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Do I Even Dare (To Speak Out Your Name)

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When Brian first meets the strange man who calls him Quentin outside the coffeeshop, he’s too confused to notice the most important thing, the thing that overrides even magic, even what the Monster does to him.



His daemon trots along at his side, docile and silent, her eyes completely blank.



Eirene notices immediately, of course, and she is even more horrified by the Severed/not-Severed daemon than she and Brian are by the blood and the murder. Because it isn’t right, it’s a wrongness that is too much to bear. The rest is a horror movie, Brian never liked horror movies, it’s a nightmare almost too much to be real, but the dead-eyed daemon is - fiction doesn’t dare. Well, visual fiction doesn’t dare, can’t really pull it off, and the written word lets you skip over picturing the worst things.



Living in a horror movie is comprehensible. A daemon like a zombie is just - not.



And when their memories come back, Quentin isn’t sure if he or Ariadne is more horrified to see Cythera like that. It’s worse, in some ways, than looking into Eliot’s eyes and seeing the flat coldness of the Monster there instead. For Cythera to be like that… Cythera, who blithely chatted to any human she wanted, when many daemons prefer to speak only to other daemons, who was always getting into things…



“You can pet her if you want,” the Monster says. “It will feel interesting. It always does, when I touch her, or she touches things. It’s the only time she’s not boring.” Cythera sits at his side, unmoving, eyes staring and empty, a mannequin of herself.



Quentin knows the texture of Cythera’s fur under his fingers but - no. No, absolutely not, not now.



(Not in this lifetime, ever, but he remembers the feel of her fur like the taste of plums on his tongue, like Teddy’s laughter and his daemon flicking shape to shape to shape, like Arielle’s smiles and her daemon’s bright feathers, like curling warm into Eliot’s side at night.)



Ariadne grooms her instead, even though it makes her sick and Quentin’s skin crawls with her horror, because that at least isn’t a violation , and it’s interesting enough to the Monster to stop him from pressing the matter.



“She can’t be Severed,” Julia says when the Monster zaps out to wherever it is he goes, and Quentin sets aside the book he’d had to pick up another, one on exorcisms. They haven’t found anything yet, because whatever the Monster is, he’s not a demon, and they need to find some way to contain him. To banish him back to Blackspire, but the only banishing spells tied to exorcisms aren’t going to do that. Still, they might be able to jury-rig something from all this, maybe add in something from how niffin boxes are created or…



“Can we not talk about this now, Jules?”



“We have to talk about it, Q. It wanted you to pet its -”



“Cythera doesn’t belong to the Monster!” Ariadne snarls, and Julia’s Asterion sighs.



“Course not, Ariadne, but for now she might as well be its daemon, more or less. It can feel things through her, and real Severed daemons don’t - they lose that connection. Julia and I almost lost it, when she was shadeless.”



“I felt it, kind of, but muted,” Julia says, mouth twisting. “And it didn’t matter to me, Rion didn’t matter. The Monster seems to be reacting differently. Most of the possession stuff we’ve been reading says the daemons act Severed, but it’s not quite that, is it?”



Quentin looks up from the book. “What are you getting at? Cythera’s still acting like a zombie, just like Severed daemons usually do. She’s not really Severed, that’s why it can feel what she feels.” He tells himself she isn’t, anyway. That it’s artificial, that it will heal when they get Eliot back. Because anything else is too awful to contemplate. But it matches what he’s read so he tells himself he’s not just denying the worse options. “It’s all about wanting, experiencing, that’s all. Demons, I’m guessing, don’t usually care what they feel in someone’s body so if they did feel it why bring it up? But the Monster does.”



“That, or maybe it’s not as straightforward as a usual possession. Look, it fixated on you from the beginning. It’s still fixated on you. Add in the fact that after Eliot broke through, the vices it decided to explore sound like Eliot’s on overdrive, though you’d know that better than me… I don’t know, Q. But it might be important.”



He doesn’t want it to be important. But if Julia’s right, then what does it mean?



<><><>



Quentin wakes up to his skin prickling.



He squints in the dim light coming through the curtains at the familiar dark shape on the edge of the bed. Eliot - no. No, his brain reminds him as he comes properly awake, not Eliot. The Monster isn’t looking at him, has its head tilted as it looks down at -



Oh God. It’s petting Ariadne.



They used to do that, in their cottage at the Mosaic. It’s not as taboo in Fillory - family, lovers, even close friends will touch each other’s daemons and everyone is fairly up front about that, unlike on Earth where it might be known but never acknowledged. But still, Quentin knows Eliot hadn’t quite managed to take up the habit while he was ruling, and they’d both been startled by Arielle’s ease with it, though by the time Teddy came along being with Arielle and Terciel had gotten them comfortable with it too.



Quentin remembers the first time Eliot reached out, remembers his daemon going still under familiar hands, remembers the way he’d felt it down to his bones, the breathless giddiness of it. It’s the same hands now and he feels it just as deeply but what had been warm and welcoming is -



Confused.



The touch races under Quentin’s skin, pricking him like a million tiny needles but for all that it isn’t the pure horror of a stranger’s touch, it’s dizzying because it jars but it’s not, he can’t explain, doesn’t want to understand why - “Stop,” he says, tense and quiet.



“We had a deal, Quentin. The ants are still there, and you won’t let me take the drugs to send them away. I need a distraction, Quentin.” It scratches between Ariadne’s ears, something she usually loves, and Quentin can feel her trembling, he’s shaking himself.



“This is interesting, I do things to her and you feel it too.” The Monster is watching Quentin now, curious and cold, and it twists Ariadne’s ear until they both cry out. “What would happen if I killed her?”



“You’d kill us both, and then I won’t be able to help you build your body, or find out what the memories are that the gods stole from you,” Quentin says, voice rough with pain. The Monster clicks its tongue, and lets go of Ariadne’s ear.



“What if I kill her.” The Monster nudges Cythera with its foot.



Quentin’s throat starts to close. He swallows hard against the panic, because that won’t help. He remembers the Monster choking him, familiar fingers tightening around his neck with the same ease they once curled round his nape to draw him in. God, he can’t - “We had a deal, like you said. You kill Eliot, and we’re done. Killing her will kill both of them.” Without rage and fear and utter exhaustion to make him reckless, Quentin has to force his voice to steadiness.



Her, he says, like the Monster does. He doesn’t know if the Monster knows Cythera’s name, and Quentin hasn’t said it around the Monster because - he’s not sure. Because the Monster has stolen Eliot, and captured Cythera, but if it doesn’t have her name then that’s one thing, one little part of them that Quentin can keep safe until he can get them back. Stupid thought, really, but he can’t help it. Maybe he needs to think it. Who the fuck knows.



The Monster and Cythera blip out again, and Ariadne scrambles from her usual spot at the foot of the bed to curl up against Quentin’s chest. He holds her tight, stroking her fur until they both calm down. “We can’t keep this up, Quentin,” Ariadne whispers. “We just can’t.”



“We have to get them back,” Quentin insists.



“I know. But how? How , before we go crazy and aren’t any use to anyone?”



That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?



<><><>



“Here. You keep her.”



The Monster drops Cythera on the couch next to Quentin, where she curls up mechanically. Tucked against his leg with her head on his thigh, Quentin can feel Ariadne flinch. He sets down the book he’d been reading and strokes the top of her head, watching the Monster carefully but avoiding that flat gaze. “I can’t keep her. We explained this, Julia and I. Human bodies have to keep their daemons close. It’ll kill you both to separate any distance.”



“It will not do that now. There are old rituals to go away from daemons. You have to walk over a ravine that’s a dead place. I do not know how places can be dead but that is what they call it. I walked over one, so I do not have to drag her along now. She is inconvenient and boring, and gets in the way. If one of the gods killed her when I wasn’t expecting it I might not be able to find a new body before they caught me. They are tricky and I will not let them be tricky. New part of the deal. You keep her, you deal with her.”



Then he’s gone again.



Quentin’s heard about that ritual, actually. It used to be a rite of passage for all magicians. These days, stretching a bond that far is optional. He and Ariadne already decided against it - she’s an Asian golden cat, not small enough to sneak around unnoticed and she can’t fly so it’s not like she can go long distances at speed. So there’s no practical reason for it.



Also. He might have occasionally gone far enough with certain plans to pick out building options in Midtown, but the thing that always, always stopped him is that he’d kill Ariadne if he did that. She knows it, and so her very first reaction when they’d read about stretching a bond so that distance couldn’t hurt them had been, “Absolutely not, Quentin Coldwater. I am staying at your side where I belong.”



But that aside, he doesn’t know how to feel about the Monster doing this to Eliot’s bond with Cythera, doesn’t know how he’ll explain it to Eliot if - when , it has to be when - he comes back. But it’s safer, almost certainly, so there’s that. And he can’t do anything about it, so he’s just going to focus on that part. Ariadne moves to sit between them so she can press against them both. It bothers her less, with the Monster gone, Quentin can feel it, but still… “You don’t have to,” he tells her softly.



“They’re alive in there,” Ariadne says. “She came to life when Eliot forced his way out, you didn’t see but I did.”



Of course he hadn’t seen, he hadn’t been able to look away from Eliot’s eyes - his eyes again, properly, for at least a moment.



“Fifty years. Who gets proof of concept like that?”



“What?”



“Peaches and plums, motherfucker. I’m alive in here.”



“That doesn’t mean - it upsets you to touch her like this, and you don’t have to. I can’t help the Monster putting its stolen hands all over me but you don’t have to -”



“I’m hoping she can feel it, wherever she and Eliot are with the Monster in control. Maybe she can and maybe she can’t, but the chance is worth me being a little upset, don’t you think?”



Quentin can’t argue with that.



<><><>



The egg mojo hangover is, officially, the worst hangover Quentin’s ever experienced, and yes he’s including the emotion bottles plus alcohol one in that. Granted, he felt like shit before all this, which probably isn’t helping him much.



I was a father, I’m not sure I can ever not be, even if my son’s long dead, even if he never really lived, he thinks when Poppy asks him if he thinks he’ll ever be a dad. “I hope so,” is what he says out loud, because he hasn’t discussed the Mosaic with anyone, and if he did it wouldn’t be with Poppy. Julia, or Margo, yes, but even with them he’s not sure he can bring himself to speak. Especially not now.



He’s a little flattered Poppy declared him godfather, and a lot glad Poppy’s baby isn’t his, because of basically everything. But this mess has made him admit he wants a family again, wants to be a dad again. He wants to be with Eliot and have a family again, but as far as he knows Eliot doesn’t want that.



(Did Eliot repeat Quentin’s own argument back to him just to prove it really was him and not a trick of the Monster, or was he saying he agrees now, he wants the same thing? Quentin doesn’t know, can’t dare to hope for more than getting Eliot back, here, his friend again if nothing else.)



Before his mind can spiral, Poppy says, “So, um, why do you have a humanless daemon curled up by the window?” Her own raccoon sits up next to her, head tilted curiously. She doesn’t sound as unsettled as most people would - to be fair, magicians do get used to seeing the occasional solo human or daemon, given the split ritual is still practiced. Quentin had seen it at Brakebills occasionally, and even if it creeped you out, you learned not to show it.



Also, given the weird shit Poppy explores, there’s probably not much that would freak her out. With Cythera curled up so her eyes are hidden, her blankness isn’t so obvious, and she just looks split, not Severed.



“Her human lives here too,” Quentin says, and technically this is not entirely a lie. “He’s busy with something and she’s safer here.”



“Hmm,” Poppy says, eyeing Cythera. “Well, time for me to go. Good luck with whatever you got for that egg.”



Quentin falls asleep on the couch again not long after Poppy leaves, and he dreams of life in the cottage in Fillory, he dreams that he could stay in the memories forever.



He wakes up to wrong-familiar eyes watching him in the filtered glow of city lights at night, too tired to protest when long fingers trail down his arm, card through Ariadne’s fur. Cythera is motionless in shadow, and Quentin stares at the Monster and doesn’t have enough left in him even to move.



Predawn spills grey light over the floor, and they keep staring at each other, some kind of stalemate in a game left unspoken.



<><><>



The thing is, he can’t leave Cythera alone. Quentin has no idea what an all-but-catatonic daemon might do, left alone. So far, she hasn’t done anything but curl up or sit staring blankly, and sometimes she walks in circles until Ariadne pounces, her smaller but solid form heavy enough to knock a cheetah off balance. But he doesn’t want to risk it.



During the egg mess, they’d put her in a dog cage, but they came back to find her walking into the bars. So when they go to Brakebills this time, Quentin swallows back nausea and, after gloving his hands as a weak final attempt to violate Cythera as little as possible, puts her on a leash.



The symbolism isn’t lost on him.



“Anything new on Enyalius?” Penny says when the search for Binder isn’t going well. “'Cause I got a fresh take on that. Let's find him, get his rock, destroy it before the Monster comes back.”



And Quentin - goes cold. Not with surprise, just numb. Because he knew one of them was going to say it. Julia started to, but leave it to 23 to push it.



“Wow, I love it.” And, incidentally, he would, if it was just killing the Monster. He would love to kill the Monster at this point, he would quite possibly relish it, if he could find the energy. Except. “Except for the part where it doesn't save Eliot.”



He can hear the objections that don’t come, and he almost answers them anyway. What if it were Julia, your Julia, the Julia right next to us, what would you do then? But he doesn’t. He says, “We'll figure something out. We always do.”



“No, bro. Take it from someone from a timeline where you did not figure it out.”



