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tell all the pieces of me

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When they reach the bottom of the mountain of ghosts, Alice turns to him, planting her feet with characteristic resoluteness. “Do you feel better?”

Eliot considers: the question, the mountain, the weight of his grief. The unsent letter with its selfish wish, its sweet recipient beyond the reaches of time and touch. The scene he’d made, spilling his secret life like animal blood. Honesty. Integrity. Closure. The lines around Quentin’s mouth deepening when he smiled. “First, let me ask you: all that talking about our feelings and baring our souls up there, was that spooky grief mountain magic shit, akin to being extremely drunk or a very special occasion? Or are we like, actual friends now?”

“Friends.” Alice frowns. “I mean, if you want to be.”

“I do.” He does. He has lost almost every friend he’s ever had, and the sad thing is when he says that he is speaking for once in his life mathematically rather than melodramatically. Quentin would be so proud. The thought makes him want, quite nakedly, to die, which answers Alice’s initial inquiry. “In that case — no. No, I don’t feel fucking better. Not one goddamn bit.”

Alice gives a brisk professional nod. “Same. So I guess it’s time for Plan B.”

“Does Plan B involve wine?” Eliot says. “Because I have to tell you, this was more physical activity than I’ve done in months and I’m really not up for another hike right now.”

“Plan B involves research.”

Of course it does. How does Eliot keep finding these people? “Like, five stages shit? Grieving the good old-fashioned way?”

“No.” Alice looks at him like he’s being an idiot. “Like how to bring someone back to life. For real this time.”

Eliot’s heart swells in his throat, shudders, vanishes into darkness. “So — you’re saying we should…”

He can’t put it into words. That someone else agrees: This cannot stand. The universe is wrong and will stay wrong until it once more contains the sound of Quentin’s voice. His laughter, his eyes. The delicate skin at his wrist with the veins underneath it, carrying the blood, beating at the press of a thumb. Proof of life.

Alice shifts her weight impatiently. “In or out, Eliot.”

“In.” He’s never agreed to anything so fast in his life. Well. While sober, at least. “In all the fucking way.”

-

“Fuck you people.” Julia shakes her head, mouth a tiny line. “Fuck you both straight to hell.”

“That’s — fair.” Alice curls and uncurls her fingers in her lap, like she’s playing with a hemline that isn’t there. “Very fair. We know that you’re, you know, trying to move on, and heal —”

“And that’s great,” Eliot butts in. “Very admirable.”

So admirable.” Alice nods vigorously.

“We really — admire it.” He tries not to wince outwardly. In retrospect possibly they should have rehearsed their recruitment pitch. “You’ve made — some really good points, it’s just, you know, not working for us. So —”

“Fuck.” Julia hunches over, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hand. “You think it’s working for me?

Alice and Eliot exchange glances. Tentatively Alice tries, “Well… because you said —”

“I said —” Julia gives a croaking laugh, wipes away something that looks alarmingly like tears. “You were a wreck” — Alice looks down, embarrassed — “and you were a wreck” — Eliot shrugs, unconcerned — “and someone needed to be holding it the fuck down in case we somehow wound up in the crosshairs of another impending apocalypse, so I thought, if I pulled it together to be the sane one long enough, eventually one of you would pick up the goddamn baton and then — then I could get my turn to fall the fuck apart.”

“Wait,” says Alice, “what?”

“Sorry,” says Eliot, “just to be clear, you wanted to do like… a grief… relay? Like a psychological time share?”

“You were the one saying we needed to go forward,” Alice says.

“Or were you envisioning it more like a joint custody situation?” Eliot says. “Like, you and Alice split weeks, I get weekends and holidays?”

“So all that stuff about how I was being selfish,” Alice says, “and needed to let him go —”

Julia shakes her head. “I thought if I could just be the responsible one, and say all the shit I was supposed to say, until one of you started showering again, then you could stop me from doing something crazy. But —” She crooks half a smile. “I should have known who I was dealing with.”

“Q kind of has a type,” Alice says, with a small uncertain smile at Eliot. He smiles back for her sake. Personally, he’s not at all sure he belongs on any list that involves Julia Wicker and Alice Quinn. “Or — had.”

“Has,” Julia says, definitively, like by saying it she can make it real. In that instant Eliot remembers the Quentin he first met — anxious and wounded and flinching constantly from the world — and understands as clearly as he ever has why that kid would have followed her anywhere. Like he would have followed Alice, with her genius and her determination. Like —

— like he did follow Eliot, those first few months, when everything was new and Quentin walked around the campus like someone squinting against the sunlight he’d never before seen in his life, trusting Eliot to guide him through bends in the path despite the very little Eliot did to suggest he was trustworthy and the very much Eliot did to indicate the opposite.

So — fine. Eliot swallows against the sudden tightness in his throat. A type, maybe, not that Eliot could ever explain what the fuck it was. If this works, maybe one day Eliot will find a way to ask him.

When. When this works, he corrects mentally, trying to steal some of Julia’s sureness for himself.

“So we were talking on the way back to the clock,” Eliot says, “and Alice was saying she remembers her dad talking about this Basque historian of magic —”

“Catalin Elizalde,” Alice says, “her first book was about the Jeong Veil Hypothesis, regarding the theory that the boundaries between realms have shifted in porousness over time, which seemed like a good starting place for —”

Julia holds up a hand. “Guys. I have a spell.”

Eliot’s heart skips. “Wait, seriously?”

“Give me a sec, I’ll show you.” Julia runs to fetch from her room what turns out to be a foot-high stack of notebooks, which she plops on the coffee table and starts rifling through. “Not that one — that might be a line of inquiry to check out if this doesn’t work — Jesus, did I fill out this Yoder table drunk? Oh — here.” She pushes the white pages across the table. Alice cranes her neck to see; Eliot stares at Julia, waiting for the movie version. “It’s not done. Actually, I’m glad you two have turned up today, because I think I’ve hit a wall and I could really use some fresh eyes, but —”

“It’s my spell.” Alice looks up, puzzled. “The golem spell.”

“The what now,” says Eliot.

“It didn’t work,” Alice says.

“That’s the thing,” says Julia. “It did work. Just — not enough, right? It didn’t bring all of him back. Just a bit. Just a piece of his soul. But it was real. It was him. We just need to do it again, and this time make sure we get all of him.”

“But that’s impossible,” says Alice. “The spell — it brings someone back for a purpose. You’d need to, to articulate every possible role Quentin could potentially play in someone’s life, ever, in order to summon up the whole person. It’s theoretically impossible, not even getting into the magical load.”

“That’s what I thought,” Julia says, “but — I couldn’t stop thinking about that spell. About —” She swallows. “Seeing Q, right there in front of me. I mean, you didn’t know him back then, but it was him. And then I was reading through some of the chance theorists, who kind of fell out of favor after the seventies because they were totally esoteric and impractical and weird, but I think they were on to something. It’s known that when you measure a magician’s output directly, especially a master magician, the power being transmitted is almost always lower than the power measured when you take the spell residue. Why is that?”

“Because the impacted matter or energy starts to exert its own field,” Alice says.

“Volkner’s Theorem,” Eliot says, because, whatever, he went to Brakebills, too. “Magic has a tendency to reproduce itself.”

“A tendency,” Julia says. “It changes the probability of the space around it. You don’t need to charm every atom — it’s probably not possible for a human to do. You just need to hit enough of them that it creates a large enough anchor to sufficiently alter the probability of the surrounding particles in the desired spell radius.”

“Once you hit the Leonhardt threshold, the balance tips and the spell is cast,” Alice says, a trace of impatience in her voice. “But what does this have to do with bringing Q back?”

“Basic casting principles say that a magician’s power creates an outline, and it’s their consciousness and the flow of magic that bring into being the fullness of the spell,” Julia says. “The chance theorists believed that magic and life were two different names for a set of interrelated phenomena. Some thought they were identical, others that they were spatially intertwined but distinct — it doesn’t matter. The core of it is that in either case, it’s defined by its negative space as much as by itself. The pull, the intention — the emotions, if you listen to some of the really out there ones — of the phenomena around it give it its shape, and some kind of exerting consciousness makes it whole.”

“Oh shit,” Alice says. “So the golem spell —”

“Life is probabilistic,” Julia says. “Each life is rooted in its surrounding subjectivities. We don’t need to bring all of him back. We couldn’t, because there is no all of him anymore. But we can bring a piece of him — and another — and another — and if we get enough pieces, then our own consciousness will unite them. We can — fill in the gaps, like your mind does when you’re looking at a constellation.”

“Or a mosaic,” Eliot says quietly. Thinking about what he had learned there: that the beauty of all life existed in the spaces between.

Alice looks at him. “Yeah. Like that.”

“Exactly.” Julia smiles. “So — yes, I’ve used the basis of the spell you were working from, and I’ve been trying to rewrite it, first just as a cooperative casting — the polychronic sequencing was giving me a headache, but I bet working together the three of us can crack it. The one thing is, this thing will require a ton of living clay. Even if I convinced Fogg to help us, I don’t think Brakebills has enough, and I’m not sure what other facilities store it at the quality level we would need, much less in that quantity.”

“My mother has a friend on the board at the Hyacinth Institute,” Alice says, making a face. “I could ask her.”

