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Oh, And I'm Still A Far Cry From Gone

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(i) grab my feet and hold me tight

It’s… strange, to be alone with Alice again, for the first time since returning from Brakebills South to find out things have gotten that much worse. Fuck. Julia. Oh God. She’s been taken over again, her control stolen again, and it’s his fault, it’s his fault because if he’d just gone with the plan to banish the Monster, or Penny 23’s plan to destroy the last stone before the Monster could take it.

But Eliot. It would have meant killing Eliot, or losing Eliot to the Monster forever. He couldn’t. He couldn’t . And now he’s lost them both and - oh God. He can’t think about this, he has to think about something else or he will break down and then he won’t be any good to anyone.

Ariadne and Perdix are sitting across from each other, Perdix in the form of a wildcat of some kind as well so they’re a pair of cats in a staring contest. With Perdix’s fur all gold now, Quentin can’t identify the species, though he’s pretty sure it’s not an Asian golden cat like Ariadne. Perdix has been unsettled since Quentin brought Alice back, and as far as Quentin knows he never returns to his old settled horse form unless absolutely necessary. He wonders if Perdix will ever resettle, he wonders how Alice feels about it.

“So, Margo and Josh, huh?” he says, to break the awkward silence. Quentin supposes that he’s… happy for Margo, and for Josh. If they can make it work, good for them. But it’s a distant feeling. Everything is distant except grief and fear and, and a renewed warmth when he looks at Alice.

“Yeah,” Alice says, and Quentin thinks of the looks they’d exchanged while Margo had gone off on her realization of feelings rant. Thinks of how, for a moment, it had felt like old times when they could communicate silently, before everything had gone to shit. And it aches, because he misses that. He misses Alice, and it’s like he hadn’t even realized it until now.

He clears his throat, but despite all attempts, his voice wavers when he starts to speak. “Okay, here's my thing. Um, I didn't think that I could ever trust you again. And now…”

"‘And now’?” The look in her eyes is so hopeful, and Quentin doesn’t know what to do with that except be honest, so he presses on.

“I find myself wanting to.” Quentin groans, trying to find the words, trying to explain. It’s hard, though, to explain what he doesn’t fully understand himself. Still, he gives it his best shot. “When we first met I was clinging onto some naive, idealistic notions of what the world should be. How people should be. And I think that I have realized, if I just throw away all that childish bullshit, I can forgive people.”

He sighs, the sound halfway to a quiet sob. “I can forgive people. For not living up to my stupid expectations.”

“Like yourself?” Alice asks, watching him carefully. Perdix is moving closer to Ariadne, also carefully, like he’s not sure if she’ll welcome him or swipe at him. Truthfully. Quentin isn’t sure what his daemon will do either, but he watches them and -

He doesn’t know what he wants, but he watches their daemons and he realizes, he’d been about to ask Alice to try again. She’s the only one who’s noticed at all that he’s sinking, she’d come to save his life, and he remembers past Alice telling him he’s the best thing in her life. He thinks of that moment of understanding, when he’d fixed that mug.

But he watches their daemons and how wary they are. And his eyes fall on Cythera, sitting motionless by the couch. The Monster had split Eliot’s daemon away, cutting the distance tie so it didn’t have to cart around Cythera who, because of the possession, is practically catatonic. It had left her in Quentin’s care, one more little horror to go with the touch of its stolen hands on Quentin’s hair, his skin, his daemon.

And yet… Quentin thinks about how determinedly Ariadne has curled up with Cythera every day, trying to wake her up, or soothe her at least. How she won’t even touch Perdix now, both of them tense and guarded like alley cats who might spring into a fight as easily as play together. And it occurs to him, that one of the childish things would be clinging to him and Alice, how they were, when it’s -

When they aren’t those people. It would be childish, and it would be cruel. And he can’t do that. He loves her, but he’s not in love with her, and if he was the best thing to happen to her once he’s already been a horrible option for that. He can’t be an even worse one by lying to her and himself both, can’t fail yet another person he loves.

“Like myself, like you, like all of us frankly because there is not a single member of our fucked up little questing team that hasn’t blown everything to hell at least once. And… I want you in my life, Alice. Not - you were the one who said once, it wasn’t the cheating you were mad about so much as losing our friendship. And I want that back, but I can’t - I can’t offer more, not anymore.”

Alice takes a deep breath, and Perdix abruptly shifts into a bird, Quentin’s not sure what kind, and flies over to Alice’s lap where he shifts again to a lemur that she wraps her arms around. “Because you want to trust me, but you can’t?”

Quentin shakes his head, and his throat is so tight his voice comes out strangled. “No. Because I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore, and I’m - I am , with someone else, who doesn’t want me, but that doesn’t turn it off and - fuck, Alice, I’m sorry, I’m just not. Not him anymore, not that guy you were suddenly with again, and that fucking timeshare spell was cruel to you and I -” He leans his head against the fridge, the coolness of the metal sinking into his skin, and he tries to breathe. Tries to remember how to.

“Don’t be sorry,” says Alice’s voice, closer than expected, and she hugs him, and that’s not like her, it surprises him, but for a moment he feels a little less cold, a little less adrift. Quentin holds on, hiding his face in her hair and trying not to cry, wishing he could cry. “Don’t be sorry for being honest, and anyway, I kind of knew - I heard you in the Brakebills library, and who knows better than me what you sound like when determined to save someone you love, against all odds? We’ll get them back, Q. I promise we will.”

Quentin doesn’t cry, he isn’t certain he remembers how, but he shakes silently apart as he holds on to Alice and she lets him, holds on in return and is just - just there. And, God, he’s so grateful for it and he feels so guilty for using her like this, all at once.

It’s almost the last quiet moment, and after that, Quentin has to yell at a plant, and he says “Shouldn’t the idea of Fillory be enough?” while thinking of the taste of plums on his tongue, Teddy’s voice in his ear and Arielle’s hair in the sun, and Eliot . Feeling the texture of the crayons he and Julia used to draw their map, his bed dipping as Margo sits down and confesses to playing Fillorian ambassador. He can’t speak of the memories, all tangled with fear and grief and confusion as they are, but he thinks them. A childhood, a start, a lifetime, he thinks of it all.

Isn’t the idea of Fillory enough.

“We work best as a team,” Alice says on the stairs at the Cottage, in one last quiet moment. And Quentin agrees, but when the time comes, when the moment arrives -

The Seam-mirror wants him to fix it. And so he does, a twitch of his fingers, hand behind his back. “Take her, do it now,” he tells Penny 23 and then Everett wants to know what he’s done, and Quentin looks him straight in the eye.

“Just a Minor Mending.” And he throws the bottle into the Seam.

He should run. He knows he should run. But - why should he run? The lights are beautiful, why would he run from them? He’s so tired, his feet feel like lead and he could just… stop… fighting…

“Quentin!” Ariadne screams his name like she did the first time he had a handful of pills and a bottle of whiskey to wash them down, when she clawed his hands until he put the whiskey back and flushed away the pills. “Quentin!”

And he remembers then, Margo and Alice and Julia and Eliot , he remembers that he loves them, he doesn’t want to leave them and he runs, he runs but the door is too far, the sparks are spinning through the air and burning him, and his legs are folding under him and -

- something catches him around the waist and lifts -

Darkness.

 

(ii) I know hindsight’s 20/20 but I still don’t understand

“So, you remember that when the moment comes, I said, ‘Do it.’ Do what he says, OK?”

“No, not OK. Vague as shit.”

Not OK. Penny had wanted to punch his dead-self in the face back when they’d had that conversation, and he wants to do it again now. What the hell did he set himself up for? “Take her, do it now,” says Coldwater, and Penny grabs Alice even as she fights him. He just does it and in that moment he doesn’t question it, his dead-self’s voice ringing in his ears.

“‘Do it.’ Do what he says, OK?”

And then there’s sparks flying in the air and Coldwater’s cat daemon is running for the door but he isn’t, and Everett’s eaten up by the sparks first but -

Alice is still struggling to get out of Penny’s grip as Coldwater finally snaps the fuck out of it and runs after his daemon. But he’s not going to be fast enough, that much is already clear even as his cat clears the doorway into safety. “Perdix!” Alice screams and her daemon flies up, something winged and getting bigger as he soars back into the room and picks Coldwater up , throwing him through the door before shrinking enough to follow him out.

Holy fucking shit.

Penny lets Alice go and she drops down to check on Coldwater, who’s clear of the room but not moving. Penny makes a dive for the door and slams it shut, but the sparks are already burning through, he can tell. “We gotta go!” he says even as he turns, and that’s when he realizes Coldwater won’t be moving anytime soon.

It looks like the magic ate partway through him wherever it landed, and while his daemon’s still there so they’re alive, she’s twitching like she’s having a seizure. “Oh shit,” Penny mutters, and scoops the idiot up and over his shoulder, Alice’s daemon turning to - a cougar, maybe, or a panther? - so he can carry the cat. His Theia flies ahead of them as they make a break for it, scouting just in case (like they should have done coming in, really) as they make their way back.

Through the mirror and immediately Penny travels them back to the Brakebills infirmary. “We need help here!” he says, and even as people come to take Coldwater off his hands Alice’s legs give out and he has to grab her. “Hey, what -”

“Perdix got burned, we didn’t notice, the adrenaline…” Alice blinks up at him, eyes wet and stunned. “He didn’t run, he promised he wouldn’t be stupid and then he didn’t run.”

Yep, Penny noticed that. He’s going to keep it to himself too, the others don’t need to know that shit. Coldwater’s been on the edge of a breakdown for weeks now, but Penny hadn’t expected it to come like this, he’d figured maybe he’d cry himself out or throw things at the wall. Something less… extreme than this, anyway. He feels suddenly guilty about that as they wheel the other man and his cat away and someone else comes to take Alice and Perdix for treatment.

Then he turns to see a white-faced Julia, Julia who is human and furious with him for taking that choice away from her. “What happened?” Julia rasps, her Asterion flying in circles above their heads, and Penny realizes with a sick lurch that he has to tell her. He’s going to have to tell her, and Margo, and - fuck.

The guilt is still there, but he’s also pissed off. At himself, and Coldwater, and his dead-self for sticking the idea of listening in his head to begin with. He should have just dragged Alice and Coldwater both out somehow, and to hell with it. He should have grabbed the other bottle when Coldwater hesitated and flung it through himself. Something, anything, so that he didn’t have to tell Julia what’s happened, and know that she might be the worst one he’s got to face, but not the only one.

What the fuck had his dead-self been thinking, what had Coldwater been thinking? And what had he been thinking, to follow through?

 

(iii) the water’s high, you’re jumping into it, and letting go

The elevator doors open to reveal Penny, the translucent golden eagle on his shoulder marking him as the Penny Quentin first met, if he didn’t already know. “Hey, been a while. Welcome to the Underworld.”

“Oh, shit,” Quentin whispers, the numbness that’s been a constant companion for weeks starting to fade into - horror, actually, if he’s being honest.

Penny - and is it Quentin’s imagination or is he being weirdly nice? - ushers Quentin down a hallway and into an office. His office, presumably, and he makes hot chocolate which… OK, Quentin’s dead but there’s still hot chocolate, that’s unexpected. He sinks into a chair and curls his fingers around the warm cup, the feel of it enough to ground him just a little. Enough for it to sink in what happened in the Mirror World.

Oh fuck.

“What did I do?” He’s crying, when did that happen? He’d thought he’d forgotten how to cry.

“What do you think you did?” Penny sits across from him and for a moment, Quentin is distracted by how weird it is to see Penny of all people in a business suit, but the thought doesn’t linger. Not now.

“I don't know. It happened so fast.” Except he does know, doesn’t he? For a moment, he couldn’t remember a single reason why he would want to run, why he wouldn’t just let his own magic take him away in a shower of sparks. Then Ariadne had yelled his name, he’d seen Alice’s face and thought of Margo, of Julia, of Eliot, and -

And he’d run, but he’d been too late, hadn’t he? And now the tears won’t stop coming, in front of Penny of all people but he’s not mocking him, he’s just… waiting. Patiently. “This is the part where I can't lie, right? I mean, my whole life is - ”

“Revealed. But it only means anything if you reveal it to yourself.”

What does that even mean? Penny, now, sitting across from him, what does he know? Has he read Quentin’s entire book, learned more than Quentin’s too-loud mind ever told him? He doesn’t know how to feel about that, but he can’t change it, so…

“Okay,” he says, and the tears won’t stop but he almost doesn’t want to stop them now. “Um. Most of my life, I've been in and out of hospitals and. You know, just suicidal thoughts and notes. A lot of notes. I kept them in a shoebox buried in my closet. Planned attempts my daemon kept talking me out of, a couple half-assed attempts I made anyway, and meds, and therapy. And then, then I found Brakebills and all that went away. I - I thought, but…”

“But?” Still that not-Penny gentleness, still patient, softly prompting. God, this is fucking weird.

“Did I do something brave to save my friends or did I finally find a way to kill myself?” He finally says it. Was it bravery, fixing the mirror leading to the Seam, or was it some part of him, some part of that monster he once saw with his own face, on the Muntjac, some part of him finally winning out over Ariadne and over the parts of him that still want to live?

And Quentin doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what that moment of forgetting why he’d want to run means, doesn’t know what it means that he’s tired down to his bones and the idea of stopping, of rest, had been… Is it still suicide if you don’t mean to do it until the moment happens? They say people who survive jumping off bridges usually regret it on the way down, is that all his running after all was? A regret on the way down?

“OK,” Penny says, cutting into Quentin’s spiraling thoughts. “I can see we're going to need the deluxe package, which, it's OK.”

“Uh, hold on,” says a new voice, and Quentin suddenly realizes Penny never closed the office door, and now there’s a newcomer leaning against the doorframe. Like Penny, he’s in a Library-grey business suit, though his long curling black hair kind of kills the professional effect. Also like Penny, his daemon is at his side but translucent - a… clouded leopard, Quentin thinks.

Which is when he realizes Ariadne isn’t here. But, but Penny has his daemon, this new guy has his daemon, the shades he’d met when he and Julia went looking for hers had their daemons, that’s how they got Perdix back for Alice, where’s -

“Hello, Teagan,” Penny says. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yeah, you stole my client. Which, speaking of, you, Coldwater.” The man - Teagan? - turns to Quentin. He has very blue eyes, though that could be an effect of how monochrome this place is. “You didn’t drink any of that hot chocolate, did you?”

“No…” Until now, the too-sweet smell of it had actually turned his stomach, but even as he says that, suddenly it’s like the most tempting thing in the world. He lifts the cup closer to his mouth and doesn’t actually remember doing that.

“Great. Don’t. Put it down. Or, actually, let me.” Teagan snatches the cup from Quentin’s hands, putting it on the table, then turns to frown at Penny. “Really, Adiyodi, what’s this? How the hell did an In-Between wind up in the elevator for Secrets Taken to the Grave? Do you even have any secrets, Coldwater?”

Well, yes, Quentin thinks. His almost-attempts are a secret, no one ever found his shoebox full of suicide notes and Ariadne always talked him out of his attempts before he actually swallowed the pills or got up to the roof. Well, except for the times with the knife, but that had hurt enough even beginning to cut that he’d chickened out himself. And one time he'd been caught before he could make the first cut.

But he has other secrets too, secrets that aren’t… entirely about pain. Things that aren’t supposed to be secret, or at least he never wanted them to be, but since it turned out he’s the only one who feels them, that had seemed more respectful, even in the worst moments. He never quite told Alice even though he referenced it, even though she guessed, he’s never told anyone else at all, so it’s still - secret. Kind of.

He doesn’t say so, though, only asking, “What’s an In-Between? And where’s Ariadne?”

“Shit,” Penny mutters. “Look, the boss sent him here, he wants him moved on. Thought a familiar face would do the trick.”

“Really,” Teagan drawls, tapping his foot. His only foot, actually, because now that Quentin looks, the suit pants Teagan’s wearing cut off to reveal one shoe and one metal peg. He doesn’t think prosthetics ever look like that anymore, so maybe this ghost is older? “I thought Alecto told me of all the gods, the Lord of the Underworld is the least allowed to break his own rules.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes these things happen.”

“OK!” Quentin snaps, loud enough that both of them turn to him. “Can someone please explain what’s going on here?”

“I can do that,” Teagan says, flashing a bright smile that, though Quentin doesn’t know it, once got him onto a ship’s crew claiming to be an excellent cook when, frankly, he couldn’t boil an egg properly. Teagan’s daemon knows, though, and if felines could roll their eyes, she would absolutely be rolling hers. “You aren’t dead, Quentin Coldwater. Well, not yet, anyway.”

 

(iv) the moment stopped me cold and grabbed me like a thief

Margo doesn’t know Penny 23 that well. She hadn’t known their Penny all that well, comparatively speaking, much less the refugee from the timeline where Quentin went nuclear. And yet, somehow, she knows the second he walks into Eliot’s hospital room that she is not going to like what he has to say.

“The bottles are gone, and the god-wannabe is too, he showed up to stop us,” Penny 23 says, and his crowned eagle daemon circles above their heads, round and round as if her movement lets her human keep still. Talaus growls low in his throat and curls tighter around Cythera’s sleeping form. Margo’s grip on Eliot’s hand tightens too, as if she can protect him from the bad news that way, whatever it is, even though he can’t hear it right now.

“What aren’t you telling me?” she demands, sharp and cold like the High King she is, exile be damned. “Why are you here filling me in and not Q?” She’d expected it to be Quentin, Ariadne trotting at his heels, here to tell her it all went well, it’s over, before he settled in to wait for Eliot to wake up. He should be here, that boy loves Eliot as much as she does, in a different way, so where -?

Oh no. No. Not now. Not when everything is supposed to finally be all right.

“OK, 23, what the fuck happened?” she snaps.

“Everett showed up. He wanted the Monster Twins for his becoming a god scheme. He broke the mirror portal, so Coldwater… cast a minor mending spell to fix the thing, then he chucked in the bottle.”

Well, that sounds fine - oh. Wait. Fucking shit , Quentin cast in the Mirror World. Where magic goes fucking haywire, Jesus Christ. “Tell me you did not just let him die in there,” she says, voice low, Talaus growling softly. Fuck, what is she going to tell Eliot if - “Fucking tell me you didn’t!”

“He told me to get Alice out -”

Fuck what he said, tell me what -”

“He ran, but he wasn’t fast enough, OK?! His cat got out but he was behind her, so Alice’s daemon turned into… something, I don’t know what the fuck it was but it had wings and it grabbed him. He’s alive, but he’s hurt pretty badly, so I don’t know if he’s gonna pull through. But nobody let him do anything.”

There’s more to it. Margo knows it, she can feel it. But she isn’t sure she really wants to know, not least because she isn’t sure she wants Eliot to know, and she won’t be able to hide it. Because she’s still going to have to tell him, even if the bad news is… not irreversibly bad. “Get out,” she says, free hand pointing at the door. Penny 23 looks like he might say something, but instead he just sighs.

“Someone’ll keep you posted, I’m sure,” he says, and then he leaves, his daemon on his shoulder. Margo sinks back into her chair, loosening her grip on Eliot’s hand as her fingers are starting to cramp, and reaching for Talaus with the other. Her tiger comes over to her and the feel of his fur under her fingers is soothing as it always is, and yet…

“Goddamn it,” she whispers. “Tal, I don’t want to be the one to tell Eliot about this.” But they both know she wouldn’t let anyone else do it, so that hardly matters. And damn Quentin anyway, they’re all supposed to be fine now, why did he have to take yet another stupid risk? Why can’t they get it through his thick skull that no one wants him to sacrifice himself, except maybe him?

