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A Comet Pulled From Orbit

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Being alone never felt right. Sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.

—Charles Bukowski



Alice Quinn woke up.

This was an unexpected development, considering the events of mere moments ago. Specifically the agonizing thirty seconds she’d spent bleeding out on the carpet, wondering in an abstract sort of way how long it would be before someone thought to look for her and found her mangled corpse tucked into the corner of a Brakebills Library study room, surrounded by the shredded remains of several large magical tomes, and her carefully collated notes.

Her notes.

Fuck.

Setting aside the disturbing fact that she really ought to be dead, Alice sat up, turning her head slowly around the room and beholding the confetti that had once been her dissertation research. The room looked exactly as it should; i.e., like a magical bomb had just exploded inside of it. Melted highlighters were stuck to the tacky carpet, scraps of singed paper still hung from the colorful binder clips she’d spent several thoughtful minutes selecting at Staples, and the finer, powdery remains of old library books rained down on her like snowflakes. The walls were covered in a sparse spray of red and black and blue from a brand new set of pens, and a single survivor of the carnage, a half-used yellow Post-it stack, had somehow wound up wedged in the corner near the door.

And to think, she’d always kind of liked the Brakebills technology ban, the way working long-hand had forced her to think carefully about how to use her time. Who needed a computer? Who needed a backup hard drive when one had magic and the true scholarly experience of clicking open a fresh ball-point and pressing the tip to a clean white sheet of paper?

She was fucked. She hadn’t brought all of her notes with her today, of course, but she’d brought enough, and she hadn’t gotten around to making copies of most of it.

She was fucked.

She was also breathing, and that… didn’t make any sense at all, did it? Carefully, sure she was about to feel a delayed pain reaction strong enough to knock her out, Alice brought herself to her feet. She felt completely normal. But her hands were sticky from pressing to whatever tacky substance had melted into the fibers of the carpet, and when she brought them up to eye level, she nearly screamed aloud at the sight of the blood.

Swallowing, she looked back down and saw that the carpet under her was drenched in the stuff. In her own life’s blood. In the blood that needed to be pumping through her body at this exact moment, if one wanted to explain the being-alive part of this whole bizarre experience. Closing her eyes and willing herself to keep calm, she mentally retraced her steps.

She’d arrived at her favorite study room, tucked into the back corner of the library’s second story. She’d warded the room for privacy and quiet, hoping to keep her students at bay, set out her notes in neat stacks perpendicular to the edge of the table, opened her thermos of coffee and poured out a cup. Then a few standard phrases muttered in Latin, her fingers twirling over the library text in front of her. A basic spell, one she’d done dozens if not hundreds of times, designed to catch any potential traps waiting for her within the old leather binding. And then, she’d opened Never Truste the Abyss: An Beginners Guide to Light Magicke and The Horrifieing Manner of Deathe that Awaites Those Who Seeke the Darkeness.

And it had exploded in her face.

Time had behaved very strangely, at that point. For what felt like several long seconds but what must have been no real time at all, Alice couldn’t feel a thing. She couldn’t react, couldn’t move, couldn’t process. And then something kicked in, previously unused receptors in her brain lighting up in order to contain the enormity of the experience. The pain had been blinding, a gasping, unbelievable sensation of torn flesh and stinging lacerations. She’d felt as if a hole had been punched straight through her chest.

Because… a hole had been punched straight through her chest. She was almost sure of it, and if the bloody, torn remains of her cardigan had anything to say about it, she was right. There was no way she could have survived it. And even if by some miracle she had, there was no way she’d be standing right now, feeling thoroughly shaken and horrified and nauseated, but otherwise unharmed.

“Oh my god,” Alice said, because it felt like she should say something, if only to make sure she remembered how. She was going to throw up, probably. Another thing for someone to clean. Blood and vomit and blood and pen ink and blood and her fucking notes— “Oh my god—”

Alice was a magician. She was a damn good magician, and the first thing a damn good magician did when she was in a terrifying, blood-covered, potentially-still-dangerous situation, was run some tests.

Shaking out her bloodstained hands and glaring at them until they stopped trembling, Alice lifted them and traced her fingers in a simple revelation spell, jerking her pinky just so, to bring the blurry room into magical focus. Her glasses hadn’t survived the explosion, no surprise, but she didn’t need them for something as obvious as this. It was a matter of seconds to confirm what she already knew: the book had been rigged to kill, and she, Master-Magician-in-Training, promising young inheritor of the Quinn family legacy, had somehow failed to notice.

Dean Fogg was not going to be pleased. How was she going to explain this to her colleagues? To the board? They’d have questions, they’d want to run tests: the complex, time-consuming, painful kinds of tests for which you had to consent in writing, even though it was obvious they were compulsory, that you’d be ejected from magical society entirely if you didn’t comply, like a Brakebills student who couldn’t hack it getting thrown out on their ass after only a couple of weeks of magic, and—

Alice sat on the floor. Abruptly. Her legs were wobbling, the room was fizzing and shaking and blurring around her, and there was a strange tearing sound coming from somewhere in the room, like paper ripping, or wind rushing out of a hole in the wall. It took her a disturbing amount of time to realize it was coming out of her own mouth. Wet, gasping breaths of disbelief and terror, as her body processed the undeniable reality that Alice’s mind was only now starting to believe.

She had been dead.

She had died.

And now she was alive.

But maybe it wasn’t so bad—these things happened, didn’t they? Magicians had meddled with the boundaries of life and death before. There were flesh golems and spirit transfers and body possession… all dark, menacing, unnatural: the kinds of things a person couldn’t do without getting all the wrong kinds of attention. But it was possible. The veil of death was malleable for those in tune with the magical arts. At least she wasn’t a Niffin, right?

…But what if she was? How would she know? What would being a Niffin feel like? And if she was one, what did she do next? She couldn’t leave this room, that was clear. If she did, and she was nothing more than the being of Pure Shade-less Magic formerly known as Alice Quinn, she’d be sure to murder her annoying students on sight, the moment they approached her with their inane, distracting chatter.

She could see it playing out in front of her like a movie: first year David Helberson would approach her, and he’d ogle her tits while he was asking her some pointless question about transliterating the old Latin use-case spellwork for basic transmutation spells into modern Farsi so as to incorporate the technique developed in the 1780’s by the famed coalition of magicians known as—well, it didn’t matter, he’d be asking her some idiotic follow-up question that Alice would definitely have already covered in great detail during the lecture, and his eyes would keep drifting south, and Alice would fight the urge to cross her arms, which her mother told her she should do more often because it actually pushed her breasts up and made her look even more like a stern librarian and if you’re going to dress like that, dear, you might as well let it work for you, and then she’d snap David’s scrawny little neck with her superpowers, just to get him to shut up.

And. She didn’t want to do that. Right? She didn’t. And that meant something. A Niffin probably wouldn’t care about curbing homicidal impulses. A Niffin probably wouldn’t be having a panic attack, a Niffin would be… well, she didn’t know what a Niffin would do, which meant she probably wasn’t one.

Alice didn’t know who she was or who she wanted to be, most of the time, but that was a pre-existing condition, definitely not related to the current catastrophe. Maybe there was a perfectly rational explanation for spontaneous resurrection after death via book-explosion. Maybe once she’d gotten cleaned up, and gotten some rest, she could be reasonable about this, and decide on her next move.

In a trance, Alice waved her hands over herself, chanting a series of basic couplets in Hebrew, then switching to Italian for a final flourish. Her clothing repaired itself, holes sewn up in her tights over the bloody places on her legs where wounds should have been, her grey sweater regrowing, the blood siphoning out of the coarse fabric and misting into the air. It was a matter of minutes to make herself look presentable, a few extra wrist-flicks to pop new lenses into the formerly mangled frames of her glasses, a quick hand petting down her hair to smooth the disordered strands.

The room itself would need a lot more work. Wincing at the shortcut, Alice shook out her rusty illusion magic, unpracticed since taking a few Brakebills electives back in her second year. As she worked, the blood vanished from the carpet and walls; the destroyed remains of months and months of laborious study and neatly organized office supplies disappeared without a trace. The result was definitely shoddy. If anyone came into this study room and did the simplest Mann Reveal, they’d see the carnage instantly. It would have been better to use her own specialty, but phosphoromancy was time-consuming when you wanted to hold it in stasis, given the changing conditions of the ambient light, and if she had to stay in this room for another five minutes she’d… Well. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. This would have to be good enough. Someone walking by, glancing through the tiny window in the door at an unused study room, would see nothing amiss. It should hold through the night, at least, until Alice decided what to do next.

She should really tell someone, consequences be damned. It was irresponsible to keep such a dangerous secret. She had no idea what she was capable of. No idea what had happened to her, if she was a ticking time bomb in some manner she hadn’t yet considered.

But Alice didn’t tell anyone.

She didn’t run to the dean, or to Professor Lipson, who might at least have checked her over for signs of internal bleeding. Instead, Alice walked out the door of the library, ignoring the student working the front desk, and marched to a building perpendicularly situated across the Sea. The faculty building, and Alice’s tiny quarters within them, were severe and unwelcoming, sparse and always too chilly, no matter how many warming charms she wove into the floor. Alice hadn’t even bothered to decorate, beyond a single framed picture of herself and her older brother Charlie, sitting on the mantle. She passed it on the way to her room, gave it a tired smile, and then kicked off her ballet flats, collapsing face-first onto her comforter.

In the morning, she’d panic again. In the morning, she’d come up with a plan.

For now, she’d sleep. She had to. She’d never been more bone-deep exhausted in her entire life, and that was saying something. Evidently, coming back from the dead could really take it out of a person.

***

Alice dreamed.

She dreamed of a penthouse with high ceilings and crystal chandeliers and the types of couches that look more like art than furniture. It had an open floor plan with large smooth pillars, and floor-to-ceiling windows along one side with a sprawling view of the Hudson River in the near distance. The earliest hints of dawn had turned the sky outside pearl-grey. The interior looked show-room ready, with stark white and minimalist bookshelves lining one wall, shiny hardcover books displayed to their best advantage, expensive crystal vases and paperweights filling in the gaps in artful arrangement.

And yet… there were signs, too, of habitation, a pair of worn tennis shoes by the door, a few spine-cracked paperbacks tossed onto the shelves next to the pristine classics, a jacket slung over the back of a barstool.

The most obvious sign of habitation was, of course, the inhabitants: sprawled in front of an uncomfortable looking white couch with an uneven curved back, were two exhausted-looking men, hair mussed and fully dressed except for their shoes. There was an unzipped duffel sitting on the couch behind their heads. One of the men, tall, lean, with dark curly hair, was lying out full-length on a shag rug, his head resting in the lap of the other, a man with nearly shoulder-length light brown hair and serious eyes. They were in the middle of an animated conversation. The man sitting up was waving his hands in the air as he talked, while his partner looked up at him from his position of repose.

Alice couldn’t hear what they were saying; the dream was soundless. But she got the sense of it somehow, anyway.

The shorter man was in full-swing as he gesticulated, his eyes wide and his expression animated as he tried to convince his companion of something important. Something exciting. He didn’t look angry, precisely, but definitely determined, and maybe slightly on edge. You can’t be just a little bit excited about this, can you? You’re determined to suspect the worst

Well, forgive me for my caution, sweetheart, but you can’t exactly ignore the precedent

And yet you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world, would you? Imagine if we’d stayed away back when

The man lying down swung an arm up and caught one of his companion’s wrists, bringing his hand to his lips and pressing a kiss to his palm. I’m here, aren’t I?

Be more than here. Be here-here, and don’t be a dick.

The curly-haired man sighed and rolled his cheek into the denim-clad leg under him. Okay.

Okay?

Yes, okay, you’ve convinced me. An affectionate eye-roll took over the man’s handsome, classical features. You could convince me of anything when you look at me like that.

Like what? Don’t be cute right now, this is my serious face.

And it’s a fearsome sight to behold, as always.

The other man frowned, clearly suspicious of his victory, but then he tilted forward, curving his torso over his partner’s face and pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose.

They were both smiling as their lips connected into a proper kiss, a slow, simmering thing that made Alice uneasy, like she’d accidentally witnessed something sacred, turning it profane by her very presence. They were beautiful together, contorting themselves to make the kiss work instead of bothering to untangle so the taller man could sit up.

And then the scene shifted to a bedroom, where a gorgeous woman in a satin nightie was stretching out in golden sheets, a tangled mass of bronze-brown hair spilling out onto the pillows behind her. Another woman walked in from an adjoining bathroom, naked, fresh from a shower and toweling off her own dark tresses, then leaned to briefly kiss the woman in bed, straightening up before the late riser’s hands could grasp her and pull her back down.

I don’t want to work today, said the woman in bed, and the other huffed at her over her shoulder.

You don’t want to work any day, unless you get to kick someone’s ass.

I’ve had less than two hours of sleep, which I find unacceptable. Shouldn’t I be practicing my delegation skills? Aren’t you always telling me to share the load?

As if you’d miss this for anything in the world.

Alice watched, a ghost trapped in restless sleep, as each of them got dressed with the practiced comfort of two humans who have long since memorized the routines of each other’s lives, dancing around the shared space with ease.

First impressions? the slightly shorter of the two women asked, as she pulled a light green blouse over her head, the sheer fabric clinging to her curves.

She’s a baby.

Of course she is. We all were, once.

Blasphemy! the woman who hadn’t wanted to get out of bed turned a pouting expression on the other. I was never so young, it isn’t possible.

Her companion laughed at her. If I agree with you, you’ll only be insulted. You are an ageless goddess, as you always have been. I say so under protest, howeveryou know I abhor being bullied into paying compliments.

Maybe you should volunteer them more often, then, hm? After a companionable pause, she spoke again: I’m serious, she’s so young. It’s positively tragic. What will we do with her?

A shrug. What we always do, I suppose.

And what’s that?

A thoughtful beat. A sigh.

I don’t know. What we can.

Alice was not aware of her body, here in the dream that wasn’t a dream, but she felt the psychic equivalent of a shiver dart up her spine. They were talking about her, and somehow she knew it. She wanted to reach out to them, demand answers, but the scene was shifting again.

She was back in the living room. The two men were up on the couch now, the taller of them with his arm wrapped around the shorter, their bodies folded into each other, heads resting together. The curly-haired man had his fingers tangled in the other’s hair, pulling gently through the strands. They looked like they could fall asleep that way, and Alice wondered if they had a room here too, like the women—if this was their home.

The front door slammed, and another woman came striding in from the entryway, her hair in wild curls, combat boots clomping inelegantly against the hardwood floors.

The men broke apart and turned to face her, as she waved a manila folder in the air, a vague greeting, and then walked past them, throwing herself onto a barstool and slapping the folder onto the granite countertop of the kitchen island.

Well? one of the men asked.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened one of them and grimaced over at the couch. Brakebills.

Great. An excellent, auspicious, totally unproblematic sign.

The shorter man furrowed his brow as he looked between the two of them. That doesn’t mean anything, you can’t judge someone you’ve never met.

Sure I can, the other man said, wrapping his arm back around his partner and pulling him in tight. I’m very good at it, in fact.

No, your better half’s right, it might be a good thing, the woman said. At least she’s got to be trained. She has an affinity for blowing shit up. Could be an asset.

I wouldn’t say an affinity, the curly-haired man said with a twitching frown. By definition, she messed it up about as badly as a person can, unless she was intending to shuffle off this mortal coil, in which case

I’ll get the others, the woman interrupted, and we can decide who’s going to go. She walked past them, down the hall, to fetch—

Alice woke up.

***

She stayed in bed for an hour, sitting up with her arms wrapped around her knees. She tried to convince herself that yesterday had been nothing more than a dramatic close call, the dream nothing more than a dream.

It didn’t work. A muggle might have been able to walk themselves back from the truth. People who lived in ignorance of magic often found ways to contort their minds around things they couldn’t explain. It was a defense mechanism against the unknown, one Alice had always pitied. Right about now, it sounded pretty good. Maybe if she stayed here and pretended hard enough, she’d find the strength to get up, take a shower, put on some fresh clothes and a fresh face, and lead the scheduled 9 o’clock Phosphoromancy Lab as planned. Then she’d get lunch. She’d do her office hours. And she’d go back to the library, maybe finish outlining the second section of her dissertation. She could even take an hour in the evening and visit the workspace set aside for her in the Applied Science Building, run a couple refracted portals, add some practical data to her developing theorem.

But this was nonsense, of course. Alice was a scholar. Alice was the proud owner of a rational mind. It was the only thing about herself she genuinely liked most of the time. Last night, she’d inadvertently killed herself in an explosion, and then she’d come back to life. Last night, she’d dreamed of people who had answers. And there was no path forward from that, other than finding those people, and asking for their help.

And before she could do any of that, she had to clean up her mess. So, after a long shower and a helpful Hangover Charm to combat the pounding tension headache at the base of her skull, she sent a note to her TA that she’d have to miss the morning lab, and started out for the library.

The fucked up thing was—one of the many many fucked up things was—Alice was pretty sure she had recognized one of the women in the dream. The curly-haired one, the one who had said Brakebills with an open look of revulsion. It was out of context, it made no sense, but Alice knew her somehow.

She was almost positive the woman hadn’t ever been a Brakebills student, but she had definitely known about the place. All of the people in the dream must have been magicians, but that was about the only datapoint she had to work with.

Alice wished she knew more about psychic magic. She’d have to ask Professor Purchas to tell her more about dream manipulation, about the kind of power needed to link strangers through their minds. Her own mental wards were solid enough, but clearly she was dealing with magic beyond anything she’d ever studied at Brakebills.

The library was startling in its sameness. It felt inconceivable somehow, that the quiet, drafty, poorly lit building could be the same as it was when Alice had left it the night before, like the world really hadn’t shifted on its axis for anyone but her.

Returning here was a risk, but a necessary one. Alice felt like a criminal, walking up the stairs to the second floor in the light of early morning, her head held high and her jaw clenched tight, going to hide the evidence of her own self-murder and self-miraculous resurrection.

And all because she’d fudged the pronunciation of a single syllable, before opening that damn book. All because she hadn’t taken a pause to double-check her own work.

Alice hadn’t been her best self lately. She’d been… better, but not her best self. She wasn’t even that surprised to discover she’d made a stupid mistake checking for traps. She’d been running on no sleep, shitty coffee, and manufactured, fraying interest in her dissertation topic. In other words, she’d been overdue for a mistake. Maybe not this big of a mistake, but still. She was lucky, in more ways than one, to be alive.

She didn’t feel lucky.

She felt—

There were people in the study room.

“Shit.”

Shit shit shit.

There were people in the study room, with her shoddy illusion magic probably already crumbling around the edges; they were trodding in her congealed blood, they were walking around on the hidden remains of her research, they were—

“Alice Quinn?” a woman’s voice hissed from behind the door. “Get in here.”

Alice was too tired, too scared, too legitimately freaked out to even think about resisting, and the next thing she knew, she was in the study room, at the scene of her own death, staring at two disturbingly familiar women as the door swung shut behind her.

“You—” she said, gaping. “You were—”

“Hi!” one of the women said, way too loud. Alice hoped they had thought to put up fresh privacy wards. “Hi, oh my god. Hi. I’m Julia Wicker.” And she held out her hand for Alice to shake.

Alice stared at her, and felt her face grow hot. The last time she’d seen this woman, it had been in her dream, and she’d been stark naked. “Um.”

“And this is Kady,” Julia said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder, other hand still held out for Alice. The curly-haired woman from the dream was also there, her fingers forming a square, viewing the room through the magical spectrum.

“Um,” Alice repeated. She was at a loss. Belatedly, blinking in stupefaction, she took a step forward and grasped Julia’s hand. “Hi. I’m Alice Quinn. What the fuck is going on?” There. That was a good start.

The woman—Julia—grinned at her, clearly delighted. “Cutting straight to the chase. I love that.”

“Damn,” the other woman said, squinting through the window of her fingers. “You really did a number on this place.”

“I didn’t…” Alice began, but what was the point of denying it? They’d found her here, they knew her name. She was at a steep disadvantage. “...mean to,” she finished, lamely.

“Hmm, yeah, we figured,” Julia said. “Okay, well, we should get this cleaned up real quick, and then we’ll be on our way?”

“What—I was going to go find you,” Alice said stupidly. “I need your help. I need answers.”

“And we’re here to provide,” Julia said with a bright smile. “But not here, okay? This place tends to put people like us on edge.”

“People like—” Alice blinked and cleared her throat. She didn’t like feeling off guard. She didn’t like being the least informed person in the room. “How did you guys even find me here? How did you get past the campus wards?”

Julia scoffed audibly, a look of sparkling amusement in her eyes. “Please. I invented the damn wards. Not that I was eager to visit, but there’s nothing any of the current crop of master magicians could do to stop me.”

Julia put air-quotes around master magicians, which Alice did not care for at all.

Alice bit the inside of her cheek hard, to avoid stuttering out another incomplete, inane question. Her blood was boiling. It was probably fear, but it felt like anger, and somehow that was easier to deal with.

“What is happening, right now?” she hissed out. “Did you do this to me? What’s going on, why did I dream about you? And what do you mean you invented—”

A hand landed on her shoulder. Alice jerked away from it, but Kady held firm, curling her fingers and ducking her head so she could meet Alice’s eyes. “You’re okay. We’re here to help.”

“I have no reason to believe you,” Alice said. The words had been kindly enough, the look in Kady’s eyes calming and sincere, but there was condescension there too. These women held all the power. Alice had nothing.

Hands shaking, she took a backwards step towards the door, flickering her gaze between the two women. Alice didn’t know any real battle magic, of course—Brakebills didn’t allow it. But she could put up a damn good shield if needed, and maybe that would give her time to run, in the event these people revealed themselves to be psychic criminals who had implanted false experiences in her brain for some nefarious, heretofore undiscovered purpose.

Not the most substantiated, as far as theories went, but Alice was, as previously mentioned, not at her best.

“We should clean up,” Julia said, contemplative, and she waved a hand, wordlessly dispelling the remains of Alice’s illusion, revealing the sickening remains of last night’s carnage. “And then we can go somewhere more comfortable and explain your new life. I promise we’ll answer all your questions, Alice.”

“My new life,” Alice repeated, blank. “Who the fuck says I’m going anywhere with you?”

Julia, who had been raising her hands into the familiar first formation for Lucier’s Cleaning Charm, dropped them and looked over her shoulder at Alice, an amused, excited glint in her eye. “Didn’t you just say you were coming to find us, looking for answers? We saved you a step.”

“Jules,” Kady said, and she looked over at Alice with an eye-roll, like they were sharing a joke at Jules’ expense. “You’re moving too fast.”

Julia looked at Kady for a moment and sighed, smile fading away as she turned to Alice. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry about that, Alice. I’m quite excitable, it’s one of my many flaws.”

Alice didn’t know what to say. She had planned on looking for these people. But somehow, despite the conversations she’d heard in her dream, she’d pictured herself tracking them down, doing this on her own terms. They’d put her on edge by showing up like this. She’d lost her composure, and that made it even harder to make a rational decision about next steps.

She needed them to help her. She had no desire to stay here in this room, or really, on this campus. But going with them to a secondary location seemed like a risk, too.

“First thing,” Kady said, with a friendly nod to Alice, “let’s get this cleaned up, yeah?”

Alice winced as she looked around the room, eyes drawn inexorably to the large dark stain on the carpet. She looked up at Kady and nodded, ready to help, but instead Kady turned away from her, facing Julia.

In what looked like choreographed movement, the two women lifted their hands and waved them in complicated, intricate patterns. Kady said something clipped and measured in German, and Alice thought she recognized the familiar basic cleaning charm she’d learned well before first year. But Julia’s hands deviated from the expected pattern after a couple of tuts, and Kady was mirroring her in an odd way. The words were off, too, the dialect strange and oddly accented.

Whatever it was they were doing, it was working. Before her very eyes, the room was putting itself back in order. A splintered chair-leg healed itself, the blood uncoagulated, misted up out of the carpet, and vanished, in a larger version of what Alice had done to her sweater the night before. Within a minute, she was standing in the study room, and it looked exactly the way it had yesterday, as she’d entered it and swung her heavy messenger bag over her shoulder, unpacking books and stacks of notes from its depths.

It helped. Alice was still rattled, her throat tight, her eyes stinging. But without the visual reminder of what had happened, she could grasp the faintest wisp of composure. Leaning with her back against the door, she looked closely at the two women. They were studying her too, a wariness to them that made Alice feel like a skittish doe in the woods. They weren’t afraid of her: they were afraid of scaring her.

And knowing that… what did it tell her?

“Who are you?” she finally said, letting the fear and exhaustion bleed out in the words. “And… and who am I?”

Julia smiled, and it was a sad thing. Alice clenched her fists at her sides to stop them from trembling. “You’re Alice Quinn,” Julia said, soft and sure. “And you’re one of us.”

“What does that mean?”

Kady and Julia looked at each other, clearly hesitant, and Alice’s throat closed tight, hair standing up on the back of her neck. It was so rare to anticipate a life-changing moment before it actually happened. To be in the crystal clear surety of it, weightless on the edge of a cliff. She wasn’t sure she was a fan.

“Maybe just say it,” Alice said, swallowing and pinning them both with as even-keeled a look as she could manage. “Tell me what’s happening to me.”

And Julia said it.

“Well, Alice, you’re an immortal. Welcome to the club.”

***

Predictably, Alice had had some questions.

There had been some rather incredulous and incoherent demands for the real truth. There had been a pocket knife, and a line drawn along Kady’s forearm, and the instantaneous stitching together of skin. There had been a sepia-toned, remarkably convincing photograph of Julia Wicker, hair styled into a bob, with a faded June 1926 penciled on the back, produced from the back pocket of present-day-Julia-Wicker’s jeans.

There had been the quiet words—you can’t die, you won’t age—and Alice’s immediate, visceral reaction to it—but I don’t want that.

There had been some sympathetic looks.

There had been some crying.

And now, Alice was walking through the woods surrounding Brakebills University, taking in big swallows of the sharp October air, following two complete strangers towards a portal location she had never heard of, trying to let the truth sink in.

“How old are you?” she asked, reduced to saying the questions out loud as fast as she could think of them.

She’d asked a lot of why and how questions back in the study room, and on the walk to her quarters, and while she was packing up a bag for her impromptu (and insanely ill-advised) trip into the city. Why me? Why the rest of you? What does it mean? Why would magic do this? How does it work? And she’d gotten a lot of noncommittal responses. Alice didn’t think the vagueness was intentional, it was more that Julia, much like herself, really despised having to say the words “I don’t know.”

So now Alice was changing tack, asking concrete questions with definitive answers. How many of us are there? Only six, apparently, including Alice. Where are you taking me? To the place she’d seen in her dreams, the lavish lap of panoramic luxury in the Upper West Side. And now—

Julia glanced over her shoulder, leading the way through the trees. “Moi? Why, I’m older than the wind, darling.”

“She’s being an ass,” Kady said, before Alice could press harder. “She likes to drag it out. I, personally, like telling it like it is.”

“So how old are you, then?” Alice asked, turning to Kady. She had another flash of recognition, like she’d had in the dream, but her mind was so awash with other things that the nagging familiarity hardly seemed worth any attention.

“I was born in seventeen ninety-nine,” Kady replied promptly, and Alice choked on nothing, stumbling over a root on the uneven path. Kady’s hand reached out and wrapped around her elbow, steadying her, and Alice coughed, keeping pace and trying not to burst into hysterical giggles.

“And when did you stop aging? How did you first—” she paused, considering. “Sorry, is that like, a personal thing to ask?” She was working without a rulebook, here. Another thing she hated.

“Very,” Julia said from in front of them. “I like you, Alice Quinn. You ask good questions.”

“And you’re older than Kady?” she asked, more terrified than curious at this point.

“Oh yes,” Julia said, and Alice could see that Kady was right—Julia was enjoying this. “Kady’s the baby. The rest of us are all older, by a significant margin.”

“The ones I saw in my dreams, they’re all like us too, then? How—when were they born? How did you all find—the dream—”

“What you need to understand,” Julia interrupted, “is that it’s been a long, long time since we’ve gotten to share our lives with anyone new. Trust me, Alice, we’ll tell you everything in time, but I won’t deprive the others of the opportunity to tell their own backstories.”

Alice thought about asking why they’d opted for secrecy in the first place, but even in the mad scramble of her mind, she already knew the answer to that one. After all, her own instincts upon waking up after death hadn’t been to run to the authorities. People mistrusted what they didn’t understand. And there were magicians out there who would stop at nothing to solve this particular mystery.

The real question, the one running in her head on a loop and crowding out thousands of more objective, academic lines of inquiry, was: how do I fix this? How do I stop this? How do I go back?

She’d dared to be dissatisfied with her lot in life, and this was what it got her.

“I get the part about not aging,” Alice said. She didn’t get it, of course, but that wasn’t the point. “I get the idea, I mean, you never grow old, you’re just stuck in time. But we’re not invincible. We’re not—vampires or—or inhuman in any tangible way? We just… get hurt like anyone else, and then heal from it later?”

“Yeah, the pain’s a bitch,” Kady said. “You never really get used to it, which I think is an unfair addendum to the whole living forever gambit.”

“If someone cut my head off—”

“Wow, jumping right to that one, are we?” Julia said with an exaggerated shudder. “Margo’s gonna love you.”

“We haven’t felt like experimenting with decapitation,” Kady said. “Maybe we’d be able to come back from it, but there’s not exactly a safe way to check. Same goes for…” she trailed off, swallowing. “Well. Point is, we haven’t felt the need to push the limits. We don’t fully understand how it works, or why.”

“I have several theories,” Julia said, and Alice felt a surprising and welcome hint of amusement at the note of defensive, wounded pride in Julia’s voice. “We might not have the answers yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“So then…” Alice said, focusing on the dirt under her feet as she struggled in vain for some measure of unified understanding. “So then it just keeps going. Life, I mean. It just keeps happening.”

What a horrible thought.

“Pretty much,” Julia said, chipper and unconcerned. She seemed to know exactly where she was going, gliding through the forest with ease. Alice had never spent much time out here, in her years as a Brakebills student or now as a fresh-faced member of the faculty. The campus was well-situated, out of the way enough that people didn’t often find it by accident. It made for a good place to discreetly portal in potential students for their entrance exams. It also made it hard to leave without anyone noticing, but Julia seemed blithely unconcerned about being seen, like she was entitled to go wherever she pleased.

Apparently, the world was now Alice’s oyster too, and she had all the time she could ever want to explore every corner of it. The thought was petrifying. She felt like she was playing out her role in a script, accepting a quest, waiting for someone to tell her the steps she had to take to return from Wonderland with a new appreciation for what she’d had all along.

“But what do you do?” she asked Kady desperately, the question less precise, less actionable, but no less urgently important. “With yourselves, I mean. With your time?”

“Here we are!” Julia said with a flourish, taking a few big, confident steps off the footpath and into a patch of dense flora. Kady followed at once, leaving Alice to clamber through the undergrowth after them. She never would have found this place without someone leading her right to it. Mostly because it didn’t look any different from any other patch of forest she’d seen in her life. The leaves were turning orange; a twig bent and snapped under her foot. She was tucked behind the cover of plants, and couldn’t even see the path they had just abandoned.

“I don’t see a portal.”

“It would hardly be a secret, private portal if anyone could stumble across it,” Julia said primly, and she nodded her head at Kady, a silent question in the tilt of her head.

“Got it,” Kady replied, and she raised her hands, folding her fingers in and then spinning them out, elbows extending and then bending with a practiced pop. Alice recognized it as something close to the portal activation spell she knew, but something about it was different. She added it to the comically large list of mental notes growing in the back of her head, meaning to ask about their magical techniques later, when they were somewhere she could relax.

If she were ever able to relax again, of course. Jury was still very much out.

The portal appeared, glowing an odd blue-ish purple, and Julia looked back at Alice with an encouraging smile on her face. “Ready?”

Alice took a brief moment to reconsider her earlier panicked theory: that these two women were actually lunatics who had enchanted her to believe in something impossible, had invaded her dreamscape, and had now taken her hostage to use her in some sort of ritual sacrifice spell.

At this point, what was she supposed to do about it? Ever since she’d woke up covered in blood and yet unharmed, she’d worried and wondered and despaired, and she’d never once considered running to her parents. To her friends, such as they were. She had no one she could trust. No one to hold her and tell her they’d figure it out, that it would all be okay.

She didn’t know Julia and Kady. They’d promised to be there for her, though, and as pathetic as it made her feel, this was the only offer Alice was likely to get.

“No,” Alice said, in answer to Julia’s question. Then she swallowed, pursing her lips and straightening her spine. “But what the hell. In for a penny.”

And she stepped through the portal.

Chapter Text

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

—CS Lewis



The penthouse looked exactly the way it had in Alice’s dream. The view was dimmed with a gauzy curtain to protect from midmorning sunlight, and the kitchen counter across the way was littered with the remnants of breakfast, but it was undeniably the same place.

Alice saw the other woman first. The one from her dream, the one lounging in bed while Julia puttered around the room getting ready for her day. Short, like Julia, with long thick hair carefully styled and hanging in loose waves around her face. Sharp, dark eyes, narrowed in contemplation as Alice approached across the living room. Everything about her put Alice on edge, caught between a flight instinct and intense, overpowering curiosity.

“Alice Quinn?” the woman said. She didn’t wait for an answer, just quirked a grin and held out her hand. “Margo Hanson. I’m your new boss. Try not to fuck us over, m’kay?”

“Insufferable,” Julia said, but she was smiling, and she gave Margo a quick kiss hello as she crossed the room to hang up her jacket on the coat rack. The placement of the rack was appropriate if one were to come in through the front door, but Julia had to cross the length of the room to reach it from the portal, which was situated against a blank stretch of wall by a hallway entrance. “Don’t listen to Margo, Alice, she comes on strong.”

“As opposed to you, the goddess of poise and patience?” Kady scoffed. Alice looked around and saw Kady waving her hand in front of the portal, swirling it shut behind her.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Alice said with a throat-clear, taking Margo’s hand. “I’m still extremely confused, but I… appreciate your help.”

She’d decided on politeness, on listening more than speaking, on gathering a strong foundational base of information before making any real decisions. She was trying to ignore the fact that the very idea of agency, of decision-making, was perhaps not on offer. She was at the mercy of these people. She was, apparently, at the mercy of the universe, and she couldn’t yet tell if what had happened to her was meant to be a gift or a punishment.

“Did you seriously blow up a six-hundred-year-old grimoire?” Margo asked, still keeping a grip on Alice’s hand. “I must say, I admire your showmanship, if not your disaster-preparedness.”

Alice frowned. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Margo finally released her hand, sighing in what seemed like genuine disappointment. “Ah, well. You can’t have everything.” She paused, giving Alice a somewhat predatory smile, then called over her shoulder. “Boys!”

The men she’d seen the night before emerged from a second hallway stretching past the kitchen, completing the set of dream-strangers, and Alice found herself fighting against a blush once again. She’d seen Julia naked, but she’d seen these two in a moment of vulnerable, private connectedness, and that seemed like even more of an intrusion. Carefully, she adjusted her glasses and kept her gaze averted from the spot in front of the couch. Did they know she’d seen them?

“Hi,” one of them said, coming forward with a broad, genuine smile dimpling his face. “Quentin Coldwater. It’s so amazing to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Alice said, oddly comforted by the look of calm assurance in this man’s eyes. The name Coldwater suited him, somehow—he was as cool and still as a pond in early morning. Natural and unassuming, but hiding unknown depths.

“And this is Eliot,” Quentin continued, as the last of her new acquaintances approached.

Alice held her hand out again, and Eliot took it and brought it up to his face. “Eliot Waugh,” he said, brushing his lips lightly against her knuckles. “Enchanted, I’m sure.”

Alice swallowed, surprised, but allowed the odd greeting, pulling her hand back as Eliot stood straight. “Hello?”

She hated herself for letting the word come out as a question, but Eliot had… disarmed her. There was really no other word for it. It had already occurred to her that these five people, these five fellow immortals, were all uncommonly attractive. The women especially—Margo could have been a model, Julia had a sultry, scratchy-voiced thing going for her, all contrasted with her seemingly endless supply of good cheer, and Kady—well, Kady could not have been more exactly Alice’s type if she’d tried.

But Eliot?

He was tall, with sharp, classical featured and artfully styled dark curls. Next to Quentin, dressed simply in a black t-shirt and jeans, Eliot looked ready for a GQ photoshoot. Creased trousers, suspenders, a vest with a shiny gold pin in the lapel. He had an odd variety of rings adorning both hands, each one meticulously maintained, and his eyes were rimmed with just a hint of charcoal, setting off flecks of gold in his eyes. Alice knew nothing about fashion, but such an ensemble must have been expensive. He was barefoot, though, and didn’t appear to be heading out. In fact, he gave every appearance of total comfort, like this was how he dressed for an average day in.

But it wasn’t the outfit, or his face, or even the way he held himself. Eliot was simply magnetic. He looked like the kind of person who could change your life if he felt like it, without even lifting a finger. Seeing him made her believe in the startling truth of her situation, in a way nothing else had. Alice found herself drawn to him and frightened of him, all at once, and if the look of arch superiority on Eliot’s face was anything to go by, he was completely aware of the effect he was having.

It was one thing for Kady to casually mention a birthdate in the eighteenth century, or for Julia to pull out an old photograph. But looking at Eliot now, she knew he was ancient. She knew he’d lived decades and centuries and maybe even millennia, that the man standing in front of her, for all appearances in his late twenties or early thirties, was older than this city, older than the arrival of colonizers on the very land so many floors beneath their feet. Perhaps much older.

“Alice, we’ve got a guest room that’s all yours, if you want it,” Kady said, and Alice turned to her, grateful for the excuse to look away. “But only if you want. You are under no obligation to stay here, and you can leave any time.”

“Christ, Kady, are you ever going to get the fuck over yourself?” Margo said, in what seemed an unnecessarily vitriolic response.

“Like you aren’t still holding grudges from before the invention of the steam engine,” Kady snapped back, and she nodded her head to gesture Alice down the hall.

“What was that about?” Alice whispered as Kady guided her to a sparsely but nicely adorned bedroom. There wasn’t much to look at, just a queen sized bed, a table, dresser, and a door leading to the closet. The color palette was done in seafoam greens and greys, with blue accents. It looked like a bedroom in a beach-themed Airbnb, minus the tacky shell ornamentation.

“When I joined them,” Kady said, with a twist to her lips, “they practically held me hostage for the first week. I mean, they didn’t say I couldn’t leave, but there was a distinctive vibe.”

“Oh,” Alice said, frowning as she set her tiny suitcase down next to the bed. “Why?”

“Because they’re a bunch of insular, codependent idiots with trust issues,” Kady said, but she looked Alice right in the eyes as she said it, with a huge fond smile on her face. “They win you over in the end. I promise.”

“Well, I appreciate the warning,” Alice said, laughing a little nervously. Whenever Kady smiled at her, the flash of memory grew stronger. Kady hadn’t given any sign that she recognized Alice, though, so maybe it was all in her head. The sense of familiarity might be a weird side-effect of… well, of whatever it was her life had suddenly become.

“I made Margo agree to let you retain your free will,” Kady said, gesturing towards the door and letting Alice exit the room ahead of her. “And now she’s acting like she’s doing me a huge favor.”

“She seems…”

“Yeah, exactly,” Kady said as they reemerged into the living room.

“Has anyone offered you a drink?” Eliot said as soon as he saw her. “Breakfast is over, but we had mimosas. I’d be happy to whip something up, if you haven’t eaten?”

So polite and proper. It might have sounded ridiculous, coming from anyone else. Paired with the way he was dressed, it was like Eliot had stepped out of the wrong century.

“I’ve eaten,” Alice said. It was technically true. She’d had a packet of cold strawberry Pop-Tarts that morning, before she’d left for the library. The pastries had crumbled in her mouth, the phantom taste of blood making it hard to swallow.

“Well, I’m at your disposal should you need anything,” Eliot said, with a slight nod of his head. Quentin gave his partner an indecipherable look, but then smiled gently at her, coming forward.

“I’m sure you have about a thousand questions,” he said, putting a guiding hand on her shoulder and walking her over to the couch. She sat down on it, noting that it was a lot more comfortable than it appeared. “It’s going to be overwhelming for a while.”

In some ways, it would have been easier if they weren’t all being so nice to her. Alice knew from experience that she wasn’t fragile, that she could pick herself up from shattered pieces and keep marching forward even under acute pain and isolation. Being treated like delicate glass was distasteful, but Alice was adrift, and these people were the only port in a storm. She had to play their game.

In the wake of Quentin guiding her to the couch, the other four also entered the living room, and Alice found herself quickly surrounded on all sides by a flock of somewhat anxious, undeniably curious, apparently invincible and immortal new friends.

“I don’t even know where to start,” Alice said, which was perfectly true. Overwhelming, Quentin had said. If she stood up and said she needed to get some air, they’d probably let her walk away. And then they’d talk about her while she was gone, they’d laugh at her ignorance, at her fear… or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they were actually kind. How could you ever really tell?

“We’ll answer any questions you have, to the best of our ability,” Julia said at once, and she placed a hand on Alice’s arm, reaching up from her spot on the floor, where Quentin had been sitting in the dream. “The good news is, none of us have anywhere else we need to be right now, so we’re all yours while you get settled.”

There it was again—that odd implication that Alice was here to stay, that this was the start of her new life, with a new family. Like it was a given, that she’d slot into place here.

As a child, she’d fantasized about being sent to boarding school, about moving into a dormitory lined with bunk beds, full of bright, attentive, interesting girls who would like her immediately, accept her as one of their own. She’d lived in a world of magic from the start, and yet she’d still been waiting for that letter from Hogwarts.

But this didn’t feel like a fantasy come true. This felt like giving up control, and Alice had never been good at that.

“I have a lot of questions,” she managed to say, swallowing around a suddenly dry throat. She looked straight ahead at the wall across from the couch, where instead of a TV there was nothing but a print of one of Monet’s water lilies, in a simple silver frame. She was trying to avoid Margo’s intensive stare, trying to avoid the nearly audible buzz of curiosity she could feel pressing in on her from all directions. They clearly had questions of their own. “I have—a lot I need to know,” Alice repeated. “First thing’s first: what do you do with your lives? With your… your…”

“Superpower?” Julia suggested.

That was not how Alice would have put it. She nodded anyway.

“Well,” Quentin said, a bit hesitant, “we’ve… we do our best to help—”

Margo interrupted him with a snap of her fingers. “That’s not first thing’s first,” she said, swirling her finger through the air and pointing it directly at Alice’s face. She was sitting on an ottoman, and she leaned in close as she spoke. “I’m sure you’re a nice person, Alice Quinn, but first thing’s first is actually you promising to keep your mouth shut. All of this shit, the immortality, the invincibility, you keep that on lock, capiche? If you don’t, we’ll find a way to make you regret it.”

Alice nearly laughed, it was such a surprising, meanspirited bolt out of the blue, so counter to everything she’d expected from this exchange.

“Margo, seriously?” Kady said, snapping her head up to look at Margo, and then over at Alice.

“My god, you’re a menace,” Eliot said, but there was laughter in his voice, and Alice bristled automatically, sure she was being laughed at by them all. She couldn’t get her jaw to unstick, to reply. She didn’t know what to say.

“She’s new, you’re going to have to explain your shit before you start throwing threats around,” Julia added, which honestly didn’t help at all with the impression of condescension and manipulation.

Alice stood up, still surrounded by the five of them, and looked towards the turn that would lead her to the front door. “You’ve given me no reason to trust you, or believe you,” she said, turning her eyes back down to Margo. “I came here, willingly, because I was told you could help.”

“And we can,” Margo said. She didn’t seem at all phased by Alice’s reaction. “I’m happy to help you, Alice, I’m simply telling you how it is.”

“Margo’s protective of what’s hers,” Eliot added, and Alice turned her head over her shoulder in time to see Eliot wrap a completely unsubtle arm around Quentin’s shoulders. “Someone like you coming in… if you decided to talk, it could make things difficult for us.”

“Someone like me,” Alice repeated, cold. That could mean anything. It could mean nothing. Eliot’s eyes were an unconcerned blank; he mostly just looked bored.

“What a prosperous beginning to a new relationship,” Quentin said, his voice brittle and disapproving. Alice noticed that he didn’t pull away from Eliot’s arm, but he did frown at him, and turn the frown over to Margo as well, before reaching a hand up and placing it gently at Alice’s elbow. “I hope you stay, Alice, and I hope you don’t judge us too harshly. It’s been a while since we’ve had any practice at making a new friend.”

Alice was the kind of person who cried when she got angry. It was one of the things she hated most about herself. She couldn’t stand the thought of it happening now—her rage and embarrassment boiling over, splashing tears down her splotchy face. She didn’t know these people at all, but she could already see it play out: Julia would be sympathetic, Margo amused, Eliot aloof and uncaring…

It wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t overreact. She wouldn’t give them what they wanted, what they expected. Besides, she had nowhere else to go. When she took a deep breath, it was almost like she could still feel the gaping, bloody hole in her chest. She’d been carrying it around since last night. In some ways, she’d been carrying it around for years.

She sat back down.

She stared at Margo, and ignored everyone else. It was time to reorient, time to grab on to a bit of dignity and build a goddamn foundation under herself before she floated away in a sea of questions and confusion and fear. “Like I said, you’ve given me no reason to believe you, or trust you. But I can respect a woman who protects her people. You don’t have to resort to threats. You don’t know me yet, and I know getting myself blown up didn’t make the strongest first impression. But I can assure you, I’m not actually stupid. Certainly not stupid enough to do anything to piss you off when you’re holding all the cards.”

And Margo smiled.

It was more or less exactly what Alice had expected, and she took grim satisfaction in being able to read her so easily.

“Well, well,” Margo said, resting her chin against her own fist. “I think you might do quite nicely, Ms. Quinn.” She straightened up, clapping her hands against her thighs and scooting her hips forward so the ottoman pulled across the rug, until their knees were touching. “I take back exactly zero percent of anything I’ve said so far, just to be clear. You fuck us over, I fuck you up. However, you may proceed to ask your questions.”

“Fine,” Alice said, laser-focused. Information gathering had to be paramount. Nothing else could be done until she had some basic answers. “Question number one, again: who are you people?”

There was a brief, contemplative pause, and then everyone spoke at once, the words overlapping.

“The special ops of the magical world,” Margo said.

“An unofficial peace-keeping coalition,” Quentin added.

“Guardians of magic’s greatest and most dangerous secrets,” Julia suggested, with jazz hands.

“…We’ve never settled on a name,” Kady finished, gifting Alice with a grin. Alice let herself return it, instinctual.

“We do what we can to help,” Eliot said, with another bored shrug. “We can’t die, so eventually you run out of things to do. We’re all magicians, we’re all decent people if you catch us on a good day, and we’re uniquely positioned to help curtail some of the world’s more explosive excesses of magic.”

Eliot hadn’t put any special emphasis on the word explosive, but Alice heard it in her head anyway. For the first time, it occurred to her to be genuinely embarrassed about the way she’d discovered her own talent for not dying. Not exactly an honorable departure from this world, regardless of the fact that it hadn’t stuck.

“We’re just people,” Quentin said quietly, and as Alice watched, Eliot chafed his hand down Quentin’s arm, tangling their fingers together. “In a lot of ways, we don’t know any more about this situation than you do. We’ve just had a lot more practice dealing with it.”

“Okay,” Alice said, letting that sink in. For a moment there was silence, and she looked at each of them in turn. They were all studying her with unreadable expressions. Maybe it was because she already knew there was something different about them, but Alice could swear their eyes were wrong somehow. Every one of them, like they’d seen more than they were ever meant to. There was an avidity to their expressions, too. She was fresh meat. If they were as old as Alice was starting to suspect they were, she supposed the addition of a new immortal would be some cause for interest.

“Next question?” Julia prompted.

“Uh.” She wished she had a notepad. There were too many things she wanted to ask, and she’d had no time to prepare.

“I guess, for one thing, I’d be fascinated to know when each of you was born? And how you managed to find each other. And the dreams—how exactly do they work? I’ve never heard of a psychic neural network spontaneously connecting complete strangers like that—did you all have them about me? About each other? You say you work to curtail magical excesses. Do you do that on your own initiative, or is someone sending you on… on… I don’t know, missions? What about Niffins? I know they’re functionally immortal too, but that depends on magic fueling them, and this seems to be wholly separate from any magic I’ve ever seen. Who else knows about you all?” She paused to take a breath, nowhere near done with her mental list of questions, but Margo spoke before she could continue.

“Oh boy,” she said, raising both eyebrows and sticking her tongue out against her upper lip. “We’ve got another one.”

“We’ll be outnumbered in no time,” Eliot said, tugging on Quentin’s hand so Quentin was practically forced to slide over into the curve of his arm, a little further from Alice.

“What—”

“You’re being labeled a nerd,” Quentin said. “And my discourteous partner here is lamenting that you’ve arrived to swell the ranks of those of us who care about things like intellectual rigor and scientific study.”

“Bambi,” Eliot mock-whispered to Margo. “I think Q’s calling us stupid.”

You’re stupid,” Margo said immediately, gnashing her teeth at Quentin, who laughed.

“We’re happy to have you,” Julia said to Alice. “And we’re happy to answer all of your many, many questions. Or, at least, Q and I are happy to do so, and the others can get on board or face the consequences.”

“Oh hush, you,” Margo said, batting her eyelashes at Julia. “We’re all happy to help you, Alice.” She sounded genuine, but there was still that razor’s edge to her voice that kept Alice on her toes. “As long as you remember, this shit’s a two-way street.”

And she stood up, sauntering away from the living room, as if to declare the meeting adjourned.

***

It was, without a doubt, the weirdest day of Alice’s life.

She’d had worse days, certainly—much worse, if you considered the days-months-years after her brother Charlie’s death, the aching loneliness and sense of wrongness, the way she’d been set adrift in a world where not a single soul remaining had ever tried to understand her.

But this day was—weird. She kept waiting to have a panic attack, or to decide that the whole thing was a wash and demand to be taken back to Brakebills. She kept waiting for the part of her brain that approached problems with sense and logic to snatch the reins from whoever had been steering all day, and get her the fuck out of this ass-backwards fairy tale. Or freak show. Instead, she stayed, without quite knowing why.

Because the other thing was… everything was very normal, here.

Eliot and Margo made grilled cheese sandwiches around lunch time. At some point Kady took a phone call and then left to run an errand; Eliot and Quentin left in the early afternoon to go grocery shopping and came back with ingredients for dinner. Margo excused herself to do some cardio in the building’s exclusive gym. They all just kept living around her, doing things that people did. She had no idea what to make of any of it.

But she stayed. She stayed, and she asked questions, and she borrowed a notepad and pen.

Julia had basically adopted her. She was eager to share her theories, and to prod Alice with questions about her own magical abilities: about what exactly she’d seen in her dream the night before, about her family’s history with magic and any rare disciplines that may have cropped up along the family tree. At one point, somewhat to Alice’s alarm, Julia had produced a projector from the bottom shelf of the linen closet and presented Alice with an honest-to-god slide deck titled “Psychic Neural Networks: The Rational Explanation Behind the Dream of Destiny”, and had given an extremely detailed and well-prepared lecture on the numerous different working theories behind the shared connection of immortality, the way they were drawn together against all odds through literal centuries of adversity and cultural differences and time and space and—

It was all fascinating, and also made Alice double down on her opinion that Julia hated being in the dark just as much as she did. Julia had no fucking clue why they all dreamed about each other, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud. It made Alice like her, somewhat against her will.

The entire group seemed strangely invested in pointing out the advantages of immortality: Kady casually let the bomb drop that Margo Hanson actually owned this ridiculously extravagant penthouse outright, and that it was hardly the only luxurious abode they owned among the five of them. (“We live forever, Alice. We can wait for investments to pay off.”) Julia leaned on the academic angle, on the gift of endless time to learn and study and understand the world and all the magic it had to offer.

Of course, the dark side of living forever was there like a negative image at all times. It felt like a sledgehammer waiting to hit her in the stomach. The future, where everyone she’d ever known would grow old and die, and she’d be… this. Herself. Forever. She’d have to leave her job, she’d have to run away from the New York magical community. People would notice eventually that she’d stopped aging, and telling anyone outside of this little group the truth was manifestly not an option. Alice didn’t need Margo’s threats to understand what might happen if the wrong people found out about what they were.

“You’re lucky, you know,” Quentin said to her at one point, after Julia had wrapped up a long-winded, passionate diatribe on the history of magical study in the United States and its inequitable practices.

At first, Alice thought Quentin was about to add his own plus-side observations in immortality’s favor. Maybe something about finding a partner who’d love you through uncountable lifetimes, or the advantages of never having to worry about broken bones or concussions for more than a minute or two.

“I don’t feel lucky,” she said, before he could go on. “I keep thinking about every piece of fiction about immortality. They’re always about how it’s secretly a curse.”

Quentin nodded at that, like this was a consideration with which he was already familiar. “I felt the same way. Sometimes I still do. But you—you learn. I know that doesn’t mean anything to you yet, but you will learn.”

They were sitting at the dining room table together, Alice with her rapidly filling notepad in front of her. She was a good note-taker, and even though she felt somewhat absurd writing down the impressions and information she was learning from Julia, as if this were an ordinary lecture, she knew the importance of putting pen to paper. This day would be branded in her memory forever, but that was no guarantee of accuracy.

“I suppose I am lucky, in the most basic sense,” she conceded. Quentin was looking vaguely in the direction of the hallway, where Julia had excused herself to grab some additional notes from her room. “I should be lying in a morgue right now.”

“Yes, well,” Quentin frowned, a flash of dismay, and then his expression smoothed out into that same neutral, gentle kindness he’d been wearing all day. “That wasn’t what I meant, really. I don’t know if I’d call you lucky for being… whatever it is we are. I mean more specifically, you are lucky that this happened to you when it did.”

“In what way?” Alice asked.

“When we dreamed of Kady,” Quentin said, furrowing his brow, “we were in the middle of running for our lives. We basically had to kidnap her.”

That sounded like an interesting story, and Alice fought against the urge to ask more. There was so much to learn; her brain kept skittering off in different directions, an almost hysterical need for information disrupting her usually ordered mind.

“But with you… you died as the result of a simple mistake,” Quentin continued, giving an apologetic shrug of his shoulders. “I don’t mean to minimize your pain, but it was a random accident, and you’ve already found us. We are all here to welcome you, to teach you, with no pressing business dividing our attention.”

Quentin had a precise manner of speaking. He had no distinguishable accent, but Alice got the sense that he was thinking about every syllable as it passed his lips, choosing them with care. She blinked, remembering the way she’d understood the words in her dream. It had suddenly occurred to her that nobody had been speaking English. And that maybe, if not for her benefit, they wouldn’t be speaking English now.

