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Untimely Ripped

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You find the spell by accident.

You've always liked bookstores, and you've been reading a lot more these last few months, since Damara. Well. Since Damara. Most of the words don't stick, just pour in through your eyes and back out through some mysterious hole in the center of your mind, but you have a terrible feeling that if you ever stop pouring new words in, that hole might start sucking out parts of you. More than it already has, that is. You haven't really felt anything properly for a while, more like echoes of emotions, locked carefully away behind glass for dispassionate scientists to study and annotate.

You buy a lot of books. It's cheaper to buy them secondhand.

Most spellbooks are bullshit -- especially the ones that promise the moon. Everyone knows this. What witch would write down secrets that demons and spirits might kill them for revealing? What witch would hand the keys to life and death to any random idiot off the street? And honestly, what normal person would want to turn their life upside-down by getting involved with magic? But spell instructions are made of words and you need words, so you flick through the pages at the same mechanical pace you read a cheesy romance yesterday and plan to read a stupidly anachronistic spy thriller tomorrow.

It's a lot less melodramatic than you expected. The binding is dull brown cloth, the typeface straightforward, the illustrations minimal: pictures of herbs and diagrams of the more complicated runic arrays, mostly. The spells are in plain English and similarly low-key, mostly minor cantrips for inviting good luck, opening locks, warding off seasonal allergies, making people take your side in an argument, calling lost pets to come home, fertilizing a garden, killing insect infestations. Boring, everyday stuff. The approach is methodical, almost like computer programming. You think Sollux might get a kick out of it, that this is the kind of thing you and he would've spent a few weekends playing around with last year.

You haven't spoken to Sollux outside of school for a long time now. You haven't spoken to any of your friends.

You wonder if your mother will be working late again tonight -- there are always crises at the nursing home, if she wants an excuse to stay there -- or if she'll come home on time. It's still weird eating at the little folding table in the kitchen, but it's better than seeing Damara's empty place at the real table in the dining room. And it's... you like hearing your mother breathe, seeing her move. Neither of you cooks much, but microwave dinners or Kraft macaroni tastes better when you're not alone.

The clock on the living room wall ticks rhythmically above your head. Outside, light November rain mists down on the fallen leaves and dormant grass. Damara's cat watches you disdainfully from the mantel. You turn another page.

And then a spell title jumps out at you: For the Restoration of Life After Untimely Death.

In any other book, you'd skip the page and shove the words toward that hole in your mind, hating the involuntary leap of your heart and the bitter tang of false hope. But this one seems so practical, so reasonable, so... so real. Like magic is an everyday thing: not deep secrets and dark powers, but a cheat code anyone can apply to the universe if they know the secret.

You mark the page.

The next day, instead of reading the terrible spy thriller, you take Damara's keys down from the hook beside the back door. Her car -- a maroon Camry she bought pre-owned the summer before her senior year, and drove halfway across the country to college just because she could -- is still in the driveway. It's not insured anymore, but you don't care. You set the book and a gallon of distilled water in the passenger seat and drive to Damara's grave.

Your big sister's death wasn't natural. There's nothing natural about suicide. Nothing timely, either. She should have lived another sixty years. Seventy years. Eighty. Lived until you and she were wrinkled old ladies together, with cats and gardens and grandkids and anything else you could dream of wanting. She should still be here. If she hurt that much, why didn't she ask for help? Why did she give up? Why did she run away and leave you behind?

You want your sister back. You want your life back. You want to make everything better.

So you do.

---------------

The spell is stunningly simple: one circle scratched around the grave, one gallon of 'pure' water poured onto the remains (or the ground above them; apparently the intent matters more than the fine details), a few drops of blood from the caster, and half the caster's life expectancy gone to provide life to someone who no longer has any life of their own. The author cautions that this will not work unless the life is willingly given, and also that the caster must have a natural affinity for both death and time magic.

There is no way under the sun you would not be willing. As for the affinity... either this will work or it won't. You can't possibly end up worse than you are now.

The sun is out and the grass is dry, but the ground itself is still soft and damp with water from yesterday's rain. You draw the circle with the back end of the ice scraper Damara kept under the seat of her car; dirt clings to the plastic in dark, squishy clumps. You waste a minute wondering what will happen if the earth is too soaked to accept more water before you remember that intent counts more than form. (Except for the circle. It doesn't need to be compass-exact, but it needs to be unbroken or unspecified but very bad things may happen.)

You pour the water out in a thin stream, the gallon jug going from brick-heavy to paper-light in your hand. There's a little puddle of mud in front of the headstone by the time you finish. You set the jug at your feet, oddly certain that tossing it aside would count as breaking the circle, and you can't afford to screw this up.

You jab your left thumb with a safety pin and squeeze until a drop of blood wells up, fat and red -- so dark, you think, though you know it's just concentrated pigments, the way a full cup of tea looks darker than a cup with only a quarter-inch of liquid left in the bottom.

You press smears of blood over your eyes, in the hollow of your throat, over your heart and stomach -- those are a little awkward; you have to hike up your hoodie and t-shirt and fumble around by touch and half-remembered anatomy diagrams from health class -- and on the back of each hand. You're not quite sure what they're for. Maybe to mark the shape of your life, so the spell can tear half of it away?

You have to prick your thumb twice again to keep the blood flowing. Then you turn your hand over and squeeze one last drop to fall to the muddy ground, red invisible against brown.

"I, Aradia Megido, willingly give half my life to Damara Megido, to restore the life she lost before her fated time."

You say the words and make a wish with all your heart: give her back, give her back, give her back and I'll never let her go.

Nothing happens.

The wind does not rise. The earth does not open. The sky does not turn black. Damara's grave is undisturbed, headstone stark as ever, grass gone brown at the tips with the passage of autumn, water slowly sinking into the sodden earth.

You close your eyes.

Spellbooks are bullshit. You always knew that.

You have a shitty spy thriller waiting at home. You should probably go read it.

You touch the keys in the pocket of your hoodie, steady yourself with the bite of cold metal against your aching thumb. You open your eyes.