Oh. Oh that’s a bad thought. He wouldn’t, though, not now when things are finally improving… right?

Margo doesn’t sleep, that night. She probably wouldn’t have slept much anyway, because hospital chairs are damned uncomfortable, but she might have dozed a little. She might have been able to relax, because Eliot’s unconscious and he’ll be some time recovering, but he’s out of the woods and will recover. She can’t, though, because somewhere else in this hospital they’re trying to save her other idiot boy, and she can’t leave Eliot to check on Quentin - well, she could but she doesn't trust that her eye won't get stolen if she leaves it here to watch over Eliot. So she has to wait for someone to come to her.

She doesn’t sleep, but she drifts. Remembers how, at first, she’d thought it made sense that “Nigel” and “Brian” were missing, she’d thought oh, somehow they found each other and ran off because of course they fucking did . And then they were there, and - “Not Eliot,” Quentin had said, with shadows in his eyes. Margo had known, she’d known what the Monster put Quentin through, before and after he’d gotten his memories back. But she’d thought, Julia’s here, it’ll be fine, I have to go back to Fillory, El would understand and Q understands.

Julia had been interested in the story of Margo’s axes. Penny 23 had been interested, Kady had been interested. Even Alice had at least seemed curious. But Quentin, who was all about quests - Quentin had just watched her, Ariadne tucked against Cythera. Margo and Talaus hadn’t even been able to look at Cythera like that, catatonic and on a fucking leash so she didn’t walk into walls. She hadn’t seen it then, riding the wave of success and determination, she hadn’t seen the way it was like Quentin wasn’t with them, was drifting on the edges.

Margo thinks of Eliot telling her all about the first-year boy so star-struck by the sight of him he’d thought he was hallucinating, thinks of Cythera and Talaus bonding with Ariadne as easily and quickly as they had with each other. Eliot’s grin and Quentin’s startled smile, her own laughter as the three cats chased each other around the Brakebills lawn. She remembers Quentin kneeling so she could crown him, and how she’d wanted to shake him for volunteering to stay in Blackspire, so calmly determined and so unaware of how wrong it would be.

Margo remembers him, quiet in Brian’s buttondowns, paler than she’d ever seen him, even his hair darker like the brighter shades in it were fading out. God damn it, how the fuck did she miss this? He’d jumped over the couch to plead not to be sent to South with Alice and she’d seen his old awkward self, decided things were fine, and thought no more of it. And now, now he’s gone and - and if he dies, if she has to face losing her other best friend just when she thought everyone was safe, if she has to be the one to tell Eliot -

Fucking hell.

“OK,” Margo tells Talaus, who is watching her, who is thinking the same things she is. “We fucked up.”

“Apparently everyone fucked up,” he says, ears drooping.

Margo nods once, sharply. They did, but this is not the time for panic, this is the time to be ready to do what needs doing. “It’s not over yet, Tal. No way is it over yet.” She is not losing her boys - and if they lose Quentin, Eliot will be lost too. She is not. One way or another, they got that fucking parasite out of Eliot and if they need to break down the gates of Heaven or Hell for Q, well. She’s a fucking king, she’ll find a way.

Margo and Talaus are still waiting, barely talking to each other so that only the monitors Eliot’s hooked up to break the silence as the sky slowly lightens outside. The white-walled room is painted pink and gold by sunrise when someone knocks on the open door to announce their presence. Margo looks up to see Alice, who looks as exhausted as she feels, two coffees in hand. “How’s Eliot?” she asks quietly, giving Margo one of the coffees.

Margo smiles, faintly. “He’ll be fine. They did some magic on him once it came back, to back up the stitches. Lipson says she can’t heal him completely now she’s gone and stitched him up, not unless she takes ‘em out and she doesn’t want to risk that yet. He should wake up sometime today. How’s Quentin?”

She’s half expecting Alice to say he died. But Alice only sighs, holding her daemon close with her free arm - he’s a lemur of some kind right now. “They got him to survive the night, and they said that was the hardest part, they healed everything they could but… But he’s in a coma, it’s up to him now, they can’t do anything else.”

“Goddamn it,” Margo mutters.

Alice only nods, lips pressed tightly together.

Eliot wakes up only minutes after Alice leaves, when Margo is running on coffee and fumes. Cythera wakes up first, cuddling into Talaus’ side with an unhappy groan, and when Margo looks away from the daemons it’s to find Eliot’s eyes open and focused on her. “Hey, Bambi. How long was I out?”

“About a day, give or take. How are you feeling?”

“Like I was sliced open and stitched up. No magic, still?”

“Library fucking rationed the shit out of it, it was used up on a spell to contain the Parasite Twins. Lipson’s used some magic on you since it came back on, but not much, says she can’t.”

“Ah. Lovely.” For a moment Eliot’s eyelids droop and Margo hopes he’s going to go back to sleep, hopes that she won’t have to tell him yet. But then he blinks and focuses again, glancing around the room. “Where’s Q? He around? I’ve gotta talk to him.”

“He’s, look, baby, you’re still hurt, so I’m gonna need you to stay calm, OK?” Margo tries to keep her voice light, but even if she had succeeded, Eliot knows her too well to be fooled. Panic flashes in his eyes and Cythera sits up, tail lashing even as Talaus tries to soothe her.

“Margo. Where is he?”

And so she tells him. Because there’s nothing else for it. “He had to cast in the Mirror World. The magic went wild like it always does in there… He was hurt pretty badly, they got him through the night but they’re not. They’re not sure if he’ll wake up, El. I’m so sorry.”

Eliot stares at her, already-pale face gone bone white, eyes wide and almost unfocused. “He has to. I have to talk to him, Margo, he can’t just die on me now. He can’t do that.” Eliot sounds… lost, like a little boy, and it breaks her heart.

“El…”

“I want to see him.” And he doesn’t sound lost now, he sounds broken still but certain. Margo squeezes his hand.

“As soon as you can get up, OK? I swear, we’ll figure this out, but it won’t help anyone if you get worse.”

Eliot tries to argue, but it’s not long before the pain meds put him back to sleep and Margo is left to the quiet again.

 

(v) don’t think I don’t notice that our eyes never meet

With magic back on, it’s easy for them to heal Perdix’s burns. That almost feels wrong, that it should be so easy. After all these months of low levels, after Alice’s own knowledge of what those sparks mean…

Anyway, it’s the only easy thing, right now.

Alice waits with Julia through the long night, Perdix as a coyote sitting at her feet and watching Julia’s peregrine falcon steadily. Alice herself doesn’t look at Julia at all, she doesn’t trust herself to. Because she’s remembering all her brief glimpses of Quentin in the past year, she’s remembering things she’d never fully put together until now.

How he had barely seemed to care about his own life, when she’d come to save him. She’d thought, at the time, that his indifference had been because it was her, that his anger at her was so fierce that he couldn’t even bring himself to be grateful that she’d saved his life. She’d thought so until the moment in the park, everything happening so fast, the Monster rambling about fifty years and fruit - except it had been Eliot going on about what must have been something only he and Quentin understood. And for a moment Quentin had lit up, stunned and hopeful and alive in a way he hadn’t been the whole time they’d been working with the stone.

But he’d been locked down again by the time he sent her away, and when she next saw him it had been even worse.

“I hate air right now,” she remembers him saying, what seems like a lifetime ago. She remembers how afraid she’d been for him, afraid that the emotion bottles would set off a spiral - before the fiasco of what they had actually set off. She remembers how she’d known just how to torment him as a Niffin, remembers his expression when shadeless Julia threw him to Reynard - she hadn’t cared then, but the memories are sharp and looking at all of it now…

“It’s a monster with his face and eyes,” Quentin had said, with a broken look in his eyes she hadn’t realized she recognized from those memories until now, sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair and staring at the white wall across from her. Alice stares at the wall like it holds the answers to everything, while Julia stares at her hands as if they hold the same, and Alice thinks. It’s what she’s always done best, or worst, think and question and puzzle out.

What would it do to someone already fighting against a voice in his head telling him not to live, to be faced three times running with a twisted version of someone he loves, that takes pleasure in hurting him one way or another? Every time Alice has seen Quentin since this all started he’s been pale and quiet and tired, and that’s not exactly a new look but it had been worse than that.

She’s never seen him so blank before, like running on autopilot is the only way he can keep going. Even as a Niffin, she’d never seen that.

“I have to call his mom,” Julia says after the doctor’s come and gone, with the news that Quentin is alive but in a coma, and there’s nothing else they can do. Up to him, the doctor said, and all Alice can think of is that awful moment when Quentin just stood there, the sparks flying around him, before Ariadne’s scream got him moving.

She remembers how she used to think the lights were pretty , and thinks she might be sick. “He doesn’t even like his mother,” she says, voice hoarse.

“I know. But she’ll have to know if he - and it’s better to tell her now. It’s not like she’d bother to show up even if she could get in, but it’s… necessary.” And with that Julia walks away, cell phone in hand like some kind of defense, and Alice thinks she gets it. Calling Mrs. Coldwater - or, no, Quentin said once that she goes by her maiden name, so it’d be Ms. Makepeace - is something to do, and so Julia will do it. Alice understands that all too well.

In search of something to do, she goes for coffee, and stops by Eliot’s room to update Margo. In search of something to do, she sends Penny 23 to go fill Kady in on what happened, find out how things are going on her end. And then there’s nothing else to do, and Julia isn’t back for some reason, so Alice takes a deep breath and goes into Quentin’s room, Perdix on her shoulder as a wren.

Q and Ariadne shouldn’t be alone. If they had been less alone, this wouldn’t have happened.

Mostly, Quentin looks asleep. Except that Alice has seen him sleep, and he never sleeps like that. On his back, yeah, but never with his arms at his sides, laid out neatly like he’s - No, Q sprawls in his sleep, or curls up on his side, he doesn’t look like this. But he’s not burned and bleeding anymore, she can see that some of the places on his arms will scar and there’s a vicious red scar on the side of his neck, but mostly -

“Well, they did say they healed the physical damage,” Perdix says in her ear, before flying off her shoulder and going to Ariadne’s side as an ocelot.

Alice sits with Quentin for a while, as the sunlight creeps into the room and makes her have to pull the shades against it when it gets in her eyes. “When you wake up, I’m going to kick your ass,” she tells him, biting her lip. She’s not going to cry, because he’ll be fine. He did run, in the end, that has to mean something, doesn’t it? “You promised me you wouldn’t be stupid, Q. We were supposed to do this as a team. I think you need a reminder of what that word means. I just got - we just became friends again, this is not the time for you to leave, all right?”

The doctor comes in to do some kind of test and asks Alice to step out, so she does. The corridor is empty and she leans against the wall, remembering Q in the loft kitchen, shaking to pieces in her arms and not even crying. She ought to have seen it then, she thinks, should have realized just how far out on the edge he was, but - She’d known it was bad anyway, that’s why she hugged him, she’d wanted to remind him that someone still cared, she’d wanted to help . Because he’d been her first real friend once, and he’d asked to find that again, and she’d wanted to. She wants to.

Alice looks up to see Julia coming down the hallway, and suddenly she’s furious. “This should never have happened, it should never have gotten this bad,” she says, hands curling into fists.

Julia stops in the middle of the hallway. “What are you talking about? Penny said he wasn’t fast enough, that it was an accident.”

“Do you really believe that, Julia? 23 would say whatever he thought would make it easier for you.” It’s not entirely fair, Alice knows this. But she doesn’t care. If she had seen that something was wrong when she barely saw Q and he didn’t trust her, even if she hadn’t fully understood how bad it was, then Julia, Julia who’s known Q all his life, Julia who’s been with him for all this mess, how did she miss it?

“Alice, what are you -” But Julia’s falcon shrieks and takes to the air like he already knows, and that only makes Alice angrier because if the daemon knew, even if his human didn’t, why didn’t he say something?!

“He’s a mess! He’s been a mess since I showed up knowing the Monster was going to kill him, that thing fucking broke him and you were there all this time and didn’t see it? How could you not see it?”

Julia glares at her. “Say what you mean, Alice, or back off!”

“He didn’t run!” Alice yells, her voice cracking on the words. She thinks she might be crying, she knows she doesn’t care. “He didn’t run till Ariadne yelled at him, that’s why he wasn’t fast enough, why do you think Perdix had to go get him? It wasn’t an accident, it was a fucking suicide attempt !”

At first, Julia’s horrified face seems to be in reaction to Alice, but then her eyes shift to something further down the hall. Alice whirls around to see Margo supporting a barely-upright Eliot, and from the stricken looks on their faces, they heard everything she just said. Alice swallows hard, lifting her chin. She’s not sorry. They had to know.

“You’re sure?” Margo demands, voice tight. “Why would he do that now? He panicked, maybe, but that’s not the same, you could be reading into it.”

But Alice knows what she knows. Margo might deny it, maybe Julia will too. But Alice knows. And she finds her gaze seeking Eliot, and from the devastation in his eyes, she can see he knows she’s right. They both know.

But what good is the knowing now, when it’s too late to stop the consequences?

 

(vi) all I really need is honesty

“Uh… I’m not dead?” Quentin asks, startled, then turns to look at Penny, who looks… very uncomfortable, his daemon shifting from foot to foot on her perch. “Penny, what the fuck, you couldn’t have told me that?”

“Actually, no, I couldn’t,” Penny says, “because I’m supposed to get you to move on quickly.”

“He’s supposed to have a choice, and to know what all the options are,” Teagan points out.

Quentin is confused and about to get angry at someone, when he glances back to Penny’s daemon and sees her on the ground with Teagan’s, the two of them whispering together. He looks back at Penny, whose face is - too impassive, actually, and at Teagan, who winks.

Look, the boss sent him here, he wants him to move on, Penny said. Penny also left the door open, and his eagle looks very conspiratorial with the clouded leopard right now. Quentin’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but he’s not stupid. He’s been set up, he thinks, but he also thinks it might be in a way meant to help him, so probably he shouldn’t complain.

Not yet, anyway.

“So why am I here, if I’m not dead?” he asks. “You said I was an In-Between, um, Teagan?”

“Sean. Sean Teagan, and yes. Tell me, Coldwater, have you ever heard about coma patients who’ve been treated as completely as possible, and the doctors tell their loved ones there’s nothing else to be done, it’s up to the person now?”

“Sure, in TV shows and things, never had a reason to hear it in the real world.”

Sean Teagan nods. “Well, it’s a real thing, and it happens to be your situation at this time. The magic gone wrong ate away at you, physically, but also at your life force. The healers at Brakebills were able to repair the physical damage now that magic is properly available again, but the damage to your life force is something only you can heal, yourself.”

Quentin draws his legs up to his chest, feet braced on the edge of the seat, considering this. He twitches his fingers, wishing he had a coin, a card, a pencil, anything to keep his fingers busy. He wishes Ariadne was here. “Why isn’t Ariadne with me?”

“If your daemon’s in the Underworld, you’re dead,” Penny says. “That’s why, even though the myth about Orpheus is true, and sometimes Hades will let someone try and bring back a dead loved one, it almost never works. Most people can’t tolerate leaving their daemon Above, it’s even more painful than the standard split ritual. Yours isn’t here because you’re not dead yet. But since your spirit is here and your body’s up there, you’re not split.”

“So if I choose to die, then Ariadne will join me?”

“Maybe not immediately,” Teagan says, leaning casually against the wall. “Your choice to die doesn’t mean your heart stops on command. But in a week or two, the doctors will start talking about… what’s that phrase they use now?” he asks, glancing toward Penny.

“Pulling the plug,” Penny says.

“Oh yes, right. Pulling the plug. They’ll talk about that. Eventually, whoever makes those choices for you will have to make them.”

Julia. Quentin made Julia his medical proxy after finding out that his dad died, in one brief moment of practical thinking, because he really didn’t want to trust his mother with that decision. But that means… Fuck, she’s going to be furious at him for leaving her with that choice. Assuming she’s all right, she said she was but she’d looked sick, he’s not sure, and - Oh. Wait, he hasn’t asked, he doesn’t know what -

“Are the others all right? Did, did everyone else make it?” he asks Penny in a sudden rush, because how had he not - Alice and 23 might have been hurt by his magic, and oh God, the last he saw of Eliot he was bleeding out, he’d repressed that to keep going but -

“I wondered when the shock would fade enough for you to ask. Yeah, they’re all alive, they’re all gonna be OK. Whatever you decide, they pull through.”

Well, obviously. Quentin is hardly essential to any of them, he’d never expect his death to be more than just another loss, painful maybe but not crushing. But they’re all right. He won’t be facing any of them down here anytime soon, which is more important. “Good, that’s good.”

“And you’ll see them again, whatever you decide,” Penny adds.

“I thought you were in favor of me moving on?”

“Well… with Teagan here, the rules are back on, no one can stop that now. So it’s your choice, Coldwater. But either way, you don’t lose them forever. Of course, if you stay, you can see your dad again, or your wife and son.”

“Or, if you go back now, you’ll go back knowing you will see them, one day, after a full life Above,” Teagan points out. “I tell you what, Coldwater, why don’t you and I discuss your options in my office, leave Penny to his paperwork. I hear you’ve got someone else coming down the shaft, Adiyodi.”

Quentin, whose breath had caught in his throat at the mention of Arielle and Teddy, gets to his feet almost mechanically. He follows Teagan out, but so does Penny, the three of them going down a corridor together until Penny turns left toward the elevator, where the doors have just opened to reveal an entirely unfamiliar man.

“Well, time to go,” Teagan says brightly, taking Quentin by the arm and steering him to the right, very firmly for a man with only one real leg. Maybe being dead makes that easier?

 

(vii) and I don’t know how I can do without

It turns out, the way to get a double hospital room with someone is to be caught sneaking out of one’s own room three times in the middle of the night to go to said other person’s room. Eliot is of the opinion that it all would have been much easier if Lipson had just done it when he asked. Politely, like a decent person even, and yet she’d said no, so he’d had to be difficult.

“I don’t think this is going to be conducive to your recovery,” Lipson says sternly, even as she sees him settled in the window bed of the room where Quentin had, until now, been put alone. “You need to focus on yourself, not worry about someone you can’t help.”

“I’d worry either way,” Eliot says evenly. “But I can look to the right and see him , here. So I’ll worry a little less.”

This is, technically, the truth. Because in the same room, Eliot doesn’t have to wait and worry that the next person at his door will be someone telling him that Quentin won’t be waking up. Cythera can curl around Ariadne, nuzzling her and grooming her fur in hopes that wherever she is, she can feel it. Eliot can look over and see Quentin, just as he’d said. A Quentin far too still, lying in a way he never does when he’s actually sleeping, but there and alive.

But at the same time, he looks over and sees a Quentin almost still as death, a burn scar on his neck, probably others where Eliot can’t see them, and, as Eliot finds when he stumbles out of his bed to sit next to Quentin’s, sunburst scars like something exploded on his palms. He wonders if Quentin will need to do hand exercises to keep a full range of movement. He wonders what Quentin will say if he can’t do his card tricks anymore, or has trouble with tuts.

He wonders if Quentin will wake up at all, to say anything.