Right now, I envy that me. Without his shade, he didn’t feel a goddamn thing, did he. “We'll find Enyalius first. I'm not talking about this now.” He can feel the look Julia and Penny 23 exchange behind him, he wonders if they’re already figuring out how to pull him from the lineup.



They get back to the Monster and his twentieth kidnapped psychic, and the guy’s dead before Quentin’s brain has entirely caught up to, oh, he’s using psychics to fix his amnesia. Penny 23, a bit faster on the uptake, offers to help. Julia objects to Penny’s plan, and Quentin… knows he should. But he can’t seem to think with the Monster in his space, looking concerned in an almost-familiar-utterly-wrong way, apparently caring that he’s upset.



Until, you know, he takes Quentin along for body disposal. Until they blip back into the loft with the Monster draped over him, Ariadne tucked under the Monster’s arm like he thinks they’re his, his stuffed animals, or something.



Penny seizes but he lives, and Quentin wants to feel guilty but he can’t seem to remember how to do it.



“I saw Eliot in there,” Penny says when he comes around, wild eyed and pretty energized for a guy who just woke up from a seizure blackout, and that can’t be good, that can’t be, but he just said - And here’s the thing. Quentin has half-wondered, in the worst moments, if he dreamed that moment in the park.



“Am I hallucinating?”



“If you were, how would asking me help?”



But this is Penny, who would have no reason to - it’s proof, he thinks dizzily even as Penny tells them Eliot’s poking around in the Monster’s head, switching up the game on him. Even as Penny drops the bomb that it’s never been the Monster’s body they’re collecting.



It’s his sister’s. His sister, who was murdered, while the Monster was locked away.



<><><>



After, Quentin stands under the shower until his skin actually starts to hurt from the hot water, and it doesn’t help. It can’t wash away the remembered roughness of rocks and rope, tying them to a corpse. It can’t erase the sense memory of right/wrong hands on his hair, his skin, his fucking daemon . The Monster wants his sister, not a new body. If this isn’t about his body, then there’s no guarantee he’ll ever leave Eliot, is there, no way Quentin can make him. And he knows, God help him, that Penny’s right. If the sister is worse, they can’t - they can’t -



I can’t bury him again , he wants to say, wants to yell it in their faces until they stop trying to make him, but what good will that do? No one knows about the grave dug with withered hands, and though they might guess at the one in Quentin’s mind after the Monster said “Your friend Eliot is dead,” they don’t know, might not care. Won’t think it’s worth the world, and there’s - he was a philosophy major, he knows the terms for this kind of question, there’s a whole thing about do you risk the world for one life but he can’t remember any of that over the screaming in his head.



He’s fucked the world over before and he swore he wouldn’t again, but it’s Eliot . How can he - how is he supposed to - he can’t bury him again. That’s the only truth Quentin has and he doesn’t know what it will mean, he just. Can’t.



Maybe Julia and Penny 23 will take the choice out of his hands, knock him out to keep him out of the way. Maybe, if he’s lucky, if they do he just won’t wake up from it.



He turns the water cold and sinks to his knees, and at least it can wash away tears. At least the drumming of the water against tile can muffle his sobs, and his fist in his mouth is enough when the sobs turn to screams.



He gets out, dries off and goes back to the books, face set like nothing happened, scraped-out empty inside.



It’s morning by now, he notes absently as he settles back in his place on the couch. He probably should have tried sleeping in a bed rather than snatching catnaps on the couch but he doesn’t want to dream. Cythera sits on his left and stares, Ariadne sits next to her, leaning against her like that might help. Quentin doesn’t look up as he hears Kady take a phone call and rush out, Julia checking with Penny 23 to see if he’s OK before following her, calling that she shouldn’t go alone now. Something about worms feeding on hedge witches, he caught part of it but there’s not enough space in his head to care.



Quiet, for a while, but then a heavy sigh. “Look, Coldwater. I stand by us helping him see this through isn’t the best idea -”



“I’m not going to banish it while it’s in Eliot’s body,” Quentin says flatly.



“Yeah, no shit, you keep on telling us that. Your wards dropped at Brakebills, Coldwater. I know what happened to you in my timeline, what you became. I’m not going to let you tear the world apart again. He’s bad enough, and if I’m right about his sister being worse, we cannot let him bring her back.”



Quentin looks up then, at Penny 23 and his daemon, who is a crowned eagle where the Penny of Timeline 40 has/had a golden eagle. Some distant part of his brain wonders what Jane changed between timeloops to make that happen, a daemon settled differently. Wonders if that happened to the rest of them, here and there. “Do you have a point here?”



“I figure he hasn’t got Enyalius yet,” Penny 23 says, coming to sit on the couch and picking up a book. “So we have time. And I’m guessing that if we keep arguing with you, either you run off to do something stupid on your own, or we knock you out and when you wake up, you still do something stupid. So my best move here is helping you find a way to get him out before we kill him. Hell, for all we know, catching him between bodies will make him weak enough for it to stick.”



Quentin blinks. So does Cythera, her head turned toward Penny as if some bit of what he said actually registered with her.



“Fair deal,” says Ariadne, looking at Penny’s daemon, and that seems to be that for now.



<><><>



Margo and Talaus come back, with an extraction spell and a pair of axes. Quentin… isn’t sure what to make of the axes, isn’t sure he has enough energy left to care. Not when Margo’s first words are, “We have a way to get that thing out of Eliot, we just need somewhere to put it.”



Then, of course, Talaus’ first words are, “Q, Ariadne, why do you both look half-dead and why is Cythera here, on a leash ?”



“The possession makes her act Severed, you know that,” Julia says before Quentin can find the words to explain. “The Monster split them so he wouldn’t have to drag her around, but if we leave her loose sometimes she… walks into walls and things, it’s safer to have her on the leash.”



“With you keeping watch, huh?” Margo asks, eyeing Quentin.



“Trying to, anyway,” Quentin says, raking a hand through his hair.



“OK,” Margo says, and hands Julia a scroll. “Whoever we’ve got, they need to learn that. I need to talk to Q. Bring Cythera.” And with that, Margo grabs him by the wrist and tows him along. Quentin only just manages to grab hold of Cythera’s leash, Ariadne scrambling to catch up. “Where’s your room?” Margo asks, and Quentin gestures at the door. Margo drags him inside, then pushes him back so he half-falls into sitting on the edge of the bed, and she joins him.



“So, the expulsion, it’s gotta be you and me. The rest of the gang can work on the banishing part, but I was told the expulsion has to be the people who most want it to work, and I think it’s pretty obvious you and I fit that bill. It’s not a spell, not that part.”



“You said the spell was an expulsion.”



“No, I didn’t. The spell’s the banishment, that’ll be fine once we have a place to banish it to. The expulsion’s trickier. Awful as it is, it’s… a good thing you have her, because we’re gonna need her. And it is really fucked up, Q.”



“I know that, trust me.”



Margo stops for a minute, narrowing her eyes. “Hold that thought. I have questions, Coldwater. But first, the plan. Can it feel through the bond to Cythera?”



“Yeah,” Quentin says, pulling Ariadne into his lap. She’s a little too big for it, has been since she settled, but the weight of her helps. Cythera sits close to them on the floor by the bed, the loop of her leash around Quentin’s wrist. “It said that the only time she wasn’t boring was feeling things through her. I don’t know - what he did. Ari thinks she does a little better when she cuddles her, I don’t see any difference but we don’t think it hurts. The Monster doesn’t seem to care about that, I guess it’s too normal-feeling, not distracting enough. Why?”



Margo licks her lips. “My axes,” she says, nodding to where she’s set them leaning against the nightstand. “They’re magical, obviously, and while they’ll do damage in a normal fight, one of the ways they’re magical is, you hit a possessed person with one, it doesn’t hurt them, or it heals immediately, he wasn’t clear. But it does force the parasite out, at which point the banishing spell comes in handy. But sometimes it forces the actual soul out too. Add onto that, we need a way to draw the Monster to us…”



Oh. “Margo. You want me to -”



“To touch her, yes,” Talaus says, before Margo can. “We know what we’re asking. But do you really think El and Cythera would think you of all people touching her is more of a violation than what that thing is doing? We don’t think they’ll even object, but if they did, it wouldn’t be by much. Not in comparison. Margo would, we have, sometimes,” he adds, tail lashing, “but she’s the only one who can use the axes.”



“And it’s not like you haven’t done it before,” Margo says flatly, and Quentin jerks hard enough in surprise that he almost falls off the bed. And, for a moment, the world lurches around him, before settling again. Huh, that’s odd. Did he forget to eat again? He’s never hungry anymore, makes it hard to keep track.



“I don’t know what you mean.”



“I’m not stupid, Q. Things went funny with you and Eliot, after the quest you didn’t take to the Mosaic. I don’t know how, but I know I saw you reaching for each other’s daemons a few times.”



Quentin can’t speak but Ariadne can. “The thing is,” she says, careful, leaning forward from her place in Quentin’s lap to lick Cythera’s ears. She keeps trying, Quentin thinks it’s foolish but - but Cythera makes a sound, over too briefly to be a purr but something. A reaction. And then she can’t speak either, for hope that turns to ash when nothing more happens.



“The thing is,” Quentin says when his daemon doesn’t finish, staring at his hands on Ariadne’s fur and remembering Terciel’s sleek feathers, remembering his hands on Cythera and Eliot’s on Ariadne, how they’d compare and contrast the different furs. “We did. Or - we remembered it. Even if you stopped us, it still happened, somehow?”



It happened , Eliot said, but he also said not when we have a choice , and Quentin isn’t sure - Eliot wouldn’t choose him, or he thinks Quentin wouldn’t, or both, or what? Fifty years and Quentin knew damn fucking well when Eliot was lying but the problem is he’s not sure what part of Eliot’s rejection speech was the lie.



“Well, fuck,” Margo says, raising her eyebrows. “And I thought it was losing him that made you finally clue in to being in love with him.”



“No,” Quentin says. “Maybe that would be simpler, but no.” Actually, it wasn't then either, he's not quite sure when, he figured it out before the Mosaic but it was being there that gave him the nerve to act on it. “This will work?”



“I don’t know, Q. But I’m not letting him go, so if it doesn’t, we find a way. You with me on this?”



They can’t destroy the world again, says Quentin’s conscience. But he meets Margo’s eyes as Talaus grooms Cythera, then leans forward to give Ariadne a friendly nudge. He glances at the daemons curled together, tiger and cheetah and golden cat, and he remembers “I bond fast” and “Cats stick together” and days and nights in the cottage with their daemons in a friendly pile. He’d crowned Eliot and Margo had crowned him, “you believe in magic” and “cat people are picky, not solitary” and how the emotion bottles had thrown all three of them together and - maybe in the other timelines when Julia got into Brakebills she came too, there were four and not three, three cats and a falcon. But in this world. In this one.



Margo is the only one who gets it, who gets any of it.



“Of course I am,” Quentin says, and he can breathe a little easier because he’s not alone in this now. Maybe that’ll be the difference between burning the world for Eliot and being able to get him back without that.



Even if Margo would very possibly light the torch faster than Quentin, if it came to that.



<><><>



“Exorcism axes,” Julia says, pink-gold dawn light spilling into the apartment.



“It’s worth a shot,” Quentin shrugs.



“Neither of you are thinking clearly.”



“No,” Quentin agrees. “But Eliot and Margo are - are some kind of soulmate that lands between platonic and romantic and who knows what, and I’m in love with him and I still remember a lifetime where I was married to him, so there is no reality where we do, on this.”



He hears Julia’s mug thunk against the counter. “I didn’t think you’d actually say it. Though I’m a little confused about the details.”



“No, I didn’t either. And - later. OK?”



The light gets brighter, spring sunlight that always seems sharper on Earth than Fillory. That might just be the opium in the air. Cythera’s ears flick when Ariadne leans against her, behind him Julia and Asterion are talking, and for a moment Quentin lets himself pretend things are already all right.



For a moment. And then he sets aside the fantasy, so they can get started on making things actually all right.



<><><>



The surprising part is that everything goes according to plan. They set themselves up somewhere deserted Penny 23 gets them to, and Quentin strokes a shaking hand down Cythera’s back, fingers carding through her fur until the Monster appears. And then Quentin holds on when Margo swings, when he hears Julia, Alice, Kady chanting the spell, Penny 23’s voice a lower counterpoint to theirs.



Quentin holds onto Cythera and as the Monster twists out of Eliot, black smog and hints of flaming eyes, Ariadne streaks across the distance to press close to Eliot as he crumples - and that is their mistake. What Ari wants to do is help ground him, help keep him, but the Monster is still too close, the connection -



It goes more to plan than their ideas usually do, even so.



The sticking point is the part where the Monster tries to drag Quentin with him.



And the thing of it is, even that would be all right, even when Quentin’s world sparks blue as he tries to fight his way free, and the only anchor he has is fingers curling in Ariadne’s fur where they shouldn’t be. One last-ditch way to stop someone from niffining out is to grab their daemon, he read that when he was trying to get Alice back. Distantly, he’s glad - dying is fine, if it comes to it, but he remembers Alice as a niffin, all that was good in her gone, he remembers Julia, shadeless and harsh. Remembers that without his shade in another lifetime he was the Beast.



So he’s grateful even for violation, and he thinks maybe it’s not even that, thinks maybe he knows that hand, but it’s all a jumble and he can’t be sure. It pulls him back, anyway, pulls him free of the Monster and back where he belongs.



The plan works. No one’s dead, the Monster’s gone. For once, everything goes like it’s supposed to.



