He doesn’t even realize he forgot them until he sees them again.
They’re in a bodega, in Manhattan of all places, when James spots them over the aisle divider. Julia’s wearing a swath of white silk and ivory buttons, and Q is in a deerskin jacket with his hair cropped above his jaw.
It hasn’t been that short in ages. Since middle school maybe.
The memories hit him like a sucker punch, these people he built an entire life around that were stolen from him. He gets a flash of flinty blue eyes and red lips curved into a cruel smile first, quick motions of hands, and then a flood of memories. A lifetime of memories.
Acne and prom and beer bottles rattle through his brain, and he nearly drops the Pringle can he’s holding. He’d forgotten them. Julia was his soul mate, his other half, and he’d left her.
She’d left him? It all mashes together and he knows he’s gaping at them from across the shop.
Quentin looks smaller, turned inward and pinch-faced. James watches Julia soothe a hand down his back and whisper something to Q that makes him force a creaky smile on his lips. Quentin nods and Julia shakes a bag of candy at him.
Why are they together? Without him? Why does Julia look so strange?
She’s radiant, smiling benevolently beside the Little Debbie cakes. Her hair is effortlessly coiled over her shoulders, gossamer like a movie stars’, and her fingers almost seem too long where they’re steepled around M&M's.
The longer he looks, the less he recognizes the girl he loved. This woman has a volatile grace to her, like the smell of rain on hot pavement, and an unsettling glimmer in her eyes.
Is it really her? Of course it is. Quentin’s there beside her.
She glides through the aisles without a sound, tilting her head towards the dollar votive candles. A bland smile spreads across her face—when did her skin become so smooth?—and she reaches a finger out towards one with the Virgin Mary on it.
Before she can make contact, Quentin gently grasps her hand and pulls it towards his chest.
James has followed them around the corner without meaning too and when he sees them touch a nasty, sick twist turns his stomach.
Quentin holds Julia’s hand between his, presses it to the hollow of his throat with a heartfelt look on his sad and lined face. James flinches when he speaks.
“Jules,” Quentin says in a rough, unused voice and Julia turns her glimmer towards him. “Do you think eating a burrito from here would kill the monster?”
A sharp bark of laughter jerks out of her and she turns completely towards him.
“Q,” she says in a bright tone and a more sincere smile cracks across her face. “You’re terrible.”
“I’m serious,” he says and he raises his eyebrows, smiles. His facial expressions seem slow, he’s a marionette doll that needs its gears oiled. “What about a chimichanga?”
She laughs again, curls into him, their hands pressed between them and James does drop his chips then.
Julia’s head snaps up, almost too fast, and Q’s gaze trails behind hers. Recognition is immediate and James finds himself stuttering like a fool.
“J-Jules. Q,” the nicknames feel strange in his mouth. “Julia.”
“James,” she says and a dozen lifetimes flicker across her face. “James.”
“Oh god,” Quentin murmurs and he leans into Julia more. “I don’t—“
“What are you doing here? Where have you been? I looked for you,” James says, anger broiling and cooling in his chest in a flash. Confusion filters through him. “Or-or I would have. I should have. Why didn’t I?”
“James,” she says again, and he watches her come towards him in slow motion. Time feels wrong, like a dream, and he half-expects to wake up. She’s within a foot of him, chin tilted up to meet his eyes steadily. Her hair waves delicately in the air conditioning and she reaches out a slender hand to press it against his sternum. “I missed you.”
Quentin slinks around the corner then, drawing James’ attention. He’s muted, nervous and hunched over his crossed arms.
“Are you guys together? You guys hooked up without me,” James says and Julia shakes her head.
“No,” the word punches out of Quentin. “I wouldn’t have—I didn’t. I have someone...else.”
“That’s not why we left,” Julia echoes. “Why we left you.”
“Jules—,” Quentin starts but she pushes on.
“James,” she says again and makes eye contact with him. Her eyes are honey-wine, the same color he remembers, and her lips are curved softly around words that sting. “There was nothing you could have done. We are built...differently than you. You couldn’t have changed enough to come with us.”
“I’m sorry,” Quentin says and James’ face twists in anger.
“Sorry for what? I could have changed,” James insists.
“No,” Quentin says. “You-you couldn’t have. James. You’re happy now—wherever you are. A stock broker or a finance manager. Whatever it is—you’re happy.”
“What does that mean?”
“You can’t go where we went and be happy,” Julia says with a wry, foreign smile. “At least not entirely happy.”
“We went somewhere you have to be in pain to reach,” Quentin says and he’s gesturing with his hands, fumbling over imaginary words. “What we have—it comes from pain. From desperation and hunger.”
“Sacrifice,” Julia says.
“That’s fucking crazy,” James snaps.
