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A Comet Pulled From Orbit

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Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good

—“For Good”, Wicked



It was rare to catch Quentin and Eliot in a moment of passion. Alice, who had been living with them part-time for two months, had seen them smile at each other in a private, suggestive way, had seen them get up to leave the room seemingly on some prearranged schedule, clearly absconding to the privacy of a warded bedroom. She’d seen a couple of chaste kisses and more or less constant touching, arms around waists, a hand on the small of a back, legs tangled up together on the couch during a movie.

But this…

Obviously, they didn’t know she was there. Obviously, she should clear her throat and alert them to her presence. For a moment, though, she was frozen at the sight of them: Quentin’s fingers gripped in Eliot’s hair, Eliot’s hands splayed under Quentin’s t-shirt, the tilt of their bodies... Eliot pressed Quentin against the wall and muttered something into Quentin’s ear, and Quentin’s head tilted back, an affirmative coming out on a desperate exhale, and then Eliot had his hands on Quentin’s hips, and Quentin’s legs were coming up, wrapping around—

Yeah, Alice needed to get out of here. It was only… the desperation in the way they moved together, the sound of their breathing, shocked gasps and pleased hums, like everything that was happening between them was a revelation, a miraculous gift… it made it hard to look away.

It had been two thousand years, for them. She was sure it wasn’t always like this, so clearly passionate and intense and full of fervor. No relationship could stand up to that kind of soul-rending togetherness all the time. But it was frightening and more than a little beautiful, that after so long, it was still this underneath it all. Still an almost frantic need for closeness, like they hadn’t already had an eternity together, like it had to be now or they wouldn’t survive it.

“Um,” she said. Brilliant opening. It was three in the morning, and she was sitting in front of the empty fire grate in the sitting room, hidden behind the back of an armchair in the darkness. She’d thought everyone else was asleep.

Quentin made a squeaking noise and Eliot practically dropped him onto the ground, hooking an arm around his waist at the last second to keep him standing. Sheepishly, Alice swiveled the chair to face the rest of the room and made herself look at them. At their faces. Specifically.

“Hi,” she said.

Eliot, eyes glazed and expression hilariously muddled, answered her in Gaelic instead of English, and then blinked and shook his head. “Hi,” he repeated. “What. Um. Hello.”

Quentin, by contrast, had gone from locked in an amorous embrace to alert-for-danger in zero seconds flat. The minute his feet were on the ground, he angled his body so that it was between Eliot and the rest of the room, shoving him so the wall was at their backs. When he realized it was Alice, he relaxed, letting Eliot fall into step beside him.

“Sorry,” Alice said, her face heating up even more. “Uh. I was down here. I thought you guys were upstairs.”

Neither of them, Alice noted with a small measure of irritation, seemed particularly embarrassed to have been caught going at it like horny teenagers in a public part of the house. Well. It was their house, wasn’t it.

“You okay?” Quentin asked, brushing a hand through his suggestively disarrayed hair. “What are you doing awake?”

“I’m supposed to go to Chicago tomorrow,” she said. “To see my parents.”

“Ah,” Eliot said. “Julia’s brilliant plan.”

“I wish I could blame it all on her,” Alice said with a sigh, “but actually she told me to say to hell with them if I wasn’t into it.”

“But you still want to go?” Quentin asked. The two of them came forward and sunk onto the couch, sitting close to each other, but close to her, too. To offer her comfort instead of continuing what had clearly been a very pleasant interlude. The gesture, as simple as it was, nearly moved her to tears.

(She’d been doing a lot of crying lately, which Kady and Julia both told her was healthy and to be expected.)

“Um, this is probably stupid,” Alice said, annoyed at her voice for its quavering, “but they were Charlie’s parents, you know? As shitty as they were to me for so much of my life, in so many little ways, there was a time when they… when they had a baby boy and they loved him so much. Maybe the only people in the world who ever loved him as much as I did.”

Quentin looked at her, assessing. “I can tell you have a lot to work out with them. Just make sure you’re doing it for yourself, and not because you feel like you owe them anything.”