Except the thing is, Quentin’s been a Monster’s pet and the guardian of a mindless daemon, he’s been pushing himself constantly since Brian was kidnapped by a man with glowing eyes, brutality coupled with almost childlike ways. He’s pushed too far, and he didn’t notice, there wasn’t space in his brain to notice. And no one else knew just how deep it ran.



So Quentin comes back to himself, and all he hears is static before he falls past himself, into the dark.

Chapter Text

Eliot promises to be braver.



When Charlton simply vanishes, hours days weeks later (time is fucked up here, Eliot isn’t sure how long it took) he realizes that has to mean more than when he gets back. Because first he has to get back, and there’s got to be something more he can do besides wait like some kind of fairy-tale princess in a tower.



Cythera, here, is a little faded around the edges, but her eyes are sharp as ever. Cythera, who talked to people while Eliot invented himself, who was bold before he was, who knew his heart long before he did and kept close to Talaus, curled her larger form around Ariadne, to Margo’s laughter and Quentin’s startled smile.



“It’s playing with me,” Cythera says, spitting fury. “And not just me,” she says, swiping a paw at her ear as if that will erase the echo of Ariadne’s cries.



They try that first. Cythera is a little bit aware of her body in a way Eliot isn’t, so they try getting Cythera out. In their first year at Brakebills, before being put in the Physical Kids Cottage, they’d had a psychic kid roommate. Jason talked a lot about meditation, and Eliot tried it a time or two that first year, because there was already blood on his hands and Jason claimed it helped control in general.



It didn’t really help, but Eliot got control anyway. (And still ended up with blood on his hands, but he doesn’t let himself dwell on Mike or this place might conjure him up.)



Cythera tries it, lying down as if to sleep and breathing deep and careful, but all she gets is muffled sounds like being underwater. All they get is wrenching pain and the understanding that it did something permanent to them.



“Split,” Cythera says. “We might have done it anyway. We hadn’t decided.”



No, but to have one more choice taken from them is insult heaped upon injury, isn’t it?



Cythera can feel a collar around her neck and she doesn’t understand that, but she also feels a familiar weight against her more often than not, so she tells Eliot, “Ariadne is trying to take care of me, I think I’m with her and Quentin, so whatever is going on they aren’t hurting me.”



“No,” Eliot agrees. “But I can’t get out, and you can’t get out, so what are we going to do?”



“They have Penny 23,” Cythera says. “And maybe they’ll find another way to make contact. I’m out there more than you are right now, maybe there’s a spell somewhere.”



Eliot takes a breath, looks around the illusion of the Cottage that he could fill with a thought, and he doesn’t. Because it won’t be real, and he doesn’t want to lose himself in conjurings. It would only be less lonely for a few minutes anyway. “Then we’d better make sure we have something to tell them, if and when they find a way,” he says, curling his fingers in Cythera’s ruff as tight as the day they left Indiana forever.



They built themselves, once. They can do this too, right?



<><><>



“He’ll notice if you’re gone, unless someone else is here,” says a voice that’s Eliot’s and yet not, because he’s never had an English accent in his life, except when he’s tried to mimic them on occasion. He wasn’t all that good at it, truthfully.



“London, specifically,” says Nigel, tilting his head when Eliot turns to look at him. His cheetah daemon is translucent instead of fuzzy round the edges just like Charlton’s daemon was, his curls longer than Eliot would ever grow. The coat’s not bad and the pants are salvageable, the graphic t-shirt isn’t Eliot’s thing but it works, on this not-him with a strange half-smile. “I’d get more specific but you wouldn’t know the neighborhood.”



Eliot doesn’t remember being Nigel, even though he’s fairly certain he was, for a bit, before the Monster got there. Apparently this is why, because Nigel is what Charlton was, an imprint, an echo. Something Eliot couldn’t conjure but infinitely more unsettling than a guy so long out of the world he had to be taught the word fuck, but whose face he once looked into and fired a gun, because -



Because he couldn’t tell the truth but he couldn’t watch Quentin vanish either. Because Margo had taken one long look at him and handed him the gun.



“I swear when this is over I’m dragging you both to Whitespire by your hair if necessary, and locking you in a room together until you sort your bullshit.”



“Once this is over, I won’t even fight you on it.”



But this is his own face, framed by longer curls, eyes framed by thin wire glasses. How the hell did Nigel end up needing glasses? Eliot remembers needing them - before, when he was older, but he doesn't get Nigel needing them at this age.



“If we get out, you’ll die,” Cythera says, circling her own shadow self warily. “Why help us?”



“If it wasn’t for him, maybe you would never have come back,” says the other. “So if we think of it that way, he killed us. So at least we can help you stop him. My name is Elara.”



Charlton’s daemon had been called Shaena. Eliot knows he and Cythera will carry the names with them, if they get out of here. It seems like very little, and he looks at Nigel, wonders if it would have been easier, happier, to stay him. Maybe. Probably. Irrelevant now, regardless.



“I had friends too, you know,” Nigel says quietly. “I remember knowing them for years, which was obviously not true, but it’s what I remembered, and them too, so I don’t think that matters. It killed them all, in the first minutes after it took our body. There was just enough of me left to see it, and I think he only did it because they were there , and he wanted to.”



“I’m sorry,” Eliot says, and that’s never worth anything, but there isn’t anything else to say.



“So am I. Even if I could go back, there’s not much to go back to,” Nigel says, leaning against the bar where Eliot made countless drinks, shaking his head in an obviously habitual way to get the curls out of his eyes. “Any idea what you’re looking for out there?”



“None at all. But there’s got to be something. Maybe even something my friends out there can use to stop him.”



That’s the hope, anyway.



<><><>



It takes a while to find anything. Eliot summons up more memory versions of his friends to run interference when he goes looking, and a couple times, with a twisted smile, Nigel calls up some of his and Eliot goes sprinting through mindscapes with backup memory-people whose faces he doesn’t know. At least it’s easier when they get killed.



He should probably feel bad about that.



It’s one of Nigel’s ghosts with him the day it happens, actually, blonde-haired blue-eyed Rae with her flying lizard daemon looking, like all the daemons except Cythera in here, like he’s made of colored smoke. Eliot finds a cave on the Brakebills grounds that is very much not supposed to be there, and looks down at Cythera. “Well, this looks promising.”



“Hopefully,” Cythera agrees.



Distant shrieks alert them to the monsters coming closer. “Well, that’s our cue, best of luck and all,” says Rae, and the last thing Eliot thinks about her is that, aloft, her flying lizard daemon looks kind of like a tiny dragon. Then, curling his fingers in Cythera’s fur - it feels the same as it ever does, at least, even with her form slightly fuzzy - they walk into the cave together.



They come out in a field and watch a quartet of gods surrounding a girl tied to a stone altar. At first, the only observation Eliot has about this is that the one god, the one getting up close and personal to the girl’s face, looks kind of like the guy from Game of Thrones that got stabbed by a shadow. Or he thinks that’s what happened, he wasn’t actually paying close attention during that particular Cottage marathon day.



And then -



No, not my sister, you can’t kill her, don’t touch her!



He struggles against his own bonds, cursing his weakness. So weak, to not have solid form of his own, only able to take and steal others’ bodies. He’s always loved it, loved the novelty of it, his sister’s always liked seeing what’s different with each body…



But he’s too weak. This body didn’t even have magic, was strong with weapons but he can’t break these bonds, all he can do is watch, pulling at the ropes until Enyalius and Iris bring the knives down, Hekate and Bacchus chanting.



He screams and pulls, watching his sister’s blood spill across the ground, her essence into four stones, feeling himself fade from the field…



“Oh fuck,” Eliot chokes, falling to his knees and -



The castle at the end of the world. They use him, they keep him locked here with the wellspring of magic, and they take his memories but he vows, he vows in the last moment he knows himself that he will find the stones, he will get his sister back.



And then he is alone in a castle at the end of the world, with only a guard for company. He is alone, alone, and he knows nothing but this, has never known anything but this.



There are new faces here, one of them promises to stay with him, but one holds up a metal thing. It bangs and there is nothing. There is nothing and then there is so much, a whole world to explore. He finds the one who tried to kill him, because he needs a body until he can get back the stones for… It must be his real body, mustn’t it? What else can it be?



But there he is again, the one who promised to stay. They’re going to have so much fun, aren’t they!



Brian is not so fun even when he screams. When he’s Quentin again things are much better, he likes the way Quentin can’t look at him for long, how he shakes under this body’s touch like, like… He doesn’t know, it must be some human thing, but he enjoys it. The daemon that comes with the body is boring but Quentin’s daemon is fun. She shakes too, and her fur is so soft. It gets even better when they think Eliot is dead, until they don’t anymore. That’s annoying, but it does make it easier to make them, all of them but Quentin especially, do what he wants.



“Eliot! Eliot! Bloody fuck, wake up!”



“What - where -?” Eliot opens his eyes. He’s back at the Cottage, sprawled on the floor with Nigel leaning over him. Cythera has her teeth in his pant leg, and he frowns at her. “What’s that about?”



“It was… it was like I had to drag you back, and it wasn’t working. But then Elara was there. Just her, not Nigel, which was weird, but I guess we’re both split?”



“Dreamscape, different rules,” Nigel says. “Did I actually see Inception or was that just one more invented memory?”



“No, I’ve seen that one which more or less means you have,” Eliot says as he sits up, pressing a hand to his temple. Fuck, his head hurts. And he wishes that were the worst bit. “Cities folding, daemon of a different personality popping up at will to help save my ass, all the same shit apparently.”



“Well, if we’re going to keep to the movie reference, was that Limbo?” Elara asks.



“No,” Eliot says. “It was something I needed. I’m in more trouble than I thought, but so are my friends.” Oh God, Quentin. Margo, he’s pretty sure, is back in Fillory by now, he knows she wouldn’t abandon her responsibilities as High King for long. She and Talaus are safe there, thank fuck. Well, not safe, this is Fillory after all, but manageable danger is about as safe as their lives have gotten since the days of the Beast.



But Quentin and Ariadne… Eliot doesn’t want to think about what the Monster’s decided might be fun since whatever point his memories cut off at. He has a vague sense that Julia’s there, and maybe Penny 23, a dim shadow that might be Kady, and Eliot’s pretty sure he caught a split-second glimpse of Alice when he broke free in that park. He doesn’t want any of them to get hurt either but… The Monster’s fixed on Q, for whatever reason. And that scares the shit out of Eliot.



“They think he wants to build his body, he even thinks it, right now at least. But that’s not it.”



There’s two of them. Jesus fuck, there’s two of them.



“Then what does he want?” Nigel asks, his daemon leaning against his side where he sits crosslegged next to Eliot.



“He never had a body,” Eliot says slowly, the disjointed bits of memory coming together as he speaks. “He was always spirit, always had to possess. They got some kicks out of it, but she was the one with the body. He’s got a sister. She was killed, and they… they used the force of her death, ritual sacrifice of some kind, they put her essence in these stones and forced him into the prison we found him at.”



“At some point he’s going to remember, isn’t he?” Nigel asks. “And when he does…”



“When he does, there’ll be two of them. And the Monster might be… amused by my friends, or whatever he is that’s kept him from killing them -” human and daemon alike both tremble so wonderfully under his hands  - “but that won’t last forever, and she won’t have any reason to encourage it.”



“We have to get a message out somehow,” Cythera says, tail lashing. “They have to know so they can do something.”



“We tried that already. You can feel a little but can’t get out,” Eliot reminds her, rubbing his eyes. “Maybe if we yell loud enough Penny 23 will hear it?”



“Wait, you have some awareness?” Elara asks.



“Not much,” Cythera says with a sigh. “I feel things, I hear a bit. I’m wearing a collar, I think, which is unnerving but I think it’s in a good cause of some kind. That, I’m only thinking because I can sense who I’m with, and Quentin wouldn’t hurt us.”



“Maybe I can do it,” Elara suggests. “I’m you but not you, so maybe the Monster won’t have as strong a, a defense against me breaking out. Nigel can’t, we know that much already. Charlton told us how to go through memories too, but this is Eliot’s mind palace, it won’t work for us now. We tried a memory or two, we can think up our people but that’s it.”



They try it. Elara actually gets a bit more than Cythera did, and wakes up looking as bewildered as a cheetah can look. “Well, I can’t make my body respond, but I did hear and see more clearly than Cythera managed. Apparently, he likes touching the guy with the floppy brown hair, and he’s currently blackmailing them by saying he’s going to dive to the bottom of the ocean and kill us if they don’t do… something.”



Oh, great. The fucking thing’s not only using him as a meat suit, it’s also made him a hostage. And they still can’t break through with their warning.



<><><>



“Someone’s here.”



Cythera and Elara say it together, their voices eerie echoes, and Eliot looks over to Nigel, just to confirm that he feels it too, just like Eliot does. “You two should be not here,” he says.



“You’re only going to have minutes at best, from the things Charlton told us before you got here,” Nigel warns before he and Elara duck out of sight.



Eliot focuses all his mind on conjuring a door. Please, come on, please…



The door opens and Penny steps through, the crowned eagle on his shoulder identifying him as 23. His daemon looks solid, Eliot notes absently even as he jumps off the stairs to meet Penny. “Hi. Thank God you saw the door.” He can’t really blame Penny for taking a wary step back, but he hurries to clear things up. “No. It's me, it's me. It's the real me. It's Eliot, okay? This is a mind palace situation and we don't have a lot of time, and I have some extremely major shit to tell you.”



So Eliot runs down what he knows from the visions. He’s tempted to slip in a personal message or two but - No. No. The things he needs to say, he’s saying in person or not at all. So he keeps to the information about the sister, and the fact that the Monster doesn’t know yet, watching Penny’s face and seeing that, yep, he knows possibly better than Eliot how bad this is. Penny, after all, is out there to see what the Monster’s doing, where Eliot has only impressions.