Damara is standing in front of you, hands raised to her throat, eyes wide and blank. She's wearing the same clothes she died in, the ones your mother threw away nearly six months ago: floaty red-and-black scarf, white frilly blouse, pleated red skirt, white thigh-high stockings, black Mary-Jane shoes. Her hair is twisted up and back into a bun, held with those stupid sparkly chopsticks she bought at the dollar store when she was twelve and needed a fairy-godmother wand for a Halloween costume.

She coughs, takes a deep, rasping breath, and bends over to cough again.

You can't move. You want to hurl yourself forward, pull her into a hug and feel her real and solid against your skin, but you can't. Your legs feel weird, like columns of water around stiff metal bars, no joints to bend or muscles to move them.

Damara wraps her arms around herself, sinks into a crouch on the ground. She's whispering something, over and over. You can't quite make out the words -- it almost sounds like no, no, no, but that can't be true. She's alive now. You brought her back. You made everything right.

"Damara?" you say, your voice high and thready in your own ears.

She looks up at you, nose running and tears in the corners of her eyes, and says, "Why didn't it work? What did I do wrong?"

"It did work," you say. "I did the spell and I brought you back. The magic worked."

Damara goes still. Then she turns her head, looks around and notices the quiet, patient stillness of the graveyard, the mud and grass under her feet, the bite of autumn in the air that she isn't dressed to counter. She touches her throat again with one hand, turns it over, traces the unmarked skin on her wrist.

She looks back up at you. "Brought me back?"

You nod.

She steps toward you, but her arms aren't open in welcome. Her hands clench bloodless at her sides, face draws tight into a scowl, and when she opens her mouth the words you hear are a furious, echoing scream:

"Aradia, what did you DO?!"

"I brought you back," you say again. "You were-- without you-- it was all wrong. I missed you so much, but I found a spellbook and I gave you half my life, and it worked. Now we can make everything right again."

"Right?" Damara says.

She still looks furious, that flash-fire explosion of anger you remember from scattered childhood incidents, but she's not moving, not lashing out. There's a broken switch between the emotion and its expression. Or maybe there's another emotion in the way, one you can call to the surface if you play your hand right, remind her that she's loved.

You take a breath and step forward to wrap your sister in a hug. You press your face against her shoulder, breathe in the scent of cigarettes and musky perfume.

The angle is wrong. You're taller than she is. Not much, maybe an inch at most, but you were exactly the same height this spring. You've changed, and she wasn't around for either of you to notice the shift.

She should have been here to gloat that finally her clothes were safe from your borrowing sprees, just like her shoes have been since you turned fourteen.

"Nothing is right without you," you say.

Damara raises her hands and pushes your arms away. She steps back; her heel knocks into the headstone with her name and the dates that frame her life, stark numerals in black stone. Anger drains from her face and body like water through a sieve, but it doesn't uncover love. It just leaves emptiness, a face blank and still as a china doll.

You hate that blankness. You saw it sometimes, when she came home from college on breaks -- you'd walk into a room and see her holding a book without seeing the pages, or watch her just stop dead in the middle of petting Hecate even though she loves cats and spent years persuading your mother to let her adopt one, or notice halfway through a rant about Vriska's latest stunt that Damara wasn't actually hearing a word you said.

You think maybe she had a hole in the center of her mind, too. You think maybe it's still there.

"I shouldn't be here," Damara says. "I don't want this. I didn't ask for this."

She looks down at her wrists again.

You remember coming home from school in June and finding her in the upstairs bathroom. She waited until all your final exams were done and your papers turned in; she had that much consideration. You can't understand why, if she cared about your stupid grades, she didn't care that she was stealing herself from you. You can't understand why she didn't realize you would come home a long time before your mother did.

There wasn't much blood. Damara left the shower on and the drain open, so the water washed it all away.

That didn't actually help.

And now she can't even be glad you gave her a second chance?

"I didn't ask for you to kill yourself!" you shout, your own temper flaring up like you didn't think it ever would again, a hot, jagged spike punching through the glass specimen case holding the dried-up husks of your emotions. "I didn't want you to die! But you did anyway, and I brought you back anyway, and you're going to fucking live with it because I won't let you kill yourself again."

You step forward and grab her shoulders, dig your fingers into the thin synthetic fabric of her blouse. "We would've tried to help you if you'd told us you were depressed -- me and Mom, we would've, I promise. And there's drugs and therapy and-- and you could've tried so many things, you could've fought, you could've lived. This time it's going to be different. This time we're going to win."

Damara sets her hands on yours, fingers gentle on the knobs of your wrists. "Do you think I didn't try to fight? I did try. I tried a long, long time. But some things can't be fixed." Her skin is very cold against your own.

"Some things can," you say.

She meets your gaze for a long moment, eyes unreadable in her doll-stiff face. Then she twists her mouth into a wry smile that doesn't touch her eyes.

"If you want to play repairwoman, you have a lot to work on. For starters, you'll have to explain how I came back from the dead. I don't think you want to spend the rest of your life as a witch, but if word gets out that you can actually cast necromantic spells, you might as well kiss any other plans goodbye."

Your breath catches as you realize Damara is right.

You just wanted your sister back. You didn't think any further than that, but there's a difference between fooling around with fake spells to summon bees or something equally stupid, and bringing someone back to life.

Damara was dead for six months. Everyone knows she died. She can't reappear without raising a whole lot of questions, and then... and then you have no idea what will happen, actually. Raising the dead isn't supposed to work. Magic is for little things, subtle things. It's enough to set witches apart, surround them in a gap of wary respect, but not enough for anyone to make a decent living at -- at least not in America. And if you cast a spell that bends the laws of nature further than people are prepared to tolerate... well, those stories usually end with the witches in question getting run out of town, or running themselves out of town just to get away from people who want them to repeat the trick.

You like this town. You don't want to leave.

"What are we going to do?" you ask.

Damara's empty smile falls from her face. "I shouldn't be here. That's the problem. If I die again, the problem goes away," she says.

Your hands tighten involuntarily on her shoulders. "No!"

She doesn't wince at the pressure. "You did all right without me. I'm sorry you were upset, but you're here, right? You got over it. You'll get over it again. You don't need to waste yourself trying to fix me. There are so many better--"

"You're not listening!" you shout. "I wasn't all right. I'm not all right. If I was all right I wouldn't have brought you back, you dumbass! And I don't care if people decide I'm a witch. You're back, so it's worth it."

