"It wasn't actually a house, the people who lived there explained, it was a school. It was called Brakebills, and the people who lived there were magicians. They thought she might like to be one too. All she would have to do is pass one simple test." - Lev Grossman, The Magician King
The Dean barely looked at Julia as he took the seat across the table. "You should know," he said, "that we passed you onto this portion only because Pearl insists we can't scrap the whole lot of you and spend a year re-building the observatory until we've ruled out each of our borderline cases, however unsuitable they appear to be."
Julia bristled at the word "unsuitable." She'd been meeting with college recruiters yearly since she sat early for the SATs in seventh grade. She had the highest grades in her class, first chair of the oboe section in the Manhattan Conservatory Extension School Youth Orchestra, and a full ride awaiting her after graduation. Julia was the very definition of suitable. The Dean didn't seem to know that, though, because he kept on speaking, not even noticing Julia's expression.
"Your scores were acceptable, but hardly exemplary," he said. "Granted, the math portion was sufficient and the reading passable, but your translation was uninspired, your rabbit made it all the way to page eleven before you thought to secure it. And Melanie said your dexterity was borderline, at best."
Julia's eyes narrowed. The calculus had been challenging, but nothing she hadn't attempted before, for extra credit. She'd been careless during the exam, she knew, only penciling her answers in once instead of checking, then double-checking every answer the way she normally did. But how could anyone focus on calculus when the questions swam into place on the white pages of the test booklet? Julia had always been the type of person who wanted to memorize the rules before she played a game. She'd thought she'd known the rules of academia, but Brakebills had given her an entirely new rulebook, in a language she'd never even seen.
"So here it is," the Dean said. "Your last test. I want you to show me some magic."
Julia stared at him. "Magic," she repeated.
Julia frowned. "Do you mean a trick?" she asked, thinking of Quentin and his stupid coins.
"No tricks," the Dean said, "There's no tricking yourself out of this one, no focusing on style to gloss over your lack of substance. Either you've got what it takes, or you don't." The Dean's bored, glassy eyes made it clear which answer he was betting on.
Julia stared at the table, her mind rapidly trying to make sense of everything she'd seen this afternoon. There had to be an explanation for this. A joke, maybe, except of all the people Julia knew, only Quentin was bright enough to have laid it out so flawlessly, and he hardly had the resources, let alone the sense of humor, to fabricate an airy house full of wizard professors.
After a moment, the Dean sighed, and checked his watch. "I thought as much," he said. "Pearl, escort her out."
The tall, blonde woman who'd asked Julia to draw a map stepped forward, leading Julia to the door. Julia followed feeling unaccountably slow and uncoordinated, like she was slogging through waist-high mud. The woman opened the heavy, oak door to the examination room, and gestured for Julia to leave.
Julia stepped over the threshold, but where before there had been a hardwood floor beneath her feet, now there was nothing. She'd stepped out into open air. Instinctively, Julia reached back for the doorframe, but her fingers only grazed the wood before she was falling, plummeting downward at 32.174 feet per second. Julia screamed, panic propelling her to pinwheel her arms uselessly, but there was no slowing the fall. If she were a magician, she thought, she could make it out of this. She could turn her arms into wings, or increase the air resistance until she glided downward supported by a cushion of wind. But Julia wasn't a magician. She had failed. Below, the buildings of Brooklyn were rushing up to meet her. She hoped she didn't land on her parents' roof. Her mom would be broken up enough over Julia's death without needing to scrape her remains out of the rain gutter. The ground raced towards her, and Julia screwed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the impact.
A second before she hit the ground, Julia woke, her breath coming short and panicked in the quiet darkness of the bedroom. Sitting up, she fumbled for the lamp on the night table, but it wasn't there. It took Julia a moment of scrubbing her eyes before she realized that lamp and night table both had somehow migrated to the other side of the bed. She flipped on the light, and froze, taking in the room around her.
The wall across from the bed curved outward, as though it were in a tower. All of the furniture was heavy mahogany, nothing like the pale oak Julia's parents preferred. The bed was larger than her bed back home, and the heavy comforter on it was covered with a fussy bee and key pattern that Julia would never have picked out in a million years. For a long moment, Julia just took it all in, mouth gaping. Then the previous afternoon caught up to her, and she sagged against the pillows with relief.
She'd done it. She'd made it into Brakebills. She'd passed the test. Salt stung at her cheeks, and Julia lifted a hand to her face, startled to realize that she'd been weeping. Swallowing thickly, she swung her feet out of bed. She half feared that the door would dissolve when she touched the knob, or that she would open it to find another empty space, like the one in her dream. But the door swung open silently to reveal a long corridor, faintly lit by brass light fixtures set into the walls.
