lights. I take the bottle of pills they gave me from my pocket and pop two dry.

It’s only 9 so I read and don’t let myself feel bad about reaching for Fillory even though it’s part of the reason I came here. The moon gives me enough light as it filters in through the window by my bed to make it through a nice chunk of The Wandering Dune before my eyes start feeling heavy.

I lay awake for a bit, staring at the ceiling. Eliot is sleeping quietly, I can’t hear any crickets outside or footsteps in the hallway. There’s light coming under the door from the hall but no sound anywhere.

I wonder what Julia is doing. I walked here right after having dinner with her and James. It’s not their fault. I’d been feeling like shit for a long time. It’s kind of hard to remember a time I wasn’t feeling like shit.

The whole concept of being unique is so celebrated but no one ever talks about how shitty it actually is to not be able to relate to another person. Fuck being ‘unique’. It really just means no one gets you and when you’re not the right kind of unique, the cool kind that makes people want to figure you out, you may as well go fuck yourself.

Eliot turns over in his sleep and my eyes track the movement. I remember a moment I didn’t feel like shit. When he picked me. Like I was someone special who stood out to him. Margo and Alice didn’t want me to sit with them, didn’t want me in their friend group but Eliot does. Did.

Figures that the only person willing to talk to me is insane. I think back on the ‘spell’ he did. He brought his hand to his chest, then turned it out, straightened his fingers and brought two up and back like some sort of claw.

It did look kind of cool though. Like something you’d read in a Fillory book.

I look over at Eliot to make sure he’s still sleeping then try to mimic what he did. Wait, was it out then curl the fingers or out, in, out then curl-

“Jesus fuck!” I yell, a panic rising. In the center of my hand is a tiny puff of yellow light and from my fingers, shots of static are crackling like little bolts of lightning. “Fuck me,” I whisper as I stare, amazed.

“Eliot,” I call out. “Eliot!” I throw a pillow at him with my other hand, afraid to move. He jerks awake.

“What the fu-” he stops when he spots me. His jaw drops. “What the fuck,” he finishes. He meets my eyes. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Quentin,” I say sheepishly.

“Quentin,” he repeats, like he’s committing the taste of the word to memory. “Well, will you help us now, Quentin?”

I close my fist and the light disappears. I miss it instantly. I want- I need to learn more. My whole life I’ve buried my head in things people told me were a waste of time. Creatures and myths and magic. And now I’ve just held a ball of fucking static in my hand.

“Hell yes,” I answer to Eliot’s wide smile.

Chapter Text

I barely get any sleep.

I lose count of how many times I repeat the trick somewhere around 20.

The weight that was sitting on my chest is lighter but hasn’t forgotten the fact that I’m in a mental hospital and currently my only friend is an admitted murderer.

Still, I keep reminding myself, I’m a fucking magician.

“Morning,” Eliot yawns with a stretch as he sits up in bed. “Did you even sleep?”

“Some,” I say.

“Ready to blow some minds today? Margo and Alice are going to lose their shit, he sing-songs.”

I don’t get to respond before three bangs hit the door. A few seconds pass and the same three hits go again on another door.

“What was that?” I ask.

“Penny,” he explains, annoyed. “It’s shower time.”

“Is he the only orderly?” I ask as I watch him pull a towel and fresh outfit from his dresser. He tosses me a towel and shuts the drawer.

“There’s two on this floor. Him and this girl, Kady. She barely shows up though.”

He seems so used to the flow of things. “How long have you been here?”

He walks to the door and opens it, pausing to look back at me. “Seven months. Now, are you coming? There’s only 3 shower stalls that don’t go cold two minutes in.”

-e-

After we shower, Eliot goes off to find Margo and Alice in the lunchroom. He ushers them into the room a few minutes later and presents me to them.

“Margo, Alice, meet Quentin.”

Margo looks at him blankly. “We met Shaggy yesterday, I was just as unimpressed then.”

“Shut up,” Eliot says quickly. “Show them, Q.”

Q. I flex my fingers like Eliot did and then do the trick that’s, at this point, committed to memory. When the static appears between my fingers, Margo and Alice openly gape. Margo flops down beside me on the bed and smiles at me for the first time. She grabs my face and kisses me hard once.

“You know I was joking right?” she coos. “I love Harry Potter.”

“How can you have magic?” Alice asks, gripping my wrist like she’s ready to yank my hand off my body.

“That’s what we don’t know,” Eliot says and he hands me the muffin he’s been holding. “Breakfast.”

“You didn’t know you were a magician?” Alice asks and I actually have to pull my hand away, closing my fist so the spark disappears.

“No. If- if I knew magic was real, I would never have come here,” I say honestly. If I’d had any validation at all, I amend, I wouldn’t have come here. “How do you know?” I ask her. “You don’t go to school with them, Eliot said.”

“My brother went to Brakebills and my parents…I’ve sort of always known,” she explains vacantly, her mind working hard. “I was going to go to Brakebills, too. I just missed the exam being locked away.”

“Exams…wait!” Eliot says suddenly. “Margo, do you remember the name of the kid I was supposed to meet at the front gate at the start of term? The one Dean Fogg told me to look out for?” He snaps his fingers then runs over to his dresser and starts tossing things out, looking for something. He yanks out a black vest and starts digging in its pockets.

“I don’t know. Like Wind…chester or Earth,” Margo rambles, guessing. “Something elemental.”

“Water! Coldwater!” Eliot yells, holding up a thin card with my name on it. “Quentin fucking Coldwater.”

“Well, fuck me,” Margo breathes.

“What she said,” I say wide-eyed. “What does this mean?”

“It means we were written in the fucking stars!” Eliot exclaims. “All of this. You’re our lord and savior, Quentin Coldwater,” he beams.

“Amen,” Margo agrees, smiling.

“So, you’ll help us?” Alice cuts in, chewing on her lip impatiently.

“Yes,” I nod emphatically. “Yes, I’ll help you get your magic back.” She exhales for the first time since I’ve met her.

“I’ll go get my notes,” she says simply and then scutters out the door.

“Alice…She’s uh…” I search for the right word.

“High-strung? Intense? Annoyingly straight focused?” Margo offers. I nod. “Try rooming with her.”

“She saved our ass though,” Eliot says quietly and he and Margo share a look as she nods in agreement. I don’t get to ask for more information before Alice comes back in, a thick notebook in her hand.

“This is everything I have on our situation and how we could get out.” She kneels on the floor and we all move to sit around her as she splays out pages of hastily written notes.

“Hospital blueprints, activity logs, spells —what is this, a summoning ritual?” Eliot asks, holding up a sheet.

“Damn, Alice,” Margo says, her face somewhere between impressed and freaked out.

Alice snatches the sheet from Eliot’s hand. “Give that back, there’s an order.”

“Who’s Suther?” I ask, turning my head to read her upside-down writing.

“It’s 'soo-ther,' like soothsayer,” Eliot corrects.

“Sooth. Er,” I repeat.

“Like an ‘ooh’ sound, yeah.”

“Yes, like ‘somebody sh-ooh-t me so I don’t have to listen to this conversation’,” Margo deadpans, giving us a look. “Suther’s the guy who threw us in here.”

“Yes, I think he’s the reason our powers are gone,” Alice tells me. “He was powerful. Powerful enough to zap us from Brakebills to the front door of this place. When we got here, our magic was gone. We’ve tried to get people to go out and bring back the things we need but they think we’re insane.”

“That’s where you come in,” Eliot begins. “I was just hoping you’d be willing to go out and fetch a book or something but now it turns out you can do so much more. You can do the castings for us. You can undo whatever Suther did to our powers.”

For a second, I feel used and the dark clouds rear their heads again. He needed something from me, that’s why he’d been so welcoming and the second he has what he needs, there’s a good chance he’ll pretend I never existed. For the briefest of moments, I contemplate telling them to go fuck themselves, but then I think of Jane Chatwin and how she would finish the quest because it was the right thing to do.

“What do you need me to do?” I ask.

“There are three things we need to do,” Alice starts, pointing to a page in her notes. “A revelation spell, it’ll reveal what’s keeping us from using our magic. Could be a hex or curse that needs to be countered. Then we need to find out how to break whatever that magic is so we can get our magic back and lastly, we need to break the wards.”

“That’s gonna be the shit part,” Margo mumbles.

“Why?” I wonder.

“Wards take a shit ton of power. Chances are when Suther or whoever put them up, he used a lot more juice than any of us have.”

“We’ll hold hands and kumbaya then. Together,” Eliot says, nudging her shoulder. She gives a genuine smile to him and I watch a moment pass between their eyes.

“Where am I gonna get all these spells from?” I question, pulling my eyes away.

“Yea…” Margo drags. “That’s the second shit part.”

“You can’t get into Brakebills. Even I had to use an alumni key to get past the warding,” Alice explains. “You’ll need to find hedge witches.”

Hedge witches?”

“Magical rejects. They either didn’t get in or were kicked out. They can be…unpredictable.”

“Think Bellatrix LeStrange,” Eliot cuts in.

“Are you gonna translate everything we say into nerd terms for him?” Margo asks. “The boy doesn’t have brain damage. He can retain new information.” It was getting old.

“I thought it’d be helpful. Besides, I like Harry Potter,” he mumbled.

“Shove a broomstick up your ass and keep it to yourself. I’m getting a headache.”

“You literally watched all the movies with me and said you lik-”

“There’s a chance they’re dangerous,” Alice goes on. “In fact, it’s almost guaranteed. You’ll need to be careful.” I swallow hard but nod regardless. “I’ve made a list of all the deception magic I remember. Everything you need to be in and out of their place quickly and without too much notice.”

“Wait, so I’ll be stealing from these almost guaranteed dangerous hedge witches…all by myself?” I clarify. They all nod. “Just me…against a coven? Do they coven? Are there covens?” More nods.

“No more than a dozen people though. They’re sparse throughout the city.”

“Me against no more than a dozen well-versed, bitter magicians, sounds great. Sounds fine.” This is a shit idea. I’m a fucking idiot.

“We wouldn’t ask you if we weren’t severely fucked,” Eliot says, seeing the panic on my face. “I know this is big shit and you probably just wanna learn more tiny static tricks but we’ve been here seven months,” he levels with me. “I consider myself and Bambi to be two very resourceful people and Alice is a scary, overachieving mega-genius and it’s still been seven months. We need you.”

“He’s right,” Margo says earnestly. “I can’t eat another fucking beef patty and Doc London says if I take one more swing at Penny, she’s gonna send me back upstairs and I really wanna hit him, Q. Like really.”

“I don’t have any big speeches to give,” Alice joins in. “I just…I just really need my magic back. It’s…important to me. So, I guess please.” She turns those piercing blue eyes on me again. “Please promise me. Us,” she amends, “that you’re in.” She blinks, looking down then back at me fiercely. “Or at least tell us now if you’re out.”

It’s not even day two of a choice-based stay in a mental hospital for me and if it weren’t for these three and all the bullshit and discovery they provided, I’d likely be climbing the walls in boredom and suffocating in my mind. Penny was right, this place is like a sad retreat. It’s quiet, sterile, empty. I don’t know what I was looking for checking in here but I know I’m not going to find it.

It’s a relief that it isn’t as bad as I know it could be and that the worst here is the middle-aged man in the showers this morning who had a panic attack –not that those aren’t tough shit, but I can’t imagine the monotony of this place everyday for seven months. Especially when it was never where you were meant to be in the first place. They’re stronger than I am for not having driven themselves insane.

My answer is a culmination of the concrete fact that it is the right thing to do and a little bit of that self-sacrificial masochistic energy still in me. It’s selfish, maybe, but I figure if I can just funnel some of my energy into something that actually without a doubt fucking matters then maybe I can come out of this convinced that I’m not useless.

Maybe I’ll lose these fair-weather friends I’ve gained and maybe Julia will still see me as a waste of space, but I’ll have something soft to fall back on on the days I just want to fucking give up. I did something. I saved someone. And it wasn’t in spite of who I was, but because of it.

“I promise you I’m in,” I say right into Alice’s eyes. I look at Eliot and Margo with the same dedication. “I promise I will get you out of here.”

Chapter Text

“These castings should help you get pass the hedge witches. If you do them correctly, they’ll never know you were there,” Alice explains, sliding sheets of paper my way, hand gestures sketched out step-by-step. “Try this one.” She points to a sheet of paper with ‘Caecus’ written at the top. “And don’t curl your thumb, it’ll make you…” she pauses, “…just don’t do it.”

“That’s not ominous or anything. Ok.” I pop my knuckles and lean over the page, starting to follow the steps.

“Your thumb!” Alice cautions as I move through the steps slowly. Margo and Eliot slide away from me.

“I’m too pretty to lose an eye,” Margo shrugs when I look at them.

“And I’m not?”

“He’s got a point,” Eliot says.

“Just don’t bend your thumb!” Alice interjects. “You were doing well. Don’t think so hard. If you’re a magician, some of it is instinct.”

“Okay.” I nod, taking a breath before I start from the top, moving faster. When I finish, I look up, confused. “Nothing happened.”

“Look down,” Alice says, and she’s actually got a smile on her face. It’s small but so rare it feels brilliant. I look down like she says and see nothing but the hard wood of the floor where my feet should be.

“Holy shit.”

“You’re invisible,” Alice celebrates. “Do it backward now, you’ll reappear.”

I do as she says and watch my feet slowly slink back into existence. Eliot opens his mouth to speak but I beat him to it. “Yes, like the Invisibility Cloak.” He laughs and Margo joins in, the mood of the room suddenly much lighter.

“Try another one,” Alice says excitedly and hands more pages to me. She guides me through a handful of other small castings, correcting my fingers along the way. We stay there on the floor all through lunch and into the evening, perfecting my casting and doing one-offs just for the hell of it, celebrating, and it’s probably a bad idea but I let myself enjoy it.

“I’m so hard for you right now, Coldwater,” Margo says as everyone stands up and stretches finally. I’ve successful done the Caecus spell forward and backward from memory. “You’re really gonna do it! You’re gonna get us out of here!”

“I’m a good talent scout,” Eliot says, throwing an arm over my shoulder with a smug smile.

“Yea,” Margo rolls her eyes. “That’s why you picked him.”

“Fuck off. I’m hungry. We finished just in time for your favorite, beef patties.” He holds out a hand to her and she grabs it with a scowl as they walk out hand in hand.

“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Alice asks, hanging back.

“Yea. Yea, of course.” I sit on my bed, taking note of how fidgety she seems as she closes the door and comes to sit beside me.

“I just wanted to say thank you. I don’t think I have yet.”

“No one has. It’s fine,” I shrug, tucking my hair back.

“Well, I’m sure they’re thankful, too,” she assures. “And I know I can be a bit…intense but, it means a lot…that you’re willing to do all this.”

“I’d have to be a pretty big dick to leave you guys in here,” I say, dismissing her praise. “Truth is, this is as big a help to me as it is to you guys.”

She chews on her lip and gives me the ‘Pity Roadkill’ look then wipes it away. “I get it. Kinda,” she says looking at her lap. “The whole reason I’m in this mess is-” she stops and looks back at me. “Did Eliot tell you?” I shake my head. “Then I won’t,” she backpedals, shaking off the thought. She moves to get up but I stop her with a hand on her wrist.

“Will you at least tell me why magic is so important?”

She looks down at my hand and swallows thickly. “My brother.” She closes her eyes, fighting something and then opens them, her words rushing out. “He’s dead.”

“Oh.” I let her go, feeling like an ass. “I’m sorry.”

“I was in the Brakebills library. I stole an alumni key, I was just…I needed to find a spell, something that could maybe…”

Her words trail off, her gaze far away and full of longing. “You want to bring him back?” I finish. She nods and I don’t think I’ll ever be over the way her eyes bore into me. “Is that something that happens often in magic?”

“No,” she explains. “That’s why I was at Brakebills. It’s supposed to be the home of all the knowledge. Even if I could find an inkling, a hint that it’s possible…But there was nothing. And I just got so angry,” she stops, breaths coming quickly. So angry she killed someone…

“I don’t want your pity,” she says suddenly, an edge to her voice and bite to her eyes.

“I wasn’t going to give it,” I defend nervously.

“Oh.”

“I mean, I-I would if you wanted,” I stutter.

“No. I- Sorry.” The moment hangs between us, silence growing awkward.

“Are you hungry? We should eat,” I suggest.

“Quentin? One more thing,” she says, standing with me. She pulls a small folded square of paper out of her pocket and presses it into my hand. “Just in case. Don’t do it here. But memorize it. Promise me.”

I nod blankly. “I promise.”

“Good,” she blinks, nodding. “Good.” She turns and walks out without another word.

-e-

“Not the quickest quickie I’ve ever seen,” Eliot teases as Alice and I make our way over to the table where he and Margo sit. “Thought you’d never make it here,” he says while we put our trays down.

“I just had a few last-minute corrections about Quentin’s castings,” Alice lies, unfolding a napkin onto her lap. Her eyes cut my way, daring me to call her out.

“Yea,” I agree, uncapping my water. “Psh, I would never,” I ramble. Alice looks my way offendedly. I panic. “I mean I would, I would absolutely. I just- we didn’t,” I choke and I should stop talking but I don’t. I look to Margo and Eliot. “I mean, you’re all very…I would- all of you-” I start chugging my water to shut myself up.

“We could push the beds together, have a foursome,” Margo suggests.

“I have always wondered if Alice goes glasses on or off during,” Eliot pipes up.

“Good question. Alice are you near or far-sighted, cause you’ll be wanting to see all this clearly,” Margo says, gesturing between herself and Eliot.

“I’m not hungry,” Alice says suddenly, leaving her half empty tray behind. Margo watches her go then turns to me, taking a bite from Alice’s abandoned apple.

“She’s really gonna throw the tits-to-dick ratio off but oh well. Threesome?”

-e-
“It makes sense that you and Alice would bond,” Eliot says as we get ready for bed a while later. I opt to sleep shirtless like I would at home, feeling more comfortable with him now. “You’ve both got the buttoned-up thing going for you.” I frown. Buttoned up?

“You should go for it,” he continues. I crawl into bed, leaning against the headboard. “Alice, I mean,” he clarifies. “Unless you have a girl waiting on you back home,” he finishes, putting on a southern accent.

“I don’t.”

“Boy?”

“No. Neither,” I say. Just Julia who would never give me the time of day. Just Julia who I’m almost positive is aware I’ve been up her ass since we were kids. “What about you? Why’s no one come looking for you and Margo?”

“Because we’re all the family each other has or needs,” he says, all traces of humor gone from his face.

“I’m sorry. Alice told me about her brother, too-”

“My family’s not dead, they’re just dicks,” Eliot clarifies. “There are certain things I am that my father wishes I weren’t,” he says simply.

“Oh,” I say. “That’s bullshit.”

He smiles. “It is bullshit.”

“So, magic— Brakebills must be nice. Somewhere you can go. Call home.” I feel like a child trying to get an adult to tell me about Disneyland. A magical place where feeling like shit is a struggle to achieve.

“It was some days,” he agrees. “Parties, alcohol, Margo…but the whole world is full of bullshit, Q. Magic doesn’t fix that.”

I try to keep the disappointment off my face but I’m sure he catches it. “You miss it?” I ask to break the hard eye contact. “Brakebills?”

“Of course,” he says, eyes far off. “But I’m not sure I can ever go back.”

“Why not?”

He moves to the edge of his bed, rubbing his hands over his face. “I need a cigarette,” he mumbles.

“Is that where you– Is that where…everything happened?” Alice mentioned being in the library before she– before things went wrong. It’s hard to put the word ‘kill’ in the sentence with any of them now. It doesn’t fit.

He inhales deeply. “Yes. Where I killed someone,” he says, swallowing hard like it left a bad taste in his mouth. “It’s all my fault, you know. Did Alice tell you?” I shake my head. He focuses his eyes on a spot on the floor. “We were at this party, Margo and me. We’d been drinking and it was late. Campus was basically deserted, it was summer,” he recounts like he’s piecing together a puzzle he hasn’t touched in a while.

“Brakebills has this…giant fountain in the center of campus, this intricate, deep, stone type thing. And Margo and I are walking along, talking shit and laughing and luck,” he laughs bitterly. “Luck placed Logan Kinear in front of me. The one piece of home I could never shake.” His face grows dark, eyes moving quickly as he replays memories in his head.

“My life was all around shit before Brakebills and Logan was- He beat me up,” he runs his tongue over his teeth. “And then he showed up at Brakebills, not only a magician but a good one and so even this little slice of bliss became a kick in the ass from the universe and I was so angry,” he starts up, fists gripping his sheets. “Like seeing him always put this black pit in my stomach. So, when I saw him that night laughing with his buddies by the fountain…I barely thought the thought…” He shoves a hand through his hair, eyes glassy. “He seized up and fell in and didn’t thrash once. It’s like I paralyzed him and he just…never moved again.”

I watch him struggle with something, blinking to push back feelings he doesn’t want me to see. I move closer to the headboard like pressing myself to the wall will make him forget I’m here and give him back whatever comfort my presence takes away in these moments.

“His buddies didn’t move. No one did. We were all frozen in panic. If I hadn’t stopped to stare I don’t think anyone would have known it was me. But we were the only people there and so one of them started towards us. This big, thick guy coming at us. And his hands…he was casting at me and I didn’t block him. The fountain water had gone red and I couldn’t see past it.

“I was on my knees, my nose started bleeding, I’m not sure from what and I hear Margo say something. To this day I don’t know what it was but she steps in front of me and she casts at this guy. I could barely see what she did but she was so focused on me, I don’t think even she knows. She throws it at him and I just hear her go, ‘no’ and it’s…so quiet I can barely hear it. But the guy hits the ground and I know she’s made some mistake with the spell…

“She grabs my arm and drags me to my feet and I look down and her hands are shaking and she’s saying, ‘Do something, what do we do’ over and over and I look and the last guy is gearing up for this spell, neco. Battle magic. Old things no one does because of how fucked they are. Shit you only see in ancient textbooks. Margo doesn’t see it coming, I do but I can’t move- I still can’t fucking move,” he grits out. “I don’t know where she comes from but then Alice is there. She’s got this look on her face like she could kill so- She looks livid. And right before he casts, the last second before, she hurls this spell and lets out this scream and…I swear I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t hear it myself but you could hear the sound of his…neck snapping from thirty feet away.”

He doesn’t speak for a long time and I hold my breath til it hurts, my mind a mess of thoughts and conjured up images that I know pale in comparison to what they all had to see. I feel the conflict of Eliot killing his childhood tormentor, how broken he must feel but how some part of him must be happy and how that must tear him apart. And I barely know her but the thought of the Margo I know being reduced to the one in Eliot’s story makes me sick to my stomach. Her and Eliot’s relationship makes so much more sense now. The way they spar with each other, their eyes full of fondness all the while, the way they stay as close as possible, holding hands and whispering together. I’ve known them for a miniscule amount of time but I’m confident I’ve never seen a fiercer love.

And Alice.

“She didn’t know it would happen,” Eliot starts up again as if he hears my thoughts. He sits up straighter, clearing his throat. “I saw her hands. It was a knockback cast.”

“Then why did-”

“Magic doesn’t come from talent, Quentin. It comes from pain. And I think Alice had a lot of it that night. And when you have that much energy…” he searches for a way to finish, further justification, not finding anything. “She saved our lives,” he says defensively, like it’s a warning against any criticism I might think about voicing against her. “And I’m never gonna make her feel bad about what she did – her or Margo – especially considering it was my mess in the first place.”

I don’t speak, my brain unable to gloss over the picture Eliot painted of a raged Alice casting a spell that ended with a neck breaking so sharply, the sound carried over several feet.

“Where does Suther come in?” I ask him to change focus.

He pushes his hair back again with a long exhale. “We don’t know. He appeared out of nowhere. The second the last guy fell, he was there and there was this swishing sound and suddenly we were here. He must have worked some spell, because no one asked any questions. There was no paper work or statements, London just took us like we belonged. Sedated us, threw us in rooms and Suther left,” he explains. “Spent four months on crisis stabilization taking unnecessary medicines and being monitored around the clock, rooming with people who…” he trails off. “I’m proud of us,” he smiles sadly. “For staying as us as we have, because fuck if we didn’t have so many opportunities to lose ourselves.”

Chapter Text

I’m up before Eliot the next morning. The sun is sitting high in the sky but Penny hasn’t come knocking so it must be before ten. I sit on the edge of my bed for I don’t know how long processing Eliot’s story again. It played on loop behind my eyelids as I tried to sleep last night and when I finally did, it was a restless in and out unconsciousness filled with images of the three of them casting spells and…ending lives.

It scares the shit out of me.

There was comfort in the belief that magic wasn’t real.

When magic was a thing that existed only in the fictional world, it was whatever I wanted it to be. It was an instrument for good. It was a plot device. It was only life or death for fictitious people in fictitious stories. It wasn’t life or death for real people. It wasn’t some blackened, temperamental thing causing devastation because a few emotional magicians thought too hard.

I close my eyes to calm myself but Alice and Eliot and Margo are all there still. I breathe.

What the fuck am I supposed to do?

What the fuck kind of tip-toeing do I have to do to avoid killing someone? If I could turn my brain off, I wouldn’t be here. How long before I slip up and spill over and-

I grab the pill bottle from the bedside table drawer and pop two. Eliot is still asleep when I step out into the hallway, closing the door behind me as gently as possible. I exhale loudly into the empty hall and still feel like I'm suffocating.

“Hey. You okay?” I hear and a hand touches my back. “Hey, can you stand?” they ask and it’s then I realize I’m hunched over, my breaths coming out harshly and heartbeat out of control. “Sit. Come on.” I’m ushered back to the wall where I slide down to the floor and try and force the world to stop spinning. “Breathe, ok?”

I nod because I don’t think my mouth is working. “Slow, slow, watch me.” I look up for the first time into unfamiliar green eyes. She pushes wild, dark curls from her face and places a hand on my shoulder, coaching my breathing. “In…out...in...out, good. Better?”

“Tha- thank you,” I make out, looking at the name tag pinned to her scrubs. “Kady.”

“It’s my job,” she dismisses. “You want water?”

I shake my head. “I’m ok.”

My face must say something different because she stands up. “I’m gonna get you water.”

“He’s fine,” someone says and we both turn to watch Penny approach. He hits a door at the end of the hall three times hard, working his way over.

“He’s not fine. He was having an anxiety attack,” Kady explains, gesturing to me like I’m not there.

“His whole life is an anxiety attack,” he dismisses as he hits on mine and Eliot’s door, the sound making me jump. “We have twenty minutes before London is due to show up and chew you out,” he says, approaching her. “Are you going to tell me where the hell you’ve been the past four days?” he asks, his voice soft as he looks her over like he’s checking for damages. He moves her hair from her face and she bats his hand away.

“I was just…busy,” she explains, looking everywhere but his eyes.

Busy?” he laughs. “You can lie better than that.”

“Penny-” she huffs then looks to me. “Are you going to be okay?” she asks.

“I’m sure Coldwater can remember how to breathe,” Penny starts.

Penny,” she repeats.

“I’m fine,” I say finally. The door opens and Eliot steps out, taking in the sight of Penny and Kady standing over me.

“Did I just walk into some playground bullying?”

Kady cuts Eliot a look, glances at me one more time then grabs Penny’s hand and drags him down the hall and out of sight.

“Are you good?” Eliot asks once they’re gone.

“Yea,” I respond getting up, masking my dizziness by moving slowly. “Just felt a little unsteady.”

“You want to head to breakfast? Get some food?”

“No,” I say a bit too quickly. He jumps and his brows furrow, eyes narrowing. Kind of terrified of you, kind of need to be anywhere else but near you. “I think I’m going to take a walk. Alone. Take a walk alone…to calm down.”

“Right,” he says, his voice heavy with questions. “Well, we’ll be in the lunchroom if you-”

“Absolutely,” I agree, starting to walk away. “Got it. Maybe. Bye.”

-e-

I make a loop of the floor, not really sure where I’m going, but checking around corners to ensure I don’t see any of the three people I’m avoiding. I eventually find the recreation room where a woman is putting together a puzzle. She looks up at me in the doorway and does a double take as she recognizes me. It’s the same woman who hit me with the door before. She waves me over with a smile.

“How’s your nose?” she asks, frowning in a way that makes the lines of her face stand out. She looks older, her auburn hair only just barely starting to get strands of grey and I hear a hint of an English accent I hadn’t noticed before in her voice.

I laugh lightly. “It’s good. Thanks.”

“Do you want to sit?” She offers the seat across the tiny wood table from her. The room is wide and empty save for her at her spot along the left wall. A piano sits front and center and a few other tables with stacks of board games atop them are along the walls, a stack of chairs beside each. “I don’t bite,” she says as she watches me weigh the option. I sit. The puzzle’s half-done, a bowl of fruit and part of a woman’s face. “It’s weird here, huh?”

“Hmm?”

“This place, it’s…quiet. Not what you were expecting, I bet.”

“I’m not really sure what I was expecting,” I admit. “I came here for help, thought I was making the right choice but...I don’t know,” I say honestly. “I guess I thought I was coming here to think and forgot I do that too much already.”

“Ah, that’s a familiar feeling. It’s astonishing how much trouble thinking too much can get you into. Best to follow instinct, I’d say.”

“Instinct?”

“Yes,” she says distractedly as she sifts through puzzle pieces. “Stay on the path and all that.” She looks up at me finally. “You’ve already strayed enough.”

The intensity in her gaze makes me squirm. “Who are- I mean, what’s your name?”

She reaches across the table for a piece, sliding it into place. “Eliza. Just another inadequate human,” she smiles.

“Right,” I say, sliding off the chair. “I should get going. Thank you for the…talk.”

“Sure thing,” she nods. “Quentin?” she calls out when I’ve made it to the door. I turn. “It helps to not assume you’re looking for something you don’t already have,” she says simply, letting the words hang there for a beat before resuming her puzzle.

I walk off numbly, her words echoing in my mind. It’d make sense for me to disregard a few unsolicited, vague sentences but her words…I feel...compelled to care.

I put my hands in my pockets as I go, feeling something coarse in one of them and pulling it out. It’s Alice’s note. In yesterday’s excitement and Eliot’s story, I completely forgot about it. I unfold it, revealing Alice’s handwriting bit by bit until I see a page ripped out of her notebook, covered in more sketches of casting directions. At the top of the page, she’s written two words that make my steps halt.

Battle magic.

I hear Eliot’s voice in my head again.

‘Battle magic. Old things no one does because of how fucked they are.’

My feet start moving again before I can register it. I’m so angry, feeling so…disturbed that I can’t even think straight. I beeline for the lunchroom, practically running. My chest feels tight and I feel my fists clench, crumpling the paper in my palm. The images of the three of them casting and killing is back and I fight against the panic that wants to rise again.

I spot them instantly in the lunchroom, sat at the same table on the right wall. Eliot and Margo are laughing about something as Alice is hunched over her notebook, scribbling frantically.

Eliot spots me first. “Hey, it’s Quent-”

I slam the paper down on the table in front of Alice. “Is this a joke? Why would you give this to me?” I ask her, trying to keep my voice down as people at other tables glance my way.

Alice draws her brows together, looking confused and reaches for the paper, straightening it out to read. She glances at Eliot and Margo and keeps her voice low. “It’s for protection. The hedge witches-”

“Protection?” I repeat. “I got the run down on battle magic last night. The neco? If-if this is some kind of initiation-”

“I was trying to help you,” she says firmly, standing up from the table, her face dangerous.

“Like you helped the guy you killed?” I know it was too far. I felt that it was too far the second it came out of my mouth. Eliot and Margo’s faces tell me it’s too far, twin glares boring into me. Alice’s flinch tells me it’s too far. The necks of people at surrounding tables craned my way, eyes glancing over in curiosity and nervousness, like they just remembered that they were supposed to be scared of the three people beside me tell me it was also too loud.

“Fuck,” I mumble. I grab Alice’s wrist and lead her out into the hall, pulling her into a corner.

“I fired off a knockback spell,” she says softly, more to herself than me. “I didn’t…”

Her words don’t do much to quell my fear of her. Both she and Eliot sound less like they’re retelling what actually happened and more like they’re retelling what they hope did.

“Are you sure?” I ask and she looks up at me, eyes wide and glassy. She bows her head suddenly, turning the paper my way.

