The Mirror Realm breaks people, is the thing.
Only a third of Quentin’s spirit and none of his soul — none of Ariadne — made it to the Underworld.
A third and a bit, after Alice chucked that bit down a well.
A third — and then a little less, once it went into a child golem — went to the ambient, fractured and split into pieces.
In the Mirror Realm, Ariadne sits alone in the greyscale world, trembling and cold, until a ghost sits beside her.
It’s only a third of Quentin, transparent and fragile, but it is all of Ariadne. One-third of a spirit, and all of a soul.
They are frightened but they are together, and in being together there is hope.
The Mirror Realm is a place between life and death, a place where options remain.
Ariadne has always been the part of them that wanted to live even when Quentin-the-human-half was actively trying not to.
Ariadne is not about to give up now.
The ghost in the Underworld doesn’t think to ask about Ariadne, because he is not enough himself to ask real questions.
He does ask a few, but they’re brushed aside easily by Penny, who is friendly and strange and not himself. He says he’s more himself but perhaps it is the opposite.
Still, the partial Quentin accepts that he did what he should, that his death will let his loved ones thrive. He accepts that he will not be saved, that he needs to move on.
He walks through the door and he believes he will be at peace.
In Penny’s defense, he didn’t lie. He simply didn’t know what happens to someone who kills a god, when Hades has reason to hold a grudge.
In Tartarus, Quentin assumes the loss of his daemon is part of the torment.
In the ambient, the piece of Quentin is lost.
He flickers through places, countries and worlds and realms he’s never seen, anywhere magic can touch, he might go. He is scattered on the currents of magic, a piece breaking into smaller fragments with every swirl of colored fire.
But he is a mender, isn’t he? If he can’t live again, surely he can pull himself back into one piece if he tries hard enough?
He tries. All the world is magic, there is power and energy to spare, and so he manages it.
He manages it in time to hear Julia say, “I only have magic because I lost Q. I have to do something with it that’s worth that,” while her falcon Asterion circles restlessly over her head.
He manages it in time to feel a piece ripped away again, turned into a child golem so incomplete he doesn’t realize he has no daemon and that Perdix won’t look at him, however kind Alice is.
He hears them talk about the peace of his soul, about laying him to rest.
He hears Eliot and Alice on the Mountain of Ghosts, sees Perdix and Cythera comforting each other, Perdix in bobcat form small enough for Cythera the cheetah to twine around him. He sees the letter and the piece of himself fall away and he thinks, but you could have helped me .
But they don’t want to. They just want to let him go, to be free of him so they can have a pretty memory to call up sometimes. Eliot couldn’t even admit what they had was real until he was gone. They talk about how Quentin loved them both, they cry and hug, their daemons twine together in a daemon hug, and they leave comforted.
Quentin thinks that he did love them, and it destroyed him, so clearly he was a fucking idiot.
Because, after all, Eliot and Margo don’t let Fen and Josh go and then everyone is happy to save Josh a second time, Penny 23 even saves a creepy ghost, and of course he saves Julia, but Quentin is not even worth a discussion.
And he is alone here, because Ariadne isn’t here. He doesn’t know where she is, but she’s not with him.
Distantly, he hears terrible things and he wonders where that bit of him thrown away like so much trash has landed, that even in the crackle of magic’s flame he can hear the screams of the damned.
The worst thing they did to him, in Tartarus, was to read him a letter.
They read it aloud, words of love and promises that, since the letter is here, have gone unkept.
“I’ll see you again,” the letter says. “I’ll get you back with this, you just need to listen,” it says.
“He could have saved you with this,” they tell Quentin. “He threw it down here instead,” they say.
“I love you,” the letter says, but the rest of it is all lies, so this must be too.
They read the letter, laughing at him all the while, and then they crush his legs.
The pain as his bones crumble feels like mercy in comparison.
Ariadne and the part of Quentin with her wander the Mirror Realm. They are open, here, torn and wounded but also able to absorb the magic of this place, this world between life and death, outside of time. It isn’t the kind of power that will save them, not in and of itself, but it’s strength.
(If they get back, there’s a question of what it will do to them, but they have to get back first, don’t they?)
It’s strength, and Ariadne has a third of Quentin with her. He’s a pale ghost, and his fingers are freezing no matter how long he keeps them buried in her fur, but when they stay close, when Quentin keeps his hands on her and Ariadne puts her front paws on his bare skin — anywhere, doesn’t matter — they are as linked as they ever were.
Linked to each other, and linked enough to find the others.
They can’t save themselves without being whole, but they can be the north star for the rest of Quentin, wherever the rest of his spirit has gone.
