Julie is just getting ready to leave for the day when she hears the music; a low, mournful guitar riff coming from the music room. She has no reason to go there, except that whoever is playing is playing so well, and Julie has no willpower to resist beautiful music. She wants to know who it is, and she wants to hear more. The notes are haunting, pulling her towards them even though she knows she has places to be and things to be doing.
It's somehow not a surprise when she peers into the doorway and sees Nick, seated on a stool with his guitar, eyes closed and brow furrowed as he continues to pluck out a melody Julie is sure he must have written himself.
She hesitates, because Nick has been strange the past few weeks, watching her in a way Julie finds unnerving, if not outright creepy. But…the music…
"Hey, Nick," she says, softly, and a small part of her is hoping he won't hear her, but of course he does.
His eyes open, but he doesn't stop playing as he smiles at her. "Hey, partner," he says. The reminder of their dance routine makes her chest feel tight and uncomfortable. "I was hoping you might stop by here after class. I'm working on something and thought maybe you could help."
Julie blinks. "Me?" she asks. Nick has never requested her help with music before – their tastes in both listening and writing run in very different directions, even if he's seemed to enjoy the songs she plays with her band.
"Yeah," he says, and pauses his strumming to dig into his bag. He holds a few pages out to her, filled with handwritten music in a neat handwriting very different from his usual sloppy chicken scratch. "I wrote lyrics into this one, and a piano accompaniment, but we both know I'm pretty useless at piano and singing."
Then why did you write it? she thinks but doesn't say. If she didn't know better, she'd think this was written specifically for her, but surely Nick wouldn't do that. They've barely spoken since she turned him down for a date, aside from the morning he brought her flowers after the Orpheum performance.
Still, Julie is intrigued. She can hear the song in her head as she reads through, and it tugs at her. She wants to hear it aloud.
"I know it's kinda weird to ask, but I thought maybe you could just run through it once with me?" Nick asks, eyes pleading. "Just so I know it works."
She hesitates, glancing at the clock. The guys will be wondering where she is; she's already going to be late for practice, and Flynn is supposed to be there too so they can do chemistry homework together after. But… "One time?" she checks.
Nick nods, eager. "Just once, I promise! I won't waste your whole afternoon, but it will be a big help."
"Okay," Julie relents, and sets her bag down as she takes a seat behind the piano. She runs her fingers carefully along the keys, checking the music in front of her, playing it through once more in her head before she ever strikes a single note.
"Ready?" Nick asks. He sounds impatient, and she fights not to roll her eyes.
Instead, she loses herself in the music inside her, taking a breath and letting her fingers fly. The song pours out of her, a terribly sad refrain about wandering the world as a shade, unseen and unheard and unknown. Something about it rings strangely to Julie, because what could Nick of all people know about going unnoticed? But the chorus still swells out of her, fingers dancing over the keys, Nick's guitar creating an unearthly harmony. Julie finds herself breathless, gasping out the lyrics through the final repetition of the chorus, inexplicably exhausted as she finally lets her hands rest. She blinks at the pages before her, realizes that she's dizzy. Food, she thinks. And home. Stat.
But Nick has stood from his stool and is wandering over to lean against the piano. He moves strangely, too graceful. Nick is a lot of things, but graceful has never been one of them. Julie tilts her head back, frowning at him. He grins.
It's not a nice grin.
"Oh, Julie Molina," Nick sighs. "It took me a long time, you know. To figure it out."
"What?" she asks.
"Play," he says, and she wants to say, "Excuse me?" and tell him where to shove that demand, but somehow…somehow her fingers are already moving to the keys again, and his song begins echoing around them a second time.
What's going on? she wonders, and there are the first stirrings of fear now, because she can't stop. She tries, wills her hands to settle, but she has no control. She plays on.
"You give so much life when you play," Nick tells her. "Did you know that? You give life to your music, to the audience…" He smirks. "To your bandmates."
Oh, God, Julie thinks, her hands dancing faster and faster, her eyes growing heavier and heavier.
"But how much life," Nick asks conversationally, "do you really have to spare?"
"You're not Nick," Julie says, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. Her fingers are beginning to go numb, and still the song comes. This melody will haunt her nightmares, she already knows it.
"No," he says, and snaps his fingers. A small ball of flame appears in the center of his palm, the purple color agonizingly familiar. It's been months since she saw the curse mark lift away from her friends, but she remembers the exact shade of violet, the way it reflected in Luke and Reggie and Alex's awestruck eyes as the marks floated away and vanished.
"Caleb," she whispers.
"Sing for me, Julie," he says, and she obeys, the opening verse forced from her throat through a sob.
Why are you doing this? she thinks, desperately, because her voice is too occupied to ask the question aloud. It seems Caleb understands, though, or maybe he just wants to monologue like a bad movie villain, because he shakes his head, makes a tsk-ing sound.
"It's nothing personal," he says. "In fact, if you want to place blame, place it squarely with those boys not-living in your garage. They're too powerful, too…present." He moves around the piano, takes a seat beside her on the bench. She shudders but can't stop playing to move away from him as his fingers brush her hair to the side, and he leans close to whisper in her ear. "But only when they're with you."
There is a break between the chorus and the final verse, where the piano and guitar are supposed to meet, and she uses that small gap to gasp out, "Please."
"Play," he replies, his eyes flinty when he pulls back.
She does. She plays, and plays, and it feels as though something vital is breaking apart inside her. The weariness is overpowering, but even as she slumps over the keys, her fingers continue to move, to dance, to race, and even when it feels like she has no air to breath, the lyrics trip and tumble across her tongue. She can barely see anymore, just strange shadows and colors in the room around her, an eerie glow that seems to be coming from her very skin, pouring off her in flickering waves. She has no idea how long it's been, how much time they've spent in this room. Minutes? Hours? Time loses all meaning as she loses all sense of self, nothing penetrating the exhausted fog of her mind but the music. The demand to play, to sing.
Her last coherent thought before she topples is, I'm sorry, and she hopes it reaches her friends, hopes they know she would never abandon them willingly.
She feels more than sees or hears the shift in the air, the arrival of a ghost, a familiar ghost, a ghost who is not Caleb Covington, and she wants to shout a warning, but everything is dark, she has no voice left to give.
And then she's gone.
"Julie? Oh my god, Julie, Julie."
She surfaces back to consciousness with a whimper of confusion, squinting her eyes open to see a blurry Reggie kneeling beside her. They're next to a piano, but not in the studio, that's the school piano, why is she still at school…?
"Reg?" she tries to say, but it comes out a croak. She feels like she should be in pain, but she feels oddly numb, no aches to be found, even though she's lying on the ground and she can vaguely remember how terrible she'd felt before passing out, when Caleb…
"Reggie," she gasps, reaching out to grab his arm, heart suddenly pounding. "Reggie, you have to go, he's—"
"He's already gone, Jules," Reggie says, and god, now that her eyes are re-learning how to focus, he looks wrecked. There are tears on his cheeks, swimming in his eyes, and his mouth is trembling as he stares at her. God, the last time he looked this bad was after the Orpheum, when they'd thought they were about to die. Again.
Oh, no. Oh no, oh no, oh no…
"What did he do?" she demands, trying to sit up. "What did he do to you?"
"I'm fine, I'm totally fine," Reggie says, speaking quickly. "One hundred percent intact and curse-free Reggie." Julie eyes him, but he seems to be telling the truth, despite the fresh tears rolling down his cheeks that aren't reassuring her in the slightest.
Because there's no way Caleb left without getting something for his trouble. Not after months of – what, impersonating? Possessing? – Nick. Not after whatever magic he'd used on her, to make her play, to make her keep playing. "Okay, then what—" But she's made it up onto her elbows now, and she can see a blur of motion in the music room beyond them, past the piano she's lying beside. Several figures in uniform crouched around something on the floor, something she can't see, something—
"Julie, wait," Reggie tries, but she shoves at his hand on her shoulder and rolls unsteadily to her feet. She reaches back, intending to use the piano for support, but it must be further away than she realized because her fingers don't meet the reassuring wood of her favorite instrument. Reggie is clambering up beside her, though, and lets her lean against him when her legs feel so weak and insubstantial that she thinks she might fall again.
And then she sees what the people – the paramedics – are crowded around. Oh, she thinks, numb. And again, Oh, no.
The body is so still. The body, with her patchy jeans and her sparkly black shirt and her necklaces, the same necklaces she raises a hand to grip now, her familiar gold medallion pressing into her palm as she squeezes it as hard as she can.
That's her, lying so still on the ground, paramedics swarming her with jerky movements and sharp words she can't hear past the sudden muffling of the world around her.
That's her, lying there…
"I'm dead?" she whispers, and of course she must be, she has to be, because even while she can see her body – oh god, her body – lying six feet away on the ground, she's standing here, separate, leaning against a ghost.
But Reggie says, "I don't think so?" a little breathlessly, and when she turns her incredulous gaze on him, he holds up a hand and hastens to explain. "I mean, okay, maybe part of you is, um. Yeah." He seems completely unable to say the word, swallowing hard around it instead. "But…but you're breathing, your body is still, like…operating, mostly, I think. Or that's what the paramedics were saying, even after, well, you appeared." He stares at her, like he's willing her to understand, but she just shakes her head, confused. "Okay, when me and the guys died, that was it. We floated up out of our bodies, and our bodies were stopped, shut down, no amount of chest compressions or heart shocks were bringing us back. That was it." He waves a hand at the cluster across the room, and Julie can see what he means. Yes, they're frantic, moving her carefully to a stretcher and hooking her up to something that seems to read her vitals, but there are no chest compressions, no defibrillator.
There are no body bags.
"So…" She tries to puzzle it out, but she can't think, torn between fear and relief, agony and reprieve.
"I think I interrupted Caleb before he could finish whatever he was doing." He doesn't say killing you, though Julie's sure they're both thinking it…thinking that actual death must have been meant to be the endgame here. "He was super pissed, and then I started yelling, well maybe more like screaming, and I guess somebody could hear me?" Reggie's eyes are wide and still watery as he conveys all this to her, and he's fidgeting with the sleeves of his leather jacket like he does when he's nervous or scared. "He poofed out of here just before the principal showed up and saw you and called 911."
"Did you realize it was Caleb?" Julie asks, because it's easier to focus on Reggie right now than…anything else. "Before he poofed out, I mean."
"Yeah," Reggie says, swallowing again. His eyes turn haunted, hunted. "I could, sort of, feel him? Like when we were at his club, and it was like…magnetic, almost. I felt that same thing the second I got here, and I just knew." He shudders. "I hate that feeling."
"You should have left, Reggie, that was so stupid," Julie says, suddenly overcome with the need to hug this idiot ghost, to revel in the fact that he's still here. She presses a fist to her mouth, feeling like she's going to shake apart around the tidal wave of emotions swirling around inside her. "He could have hurt you!"
Reggie stares at her, mouth falling open. "But he was hurting you. I wasn't gonna just leave you here!"
And that…seems to be Julie's breaking point, because she finds her eyes suddenly welling, the hopelessness building in her until she can't breathe, and she thinks she might have crashed to her knees if Reggie weren't right there, pulling her to him and crushing her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair and whispering that he was there, and she was okay, she was still with them, and they would totally fix this because she had fixed them, she had saved them with nothing but the power of friendship and obviously that meant anything was possible.
This is not a hug filled with twinkling light and mystical warmth, but in that moment, when everything else seems so bleak and she has no idea what she's going to do, what she can do, it still feels like some kind of magic.
She clings to him, hiding her face in the shoulder of his jacket as behind her, her body is carried away. Reggie holds her close as she slowly comes undone. As she lets herself break.
Julie doesn't know how long they stay there like that. Long enough, at least, for the school to grow quiet around them again. Long enough for the wail of sirens outside to have long-since trailed off. Long enough that she's able to breathe again, shakily. She pulls away, wiping at her eyes and glancing up at Reggie, who doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands now that they're no longer keeping her tethered. Eventually he shoves them into his pockets, shoulders hunched, eyes anxious.
"We should go home?" he says, but it comes out as a question. He looks as scared as she feels.
"What am I going to do?" she asks, wrapping her arms around herself, and closing her eyes. The idea of trying to explain this to anyone else when she doesn't understand it herself is daunting. What will the guys say? Luke…she can't even imagine his face. She doesn't want to imagine it. And then there's Flynn, and Carlos. Her Papi. Oh god, he can't handle this, not so soon after her mom… "I don't know what to do."
"C'mere," Reggie says, and pulls her into another hug. He feels more solid, she realizes. She's been able to touch them for months, but there's always been something missing, making it impossible to forget that they're still ghosts. Now she realizes…it was their scent. She can smell the leather of Reggie's jacket, the foresty smell of whatever cologne or body spray he used, the simple smell of guy she doesn't know how to describe. She's never been able to smell him before, any of them. He's also warmer now.
Or…or she's colder.
"Reg, what if…" She swallows hard, clinging to the back of his jacket as despair fills her again. "What if we can't fix this? What if I actually…"
"Hey, hey," Reggie says, fingers running through her curls in a comforting gesture. "There's a super smart group of people back home who are gonna help figure this out. And until then, we've got you, you know that. The ghost life isn't all bad, either. I mean, sure, we can't eat, and trying to talk to lifers is kinda hard. But some of it's fun! It'll be like…like a vacation!"
In spite of herself, she tries for a small smile, because that's Reggie through and through. "Vacation, huh?"
He nods, pulling away again. Then pauses, shrugs. "Okay maybe not a vacation, but still. Definitely not all bad. You've got us, Jules. And we've got you." He reaches out, wipes a tear from her cheek with his thumb and gives her a crooked half-smile.
She takes a breath, gathering her resolve. "Okay," she says with a small nod. "Let's go face the music." There's a pause, and then she clears her throat. "Um. Am I gonna have to do that poofing thing? Because I don't think I know how."
Now, Reggie grins as he grabs her hand and slots their fingers together. "I got this," he says, waggling his eyebrows, and the world dissolves around her.
"Okay, that feels weird," Julie says when they land in the studio. She shudders, still tingling in places she didn't even know she had. How do they stand it?
"You get used to it," Reggie promises.
"What…Julie?" Luke rises incredulously from where he'd been lounging on the couch. His eyes are wide, mouth hanging open. "How did you…where were…what…"
Alex doesn't bother with words, vanishing immediately from the loft and appearing directly in front of her. He looks scared. "What happened?" he asks, reaching out to touch her arm. Julie wonders how different she feels to them, because his eyes widen and his grip tightens. "What happened?" he asks again, a desperate tone now lacing his voice.
"It's…" But how does she explain? There are no words. She has no idea what Caleb did to her.
Luke is there now, pushing Alex aside to take her by the arms, staring at her with the sort of devastation she never wanted to see cross his features ever again. "Julie?" he whispers.
"I'm okay," she tries to say, even though it's not true, it's so far away from true it might as well be in another galaxy. She says it again anyway because she thinks Luke needs to hear it even more than she needs to feel it. "I'm okay. Reggie stopped him, whatever he was doing, I'm not…I'm not…"
"He," Alex says. "You mean Caleb?"
She nods, and Luke's eyes go flinty. "What did he do?" he growls.
"He was possessing Nick," she tells them, looking down. She still feels so stupid for not realizing it sooner, for not noticing that something was wrong. "I think maybe he has been this whole time. He wanted me to play a song with him, and I didn't think much of it, but as soon as I started playing, I felt weird. It was like he took control of me, somehow. He forced me to keep playing, and I got more and more tired, and then I just…I woke up on the floor, and Reggie was there, and I was…like this." She swallows, but finally lifts her chin, facing Luke directly as she runs her hands along his arm. They're standing the same way they were the first time she held him, but it seems like such an awful parody of that moment now, like this. "I'm…my body is still alive. Comatose, but…alive."
"That's good to hear," Alex says with a deep, relieved sigh. He's taken a spot at her side and is gripping her shoulder. Reggie, on her other side, is rubbing a hand up and down her back.
"Good to hear, but what do we do?" Luke demands. "This is way beyond me. Julie, you're a ghost." Her eyes sting, and she swallows hard. Immediately Luke looks horrified, either at himself or at her tears. "No but hey, we're gonna figure this out, I mean, we've definitely faced worse right?" He tugs her to him, wraps his arms around her and holds her against his chest, and god, he's so warm and so solid and so Luke. And although she's never had a chance to notice it before, she can't help but this of his scent, something that reminds her of summer, as both familiar and comforting.
"I'm scared," she admits. "Guys, I'm so scared." And then all three of them are hugging her. They don't say anything, don't try to offer reassurances or make promises they can't keep, they just hold her, and it's exactly what she needs to steady herself. She loves them so much, and she knows suddenly that no matter what happens she's going to be okay.
She has her band. Her friends. Her ghosts.
"Okay, so game plan," Luke starts to say, but then she peers around his shoulder and spots something she'd missed when she first appeared in the studio.
Flynn, sitting alone on the couch, legs drawn up beside her, flipping through a textbook and checking the clock on her phone.
"She can't see us." Julie’s heart twists at the realization.
"Well, she usually can't see us," Reggie says, then flushes under the glare Luke directs at him. "I just meant—"
"It's okay, Reggie," Julie says, with a pointed look at Luke. "I know what you meant." She hesitates. "I guess…I guess I can't tell her I'm okay. I mean…I don't think playing together is going to make you guys – or, well, me – appear anymore if I'm…" she waves a hand down at herself.
"We can tell her for you?" Alex says quietly. "Before—"
But it's too late, because the studio door opens and Ray is there, looking panicked.
Oh no, Papi, Julie thinks, her heart wrenching again at how bright his eyes are, how twisted his features.
"Flynn, Julie's at the hospital," he says, waving his phone. "Carlos is in the car, did you want—"
Flynn has already scrambled up and is grabbing her bag, her eyes wide. "What happened? She was just staying late for a project, she was supposed to come right back here for practice, what happened?"
"I don't know," Ray says, and then they're out of the studio and Julie stops hearing anything beyond the tones of their fading voices as they run for the car.
"We should go with them," she says, already moving, but Alex takes her wrist gently to stop her.
"Wait," he says. "Maybe you should let them get past the shock of seeing you…like that. And then reassure them that you're, you know, still here. It's going to suck for them either way, but if they've already been called, not much is gonna get through to them right now. You saw your dad; he was in full panic mode. I know that look."
"I agree," Luke says, and Reggie is nodding as well, though his eyes are following the path of the car as it pulls out of the drive, his gaze worried.
"But he…" Julie's eyes are filling again. "The last time he had to go to the hospital was for my mom. He should know…"
"Know what?" Alex asks, keeping his tone gentle as he leads her deeper into the studio, away from the windows. "That you're a ghost? Would that really help, even if he could register it right now?"
She tries to consider the question logically, fighting past her own pain at the thought of leaving him to face this alone. "No," she finally admits. "I guess not. But—"
"We’ll talk to him," Luke tells her, taking her hand. "When he gets back, we’ll find a way to explain everything to him."