“You sound like Julia. And Kady. And a therapist.”

“Julia makes a great therapist,” Eliot said. “She went to school for it and everything.”

That didn’t surprise Alice in the slightest. From what she’d been able to gather, Julia had more degrees than the rest of them combined.

“I just. Can’t sleep, thinking about it,” Alice said. “I know it might not be the last time I see them, but if it is, then I just… how am I supposed to honor that for myself, without letting them know anything weird is going on?”

“This is very much a modern immortal problem,” Eliot said. “I can’t even remember my parents. Supposing I had them, and wasn’t gifted to this earth a fully grown god of magic.”

“I remember mine,” Quentin said, ignoring the quip entirely. “Sort of. But of course back then we didn’t have means of keeping in touch. I just… I left home, and they knew they might never see me again, and they… didn’t.”

Quentin almost never talked about his early days with her, and Alice knew better than to push for more than that.

“Thanks,” she said instead. “I think I just have to do it, and it’ll suck as much as it’s going to suck.”

“You going straight from there to Kady?” Eliot asked, and they all stood, taking Alice’s cue that the conversation was ending.

“Was thinking about it, yeah,” Alice said. “I know we’ve got that transport job—”

“We’ll handle the prep,” Eliot said. “Margo’s been itching for some action. You can come with on the day of.”

“I’ve never been to India,” Alice said. “But we’re going to be up north, right? Nowhere near Margo or Penny’s home countries?”

“The three of us once lived in Jaipur for around seventy years,” Quentin said, the same way a person might recall a pleasant day trip to the beach. “It’ll be nice to go back.” (‘The three of us’ meant Quentin, Eliot, and Margo, whose shared memories and sense of belonging set them apart, somewhere not even Julia could follow.)

At the foot of the stairs, Alice paused, turning to look at them. It was a little awkward, seeing as she was absolutely sure the second she was safely in her room, they’d be resuming their interrupted activities. Still, she needed their attention for another minute.

“Do you think I should bother? With my mother, I mean.”

They looked at each other. She expected them to repeat the standard platitudes, tell her it was her decision, affirm that she should be doing it for herself. Instead, they both answered, and while the responses shocked her, she had the sense they’d both known how the other felt about this. About all things.

“No,” Quentin said.

“Yes,” Eliot said.

They didn’t elaborate, and Alice didn’t ask them to. It was going to be the project of multiple lifetimes, trying to understand them. Quentin, the man who dedicated his life to preserving memory, to honoring the past and the journey that had brought him here. Eliot, the man who shrugged off questions about his earliest years and made jokes about springing fully formed from the skull of Zeus.

“Okay,” Alice said. “Thanks a lot.”

She meant it, but she had to say it sarcastically, it was just the rule. They both grinned at her, and Eliot leaned down to kiss her on the cheek before the two of them departed up the stairs, leaving her standing at the foot, contemplative and exhausted.

She wished Kady were here. Or she wished she were with Kady, in the tiny studio apartment they shared whenever she was in New York. Kady wouldn’t have good advice for her about her parents. She wouldn’t have the magic thing to say, or the right angle to take. But being with Kady calmed her like nothing else.

She wasn’t sure what they were to each other, and she also wasn’t sure if that mattered. They had, after all, an offensively long time to figure it out. When they were together, they slept in the same bed. They sat reading on the couch with Kady’s feet hooked under Alice’s legs. Alice made the coffee in the mornings; Kady was a grumpy bitch before ten, but she always had a smile for Alice. Kady liked wearing eyeliner sometimes, even when she had nowhere to be, and she looked damn hot in it. She liked pistachio ice cream, and had once owned a horse named Tilly. They’d kissed only once, a soft, brief press into one another, late one night just as they were slipping into slumber. Alice’s lips tingled when she thought about it. She knew it would happen again, and felt a reassuring lack of urgency about when and how and what does it all mean.

Basically the opposite of how she’d felt about most things in her life. Kady was magic in that way. The good kind.

