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23.

 

That stupid, stupid boy. Henry has no moral high ground when it came to addiction, but at least he has the grace to not let it interfere with his responsibilities.

 

Dulling the pain of existence once he knows there was no way forward however…

 

“Oh dear,” Jane says beside him.

 

“I think that this might warrant a little more emotion than ‘oh dear’,” Henry says.

 

The library is ruined. Torn pages flutter and settle to ground, looking eerily like snow. On the ground… Over the last few time loops Henry has seen his fair share of blood. He has lived through his students’ deaths more times than any one man should, by right, be asked to.

 

In front of him, peeking out from the pages is a hand. It’s stretched outward, yearning for something. It’s a miracle that it’s still intact, all fingers attached to palm, rings melted into the flesh. It’s attached to an arm, which in turn is attached to a body. Eliot’s eyes are closed, and if it weren’t for the pallor and the blood soaking his front and right shoulder, then Henry could be forgiven for thinking that the tableau in front of him was nothing more than another bender ending in the poor, abused library.

 

Blood against the white. The books stained with red. There’s something inside of Henry, some small part of him that hasn’t been consumed by the effort of living, of guarding his secrets close to his chest, that finds it almost poetic. An image taken straight from an epic tragedy, the young lovers artistically splayed on the floor, surrounded by metaphor.

 

The Henry’s gaze drifts to the left, following the yearning fingers, and the illusion shatters.   

 

Margo-what’s left of her-hasn’t been left as pristine. The entire side of her face has blown off, one eye staring limply out into the distance.

 

If Jane weren’t there, if Henry were more prone to sentimentality… He might have moved forward. Carefully closed Margo’s remaining eye. Combed her hair until it obscured the ruins of her face. Moved her closer to Eliot so that in death they could be eternally together as they were in life.

 

He is not that sentimental a man. And he has no time to grieve. Not when he knows that he’ll be doing this all over again, sooner or later. Judging by the state of this timeline and Jane’s impatience, sooner.

 

“I don’t believe that you’re giving them enough time,” he says instead. “We’ve tried doing it your way for too long. While Quentin is inevitably the focus, we mustn’t forget the others and what impact they may have on the timeline.”

 

Jane hums.

 

“Start changing variables?” she says, “More than just providing additional training. Fundamentally re-shaping certain individuals.”

 

Her gaze lingers pointedly on the corpses in front of them.

 

“And I know which one you want to start with.”

 

Although she is far too well bred to show it, Henry can nonetheless feel the raised eyebrow in her words.

 

“It’s only logical,” he replies calmly. “Eliot is Quentin’s first experience of Brakebills. No matter how hard we try to separate them, they keep coming back to each other. And frankly, he’s a mess. Imagine all of his untapped potential, bent to eliminating the Beast.”

 

Jane shakes her head.

 

“Whatever you need to tell yourself, Henry,” she says, “But I can’t in good conscience rewind the timeline for one person.”

 

Unsaid, the implication that she always rewinds it for Quentin.

 

“However,” she continues, “I can give you a bit more time. A few years at least. It’ll give us more chance to prepare anyway, and in the early years Martin is always preoccupied in Fillory with Ember and Umber. He’ll catch on eventually, but maybe Fillorian time differences will be on our side for once.”

 

“The Universe no taking the opportunity to fuck with us?” Henry says, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

They stand together in silence, gazing forward. Eventually Jane sighs.

 

“Well, we might as well get this over with.”

 

She reaches into her pocket and-

 

-time shifts.

 

24.

 

Henry comes back to himself mid-sentence. Jane Chatwin. She does always have to get in her little jokes.

 

“What date is it,” he says brusquely. Sunderland gapes at him. Poor Sunderland. A brilliant mind, but so inflexible whenever it comes to the more esoteric side of things. Sunderland prizes control above all: it’s one of the reasons that Henry hasn’t tried bringing her into his confidence more often. That and the fact that trying to explain this shitshow every loop would drive him even deeper into the bottle than it already does, and the last thing he needs is for the Board of Governors to actually get off their fat asses and do something.

 

“The date, Pearl,” he says, deliberately softening his voice. The last thing he needs is to be committed, although it would be a nice break from everything, things being as they are.

 

“August. 2007. Henry, what’s going on?”

 

“Pearl, I have an urgent meeting out of town that I simply can’t miss.”

 

“An urgent meeting-Henry we’re in the middle of preparing for the new students!”

 

“And I’m sure you’ll do an admirable job on your own.”

 

Henry is already in motion, brushing past Sunderland, scooping up his suit jacket with one hand and casting with the other. Portals. A speciality of his, though honestly it would be easier to find something that wasn’t. He’d taught himself magic at the age of four: anyone who though a feat that impressive came from anything but a deep well of talent-and pain-was a fool.

 

August 2006. Close enough.

 

Stepping through, Henry raises a hand to shield his eyes against the bright Indiana sun. Once its glare has faded from his eyes, he can properly appreciate the scene in front of him. A school. Non-descript. Slightly run down, it’s characterised with an air of misery and pain that set Henry’s senses tingling. It’s more than the usual depression generated by hundreds of pubescent children with their fear and woes and drama. No, there’s a very targeted burst of painremorsehurtgleesatisfactionshockcentred in front of the school. Henry raises his fingers in front of his face, forming a small magical window in front of his eyes.

 

Powerful magic. Untrained and untapped, but strong enough that it was still visible and tangible after what must have been two or three months. Really, who else could it be?