Mostly, Eliot keeps to his bed, because Margo is usually there and he doesn’t want to worry her. She brings a laptop, he’s not sure whose it is, and sits on the side of his bed so they can start catching up on the shows they’ve missed, what with Fillory and possessions and quests. Margo always stops by Quentin’s bed on the way out and squeezes his hand, Talaus always nuzzles the top of Ariadne’s head, and Eliot swallows back questions because he knows -

Margo was in Fillory most of the time. She wasn’t there to see the signs, until the end.

Eliot drifts more often than not, still on a high dose of painkillers. He falls asleep to the steady beeping of Quentin’s heart monitor, and dreams of Quentin’s pulse against his lips, in their bed in Fillory. He wakes, each time, in light or shadow, to the sight of Cythera curled round Ariadne in the daemon nest, and Ariadne never moves. There are things Eliot needs to say to Quentin but he won’t say them now. Saying them now feels like admitting that he will never get to say them where Quentin can hear him.

So he says nothing, but when it’s just them in the room he stares at Quentin and wills him to wake up. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t seem to make things worse either.

He pretends to be asleep when Julia visits, unless Margo is there and they’re keeping themselves busy. He can’t look at Julia without wanting to scream at her, and Quentin wouldn’t want him to do that. So he bites his tongue and lies as still as Quentin is, pretending to sleep. Julia talks to Quentin about how she’s helping Kady with the hedge witches, about things she’s seen on Facebook regarding the people they knew in high school.

There’s going to be a summer reunion at the Jersey Shore, all years, maybe they should go?

Are you being fucking stupid right now, Eliot wants to say, but he doesn’t.

This sort of thing is habit forming, so when Eliot hears footsteps coming down the hall, he rolls carefully onto his back and closes his eyes. But the voice he hears isn’t Julia’s. “Hey, Q,” Alice whispers, and Eliot hears the chair move as she sits down.

“If you’re whispering on my account, I’m awake,” Eliot says, opening his eyes and reaching to the side so that he can raise the bed. Alice looks like she hasn’t been sleeping that well, shadows under her eyes and her hair messy. Quite a feat, for someone with hair that straight.

“Hi, Eliot. How are you feeling?”

“Like hell, but supposedly I’m improving. Can’t give me the good drugs, thanks to the Monster experimenting, unfortunately.”

“Good, except for the meds part,” Alice says with a faint awkward smile. Eliot does his best to return it, but it feels more like a grimace. An awkward silence falls, broken only by Quentin’s heart monitor and the soft rustlings of the daemons moving about. Cythera is tucked around Ariadne but she’s moving her head to watch Alice’s Perdix, prowling the room as a…

“What is he today? Can’t tell with the gold.”

“A jaguar,” Alice says. “He likes to be a big cat when he’s around other cats.” A pause, and then - “If you want to ask me something, you can go ahead and ask.”

Eliot takes a breath, looking at her sitting there holding one of Q’s hands. There are a few questions he wants to ask, but the one this particular view gives him is - it’s not important. Well, it is, but it’s so secondary. Losing Q to Alice, again, will fucking hurt. But losing him completely… Even the thought is almost too heavy to breathe around. “What makes you so sure he tried to kill himself? Maybe Margo’s right, maybe he panicked?”

Alice looks up at him then, a shadow in her eyes. “No, that wasn’t it. You didn’t hear the way Ariadne screamed for him. They say - I did research on it once - daemons are almost always against it, when their human tries to commit suicide. It’s why there are more known attempts than successes. The daemons try to stop it. Almost always. The way she screamed…”

It only happened once, in Fillory, before Arielle, before Teddy. Eliot remembers hearing the whispered argument between Q and Ariadne, remembers the glint of the knife in Quentin’s hand. Remembers running over to them, knocking the blade away and pulling Quentin in against him. “Don’t. Don’t you dare. You come to me, you tell me if it gets bad, you don’t do this, Q.”

“OK, El. I - I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just don’t leave.”

“Is that all?” Eliot asks, and he’s proud of how even his voice is. His hands are shaking but they’re hidden by his blankets so that doesn’t matter. Alice shakes her head, her own hands twisting in her lap.

“I don’t know everything. I wasn’t here, no one wanted me around. But I came back because I had Q’s book, and the Monster was going to kill him. The day you broke out, um, we were about to do a ritual to banish the Monster back to Blackspire. If I hadn’t gotten involved, it would have taken two more days, the Monster would have caught Quentin, and slit his throat for the betrayal. I didn’t read much more than that but it - it liked him, I know that from what little I did read. And I know how much I hurt him as a Niffin, I know how much of that was because it was my face he had to see. I can’t imagine it was much different.”

“He was in love with you,” Eliot says, trying for dismissive and failing, and now Alice is glaring at him.

“Oh, like he isn’t with you. I’m not blind, or stupid. He always looked your way, even when he was looking at me too. Right from the beginning. He told me he’s in love with someone else, we’re friends again but he told me he can’t offer more, he didn’t say who because he said the person didn’t want him , but I saw enough of him trying to save you,” Alice says, her voice hard as her glare. “I know who he meant. And after he told me that, he stood there shaking against the damn refrigerator, and so I hugged him, and he held onto me and just shook. And his eyes were blank, these whole last days, like no one was really home anymore.”

“Then why the fuck did you take him in there with you?” Eliot snaps. “The others apparently missed it completely, but if you -”

“I thought I could keep him safe! He promised we’d do whatever needed doing together, and I was stupid enough to believe him, all right? I thought I was overreacting, I hadn’t put it all together yet, and 23 is psychic! I was sure if Q was that badly off he’d notice, and say something, if only to make sure things went right!”

“Well, clearly you were wrong!”

“Obviously!”

And their daemons are both up and snarling at each other now, Perdix hulking and larger than Cythera but Cythera is never intimidated by that. Alice is on her feet, fists clenched, and Eliot can barely move but he’s shaking with fury, enough to rattle the bed. Then, he takes a breath and Alice lets one out, and they both deflate. “Obviously,” she says again, sounding exhausted. “But Eliot, if I’d understood how bad - I would never have - I didn’t know enough -”

“No. Neither do I. And that’s going to have to change.” Because when Quentin wakes up - and it will be when, whatever Eliot has to do to make sure of it - Eliot will need to know how bad things got. He’ll need to know because apparently when he’s gone no one thinks to even check on Quentin.

He has nightmares, and hazy memories. Quentin covered in blood, or flying back against a wall, or Eliot’s hands around his throat. Ariadne shaking under Eliot’s hands and Quentin holding himself far too still under the same. If those are real bits and pieces from the Monster, if - didn’t anyone think to ask about it?

“I don’t have his book anymore,” Alice says.

Before Eliot can reply, someone nudges the door open. “Oh, shit, sorry, I was looking for Julia, I’ll just -”

“No you won’t,” Eliot says flatly. “Get in here, 23, I think we need to talk.”

If he didn’t already know for obvious reasons, the look on Penny 23’s face would tell Eliot that he is going to absolutely hate what he hears.

 

(viii) but now it's January and the bulbs have all burned out

The worst part is, Julia hadn’t missed it. Not completely. She knows Q, she knows him better than anyone. And the guy who had hugged her tightly and asked where she’d been? He’d been worn out and already traumatized by the Monster, but he’d still been her Q.

The person she’d seen leave for Fogg’s trippy forest, and never seen awake again? Hadn’t been.

Julia had seen it, she’d known, but she hadn’t really understood what she was seeing. Because Q’s spirals had always been the kind of thing where he’d retreat, hide in his room with his Fillory books. She’d known he wasn’t himself, but his focus on saving Eliot had seemed almost comforting. It had also been increasingly a problem, as things escalated, because where Julia and Penny would have considered stopping the Monster even if it meant taking Eliot out with it, Quentin never budged on saving his friend. But Julia had thought it was a sign that Q wasn’t slipping, at least not in the worst way.

Because Quentin with a goal had never been a Quentin on the verge of giving up before.

It’s why she’d said what she did when they failed to protect Aengus’ stone, when they’d all taken a moment to stop for drinks, her and Alice and Penny and Kady, but Quentin stayed apart from them. The way he’d stared off into the middle distance, that had worried Julia. So she’d gone over to him and tried to draw him back, an old familiar habit.

“Look, once I finally get this goddess shit straight I need you. To help remind me what it's like to give a shit about other people. To want to risk your life to save them.”

She’d said it because it was true, and to give him a focus, something to do. Because when she’d said it wasn’t over and he’d said “Yes, it is,” that had sounded like a Quentin who might slip away, that had been a flash of the red flags Julia’s familiar with. So she’d tried to give him a new goal. It had worked before. But now Julia has to wonder, did she make it worse? Did she put more pressure on when Q was already drowning? What did she miss to change him this much, that she doesn’t even know what his spirals look like now?

“Maybe Alice overreacted,” she tells Asterion as they head back into the infirmary. “She said he didn’t run, OK, so I’m sure that’s true but maybe he stopped because the first spark hit him, and it was pain that made him stop. Or maybe he panicked like Margo said.”

Asterion, perched on her shoulder, preens her hair even as she walks, lifting his head to say, “Ariadne hasn’t been herself, but she’s been busy trying to take care of Eliot’s cheetah - Cythera, I think her name is.”

“Julia!”

Julia closes her eyes for a moment, as if that will stop Penny from coming toward her. She doesn’t know how to feel about him right now. Part of her wants to forgive him because he had, after all, saved her life. And he does care about her, it’s written all over his face when he looks at her. Except - she’s not always sure it’s her he sees, rather than his Julia returned to life. And he took her choice away. It doesn’t matter that she was in no state to make it, it wasn’t his to take.

All in all, she just… doesn’t want to deal with him right now. She still feels like hell and her best friend is lingering between life and death. She doesn’t have time for Penny. “Penny, I can’t do this now,” she says, trying to walk by him.

“Yeah, fine, I get that you’re still mad, but that’s not - it was why I was looking for you, but not now. If you’re going to see Coldwater, you might want to wait. I was just talking to Eliot, and Alice, but she left. Anyway, he, uh, he’s on the warpath, I don’t think you want to deal with him.”

Julia scowls. Penny seems honestly bothered, his crowned eagle shifting from foot to foot on his shoulder, but she doesn’t care. “I’m not afraid of Eliot. He can say whatever he wants.”

Pushing open the door, she finds Eliot awake in his bed, sitting up and reading - “Is that Q’s chart?” she asks as she settles in the chair next to Quentin’s bed. Someone tried to shave him, she notices absently, and they missed a spot. That always annoys him, he either needs to shave clean or have stubble, a missed patch drives him up a wall. He used to grumble about it when they were in high school and he was still getting the hang of a razor.

“Yep,” Eliot drawls, not looking at her. “Fascinating read, here.”

“You shouldn’t be looking at that, you’re not his medical proxy or his doctor,” Julia snaps, but she doesn’t move to take it from him either. He probably wants that, after all.

“Spousal privilege.” Now he does glance up, a cold little smile on his face. In the corner, his cheetah growls low, and Asterion flies off Julia’s shoulder, circling over their heads as she glares at Eliot.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Do you care, Julia? Because I have to say, I don’t really think you do.” He holds up the chart, waving it like a flag. “Forget magic nearly burning him up, dehydration, malnutrition, general exhaustion? Weren’t you around basically the whole fucking time? You didn’t notice any of this?”

“We were trying to deal with the homicidal manchild inhabiting your body because you got trigger happy!” Julia snaps. “And I was trying to figure out what the fuck I was, so I could get magic back and be more useful in fixing the mess we were in.”

“But you couldn’t take five minutes to check in? Tell me, I have these flashes of memory, what’s the story behind the time the Monster fucking choked him?”

“He was saving your life. It wanted to overdose for fun, and he threatened it. It was trying to make him back down, when he didn’t, it did. I tried to make him stop and think, but all he could think about was getting you back,” Julia says, and she isn’t sure if she’s trying to guilt trip Eliot or just telling the truth. “That’s not Q in the kind of spiral that led him to - his worst lows were always hiding away, do you think I wasn’t watching for that?”

“He doesn’t spiral like that anymore, he gets so focused on one thing that he forgets to function,” Eliot says, shaking his head.

“Well no one fucking told me that ! Apparently no one knows it but you! What - oh. That’s right,” she says, trying very hard not to be snide, and failing. “‘Spousal privilege’, and that fifty years thing when you broke out. Eliot, you can’t blame me for not knowing shit that no one but the two of you know! What was I supposed to do?”

Julia had asked Q about that, what “Peaches and plums, motherfucker,” had meant. But he’d only shaken his head, told her that it was a long story, but he promised he’d fill her in once things were quiet again. And she hadn’t pushed, because after that they were dealing with a mummy and then with the Monster deciding it wanted to test out being a junkie. And then there’d been Poppy, and trying to find Enyalius who turned out to be Aengus, and she just… she hadn’t found a chance to bring it up again.

“Notice that he wasn’t fucking eating or sleeping, maybe? Ask him?” Eliot says, scorn in every word. “Would that have really been so hard?”

“You think I didn’t try? What was I supposed to do when he insisted he was fine, slip him sleeping pills?”

“That thing put my hands all over him and all over Ariadne! It dragged him along while it killed people, I may not have more than flashes but I know that much, and you didn’t think maybe not seeing the usual signals wasn’t enough to decide ‘oh everything’s fine’?”

The cheetah unwinds herself from Ariadne, snarling, as Asterion shrieks for himself and Julia both, diving at the cheetah’s face. She yowls and Eliot jerks, hand going to where his stitches must be pulling. Then the cheetah’s claws are raking down Asterion’s back and its his turn to cry out, Julia’s turn to sway in her seat.

“Asterion, back off!” Julia calls, and her falcon flies away from the cheetah, onto the arm guard she wears for him. She strokes his head once, to soothe them both, then looks back at Eliot, whose cheetah is by the bed where he can gentle her into calm as well. “He is my best and oldest friend. If you think I don’t care about him, you can go fuck yourself. He knew he could come to me, and he didn’t, and the signals I know are apparently out of date. I did not just let him go , Eliot.”

She didn’t. That much is true. But it’s also true there were things she didn’t see, and maybe now it doesn’t even matter who fucked up what, and when. Maybe the most fucked up thing right now is the two of them attacking each other with Quentin silent and unmoving between them, their daemons fighting with Ariadne as utterly still as her human.

Whoever fucked up, whoever’s to blame, does it matter when there’s nothing they can fix, when all of them are just left waiting ?

 

(ix) it’s a lonely stretch of blacktop, out into the blue

Sean Teagan’s office isn’t all that different from Penny’s, though there’s no coffee/tea/hot chocolate/whatever set-up on the side table. Just some books. Also, paintings on the walls and knickknacks on the desk. One of the paintings is a dual frame or whatever it’s called, two scenes on one cliff. Two figures dueling, two figures just standing - one of the figures is the same both times, and might be Teagan himself actually. Quentin can’t quite tell.

“Some of my people need time, and some of them need distraction, so I let them have it if needed,” Teagan says when he spots Quentin looking around. “And painting is an afterlife hobby of mine.”

Quentin nods absently. “Arielle and Teddy are here?” he asks, because he really, really needs that confirmed.

“They are. That whole… life, it happened. Magic is strange, time is even more so, and you’re not exactly that Quentin, for all you have the memories, but you might as well be. Because, again, you have the memories. So, yes, your wife and son are here, and if you move on, you can spend time with them. But like I said, one day that’ll be true anyway, and it’s eternity, Quentin. You won’t lose out on time by going back, not really.”

Quentin thinks of Arielle, her head on his shoulder, her hands in his the day they got married. The way she looked holding Teddy, how she’d held out her hands to him when Teddy took his first steps. And he thinks of Teddy, growing from boy to man, with the Coldwater eyes and Arielle’s laughter -

And a smile he got from Eliot.

Quentin remembers - Eliot on their ladder calling out places to lay tiles, Eliot’s hands on him and how it had felt to curl together at night. How Teddy’s first word had been for him, and he’d been so utterly floored by it.

Terciel’s bright feathers under his palm and Ileana’s joy both in shifting and her final form are memories Quentin holds dear, but they are inextricably linked with the memory of Cythera sprawled across his lap like she was a housecat and not a cheetah. “You take care of each other, my boys, all three of you,” Arielle said, before the fever took her ability to speak.

She’d be furious if he came alone now, leaving Eliot behind. And what would he tell Teddy, Teddy who loved both his fathers, who daydreamed about meeting his aunts Margo and Julia? And his dad is apparently there too - fuck, his dad sees him, still only twenty-six and dead, he’s going to think Quentin killed himself, and Quentin’s not even sure he’s wrong.

But he misses them. He misses them so much, and surely they wouldn’t be mad forever, they’d understand if he just couldn’t go back, couldn’t carry on? Surely the others, everyone back in the living world, they’ll understand, eventually, if he just can’t go back?

“How the hell does anyone make a choice like this?” he asks Teagan, who shrugs.

“Well, not everyone is in your situation. A lot of people who end up In-Between do so by accident, or because someone hurt them. They don’t want to die at all, so they choose to go back pretty easily for the most part. And sometimes their bodies give out before they choose, which can be rough. Other times some of them have been struggling one way or another and that makes things more complicated regardless of how they got here. You… you’re one of the tricky ones.”

“Great,” Quentin says, very dryly. Teagan’s daemon laughs.

“Stop that, Irial, he’s allowed to be frustrated.”

“Kevay, remember?”

“Oh, who can keep it straight? Most of my letters still get addressed to John, after all.” Teagan seems to catch himself, smiling at Quentin. “Don’t mind us. The question of names is an old debate between my daemon and I, I’m afraid we fall back into it at the drop of a hat.”

Quentin thinks of being Brian, whose daemon was named Eirene, but he has a feeling the kind of identity debate Teagan’s talking about was more… self-inflicted than the one he’s experienced. He flexes his hands on his thighs, wishing Ariadne was here, sprawled on his lap even though she’s a tad bigger than is entirely comfortable. “Penny said they all survive, my friends. That they’ll be all right, whatever I decide.”

Teagan’s eyes are sharp. “Well, he didn’t lie to you. Everyone lives, except possibly you. And they get through it, if you don’t. Mostly, people do get through it, when they lose someone they love. Not always well, though, not always in ways that aren’t patently self-destructive. I knew a man once, against my better judgment I fell in love with a man once, who had lost his great love and his grief left him ready to burn the world. He claimed it was so something better might come of the ashes, but I was never sure that mattered as much as the comfort of rage.”

Quentin frowns. “Why are you telling me that?”

“Hmm? Oh, I suppose because my point is, survival isn’t always good news in itself, particularly when it means outliving someone. Not everyone finds a way to thrive again, after a loss, and I happen to know at least one of your people up there? Comes down here a good bit sooner if you don’t go back.”

Quentin’s stomach knots. “What - who -?”

“Now, that I’m not going to tell you. I will say, you’re not close to all of them, but you’re the one they orbit, in a way. Time and again you’re the one who draws the people in your circle back together. They don’t need you to carry on, but maybe they need you to not drift away entirely. Now, you also have to consider what you need. And if what you need, more than anything, is to stay here, well. It’s your right to choose that. They know that too, they’ll forgive it eventually. You see them again, whatever happens, Above or here.”

Sean Teagan, Quentin decides, is not a helpful man. “So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying, there’s no right answer, or at least I can’t tell you if there is one. Just your answer.”