But Alice wasn’t going to catch a portal back to the states tonight. For one thing, Julia would pout all week if she missed lessons in the morning (she was learning Scottish Gaelic, at Julia’s insistence. When she was in Crown Heights with Kady, she was learning Hebrew), and Eliot would show his silent support for her upcoming parental confrontation by making something lavish for breakfast, and that was always worth sticking around. So she trudged up the creaking stairs to her room—Kady’s room—a place that had come to feel like home to her like nothing else.

Inside the room, she took a moment to study her favorite picture of Kady and Penny, and felt the familiar mixture of regret and joy at the fact that she got to have Kady in her life, and that she’d never gotten to meet Penny. In the picture, Kady was smiling at the camera, and Penny was smiling at her. There was the edge of an elbow in the back of the frame that she thought belonged to Eliot, which meant either Quentin or Julia had been behind the camera, chroniclers through and through. The picture should have been faded but was oddly pristine, preserved by magic. It had been taken, she’d learned, in the ‘70s in Norway while they were working a job as a favor for a friend of Margo’s. Nobody had said it explicitly, but Alice was quite sure it was the last picture of Kady and Penny together, before Penny’s death a few years later.

It should have been weird, staying in a room they had once shared together, but somehow it wasn’t. And Alice had plenty in her life that she obsessed over, that she analyzed to the breaking point, but this wasn’t one of those things. Penny felt like a part of what she and Kady shared, an important piece of who Kady was and always would be, and that only made Alice care for him all the more.

She fell asleep thinking about that, instead of thinking about her parents, and slumber came easily.

***

In any case, she didn’t end up making the trip to Chicago. She’d had every intention, but that morning, completely out of nowhere, her life changed forever. Again. The sequel. An addendum to the obliteration she’d already experienced mere months earlier.

It had happened over breakfast, Eliot serving mimosas and an entire buffet full of worthy offerings. Everyone at the table was being supportive to the point of really pissing her off, aware that she was dreading seeing her mother, aware that she didn’t want to talk about it, and therefore tiptoeing around the issue like she was going to burst into tears if anyone even alluded, tangentially, to her upcoming departure.

Given her current lack of emotional equilibrium, tears weren’t out of the question. She did what she often did these days, to distract herself from her own bullshit, and asked the others for stories instead.

Julia agreed to answer her questions if Alice posed them in Gaelic, and Alice did, stumbling over a language just weeks old in her mouth. There were spells, of course, to enhance the learning speed and understandability of unfamiliar tongues, and she was using some of these tricks, but nothing beat immersion in the quest for fluency.

Julia, always eager to share tales of their wild adventures, supplemented by additional detail from Margo and Eliot, launched into a thoroughly distracting story about the time they took down a magical despot in Brazil, in the 1930’s. Apparently the man had been quietly collecting young magical talent around him for years, slowly building up loyalty in those who could command the forces of the universe should they so choose. His end goal had not been world domination, but rather the more mundane aspiration of incalculable wealth, which was its own kind of irredeemable evil as far as Alice was concerned.

Eliot had gone undercover as a new recruit to the man’s growing cult of followers, while the others all worked the problem from the outside, gathering intel and trying to extricate the man’s victims from his sphere of influence.

The story was harder to follow in Gaelic than it would have been in English, but Alice was still entirely swept up, imagining Eliot affecting an insecure loner vibe, blending in with dangerous people in order to subtly position the bad guys where he wanted them for Margo’s triumphant takedown. As the story neared its climax, Margo took over the narration to describe her heroic antics, and nobody dared contradict the action-movie-esque scene she described. Alice did catch Julia and Eliot giving each other a look.

At some point, as Julia was setting the scene for the end of the story, her eyes lit up and she snapped her fingers. “Oh! I drew him, actually. Well, not him, so much as all of us, on the attack. Quentin, making his dramatic appearance, Eliot blowing his cover and turning on the group... Penny and I had just perfected this new Traveler trick to pop me into position, and it worked wonders.”

