Chapter 1: Part I
What Eliot didn’t expect was sympathy for Alice Quinn.
To be blunt, he didn’t really think about Alice much. But on the few occasions he did, his feelings were complicated. On the one hand, sure, she nobly sacrificed herself that one time for his kingdom, all magic, the love of her friends, and maybe even the whole sweet, chaotic, undeserving universe. Awesome. Fab. Bye-bye, Beast. Hello, whole other mess of problems.
On the other, after she came back, she was an ungrateful, fascist brat. Which let’s be honest, really wasn’t much of a difference from her original personality. She was less meek, that’s all. Which was an improvement, don’t get him wrong. He was always drawn to strong personalities, but the vicious, cat-like Alice turned to a plainly human, morally rigid bitch pretty quick. Not his favorite flavor.
Most unforgivably though, she was going to let Quentin take the guard post while also stranding him without magic. Forever, if she had her way. Sure, she put up an ostensible fight at the Cottage, but at the end of the day, she chose her path forward over the gentlest soul any of them had ever had the pleasure of knowing. He and Margo even discussed letting her in on their plan to shoot the monster (which, yes, hindsight, ill-conceived, “more powerful than we could have known,” et cetera, blah. Let’s move on, shall we?) But they opted out of including her because at the end of the day, they didn’t fucking trust her. He really didn’t want to be right, but he also wasn’t surprised when they were.
And for all that and more, fuck her.
Kind of made his whole sleeping-with-her-boyfriend-while-under-the-influence-of-a-battle-magic-emotion-high thing seem like child’s play, at least as far as betrayals go. Besides, the only thing he regretted about that hazy endeavor was that it wasn’t above board, not that it happened. Because without it, then he and Quentin might not have ever…
He slammed his eyes shut, cursing his oily, crusted lashes. He sucked in his dry lower lip, biting off an errant piece of dead flaked skin. He had too much to deal with right now, too much to adjust back to. He couldn’t go into The Q Zone right now. Not yet.
To everything there is a season, motherfucker.
But now, after all of it, he understood her. Alice, that is. Even empathized with the crazy broad. Because...becoming human again? Eliot always thought using the phrase “sucks balls” as a negative was inherently homophobic. But the moment, his brain was so exceedingly primitive that no other idiom was coming to mind. Giving into his baser instincts, his inner seventh grader admitted it: Human bodies sucked balls. They sucked the scaly, stinky, stanky, skanky unwashed balls of a neanderthal.
And Eliot never even lost himself. He didn’t transcend shit, as Margo would say. Alice was a Niffin, the embodiment of pure magic. He simply existed in his own subconscious, ephemeral and useless. But in “The Happy Place,” he always felt that he was still fully human, at least until he was unceremoniously ripped back out, with all the thanks in the world to Q and Julia and his Bambi. He didn’t realize how much of the human experience he forgot and how much of it was bodily and how much of it…sucked balls. The fact that he had to stand up, walk to a tiny room, close the door, pull out his penis, and then figure out the right muscles to eject his unused water from said penis was just utterly unbearable. And he had to do it multiple times a day? Maybe Quentin really should have let the monster waste away, so his poor body would never have to debase itself by pissing again.
He could practically see Q’s face grow dark and hurt at the sentiment. And to Quentin’s hypothetical injured glare and set jaw, he scowled right back. It’s not like he didn’t know that Eliot was a fantastically selfish person. It was his charm, really.
Oh, fuck off, asshole, his inner voice, the one he found harder and harder to ignore these days (and the one that always sounded suspiciously like Margo) rang clear. You’ve seen shit. You’ve been through shit. And you’ve prevailed. Have some goddamn respect for yourself.
His mind’s eye’s Platonic Ideal Margo was right, but the heaviness of the human condition still weighed on him more than usual. It was emo as shit and worse, it made him far too aware of the grime on his teeth, among other travesties. Also, he couldn’t get over the literal heaviness of the worst human organ… skin. Who the fuck thought a whole body blanket of flesh littered with seemingly random oozing orifices and pores was a good idea? Some god really wanted to fuck with the little guys. Zeus was famously a dickhead, so it was probably him.
Widening his lips around his tongue and stretching his mouth in a losing attempt to rid his face of an endless parched, crawling feeling, he dug the palms of his hands into his eyes and rubbed until he saw white stars. Dragging his long hands down his face, which felt haggard and paunchy and just…everything awful about trauma and aging, he slumped over and rubbed his aching temples.
He’d felt this before. This malaise of the march of time, of sagging flesh and unexplained exhaustion. But then—whenever or wherever that perfect then lived—he had warm hands to rub the aching arch of his neck, with soft, only slightly laughing promises that Eliot really had aged extraordinarily.
“I mean, I had to grow this beard to hide the ravages of time,” his eyes twinkled as he served the 45th birthday cake. “You, though? You’re a Cary Grant here and anywhere.”
“Errol Flynn,” Eliot was always quick to correct, unable to tear his eyes from his husband. “But thank you. And for the record, I actually love your face, ravaged and all.”
“And I love you.”
Back in the dreary now, Eliot threw his water glass at the wall with a feral yell. It bounced back, not breaking. He was weak. He was also never all that adept at physical aggression. His destruction, self- or otherwise, always came out in more insidious ways.
Fuck, he really needed Margo.
But he couldn’t see Margo. Not right now. Their earlier reunion was dazzling and far too brief, and it filled his cup for days. She told him from the start that she wished she could throw everything to the wind and stay locked in a bubble with him forever, but she couldn’t. Duty called. He understood. With everything in Fillory, the birth-right lizard, Fen’s journey, the lurking danger from all corners of that blood-thirsty little marble. She was High King and her people were in peril. Her kingdom was under threat (must be Tuesday.) Margo was a wonderful, if slightly more aggressive than average, leader. Much better than he’d ever been. He was proud of his Bambi, even though he knew she didn’t need his approval. She was a badass, a renegade, a stalwart, a goddamn King.
But still, selfishly, there was nothing he wanted more than to sink into one of her hugs and rest his head on her chest, even for only a moment. Or forever, preferably. He craved every comfort from her. Margo always smelled of high-end perfume (last, she was partial to Tom Ford) and the cozy, warm remnants of Fillorian incense. Sharp and soft, she always was. He missed her so.
And of course, there was that tiny, little, itty-bitty snag that he was persona non grata in the lush land of forests, swamps, and castles. He was de facto banned from Fillory, since, well, most of the populous thought he brutally murdered Bacchus and ate the god’s heart or some other brutal shit. Which…come on. If there was any particular god former High King Eliot Waugh the Spectacular was going to murder, in what slice of the multiverse would it be the fucking God of Winemaking? It was like no one ever really knew him at all.
In any case, Margo would work on reinstating him as an advisor, but he respected that she needed more time.