“This is a knockback spell. Ask Eliot, ask Margo. If the hedges catch you or come at you, you can use this,” she points to the sketches, pausing to clear her throat. “This one will temporarily bind them in place. If they’re chasing you, it will give you more time. These are all I could remember.”

“Alice-”

“You don’t have to use them,” she swallows. “I wasn’t trying to manipulate you. This isn’t an initiation, it’s protection,” she says again, her voice fuller like she’s decided she’s done letting me have the upper hand. “Battle magic isn’t allowed at Brakebills but it’s not just for killing. I was trying to look out for you. The hedge witches will kill you if they want to.”

I sigh, pushing a hand through my hair. “I just...Eliot told me what happened and it’s kind of fucked with my head-”

“You’re scared of me?” she asks and that doe-eyed, nervous look is back.

“Yes,” I admit. “I’m scared of you, I’m scared of me. This isn’t what I thought magic would be like. I thought it’d be...whimsical and-and fun and instead it’s-”

“Just as fucked as real life?” she finishes. “Magic causes more problems than it fixes, Quentin.”

“Well, then what’s the point?” I cut in, throwing my hands up. “My whole life…I’ve had all these expectations…I…what’s the point?” I finish defeatedly. She grabs my hand so I look at her.

“I’m not saying that it can’t be beautiful and useful. I’m just saying…It’s never going to live up to your expectations and it’s never going to solve all your problems,” she says and I feel my stomach drop. “And it’s not a substitute for living.”

A moment passes between our eyes and I see so much of myself in her that I want to look away. It’s like she’s sharing with me the same disappointment in magic she’s felt. So much stupid optimism squashed by unavoidable harsh realities. I start wondering how much and how long she’s been looking for a way to save her brother and how many times she’s come to terms with the idea it’s impossible only to start up the next day with a new determination.

Magic promises everything and nothing, her eyes say to me. Gives you an inch when you need a mile. And saddles you with hope when you need finality.

“Coldwater!” someone yells and Alice and I snatch our eyes away from each other to follow the noise. It’s Penny. “Surprisingly,” he starts. “You have a visitor.”

Chapter Text

Penny leads the way to the visiting room, through locked doors and elevators, to the bottom floor where windows are less of a rarity and light filters in freely and in abundance. It almost hurts my eyes to enter the wide, bright room full of armchairs and couches one of which has Julia sitting on it.

I have to force myself to not make a U-turn when I spot her. She’s the last person I wanted to see me in here. I glance around at the clusters of other people visiting and see the miserable grey scrubs, realizing I’m in the same ones, looking just as suffocated and sad in front of her. She stands and offers a small smile when her eyes land on me. She looks tired, like she didn’t get enough sleep and threw on the first thing she saw. It’s not like her.

“Hey, Q,” she says and her voice is much too soft. Like she’s talking to a frightened stray. I step into the hug she’s offering and close my eyes in the familiarity of her. Julia pulls back but doesn’t let go. She tucks my hair behind my ear in that same soft way she always does with James; in that way that always keeps me hanging on to the maybe of us.

I step back from her touch, some of those shit feelings that lead me here creeping back up. “What are you doing here?”

She looks a bit taken aback by my tone, sitting back down on the couch and grabbing my wrist to join her. “Your dad called me,” she explains quietly. “You’re still on his insurance, he knows you checked in.”

Fuck,” I whisper.

“He asked me what was happening and I said you just needed a break and you were okay,” she goes on. “Did I lie, Q? Are you going to be okay? Is it-” she pauses, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “Is it bad again?”

I close my eyes, squeezing them shut against the images her words trigger. “I’m fine,” I grit out.

“Q-”

“I said I’m fine!” I repeat. She jumps a bit.

“Right. You seem fine,” she says sarcastically, voice losing that saccharine touch, zero patience in her tone. “What the fuck is happening, Q?”

“I just- I needed a break, you were right. I just needed to get away.”

“Away from what? You were fine at dinner.”

“Where’s James?” I ask. They were usually a package deal. Like, say, for instance, when you invite Julia out for dinner, she usually brings him along. At least in my experience.

“James,” she starts, avoiding my eyes, a weird look crossing her face. “He couldn’t- We’re not- He left,” she murmurs, still not looking at me.

“Jesus. It’s been two days,” I say.

“Yea, well, you’d be surprised how quickly shit can hit the fan,” she says stiffly.

“Are you okay?” I ask, taking in the deep bags under her eyes, wayward strands sticking out of her ponytail and fidgety way she’s sitting, wringing her hands.

“I am,” she says quickly and I believe her. “I’m actually great.” She smiles sourly and grabs my hand. “Except my best friend’s in here and it took me two days to figure it out. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I dismiss. “I’m actually ok, too. I met people and…” I’m a magician. Do I tell her? Are there rules about telling people? It’s Julia. Fuck rules. “Actually, I-”

“You’re making friends…in an insane asylum?” she clarifies, cutting me off, hitting me with that Pity Roadkill look I hadn’t missed.

“It’s not an insane as-” There’s no fucking way I can say the sentence ‘I’m a magician’ to her when she already thinks I’ve lost my mind. “There are nice people here. It’s not like that. Forget it.”

“Q, I’m just worried about you.”

“You don’t need to be. I’ll be out tomorrow. It was temporary.”

She pulls her brows together like she knows she’s about to offend me. “Are you should it should be?”

I push a hand through my hair with a loud scoff. “I get it, Jules. You think I’m crazy.”

“I think you need the break!” she bites back. “I think you need to stop reading books and start living your life. I think you need to figure out why you need me to tell you that.”

“I don’t!” I explode. “I get it. I need to grow up, I have potential, I’m wasting away, you want better for me,” I list, throwing her words over the years back at her. She watches me, nostrils flaring, but saying nothing. “I found something, okay? Being here, I’ve…I’ve learned a lot. I’m not wasting my time,” I say with as much conviction as I can muster. “I’m finding my purpose.”

“Q-”

“You should go,” I say, standing. She looks down at her watch then stands like she’s just remembered something.

“I actually do have to…” she admits, flustered. “But, Q…” she looks for words and doesn’t find them, offering me a shrug and a loaded look.

“I love you, too, Jules,” I respond and she throws herself into a hug, gripping me like she’s never going to see me again.

“Call me when you’re out,” she instructs, backing away. The security guard by the door opens it for her, waiting. I nod once and she gives a final wave before walking out, the heavy door slamming shut behind her.

-e-

I knock on Alice and Margo’s door a bit later after some serious pacing and gathering the nerve to potentially see Margo who I feel like could, should and will rip me a new asshole over how I acted with Alice in the lunchroom.

The door swings open and of course it’s her who answers. I glance behind her to see Alice and Eliot inside watching.

“Oh, look guys,” she starts. “It’s the walking, talking bag of dicks.”

“I fucked up. I-I overreacted and you should be mad-”

“Thanks for giving me permission, dick breath.”

“Let him in,” Alice says. Margo rolls her eyes so hard it’s almost audible. She moves aside and lets me step in, closing the door and leaning against it, arms folded as I stand surrounded by the three of them.

“I-I,” I stammer, all the words and planning I did completely gone. It doesn’t help that none of them ever just looks at you, they stare. “I just, um-”

“By all means, take your time, dick weed.”

“Margo, jesus christ,” Eliot chastises. Margo drops her arms.

“Oh, I’m sorry I’m the only one in the room not trying to bone him.”

I blink. “Trying to-” I look around the room. Alice avoids my gaze and Eliot rolls his eyes.

“That’s beside the point,” Eliot says. “You forget we need him?”

“No, I didn’t forget. You forget what a shit he was to Alice?”

“I forgive him,” Alice speaks up.

I don’t,” Margo scoffs.

“Eliot scared him,” Alice goes on. Three sets of eyes fall on me. “Eliot told him about…everything and when I gave him the battle magic, he freaked. He’s terrified of making a mistake…like us,” she explains and the three of them share a look. Margo glances back at me, eyes still narrowed but less hard, and looks me up and down.

Pussy,” she says, flopping down beside Eliot.

“I fucked up and I’m sorry,” I finally manage to get out. “I just…magic has always been this…monumental thing of good in my head and now it’s…It’s not what I thought it would be,” I finish. “It was a dick move of me to confront Alice like I did. I just, I freaked out imagining you guys- I mean you don’t seem like-” …murderers.

“We get it, Q,” Eliot says. “Don’t have an aneurysm.”

“His lips must be hurting from trying to kiss our ass so much,” Margo remarks.

“Poor boy,” Eliot grins, sitting up from his position against the headboard. “If Alice forgives you, I forgive you.”

Relief floods me. “Thanks.”

“Bambi?” We all zero in on Margo. She rolls her eyes my way.

“I’m out of insults involving the word dick so I guess I’m good, too.”

“Good for us. Now, we have planning to do,” Eliot claps his hands together. “Alice?”

“Right,” Alice slides off her bed and approaches me with more pages. “More castings. Easy ones like lock picking. We were talking,” she says with a glance at Eliot and Margo. “We think you could do it tomorrow. We think you’re ready.”

I blink. “Tomorrow? Already? I…”

“It seems sudden, maybe. But your casting is almost perfect, tomorrow is the end of your 72 hours. You’re a great magician, Quentin,” she comforts. “You’re ready.”

She looks at me with so much surety and hopefulness there’s no way I can say no. I have all the pages she gave me yesterday memorized, over a dozen small deception spells to use. I have the…battle magic for protection. There’s no real reason it shouldn’t be tomorrow. Except one.

I’m pathetically feeling hesitant because every step closer to getting them out is another step closer to them ditching me.

“Okay,” I agree. “Tomorrow.”

“Do you remember everything?”

“Yes,” I say, thinking over the very detailed checklist Alice gave me yesterday in my head. “I remember all of it.”

“Good,” she says with a small smile. “We could be out of here. Tomorrow night,” she finishes to Eliot and Margo. If I don’t fuck up.

I swallow thickly. “Can we just, um, go over the plan one more time? For good measure.”

-e-

It’s hours later before we decide to call it quits on practicing and reviewing everything for tomorrow. The sky is pitch black outside and the hallway is quiet. We all stand stiffly from our circle on the floor, groaning as we stretch. Eliot pops his back loudly, earning a look of disgust from Margo that’s quickly wiped off her face as he pulls her into a hug with a swift kiss to the top of her head.

“Come on, Q. You’ve got a big day tomorrow,” Eliot says, grabbing my wrist to pull me out with him. I stop in the doorway.

“I’ll catch up,” I say. He looks at me curiously. I gesture to Margo and a smile takes over his face.

“Good luck,” he sings, walking off.

“Margo,” I start and she pauses her stretching to look my way, arching an eyebrow as she approaches.

“Don’t apologize again, Quentin,” she says, her voice low enough that Alice doesn’t hear us. “I forgive you,” she shrugs. “But the rules are simple. We protect our own,” Margo says fiercely. “You shit on Eliot or Alice, then you shit on me.” I swallow under the weight of her gaze. “You got it?” I nod stiffly. “Good,” she smiles sweetly, reaching up to kiss my cheek. “Now, rest up. You get to be Superman tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

I’m shitting myself.

I don’t say it, though. I let Eliot and Margo and Alice fuss over me like I’m off to my first day of school. They wake me up before Penny comes knocking, triple checking I remember everything. They tuck the spell pages into my Fillory books for safekeeping, they usher me into the showers and when I come back, the books are stacked neatly on the dresser, my bed is made and they’re all just sat there, waiting.

“So, I guess I should probably go find London,” I say awkwardly.

“Godspeed,” Eliot responds, sliding the books into my arms.

“No pressure. But, obviously, some pressure,” Margo says with a peck to my cheek.

“You’ve got this,” Alice says last like she knows I need to hear it. She looks like she wants to say more but settles for a small smile instead, stepping back.

“Worst comes to worst, you’ll come back and visit us, right, Q-tip?” Eliot jokes, pulling me into a brief hug.

“Actually, if worst comes to worst, Q gets filleted by hedge witches and we never see him again,” Margo shrugs. Eliot rolls his eyes. “No pressure,” she repeats with a smile, pushing me out the door.

“You’re not funny,” I hear Eliot say as the door closes.

-e-

“On admitting, you reported you couldn’t concentrate, eat, get out of bed. You said the feeling of not belonging was overwhelming, and that you were the most useless person who ever lived. That was three days ago. And now…you feel better?” London asks skeptically. She somehow seems even scarier without her white coat on. She looks normal…too normal to have all the power she does. There’s something weird about humanizing people you’ve created such vivid caricatures of.

“I was never supposed to stay longer,” I reason, ignoring her question. “It was always going to be temporary.”

She leans forward. “Are you sure it should be?”

Ok. So, that’s only the second time in the last 24 hours someone’s suggested I belong here which is more than anyone has ever suggested I belong anywhere. Great.

“I get it now,” I start. “You’re a kid and you have all these notions about what life is…what it could be.” My eyes land on the stack of Fillory books; coping mechanisms I based the entirety of my life on and obsessed over, wishing I could just be a magician, be something extraordinary, someone important. Books that now have literal pages of magic tucked between them, stupid things like invisibility spells and devastating, temperamental things like battle magic for protection. Protection. Because when fiction and reality collide, they just shit on your stupid dreams and leave you to come to terms with what’s left: the carcass of your expectations.

“Eventually, you have to let all that go,” I finish and I feel the words ring true. “So, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’m doing.” This is what magic is. It’s fear and unsurety and lying, it’s teamwork and maybe friendship, it’s doubt and laughter and more doubt, it’s the promise of beauty in the middle of absolute hell. It’s shit sometimes, but it’s all I have and more than I ever thought I would.

London folds her hands as she watches me. She’s silent for a while, taking me in. She clicks her pen. “Quentin, I’d really recommend further treatment.”

“Look, I’ve never threatened to hurt myself or anybody else,” I point out. “So, you can’t make me stay…can you?”

-e-

It’s raining.

I hold my messenger bag over my head to cover it, wishing I’d somehow had the forethought to wear something other than a pair of thin pants and a sweater when I checked in. I remember my Fillory books are inside the bag and cringe at the thought of them getting wet.

“Fuck,” I mumble as I slide it off my head and feel the raindrops start to fall hard against my scalp. I tuck the bag under my shirt and pray none of the covers have gotten soaked. It’s easier to see where I’m going this way, I convince myself so I won’t feel so pathetic when I fucking catch pneumonia or something cause I put the threat of water damage before common sense.

I navigate around a group of girls walking arm and arm and duck under an awning, finally getting a break from squinting against the wind. Alice said to look for a convenience store somewhere around here. It’s 2 p.m. in New York, the streets are still pretty busy even with the rain. People smart enough to own an umbrella brush past me on the sidewalk as I look around at the shops lining the street.

They’re all brightly lit and packed, the complete opposite of what Alice described. A nameless store, dark and empty. The type of place no one has any real reason to go in.

That’s one of those shitty mysterious descriptions that you see people in movies somehow work out immediately. Like, oh yes of course, it’s that shop right there, couldn’t possibly be any of the other dark, dank places surrounding it.

I blow out a breath and squeeze my eyes shut, trying to focus. Tonight. Alice said they could be out of the hospital tonight. If I don’t fuck up. They’re probably all envisioning what they’re going to do once they’re free. Margo and Eliot are likely packing up, excited for the return of alcohol and cigarettes, Alice is probably making a list right this second of all the things she needs to do. And I’m standing on the fucking sidewalk in the rain.

“Oh, fuck, I’m sorry, buddy,” I hear as something crashes into my back so hard my bag slips from under my shirt and onto the ground, the contents falling out. I turn to see a man exit with a woman, trying to hold in their laughter as they step around the door they’ve just slammed into me. “Should probably not stand in front of the door, huh?” he remarks, walking off.

I shove hair out of my face with a groan. Did I really forget my fucking hairtie? Jesus Christ, they chose the wrong fuck up to save them.

I squat to gather my books. They’re still fairly dry, water not having gotten through the thick material of the bag too much. I grab The Secret Sea and shake off a leaf. Something small falls out of the pages and onto the sidewalk.

A puzzle piece.

It’s the woman’s eye from the picture Eliza was putting together.

I grab it and the second it touches my hand, a twinkling sound starts up. Not a pleasant chime, but more like someone is repeatedly hitting a triangle inside my eardrum.

I grit my teeth against the noise as I stand. I weigh it in my hand and let it stare back at me. There are a million questions running through my mind, all of which disappear the second it winks at me.

Instinct, Eliza had said to me.

“Best to follow instinct,” I whisper as I hold the puzzle piece up to my eye.

In the sky, high up and wrapping around a building at the end of the block across the street is a web of red, glowing lines. They stretch around to the front of a dimly lit shop with a Closed sign across the door. The windows are boarded and the name on the awning is faded save for half of the letter M.

I take the piece away from my eye and the lines disappear, I put it back and they’re there again. These must be wards. Alice didn’t prep me for this part. How the fuck am I supposed to get through them?

I jog around the block, clutching the puzzle piece in my hand as I find my way to the back alley behind the strip of buildings. It’s a wall of cracked brick covered in graffiti and half torn posters, dumpsters filled to the brim every couple of feet. There’s a wide red door in the middle of the wall caged in by a chain-link fence. I hold up the puzzle piece.

The whole wall is covered in warding. This close, I can see tiny scribbles of foreign words between the thin lines. The twinkling of the puzzle piece gets louder the closer I get. I run over Alice’s list of spells in my head, wondering if I have anything that could get me inside. It’s not like I can fucking knock.

Not like I can knock…

I’m either a genius or the biggest fucking idiot to ever exist.

I do the Caecus cast, watching as my body slinks into invisibility. I grab a fallen brick from beside the door and take a deep breath. Margo’s words cross my mind, ‘fillet’, in particular standing out. “Worst comes to worst,” I mutter. “I die and haunt the shit out of Margo.” I throw the brick hard at one of the wide windows halfway up the building and it shatters loudly, shards of glass falling down around me.

“What the fuck?” I hear someone curse loudly from inside. I pick up another brick and throw it at one of the dumpsters down the way, and it hits with a boom. I wait. It’s the longest thirty seconds of my life.

Locks on the other side of the door start clicking and I run, crouching behind the dumpster as a kid steps outside. He couldn’t be older than 16, his hair shaved into a mohawk. He glances around slowly, staying inside the warding.

“Come on, come on,” I whisper. He turns back to go inside. “No.” I punch the side of the dumpster and he jumps, looking my way. I see Alice’s writing in my head, a column labeled ‘distraction’ leading my fingers through a long casting. I flick my fingers toward the chain-link fence and it rattles loudly.

“Hey!” the boy calls out, looking away from me to follow the noise. He finally steps outside the warding as he investigates, peaking behind the side of the fence. “Who’s out here?” he checks behind a dumpster as I move from cover, tiptoeing to avoid the crunch of rocks beneath my feet. I wait by the door until the boy starts making his way back, groaning when he realizes he’s outside the wards. He reaches a hand out and snatches it back, sucking his fingers as it singes him.

“Fucking finicky bullshit,” he mumbles as he starts casting. I watch his hands closely. It’s similar to the lock-picking spell Alice taught me but with a few alterations, making it longer and more intricate. He pauses and steps forward tentatively and I’m so close up against him, I have to cover my mouth to hide my breathing. We step through together and I hold back sigh of relief.

Suddenly, he turns around so sharply, I duck as if he could see me. I press my hand tighter against my mouth as he looks around one last time and fires off a quick cast to repair the warding. Then, he drags open the heavy door and I follow him through.

It’s dark and dingy inside. Boxes and old cupboards are pushed against the walls, papers strewn over the floor and old furniture, tables and lamps, are all throughout the wide space. There’s a couch along one wall and a fridge in a corner like someone is trying to call this place home. The boy grabs something from the fridge then jogs up the staircase along the back wall.

I exhale.

I’m not cut out for this magical espionage shit. I survey the room for the cabinets Alice said to look out for. I spot a few dented ones along the left wall and make my way over, avoiding the papers on the floor. I ease one drawer open and pick up a folder, flipping through it. They’re spells, some written out, some sketched but not all of them are labeled. Fuck. I only know the names Alice gave me. I have no idea what these are and there’s no way I can sift through them all.

I dig my phone out of my bag and start taking pictures of everything I can, using the dim overhead light to see. I make my way through one cabinet and start on another, eyeing the stairs every five seconds. It’s quiet up above and that terrifies me as much as it comforts.

I open a binder and on the first page is Ripley’s Undoing, one of the spells Alice told me could be used to counter hexes. I snap a pic, taking the time to actually frame this one and ensure it isn’t blurry. Fucking finally something is working out.

One day I’m going to learn to stop making statements like that.

Footsteps thunder down the stairs. I jump and slide the drawer back in as quickly as I can without making too much noise. I tuck the binder in my bag and glue myself to the wall, holding my breath as the boy comes back with a girl right behind him.

“It was probably just some kids-”

“Just some kids,” she mocks. “Is everyone here a fucking idiot?” she barks as she looks over the room. She looks my way briefly and I freeze under the weight of her wide blue eyes. She’s got her dark hair pulled back tight, and she’s dressed in all black with a purse casually hanging from her wrist. She slams it down on a table and I jump, accidentally nudging a box filled with papers on a chair beside me. It rustles gently.

I pinch my face and pray to whoever’s listening but she hears it anyway, her gaze now solidly staring almost straight at me.

“Did you hear that?” the boy asks.

“No, Ralphie,” she says sweetly as she slowly approaches me. I scale the wall in tiny steps, inching toward the door, trying to move out of her path. “I didn’t hear anything.” She picks up her speed and is in front of me before I can think to run. I hold my breath and turn my face away as she pushes closer. She holds up her hands, forming a window with her forefingers and thumbs and peers through it. She stands there so long my head starts to hurt from holding my breath.

She finally drops her hands and looks away. “Must’ve been the wind,” she shrugs. I start to unclench my body when she turns sharply and grips my throat. “Or a really fucking stupid rookie,” she smiles.

I grab her wrist and pry her fingers off, coughing as she releases me. I quickly work through the knockback spell Alice gave me and throw it at her. It’s weak because I’ve still got murdermurdermurder looping through my mind whenever I even think about the spell but it’s enough to get her away. She lands on her back a few feet off.

“Pathetic,” she spits, getting back to her feet, brushing off her leather pants. “Try it like this.” And she casts so quickly, I don’t even have time to consider moving as she fires off her own knockback that sends me flying into the wall hard. She twists her fingers and my arms stiffen up at my sides. I struggle against it but I’m bound, my fingers too taut to try and counter-cast.

More footsteps pound on the stairs as other people enter the room. An odd group, some old, some young, all flanking her.

“Mann Reveal,” she says to them and they all slowly hold up the same square with their fingers and peer through.

“What’s happening?” someone asks as they enter last and I blink twice against the image in front of me because I’m so sure I’m hallucinating. She looks around and creates the window with her hands, stopping on the last stair when she spots me, eyes wide with disbelief in a way that must match my own.

Julia?”

Chapter Text

“Quentin,” Julia says softly as she stares at me. She blinks back to life and gazes over the hedges watching her expectantly. “Can I- Marina, can I have a moment with him?”

The girl—Marina—doesn’t even look her way. “Nah,” she smirks. “I want to give everyone a live demonstration of how to squeeze a nerd til he pops.” My mouth goes dry. She waves a hand at me and everyone drops their arms, openly watching me now. She undid my magic. How-

“What?” Julia asks, pushing her way to Marina. “You’re not going to kill him… He’s just a-a-,” she stutters, looking for words she can’t find. Justifications that don’t exist.

“He’s trying to steal from me,” Marina bites back as she curls her fingers and the invisible ropes binding me in place get tighter. I grunt against the pinching.

“Can you at least let him down?” Julia asks. Marina’s eyes stay hard on me. “Marina, please,” she begs and Marina finally looks at her. “Please.”

Marina watches her, searching something in her face for a long while before she finally drops her hands. I slide down the wall, my body tingling as blood starts flowing through my limbs again, the binding gone. I get to my feet unsteadily and clutch my bag to my side, trying to watch 13 pairs of hands at once.

“Thank you,” Julia whispers. “I just need a minute with him. I promise he won’t leave with any of your stuff.”

Marina cocks her head, a dry smile on her face. “Everyone, back upstairs,” she says simply and the people obediently all start making their way up, eyes glued to us like they’re being pulled away from a good movie.

“Thank you,” Julia repeats as we watch Marina grab her purse and sling it over her wrist again. She stops beside Julia and grips her arm, leaning in close.

“The most interesting thing about you,” Marina begins. “Was that you had nothing to lose,” she finishes and Julia’s eyes dart my way. “Don’t bore me, Julia. Get rid of him.”

Marina throws a final look my way before heading up the stairs. Julia blows out a breath and sweeps her hair back, shooting an accusatory look at me.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“What the hell are you doing here?” I retort. “Here’s a better question: how the hell do you know about magic?”

She raises her brows. “How the hell do you know?”

Julia.

“No. Seriously, Q, how the hell do you know? Because you sure as hell didn’t tell me,” she accuses.

“I just found out!” I defend.

“Me too,” she says slowly. “Three days ago.”

“Me too,” I whisper and I’m trying to piece together what this could all mean when a thought crosses my mind. “Wait- Three days ago,” I repeat. “Three days ago. So, when you came to me in the hospital yesterday and told me to grow up, you knew?” I ask loudly and she curls in on herself, eyes anywhere but on me.

“Q-”

“No, Julia, what the fuck?”

“You didn’t say anything to me either, ok?” she bites back. “You could have said something, too, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to but I don’t know, I thought against it considering you were already ready to slap a strait jacket on me!”

“I…” she sighs deeply. “I didn’t want you to be disappointed that I had magic and you didn’t. I wanted you to give up before you could get let down.”

“When we were kids…and we used to talk about going to Fillory…when we both believed in magic, we said we’d go together. Were you really going to just leave me behind?” I ask and the thought hurts my feelings more than I want to admit.

I see her eyes get wet and she shakes her head, mouth opening and closing as she searches for words and I realize she was going to leave me. She’d already decided.

Already decided this was the one thing she wasn’t going to drag me along on. One thing she wasn’t going to let Quentin and his pathetic, depressing obsession spoil.

This was my domain. This was mine. And she still didn’t save me a seat.

“This isn’t Fillory, Q,” she reasons. “This is real. These people do serious shit. Bend light and conjure things from scratch,” she says passionately. “I could make miracles, Q, and be powerful. I could-”

“You’re hanging out with a bunch of power hungry tweakers doing spells in a basement-”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she grits out, advancing on me. “You don’t even know them-”

“I’m supposed to believe that the girl who had me pinned to the wall and choked me wants to cure world fucking hunger?”

“You’re supposed to believe I wouldn’t do anything stupid.”

Stupid?” I scoff. “Have you seen yourself?” I ask, gesturing. “You’re obsessed. Your hair, your clothes…You look like you haven’t slept in days. You look like- What really happened with James, Julia?”

She flinches at his name and I know I’m on to something. “What’d you do? Scare him off or just kick him to the curb like you tried to do with me? What was your plan?” I question, taking a step toward her. “Convince me to stay in Ellsworth and pay me a visit every now and then? Or wait, let me guess…you were going to find a way for me, right? Because you care so much.”

She blinks up at me then starts nodding. “Right,” she laughs bitterly. “I forgot. All knowing, almighty Q who’s always the victim. Everything is about you. The world is somehow always and never on your side, right, Q?”

I feel that familiar heaviness drop itself down on my chest and choke all the words from my brain. What the fuck do you say when your best friend confirms years of paralyzingly dreadful thoughts you’ve had? When the only person consistently on your side suddenly admits things you only speculated she felt?

What the fuck do you when the first thing that comes to mind is I was right and you’re bombarded with a million thoughts of that’s your problem right there and then a chant of she’s right she’s right she’s right takes over?

“Finding out that magic is real doesn’t rationalize the freaky obsession you’ve had,” she goes on because I think she likes the look on my face. “You don’t get to judge me until you sort your own shit out.”

We just stand there and I watch her and I wait but I never see even a hint of regret pass through her eyes so I say whatever comes to my tongue first.

“Fuck you.”

She laughs humorlessly. “Fuck you, Q.”

I fight against the parts of me that want to stay and fix this and listen instead to the parts playing a loop of her eyes and the sincerity and finality in them as she threw out words she knew would hurt. And I turn and I walk out without sparing another glance at her face because I’ve seen enough in it to last a lifetime.

-e-

It’s nearly dark by the time I make it back to Ellsworth. The sun is setting and casting a glow over the city, peaking through clouds that are slowly disappearing in the sky.

It’s almost 6, I note. Everyone should be in the lunchroom for dinner, leaving the halls empty. I dig around in my bag for Alice’s blueprints and see the binder still tucked away inside.

“Fuck.”

I wasn’t supposed to leave with this. Julia wasn’t supposed to let me leave with this. I pinch the bridge of my nose as images of Julia pinned to some wall by Marina like I was flit through my mind.

Fuck,” I repeat, pushing the binder aside to dig out the blueprints underneath. I unfold the prints to examine them, forcing the thoughts and the panic to hush themselves as I trace my finger along page. They’re detailed, hand-drawn images with labels and markings on the best entrances and the guarded areas to avoid. She’s highlighted a simple way in through the back. I doubt London would let me out if I checked in again the same day I talked my way out and there’s no way they’d let me bring the things I need up to the room. So…more magical espionage. Cause I’m so good at that…

The back of Ellsworth is a dirty, foul smelling alleyway. My feet stick to the concrete with every step I take and the smell of alcohol is strong, combated only by the stench of what smells like old diapers coming from the dumpsters. It’s a stark contrast to the bright, light colored brick of the building’s front; where green bushes should be are instead garbage bags and discarded bottles. There’s an awning and cracked pillars around what looks to be an emergency entrance that hasn’t been used in years.

The automatic glass doors are streaked with god-knows-what but it’s light inside, a woman visible sitting behind the entry desk, her head in her hand as she stares into the computer screen. I do Caecus for what feels like the millionth time and approach the doors. They open for me slowly, squeaking as they do, causing the woman to look up curiously. She looks right through me as I pass the round desk, moving carefully so my still sticky shoes don’t make any noise.

The woman eventually looks away, back to the computer, and I continue down the hall. Right of the desk, straight down past the water fountain, Alice wrote. The stairway is on the left behind a door. It’s locked.

I tiptoe down the hall, the white walls and ceilings feeling strangely comforting. I try not to think too hard on that thought. I pass a small water fountain tucked into the wall, the kind you’d see in a school. It looks rusted and old. I continue on, my steps getting faster as I hear the faint sound of voices somewhere around the corner. Chairs in the front waiting room are just barely visible as I arrive in front of a grey door with chipped black lettering that reads ‘STAIRS’.

I flex my hands and start to cast the lock picking spell. I mess up the first time, forgetting the incantation and the handle rattles loudly in the empty hall. I bite back a curse and try again quickly, whispering Odemknout and the door clicks quietly. I open it gently, just wide enough to squeeze my body through and ease it closed behind me. I jog my way up the stairs, thankfully not encountering anyone on my way up to the third floor. I peek through the tiny glass window and check that the familiar halls of floor 3 are empty before I turn the knob and tiptoe out.

A right would lead me to the corner of the floor where Alice and Margo’s room is, I remember as I gather my bearings, so I turn left instead and head down the long corridor to mine and Eliot’s room where we’re due to meet. The floor is quiet, save for the far-off clang of forks against plates in the lunchroom. I pick up my pace, relief and a stupid touch of pride swelling in me. I’m almost home free. I’m going to help my friends. I actually-

Penny rounds the corner and I crush myself to the wall to move out of his way as he stalks down the narrow corridor, his trademark sour look on his face. He moves past me quickly then stops abruptly and turns my way, brows furrowed as he looks around the empty hall. I keep moving backward, watching him until I find the handle of my room. He stays there, just staring at nothing, looking past me and through me all at once until Kady appears behind him, drawing his attention.

“Kady,” he says as she tries to avoid him, making an about-face. “Talk to me. Damn it,” he says, following her through the stairway door with a final glance in my direction.

I exhale and knock twice, silently swearing to myself to never do this type of shit again.

Chapter Text

The door swings open so quickly it bounces back and hits the wall hard. Eliot stands there, Margo and Alice beside him at each shoulder, peering out into the hall expectantly.