Julie hates herself in that moment, hates that she didn’t trust her dad enough to explain everything sooner. That she was so afraid of being put back in therapy that she didn’t trust him enough to tell him the truth about her band. She knows he would have been supportive, once she convinced him it was true, and hell, she even had the means to prove it! Maybe if she had, maybe…
But it’s too late for what-ifs. She knows it. The guys know it. They can only go forward.
"Okay," she finally whispers. "We’ll wait." Every part of her rebels at the idea, but she knows they’re right. "Reggie, can you…" She doesn’t know how to word what she needs, but Reggie’s already nodding, shooting her a salute and a wink, and it’s so Reggie that she feels immediately reassured in spite of everything.
"On it," he says, and spins around, and poofs away without another word necessary between them. She knows he’ll do exactly what she needs, keeping an eye on her dad, and Flynn, making sure they’re as okay as they can be in the circumstances.
"Julie?" Alex says, tilting his head to meet her eyes, and she snaps back into focus, realizing she’s been staring at the spot where Reggie disappeared for a long time.
"Yeah," she says. "Sorry. It’s. It’s a weird day." She rubs at her temple, closing her eyes so she doesn’t have to see Alex’s sympathetic gaze.
"I bet," he murmurs. "Listen, I was thinking I could go see Willie. Even if he doesn’t know what Caleb did, maybe he knows something more about ghosts like you, you know, ghosts of people who are still alive?"
"Worth a shot," she sighs. "Just make sure he won’t get in trouble for talking to you. I’m sure Caleb’s watching him more closely now."
"We’ll be careful," Alex promises, and then he’s gone too, and it’s just her and Luke in the studio, staring at each other with no clue what to possibly say.
"I…" she starts, then stops. Swallows again. Stares down at the floor between them.
Luke takes her hands, careful, like he’s afraid of hurting her. So gentle it makes her ache as she curls her fingers through his. A lifeline. "Maybe…we could just lie down for a while?" he says, uncharacteristically unsure as she meets his gaze.
"Okay," she says. Staring into his eyes means she misses the moment when the studio disappears, replaced by the easy familiarity of her bedroom, only realizes he’s done the ghost poofing thing when her whole body tingles unpleasantly and she shivers. But he’s already leading her over to her bed, and they lie down, curled towards each other in a way they’ve never done but somehow still feels natural.
"You can sleep," Luke tells her. "We do, sometimes."
She wants to, feels the mental and emotional exhaustion eating away at her. "I’m scared to," she admits. "Like I’ll break apart like air and fade away if I’m not awake to stop it from happening. I know that’s not how it works, but…"
He takes her hand again, hesitates before bringing it to his mouth to press a kiss against her knuckles. Her face feels warm. Her heart, a heart that shouldn't even be beating like this, is pounding. "I’m here, Julie. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll keep you safe."
He sounds so sure that he can, and it’s enough to make her relax into her pillow with a tiny nod. "Promise?" she asks, but her eyes are already sliding closed, the day catching up too fast, and maybe there’s something more to it, something about how she’s still tied to a living body that she needs to sleep in a way other ghosts don’t do unless they want to.
"Promise," Luke whispers, and inches closer, close enough that she can feel his warmth. It’s enough.
Julie sighs softly and allows herself to drift, trusting him to keep her tethered here.
"I hate this. It’s not fair."
"I know, Reg. We just gotta figure out how to fix it. She’ll be fine."
"Reggie?" Julie murmurs. She still feels groggy, but the knowledge that Reggie is here wakes her up faster than any morning cup of coffee ever did. She blinks her eyes open to see Luke leaning back against the headboard, arms folded over his chest, and Reggie sitting near the bottom of the bed facing him. They both turn at the sound of her voice.
"Oh no, did I wake you up?" Reggie asks, looking distraught. "I tried to be quiet, I swear—"
She sits up, running a hand through her hair and wincing at the disaster of it. "You’re fine, don’t worry about me," she says. "But is my dad okay? Flynn and Carlos?"
"Flynn went home an hour ago. It’s really late and her parents wouldn’t let her stay at the hospital overnight. Your dad is still there with Carlos, but they’re asleep right now. Carlos refused to leave. There hasn’t been any change. I mean, obviously, I guess, because Caleb, but I was really hoping…" He trails off awkwardly, and she gives him a small smile.
"There’s nothing wrong with hoping," she says. "I keep hoping I’ll somehow miraculously poof back into my body and this’ll be over, too. I’m just really happy I have you guys or I’d be full-on losing it."
Reggie nods, and then hesitates, and then says, "Can I give you another hug? Because it kinda sucked seeing you lying there hooked up to a bunch of machines for hours and I just—"
"Get over here, Reggie," Julie says, and holds her arms open. He practically leaps across the bed, clinging to her with a relieved sigh, and she pats his back gently. Beside her, Luke looks both amused and fond, and his eyes are soft when they meet hers. He leans over and lets his hand fall to the back of Reggie’s neck, fingers sliding easily into the hair at his nape. Reggie shivers, clutches Julie harder. She doesn’t mind at all; Reggie’s had probably almost as rotten a day as she has, and he’s warm against her, grounding her just as much as Luke had. She needs that, desperately. She thinks she’s probably going to need that until this is over.
God, she hopes this is over soon. Caleb can’t win, he just…he can’t. He can’t take her whole life from her so easily.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of displaced air, and she glances over to see Alex standing by her desk. His hands are shoved in his pockets and he gives her an awkward half-smile. "Everything okay?" he asks. "You know…sort of?"
"Everything’s as okay as it was a few hours ago," Julie says. Reggie still hasn’t let go…he must have been more shaken by the hospital then she realized, and Luke seems to realize it too, because he’s moved closer still. "You want in on this?" she asks Alex, tilting her head.
"I never say no to hugs," Alex says.
"Well that’s a lie," Reggie mumbles into her shoulder, but doesn’t complain when Alex makes his way over and crawls onto the bed to press close to his bandmates. Luke’s free arm curls around Alex’s neck, bringing him into a bro hug, and Julie reaches out a hand to grasp his tightly.
"Did you find anything out?" Luke asks, and Alex sighs and shakes his head.
"Willie’s never heard of anything like what Caleb did," Alex says. "And Caleb still hasn’t been back to the club – we can’t figure out why he’d still be possessing Nick if he got what he wanted, but I don’t know where else he would be."
"He didn’t get what he wanted though, not like…not entirely." Julie’s arm tightens around Reggie. "He got interrupted before he could finish."
They all go very quiet at that, the tension so thick it feels like it’s strangling her, until finally Alex says, "Well, um. Willie said he would do some digging, see if any other ghosts know anything. He’ll stop by as soon as he finds something out."
"Thanks, Alex," Julie says. "And tell Willie thanks, too."
He nods, but doesn’t look like he’s at all satisfied with his lack of information, mouth twisted down as he relaxes against Luke’s shoulder and continues gripping her hand.
None of them move for a long time.
Ray comes home the following morning, sporting red eyes accented by deep shadows underneath, looking like he’s aged ten years in a single night. He brings a sleeping Carlos up the stairs and puts him to bed, and then makes his way back down to the kitchen, looking more like a ghost than any of the actual ghosts in the room.
"Papi," Julie whispers, watching as he sits on a stool and buries his face in his hands. "I have to talk to him. I have to."
"We can try," Luke says, but she can see the guys shooting doubtful looks at each other.
"Teach me how to, like, hold a pen," she demands, spinning to Alex. "You have the best control, right? You can teach me."
She’s not giving him a choice, and he seems to realize it. He trades another look with the others and then nods. "Okay, we can try," he says, echoing Luke.
What follows is a lesson in ghosting that Julie never thought she would need. Reggie stays downstairs, keeping her dad company, and Alex and Luke bring her back up to her room to try and show her how to focus her energy, directing it to her hands so she can lift objects and move them.
It’s hard. Harder than she expected, and harder, she thinks, than they expected it to be for her. It takes all her concentration to lift a pen, and holding onto it for any length of time is almost impossible. She’s sweating within a few moments, which is ridiculous. Ghosts shouldn’t have to sweat, and she's angry about it.
She’s also exhausted.
"Maybe it’s so hard because you’re not fully a ghost? Like, still alive and stuff?" Luke says, when she gets frustrated enough that tears are pricking at her eyes again.
Ghosts shouldn’t have to deal with crying either, she thinks bitterly.
"Maybe," she sighs. "I still have to try. It’s my dad."
"If you think you can get a short note to him, just to let him know you’re okay," Alex says, then winces because it’s clear she is not okay. "Well, you know, around…we could take over from there and explain everything?"
She can’t think of a better idea, so she nods, swiping impatiently at her eyes because crying isn't going to get her anywhere, not right now. She lets them lead her back downstairs, Luke hanging onto the pen and notepad.
Back in the kitchen, Reggie gives them a tight smile. His hand is hovering over her dad’s shoulder, an illusion of comfort that she still finds herself appreciating. She knows how much Reggie loves her family, knows the comfort he takes in Ray’s presence, and knows how much he wishes he could offer the same.
Luke quietly places the pen and pad on the counter beside Ray, and it says a lot that her dad doesn’t even notice, doesn't so much as twitch.
Julie takes a deep breath and lifts the pen. She uses it to poke her father in the arm, and he jerks, staring almost blindly. His mouth falls open when he sees the pen floating in mid-air. Julie clicks it open, and carefully places it against the paper.
Dad, I’m here
It’s all she manages to write before the pen falls through her fingers and a headache overtakes her. She falls back against someone – Alex, she thinks, because he’s taller than either of the others – and closes her eyes as she shudders through the sudden intense pain.
"Julie?" Ray whispers. "Mija?"
It’s Reggie who takes her place at the counter and lifts the pen. Julie forces her eyes to focus as he hastily scribbles a note beneath hers.
She’s here. She’s with us. My name is Reggie, I’m one of her bandmates. Luke and Alex are here too. We’re not actually holograms, we’re ghosts. I promise Julie is okay.
Her dad stares for a long time, his face going through a whole series of complicated expressions Julie doesn't know how to decipher before he finally says, "I knew you weren’t holograms. I've been waiting for her to tell me."
Julie feels a guilty lurch in her chest. God, she should have been honest with him from the beginning.
Reggie looks back at her, his eyes wide, and she nods, trusting him to tell her dad what she can’t right now.
She wanted to tell you but she was scared you would think she was crazy. She’s really sorry and she wishes she’d been honest sooner.
"Can you tell him 'I love you' for me?" Julie asks. The headache is starting to dissipate so she takes a step closer, watching as Reggie dutifully transcribes the message, watching as her father runs his fingers over the words, his eyes filling.
"I love you too, mija," he says to the air. "And…God, this feels crazy." He closes his eyes for a moment, takes a breath. Then says, "And Reggie? Thank you. And Luke and Alex. It’s nice to…meet you, I guess?"
We're glad to meet you too! Reggie writes. And you're not crazy, we really are ghosts. Weird, I know, but totally real!
Ray's mouth twitches as he reads along, and Julie blesses Reggie for being Reggie enough to draw out even that small amusement, given the circumstances. "Can you tell me what happened though?" Ray finally asks. "Why my girl is in the hospital and a…a ghost? Will she be okay?"
Reggie’s eyes find hers again. He’s chewing his lip. "I think somebody else should write this down if we’re gonna tell him all of it. I’ll just make a mess of it."
Julie doesn’t think that’s true, but Luke goes to take the pen before Alex intervenes. "Handwriting," he says when Luke pouts, and that get a pause, then a shrug and a, "Fair" from Luke.
The entire story is a lot to tell, and even more to write, but Alex does the job admirably after he introduces himself, filling three pages even while keeping to the basics as much as he can. Ray's eyes follow along with the words, the furrow between his brows getting deeper and deeper as he reads about Caleb tricking them, trying to trap them, and inevitably failing because of Julie's friendship. There are even some details he includes that Julie didn't know.
Julie has to step in towards the end, to recite yesterday's events for Alex to transcribe. It's easier like this, almost clinical. She can distance herself from the knowledge that this happened, is happening to her if it's just a story she's telling.
Still, it helps when Luke takes her hand and laces their fingers together.
"I need to do something," Ray says, when Alex finally lays down the pen with a sigh of relief, shaking out his wrist. "I should find this Caleb, maybe I can—"
"No!" Julie and Reggie yell together, and Reggie practically lunges for the pen to write the word in giant letters, with five exclamation points and three underlines. Her father blinks down at it bemusedly.
"It's way too dangerous, Dad," Julie whispers, and lifts the pen herself to painstakingly write the word DANGEROUS in shaky print below Reggie's NO!
"Julie," Ray says on a sigh, recognizing her handwriting. "Honey, I can't just wait around for something to happen. You can't ask that of me."
"Tell him he has to look after Carlos," Julie says, and it's Luke who transcribes for her this time, his messy handwriting still clear enough to get the point across, because Ray's eyes close, and his hands are clenched on the counter.
We're going to look after her, Luke continues to write. She's our family, too. We'll keep her safe. We'll fix this.
Reggie snatches the pen from him, and adds, we promise.
It's a promise none of them can make, but Julie still appreciates it. Maybe it will reassure her dad that they're in a better position of figuring this out than they actually are. Maybe it will keep him from panicking, or from going off to do something stupid like confront Caleb. If Caleb figured out how to hurt her even though she wasn't a ghost, there's no telling what he can do. Especially while possessing a lifer like Nick.
Julie's not taking chances with her dad, and if what that means is telling a little white lie, she's fine with it.
Not that Reggie looks like he's lying. He looks fiercely determined, if also frantically worried about both Julie and her father, but he steps close to her and takes her other hand, while Alex writes one final note: I know it sucks, but please trust us.
Ray doesn't move, doesn't say anything, for several long seconds before he sighs. "You brought music back to my girl. She counts you as friends, as family. I may not know you very well yet, but I'll try to trust you. Julie is a good judge of character. Just…" He takes a breath, releases it slowly. It comes out shaky sounding, and Julie feels her insides twist at the pain in his eyes. "Keep me in the loop, okay? I don't think I can stand not knowing."
Julie steps away from her bandmates and sits on the stool next to her dad. She tries to lay her hand on top of his, but of course it passes right through. Instead of moving away though, she lets it linger, and she can tell he feels it because he shivers, his fingers uncurling. "I love you, Papi," she says one more time, and the words harmonize with his simultaneous, "I love you, mija."
There's nothing more she can do right now, but she continues sitting there for a long time, the guys standing behind her in silent support.
The exhaustion is all-encompassing. Considering Julie has never seen the guys get really tired, even when Caleb's curse was making them flicker, it scares her. They keep chalking it up to the fact that she's still alive, but something about it feels strange…not bad strange, but strange in a way she still doesn't trust.
She feels thin.
They go out to the studio because it's where all of them feel the most comfortable, and Julie curls up on the couch immediately, soaking in the calming atmosphere her mother so lovingly created so many years ago. The studio means peace, and even though it's now home to a rock band, that hasn't changed. Much.
"You should play for me," Julie murmurs.
Luke raises an eyebrow. "You know I'm all about the music, Jules, but we're nothin' without our lead singer." Beside him, Reggie gives a frantic nod of agreement.
"No, I meant you should play one of your old songs," Julie says, wrapping herself around a pillow. "Some good old-fashioned Sunset Curve. Besides the demo and the stuff Trevor stole from you guys, and the song you adapted for me to take lead on, I haven't heard any of your songs, even though we've been playing together for months."
Alex gives her a smile. "As far as requests go, I think that's a pretty easy one, right, guys?"
"Hell yeah!" Luke says enthusiastically, already diving for his notebook like an overexcited puppy.
"And Reggie, I wanna hear Home is Where Your Horse Is," Julie adds, ignoring Luke's wince. "Don't let Luke bully you out of it."
"Aww, it's not actually that good," Reggie says with a blush, rubbing at the back of his neck. But she can see the way he's trying not to smile, the way his eyes are shining.
"Not buying it," she says. "You've helped us with lyrics often enough that I know you're a good writer. I deserve nice things today."
"She's got you there," Alex says, elbowing Luke and grinning at Reggie as he takes his place behind his drums.
"Fine," Luke says with a long-suffering sigh, but even he's trying to hide a grin. "But first, check out this killer song. Guys? High As Ever?"
"Ooh, nice!" Reggie says, and Alex gives a thumbs-up and counts them in.
Julie settles deeper into the couch and listens to the guys slide from one song into the next and then into another. They're good, they're damn good, and even while she's enjoying it, she hates that their lives were cut short before they could share it with the world. If she can help them achieve even a fraction of the recognition they deserve, she vows to do so.
If she ever gets her own life back enough for that to be possible again.
She will. She has to.
She's so wrapped up in the music, the first time she's felt any real joy since Caleb tricked her, that she doesn't even notice the sound of displaced air near the doors to the studio until she hears the drumbeat falter and sees Alex's wide eyes. She turns and sees a guy with long, dark hair and a tanned complexion. He's carrying a skateboard, but that's not what gives him away. It's the way he's watching Alex with rapt attention, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"You must be Willie," Julie says, forcing herself into a sitting position. She pats the couch beside her when he glances over with a startled expression, and he makes his way hesitantly over. "The guys were trying to make me feel better. If it's important, I can tell them to stop?"
"Nah, it's cool," Willie says, eyes sparkling as he grins at Alex again. Alex, noticing, ducks his head bashfully, hiding his own smile. "This is pretty rad."
"Have you ever gotten to hear him play?" Julie asks, staring at him curiously. She knows about him, of course, and she knows how much he means to Alex, but she never thought she'd actually have the chance to meet him face-to-face. He's not part of whatever magic connects her to her bandmates.
"No," Willie says, shaking his head, eyes wide and unblinking as he watches them rock out. "He said they were gonna play the Orpheum, before, you know, the hot dog massacre. And like, nobody plays there without being good, but man, hearing it is…" He swallows, flushing when he turns and catches Julie grinning at him.
"I feel you," she says, nudging his shoulder. "S'good to meet you, Willie."
"You too, Julie," he says, his own smile coming quick and easy, brightening his whole face. But then he curls in on himself, staring down at his hands as the smile dies. "Not like this though. Julie, I'm so sorry. Everything that's happened, Caleb even knowing about you guys…it was all my fault."
"I mean, yeah," Julie says, slowly, quiet enough that Alex won't hear and get upset, because she thinks this does need to be addressed, and Alex is a lot more forgiving than she is. Beside her, Willie flinches. "It sucks that you handed them over to your boss even though you liked Alex, even though you knew what Caleb was capable of. I'm not gonna lie. But I've met Caleb now." She shudders with the memory. "I know…I know how terrifying he is. I know why you wouldn't want to cross him, especially if he has power over you."
Willie finally glances over at her again, eyes almost hidden behind his curtain of hair. He looks scared, and his hands are clasped together so tightly his knuckles are turning white. "That doesn't make it okay though."
She shrugs. "Maybe not entirely. But Alex forgave you. And me and the guys, we're a team. He's the one you hurt the most, and if he can forgive you, the least I can do is give you a chance. You risked your life – um, your soul – to help them at the end. And you're here now. That's not nothing."