Before Quentin can come up with an appropriately snide comment for that - he could use Eliot’s advice, or Margo’s, they’d both have cut this guy down to size already; Alice too, in the right mood - there’s a knock on a door Quentin had assumed led to a closet. “Ah. Someone else wants to talk to you. Someone who can actually make an argument where I can’t. Go on.”

Thoroughly confused now, Quentin gets up and opens the door. “What the fuck?” It’s his childhood bedroom. An exact replica, down to the smudges on the windows from the last time he’d seen it, when the Monster had trailed him upstairs and tapped its dirty fingers on the window glass.

And Quentin had woken up the next morning to find the Monster curled around him, the scent of blood and sugar everywhere, one wrong-familiar hand threaded through his hair and the other settled along Ariadne’s spine. “You should know that your friend Eliot is dead,” it had told Quentin the night before, and all night Quentin had dreamed of being old and digging a grave, Eliot’s body going cold in the chair behind him.

Fuck. He doesn’t want to think about that.

But this time, it isn’t a Monster wearing Eliot’s body standing by the window, watching as Quentin closes the door.

It’s himself.

Chapter Text

(x) this world keeps spinning faster

Back when things were simple, Alice and Quentin used to talk. In quiet moments before Brakebills South, during and even after when Quentin wanted things Alice couldn’t give and Alice couldn’t understand Quentin the way they both wished she could, there had still been quiet, happy moments. And they’d just talked. Those are the moments Alice remembers and misses above all, more than anything romantic. She likes kissing, she enjoys sex, but she thinks she misses being called “Vix” even more, misses the affection of a nickname like that despite the weirdness of how it came to be.

And most of all she misses having someone who understands what it is to exist on the edges of things.

One of the things they used to talk about were books. They’d both read Harry Potter because damn near everyone in their age group did. Alice only read them because Charlie insisted she should - she’d always kind of liked fantasy, but never modern fantasy, never any kind of magical world that reminded her of the life and family she knew. She liked medieval fantasy, where magic was used against dark evil things or at least that was what good people used it for.

But Charlie had said she’d be missing out if she didn’t read Harry Potter, so she had. She’d liked them OK. Quentin read them because his dad bought them, asking him to read something that wasn’t Fillory, and he’d had the same opinion Alice did. But he’d never heard of Tamora Pierce, or the Old Kingdom books by Garth Nix. They were going to read them together, before everything went to hell.

Coma patients might be able to hear what’s going on around them. No one’s sure one way or the other but it’s a theory. So Alice has the original Old Kingdom trilogy in her bag, and she thinks she might try reading aloud on her visit to Quentin. It can’t hurt, and it might help.

Alice hears the footsteps hurrying behind her but she assumes it’s a student late to class until - “Alice!”

“Sheila, what are you doing here?” Perdix shifts mid-step into a maned wolf like Kady’s daemon, and Alice doesn’t let herself wonder why his shifting into that makes them both feel suddenly more secure. Sheila’s marmot daemon fidgets a little where he clings to her shoulder, but Sheila only smiles at her.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“I have somewhere to be,” Alice says.

“It won’t take long, Alice. I know your friend is still hurt, and you want to sit with him. Zelda sent me to talk to you. She’s Acting Head of the Library right now but -”

“I don’t care. I don’t owe the Library anything,” Alice says with a sharp shake of her head, turning away. “Anyway, I’m still a fugitive from them, technically, so I -”

“Actually, you’re not. Since you and your friends came to our defense when the Monsters attacked, the fugitive status on all of you has been revoked. A thank-you gesture from Zelda.”

Seriously? And Zelda thinks that’s going to get them somewhere? The more practical part of Alice, the part that she thinks might still be more Niffin than human, knows they should just take what they can get. The others will probably agree, God knows they have enough problems and not being fugitives, even with magic back online, will get rid of one. These days, one less problem is the best they can hope for.

“We appreciate it, or I do, and the others will when they find out,” she says. “But that can’t be all or Zelda would have told me, or Kady, herself. So what is it, Sheila?”

“Zelda wants to make you the new Library Head.”

That stops Alice in her tracks. “Excuse me?”

“She thinks you can reform us. She thinks she was too close to Everett - she thought he was doing good, but clearly that wasn’t the case. Even so, he was her mentor, and Zelda thinks she might be too like him to see the problems that need fixing.”

“Yeah, yeah she is, but it’s not just her, Sheila. I told you the Library wasn’t the good guy, and I still believe that. Did you know one of our friends, Penny, he died because Zelda thought it was an apt punishment for breaking the rules?

They Zelda admitted it to Kady herself. The Underworld Library still owns his contract, being dead wasn’t enough to free him. And Everett - he got away with attacking hedges, with all kinds of bullshit, things the Librarians followed him in willingly, even if you didn’t know his full plan. Another of my friends is still in a coma because we had to stop Everett at the last second.”

“But Alice, that’s the whole point. You’ve seen what happened, you can reform -” Sheila stops taking as Perdix snarls, a low angry sound. Alice runs a hand over his golden head as if to soothe him, but really he’s only expressing her own opinions.

“No one can reform an organization that was happy to do the things it did, that isn’t how it works, Sheila. There’s way too much rot in there, I’m not interested. Go back to Zelda and tell her I said no. I have somewhere to be,” Alice repeats, and turns on her heel to walk to the infirmary.

Sheila doesn’t follow her, and Alice is relieved. She makes her way to Q’s room - well, Q’s and Eliot’s, though word is Eliot will be discharged soon - to find no one else in there but Quentin and Ariadne.

“Hey Q, wait till you hear this. Zelda wants me to run the Library, she sent Sheila to recruit me. I told her no, though. Pity it wasn’t Zelda and I’m not Kady - there might have been a broken nose with that no. I still like Sheila enough not to want to punch her, though.” She shakes her head at that thought, even as Perdix slips over to Ariadne in the form of a Scottish wildcat.

“So, um, remember you said once you wanted to read some of the books I told you about? I thought maybe I could read them out loud, keep you company? Don't think you're getting out of reading them properly when you wake up, though. You're going to, and I just might make you help with research too. Once you're up on your feet, after I get to hug you and then shake you for making me watch -”

Alice cuts herself off, deliberately opening the book. She’s on the third chapter of Sabriel when Eliot comes in, leaning heavily on his cane. Alice had been sitting with Quentin, Margo with Eliot, when he got that - or rather, when he’d gotten a standard hospital cane. He’d frowned down at it, glanced over at Quentin, and cast a spell to make it what it is now, black wood with a silver ram’s head. There’s a story there, and Alice remembers the look she’d exchanged with Margo at the time, both of them for once in absolute agreement that there was something they were missing. Margo probably asked, later; Alice figures it’s none of her business.

“I hate physical therapy,” Eliot says by way of greeting, sinking not onto his bed but the chair on Quentin’s other side. “Any change?”

“Not since I got here.” It’s - strangely easy between them, and Alice isn’t sure why. It’s not that it’s Quentin they’re both here for, because she’s heard that didn’t help with Julia one bit. Maybe it’s that they’re both pissed off it got this far when Eliot wasn’t here at all and Alice was banished just long enough not to see enough. She doesn’t know, but she’s glad of it. She… doesn’t get to just be easy with people, never has. So it’s new, just like working with Kady to unite the hedge witches is new, and - she likes it. She likes having a, a partner in crime, as it were, and she likes having someone to be easy with. Maybe it’ll even stick, when this is finally over.

“What’s with the book?”

Alice shrugs. “There’s only so much you can talk to a comatose man, but I thought - Lipson says he can maybe hear us, and back… before, we used to say we’d read these together. They were my favorites as a kid, like the Fillory books were Q’s. Although, um, if the Old Kingdom is real too we should probably not go there, because they have zombies.”

Eliot blinks, and then he laughs until his stitches pull and he yelps. After a moment, Alice laughs too, and it’s a relief, that they can . “No,” he says, shaking his head. “Zombies would not be on my bucket list. Although with our luck, who the fuck knows.”

“That’s exactly my point,” Alice agrees.

When she leaves the room, Perdix, his ears in most forms sharper than hers, flies up to her shoulder as a pygmy owl. “Eliot’s reading our book to him,” he says in her ear, and she’s surprised, but more surprised by how it doesn’t actually bother her. It would have, back in the day, but now? Well, what’s to be bothered about?

Her cell phone buzzes, and it’s a text from Kady. Got a meet-up with a contact, you in? BTW, any news?

Yeah, I’m in, and not yet, thanks for asking, Alice texts back. She glances back toward the room one last time, and then leaves with Perdix at her heels, an Arabian wolf now. She has to believe everything will be OK, that Quentin will wake up in his own time, and right now she’s being given a chance, and a choice, to do better than she has before now. She thinks he’d be the first one to tell her she ought to grab at that with both hands.

And maybe one day she’ll feel comfortable teasing Quentin about Eliot like old friends can get away with and he’ll tease her about - she thinks of dark eyes and darker curls, and shies away from the thought, not ready to look head-on at it and what it might mean. But the general concept is a nice thought, isn’t it?

 

(xi) spend some nights on the jagged side

“El, you need to get out for a little while. Come on.”

“No, I don’t.”

Margo closes her eyes for a moment. Eliot was technically discharged this morning, but the only sign that he’s no longer resident in the hospital room are that he’s dressed and the bed’s stripped. He’s in the chair beside Quentin’s bed, and he seems about ready to stay camped out there all day with an unresponsive Quentin and those books Alice left that she and El have been reading out loud from. It’s not good for him.

Also, Julia’s stopping by soon, according to Alice, and having her and Eliot alone in this room again? Bad idea. Margo’s not exactly sure how she ended up teaming up with Alice of all people to intervene about that, but it’s a thing that’s happening. She’s going with it, for now.

“Eliot.”

“I need to be here. There’s been enough of no one being here for him.” He doesn’t even look at her when he says it, voice cool and level, his eyes on Quentin’s face.

“He doesn’t know you’re here!” Margo snaps, pushing herself off from where she’d been leaning against the wall. She’s not sure if some of her anger is defensiveness or not, not sure if that comment was partly aimed at her. But it gets him to look at her, eyes flashing. She keeps talking, not letting him get a word in.

“Eliot - I understand you’re upset, and you’re angry. I’m not happy either! But whatever ‘it’s up to him’ means, if it’s something in Quentin’s subconscious or just his body or what, you can’t help him right now. You’re still not all the way healed yourself, and running yourself down waiting doesn’t help him, it doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help anyone!”

Eliot opens his mouth, about to say something vicious if she’s reading his expression right, when Cythera unwraps herself from Ariadne and comes over to nudge his hand. “All right, Margo,” she says before her human can speak. “What did you have in mind?”

“Nothing much, just grabbing something to eat and sitting outside, for once. The weather’s finally turning nice again.”

So that’s what they do, settle at one of the outside tables with sandwiches, Cythera and Talaus stretched out in the sun. But not touching. Margo keeps glancing toward their daemons, Eliot in the direction of the infirmary, as they try to hold an increasingly awkward conversation. Finally, Margo sets her soda down with a small thunk.

“OK. If you’re pissed at me, just lay it out, El, because I can’t do this brewing tension thing. I missed you too much to fuck around.”

“The only thing I ever did right was be your best friend,” she remembers, and that’s still true. But maybe what that means, here and now, is she has to keep doing it right. And doing it right… might have changed. She wants to ask him to come back to Fillory with her, when she looks into undoing her exile. But now isn’t the time for that. Now is the time to find out if, in his rage at Julia and his frustration with 23 and with Alice, if some of that bitterness is aimed at her.

Should it be? Margo doesn’t know, really. She knows she missed shit and she's definitely kicked herself for it, but the truth is, things had gone down fast enough that she’s not sure when she would have had time to not miss it. The truth is, Quentin could have come to her once she got here, or to Julia, and he didn’t. The truth is -

“I don’t know, Margo,” Eliot says, his voice soft. He reaches out a hand and Cythera gets up and comes to him, so that he can scratch gently between her ears. Talaus gets up too, and lays his head in Margo’s lap while they wait for Eliot to continue.

“You were in Fillory most of the time I was possessed. Well, once you got your memory back. And God knows I can’t - I don’t - hold that against you. I know what that responsibility is, I know it meant so much to you from the start. And I know the communications were down for a while.”

“The fucking bunnies. You know - when I was off with Fen on her quest - when I came back, they were finally back and it turned out Q had sent thirty, to tell me you were alive, then demand to know if I’d gotten them,” Margo says, fingers curling in Talaus’ ruff. “That’s how I knew to care about the axes in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “But Margo - you couldn’t have checked in? Taken one minute to ask him if he was all right? I know he’s an adult who should ask for help but - none of us are good at that, and he’s - he’s so stubborn about being fine even when that’s bullshit.”

Margo takes a sip of her soda, as much a delay as anything else. It’s the question she’s asked herself, after all, more than once. “I could have. Should have, clearly. I didn’t read the room right, El, that’s the only thing I can tell you. I was caught up in my axes and my plan, and then sidetracked with Josh and… and then 23 saved Julia and didn’t even look for you and I only noticed Q when he backed me up on insisting no plan that got you killed was acceptable. There was - so much shit, and it all happened so fast, Eliot. It wasn’t until 23 told me what happened that it all fell into place. Just like with you - when you were wrecked over Mike I could see it but I didn’t know how to help, and this time I couldn’t even see it. And I’m sorry for that.”

She’d thought it would feel worse, to admit those things. Instead… it’s almost a relief. She looks at Eliot, who is staring off into the middle distance. “Truth is,” he says quietly. “Julia was right. I’m the only one who really knew the signs, because Q - you didn’t really save us from the Mosaic, Bambi. Or… I don’t know, we have the memories. Fifty years, and Q had a wife, and we - all three of us had a kid because - Q and I… Ari was dead eight years, Teddy was twelve when we got married, but. We had the Mosaic, we had Teddy, we adapted but Q’s depression did too, how he spiraled changed.”

Eliot .” It’s less surprising than she might have expected, to hear this. Margo knows her boys. Recent events demonstrate gaps in her knowledge that are not acceptable, of course, but she’ll work on that once their floppy-haired boy is back on his feet. This, though, it explains some things she’d noticed, after getting the Time Key from Jane fucking Chatwin. Nothing huge, and of course there’d been too much shit for her to really dwell on it, but little things. Looks that seemed to say more than they should, a time or two she thought she saw one of them reaching for the other’s daemon, that kind of thing.

“He changed, and the changes stuck. I’m the only one who could have seen and I wasn’t there, and it’s my fault it was even happening -”

“No,” Margo says, and takes Eliot’s hand with her free one, her other hand still buried in her daemon’s fur. “ No , Eliot. This was not your fault. The gun - we were trying to save him. None of us knew what would come of it or we’d have found another way. No idea what, but we’d have found it, and dragged him out of there bound hand and foot if we had to. But -”

“We came back, and he wanted to do it for real. Him and me, for real, in our actual lives. I told him no,” Eliot cuts her off, looking away again. “I told him we were high on memory emotions and we wouldn’t pick each other if we had a choice. He’d had a wife, in Fillory, and ok I pushed him at Arielle but he went. And in our actual time there was Alice, and… And that’s all bullshit. Truth? I was scared to death. Scared we wouldn’t work and I’d lose him, scared we would work because I couldn’t imagine how that’d work… So I shot him down, and maybe that’s part of what set off Blackspire and all that came after. I don’t know. I just know that if he dies - Margo, if he dies, I -”

“Hey. That’s not gonna happen, and if it does, we storm the Underworld to get him back,” Margo says, tightening her hold on Eliot’s hand. “You hear me?”

“Yeah, I hear you, Margo,” Eliot says, and he looks at her again, something of his old self in his eyes. He even manages the faintest smile. Cythera slips away from his side and Talaus steps away from Margo, so that the two of them can rub their faces together and then settle in a patch of sun, leaning against each other.

Watching them, with Eliot’s hand in hers, Margo feels like she can breathe again.

Later, she convinces Eliot to go back to Kady’s place to get some rest in a decent bed. It’s not that hard once she shows him the portal set up between the penthouse and the Cottage. “Todd helped me out with it, if you can believe it, and it makes it easier on all of us. So you get some sleep, and I’ll sit with your boy for a bit, OK?”

She’s actually a little surprised when he agrees without protest - he really must be exhausted, but she suspects that it’s her promise to stay with Q for a while that lets him leave. Margo lets out a sigh of relief when he disappears into one of the bedrooms. The fact that it’s the room she knows Q was using, well… Hopefully it helps him sleep.

Margo turns to go back through the portal, and she hesitates, a little, as she walks through the Cottage. She misses this place sometimes, misses the relative simplicity of their lives before everything changed. But she also knows it’s something she can’t go back to, whatever she might sometimes wish. Maybe Fillory is beyond her reach, she doesn’t know. She’d like to think taking her crown back from Fen and Kaisa will be easy, but she can’t be sure of that.

After all, Margo doesn’t really know, not for certain, if Fen had fully committed to overthrowing her even without Margo’s own demand to do it. If she had…

But right now, Margo’s main problems are here on Earth. And a lot of them are concentrated on the reckless nerd boy in the infirmary. So she goes up to his room, a little surprised to find no one’s there. But a feather on Ariadne’s catbed suggests Julia was here earlier, so that makes sense. Talaus doesn’t curl around Ariadne the way Cythera does, but he does settle close to her, where he can keep an eye out. Margo drops into the chair by the bed, rubbing at her temples.

“You know, Coldwater, we were supposed to be in victory mode by now. But you just had to - you need to wake up, you got that?” She reaches over, brushing his hair out of his closed eyes. “Even short, your hair ends up a floppy mess, Q. I mean it, though, OK? It’ll fucking break Eliot if you don’t and - and it might just break me too. We need you, you and your stubborn belief, the way you care . About everyone but yourself. We’re gonna work on that, by the way. All you’ve gotta do is come back willing to listen, that’ll be enough to start.”

She doesn’t expect a response. But she can’t pretend she isn’t disappointed when nothing happens.

 

(xii) if I could write a letter to me

The last time Quentin had been faced with himself, it had been the exact copy conjured up by the depression key. This time, the other Quentin is younger, his hair longer, but there’s an ease to him that Quentin himself frankly envies. An ease he’s pretty sure he’s never had, one that Penny has too, and Sean Teagan, something he thinks must come from death.

And he wants it, suddenly. Looking at this shade, with a translucent Ariadne at his side, Quentin wants the peace he sees in his other-self’s eyes. Even more than the thought of Arielle and Teddy, this makes him almost turn to go back to Teagan and say “I’m done, let me move on.” But he doesn’t. He doesn’t because the moment he glances at the door, his other self grabs his wrist.

“Don’t you fucking dare. Not till you hear me out.”

Quentin blinks. “OK. Which one are you, anyway?”

Other-Quentin laughs, sharp and bitter, and that ease is still in his body language but his eyes are stormy, furious even. “Timeline 1. Jane’s first go-round. Back when I started all this shit by jumping in headfirst, trying to be a hero . I didn’t have a clue what it meant.”

Quentin remembers that. Wanting to be a hero, but realizing - he’d tried that thirty-nine times, and it hadn’t worked. He remembers telling Alice it should be her instead, and he’d been right. That’s the thing, he’d been right . He’d hated himself for saying it, because it had gotten her killed, but it had been true.

