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a song will only scratch the skin

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Spring in upstate New York is just an extension of winter: it’s an afternoon in early April when Julia finally manages to get everyone in the same place at the same time - standing outside the Physical Kids Cottage - and there are still clumps of snow clinging stubbornly to the ground, and an icy wind whipping around the corner of the Cottage and freezing Julia’s fingers and the tips of her ears.

(Everyone, in this case, means Julia and Penny, and Kady and Alice, and Eliot and Margo. Everyone who isn’t dead, or missing.)

Penny stands just behind her left shoulder, but he doesn’t touch her. They’re still not - touching much, these days. He knows what she’s going to say, and he doesn’t approve, thinks that they should have approached Alice in private first, but she knows he’ll back her up anyway.

Kady and Alice are sitting huddled on the wooden bench, sipping their coffee. They’d come together, and they’re sitting close, still in the middle of an argument about universal access to Library cards. Alice’s knee keeps bumping against Kady’s whenever she leans forward, but neither of them seem to notice. Alice had disappeared for a while, gone completely off the grid, and Julia had been worried, distantly, from within the dark well of her own grief, had thought about Alice 23, her hopeless eyes, her wooden fingers. But then again - that Alice had been younger, had never been a Niffin. This Alice, their Alice, had reappeared when the Library came calling with a job offer, and as far as Julia can tell, has thrown herself into her new position wholeheartedly. She still wears her usual dresses, though, instead of Librarian gray, and she and Kady have become a united and unstoppable force in the Forum meetings. They look comfortable, easy with each other in a way Julia misses, and she looks away.

Eliot has his arm around Margo’s shoulders, and she’s leaning hard into him, shivering a little. (Sotto voce, two minutes ago: Eliot - “take my coat,” Margo - “you know it wouldn’t work with this outfit,” Eliot - “we could go inside,” Margo - “shut the fuck up,” and Eliot had reached out and pulled her close. Eliot never goes inside the Cottage anymore, not if he can help it.) They both look brittle, and older, since - well, since last fall, since the desert and the Monster and the infirmary where Julia had sat in an uncomfortable chair next to Margo, waiting for Eliot to get out of surgery, and they had both looked up when Penny appeared and said, blankly, “Quentin’s dead.” Since then. But they look even worse since they got back from Fillory - Josh and Fen MIA, three centuries gone by and a new mysterious evil ruler all they had to show for it.

If only it weren’t so fucking cold - maybe they should find a empty lab, or classroom, but superstitiously, Julia wants to have this conversation somewhere neutral. Somewhere that doesn’t belong to Brakebills, or to anyone else. She is, technically speaking, a student at Brakebills now - thank you, Kimber D’Antoni; technically speaking, they all are - reinstatement at Brakebills for formerly banned magicians was part of the truce between the Library, Brakebills and the other magical institutions, and the hedges (and those formerly banned magicians who snobbishly refused to refer to themselves as hedges). She and Penny have been using the Cottage as a home base for the last few months, mainly because it was convenient to be close to Brakebills’ resources, but neither of them have actually attended any classes. The other students in the Cottage tend to give them a wide berth - their combined weirdness (Julia: formerly the Squib first year, now revealed as a hedge witch/ex-goddess; Penny: post-apocalyptic alternate timeline survivor version of a dead classmate) seems to be too high for even Brakebills’ standards. Julia can’t really bring herself to give a shit about any of it. She reaches into the pocket of her jacket, touches the deck of cards tucked inside. There’s only one thing that matters right now.

Better not to move, better not to put this off any longer. Julia casts a small shield spell instead, to act as a wind-break, and takes a deep breath. “I need to tell you something.”

They all turn to look at her; behind her, she hears Penny shift, bracing himself.

Julia says, “I found a spell to bring Q back.”

There’s a short, shocked pause, and then Margo says, “The fuck you say,” at the same time that Kady says, “What the hell, Julia,” as she jumps up from the bench, letting her coffee drop to the ground.

Alice reaches down, puts her own coffee cup carefully on the patio stones and rights Kady’s, before rising to her feet as well. Her face has gone very pale. “I thought we decided we were done with this. Penny said Quentin isn’t in the Underworld anymore.”