"Maybe not, but I'm still… I'm so sorry, Julie. I really wanna try to make this right." Willie's gaze is both earnest and pleading, like he's begging for a chance he's already been granted.
"We'll figure it out," Julie assures him with more confidence than she feels. "But shh, let's just listen for now, okay? Then you can go make eyes at my drummer while we talk about all of this."
Willie's whole face goes bright red, and he clutches his board for dear life, but he nods, that smile flickering out again, just barely.
Julie sighs, leaning back again. She wonders if maybe she can fall asleep, but then Reggie steps up to the mic and shoots her a wink, Luke rolling his eyes good-naturedly and swapping his electric for an acoustic, and she finds the energy to stay awake after all.
And goddamn if those boys don't give that country song all they got.
It's just as awesome as she knew it would be.
Alex comes to her the next day.
"What’s up?" Julie asks, turning her attention away from the photo of her and her mom. Alex’s hands are shoved in his pockets, and he looks guilty.
"Willie needs help," he says, then hastens to assure her. "No, not because—he’s fine! I just. He’s trying to figure out everything by himself and I don’t feel right about it. If Caleb caught him, after everything…"
Julie nods slowly. "I know he’s taking a big risk trying to get answers. I wish I could do more myself." She hates it, hates that she can't even do the ghost poofing thing the guys have done so easily since the beginning. Hates that she can barely interact with even light objects. She’s passing through the world more ghost-like than they ever have. She feels so useless.
"You need to stay where Caleb can’t find you," Alex says, his voice firm. But then he bites his lip. "But I thought maybe I could do more. Willie is digging into finding out exactly what Caleb did, which means he’s not focused on finding other ghosts like you. I could do that."
"You don’t have to do that," Julie says. "I’m fine, Alex."
She’s not, and the look he gives her tells her they both know it. "You’re so tired, Julie." He says it gently, like he’s afraid of spooking her. "I know you’re trying to hide it, but we all know you too well. Me and Luke and Reggie, we can sleep, sometimes it’s nice to sleep, but we don’t need it. You need it all the time, and I can’t help but think it’s part of what Caleb did." He hesitates. "I just. I think it would help to know for sure."
She sighs, rubbing at her forehead, where a small headache has been lingering all day. "I guess you have a point. I just…I hate the idea of being separated right now." Her voice comes out so much smaller than she wants it to, and she forces some cheer into it as she shrugs and says, "You’re right though. It’s a good idea, as long as you’re careful." Here, she fixes him with a stern look. "I mean it. I’m not the only one Caleb had it in for. He did this because he saw you guys as a threat."
"I know. And I really do think I should go, I just also…I really hate the idea of leaving, too." Hence the guilty look he came in with, Julie guesses.
"We’ll be okay, Alex," Julie promises. "Just promise to check in, okay? I’ll be fine. I’ve got Luke and Reggie." She laughs outright at his doubtful look, and he sighs.
"Okay. Although I think you’ll be doing more to keep them out of trouble than anything." He rolls his eyes. "I won’t be gone more than a couple days, and I’ll check in, I promise."
"Good." She takes his hand, giving it a squeeze. "Be careful and take care of yourself."
"You too," he says, and tugs her into a hug.
She loves how warm, how real they feel to her now, like this. If it’s the only good thing to come out of the whole ghost experience, it’s a pretty damn good one for sure. Alex smells like spearmint and rainfall, and she commits it to memory the way she did with Reggie’s scent, with Luke's. She doesn’t want to forget, if – when – things go back to normal.
"Tell Willie hi," Julie says with a crooked smile when he pulls away, and he nods.
Then he’s gone, and the room suddenly feels colder.
Julie wraps her arms around herself, already hating the silence, and goes to find her other bandmates.
Alex was right, Julie has been sleeping a lot. In fact, she dozes the rest of the day after he leaves, curled up on the couch in the studio while Reggie and Luke trade worried looks they think she can't see.
She's figured out by now that she always feels at least marginally better with the others around, so she hopes they don't mind her staying close and cramping their style, but they don't seem to, because they crowd into her space right back. Luke brings his notebook over and, while she's awake enough, she curls against his side and they write lyrics together while Reggie strums an acoustic guitar and hums softly on her other side.
When she inevitably starts to fall asleep, far too soon, Reggie puts his guitar down and positions himself so she can lay curled up with her head in his lap and let him play with her hair.
At one point, she's vaguely aware of her father coming into the studio and, spotting Luke's open notebook, initiating a conversation. She doesn't know what they say though, too lost to the darkness behind her closed eyes to pay any attention even though she knows she should, that it could be important.
But they don't try to rouse her, so she doesn't worry too much.
None of them leave that quiet, peaceful place for the rest of the day or the night that follows, and despite the concerning fatigue, Julie is, as much as she possibly can be, content.
"Hey, Jules," Luke says when she next manages to fully open her eyes. He's peering down at her with a crooked smile, hair flopped in his eyes, looking so stupidly cute it hurts her brain. "You remember your dad coming by last night?"
She sits up, rubbing at her eyes, and nods. "I thought if it was important, you'd shake me or something, but I didn't hear much of what he talked about."
"He talked to Flynn," Luke tells her. "She's freaking out. Her parents are keeping her on a tight leash since she keeps sneaking off to the hospital, but she wants to see you. Or, well, talk to you?"
Julie feels a deep well of guilt rise up in her stomach. She should have talked to Flynn when everything first went down. Her best friend, and she…well, she didn't exactly forget, it's just there's been a lot going on, and talking to Flynn took a backseat to the rest of it.
She's a terrible friend.
Like he can sense what she's thinking, Luke squeezes her hand. "Hey. We'll go today. Flynn's awesome. She's gonna get it."
Julie sighs. "You shouldn't have to babysit me. Or play translator all day."
"I don't mind." Luke grins. "Flynn's cool people." He tucks her hair behind her ear. "So are you."
She tries very hard not to blush, especially since he pulls back almost immediately, cheeks turning a little pink.
"If you guys'll be good without me, I'm gonna head to the hospital and keep an eye on you," Reggie says, then scratches his head. "Er. Body-you. Wow, that really doesn't sound any better."
Julie shakes her head fondly, lips twitching. "Thanks, Reggie," she says. "I know you're already going to do this without me telling you, but keep an eye on my dad, too? He's gonna get himself worked up, and it's not just me he has to be okay for."
Carlos hasn't been to the studio to see her. Carlos, in fact, has been shut up in his room pretty much every moment he's not at school, at the hospital with their dad, or with their tía, and she's worried. She knows her dad is, too. She wishes there was something she could do. Anything. Besides float through walls and be almost incapable of picking up a pencil.
"Course I will," Reggie says.
"Let's go now," Luke says. "It's ten on a Saturday, she'll be up, right?"
Julie snorts. "You've never actually interacted with any teenage girl besides me, have you?" But she allows him to tug her up off the couch. He wraps his arms around her, and she closes her eyes, even though it won't help at all with the unpleasant sensation that comes from poofing anywhere.
She doesn't know how Luke knows where Flynn lives, but sure enough, they appear in a rush at her front door. Luke lets go of her far sooner than she's ready for, like he hadn't meant to hold her so close to begin with. She's starting to get tired of this push and pull they've had going since…God, probably since performing at her garage party. It's exhausting.
Julie takes a second to orient herself – and wait for the tingles to pass – and then she leads him through the door, through the entryway, up the stairs, and through the first closed door on the right of the hallway.
Flynn is not asleep. Flynn is in fact wide awake, pacing her floor and muttering to herself and shooting glances at her dark phone.
Oh, Flynn, Julie thinks helplessly, reaching for her best friend even though she knows she'll pass right through. In fact, Flynn walks right through her when Julie takes a step closer, and they both stop. Julie blinks, and Flynn shudders. Then her eyes go wide.
"Who's there?" she demands. "Start talking." She marches over to her desk, yanks out a notebook, and slams it down with her favorite sparkly pen.
Looking bemused, Luke shoots Julie a look. She nods.
Hi Flynn. It's Luke.
God, his handwriting really is terrible. Julie rolls her eyes, then steps beside him to take the pen in a shaky grasp and add, And Julie.
Flynn sits down hard in her chair, burying her face in her hands. "Fuck," she says. "Fuck you. Do you know how worried I was, bitch? God, I wanna hug you till you can't breathe." She makes it sound like a threat. Julie loves her so much.
Luke keeps scribbling. Julie has trouble holding objects for long so I'm playing translator.
Flynn eyes his handwriting balefully. "You suck at it," she tells him.
"That's fair," Luke says with a good-natured shrug, and writes the same.
"Jules? You doing okay?" Flynn asks. "It was you I walked through, right?" She raises a hand to her chest. "I know it was."
Julie doesn't have to ask how she knows. She still feels it herself, like they'd connected in that brief moment, and everything that was Flynn rushed through her. She'd know her best friend anywhere.
Julie's okay, Luke writes. We're trying to fix this. Alex and Willie are on the case, and me and Reggie are looking after her.
"Tell her I'm sorry we didn't come sooner," Julie says.
Flynn reads that and snorts. "Yeah, you better be." But then she shakes her head. "Girl, you take care of you, for real. I'm good. I just wish there was something I could do to help. I hate being the useless lifer."
"You could check in on Carlos," Julie says, and Luke dutifully writes it down. "I'm worried, and he won't talk to Dad. Maybe he would to you, since you knew about the ghost stuff before this happened. And Carlos loves you like another sister."
"Geez, I can barely read this, what even…" Flynn pauses. "Never mind, I got it. Boy, we gotta get you some handwriting lessons. What're you gonna do when someone wants an autograph, huh?" To Julie she says, "I got your back, Jules. I can check in on my favorite little bro."
Julie swipes at her eyes. "Tell her I want to hug her till she can't breathe, too."
Flynn's lip trembles when she reads that note. "You make me cry, I'm gonna beat you up as soon as you're solid again."
"I really can't wait," Julie says with a quiet sigh. Luke gives her the puppy eyes, that worried-slash-sad look she's starting to want to claw off his face, before he writes it out.
They stay with Flynn for a long time, until Julie feels another headache starting, and her eyes start sliding closed against her will. Luke writes a final note to Flynn and goes to Julie. "We should go. You need to lie down."
"I'm fine," she tries to say, but she stumbles when she tries to turn away from him, which doesn't help her case at all. "I'm a ghost, this is so stupid."
"You're still alive," Luke counters. "And we want to keep it that way."
From her chair, Flynn is staring just past them. "Love you, Jules," she says. "Hey, ghost boy. You let anything happen to my girl? I'mma find a way to bring you back just so I can kill you again."
Luke's mouth quirks. "Noted," he says, though he knows she can't hear him. He glances at Julie. "She's fierce," he says.
"She sure is," Julie agrees. She gives Flynn one last long look, and then she lets Luke take her hand and bring them home.
It's raining when they land in the studio. Julie is glad – she loves the rain, and they don't see nearly enough of it here. The sound of it on the roof is soothing, and seems to give her a much-needed boost of energy. Instead of curling up in her usual spot on the couch, she goes to her piano bench and sits down.
Wouldn't it be nice, she thinks, if I had the same power the guys had? Her instrument connected to her on a spiritual level, so she could still play it whenever she wanted. She doesn't even need other people to hear it, she just wishes she could play.
Even if playing is what got her into this mess, she supposes.
Still, she wills her fingers solid and runs them over the ivory keys, feeling her way into the opening chords of Bright. Maybe it's just her imagination, but it does feel a little easier than other things, like picking up a pen or throwing a pillow at Luke's head.
Luke is leaning against the wall, and he wills his guitar into his hands, strumming along with her. They don't sing, only play, but it's nice. It's only been a few days, but she'd almost forgotten what it was like to play with him.
She wants to play with him, with all of them, again. In a real, meaningful way.
"Do you think Alex is okay?" Julie asks as she final notes fade away. She doesn't take her eyes from the keys, but she hears Luke sigh.
"I'm sure he is," he says. "Or at least, I'm sure we'd know if he wasn't. Wish he'd check in, though."
"Me too," Julie says quietly. Her hands are definitely getting tired again, but her headache is minimal, so she plucks out a few more chords just to prove to herself she can. She's aware of Luke watching her carefully, but she ignores it. She's fine.
"Please don't," she says, voice tight, and stubbornly continues to play. She's sweating now, and there are pricks of pain dancing behind her eyes, and it's not fair, it's not fair—
There is a sudden sensation of warmth against Julie's hand and the fingers she still has resting against the piano keys. She blinks. It feels like a hand holding hers, familiar calloused fingers tracing hers before curling around them and gripping tightly.
It's Reggie, still at the hospital with her father, with her, and he's…holding her hand.
She hadn't realized she'd be able to feel anything from her body, and the knowledge that she can, that it's still a part of her, or she's still a part of it, has her swallowing a hard lump in her throat. Luke is eyeing her again, curiously this time, but she doesn't explain. Can't explain, not really.
When she feels wetness on her hand, the first tear falls from her own stinging eyes, right in the same place where Reggie's tear landed.
She and Luke are lying on the couch, now folded out into a lumpy mattress because she hadn't wanted to leave the studio that night, when Ray and Reggie finally return from the hospital. It's dark, probably late, but there's enough light from the nearly full moon coming in through the window to see Reggie when Julie rouses at the sound of his appearance.
Reggie's eyes are drawn, but he still tries to smile at her when she blinks at him. She holds out a hand, and he takes it, crawling onto the bed in between them. Luke reaches over to ruffle his hair, and Reggie bats him away with a pout, and Julie smiles at them despite her tiredness and her sadness and her rising sense of hopelessness. She doesn't mention the moment from earlier, doesn't want to foul the peaceful quiet with unnecessary words, and doesn't want to embarrass him.
But she holds the memory close, tucked away in her heart.
At least she has them. Whatever else comes, she has them. And soon Alex will return from whatever he's doing with Willie, and the band will be back together, and they'll figure this out, and everything will be fine.
It's a nice thought to fall asleep to.
It happens gradually the following afternoon, so gradually that Julie doesn’t even notice when it starts. Later, that will be the most terrifying part.
She’s in her room, sitting on her bed with Reggie, both of them propped against a pile of pillows as she very slowly flips through a photo album of her and Flynn when they were kids. She’s working on her focus, hoping that practice means she’ll stop getting so exhausted, so headachy every time she tries to move something. Reggie is keeping an eye on her, making sure she doesn’t overdo it, although he’ll never admit that that’s what he’s doing. He'd be cute in his overprotectiveness if it wasn't directed at her, but all things considered, Julie can't blame him.
He's still the only one who's had to see her comatose body lying in a hospital bed.
Honestly though, it's still annoying. Between Reggie and Luke, Julie keeps needing to remind herself that if it was one of them in her shoes, she would be the exact same level of worried and freaked out as they're being.
At least Luke isn't around at the moment, since he decided to scope out a few of their usual haunts (ha) to see if he could find Alex. (It's not just her he's overprotective of, which does help with the sting of it.)
Julie flips to the page of photos from Halloween when she was nine, laughing at herself rocking a homemade costume of Elsa from Frozen. Beside her in the photo, Flynn is dressed as Olaf, complete with a carrot nose Julie’s mom had somehow expertly attached to her face, which miraculously stayed on the whole night.
"We were so obsessed with that movie," Julie admits to Reggie. "Remind me I definitely gotta force you guys to watch it."
Reggie grins at her. "Disney, right? I’m so all over that! So’s Alex. Luke, too, but he’ll put up a fight and pretend he’s a tough guy."
"Hey, Julie…" Reggie leans closer, brows furrowed. "You okay?"
She blinks. She’s a little headachy, but she’d expected that after a half hour of trying to flip pages. "Yeah, why?" Then she realizes her hands are trembling, and there’s a strange buzzing sound in her ears.
"You’re kinda…fuzzy," Reggie says, tilting his head. He reaches out to take her hand, and they both startle when it goes right through. "That’s…that’s not okay," Reggie says, scrambling up.
"What…" But then Julie gasps as light, the light she'd thought was only sunshine streaming in from her window, seems to fill the entire room all at once. It’s beautiful, and warm, beckoning to her, and in that moment, she wants nothing more than to sink into it. It sounds like bells inside her head now, and the room around her begins to go out of focus, like a blurry photograph. She feels like she herself is losing substance. "Oh, I—"
"Julie!" Reggie yells, and she comes back to herself with a jolt. She didn’t think adrenaline was a thing for ghosts any more than headaches were, but she sure feels like it, like her heart is pounding and she’s on the verge of a panic attack as she focuses with every ounce of energy she has to become solid, to stop falling into the abyss of light.
Reggie’s hand is grasping hers now, really grasping hers, and she meets his wide-eyed, scared look, trying desperately to ground herself.
"Don’t let go," she whispers, curling their fingers together so tightly she thinks it must hurt because she’s terrified that if he lets go of her, she’s going to disappear entirely. She thinks she knows what this is, and she can’t, she can’t, she won’t—
She doesn’t even realize Reggie has turned towards her and leaned closer until his other hand finds the back of her neck, fingers tangling in the curls at her nape. He presses his forehead to hers. "Not letting you go," he says fiercely, and then he tilts her head back and he kisses her.
Reggie kisses her.
Reggie is kissing her.
Julie’s gasp steals the breath from him as his mouth moves against hers. She is, all at once and entirely, back in the real world, aware of every single place he’s touching her. Aware of every single atom in her ghostly body, because every single one of them is suddenly sparking like there's an electric current flowing through her veins. The buzzing and bells in her head vanish, to be replaced with a long string of exclamation marks.
And then Julie is kissing him back, releasing his hand only long enough to wrap her arms around his neck. He cups her cheek with his freed hand, tilts his head and deepens the kiss, and God, he’s good at this. She doesn’t know why that surprises her, but it does, somehow.
She must make some sort of sound, because he gentles his hold on her, pulls away just enough to meet her eyes. Kisses her again, lingering for a long moment, and then once more, barely a brush against her mouth this time. "You were leaving," he says, his voice like sandpaper, low and rough in a way she's never heard from him before as he rests his forehead to hers again. "And I thought, I remembered when you held onto us, and you saved us. With the power of love. If it worked once, I thought maybe there was a chance it would work again."
"Reggie," Julie breathes, her hand cupping his jaw, thumb brushing his cheek, but he shakes his head.
"No, it’s…I mean, it was just…" He swallows. "Jules, I can’t, Luke…"
Strange, that the idea of Luke hadn’t even occurred to her until this moment. She knows she loves him, has been dealing with those feelings for months, and when she searches herself, she also knows that nothing has changed. She still feels just as deeply for him today as she did yesterday, and the week before, and the month before that.
But there’s this other glowing spot beside the one he takes up in her heart, and she knows with sudden, startling clarity that it belongs to Reggie. And she has no idea what to do with that. Can’t even fathom when or how or why it happened, but it’s there. It's been there for a while, she thinks. And she’s going to have to deal with that.
And that’s when Luke clears his throat from her doorway.
Julie stays perfectly still, but Reggie startles like a deer, yanking away from her and scrambling back even though it’s perfectly obvious what happened. Even though she’s pretty sure Luke already heard and saw everything.