 

“May I help you?”

 

An accusation wrapped in a question. Ah, Henry has missed the Midwest. There are reasons that he doesn’t tend to venture outside of more urban centres, and they are inextricably linked to the fact that even an America rendered 30% less racist by magic is still pretty damned racist.

 

“Yes,” he says to the stocky man in front of him, “You may escort me to the Principal’s office. I have a meeting.”

 

The Principal is as expected. Henry takes in the cheap suit, the extra weight around the man’s torso, the faint patina of sweat on his bald pate. He might have been impressive once, or what passes for it in this type of rural town. Perhaps he once ruled the school with his jock friends or had dated the head cheerleader. Perhaps he was one of the unpopular students and had lived a life of misery between walls not unlike the ones he now rules. It’s hard to tell.

 

“I don’t recall arranging a meeting with you Mr-?”

 

“Doctor Fogg,” Henry completes smoothly, taking the other man’s hand in his. It’s like grasping a limp fish and he forces himself to neither shudder nor wipe his hand against his trousers. The tailoring of his suit deserves more respect.

 

“You must be mistaken. I had my secretary arrange a meeting weeks ago. I’m the external psychiatrist the school board hired to speak with the children after the tragic events last year.”

 

“You must be mistaken. We don’t have the funding to waste on-“

 

“Your students’ mental wellbeing?”

 

The principal’s protests subside. He can’t well agree, no matter how much he wants to. His eyes dart nervously to Henry’s well-cut suit, his expensive watch, his gold cufflinks.

 

“In any case,” Henry says, “It is a moot point. An anonymous benefactor hired me on the school’s behalf and is paying for my expenses.”

 

Tension leaves the room. A sense of relief.

 

“Of course, of course,” he says, “Anything to help the children.”

 

“Very good,” Henry says. His face remains a neutral mask, no matter the thoughts passing through his head.

 

“I think that it would be best if I start with Mr Waugh,” he says.

 

The principal is visibly startled.

 

“Eliot Waugh?” he exclaims, “But that’s impossible. Quite impossible. He transferred. His parents sent him to a private Military Academy at the end of last school year. A special scholarship. Didn’t you-”

 

Henry stands abruptly.

 

“I see,” he says.

 

This has all been a colossal waste of time. Eliot will make his way to Brakebills eventually, and the military academy evidentially fails at stamping out his magic. Henry would be better served concentrating on more important things. Ignoring the sad little man in front of him, he leaves.


25.

December 2007. Even later than last time. Jane was becoming even more lackadaisical in her attempts at landing him in the right spot. Henry suspects that it might be counterproductive to mention this to her however: he has no desire to relive his puberty.  Once had been more than enough.

 

When Eliot had entered Brakebills in the previous timeline, his psyche had already been fragile, façade in place and telekinesis locked down tightly. It was inconceivable that the pure and untrained burst of magic Henry had sensed in front on that bland little school in Indiana could ever have been produced by that Eliot. A boy who has been so beaten down by life that it was a miracle that he ever came down from his high.

 

Henry knows that they don’t succeed until timeline 40. Alternate Julia and Josh had let him know as much. All he can really do is gather as much information as possible and figure out what improbably combination of events had led to them eventually succeeding in defeating the Beast. It is in that spirit that he makes his way to Howe Military Academy, Indiana.

 

It is... stagnant. Horrifying in its own way. All rigid lines and enforced order. Magic could never flourish here: yes, magic requires strict rules and precise hand movements in order to be successfully cast, but it also needs a sense of whimsy and chaos, loathe as Henry is to admit it. Not the cookie cutter conformational bullshit that places like this instil in their students.

 

Henry doesn’t even bother with subterfuge: instead he bends the rays of light around himself until he is functionally invisible. He whispers a spell underneath his breath, conjuring a naked flame in the palm of his hand. Lesser magicians, the less experienced and-frankly-less talented might have needed props and paraphernalia, but all Henry has, or needs, is his will. He leisurely strolls through the halls, following the flame in his palm.

 

Ah. There he is. And what a contrast to the boy he comes to know at Brakebills. This Eliot is physically smaller, hunched in on himself and painfully thin. He’s already tall, and gangly colt of a boy with little flesh on his bones and long, awkward looking limbs exhibiting none of the casual grace of his elder counterpart. His hair is so short that Henry can see the fragile contours of his skull.

 

His eyes are firmly fixed on the floor, and there isn’t a hint of magic about him, his mind shielded so tightly that Henry is surprised that something hasn’t yet broken from the strain. Or perhaps it has, and that’s what he’s seeing here. The remains of a tragedy, the gravestone after the funeral is over and the mourners have left, steadily eroding over the years as time and neglect wear it down.

 

Henry shakes his head. Eliot as he is now is useless. Henry doesn’t have the time, inclination, or patience for the sheer amount of work that building him back into a functioning magician would take. Eliot has managed to find a way back to self and to magic 24 times before: Henry is sure that he’ll do fine on his own.

 

26.

 

Another timeline. Even more gruesome deaths.

 

Jane had cast Margo out of Brakebills last time round: Eliot had committed suicide a month into his first year. Henry has a feeling that he’s found the element that had allowed Eliot to perform as a semi-functional member of society in previous timeline. Without Margo and Eliot, the last timeline had been shorter than ever: the only consolation Henry can give is that at least it was quick. Having one’s head ripped off can be assumed to be relatively painless.