“I’m grateful,” Alice said, looking across the room to where Eliot and Margo were sitting on the couch together, heads bent low in conversation. “You’ve done a lot for me.”

But Quentin shook his head. “I wasn’t fishing for gratitude. I merely wished to say… this introduction to our life, it was not so peaceful, for all of us. We should all be taking advantage of this time of relative tranquility.”

Alice thought about pushing back against such an assessment of her experience thus far. Having a hole blown through her chest in the middle of an otherwise mundane Wednesday evening wasn’t her idea of peaceful. But it felt childish to say it, somehow. Quentin evoked a milder version of that itchy, uncertain awe that she felt when she looked at Eliot. They were both polite, and had been nothing but kind to her, and yet she could tell that in their eyes, she was unbearably fragile, and terribly young.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Oh,” Quentin said, with an odd look on his face at the change of topic. “Here and there. I suppose anywhere, really.”

“If it’s something I shouldn’t be asking, you can tell me to fuck off,” Alice offered. She’d been a question-asking machine all day, and everyone had responded to her readily enough. She hadn’t asked many questions about their personal pasts, however. She was insanely curious; even Kady, apparently the youngest, could tell her things about history she’d never be able to learn from a book. But she didn’t want to push too far, too fast.

Quentin shook his head at her, grimacing, and answered. “Ireland. I’m from… originally. I was born there.”

“Am I allowed to ask… when you were born?”

“You are allowed to ask,” Quentin said, with another one of those smiles that folded up the corners of his eyes, and brought lively animation to every inch of him. “And I’d give you an answer if I could, truly.”

Alice swallowed, letting the implications of that sink in. “You’re saying you don’t remember?” The words came out in a whisper.

“I’m saying… the way we reckoned the date back then wasn’t…” Quentin cut himself off and looked over at her, a sly expression on his face. “Julia likes to draw it out, but I’ll put you out of your misery. My first death happened fighting the Romans during the Gallic Wars.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Alice said, blinking down at the tabletop and trying to collect her bearings. She was no historian, but she did know that the Gallic Wars had been fought by Julius Caesar, and that he’d been killed in— “Oh Jesus.”

“I believe he hadn’t quite been born at the time, although we would have been very nearly contemporaries,” Quentin said. When Alice looked at him in confusion, he explained, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Jesus, I mean.”

“You’re not fucking with me right now?” Alice said, staring at him with mounting horror. “You’re over two thousand years old?”

Quentin gave a small shrug of acquiescence, but before Alice could think of what else to say, Eliot approached, having caught the tail-end of their conversation.

“And yet he doesn’t look a day over five hundred,” Eliot said, leaning down to press a quick kiss to the top of Quentin’s head. “I am a lucky, lucky man.”

Ná déan dearmad air,” Quentin shot back, grabbing at Eliot’s wrist. “I am youthfulness itself, compared with you, mo chridhe.”

“You know you’ve got him riled up when he starts mixing languages,” Eliot said with a quick wink, like he was letting Alice in on a secret. She smiled back at him, tentative, and was abruptly annoyed with herself. It shouldn’t matter if Eliot liked her. She wasn’t here to make friends, she was here for answers.

In any case, the look of friendly conspiracy on Eliot’s face was gone in a flash, and he walked away without another word, towards the kitchen.

“Sorry, we’re in the middle of an argument,” Quentin said, waving a careless hand.

Alice thought about the forehead kiss, the terms of endearment, and the way they’d curved around each other in perfect, uncomplicated ease the night before, with Alice’s unintended dream voyeurism there to catch the moment of connection.

“This is you fighting?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Quentin gave a polite laugh. “After millennia, you get bored of all the carrying on.”

The thought shouldn’t have been appealing, but it was. She still felt so much, sometimes. So much about losing her brother, about her lonely years at Brakebills, about the shit with her parents. And one day it would all become dull and hazy, an irrelevant memory. In its place, she’d have the steadfast presence of a family for whom small human disagreements meant nothing at all.

She wanted to be terrified of that dampening of passion. She should want to hold on to the immediate and intense fact of her humanity all the more, in the face of the alternative. If pain over Charlie’s death would fade someday, did that mean her love for him would fade too?

Alice’s life as she knew it was over, and no amount of objective thought would change that. Sure, she could go back to Brakebills for a little while, live in denial until the years failed to show on her face. She could walk out this door right now, and never speak to these people again if she wanted. But she already knew she wouldn’t be choosing that path. Objectively, she was terrified. Objectively, this was a nightmare and it was confusing and she was trapped and at the mercy of people she had no reason to trust.

But she couldn’t ignore that underneath the fear and the anger and the strange, aimless grief, it didn’t feel like her life had just ended. It felt like she was finally waking up.

***

Eliot invited Alice to stay for dinner, which turned out to be couscous, with salmon and fennel and sun-dried tomatoes, along with an absurdly varied selection of expensive wines (Eliot recommended a chilled pinot noir, to go with the fish), and mango and orange blossom parfait for dessert.

From everything Alice had seen over the course of the day, it seemed pretty clear that Margo was the one in charge—she certainly hadn’t been shy about telling Alice she called the shots. But Eliot was the one who played host, who had prepared every aspect of the meal, with Quentin hanging out in the kitchen drinking a glass of wine to keep him company while he worked.

And while Eliot had been perfectly, unimpeachably nice to her from minute one, he also wasn’t letting her forget that she was a guest. Welcome, but an outsider nonetheless. It was only natural, she supposed, but she didn’t like it. She wanted to be that girl in the boarding school dorm room. She wanted the automatic friendship only achievable through constant and prolonged proximity with your peers. She wanted, with an ache in her chest borne of familiar loneliness, to be in kindergarten, for affection and closeness to be easily won in the course of the day.

(She also wanted to lock herself alone in a room, scream into a pillow, pinch bruises into her thighs to see if they’d really heal instantly, when they certainly never had before. She wanted Charlie.)

But real, adult intimacy couldn’t be won so quickly, she knew that well. And the care and attention Eliot had put into the night’s meal had to be a good sign, didn’t it? They gathered to eat, and Alice was struck once more by the relative normalcy of the group. They were friends, all apparently in their late twenties, early thirties: an eclectic, diverse combination of personalities that all seemed to gel together. If there were discordant notes to the symphony, they were doing a good job of hiding them from Alice.

“Oh,” Quentin said when he took his first bite. “God, El, this is good.”

“I’m a fan of this whole Mediterranean kick you’ve been on lately,” Julia said, nodding in agreement and taking a bite of her own.

“Do you always do the cooking?” Alice asked him, and he raised his eyebrows at her over the rim of his wine glass before answering.

“Q likes it when I slave over a stove for him. Gets him all hot and bothered.”

“I will stab you with this,” Quentin said, waving his fork in Eliot’s general direction, but then scooping up a second piece of salmon instead. “I despise you for your talents, they give you an unfair advantage.” But he closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure at the next bite of food, and Eliot’s eyes literally sparkled when he looked at him.

“And yet you tolerate me despite my prodigious accomplishments.”

“Sometimes I think you only married me to stroke your ego,” Quentin said.

“Sometimes I think you only married me because I keep you fed.”

“I’d marry you just for this, no question,” Quentin agreed, waving his fork over the plate of food. Alice had taken a couple of bites of the dish, and it was ridiculously good.

“I’d have married you and cooked for you every night, amore mio, just to hear the sounds you make when you’re enjoying yourself.”

“Okay, yuck,” Margo cut in as Quentin smiled at Eliot, wide and without guile. “Not in front of the baby.”

Alice swallowed a bite, a bitter aftertaste rising up her throat as she looked at Margo. “I’m the baby?” she asked, annoyed, and Margo nodded.

“Free at last!” Kady said with a little fist-pump of celebration. Julia held a hand out for her and they high-fived.

“You’re still positively an infant by my standards,” Eliot cut in, surprisingly sharp.

“By your standards, literally the whole world is made up of nothing but children,” Julia said, in a milder tone of voice. “Us new kids on the block can hardly be expected to keep up.” She gave Alice a friendly smile and a wink, and Alice saw her put a brief hand on Kady’s arm, a silent sign of support or restraint.

Alice wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to ask, but she kind of had to know, didn’t she? If Quentin was two thousand years old, and Eliot was older… “When were you born, Eliot?”

He didn’t glare, or sneer, or tell her to mind her own business, but Alice could have sworn she saw him suppress the impulse to do all three. Nothing about his expression changed however; he was still looking at her with bland reserve.

“My exact origins have been lost to the mists of time,” he said, and Alice honestly couldn’t tell if he’d phrased it that way just to mess with her.

“El,” Quentin said gently, pointedly. Eliot looked at him, and then sighed and looked back at Alice.

“Greece. Exact date of origin is genuinely unknown; our brains aren’t designed to remember that far, and at the time I didn’t see the point in paying particular attention.”

Alice nodded, willing to let it go at that, but Eliot let out a small sound of irritation and rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. “However, using context clues and studying the history of my own former people, I can tell you that my original death occurred in or around a particular coastal pass you’ve probably heard of, called Thermopylae.”

Alice would like to believe she did not proceed to goggle. But she probably goggled. “Like—sorry, like—the Battle of Thermopylae. Like—300?”

Margo let out an immediate laugh. “Oh shit, Alice, you’ve really done it now.”

“Like 300,” Eliot said, with a groan. He drained off the rest of his wine and waved a hand in the air to bring over the decanted bottle from the kitchen counter, pouring himself a fresh one using the most impressively precise telekinesis Alice had ever seen. “Like 300, she says. So many glistening abs, so many insultingly inaccurate depictions of battle tactics. I mean, has Mr. Snyder even heard of a phalanx?”

“Okay, look, it was my brother’s favorite movie, it’s not like I thought it was accurate,” Alice said, feeling the tips of her ears turn pink. Despite an attempt at scholarly detachment, she was all reaction, all raw, untethered curiosity and mounting panic, trying to do the math in her head.

“Plus,” Eliot said. “I know this is common knowledge amongst those who do even the most preliminary research, but those three hundred Spartan dickholes were not the only ones there, and it wasn’t some—some—glorious march to victory against despots, or—”

“He feels his contribution to history has been besmirched,” Julia said to Alice, sotto voce, as Quentin tried to cover Eliot’s mouth with his hand. “Never mind the fact that most of the time he pretends he can’t remember any detail at all.”

“Traitor,” Eliot said, and he flipped her off, a ring with a beautiful amber setting flashing in the light of the nearest chandelier.

For some reason, this made Julia smile like Eliot had paid her a huge compliment, and Eliot smiled back, more animated, more human, than Alice had yet seen him. With a sigh and another grumble of dissatisfaction, he turned to Alice again. “Yes, the famed Battle of Thermopylae. I suppose I’m lucky, in a way, that the scene of my death is part of recorded history, even if my personal memory is hazy.”

“I feel like someone needs to explain the immortality etiquette to me,” Alice said, scrunching up her face in apology, even as her brain tried to supply an accurate date for the battle in question. Older than Quentin by a good four or five hundred years, she thought. She’d need to Google it later. “It feels—rude? I guess? To ask you all how you died.”

“We don’t keep important things from each other,” Julia said. “I know I teased you earlier about asking prying questions, but you’ll know it all soon enough. Some of us might pretend otherwise, but the temptation to actually talk about our pasts is going to be too difficult to resist.”

And so it proved to be—as the meal wore on, as Eliot showed off with his telekinesis to not only clear their dishes but also bring out individual parfait glasses for dessert, Alice learned a broad outline of their history. Margo was born in India, around the same time as Quentin. Julia was a full millennium younger, having been born sometime in the early eleventh century CE, in a place that, in Julia’s words, had quite recently been given the name ‘North Carolina’.

Alice acknowledged the twinge of white guilt, unsure how to respond. It had already occurred to her, of course, that these people had lived through large swaths of history. And that meant that in several of their cases, they’d lived through the devastation of the communities they’d once called their homes.

“And then there’s me, boring old denizen of the nineteenth century,” Kady said with a grimace. She raised her mostly empty glass of wine, and Eliot, ever the host, stopped playing with Quentin’s hair and twirled his hands around, wordlessly lifting up the two open bottles on the counter.

He raised an eyebrow and said a word in a language Alice was pretty sure was Hebrew, although her limited Brakebills vocabulary couldn’t translate it.

Kady answered back in the same language, before blinking, remembering herself, and turning to Alice with an apologetic shrug. “I’ve told him not to waste anything expensive on me. I can’t tell the difference. Wine is wine.”

“You’re a heathen,” Eliot said with an altogether too-convincing huff of disdain.

“I’m just saying,” Kady shrugged, turning a calculating look in Alice’s direction as she caught the floating wine bottle and topped herself off, “wine will get the job done, but if I had my druthers, I’d be at the Golden Barrel, downing shots of whisky and making interesting new friends.”

And there it was.

It slammed into Alice with mortification and exhilaration all at once, where exactly she’d met Kady before. With a squeak and a cough into her napkin, she flitted her eyes over at Kady to find her staring, a smirk of amusement lighting up her face, green-gold eyes sparkling.

The Golden Barrel was a hedge bar in Brooklyn, one of many regular stops on Alice’s grief-stricken, alcohol-soaked tour of New York in the months after she’d finally given up on Charlie. She’d already had years to mourn for him, but she hadn’t done it, pushing aside the tears and the desolation in search of answers. When it had finally dawned on her that no closure was to be found, she’d crashed. Hard.

And at some point during that months’-long crash of uncharacteristically debauched behavior, she’d met...

“You—oh my god.”

“Is there gossip? I smell gossip in the air,” Margo said, sitting up straight and swiveling her head between Alice and Kady with unconcealed glee.

Kady held out a hand across the table to Alice with a cheeky grin. “Kady Adiyodi,” she announced. “I don’t think we got as far as last names, the first time we met.”

No,” Julia gasped in obvious delight. “Seriously? Damn, Kady, nice pull.”

Quentin snorted quietly, and shook his head at Kady. “You are unbelievable.”

Only Eliot didn’t look amused, turning narrowed eyes in Kady’s direction. “So you know each other. You know her, and you failed to mention this?”

“We don’t know each other,” Alice cut in quickly. “We met once, three years ago.”

Eliot ignored Alice entirely, squaring his shoulders and facing Kady. “We don’t keep secrets, Kady.”

“Calm down, El,” Margo said, managing to sound both deadly serious and supremely bored all at once.

“I’m not keeping secrets,” Kady said at once. “Look, I thought she seemed vaguely familiar from the dream, but when I met her before she hadn’t been covered in blood and she’d been wearing way more eyeliner—sorry, Alice—so I couldn’t be certain. Then today I recognized her for sure, and I’m telling you now.”

It was a completely reasonable explanation, and Alice could tell by Eliot’s expression that he realized it too, because for a long moment he didn’t say anything. And then, with a tense nod at Kady, he stabbed his spoon into the parfait, conversation apparently over.

Alice was… well, mortified didn’t seem a strong enough word. Now that she’d had it spelled out for her, it seemed impossible that she could have forgotten Kady. Sure, they’d both had their share to drink that night, but she hadn’t been that intoxicated. She remembered now, Kady’s straight-forward, refreshingly rational proposition, the way they’d both recognized the spark of chemistry and gone about doing something with it, without fuss.

They’d gone to Kady’s tiny studio, and for a while they’d talked. Not about anything specific; Alice wasn’t even sure if she’d mentioned Charlie directly, but they’d talked about grief, about the process of it, and how you changed, growing up and out of it, finding yourself coping against your own wishes. How every smile and moment of pleasure had its mirror in the stab of regret for what you’d lost to get there.

It had been a good conversation. And Kady had been oddly gentle with her, in a way that Alice normally would have hated, but—she’d listened. Nobody really listened to Alice, nobody since she’d lost Charlie, but Kady had. She’d listened. To her words, to her body, and…

“Going by the look on her face, Kady, I’d say the memory’s a good one,” Margo said loudly, wagging her eyebrows. “You lose points for the fact she didn’t recall you instantly, though.”

Alice snapped her mouth closed, horrified to realize that it had been open, and forced herself to look straight at Kady. “Oh my god, I’m sorry. This is humiliating.”

Kady’s smile was unbearably kind, just a hint of gentle teasing in her eyes. “Relax, okay? I couldn’t resist messing with you a little. Shit happens, I don’t think either of us were at our best at the time.”

I’m still not at my best, Alice thought about saying. I’ve never been at my best, and now I’m not even me anymore.

“Thanks,” she said instead. “And for the record—uh—I definitely remember you now.”

Julia and Margo both cackled in laughter, and Quentin looked down to hide a smile. Alice chose not to check for Eliot’s reaction.

The parfait was quite good.

Chapter Text

I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.

—Virginia Woolf



Alice had offered to help clean up after dinner, but Eliot and Quentin had waved her off, setting to work in the kitchen while the women escorted Alice out into the living room.

“So…” Margo said, a contemplative glint in her eyes. “Are you staying here tonight? Or running home to Brakebills?”

Everything Margo said to her felt loaded, like part of a test. Alice was perfectly aware that the rational, safe thing to do would be to walk away, at least give herself a bit of breathing room to process. She needed that, the time alone to think things through and come to a decision. She always had.

It would serve Margo right if she stuck her nose up in the air and said she’d be leaving immediately. She could write her cell number on a piece of paper, tell them to get in touch if they had anything more to say to her, and saunter out the door. She didn’t know precisely where she was, but she figured she’d manage the trip to campus. If she did that, Margo would be forced to let her out of her power, and there was something appealing about wrestling back some measure of control.

But god, on the other hand... Alice was fucking sick of being alone. And she’d always hated failing tests.

“I’ll stay,” she said.

“Great!” Julia answered for Margo, coming forward and taking her hand. “You can come help me set up for meditation.”

“Meditation?” Alice asked, letting herself be tugged over to the couch. ‘Setting up’ apparently meant levitating the couch out of the way, rolling up the shag carpet, and setting out strange, perfectly circular rubber mats in a row on the newly uncovered hardwood.

The mats were entirely black but had golden ink drawn on them in a swirling, circular pattern, with runic symbols and Greek letters etched around the edges. Each one was the same, and she noted that there were six of them, as if she’d been expected. She crouched down by one of the mats and studied the markings, but it didn’t make sense to her. The runes put her in mind of summoning magic, but the configuration was completely unfamiliar. “What—” she started, and Kady appeared at her elbow, inviting her to take a seat on one of the mats.

“It’s meditation, it’s cooperative magic, it’s… complicated. Q can explain it better than I can. It’s mostly his invention.”

“No offense, but I’m not doing a cooperative spell with you until someone tells me what it actually does.”

“Memory magic,” Eliot said, emerging from the kitchen, Quentin right by his side. Eliot’s hand was resting on the small of Quentin’s back; Alice had noticed that they did that, always moving as one, almost always touching. It didn’t read as PDA, or as possessiveness, though. More like they’d been moving through the world together for so long that they’d forgotten how to do it alone.

Quentin lowered himself cross-legged onto one of the mats, which had been placed facing the other five, and the others all took their places as well. Alice was left a spot between Julia and Kady, and she lowered herself awkwardly to the ground, sitting up on her knees the way Margo was doing, with her skirt flared out around her.

“Basically,” Quentin said, rolling his neck and shaking out his hands, “This is a way to hold on to the past, in a way humans ordinarily can’t. Things fade, with time, and that’s inevitable. Natural, even. But for us…”

“We don’t want to forget where we came from. Who we are,” Julia said, and she gave Quentin a look of surpassing sweetness. “When Q and El and Margo found me, Q had been perfecting this spell for centuries already. I’ve added a few refinements. It’s fascinating stuff, the human mind.”

Alice had never done much in the way of psychic magic at Brakebills. It had been taught more as an inherent ability, one that could be fostered and strengthened, but not something that any old Physical Kid could do on a whim.

“What does the spell do?” Alice asked.

“We’ll show you,” Quentin said. “If you’re comfortable with that. But in words… it helps to imprint memory, strengthen the sensations in your mind so it’s less likely to slip away. It’s guided meditation, with basic magical enhancement. Jules, will you show her?”

Alice knew she had the power to say no, but like with everything else that had happened to her that day, her curiosity was overpowering her better judgment. Eliot hadn’t poisoned the couscous, after all… if they wanted to hurt her, surely there were easier ways.

Julia and Kady both guided her hands through a series of basic movements, taught her the breathing patterns, and the beautiful words in a Celtic language she couldn’t quite place, that would activate the runes beneath her. In form, the tuts reminded her somewhat of basic healing magic, and there was nothing all that strange about the shape of the spell. But she’d never seen something like this done as cooperative magic before.

“The first step,” Quentin said when Alice had the words and motions down, “is to pick a memory. It doesn’t have to be crystal clear, it just has to be specific, something you know happened, even if you’re foggy on the timing or the setting. I’d suggest…” he hesitated, gave Eliot a knowing smile, then turned back to Alice, “something happy. At least for your first time at this. Something simple, maybe a good memory from your childhood.”

Alice had to bite the inside of her cheek to avoid letting out a snort of laughter. Anything related to her childhood was automatically a minefield. Thinking of her parents made her angry and ashamed. And thinking of Charlie nowadays mostly left her numb.

But today was about trying new things, apparently. Today was about the start of something. Nodding her head, she landed on her ninth birthday. She had good reason to remember that particular day, and overall the memory had been a pleasant one.

“So, this is basically a call and response,” Quentin said. “I’ll start, and I’ll be setting up a very thin, non-invasive neural network between the six of us. You might feel—sensations, from the rest of us, and they might feel sensations from you, but nobody will be able to see or experience each other’s memories.”

Something about the way Quentin said this made Alice think the spell was being dumbed down for her sake. If the alternative was sharing intimate and private thoughts with the rest of them, she didn’t really mind being offered the beginner’s version. She was nervous enough about sensations, whatever that meant.

“Alice,” Kady said, leaning over to nudge their shoulders together. “If you want to sit it out…”

“No,” she said, surprising herself with the emphatic response. “Let’s—I want to try it. Let’s do it.”

And so they did. Alice focused on her breathing, on Quentin’s motions and words, and she responded in concert with the others, chanting the simple and repetitive rhythm. She closed her eyes and worked to pull the memory she’d selected up to the forefront of her mind.

At first, nothing happened. Sure, the deep breathing and the soothing chants and the spark of magic in the air had the incongruous dual effect of exciting and relaxing her, but that was true for any cooperative spell she’d ever performed. Peeling her eyes open for a moment and glancing around, she saw the others, including Quentin, all had theirs closed. She studied their hands, the grace and ease of the movement, the routine of it but also the gravity. Then she closed her eyes again, and focused harder on the memory of turning nine.

She remembered going out for dinner with her parents and Charlie and her grandparents, and that her mother had been slightly short with her all evening because Alice had been the one to insist that she wanted a family dinner instead of a big party—she and a couple of acquaintances from the homeschool resource center had gone swimming together at a local indoor pool the day before and had cupcakes afterwards, and as far as she was concerned, that was as much of a party as she needed. She didn’t want to be the center of attention among Mom and Dad’s weird friends, petted and passed around like a mascot at the grown-up’s glitzy revel. Her mom would probably still have a lot to drink at the restaurant, but at least she’d refrain from making a scene.

Alice remembered feeling proud of how mature she was; she’d chosen a nice Italian restaurant and ordered a half-portion off the adult’s menu, and had root beer to drink. Her grandparents had given her a card with cash for a present, which was what they’d been doing since she’d turned six, but she didn’t mind, because it’s not like they really knew her well enough to get her something she’d like…

Quentin’s voice was still humming along in the background, and Alice finished the spell sequence with a final twist of her wrists, resting her hands against her stockinged knees. She felt less and less tethered to her current reality, and more and more pulled into the past. She remembered feeling annoyed with her father for flirting with the waiter, and then gradually she wasn’t remembering anymore, she was just feeling it. She was just there.

They’d gone home after dinner and her parents had given her a present: a My Little Pony doll, in its own pink bejeweled stable. She’d been genuinely excited by the gift. Sure, her preferred horse toy was definitely Grand Champions, with their necks and limbs that you could bend to make the horses lean down to graze on the carpet, but My Little Pony was fun because it was collectible, and you could line them up on a shelf, and really, the fact that her parents had managed to remember enough about her interests to get her something horse-related at all was a significant improvement over what she’d expected.

She’d smiled and given them both genuine hugs of gratitude, and then ran off to her room to find a place to put the new pony right away. Maybe she was too old to be playing with toys like that, but if she was, she couldn't really find it in herself to care.

Charlie, her older brother, best friend, and number-one hero, followed her into the room with a brown paper bag in hand. Charlie was fourteen and popular, and had every reason to ignore his little sister, but never did. He listened when she talked, gave her advice, and always managed to comfort her when she’d gotten into a fight with Mom, without making her seem stupid for being upset.

“I got you something too, you know,” Charlie said, and took the bag over to Alice’s purple bedspread, spilling the contents out for her to see. An untouched packet of chalk, a small black chalkboard, and a tiny scroll done in artificially yellowed paper with a red ribbon holding it together.

“What is it?” Alice asked, picking up the delicate scroll and pulling on the ribbon.

“A spell,” Charlie whispered, and Alice’s whole body grew warm with excitement. “I thought we could do it together?”

Alice had been doing magic of some sort or other since she was a toddler, but she was too young to do real magic like her parents did, with arcane languages and mysterious sigils and the precise, studied movement of hand and body. Charlie was probably too young, too, but Alice wasn’t about to point that out.

Carefully, double-triple-quadruple checking every tiny notation on the simple spell’s instructions, they drew a circle with lines bisecting it to create a spoked wheel on the chalkboard, filling in the proper symbols in each section as indicated. Then, they set Alice’s new pony figurine, the pale pink Starlight, in the center of the wheel. With bated breath, they spoke the Latin incantation, and Charlie took her hand in his and helped her to form a sequence of Poppers…

It took three tries, but Alice was too enchanted by the ceremony of it to mind the first two failures. And when the spell took hold, little plastic Starlight began to move, clomping her tiny hooves against the chalkboard, throwing back her neck and shaking her lustrous yellow locks.

The animation lasted fifteen seconds and then faded away, leaving the toy static once more. By the time Alice had turned twelve, she’d been able to achieve far greater results from a much simpler version of the spell, but even then, Alice had been eager to try again, to see what would happen if she doubled the accent over the rune that set the time limitation.

Charlie didn’t want to risk it—any real flare of magic from upstairs and their parents were sure to come see what was going on. So instead they played ponies the old-fashioned way, introducing Starlight with great solemnity to the other ponies in her small collection. That night, Alice had known joy in her heart to an extent she’d never experienced before. It was the first time she’d ever done complex magic on purpose. It was the first time someone had taken the time to show her how.

Slowly, Alice became aware of her current, twenty-eight-year-old reality once again. Her legs had gone numb from the way she was sitting, her hands tingling as they rested motionless against her thighs. The thrum of magic was still pulsing underneath her from the runes on the mat, and buzzing through the air between her and the five other magicians in the room. And as the memory of Charlie faded, she noticed for the first time a burning point of emotion below her breastbone, made immediate and tangible by the spell.

She could feel the emotions of her own memory, crystal clear. The innocent joy of any child on her birthday, the pride of being the honoree at a nice dinner out, the twinges of embarrassment and dismay at the curtailed, yet still noticeable, antics of her parents. That spark of incredulous relief and happiness upon receiving a present that she actually liked, and then the euphoria of magic and love that came from Charlie, that came from the spell they’d performed together. Proof that magic was attainable, and proof that it was beautiful.

But her own emotions weren’t the only ones she was feeling. Somewhere inside her she felt a lurch of giddy excitement, edging on fear, and simultaneously there was the cool, calming affection of a parent for a child, a sense of responsibility and pride. A wellspring of sexual passion pooled low in her stomach, and the near painful ache of deep, unending love and devotion made her eyes prick with tears. She couldn’t tell which emotions belonged to which of her new companions, but it was still startlingly, undeniably intimate to feel her body respond to the memories of others. It tied her to them. And maybe it was the spell, or maybe the day of surprises had just worn her down, but at that moment, she didn’t feel like fighting against it.

“Thank you, everyone,” Quentin said in a quiet murmur. The psychic matrix faded, Alice’s emotions once more only her own. There was a rustling as six people shook themselves from stillness, and Alice fluttered open her eyes. She looked first at Kady beside her, and found Kady looking back, a somewhat sad smile on her face. Alice realized that her cheeks were awash with tears, and hastily patted away the moisture.

“It can be intense,” Kady said, slow and private, and she leaned in to make Alice meet her eyes. “Thank you, Alice, for doing that with us.”

“Thank you for showing me,” she answered, awkward. She meant it, but sincerity had always been difficult for her. It was probably easier for all of them. After so many years of life, it must become second nature to let the ordinary artifice of human interaction fall away.

She turned to look at the others, and found Eliot and Quentin standing a little way off, their bodies angled towards each other in an unmistakable way, full of promise and ache. Eliot leaned his head down towards Quentin and whispered something to him in a nearly inaudible voice, and Quentin responded immediately, tilting his forehead against Eliot’s shoulder and swaying in closer to him. Alice didn’t think they were speaking English, but that was hardly necessary to understand where the evening was heading for them.

In fact, Eliot seemed to want said evening to start as soon as possible. He pulled away from Quentin only far enough to grab his hand and take a few steps towards the hallway, only stopping when Quentin stood still, resisting the pull. “Are you okay?” he asked Alice, who flinched slightly at being caught staring.

“Yeah, I am,” Alice said, finally unfolding herself from the ground and accepting an assist from Julia to her feet. “Thanks, Quentin.”

Quentin nodded. “It was nice to meet you today, and I look forward to talking more.”

“Me too. Um. Goodnight.” She wanted to say Goodnight Eliot and see if that would get him to look at her, to talk to her, but she lost her nerve, still a bit shaky. Just before Quentin and Eliot disappeared down the hall to their bedroom, Eliot did turn back, quirk a single eyebrow, and give her a brief nod.

The women all wished her goodnight as well (Julia with a hug, Margo with a sarcastic salute, and Kady by actually walking her to her door like this was the end of a date, somewhat to Alice’s giddy embarrassment).

The air inside her bedroom was warm enough to make her instantly drowsy, a counteraction to the adrenaline that had been coursing through her veins more or less non-stop for the last twenty-four hours.

Twenty-four hours. God. Only a day ago, she’d been waking up on the sticky carpet of a Brakebills library study room, terrified out of her skull, covered in her own blood. And now? Now she was unkillable. Now she could be scared all she wanted, and it wouldn’t matter, because nothing could really hurt her.

That was bullshit, of course. Healing wasn’t the same thing as never feeling the pain, and she should know. Still, as she grabbed a change of clothes and slipped into the bathroom for a shower (“fully stocked, we’ve got all sorts of fancy shampoos and body-wash shit with criminally high price tags; Margo’s an addict”, Kady had told her), she refrained from testing the limits of her new abilities. There was a morbid temptation to slice a line along her own arm and see if the cut would really heal, or to bang her head against the mirror and see if she’d wake up back on the right side of the rainbow. She didn’t, of course. No reason to start a bad habit.

Later, as she lay under crisp fresh sheets on the extraordinarily comfortable mattress, she wondered if she was going to stay here. Stay with them. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep with a decision like that hanging over her head, but the day was catching up with her, and it was no time at all before she felt herself drifting off.

If she did stay here, she could go to her parents’ place and grab the box of old pony figurines from her bedroom closet. Starlight was probably still there. She’d make a cute paperweight, if nothing else. Something to remind her of her youth.

***

Alice dreamed.

She dreamed of a lush green clearing beside a crystalline pool of water, trees surrounding the open space beneath the infinity of a chill blue sky. She dreamed of Eliot. It was definitely him, but not as Alice had met him that day. He was dressed in a coarse tunic, mussed and dirty from long use, and his hair was longer, falling around his face. He was on his knees, and a short distance away, another man was standing with his back to Eliot, facing the water.

The second man was Quentin.

If you want me to go, just tell me, Eliot said. Send me away again. I know you’re still frightened. I know I frighten you, and I know you never asked for this. But I want to help, I want—

You didn’t ask for it either, Quentin said, and he turned around. His eyes widened at the sight of Eliot on his knees, and he rushed forward to crouch down as well, facing him head-on. It wasn’t because of you. You don’t scare me, I never should have—I know this isn’t your fault. I don’t blame you. I couldn’t.

But I remind you of something you take to be a curse, Eliot said, his voice brittle with pain. You see me and you see evidence of unendurable suffering to come.

Do you not see it as I do? Quentin asked, with a furrow of his brow. His hair was longer too, tied in a long plait down his back. The elongation of life, the impermanence of any mark left on our bodies… how can we be human? How can we belong here, when magic itself can’t explain us?

You ask such brilliant questions, Eliot said, and he smiled a little sadly, his eyes aching as he looked at Quentin. I’ve never thought to ask any of them, though I've had time enough.

So it doesn’t trouble you. What we are. What we can do.

It did trouble me, Eliot said. It troubled me, it tormented me. For a very long time.

But not now?

But not now.

What’s changed?

Eliot lifted a hand slowly, giving Quentin every chance to shy away. But Quentin was still, allowing the touch, and when the pads of Eliot’s fingers brushed along the side of Quentin’s face, they both sighed, like the contact was healing.

Will you allow me to stay by your side? Eliot asked. Just that, and I will count the centuries alone well worth it.

You hardly make it possible to refuse, Quentin said, and he leaned in until their foreheads touched, their noses brushing against one another. Eliot gasped like the touch was burning him, his eyes squeezing shut against the threat of tears. He leaned in, his lower lip trembling… and the dream faded away as they reached for each other, desperate longing finally fulfilled.

***

The next day, Alice went back to Brakebills with Kady, to gather more of her things and make her excuses to Dean Fogg about taking a week or two off. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear it, but she held firm and escaped with minimal invasive questioning; she could only hope he wouldn’t reach out to her parents to ask about her sudden need for personal time.

She wasn’t sure she actually wanted to walk away from Brakebills and her research. There was a part of her eager to resume the rhythm of her regular life as soon as possible. It was a bit much, to find herself one of the unkillable elite, and to decide to quit her job all in one fell swoop. Margo and Julia had both seemed brashly confident that she’d walk away from everything that had tied her to her life, and allow herself to be entangled in their world without question.

The scary thing was, Alice was tempted. She had felt more at home, more comfortable, eating dinner around a table with these complete strangers, than she ever had among her own family. Getting swept up with Kady and Julia and Margo, and even Quentin and Eliot, seemed like the kind of thing she might find herself doing entirely by accident, if she wasn’t careful.

“You can always come back,” Kady reminded her as they trekked through the woods to the portal. “I know Margo can be a little intense, but you don’t actually have to stay with us.”

“I know,” Alice said. “I’m… not used to this. To change, like this. Historically, I haven’t handled it particularly well.”

The only real status quo shift in her life had been Charlie’s death, so maybe that wasn’t a fair comparison. The point was, she’d never sought change, never deviated from the rhythm of a life she hadn’t liked, but had at least understood.

Kady let out a rueful laugh. “No, listen, this is the kind of change nobody handles well, I promise.”

“I can’t imagine Margo curling into a ball and having a panic attack over it,” Alice said.

Kady glanced over at her, a contemplative gleam in her eyes. “No, maybe not… but then again, if she did, she wouldn’t really remember.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means… two millennia is a really, really long time, and things go fuzzy after a while. Even my two centuries are sometimes hard to hold in my mind. Things slip away. I’m sure they have for you too, with early childhood memories. Only it’s more disorienting for us, because we were adults and we did things and had opinions and made friends and had deep thoughts, and it starts to… leave you.”

While Kady had been talking, Alice had been staring at her in profile, her feet stumbling along the dirt forest path. She was strikingly beautiful and yet seemed impatient with that fact, unlike Margo or Eliot who clearly reveled in their attractiveness. Kady wore no makeup, hair pulled away from her face in a half ponytail that still left the rest of the curls flowing down her back. It made her look young, fresh-faced, like Alice’s contemporary. She was dressed in jeans, a black tank-top, and a forest-green cargo jacket, and she looked completely at home in that garb, to the extent that it was supremely difficult to imagine her dressing for the nineteenth century. Kady in a neoclassical dress would probably be a sight to see.

What a distracting time for a crush. Honestly.

“So Margo doesn’t remember her early years?” she asked, turning back to watch where she was going.

“No,” Kady said. “She has flashes, but she doesn’t even remember how she died for the first time. Or—I should say—if she does remember, she certainly hasn’t told me.”

“That sounds…” Alice said, swallowing over a hard lump in her throat, “really lonely.”

“Hmm.” Kady tilted her head back and forth like she was considering this. “From the very start, Margo dreamed of Q and Eliot. The three of them all looked for each other, but the boys connected first, and then it was… I don’t know, decades of searching. Margo was alone, but she still had them. She knew they were out there looking for her.”

“It’s why you all stay together,” Alice said, realizing. “To have someone to help you remember.”

“Yes, and to have someone to keep you human.”

There was such a surpassing sadness in Kady’s voice that it made Alice want to touch her, to offer comfort. She constantly felt like she was stepping in minefields with these people—hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years of history. Every single one of them must have enough tragedy in their pasts to incapacitate even the most resilient person.

“I needed extra help with that, even before all this started,” Alice said, surprising herself with her honesty. “I don’t know how to…” be a person was the end of that sentence. But it was one she didn’t know how to say out loud.

“I think that’s a magician thing,” Kady said as if she’d heard the words anyway, offering her a rueful grimace. “We’re fucked up from an early age, it’s part of the packaging. Stick with us, kid, and we’ll teach you how to fake it better.”

“Well there’s an enticing offer,” Alice said, pursing her lips together and straightening her spine. It was easy to forget to keep her distance when she was with Kady. If that was even what she still wanted to be doing.

“You’re welcome to fuck off and take some time for yourself,” Kady said. “I really mean that. You’ll probably want to eventually, at least for a few years. I love the others, I really do, but they can be stifling.”

“Did you do that? Go off on your own? After—they stopped holding you hostage?”

“Not really,” Kady said. “I didn’t—I had people. A community who I could have stayed with, in those first years at least. But at the time I was doing my best to run away from them.”

That sounded familiar.

“It’s not like I can’t have both,” Alice said. “I can keep doing my research even if I stay with you. From what Julia showed me yesterday, you all could teach me a lot.”

“What were you researching?” Kady asked. “I looked into you before Jules and I came to fetch you, of course, but your file just said you were teaching a phosphoromancy class and pursuing independent research.”

Alice paused to decide whether she should be annoyed at this invasion of her privacy, but really, it was Brakebills’ privacy, not her own, and who really gave a shit about that?

“It’s phosphoromancy research, primarily, but I’ve also been studying portal magic. We know there’s a connection between light refraction and portals, hence why mirrors are often used as bridges between physical locations, and I started thinking about the utility of bending light as a means of strengthening those portals. And it’s actually quite interesting, because long before Amelia Popper ever codified the methodology behind the earliest standardized portal spells, we’ve often seen mirrors or pools of water as common places for magical energies to coalesce and stabilize portal magic, far more than placing one in the middle of empty space, but if you think about that as a function of light, then there’s so much potential to—”

She cut herself off, hearing the ramble start to gather momentum, but Kady was looking at her, a steady, interested expression on her face, and Alice appreciated anew the gift of Kady Adiyodi’s attention. “That sounds really interesting,” Kady said, and she sounded sincere. “I’m the de facto portal expert of the group, so maybe we could work together on this sometime.”

“That—would be nice,” Alice said, startled. “I mean, there’s probably not much space for it at the penthouse, but Brakebills would maybe…”

“Brakebills and I go way back, and not in a good way,” Kady interrupted. “I’d just as soon avoid spending too much time behind those wards. I’ve got property, though. We could totally hide away for a few weeks, really embrace our inner research nerds?”

It sounded like an invitation for a private getaway, just the two of them and their magic. Alice’s ears grew warm. “Do you all stick together, mostly? Or… or go off, and live your own lives?”

“The past few years, we’ve been sort of split up,” Kady said, and there was a catch in the calm of her voice. “Not completely, of course, I mean, you couldn’t pry Q and El apart with a crowbar. But we’ve been doing our own things. There’s a rhythm to it. You end up spending a lot of time with the only other people on the planet who could ever understand you, but that doesn’t mean we’re all joined at the hip.”

“But you’re happy to stay with them? Live with them, most of the time?” Alice asked, keeping pace with Kady’s long, purposeful strides. Kady had insisted on carrying Alice’s heaviest bag with her, the one with all of the notes and books she hadn’t felt like leaving in her faculty quarters. She kept telling herself she’d be back in a week, but it didn’t hurt to prepare for all contingencies. She didn’t like the idea of other magicians poking around in her space when she wasn’t there to reinforce her privacy wards.

“I was happy to find them, kidnapping notwithstanding,” Kady said, a faraway look in her eyes. “I love them. They’re my people, you know?”

Alice didn’t know. She wanted to, and she shied away from the wanting, frightened of it even as she walked closer to the flame. She’d never liked needing people, but need wasn’t something you could actually control.

But she could control this dangerous conversation, and she did, yanking her line of questioning in a new direction.

“Tell me more about what you do, what kinds of jobs you take.”

“Oh, it can be anything, really,” Kady said. “Before my time, the others used to take on all sorts of stuff. Sometimes guard duty, or backup muscle for the movement of important artifacts or people. They wound up embroiled in non-magical conflicts all over the world, just because of the proximity and potentiality of chaos.”

Alice nodded. There was a theorem about that, called Andiril’s Hypothesis, named after the magician who had first put it into words. Even without intention, magic tended to congregate towards points of chaos and violence, like the sludge of world’s mystical energies were sliding down a slope towards the center of a whirlpool. There had been magicians running amok in every significant war and conflict throughout human history, to some degree or other.

And now she knew some of those magicians. The Battle of Thermopylae, the Gallic Wars… that was probably only the beginning. These immortals might have seen all sorts of significant historical events, met so many long-dead people she’d read about in books… Alice had never been a history buff, but the thrill of discovering an untapped primary source was invigorating, no matter the subject.

“Is it still like that now? I mean, do you guys meddle in ongoing international conflicts, or…”

“Not really. Not like we have a rule against it or anything, we’ve just… honestly, my time with the group is probably going to sound kind of disappointing, in comparison with some of the shit the others could tell you. For most of it we stayed local, around here where I grew up.”

“Kady,” Alice said, with an incredulous laugh and a shake of her head. “You lived through decades that predate readily available visual history. You could tell me things about the world that I could never learn from a textbook or a documentary. You’ve definitely caught my interest.”

“And for the second time, no less,” Kady said with a wink.

“Oh my god, don’t. I’m mortified, you know that, right?” Alice said. She didn’t mind Kady messing with her, but she also didn’t want her to think… “I was in a spectacularly bad place a few years ago, it’s not that you weren’t memorable. In fact—”

Kady interrupted her with a bright, joyful laugh, and Alice felt herself lightheaded at the sound of it. She liked making Kady laugh. She remembered that, from their night together. She’d gotten the sense even then that Kady’s laughter was a rare and precious thing.

“You’ve had a lot going on the past couple of days,” Kady said. “I don’t begrudge you forgetting a single alcohol-fueled hookup with a mysterious and gorgeous stranger.”

“Think a lot of yourself, do you?” Alice asked, just as they turned off the footpath and into the tiny nondescript clearing that housed the portal markers. Now that she knew it was here, Alice could detect a whiff of foreign magical signatures permeating the air, different from the residual wards still vibrating from the edges of the campus nearby.

“I think some of Eliot’s confidence has rubbed off on me,” Kady said, with a shrug. “Being humble gets boring after a while. That’s the one thing that every single one of us has in common, Alice.” With a swirl of her hands, Kady activated the hidden portal, and gestured Alice through with a polite nod. “We always tell it like it is.”

***

“Kady,” Margo barked the second they were through the portal. She was leaning against the kitchen counter, apparently acting in a supervisory role as Quentin used magic to clean up the remnants of their breakfast. “Some rando called my cell while you were out, says he couldn’t get through to you.”

“Brakebills technology lockdown,” Kady said. “Didn’t bother countermanding it. Who was it?”

“Do I look like an answering machine to you?”

Kady rolled her eyes and pulled her cellphone out of her pocket, thumbing past the lock. “Pete,” she said, with a frown. “That’s odd. I should call him.”

“Everything’s good?” Margo asked with a shrewd glance at Alice and then back to Kady.

“Well, I won’t know that until I call him back, will I?” Kady said, and she walked down the hall toward her own room, right across from the one Alice had used last night.

Instinctively, without Kady there to be her point of contact, Alice looked around the room for Julia. Sure, Julia was overbearing and a bit more chipper than she usually preferred in a companion, but at least she seemed friendly. Unlike Margo, who was eyeing Alice up and down like a cut of meat with dubious qualifications for the dinner table.

“Did Julia bore you to death with all her magical theory yesterday?” Margo asked without preamble, and then she continued on without waiting for a response. “Because I’d be happy to continue your education with something a bit more… concrete.”

Almost everything Margo said sounded like a proposition or a threat, or perhaps both. Alice coughed, looking around the empty living room before resigning herself to her fate. “What did you have in mind?”

“I think it’s about time I showed you the cool shit.” She waved a hand forward and marched down the hall behind the kitchen, Alice trailing behind. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see an ancient dandpatta sword, or actual shuriken? I’ve got a fairly well-preserved falcata in here too.”

Alice thought about telling her she had no idea what any of those words meant, but Margo was already storming into her bedroom. She crossed at once to a large wardrobe, whipping her hands up into casting formation and muttering a few terse words under her breath as she twirled her fingers in the air. The wardrobe door sprung open, and Alice realized immediately that it had undergone a powerful Thibadeau’s Planar Compression, because the revealed space was much larger than it should have been. And inside it…

“Careful, it’s sharp,” Margo said, holding out a small metal disc. Alice took it, and her eyes narrowed in incredulity.

“Is this a throwing star?”

“Yeah, a shuriken, like I said,” Margo said, flipping her hair over her shoulder with one hand. “And here we’ve got a couple of longswords—not exactly inconspicuous for everyday use, but they hold sentimental value, you see.”

And she proceeded to pull out several different extremely deadly weapons from the wardrobe, laying them out on her bed and naming each in turn. Some seemed wildly impractical for modern use, but there were also three semi-automatic rifles and a number of revolvers of various ages, all of which appeared to be in pristine condition. Alice took an involuntary step back when Margo produced an old rifle with a bayonet attached, and Margo grinned at her, not an entirely kind expression.

“Oh puh-lease. It can’t hurt you.” She paused, then tilted her head in contemplation. “It could hurt you, I guess. But not in a permanent way.”

Alice let out a huff of incredulous air as Margo produced a truly bizarre looking sword that had been curved into a bend at the tip, tossing it onto the bed next to a crossbow. “Hook sword. Qing era.”

“Okay but like—” Alice said, finally finding her voice, “—why?”

“Hm?”

“We’re magicians.”

“Well spotted,” Margo said, tracing a loving finger down the blade of a rapier. “Your point?”

“You don’t actually use any of these, do you?”

Margo selected a couple of odd looking daggers with handles on the ends, curving her fingers around them in a grip that oozed familiarity. “Sure, why wouldn’t we? You want to run with us, you’ll have to pick up a couple of signature weapons, too. How’s your aim? Play any sports, magical or otherwise?”

Alice looked around the room for somewhere to sit down. Her legs felt wobbly, but she wasn’t keen on taking up residence on the bed with all the sharp pointy accessories of battle. In the end, she just leaned back against the wall by the open door, hoping she looked casual about it. “Um. What about battle magic, though?”

“It’s great, I happen to be a big fan,” Margo said, still with that same somewhat predatory grin stretching her face. “But Alice, allow me to let you in on a little secret. When we have to fight, we’re almost always fighting magicians. And they know battle magic, too. They usually don’t know how to do hand-to-hand katar fighting, though. Gives me a nice advantage.”

Alice blinked, her eyes focused on the thin blades now protruding from each of Margo’s clenched fists. She imagined her swinging them at someone, punching forward, slashing vulnerable skin. It was disturbingly easy to picture.

“But surely magic shields, I mean—non-magical weaponry can’t…” she shook her head, annoyed at herself for the pointless digression. She changed tacks, getting straight to the point. “You kill people with this stuff?”

And now the smile faded from Margo’s face, although the glint of amusement remained in her eyes. Alice realized belatedly that Margo wasn’t playing show-and-tell for the hell of it, no matter how much she clearly enjoyed her deadly collection. This was another test, and Alice’s reaction to the suggestion of violence, of killing, was being carefully watched.

It was annoying. She wanted Margo to like her, but she hadn’t signed up for any of this, and she certainly wasn’t about to pick up a fucking scimitar and start chopping away just to fit in with the cool kids. She really needed to ask for more details about how these people spent their incredibly long lives. If this was the kind of stockpile Margo felt like she needed to have on hand… what did that mean? Guardians of magical secrets, Julia had called them. A peace-keeping coalition, Quentin had said.

“Sometimes, we kill people,” Margo answered Alice’s question with deadly calm. “When we have to.”

“But—” Alice said, objections crowding their way into the forefront of her mind. “You don’t need to, you’re invincible—”

Margo opened her mouth to cut Alice off, but another voice rang through the air instead, silencing them both.

“Margo!”

The shout came from down the hall, loud and shocked and scared. Alice knew without needing to be told that fear was a very rare, very concerning quality to hear in Eliot Waugh’s voice.

“El?” Margo was out the door in a flash, the katar daggers still in hand, and Alice followed swiftly behind. She heard a loud crash, and then shouting. Voices, more voices than there should have been, the thumping of heavy footfalls, and a deep, resonant whump that signified two powerful spells colliding in midair.

When she emerged into the living room, she saw that the portal on the far wall was crackling and warping, forced open by an override of its normal activation key. And spilling out of it were men and women with hands up in casting position, faces set in grim lines of determination as they fanned out from the portal, to avoid presenting a clustered target for Eliot, Quentin, and Julia, all of whom were already in motion, fighting the invasion.

They were under attack.

Chapter Text

 

I lead a group of immortals. An army I guess. Soldiers, fighters like you.

—Andromache of Scythia, The Old Guard



The fight was harsh and fast and immediate. It was nothing like an action movie, where pounding music kept in perfect time with every strike, as stone-faced supermodels in spandex struck and twirled with bloodless, graceful precision.

It was eerily quiet, apart from harsh breathing and the strange, discordant thumps of spells hitting their targets. Every single face, on both sides, wore a grimace of concentration and fear. Julia, Quentin, and Eliot were already a blur of motion, standing in a triangle with their backs to each other as they struck out and tried to cage in the approaching intruders. Men and women were pouring out of the portal, and Alice was too panicked and shocked at the suddenness of the attack to count the ones already in the room.

She wasted a full three seconds staring in horror before some latent survival instinct kicked in, and her hands spun forward in the only shield spell she knew, sending out a pulse of magical force to knock aside the nearest attacker.

The man had been running full-tilt towards her, head forward and hands up in casting position, but Alice’s deflection gave Margo the opening she needed. She ran forward, an audible growl emanating from her chest as she slashed at the nameless man with the dagger still strapped to her fist. The man stumbled and Julia knocked him into the far wall with a forceful blast from across the room.

Nearer to the portal, Quentin darted in towards a woman with a pixie cut, and jabbed with precise, quick fingers, his hands moving in a blur of mixed martial arts and magic. Eliot was behind him, guarding his back, eyes scanning the room for unexpected surprises while magical energy crackled between his palms, raised to chest level in preparation for his own strike.

“What the fuck?” Margo said, a general question to the room at large. “Who the fuck? How the fuck?” She accompanied each fuck with another ferocious slash of her dual daggers, and Alice recognized the sheen of magical enhancement in every swing, the blades shimmering with an odd grey aura.

“No idea!” Eliot snapped back, his voice gravelly with fury and concentration. One of the attackers whipped around Eliot’s outstretched arm and made a grab for Julia, who was mid-tut, but Quentin’s hand shot out and a force blast slammed into the man’s chest, sending him reeling against the window and giving Julia a chance to dart gracefully out of the way.

Quentin surged forward again, something bright white shooting out of his fingertips, and the attacker slumped to the ground.

Less than ten seconds had passed, and Alice already saw three bodies, two men and a woman, all either unconscious or dead on the hardwood. Margo and the others were still moving with lightning speed to dispatch the others, who had fanned out in a loose semi-circle along one side of the room. Eliot and Quentin had managed to pin a couple of them down, but the others were standing well back, and it looked like they were getting ready to do something big. A flustered instinct to gather data made Alice scan the room and count them: eight strangers were in the penthouse, still on their feet, still gunning for her new friends.

She was frozen, uncertain and scared. The shield spell had been a panicked instinct, a miracle, and it was literally the only trick she had up her sleeve. She saw Julia standing back against the floor-to-ceiling window, surveying the fight like a general, her hands moving in lightning fast formations above her head. It looked like probability magic, like she was mapping out potential combinations and tactics real-time, sending occasional precise bolts of energy across the room to knock an attacker back from getting too close to Margo or the boys.

One of them ducked around Margo’s angry slashing and made a lunge towards Alice, and she could do nothing but step back, a yelp building in her throat. But suddenly Kady was there, sprinting out from the opposite hallway and jumping over a disrupted dining room chair, grabbing the man by the back of his collar and throwing him onto his ass. Her hands were up and her fingers folded into a binding spell over her shoulder; she didn’t even look to aim, just shot off the finished spell behind her back. The man froze on the ground, going stiff, and then started writhing against invisible bindings, biting off furious curses. Kady wasted no time, grabbing Alice by both shoulders and shoving her towards the couch.

“Behind here,” she said. “Cast a sustained shield and stay put.”

Alice didn’t feel like arguing. She crouched low, using the couch as natural cover and popping up a shield around her like a dome. It was strong, she knew that. Was it strong enough to stop these intruders? People with enough power to sneak up on immortal master magicians on their own turf? God, she hoped she wouldn’t have to find out.

Kady jumped into the fray and moved automatically to an open spot in the line, pushing back two combatants at once with some of the quickest, most impressive magic Alice had ever seen in her life.

Her hands pushed out, bare arms tensing and flexing in a syncopated rhythm as she ran for the two men. She whipped an arm over her head and swung it around like a lasso, bringing it down in a lunge and crashing the two men into each other. One lost balance and fell over, while the other dodged out of her magical grip and struck out, a quick tut sending a slicing spell directly towards Kady. She spun out of the way and the attack deflected off a shield that seemed to come from nowhere, until Alice realized that Eliot had taken valuable seconds away from his own close combat to put it up and stop the spell from hitting Kady. The magic missile bounced back at its own attacker instead.