"Reg, it’s cool," Luke says, taking a hesitant step forward. He meets Julie’s gaze, gives her a small, crooked smile. "Are you okay?" he asks her seriously.
She nods. "I think so. I’m really scared, but…I’m okay now." For now, but she knows better than to say that.
"Then that’s what matters." Luke sits on the bed, grabbing for Reggie’s arm before Reggie can make the quick escape he clearly wants to. "Nope. Sit. We’re gonna talk about this like grown-ups."
Reggie gives him a betrayed look. "We’ve literally never talked about anything like grown-ups in our entire lives or afterlives."
"Exactly. Great chance to start," Luke says firmly. His eyes slide to Julie again, and he winks. "We have a good influence now."
Julie flushes, but it's okay because Luke looks a little pink, too.
Reggie fidgets, pouting when Luke doesn't release the hold he has on his arm. "Look," he finally says, almost a whine, but Luke cuts him off at the pass.
"Do you like Julie?" he asks, point-blank. It's a devastating question, judging by the way Reggie folds into himself, bringing his knees up so he can wrap his free arm around them and bury his face in his knees.
"It's not that simple," he mumbles.
Julie is starting to feel like she's been sidelined, watching this drama play out before her, and she's had about enough of that, thanks. She's had enough of all of it. "Julie is right here," she says, and gets a wounded look from both of them. "You," she says to Luke, "do not get to ask Reggie that question when you've been tiptoeing around your own feelings for months. I'm not an idiot, Luke Patterson, and our interesting relationship got the brakes put on because you got scared. And you," she says to Reggie now, "are about to say that you only did it because I was…fading, or whatever, and you wanted to save me, but nobody kisses like that without feeling anything." She hesitates, then says quietly, "That was my first kiss, but I'm sure of that much, at least."
Reggie and Luke both stare at her at that, Reggie's mouth falling open as a guilty gleam enters his eyes. "That was your first kiss?" he says, sounding incredulous and a little horrified, which honestly hurts.
Julie shrugs, looking away, hating the way her face goes warm. She has no blood, why is being a ghost so stupid? "I was a social outcast all last year, and then there was, you know, ghost stuff and the band and everything. And…" She huffs, crossing her arms and refusing to look at either of them. "And I got hung up on some idiot ghost boy." A pause. "Two of them. Apparently."
Luke touches her arm, and she glares down at his hand before she finally sighs and raises her eyes to meet his dumb adorable puppy expression. God, he's such a moron, but the hope filling his eyes still makes her have to hide a tiny smile. He may be an idiot, but, well, he's her idiot. They all are, in one way or another.
"You…" Luke starts to say, then closes his mouth, glancing at Reggie, who is sitting shock-still and gaping.
"I like you both," Julie finally forces herself to say outright, lifting her chin. "So that's a thing we should probably deal with, because someday, this band is going to play again, and I don't wanna mess anything up because of something stupid like this."
Now Luke's mouth twitches. "Something stupid, huh?" he says.
"Shut up," she says, punching him in the arm before she risks another look at Reggie, who still hasn't moved. "Reg? You still with us?" she asks softly.
He blinks. "Me too," he finally says, then goes bright red. "I mean, I like you, too. Both of you."
Luke sputters. Julie's never seen Luke sputter before. It's kind of endearing. "Wait, I get liking Julie, who wouldn't like Julie? But me? Since when?" he demands.
"When Alex saw chemistry," Reggie mumbles, and Julie can't help but notice the tinge of bitterness in his tone, or the way his fists are clenching in her comforter. "Maybe before that."
Luke, it seems, is not as blind as he sometimes seems, because his eyes dart down to Reggie's hands too, and he whispers, "Oh, shit," before inching closer to Reggie. "Reg, man, I didn't…I never would have done that if…"
"I know," Reggie says, and tries so hard to give him a grin that the shadow of it breaks Julie's heart, even though she has no idea what they're talking about. "It's cool, bro, for real."
"No, it's not," Luke says. "I made a joke out of it, I just wanted you guys to stop ragging on me about…" His eyes slide to Julie, and he flushes, clearing his throat. "That was super uncool of me. I'm really sorry, dude."
Julie still doesn't know what they're referring to, but she's starting to get the gist of it.
"If it, uh. If it helps," Like says. "I…wasn't a hundred percent prepared for that chemistry either."
Reggie stares at him. "Dude, don't—"
Luke cuts him off. "I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it." He's rubbing at the back of his neck. "It fucked me up a little. I mean, not the guy thing, obviously—" Obviously? Julie wonders. Obvious to who? "—but I didn't expect that, Reg. We've been friends since we were twelve, I never thought…" He trails off awkwardly when Reggie just continues to stare.
"So, wait," Julie says. "Am I reading this right? We all like each other? Not in that awkward triangle way where the girl can't choose between guys, like those dumb vampire books Flynn likes, but…everybody here likes everybody else?" She wants to laugh, but she's pretty sure it would come out sounding hysterical. What is even happening here?
"Uh." Luke gives her what he clearly must think is a winning smile. "Guess so?"
"What." Reggie demands, his voice going an octave higher. "What is happening here?"
And that's it, that's all Julie can stand. Apparently, Reggie echoing her thoughts almost exactly is her breaking point, because she finds herself collapsing into a fit of giggles, doubling over as she buries her face in her hands, laughing so hard her stomach hurts and she can feel tears in her eyes. They're ridiculous. They're all so ridiculous, Luke and Reggie most of all obviously, and she loves them so much. She always did, and even if it's taken an unexpected shape, maybe that can be okay.
"Um. Julie?" Reggie touches her shoulder, and she reaches up to grasp his hand, lacing their fingers together as she raises her face to grin hugely at him. He smiles back at her hesitantly, clearly baffled. He and Luke trade a look, and she tugs Luke into a hug, burying her face in his shoulder and trying to stifle her laughter.
"I think we broke her," Luke stage-whispers.
"No way man, this is not on me," Reggie says, but his thumb doesn't stop rubbing little circles against hers.
Julie lifts her face, gives Luke a beaming smile, and pulls him down to her.
It's nothing like the kiss she shared with Reggie. For one thing, they meet awkwardly because Luke is unprepared for it and she's still trying not to burst into more laughter; it's all bumping noses and clashing teeth and everything Julie always had nightmares about messing up when she finally kissed someone, but somehow, it's still perfect. And when Luke changes the angle, grinning against her mouth before kissing her properly, it gets better.
So much better.
She's imagined kissing Luke a thousand times. She never imagined it like this, but she wouldn't trade this for any of those thousand fantasies. His arm tightens around her, and when he finally pulls away, it's slow, like it pains him to do so.
"Wow," Luke says. "Julie Molina, when you go for something, you really go for it."
"You knew that already," she says with a grin, because she does, and he did.
And just to prove his point, she turns to face Reggie, and tilts her head, a silent question as she squeezes his hand.
He darts a wide-eyed glance at Luke, and then back to her, before creeping closer, acting for all the world like he's still afraid he's not allowed and is waiting to be told off, or kicked to the curb. But he doesn't hesitate when Julie lifts her face to his, and he cups her cheek exactly as he had earlier, dipping down to brush his mouth against hers. When she sighs into it, he presses against her more firmly, and a gentle kiss turns into something more, something she swears she feels all the way down to her toes.
Where Luke was light and laughter, Reggie in this moment is like an ocean, deep and turbulent. He flows into her like a rising tide pulled towards the moon's gravity.
She feels it, when Luke's breathing goes uneven and the hand he has pressed between her shoulders trembles faintly. She draws back from Reggie, feeling dazed, to give Luke a smile. "Your turn," she whispers, and to his credit, he doesn't pretend to misunderstand her.
Reggie has that deer-in-headlights look again when Luke turns and catches his gaze.
"You don't have to—" Reggie starts, but Luke has already crawled between them, and he curls a hand into Reggie's hair and just…goes for it, stifling Reggie's protest with lips and teeth and tongue and touch.
Julie sits back on her hands, heart pounding as she watches them. She watches the way Reggie surrenders utterly, watches how gentle Luke is with him even as he takes so greedily. She watches how they come together like magnets, like they've been drifting around each other this whole time just waiting for the right moment.
She wonders if that's how she looked with either, and if not, she hopes she has a chance to develop that sort of connection with both.
It's absolutely crazy, how much she wants that.
"Luke?" Reggie whispers against Luke's mouth, but doesn't draw away, kissing again, and again, like he can't get enough. Like he'll drown if he can't keep touching Luke.
Or maybe like he's drowning because he can.
Luke rests his forehead against Reggie's temple, breathing hard. "Keep dreaming like we'll live forever," he whispers.
"But live it like it's now or never," Reggie sings back to him, smiling, those big green eyes sparkling with something so vast Julie isn't sure she has a name for it. When they find her again, the expression doesn't vanish…instead, it seems to magnify, growing exponentially, and he holds a hand out to her.
She goes to them, and they fold her between them with laughter and wonder and love.
So much love.
And for the first time since she woke to find herself a ghost, Julie feels whole again.
The golden feeling of serenity doesn't last long. Not even half an hour later, quietly drowsing between Luke and Reggie on her bed, Julie is startled awake by her father shouting her name from the studio.
"What…Papi?" she says, sitting up with Luke's help. It takes a moment for her brain to connect, and then the panic in her father's voice registers.
Reggie doesn't miss it either, and he takes her hand, poofing them all to the studio instantly.
"Dad!" Julie shouts, but of course he can't hear her, might not even if she weren't completely imperceptible to the living, because he's still yelling her name frantically, tearing the studio apart like he'll find her buried under a pillow. She gives Luke a baffled, desperate look.
He spreads his hands at her hopelessly, but he's already looking around for something to get Ray's attention, and when his eyes fall on the throw pillow, he hesitates, shrugs, and darts for it.
It goes exactly where he means it to when he lets fly, hitting the back of Ray's head with a soft thump.
"Oh my God, oh my God I just hit your dad with a pillow," Luke says, but Julie can't even be amused at his horror because her dad finally stops moving for long enough to get a look at his face, and he looks devastated, like his entire world has ended.
Julie doesn't even wait for one of the guys to translate for her, grabbing Luke's songbook and flipping to a clean page. She snaps for a pen, and Reggie hands her the one from the piano. She clicks it open and hastily scribbles, Dad, what's wrong??????
It takes everything she has to get that far, and the pen falls from shaking fingers, but it's enough. Ray's entire body slumps, and he staggers over to the couch, trembling. "Mija," he breathes. "You're okay."
She's okay, Reggie confirms, then, Did something happen? Is Caleb back???
"Her heart stopped," Ray says. "She was fine and then…and then she wasn't." He puts his head in his hands as Julie stares in shock, first at him, and then at Reggie and Luke. Her dad continues, "They had to shock her twice. Ah, God, Julie."
She's right here, Ray, she's sitting next to you and she's here and she's okay. Reggie seems to be writing the magical words because the tension in her father's shoulder loosens more with every word, and he scrubs at his eyes, leaving them red and puffy-looking but dry.
"What. Happened?" Ray bites out when he seems as calm as he's going to get. Which…isn't very calm, all things considered. Julie has never seen her dad like this.
Reggie holds the pen over the page, but hesitates, looking at her with wide eyes. "Should I…"
She nods. "He deserves to know." She hates it, hates that it's going to hurt him, but she can't lie and pretend everything is fine. Somehow, he'll know. And that will be worse.
Reggie looks to Luke then, but Luke shakes his head. "You got this, Reg." He gives a self-deprecating shrug, shoving his hands in his pockets. "It's not the kind of thing he should have to translate from bad handwriting first."
Reggie chews on his lip, touching the pen to the page, and then he takes a deep breath and starts to write. Julie's having a harder time than we did when we first became ghosts, he starts. She's tired a lot, and she gets headaches trying to move stuff, which is why we keep writing to you instead. We think it's because she's not dead. He underlines those last three words, like he's trying to stress that part to her dad before getting to the rest. Alex is looking for answers, and me and Luke are staying with Julie to make sure she's okay. But today, she—
He stops again, pen poised, like he can't bring himself to write the rest.
"She what?" Ray demands, at the same time as Julie says, "You have to tell him the rest, Reg."
Luke circles around to stand behind Reggie, putting a hand on his shoulder. When Reggie meets his eyes, Luke nods. "You got this," he says.
"I hate hurting him like this," Reggie says, but he finally goes back to writing.
She kind of…flickered. She was glowing, and when I tried to touch her, I went through her. That hasn't happened since she turned into a ghost. Actually, that hasn't happened since we played at the Orpheum. We think… His writing is getting messier as his anxiety rises, but Ray is still following along with the words, his brow furrowed. …that maybe she was going to cross over.
Written there in stark black and white makes it seem more real than it felt in the moment, and in the aftermath of that moment she'd all but lost track of it entirely.
Now, Julie shudders, wrapping her arms around herself as she remembers how it had felt. Not bad. No, if it was a bad feeling, that would be easier to deal with. It had felt good, like giving in was exactly what she should be doing, like crossing over was exactly where she should be going.
Julie doesn't want that. She wants to be stubborn and stay right here, thanks.
If it was at the same time that she almost died that could be why. She's okay now!!! Reggie underlines again.
"For how long?" Ray explodes, throwing his hands up. "That's it, I'm going to put an end to this." He's already half-standing, his face so angry, the Molina stubbornness Julie is so familiar with powering his every move, and she doesn't even think, just reaches out instinctively and grabs.
No one is more surprised than she is when she feels warm flesh beneath her fingers, the wiry strength of her father's arm practically buzzing beneath her touch. She stops, stares.
He also stops, stares.
"Julie?" he asks, and cautiously places his other hand on top of hers. "I can't see you, but I…I feel you."
"Well okay, that's weird," Reggie says, head tilted as he looks back and forth between them.
"Super freaking weird," Luke agrees, but he sounds awed when he says it.
They can interact with inanimate objects, Julie knows, but not other living beings. No amount of ghost magic except the strange connection she has with them has ever allowed that. Yet she, who can barely do even normal ghost things, can do this?
At least, she can when she's desperate enough, she muses, remembering the moment in the kitchen when her hand had gone through his.
But yeah, she's desperate now. Desperate and scared and angry. "Dad," she says, her voice choked, and her father's head whips around. He can hear her, too. She rushes to keep going, before whatever tenuous hold she has on this power breaks. "You can't go. I know you want to, I know how much this sucks, but you can't put yourself in danger. Think of Carlos. He needs you. Please, please give my friends a little more time. I'm okay now."
"Mija, you almost died today," Ray whispers.
"But I didn't," she says. "I'm stubborn, just like you are. I'm not going anywhere. Please, just a couple more days. Please, Papi. We can't lose you." She throws her arms around him, and he catches her, holds her close, trembling under the weight of his own grief and fear.
"Two days," he finally acquiesces. "And only because the doctors were sure they have you stabilized. But you keep me updated constantly. If you feel so much as a flicker of strangeness, you tell me. Got it?"
"I promise," she says, and as her heart settles, she feels his hold slip, his arms falling through her incorporeal body again. They both sigh, but she knows he doesn't hear hers.
Everyone is silent, until Reggie says in a loud whisper, "That was the coolest thing ever."
Julie stares at her dad, at the lines on his face that have aged him ten years in two days, just like when her mother was in the hospital. It was cool, she thinks. Thank God it was a thing that happened.
"We have to fix this," is the only thing she can think to say. "Now."
Of course, that's easier said than done. She brainstorms with Reggie and Luke for the rest of the morning, but they can't come up with anything without the intel Willie and Alex are hunting down.
"He said he'd check in, that it would only be a couple days," Julie says, pacing. She feels more energized than she has in days, is pretty sure it's completely down to fear. "Aren't you guys worried?"
"Yup," Reggie says unhappily from where he's sprawled out on the chair.
"Yeah," Luke agrees. "But it's not like we can do much. I couldn't find either of them when I went looking." He grabs her hand as she moves past where he's perched on the couch, bringing it to his mouth and pressing a kiss to her knuckles as he peers up at her from beneath his stupidly perfect eyelashes and just plain stupid fringe of hair poking out from beneath his beanie.
"Stop that," she says, yanking her hand back, but she's blushing, and he's grinning, and Reggie's laughing at them both. She huffs and resumes her pacing, crossing her arms over her chest.
"How come she doesn't get any runway comments?"
"Alex!" Julie cries, spinning around and launching herself at him. He catches her with an oof, hugs her for a long moment.
"Hey, Julie. Hi, guys. I'm…really sorry I'm late?" He rubs a hand down Julie's back. "I didn't mean to worry anybody."
She glares at him but can't hold it in the face of his pleading, apologetic eyes.
Stupid cute ghosts. Even the gay ones have power over her. It's unfair.
"Listen, Willie will be here in a few minutes," Alex said. "And then we can go over what we each found. Did I miss anything big the last couple days?"
Julie glances over to the others, hesitates, thinking of bells, of stopped hearts, of fading. "That should probably wait till we're all together and can compare facts," she finally says. She isn't even going to think about the other big thing from the last couple days. Doesn't even think she's the right person to bring that up to Alex, since Reggie and Luke are his best friends, and it's…weird, right? Probably kinda weird? Good, but…weird.
Either way, Alex immediately looks worried, but he doesn't push. He does give her a small smile, another quick hug, and then wanders over to the couch and collapses next to Luke, who immediately wraps an arm around him in a quick bro-hug as Reggie leans forward from his chair for a high-five.
Julie can't help but smile at them. Her ghosts.
She wonders if she should be calling Luke and Reggie…something else, now. But that's a question for later, probably.
When there aren’t bigger concerns.
Aware her face is flushing, she turns away to continue pacing the floor of the studio, ignoring the murmur of conversation behind her.
Ten minutes later, Willie doesn't so much poof in as he does crash in, landing in a heap in front of the piano, skateboard rolling away as he groans.
Alex is already rushing over, kneeling down beside him. "Are you okay?" he asks.
"Cool, cool," Willie gasps, sitting up and leaning against Alex for a few long seconds. "Wow. That was a trip." He sees Julie staring at him, waves. "Sorry for the dramatic A.F. entrance. Traveling short distances is easy. I can get to Vegas and back no prob. Vancouver is a lot."
"Vancouver?" Julie blinks. "What were you doing in Vancouver?"
He flops a hand around, still breathing hard. "Gimme a sec, just…" He looks at Alex. "You guys talk about anything yet?"
"No, we were waiting on you," Alex says. "Ready to get up?" He stands, tugging Willie up with him, catching him against him again when Willie sways a little. Julie notices they continue holding hands as they make their way over to the couch, where Luke quickly moves aside, leaving them enough room to sit.
"Hey, bro," Luke says to Willie, and Reggie gives a salute as he sits up straighter.
Julie takes a seat on the arm of Reggie's chair, and he grins up at her, leaning against her shamelessly. She rolls her eyes, but runs her fingers through his hair anyway. He's Reggie. No one will think anything of it, besides Luke, who just looks amused, eyes sparkling at them.
"So?" Julie asks Alex.
"You first," Alex says. "Obviously something happened."