“You might not have to.” Eliot sighs. “It’s not a sure bet — they mostly keep to themselves and we’ve never had enough breathing room to send an ambassador there — but at the southern edges of the kingdom of Fillory, there’s this subterranean settlement…”

Julia’s eyes light up, a Q-matching gesture that makes Eliot’s chest seize. “The Gnomish Clature — it’s real?”

“Allegedly,” Eliot says. “So, in the books — they like fruit, right?”

-

“El,” Margo says, her voice full of something sad and awful and upsettingly close to pity, “baby, you know I cared about him, too. And how he died is fucked up as hell. But I just —” She shakes her head. “We both know the chances of us pulling this off are about as high as the odds of a frat bro finding the clitoris two keg stands in, and if it doesn’t work, what then? I want to help, I do, but if I think about what’s actually going to happen, all I see is you getting hurt, again, worse and worse and worse, and never giving yourself a chance to get better.”

Eliot nods. This is what he thought she’d say. It’s what he would say, if the tables were turned. “You’re probably right. I know that. But I can’t just — not.”

Her big eyes fill up, gentle and pained. “I know it feels like that —”

“Bambi,” he says, trying to find the words that will make her see, “if it were me. What would you do?”

Margo sucks her teeth. Looks him up and down, like she’s seeing something for the first time. Breathes in through her nose, deep, and exhales through a little o between her red lips. “It’s like that, huh?”

“It is,” he says. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t. Not for anything less.”

Margo nods, immediately all business, his perfect girl, and his heart swells with a familiar air a long time absent. “Well, alright then.” She whips up a swift Ortega basket out of nothing and gestures at Eliot to start tugging at the magic that will yank the apples off the Whitespire trees. “Let’s go bribe the shit out of some gnomes.”

-

“Do you think it’ll be enough?” Eliot asks anxiously as Alice and Julia peer at the mound of clay that has taken over the penthouse living room.

“It fucking better be,” Margo grumbles. “I’m going to be washing the smell of those tunnels out of my hair for weeks.”

“I think we’re good,” Julia says, with a quick glance at Alice; Alice nods in agreement. “And while you were out, I think we hammered the final kinks out of the spell. We couldn’t agree on the ideal stellar circumstances —”

“Mercury retrograde,” Margo says, looking at Julia’s notebook.

“But it’s not a reversal,” Julia protests.

“It’s not a spell of reversal,” Margo says. “But it’s an elemental spell — shit, if there’s anything beyond elemental, this thing is it, if it actually works. And Howard-Cruz says elemental spells are principally sensitive to the internal circumstances of the caster. For us, it’s a reversal. It’s taking back something that shouldn’t fucking happened.” Alice blinks behind her glasses, and Margo gives her one of her bright taffy grins. “Just because I had fun in grad school doesn’t mean my GPA wasn’t a 4.0.”

Julia purses her lips. “Fine. Majority rules.”

“What am I,” Eliot protests, “chopped liver?”

Julia raises an eyebrow. “Do you have a different opinion?”

“No,” Eliot admits, “I was going to say we should do Margo’s idea.”

Julia rolls her eyes. “In that case, there’s only one thing left to figure out before we really get into it.”

Eliot says, “Which is…”

“The number of casters,” Alice says. “There’s seven of us, assuming everyone’s on board.”

“Oh, everyone will be on board,” Margo says. “They’ll be on board or they’ll be on the receiving end of my foot up their ass.”

“But we think the spell needs more than that,” Julia says. “Nine, specifically.”

Margo nods. “Nine is a number that seeks its own completion.”

“Right,” Alice says. “Numerancy 101. So we need two more people that knew Quentin in some capacity — enough to have some memories of him. Ideally some memories shared by some of us, and some not.”

“Ugh,” Margo says. “Do we need to invite Todd?”

“No.” Eliot sits up straight. “I have a better idea.”

-

“This is so cool, you guys.” Fen is grinning from ear to ear. “I never get to be part of the group. And now we’re doing a scheme? I get to engage in subterfuge? I get to use a phone? Umber’s ass, if Gideon the butcher’s son could see me now.” She giggles to herself. It’s honestly kind of cute.

“I was told there would be an open bar,” says Fogg.

“Scotch neat, coming right up, Henry,” Eliot says, whisking his way around the jacuzzi-like vat the clay has been poured and over to the kitchen to begin pouring.

“Don’t call me Henry,” says Fogg.

“Make that two,” calls Twenty-Three. Eliot does, even though Twenty-Three lives here and can pour his own damn drink, because Eliot is nothing if not hospitable, and sets aside a third for himself.

“Maybe let’s all try to stay closer to sober than not,” Alice says anxiously.

“Excuse me if I have some baggage involving bringing Quentin Coldwater back from the dead,” says Twenty-Three.

Margo glares at him. “If you don’t want to do it —”

“I’m here, right?” He takes a drink. “I just think I’m allowed to take the goddamn edge off a bit.”

“We’re got comfort food up the butt if anyone’s looking for for a less psychoactive coping mechanism for existential queasiness and performance anxiety,” Josh says. “I’m talking popcorn shrimp, spicy or mild, steak-cut fries with garlic aioli, vegan sliders —”

“Okay,” Twenty-Three says, “there’s no such thing as vegan comfort food.”

“Here’s a thought,” says Kady. “Instead of sitting here talking about bullshit, let’s actually get this started. It’s going to take long enough without us wasting more time.”

“Sorry that bringing our friend back from the fucking dead is such a hassle for you,” Margo snaps.

“He literally was not my friend,” says Kady. “But you’re welcome.”

“If we could focus, please,” Julia says, just a hint of an edge in her voice, and the room goes quiet. In another life she would have made one hell of a middle school principal. “First of all, thank you all for coming.”

“I literally live here,” says Kady.

“Obviously,” Julia continues, “some of us are closer with Quentin than others.”

“Some of us don’t like him,” says Twenty-Three, “and have serious doubts about the wisdom of this plan.”

“Some of us maybe owe certain people giant favors,” Julia says pointedly, “that this will only begin to pay back. But we need all of us to pull this off. And the astrological circumstances are already shifting, so yes, we should get started. Alice?”

Alice gives a final nod at the vat of clay, then turns to face the assembled gathering. “The spell is designed to bring a piece of him back, using living clay to complete the incarnations. In, um, a previous trial it turned out that we get kind of a — a time-stamped version, a snapshot of him at a particular point in time. We’ve rewritten it so that it should be able to operate iteratively, producing a number of corporeal manifestations from a single initial casting. We need to try to make these sufficiently distinct such that each of them contains a unique circumstantial profile, or at least close to it. The theory is that once enough of them are gathered together, if we join back together with the spell using a set of Ulner Channels, our memories and connections of Q will connect with the array of possibilities already manifested, and it’ll — tilt the see-saw, so to speak, so that it becomes more likely for him to be present here than to be dead. The probabilistic shift this creates, provided we give it enough power, should be enough to bring him back.”

“Or to blow up half the block,” Fogg says, jocularly.

“Or that,” Alice concedes. “But — we’ve put a number of failsafes in place. This might not work, but for the consequences to be truly catastrophic basically everything possible would need to go wrong.”

“Good thing that’s never happened to us before,” mutters Twenty-Three.

“Hold up,” say Josh. “So we need to get like a Russian nesting doll set of Quentins, based on our memories of him? Because Quentin was great, and all, but I didn’t know him when he was a baby.”

Julia shakes her head. “The iterations don’t have to be chronologically equidistant — just different enough from each other that they make a kind of outline. Theoretically, we could get two Quentins from the same week, as long as each of them in his moment spoke to a different aspect of who he was — is. Who he is.”

“Ah.” Josh nods sagely. “We’re looking for the greatest hits.”

“Something like that,” Julia says with a smile.

“The other thing is,” Alice says, “obviously we’re running the risk of a Berenson Paradox here, and that might be what it all comes to in the end. But to prevent the identity lines from collapsing before we have a chance to try, we need to keep the different — versions of him apart until the end. And we should try to keep them in the dark about what’s going on, in case —” For the first time today her voice wavers. She catches herself, goes on steady. “In case things don’t go the way we want, and they need to return to their prior location.”

A chill runs up Eliot’s spine at the thought of Quentin, a Quentin he remembers, one that looks exactly the way Eliot knew him once to look, shuttling back to the Underworld to contaminate the rest of him.

“So there’s a set of portals upstairs,” Alice continues. “They’re numbered. Mostly they go to parks and things like that — quiet places. We’ll go one by one taking him through, and the last person left will text the others to hurry back. Don’t go too far while you’re out there.”

“I love texting,” Fen stage-whispers to no one in particular. Eliot is oddly glad that at least one person is guaranteed to have a good day.

Julia claps her hands together. “So. Most of you have been given the spell procedure already. Fen, you’ll be locking in through a conduit. Henry, you brought one, right?”

Fogg digs into his breast pocket for a small cloudy prism. “Svyatets wouldn’t let anything bigger than this leave the lab, but it’ll get the job done.”

“How come she gets to call you Henry,” Eliot says.

“Because I like her more than I like you,” says Fogg, which admittedly Eliot was sort of asking for. He hands Fen the crystal with one hand and flicks a few quick tuts in the other. Eliot can sense when her dormant meridians start to activate. It’s an odd feeling of mismatch, like seeing your second-grade teacher on a date.

“Ooh,” Fen giggles. “That feels like when I tried Coke.”

“The soda,” Eliot clarifies before anyone can scold him.