Alice had always believed the Brakebills line about battle magic, that it was not only dangerous but inelegant and boorish. But now, seeing it in action, she found herself appreciating the grim, intimate beauty of it.

It didn’t take long for Alice to realize that the fight was essentially already won, that the immortals were in no danger. These intruders, whoever they were, had managed an impressive feat by overriding a locked portal, and they clearly knew at least the basics of what they were doing. Each was athletic, and precise, and they fought with discipline, but even with superior numbers, they were no real match for their intended targets. The only reason the fight wasn’t already over was that Margo and the others were trying to take at least one of their assailants alive. They needed to know how they had been discovered, who had sent these people, and why.

In the whirl of chaos, Quentin and Eliot had crossed over to cut off an attacker from heading towards Margo’s unsupported left side. Alice found herself mesmerized by the way they moved together.

Somewhat to her surprise, it seemed to be Quentin’s job to dart in close, to deliver the hits and take them too, while Eliot provided range and support. And yet, while Eliot’s head was on a swivel, taking in the landscape of the fight and pushing back anyone who got too close, his entire body was still angled in a protective lean towards Quentin, ready to pull him back or lunge forward with a killing blow if it should be needed. They fought like one mind in two bodies, like they’d rehearsed this, no need for spoken words or even eye contact to communicate when it was time to move, when it was time to hold ground.

“Tell us why you’re here,” Quentin said to the man he was fighting. The attacker was wide-eyed and scared, stumbling back as Quentin advanced. The semicircle of invaders was already splintered, Julia’s helpful guidance stopping them from getting into formation. With a jolt, Alice realized they’d probably been preparing to do a cooperative spell, maybe something that would trap or incapacitate everyone at once. The quick actions of the immortals had disrupted their setup so entirely that they were reduced instead to desperate, bloody, one-on-one skirmishes.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Margo yelled, pulling Alice’s focus away from Quentin and to the center of the room. One of the remaining attackers had decided to cut her losses and run for it. The portal was still crackling with burning magic, still wide open, leading back to wherever these strangers had come from.

The woman, over six feet in height but still cowering in the face of Margo Hanson’s fury, was now caged between Margo and the kitchen island, escape attempt thwarted by a perfectly timed blockade from Kady. Margo got a fistful of the woman’s shirt and hauled her in close. “Who sent you?”

No,” the woman growled, punching out an arm and catching a glancing blow against Margo’s face. Julia swore and came forward, eyes narrowed, but Margo waved her off, brandishing one of the katar daggers in the woman’s face.

“Talk. Now.”

A gasp of pain cut through the symphony of harsh breathing and Margo’s mid-battle interrogation, and Alice’s head whipped back to Quentin and Eliot so fast she felt a crick in her neck.

She saw a line of blood on Eliot’s cheekbone, right under his eye, as an attacker from the other side of the room had taken advantage of Julia’s divided focus, managing to get off a lucky shot. Quentin’s attention was pulled to Eliot as well, and to the woman several feet away with her arms still outstretched in the battle cast. Quentin took a step towards her, which was when the man he’d been fighting lunged forward with an ill-advised all-out attack, pressure pulsing out from his fingers, tightening into a wisp of magical energy as sharp as any blade. There was a tearing sound and a grunt from Quentin as a gash appeared along the side of his torso, welling blood.

Eliot saw the wound appear, and his eyes blazed instant red fury. His spine snapped straight, his hand stretched out, his fingers twisted, pulling power from the very air—and the man who had attacked Quentin jerked, his neck turning to the side with a horrifying crunch, body crumpling to the floor.

Alice cringed against the protection of the couch, all of her breath punching out of her chest. Self-defense was all well and good, but this wasn’t that. The man attacking Quentin had been wild and uncoordinated and at the end of his rope, clearly no real threat. Eliot could have incapacitated him without killing him, and she was sure he’d known that.

Quentin didn’t even seem to be that hurt. There was blood staining the edges of his ripped shirt, but the skin beneath it was even now sewing itself up. And yet Eliot had just—with no second thought, no hint of remorse—murdered the man who had harmed Quentin. He didn’t even pause over it, merely looked down at the crumpled form long enough to be certain he wouldn’t be getting up again, and then reached a hand out for Quentin, pulling him in tight to his side as he surveyed the rest of the room, looking for additional threats.

The fight was winding down in earnest, now. Two of the remaining attackers were scrambling towards the portal, and as Kady and Julia moved to head them off, Margo’s barking shout stopped them. “Let them go, we’ve got this one.”

She hissed in the face of her captive, whose arms appeared to be bound to her sides by invisible ropes. She was thrashing, but ineffective, still boxed in by Margo and the granite countertop behind her. “And she’s about to be really cooperative, isn’t that right?”

Alice dropped her shield spell and watched the remaining intruders escape through the crackling portal. Kady came forward to check on her, while Julia moved to back up Margo.

Eliot and Quentin were still standing by the body Eliot had dispatched; Eliot had the span of his large hand, the same hand he’d just used to take a life, placed over Quentin’s waist, right where the bloodstained rend in his shirt was, feeling the skin beneath. Quentin had reached a hand up and was cupping Eliot’s face, brushing his thumb under his left eye to smooth the blood away, like it was his touch and his touch alone that could heal the minor cut.

Without looking away from Quentin, Eliot spoke loud enough for the whole room to hear. “Anyone hurt?”

“This bitch is about to be,” Margo snarled, lifting one of the daggers up to press the blade delicately into the skin right underneath the stranger’s eye. “Who. Sent. You.”

“I—I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you that, they’ll kill me—”

“Take a look around, sweetheart,” Margo said. “We’re not exactly shy about doing the same.”

Alice knew without a doubt that the woman in front of her would kill anyone who stood in the way of what she wanted—or more specifically, anyone who tried to hurt her people. The stranger’s lip quivered, fear and exertion forming beads of sweat along the edges of her brow, soaking into dyed-blonde hair.

“If—I tell—you’ll—let me go?”

“I’ll consider it,” Margo said, at the same time as Quentin came over, hand in Eliot’s, and met the captive’s eyes.

“Yes, we’ll let you go.”

Margo darted an annoyed look over her shoulder at Quentin, but she didn’t disagree, just sighed and twisted the point of her blade for emphasis.

“Marina,” the woman said, voice trembling and immobilized limbs shaking in fear.

The name meant absolutely nothing to Alice, and apparently nothing to any of the others, either, if their blank expressions were anything to go by. Only Kady, standing right by Alice, reacted.

It was subtle, a small jerk of her arm and a tensing of her posture, but Alice was close enough to hear the miniscule inhale of breath.

“What about—what marina? There are dozens—” Julia started.

“No—no, Marina—

“Andrieski,” Kady finished. “It’s a person. Marina Andrieski. Margo, let her go. We have what we need.”

In the seconds that followed, an entire conversation took place between Margo and Kady, all without words. Margo kept the blade up close to the woman’s face, but she turned her head away, trusting Julia to keep an eye on their captive. Kady widened her eyes, Margo narrowed hers. Kady gave a nod, Margo pouted out her lower lip. Kady pointedly looked down at the floor a few feet away, where the man she had restrained was still lying on the ground, magically silenced and bound. Margo sighed and looked up at the ceiling as if asking for patience, then gave Kady a nod of her own.

The interplay was fascinating. Alice watched it and focused on it, instead of on the bodies littering the floor. Instead of on the moan of pain from one of the strangers, curled into a ball near the dining room table. Instead of on the blood soaking through Quentin’s shirt, some of it staining Eliot’s hand where he’d checked for lasting harm.

She couldn’t afford to go into shock right now. The violence was over, but the crisis continued. Could it really be a coincidence that this penthouse had been attacked so shortly after Alice had discovered her immortality? Were they somehow here for her?

Julia was checking on each of the collapsed forms scattered about the room. She looked up at Margo, still crouched over the man that Eliot had killed. “Three and three,” she said.

“Hmm,” Margo said, tapping the edge of one of the daggers against her face like a fingernail. “Okay, okay, let’s get the living ones to their feet.” She turned back to the blonde woman, still cowering against the counter. “You can take your dead with you. I am a merciful god.”

And then Margo stepped back and Julia approached the woman, looking up at her with a contemplative grimace on her face. She brought her hands up, and the woman flinched, but Julia merely formed a window with her fingers, sighting through it before sighing and nodding. “Okay, I’ll deal with this. We should get ready to leave.”

“What is she going to do?” Alice asked Kady, as Julia shook out her wrists and started to cast.

“She’s going to—convince her to leave, and to forget,” Kady said vaguely, and she turned to follow Margo across the room. They were moving the bodies closer to one another, three corpses lying face-up on the hardwood floor, eyes open and unseeing.

Quentin had moved to kneel next to one of the survivors, but Eliot held him back.

“Let’s get you out of this,” he said quietly, plucking at the stained shirt sticking to Quentin’s skin.

Quentin didn’t protest, merely gave Eliot a knowing look and let himself be guided down the hallway. Alice had caught the haunted shadow in Eliot’s eyes, the shake of his hand as he guided his husband away from the carnage. Such concern, such tender solicitation for someone who couldn’t even be injured in a lasting way. And yet Eliot had snapped his fingers, and snuffed out a life, without question, without thought.

“I need—” Alice said, to nobody in particular. “I need to just—” and she walked across the room to the opposite hallway, past the bodies, past Julia’s spellcasting, past the place where the damaged portal was still flickering and effusing the sharp smell of burning hair.

In her room, she sat down on the edge of the bed, stared at the closed door, and tried very hard not to think at all.

***

“We’re moving out,” Margo said, opening Alice’s door without knocking. “Hurry.”

Several questions occurred to Alice at once. Namely: where are we going? Who were those people, and what did they want with you? Or with me? Are there still corpses out in the living room? What did Julia do to that woman?

But what came out of her mouth was: “You didn’t have to kill them.”

“I didn’t,” Margo said, rolling her eyes and jerking her head down the hall. “Take it up with El and Julia, they’re the murderers today. All I did was some light maiming. Seriously, we’re leaving now.”

“No, you didn’t have to kill—you’re unkillable, so—so—self-defense doesn’t even apply—”

Yikes,” Margo said with a put-upon sigh. “Kady! Will you get down here and convince your girlfriend to hurry the fuck up? I think she’s having a moral crisis.”

Kady appeared in the doorway as Margo flounced away. She took one look at Alice still sitting on the edge of the bed, unmoving, and squeezed her eyes shut, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Fuck. I’m sorry, Alice, but Margo’s right, we actually do need to move. I promise we’ll—”

“But they’re not like you,” Alice said, a record skipping over the same thought again and again. “They don’t wake up a couple of minutes later, they—”

“Alice,” Kady said, crossing the room and kneeling beside her. “Nobody should have been able to find this place, or use that portal. There could be others on their way here right now, do you understand? And I’d just as soon not take life unnecessarily, but if we’re overrun, we might not have a choice. You need to come with us.”

Alice wasn’t sure if she wanted to come with them. If she wanted to be anywhere near them, ever again.

It wasn’t the fighting, in and of itself, that was bothering her. She wasn’t squeamish, and she wasn’t afraid of pain, or of doing what needed to be done when the situation called for it. But she was afraid of what she’d seen Eliot do. It had been so easy for him. And that made sense, didn’t it? The longevity, the invincibility… it was bound to warp a person’s understanding of consequences. Alice had worried, when she’d first died and woken up in that study room, that she’d become a Niffin, a being so powerful that the boundaries of humanity meant next to nothing. Now, she wasn’t so sure she’d escaped that fate.

But then again… these attackers had forcibly invaded Eliot’s home. They’d clearly had ill-intent. Striking against them had been a pragmatic response, a good response. Was killing someone to stop them from injuring you a justification for murder? Even if you knew they couldn’t actually take your life?

Two days ago, such an internal debate would have been utterly meaningless. Two days ago, she’d been bored and vaguely numb and she’d never seen a corpse in person. (Or not exactly; Charlie had never been… Charlie would know what to say. Charlie would know what to do. Or at least he and Alice could have figured it out together.)

“Alice,” Kady said gently, and Alice flinched, having nearly forgotten she was there. “We don’t take life when we can avoid it. But we’re not gods, okay? It’s important that you understand that. We’re human, and other humans can hurt us, and they can separate us, and—right now, even though Margo would never admit it, she’s scared. We all are. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that this is happening and that you’re getting pulled into this mess, but we seriously need to move.”

Alice could sympathize with their fear. She could rationalize the fact that right now, her only move was to find somewhere safe to process and decide what came next. And if that meant going with Kady and the others, that’s what she’d have to do.

She nodded, and was guided gently out of the room to gather with the others. The bodies were gone, as were the living attackers. Other than a couple of upturned dining room chairs, and Margo cleaning her bloody daggers in the kitchen sink, it was almost possible to believe nothing had happened.

“Let’s head out,” Kady said, and they did.

The interior of the skyscraper was as nice as the penthouse, but Alice was too numb to take note of the paneled elevator or the high-ceilinged marble floor lobby, and before she’d really processed it, they were out on the street.

“Eighty-eight?” Eliot said as they moved.

“Ninety-seven,” Margo responded at once, and Eliot groaned.

Alice didn’t even bother voicing the question; someone would explain if they felt like it.

“Trying to decide where to go,” Julia filled her in. “We don’t know how they found us. It shouldn’t have been possible—for all we know, they’re listening in right now. We’re using the years we bought the safehouses instead of naming locations.”

“And it’s also why we’re heading for the subway, instead of portalling straight there,” Kady said. “We need to get far enough away without magic so that hopefully they can’t trace our signatures.”

“If that’s even what they were doing in the first place,” Julia said.

“Whoever they are,” Quentin put in.

Julia and Kady were walking on either side of Alice, with Quentin and Eliot behind, and Margo in front, leading the charge. It felt like a natural formation, like something they were used to doing. Alice was the center—the weak link, the one in need of protection. Even after everything, the thought made the back of her neck warm with mortification.

Time kept skipping. Alice walked, trying not to think, and several blocks passed under her feet without conscious effort. They arrived in no time at the 72nd Street Station, and Alice was hit with a sense of profound discordance, piling onto public transit with a bag full of magical textbooks seated on her lap, surrounded by five people who’d been born before the invention of the very mode of transportation they were now using.

She looked especially at Eliot, trying to square the incongruity in her mind, but Eliot didn’t look like an ancient Greek mythic figure, out of place among the modern swirl of the city. He looked like a twenty-first century dandy, elegantly bored by the world around him. Too good to be here, perhaps too good to be anywhere he happened to find himself. He merely stood, gripping onto one of the polls in the subway car, and kept his other arm slung around Quentin’s waist as they started to move.

Julia cast a subtle muffling charm by waving her hand in a circle around their group of six. It was another spell Alice recognized, but Julia added a flourish to the movement of her right pinky that didn’t match what Alice had studied in school. So many of their spells were like that—Kady’s force blast during the fight, Julia’s shields… all of them were related to modern magic but just slightly off. Alice wondered abstractly if she’d ever learned a spell at Brakebills that one of these people had invented. Before the fight she’d just witnessed, the idea would have been an exciting one. She would have asked about it right then and there. But now? Curiosity seemed an impossibility.

“Marina Andrieski,” Julia said without preamble, as soon as the muffling charm had taken effect. The spell wasn’t bulletproof, but they could speak without drawing too much muggle attention by blending into the general murmur.

“Hedge,” Kady said.

“Well, we’d put that together,” Margo said, snapping her fingers impatiently. “How did she find us, though? She sent nearly a dozen people into my home and tried to take us out. That’s not your ordinary hedge, sniveling and turning tricks for scraps of magic.”

Kady flashed her an angry look and then turned to Alice to translate Margo’s biting tone. “I’m a hedge,” she said, flat. “I come from hedges, I’ve known them all my—well, all my many lives, and Margo likes to remind me of it.”

“I’m not insulting your pwrecious wittle origin story,” Margo hissed, leaning in close to Kady. “But the hedges I know, especially nowadays, don’t have the kinds of resources and discipline we just saw employed. And I still have no idea who the fuck Marina—”

“I was friends with her grandmother,” Kady said, swallowing. “I was… when I went off, you know, after… I was with a group of them for a while. They—they—”

“They’re the ones who know,” Quentin said, like a revelation. “About you. About us.”

Alice felt cold all over, and fully present for the first time since she’d watched Eliot kill a man. She sat up straighter, gripping tight to the strap of her duffel bag. “People know?”

This, after Margo’s whole spiel about never telling anybody, after the threats and mistrust… people knew. People knew about immortality, which meant people would find out about Alice, if they didn’t know already. She’d been stupid for thinking it would have been possible to keep something like this secret. But if some hedges knew, how was it possible that it wasn’t general knowledge among the magical community?

“People know,” Eliot bit out, the harshness of the words in perfect agreement with Alice’s distress. “New York is—ah—intense for us, for a lot of reasons, but the hedge covens are a big factor in why we’ve been away. We haven’t spent any real time here, in—” he cut himself off with a wave of his hand. “But they never should have been able to get through Julia’s wards, or break Kady’s portal key.” He turned to look at the two women, and while his gaze wasn’t precisely accusatory, Alice noted the grip of his hand over the span of Quentin’s torso, right where his injury had been.

“There’s no way they could have broken my wards,” Julia said, utterly confident. “They must have… I don’t know, they must have been watching the perimeter of Brakebills, or something. They could have followed us to the portal when we got Alice.”

That theory seemed unlikely, but they all sat in silence with it for a moment. Alice tried to imagine a couple of hedge witches sneaking through the woods surrounding Brakebills campus, darting from tree to tree while she followed Kady and Julia guilelessly towards her new life. If someone had been following them then, she would have been in no condition to notice it; but surely Julia and Kady wouldn’t make such a mistake.

The conversation continued as the others spat out theories and shot them down, faster than Alice could track in her addled state. But as she sat there, letting the words wash over her, some of her immediate revulsion to Eliot’s decision started to wear off.

Yesterday, she’d heard immortals and thought deities. They looked and acted human, but it had seemed like a façade concealing untold depth and power underneath. And maybe there was still some truth to that. But here, now, it was impossible not to see them as mere humans, as scared humans, bickering over what had happened and how to stop it from happening again, desperate to keep each other safe.

The idea of being discovered, of potentially falling into the wrong hands, terrified her, and clearly terrified the others down to their bones. Being unkillable was well and good, but there were other ways to hurt someone.

Alice stared at the tunnel rushing by through the subway doors, and let herself wonder idly what kind of person she might be one hundred years from now, when the mortality of her old life caught up with itself, when the Alice Quinn who should have lived and died ceased to be her true self. She’d never really liked Alice Quinn. Being someone different had its appeal. But what guarantee did she have, that she’d improve with time? What guarantee that she too wouldn’t one day snap her fingers and end a man’s life without the slightest sliver of remorse?

She was practically dissociating, and she knew it. The conversation was still happening around her but she found herself in a headspace she hadn’t entered since the months following Charlie’s death: the kind of exhaustion that only happened after multiple sleepless nights in a row, the giddy jumping of time, the crystal clarity of wakefulness that only existed on the other side of true fatigue. And yet everyone else was still trying to make space for her. Kady kept brushing their arms together, Julia kept looking over and giving Alice nods of encouragement.

It wasn’t an act. They weren’t killers by choice, or killers first and foremost. They were kind. They were still kind, all this time later. They merely did what they had to do to keep themselves safe and together. Was that a compromise she could live with? Was it so different from what anyone in the world would do?

They rode the second avenue line through a few stops, connected with the Q heading to Lexington, and kept going. Alice had no idea where they were heading, and didn’t much care. If the penthouse wasn’t safe, she wasn’t sure why anywhere else would be, seeing as they still had no idea how they’d been discovered.

“What did you do to that woman?” Alice asked eventually, turning to Julia during a lull in the conversation. “You just let her go?”

Julia hesitated for a long moment before answering, and nobody else jumped in to fill the silence. “I… persuaded her and her friends to bring their dead back to wherever they’d come from, and then get out of town for a while.”

“Persuaded them,” Alice repeated, flat.

“I mindwiped and brainwashed them,” Julia said, firm and unrepentant. “The alternative was death, and I don’t like blood on my hands.”

“So you know where the hedges are hiding out, then,” Alice said, and Julia blinked at her in surprise. Alice realized belatedly that they’d all been expecting her to freak out, but she was past that now. She was zen, she was pragmatic, she was on a crowded subway under the protection of a fairly flimsy mirage that wouldn’t hold up against a disruptive breakdown. So she wouldn’t break down. “If you sent them back to where they came from? To Marina?”

“We didn’t exactly need the confirmation,” Kady said. “I know where Marina hangs out. But yeah, we’re tracking them. Might be able to get a general sense of what they’re up to, if they’ve moved from crouching in a hedge bar to something a little more serious.”

“A part of me wants to storm the fucking keep right now,” Margo said. “Go in there and wipe these maggots off the face of the earth for fucking with us.”

“A part of you meaning all of you,” Quentin said, with an affectionate eye-roll.

“They could be dangerous,” Eliot put in quietly. “They found us, they had numbers, and those people—they weren’t entirely useless. They knew how to fight.”

“Pete tried to warn me, I think,” Kady said quietly. The subway car was sliding into another station; Alice tuned it out as the doors swished open and the faceless swirl of people exited and entered, settling into the crowded cart. She felt liminal, unreal, like nothing mattered but the quiet bubble they’d created for themselves among the chaos. Alice had so rarely felt on the inside of such intimacy, but she still couldn’t parse out if the price of admission was too high.

“Who’s Pete?” she asked.

“One of my hedge contacts,” Kady said, shaking her head and then burying her face in her hands. “I keep my ear to the ground, get leads, pick up work from the whole hedge network in New York. Pete’s a good guy, he’s doing well for himself and he’s recently taken over as my main informant. He called me, said he’d heard a rumor we were in New York… I thought he was just being weird, but he was so insistent about confirming that we were all here…”

“You don’t think he’s working with Marina?” Alice asked. She was several steps behind, as she had been for days, but the connection seemed obvious. “Maybe he wasn’t warning you, maybe he was tracking you down for her.”

“Doubtful,” Kady said. “Not impossible, but doubtful. Last I checked, Pete’s people and Marina’s were not exactly on speaking terms.”

“Can we get back to my suggestion that we track this Marina person down to her sad little hidey-hole and burn the fucker to the ground?” Margo said. Julia tsked at her, flicking her on the shoulder with a quick finger. The muffling charm wouldn’t hold up if they started actually yelling.

“We have to assume we’re not dealing with a couple of desperate hedges,” Eliot reiterated. “They could hurt us. We don’t take stupid risks, Bambi. What kind of example would that be to set for the new kid?”

“So then we’re running,” Margo said, looking around the group for confirmation. Alice realized that if Margo told them to turn around and mount an all-out assault, they’d do it on her orders. But Margo didn’t give orders like that unless she needed to.

“We’re laying low,” Julia said, running a comforting hand along Margo’s arm. “Just until we know what’s coming for us.”

“That sounds like way less of a good time, but whatever,” Margo said.

The group lapsed into silence, as Julia tangled her fingers together with Margo’s. Standing, Eliot wrapped his arm more fully around Quentin’s waist and pulled him back into his chest, chin resting on the top of his head. Two perfect pairs, carving out space for themselves through the centuries. It left her and Kady sitting beside each other, the merest hint of a connection that had flared white-hot for one single night years ago, and had been given no time to strengthen itself since Alice had met their strange little family.

Alice pulled her cellphone out of her pocket, and turned it on for the first time in two days. She’d gotten out of the habit of using it during the last few months at Brakebills. She only had one text, from her TA who clearly didn’t share Alice’s respect for the technology ban. I took a pass at the essays, and set aside the ones I wasn’t sure about on your desk. Then, a few hours later, Fogg says you’re taking time off. Everything okay?

The texts were from yesterday morning. It was Friday, 11:47AM, and Alice had died on Wednesday night.

She felt like she’d lived literal lifetimes since the last time she’d spared even a nanosecond to her students, to grading essays or planning the midterm. She knew, somewhere beyond logic, that she wouldn’t be going back to Brakebills, at least not to stay. She knew it, but she wasn’t in the right headspace to examine the full implications. Alice didn’t reply to Tara; she’d figure the essays out. Or she wouldn’t. In sixty years or so all of her students would be dead, anyway. What did it matter?

When the six of them finally came up out of the underground, Kady took Alice’s arm and guided her down the sidewalk. She normally would have pulled away, but she was dazed, and paying no attention, her thoughts too caught up in—well—all of everything, to track where she was walking. A dangerous situation in such a busy area.

Eventually they ducked into a tiny alley behind a bar, and the light from the cloudy day went dim at once, more so than the high buildings would account for. Alice could feel the buzz of magic in the air.

“Another portal?” she asked.

“An old one,” Julia said, and Kady stepped forward and began the sequence of movements to open it up. “We’re going to head to another safehouse closeby, regroup and plan our next move.”

“A place you bought in nineteen-ninety-seven?”

“Quentin bought it,” Eliot said from behind Alice. “I refused to put my name on the lease.”

“Oh my god, it’s not that bad, it’s only—”

“Let’s go,” Kady said, and she stood beside the newly opened swirl of gold and blue and warped light, as they all piled in and out the other side.

“—Jersey,” Quentin finished.

They were by the waterfront, near a shipping yard. Alice smelled the salt and the oil, felt the smog in the air, and had virtually no time to orient herself before they were off again, walking briskly up the street.

“Why didn’t we portal directly to the safehouse?” Alice asked, falling into stride next to Julia as Margo once again took the lead. Being out of the city had unclenched the fist around her heart. She was in shock; she knew she was in shock, but she could ignore it for the time being, taking in their new location and getting back to what she did best: asking questions.

“It’s risky to go direct,” Margo answered. “We set up the link between Brakebills and the penthouse, but that was… a precaution. A shortcut. We normally wouldn’t have done it that way.”

The subtext was crystal clear. They’d wanted to keep Alice in the dark about the exact address of the penthouse, just in case she proved to be a risk. The renewed suggestion that she was the one who might not be trustworthy sent a prickle of irritation along her skin. She wasn’t the one carrying a collection of magically-miniaturized swords in a backpack right now. She wasn’t the one with the resources and the know-how to slaughter and/or mind-wipe an entire invading army practically without breaking a sweat.

But she decided to let it go. “So normally you portal to somewhere close, and then…”

“A non-magical approach generally suits,” Kady said. “That way we can do a sweep, make sure things are actually secure.”

“Are we in Camden?” Alice asked, looking around at the ramshackle buildings starting to appear on either side of the road. She hadn’t spent a lot of time in Jersey growing up but her father had once taken her and Charlie to a tour on World War II battleships, and the area was vaguely familiar.

“It gets a bad rap,” Quentin said at once, defensive, as if Alice had said something disparaging.

“It deserves a bad rap,” Eliot said.

“It’s got history, and culture!”

“You and I are literally more than a thousand years older than a single building here, and—”

“Ignore them,” Julia said, nudging her shoulder into Alice. “Bickering about inconsequential shit is one of their many, many love languages.”

Alice could see that, actually.

Her initial interpretation of Eliot and Quentin’s behavior had been all love and devotion and saccharine sweetness, but she remembered how Quentin had said they’d recently been fighting. Maybe that gentleness was actually the two of them being careful with each other, easing past the difficulty of a disagreement.

In contrast, they now appeared to be drafting a full-fledged competition-ready debate about the merits of Camden, New Jersey out of thin air, Eliot looking down his nose at Quentin and scoffing at his vehement defense, Quentin waving his arms so wildly in the air that at one point Kady literally had to duck out of the way.

They ended up catching a bus, traveling only two stops, and then walking for another twenty minutes before they reached the safehouse. It was in a suburb, it was old, and unkempt, and from the outside so utterly unlike the glamor of the penthouse they’d left earlier that morning that Alice almost laughed at the incongruity.

Before they approached, Kady and Julia darted forward and ran a series of tests on the perimeter. Once they’d declared it safe, their journey came to an end, and Alice tried to process the fact that it had been less than two hours since she’d been hiding behind a couch as battle spells flew over her head.

The furnishings on the inside of the house looked almost entirely unused. Drab, but in decent condition. The kitchen was fully stocked with nonperishables, but the fridge was entirely empty.

Alice knew this, because Eliot stormed into the kitchen first-thing and started pulling open every pantry and drawer in the place, wrinkling his nose at the yellowing contact paper lining the cabinets. “How long are we going to be here?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Remains to be seen,” Margo said, running a manicured finger over the banister and then blowing the dust off as she took a speculative look around. “Damn, Q, remind me again why you bought this dump?”

“It’s just a normal house!” Quentin said. “It’s a normal, suburban house, in the suburbs! Where people live normal lives!”

“I think it’s nice, Q,” Julia said. “Loving the wallpaper. When was the last time the interior was redone?”

“El refused to do it for me,” Quentin said, with a definite pout in his voice. “So I don’t know, the previous owners had been living in it since it was brand new in—uh—in the seventies.”

“Oh sure, I’ll just drop everything and redecorate an entire house for you whenever you feel like making an investment,” Eliot huffed from the kitchen, but he sounded more amused than anything. Despite his overt distaste for their current surroundings, Eliot seemed to be as relieved as Alice was to be away from New York.

Everyone got to work at once, dragging their bags upstairs to the various bedrooms as Eliot jotted down a grocery list.

“Do you cart your entire weapons cache around with you wherever you go?” Alice asked, and Quentin, who had been suggesting menu items to Eliot, turned to look at her with surprise.

“Oh, no, that’s not all of them. We’ve got them hidden all over.”

Right. Yeah, of course they did. Of course. What a stupid thing for her to ask.

“Alice?” Quentin’s voice, closer now. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Obviously not,” Alice snapped, taking a step away from Quentin’s solicitous arm, reaching out to touch her on the elbow. Everyone kept touching her. And it was so nice, that they cared, that they wanted her to be comfortable, but so annoying, all at the same time.

“I just meant… can I do anything?” Quentin said, utterly genuine and gentle and sweet. The kind of man whose partner would commit murder to keep him safe. And the kind of man who could clearly take care of himself.

Kady re-emerged from the landing. “You should take a nap,” she said to Alice, seeming to take in the situation with one easy sweep of her eyes.

It almost made Alice laugh. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The thought of closing her eyes, of sleeping, seemed like—well. Like something she might never do again without hearing the sickening pop of a snapped neck, the dull thud of inanimate limbs crumpling to the hardwood floor. And there was Eliot in the kitchen, tongue sticking out of his mouth slightly as he asked Quentin what kind of salad he’d want to go along with steak for dinner.

“I mean it,” Kady repeated firmly, stepping over to block Alice’s line of sight to the kitchen. “Second door on the left, that’s your room for now. Drink a big glass of water, then go lie down and close your eyes. Even if you think you won’t sleep.”

“I—”

“You’re going to crash, Alice. You’re in shock, and you know it,” Kady said, and she gently nudged Alice towards the stairs.

Incredibly, it seemed that Kady was right. The second she found herself actually horizontal, changed into sweats and a t-shirt, her eyelids drooped, her limbs sinking into the surprisingly comfortable mattress. This room, like the one at the penthouse, didn’t seem to have much of a personal touch. She remembered what Eliot had said, that it had been a while since they’d been in the area.

Her mind was racing, of course. Pained and irritated thoughts were crowding their way through her synapses, her body sinking into the edges of slumber but her brain resisting the final slip into unconsciousness. The kindness of these strangers, the brutality of these strangers. The unassailable fact that she had nowhere else to turn. The worry that she was giving into something wrong, and giving in so easily, without even trying to sort things out for herself. Julia’s hand on her elbow, Quentin’s soft eyes offering help. Kady making sure to explain and include her during the hushed, hurried conversation on the subway. Eliot making dinner. Eliot joking around about the Spartans. Eliot, born in the 5th century BCE… Eliot striking down anyone who inconvenienced him. Eliot’s eyes whenever he looked at Quentin, the gentleness and trust there.

Her thoughts blended into sleep so seamlessly that she hardly even noticed the transition.

***

Alice dreamed.

She dreamed of sex, or maybe more precisely of the moment right after: a slow, tingling calm spreading through every limb, the satisfaction and warmth of a beloved’s body cradled against your own.

Eliot and Quentin were curled together on the edge of their campfire, sheltered by a single tamarisk tree near a small trickle of water that barely passed for a stream. Alice knew, without knowing how she knew, that they were somewhere in northern Egypt, far enough outside a small village that hopefully nobody would find them and ask questions. Surrounded by a bubble of interlocking protection and shield charms, they felt relatively secure here next to their banked campfire, covered by only a thin blanket in the balmy summer night.

They were spooning, Eliot’s front pressed along Quentin’s back, his chin resting on Quentin’s shoulder.

Hello, he said, pressing a kiss to the shell of Quentin’s ear.

Hi, Quentin responded, reaching a hand around to cup the back of Eliot’s skull, skritch fingers through his hair.

Are you comfortable?

Hmmm. Quentin squirmed into Eliot, like he wanted to find a way to be touching even more of him, and gripped Eliot’s arm, pulling it tighter.

I’ll take that for a yes.

For a moment they were both silent, just enjoying the sleepy softness of the moment, the relaxation of muscles and pleasure of touch. It was still new to Eliot, still new enough, in the span of his impossibly long life, that he felt like he had to count every moment, treasure and hoard every second of actual happiness after a drought the size of which no man had ever suffered before.

El.

Yes?

Do you think we’ll dream of her tonight?

There was a lengthy pause, and Eliot pressed a few more drowsy kisses against the line of Quentin’s neck, smelling the strands of his perfect hair. I hope so. I think we might be close.

They were closer than they knew. It was mere hours later, after they’d both slipped into a comfortable slumber, that they were awoken by a loud, commanding voice from the other side of their campfire. Wake up. Now.

Quentin woke first, his jittery body sitting up so fast he narrowly avoided elbowing Eliot in the face. It was almost too dark to see, but the embers cast a faint red glow upon their visitor.

Quentin’s hands came up in a defensive casting posture. If needed, he could blast back the intruder and give them time to grab their weapons and make a stand.

Eliot woke as well, his bleary eyes focusing first on Quentin and then, with a panicked lurch, up at the woman who had so easily stepped through their shields. They shouldn’t have been visible to anyone passing by, and they should have been alerted if someone got too close.

What do you want? Eliot hissed, and his body was in motion now, standing tall and firm, shielding the still-crouching Quentin.

I can’t believe I found you, the voice said. Alice understood her, the way she understood everyone in these dreams, even though they spoke in languages all but lost to the world. The woman was speaking a different tongue from Quentin and Eliot, though. They tensed, at a loss.

Who are you? Quentin asked, pulling himself to his feet and standing right by Eliot’s side. Neither of them dared look away from the woman, still hidden in silhouette, but they were attuned to each other, arms tensed where they pressed in close. Ready to strike, ready to protect, ready to flee if that was what it took. Quentin put one palm flat to the ground and curled his fingers up with a muttered word, and his blade flew into his hand, hilt settling against his palm with the familiarity of long, expert use. He raised the edge of his longsword into a defensive position, shuffling his feet to create a stronger base.

You’re here. You’re real, the woman said. I’m unbelievable, I’m a genius, I really found you.

And Margo stepped forward, bringing her own hand up and swirling a ball of ice-blue luminescence out of nowhere, sending the orb above their heads to cast light down on the scene. She was revealed in all her glory, dressed in dusty white linens with her hair pulled away from her face, holding a single rucksack with her meager belongings over one shoulder. A familiar face. A face more familiar to Eliot and Quentin than any other, besides each other. A poem of a woman, who lit up the sky.

Quentin dropped his sword. Eliot’s hands fell limply to his side. Margo smiled so wide it made her look young and innocent and pure.

And then, they were hugging. Eliot let out a cry of relief and rushed forward to embrace this woman, this stranger, this person he had yearned to find. The person they had searched for, over so many years…

You’re beautiful, Eliot said to her, in a language she didn’t know.

You’re real, she said back, in words incomprehensible to Eliot.

Margo was crying and laughing all at once. Quentin and Eliot both cradled her, comforted her, loved her, loved each other; relief made them giddy, babbling words in a mix of tongues running together as they all shouted and jumped and shrieked in joy.

And then, they invited their new companion to sit around the fire, building it up with a few quick spells. They offered food and drink from their own supply, and Margo ate ravenously, her eyes bright with gratitude. After a few minutes of trial and error in trying to find a language they all could speak, Margo pulled out her somewhat mangled Greek, and began to tell her story.

***

Alice woke with a gentle shake, and found Kady crouching next to the bed, her face soft in the dim light. “Hey, Alice.”

She felt a brief flash of irritation. She’d wanted to see the rest of the dream, wanted to hear Margo explain her journey, wanted to celebrate with them.

“Is everything okay?” she asked, blinking and sitting up.

“Yeah, you’ve only been asleep about an hour, sorry to wake you,” Kady said. She was still speaking in an oddly hushed tone, and Alice found it inconveniently endearing. “It’s just—we’re having a team meeting downstairs, to decide on our next move.”

For a moment Alice could only stare at Kady, waiting for the rest of the sentence, but Kady was giving her an oddly tentative smile. Oh. “Oh. And they want…”

“Yes,” Kady said, too quickly to be totally believable. “You’re in this with us, for good or bad. Will you come?”

And so Alice followed Kady downstairs in sweats and a t-shirt, her hair pulled back into the laziest of buns, sat on the corner of the extremely unfashionable paisley couch, and joined her first team meeting.

She was in this with them. She was one of them. And if it took her awhile to figure out exactly what that meant… well, apparently she had all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love



The plan, as far as Alice could parse it after an hour-long back and forth, was to wait and see. Of course, it was more complicated than that, as Julia was quick to point out when Margo renewed her grumbling at the thought of inaction.

The fact was, the immortals were at a huge disadvantage. Namely, that while they knew the identity of their adversary, they had no idea what Marina had planned, or how she was able to find them. It was a concerning development, to say the least. Over the centuries, they’d had time to perfect their stealth skills, and craft precise and effective methods of protection and concealment. Hedge covens, on the other hand, weren’t exactly known for their magical innovation. They were scrappy, certainly, and Alice knew that underestimating some of the more established covens could be a deadly mistake, but even so… no hedge coven in the world should have been a match for what Julia and the others could do.

They had two working theories. The first was that Kady’s involvement with various hedge groups over the years had compromised their secrecy. Some hedge witch, very determined, with decades of time to spare on a single obsession, might theoretically have been able to track Kady down. Marina’s coven could have discovered the location of the penthouse, staked them out, and found a heretofore undiscovered weakness in their shielding.

The second theory was about Alice. The group had been splintered to various corners of the world when they’d all had their dreams of Alice, and had raced back to New York to meet her at once. Their urgency had been necessary—they’d known nothing of Alice’s character, and had worried about exposure. But in coming back to New York in a hurry, they may not have been cautious enough about their reappearance in the place most densely populated with people who knew their secrets. On top of that, Julia’s sophisticated protection magic was woven through with the magical and physical signatures of each of the immortals, meaning that while the five existing members of the family should have been untraceable, Alice might have led Marina’s people right to the penthouse.

“We were stupid,” Margo had growled through her teeth as Julia finished her explanation. “And sloppy, and careless. We can’t afford to make mistakes like this, not when our exit strategy—”

“We had no way of knowing anyone was after us,” Quentin had cut in. His words were soft, and for a moment Alice thought Margo would ignore them to continue her tirade. But she didn’t. She stopped, and looked at Quentin, and bit her lip, looking down. Quentin reached out a hand and grabbed Margo’s, tangling their fingers together. “We had no reason to be paranoid. This came out of nowhere, but we handled it. We got out of there. We’re all here.”

Alice figured it would probably take her years (decades? centuries?) to pick up on all the nuance that existed between these people, but this one seemed pretty clear. Margo was not only angry about the attack, but deeply ashamed that it had happened at all. It was her job to keep them safe. Quentin’s reassurance, the careful use of the word ‘we’ instead of ‘you’, served to absolve Margo of the blame, while avoiding any appearance of unwanted coddling.

It worked, too. Margo gave Quentin a twitch of a smile, and leaned against his shoulder, keeping their hands clasped.

In the end, their lack of information was their biggest liability. Now that they knew there was a group of hedges after them, they could turn the tide.

“The good news is, we haven’t really used this house since Q bought it,” Julia said, standing in front of the group like a teacher mid-presentation. “So even if the hedges have been scoping us out, it’s not unreasonable to assume they don’t know about this place.”

“Isn’t Jersey a little close to New York?” Alice asked. She hadn’t contributed much to the team meeting, content to sit there and be sheepish about being the likely reason they were all in trouble to begin with.

“Portals make conventional distances moot,” Kady answered her. “And if we’re right about them tracking us that way, using too many in a row would be a bad idea. At this point, less trafficked safehouses are going to be best. If Marina’s people have been looking into us that means the penthouse might not be the only place that’s burned.”

Margo huffed out an annoyed breath. “I didn’t even get to finish redecorating.”

“Well, if we kill everyone who knows about it, maybe we can keep it,” Eliot said, reaching across Q to pet a hand down her arm in what he clearly meant to be a comforting gesture.

(He was probably—definitely—kidding, but Alice had to brace herself against a flinch, anyway.)

“That’s a thought,” Margo said, perking up slightly. “Jules, are you able to add Alice to the warding here?”

Julia turned a wide smile on Alice. “Yes, I think I can. If we’re right, and Marina’s people put a trace on you, they’ll be able to find you soon enough. But once they get here... it should be impossible for them to get in if all six of us are woven into the spell signature, and stay within the wards.”

“That would make us sitting ducks,” Alice said.

“That would give us a fortified position,” Eliot corrected with a raised eyebrow. “And time to see exactly what kind of adversary we’re dealing with before we… deal with it.”

And so they had decided. Wait and see. Fortified position. Alice submitted to Julia running some magical diagnostics on her; Kady pricked her finger and took a small sampling of her blood, and then the two women told everyone else to clear out while they updated the wards. (When the needle had pricked Alice’s finger, a single bead of blood had welled out of the small puncture, and the cut underneath closed up at once, leaving no evidence behind. She’d fought the urge to find a Band-Aid, and merely wiped the small droplet up with a tissue.)

While the protections were being updated, Eliot and Quentin had left to do another grocery run, stocking up supplies for at least a couple of days. When Alice came back downstairs after splashing some cold water on her face, she was just in time to see them return, reusable grocery bags loaded down in their arms.

They dumped everything on the counter, bickering about some fancy organic ingredient that apparently hadn’t been available at the “piss-poor excuse for a grocer boasted by this historically and culturally significant city”. Quentin countered by calling Eliot a snob and a classist, and then Eliot ducked to kiss him with a low and serious remark in some language Alice didn’t recognize. Quentin swatted him away and opened the refrigerator. And then, without a further word between them, Eliot handed Quentin the perishables to put away, folding each bag as he emptied it, companionable silence taking over.

They were obnoxious domesticity personified. They were that couple, always within touching distance, flirting constantly no matter who was in the room. Alice wondered if they’d been like that for two thousand years. She found it kind of sweet, at least in the moment, but she couldn’t imagine living with it for centuries.

They were also murderers. This morning, this morning, Eliot had killed someone, and Alice kept vacillating between grudging understanding and true horror at that basic, unavoidable fact.

When she looked over at the couch, she saw Kady staring at the men as well, an odd expression on her face. There was wistfulness there, but something else too. A flash of anger, maybe? When Kady caught Alice staring, she quirked her lips up into a smile and jerked her head, a wordless invitation.

“Are they…” Alice said, keeping her voice low as she sat next to Kady. “Are—you okay?”

Kady frowned, like that wasn’t the question she’d been expecting; frankly, it wasn't the question Alice had meant to ask.

“Yes, I’m fine.” Kady was switching back to English from Hebrew, which Alice had heard her speaking with Julia when she’d come down the stairs. “Why do you ask?”

“You were looking at them weird,” Alice said, biting her lower lip and forcing herself to maintain eye-contact. If this was her life now, she needed to nail down a few things. The simmering tension between Kady and Eliot was so minor as to be nearly undetectable, but she’d noticed it all the same. She’d been watching.

“At Q and El?” Kady said. “They’re obnoxious, what else is new.”

“You have a problem? With them as… like, with them as a couple?” Alice prodded.

“Q and El?” Kady repeated, blinking in surprise. “Of course not. They’re pretty much literal soulmates. Insufferable, sure, but far worse on their own than they are together.”

Julia, who had been tapping away at her phone on Kady’s other side, looked up and rolled her eyes at Alice. “Believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“Are they always like that?” Alice asked, waving a hand vaguely in the air to take in the blatantly flirtatious bickering, the soft, sweet kisses interrupting the flow of unpacking, all clearly visible from the living room.

“Oh, god no,” Julia said, with a sputter of laughter. “Kady, can you imagine? No, I definitely would have invented a way to kill them by now, if that were the case.”

“When I first met them,” Kady said, “I didn’t even know they were a couple for the first few weeks.”

Alice tried to imagine that, tried to conceive of an Eliot and Quentin who didn’t obviously, emphatically, belong to one another, and failed.

“Things were different at the time,” Julia said gently. “In terms of… acceptable behavior. Caution was a requirement when meeting new people.”

“Margo and Julia sure as shit didn’t hide anything,” Kady said, a fond smile of reminiscence on her face. “Point is, there are ebbs and flows. Not just with them, with all of us. I think that’d be true even in mortal relationships, it’s just that the phases tend to last longer when you have unlimited time in front of you.”

“And it’s been an intense few years,” Julia said. “We’re all correspondingly on edge.”

New York was also ‘intense’, according to Eliot. And the group had been apart until recently, until Alice had shown up in their dreams. There was a story here, it was just a matter of finding the best way of asking about it.

“The way you looked at them, though,” Alice said. “What’s that about?” She surprised herself in the asking, but some instinct told her to push the issue.

Kady twisted her lips up into a grimace. “Oh, it’s… sometimes it’s hard to be around happy people. You know?”

Alice knew. Alice definitely knew. She didn’t know the specifics of Kady’s grief, but there was a reason she’d felt drawn to her three years ago, when they’d met in an anonymous bar to drink their sorrows and find a spark of belonging in a sea of sameness. There was a reason she still felt drawn to her now.

“He doesn’t like me,” Alice said, changing tacks and looking between Kady and Julia, both angled to face her on the couch.

To their credit, neither of them asked what she meant, or played coy. “He doesn’t know you,” Julia said. “It’s nothing personal.”

“Newcomers are a fraught thing for Eliot,” Kady said.

Alice remembered the dream from her nap, the way Eliot had seen Margo, a total stranger, and had thrown himself forward, gathering her into his arms. It couldn’t be newcomers that were the problem.

“He’s just—intimidating? I guess?” Alice said. “He makes me care too much about what he thinks of me, and I’ve always hated that. I shouldn’t care.”

“Trust me, I get it,” Julia said with an understanding smile. “Margo is the scary one on the surface—and don’t get me wrong, crossing her is a bad idea—but Eliot’s the one you really need to look out for.”

“Don’t say it in such an ominous way,” Kady said, jerking an elbow back to nudge Julia in the arm. “You’re going to scare her.”

“I’m not that easily scared,” Alice said. She hated it when people talked about her in front of her, however briefly. It reminded her of her parents.

“No, you’re not,” Kady said, and she wasn’t placating—she was grinning, like Alice had done something right. “I just meant that Julia has a tendency to make things more dramatic than they are. The basic rule is, Margo will kick your ass if you fuck up, but you’ll see her coming. She’s honest about how she feels, and you always know where you stand with her.”

That seemed like a fair assessment. “And Eliot?”

“Eliot,” Julia said, “is ice cold. Margo’s good at cryomancy, it’s like… her thing, but Eliot’s actually the ice to her fire, you know? He’s a teddy bear when he feels safe, but you have to give him time to get there. Until then he’s a brick wall between the things he loves, and any potential threat.”

“He can’t possibly see me as a potential threat,” Alice said, scoffing. She knew what she was capable of, knew she was a good magician, but she had nothing on any of them.

“A potential liability,” Julia said, with a smile to soften the blow. “If you’re a weak link for us, someone could get hurt. And Eliot does not abide that shit.”

“That much is obvious,” Alice muttered, looking down at her hands tangled in her lap. But this wasn’t a conversation about Eliot killing that man back at the penthouse. She wasn’t sure she knew how to talk about that.

“The thing is,” Julia said. “Quentin is terrifying too, he’s just sneakier about it.”

“So you say,” Kady said. She turned to Alice with a conspiratorial tilt of her shoulders. “Julia is always going on about Quentin being a stealth rage-monster, but I’ve known him over two centuries and I’ve yet to see him become a feral screaming animal because someone forgot to guard Eliot’s flank for half a second.”

“As opposed to the other way around,” Alice said, trying to smile. It was the easiest thing in the world to imagine Eliot losing his shit on Quentin’s behalf. He wasn’t the most emotionally demonstrative, but she’d already seen him flip that switch. Quentin, on the other hand?

“It’s rare,” Julia said, as if in answer to Alice’s thoughts, “but trust me. Neither of you were around for the Samurai incident of 1578.” She shuddered, and while it seemed somewhat performative, Alice saw a hint of real anguish in Julia’s light brown eyes.

“What’s the Samurai incident of 1578?” Alice asked. And here came a spark of familiar curiosity, a warming in her gut. She could resist the pull of it all she wanted; she could curl into a ball and weep in despair at the confusing moral quandaries facing her, the endlessness of a future without limitation, without end. But… Samurai. 1578. The things they could tell her...

Julia raised a hand towards her throat, and made an indelicate motion with her hand, like an axe chopping down. Her tongue stuck out against her bottom lip. “I got distracted in a fight. Eliot’s head nearly came off. Like. Really nearly. Nearly Headless Nick levels of nearly.”

Alice’s stomach turned over.

“Who the fuck is Nearly Headless Nick?” Kady said, and Alice had the inappropriate urge to laugh through the nausea, at the thought of a one-thousand-year-old who had read Harry Potter, and a two-hundred-year-old who hadn’t. As if one of those things was somehow stranger than the other.

Julia waved a dismissive hand. “Point was, El was in a bad way; it took him… a while to wake up. Q was—um.” She paused, swallowing, and then shook her head. “Sorry, god, I forgot I don’t think about this for a reason. It’s just… Q, waiting for him, wasn’t—well, El was fine, he was fine, it all worked out, but Q didn’t take it well. He was too scared to be angry with me in the moment, but afterwards… well, I thought he was going to kill me, and I’m not speaking metaphorically. And then he spent the next couple of years refusing to talk to me, or practically even be in the same room with me, and it... wasn’t the best.”

Kady gave Julia an odd look, and Alice wondered if this story was new to her as well. “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”

“Oh, it was,” Julia said. And then she smiled, shaking away the bad memories. “Anyway, at first I was completely devastated that Q was so angry, but Eliot was being sweet, trying to get us into a room together, surreptitiously trying to leave us alone so we’d talk…”

“Eliot wasn’t mad at you?” Alice asked.

“No, not at all. Shit happens. He knows that better than anyone,” Julia said. “Now if Q had been the one whose head had nearly come off, I’m not sure he’d be talking to me even now.”

“It’s nice that he tried to help with your friendship, though,” Alice said. Painting a picture of Eliot in her mind was getting more difficult by the second. Everything she learned about him was a contradiction. Aloof yet deeply caring. Quick to anger on Quentin’s behalf, indifferent on his own.

But Julia, to Alice’s surprise, let out a chortle. “See, that’s what I thought at first, too. Turns out? Eliot finds angry-Quentin sexy, so he was actually riling him up for his own entertainment.”

Alice stared at her, appalled.

“Like I said, if you think they’re insufferable now, wait a few decades and report back.”

“But it worked out. I mean, you and Quentin now…”

“Yeah,” Julia said. “It really did. Look, Q takes a long time to process things. He’s a really anxious person. He gets caught up, his brain moves too fast. But he’s learned that he really does have all the time in the world to think things through, and he’s gotten pretty good at doing that. The silent treatment wasn’t meant to be cruel to me. He just… needed to know for sure how he felt, and how he’d be able to handle it, before we talked.”

“And that took him years,” Alice said. They were all working with an unfathomable timetable. When she looked at Kady, she saw an ordinary woman, close to her own age, but then she remembered that Kady had been a contemporary of the founding fathers, and she was the youngest of them. And Julia… her world was something so different, so entirely unfamiliar to Alice’s in every way. When Julia had died for the first time, and dreamed of Quentin, Eliot, and Margo, had she also been learning of the existence of a landmass across the Atlantic for the first time?

God, how had they ever found each other? Were magicians using portals back then? Was there a network of Travelers? Had there been covens? Schools? The questions never stopped.

A clatter in the kitchen told Alice that Eliot and Quentin were done unloading groceries. They had their hands tangled up, their bodies angled close together as they came into the living room. It was hard to picture them any other way, really. They moved together in moments of peace, the same way they’d moved as one in combat.

“I’m going to start dinner,” Eliot called out to the three of them.

“Margo’s taking a power nap,” Julia said. “You want help?”

“Nah,” Eliot said, waving a hand at her. “Q will keep me company.”

Julia turned and gave Kady and Alice a significant glance.

“Per fucking usual,” Kady muttered under her breath.

“Have patience with Eliot,” Julia suggested in a whisper, shrugging at Alice. “He’ll love you eventually, I know he will. But don’t be timid. He’ll never respect you if you’re timid.”

Alice paused for a moment, wondering if timid was the way she was coming off to these people. She was fairly certain the word had never been used to describe her before. Frigid, yes. Shy, when people were feeling charitable or circumspect. But timid?

“Right,” she said, straightening her spine. “I’ll do that, then. I’ll just… talk to him. Like a normal person.” That was a thing she could do. She was sure. There had to be a first time for everything.

***

Eliot’s dinner was predictably delicious: steak and mashed potatoes with some sort of kale salad. A little more standard fare than the meal of the night before, although Alice suspected Eliot had used magic to improve the quality of the meat, especially after all the griping he’d done about the local grocer’s meager offerings.

Other than that trip to the store, none of them had left the house since arriving. Margo explained to Alice as they dove into their meal that the wards actually extended past the bounds of the house and down to the corner at the end of the street. Anywhere beyond that, they would be vulnerable to Marina Andrieski’s tracking spells.

The meal was filled with more conversation about their current predicament—plans for Kady to gather intel without alerting the wrong people, suggestions of safehouses that might be more ideal for hunkering down if they decided to wait it out.

(It took Alice a moment to realize that wait it out meant staying on guard for the next couple of decades until mortality solved their problem for them. Another question to add to the list—had they done that before? Let the ravages of time defeat their enemies for them?)