As you say the words, you discover you honestly mean them. To hell with the consequences. You have your sister back; everything else is minor in comparison.

Damara twists out of your grip. "Do you think Mom will agree? You brought me back from the dead. There's no way that came for free. Are you tied to a demon now? Did you bargain away one of her patients for me? Did you--"

"I told you, I gave you half my life. Only mine, not anyone else's -- I wouldn't put some other family through that," you say. How can Damara think you'd do that, tear up someone else's life by stealing their mother or sister or child away? But then again, didn't she tear up your life?

And your mother's life. Damara tore that up too. And now... and now you put everything back together, but you didn't tell your mother what you were planning because you didn't think the spell would really work. You have no idea how to break the news.

You shove your hands into the pockets of your hoodie and hunch your shoulders, unaccountably cold. "Um. Damara. What are we going to tell Mom?" you ask.

Damara gives you a blank look. "You didn't tell her already?"

"Of course not, she would never--"

"--have agreed to let you do this?" your sister finishes for you. "Duh. Because you shouldn't have done it! Half your fucking life, Aradia? I'm not worth that."

"Yes you are," you say, but Damara isn't listening; she talks right over you.

"What does that even mean: half your life? Did you have a fated time of death, and now everything you would've done as an old woman is wiped out? What if you were supposed to cure cancer or something? Whoops, too late to fix that now."

"I don't think--" you say.

"Damn right you didn't think!" Damara says. "Or hey, will we both just get sick all the time now, so we're only half alive? How is that supposed to make anything better?"

"That's not what I--"

Damara cuts her hand across the air, slicing through your futile plea. "Even if we look healthy, do the math. Assume you would've lived to eighty. That's what, sixty-three years left. Split that between us, it's only thirty-one or -two. So we die before we even turn fifty, which means Mom will probably outlive both of us. Great job there, Aradia. Now she gets to lose the good daughter as well as the fuckup. Round of fucking applause."

"Will you just shut up already!"

Damara raises one eyebrow at your outburst. "What?"

"Okay. You're right. Obviously I didn't pay enough attention to the details, but I don't care. I don't care about any of it. You're here -- you're alive! -- and we can figure out the rest later. Look, I'll call Mom right now and tell her--"

Damara darts forward and snatches your phone from your hand.

You blink. "Um. What?"

"No. Don't tell her yet," Damara says. "Not until we know more about your stupid-ass spell. We need to know what it did, how it works, and what it costs. If we told her and then it turned out the spell only works for a day, or it's given you some wasting disease, or I'm going to degenerate into a zombie..." She trails off.

You shiver. You know the spell won't unravel, that Damara is as alive as you are, that she's here for good and for real. But you can't prove that, and just in case...

"Yeah," you say. "Okay. The Lalondes live on the north side of town, right on the edge of the state park. I've been there a couple times for group projects, since Rose and Dave are in most of my classes. They might be willing to talk their family into giving us some advice."

Damara hands back your phone. "Ask the price before you agree. And tell Mom you'll miss dinner. This may take a while."

---------------

Twenty minutes later, you pull into the Lalondes' long, curving driveway. It's neatly paved with gravel and lined with a riotous sprawl of shrubbery -- holly, bittersweet, wisteria, weigela, forsythia, and several unnamed varieties of pricker-bush. The bittersweet and holly berries form brilliant red accents against the gray-brown woody stems and the dusty, dark green holly leaves. A few adventurous maples poke their crowns over the tangle, foliage turned from green to orange to brown and now almost completely gone.

You can't see anything over or through the hedge, until suddenly the driveway makes one last sweeping turn and the lawn opens out like an upturned palm, with the house nestled down in the hollow carved by Black Rainbow Creek on its way to join the Susquehanna. The water is this land's lifeline, you think, or maybe heartline. You're not sure which is more appropriate. You never paid much attention to palmistry, though Dave read your hand once as a joke. Then he read the sole of your foot, which he claimed was more accurate anyway. It was certainly more ticklish, at least until you kicked him and claimed sanctuary behind Rose so you could get some actual work done for your world history presentation on Omar Khayyam.

You wish you remember what fortune he told for you, even if it was probably bullshit. You wonder if the lines in your skin have changed.

You park the Camry at the edge of the oval turnaround by the Lalondes' oversized four-door garage. Everything about their house is oversized. It's also old, and a bit ramshackle, and covered in far too many vines: a compromise between money and the stereotypical image of a witch's cottage in the deep, dark woods. The Lalondes have never made a secret of their magic.

You wonder, suddenly, why nobody ever complains about a whole family of witches living in town. Maybe it's just that the Lalondes have been here since before America was a country. They're practically part of the landscape.

And they're pretty low-key for witches -- or at least compared to what people think witches are like. Dave and Rose are weird, sure, but no weirder than Sollux and your other friends. They don't go around cackling and shooting lightning from their fingers or anything.

They've also never brought anyone back from the dead. That probably helps.

You hope they're willing to help you.

"We're here," you say as you turn the key and kill the engine.

"So we are," Damara agrees. "Do you have any more profound gems of wisdom to share?"

"Let's go ring the doorbell," you say, and suit action to words by getting out of the car, spellbook cradled in your left hand. After a moment, your sister follows. Your sneakers and her patent leather Mary-Janes crunch loudly over the gravel and the remnants of fallen leaves as you trudge toward the front door.

You're pretty sure Rose and Dave are home. They don't play sports, the fall drama production is over and done, and it's too early for any extra rehearsals for winter holiday concerts. But you count a full thirty seconds after you ring the bell without any sign of life inside the house.

"I told you you should've called or texted," Damara says.

"Oh, shut up," you grumble, and push the little button again.

A light switches on, though no shadows or movement are visible through the windows on either side of the door. No footsteps or voices are audible either.

"Ooh, theatrics. Very sexy," Damara says. "Do the hinges creak like tortured souls?"

The door swings silently inward before you can answer.

"You have bad traffic light karma today, or do you just drive slow? Rose expected you five minutes ago," Dave Lalonde says as he leans against the doorframe, feet bare on the hardwood floor. His white hair is carelessly rumpled and he's not wearing sunglasses to hide his eerie red eyes here in the privacy of his family's home. "But hey, no point getting hung up on schedules. You're here now, that's the main thing."