Julia's door was only one of at least a dozen. The first one she tried was locked. The second swung open to reveal another bedroom, with a vaguely human-shaped lump beneath the covers. It didn't stir as Julia peeked in, and she closed the door quietly, continuing down the corridor. The wooden floor was cold beneath her bare feet. She wished she had slippers, or, at the very least, had thought to grab her socks. Door by door, Julia made her way down the corridor, until she found a door inset with a small, gold plaque that read, "women."
The bathroom was the first room in Brakebills that looked like it belonged to a boarding school, and not a country manor. A trio of toilet stalls lined one wall, and to her left, Julia could see the room continuing into a row of gym-style showers, separated by curtains, and, incongruously, a claw-foot bathtub. The counter was long and held two sinks, with plenty of space for spreading out between them. Julia wondered how many girls elbowed each other for space as did their hair and make-up here in the morning. She turned the handle on the sink and let the water run cold before she splashed it on her face, scrubbing away the tear tracks.
As Julia was lifting her dripping face, reaching for the towel, one of the toilet stalls behind her swung open. A slight girl stepped out, wearing jeans that were caked with mud at the hems and around the knees, as if she'd taken a fall. She had leaves in her straight, dark hair, and blood and dirt traced a thin line across one arm. When she reached for the sink handle, Julia realized her palms were red and still bore faint divots from gravel. Her skin was almost ghostly pale, except for her face, which was as red and splotchy as Julia's. For a second, the two of them stared at each other, both hunching their shoulders with embarrassment. Julia patted her face dry, and escaped, leaving the girl to clean herself up in privacy.
When she woke the next morning, the strange girl in the bathroom seemed so far removed from the daylight streaming in through the windows, that Julia decided she'd probably dreamed her up.
* * *
Julia had half-hoped she'd imagined seeing Quentin on the day she took her Brakebills exam, but somehow, she felt a stab of relief to see him stepping into her first class. So far, Brakebills had been too easy. It was like something out of a dream. But there was absolutely nothing dreamlike about the way Quentin hovered awkwardly in the doorway, scanning the room with his usual social anxiety until he spotted Julia, sitting in the first row with her notebook page already open and dated. Quentin's face lit up, and he beamed as he took the seat beside her.
"I can't believe you're here!" he said, bouncing a little in his chair. "Julia, that's incredible!" His eyes were wide, and a little starry. No doubt, he was convinced the two of them had ended up here together because of fate, or some other romantic bullshit. Julia could practically see the moment he remembered James, and glanced away from her guiltily.
The truth was, Julia hadn't thought about James at all since passing her exam. It was like her life had been divided into two parts: Brakebills and Before Brakebills. James clearly landed in the Before Brakebills category, and so, Julia thought, should Quentin's crush. She doubted there was enough magic in the world to make Quentin Coldwater sexually appealing to her.
"Hi Quentin," she said, giving him a smile that was just a shade too cold for friendly. Julia had practiced that smile a lot around Quentin.
He beamed in response, shuffling in his backpack for a pen. "Isn't this fantastic?" he asked. "I still can't get over it."
Julia let her smile thaw a little as she looked around the classroom. "It really is," she agreed.
When the professor called Quentin to the front of the room to demonstrate his magic tricks with the marble, Julia relaxed from the pose she normally adopted in a classroom -- leaning forward on the edge of her seat, pen poised to catch any information the professor dropped. She didn't need to bother with that for Quentin, though. God knows she'd seen his magic tricks too many times to count. Instead, Julia let her gaze travel over her fellow students. She recognized the boy with the mohawk from the exam room (he would be hard to forget), but nobody else looked familiar to her until she spotted a girl sitting in the back row.
It was the girl from the bathroom. Her hair was brushed now, dark and shiny against her pale face, and she wore a neatly-pressed Brakebills uniform instead of the muddy jeans. Her gray eyes met Julia's, and the girl bit her lip, cheeks flooding with color. Feeling her own ears redden, Julia flipped her head back to the front, wondering if she'd looked as much of a mess as the other girl had that night.
Quentin returned to his seat to a round of applause, and Julia joined in automatically.
"Alice, what about you?” Professor March said. “Why don’t you show us some magic?"
Somehow, Julia wasn't surprised to see the pale, sullen girl walk to the front of the classroom.
Alice handled her marble as confidently as Julia played the oboe. Quentin sunk low in his seat as Alice's marble grew arms and legs. No doubt, he was comparing her magic to his own sleight of hand from moments before. But Julia leaned forward, transfixed as a complicated gesture from Alice set the marble man into motion. This was what she'd been waiting for -- not card tricks, but honest to God magic. Alice was subverting the laws of physics before her eyes, working out of a rulebook entirely different than the ones Newton and Einstein had been using. It wasn't just a marble being transformed and set into motion -- it was everything Julia thought she knew about the world.
