Nothing in life could ever prepare you for the diagnosis of cancer, but it seemed to Julian particularly unfair that he was dealing with this at only nineteen. Cancer was something you got when you were old and frail; not when you were just starting out in life. Worse, it was practically a death sentence. And yet, after all the worrying and testing, the diagnosis hung heavily over Julian like a death pall: Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
He had told Grey that he wouldn’t die, but that had been before he’d even known what he was truly facing. He still had hope that it wasn’t going to happen. But now, there could be no doubt.
He read the pamphlet over again, trying to make sense of the words, but they all seemed to spell out one thing for him: “doomed.”
Luckily, Julian’s doctors weren’t nearly so fatalistic. They assured him that he was young, that the chances of him achieving remission were high. But as he read the pamphlet over, he kept on reading that nearly all AML sufferers would relapse eventually, that once it relapsed, the chemotherapy likely wouldn’t be enough. What would happen then?
And during his treatment, he had to drop his job, his extracurricular activities, and even his schooling would have to take a backseat. He was assured that he could attend lectures through video conference and have his assignments delivered to him so he wouldn’t fall too behind, but for someone like Julian—always moving, always heading to the next activity—being tied to a hospital bed for the next month or so was a grim prospect.
On the bright side, he had been given a few days to live his life before treatment was going to begin—the doctors hadn’t been ecstatic about it, wanting to start treatment immediately, but Julian had insisted: if he was going to be dealing with this, he wanted to at least get to see his friends and family and attend class and activities at least one last time. He promised to wear a mask in the meantime, and they relented.
Teddy was waiting in the car for him. Jules had already called to let him know that the diagnosis was official, and he could tell by the redness of his eyes when he climbed into the passenger side that Teddy had been crying about it.
Julian couldn’t help but feel guilty about that. He knew it was no fault of his that he’d gotten sick, but to know that he had caused his best friend to cry for any reason made Jules feel worse than he could explain. “Thanks for swinging by,” Jules said through the mask, hating how stifling it felt to have it on but also wanting to keep his promise to the doctors. He tossed his bag of clothes and such into the backseat, then buckled up—how ironic would it be that he got this diagnosis only to die in a fiery car crash on the way home from the hospital?—for the ride.
“Of course,” Teddy said. “You look like a serial killer with that mask on. I’m living for it.”
That surprised a laugh out of Julian. “Really? I thought I looked more like a surgeon.”
“Nah, you’re not nearly clean-cut enough for that,” Teddy teased, pulling out of the hospital’s parking lot. “Are you sure it’s okay to leave?”
“Yeah, they weren’t happy but I’m going to be spending the next month under their care. I think I deserve a few days to come to terms with this myself before living in a sterile hospital, getting prodded and poked and filled with poison every second.”
“And this time you have, you’re really going to spend it in school? Why not go…I dunno…skydiving or something?”
“I’m scared of heights,” Julian protested. “Besides, I want to be normal—at least, as normal as I can be wearing this serial-killer-surgeon mask—for just a little bit longer.”
Teddy didn’t respond with his words, but the weight of the silence told Julian that the words meant more to him than he might know; just another secret Julian might go to his grave not knowing. “If it makes you feel better,” Teddy said after a minute of that silence, “I don’t think you were ever that normal to begin with.”
Julian smiled at that, deciding that maybe Teddy was right there. A moment later, they were pulling up outside of the building Julian’s first class was in. “You’re sure you don’t want me to skip and hang with you?”
Julian shook his head. “Normal,” he reiterated. “I’ll see you next class.”
The class was incredibly normal—boringly so. And when it finally let out, Julian stretched and moved to get his things. Just then, someone called his name. “Julian!”
He scrunched his eyebrows and looked around for the source of the noise—it was definitely his name, but it wasn’t a familiar voice calling it—and he found himself looking at the graduate teaching assistant for that particular class, which was introduction to Film Studies. “Did I miss an assignment or something?” Julian asked when he’d made it to his side.