You glance over at Damara, then back at your classmate. "Um. You're not going to say anything about...?"

Dave nods perfunctorily at Damara. "Hey, Aradia's hot sister. Looking good. Welcome back to the land of the living, hope your second time around works out better for you." He turns back to you with no change in expression. "Yeah, we know you brought her back. Any occultist with more sensitivity than a brick wrapped up in fuzzy blankets and dreaming about its mommy felt that spell click shut, and Rose is like a Geiger counter for supernatural shit. Speaking of, gimme the spellbook. I dunno who the fuck let that out into the wild, but anything with idiot-proof instructions for high level mojo that actually works needs investigation." He wiggles his fingers meaningfully at you.

You take a deep breath. "First I need your family's agreement that you'll tell us exactly what the spell did, and whether--"

"Done," Dave says, and snakes the book out of your grasp before your reflexes catch up and clench your fingers.

"But--"

Dave points the book at you. "Dude, you pulled off a freaking resurrection. That takes serious juice. You're one of us now, even if you never cast another spell. Doesn't matter what you ask, we're not gonna give you the runaround. Now c'mon, Rose is wetting her panties to read your auras, and trust me, you wanna get this done and dusted before our parents get home."

He pulls the door further open, inviting you in.

"'Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,'" Damara says as she follows you into the Lalondes' house.

"That's a misquote," Dave says.

Damara makes an enquiring noise.

"It's actually, 'Will you walk into my parlor,'" Dave says as he leads you up a spiral staircase to the second floor. "Nineteenth century poem about how women are stupid and vain and shouldn't believe men who flatter them and make fake promises."

A female voice, low and smooth, drifts out of an open doorway down the corridor. "You're being reductive, brother dearest. The lesson is more broadly applicable, as you would know if you'd read all the way through to the final stanza:

"'And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.'"

Somehow you're not surprised Rose Lalonde knows the full text of mildewed morality poems. You're a little surprised Dave knows any of it, but then again, you know a lot of random stuff about anime you've never watched and manga you've never read, just by virtue of living in the same house as Damara. Sibling osmosis is weird like that.

"M'lady awaits," Dave says, and favors you with an ironic bow and flourish as you follow Damara into Rose's room.

You look around warily. You've never been here before -- all your group project work happened in Dave's room or the kitchen. It's not especially spooky, no skulls or drippy candles or ominous diagrams on the walls, or even weird dead things in jars like Dave collects, but the floor-to-ceiling bookcases are a bit intimidating and you'd almost swear the black cat stretched along the windowsill is laughing at you. A slight cough draws your attention to Rose, sitting cross-legged on her bed. It's an old oak four-poster with a really-truly-no-kidding canopy and curtains, drawn back and tied to the posts with failed attempts at hand-knit scarves. Despite that concession to daytime, the deep purple fabric casts dark shadows all through the center of the room. Rose's white hair is held neatly back with a headband and her brown skin looks nearly black in the shade of the canopy.

Behind you, Dave kicks the door shut and ambles over to drop the spellbook beside Rose's laptop on what's probably a priceless antique desk.

Rose smiles knowingly at you. "Don't worry, Aradia. I'll give you all the answers I can, and it won't cost you a thing except all your free time on weekends until we're sure you aren't going to cast any other magic without knowing exactly what you're doing and how to make sure you don't bring down generalized disaster on everyone around you."

"Um," you say.

"What do you mean, generalized disaster?" Damara asks, gone sharp and protective beside you.

"Exactly what I said. Magic is the art of warping the physical rules of the universe. If you break the wrong thing without the right precautions, well," Rose says with a careless little shrug. "I doubt you would produce anything quite as drastic as a black hole or an antimatter explosion, but let's all agree the results of that path are best avoided."

Magic can create black holes? Holy shit. No wonder witches keep secrets; if that were common knowledge, you have no idea what might happen. And yeah, no kidding, that's a result you'd rather avoid.

You gracefully change the subject rather than keep thinking about accidental nuclear explosions and other potential disasters: "So, uh, answers?"

"Require questions," Rose says.

"Pedantic much?" Dave says, flopping down onto the bed beside his sister. "Lemme take a wild guess: you need to know exactly what the spell did, what it cost, and how long it's going to last. Am I right or am I right?"

You exchange an uneasy glance with Damara. "That's pretty much it," you say.

"No. One more thing," Damara says. "We need to know what happens if we break it."

"You are not killing yourself again," you snap. "You don't get to do that. You especially don't get to make me do it for you!"

"That's not what--"

"I don't care. The answer is no and it's never going to stop being no!" you shout.

Rose and Dave raise their eyebrows in eerie synchronicity. "Oh my, do I detect some tension?" Rose says.

Dave flicks the back of her head with his index finger. "Lay off, they're not family. So, Megidos: what the spell did is obvious. Voila, one human body, consciousness, and soul, reconstructed and/or brought back in what I assume is your physical condition right before you offed yourself," he says, nodding toward Damara. "Lucky you, that included clothes! As for what it cost, how long it'll last, and what happens if it breaks, that's where Rose and her little X-ray soul vision rainbow superpower extravaganza come in, so I'll turn this show over to her."

"How kind of you," Rose says dryly.

Dave's mouth quirks at the corner. "We aim to please."

You and Damara exchange another uneasy glance. "X-ray soul vision?" you ask.

"Dave does like his little verbal flights of fancy. In layman's terms, I need to read your auras to see how your spell has affected them," Rose says. She untucks her feet from beneath her thighs, swings her legs off the edge of her bed, and stands: bare feet light and silent on the bare wood of her floor. "This will work better with sunlight, such as it is this time of year. Please move toward the window while I gather my supplies and my faithful assistant prepares to take dictation."

You and Damara walk awkwardly around Rose's bed toward the window. Damara extends one hand toward the lounging black cat, which wrinkles its nose and sneezes, then rolls sideways to expose its white-bibbed chest in obvious expectation of petting. Damara obliges.

She always did like cats.