She felt the fall building momentum even before the little marble man reached the edge of the table. Gripping the seat, Julia silently willed the marble man to turn. But its course had been assigned to it as inevitably as any of the wind-up toys Julia and her sister had sent marching off of ledges or skidding into walls. It didn't hesitate when it reached the edge of the table, but stepped out into open air, glass-thread arms and legs still working, even as it toppled end over end. Alice reached for it, but too late. It shattered into shards of glass, Alice's hand hovering futilely in the air above it.
Beside Julia, Quentin released a shaky breath. All around the classroom, students were shifting nervously, though nobody spoke. Quentin glanced at Julia, and she met his eyes despite himself. She recognized his expression from years of prep school. Hell, she was probably wearing it herself. Alice had just identified herself as the top of the class, the furthest outlier on the bell curve. She was the one they'd have to beat if they didn't want to be part of the bell. The cool, competitive part of Julia had her re-examining Alice, taking in the way she held her limbs close to her body, the sullenness of her expression. Challenge accepted, she thought. Bring it on, bitch.
For the first time since she'd descended into the sub-basement of the library and stepped out into Brakebills, Julia felt like she were on solid ground.
* * *
Magic unfolded slowly for Julia. Every night, she finished her assigned reading, then moved onto the optional reading. Page by page, the blank composition book she'd carried to that first class filled up with Julia's loopy handwriting, neatly listing out the theory and practice of magic. Every night, she poured over the notes she'd taken earlier in the day, highlighting key words and squeezing questions and ideas into the margins. By the end of the first week, she'd learned to levitate her marble, to turn it from glass to iron and back again, to melt it into a tiny pool of molten glass, raise a profile on its surface, and cool it so she could wear it as a cameo around her neck. (Marble jewelry became the rage for the first-year women at Brakebills after Julia managed that trick.) Moreover, Julia learned to identify the gut-deep, tingling certainty which meant a spell would work. In magic, she'd found the synthesis of all her previous studies.
When Van der Weghe offered Julia, Quentin, Penny, and Alice the chance to begin the second year of study early, Julia finally felt vindicated for her hard work.
"You would have to do some extra work on your own in order to pass your First Year exams in December and then catch up to the Second Years," Professor Van der Weghe warned, "but I think you're up to it. Am I right?"
"Yes, Professor," Julia said, answering for all of them. "Thank you."
From her peripheral vision, she could see Quentin and Alice giving each other dubious looks. On her other side, Penny was asking whether or not other students would be moved down to make room for them. Julia wanted to shake him. Didn't he realize that this was their chance? They'd done it! They'd proved themselves. Julia felt like she was flying.
After that, the year kicked into hyperdrive. The grungy, misshapen room where the four of them did their studying became her world. She drank coffee until her blood sang with it, practiced spell gestures until her hands cramped and spasmed. Even the falling dreams couldn't keep up with her. When Julia closed her eyes at night, pages from her textbooks blurred in her vision.
Julia loved it. She loved the thrill of knowing that she was tackling a subject only a handful of people in the world even knew existed. She loved the spell diagrams, and the fussy grammar, and the slightly exhilarating sensation of living off four hours of sleep a night. In a weird way, she even grew to love Quentin and Penny. In fact, the only part of this new world she didn't love was Alice.
No matter how much she studied, no matter how hard she tried, Julia felt like Alice was always a step ahead of her. Alice didn't have to read the more obscure sections of their textbooks three times before she understood it like Julia did-- Alice could skim a section and grasp it at once. To Julia, magic was still a foreign language. She was mapping out the grammar and teaching herself the vocabulary with the same determination she'd ever thrown into her studies, but for all that her spells came out perfectly, Julia was keenly aware that she'd had to translate them in her head first. But Alice spoke magic fluently. Hell, Alice was a fucking polyglot. Shy, sullen Alice could master in a night the same spell that Julia spent three days perfecting, and Julia hated her for it. What did it matter, Julia wondered in her darker moments, whether she was better at the math than Alice, whether her diagrams were neater or her study of the theory more complete? Everything that Julia labored to learn, Alice seemed to pick up easily.
Things came to a head one night in late November. Julia was hunched over an independent study project for Professor March, books and moon charts scattered on the table around her. She was piecing together a spell that would reveal any deceptive or illusory magic within a fixed radius, and give away the caster. Alice had stepped to the counter behind Julia to get more coffee, but stopped at the sight of Julia's spell diagram, leaning over her shoulder to read it.
Alice frowned down at the page Julia had spent the last week diligently compiling. "It won't work," she said flatly.