“But it is only a matter of time before he remembers it, too, okay?” Eliot finishes. “So you have to - ” Make sure he does not get his sister back , he’s about to say, but then they’re interrupted.



“Percy? Percy 23?” It would be a lot weirder to hear his own voice with such different tones if Eliot hadn’t been listening to Nigel’s Londoner version of his voice for however long now.

 

“Shit.” Penny says.



“Go, go, go, go,” Eliot says quickly, shoving him back out through the door. It vanishes the second it closes and he slumps back against the wall. “God, I hope that did the trick,” he tells Cythera faintly. She nudges his hand gently until he strokes her head, trying to find some comfort in the feel of her.



There’s not much left to be had, though. Because it definitely occurs to him that the only way to stop the Monster might be to banish it back to Blackspire, and it’s very possible they won’t be able to get it out of Eliot’s body first.



<><><>



Nigel and Elara are just… gone, when Eliot opens his eyes one time. He isn’t sure why he sleeps, he’s never exactly tired or hungry or anything else here, he thinks it’s more force of habit that has him dozing off.



But he opens his eyes, sits up, and the Cottage is truly empty except for him and Cythera again. “Fuck,” human and daemon say together, and then Eliot flops back down on the couch again. The silence grows until it seems to be pressing in on his ears, a terrible weight. “So, how long do you think we have?” Eliot finally makes himself ask.



“Till the next host, at least, if there is one,” Cythera says, and she climbs up onto the couch to lie on top of him, like they’re fourteen again and she’s only just settled. Eliot wraps his arms around her and holds on. They’re not getting out of here. He saw that in Penny 23’s face, the knowledge that they couldn’t afford to wait for a successful exorcism. The guilt around the edges of his expression had said it all.



Eliot closes his eyes, and thinks of Margo in Fillory. She’s going to kick his ass when she gets to the Underworld. Or when he does, because who knows when he’s going to actually die properly, might be as long as Charlton. She’ll still kick his ass, and then hug him for an Underworld year. He can stick this out, knowing he’ll see her again somehow.



And Quentin. Quentin, who isn’t even fighting the Monster making a toy of him, who Eliot was going to tell -



“Tell me what?”



Damn it, he’s been trying so hard not to do that. The Quentin he sees in the chair across from him, Ariadne curled in his lap, is the Quentin from the park, too-short hair and a blue buttondown, exhaustion clear in his face. “No,” Eliot says. “In person or not at all, Q, it’s the only right way.”



“But what if this is the only way?” Quentin asks, watching him.



“Then I already told a memory of you, didn’t I? The one in the throne room. I -”



The world - lurches . There’s no other word for it, everything tips and Eliot thinks wildly of Inception again, the weird camera angles and the guy in the nice suit running through a world turned vertical. The memory Quentin vanishes in an instant and then it’s the Cottage crumbling, spiderweb cracks glowing red all around him and -



Everything aches, and Cythera isn’t on top of him anymore, Eliot is standing and he doesn’t remember doing that. He’s wearing - it looks like Nigel’s clothes if he’d worn them for ages, dirty curls are falling in his face -



Margo is in front of him and she has axes buried in his chest.



Well, that’s harsh.



Only… it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt and even now Margo’s pulling them out, stepping back and searching his face with intent dark eyes. Someone is petting Cythera, he can feel the hand, it’s a familiar hand, Quentin?



Eliot’s legs buckle and Margo dives forward to catch him, Talaus running in the opposite direction, but Eliot’s only dimly aware of Margo’s hands on him. It’s the warm weight pressing against his side he can’t ignore, the golden cat shaking against his side, her fur sparking blue. Why blue, what’s happening?



“Shit, don't look, just focus on me, focus on staying awake, okay?” Margo says, but Ariadne is seizing and sparking blue - Eliot looks up and Quentin is suspended in midair, black fog tugging at him, blue sparks racing over his skin.



Talaus is pushing Cythera away from Q, toward where Eliot and Margo and Ariadne are a tangle on the ground. Probably a good idea, only - “Help,” Eliot tells Margo, tugging her hand and putting both their hands on Ariadne.



“Whoa, El -”



“They won't niffin out if we hold on.” Q told him that, one day while laying tiles, they'd been talking magic research of all things. And Eliot feels barely alive, barely human; his touch might not be strong enough. But with Margo he knows there's force enough.



Julia, Alice, Kady, and Penny 23 yell the last bit of their chant, and there's a blinding flash of light. It's almost too much for Eliot, too real especially when Quentin flares bright against it, light the same gold-brown color as Ariadne’s fur. There's a sound like a gate slamming shut and they're all left to blink afterimages from their eyes.



When Eliot can see again, Kady’s come over to them. She's helping Margo get him up, her maned wolf daemon trying to nudge Ariadne away from him. Ariadne, who is still there, but so still, her fur flecked pale gold, the same shade as the Dust daemons dissolve into. Cythera snarls, and the wolf - did Eliot ever know his name? - huffs. “He needs his daemon.”



“I'll take her,” Talaus says, picking up Ariadne by the scruff of her neck like a cub. He crosses to where Alice and Julia are leaning over Quentin sprawled on the ground, their daemons hovering nearby.



“We're all alive,” Kady says as Penny 23 heads their way, pausing by Julia to say something Eliot can't hear. He doesn't care anyway. All that matters is that Margo’s beside him and Quentin isn't, he can't seem to care about the others right now.



“For now,” 23 agrees, taking Margo’s free hand as Talaus rejoins them.



“Wait -” Eliot tries to object, but they're being traveled away before he can say more. He doesn't recognize the apartment they arrive in, but Margo pushes him down a hallway toward a bedroom even as 23 travels out again. “Bambi, wait -”



“No. Look, you're about to fall over and he's out cold. I've got you, Julia will have him, so everything’ll be fine, but right now, you need to rest, ok? Just got you back, El, I'm not gonna let you crash.”



He means to at least stay awake, even when Margo pushes him on the bed and Talaus cuddles Cythera close, licking her ears in a way that always makes them tired. “Hey… Cheating…” Eliot mumbles, but God, he really is tired.



He strains to hear voices when Penny returns, but he can't focus on them, can't quite hear, and he falls asleep in spite of himself.

Chapter Text

Quentin and Ariadne are alone when they wake up.

It’s late morning at least from the sunlight coming in through the window, and for a long while Quentin doesn’t move, just watches the dust motes spin in the light, his daemon a familiar warmth against his side. Maybe if he lays here long enough, he’ll find the energy to get up. He’ll find the nerve to find out - to find out what happened.

“We know it was banished,” Ariadne whispers and her voice breaks the spell. Quentin covers his eyes with his hands and breathes through the way his throat tightens.

They do know that. But the last he saw of Eliot was watching him fall, and the Monster had taken so little care with his body -

“Q? You up?”

Quentin lowers his hands and sits up, and he should probably be alarmed that it’s a bit of a struggle to do that, but he manages to look at Julia and not immediately panic, so that’s a start. “Looks that way,” he says, swallowing hard. “Jules, did it - is Eliot -?”

“Eliot’s back,” Julia says immediately. “And none of us were hurt - well, not seriously, some minor injuries but nothing worse than that for once. Except you, of course. It almost took you, you know, and getting free of it almost killed you. You weren’t breathing for a moment there, scared me half to death.”

“Sorry,” Quentin says, and means it. He remembers, dimly, thinking dying was better than becoming a niffin, and he’s going to stand by that one, actually. But he’s also not going to mention it to Julia. “So, that’s why I feel like getting out of bed might be too much. At least I have an actual reason that’s not just my brain fucking with me.”

“Somehow, I think the sleep and food you didn’t get during Monster babysitting has something to do with it too,” Julia says dryly. Quentin is about to answer when he shifts and the movement causes a bit of hair to fall in his face. Except…

“What the fuck?”

“Oh yeah, also your hair turned white. Surprisingly not a terrible look on you,” Asterion says, laughing at the look on Quentin’s face. Julia’s lips are twitching, though she has the decency, unlike her daemon, not to laugh outright. Ariadne sits up and hisses, though it’s half-hearted at best, and Asterion drops down to run his beak through her fur, calming her down. It’s a familiar sight since they both settled, the peregrine falcon and the golden cat together, though Ariadne’s fur is now speckled with paler gold flecks.

“Is Eliot awake yet?” he asks, keeping his eyes on their daemons. “Is he -”

“Margo says he wakes up for about ten minutes at a time, since yesterday. He’s even more wrecked than you are.” Julia considers him for a minute, her gaze and Asterion’s equally piercing. “They’re next door, once you can manage to get out of bed. Which I don’t think is going to be today.”

Quentin would very much like to argue the point, but the fact is even the thought of lifting the blankets off himself seems like a lot of effort, so Julia might be onto something. He scowls at her anyway, which lasts until she settles herself onto the bed next to him and leans into his side, Asterion tucking himself against Ariadne at the foot of the bed.

“Don’t you scare me like that again, Q, you hear me?”

For a moment, Quentin doesn’t answer. He’s remembering a different bed, a different conversation. Julia curled around him when they’d thought themselves on the cusp of grad school, academia and adulthood but were really about to tumble into a world more beautiful and terrible than they could ever have imagined. Him lying about where he’d been, Julia knowing it and Quentin knowing she knew it, but both of them letting it rest just then. James leaping onto them like the goofball he’d always been -

“You ever think about James?” he asks, and he knows the question’s random, but Julia tips her head back to look at him and he thinks she understands.

After all, only one person knows Quentin better than Julia, now. In some ways Julia has the lead on Eliot even if twenty-odd years is a lot less than fifty. Certain things you know better if you grow from child to adult with someone, after all, just as certain other things are best learned as partners over a lifetime. Things like little secrets children keep for each other, escapades that seemed the height of daring at twelve but are so harmless in hindsight, or days spent with their daemons flick-flick-flicking between shapes. Learning the world together, rather than living together.

The thing is, they had James along for the ride for a good bit of those things, and suddenly it seems like one more mistake among many, that Quentin’s never asked.

“Pete wiped his memory, to protect him from me when I was a magic addict,” Julia says. “I don’t know - Q, I don’t know if that was the best thing for James or not, to forget me. He probably forgot you too, we made friends with him together so…”

The new kid, transferred in mid-year. Julia’s idea, to make friends, but Quentin had been glad of it. “He’s probably safer away from us. If he’d been around, without magic, I mean…” It doesn’t help, really, does it? It doesn’t change that Julia had loved him, and he’ll never know it, doesn’t change that Quentin was a shitty friend who never thought about James even knowing Jules was spiraling. Who hadn’t helped the spiral either, let’s not forget. Fuck.

“We’re done leaving people behind, aren’t we?” Ariadne asks, and Asterion makes a chirring sort of sound.

“I sure as hell hope so,” he says. “But speaking of lovers, what was that about a timeline where you and Eliot ended up married?”

“It’s a very long story, fifty years long actually,” Ariadne says, and Quentin closes his eyes, feeling Julia’s gaze on him. He did say he’d tell her later, didn’t he? So he does, keeping his eyes closed, seeing all of it again. And then, he tells her the part he’d planned to keep to himself, the conversation under the wedding arch, after everything.

“I still don’t know what he meant by not when we have a choice. That he thinks I wouldn’t choose him, or that he wouldn’t choose me. I don’t know - he said I wasn’t… something, I cut him off, asked what did it matter, but the problem is I’m not sure what he was going to ask, I was just so convinced that, that we knew we worked so whatever it was didn’t matter . Stupid, huh?”

“I don’t know,” Julia says, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “I have no idea. I can’t believe you were the old man, though, I just have to say that.”

It makes Quentin laugh. He’d never thought much about the old man who gave Jane the key even though he’d liked the story of the mosaic, but Julia had always been curious. She’d made up all kinds of backstories for him, and a few actually weren’t that far off, in hindsight. So it makes him laugh, and he’d needed that. “Me either. But I don’t… he was lying to me, Jules. I knew that, just not which part.”

“Well, you could ask him,” Julia says, sitting up now to look at him properly. “If you want this hashed out, no one but Eliot knows what he was thinking.”

“I don’t want to push him, that was one of so many fuck ups I made with Alice, I want to have learned from that.” He doesn’t think, now, that anything could have saved things with Alice, but he could have done better, been better. Saved them both some of the pain, maybe the good parts would have lasted a little longer. The last thing he wants is a repeat of that.

“He doesn’t have to be in love with me as long as we’re still friends, I just can’t lose him again. I’d choose him anywhere, anytime, but if it’s just me, I can - handle that.” He can handle it, anything is better than when he’d thought Eliot was dead, when a Monster sat there wearing him like a bad suit.

It won’t be easy. But he’s not going to push it. He isn’t, he can’t. Can’t risk it. “So,” he says, sitting up himself and pushing white hair out of his eyes. (That is going to take getting used to.) “You and 23 ever get to go out on that dinner date you mentioned?”

Obvious misdirect? Maybe. But Julia gets that wicked grin he remembers from childhood on up, and he thinks it’s not such a bad change of topic.

<><><>

The first time Eliot wakes up, it’s to darkness and silence, and the silence is so horrifying that he curls into the blankets and goes right back to sleep so that he doesn’t have to face it.

It had been silent in his head when he was certain he was going to die, after all.

The second time he wakes up, he doesn’t open his eyes, because he can hear voices and he doesn’t want them to know he’s listening. He can feel Cythera stretched out next to him on the bed and the bed itself is unfamiliar, the sheets and pillows and covers wrong but not uncomfortable.