Comfort is unheard of, in Tartarus.
In fact, Quentin has almost forgotten what comfort is. The only touches he understands now are cruel, causing pain or roughly moving him along. He doesn’t remember what it’s like to be hugged or kissed, doesn’t remember what it is to have a lover.
He remembers loving, romantically and platonically, but he also remembers that love is why he’s here. Love is what burned him out, so that he had no strength left to run and save himself because he’d spent all of himself trying to save other people. He remembers that he wasn’t worth saving in return, so what good was anyone’s love?
It’s only a phantom touch. A hand the twin of his own seeming to hold on, to offer support and strength. Soft fur brushing along his skin, the only warmth that soothes instead of burns.
It doesn’t heal him. It doesn’t erase his wounds or make it easier to swallow burning drafts of the flaming river — it has a name, but it’s too long, he can’t make himself care what it is, he only knows that the water itself is full of sickly green fires, and they force everyone here to drink it, because it heals them.
A clean canvas, for fresh wounds.
Still, when they drink it, there is a moment of freedom. No chains, no ropes, no nails. Nothing binding him. He tells the phantom to wait for the green fire, over and over because words seem almost impossible to send over this strange connection, but the image, he feels that it’s understood.
It does occur to him that this could be some kind of trick, some new torment. Maybe all that will happen is true oblivion, maybe he’ll cease to exist in any form. But wouldn’t that be better than this?
The funny thing is, he’s the solid one. In Tartarus, more than in any other realm of the Underworld, they grant you your body, real and every bit as corporeal as someone in Life.
Of course they do. It makes the pain so much more vivid.
If the Quentin and Ariadne in the Mirror Realm have clarity, and the Quentin in Tartarus has a body, the Quentin in the ambient has power. He discovers this by accident, being petty. Eliot and Julia are at the penthouse, working some kind of cleaning magic — a deal made with Kady, he thinks they say. At this point his ability to hear the other side is spotty at best, and not worth the effort.
Quentin is in the magic, isn’t he?
He yanks on the threads of power that connect to the tuts as they cast — and he takes it. He makes their spells fail three times before he lets it go — their fourth try works but the rebound makes them both fall on their asses, and Quentin laughs unheard once he's sure they're only annoyed, not hurt. He's earned the right to a prank or two.
He laughs all the more when he realizes he’s stronger than he was before he did it.
He doesn’t fully understand how he knows he needs power. He has enough to keep his atoms together, though he’s nothing like human right now. Still, he has a flicker of an image, of himself and Ariadne in the Mirror Realm somewhere and he —
He isn’t whole. But if he can get the power, he will be. Somehow, he knows this. If he can get the power, they can use it , them in totality, and that may be their only hope. No one else is ever going to help them, after all.
He steals from everyone he knows. From little spells, typically, things that won’t hurt anyone more than mildly uncomfortable backlashes. It’s pathetic, but he can’t bring himself to do any harm to people he once cared about, even if he kind of thinks his former friends would owe him that much. Nothing permanent, but still a good bruise or two, something small like that.
The others, well… They didn’t do anything worth him attacking, did they, he just happens to know them and that means he can find them. That being said, it is very funny to drain the power off one of Mayakovsky’s experiments and hear him curse for five straight minutes in Russian, or to see how puzzled Fogg and Sunderland and Lipson get when routine spells done for convenience just fail to work.
Poppy almost figures out someone is actually responsible for her speed reading spell failing to work, but he’s gone before she can pinpoint anything.
He even finds New Fillory, just in time to wreak minor havoc with Alice, Margo, and Josh as they attempt to make a portal. It’s the most important spell he’s meddled with, so he only does it once — the spell was about to fail anyway, he could see it, and sure enough when they try a second time it fails again, setting the wardrobe they’d tried to use on fire. He's probably why the fire is blue, but no harm done.
The sabotage is… oddly satisfying, he just still can't make himself hurt anyone.
But it isn’t enough power. Whatever it is he’s doing, he needs more.
So he lets the currents take him, in search of other magic.
Ariadne feels them through the Quentin she has with her, a Quentin in terrible pain who will show them green fire when he might have hope, a Quentin floating in currents of power who might be able to give them the sheer force that they need.
She and her greyscale Quentin are solid, a strong anchor here at the doorway where they once came through with Alice and Penny 23. For whatever reason no one cleaned the blood from the mirror, and the doorway is still open. All they need to do is be here, be whole and solid, and they can escape.
To what, Ariadne doesn’t know, but she knows it’s better to have the chance than not.
There is a world where lightning is the key to powers Quentin’s world certainly doesn’t have. He watches as lightning, properly harnessed, does whatever its guides can make it do, until one day he sees it bring a girl back to life.