"Wonderful," Julia snapped, "Thank you for your input, Professor Quinn."
Alice looked hurt. Even Quentin frowned at Julia. Although he'd started the year just as competitive as Julia, he'd quickly grown protective of Alice. Julia kept hoping that one day he'd fall in love with her instead, but it hadn't happened yet.
Julia thought that would be the end of it. Alice normally wilted whenever anyone so much as breathed at her the wrong way. But maybe it was the late hour. Maybe it was that the four of them had drank a small lake of coffee between them. Maybe Alice was slowly growing more comfortable with their little group of misfits. Or maybe (and Julia thought this was most likely) she hated Julia just as much as Julia hated her.
Whatever the reason, timid Alice of the one-word responses and whispered voice crossed her arms across her chest, and looked Julia dead in the eye. "You have at least three different syntaxes in there," she said. "It's like you picked through a handful of spells and picked out the pieces you like. And I haven't even seen anything like these hand gestures!"
Julia felt her cheeks flood with color. The truth was, she had pieced the spell together. But she'd checked and triple-checked the theory behind it, and even though nobody had ever patched such a Frankenstein spell out of such disparate components, there was no reason why it shouldn't work.
“Really?” Julia said, glaring at Alice. “You’re that confident?”
Rolling her eyes, Julia stood, forcing her hands into the first cramped, twisted position the spell demanded, so very different from the straight geometric lines their professors had drilled into them. "Well let’s find out."
She knew from the second she started the spell that it was going to work. She had the bone-deep certainty she always felt about such matters. Her fingertips tingled with energy as she traced the serpentine figures in the air, and her voice intoned the foreign syllables flawlessly. Julia sealed the incantation with a quick snap of her fingers, and the room flooded with green light.
The room rippled around them, like a reflection in the surface of a pool that had been interrupted by a thrown stone. The dingy walls, the scuffed table, and the coffee pot all wavered once, then disappeared. Even the people were growing paler. Alice was practically a ghost, flickering in and out of place before Julia, as though she didn't have the energy to sustain herself. Quentin and Penny weren't doing much better. In fact, the only solid thing in the room at all was Julia. Her shadow stretched tall and dark across the room, suddenly more substantial than the dusty floorboards it rested on.
"What did you do?" Penny asked, staring at his transparent hand with horror.
Alice was already chanting under her breath, a banishment spell. Julia shook her head, then joined in. The green light receeded beneath the power of their joined voices, and Julia sagged against the table with relief, trembling from the surge of magic.
Quentin was staring at her in horror. "Julia, your eyes!"
In slow motion, Julia dug a compact from her purse. When she flipped it open to check her reflection, she gasped. Her eyes had gone completely black, the whites and irises completely swallowed up. Julia pushed away from the table, feeling sick.
"I have to go," she said.
* * *
The next morning, her eyes had still not returned to normal. Julia skipped her morning classes -- she could imagine the reaction her professors would have to her new appearance, and it wouldn't be pretty. She avoided the grungy study room. Instead she hid her eyes beneath a pair of dark glasses because the sight of them reflected in her mirror or window made her sick to her stomach. She gathered her research on the Franken-spell on the bed around her, and methodically went through it, leaning back against the headboard. There had to be a way to reverse it.
Someone knocked on her door late in the afternoon. Julia double-checked that her glasses were in place, then answered it. She was expecting to see one of her professors. Skipping class was forbidden at Brakebills, and after last night's stunt, she wasn't sure if even Quentin would bother covering for her. But it wasn't a professor. It was Alice.
She stepped into the room, and shut the door behind her, studying Julia like she were a problem in one of their textbooks. "Let me see," she said.
Julia only hesitated a second before pulling off her dark glasses.
Alice peered into her eyes and nodded, a small frown on her face. She shifted uncomfortably. "I've been studying that spell you used --"
"Oh my God!" Julia exploded. "Did you really come here just to say I told you so? You were right. I was wrong. Does that make you happy?"
"No!" Alice protested.
Julia rolled her eyes, then realized that, with the irises gone, Alice probably hadn't seen it. "I made a mistake," she said. "Will you help me fix it, or not?"
"You don't understand," Alice said. "I spent all day long tracking down your sources."
"Yeah," Julia said. "We went over this yesterday. My research was crap. I get it. Can you just give it a rest?"
"No!" Alice said. "You were right! It worked! It shouldn't have, but it worked!"
"But it clearly didn't!" Julia gestured furiously at her own eyes. "All that happened was this."
Alice shook her head. "That wasn't the only thing that happened. There was an illusion spell in that room. A powerful one. And you revealed it."
She let the words sank into silence. Julia knew they were both thinking of the way the room had rippled around them. A chill hit Julia. She felt like she were going to be sick.