Wrong is good, because wrong means new. New means real.

Margo is - laughing at someone. Just hearing that warms Eliot, because he couldn’t recreate that delighted mischief, it had been faded from too much trouble and stress, his mind just couldn’t. “God, you’re a knockoff Targaryen,” Margo’s saying now. “Also you look about to fall over, can’t believe Julia let you out of bed.”

“Snuck out while she’s on a coffee date with 23. Or a fact-finding mission. I think they’re multi-tasking.”

Quentin. Voice soft and hoarser than usual, but it’s Q, all right.

“Well, sit down before you fall over and probably crack your head open, I’m not explaining that one to Julia or to Eliot when he wakes up.”

Shuffling, slow footsteps. “Yes, ma’am,” Q says, and Eliot can hear rustling as Quentin sits somewhere, probably twisting himself up in one of his silly contortions. He can picture Margo’s amusement, watching the process. “How’s he doing?”

“That hedge healer Kady’s lackey hooked us up with stopped in, she says he’s coming around bit by bit, and most of the problem is just that thing didn’t know how to take care of a human body.”

“Didn’t want to is more like it. Lackey’s name is Pete, he’s behaved so far but watch out for him. Jules has some stories, he used to work for Marina.”

“Well, I figure as long as Kady wants him to be useful he will be. Reminds me of some of the courtiers in Fillory,” Margo says. Q’s response, and whatever Margo says in return, isn’t clear to Eliot, who’s drifting off again. But listening to them is comforting, because he’s not thinking hard enough to conjure anyone. So he knows they must be the real thing, he knows that he got out, he survived.

It doesn’t feel like he slept long this time, and he blinks once, twice, trying to adjust to the light. “Turn… lamp down?” he manages, his voice a croak. A shadow leans over him to do just that, and when he blinks again in dimmer light, the shadow turns out to be Margo. She’s a little out of focus - the whole room is a little out of focus - which is annoying but Eliot decides to take it as further proof this is real. Cythera had been fuzzy around the edges in the happy place, but everything else had been in high fucking definition. And, he sees, his daemon is right next to him and not fuzzy now at all.

He tries to sit up and Margo is there, helping brace him, but when she tries to hold a cup of water up for him Eliot grabs for it himself. It takes two hands, but while there’s no need for pride with Margo, Eliot himself has need of a little bit of pride. “Stubborn,” she tells him, but goes back to helping him keep steady instead, one hand on his back and one on his side. “You’ve been out a week, you know.”

Her voice is oddly quiet. “No need to whisper,” he says, his own voice stronger for the water but still raspy.

“That’s not for your sake, it’s for my other idiot,” Margo tells him with that exasperated fondness she only lets show around two people. “How’re you feeling?”

“Like I got run over, and then backed up on for good measure. But I’m awake, and this is real, or I wouldn’t feel like shit, so I call it a win,” Eliot tells her, lips quirking just a little. He casts his blurry gaze around the room, stopping on a blanket-covered lump curled in the room’s other armchair. Eliot would know him anywhere, of course, but what the hell did Q do to his hair?

Margo follows his gaze and laughs softly. “He’s not supposed to be up, he just had to come see you. Now he’s crashed there and I’ve got both of you to worry about.”

“You don’t mind,” Eliot says, looking back to her.

“Well, at least when I’ve got my eye on you I know you’re ok, so there’s that.”

Eliot notices Talaus stretched out near the door, clearly ready to shoo away anyone who interrupts, Ariadne tucked up against his side and as deeply asleep as her human. It’s half open, enough that he can hear voices coming down the hall. “Think we can leave that open all night? I woke up before, it was too fucking quiet. I can’t - it was quiet at the end there, I’m gonna need noise for a while.”

“Open door won’t do much at three in the morning,” Margo says, “but we’ll figure it out. Audiobook? I’m sleeping in here, I can sleep right through those, music not so much.”

Eliot rolls his eyes, which is a mistake because then the room spins for a minute and he has to brace himself against Cythera to keep steady. And it was just for effect anyway, so very much a mistake. “I never did get the point of those, but sounds good.”

“Great. I’ll get A Game of Thrones , you didn’t read it so now you can listen to it.”

Eliot sighs, pretending to be put-upon, but he doesn’t really care as long as he won’t wake up in the quiet again. He tips his head back and considers the white ceiling, watching the shadows play on the wall. He’s coming more awake, not slipping under again, which means he has to start thinking. Damn it. “What did I miss?” he asks, curling his fingers into fists. What did it do with my body? He has only flashes, and he doesn’t like what they tell him.

“Here? Not sure. Q and Julia haven’t said much, and the others were a lot less involved. Kady and Alice are teaming up against the Library, they’ve got a mole, apparently. The hedges are planning revolution and I think Kady’s in charge? She even has a lackey, who is acceptable because he got a healer for you.”

“Good for them,” Eliot says, and it’s more or less sincere, taking down the Library sounds like a great plan. Just… not relevant to his current interests, at all. “Tell me about those axes of yours?” he says when he spots them up against the wall, and Margo grins before going into her tale. The lead up in which Fen overthrew Margo as High King so she could get herself exiled twists Eliot’s heart, and Cythera jumps off the bed to go cuddle Talaus, rubbing her head against his face, because they know how that must have hurt.

The tale of the desert quest, though… He laughs for the first time in what feels like forever when Margo tells him what her hallucination of him got up to, and he grins at the image of her taking out “Foreskin and Aunt Lydia” with the red smoke beings. But still, it lingers at the back of his mind, that he needs to know more.

“You should talk to Julia before Q, I think, for details anyway,” Margo says when he tells her as much, face darkening. “She was worried and he was all zoned out when I got here.”

“Jesus,” Eliot mutters, raking a hand through his too-long hair. Too-long, dirty hair. “Well, before I dive into the havoc my body wreaked, I need to fix the disaster that thing made of my body,” he says, and given the fact that he can’t actually walk more than a couple steps, well. That becomes an adventure in and of itself.

“Christ, OK, you didn’t sign up for this getting me back, huh?” he finally grits out when he’s nearly fallen over getting out of the shower twice, after nearly falling three times getting in and actually falling once in the hallway. The only reason he didn’t fall in the shower is because someone put a shower chair in there. He doesn’t know if that’s for his benefit or not, and he will not ask.

Margo scowls at him. “I signed up for whatever it took, whether that was scrabbling for black sand grains in the desert or helping you in the damned shower. And you know it.”

He manages to dry himself off with Margo only steadying him a little, using the towel one-handed with his other hand braced on the sink counter. He needs her help with his hair though and it makes him clench his teeth in frustration. The clothes are clean, which is the most important thing right now - soft cloth black pants that might be thin sweatpants and might be pajama pants and a blue t-shirt, which is better than a graphic tee at least. The pants are a bit short and the shirt hangs a little oddly, but…

“I never thought I’d be glad to be dressed so badly,” he hears himself say, hears his voice waver. “But that’s how I know it’s real, right? Because in, in my head, where I was. I was always impeccable. Not even a hair fell out of place there, not for a moment. Everything stayed perfectly tucked in, never hot or cold or anything. Because it wasn’t fucking real. I could call you up with a thought, Bambi, you or Q or anyone I wanted to see, but no one was real. Just memories.”

He sinks onto the closed toilet lid and just sits there, staring at his hands. “Just memories. And now I’m looking around and everything’s unfamiliar, I feel like shit and look it too, but I’m so fucking grateful because that means it’s real again.”

Margo crouches in front of him, taking her hands in his and holding on tight. “Yeah, this is the real world, you know ‘cause it’s always a fucking mess. You’re back, and we’re gonna get through this.”

Eliot meets her eyes, and he can feel the phantom warmth of their daemons cuddled together just outside the door. He squeezes Margo’s hands and takes a deep breath. He’s back, he’s awake, Margo is here with him and Quentin’s across the hall and he’s going to be fine too.

They’re OK. Or they will be.

<><><>

Quentin thinks he’s escaped without any real effects from the time spent with the Monster, up until the third day he’s awake, and the first time he’s actually managing to get around without having to stop and catch his breath every other minute. He’s looking for clean clothes to put on after his shower when his pack of cigarettes falls out of a pocket.

There are still blood stains on the white cardboard, a stark contrast in rust-brown.

Tying stones to a corpse -

Eliot’s arm wrapped around him but it’s not Eliot, it’s not, a stolen arm pulling him close and a stolen hand petting Ariadne, an awful rictus of a smile -

Flat dark eyes watching him from the shadows -

Blood in his hair in his mouth drying tacky on his skin and why the fuck won’t it just kill him -

“Strangle me, break my bones, too tired to care anymore.” Not the worst way to go, dying under those hands he knows so well -

Cythera so still, so broken, what if she doesn’t come back what if what if -

Quentin comes back to himself on the floor of his room and scrambles to the bathroom just in time to be violently sick. After, he kneels on the tiles for a while, gasping for breath and huddled in on himself. Fuck. Fucking hell.

Eventually, he washes his mouth, leaves to get his clothes, then ducks back into the bathroom. It’s probably his fastest shower on record, but he keeps the water at a perfectly sensible temperature the whole time, which is an improvement from the last time he took a shower and a breakdown was involved. His hair still feels the same when he washes it, even if he has to do a double take every time he looks in the mirror and sees white instead of brown. The color had faded slowly, the last time, the same way Eliot’s curls had.

He thinks of Eliot. Eliot, himself again, curled up in bed with Cythera, the cheetah daemon purring even in her sleep. Thinks of sleep-fogged hazel eyes lighting on him for just a moment as an exasperated Julia dragged him out of the bedroom, with Penny 23’s help because Quentin’s legs were too wobbly to work right. He doesn’t think Eliot was awake enough to remember but Quentin does. He remembers that it’s Eliot, that he’s back.

And as for Quentin himself?

He looks at his face in the foggy mirror. This is new , he tells himself. This is new, white hair framing his still-young face. Ariadne’s fur speckled pale gold. There are memories of touches he welcomed, that perhaps he can find again - some of them, if not all of them. And as for the ones he never wanted, that his daemon never welcomed?

It’s someone new in the mirror, or something new to let him be himself again, he’s not quite sure which one yet. But Quentin thinks that in a way, it washes those touches from his skin, his hair, his daemon. Or at least locks them in the past, memories that might sneak out in a nightmare, but no worse than that.

It’s over. And looking his reflection in the eye, then opening the door to hear the faint sound of an audiobook playing, Quentin finally starts to let himself believe it.

He ducks his head into Eliot and Margo’s room, but they’re actually both asleep, A Dance of Dragons playing in the background. Quentin smiles at the sight, then slips in through the half-open door to collect the blanket he’d slept under on the armchair. He has to step around Talaus and Cythera, cuddled in a pile, to approach the bed. Margo’s curled up next to Eliot but on top of the covers, so Quentin carefully puts the blanket on her. Margo grumbles, opening one eye.

“What, you’re taking care of me now?” she murmurs, drowsily teasing. “You could never keep up, Coldwater.”

“Nah, I know, just checking in,” Quentin whispers back. “I’m going to grab food, you want anything?”

“Just sleep,” Margo says, and closes her eye again. Quentin shakes his head a little. He looks at Eliot, who looks more himself in sleep despite still having the too-long hair and unkempt facial hair of the Monster. His fingers itch to brush the curls out of Eliot’s eyes, so he tucks his hands in his hoodie pockets to make them behave and leaves Margo and Eliot to rest.

He isn’t really hungry - he’s not nauseous anymore, but still not hungry - but he’s under threat from Julia that if he doesn’t start taking better care of himself she’s going to tie him to the bed if she has to. Quentin, who still feels wobbly-legged and generally shaky but more alert than he has in months after sleeping for days, really doesn’t want to stay in bed.

So he and Ariadne pad out to the main area, to find the area deserted except for -

“Alice. Perdix. Hi,” Quentin says.

“Uh, hi. We're waiting for Kady.” Alice says, fidgeting with her coffee cup. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Quentin says, going in search of ginger ale to settle his stomach enough to eat something. He isn’t sure what to say to Alice. They haven’t been alone since the trip to Brakebills South - they’d needed a trap spell to keep the Monster in place once Quentin petting Cythera drew its attention, and it’d turned out that Mayakovsky was the only one who could tell them how to do it.

To begin with, a trip like that? Awkward as hell to go back there with Alice of all people. Then it had turned out Mayakovsky had switched places with his future self, and said future self had dementia, so Quentin had swapped with his own past self in order to talk to a Mayakovsky who was still able to help.

Quentin doesn’t really want to think about his time in the past, the things past Alice had said to him, or that he’d come back to find current Alice kissing him. At least he has his discipline now. Repair of small objects, which, really… It feels pathetic to think it, such a small power, but the way it had felt to fix even a coffee cup had just been so strangely right, like a moment of pure clarity. He can't wish that feeling away.

It’s nice to know, anyway.

But he doesn’t know how to deal with Alice, so he sips his ginger ale and she drinks her coffee, and they both look anywhere but at each other. God, this is embarrassing.

“Is that your new final form?” Ariadne asks, breaking the silence. She’s clearly talking to Perdix, who is currently in the form of a miniature griffin. He’d been a grey horse when Quentin and Alice met, her favorite animal, but once Alice came back from being a niffin, he’d turned bright gold like daemon Dust with niffin-blue eyes, and he’d been unsettled again. The colors never changed, though, not that Quentin’s seen, anyway. Alice can and does glamour him - she’d glamoured him grey and he’d shifted back to a horse at South - but that’s not the same thing.