“Q?” he asks and I remember he can’t see me.

“Fuck. Yea, sorry. It’s me.”

“Fuck me,” he smiles, reaching a hand out and gripping at me, snatching me inside and slamming the door closed. Eliot pulls me into a hug the second I’m visible, Margo quickly joining in.

“I was joking before, Coldwater,” she says as they pull away. “But now, I mean it; you, me, El, a big threesome. Giant one. I’ll even dress as Princess Leia or what the fuck ever.”

I smile weakly, still tensed from seeing Penny. “Raincheck.”

“Not that we didn’t have faith in you, Q,” Eliot starts. “But…y’know…Hedge Witches v. Q doesn’t sound like a fair fight.”

“Did you really get past them with just the Caecus and a few stealth spells?” Alice asks. “And, uh, hi,” she smiles faintly, offering me a small wave.

“What- Did you guys expect me to die?” I question, exasperated. They all shrug. “Jesus. No. No, I ended up…getting some help.”

“Help?”

“It’s a long story,” I sigh, pulling my bag off and flopping down on my bed. “Who’s ready to get their magic back?”

Alice sits down immediately and watches me pull things from the bag. Eliot and Margo take seats on the floor in front of me. I hand Alice my phone and she scrolls through the photos quickly.

“I know all these,” she says to herself. Whatever feeling of pride I felt dims a bit.

“There’s Ripley’s Undoing in there,” I offer. “Towards the back.”

She scrolls faster, stopping as she finds it. “Great. Okay. That’s…something,” she nods. “Is there more?” I slide the binder her way and her face lights up. “Yes,” she breathes and starts flipping through it. She’s nearly at the back before she stops again, her finger tracing the words as she reads.

“Well? Are you gonna share with the class, Quinn?” Margo asks. Alice looks up like she forgot we were here.

“It’s a theoretical spell. Looks like something homemade. Could break the ward keeping us inside,” she explains, turning the binder our way.

“Homemade spells can be temperamental,” Eliot says as he looks the page over.

“It’s all we have,” Margo reminds him. “I’m up for a little risk.”

“Me, too,” Alice agrees.

“Well, I’m not gonna be the only square saying no,” Eliot starts. “So, count me the fuck in.”

“There’s a better chance it works if we do it all together,” Alice comforts. “It’s pretty well done, kind of complicated, but it’s just a matter of it being strong enough. I have no idea what kind of power Suther had.”

“Cart before horse,” Eliot interrupts. “Do we have everything else?”

Alice goes back to the binder. “We have Ripley’s, the ward spell…” she flips to the end. “But, no Revelation spell.”

“What about the…Mann Reveal?” I ask, remembering Marina’s spell. I hold my fingers up and peer through the square.

“That’s only for invisible things,” Alice explains.

“Wait, they saw you? What the fuck happened over there?” Eliot questions. I shake my head. Julia. Binder. Julia. Marina.

“What about…” Margo holds up her fingers in the shape of a circle and peers through.

“It’s elementary, but worth a shot,” Alice shrugs and looks to me. “Try.”

I mimic Margo’s cast and peer through my fingers at them. Just beneath the collar of Eliot’s shirt is a faint glow of something. “Wait.”

I reach out and pull Eliot’s collar down a bit, leaning close to try and make out the markings on his skin. I trace the shapes. Thin, white, glowing lines…

“Not complaining, but time and a place to start that threesome, Q,” Eliot jokes and I stall my roaming fingers on his skin.

“Sorry,” I say, standing. “There are these glowing lines on your skin. I saw the same thing today at the Hedges’ place. It’s faint, I can’t make out what the words say but there are traces of it on you. Like warding.”

“Us, too?” Margo wonders, pulling her collar down for me to see, Alice following suit. The same marks are on all of them, in slightly different spots and positions but still the same peculiar shapes.

“Yea. It’s the same.”

Alice pinches her brows together. “Well, if this spell is too weak t-”

“Oh my god, wait.” The piece. I dig around in my bag for it. I’m an idiot. Of course. “Today- Today, I couldn’t find the place. It was raining and I couldn’t- couldn’t see. I forgot my hairtie and this guy…with the door…But I had this piece, this puzzle piece from Eliza.”

“He’s scary when he gets going,” Eliot mumbles as I toss out pens and pencils, looking. Did I put it away? I pat my pants pockets quickly. I must’ve. I dive back into the bag.

“She knew my name…She knew me somehow and she slipped me this puzzle piece!” I find it finally and hold it up to show. “It lets me see things.”

Margo grimaces. “Baby, you sound insane,” she whispers loudly.

“No. She gave this to me. She wanted me to use it. She was helping me.”

“Who the hell is Eliza?” Eliot steps in.

“She’s a patient here. A magician, I guess. Red hair, English accent?” I describe to three blank faces. “She’s pretty…” I trail off.

“I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

Alice shoots me an incredulous look. “Yea, I’ve never seen…”

“She knew my name,” I say, remembering her calling to me as I left yesterday. Was it really only yesterday? “She hit me with the door that first day, she’s the reason you noticed me.”

“Oh yea,” Margo drags out, smiling at the image. “That was funny. Yea, she was walking around the room before you came in, talking to people. It was weird.”

“Weird, how?” I ask.

“Well,” Eliot begins. “It was like she knew everyone. We’ve been down here for months and never saw her before that day but she somehow knew everybody. She even said hi to us, remember?” he asks Alice and Margo.

“Huh,” Margo says, her face pinched with thought. “She did, didn’t she?”

“What else did she say to you?” Alice asks me.

“Uh…um, she was talking to me about the hospital…and-and overthinking.” I struggle to remember. “She said to follow my instinct and…to stay on the path,” I recall. “She said I’d already strayed enough.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Margo asks.

“I think…” I hesitate to continue. If I’m wrong, I sound like a monumental psychopath. “I think there’s a reason we met.”

“You mean like fate?” Margo asks skeptically.

“No,” I disagree. “Maybe, but- I think someone’s pulling the strings, making it happen.”

“And what, this is all a test?”

“If it is,” Alice cuts in. “Let’s not fail it. We’re getting out of here,” she says with conviction. “Quentin, let me see the piece. If it’s enchanted, I can use it.”

“Just hold it up to your eye,” I instruct, handing it over. She looks at it, as if searching for a secret on it and then brings it up to her face. She gasps quietly and we all jump at the noise, thinking the worst.

“Sorry,” she apologizes. “I just…think I missed magic,” she admits. “I can see it clearly with this, the markings. Um, hand me a pen and paper,” she says to me. When I do, she leans into Margo, pulling at her collar and starts to copy the symbol onto the paper, sitting back to regard it. We gather around her, turning our heads to make something of the marks.

“It’s definitely warding,” Margo says. “Like a barrier keeping our magic inside.”

“Ripley’s should work fine on this,” Alice guarantees, her lips moving as she reads and rereads the markings. She looks to me. “Are you ready, Quentin?”

I swallow hard, my mouth suddenly dry. “Uh huh.”

“My life, your hands,” Eliot says with an exaggerated grave look on his face. He pats my shoulder, winking so I know he’s joking.

I slide onto the floor and they come to surround me as Alice hands me my phone, still open to Ripley’s Undoing. There are so many steps to it, I feel the panic rising.

“You’re fine,” Alice comforts as they link hands around me, caging me in at the center. “Go.”

I nod, set the phone down between my crossed legs and start following along with the sketches and words on the screen. My hands feel cramped when I near the end after working my way through the intricate patterns and shapes. “Zvratit,” I finish. No rustling winds or flickering lights, I wonder if I’ve screwed it up completely. I peek around and find Alice, Margo and Eliot doing the same. “Did it-”

I stop short as they all suck in a harsh breath like the air has been knocked out of them, eyes rolling up to the ceiling as a short-lived bright light floods their chests. Their knuckles go white as they grip each other’s fingers like they can’t let go, like they’re fused together. My heart starts thumping in my chest so hard I swear I can hear it out loud, echoing off the walls of the room as dark vines break out over their skin. Veins, black and thin, throbbing and plentiful curl around all of them, sneaking up their arms and down their throats as they gurgle out small sounds and suck in air like they’re not sure how to force it into their lungs.

I try and pry their hands apart. I call to them. Nothing. I feel a panic slip over me and I’m glued to the spot; watching, hoping, waiting.

I take it in. The whites of their eyes, the strain in their necks, the gasping, groaning, wet sounds coming from their mouth and I’m sure this is it…I fucked up. I hear Alice warning me about my thumb, my thumb and I wonder where I’ve messed up here. How I did it. How I killed them.

Chapter Text

I finally force my feet to move and rush for the binder, flipping through it for some spell. A healing spell, a better undoing spell, a how to reverse accidental homicide spell… I turn page after page, searching, glancing every now and then to see if somehow the horror show has ended. I’m halfway through the book before a sharp noise starts up so loudly I have to press my hands to my ears to dull the ringing.

A hot sound, a loud hiss echoes through the room and they all choke out a cough as they jump apart, each grabbing at their chests like they’ve been burned.

“Son of a bitch,” Margo gasps, pulling her shirt down to examine a red scorch mark where the white lines used to be. I blow out the breath I was holding and the spots in my vision clear up, my heart still leaping in my chest. Thank fuck. Eliot rubs his shoulder with a hiss.

Alice is already casting, her fingers moving briskly and competently through a spell. From the end of her fingers grows a big ball of light, bright and vibrant, like her own personal sun. The warmth coming off of it fills the room and we all watch it ebb and turn, a tiny sphere of absolute and mesmerizing power.

She drops her hands and the light disappears. “You did it,” she breathes. Then she smiles and it’s so wide, such a departure from the calculated blank expression she normally wears that I finally let myself celebrate. I did that. I’ve done this. Did I think I’d killed them for a moment there? Absolutely. But I didn’t. Which is something. I smile back and let myself mean it.

“Yes, yes,” Eliot starts, throwing an arm around me. “Let us all remember who recruited young Coldwater and kiss their ass appropriately.”

“Mm, yes,” Margo smirks. “Bless your divining rod of a dick.” Eliot cuts her a playful sneer, moving away to grab something from his bedside table.

“Speaking of divine, it’s lucky you knew where to find those hedges,” Margo hints to Alice who’s already gone back to sifting through the binder, taking out pages here and there. She looks over her shoulder at us and draws in a breath like she’s stalling for time.

“I wasn’t gonna say anything but I’m also interested in how you’re so familiar with The Dark Side,” Eliot pipes in, watching Alice curiously as she fidgets with the pages.

“I was…” she starts, turning around to sit on the edge of the bed. “Hedge witches collect all kinds of spells. I thought…maybe they’d have something to help with…to help with my brother, okay?”

We all exchange a look.

“Yea, ok Alice,” Margo nods, looking half-sorry for asking. “We get it.”

“I just…was out of options,” Alice says, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Maybe when we- when you are all back at Brakebills, you can look together,” I suggest, remembering I have no stakes, no ties and no promises of Brakebills or them after the wards are down and they’re free.

“Oh, yea, for sure,” Eliot agrees, boring the promise into Alice’s eyes. “For now, though,” he begins, holding up a small stack of paper cups he must’ve snagged from the cafeteria. “A celebratory drink.”

Eliot gives us all a cup and does a casting, his hands moving fluidly and gracefully through the spell. There’s something rhythmic about his movements, like he’s doing a dance with his fingers, a flourish, that touch of Eliot in every move he makes.

He finishes and the room is filled with a gurgling sound as our cups start filling with a clear liquid, the strong smell coming from it guaranteeing it’s certainly not water. He snaps his fingers and an olive falls in, the splash from its landing hitting my face.

“My special mix,” he boasts with a smile.

“I’m not really used to drinking,” Alice admits, peering at the liquid.

“I thought you liked learning,” Eliot smirks, bumping her shoulder. “To freedom, fate and Quentin fucking Coldwater!” he toasts, holding his cup up to me. Margo smiles and joins him and Alice follows their lead distractedly. Another smile fights its way past the doubt and worry and what ifs and I soak in the feeling of absolute belonging as I raise my cup.

“To me,” I shrug.

“Here, here!” Margo and Eliot cheer and we all tip back our cups. Eliot and Margo down theirs and I fight my way through, spurred on by their cheers, trying my best to ignore the absolutely awful burn in my throat.

“Yes, Q!” Margo claps me on the back. “Come on, Aly Cat,” she says and we turn to Alice who took one sip and nothing more.

“It’s disgusting,” she deadpans.

“It’s a one drink fix all, it’s supposed to be disgusting,” Eliot says. “What’s it gonna be, Al? Spit or swallow?” he sing-songs.

She rolls her eyes at him and grimaces as she brings the cup to her lips, knocking it back in one go. El and Margo cheer and I hear myself joining in.

“Swallow? Tsk. It’s always the quiet ones,” Eliot teases, shaking his head. “Now, shall we get the fuck out of here?” he asks.

“Yes,” Alice says, clearly fighting back a burp. “The spell requires some hoop jumping. It’s circumstantial magic.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Some magic has necessities,” Eliot begins, pushing a hand through his curls as the other casts to refill his cup. “Things like requiring certain phases of the moon or times of day to cast.”

“Or both in this case,” Alice goes on, grabbing the binder. “We need a blue moon,” she lists, pointing at one of the words on the page written in a foreign language. “A midnight sky and something else. It’s in Czech. Looks like…pot...magic,” she squints at the smudged ink.

“Pět magie,” I read. “Five…magics?” I translate, remembering a bit of the Czech I tried to learn in high school. Alice blinks at me and I worry I’ve stepped on her moment but she looks more concerned than offended.

“Five magical adepts,” she explains. “We’re one person short.” Everyone groans.

“That’s convenient,” Eliot mutters.

“We’ll try it anyway,” Alice continues, squaring her shoulders. “Who gives a fuck?”

“I like Alcohol Alice,” Margo grins. “She’s spunky.”

“We have five hours to midnight, we should-”

We all jump at the sound of the knob rattling loudly as the door’s shoved open so hard it crashes against the wall for the second time today. Penny stomps in clearly pissed and doesn’t look the slightest bit surprised to see me. Just disgusted.

“Who the hell is Marina?” he barks, slamming the door. I stiffen at the name, my eyes automatically flicking to the binder. Penny follows my gaze.

“Don’t you knock, Penny?” Margo starts, stepping around me. “Or does it go against the rules in your Asshole Handbook?”

Penny tosses her one of his signature sneers moves past her to grip my shirt. “You.” He shoves me into the wall and steps so close to me I have to curl in on myself to get any air. “Tell me what you know about Marina.”

“We don’t know anybody named Marina, okay, Penny?” Eliot interrupts, trying to force his way between us, pushing Penny with his free hand. “Back off.”

Penny moves away but holds his intensity. “This little fuck knows something,” he says, pointing at me over El’s shoulder. “In the hall earlier, I heard him-” He stops abruptly and turns around to look at Alice. Her eyes widen at the attention but then her head cocks, eyes roaming his face as she realizes something.

“You’re psychic,” Alice says softly.

Penny is a magician?” Eliot laughs, taking a break from sipping.

“They’re really letting anyone in nowadays, huh?” Margo says, letting Eliot pour some of his drink into her cup.

“Magician? What the fuck are you talking about?” Penny asks.

“Dear god, deja-Hagrid,” Eliot mumbles, groaning. “You’re a wizard, Penny.”

“This makes sense,” I say, piecing it all together.

Yea,” Margo agrees. “Penny uses magic to get that stick up his ass. That’s how his dickishness reaches such high standards. Amazing,” she mocks. Eliot grins, offering his hand for a high five.

“No,” I begin again. “I mean- Remember when I said I felt like someone wanted us to meet?” Margo raises a brow, waiting. “What if we’re supposed to meet Penny, too?” She groans. “No, I mean just think about it. We’re discussing a spell, a five-person spell, and Penny just shows up, a magician, at the exact moment?”

“I miss coincidences,” she pouts.

“You’re supposed to help us,” I say to Penny, shrinking a bit as he looks at me.

“I’m not supposed to do shit but bash your head in if somebody doesn’t tell me what the fuck is going on here.”

“Magic is real,” Alice starts, her voice louder and fuller than mine, stern like a schoolteacher commanding Penny’s attention. “You’re a magician, we’re all magicians. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about why we’re here,” she hints and Penny nods. “They’re true. They were…accidents.” She clears her throat. “For some reason, we’ve been stuck here, kept in by magic. But now, we have a way out and we can’t do it- Well, we could but…If you help us, we could guaranteed be out of here tonight.”

Penny scoffs, running his hands over his face. “This is batshit. You’re all…batshit. We’re in an asylum-”

“Hospital,” I correct.

“What the fuck ever, Coldwater. Why don’t you all just take your fucking meds and-”

“Okay, fuck this,” Eliot interrupts. “The mind reader doesn’t buy magic.” He casts the spell he taught me that first day and Penny jumps at the sudden appearance of static glowing between Eliot’s fingers. “Abracadabra.”

Penny looks around at us wide-eyed, a million thoughts clearly going through his head, his fists clenched like he’s ready to fight or flee. “So, let me get this straight, I could do that?” Alice nods. “And you three really killed people? All the crazy shit I’ve been hearing you think the last few months…spells and foreign language bullshit…is real?”

Alice and Margo nod.

“Yup,” Eliot says, casually sipping his drink.

Penny presses the ball of his hand into his forehead like he’s fighting a headache. “What the fuck do you want me to do?”

“Help us with the spell keeping us in. Be our fifth,” Alice explains.

“You mean help you break out?” he scoffs. “Three admitted murderers?”

Alice steps to him, irritated. “We don’t deserve to be here.”

“Oh, so you didn’t kill anyone?” Penny bites back. Alice flinches at the word, losing steam. “The way I see it,” Penny goes on. “You’re exactly where you belong.”

I step between them, spurred on by the expression on Alice’s face. I’d caused that look once, I wasn’t going to let Penny do it now. “The way I see it, you know nothing about magic. It was an accident.”

He almost smiles down at me, smirking as he backs up, eyes still hard and threatening. “Yea, well, I’m not gonna take the word of three murderers and a dude dumb enough to sneak back into a mental hospital.”

“We could make you,” Alice threatens. The tiniest flash of nerves flit through Penny’s eyes before he squares his jaw.

“You could,” he nods, moving close again and glaring at her over my shoulder. “But that would only prove my point, wouldn’t it?”

He watches her, calling her bluff with his eyes. Whatever he sees declares him the winner and he smiles, moving away. “That’s what I thought.” He turns and heads for the door as I exhale. Alice pushes me to the side.

“Penny!” she calls. He stops, his hand on the knob. “If you help us, I’ll tell you everything I know about Marina.” He half-turns his head, listening. “This has something to do with Kady, right? I mean, she’s the only thing you care about. Help us and I’ll tell you.”

He stands there still for so long I start to count the seconds. “Please,” Alice adds and he finally looks at her. Then all of us. Eliot and Margo look on quietly, faces blank to hide what I’m sure would be the same hopeful expression I’m wearing.

Penny’s eyes land back on Alice and then he drops his head, turns the knob and walks out, slamming the door behind him.

Chapter Text

“Did you think something rude to Penny?” Eliot asks Margo as the door closes. Margo scoffs, looking offended.

“Oh, please. I would say it to his face. Besides, you don’t like him either,” she accuses, hands on hips.

You told him he had a stick up his ass.”

“He does!” Margo yells. “And you high fived me for that-”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alice interrupts, trying to look hopeful through the fuck fuck fuck written all over her face. She was clearly hoping Penny would agree. Pretty sure we all were. “We’re doing it without him. Let’s just…get packed up and then start practicing so we’ll be ready. Okay?”

Eliot sits his cup down and clears his throat. “Aye, aye, captain.”

“Shouldn’t take long to pack,” Margo begins. “Orphan Annie's got more shit to her name than me.” she deadpans, grabbing Alice’s hand to lead her out.

“Actually, Alice, can I talk to you?” I say, stopping them as they step into the hall.

“Sure,” Alice agrees with a small shrug.

Margo looks me up and down. “Secrets, secrets,” she mumbles, walking away. I peek into the hall, checking for someone who might spot me. It’s quiet, the lights starting to dim as the floor winds down for the evening. I close the door behind me, pulling Alice into the corner a little way down the hall.

I move to speak but she beats me to it. “Do you think Penny is right?” she asks suddenly. “I mean…because I think…Penny is right. We-” She pauses and gets that far off, uncomfortable look again.

“You don’t belong here,” I assure her. “None of you. Penny’s a dick, otherwise he’d see that.”

“You can’t blame him. Magic aside, it’s not like I couldn’t benefit from a little bit of…help. I-”

“Who couldn’t use a bit of help?” I interrupt. “Alice, y- you’re amazing,” I stutter out. Her eyes widen. “Half of this is…is because of you. The spells, the blueprints, keeping everyone on task.”

“Yea,” she says dryly, shaking her head. “I’m overbearing.”

“You’re focused,” I defend. “Alice, I- Meeting you guys…You’re all so…You’re the strongest people I’ve ever met. And I don’t care if someone shoved us together. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I met you. This has been the craziest, most exciting…best fucking four days of my life,” I finish weakly, embarrassed I said it all. I might as well tattoo the word ‘desperate’ on my forehead.

“You know how I know you’re gonna find your brother?” I ask her. “Because I know you’re not going to stop until you do, because I know if anyone can do it, it’s you.”
She smiles and I realize I’m getting too used to the sight. I realize I probably like it too much. Even now when it’s accompanied by watery eyes and in the middle of a soft, secret moment.

For a second, I want to kiss her. I shove the thought away, fear of embarrassment and rejection promising me all the outcomes would be disastrous. Then I remember the brevity of my part in their lives, the fact I may never see them again just a few hours from now and I let myself read the moment, savor the moment, better the moment with the feel of my lips against hers.

She stills and I move away, looking into her wide blue eyes again, those tiny voices of fear loud and taunting, telling me they told me so. I’ve ruined it. Solidified that I’ll never keep these people.

“Sorry-” I start but the words are snatched away as Alice presses her mouth to mine. Hard. Like she’s tasted something she didn’t think she got her fill of and needs more. There’s some frenzy to our mouths, like we both have something to say, our tongues fighting over the words. ‘This. No, I mean this.’ It doesn’t matter. It’s all perfect.

There’s no tempo to our kisses. We’re fast and slow and hard and soft, asking questions with our lips and proving points with our tongues and I’m drowning in the argument, in the feel of her. I cup her cheek, holding her there and I feel a tiny smile on her lips, finally tasting the expression, a smile of my own growing as I do.

I run my hand down her side, clutching the fabric as her fingers tighten in my hair, drawing a sound from me. The material crunches in my hand; starch, stiff fabric and it pulls me back to reality. I move away, catching my breath. Alice blinks her eyes open, her face pinched in confusion like the moment is catching up with her.

Then she looks at me and I see her consciously summon that calculated look and all I can do to confirm the kiss ever happened is to focus on the tingling feeling still on my scalp from her fingers before.

“I should- We should-,” she stutters, rattled for the first time since I’ve met her. “That was a mistake.”

I try to hide the hurt but I’m sure she sees it. “A mistake?” I repeat, dumbfounded. “I- You kissed me back,” I remind her, confused. “And not a pity peck, you…you full on kissed me back.” I run over the kiss again, looping it and leaning in to examine each frame trying to find where it went wrong.

“I shouldn’t have,” she says, her lids fluttering rapidly the way they do when she’s thinking hard on something. “I mean, do you even know why you kissed me?” She only waits a moment for me to respond but it’s enough to let me realize I don’t have a solid why. The moment just felt right. “I do,” she finishes. She lets it hang there, like she’s hoping I’ll respond, disagree, agree, anything but everything I think to say sounds wrong.

“We should focus,” she says simply as she steps around me. Fuck.

“Wait, I wanted to-” I grab her wrist and her eyes follow my hand. I let go. “I wanted to talk to you. It’s about the binder.”

“What about it?” she asks. God, she sounds robotic. Is that how I sound? Like shit’s so awkward we’ve forgotten how to be human with each other?

“I need to make sure it gets returned. To Marina.”

“You want to give it back?” she questions, a bit of anger brimming in her eyes.

“Yes. It’s…I have to.”

“Quentin, they steal their magic, it’s not like it’s even all theirs.”

“Alice, I’ll return it myself if I have to I just-” I take a deep breath to fight the frustration. “I figured you’d know a way to do it without having to go back there.”

She smiles a bitter looking smile so brief I almost miss it. “Fine,” she agrees, no longer hiding her upset. “I’ll make sure it gets back to her.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure, Quentin. Of course,” she says blankly. “Is that it?”

I nod and she turns and starts down the hall before I can even finish the movement. I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and squeeze my eyes shut to fight the headache I feel beginning.

“Hey,” Eliot says when I enter our room again. He’s changed into a pair of black pants and a dark blue long-sleeved button up. He’s got his vest and a few random items in a pile on his bed. What does she mean, ‘do you know why you kissed me’?

“Hey.” I flop down on my bed, scooting against the headboard with a sigh. I look over his pile. “They let you keep your clothes?” I ask. Is wanting to not enough of a why?

“Yea,” Eliot says, picking at the material. “They threw us in here pretty abruptly,” he explains, lying back on his bed. “No time for hose downs and costume changes.”
A thought crosses my mind. “What if you guys being here is part of it all? What if someone put you guys here so we could meet?”

He leans up on his elbows, brows raised. “Fuck,” he considers. “Then fate or who the fuck ever is a major bitch.” He flops back down, staring at the ceiling. “I mean, no offense, Q, I’m glad we met but a coffee shop would have been just as nice.”

A laugh spills out of me and he joins in, sitting up again to watch me. “It would have saved you a door to the face and 3 days of white walls and grey jumpsuits,” he goes on, pausing when he sees I’ve stopped laughing. “What?”

I shake my head and try to force a smile. God, it’s like if I stopped overthinking, I’d explode. Every moment gets ruined because I can never just let it be as simple as a few seconds of actual happiness.

“Your face just went season six Buffy, Q.”

I slink down in the bed to lay flat so he can’t see my face. “Just thinking about how fucked it is that I met you guys because I felt so…” Alone? Stupid? Empty? “Wonder if that part was planned, too.”

He’s quiet for a while and I find some confidence in the silence, the words spilling out before I let myself think about it. “I came here because I had this thought that…because nothing was ever going to not be pointless and empty then why go on?” He’s quiet still and I convince myself I’m alone. “It’s just…such a shit thought to think I might have been…programmed to feel that way.”

He doesn’t respond and I let myself be okay with it. Let myself appreciate the ear he lent and the relief I felt saying it out loud even if the calm only lasted a moment.

“Jesus!” I exclaim, jumping as he appears beside me, the bed dipping as he slides next to me, mimicking my position as we both stare at the off-white, chipped paint above us, neither of us speaking for a while.

“I feel like this is the part where I say something…uplifting and insightful,” he starts. “But I got nothing,” he finishes after a moment, a humorless laugh coming out of him. “What if you’re right,” he says, leaning up on his elbow, his head in his hand as he looks down at me. “What if this is all part of some shitty plot and we’re all just pawns?”

I wait for him to go on, frowning when he doesn’t. “Is that…that’s your pep talk?”

“That’s my pep talk,” he says matter of factly. “It’s all bullshit, Q,” he continues, seeing my face. “I’m not arguing about that. It’s fucked up. We have been fucked up. But look at us now. Four fabulously angry, fucked-up, free magician badasses.”

“You’re trying to tell me to look on the bright side?”

“God no. I’m trying to tell you you’re not alone here.”

I want to make him promise. Or at least I want to find a way to bottle the way I felt when he said it. His voice was sure, heavy with so many guarantees. Thick with feeling, he meant it.

I hope I never forget feeling like he meant it.

“Hey,” he says quietly and I pull my eyes from the ceiling to look at him again. His eyes are soft and carrying a strange look.

“Hey,” I respond, suddenly acutely aware of his eyes and how they’re roaming my face like he’s trying to puzzle it out. He swallows hard and my eyes follow the movement, mimicking it. My mouth goes dry and I want to kiss him.

And I know why I want to.

Because there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Because there's nothing else in my brain but the thought of it.

I lean up but he beats me to it, sweeping hair back from my face and pressing his lips to mine.

Chapter Text

I kiss Eliot back, our mouths moving slowly, testing the waters. I push my hand through his curls and they’re just as soft as I thought they’d be.

I don’t know what it means that I’m kissing him, all I can think about is how much I wish I could see his eyes. I don’t feel like I’ve appreciated them enough, appreciated anything about him enough and now I just want to drink in everything I can. Every single thing that makes him Eliot.

He pulls back. Brown. They’re light brown eyes and they’re kind of perfect actually. He squeezes them shut, moving away like he just remembered something. “That was- I’m sorry,” he says, holding a finger to his lips.

“I- We’re stopping?” I stammer out stupidly. He grins down at me. This slanted, cocky, surprised, amused grin.

“We’re not stopping…” he pieces together, weaving a hand into my hair, gripping the back of my head to pull me closer. He waits til the last minute to close his eyes as he kisses me and then it’s just more softness and caresses.

He holds me steady, setting the pace as his lips move against mine, sure and wanting. Every meeting and separation of our mouths feels like it takes forever. Like every kiss is a deep, long stroke.

I run a hand up his arm to grip his neck and the tips of my fingers slip accidentally beneath his collar, sending some small shiver through him. His hand sinks further into my hair as he presses me deeper into the bed like he can’t get close enough.

It’s tongues and wetness and gasps as we let go, every poetic thing leaving my head. It’s all just sensation now. Panicked sensation.

He slides his hand down my body and lets his fingertips stop just above the waistband of my pants, waiting. They stay there too long, unmoving. I press on his shoulder gently to get him to move back, raising my brows questioningly.

He pushes a loose curl from his face. “We’re not stopping?” he asks breathlessly, eyes on my mouth.

“We’re not stopping,” I say back, shaking my head.

“Well,” he starts, “In that case…” He kisses me again with more power this time; more vigor, more intent. He turns over, half on top of me as he slides one leg between mine. His hand travels under my shirt, moving up my torso and then back down, nails raking lightly.

I feel like the air’s been knocked out of me but I mirror him touch for touch like we’re daring each other. I run my hand beneath his shirt, up to his neck and back, feeling the coarse hair of his chest and the smooth skin of his stomach.

I feel his breath shift every time I get near his waistband. On the fifth pass, he huffs and I fight a smile as I beat him at his own game.

His hips move once against my leg and I seize up, a noise leaving me. Suddenly, I realize how long it’s been since anything like this has…god, please don’t revert to fumbling, overeager teenage Quentin. Not now.

“Teasing’s not a game you’d win, Coldwater,” Eliot mumbles, smiling against my mouth. He rises to hover over me, watching me curiously for a beat. Before I can ask he dips down, pushes my shirt up and starts trailing his lips along my skin, his eyes on mine the whole time. His hair’s a mess, curls falling in his face every-

Oh.

He pops the button on my pants.

He drags the zipper down.

He slips his hand in-

“You boys ready to Shawshank this shit?”

Fuck me,” Eliot swears, rolling off me so fast he’s practically a blur. I sit up quickly, combing my fingers through my hair to calm it like El is doing with his. Eliot walks to the door in time for it to swing open and reveal Margo. She’s in red. A cropped shirt and a lacy skirt. She holds up my bag and starts speaking but stops, looking between Eliot and I, her mouth hanging open.

“No fucking way!” Margo exclaims suddenly, a disbelieving grin on her face as she looks at us. “You dicks didn’t even wait for me?” she teases, eyes still wide.

“Wait for what?” Alice asks, stepping up beside her in a simple black dress with a white collar. She’s got the binder in her arms along with her notebook. She won’t look at me but waits for Eliot to answer.

“I…have no idea,” he feigns. “Margo, what was it you were talking about?” he asks pointedly, throwing her a look.

Margo rolls her eyes at him. “I was saying I guess Q couldn’t wait,” she lies. “You forgot your bag, sweetie,” she smiles, holding it out to me.

I hop off the bed stiffly, trying to look natural despite feeling the seeds of guilt creep in. Somehow Alice not looking at me is worse than if she were glaring. I’m abruptly hit with the fact that I’ve kissed two people in this room in the last half hour. I grab the bag and Margo snorts, pressing her lips together to fight a laugh. I grimace, confused.