Kady gave them all as much information as she had about Marina’s coven. They had good numbers and decent organization; they were actually an off-shoot of one of the most established hedge groups in the city. Kady’s family had been connected to an affiliated group all the way back in the late eighteenth century, and the ties had run deep with both branches of her own heavily magical family.

Through the centuries, Kady had more or less kept in touch. Her immortality was an open secret among some of the more helpful and organized hedge covens, although her exact identity, and especially the identity of the others, was something Kady took great pains to conceal. Still, Marina Andrieski’s grandmother, a woman named Anna Andrieski who had been a friend to Kady fifty or so years ago, had known more. Had known Kady, what she looked like, some basics of her history.

“I know Alice is our working theory, as to how they found us,” Kady said, stabbing her fork through the remnants of her salad. “But I’m the reason they’re after us in the first place, the reason they even know there’s something to find. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Margo answered, surprising Alice and apparently surprising the rest of the table as well. “We’ve all talked to people, we’ve all… trusted. Human nature, or some shit. Disgusting, but what are you going to do?”

“We’re ready for them this time,” Eliot added. “They can’t get the drop on us, so even if they do come…”

“Yeah,” Julia said. “This time no sending them away, no wiping their minds. We follow them back to Marina, and we get some answers.”

Alice tried to remember that if she wanted to leave, she was allowed to go. She tried to remember that if she didn’t want it to, this had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t working particularly well.

After dinner, they all sat around in the living room, Quentin and Julia both sipping coffee, a lazy sort of calm setting over the group as the evening wore on. Alice was surprised by the relaxed atmosphere, given the events of that morning, but she figured that by now, they all knew how to appreciate peace when they could find it. She’d seen them rattled that morning, but even that had been a well-organized, tempered panic. After so many years, it had to be almost impossible to truly frighten them.

Especially Eliot. He was calm and collected. Perpetually. It was hard to imagine him as anything other than cool and aloof, or else stone-cold and furious, calling upon the power of centuries to destroy anyone who threatened him or his family. Eliot was dressed immaculately, had gotten up that morning and donned trousers and dress shoes and a vest, had styled his hair and applied eyeliner, had fought a group of invaders to his home, had killed a man, had ridden public transport, had arrived in Camden, New Jersey, had gone to the grocery store, had made dinner for his family, all while looking like that, with meticulously applied charcoal around his eyes, an intentional stubble sculpted across his face, down his sinewy neck, vest ironed and fitted just so, fingers glittering with several ornate rings.

“That can’t be convenient for battle,” Alice said, looking down at Eliot’s adorned hands. It wasn’t the best opening line, but she’d decided to take Julia’s advice to heart—no timidity. Eliot looked confused for a moment until he followed Alice’s eyes. He flexed his hands and then shot her an arch look of indifference and a shrug. Opening gambit failed.

But then Margo stepped hard on his foot from her spot on the couch beside him, and he sighed, softening his expression into something marginally more open.

“I take them off if I know things are turning bloody,” he said. “Otherwise… I like to keep them on. They’re good reminders.”

Alice tried to remember if any of the rings had been there in the flashback dreams, but the details tended to go fuzzy after she woke up, leaving only impressions behind.

She waited, instead of speaking. She wanted to ask for details, but more than that, she wanted Eliot to volunteer the information to her. Quentin leaned in closer to Eliot, resting his head against the curve of his arm, then reached down and grabbed Eliot’s left hand in one of his, bringing it up to his mouth. With practiced delicacy, he placed a kiss to the simple band on Eliot’s ring finger. Eliot’s whole face melted, like defeat, surrender, joy.

“Fine,” he said, and it sounded like he was saying it more to himself than to Quentin or Alice. But he turned to her, an actual smile turning up the corner of his mouth. He took his hand away from Quentin and tapped at the ring, silver with intricate carvings in it. It looked a bit like a claddagh ring, but Alice couldn’t be sure, the detail was so faded. “This one’s Q,” he said, and then moved his finger over to touch the ornate opal on the middle finger, right next door. “Margo.”

Then his right hand— “Jules gets amber for her pretty pretty eyes,” he said, with a cheeky grin in Julia’s direction.

“I merited the middle finger, and I’m truly proud,” Julia said.

Eliot flipped her off automatically, but then rolled his eyes at Alice. “The ring predates the rude gesture, but sometimes shit works out.”

The pointer finger of his right hand had another silver ring, with small etchings along the rim that looked like Hebrew. “Kady.”

Then he waved his right pinky finger, a gold band with an inset ruby, before letting out a little sigh and glancing up at the ceiling. “Penny Adiyodi.”

“Oh,” Alice said, frowning and looking around the room like she expected a sixth heretofore unmentioned person to materialize from the wall, before turning to Kady. “Your…”

“Husband,” Kady said.

“What—”

“He’s dead,” Eliot said, and it didn’t sound harsh, or mournful, or angry… just flat, maybe a little tired. “But hey, he had a good run.”

“You’re a dick,” Kady said, but she sounded tired too.

“I’m so sorry,” Alice said. She hated when people said that to her about Charlie, but what else could she say? “I—wait, he died? Was he—”

“Someday when we’re not in the middle of a crisis,” Kady said softly, “I’ll tell you about him. All about him.” She swallowed. “But basically… fifty years ago, we took a job, and he got trapped. He was a Traveler, he… he was our emergency escape, and he came in for a rescue.”

“But they were waiting for us,” Quentin said. When Alice tore her eyes away from Kady, she saw that Quentin’s expression was hardly any less hollow, any less devastated. “They’d done something, caged him in…”

“He burned to ash, trapped alone in that building,” Eliot said. And if Alice hadn’t spent the last couple of days caring way too much about Eliot’s mood, about his facial expressions and his temperament, she might have thought his tone was bored or even entirely indifferent. She heard the razor’s edge to it, though, the sharpest, tightest pain, anger tied up right alongside heartbreak. “We lost him.”

The room went deadly quiet, and Alice tried not to look at Kady.

Three years ago, they’d talked about grief, about perservering without understanding why, and resenting the years to come, when things would be normal and life would trudge on. But she’d never said she’d been married. She’d never…

“I wish I could have met him,” Alice said finally. Inadequately. It was the truth, though. She didn’t need to know a single thing about him to know that these people had all loved him. Another time, when Kady felt like talking, she’d ask her questions, about who he was, about when he’d been born, about how long he and Kady had been together. The curiosity felt like a good sign, like a healthy impulse instead of an inappropriate one. She’d been flinching away from Eliot, from all of them, all day, trying to ignore the fact that somewhere deep down, she didn’t want to. The existence of such a person as Penny Adiyodi, the fact that Eliot wore his ring on his finger… somehow, that gave her permission to step forward, instead of backward.

“Penny would have liked you,” Julia said, and she was smiling. Wistful, sad, but real nonetheless. “Josh would have liked you too.”

Who the fuck was—

“Oh god,” Margo said. “Are we really doing the full fucking trip down memory lane tonight?”

“Well, what else are we supposed to do with all of our free time?” Eliot said. “Since we’re not out there killing the bad guys this evening.”

Margo shot him an affronted look. “And whose idea—”

“Who’s Josh?” Alice cut in, before they could gather steam.

To her surprise, the group went even more solemn than before. “Josh… was one of us too,” Margo said, but she said it with a hesitancy that Alice had never heard from her before.

“Sort of,” Eliot said, and Quentin slapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“He was,” Quentin said. “We didn’t have him for long, but he… was one of us.”

“Did he burn too?” Alice said, in a whisper. The way they were talking… she had the sudden, horrible thought that maybe Josh, whoever he was, had been… young. A child. The thought was beyond terrible. She was twenty-eight years old, and had already felt conflicted at the thought of being frozen under the age of thirty forever. What if this Josh person had been a teenager, or younger, when he’d died for the first time?

“No,” Margo said, and she had a happier smile on her face now. “No, he lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed surrounded by a dozen grandkids, the self-satisfied little weirdo.”

“What?”

“There’s something we should tell you,” Kady said, and to Alice’s considerable shock, she took her hand, pressing it between both of her own. The touch was warm, friendly, and as reassuring as Kady clearly meant it to be, but the revelation of Penny Adiyodi had put up a wall in Alice’s mind. The fleeting idea of a connection between herself and Kady seemed all the more improbable, in light of Kady’s continued mourning for a man she’d loved and lost half a century ago.

“What now?” Alice asked. She was tired of the bombshells, but there was nowhere to run.

“We’re not… really… immortal,” Kady said.

Involuntarily, Alice let out a sound, almost a honk, of laughter, and then tugged her hand away from Kady’s so she could slap both palms across her mouth. The what?! went entirely unsaid, or at least she hoped it did. Julia had been the one to tell her she was immortal to begin with, so Alice ignored the warm and near presence of Kady beside her, and focused on Julia instead, waiting for an explanation.

“Josh was a friend of ours,” Julia said. “We met him centuries ago. We dreamed of him. He died, and he came back. He got hurt, he healed. Just like the rest of us.”

Julia paused, bit her lip delicately, and then continued on. “And then, shortly after? He stopped. We were fighting in—well, it doesn’t matter, we were fighting, Joshua was hurt, and he didn’t heal right away. It wasn’t a bad wound, we were able to bandage him up.”

Margo stepped in and continued the story, her own voice softer than Alice usually heard it, saturated in remembered affection. “And he started aging. It was like whatever curse, or gift, we all have? It just… left him.”

“Why?” Alice asked, the first and only word she could make herself say.

“We don’t know,” Eliot answered.

And that was it, the truth that had been following Alice from the moment this had all begun. We don’t know. Because none of them did, really. Julia could study it all she wanted, Margo could run at the world head-on, with the brash confidence of collected centuries, but they didn’t know.

“So it could wear off,” Alice whispered, excitement and dread zinging along her skin like invisible lightning. “Any time. And we just don’t know when it will happen.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Kady said, terribly soft. She put her hand on Alice’s again, squeezed gently, and then lifted it away.

“Josh wasn’t cut out for this life,” Eliot said. “He wasn’t a fighter, he was… a good man, but he wasn’t one of us, in the sense that…”

“He was family,” Julia said firmly.

“I know,” Eliot said, serene. “I’m not trying to sully the man’s memory, I’m trying to explain that—well, try to imagine Josh living for centuries. He was the kind of guy who was always meant to grow old and fat and have a bunch of babies and die warm in his bed.”

“And he got to have that,” Alice said. Was that what she wanted? Or did she just want the choice to be her own?

“Yeah,” Margo said with a smile that made her look sweet. Young. Kind of the way she’d looked in the dream, upon finding Eliot and Quentin. “There’s still a whole clan of little Hobermans wandering around the world. We do what we can for them.”

“Hoberman?” Alice said, something familiar hooking below her navel. “There’s a Hoberman at Brakebills, she’s one of my students.”

“Ugh, well, I guess there’s bound to be black sheep in every family,” Kady said with a tsk behind the back of her teeth. The Brakebills prejudice, whatever it was, ran deep. Not that Alice didn’t understand that.

Every couple of hours in this new life, Alice learned some revelatory piece of information that utterly transformed everything she’d thought she’d understood. A part of her was annoyed at Julia for burying the lead, but she also got it. Explaining immortality was difficult enough, without bringing in the caveats. But it did matter. It did change things. Penny Adiyodi and Josh Hoberman. Both immortal until they weren’t, and nobody understood why.

When Eliot had seen Quentin injured that morning, he wasn’t seeing an inconvenience, or even a moment of pain, for the love of his life. He was seeing the possibility of permanence. Every time one of them got hurt, or killed, they must feel it. They must all hold their breaths, waiting to see if the end had come for one of their family.

Now, when Alice remembered Eliot snapping a man’s neck, she didn’t see a heartless killer, someone so bored with the millennia behind him that killing a man was like stepping on a bug. Now, she saw someone who knew loss, who knew fear, and who’d kill to stop himself from feeling it again.

It should have occurred to her earlier, really. She knew that she’d have taken a life if it meant saving Charlie. If it meant talking to him again. What Eliot had done in killing that man was a sign of his humanity, not the lack of it. It wasn’t pretty, but it was something Alice thought she could live with.

Maybe Alice was grasping at straws, looking for a way to absolve them of their behavior so she could stay without guilt, but at the moment, it was working.

Alice looked at Eliot’s rings again. None of them matched, they were clearly all individual and important and separately precious, each telling its own story about Eliot’s relationships with his family. She was glad she’d asked, and glad he’d answered.

“Well,” Alice said, as the silence dragged on. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, merely a contemplative one. She could practically see them all thinking about Penny, about Josh, people they’d known and loved and lost. “Well. Um. Fuck.”

When Kady grabbed her hand again, Alice let her.

***

Later, they did another meditation together. Alice chose a bittersweet memory this time, that of the moment she’d defended her thesis in front of a panel of professors, the moment she knew she would be a graduate of Brakebills University. Also the moment she’d realized that she didn’t care about that honor whatsoever. The only person she would have wanted to share the good news with had been dead for eight years.

Quentin took them all deeper into each other this time, so Alice could feel it when the others shared the bittersweet tang of her success, the hollowness of working so hard for something she couldn’t find the strength to care about. And she felt them too, mixed sensations of love and loss and grief and joy.

They combined in strange ways, deep undercurrents of love and devotion, shallower pangs of resentment and guilt. A dizzy sort of joy would swoop through her stomach at the same time as a tightening of her throat, the build of phantom tears behind her eyes.

She was pretty sure she was meeting Penny through this meditation, in a happy, hazy memory of Kady’s, the sensation of being pampered and understood. Eliot was fixated on darker things, perhaps Penny’s death, a surge of rage and despair that had pulled him deep into his own mind. He’d brought Quentin with him, and shut everyone else out, for…

For fifty years.

That was the thing, then, that existed between Kady and Eliot. The thing that kept Quentin and Eliot so tightly bound to one another, grief translating into outright clinginess. Kady had lost her partner, and Eliot and Quentin, Margo and Julia… they hadn’t. Fifty years was a long time, but it also wasn’t, and Alice had shown up in their lives in the middle of their mourning.

After the meditation, when the others went up to bed, Alice and Kady stayed downstairs. Kady seemed to understand that Alice had a lot of processing to do, and that she needed someone to talk to. Alice never would have asked for that; it was nice to have it offered.

“I keep—dreaming,” Alice told her, voice low. “Of Eliot. Quentin. I—it’s like I’m sharing ancient memories. Is that from… what we just did? From the meditation?”

Kady was silent for a long moment, and when she opened her mouth, she had the oddest expression on her face, like a question was building there, a question she was afraid of asking. But then she clacked her teeth shut and tried again. “No, it’s probably just our general psychic link. I dreamed of them a lot too, in the beginning. It fades in time.”

“Oh,” Alice said, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. “It’s… insightful. But it feels invasive at the same time.”

“For sure,” Kady said. “It helped, though, in the beginning—getting to know them all was a challenge.” She paused, scratching her head, eyes narrowed. “Come to think of it, we were on the run from some sketchy magicians when I first joined the group, too. Maybe it’s part of the pattern.”

“Maybe,” Alice said, with a smile. “I’m sure Julia’s already taken that into consideration.”

“She’ll find the answers behind all of this, or she’ll continue not-to-die trying,” Kady said, and they both grinned at each other. This time, Alice really did feel like she was in on the joke.

The silence grew between them, companionable, but Alice’s mind was still racing with the events of the day. “We’ll be okay here?” she asked. “I mean—we’re really safe?”

Kady didn’t rush to reassure her. “I honestly… Alice, I don’t know. We thought we were really safe at the penthouse. I don’t understand how they could have broken through our wards or hijacked our portal like that. And if I don’t understand how they did it last time, what’s to stop them from doing it again?”

Alice stared at her. “Wow, um. That was. So incredibly reassuring, thanks so much.”

Kady laughed and knocked their arms together. “But we’re bad-asses, and we can’t die, Alice Quinn. If they come for us again, I’d say we’ve got a pretty good shot of making it through.”

For all Alice knew, Kady’s reassurance, not to mention Margo’s exaggerated confidence, was all just a show to keep her calm. It was Quentin and Eliot, really, who she’d been looking to for guidance on exactly how scared she should be of Marina Andrieski and her army of hedge goons.

And the answer was, reasonably apprehensive. Quentin and Eliot weren’t panicking, but they also weren’t going out of each other’s sights, or indeed out of touching distance. There was a charge to the air around all five of them. And while the revelation about Penny Adiyodi helped to explain some of it, while Alice’s own presence, the introduction of a new immortal, explained even more… Alice knew the danger was real.

And yet the next words out of Alice’s mouth were about an entirely different fear. “What if none of this is real?” She looked at Kady, swallowing around the quiver in her voice. “I just wonder. I—exploded. Kady, I exploded. That spell tore a giant gaping wound through my chest, my heart was pulverized. What if I’m dead and this is all the final firing of synapses, or…”

“Yeah,” Kady said, understanding. “You can’t know. You can’t know, but eventually you have to start behaving like it’s real. And it’ll become real.”

“That’s the least helpful thing anyone’s said to me in the last forty-eight hours,” Alice said. “And that’s saying something.”

Kady huffed out a brief laugh, and then pulled a pocket knife out of her jeans. She flipped it open, then murmured a brief cleaning incantation over it, jerking a finger down and swiping it through the air an inch above the blade.

“What language was that?” Alice asked. The form looked familiar, but the words hadn’t been.

Kady looked up at her, a dark furrowing of her brow making her look older somehow, like the centuries had suddenly decided to make themselves known. “Malayalam,” she said. “Southern Indian. It was...” she trailed off, but the rest of the sentence was profoundly unnecessary. The specter of Penny Adiyodi had been in every room with them, from the beginning. Alice just hadn’t known it until now.

But Kady shook it off, holding the newly sterilized blade out to Alice, hilt-first. “Here. Try it.”

“What?”

“A small cut. Don’t hurt yourself for real, just in case this is all an elaborate hallucination.” She was smiling, but the smile wasn’t mocking or condescending.

“Or in case it wears off,” Alice pointed out, dubious. “Which is a thing that apparently happens.”

But she took the knife.

Alice had done spells, spells she really shouldn’t have been doing, back in the days when Charlie’s loss had consumed her. Some of the spells had involved blades and blood. Most magic of this sort was actually looking for proof of physical vulnerability. It was why you had to cut across your palm, in a place that wouldn’t heal quickly because of how often the skin moved. It was a crippling of a magician’s main tool, and Alice had always hated the weakness implicit in the very action, even as she’d dripped her own life’s blood into copper goblets or over laboriously prepared parchment maps, seeking other worlds, seeking answers, seeking…

Charlie was gone, Alice was real. Real and unkillable, or real and hallucinating. She shivered at the coolness of the blade against her palm, and pressed down. Not too deep—Alice wasn’t afraid of pain, but that didn’t mean she courted it. She watched the blood well up, and then wiped it away on her other palm, in time to see the torn skin overlap, close up.

“So weird,” she said, bringing her hand closer to her face. “Does it automatically purge infection? How does this whole thing work with disease? Like, are we carrying around the cure for cancer in our blood, or—”

“This is another Julia conversation,” Kady said. “Not that I don’t care, it’s only, god, you can really fuck yourself up thinking about this kind of shit for too long, so mostly I don’t.”

“Right,” Alice said. That made sense. She’d ask Julia about it tomorrow. Maybe one day the burning curiosity would fade, as it seemed to have done for most of the others. Or maybe she and Julia would spend eternity on a crusade for understanding that never ended. She wasn’t sure she liked either option.

“Go do something normal,” Kady said, taking back her knife. “Read a book. Watch—well, I don’t think Q ever put a TV in this place, but I’ve got a laptop and the WiFi’s good. Watch something on Netflix. Take your mind off of… everything. I know it sounds impossible, but trust me, it helps.”

Nothing about this situation was normal, or conducive to the start of something real, and Alice knew that. Mere hours ago, she’d learned that Kady Adiyodi was a grieving widow, a woman in mourning for a man half a century dead. And yet she had the impulse to reach a hand out and touch Kady’s own, to ask her if maybe she’d want to join her, to watch a stupid movie. To ignore a stupid movie.

She thought that if she made the offer, Kady would probably accept. It didn’t have to mean anything at all, but it might be nice to—

A piercing sound shot directly through Alice’s head. It wasn’t familiar: a whining, persistent squeal, charged with magic and dread, but she recognized it immediately.

An alarm. A warning.

The wards had been breached.

“Motherfucker,” Kady said, jumping to her feet. She looked at Alice, then glanced towards the stairs, where the clamoring of loud footfalls meant the others were on their way. She turned back to Alice. “Stay here.”

And then she ran for the front door.

“Kady—” Alice said, fear thrumming through her veins, but then Margo was there, thrusting something towards her.

“Knife,” she said, bluntly. “Stick ‘em with the pointy end if they get close. Otherwise, stay back.”

“How the fuck,” Julia said, thundering down the stairs, Quentin and Eliot right behind. Margo and Julia both followed Kady out the front door, while Quentin and Eliot went towards the back exit in the kitchen.

“Stay inside,” Quentin called over his shoulder, and then the house was empty, the ringing of the alarm spell still echoing in Alice’s skull.

But fuck that, honestly.

She was worse than useless in a fight, she knew that. She was a liability in a fight, and she’d never forgive herself if she got in the way and someone got hurt. And on the other hand, she simply could not stay inside and wait to see what would happen. She couldn’t do it.

Squaring her shoulders, Alice got a firmer grip on the dagger, and wiggled the fingers of her free hand. The invocation for the most basic of Phosphoromancy spells was normally rendered in Latin, but Alice had tweaked a new version during her years at Brakebills, adding in a Mandarin base that worked better than the standard version. With a few muttered words and a sweep of her hand, the spell took hold, bending light around Alice in a moving orb, so that she could proceed without fear of being seen.

When she got outside, she wondered if she should have bothered with the precaution. The front lawn was empty.

Margo and Julia were crouched with their hands up in defensive postures, Margo equipped once again with her katar daggers, apparently a favorite. Kady was holding a gun, aimed to the ground, arms extended straight. The sight made Alice queasy, but she supposed she probably knew what she was doing with it. Julia was unarmed, except for of course Julia was never unarmed; there was so much potent energy crackling through her hands, up her arms, shining in her eyes, that Alice would be a lot more afraid of her than of anyone holding a firearm, any day of the week.

A rustling near the side of the house made Alice jump, but it was just Quentin and Eliot, emerging from the back. “We’re clear,” Quentin called as he jogged forward. Eliot stuck close to his side, scanning the street.

“I think the break came from the street corner,” Julia said. “I can feel…”

“We should get back inside,” Margo said, “and portal to—”

But it was too late for that.

The thing that hit Julia wasn’t an arrow, wasn’t a visible projectile of any sort, but it slammed through her skull with solid reality all the same. One minute, Julia was alive and alert and discerning, and the next she was crumpling to the ground, a gaping hole in through the side of her head.

Alice screamed, her light spell fizzling out and leaving her visible once again. It was involuntary, but nobody else seemed to judge her for it. In fact, Margo made a sound too, a wail of rage as she stared down at Julia’s lifeless body and then threw her gaze upwards, trying to find the source…

Alice saw it at the same moment that Eliot did. As Quentin ran to Julia’s prone form on the ground, Eliot surged forward, his hands shooting up towards the sky, towards a shimmering patch of air that was solidifying directly above their heads.

It wasn’t a person using advanced telekinesis to fly, or someone on a broomstick or carpet, as Alice had been half expecting. Instead, the thing above them proved to be a floating box, a drone, and it was making a whirring sound, bolts of concentrated air shooting out of it. Remote magic. Advanced shit. Cooperative, time-intensive, and even then, impermanent. The enchantment would fade soon, and maybe they’d be able to get back inside.

God, they’d walked right into a trap, hadn’t they? How had this thing gotten through the wards? How had...

Alice had barely any time to wonder, and then found herself sprawled on the ground, pain exploding through her shoulder. She hit the compact dirt right next to Julia’s still body, howling and clawing for the invisible thing that had struck her.

She hadn’t been afraid of pain.

Maybe she should have been.

Fuck,” someone said. Maybe it was her, she couldn’t be sure. Vaguely, through a haze of pain and whimpering, she saw Quentin skidding to the ground next to the fallen Julia, his face ashen and panicked, while Margo, Eliot, and Kady all orbited around the figures on the ground, their hands thrown up in shields.

“Back inside,” Margo hissed again. “Now.”

“I’ll get Alice,” Kady said, firing at the drone. She clipped the side of it and it spun higher, apparently undamaged. “Q, do you—”

“I have Jules,” Quentin said. “Let’s move.”

Alice, shuddering, tried to pull herself to her own feet, grabbing for Kady as she approached, but a wordless shout and an odd mechanical clicking from the drone made Kady turn back, looking for the new threat.

“Q, down!” Eliot’s voice rang out, and Alice heard another thump, a body hitting the ground, but when she turned her head, gasping out, trying to speak, she realized that nobody else was hurt—Eliot and Quentin were on the ground, Eliot entirely on top of Quentin’s body, covering him. Quentin’s arms came up immediately, covering Eliot’s head like he was shielding him from falling debris, pressing Eliot’s face hard into the crook of his neck.

Alice couldn’t parse it, couldn’t understand at first. Her vision was fizzing out, the pain from her shoulder spreading through her extremities. She didn’t seem to be healing particularly quickly. Maybe something was wrong. Maybe she was another Josh Hoberman, her abilities fading almost as soon as she found them…

Margo turned to pull Julia into her arms, and then Kady’s hands were on Alice, her voice frantic as she tugged her up.

What—

But then Alice realized what, as she heard a moan of pain from beside her. Julia was stirring, waking up, and it spoke to the general terror of the situation that Alice had no curiosity left to spare for watching the skin grow over the wound in her head. And it didn’t matter, anyway. Julia was waking up, and now Alice realized that the pain in her own shoulder was fading too…

To be replaced by something more encompassing, more complete. Something in the air. There was a hissing sound, like a sprinkler going off or gas escaping slowly from a crack in the wall. She looked up at the strange drone thing, blinking and flying lower… and lower…

And there were more of them, coming around the corner towards them, emerging from the tangle of a nearby bush.

“Poison,” Kady gasped it out, trying to get Alice to walk, to move with her towards the house, but it wouldn’t matter, would it, if those moving boxes got closer, if they smashed through—the—window—

Thinking was hard. Everything hurt, in a numbing, ice-cold sort of way, as the invisible toxin in the air, whatever it was, burned through her lungs, sunk in through her pores. Kady’s hand around her wrist went suddenly slack, as she fell forward, eyes drooping shut. Her head landed against Alice’s stomach, and Alice couldn’t find the strength to move her off.

Shit.

“El. Don’t. El, please—”

Alice turned back to see Quentin squirming beneath the deadweight of Eliot’s body. Limp, unresponsive. Quentin had a hand tangled in Eliot’s hair, the other slapping gently against his face. “Fuck. Wake—god damn it—” he devolved into French, repeating the same frantic requests.

Quentin wasn’t trying to dislodge Eliot, to squirm free and run for safety. He was trying to wake Eliot up, and nothing more. He wouldn’t leave. Just like Margo hadn’t run for safety, had stayed to pull Julia with her, just like Kady had tried to take Alice. They’d fallen into the perfect trap, inside a fishbowl of their own defensive spells—if their attackers got one, they had them all. Nobody would leave a man behind.

Alice’s mind was slipping in and out of coherence now. She heard Quentin’s pleading trail off, saw through the gauzy, unreal air that he’d succumbed as well.

She closed her eyes, and tried to pretend she was merely drifting to sleep, and that the nightmare would be over on the other side of slumber.

Chapter Text

A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

—Oscar Wilde



Alice dreamed.

She dreamed of shelter in the trees. Familiar pines, packed dirt and intermittent wild grass growing in patches around a small clearing. Eliot and Quentin were sitting up against a tangle of roots just outside the ring of light cast by a nearby campfire. They were close to each other, touching like they always seemed to be, Quentin’s head resting against Eliot’s chest.

They were looking at two figures on the other side of the crackling fire. Margo and Julia, chattering away, the words spinning past each other in the dark. Alice, inside the dream, felt the urge to approach them and listen, but for now, her consciousness kept her close to the men.

What do you think of her? Quentin asked, his voice hushed. One hand was between Eliot’s body and the tree, resting loose at his hip. He slipped a finger under the fabric of Eliot’s shirt, tracing a line against his skin.

I think… she’s intelligent, Eliot responded. Excitable, full of life.

Our lady seems impressed.

You like her, Eliot said, placing his thumb on Quentin’s chin and cupping a wide palm around his cheek. I can always tell. You become tongue-tied in the presence of a beautiful woman.

Hmm yes, I suppose that’s why I am entirely mute around Navvi. Quentin tilted his head towards Margo again, with a fond smile and an eye-roll. Perhaps I was quiet because I don’t know how to speak to Tsula. We’ll have to learn.

We learned quickly enough the last time around, Eliot said, seemingly unconcerned. I’m happy.

Yes?

Yes, of course I am. Are you?

Quentin paused, scratching his hair along the underside of Eliot’s jaw, nosing up to look at him from below. II suppose I mourn for her, in a way. All the gifts of life she’s giving up.

Eliot tilted his face down, the dim light of the fire just enough so he could see Quentin’s expression. And then there are the gifts she’s gaining. Our new friend will have quite literally all the time in the world to discover the downsides of immortality, without your help.

You make a good point.

I hope I’ve convinced you of the merits by now, Eliot said, the teasing in his voice not quite enough to cover the tinge of uncertainty.

You know you have, Quentin said, either ignorant of, or willfully rejecting, Eliot’s doubt.

From the other side of the fire, the women were getting to their feet and coming over.

It’s cold, Margo complained, immediately grabbing Eliot’s arms to pull him up. Come sit by the fire. And Julia reached for Quentin just as easily, like she’d already known him for years.

Alice was allowed to linger in the dream, her consciousness somewhere outside the circle of the fire. Julia chattered away, her words vibrant with excitement and questions and a healthy dash of giddy panic, all in words incomprehensible to her three listeners. By the end of the night, they’d all learned a few words of each other’s tongues, and the ground beside the campfire was littered with crude drawings, each object named in various languages. The clean night air rang with laughter as Julia teased her new friends for their deficient pronunciation, and Quentin impressed them all with fine, detailed crafting magic, bringing Eliot’s demented dirt-sketch of an owl to life long enough for it to ruffle its feathers against the wind before it toppled over under the weight of its oversized head.

She wanted to stay. Somewhere inside of her, Alice knew the world she woke to wouldn’t be a kind one. She wanted instead to be a voyeur to this newfound connection, some gentler version of the welcome she herself might have received if she hadn’t awoken to her new life in the wake of tragedy, if the people assigned to welcome her hadn’t been worn down and jaded by years and loss.

But eventually, against her inclination and against her will, Alice woke.

***

The first thing Alice heard was a voice to her immediate left. “Motherfucking motherfucker, El, Kady, goddamn it—”

When Alice opened her eyes, the world was a blur around her. It was a frightening sensation until she realized that she wasn’t wearing her glasses. She tried to bring a hand up to search for them, and discovered that her arms were pinned to her sides.

Terror was an interesting thing. When Alice had awoken in the Brakebills Library study room, incredulous at the continued beating of her own heart, she’d been scared, of course. But the confusion, the utter lack of available information, had acted as a counterweight to full-blown panic. Alice hated being in the dark, but when she was, she knew her next step: find the light. Find the answers.

This was different. It was alarmingly simple for her to understand the full extent of her current predicament. Marina’s hedge coven had gotten the drop on them. And now Alice was tied down and at the mercy of magicians who, pretty much by definition, had a chip on their shoulder and an insatiable craving for power. Not a safe place for someone carting around one of magic’s most valuable and least understood secrets in her very bloodstream.

Margo’s voice was an echo, catching on Eliot and Kady’s names again and again. It didn’t take Alice long to realize why she was focusing on the two of them in specific.

Julia, on Margo’s other side, caught Alice’s eye as she scanned the room. “Alice, you okay?” she asked, a quieter counterpoint to Margo’s increasingly frantic shouting.

Alice nodded, which was a stupid thing to do, but the reflex was automatic. She was conscious, which was more okay than Eliot and Kady were. Kady was on the far end of the row, on Julia’s other side, still and silent. She was tied like the rest of them on what looked like a hospital bed, slightly elevated, straps across her hips pinning her wrists, and higher against her chest. Wherever they were, it didn’t look like a hospital. More like a warehouse, with a wide catwalk set around the rim of the room. The room was brightly lit, but the catwalk was shadowed, so Alice could make out only formless shapes waiting above. They weren’t alone.

On her other side was Quentin, and on Quentin’s other side was Eliot, unconscious like Kady. Two bookends to the row of imprisoned immortals, neither one flush with renewed life. Alice felt a spike of anxiety in her chest. Things had moved too quickly for her to fear for Julia earlier—she’d been dead, and then she’d been awake. But here she experienced her first real taste of anticipatory dread, waiting and counting her own heartbeats for Kady and Eliot to resume breathing. She didn’t even know, really, what that gas had been. Had it knocked them out, or killed them outright? Was this moment Alice Quinn’s second resurrection?

Kady gasped back to life before Alice could panic about it. Thank god. “What happened—where—”

Julia turned to check on her, while Alice and Margo turned their heads in tandem to stare at Eliot’s unmoving form. Quentin didn’t need to turn his head. Quentin hadn’t so much as flinched when he’d heard Julia talking to Alice, or Kady’s flustered reawakening. His entire body was straining towards Eliot on the next bed over, his eyes wide, skin ashen and pale, lips pressed tightly together.

“Eliot,” Margo said. “El, sweetheart, wake up. Please.”

The please was terrifying, much more than the cursing had been. Alice watched Quentin tighten his restrained hands into fists, pulling so hard against his bindings that the edges cut into his skin, turning both arms a bloodless white.

Eliot wasn’t moving.

“Fuck,” Kady breathed from the other end of the row, and Alice heard the crunch of her hair against the pillow as she flopped back down, testing her extremely limited range of motion. “Hey,” she called to the room at large, “we want to talk to the fucking manager.” She was loud and fierce and apparently unafraid, and Alice allowed this to comfort her.

“El,” Quentin’s voice was so quiet it was almost inaudible. “El, I need you.”

In a fairytale, that would have worked, the pleading from a desperate lover calling a wandering soul back home. But Eliot didn’t move, and Quentin made a sound in the back of his throat, something despairing and scared. Alice closed her eyes, wishing her hands were free so she could cover her ears, too. She didn’t want to hear the sounds Quentin would make if Eliot really was gone.

There was a sound from the corner, and it pulled all eyes (sans Quentin’s) in a new direction. Clomping down the steel industrial stairs in a pair of wedge heels was a tiny, fierce woman in red lipstick and a perky ponytail. She emerged from the shadows at the edges of the room and approached the six of them, strapped to their beds in the center of the cavernous space.

She opened her mouth, her lips cracking into a wide smile, but before she could speak, Kady cut across her grand entrance.

“You fucking bitch. Let us go.”

The woman’s eyes snapped over to Kady. “Manners, missy.”

“Marina,” Kady said, confirming the obvious. “Seriously. What are you doing.”

Eliot chose that moment to wake up, a gasping convulsion pulling his body as far into sitting position as the straps would allow. He thrashed, his eyes wide and searching frantically, until they landed on Quentin. Then, his body sunk back into the bed, seemingly abandoning the struggle for escape.

“El,” Quentin said, no less tremulous than the last time, but suffused now with relief so potent it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed they’d all been kidnapped. “How do you—”

“I feel okay,” Eliot said at once, gentle and reassuring. And then he slipped into a language Alice didn’t know, murmuring something that made Quentin smile sadly.

“Touching reunion,” Marina’s voice cut in. She took a few steps closer to the six of them, positioning herself nearest the foot of Margo’s bed. Seemed like a risky placement in Alice’s opinion, but maybe Marina didn’t quite know what she was dealing with. The thought was heartening. “Now that I have you all here—”

“Let them go, keep me,” Kady interrupted. “Seriously, you want to run fucking twisted experiments on us, there’s no reason you need all six.”

“Yes, that was something of a surprise,” Marina said, ignoring Kady’s noble sacrificial offering and turning a shrewd glance in Alice’s direction. “My research indicated five of you, so this pretty little thing is almost like finding an extra toy at the bottom of the cereal box.”

Alice tried to imitate Kady’s fearlessness. She stared boldly up at Marina, and flexed her fingers. It was hard, but not impossible, to do magic with her hands pinned. If she could just—but no. It was more than that, wasn’t it? There were anti-magic charms woven into the straps themselves; she could feel them caging her power in. Their captors weren’t taking chances. Alice’s heart fluttered in her throat.

“This is some supervillain bullshit, you know that?” Margo said, somehow still fierce and intimidating even pinned down.

“Margo, I presume,” Marina said, without turning away from Alice. She leaned over the bed, close enough that Alice had the hysterical urge to head-butt her, for all the good it would have done. Marina fetched Alice’s glasses from the tray connected to the bed, and placed them back on her face, gentle. Alice winced at the touch of her hands, oddly chilly in the already drafty warehouse. Only then did Marina turn back to Margo. “Or, well, I don’t have to presume, I’ve done my homework, I can assure you.”

“Maybe we can have a conversation,” Quentin said. “About what you want from us. And then these restraints won’t be necessary.”

Quentin wasn’t desperate or pleading; he sounded like a man with a few tricks left up his sleeve, despite everything.

But Marina wouldn't bite. “You killed some of my favorite people.” She didn’t sound that mad about it; it was almost as if the deaths gave her the excuse she wanted to refuse parlay, as if she hadn’t started this whole thing by sending attackers to the penthouse to begin with. She turned away from Quentin, back to Margo.

“Margo Hanson. Of course, that’s not your original name, is it? Hard to track down records, especially with you. Name changing something of a habit, then?”

Margo just blinked at her. “My name is a matter of public record,” she said, quite calm. “If I’m meant to be impressed by the fact that you looked me up in a fucking phonebook—”

Marina leaned in closer to Margo and smiled, bright red and sharp. “Sure, sure. What about Janet Pluchinsky? Marisol Alvarez? Are these aliases a part of the public record as well?”

Margo’s lips tightened, a flash of anxiety crossing her face. Alice would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking right at her, but Marina was looking too.

“So you did your digging,” Julia said loudly, to break up the intense charge of furious air between the two women. “And you brought us here. Q’s right, this doesn’t have to be antagonistic. You could just tell us what you want.”

Marina straightened, keeping eye-contact with Margo as she sauntered backwards towards Julia’s bed.

Alice looked up at the catwalk, brain still compiling data, and counted thirteen hedge witches lining the railing. More than twice as many captors as captives, then. Still, Alice had seen Margo and the others in a fight: the odds would be in their favor if they could find a way out of their bindings.

But that was a big if, wasn’t it?

“What I want,” Marina said, a steely glint to her voice that dropped the aloof affect, “is to know how you’re doing this. What magic you use to lie here before me, a thousand years old.”

The words were hissed directly to Julia, whose face went blank. A thousand years might have been a guess, but Alice somehow didn’t think so.

“We don’t know,” Quentin said, speaking again from the other end of the row. “And if you’ve looked into us this thoroughly, I’m willing to bet you know we don’t know.”

“Oh, I do know that,” Marina said, spinning around towards the men this time. There was a theatricality to the way she danced between each of the beds, stopping to smirk at each of them as she passed. “I know that despite ample time to investigate the big secrets of the universe, most of you just fap around making googly eyes at each other and saving starving orphans from burning buildings. Or what have you.”

She darted a grin over her shoulder at Kady, who stiffened. Penny Adiyodi’s final resting place had been a burning building, and Kady had gone to Marina’s grandmother for comfort. It was easy to understand where Marina had gotten the bulk of her information.

“Then what are we doing here?” Eliot asked, perfectly polite. “If you know we can’t tell you anything.”

“You can’t tell me anything because you haven’t bothered to try,” Marina hissed, her eyes flashing. “And since you seem unwilling, I’ll put the work in. The secret to immortality is worth some blurred lines.”

“That’s practically your credo, isn’t it?” Kady snapped.

My credo?” Marina responded. “Renouncing your own history, are you? You’re hedge royalty, Kady Orloff-Diaz. Hedge legend. And yet you look down your nose at us—”

“At you specifically,” Kady said with a feral sort of grin. “Not hedges in general. Your coven is a hot mess, and everyone fucking knows it.”

And then Marina smiled. It wasn’t the sharp, defensive shield she’d been forcing like a rictus onto her face this whole time, but an oddly gleeful thing, like she’d just won a prize she hadn’t expected to get. “And that,” she said, still focused on Kady, “is exactly what we wanted you to think.”

The triumph in the words was troubling. It spoke to a bigger plot, months or even years of meticulous planning for this very moment. And just a few days ago, Alice would have had nothing to do with it. One lazy mistake, a hole blown through her torso, and this was the result.

“Despite what you might think of me,” Marina continued, cutting off the beginning of Kady’s angry retort, “I’m not actually a sadist, at least not while I’m at work.”

Margo scoffed, but Marina ignored her, as a man at the top of the steel steps began his clanking descent. “We’re going to run some tests. Things you might have been reluctant to try on yourselves.” She gave them a mock-understanding look. “I can appreciate your hesitance, but I’m sure you don’t mean to hoard the world’s most precious resource from the rest of magic-kind.”

“Like we’d give it to you even if we could,” Julia said, disdain dripping from every word. Alice already knew Julia pretty well. Of all of them, she was the one who’d push the limits. She’d probably bleed herself dry seeking the truth, and for all Alice knew, she’d done just that at some point in her long history. And yet Alice sincerely doubted she’d been ready to poke holes in any of her friends in the name of science.

“Well, in that case, I guess it’s good that I didn’t ask for your little permissions, isn’t it?” Marina said, and she waved a hand behind her without looking. “Meet Derek and Dan. They’re here to get you started.”

The man at the bottom of the stairs approached, and another man, wiry and in a lab coat, emerged from the far corner of the room. Derek was clearly the muscle, there to keep things from getting out of hand. Dan was wheeling a cart with him towards the beds, and the overhead lights gleamed off the metal of syringes, scalpels, and something Alice was pretty sure was a bone saw. Her stomach swooped, and she pulled against her bindings fruitlessly, testing the slight give of the polyester.

“I’m going to grab a drink and a nap,” Marina said with an exaggerated yawn, raising her arms in the air high enough that Alice saw a sliver of stomach underneath her blouse. “You kids have fun, alright?”

And she sauntered away towards a door at the far end of the room, leaving her victims to their fate.

***

Marina, for what it was worth, had apparently been telling the truth about one thing. There were many words Alice could have used to describe the events of the coming hours, but sadistic was not one of them. Dan, clearly a man with a medical background, was positively professional as he took their blood and tissue samples, as he sterilized patches of skin on their arms and made thin, neat slices, measuring the seconds each cut took to heal. He even injected Quentin with novocaine before yanking one of his molars out with a pair of pliers, ignoring the others’ shouts of outrage, their thrashing and cursing and pleading for reprieve.

Dan’s companion Derek was even more stoic, standing with his hands folded behind his back several feet away, eyes flickering between the six captives for any untoward movement. There was none, of course. The magical bindings across their torsos were tight enough to preclude any ranged motion at all. Short of breaking her own thumb the way people did in movies, Alice didn’t see how she’d ever make her hand bend enough to slip free. And even that extreme option wouldn’t save them. The bindings were imbued with anti-magic sigils, but there was also a larger dome, an anti-magic barrier surrounding the six of them in a wide arc, extending a few feet beyond the beds. Alice hadn’t even noticed it at first, only realizing the true extent of their helplessness when a hedge flunky had come forward to give Dan a fresh syringe. The man’s basic glamour had faded from his face when he walked through the invisible barrier, revealing greasy brown hair and an ugly scar across the man’s chin where once had been perfectly coiffed blond strands and unblemished features.

She’d had plenty of time, as strands of her hair were pulled gently from the root of her head, as a lighter was held to the palm of her hand until the skin blistered, as blood was drawn and as Margo’s biting curses filled the air, to study her surroundings.

The catwalk lining the perimeter of the large warehouse was lined with additional guards, meaning that any improbable escape attempt could be curtailed at once by ranged attacks from above. And beyond that, there were several dozen yards between them and what Alice could only pray was the building’s exit.

The warehouse itself was enormous. Their current location was bare-boned and high ceilinged, concrete walls with no real insulation to speak of, every noise echoing mercilessly through the cavernous space. But to Alice’s right, what looked like a solid wall at first glance was really only an elongated partition with a door set into it, leading to a whole maze of additional rooms.

Marina had gone through a door on the opposite wall, but for all Alice knew, there were rooms that way as well. There were no windows, no sense of orientation within the building, or within the world at large. Her phone was nowhere to be found, and there were no clocks on the walls. She was nowhere and nowhen, cut off from everything but the most terrifying consequences of her new life.

All in all? The situation seemed pretty dire. She was running out of new information to collect, mighty fast. But Alice was no strategist. She had to keep reminding herself that just because she didn’t see a way out, didn’t mean it wasn’t there. She still didn’t know how much she could really trust Margo or any of the others, but she did trust their tenacity.

Dan’s testing wasn’t continuous: he took frequent breaks to run into the room next door, a space Alice had glimpsed as the door swung open and shut. It looked like a full lab setup, with medical equipment and long stretches of black counter. In the breaks, when Dan was out of earshot, his victims checked in on each other as best as they were able.

“Sound off, please,” Margo said in a hissing whisper. Derek was still standing nearby, but Alice didn’t blame Margo for striving for some measure of privacy.

“I’m good,” Kady said.

“Yeah, fine,” Julia said.

“We’re okay,” Quentin said, answering for himself and Eliot both.

A beat of silence, and then Alice abruptly remembered that she was a participant in this moment, and not merely a spectator. “Um. Sure, yeah. Good.”

“Convincing,” Margo said, sardonic. And then, dismissing Alice’s rattled nerves: “Fuck this noise, we can’t just lay here until Doctor Dan decides he’s done playing nice.”

“Why are they doing this here?” Julia said. “In the middle of this room? I saw lab equipment next door.”

“Access. Secrets.”

It was Eliot’s voice, cold and dead. He’d been the quietest of them all as the needles and scalpels and pliers came out, coming to blazing, clench-jawed life whenever Dan touched Quentin or any of the others, but falling still as stone whenever his own turn came, flinching more at the sound of his friends’ screaming in outrage than at anything the hedge doctor was actually doing to him.

“Give me more,” Julia said, like a teacher prodding a student who was on the trail of something big.

“They want us to think they’re less prepared than they are,” Eliot continued. “Marina basically confirmed that. We thought they were a bunch of magic junkies, and they brought us to the cliché of all clichés, a fucking abandoned warehouse. They’ve got the fancy part of their operation closed off, and they’re keeping their exact numbers from us by only showing a few faces.”

“You’re right,” Kady said, squinting. “I thought of Marina as an offshoot of a more established coven, but she’s got numbers, and influence. It might not even be a single organization, maybe there’s an alliance.”

“That would be good for us,” Quentin said. “Hedge alliances are shaky things, we might be able to poke holes in it.”

“Not from here we can’t,” Margo said. Then she turned her head away from Quentin and over to Kady. “Not playing the blame game here, Adiyodi, but what the fuck.”

“I know,” Kady said. Her voice was still gravelly and quiet, but Alice could hear the tinge of shame in it. “This is my fault, I can’t believe Marina’s been planning this for so long and I had no fucking idea.”

“It doesn’t explain how they broke through the wards,” Alice said, surprising herself by speaking up at last. It wasn’t an instinct to defend Kady, exactly, more an instinct to get the record straight. Information was power. The only power she had any hope of deploying in this situation. “They know about us because of Kady, sure, but at most they should have been bouncing fruitlessly against Julia’s shield charms while we picked them off from inside. They broke through, and that’s what doesn’t make sense. We’re playing this whole thing at a disadvantage.”

“That’s a good point,” Eliot said. It shouldn’t have mattered, but his approval was comforting. “And it’s actually the most important point. Figuring out how they got us might be the only way to fight against it.”

They all sat in silence with that. A metaphorical clock ticked, and Alice tried to keep her eyes from flickering over to the door where Dan had disappeared. Her mind was racing, but nothing useful was occurring. She hoped the others were having better luck.

“Hey, Alice?” Quentin said from right beside her.

“Yeah?”

“Do you speak any languages other than English?”

She understood immediately. “Um. Passable French. And—well, Brakebills, you know? I know a little bit of a lot of languages, but not much that would be useful in day to day conversation.”

“French, then,” Quentin said, decidedly. “It’s not impossible that someone here speaks it, but it’s better than English or Spanish, given that we’re most likely still in New York.”

“It’d be better if you knew Aramaic or something,” Julia said, “but French’ll do.”

“You all know Aramaic?”

I don’t know Aramaic,” Kady said.

“Despite my valiant attempts at enrichment and instruction,” Julia sighed.

Alice shook out her rusty, probably embarrassing French, and asked: “Have you all been speaking English this whole time for my benefit?”

“Yes and no,” Julia said. “We try to stick to the dominant language wherever we are. Helps to keep us grounded in space and time.” Her accent was perfect; she sounded as much like a native French speaker as a native English one.

“It’s usually more of a mix,” Quentin said.

“We might not have a very big window of opportunity,” Margo said, getting them back on track. “So if you see a chance to get out, you take it, no hesitation.”

This mythical chance did not seem to be forthcoming. Before they could discuss further, Dan had returned.

“Unfortunately,” he said as he crossed through the anti-magic bubble and placed his hands on the foot of Quentin’s bed, “we’ve reached the end of the pleasant part.”

Margo gnashed her teeth, but it was Kady who answered, venom coating every word. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It means that Marina is interested in what exactly your abilities can accomplish. Your limits.” He gave them a strange grimace, turning to look at each in turn, but not quite meeting their eyes. “We have—” he waved a hand vaguely over his shoulder towards the lab— “some equipment, some tests we can run.”

“So torture, then,” Margo said. If she’d had free use of her hands, she probably would have been examining her fingernails as she spoke, to better sell the nonchalance. “To see how much we can take.”

“I don’t like doing this,” Dan said, and Alice believed him, for all the good it did. “But you have to understand. The end result…”

“Is what?” Julia asked. “Discovering the secret to immortality and curing all disease? Or just giving Marina exactly what she wants? We don’t know how it works, and believe me, we’d love answers as much as you would.”

“But it’s like Marina said,” Dan implored, stepping closer to Julia, excited for the debate. Margo ground her teeth together loud enough for Alice to hear. “You have your own personal interests at heart, and I understand that, I do. But that means that none of you are willing to go far enough.”

“That’s a load of crap and you know it,” Kady said.

Alice couldn’t feel her tongue. Her arms were going numb. This was nothing more than a stalling tactic, each person in the room speaking up and pulling Dan’s attention, trying to direct him away from one another. It hadn’t worked long on Marina, and it couldn’t last here, either.

“I’m sorry,” Dan said again. He swallowed, then clenched his jaw, steeling himself. From his tray of medical supplies, he selected a small sharp blade. He stared at it, twirling it so the harsh overhead lighting glinted along the edge of the blade. Then, with the kind of skill that spoke of true familiarity with cutting living flesh, he twirled the handle around in his hand, spun towards Eliot, and brought the knife down, directly through his chest.

Alice let out a yelp, jerking helplessly against her bindings. She’d imagined lab equipment, wires hooking them to computers, electric shocks cascading directly into their brains. Torture, like Margo had said. This, the brutal efficiency, the finality of it... somehow, she hadn’t really thought he would kill them. She was still so naive, even after everything she’d lost. Even after Charlie—

Eliot didn’t die instantly: his body convulsed, torso twisting as Dan plunged the blade deep and then pulled it free. Blood gurgled out of his mouth, muscles twitching, his arms pulling up against the bindings. A sound whooshed out of his chest along with all the air left in his lungs—a cut-off consonance that sounded like the beginning of Q.

“I’m going to kill you,” Margo screamed, in concert with Kady and Julia’s twin howls of rage. Alice didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t pull her eyes away. Eliot was trembling, his body still twitching as his slashed heart pumped blood out around the stab wound. Dan was standing over him with a clipboard, jotting down notes, consulting a timer on his phone. Alice had never actively wished for someone’s death before, but in that moment she would have gladly killed him, even knowing (assuming, hoping), that Eliot didn’t need avenging.

Quentin was the only one who hadn’t made any noise at all. His body had jerked along with Eliot’s at the initial plunge of the knife, a spasm that would have tilted the bed over if it hadn’t been bolted down. But then he’d gone stone-still, staring at Eliot’s face, ignoring the bloody mess of his chest, just… waiting. Frozen.

It took Eliot nearly two minutes, by Alice’s estimation, to die. When his body went slack on the bed, Quentin’s did too, and at first Alice had thought him relieved by the end of Eliot’s suffering. But when she studied Quentin’s face, she knew she’d been wrong. The blood had all drained from him, leaving him almost grey in the harsh lighting. He looked a little bit like he had died too. He was holding his breath, like he needed Eliot’s lungs to start working again before he could use his own.

It took—god, it took too long for Eliot’s body to repair itself. Dan with his timer and his clipboard stood stoic in the face of the outraged shouting of the women. Alice found herself joining in too, finding some measure of relief in promising at the top of her lungs to make him pay, you disgusting, pathetic piece of garbage.

She knew she wasn’t screaming at this monster for the same reason as the others. Kady, Margo, and Julia loved Eliot with their whole hearts; if they lost him it would wound them irreparably, magical healing powers or no. Alice didn’t love Eliot. Alice didn’t know Eliot. She was screaming for herself, from fear of pain, from fear of death.

Some part of her had wondered, in the past couple of years, if she’d lost the will to live. She’d given up on Charlie, accepted the fact of his loss, and after that she just… she hadn’t cared. Teaching at Brakebills, pursuing her research, none of it meant anything to her. She’d blown a hole through her own chest and after the initial physical shock had worn off, she’d mostly just thought: well, that sounds about right. She’d been horrified by the very concept of living forever, the comforting light at the end of the tunnel suddenly gone.

But she didn’t want to die. She knew it now, because the very thought of Dan’s knife plunging into her own chest, slashing through a heart that had repaired itself in the aftermath of Alice’s dangerous negligence, had her gripped in a panic the likes of which she’d never felt before. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. Even if it meant living forever. If there was one silver lining of being tied up and made to watch a new friend suffer, it was the strength of this knowledge.

And then Eliot woke up, chest heaving with returned breath, eyes wild with panic. Once he was awake, it was hard to imagine ever fearing otherwise. Two and a half millennia, and this was supposed to be the end of him? Eliot would never let that happen.