He couldn’t remember the TA’s name and he cast about his memory trying to get at it because he didn’t want to come off as impolite. So far, the guy had only sat at the head of the class looking as bored as the students felt, occasionally scribbling something in his notes. Julian had assumed he’d only taken the position because he wanted help paying his tuition, which was perfectly fine; he just wasn’t used to being approached by him. He hadn’t even thought he was on his radar at all.
“Huh? Oh, no,” he said. “Sorry, you are the Julian that’s friends with Grey, right? Grey and Teddy?”
The plot thickened. “Um. Yeah?”
The TA looked relieved. “I can’t get in touch with either of them, but I figured we could talk to this hedge-witch I know that calls themselves Oracle to see if they can help us find Malik and Shepherd. Will you hand them this address? Tell them I’ll meet them there at 10:00 PM.”
He handed Julian a folded-up piece of paper and then turned around to leave, but then stopped. “Shit, that was rude of me. I’m Kol, by the way. I’m sure they talk a lot about me but we’ve never formally met.”
“Nice to meet you,” Julian said, mind already churning through what the hell this was and why he knew nothing of this, nor did he know who Malik, Shepherd, or Kol were or what they had to do with his best friends. “I’d shake your hand but…” he motioned at the mask. “I’m on quarantine.”
“Hope you feel better soon, man. Take care! Remember, 10:00.”
“Yeah, cool,” Julian said, tucking the address in his back pocket.
When Teddy met him outside, tossing his books into the trunk for him, Julian pulled out the paper, twisting it in his hands and wondering how he was going to broach this subject. Nonchalant? Accusatory? He wanted answers, most of all, but then he wasn’t sure what this meant. Were Teddy and Grey joining a club and hadn’t told him? Was this a hazing ritual? What kind of role-playing game bullshit was this, anyway? An Oracle, really? He knew Grey was a huge nerd—it was one of the things he loved about her—but this didn’t really seem like a Teddy thing.
The blonde climbed into the car. “What’s that?” he asked, nodding at the paper.
“Some guy named Kol handed it to me,” Julian said, deciding to play nonchalant.
Teddy froze as if Julian had said something incredible. Interesting, he thought. So it wasn’t just something casual—it was something Teddy had actively been keeping from him. “Let me see,” he said.
Jules moved to hand him the paper, but as Teddy latched onto it, Julian didn’t quite relinquish it. “What’s this about? He said something about meeting an Oracle at this address at ten. Something about these people missing?” Julian probed.
Julian had known Teddy long enough to know when his gears were turning in his head, trying to think up some witty comeback or explanation that would satisfy someone. He had used it all the time when he’d snuck Jules or Grey into his room and he didn’t want his parents to know about it. It wasn’t cool to be on the receiving end of that; they were best friends and they were meant to share everything.
“It’s nothing,” Teddy said after his gears had churned a bit. “Kol has this overactive imagination and he’s trying to prove to us that magic is real. He keeps on taking us to these crazy people—you know the type, tarot readers and such, they’re everywhere here—but we’re not buying it.”
“Uh-huh,” Julian said, his skepticism going up a notch. “And how did you meet him?”
“He’s in one of my classes,” Teddy explained. “He did a project on the realism in magic and I called him on it after class. Since then, he’s hellbent on proving it to us. Plus, he’s Grey’s new boyfriend’s roommate, so he’s literally everywhere.”
“Sounds annoying,” Julian said, letting the paper go. But he couldn’t quite get rid of the feeling that this had something to do with what Teddy and Grey had always kept from him, the thing which put so much tension between them whenever it was brought up. Considering he was going through enough on his own, he hated that he also had this secret. He thought that, since he was dying, maybe Teddy would finally own up to whatever it was.
Guess that was too much to hope for.
With that weighing heavily on him, Julian barely paid any attention in his last few classes; most people assumed it was because of his new diagnosis, so they didn’t press him on it.
Meanwhile, his own mind was churning. He didn’t know how he was going to unravel this mystery—he wasn’t exactly smooth enough to tail his friends—but if nothing else, this was going to be his dying mission: what the hell were Teddy and Grey hiding from him, and why?