 

Well, at least Jane got one thing right this time. March 2006. An entire month before the fatal accident that lead to Eliot’s powers awakening and Logan Kinnear’s untimely death. Perhaps this time he would have the chance to actually do something.

 

This time Henry prepares himself more carefully. He dressed himself deliberately: a smart suit. Nice, but nothing compared to his usual sartorial elegance. The sort of suit that a relatively competent lawyer or businessman might wear. Nothing flashy, and nothing that would stand out.

 

All clothes are disguises. Some more obvious than others.

 

He steps out into the sunlight and makes his steady way up a small dirt track leading to the Waugh farm. The faint breeze stirs, bringing with it the smell of manure and animals and sweat. Not a bad smell, but very different from the urbane persona that Eliot habitually dons.

 

Finally making his way to the house, Henry raps firmly on the door, painted a cheerful yellow and only slightly peeling. It opens after a second or two and out rushes the feeling of family home love but also despair loneliness helplessness. Henry can hear the sound of children playing, loud shrieks of joy characterising the rough-and-tumble so prevalent in boys of a certain age. He can also feel a sense of hurt emanating out like a bruise, wound inflicted long ago but the flesh still tender.

 

“Mrs Waugh?” he asks politely. She really couldn’t be anyone else: her dark curls and amber, dancing eyes have been branded in Henry’s mind. With a bit of effort Henry suppresses the memory of those eyes growing dim and glassy, of those curls damp with blood and plastered to a too-young forehead.

 

“Yes?” she says, and there’s suspicion in those familiar eyes. Henry supposes that they don’t get many strangers in this part of the world.

 

“I’m here to talk about your son,” Henry says politely.

 

“Which one? I’ve got three.”

 

“Eliot.”

She nods. She isn’t surprised. She turns around and yells over her shoulder:

 

“Eliot! Get down here!”

 

“What’s this about then?” she asks, turning back to Henry. The suspicion hasn’t faded.

 

“I would like to talk to your son about a scholarship,” Henry says, “I represent a private college, Brakebills Academy, that caters to gifted students. Your son recently caught our attention, and I was sent down to make an offer. I assure you, the school’s reputation is impeccable. It’s the foremost of its kind in Northern America.”

 

A frown. Confusion.

 

“Why would Eliot need to attend a private school?” she asks, and there is honest confusion in her voice. In her face, Henry can see her son’s future already mapped out: mandatory schooling over he would find a good wife, help his father with the farm, learn the ropes, before helping his brothers run it once she’s passed on. The ghostly laughter of future grandchildren rings in his ears, and Henry has to unobtrusively shake his head to rid himself of the stupor that has invaded his senses.

 

There is a magic here, he realises. Not formal and constrained, or wild and flashy. No, a quiet magic woven into every aspect of its practitioners’ lives, condemning them to a lifetime of rustication.

 

“Mama?”

 

A quiet voice, and Henry gazes down at the boy who’s appeared in the doorway.

 

He’s not as broken as the boy Henry saw in the hallway of the military academy. But he’s not whole. Any lightness of spirit or sense of wonder has evidentially been beaten out of him. Figuratively or literally. Despite that, there’s a sweet innocence surrounding him, a fragility etched into his soft curls and round cheeks. It’s easy to see the shatter points, the places that will crack and twist this boy in less than a month’s time.

 

No, Henry concludes. It’s too late. The damage in this boy’s psyche is different from the last timeline, but it’s still considerable. It would take too much time and effort to mould him into a proper magician, a person who revels in magic rather than locking it away.

 

“I’m sorry to have bothered you Eliot, Mrs Waugh,” Henry says. He raises his hands, twisting them in a familiar pattern.

 

He makes his way back down the country trail alone.

 

27.

 

More deaths. The Beast is getting creative.

 

In the moments before Jane rewinds the timeline, Henry asks her to send them back even further than before. Back to 1992.

 

 He transports himself to the small hospital in Whiteland Indiana, striding purposefully through the corridors until he finds the nursery. He doesn’t get stopped or questioned: it’s amazing what a purposeful stride and an air of authority can accomplish.

 

He stares through the glass at dozens of babies. Predominantly white: unsurprising. All of them full of potential. They could be scholars, farmers, scientists, leaders, killers. The ultimate blank canvas upon which to stamp a personality. Most of them sleeping peacefully. He opens the previously locked door with a small schnickand follows the feel of Eliot, as new and unformed as it is, until he is standing beside a peacefully sleeping boy.

 

He moves to take him into his arms but freezes when the baby opens its eyes and fixes him with a surprisingly piercing blue gaze.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Henry says, “I assure you that you would have been miserable with your parents. At least this way you might get a fighting chance.”

 

He scoops the small body up carefully, acutely aware of its fragility. There’s a tense moment when Henry is afraid that Eliot will start wailing, but the moment passes. Instead Eliot snuffles quietly and nestles his head into the crook of Henry’s neck.

 

There’s a strange feeling in the pit of Henry’s stomach. It doesn’t fade as he carefully wipes all traces of Eliot’s existence from both hospital records and the parents’ memories. The only thing they’ll remember is that the child died. They have other sons. They’ll get over the loss easily enough. God knows that they never appreciated Eliot when he was part of their lives. They would be happier this way.

 

Bringing Eliot to San Francisco is a gift, Henry reminds himself. He can’t think of a better place to discover one’s identity and sexuality, and the couple he had carefully chosen is a warm and loving one. No children, yearning for a baby of their own. Stable. Liberal. A place where a magician can thrive.