“You sit tight there and just concentrate on the object.” Julia raises her hands. “The rest of you — if there’s no more questions, then on my three.”

She counts them in, each syllable sending a sudden wild swoop through Eliot’s stomach. It hasn’t felt real until now, when they’re readying themselves to cast, launching into the opening sequence, chanting in alternating Basque and Hebrew because Julia is a fucking sadist — they’re really doing this. Which means they might really fail.

Eliot knows what Alice would say: that if they fail, that’s information to guide their next attempt. He knows what Julia would say: that they’re doing this until it’s done, wherever it might take them. He knows what he told Margo, and he knows he meant it. But still — he really fucking wants this to work.

The magic once set fills the room like a net, or like a gas, contrasting and expanding at once. It’s not like any spell he’s encountered before, which is probably a good sign, because what they’re trying to do has never been done before.

“That feels pretty fucking active to me,” says Margo. “So this is the part where we start reminiscing, right?”

“We have to call an aspect of him into our intention and therefore into being,” Alice says. “Something key to who he was. That — that speaks to how he fit into our lives.”

“Just putting this out there,” Twenty-Three says, “this timeline’s version, I barely know. Our most intimate memory is almost adopting a dragon together.”

Eliot’s heart sinks. But Julia says, “That shouldn’t be a problem. Look, we can even start with — Kady, why are you here today?”

“Once again,” Kady says, “this is my apartment.”

“You know what I mean,” Julia says. There’s almost a tease in it. Eliot can never figure out what exactly their deal is. “You have other shit to do. Why this?”

“Other than as a favor to you?” Kady rolls her eyes, rakes her hair back, crosses her arms; shrugs. “It was fucked up how he died, okay? It —” She grabs Twenty-Three’s Scotch out of his hand and takes a drink. Unexpectedly, he doesn’t protest. “He saved the world and turned magic all the way the fuck back on. You should get to live long enough to enjoy that. And he, you know. He would, if he were around.”

“He loved magic,” Alice says softly. “I grew up with it, seeing what it could do, what it could be used for, and I was sick of it, by the time I got to Brakebills. I didn’t want that to be my world. But it was — different, seeing it through his eyes.”

“It was sweet,” Margo says. She gives a crooked smile. “He’d probably hate it if I said that to him. But it was.”

Eliot feels a lump of his throat, remembering Quentin’s wide-eyed wonderment when he’d manage to crack even a stupid little first-year practice spell. A night at a party where Quentin was much drunker than he was willing to believe and he’d watched literally slack-jawed while Eliot played with the lighting, enjoying the chance to show off for such an endearingly eager audience. And in the other life — Eliot doesn’t know if this counts — but, god, the satisfaction he’d get cracking the final move in a new spell to keep the roof sturdy in a storm, or the sheer startling joy shining on his face as he drew little rainbows in the sky for his wife, for their kid, for anyone who hadn’t seen it before.

“I feel like he always loved it, you know?” Julia says. “Even before he knew it was real. Looking back, I think there was some part of him that always — hoped, in that way you hope when you know you shouldn’t but you can’t stop. That just wanted it so badly to be true. It was such a part of him, years before either of us knew it could be.”

The living clay in the vat starts to burble.

“Shit,” Eliot says, stepping to look at the bubbling muck, “is that — should it look like that? Is that how —?”

“I think so,” Alice says. “The way we rewrote it — I think —”

“Fuck,” Julia says, and casts something that feels a little fuzzy around the edges.

Margo says, “What did you —?”

“Just a cloaking spell,” Julia says, eyes on the clay which is rising like bread in the oven, like maybe, maybe — “I didn’t want him to be overwhelmed.”

They wait in silence except for the thick churn of the clay, an oddly and unpleasantly wet sound. Eliot feels like he’s going to throw up. And then —

And then in the manner of dreams, without any sense of transformation or shift, the way that in a dream one thing is true and then another, then there’s — Q. Or — it must be. It’s a kid, maybe ten years old, small for his age with a serious face, blinking out at the unfamiliar room with a prematurely resigned type of calm. An attitude Eliot recognizes: Well, I guess this is how it is now. But Eliot doesn’t actually know, never saw any yearbook pictures or family scrapbooks, not that Quentin’s family ever seemed like the scrapbooking type, not that Eliot ever met his family either, not that —

“Julia,” he manages, “is that —?”

“Yeah,” she chokes out. “It’s him.”

Quentin — him, really him, young and unfamiliar but unmistakable now that Eliot knows — calls out, curious, wary, but without any sense of urgency, “Hello? Have I been kidnapped?” At the sound of his voice Eliot’s heart could break.

“We each get one, right?” Kady says. “I’m calling dibs.”

“Uh,” says Eliot.

“Excuse us,” says Margo.

“Hey,” Kady says, “I’ll have you know I’m fucking great with kids. They hate bullshit, I hate bullshit, we get along just fine.”

Eliot glances at Julia, who nods, still a little misty-eyed. “It’s fine.”

Kady flips Eliot and Margo off on before maneuvering herself to an angle from which she can walk into Quentin’s view and running Cantor’s Unveiling on herself. “Hey, kid. No kidnapping. There’s been a mix-up in the magic world, but everything’s going to be okay.”

“The what?” Quentin says, eyes the size of moons.

Kady tuts for Popper Seven, a little diamond burst of sparks, and Quentin’s tiny unlined face does something delicate and lovely and huge and so unmistakably Quentin that Eliot can hardly breathe.

“There’s more where that came from,” Kady says. “Plus, I don’t know, you want ice cream?”

Quentin nods, apparently too awed to speak, and Kady leads him upstairs.

Margo watches them go, head tilted. “Why don’t we hang out with her more?”

“Because she doesn’t like or respect us?” Eliot offers.

Margo dismisses that with a flick of her wrist. “We can fix that. Easy.”

Easy, Eliot thinks, and tries to channel some of her certainty into convincing himself the wide-eyed tween who just walked up the stairs isn’t all they’re going to get.

-

The clay churns unsettlingly for some time after the first Quentin has gone. Alice and Julia assure everyone that this is to be expected, as the material requires some time to either cool down or power up or potentially both; they tend to it with bent necks and hushed voices, like a pair of chefs fiercely debating the glaze for this evening’s roast. Josh and Fen chat amiably about the athletic tournament Fen wants to reinstate, in less fatal form, for morale; Fogg and Twenty-Three play cards to pass the time. Eliot tries and fails to do anything but stress-eat fried food he can’t taste and stare at vat of mud allegedly, impossibly, containing the key to fixing the place where the universe went wrong.

Margo gives the hand that isn’t covered in salt and grease a squeeze. “Hey. It’s working.”

Eliot nods; swallows. “But what if it doesn’t?”

“It will.”

“But what if it doesn’t. What if you were right and I just spend my whole life trying and trying and trying to —”

“Then,” she interrupts, “at least you’ll have company. Okay?”

He can’t make himself say it. But he squeezes her hand back.

Alice gives a last tut to the mixture and turns back to face the group. “It should be ready to go now for round two. I think if we’re considering the metanumeric underpinnings of the spell, then we should probably —”

“Me next!” Fen cries, waving her hand in the air. Without waiting for confirmation she stands up and clears her throat. “I am personally very grateful to Quentin because he was a great king of Fillory, my native home.”

Alice clears her throat. “That’s very sweet, but in order for the spell to work, we need to draw on memories of things that were actually… true.”

Twenty-Three snorts. Margo elbows him.

“Oh.” Fen purses her lips; knits her brow; tilts her head; brightens. “Quentin was definitely one of the top three kings of Fillory I personally have ever met.”

Alice lifts her eyebrows inquisitively at Julia; Julia shrugs, eyeing the clay. “We can try it.”

“He was really —” Fen thinks, finger on her chin. “There. Well. Sometimes. He was there sometimes. And sometimes, he was even sober.”

“And other times,” Eliot feels the need to state defensively for the record, “there were what any reasonable person would consider mitigating circumstances for his, um — preoccupation.”

“That’s right!” Fen beams. “He was very sad.”

The clay begins to stir.

Eliot sits up a little straighter.

Julia steps away from the vat as if reassured, meeting Fen’s gaze with a wistful smile. “He could get pretty sad. But, you know — when we were growing up, I never saw him happier than when he was talking about Fillory.”

Twenty-Three mutters, “Did you ever get him to talk about anything else?”

“And what’s wrong with having a hobby?” Margo demands. “Quentin and I totally bonded over the books back at Brakebills.” Alice tucks a strand of ear behind her hair pointedly. Margo crosses her arms. “Fine. I — tried to bond with him over them, and he — you know, had some other stuff on his mind, or whatever. But —” She ducks her eyes. “It was nice, still. Having that in common.”

“He really loved those books,” Alice says. “He even got me to read them. Or — I mean, I read them for research. But I liked — learning about this thing that was so much a part of who he was.”

Eliot had almost forgotten about Quentin and the stupid books. When he thinks about Quentin and Fillory now he thinks about the godforsaken puzzle, but even that only barely. Really it’s nights under the stars and teaching their child to sing, firelight in the windows of the cottage as he walked home through the first snow. Quentin’s head on his chest as the leaves blazed crimson at the edges of the clearing, before anyone else had come to their place and again after everyone was gone. What it meant to wake up over and over irritated or furious or despondent or hungover or enamored or jealous or horny or terrified or happy even which could be even worse than the rest because at least the others he knew his way around, but to wake up and see again and keep waking up long enough to believe it that whatever else he was, he wasn’t alone there.