“You know what I like about our friendship, guys?” she starts. Alice, Eliot and I throw her the same what the fuck look. “It’s that we’re so wide open with each other, you know? Completely exposed.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Eliot asks. She steps inside and Alice closes the door behind them. Margo sits down on my bed and runs her hand over the sheets.

“God, Q, this bed is so messy. Did you take a nap?” she smirks.

“No. I mean, yes,” I stutter, trying to communicate various threats and pleading with my eyes.

“I bet it was a good one,” she nods. “Anyway, like I was saying, I love us,” she goes on, laying back. “We’re so up front. If something’s hard, we talk about it. We never stay zipped up.” She leans up and looks at me, throwing her head back in laughter when she sees the still-confused look on my face.

“Sure,” Alice starts, dismissing Margo as she takes a seat on the floor and opens the binder. “We should practice.”

“Okay, Aly Cat,” Margo agrees, jumping up. “No more dicking around.”

“Oh, dear God,” Eliot mumbles, as she passes him, throwing a look my way. I raise my brows and he motions to my pants…which are, yep, still open.

I fasten them as discreetly as possible, trying to drown out Margo’s hushed laughter as I do. Alice, luckily, is ignoring us, flipping through her pages.

“So, what miracle are we pulling out of our asses this time?” Eliot asks, sitting next to Margo. I slide in next to Alice and see her peek at me as she hunches over the book.

“Margo had an idea,” she cues, looking up.

“Well,” Margo smirks, leaning back on her hands. “Obviously, we need a blue moon. Which, if you’ve blown an astronaut, you know happens once every three years.” She pauses and pulls a phone out of her shirt. It’s mine. I reach for it and she dodges me.

“Oh, relax. I already looked through your Fillory fanboy porn,” she dismisses, scrolling.

I open and close my mouth stupidly. “It’s not porn, it’s fan art,” I defend.

She raises her brows. “The Watcherwoman…was in a thong.”

“Okay, Bambi,” Eliot interrupts, thankfully. “We can kink shame Q later—and we will kink shame,” he says pointedly to me. “What’s your point?”

“My point is that I Googled when the blue moon would be, found out we were fucked, and thereby debunked the bullshit Fate hypothesis. Sorry, Q,” she says to me. “But at least now we know we aren’t destined to be friends with Penny,” she offers brightly. “The blue moon was 3 weeks ago but considering I haven’t showered alone in seven months, I vote we stick to the plan and ditch this bitch tonight.”

“How?” I question.

“I’m glad you asked, Little Boy Q. There are two kinds of blue moons, a rare one and a literal one,” she lists, clearly enjoying having the lead. “The rare one takes time but the literal one is just science. The air gets dirty, it gets a neat little filter and the moon looks blue. Voila,” she finishes, still smiling like she’s waiting for us to have more questions.

“And how do we do that?” Eliot asks, appeasing her.

“What a great question, Eliot!” she gasps. “Literal blue moons usually happen after a forest fire or volcano eruption,” she recites. “So, we start a fire. A big one.”

“A small one,” Alice corrects. Margo huffs.

“A small one,” she amends.

“You want us…to start a fire?” Eliot asks slowly. “In front of a hospital? In the middle of the night?”

“We just need a lowkey Insta filter to Smurf the bitch up,” Margo reasons. “We start a fire, a tiny one, it fucks up the air, the dust particles go woosh and the moon looks blue, it’s simple.”

“Just a simple fire, no big deal,” Eliot mocks, shrugging.

“We’ll need to be quick about it,” Alice starts. “Small or not, it’ll attract attention eventually. We have to start the spell as soon as the moon goes blue.”

“And then?” I ask. She looks at me finally. Straight into my eyes like she forgot I was there and then at my mouth like she knows me well. She tucks her hair behind her ear and turns back to Eliot and Margo.

“And then we get out of here.”

-e-

“You know, this looks a lot more fun in the movies,” Margo whispers as we move in tight formation through the halls a few hours later. It’s quiet but we’re still careful to walk slowly so our steps don’t wake anyone.

Despite the fact I’m not the one trapped behind the wards, I’m nervous as fuck about the plan failing. My hands are cramped and aching from practicing over and over. My Popper 27 kept being off and if I ever learn what to do with my thumbs while casting, it’ll be a fucking miracle.

“I’m unlocking,” Alice announces somewhere in front as we reach the heavy stairway door. I can’t see any of them, the invisibility charm doing its job. The door clicks quietly but with enough sound to make me jump. “Shit,” Alice mumbles, slowly opening the door. The light from the stairwell pours brightly into the hall. “Go.”

I hear someone shuffle forward and follow them, moving into the stairway. “I think we’re all out,” I tell Alice. After a moment, the door slowly drags shut.

“Remember, there are night guards on the floor,” Alice explains. “Usually two by the automatic door. We’ll have to sneak past them.”

“How do you know all this?” I bring myself to ask. She’s orchestrated this entire thing, provided maps and intricate instructions, guided me through the building like she’s studied every inch.

“She paid attention,” Eliot starts after some silence. “We used to sneak downstairs all the time. Take turns trying to find a way out. The doors on this floor didn’t always have such serious locks,” he informs. Someone pushes past me on the stairs and I take my cue to keep moving. “Sometimes we’d get caught…sedated.” He forces the word out like he hates the taste. “Note what we saw then the next night, someone else would go. Went on, what, nearly two months? Then they switched the locks—the entire door actually, to something thicker. Alice always got the farthest.”

We arrive on the main floor and I notice the difference between the doors. While the first door we came through was heavy, shiny steel, the door leading to the main floor is thinner with chipped paint like it hasn’t been thought about in a while. Like they were confident no one would ever make it this far past the first door.

I realize what a blackspot their lives before me is. I have no idea what their desperation to escape led them to try or what they were willing to do for a chance to leave the place they were being kept but didn’t belong.

The idea of them tiptoeing through hallways knowing the jab of a needle was almost guaranteed by the end of the night but doing it anyway touches deep inside me, and the stains I tried to scrub from my memory of my own time in padlocked grey places all those years ago sneak back up and try to strangle me.

“Do you hear that?” Margo asks suddenly and I slam into someone on the stairs as they stop abruptly. There’s the faint sound of voices somewhere beyond the door, growing louder as they get closer.

“Someone’s coming,” Alice breathes beside me. “Against the walls, quick!”

We all hustle to smash ourselves against the walls. “We’re fucked,” Eliot says from the opposite wall and I look around, noting the miniscule distance between the two walls. It’s narrow. The likelihood of two people walking in and neither touching us is somewhere between no fucking way and no fucking way. We are fucked.

“You don’t understand, I need this job!” someone yells. Two sets of shadows settle in front of the door.

“You should have thought about that before you missed 43 days of work the past few months.”

“But-”

“This is a hospital, not some after school program you show up to when you feel like it.”

“I get that. If I could just-” they stammer, the voice seemingly belonging to a woman. “I can’t lose this job. I’ll work for free. Please.”

“Even if I could allow that, Kady, I wouldn’t.” Kady. “If you think you and Mr. Adiyodi have been discreet with your sneaking around and inappropriate encounters, you’re incorrect. The only reason he has a job still is that he’s dependable. You, Ms. Orloff, are not. I’m sorry. You can pick up your check tomorrow.”

“Dr. London- Please-”

One of the shadows disappears, the footsteps retreating. Kady, presumably, stays still in front of the door. I wait for her to leave but she stays rooted.

Damn it!” she yells finally, something slamming hard against the door, startlingly. Someone gasps quietly beside me.

The door handle starts rattling, unlocking loudly as Kady shoves her way in. It slams behind her and I press further into the wall as she stops in front of me. She’s in the usual blue scrub uniform Penny wears but with a dark hoodie over it hanging off one shoulder. Her hair is a mess of curls, made worse by her hands gripping it.

She just stands there staring at the stairs for a long while and then she lets out one singular, raspy sob. She runs a hand over her forehead and moves her lips like she wants to smile through the upset, like it’s a familiar feeling she almost missed.

She kicks back against the door hard once and then starts for the stairs. I exhale, my chest tight from holding my breath and I see a curl in her hair move from the air. She pauses and looks my way sharply, narrowing her wet eyes curiously. She reaches out a hand and someone snatches me sideways into the corner, holding me to them as Kady’s fingers make contact with the wall.

She looks around the cramped hall one more time and then turns away, taking the stairs two at a time. We stay still until we hear a door slam somewhere upstairs.

“Thank you,” I whisper as the hands let me go and I move away.

“It’s fine,” I hear Alice’s voice say stiltedly. “Let’s be quick.” She unlocks the door and cracks it open. We wait for her to say the hall is clear. The door opens wider after a few seconds. “Okay, come on.” I start out and bump bodies with someone and we awkwardly shuffle out. “Are we all out?”

“Yes,” I respond.

“Mmhmm,” Eliot hums.

“Yea,” Margo whispers.

The door closes again with a low click. “Grab hands,” Alice says and someone grabs me on either side and we start moving together down the hall. I spot the familiar water fountain to my left, getting my bearings as we approach the doors and entry desk, a different woman sitting behind it. She looks just as bored as the other, vacantly flipping through a magazine.

The automatic doors are flanked on each side by tall, thick men, each very heavily, very obviously armed. “I got this,” Margo says as we get nearer, her voice barely audible somewhere to my right. Seconds pass and then the woman behind the desk suddenly slumps forward in her seat, her head hitting the table hard as she collapses.

“Melissa?” one of the guards call, relaxing his stiff posture as he looks to her. “Fuck,” he says and hits the arm of the other guard, getting his attention. The bearded guard pulls earbuds from his ears, irritably.

“What is-” He stops abruptly, following the blond guard’s finger to see Melissa passed out. “Oh shit,” he remarks and they both rush over and lift her lax body, slapping her cheeks lightly to try and wake her. Their motion opens the automatic doors and I move towards them, thinking this is our out but whoever is right of me is resisting.

I pause, waiting. I want to ask what’s happening but bite my tongue. I move for the door again, yanking whoever’s on my right but their fingers slip from mine as we’re all thrown back. I hit the door’s edge as a faint wisp of yellow light rebounds off the back of the bearded guard while he fusses over the woman.

He turns as if tapped on the shoulder and looks toward us. The fingers of the person on my left tighten around my hand. I pull them behind me. If they get anyone, they may as well get me. The guard starts our way.

I step forward and cast a familiar spell, flicking my fingers to the walkie-talkie strapped to his waist. It crackles and pops, the sound making him jump. He unhooks it and smacks it against his hand.

“Hello? Hello? What the fuck is wrong with this thing? Brick, is yours working?”

The blond guard looks up. “I don’t know. She’s out cold, man. What do we-”

“Hey!” someone calls down the hall and I look to see Penny jogging up. He looks over the scene, eyes lingering on Melissa for a bit. “There’s a Code Silver on crisis stabilization,” he informs them.

“Shit. Fucking walkies aren’t working,” the blond curses, finally moving away from the woman, now slouched back in the chair, head to the ceiling. He looks at her and Penny huffs.

“Leave her. Pretty sure she said she’s anemic or some shit. She’ll wake up. I’ll stay here.”

The guards hesitate for only a moment before stepping away from the desk. The blond one looks to Penny.

“Aren’t you coming?”

Penny narrows his eyes. “You’re asking if I’m gonna come up with you to deal with a combative psycho and do what? Tell you where to point your gun?” he scoffs. “You want me to hold your dick while you piss, too? Go do your fucking job.”

“A joy as always, Penny,” Brick says dryly and jogs off. Penny watches until they disappear around the corner at the end of the hall then turns our way.

“You fucking idiots,” he says simply, headed for us. He walks out the doors then stops, looking back, annoyed. “Are we fucking doing this or not?”

Chapter Text

“Well, if it isn’t Lucky Penny,” Margo says as Eliot, Alice and I follow her lead and reverse the invisibility cast, our bodies fading back into visibility as Penny watches half amazed, half annoyed.

“You changed your mind,” I say, surprised but relieved, feeling hints of confidence and hope sneak back into me.

“About helping? Maybe. About the four of you being insane? Not so much. Is she gonna wake up?” he asks, nodding to the woman at the desk.

“She’s fine,” Margo starts, fanning a hand as the first set of automatic doors close behind her. “Persian Fainting charm. Something that would’ve worked on the guards if they weren’t shielded up the ass,” she says pointedly. “What the hell is going on here? I thought we were the only witches in Oz.”

“More pawns on the chessboard,” Eliot says, his face pinched in thought. “More fucked shit to unfuck.”

“No kidding,” Margo agrees. “Who fucked with his walkie?”

“I did,” I speak up. Margo raises a brow, a small smirk on her lips. “One of Alice’s.”

“That was smart,” Eliot compliments.

“Ballsy,” Margo adds. The hints of confidence grow into huge seeds teetering on the edge of pride.

“You can jerk each other off later,” Penny cuts in. “Are we leaving or not?”

“Penny’s right,” Alice steps in, having been silently watching the exchange. “It must be near time.”

I pull my phone from my pocket and check. “11:49, she’s right.” I lead the way through the second set of automatic doors and step out into the filthy vacant alleyway. The smell of alcohol and trash hit me. Penny steps out with me, fanning his nose against the smell.

“This is as far as we can go,” Alice says and she, El and Margo are stopped right at the edge of the exit.

“Ok,” I say, walking back, Penny following. “You ready?” I ask Margo.

“Are you?” she shoots back cockily, flexing her hands. She closes her eyes and starts speaking words to herself, her fingers moving slowly and carefully through a casting. It’s long, full of tight circles and sharp twists then she pauses. She curls her fingers up one by one, the motion creating a wave that ends in a snap of her fingers and sparks with it a ball of flame.

“Whoa!” Penny says, jumping back.

The flame burns bright. A vibrant, orange sphere of heat turning slowly in midair above Margo’s hands. It stays waiting when she moves her hands away to wipe them on her skirt. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she was nervous. She goes back in, her face in fierce concentration.

Margo pinches her forefinger and thumb together like she’s threading a needle and, like a string, the flames follow her fingers, stretching wider left, then wider right until the ball becomes a thick sheet of fire, stretching several feet across. I take a step back. The heat hits us strongly, enveloping us in an intense, uncomfortable warmth that gets worse as the flames grow.

Margo starts the cast over again, working through the words and the motions, and the fire grows even bigger and wider still. She does it again and again and again, each time guiding it further into the night sky until it raises high up above us, hanging over our heads like a hellish rain cloud. It pushes up past the hospital roof, on and on until it’s a neon orange ceiling overhead. Penny looks on, his eyes wide, his hands half raised like he’s ready to shield his face at any moment.

Smoke starts up furiously, the air getting cloudy around us as Margo’s creation does its job, muddying the air until it’s scarcely breathable and starting to take our breath away. Eliot lets out a hard cough, a hand over his nose. I feel my eyes start to water.

“Now,” Alice chokes out after a while. The smoke is so heavy, I can barely see her.

Margo opens her eyes finally and looks up at what she’s done, a wide brim of flame hovering in the sky. “Hotovo,” she finishes with a sharp clap of her hands. A loud explosion sounds, thundering through the air, strong enough that the windows rattle. The flames dissolve into a puff of black smoke, ashes falling down around us like rain.

“Did it work?” Eliot asks after a few seconds. I step back. The moon is high over the hospital, out of their sight.

“I don’t know.” The moon is hidden behind a sheet of smog, black and thick, too thick to see much of anything. “Smoke’s too thick.”

“Fuck me,” Margo groans. “We don’t have time to wait.”

“So, what do we-”

Eliot’s words stop short as Alice starts casting, her face determined and focused as her hands work. We watch her as she moves through it silently, her breath picking up a bit. “Move,” she says to me and I step out of her way. She pushes her hands forward, palms straight out and a gust of wind blows forward, strong enough to gently shake one of the heavy garbage cans. She holds one palm up flat, horizontal to the ground and then takes the forefinger of her other hand and starts slowly moving it against her palm. Small circular movements like she’s tracing a pattern.

The wind picks up, taking with it nearby bottles and discarded papers, tossing them in a circle, round and round like a tiny twister beginning. The items move up and up and round and round, the soft wind blowing everything around us as it makes its way up to the remnants of Margo’s fire. “Where is it?” she asks me.

“Further back,” I say and she nods minutely, bringing her hands closer to her chest as the winds move back and under where I last saw the moon.

She slows down, her eyes on my face, gauging my reaction, waiting for my direction. The wind relaxes into a breeze, her finger moving slowly against her skin. “There,” I say and she stops, sliding her hands together. A puff of air so small I almost want to laugh breaks into the smog and I wait.

The smoke slowly separates, the wind fanning it gently aside to reveal the moon, sitting between two clouds, shining brightly…a pale blue tint to it.

“It’s blue,” I say, unable to fight a smile.

“It is?” Alice asks, a frantic excitement to her voice. I nod. “Okay, come on, quick.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Penny questions as we step in front of them.

“Should have come to study group,” Margo mumbles.

“Just…just try and follow us,” Alice suggests, biting her lip nervously. “What time is it?”

I check my phone again. “11:56.”

“We’ll barely make it. Eliot,” she commands and he wipes his hands on his pants.

“Ready?” he asks, hands poised in the first position.

“Ready,” Alice, Margo and I say in unison.

Eliot starts his cast, his fingers gracefully working their way through. It was a happy accident we planned for him to go first. Eliot does magic like he’s telling a story. He moves so fluidly and hangs on a bit to every position he hits, it’s easiest to follow him. To his credit, Penny watches carefully, his fingers trying to learn. Eliot finishes, dropping his hands to his side, fingers splayed and stark straight. A bright blue light drips from each of his digits, ringing out with a small, buzzing noise.

Margo takes her cue and casts the same, her hands much looser than El’s like she’s done it a million times and is bored with it. Margo does magic like it’s beneath her. As if it's laid all its cards on the table and has nothing to offer her but a favor when she needs it and a solution when she seeks one. She drops her hands to her side at the finish, one linking with Eliot’s, the other bright and waiting at her side.

Penny’s picked up the first 3 positions.

Alice starts casting quickly, moving expertly through the spell. Alice does magic like she’s scared of it. There’s something stilted about it, like she’s calculating and regulating each step, afraid to do too much like she thinks it’ll suck her in and hold on tight. She finishes, her left hand linking with Margo’s, her right waiting for me.

Fuck.

I want to crack my knuckles but feel everyone’s eyes and decide against it. It’s like there’s a clock in my head and I can hear every tick and tock as it draws nearer to midnight.

I get 4 moves in and falter. My Popper fucking 27.

“You’ve got it, Q,” Eliot says, watching me. “Stop thinking.”

He says that like it’s easy. I pop my knuckles and start again. I’m slow. The fact that my hands are shaking is a truth made worse only by the fact that everyone can see my hands are shaking but I finish anyway. I picture something black; imagine I’m pressing my face into something so black I can’t see and I finish.

“Easy peasy,” I murmur, grabbing Alice’s hand as my other, as if thinking on its own, shoots to my side. My fingers feel stiff, like someone’s yanking on each one to keep them straight. My other hand feels fused to Alice, a hot heat between us as we’re forced into a grip.

“You’re up, buttercup,” Margo says to Penny.

Penny looks at us like he hates us all which is probably true considering there’s a weak but noticeable tremble to his hands and we all see it.

He hits the first position sloppily, the second position better, the third like he’s known it his whole life, the fourth like it hurts and on and on, a pattern of inconsistent competency until he’s at the last position. A flicking motion with the thumbs and a crooked forefinger that gave me a hand cramp the first time I hit it.

He finishes.

His hands drop, glowing blue, and like a magnet is pulling us, I’m drawn to him, fingers linking together tightly. His right hand grabs Eliot and the five of us ignite.

We burn blue. A static travels along our bodies, starting at our hands and snaking up around us. Over our arms, around our legs it wraps, binding us in place.

It feels euphoric, this magic. Like we’ve touched a livewire. I want to let go. It’s amazing and pure and addictive but I feel the danger and the threat, I just can’t bring myself to pull away.

Alice grunts beside me as it holds onto us, Margo looks to her like she’s waiting for direction, her lips parted slightly; Penny’s face is contorted in confusion and anger, his eyes blaming us. I feel the tiniest bit of tugging on my hand as he struggles against the feeling.

Eliot.

Eliot is riding the wave, his eyes closed as the magic courses through him. If I relax enough I can feel it in my toes, in my fingertips. But I’m not relaxed and I feel the blackness of this power, of Hedge magic. Alice feels it, Margo feels it, Penny feels it. Eliot doesn’t. That or he’s used to stomping down blackness for the sake of sensation.

I think about relaxing with him and giving in but then the feeling changes, the sound changes. Goes from a light tinkling to a deep thrum. From a tempting vibration to a pinching sting. It gets louder and louder, sharper and sharper.

It holds us tighter and tighter and then spits us out. Hard. I tumble backward, my head connecting with the ground. Penny comes with me, cursing as he does. Alice, Eliot and Margo fall on top of us.

“Jesus fuck, what the hell was that?” Penny swears, rubbing the back of his head.

Eliot pushes up off him. “Whatever it was felt- Wait,” he says, pausing to look around.

Margo and Alice lean up, both half-sprawled across me and then slowly turn to each other. “We’re outside!” Margo celebrates, grinning. “Holy shit! We actually fucking did it!”

Eliot stands and reaches for Margo, helping her up. I stand, brushing my jeans off, unable to fight the sinking feeling in my stomach.

This is the end of my quest.

Margo pulls Alice to her feet then reaches for Eliot, gripping him at the neck to bring his face down. She presses a kiss to his cheek and hugs him with one arm, the other stretched behind her, still holding onto Alice.

“You’re welcome,” Penny says dryly, effectively ruining the moment. I’m almost grateful. Maybe I’m an asshole—in fact, I’m sure I am—but with their happiness comes the end of my usefulness, the end of my purpose.

“I got you out, so how about you hold up your end?” Penny hints at Alice.

She purses her lips. “We have to get out of here.”

“That wasn’t in the plan-”

Alarms start blaring from somewhere inside the hospital, the sharp sound making us jump. “They know,” Eliot says. “We gotta leave and leave now.”

“Where are you gonna go?” I ask.

“Brakebills,” Alice answers and Eliot and Margo widen their eyes.

“Fucking Brakebills?” Margo questions loudly.

“We don’t have time for a fucking pow-wow,” Penny interrupts, glancing through the glass doors nervously. “Let’s go.

He starts off, waiting for us to follow. Eliot nods and goes first and the girls follow, hands still linked. I take off as well, the five of us sprinting as fast as we can. Our feet thunder loudly down the alleyway, splashing in puddles from the earlier rain as we go. This is it. I’m going to Brakebills.

“I think I know a portal spell!” Alice yells as we near the main street. “We just need t-”

“Quentin!”

I skid to a stop as we reach the sidewalk, turning to see Julia running toward us. God. How shitty of a friend am I to have forgotten about her?

“Who the fuck?” Margo murmurs.

They follow me as I close the distance, jogging to Julia. “Julia? What the hell are you doing here?”

She pauses to draw in air, her breathing heavy like she literally ran here. “I came…to warn you…Marina,” she gasps.

“Jesus christ, who the fuck is Marina?” Penny steps in, aggravated.

“Warn me? Warn me about wh-”

The words get snatched away from me as something I can’t see barrels into me hard. It crashes into my stomach, shoving me back against the brick hospital side. I hit the brick and rebound, the force ricocheting my head back into the wall.

“Oh my god, Q!” Julia yells.

I hear the loud crack the collision makes, feel the pain and then start fading. Four blurred figures rush at me and melt into a slur of colors as my vision goes black. I try to open my eyes but they’re so heavy…Something keeps pressing at my stomach, digging into me…I lose the battle to stay awake…

“Get it!”

“Get what? I can’t see it!”

“None of this happened until she showed up!”

“I didn’t do this. Marina-”

“Who the fuck is Marina?”

Chapter Text

“You took longer than expected.”

My eyes shoot open at the voice. I’m in a white room. The walls, the high ceiling, everything is white. It’s spacious and empty and…eerie. There’s no sound, no smell, nothing inherently remarkable about the space. Nothing and no one is here except a small table in the middle of it all with Eliza sitting behind it.

She’s abandoned the grey sweatpants for a black short sleeved dress, an off-white paisley scarf tied around her neck loosely. Her red hair is twisted up into an intricate knot, loose tendrils falling on either side of her face.

“Don’t just stand there,” she says, not bothering to look up from whatever she’s fussing over on the table. “Sit.”

Before she can even finish the word, I’m sat across from her. From point A to B in the blink of an eye. I try not to marvel at it too much and remind myself of the incredible things I’ve already seen the past few days but Alice, Eliot and Margo never teleported. “Did you just-?” I stammer. “So you are a-”

“Magician? Yes,” she says exasperatedly, finally glancing up from the puzzle she’s working on. “Honestly Quentin, I thought you were smart.”

“I am smart,” I defend. “I just…” I look around the void, white room again and my stomach drops. “Am I dead?”

“Not yet.”

She says it so casually. “Not yet? What do you mean ‘not yet’? Does that mean I’m gonna die?”

“Quentin, we’re all going to die someday.”

I clench my jaw, really hating how stupid she’s making me feel. “I mean, am I going to die soon?”

“That’s up to you,” she starts, straightening the white table cloth. “It’s not looking well,” she admits disappointedly. “Like I said, you took longer than I expected.”

“To do what?”

“To get them out, of course,” she says like it’s the most obvious thing. “You even got Penny. Smart of Alice to make that bargain. But I’d advise you to keep an eye on him,” she cautions. “He has trouble picking sides.” She leaves the words there and loans me a few seconds of hard eye contact before clapping her hands and leaning in interestedly. “So? Well? What have you learned?”

I blink at the question. “What do you mean?”

She sighs. “What have you learned the past few days?”

“Uh…” I struggle for words I think she wants to hear. “Well, Alice gave me a number of spells to help with Marina.” She nods indulgently. “I have those memorized. All of them,” I finish. She raises her brow like she’s waiting for more. “That’s it. That’s all I’ve learned-”

“It can’t be,” she interrupts. “It’s not all magic, Quentin.”

I blink. Is this a test? Is this the test? Some sort of checkpoint to see if I advance to the next level in whatever game she’s playing with us?

“What else is it then?”

“Have you learned nothing from your new friends? Have you allowed nothing to penetrate that wall you’re constantly begging for people to break through?” she asks and I feel too transparent. “You’ve been waving your hands, cramping your fingers, memorizing spells for what? To free your friends? Or appease your ego?”

“I don’t have an ego!” I start firmly, her implications poking some sensitive part in me. “Everything I’ve done has been to right the wrongs you did. They didn’t belong there. I got them out.”

“So, you never once considered the advantages of freeing them?”

“Advantages?” What advantages? “What? Like being left behind?” I ask sarcastically. “Yea, I considered it all the time.”

“I’m talking about things like being their savior and having them appreciate you because of it, becoming a master magician, gaining validation for things you’ve spent your life being judged for, rubbing your power in the faces of those who doubted you, getting to learn things you thought only existed in books,” she lists. My confidence falters under her gaze. “None of that ever crossed your mind? It never occurred to you to think of all the ways you could benefit? Not once? You told me once you thought too much, now you’re saying you haven’t thought at all?” All the words leave my head and become a pile of letters in the back corner of my mind, lost on what it is I want them to do. I don’t know what to say.

Eliza sighs deeply, the aggravated crease between her brows smoothing. “I put the suggestion of Ellsworth in your head,” she reveals. “Not the sadness. I drove you here to accelerate your independence and expedite the confidence you will need to face what’s coming,” she confesses, sending my mind reeling.

“For the record,” she begins. “I did not put your friends here. I did not make them kill anyone. They did that all on their own. When you tell them that truth, remind them and yourself of the importance of owning your faults. Truly owning them. Not blaming them on something else or crossing your fingers that the universe just gave you the short end of the stick. A good magician takes the facts, even the hard ones, and thrives—not in spite of them, but because of them.”

“So I’m supposed to just stay unhappy and be glad that it makes me a better magician? Even if I feel like shit?”

“I’m not a fairy godmother, Quentin. My wisdom is not rooted in positivity and uplifting quotes. And I am not a God. I can only tell you what I know, what I’ve learned. There is no remedy to who you are, only things to soothe the pain and happiness to lessen the blows. That’s life, Quentin. Highs and lows, lessons and facts, reality and fiction. Choose and you limit yourself.”

I let the words settle somewhere in my stomach. I don’t know how many times in the past few days I’ve forced myself to realize that magic is not the fairytale I imagined, but I decide now to never have to remind myself again.

It’s all shit.

“So what is it I’m meant to do? You’re still not giving me much. How the hell am I supposed to know?” I ask angrily. I can accept the realities but I won’t pretend to be happy about them.

“It should be obvious by now,” she states, not even remotely bothered by my tone. There’s a condescending edge to her voice that irks me.

“Well clearly it’s not obvious, so how about you just tell me plain what it is you want?”

“It’s not what I want, it’s what you want, it’s what we all want,” she bursts. “Something is coming for you. It will always come for you. I don’t know why you’re the constant and I don’t know how you’ll find it this time but you will. You always do. And when it happens, I would hope you’d not wait for me or any other person or thing to tell you ‘plain’ what it is you need to do. Seek the answers, Quentin. They are already looking for you.”

I should ask what’s coming but I’m stupidly tripping on the glossed over confirmation that I am not chosen, I am just there.

“If I’m supposed to be learning and you want me at my best then why wasn’t I at Brakebills?”

“For a number of reasons, Quentin,” she sighs heavily and fiddles with the puzzle a bit. “For one, time. You were not ready but all the best lessons are learned outside of school. For another, I thought maybe if you were on your own it’d help. That it would force you to step up…but you remain uninspired. You are learning words but not thinking how they may fit into a sentence. I had hoped that this time you would drop the heroics but I see they are ingrained in you,” she half smiles. A pretty way to say I failed. She reaches across the table and I stiffen, curious.

“There is a magician, a man, you want to be, and one you are meant to be and they are fighting within you,” she says, placing a hand on my face tenderly.

“Stop trying to be something else. If you insist on playing hero and insist on indulging yourself in fantasies of being the chosen one, then let yourself be chosen! Let that boy be the hero,” she advises. “And if you can’t, then consider the idea that maybe they don’t need who you want to be, they need who you are.”

I’ve never heard a series of sentences so simultaneously invigorating and unencouraging.

This whole conversation has done nothing but crumple me. I feel disorganized and bare here. Like I’ve been split wide open only to find the meat inside me is below standard, rotten and spoiled.

That magic exists and that I have it means nothing. I am not special, I am not unique, I am not the hero of some story. Every seed of obsession I had in me from reading those books was a complex mixture of loneliness and what I know now must be coincidence.

I knew, on some level, of the connection I had with magic. I knew, on some level, of the tiny bits of purpose in me. But they do not make me special. And they don’t have to have some grand purpose.

I know that now.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the ups and downs and the celebrations followed by devastations of the past few days, it’s that it was never about me. It was Alice’s intelligence, Margo’s strength, Eliot’s confidence, Penny’s nerve. I was always a vessel. Eliza confirmed it but I should have known.

I knew my part now.

I always wanted to fit in but now it seems so dreary. I’m so sickeningly like everybody else, I realize. Just another – what did Eliot say? – pawn on the chessboard.

And why is it me? No one knows but it’s not because I’m the one.

“Quentin?” Eliza says softly, pulling me back. She’s searching my face like she thinks I’m about to slip into some shock. I sober up.

“I need to step up, be better. For the part I play. Is that what you’re telling me?”

She cocks her head. “Do you remember the puzzle piece I gave you?”

I nod and pat my pockets as if it will still be there even in this phantom world.

Eliza leans in conspiratorially. “What did it do?”

I think back on that feeling of things sliding into place when I saw the warding outside Marina’s.

“It let me see the wards.” She shakes her head minutely.

“It showed you things in plain sight.” She plucks a piece identical to the one she gave me from the pile of puzzle parts on the table and holds it up. The eye winks at me. Eliza slides the piece into the puzzle she’s been working on. It’s a crude rendering of a scene that looks familiar.

It’s Jane Chatwin. She’s stood beside an old tree with a clock buried in its bark. The piece fits perfectly into her pale, stoic face. Eliza turns the puzzle my way. “It’s all relative,” she smiles at me cheekily and pats my face again, growing solemn.