The fact that she was apparently able to get Josh in and out with no issue was…irksome. When Julia told him that Josh was actually the one to administer Margo’s paralyzing poison to the party god, Eliot couldn’t help but think that maybe Margo could try a little harder for her closest friend and soul mate, rather than her weird new hookup. Which, that subject? Whole other what the fuck.
“Josh is just so…doughy,” he said his pettiest thought aloud, his voice cracking from underuse.
“I heard that and I’m taking it as a compliment.”
Of course that was the moment Josh decided to walk through the ornate door to the guest room, holding a large tray filled with admittedly delicious looking food and a few new potions that assuredly would help him feel better, if he could stomach them. Other than the whole escaping from an all-powerful monster thing, truly nothing was going his way. He couldn’t even be a body-shaming asshole in the privacy of his own room.
“Dough is delicious and beloved by all,” Josh said with a grin.
“Oh, hi,” Eliot looked away from his friend’s way too sunny demeanor. “Sorry, these grounding potions make me a little…”
“Bit of a dick?”
“Maybe slightly more than usual,” Eliot said, propping himself up more on the bed. “So you’re on night nurse duty? Hope you have a sweeter bedside manner than Kady.”
“Low bar, man.”
“She’s scary,” he shuddered. “I mean, respect. But homegirl straight up terrifies me.”
“And you’re best friends with Margo.”
At that, Eliot offered a thin smile and looked around the room for something, anything that got off the subject of Margo. Because that of course would lead to the subject of Margo and Josh as a unit and the inevitability their cute little home life ruling over Fillory with equal parts ferocity and joviality. Lovely for them. But all the while, Eliot would waste away, forever alone, either dead from an overdose or living in a New York suburb, obsessed with his pair of Pomeranians and mid-century modern architecture, all while desperately counting down the days until his yearly sojourn to Palm Springs. The horror.
“Are those Hoberman originals?” Eliot nodded at the food placed at his bedside and Josh lit up. “They look…adequate.”
“They’re bomb. Wait until you try dessert,” he said with a wink. “I may have thrown in something special for you.”
“I assume you mean of the mind-altering variety, because I swear to God, if it’s just shaved almonds again…”
“Not almonds! You and Margo were very clear that last time. It’s drugs. Definitely lots of drugs.”
“Good boy. Let’s skip right to it. Daddy needs to chill the fuck out.”
Happy to oblige, Josh brought the tray closer and pulled the cloche off a platter of perfectly square and richly glazed brownies. Occasionally, Josh went for the old school classics and Eliot appreciated it. When he wanted to get fucked up, he sometimes found whimsical accoutrements contributed nothing but unnecessary distraction. Edible flowers and jellied herbs were lovely at, say, Mugaritz or Eleven Madison Park, but when it came to getting prepped for a mind-blowing high, keep it simple, stupid. As he plucked a large piece off the top of the pile, Josh looked at the door over his shoulder and chuckled a little before leaning in, stage-whispering.
“Don’t say anything to Quentin though. He was very opposed. Kinda threatened me.”
“Well, he’s a kill joy,” Eliot said, not without affection. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
With that, he took a large, sumptuous bite and nearly moaned in delight. Unlike the paltry offerings of the muggles, Magician drugs worked in an instant. His pupils dilated with a stretching sizzle and his head lifted away from his body like a joy filled balloon. His fingers danced and vibrated, and a good portion of the pressure on his chest alleviated. Josh gave him the good shit.
“Thank fuck,” he said, moaning. “I needed this.”
“Nothing too crazy. Should send you into a trance with some light-hearted dreams and give you a 14-hour sleep in 10 minutes. You’ll be starving after though, so I’ll leave the food here.”
Except, instead of a warm wave of endorphins and hazy visions of silks, everything turned blue, like a web with information flowing around him, math and possibilities and all other kinds of boring crap that was severely harassing his buzz.
Standing before him, was Eliot. An elderly Eliot, with shock white hair and small spectacles. Hand-sewn clothes adorned his person. Not without style, but certainly nothing Eliot would be caught dead in on Earth. Fillorian. And he was standing on the Mosaic, blurred in the background.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the older version of himself said, marveling hungrily at Eliot. “I always knew I was devastatingly handsome.”
“What the fuck?” It was all he could manage to get out. He turned his head with whiplash toward Josh, who was still tutting about happily around the guest room, trying to perfect the comforts Kady ignored, save for the glass of whiskey on his night table that she thrust at him with an unceremonious grunt.
“Josh. Joshua. What the fuck?”
“Uh-oh, no Herbalist likes to hear those words during a happy high,” he rushed over. “What’s going on? Tremors? Do your teeth feel cold?”
“More like I’m peering into a different timeline, in pre-war Fillory.”
“Oh no,” he quickly ran back to the tray and smelled the brownie. “Fuck, I did it again.”
“It’s that See Into Other Worlds strain, isn’t it? Is there a reason you keep baking with that particular ingredient? Honestly, who even wants that shit after all we’ve been through?”
“I swear, I thought I labeled it,” Josh held his hands up as he backed away, towards the front of the room. “Okay, keep calm. I have an antidote. I’ll be back. Quentin’s going to kill me. Don’t say anything to Quentin.”
And with a final flourish of olive oil on the scones left on the tray by the door, Josh ran out of the room.
“I remember him,” the older Eliot said with a half-smile. “Bit of an odd duck.”
“He’s all right,” Eliot wasn’t sure why the first words he spoke to the apparition of himself from an emotionally delicate timeline was to defend Josh, but well, this wasn’t exactly well worn territory. “He’s with Margo now.”
Eliot flashed his eyes up, all the fury he could muster in his exhausted body overtaking him.
“You bite your goddamn tongue. Margo.”
“I’m, eh, as you may say…fucking with you,” Old Eliot’s cheeks reached his eyes as he smiled, filled with far more natural mirth than he’d had ever felt. At least, since, well. “Of course I remember. She was a true one.”
“How are we talking, exactly? I already lived the life you’re, like, currently living. Are you a hallucination or something?”
“If I were, how would asking me help?”
Fuck, there was nothing more he loathed than having his own words thrown back at him. Especially from…himself. Trippy.
“What I mean is you shouldn’t be a separate person from me. You are me. That life is lived and gone.” Bitterness burned like salt on his tongue and the words felt foreign in his mouth. Regret was an old friend at this point, a la Paul Simon’s darkness, but that didn’t mean it didn’t stab his soul acutely every time he thought about what could have been, what should have been, and—worst of all—what actually was. Sometimes he hated Quentin for sending that letter to Margo. Ignorance is bliss would be written on Eliot’s tombstone.