He’d thought it must have been Fillory. That was the terrible thing. Not its magic, or even the place itself — just the bubble of it, the two of them out of space and out of time. He’d thought — in Fillory, sure. But not here. He’d thought it was Fillory, but it had been Quentin, all along.

Eliot says, “He loved it for a long time. He wasn’t someone who would just — let go.”

Alice gives him a small, private smile.

“Had Mr. Coldwater not been so enamored of the concept of Fillory as he knew it,” Fogg says, “it seems entirely likely he would not have insistently found his way into the time loop Jane Chatwin initiated to defeat her brother, causing me to live through a series of violently unpleasant months for both me and my school a total of forty times, so certainly we can say that his baffling attachment to the place was… consequential.” He pauses. “Is this helping?”

The mud spits above the rim of the vat like the storm-tossed sea and Julia says, “I think so.”

“And hey —” Josh snaps his fingers. “If Quentin hadn’t gotten involved in the time loops, you guys might never have found me, so I might still be stranded in Fillory for all we know.”

“That’s a fucking reach,” says Twenty-Three, but no one pays him any attention because with a final cresting wave —

Eliot grips Margo’s hand so hard it has to hurt but she doesn’t say a word.

It’s him. Q, the one that Eliot knows, knew, in a sweater with a stain at the hem that looks like wine and his absurd royal diadem askew atop his head, squinting with dark circles under his eyes as he looks around the apartment bewildered and, perhaps, not entirely sober.

“Uh,” Quentin says, in the voice Eliot remembers, “hello? El? Margo? Anyone?”

Fen leaps forward almost faster than Alice can tut the unveiling and Quentin starts at the sight of her, a funny full-body jolt so familiar and dear to Eliot that he thinks he might weep. “Oh, hey, Fen. I was just —” He glances behind him. “I mean, I thought I was walking back to the cellar, to — you know, see if anyone needed help —”

“I do need help, King Quentin!” Fen loops her elbow around his. “So glad I found you. We must go through the portal immediately.”

“The — what?” Quentin blinks, but is no match for the force of Fen’s enthusiasm. “Okay, sure, just — what do we need to —”

“There’s no time to explain. I’ll tell you when we get there.” She hustles him towards the staircase, tossing a big wink over her shoulder. Eliot manages to pull it together to give her a thumbs-up before she disappears up the stairs.

“And then there were seven,” Margo says, and it’s not a joke but Eliot hears himself laugh, because, god forgive him, he’s starting to think this might actually work.

-

“It is as ever a pleasure to watch the ladies Wicker and Quinn at work,” says Fogg, “but I confess the novelty is wearing off, so — if I may —” He knocks back his drink. “Let’s get on with this, shall we? I knew Quentin primarily the way I have known most of you — as a student. He was not the best student I ever taught, by a long shot, nor was he the most diligent. His work did not distinguish itself in any particular. But he was —” Fogg chews his lip for a moment. “Certainly he was happier to get in than most who go on to matriculate.”

“He was terrified to get kicked out, too,” Eliot says before he can stop himself, then feels guilty, as if he’s betraying Quentin by revealing to the room at large that early mess of twitching anxiety, so palpable Eliot can almost touch it in his memory. But the clay has started its rumbling dance again, so he goes on. “Freaked out at every one of the first-year culling points.”

“We do have several of those,” Fogg says.

“You know that’s a fucked up way to run a school, right?” says Margo.

Fogg shrugs. “A magician is a fucked up thing to be.”

“He worked hard,” Alice says. “The practical element was tough for him at first, but his notes were great, if you could read his handwriting.” She glances at Twenty-Three. “If he was telling the truth, and I don’t think he’d lie, he got our Penny through the first round of the Trials, too.”

Twenty-Three scowls, but says only, “Yeah, okay.”

“And he came back,” says Josh. “Even when magic was gone. Most of the school bailed, but he was one of the ones who stuck around.”

“He always liked school,” Julia says. “I mean — he hated going to school, because of the people. But classes, binders, research papers — he was good at that part. Good at college — good enough to apply to Yale.” Julia says this the way Eliot once heard Quentin say it, like she has no idea how obnoxious it sounds; it makes him feel fond of them both. “I think he liked — I don’t know, the structure of it. Senior year kind of freaked him out. Like —” She tilts her head, looking for the words, and Eliot thinks about Quentin, cross-legged and hunched over, back at Brakebills chewing on his pen, by the sparklingly dew-soaked Fillorian grass methodically plotting out designs in chalk, in the house with the boy in his lap reading through a story transcribed from the memory of some picture book with his finger pointing underneath each word.

“He liked knowing where to go,” Eliot says. “What he was supposed to be doing. Having — some kind of plan.”

“Or a quest,” Alice says.

Julia smiles. “Yeah.”

Unsightly drops of dirt arcing through the air, and then —

“Quentin,” Fogg booms, unveiling himself with a barely a tut, “glad I found you.”

“Dean — uh — you are? Sir?” Quentin — heart-stoppingly the precise Quentin Eliot first met, the Quentin from whom all his Quentins followed, bangs in his eyes and shoulders up to his ears — starts to look behind him and then turns himself in a circle like a dog chasing his tail. Margo stifles a laugh. “Am I in trouble? Because I didn’t — Penny was the one who cast that, I swear, and —”

“No trouble at all,” says Fogg, gripping Quentin’s shoulder and steering him towards the stairs, “we’ve merely had a mild spatio-temporal displacement, quite normal I assure you. I’m simply gathering up whoever’s been scattered — if you’ll come with me…”

-

“When you think of Quentin,” says Margo, “what’s the first word that comes to mind?”

“Loser,” says Twenty-Three.

“Not you.” She scowls at him, then turns to Josh with a smile more for Twenty-Three’s benefit than anything else and sweetly says, “Well? When I say Quentin, you think…”

“Honestly?” Josh screws up his face, thinking. “It’s kind of corny, but — brave.”

“That’s not kind of corny,” says Twenty-Three. “It’s incredibly corny.”

Margo jabs a finger at him. “I swear on the Rihanna pussy-too-dry-to-be-riding-my-dick-like-this Tweet—”

Twenty-Three holds his palms up by his ears. “I said it was corny, I didn’t say it was a lie.”

Margo softens, barely. Eliot appreciates her defensiveness. He feels like he’s abdicating some kind of responsibility by not joining in, but pathetically it’s all he can do not to burst into tears. Why the fuck not?

“See?” Josh points with two hands at Twenty-Three, like he’s scoring a point at bar trivia. “Undeniable. And I would know, because I’m not, like, at all.”

“Aw, hey,” says Julia. “That’s not true.”

“No, it really is,” says Josh. “I’m a huge wuss. I slept with a nightlight until I was seventeen. My best friend wanted to go skydiving to celebrate turning twenty-one and I faked food poisoning to get out of it. Also there was that time I like totally abandoned all of you guys in the Fillorian wilderness.”

Margo flicks her wrist. “Bygones.”

Josh smiles wistfully. “So that always stuck out to me, you know? That he was a guy who didn’t run away from, like, anything. I thought that was so cool.”

Twenty-Three starts to say something, but Margo physically clamps her hand over his mouth. “He stood his fucking ground,” she says.

“He was always ready to jump in,” says Julia. “No matter what it was, or how impossible it seemed. If he thought it was right, he’d be there.”

“Not just jump in, but — stay there,” says Alice. Her hands clench and open at her sides. “Even when it got — messy, and weird, and, and when it was impossible to see the way through, or know anything for sure — he’d still try. Always.”

Eliot thinks about their messy and weird and impossible life unlived, the years it took if he’s being very honest to complete the transition from friends to an actual functional relationship, the false starts and frustrations and nights of despair, the stupid puzzle refusing day after day to yield its secrets, the tiles haunting them when they shut their eyes, and the soft miracle that Quentin came back ready to do that all over again. He can’t stop himself from saying, “He was the bravest person I ever knew.” Corny, undeniable. Quentin made him a person who says shit like this in public; inanely he thinks, doesn’t that have to count for fucking something?

And maybe it does, because — froth, spittle, churn —

“What the fuck,” the latest Quentin says, breathing hard, eyes wide. His outfit is classic Quentin — black all the way up and down, from the nondescript pants to his well-worn hoodie — so that Eliot wouldn’t be able to place him if not for the sword covered in god-blood he’s holding at his side.

Josh bounds forward through his unveiling, greeting Quentin with a wave. “Hey, dude. Sick-ass sword.”

Quentin stares at him blankly, as though somehow this is the most inexplicable and offensive sight he’s encountered all day. “Josh? How did — I was in Fillory, and —”

“Yeah, no, it’s cool — you know how Fillory can get about time — I’ll catch you up in a bit, but let’s get some air first, I’m going a little stir-crazy — I promise you, everyone’s fine…”

-

They hit a lull after that. Julia tells childhood stories; Margo reminisces about the Cottage; Alice shares biographical oddities; Eliot meditates fervently on how very Quentin Quentin was, everywhere and always. Nothing catches. Alice and Julia get the spell back out and Margo jumps up to pore over it with them, the three of them checking and rechecking and adjusting and readjusting, making tentative tuts in the vat’s direction to no great effect, as the minutes turn to hours and the sky tints orange-pink and then dark and then darker and Eliot tries not to down a bottle of whiskey or have a nervous breakdown and still the clay sits inert and unresponsive. Cold.