Fuck,” was his first word, choked out through a constricted throat as his eyes rested on Quentin. “Q, fuck. I’m sorry, I’m okay.”

“Don’t,” Quentin said, his voice an octave lower than usual. And then he slipped into the same language they’d spoken before, fervent and aching, eyes wet with tears. He was still straining against his bindings, not to free himself, but just to reach Eliot. Alice almost couldn’t stand to look at them, the intensity of their longing was so powerful.

“You’re gonna die slow,” Eliot said, turning to Dan. It could not have been more clear that Eliot wanted revenge not for his own death, but for the pain it caused the others. Their situation prevented tearful reunions, and the palpable urge to touch Eliot wasn’t limited to just Quentin. The women were all tugging at their restraints as well, looking towards him as Eliot pinned Dan with a glare.

Dan had taken a hasty step away when Eliot had started breathing again. Despite everything, he looked a little shell-shocked that it had actually worked. “You’re in no position to be making threats,” he said, but he sounded worried.

“We have all the time in the world,” Margo said, her chest heaving and veins visibly pounding at her temples. “Do you really want to bet on us never having the chance? Immortals tend to make good on their promises.”

Dan’s face went perfectly still, an invisible mask snapping into place and hiding the turmoil underneath. “That was very interesting. Thank you.” He nodded at Eliot. “I don’t suppose you’d like to confirm your age? We’d like to record the length of each resurrection, relative to—”

“You touch anyone else,” Eliot interrupted, “you hurt my family, and I promise you I’ll find the people you care about most in the world and I’ll return the damn favor.”

It should have disturbed Alice that she couldn’t tell whether this was an empty threat. But there was no time for distress on behalf of hypothetical strangers. It was taking everything inside of her to give a shit about the other five people lying on these beds beside her. Survival instinct was a powerful thing.

“Well then,” Dan said, his nose pinched, sweat beading at the line between a wide forehead and short-cropped brown hair, “I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.” He took his time sterilizing the blade, ignoring the renewed chorus of cursing.

Then he approached Quentin.

***

Alice died six times that day. She was stabbed through the heart, suffocated, drowned, had her throat cut, was injected with a lethal dose of—well, something, Dan didn’t stop to explain—and shot through the head with a small pistol at point-blank range.

She learned a lot from the experience. Most importantly, that no matter how long it took to come back (and Dan told her as she gasped her way back to consciousness—hmm, seventy-seven seconds for the injection, that’s up from forty-two from the stabbing), waking up from the dead was extremely disorienting and terrifying.

She could never remember where she was or what had happened, and the desolate feeling of utter isolation lasted long enough to leave her shaking and in tears every time. Somehow, instinctively, she knew it would have been better if someone would touch her, if she could wake up from death with Julia or Kady’s hands on her, a reminder of her own humanity. But here, in this sterile, echoing space, she always woke up cold and untouched.

The worst deaths, besides her own, were Kady’s. When Dan shot Kady in the gut and the blood welled up and stained her grey tank-top, Alice remembered touching her, the smooth soft skin of her stomach, unblemished and rising and falling with her breath as Alice leaned down to press a kiss just above the jut of her hip bone. She knew Kady’s body—not well, not really—but somehow that knowledge made it worse to see her maimed, harder to believe that she would go back to the way Alice remembered her, the gore vanishing like it had never been.

And Alice felt the pain. It didn’t matter that she came back, because she felt the pain. All of it. She screamed through it, screamed for herself and kept screaming even when it wasn’t her turn, joined the cacophony of curses and pleading and crying coming from the others, each begging for reprieve for their loved ones more than for themselves.

It was all sincere. It was also a tactic. A reminder to their tormentors that they were human, and scared. It might even have been working, very slightly. Dan flinched whenever any of them cried, the muscles of his jaw going tight when Quentin begged for Eliot’s life or Kady begged for Margo’s or Julia begged for Alice’s. But for all that they were clearly rattling him, he kept on, steady and sure, until he’d checked off every deadly possibility on his list.

Occasionally Margo and Quentin, the two people on either side of her, would take a rare chance to check in on her, mutter to her in quiet French, remind her to be ready to go at the first opportunity. It was kind of them, to remember that she was new. To understand that the reality of this moment, of this torture, was so far removed from her expectations for her life that she still felt like it was all happening to someone else. The opportunity, whatever it was they were all waiting for, didn’t seem to be coming. The anti-magic bubble surrounding them was secure, the straps still tight around arms and legs.

There was a routine to it, to the crashing and receding waves of terror. After a while, some part of Alice’s brain had begun to accept that this was just the way things were now. But it wasn’t. More was yet to come.

At one point, several deaths down the line, Dan stepped back from recording Margo’s latest resurrection and clapped his hands, rubbing them together. He noticed a small splash of blood on the outside of his thumb and frowned at it, grabbing a cloth from his tray and wiping it away, fastidious. “Alright. As I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know, for now we’ll take a break from the killing.”

“Get fucked,” Margo said. Which, well, yeah. That was pretty much the only proper response to Dan’s enthusiastic smile, like he really expected gratitude for the reprieve.

“What’s next on the agenda?” Eliot asked, aloof. Or at least pretending to be—if Alice wasn’t fooled, she was sure Dan wasn’t either.

“Well,” Dan said, tilting his head back and forth like he was contemplating. “You may have noticed that these anti-magic charms limit my options as much as they limit yours.”

“You’re not strapped to a goddamn board,” Kady said.

“It’s a standard-issue hospital cot,” Dan corrected.

“No, Kady’s right,” Margo sneered. “Lying on this thing is positively tortuous. I admire your commitment to the bit.”

“The point is,” Dan said, soldiering on, “I’m limited as to what I can test, without magic.”

Alice shifted, her attention sharpening. It sounded like maybe the bubble was coming down. Even with the straps holding them to the beds, it made for a marked increase in their odds.

“We have a couple of tests we want to run using magical instruments and diagnostic spells,” Dan continued, “and we also want to study the psychic connection you apparently share.”

Alice pointedly did not look towards Kady, but she could feel the others all doing so. That was a piece of information that would have been much harder to get from mere surveillance, which meant it was something Kady had told Marina’s grandmother.

“And the best way of doing both things at once,” Dan said, “would be to take some of you into the room next door, and leave the others here. Separation is important for some of the experiments I want to run. Oh, I’m supposed to ask—it is just the six of you, yes? If there’s a neural network connecting your minds, and there are others out there, that could cause issues with our parameters.”

He waited for an answer, but didn’t seem surprised when nobody spoke. Alice was too scared to respond in any case. What if they took her? What if they pulled her into the room next door and filled her full of holes and sucked the blood from her body, leaving her alone?

A glance to either side told her that the others were no less thrilled about the prospect of separation. If this mythical chance for escape arose, none of them would be willing to leave the others behind. The thought of Margo taking her shot at freedom and leaving Julia or Eliot or Quentin or Kady tied up and helpless was so absurd it was nearly laughable. It was all of them, or none of them.

“Well, ah, Derek,” Dan said, awkwardly gesturing behind him for the tall, imposing, entirely silent man to come forward. “Let’s start with the quiet one.”

For a heart-stopping moment, Alice thought he meant her. But then Derek came forward into the space between Alice and Quentin’s beds, and he turned to Quentin.

No.”

Eliot’s voice rang in a loud echo through the cavernous space, so fierce and infuriated that Derek, his hand already on the strap tying Quentin to the bed, froze and looked at him.

“We’re not going to hurt him,” Dan said, in what Alice thought, hilariously, he genuinely meant to be a comforting tone. “We’re just going to put him to sleep and take him into the next room, and—”

“I stay with him,” Eliot said. “I stay with him.”

Derek and Dan glanced at each other, apparently nonplussed, and Alice knew why. Eliot didn’t sound like a man in a helpless position, begging and at the end of his rope. He sounded like a commander, issuing orders he expected to be obeyed. I stay with him hadn’t been a request.

“We’ll bring him back,” Dan said, eyebrows folded over his eyes. He shook his head, annoyed at himself, and turned away from the tray of medical supplies, taking a step towards Quentin.

“No, I’m going with him. If you take him, you’re taking me,” Eliot declared.

“El,” Quentin said, under his breath. “It’ll be—”

“I stay with him,” Eliot repeated, ignoring Quentin and glaring at Dan. If Alice had been vaguely uncomfortable with Eliot’s apparent indifference towards her, she was now very glad she had never experienced his actual displeasure. Even inside an anti-magic ward, there was something in Eliot’s eyes that made Alice believe him capable of incinerating his enemies where they stood.

“You should listen to him,” Julia said. “You’ve already made him your enemy, you don’t want to see what’ll happen if you try to separate—”

Dan’s face twitched. He took a determined step forward, ignoring Eliot’s bellow of outrage, and jabbed a needle into the side of Quentin’s neck.

“Q,” Julia called. She switched to a language Alice didn’t understand, urgent and imploring.

Quentin’s eyes fluttered as he turned to look down the row of beds. He answered in slurred French. “No, I won’t leave you, I won’t…” he trailed off, the drug taking hold.

“Take me with him,” Eliot said, straining against his bindings, his eyes wide and bloodshot. “Take me with him—I go with him, take me with him—”

Quentin’s eyes slid shut. Eliot growled as Derek released the bindings; Quentin’s arms fell limp against the thin sheet, his face grey and slack. He looked dead. Maybe he was, maybe Dan had gone for another lethal injection instead of something to put him to sleep. Either way, Dan and Derek clearly realized they had a limited window before Quentin woke again. They didn’t bother with a stretcher: Derek simply scooped Quentin into his arms and tossed him like a ragdoll over one shoulder, marching with purpose past Eliot’s bed and towards the door in the partition wall.

Take me with him,” Eliot howled, the muscles cording at his neck, eyes bulging as his entire body leaned against the bindings. Alice looked up to the catwalk, at the silent figures waiting in the shadows, the hedges who could, and likely would, step in if things got out of hand.

But things couldn’t get out of hand, because Quentin was the only one free of the wards, and he was unconscious, folded over a man’s shoulder, being taken away for who knew what further torture. Everyone else was as stuck and helpless as they’d ever been.

And then Alice heard a sickening snap from a few feet away, a grunt of pain, a hissing gasp. Julia cursed under her breath, and Alice turned, not sure if she wanted to see.

Eliot was slipping one of his arms out from the straps, his thumb bended and bulging grotesquely to make room. Even knowing it would heal, Alice couldn’t quite believe he’d done that. It must have hurt terribly, but Eliot was blank faced as he wiggled the hand out, rings catching on the strap. There was a muted pop, Eliot’s shoulder coming out of its joint to lie pressed into the thin mattress, and between the two breaks, he was able to contort his arm out, the limb hanging uselessly at his side even as he heaved for breath and waited for it to heal.

“Fuck, El,” Margo’s voice was strained and infuriated. “It’s not like they can kill him.”

Eliot ignored her entirely. Even as the thumb crunched into place, he was already bringing the hand down to unclasp the other restraints. When his right arm was released, he popped his own shoulder back into its socket. (Alice felt acid crawl up her throat. If she threw up now, would they stop her from choking to death on her own vomit, or would they just record the results?) Eliot stood, unsteady and trembling from head to foot and ran head-first in the direction Quentin had just vanished, only to bounce back against the anti-magic wards, catching himself clumsily against the edge of the bed.

Goddamn it.” His voice was hollow and nearly inhuman. None of the hedges had reacted to his escape attempt.

“There’s probably a password or a blood signature or something,” Julia called from the bed. “El, untie us, we can try to circumvent—”

“No time,” Eliot snarled, bringing his hands up, trying to spark magic inside warding specifically designed to prevent him from doing just that.

“It won’t work,” Julia insisted. “El, we need to think of—”

No time,” Eliot repeated. There were tears rolling down his cheeks now, his nostrils flaring and sweat breaking out on his forehead as he concentrated in a grimace. “I can do it, I just…”

“Q will kill all of us if you Niffin out trying to rescue him,” Kady said, which was pragmatic, and a good point, but Eliot showed no signs of hearing it.

Untie us,” Margo said. It was not a request, but Eliot kept casting, his fingers twitching and blurring, sparking magic that arced away from him and bounced uselessly off the wards. It should have been impossible, unless he was drawing the magic from the deepest well inside of himself, something beyond ambient, beyond reason.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” a loud voice interrupted the scene.

Marina was back. She took one look at the situation, crooking an eyebrow up at the catwalk, and then strode forward with her hands on her hips. Alice looked between her and Eliot, spellbound and horrified, even as she heard a clattering from above which meant that Marina’s minions were finally deciding to take an interest in Eliot’s escape attempt.

“You’re even more trouble than I’d anticipated,” Marina said, sashaying her way forward, creating a wide circle between herself and the edge of the warding. If she set a toe inside of that barrier while Eliot was free, it wouldn’t matter that he didn’t have his magic. It wouldn’t matter that one of his hands was still red and smarting from where the broken thumb was healing. She seemed to be aware of the importance of the invisible barrier separating them, keeping a foot back from Eliot as she rounded to face him.

“Let me out of here now and I’ll consider letting you live,” Eliot said, spine ramrod straight and shaking hands still twisting into tuts, trying to find an impossible way out. Crackles of magical energy were sparking up and down Eliot’s fingers, growing every second.

“That’s cute,” Marina said. “But honestly, your carrying on is really getting in the way of my plans.”

Dan’s medical tray was right beside her, having been pushed back as Dan and Derek took Quentin away. She picked at the contents and then casually lifted the .22 from the tray, the one that had been pressed so scientifically right to the center of Alice’s temple, the one that had ripped a hole through Kady’s gut.

Marina stared Eliot down, but he ignored her like he was ignoring everyone else. The crackling energy in his hands built into something that could turn his eyes ice-white, turn a caring, considerate soul into something unrecognizable, turn off the part of him that loved Quentin, making the very reason for his desperation entirely moot. The situation could not have been more designed to terrify and traumatize Alice Quinn, and she was basically just a bit part. If Eliot became a Niffin while he was trapped in here with the rest of them...

When Marina lifted the gun and shot Eliot between the eyes, Alice was almost relieved.

Chapter Text

No matter how bleak or menacing a situation may appear, it does not entirely own us. It can't take away our freedom to respond, our power to take action.

—Ryder Carroll



For what it was worth, Eliot got his wish. After he’d crumpled to the floor, eyes wide and unseeing, Marina had snapped her fingers and two large women who looked to be sisters had come forward, lifting Eliot between them and carting him off after Quentin.

The others had all screamed bloody murder, but Alice couldn’t speak. She was frozen with the fear of what could have happened. Watching Eliot force magic through the current of his body had brought a very specific terror to the front of Alice’s mind.

Niffins were immortal too, weren’t they? They had the power of long life, fueled by magic that nobody understood. The parallels were enough to make her deeply, viscerally uneasy. She’d seen a Niffin only once, and the experience had nearly shattered her mind. Had nearly killed her. (Would she have woken up, if it had happened then, if her own—if that thing had killed her, would she have gasped back to life? Was she always different? Something in her blood, in her magic, waiting to imprison her to her flesh for untold centuries?)

She didn’t have time to worry about it. (Not that that had ever stopped her before.) Yet another hedge flunky was approaching, and this one was coming straight for Alice. Marina nodded, turning a smirk in her direction. “Take the extra one.”

It was comforting, in its way, that as Alice was jabbed with yet another syringe and felt her consciousness begin to fade, Margo, Julia, and Kady screamed as loudly for her as they had for Eliot.

***

Alice dreamed.

For the first time, the subject of her dream was unfamiliar, but it was easy to piece together who it must be. The setting was an interior, and the tiny space felt claustrophobic after the other dreams, all taking place under the wide expanse of an ancient sky. Alice had the urge to walk outside, but the immortals pulled her in, kept her close. She found herself in a one-room home, small but neat and well-decorated, thatched roof above and adobe brick keeping the interior cool. It was difficult to remember exactly, but based on stories shared over a dinner table what felt like years ago, Alice suspected they were somewhere in the Aztec Empire.

And the group was getting to know a new friend.

Penny Adiyodi was handsome, dark, and discerning, but unshaven and messy-haired, as if it had been a while since he’d had the opportunity to clean up. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion but not quite mistrust as he looked at the other four: Quentin and Eliot, Margo and Julia, paired off and studying him with undisguised eagerness.

Having a Traveler handy might be useful, Margo mused, looking him up and down with a predatory glint to her dark eyes.

You don’t have me, Penny responded with a musical lilt to his voice, higher and more honey-colored than Alice had expected. I’m still waiting for someone to explain what’s going on.

And as Margo explained, Alice realized that she and Penny must share a language. Or at least, something close enough.

Penny took to the news of his invincibility with a roll of his eyes and an uncomfortable shrug, looking over his shoulder at the doorway. He seemed to feel as caged in as Alice did, like a sympathetic psychic bond somehow connected them, even beyond the veil of death. I had figured that part out, thank you. But why have I been dreaming about you? How did I know to come here?

It’s fascinating, Julia said, I think your Traveler abilities must be linked to the psychic bond.

Are you all psychic too, then? Penny asked, and then blinked and ground his teeth together, as Margo and Julia both stared at him, sharp and interested. He clearly realized he’d just given key information away.

As Alice watched, the conversation continued, becoming granular and confusing. She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected Margo was using an older version of whatever language Penny spoke fluently, or at least a different dialect. There were stops and starts, repetitions, broad gestures and convoluted descriptions; this introduction seemed more fraught than the others, fear and skepticism creating a barrier.

It made Alice feel connected to Penny in an unexpected, powerful way. She wished she could have met him, could have asked him how he died, how he coped with being the new kid, and most importantly, if he had hated what had happened to him as much as she did. The others had all seemed positively cheerful to find one another in the previous dreams. Although… she hadn’t dreamed about Eliot, about his earliest years, now that she thought about it. What had he thought when he’d woken up from death for the first time? Who had he turned to? Had there been nobody, for the five hundred years he’d roamed the world before finding Quentin and Margo?

And why was she thinking about Eliot, in the midst of a rare chance to see Kady’s dead husband? A member of her new family she’d never have the opportunity to know?

Maybe because Eliot had died. He’d died again, had been shot right in front of her, the desperation in his eyes clouding over to blankness, the thud of his body falling on the floor, and then the approach of a strange face, the jab of a needle, sharp and stinging in its pain, quickly followed by nothing, nothing at all…

Alice woke up.

***

She wasn’t strapped to a bed this time, which made for a marked improvement. When Alice came to, she was curled into a ball on the floor, hands and legs unencumbered, head resting against the curve of her arm. She sat up too quickly, dizzy and blinking, the world fuzzy again without her glasses.

A blurry hand appeared in her line of sight holding her familiar frames, and she took them, Quentin coming into focus crouched beside her, a concerned twist to his lips. Predictably, Eliot was right by his side, a hand braced on his shoulder.

“What now?” she asked, cutting to the chase. She was afraid to look around, see whatever was waiting in the rest of the room. “Where? How long—” she looked into Eliot’s eyes, which were calm and blank and contained none of the roaring inferno of pain she’d seen in them last. She thought about asking are you okay? but the words sounded absurd even in her own head. He was alive, and he was with Quentin. He seemed like the kind of person who knew his own priorities.

“Just a couple of minutes,” Quentin answered, and he held a hand out as he stood, pulling her to her feet. “They brought you in here right after El. They haven’t done anything yet, they’re just watching us like we’re in a fucking zoo.”

The bitterness to his words made perfect sense in context, but Alice still blinked. Quentin, she only now realized, wasn’t one to let his emotions show, any more than his partner was. Frustration potent enough to bleed through the mask seemed to be a rare thing.

Standing, Alice took a moment to get her bearings. She saw where they were now: in the lab, right on the other side of the partition wall. She located the door back to the room where Margo, Kady, and Julia were ostensibly still tied, and then another door on the opposite wall, leading… she had no way of knowing. Outside, if they were lucky. Through to yet more rooms in this building of unknown dimension, if they were not.

Alice, Quentin, and Eliot were all standing against the wall farthest from both the doors, in a section of the room empty except for a couple of battered wooden chairs. It didn’t take her long, now that she knew what she was looking for, to find a thin, nearly invisible shimmer in the air approximately four feet from where she was standing. Another anti-magic ward, separating her and the men from the rest of the lab.

The lab looked exactly like a lab for magicians should look: black countertops, various pieces of medical and scientific and magical equipment, a fridge in the corner where she’d bet good money their special immortal blood was being stored. The equipment would have been fascinating and exciting to examine, in other circumstances. She saw a bunsen burner imbued with various strengthening sigils. It was hard to read from across the room, but she recognized the familiar markings of a thermogenesis charm, and other markings for accuracy and detection; a basic tool she might have seen in any Brakebills laboratory. She caught sight of a few of the drone things that had attacked them in Camden, too.

Other pieces of equipment were less common, or altered in such a way that Alice couldn’t guess their function at all. Lining the far counter were smaller artifacts, and even from across the room, even from behind a barrier that prevented her from casting at all, she could feel the potency of the magic emanating from them. A chipped nutcracker, a tiny glass box, a tomato pincushion… these trinkets might be focuses, necessary for bigger spells, or have some unknown purpose on their own. She didn’t fancy finding out.

There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the room with them, but Alice wasn’t stupid enough to think they were really alone.

“So?” she asked, turning to Quentin and Eliot. “Thoughts?” “Are you okay?” Quentin asked, and the question was almost annoying. No, she wasn’t okay. She’d decided to barrel past the inanity of such concerns and get to the part where they planned their daring escape.

She swallowed, wondering how to explain to Quentin that if she thought too hard about how very not okay she was, she’d collapse completely, become even more of a liability to the rest of them than she already was.

She gave a jerky nod. “Sure. Let’s just. Can we. Not?”

Quentin nodded back, and Alice felt understood, despite everything. “Right. We just need to… be patient,” he said. He swallowed and widened his eyes at Alice ever-so-slightly. “At some point, someone is going to slip up, and then…”

Alice tried a tentative question, in French this time. “When the chance comes, what do you want me to do?”

Eliot spoke for the first time. His body was angled between Quentin and the room at large, like he meant to cage him in, protect him even from the eyes of their captors. But he wasn’t clinging or weeping or screaming in rage; he seemed perfectly composed, and perfectly ready to do whatever had to be done. “If you can, go for the blood. Smash it if there’s no time to take it. But first priority is getting out of here, so if you can’t do it safely, head for the exit.”

The others?” Alice asked. They didn’t know where the exit was, but she didn’t feel the need to point that out. She was sure they were well aware.

Don’t worry about the others,” Quentin said, firm and certain. “Just run.”

The unsaid implication, of course, was that Quentin and Eliot would do the worrying; Alice would only slow them down.

And this was true, undoubtedly. She knew that. It wasn’t even her relative lack of experience with magic or with life, it was her lack of experience with them. She hadn’t even had time to hear stories of past daring escapes, much less live them. They probably had protocols. Shorthand. Chains of command and strategies for any number of situations.

But something in her, maybe her pride, or that same childish craving for belonging, spoke up. “I can make us invisible,” she said. “Flawlessly. All three of us. If we sneak through and get close to the others together, it could buy us valuable time.”

These were ancient, immortal beings. She was more or less certain they could pull off some phosphoromancy of their own. But it was her specialty. If there was even the slightest chance of her magic being a real asset, this was her chance to prove it.

Eliot and Quentin exchanged a glance, but before they could speak again, their impromptu planning session was interrupted.

“Glad to see you’re all awake,” Dan said, striding in through the far door. It didn’t lead outside, just to a low lit hallway. The door swung shut before Alice could get a better look.

“There’s still a chance for you to get out of this alive,” Quentin said, his voice quite calm. He straightened his spine, chin tilted up in quiet defiance, and stood facing Dan head-on. Eliot stayed close, and tangled their hands together.

A muscle in Dan’s jaw tensed, but he imitated Quentin’s measured tone as he responded. “I understand, given the longevity of your experiences, that you’d be under the impression that we’re not prepared for this.” He looked around at the well-equipped lab, then made a vague gesture towards the nearly indiscernible patch of air, separating scientist from subject. “But I can assure you, we put the work in.”

“This is a waiting game for us,” Eliot said. Alice, who was standing on Quentin’s other side, noted how tight their hands were squeezed together, restricting blood flow, clamping on with the ferocity of fear. But Eliot sounded composed, even bored. “You can hurt us, and you can hold us, but if even one thing goes wrong, we’ll find a way to get out. You and Marina can’t handle this perfectly. Not forever.”

Dan, apparently, had decided that engaging in this line of argument wouldn’t do anybody any good. Instead, he turned his back on them, examining the line of small objects Alice had noticed earlier. Selecting a single pin from the pincushion, he turned around, his eyes settling on each of them in turn. “We’re interested in the physical properties of your abilities, of course,” he said, like a man at the top of his field giving a conference lecture. “I have several interrelated theories regarding your physical bodies and how, no matter the trigger point, the accumulated impact of centuries of magical exposure might have created an internal fountain of youth. A perpetual motion machine, if you will.” He looked at them, as if asking for comment.

(This had been part of Julia’s slide deck, the idea that some trigger point had caused their initial deaths to fail, and that since then, the magic in the air, the ambient that fueled them, kept their bodies going in perpetuity, bypassing the ordinary limits of mortal flesh. It was a good working theory, but without understanding the trigger, it wasn’t useful in understanding how it worked. Magic was very likely the thing that fueled their longevity. And magic, for all that it had been there for Alice her whole life, was a fickle thing, liable to harm more than it helped.)

“But several of the tests I’d like to run will take time,” Dan continued, ignoring the stony silence of his audience. “For example, Quentin Coldwater, I assume that molar has grown back in? I’d love to take the same tooth again, compare them, see if your body is producing identical bones to fill the gaps, or—”

“Your chances of living a long life are decreasing,” Quentin cut in, stating a fact. He wasn’t threatening Dan. If anything, he was warning him. It was Eliot who had taken a minute step forward, Eliot whose head was lowered like a bull about to charge, eyes flashing with hatred and with—Alice squinted, trying not to show alarm—a hint of magical current. How was that possible? Behind the shield, Alice’s own body felt drained and magic-less, nothing in the air around her, nothing sparking from within.

Alice believed fullwell that Eliot might choose Quentin losing a tooth (again) as the hill to die on. At some point, the thought of anyone touching Quentin with ill-intent was going to tip over from rage-inducing to quite literally unbearable, and Eliot would tear apart the instruments of his own pain and Quentin’s, damn anyone who tried to stop him.

She’d seen flashes of that anger, that spirit, back in the penthouse, and it had scared her. Now, it warmed her, a beacon pointing towards escape. If Eliot had found access to magic in this magic-less place, if he could unleash it, she’d cheer him on.

“Setting that aside,” Dan coughed, “beyond my current theories about the physical properties, there are the bigger considerations, those of your psychic bonds.”

He held up the pin he’d taken from the cushion, then folded it into his hand, laid flat against his palm. A couple of twirls, a bright white spark, and then Dan’s hands moved in a familiar push-pull of battle magic, and he shot a magic missile through the air, sending the needle with the slice of charged atmosphere. It slid straight through the anti-magic barrier, and landed, with unerring precision, jabbed into Alice’s wrist.

She stared at it, dumbfounded. “Ow.”

Quentin was quickest, turning to her and yanking the needle out, holding her arm up so he could examine the small puncture.

She’d said ow, because she’d expected it to hurt, but it… didn’t, really. It was such a tiny point, the sensation more akin to a sliver than a stab. She’d watched Dan do something to the needle, before he’d sent it into her skin, but this wasn’t a syringe, she was almost positive he hadn’t poisoned the tip, either… that kind of experiment would have been best served in Torture Chamber #1, with Alice a still and helpless patient, strapped to a bed.

So why did he…

“Alice,” Quentin said, turning his back on Dan entirely to look at her. Eliot slid in front of them. “Are you okay? What do you feel?”

“I feel…” she said, compelled to answer, but entirely unsure, “I feel like I should sit down?”

Quentin’s hands were on her, guiding her easily over to a chair, and then it hit her. Whatever it was. There weren’t words, in English or any other language she knew of, to quite describe the sensation. Her whole life, she’d been alone in her own mind. It was the only way she knew how to feel. And now? Now she very much wasn’t alone.

Someone was rooting around in there, someone—someone hostile, and they were bypassing Alice’s surface-level thoughts, delving deep inside the core of her. A place Alice hadn’t known existed, the place where the things she hated and loved most about herself lived. The place where love for Charlie, where guilty hate for her mother, where self-loathing clamped itself onto her spinal cord, guided her every decision.

The pain was… confusing. Dull, murky, more uncomfortable than truly agonizing. But wrong. Undeniably, indescribably wrong. She was becoming less and less aware of the tangible world around her: Quentin’s hand resting on her stockinged knee, Eliot’s back, ramrod straight, blocking Dan from looking at her. Like that mattered. Dan had delivered that needle, whatever it was, had opened up something inside of her mind, but he wasn’t the one in her head. That was someone else, some completely alien presence, a psychic of uncommon skill and cruelty.

Alice’s mind was far away, remembering streaks of black paint against her cheeks, heartrending confessions, the sensation of flight, but Eliot’s voice cut through: “What are you doing to her?” At first, Alice thought Eliot was speaking to Dan, but then she noticed the new arrivals. Marina, accompanied by a diminutive woman who looked all of sixteen years old, jet-black hair and fine, delicate features betraying a face of uncommon beauty and undeniable malice.

Alice saw her, forcing her mind to be present in the moment instead of falling into the vortex, and she knew that this nameless woman was her enemy, the one inside of her, pulling on memories, reminding her of—of Charlie, there but not there, alive and dead, the coldness of his eyes, the curiosity, the utter lack of affection…

“Niffin,” she gasped out, as the thing squirming through her consciousness tightened its hold. It seemed to have found what it was looking for, tossing aside old childhood traumas and awkward sexual experiences to find the threads that linked her to the other immortals, new and delicate but already brighter than so much of Alice’s tired grey life.

That was what Marina had been curious about, wasn’t it? The ties that bound them? The connection she only knew about because Kady confided in a friend fifty years ago, back when Alice wasn’t alive, back when her parents were young children, and god, to be immortal, to know that you would be around to witness the untold futures spinning out from your own actions...

“Niffin,” she repeated, but she didn’t need to: there was no mistaking her, a woman too young to die, but dead undeniably, no longer whoever she’d been before.

“How did they convince you?” Eliot snapped, facing the newcomer as Alice curled around herself, arms tight against her stomach. The thing in her head was dancing between the threads, plucking on them, testing their strength and studying their interplay. She felt them, inside of her, the intrusive presence touched a thread and she felt the warmth of Julia’s welcome, her enthusiasm and curiosity. And then another thread, Margo’s leadership, the automatic protectiveness and slightly bittersweet flavor of skittish mistrust, allowing someone new into her inner sanctum. There was Kady, something stirring between them, something that would need time to grow but would grow if given that time, and—

Alice gasped, jerking against the back of the chair.

She felt a stronger tug, felt Eliot, a twinge of pain shooting through her body. The Niffin in her mind was no longer passively examining, but actively testing, trying to pull, trying to sever, and what if she did? What if the thing that bound Alice and Eliot died on the vine? They’d never become friends the way she was suddenly certain they were meant to be—

“Stop what you’re doing,” Eliot snapped, and Alice saw him flinch in perfect concert with the spikes of pain she was experiencing. He could feel it too, then, feel the mental link that she’d never have noticed until its very existence was threatened. The thing, whatever it was, that connected them through dreams, that Quentin strengthened with cooperative meditation and healing. Invisible, nearly indiscernible, vitally important.

“Stop,” she managed to say, echoing Eliot’s pointless command.

Marina approached, contemplative, coming to stand right in front of their little grouping of three. She was mere feet away, the shimmering barrier the only thing stopping Eliot from snapping her neck with a twist of his fingers. Alice remembered the strange spark of magic she’d noticed in Eliot’s eyes. Could he? What was he waiting for? The Niffin’s mental assault was fading, leaving Alice shaking and leaning on Quentin as she tipped forward, nearly spilling out of the chair. Confusion, revulsion, and a terrible anger all filled her mind, her heart, her soul, her Shade.

“Kady told my grandmother quite a bit about you, the connection you shared, the strength of the bonds that held you to one another,” Marina finally spoke, every word bitten out through a snarling, disgusted lip. “Very sweet, very… metaphorical, or at least that’s what the coven believed at the time. But my friend over here thinks differently.” She waved over at the young woman. Alice was stunned that Marina felt comfortable turning her back to that thing.

The Niffin was still standing by the door, across the room from Dan, who, Alice saw, had cringed against the opposite wall to stay away from her. This allyship was completely contingent on the Niffin’s whims. If that sharp-eyed young creature that had once been a girl decided she was tired of Marina, at best she’d walk away at once, taking anything valuable with her as she pleased. At worst…

The Niffin spoke. She sounded like an ordinary girl, but Alice shuddered at the sound anyway. “Working theories suggest all of you together are a living network, that perhaps the secret of your immortality can be found only in the interplay between each puzzle piece.”

Quentin was still crouched in front of Alice, but he was also leaning closer to Eliot, within touching distance. Ready for anything. Alice felt ready for exactly nothing.

“I find you extremely… fascinating,” the Niffin continued. “But perhaps the bonds are too new with the girl. Try again.” She snapped her fingers at Dan, who jumped to attention and moved back to the pincushion.

Eliot growled, the same sound he’d made whenever Dan had laid a hand on Quentin.

“You’re an idiot if you think she won’t turn on you at her first opportunity,” Eliot said, as Dan repeated the mysterious spell over a new pin, preparing to sink it into a fresh victim. Alice had no idea if Eliot was talking to Marina or to the Niffin, but figured the truth held in either direction.

They all ignored him entirely, and before Alice could process it, Dan was sending another magic missile through the air, slicing through the magic barrier. Eliot shoved both Alice and Quentin aside, painfully pinning Alice between Quentin and the chair, which had flipped over in the rough landing. The needle seemed to have a directional charm on it; it bent through the air wildly, but Eliot moved fast enough to avoid it. The room was quiet enough that Alice actually heard the clatter of the pin against the concrete floor. Harmless.

“Again,” the Niffin said, seemingly unbothered. And why should she be? Alice, Quentin, and Eliot were trapped, mice in a cage. They could dodge all they wanted, but eventually…

Another pin was already whistling through the air, Eliot its intended target as he leaned over Alice and Quentin, oblivious.

“Eliot,” Alice gasped, just as Quentin shouted, wordless, and twisted his body around, knocking Eliot back and—

Taking the pin in the shoulder, the innocuous thin silver spike sticking up from his t-shirt. It looked like nothing, but it wasn’t, and Alice cringed, knowing what was about to happen, completely helpless in the face of it.

The second Eliot realized what Quentin had done, he snarled and crowded close to him, pulling the needle out and tossing it away so hard that it clattered against the invisible barrier. Like a two-way mirror, harm could reach them through it but they could do nothing to retaliate, impotent inside their unseeable prison.

“Alice, what did it feel like? What did it do to you?” Eliot bit out, not looking at her, his hands on either side of Quentin’s face, eyes darting frantically.

“El,” Quentin started, and then just gaped at him, wordless and afraid.

Alice crouched down on the floor next to Eliot and Quentin, focusing on them instead of their observers. The Niffin seemed avidly interested and sharply focused as she stalked closer. Dan cringed away from her again, but Marina stood still, pointedly not moving away from the danger as it approached.

Alice,” Eliot snapped, and Alice swallowed to unstick the lump from her throat, trying to think through the experience and put it into words.

“Like—like someone was pulling on me, on the inside of me, on—us, the things that—”

It wasn’t enough, but it didn’t matter, because at that moment, Quentin cut through Alice’s stuttering explanation with a shout of pain, his body convulsing and his hands tightening against Eliot’s arms. “El,” he gasped again, eyes wide, “I can feel you—”

Eliot’s eyes went wide too, and then even Alice felt it, that string, that thrumming something inside of her, definable only when disturbed, that linked her to Quentin. It was vibrating, straining, a foreign object clawing mercilessly at the root of it.

And if she could feel it, what would it mean for a stronger bond, to—

“No,” Eliot said, tugging Quentin impossibly closer to him, squeezing their foreheads together, eyes shut tight. “Stop.”

“Hmm.” The Niffin’s voice was clear and ringing with confidence. She had her arms crossed, her head tilted in interest. “They’re not psychics... they have no skill for this, but they’ve strengthened their minds in harmony with one another. Perhaps through cooperative magic or even just the consistent proximity of their magical signatures. The girl is too new, she’s not sewn in with the others. I could sever her easily, but these two, that would take time…”

Alice had never felt so helpless in her life, with one very obvious, very traumatizing exception. Eliot and Quentin were clinging to each other now, whimpering, Eliot pushing Quentin down onto the floor, climbing over him, groaning his name over and over and over again, both of them grasping and pulling at one another like they could hold their minds together by the simple expedient of keeping their bodies close.

“Stop!” Alice said, just to say it. Her whole body was shaking. “Marina, please.”

“Well,” Marina said, ignoring her entirely, and Alice could tell she was trying to mirror the Niffin’s nonchalant tone. There was a crack to it, an edge of fear: she was only pretending to be unconcerned by her proximity to that much Shadeless power. “We don’t want to break the links. If we want to find out how they work.”

“Maybe you don’t want to break them,” the Niffin sniffed, her eyes narrowed. She continued to exert her psychic force on Quentin, with no visible effort whatsoever. She was power beyond reason. “But I always liked taking apart my toys to see how they worked.”

Eliot was power beyond reason, too. Or he could be.

Not knowing what she meant, or if it would work, or really, anything, but the fact that she was in pain, Eliot and Quentin looked like they were dying, and the others next door would have no idea what was happening, would be so scared… Alice turned to Eliot, gripping his arm.

“Eliot,” she said. He didn’t seem to hear her, his face buried in Quentin’s neck, body heaving with gasps. “Eliot, whatever you’ve got, you have to do it now.”

“He’s got nothing,” Marina snapped. “We’ve got you, and the more you resist, the worse this is going to get.”

“Worse—than—this?” Quentin gasped, surprising Alice, who wouldn’t have thought him capable of coherent speech, as every important relationship in his life was being spliced out of his brain. “El. Now. Hurts.”

Alice’s command hadn’t penetrated, but Quentin’s did. Eliot yanked himself away from Quentin in one agonized scramble, like it took every ounce of his willpower to force his body to move, and then threw his hands out, directly towards the Niffin.

The effect was startling, impossible, beautiful and horrifying. Whatever magic Eliot had pulled deep from the well inside himself before Marina had shot him, it had been waiting like a bomb, and now it was going off. A concentrated blast, impossibly strong in the deadened, magic-less air, tore a hole straight through the anti-magic barrier.

Alice could see the plane of it now, visible with a purple-blue matrix of lightning crackles extending the full length of the room. The hole was fist-sized but growing larger, and instead of pushing the Niffin away from them it was pulling her in, sucking her behind the barrier.

Alice acted on instinct, astounded at the quickness of her own body, the sharpness of her mind. She was falling apart and she was sure she’d remember that very soon, but for now, she needed to act. Decisive and strong. She knew what it felt like to die, now. She knew she’d just as soon avoid it happening again.

Grabbing one of the chairs, she lifted it and brought it shattering to the floor, one of the wooden legs coming off at the impact. She held it like a club in one hand, and reached for Quentin’s arm with the other.

Quentin, eyes wide and breathing hard, seemed to be coming back to himself, and Alice too felt the Niffin’s insidious presence lift away. The ambient magic was rushing in through the hole Eliot had created, filling the dead spot. Alice breathed it in like oxygen, let it coalesce molten-hot in her gut.

Let’s go,” she shouted, and Eliot moved to her and Quentin at once, the three of them charging towards the hole and the weakened portion of the barrier. It had been only seconds—Dan still pressed against the far corner, Marina still blinking in stupefaction, when Alice, Quentin, and Eliot all pushed their way through. Alice was slightly in front of the other two, passing a still-dazed Quentin off to Eliot, who gathered him up against his side.

Alice gripped her improvised club like a baseball bat, and let the magic radiate out of her hands and through the wood, enforcing it with Satarish’s Savage Strengthening Charm even as she swung it around, aiming directly for Marina’s head.

Marina noticed in time to take a step back and swerve: the hit landed against her collarbone instead of her skull, but it was enough to send her reeling, clattering into a lab counter and slumping to the floor. The jar of impact shocked its way through Alice’s body and loosened her grip on the weapon; by the time it had clattered to the concrete floor she was already spinning around, eyes searching helplessly for the Niffin.

Eliot had dealt with that most terrifying of adversaries, at least in the short-term: the woman was on the wrong side of the barrier now, having been sucked in as they made their dash for freedom, and Eliot had repaired his own damage before the Niffin could regain her composure. She howled and hissed from the other side of the newly mended invisible wall, magic crackling like firestorms in her eyes.

“That won’t hold for long,” Quentin said.

“Let’s go. Now,” Eliot shouted, and he tugged Quentin towards the door they’d been taken through.

Alice hesitated before following, looking over at Dan in the corner, right in front of the refrigerator. “But—”

“No time,” Eliot said, but he did send a basic Force Blast in Dan’s direction, slamming the man back. Alice heard a tinkling of broken glass but it wasn’t enough. If they left these hedges with their blood, they’d be more than vulnerable. They’d be all but helpless.

Eliot and Quentin were already at the door, though. Alice had been given one instruction: run. With a muffled curse, she hurried to catch up, ignoring the outraged, breathless shout of Marina, still struggling to her feet, and the Niffin’s more vicious cursing.

It was the matter of seconds to cast a phosphoromantic shield around the three of them as they passed into the gloom of the cavernous warehouse. Alice’s magic was practiced and sleek and polished always, because she didn’t know any other way to do it. But if there was one area in which instinct and artistry could come to bear, it was this. She knew how to feel along the molecules of the universe and find the lines of energy to fold around herself, hide her away from a world that was always looking but never paying the right kind of attention.

At once, she was invisible, and so were Eliot and Quentin. It couldn’t help entirely, of course: they were moving too fast, making too much of a ruckus; their captors knew their whereabouts by sound alone. But it did save them some time and pain: there were still four or five hedges up on the catwalk, rushing for the stairs to converge on the obvious escape attempt. As they moved, they sent magic missiles raining down on their heads, each strike falling wide as they failed to pinpoint an exact location.

The warehouse was just as they’d left it, except that Kady, Margo, and Julia were all on their feet, hands up in a cooperative cast formation, arms and feet criss-crossing on the ground, pressing against the barrier surrounding them.

“Alice, drop it,” Quentin hissed, as the three of them ran as fast as they could while still staying within a foot of each other, under cover of Alice’s spell.

“What? But—”

“You can’t expand it to make it big enough for the six of us,” Eliot said.

“I could, but—” but the problem was one of overlapping spellwork. If the anti-magic barrier were to come down, she could certainly create a bubble of invisibility wide enough to encompass six people moving closely together. But with that lattice in her way, her only recourse would be to expand it to encompass the whole area: the six beds, the three women crowded up against one edge. She could hold light refraction like that, if she had time. If she could stay still.

“If you can’t do it now, drop it. They know we’re here,” Quentin said, uncharacteristically brusque, and Alice did as she was told. Instantly the clattering from above grew louder, and Marina’s voice, a howling you bitch! rang from the lab doorway. The magic missiles continued to rain in from all sides, with increasing accuracy.

“El,” Margo said, the second they appeared. “Kady took a page out of your book. We almost have it, it’s just—”

“Stand back,” Quentin said. Alice caught sight of Kady’s wrist, still mottled and purple from a healing break. She shuddered, wondering if she’d have had the fortitude to do it herself.

Quentin threw his hands up, aiming for the spot where Margo, Kady, and Julia had all been gathered, where tiny bits of the lightning-crackle barrier were visible in its slightly weakened state. Alice expected Eliot to help, but he turned his back and acted as cover instead, throwing up shields to prevent the onslaught of ranged attacks coming their way. At one point he was forced to jostle into Quentin to dodge a bullet: Marina was armed, and she was using more than magic to ensure their recapture.

Turns out, the barrier was far easier to dismantle from the outside: when it fell, it made a noise like air being sucked into a vacuum. Unlike the barrier in the lab, which Eliot had maintained as an impromptu (and very temporary) cage for their Niffin friend, this one came crashing down in its entirety. The part of Alice’s brain that wasn’t drowning in blind, abject panic wondered at the spellwork Quentin had used. Like so much else she’d seen, it was far from Brakebills-standard. Another thing she’d ask about, when they were somewhere safe. When she’d had a moment to breathe…

“Go, go, go,” Margo hissed, and with the barrier down, with Alice’s invisibility gone, their escape became a no-holds-barred chase.

Alice found herself pushed unceremoniously to the center of the group, as all six of them moved swiftly towards the door on the far end. A magic missile, the first on target, sliced a deep gash through Kady’s back, as she brought up the rear—Alice heard a gasp of pain, but Eliot, taking the lead, didn’t slow down and Alice didn’t either. It was Quentin and Margo who grabbed Kady, keeping her on her feet as she groaned through the pain.

“Kady,” Alice said, just to say her name. She wanted a response. Wanted to know that they still lived in a world where being cut open from shoulder to waist was survivable.

“Alice,” Kady answered, and it was enough. She put a hand on Alice’s back, as if to steer her, and then the second missile took Alice by surprise, knocking into her shoulder and sending her spinning forward into Margo.

Fuck,” Margo said, turning around and catching Alice as she collapsed, pain sending sparks through her spine. Maybe if she’d been doing this for a century or two, she could have kept on her feet, but at the moment it seemed impossible. Kady, already standing straighter and breathing evenly, spun and erected a shield, while Quentin’s hands danced through the air, sharp, clear commands sending a counterattack towards their nearest pursuer. His force blast hit the man who had landed attacks against Kady and Alice: Derek, she now saw, the silent figure who had acted as enforcer while Dan performed his experiments.

“Alice, we’ve got to move,” Julia said, a kind yet urging arm on her uninjured shoulder. The thought of moving while this was happening to her, of powering through this degree of pain, of thinking anything at all but make it stop make it stop make it stop was almost too absurd to contemplate.

“They’ll hurt us all,” Kady said from right behind her. “C’mon, Alice, you’re doing great, just a few more steps, okay?”

Impossibly, incredibly, Alice managed to take on her own weight. She couldn’t tell if the adrenaline was responsible, or if the wound on her shoulder was already healing, skin and sinew sewing itself up and restoring her to wholeness. (What a joke. Alice had never been whole.)

And then there was the door. There was shouting, a moment’s bottleneck as Eliot and Margo worked together to break through a locking charm, and then they were spilling out into the crisp air.

It was… daytime.

That was what hit Alice first, as she emerged into a filthy alleyway, her entire left side drenched in her own blood, eyes watering from the pain. It was the middle of the goddamn day. She’d lost track of the hours in there, but somehow she’d imagined these awful, horror-movie-esque things happening to her in the dead of night, evil at its most potent in the dark hours.

Kady darted around Alice, running full-tilt towards a white van parked at the end of the alley, thirty yards away. There was a busy street waiting for them at the end of it, the sounds and smells of New York City in full-swing.

“She’ll hotwire the van,” Margo whispered to Alice. “Go with her, stay with Kady, we’ll hold the rest of them off—”

No, come with me, Alice wanted to say. But Julia, Quentin, Eliot and Margo were all taking defensive positions around the door, ready for the emergence of the hedges. Reluctant, Alice did as she was told, running after Kady towards the van. She was surprised at the ease of sprinting, how swiftly her wound had healed itself. There was an ache, like a bone-deep bruise running from her neck down to her elbow all along her left side, but the shocking immediacy of the pain had faded already. “Kady, what can I do? How can I help?”

“Shield,” Kady said, not looking up from whatever she was doing in the car. Her dark curls were bent low under the steering wheel. Alice couldn’t even tell if she was doing this the old fashioned way or if she was hijacking the thing with magic.

Again, all she could do was what she was told: she put up her shield, blocking her and Kady both from any ranged attacks that might make it past the four still crowded by the door. Her shield was strong, and incorporated elements of light-bending, making her and Kady difficult to see from a distance. It was a fusion she’d created at Brakebills, one she’d never imagined actually using for protection.

By this time, Marina and the rest of the hedges had made it to the door, crashing against it and into the waiting arms of the others. Alice was a spectator once again, the way she had been back in the penthouse, awed and terrified by the brutal efficiency of the combat in front of her.

First came Derek, and Eliot had his hands out, slamming him against the outer wall, before the man could even get his own hands lifted into a proper formation. His head cracked against the stone and he slumped to the ground, incapacitated for the moment.

Julia and Eliot took natural support roles while Quentin and Margo darted in quick and effective, slashing magic missiles and enhanced hand-to-hand hits against Marina’s goons. They were beautiful, and brutal, and under normal circumstances Alice wouldn’t have been worried about their odds. They were dispatching these guys just as easily as they had during their first fight, even without weapons, even on someone else’s turf.

But that Niffin. That Niffin would be close to breaking out of the anti-magic barrier, if she hadn’t already, and if she decided it was worth her time to help Marina...

Behind her, Kady, let out a frustrated grunt. “They’ve warded this thing to within an inch of its life—”

“Would it be faster to run?” Alice asked. “Open a portal?”

“Nothing’s linked here, a portal would take longer than we have,” Kady said. “And if we bring this fight into the open, the oblivious masses are going to be ripped to pieces.”

Alice glanced back and saw Kady lace her fingers together, scanning along something underneath the steering mechanism of the car. “How long?”

“How are they holding up?” Kady shot back instead of answering.

“Okay for now,” Alice said, and then immediately had to eat her words.

Marina, mercilessly using two of her people as a shield, burst into the alley with a force blast powerful enough to send Margo and Quentin skidding back, bumping into Eliot and Julia behind them. It gave Marina room to bring an arm up and fire off her weapon. From thirty feet away, crouched low next to the driver’s side of the van, Alice could see that the gun in Marina’s hand was not the comparatively delicate .22 caliber that had been used to end her life inside the warehouse; she knew fuck all about firearms, since magicians typically wouldn’t bother, but it looked big, and heavy, and substantial, and even from this distance she saw the glow of an orange rune carved onto the side, juicing the already deadly weapon with extra power.

It was very effective, in any case, at blowing half of Margo’s face off.

Alice screamed and then bit her tongue hard enough to taste blood. Her job was to keep the shield up, her job was to help Kady get this fucking getaway car up and running…

A terrible cry ripped its way from Eliot’s throat as he dropped to the ground to shield Margo’s body, and the right side of Quentin’s body was splattered with blood and brain matter from his fallen leader. But Quentin didn’t look, didn’t react in any way other than to step over Margo and keep his hands up, going straight for Marina, trying to knock the gun away—

“Kady…” Alice moaned. How much time did they have? How long would Margo be down?

“Got it,” Kady said, grunting with effort, and the large white van grumbled to life. “Got it.”

“Margo’s down,” Alice informed her, as Kady slid into the driver’s seat.

“They’ll get her. Get in the car, Alice—”

But she couldn’t, she had to watch. She had to bear witness to this, as the fighters still on their feet fought for precious seconds, fought for the time they’d need to scoop Margo up and take her with them.

Julia had cried out in tandem with Eliot, but instead of dropping to Margo’s side, she darted forward, fury blazing through every inch of her. She and Quentin were both aiming for Marina, both trying to take her out, get the gun…

Julia’s blast of power ricocheted off Quentin’s, and both arced around Marina, hitting instead two of the hedges beside her. One of them was—god, one of them looked like a child, a gangly teenage boy suddenly motionless on the ground. Who were these people, and how desperate had they been for magic, for belonging, that they’d found themselves here, working for Marina? The kid didn’t even look old enough to have been rejected by Brakebills yet. He was Alice’s age, the year Charlie had—

Quentin had noticed the fallen figure, too. Alice was too far away to see his expression, but she felt a sympathetic spasm of regret connecting them across the distance. Julia had regrouped, going again for Marina, but Quentin crouched over the still figure instead, a blue aura encompassing his hands as he bent to stabilize him.

Q,” Eliot’s voice was ravaged with fury and grief, “fucking leave him and help me.” He had Margo cradled against his chest, and, to Alice’s horror, Margo’s eyes, or eye, the one she still had, was peeling open, consciousness returning long before her skull had finished regrowing itself over the tenderness of brain beneath.

Alice would not throw up. It would not be helpful to throw up

“He’s a kid, El,” Quentin said, quite calm, not looking up from his healing, holding one hand gently against the side of the hedge’s face.

“Leave him,” Eliot repeated. He was trapped, Alice saw, trapped between the visceral urge to pull the still helpless Margo away from the fight, and the absolute imperative to stick close to Quentin’s side.

“They need help,” Alice said, her voice wavering terribly. “Kady, I’ll drive, can you—”

“You don’t know where we’re going,” Kady said, but her eyes were troubled, looking behind her with her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Margo’s face was regrowing, Eliot was helping her, stumbling, to her feet, Julia was still grappling with Marina while the few remaining hedges tried to get in a lucky shot. Julia was a one-woman army, dispatching the other hedges with the same amount of effort she would have taken to swat away flies, but Marina appeared to be holding her own. And at any second that Niffin was going to turn up and it would all be over…

“I assume we’re going away from here,” Alice screeched, and Kady lost the battle with her own pragmatism, jumping out of the car and sprinting towards her friends. Alice slipped behind the wheel, trying to ignore the fact that she hadn’t driven a car in years, and that she’d never done it well, and threw the van into reverse, backing slowly down the alley so the others would have an easier time jumping in.

But then it happened. So much, in seconds. Too fast for Alice to even process how it could have gone better, how they could have stopped it. One of Marina’s goons got a lucky force blast on Julia, nothing serious, but just enough to send her reeling a single step back. Marina, without Julia in her face, managed to swing her arm around and get off another shot.

Another headshot.

Right to the back of Quentin’s skull.

Eliot, of course, screamed again.

He practically dropped Margo to the ground in his haste to run to Quentin’s side, but something even more awful was happening as Quentin fell insensate over the body of his triage patient. Behind Marina, a strange warping sound was coming from just inside the warehouse doors. In Alice’s panic, as she froze in the driver’s seat and tried to figure out whether jumping out of the car would help or hinder, it took her a moment to place the sound, and when she did she moaned, a low, vibrating sense of dread curdling low in her stomach.

It was a portal being opened.

“Q,” Eliot said, choked out among a building sob. He reached out to touch him, to lift him into his arms and cradle yet another lifes’ long love against his chest, to wait with baited breath for a resurrection that was never guaranteed. But he couldn’t touch Q, because at the same time as the ripping sound of a portal whumped its way out from the warehouse, Marina had dropped the gun, shot her hands out, and blasted a wall of air at the attacking immortals. Julia, Eliot, a half-alive Margo and the just-arrived Kady all flew backwards through the air. Alice, hanging half out of the driver’s seat now, heard a body slam against the back of the closed van, but she couldn’t be sure which of them it was.