Eliot doesn’t say anything, but he looks at Julia like she’s just stepped in close and slid a knife between his ribs.

Penny moves forward to stand beside Julia, says, “The other Penny told Hyman that Quentin isn’t in the Underworld way-station anymore, that he’s already moved on. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got no options.”

Julia wants to lean into him, wants to hold his hand; doesn’t. “He didn’t want us wasting our time trying something like what we did with Alice -”

“So what’s changed?” Margo asks. Eliot’s arm has fallen away from her shoulders, but she reaches back without looking to grab at him, tangle her fingers into the front of his coat, and Eliot lets her.

“This spell is different,” Julia says. “It doesn’t matter where he is, it doesn’t matter if he’s - somewhere else -”

“Somewhere else,” Kady repeats, and Julia grits her teeth and says, “Somewhere else in the afterlife, I don’t know how it works -”

“No, you don’t,” Alice says, ice cold. “You don’t know how it works, we don’t know how it works, but you still want to fuck around with necromancy and - and drag Q back from who the fuck knows where -”

“No one’s getting dragged anywhere,” Julia says, trying to keep her voice level. “Just let me -”

“Do you have any idea what it was like -” Alice stops mid-sentence; she’s breathing too fast. Kady puts a hand on her shoulder. Alice takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and stares hard at Julia. “What if we bring him back, and he hates us for it?”

Julia tries not to flinch, but Alice’s eyes are - Julia meets her stare for stare, pain for pain. She can’t look away. Alice is the one she needs to convince.

Eliot says, “I mean, we all saw season six of Buffy, right? If Q is - if he’s at peace,” he stumbles over the words, staring at the ground, “then we can’t yank him back here just because we -”

He stops, swallowing, and Margo glances at him sideways and says, “And what if we bring him back and he’s a serial killer, like in the darkest timeline?” She waves a hand at Penny, who rolls his eyes. “We talked about this the last time. We can’t risk it unless we’re sure that we’re not in for some kind of Monkey’s Paw horror show -”

“Bambi,” Eliot says, bringing his hand up to cover his eyes, and Margo cuts herself off, biting her lip.

“It’s not that kind of spell,” Julia says.

“Then what kind of spell is it, exactly?” Kady’s sharp, as always - she knows there’s something Julia’s not saying.

“There’s an ingredient I’m missing. Just one - I have everything else we need.” Julia wraps her arms around herself, rubs her upper arms. “But the spell requires a piece of - the body. It literally translates to the person’s flesh or blood, so hair or fingernails wouldn’t be enough.”

“You need his corpse,” Alice says. She sounds hollow, emptied out. “Didn’t Penny tell you? There was nothing left. He - there’s nothing left.”

Eliot flinches. Kady watches Alice with wide worried eyes. Even Margo looks away, her jaw clenching hard.

Penny takes a small step forward, moving closer to Alice. “Julia and I went back to the Mirror World, tried to find the room,” he says quietly. “But we couldn’t - that place is a fucking maze, everything looks the same -”

“If you could take us to the room where he died,” Julia says, “then maybe -”

“Maybe what? Maybe we could scrape his fucking ashes up off the ground?” Alice says. She pushes her hair back behind one ear; her hand is shaking. “I can’t - I can’t believe this.”

“Alice -” Julia starts, the familiar hard press of tears closing her throat, and she tries to swallow it away.

Kady says, “What kind of spell is it, Julia?”

Julia looks at her, and Kady stares back, implacable. Okay, time to lay the cards on the table.

“It opens a door to the Underworld,” Julia says. “And - it calls forth the ruler of the Underworld, so that you can petition him -”

“And there it is,” Kady says. “It’s not a spell, it’s a fucking - you want to summon a god.” She points at Julia, her voice rising unsteadily. “You actually want to summon a god. Are you fucking kidding me?”

Julia feels her hands spasm into fists, and she forces her fingers to relax. “It’s not a summoning, we’re not calling him to Earth. It opens a door -”

“So that we can stroll into his front hall and ask for a favor on his own turf instead? Yeah, I’m really seeing the distinction, that sounds so much less likely to go horribly wrong,” Kady says. “Come the fuck on!”