Dead.

“Maybe it’s not about the clay,” Alice says, doing her doomed best to project an aura of calm, an endeavor on which Julia, chain-smoking over a pile of notes at the kitchen counter, has long since given up. “Maybe — maybe we screwed up the Magellan sequence, and as the number of casters decreases we actually have to recalibrate the base angles of the —”

“It’s not about the metamath,” Twenty-Three says, the first time he’s spoken in ages.

Margo glares at him. “Oh, and you’re a fucking expert now in experimental transplanar manifestational spellcraft? Do enlighten us, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“The problem is…” Twenty-Three sighs, rolling his eyes. “Y’all are being too nice.”

“That’s it.” Margo advances on him, less High King of Fillory and more Queen of Hearts, eager to behead. “I’ve fucking had it with your whiny bullshit and your negativity, just because trying to bring back your Quentin set off one little apocalypse or whatever the fuck. You don’t want to do this? Go. We don’t need you.”

“Actually, we super do,” Alice says nervously. “I know you’re upset, Margo, but we can’t sub in another caster at this stage of the process, and the stellar circumstances won’t be right to try again for weeks, at least —”

“One hundred and seventeen days,” Julia supplies, voice hollow.

“— and we don’t know if the clay will be reusable, or —”

“I get it,” Twenty-Three says. “I was hoping one of you would figure it out and I wouldn’t have it say it, because yeah, I know how it sounds, coming from me. I’m not his biggest fan and I continue to have some fucking legit concerns about this entire scenario. But I don’t half-ass shit. I told Julia I was in, and I meant fucking in. Believe it or not, I am trying to help you.” He gets to his feet. “The whole point of this spell is, we’re bringing back enough pieces of him that the rest of him fills in itself, right?”

“That kind of oversimplifies the dynamic interplay between caster and cast-upon,” Alice says, “but essentially, yes.”

“That means you can’t just bring back the parts you like,” says Twenty-Three. “There’s got to be something for all of him, good and bad. And, fine, whatever, the guy liked magic and school and he was brave and shit, but come on, people — are you going to stand here and call me a liar, or are you going to admit that Mr. Fillory Courage Magic Whatever could also be a little bitch?” He looks around the room as if daring one of them to contradict him.

Margo opens her mouth, then shuts it, seething.

Alice busies herself examining the clay.

Eliot breaks off a piece of a stale scone feeling unaccountably guilty.

Julia says, “No.”

Alice looks up at her, alarmed. “Okay, um — I just think it’s a good time for all of us to remember that in order to work, the spell does require total honesty at least as far as our subjective memories.”

Julia puts her cigarette out on an ashtray and walks around the counter to rejoin them. Looking Twenty-Three dead in the eyes, she says, “He could be a huge bitch.”

Margo snorts, then covers her mouth. Alice bites her lip. Eliot chokes on the dry scone so hard he has to use magic to pour himself a glass of water from across the room.

And slightly, subtly — so minutely it could almost be a trick of the light — the surface of the clay starts to move.

Twenty-Three grins. “That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s do this. Your Quentin, did he whine as much as my guy? Because I swear to god the first couple months I knew him, I barely heard a sentence out of his mouth that wasn’t to complain.”

“He whined so much,” Julia breathes. “And about the dumbest shit. Like having to print something again because he forgot to hit color. Or people being wrong about Star Wars on the internet. Historical inaccuracies in movies.”

“He did not like those,” Eliot admits, recalling his complaints about the depiction of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre when he and Margo had screened for the Cottage Some Like It Hot.

“Okay, and also,” she goes on, warming up, “I know you’re not a fucking jock, Q, but like, it’s ice-skating. I’m not asking you to run a fucking 5k with me. The point is to zoom around and fall on your butt and run into the wall because none of us are good at this, and then get hot chocolate. And it’s my birthday. You could at least give me the gift of pretending not to hate this. And while we’re at it, I’m sorry I dared to make some friends who don’t give a shit about the Enterprise, and maybe you guys will never be BFFs, but if you gave them half a chance, you might actually discover that hanging out with them is fine, and then I can stop feeling like the child of an acrimonious divorce every time I try to figure out what I’m doing Friday night.”

“He could be condescending,” Alice says, big eyes blinking hard. “Insanely so. Not to mention he was constitutionally incapable of minding his own fucking business.”

“The sad sack routine got old, fast,” Margo says. “Like, I know you have problems. Welcome to Earth. It’s a common condition. And I’m sitting here trying to be fucking nice to you, which is not exactly my forte, when I could be off trying to have some actual fun, and I’m not expecting you to come get wasted and dance to Pitbull with me, that’s clearly not your vibe, but you could act like you’ve noticed that an actual human being is giving you their time and attention and some part of you has the decency to appreciate that.”

“He was pedantic,” says Julia.

“Self-righteous,” says Alice.

“Sexist,” says Margo.

“Stubborn,” says Eliot, remembering arguments at Brakebills and in Fillory both that had gone on for days, and feels guilty about it but the clay is moving faster now, whipping itself closer to life. “If he’d made up his mind about something, forget it.”

Julia shakes her head, huffing a small laugh. “Like pulling fucking teeth.”

A wave rising, rolling, cresting; and —

“There we fucking go,” says Twenty-Three, and unveils himself to march towards Quentin, dressed like any Quentin but with a specific tension radiating from his shoulders and the furrow in his brow that Eliot knows comes from his first weeks at Brakebills.

Quentin scowls at the sight of him. “Okay, seriously? Is this some kind of prank? Because, like, I’m sorry I made you go to your girlfriend’s room because some of us actually give a shit about learning to do magic correctly, which is ostensibly why any of us are even here —”

Twenty-Three grins. “Yeah, you sound real sorry.” He grabs Quentin’s shoulder, and a blink later they’re gone.

-

“But, okay,” Margo says, “all that stuff we were saying, about how he was obnoxious and annoying and a pain in the ass — that shit’s annoying, yeah. But is it really wrong?”

Julia raises an eyebrow. “I love him more than anything, but nobody’s perfect.”

“No, I know, but it’s like —” Margo turns to Eliot. “El. What’s my biggest flaw?”

“That you’re a huge cunt,” he says, casually.

“Right. And what’s my greatest asset?”

“That you’re a huge cunt,” he says, affectionately. He can’t help running his thumb along the hair at her temple.

“See? I feel like that’s how it is for everyone,” Margo says. “I mean, Fen’s so sweet sometimes I want to wrap her in a blanket and sometimes I want to murder her in her sleep, you’re so damn determined to make yourself into someone that you’ve been both iconic and totally insane, Julia and Alice over here are basically so smart it makes them psychopaths —”

“Excuse me,” Julia says.

“No, I get it,” Alice says. Julia throws her hands out in a gesture of mildly affronted betrayal. “The thing that’s the biggest part of you — anything powerful enough to be what makes you yourself, it’s always going to be too big and complicated to be all good, or all bad. Your strengths and your weaknesses are usually two sides of the same coin.”

Thank you,” says Margo.

“Okay,” Julia says. “Point conceded. So what is that, for Quentin? What’s the other side of this coin?”

“He cares,” Margo says, instantly. Her eyes are warm. “He cares so damn much. He can’t stop himself. He just — loves things, whether or not they love him back.”

Eliot takes in a suddenly ragged breath; tries to add something on; can’t.

Softly Julia says, “Yeah.”

Alice pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose, eyes on the shifting, waking clay.

“I’d never known someone like that,” Margo says. “Who just — had no off switch, no dimmer. Who’d somehow made it to adulthood and seen all the shit the shitty fucking world throws at you, and still —” She shakes her head. “And it wasn’t like it didn’t hurt for him, you know? It wasn’t like it was any easer for him than it was for me, or for anyone. It wasn’t even like he didn’t care if it hurt, or if it made him look stupid, because he cared about that shit, too. But it didn’t stop him.”

Quentin in his first year at Brakebills, hunched over one of Sunderland’s problem sets, dry-running tuts with a line between his brows; Quentin in their first year at the mosaic, meticulously recording their umpteenth design before clearing the tiles, one grain of sand closer to maybe bringing magic back to a world they might never get to live. Quentin in bed when they were still pretending this was something other than what it was, his eyes so tender sometimes Eliot had to look away; Quentin cradling his infant son, his face so full of love Eliot couldn’t look anywhere else. Quentin crowning Eliot, blazing with belief so huge and true it made it feel more possible for Eliot to believe, too.

“He cared so much it changed things,” Eliot says. His voice is rougher than he would prefer, but fuck it — Q wouldn’t let that stop him. “He changed me.”

Margo takes his hand. “Not just you.”

Movement, noise, the now-familiar rush of hope: and it’s Quentin, looking harried, his hair tied back. Eliot can’t pin him to a place or time, but it’s the Quentin that in this life he’s known perhaps most often: eyes alert, back hunched over with the weight of the world’s problems he’s trying to solve.

Margo gives Eliot’s hand a squeeze and steps forward to greet him.

“Margo,” Quentin says, surprised. “I thought you were in Fillory. Wait — do you feel that? Am I crazy, or —” He tosses off some magic, something so quick it’s barely even a spell, just a little dance of light and energy, but the joy on his face twists around Eliot’s heart like the thorned vine of a rose. “Holy shit. There’s magic here. How did —”

Margo grins, eyes misty. “Not crazy. We did it, kid.”