Isn’t that exactly what he needs?
And so, he flies into the storms as they hit. Once, twice, he takes in white light that burns bright and wonderful, a pain so exhilarating it feels like the strangest sort of pleasure. And he holds there, fizzing with it, waiting, waiting…
In the Underworld, they push Quentin to the riverbank, and by now he is cooperative enough to drink without being forced, scorching water burning his hands, making the nail wounds in his hands hurt all the more… but with each horrible sip the pains lessen, and soon he’ll be healed and it will all begin again.
Unless he can escape in this one moment.
He closes his eyes and thinks green fire at the phantom self, until green fire turns to cool greyness and blazing white light, until the fire and the screams are replaced by silence —
Ariadne sends the message through her Quentin — now! — and the Quentin in the ambient finds a storm, spins up and up through to where lightning boils in the clouds. He dives into it, down down through the clouds and the sparks, holding tight to his atoms, to his sense of self, until something yanks —
He gasps for breath when he hasn’t needed breath, not in any of his three selves, and Ariadne finds his fingers are blood-slick yet warm, as they crawl through the mirror to sprawl on the floor of a room at Brakebills. Ariadne is shaking and sick, Quentin is dizzy with pain and the blood loss that can suddenly affect him and the overwhelming crush of three sets of memories trying to merge into one.
He thinks he screams. He thinks he hears Ariadne yell for help. He knows someone finds them, and then he doesn’t know anything but the peace of unconsciousness rushing up to meet him. Even this, nothing else but this forever, would be better than where he’s been, and so he welcomes it.
He and Ariadne are both so, so tired. Rest is the one blessing they’re unafraid to accept.
Lipson and her daemon are surprised when, as soon as Quentin and Ariadne wake up, the first thing they say when she comes in to check on them is that they don’t want any visitors.
“You’ve had some already while you were unconscious,” she says, and Quentin thinks she’s about to specify who came but he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to, because he’s never going to see them and he’s decided on that point, so why should he know?
“Don’t tell us, it doesn’t matter,” Ariadne says, growling softly when Lipson’s lemur wrinkles his nose in disapproval.
“We don’t want anyone to know when we’re discharged either,” Quentin adds, hands curled into fists.
“Then you’ll have to stay here longer, because if you can’t be released into someone’s care, then I can’t discharge you as fast,” Lipson says as if she thinks it will change Quentin’s mind. He stops himself from rolling his eyes, then wonders why the fuck he cares enough to hide it and rolls them after all.
“There’s no one to take care of me anyway. Don’t mistake pity visits for anything more important,” he says, flat and cold, and it startles her enough that she doesn’t say anything more about it after that. Good, Quentin tells himself, and tries to ignore the aching emptiness inside him that comes from the fact that he only spoke the truth.
Lipson doesn’t say anything else personal at all, just gets on with the checkup. When she leaves them alone at last, Quentin reaches for Ariadne, pulling the blanket up over both of them as he buries his face in her fur. He has too many memories without her, and she has too many memories of being with a part of him that was cold as ice. So now they cling, and he doesn’t remember when he started to cry, only that suddenly Ariadne’s sitting up enough to lick the tears off his cheeks.
“I missed you,” Quentin whispers. “You saved us.” Really, they did it together, but Quentin knows it was Ariadne’s determination that built the anchor, that gave the rest of him something to cling to and that brought all of him together once the time was right.
“I’ll always save us,” Ariadne says, and it’s true, isn’t it? And a good thing, because no one else will. Haven’t they learned that? Ariadne saved them when Quentin killed them, and everyone else was content to bury them and move on.
It’s unfair. Quentin knows it’s unfair. But he really, truly, can’t bring himself to care about fairness anymore.
Being trapped in the Mirror Realm has changed Ariadne. Most of her fur is still the rich dark amber it’s supposed to be, but Quentin googled Asian golden cats when Ariadne settled as one, Ari in his lap while he scrolled through as many images as they could find and watched a few YouTube videos as well. Not many; as cats go, Ariadne’s shape isn’t one of the ones that catches lots of attention in nature documentaries and he’s yet to see them in any zoo shows at all. Still, when he looked there had been some footage to find, at least.
Because of this he knows some Asian golden cats have grey or grey-white fur on their muzzles or their feet, but the smoke-grey of Ariadne’s paws, ears, and the tip of her tail is different. Even more striking is the dusting of gold and black tracing down her spine. Gold for the ambient, Quentin supposes, and… black for Tartarus? Ariadne was never in either place; unlike him she was whole and complete in the Mirror Realm this whole time, but parts of him were, so with their bond properly healed with his return to life, maybe it had to show?