So Julie takes a breath, and tells him about her…her near death experience, or whatever. His expression grows more and more worried as she describes the experience, and the conversation with her dad after, but she realizes he doesn't look surprised. Upset, yes, but not shocked. Distraught, but not horrified. She realizes he must have found out this was a possibility, and is more eager (and, okay, scared) than ever to hear what he has to say.
When she finishes, Alex takes a breath, glancing at Willie, who nods. "Okay, so…probably nothing I say is going to come as much of a surprise at this point. And Julie…" He swallows. "I'm sorry, that sounds really awful and I wish I'd been here to help."
"It's okay," she tells him with a small smile. "Really. I'm good. Reggie and Luke helped a lot."
"Speaking of, how did Reg stop you from crossing over for long enough for the doctors to get your heart started again?" Alex asks, brow furrowed. "That might be helpful, if…you know, if we need it again. Which I hope we don't! But just in case…"
Julie feels her face warm, hopes it doesn't show in the low lighting of the studio as evening approaches. "He just…he said my name. Well, yelled it. He held my hand. It, um. It brought me back to myself, I guess."
"And we'll be there to do the same it if happens again," Luke says, voice rough but eyes reassuring.
"Yeah we will," Reggie says, snuggling closer, and she smiles down at him.
"I'm not worried," Julie fibs, knowing that they know she's not being entirely honest, but at least they don't call her on it. "So…?" she says to Alex.
"Well, I didn't find any coma ghosts," Alex says. "But I did find some ghosts who have known coma ghosts. It's definitely a thing."
Julie's never been so grateful not to be special in her life.
"But basically, that's just because…well, being a coma ghost is only a thing for a short period of time." Alex hesitates. "It's an…unstable state of being, I guess, so your spirit is trying to find a way to stabilize itself. Generally, that means…well, either waking up or crossing over. Or, if the body dies, like, quickly enough, you might become a real ghost. But it sounds like that's pretty rare."
"So you're saying…I don't get a choice," Julie says. "I just…go. Whether my body dies or not, unless…what, I wake up fast enough?"
"I mean not always," Alex says. "Some coma ghosts can last years, like those miracle stories you hear about people who wake up after a decade-long coma? They were ghosts the whole time. But it's really hard to maintain that state for so long."
Julie stares at him, numb. "So I really don't get any choice?"
"Well…" The pause is longer this time, and Julie sees Alex's eyes slide to Willie.
"Okay, so," Willie says, sitting forward, elbows on his knees. "First off, you should know that Caleb's been trying to get into the hospital."
"What?" Julie, Reggie and Luke all say together. Julie feels cold. Reggie takes her hand, squeezing tightly.
"He can't get in," Alex assures them. "His magic mostly only works on ghosts, and Nick himself is specifically barred from the hospital – your dad told them he'd been harassing you."
"And he can't possess anybody else to get around that," Willie says, "because of how much power it takes. That's probably why he hasn't left Nick yet – once he does, he's not gonna have the juice to possess someone else for a really long time. It's, like, hardcore ghost magic. He can't even travel like a regular ghost while he's in Nick – has to get around the old-fashioned way."
"Okay…" Julie says, feeling only a tiny bit better. "So, why is he trying so hard?"
"Not gonna beat around the bush, it's probably to kill you," Willie says. Julie flinches, even though some part of her had already known. Willie's eyes are sympathetic as he continues. "Because, like, either way he wins. Either you cross over, and the guys lose their connection to lifers, or you don't, but you're still dead, and the guys lose their connection to lifers. Either way they stop being a threat to him. You're the key."
They're too powerful, Julie remembers Caleb saying to her. Too present.
But only when they're with you.
She closes her eyes, breathes out a shuddery little breath. "Okay," she says, then again, steadier. "Okay. So what do we do?"
"Two things," Willie says, holding up two fingers like a peace sign. "One, Caleb has your life force stashed somewhere, like in a vessel. It doesn't just disappear, y'know? If we can find it and get it back, you wake up, no muss, no fuss."
"But it could be anything," Julie says. "How are we supposed to find it, before either Caleb kills me or that same thing that happened before happens again? I don't…I don't want to cross over." She wraps her arms around herself. "I don't want to leave everybody I love behind, I can't." Even if she could see her mom again, as much as she wants that, it wouldn't be worth the trade-off.
Not now. Not like this.
"That's the second thing," Willie says, and now he's hesitating. "It's kinda…it's not a fix-all. But it would give you time? You wouldn't have to worry about crossing over, at least."
"I'll do it!" Julie says immediately. "What is it?"
Willie sighs. "Okay, look, it's complicated, and you should take time to like, really think about it. I'm not big on the whole 'consequences' thing most of the time, like, you've met me, right? But this is big, Julie."
I don't have time, she thinks impatiently.
Willie continues. "There's a ritual. It would sort of…tether you here. It links your spirit to another ghost – or ghosts – and," He huffs, making a handwavey motion. "Basically ties your fate to theirs? So as long as they don't cross over, you're safe, you won't either, even as a coma ghost. It'll stabilize your spirit the way it needs. But this ritual works both ways. If you do wake up, then, totally awesome! But it also means whoever you're tethered to can't cross over from that point until you die and cross over yourself. They'd be tied to you permanently."
"I'll do it," Reggie and Luke say together, without a second of hesitation.
Alex laughs, nudging Willie. "Told you." He looks at Julie with a smile. "I also told him I'd do it, too. You're family, Julie."
"Yeah, the only reason we were ever in a rush to cross over in the first place was because Caleb was trying to steal our souls," Reggie says. "But the ghost thing isn't so bad. I could do it for the next, like, eighty years or so."
"Seriously, we rock this ghost thing," Luke adds. "Even without the music, I'm down for just hanging with you and my bros as long as possible." He winks.
Julie chokes out a laugh, tears in her eyes. These idiots. These stupid, beloved idiots. "I can't ask you to do that for me," she says. "Guys, come on."
"You're not asking," Alex says. "We're telling you. We want to do this."
"Let us help, Jules," Luke says. "You've done so much for us." He says it the same way he'd once said, No music is worth making if we're not making it with you.
This is different, though. She knows this is different. But Reggie looks at her then, without a single word. Just looks at her, and looks so sure of everything they're saying, a smile playing at one side of his mouth, and he just nods, almost imperceptibly.
And she knows she's going to let them do this.
Willie corners her away from the others, while they're bent over the piano talking and she's resting on the couch.
"Heya," he says, taking a tentative seat beside her.
"Heya," she replies, nudging his shoulder. "Glad you're okay, by the way."
"Me too," he says with a small laugh, running a hand through his hair. "So look, I wanted to talk to you before we do this."
"I'm not going to change my mind," she says. "Not if they're okay with it." She nods at her bandmates, who are jostling each other over a piece of music. "I don't think they'd let me, honestly."
"Nah, you're right about that." Willie grins fondly at them. Mostly, she suspects, at Alex. "I just wanted to say sorry. I wanted to offer to help too, y'know? The more help you have, the stronger the tether will be, and the less it'll drain everybody all around. But it's not a good idea." He winces. "I already have one tether, and it would probably mess the whole thing up if I tried."
She watches him for a moment, the way he stares down at the board in his lap, spinning one of the wheels almost absentmindedly. "How did you get involved with Caleb?" she asks.
Willi shrugs. "I just wanted to skate," he says. "I was really scared of whatever came after, and Caleb promised he could stop it from happening. He said I could stay here, no strings, skate anywhere I wanted for however long I wanted to. I just had to help him out sometimes. He lied. He lied about so much."
Julie reaches over, takes one of his hands and squeezes. "I'm sorry, Willie."
"I did it to myself," he says with another shrug, peeking over at her. "Like I said, just wanted to say sorry again. I don't wanna risk any of your energies getting tangled up with mine. Caleb would find a way to use it as a loophole and trap all of you."
"I get it," Julie says, shuddering. "I appreciate that you want to. I know you totally would if you could, and I'd never hold it against you for not wanting to even if you didn't have a reason. But thanks for explaining why you can't."
"I told Alex before we got back, and he tried to argue." Willie sighs. "He thought maybe it would help break Caleb's hold on my soul, but that's not how it works."
"Alex thinks with his heart," Julie says, gently. "And if there was even a chance it was true, you know I'd be all in for that plan."
"That's 'cause you're awesome, Molina." Willie gives her a grin, and it almost reaches his eyes. "But hey, I'll still be able to talk you through it. It's pretty easy." He pauses. "Um. How do you feel about knives?"
She stares at him. "Knives?"
So it turns out, the very simple ritual to tether her soul to her friends and stop her from crossing over before any of them are ready requires sharing blood, who knew?
"There's this real old ghost of a witch up in Vanvouver," Willie explains. "Well, she was a witch when she was alive. And now she kinda helps out other ghosts with magic stuff? She's hard to find…I've been trying to track her down since…" He slides a sidelong glance at Alex, flushes, shoves his hands in his pockets. "Well, since I messed up and got your friends involved with Caleb. But I couldn't find her till last week."
"And it turns out she knows Caleb," Alex cuts in. "Which, honestly thank God, because that made her really eager to help."
"She's also working on some way to get rid of him," Willie says. "But wasn't willing to make any promises because he's Caleb. He's not more powerful, but I guess his magic is a lot darker. So for now, this is what she gave me." He pulls out a small knife wrapped in a leather sheath. When he removes the blade, it's like no knife Julie has ever seen before.
"Can I?" she asks, reaching out, and Willie hands it over.
"Careful though, it's sharp and it will cut ghosts," Willie warns. "It's kinda designed to."
Julie takes it carefully. It's lighter than she expects. The handle is some kind of carved wood that curves gently in her grip, wrapped at the base with a leather cord. The blade is dark, black and shining. It looks like a frozen oil spill and gleams strangely in the light. "What is this?" she asks, running her fingers along the flat of the blade.
"Black obsidian," Willie says. "It's like, kind of a protective thing?" He gives her a sheepish look. "Honestly, I only understood pieces of what Helena said, but it's like…it has no real structure like most crystals and metal and stuff, so it's kinda…limitless. It can do a lot of different things in magic. There's a whole lot of stuff about grounding, and a shield against negativity, and blocking psychic attacks, and I don't even know. She had a whole book she showed me, but a lot went…" he whistles, drawing his hand through the air over his head. "She did say it's the only thing that works safely on ghosts, which seemed like the most important part."
Luke is behind her, peering over his shoulder. "Huh," he says, which is about how Julie feels. One of the girls at school is Wiccan and talks about elements and crystals and energy and stuff, but this is way beyond Julie's range of knowledge. Probably beyond hers, too.
But all Julie really needs to know is that it will work. She nods at Willie, and he claps his hands.
"Cool! Places, guys and gals and ghosts," he says, waving toward the big empty space in the middle of the studio.
Julie takes a seat cross-legged right in the middle, and with a bit of flourish that makes her smile, Willie places a big white candle, already lit, just in front of her right knee, then moves out of the way. "The candle isn't totally necessary, but it helps focus everything. I guess."
"I'll take your word for it," she says. She does like the candle there. It makes everything feel more real, the flame dancing before her eyes, like it's ready for something to happen.
Luke, Reggie, and Alex sit down in a triangle around her, Luke a little in front and to her left, Reggie to her right, and Alex behind her. They're close, close enough that she imagines she can feel their warmth. It calms her. She didn't even realize she was nervous until Luke meets her eyes and it starts to trickle away in the face of his easy assurance.
Gripping the knife tightly, Julie glances up at Willie.
"Both hands. All four of you," he says. "No words, nothing fancy like that. Once your hands are linked, the magic itself'll direct you. You'll know what to do."
He seems sure of that for someone who doesn't understand exactly what they're doing, so Julie figures the witch he got the spell from must have also been sure. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and grips the blade.
The slice across her left palm hurts enough to make her wince, eyes stinging, and she almost can't force herself to do it again until she feels Reggie's hand on her shoulder.
"You got this," Luke whispers, and Alex nods.
She takes a breath, bracing herself, and cuts across her right palm before shakily passing the knife to Luke.
He makes quick work of it, gritting his teeth against the pain. She doesn't look to see how Alex manages, but can't avoid Reggie's hiss, the whimper he tries to stifle. Luke repeats what he'd told her, and Reggie sniffs. There's another hiss, and then the knife is placed beside her with a soft clatter.
"Okay," she whispers. Reaches out with her left hand, and Luke takes it with his left, blood mingling, warm and slick between their hands. With his right hand, Luke reaches out to Alex, who takes it and reaches out with his other hand to Reggie. Reggie, with a grin, takes Julie's right hand, closing the circuit.
The effect is instant. Julie gasps, skin buzzing, electricity zipping through her veins and dancing between them. It doesn't hurt, exactly, but it makes her breath come short and quick, her heart racing. She's aware of her blood moving through her in a way she's never been before, because it's carrying something she can't help but be viscerally aware of, some essence she has no name for but which hums beneath her skin like it is, itself, somehow alive.
And, God, she can feel them. Her friends are all around her, inside her.
She can feel Alex, his almost brotherly affection for her, his worry for her, his uncertainty about the magic, his faith in Willie, his fear for and love for Willie, and the deep bond he has with Luke and Reggie… It's all so much, and she can't begin to sort it, but it's all there in her head, her heart.
She feels the others, too. Reggie and his doubt in his own abilities, his devotion to Luke and Alex who have been his only family for so long, his loneliness, his almost painful desire for people to love him…and yes, the love he feels for her and Luke both. Bright and jubilant amidst the swirling insecurities, like a beam of sunshine straight to the heart, and she can't help the way her hand tightens around his, can't help but hope he's getting her feelings for him right back.
And Luke, of course. His determination to succeed – in this, in music, in his relationships. A complicated, tangled past with Alex she never knew about, leaving him feeling something beyond brotherhood but something not quite the same as what he feels for Reggie. Reggie, and the shock he still harbors over the feelings that crept up on him there. Where his feelings for Alex were complicated and faded, with Reggie, they're simple and strong. As are his feelings for her, a deep well of love, of respect, of belief, in her and her music and her own returned feelings.
All of this and more hit her, spread through her like a current, sparking every fiber of her spirit. She doesn't even realize she's closed her eyes until she opens them again, needing to see her boys, needing to see everything she can feel reflected in their eyes, but instead, her gaze catches on the place where her hand clasps Luke's.
Their hands are glowing, pulses of light dancing up and down their fingers, across their knuckles, over the backs of their hands and around their wrists. Even as she watches, the glow condenses, spreads, into threads of golden light.
It's happening all around the circle, to every pair of clasped hands. Gold strands flowing over their skin in a gentle caress, twining around each of their wrists. Connecting. Binding.
How do we finish this? Julie wonders. But she realizes she already knows.
She releases a breath, meeting Luke's eyes. Smiles through the tears she can feel streaming down her cheeks.
Accept them, all of them, exactly as they are?
She opens her heart to them, her ghosts, and feels them do the same.
The power of it would knock her off her feet if she was standing. It bursts through her like an explosion. A supernova behind her eyes, beneath her breast. Everything she'd already been feeling increased tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold. She feels them like she feels herself, everything that makes the four of them individuals disappearing until they just are. Julie gives herself over entirely and the others do the same, until they are all indistinguishable from each other. No longer separate, but one.
"Oh," they whisper, and it echoes around the circle, breathless and awe-struck.
The cords of light circling their wrists flare bright, and then sink beneath the surface of their skin, effervescent, still glowing. They feel warm right to the core of themselves, and the shock of it, the joy of it, has them laughing and crying at once.
As the glow fades, so too does that feeling of connection, and the sense of being joined so wholly, but Julie doesn't feel it as a loss. The potential is inside her, inside all of them now, to connect that way whenever they want to. And she's still so very aware of them inside her.
She pulls in a deep, shuddery breath, and releases Luke and Reggie's hands as they do the same with Alex. She pulls her hands back to her, staring at the palms. The cuts have healed, but there are long silver scars stretched across her palms.
And around her wrists, underneath the multitude of bracelets, are black bands tattooed into her skin that shimmer gold when she turns them toward the light.
She doesn't know who moves first. All she knows is that between one breath and the next, she is caught and enfolded by Alex, then by Reggie, and finally by Luke, until all four of them are hugging and laughing and sobbing, and she feels somehow both lighter and more grounded than she has since this whole thing started.
"How are you feeling?" Alex asks her, when they have a moment alone together after…everything.
She smiles at him, sensing his genuine concern. She doesn't know when or if they'll be able to turn off this new sense they all have of one another. Doesn't think she'd mind if they never do. "I'm okay. Actually feeling pretty good."
"That's great!" he says enthusiastically as he pulls her in for another hug that makes her laugh into his shoulder.
It is great. It's great not to feel so tired, so off balance. She feels more energized than she has since becoming a ghost, and she's already tested her ability to move small things, with no ill effects. She thinks she'll be able to finally talk to her dad without needing to use the guys as a go-between, and she really, really wants that.
"Thank you again," she says softly, and Alex squeezes her.
"You don't need to thank me, Julie. You'd have done the same for any one of us. I know it, and so do Luke and Reggie." He pulls back, holding her at arm's length and giving her a sly look. "Speaking of which…"
She feels her face go warm. "Don't you dare say it."
"There are so many things I could say, though!" He laughs at her infuriated expression, and she's pretty sure he can feel that she's too happy and embarrassed to actually be mad at him. "No but really, I'm happy for you guys."
"You, um. You…don't think it's weird?" she asks, and it's stupid that she needs to, she'd know if he thought it was weird. But she still needs the reassurance.
Alex snorts. "I think most things about 2020 are weird. I think the fact that we came back as ghosts is weird. But this?" He shakes his head. "No, this isn't weird. I think you'll be good for each other. You, like…balance each other." He pauses, looking thoughtful, or like he's choosing his words carefully. "I mean I can't say I saw it coming, but Luke and Reggie always had a thing going on, not that anybody noticed it but me. And everybody on the planet can see how Luke feels about you, and vice versa. And Reggie…every time he's ever talked about you, he has this kind of awe in his voice? One of the first things he ever said about you was that you sang like an angel. He was very Reggie about it, all earnest and stuff even though it wasn't the point he was trying to make at the time. When he appeared next to you at the Orpheum? I'll never forget the look on your face. That's when I knew it wasn't entirely one-sided."
Julie wants to hide her face, she feels so warm she's pretty sure she could cook an egg on her blush, but Alex doesn't let her, his hands sliding down to take hold of hers.
"I wouldn't have seen it coming, but it makes sense, Julie. And I know you're worried about how it will affect the band, but I don't think you have anything to worry about there." Alex laughs. "Especially not now. We're stronger than that." He presses a hand to his heart. "You feel it. You know."
She nods, and finally lets her smile widen, lets it reflect the happiness she can feel bubbling up inside her. "I know. But it's still good to hear. Thanks, Alex." She stops, but the curiosity is overwhelming her, and she can't stop herself from saying, "Can I ask—"
"About me and Luke?" Alex's smile goes lopsided. "Not much to tell. I came out, mostly by accident, Luke wanted to prove he was totally cool with me being gay and went about doing it in the worst way possible. He discovered some things about himself, again mostly by accident, but it was only a few weeks in that we both figured out we were terrible as boyfriends. Thankfully no damage was done except maybe to Luke's pride."