"Just go away," she croaked.
Alice gave her a long, hard look. "You know I'm right," she said, and swept out of the room.
Julia glared in the mirror. Her black eyes looked back at her. A sound halfway between a sigh and a sob forced its way out of her throat, and she rested her forehead against the cool glass, wanting to cry. Don't, she told herself fiercely. You have to pull yourself together. You have to fix this. You know the drill. Examine the facts.
Bracing herself, Julia looked up, meeting her own obsidian reflection in the mirror. Her eyes were the same dark pools they'd been a second ago. Gripping the edge of her dresser, Julia forced herself not to look away. She stared grimly into her own eyes, and as she did so, the rest of her reflection rippled, then wavered, like the study room had the night before. Her chestnut hair suddenly darkened, staining to a dull, inky black, split ends forming and grease coating it, as if she hadn't showered in a week. Her Brakebills uniform flickered, then disappeared, replaced by a form-fitting black shirt that seemed to be composed entirely of torn lace and zippers. The freckles scattered over her nose disappeared as her skin grew pallid, until she was nearly as pale as Alice. The roundness melted from her face and the swell of her hips and bust receded, until Julia felt practically emaciated, cheekbones and clavicle looking nearly skeletal beneath her skin. She knew that if she lifted her shirt, she'd see her ribs underneath.
A wave of vertigo hit her, and she felt herself falling backwards. Dimly, she wondered if this was what fainting felt like. Then the question flickered out, and all that was left was the fall.
Julia's heart pounded, and she woke with a gasp, staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. She lay on a bare mattress, the comforter tangled around her feet. A man snored beside her, his hairy back rising and falling with every breath. Julia couldn't remember his name. But he had a star tattoo on each wrist, and climbing up his arms. She'd gone nuclear, then. The man didn't stir when Julia slipped out of bed and started poking around the floor for her clothes.
She didn't bother with a shower, just splashed cold water on her face. Her eye make up was smeared to hell, raccoon shadows ringing her eyes, but half the time, that was the look Julia was going for these days.
A Ford Taurus was parked on the street a few blocks up from the safe house. Julia smashed the window with a rock, brushed glass from the seat, and hot-wired it with the ease grown of long practice. She had an address written on the back of her hand. Hairy Back had given it to her, along with a spell that could levitate almost anything that wasn't made of copper and weighed less than five pounds. Julia eased the car onto the street.
* * *
At a safe house outside Toronto, Julia stood at a Formica table, flipping through the twenty-page Spellbinder with an increasing sense of futility. Everything in here was basic, basic stuff. She'd learned it all in the first three rows of stars tattooed on her back. From the hallway outside, she heard footsteps approaching, and the muffled voice of Michael, the leader, launching into the same visitors spiel he'd given Julia.
The door opened, and Michael stepped in, escorting a small, sullen-looking woman, about Julia's age. Her dark hair was nearly as dark as Julia's, but it lay smooth and shiny, where Julia's was a tangled mess. She didn't have any visible tattoos, but that wasn't unusual. Lots of people in the safe house circuit had to hide their tattoos.
"Level?" the woman asked curtly.
Julia blinked, thrown. That was usually her line. "Seventy-five," she said, lifting her chin. "You?"
The other woman's eyes widened, which was what usually happened when Julia announced her level. But instead of shrinking back in deferment, the woman drew herself to her full height (which was still a good two inches shorter than Julia), and said, "Eighty-one."
For a second, they just stared at each other. Then they spoke at once. "Prove it."
It took nearly ten hours for both of them to run through every spell they knew. From the moment the woman had announced her level, Julia had buzzed with the possibility of seeing at least six new spells. But though the other woman started with the standard flash, she went on to demonstrate a handful that Julia had never seen -- a thermodynamics spell, an animation charm, and something Julia couldn't even begin to recognize. Sure, there were several of the old safe house standards in the other woman's repertoire, but mixed in amongst them were spells that had never seen the safe house circuit at all. Julia could practically feel herself salivating.
"What's your name?" she asked, when the other woman finished.
The woman lowered her eyes, then glanced up at Julia. She seemed shaken, uncertain, and Julia wondered how much of the woman's curt matter came down to simple shyness.
"Alice," she said.
"I'm Julia." She hesitated a moment, trying to figure out how to proceed. If Alice were a man, it would be easy. Nuclear explosion. Julia didn't suppose she was lucky enough to have stumbled across a high-ranking lesbian.
But Alice took the decision out of her hands. "I didn't recognize some of yours," she said. "We should meet up tomorrow. Do a trade."
Julia nodded so quickly she could practically feel her brain rattling in her skull. "Yeah," she said. "That sounds . . . Yeah."