“Beware of things in plain sight, Quentin.”

I don’t get to ask what she means.

The chance is taken away from me and though my eyes were open, I see the world fade back to me slowly as if waking from a dream.

I notice several things.

I am no longer in the white place, I am no longer on the street outside Ellsworth…and my head is killing me.

It’s a sharp throb at the base of my skull like someone drove a knife in and left it there. I blink and almost can’t get my eyes to reopen; the pain is telling me to go back where I came from. But behind my lids is all black and I think it was a one way trip.

“Quentin!” someone breathes my way, I feel the air brush my cheek. “He’s awake!” they shout and if I could feel my arm, I’d slap them. The noise, the volume only twists the knife. I turn stiffly and let my eyes roam over the room.

It’s bright. Tall, wide windows are to my right and a row of beds on my left, half blocked by Margo – the yeller – who’s pushing hair off my forehead like the bristling irritation even half compares to the pain her shouting caused.

I woke up in a bad mood.

Clicks and thumps start up as people shuffle into what I see now is a hospital of some sort. Eliot comes in, followed by Alice and Penny and…Julia.

“Q,” she says quietly and her eyes are red rimmed and heavy, heavier even than the last time I saw her. She looks like shit.

“Hey, Jules,” I respond and there’s a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, tapping me on the shoulder and telling me I’m supposed to feel some way seeing her. But, honestly, it hurts to think and even Eliza’s riddle of a conversation is rattling in my brain right now, half formed.

“How are you feeling?” Eliot asks, thumbing the covers at my feet.

“Like it hurts to exist,” I say groggily, my mouth dry. I clear my throat and the sensation hurts my temples. “Fuck,” I say sharply and everyone but Penny lurches forward a bit like I’m dying.

“Penny, go get a nurse or something,” Margo barks at him. He gives her a loaded, venomous look, his arms folded casually as he leans against a bed. Then he glances at me and, with an eye roll, leaves the room.

“I’d ask where I am and what happened but I feel like the answer might give me an aneurysm.”

Alice momentarily takes the pinched worried look off her face to sputter like she wants to tell me but is holding back.

“Just tell me.”

“We’re at Brakebills. In the infirmary,” she offers carefully.

So I made it to Brakebills and I don’t even remember any of it? Fits perfectly with the shit show this whole thing has been.

“Something attacked me,” I piece together when my memories start to settle. “What was it?”

“Something Marina sent after you for taking the binder,” Margo explains, throwing a hard look at Julia who, I swiftly remember, I’m not currently on the best terms with. We fought, we yelled, she came to warn me…

“We think,” Julia says monotonously.

“We know,” Margo corrects. “At least own your shit.”

Julia tucks her hair, nods and a little bit more life drains from her eyes. “This is all my fault,” she says to me, her eyes moving over my face. I wonder what I look like. Everyone in the room is focusing on me but none of them look for long.

“So what was it?” I ask her.

“An arugula.”

For a second, I fear I hear wrong and am more fucked up than I thought but Eliot scrunches his brows and asks, “He got his head bashed in by a fucking vegetable?”

“No,” Julia says, half-there, wringing her hands. “It’s like a giant…desert beetle?”

“It’s Greek,” Alice says to our still lost faces. “Rare. It secretes this liquid supposed to be a natural aphrodisiac. It knocks out its prey and then before it kills it, it…mates with it,” she finishes dramatically. We all give her the reaction she’s looking for.

“You mean…it was going to…” I don’t finish the sentence but the images in my head do. “I hate magic.”

“Why couldn’t we see it?” Eliot asks Alice, still disgusted.

“It camouflages, goes essentially invisible for protection. It’s got thin legs and a very soft body, the only way their prey would lose the fight is if they never saw it coming.”

“So, this Marina cunt sent a giant bug to fuck Quentin to death as revenge for stealing her big book of bullshit?” Margo pieces together. “That’s fucked up.”

“Will it come back?” I ask. “To finish what it started?” A wave of nausea and fear sweeps over me.

“The warding will keep it out,” someone assures from the doorway. We all watch him enter. A tall, slick headed, sharp dressed man waltzes in coolly and heads straight for me. A woman follows him, small and quiet, and starts fussing over me, checking my face, my eyes, my tongue.

I keep trying to get another look at the man but she holds my attention – literally holds it. My face is jerked between her demanding hands as she prods above my eye, below my nose, at the roof of my mouth and lastly at the back of my head. I hiss loudly. Everyone jumps again but she doesn’t stop. She presses against the back of my head at the same time she pushes my forehead and I feel like my eyes are going to pop out. She does it again.

Jesus,” Margo swears. “I don’t need a PhD to know that yes, the fucking spot is sore. Can you fix him or not?”

The girl cuts Margo a sharp look. “I can speed up the healing but he will be groggy for a few days.”

“How many days?” I hear the man’s deep voice ask.

“Around two,” the woman explains with a softer tone. “One of the pincers got to the back of his head.”

“God,” Eliot winces. “We got the portal up as soon as we could.”

“It wasn’t soon enough,” Alice says quietly. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I dismiss, remembering the fight we had as well. Followed by the dual kissing fiasco. The pincers should’ve dug deeper.

“Eat this,” Faye – according to her nametag – says to me. She shoves something brown and chippy in my mouth and practically guides my jaw to chew. “Drink this.” She produces a cup and pours something down my throat. It’s hot and tastes like a combination of prune juice and battery acid. If there weren’t so many eyes on me, I’d throw a tantrum from the taste but I make a fist and keep swallowing until it’s all gone. “Now, hold him down,” she says to my friends. The man comes around the other side of the bed to get a better view.

Everyone hesitates. “You want us to hold him down? For what?” Alice questions.

“Just do it,” the man speaks up exasperatedly. Whoever he is, they listen – albeit reluctantly – and each find a part of me to hold. Margo and Alice pin my arms down and Eliot and Julia grab me by the ankles. My pulse picks up and all I can think about are the most gruesome scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever watched.

Faye comes at me again. She tilts my neck, places one hand on my forehead and one at the back of my head where I’m picturing a pincer-sized black hole, and then pushes. At first it’s pleasant. A warm touch. I can feel energy moving through me and I wonder why all the dramatics.

Then it starts.

A hot heat at the back of my head permeating through to the front. It burns. I don’t know how else to describe it. She’s gripping me, pressing on two tender spots and increasing force like she’s literally welding me back together.

It feels like I slipped and fell on an open flame and can’t get away from it so it’s swallowing me alive.

I squeeze my eyes shut and grit my teeth. I struggle and feel hands holding me down. I hear the bed squeaking under my efforts. I want to scream. I feel the sound building in my chest and every time the heat increases and wraps itself around the wet, squishy meat of my brain, I feel violent. I want to hit something desperately.

I keep my eyes closed because I know if I open them and see the hands of my friends restraining me so I can continue in this sweltering hell-state, I’ll hurt them. I’d do anything to get away from this feeling. It’s not just heat, it’s fury she’s pushing through me.

I grip the sheets and the flames flicker behind my lids, I hear myself grunt and they dance at me tauntingly. I finally can’t take it and let out a pathetic sounding scream from the pit of my stomach.

“Oh my god, is it almost done?” Julia asks. She doesn’t get an answer.

The heat spreads to my stomach and a clawing starts up inside me.

“Fuck me,” I hear Eliot say. “His throat.”

It's as much of a warning as I get before I feel the claws move higher to the back of my mouth where stabbing pains take over and something crawls out of my throat, scraping my tongue on the way. I taste blood, I scream gutturally, and choke on something hard.

The heat stops.

I open my eyes.

My vision is foggy with tears.

Faye is holding, with two fingers, a thin, black, spindly, dripping wet object three feet long at least.

It jerks in her hand.

I recognize it and gag.

A pincer.

“Q got deep-dicked,” Margo grimaces.

I hate magic.

Chapter Text

“Good morning, Quentin.”

Opening my eyes is a challenge. They’re cakey and crumby – I wonder how long I’ve been asleep. The world went a bit foggy after Faye pulled the…pincer out of me. I rub my face, celebrate that the action doesn’t hurt and look at the man stood at the foot of my bed.

The same suited, brusque man from before.

“Who are you?” I finally get to ask.

“Henry Fogg. You may call me Dean Fogg,” he says like he’s practiced this bit. He’s the Dean…of Brakebills? “How are you feeling?” he questions.

“Um…” I stutter, suddenly feeling like I should impress him. I raise my brows, point my toes, stretch my limbs…everything that ached to do the last time I was awake and find nothing but the normal tightness that comes with waking up. “Better.”

“Good,” he nods, with a sharp clap of his hands. It’s loud and starts up a rustling. Bodies unfold from chairs around the room and start stretching and yawning. My friends, I notice, are all here. They slept here. One by one they come to and look at me, sleepy faces brightening when they see my eyes are open.

“Well if it isn’t Sleeping fucking Beauty,” Margo yawns, stretching as she stands from the chair beside me. She’s changed into a pair of floral print pants and a yellow top.

“God, Q,” Eliot says, approaching Margo. “Two days was a recommendation not a requirement.” He flattens his hands against the soft material of his vest.

“I’ve been out for two days?”

“I don’t know,” he starts. “Margo, how many days have we slept cramped up in this room?”

She pretends to think. “The sun went around one time, right?” He nods. “Then another…”

“Okay, I get it. Thank you,” I say, earnestly. “What have I missed?”

“Well,” Margo begins, her eyes across the room. Alice makes her way over with Julia a bit behind. “Alice has some news.”

Alice shakes her head. “It’s not news-”

“She took the exam and got into Brakebills,” Margo interrupts. “God, Alice, suck your own dick sometimes.”

“That’s great!” I congratulate before my stomach drops. I have to do that too, don’t I? If I’m invited? Will I even be invited after how I apparently failed at the test I didn’t know I was already taking?

“Yes, Ms. Quinn did very well,” Dean Fogg begins. “As did Ms. Wicker.”

I raise my brows. They let Julia take it? Even after… “We’re gonna be classmates again,” she starts, more power in her voice than before. I wonder if sleeping here in a tiny chair has been the best rest she’s gotten in days. She holds my eyes and won’t look away. I don’t know how I feel. The only emotion I can identify in me is a little bit of jealousy and I hate myself for it.

“When you’re up to it, hopefully soon, you may take the exam as well, Quentin,” Dean Fogg offers.

Even if only for a second, I consider saying no thanks. I have a part to play in whatever is coming, I know that. But what happens if I say no? It’s like the final checkpoint. Like when Alice asked me plain that day in the hospital to tell them if I was in or out.

I knew then what I was risking but I also knew what there was to gain. I considered the important part I could play in their lives, Alice’s, Eliot’s, Margo’s, and I put them first.

Even without the details I knew whatever Eliza was talking about was bigger than three lives, I had a part to play in something even grander. Would I say no now?

No.

I resigned myself to the part. I felt expendable. I felt minuscule. I felt, even in the middle of magic, the way I’d felt all my life. But for once I wouldn’t run from it. I had the opportunity to accept my place.

Quests are supposed to change you.

Maybe finally accepting my place will let it do its job.

But probably not.

“Yes, of course,” I finally make out. “Can I leave?” I ask, sitting up. Hands twitch out, ready to catch me.

“Yes, Faye believes you can. Before you do though, I’d like to talk to you,” Fogg states ominously. “All of you.”

We all exchange a look. Eliot, Margo and Alice’s faces all wear the same fear. He knows. About what they did.

“I’m afraid I’ve taken advantage of your disorientation,” Fogg starts, in full command of the room, all of us waiting to be told off. “Your preoccupation with acclimating and looking after Quentin bought me time to…” He gestures, looking for the right word. “Consult with Eliza.”

“Eliza?” Alice repeats, glancing my way.

“Yes, time magic can be a difficult thing. So many variables to…consider and account for. Especially when dealing with you five,” he says wearily.

“Time magic?” I whisper to myself.

“This works better,” Fogg says, “as a monologue.” I press my lips together. “I will tell you what I am allowed to and nothing more. You five veered deeply off course,” he accuses and we bow our heads like children raring for punishment.

“Timing,” he shakes his head. “You,” he starts with Julia. She sets her mouth in a way that sweeps the intimidation from her face. “Could not wait it seems. Hedge magic,” he grits out. “I shouldn’t blame you. Ms. Andrieski can be very coercive. So, tell me, how did you find magic? Flip a coin to find it kept going? Wake to find yourself levitating? Tell me,” he says, a hard edge to his voice. “How?”

Julia clenches her jaw and blinks sleepily. “I got cornered in a bar bathroom by one of Marina’s men and almost lit him on fire.”

Fogg wasn’t expecting the answer, I can tell.

The hard set of Julia’s mouth tells me a sentence deeper than the one she spoke and I search her face, waiting for her to look at me but she doesn’t.

“And then, I presume, you got in too deep?” Fogg wonders, a bit gentler.

Julia swallows. “Yes.”

I remember the feeling of the warding spell. How it sucked us in and held on tight, delicious and tantalizingly dangerous. I remember the bliss on Eliot’s face and the terror in everyone else’s. The terror in the faces of people choosing to stay cognizant to the danger. Then I think about Julia. Determined, dedicated, overachieving Julia. The image of her in the throes of hedge magic, not blissful, but gritting through it, is clear in my mind. I didn’t know how right I probably was when I called her obsessed.

Fogg nods and though Julia seemed unfazed, I see her shoulders drop in relief when his attention is gone.

“You,” Fogg looks to Eliot and Margo. “Were supposed to be here, safe inside Brakebills, waiting for Quentin’s arrival where you would meet and do whatever it is you do to get to…where you’ll…be-” he stops and pinches the bridge of his nose like the whole thing is giving him a headache. “And you,” he turns on Alice. “Were supposed to be home awaiting the call. But no,” Fogg goes on, eyes bouncing between the three of them. “Where were you? Here, messing about!”

We all four notice he doesn’t say how they were messing about.

“So, tell me. What happened?”

We four share wide-eyed glances. Who’s gonna snitch? It’s not my place. “Eliza didn’t tell you?” I ask.

Fogg laughs but he doesn’t mean it. “You’d be surprised at how little Eliza tells me,” he admits bitterly. “So?”

Alice is very focused on her shoes suddenly, Margo literally looks the most unnerved I’ve ever seen her and Eliot is watching her. His jaw flexes and unflexes and he squeezes his eyes closed and exhales deeply as the seconds pass.

“We killed people. One each. On accident,” he admits clumsily and you can tell by his face it came out differently than he planned. “It was my fault.” He makes a face like he’s dipped his toe in ice water.

We wait.

If Fogg is surprised or moved by the announcement, he doesn’t show it. He looks more annoyed than anything. Like we spilled something sticky on a floor he just mopped.

“Wait,” Julia begins. “You didn’t notice the three students missing?”

“It’s uncommon but not unheard of. And they were all friends. It seemed – Well,” he stops short and I suddenly grasp the shit truth that Brakebills is more squeaky wheel than well-oiled machine. “That explains the Arugula,” Fogg sighs heavily.

“The Arugula? It was Marina’s Arugula,” Julia informs, confused.

Fogg almost laughs. “I doubt it, Ms. Wicker. Arugulas are beyond rare. The chances of Ms. Andrieski procuring one is slim to none. And considering recent knowledge, it is more likely the work of the Imperium.”

“The Imperium?” Alice repeats and I think we all grow a bit uncomfortable at the idea of something even Alice knows nothing about.

“Yes,” Fogg confirms. “The Magicians Court. Think of them as…the Magic police. The Powers That Be. You killed not one, not two, but three Magicians on school grounds. Do you think no one is watching?”

We look around the room like we’re expecting hidden cameras or camouflaged bodies glued to the wall, eyes sticking out of the wallpaper.

“So, who’s Suther?” Eliot asks. “The man who grabbed us, he had a patch on; said Suther.”

Fogg frowns. “I assume he’s one of the Enforcers.”

Enforce- Why do I feel like I’m in a bad episode of Buffy?” Eliot mumbles, squeezing his eyes shut. “So the hospital is a prison?”

“More so the prison is a hospital. There are mechanisms in place, as I’m sure you know, to prevent magic use and wards to keep Magicians in.”

“So everyone in there is some trapped Magician?” I put together.

“Not everyone. It’s a mix,” he clarifies. “It’s a rather low-level punishment,” Fogg goes on, brows tight as he thinks on it.

“Low level punishment?” Margo scoffs out. “They forced pills down our throat. They had us in restraints for the hell of it. Do you know what we tried to get out of that hell-hole? Do you know how many times we snuck out of our rooms looking for an out, knowing that we could end up restrained, or drugged or bruised but risking it because of how desperate we were? For months? That’s low level? And for what? Did we even actually kill anyone? Was it our fault? Or was it part of Eliza’s plan to get us all together? Come on, we just all happened to be in the same place at the same time? Bullshit.”

“Eliza would not-”

“Fuck Eliza.”

For some reason, the room stills for a beat like we’ve cursed some great and respected god.

If it were the time and place, I’d have cheered her on for saying it but then I remember what Eliza said. She didn’t make them do anything. They killed all on their own.

That she tasked me to be the one to say it to them makes me angry again. If they’re anything like me and blaming any part of the shit in their life on the possibility it was part of some grand scheme, I know I might have to see in them the same break I felt in myself. The break that comes with realizing the worst parts of yourself are yours and yours alone to fix.

“I don’t pretend to know what Eliza does or doesn’t do but I don’t think she would-”

I speak up because I have to. This is my place. “She didn’t,” I say and everyone gives me the attention my voice demands.

“What?” Margo asks, her face screwed up like I’m betraying her.

“When I was…asleep the first time, she came to me. Told me things.” At this point I think everyone knows to believe me. “She said she drove me to Ellsworth to help you out, but she didn’t put you there. She didn’t make you kill anyone. You did that all on your own,” I quote.

If they were hanging on by any thread, I cut it then. Color, hope, composure, everything in the masks drain from their faces and they look at me, look at each other and then – by way of distant stares – they look at themselves. I don’t know what they see but I can guess.

Probably feels a lot like hate.

Chapter Text

I take the test.

Swirling, ever shifting foreign shapes on the pages settle into place long enough for me to parse them out and I complete it alone in a tiny, suffocating room with Fogg and a host of other teachers watching over me.

I pass.

After Fogg requests I demonstrate every spell I’ve learned thus far, critiques me on things Alice already has, and thoroughly makes me feel like an unimpressive display item in an expensive museum, he passes me.

I go through it all in a dreamlike state. There’s so much newness and ambiguity and my brain rolls over and plays dead to filter the information. The Brakebills campus is expansive and grand – that it isn’t some magnificent castle only serves to make it more remarkable. There are Magicians everywhere doing amazing things and all existing in a sort of bubble. They feel untouchable and sure about whatever it is I’m doubting. They just seem sure.

I haven’t been able to muster the same level of enthusiasm for magic I once had. I mean it’s still this insanely amazing thing in my life but everytime I think to be excited, think to imagine all the wonderful things I might be able to do, think about how great this could all be, I feel the shadow of Eliza’s promise hanging over my head.

Something is coming. And it will always come for me.

And if it weren’t enough the convenient savior is a subpar Magician, I’m also a magical anomaly.

I should have a Discipline. I don’t.

It’s like The Powers That Be reached into a bag of options and pulled out salt when they needed sugar. I feel like a mistake. I’m ruining the whole fucking recipe but you can’t take me out now. You just gotta find a way to make me…taste good.

What a shit metaphor.

I pound on the door a few more times. Again, it doesn’t swing open and I have to stand here listening to the uproarious laughter and music on the other side. I uncrumple the paper in my hand and read over it again.

You have to find a way in. Can’t help. Sorry. – Julia

It’s been half an hour. I’ve turned over every rock, carpet and leaf outside the Physical Kids’ cottage and there’s no key hidden. I’ve pushed, shoved, kicked on the door and it won’t budge. I’ve tried picking the lock with a twig. I-

I’ve tried everything but magic.

I work through the lock picking spell and the knob clicks, the door swinging open squeakily as if it’s just as unimpressed with me as I am with myself.

Julia’s sitting inside, perched on some stairs with two cups in her hands. She looks up when I enter and offers me one. I step inside and gaze over the place. It’s crowded and busy. There are portraits and signs hung and random things on every shelf in the room like a hundred people had their say over the decoration. A giant, club-style light reading ‘TADA’ gives the whole place a sardonic, self-aware feel. It looks spontaneous and eclectic, claustrophobic in a good way. Too much and just right all at the same time.

I take the cup and squeeze in next to Julia. “Hey, Physical Kid,” she says to me, her voice muffled a bit by the music. I look over the throng of bodies, some dancing, some casually nursing a cup as they huddle together talking. I look for a familiar face – Eliot or Margo…Alice wouldn’t be here, would she? – but can’t find one. “You made good time.”

I make a face at her. Bullshit. “I was out there for half an hour before it occurred to me to use magic.”

She shrugs. “Todd,” she points to a jerkily dancing boy with dark curly hair. “Said that some people take hours.”

“How long did you take?” She hesitates. “Exactly.”

“It’s good that you didn’t think of magic first,” she comforts. “It doesn’t fix everything.”

“Okay…” I start, noting the now-familiar cloudy look on her face. “I know why I hate magic, but why do you?”

“I don’t hate magic,” she corrects. “I just-” she glances at me, the smallest of smiles on her face. She looks at me like she’s seeing me for the first time in forever. “Is this our big talk?”

I smile and nod. “I guess it is.” I sober up. “What happened out there, Jules? With Marina?”

She swallows and fingers the rim of her cup distractedly. “It’s like I said, I was out with James after dinner and one of her guys cornered me in a bathroom. It was really seedy, you know? I thought he was going to…” she trails off but her silence finishes the sentence.

“Jesus, Julia. He didn’t…?”

“No,” she says quickly. “It was a test. Pete, he- he wanted to make me use my powers. Apparently, there are other ways to ‘track the gift’,” she quotes. “Pretty much went to shit after that. I met Marina and suddenly I was in this new world, you know? There were so many things I didn’t know, so much I could do. I couldn’t go back to school. I mean, what would you choose?” she asks me. I gesture around us lamely and she nods. “Exactly. Then I just got in so deep. It was like two days, Q, and I lost my shit.”

“What happened with James?” I question, remembering the way she reacted that day at Marina’s when I said his name.

“It was like I couldn’t get…good soon enough,” she goes on like I haven’t spoken. “I was possessed, obsessed,” she amends. “I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep and I wasn’t around people who cared if I did either. I was casting night and day. Big spells, spells I wasn’t ready for. James doesn’t know who I am,” she says abruptly in a dead voice, like someone cautiously revealing the end of a movie halfway through.

“He was worried and upset with me and I just…I wanted to make him okay with it. Just a small spell. He kept calling and I just wanted to make him not worry about me. He was so worried. Instead I made him f-forget me,” she stutters. “I was so confident. Two days in and I was so confident. And now, he doesn’t know who I am.”

She looks vacant and exhausted again, like retelling the story drained all the vivacity she’d been regaining. Then, before I can move to comfort her, she squares her shoulders and blinks away the bulk of the dismay like she’s not willing to let herself get lost again.

She’s accepted her place, too, I realize. Whatever she’s discovered it to be.

“I somehow got worse after I saw you. It drove me crazy that you doubted me. I think I wanted to impress you,” she says after a moment’s silence, turning to look at me. “I meant what I said about not meaning to hurt you but I also…I wanted to impress you. Like, if I ever told you, I wanted it to be good. I wanted you to be…”

“Jealous?” I provide, knowing the feeling well.

Really jealous,” she admits to me. “We’re shit friends,” she half laughs.

In a hushed way, we’d always been at each other’s throats, the smartest ones in every class in school. We were often the only challenge the other had. Somewhere along the way it stopped being fun to compete and dissolved into something else. But we were playing with dainty things then, now we were a part of something huge, something with potential to be catastrophic.

“So, Marina just…let you go?”

She shakes her head. “There was a fight, some threats…promises…She gave me an ultimatum. A shitty one. Marina’s a pick a side kind of girl,” Julia informs. “And I chose you.”

Some part of me, the Julia part, grows warm with her words and the flame I stomped out mercilessly to try and hate her reignites. I feel different now looking at her. I remember how I felt about her but not vividly enough to let it cloud the thing I value more. Her friendship.

“I love you, Jules.”

She blinks slowly like the words wrapped her in something soft and swings her free arm around me in a hug. “I love you too, Q.” She pulls back and smiles at me, pushing some hair behind my ear. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Pulling me back. I want you to know it was your words that made me see. Hypocritical though they may have been,” she says with a feigned glare. She stands and sits her cup on the stairs. “I gotta go settle in.” She wipes her hands on the black fabric of her jeans.

“You don’t live here?”

“Nope.” She points to herself. “Meta-Composition. Knowledge discipline,” she says with a boastful bow. “You?”

“They couldn’t place me. I’m a Squatmancer, a Nothing Discipline. Very exclusive.”

“Now I’m jealous,” she jokes and moves to open the door. “Quentin,” she pauses. “Do you really hate magic?”

“No,” I confess. “I just wish it liked me back.”

Chapter Text

I end up in the middle of the party sat on a couch, wondering where my friends are for a good forty minutes after Julia leaves. I wonder when my things will get here or when I’ll be able to ‘settle in’.

Everything feels sudden now. I spent the last week tiptoeing to the big climax and now it’s here and disappointing and I don’t know what to do. What happens to the characters after the credits roll?

Brakebills, Fogg explained, is a five year school after which I will have hopefully learned enough to make me a great Magician. He said it like a bored tour guide reciting hastily written things from a pamphlet.

It’s not lost on me that everyone I’ve met so far carries with them an air of dissatisfaction. Eliot, Margo and Alice are all unhappy – for good reason. Julia is unhappy. Fogg seems generally displeased and tired with things as a whole. Even Professor Sunderland, the woman who kept me for hours trying to find my Discipline, had a melancholy, low energy manner that made her seem casually disinterested in everything.

I can’t figure out if magic seeks the weary or if we seek it.

“Quentin. You’re here.” Alice stands over me, a cup in her hand, a tight smile on her face. “Can we talk?” She fiddles with the hem of her black skirt.

“Sure,” I say, apparently in the mood for a whole day of Big Talks.

She leads me up the stairs and into a bedroom with a blue and yellow checkboard pattern on the door. Inside is lightly decorated, blue dressers and soft colors on the walls. The sheets are a deep burgundy but she doesn’t sit. Instead she tells me to and wrings her hands in front of me.

“I want to say sorry,” she spits out. “Or rather, I don’t want to be mad anymore. I don’t want you to be- Or us to be- The kiss was a mistake,” is what she settles on.

God. I pinch the bridge of my nose and rub a hand over my face. “You keep saying that.”

“Because it was. You didn’t mean it. You couldn’t even tell me why you did it,” she presses.

“Well, if you know so much, why don’t you tell me why I did it?”

“Because we were almost out, Quentin!” she half-shouts. “You thought you were about to lose us all, you knew how I felt and I was your last-ditch effort, your sure ticket you’d be in our lives a little bit longer.”

And of course she’s right.

The second she says it something clicks in my brain. Some tiny thing shouting ‘duh!’ from the deepest recesses of my mind.

“I didn’t mean to.” And I didn’t. And even if the split was terribly uneven, being afraid to lose them was only a portion of the reason I kissed her. I did like Alice. She was sweet and smart and beautiful. But if I’d relied wholly on my feelings for her that day, they wouldn’t have been strong enough to compel me to kiss her.

I don’t think I have to say any of this to her. I can see her peering into me the way she does, watching the cogs turn in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” I say. For more reasons than she knows.

“I know,” she responds and closes the distance to sit beside me. We both stare at our laps in silence like we did that day at Ellsworth. I turn and pick up one of the books on her bed. It’s a thick, dusty, ripped leather hunk of a book. “Things to maybe help with Charlie,” she explains. “Margo told me there are some Fifth-Year girls who may know something about what happened to him. We’re going tomorrow.”

“That’s good news.”

“I hope so. I know it’s a long shot,” she says lowly. She takes the book from me and runs her hand over the cover. “It seems so boring now, doesn’t it?” she asks me. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. We can’t be done. It can’t be over so quickly. Am I being paranoid?”

“No,” I say, on the brim of telling her how right she is to be afraid. “I’m scared, too.”

“When you were in the hospital, we weren’t sure you’d wake up. I mean, it was only two days but it felt like too many things were going right. I think we were all scared you were the casualty, the thing we’d have to lose to balance the scales.”

“I’m still here,” I shrug but I can’t stop myself from enjoying the thought of them all worrying over me. Julia’s persistent presence in my life over the years was her silent confirmation and promise of our friendship. I hated that I needed declarations to not be afraid people would disappear from me, but Alice’s retelling of their worry is enough of a declaration to clear out the last of the doubt in my chest about them.

“Do you want to pick a room?” she asks suddenly, standing up.

“Okay.”

The one I settle on is simple and up a floor from Alice’s. It’s bare and plain, a few wooden dressers along the walls and a simple king bed in the center of it all. Alice leaves me alone to walk around the barren space and reprocess, for the millionth time, the new reality of my life.

A life where my parents think I’m at some prestigious grad school and settled enough to not need to worry about me. Fogg says there’s also some level of illusion magic also involved to keep them from getting too restless with my disappearance.

A little while into my thinking I realize I missed my Yale interview and it hits me again. That sudden rush of holy shit. This is my life now. I’ve crossed every T, tied every loose end and severed all the other things that used to be a part of my routine.

I have committed myself to the pursuit of a different kind of knowledge, committed myself to a new cluster of people, committed myself to an unknown that promises power but also, in big bold letters, promises pain.

I flop down sideways on the soft white sheets of my new bed and fold my hands over my stomach. My legs dangle off the side and I think about when Julia and I used to lay on the floor and stare up at the map we sketched on the underside of one of her parent’s end tables.

We were going to Fillory. We didn’t care if we found out we’d been lied to about its greatness, we didn’t care if we weren’t welcome. We were going because it felt right. We were going because if there was anyone who would stop the Watcherwoman, we were sure it was us.

It was stupid and shortsighted, the way all childhood imaginations are, but through the eyes of my 22-year-old self, I realize it was also brave.

We were going to do it because we wanted to. Because we’d committed.

“Little boy Q!”

The door flies open and Margo does a tiny dance as she enters the room, practically dragging Alice behind her. Eliot closes the door and sways in a bit unsteadily.

“Hey, Q-tip,” he greets smiling and I don’t have time to move before he and Margo flop down on either side of me. Margo yanks Alice down when she hesitates.

“Drink up,” Margo instructs and hands me an uncorked bottle of wine. I do as she says, tipping the bottle back.

“What are we drinking to?”

“It’s not what we’re drinking to, Q. It’s what we’re drinking for,” she explains, taking the bottle to pass it to Alice who, surprisingly, just obediently takes a few big gulps. “We did it. We actually fucking made it.”

“Here here!” Eliot agrees quietly, reaching for the bottle. We stay there in a messy pile until the bottle is empty and we’re all in various states of dizzy.

“What happened to Penny?” I wonder.

Eliot snorts. “He stole the binder and Alice’s notebook and ditched us.”

I remember Eliza’s suggestion to keep an eye on him. “Fuck.” I couldn’t do right if I tried. “When?”

Margo drops the piece of her hair she’s been playing with and looks at me sleepily. “Hmm. You remember when I told him to go get a nurse?”

“Jesus fuck.”

“Yup,” she pops the p. “Asshole never came back.”

“Kady was working for Marina,” Alice blurts unceremoniously and the hiccup she’s trying to fight comes out as a burp instead. “Sorry. I asked Fogg. She – fuck,” she burps and the bed shakes with Eliot’s silent laughter. “She was expelled for stealing for Marina.”

“You think that has something to do with why she was at the hospital?” I ask, shooting up into a sitting position and steadying myself on Eliot’s leg when the alcohol rushes a new direction. “Now that we know the hospital is a prison or…the prison is a hospital—Or whatever,” I suggest, my brain feeling less and less coherent by the second. “She found a new place to hit.”

Margo sits up beside me but almost immediately floats back down on the mattress. “Fuck. You might be right, Q. All I know is Marina must have sooome dirt on her.”