 

Henry doesn’t look back after dropping him off.

 

Eliot doesn’t attend Brakebills that year. Henry googles him. Finds him on Facebook looking young and deliriously happy, arm draped around another grinning boy. Studying to be a sommelier in Napa Valley.

 

Magic is pain, Henry reminds himself. He had chosen too well: there had been no crystallising moment of realisation and trauma for this Eliot, unlocking his telekinesis and his destiny.

 

Watching his students bleeding from thousands of tiny cuts, pinned to the blood and mercilessly conscious until death, Henry can’t bring himself to regret that Eliot never made it to Brakebills.    

 

28.

 

This time round, Henry wants to keep Eliot closer. He chooses a couple in New York, not rich but not homeless. The desire to prove oneself, the need to be better… Looking at the gentle swell of the woman’s stomach, maybe even a younger sibling to protect against the dangers of the world.

 

It’s harder walking away this time, but after a few days of careful observation, watching Eliot settle into his new life, Henry is reassured that all is progressing as well as can be expected.

 

It therefore seems like a cruel irony when he learns, years later, that Eliot was killed in a school shooting, shielding his younger sister with his body. It’s a miracle, the papers say, that more children weren’t injured. Only one fatality. Minor injuries spread amongst the other children. And whispers of an unseen force deflecting bullets, protecting the youngest children, wrenching the guns out of the shooters’ hands and crushing them. Only one fatality, one bullet aimed at a young girl and intercepted by her elder brother.

 

Kady Orloff-Diaz enters Brakebills for the first time that timeline, pain radiating off her, battle magic proficient, but shielding spells perfect.

 

29.

 

Eliot’s self-sacrificing tendencies run deep and are easily woken. While his loyalty and bizarre tendency to bond with Quentin at first sight are desirable qualities, there’s no point if the boy dies before he even meets the other students. Henry is determined that he at least attend Brakebills this time round, if only to stop Jane’s discontented talk of wasted timelines.

 

He needs a family that will foster Eliot’s magical abilities without allowing him to be so happy that he never comes to Brakebills. It needs to be well protected so that Eliot doesn’t die an unnamed and pointlessly tragic death before even meeting Quentin.

 

He gives Eliot to the Quinns. They’re a magical family, so there’s no danger of Eliot not developing his abilities. And surrounded by a family that values intellect, the pursuits of the mind… Henry can see where he erred before. In the original timeline Eliot had little time for academic pursuits. Indeed, Henry imagines that they were actively discouraged, along with anything else that would have sparked independent though.

 

Best of all, it will give Eliot a chance to bond with Alice before Brakebills, a chance for them to get close without rampant jealousies to get in their way. Alice and Eliot have always been more similar than they care to admit: smart with an instinctive grasp of magic. Fiercely loyal, ready to do anything to protect family.

 

Daniel and Stephanie already have one child and another on the way, but Daniel accepts baby Eliot as a favour to Henry. The young couple are still in the first flushes of their honeymoon periodically breaking off from talking to Henry to stare deeply into each other’s eyes. Henry excuses himself as soon as possible.

 

The magic inside the Quinn house is potent and intoxicating, full of lust and love whether carnal or intellectual. Potent in its own right, but not something that Henry’s temperament actively seeks out.

 

When Charlie Quinn dies, Henry can’t help but feel a thrill of triumph. Another tragedy to awake Eliot and Alice’s potential, another reason for them to come to Brakebills. Charlie has died in almost every timeline so far and has always driven Alice to understanding more complex magic more intensely even before she arrives at Brakebills.

 

Of course, Henry severely underestimates Eliot’s impulsiveness.

 

With the benefit of an extra year at Brakebills, and with Margo’s ability to find anything out, Eliot quickly discovers the truth of what happened to Charlie. All of his charm, talent, and charisma bent toward one goal: finding and curing Charlie.

 

So the idiot boy summons a niffin. Without the benefit of any protective spells, a niffin box, or any knowledge of what niffins are, fundamentally. Niffins are beings of pure magic, full of fire and rage and magic. No human empathy can be found within their blazing eyes: they are too busy living the high of the universe to worry about petty mortal concerns. Drawing their attention has never ended in anything other than sorrow and destruction.

 

Eliot confronts Charlie on his own, sneaking out past Margo’s watchful gaze.

 

He dies. Killed by the think that used to be his brother. Alice Quinn goes mad. The Beast doesn’t even get the chance to slaughter them this timeline: they do a fine job of doing it to themselves.

 

30.

 

Humans have failed him. So, Henry screws his courage to the sticking place and goes to find Aurelia Bigby.

 

“Let me get this straight,” Bigby says, leaning against her door frame, “You want me to adopt this kid? Raise it to its fullest potential? Teach it battle magic yada yada?”

 

“That is correct Aurelia,” Henry replies stiffly.

 

“So admit that I was right!” Bigby crows triumphantly, “You never should have banned Battle magic at Brakebills.”

 

“I can admit that mistakes were made.”

 

Bigby stares at him expectantly.

 

“By me,” Henry continues, “It was a mistake to ban battle magic and I am sorry for my part in it.”

 

“Wonderful. Now as satisfying as this visit has been so far, what exactly has this to do with the small human you’ve dropped on my doorstep?”

 

Henry sighs. There’s no point in lying to a pixie. They are mercurial and temperamental and can smell lies much as a horse can smell fear. It’s a large part of why their relationship didn’t work out, not that he’ll ever admit as much to Bigby.