The older version of himself was watching him studiously behind those glasses Eliot remembered so well. Often, the right side became too tight against his temple. Quentin’s discipline was minor mendings and it was a regular source of frustration that nothing he did would stick—fixing a pair of spectacles should have been something he could do in his sleep, but the tightness always returned. Eliot could still hear Quentin’s murmured swearing as he bent over the workbench, trying different variants of the same spell to no avail. Teddy would watch, fascinated, and Eliot would feel his heart turn over itself in gratitude.
He blinked, refocusing on the older man. Himself. And he watched himself clean those glasses and delicately place them on the bridge of his nose, and burn his dark and familiar eyes into Eliot’s prone form, almost knowingly, almost mockingly, almost kindly.
“Do you know The Watcher Woman?” He finally said, those eyes crinkling. He knew the answer.
“Um, vaguely? That sounds like Quentin territory.”
“You don’t remember? With Umber? The story in the cottage?” Older Eliot walked over to the bed, probably so that he could hear better. His hearing was completely shot by the end. “She was—is—a misunderstood villain in the Fillorian realm. As High King, you really should be much more familiar.”
“I’m not High King anymore.”
“Oh,” Older Eliot looked genuinely surprised, but recovered quickly. “Hmm. Panta rei, I suppose.”
Eliot shrugged and again pushed down the bitterness that threatened to retch itself out of his sternum as a wild barrage of anger. Margo was the worthy ruler. He had been selfish. His destiny was different than what he expected, but no less important or beautiful. At least, that’s what Penny-40 told him, that one weird time. But he loved Fillory. He missed it. And he hated how badly he fucked everything up and with so little to show for it.
Either unaware or more likely, unconcerned with Eliot’s inner angst, Older Eliot continued: “The only way the quest could work is if she locked us in an infinite loop. We’re aware, yet frozen in our actions. We live and re-live, never making different choices, but instead appreciating, with renewed and invigorated wisdom and depth, every moment of our home and our journey. Your intrusion has given me a rare break in the beautiful monotony.”
“Sounds nice. Life’s chaotic shit here.”
“Well, with that attitude, certainly.”
God, spoken like a fucking old person. Eliot remembered being like that, but had he really been…like that? However, he wasn’t about it get into it with an old man—even if he was technically younger than Eliot. He wasn’t exactly sure how that worked. Really, he’d lived some x-variable longer than he even could even remember, since the Fillorian time loop was only one of many, but math made Eliot’s head hurt and his heart sad.
(He thought of Quentin doing the calculation for the Mosaic—all those damn zeroes—and laughter almost pricked at the sides of his mouth. God, he was cute.)
Get your shit together, Waugh.
“So you have to relive everything?” He asked, instead of delving into the more metaphysical questions. “The hours of frustration? The water poisoning? Arielle?”
“You say ‘Arielle’ like she’s as bad as the water poisoning,” Older Eliot cocked his head to the side like an elderly spaniel. A very dignified and attractive elderly spaniel, but canine nonetheless.
“I mean, obviously, we need her. Teddy. I get it. But at the same time…”
Eliot didn’t appreciate the impromptu therapy session. Dealing with his feelings about Arielle, about what she had, about what his family could have looked like, about the mirror in fucking Alice in this world… It was too much. And as much as this person was him and he was this person, they were also strangers. So much had happened and changed in his time; he had returned from whence he came and grown and regressed and grown for greater measure, all far more than his Fillorian self could ever know. It was too late.
But the familiarity of the older man’s face, his eyes, what Eliot knew he felt and saw and did, unlike that which any of their friends could ever understand forced the words to tumble out of the younger Eliot before sense caught up with him.
“Don’t you—don’t you kind of hate her? Each time? Knowing that she’s standing in the way? You could have had more time.”
“Hate Arielle?” Older Eliot was clearly shocked at the suggestion. “No. I love her. We both love her. She brought laughter and light into our home. She was my friend. As you said, she was my son’s mother… but I feel you’re forgetting all that means. When I see her again, the only regret I feel is knowing how short our time will be.”
“How noble of you,” Eliot leaned back against his pillow and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “How the fuck does that even work? Knowing that you’re in a loop but living it anyway?”
“It’s a vague, fleeting feeling since when we relive, we are in the moment. But we also know that they are memories. Really, it’s confusing as fuck, if I recall the parlance of your time.”
“‘Parlance?’ Gross,” Eliot grabbed the glass of whiskey and chugged it. “You made me do that.”
“Watch the liver, kid.”
“How can you stand to see them together?” He ran his finger along the rim of the crystal, his voice barely above the melodic hum he created. “He’s…he’s ours. Was ours. Is yours.”
“My, you’re very young,” Older Eliot smiled. “I suppose I was, too.”
“I lived your life longer than you did, jackass.”
“Once, yes. But your memories are fogged, imprecise,” Older Eliot held his hands in a frame at Eliot’s bedridden form. “You’ve been through a trauma I can’t fathom. Bogged from your world and all the pressures that go along with it. I can see that. I can also help with that. Your life with Quentin is too precious for uncertainty.”
“I was possessed by a monster for the better part of the year and systematically tortured all my friends and killed a whole bunch of actual real life gods,” Eliot spoke plainly. This guy didn’t understand half of it. “And Quentin? Will barely look at me. He’s come to see me exactly twice, once to stare at me, like fucking trembling without a word…super awkward. And another time to ‘check my vitals,’ which, incidentally, are the only words he’s said to me thus far. I’ll say, “Hey Q,” and he’ll say, ‘I’m here to check your vitals.’ And I’ll say, ‘How’s the weather?’ and he’ll say, ‘I’m here to check your vitals.’ And I’ll say, ‘Want to process the whole monster-killing-gods-torture-Blackspire thing?’ and he’ll say—”
Older Eliot put his hand up to cut him off and nodded, closing his eyes and chuckling.
“I get it. You know how he is. Remember what we call him when he’s being particularly… Quentinish?
Eliot bit his cheeks to stop from smiling, “Mr. Martyr the Mouse.”
“Exactly. Give him time.”
“Things are different here is all I mean,” Eliot’s eyelids felt heavy and the spin of the earth gave him vertigo. “Looking backward is pointless. Forward motion, always and only. Maybe there’s a different kind of bravery in accepting what was and what will never be again.”
With that statement hanging between them, the mood shifted rapidly. Older Eliot’s infamous temper flared and Eliot was quite certain that if it were possible, he would have smacked him right across the face. Instead, he flailed his hand angrily and stomped his foot until the blue web shook in his wake.
“I’m done listening to your self-pitying horseshit,” his voice was low and still, eerie in its calm. “You really believe you’re moving forward right now? What progress can you maintain without taking to heart anything you learned? You’re making excuses. You aren’t fighting. After everything, fucking everything, you’re still exactly what I hated about myself for years and successfully overcame. Only you come back from my life well lived, and immediately go right on back because of one or two small obstacles. I’m embarrassed to share your DNA.”
“Well, I’m shocked you remember what DNA even is, what with living in that anti-science, backwards hovel.”