“The Alumni Key,” Alice slurs. “They took it off me when they checked us in. If Quentin is right, she has it.” Another hiccup jumps out and she throws an arm over her face.

Margo makes a hmpf noise. “I hope she does come back here. I’ll pop the bitch in the back of the head,” she promises.

“For what?” Eliot asks, amused.

“For good fucking luck.”

She earns another laugh from someone in the room. More minutes pass and we lay talking about nothing, drunken ramblings about things that don’t matter. Eliot keeps bumping my thigh with his and pretending it’s an accident but he doesn’t stop until I appease him by bumping back, a solid yes to whatever question he’s trying to ask me. We should talk about the kiss, right? Yes. It was a good kiss, right? Yes. We should do it again, right? Yes. At some point, when I can breathe again, I’ll tell him, I vow to myself, with words and bells and whistles.

If that’s what he wants.

Alice does some spell to make fizzy, funny shaped sparks appear over us and becomes the most popular person in the room as she walks El and Margo through the steps. I tune out at some point as dark things start to fill my foggy brain.

“Eliza said something bad is on its way here to find me and that it always will. We might die, I think. I think it’s life or death. I think.”

The muffled sound of the party downstairs is suddenly the only noise in the room. Everyone drops their hands and cuts off their laughter, digesting, in whatever drunken way they can, what I said. I could have said it better.

“Shit, Q,” Margo says finally. “What the fuck kind of timing was that?”

“Sorry.”

No one speaks for a while. Alice hiccups.

“Are you sure she meant you or like you in a general sense? Like you plus others? Plus us?” Margo asks.

“I’m pretty sure she meant me. But I mean she did say you were a part of it but she did say me. She meant me,” I say. “I think.”

“Huh.”

More seconds tick by with no one saying anything. Eliot pulls a pillow across his chest and hugs it vacantly and Margo starts a sloppy braid in Alice’s hair. I start counting the dots on the ceiling. I replay the conversation with Eliza, it had detached and reattached itself in my memories a few times since I left the White Place and came back to the land of the Pincer in My Guts.

“I think it’s all of us, but I’m like the leader. She did help me find you for a reason,” I amend.

“Huh.”

More silence. Margo finishes the braid, Eliot tucks an arm behind his head and Alice blows quietly into the empty bottle, letting off a little whoosh sound. Somewhere, a clock ticks firmly.

“Well, we need more alcohol,” Eliot suggests in a but, of course! voice after a beat. His voice startles us a bit.

“And then what?” I ask.

“And then we hold hands and Kumbaya this shit out,” he says. I feel his fingers brush mine and I finish the motion, gripping his hand in mine. I don’t know if he meant it to be singular but regardless, I link with Margo and she does with Alice and we lay there with stupid little sloppy grins on our faces.

“Last chance, you guys,” Margo starts. “Foursome?”

Alice hiccups.

Chapter Text

Life at Brakebills is startlingly normal. There are no changing staircases, talking portraits or whatever whimsy using wands offers. Instead there are extraordinary things in the middle of a very ordinary world.

It’s levitation and soothsaying and conjuring all against the backdrop of a typical college campus; hierarchical, vain, habitual.

Days are nothing but heavy reading and tedious practicing. It’s memorizing Popper positions and discovering the technicalities of Circumstantial magic. It’s reading thick history books by long dead Magicians and learning every language the world’s ever known. It’s discovering all the magic I’ve done thus far has been sloppy.

But there are moments of bliss when I get a cast right, moments when I crack a spell before Julia does and I get to help her for a change, moments where I lose myself in the work and the knowledge and the pursuit of it all, moments where I see a glimpse of the charismatic, powerful Quentin I dreamed of being.

There are moments where it’s fascinating and fulfilling and fantastic but it’s never enough. I always need more. More fantasy, more whimsy, more unrealistically upbeat revelations, more Fillory-esque promises about what life could be.

At the absence of these things I begin to gather why everyone has the same melancholy nature here. It’s because they’ve realized already that magic solves nothing and never will.

It doesn’t help that I’m essentially on house arrest.

Neither Fogg nor Eliza – who he says he asked – can find the Arugula. Three weeks and he swears he’s tried all manner of traps and tricks but apparently we’ve made enemies with the smartest motherfucking beetle the world’s ever known.

Twice the school’s been thrown into a panic as the Arugula has attempted to force its way past the wards. It knows my scent, Fogg explained, and once it’s gotten a scent, it will not stop. In a nutshell, it won’t quit until it’s…mated with me.

Scratch out the whimsy I asked for.

“I don’t see why we don’t just kill the fucking thing,” Margo says one day. She pauses mid page turn of her magazine as if the idea just came to her.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Eliot asks, his glass halfway to his mouth. Margo’s got her legs across his lap and her back propped up against the arm of the couch.

“I’m talking about calling the Arugula. Q can’t stay here for-fucking-ever.”

“Considering the alternative, I’m ok,” I say.

Alice looks up from where she’s sat across the room next to Julia going over notes. The two of them had forged an unexpected bond, both the tops of the class and irritatingly talented Magicians. They were friendly, we all were, but if you paid enough attention, you noticed the competitive element of the friendship.

“Wards are the only thing keeping Quentin safe,” Alice says. “And it’s angry now. If we brought it anywhere near Quentin, it’d ravish him.”

“I also vote no. Better safe than fucked. Fogg will find it when he finds it,” Eliot dismisses.

“Why don’t we just go to it?” Julia pipes in, ignoring Eliot. “Maybe Fogg missed something. We could lure it with Q, his scent somehow – Fogg’s never done that – we wait for it to show and then jump out and kill it?”

“If we could bring it into a finite space, it’d be better,” Alice theorizes. “Somewhere it’d be trapped. But we’d still need to keep Quentin out of the way.”

I wonder if I only imagined the part where I said no thanks.

“Koyosegi’s Ward,” Julia suggests. “We make a focused version and essentially trap Q inside an impenetrable box while we kill it. I know a spell.”

“That’s a good idea,” Alice says but looks a little upset she didn’t get to think of it.

“Why is everyone ignoring my plan?” Margo huffs. “We call the thing here, we stab it in the throat and it never lives to fuck another Quentin.”

“It would be a way to test a summoning,” Alice says to me. “Julia and Margo have been helping me refine possible spells to find Charlie.”

“And at the end of the day it’s only a bug, right?” Julia asks. Alice nods. “Alice said it’s best when it catches its prey off guard. We won’t be.”

“Are we really trying to risk it?” I question. “And we don’t even know if it’ll come. Guys, I’m fine. I have some time to figure it out.”

“You can’t stay inside for five years, Quentin,” Eliot says and I throw him a look. I thought I had at least one person on my side. “Sorry. Plan’s growing on me.”

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t growing on me too. It would be the most excitement I’d had in weeks and like an idiot, I was missing the panic of a good old fashion shit show. I get the feeling I’m not the only one.

“There’s five of us and we’ve got two Hermiones,” Margo nods to Alice and Julia. “I like our odds. I promise you’ll still be a virgin when all’s said and done,” she smirks.

I roll my eyes. “I’m not a virgin.”

-E-

“How’s the panic?” Eliot asks, joining me in the corner I’ve smashed myself into while the others set up. We’ve commandeered an empty classroom for the summoning. It’s one in a far-off edge of the main building, dusty and unused. Half the desks are broken in some way and every clock on the wall is stuttering and ticking unevenly. Everyone’s moving tables aside and settling necessities while I hide here and try to remember why I was stupid enough to agree to this at all.

“Do you think they’d stop if I told them I changed my mind?”

Eliot gives me a look and shakes his head. “No fucking way.”

I sigh and slouch against the wall. “It’s pretty fitting that this is all for me and yet my only job is to stand here and do absolutely nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘fitting’?”

“It’s what I do,” I shrug. “Nothing.”

He nods knowingly. “Is this about Eliza the convenient psychic?” he asks with a roll of his eyes. I think El’s the only one I didn’t manage to fully scare with the reveal. “We don’t even know who Eliza is or if she’s telling the truth, Q. And even if she is, did you forget who saved all our asses? It’s okay if it’s not always your job.”

“I just don’t feel like I’ve ever done my job. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without you guys.”

“Who said you were supposed to?” he shoots back. He huffs. “Can you at least pretend to get it, Q?” he asks. “You’re not alone. It’s called friendship.”

Just friendship?” I ask lamely before I can stop myself.

Eliot gets that crooked smile again, eyes light and cheeks high. “The closest-”

“Hey, guys,” Julia interrupts. “Sorry,” she apologizes, glancing between us. “We’re almost ready, so…”

“Right,” Eliot sighs. He throws me a look that promises we’ll talk later and then walks off to join the group.

Julia rubs her hands on her jeans, watching him go and then turns to me. “Are you two…” she trails off, a tiny smile on her face.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “I think so.”

She cocks her head. “So not Alice?” I shake my head. “Or Margo?”

Margo?” I repeat louder than I intended.

Julia holds up her hands in defense. “I’m just asking. To be honest, I walk into a room with any of you and I feel like I’m interrupting something.”

“We just…we bond fast,” I explain.

Julia nods slowly. “Got it. What happens in Ellsworth stays in Ellsworth…”

“Shut up,” I laugh. She grins.

“When we finish this,” she begins. “Maybe tomorrow we can go to our old coffee shop? Get a couple of complicated drinks and look like assholes like old times?” she offers and there’s a little bit of timidity in her voice like she thinks there’s a chance I’ll say no.

“Of course,” I agree. I look behind her at Margo reading words off a tiny sheet of paper, her lips moving rapidly as she goes over the spell work another time. “When we finish this.”

“No worries,” Julia says, catching my concern. “Easy peasy.”

“Julia, we’re ready,” Alice calls. It’s really unnerving that I’m the only one feeling uneasy about this.

“Okay, Q,” Julia says. “Stay here and look sexy,” she teases, backing away. “Maybe show some leg, the Arugula might like that.”

“Ha-ha,” I deadpan.

Alice and Julia work through some altered version of Koyosegi’s Ward together, their hands moving rapidly through intricate spell work as they circle me. When they finish – with a perfectly-synched flourish in my direction – a bright web of lines appears briefly around me, held together by symbols and protections written in foreign languages. I’m boxed in.

“Remember not to move, Q,” Margo instructs. “Everyone ready?” Nods go around the room. “Ok. Go.”

Everyone starts up a chant, their heads bowed and eyes closed. The modified summoning spell Alice, Julia and Margo threw together is a rhythmic mush of Greek and takes a full minute to get through. When they reach the end and raise their heads, Margo grabs from the table the final ingredient – a Sucubus tail, stolen from Sunderland’s private wares and guaranteed to mimic the pheromones the Arugula secretes – and throws it into the already bubbling dish of sludge they’d mixed and sat on the floor between them.

When the tail falls into the dish, a puff of pink smoke appears and clouds the room. Everyone starts up a cough, covering their nose but it’s too late. The fog’s already snaked its way into our nostrils. It’s a sweet smelling, absolutely euphoric scent and the second it touches my senses, my legs get weak underneath me and I feel a stirring in my pants so satisfying it’s almost painful. I’m teetering on the edge of an ecstasy, stopped and stalled on the cusp of some decadent pleasure. It’s the aphrodisiac to end all aphrodisiacs.

“Fuck me,” Eliot gasps. He’s trying to keep his eyes open, fighting through the blissful smile attempting to take over his face. “This is like Ibiza 2015 all over again.”

“I may have made it a bit strong,” Margo breathes, gripping the table next to her.

“You think?” I ask, bending over to brace my hands on my knees and biting back a groan.

“Everyone- God,” Julia chokes out, legs pressed together awkwardly. “Focus. It should show up.”

“Just sh-shh,” Alice pants, wetting her mouth. “Maybe we can hear it.” The clock ticks on unevenly in the silence, someone moans, and the quiet hum of my warding goes on. I watch my friends fidget awkwardly against the concoction for nearly two minutes before I give up. The stirring is turning into something that halfway feels like stroking and it’s getting a bit hard to stay standing.

“Maybe we should-”

Something slams hard into my warding, the loud sound of the collision making me jump and take an unsteady few steps backward.

“It’s here!” I shout stupidly as the thumping sounds over and over again. “Guys-” I start but the words are taken away from me while I watch in horror as the Arugula slowly materializes in front of me.

It’s 9 feet tall, minimum, with a small, hissing head punctuated on each side by two sharp looking fangs. Its jet black body is wide and ribbed and held up by five hairy, wet, thick legs. One leg is missing, obviously taken by a nasty break and I swallow hard, as if I’m terrified it’s going to crawl out of me again.

“Fuck. Me,” I hear Eliot say.

Its beady black eyes look down on me, narrowed and angry and, worst of all, lustful. It was not the best idea to fill the room with sex-smoke and then summon the thing that’s been trying to get at me for an actual month. Why the fuck did we ever think this was a good idea?

“Guys!” I try again frantically. I glance around the Arugula’s body to see them all jump into action, forming a line and beginning to cast.

Julia starts off first. The spell is one she snagged from Marina on her way out, some dark thing she says will more than do the job. The others follow her through the cast, their fingers curving and crunching, bending and cracking through the spell.

The Arugula lets out a singular roar and I shield my face against the rank air it gives off. It opens its mouth and tries to bite at me but, like a sheet of glass, the wards only allow it to press its face against it, away from me but close enough to make my hands shake. It thumps against the ward over and over, until, abruptly, it stops.

From its eyes a sick looking liquid starts to drip. The Arugula stumbles back a bit and lets out a confused yelp of pain and then sharply, as if putting the pieces together, turns to everyone. Their eyes go wide as it approaches, their words fading in volume as it rounds on them.

Then, Julia steps forward, does the fastest cast I’ve ever seen in my life and holds up a hand just in time for the Arugula to crash into an invisible wall in front of her. It skitters left and meets the same wall, skitters right and finds the same fate.

“Holy shit,” Margo mumbles.

“Keep going!” Julia says to them, face hard and focused. Margo, Alice and Eliot start casting again, fast and urgent.

The Arugula, enraged, charges at her again and again. Its thick, off green blood leaks out of it in viscous globs. The more it leaks, the angrier the Arugula seems to get until its ramming against the wall hard enough that Julia starts to shake from the force.

She lets out a rough grunt, visibly trembling and I see a red trickle of blood fall from her nose. She lets it drip down her face, meet her parted lips and keep going.

“Julia,” I whisper, watching the veins in her neck pulse from the effort. “Shit.” Why the fuck did we ever think this was a good idea?

“Hey!” I yell and the Arugula stops mid-charge to turn around.

“Quentin,” Eliot warns, his hands still moving.

I ignore him and stick one foot outside the warding. The Arugula cocks its head like it’s waiting for the trick, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“No tricks,” I say and I close my eyes and blow out a breath before I step outside the wards fully, my hands up in surrender. “Come and get me.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Margo yells angrily.

The Arugula takes a cautious step my way and then another and then another until it’s stood in front of me, blood dribbling from its chin onto my shirt. It lowers its face down to my level and I seize up. The equivalent of a smile takes over its face and its jaws open wide before its teeth clamp down hard on my shoulder.

I scream as it rips at me and pulls back. Its mouth is red with my blood and bits of my flesh are between its teeth. My arm is simultaneously awash with a stabbing feeling and a numbness that flows down to my fingers. I try to move them but I can’t feel where they are.

“Run!” I yell to everyone but they’re still casting. The Arugula presses its weight on top of me and I sink to the ground as it goes back for my shoulder. “Run,” I repeat much weaker as I feel myself start to fade. I haven’t looked but I can feel the Arugula is dragging parts of me out, things that should never be outside skin.

I think it’s past tradition and going straight for the finale. Death.

It pulls back and rears up for the final lunge and I manage to turn to look into its black eyes as it gets closer and then stops-

In a wet sounding pop, the Arugula explodes and splatters bits of itself and hot, mucousy globs of its blood over the room. It falls in thick streams over me, soaking my clothes and I weakly raise my good arm to block my face.

“Quentin, you fucking idiot, are you okay?” Margo asks. I hear her footsteps approach and then falter.

The room goes still, the clock stops ticking at all and I feel the effects of the Arugula transition me into a paralysis. I try to call for Margo but my lips refuse to move. My arms won’t move, my toes won’t move, my fingers, neck, nothing.

The only parts of my body still choosing to function are my eyes.

I can see nothing but the too-bright ceiling lights above me. I panic, my heart thumping in my chest. Is this what dying feels like? What a shit way to go, I think, with a magic induced boner.

I hear Margo’s footsteps start up again, accompanied by a strange buzzing and I watch as her figure appears slowly in my periphery as she-

It’s not Margo.

My eyes crawl over the pressed blue suit and broad body of what I can only assume is a man. His hands are clasped behind his back and where his face should be is instead a swarm of moths.

He bends down over me, so close I can feel the flutter of wings against my face and stays there. “Quentin Coldwater,” he says like he’s greeting an old friend. “In the flesh.” He digs his finger into the wound on my shoulder and twists, slick sounds hitting my ears. I groan as best I can against the sting and, satisfied, he pulls his finger back and cleans it on the fabric of my shirt.

My heart beats even faster and I struggle pathetically against whatever magic is binding me. I feel my thumb wiggle finally, a useless accomplishment. He inhales deeply at my neck like he’s checking for something. “Weaker than last time,” he murmurs close to my mouth. “It’s almost too easy.”

The noise of several sets of feet running down the hall starts up and the man looks to the door and makes a sound like he’s heard something he doesn’t like. He gets to his feet, calmly redoes the buttons on his suit jacket and then softly whistles the tune to Hickory, Dickory Dock. “I don’t like this song,” he mumbles to himself, and I watch him slowly walk out of view.

I wait. A minute’s silence passes.

I hear a struggle somewhere.

And then all at once, the clocks start ticking again, the door opens noisily and several thumps echo in the room, the floor vibrating under me from the impact of bodies falling. I discover I can move again and try to sit up but I’m weak and fading.

I close my eyes for what feels like a second and someone is propping me up. It’s Fogg. He pulls me into a sitting position and I force my eyes open long enough to look over the room.

Near the door, Professor Sunderland is in a heap on the floor, her body contorted and bloody as a host of other teachers look over her in concern and disgust and confusion. Margo is on her knees at my feet, her arms wrapped around her body as tears fall from her frozen face freely. Alice and Eliot are wide-eyed, still pressed against the wall where I saw them last, unblinking and staring at nothing in particular. And Julia. Julia is on the floor – not crying, not blinking, not moving.

Chapter Text

We took too long.

I scale the stacks of books as quietly as I can.

It’s a task made difficult by the fact that every step I take lands my foot in a puddle of blood or on the soaked clothes of another dead body.

Somewhere in the library the Beast is walking freely, whistling a tune I can’t place but know I’ve heard before – something childish.

Every now and then I hear the creak of a floorboard or the shuffling of feet and I pray to whoever’s listening that the feet belong to my friends.

I pray they’re making it.

We should have taken it all more seriously. I should have forced them to believe me – really believe me – so we would have gotten prepared sooner. I should have studied harder.

I gather the nerve to peek around the edge of a bookcase. Bodies, bodies, bodies. People I passed in the hall, people I sat next to in class, they’re all limp on the floor, contorted and swollen and red in every way possible.

Behind the still, dark head of hair belonging to Surendra – a boy I sat next to in P.A. – is the door. If I’m quick and if the Beast is far enough away, I could make a run for it.

“Fuck y-” I hear a familiar voice scream from somewhere left. Margo. Her shouts are followed by a wet choking sound and then a loud crack. I hear the sound her body makes as it hits the floor.

The whistle starts up again.

Margo.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I squeeze my eyes shut. Panic has frozen my bones and somewhere along the way my stitching ripped and my arm started bleeding.

I keep teetering at the edge of the bookcase, readying to jump out only to decide against it. I can’t seem to find the right moment. More screams sound out around me, getting closer.

I need to move.

Just fucking do it, I think and then start out only to crash into someone. They shoot out from the bookcase opposite me and barrel into my path, pressing a hand to my mouth to keep me quiet. Eliot.

His eyes are wide and wet and I know he heard Margo too – he’s shaking and won’t blink. Eliot lowers his hand and sweeps it down my side, pausing to squeeze my fingers gently.

“Go,” he mouths, moving around me. His steps are stiff like he’s barely keeping control of his joints through the trembling. He walks down the center aisle and stops in the middle. “Come get me you six fingered piece of shit!” He takes off right and disappears from sight.

The whistling stops and slow footsteps start Eliot’s way.

Eliot.

I squeeze my eyes shut and force my legs to work.

Gripping Surendra by the bloodied white fabric of his shirt, I wrench open the door and sprint through the wide archway, immediately tripping on a thick object at the entrance. I catch myself on my hands and turn, following the crimson trail of blood up to a body.

Alice.

Her blue eyes are glassy and wide open and her head is tilted up in some unnatural way, a rounded bone protruding through the smooth pale skin at the side of her neck. Her mouth is dribbling blood onto the floor, blonde hair stained by the pool.

“God,” I breathe, horrified. As I get to my feet, the door flies open and the Beast steps out, fearsome and disinterested. He’s still all pressed suit and nonchalance, the swarm covering his face fluttering noisily. One hand is tucked behind his back, the other casually tosses Eliot’s body to the floor.

Eliot is slack jawed and bloody. His fingers look crunched and broken. There is no life left in his familiar brown eyes. They are bloodshot and blank. He’s laid beside Alice like a second piece to some sick puzzle.

The bile starts collecting in my throat and I feel like the wind’s been all knocked out of me. He’s gone. They’re all gone.

The Beast steps across them. “Let’s get this over with. No more playthings, hmm?” he says.

I start up one of the defensive spells we practiced but the Beast is faster and closes the distance, gripping me by the throat. I’m hoisted off the ground as he chokes me. My chest is flooded with heat and my eyes roll back to the ceiling as I feel him dragging bits of air from me. My hands clawing at his wrist get weaker and my flailing legs slow down.

My eyes fall closed and behind my lids are dark, bloody visions of my friends as the world dims. And then, abruptly, I hit the ground hard as the Beast lets me go.

I cough raggedly and try to focus.

Penny and Kady are in front of me now, throwing spell after spell at the Beast. Kady is faster and more competent and under her efforts, the Beast skids back a few steps as if a harsh wind were blowing him. Penny appears behind the Beast, a blade in hand, and attempts to drive it through him but the Beast turns at the last second and, without any hesitation, snaps his neck.

“Penny!” Kady screams and loses her focus long enough for the Beast to throw the blade her way. It lands straight between her eyes, so deep I can see the tip of the blade come out the other side, and then she collapses to the ground stiffly without another sound.

“Are you quite done?” the Beast asks, stalking toward me. He draws back his hands, curls his six fingers around each other in some dramatic cast and then swipes at me. I feel the pain of being sliced open, look down to see it’s real and sag to the floor pathetically between Eliot and Alice.

As my vision starts to fade at the edges and dim out, I see a piece of paper drift gently to the floor and ignite.


“We’re fucked,” I say for the tenth time. “Eight Sooth Scrolls and we’re fucked every way. Staying together doesn’t work, splitting up doesn’t work. We’re fucked.”

“Jesus, Q, we fucking get it,” Margo responds.

“None of the literature says the scrolls are a hundred percent,” Alice cuts in. “There’s no way to really soothsay, just good guesses.”

“What about the Probability coins? We died then, too,” I point out. It’s baffling to me that no one else is as Doomsday down about this as I am. Am I the only one seeing how royally fucked we are? “And Kady and Penny? They always show up. That’s a prediction, not just a good guess.”

“Well, considering they’re not here now it could still be just a good guess. Look, Quentin how about we try to be productive instead of focusing on our deaths?” Margo suggests.

“Produc-” I start but choke on the word. I stand from the plush, low-to-the-ground chair I’m sat in and pace in a tight line. Eliot refills his glass and lets out a deep sigh. I’ve been pacing a lot lately. He’s seen this before.

I’ve hardly slept since the Beast nearly three weeks ago and even when I do, my dreams are nightmares of a looped sequence involving me watching pitifully as my friends are killed. I keep seeing myself on the sidelines casting, weak trickles of faint lights falling from my hands as my Magic fails me at a critical moment, the moment I’m supposed to be swooping in like a hero. The setting changes sometimes – a classroom, my childhood kitchen, a carnival – but the outcome doesn’t. I hear my friends’ last breaths, last screams, last yelps as I fumble with a spell and then nothing and the Beast is staring at me, moths dissipating to reveal a snakehead, an Arugula, Fogg, whatever…and then he swallows me whole.

I stop pacing and push my hair back. “I have zero reason to think we won’t die. Zero. I want to be…productive, Margo,” I tell her. “I wish I could black out all the bad like you guys are.”

Alice uncrosses her legs and readies to argue. “We’re not blocking o-”

“I’m sorry that all I can see when I close my eyes is-is death and failure. I can’t get past it. I’m not ready for this. I’m just- I’m not ready,” I admit and they all bow their heads and look away as I pathetically crumble. I’m exhausted. If this is all fated to be then it was shittily plotted and we reached the climax far too soon. The heroes are still shitting themselves and even the hopeful ones are hanging on by a weak thread. They have no reason to be faithful. And I’m not bowing out. I was right there with them fighting to the end in every vision but I can’t do this, I can’t keep plotting ways to die. That’s what it feels like – like I’m just thinking of creative ways to kill us all.

And maybe a stronger Quentin would power through, but I don’t think that’s the Quentin I am.

“Like any of us are fucking ready, Q?” Margo finally bites back.

“I lost Julia,” I say aloud, the words refusing to be just a thought.

Alice shakes her head. “You don’t know that she’s dead. Faye says she could wake up any day now.”

There is a spell forcing air into her lungs,” I remind her tersely. “She is not breathing on her own – not since she had to save my ass. She’s never in any of the outcomes. Julia would be there if she were alive. Hell or highwater.”

Margo and Alice get the same sullen look on their face and exchange a glance. I’m right. They’ve known Julia long enough to know I’m right. If she were anywhere near the ring, she’d be fighting ‘til the final bell.

I see the realization of the idea that we’ve already had one casualty sweep over their faces and for all the sadness and sickness and absolute pain I feel as the idea settles in me too, I also feel a seed of happiness.

I don’t know why it’s important to me to siphon their hope along with mine but it is and I keep on.

“We’re fucked,” I repeat to ears I know will be more receptive this time.

If just one of them could say something to affirm that it’s not just me, that I’m not just spiraling back off on another depressive, useless tangent for no reason other than my faulty wiring…I need someone to tell me I’m not feeling this alone. I can’t be alone.

I would give anything to feel the way I did when I saw that spark ignite at my fingertips that first time.

“Why don’t you go get some sleep, Q,” Eliot says, breaking his silence, and he gets the attention he was looking for. We all watch him with his eyes on the contents of his cup and his finger vacantly tracing the rim. It feels like he’s suggesting I tag out. I’m not helping and this would all go better if I just left. He’s probably right but I’m still offended.

“Are you kicking me out?” I ask indignantly. He looks up at me finally and his demeanor is calm – maybe too calm – and he shrugs, offering the smallest of friendly upturns at the corner of his mouth.

“You seem tired. You should sleep,” he says quietly.

It was this side of yesterday he was in bed next to me talking me down from a nightmare. He knows I can’t sleep. It’s the most discreet display of passive aggression. Alice and Margo look between us like kids caught in the middle of a parental row.

“You know what?” I say, reaching for my bag on the couch beside Eliot. “Good idea.” He lifts his feet from where they’ve been sat on the strap and lets me snatch it from under. I toss it over my shoulder and leave them to think of whatever brilliant idea I’m keeping them from.


In my room, I collapse onto my bed and hiss as I land awkwardly on my arm. For someone who essentially got sewn back together, I’m pretty good at forgetting to be careful. I push the collar of my shirt down to peer at the puckered, irritated, misshapen skin of my shoulder.

I’d been rushed to the capable hands of Faye and the other healers after the Beast’s attack, my arm swinging at my side, barely attached at any relevant places to the rest of me. My clothes were drenched with blood but I was numb to the pain of it all. My mind had chosen to focus on the rest of the night.

The Arugula’s bite seemed secondary to the moth-faced mystery that’d appeared, the death of Sunderland and the collapse of Julia.

I think back on that day and the first thing I remember is the sight of them bringing Julia into the infirmary and sitting her body on a bed next to me. Faye was fussing over my arm, stitching and spackling and chanting, but others were laying Julia’s limp form on top of the sheets, running their hands along her body, infusing her with an orange, warm light.

For several minutes they kept at it, sweeping over her, six of them altogether, and then they stepped away. One of them, a man, whispered something in Faye’s ear as she was tying a knot in a thick sheet of fabric wrapped tightly around my arm. Faye glanced at Julia, nodded once and then handed me something in a cup. It was another foul-tasting concoction and as I finished it and prepared to ask her about Julia, my eyes grew heavy and I was out before I took another breath.

When I woke, the room was quiet, Julia was in the bed next to me and though her chest was finally moving again, every breath that passed her lips expelled a spark of light, the residue of a spell. Her skin had gone pale, her lips were dry and cracking…She looked wrong, like she’d been caught on the brink of death and forced to stay teetering on the edge.

She’d touched something she shouldn’t have, Fogg had sloppily explained later. The spell she’d used to protect everyone wasn’t something books in the Brakebills library had and neither was her execution something a Brakebills professor would teach. There was a price sometimes, he said, to the backdoors Hedges are forced to take to spells.

Whatever the fuck that means.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’d have better luck asking each other to explain what’s going on than we’d have asking Fogg. Even at his boozy-best, he’s a bumbling, fumbling mess and just another victim of the madness.

I grab one of my Fillory books from the bedside table and try to read. My eyes pass over the words but I don’t manage to comprehend any of them. My mind is stuck somewhere else.

I’d woken up in the hospital in the middle of the night nearly three days after the attack, stiff and sore and feeling utterly disgusting as I peeled back the bandage on my arm to find a putrid looking wound, red and sticky and sick looking. It was some magic miracle it was still attached to me at all. The Arugula had gone for a bite directly at my shoulder, its jaws wide enough to require Faye and the healers to reconstruct a large part of it with a combination of magic and sisal twine – quite literally stitching me back together.

A wet bowl of a milky liquid was applied to my skin every day for a week and slowly an off looking layer of ‘skin’ started to cover the rough inner workings of my arm until I began to look better, but still where there should have been a curve there was now an unnatural slope of skin which made my shirts fit strangely.

I wiggle my fingers and watch them all move despite the icy, numb feeling I get in my third and smallest finger whenever I flex them. My spellwork was never perfect but now it took an extra couple seconds to get my fingers to do exactly what I wanted them to.

At least it was your left, Eliot loves to remind me.

Eliot.

I shouldn’t have acted the way I did, maybe, but it stings more than I care to admit that Eliot kicked me out.

We’d left the honeymoon phase of our whatever sometime last week probably around the time he gathered I wasn’t going to be handling everything the same way he was. Eliot’s thing is that he’s ridiculously good at grooming his bubble. He spent time doing things he’d decided he liked, he made friends with people he decided he liked, he cultivated his world to fit the things he enjoyed and if something didn’t fit, he had a way of sidelining it and tucking it away. He was ridiculously adaptable but also despised complicated things.

I’m pretty sure I made myself the first inconvenient thing he couldn’t bring himself to tuck away and so my demeanor, which had grown into something very opposite his, bothered him more than he would ever say.

Before then, before the nightmares and the very prominent twinkle of trauma in my eyes, we’d been as idyllic as two people in our places could be. It was as if we both felt the sudden preciousness of time and refused to waste another moment hesitating. We kissed – kissed often and with locked doors to allow us to explore each other’s bodies as long and as intimately as we liked without interruption. We stayed up after the girls had gone asleep, talking and laughing, dizzy and drunk and sloppily deciding to do more kissing, more exploring, more touching and teasing. Moments with him…they were the purest, most solid bits of happiness I’d felt in a long time.

But too soon I woke up from it all and the darker moments I felt in the middle of that bliss got deeper and darker and alcohol stopped tasting like escape and started tasting like blindness. I wasn’t feeling what I should have. I wasn’t doing what I should have. Julia wasn’t waking up, we either weren’t spending enough time on the Beast or we were spending too much and I started to feel the seeds of that cloudy sadness creep back in. And slowly we dissolved into a pattern of frequent ups and downs with Eliot always successfully luring me out of a mood and then disappointedly discovering the grace period was shorter than he’d have liked.