 

“We are currently reliving the same twenty years or so over and over again in an attempt to defeat a being known only as ‘the Beast’. Eliot is one of the students that will eventually defeat him. That is if I can fully unlock his potential and keep him from getting himself killed in the meantime,” Henry growls.

 

“I thought I felt a bit off, time repeating itself that would explain it Henry.”

 

Bigby gingerly reaches out and takes Eliot from Henry’s arms, holding him awkwardly. He turns sleep filled eyes up toward this new person and starts wailing. Bigby flinches back, holding Eliot at arm’s length.

 

“Dear lord,” she says, “How do you turn it off?”

 

Henry smirks. It’s rare that he gets to see his ex-lover this flustered.

 

“I’m sure you’ll figure it our eventually my dear,” he says. He turns to leave. Eliot is finally in good hands.

 

The Eliot that arrives at Brakebills is in touch with his magic. Henry can’t deny that. But he is also frightened, skittish, and prone to making large objects, such as chairs, desks, and the occasional pet, explode when upset. He always seems to be looking over one shoulder, as if expecting an attack, and with a sinking feeling, Henry realises that he is. The boy’s so taut that it’s a wonder he hasn’t pulled something.

 

“What did you so to my student?” Henry demands down the phone.

 

“Henry, is that you?” Bigby’s tingling laugh drifts out from the fragile device and Henry has to remind himself not to squeeze so hard or he might break it.

 

“What. Did. You. Do.”

 

“Only what you asked! Isn’t he the sweetest thing? Ferociously good at battle magic you know. He has a real knack for it. I daresay he could even give your Beast a run for his money.”

 

“Bigby, what I have at my school is a traumatised twenty-three-year-old with PTSD and a penchant for exploding things.”

 

“Yes…?”

 

Henry gives in to temptation and slams his phone down so hard that the screen shatters. Fucking pixies.

 

31.

 

0

“First lesson Eliot,” Henry says to the bundle in his arms, “If you want a job done well, do it yourself.”

 

Eliot isn’t listening, fascinated with Henry’s fingers and the elegant movements that he makes with them while creating their portal back to Brakebills.

 

“Really,” Henry says, “I don’t see what’s so hard about raising a child.”

 

No more than two hours later, he is forced to admit he was a tad overconfident. With the help of several parenting spells that he had smuggled out of the library, Eliot is clean, changed, fed and burped. He will not, however, go to sleep.

 

“Eliot, this is illogical,” Henry says, “Your body needs sleep. You need to conserve your energy so that you’re able to grow as quickly as possible.”

 

Eliot cries even harder.

 

Henry desperately considers the legalities of childhood-quickening spells. And then, later on as Eliot still hasn’t settled, of silencing spells.

 

The next day, Henry is operating on less than two hours sleep. He is also certain that withdrawal has already started to kick in: he spent a not insignificant part of his night frantically gathering all the alcohol and drugs and locking them into a secure cupboard after Eliot almost knocked over a heavy glass bottle. There still isn’t anywhere for Eliot to sleep, so Henry has settled him in his study for now, casting a monitoring charm over him that will hopefully alert him before the baby harms itself or the books.

 

“Henry? Are you all right?”

 

Henry turns around. Sunderland is frowning at him.

 

“I’ve never seen you look so tired,” she says. He takes a step forward and sniffs the air around him. Her brow furrows.

 

“Is that…baby vomit on your lapel?”

 

Henry glances down.

 

“Ah,” he says, too tired to be angry, “It appears that it is. How fascinating.”

 

“Henry,” says Sunderland delicately, “Can it be possible that you’ve acquired a baby?”

 

Henry nods. He is too exhausted to think of a suitable lie, and honestly his staff are going to find out about Eliot sooner or later as there’s no conceivable way to hide him for the next twenty years or so.

 

“The mother…?” Sunderland asks.

 

“I am Eliot’s only parent,” Henry says firmly. He needs to shut down this line of enquiry as quickly as possible.

 

“Hmm,” Sunderland says, but doesn’t push. She continues on her way down the corridor, then pauses.

 

“Henry, forgive me if I’m overstepping but…would you like some help?”

 

“Merciful gods yes,” says Henry.

 

It turns out that being a single parent means not getting a decent night’s sleep for years. He quickly learns that Sunderland is a blessing, and quite possibly deserves the largest raise possible.

 

14

Eliot is generally a happy child, prone to daydreams and perfectly content to be let loose in the library or roaming the grounds under whichever professor can be spared, much to their bemusement.

 

Taking into the account the way that Eliot soaks up knowledge and advanced concepts like a sponge, basking in his teachers’ praise, Henry quickly decides to home-school him so that he isn’t shackled to the dumpster fire that is the American education system.

 

And so, when Eliot is 14, he starts to learn magic.

 

Henry maybe enchants an owl to deliver a letter to Eliot at breakfast, the day of his first lesson. Hearing the shrieks of joy is enough to make up for the hours of hard work it took to render that damned raptor docile enough to let a child pet it.

 

Eliot takes to magic like the natural he is, much to the delight of the staff who resigned themselves years ago to being free babysitters and are just happy that they have something that isn’t Harry Potter to talk to Eliot about. Henry will never admit how cute he finds it watching Eliot carefully contort his fingers into Poppers one through seventeen, tongue sticking out in concentration.

 

Days are spent like that, Henry working on the day to day running of the school while Eliot is at his lessons, before meeting up at dinner time to go over what Eliot has learnt that day. Everything is going perfectly.