“Wait, what? How?”

“It’s kind of a long story. And I can’t tell it all to you just yet. But if you’ll follow me…” She touches his elbow and Eliot watches the two people he loves most in all the world disappear up the stairs.

-

Julia heads out while the clay is resetting. Ostensibly she’s doing a coffee run, but Eliot suspects she’s going a little stir crazy, waiting as they draw closer to finding out if they’ve pulled this off for real. Once the door is shut behind her, Alice clears her throat like she’s preparing something to say; says nothing; then clears it again.

Finally she says, “Um — you and me should probably talk… about… things.” She doesn’t talk, though. She blinks very fast behind her glasses, her mouth a tight line.

Eliot can guess what things are on her mind, but he’s not looking forward to this conversation, either, so he lets her find the words.

“I don’t —” She crosses her legs and fidgets with the hem of her A-line skirt. It’s a great silhouette, Eliot thinks, attempting to distract himself. “I don’t want to have just half of Q’s heart.”

This is easy enough, at least. “Look — if this works, like actually works, if we really bring him back — I’ll just be thrilled that he’s okay. Promise. I’m not going to — get in your way, or —”

“What? No, I didn’t mean —” She shakes her head. “I don’t want to be with him if — if part of him is somewhere else. I don’t — I don’t want him to love less, I don’t want him to be less, I want — I want all of him. Whatever that means. And I want him to know, exactly, what he is to you. Because — he deserves that. And so do you.”

Eliot marvels at her, momentarily dumbstruck. “Alice — that’s… insanely generous of you, but I can’t — I couldn’t do that to you.”

She narrows her eyes, shrewd. “You couldn’t do that to me? Or you couldn’t risk it for yourself?”

He shrugs, caught out, and tries to parry lightly. “Six of one? Does it matter? I really do appreciate it — more than I am eloquent enough to say — but —”

“Don’t get it wrong, Eliot,” she says. “This isn’t some act of selfless martyrdom. I don’t want to be with him if the only reason he’s with me is because he thinks you’re not an option. If it would change how he felt for me, if he knew… that’s shitty for me, but it’s better than being in a relationship where I’ll always be wondering if I’m someone’s second choice. I deserve to know the truth, too.”

God, Alice Quinn is so — Eliot wonders if he would be brave enough to feel the same, if he was in her place. He hopes he would. He’s not sure. “You’re right. You do deserve that. So — okay. We’ll talk. Him and me. But — then what? We put him in a tux and ask him to pick who gets the rose?”

Aice blinks. “What?”

“Trashy reality TV reference, don’t mind me.” Eliot waves it away, forcing himself to tamp down the instinct to argue that her lack of familiarity with this particular area of his expertise is proof positive that she and Quentin are in fact the star-crossed soulmates here, because — because they’re here to turn the truth of Quentin into something more than memory, and he knows in his cowardly heart that she’s right. Quentin loved him. Eliot doesn’t know if he still does, still will, still could, but — he fought too hard to know that to fail Quentin again by pretending he doesn’t. “But, seriously — I get what you’re saying. It just seems like a lot of pressure to put on someone who’s already coming back from the dead.”

“If he’s already made his choice, then it’s easy,” Alice says. “And if not, then — you know, maybe he’ll want to choose, and maybe he won’t. And maybe — maybe he doesn’t have to.”

Eliot peers at her. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I’m saying — if that’s what he wants, then — like I said, I love all of him. So —” She shrugs uncomfortably. “So I’d be cool with it. If you are.”

He arches a brow. “In my experience, the phrase ‘cool with it’ is used pretty much entirely by people who are not, in fact, cool with it.”

“Yeah, well.” Alice crosses her arms. “Does your experience involve a lot of people like me?”

Eliot has to laugh at that. “There’s fucking no one like you.”

“Quentin has a type.” She gives a small smile.

Eliot’s throat tightens. “I guess he does.”

“And, you know, maybe we’ll try it and it’ll turn out I’m not fucking cool with it,” Alice says. “And maybe that will totally suck, for everyone involved, but you can’t just — not try. You can’t live your life hiding from everything that could go wrong. I said Q was messy, but if I learned anything from him it was that — life is messy. But you can’t run from that. You just have to — accept it, and keep going, because the mess is where all the shit is, but it’s where all the good stuff is, too.”

Quentin in Fillory, decade after decade — the long winter darknesses and the weeks of despair, the monotony and tedium and the vicious screaming fights that sent birds scattering at the edge of the woods, and the days where all of that had still happened and even so, maybe even because of it, Eliot was as happy as he’d ever been, and he could see on that quicksilver face that could never quite hide that Quentin was, too.

“Yeah,” he says. “It is.”

Alice nods, businesslike again. She’s so delightfully weird. Eliot hopes, whatever happens here, or next, that the two of them stay friends. “Okay. That’s settled. Now — I think with the number down to three, it’s possible for us to get the next Quentin manifested without Julia here, especially since she’s likely still within the sigma radius, so her magic’s connected, anyway. And — and I think maybe that would be a good idea.”

“Why?”

Alice becomes very preoccupied with a loose thread at her sleeve, even though she must know at least half a dozen spells for that. “We’re trying to — to create this constellation of Q, right, get enough significant aspects — one way to think about it is different, um — different facets of his embodied experience on the terrestrial plane — you know, Carver has some very interesting writings, actually, on the historiography of experimental taxonomy in spellcraft and magical education —”

“Oh,” Eliot says, realizing. “I see. But — I mean, in the life that Quentin’s body actually lived, he and I never, um — I mean there was the one unfortunate time, but I don’t really —”

“Blackwell argues that desire is itself a form of embodiment,” Alice says, voice strained and eyes looking anywhere but at Eliot, “so it’s worth a shot — but, um, maybe we don’t have to talk about this, like, out loud —”

“Roger that,” Eliot says, and attempts to — what, sink into erotic memories of his dead ex-boyfriend while his dead ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend does the same a few feet away? God, he hopes this fucking works, if only because he has no doubt that whatever they try next will somehow wind up even weirder.

But it’s less difficult than it seems — less difficult perhaps than it ought to be. The truth is this is easy the way that it was always the easiest thing between them. In the early years, there were weeks where they could barely look at each other during the daytime but would still find their way to each other’s bodies at night, whatever stupid grudge temporarily forgotten in the promise of their shared heat. Quentin’s eyes going dark with the kind of hunger Eliot had foolishly believed him too neurotic to allow himself to touch, Quentin’s desperate lips trailing electricity all over Eliot’s body. Quentin’s mouth eager around Eliot’s cock, slack while Eliot fucked into him with pleasure and something almost like awe — at Eliot, at their sex, at his own capacity for sensation, which seemed to come perpetually as a surprise. Gorgeous — it was gorgeous to see him like that, undone and uncareful, wild and wanting. To hear his choked-out groans, blissfully loud inside their wards, and the way he said Eliot’s name. They did all manner of things together (Quentin bound with rope, spread-eagled and obedient, waiting for Eliot’s word; Quentin on his knees in the dirt, back covered in come, ass a rough red, dick untouched, begging for Eliot to spank him again; Quentin feigning uncertainty as Eliot coaxed him as gently as he could finally admit, years into being loved like this, he wished someone had been with him, his first time), but the truest novelty, for Eliot, was discovering how good it could feel, just to be wanted by someone who wanted so completely.

The dark mass rises like a peculiar lumpen loaf; rises, and then —

Behind them the penthouse door opens and Julia says, “What the fuck.”

Quentin is here, hair almost to his shoulders, in nothing but boxers hiding an undeniable boner. His hands are tied behind his back with — is that a bra?

“Vix?” he calls out, looking bewildered and alarmed. It’s definitely a bra: pink and satin, not at all what Eliot would have expected, but then Alice is full of surprises. “Hello?”

“Sorry,” Alice says, looking fiercely embarrassed. “Really sorry.”

“Hey, I get it,” Eliot says. “I mean, Q was into a lot of —”

“Please stop talking,” Julia says. Her eyes are closed. “And please get him some pants.”

“Yep,” Alice says, standing up. Her face is tomato-red.

Mostly-naked Quentin says, “If this is part of the game, Vix, uh — parabola.”

“Parabola?” Eliot echoes.

Alice closes her eyes, tomato shading to beet. “Safe word. I’m —”

“Your safe word is parabola?

“Well, the website said you should pick something that’s not sexual, so —”

The pants, Alice.”

Alice hurries to Q, apologetic and sweet, and speaks to him too low for Eliot to make out what she’s saying, though he can tell it causes Quentin’s shoulders to ease even before they make it to up the stairs. It does make a stab of jealousy go through him, and he can’t tell what for — for Alice, who gets to greet her boyfriend and not the one who got away, or for the two of them as a semi-functional and surprisingly sexually adventurous couple in a life they’ve actually lived, or for just the undignified animal ache of seeing someone else with the boy he loves. Maybe it’ll turn out Eliot’s the one who’s not cool with it. But maybe not. Maybe it won’t matter, because Eliot told Quentin to fuck off and whatever conversation they have now will be too little, too late. Maybe Quentin will forgive him, somehow, and it’ll be better than he dares to dream. That doesn’t strike him as particularly likely, but — only one way to find out.