“Fuck you, you child. You know damn well that ‘hovel’ is the best thing that ever happened to us and lying in bed, surrounded by Earthly pleasures and a superior condescension, all while truly embodying nothing but a pathetic coward doesn’t change that.”
“Fuck you, you myopic old bastard,” Eliot leaned forward on his hands. “I am convalescing after being trapped in my own body by a god-killing monster. Give Quentin time? Give me some time. And frankly, don’t presume that you know about me, about Quentin, or about anything that’s happened since we came back from the Mosaic.”
“If there’s anything I recall about my life on Earth, it’s that time is a precious resource. A luxury. That you would squander it is disappointing.”
Eliot shook his head at his older self’s audacity, and ran his fingers through his disgusting, too-long hair, “This is exactly what I meant when I said he can’t compare our choices in Fillory to our situation now. Earth is complicated and-and seeing you now? Hearing your perspective? You are willfully, naively ignorant of the sheer breadth and depth of those complexities. It proves—”
Older Eliot wasn’t listening. Instead, he was moving his hands in an elegant yet rapid pace, switching his fingers up and down, side-to-side, and all around in rhythm with his breath, as he muttered in a language that only rang partially familiar to Eliot. Gaelic, perhaps?
That’s when the blue overtook Eliot and ringing through his skull, he felt his own voice, at once Older, weathered and raspy, determined, overpower his will with a single word.
He was in Fillory. The Mosaic was half-complete for the day, and Quentin was younger than back on Earth. They had only been working on the puzzle for two weeks and they both still held out hope they’d reach home soon. The air was crisply cool and sparkled with magic, and the hearth smelled of recently baked bread and warm charcoal. Quentin was so proud of his bread—mostly crust with dense, seeded insides—but a fortnight of berries and one bout of near-death poisoning from the since-dubbed Diarrhea Bush made the thick slices of carbohydrates the finest feast Eliot ever tasted. And the light in Quentin’s eyes shone, and for the first time, they didn’t speak of their friends, their quest, or of home at all.
Piles of dully colored squares towered in the noon sun and Eliot’s brow hadn’t been so mopped with sweat since the days his mind shunned—the ones on the farm, with ploughs and manure and mud and hatred. Looking between the two of them, almost everyone would think manual labor would be a fool’s errand. Both seemed a bit too “Indoor Cat” not to break under the grueling heat and the relentless toil. But even Q held his own and there were times Eliot wondered if he wasn’t enjoying himself, just a little, in the solitude of his friend’s company. On Earth, too often they were faced with destruction, self- or otherwise, and never-ending assault, death, magic, the lot of it. But now, here, in Fillory, ages ago, they had time to themselves and time to each other. And Eliot never realized how much he truly liked Quentin. Conversation flowed and not only about matters of life and death or kingship and court.
Quentin almost studied philosophy, in the Before. His favorite was Plato’s Symposium, and how it sublimated the base of carnal desire with valor, bravery, spiritual awakening. Eliot liked that it gave equal credence to all love, all passion, and all that is human, so that it made the gods tremble in their wake. Of course, Q was a bit of a pedant about the lack of real Philosophic significance in Aristophanes’ most famous speech, to which Eliot argued that it didn’t matter because it was of real literary significance. And besides, the poetry within was so much more beautiful and fascinating and meaningful than anything in bramble-dry, methodical texts outlining human nature like it could be dissected. They agreed to disagree.
Still, when he watched Quentin’s lithe form slide between tiles under the Fillorian light, and when his rich brown eyes caught glints of joy in their discussions, and when that rare beaming, heart-bursting smile was directed right at Eliot, he mused that maybe they really were Those Descended from the Sun, finally forging back together.
Their first anniversary in Fillory, by the fire, with the mead. It was burned on his skin. It danced toward him, always out of reach but never far. It was not the first time he felt Quentin’s hands or lips. It was not the first time he drowned in him. Yet in those few sacred hours, Eliot finally acknowledged what he’d always known: he was a goner for Quentin Coldwater from the start. And if he murmured that into Q’s neck a few too many times that night, maybe for once he wouldn’t blame the booze. Maybe he’d blame the boy—no, the man—who had slowly, surely, steadily entranced him.
Arielle was nothing like Margo. She was nothing like Julia. Maybe she had a bit of Fen’s spirit; innocent at the outset, fury within. What she saw in Lunk (other than, duh, the pectorals) was truly a mystery. And even after he was long gone, it always tortured poor Q. But what Q saw in Arielle was clear. She was funny and gentle, good and strong. She was smart, but without any pretension. When a Fillorian water demon overtook their crops, she outwitted it with a dance, perfectly choreographed and brought to breathless fruition by a graceful en pointe. Then Quentin and Eliot threw vinegar at the distracted motherfucker and that was that. They were a team in their own primitive way and the simplicity that once would have bored Eliot instead gave him a sense of stability, of grounding, of love.
Their concept of home shifted, and never returned...
Chapter 2: Part II
Reading Fillory in Fillory always made Eliot laugh, the absurdity not lost on him.
Fair, they knew the place was more than real (obviously), that the lore was the key to so many questions, that their lives and the lives of so many depended on the secrets locked within the whimsical texts. But when Q would read aloud to his newborn son—a wrinkled and wiggly little red potato if Eliot had ever seen one—there was no hint of the darkness, no weight of the world. The taste of their thirty-nine deaths never balanced on his tongue’s careful wire. Instead, he was bright, animated, engaged, like he was sharing the secret joy of his heart with his own spirit. Ari would roll her eyes good-naturedly, saying that reading such elaborate historical texts to a baby was silly. But Eliot would sit at their humble cedar table, watching Quentin’s soft hands and strong arms delicately position his son along his shoulder, as his feet pressed into the stone floor, pushing the wooden rocking chair in a rhythmic lull. And Eliot’s heart touched the infinite each time Q’s voice flickered through their tiny home with the gentility and brightness of the candle by the table side.
Eliot figured out a spell that would play Iggy Pop for Ari. She loved it. All was well.
Teddy reached his third birthday before Eliot was alone with him. Arielle was suffering from headaches, likely due to dehydration. Fillory was in a drought, they lived far from Whitespire, and there was only so much they could do to provide fresh water. They were mere Magicians still. So Quentin and Ari journeyed to the centaurs, to find some relief from the increasingly sharp and dizzying headaches at least. But the trek was deemed too taxing for a toddler and Eliot stared at Teddy, unsure what to do. Silly faces proved a more than adequate ice breaker and their first days together ended with Eliot’s cheeks wet from sloppy, imprecise kisses and his heart all the fuller.