 

“You have to stop.”

 

Or not.

 

“What do you mean Professor Lipson?” Henry asks.

 

“You know full well what I mean! Eliot. You’re pushing the boy too hard. He’s exhausted. I found him crying Henry, cryingunder one of the beds in the infirmary because he couldn’t get a Reverse Entropy spell to work properly.”

 

“Reverse Entropy?” Henry asks, pleasantly surprised, “That’s a third-year spell. Wait.” The rest of what Lipson had said catching up to him, “What do you mean Eliot was crying?”

 

Lipson throws up his hands. Henry absently notes that he appears to be losing the respect of his teaching staff.

 

“I mean exactly what I said! You’re pushing that boy too hard. As you said Henry, he’s learning third year spells. He’s ten years old! He should be out in the sunshine, not stuffing his brain in the library. You’re setting him up for a nervous breakdown.”

 

“But why wouldn’t he come to me if there was a problem with his schedule?” Henry asks.

 

Lipson stares at him like he’s a particularly dumb Healing student.

 

“He wants to make you proud Henry. You keep emphasising how important his studies are to you: he’s terrified of failure. Of losing your regard.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Yes. Ah. Fix this Henry!” Or else, goes unsaid.

 

Lipson starts to pointedly re-arrange her surgical instruments.

 

Later that evening, Henry knocks on the door to Eliot’s room. There’s a muffled thump, and then his son’s voice calls: “Come in!”

 

Observing him critically, Eliot does look tired. His hair and more rumpled than usual, and there are dark bags underneath his eyes. With a pang Henry realises that he has lost weight. His son looks closer to the broken boy in the Military Academy than Henry is comfortable with.

 

“I brought cake,” Henry says, revealing his prize. A lavish chocolate cake that Sunderland may or may not have given him the recipe to. Decorated with a thick chocolate ganache, it looks like a heart attack on a plate.

 

For a moment, there is a starved, yearning look on Eliot’s face. Then is disappears, and he looks down at the tome in his lap.

 

“I can’t,” he says sadly, “I’ll get chocolate on my book. And I haven’t managed to get this spell right anyway, so I don’t deserve chocolate cake.”

 

Henry frowns and, setting down the cake on Eliot’s desk, makes a sharp gesture. The book levitates itself out of Eliot’s grasp and makes its way to Henry’s hand. It’s a horomancy textbook, well-thumbed and adorned with sticky notes in his son’s childish hand.

 

“Very advanced Eliot,” Henry says, “I’m impressed. I didn’t start studying horomancy until I was twice your age.”

 

Eliot scowls.

 

“Don’t patronise me,” he mutters, “You taught yourself magic when you were four. You told me so. I can’t even get this stupid spell to work.”

 

Henry sets the book aside next to the chocolate cake and goes to sit on the bed next to Eliot. He puts an arm around his shoulders, and for one heart-stopping moment Eliot remains stiff in his arms before relaxing in to his embrace.

 

“I have been hard on you, haven’t I,” Henry says, “I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re a child, and that you deserve time to enjoy your childhood. You’re incredibly advanced Eliot, but there is more than one type of intelligence and I have deprived you of something vital: human interaction.”

 

He runs his hands through Eliot’s hair gently and Eliot melts into him. He’s always been a tactile child and from what Henry remembers will grow up into a very tactile adult. It’s cruel for him to be isolated like this.

 

“I think you’ll find regular school dreadfully boring,” Henry continues, “But I have some contacts at Colombia who have agreed to let you attend a few courses there.”

 

Eliot looks up.

 

“You mean go into the city? Outside of Brakebills?”

 

“Yes,” says Henry, squashing a part of himself shouting that this is a very bad idea, “I think it’s time to let you explore a bit more of the world.”

 

Eliot throws himself at Henry, his pointy forehead digging uncomfortably into Henry’s sternum.

 

“Thank you, papa, thank you, thank you,” he says voice muffled.

 

“Chaperoned for now, “Henry cautions, “But I suppose if you behave yourself you might earn some more independence. Now come on. Eat your cake.”

 

            17

Over the next few years, Eliot seems determined to give Henry a heart attack.

 

If he isn’t sneaking in late after partying with his group of delinquent friends, he’s challenging hedge witches to duels. One memorable day he even drags a sullen Kady into Brakebills and demands that Henry give her sanctuary as her mother is “A fucking shitty parent dad, come on,”. Henry is reluctant to grant sanctuary to any hedgewitch, but after a lot of pleading and negotiating he agrees to regular check-ins at least.

 

That’s not even mentioning the string of lovers that leaves in his wake, men and women of questionable morals and dubious charm that Eliot nonetheless seems to like.

 

But his son is also growing into an intelligent, confident, compassionate young man, and Henry can’t help but be proud whenever he thinks of him. They have dinner together once a week at least, a proper sit-down dinner like they used to have when Eliot was younger and Henry just sits back and listens.

 

“You’re going to break your own heart Henry,” Jane says, “You’re storing up an awful lot of trouble for yourself.”

 

Henry ignores her. Is it so unbelievable that he’s finally cracked it, found the key that will allow the Beast’s defeat 9 timelines early?

 

He goes before the Board of Governors and makes a convincing case to transform Brakebills from a graduate to an undergraduate programme, citing Eliot as an example of what can be achieved by educating young.

 

It’s while he’s arguing with Irene McAllister that he receives a charred note from Sunderland. He opens it impatiently, scanning it. Pales. Collapses into a chair.