Julia did this a lot, and it was Alice’s favorite thing about story time. She was a chronicler, as dedicated to the preservation of data and memory as Quentin was, albeit using different methods. Alice had come to treasure their nightly meditations whenever she was with Quentin and the others, nearly as much as the quiet evenings in with Kady. She’d unpacked a lot of shit that way, cleared the air about the things she couldn’t put into words.

But Julia had visual aids.

From the pocket dimension that Julia carried around with her like an oversized purse, she pulled a black notebook. The first time Alice had seen this book, or one of its companion volumes, Julia had referred to it as her “visual index” and Margo had called it a “scrapbook”, and then they’d bickered about it for so long that Alice hadn’t heard the end of the Chinese pirate story until she’d brought it up again the next day.

But the “visual index”, if that’s what you wanted to call it, was a wonderful companion piece to all of Julia’s stories. More recent tales came supplemented with photographs and newspaper clippings, but the further back in time they went, the more Julia’s sketches came to form the bulk of the historical record.

She was a good artist, of course, and so Alice often felt like she had been there, had really seen Penny Traveling himself and Margo to the top of a tree in order to escape a magically enraged mountain lion in 1745, or Eliot and Quentin staging an argument to gain the trust of a man running a smuggling operation in Russia in 1277 (approx.), or Julia and Kady’s daring two-woman rescue of a kidnapped little boy in Portugal, 1864. (That one was one of Alice’s favorites: Julia and Kady made quite the team, and Alice felt a sense of kinship with the young boy they’d rescued, remembering a Brakebills Library study room, Kady’s pragmatism and Julia’s calming yet eager presence, ushering her forward into her new life.)

Today, she studied Julia’s drawings of the gang in Brazil, 1936, marveling at the differing hairstyles and fashions: Margo with short, flapper-style hair, Eliot with close-cropped locks short enough to hide their curl. Quentin in the midst of action, confronting the shell-shocked leader, a man with a portly stomach and dark, sunken eyes; Penny and Julia, enacting a maneuver wherein Penny Traveled Julia into the air right above a spell target, and Julia, mid-cast before the Travel, completed an aerial affect, only to have Penny Travel out before they hit the ground. Julia’s art captured the chaos and the motion, each small sheet of paper showing a different scene, accompanied by her narration.

It happened then, as Julia flipped over a page in the notebook and passed it closer to Alice over their finished plates of food (Quentin had gotten up and was starting to clear the breakfast table at this point, while Margo sat back and nursed a freshly filled mimosa, listening to the story like she hadn’t been there to see it for herself).

Alice looked at another sketchy drawing, this one showing Margo and Quentin standing over their defeated foe, who had crumpled to the dirt to beg for mercy. They were the focus of the picture, but in the background Julia had sketched another vignette, Penny helping a wounded Julia to her feet. Julia often did that, painting scenes from a perspective that could not have been her own, keen to include herself in the historical record as well.

“Once we had him on his knees, he was willing to cooperate,” Julia said, tapping with significance over the plastic sleeve on the picture, right on the hapless criminal’s pleading expression.

“He had so much valuable information he was just dying to share,” Margo put in. “Ended up being a pretty fun guy to talk to.”

Under ordinary circumstances, Alice might have asked follow-up questions, chased down the implications. Asked outright, even: did you murder him? It was a question she’d need to know the answer to, as she sought to understand where her new family had come from, what lines they’d crossed, and, perhaps more importantly, what lines they regretted crossing.

But at the moment, this was the merest wisp of a thought, passing through her mind and vanishing. She wasn’t listening to Julia and Margo’s wrap-up of the story anymore. She was looking at Julia’s pencil-sketched depiction of Penny Adiyodi.

And she was in freefall.

What was it about this picture? His face in profile, his expression a grimace of irritation mixed with concern? Maybe it was the way his hair happened to be styled, or the way his clothing draped across his body. A coincidence, that it pinged something deep in her memory when nothing else had. She’d seen plenty of pictures of Penny before. She’d studied them, in fact. She’d even seen Penny in her dreams.

So why now? Why now, did the thought suddenly barrel into her brain, take up center stage, and wipe away the world around her?