"That could use a few more hits," Julie says with a sigh, because she may love him, but she's not blind to his faults. Alex laughs again.
"Probably," he concedes. He nods over to the piano, where Luke and Reggie have just reappeared. "You should go talk to them. I'm gonna go talk to Willie."
"Go make out with Willie," Julie advises. "We all know how much you want to."
Alex ignores her, but he doesn't turn away fast enough that she could miss his red face, even if she couldn't feel his happy mortification.
She does go over to the piano, takes a seat on the bench and grins at Luke and Alex, who are arguing passionately about one of Reggie's country songs and haven't even noticed her presence. She proper her chin on her hand and waits.
Reggie is the first to see her sitting there, and does an actual literal double take, something she's only ever seen in cartoons before. "Julie!" he says, his sudden joy contagious, making her grin widen.
"Hi, boys," she says.
Luke circles the piano and slides onto the bench beside her, and she raises an eyebrow at him. "So," he says, taking her hand and lacing their fingers together. "That was pretty epic, right?"
"Yeah," she admits on a sigh. "It really was. And…thank you again, both of you, I—" The rest of her words are cut off with an indignant, muffled yell as Luke's free hand presses against her mouth.
"Seriously, Jules," Reggie laughs. "If you keep trying to thank us, we're going to have to take drastic measures. You know you couldn't have stopped us even if you'd wanted to."
"The man speaks truth," Luke says.
Reggie kneels down by the bench and takes her other hand. "You gotta know how much you mean to us, right? Like, you can't have missed that in the past hour, even if you somehow missed it the past few days, or even the past few months." His fingers move her bracelets so that the black markings beneath are visible, a mirror to the ones circling his own wrists. He leans down to press a kiss to that patch of skin, and she feels a deep pulse of love, his love for her, impossible to mistake even if she wanted to try.
That doesn't stop her from biting Luke's finger to get him to release her mouth, and she sticks her tongue out at him when he yanks his hand back in outrage. Smiles sweetly when he glares at her while sucking on the probably-not-even-bruised digit.
"You probably deserved that," Reggie notes, and Julie says, "I knew you were my favorite for a reason," which makes Reggie preen with delight and Luke pout.
She wishes she could stay here and banter with them all evening, especially now that she can do so without feeling exhausted all the time, but…
"Your dad's inside," Luke says, either noticing her expression or picking up on the shift of her feelings in other, newer ways. "We checked; he got back from the hospital an hour ago."
"Seems like everything is okay, right now," Reggie adds. "Little dude is here too, he was actually eating dinner with your dad."
"Oh, that's good to hear," Julie says, because she's been so worried about Carlos. "I guess…I guess I'm going to go up to the house." She doesn't know why she's almost afraid of the idea. She's talked to her dad as a ghost before. She knows he'll be relieved. But…
"We could go with you?" Luke offers, but she shakes her head.
"No. I think…I think we just need some time, just us," she says. Because she counts the boys as family, and she knows her dad is grateful to them for acting as go-between these last several days. But right now, she thinks her dad and her brother really just need her. "But thanks."
She stands, and Reggie stands with her, cupping her face in his hand, thumb brushing against her cheek. "We'll be here if you need us."
"Hundred percent," Luke says, and she looks over her shoulder to smile at him, squeezing the hand still holding hers.
Then she takes a deep breath. "I got this."
Her dad and Carlos are still sitting at the table, though most of the food has long since disappeared from their plates. Carlos is staring despondently down at the lone pea remaining on his, and her father is staring at the empty seat. Her seat.
She goes to the kitchen for the notepad and pen and returns to sit where he's staring, placing the pad down in front of her. Both her father and Carlos zero in on it immediately, Carlos's mouth dropping, her dad looking worried.
Hi, guys, she writes. I'm sorry I'm late for dinner.
Carlos's eyes go very round. "Julie?" he whispers, and God, she wishes she could hug him.
Yeah, it's me. The guys aren't here right now.
"Are you okay?" her dad asks.
I'm good. I'm actually a lot better. We don't have a fix yet, but we have a lead, and we bought some time. I'm stronger now. She glares at him even though he can't see it, doesn't want to write too much with Carlos reading as well. So try not to worry so much, okay?
"That's like asking the tide to stop, mija," her dad says. "Impossible."
"You're a better ghost now?" Carlos asks, sitting forward eagerly. "How come? What did you do?"
Julie laughs. She can give him this, if it means he regains that light in his eyes. Alex's boyfriend found a witch in Canada who gave us a spell, she writes, smiling as her new tattoo peaks through her bracelets.
"Cool!" Carlos breathes, and her dad rolls his eyes, but even he looks intrigued. "Did you have to recite a bunch of words in Latin? I bet you mangled it. Were there any animal sacrifices? Is there a dead rabbit in the garage right now?"
Their dad cuffs him gently upside the head. "What kind of websites do you read, mijo?"
"The good stuff," Carlos says with a decisive nod. Then he stops, chewing on his lip. His eyes are roving over the air around Julie but never quite land on her directly. "I miss you, Julie."
I know. I'm working to get back to you as soon as possible. Try not to make Dad too crazy in the meantime, okay? Keep your grades up so I don't have to help him yell at you when things are normal again. She focuses as hard as she can, manages to pinch a lock of his too-shaggy hair between her fingers and tug.
He laughs, delighted. "Okay, okay. I promise."
"Upstairs," her dad finally says, nodding to Carlos. "Brush your teeth. I have to talk to your sister."
"Aww, Dad," Carlos whines, but at the raised eyebrow, he sighs. "Fine. Love you, Julie."
I love you too, Carlos. She watches as he grumpily ascends the stairs to his room, then turns back to her father, who's looking pensive.
"So, a spell, huh?" he finally says.
Not like you're thinking, she writes, rolling her eyes fondly as she imagines what his Catholic upbringing must be telling him right now. He's left much of it behind, but sometimes it still comes out. I can't really explain it, but it connected me to the guys, so I won't accidentally cross over before we can find a way to wake my body up. She hesitates over saying much more, because she doesn't want to add to his worry. Telling him that she's bound her soul to her friends' for the rest of her life – maybe forever? – would definitely worry him. Maybe she can save that conversation for when she's awake. Maybe he'll be so relieved then it won't seem like such a big deal. Instead, she writes, And it seems to have made me stronger, more like a regular ghost while I'm stuck like this. I'm not tired all the time, and… She waggles the pen in his face.
He laughs, reading over her words a few times, and finally nods slowly. "Okay. I guess we can agree that's a good thing. How close are you to figuring out how to wake your body up?" He snorts. "This is a very strange conversation."
Julie huffs, silently agreeing. We know what Caleb did, and we know how to fix it. But we need to find something he has. We're working on it.
Her dad releases a slow breath. "So what should I do in the meantime?"
Exactly what you're doing, Dad. Take care of Carlos. Try not to worry too much. Don't do something dumb like go after Caleb. Also, thanks for keeping Nick away from the hospital, that was actually a really good idea.
Ray eyes that note suspiciously but doesn't say anything about it. For now. Julie knows her father too well to think he'll let it go forever. He's just giving her the time she already asked for. "And you're really doing okay, mija?" he finally asks.
Really okay, she promises.
"Okay." Another sigh. His shoulders relax, and a smile quirks at the corner of his mouth. "So, since we finally have the time, we can talk? I've missed talking to you."
Me too, Papi, she writes, her eyes filling. How has Luke been able to stand it, seeing his parents as often as he does, and not being able to hug them? This is a slow kind of torture.
"I guess all my usual questions are out," Ray says. "No homework, no music classes, no boys." Julie coughs, and maybe he hears the echo of it, or maybe the way the pen freezes over the notebook seems suspicious to him, because her dad blinks, and then his eyes narrow. "Julie?"
Crap, Julie thinks, then tamps down the immediate panic because she knows nothing will get all three boys poofing in here faster than her panicking. It's fine. It's totally fine. Her dad is pretty chill about stuff, always has been. And hey, at least like this, he can't lock her in her room for the rest of her life, right? This would just…give him time to get used to the idea.
Actually, put like that…
Hey, Dad? Um. What if I told you I was dating a ghost? she writes slowly, making sure every letter is perfectly legible and can't possibly be mistaken for anything else.
"Oh, boy…" her dad says, putting a hand over his face.
Possibly two of them? she continues.
"Ay bendito." He groans.
For a long time, he stares at that word in silence, and she is painfully aware of how hard her heart is suddenly pounding. Her knuckles are turning white where she's clutching her pen so hard. And then his lips twitch, and he snorts a laugh so choked she's sure he tried to hold it back and failed. "Not…" He laughs again, covering his mouth, eyes glittering. "Not all three of them?"
Tentatively, very cautiously, she relaxes. Alex is pretty happy wooing a different ghost. I'm not his type. It's fine, it's totally fine to joke about this. Definitely.
"So, Reggie and Luke," her dad muses. "I guess that makes sense."
It does? she asks, blinking.
Her dad gives the note a look. "Those boys are the opposite of subtle. People in another country could see the way they both look at you like you hung the moon."
Julie flushes. Okay, he's not exactly wrong, Alex basically said the same thing, but…
"Tell you what, mija. You come back to me, you can date all the ghosts you want, okay?" Her dad is still staring at the notebook, still smiling, but his eyes hold something desperate in them that makes Julie's heart squeeze.
I'm going to come back. I promise. She smiles at him, hopes he can feel it even if he can't see it. And I'm going to hold you to that when you conveniently try to forget you said it.
"I would never," he gasps, dramatically placing a hand over his heart.
He laughs, and so does she, the tension finally broken. They talk about other things, though nothing quite as memorable, and Julie has never been so grateful to have Ray Molina as a father as she is then. He's the best. He's just…completely and totally the best, and she's so lucky, and she hopes she can wake up and hug him soon. She needs a dad hug so much.
It's been a long, strange day. A long, strange week, really. Not even strange in a bad way, just…strange. And Julie isn't tired in a physical sort of way, she's just tired. Too much to process all at once, and her mind feels overloaded. Clearly the guys pick up on it later that night, because one moment they're standing around the piano brainstorming ideas and next steps, and the next they've somehow migrated back to the couch and folded it out into a bed, practically without her noticing. The fold-out is not nearly large enough for four teenagers but somehow they're all squeezed onto it anyway.
Julie is lying on her side, and she smiles at Reggie, who's lying facing her. He grins back and kisses the tip of her nose. Luke, meanwhile, is pressed up against her back, and his hand holds Reggie's at her waist.
Alex is propped against the backrest on Reggie's other side, looking at them with a decidedly fond expression as he scrolls through the phone she's been keeping charged more out of habit than need. He's the only one who's picked up the nuances of social media, but she hasn't yet allowed him to make his own account, so she assumes he's mostly browsing hers.
It occurs to her she lacks serious boundaries with all of these boys, but she can't much bring herself to care.
It should be uncomfortable, how close they're all pressed together on the relatively small space; instead, Julie finds it comforting. Alex occasionally reaches over to run a hand through her curls, and she sighs happily, always a sucker for anyone playing with her hair.
"I really love you guys," Julie says into the quiet. It's not the first time she's said it. It won't be the last. They deserve to know how much they mean to her, as often as she can tell them.
"We love you too, Julie," Alex says, tugging on an errant curl. Reggie nuzzles her cheek, kisses her lightly, and Luke presses his mouth against the side of her neck as he cuddles impossibly closer.
"I know you don't need it anymore," Luke says. "But you can sleep if you want. We'll watch over you."
She doesn't doubt that. Julie's pretty sure she'd have a harder time convincing them not to watch over her, at this point. And while normally that might chafe, make her want to run away and reclaim her space, it doesn't. Not now. Not with them. "Okay," she says instead, and easy as that, she lets her eyes slide closed, lets herself drift off to the murmur of their voices and the comfort of their touch.
"Jules! Damn it, girl, where you at?"
Julie blinks her eyes open, peering at the studio doors, which are now hanging wide open, outlining her best friend who is standing with hands on hips, sunglasses perched in her braids. Her foot taps impatiently as she stares around like she'll suddenly be able to perceive the ghosts in her midst, before her eyes catch and hold on the folded-out bed. They narrow suspiciously.
Oh, crap, Julie thinks, already resigning herself to that conversation. She untangles herself from Luke and Reggie's arms, noting with amusement that they are snoring away. Some protectors, she thinks fondly. Alex, at least, is awake. Catching her gaze, he grins, rolling his eyes at their bandmates.
Julie sits up, and Alex hands her her phone, which she waggles to get Flynn's attention.
"Oh thank God," Flynn says, striding over. She plops herself at the end of the bed, already flicking open her phone even as she says, "I hope I'm not sitting in anyone's foot, but really, I don't care, we got problems."
We do???? Alarmed, Julie almost fumbles her phone as she sits up and types out the text.
"We do," Flynn confirms. "A ghost hacked my phone."
"What?" Julie exclaims, and that's enough for Reggie to jerk awake. Luke also stirs, but he's slower to blink his eyes open until he realizes they have company. Hastily, Julie remembers Flynn can't hear her, and types an all-caps WHAT?
Flynn nods. "Yup," she says, popping the p. "Woke up to a text from this number which, by the way? Super not funny." She holds her phone up. Julie has to scooch around Luke to see it properly because of the way Flynn angles it, but her eyes catch on the sender's number: (666) 666-6666. She snorts, a little amused in spite of herself, and then her eyes catch on the message. Tell Julie: Vancouver. Noon today. No boys.
"Helena," Julie whispers, because who else could it be?
"Wait, what?" Alex says, crawling over the boys so he can peer at Flynn's phone as well. "Okay, that's weird."
"Really weird," Julie agrees.
"You're sure it's Willie's ghost witch friend?" Luke asks, sitting up properly now and giving her a worried look.
"I can't think of anyone else who would be trying to get me to Vancouver," Julie says. "Caleb can't poof while he's possessing Nick, right? And we don't know any other ghosts or humans in that area."
"Yeah, that's fair," Reggie says. "I mean unless you count my great aunt, but I'm not even sure if she's still alive…" He trails off at Julie's amused look, flushing as he says. "And that probably wouldn't make much sense anyway."
Luke curls an arm around his neck, rubbing his knuckles against Reggie's head until Reggie squirms, trying to get away. "So lucky we love you," Luke says, sounding disgustingly fond, and Reggie very abruptly stops trying to get away and cuddles closer instead.
"Jules!" Flynn snaps Julie out of her momentary distraction, and she hastily grabs up her phone again.
Willie has ghost friend in Vancouver, she's a witch, she helped us. Probably her. I don't know why she contacted you though instead of txting me directly.
Flynn tilts her head, reading the message through multiple times. "How'd she help you already?" she asks suspiciously.
Tell you later, Julie types, relieved she has a ready excuse to put off that conversation and everything it entails. You gotta get to class before you get another detention.
Flynn looks at her watch, screeches "Oh, crap!" and grabs up her bag. "I want answers, Jules!" she yells, pointing a finger in Julie's direction. "Don't you dare ghost me!" Then she freezes, looking horrified.
Very slowly, Julie types, Wow. WOW. But she's grinning, and she knows that Flynn knows it.
"Whatever," Flynn says, waving a hand. "You know what I mean. Answers! Soon!"
Soon! Julie promises, laughing as Flynn finally books it out the door.
"So…" Luke says. "…Vancouver? Because I gotta say, it's one thing for Willie, he's got loads of practice, and even he had a hard time." He nods to Reggie and Alex. "We can make it a couple cities over on a good day."
"I can't even poof to my kitchen," Julie says. "There's no way." But there's a nagging thought in her brain, that she needs to figure it out, because Helena the witch is probably the best chance they have against Caleb. "Alex, do you know where Willie is right now?"
He hesitates. "He went back to the club last night because he didn't want Caleb getting suspicious – he still has eyes everywhere, even if he's posing as Nick right now. But if Willie left again this morning, I can probably find him."
"Okay. But don't go near the club," Julie says. "Even if Caleb isn't there, I don't want you anywhere close to that place." She shudders. She isn't the only one.
"Promise," Alex says, giving her a reassuring smile before he poofs away.
"You know," Reggie says before she can start worrying too much. "I bet you could."
Both she and Luke look at him. "Could what?" she asks.
"Poof!" He looks from one wide-eyed face to another. "I mean, we did the super special bonding thing, right? And you feel more like a regular ghost now. And you're not as tired and stuff. So like…poofing, probably no longer an unreachable goal?"
"That's actually a good point," Luke says. He sounds surprised, like he should have thought of it himself.
Julie doesn't want to admit that she hates the idea of poofing, that it's been uncomfortable in a hundred different ways every time the guys have taken her anywhere. The thing is though, Reggie is right. And if there's even a chance that Willie knows how she might be able to get to Vancouver, she's going to have to.
"Ugh," she says succinctly, and Luke gives her a knowing half-smile.
"Come on, Julie. You got this," he urges her softly, and Reggie nods.
"Okay, okay." She sighs again, closing her eyes. "Here goes." She focuses. Breathes. She knows how they've told her it should work. It's the first thing they were able to do as ghosts, it should come totally naturally, right?
She doesn't move an inch.
"Maybe it's just not possible for a coma-ghost," she tries, almost hopeful.
Reggie gives her a look like he knows exactly what she's thinking. "You gotta want it," he says. "Like, you have to really want to be over there instead of over here. I don't think you really want that."
He's not wrong.
"So what you need," Reggie concludes, "is incentive."
She gives him a very dubious look. "There's not enough incentive in the world," she mutters.
"I dunno about that," Luke says. His thoughtful expression very rarely leads to good things, in Julie's experience. Sure enough, a slow smile spreads across his face, and his eyes gleam. "Hey Julie. You like kissing us, right?"
Her eyes narrow. "No," she tries, but her heart gives a traitorous thump, and Luke's Cheshire grin widens.
"Right, so, yes, obviously," he says. "What if we just…don't kiss you again until you ghost-poof?"
"Oooh, and if she does, then she gets a reward!" Reggie says, bouncing a little, grinning widely.
"I'm not a dog," she growls, turning back to Luke. "And you have all the self-control of an overexcited terrier. Like you're gonna say no if I—" But when she reaches for him, he vanishes, only to reappear up in the loft. Reggie doesn't even give her the chance to look at him again before he poofs over to the piano.
"Wow," Julie says, amused in spite of herself. They're so cute, and so sure of themselves, like she hasn't been able to cope just fine with not kissing them for months.
Completely, totally, just fine.
…Of course, that was before she knew what she was missing.
"Guys, this is dumb," she says anyway, crossing her arms. "Seriously?"
And then she feels it, the double wave of
- warmth love joy affection connection passion –
feeling that washes through her, a direct hit to the heart, so intense she gasps, hand fisting over her chest as it fills her from top to bottom. And god, she's never needed them in her arms as much as she does right now, with their feelings suffusing every fiber of her being.