 

“What is it Henry?” Irene asks. She presses a glass of water at him, and Henry takes it mechanically.

 

“There was an attack on the school,” he says dully, “An unknown assailant. They tried to blow up the library.”

 

Irene gasps. It’s finals season: most of the student population of Brakebills will be in the library at this time.

 

“They didn’t succeed,” Henry continues numbly, “Eliot-he stalled the attacker. Long enough that the staff were able to band together and banish them.”

Irene puts a comforting hand against Henry’s, clutching the glass of water in a death grip.

 

“But that’s good news isn’t it?” she asks softly.

 

“He- “

 

Henry lowers his head and weeps. Irene carefully takes the letter from his lax hand and scans it.

 

“Oh. Henry. He died a hero.”

 

Henry continues to sob. Kady fucking Orloff Diaz. Eliot had stepped in front of a spell meant for Kady. Perhaps fate couldn’t be changed after all.

 

32.

 

Jane insists that they shorten the length of time she winds back. It’s giving Martin too much time to plan. And nothing useful has come out of it.

 

Henry doesn’t argue. He can’t really. All his attempts at unlocking Eliot’s potential have failed. His apartment feels empty. He’s no longer used to having a study: it always trips him up when he enters the room and instead of his son, he sees nothing but dusty tomes.

 

The relationship that he had established with Pearl is strictly professional. There are no late nights spent grading papers and mocking students, no shared glasses of brandy as he asks for advice on Eliot. Henry can’t remember the last time he was so aware of the divide between Dean and Professor. He knows that he once thought the carefully cultivated distance between himself and his staff was a necessity. He can’t remember why.

 

When Eliot arrives at Brakebills, haunted and broken, Henry succumbs to temptation. He takes him under his wing, offers extra mentoring sessions every week. Not enough to encourage speculation, although lord knows that there’s enough of that anyway. Not enough to satisfy the urgent need in his heart.

 

The tutorials aren’t the same as their weekly family dinners. Eliot is suspicious of any unsolicited attention. He flirts outrageously, drinks all of Henry’s good alcohol. Never completes the assignments that Henry gives him.

 

But slowly, ever so slowly, over the next few months, Henry can feel Eliot’s defences dropping incrementally as he relaxes. The first time that Eliot’s mental shields dip enough that Henry can feel the shape of his mind, he almost cries at the familiarity. He doesn’t though. And Eliot beings to improve, to exhibit that quiet studiousness that Henry knows only manifests itself when he truly wants to do well, and to make those around him proud.

 

The meetings take place in his study, and by the end of his first year, Eliot’s personality is so indelibly imbued into the walls of the room that it’s like his son never left, that the study has once again become Eliot’s room.

 

This timeline round, Henry is kept more up to speed on what his students are doing, drips and drabs of gossip fed to him by Eliot during their session. He suffers through another five hours of descriptions of Quentin Coldwater. He really deserves a medal.

 

Of course, the Beast chooses one of their quiet evenings to attack. Henry feels the wards around the school fall but has barely a moment to react because between one breathe and the next the Beast appears in his study.

 

The moths obscuring the Beast’s face whirl and multiply, covering the room in a suffocating blanket. Henry can feel their papery wings against his skin, hitting his eyes, flying into his mouth. He shuts his eyes for a second, needing to gather his concentration. This is a mistake. A bright flash. Pain, but not the sharp-edged magic he expected, instead something heavy ramming in to him, causing him to stumble to the side. Wet, something warm and sticky against his face. And he opens his eyes and stares into his son’s eyes. His dead son’s eyes because his boy, his brave stupid boy has jumped in front of him and taken the attack meant for him.

 

Henry closes his eyes once again and, cradling his son’s body, waits for death. The Beast obliges.

 

33.

 

Henry thinks that he might have spent most of this timeline drunk. It’s hard to remember.

 

34.

 

Henry lets the timeline go back to the way things were. Evidentially Eliot isn’t the key to whatever magical combination that allows timeline 40 to succeed. It was hubris of the highest order to think that he could change anything, or god forbid allow the endless cycle of death to end early. Henry had hoped and it bit him on the ass. Never again.

 

He distances himself from Eliot. It is more expedient. Having spent so much time with him in the previous timeline, there might be some mental bleed over. While he can’t stop the small things, Kady Orloff-Diaz’s continued presence at Brakebills for example, it would be disastrous for one of his students to start retaining their memories from timeline to timeline.

 

Not in the least because Henry can feel his own mind shattering from the strain of reliving slightly different presents over and over, surrounded by death, desperately grasping at anything that makes him feel less alone.

 

So yes. He ignores Eliot as much as he can. He can’t allow anything to shatter his already fragile equilibrium. His son is dead. He died horribly. That’s all there is to it.

 

The one thing he does is assign the first co-ed roommates possibly in the history of Brakebills and certainly the first in living history. Watching Margo and Eliot form into two pieces of one whole

 

There are no more special tutorials. In fact, Henry isn’t sure that he’s seen Eliot since his entrance examination: he has given up all of his first-year teaching responsibilities to Sunderland, citing exhaustion, diminished capacity to put up with their bullshit, and when all else fails, pulling rank.

 

It’s hard to look at Sunderland and not think of the smiling woman, awkwardly baking his son a chocolate cake with rainbow sprinkles the day he came out to them. Henry supposes that given enough time he could rebuild the friendship that evolved between them in timeline 31.