“It was,” Quentin agrees. “You would have been wrecked. All the blood and the—the fighting. Sacrificing for the cause, Jay. You didn’t owe that though.”
“You didn’t love it enough to owe it,” Julia says coolly.
“A sacrifice? Love what enough?”
“Christ, it sounds like we joined a cult,” Quentin huffs and Julia’s eyes cut to him.
“Fillory,” she says, like she’s lighting a match. James scoffs. “We found it.”
“Yeah, okay,” he says. “Fuck you guys. Stay in your stupid, secret club. And shove those dumb books up your collective asses while you’re at it.”
“James—,” Quentin starts and Julia reaches back to grab his arm.
“Show him,” she says and Quentin’s eyes widen minutely.
“Show me what?” He asks, annoyed with himself for still standing there.
Quentin rolls his hand, snaps, and a flame erupts from his open palm.
“Great,” James says and crosses his arms, rocks on the heel of his dress shoe. “You learned a new trick.”
“No,” Quentin snaps, frustrated. “Watch.”
He does a more complicated motion, his fingers churn in a blur and the flame coils itself into a tiny dragon. Quentin moves his hands again in a coordinated sweeping motion and the dragon lifts off, curls around itself to spell out ‘ASSHOLE’ in flowing and bright cursive.
“What the hell?”
“We found it,” Julia urges and Quentin waves his hands and the dragon fades away. “We did.”
“You’re shitting me,” James chokes and Julia’s head tilts like a bird.
“No,” Quentin answers for her. “We did find it. But there’s a lot to it.”
“Let us buy you lunch,” she says and she looks a little less muted. “Let us tell you about it.”
“It’s eleven at night,” he says and she blinks owlishly. Quentin’s head swivels to look out the window and he snorts.
“A drink then,” she amends. “Taco Bell. A fucking hot dog.”
He meets her eyes first, then Quentin’s. They’re both solemn. Quentin’s wrapped himself up in his jacket and Julia’s hands float against her thighs like a dancer.
He says yes.
Of course he says yes.
He follows them around the corner. They walk beside him, noticeably and obviously keeping pace with him. Julia changes from nascent-arms-swinging-nearly skipping to ethereal-ballerina-posture-stalking moment to moment and James is jarred by the wrongness of it.
Julia has always been clumsy, not this quietly contained whirlwind of grace. She tripped over her boots and dropped her cups and pulled her hair when she took her dangly earrings out.
This Julia doesn’t make mistakes. James is sure.
Julia also didn’t used to be so sure. She doubted herself. Sure, under a facade of bravado. But the doubt had been there. She leads the way now, certain they would follow.
Quentin was nearly the same. Different in strange ways. Like his sadness has morphed to encase him with a hard shell instead of just clinging to his edges. He had lost the soft weariness youth had given him and it had been replaced with a stiffness James was disgruntled by.
The haircut was just as wrong as Julia’s mannerisms. Q had always hidden behind his curtain of greasy hair. It was a fact as much as that there was a bottle of Prozac in his bedside table.
He ghosted down the sidewalk now, silent and pale. James wondered when his friend had stopped bending and had broken. He bumps Quentin with his shoulder and offers him a smile. Quentin doesn’t flinch but he visibly stills his fretting hands.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” James says and Julia turns to flash a glance at him.
“You were cursed,” Quentin says simply and maybe it is that simple. “To forget us.”
“Cursed,” James says, hands in his pockets and chin turned up. He laughs. “Fillory is real and I got cursed.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Julia quips over her shoulder.
He laughs, more out of the expectation that he should than out of humor. Beside him, Quentin’s smile is a flash in the pan.
Eventually, too quickly for it to make sense, they arrive at the base of a Manhattan apartment complex. The lobby is dusty but bright; crammed with dozens of lamps of all colors. The man behind the lobby counter winks at James as he comes in but his eyes seem to reflect the light too strongly. Inside the elevator, each button has strange, cragged writing on the buttons.
Runes, his mind supplies.
He gazes at the side of Quentin’s face. Quentin notices his attention quickly, darting a glance towards him and an awkward smile.
They arrive on the penthouse floor and Quentin unlocks an auspicious door to let them into the apartment.
Julia and Quentin are obviously comfortable here, hanging their jackets on hooks in unison and Julia sets to unlacing her knee high boots. James stays quiet and watches them for awhile and the strangeness of the situation sets in.
Two people he knew better than himself, two people that were tattooed on his formative years, orbiting each other like satellites while he stands apart.
Julia weaves her hair into a braid and Quentin washes his hands slowly, soaping them fastidiously. He rinses them just as carefully and that drives James mad.
He clears his throat and Julia oscillates to him, her full attention resting on him like an anvil.
“Do you have questions? Or should I begin?”
“Did you—,” he starts and falters. She waits, watching him with an uncomfortable quiet. “Did you ever want to come back for me?”