Perdix shakes his head. “No. I like it, it’s comfortable, but not in a final sort of way. I think I might be something mythological though. Who can tell?”

That happens sometimes, with magicians usually - ones from families who already have magic or late-settlers who find out about magic before their daemons settle. Or that’s what Quentin remembers from his Daemonology class at Brakebills. Still… He glances up at Alice just in time to catch one of her darting looks. “You guys will find the right shape,” he says, not sure if it’s the right thing but at a loss for anything else.

Alice smiles tightly and nods. “Eventually. Look, Q, about what happened at South -”

“I figure he kissed you,” Quentin says too quickly. “Or at least was into it, so… Look, just forget it.”

“No, I have to - I got caught up. I knew you’d be uncomfortable if you found out, but it was… No one had looked at me the way you - he - did, in so long. It crossed a line though, and I’m sorry about that.”

Quentin remembers the Alice of the past, how she’d told him to remember that he was the best thing to happen to her. If that had been true, he reflects sadly, it hadn’t lasted long. And he… He isn’t in love with Alice anymore. But he still cares, and he still wishes there’d been more good between them, and less bad. Also, she deserves better than for him to have been her best thing.

“Hey. Relax. I’m not going to tear your head off for it. I’ve crossed some lines myself for pretty similar reasons.” Quentin thinks of the glamour spell he and Emily Greenstreet had used and his stomach knots again. But he ignores it. “Look, I… you deserve someone who looks at you like that, and I hope you find that person. It was a thing for me too, I met you back there and it was - not so different. But it just isn’t us. We were happy for five minutes and then we just hurt each other. Sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, but…”

Alice sighs, and finishes her coffee, crossing to the sink to rinse out her mug. “I know. I can still miss it though, can’t I? Don’t you, even a little?”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, because it’s true. They were happy, for a little while, after all. “It was important to both of us, I think maybe it’d be weird if we didn’t miss it. But - OK, so, when you were last here I was kind of an asshole. I was mad at you and my head was all fucked up in general but I overdid it. So, I’m sorry. For that and… everything else I really should have apologized for a long time ago.”

He’s relieved, actually, when Alice meets his eyes again. “So we’re all right then? No grudges, just move forward?”

“No grudges. And maybe friends again?” He'd like that, he realizes, and Alice told him she was angrier about losing their friendship than anything, after the threesome catastrophe. All that seems like a lifetime ago to Quentin for more than one reason, but maybe...

Alice doesn’t have a chance to answer before Kady and her wolf appear. “Alice, come on, Zelda called and she’s got news about the bloodworms, she says it’s something we really need to know.” Alice grabs her jacket and Perdix turns into some kind of bird so he can ride on her shoulder, but Quentin gets the faintest smile from her before she leaves.

“That went all right,” Ariadne says as Quentin finishes his ginger ale and turns to check out the cereals, thinking that’s probably the safest option right now.

“It did,” Quentin agrees. And there’s a weight off him now that he hadn’t realized was there, which is nice. He smiles a little as he pours out cereal - some kind of Froot Loops knockoff with a truly ridiculous name - and reaches out to scratch his daemon between the ears. She purrs and presses into it, contact just for the enjoyment of it instead of needing comfort.

That’s nice too.

<><><>

Eliot’s gotten used to waking up to the narrator who does the Game of Thrones books. The guy has this voice that should be dull as hell but somehow isn’t, and manages to mostly be soothing. The voice he wakes up to this time is not that voice, but it’s one far more familiar, far more a sound of home. How many times did he listen to Quentin telling Teddy stories, how many times did he listen when it was Quentin’s turn to speculate on whatever bullshit ideas they had about “what’s happening on Earth right now?”

Except for the part where he doesn’t recognize this story at all. “That's not a Fillory book. And I've gotta say, didn't expect to wake up to you reading to me.” he says, pushing himself up to sit and grinning when Q goes red, fumbling the book.

“I, uh, well. The audiobook ended and I already had this, so I just. You know.”

“Thought you’d read out loud instead,” Eliot says, and he feels his grin shifting into a softer, almost painfully fond smile. Painfully fond. Yep, that’s one way to put it. “What is it anyway? Looks like more fantasy?”

“It is. Trickster’s Choice , by Tamora Pierce. Marina, she owned this place before Kady, had like everything this woman’s written in this secret compartment behind one of her bookshelves. We all figured it’d be some kind of really valuable magic, but I guess she really didn’t want anyone to know she liked a series of YA novels. Given the shit I used to get over Fillory as a mostly-normal person, and her being ‘the top bitch of New York’ or whatever it was she was called, I can sorta get it.” Quentin manages a rueful smile, ducking his head in a gesture that doesn’t work so well with his hair too short to really hide his face.

And yet, Eliot’s heart twists anyway. Half fondness, again, because that’s such a Quentin gesture, but it hurts too, because Quentin stopped hiding from him once. He remembers Quentin’s hair grown longer than ever, but tied back, no more hiding because he didn’t need to, not from Eliot, not from Arielle or Teddy. “I used to hate when you’d hide like that,” he’d confessed once in the dark, curled together in bed.

“Really? I had no idea.”

“Well, you always were a little oblivious, sweetheart.”

Cythera jumps off the bed and proceeds to corner Ariadne, washing her until she stops yelping and laughs instead. Eliot laughs too, grateful for his daemon knowing just how to break the sudden awkwardness, then looks at Quentin, who’s watching their cats’ antics with a faint smile. “Look at them at it again. I’m so glad, I was worried -”

“Hey. Hey, none of that,” Eliot says firmly, reaching out to grip Quentin’s wrist. For a moment, Quentin goes oddly still, before he relaxes and turns that same smile Eliot’s way. There’s something almost melancholy, maybe wistful about it. Eliot smiles back at him, rubbing his thumb over Quentin’s pulse. “I haven’t asked for any details yet, but we knew, OK? Cythera knew she was with you and Ariadne, we know you did everything you could, probably more than was good for you.”

“I’d do it again,” Quentin says with a shrug, like it’s no big deal. Eliot thinks of that flash he’d had while wandering the Monster’s memories, Quentin’s blood-streaked face, his eyes blank. And there’s another one, a sense memory of his fingers wrapping around Quentin’s throat.

“Well, for both our sakes let’s hope you never have to prove that,” Eliot manages, and he knows his voice is rougher than usual. “Look, Q, I should tell you -”

Quentin turns his wrist so he can slide it through Eliot’s grasp, tangling their fingers long enough for one gentle squeeze before he lets go. “Hey. We’ve got time, don’t we?”

“Well, yeah, I certainly hope so but -”

“So tell me once you’ve been awake a bit longer, feel more yourself, huh? Just in case you change your mind.” Quentin shrugs again, but there’s a shadow in his eyes, a wariness that Eliot suddenly realizes isn’t anything to do with the Monster. The way Quentin stilled for a moment under his hand like a hunted animal, that might be, but this one’s on Eliot.

“We were just injected with fifty years of emotion, so I get that maybe you’re not thinking clearly.”

Oh. So this is what it feels like to be on the other side. Eliot can’t say he cares for it much, really. And the conversation is stilted after that, both of them aware there’s an elephant in the room but not sure how to get it out of there when only one of them is willing to talk about it. A familiar feeling, really, they could almost be back in the damned throne room. Or in the middle of any one of their various arguments over fifty years together.

Quentin is in the middle of trying to catch Eliot up with a story about a bird that delivered a sandwich - Eliot thinks Q’s trying to start with the more ridiculous things he’s missed as a way of easing things - when his voice falters.

“Q? Everything all right?” Eliot looks up at him again to see Quentin trying and failing to keep his composure, hands twisting his shirt and his lips pressed into a line.

“El, I - look, I just really fucking missed you, ok?” Quentin chokes out.

“Q -”

“No. I missed you, and that thing told me you were dead and I fucking believed it, Eliot! We were, we were thirty seconds from banishing you to Blackspire with it when you broke out and I, and Cythera, he split you and I couldn’t stop him, I didn’t know, I barely talked him out of killing you and fuck, I’m sorry but then I’m also pissed off at you because you shot the damn thing and that set him loose and I just.” Quentin stops abruptly, burying his hands in his hair and pulling. “God. Fuck. You don’t need me losing my shit, sorry, it’s -”

“It’s been a lot ,” Ariadne says from where she’s tucked up against Cythera’s side. Cythera licks the top of her head to soothe her.

Eliot leans forward, catching Quentin’s wrists and drawing his hands carefully from his hair. It’s an old gesture, and the last time Eliot did it Quentin’s hair had also been white, but they’d both been old then. He can’t help but let go of one wrist to brush a hand over the white strands, the too-short cut. This time it’s not natural, it’s a mark of what’s happened as surely as Eliot’s vision that still won’t go back to normal.

They were only changed on the inside by Fillory. This mess, though, it had consequences.

Eliot uses his grip on Quentin’s wrist to tug him into the bed, and Quentin goes more easily than he’d expected until he’s laying sprawled half on Eliot like they used to do, head tucked under his chin. Eliot goes with instinct and presses a kiss to the top of Q’s head, and is more relieved than he’d like to admit when Quentin only relaxes even more against him.

“My dad’s gone too,” Quentin whispers, half-dazed like he can’t help the words. “While all of us were memory wiped. I couldn’t. Be there. And I did it to him, the key quest did that. And you were gone, and that was on me too. I said I’m mad at you and I am, but you did that so I wouldn’t have to stay, and damn it El, it’s been such a fucking mess and I feel like I flew into pieces and now I don’t know where they all are.”

Eliot wraps an arm around Quentin’s waist, holding onto him. “I’d do it again,” he tells Quentin, and his voice is firm because this is true. “I wasn’t leaving you there, Q, it was not going to happen , one way or another. And I’m so sorry about your dad, I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you found out. The rest of it…”  

He swallows back the lump in his throat and holds onto Quentin a little tighter. “Hell, Q, I’m all in pieces too. Those audiobooks? They’re playing because if I wake up to silence I have a panic attack, because that’s the last thing I remember in my head. Silence. And I thought I was going to die in the quiet. I’m grateful for being in a place I don’t recognize and wearing clothes I’d never wear - are they yours by the way? The pants are short -  because it means it’s real. In there…”

“Penny said it looked like the Cottage,” Quentin murmurs. “In your head.”

“Yeah. A ‘Happy Place.’ Fucking misnomer. Nothing changed, including me. Didn’t get messy or tired or hungry or any damn thing, my hair gel lasted forever and nothing ever wrinkled. Sounds great till it happens. And look at us, we’re even looking different. Your hair’s gone white, I’m gonna need glasses and I’m fucked up over that too.”

“Glasses?”

“Yeah because, in my head, there was another me. Nigel, the guy the memory potion turned me into. He was English, him and his daemon Elara. Mirror images of me and Cythera with London accents, and Nigel had these wire frame glasses. I know you and probably Julia, maybe even 23 are looking at me and still seeing the Monster sometimes. You three were the ones it was around, right? I can fix that, I will fix that, soon as I can be up and about I’ll get my hair cut, get different clothes. But I’m terrified I’m going to put on a pair of glasses and see Nigel in the mirror. Getting my memories back means he died, and he was a kind of person to me, in there. Helped me do my snooping with the Monster. I don’t know how to fix that.”

Quentin lifts his head so he can meet Eliot’s eyes. “I don’t know either, Eliot. But I don’t. See the Monster, that is. You could never - he, it, was different, so different I don’t have the words. But there’s no mistaking. And as for the quiet… You want audiobooks, we’ll find every damn one you can download if you want, or play music loud enough the neighbors complain. I’ll find new shit every day if you need that proof this is real. You got that? I don’t know what to do about the Nigel thing but the rest… Just say the word.”

“I’m thinking different glasses design’s a start,” Eliot says, because what can he say to the rest of that declaration? “Margo will help. I’d take you but I know how useless you are at fashion advice.”

“I’d give it a better try this time, at least?”

Eliot laughs, and it feels good. He tightens his grip on Quentin just a little as Q puts his head back down. “I know you would, but how about we just don’t put each other through that? Speaking of though, think you’ll keep the hair or dye it?”

“Keep, I think. It’s… like a new start, somehow.”

“Huh. Maybe if I think of my future glasses the same way, that’ll help too. Mind if I steal your idea?”

“Not even a little bit.”

Margo finds them later sound asleep like that, Cythera and Ariadne having joined them at some point so that they make a pretty silly-looking cuddle pile on the bed. Eliot’s pretty sure Margo took pictures for later blackmail, but he can’t find it in himself to mind. He didn’t say what he needed to, but he’s decided to agree with Q for now.

They have time. Time to talk, and to help each other pick up all their scattered pieces.

Chapter Text

Eliot is walking with a cane, but he’s functional, when he and Margo finally go out shopping. The clothes are easy; the glasses less so. Eliot avoids wire frames and round ones, but there’s still a lot to go through without those options.



“I look like a hipster, don’t I?” he asks, tilting his head at his reflection and considering a pair of black plastic frames.



“Absolutely like a hipster, don’t even think of those,” Margo says, hooking her chin over his shoulder.



“Sunglasses are so much more fun to shop for,” Eliot mutters, and looks for another pair. A few of them inadvertently remind him of Nigel anyway, and Talaus stays curled around Cythera the whole time as if he and Margo know she and Eliot need a bit of comfort.



Which they do know, because he’d told them about Nigel and Elara too. The girl at the desk clearly thinks they’re all crazy, her parakeet daemon watching them from a perch atop her head. Eliot doesn’t care, and focuses on finding a pair of glasses that actually work and don’t make him think of being someone else.