 

It’s even harder to watch Eliot squander his potential, waste his time marinating in drugs and booze and self-hatred. He wants to scream at him, lecture him for wasting his potential. He wants to drug his food with potion, make sure that Eliot can’t harm himself, can’t further his own self-destructive behaviours. He doesn’t.

 

The first time Eliot overdoses Henry sits next to his bed in the infirmary, safely shrouded in the dark of the night. He tenderly brushes a lock of curly hair back from Eliot’s face. And he allows himself to weep.

 

35.

 

Eliot’s first birthday at Brakebills, he wakes to find a decadent slice of chocolate cake by his bed. The icing looks so inviting that he can’t help but swipe a finger through it, sucking the rich treat from his finger. It’s real. And it’s home-made: none of the extra bite that betrays magically baked goods present. Just chocolate, and love, and… Eliot looks closer. Rainbow sprinkles?

 

Eliot eats the entire slice, bite by bite, seated cross-legged on his bed, a look of childish delight on his face. He looks as if the cake is going to snatched from him at any moment or disappear and reveal itself to be nothing more than a particularly realistic illusion.

 

Henry, invisible in the corner of the room, leaves after the first five minutes. He needs time to clean his kitchen: his baking skills have atrophied without anyone to practice on.

 

No matter who Eliot asks that day, no one will admit to leaving the cake for him.

 

36.

 

Fucking militant muggles. Eliot dies early, literally burned at the stake if you can believe it. He dies a scared fourteen-year-old, potential never realised. Henry sometimes lies back in his chair, staring deliberately into the fire and imagining it: the scent of cooking flesh rising around oneself, the stench of burning hair, the terror and the heat and finally numbness as one’s pain receptors are destroyed.

 

Perhaps Eliot had stared out through the smoke, searching for his family: his mother’s frightened eyes, his father’s vindicated glare. Had his family fought for him? Or had they been the ones to turn him in in the first place?

 

Worst of all, had Eliot thought that he deserved it? A barbaric, terrible death in payment for the bloody death that he had given Logan Kinnear.

 

On nights like that Henry crawls into his bottle and doesn’t leave until he runs out of alcohol. Long gone are the days of fine scotch and expensive whiskies. Nowadays he likes to pickle his liver with bottom shelf rotgut until the burning in his stomach echoes the burning that he imagines his son must have felt.

 

It feels like an eternity waiting for Jane to reset the timeline.

 

37.

 

Henry can’t bear to look at Eliot this timeline. He abandons all subtlety, practically shoving Sunderland in front of the potential magicians to give the customary speech. He pleads fatigue during the practical examination.

 

Every time he sees Eliot’s face, he can feel the heat on his face, smell the burning flesh, hear the screams… A younger face superimposed over Eliot’s, years melting away, a plaintive cry of: “Papa!”

 

Margo is killed early in Quentin’s first year when the Henry is too slow to find the breach in the wards. There is nothing dignified about her death: it takes more than three hours, three hours in front of a frozen, traumatised class of second years.

 

Eliot doesn’t kill himself afterward, Henry makes sure of that. Abandons his carefully cultivated distance and makes sure that Eliot is never alone, that he never has a chance to slip into bad habits.

 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Henry spends hours coaxing Eliot to eat, to speak, to react at all. He reads him his favourite books until his voice goes hoarse and then he reads on some more. Perhaps this Eliot had never learnt to love the written word the way his son had but he knows his boy. He knows that there’s something in there that wants to escape, and if this is the only way that he can achieve it then Henry will gladly provide it for him.

 

He ignores the stares, the rumour, his responsibilities. He moves Eliot to his private apartment, gently laying him back down in his room because his old study will always be Eliot’s room now. There’s no point denying it anymore.

 

Technically Eliot doesn’t die with Margo that day. But when the Beast finally makes his way through the wards and tears him apart, Henry can’t say that he was truly living either.

 

38.

 

Henry finds a bottle of his favourite scotch nestled between his pillows. It’s his birthday, but no one at Brakebills knows that. It’s a closely guarded secret, a private part of himself that he has no intention of displaying to the world.

 

The last time he celebrated his birthday… The last time was years ago and never happened, the party organised less than a memory, the carefully chosen and wrapped gifts nothing more than ashes between his hands.

 

There is only one other person who knows his birthday, and that person is dead.

 

He has to be.

 

He avoids Eliot until his death. It’s better that way.

 

39.

“Eliot,” Henry says, reaching out to catch the boy’s arm before letting his hands fall helplessly by his side.

 

Eliot looks back, one perfect eyebrow raised in query. Henry hasn’t interacted, negatively or positively, with Eliot much this timeline. He longs to smooth the dark circles from under his eyes, to hold him close and never let him go.

 

“I’m proud of you,” Henry finally says after a loaded moment. He turns on his heel and leaves, leaves before he can see the blank incomprehension on his child’s face.

 

40.

 

They succeed. Against all odds the Beast is defeated. Eliot is trapped in Fillory in a loveless marriage, surrounded by political insurgents and, from what he has been able to glean, has already survived one assassination attempt. Barely.

 

Henry closes unseeing eyes and blindly (hah!) reaches for the decanter of whisky on his desk.

 

Tries not to think of sunlight and smiles and faint cries of ‘papa!’. Arms aching holding a small body, soft hair ticking his chin and a patch of drool on his shoulder. Bright eyes staring up at him adoringly.

 

They won. So why does he feel so miserable?