"That is unfair," she breathes, closing her eyes and taking it in, every single bit of it. She tugs randomly on one of those threads of emotion that don't belong to her, finds an uncomplicated sort of delight that can only belong to Reggie, and follows it.
She's in his arms a moment later, tackling him to the floor as he gives a whoop! His arms wrap around her, staving off the uncomfortable pins-and-needles feeling the transportation has left behind. She feels his pride in her, his and Luke's both, and she loses herself in it, burying her face in his neck and letting herself bask in the warmth.
From above them, Luke gives a wolf-whistle, and she glares up at his unrepentant grin.
"One more time," Reggie says. "But first…" He rolls them so that she's beneath him, the rug rough against her bare arms, entirely at odds with how soft his skin is when he reaches up to brush her hair out of her eyes. "Hi," he says.
"I was promised a reward," Julie says, tilting her chin up, demanding. Reggie's amusement rushes through her, and then he's leaning down, covering her mouth with his. She giggles into it, feels his answering grin, and it feels like it should be awkward but it's not, not at all.
"A guy could get old up here," Luke calls down. Reggie shifts like he's going to pull away, but Julie follows him, arching up until he gives in, sighing happily into her mouth. Without looking, she reaches up and gives Luke the middle finger. His answering laughter curls through her like smoke.
She grabs onto it. Pulls gently away from Reggie's mouth, then presses one more soft kiss to his cheek before she tugs on the thread to Luke. Reggie's green eyes vanish and are replaced by Luke's hazel. The awful prickling sensation washes over her skin again, but then it's replaced by his hands on her shoulders, down her arms, onto her hips.
"Knew you could do it," he whispers, and then his mouth is on hers. She wraps her arms around his neck, pushes up to her tiptoes when his hand curls into her hair. It's easy to lose herself in him – he kisses the way he writes, pours all of himself into it like it's the last thing he'll ever do. It's a heady feeling, all that focus on her.
So heady, in fact, that she isn't aware of the curl of Alex's awkward amusement until she hears Reggie's jubilant exclamation: "Dude, our girl did the ghost poofing thing!"
She pulls away from Luke with a sigh, grinning, and he lets his forehead rest against hers while they both catch their breath. After a moment, she peers down to where Reggie has leapt onto Alex's back and is clinging there like a monkey as he tells Alex all about his and Luke's great idea to motivate her.
Alex rolls his eyes but gives her a big thumbs up when he catches her looking at them.
One last time, she reaches for the threads around her heart, finds the one that's all brotherly affection.
He raises an impressed eyebrow when she appears in front of him. "Okay, that's actually really cool!" he says. "But I'm not kissing you. Sorry, Jules."
She snorts a laugh, punching him in the arm.
He pouts, then dislodges Reggie and pulls her into a hug. "Seriously, that's awesome. And might come in handy. Willie's on his way to see if he can talk you through getting to Helena."
Julie still doesn't have a lot of hope in that…bouncing around the room a couple times is one thing. It's over a thousand miles to Vancouver, and Julie has never even met this woman. She doesn't have the fallback of being able to feel the ties to her own soul that she does with the guys, which she's pretty sure are the only reason she managed to do it at all.
"Stop worrying," Luke says, curling an arm around her waist as he pops in behind her. "You'll get wrinkles. That's what my mom always says, anyway."
"I'm a ghost," Julie says, rolling her eyes.
"Temporarily," Reggie says, like it's just facts that she'll wake up, and soon. She doesn't tell him how much she appreciates that, but he feels it, judging by the soft look he gives her.
"And anyway, you'd still like me with wrinkles," she says to Luke, then immediately hopes that's actually true, because…
No, no way is she thinking about that right now, she has enough problems. She shakes her head, pasting on a smile she doesn't entirely feel just as Willie appears in the studio.
Best timing ever, Julie decides, ignoring the little slivers of worry she can feel from the guys and finding herself very grateful for Willie's entire existence as she ducks away from Luke's hold and bounds over to the newcomer.
"Hey, thanks for coming on such short notice," she says.
"S'all good," Willie says. "Sounded important." He leans his skateboard against the wall and pulls Helena's sheathed knife from his pocket, flipping it around and handing it to her handle first. "So first off, you'll need that, probably. Since you never met Helena or went to her place, the only way you could find her is with something that belongs to her, and this should still count."
Julie takes the knife, looking down at it uncertainly. Even knowing what it can do, even having used it for dubious ghost magic purposes, she doesn't feel anything particularly special about it. She sure doesn't feel any tethers to the witch who owns it. "Okay…" she says slowly.
Willie nudges her shoulder with his hand, grins at her when she finally glances back up at him. "Hey. You totally got this. You're Julie, you know?" He shrugs. "Wish I could take you myself, but I'm still wiped from the last trip. And if Helena said no boys, she meant no boys." He shudders. "Do not wanna get on that woman's bad side, you feel me?"
"I feel you," Julie murmurs, looking down at the knife again. It feels so flimsy, suddenly. This is supposed to get her to help, to answers, but she has no idea how. Willie's been a ghost since the eighties, and he barely made the trip. How is she supposed to, with nothing but a knife and a wish?
"You're stronger than you think," Willie says, his voice soft, soft enough that she's not even sure the others can hear. "And you have the power of three other ghosts backing you. If anybody can do the impossible, it's you."
She badly wants to believe him. It sucks, having hope so close and so far away at the same time.
"Listen, I can't stick around, Caleb's suspicious enough as is," Willie says. His mouth twitches unhappily at Alex, who Julie can feel cringing at the name. "But have Alex find me if you need more help, cool? Seriously though. You're gonna do this. No doubt."
"Thanks, Willie," Julie says. As he grabs up his board and puts his helmet back on, she adds, "Look after yourself."
"Always do," he promises. He nods to Luke and Reggie, smiles bashfully when Alex follows him outside to say goodbye in private.
"Right," Julie says, staring hard at the knife again. It continues to provide no answers. She sighs. "Right."
Three hours later, she's no closer to figuring out what she's meant to do, and Helena's noon appointment is fifteen minutes away. For all she knows, Julie may have already missed her chance. How long does it take to travel thirteen hundred miles (according to Alex, who'd commandeered her phone again) as a ghost?
It's finally Alex who takes her by the arm, leading her over to the couch and pushing her down. He kneels in front of her, placing his hands on the knife over hers.
"Okay," he says. "Moment of truth, right?"
"No pressure or anything," she mutters. Alex only smiles.
"Lots of pressure," he corrects. "Which is one thing you do well with. Don't even deny it like you're about to."
She shuts her mouth, scowling. Okay, maybe it's kind of true. Aside from the pressure of dealing with the grief over her mom, she has always operated better when on deadlines for assignments and stuff. Not to mention the Orpheum performance, which was the most intense high-pressure situation Julie's ever felt in her life. It's not always true, but maybe it sometimes is.
"So. Up the stakes." Alex gives her a lopsided grin. "You have to do this, Julie. Because it's not just your future riding on it."
And Julie knew that, she's known it all along, but hearing Alex say it out loud is something else entirely. Her heart gives a pained lurch, and a few feet away, Luke is glaring, looking like he's either about to punch Alex or say something really mean to him.
Alex ignores Luke, ignores Reggie keeping Luke from storming over, ignores everything and everyone but Julie. "We're depending on you. So is Flynn, and Carlos, and you dad. We all need you, Julie. And this is the only way we get you back. So, make it happen."
Make it happen. Like it's just that easy.
Julie closes her eyes, gripping the knife tightly. She can't feel anything more from it than she has all along, but maybe she doesn't need to. She has nothing to lose, does she? Either she fails, or she succeeds. There isn't an in between.
And she can't afford to fail. Her family can't afford for her to fail.
She breathes out slowly, focusing every thought on the knife. On the hands that held it before hers did. The hands that sewed the sheath together. The hands that sharpened the blade.
In her mind, she sees a flash of sharp gray eyes. She tugs on all the threads around her heart, pulling their power to her, power they give to her willingly, and then she reaches.
The studio disappears in a rush of light and smoke.
"Wasn't sure you were coming," a dry voice says, but Julie is too busy falling to her knees, retching painfully, to see the person speaking. She whimpers pathetically, one arm curled around her stomach, her other hand the only thing keeping her upright, pressed to the floor, her whole arm trembling with the effort as she coughs and chokes.
A hand falls to her back, right between her shoulder blades, and a wave of soothing warmth follows. Immediately, the pain and nausea clenching her insides is eased, and Julie takes a few gasping breaths.
"New to teleporting, are you?" There is a raspy chuckle. "Of course you are. New to all manner of ghost things."
"Helena?" Julie asks, glancing up with a hard swallow. A wrinkled hand appears in front of her, and she takes it, allowing the woman to pull her back to her unsteady feet.
"That'd be me." Helena is older than Julie expected, but she stands tall and unbent despite the crow's feet at her gray eyes, the wrinkles in her hands and age spots on her arms. Her silver hair is pulled out of her face with a rainbow bandana, and she's dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved green flannel.
"You…you're a ghost?" Julie asks.
One of Helena's gray eyebrows wings up. "Last I checked."
"Sorry," Julie says. "I, um. I haven't met too many." She looks down at the knife still clutched in her hand, and holds it out. "This belongs to you. Thank you, for letting us borrow it."
Helena stares at her for a long, long moment, and then she gently pushes Julie's hand, still holding the knife, down to her side. "Keep it," she says. "I've got plenty of them lying around, and you never know, it could come in handy." She nods towards a cozy-looking couch in the next room. "Go have a seat. I'll be in shortly and we can talk."
Julie wanders into the little living room feeling like she's wandering through a dream. She can't believe she made it. She can't believe she's here, in a little house in Vancouver that is somehow, apparently, owned and maintained by a ghost. When she looks up, there's a black cat eyeing her from the top of a large bookcase, tail flicking back and forth, green eyes almost glowing in the sunlight streaming in from behind gauzy curtains.
"Ignore Matthias," Helena says, coming into the room and handing Julie a teacup. "He's a menace but he won't bother you unless you bother him. Or me."
Julie stares down into the warm liquid filling her cup. "I can't—"
"It's tea," Helena tells her. "Just tea. And here you can."
It sounds too good to be true. It also sounds far too much like what the boys have told her about Caleb's club. She has no reason not to trust Helena, but she has no reason to trust her, either.
Helena watches her, the corner of her mouth twitching. "So, you have dealt with that two-bit magician. Honey, I promise, it takes very little magic to make food edible to us. It's just not a well-known trick."
Cautiously, Julie lifts the mug to her lips, takes a sip of some sort of honeyed tea she doesn't recognize. It warms her all the way through, and she can't help the little sigh that escapes. "Thank you," she says, quietly.
Helena nods, drinking her own and leaning back against her chair. "This house belongs to my great-great-grandchildren, by the way. They keep it for me. You were wondering, earlier."
Julie's eyes widen. "Are you…are you psychic, too?" she asks.
"Not hardly," Helena laughs. "But you are very easy to read for someone who's been around the block a few times." She sets her cup down and folds her hands together over her lap. "Now. It seems to me you have a problem, eh?"
Julie swallows the last of her tea with some difficulty, eyes lowered, and then she nods. "Willie told you, right? About Caleb stealing my life force?"
"He did." Helena tilts her head, watching Julie for a long moment. Julie wonders what she's looking for, or if she finds it. "Do you know why I asked you to come here, like this?"
Slowly, Julie shakes her head.
"It was a test, girl." Helena gives another huff of laughter. "One you passed with flying colors."
"A…test?" Julie asks, baffled. "A test of what? How stressed out you could make me when I'm already about to explode? Because—"
"A test of power," Helena cuts in, eyes flashing with something dangerously like satisfaction. "Me, I'm not strong enough to take on Caleb Covington, not by myself, not unless I want to delve into arts better left untouched. He causes problems, but he's always been content to do so in his own little corner of the world, so we leave him be. For now."
Julie notices the we but doesn't comment.
"But you," Helena continues, leaning forward. "You and that band of yours. Now that's something special. Caleb's power comes from souls he barters for, but yours comes from bonds entered into willingly, bonds of love. Bonds that are stronger than any I've felt in a long, long time. And my girl, that's a very powerful thing indeed."
"But…" Julie blinks. "I don't—"
"No ghost could make the jump you just did after a week, not one. Not me, not Caleb. Years that kind of thing takes. Your friend Willie has been practicing for decades and he barely made it here. I had to fill him with my own power before he could get back to California. You could make it around the world three times without breaking a sweat, besides the disorientation. Are you even tired?"
Julie really hates the disorientation, but… "No," she admits. Now that the tea has soothed her stomach, she feels fine. She feels better than fine.
Helena gives a decisive nod. "Everything you need to beat Caleb at his own game, you already have."
"I can't…" Julie swallows hard. "I can't kill him, or like…whatever happens to ghosts who disappear. That's…I can't, I wouldn't even know how."
Helena snorts. "I'd never ask you to. You don't need to. The fact that you're powerful enough to do so will make him think twice all on its own, even if it's a power you'd never use, a power you don’t know how to use. He'll recognize it the moment he sees you. He'll be scared, you mark my words."
Is that what Julie wants? Well, yes, the idea of Caleb getting a dose of his own medicine is appealing, but… "My mom always said a cornered animal is the most dangerous."
"Your mom must've been a smart lady," Helena says, her eyes growing sympathetic and kind. "And she was right. But even if he's afraid, he'll think he has the upper hand. You can use his own pride against him. Use his favorite vice – make a deal."
Julie feels her spine go rigid. "A deal?" she asks. "How is that smart?"
"Because the only thing he's really going to want is for you to leave him the hell alone, even if he won't couch it in quite those terms. I'd still bet everything that he'll give a lot to make that happen." Helena shrugs. "It's not exactly a deus ex machina. You don't need that. You just need him out of your life. For now, that's enough, right?"
"I just want him to leave me and my friends alone," Julie says. "I mean, sure, it'd be nice if he left Los Angeles altogether, crossed over to whatever afterlife would take him or whatever, but. I just want him to leave us alone." Her hands are clenched in her lap, she realizes only when her knuckles start to hurt.
"Then that's a pretty easy deal to make, given the circumstances. And you and your friends still have all that power inside to back you up, even if you don't know how to use it properly. Those bonds will protect you more than you realize. And if all else fails…" Helena shrugs, glancing to the knife Julie places on the coffee table in front of her. "Obsidian is not inherently dark or light. And it sure doesn't care about Caleb Covington's refusal to recognize elemental magic. It'll cut him just as easily as it cuts any of us." Her smile is dark.
Julie shivers, picking up the knife again with no small amount of trepidation. She stares at it, thinking of Caleb when he was possessing Nick, when he demanded she play for him. Thinks of him controlling her friends like puppets on a string. Thinks of the fear in Willie's eyes every time he has to go back to the club, every time he hears Caleb's name. Something inside her hardens like steel, and her fingers clench around the handle of the knife. "That's good to know," she says, and her voice sounds stronger than she's heard it in weeks.
Helena nods, giving her a fierce smile. "I knew I'd like you, Julie Molina. I don't think I'll be seeing you again, but if you find yourself in the spirit world again after this is all over, you look me up, I'd be happy to teach you a few things."
Julie's laugh sounds shaky to her own ears, but it's genuine, and she doesn't feel as powerful as Helena seems to think she is, but she feels stronger in her own right, anyway. She feels like maybe she has a chance, if only because people seem to believe she does. That belief is a powerful thing all by itself. Hope is a powerful thing all by itself.
"Thank you, Helena," she says.
"Don't thank me," Helena says. "You didn't need me at all. Now go make Caleb have a really bad day, please."
"You're not going alone," Luke says immediately after she relays to them everything Helena told her. She feels his pulse of anxiety like it was her own, and his eyes hold no room for an argument.
Beside him, Reggie's nodding so hard Julie's afraid he might hurt himself. "What Luke said," he says, jerking a thumb in Luke's direction. "No way we're letting you talk to that…that…asshole without us."
All of them stare at Reggie, shocked, and he flushes.
"I have literally never heard you swear before," Alex says. He sounds impressed. Then his eyes slide back to Julie. "But seriously, they're right. You can't go alone. Also, how are we going to find him? He hasn't been back to the Hollywood Ghost Club. He hasn't been to the hospital. He hasn't even been to the school."
Julie's eyes go to Willie, who's leaning against the wall with his arms folded, looking unhappy. When he meets her gaze, he swallows. Nods. "I can get a message to him, even if he's not around," he says. "Perks of having someone own your soul. He won't like that at all, but he'll come."
Julie nods. "I'm really sorry to have to ask you to do this, Willie. But I need you to tell him this…"
The school looks just like it did the last time Julie was here. Too empty, too quiet. Everyone has left except the most dedicated after-school clubs and a couple faculty members cloistered away in their offices. The janitor, of course, takes no notice of Julie and her friends as she leads them down the halls with a tight feeling in her chest and a faint tremble in her hands.
Her eyes, at least, are steady as she moves towards the music room.
She hears his guitar first, just like the last time. A different tune, something that sounds like it would fit better coming from an old swing club than Nick's usual moody alternative sound.
He looks up as she enters, a cruel smirk twisting Nick's features into something almost unrecognizable. "Well, well, if it isn't Julie…" He pauses, sneers as the others enter behind her and stand at her sides. "…and friends. Right on time." His eyes dart to Willie, standing beside Alex. "William."
Willie swallows, his hand finding Alex's and holding tightly. "Caleb."
"You, I'll deal with later." Caleb stands smoothly, placing the guitar carefully on the ground as he spreads his hands. "So, I'm here. As requested. I must admit, I was rather surprised to get your message."
"Were you?" Julie says. "You had to know we couldn't keep up this game forever. Aren't you as tired of the stalemate as I am? Or do you like being stuck inside a teenage boy, unable to use most of your powers?"
Caleb's eyes darken, then narrow as he looks more closely at her. It takes all of her willpower not to look away.
"Oh my," Caleb says, understanding dawning. "What have you done to yourselves?"
He already looks nervous. Julie isn't sure how she can recognize it in him, but she does. It's clear as day, in the way his eyes dart between them, the way he takes a tiny step backwards. The way he straightens Nick's letter jacket like it's one of the suits she suspects he wears like costume armor.
"It was a precaution," Julie said. "With some unexpected side benefits."
"Ahh." The sneer is back, but it looks forced. "How does the saying go? What tangled webs we weave?"
"Our webs aren't tangled," Julie says. Luke is holding her hand now, Reggie's hand at her back. Alex a steady presence at her side. All of them offering comfort and strength in equal measure. "They're strong, and pure, and powerful, and you know what, Caleb? I think they're what you were afraid of all along." It's the only thing that makes sense, Julie realizes. The boys were never a threat to him before…they could only be seen when they played, and sure, maybe Caleb didn't like that they had that power, but it was still so limited.
"You saw the potential from the beginning, and you knew it could be a threat." Julie shakes her head. "I can't believe we didn't get that sooner."
Caleb is glaring at her, silent and resentful and plotting.