* * *
The next day they met for lunch, bringing their respective spell books with them. Alice's was neatly handwritten in a small, leather notebook. Julia kept hers on an encrypted file on her phone, backed up on a jump drive she kept hidden in her combat boots. They bargained over burgers and milkshakes. Four of Julia's spells for four of Alice's. It wasn't enough -- Alice had a good dozen spells that Julia had never seen. But for once in her life, Julia didn't have much to offer.
The sticking point came when it was time for them to make the exchange. Julia could photograph Alice's pages easily enough with the camera on her phone, but when Julia asked for Alice's email, it turned out she didn't have one.
"Not even a Hotmail?" Julia asked, feeling her eyebrows lift. "Or a Yahoo?" She thought everyone had a shitty email address tucked away somewhere. It was an adolescent rite of passage.
Alice ducked her head, hiding her face behind her curtain of smooth, dark hair. It confirmed Julia's theory that Alice was shy. "I don't like technology," she mumbled.
Julia frowned. "I could text it," she offered. The dubious note in her voice was confirmed when Alice pulled her phone from her pocket. It was one of the simple, free versions that seemed geared towards people their grandparents' age, with extra large keys and a tiny, black and white screen.
"I can copy it down by hand, if you can wait an hour or so," Alice said.
"The phone stays with me," Julia said firmly.
Alice nodded. "You can come back to my place," she offered.
Alice's place turned out to be an old school bus converted into a motor home. All of the seats had been removed, and the interior walls had been paneled with pale wood. With light streaming through the rows of windows, it was surprisingly open and bright. Alice sat at her tiny desk and copied Julia's four spells into her notebook, while Julia sat on the futon and practiced the fingering to the thermogenesis spell Alice had demonstrated yesterday. When she glanced up, Alice was looking at her.
"What?" Julia asked.
Alice shook her head. "You're doing it wrong."
Normally, Julia would have bristled, but she was so hungry for any scrap of knowledge she could glean about magic that she only shrugged. "Show me," she said.
In response, Alice lifted her own hands, tracing the sigils into the air with exaggerated slowness, so Julia could see the straight lines of her first two fingers, the second two curled neatly out of the way. Julia tried to copy her, but apparently did something wrong, because Alice muffled a giggle behind her hand. To her surprise, Julia felt herself grinning in return. It felt easy, practicing magic with Alice, in a way that nothing had been easy since high school, before Julia knew about Brakebills, or magic, or any of the things that had turned her life to shit.
By the time Alice finished copying down the spells, it was nearly dinnertime. Julia suggested pizza, and held her breath until Alice agreed. They ate sitting cross-legged on Alice's futon, the pizza box balanced between them. Julia tried to remember how to make small talk, and filled the silence with talk about the safehouse circuit, and some of the assholes she'd met there. Alice just looked grateful that Julia was making the effort to keep up the conversation, nibbling on her pizza and occasionally chiming in with her own anecdote.
"Where are you headed next?" she asked quietly, when Julia fell silent.
Julia shrugged. "Louisiana, maybe. I heard about a safehouse in New Orleans."
"I know the one," Alice said. "I haven't been there yet."
There was a moment of silence. Julia felt shy, in a way she never did, when she offered, "We could go together. If you want."
Alice blinked her large, gray eyes. After a long moment, she nodded. "All right," she said. "I think I'd like that."
For the past year, Julia had been traveling up and down the east coast, moving from safe house to safe house as she wheedled out addresses from the other visitors she met. But now, she wasn't alone. After a month, Julia moved her laptop and the single duffel bag of clothes she carried on the road with her into Alice's school bus. They argued over magical theory as they drove from safe house to safe house, and dropped by tattoo shops afterwards to get their newest stars inked on together. By the time two months had passed, they'd managed to create three new spells from the building blocks they had between them. For the first time, Julia had an ally in her quest for magic. Alice made everything bearable. Slowly, Julia felt the nuclear winter inside of her beginning to thaw.
When Christmas came, they locked up the school bus with a warding charm and travelled by mirror back to Brooklyn, to Julia's parents' house. From their pinched expressions, Julia knew they thought she and Alice were dating. It didn't help that Alice hovered close to Julia's side, and ducked her head when anyone else spoke to her. But in her parents' eyes, any relationship was a step up from what Julia had spent the last year doing, so Julia didn't bother to correct their misconceptions.
Alice took in Julia's childhood home with the same quiet curiosity she brought to everything. She looked at each of the framed photos of Julia on the wall. In all of them, she was smiling, healthy. Her parents had stopped taking pictures sometime after Julia dyed her hair for the first time. For a long time, Alice studied the photo of Julia sitting on the piano, a headshot she'd had to get taken for the Manhattan Conservatory Extension School Youth Orchestra. Julia turned away before she could see the pity on Alice's face.