I’ve seen this man before.

With a clatter, Alice’s chair scraped against the hardwood floor and she found herself on her feet.

“Al?” Julia asked, quirking an eyebrow. “You okay?”

(She hadn’t decided about the nickname yet. It was cute that Julia was trying it on for size. But once she knew what Alice had done, what would she—oh god.)

“Alice?” Quentin’s voice, standing in the open doorway between kitchen and dining room. “What’s wrong?”

Alice looked back at the sketch on the table, then snatched up the notebook and flipped through the pages, stopping every time she found another rendering of Penny. Different hair, different clothes, some in profile, some head-on. Candid, posed. She closed her eyes, and she thought, harder than she’d ever thought before. Then, like unclenching a muscle held in taut tension for several minutes, she stopped thinking. She took a step back, and leaned against the wall, next to the original Cezanne Eliot had lovingly framed there.

“I think,” Alice said slowly, when she’d swallowed enough to get saliva back into her mouth, “we have a situation.”

“Alarming,” Eliot said, leaning against the doorjamb next to Quentin. “Care to elaborate?”

Eliot was going to lose his shit.

Kady was going to—god, someone needed to call Kady. They should call Kady.

“I think,” Alice repeated, tilting her head so it thunked against the wall, “that Penny is alive.”

The room was quiet for a long moment, and when someone broke it, she wasn’t at all surprised to find that it was Julia.

“Alice,” she said, slow and careful, “he’s definitely not.”

“He’s a Traveler,” Alice said, which wasn’t at all the place to start, but when the thoughts had all come together for her in a bright-white supernova of understanding, they’d gotten jumbled, put in illogical order. “How do you know he didn’t get out of that building? You said he burned, but—”

“There were anti-Traveler wards that stopped him from getting out,” Eliot said. God, he sounded angry already, maybe at Alice, maybe at the world. She knew what she was doing. She knew what it would do to them if she was wrong. But they hadn’t even started to believe her yet. They didn’t even have hope yet, not like she did. It hurt. It was exhilarating.

“I know that,” Alice said. “But what if—what if he Traveled anyway, and because of the wards, it got messed up, and he got stuck?”

“Alice, where is this coming from?” Margo said. Her voice was as careful as Julia’s had been, like she was talking to a spooked horse.

“I saw him,” Alice proclaimed. She was aware of everyone’s eyes on her, but she closed her own again, focusing lest the completeness of the picture leave her mind. “He was in a courtyard, talking to a woman wearing white. They were arguing. There were people there—they were dressed strangely, like, in medieval clothing, but it wasn’t… it wasn’t the past.”

“You saw this in a dream?” Quentin asked, carefully. “Or maybe—Alice, I’m sorry, but it sounds like you’re talking about something that might have slipped through to your mind during meditation. Maybe one of us was remembering—”

“It didn’t happen in a dream.” And now Alice did open her eyes, to look at Eliot again. She pushed herself off the wall and approached him, trembling head to foot. Eliot’s eyes widened. She probably looked deranged. She felt deranged. “When I opened the portal. And sent the Niffin through.” She kept eye contact, stopping a few feet away. “I felt it. I was trying to send her to some random point in the universe, to outer space, for all I cared. Just—away. But my magic. My magic tugged me there. It stopped me, and a portal opened, and you pushed Amara through it.”

Eliot’s jaw bunched, visible, on the side of his face, and then his mouth dropped open, a choked sound coming through it. “And you’re saying,” he said, “that your magic was sending you to—to—”

“To Penny. To where he’s been, since he Traveled away from a burning building fifty years ago.”

“To another world?” Julia said. “To somewhere—else?” She sounded excited now, less like she thought Alice was actively losing her mind. “Are you sure?”

“No,” Alice said at once. “No, of course I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything, but I saw him. I—I saw him.” That she was sure of. She had to be sure of it, or else she wouldn’t have dared speak out loud.