You lean against the wall, hands in the pockets of your hoodie. Rose has pulled open all the drawers in her probably priceless antique desk and is picking through their contents -- looks like a lot of beads, some unidentifiable bits of bone or shell, plastic baggies stuffed with dried leaves and flowers (and a cheap gas station pouch of rolling tobacco? weird), a few small animal skulls, ragged feathers of various sizes and colors, assorted candles, and a bunch of glass sun-catchers in various tacky and whimsical shapes. She's humming under her breath. You wonder if she realizes she's doing it.

Dave rolls over on the bed and fishes a notebook and purple gel pen out from under Rose's pillow. He winks at you, slow and ostentatious.

"Aha!" Rose says, and shuts the drawer. She turns with a crescent shaped sun-catcher in her right hand. "My apologies for the delay. On occasion, my organizational skills leave something to be desired."

"I keep telling you, shoeboxes. Shoeboxes and those little plastic clip-on labels are the way of the future," Dave says.

Rose smiles sweetly and holds up her middle finger. He grins back.

The Lalondes, you think, not for the first time, are deeply weird, even discounting the whole witch thing. You are so glad your family is more normal.

"Wow. It's a sparkly crystal dildo. So tell me, Rose, how hands on does this aura reading get?" Damara says.

On second thought, normal is relative.

How did you manage to forget how embarrassing your sister can be when she's annoyed?

"Strictly hands-free, I'm afraid, though I promise to think lascivious thoughts as I peer voyeuristically at your inner essence," Rose says. "Aradia, please move a bit to your left. I need to read you separately before I read you together. Damara, please move more toward the center of the window and face me. Concentrate on the moment Aradia brought you back. Your memories should help highlight the relevant facets of your aura."

"Um," you say. Damara looked really upset when you opened your eyes and saw her standing over her grave. You don't think reminding her of that moment is a good idea. "Is that really--"

Damara flicks her fingers against your shoulder. "Chill, Aradia. I won't kill myself in front of your friends."

You bite your tongue and flinch away from the sympathy in both Dave and Rose's eyes.

Damara spreads her arms, faintly backlit by the clear, grayish light spilling in through the window. "Here I am, fresh and juicy for your fetishistic, voyeuristic aura-viewing pleasure. Tell me all about my tortured, grimdark soul. I need to know how much I should be charging for the peepshow."

You manage not to bury your face in your hands and moan. It takes a lot of willpower.

Rose just waggles her eyebrows and raises the sun-catcher to eye level, out at arm's length so it's halfway between her and Damara. "Hmm." She moves her arm right. "Mmm-hmm." Then left. "Ah. Yes. Hmm."

"Mind translating that into actual words?" Dave says.

Rose says something in Onondaga, which Dave duly writes down. Then she directs Damara through a series of poses that you think are intended at least as much to mimic a magical girl transformation sequence as to show her anything actually useful. Then she makes you go through the same routine.

You turn and bend and stretch, glad that you're wearing jeans instead of a short skirt like your sister. You also wish Rose would use a language you understand. Maybe she's trying not to contaminate her results. Or maybe Onondaga has a better technical vocabulary for whatever signs she's reading. Or maybe she just likes being mysterious and passive-aggressive. Who knows. You just hope she can figure out what you did, and help you convince Damara there's no way to undo the spell.

You really, truly hope there's no way to undo the spell.

Finally Rose waves Damara back over to the window so you're standing side by side, close enough that it feels awkward not to be touching her somehow. Before, that wouldn't have been an issue. You'd have slung your arm around Damara's shoulders, or tapped her hand until she sighed and laced her fingers into yours. Now your arms hang limp and heavy, your hands like stiff lumps of wood carved into the shape of flesh and blood. You want to pull Damara close. You just don't think she'd let you.

You fold your arms across your chest to keep yourself from reaching out and risking rejection.

Rose tosses the sun-catcher onto her bed and makes one last observation to Dave, who draws a wobbly flourish under his notes and hands the book to his twin.

"Translation, please," Damara says. "You can use English, Japanese, or Hebrew. I'm not picky."

"Short version: congratulations, you're not a zombie," Dave says.

Damara gives him her best unimpressed face. "Too short, try again."

This time Rose answers. "Long version: so far as I can tell, you both have independent life energies and intact souls. There is no connection between you beyond the normal ones of blood, emotion, and long association. This suggests that Aradia's resurrection ritual was a one-shot deal rather than a continuing effect. Whatever she paid was or will be taken as a lump sum rather than doled out over time, and thus there is no spell to break. If either of you should die, that should have no effect on the other, magically speaking."

You swallow, lick your lips, make yourself ask. "And the price? Half my life? What does that mean?"

Rose's face softens slightly. "I can't predict when you're going to die, if that's what you're asking. Lives aren't fixed. Anybody can die at any time. You know that, obviously -- that's how you were able to bring your sister back. Whether you transferred half your potential lifespan to Damara, or whether she has her own, independent potential store of years back, I couldn't say. But yes. You will die young. I'm sorry."

Beside you, Damara turns and presses her hands against the window, fingers tense and pale around the knuckles as if she wants to claw through the glass.

You wrap your sister up in a hug.

It's awkward. She's stiff in your arms, shoulders tense, not turning or making any effort to ease your embrace. Rose and Dave are probably staring at you. You don't care.

"It's all right, I don't mind, you're worth it," you say.

Damara shakes her head. The stupid sparkly chopsticks in her bun glint in the watery November sun. Stray wisps of hair drift around her head. One of them tickles across your eyes as you bend your head and press your face to the dip between her shoulders, your nose squashed half-flat by the ridge of her spine.

"I'm not," she says. "I'm really, really not."

You hug her tighter.

You hate hearing her say things like that. But you're starting to think that yelling and arguing isn't going to change her mind, isn't going to make her happy to be back. You don't know what will. Maybe time. Maybe antidepressant medications and therapy sessions, even if the counselor your mother made you see over the summer couldn't do anything about the hole in your mind and the nearly physical ache with which you missed your sister. Maybe hugs -- lots and lots of hugs. Maybe eating cookies and listening to Hecate purr in sunbeams and smoking cigarettes next to her open bedroom window to hide the smell.

Maybe nothing.

Maybe she'll never think your bargain was worth the price.

Maybe it really wasn't fair of you to rip Damara out of her grave, back from whatever happens to people after they die. But then again, you had no way to ask her opinion. She was dead! And it's not like she asked your opinion before she ripped herself out of your life. Besides, you're damn sure life has more potential for change and joy than death ever could.