I was sorry for it. It just stopped feeling right to ever be happy in the middle of it all and so though I slept next to him every night, the two of us wrapped around each other contentedly, and even though we had moments where we let ourselves be blinded by how we felt about each other, we still always managed to find time during the day to disagree and sour whatever sweetness we’d accomplished.

I just couldn’t see past it – how ill equipped and fucked we were. How fleeting whatever happiness we found would be. How weak we were, how weak I was.

I settle the book on top of my face, covering myself, my nose buried in the pages as I try not to think. God, it’s useless.

The Beast had come straight at me, he was there for me. It was just like Eliza said, he will always come for me. She’d said she didn’t know how I find it…Omniscient Eliza couldn’t have guessed I’d bring him in by allowing him to catch a ride in on the back of a horny ten-foot bug.

The summoning had more than worked, cheating the Brakebills wards enough to let it in and unknowingly giving an opening to something else. Fogg said Julia’s magic was like a beacon. The whole campus had felt something change and at the stalling of his watch, Fogg had rounded up every teacher he could and followed whatever sweet heat Julia was putting off to the room.

It was power that’d scared the Beast off. Too much of it. For all his moth faced glory, he wasn’t equipped – or maybe just not in the mood – to go against the Brakebills staff. Well, except honoring Professor Sunderland with a parting blow that left her mangled and bloody on the floor-

God, what wasn’t everyone seeing? What wasn’t Eliot seeing?

They were there, they saw it too.

It was me the Beast wanted and who’s to say next time he’ll let anything stop him?

It was me he wanted…

The line rattles around in my head, ebbing as I catch a new meaning and then lose it over and over. And then with a heavy collapse, the idea settles in my chest.

Why weren’t we giving him what he wanted?

Cut off the head and maybe the body dies.

Kill me and maybe they have a chance. Kill me and maybe the world has a chance.

It would be idiotic to imagine the Beast’s goals would be small. He reeks with the stench of greed. The moths, the suit, the whistling – he has all the charm and smoothness of a black-and-white villain, dreams too big for his head. Whatever aspirations he had went beyond me. I was just the thing he saw in the way.

That had to be it.

And so why not give him what he wanted and live to fight another day? Wasn’t that the point? To get more time? What could I accomplish that my friends, with more time, couldn’t? Whatever he thought he should fear me for, they could do quicker, better, stronger.

But they couldn’t with me around. It was me numbering their days. After all, in every vision, where did he begin and end? With me.

The logic unfolds itself before me so quickly, I barely have time to realize what I’m doing. Planning my own end. Plotting another way to die.

I sit up and my feet brush one of Eliot’s vests on the edge of the bed as if to stamp out the last of my reluctance. I was doing this for a reason. I reach for it and finger the fabric. It’s one of his favorites, a navy blue, soft material vest with a beige pattern wrapping around the side and back. He’s only worn it a few times because he hates the way the buttons catch on the stitching.

As I hold it, my mind snags on a memory and my fist clenches around the fabric. It was the same vest he wore in the last Scroll, the one he always wore the day he died.


If Julia were here, she’d have whispered ‘bad delivery’ in my ear for the way I proposed my plan to everyone. It was more of a blurt, more of me just walking back into the room – after being dismissed no less – and announcing I wanted to sacrifice myself.

The moment the words fall from my lips, Margo and Alice give me a pinched, confused, what the fuck look while Eliot closes his eyes for a long time and then stands from his spot on the couch finally, his face forcibly blank.

“You’re not doing it,” he says plainly, setting his glass aside and then eye contact – oh, that’s new.

“Says who?” I ask.

“Says me. Boyfriend privileges.” It’s not a label we discussed but one that needed no denying either. It was what he was. If the moment were right, I’d have taken the time to be happy about it.

Boyfriend privileges,” I scoff. He was strategic, I’d give him that. “What about having a little faith? You don’t think I’ve thought it out?”

He shakes his head minutely, a sour smile on his face. “I think you think you got a message from a god and have been drinking the Kool-Aid ever since. So she has a time machine – big fuck. You’ve been itching to jump off a ledge ever since she put the idea in your head,” he accuses.

So this was what he’d been dying to say? That I’m delusional and brainless, like I don’t have a mind of my own or a thought that doesn’t belong to Eliza? I had thought it through on my own – several times over. Every end confirmed her words.

“She told me I was instrumental,” I try to reason. “Look, my grades are fine, above average but they’re nothing compared to Alice’s or Julia’s. I’m not some great Mage, I’m not gonna defeat this thing with magic. But this…I can’t fuck up dying. I can do this.”

“How does that help? How does any of that help? That’s bowing out, not helping. What the fuck about us?”

Eliot,” Margo cautions. He ignores her.

“I’m doing this for you,” I press on, frustrated. “This is a plan to save you.”

“It’s a plan to ease your guilt and your nerves so you don’t have to take the final test,” he sneers at me. “We let you be team captain and you are fucking us before the big game. You’re not sacrificing yourself because we will think of something else. So, just sit there and stay quiet if you can’t think of a better plan than ‘me die, you watch’.”

His stare is hard, his eyes narrowed as if he can’t stand the sight of me. He sits back down beside Margo, satisfied with my silence and then pulls his eyes away finally.

“Are you two done swinging your dicks around?” Margo chastises after a few seconds. She looks between us sternly, taking in our twin frowns. “What the fuck sense does it make to be fighting with each other?” Margo asks and neither of us answers. “Quentin that was a stupid fuckin idea,” she says to me plainly. “Eliot’s right. Stop trying to jump off the edge-”

“I’m trying to help-”

“How about you let us decide when you’re not pulling your weight,” she suggests. “Fuck Eliza. Where the fuck is she right now? What has she done to help? Play Yoda from her 60-foot impenetrable tower, that’s what. It’s us down here. I don’t care what she said, predicted or suggested. I don’t give a fuck if she has a time machine or if she pulls fortune cookies out of her ass – until she shows up with a how-to manual or a real answer, she can go fuck herself. Are we all clear on that?” she asks, looking around the room.

She takes our collective silence as confirmation and crosses her arms, sitting back. “Good. Now, Alice, what were you saying?”

Alice tucks her hair behind an ear. “I was just saying that even though the scrolls weren’t necessarily helpful, we could still use them.”

“Dot, dot, dot,” Margo prompts.

“Well, there’s the obvious process of elimination about what works and what doesn’t-”

“Which so far is nothing.”

“Yes, but we learned other things. There were patterns. The Beast always kills the first person he sees unless it’s Q and then he hesitates. When we get in the way of him fighting Quentin, he mows us all down. Quentin was right,” she says. “It’s him the Beast really wants.”

“Alice, we’re not killing Q,” Margo starts. “Plus, need I remind you we all died every time even if it took a while?”

“I’m not suggesting we kill Q,” Alice dismisses. “I’m pointing out that if the Beast is fighting Q and we’re not interfering, he mostly leaves us alone. He always tries to savor it. This isn’t to say he won’t kill us, just that we have time we can take advantage of.”

“Quentin never lasts long against him though,” Eliot points out, avoiding my gaze. “And he still dies.”

“If we could power Quentin up somehow or slow the Beast down-”

“What about a shit ton of protection spells around Q? It’ll lengthen the fight,” Margo suggests. “I wish we could talk to Julia.” She throws a glance my way. “Sorry.”

“And he’s obviously not immune to wards. He had to sneak in,” Alice says.

“Strategic hiding,” Eliot sighs, letting his head fall back on the sofa. “It’s a start.”

“Anything else, Aly Cat?” Margo questions.

“Just that the Beast always comes about a week after Penny and Kady show up.”

“That’s another something, at least,” Margo comforts. “As long as the anger management twins aren’t here, we know we still have time to brainstor-”

A quiet whoosh sounds out and the glasses on the shelves rattle lightly. We all turn to take in Penny and Kady standing hand-in-hand on the other side of the shelf looking exhausted and windswept.

“Oh, fuck me,” Margo groans.

“The security here is shit,” Eliot mumbles. He sits up and starts pouring them drinks, holding them out as they pass. “Welcome. Come. Sit. I’m sure you bring good news.”

“Fuckin Mothra-faced freak is on our ass,” Penny pants.

“Knew you wouldn’t disappoint,” El deadpans.

“Wait, you know about him?” Kady asks impatiently. She looks around the room, a group of slumped, cushy looking people. “And you’re all sitting around with your dicks in your hands?”

“More we’re here trying to think of a way to kill him,” Alice defends. “Where have you two been? Honeymooning? Where’s the binder?”

Penny breathes out a laugh as he flops down beside her on the compact, hideously patterned settee. He downs the drink Eliot handed him and nudges it across the table for a refill. Kady opts to flop down on the empty sofa, swinging her heavy bag off her back and settling it between her legs pointedly, a silent answer to Alice’s question.

“How’d you even get past the wards?” Alice inquires sulkily. Kady digs something from the side of her boot and tosses it to Alice. It’s small and thin as Alice catches it and turns it over in her hands. A tiny, standard looking key save for the translucent material it’s composed of. Her Alumni Key.

“Gee, where’d ya find it?” Margo taunts. Kady throws her a fake smile.

“Did you just teleport?” I ask and everyone looks my way. Penny narrows his eyes and gives me his signature you’re an idiot look. “Sorry, uh, you teleport?”

“I’m not a fuckin superhero, Coldwater, so you can keep your nerd boy boner to yourself,” he says. “But sure, I teleport. Part of this bullshit Psychic gig,” he complains, downing another drink.

“Leave it to Penny to complain about being able to go wherever he wants,” Margo cuts in.

“Yea?” Penny asks her. He sets his glass down and lifts his right leg onto the table, rolling up his pants to show several patches of red and raw looking skin along his leg. “All fun ‘til you blink yourself to a volcano or the middle of fucking nowhere because you can’t control the shit. Talk about shit you know,” he advises.

“Well, congrats on making yourself useful,” Margo retorts. “Shit goes south, touch Penny,” she instructs.

“Are you better now?” Alice asks. “I mean, you got here alright. So you got help?”

“Yea, some crazy hermit Magician in Antarctica-”

“Brakebills South,” Alice pieces together interestedly. “You went to Brakebills South?”

“Yea,” Penny confirms slowly. “Sunderland sent me,” he explains and looks go around the room at the name, all of us remembering the pile of nothing she’d been the last we saw her. “She found me wandering after I dipped on y’all in the infirmary. Speaking of, where is she – her office or whatever? I need to-” he pauses, catching the look on our faces. “What?”

Eliot rips the Band-Aid off. “Sunderland’s dead,” he informs. “Mothra’s doing.”

Penny processes the news with a surprising look of devastation. He stands from the couch, the tails of his heavy coat and scarf trailing behind him as he starts pacing, thinking over whatever wrench this news throws in his plans.

“Wait, that…that thing, he’s been here?” Kady asks frantically. “He can get in here?”

“No. Kind of. I mean, he had help,” Eliot fumbles. “No,” is what he settles on.

“Penny, we gotta leave,” Kady says, already gathering her bag off the floor. “This place’s just as fucked. We’ll move better alone.”

“You’ll be safe here,” Alice assures and Kady and Penny pause the panic and pacing to listen. “He won’t get back in without help. We messed something up but Fogg’s had the wards reinforced. They will keep the Beast out.”

“For how long?” Kady shoots back. “Mayakovsky had wards but…I mean- have you seen what he does? The way he fucking ripped him up…” she trails off with a shake of her head as if she can wag off the memories. Everyone in the room knows from experience that it’s impossible.

“The Beast killed this…Mayakovsky?” Alice asks. Kady nods.

“The Antarctic Magician?” I confirm.

“Yea,” Penny says, finally rejoining the conversation but his eyes are wide like he’s still debating fleeing.

“What did the Beast want with him?”

“Nothing. He was after me,” Penny says.

“Why?”

“I don’t fucking know. Probably pissed he couldn’t get in my head anymore. Drove me fucking crazy for weeks up there. Ellsworth was one thing, all the crazy shit people were thinking, but up there, in Antarctica, there was no one. All I could fucking hear, day and night, was him talking to me until I learned to control it.”

“Talking about what?” Margo asks. Penny hesitates before answering.

“About Coldwater.” His eyes find me finally. “He wanted me to get you. Said you were hiding. Guess he meant the wards.”

His answer hits four pairs of ears badly. The Beast had been inside his head for weeks, begging him to find his way to me and lure me out and now here he was.

“How do we know you didn’t come here to fetch Q for him right now?” Margo narrows her eyes and sits up straighter, a fierce look taking over her face.

Keep an eye on him, Eliza’s words come back to me. He has trouble picking sides.

Penny scowls like we’re idiots for even thinking he’d do it. “Because I know what the fuck he’d do to me when he was done with Coldwater. Besides, shit’s not so dire that I need to go making friends with Bughead. I’m not stupid. I got other people to look out for.” His eyes cut to Kady briefly. “Is that a good enough answer or do I need to take a fucking polygraph?”

No one speaks but eyes come my way as if the choice is mine whether to take the risk or not. I look Penny and Kady over in all their disheveled, terrified glory. If they are working for the Beast, they’re playing the long game. Surely the Key could have gotten the Beast in instantly and unless he’s somewhere in the room with popcorn, watching us suffer for shits and giggles then they haven’t sold us out. I meet Penny’s eyes and nod once. He rolls his eyes as a response.

“Good. So, college kids,” he mocks. “What’s the plan?”


Hours pass of us having nothing. We were savagely unprepared. Eliot pours another drink. Margo sighs. Kady asks Alice to repeat what we learned from the Coins and Scrolls for the eleventh time and Alice begrudgingly obeys. Splitting up didn’t work. Staying together didn’t work. The Beast wants Quentin.

The Beast wants Quentin.

The words catch on something in my mind that eleventh time, an idea forming.

“God, this is nerve wracking,” Penny huffs.

“What if we do both?” I interrupt, my brain unfolding the idea.

“What are you talking about? How?” Penny asks.

“We do both. We do all,” I correct. “We stick together, we split up, we hide, we run. All at the same time.”

“Again, I ask, fucking how?”

“The problem with sticking together is that it’s easier for him to pick us all off and the problem with splitting up is that it divides us when we’re stronger together. So, if we can’t figure out a way to juice me up, then why not just fake it?” I start, standing. I sweep my hair back and start a pace as the plan unfolds in my mind. “We lure the Beast, and you all take up posts – far enough away that he doesn’t see you but close enough for us to work together. We all fight him at the same time but he’ll only see me, behind a ward and holding his attention.”

I look around the room and it’s clear that not everyone is on board with the plan. Penny makes his usual unimpressed face at me and Kady, as if it’s contagious, gives the same look. Even Margo has a brow raised doubtfully.

“Think about it,” I begin, desperate to get them on my side. “All of us against him… He won’t even see you coming, it’s-”

“The Arugula Method,” Eliot finishes.

Margo catches his eye and shakes her head with a wry smile. “The fuckin’ Arugula Method.”

“What the fuck is an Arugula?” Penny butts in.

Margo ignores him and turns to Alice. “Thoughts?”

Alice draws in a breath and then, with a look my way, she hands me their faith. “It could work.”

“This is next level superhero shit,” Eliot comments and a tiny smile passes his mouth. He looks at me finally and behind a slowly lowering veil of indifference, I see his eyes shining with relief.

“Then we should get to training,” I say unable to tear my eyes from Eliot. I’m waiting and for a while I don’t know what for, but then he smiles at me, really smiles – a smaller, more toned-down version of his Quentin smile – and I feel the weight of his confidence give me strength. I know I’ve done something right.

“Yes, sir,” he grins.


If anyone doubted the idea or the plan, they reassured themselves with tenacity. The six of us run ourselves ragged day and night, our faces buried in books and our fingers cramped from casting. If we were honest with ourselves, we weren’t sure what to practice. We had no spell, no definite thing that was going to defeat the Beast. All we had was what we were. And so we worked hard with the singular goal of being the best Magicians we could be because that’s all we could do.

When the Beast fought us, he would be forced to sweat the way we did when we stayed up late into the night working through the same casts over and over, learning Battle magic as best we could with Kady’s help.

Kady was a mystery. She’d grown up around Magic but under circumstances that took the wonder from it. I think she meant to be nicer than she was but the close-lipped, standoffish way she approached any conversation shot down the formation of any real friendship. Instead she earned our respect. She was hardworking and strong; she knew more than she knew she did and was patient in teaching us it all. I couldn’t help thinking about how much Julia would like her. Kady and Penny liked to make it clear that they were there for one reason and one reason only: they wanted to kill the Beast.

Kady was a force with her Battle Magic – I’d never get over the irony of how I first reacted to it and its importance now – but Penny was surprisingly good at Illusion Magic. And when you asked, after he huffed, rolled his eyes and did everything within reason to communicate his displeasure, he’d walk you through it. I’m pretty sure the only one of us he could stand was Alice and that’s likely just because she treated his expertise like gospel. I think she appreciated the simultaneously strict and reckless way he approached magic, he was textbook and wayward all at the same time.

He and Kady mostly stayed close together, doting over each other quietly and it was strange to see their strong demeanors be reduced to tenderness.

We were almost positive Fogg knew they were on campus and was choosing to offer a blind-eye in place of usefulness. We’d only gone to him for help once, a fruitless endeavor, and he greeted us with all the weariness of a defeated man. He’d checked out. Besides, we’d already resigned, already decided and accepted that all we had was each other. We were doing this and when it was all said and done, we’d say fuck you to Fogg and Eliza for all their baffling half-help and riddles.

When.

‘When’ became a common word among us. There were so many things we were going to do ‘when’. When the Beast was dead, when this was all over, when we settled down. We talked about When so much, the dreaming started to sour. The future loves to show you what you want, the present reminds you what you have. All we had was dwindling hope and a heavy goal – it wasn’t a welcome reminder.

I recognized the same look in everyone’s eyes when we’d meet up in the living room of the cottage at the end of the day. We’d be draped across the furniture, sat in groups with glasses of Eliot’s concoction in our hands, exhausted and heavy-minded and we’d look around the room and see the same message in each face. We were terrified. We had about as much hope in the plan as we did doubt but it was as if those late nights recharged our drive. We sat there and saw in that room the reason we were fighting. We were sat next to or across from our reason to try.

We were sat next to or across from the one who would miss us most.

On one foggy night, we decided on one very important rule. With the days dwindling down, a mood fell over us all. Alcohol stopped tasting as good, laughs came out like half-cries and smiles looked painful. We’d collectively fallen into the mood I’d prematurely reached before.

It stopped feeling right to be happy.

“So, let’s think about the worst,” Margo suggested that night. She may have been slurring her words but I was too tipsy to tell if it was just me. Eliot had one leg thrown over mine and his long arms splayed over the back of the couch, one behind me and the other around Margo.

“If shit goes wrong and we’re dying,” we all flinched at the word. “What’s the plan then?” she asked, looking around the room. No one spoke. Penny’s arm tightened minutely around Kady and Eliot took another drink, the ice tinkling against the glass as he did.

Margo sat forward and Alice looked up from where she was sat on the floor beside her. Margo slid to the edge of the couch where we could all see her and a stern look swept over her face.

“We need to have each other’s backs,” she said, eyes lingering a bit on Penny and Kady. “We’re doing this so we have a chance, all of us. So if one of us falls, another helps them up. And if one of us…” she paused to look at Eliot, Alice and I, her eyes watering. “If one of us dies,” she continued. “Then the others promise to keep going. If you’re scared to lose someone then fight, but we don’t look back or they died for nothing,” she told us strictly. “So when it’s be brave or be smart…you know which one.”

Chapter Text

Previously...
“We need to have each other’s backs,” Margo said, eyes lingering a bit on Penny and Kady. “We’re doing this so we have a chance, all of us. So if one of us falls, another helps them up. And if one of us…” she paused to look at Eliot, Alice and I, her eyes watering. “If one of us dies,” she continued. “Then the others promise to keep going. If you’re scared to lose someone then fight, but we don’t look back or they died for nothing,” she told us strictly. “So when it’s be brave or be smart…you know which one.”


The healers in the infirmary grow tired of my face, but I don’t go see Julia nearly as much as I should. I convince myself most days that I’m too busy to visit but when I’m honest I know it’s because I can’t stand to see her like this.

I swear it’s as if every time I come back, her face has lost more color. Her figure is thin and sickly, her lips are cracked and dark and there’s a brittleness to her hair. Gone is the vivacity of the Julia I knew.

But did I ever really know her?

Why does the end make things so impersonal? You don’t realize you had so many questions until you can’t do anything about it.

Every time I come I wonder if she would want me to end whatever Magic is keeping her frozen here. I wonder if there’s any of her left in there at all.

“Do you hear anything?” I ask Penny as he stands at the side of Julia’s bed, eyes closed. There are a few vases of dying flowers on Julia’s table that Alice probably brought over and a stupid paperback of Wandering Dune I left. It was always her favorite book of the series.

Penny doesn’t respond and I try my best to not think the worst. It was Eliot’s idea to try, his idea to see if Penny could hear Julia thinking. Maybe she was there all the while just listening to us when we visited, in some kind of limbo and unable to cross over.

“No.”

We all look to Penny as he speaks finally, taking a step back from Julia.

“Nothing at all?” Alice asks him. He shakes his head and has the decency to look sorry. “Maybe her wards are still up,” Alice suggests.

“Time for plan B,” Margo says with a glance in Kady’s direction. Kady draws in a breath beside Penny and starts pulling things out of the bag slung across her body. Eliot locks the door.

Kady produces several vials of ash and liquid and spreads them out on the table. The last thing she pulls out is Marina’s binder, thick and rough looking now. She lays the book across the free space at Julia’s feet and starts flipping through. A few looks go around the room as we remember the trouble it caused and wonder why Marina doesn’t have it back by now, another Penny-Kady mystery.

Kady lines up a row of small candles and lights them, dropping a bit of each vial into the flames. Alice peers over her shoulder curiously.

“Are we sure this will work?” she asks.

“If there’s any bit of consciousness left in her, this should get you into it,” Kady explains distractedly.

“Scarlatti’s Web,” Eliot reads off the page. “‘Dreamception’ in parentheses,” he finishes, unimpressed. “Is this another Hedge original? Not really trying to get Quentin stuck with her in Lalaland.”

Kady lights a thicket of sage and a heavy smoke starts up. “It’s not Hedge Magic. Just strong. A hex,” she drops.

The room pauses.

“Kinda feels like something you’d mention beforehand,” Margo deadpans.

“The sage cleanses the dreamspace. Temporarily. If he’s quick,” Kady says pointedly, “then there’s nothing to worry about. Safe enough for you?” she asks me. It has to be. I nod with enough confidence to reassure everyone.

“Good,” Kady begins and points to the binder. “Read that. And let’s be quick maybe?” she requests. “I know it’s heavy times and all but some of us aren’t supposed to be here.”

She directs me to sit before she puts the book in my lap and steps back, giving me the go ahead. Everyone watches as I bow my head and begin reading a long bit of Turkish. I feel the Magic start up and it’s sweet and hot, on the edge of pleasurable. When I reach the final word, the smell of sage hits my nose strongly and I’m pulled under.

It’s dark on the other side of wherever.

I feel around blankly in the nothing.

“Quentin?” a voice asks and I turn, the movement morphing the black into a cascade of browns and whites. Things snap into shape and I’m suddenly stood in Julia’s childhood bedroom, a mess of muted business pinks and serious wood browns.

Julia is in a thin white gown, her hair loose and wavy. She’s barefoot and stood near the singular window in her room. The curtains billow softly as a breeze comes in from the cool night air and ruffles her hair. She looks healthy – with the life and coloring of the girl I knew.

“Julia,” I breathe, closing the distance to pull her into a hug. She only feels half there, a pillow softness where a hard body should be. “Thank god. You’re still alive.”

“Not in any way that counts,” she corrects with a tiny frown. “And not for long,” she says. “How are you here? What is this?”

“We did a spell but Jules…What are you talking about?” I question. “You’re alive. We’re gonna get you out.”

“Q,” she says, exasperated. “How?”

“I- We’re working on it,” I sputter. “Or we will work on it.” She looks at me pitifully like she wants to believe it but can’t. “Have you tried to get out?” I ask.

“Of course I’ve tried, Quentin,” she snaps. “Of course I’ve tried.”

I press my mouth shut, feeling chastised and completely useless.

“It’s not always like this,” she says, gesturing around, calmer. “Whatever spell you’re doing…this is new.” She toys with the tiny Jane Chatwin figurine sat on the mahogany desk beside her, a gift I gave her for her fourteenth birthday. In the real world, I’m almost positive she tossed it out years ago.

“What is it normally like here?” I bring myself to ask.

“Monsters under the bed. Things in the closet,” she jokes and then, as if she forgets to keep the mask on, her face drops and she drags her eyes back to me, moony and distracted. “It hurts,” she whispers. “Some days it’s like dreaming but others it…I feel what my body is feeling. I feel like I’m dying and it hurts.” Her voice breaks on the word but she refuses to cry. God.

“Jules,” I beg. “If you could just hold out a little longer I- I’ll find a way to help you.”

“Is he dead?” she interrupts. “The moth man. Did you kill him?”

“No,” I respond stiffly.

“Do you think you will?” The question throws me.

“No,” I confess, choking on the word. “But I’ve been wrong before.”

She smiles. “Once or twice,” she agrees. “You need the spells I used,” she says, ahead of me. “They’re in my room at the Knowledge house, tucked under a floorboard. Have Alice look over them, they need work.”

“Stop talking like you’re saying goodbye,” I insist.

“Quentin, look,” she instructs and points to the floor. The wood is scratched and patchy. Some areas are slowly being taken over by a stark white. I look around the room and see the same is happening to the walls at the corners. I reach for a white patch in the wall beside me and my hand meets nothing. I press forward and keep going, my arm disappearing entirely in the white. I jerk back.

“It does that all the time,” she informs. “I don’t know what happens when it’s all gone. It disappears faster and faster every day,” she explains and I glance around to see the spots taking over parts of her bed, her desk, the ceiling. “The more it goes, the more it hurts. There is no helping me, Q.”

“Julia, I will find a way,” I vow desperately. “We- You can’t-,” I stumble, shaking my head. “God, this is bullshit. All of this,” I spit. “This shouldn’t be our lives.”

Julia frowns defeatedly. “And yet…”

I fight the emotion wanting to spill out of me watching her. She’s not even fighting. Julia. Julia’s not fighting anymore.

“I brought the Wandering Dune,” I say stupidly. “It’s out there.”

“Yea?” she asks, smiling that fond oh Quentin smile. “The famous paperback from your twelfth birthday?”

“That one.”

“A classic,” she nods contentedly. “Question,” she says after a bit. I raise my brows. “When I did the spell, for like the first few seconds, were you mad jealous?”

I roll my eyes with a smile. “For like the first few seconds, yea. Yea, I was.”

“Shit friends,” she grins.

“Shit friends,” I agree.

“How long do you have?” she asks, mood dropping.

“Oh fuck,” I swear, remembering Kady’s words. “I should probably leave, actually. But I can do this again, I can come back,” I promise her fiercely.

She offers me a weak smile, looking as if her mind were preoccupied. “Kick his ass for me, okay?” she requests.

“Okay,” I agree. “Bye, Jules.”

She gives a small, distracted wave and I hesitate, feeling there’s something else she wants to say. When she doesn’t speak I ready to leave, presumably through the still intact door of her room.

“Hey, Q?” Julia calls softly and I pause, turning back. She smiles at me and takes in a quivering deep breath. “Close the door on your way out?”

I cock my head, confused, and she stays there, her face unchanging until what she’s asking finally dawns on me. No.

Julia,” I whisper pitifully.

She nods once. “Goodbye, Q,” she says and then I’m dismissed. In front of me no longer is Julia in her white gown but Julia, pale and deathly in her hospital bed.

“Quentin?” Eliot’s voice calls and he gently shakes my shoulders. I bite down on my lip hard as I look Julia over. I take her hand gently and it’s so thin I’m half afraid to touch it. “You saw her?”

“Yea,” I say weakly, sinking my teeth deeper to hide the trembling in my mouth. “Yea, I did.”

“What’d she say?” Margo wonders.

“Um,” I stall, trying to collect myself as I turn to face them all. I let go of Julia’s hand as I rise. I break through the crowd to stand alone, feeling suffocated by them as Julia’s request keeps repeating in my head. “She said the spells are in her room under a floorboard. She said you should look over them, Alice,” I relay.

Alice nods, fidgeting with her hands, a tentative look on her face like she’s waiting for me to burst into tears. I look around the room and everyone has much the same expression, like they expected me to be in hysterics. Like they expected the worst.

“How was she?” Alice brings herself to ask and the group visibly appreciates that she did.

I wring my hands. “She was…good. Dressed in white in her childhood room, actually. She seemed…” I pause, looking for a word to describe the sterile, above-it demeanor she had, like she had emotions but had deemed them all too useless to express. “Calm,” I finish. The mood lifts among the group.

“So, she’s okay?” Margo asks.

I swallow hard against the growing bitter taste in my mouth. “Yea. She’s okay,” I lie.

“Can we go then?” Kady speaks up. She’s sweeping things back into her bag.

“Yes.” Penny wastes no time in grabbing Kady’s hand and breezing out while the others linger behind. Eliot is the last to go, stopping to grab my hand.

“We’ll figure something out and come back and get her,” he assures, squeezing my fingers.

“Yea,” I mumble distractedly and I feel sick to my stomach but I try to take Eliot’s words to heart. We would come back for her. I would fix this. There was no need for me to…

She could just hold on for a little bit longer. She could do that.

“At least she’s not suffering,” Eliot whispers against my temple as we walk out and I bite my lip so hard I draw blood.


With every day that passes, our moods grow more and more sour. Everyone around the Physical cottage mostly stays out of our way now as if they can smell the bad attitudes rolling off of us. If we leave the cottage, it’s only for a break from the monotony and disappointment in the fact that this is likely it for us. If we don’t know something by now, we will never learn. We’re holding every tool in our arsenal that we’ll have against the Beast.

We’ve peaked.

I spend my days practicing backdoor tricks, ways to work around the speed issue that my arm causes. Hours and hours of exercises make me better but every time I snag or trip up on a cast, I drip a little bit more into the black waters of doubt.

We tweak and retweak the plan a million times over. Strategic hiding, we scoff somedays, what a shit plan. The Arugula Method, we think other days, it worked once before. Paramount to every concern and shard of confidence is the reminder it’s all we have.

I visit Julia sometimes twice a day, sitting at her bedside just looking at her, willing her lungs to start dragging in air on their own and her face to trade in the sickly pale color for something new. It still kills me to see her but I probably deserve the discomfort. I scour the library every chance I get, looking for something, anything but I never find it.

One afternoon Alice joins me on a visit, taking a welcome break from her drills. She’s found a powerful fire spell, one that creates a giant explosive orb of flame, but wielding it is tricky and aiming is a nightmare.

She sits beside me in the tiny hard hospital chair and we quietly, with hands in our laps, look over Jules together, neither of us knowing what to do.

“Do you ever talk to her?” Alice asks me. The break in the silence makes me jump. I’d almost finished counting the freckles on Julia’s face.

“I don’t know what I’d say,” I tell her. Sometimes I think about reading to her but I know she’d hate that. Sometimes I think about apologizing for every fight we’ve ever had but that feels selfish.

“You just watch her?” Alice questions and then she turns to me and with her knowing stare corrects herself. “You just wait?”

I look away. For a second I consider telling her about Julia, about what she asked me to do but I gag on the words. “At least she’s ok,” Alice speaks up again. “Maybe Faye did something. Something to keep her dreaming?”

You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, I think.

“Do you ever wonder what Charlie sees? If he sees anything?” She hadn’t said or done much to find him since the Beast’s attack. The first summoning had made her and Margo wary of trying again. Sometimes during the day though, they’d disappear from the Cottage, researching or testing together.

“All the time. There’s so much no one knows about Niffins,” she says. “He could be in pain. Or suffering,” she breathes, eyes haunted.

My mouth goes dry. “So how do you live not knowing? How are you so ok?”

She frowns at me. “I’m not ok, Quentin,” she corrects, offended. “I miss him every day. He was my best friend,” she says. “I keep going because I have to. Because there’s nothing else I can do.”