And really, if things hadn’t gone pear-shaped in other ways - Julia and her hunt for Reynard, and he gets it, he does, he’s over it but it’s what happened - maybe none of them would have died at all. There’s no way to know, there will never be a timeline 41 to compare against.

The room flickers for a moment, and Quentin can swear he hears Alice. He blinks, and the effect is gone, and he’s just watching his other-self again.

“We weren’t the hero,” he tells his other-self, and ghost-Ariadne huffs irritably.

“We figured that out when the Beast made us watch as he tortured all our friends to death before killing us,” she tells him with the blunt frankness his own Ariadne has with him when it’s necessary.

“We figured it out. Not sure you have, though,” says Quentin 1, and Quentin can’t quite meet his other-self’s eyes.

“How many people have to die for your heroics?” the depression monster had asked. No one this time , Quentin tells the shadow of it, tells himself. No one but me, and that’s acceptable . Except… except people died because he wouldn’t banish the Monster, they’ve died, he’s sure, because magic was gone, because of the consequences of his choices.

“We just break things, at least nothing here is breakable, is it?” he asks his other-self, who looks stricken for a moment.

“No. No, Mom’s bullshit doesn’t get to come here. The old guy told me we get really good at fixing things, and it was basically the only class we weren’t kinda shitty at back at Brakebills.”

Quentin laughs in spite of himself, remembering Julia saying “don’t listen to your mom, she’s overreacting as usual,” Eliot saying “sometimes I think Teddy breaks the tiles because he just likes to watch you repair them” and Alice saying “you always did excel at minor mendings” . The memories feel like someone’s squeezing his heart, and he doesn’t know -

“Old guy?” he asks, to keep from showing just how shaken he is.

“The Mosaic you, the one that grew old with Eliot, whose memories I think you have - were you guys actually married or was it kind of a common-law thing? They won’t tell me, they laugh when I ask. Which is really unfair, I never got the nerve to act on my crush on El at all, or the one on Alice… though at least I didn’t have to pick. If you stay, don’t tell them, I still haven’t figured out how to explain myself.”

So apparently Quentin was more self-aware in Timeline 1, he hadn’t even realized he’d had crushes on both Eliot and Alice, rather than Alice alone, until Alice was a Niffin in his back and Eliot was beyond reach in Fillory. Unfair, really, though Quentin 1 has a point about picking, back then. But also, his old self is here? That kind of makes sense, Arielle and Teddy are here, the Mosaic is probably a fixed point since Jane couldn’t have done her time loops without the key, so maybe that was Timeline 41? Timeline 0? 40b? Quentin doesn’t know, and it makes his head hurt to think about it.

“No, we were actually officially married, after a while” he says, thumbs brushing over his fingers where wedding bands once sat. “Uh, you see the other versions of… us?”

“Off and on, there are thirty-nine of most of us, though we didn’t all die in every timeline. Well, you know that, 23’s Penny being in your timeline now. I don’t see the 23 version of us, not sure where he went and I don’t think I want to know. But I see the others, now and again. None of us wanted to see another one so soon, you know.”

“I might not be staying,” Quentin says with a shrug. “So, so the others are here too, all their versions?” Waiting for his wouldn’t be so bad, if he could visit with the others sometimes. But even as he thinks that, there’s another flicker and the echo of Margo’s voice. What the hell?

“Oh yeah, and I have a message from… a lot of them, even including some of the Pennys and Kadys,” Quentin 1 says, drawing Quentin’s focus back to him. “And all the versions of us, by the way, except for our missing ex-Beast self. The Eliots were particularly loud, and you don’t want to hear how descriptive the Margos were. Me, I’m afraid to face the Alices and Julias if you don’t listen, but y’know.”

Quentin blinks. “Do I want to hear this?”

Quentin 1 shrugs. “I don’t really care. If you stay, we’re kicking your ass.”

While Quentin tries to figure out how the hell he’s supposed to respond to that, he thinks he hears voices again. Julia and… and Margo, this time. He tries to listen, but the harder he tries, the more the whispers fade until there’s nothing to hear at all. “You’re kicking my ass,” he repeats, folding his arms and glowering at his other-self. “Can I ask why?”

“Because you get to live, asshole. Look, I know, our shoebox notes and our half-assed plans, I know we don’t always want to live but the thing is? You’re the only one of us who gets to . Your timeline won, and I know it was hell, but you really want to just throw that away?”

“I’m tired,” Quentin says, shaking his head, turning to look out the window. It’s the front yard, of course, what else would it be, this isn’t really his childhood home but it’s a good replica. “You don’t know what it was like with that - thing. To have to look at it in Eliot’s body every day, have it… like me, like touching me and Ariadne, and before that when Julia was shadeless, and Alice as a Niffin before that - all the shit we’ve been through. The Beast, Ember, Umber, the fucking Key Quest. I’m tired.”

“So am I, I died tired and I’ll be at least a little tired forever,” Quentin 1 says flatly, and Quentin turns back to look at him. “I died horribly, after watching my friends go the same way. You know, when I got here, I begged their forgiveness again and again? I was a wreck. You know what they kept telling me? They didn’t want me dying for them either, what we’d all wanted was to beat that fucker and survive. And every other version of us or our friends I talk to? They all say the same. That’s what we all wanted, each run of our lives, that’s the constant.”

Quentin 1 shrugs. “And when I said I should have died for them, well it turns out other versions tried that a few times, no one liked that either. No one wants us to sacrifice ourself, any more than we’d want them to. You know, if that matters.”

The door opens, and Teagan sticks his head in. “Time’s up, come on.”

Quentin makes for the door, but stops to look at his counterpart one more time. This younger self, this original self before Jane got to him, and in spite of sharing enough demons to understand each other, he’s saying go back. “If you had my choice -”

“Well, all my friends are here. But if mine were still Above? I’d go back to them in a fucking heartbeat.”

And what can Quentin possibly say to that?

 

(xiii) gather up your tears, keep ‘em in your pocket

“Hey, Mr. C. Um, I’m sorry I couldn’t bring Q with me, I’m sure we’ll both be here at Christmas, but… Uh, he’s in the hospital right now, he. We almost lost him again. But we’re going to get him back, so he’s not going to be able to spend time with you in the Underworld just yet. If you see him, send him back?”

It’s stupid, of course, to talk to a headstone, but Julia can’t help herself. It’s a bright sunny day, the weather turning warm as April slides into May, and it’s Quentin’s dad’s birthday. So Julia brought him flowers, because Q isn’t able to do it right now and she knows he would want to. “We’ll come back together at Christmas,” she says again, skimming a hand over the smooth grey stone before turning away. She fumbles for her cell phone, resigned to calling Penny for a ride back, when someone honks a car horn. Looking up, she sees a black car pulling over, Kady behind the wheel.

“I didn’t know you had a car,” she says, getting into the front passenger seat.

“I made Pete give me his keys, I thought maybe you wouldn’t want to keep calling 23, all things considered,” Kady says. Her daemon Telamon is sprawled out in the backseat, and Asterion goes to join him, perching on the maned wolf’s back, which he seems to tolerate with good grace. “I should get a car, though. Even if it’s bullshit in New York, I have a feeling there’s going to be roadtrips in my future. How are you holding up?”

How is she holding up? “I don’t know at this point. Day after day and no change with Q, and meanwhile I’m human and if my magic is gonna come back it’s taking its own sweet time. If I was a goddess again maybe I could fix this .”

“Or maybe you wouldn’t care about it anymore. Didn’t they want you to stop caring about all of us?” Kady points out, eyes on the road but a tightness in her profile.

“I think it was more that I’d… naturally stop, but I guess I don’t know if the Binder would have downloaded a god’s normal mindset into me with the powers. If he did, then I probably would have just… left. I don’t know. Truth? I still didn’t know what I was going to pick, but that it was taken away from me, that’s what pisses me off.”

“Hey, in your shoes I’d feel the same way.”

Julia swallows hard, thinking of the conversation she’d had with Kady while still in the middle of the stones hunt. “I guess maybe you do kind of know, what you said before about it never really feeling like your story. But now you’re Hedge Queen, you organized a worldwide bit of cooperative magic. That’s… really something.”

“If nothing else, I’m better than Marina. Though I’m a little worried Marina 23’s gonna pop up again and try to take over. It’s strange, I didn’t even want this, but now… Maybe it can mean something. And if it’s me or another Marina, well.”

“Yeah,” Julia agrees, fiddling with her cigarette pack. “I had my moments with both of them that weren’t bad, but my vote is definitely for you, any day of the week. And not just against Marina, you know.”

Kady glances over at her with a faint smile. “Thanks. I think.”

When they get back, Julia takes the portal Margo set up over to Brakebills, and she’s a little relieved to find no one there. Someone was there recently, the chair’s still warm, and there’s a book on the little side table with a bookmark in it.

“I guess no one wants to read out loud about Fillory, not now. You probably wouldn’t like it either, all things considered,” Julia says, leaning back in the chair. Asterion settles on the edge of the little daemon bed, leaning forward to gently preen Ariadne’s fur. Julia watches Quentin, and doesn’t reach for him. She doesn’t want his motionless hand in hers, she wants her Q, with his hands always moving when he talks, the boy she used to fall asleep with all tangled up in a blanket fort when they were kids. His dad would always laugh at them the next morning, she remembers, and she’s not sure when she started crying but now she can’t stop, her face in her hands.

“You can’t do this. You can’t do this , Q,” she says, finally looking up, and the worst thing about all this is that he actually looks more at peace than she can ever remember. “After everything, after - you fought it, for years, and then there was magic, and we let ourselves get torn away but we came back. We came back, we’re finally really on the same team again, you can’t - how can you go now? Why didn’t you tell me how bad it was? We can do better, we can get through this, I know we can, you just have to come back .”

She hides her face in her hands again, and at some point Asterion comes back to her, his weight on her shoulder and his beak carefully preening her hair the most familiar comforts she’s known. The most familiar, but they’re missing smooth hair against her cheek and a golden cat’s low purr. It isn’t fair, it’s not fair, that’s all Julia can think, and then her tears are slowing down and she realizes she hears the soft thunk of a wooden cane.

Oh, goddamn it.

Eliot is watching her from the other chair when she lifts her head, or rather he’s watching her fingers. Julia blinks down at her hands to find they’re glowing. “Really?” she mutters, curling her fingers into fists until the glow fades out, then swiping at her eyes. She wants her magic back, but for the first hint of its return to be now feels like someone’s fucked up joke. “Something to say?” she demands, glaring at him. “Gonna tell me I don’t have any right to be upset because I fucked up?”

Eliot’s mouth twists, and she sees he’s got one of Quentin’s hands in his. “No,” he says quietly, still watching her, steady and calm. It’s odd; she barely knows Eliot, really, but she’d have thought it might be harder to look at him and not see the Monster. But there’s a depth of pain and worry to match her own in his eyes, and that alone makes it so, so obvious who sits across from her. “No, I’m not.”

“You weren’t wrong,” Julia admits, looking away. Her gaze falls on Ariadne, Eliot’s cheetah wrapped around her. After a moment, Asterion flies off her shoulder and back to where he’d been perched. He and the cheetah regard each other silently for a moment, but then seem to form a truce. “I missed things that I shouldn’t have, clues that were there even if some of Q’s patterns had changed.”

“Yeah,” Eliot agrees. “Look, I asked Margo to let me talk to you alone when we saw you were here, it took a lot of convincing after last time. Did you know Margo and Alice have been managing us to avoid a repeat? But I had to, because I - I know you love him too. I know you wouldn’t have intentionally ignored it. I have my questions about your psychic boyfriend, given the baggage from his timeline, but I know you wouldn’t. I’ve seen your reaction to hurting him, after all.”

The mental hospital illusion. God, they’d both been cruel by turns in those days, and sometimes Julia thinks she should hate magic for setting it off. Other times she thinks something always would have, and that it’s OK because they can become stronger now for getting rid of those brewing tensions. But now - “I didn’t, you’re right, I wouldn’t.”

“Anyway, I’m guessing you didn’t know the Dean told him he didn’t need his meds, not when he had magic?” When Julia shakes her head, Eliot smiles, a twisting bitter thing. “When he mentioned it, we… weren’t in a place with access to meds, so I didn’t argue the point. I meant to check back in once we were back but… the memory was ancient from my perspective by then, there was a lot happening and I slipped there, before you did.”

“Fuck,” Julia whispers. “I wondered about that… Goddamn it. OK, we might need to prove that’s wrong, you know, especially if Q got the idea he’ll lose magical ability if he takes them. I can talk to Lipson about it, maybe see if she knows any therapists who are magicians?”

“Oh, there’s definitely some of those. Fewer psychics than you might expect, but think about it. Magic comes from pain? I’d have considered it if I had the temperament. Never out of a job.”

“Good point,” Julia says. “So, you know any?”

“No, but I can find some. Margo and I used to keep track of the best sponsors - none of them were therapists at the time, but people know people, we’ll figure something out.”

“Hear that, Q?” Julia says, taking a deep breath and taking her friend’s other hand. “We’ll help you figure this out, just like you and I used to do, only we’ve got a bigger team now. All you have to do is get back here so we can do it, OK?”

She knows there won’t be an answer, not yet. But she feels better for saying it. After a moment, she sees Eliot twitch his hand, the book over on the side table floating over to him. He weighs it in his palm for a moment, then offers it to her. “Alice brought the series, she and Q were going to read them together once. She and I have been reading to him, in case he can hear. Can’t hurt, right?”

Julia takes the book and opens to where whoever the last person to read left off. “No, it can’t,” she says. A book is an interesting olive branch, but she’ll take it.

 

(xiv) if you look south, you’ll see a glow

“What are you doing here?”

The sheer venom in Alice’s voice makes Eliot look up from where he’d been staring at his hand curled around Quentin’s limp one, when the sound of footsteps hadn’t even made him twitch. He looks up and he wants to spit fury as much as Alice, because what the fuck is Librarian Bitch Zelda doing here? This is their fault as much as anyone’s, Everett was their guy, it’s on them that he got so far that he needed to be stopped, that Quentin -

“I need to speak with you, Alice.”

“No,” Alice says, lifting her chin defiantly. “I already told Sheila -”

“Please, just briefly.”

Alice pauses, looking at Zelda, then to Quentin still and quiet, and Eliot on his other side. “Fine. Just to get you out of here.” And so Alice and Perdix follow Zelda and her daemon out, leaving Eliot and Cythera alone with Quentin and Ariadne. It hasn’t happened often, since he was discharged. Margo’s here a lot, Alice pops up, and so does Julia. Even Kady stopped in once.

But now Eliot and his daemon are alone, except for the love of their life, who might never wake up. It’s been long enough that ‘never’ really is starting to become a possibility.

Eliot rubs his thumb over Quentin’s knuckles, back and forth back and forth, and Cythera grooms Ariadne like a real cheetah with her cub, like that means anything, like it’ll help. And the silence is oppressive without someone else breathing, moving slightly. There’s nothing but the sound of Eliot’s own breathing and the faint whish of the air vents, and the constant beep of the heart monitor.

Quentin’s breathing is too slow and quiet to hear. If not for the heart monitor, if not for Ariadne’s continued existence, Eliot wouldn’t even be sure he’s still alive. And there are words he can’t hold back anymore, even though Quentin can’t hear him yet.

“You know, I made you a promise, or the version of you my head conjured, anyway. Close enough,” Eliot speaks into the silence, and he wonders if there really is a faint echo or if that’s just in his head. “I didn’t think I’d be keeping it like this, Q. Not like this. Not with you -”

Eliot’s voice cracks, and he takes a deep breath. “I was afraid you’d be hurt. I was terrified that the thing in control of my body would use my hands or my magic to hurt you, or, or worse, and I didn’t think about coming back to you dead because I couldn’t have handled it but I knew it was possible. But not like this. Not you just… letting yourself slip away. Damn it, Quentin, why? Why now? Did you think - did you think we don’t need you? Why do you always think you’re the expendable one? You always -”

Eliot breaks off, closing his eyes. He knows why, after all. Fifty years, and he’s well accustomed to the blackest parts of Quentin’s mind, to watching them creep up on him and being powerless to do anything useful about it. “You stay with me, and that helps, El. I know I don’t, usually can’t, show it when I’m like that, but it helps more than I can say.”

Eliot wishes he could have stayed angry. Well, he still is, except. Except he’s too tired, too sore, and too worried to really feel it. Except he knows Julia is beating herself up more than he could manage, he doubts 23 will care, Alice is as angry as he is and Margo’s not happy either. Eliot’s anger at himself is useless, because the truth is he still would shoot the Monster rather than lose Q that way. Because it would still be losing him. And as for Quentin himself, what’s the point of being angry at a comatose man?

Well. Actually.

“You know what? There is a point to being pissed at you. Just like there was a point to bullying you sometimes in our other life, to make sure you took care of yourself.” Eliot shifts carefully in the chair, his grip tightening on Quentin’s hand. “Maybe you can hear me, they don’t know, but I fucking hope you can, Quentin, because you are not leaving me, you got that? You’re not leaving. And I swear to God if you die, I will follow you into the Underworld and fuck their shit up till they give you back to me, I will drag you out of there if that’s what it takes.”

He watches Quentin’s still face and clenches his teeth. “Whatever it takes, you’re not dying now, and I’m not letting you slip away again. Fifty years, in the middle of the fucking Fillorian boondocks, we managed it, and we can do it in the modern world too. I wasn’t here and you were drowning, that thing in me tried to ruin us both. No one pulled you out and I’m sorry, but I’m here now, Q, and I’m not letting this be the end of our story. No fucking way. I have things to tell you, I’ve got shit to fix, and I’m keeping you this time even if I have to steal you back first. So really, just save us all the trouble and wake up, sweetheart. OK? Just, wake up.”

“Well, we couldn’t have expected it to work immediately,” Cythera says after a long, silent moment.

“Would have been nice, though,” Eliot says, slumping back, then hissing as the movement pulls on his stitches.

“What would have been nice?” Alice asks as she comes back in, flushed with anger. Perdix is a bird, maybe a crow - seriously, the pure gold coloring he’s got now makes it really hard to figure out what he is - and flying around the room like he’s burning off rage for them both.

“Nothing in particular,” Eliot tells her, and they both know that’s bullshit, but Alice doesn’t call him on it. “What’d Library Bitch want? Is she Head Bitch now?”

“No. She wants me to be Head Bitch.”

“What.”

“Exactly. After everything, after locking me up, after what they did to magic, after Everett - I told her she was out of her mind. I don’t think she’s given up yet though.” Alice sinks back into her chair, and for a moment Eliot sees her as he remembers her from the old days, an awkward, angry first-year girl who seemed to think any friendliness was a prank but secretly wanted it to be real.

“We’ll convince her,” he says, watching as she takes Q’s other hand, and then looks up at him across the hospital bed. “Promise.” This is a strange moment for this conversation, this is a strange situation - where do any of them even stand, at this point? Alice says she and Q are friends, that’s all, but she loves him. Eliot would like to say she can’t love Q as much as he does, he has a whole other lifetime on his side here, but… What was it he’d said to Quentin, a few years and a lifetime ago? “Time is an illusion,” that was it.

He was fond of Alice himself, once, and it’s still there under the lingering bitterness of the stunt she pulled. Alice once said he’d been one of her only friends, so there’s that too. He’d like to think that under her old grudges, she’s still fond of him too.

So he’s not sure where they stand, except on the same side, and that will have to do.

“Thanks, Eliot.”

