Actions

Work Header

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 it’s 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.