Q!”

Eliot and Julia were both running full-tilt towards Quentin’s body on the ground, impossibly quick to recover, but Marina had grabbed Quentin’s arm. And the young boy, the one Quentin had been trying to help, the one Alice had felt sympathy for, had suddenly sat up. He rolled Quentin’s corpse over and grabbed the other arm, apparently unharmed, done being the bait. The two were pulling him, ragdoll-like, through the door into the warehouse. Through the portal.

“No!” Kady’s voice echoed in the narrow alley and Alice’s body unfroze, everything in her compelling her towards action, towards something, anything, that could stop this. Alice threw the van into park and jumped out, running forward, but someone—Marina? Dan, maybe? Where was he? The fucking Niffin?—had erected a shield wall an inch in front of the doorway, separating the rest of them from Quentin, from still-very-much-dead Quentin, as he was dragged back towards the portal.

Eliot threw his whole body against the barrier, the same way he had earlier, when Quentin had been taken from him, but this time somehow with even more desperation, an animal panic moving his body in uncoordinated lurches as he tried to rip through with his bare hands, with unadulterated fear, with raw power and no finesse. Julia was helping, her hands up to cast, but even as Alice drew level with Kady and Margo, Marina stepped through the portal, dragging Quentin with her.

The portal fizzed once, twice, in tempo with Eliot’s ragged screaming, pounding against the barrier, and then it winked out of existence, leaving the echoing, dour, high-ceilinged warehouse empty in its wake.

Alice’s knees buckled in shock; Kady caught an elbow.

“Q,” Julia sobbed, her hands still up, still casting. But what was the point? The portal was gone, Quentin was gone.

“Can you track it?” a voice asked. Alice’s own voice asked, without her permission. “The portal?”

“Not quickly,” Kady said, and Alice didn’t need to ask anymore. The Niffin. They had to go. They had to get out of here before they were all captured again, just as helpless as before. This was their big chance. The alley was empty, the other hedges having vanished through the portal ahead of Marina and her captive, but that didn’t mean they were safe. There could be others, too, waiting to shoot them down the second they stepped inside. And that portal could have taken Quentin anywhere. They couldn’t afford to stick around on the off-chance there might be a lead.

“We need to go,” Margo said, loud and authoritative and not at all like someone who’d just been murdered and resurrected. She was drenched in her own blood. Then again, so was Alice.

Julia turned to her. “Margo…”

“We’ll track him, we’ll get him back, but we need to go now.”

Julia hesitated, looking at the spot where the portal had been, and then she grimaced, jerking her head in a nod and coming forward, pulling Margo into her arms. Kady put a firmer arm around Alice’s shoulder to steady her, but she felt suddenly calm.

“El, let’s go,” Margo said, terribly gentle.

Eliot ignored her entirely, and kept throwing himself against the barrier.

“El. Now.” Less gentle this time. She took a step towards him.

Fuck you,” he hissed without turning, without stopping, his body a futile battering ram, his skin positively glowing with pointless power. He couldn’t turn back the clock, couldn’t reach Quentin in time, couldn’t, clearly, stop trying, even knowing it was hopeless.

Alice turned away. She couldn’t watch. She got in the van.

Chapter Text

He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

—Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

 

He is half of my soul, as the poets say.

—Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles



Alice remembered what it felt like to be told her brother was dead, mostly because the way it felt in the moment was still the way it felt, over a decade later. Like having a string cut inside of her, a string that, although she hadn’t realized it, was keeping all of her insides tied together. Without the string, everything flopped and unraveled, leaving a sloppy, grotesque mess where vital organs had once slotted neatly into their places. To compensate for this unspooling, she’d taken an already prickly outer shell and added more thorns. It hadn’t done anything to help with the squeamish, shivering, wounded interior of who she now was and always would be, but it did stop people from getting close enough to see it.

Eliot, slumped like a discarded puppet in the back of the van, looked like the personification of that tender inside-mess of a person Alice felt herself to be. His eyes were glazed over, disbelieving, his limbs scattered in a messy sprawl. He looked a bit like a corpse, but Alice knew he was alive. Knew he was feeling every endless second of this. More than anything, he looked… god, he looked young, like a child, terrified without his security blanket. Nearly unrecognizable. How much of Eliot was dependent on Quentin to bolster him, to hold the pieces together?

He hadn’t wanted to get in the van. Margo had commanded, Julia had pleaded, Eliot had ignored them, then cussed them out, then said you’ll have to kill me first, and then Margo had said no, I won’t, actually, and then she’d—

Alice closed her eyes, swallowed hard around the acid creep of bile.

“Margo,” Kady’s voice was sharp and tight from the driver’s seat, her fingers drumming against the steering wheel. “They’re bound to have a way to track the van. Where are we going?”

“Out of the city,” Julia answered, distractedly stacking the empty bussing trays and plastic tubs rattling along the floor of the van. Alice noticed a dismantled wire shelf, and bolts to hold it in place. If she had to guess, she’d say this van used to belong to a catering company. Maybe one of Marina’s hedges had worked in food service. Maybe they’d stolen it.

“It doesn’t matter if they track the fucking van,” Margo spat out, her voice lower than usual, gravelly with anger and dread. “They have our goddamn blood.”

(Eliot hadn’t seen it coming. He was so single-minded on getting through the barrier that when Margo’s hands came up, pulling and sliding her fingers through an intricate set of movements, he didn’t even look back. Alice was inside the van, she was trying not to look, couldn’t watch Eliot tear himself to pieces in quest of a fruitless goal. It was like looking in a goddamn mirror, and despising the reflection more so than usual. Margo’s hands glowed a strange, radioactive green and then she popped her elbows and shot the spell forward. It hit Eliot’s back and Eliot—froze, paralyzed; he fell forward, his shoulder skidding clumsily against the invisible barrier.

“Margo,” Julia said, aghast, staring at Eliot’s body.

“Get him in the van,” Margo said.

“No,” Eliot said from the ground. His neck was rolling, hands twitching at his sides. Whatever Margo had done to him wasn’t going to hold for long. “No. Navvi, please.”)

“The blood…” Kady said, pulling Alice back to the present. “Maybe that’s how they… I must have… they must have had something from me, from back—”

Eliot’s insensate, floppy limbs suddenly jolted to life. He snapped around to face Kady. “What?”

“I—I don’t know. Where are we going, boss?” she asked, deflecting.

“Through a portal, I guess,” Margo said. She sounded utterly defeated, which was maybe the scariest thing of all.

“Kady,” Eliot said, and now he was crouching in the moving van, crawling forward towards the driver’s seat. Julia put a hand out as if to ward him off. “You’re saying you gave them—” he choked, like the words were poison, then forced them out. “You gave them your blood? They fucking—they took—they have Q—”

“I didn’t,” Kady said, and even from the opposite corner of the van, Alice could see that she was trembling head-to-foot. “I wouldn’t, El.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Julia said, glancing over her shoulder at Margo. “We need to get out, get far.”

(Margo had turned her face away from Eliot’s pleading, skin drawn tight over her cheekbones, and hopped into the van.

“Don’t make me leave him,” Eliot screamed, as Julia used magic to lift Eliot’s body through the air. “Julia, Tsula…” he slipped into a language Alice didn’t recognize, voice high and pained and pleading, but Julia did as Margo had ordered.

Within minutes of Kady driving off, Margo’s paralysis spell had faded. Eliot tried to open the back door of the van, and Alice fully believed he would have rolled out of it and into traffic if Margo hadn’t anticipated him there too, locking the door tight.

They were miles away by the time Eliot’s body, if not his mind, seemed to realize it was pointless. He slumped to the floor like a ragdoll, and completely ignored it when Margo scooted closer to him and said: “We couldn’t just stay there in a bottleneck and let them pick us off, El. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but we’ll get him back, I promise.”)

Looking at him now, Alice wasn’t sure if Eliot had even heard Margo. She was less sure if Eliot would ever forgive her for this. The thought made her viscerally uneasy. They belonged together; it was one of the only things Alice knew for sure.

“No,” Eliot said now, refuting Julia’s words. He still sounded disbelieving, everything in his body, in his voice, dripping with horror. “We’re not portalling—we’re not—we need to find him. Now.”

Margo stared at him as she answered, but her words were for Julia, for Kady, for people capable of bigger-picture thinking. “We can run as far as we want, we can go through as many portals as we want, but they have our blood. That Niffin, it has our blood, if it bothered to stick around…”

“All of our warding,” Julia said, sounding furious with herself, “it’s all tied in with our blood signatures. That was supposed to make it safer, impossible to breach, but now, with samples of all six of us…”

“It makes us easier to find,” Kady bit out. “This is my fault.”

Alice looked over to see Eliot’s jaw clench; he glared daggers at the back of Kady’s head, but didn’t say anything.

“You said you didn’t give them anything,” Julia said, soothing.

“But they could have taken it. Back then, I—god, Jules, I wasn’t at my best, to say the least, I was drinking all the time, I was pouring my heart out to fucking—fucking hedges like I hadn’t already learned my—my lesson about what they could do, and now Quentin is just—”

“This isn’t helpful,” Eliot said. He was crouched on his feet, half-standing under the low ceiling of the van. It was impressive, Alice noted, how well he was able to balance as the vehicle lurched magically through the denseness of city traffic. “We shouldn’t be trying to run, we have to go back.”

There was silence for a full ten seconds. Alice could sense herself dissociating again, like she had on the subway when they’d fled the penthouse. Then, she’d felt trapped with these people, hyperaware that her new companions were killers. Here, despite the confines of the van, she felt a widening chasm of distance growing between them all, like Quentin was the string holding them together, the way Charlie had been for Alice.

Maybe they should have stayed. Unencumbered, five on one, they might have been able to take on the Niffin. Maybe they could have traced the residual portal energy. Maybe they could have burst in and rescued Quentin right away, and then...

But the decision had been made, and now, wherever Kady was taking them, it wasn’t bringing them any closer to what they were missing. And wherever they went, their enemies could find them, could follow the thread of blood in their veins. If they slit their own wrists and filled the inside of this van with every precious drop of themselves, their bodies would just make more, trapping them here in perpetuity. There was no real way to run away from yourself, and Alice should know.

“Brakebills.”

Alice’s voice cut through the thick silence like a knife, like another magic missile. She hadn’t decided to speak, still caught somewhere in liminal space.

“What?” Margo snapped, like she was annoyed that the icy, desolate quiet had been interrupted.

“They can find us anywhere. Because of our blood, right?” Alice said. “But… but Brakebills is, like, pretty famously a place that hedges can’t penetrate, isn’t it? And the campus is huge, it’s warded for several acres, so even if Marina knows exactly where we are, all she can do is patrol the outside the wards and wait for us to leave.”

“With our blood, they could do remote magic on us,” Julia said, slowly, like she was puzzling things out, “anywhere in the world. My warding wouldn’t stop it, because it’s dependent on our blood, but…”

“But Brakebills guards against that kind of thing,” Alice finished for her. “It gives us an edge, doesn’t it? We can regroup, and then we can trace our blood back to wherever Quentin is.”

Margo made a snorting noise like an angry dragon, and thunked her head against the side of the van. “Okay. Shit. I can’t believe I’m saying this, Kady, but take us to Brakebills.”

“Already on it,” Kady said, and she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator.

***

Alice’s rooms in Brakebills were tiny and utilitarian. The faculty housing building was one of the oldest on campus, built right when the school had been founded in 1763. (That had once seemed so long ago. Now, she found herself wondering if Kady’s grandparents had been part of the school’s inaugural class, or if hedge animosity towards this particular institution ran all the way back to the root.)

The building didn’t look big enough to house the apartments it contained; from the outside, Alice’s allotted square-footage should have been no larger than a single-room college dorm. In fact, it contained a living room, a kitchenette, and a surprisingly spacious bedroom, all held in place by a Thibadeau’s Planar Compression spell, one that had been around for so many years that the interlocking reinforcement of multiple spellcasters had more or less frozen it this way.

Under normal circumstances, she might have felt embarrassed to be showing off the sparseness of her erstwhile home to a group of people who’d had all the time in the world to cultivate a refined sense of style. She remembered the opulence of the penthouse, Margo’s work, clearly, and Eliot’s disdain at the out-of-date trappings of Quentin’s little place in Jersey. Had Eliot been in any state of mind to observe his surroundings, he might have had a word or two, or at least a sharp raise of an eyebrow, to offer at the site of the chipped off-white walls, the faux-wood flooring, the dust building along the baseboards, and the old stained teakettle permanently housed on the back burner of the stove.

“You have an hour,” Eliot said, staring past Margo like he couldn’t see her. “And then I’m leaving.”

“I have an idea,” Julia said, before Margo could respond. “I have a way of tracking him that’s more or less guaranteed, it’ll just… it’ll take awhile.”

“No,” Eliot said, storming across the living room and standing by the curtained window. His view was of a tiny courtyard and the back of another of Brakebills’ oldest buildings, containing the bursar’s office, a few overflow classrooms, and the workspace Alice had been given as a condition of her employment, to work on her refracted portal dissertation. “No. He’s—they have him. They have—I should be there.”

“El,” Kady said, cautious and heartsick, leaning against Alice’s fridge with her hands behind her back.

“Don’t talk to me,” he snapped at her. “If we didn’t need the numbers you wouldn’t even be here.”

“That’s not your call to make,” Margo said. “You want to leave, that’s on you, but you don’t tell other people what to do—”

“Okay, thanks, I’ll be going now, if you’re done holding me prisoner!” Eliot roared, and he actually stormed his way back to the front door. He didn’t leave, though, just slammed his fist hard against the wall, making the overhead light fixture shake.

“Nobody wants to hear my idea, then?” Julia said, and when Alice looked at her, she had both eyebrows raised in a ‘disappointed mom’ vibe that she’d clearly been cultivating for a long while.

“Talk fast,” Eliot said. He was glaring at Julia, too, but she appeared unfazed. “Clock’s ticking.”

“They have our blood, which means they can block us from most direct tracking magic. I already tried all the easy stuff in the van, and it comes up blank, like Quentin is… is nowhere.” Julia paused, swallowing, and Alice thought she knew why. Typically if someone was unfindable by magic, that meant they were no longer—extant. Alive. That didn’t apply in this situation, but it must have hurt all the same. “They can set up shields specifically designed to lock us out. But Alice’s point about Brakebills got me thinking.”

She gave Alice an encouraging smile, and Alice smiled back, tight-lipped. It was hysterically funny that Julia would take a moment now, of all times, to make Alice feel included in group decision-making. If someone told Eliot that chopping Alice’s head off on the spot would return Quentin to him, she was under no illusions about the result.

So, what if the five of us can set up a framework for Teukolsky’s Locator Spell, and then we have Professor Quinn over here fetch us a couple of unsuspecting Brakebills kiddos to fuel it, instead of doing it ourselves. Should bypass anything the hedges would be able to set up with such short notice. They weren’t expecting to need to hide from us, right?”

“That’s assuming they’re trying to hide at all,” Kady said, biting her lip in concentration. “It’s a good idea, Jules, but they wanted all of us, right? Why are they blocking us? My guess is they’ll set themselves up somewhere and then invite us over. It’ll be a trap, but we tend to be good at getting out of those.”

“With a couple of notable exceptions,” Eliot hissed.

Eliot was fractured and furious, but the messy sprawl of abject devastation had left him, his body held in frigid determination, ready to be off like a shot the second he knew which direction to run. The women were all more or less ignoring him and his boiling, heartbroken anger, which made sense. Eliot was likely very good in most crises, but specifically very bad in this one.

“If they’d wanted all of us, why did they run?” Margo asked. “They took Q, they could have taken Eliot, hell, he would have fucking volunteered.”

“Damn right I would have,” Eliot said, deadly and low. “And you damn well knew—”

“Teukolsky?” Alice said, surprising herself. She’d done that thing again, floating outside the action, slamming back into the moment only as her voice interjected without her permission. “Did you say Teukolsky’s Locator Spell?” She knew that spell, knew it well, in fact, given how often she’d tried it when she’d been searching for Charlie. “Isn’t that for… finding… um.”

“Dead people?” Julia offered helpfully. “Well. See, yeah, that’s sort of another slide deck. Didn’t want to overwhelm you with too much all at once.”

Alice stared at her, blinking beneath her glasses. She’d found Charlie in the end, sort of. She just hadn’t found his Shade along with him. “What does that…”

“When you die, you definitely die, it just doesn’t stick,” Julia said. “So while Teukolsky’s method generally works on locating the deceased, it also tracks the bits of our Shades that sort of… siphon off? When we… die?” She said the last few words through an apologetic grimace, like she knew exactly how Alice would react to them.

“It’s not a net loss,” Julia rushed on when Alice didn’t say anything. “It’s more that when you die there’s a severing and then the Shade gets shoved back in almost instantaneously but the process sort of scrapes a little piece of… it’s actually what Q’s memory spell is combating. Keeping us… um… human, if you will. Not as scary as I’m making it sound.”

“Okay,” Alice heard herself say. It sounded like Julia was suggesting that with enough time, with enough death, the boundaries between human-being-who-can’t-die and, well, former-human-without-Shade, might become the tiniest bit blurred. The implications were absolutely horrifying, but at the moment, they didn’t have the time. “Okay, cool, so. Uh. Teukolsky requires mapping sigils. Maybe we could lay it out in my room, and rotate casters in and out? The rest of us can just stay out here. Uh. Get some rest.”

“How long?” Eliot asked. He was leaning against the door now, slumped forward under the weight of his fear.

Julia was quiet for a full ten seconds, and Eliot visibly struggled to stay silent, to wait for her, when everything within him revolted against waiting at all.

“Using other magic-users as a focus? Bypassing the Brakebills wards and the protections the hedges have likely set up… probably upwards of eight hours.”

Eliot let out the unhappiest, meanest, most heart-grinding laugh Alice had heard in her life. “You think I’ve got eight hours in me, Julia? They. Are. Hurting. Him.”

“You don’t know that,” Kady said. “You don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Don’t give me that. They—”

“They wanted all of us,” Julia interrupted. She came closer, breaching Eliot’s personal space. Alice thought it quite brave of her. Margo certainly wasn’t trying, and Julia had been complicit in Eliot’s pseudo-kidnapping, too. “They wanted all of us, so the odds are they’re using him as bait. They can’t…”

“Don’t tell me they can’t hurt him,” Eliot said. “That fucking Niffin, those needles, they can—it was torture. They tortured him.”

And Alice. They’d tortured Alice, too. Didn’t seem like the time to mention it, but Alice caught Kady looking at her, concern and understanding on her face. It didn’t help as much as Alice wanted it to.

“I know,” Julia was saying to Eliot, and she put a hand on his arm. Eliot stiffened at the touch but didn’t shove her away. “I know, I felt it too. The… the pulling. But El, we haven’t felt it again, have we? Maybe the Niffin didn’t go with them. Maybe she fucked off and decided we weren’t worth the trouble.”

That did sound like Niffin-like behavior. Alice decided to lean into the optimism whenever it floated past, tiny wisps of opportunity that meant maybe she wouldn’t be strapped down to a table and carved open like a cadaver again this time tomorrow.

“And maybe she didn’t,” Eliot hissed back. “Niffin or no Niffin, there’s plenty they could be doing to him, and I can’t… I can’t, you know I can’t.”

“Listen to me,” Julia said, still remarkably calm. “This plan isn’t perfect, but we should get it started, yeah? Right now, right away. If we discover a quicker way to find him, of course we’ll go for it. But in the meantime…”

“I’ll start clearing space and drawing out the sigils,” Margo said, business-like. “Alice, do you have a chalkboard platform here?”

“Across the courtyard,” Alice said. “I can…”

“I’ll go,” Kady said. “I need to call Pete, anyway, I’ll have him assign someone to watch that fucking warehouse. If anyone comes back, we can try to nab them or follow them to Q.”

Alice explained where to find her workspace, and Kady waved away her explanation on how to break her privacy warding, seemingly confident she could figure it out. Alice decided, deliberately, not to be offended.

“Why would they hide him?” Eliot said, caught forever on his biggest priority. “Why—why would they do it like this?”

“Marina just wants results,” Julia said, contemplative. “She wants immortality, because it means more power. But Dan… he’s a real scientist. He was interested in the theory of it, on how it actually works. I’m sure having all his subjects under one roof was preferable, but there are things he can find out like this, too. Things about the effect of distance on the psychic matrix, and—”

“Looking forward to comparing notes later on?” Eliot snapped, and then he closed his eyes and turned his head away, like he thought Julia might hit him for that. “No. Never mind. I’m not. I’m. I can’t. I’m. Panicking, and I don’t—”

“El,” Julia said, and then she was pulling him into a hug. He didn’t put his arms around her, but his body curved into a slump, resting his weight against her much smaller frame. “I’m going to help Margo set up the spell, okay? Why don’t you get some rest?”

She pulled away, and made to go after Margo. Then, she turned around and snapped her fingers in Alice’s direction. “Oh, right.” She brought her hands in front of her, clasped together like a cheerleader in starter position, then pulled them apart with a flutter of her fingers.

A cell phone appeared in Julia’s hand, and she tossed it in one fluid motion to Alice. “Does Brakebills have a directory somewhere? We need you to drum up some volunteer batteries, okay?”

Batteries seemed like a callous way to refer to living breathing grad students, but Alice had never really liked them anyway.

“I know a spell,” Alice said, thumbing past the lock on the phone with a quick hack most magicians learned their first week at Brakebills. “You had your phone the whole time?”

“Pocket dimension,” Julia said with an eye-roll. “Couldn’t exactly access it in Marina’s evil dungeon of doom.”

She disappeared around the corner after Margo, and Alice heard the two of them discussing furniture rearrangement, shoving Alice’s bed to the corner to give themselves floor space. They were all business, nothing in their attitudes betraying the urgency of the situation. Julia suggested some tweaks to the spell’s circumstances; Margo grew impatient with Alice’s dresser, and dealt with that frustration by casting a miniaturization spell with an audible pop.

Awkwardly, with the background of Margo and Julia’s preparations, and Eliot’s deafening silence, Alice employed one of magic’s most common and yet useful memory tricks, letting numbers she had stored in her own phone, probably smashed in the grass outside of a little house in Camden, New Jersey, spill forward into Julia’s. She dialed her TA’s number without bothering to plan what she was going to say. There wasn’t exactly a graceful way to ask for this kind of favor.

***

Before long, they had a routine in place. A strained, difficult, heart-wrenching routine, but a routine nevertheless.

Teukolsky’s Locator Spell was elegant in its simplicity: a few concentric circles, some basic binding runes, and a chant that alternated between Latin, Ancient Greek, and Aramaic. Not the kind of thing Alice ever would have learned at Brakebills, but definitely the kind of thing she was able to figure out on her own, given all the school had taught her. The five of them sat together to anchor it, holding hands and chanting the initiation sequence, and after that there were always two of them in Alice’s bedroom, along with a volunteer Brakebills student powering up the charge of magic.

Alice hadn’t known such enhancements were possible, but as had been made clear to her, Julia was working on another level. When Alice had used Teukolsky to look for Charlie, she’d done it alone, wearing herself to the bone keeping the spell anchored and pulling on her own magic until she dropped unconscious from sheer exhaustion. When she’d given up, gotten her answers, she’d found herself missing the surefire oblivion the spell’s huge power suck had provided.

Her students seemed game to help with Alice’s experiment: she spun it to them like Julia’s enhancements were a new idea and she wanted their help testing it out. Luckily, she’d cultivated enough of an unapproachable reputation, despite her young age, that she didn’t get a lot of pushback from said students when she refused to explain what on earth a tracking spell meant to locate dead spirits had to do with her phosphoromancy dissertation.

And so it went. A rotating shift, one bright-eyed student seeking extra credit, one uninspired slacker who probably showed up because he relished the chance to get into Professor Quinn’s bedroom. They cycled in and out through the day, the first hours of sustained casting passing in a blur.

Well, a blur for Alice. She was sure Eliot, at least, was feeling every agonizing minute.

Kady’s news from Pete was basically no news at all, just horrified apologies. He’d thought, based on his own research, that Marina was up to something, and was aware in a vague way of Kady’s past with Marina’s coven… but he’d never suspected the full truth.

Kady seemed to believe him, and that was all Alice had to go by. She wasn’t sure, as much as it broke her heart to think it, if Kady’s word was enough for her, but Margo, Julia, and even Eliot all seemed to take the news at face value. Pete did have a possible lead on other safehouse locations Marina was rumored to use, which allowed Julia to tweak the scope of their tracking.

“That knocks off at least an hour or two,” Julia told Eliot encouragingly. At this point, Kady and Margo were in the room with one of Alice’s first-year students; Alice was sitting on her living room couch, Julia and Eliot standing by the window.

“Still too long.” Eliot wasn’t saying much. Didn’t seem capable of forcing out anything beyond a desolate word or two.

Eliot wasn’t defeated, exactly. In fact, he was brimming with desperate hope, the stoniness surrounding him thin as shale, cracking every time he moved, every time he spoke. They’d long surpassed the hour he’d originally declared as his outer limit of tolerance. He seemed to realize that wandering desperately around the city looking for Q was only going to slow everything down, and thus far no standard tracking spell had revealed answers. So, he poured every ounce of himself into Teukolsky, trying to speed it along, only stopping when Margo commanded it. He wasn’t acknowledging Kady’s existence. Or Alice’s, but she figured that was more out of lack of interest than anger.

Julia tried to get him to lie down on the couch and get some rest; he stared blankly out the window until she gave up. Margo rested her head against his arm and spoke to him; Eliot didn’t answer. Sometimes, Alice wondered if he even knew they were there.

The others were all clearly scared for Quentin, too. Julia was keeping herself locked down, professional and goal-oriented, but she looked brittle, ready to snap. Margo… had betrayed Eliot, to get him away safely. Alice could tell that Margo knew it, knew the gravity of what she had done. And if Quentin, if the unthinkable happened, if he went the way of Penny Adiyodi or Josh Hoberman and was lost to them forever? Nothing Margo ever did would bring Eliot back to her.

“Hey...” Alice said, turning to look at Margo. They’d been sitting alone together on opposite ends of Alice’s couch, ignoring one another and waiting for their turn to run an errand or anchor the spell. She was sick of the silence. It prickled along her skin, made her feel even more anxious than usual. “He won’t survive it, will he? If we can’t get Quentin back?”

Margo took a long time to answer, and when she did, her words were somehow both inevitable and shocking. “No, he won’t. And honestly, I wouldn’t ask him to.”

“You mean you’d let him—”

“Let him,” Margo scoffed. “Eliot would do anything for me. He’d do anything I said, follow me anywhere. With one very, very big exception.”

Alice swallowed. “But… I mean, could he really—”

“Kill himself?” The words were harsh, unforgiving, almost ironic in their icy calm. “We’ve all been there once or twice. Doesn’t seem to stick any better than the rest of it.”

Bile rose up in the back of Alice’s throat. “That’s—”

“A philosophical debate,” Margo interrupted. “About the nature of life and death. We’re unnatural, you see. So wanting to die after living for a couple thousand years… that’s different than wanting to die after a couple of decades, surely. Doing something to harm yourself when you’re almost guaranteed to heal, that’s not the same as a regular human doing it, right?”

“I—”

“That’s Q’s argument, when he’s… down,” Margo said. “It’s fucked, I am well aware. But there are times when even I see the fun-house wisdom of it. Sometimes you get really tired.” She paused, her lips quirking down. “Well, fuck me, Alice. This was not what I wanted for you.”

Alice didn’t know what she could possibly say to that.

“I’m sorry,” Margo continued, and she sounded like she meant it. “This shouldn’t have been how you found out about all this. I shouldn’t be sitting here scaring you with the possibility of El throwing himself into a vat of dissolving acid if we can’t get Q—” she choked off, her lower lip wobbling, and Alice reached over, putting an instinctive hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t mention the acid thing to him,” she whispered, half serious, half joking. “You wouldn’t want to give him any ideas.”

To her considerable surprise, her morbid sense of humor actually worked, and Margo snorted out a laugh. “No,” she said, looking at Alice with a sad smile. “I wouldn’t want to do that.” Then she sighed, rubbing a tired hand down the side of her face. “I need to go jump in on the spell now. Kady needs someone to tag her out. But listen—I should have said something much earlier. You don’t have to be here. Kady was right about that. You don’t even know us, you don’t have to get caught up in our shit.”

It was only when Margo offered a way out that it occurred to Alice that she hadn’t even once considered walking away. She’d been the one to suggest Brakebills. She’d taken them to her turf, taken it as a given that their safety was a necessity for her own. Maybe it was, but maybe if she asked Kady to open her a portal to Chicago right now, she could step through and leave this entire mess behind her. Sounded like something a sane person would do. Margo was right, she didn’t really know them. It was irresponsible and stupid to charge into the middle of a war she hadn’t even known about a week ago.

But Alice was a pragmatist, and Alice couldn’t be killed. There was a kind person, a person who had welcomed her and taught her meditation techniques and who loved and was loved with the kind of passion and ferocity that Alice had always tried to pretend she didn’t want, and that person was somewhere probably being tortured right now. Alice was one of a very, very small number of human beings in the world equipped to rescue him without incurring lasting physical harm. And she didn’t want to walk away, to leave them all to their rescue mission without her.

“I do have to be here,” she said to Margo, deadly serious. And then she tried to smile, and landed somewhere tolerably close. “You’re in my living room, aren’t you?”

***

The waiting continued. Alice anchored the spell. She sat out on the couch with Julia, chatting quietly and tossing concerned glances over her shoulder at Eliot. She did the spell some more. She and Kady talked about her past, Kady apologizing to Alice for a thing that had happened before Alice had even been born, which was, well, trippy, to say the least, while Alice comforted her, promising forgiveness she wasn’t sure she had a right to give.

There were moments of tension, like when a small mistake from one of Alice’s students shifted the circumstances of the spell a millimeter off-balance, adding slightly to their estimated completion time. Eliot had broken a little bit at that news, when Kady and Alice had left the bedroom, swapping out for Margo and Julia:

(“If he—” Eliot said, his face curled into a snarl, looming over Kady— “If they—if he’s dead I will kill you, and I’ll find a way to make it stick.”

“Eliot,” Alice said, surprising herself with her protective instincts. She stormed forward to pull Kady back. “She didn’t know. She didn’t do this on purpose—”

“They have Q,” Eliot said, as if this was the end of any and all arguments on the subject. To him, Alice reflected, it likely was.)

She spent a lot of her time, waiting for her turn or working the mindless repetition of the spell, thinking about that Niffin. Thinking about another Niffin, one with a face she’d loved so well. What she’d had to do to Charlie—to the thing that had once been Charlie—had been the most difficult task of her entire life. Doing it to the nameless Niffin who had gone riffling around in her brain didn’t seem like it would be too hard, honestly. Emotionally speaking. If that thing was still with Marina, they’d have to deal with her. They’d have to plan for that.

It was difficult to plan much of anything at all, since they didn’t know where Quentin was being held. Odds were on another abandoned or magicked property, probably some space big enough to contain the entire coven. If Marina had been prepared enough to pull off this level of kidnapping, her backup location was sure to be nearly as fortified as the first. So plan they did, tossing out strategy, going over details from previous extraction missions.

Eliot was present but almost entirely silent for these conversations, but the others all spoke to him and waited for minute nods of approval. He wasn’t their leader: Margo was the one who called the shots on the field. But on this, they’d take Eliot’s lead, as long as he proved himself mentally able to offer it. Alice was involved in these planning sessions too, although it was clear immediately that the others weren’t quite sure what to do with her. Kady had blinked in confusion when Alice had declared, emphatically, that she wanted to go with them for the rescue mission, and Julia had awkwardly thanked her for the Brakebills sanctuary but suggested maybe she’d be best safe at home instead.

But Alice had insisted, wondering internally if she was crazy all the while, and nobody pushed back. They even gave Alice a very specific task, after she explained her portal research to them. Unlike a regular anchored portal, Alice could create temporary, flickering pathways through light itself, displacing a person and moving them to another set anchored destination or to a random place in the multiverse (although this latter, of course, came with a great deal of risk, as there was no way of knowing where you’d wind up on the other side). When she’d finished explaining it, Kady had smiled and said “It’s almost like Traveling. Q would say it sounds like Star Trek.” Eliot had stared at her like she’d just stabbed him in the stomach, and they’d moved on very quickly after that.

So Alice was to come along, anchor a portal a short, safe distance away from wherever the hell they were keeping Quentin, and then if a hasty retreat was needed, she could portal at least a couple of them out in the blink of an eye. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that if they’d had this resource available to them earlier, they would have been able to avoid the fight in the alleyway. There wouldn’t have been any need for a rescue mission.

For a while, during one of her breaks from working the spell, Alice even managed to sleep. It wasn’t a deep sleep, she kept jerking awake whenever someone came in or out of the room, never fully settling into it. Maybe this was why, unlike the other dreams, her introduction to Josh Hoberman was less of a complete scene, more a series of rapid impressions: a group of unlikely friends sitting around a table, laughing and eating, young kids running around a grassy field, giggling and weaving their way around a genial man with a round face, trying to knock him over, while Margo and Penny looked on in fond exasperation. And then blood and sweat and dust, fear and adrenaline, a stinging laceration against pale skin. And then… the moment of truth. The strange exhilaration of new information coupled with a sinking horror at the implications. They could die. They could be wounded, it could all stop, and they didn’t understand how, or why, at all.

Alice woke to the image of Eliot and Quentin in embrace, a frantic, uncertain edge to biting kisses, the kind of urgency they hadn’t felt the need for in centuries, spurred on by the new knowledge that one day they might face an ending.

She sat up from the couch, gasping, the disturbance loud enough that Eliot, standing by the window, looked around before turning back to stare at the empty courtyard.

They were alone in the room. The others must be with the spell, or maybe making calls, fetching weapons… Margo had said something about going to one of their caches, stocking up for the assault to come.

“I…” Alice said, feeling the need for words in the aching silence. “I just met Josh, I think.”

Eliot looked at her again, eyes storming, brows lowered, and Alice realized that a reminder of their impermanent nature, even as immortals, probably wasn’t the kindest thing to be saying to a man who’d last seen his lover as a corpse.

“So just Kady left, then,” Eliot said, surprising her. “Learn anything interesting during these dream voyeurism sessions?”

Was Eliot… making conversation with her? She shrugged, not sure how to respond. “I guess. I mean. Someday, when we’re not… when all this isn’t going on, I certainly have a lot of follow-up questions.”

Eliot didn’t respond, but Alice found herself incapable of leaving it alone. She shifted on the cheap, secondhand couch she almost never used, curling her arms around her legs and brushing a hand through disordered hair. “What was it like for you? When you first dreamed of—”

“We’re not doing this.”

Right. Fair enough.

Alice wanted to, though. She wanted to talk about Quentin. She was about to risk—well, maybe not her life, but at the very least her pain, for a man she’d only just met. And the love of that man’s life was in her living room right now, so pale and gaunt that he looked a bit like a reanimated corpse. Which, she supposed, with another glint of completely inappropriate humor, he kind of was.

But he also wasn't. He was human. A person. “Eliot, did you eat anything?”

No response.

“Because, you know, Julia brought back Chinese, there’s leftovers in the fridge, and—”

“No.”

“But—”

“It doesn’t matter, Alice,” Eliot said, and Alice was about to protest again when she realized the full implications. They didn’t have to eat, did they? How did that work? They were still burning calories, still exerting energy. Surely at some point they’d reach a point of… she shuddered, wondering how often they’d been in a position to find out how far emaciated could go when death wasn’t waiting on the other end of it.

Some instinct in her, one she hated to admit might possibly come from her mother, caused her to dig her heels in. “Okay, so you don’t have to eat, you don’t have to sleep, but I’d be willing to bet it’ll make you stronger. And don’t you want to be in as good shape as possible for when we go rescue—”

Stop talking,” Eliot said.

Alice did, but she didn’t look away, and after a very intense staring contest, Eliot snorted and spun on his heels, marching to the kitchen. Bypassing the leftover Chinese in the fridge entirely, Eliot instead went for a half-eaten sleeve of plain Ritz crackers in the pantry, and managed to look entirely mutinous while untwisting the top, taking out two crackers at once, and very deliberately shoving them into his mouth.

He looked, in fact, like Alice imagined her teenaged self on the rare occasions when her mother said something right and she didn’t want to be seen agreeing. She had to look down to hide her smile.

Some further instinct inside of her, decidedly more Charlie-shaped than anything Stephenie Quinn ever could have managed, made Alice realize that Eliot needed to talk to someone. He didn’t want to talk to anyone but Quentin, and she understood that, but he was too strung out, too on-edge, contemplating the consequences of failure. And he, damn him, still had a chance to get back the thing he had lost, unlike Alice, who would be without it for the rest of her suddenly impossibly long life.

Consigning her fate to the heavens, she met Eliot’s stare as he turned from the sink, having filled himself a glass of tap water to go along with his plain crackers. (Depression eating was something with which she was familiar too. When Julia had brought back the takeout, rushing into a relieved Margo’s arms, Alice’s stomach had turned at the thought of eating anything at all. Somehow, she’d ended up downing an entire carton of chicken lo mein on her own.)

“Tell me about him,” she said, chin tilted up, head cocked to the side.

“Why the hell should I?”

This was something Alice could do, something she understood. Eliot’s anger towards the others for taking him away from Quentin was a tangible, living thing. She could sense the unfamiliarity of true anger between them, how awkwardly it fit into the spaces between their bodies. They didn’t know how to spark that rage into a true inferno, so instead it sat moldering like soggy ashes, preventing the catharsis of true fury but also the balm of actual healing. One or the other, or perhaps both, would have to wait until after Quentin was safe.

Alice, for all that Eliot clearly didn’t give a shit about her, also didn’t come with added baggage. So…

“Because,” she said, “talking about shit helps. Especially the really shitty shit. I should know, I’ve avoided doing it for long enough.”

Eliot dropped the remaining crackers onto the counter and pinned her with a stony, arch expression. “You should know? What could you possibly know?”

“I’ve lost someone I love,” Alice said.

“You haven’t been alive long enough to know what that word means,” Eliot replied, without missing a beat.

Alice curled herself into a tighter ball on the couch, looking over the back of it to where Eliot stood, disheveled and scared out of his skull, incongruous in his tallness, his grandeur, his otherworldly (othertimely?) beauty, in the middle of her drab, poorly stocked kitchen.

She thought about Charlie, about Charlie making her laugh, and sheltering her from their parents, and teaching her magic, and letting her hang out with him and his friends. She thought about every second of hard work she’d put into her education, ceaseless and tinged with desperation, not because she cared anymore about being a good magician, but because if she tried hard enough someday she’d find the secret to mastering it, and then she’d use it, the biggest, scariest means to an end in the world, to take back the piece of her that had been stolen by the cruelest of fates. She thought, prickly and sad and scared and lonely, about telling Eliot Waugh that a couple of millennia under his belt didn’t make him the king of grief, the god of love.

She didn’t say that, though. Maybe it was cowardice, maybe standing up for herself would have been the proper thing. For her. But the bald, unending terror in Eliot’s eyes, shining much brighter than his disdain or anger, told her that nothing she said would penetrate unless it was a direct line back to Quentin.

So she shrugged. “Okay. Then tell me.”

“What?”

“I’m not saying I understand, Eliot. I’m just trying to help.”

“There’s nothing you can say that would help,” Eliot said.

“Then help your damn self.” She was afraid of him. That was the other thing. She really was afraid of him, afraid of so many things, old and new, but she was also sick of him catching sight of her out of the corner of his eye like he’d forgotten she was in the room. He’d been doing that since they’d met. “Talk to someone. You clearly aren’t going to talk to them,” she said, gesturing wordlessly towards her bedroom, “and you don’t give enough of a shit about me to talk to me, so then… then talk to the air. Talk to Quentin. I don’t care.”

“If you don’t care—”

“I’m about to throw myself into a fight to rescue a man I don’t really know. I’m about to risk a hell of a lot, including triggering a very real, very terrifying trauma response to the presence of a Niffin, which is going to remind me of my dead big brother, and I’d like to sit here and listen to you talk about your husband because I think maybe it’ll help you, and maybe it’ll calm me down too.”

The silence stretched between them long enough that Alice was sure her outburst was being ignored. In Eliot’s eyes, Alice was insignificant. She knew she mattered to him, insofar as she was a new element, an inconvenience, potentially a weakness that his enemies could exploit to hurt him. But as a person? He had no reason to give a shit. Alice had no reason to give a shit either, but that didn’t seem to be stopping her.

“He’s not my husband,” Eliot said finally, so quiet Alice thought maybe she’d imagined it.

There was a shuffle of fabric, and then Eliot was there, sitting with high-strung precision on the chair facing Alice. He looked coiled, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice, and it suddenly occurred to Alice that she hadn’t seen him sit down once in the five or so hours since they’d arrived.

“What?” she said, distracted and disbelieving.

“I—he is my husband,” Eliot said. “Our current iterations, anyway. But that word, it—can’t encompass. When I met him, the thought of marrying him wasn’t even something we—and we don’t think of it like that, most of the time. Anyway, that’s not the point.”

Alice was confused. Alice said nothing. She’d told him to talk to the air, talk to Quentin.

“Yes, he’s my husband, my partner, my—best friend.” He said the last words quieter, looking down at his hands like best friend was the most vulnerable part, the hardest to say. “But it’s not about me.”

Oh. Alice… understood that. Love came in two flavors, in her experience. There was the selfish aspect, the part that oriented itself around who a person was to you, how you needed them, and what you would be like if they were suddenly ripped from you.

And then, there was the part that surpassed yourself. Charlie had been a good man. He was talkative and sincere, talented and earnest. He flashed white-hot in anger, but was almost never angry. He loved Dippin’ Dots, and giraffes were his favorite animal. And none of that had anything to do with Alice at all, except in that she was lucky to have had him in her life while she did.

“He’s kind,” Eliot said, still looking at his hands. “Thousands of years, and he’s—he’s seen everything, done things you couldn’t even imagine. We all have. He’s been witness to the very worst of what humanity has to offer and he’s still kind. The kindest person I’ve ever met.”

Alice nodded, swallowing down on the lump in her throat. “I can see that.”

“I hate a lot about myself,” Eliot continued, as if Alice hadn’t spoken. “There are a lot of things in me that—even before I realized I was essentially unkillable… well. Let’s just say self-destructive tendencies become a lot more complicated when you can’t actually—self-destruct.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, the lines of his face suddenly aging him decades, like the impossible years of his life were showing clear for just this one hopeless moment. “But. But I love that I can’t die,” he said, a whispered confession. “I love that I am… whatever it is that I am, that I’ve lived for so long and that I’ll keep living. Every moment I spent alone, trying to hold onto my sanity, it was worth it, because I got to meet him.”

And then he looked up, a glare transforming his face into a stormfront. “I haven’t gone more than an hour without him in fifty years. We haven’t been apart in all that time, and now, I… how I feel right now, Alice, is not something a human being is meant to feel. I will die and kill and die again to get him back, but saying that doesn’t begin to explain. I don’t know the words for it in any language, dead or alive.”

“And you’ve been fighting,” Alice said, sympathetic. It had just clicked in her brain. Quentin was kind. Quentin stopped to help that hedge boy, and then... “You were yelling at him right before…”

But Eliot shrugged at that, a tired sound scraping out of his throat. He tugged his hands hard through his hair, already messy and sweat-drenched and sticking to his forehead. Everyone else had taken turns using Alice’s shower, had used magic to clean up their blood-drenched clothing and repair tears to the fabric, but Eliot hadn’t lifted a finger. Julia had eventually siphoned the worst of the gore off of his torn clothes and clammy skin, but he still looked zombified, somewhere between life and death.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “The fighting, that’s just—Q getting himself hurt because he’s a better person than I am. What else is fucking new.”

There was a sound from the hallway, and Kady emerged. If Eliot had had anything more to say, the sight of her shut him up quick, his jaw clicking together, body unfolding from the chair and gliding over to the window, to continue his sightless staring into the courtyard. The conversation may as well not have happened at all.

“Just a few more rounds, Jules says,” Kady announced. “Alice, I think it’s your turn—” but Eliot had already moved again, passing her without a word, twisting to avoid brushing their arms together. He disappeared into the bedroom and the door slammed behind him.

Kady’s face fell, her brows furrowed, and Alice stood up without deciding to do so. Maybe this whole thing was Kady’s fault, but Alice thought it far more likely that Eliot needed someone to blame, and couldn’t bear to blame anyone else.

“Um. Give it a couple of decades. He’ll come around,” Alice said. Kady smiled, but it looked pained. She wandered over to the kitchen and picked up the discarded sleeve of crackers, staring at it with abstract fascination.

“I’d love to believe that,” Kady said, “but the clock is still ticking on the last time I made him angry, and that’s been over half a century.”

Alice thought about telling Kady she’d gotten to see Penny, ever-so-briefly, in her dream, but discarded the impulse. “That wasn’t your fault.” (She had no way of knowing that, but it felt like the thing to say.)

“I had the audacity to love him,” Kady said, still staring at the crackers. “Eliot loved him first, they all loved him first. I loved him later, and he died saving me. I was the first new person in… a long time, you know? And losing Penny broke Eliot’s heart nearly as much as it broke mine.”

Time has nothing to do with this, Alice wanted to say. It wasn’t right. Eliot didn’t get to claim a monopoly on anything just because he’d been around the longest. It was such a short-sighted way to view humanity’s capacity for emotion, that only with time could you really understand love.

Alice approached Kady, thinking about Eliot’s words, that he hadn’t been away from Quentin in fifty years. The anger and resentment between all of them had been stewing for that same length of time. God, she wished she could have met the man who’d been important and special enough to cause such an upset.

“Eliot loves you,” Alice said, and Kady looked at her sharply. She could almost hear the words on the tip of Kady’s tongue, the incredulity: how could you possibly know that? But Kady had a slightly better handle on her filter, and she kept the words in.

“Maybe.”

Alice reached forward and took the crackers out of Kady’s hand, setting them on the counter and then wrapping her hand around Kady’s wrist. Warm, soft, a thrum of life Alice hadn’t realized she’d needed to feel, after watching Kady fade away again and again earlier that day. “He still wears your ring, doesn’t he?”

Kady stared at her own unadorned hands, and at Alice’s fingers touching her. “He still wears my ring,” she echoed, some miniscule measure of tension unspooling from the center of her.

“I should go tag Margo out,” Alice said, pulling away from the charged moment, reluctant. Now could not possibly be further from the right time to lean in and find out if Kady tasted as sweet as she remembered. Not with the specter of a dead husband and ruptured family trust taking up all the air between them.

“Yeah,” Kady said, eyes darting over Alice’s face. “Yeah, you should do that.”

And as she turned to leave, she heard Kady’s voice once more, quiet but clear. “Thanks, Alice.”

Chapter Text

We worked together for almost two thousand years. That much time together, you move past love and hate, you’ve got something else.

—Andromache of Scythia, The Old Guard: Opening Fire



Marina and Dan were keeping Quentin in an apartment in the Bronx. Nobody else seemed bothered by this, but Alice had surprised been when the final verdict came down. She would have expected something more… unexpected, maybe, like a secret hideout overseas. Then again, New York was Marina’s turf, and the immortals were clearly decades behind on their local intel, despite Kady’s best efforts. The hedges were smart to keep to territory they knew well.

Before she knew it, they were outside the Brakebills wards, back in the stolen van, heading to Mott Haven. This was a gap in their strategy, a Penny Adiyodi shaped gap, and Alice could sense the impatience in all of them, being forced to transport themselves the old fashioned way. Margo would have preferred to Travel directly into the enemy’s midst, but given the situation, stealth seemed the most practical option.

Nobody had been waiting for them outside of Brakebills’ wardings, since Kady’s contacts had already taken care of a few scouts sent to spy on them once they left the confines of the campus. At the moment, they were banking on having figured out Marina’s location faster than she’d expected. Maybe they were walking into a trap, but it might just be a trap only half-planned, or sloppily constructed.

They abandoned the van several blocks away from their target destination, and crept into a nearby alley to get their bearings. There she was, Alice Quinn, dressed in all black with an actual hip holster containing a magicked dagger that she had no intention of using, entire body vibrating with tension and adrenaline and fear and nauseous dread, ready to enact part one of their incredibly loose and disturbingly basic plan.

Part One: Anchor portal for emergency escape.

Part Two: Attack hedge stronghold, kill anyone who stands in their way, find Quentin at all costs.

Part Three: Kill anyone who made the mistake of still being around, reclaim their stolen blood, get the fuck out. (And burn the place to the ground, if they had time.)

For parts two and three, Alice’s job was to stick close to Eliot, use her invisibility, and “don’t swing that knife around unless you’re well and truly fucked, Alice, I mean it.”

For part one, however, she was the star of the show.

“Okay, so,” she said, unaccountably nervous as she crouched low to the damp concrete, ignoring the sludge from a nearby dumpster. She’d never tested this in field conditions, she’d never had to do it with actual stakes. “The basic principle, right, is that with normal portals, the anchor on each end is to a physical location in space. But this way, one anchor is physical, and the other is entirely light-based, which is… is also physical, but it’s malleable, too. We can’t see light, we just see the things it illuminates, so in the same way—”

“Alice, I swear to dicking Christ,” Margo said, and Alice shut up and started to cast.

It took about as long as setting up a temporary portal normally would, a few tense minutes as the others stood around her, while Alice moved her hands and ignored the chaos of the moment, forcing herself back to a place of scholarly detachment. The spell caught hold with a sharp final command in Urdu, a wrist flick and an interlocking Popper that flared out at the end, and then the strange electric fizzing sound that meant Alice had just created magic out of thin air, a shortcut through the very universe.

“Good work,” Julia said, staring at the anchor in fascination. “No time now, but I’m going to ask you about that middle sequence later. Brilliant how you’ve bypassed the need to mirror two fixed locations while still keeping one side stable.”

“Thanks,” Alice said. She couldn’t help but be warmed by the genuine admiration in Julia’s voice.

“Let’s move,” Kady said, as Alice shook out her hands, letting the last bits of residual power flow away from her as the spell settled. Unless you knew to look for it, Alice’s portal anchor was invisible: a shiny patch that winked like a heat haze in the drizzly night air.

It was nearly ten o’clock at night, and while the city was still lit up like daytime and buzzing with activity, the neighborhood where they currently stood felt cut off, existing in a separate universe all its own. Fear lent a certain incredulity to the world. Alice was afraid of what awaited her in the innocuous brick building looming a block ahead, afraid of Marina and Dan and needles and pain and Niffins. And afraid, too, of failing, of making a mistake that would keep Eliot away from Quentin for even one unnecessary second. She was aware, for all that Eliot unnerved her, that she’d never seen his fury fully unleashed.

There was an alternative explanation for the sense of unreality permeating the very air, the way the old fire escape on the back of the building and the streetlamps with their yellow light and the old junk cars parked two-deep in front of each unit, all seemed out of a painting or a grainy episode of a TV show: they were walking through air positively thick with magic. Nothing was quite normal here, in this place guarded by every shield and alarm and concealment spell the hedges had been able to maintain. Different magical signatures rubbed up against one another, a balance of power delicate enough that one misplaced cast, one misjudged circumstance, could unleash chaos.

As she moved with as much confidence and purpose as she could muster, sticking close to Kady and Julia, Alice started doing the math in her head, tracing out exactly how the ambient in the air might affect their plan. It hadn’t escaped her notice that she was basically their replacement for a Traveler, only without the significant advantages afforded by that rarest of all specialties. She couldn’t disappear into the ether with nothing more than a thought, as much as her research attempted to replicate the basic result.

“Okay,” Margo said as they approached the back door. The tracking spell had been exact—Quentin was being kept in a room on the second floor, on the side of the building closest to their current position. “They definitely know we’re here by now, but if our prep spells are functioning, they don’t know exactly where. That gives us the slightest edge.”

“I want Marina,” Kady said, low and gravelly. “If there’s a choice about it, I want to take that shot.” She cleared her throat, and then looked at Eliot, clearly trying to hide her nerves. “I mean. Unless there are any objections.”

Eliot actually looked back at her, which had been a rarity for him all day, and managed to encompass bafflement, disdain, and simmering fury in a single sweep of his eyes. “Marina’s an insect. Every living being that stands between me and Q is an insect. Swat them aside however you wish, but do not stand in my way.”

Eliot was very good at sounding like he belonged in the twenty-first century. So good, in fact, that it wasn’t until he’d started to slip that Alice realized it took him any effort at all. Swat them aside however you wish. He seemed ancient, out of place and desperately incomplete without his other half. It didn’t help that he was dressed in the most casual outfit Alice had ever seen him wearing, a tight black t-shirt that provided no encumbrance to movement, and also made him seem nearly naked in contrast to his usual precision and elegance. In a pocket dimension, ready to burst forth at a moments’ notice, he was carrying both a sword and a gun, and Alice had no doubt he was just as skilled at using them as he was with his bare hands. His fingers were empty, rings removed, in readiness for blood. Alice shuddered, swallowed, and commanded herself to focus.

“Q’s the priority,” Margo said, offering Eliot a concerned glance which he ignored. “As I’m sure you all know. No getting sidetracked for personal vendettas.”

“Obviously,” Kady said quickly. “Q first, then… then the other shit, if we can.”

“Alice,” Julia said. “You ready for this?”

“I doubt you’d believe me if I said yes,” Alice said, her voice trembling so hard it came out in vibrato.

Julia smiled. “Smart girl. Stay close to Kady and El, you’ll be okay.”

Alice nodded, still questioning the wisdom of this part of the plan, but Margo had been firm, and Eliot hadn’t protested: Kady and Eliot and Alice were heading straight for Q, Alice stealthing them, Kady’s battle expertise clearing the path. The second they found him, Alice was taking Q and Eliot with her out through her portal escape, where, depending on the situation, they would either wait for the others, or else re-enter the fray to assist with cleanup. Kady, once Quentin was secured, would circle back and meet up with Julia and Margo, whose job was to cause distractions, clear out extraneous combatants, and find their blood.

They were prepared for another Planar Compression inside the apartment building; as much as Alice would have preferred a thirty second in-and-out, she knew there could be all sorts of untold surprises waiting for them once they burst through the door.

“No unnecessary killing,” Julia said, surprisingly firm.

“We might have different definitions of ‘unnecessary’,” Margo responded without missing a beat. “But yes, if you can knock someone the fuck out, please don’t stick around to make sure they stop breathing. Time is of the essence.”

“I don’t care if I have to kill every person in there, to get him out,” Eliot said, as if that hadn’t been obvious from the start.