-

“So,” Eliot says. “When you think Quentin, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Wait, let me guess.” He closes his eyes, imagining. Thinking about the stories Quentin would tell him about growing up side by side with Julia Wicker, who as far as Eliot can tell was from birth a tiny ball of ferocity and dweebiness alike. “It’s gotta be Fillory, right? Plastic swords and shit? Quentin told me about your map. And your Halloween costumes.”

Julia smiles. “That’s up there, for sure. In some ways, when I think of me that’s what I think of first — that’s the stuff that made me who I am. But when I think of Q?” She tilts her head. “Okay. So the two of us were like, these twin freaks growing up, right? In retrospect, I guess everyone probably feels like that in middle school, and having each other was better than a lot of people get. But at the time, it was rough. No one’s dying to be friends with the smartest girl in the grade, except the kid who didn’t have any other friends. It was us against the world. And then, the summer after eighth grade, when we were getting ready to go to high school in a new building, I grew boobs. And, surprise surprise, when high school starts, I’m a lot more popular than I used to be.”

“Tale as old as time,” Eliot remarks.

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah. And like, on some level I knew this situation was bullshit. But I was also fourteen, and some really cute boys were suddenly being really nice to me. It’s a little hard to see straight, in those circumstances.”

“Cute boys make it hard to see straight in many circumstances.”

“My sister even tried to warn me, but I thought she was just, like, a killjoy who thought I was a baby, or something. And I didn’t feel like a baby. I felt like I was super grown-up, and apparently hot now, and a cute boy might actually like me. So, when Tyler Shephard asked me out, obviously I said yes.”

“Who among us,” Eliot says, smiling. He’s enjoying this unexpected glimpse of Julia Wicker, shockingly normal teenage girl.

“He was a junior,” Julia says conspiratorially. “With a car. Super dreamy. Quentin hated him because he thought Tyler was a dumb jock, which he kind of was, but in my defense, he was pretty hot. And to his credit, he was a pretty good kisser, and not a total creep. For a couple weeks there, it was actually pretty nice. We went to movies, held hands, fooled around. Young love.”

“I sense a shoe about to drop.”

“Thanksgiving weekend. There was this big party. I was invited, because I was with Tyler, and Quentin was invited, because he was with me. My mom didn’t give a shit what I did, but Quentin’s parents wouldn’t let him go, and — I don’t know, it felt wrong, going without him. We’d already been spending less time together now that I had a boyfriend, and he didn’t have a girlfriend, or anyone else, and I just — I felt guilty, I guess. So I lied. I told Tyler my mom had said no, and that night Q and I had a sleepover instead. I think we stole some of my mom’s vodka and watched Star Wars again. Normal stuff.” Her mouth goes wry. “Then, come Monday — guess whose dreamy boyfriend was not only spotted but photographed at the party with his tongue all the way down some other girl’s throat.”

Eliot clutches a hand to his heart. “No.”

“Unbelievable, right?” She shakes her head. “It was awful. It would have been awful no matter what, but on top of the cheating, everyone was fucking talking about it. I faked sick and went home early to cry my guts out in bed. Q tried to call me a few times, but I figured he was going to tell me he’d been right about Tyler all along, and I didn’t want to hear it. So after school, he came over. And I swear to you I thought, Is this asshole really coming over to gloat on the worst day of my life? But then I saw his face, and oh, Eliot —” She covers her mouth with her hand, eyes sparkling at some faraway memory. “The poor thing looked like he’d been run over by a truck.”

“Oh my god,” Eiot says. “He didn’t —”

“He did, he did,” Julia nods, halfway to laughing and crying at once. Eliot’s not far behind. “He went and found Tyler in the weight room after school — the weight room, because remember, Tyler’s a jock, he played, like, varsity lacrosse, and Quentin was about half a foot shorter than he is now, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, and completely psychologically allergic to any form of physical activity. But he’d made up his mind, so he found Tyler, and —” She bites her lip, beaming at the ceiiling, tears in her eyes. “Apparently he pointed a finger at him and said, You, sir, have besmirched a good lady’s honor, and I have come to reclaim it.”

“Stop — I can’t,” Eliot says, covering his eyes with his elbows, really laughing and really crying now at the image of tiny Quentin, idiotic and brave, the most foolish and most embarrassing and most wonderful boy in the whole wide world, “I can’t, oh my god, oh my god —”

“So that went about as well as it you would expect it to,” Julia goes on. “Quentin walked away with two black eyes, a split lip, blood all over his nose, and I don’t even know what the fuck else happened in the places I couldn’t see. It was so stupid — so fucking stupid. I told him that. I was really pissed, actually, because he could have gotten hurt really bad, and he did get suspended for fighting, which was totally fucked up by the way because nobody did anything to Tyler for beating his ass, and I didn’t need him to fight my battles for me figuratively, much less literally, especially when he couldn’t fight a slinky and win, and it’s not like it did anything anyway, and it was total macho bullshit to act like violence was the answer to someone hurting my feelings. I said he’d been stupid, and patriarchal, and reckless. And then I burst into tears and gave him a big hug, because stupid or not, it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. I couldn’t believe that I’d spent a couple weeks blowing him off for some guy, and he’d still cared about me enough to do something — something stupid and wrong but something big. That he hadn’t known the right thing to do, maybe, but he couldn’t let himself do nothing. And that after all that, he’d come over, black eyes and all, to see if I was okay.”

“That’s Q,” Eliot says. His heart is so full it feels physically swollen, like a bruise. “He never told me that story.”

“Of course not.” She smiles. “But — yeah. That’s him. When I think of — not who he is. He’s so much more than a stupid fight he picked when he was fourteen. But when I think of what he means to me — what my life is, because he’s in it — that story’s at the top of the list.” The clay makes its noises, and she stands up. “Hopefully that’s him now.”

And it is — Eliot can barely breathe. He’s teeny tiny and somehow still wearing pants that are about three inches too short, a Return of the Jedi T-shirt barely covering the boniness of his skinny shoulders, and his skin is simply awful and his posture is a mess and his hair is lanky and shiny in all the wrong ways, and they’re faded but Eliot can see the echoes of the beatdown in gray-blues on his pale skin, and Eliot is filled with such tenderness he can barely stand to look but he wants to drink it in, this perfect glimpse of a Quentin he never knew.

“Q,” Julia says with a gentle wave. “Hey.”

Quentin looks up at her, but not like he’s unaccustomed to doing so. It’s funny to think that there may have been a period where she was the tall one. “Jules? Where are we? You look... different.” He squints. “Did you do something do your hair?”

She laughs. “Yeah. Here, come with me. I’ll tell you all about it.”

And he follows her, easy as anything, like he knows anywhere Julia will take him will be right. That makes Eliot jealous, too, but this time he knows exactly why.

-

“And then there was one,” Eliot intones to the empty room, or possibly to the last dregs of the clay.

He doesn’t know what to do. They’ve brought so much of Quentin back already, yet there’s so much left that he doesn’t know where to look, what might be the missing piece that brings him home for real. His sense of humor, maybe, sarcastic and sly but goofy, too, how he groaned at Eliot’s terrible jokes but with a smile, how he was funniest when he was just saying the weird shit in his head without trying to make anyone laugh. What a good dad he was, or could be, should live to see himself become, and how good he was with kids even when they weren’t his, how they loved him because he saw them instinctively as important and smart. The particulars of his spellcraft as it developed over time in response to necessity but with a playful edge, too. His messiness, the heart that could contain more love than the world said a single heart should. He was smart and nerdy and sweet and difficult and neurotic and horny and terrified and brave, and a mediocre cook but a surprisingly adept baker. He was completely tone deaf and fond of dogs. He was a graduate student and a king, a quester in more ways than one, the person who killed one god and defeated another and the one who forgot to put his apple cores in the compost pile at the edge of the clearing, every time. The love of Eliot’s life, the one that got away, and before all that the first guy Eliot had ever actually managed to make friends with.

How is he supposed to choose something in there, alone, and know that it’s the right thing?

The spell, he remembers, was originally to bring someone back for a purpose. To bring back the Quentin he needs.

Which Quentin could that be?

Eliot considers them: the Quentins he’s known. First-year Quentin, allowing himself to be adopted, proof that with Margo at his side Eliot had succeeded in making of his life a whole new world, one expansive enough to let others in. Quentin crowning him, sweetly misguided about Eliot’s capacity for wisdom and justice, but crowning him spectacular anyway, looking at him like there had never been any doubt Eliot could have been anything else. The Quentins who met an Eliot convinced he was fully formed, and saw him how Eliot hoped to be seen: charming, sophisticated, absurd but in a way that brooked no argument, likable beneath it all. Was that what Quentin had given him — a mirror in which Eliot could see reflected back the person he’d hoped he was making himself?

Maybe. But then there was the Quentin, years later, older than either of them in this life have yet lived to be, who had known him by then intimately in ways that had nothing to do with sex — the Quentin who had seen through him, so completely that for a long time there were days when Eliot hated him for it. Quentin had come to know Eliot’s every vice — the ones he admitted, his pride and vanity and tendency towards overindulgence, his skittishness about facing the world without some form of chemical filter, and the ones he attempted to hide even from himself, the ones that could not be anything but unglamorous and humiliating: how bitter he could be, and how petty, and what a coward he was, at heart. Quentin had seen that Eliot, too, and somehow he had stayed. Somehow he had forgiven Eliot, over and over, so many times that as if by gravity Eliot almost could not help but begin to forgive himself.