The fact that they came here last, with him back in clothes he chose and his hair cut properly, definitely helps. But it still takes two hours. Eventually he comes away with a pair of frameless glasses, the lenses rounded rectangles. He likes the look of them, if he has to wear glasses, and they don’t look like something Nigel would wear. Eliot isn’t certain if they look like something he’d wear either, but then again he’s never worn glasses before. Or at least, never in this life, when he has options and not just the necessity. He figures that, like his clothing choices over the years, it’ll be a work in progress for a while.  



New things mean real things, he reminds himself.



Or maybe, once his hands stop shaking at odd intervals and his eyes stop being so dry all the time, he’ll say fuck it and wear contacts.



When they get back, the apartment seems empty, but when they go back out to the main area after putting away what they bought, everyone’s out there. Eliot’s steps falter briefly; he’s not actually had everyone to face since coming back, though by now he’s crossed everyone’s path at least once. Penny 23 and Julia are sitting pretty close together on the couch as they look through books, their daemons perched on the back. Occasionally they preen each other, eagle and falcon, and Eliot raises an eyebrow, leaning in close to Margo. “What’d I miss there?” He knows that Penny 23 and his Julia were a thing, but…



“I missed the details, but apparently they’re dating now,” Margo murmurs back. “Ask your boy.”



Speaking of Q, he’s curled into a corner of the couch opposite from Penny and Julia, Ariadne on his lap with the book Q’s reading resting on her back. Kady and Alice lean over a map spread over the kitchen island. Kady’s maned wolf and Alice’s daemon, who is… a coyote, maybe, at the moment, hard to tell with the gold fur, are sitting next to each other and talking in low voices.



“Look who’s back,” Kady says, glancing up and catching sight of them.



“Back to myself, except for this thing,” Eliot agrees, waving the cane a little. “So, research party?”



“Library’s sniffing around the magic we pulled for the exorcism,” Penny 23 says. “We’re all right for now, but Kady and Alice made a good case for us joining up with the fight the Library scheme they’ve got going.”



“Not least because we now know they’re hoarding magic,” Alice says without looking up. Margo says Kady told her Alice is on an “apology tour”, but Eliot’s not sure what he makes of that. She helped get him back, which he appreciates, and he certainly can’t say he’s never done anything awful to the rest of them, but still… “Their leader, Everett, is doing something but we don’t know what.”



“Except the brain worms,” Kady says, and her wolf growls low. That, Eliot knows about, because Kady had warned him and Margo this morning before they left. Neither of them are exactly hedges, but they’re not exactly Brakebills students either, and they’re known associates of both Kady, hedge witch organizer, and Alice, fugitive from the Library’s lockup.



“Well, we made it back safe and sound,” Margo says. She settles on one of the kitchen bar stools while Talaus goes to the sunny patch by the patio doors. Eliot shakes his head - Talaus is huge, a Siberian tiger, but even more than Cythera or Ariadne, he’s always been very housecat-like about things like patches of sunlight.



Eliot heads for the couch, dropping down next to Q, who startles and pulls earbuds out of his ears. “What are you reading?” Eliot asks, using the excuse of looking at the book to slip an arm behind Q’s shoulders and lean into him.



“Trying to find ways to get around the low levels,” Quentin says, and Eliot feels rather than sees how Quentin freezes briefly but then leans right back, subtly curling in against Eliot’s side. But he glances up to catch two pairs of sharp eyes - Julia and her falcon absolutely saw that, and for a moment he’s reminded very much of Margo. But for now he doesn’t worry about it, absently playing his fingers over the ends of Q’s hair and along the back of his neck, enjoying the faint shivers he gets in response. Cythera settles at their feet and Ariadne hops down to join her.



It feels like he just blinks, but he must have dozed off, because the next thing Eliot knows, he’s lying horizontal on the couch. It isn’t really a surprise, any more than the warm weight against him can be anything but familiar. Quentin’s curled more obviously against Eliot’s chest now, out like a light himself.



“Kady and Margo went for takeout.”



Eliot blinks, adjusting the glasses that had fallen crooked while he slept, and turns his head to see Julia leaning against the kitchen counter, a mug in her hands. “They went for food, Penny went with Alice to go meet some contact of Zelda's in case she needs a quick getaway.”



“And you’re keeping an eye on us?” Eliot asks. Quentin stirs slightly against him, and Eliot cards his fingers through white hair until Q settles again. He has a feeling this is a conversation that he doesn’t exactly want to have interrupted. Not even by Quentin - maybe especially not by Quentin.



“Sort of. We didn’t want to leave you two alone in the loft, not just yet. Not with you both dropping off to sleep randomly.”



“Yeah. I’m guessing that thing didn’t sleep much, which is why I keep crashing, but…” Eliot sighs. “But I don’t get why Q’s as bad as I am.”



“Well, he’s not, not really. You have more to recover from in total. It wasn’t just that it didn’t sleep much. It seemed to eat mostly because it decided it wanted the taste of something, and it applied that reasoning to alcohol and pills for a little while too.”



“Oh, great, well, at least it suffered the withdrawal, because I know how that feels and I don’t have that problem. But you still didn’t answer my question.”



“I know I didn’t, and I’m only going to answer it so far, because I think this is a conversation you and Q need to have,” Julia says, coming to sit on the coffee table so that she’s closer to Eliot. He appreciates it; it’s an easier angle to look at her from. “It liked him. And it was jealous of you, I think. Because Q wanted you back, and it wanted him, whatever that meant for it.”



“Please tell me you don’t mean -”



“No. It was definitely exploring human sensation but thank God, it never got to sex. I think - I’m pretty sure if it had , then it would have wanted him, but it didn’t.” There is just the faintest uncertainty there, like maybe Julia is worried there’s something she doesn’t know, didn’t see. “But what you need to know is, I watched him tear himself up to get you back, Eliot. I thought I might really lose him this time, to the Monster finally getting bored with him and killing him, to some last-ditch spell to get you back, to his own damn head when I couldn’t get through to him.”



“I didn’t want that. I never -”



“I’m sure you didn’t. You care about him, that was obvious from the first time I saw you and him together, even with how angry I was at him and that very distracting spell of yours to make books fuck . But Eliot, Quentin told me about your past life and what happened after and if you aren’t -”



“I’m taking it back. What I said to him. But he hasn’t let me, he thinks it’s possession trauma talking.”



“Is it?”



“No,” Eliot says hotly. “And I have to explain myself to him, but I sure as hell don’t have to explain myself to you. Except - you’re his oldest friend, and I get that matters. So I will say, I’m going to try like hell not to hurt him again. To prove him right, that we do work. I think that’s all you need to know, don’t you?”



Maybe Julia would have disagreed, Eliot doesn’t know. She doesn’t get the chance, anyway, because Q shifts against him again, lifting his head and blinking sleepily at them both. “I miss something?” he asks.



“Nothing interesting, we just took a nap and got out of some of the boring research,” Eliot says cheerfully, and Quentin rolls his eyes. Eliot can hear Julia stifling a laugh, but her peregrine falcon is still watching him like he’s considering diving into Eliot’s face.



Well. He has a Margo, if Quentin’s Julia wants to be just as protective that seems only fair. Eliot has faced scarier people for much less important reasons.



Now he just has to get Quentin to let him talk.



<><><>



Quentin and Ariadne have a problem. About Eliot and Cythera. About Eliot, and the thing he was going to say in the bedroom that first day they were both awake at the same time, the thing he’d said he needed to tell Quentin. And about what they should do now. It had been easy to tell Margo, tell Julia, I’m in love with him. Well, not easy, but simple, once the decision was made to say the words.



But Eliot’s back now. And Quentin wouldn’t change that for anything, but it’s far from simple, now. Because they end up cuddling almost every time they sit together, which is most of the time. And sometimes (every night so far) Quentin can’t fall asleep so he goes next door and they lie on Eliot’s bed and listen to whatever audiobook is playing that night. Quentin’s found a couple of the Tamora Pierce ones that sound more like radio plays than audiobooks, and he and Eliot spend a night talking about how much trouble they’d be in if they were weather mages.



“I mean, I’d definitely have zapped someone with lightning by now,” Eliot says, twining a bit of Quentin’s hair around one finger. “Probably many someones, which could be a problem. Although, the effect of growing little lightning bolts in my hair would have been really useful when I was High King.”



“I’d probably summon enough rain for flash flooding,” Quentin decides, watching their daemons bat around a cloth ball on the floor like a pair of kittens. “Or accidentally make tornadoes, something like that. Obviously, we should not be weather mages.”



“Thread magic clearly has a use though - if only for unraveling,” Eliot says after a moment, and Quentin tips his head back to give him an unimpressed look.



“That’s the best you could come up with?”



“Well, I’m not wrong.”



“No, you’re just impossible.”



They do a lot of that. Talking about audiobooks they listen to at night until they fall asleep side by side. Talking about the books they’re reading for research purposes during the day - sometimes they share a book. Other nights they stay up with movies, or TV shows. But nothing heavier than that. And Cythera always, always takes every opportunity to play with Ariadne, to cuddle her close.



“And I still don’t know what he wants,” Quentin says to Ariadne when they’re alone, not sure if he’s frustrated or tired or just… bewildered.



Mostly bewildered, he thinks, actually. Because before Eliot had been all mixed messages, all “go be life partners with someone else for a while” while fixing Quentin’s clothes and cuddling him. Now, he’s sending a pretty consistent message that seems to boil down to stay with me, but that’s… sort of unclear. Because, again, mixed messages until recently.



They always wake up tangled together, but they don’t talk about that. Or anything related to that, like waking up hard, which happens… more than it doesn’t. And what’s really not fair, is that when Quentin stirs in the night, as he often does, to feel Eliot wrapped around him, his dreams when he drifts back off are probably half the reason for that second thing they don’t talk about. At least on his end.



“Well maybe if you didn’t panic and cut him off before, we’d know where we stand! If we even have a chance, or...” Ariadne snaps.



Quentin glares at her. “Damn it, you know why I couldn’t let him say whatever he was going to say, especially if it was - ”



“Do I really, Quentin? Because I think you might have cut off something we actually want to hear!”



“And why’d he change his mind if that’s what it was, huh?” Quentin snaps, starting to pace. “I can’t - I can’t just be the safe option, someone he knows won’t fuck with him or who won’t say no, someone trustworthy. He said he wouldn’t choose me and he thinks I wouldn’t choose him, well what the fuck has changed besides more trauma for us all?”



“But if El and Cythera want us -”



If . If they really want us, and this isn’t the aftermath of possession talking.”



“It’s not fair to decide you know better than Eliot what Eliot is thinking.”



“Well, why the fuck not, what goes around comes around, doesn’t it? See how he likes -” Quentin stops, realizing what he’s saying. “Oh fuck. I didn’t… I didn’t mean to just… That wasn’t why I…” Well. It wasn’t consciously why Quentin had cut Eliot off. All he’d thought in the moment was no, no, if it’s what I’m hoping for not now, too soon, what if he takes it back later? And it occurs to him that maybe turnabout really is fair play, because -



“I know you, and you’re not -”



“What does it matter?”



“Don’t be naive. It matters.”



Maybe he did mean it on purpose, a little.



Quentin hadn’t been sure what Eliot meant at the time. Not what? And whatever it was, how could it possibly matter in the face of knowing they lived an entire life together, they had a family and they were happy. So he’d just cut Eliot off, and not found out what it was he supposedly wasn’t, which in hindsight was probably as big a strategic error as asking to try again within minutes of getting their memories back. After all, if he’d waited till they calmed down, maybe he would have been more believable.



Or, probably more likely, he’d have lost his nerve. Catch-22.



“You had a wife,” Eliot also said, and Quentin suddenly gets it. Or at least, he finally gets what went wrong a year ago in the throne room.



“Shit. Ariadne, how the hell can I have been that man’s partner in every possible way for the better part of fifty years and he still thinks I’m straight?”



“To be fair, we never said otherwise.”



“We had to say it? I would think the kissing and the sex and the love declarations made it obvious!”



Although, now that Quentin thinks about it, maybe not. There’d been Arielle, in Fillory, and sure, he’d started with her after Eliot told him not to overthink their first (second) night together, but he had loved her. There’d been Alice, and Quentin had loved her too. Still does, under the wariness and the anger and the awkwardness, it’s just not in love any more.



The threesome incident might have helped, except given the alcohol and the emotion magic it’s shitty evidence for anyone’s sexuality, and he’d behaved horribly afterwards. Because it had been cheating on Alice, and fucking up two great friendships at the same time, and easier to lash out than face the guilt. But looking at it from the outside he can actually see how someone not in his head might think ‘straight boy having a gay panic’.



He’d never really thought about the fact that the only person still in his life who actually knows, as in having been told, that he’s bisexual is Julia. Quentin’s a ball of anxiety and depression spirals about damn near everything in his life, but his sexuality’s never been one of those things. Maybe it’s that his mother left his father and fell in love with a woman, so he knew it was possible sooner - not that their relationship is the kind that meant he turned to her for support, but it meant that the concept of it was never… beyond consideration. Maybe it’s that his dad, Julia, and James all just rolled with it. No awkward questions, no anger, no anything.



Well, nothing awkward unless you count the matchmaking attempts on both Julia and James’ parts, but that had been well meant, and looking back now Quentin can smile about it. Or his probably not as secret as he’d wanted crushes on both James and Julia, but that’s long over and he can at least remember it without cringing now.