That night, they shared the bed in Julia's old room. Her parents watched them disappear behind the bedroom door with obvious disapproval. But they didn't say anything, and Julia and Alice had both slept in worst places, sometimes alone, sometimes with a man between them. The nuclear option turned out to be a lot more volatile when there were two of them in the bargain. Julia lay on her back practicing finger exercises while Alice watched her.
"Your family isn't what I expected," she said at last.
Julia flicked a flame into existence between her fingers, watched it flicker until the burn grew too hot. "I disappointed them," she said. In a clipped voice, she told Alice about her Brakebills exam, and the double life that followed, trying to keep it calm, impersonal. Like she was relating someone else's history.
"My brother went to Brakebills," Alice said, glaring up at the ceiling. "He . . . " Her voice caught in her throat, and Julia rolled onto her side to look at her.
"Did he die?"
"Worse," Alice choked. "He did a spell that was too much for him. He . . . changed." She shook her head. "The faculty tried to sweep it under the rug. They didn't even call me in for testing when I got old enough."
"That's why you didn't go?" Julia asked, curling her fingers around Alice's frail wrist.
Alice shook her head. "I tracked the school down," she said. "I begged them to let me take the test."
Julia realized she was holding her breath, her hatred for Brakebills warring with sudden, intense jealousy that Alice had succeeded where Julia had failed. Alice had managed to track down the school, to at least make them refuse her in person.
"Did they?" she asked.
Alice nodded, her gray eyes wide in the darkness.
"And you passed." It wasn't a question.
Julia's breath rushed out of her in a huff. "Then why . . . " she started, but couldn't bring herself to finish it. Why are you here? Why is your life just as crappy as mine.
"Because I hated it!" Alice spat. She didn't raise her voice -- Alice rarely did -- but the vehemence in her words shocked Julia. "The whole day I was there, I could feel them looking at me. It was like my brother was standing right behind me, like they were looking at him, not me! Can you imagine five years of that?"
"But you took the test," Julia said.
Shrugging, Alice said, "I wanted to turn them down, not the other way around." Her lips quirked in a wry half-smile. "I was kind of a dumb shit at seventeen."
Julia gave a broken laugh and squeezed her hand, not sure which of them she was comforting. They curled together on the mattress, not touching, but close enough for it. The familiar silence of Julia's old neighborhood stretched between them, nothing like the ever-present murmur of the safe houses or the drone of traffic outside the school bus. Julia was half asleep the next time Alice spoke.
"Do you ever think all this is a dream?" Alice asked.
Julia blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Sometimes this all feels wrong," Alice said. "I feel like this isn't even my life."
Julia scrubbed her eyes with her fist. "I've felt that way since I was seventeen," she said.
* * *
The holiday passed without incident. It was almost pleasant. In hindsight, Julia could see that the universe was just setting her up to lower her guard. She and Alice stepped through the mirror of the local safe house. But instead of stepping through another mirror, in another city, they found themselves standing on a crumbling stone bridge, in a dark, empty in-between space. Far in the distance, they could see another mirror, gleaming brightly. Everything else was dark.
"What happened?" Julia asked, gripping Alice's arm. Her voice echoed strangely in the darkness.
Alice swallowed. "I've heard stories about the mirrors drifting apart." She glanced at the oblong of light in the distance and frowned. "We should get there," she said. "I don't like this place."
Julia agreed wholeheartedly. Although she could see the other mirror's light in the distance, she felt like the darkness had distorted her depth perception. It might have been ten feet away, or ten miles. The bridge was narrow beneath their feet, and Julia wished desperately for a handrail. She wondered how high their bridge was, what was underneath it. In the darkness, there was no way to tell.
Carefully, they picked their way across the stone bridge, Alice in front, her arms held away from her side for balance, and Julia a few steps behind. Beneath the steady fall of their footsteps against the stone, Julia thought she heard a low, rumbling sound from the darkness around them. It sounded like muted thunder, or an animal's roar. She shivered, trying to gauge the distance to the other mirror. It already felt like they'd been walking for an hour.
The quiet scrape of stone on stone was the only warning they got before the bridge beneath her feet crumbled beneath Alice's feet. She screamed, flinging herself back towards Julia, but it was too late. Julia only caught a glimpse of her pale, frightened face before Alice was falling, swallowed by the darkness below.
"Alice!" Julia screamed, peering down into the darkness. The name echoed into the distance, and she cried out again, hearing the raw panic in her voice. "Alice!"
There was no response.