"Well, I think you are. You're always worth it," you tell your sister. "I'm not happy I'm going to die young, whatever that even means, but it's not like I ever had a guarantee I'd make it all the way to ninety or anything. Nobody does. I mean, there's cancer and car accidents and heart attacks and guns and falling off ladders and who knows how many ways to die."

"Yeah," Damara agrees. "So many ways."

Her voice sounds weird when she says that, kind of halfway between horrified and happy. Shit. You need to change the subject.

"So, uh, we should go home," you say.

"Aww, and here I was hoping you'd stick around for dinner, meet the folks, start planning little welcome to the coven rites," Dave says.

You twitch. You'd almost managed to forget the Lalondes are in the room -- which is stupid, it's their house, you're the interlopers -- but wow, you suddenly cannot wait to get out of here. Hugs are one thing, but you have a feeling you and Damara are going to end up yelling at each other again pretty soon and you'd rather not do that in front of an audience.

Except maybe your mother.

You still have no idea how you're going to explain all of this to your mother.

You should probably start thinking about that.

"I assume you won't be in school tomorrow," Rose says as you and Damara turn away from the window. "I'll text you this evening with some options for your first lesson this weekend, once Dave and I have talked things over with our family."

She sounds oddly gentle, like she's trying not to break things, and she's sitting on her bed beside Dave, leaning on her brother's shoulder, their hands linked between their legs. You think it's only the third time you've ever seen the twins voluntarily touch each other.

You wonder if Rose and Dave would have tried to resurrect each other, even though they know the rules of magic and its dangers and prices. You wonder if they think you did the right thing.

You bite your tongue to keep yourself from asking.

"Okay, no problem," you say. "Thanks for the, um, aura reading."

"No problem," Rose echoes. She squeezes Dave's hand once, then stands from her bed and walks back to her probably priceless antique desk and tosses the crescent sun-catcher into a random drawer. She pulls out the cheap rolling tobacco and looks at you with a faintly furrowed frown.

"I have a vague notion that you smoke," she says to Damara. "Is that right?"

Your sister shrugs. "Not much. Maybe a pack a week."

"Yeah, and you should quit before you die of cancer," you say automatically. Damara rolls her eyes, equally automatic.

You freeze at the same moment, the hard fact of her death coloring that habitual exchange in strange and awkward lights.

"Excellent advice," Rose says, breaking the awkward silence. "But if you happen to have a cigarette or two still lying around, I'd advise you to light one, share it with Aradia, and let the bulk of the tobacco burn undisturbed. I've never seen the aftermath of a resurrection before, but it can't hurt to take a few precautions to cleanse the traces and show respect to the spirits whose territory you've disturbed. And on that note, Dave and I are heading out to clean up your ritual site before anything unpleasant latches onto your circle."

She opens her bedroom door and gestures toward the hallway.

You let her and Dave usher you downstairs and out of the house. As you unlock the Camry, they disappear around the side of their ridiculously oversized garage. After a minute, one of the doors ratchets upwards and Dave's rattletrap pickup backs out. Rose waves out the shotgun window as she and her brother drive away.

You look at Damara. She stares back at you, her face gone back to that eerie, doll-like blankness. You want to tell her you don't regret the spell -- you can't regret bringing her back -- but the idea of restarting that argument suddenly seems impossible, like shoving a car up a mountain. During a thunderstorm. With no shoes. So you turn the key and drive home in silence.

---------------

Your mother's car is parked in the driveway, waiting.

"Um," you say as you pull up to the garage.

"Yeah," Damara agrees. Her hands are clasped demurely in her lap, at least until you look a bit closer and see how pale and bloodless her knuckles are.

You turn off the car and bite your lip. Under the hood, the engine ticks and starts to cool. A stray gust of wind rattles through the weeping cherry at the edge of the driveway, rustling the remaining brown and shriveled leaves.

"Mom's been working late a lot," you say. "I wasn't really expecting her to be home already. Especially since I texted her about missing dinner."

Damara sighs and leans sideways until her head touches the window glass. "Yeah," she says again. "You know, we're in a car. We could just drive away."

You shake your head. "Too late; she heard us pull in. Well. She heard me pull in."

"No, she thinks she heard you pull in, which is a justified belief that, because of circumstances she couldn't possibly anticipate, happens not to be true. Like the Gettier problem in reverse. Or inside out? Maybe not like the Gettier problem at all. I don't remember if there's a special case name for honest mistakes, though you'd think there ought to be." Damara smiles, faintly. "Epistemology will do your head in if you think about it too hard."

You're pretty sure philosophy in general will do your head in with just a bare minimum of thought, but Damara's always liked existential stuff and if she's reconnecting to something that used to make her happy, that's probably a good thing. You hope it is, anyway.

A light flicks on behind the living room window, shining golden-green through the curtains. You sigh. "Come on, let's go in. It'll only be worse if Mom comes outside."

You really don't want the whole neighborhood to listen in while you explain how you resurrected your sister. You're not ashamed or anything. It's just... it would be awkward. Plus the whole witch thing. And you'd like a little more time to figure out how to break the news to your mother. There isn't any good way, but there ought to be a least bad way, right?

So you and Damara sneak in through the garage and the kitchen rather than the front door, tossing the empty water jug into the recycling bin along the way. Unfortunately, your stealth is futile because your mother knows all your evasive habits. When you unlock the kitchen door, she is already there, sitting in one of the mismatched plastic lawn chairs at the folding table and reading the Skeptical Inquirer. She looks up as the door swings shut -- the hinges screech in rusty displeasure, because neither of you has cared enough to oil them for a while now -- and so you get a front row view of her face as tired resignation fades into blank shock.

"Hi, Mom," Damara says. "Long time no see."

You kick her ankle. "Holy shit, what is with you? 'Long time no see'? Could you get any more awkward?"

"I didn't see you stepping up to say anything better," Damara says.

A faint choking sound draws your attention away from your sister and back to the little folding table, where your mother has dropped her magazine onto the cheap plastic tablecloth. She puts the heels of her palms over her eyes. "It's been a long day, and I am too tired for this," she says. "Aradia Megido, you know better than to drive an uninsured car. I think it's time to sell the Camry anyway. If you want your own car, you'll have to buy a different one." Her voice is eerily flat and calm.