“Don’t thank me. This - none of this would have happened if we’d figured out how to be on the same page before now, our quest wouldn’t have ended in the clusterfuck it did. So now we will. Q’s gonna wake up, and we’ll get him steadied out, and none of us are going to let each other slip again. That’s where they keep fucking us over, so no more of that.” Eliot’s not sure where the words come from, it’s not like him, but he says it with the confidence of the High King he used to be.

Him and Alice and Margo and Q, they crowned each other on a cliff by the sea, once. Kady’s Hedge Queen now and Margo told him how she brought that in to back their play, Julia and Q are brother and sister in all but blood. He’s not sure where 23 fits in, but they’ll work that out. Josh is Margo’s apparently and Eliot won’t leave Fen out if she wants in so they’ll make that work too. It’s just another quest, maybe, this time to figure out their fucked up lives. And Eliot will be damned if it blows up on them this time. He’s tired of it.

“You are High King in your blood, and somehow that makes sense.”

“I think you were a king a little too long.”

Yeah, Q, Eliot thinks now, watching Alice watch Quentin, watching Perdix shift into what he thinks is a cougar and lie down next to where Cythera is curled around Ariadne, tentatively touching noses with Cythera in greeting. Maybe I was. And maybe that’s a good thing, because we’ve got a lot of shit to take care of. So hurry up and get back here, because we need you. I need you. I’ll wait if I have to, but come back, or I’m coming to get you.

Eliot’s never been all that good at waiting, but right now, it’s the only option. So he’ll wait, and do what he has to afterwards. He promised to be braver, after all, and he’s going to keep that promise.

Alice leaves, and Eliot picks up the book on the bedside table. It looks like no one’s read from it since Julia, so he starts up again, turning the pages telekinetically so he doesn’t have to let go of Q’s hand. They’ve almost reached the end of it - Kady says she found a whole box of fantasy novels hidden in Marina’s library, so maybe they’ll start those next, or Alice says there’s two more books in this series she never got around to getting.

“You know, Q, this is all suitably dramatic,” Eliot says when he gets to the binding of Orannis. “And Lirael continues to remind me of you in ways I don’t much like, someone better stop this girl.” He doesn’t expect a response to his commentary by now except the flick of Cythera’s ears out of the corner of his eye, so he sighs and continues to read.

“Yrael’s answer seemed to travel across a great space, words trickling into Lirael’s consciousness as she raised her sword still higher, body arching back, preparing for the mighty blow that must cut through the entire sphere.”

“‘Life,’ said Yrael, who was more Mogget than it ever knew. ‘Fish and fowl, warm sun and shady trees, the field mice in the wheat, under the cool light of the moon. All the-’”

Quentin’s hand moves in Eliot’s, and Eliot drops the book. Slowly, so very slowly, Quentin’s fingers curl around Eliot’s hand, like he knows he’s there, and is holding on. Eliot holds on tighter in response, breath catching in his throat, and he could be wrong but he thinks he sees Quentin's eyes move under his closed lids. He knows he sees Ariadne’s ears twitch out of the corner of his eye.

Nothing else happens, but it’s a start, isn’t it?

 

(xv) whether I go, whether I stay

They’re back in Sean’s office, and Quentin is staring at the painting on Sean’s wall, startling color against all the grey. “How did you even get this job?” he asks, looking at the ship with its pirate flag, the tiny figure standing tall on the deck, a speck of red that must be for hair.

“In-Between handlers can only make our contracts from beyond the grave,” Sean tells him, and his voice changes as he speaks, the probably-English accent fading into one that’s unmistakably Irish. Matches the name better, actually. “I made mine… I was in Purgatory, and so was someone else, a man I - cared for. To get myself out, a thousand years. To get him out as well, another two thousand. But I can write to him, and the others whose forgiveness I need to earn. Sometimes they even write back. I never would have thought I’d do it, but being alone, and then dying, it… puts things in perspective.”

Quentin looks at him, takes in the quiet melancholy of him. “God, how do you stand that?”

“No choice, Quentin. And it’s something to work towards. I would ask you how you found the bravery to ever truly reach for someone you loved, just hoping they would let you, and more than once at that. I never could quite just hope like that.”

“I - I wouldn’t call it bravery. I just… had to try.”

“Well, all a matter of perspective, I guess.”

The room fades, for a moment, and Quentin thinks he hears Julia. He blinks, and the office is clear again.

The silence lingers, and grows, heavier and heavier. Quentin stares at his hands, and thinks about moving on. Thinks about finding peace, finally. Part of him wants that - maybe part of him will always want that, in spite of any and all efforts. He was happier than he’d ever dared hope, at the Mosaic with Eliot, with Teddy, with Arielle while they’d had her, but that hadn’t stopped his spirals. The quieter life had been easier on his anxiety, sure, and Quentin figures the opium air didn’t hurt either, but he’d still spiraled. It never stopped, he just got more accustomed. He just had a hand to hold no matter how bad it got. Eliot's hand, for fifty years.

It didn’t fix it, but it helped make it survivable.

So. His brain will never stop breaking sometimes, not if he goes back. If he moves on… No one’s actually said, but if Quentin 1 can still fret over crushes on his Alice and his Eliot, presumably being dead doesn’t simplify everything. “Was it a suicide attempt? Does it count if I didn’t plan it, if it just… happened?” he asks, quiet, not sure why it matters so much. But it does. He feels like he has to know, to decide.

“Yes,” Sean says, just as quiet, and Quentin meets blue eyes and for a moment he thinks he sees a memory that has nothing to do with him, soft green eyes turning hard and thinking kill me, please, I’ve given you a reason, just fucking do it. No, that’s not his memory, he thinks it has something to do with Sean. “It’s not finished yet, though,” Sean continues. “Because here is your choice, Quentin. Here is the choice, when you have time to make it. You move on now, yeah, it’s suicide, completed. You go back, then you still tried it, but in the end you chose to fight. Either way, your call.”

“Dying to save my friends isn’t a terrible way to go,” Quentin says carefully. But he thinks of Alice, who did die to save them. He thinks of Eliot left behind in Fillory, thinking himself trapped forever. He remembers his own argument, before Blackspire, that it was just - his turn. Remembers Alice’s quick contradiction, remembers Eliot and Margo tag-teaming him on an alternative, how angry Margo had looked and how horrified Eliot had been.

“This is not what we agreed on!”

“I didn’t actually agree to anything.”

“No,” Sean agrees, voice and face neutral. “I’ve certainly seen stupider reasons to die. Does it matter though? All ends the same.”

“I’d like to think it matters.” What had Quentin 1 said, though? That none of his group had wanted him to die for them either? They’d all wanted to live, to live and win, and go on together. “That’s what we all wanted, each run of our lives, that’s the constant.”

“If I’m willing to die for them, I should be willing to live for them too, shouldn’t I?” he asks, staring at his empty hands again. He’d worn rings once, simple bands, left hand for Arielle and right hand for Eliot. Brian had a high school ring he wore most days, it had been getting resized the day he was kidnapped. As himself, not in past Fillory, he’s never been much for rings, but his hands look empty right now.

“I love them, I don’t - want to leave them. Even if I’m tired. Even if part of me wants to just be done.”

Sean doesn’t say anything now, just watches. His daemon is settled on a catbed on a shelf, watching too. Quentin read once that clouded leopards are among the most mysterious of cats, and she’s fitting that just now. He wants to yell for one of them to say something . But he doesn’t. He just takes a deep, unsteady breath. “But that can’t be enough. Jules tried that, she told me she still needed me and, God, I wanted to care, but it wasn’t enough. So - so - the thing is, the thing has to be -”

He’d tied himself to the mast of the Muntjac so the Abyss key couldn’t make him jump. He’d checked himself into a mental facility, and sure, he’d left early, but he’d done it so he wouldn’t off himself. Because he’d wanted to fight, and because Ariadne wouldn’t let him give up.

There’s no Ariadne here. He’s more tired, more worn down, than he’s ever been. He feels like he gave everything he had and then some in trying to get Eliot back, he’s not sure he has anything left. But someone, Hades or whoever, had tried to shoehorn him into dying when he doesn’t have to, and that pisses him off.

He hadn’t really chosen, in the Mirror World. It had been instinct to stand there and instinct to run, and instinct isn’t choice. It had been an attempt, but not a planned one. It had just… happened.

That, Quentin thinks, is unacceptable. However much he might want to curl up and let the world and the Underworld both just pass him by, he can’t do that. He has to make a choice this time, a real choice. If he moves on, it has to be because he wants peace, above everything else. And if he goes back, it has to be because he’s decided to live, for himself, even if it’s hard and even if he doesn’t always want to. And he - the thing is, he has people he loves, he has things he’d still like to do. It’s easier to give up, but he’s been learning how to do the hard things for a while now, and he thinks -

It’s worth another try. Besides, he has more loose ends than he’d like, he very much wants to find out where those all lead.

“OK,” he tells Sean. “I’ve made up my mind.”

There’s a distant voice echoing in his ears again, one last flicker of his surroundings. This time, the voice sounds like Eliot.

 

(xvi) looking good in your three-piece suit

Penny’s waiting in the parking lot when Teagan brings Quentin out, Theia perched on his shoulder. “What do you think he’s gonna do?” he asks his daemon, quietly.

“With him? Who knows?”

Penny hadn’t exactly been surprised when, on checking the books, he’d seen that Quentin was due for an Underworld stop. He had been surprised when Quentin’s name showed up on his checklist, because the book had said pretty clearly he was for Sean Teagan to handle, being an In-Between.

Anne had been the one to tip him off. Anne used to be a queen, and she still wears a coronet even though these days she’s one of Hades’ representatives. She’d shown up at his office with her red fox at her heels, all cool assurance as ever. Penny can’t decide if he likes Anne or hates her, most days, and she’s particularly insufferable in book club.

“Your magician friends cause too much upheaval, so any time one of them comes here, they’re coming to you. A familiar face, so they won’t question being fast-tracked. No In-Between office, no Meadows, straight through to you and then the other side where they can’t be reached by anything but the Orpheus trick.”

He’d gone from that conversation to his chat with his Timeline 23 counterpart, and from there to the session that had turned out to be his promotion interview. He’d had only a quick window after settling in his new office to see that Quentin was still on his list, and then stop by Teagan’s and tell him what corridor to walk down in about fifteen minutes. Then he’d gone to the elevator for Quentin.

He could have meddled, talking to his other-self, and maybe he should’ve. But this way, there’s at least a chance Quentin remembers, if he goes back, and can warn the others so they won’t fall for the railroading Penny has no choice but to put them through.

At least no one’s due for the Meadows anytime soon. All the books are kind of up in the air until Quentin goes through one door or the other, but none of them will be back here for a while, whatever happens now. That means Penny has time to figure out his game plan for when that inevitably does happen. Maybe he won’t need it. Maybe whoever’s next ( that varies depending on today) will want to move on anyway, but he’d rather be prepared.

He might belong to the Underworld Library now, he might have accepted that, but it doesn’t completely rewrite everything about him. Penny isn’t just going to let his friends be railroaded so they can’t be rescued, or save themselves, at the last minute. If Hades finds out, well… Technically he’s breaking his own rules and just like Teagan said that actually is a problem for Hades, so they’ll come to that if and when it happens.

For now, he’s got an exasperating, twitchy little nerd he ended up fond of anyway to see off to one door or another.

“Sean said it’s got to be you who hears the answer, because I was on your list,” Quentin says, hands shoved in his hoodie pockets. “So, uh, here I am.”

“Here you are,” Penny agrees. “OK.” He pulls a MetroCard from his pocket. “You take this, walk through the white arch, you move on. Or, you don’t take it, you walk through the metal door behind me and you go back to the living world.”

Quentin’s eyes flick over Penny’s shoulder, and the oddest smile spreads over his face. “That door’s not metal, it’s wooden.”

What? Penny looks, and sure enough, the usually metal door has turned into a wooden one, like a cabin door, old weathered planks. Huh. How about that. Having read his friends’ books, Penny can guess why, but he still needs to hear the answer. “Well? Gotta pick one.”

“I know that.” Quentin’s eyes linger on the MetroCard, for a moment, flick to the white arch. “That’d be easier, wouldn’t it? Even with my other selves and their friends pissed at me for it. But - I’m not done yet. I have things to do, people to go back to. So, forget the card, I’m going that way.” He points at the door back to Above.

“Good choice,” Penny says, pocketing the MetroCard. “I don’t want to see you or any of them here again for a long time, you got that? If you remember all this - and you might not - you make sure you tell ‘em. It’ll be me they see when they get here, but it better be a long time. And you tell ‘em that if they come earlier than expected, that I’ll be full of shit telling them it’s all cool and they can move on, I’ve gotta play my role but they don’t have to believe me, they should say they want to wait in the Meadows for everyone else, not give me their secrets. Are we clear?”

Quentin nods, jaw set in that way he used to get right before talking them into something crazy. “Will do. Look, Penny - I’m sorry we didn’t fight harder for you, and the laughing thing… you know I didn’t mean that, right? It was one of my weird brain things?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, don’t worry about it. We’re where we needed to be, Coldwater, it’s how it goes.”

“If you say so. Um… Do you want me to tell Kady anything specific? If I remember?”

And it aches, like it always does when he thinks of Kady. Like it will, until he sees her again. Until his contract’s up and he can be with her again. There’s reasons he and Teagan get along, even if they’re not much alike. They both know what it is to miss people so much it hurts. “Tell her she knows what I think, and that when I see her again, she’ll have had one hell of a life. She doesn’t want to miss out on it, I guarantee that.”

“OK,” Quentin says, nodding, and then he steps past Penny, toward the wooden door. But he stops, spinning around and pulling Penny in for a hug. Which, OK, unexpected, but Penny hugs him back, inexplicably warmed by it instead of irritated. “Thank you, for letting me have the choice,” Quentin whispers in his ear, and then he lets go, setting off toward the door.

“Take care of yourself, Quentin,” Penny calls, and then he watches Quentin walk through the door and vanish.

“Well,” Theia says. “That’s one. And now it should be a good long time before we see any of the others. Want to see who’s next now? Or wait a while?”

It would have been Eliot next, if Quentin went the other way. Either to get him or stay with him, it had never been clear how that would play out. Now, who can say? Penny huffs a laugh, taking a different doorway back to the corridors of the Underworld Branch. “Let’s give ‘em a little while, then we’ll check in again. Let the plotlines settle, yeah?”

It won’t be Kady and Telamon until they’re ready, Penny and Theia know that much, and the others? Well, they should have a little time before he’s got to worry again. That’s all he can ask for with that bunch.

Chapter Text

(xvii) love keeps on calling me home

The first time Quentin wakes up, he doesn’t really wake up. He’s mostly aware of feeling very cold, and he thinks there might be someone holding his hand, and then he’s out again.

The second time, he can hear people talking, and he’s less cold, but everything is very bright, and he can’t see through the brightness when he tries to open his eyes. So he closes them again, and everything slides back into quiet.

The third time, things are very dark, mostly. Some light spills in from the corridor outside, but Quentin blinks dry, blurry eyes until he can focus enough to see that it’s pitch dark outside his window. Middle of the night, maybe? He doesn’t have much time to think about it before a familiar weight lands on his chest, and whiskers brush his face.

“Never do that again, Quentin Coldwater!” Ariadne tells him, and in the dark all he can see of his daemon are her night-glowing eyes and a faint outline of her. “I wasn’t enough to save you this time,” she whispers as he manages to lift heavy arms to wrap around her. “I wasn’t enough, Perdix saved you.”

He remembers now, something grabbing him by the waist, the telltale prickle of contact with someone’s daemon that had gone unnoticed in the face of the pain of burning magic. Not quite the violation of someone unwelcome, not quite the giddiness of touching a partner’s daemon, a sort of… awkward safety, he thinks. “I guess I owe him and Alice,” he croaks, and even he can barely hear his own voice, but Ariadne’s sharp ears clearly get enough.

Yes , you do. And 23, he must have gotten us here fast. Quentin, I knew things were bad again but why didn’t you tell me? I know why we didn’t talk to Jules and Asterion, but…”

“Didn’t know it was ‘I want to die’ bad,” Quentin says. “Didn’t realize, Ari, till it happened.”

“Oh,” Ariadne whispers, and then Quentin’s eyes slip shut again, but he still keeps an arm around his daemon. The next thing he’s aware of, before even opening his eyes, is people talking around him. Familiar voices but nothing clear in the words, at least not at first.

“... holding Ariadne, he obviously woke up and no one was here when he - .”

“It’s Q, he woke up in the middle of the night because of course he did.”

That’s… that’s Eliot . And Margo, answering him. Quentin’s eyes are stinging with tears behind his eyelids, so he doesn’t open them yet, but he manages to croak, “That’s… unfair,” and his voice doesn’t sound like him at all but it’s audible and that’s a start. A hand grabs hold of his, and he knows it’s Eliot without looking because after fifty years of course he does.

Quentin ? Can you open your eyes for me?” Eliot sounds almost broken and something knots in Quentin’s gut because, fuck, did he make Eliot sound like that? He hadn’t meant to.

“He doesn’t want to because he thinks he’ll cry,” Ariadne says, because his daemon’s patience for him is clearly at a low ebb. Quentin swallows hard and opens his eyes, but he has to close them again right away because it is way, way too bright.

“I’ll pull the shades,” he hears Margo say, and after a moment he chances opening his eyes again. It’s still bright, like stepping out into summer daylight, but it’s bearable, at least. Quentin blinks once, twice, and the room comes mostly into focus. The good thing about the tears he’s managed to hold back is that his eyes are less dry this time.

The good thing about the room coming into focus is that the second thing he sees, after a white ceiling, is Eliot. “Hey,” he tries to say, but it turns out his earlier comment is all his throat can manage, and it comes out as something inaudible. Quentin thinks he frowns, but he might actually do something sillier with his face because Eliot huffs a sound that might be a laugh and might be a sob. Then there’s a straw at Quentin’s lips.

Tepid water never tastes good, but after a few swallows he tries, “Hey,” again, and this time it works, so there’s that.

“Hey yourself,” Eliot says, brushing a bit of hair out of Quentin’s eyes. “Gave us a hell of a scare, Q, it’s been almost a month.”

Quentin would like to say he doesn’t remember what happened, but that would be a lie. He would also like to say that Eliot scared him for months, but Eliot knows that, it feels silly to say it now, and it’s not the important thing. The important thing is -

“I picked coming back,” he says, voice still almost unrecognizable. “I had a choice. I came back.” He knows that, he remembers that, Penny’s office and Sean Teagan’s and his own other-self, he remembers choosing. But he also remembers that first, he didn’t run. So it’s important to tell them he changed his mind.

“Good boy. That doesn’t get you out of shit, though, I hope you know that.” Her voice precedes her but it’s only a moment before Margo appears next to Eliot, frowning but her eyes are much softer than they usually are. Quentin nods, because talking hurts even with the water, and because he does know that. That’s part of the deal and all, he’d thought of that.

He hadn’t realized everyone else knew what had happened, when he barely knew even as it was happening, but - oh. He'd made Penny 23 and Alice watch, hadn’t he. Shit. How had he not realized that?

“Don’t scare him, Bambi, he just woke up,” Eliot says, though he adds, “Not that she’s wrong, but it can wait.”

