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it's fascination (and it will eat you alive)

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“You need more compassion Marina.”

She only just avoids rolling her eyes- all the physical kids she used in her spell experiments had signed waivers. If Jefferson had simply come to her instead of crying to the nurse- Fogg’s always turned a blind eye to her projects, more than interested in their results. It’s like senior year all over again.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking about it properly. I was so close to creating real alchemy.” A pity that it needed active magic in a person, that her tests on muggles had done nothing. (And Fogg didn’t give a damn about them.)

“I know,” he says. “You are without a doubt, my strongest student. But if you can’t develop any level of care for your fellow magicians, I will have you expelled.”

The smile drops off her face, “You can’t- I’m- I already graduated, you said I could continue my work here. I’m a grad student in name- I’m not- you can’t.”

“The specialist is coming to visit a student having trouble quieting their mind next week. Don’t give me a reason to send her your way.”

Marina swallows, heartbeat pounding in her ears. Half of her wants to kill him and run, the other half preaches survival- there’s no way the headmaster doesn’t know fancy battle magic regardless of what he preaches. “Okay.”

Fogg smiles, “Good. You should visit the old house. I always find the atmosphere reinvigorating.”

He opens a book, and Marina takes the dismissal, heading to the library.

Her mind is racing, Fogg has never cared about compassion or politics or the state of the world before. He was always the epitome of a knowledge teacher: magic and knowing above all else. Something is different, and she doesn’t know what. Whatever it is, it’s threatening her memories, her magic, her self. She’ll play along of course, rescue kittens out of trees if need be, but the moment she finishes her projects, she’s gone.

Once again she laments that there isn’t a decent magical public library, only that multidimensional bullshit that takes literal years to get a book. She goes up to the attic reminding herself that it’s a cold world out there, there’s plenty of reasons she’s stayed here.

The attic was one of Marina’s favorite parts of being an undergrad. Perhaps Fogg wants her to tap back into that younger, more naive and hopeful exploratory mindset? As an extension of the actual library, all the meta-magic books are shelved there and it’s far quieter than any other housing. The room itself is a large suite- historically, there’s never been more than one knowledge student at a time. As part of the library though, there is a strict no food or drink policy in the attic. So while Marina greatly enjoyed being there, she didn’t mind when the Dean gently kicked her out, offering housing in the faculty area and a matching lab.

Someone’s been redecorating.

There’s a fucking miniature garden and a couch where there was once a chess set. There’s a coffee table completely covered in flowers, their roots curling around the table’s edges before disappearing into the woodwork. It almost looks like Chvosky’s instant garden spell, but that would wilt without constant water, couldn’t be grown into the table. It’s curious, very well crafted, and if she didn’t know better she’d think the Dean had a hand in it.

There’s a soft meow, a kitten coming from the bedroom and headbutting her shin.

“Well aren’t you adorable,” she says, kneeling down to pet the kitten. There’s soft footsteps, and she looks up to see a brunette in a prep school uniform, stockings and all. She forces a smile over a smirk, this is going to be a piece of cake. This is clearly why Fogg sent her here. The sentimental fool.

“Her name’s Cupcake, I’m Julia.”

She stands, “Marina.”

“I know- I mean it’s an honor, Dean Fogg let me look at your thesis weather creation spell. It’s incredible.”

She bites back a snarky comment that of course it’s an honor to meet her, gesturing to the table. “Junior group project?”

Julia blushes prettily, “I’m a first year, I was hoping to get a mentor with it.”

“Holy shit kid,” Marina says, going closer to look at the spellwork more closely. “Meta-composition then? This is at least two shifted spells, I’d guess three.”

“Kim’s oasis, Chvosky’s garden, and Patil’s seeming,” Julia says, sitting on the couch.

Marina sits on the floor, fascinated as she looks at how Julia built the three spells together. Aesthetic spells were typically far too flimsy, too draining, to merge with other spells. The whole table only works because Julia let the flowers die and then cast seeming, a twisted logic that Marina’s certain Julia was one of, if not the, first to do.

“This is ingenious, how did you think to use Kim like this?”

Julia crosses her legs, “I dunno, it felt right.”

Marina can’t help a small laugh, of course the new knowledge prodigy’s practical work is already so far ahead of her theoretical. “It’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. “How do you create a spell? Like a brand new one?”

Ordinarily, Marina would leave at this point. Say it’s something best left to teachers to explain, to someone getting paid. But she’s always been drawn to power, to curiosities, and besides- the Dean clearly wants them to interact. Probably thinks the chit’s niceness will rub off on her or some such nonsense. (Not that she’d be opposed to rubbing off together. She can admit she has a tendency towards pretty leggy brunettes, but only in the most narcissistic of ways.)

“I think of something magic can’t do. Then I try to make it happen.”

Julia’s eyes practically glow, as she leans forward. “Yeah, but how. Like I kinda get how we can manipulate existing spells, but starting from a blank slate…?”