“At first,” she says. “Then less and less. Then I didn’t think of you at all.”
“She doesn’t mean it like that,” Quentin says and he sits heavily on the stylish, minimalist couch. “She means—we couldn’t. We hit the ground and didn’t stop running. We’re still running.”
“Fine. Explain,” he demands, coarse with hurt, and Julia lists over to the couch. She folds her legs under herself tailor-style, and that terrible stillness settles over her again.
He sits begrudgingly across from them in a gold chair and she begins to tell them.
He’s stone-faced through the start. Quentin bailed on them both then she bailed on him. He remembers the mysterious obsession she’d had, the scratches on her forearms, the late nights that seeped into early mornings.
He softens when she begins the tale of Our Lady Underground and the Beast. Seeing the tightness around her eyes hurts his heart. Quentin begins to freeze more and more as the story progresses but he cuts in when their tales intersect.
When Julia reveals Reynard and his foulness, James coughs back tears. Quentin’s stone-still, head bowed with Julia’s hands folded in his between them. There is no pause between the murder of Martin and that of Umber and Ember.
The loss of magic, of Penny, the Quest, all of it. The sun is cresting when Julia speaks of losing her godhood and Quentin of losing Eliot and then himself.
Quentin seems troubled when he speaks of peeling off the facade of Brian and staring into the face of Eliot and seeing nothing look back.
Julia is the comforter then, leaning a head on his shoulder.
James feels more distant than ever from them, two seasoned warriors in a battle he didn’t know existed. The story concludes with a whisper of collecting gods for a terrible purpose and an impossible hunt for Julia’s power.
Julia stands then, tilts her head side to side to stretch her neck and Quentin fills the space she leaves with a large, furry pillow. She crosses over to James and crouches before him, balancing effortlessly.
“Do you see why we couldn’t bring you?”
Miserably, he answers.
“I’m sorry. I did miss you,” she says and lays a hand on his knee. “Very much.”
“I miss you,” he says and reaches for her.
A man appears behind her, blinking into existence along with the scent of cloves. James flinches at the impossibility of it all.
“Jules? What’s going on?”
“It’s fine,” she says and rises, pulling out of James’ grasp. “He’s a friend, Penny.”
“He’s…. James. Right?”
The man, Penny, puts a familiar hand on Julia’s arm and rubs it up and down. James feels a pang of jealousy.
“Yeah,” Quentin answers and he’s standing too. “Did you know him in the other line?”
“Julia 23 talked about him,” Penny says and he pulls his hand back, eyes tracking James. “You guys been up all night?”
“I think so,” Julia says and her smile crinkles her eyes. “Lost track.”
James wants to leave, suddenly and forcefully. He stands, buttons his suit jacket and crosses his arms.
“I gotta get home,” he says.
There’s a brief lull and then Julia nods.
“Of course,” she says and holds up a finger. “Give me a second.”
Julia wisps down the hallway and Quentin approaches him.
“I’m sorry we left,” Quentin says. “I’m sorry I left first.”
“It’s okay,” James says because what else can he say.
“It’s not—but thanks for saying it is,” Quentin rocks on his heels a little. “But you have to trust that it was for the best. Leaving you in the...muggle world.”
“I think you could have let me decide,” James says, unable to hold his tongue.
“Maybe. Maybe you would have been okay. But I don’t think so,” Quentin looks absolutely assured in his belief and James wilts against his confidence. “We are constantly in danger. I haven’t slept a full night in months. Everyone I love has been raked over the-the coals. Or killed.”
“I could have been there for you both,” James insists, sullen.
“You couldn’t,” Quentin rebukes, solid. “You can’t. But that’s okay.”
“That’s not fair,” James argues.
“No, it’s not,” Quentin says. Quentin pats him on the shoulder, squeezes his shoulder and then makes his way to the kitchen.
James shifts uncomfortably and then turns towards the exit. He wants to be alone, collect his memories and his thoughts.
He makes his way to the door as he waits, not sure what to do with the blank look on Quentin’s face. He’s about to say something—absolve his own guilt, yell, leave—when Julia reappears with a short blonde woman and a strip of paper in her hand. The blond smiles at him but her eyes are sad.
“This is Alice,” Julia says. “She’s going to help us.”
He knows Alice from the story, she’s entrenched in their history and he reaches out to shake her hand. She avoids his hand and his eyes and begins a complicated motion with her fingers. The scrap of paper Julia had been holding begins to burn and as he’s turning to question her his vision whites out.
“It’s for the best,” a voice chides quietly.
“I don’t want to hear it,” another responds.
James awakens in his bed, chasing a dream. Blonde hair and mead-colored eyes and hands flying in geometric motions.
He scrubs a hand over his face and yawns, sits up and sticks his feet in his slippers. He can smell his coffee pot auto brewing.
Time to start the day.