Was that the Quentin he needed? The Quentin who had seen the worst of him, and stayed? Who had shown Eliot, strange as it seemed, that all of him might be a person someone would stay for — not just his carefully curated sparks, but every ugly piece of him, too?

Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s the Quentin Eliot saw for a second that day in the park — hair unfamiliarly short, shoulders tense. Face opening to joy for one spellbinding and perfect moment, a moment that had kept Eliot from getting lost in his own head in the long months of waiting to come — a moment he had never seen the other half of. Maybe he needs the Quentin with whom he has unfinished business — the one he needs to tell exactly what he meant when he said peaches and plums.

He doesn’t know. He should have absconded with teen Quentin, left Julia to finish this. Eliot is too greedy, too undisciplined. He wants all the Quentins — all of Quentin. Any Quentin, for a little more time.

“Please,” he whispers — to the room, to the clay, to Quentin somewhere beyond his reach. “Please just come home.”

Unbelievably — miraculously — Eliot’s heart skips several beats to see it — the clay starts to move. To come together, in its last specks. To mold itself. To —

For a second Eliot can’t move. It’s Quentin — not exactly a Quentin he ever knew. His clothes are different, but his hair is the same as that day in the park, and he looks around the penthouse with a puzzled frown but no real bewilderment. This was the Quentin who lived here, when Eliot didn’t — the Quentin the monster knew, the Quentin who died.

Eliot unveils himself. “Quentin. Hey.” He can barely breathe.

Quentin startles to see him; something in his face closes down. He plasters on an unconvincing smile and gives a little wave. “Hey there. I thought you were going to be out longer. Did you, uh — did you find those cronuts you wanted?”

Eliot doesn’t understand. “What?”

“If you didn’t, there’s — there’s really no need to get upset about it.” Quentin takes his phone out of his pocket. “Here, we can google right now —”

The monster, Eliot realizes. Quentin thinks he’s the monster. Eliot wants to throw up. “Q. It’s me. Eliot.”

Quentin’s face does something sickening to witness, an instinctive flutter of hope killed by something stony and dead in his eyes. “Very funny. That’s — that’s a good game, you really had me going there for a sec.”

“No — really, it’s me — peaches and plums, yadda yadda — uh —” Eliot wracks his brain. “I’m trying to think of, uh, other things that only I would know about, but it’s like, you know when someone asks you to name your favorite song and suddenly you can’t remember ever hearing a song in your life — ask me,” he pleads, “ask me something only I would know, okay, anything —”

But Quentin’s face is already thawing into some cautious but undeniable relief. “Holy shit, El — it’s you. It’s really you.”

“Yeah,” Eliot says, nodding, “yeah, it’s me —”

“He doesn’t look like you,” Quentin says. “Even though — it’s your body, but he doesn’t look like you at all — okay, but, uh, how much time do we have? Do you know? Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine — I’m free, the monster’s gone. You did it. You —” Eliot swallows. “You saved me. All of you. You saved everyone.”

“What? How? I was just in a library, we were —”

“Don’t worry about it. There’s been some, uh — time nonsense, let’s say —”

“Are we in another fucking loop?” Quentin rolls his eyes. “God, it never fucking ends, does it?”

“But it does,” Eliot says. “It will. It’s about to, actually — we’re fixing it. It’s — it’s going to be a little weird for a moment, and then it’ll be fine. But, uh — I can’t explain. So can you just — sit tight, and relax, and — can you trust me?”

“Uh…” Quentin furrows his brow, taking this all in. Eliot holds his breath. “Yeah, okay, El. Let’s do — whatever this is.”

And then Eliot knows that whatever happens next, whoever Quentin winds up being to him or he to Quentin, there remains something between them that has not broken. And he knows, too, why this is the Quentin the spell sent for him to see.

“Okay. I just need to send a quick text.” Eliot fires off to the group chat. “And now we wait.”

Quentin rocks back and forth on his heels, hands in his pockets. He takes in the penthouse half-expectantly, then looks back at Eliot, and a lovely smile curls across his face. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but, El — it’s really fucking good to see you.”

“I basically never know what the hell is going on,” Eliot says, “but — same.”

Quentin starts to say something else, but at that moment Fen and King Quentin begin their descent down the spiral staircase. The two Quentins lock eyes and say, in uncanny unison, “What the fuck?”

“It’s fine,” Eliot says inanely. “It’s going to be fine. Just a few minutes of weirdness and then it’s all good.”

“Oh, what the goddamn hell,” says first-year Quentin, blipping back in at Twenty-Three’s side.

“Shut up for like five seconds,” Twenty-Three says. “We’re doing you like, the world’s hugest favor.”

They keep coming back, a sight that would be hilarious were not the stakes of the outcome quite literal life and death: a small army of Quentins, greeting each other with their own profane bafflement. Teen Quentin, huddling instinctively at Julia’s side, looks freaked out beyond all measure; child Quentin, calmly working his way through a bag of Swedish Fish, seems too far removed to recognize his older self, and cheerfully inquires to no one in particular, “Are these guys clones?”

“Okay, everyone,” Alice calls out, “on my three — ready — one — two — three —”

They begin tutting their way through the final portion of the spell, working their way through a quick and complex sequence whlie the Quentins look on in twitching confusion, demanding explanations in a cacophony of complaints. Only Eliot’s Quentin waits quietly, his sharp eyes darting around the room as the magic swells the ambient, looking back at Eliot every time the spell crests in a particular wave. Like he’s reminding himself: Eliot said to trust him, so it’s going to be okay.

Eliot hopes this works. Working the last tuts, he thinks — he doesn’t know how he can go on, if he had this much, and that was all. Greedy, selfish — he wants so much more.

They hit the climax of the sequence and something big shifts in the channels they’ve created. The Quentins react — Eliot doesn’t know what they’re feeling, but it’s clear they’re feeling something. He’s putting everything everything he has into the spell and praying it’s enough.

“We’re hitting rough waters,” Julia warns. “That’s to be expected. Just hold and keep holding.”

The magic jumps, shudders, writhes in his grasp; he can see from the faces of the other casters that they’re struggling, too, even Fogg tensing with the effort of keeping the spell afloat. But they’re doing it — the spell is whole, still, its integrity hasn’t been breached, foundations holding strong —

The room goes dark, an eclipse happening inside the four walls, blackness darker than the back of your eyes, and magic churning in it like a storm.

Eliot holds his magic and his breath.

When the light returns, the room is much emptier than it was. Instinctively something in Eliot cries out in protest and grief: Quentin was here, and now he’s gone. But then he sees, standing in the center of the room — flesh and blood, here and whole —

Quentin. In jeans and a black hoodie, a strand of hair curling around his wonderful living face, which is doing something complicated.

Eliot takes Margo’s hand.

Fen claps and squeals a little, and Josh gives her a high-five.

Kady, for all her complaining, sighs some tension out of her shoulders.

Fogg tilts his head, studying the scene.

Twenty-Three leans against a wall.

Alice bites her lip.

Julia clenches her hands into fists.

And Quentin, blessedly, says, “Uh… hey everyone.”

Eliot laughs. Margo sniffs. Julia does both and manages to get out, “Hey, you.”

“This might sound weird,” Quentin says, “but wasn’t I, like… dead?”

“Oh — Q —” Alice runs to him, throwing her arms around his neck.

Quentin loops his arms back around her, and it’s like at the touch of her something in him breaks. He sags against her, face crumpling, breathing going staggered. “Fuck — fuck, I really —” He buries his face in her shoulder. Then he steps back, shaking his head. “I don’t — I don’t understand, how did I — how am I here, what —”

“We fixed it,” Julia says, voice thick.

“Jules — oh my god, Jules —” Quentin and Julia fall into each other, and after that it’s a cascade of hugging and handshakes and welcoming and celebration. Fogg pops the cork on a bottle of champagne he acquired god only knows where; Josh hits the long-abandoned snack plates with a reheating spell. Margo hugs Quentin so tightly Eliot can hear his back crack, and even Twenty-Three and Kady prove in the end not immune to the excitement of a genuine miracle. Fen is simply beside herself with giddiness, hugging Quentin and then every other person in the room as well. Eliot understands. He hugs Margo, hugs Julia, hugs Alice, too. “We did it,” he says.

She grins at him through her tears. “We really fucking did.”

“El,” Quentin breathes, making his way over to him, looking at him like — Eliot wants to remember the way Quentin is looking at him for the rest of his life. Whatever happens, whatever they become. Quentin looks at him like both of them are finally home. “It’s really you.”

Eliot’s crying now, too. “The one and only.”

“Fuck,” Quentin says, and without hesitation wraps his arms around Eliot’s waist, presses his face against Eliot’s chest. “Fuck, I thought — I didn’t know if I’d ever get to see you again, I thought —”

“I know the feeling,” Eliot says, holding him close. “It fucking blows.” Quentin laughs against his body. Eliot wants a tattoo to commemorate the spot. “But you did kind of save me from demonic possession. So I kind of owed you.”

“Yeah, uh — that’s quite the way to honor your fucking debts.” Quentin steps back, the two of them unraveling. “I mean, shit, though — how did you guys fucking do it?”

“The way you do anything.” Eliot smiles, feeling the truth of it in his bones. The way you save magic, the way you fall in love. The way you collect the beauty of all life, day after day, year after year. Like they did once, like they’ll do again. “Piece by piece.”