“I think you’re more beautiful than ever,” Quentin says, stroking his fingers over Ariadne’s grey ears, her speckled spine.
“You’re changed too, you know,” she says gently.
“I thought so. Don’t tell me how, let me look for myself,” Quentin says, though of course he’s already noticed some of it. Noticed, but refused to think about. Not yet, not now, not until he’s steady enough to get up and examine all of it at once. That takes time, and he’s been awake for three weeks before he feels steady enough to actually look.
He’s been showering on his own since the second week, but he hadn’t trusted himself to stand on his feet and really look until now, when his legs don’t feel wobbly and his whole body has finally stopped aching. So he wipes the fog from the bathroom mirror and shuffles back enough that most of his body is visible in it.
Well. He isn’t missing any pieces, that’s good to know. But…
He saw the nail scars on his palms and the backs of his hands already, of course, and the shackle scars on his wrists. His ankles and feet bear similar marks. But somehow… Somehow he hadn’t expected, when he turns enough to see his back reflected in the mirror, to see whip scars and knife cuts crisscrossing his back like shattering glass, all the scars white and soft as if they were decades old. And on his chest, spreading out from his heart, are blue-tinted scars like the imprint of lightning.
His shoulder is still magicked wood, though he has no idea how he managed to rebuild that, only now it looks it. The covering that made it look like flesh is gone, and now the wood is visible to see — scorched almost black, for all that it doesn’t hurt at all. Then again, he’s never had sensation there, so that’s actually unchanged except for how it looks.
He hadn’t expected these things, and yet he’s hardly surprised to be so ruined. He feels ruined, after all.
His hair, by contrast, might have actually improved, which is much harder to believe, and darkly funny in a way that makes him laugh till the bitter sounds echo against the walls and Ariadne presses against his ankles, trying to soothe him quiet. Caught in the brown are strands of bronze and copper and gold both dark and pale, like a salt-and-pepper effect in shades of brown, metallic shades like the swirling fires of the ambient.
And his eyes? They are no longer brown at all, but grey.
Tartarus and lightning on his skin, the ambient in his hair, and the Mirror Realm in his eyes. It should be a surprise, it should be a shock, and yet somehow it isn’t. What’s happened to him is written into his body, and it fucking should be. It should fucking show. It’s on him and it’s on Ariadne, indelible and undeniable.
And if the comfort it gives him is horribly bitter, well. It’s still comfort, isn’t it?
“This is probably fucked up,” Ariadne says.
“Oh, it’s definitely fucked up,” Quentin says.
It’s fortunate that the firepit where Quentin’s one-time friends held his memorial is not within sight of the Cottage (or any other campus living quarters), because as far as Quentin knows, Eliot is living there now — presumably with his new boyfriend. Penny 23 and Julia are both teaching here too, according to Lipson, and they live somewhere on the grounds with their daughter.
It would be inconvenient if one of them were to spot him here, even though it’s unlikely so early in the morning, the whole area lit by pink-purple-crimson sunrise. It would be just his luck that one of them would be up and about this morning. Since the firepit is protected by a bend in the path, he doesn’t have to worry about it as he scatters papers over the ashes of the last fire.
Not the one for him, presumably, as it’s been nearly a year.
The papers are sketched memories, of course. From the day he arrived at Brakebills until the day he died, childhood memories with Julia and Asterion, Mosaic memories with Eliot and Cythera, with Arielle and Terciel, Teddy and Ileana. Margo and Talaus feature often, Alice is there as woman and Niffin both, Perdix as the horse he once was and in the multiple shapes he has now. Both Pennys are there too, their daemons inexplicably different species of eagle. Kady and her maned wolf whose name Quentin has actually never heard are there the least, but then they barely knew each other really.
Explains her weird as fuck song choice, he supposes.
The papers spill over the ashes and then Quentin flicks his fingers in a spell Eliot taught him.
“Our turn for a bonfire,” Quentin says as the papers burst into flame. He raises his hands, shapes tuts in the air, watches as the small fire becomes a column of flame before dying back to a sweet little campfire. “Don’t forget to soak up the genuine grief.”
“What grief?” Ariadne asks. “All I feel is freedom.” It's a lie, they both know it's a lie, but if they keep saying it, it might become truth. They want to move on, just like everyone else did. If they don’t know how, they’ll keep fucking around until they figure it out. What else is there?
“We’ll be gone in a day or two,” Quentin says in a mocking singsong, and they leave the small fire burning as they walk away. There are spells that prevent it from spreading in case of careless students, so why should he make the effort?