His name was Harry Potter and Eliot was so used to Fillorian anachronisms, he never dwelled on it again. Harry sold them the ceramics that held the smaller, prized plum trees, the ones they entered into the fair each fall for a larger monetary prize than the entirety of the spring and summer crops yielded. The first time they won, they celebrated with more mead than ever before and Eliot fell into Harry’s bed. He was descended from liberal Children of Earth and was not squeamish about men loving men, especially in the ways that mattered most to Eliot (that is, blowjobs.) But with Harry, he was distracted. Drinking too much. Quentin never said a word. He was honorably respectful, annoyingly so, knowing he had no right to anything Eliot did. But after blacking out on a reckless bender and missing over a week of their little life, Eliot quietly ended things.
He also never drank again. He wasn’t celibate or anything that drastic. He still had needs. But he knew where his loyalty lived, and he came home to it every night.
Teddy asked “Ellie” to tell him bedtime stories. His favorite one was about a beautiful future High Queen who loved her land, her friends, and her shoes, in no particular order. A High Queen who always risked everything for what she believed was right and who always had the best one-liners in the game. A High Queen who, given the opportunity, would shower sweet Teddy with chocolates and toys until he burst, even if she’d then naturally refuse to clean him up after because kids were gross and stinky. Teddy always giggled at the word stinky and asked to hear the tale again.
And then that terrible day. On Earth, it was known as an aneurysm. Fillorians called it Sudden and Silent Death. There was actually nothing silent about it because she screamed and vomited, her eyes red and her skin sallow. She cried for her boy and pled with the gods to take mercy. Neither Umber nor Ember listened, of course. For the first time, Eliot was glad that in another time, another world, another life, Quentin would murder the shit out of that worthless ingrate, even with the known cost. They buried Arielle behind the peach trees and Teddy both carefully and carelessly shoveled the last of the soil on his mother’s grave. The three of them slept in the same bed that night and for many more nights following.
Three months became three more years. Teddy was nearing six. The Mosaic was still silent and their quest stalwart, even as they grew further and further from their raison d’etre. Eliot knew he should worry about Margo, alone in Fillory, and Quentin occasionally would wake in a cold sweat, thinking of Alice, fearing she was still dead, Niffin’d, or worse. But these memories became less and less precise, more fogged. What was real were the long walks they would take with their boy in the Fillorian wilderness, golden light and leaves falling along the criss-crossed pathways, rich with discovery and companionship. Quentin was Dad and Eliot was Papa.
Quentin needed time. He was the methodical one. But they both got there, on a warm June evening, after another year more. They stopped placing tiles to watch the fireflies. The lightning bugs landed in the trees and filled the forest with a warm, twinkling glow. Eliot reached for Quentin’s hand, Quentin looked at Eliot, then they both said the words. They said the words often, in the familial way. But with fervent hope and fear in each tremble of each syllable, they knew the weight of the words now and every time after.
In their embrace, the sun was whole again.
On Teddy’s 18th birthday, he demanded that they call him Theo. It was a more dignified name, he said, one that welcomed him into Fillory’s manhood and society with purpose. Q told him about his grandfather, a kind Earth man who loved model planes and, more than anything, family. Quentin rarely talked to their boy about Earth and his son was hungry for his tales. After that, Teddy was Ted, a worthy name and compromise. Quentin made a lavender-honey cake for the occasion, and Eliot saved a piece for Arielle, as always.
Spring in Fillory was otherworldly, in the colloquial sense (and the literal sense, too, Eliot supposed.) Even the evergreens became cherry blossoms, and pink petals of delicate snow covered the rolling hills and deep forests like sugar-topped candies. Thirty five years had passed by then and Eliot was slower, more like his husband—methodical. Days ago, Quentin had a bout of angina (which was scary, but ultimately harmless) and he was resting while Eliot alone laid the tiles carefully in a hexagonal pattern. He knew Quentin would be annoyed that he went his own way rather than following the outline, but sometimes Eliot still needed to embrace spontaneity in any form he could find it.
Their life was deceptively simple. They woke at dawn, baked breakfast, took a walk, made love, worked on the Mosaic, opened the farm, sold crops, bartered with the locals, cooked lunch, worked on the Mosaic, sold crops, took a walk, worked on the Mosaic, prepared dinner, wrote letters, bathed, made love, slept. It was all the same, day-in, day-out. It was the kind of monotony at which Eliot in his past iteration would have been horrified. Appalled, at the embrace of boredom. Even the embrace of stability, terrifying in how it steadied him and laid him bare. The embrace of monogamy, the worst of monotony as far as his younger self was concerned. But as Eliot placed the first tile of the last row, he chuckled. His Earthling self was a big picture thinker and always forgot the complexities of the details.
The details, the details, the details. That was where the power of their life well-lived, well, lived. The broad strokes of the trauma of the Earth were flashy and blood-soaked, but the fine strands of gold that weaved the tapestry in their gardens, their hearth, and their home were subtle, never boastful, and yet far more intricate than his brash, angry former self could imagine “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He quoted the Hamlet line at Quentin often, especially when Q was being particularly stubborn about a logic problem. But he also knew now that his own years of philosophical belief in passion and urgency were equally flawed. The beauty of all life was—
The tiles trembled and a white-hot light sunburst from between the cracks.
Eliot yelped for Quentin, falling over on himself and his weakening legs. But by the time Q ran out the door, clad only in burlap pajama bottoms, the Mosaic was silent once again. Quentin worried about Eliot’s perceptions from that day on (he never used the word dementia but it hung stale in the oppressive air), but he knew what he saw. He knew they were close.
Cataracts formed. Bones were brittle, memories gone. Quentin could no longer remember Alice’s name. Eliot never reminded him, and it was his final selfish act. But every night, they fell asleep holding hands and Eliot focused on the pads of Quentin’s thumbs against his palms, his cheeks, his chest. They still felt the same as the first time, still sent sparks through his spine and still spun his foggy mind into a tizzy of love yet unexpressed into the infinitude. So, Eliot would kiss those perfect thumbs every day and Quentin would pretend it didn’t make him cry. They found solace and joy in their decay.
Eliot’s hands rested on a terra cotta tile and his breath caught in his chest, pinching his heart in a mix of physical toil and heavy blanketed emotional upheaval. He could no long regulate his impulses. Q leaned against the damned ladder with a faraway look as he answered the question Eliot asked, moments prior.
“I dream about them sometimes.”
“Hmm.”A pause. “Do you regret—?”
“Nothing. Do you?”
“Margo, sometimes. But it’s a vague guilt, not really…formed. I wouldn’t give up any of this, for anything. And sometimes that makes me…”
A longer pause.
“Quentin, I am getting tired.”
“Go to sleep. I’ll finish tonight. My joints are strong right now. We’ll finish together in the morning.”
A firm, dry kiss. Weaker than usual.