“But if you could help him?” I prompt.

“Then I’d help him. Always,” she swears.

It takes everything in me to not look Julia’s direction, to not give away why I’m asking. “Even if it meant losing him forever?”

She hesitates, drawing her brows together and doesn’t answer. She can’t. She’s just as selfish.

I tell myself that if Alice said she’d do it anyway then I would have done it, I tell myself if Julia really wanted it to happen then she’d have known to ask someone with more nerve, someone less selfish. I can’t lose her. I can’t do it. I can’t be the reason she’s gone.

God, I’m an asshole.

“Do you think we’re doing the right thing?” I ask Alice.

She looks at me and then at Julia and the bright puffs of light seeping from her lips, and takes my hand. “I think we’re doing the best we can.”


In another of our group sulks, Margo passes around more of her inexplicably expensive magically appearing bottles of wine. It’s red and probably five times stronger than it should be. Penny takes a swig and nearly spits it back out.

“Damn, girl, what’s in this?” He takes another gulp before passing it on to Kady.

“Family secret,” Margo says and she and Eliot share a shit eating grin.

Whatever the family secret, it hits hard and the bottle never empties. We keep passing until we’re dizzy and the bottle ends up between Penny’s legs, an inch from spilling over.

“This shit’s depressing,” Kady remarks and the room snaps to life, all of us realizing at the same time that we’d been sat in silence staring into space for what was probably a very long time.

I let my head loll sideways and land on Eliot’s shoulder in the quiet. Alice hiccups and Margo’s head jumps a bit from where it’s perched on Alice’s lap.

“What do you suggest we do?” Margo asks languidly. I cock my head and blink hard, from where I’m sitting it looks like she’s holding Alice’s hand, but Margo was always a touchy drunk.

“I don’t know,” Kady answers. “Something…fun? Something not this,” she gestures at us.

“Let’s play spin the bottle then,” Margo suggests and Eliot lets out a stuttery laugh, his chest shaking me. Margo grins over cockily, happy for the reaction. “No takers? Bummer.”

Kady sneers at her, folding her arms and sagging back into the cushions. We’ve only just started to settle into quiet, each falling back into whatever black hole of thought Kady snatched us from, when she stops us again.

“I just…Don’t you guys feel it too?” she asks and her voice is low. “The end?”

Nobody responds. If she was trying to get us to stop thinking, she said the wrong words. Of course we could all feel it, it was like a chill in the air growing colder with every hour that passed.

“I’m going to bed,” I announce abruptly, standing. I sway a little bit as the alcohol redirects and Eliot grabs my hips to steady me. “Are you coming?” I ask him.

“In a minute,” he promises. I stumble out, brushing my hand over his hair as I go, shakily climbing the stairs to my room. It’s still unimpressive inside, bare walls and simple sheets. I flop down, burying my face in the covers, the coolness a welcome feeling on my face.

Fuck Kady for being right, I think. And fuck her for being wrong too.

Something fun.

What did fun even mean anymore? What did it even feel like? Taste like? Look like?

The bed shakes beside me and I peek up, expecting Eliot but it’s Margo sliding next to me and propping herself up on her hand to look down at me.

“Hey,” I say, rolling over to mimic her position.

“Hey,” she responds. “Shaggy,” she smiles lazily, brushing hair away from my face. She pats my cheek fondly, her eyes growing a bit glassy and blank. She looks like Julia did, like something she hates the taste of is right on the tip of her tongue and she doesn’t want to let it out. “Do you think she’s right?” she asks finally. “Kady? I mean, I know she’s right but…I can’t believe she’s right.”

“She’s not,” I tell her. “We’re doing the right thing.”

“Are we, Q?” she questions and her voice is shaky. God, I hate this. I reach up to hold the hand she’s left on my face. She clears her throat. “I think I might be into Alice,” she says slowly like she’s testing the way it sounds and I blink, measuring her face and waiting for the joke but she holds steady.

“Oh,” I say. “Oh,” I process again. “Does Alice like…you?”

“Somedays I swear. When we practice…did you know she listens to Alanis fucking Morrisette?”

“No,” I say. “But that…oddly…makes sense.”

“It’s just- shit like that,” she starts, flopping onto her back. “Makes me feel like I didn’t ask enough questions when I had the chance, you know?” she asks and I nod, my mind drifting to Julia. “Tell me something about you no one else knows,” Margo requests, flipping back to me. I search my mind for something interesting, something to maybe make her laugh but my brain insists on circling on a single fact.

“I’ve been institutionalized more than once,” I blurt and if she’s disappointed with the answer, she doesn’t show it, just lets her eyes roam over my face for a long moment like she’s taking me all in again.

“My dad,” I go on, suddenly unable to stop myself, figuring if she wants something from me, I may as well spill to the last drop. “He used to visit and read me the Fillory books and I guess that’s where the…obsession started.” That was always the word Julia used. I found something I liked and didn’t know how to let go.

“That explains it,” Margo whispers.

“What?”

“There’s this thing about you, Q. You love so hard,” she murmurs and she says it like it’s a good thing but I can’t think of a single positive that’s come from it. “You love magic. Say you hate it all you want but you love it,” she says, sleepy eyes boring into me. “That’s why it’s hitting you so hard. Because you know you’ll never be able to stop loving it.”

I swallow thickly under the weight of the sentiment and her gaze. “You make it sound so great. Nothing good comes from loving something that hard.”

“That’s the best kind of love,” she disagrees. “So deep you can’t turn back,” she smiles wistfully. “I’ve never loved anything like that,” she admits.

“You will,” I say stupidly and she smiles indulgently.

“Can’t believe that bitch said we weren’t fun.”

I snort out a laugh. “We broke out of a hospital, that was pretty fun.”

“For like five seconds,” she scoffs.

“For five seconds,” I agree, grinning.

“Should I be concerned?” we hear and we lean up to see Eliot in the doorway, vest over his shoulder as he takes us in.

“Keeping your man warm for you. You’re welcome,” Margo says, sliding off the bed. I sit up.

“Uh-huh. Well, tag out, Bambi,” Eliot instructs, swatting her lightly with his vest.

“You kicking me out?” she teases, wrapping her arms around his waist.

“Damn straight,” he responds, hugging her briefly before ushering her out the door. “Go. Time to do gross things to my boyfriend.”

“Throw in a few screams, sing me a lullaby?” Margo asks.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Eliot promises, closing the door behind her. “Hi,” he says, pushing off the wood and making his way over. He stops in front of me and threads his fingers into my hair. I wrap my arms around him and press my face into his stomach, my eyes dropping closed as he lightly scratches my scalp.

“I promised Margo gross things,” he hints after a while. I laugh into the material of his shirt.

“You promised sounds,” I correct, pulling back to look up at him.

“Is there a way to get one without the other?”

“Just ask,” I shrug. He raises a brow, fingers playing with the curve of my ear.

“It’s that easy?” he questions. “What if I want to work for it?” He leans down to capture my lips in a deep kiss, his mouth sliding against mine languidly. He tastes sweet from the wine and something else that’s entirely him. His lips grow more insistent, hands moving through my hair again as he rocks us back and forth in his vigor and I wonder why I almost let this slip away.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble against his mouth, drawing back. He follows me halfway, eyes slowly reopening.

“For…” he drags out. “Cockblocking yourself? You’re forgiven.” He leans in again and I dodge him. We’ve gotten so far not saying so much but I want this to be pure.

“For the other day,” I explain. “The way I was acting.”

Eliot drops his hands to my shoulders and wets his lips. “It’s adult conversation time, huh?” he wonders and I nod. With a sigh, he sits beside me.

“I just thought I made it clear in the hospital,” he begins. “We’re in this together. Despite you being hellbent on doing this alone.”

“I’m not hellbent-” I start defensively. “We had nothing to go on and I…She knew so much about everything, about me,” I tell him. “She gave me answers to questions I hadn’t even asked yet. She gave me something solid and I bought it,” I confess.

“I get that, Q,” Eliot says. He turns to look at me, his wide brown eyes heavy. “But why would Eliza’s doubt ever mean more than our faith?” he questions and I don’t have a good answer. In fact, my mind goes blank in the face of his words as if making space for the wide revelation.

“I don’t know,” I say numbly, still wrapping myself around his words. “You’re right.”

“Is it gonna stick this time?” he asks me. “I only have so many pep talks in me and you are blowing through your tickets very quickly, Coldwater,” he smirks.

He comes in for another kiss and I hesitate again. “I kissed Alice.”

He drags his eyes open, lips still puckered and blinks at me like he heard wrong. “How drunk am I? You did what?”

“Kissed Alice. At Ellsworth,” I piece together sheepishly.

His eyes flutter rapidly like he can’t get his brain around it. “When?”

“About 20 minutes before I kissed you,” I admit.

He doesn’t respond for a minute and right when I think he’s about to yell, a laugh spills out of him. “Jesus Christ, you’re a disaster.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Should I be mad?” he asks me, sobering up.

“I don’t know.”

“Were you thinking about Alice when you kissed me?”

“Of course not.” He raises his brows as if to say exactly. “Oh.” And then I push my luck. “That’s it?”

“Do you want to have a rose ceremony?” he laughs and then lets his face go serious. “We do a pretty good job of talking between the lines but to be clear, I like this,” he gestures between us. “This is good.”

I nod in agreement and Eliot offers a small smile before drawing in a breath and wiping his hands on his pants, deep in thought.

“I’m sorry,” he begins. “When you were in your…mood…I wasn’t helping the problem,” he apologizes.

I shake my head. My shortcomings weren’t his to fix. “It wasn’t your problem I-”

“No, Q, it was. I hear you,” he tells me. “And I see you. And more than that, I understand you. Me walking around like I was evolved…it was bullshit. Especially considering I was right there with you.”

“You were?” Eliot had kept nothing but a smooth, cool demeanor in the face of my despondency. How much had I wished that someone could just understand? And he had.

What had I thought the day we escaped Ellsworth when he stood there and burned happily in the heat of the Hedge Magic? That he seemed used to stomping down blackness for the sake of sensation. That he knew about wading through darkness and pretending it was light.

How much had I seen him and not thought enough of it?

“My life, it’s never worked,” Eliot divulges. “The casual alcoholism, the indulgences…I am made of distractions, made of substitutes for actually dealing with shit. I’m fucking terrified,” he admits gravely and I get a glimpse of the same bare, open boy from the night that feels forever ago when he told me about the murders that landed them in Ellsworth. “I have found more family in the five fucking seconds I’ve known you three than I have my whole fucking life and I am shitting myself moment to moment over the fact it might be ending before it even really began,” he confesses.

It’s amazing how much we accomplished without saying a word, how deeply we felt without naming the feeling.

The chill in the air grows colder. It was times like these that threatened to keep my head underwater. This wasn’t just a conversation, it was a moment and how many more of those would we get?

“So no, you kissing Alice weeks ago…I don’t really feel like being mad about that,” he finishes.

He looks at me flatly and I feel bad for taking the animation from his eyes. “But if I did it tomorrow…” I joke.

He grins. “I’d probably find time to be mad then.”

“Noted,” I say. “Adult conversation time over.” He perks up and his eyes grow dangerous, a smirk taking over his face.

“But that was pretty deep what I said, huh?” he brags, waggling his brows. I roll my eyes and let him guide me back on the bed, covering my body with his.

“I think mentioning it might negate the deepness,” I tell him.

He makes a face. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

I grab the back of his neck and pull him down, silencing him with a kiss, my hands snaking into his curls and drawing him closer. He leans back and slips his hands under my shirt, fingers slowly making their way up.

“Mind if I Slyther-in?” he asks and I cringe, groaning and squeezing my eyes shut at him.

“Are you proud of your awful, unoriginal joke?” I question.

“We should invest in kinky Harry Potter merch. You think it exists?” he wonders, ignoring me. He pulls my shirt over my head and drags his fingers down my chest. “A cloak, a hat, a wand.”

“You already have a wand,” I begrudgingly flirt, playing along.

He throws his head back in exaggerated triumph. “He knows how to plaaay!” he celebrates and I laugh, the still lingering effects of the wine drawing me into a fit of giggles. Eliot presses a kiss to my neck, his lips slowly moving hot over my skin.

“Can’t believe that bitch said we weren’t fun,” he murmurs.


Mornings always feel better than nights. The good thing about the room I chose is that the window faces sunrise so every morning I get to wake up tangled in Eliot and bathed in sunlight and I’m able to, for a few minutes, pretend that everything is okay.

Eliot never spares any room, he always ends up half thrown across me, his curls settled on the pillow and his arm over my chest. I scratch lightly at the thin hair on his arm and he stirs a bit, tightening his grip on me before falling back to sleep.

For all the shit, I was always grateful for these moments where all I had to do was be thankful.

“Morning!” The door flies open and Margo barrels in fully dressed.

Eliot groans in my ear, leaning up to frown at her. “I locked the door. I know I did.”

Margo smirks. “Alohomora, Harry. Wake up, we’re having a motherfucking picnic.”

“Am I asleep? Is this a nightmare?” Eliot asks, sitting up. His hair is messy and sticking out in every direction and I fail at holding back a smile.

“We’re not fun, remember?” Margo reminds as she pulls things from my closet. “So, were gonna have some good old fashioned 1950s fucking fun.” She tosses a few pieces of clothes on the bed. “Wear that. Go grab a good seat on the lawn before the Mind Sluts do. We’ll take care of the food.”

“Are Thing 1 and Thing 2 coming?” Eliot asks.

She pretends to think. “You know, I think their invite got lost in the mail,” she shrugs. “Core four only, bitches!” she grins on her way out.

Eliot looks over his shoulder. “Guess we’re having a motherfucking picnic.” He leans over to press a kiss to my mouth.

“Guess so,” I smile.

Forty minutes later finds Eliot and I sat alone on the wide patch of green grass in front of the entrance to campus. Claiming a spot isn’t too hard today with most people in class, where we should be, but a few students are laid out on towels in small groups, sunbathing or talking. A group of Knowledge kids are practicing a spell a few feet off, a glowing orb floating above their heads.

“I hope ‘fun’ includes alcohol,” Eliot says, leaning back on his hands, crossing his legs at the ankle.

“It’s Margo,” I remind him.

“Touché.”

He turns his face up to the sun and presents himself serenely, basking in the soft heat. He looks idyllic this way, with the light bouncing off his face and the picturesque Brakebills background behind him. When studying and the let down of this place got to be too much, I used to walk around campus admiring the storybook green of the plants and the ancient feel of the tall stone pillars and columns accenting every building. Yet another thing I didn’t spend enough time appreciating.

The Knowledge kids finish their spell and the globe explodes with a soft pop of air, colors expelling from it. They draw light, sardonic applause from a group of Psychics a few feet off doing whatever it is they do in groups. Lucky Penny for getting out, I can only imagine how much he’d hate the cliquey way they moved together. Then again, I guess we were no different, traveling in a pod, repellant to everyone else.

Squinting against the glinting sun, I spot Surendra walking on the outer edge and freeze up. When was the last time I’d seen him? Probably the last time I went to P.A. a week ago. He readjusts the bag on his back, headed toward the mouth of the lawn. I drag my eyes up his body, from the black shoes on his feet, to the soft green material of his pants and onto his shirt.

It’s a plain white shirt, nothing to say it’s that plain white shirt but I’ve learned enough to know Fate and coincidence are close cousins.

It would be just like Life to ruin everything now, as if to rub in our faces we took too long to try being happy.

“Eliot,” I say, watching Surendra heave himself up onto the thick cement Brakebills sign and begin pulling books from his backpack.

“Hmm?” Eliot sits forward when I don’t answer. “Quentin?” He finally follows my gaze to Surendra and I watch him work it out, watch him double take and realize the same familiarity I saw, watch him recognize the outfit we stepped past on the way to our death several times over.

“Go get everyone,” I tell him and my stupid heart is already beating fast.

Eliot opens and closes his mouth a few times, eyes still glued to Surendra. “It doesn’t mean- It could be a coinci-”

A piercing scream sounds out as if to kill the rest of the sentence before it can touch the air. It’s far off, coming from inside the school and followed by several agonizing moments of silence. Shadows flit past the tall windows, people moving frantically inside.

Heads turn to watch the entrance in curiosity and we only need to wait a few moments to see the Beast sharply dressed and walking coolly through the doors. He stops halfway down the stairs, rakes over the area and then, as if he hates the silence of our fear, he raises a hand in Surendra’s direction, crooks his fingers stiltedly and with a crack, Surendra’s head snaps right and his body falls back and lands loudly on the ground.

The trance breaks and the screaming chaos bursts out, people running every direction they can as the reality of the moment settles in them. The Beast lets out a laugh as they scramble, tripping over each other and running wildly. A few people make the mistake of running too near the Beast and they fall before him, his fingers moving quickly but lazily through spells that render them immobile.

We still had time, didn’t we? Two days? Or three? We weren’t ready, we were going to bring the fight to him. We were supposed to have more time. It wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Shit,” Eliot hisses and I follow his gaze. At the building’s end, stood still amongst the rows of blooming bushes are Margo and Alice, picnic basket in hand. They watch the Beast start down the stairs, a skip in his step, with the same look of abject terror as us. Margo’s head whips around, eyes finally landing on Eliot and me. She only stares for a moment before collecting Alice’s hand and sprinting back the way they came, disappearing in the chunky, uneven branches of the trees.

I look around frantically. The plan, what was the plan? Hide them? That was it wasn’t it? The lawn is surrounded on both sides by patches of trees, thick patches but not thick enough to call cover. Hide them, wasn’t that it? Hide them where?

“Quentin,” Eliot mumbles and he’s knelt like a runner ready to start a race, ready to bolt. He cups the back of my head and forces me to look at him, his eyes wide and trying to force whatever strength he can into me and I just wish I’d spent a few more seconds in bed with him this morning. I wish Margo asked Alice how she felt. I wish I’d done what Julia wanted. “Hey. Fight.” Eliot catches the look in my eye and presses his forehead against mine. “If there’s something you’re afraid to lose then fight. Remember?” he whispers and then stands without another word and bolts away in the opposite direction from Margo and Alice.

“Quentin Coldwater,” the Beast requests calmly, his voice echoing across the way. I turn around and Eliot’s nowhere to be seen but I have to believe he’s with me, have to believe they’re all with me somewhere.

I stand on unsteady legs and face him. He’s leaned against the small column at the edge of the sign watching me, the moths still fluttering wildly.

“There you are,” he greets. “You know, we’ve had much more interesting arenas than this,” he gestures around. “Shame it’s ending here. No privacy. It’s so impersonal,” he critiques.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I manage to say and I’m proud that my voice comes out without tremor.

He waves off my apology. “So,” he starts, glancing around. “Where are your playthings? It’s not like you to go without.”

I swallow hard and fight the urge to look in either direction I saw my friends last. “Just me,” I shrug.

“Just you,” he turns over and then, without preamble, the moths began to fly away unimpressively until he’s nothing but a man – blue eyed and ordinary – standing in front of me, weighing my face intently. “Hmm. Nothing. Too bad,” he says after a moment. “You had such a good reaction last time.”

Last time. He will always find me, Eliza said. “How many times have we done this?”

“How many times have you died?” he corrects. “11 after today.” My stomach drops. “Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it?” he asks with a pout and then he claps his hands together once and starts my way. “Well, we’re wasting daylight.” I square my shoulders and clench my fists, taking a few steps back. “If you’re waiting for your Dean. I’m afraid he’s indisposed.”

“I’m not,” I shoot back.

He cocks his head and pauses his steps. “And yet here you stand, no playthings, no Dean. Just an unremarkable boy standing cockily in the face of Death… almost as if he knew something I didn’t,” he observes suspiciously.

I feel the plan, whatever’s left of it, unraveling and fire off a spell. It’s weak and bounces off of him pathetically but it gains back his attention. I follow it up with a small protection spell, enough to block whatever it is he throws at me that hits my defenses with a hard snapping sound and a flash of blue light.

I raise my hands to do another but before I can finish the cast, the Beast is hit with something else. A sharp blast that sends him flying forward. He steadies himself before he topples over only to be hit again by something else that knocks him back.

They’re here.

He’s kept off balance, hit by a stream of spells from every direction. Someone’s hitting him with a cutting spell repeatedly, so much so that the fabric of his suit rips in several places, a bit of his bare skin revealed and sliced by a blast but I can still feel we’re losing, can still feel we’re slapping him on the wrist even with the best we have.

His head whipping around frantically, the Beast finds me again, narrowing his eyes and smiling even as we shoot off spells that rip at his face, scratching and scarring and scraping at him. I shoot off a static and it hits him square in the neck. He jerks, pupils rolling back ‘til the white of his eyes is visible as the shock hits him and then he blinks it off. From the left, something heavy flies toward him, low to the ground and glinting in the light. A shard of ice, likely Margo’s doing, lands sharply in the back of the Beasts right leg. He lets out a roar, the first real reaction we’ve earned and looks down to see it half embedded in his skin.

He bends down with all the flourish and annoyance of a child being made to do a chore. “Enough of that,” he groans and snatches the shard from his leg, tossing it aside, red and bloody. He limps a bit as he gets back to his feet.

The Beast’s steel eyes meet mine and stay while he raises his arms, ignoring the spells we’re still hurling his way – another shard lands square between his shoulders – and crooks his fingers, beckoning at the air. The sweeping, swishing sound of our magic slows down until it’s just me, bombarding him with as many flames, shocks and cuts as I can.

He spins in a circle, letting me at him and I power on, confused but refusing to stop. Sweat starts beading on my forehead and my fingers stiffen, my arm beginning to ache. I chance a glance around, allowing myself to wonder why everyone’s stopped casting, when the Beast ceases his turning.

Margo, Alice and Eliot slowly appear around me as the Beast gathers and rids them of the effects of their Caecus cast and my stomach drops.

“Ta-da,” he finishes. “Together at last.”

Frantic looks go around the circle, all of us realizing at the same time what a shit plan this was, realizing the reality of what we were dealing with. What he is.

“It was quite a plan, really,” The Beast compliments. “Sloppy, underthought, definitely. But, A for effort,” he smiles. “Now-”

Alice’s hands are flitting in front of her, fingers moving adeptly, her eyes narrowed and focused on the Beast. Eliot isn’t far behind, following her lead and joining her rhythm, and they’re slower than Julia but under the alterations from Alice, when the two of them raise their hands, a barrier encircles the four of us, caging him in. The Beast watches the watery ward appear with amused interest.

I look left and lock eyes with Margo and we know it’s our turn.

The plan isn’t over.

Margo starts off first, her fingers curving and crunching, bending and cracking through the spell and I follow her, my mind half back at the night we first used it. The night we watched it explode the Arugula from the inside out. I hear its shrieks echo in my mind and imagine them turning into the Beast’s screams, imagine him meeting the same end.

The Beast charges at Margo and crashes into the barrier. He presses his hands against it, his face dangerously close to Margo’s. She smirks at him and doesn’t stop, not even when he slams his hand against the ward, earning a jump from me. His head snaps my way.

“Quentin!” he roars. “You can’t kill me-” His voice cuts off with a gurgle, his body seizing up. He stumbles back and makes a choking noise like he can’t breathe. His eyes widen and sweep around the circle, his hands clawing at his throat.

“Now?” Eliot asks next to me, his hand still raised as we watch the Beast struggle with himself, grunting against the pain.

I look to Margo and she nods once, turning to Alice who takes a prolonged look at the Beast and then, agreeing with us that he’s weak enough, offers a nod too. She and Eliot lock eyes and drop their hands at the same time, immediately flowing into a synchronized cast of Koyosegi’s Ward which snaps a new barrier – a weaker, less effective barrier – around us.

Before the Beast can think to take advantage of the change, Alice and Eliot join Margo and I in our cast, doubling the effect, and the Beast stills with a visible tremble.

He lets out a scream, his head in his hands, gripping it. His face starts reddening and his screams grow into rough, ragged growls of agony.

It’s working.

For a moment I let myself dream, let myself graze over the idea we’re winning. The Beast drops to his knees and I can see the veins at his temple pressing against his skin, can see the skin of his neck purpling as blood brims and swells to the surface and the grim image in my head of his insides turning out gives me sick, sweet, unabashed pleasure. It would mark the end of it all. A few more seconds of us here and then it would be over. His first mistake, I think, was showing us he was only human.

He sinks to the ground, presses his head to the grass weakly and I glance around to see three faces of determination half-daring to slip into something more hopeful and then the Beast, as if he can sense the lightening in us, pushes himself back up. We watch him unfold and haggardly get back to his feet, leveling us with a hard glare made worse by the fact his eyes have passed bloodshot and glazed over nearly completely red.

“Not bad,” he mumbles and then, unsteadily but with enough intent to make it count, he throws a spell at Alice. Our efforts have slowed him but it barrels at her quickly, surpassing the wards and leaving her barely enough time to block it. She grunts against the impact and sets her face, her hands jumping back in time with us.

The Beast makes a face halfway to a snarl and as he raises his arm again, a burst of something powerful strikes him from behind and knocks him fully onto his back.

Kady stands panting at the edge of the lawn with Penny not far behind, her hands still raised in position to fire off another bit of Battle Magic. The Beast picks himself up again and is visibly winded, his face still growing more crimson by the second. Kady’s hands slide into first position of another cast, her face hard and angry, and as she moves forward with the motion, the Beast curls his fingers once, a quiet crunch sounds out and Kady’s legs fold gruesomely. They collapse beneath her, folding under her as if her weight were suddenly too much to carry and she lets out a scream as she falls to her knees.

The Beast turns back to us with a new vigor in his red eyes and smiles through the pain on his face. “Good idea,” he says and then, as if inspired by Kady, he casts and shoves his hands forward, knocking Eliot and I to the ground.

We tumble back onto our hands. I feel stray rocks scrape my palms roughly and Eliot rushes over, pulling me back to my feet in time to see Alice and Margo hit the grass and scramble back up. The spell broken, the Beast lets out a single laugh, blinking a bit sleepily despite his joy.

We stand breathless, the only noise the far-off screams from inside that never really stopped, and the weak, pained whimpers coming from Kady. Penny is trying to help but can’t find a place to park his hands. She swats him off, her face hardening again and she gasps through the pain, swaying unsteadily on whatever’s left of her bottom half as she summons something big, something that she throws her whole body into, her hands moving quickly through steps. Something electric starts in her hands, a series of strange symbols in foreign languages and bright white light pouring from her fingertips and it’s easy to tell when she’s nearing the end. There’s a thrum in the air, a sweet sting unmistakably belonging to Hedge Magic and right before she fires it off – her hands are high, raised and ready – the Beast turns casually, almost bored, and slices at the air.

Kady’s body jerks and her hands drop limply. Her shirt soaks through with blood in a perfectly diagonal pattern across her torso and she falls face forward into the grass and stops moving.

No one budges, we all just stupidly stare as if willing life back into her.

“Shit,” Margo breathes.

Penny looks down at Kady, eyes wide, his arms stiff at his side like he’s not sure what to do. He looks up at us, at the Beast and then Kady again – limp, bloody, dead Kady – and in the next blink, he’s gone.

The Beast laughs again, this time a belly laugh, and swivels back to us. “Always liked him,” he says. “Now, who’s next?”

He starts toward Alice and Margo and they back away. Margo fires another shard off and he catches it, sending it back. It stabs into Margo’s arm brutally and she cries out.

“Margo!” Alice worries. Alice casts and a ball of flame settles in her hand and then, with a hurl, it shoots at the Beast. His steps falter as it explodes in his face in a black mess of smog and ash and he hisses loudly, fanning and coughing roughly.

Margo rips the shard out with a grunt, clutching her arm to her chest. Alice fires off another explosion but the Beast swats it away, recovering and closing in.

And then, with a light wind, Penny appears behind them a few feet off.

“Come on!” he yells, holding out his hands. The girls glance back at us and then start running toward him. The Beast throws a spell that lands hard in the middle of Alice’s back and she falls to the ground, her hand slipping from Margo’s. Margo hesitates, reaching for Alice again but The Beast fires another spell, one that connects at Alice’s ankle, drawing blood. She cries out in pain and flips over.

“Go!” she tells Margo as the Beast picks up his pace and Margo, with wet eyes, barely has time to grab Penny’s hand and leave before the Beast is there, dragging Alice up by her arm.

She struggles in his grasp and Eliot and I cast spells that rebound off of him but nothing is enough to stop him from gripping her by the chin, his other hand clutching the top of her head as he brusquely snaps her neck.

There’s nothing but a muted crunch.

The sound is much too quiet for all the devastation it carries.

Her glassy blue eyes bore into us blankly from behind her lenses.

He tosses her to the ground like she’s nothing.

I seize up.

Alice.

Son of a bitch!” Eliot howls and he propels a spell forward with so much force behind it, the Beast falls to his knees from the impact. His clothes catch fire at the front, bits of fabric burning away and leaving his chest to blacken from the flames.

The Beast stares down at the wound and bares his teeth, standing. He moves to cast and I step in front of Eliot and shoot off something quick and pointless. Another nothing that rebounds.

“Kill me,” I ask, approaching him. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? So finish it.”

Quentin,” Eliot warns.

“Stick to the plan,” I respond. He should be running. That’s what we agreed on. I keep going until the Beast is only a few feet away, looking victorious. He readies to speak when something over my shoulder catches his attention.

“Alice,” I hear whispered and I glance behind to see Margo’s stood with Penny, staring at Alice’s body in horror, her eyes growing wet and brimming over. “No.

“Go!” I shout at them and Margo blinks again as if remembering where she was and her watery eyes find Eliot and hold out a hand. Eliot wraps his hand around hers, watching me.

“We’ll be back, Q. Hold on just a little bit long-”

The Beast hits me with another spell as they all disappear again and I fall to my knees. He stands over me and grabs me by the hair. “I almost want to wait,” he says conversationally. “How long do you think they’ll be?”

I raise my hand to cast but he grabs my wrist and yanks hard and I can feel the pulling at my shoulder, the things holding me together slowly coming apart. He catches on and snatches at me again, succeeding and I feel the icy, blinding pain of being torn apart all over again. I scream, shrill and unrestrained.

“Quentin!”

The Beast rotates his body just enough for me to see Penny, Margo and Eliot in the distance, holding hands and close together watching me. Their figures get blurry and I rock unstably, head growing heavy and my mind foggy as the pain begs to drag me under.

“Quentin, no!” Eliot tries again and then something flits past my face, blurry and fast. The Beast lets me go and it takes all I have left to stay up. Some new sharp pain starts in my chest and begins a battle with my arm for dominance in torture. I brace myself on my other hand and try to find them all again past the fog and unsurety.

The Beast is headed for them. Penny is trying to drag them backward, yelling. Margo and Eliot just keep staring at me.

I cough and the warm liquid that spills from me is thick and crimson red. I grip at the grass. I beg for air in my lungs. I crave something solid but it never comes.

There is no bright light. Or darkness. Or bittersweet slideshow of regret and radiance. It is not slow or fast. It is laughably uncomplicated.

I feel like I’ve been sliced open, look down to see it’s real and finally sag to the ground pathetically.

As my vision starts to fade at the edges and dim out, I see the Beast, fatigued and worn down and limping. Broken. Bruised.

And as I watch them disappear again, safe, I think I’m smiling.

Chapter Text

That had to be it.

I’d felt like this before, resigned to this idea but now where I’d felt fear, I felt acceptance and something close to pride, accomplishment, relief.

How many different ways would I need to realize the same thing before I finally, completely, without fuss or strife, accepted the truth?

It’s always me, Eliza said but she didn’t know why – and maybe that’s because she wasn’t looking for the right answer. What if I’m not the catalyst but the linchpin?

What was it that got me here? Got the Beast inside Brakebills? Got me safe from the Arugula, kept me alive?

Help.

That was it, wasn’t it? Whether he knew it or not, it wasn’t me the Beast feared…it was us.

I was the vessel, the common denominator. I was the amalgamation of their influence. Eliot’s confidence, Alice’s intelligence, Margo’s strength, Julia’s wit, Penny’s nerve, Kady’s tenacity.

And yet he’d come straight for me…did he not know?

It isn’t me, it’s because of me.

And why is it me? No one knows but it’s not because I’m the one, it’s because I’m part of the we – because I found them.

And that would be enough.