Julie lifts her chin. "Well, good news, Caleb. I don't care about you. I don't care about beating you, or getting rid of you, or whatever it is you thought I would do. I care about living my life. I care about school and my friends and my family, I couldn't give a crap about you or whatever you do at that stupid club of yours."
Caleb watches her narrowly, clearly searching for a trap, an angle. Because that's all he knows. It's exactly what he would do, using his words to trick and manipulate. "Then what do you want?" he finally demands.
"You like deals, don't you?" Julie says, taking a step forward, crossing her arms. "I have a deal for you."
"I'm listening," Caleb says after a long moment. It looks like it costs him.
Julie takes a breath. Tries to radiate a confidence she doesn't feel…until suddenly she does. It floods her from all side of the bond. From Luke, from Reggie, from Alex. The unbelievable faith they have in her bolsters her, makes her stand taller, makes her breathe easier. Before her, Caleb seems to know exactly what's happening, and even as she stands taller, he sinks lower. Maybe it's just a perception thing, but it makes her grin. She feels fierce.
"You're going to leave us alone," Julie says. "Forever. You give back what you stole from me, and then you leave Nick alone. You leave me and my family and my friends – living or not – alone. I'm willing to make a list if you think you need it. And you release Willie from his deal. He gets his soul back, and you don't have anything more to do with him, either."
Caleb's jaw clenches, and his hands are fisted so hard his knuckles are turning bone white. "And what do I get in return?" he grits out.
Julie shrugs. "We leave you alone, too. Look, I'm sixteen years old. I'm not responsible for all the ghosts in Los Angeles, or all the rich people bartering their way into Hollywood Ghost Club. I'm responsible for the people I love. I want them to be safe. You can do what you do, just leave us out of it, and you'll never have to worry about the power we have that you're so scared of. We play music and do our thing; you make deals and play shows and do yours. We stay out of each other's way. Pretty simple."
Caleb hesitates. He searches her face, the faces of her friends. Still looking for a loophole, either on their end, or one he can utilize. But there isn't one, and he seems to realize it.
"And if any of us break the agreement?" Caleb asks.
Julie fixes him with a look. "What happened to the ghosts who broke agreements with you? They just…ceased to exist, right? Death for ghosts. No crossing over. Just gone." She shrugs. "Seems fair to me."
He breathes in one harsh breath, exhales slowly. "Agreed," he growls, and holds out a hand.
She steps forward, sending a wave of reassurance at the boys when she hears Reggie's startled "Jules—" before Luke takes his hand, shaking his head gently.
Julie stops directly in front of Caleb, meeting his gaze squarely. "I'm dealing with you," she says. "Not Nick."
He rolls his eyes, but steps back from her and opens his mouth. Purple smoke pours out, coalesces into the shape of a man with dark hair and an even meaner gleam in his eyes than he ever managed with Nick's generally kind face. Nick himself staggers backwards, grabbing for the piano and sliding down to the ground next to it, staring.
"Satisfied?" Caleb asks, straightening the jacket of his dark suit. He looks like he's stepped out of a history book. Julie doesn't know the exact decade of his clothing but it sure isn't modern. It fits him, though. And Helena implied he'd been around for a while. He holds his hand out once more, impatient.
Julie nods, reaches out to clasp his hand.
There's a white light, and a sharp pain on her arm. She hisses but doesn't pull away until the light dissipates. The brand doesn't look like the one that Caleb used in the past, maybe because this wasn't the same sort of deal. It shapes itself on her arm, just below the dark bands from the soul bonds. A small dahlia with a music note in the center, and she sees it sear onto his skin as well. She wonders if it's the only deal mark he's ever been forced to carry himself. The thought gives her a mean, vicious sort of satisfaction that isn't like her, but after everything Caleb has put them through, maybe it's understandable.
He yanks his hand away and glares balefully down at the mark like it's personally offended him, but quickly schools his features and straightens his jacket again, twisting his neck from side to side until it cracks. Julie shudders at the sound. Ghosts have no bones, why do they still crack?
She suspects she'll be asking herself questions like that till the end of time, at this point. Ghost bodies are just stupid.
"I trust this concludes our business?" Caleb demands.
"It does," Julie says. "But you should know, if you try to weasel your way out of this somehow, I'll find out." She gives him a defiant look. "I'll protect my friends, and I won't hesitate to figure out a way to take you down." Her hand trails down to her belt, and his eyes follow, catch on the knife she slid there earlier. His lip curls contemptuously as she adds, "I don't think I'll be alone, either."
"You play the game well, Julie Molina," Caleb says. "I tip my hat to you." He makes a gesture implying exactly that, touching his brow and dipping his head in an acknowledgement that should feel like a compliment but just makes her feel like her skin is crawling.
And then he's gone.
"Oh," Julie hears behind her, and whirls around to see Willie on his knees, clutching at his chest, Alex kneeling beside him in alarm.
"What's wrong?" Alex asks, clutching Willie's other hand tightly, but Julie already knows, knows it before Willie's tear-filled gaze finds hers, knows it before he opens his mouth to speak.
"I can feel it," he whispers. "It's gone. I'm free."
Julie's grin feels like it's going to split her face wide open. Relief fills her, her own and theirs, and it's overpowering. She might end up on her knees herself except then Luke's arms are around her, and he's lifting her, spinning her, laughing in her ear.
"You were incredible," he says, and kisses her, kisses her until she can't breathe, until she feels like she's flying. When he sets her down again, she doesn't even have a chance to catch her breath before Reggie is tugging her around and dipping her and catching her startled laughter between their lips.
And then Alex is tugging her away, and he and Willie sandwich her in a hug between them, Willie whispering his thanks into her shoulder from behind, his whole body trembling with the weight of his relief…or the lack of weight of his deal. And Alex presses his forehead to hers and smiles, and she grins helplessly back.
Her boys. God, how she loves them.
Still, she's not done. She revels in their joy, their relief, for as long as she can, and then she takes another breath and turns back to Nick, still on the ground, sitting against a leg of the piano with his face in his hands.
"Nick?" she says, crouching down next to him. She isn't even sure if he'll be able to perceive her until he stiffens at the sound of her voice and peers up at her from beneath a tangled fringe of too-long hair.
"Julie," he breathes. "I'm…oh my God, I'm so—"
She holds up a hand, shaking her head and giving him a small smile. "It wasn't you. I know that. He possessed you after the Orpheum, didn't he? That day you brought me flowers. You were so weird that day."
Nick nods miserably, drawing his knees up. He looks more lost and unsure of himself than Julie has ever seen, and it hurts her heart. Her crush on Nick is long past, but he's still a boy she's known almost her whole life, and he didn't deserve this.
"I'm so sorry you got drawn into this, Nick," Julie says.
"It's not your fault, either," he says, giving her a small, crooked smile. "Caleb really hated you. Them. He wasn't really…rational about it. I only got pieces, but it was, um. It was a lot." He swallows. "And, uh. I'm gonna guess it left some lasting side effects, since I can see you. And them." He nods across the room, to where the rest of them are standing, waiting.
"Maybe it will fade," Julie says, but she hears the doubt in her own voice.
"It's okay," Nick says with a tiny shrug. "Could be worse, right?" He clears his throat, nods towards his guitar. "Your…the life force Caleb took, it's in there. I know how to give it back, but I need to be close to you. Um. Your…body." He winces.
Julie breathes out, half exhaustion, half relief. "Well," she says. "Guess we should go see my dad, then."
They have to smuggle Nick into the hospital, since it's easier than explaining why it's okay for him to visit after all. Ray doesn't like it – doesn't trust Nick despite Julie's explanations – but knowing he's allowed to be there helps. He leads Nick, who’s wearing an oversized hoodie with the hood drawn up to hide his face, into the room. Julie follows silently behind them.
It's the first time she's been here. The first time she's had to see her own body lying there, so still. It makes her dizzy – that’s her, that’s her, but so empty. She looks dull. Like a computer screen with the brightness and color turned way down.
"Um. Is it okay if I sit?" Nick asks, glancing at the chair by her bedside.
Ray nods, waving a hand towards it. "All yours," he says, crossing his arms and looking unhappy.
"It’s going to be okay, Papi," Julie whispers. Nick gives her a strained smile, repeats the words to her dad without her asking him to.
Ray’s eyes close, and some of the tension leaves his shoulders as he nods. "I know, mija."
When the boys step into the room through the closed door behind her, Julie thinks the small room should feel crowded, but it doesn’t. She immediately feels better. Luke and Alex don’t seem any better prepared to see her laying there than she was, but Reggie goes right over to the side of the bed opposite Nick and sits next to her, taking her hand. He tosses a look back over his shoulder at her and grins, raising her hand and pressing a kiss to her knuckles that she feels the echo of.
"So I’m just gonna…" Nick clears his throat, aware of his audience waiting impatiently as he lifts his guitar onto his lap.
The first gentle strum of his fingers against the strings goes through Julie like a shockwave. She gasps, pressing a hand to her stomach, and her eyes catch on the guitar. It’s beginning to glow as Nick plays something she immediately recognizes as the song Caleb forced her to sing. Even her dad, she realizes, can see this magic as it happens, because he’s staring at the light with a fist pressed to his mouth.
And Julie is glowing too, she sees when Luke takes her hand and holds it between them. His eyes are wide when they meet hers. The light brightens with every note Nick plays, and she feels like she’s getting lighter, somehow, or maybe…less substantial. It reminds her of when she almost crossed over, before Reggie brought her back, but it's different, too. Still, she's suddenly scared in a way she wasn’t scared when she woke up as a ghost, or when she met a witch in Vancouver, or even when she made a deal with Caleb.
She’s not ready for whatever is about to happen. She knows she needs to go back to her body and live her life, for everyone’s sake including her own, but what if other things change? So much has happened in the short time she’s been a ghost, and a lot of it was good, and she doesn’t want to lose those things.
She doesn’t want to lose them.
"We’re not going anywhere," Luke tells her, like he can hear her thoughts. Or, of course, sense her emotions. "We’re going to be right here with you. You’re stuck with us forever, Jules, soul bond or no soul bond." He pulls her to him, enfolds her in his arms. "And I’m never going to stop being in love with you," he whispers, words meant just for her ears. "That didn’t start with you being a ghost, you know. Not for me or Reggie."
She has her eyes closed, and so she feels an echo of the kiss Reggie presses to her forehead rather than sees it. But she knows the sentiment is the same as Luke’s.
No matter what happens, she won’t lose them.
"Don’t be scared." Luke presses the words against her temple, holding her tightly until he suddenly…isn’t. She vanishes from his arms like mist, and just like that day in the music room, everything goes dark.
And then she’s gone.
"Julie? Mija, can you open your eyes for me?"
It’s a struggle to focus on the words enough to make sense of them. They sound rough in her ears, and everything from her limbs to her eyelids feels heavy. She murmurs something she hopes sounds like a no because everything feels impossible.
"Come on, Julie. You got this."
That voice comes from her other side. It's accompanied by a gentle squeeze of her hand and a pulse of warmth near her heart that pulls a small smile from her unwilling facial muscles in spite of their protest.
"That's it." Her dad again, his warm hand brushing her hair back. "Can't hide anything from your old man, I see that grin."
"Papi," she tries to say. It comes out more like a croak, but it's something. Slowly, so slowly, she drags her eyes open, wincing against the gravel feeling and the too-bright light. "Okay?"
"Am I okay, she asks." Her dad huffs, bending down and pressing a swift kiss to her forehead, his hand trembling on her shoulder. "I've never been so happy to think you're ridiculous in my entire life."
She smiles at him, wishing she had the strength to wipe away his tears. "Love you."
There's a doctor in the room, she notices only when he stands directly over her, firing questions she can barely answer and shining lights uncomfortably in her eyes and saying a lot of words that hold very little meaning right now.
It's fine, she probably doesn't need to know his theories or warnings, since there's no way they have anything close to the truth in them. Who would expect evil-ghost-stealing-girl's-life-force as a reason for a coma?
He finally leaves after several minutes, and it's just them again, Julie and her dad and her three ghosts. Reggie holding her hand, Luke sitting on the end of the bed with a hand on her knee, Alex next to her dad smiling at her. And Willie, she sees, happy surprise filling her that she can see him, standing awkwardly in the corner. When he sees her looking, he grins and waves.
"Nick?" she asks.
"He left," Luke tells her. "Almost as soon as you were put back together. He said to tell you he'd talk to you at school when you were better, but only if you were comfortable seeing him."
Poor Nick, Julie thinks, but she admits she's glad it's just them here. Just people she loves.
Then she blinks again, looking at Luke. At Reggie. At Alex. At her dad. "Can see?" she asks her dad unsteadily.
It's Reggie who answers. "The second your soul disappeared back into your body, Ray could see us. And touch us. We figured that out because he was so surprised, he fell backwards and Alex had to catch him."
Julie laughs at that, imagining it, but she has no idea why. No one could see them before this, unless they were playing. So why—
Reggie turns her hand over on the bed and with a gentle touch, traces the black markings on her wrist. The hospital removed all her jewelry, and without her bracelets to cover them, the bands that circle her wrists are stark against her skin. The silvery scars on her palms from her time as a ghost have also appeared on her living skin. "Oh," she whispers. "Bound."
"Yup," Alex says. "Just like we ground you, you ground us."
"And don't think we won't be talking about this…soul-bond thing," Ray says, eyeing her new tattoos. Tattoos that she knows go soul-deep and aren't ever coming off. His hand curls around her other wrist, and when he turns it over, she sees the musical dahlia as well as the bands. "You should have told me, mija."
She stares at him, hoping she looks half as pathetic as she feels.
He huffs, patting her hand and brushing another kiss on her forehead. "Don't worry. We'll talk about it later, when I'm capable of yelling at you." He stands, his knees and spine popping in a way that makes both of them wince. "In the meantime, I'm going to get myself a crappy coffee and give you a little time to talk with your…friends." He eyes Luke and then Reggie with very wary looks. The nod he gives Alex is warm and cozy by comparison, which is only amplified when he says, "You're in charge. Keep them out of trouble, please."
Alex snorts, but smiles. "I'll do my best," he promises.
Ray leaves the room and Reggie immediately turns the most betrayed look on her. "You didn't tell us you told him," he whines.
"You were out for a good half hour after Nick gave your life force back," Luke adds. "It was really, really awkward."
"It was really, really hilarious," Alex says, smirking.
"Oops?" Julie says, and giggles helplessly at the twin looks of outrage.
She's awake and alive again, and yet, it seems, none of the best things about being a ghost have changed.
She has her ghosts.
She has her family.
And despite being in a hospital bed and weak as a newborn kitten, she feels like she could take on the world.
Julie didn't just survive, she fought back, and she came out of it strong in ways she knows her mom would be proud of, because she's proud of herself.
It's a good feeling.
6 Months Later
"Reggie, where's my eyeliner?" Julie demands, rummaging through her desk. It's not that he steals it all the time, but since he started experimenting with it occasionally for gigs, he knows it looks good on him and he's taken to stealing it just often enough that it's a safe bet he's the culprit when it goes missing.
"Sorry, Jules," Reggie says with an angelic smile as he pops in beside her and hands it to her. He brushes a kiss against her cheek, then against her lips when she glares at him.
It's annoyingly effective, she thinks, even as her hands are clenching in the leather of his jacket.
"That won't work forever, you know," she murmurs, but given that she can feel his happiness radiating out like sunbeams, it actually might.
"Where's Luke?" she asks when she finally manages to pull away.
"Here!" Luke says, poofing in and handing her the phone charger she'd begged him to track down for her while she got ready. "It was under the couch cushion. I don't even want to know how you manage that. Pretty sure life was easier before you had all these tiny gadgets to keep track of. We only had beepers. If we were lucky. And it was better."
"Alex would disagree," Julie says, grinning. She actually got them a pre-paid phone. Alex loves it, Luke won't touch the thing, and Reggie is hopeless at using it but certainly has fun trying.
"Alex is dumb," Luke says.
"He'd disagree with that, too," Reggie notes, and Julie high-fives him, her grin widening when Luke pouts.
"Where's my high-five?" he demands.
"Sorry, I lost it," she says, brushing past him, intending to grab her bag so they can go. Instead, she finds herself spun around and being thoroughly kissed.
Admittedly, she doesn't try too hard to fight it. Reggie's amusement leaks through their bond and she mentally flips him off. In response, he crowds behind her, his hands finding the dips in her waist, his lips finding that spot behind her ear that drives her wild.
"Stop that," she hisses at both of them. "We have a show to get to!" She smacks Luke in the chest for good measure, then pauses, realizing something.
"Jules?" Luke asks, raising an eyebrow at her inquisitive look.
She reaches up, brushing gentle fingers along his jaw. Feels her brow furrow as she tilts her head at him. "You need to shave," she says.
"What?" Luke laughs. "I haven't shaved a day in my life, I—" But he's reached up to feel his own skin now, and she knows he can feel the same stubbly growth she did, new and weird, almost unnoticeable except to someone who touches him as often as she does. She feels his confusion, magnified where it meets her own and Reggie's. "Well, that's…weird."
"S'not the only thing," Reggie says, and Julie turns to him. His face is flushed, and he's rubbing the back of his neck. "Noticed it a couple weeks ago and thought I was going crazy, but." He looks at Luke, gives him an unrepentant grin. "I'm taller than you, now."
"No way, you caught up just before we died, barely, and I'm still not convinced that wasn't a fluke when Alex measured us back-to-back." Luke scowls at him, but Julie considers them while Reggie ducks around her to kiss Luke, clearly hoping that will make up for his cheeky impertinence.
"No, Reg is right," she finally says. "I wouldn't have noticed without him saying something, but…he's definitely got at least half an inch on you now, Luke. Sorry." She grins at his sputtering indignation. Then immediately frowns again. "But…"
"How?" Reggie finishes for her.
Luke's fingers trail down her arm, slip under her bracelets and brush against the tattoos banded around her wrist. "Do you think…" He trails off, and his hesitation is easy enough to read on his face even if she couldn't feel his reluctance to say what he's thinking.
"You think it's the bond?" she asks. She considers it.
"What, like, we age because you do?" Reggie blinks. "Actually, that would make sense, wouldn't it? I mean, you see other ghosts because we do, you still have some ghost powers because we do, and we already knew that we got visible and solid to everybody else because we are to you."
"Ghosts make no sense," Julie mutters, not for the first time. "And ghost magic is even worse." But there's something building up inside her, something she can't do anything to hide. It feels an awful lot like hope, and it, like so many other feelings between them, is amplified when it comes from multiple sources.
Julie doesn't have to ask how they feel about this new development, because she already knows they're as awed by it and as hopeful about it as she is. She never would have left them behind, never would have outgrown them, she knows they're too strong for that.
But even if none of them have said it, they've all been afraid of how difficult it would be, watching her grow older while they perpetually remained seventeen.
"Jules…" Luke says, his eyes wide and shining.
She shakes her head, but she's laughing, the hand pressed to her mouth doing nothing to stop it from bubbling out of her. "No…no, look, we have a gig. And we have to talk to Alex about it. Later. Just…later." And then she laughs again, grabbing them both and pulling them into a hug. "We have time."
And they do.
They have plenty of time.