Later, he was sitting on the wicker chair, forged from twigs that fell throughout their many years together. Quentin’s back muscles rippled under the white shirt that matched his shock-white beard that Eliot lovingly braided each and every morn. He bent down to keep placing the Mosaic, stalwart and loyal and determined and so goddamn loving. The light was dimming as the sun rose into its noontime position and Eliot thanked the gods for everything. Whichever one sent them on the quest, whichever one cared enough, he promised to worship them in any lives he’d be lucky enough to live again.
Quentin laid down another tile and Eliot forgot to close his eyes.
He landed back on the bed with a jerking muscle spasm, like a falling dream. He kept his eyes tightly shut, fearful of what he would see on the other side. Eliot’s chest felt lighter, though more corroded with recent leftover smoke and tar. The wrinkles were gone, but new memories flooded back and his arms were sinewed with youth and terror once again. He swallowed sharp anger and sadness, then carefully let the light in and peeked out from behind the safety of his eyelids.
Josh’s stupid glasses were practically touching his face and his too-big eyes were ogling him like a science project. He pressed wet leaves onto Eliot’s cheeks, which felt like wet socks, only somehow colder and more disgusting. Eliot slid his line of vision past his goofy friend and pushed down his disappointment at the inevitable surroundings. He was back in the disorienting apartment, still tackily decorated with far too much Art Deco-meets-Anthropologie for Eliot’s taste. He looked at his hands; his ring was gone. Long gone, really, but its absence ached.
“Personal space, Hoberman,” he spat out, growling a little. At this, Josh smiled widely, much to Eliot’s annoyance.
“You’re back!” He clapped in the air, whooping in relief. “Thank Jesus fucking Christ because if you had disappeared into some other world, Quentin would have strung me up by my intestines and had a feast on my disemboweled innards. At least, that’s what Kady said. Pretty specifically and somehow even more graphically.”
“Cannibalism. A favorite topic.”
“Oh, right, the whole Neitherlands thing. Sorry.”
“And the god-killing, heart-eating monster thing that happened about five minutes ago.”
Josh snapped his fingers and nodded.
“That too. Again, sorry,” he chuckled awkwardly and began peeling the leaves off. “Well, your temperature is down and these little guys have absorbed the last of the See Other Worlds strain. You should be one-hundred percent grounded in our reality. Welcome back.”
Not quite, Eliot realized as he stared at his former self once again, standing casually in the corner of the room. This time, he was younger. He was wearing a dark blue and green patterned collared shirt, a richly hemmed navy vest, and his favorite boots. His hair was shorter and dark and curled, messy with an eye towards nonchalance-as-style. His eyes held the weight of the crown on his head, but also the wisdom of a thousand time loops lived. Raising his hand in a small salute, the Older, Younger, Other Eliot smiled and winked. And he mouthed, Remember.
Then he disappeared, taking all the air in Eliot’s lungs with him.
“Yo, all good, man?” Josh furrowed his brow in concern. Eliot blinked and immediately jumped out of bed, pacing the room. Of course, Josh was asking innocently. He didn’t know. He couldn’t know. The fucking enormity, the truth—it was actually pretty funny, the whole thing. Except not funny, at all, not even a little bit. He raced around the room like a madman before finally stopping, still. Then, he nodded and charged toward the door.
“Hey, whoa, you’re definitely not supposed to get out of bed,” Josh grabbed Eliot’s arm when he finally stopped being gobsmacked. “Your state is a lot more precarious than maybe you feel.”
Eliot shook Josh’s hand off and mustered his strongest glare, complete with casting hands at the ready. Sure, the ambient magic was low (whatever the hell that meant), but he was pretty sure he could still summon enough to freeze Josh mid-stance or at least knock him out a little. Wise to Eliot’s fury, Josh stepped back and held his hands up.
“White flag, man,” he said. “You’re the boss of your body.”
“You’re goddamn right,” Eliot ignored his screaming muscles and forced himself to gracefully raise his head and chest in tandem toward the door. But before he reached the large square knob (again with the Art Deco), he paused.
“I’m not totally on board with you and Margo yet,” he said behind his shoulder, in sotto voce. “But I’ll get there. It’s a lot of change all at once.“
“Say no more,” Josh’s half-smile was evident in his voice; Eliot definitely wasn’t going to actually look directly at him right now. “Totally understand. Thank you.”
With a curt nod, he swallowed and opened his way into the living room. The sweeping high ceilings were dimmed in the late hour, but two familiar figures were still awake, sitting along the kitchen island and pouring themselves into books. He was pretty sure it was Julia in his periphery, but only Quentin was like a beacon, spotlit in Eliot’s perception. Q was writing in a notebook, his small and neat script covering the whole page. As he brought his face down to the page, he was mouthing numbers and spell-work, and Eliot’s stomach did that weird little dizzy tickle thing it always did when he was around him. Quentin’s eyebrows barely raised in acknowledgement of the door opening and he didn’t look up from his calculations.
“Josh, make sure you give him the third potion twice,” Quentin pushed his hair out of his eyes and increased his speaking speed. “I double checked your formulae and I saw you did three-parts Wildbane, which is fine, I guess, but, um, not as strong. So double the dosage for now and in the future I think if we did two-parts Juniper, we’ll see faster results.“
“Uh, Q?” It was Julia and she was nudging him with her shoulder, while staring directly at Eliot. He acknowledged her with a small wave.
“Jules, I know he’s an Herbalist but that doesn’t mean he can’t make mistakes—“
“Q,” she said, firmer this time and with a sharp elbow to the side. He made a high-pitched noise of frustration and glared at his friend, who wordlessly pursed her lips and shot her eyes toward Eliot. When Quentin finally turned upward and saw him, his face dropped and blanched, frozen fear and uncertainty painting his eyes. The edges of his lips pulled down with a bob of his Adam’s apple. Eliot ignored the kick to the gut Q’s obvious discomfort provided and tilted his head.
“He speaks,” Eliot’s voice was too soft against his attempt to keep it light. Quentin’s face went paler still and he opened his mouth. Then closed it again. Then opened it.
“Um,” he finally said, eloquently.
“I think that’s my cue,” Julia stretched her words out and slid off the bar stool. With her patented Mona Lisa smile, Julia walked past Eliot with a delicate arm squeeze.
“You should be in bed,” she lightly admonished, but without more protest. He appreciated the space she gave him and thanked her with a quick nod before she disappeared into her own room.
And so, they were alone.
Eliot folded his arms over themselves and tapped his foot. He realized he was barefoot and the New York apartment had obviously prewar HVAC—he was cold. But Margo provided him with blue silk pajamas, so at least he looked semi-dapper and could feel more like himself as his heart slammed against his chest, waiting for Quentin to say something, literally fucking anything, that wasn’t about the state of his horrible, sticky, aching body.
“She-she’s right,” Quentin said after a few pregnant moments of silence, rubbing his neck. A nervous tic. “You’re definitely not ready to be out of bed. You need sleep.”