It wasn’t going to be enough to convince them. How could it be? They never would have abandoned Penny if they hadn’t been certain he was really gone. They liked Alice, were maybe even starting to trust her, but this? The audacity, to suggest that they might have missed something, that she could waltz in and fix what none of them had been able to repair…

“There are other worlds,” Julia said, snapping her fingers like she’d just realized something. “Alice, it’s—you know how there can be—it’s not insane to think—if Penny was trying to get out, he might have Traveled, but because of the blockers he might have sent himself somewhere else. And it might have fucked with his magic so bad that he couldn’t find the way back.”

“There’s no reason to think that,” Quentin said, with a weariness that told Alice that Julia, at least, had hoped for a miracle at the time of Penny’s loss. Clearly they’d had this discussion before.

“There wasn’t a reason to think that,” Julia said, pointing a finger at Quentin. “Until now.”

“There are other worlds,” Alice repeated, not quite a question. There were, in a theoretical sense. The way magic worked, it sort of depended on there being other realities splintering away from the one she inhabited, but… but it was just a natural law, like gravity or the motion of the planets. A true thing, but not one you could manipulate or touch or change in any way. If there were other worlds, there wasn’t a way to get to them. Certainly not by Traveling. People would have known by now, if…

“There are other worlds,” Julia said, and she was scrambling into the kitchen, knocking Quentin and Eliot aside and reappearing just as fast, a notebook and pen in her hand. “And you saw one of them, Alice. Tell me everything you remember.”

“That’s why I dreamed of him, but not of Josh,” Alice said, her mind on a totally different track. “I had snippets of Josh, but I had a full-blown dream of Penny, his whole meeting, you all were in a house, he was acting suspicious as hell, Margo and Julia were excited about having a Traveler. His magic brought him to you. It was like instinct, Traveling directly to your position even though he’d never been across the Atlantic before. And then at the end, his magic saved him again. Sent him—away, got him out when he had nowhere else to go. It makes sense. Tell me that makes sense.”

“It doesn’t,” Eliot said. “It can’t.” He sounded dazed, but still angry, like Alice was a monster for daring to say any of this out loud.

“I sent the Niffin,” Alice said. “What if he—what if I sent a Niffin right at him and it killed him?”

“Don’t think like that,” Margo snapped. At some point while Alice hadn’t noticed, she’d jumped over to Julia’s wavelength, ready for action. It was just like the two of them, to take a spark of something and work it into a blaze while the rest of them were still several steps behind.

Alice was going to meet Penny, then. Maybe. No, she couldn’t think like that. If she thought that and it never happened what would that mean for her? For the rest of them? For—

But she wanted it. God, she wanted it, and she had since the moment she’d known he existed, like somehow if she could talk to him, just once, she’d suddenly understand something, everything, a thing she didn’t even know she didn’t know. He wasn’t a missing piece of a puzzle so much as the key to reading a map. She’d asked so many questions about him, had heard so many stories. She’d thought she’d been doing that mostly for her friends, to be that outside influence that forced them to confront their demons and begin to heal at long last. But what if that wasn’t all it had been? What if something in her, the part of her that yearned for answers beyond a general curiosity, had known that...

“But my magic shouldn’t be able to do that,” Alice said. She was the one who’d spun this insane theory out of next to nothing, out of a glimpse of a man’s profile through a portal, out of a sketch of someone she’d never met. And she’d spoken it into the world, she’d brought it into this reality, and she couldn’t put it back now. But. But— “my magic, my portal, it’s just light, why would it… how could it possibly have opened a door to somewhere else? That’s not what it’s for—”

“It’s the psychic link,” Quentin said, very quiet. When Alice looked at him, his eyebrows were bunched together, and he was looking down at his feet. “Theoretically, I mean. If Penny… if he’s alive, then you’d be connected to him the same way you are to the rest of us. It would draw you to him.”

“But how does that work—” Alice asked, desperate for an explanation. Then she waved a hand in the air, because the answer was that Quentin didn’t know. And Julia didn’t know. And if they didn’t, nobody did. “Are you saying you think I’m right? You think he could really be—”

“You think it,” Quentin said, still too soft. The room was bursting with silence, a smothering nothingness that made every word out of Quentin’s mouth pierce like an arrow, even in its gentleness. “You think it’s true, don’t you?”