Swearing, Julia began to whisper the Latin for the only levitation charm she knew. She'd managed to keep herself aloft for a few minutes before, but she'd never tried it for something like this. Crossing her hands before her, she took a deep breath, and jumped.
The levitation charm held for about thirty seconds before Julia plummeted. The wind whipped upward through her hair and clothes, and she screamed, hearing it disappear into the darkness just as Alice had. A second later, she landed on a soft, dirt floor, stumbling backwards and landing flat on her ass. The sound of footsteps rushing towards her made her lift her head cautiously. But it was Alice, a globe of light illuminating the area around her head.
"Julia!" Alice said, eyes wide. "Did you fall, too?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Julia said, accepting the hand she offered and pulling herself to her feet. "I came after you."
"You shouldn't have," Alice said quietly. "We're not alone down here."
She held her hand up for silence, and after a second, Julia heard it -- the same roar she'd heard from the bridge, but closer now, loud enough to raise the hairs on Julia's neck.
"What is it?" she whispered, and Alice shook her head.
"I don't know." She glanced sidelong at Julia. "Have you ever used magic as a weapon?"
"Once or twice," Julia said, already running through the hand-gestures for the bastardized fire ball she'd rigged from a conflagration spell and a wind charm. "I've met a few assholes in the safe houses." She looked at Alice. "You?"
"Only theoretically," Alice said.
When Julia was in grade school, collecting troll dolls was all the rage. She'd always liked their colorful hair and little jeweled bellybuttons. It turned out that real trolls weren't nearly as charming. One erupted out of the darkness in a gust of fangs and fetid breath, reaching out towards them with one of its enormous gray arms.
Julia loosed her fireball, and the troll stumbled backwards in a mass of flames. Beside her, Alice was shaping long, jagged knives out of thin air, sending them flying towards it. Roaring in pain, it turned and fled.
Laughing with relief, Julia gripped Alice's hand. "We did it!"
But Alice was biting her lip, staring at something over Julia's shoulder. Turning, Julia saw the same thing she did -- a mess of trolls emerging from the darkness. There had to be at least a dozen of them. Julia clenched her hands into fists, fighting the urge to scream or cry.
"There are too many," she said.
Alice nodded. Glancing from Julia to the trolls, she gave a small nod, as though she'd come to a decision. "On my signal, run," she said.
Julia gaped at her. "Fuck that!"
But Alice was already lost in concentration, her hands shaping the beginning of a long, complicated spell Julia had never seen before. Julia sent another fireball rolling towards the trolls, while Alice worked. When the blue fire blossomed onto the tips of Alice's fingers, Julia grinned, waiting to see whatever magic she'd concocted. She never expected that the fire would rush, not towards the trolls, but back towards Alice.
Julia watched in horror as the fire consumed her, the flames flickering blue through Alice's flesh and leaving behind something that burned even hotter and brighter. Alice's high, pained keen rang in Julia's ears. She thought she was going to hear it until the day she died. Julia sank to her knees as Alice burned, shuddered and vomited on the sandy ground as the creature Alice had become ripped the trolls to shreds.
Afterwards, the Alice-thing looked at Julia with blue, insane eyes. There was a moment where Julia felt the world hovering in balance. This new, transformed Alice could rip through Julia as easily as she'd destroyed the trolls. But Alice only gave her a maniacal grin, and lifted her hands above her head, shooting upwards like a flaming arrow.
Julia stared after her dizzily. She felt like her entire world was crumbling around her, like the earth was falling to pieces beneath her feet. Looking down, she saw that the soil around her combat boots was fissured, silver, milky light glowing through them.
"This isn't real," she whispered. "It can't be real."
A crater was opening before Julia's feet, as bright and round as the moon at perigee. Julia glanced up into the darkness where Alice had disappeared. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and dived.
As Julia plummeted off the face of Fillory, she fell through layer after layer of reality, other lifetimes that she might have had. There were worlds where Julia had never heard of magic. There were worlds where she was born into it, like Alice. She glimpsed herself again as a queen of Fillory, leading an army against an unknown force. She glimpsed herself lost, wandering through the underworld, resigned to spending eternity in what looked like the basement of the YMCA.
When she finally landed, it was at the base of an enormous oak. Its branches stretched high above her head, like a cathedral ceiling, light filtering green and dappled through the leaves. A spirit knelt beside the roots, all blue flame.
Julia regarded it curiously. "This is my tree," she said.
The spirit laughed, hot and unsteady. "I know. I was waiting for you." It turned its blue, burning face towards Julia. They had never met, not in the real world, but Julia knew Alice right away.
Feeling a smile shine across her face, Julia stepped forward and embraced her. The flames only tickled her dryad's skin.
"Don't worry," Julia said, with a certainty deeply rooted in the earth. "I can help."