“Cute as this whole Mother Hen look is on you, I needed to stretch my legs,” Eliot hated that he couldn’t be more forthcoming, more honest about why he was out there, but baby steps and all that. “I’ve been cooped up for far too long.”
They both knew he wasn’t just referring to his recovery time.
“Right, I mean, but…I mean, I should at least check your vitals—”
“Say ‘check your vitals’ one more time, motherfucker,” Eliot said, blithely, smiling despite himself. Quentin’s shoulders were tense and his posture terrible. His hair was also shorter than Eliot was used to yet. It looked good.
“I—um, sorry. I just want to make sure you’re alright.”
“We’re a little ways off from that, Coldwater,” Eliot strode across the room and winced at the pain in his tendons, both earnestly and for effect. “But I’m here.”
“I think I’m still processing,” Quentin’s voice was raspy and his jaw muscles tightened against the tears Eliot knew he hated being so prone to. So Eliot simply nodded in response and cleared his throat, choking up a little himself.
“I get that.” Fuck, now his voice was raspy. “I’m processing too.”
“Getting you back was harder than…it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Quentin walked to the couch and sat, holding his head between his hands, his elbows pressing into his thighs. Unsure if he had the right, but not really caring, Eliot walked over and sat down beside him, their knees touching, and he rested his head against Quentin’s shoulder. Instead of tensing at the unexpected touch, Q melted and they both leaned back, relishing in their well-worn solace, their heads and cheeks resting against each other in companionable comfort. Quentin’s arm instinctually snaked itself around Eliot’s waist and Eliot wrapped his own arm around both of them in response. Silence was comfortable now and Eliot breathed in the familiar scent that was Quentin Coldwater—clean, salted, tinged with clove, smoke, and paperbacks. Time became irrelevant, and for maybe minutes, maybe hours, they sat, holding each other.
“Look, sometimes I’ll have epiphanies more than once,” he said without preamble, the bravery bubbling up without warning. Quentin was obviously surprised too, and he lolled his head over to look directly at him. Q’s eyebrows drew together with two distinct crinkles between them and his warm brown eyes were soft question marks. Their lips were a hairsbreadth away from each other, but Eliot needed to focus.
“I’m a coward, Q,” he said, taking Quentin’s hand and running his index finger along the outline of that perfect thumb. “I’m impulsive and reckless, but I’m also scared, especially when it comes to anything real. And you—what we had. Have. Had—”
“Have.” Quentin held steady eye contact and the bravery almost overflowed. Eliot sighed.
“It was realer than I could handle. And I’m still processing that, let alone the whole…monster thing. Plus, I’m pretty sure he turned me into a full-on drug addict, so I’m going through withdrawal?”
“Josh’s potions will help with that,” Q answered as confirmation.
“Right. Great,” Eliot took several deep breaths and looked away from Quentin. “I guess what I’m saying is…I might need you to be patient with me. I might need to circle back ‘round to things we’ve already covered. I’m not as certain as you. I’m not as diligent. And I struggle with your faith, as much as I admire it. But I want to try, Q. I really want to try.”
At that, Quentin’s lips quirked a little, playing a soft smile on his delicate features. Then the smile quirked bigger. And bigger. Then, Eliot could see his teeth as Quentin’s smile grew, strong and bright like his spirit, across his whole face and Q’s shoulders started bouncing rhythmically. He was…laughing. For a split second, Eliot’s heart was gripped with fear and insecurity, and he wished he could be swallowed whole into the Underworld, where at least Penny-40 could hook him up with some kind of forgetting potion. Or, you know, heroin. Underworld heroin was probably the shit.
But the microsecond passed as quickly as it came when Quentin grabbed Eliot’s hand and pressed it to his chest. He could feel Q’s steady heart rate, warm under their clasped hands, and they locked eyes. Quentin was joyful. Laughing, yes, but not mocking. It was even a little infectious, and Eliot felt his own lips tremble with threatened bursts of humor.
“What, pray tell, is so funny?” He asked, drawn into Q’s light.
“I’m sorry,” his voice was shaking with glee and that big wide smile broke out over his face again, and Eliot was a goner all over again. “Sorry. Really. It’s just, um…”
“It’s just you’re saying this like it’s a revelation. Like I haven’t been waiting for you to get here since we got back.” Quentin didn’t need to say back from where; they both knew he meant The Mosaic. “Eliot, I know you better than anyone in the world. This is old hat, my friend.”
At that, Eliot did the only thing he could think of: he playfully pushed Quentin over so that he’d land sideways on the couch.
“Fuck you, I’m trying to pour my heart out here,” he said, laughing more because Quentin was right (and cute and distracting) than because anything was actually strictly funny.
“No, you’re right. I apologize, please continue. I’m always open to new nuance in an old topic.” Q’s eyes were shining and Eliot fell forward into their banter. He fucking lived for this.
“Nope, too late. The moment has passed, completely undercut,” Eliot sighed dramatically and held his hand out, mimicking the great horizon. “The romance is swept away, never to return.”
Quentin sat back up, chuckling and leaned his head back onto Eliot’s shoulder. Eliot dropped his own head on top of head and absentmindedly traced circles on Quentin’s knee. Silence fell over them again, but it was less familiar and sweet. More tense. Heavier weighted, at least.
“The romance, huh?” Quentin turned Eliot’s hand over in his own and studiously avoided eye contact. Palm, back, palm, back. Eliot kept his wrist limp as Q thought, that famously overthinking brain churning nearly audibly.
“Come on, you know I suck at this,” Eliot said, desperate to break the tension. “And I know I usually choose my bon mots well, but when it comes to anything...”
“Emotionally vulnerable or resonant?” Ouch. Point: Q.
“Precisely,” Eliot stretched the word slowly, channeling Julia, and covering his slight startle at Quentin’s bluntness. “That’s when my natural wit fails me and I suck at it.”
“‘It’ being ‘healthy communication.’”
“Yes, wiseass,” Eliot half-laughed, real annoyance starting to form in his chest. “So can we skip over that whole part? You know what I want to say. You know how I feel.”
Quentin looked up at Eliot through his eyelashes and his gaze pierced a thousand skies. Brushing his warm gray-brown hair behind his ears, Quentin’s jaw relaxed and he took a deep breath through his nose and out his mouth, before bringing both hands to rest on Eliot’s face. Running the pad of that thumb across Eliot’s cheekbone, Quentin leaned forward and rested his forehead against Eliot’s and their breath, their heart rate, their souls were locked in sync. Eliot was drowning, pulled by the undertow back to his home, his life, his husband.
Remember. This is where you are meant to be.
The Earth could have shattered right there and Eliot would have cared fuck all, except that he was with Quentin. And after Quentin pressed a feather-light kiss on his lips before pulling back, Eliot was such a puddle that it barely registered when he finally answered him.
Screeching halt, Batman.