Her lips quirk up, “And you’ve hit a major philosophical debate in my field. Are we creating or finding spells? Do magicians tend to only produce spells in their first languages because they’re more likely to recognize them or because of how delicate creating is?”

“What do you think?”

Marina smirks, “It doesn’t matter.”

“What?”

She shrugs, “Either way, it doesn’t change how I make- or find- new spells.”

“Which is?” Julia presses.

“It’s like writing a brand new recipe. You know how you want it to taste, have a vague idea of what ingredients to include, and it’s just attempt after attempt until you create it properly. Or change your mind.”

Julia laughs softly, “That’s- wow. I don’t think I’d have the patience for that.”

“You’ll be fine. So who is your mentor?”

“I uh, didn’t get one.” Marina raises an eyebrow, and Julia adds on, “Fogg- Dean Fogg- said a mentor in another field would only waste both of our times, and no knowledge mentors came to the open house.”

Marina faintly recalls him saying something similar to her years ago, and she supposes in the grand scale of things it was irrelevant. But still, she finds herself conjuring a card, “Here, this is my cell. You ever need anything- magical help, a drinking buddy, an escape back to the muggle world for a weekend, give me a call.”

Julia smiles bright, “Thanks, I will.”

.

Marina figures that will be the end of her neutral deeds and socializing nicely with others for a while. Fogg obviously knows about it, smiles at her when they pass on the grounds. She supposes an afternoon every three years or so to have continued access to Brakebills and retain her mind and magic, would be acceptable.

But Julia calls to pick her brain about spell creation with gem stones, and Marina can’t help enjoying the conversation. It’s full of flattery and playful debate and her getting to lecture- nice enough that she ends up agreeing to lunch the following day. And then Julia’s showing her all the projects she’s worked on so far this year, an even more ambitious first year than she was herself. There’s a trip to the vet with Cupcake after the cat eats one too many conjured rats, Julia spending the night after they drink too much one Saturday night, and Julia bringing her along to group outings with her classmates.

And just like that, they’re friends or something- as odd as it is intriguing. Marina can’t even blame it on Julia’s magic any more, knows it only second to her own. The specialist came and left ages ago, and the Dean hasn’t so much as hinted at a banishment, their biweekly teas identical to how they were before everything changed.

So when Julia wants to create a doorway to another world that may or may not exist, Marina helps her. They shape and create spells long into nights, Marina practically moves back into the attic. Her and Julia pass out together often, end up cuddling which is rather nice- not that she’d ever admit that. If it wasn’t for the sheer exhaustion, Marina’s sure they’d be fucking by now- well, that and Cupcake cuddling with them too.

They create the doorway in the living room, enchanted rocks to form an archway. It’s dangerous, exciting magic, and strangest of all is the Dean’s unwavering support. Or perhaps it’s easier to notice when it isn’t her project. Any rare materials they request are shipped in, usually within a few days, and there’s no down time between steps.

It takes mere weeks, far quicker than creating a high level spell should take- much less a portal to another world. Their magics blend well together, impossibly well, and Marina tries not to think about old romantic superstitions. They finish one humid summer night- early morning really, the rest of campus asleep.

“I have to get the others, Q will be so excited-”

“Easy tiger, it’s- oh fuck- it’s five in the morning. Sleep first.”

“How can you think about sleeping right now? Our first prototype!”

“I know, but we need accurate, not sleep deprived, notes for our first attempt.” Marina is giddy too if more tired, can’t believe they have a stable foundation. Even if the spell does absolutely nothing, they have a control.

“Yeah it’s- why the fuck is it glowing?”

“If it was a pair I’d say someone on the other side opened the doorway. Obviously that isn’t the case.”

Julia laughs, grinning at her. “You never read the books I gave you, did you?”

They are in fact untouched on her bedside table. “I skimmed them, I’d rather get first-hand experience once we’re there.”

She shakes her head, still smiling. “In the books, sometimes Fillory would call to the Chatwins- it wants us to go through.”

“It can wait a few hours, we need-”

The cat darts between them- Julia yelling, “Cupcake!” -but the cat has already run through the glowing doorway, disappearing with a pop.

Julia twists her wrist saying, “I have to get her,” and follows her through the doorway.

Marina looks at the table, a note between two hydrangeas stating, went to fillory, be back soon – julia. She adds a +Marina with a sigh, is about to do something monumentally stupid. She knew making friends would come back to bite her in the ass.

She steps through, the most beautiful sight greeting her. They’re atop a hill, view stretching out over forests and a distant castle, the sunrise lining Julia in gold. She inhales deeply, the scent of flowers and foliage fresher than she’s ever smelt. Her worries drip away, and this world feels more magical, a fairy tale brought to life.

“We made it!” Julia exclaims, hugging her. Their faces tilt the same way, and they’re kissing, thrilling and surprising and long overdue. Marina gets lost in her, doesn’t even care about exploring the new world right now. Julia feels so very perfect beneath her hands, like they were always meant to be here.

They don’t feel the Beast’s magic, quick and merciful deaths granted. He takes a step over their bodies, and one more into Earth.