You blink. "Um. Shouldn't you ask Damara before doing that? It's her car."

"Damara is dead," your mother says. Her fingertips press around her hairline like the clawpoints of a trap, like she's trying to hold herself together with nothing but will and bone.

You wish she'd open her eyes.

"She was dead. She isn't anymore. I brought her back. With magic." You reach sideways and back, grab your sister's hand and tug until she's standing right next to you, her skirt just brushing the refrigerator door. "Damara's right here, Mom. She said hi."

"No," your mother says.

"You're not hallucinating," Damara says, all rusty quiet. "Aradia really did resurrect me. She paid half her fucking life, and she didn't ask anybody's opinion, and I'm sorry, I didn't want to come back."

You open your mouth to protest, but something in Damara's expression stops you, dries up your voice in your throat.

She drops your hand and walks forward, words pouring out like she can't contain them, no matter how hard she clenches her fingers and sets her jaw. "I was so tired. Tired of-- of being empty. Of being fake, and a burden, and drowning in gray endless nothing, and just-- I had to get out. So I did. But now if I try again, after Aradia paid so much, I'll feel like even more of a shitty waste of oxygen and time than I already do. So I guess I'm stuck. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry I hurt you, I'm sorry you had to put up with me, and I'm sorry I stole half your good daughter's life for nothing and now you're stuck with me again. I am so sorry. But it's real. I'm here."

Damara sits in the other lawn chair. Her skirt bunches up around her thighs, but she doesn't bother to straighten it. She just pulls your mother's hands down and waits for her to open her eyes. "I'm here, Mom. See? I'm here."

Your mother opens her eyes.

"I'm not sorry," she says.

You bite your lip. On the one hand, you're glad that she's glad Damara is back. But on the other... did she even notice the part about the price?

You immediately feel guilty for that thought. Especially since you've been telling Damara you don't care about dying young. Because you don't. Or at least, the idea that you'll die young-ish doesn't feel real the same way seeing Damara breathe and move is real, and besides, you chose this. You could've gotten leukemia or something just as easily -- more easily! -- and that would leave you just as dead for no gain at all.

So it's really all for the best.

The room is awfully quiet. You look back at your mother, wondering if you should say something.

She's crying. Not full-on sobbing or anything, but her eyes are leaking and when she takes a breath it's through her mouth instead of her nose. "I'm not sorry," she says again to Damara. "You are not a bad daughter, and I'm not sorry."

"But--" Damara says.

"No buts." Your mother cuts her off, clutches her hands. "You're alive. I could never be sorry you're alive."

"But Aradia--" Damara says.

"I should have realized you were hurting. I see-- every day I see depression and pain and people who just get too tired to keep going. I see that. And I should have seen you," your mother says. A tear runs down her face, drips off her chin. She doesn't let go of Damara's hands. "I'm sorry for that. You're not a bad daughter. You're not a waste or a fake or a burden or-- or whatever else your brain has been trying to tell you. I love you and I missed you and I could never be sorry to have you back."

"But Aradia's going to die!" Damara says.

Your mother's head snaps toward you.

"Not right now!" you say. "It's just, you can't make a life from nothing. So I had to give Damara half of mine. And anyway, it's not like people don't die randomly all the time, so there was never any guarantee I'd live to--"

"Stop," your mother says.

Your jaw snaps shut. You shuffle your feet awkwardly.

"Come here, sit down, and start from the beginning," your mother says, letting go of Damara's hands to point at the folding table.

"Um," you say. "Yes, of course, but--"

"--there's no chair," Damara finishes for you.

Your mother presses her lips together the way she does when she's determinedly resisting the urge to lecture.

"I'll just go bring one from the dining room," you say, and hurry through the archway to do so. You drop the chair at the far side of the folding table, sandwiched in the corner between the window and the bulletin board with its free charity wildlife calendar, collection of business cards, and old school photographs of you and your sister. You set your hands on the table, interlace your fingers, and wonder where to begin.

"As a general rule, death doesn't spontaneously reverse itself, let alone recreate destroyed clothing," your mother says. "Yet here we are. Obviously magic is involved. What I want to know is where you found a witch with that much power, and what you paid for the spell."

You keep your eyes fixed firmly on your hands. "There was no witch. Just me."

Silence.

"I found a spellbook that wasn't complete bullshit," you continue. "It was an accident. I wasn't, you know, looking or anything. But it had a spell to bring people back after untimely death, if you have an affinity for death and time and you're willing to pay the price, and I couldn't not try." You shrug. "It worked."

"And cost half your life," Damara says. "Half your life! I keep telling you I'm not--"

"And I keep telling you I don't care," you snap back, jerking your head up to glare at Damara across the little table. "Like Mom said, you're alive and I'm not sorry."

"Girls," your mother says.

Damara slams the side of her hand against the table. "You should be! You keep forgetting you're going to spend the rest of your stupid, too-short life known as a witch. You brought back the dead. People are never going to leave you alone--"

"I don't care!" you shout.

Damara slams her hand against the table again and talks right over you. "--never going to leave you alone, and they're never going to accept you, either!"

"Girls," your mother says.

"Good luck going to college! Good luck finding a job!"

"The Lalondes manage," you say.

Damara ignores you. "And good luck having a life -- except oh wait, that's right, you won't have a life for very long, because you threw half of it away! For nothing!"

"GIRLS!"

Your mother slashes her magazine through the air between you. The fluttering pages break your line of sight and your train of thought.

"Thank you," your mother says into the confused silence. "Now. I am not happy you made such a reckless choice, Aradia, especially without asking any advice or telling anyone about your plans. I don't know much about magic, but I do know it's dangerous and I'm sure a spell of this magnitude was more so than most. I'm not happy that you apparently value your own life so lightly. Did you think that losing you, whenever that happens, will hurt any less than losing Damara this spring?"

You look back down at your hands, feeling guilty and small.

"Damara, that does not mean I'm sorry to have you back," your mother continues. "I am more glad than I can say to see you again. I wish it hadn't come at so high a cost, but you're here and I wouldn't undo that for any price."

She pauses, then says, much less firmly, "I assume there won't be any side effects?"