“What?” Eliot jerked back, certain he misheard.
“No,” Quentin’s eyes were all love and patience, but no fucking around either. “No, we can’t skip over that part. Lay it on me, El.”
“I absolutely will not.”
Eliot raised his head, his posture lining with the heavens. He remembered The Happy Place. He remembered what he promised Q, what he promised himself. He stopped fighting, not only for Q’s sake, but for his own. He owed them both this.
“I was afraid,” Eliot said, looking Quentin in the eye. Q nodded, but a hint of confusion and intrigue laced those eyes. “And when I’m afraid, I run away. I’m learning to be brave. And I’m learning from you.”
Quentin laughed darkly and jerked away a bit himself, furrowing his features into a defensive mask.
“I’m not brave. I’m the Fool, remember? Julia is—”
“Stop that right now, Mr. Martyr the Mouse,” Eliot was stern, but Quentin smiled again and the Earth tilted, making him dizzy. “You are the bravest person I know. And the kindest. And the-the absolute fucking best. You’re it, Coldwater. And I’m sorry I wasn’t braver sooner.”
“And I’m sorry that I’m still not braver now,” Eliot kept his voice low and dipped his head. “Q, I love you. I think maybe more than anything. Maybe even more than Margo, but if you tell her I said that, I’ll deny it as you die.”
“Not a competition.”
Eliot smiled, grateful. “And while I know that my past self told me that time is a luxury—”
“Oh yeah, Josh gave me drugs against your orders and accidentally laced the brownie with See Into Other Worlds instead of something relaxing. It was a thing.”
Quentin bit his fist and his eyes widened along with his nostrils. He nodded, resolute.
“Well, Josh is dead. Rest in Peace, Josh.”
“Kill him later, would you? I’m still soul bearing here,” Eliot tried to laugh, but Quentin’s anger wasn’t so easily mollified.
“He knows you’re a fucking drug addict! I specifically told him that your body and brain can’t handle that right now. He-he’s such a goddamn child, arrogant prick—”
“Quentin. Let’s…okay?” Eliot pleaded with him, grabbing his hand. Quentin took a deep breath and nodded, clearly compartmentalizing. He turned his attention fully back to Eliot.
“My point is that…I know it’s a luxury. I know we don’t have a lot of it. I know that things change so fucking fast here and I know we have myriad choices now. But I still need more time before going all in. I need to go slower. Maybe even be kind of methodical about it.”
Quentin half-grinned and tilted his head, tears filling his eyes. Not surprisingly.
“Eliot, I hope you know how much I still—”
“I do,” he squeezed Quentin’s hand. “I do. And I do too, it’s just—”
“I know,” he sighed and wiped his eyes with the edge of his free index finger. “And for what it’s worth, I need time too. The past few months were brutal. And then there’s Alice.”
“She still loves you.” It wasn’t a question. Eliot was astute.
“And part of me will always love her too,” Quentin was barely audible. “She was…instrumental at a crossroads for me. It will never be simple.”
“Yeah, that’s funny,” Eliot smiled. “I thought I gave way more of shit about that. But I think I remember now how love is so multifaceted. It’s a freeing thing, not a restrictive force. You loved Ari, you loved me, you loved Teddy. All different ways. You loved Julia, you loved Alice. I love Margo, Fen, Idri. All different, not a competition.”
Eliot nodded, certain. “You love all of us. I love all of you, both singular and plural alike. I will never ask you not to love who you love, Q.”
“Thank you,” Quentin cleared his throat. “Um, that actually really means a lot.”
A long pause sheltered them under pressure of the words unspoken and Quentin swallowed.
“So what are you asking me then?”
“What you asked me, back in Fillory, in Margo’s suite,” Eliot pushed himself closer. “But modified. You see, when I was sucked back into our life around The Mosaic—”
“When you were what?”
“I told you, it was a thing,” Eliot waved Quentin’s concerns away with a quick hand gesture and continued. “I realized that life is about the small things. The details. That’s where complexity, and spontaneity, and love, and joy, and the whole fucking beauty of all life exists. It’s not the patterns the tiles make, it’s the act of putting the tiles down, right? The sweat, the blood, the dust, the toil. Even all those goddamn outlines you made…they were all part of it.”
“I mean, I still think the ‘goddamn outlines’ saved us a lot of frustration,” Quentin grumbled underneath Eliot’s grand speech, eliciting a chuckle from the orator.
“The beauty of our home was that we could take quiet moments for ourselves. And I’d like us to try to do that here. To find our niche. To rebuild. Kind of like we can…honor our past, but brave forward to our future.”
“I like that,” Quentin nodded, crying again but not even trying to hide it anymore. Eliot kissed the top of his head, like he had a thousand times before, and breathed in the scent of Q’s hair.
“Slowly,” he murmured, cursing his own fear. But it was inescapable. “And knowing that it might not work here. I can’t go into this with my eyes closed, Q, or I’ll be destroyed if it doesn’t.”
Quentin tensed for a moment, before sighing.
“Well, I guess I have faith enough for the both of us,” Quentin’s mouth was warm against his neck. “So, I’m okay with that.”
“So, we try, then?”
In response, Quentin’s hands reached up into Eliot’s hair and pulled him close, their lips melding together like the warming sun over a frozen tundra. The Earth stopped turning and all was still. Goosebumps raised along his arms and broke Eliot’s mesmerized reverie. Frantically, he ran his hands over Quentin’s face and parted his lips with his tongue, pressing his chest against his chest, trying to pour every ounce of love he’d felt—then, now, and forever—into their embrace. And when Q’s hands reached under his shirt, the wild heat from his touch turned his bones to jellyfish, floating in the stillness. And when they broke apart, both panting and still touching in every way they could, it took all Eliot had not to grab Quentin and run far away, so they could start over, away from all of it, maybe even in fucking Palm Springs.
But duty called.
Three messenger rabbits suddenly appeared on the coffee table, next to their entwined legs.
“LIBRARY’S HERE, DICKHOLES.”
“NEED HELP NOW.”
“LOVE YOU, EL.”
And with Margo’s not-so-poetic words and the rabbits’ even less dulcet tones bringing them back to Earth, and further away than ever from their perfect home, in perfect Fillory, Quentin and Eliot looked at each other and nodded. They needed to batten down the hatches, gather the forces, make alliances, make compromises. They needed Julia’s power, Alice’s skill. They needed Josh to prepare sustenance, provide diplomacy in Eliot’s wake. They needed Penny’s traveling and insight, they needed Kady’s cunning and strength. Margo’s power, ferocity, and unending loyalty. They needed Eliot’s tenacity and Q’s heart. It was the final battle, of many final battles past and future, and it was the same as it was before, and the same as it always would be.
Except, this time, they were holding hands.
The sun was warm and full in the sky.
And Eliot had never felt braver.