Maybe the bonfire will help him let go. It worked for the others, it can't make things worse.
The next morning, Quentin is discharged bright and early, and he has a meeting with Fogg. His daemon is nowhere to be seen, but then Fogg’s bond is stretched, everyone at Brakebills knew that, so she’s probably out flying. Fogg does have a rather unhealthy looking cat in his possession, which is extremely weird but Quentin really can’t bring himself to care.
“I’m sorry,” he says when Fogg tells him what’s currently on offer as assistance, “you want me to come back as a student —”
“You aren’t qualified to teach, but you can come back as a third year. I recommend you start thinking about your thesis as soon as possible,” Fogg says calmly. “Now if that’s all —”
“No it’s not fucking all,” Quentin snaps, Ariadne growling quietly. He can’t help but be pleased by the startled look on Fogg’s face. “What I was going to say is that you expect me to re-enroll here when Penny 23, Julia, and Eliot are all on the faculty?”
“Are you trying to say that it embarrasses you that you might be one of your friends’ student? We can arrange for you not to be in Julia or Eliot’s classes; Penny’s aren’t relevant to you,” Fogg tells him, impatient now.
“No, I’m saying that I refuse to study anywhere where my former friends are working. I appreciate the offer, but if you want to help me, you’ll help me get away from here. Ideally I’d like to continue my magical education,” he adds, which is true, if only because he’s not really sure what else to do. “But I can understand if helping me transfer is a conflict of interest. In which case I’d really appreciate some help with the red tape of my being dead, or at least permission to leave here if the only offer on the table is re-enrollment.”
Fogg’s eyes narrow. “You’re already legally alive again, with access to the same things you’d have had if you never died, including your bank account. Are they aware you consider them former friends?”
“You were at my funeral, you tell me. Though I still can’t figure out why you were there,” Quentin scoffs.
“I can’t have wanted to honor your sacrifice?”
“No,” Quentin says flatly. “Look. I know you can’t stand me. I understand why, given the mess Timeline 1 me started and the fact that you think I’m an idiot anyway. Help me out here and you’ll never have to see me again. Isn’t that reason enough?”
“Unfortunately, helping you disappear will not free me of your ridiculous dramas because instead I will have Julia and Eliot in a temper to deal with. I don’t want to waste my time on that. So you’ll stay here, you’ll complete your education, and stop acting like a child because your friends moved on when you died. They mourned you, I saw them. Julia and Eliot tried to get me to override Lipson when she honored your request to have no visitors. You’re being a spoiled child and proving every moment of annoyance I’ve ever had about you. You know, when you died this last time I almost regretted some of it. Clearly I shouldn’t have.”
“I won’t stay here,” Quentin says, getting to his feet. “It’s not an option.”
Fogg sighs, some of the disdain falling away to reveal a tired sort of confusion. “You are lucky enough to have people who care about you. Why are you refusing to let them? Especially when they’re already trying to find the rest of your little group — does it even matter to you that Alice Quinn and Margo Hanson might never be found?”
“Because they don’t care. It’s pity, or obligation. Why should I care about any of them?” Quentin could say he knows Alice and Margo are just fine, but then he’d have to explain how he knows, and he doesn’t want to do that. They might think he can help find New Fillory because he’s seen it, because part of him traveled in the ambient magic of that world. Maybe he can and maybe he can’t, but why should he offer to try?
What does he owe any of them now?
“If you believe that, there is something deeply wrong with you.”
Fogg is probably right, but Quentin won’t tell him so. “Yeah, well, magic will fix it, isn’t that what you told me on my first day? Maybe I’d have committed suicide anyway, but since you’re not going to help me I might as well say fuck you for convincing me to give up my meds. Fuck you for going to my funeral like you ever gave a shit. I’m out of here.”
Quentin is half expecting Fogg to stop him. When that doesn’t happen and the door closes behind him, Quentin looks down at Ariadne. He wishes he felt better for saying all that but mostly he’s just frightened. Lipson said there isn’t anything else she can do for him, and Fogg wasn’t going to help anyway but certainly won’t now. “What do we do now?” he asks his daemon.
“We get out of here. Fast. And then… Well, it’s a good thing magic exists?” Ariadne twines around his ankles. “We save ourselves. We’re good at that now, we’ll just keep doing it.”
“We will,” Quentin says, and he knows it’s true but… Oh God. He’s still so fucking tired, and he knows Ari is too. But there’s no other option, there’s no one to go to, no one who actually wants them, whatever Fogg seems to think.
Really, expecting help from anyone, ever again, is probably the stupidest thing for either of them to do.
So like Ariadne says, they’ll do it themselves.