“Did - what’d I miss?” Quentin asks, already feeling the pull of sleep again but trying not to follow it. Absently, he thinks that must have something to do with the fact that, on top of nearly dying, he hasn’t slept much in… well. The last good night’s sleep his body had was the night before Brian got abducted by a Monster, wasn’t it?

“Well -” Margo breaks off in laughter when suddenly, Ariadne is lifted off Quentin’s chest by Talaus picking her up by the scruff of her neck like a cub. Next minute, all three daemons are in a cuddle pile on the floor, tiger and cheetah and golden cat, Ariadne and Cythera purring madly and Talaus chuffing happily.

“Oh,” Quentin whispers, feeling as warm as if he were the one in the middle of that pile, and the tears are falling after all. His hand aches when he reaches up to wipe them away, but he barely notices. I missed you, I missed that, he thinks, remembering days at the Cottage where their daemons spent all the day piled like that. Days long since lost, and recently with Eliot gone and Margo first in Fillory and then barely looking his way… I missed this, Quentin thinks and stops trying not to cry.

“Pity this thing would break if we did the same thing,” Margo says, crossing to Quentin’s other side and perching on the side of the bed, catching hold of his hand but not mentioning the tears. Eliot’s already sitting on the bed holding his other hand, and yeah, Quentin’s pretty sure if they tried to do more than sit the bed would object. The idea makes him choke out a sound that might be halfway to a laugh, and the tears slow and stop as he blinks them away.

“I could fix -” Quentin starts to offer without thinking beyond the idea that being in a puppy pile like their daemons would be nice.

“You’re not doing any magic at all until you get a clean bill of health, especially not five minutes after waking up,” Eliot cuts Quentin off, voice unusually harsh. “We’ll just wait for somewhere with more room.”

That seems fair, Quentin decides, eyelids drooping. He blinks, trying to stay awake. He’s apparently been unconscious for almost a month, even if to him it feels like he’d only spent hours in the Underworld. So the last thing he wants is to sleep, especially with Eliot here, alive and himself again like Quentin had begun to fear he’d never see.

“You can go back to sleep, Quentin, we’ll be here when you wake up,” Eliot tells him softly, and Quentin tries to object, but Eliot’s fingers are in his hair, scratching lightly at his scalp. He knows that always puts Quentin to sleep when he’s already tired. Quentin makes a face at him, or tries to (he thinks he hears Margo laugh so he probably managed something ), but then his eyes close again.

It’s safe to sleep with Eliot and Margo bracketing him, he’s known that since the first time insomnia drove all three of them out to the common area in the middle of the night, and he might not want to sleep, but if he has to, he’s safe. He’s safe, and the rest can wait until he wakes up.

He knows he’ll wake up now.

 

(xviii) may you never take one single breath for granted

“Oh God. Oh God.”

“El, baby, you’ve gotta breathe,” Margo tells him. 

Except Eliot can’t. Jesus. He can’t, because Quentin woke up, and even with hazy, half-focused eyes, Quentin had looked up at him like Eliot was one of the best things he could ever see, and Eliot just - he can’t breathe, he can’t fucking breathe. “I thought he was going to die,” he whispers, closing his eyes. “I was going to go after him, whatever it took to get him back, but - Margo, I thought he was going to die. I was so goddamned scared he wouldn’t wake up -”

He can say it now, he can admit the terror now, because it’s not real anymore.

“I know you were, Eliot,” Margo says, getting an arm around him and getting him up. “Come on, you need some air.”

“No - I said we’d be here -”

The door all but bangs open, Julia and Asterion racing in. “I got Margo’s text, is - oh, he’s asleep again, are you OK, Eliot?”

“We’re just going for some air,” Margo says briskly, Talaus chivvying Cythera along with more success than Margo is having with Eliot. “We’ll be back soon. El, Julia’s here, if Q wakes up before we get back he won’t be alone, come on.

Eliot nods, and he stops fighting as Margo hauls him up and down the hall. He still needs the damned cane, probably will for a while because whatever that thing did to his leg it’s taking its own sweet time to heal. They go outside, to a bright spring day, Talaus nudging Cythera until she plays on the grass with him. Eliot sinks onto a bench, both hands gripping his cane like an anchor, Margo’s hand between his shoulder blades. “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me,” he says, voice hoarse. “He’s awake, that’s what I want, why am I like this?”

“Because emotions suck ass? Seriously though, El, you’ve been either angry or trying to keep calm since you woke up to find out what happened, you’re due to freak out,” Margo says. “You’re freaking now because you can, because it’s safe now, maybe.”

“Fuck, I hate this,” Eliot mutters, burying his face in his hands as Cythera comes over to lay her head in his lap. He does cry, but it’s almost calm, strangely quiet tears soaking his palms. He thinks of foggy brown eyes and a half-dazed smile, of how close he’d come to never seeing those things again. “Why did we catch feelings, Bambi?”

“We had to grow up, I guess,” Margo says ruefully, leaning against him. She’s on his right, so she can do that. Eliot swipes at his eyes and raises one arm to wrap around her shoulders, turning his face into her hair and breathing in the apple and floral scents of the shampoos she uses. Memory Margo hadn’t smelled like anything, and Memory Q’s eyes hadn’t been quite the right shade of brown.

“I guess we did,” he says, as Talaus curls around Cythera and they just sit together for a while, quiet, until Eliot breaks the silence. “He almost died in Fillory,” he says quietly, his eyes closed so that the sunlight beats red against the darkness behind his eyelids. “Three years after Arielle died of a fever he caught the same one, it was so damned close, almost as close as this was. And Teddy, he - he kept asking me when he was gonna wake up and…”

Eliot still has nightmares about that. About finding that Q isn’t feverish anymore, but still and cold, about having to tell Teddy - yeah, he still has nightmares. “It feels like I keep ending up waiting on him to wake up,” he continues, remembering the letter he’d written to Q once. If you ever wake up. Please wake up. “Except, between my golem dying with me in it and the resulting knockout, me getting possessed, and the fact that I think I died in my sleep on the Mosaic, I guess it’s not all on my end.”

“No, it’s more like you both keep almost dying and it’s not good for your peace of mind or mine,” Margo says, and she tries to make a joke of it, but the raw edge to her voice sort of ruins it.

“Maybe you should lock us in a tower once you get your crown back,” Eliot suggests, trying to laugh but it doesn’t really work.

“Yeah, and one of you’d be breaking out within a month.”

“... We might last for two if it’s comfortable enough.”

“Yeah, so, once this is over, you and I are having a long, long talk because I need details,” Margo says, and Eliot opens his eyes to see Margo’s sly smile, and he - he can breathe. He can breathe, because this is familiar, this is normal, and Quentin woke up, everything will be all right now. Eliot might not yet be sure how to make it all right, but that’s fine. He doesn’t need to know yet.

He tells himself that off and on over the next few days, when Quentin is still asleep more than awake but it’s normal sleeping now, at least. Then, on the fourth day, Quentin’s up and almost himself - pale and worn down yet, but alert and aware. “So, uh, I need to tell you guys something important,” he says, ducking his head and twisting his hands in the blanket. It’s such a familiar gesture, the way he tries to hide behind his hair even when it’s too short for that.

“Q, we know what happened -” Julia begins to say. She and Alice came in a few minutes before, and she’s sitting on the foot of the bed while Margo and Alice have the chairs and Eliot’s sitting on the bed that was previously his. The daemons are all piled together, even Asterion and Perdix. Which is nice, but there’s something in Q’s expression that Eliot… doesn’t like.

“I’m not talking about that, exactly,” Quentin says, clearly forcing himself to lift his head and meet their questioning gazes. “I’m - Lipson’s given me a referral for a therapist, I promise I’m going to go, and go back on meds, and everything. That’s not what I’m -”

“You almost fucking killed yourself Q, that’s important.” Eliot almost doesn’t recognize the rough, harsh voice as his own, not until Quentin looks up at him, startled like his memory counterpart had been when Eliot dropped to his knees in front of him while another Eliot was still beside him.

“Gonna have to agree there,” Margo chimes in. Alice says nothing, her lips pressed together and hands clenched in her lap. Eliot has tried to picture having to witness what happened, and his mind simply won’t allow him to go there, so he sympathizes.

Quentin sighs, looking actually exasperated with the lot of them, which is enough to have Eliot ready to snap again, but Quentin speaks first. “No, I’m not saying it’s not important, this is just a different important thing, one that might affect us all directly if, well, if it was real. And I guess maybe it might not have been, it could have been a coma delusion, but it seems safer to assume it’s legit. El, Margo, remember like one of the first things I said when I woke up was that I chose to come back? I was, well, I was talking really literally, like, I was in the Underworld and got told you can die or go back, make a choice.”

“I’ve read about that,” Alice speaks up for the first time, voice tight. “Magicians left in comas, usually from some kind of spell backlash, they’d come back claiming to have seen the Underworld, to have dealt with someone who worked for the Underworld Library. Older accounts describe different people but the ones from, um, the mid-1800s on describe the same man, though his name changes, sometimes Sean Teagan, sometimes Juan Arroyo, once even John Silver. Curly dark hair, blue eyes, a peg leg, a daemon that’s some kind of spotted cat -”

“Clouded leopard,” Quentin says softly. “His daemon’s a clouded leopard and she’s not a helpful sort at all. So it was real, then?”

“It must have been,” Alice says, and looks away.

It’s Julia who says it. “If you were in the Underworld then you really were gone, Q. You came back, but we really did lose you for a while.”

Quentin seems more bewildered by this than anything else, and fuck, Eliot wants to shake him. Wants to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattle, until he finally understands that he matters, that they don’t want to lose him. That Eliot can’t lose him. But Quentin is still too-pale in a hospital bed, burn scars on his neck and back fading to white but there forever. Eliot can’t do that now.

“I. I guess so,” Quentin says, looking at his hands. “And I - I will have to… talk, about that. I know. But not now, because I have to tell you, OK. I saw Penny first, and there’s just…” And he lays it out for them, how Penny had almost tricked him into moving on without Quentin knowing he wasn’t actually dead yet. Except that had been a ploy, Penny stringing out an order he’d been given long enough for this other guy, Sean Teagan, to arrive and tell Q the truth. Quentin only says that he’d been given time to consider his options, and then he chose to come back. Eliot knows there’s more to it than that, because he knows Quentin, but he doesn’t push right now.

“And Penny said, we’re all going to see him, when we die, because Hades and maybe some of the other gods think we cause too much trouble and they want us moved on,” Quentin finishes. “Or, I guess, if someone else ends up an In-Between like me, though he didn’t specify that. He’s gonna try and get us to move on, but we’re supposed to remember that we can say we want to go to the Meadows to wait for someone. That way, there’s a chance the rest of us can get whoever’s waiting back. Otherwise, the only option is so hard it’s almost impossible to pull off.”

“OK,” Margo says after a moment. “That’s… pretty important too. But so are you, and you’re only getting out of it for so long, Coldwater.” Quentin turns that bewildered look on her now, and Eliot sees her hand curl into a fist where no one but him will see it, but Quentin doesn’t argue, just nods, and Margo keeps her temper in check.

Eliot is the last to leave, that day. Quentin is dozing by the time visiting hours end, but he rouses when Eliot stands up and Cythera unwraps herself from where she’d been curled around Ariadne. “See you tomorrow?” Quentin asks with a sleepy smile.

“Yeah.” Eliot pauses, one hand gripping his cane, the other resting on his daemon’s head. “What’s the other way? The almost impossible way to get someone out of the Underworld when they’ve moved on?”

“Oh.” Quentin sits up, blinks sleep from his eyes. “Orpheus and Eurydice, that myth’s a real deal. But it’s hard because the living person’s got to leave their daemon behind. Penny said it hurts so much more even than the traditional split ritual that it’s almost impossible for anyone to pull it off, they can’t bear it.”

“I see,” Eliot says, very quiet as he moves his hand off Cythera’s head and brushes a bit of hair out of Quentin’s eyes. “Then had you made a different choice, it would have been a very good thing the Monster already split Cythera from me, wouldn’t it? Not that it would have mattered, but it’s always nice when things work out so well.”

“El -?” And Eliot cannot, absolutely cannot take that bewildered expression coming back again right now.

“Good night, Q. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

(xix) who chance the sorrow and the shame

Going to see Quentin isn’t - exactly - a whim. It’s not like they’ve ever been close, really, Kady and their resident nerd boy, but she’s starting to appreciate the whole ‘we’re a group’ thing. She’d been the one to say they were just stuck together, that they weren’t friends, and she’s still not sure all of them are, but… They are stuck together, and they might as well start working with it, see if that does better for them. Because she’s pretty sure that’s the only thing they haven’t managed to consistently do.

She doesn’t really know Quentin all that well even now, but she knows a good number of stories about him from quieter moments with Julia. She wonders if Alice, or Eliot, maybe Margo, feel the same way about Julia, because until Quentin got into Brakebills and Julia didn’t, it seems like most of their life story involves the other to some degree or another. So, on their occasional downtime, he’d cropped up a lot in the things Julia would talk about.

“Not our business,” Telamon reminds her as they walk down the infirmary corridor, and as usual, her daemon is right.

So, anyway, she knows some things about Quentin from Julia, and some from when Penny had needed to vent about not being able to tune people out, which sometimes he had to just to cope - there’d been a few people with minds like that, and Kady knows things that she’d rather not know, but she’d never tell anyone about it. Including the people themselves.

But there’s something else she knows, too, something that she missed, and probably shouldn’t have given it may be the only thing she and Quentin Coldwater have ever really had in common, which is the main reason why she’s walking into Quentin’s hospital room with a takeout bag. “So, I know way better than I’d like how shitty hospital food is, thought you could use a break,” she says by way of greeting. Telamon crossing to greet Ariadne. Daemon and human alike seem surprised, the cat’s tail going stiff and Quentin blinking at her with tired wide eyes.

“Oh, uh, thanks,” he says, pushing himself up to sit straighter as Kady drops the bag on the little rolling table. “It really is kind of horrible food, I thought inpatient had the worst but this comes close.”

“Don’t mention it. And I bet I’ve had worse.” She’s done enough of the food runs to know the sandwich he usually gets, and she’d gotten her own order as well. So for a little while, they eat in more or less companionable silence, until Kady says, “I’m shocked I caught you alone, actually.”

“Oh. Um. El’s with the physical therapist, and Julia’s coming by later,” Quentin says, finishing off his sandwich and eyeing her with that way he has. Quentin Coldwater is an anxious mess of a nerd hiding behind his hair until he’s not. Until he steps up almost from nowhere and does shit like lead them all in a magic sing-along or offer to live out eternity in a monster’s castle like some fucked up take on the early part of Beauty and the Beast.

(What? The live-action remake was on last night and neither she nor Alice was getting any sleep after Alice’s nightmare woke them both up.)

Anyway, Quentin’s harmless till he’s not, and he’s very suddenly not, so Kady sets aside her soda and looks him over right back, waiting to see if he breaks first. He doesn’t, but his daemon does.

“We didn’t even think you guys liked us, really,” Ariadne says, leaping onto her human’s hospital bed and sprawling over his legs. Telamon comes to sit beside Kady’s chair, and Kady rests a hand on his head, the soft prickle of his fur quietly grounding as it always is.

“Eh,” Telamon tells his fellow daemon, ears twitching. “We don’t spend much time together but you’re still one of ours. Our resident nerd maybe, but that’s not a bad thing to be.”

“Thanks, I think,” Quentin says, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “I thought, uh. Maybe if the others had told you about my Underworld visit, that maybe you wanted to ask about Penny.” He meets her eyes, then, and if she saw pity there she’d probably have to scream, but she doesn’t. Just curiosity, and maybe some sympathy.

Kady shrugs, and misses Sam. Sam, despite her addiction, had otherwise lived for the job. Sam had never been in love, or lost the person she loved, or thought off and on about dying to be with that person. She misses being Sam in a way she thinks the others don’t understand, because it was easier to be Sam. So much fucking easier. “Aren’t you going to just tell me his fucking message if he gave you one? Same as 23?” And, God, hearing Penny’s words in that… other Penny’s voice had just been -

“No. I mean, not if you don’t want me to. I asked him if he wanted to pass on a message, but if you don’t want to hear it, I’ll just pretend I never heard it. Unless you change your mind.”

It shouldn’t matter. Kady doesn’t want to hear what Penny had to say, not after last time. Let him go, he’s sorry but he’s not coming back, that she’ll find her fucking way. Yeah, all right. “Would you want to hear it if Eliot sent you some bullshit message from the goddamned Underworld?”

It’s almost worth the comically shocked look on Quentin’s face, to say it. “I - that is - fucking hell, am I really that obvious?” Quentin says, rolling his eyes. “Jesus, if I am, I’m fucked.”

“Not sure if anyone else noticed, but they’re not very good at noticing shit lately, or you probably wouldn’t be in this hospital bed. Julia or Alice would have, I don’t know, tied you down or something before letting you in the Mirror World. Anyway, would you?”

Quentin shrugs. “I don’t know. That - uh. It’s the kind of thing I tried not to think about, especially with. Well.”

“Their face, but not them. Yeah. That’s… kind of why I’m actually here. I owe you an apology for not spotting that one and figuring you were getting fucked up over it, given that I’m the only other one in a situation even a little like it. I got lucky, I guess. 23’s a dick and him having the hots for Julia has made shit weird more than once, but he’s not evil or anything. That fucker…”

“Yeah,” Quentin agrees. “But you - you don’t owe me any apology, not really.”

Kady shrugs. “Maybe not. But - I get it. Julia told me about the choking thing, and I get it. Almost letting it kill you that way. I…” She isn’t sure why she wants to tell him; maybe she just wants to tell someone who isn’t Pete . Maybe she wants to tell the only person who she knows for a fact has been there. “After the Poison Room… It felt right, in a sick sort of way. That maybe I was meant to let it kill me, so I’d die the same way Penny did. Thought I’d gotten past wanting that, but I guess not so much. Felt like it’d guarantee I’d get to see him again, what the fuck, I don’t know. But I get it. Not running. They won’t, maybe, so...”

“It’s easy to let go, because you’re tired of fighting and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it anymore.” Quentin’s voice is quiet, and they’re watching each other almost warily, understanding too well and uncomfortable with it. “But it wouldn’t have been. Right, I mean, for you. I mean, you’re - you’re basically Hedge Queen, right? You got how many people to help us? That’s… damned impressive, Kady, it’s something to be really proud of.”

“Not right for you either, Coldwater, you know that? Julia and Alice were wrecked, hard to tell with Margo but I think her too.” Alice is still pretty wrecked - that’s what that nightmare had been about last night, but Kady figures it’s not her place to say that. “And Eliot… never seen that guy that shattered, ever.”

“Maybe that’s where it starts. Knowing it’s not right?” Ariadne suggests when Quentin doesn’t say anything, looking at his hands. “For us, and for you?”

“We just wanted to be theirs.” Telamon admits. “Penny’s and Theia’s. We just wanted - to not be alone anymore, to have someone who would stay. But all they can fucking give us is ‘move on and be happy’.” It’s not unlike what she’d told Pete, but it’s not - it’s not about belonging to a guy. It’s about belonging at all, about finally having something to hold to, rather than the drifting and running her mother had left her with. Something real, something solid - the problem is, when you have things, when you have people, they can be taken away.

“It’s what I would have wanted for the people I care about, if - if I’d actually died,” Quentin says carefully, lifting his hands in a ‘hold up’ gesture when Kady glares at him. “But if - if I was the one getting the message, I’d want to punch that messenger’s teeth in. Although, this is me, so I’d probably manage to break my hand.”