You shake your head. "We asked the Lalondes. Rose says we both look normal. We should do a cleansing ritual or something, that's all."

"Right. More magic." Your mother sighs. "Oh, speaking of cleansing. Aradia, go wash your face! That blood on your eyelids can't possibly be hygienic."

You blink. Blood?

Oh, right, for the ritual. But... Damara never said anything, so you kind of assumed it went poof when the spell worked. The backs of your hands are clean, anyway. Well, clean-ish. Maybe that blood just rubbed off when you stuck your hands in your pockets, but it's not like you could stick your eyes in your pockets. Still, Dave and Rose didn't say anything either. You'd think they would have mentioned that you were walking around with blood on your face. Then again, the twins both have pretty weird senses of humor.

Normally you like that about them. Right now, you're a little too raw to laugh.

You cast a betrayed look at your sister. "Seriously? That's been there all afternoon? You could have said."

Damara manages a fleeting smirk. "I thought it was a new fashion statement. It's way more goth than I expected, but who am I to stand in the way of your self-expression."

You try to think of a cutting response that won't sound like you're actually angry. Naturally nothing comes to mind. You stick your tongue out instead.

Your mother clears her throat.

"Right, sorry," you say, and head over to the sink to scrub at your face and neck. You decide not to worry about the blood marks under your shirt. You can wash those off later.

"Did the Lalondes offer any other advice?" your mother asks over the sound of running water.

"No," Damara says. "I don't think they're used to resurrections."

"I don't think anyone is," your mother says. She shakes her head once, short and sharp as if trying to settle her thoughts. "Oh, for the love of-- I just realized. We're going to be drowning in bureaucracy. I know how to report a death, but how do you get a person declared alive? Especially after a very public burial?" She pauses. "Speaking of which. What happened to..."

She gestures awkwardly.

You glance at Damara, who doesn't seem to have any idea what your mother means either.

"To?" you ask.

"The body."

"Oh." Damara pulls inward on herself, arms folded around her body. "That. I don't know."

You dry your hands and hurry over to her, rest your hand on her shoulder. "It doesn't matter. Even if your, um, old body is still in the grave, it's okay. You're real. Rose said so, and she'd know."

"Exactly," your mother agrees. "And on that note, real people need to eat. I'm going to stick a frozen pizza in the oven. You two set the table. Then you should get Damara's room set up. It's too late for you to go back to college this semester, even if they don't kick up a fuss about reenrollment. You'll be stuck here through December and you might as well be comfortable. We can discuss everything else later."

Damara shrugs out from under your touch as she stands. "Are you sure we should stay here? It's going to get crazy. We might be better off moving across the country. Or across the border to Ganonsyoni. For Aradia's sake."

Your mother pauses with her hand on the freezer door, frown lines pinched between her eyes. "I hadn't thought about--" she starts.

"We're staying," you say as firmly as you can. "Things would get crazy anywhere. At least here people know us and we don't need to learn a new language. Besides, there's Mom's job, and my friends, and this is our home. I'm not going to run away."

"It's a tactical retreat, dimbulb," Damara says, but you ignore her and give your mother your best pleading puppydog eyes. They're not all that good, objectively speaking -- you're nearly five months out of practice -- but it's the thought that counts.

"We'll discuss it later," your mother says. "And you'll need a bed tonight, Damara, regardless of what we decide to do in the long term. Real people need to sleep, too. Now get moving."

"We're going, we're going," you say, and drag the extra chair back into the dining room. Damara follows, carrying three water glasses.

It feels weird to set the table after so many nights eating in the kitchen, but good-weird, like something slotting back into place. You think about digging out the cloth napkins from the bottom drawer of the cabinet, but you catch Damara raising her eyebrows when you pick the china plates instead of the normal plastic ones, and decide it's better not to make this into too big of a thing.

You want her to feel normal, after all. You want her to be comfortable and happy, which means if she's worried about you, you have to act normal and happy yourself.

That's going to be hard. Yeah, Damara is back, but she's right that resurrection isn't the same as happily ever after. Magic can't make everything better -- not even magic that's the next best thing to impossible. All the problems that made your sister kill herself are still there. You and your family are going to catch shit from all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. And you probably need some therapy yourself, because closing yourself off from all your friends and trying resurrection spells is not a healthy coping mechanism. You can admit that in retrospect, even if you're not sorry for the end result.

In the kitchen, you can hear your mother talking on the phone: "--Rachel Megido, and I need to report a resurrection. Yes, you heard me correctly. One of my daughters brought the other back to-- No, this is not a crank call. I am perfectly serious, and I need-- Well, obviously I don't know the right procedure for the situation! If you're so concerned why don't you go look--"

You leave her to the argument. You'll answer official questions later if you have to, and of course you'll defend Damara if anyone tries something fishy, but for now you're glad to leave the tangle in someone else's hands.

"We didn't get very far cleaning out your room, so most of your stuff is still there," you tell Damara as you walk through the living room toward the stairs. "You'll have to put sheets on your bed, though, and you might want to grab a spare pillow. Hecate claimed your old one as her worry blanket or something. It's pretty chewed up."

Damara pauses halfway up the stairs, hand tight on the railing. "You kept Hecate? But you and Mom aren't cat people."

You shrug. "Yeah, but she's your cat. And she missed you too."

"Shit." Damara glances toward the upstairs hallway, then back to you. "I didn't think about-- I guess I figured she'd be better off with a better owner. But she missed me?" You nod. Damara slumps down to sit on the stairs, leaning against the wall. "Ah, fuck. I really fucked up, didn't I? I thought if I got rid of myself that'd fix all the problems, but it only worked for me. I am such a worthless piece of shit."

You climb the three steps that separate you and sit down beside her, your back against the banister posts to give her a little space. "If you were worthless, I wouldn't have wanted you back. I promise. Pinky swear, cross my heart, all that stuff." You bite your lip, then tap your sneaker against Damara's shiny patent leather shoe. "Okay, look. I love you. So does Mom. So does Hecate. And maybe there's hundreds of ways to die, but there's hundreds of things to live for, too. We can look for them together."

You hold out your hand. After a long moment, Damara wraps her fingers around your palm and lets you pull her up. Her fingers are warm against your skin: here, real, alive.

You brought your sister back from the dead.

There are worse beginnings.