Some residual camaraderie between Alice and Eliot, after their conversation at Brakebills, made her ask, somewhat fearing for her very life as she did so: “But would Quentin care?”

Eliot’s jaw twitched, and Alice thought it might just be the beginnings of a smile. “Yeah, probably.” Then he narrowed his eyes and stood straight, shaking his hands out and feeling along a seam in the air, where his weapons waited for him to call them forth. “But he’ll get over it.”

***

The urge, during the rescue mission, to pull out her “only for emergencies” dagger from Margo was surprisingly overwhelming. It was a basic weapon, nothing too fancy, although imbued with charms to assist with aim and prevent accidental self-injury. Just a shiny metal pointy thing with which to draw blood. Magic was power, magic could be beauty and ruthlessness and all the protection a person could ever need—but something deep in Alice’s hindbrain yearned to hold a hilt against her palm, a tangible sign that she wasn’t easy pickings for anyone inclined to take her on.

Not that any of them would be able to see her, if she was doing her job right.

“Left,” Kady’s voice hissed in her ear, and Alice twitched a hand, keeping the invisibility carefully up to conceal Eliot, two paces ahead, and Kady, immediately behind. They turned a corner down yet another identical hallway, and Alice’s stomach swooped, like it did every time she discovered more impossible space stretched out in front of her. This place wasn’t just expanded to be bigger on the inside, it was positively labyrinthine. The realization had been a gut-twisting shock to the system. When they’d first walked in and seen a dingy living room and kitchenette, with a single hallway stretching back towards bedrooms, Alice had felt momentarily like maybe everything was going to be okay. Then, of course, the five of them had crept into the hallway, and opened the first door on their right, only to find another hallway, also lined with doors, and then…

Well, there were spells for this, to map things out and keep oneself oriented. Julia had spun one up immediately, that would guide her back to the living room and the door out, and Kady had mirrored her, and then the two groups had split off, the plan unchanged despite this latest complication.

“Fuck me,” Kady whispered upon seeing another stretch of yellow-white windowless hall. This was the sixth one, by Alice’s count. The struggle, it seemed, wasn’t going to be fighting their way through an army of hedge goons. The struggle was going to be finding any of them.

“We’re getting closer,” Eliot said, mostly to himself.

Alice had no idea how he could tell, but she believed him. He reeked of hope, but it wasn’t unfounded. Somehow, she too could almost feel Quentin at the edges of her mind. Like the meditation, like the thing the Niffin had discovered and tried to destroy. A vibrating frequency that eluded her if she tried to focus on it. So she didn’t. She figured trusting Eliot’s instincts was a good move, and anyway, her job was to be the invisibility cloak and not fuck anything up.

And then, abruptly, a door swung open halfway down the hall. Three hedges spilled out: two that Alice recognized from the warehouse as unnamed muscle, and walking between them, head held high... Marina.

Kady let out a snort, all the air expelling itself from her body, and Alice didn’t need to see her face to know she was glaring daggers, ready to charge forth and end the bitch’s life on sight. Alice couldn’t hold a hand out to ward her off, focused as she was on the shell of invisibility; she was holding on not only to the Phosphoromancy charm, but to countless flickering circumstance changes as they moved deeper into the building.

But Kady reigned herself in, and by instinct, all three of them encased in Alice’s bubble moved slower, crept closer together, falling naturally to one side of the hallway as Marina and the two men approached down the other.

“It was coming from the East hall,” Marina said, her heels soundless against the carpet, but still clacking metaphorically in her fury and authority. “Two of them, at least, maybe more.”

“Should we tell Amara to—” one of the men started to ask, but Marina threw a hand up and waved him off, the movement so violent that the much taller and bulkier man flinched.

“She does what she wants,” Marina snapped. “You know that.”

“What do you want us to do, boss?” the other man asked, and Alice pulled in her stomach, swallowed her breathing, as the two groups of three passed each other in the hall, close enough that Alice could have spun an arm out, away from the intricacies of her casting, and brushed her fingertips against Marina’s face.

“I want you to find them, and knock them the fuck out,” Marina said. “I’d say kill them, and if that’s what you have to do, fine, but move quick, they don’t stay down for long.”

Tension vibrated from every inch of Kady behind her, and Eliot in front. Marina was talking about Julia and Margo, somewhere else, far away and unreachable in the vastness of this maze. But this was the goal: get Marina and other dangerous threats away from wherever they were keeping Quentin; get Quentin out.

The two hedges with Marina nodded their heads at their leader and took the corner, heading through a door with the kind of purpose that told Alice that they, at least, had some familiarity with the layout of this place.

Marina made to follow them, as Eliot straightened out of an instinctive half-crouch, his strides lengthening as Alice and Kady sped up to follow, glancing over their shoulders at Marina as they widened the distance.

Eliot was getting taller, it seemed, as they moved, his confidence and urgency increasing as they approached Quentin.

And they almost made it without bloodshed, too.

“I can’t see you,” Marina’s voice called from the corner, her hand placed casually against the wall as she leaned her hip against it. “But I know you’re there.”

Eliot froze. Kady froze. Alice froze, except her hands, still moving through the cast formation. She met the eyes of the other two, a silent question in them. What do I do? Drop it? Run?

Kady, Marina, and Eliot all had a part in deciding for her. It happened in staccato, in a one-two-three that moved far too quickly for Alice to understand. A decade from now, a hundred years, a thousand, maybe she’d have reflexes like Eliot and Kady, but for now, she was a ragdoll, hands and arms swaying in the continued phosphoromantic spell, desperate to do her part, the one thing she could add, the one thing she brought to the table, to keep them all safe…

But.

One: Marina’s hand twisted in a familiar tut, and an honest-to-god assault rifle popped out of a storage dimension, comically large tucked in close to her tiny frame. She looked like she knew what she was doing with it, prepared to fire off a spray of bullets down the hallway. Their invisibility would mean nothing in the face of it.

Two: Kady burst away from Alice and Eliot, running full-tilt towards Marina and out of Alice’s range before Alice could get her throat to unclench, to shout a warning or a plea. Kady’s hands shot straight out from her body just as Marina pulled the trigger, mounting the gun against her hip. Kady’s shield popped up just in time, the loud echoes of gunfire ringing through the air and bursting harmlessly against the forcefield. Kady didn’t slow, got in close, her hands twisting around until she too was carrying a gun that hadn’t been there moments before, up and swinging in Marina’s face. Marina’s lips pursed, eyes narrowing in focus as Kady came closer—

Three: Eliot grabbed Alice, disrupting her focus on the spell, and yanking her roughly away from Kady and Marina.

“But—”

“Kady wanted her, let her have it,” Eliot said, brusque, like the thought of Kady’s recapture meant nothing at all to him. For all they knew, more hedges were waiting behind the nearest closed door, and Kady would be swamped, overwhelmed, taken down in no time.

“Eliot—”

“It’s okay. She’s doing her penance and getting revenge all in one fell swoop. Not a bad day for her,” Eliot said, and for the first time all day, for the first time since a million metaphorical years ago, when Eliot had told Alice about his rings, there was something sardonic, almost relaxed, in his tone of voice.

Alice objected strenuously to the phrase doing her penance, but she kept quiet and kept moving, not that Eliot left her much choice. By the time they’d turned two more corners into predictably identical hallways, the sound of gunfire and grunts and gasps had faded. Eliot and Alice might have been the only two people in this endless space.

They weren’t.

But they might have been.

“How close is close?” Alice asked, already running the math in her head. Her invisibility had fizzled at Kady’s breakaway, but she had it back up now, and if another hedge popped out of a doorway, one with less magical acuity than Marina, they might be able to get away with the same stealth objective twice. “To Q, I mean. How close is—”

“This place,” Eliot said, strain in his voice, his body held taut in anticipation as he moved almost too quickly for Alice to follow, “is fucking with me. There’s too much goddamn magic in the air.”

Try sustaining light magic while fearing for your life, asshole.

“Right, but you know where you’re going, don’t you?”

“Margo would slap me upside the head for saying we this, but trust me, Alice, I could find him anywhere.”

It shouldn’t have mattered, it shouldn’t have made Alice want to fall to the ground and start weeping, but those words kind of broke her heart in their… what, naivete? If love was strong enough to bring people together, like, literally find people against impossible odds, she would have found Charlie at age seventeen. She would have been able to say something or do something and she would have been able to fix it.

Love didn’t give you a strategic advantage. If anything, quite the opposite.

Eliot led her through a door, into another hallway, and then took an immediate left into the first new door. Something was different this time: the same drab carpeting, low lighting, yellowing walls, the perfect atmosphere for some creepy little girls to appear at the opposite end. But the magic in the air had changed, something charging up and coalescing at the opposite end, a door to the right that pulsated with visible protective charms. If there was something Marina was trying to protect, she’d be keeping it in there.

“Q,” Eliot said, breathless, and his pace increased, so Alice was forced to extend into a full-on run to keep up with him, her hands twitching as she curved the bubble of invisibility around them. She wondered if she should even bother anymore. Eliot certainly wasn’t keeping his breathing or his footfalls quiet: this was a race to the finish-line now, all they needed to do was burst through that door, grab Quentin and get the fuck out, and—

Oh shit.

The door opened, and someone came out. It decidedly wasn’t Quentin.

Eliot made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded more like anger than fear, but Alice was terrified, locked down, her hands frozen in front of her.

The Niffin. Amara, as one of the hedges had said. She’d just been inside the room. With Quentin.

A final line of defense? Or had she been experimenting? Alice hadn’t felt a renewal of that psychic pulling, the fear and pain and nausea of it, but it was as Eliot had pointed out hours ago: there were plenty of other ways they could be hurting Quentin.

Alice’s invisibility vibrated and shuddered and failed, a nearly inaudible popping noise baring Eliot and Alice to the world.

The Niffin looked up, saw them, smiled.

There wasn’t time to panic. Alice knew what would happen now: Eliot would fight Amara, he would lose, the Niffin would kill Alice too. They’d be back where they started that morning, strapped down and at the mercy of bad actors. Equally clear to Alice was that Eliot knew this, and didn’t give a shit. He’d take strapped down to a torture device with Quentin next to him, over escaping and leaving Quentin behind, any day of the week.

The last time she’d been in this position, Alice had been helpless and weeping and drowning in grief and love. Fogg had had to do it for her, and all she could do was stare at a face that was no longer her brother’s, as it vanished forever into a box too small to contain the enormity of loss it represented. She’d planned for it, and she hadn’t been able to do it.

So, planning was out. Instead, Alice abandoned herself. Her sense of meticulous organization, the practice and the drilling and the quick-thinking lightning of her mind, her most prized asset; all of it was useless to her here. She had no hope of keeping up if she did things the rational way.

“Push her in,” Alice said to Eliot through gritted teeth, and then, not waiting for a response, she charged past him and straight for the inhuman woman standing at the end of the hall.

The Niffin appeared momentarily startled at Alice’s charge, her focus having been on Eliot as the larger threat, but she adjusted without fanfare, pointing her hand towards Alice instead. Alice didn’t bother with a shield; there was no time. Instead she spun out the portal spell she’d had waiting in reserves to use for their escape.

Muttered words in a slurry of ancient languages. Precise, jerky twists of her fingers, meeting syrupy resistance in the very air as the protective wards in the apartment attempted to prevent her; she flicked away obstacles faster than they could come.

And then at the last second, the last twist of a wrist and pop of an elbow, she un-anchored the other side of the portal. Instead of sending this monster to the alleyway where she’d set up the door, Alice opened a shimmering patch of air to somewhere completely unknown.

The Niffin, having expected a shield, hesitated for one valuable second when her spell met no resistance, slamming with a slicing, angry pain into Alice’s shoulder. Alice screamed out loud as the magic missile ripped a bloody gash into her, and she kept screaming—hell, stealth hardly mattered now—but somehow, against all odds, she kept the portal open.

Eliot had a gun in his hand now, a single shot fired caught Amara in the temple, but she merely jerked her neck around and snorted at him in fury, a smoking hole marring her strangely flawless face.

“Nice try, kiddo,” she snarled, and her hand was up, another spell coalescing along her spindly fingers, and Alice was weeping, the portal was open, the pain was so bad, god, and then—

And then Eliot pushed the Niffin with a burst of telekinetic force, as Alice collapsed messily into the wall, staring wide-eyed at the scene.

Amara tripped over a catch in the old carpet, and her expression filled abruptly with human fury and fear. With a herculean effort, Alice cast a final alteration one-handed, her other arm hanging useless and blood-drenched by her side, and the shimmering patch of portal air surged forward a few valuable feet as Eliot’s magic pushed Amara in, and…

Amara exited this place and entered another, and time slowed to a near stop, as if Alice’s magic had broken the rules of time as well as space.

Through the portal, she saw a dirt courtyard, wooden stalls lining the edge, a few people wandering lazily between. They were dressed in drab colors and long skirts, a weariness to the set of their shoulders. Above, an unfamiliar castle sitting on a hill, the shimmering heat haze making parts of the building appear to move, in the brief seconds Alice could see it at her skewed angle. At the edge of her vision, near one of the stalls, two people dressed in garish finery were standing in profile. A tall dark man in rich purple, and a shorter woman in willowy whites. The man threw a hand up in exasperation, turning his face so Alice could see it full-on for one brief instant… and then the Niffin turned towards the portal opening, eyes and mouth widened in the start of a scream, and…

And the portal fizzed shut, leaving the Niffin Amara on the other side of it with the strangers, with the strange place. Something bigger than a lump caught in Alice’s throat, some sense of wrongness, of dread, like she’d just made a terrible mistake, discovered something important but knew she’d forget it.

The hallway seemed especially dark without the light from the portal, and Alice blinked, tears cascading down her cheeks, as she allowed herself to collapse fully to the floor, breath heaving in gasps. Her shoulder was throbbing in time to the galloping of her heart; she could feel the tackiness of blood sinking into her skin but didn’t think she could bear looking at the injury the Niffin had inflicted. If Alice had been a moment slower, the Niffin’s aim more exacting, it might have killed her outright before she managed to finish opening the portal, and then she’d be—

“Alice,” Eliot said, voice ravaged like he’d been screaming. “Where did you send her?”

A Renaissance Faire. Alice didn’t say that. It wasn’t right, although something about the scene had reminded her of being fifteen, going with Charlie and his friends and a few other younger hangers-on. The sounds of swords clanging and laughter ringing, the scent of fried foods mixing with sweat in the air, trying on corsets and pretending she didn’t care that she had the best silhouette out of everyone there, a rare moment of vanity and pride in her body.

“I don’t know,” she said, numb, and through the numbness, the pain began to fade. The long-sleeved shirt she’d donned for this mission was so soaked through it was dripping silently onto the carpet below her. She could smell the tanginess of her own blood in the air, even as her body magically replenished it, repaired split skin and made her whole once more.

It took an uncomfortable, hazy moment for Alice to realize that Eliot was standing in front of her, his arm outstretched to help her up, then another moment to realize that Eliot was positively shaking with impatience, waiting for her to move. Frankly, it was a miracle he hadn’t left her collapsed and crying in the hallway in his haste.

She grabbed his hand, warm and smooth, and the second she was steady on her feet, they were off, heading for the door at the end of the hall, the one from which the Niffin had emerged. Alice bit her tongue hard and tasted copper, grounding herself to the present. With remarkably steady hands, she cast a spell to siphon the blood away from her clothing and skin, leaving herself unblemished once more. From now on, her scars would have to stay on the inside. She was kind of used to that.

Eliot seemed sure they would reach their destination upon the opening of that door, but Alice, keeping close to his side, braced herself for disappointment, for more sameness, another hallway, another trick. She braced herself, too, for Eliot’s disappointment, for the way he might act if he failed to find what he sought most desperately.

But it was okay, in the end. It was okay, because when the door swung open, Eliot nudging aside a locking charm with hardly a flick of his fingers, they found Quentin Coldwater inside.

***

For an endless moment, probably no more than five seconds in reality, Alice and Eliot both froze at the threshold. There was a lot to take in: it was an actual room, four walls and a ceiling, square-shaped, not the endless maze of apartment hallways they’d been sloughing through since they arrived.

It was souped up like a standard hospital room, with white walls and bright lighting, a single bed set near the far wall with an IV stand and various medical trays scattered nearby. In some instinct to avoid seeing the main attraction for a few seconds longer, Alice scanned the perimeter of the space, to determine nobody was hiding in the corners. The room was empty except for the bed’s occupant, although there was one door on the far side, leading perhaps to further hallways, to the endlessness of planar compression magic so truly bizarre and impressive that under ordinary circumstances Alice would have wanted to set up shop and study it further.

These weren’t ordinary circumstances, and when Eliot, still standing by her side, made a noise in the back of his throat like a wounded animal’s final death throes, she knew she couldn’t avoid the obvious forever.

Quentin was on the bed.

He was on the hospital bed, he was strapped, he was—

“Oh god,” Alice said, and she clapped a hand over her mouth, not sure if she was holding in a scream or vomit or flat-out hysteria, because Quentin wasn’t just on the bed, strapped to the bed, he was skewered to the bed. Straight through his chest, a sturdy metal pole two or three inches in diameter extended a foot up from his chest and straight down through his heart. He was shirtless, his skin clean of blood, life entirely absent from his grey, slack skin and sweat-drenched hair.

Alice’s brain wanted to jerk to a halt, wanted to stop thinking thoughts, but instead it started going haywire. Was that thing running through Quentin keeping him dead, or was it possible for him to wake up, and… oh god. “Oh god.”

Eliot had moved, his long strides practically teleporting him to Quentin’s side. His hands came up to grip Quentin’s face as Eliot’s mouth dropped open in disbelieving agony. “Q?”

Quentin couldn’t answer, because he was dead. Alice was grateful for that. She swallowed convulsively, tasting sour acid in her throat, and closed her eyes. It was bad enough to hear the raggedness of Eliot’s breathing in the otherwise silent room; she didn’t know if she could stand to study the anguish on his face, too.

“Help me,” Eliot’s voice sounded, harsh in the silence. When Alice dared to look, she saw that one of Eliot’s hands was braced behind Quentin’s neck and the other was on the metal pole, his knuckles white against the sterile silver. “I think it’s…” he choked off, a clicking sound in his throat holding back a tidal wave of grief and pain they simply did not have time for, “I think it’s attached to the bed underneath him, can you—”

Alice ducked underneath the cot, and found a large bolt on the underside of the plastic frame holding the thin mattress. For a hysterical second, she almost despaired—she’d need a wrench to unscrew it—and then she caught up with herself, shaking her head in irritation and trying to remember the right series of Poppers. Such a simple household charm, the reason most Magicians didn’t bother with a toolkit… if she could only focus

Quentin wasn’t hooked up to monitors, the IV stand next to his bed contained an empty bag, and his arms were slack at his sides, no wires or tubes attached. If Alice could just find a way to do this, then the metal pole could be slipped out of Quentin’s flesh, and then he’d heal. He’d heal, because he had to heal, because Alice couldn’t be alone in a room with Eliot Waugh and a dead Quentin Coldwater. She just couldn’t, it was too terrible.

She thought back to childhood, remembering the twist of a pointer-finger, guiding screws into the wall when she’d hung up pictures in her bedroom, and then her mother yelling at her for poking too many holes in the plaster...

Quentin came back to life.

Suddenly, no warning, no sense of impending dread, just… Quentin came back to life. But he couldn’t. He shouldn’t. He was still impaled, he’d just immediately re-injure himself, his heart would give out, which meant… which meant…

Fucking fuck. They had no time. Quentin had no time. If Kady hadn’t been able to get a handle on Marina, or if the Niffin had a quick way back from wherever Alice had banished her, if Derek or Dan or Nameless Hedge Goon #17 burst through the door…

Focus, Alice.

A gurgle, a pained sound... Eliot’s voice, “oh, shit, fuck, Q—just—hold on, okay? I’ve got you… I’ve—fuck, nonono just, just, hold on—”

Alice tried to tune it out. Squelching noises, as Quentin stirred, struggled, tried to lift himself off of the pole, Eliot’s continued litany of cursing and false comfort. She couldn’t see it, and for that she was grateful. Once she’d focused up and remembered the right sequence, unscrewing the bottom of the pole was fairly easy. There was a clatter against the linoleum floor as the bolt fell, and from above she heard Quentin trying to gurgle out words as his heart was re-pulverized by the metal still sticking through it. How long had he been left in here like this? How many times

But it didn’t bear thinking about. So she wouldn’t.

“Eliot, you can—” she swallowed, tried to get her voice to stop shaking. She needed to speak louder, over the sound of Eliot saying Q, Q, Q over and over again, over the sound of Quentin gasping out dying breaths. “Eliot, it’s done, should I pull it out from—”

“No,” Eliot said, sharp. “No, I—Q, okay, I’m just gonna lift, I’m—fuck, fuck, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, baby, I’m just—”

The baby surprised Alice, such a modern term of endearment, so desperately young and human, but it was quite possible that Quentin hadn’t heard it in any case. The sound of his struggling breathing was growing fainter, the rustling of his body against the sheet coming to a stop.

Aware of what was about to happen, Alice stayed for an extra ten seconds curled into a ball under the bed, and covered her ears. It was going to make a sound, when Eliot pulled the skewer free of Quentin’s ravaged body, and she for one did not want to hear it.

When she finally got up the courage to turn around, she saw Eliot on the floor, cradling Quentin’s body close to his own.

“Is he…” she said, and then wished she hadn’t, because how was she supposed to finish that sentence? Quentin was dead again, of course. How could he not be? But was he okay? For people like them, that was a different question.

Earlier that day (god, that same day), Alice had watched Eliot react to Quentin’s death many times over. The six of them, all in a row and trussed up like pigs, plunging into that cold darkness and emerging from it, their reactions catalogued in the name of science and greed. It hadn’t been pleasant, none of it had been, but at least there had been solidarity in their hatred, a place to focus their rage.

This was worse.

There was nothing they could do, nobody to scream at, no strategy to discuss in whispers. All Eliot could do was hold Quentin’s corpse in his arms and wait. And wait. To look at Quentin was to look at the horrible, ragged hole in his chest, the slackness of his jaw, the utter stillness of a throat without pulse. But to look at Eliot was hardly any better: his skin was pinched along his face, somehow skeletal, his eyes bright, tears trembling on the edges of his lashes. Every inch of his body was held in tense, stone-still anticipation, his arms steel where they wrapped around stillness. But his hands… his hands, on Quentin’s skin, were gentle, fingers curved with reverence around Quentin’s waist, his shoulder.

Eliot’s breathing was steady, even, deep, each breath pushing against the still body in his arms, like he meant to force life into Quentin this way, meant to explain to some higher power that if he was breathing, that meant Quentin had to be, too.

It was deadly quiet in the room. By the time Alice thought about counting the seconds, some time had already gone by, but in her disjointed state she couldn’t tell if it had been one minute or ten. She kept looking-not-looking at Quentin’s stillness, at Eliot’s anticipation, and for some reason, she kept thinking about the portal she’d created back in the hallway.

She’d never done it before, not like that, not on the fly. In lab conditions at Brakebills, her refracted light portals were simply a shortcut between a determined point A and a known point B. This time, she’d opened a portal into the utter unknown.

And yet it hadn’t felt random, either, had it? Her magic had known what to do, known when to keep running and when to lurch to a halt. She didn’t know where she’d sent that Niffin, but she had the strangest feeling that someday she might find out.

The thought came accompanied by dread, but it was an easier dread to manage, contrasted to her other options. Everything in this moment hinged on a corpse returning to life, and as much as Alice had accepted the possibility of this as a part of her new reality, she didn’t know how to believe in it yet. Years of disappointed hopes, and all that.

And then, jarring her out of contemplation quite thoroughly, something else happened. Not Quentin’s highly anticipated resurrection, but instead the entrance of a new obstacle.

Dan walked in through the back door.

His eyes caught first on Alice, standing beside the bed, then on the empty mattress, stained with blood, and then down to the floor where Eliot was staring, unblinking, at Quentin’s motionless face.

Alice grabbed for the dagger, unthinking. She wasn’t sure if she’d have better odds with it than with the magic missile spell Kady had shown her on the ride over, as a last-ditch effort to catch her up to speed, but either way, it did feel better to be armed.

Dan let out a muffled curse, eyes wide with surprise, and Alice lowered herself to a crouch, feeling ridiculous. She opened her mouth to say something, to warn him back, maybe, or to start casting the portal that would get them the fuck out of here and away from danger.

But then Eliot moved, a hand snapping into the air, fingers twisting with malintent instead of gentleness in the blink of an eye. It was so quick, and so small, really, in the grand scheme of things that at first Alice didn’t understand what had happened.

And then a choked off gasp, and a wet crunch, and when Alice jerked to look back at Dan, his head was twisted unnaturally to the side, eyes bloodshot and lips wet and gasping. He fell to the ground with a scattered thump of twisted limbs, dead. Alice began waiting, automatically, for him to wake up again, and then the truth sunk in, and she took a stumbling step further away from the corpse. Dan’s corpse, a real corpse, an un-walk-back-able corpse, like the ones at the penthouse.

She didn’t say anything, and Eliot didn’t either.

Was she glad Dan was dead?

Yes.

Had she been prepared to kill him herself?

Also yes.

Dan had shot her in the head. He’d smothered her with a pillow, he’d made her drink poison, he’d killed her in every way a Shakespearean heroine could dream of dying. But he’d known it wouldn’t stick. Did that matter? Maybe it took a while, despite everything, to witness the end of a life, without feeling it deep in blood and bone. Eliot certainly wasn’t batting an eye at what he’d just done. I don’t care if I have to kill every person in there, to get him out, he’d said. And Alice had believed him.

Fuck Dan. She might be slow to make decisions on occasion, but she certainly knew where she stood by now.

Eliot had gone back to keeping his vigil, his stillness broken now into a fine tremble as he held Quentin to him, muffled sounds pushing up from his throat. It had been a while, then. Too long? How was she to know? Eliot had been on edge all day, kept away from Quentin and desperate for his return. Was his fear attributable to the stress of the day, or had Quentin been still for an unusually long time? Was it possible they lived in a universe cruel enough to wake Quentin up one final time still impaled through the heart, and then let him die for good right when he was back in Eliot’s arms?

From the look on Eliot’s face, he was wondering the same thing. Alice flinched from the desolation rolling off him in waves as he hitched Quentin’s body firmer into his arms, his face running with snot and tears, red and puffy and unattractive for the first time since Alice had known him. She hated this, and couldn’t look away. Couldn’t unclench her jaw, lift her foot from the floor, approach or retreat. She should be getting the portal ready for an exit. They should be dragging Quentin’s corpse through it, even now. Eliot could wait for absolution out on the sidewalk just as easy as he could in here.

And then, as Alice tried to convince herself to take the reins and make a decision, Quentin woke up.

He came to with a quiet moan, his head lolling against Eliot’s arm. Eliot’s minute trembling broke like a wave, his body in sudden motion as he pulled Quentin up further, into an embrace, burying his face against Quentin’s neck. He muttered something that sounded like a prayer, the words pressed against Quentin’s skin, choked and raw and unfettered.

Alice found herself crying suddenly, surprised at the strength of her relief. Not just on Quentin’s behalf, or Eliot’s, but her own. She’d get the chance to become their friends now, for real. To be their family. Losing that would have crushed her.

Swallowing, Alice walked towards the door they’d come through, and poked her head into the hall. Empty. For now. They didn’t have time to do the reunion thing here, did they? The next step was supposed to be Alice’s part of the show. But she couldn’t honestly bear approaching Quentin and Eliot right now, couldn’t bear to suggest they separate, stand up, move. Quentin’s resurrection-fueled disorientation had only lasted him a minute; when Alice looked back at them from the doorway, she found that he was hugging Eliot back just as fiercely, and out of both of their mouths came a stream of words, fast and slurred and mixed between languages so quickly that Alice wondered if they were even understanding each other. She caught terms of endearment she recognized, muttered phrases she didn’t, on and on, like they were trying to fill the moment with all the words they hadn’t been able to say to each other in the mere hours they’d been apart.

They were holding each other like it had been years, and Alice ached, straight through to the core of herself. She’d never been held that way, and she’d thought it proof of her own strength, her stalwart independence. Quentin and Eliot weren’t independent; they were inconceivably dependent on each other for everything that made them themselves, and yet that only made them stronger.

The murmuring, as little as Alice could understand of it, took on a steady cadence. Eliot’s voice was unhinged and high and terrified, and Quentin’s was supernaturally calm, reassuring, soothing. Anyone who hadn’t seen what Alice had might have thought Eliot had just been rescued, and Quentin had just done the rescuing. Maybe it was all the same.

And then Eliot’s voice, louder and clearer, his chin pressed hard into the top of Quentin’s head now, cradling him, slipped back to English: “Thank you. Thank you. God, thank you.”

“El,” Quentin said, like a parent comforting a child. “We’re okay, it’s okay.”

But Eliot just kept on saying it, thank you, thank you, reverent, as he held Quentin close to him, and then, like he’d managed to fix the record-skip, the sentence completed itself: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Alice.”

She herself had nearly forgotten she was in the room; it was a shock to her system to realize Eliot had remembered. She felt the prick of tears, embarrassed and gratified, and swallowed. “Of course,” she managed. “Um. We need to move, I think.”

“The others?” Quentin said, his hands clutched hard in Eliot’s shirtfront, eyes going wide.

“We’re meeting them,” Eliot said swiftly, and Quentin shot him a look. “We’re meeting them, Q, I swear it’s okay.”

“I—”

“Alice, you can still get us out of here, right?”

“Our blood,” Quentin said, and he extricated himself from Eliot’s grip and stood on wobbly legs, Eliot right behind him, steadying him as he gained his own footing. Quentin was shirtless, and his skin where the hole had been was stained red with his blood, despite the unblemished flesh beneath. “These people. We’ve got to clear them out, El, or—”

“Yeah, I know. Bambi’s on it, we need to get you out of here, darling.”

“I’m fine.”

“Quentin,” Alice said, incredulous.

“Physically, I’m fine,” he said. “That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it?”

“Arguing about this is a waste of time,” Eliot said. “We’re leaving. Right, Alice?”

She stood straighter, calling on her dubious professor-persona, conjuring authority around her like a shield. “I sort of already used my side of the portal anchor to get rid of the Niffin. It’ll take me a minute to spin up a new one.”

Eliot nodded, and he didn’t look annoyed or impatient or bored by her very presence; he looked the way he did when Julia suggested a plan or Margo gave an order. Alice, her stomach quivering with nerves, went on, taking the metaphorical baton and tightening her grip. “But I can do that on the move, and I’d like to go back for Kady.”

Eliot’s gaze sharpened, anger bubbling up beneath his skin. He had Quentin in his arms, was gripping him with the possessive intensity of a child, but he would not be quick to forget that it was Kady’s mistake decades ago that had made this rescue mission a necessity. Alice wavered, unsure if this was where she should stand her ground. The instinct to help Kady was a powerful one, but what could she do, realistically, that Kady couldn’t handle a hundred times better? Either Marina was dead by now or… or she wasn’t, and Kady was being tied up again as they stood around debating the merits of going back for one of their own.

Margo would want to go back for Kady. Julia too. The undeniable truth of this straightened Alice’s spine automatically, and she lifted her chin to meet Eliot’s glare.

“Okay,” Quentin said, with an unquestionable authority of his own. “We’d better get a move on, then.”

Eliot bit his lip, then closed his eyes and dropped his head in defeat. One of his hands curled around Quentin’s neck and he pulled him into a firm, short kiss, like he needed a recharge, and then he looked to Alice with a lift of an eyebrow and a nod of the head.

“Lead the way, Miss Quinn.”

Chapter Text

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar



As Alice, leading Quentin and Eliot, retraced her steps to where they’d left Kady and Marina, she tasted the promise of her future again. They were still in danger; it wasn’t the time to relax or to celebrate, but she couldn’t help it. Something was blooming inside of her, the aftermath of this success, of Quentin’s return, the long stretch of eternity and the possibility it implied. For the first time since yesterday and a million years ago, when she’d been seconds away from asking Kady Adiyodi to come upstairs and watch a movie, she found herself eager for what came next.

But first she had to stick the landing.

“This way,” she said over her shoulder, ducking through another door. She knew how to go back the way that she’d come; it was the simplest thing in the world to find traces of her own magical signature permeating the air, and slip through the cracks she’d left in the bended light of the dim hallway. Unfortunately, that meant that other parties could likely follow the tracks just as well.

“I was unconscious when they brought me in,” Quentin whispered, close behind Alice. “I don’t remember anything but the inside of that room.”

“Who did it?” Eliot asked. “Was it Dan? Not that it matters, but I let the motherfucker die quick, and—”

Not that it matters,” Quentin said, as they turned another corner, “but it was a team effort. Dan paralyzed me, Derek did the actual…” he made a weird wet sound in the back of his throat, and Alice glanced over her shoulder to see Quentin doing a cartoonish pantomime of his own death via impalement. She couldn’t tell if he was going for a laugh or not, but she snorted, involuntary.

Eliot didn’t. “Haven’t seen Derek since we got here,” he said, musing.

“And we’re not going on a scavenger hunt so you can find more people to sate your need for vengeance.”

Alice probably should have told them to keep their voices down. Her invisibility did them very little good if they carried on an above-whisper conversation in the middle of enemy territory. But they seemed to need the sound of each other’s voices.

“I was trying to offer you your vengeance,” Eliot said, as they crept closer to the corner. Once they turned it, they’d be back where they left Kady and Marina in the middle of a gunfight. And they’d find… well, what would be worse? Blood and a body? Nothing at all?

“Oh, how very considerate of you,” Quentin said. “I suppose if we do run into the guy, you’ll let me get a shot at him before you tear a hole through his chest?”

“That was one time, Q. I thought we’d agreed on a statute of limitations for—”

“I’m just saying, if you’re offering me the kill, then you have to actually let me—”

“Guys,” Alice said, holding a hand out behind her. “This is it.”

In silent agreement, anticipation pooling between them, they turned the corner.

Kady was there.

Slumped to the ground and breathing in heaving gasps, clutching at her side. She was covered in blood, but a quick glance around told Alice that very little of it was her own.

There were four other bodies on the floor: three hedges who Alice recognized from the warehouse, all dispatched efficiently with either bullet or magic missile, cleanly dead and crumpled on the carpet. The fourth body was Marina’s, eyes open, torso riddled with holes, mouth gaping in a silent roar.

Alice dropped the invisibility and ran forward. “Kady,” she said, her eyes still on Marina’s face. It was getting easier, not to care about the killing. Marina’s eyeliner was somehow still perfect, blood splatters artfully curling around one side of her cheek like she’d dolled herself up for a haunted house. Alice might fixate on the sight later, would probably have nightmares about it. But like with Dan, she couldn’t say she was sorry Marina was dead.

Kady’s head jerked around and then she was on her feet. “Q! I knew it,” she said, or Alice thought she said. There was no sound coming from her end of the hallway, and Alice sensed a deadened atmosphere to the air as she moved closer.

Kady’s face wrinkled in irritation, and she waved her hand around her in a wide arc. “Silencing charm,” she said, and Alice heard her this time. “After the first few turned up, I wanted to avoid drawing more attention.”

Then she smiled, beautiful even covered in blood, and ran forward, straight past Alice, and towards Quentin. “Thank you for being okay, fuck, Q, I’m so sorry.”

Alice tore her gaze away from Marina and to the scene behind her. Eliot had refused to let go of Quentin when Kady went in for the hug, but Quentin was embracing her with his free arm, smiling into her hair. He was still shirtless, and stains from Kady’s clothes and skin smeared him with fresh blood. Neither seemed to notice. “Please. You know it wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t know that at all,” Kady said immediately, squeezing tight enough that Quentin made an oofing noise as Kady smacked a kiss on his cheek. “Seriously, Q, are you good?”

“We can talk about it later,” Eliot cut in, not exactly responding to Kady, but making his opinion of this little reunion painfully clear. “Rescue mission complete, let’s get moving.”

Kady released Quentin and then approached Alice, pausing with a frown and looking down at her shirtfront. She did the quick series of tuts that Alice had used now more than once to wipe up her own gore, and the blood misted away. She pulled Alice into a hug and Alice returned it, afraid for one instant that the feel of soft-warm-alive-smiling Kady pressed against her was going to unhinge something inside of her. She was going to start crying soon, released from the tension and terror of the longest day of her life, and when that happened it was going to last a while.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Alice said, hugging Kady back, keeping a tight grip on the messy spill of relief threatening to escape.

“I’m glad you’re okay too,” Kady said, shaking her head. “You’re amazing, Alice.”

“Should we get out of here?” Alice asked, turning away from the shine in Kady’s eyes. There would be time to deal with the way that made her feel later.

But there was one final bloodbath between them and safety. Even as Alice brought her hands up to open their escape hatch, a doorway to their right burst open and reinforcements arrived, comically late, to the scene.

The portal would take Alice only seconds to open, and so even as the other three lurched into a flurry of movement, she ignored it. She crouched down to present a smaller target, and focused on her casting. It wasn’t like Traveling, because it wasn’t her body that could move through space. It was just light, the way it moved through the air, the way human eyes processed it through reflection, designed specifically to interpret it. She’d found a way to manipulate the speed of light, to rip it open and travel through it, and as theoretically awesome as she’d always known it to be, it was only now, after having used her mastery of the skill to save herself and Eliot from danger, and here again, using it to get them all to safety, that she began to feel just a little bit like a bad-ass.

And then the portal was open, as yells and thumps and spells sounded overhead and all around her. The real challenge, she realized, was going to be getting herself and her three allies through said portal, without letting their enemies follow. She was afraid that if she called out, she would distract one of them at the wrong moment and a hedge would get off a lucky shot. Escape would be a hell of a lot more challenging if they had to drag Eliot’s six-foot-two corpse through the portal.

She glanced up from the patch of air she’d just spun out of nothing, in time to see a large figure round the corner. Derek, she realized with a jolt: standing a head taller than his compatriots, legs planted firm, eyes sweeping the scene. He raised an arm and slashed it forward towards Eliot, whose shield came a fraction of a second too late to avoid a magic missile to the thigh. It was a glancing hit, the well of blood gruesome but the cut beneath it shallow.

Quentin let out a hissing breath all the same, and his eyes jerked from the superficial wound on Eliot, over to its perpetrator. Alice could see it in every line of his body: something in him had snapped, and before Eliot had finished biting back a groan of pain, Quentin was charging.

Quentin. Unarmed, shirtless, a man who had been a body less than ten minutes ago.

Alice started to pull out of her crouch to—what—help? Once again she found herself wondering what the hell she was supposed to do in a situation like this. Quentin was face-to-sternum with Derek now, and even as another body fell to the floor nearer to her, dispatched by Kady, even as Eliot whirled and ducked low and shot high to remove extra threats from this cramped battlefield, she realized she needn’t have worried about Quentin’s chances.

He was fluidity and speed and grace and precision, his hands flying through the air with the practice of centuries and the enhancement of perfectly calibrated spellwork. Despite Derek’s advantage in size and strength, Quentin was in no real danger, because he gave Derek no opportunity to hit him whatsoever. He was mesmerizing, fully unleashed and clearly intent on getting that revenge he’d pretended not to need, his body sinuous as he spun around Derek in circles, moving him exactly where he wanted him; he moved so fast that Derek looked like he’d been rendered in slow-motion, and by the time Kady and Eliot had finished off the other attackers, Quentin had landed a blow to Derek’s stomach that sent him keeling over, then used his upset balance to knock him onto his back. Wordless, he held out a hand behind him, and Kady placed her gun into it as Quentin’s arm arced around in one fluid motion.

And then, one shot, between the eyes. A mercy kill that probably hurt a hell of a lot less than a skewer through the heart.

Alice felt proud, somehow, like the kill had been her own, like some part of it belonged to her. She was like a fan cheering in the stands as she looked at Quentin, gun still extended and looking at Derek like an action hero on a movie poster: that’s my friend, she thought. And he’s incredible.

There was a ringing silence in the hall as the gunfire faded, and then a new sound intruded on Alice’s ears, a discordant shouting from far away. It took her a minute, and then she realized the sound was coming through the portal. Contrasted to the heaving breaths of Eliot, Kady, and Quentin as they came down from the fight, was an increasingly loud argument, shouted in… Italian? Alice was pretty sure? Individual words were hard to pick out, but the cadence seemed…

“Jules.” Quentin’s voice, strained like he’d been screaming.

And it was, Alice realized. It was Julia and Margo, in a screaming match with each other right outside the portal. When Alice looked up and caught Kady’s eye, she was smiling. “They’re debating whether or not to come back for us,” she said, clueing Alice in as the conversation became clearer the longer they listened.

“Debating,” Alice echoed. “Interesting way to put it.”

“Shall we get the fuck out of here?” Eliot asked. His voice was tight, his eyes flicked between Quentin and Alice, and the strength with which he was ignoring Kady’s very presence was creating yet another layer of tension in an air already swimming with it.

“You three first,” Alice said. “I’m last. Good portal etiquette.”

Again, to her astonishment, to her delight, they listened to her. Kady slipped through the portal first, Eliot pushing Quentin along ahead of him. Alice took a last look at the bodies littering the hallway. There was a strata to them: Marina and her defenders first, then round two, Derek and the others. Dan, dead in the lab where he’d experimented on Quentin.

Add to that however much ruckus Julia and Margo had managed to make, and Alice was beginning to wonder if they’d left anyone alive.

“Alice,” a voice called, distorted, and she snapped her jaw shut, turned away from the bodies of her enemies, and stepped through the portal, into the drizzle of a cold midnight.

***

There was a great deal of confusion on the other side of the portal, loud voices shouting over one another, Julia and Margo both trying to forcibly pull Quentin out of Eliot’s arms so they could hug him properly, explanations and admonishments flowing between everyone in a mix of languages that washed over Alice like so much gibberish.

She closed the portal with a snap, almost lazy, the easiest piece of magic she’d done in a day filled with draining, exhausting spell after spell. She was going to crash, and crash hard, as soon as they got somewhere safe. But first she found herself pulled into Julia’s arms, words cascading over her in a blur, suddenly spinning back into comprehensible English, “—oh, sorry, my head’s all over the place—Alice, are you okay? Are you with us? El just told us what you did, you’re insane, you’re amazing, thank the gods for you.”

Margo was there too, pulling her into a hug that hit Alice like a refreshing splash of cold water on overheated flesh, like reserve melting into acceptance. It was chilly outside; Alice could see her breath in the air, but she was flushed with triumph, grinning ear to ear.

“We should move.” Two voices spoke at once. Eliot and Kady turned to look at each other, and Alice had time, in the split second their eyes met, to see Kady’s tentative hope and Eliot’s crushing rejection of it, before their gaze broke and Kady turned to Margo instead.

“Where are we going?”

“Scotland,” Quentin answered, and Margo didn’t argue, just gave Quentin a knowing nod and set off towards the van parked at the opposite end of the alley.

“Our blood,” Alice said as they walked, only now remembering. “Julia, Margo, did you…”

“We got it,” Julia said, and she spun her palm in the air, feeling for the tiny zip of magical potency that led to a pocket dimension. “The blood, and a few other trinkets, to boot.” She gave a triumphant smile and then darted forward to throw open the back of the van, hopping in and helping the others up as Kady headed for the drivers’ seat.

Alice hesitated and then walked around to the passenger’s side to keep Kady company. The others couldn’t seem to tear themselves away from Quentin, and she figured she’d give them the illusion of some time alone, the four oldest humans in the universe. The new kids could handle transport.

“What did you find?” Quentin asked. As Kady put the van into reverse and drove away from the site of battle and hardship, the others settled down for the trip. Eliot was seated on the floor, exactly where he’d been mere hours ago, utterly crushed with desolation, only this time he had Quentin sitting in his lap, arms caging his body in close like a security blanket.

Quentin didn’t seem to mind being manhandled; he made himself comfortable and twined his hands with Eliot’s in front of his stomach, smiling as Julia and Margo snuggled in close on either side.

“Oh, all sorts of stuff,” Julia said, enthused. “They had a whole stash of magical artifacts. A pin cushion, the one Dan used on you two and Alice earlier. And little statuettes that I think might have trapped spirits inside, which is super dangerous and honestly we’ve done the world a public service getting them into our hands instead of a bunch of hedges who clearly have no idea what they’re doing…”

“Your generosity knows no bounds,” Quentin said, smiling. Julia tilted forward to rest her head against his shoulder, nuzzling in close with clear adoration. Alice’s neck hurt from looking over her shoulder at the happy family scene, but the second she’d sat next to Kady she’d realized she had no idea what to say or how to behave. She could sense that Kady wanted to belong to that circle of relieved closeness, and that she knew she wasn’t welcome there.

“And some interesting string that I think was used for pentagram forming, some old candles that had been charmed so many times I’m surprised they didn’t break apart under the weight of their own reality... there was a weird button in a glass case that I haven’t had a chance to take a look at yet, oh! And a dagger worthy of Margo’s collection, looks old and magical, and I have no idea where Marina would have gotten her hands on it…”

The rest of the ride was more of the same, Quentin and Julia chattering away and filling each other in on the events of their insane days. Alice even piped in once or twice to fill in the gaps for Quentin and Kady, telling the full story of the Niffin’s banishment.

“That’ll be a thread to follow up on later,” Margo said. She’d been fairly quiet, petting a hand through Eliot’s hair and resting her other hand on Quentin’s knee, keeping her two boys close to her. “Me and Julie’ll come back tomorrow and burn the place to the ground. The warehouse, too, just to cover our tracks.”

“I can call Pete,” Kady spoke from the driver’s seat as they trundled along, bypassing the gridlocked streets as they moved their way further into the city. “And have them put feelers out for anyone left who might have been allied with Marina.”

“Yes,” Margo said, “you should definitely do that. I have a feeling there’s a file sitting somewhere with your name on it, Kady, and we didn’t find that when we were ransacking the place.”

“God, I wish I could kill the bitch,” Kady said suddenly, slamming her hands on the steering wheel.

Eliot, who hadn’t said a single word since they’d gotten into the van, peeled his face away from Quentin’s neck to glare at Kady’s headrest, before burrowing down into Quentin again.

“You did,” Margo said. “Didn’t you?”

“Not Marina,” Kady said, fury giving way to exhaustion in the blink of an eye. “Anna.” She ground her teeth together, jaw popping, but Alice thought it was probably to hold back tears, not rage. “I trusted… she must have told her coven everything.”

“Marina’s grandmother?” Alice asked, quiet. “Is she still alive?”

“No,” Kady said. “I fucking mourned for her, Alice.”

Alice didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t help herself from glancing again to the grouping of four huddled together in the back. Quentin, Margo, and Julia were all looking towards the driver’s seat, expressions conflicted. Alice saw Margo’s tempered anger and Quentin’s confused sympathy, Julia biting back on the instinct to say the right thing, to fix all the hurt in one fell swoop.

Eliot’s face was still hidden in Quentin’s hair. He kind of looked like he’d never move again.

Distracted as she was by, well, everything, it took Alice a moment to realize where they were headed. As they pulled up to a miraculously (magically?) empty spot along the curb, she looked up at the high rise where she’d first been taken to meet Margo and the boys, where she’d watched Eliot kill a man and had gone into a full moral crisis about it. Her reaction seemed almost quaint now, given the body count of the day.

“The penthouse?” Alice asked, surprised. “I thought…”

“Easiest place to link up a portal to our real destination,” Julia explained. Everyone was unfolding themselves from the van, striding with purpose to the building. “Just a quick stop-over.”

“But they know where it is,” Alice said, stupidly, before realizing…

“They’re all dead,” Margo said, a savage sort of glee in her voice. “If any of them managed to sneak off, at least the leadership is definitely out of the picture. I’d say we’re probably safe.”

Probably. Seemed odd to risk it.

But Alice had no choice but to trust them, as had been the case from the very beginning. Days ago. A length of time so short she could count it easily in hours. She’d only missed a couple of classes at Brakebills. She could show up on Monday morning, and…

“Blood check,” Julia said as they made their way to the glimmering promise of high-end comfort and criminally overpriced lighting fixtures. Alice looked down automatically at her outfit, somewhat surprised to find it pristine. She felt, on the inside, like she ought to be covered in her own innards and maybe the blood of a few enemies, to boot, despite the fact that she was the only one among them who hadn’t taken a life that day.

(Unless the Niffin had killed the people wandering around in the market, unless Amara took out her rage on the unsuspecting, the innocent, the magic-less masses, all because Alice had banished her away to who knew where. But thinking about that wasn’t going to help.)

The six of them entered the building and headed for the elevators, looking for all the world like ordinary human beings who hadn’t murdered anyone at all recently, no siree. The only eye-catching thing about them was probably the fact that Eliot still hadn’t let go of Quentin, was clinging to him like he was worried one of them might vanish in a puff of smoke if they separated for even an instant. Margo and Julia seemed used to it, navigating around the two of them like a single entity.

The next several moments happened in a haze for Alice; she was in control of herself, aware of the way she moved through the universe, but she felt the impending breakdown with a level of absolute certainty that bordered on the absurd. She was going to collapse. She was going to cry so hard she made herself sick. She couldn’t even count all the reasons why.

The penthouse still bore evidence of their first fight with Marina’s hedges: dining room chairs scattered across the hardwood, books and knick knacks knocked off various shelves. Alice could practically see shadowy impressions where the corpses had lain, and shuddered, throat closing. They didn’t linger. Margo darted to her room to grab a few things she’d forgotten during their first hasty retreat, while Kady opened a portal, in the same spot where the hedges had forced their way through… yesterday. Yesterday?

What time was it?

“What time is it?” Alice heard herself ask.

“Here? Just after midnight,” Julia said. “Where we’re going? Like… five in the morning, I think?”

Alice nodded, dazed, and brought a hand back to pull the ponytail out of her hair, letting the sweat-drenched strands fall around her face in bedraggled clumps. “Okay. I think I’m going to sleep for like seventy-two hours, if that’s…”

Kady’s hand was on her arm; Alice hadn’t noticed her crossing the room. “We’ll get somewhere we can all be safe and unwind,” she said. “I promise.”

“Let’s move,” Margo said, emerging from the hall with a sword nearly as tall as she was gripped casually in one hand.

Quentin raised an eyebrow, and Margo shrugged. “I had it miniaturized. Poor little guy got overlooked.” She patted the sword with affectionate familiarity, then marched forward towards the portal Kady had created, looking around with the blade slung casually over her shoulder. “Once more unto the breach, etcetera, etcetera.”

Alice followed Margo. Unto the comfort of a safehouse that she really, really hoped would live up to its name for once. Third time’s the charm.

***

Alice was sick of Thibadeau’s Planar Compression. Behind closed eyelids, taking a supporting role alongside blood and murder and strange portals to unknown destinations, was also the image of a serpentine, unending hallway, inescapable and drab. They had only been inside the hedge’s stronghold for about an hour total, but the labyrinthine nightmare of it was going to haunt Alice for a lot longer than that.

They’d emerged from Kady’s portal into a chilly field, low rolling hills extending into the distance, more wild than pastoral, but with a hint of farmland visible in orderly patches of earth beyond the sweep of the horizon. It was too early for full light, but this far north there was a brightening edge to the darkness that smoothed out all the colors like a painting. Nestled in a small dip of land was a picturesque cottage, which, from the outside, looked to contain two stories and a handful of rooms, plenty large enough in its natural state to contain six weary warriors back from battle.

On the inside, the influence of enlarging charms was so subtle that only someone looking for it would have known it was even there. The entryway was narrow, but the sitting room to the left was roomier than it had any right to be, and the kitchen running along the back end of the ground story looked large enough to prepare meals for twenty. Despite her weariness at the sight of more magical largess, she had to admit the spellwork was impressive.

Everywhere she went, Alice understood less and less about her new friends’ sense of style. If the Upper West Side represented Margo’s insistence on the highest-end accommodations money could buy, and if the place in Camden was Quentin’s pragmatism made manifest, then this cozy cottage in Scotland was…

Well, it was Eliot, she realized, to her considerable surprise. Eliot and Quentin, really, although if she’d had to guess, Quentin’s role in decorating had been to make himself comfortable in an armchair and say “whatever you like, dear” when Eliot pulled out the color swatches.

The interior was warm and low-lit, exposed wooden beams and oversized cushy furniture; a heavy, solid wood door revealed the stairway to the right of the entrance. The place was old, she could tell, but had been modernized for comfort. The heating was regulated, and the kitchen, when Alice wandered back to explore, was fitted up with modern appliances that somehow did not clash at all with the antique burnished handles on the cabinets.

“They bought it centuries ago,” Kady said, and Alice turned around from examining the heavy cream window curtains to see her leaning against the door jamb. “They keep leaving it to distant relatives in their wills when they ‘die of old age’.”

“It’s beautiful,” Alice said, and she meant it. She understood why, after the screaming terror of the last couple of days, Eliot and Quentin would want to come here, of all places.

She and Kady were silent as they stared idly around at the tasteful decorations, the open doorway leading into a lavish yet still somehow homey dining room, complete with an absolutely gorgeous bronze chandelier with actual candles in it. It was sort of… cool, like looking through a mirror at a different time. It also reminded her of this particularly insufferable friend of her father’s, who used to corner Alice at parties to discuss his antiques collection, the interplay between modern magical advancement and the technologies of the past. All things, truthfully, that Alice would have been happy to learn about from a book, but was less thrilled to be discussing with a man who kept telling her how beautiful she would be if only she’d do away with her glasses.

“Team meeting,” Margo’s voice sang from the sitting room. When she and Kady entered, it was to find Margo and Julia already squashed together in a plum armchair, but Quentin and Eliot still standing. There was a palpable charge to the air, at odds with the comfort afforded by their surroundings.

“I want to get Q lying down, he needs rest,” Eliot said.

“El, we need to at least go over next steps before you two do your hibernation thing,” Julia said, gentle but firm. “I know you’re…”

“I’m fine,” Quentin said. “I’m okay for a quick conversation.”

Alice edged into the room, staying close to Kady, watching the interplay. Eliot swallowed before speaking, his hand clenching against Quentin’s shoulder. Someone had grabbed Q a t-shirt, and Eliot’s fingers twisted into the fabric with a shadow of the desperation he’d been feeling all day.

“I’m not,” Eliot said finally, the words tearing out of him like they were difficult to admit. “I’m not okay.”

“Eliot.” Kady’s voice was quiet but carefully controlled, as she took another step into the room, closer to the men. Alice could have told her that speaking directly to Eliot was a bad idea right now, but in some ways she had to admire her tenacity.

Eliot kept his eyes on Quentin, a clench of his jaw the only sign he’d heard Kady at all. She seemed to take that as permission to continue. “Eliot, I know you’re… but if we let it simmer it’ll be worse later on. You and I both know that.”