“Why the fuck should you trust what I think?” Alice said, arms jumping up to wrap around herself. It had been weeks since she’d felt the phantom blast of her first death, the hole punching deep into her gut and tearing out the very core of her. She felt it now. She felt so very small, and so very full of anguished anticipation. “I could be wrong.”

“And you could be right,” Eliot said. His voice was even quieter than Quentin’s, and when he took a step in her direction, he looked like he was swimming against drying cement, like each miniscule movement was taking the effort of every part of him. “I saw that portal, too. There was something off about it. You could be right.”

In the background, Julia was talking to Margo a mile a minute, in her original tongue, hands gesticulating in front of her. Margo had pulled the pad of paper and pen across to herself, and was scribbling frantically while she listened. But all of it was buzzing in Alice’s ears as Eliot finally stopped in front of her.

He placed his hands on her shoulders, slid them down to grab her elbows. Gently, but with enough force to make his meaning clear, he tugged her arms away from her torso, and gripped both of her hands hard. Then, telegraphing his intent so she could back away if she wanted to, he leaned in and kissed her square on the mouth. “Either way,” he said when he pulled back, “we have to try.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to Eliot, to all of them, because she knew she was throwing upheaval into a system only just starting to stabilize.

And Eliot didn’t say don’t be silly or why are you apologizing or we should be thanking you. He just quirked his lips at her, because he understood exactly what was happening, what could happen, far better than Alice did. He shook his head, an infinitesimal movement that meant we’ll deal with it later.

“Q,” Margo’s voice barked out, cutting past Julia’s uninterrupted ramble, “do you remember Tunisia, back when—”

Quentin nodded and stocked away, clearly on a mission, and a bolt of shock darted through Alice when Eliot turned his head to watch him leave, but didn’t follow him out of the room. Like the strongest magnets in the world, parting by choice. It was how she knew they were taking this seriously.

“There’s a spell, it’s like the locator spell we did to find Q,” Julia was saying, and Alice, still staring at Eliot, took a moment to realize this explanation was for her benefit. “It doesn’t find a person, it finds energies, pocket dimensions, places where the boundaries are thin, that kind of thing.”

“The boundaries—” Alice said, grasping onto this, her mind sinking into a vortex of possibility and confusion. “If you’re telling me you’ve literally traveled to other universes I’m—”

“Not universes,” Julia corrected. “Worlds. In this universe. And no, we haven’t, although I’ve always been interested.”

“Theoretically, it could be possible,” Margo said. “But first things’ first—” she paused, and caught Eliot’s eye, an entire conversation passing between them in seconds. Then, she tilted her head and pinned Alice with a look instead. “Someone’s got to call Kady.”

This, then, was how it started. Not with an ending, not with death in a study room. Not with kidnapping or torture or Alice’s momentous decision to stay, to fight for a place within this new family. This, after everything, was why she was really here.

Alice didn’t believe in fate. Even growing up with magic her whole life, she’d always considered herself to be, more or less, a randomized set of circumstances, meaning made only from within, never from a force extraneous to herself. And she’d been comforted by that, the utter insignificance on a grand scale of anything she thought or did.

And then she’d discovered that she wasn’t only a magician. She was immortal, rare and special and significant whether she thought it meant anything or not. Even that had felt random, though, until this very moment. Until the thought that maybe she’d been brought forth out of the ether for just this purpose, to reunite a family, to join it, to belong to it, and to let that make all the difference in the world.

So it didn’t start with an ending, with a rejection of misery and solitude and the choice to step forward into something scary and new. That was only part of it. It began with a beginning, as beginnings are wont to do. It started right here, right now, with a goal in mind and an impossible question left to be answered. She was due a goddamn win, when it came to unwinnable scenarios.

“I’m taking the portal to New York,” Alice announced to the room at large, and her voice held firm for once, loud and clear and her own. “Kady needs to hear this in person.”