“Hey, take it easy -” Penny says, but Kady turns on him rattlesnake-quick.

“No - no, you shut up. You weren’t here, you don’t know.”

Alice says, “Julia - we can’t do this,” and her voice isn’t loud but everything seems to go still as she speaks. Even the wind whistling through the bare tree branches fades out, but Julia’s own breathing is harsh in her ears, her hands are tingling and something furious and wounded is rising up inside of her, tightening her chest. There’s a hum in the air, a far-off rumble of thunder in the distance.

“I want him back too,” Alice says, quiet, and hard as steel. “You know - you know I want him back. But this is crazy.”

“He would do it for you,” Julia says, and she knows it’s the wrong thing before she says it, as she says it, but she says it anyway because it’s fucking true and they all know it.

Alice’s face twists with anger, but her eyes go bright and wet behind her glasses. She says, “Fuck you,” and spins away, striding across the snow and mud-covered lawn back towards the main part of campus.

Kady follows her, after shooting one more hard, unimpressed look Julia’s way.

“Shit,” Penny mutters.

Julia doesn’t watch them go. She stares at the ground, breathes in through her nose - 1, 2, 3 - and out through her mouth - 1, 2, 3 - until she’s pretty sure she can talk without screaming, or crying, or -

“You good?” Penny asks; he’s hovering next to her, his hand frozen halfway to her arm.

“Yeah,” Julia says. She blinks a couple of times, wipes her hand over her eyes, and looks up at Margo and Eliot. Margo looks a little sympathetic and a lot skeptical; Eliot’s expression is harder to read - torn, maybe.

“It won’t be like Buffy season six,” Julia says. “The spell opens the door to the Underworld so that we can petition Hades to let the dead - to let Quentin come back to Earth. But he would have to actually follow us back. It would be up to him, in the end.”

“Sounds like it would be up to Hades first,” Margo says. “And relying on the kindness of strange gods has been a terrible fucking idea, historically speaking.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Julia says, razor-sharp. “I know. But Q deserves - he deserves a chance to live his fucking life. And I’m going to do everything in my power at least give him the option to come back.”

Margo’s mouth turns downwards, and Eliot tugs her hand gently off of his coat so that he can hold it in his own, lacing their fingers together.

“So what’s the catch?” Eliot asks. His voice is so hoarse that Julia’s throat aches in sympathy. “It’s not like there’s ever a shortage of people dying, so why haven’t we heard of this before?”

Julia rubs at her arm - she can tell Penny is looking at her sideways, but she doesn’t look back. She says, “The ingredients are rare, and the petition can only be made within a certain time limit, on behalf of someone who died an unnatural death. And - the spell has never worked, in recorded history.”

Margo makes a harsh sound. “Right. Of course not. Because this is a fucking pipe dream -”

“No,” Julia says, “that’s the thing, it’s not. Everything’s different now - the amount of ambient magic is off the charts -”

“Literally,” Penny says, grimly. “They’ve been trying to make new charts, to measure it properly.” It’s also been causing havoc with any long-term supposedly stable spells, the Brakebills weather-control set-up among them.

Julia says, “There’s magic being done that was totally impossible before - ancient spells, complex theoretical magic that no one had the juice for, not unless you somehow had a dozen of Mayakovsky’s batteries on hand - did you hear that a first year reanimated their cat?”

Eliot grimaces. ”Didn’t they have to take that cat out with a shotgun?”

“You really think bringing up Pet Sematary redux is a good idea in the context of this conversation?” Margo says.

Julia waves that away. “The point is that it was a first year who pulled off a spell like that.” The first years are, in actual fact, terrifying. The ones who had survived the Goose Incident had, rather than become timid or cautious, turned into nihilistic maniacs when it came to dangerous and experimental magic. Todd is at the centre of Brakebills’ gossip network, and from what he’s told Julia, it’s only through sheer dumb luck that Brakebills is still standing.

“We can do this,” Julia says, looking back and forth between Margo and Eliot. “This could work. We just need to convince Alice to take us to the right room in the Mirror World.”