“You and I?” Eliot said, and his eyes snapped to Kady at last. “Interesting tactic, trying to put us on equal footing.” He took a step closer to Kady, staring her down. Quentin grabbed Eliot’s hand to keep them connected. “I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“Well, I—”

“And I don’t have anything I want to hear from you either,” he interrupted.

“Let’s not,” Margo said, standing up with an oddly chipper jump to her step. “Let’s fucking not with the animosity, hmm? We’re here, we’re all safe.”

“We’re not,” Eliot said. “We’re not all safe, Bambi.”

The words weren’t a rebuttal for Margo; they were aimed at Kady, sharp as daggers. Alice glanced at Eliot’s fingers, tangled up with Quentin’s. His fingers were still bare, his rings tucked away somewhere safe. When he put them back on, would he bother with the delicate silver ring that stood for Kady?

Alice was surprised, and somehow, strangely, annoyed at both Kady and Eliot for poking at each other now of all times. Maybe annoyed at Margo and Julia for insisting on a debrief, even if that was their custom after combat. It was patently obvious to her, standing here in a cozy room meant for crackling fires and tea and cuddling under a knit blanket with a good book, that the last thing any of them needed was to talk to each other. All six of them should find a comfortable horizontal surface and get themselves unconscious for a solid twelve hours. Then they could see about patching up the cracks in the chassis.

Or maybe that was nothing more than an avoidance tactic. Alice had always hated circumspection, and yet had always been an expert at repressing her own bullshit. Maybe sleep wouldn’t come for any of them until they’d hashed out the fact that Eliot had truly, seriously, worried about losing Quentin today, and Kady was partially to blame.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Kady said, answering Eliot’s subtext and not the words. “You’re mad at me, El, you hate me, for something that happened decades ago, and I don’t want to add more red to the ledger. We should talk about it.”

“Something that happened?” Eliot scoffed, taking another step towards her. His hand slipped out of Quentin’s, and Quentin allowed it. Alice darted her eyes around the room, frozen to the spot but wondering suddenly if maybe an expeditious retreat might be in order. “Something that happened? Would that something be Penny dying?”

The look Kady gave Eliot in that moment was nothing to scoff at, but Eliot did scoff, already turning his back on her as Kady pushed all the air out of her lungs and then pulled it back in, each word spat at Eliot like a precision dart. “You know what? Yeah. Yeah, that something would be my husband dying.”

Eliot whirled on her with fire in his eyes.

Julia leaned forward, trying to speak calm and sense into the room. “And what exactly does this have to do with the current situation?” Both of the combatants ignored her, eyes locked on each other. As Alice watched, Quentin took a quiet step up behind Eliot’s back, and placed a hand on his arm. Support, or restraint? She wasn’t sure.

“Your husband,” Eliot said. “Your husband. You’re not the only one who—”

“Don’t give me that,” Kady growled. “You’re the person who walks around like I don’t have the right to be sad, like… like… you have more right to mourn for him, and you won’t even talk about him—”

“I talk about Penny all the time,” Eliot said. He sounded affronted, like that particular angle wasn’t one he’d expected Kady to use.

“Not to me, you don’t.”

“You haven’t exactly been around,” Eliot said. Alice, playing catchup, would have diagnosed that tone with dangerous levels of bitterness and hurt.

“When I’m with you, you barely even look at me,” Kady said, laughing without humor. “Don’t pretend you’ve wanted me here.”

“I’m not pretending that,” Eliot said, without missing a beat.

Okay, so maybe not, then. There was still so much Alice didn’t know, about the depth of hurt between them.

“I don’t understand you,” Eliot said, and Alice took a tiny step back, pressing her spine to the wall by the door. She thought about going invisible again, but she was too tired. “I don’t get how you can stand there, how you can be here, after everything, after…”

“What exactly is my alternative?” Kady said, arms crossed protectively in front of her chest. “You’re my family. You’re the only family I have.”

“You didn’t seem to have a problem running to cry on a bunch of random hedge shoulders in your grief,” Eliot hissed, saying the last word with a twist of mockery that Alice flinched from instinctively.

By the door, Alice was caught in the threshold between a dark narrow hallway and the welcoming warmth of the sitting room, fire roaring merrily in the grate. A part of her wanted to remove herself entirely from a drama in which she didn’t play a part, creep up the stairs and find a spare bedroom, have a little breakdown in private, as a treat. The other part of her wanted to storm into the room and take a stand. She just… didn’t know who she wanted to stand by, and that indecision kept her rooted to the spot.

“I tried to grieve with you,” Kady said, picking up the thread of conversation after a long, icy silence. Nobody was trying to stop this from happening anymore. “You fucking know I did. You stonewalled me. And what standard are you supposed to be holding me to, anyway? How do you think you’d handle it if you lost Q?”

Stupid question.

“Kady,” Quentin said, a warning come too late.

Eliot didn’t miss a single goddamn beat.

“I’d be dead,” he shouted, his voice ripping through the low-ceilinged room. “I’d have burned myself to ash by now.”

El,” Quentin said, sharper this time. He didn’t sound even a little bit surprised, but he did sound angry, and his grip tightened on Eliot’s arm.

“Jesus Christ on a cracker,” Margo said, throwing her hands up in the air and then rubbing hard at her temples. Alice made eye-contact with Margo from across the room, a metaphysical shrug passing between them. What the fuck was anyone supposed to say to that?

“So you’re mad at me for not killing myself,” Kady said, braver than the rest of them, or maybe just too worked up to care about pushing Eliot over the edge. “That’s the bottom line, then, that’s why you can barely stand to look at me. Because I chose to keep going without him.”

“It’s barely been half a century,” Eliot said. “You just… you… he’s dead, he died, and you ran off and what, cried about it for a year or two and then started fucking your way through half of New York’s hedge junky population? You went to random bars and—and hooked up with her while the rest of us could barely get out of bed in the morning?”

Alice jumped when Eliot’s hand flew out and gestured towards her. Once again, she found herself supremely surprised that Eliot had even remembered she existed. She sometimes had trouble remembering that, herself.

Kady didn’t look at her, though. Her focus was unbreakable. “Slut shaming from Eliot Waugh. That’s a new one.”

“Shut your mouth.” This time it was Quentin, and he took a large step in front of Eliot, blocking him with his body. “That was out of line.”

I’m out of line?” Kady said. “Please. Q, this whole fucking charade, walking around the past couple of days like we’re all still some happy family so we don’t make our guest feel uncomfortable? What is that shit? I’m sorry about what happened today, I can’t tell you how sorry I am, but I refuse to feel guilty for—”

“He was happy with us!” Eliot roared. Quentin closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, resigned. He stayed where he was, but Eliot had no problem yelling at Kady over his head. “Penny was happy with us. He was happy, he had a good life, and then you came along and—”

“And made him happier for a hundred and fifty goddamn years, which might be a drop in the bucket to you, but to me it’s—”

“We were with him longer than that. Maybe you’re the drop in the bucket, Kady, did you ever think about that?”

“El, stop,” Julia said, terribly soft.

Alice expected Eliot to ignore her, but he shot a glare her way at once. “Why should I?”

“She’s your family,” Julia answered. “And you’re upset. And exhausted.”

“You are not in charge,” Kady said, ignoring her defender, “of how other people feel. And you do not get to say shit to me anymore, about how I’ve handled my grief. You have every right to be mad at me, Eliot, but not for that. For today, for Marina, for my massive fuck-up. I know I put you at risk—”

“You put Q at risk,” Eliot said, deadly sharp. “You put Q at risk, Kady. You can kill me a thousand times for all I care, you can go on hating me for having Penny before you ever met him, but you don’t get to take anyone else away from me.”

Oh. Oh.

Alice felt the skin over her arms go marble hard, as her brain fought to catch up to the soap opera in front of her. She’d been prepared for an argument about Quentin, about this day’s drama, and it seemed they were finally getting around to it, but first... did Kady resent Eliot, for… for having Penny first? Did that mean Eliot and Penny…? It was hard to imagine Eliot with anyone but Quentin. That had certainly been the vibe she’d gotten, but she’d also gotten the vibe that every single one of these messy, centuries’ old and frankly unfairly attractive people had seen each other naked at least once, so—

She could feel a hysterical giggle building below her breastbone. God, she was so tired. Maybe she really should leave, maybe this had nothing the fuck to do with her.

“He chose me,” Kady said. “And I never begrudged him any of that. You’re projecting, and you’re doing it to be a dick on purpose, and I wish you’d just admit for once in your goddamn life that you only ever tolerated me because Q and Pen asked you to.”

Eliot seemed genuinely taken aback, almost enough to supplant his fury. “That’s what you think? That I don’t care about you?”

“You’d trade me for Penny in a second if you could. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

“And you wouldn’t thank me for it?”

“Enough,” Margo said, but she said it quietly, and when she stood it was less of a pounce and more of a stealth approach, going for calm instead of adding fuel to the fire.

“No,” Kady said. “And he wouldn’t thank you for it either. You know that.”

Eliot’s jaw clicked audibly shut, and Quentin, now standing next to Eliot instead of hovering protectively in front of him, threw his head back and stared at the ceiling, as if imploring a higher power for patience.

“That’s what I don’t understand about you,” Eliot said. “What I could never understand about you.”

“Well I understand you just fine,” Kady said, and the brittleness, the crackling fury and sorrow in her voice, was becoming more and more pronounced the longer she talked. “You belong to Quentin, you live for him, that’s the end-all-be-all of who you are. If you ask me, which clearly you won’t, it’s profoundly unhealthy and more than a little dangerous.”

“What the fuck are you even—” Eliot said, but he cut himself off, the bafflement false and awkward in the air. He knew what Kady meant, and he couldn’t exactly disagree with her.

“But me?” Kady continued, standing an inch taller and planting her feet firm. “I’m more than Penny Adiyodi’s widow. And I will mourn him for the rest of my life, however long that might be, but that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to give up on being happy.”

“Kady,” Quentin said quickly, before Eliot could respond. “If it makes a difference, I forgive you. For then and for now.”

Kady turned her head to look at him. “Of course it makes a difference.” Then she looked away from the pair and over to Margo and Julia. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. I’m leaving.”

For whatever reason, this seemed to be the line Margo was unwilling to see crossed. “You absolutely are not,” she said, authoritative in all of her diminutive fury. “You are going to go upstairs and go to your room.”

“Margo,” Kady said, exasperated, “I don’t think—”

“And you two,” Margo continued, whirling to face the men, “are going to your room, to tenderly bang, or pet each other’s hair, or whatever it is you feel like you need to do to get your shit in order. Jules and I will handle cleanup tomorrow, and only after that are we going to decide on our next move together. As a goddamn family.”

From Alice’s perspective, she thought Margo might be fighting a losing battle here. She could remember all too clearly Margo’s words to her at Brakebills: Eliot would do anything for me, with one very big exception. And Margo had torn Eliot away from the warehouse, tossed him in a van, and made him wait the better part of the day on tenterhooks to rescue his partner from torture. The idea that she might exact some sort of authority over Eliot now, in this moment, in his own house, no less, seemed like something of a stretch.

But…

“Let’s go,” Quentin said, so soft that Alice almost missed it. He took Eliot’s hand and tugged him towards the door, and Eliot’s shoulders slumped. He shot a look over his shoulder at Margo, defeated and acquiescent, and then slipped out of the room right past Alice, without another word to Kady or to any of them.

And then it was over, all the energy and tension sucked out of the room with Eliot’s departure, the absence of that rage just as startling as its explosion had been, minutes ago. It seemed like they hadn’t gotten around to arguing about the thing they were supposed to argue about, had instead bypassed their current woes for something deeper and festering. Was that a good thing? How was Alice to know?

“What’s the point?” Kady said to Margo. She sounded like she really wanted the answer, wanted Margo to explain to her how this was ever going to get better.

“You were right,” Julia said, answering instead of Margo like she did so often. “About us all tiptoeing around, acting like everything’s normal.” She turned to look at Alice, gifting her a wry smile. “I guess by now the cat’s thoroughly out of the bag that we’re all utter disasters, huh?”

“I’d started to put that together, yeah,” Alice said, too tired to employ a filter. She’d frozen herself in amber for that whole argument, still spinning her wheels trying to understand the interplay between the day’s fears and terrors, and the loss they’d all suffered before Alice’s lifetime. She’d bet good money that Eliot became an unhinged mess no matter what, whenever Quentin was in danger, but maybe… maybe this was extra. Another level on top of everything else. The first time he’d had to confront that fear since experiencing the loss of a loved one who never should have been able to die.

If a newcomer came into Alice’s life and tried to excavate the trauma and resentments existing between herself and her parents, the holes in all of them where Charlie had once been, it would take them years to dig to the bottom. Multiply that by a handful of centuries, by millennia, in some cases…

“They don’t want me here,” Kady said, bringing things back to the point at hand. “I don’t know if I can just stay, and…”

“Stay,” Alice said, surprising herself with the conviction in her own voice. “Eliot doesn’t want you here, maybe, but it’s Quentin’s house too.”

Margo smiled at her, approving. “Damn right it is.” She turned to Kady. “Go to bed, honey. Things will look a little less hopeless in the morning.”

“It is morning,” Kady pointed out, a petulant grumble in her voice, but her shoulders slumped in defeat. She looked at the spot where Eliot had stood when he’d screamed at her, called her a ‘drop in the bucket’, said ‘I could never understand you’, and then shook her head at it, as if Eliot was still there to see. “Okay. Okay. Goodnight, then.”

As she passed Alice by the threshold, she reached out and squeezed her elbow, encompassing apology and invitation and grief and hope somehow in the single press of her hand. The simple kindness in that touch almost cracked Alice open and collapsed her to a crying puddle on the floor.

It had been a long, long day.

“Will you stay too?” Julia asked as soon as Kady’s footsteps had vanished up the stairs. Alice blinked at her, and then at Margo, who was looking at her with anxious anticipation.

She’d forgotten, again, that she could leave. Or not… that she could leave, but that it might actually make sense to do so. She could ask Julia for a portal back to that little hidden copse of trees outside Brakebills. She could be in her own bed within the hour. She could…

“Of course I’ll stay,” she said, and was warmed right through by the two smiles she received in response.

“There’s a spare bedroom across from ours,” Margo said. “Second door on the right.”

Alice nodded and followed the way the others had gone. The stairs creaked under her feet. There was magic that could have silenced the sounds of the house settling, but she was glad it hadn’t been used, the noise somehow homey and welcoming and alive. When she got to the landing, she saw framed pictures hanging on the wall, faded in the unlit gloom of windowless dawn. She’d have to study them later, when her eyes weren’t stinging with weariness.

This hallway could not have been any different from the endless maze in Mott Haven. This hallway, the wood creaking under her feet beneath a thin runner carpet, had been walked down countless times over centuries, had been stumbled along in drunkenness and skipped down in eagerness and trudged down in desolation, had felt the familiar pattern of the same sets of feet traversing it over the length of multiple lifetimes. It wasn’t a simulacrum of anything, it wasn’t a trick or an illusion or magic in any way other than the obvious fact that it was here, and exactly, entirely itself.

Alice saw the door to the room Margo had pointed out to her, and turned towards it, before pausing. Her hesitation lasted for less than a heartbeat, and then she turned the other way instead, into the door Kady had left open for her.

Chapter Text

What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want someone to notice she was there.

Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom



The first (and at the time, she’d assumed, only) night that Alice had slept in Kady’s bed, there had been a lot of talking. This had been a departure from the other alcohol-soaked hookups Alice had been indulging at the time, and a good one.

They’d talked before, during, and after sex, so much so that by the end of the night, Alice felt something close to comfortable with this utter stranger, whose first name she must have been told but couldn’t remember by the time she tiptoed away in the early morning, crusty-eyed and nauseated and fuzzy on the finer details.

They had talked, she remembered now, about magic. About its deceptive beauty, its destructive nature. At the time, Alice’s opinions on the matter had been quite settled. Magic had stolen Charlie from her; it was as simple as that. Magic was poison. Even a little of it could begin the corruption, and the more you used it, the more it could hurt you and everyone around you.

To say these things to her parents would have been a damnable offense. To say them to her erstwhile schoolmates at Brakebills would have led only to bafflement. The few tortured souls who may have agreed with her were too caught up in their own bullshit to notice Alice at all, even if she’d bothered to notice them.

Kady had listened to her diatribe, and then asked her to say more. She hadn’t agreed, exactly, but she hadn’t made Alice feel broken for hating the thing that defined so much of who she was. She’d understood the dichotomy somewhere deep in Alice’s being, that doing some kinds of magic felt as easy as breathing, like gliding smoothly through a calm, crystalline lake, like good sex, like fine dining, and that the very fact of the pleasure it brought her made her hate it all the more.

When Alice thought back on that night (something she’d been trying to avoid since realizing her new immortal family included an ill-advised one-night-stand), what she remembered more than anything is that they’d talked a lot about her. Kady was a very good listener, but Alice couldn’t have said what Kady’s opinions were on magic, or on much of anything at all.

She knew Kady appreciated eye-contact, and liked having her bottom lip bitten when making out, and didn’t like her neck being touched, and was ticklish behind her knees, because Kady had had no qualms whatsoever about telling her all of those things, with words and without. But she didn’t know how she’d learned magic, how she’d gotten involved with hedges, what her specialties were, or who her family was, or what lay behind the sadness in her eyes.

It would have been nice to say this time was different, than when Alice slipped into Kady’s bedroom in Quentin and Eliot’s home, she made sure to ask good questions, to be a good friend, to comfort Kady in her time of distress. To learn about her. But in reality, the second night Alice ever spent in a bed with Kady Adiyodi mostly involved a lot of crying.

They’d talked a bit, of course, trading “are you okays” and “yeah I’m fines” and then, the shell starting to crack, “well, no, of course I’m not fine, but I will be” and then “will you, though?” and then “eventually,” and then “maybe,” and then “I don’t know” and then…

Pretty much without warning Kady’s face crumpled into a sob, and she hugged her legs tight to her chest and banged her forehead against her knees in frustration. “Sorry, I just... fuck. Fuck, long day. Really long day.”

“Um, yeah,” Alice said, sniffing in sympathy. They were both fully dressed, still wearing the clothes with which they’d infiltrated Marina’s hideout, magically cleaned but still retaining the impression of the day’s violence. Alice had taken her shoes off, and now she removed her glasses, setting them carefully on the bedside table. “Yeah, long days, plural.”

“This is going to sound insane, but I keep forgetting you’re like the rest of us,” Kady said, her face still pressed against her knees. “We meet a lot of people, and… when we were all working together, extremely unfortunate bystanders used to get caught up in our bullshit more or less constantly. And then at the end of it, they just… go back to wherever they came from, and even people we grow to care about fade away eventually. Which sounds cruel, I know. But with you? I keep forgetting you’re not going anywhere, that you’re… you’re really with us.”

Alice smiled, detecting something like gladness in Kady’s words. “Don’t worry, I keep forgetting it too. It still doesn’t feel…”

“Yeah,” Kady said, as if Alice had finished the thought. “You were amazing today, you know that? Getting thrown into all of this… you handled yourself far better than any of us had the right to expect.”

“It’s not my first rodeo,” Alice said. “I mean… I’ve been through some things.”

Kady turned her head on her knee to look at Alice, contemplative. “Your brother, right? He died?”

“More or less,” Alice said, aware that it sounded insane to put it that way, trusting that Kady would understand anyhow.

She did, nodding and rubbing her face against her jeans, compassion shining in her eyes. They were really pretty eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

Oh, how Alice used to hate other people’s sorrys. She never believed them. She believed in the regret they felt, that they too wished it hadn’t happened, that Charlie Quinn, handsome and accomplished and kind, hadn’t wound up a casualty of magic’s darker excesses. But she didn’t believe in their compassion, their condolences, because none of them knew what it felt like to be her, to be sad the way she was sad. How could they regret something they couldn’t understand?

Kady didn’t understand her either, but Alice knew that Kady knew that, and somehow it made all the difference. After all, she didn’t know how Kady felt, couldn’t ever really know, and yet… “And I’m sorry about Penny,” she said. It was the truth.

So when Kady opened her arms and Alice slipped into them like she belonged there, and they both began to cry their eyes out, it didn’t matter that they weren’t crying about the same person, or the same things. It wasn’t about being understood, it was about being human. About trusting someone with absolutely no rational reason to do so. About knowing yourself well enough to know that trust was the right decision.

In the sitting room, when Kady and Eliot had yelled at each other about Penny instead of about Quentin, it hadn’t made sense to her. But here, now, crying about her brother who died a decade ago, instead of about the fact that she had been murdered several times over the past twenty-four hours, had encountered a Niffin, had had everything she thought about the world and magic and her life entirely uprooted, even obliterated… well, she got it. It was like a vending machine, the panic and stress and pain building up from the back, pushing the grief at the front over the edge.

“I’m not sure I remember what he sounds like,” Alice confessed at some point, accepting a tissue from Kady, pressing her hand against Kady’s knee like an anchor. “And it’s only been a couple of years. What happens? What happens when…”

“You won’t forget the shit that matters,” Kady said. “I know that sounds fake, but I mean it.”

How?”

“If any of us could be said to have a life’s work, that’s Quentin’s. To preserve memory. Julia preserves knowledge. The rest of us keep them going.”

That was a fascinating way of looking at things; a new insight into the group’s dynamics. If Alice’s eyes hadn’t been stinging so bad that keeping them open was a herculean task, she might have asked more. She would ask more, but it didn’t have to be now.

“It makes me selfish, I guess, to be glad I’m not the only one grieving.”

“You’re never the only one grieving,” Kady said. “The world is full of it. Grief. You’re not alone in taking comfort from that.”

“I guess not,” Alice said, humming and slumping her body against Kady’s. They fit together nicely, soft and warm. Alice looked around the room, actually taking in her surroundings for the first time. The room was decorated in burnt orange and rich purple, and Alice wondered whose work it had been. Eliot’s, when he’d decorated the rest of the house? Kady? Penny? There were picture frames, set up on the dresser. From this distance, Alice couldn’t make out the photographs, but she made a mental note to study them in the morning.

Eventually, Alice extricated herself from Kady and went to the bathroom to splash water on her overheated face. Kady let her borrow a large t-shirt, and they didn’t need to discuss it when Alice slipped under the covers next to Kady, instead of going across the hall. It was just better this way. Better not to be alone.

And when Alice slept…

***

Alice dreamed.

She found herself in a wide dark room, crates stacked against the walls and on tall wooden shelves, dust motes floating in the dim magical light. She saw Kady, dressed in trousers that clearly hadn’t been made for her, her long hair pinned up under a cap, undeniably feminine and unfairly hot, her face set in grim lines of determination as she examined the air around her through the web of her fingers.

Kady was concentrating so hard on whatever she was looking for that she didn’t hear the approach from behind a nearby shelf piled high with wooden boxes and lumpy canvas bags. When the others rounded the corner, though, she was quick to react, hands flying to a defensive casting posture. Who are you? How did you get in here?

Kady Orloff Diaz? Margo asked, taking a step forward and looking her up and down, appraising. You’re going to be trouble, I can tell.

How the hell did you find me? Who sent you?

What are you looking for? Julia asked, curious. She’d decided to completely ignore Kady’s obvious mistrust, stalking into the space between Kady and the others like she didn’t have a care in the world.

Stand back. I have friends outside, they’ll hear if you—

Friends outside? Eliot asked, a familiar raise of the eyebrow accompanying the words. Would those be the friends we caught burning your portrait and your hair, attempting to murder you from afar? Or were there other friends somewhere, and we merely didn’t run into them?

Kady’s face blanched, her defensive posture sharpening, hands flexing with potent power. Who are you working for? she asked again.

Penny stepped out of the shadows, from where he’d been positioned in the center of the other four. He had both hands up, in what he clearly intended to be a placating gesture, but Kady cringed away from him as he approached, eyes wary. We can get you out of here.

I don’t need your help, Kady said, but the lie was so unconvincing that she barely put any effort into delivering it.

The doors are warded, they’ll know the second you leave, Penny said, taking another cautious step. But if you come with us…

How did you get in my head? Kady asked, and Alice, viewing the scene from above and off to the side, realized that whatever else Kady was in the middle of, she’d also been contending with at least one weird dream about a random group of strangers, all of whom had just shown up without warning.

We didn’t. You died, Margo said, no-nonsense as always. We were notified.

Quentin was the only one who hadn’t spoken yet, looking around and surveying the situation, on guard against additional intruders. Kady took a moment to assess them all, Margo, Eliot, Julia, Penny, Quentin, eyes narrowed, probably fighting to reconcile whatever she’d seen in her dreams with the people now in front of her in reality.

I obviously didn’t die, she said, but her hands had dropped to her sides, fists clenched but no longer inches from battle casting. I got hurt. I thought Ibut I survived.

We’ve got a lot of talking to do, Julia said. But first we need to get you out of here. Those people outside are no joke.

They think I have something, Kady said, reluctantly sharing intel, working at a disadvantage. Something I definitely don’t have.

A dangerous something?

The thing you’re looking for now?

Eliot and Margo’s voices overlapped as they stared Kady down with curiosity and wariness, intermingled. They were here because they had to be, just like they’d had to rush to New York for Alice. But they clearly didn’t relish the precarious position in which they’d found their new immortal companion.

There’s no way out of here, Kady said, bypassing the questions and looking around at the dusty floor, the moldy wood of the ceiling. Just being in this room is a death sentence for me. For you, too, whoever you are.

Penny sighed, lifted his head to the ceiling, and then held a hand out to Kady. Don’t worry, I’m a one-man rescue mission.

Kady looked him up and down, quirked her eyebrow, and then glanced at the other four people with an inquisitive tilt to her head.

Oh them? Penny said, smiling at her. They’re just along for the ride.

If you’re talking about Traveling, Kady said, skeptical, but her body was tilted towards Penny, an affinity already growing, then you should know this place is warded.

We’ve got a way around that, Julia said, and Kady gave her a speculative look, not so different from the one she’d just given Penny.

It would be stupid to trust you, Kady said, but she took a step closer, looking at Penny’s hand, then up at his face. But I’m full of stupid decisions lately. What’s one more?

Kady reached for Penny’s hand, and Alice woke up.

***

She was starving, which made sense. As Alice pulled herself out of the dream, she realized that she hadn’t eaten anything since Chinese take-out at Brakebills.

When was the last time Eliot and Quentin had been here? What were the odds that the kitchen would be even a little bit stocked? God, she didn’t want to go anywhere, and she also didn’t want to resort to bland, flavorless calories created by magic.

“I can hear you thinking,” Kady’s voice said, mumbly and half-asleep from right next to her. Alice looked down at the mass of tangled curls, obscuring most of Kady’s face, and smiled, an uncomplicated spark of joy blooming in her chest.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” Kady said, huffing out a breath of laughter. “We should get breakfast.”

“You read my mind,” Alice said. “Do you think they have food here?”

“If I know Jules,” Kady said, “she was up hours ago getting us supplies.”

Sure enough, when Alice and Kady crept barefoot to the kitchen, Alice pulling on a too-big pair of Kady’s sweats along with the oversized t-shirt, they found a tray of bagels, several different topping options, a big glass bowl of porridge, a jar of honey, a tray of sliced fresh fruit, and a paper-towel lined plate of cooked bacon.

“How the hell did we not hear…” Alice asked, pausing in the doorway as Kady slipped past her, heading straight for the food.

“It’s Jules, she’s just like this.” Kady grabbed a bagel and tossed a few triangles of watermelon, which was definitely out of season and definitely not local, onto a plate. She turned around, an oddly complicated smile on her face. “Eliot’s the caretaker, usually.”

“But…”

“But right now, he’s in no condition to be,” Kady said. “And Julia’s job is to know that, and to fill in the gaps.” Kady tilted her head to the side, where a fancy coffee maker was bubbling up fresh brew.

“Do you take sugar?”

“Uh. Black,” Alice said, and she came forward, drawn to the scent of coffee and bacon, trying to ignore the strange sensation that she’d just woken up at a new girlfriend’s house and come downstairs to find her making coffee in her pajamas. This wasn’t that. Another woman had procured the food and caffeine, they’d slept through the day and it was two in the afternoon, and there was a smattering of traumatized immortals still sleeping away the pain and misery in rooms just upstairs.

“We should grab some stuff and go back to my room,” Kady said. “I’m not in the mood to run into anyone else yet.”

That made the warmest, fuzziest feeling bloom through Alice, at the thought of being not only allowed, but wanted, while Kady hid herself away from the rest of the world. She nodded, trying to temper her smile into something soft and not overeager.

The rest of the day passed in that way, Kady and Alice only leaving Kady’s room for food, and for long, solitary showers that passed in a blurry heat haze of merciful thoughtlessness. At one point after the sun had set, Julia appeared at the door and informed them that she and Margo were headed out for cleanup, and Alice had balked at the thought of the two of them going back to the scene alone. Julia, seeming amused and somewhat gratified by Alice’s worry, promised that they’d beat a hasty retreat if the job seemed more complicated than they were anticipating.

“And then,” Julia had said, a blissful smile breaking over her face, “I’m going to start running diagnostics on the magic goodies we’ve liberated from their former owners.”

“You mean after the dreaded family meeting,” Kady put in, dour but surprisingly calm about it. Julia gave her a shrewd look and pursed her lips.

“Sure, after that.” She leaned forward and squeezed Kady’s arm through the doorway, a small intrusion into the sanctuary that somehow managed to impart total support, but also respect for the space Kady was asking for without words. “It’ll be fine,” she continued, shifting her look from Kady to Alice. “Trust me, I’m never wrong.”

With Margo and Julia gone, that meant they were alone in the house with Quentin and Eliot, who, as far as Alice was aware, had yet to leave their room even once.

“El’s probably sending food down the hall with telekinesis so he doesn’t have to get out of bed,” Kady said, and her voice was a mixture of fondness and pain. Alice wanted to interrogate that curious blend of emotions, but instead, her brain caught on another interesting detail.

“Wait, so. Can he—do that? Like, really? Send things all the way up the stairs and down the hall without line of sight, using…”

“We’re all unbelievably impressive,” Kady said, with a smirk. “I thought you’d figured that out by now.”

They talked about magic, about telekinetics and battle spells and Julia’s weird soup of metacomp and support magic that would have landed her a Knowledge discipline at Brakebills; about Charlie and about Penny, about El and Q and Jules and “M”, as they often called Margo due to her penchant for picking names beginning with that letter; talked about the events of yesterday, and about the future, imagining the places Alice would go, the things the others would show her and teach her. They covered details of many past adventures, Kady laughing as she filled in the missing pieces of Alice’s dream the night before, the way Penny’s charming arrogance had fallen away to genuine kindness in the face of Kady’s fear (and god, Alice wished Penny had been part of her own welcoming committee); the day passed in a blur, every minute strengthening Alice’s fondness for Kady, and fondness for the others, too, despite their conspicuous absence on this day of healing.

They all had their own methods for dealing with the aftermath of trauma, as Kady explained. Q and El would hermit, and Margo and Julia would run at any remnants of the problem until it was obliterated to dust. Kady and Penny had once had a routine of their own, surprising each other with lavish indulgences, one-upping each other with expensive and creative dates that bypassed romance and entered the realm of pure competition.

As the evening wore on to darkest night, Alice found herself at the window, looking over a neglected sprawling garden and sweeping low hills stretching off into a misty distance. It was beautiful here, and peaceful, and the kind of place Alice felt like she could stay. She imagined a nebulous future where she and Kady created their own post-mission routine. Maybe they’d do this again, hole themselves up in a bedroom, shut out the rest of the world and talk about nothing and everything.

It didn’t feel like a presumption, to imagine it. Alice knew what it was to be unwanted, or at least she knew what it was to feel unwanted. Kady wasn’t like that. Kady made her feel not only tolerated, but even somehow essential. She was getting ahead of herself, she knew. But nursing a fresh cup of coffee at 9pm, cozy in a sweater from Kady’s closet, she felt the start of something almost like peace. Alice and Kady didn’t have what Kady and Penny had, and they never would. They didn’t have what Julia and Margo had, or Quentin and Eliot. Of course they didn’t. But they had something, and it mattered.

***

The team meeting was not as bad as Alice had feared. It was nearly midnight again by the time Margo and Julia showed up, banging on bedroom doors and commanding everyone’s presence downstairs. Alice braced herself for a repeat of yesterday’s fury and devastation, but Quentin had clearly been working on Eliot all day, because he emerged from his room calm and meticulously put together, and even offered Alice a nod and a lip twitch that was at least distantly related to a smile.

Kady and Eliot carefully avoided addressing one another directly, but the silence between them was more hesitant, less stony than yesterday.

Or maybe that was wishful thinking.

Margo called the meeting to order, and absolutely declined to allow anyone to interrupt her while she made her opening statements. Alice swallowed down on the feeling that she didn’t belong here, that she was an interloper witnessing the fallout of drama that stretched far beyond the beginning of her own life. She held tight to that feeling of belonging she’d captured with Kady, that sense that she was valuable, wanted, required for Kady’s own peace of mind, and she kept her seat on the squashy leather couch, Kady and Julia on either side of her.

“First, a post-mortem on yesterday’s activities,” Margo began. “Jules and I are confident that we’re not going to be followed by any of Marina’s surviving allies. The way I understand it based on our recon, any remnants of her network are going to fade away into the city and try to avoid running into us at any cost. Those with personal vendettas have already been dispatched.” She turned to Alice with a raised eyebrow. “Our mysterious Niffin friend is the only real loose thread, but I don’t suppose there’s much we can do other than keep a wary eye out for her return.”

Alice had no idea how to track where she’d sent the Niffin, and no idea if the Niffin would be able to find her way back easily. She’d told Margo as much yesterday. It made her profoundly uneasy, but if she had an eternity in front of her, she was going to have to get used to dangling threads.

“So… turning to the future,” Margo said, standing up and pacing over to the window that looked out on the front yard. She turned to face them, hands on hips, body framed by the darkness outside. “I’m not anyone’s mommy, and I’m not anyone’s boss, but I am your family.” She paused, her eyes flitting over Julia, Alice, and lingering especially long on Kady, before landing on Quentin and Eliot, entwined on an oversized chair. “And lately, I think we could all use a reminder on that.”

Margo opened her mouth to continue her speech, and then closed it, swallowing down on something painful. Her face twitched, mouth turning down into a frown and eyes pulling together. In her periphery, Alice saw Eliot twitch, an arm spasming out like he wanted to comfort her, smooth away the worry line between her brow. But he kept his seat, and after a moment Margo sighed and looked at Julia, keeping focus on her like a performer choosing a spot in the audience to settle her nerves.

“I miss Penny like a limb,” she said, and Kady squirmed next to Alice, leaning just that slightest bit away from her. “I miss him every day. I miss the fact that he was somehow both the peacekeeper and the easiest to rile up, I miss his stupid fashion choices and his angry scowl and his endless patience and his dumb nickname and how much he hated when we called him anything else.”

She paused, looking around at the others, letting her gaze linger. She included Alice in her perusal of the group, despite the obvious way in which she was different, at least in this. “I miss him, and he’s dead, and after it happened we all decided that we needed time and space to process it. And so we gave ourselves time. And space. And I guess I can’t really speak for the rest of you, but I can say that for myself, at least, I didn’t do any damn processing whatsoever. Instead, I just sat around missing my living family right alongside my dead family, and that… it didn’t do anything for me. It didn’t work.”

“There’s a scab,” Julia said, picking up from where Margo had left off, hardly leaving a pause. Alice half-expected Margo to object at the interruption, but Julia seemed to have carte blanche permission to speak to and for Margo whenever she wished. “There’s a scab covering the wound of his loss, and I never pick at it. I pretend it’s healed over just like every other injury I’ve received. If I pick at it, I start bleeding again, and I don’t know how it stops.”

“We didn’t even have a funeral,” Quentin put in quietly.

“There wasn’t a body,” Eliot said. “We couldn’t sit… we couldn’t do any of the things I knew he would have wanted. We couldn’t even fucking cremate him.”

“I could have insisted,” Kady said. “It was my call to make, and I fucked off and decided it hurt too much.”

“And none of us pushed back on that,” Margo said, remonstrative and kind simultaneously. “This is the point I’m driving at. None of us wanted to acknowledge it. Not really. Because that would mean facing some uncomfortable truths; it would mean confronting head-on the idea of never speaking to him again, it would mean… it would mean Josh wasn’t a fluke, that we’re fallible, that death can come for us just like it can anyone else.”

Alice swallowed. In a way, she knew exactly what they were talking about, despite her comparatively miniscule lifespan. Her parents had had a funeral for Charlie, but Alice had bailed early. Funerals were for the living, and she’d gotten exactly nothing out of it. Because she hadn’t wanted to. Because she had decided she was still going to find a way to bring Charlie back. By the time that dream had died for her, it was far past the time to be honoring Charlie’s passing with ceremony. She hadn’t thought twice about it. What would it matter? It wouldn’t change anything. Maybe that sort of thing helped other people process their bullshit, but it wouldn’t help Alice.

“So what are you saying? Should we…” Quentin trailed off, looking terribly small, curling himself around Eliot as if seeking shelter and protection. “Should we do something for him now?”

“Maybe,” Margo said. “We should talk about it. But whatever we do, for Penny or for ourselves, we’ve got to find a new strategy, and we’ve got to decide what it is we’re all fighting for. Because I don’t want to be back here another half-century from now, I don’t want to go years without seeing you, I don’t want to find out after the fact that Q got bullied into a haircut, or El’s entered into a vest phase, when I could have been there at its inception.” She gestured at Eliot’s outfit, muted greys and deep blues, rich against his pale skin.

“Bambi,” Eliot said, a little mournful, “you could have…”

“Bitch, I would have gone shopping with you, if you’d asked,” Margo interrupted. “Spared Q the torment. You look stupid amazing.”

He did, of course. It was vaguely annoying to Alice, in a “so you’re the oldest living being on the planet and incredibly accomplished in everything you do, you have the devotion of a partner and a family who would kill and die for you, and you literally look like a Greek god, which you pretty much are,” sort of way.

“The point is,” Margo said, scanning her eyes over them all, “our last strategy was to give each other space. Clearly, that was a failure. We have to decide what’s next for us, and the only unacceptable answer is one that fractures us forever.”

Margo was very good at this. She wasn’t paying any more obvious attention to Kady or Eliot than she was to any of the others, but there was a pointed sharpness to her words. They all missed Penny, they all had some healing to do, but it was clear that the linchpin for success lay in the hands of Kady and Eliot, after what had happened the night before. They could decide to hold the family together, or they could do their best to tear it asunder.

“I don’t know,” Eliot said, slow and calm, and keeping his eyes carefully on Margo’s face, “if I can realistically overlook what happened yesterday.”

Margo nodded practically. “Overlooking shit is what got us here in the first place. I say we do the thing we should have been doing from the beginning, and say our piece out loud. The two of you,” she paused to gesture between Kady and Eliot, “kicked us off to a roaring start yesterday.”

“I’m sorry,” Kady said, speaking up suddenly like she was afraid she’d lose her nerve. “For everything. The whole time we were… while we were looking for you, Q, I kept thinking about how things were for me back then. I wasn’t comfortable grieving him with the rest of you, so I went to someone else, and that decision came back to hurt us all.”

“I don’t like the lesson you’re drawing from that,” Quentin said. He sat up straighter, and Eliot’s arms adjusted for the new position automatically. “We don’t need extra reasons to become insular and codependent, Kady. You weren’t wrong to have other friends. Sure, you picked one who either betrayed you on purpose, or displayed a remarkable lack of discretion, but it’s right that you find people outside of our circle to talk to.”

“Is it?” Eliot asked. Quentin, Margo, and Julia all shot him slightly different versions of a glare, and Eliot held out a hand, placating. “That wasn’t a pointed dig.” He turned to look at Kady, his brows stormy and his jaw a bit tight, but his voice was civil as he continued. “I find it difficult to connect with anyone I haven’t known a very long time. Before I met Q and M, my relationships were all fleeting by definition, even the ones that managed to last decades. I knew people, but they could never really know me.”

The room was silent, and Eliot shifted in his seat, seemingly uncomfortable at his rapt audience. Kady was staring at him, eyes lidded and mouth downturned, and Julia and Margo both looked curious and a bit startled at Eliot’s words. Alice got the sense that they were bumping up against something Eliot didn’t talk about often.

“I sometimes forget,” Eliot continued, voice wavering, “that not everybody works that way. So when… when Penny met you, and the two of you got together so quickly, it seemed—shallow. Like it couldn’t be as real as what Penny felt for the rest of us, after so many years. I accepted you, Kady, I really did. I do. I’m so angry with you it’s hard to fucking look at you, but you’re my family, it’s just…”

“It’s okay, I get it,” Kady said. She sounded a little desperate, like she wanted an escape hatch for this conversation before she started crying again. “We’re different. You and Q tiptoed around each other for close to a decade.”

“Tiptoed is not the word I would use,” Margo said. “Sometimes during story time I think you all forget I had front row seats to their angstiest early days.” She tapped her forehead and winked at Alice, an obvious attempt to break the tension. “Like a soap opera playing in my dreams, night after night.”

“The point,” Eliot said, giving Margo a playful (grateful) glare, and then turning back to Kady, “is that I never fully accepted you and Penny together, and then when he was gone, I didn’t know how to be around you, how to be a friend to you when I wanted the right to mourn him most.”

“He loved you so much,” Kady said. “I wanted to talk to you about that. To share memories of him with you.”

“We pushed you away,” Quentin said. “I should have been better about—”

“It’s not your fault,” Eliot and Kady both spoke at once.

Julia broke her silence with a light chuckle. “See? You two have more in common than you think.”

“Where do we go from here?” Kady asked Eliot. “You say you can’t look past yesterday. Neither can I. I don’t want to look past it. I want to track down any information out there about me, I want… I want to kill the myth of Kady Orloff-Diaz among the hedge networks, as best as I’m able.”

“Close the loop,” Julia said. “Not a bad goal.”

“And I think taking some time on my own to do that is a good idea.”

“But how is that better?” Margo asked. “You leaving right now, going off on your own, the rest of us moping around? This is what I was saying earlier. I get that we’re all feeling some kind of way, I get that there’s a lot of anger here. Frankly, Kady, you fucked up. I forgive you, but I can’t forget what happened, and I don’t want to be second-guessing your judgment in a precarious situation down the road.”

“I don’t want that either. You can—” Kady paused, looking down at her laced fingers in her lap. “I was going to say you can trust me. And you can. Or at least you can trust my intentions. You know I’d rather… you know I’d do anything for you. For all of you.”

“We know,” Quentin said, very quiet. “It’s the same for us.”

“I think cleaning up the rest of my mess has to be my mission for now,” Kady said. “But… I won’t be a stranger, okay?”

“Monthly dinners,” Julia said. “At a minimum.” She turned to the boys. “El?”

“Yes,” he said at once. “Yes, I think we can do that.”

“You can glare at me as much as you want,” Kady said, “at least for the first few months.”

“I know,” Eliot said. His face was still pinched, pale, the echoes of yesterday’s traumas plain. He seemed to resent Kady’s magnanimous permission, but he was letting it go, for the moment.

“And the rest of us?” Julia said. “Margo’s right. Taking time to process ended up a bust. You know me, I’ve always got to have a project. Maybe we could… start picking up some jobs again?”

“Just little things,” Margo said, “to start. Get us back in some kind of rhythm.”

“Train the new girl,” Eliot said, with a surprising amount of warmth and enthusiasm.

Alice sat up straighter on the couch next to Kady, aware in a crystalizing sort of way that now, in this moment, she had infinity stretched in front of her. The first few days of her immortal life had been so filled with conflict that she’d been forced to do some processing of her own only in small doses, little glimpses of what lay ahead, interrupted ruminations on how to fill her time. It had occurred to her that her old life wasn’t really an option for her anymore. She could go back to Brakebills, but frankly she didn’t trust Dean Henry Fogg and the other professors on campus to be any less greedy and unhinged about immortality than Marina had been. Putting herself in close proximity to people who would doubtless see her as a lab rat were they to learn the truth did not feel like the wisest course of action.

So she was going to stay with these people. That had been a given from the moment Margo had tried to give her an out, and she hadn’t taken it. She’d spent part of her day with Kady making plans to that effect, a careful list, stark black against white: quit job, and fake death (parents?) and new identity and get money and find place to live. It was an insane to-do list, and she knew she didn’t have to worry, in the immediate sense, about the money issue. Her new family had more property than they knew what to do with. Worst case scenario, she was sure Eliot would happily let her stay in the Camden house.

When she opened her mouth to speak, she knew exactly what she was going to say, and exactly how everyone was going to take it.

“Kady, I’d like to help. I’d like to go with you.”

“Alice,” she said at once, eyes widening. “But you… what about everyone else?”

“You’re all family, right?” Alice asked, looking around at each of them. “So is Kady self-exiling to go on her vengeance-slash-penance mission, or is it like Margo said? Is this the new normal, where we all come and go, we all live our lives, as together as we want to be?”

“And have dinner,” Eliot emphasized. “At least once a month.”

“That’s right,” Alice said, nodding at him. “And if Kady goes off by herself, I just feel like…”

“I think it’s a perfect idea,” Margo said. “At least for now. Space, but no isolation.”

Julia was frowning, her arms crossed as she looked between Alice and Kady, and Eliot and Quentin. “I don’t like this,” she said, “but that’s no surprise.”

“She likes her people under one roof,” Quentin explained. “And I don’t blame her, really. But I think… yes. I think this will be good.”

“I’ll check on the Denali cabin first,” Kady said. “I think there’s a difference from running away and giving yourself time, you know? I’ve been running from the people who actually know me for decades, but I was also afraid of being alone. That’s what…” she sighed, then tilted her head in Eliot and Quentin’s direction, “that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Eliot nodded in agreement, acknowledgment, some measure of acceptance, the tiniest thawing of ice.

“The point is, I think some actual, real, solitude would do me some good. And then…” she turned a surprisingly shy smile on Alice, “I’d love your help cleaning up my mess in New York. If you’re serious about that offer.”

“Dead serious,” Alice said. “Plus, I have some things I need to handle, too.”

The family meeting broke up after that, decisions made. Alice wasn’t sure if the current “plan,” such as it was, was really any different from the way they’d all been muddling along the past couple of decades. Separated but not admitting it, in mourning but refusing to acknowledge what that meant.

But maybe it was different, because they’d said it out loud. Because, even, a new person had entered their circle and bothered to ask questions.

“Kady,” Eliot said, as Kady made her way for the sitting room door. She was heading upstairs to turn in, planning on an early departure the next morning. She stopped in the doorway, and Eliot, now standing next to the chair across the room, tossed something to her.

Kady caught it, reflexes sharp, and opened her hand, staring at her palm. Alice felt like a spectator again, this time inserted awkwardly into the film she was watching. She was hyper-aware of her presence, of her solidity, the way Kady or Eliot or any of the others might turn and notice her standing there, a witness to whatever this moment was about to be. She tried to decide what her face should look like, should anyone bother to look at it.

In Kady’s hand was Eliot’s ring, the one that represented her. It was tiny and silver and glinted in the cozy firelight. Kady’s face froze, trepidation and the wobbly beginning of devastation shivering along the planes of her expression. She looked up from the ring, right into Eliot’s eyes.

Eliot sighed, raised his shoulders in a slow-motion shrug, and then held out his right hand, fingers wiggling in her direction.

It was almost funny, how such a slight gesture could transform Kady’s face so entirely. The devastation washed away in a tidal wave of relief, and she practically skipped as she crossed the room to Eliot, took his hand reverently in one of her own, and slid the ring back home.

***

The next morning, after Kady had headed out and promised to text Alice when she got settled in Alaska, Alice found herself in the kitchen, helping Eliot prepare breakfast.

She wasn’t entirely sure how she’d gotten here. She’d been making up a more detailed to-do list, writing out all the things needed to close the door on one life and enter another. And then Eliot had poked his head around the door to Kady’s room, and asked if she felt like cracking some eggs or peeling some potatoes for hashbrowns, and she’d been far too startled to say no, and so here she was, working in oddly companionable silence with Eliot in the enormous kitchen. They were doing everything the old fashioned way, no magical shortcuts, for some inexplicable reason that Eliot hadn’t bothered to explain.

Quentin was close by, of course. She doubted they’d be able to stand being out of each other’s immediate vicinity for some time to come. While Eliot and Alice worked, Quentin positioned himself at the dining room table with a book, visible from where Eliot stood at the stove making a huge skillet of scrambled eggs.

Out of nowhere, as Alice began grating the potatoes, Eliot spoke, his eyes on the eggs and decidedly not on her. “I might owe you an apology, Alice.”

(Alice might have been imagining the snort of amusement she heard from the dining room. Quentin hadn’t moved a muscle, when she turned her head to look.)

“Oh,” Alice said. That’s okay, you don’t have to, was on the tip of her tongue, but it occurred to her that this wasn’t actually true. Eliot did have to. Or he should have to, in any case. If they were starting something here, it should be built on respect. Alice respected Eliot, couldn’t help but do so after what she’d seen over the past couple of days. But that shit was a two-way street.

“You didn’t exactly meet me at my best. I’m afraid I haven’t made a good first impression.”

“First impressions are bullshit,” Alice said. “Or at least I hope they are. We’ve got a lot of time ahead of us to correct them, don’t we?”

“We certainly do,” Eliot agreed, a smile in his voice that Alice couldn’t see from where she was working. “But regardless, I am sorry. For snapping at you, for ignoring you. All of it. You certainly didn’t ask for any of this mess, and you’re handling yourself a hell of a lot better than I did, in the early days.”

“You didn’t have any help,” Alice said, charitable. “I had all of you.”

“You had Julia and Kady and Q and Bambi,” Eliot said. “You didn’t have me, but you do now.”

Eliot had made her dinner, that first night. Had told her about Thermopylae. Maybe he’d been a little cold, but given what she knew now, she could hardly hold a grudge for that.

“I’m glad,” she said, keeping it simple. “Just—one thing.”

Eliot turned to face her for the first time, raising an eyebrow in question.

“Back at Brakebills, you told me I had no way of knowing what you were going through. That I wasn’t capable of understanding.”

Eliot’s mouth twisted up at that, not quite a wince, but he didn’t interrupt.

“And…” Alice swallowed. “You were right. But you’re also not capable of knowing how I felt, how I still feel, about my own losses. About losing my brother.”

“Alice…”

“But that’s okay. I mean, that’s not the point. I don’t have to know how you feel about losing Penny, and you don’t have to know how I feel about losing Charlie. I can still be sorry for what you’ve gone through. I can still want to help. I still… I have something to offer, here. And I don’t have to wait out the centuries until I’m old enough for you to take me seriously. That’s not the kind of thing I have patience for.”

Eliot looked very nearly stricken at that, and then he turned back to the eggs with a huff of incredulous amusement. “Well, I can certainly understand what Kady sees in you.”

She didn’t need Eliot’s approval, but damn if she didn’t enjoy it all the same. “I’m just saying,” she continued, “that I’ve probably got a lot of adjusting and panicking ahead of me. A week ago I… a week ago I was a different person, and the person I was is still… is still me. Sorry, I don’t know if that made any sense.”

“Not at all,” Eliot said. “And also, completely.”

Alice smiled and scraped out the rest of the potatoes onto the cutting board, turning to the sink to rinse off the grater. “That sounds about right.”

“How are you feeling about taking on some work?”

“Eager,” Alice said. “A part of me feels like the smart thing to do would be to take some time to come to terms with what I’m losing, with the end of my mortal life as I always imagined it, but honestly?”

“Honestly, you kind of hated that life,” Eliot finished for her, like this was a conversation they’d already had.

Alice didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Eliot reading her mind like that. He looked over his shoulder, taking the eggs off the heat. “Oh please,” he continued. “I may have been a little out of it, but I saw your place at Brakebills.”

“Maybe I just appreciate a minimalist style,” Alice said, but she wasn’t really defensive. She hadn’t done anything to make that place feel like home, and even if she’d stayed there for years, she never would have.

“You were living a life you created for yourself,” Eliot said, “out of whatever was left after tragedy. And you pretended you didn’t want someone to swoop in and offer you a solution, because you hate the thought of owing anyone anything.”

“Are we still talking about me, here?”

“Pick a trauma response, any trauma response, and I’ve tried it out at least once, for fun,” Eliot said. “The point is, you hated the idea of being immortal when you first found out, because the life you had was the only one you knew how to picture for yourself. You thought about an eternity of that, and couldn’t stand it.”

“But now I have a whole bright future ahead of me, is that it?” Alice asked, wavering between sarcasm and sincerity.

“You have as many futures ahead of you as you decide to try on for size,” Eliot said. “And as much time as you need to contemplate the why me of it all.”

“Have you figured that out?” Alice asked.

Eliot looked towards Quentin, about as subtle as a brick wall. “I have what I need,” he said, which wasn’t exactly an answer to Alice’s question, but worked well enough. “Are we good, then?”

Alice blinked, considering this seriously. “Yes,” she said.

And it was true. She thought of Julia, already eagerly going over options for Alice’s next steps, ready to handle the practical concerns of her new situation. Margo, already chomping at the bit to jump into a new adventure now that she was confident that her family wasn’t about to shatter irreparably apart. Quentin, stalwart and self-assured, inviting her to join another meditation later in the day, apparently no worse for wear after what had happened to him (Alice suspected that he was the kind of person who couldn’t close up again, once he’d opened the doors to his heart; she was prepared to be patient). And she thought of Kady, texting to let her know she’d made it through the portal alright, and was settling in for a couple days’ R&R in the Alaskan wilderness, excited to show her around.

“Yes,” she repeated, “we’re good.”

“Great. Can you take this to the table, please?” Eliot held out a paper-lined platter of greasy bacon, and Alice reached for it, taking in the delicious smell. Her hand brushed against Eliot’s as she grabbed the plate, and her finger slipped over one of the rings. Penny’s, she thought, on Eliot’s right pinky. She paused, taking on the weight of the plate but letting her finger trace over that ring, and then the empty finger beside it.

For a moment they just stood there, hands touching, plate of bacon between them, and Alice knew, without psychic abilities, without Quentin’s meditation helping to strengthen the connections between them, that the two of them were thinking the exact same thought.

Someday.

And then the moment passed, and Alice took the plate, and Julia appeared to help set the table, and Margo emerged from her bedroom at the last possible second so she wouldn’t have to help, and Eliot filled coffee cups and juice glasses with his magic, while Quentin passed around the platter of scrambled eggs, and Alice thought about nothing but this, nothing but this, right here and now, and she was at peace.

Chapter Text

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.”