But... “Still,” he tells Ariadne quietly. “Fifty years. Does Eliot really think I just made do , for the vast majority of fifty years? And if Eliot still thinks that, then I have every reason to think that if he’s changed his mind it’s for the wrong reasons.”



“We won’t know unless we ask,” Ariadne insists.



“And if we ask, and it’s not what he wants, what if we lose them for real this time? Ariadne, I can’t. Can you? I’d rather have this weird in-between thing with El and Cythera for the rest of our lives if the alternative is pushing them away.”



His daemon doesn’t answer, which is how Quentin knows she agrees, she just wishes she didn’t. Well, he’s not exactly thrilled either, but what can they do?



<><><>



It has to come to a head.



If you’d asked Eliot even a year ago if he’d be up for this chaste half-courtship where he and Quentin just let themselves tangle together almost as innocently as children (almost, because his thoughts are definitely not childish), he’d have said you were crazy. And, as it happens, it is driving him crazy, but he’s determined. Because he’s not sure how long he has to wait until Quentin is ready to believe him. He’s hoping the easy affection of their days and the quiet closeness of their nights will back him up, but this is frankly uncharted territory.



“You could just kiss him one night,” Cythera says. “Or I could climb in his lap.”



“Sure, except for the part where if I touch Ariadne at the same time, it might remind him of that thing that stole my body.”



“Well, there’s still the kissing then. Honestly, Eliot, you’re the experienced one, and that boy has made the first move on you both times. Just on principle you should do it this time.”



“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Eliot says. “I mean, hell if I know how it does work, but we have to be careful. I don’t want to fuck this up.” Or so he tells himself. But he wonders if that’s really the case, or if it’s actually that he doesn’t know how to be braver like he promised the memory Q in his head.



Truth is, it’s probably some of both.



Unfortunately, the reckoning comes in the middle of the night. Eliot’s dreams aren’t much changed from before, except that occasionally… It’s like his body remembers what the Monster got up to with it even if his mind wasn’t present, and now the body is filling in the mind. Eliot wishes it wouldn’t, because while he does have to know, he’d rather just be told, not see it.



The most unnerving part is that the most brutal things don’t feel like nightmares until he wakes, because he’s immersed in how the Monster felt about them. So he’s annoyed, or angry, or determined, or amused, but never horrified until he blinks awake in the dark. Then, of course, horrified is exactly how he feels, but… But he can turn his face into Quentin’s hair and hold him a little closer, and Cythera will shift at the foot of the bed where she’s curled around Ariadne, put her head on his leg, and purr quietly until he sleeps again. And he can get through this.



Until he dreams of a moment he’s only seen a flash of before.



“Those pills can kill you.”



“I'll take a new body. I'm bored.” Really, Quentin is always fussing, it’s tedious.



“You kill Eliot and you can forget about us helping you.” Quentin says, and he turns to look at him, at Quentin who is supposed to be his friend but doesn’t care about how bored he is. Who is only upset about the stupid meatsuit.



“Eliot, Eliot, Eliot. Why do you care about him so much?” He doesn’t know what this burning feeling is but he thinks it’s what they call… jealousy? Quentin was supposed to stay in the castle with him, is supposed to care about him. Not the person who shot him.



“Because I do. You kill him, and we are done. I swear to God, I am serious. I will abandon you, and I will die trying to burn you to the ground.”



“That's cute. But I'm strong. And you're weak.” He doesn’t want to kill Quentin, he just wants to scare him, to remind him to behave. So he wraps the body’s fingers around Quentin’s throat and squeezes, ignoring a distant flash of panic from the body’s original mind.



“Break my bones and strangle me. Too tired to care anymore,” Quentin says, and why isn’t this scaring him? He hears Hoo-lia whisper when Quentin pauses but whatever she says doesn’t matter. “You hurt him, you take one more pill, and you can build your body on your own.”



He doesn’t want to actually kill Quentin. He’ll have to find a better way to scare him. He lets go. “Fine. I'll take better care of the meat suit. But you don't have to be such a baby about it.”



Eliot gasps awake to find the room grey with pre-dawn light, and no one in the bed beside him. For a moment he’s disoriented and he thinks, oh God, it killed him , before he remembers that can’t have happened. He notices the door’s ajar, then, and his breath comes out in a shaky sigh of relief. Ignoring his cane - he's only using it outside the apartment now - Eliot goes out to the main area where, sure enough, Quentin is at the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee, Ariadne at his feet.



“Hey. I didn’t wake you, did I?” Quentin says, looking up with a smile. But something about the way the shadows fall on his face reminds Eliot of his dream, reminds him of those eyes dark and furious but - empty. Because it wasn’t a bluff, Eliot realizes with a sick lurch. Quentin meant it when he’d said he didn’t care anymore.



“Q,” he says, voice shaky.



“What? El, what’s wrong?”



“I remember my hands around your throat, Q,” Eliot says. “I know it did that, I just saw it -”



“Oh. That,” Quentin says, ducking his head.



“Oh that? ” Eliot just manages to remember the others are still sleeping, the words coming out as a hiss rather than a scream. Cythera growls low and Ariadne’s tail droops.



“It was looking for pills. To overdose on, just to, to feel what that was like,” Quentin says, shrugging. “It threw me into the wall, telekinetically, and then… I threatened it, said I’d abandon it if it killed you. So it… threatened me back, with a little demonstration of how easily it could kill me.”



“Fucking hell, Q.” Eliot knows this, because he remembered it, but hearing Q describe it so blandly is another jolt of horror through his veins.



Quentin shrugs, and he won’t quite meet Eliot’s eyes when he says, “I had an idea that it wouldn’t kill me. It liked me, like I said, the way a kid likes a toy or something. I figured it wasn’t ready to give up its fun, and I was right.”



“Even so -”



“I told you. I’d do it again.”



And something in Eliot just - snaps. Because all he can see is Quentin sprawled on the ground, Ariadne shimmering gold like she was about to disintegrate, both of them so utterly, utterly still . And they’d woken up, but what if they hadn’t ? “I don’t care if you’d do it again, Q! You were going to stay in Blackspire too, you’re always ready to give yourself like you don’t even matter!”



“Was I supposed to let it kill you?” Quentin asks, the words underscored by a hiss from Ariadne. Cythera snarls in response as Eliot tries not to lose his temper completely.



“You sure as hell weren’t supposed to die trying to save me, what the fuck, Q? Do you think I’d want - for you to be the cost of -”



“That’s the whole problem! You weren’t here, and I had to decide, and I don’t regret it !”



“Do you think I wanted to come back to your grave?!” Eliot demands, the thought alone enough to make his stomach knot, his head spin. What would he have done if - how could he have borne it if -



“I don’t know what you want!” Quentin snaps right back, turning away to pace the room. “That’s half the fucking problem and that’s been half the fucking problem for a long time now! Damn it, Eliot! I wasn’t going to let you die, I was not fucking burying you again, and I didn’t care what I had to do, all right?”



“Bury -?” Oh. Actually, he probably should have realized that, shouldn’t he?



Quentin laughs, an awful rough sound. “You died, remember? You died first. And I buried you, like we buried Arielle. Only - alone. I didn’t, I couldn’t ask Teddy to come - that would have been wrong - I can’t do it again, El. I’ve seen you die too many times, in Fillory, the probability spells, during the heist. I’ll be honest with you, I told it I was too tired to care if it killed me and I wasn’t lying, but… I didn’t want it to kill me, at least I don’t remember wanting it, I just couldn’t let it kill you, whatever that meant. Like, like you couldn’t let me stay in Blackspire. You said you never would have let that happen, well, this was my god-killing bullet, so to speak.”



“Except it was your life , Q. I thought shooting the Monster meant we’d all be OK, it’s not the same thing. And not caring if you die is as dangerous as wanting to.”



“Goddamn it, Eliot, what do you want from me?!”



And what else can he say but - “You. I want you, alive and well and mine.” Eliot crosses the space between them, catching Quentin by the arm and pulling him into a kiss that is as much fear as love, holding on too tight like that will prove his point. Quentin freezes in his grip for a moment before pressing in closer, kissing Eliot back with a broken sound low in his throat. Eliot’s new glasses dig into the bridge of his nose but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about anything but pushing Quentin back against the counter, pinning him there, thinking not letting you out of my sight, never letting you go, when a loud bang breaks the moment.



Reluctantly, Eliot pulls away, finding a very unimpressed Kady scowling at them. “You two can fuck later - in your room, not my kitchen. Right now, I need all hands on deck for a spell.”



<><><>



Quentin’s sure there’s an explanation for the cooperative magic they’re using, but it kind of goes in one ear and out the other. Something to do with trapping Everett, because apparently he’s absorbed… not quite enough magic to make himself a god, but enough that it’s going to take a lot of power to hold him in place long enough to, well, kill him.



At least, Quentin assumes Kady and Alice plan to kill him. If they actually said so, he didn’t catch it. He focuses enough to learn the tuts for the spell and to know to wait for the signal, and then he promptly checks out again. He thinks this is entirely fair - he can barely be expected to think after Eliot basically pounced on him after telling him off, can he?



When the signal comes, he, Eliot, Julia, Margo, and Penny 23 all move their hands in the spell Kady gave them, once, twice, three times until the ambient burns out. He’s the one who gets the text from Alice that it worked, and he summons enough clarity of mind to tell the others, before he gets up without a word to anyone and leaves. He means to go to his room, but he turns left one door too soon and ends up in Eliot’s room.



Which, technically, is kind of his room these days anyway.



“Eliot just kissed you and you’re making the bed?” Ariadne demands. Quentin glances up with the covers in hand.



“Well, someone has -”



“No they don’t, and I think your daemon has an excellent point, Q.” Eliot is leaning against the doorframe, but even as Quentin watches he pushes himself off, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. Cythera walks right by him, over to Quentin, and twines once round his legs before going to curl around Ariadne.



The touch of a daemon, an affectionate touch, leaves Quentin’s skin sparking all over, and he can’t manage to do anything but watch Eliot approach. Eliot sits on the edge of the bed, hands curving round Quentin’s hips as he guides him to stand between his legs. “So I had a speech planned out, but you didn’t let me give it before.”



“You’d just woken up, it didn’t seem -”



“Hush, sweetheart. Let me speak.” And that endearment, so familiar from their days in Fillory, shuts Quentin up at once. He looks down at Eliot, who’s smiling up at him in a way that reminds Quentin of how he looked at him during the coronation and, oh - Had he been so blind, really? Well, yes, because it had taken Quentin until Eliot, presumed dead until then, had walked into the room with his wife and… not-daughter behind him to realize -



“So. I had a speech prepared, as I said, but now I don’t remember it because you just couldn’t let me say it. And I get that, Q, I really do. I know I hurt you, I knew exactly how to do it. And I’m sorry. I was afraid, and when I’m afraid I run away.”



“Afraid of what? El -” Oh, whoops, he’s supposed to be quiet.



“You just can’t help it, can you?” But Eliot’s smile is fond as much as exasperated. “What we had at the Mosaic was… kind of perfect, you know? And I didn’t think we could manage it in the real world, and I didn’t want to try, when if it went wrong I’d probably lose you completely. But then I almost did lose you, and you almost lost me, and I almost lost you again, and that’s not - it’s not OK, Q. No more of that, huh?”



Quentin can feel a smile spreading across his own face. “I think I can manage that. But, El, I wasn’t asking for the same - just to try, because we knew - but you said, not when we have a choice.”



“I meant you, more than me. I’d choose you, I’ve known for years. But Alice, here, and Arielle there… and I know, I pushed you toward Arielle after shutting you down when you wanted to talk about us. Again, scared, but you still went, and so I… I told myself it happened because it was just us there, and it wasn’t really you. That you were straight, and it was just… because of the circumstances.” Eliot shrugs. “But I’m done being scared, or pushing you away. I love you, Quentin Coldwater, and I’m not letting you go again.”



For a moment, Quentin can’t talk. He’s not sure he can breathe, actually. “So,” he finally begins, his voice wavering, and he’d be embarrassed but Eliot is still giving him that impossibly fond look. “So, um, there’s this, there’s a thing, there’s, uh - a guy can get caught up in, in magic, and finally being interested in someone who seems to feel the same way, and that was real, it was a true thing, but you can miss other true things. Like, you think you have this friend only, only you’re, um, you look for him. In every room, even when you know he won’t be there, and when he is there, you know where he’s at, you just feel it. Also, sidebar, I’ve never been straight, OK, first kiss and first time were both with the debate captain at my high school, his name was Daniel.”



That makes Eliot laugh, bright and quick, and he tries to reel Quentin in but no, no Quentin has a little more to clarify here. “I always looked for you. I always look, in every room, everywhere I go. Even when I was Brian I was looking, but I didn’t know who I was looking for. I always knew I did it, but I didn’t know why or what it meant until - and it wasn’t the Mosaic, ok, it was before that, it was - we thought you were probably dead, and then you were there, and remember I practically tackled you?”



Now Eliot’s grinning outright. “I think I do remember that, yeah.”



“Good. Great. Because that’s when I knew. And it wasn’t the Mosaic, our circumstances only made me brave enough to act on it, on being in love with you, and -”



This time, Quentin doesn’t dodge when Eliot pulls him in for a kiss, and he lets himself be drawn down to the bed - their bed, this is their room, later he’s going to move his things properly but right now he has better things to think about -



And later, much later, curled skin-to-skin under the blankets, Quentin runs a hand over Cythera’s head and Eliot carefully strokes down Ariadne’s spine, and it’s like that last missing piece for them both clicks into place. It’s not over, there’s always another disaster on the horizon, even if they can’t see it today.



But they have each other. And neither of them is going to let go this time.