Penny’s hand brushes against her wrist, the smallest fraction of a touch. “Julia’s right.”

Margo and Eliot exchange a long, indecipherable look.

Eventually, Eliot nods, his gaze drifting away, and Margo says, “Okay. That’s a tentative okay, just so you understand, because this still sounds like the longest of long shots, and I know we specialize in those, but -”

She stops, nailing Julia with an iron stare, a High King stare. “This is fucked up, you know that, right? This is fucked up, and it is actively fucking us up, because Quentin is dead and gone and the longer we spend trying to bring him back and failing, the harder it gets to actually deal with it.”

Julia takes a breath. Counts - 1, 2, 3; lets it out. “I’m not giving up yet.”

“Yeah,” Margo says. “Neither are we. Like I said, you’ve got a tentative okay. Let Alice cool down first, then we’ll try again, and get her to listen this time instead of pissing her off.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s on me,” Julia says.

“You know where to find us,” Margo says.

She waits for Eliot to grab his cane from where he’d left it leaning against the patio’s low wall, before linking her arm with his and starting back towards the main campus; the two of them are staying in one of the now-vacant first-year dorm rooms since the Cottage isn’t an option. Eliot gives Julia and Penny a quick nod - his eyes are dark and strained, and Julia nods back and watches worriedly as he and Margo navigate the icy, muddy ground. Eliot’s moving easier now, only uses the cane for long distances, but -

Julia pushes down on her anxiety, hates how the world seems like a endless teetering walk over a chasm, waiting to swallow her friends the way it - the way it swallowed Quentin. “Okay,” she says under her breath, “okay, okay.”

They’re going to do this. They’re going to get him back.

*

“Could’ve gone worse,” Penny says. Julia’s facing away from him, watching Margo and Eliot leave. She looks cold, tucking her hands up into the sleeves of her jacket and starting to shiver a little. He wants to warm her up, step in close, fold her hands between his own. He doesn’t move.

“Yeah,” Julia says. “I shouldn’t have said that to Alice.”

Penny shrugs. “No, probably not.”

Julia turns around, raises a wry eyebrow.

“We’ll talk to her,” Penny says. “And she’ll listen, because she’s Alice and she always wants all the information before she makes a decision.” He doesn’t say: she loved Quentin, she’s grieving, she’s not the enemy - because Julia knows. They’ve all spent the last five months catching sharply on each other’s jagged edges, despite their best intentions.

“But what if her decision is ‘no’?” Julia says softly.

“Then we’ll go back to searching the Mirror World ourselves,” Penny says, with more confidence than he really feels about that particular plan.

Julia chews on her lip, half-turns away from him to undo the shield spell that she’d put on the patio. “We don’t have time for that. You’re sure you can’t remember where the room is?”

Penny’s stomach drops - this again, fuck. “I’m sure. If I remembered where it was, I would take you there.”

Julia doesn’t say anything, just lets her hands fall to her sides as the shield spell vanishes and the wind slams into them again, sending Julia’s hair flying around her face.

Penny swallows, grips his hands in the fabric of his shirt so that he doesn’t reach for her. She’s not his Julia. He should know that by now, but his body still forgets sometimes. “Julia, I wouldn’t lie to you. I need you to believe me on this.”

“You don’t think the spell’s going to work,” Julia says, still not looking at him. “You think it’s too dangerous.”

“It is dangerous, and I don’t know if it’s going to work, and neither do you,” Penny says. “But I’m going to help you anyway, because -”

He stops himself from saying it. Because I love you. “Because that’s what you want. I’m not going to fucking sabotage you.”

Julia finally meets his eyes, gives him a long searching look. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Penny says. He’s still not sure if she believes him; Julia’s psychic wards almost never falter.

“I’m going to go check on the - thing,” Julia says. “See you at dinner?”

“Sure,” Penny says, and watches as she walks away, disappearing around the corner of the Cottage.

He used to play truth or dare with his Julia. (He still thinks her as his Julia, because the Julia that is here now is - she’s alive, she’s in front of him, he loves her and he can’t think of her as anything other than ‘Julia’, had never been able to think of her as ‘Julia 40’, the way he had thought resentfully of the others as ‘Josh 40’, ‘Quentin 40’, etc., because fuck that ‘Penny 23’ noise - but she’s not his Julia.)

It had been a joke, mostly, the kind of dumb game that people played when they were stupid in love and everything that the other person said and did was adorable.

“Truth.”

“Death is not an option: Fogg or Mayakovsky?”

“Fogg, straight up, no contest. Come on, Jules, are you even trying? Give me a challenge. Truth or dare?”

“Dare.”

“Huh. I dare you to kiss me.”

“Oh, I’m the one who’s not even trying?”

“Come on, like you mean it. Like I’m going off to war.”

“I do mean it.”

“I know. I know you do.”

Sometimes it had been serious. He had said ‘truth’, and Julia had asked him about Traveling, about his mother, about the voice that had been in his head all his life, the Beast’s voice, after he had finally told her about it. He had asked her about her terrible family, about her ex-fiancé, about the way she saw magic as an endlessly unfolding puzzle, a marvel and a delight, so different from his own experience.

Penny had said ‘dare’ and Julia had said, “I dare you to come to Fillory with us.”

He had snorted. “Of course I’m coming with you. You think I’m leaving it up to Alice and Quentin to watch your back?”

He might as well have stayed behind, for all the good he’d done her.

This Julia, here and now Julia, Julia-who-is-alive - he’s never told her about that game. The Binder had said ‘Human or goddess?’ and Penny had said ‘human’, and now every time Julia looks at him, he can see the weight of that decision behind her eyes, in the careful distance she keeps between them.

Julia says, ‘”Tell me where the room is in the Mirror World,” and he tells her the truth, that he can’t remember. Julia says, “I’m about to lose my shit, take me somewhere with no people,” and he takes her a beach in Alaska, and she stands on the shore and screams and screams into the ocean waves, and the trees behind them shiver and crack. Julia says, “Help me get the ingredients for this spell,” and he does, even though he’s half sure that it will never work, just like all the other things they’ve tried.

Julia watches him, and doesn’t touch him, and Penny can’t read her mind but he can make a solid guess as to what she’s thinking: you stole my choice. How can I ever trust you?

He doesn’t blame her. He can’t take it back, can’t fix it, so instead he answers her questions, does what she asks, and thinks, alive, you’re alive, alive and here, and that has to be enough.

A gust of wind shoves him sideways, and Penny sticks his hands in his pockets, wishes for a cigarette. Julia’s probably in her room by now, so he starts to head back inside the Cottage, but then he catches sight of Eliot’s tall black-clad figure coming back up the pathway towards him.

“Hey man,” Penny says, a little warily. He still doesn’t know Eliot that well - Eliot’s spent a lot of time either in Fillory, or possessed, or recovering from being stabbed while possessed. He’d barely known Eliot in his own timeline, so he’s got no basis for comparison either. Right now Eliot looks - twitchy.

“Do you think the spell will work?” Eliot says, with no preamble.

“Look, like Julia said -” Penny says, but Eliot interrupts him.

“Julia wants the spell to work so badly that -” Eliot stops, tightens his hand hard around his cane, his knuckles turning white. Julia’s not the only one, Penny thinks, with a pang of sympathy. “I’m asking you. Do you think it will work?”

“Honestly? I don’t know,” Penny says. “I saw what happened to Quentin, okay? Even if we find the right room, there’s - not going to be much to work with.”

Eliot closes his eyes for a second, then opens them again. “What if we had all the ingredients? What about then?”

“What are you talking about?” Penny says, pulling his hands out of his pockets.

“Just tell me yes or no.”

Penny narrows his eyes at him. “Maybe. If we had all the ingredients, and we had Alice to help us cast it, then yeah, maybe it’ll work.”

“Maybe,” Eliot says, his face tightening.

“It’s a spell that’s never worked for as far back as anyone can remember, I’m not making any fucking promises,” Penny says.

“Right. Right, why the fuck not?” Eliot says, half to himself. He squares his shoulders and looks straight at Penny, all of his uncertainty dropping away. “I need you to do me a favor. I need you to take me to Fillory.”

~