That makes Kady grin. “We need to teach you how to throw a punch.”

“That could be fun.”

“You say that now,” Kady tells him. “I will make you eat those words, but you’ll be able to deck someone and do it right when I’m done.” She frowns down at her soda can, then says, “All right. Just tell me what he said, or it’ll bug me.”

“Oh. Uh…” Quentin shrugs, crumpling his sandwich paper. “That you know what he thinks, and that when he sees you next, you’ll have had one hell of a life. He said he guaranteed you don’t want to miss it.”

“God,” Kady mutters. “The fuck does he know? What’s so unmissable about this shit?”

“I am - probably not the one to ask. Considering my current position. But it seemed worth another go, at least?”

Kady looks up and Quentin’s actually smiling, a tiny rueful smile but still a smile. In spite of everything, she smiles back, a little. “There’s worse places to start, and I did say I’d teach you to throw a punch. Alice too, for that matter.” She likes spending time with Alice more than she’d have thought, likes the sharp mind that works at angles so different to her own that they seem to match off pretty well. “Wonder who I can whip into shape first,” she adds, her smile turning sly.

“I have no idea, but I have no doubt you’ll make sure we both know what we’re doing before you’re finished.”

“Oh, you’re not wrong about that, Coldwater,” Kady says, and she - still doesn’t believe Penny, not yet. But she figures, Alice came back from being a Niffin, Quentin all but got his wish to die and still came back, Julia’s handling being human again. They’re not friends but somehow they’re a team, and even the former Fillorian royalty duo are settling in now and dealing with the shit they’ve lost, far as she can tell.

Quentin handled the Monster, however self-destructively. She can handle 23, who Kady supposes can’t help that his very existence feels like he’s punching her in the gut. And she kind of likes being the new Marina. She doesn’t much like Pete, but she believes that he’s her man, for now at least - he’s her responsibility while he is, which is a weird idea but true.

She can teach a couple nerds to fight, and she can keep the hedges from falling apart again. Maybe somewhere in there is this “hell of a life” Penny swears she’s going to have. She already had her chance to die too, and she didn’t take it, so she’s just going to have to see where life is headed next, isn’t she?

 

(xx) the south moves north, the north moves south

He’s sprung from the infirmary after a week. Eliot, Margo, and Julia come to get him, and they walk together to the Cottage, slowly, because Eliot still needs his cane and Quentin’s legs aren’t entirely sturdy after nearly a month comatose. The loft is the same as Quentin left it, more or less, down to there being books scattered everywhere.

It turns out they don’t have enough bedrooms anymore. It also turns out that Eliot’s been sleeping in the room Quentin uses. “I can crash with Margo, which means switching with, uh, Julia, I think,” Eliot says, not quite meeting Quentin’s eyes. Quentin, also, doesn’t meet Eliot’s eyes, but he looks at Cythera, curled around Ariadne like she’s afraid the smaller cat will disappear. And Ariadne, more or less afraid of the same, is snuggling up to her happily.

“Were you guys actually married or was it kind of a common-law thing?” he remembers his other-self asking. Quentin flexes his empty fingers and considers if it would be too obvious if he bought rings that just… don’t look like wedding bands, because ever since he’d woken from his coma, he’d felt the emptiness in a way he hasn’t since after the Muntjac.

No, that’s a lie. He’d felt the emptiness of his hands when he’d said he was going to stay in Blackspire and seen the look on Eliot’s face, when he’d almost screamed “Well, you don’t want me, so what’s your fucking problem?”

Quentin had not volunteered for Blackspire because Eliot rejected him. But he can’t pretend he might have been less likely to jump straight to that option if that conversation had gone differently.

“Nah, we already know neither of us kick in our sleep. Jules and Margo do, though, so they can’t complain at each other about their bruises,” Quentin says, and his voice is just a little too light to not be forced. But Eliot huffs a soft laugh and that seems to be the end of it.

They fall asleep side by side, not touching, every night. Every morning, they wake up tangled in each other. Neither of them comment on it. Julia, who walks in on them still asleep one morning, also doesn’t comment on it. He has a feeling she’s going to, but she hasn’t yet. If Margo knows, and she probably does, Quentin doesn’t know about it. It’s a thing, it’s not a thing, he’s trying not to think about it until he has to think about it.

And in the meantime, he has a business card for one Dr. Sybill Griffin and a prescription for pills and a potion to go with them that’s supposed to reduce both side effects and tolerance build-up. A week after his release, Quentin takes a train into Brooklyn and goes back to therapy. He sits on the train with Alice’s copy of Garth Nix’s Lirael , and doesn’t allow his brain to picture anything but what he’s reading, all the way there. He wonders what the bell meant to wake the Dead sounds like, and the one that makes them walk, wonders if he’d have heard them when he chose to live. Wonders if they’d echo in his ears even now.

She’s not bad, Dr. Griffin. And she’s a magician, so he doesn’t have to lie to her. First sessions are almost all the same feeling things out deal, though, and when he leaves the clinic below her office with a bottle of pills and a box of single-dose potion vials, he’s not sure if the familiarity is vexing or comforting. He kind of thinks it might be both. But he’s restless when he leaves, his fingers itch for something to do and he doesn’t think the book in his bag - however good it is, and it is good - is going to be enough to shake this.

When Quentin was little, he liked to draw. Fillory pictures, mostly, but he’d make Ariadne, his dad and Danae, and Julia and Asterion sit for portraits rendered clumsily in crayon, then increasingly better in colored pencil. Then came his first stint in inpatient, when art became just one more therapy technique, and he lost his taste for it.

Then there was the Mosaic, where drawing out designs before laying them in tile was just the sensible thing to do. Quentin didn’t rediscover a love for drawing or anything, but the memory of chalk dust on his fingers remains a soothing one. It reminds him of playful bickering with Eliot and teaching Teddy how to draw, Arielle laughing at her “ridiculous boys”, as she’d put it.

Brian had liked to draw though. It had been Brian the Professor’s only creative tendency, actually - that’s not nice of Quentin, maybe, but honestly, except for a love of over-flavored lattes and his sketches, Brian had been boring as fuck. Well, OK, some of the history books he’d liked to read are kind of interesting just for the sheer fucked-upness of what English royals used to do to each other to get a crown.

(He still has Brian’s Kindle, it had been with the clothes that… someone had gotten. He’s not sure who, actually. Occasionally, when he can’t sleep, he sits up and reads about medieval England because at least it’s the kind of fucked up that doesn’t give him nightmares.)

So, drawing. Brian had liked to sketch in pencil, then carefully go over finished pieces in pen. Very orderly, very meticulous. Kind of like his grading rubric, from what Quentin remembers.

After his first appointment with Dr. Griffin Quentin stops in the art supply shop across the street from her building and buys charcoal sticks and sketchbooks. He doesn't want color any more than Brian had, but charcoal dust turns out to be as soothing as the memory of chalk when he sets up in a nearby park after texting Julia and Eliot so they’d know why he wasn’t home.

They’d both wanted to come with him to therapy, but Quentin had asked them not to. “I need to do this myself, or I won’t trust myself to keep doing it,” he’d explained. “I know you just want to back me up, but it has to be just me, for this at least. And I have Ariadne.”

Now, Ariadne races about chasing birds till the end of their bond’s range - it’s longer than it used to be, some kind of effect of the spell damage that they don’t really understand. It’s not like being split, there’s a limit and he can never leave her further behind than different rooms in the loft, but it’s far enough that Ariadne can amuse herself acting like an actual cat for a while. As for Quentin, he can feel her love of the new freedom, and it’s a soft warmth in his chest. He sketches her first, waiting in the grass for a bird to get within range. The charcoal is harder to work with than pencil, and it smears at first, but he likes it more.

And so after that, Quentin sketches a lot. He learns a spell that keeps the charcoal from smearing and casts it on every finished piece. At first he sketches in the park for an hour or so after therapy, or before it, but then it rains between therapy days, and in the aftermath of that everywhere is sticky and humid. May sliding toward June in New York City, they’re lucky the humidity held off this long.

So he finds a coffee shop a few doors down from the art supply shop and he sketches there instead. He doesn’t sketch the patrons the way he had sketched other parkgoers, he sketches from memory instead. Penny at his desk, Sean Teagan at his, the painting on Sean’s wall, a golden eagle and a clouded leopard. Long empty corridors and an elevator. A parking lot with a white square arch and a metal door turning to wood, the worn weathered planks overgrowing cold metal.

His other-self with ghost-Ariadne at his side, standing in their childhood bedroom, telling him to go back. Quentin sketches that one at an angle so that his own reflection shows in the bedroom mirror, the pair of them staring at each other.

He likes flavored lattes now. Just a single flavor - Brian, he remembers, would get vanilla base and have them add like four more syrups - but still. He never used to drink that, and he sketches Brian at a lecturer podium, Brian’s view of bored students, Brian’s small apartment. He looks up, one day, from trying to draw James and Julia as he remembers them from middle school, and catches sight of a guy outside with a cigarette, leaning on a telephone pole with a casual grace that’s - not quite familiar, but of a type.

He looks down to find he’s drawn the Brakebills sign, and Eliot posed dramatically there, the first time Quentin ever saw him. Well, in this timeloop. He wonders if Quentin 1 met his Eliot the same way. He wishes he could ask, hopes he remembers when he eventually does die.

“Am I hallucinating?”

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

Quentin smiles faintly at the memory, and taps the page in the pattern meant to spell the charcoal, then turns to a clean one. He sketches Brakebills after that, Eliot and Margo, Alice, Penny, Kady, the professors and the classrooms, the Cottage and the Fillory clock. He doesn’t draw anything of Whitespire (he did enough of that as a child) but he draws the four of them on a cliff by the sea, a page full of little sketches, memories of that moment.

That’s the day he takes out the sketchbook in front of the others. As the days pass, he draws Kady and Alice with their heads together over a map and their daemons curled together, Eliot pretending to poke Margo with his cane while Cythera and Talaus watch - he’d never actually dare, Quentin thinks, Margo would take the cane and kick his ass with it - and Julia laughs and offers to pose for him like they’re children again, Asterion regal on her shoulder. He takes her up on it, keeps drawing in front of them whenever he feels the urge, which is often. Sometimes, someone calls out a request and Quentin draws it, tapping out the spell and tearing out the page to hand over.

And if Eliot tells him one day, “You have charcoal on your face, you should watch that,” with the oddest look in his eyes - he got chalk on his face and in his hair the same way once - Quentin pretends he doesn’t notice the look. It’s a thing, it’s not a thing, and that applies across the board. He ignores the look, but he finds that it’s easier to slip back into the rhythms of his friendships, all of his friendships, with his sketchbook and charcoal in hand, as if drawing daily life reminds him it’s real.

But he buys a new sketchbook the day he tells Dr. Griffin, “I lived a whole other life, and I want to live this one, but sometimes I think if the depression doesn’t stop me, missing what I lost will. What do I even do with that?” The cover is marbled pink and purple. Peaches and plums , he thinks, and he draws the little cottage, he draws Arielle and Teddy, baby, boy, and man, Terciel and Ileana. He draws Eliot as he was when they arrived, right before he died, all the years in between, Cythera sprawled across their laps and Ariadne over their feet.

This sketchbook stays tucked in his messenger bag and he never takes it out at the loft, because what could he possibly say to explain it?

 

(xxi) to keep us together so far apart

Eliot hates that Quentin insists on going to therapy alone.

“I really shouldn’t hate that,” he tells Cythera after watching Quentin and Ariadne go out the door for one of the appointments, trying to put his mind back to the spell compendium he’s helping Kady put together. He and Margo have the most Brakebills education, so she’s been using them as a resource for the hedge school plans she’s drawing up.

Eliot… is still not the biggest fan of hedges, but he is a fan of the concept of putting Henry Fogg’s nose out of joint. Helping Kady in her quest to set up education for hedges is the kind of thing that will at some point do just that, after all. And it fits with his idea of everyone finally figuring out how to work together so people stop finding all the cracks to fuck with them.

(Also, he maybe possibly owes Kady and her hedges for that cooperative bond, though he’s not about to say it out loud.)

“You shouldn’t hate that, but we both hate that,” Cythera agrees.

“I just want to - help,” Eliot sighs, setting aside the notebook. “I mean, being left alone so long is what fucked Q up so badly, I don’t understand why he’s insisting on this.” He worries about it, and he knows Julia does too. Margo doesn’t seem all that concerned, she said something along the lines of it being better for Q to know what he needs and insist on it. She’s right, and Eliot knows this, in principle he agrees with her, but. But he can’t help wishing Quentin needed something different.

He can’t help worrying that Quentin will just - walk out and not walk back in.

Of course, his fucking subconscious obliges, because his fucking subconscious is like that. Eliot dreams the Mosaic nightmare again, dreams of waking up in the infirmary to Margo telling him that Quentin is dead, not in a coma, dreams of Q in that goddamned Underworld parking lot he described, turning away from the door back to the living world and walking through a white arch instead -

And his eyes snap open in the dark, fingers clenching in the sheet, in a bed empty except for him. A choked breath like a sob escapes him as dream and reality jumble in his head, until -

“Eliot?”

Their room has a window seat. Well, not exactly, that’s a generous term. What it actually is, is more of an unusually wide windowsill. Looking up and squinting in the dark, Eliot can see Quentin’s silhouette against the window. He falls back onto the mattress, breath coming out on a shaky sigh. “Nightmares,” he says, staring into the dark.

“Yeah,” Quentin murmurs. “Me too.”

“I’m turning the light on,” Eliot warns, and then he does, a flick of his fingers to flip the switch. He blinks against the light, sees Quentin shading his eyes against it. Come back to bed , he thinks but doesn’t say, because - because now isn’t the time, when his throat still aches and his eyes still burn with unshed tears, when he sees a glimmer of wetness on Quentin’s cheeks. He knows, because Alice told him what Quentin said, that Quentin didn’t realize Eliot was trying to tell him more than just it’s really me when he’d quoted Quentin’s own words back at him in the park.

“If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver it’s because I learned it from you.”

Eliot means to keep that promise, but he - he clearly did a good job of convincing Q he didn’t want to be with him, in the throne room. Which means that when he takes that back, it has to be a moment where Quentin will believe him. So he stays in bed alone, facing Quentin curled on the windowsill, his head tipped against the glass. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Cythera and Ariadne curled together, both of them far more secure than their humans. “I wish you’d let me go to your appointments with you,” he says softly because he can’t say the most important thing yet but maybe -

Maybe he can start somewhere else.

Quentin turns to look at him, brow furrowed. That puzzled look might be the death of Eliot, one day. “I don’t see why. I mean - you and Jules - do you guys think I’m not going? I promise, I am going.”

“Julia can think what she wants, I don’t know and I don’t care,” Eliot says flatly. He and Julia may have called a truce, but it only goes so far. “I just - you shouldn’t have to do this alone, Q. From what I’ve been able to find out, you’ve been too much alone, the past months, and look what almost happened.”

“It wasn’t -”

“Don’t tell me it wasn’t, Quentin! I saw your damn chart, exhaustion and dehydration, malnutrition and lingering damage from injuries probably caused and healed - badly - by magic, on top of your own haywire spell almost killing you! I know you were spiraling and no one noticed, and now you’re insisting on doing this alone and I - why , when not having anyone is what did this?!”

Quentin looks mutinous at first, but his expression softens as Eliot continues, until he mostly just looks sad. “It wasn’t - OK, maybe it kind of was like that. To be honest with you, El, most of the time since Brian was kidnapped by the Monster is - kind of in a haze. I know I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone, I’m not quite sure why I felt that way. It’s one of the things I’m talking to the doctor about.”

Quentin gets up and slips back into the bed, lying on his side so that they’re facing each other. And it’s achingly familiar, they’d only had the one bed in the cottage so even before Quentin had kissed Eliot on the Mosaic they’d slept together in the platonic sense. Except, sometimes, they’d lain awake and talked just like this. “I’m not doing this alone, Eliot. Am I alone right now? Am I ever really alone these days, except for my therapy visits and the travel time?”

“Well, no,” Eliot admits. “But me watching your YouTube history documentary deep dives with you, or the stuff you’re doing with the others, that doesn’t feel like it’s helping, Q.” Even if he likes it more than he’d ever say out loud, Quentin leaning into his side with the laptop balanced between them, their daemons curled together at their feet.

“It is, though. And you should know that - how many times was it a little thing that started shaking me from one of my funks, before?” Quentin asks him softly. “I don’t - I don’t want my hand held for therapy, Eliot. Or, no, that’s not right. I need to not have my hand held for that, because I need to do it. I need to be the one making myself go, every week, because I need to remember I want to fight this. I learned it wasn’t enough to want to live for the people I care about, not in the breach. I have to figure out how to fight for myself, does that make sense?”

“Yeah. Yeah, Q, it does. But, Julia was right. If you were in the Underworld, then we really did lose you for a while. Can you blame me for being afraid that it’ll happen again, when you go off alone?” Eliot asks, resting their foreheads together. “It might not make sense, but it’s true. I can’t seem to help it.”

“I’m not going anywhere, El. That’s the whole point, learning to make sure I don’t.”

Eliot knows that. He does. And so, he tries not to frown at the closing door on Quentin’s next therapy day. He curls a hand in Cythera’s fur and pretends to be absorbed in the map Margo and Kady have spread out on the coffee table. Until his phone buzzes in his pocket, a text from Q.

Hey so after my session I’m gonna just take the train down to Coney Island, had a whim. Meet me at the coffee place I told you about at 1, we can go together?

Eliot still has his cane, but at this point he’s been told more walking can only help him strengthen his bad leg. And even if that wasn’t the case, like hell he’d say no. I’ll be there.

The coffee place is called Shelby’s, and they turn out to have applesauce muffins and lattes that are both amazing. Quentin is quiet when they get on the train, Ariadne curling on his lap even though she’s too big for it on a train seat. Eliot and Cythera wait, Eliot’s fingers white-knuckled in his daemon’s ruff.

“Little bit hard today,” Quentin says, finally.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not specifically.” But Quentin’s hand brushes Eliot’s free one, an unspoken request, and their fingers tangle together as easily as they’ve ever done, and Quentin leans into Eliot’s side for the rest of the trip, his head a familiar and soothing weight on Eliot’s shoulder. And part of Eliot, the part that will always be an angry and wary farm boy in Indiana, is ready to attack if anyone on the train looks to have a problem with two men tucked together like this, but no one does.

New York City, no one pokes their noses in, whatever they think. For better or worse, depending. So Eliot rests his cheek on the top of Quentin’s head, and they watch the city go by outside the window.

Coney Island is just getting loud, early June crowds. Eliot’s not sure, at first, why Quentin wanted to come, because for a little while they wander the boardwalk kind of aimlessly. Then Quentin manages to find a bench in an out of the way spot and takes out his sketchbook. Eliot huffs a laugh and sits next to him while their daemons revel in the ability to go away from them to explore. “How come I never knew you liked to draw, anyway?”

“Because I didn’t,” Quentin says, shrugging one shoulder. “As a kid, sure, but then… my first therapist decided to make a technique of it and I didn’t like it anymore. But now it, it helps, it makes things real again to draw them. Dr. Griffin’s good about not using it, she says that habits and hobbies can be good for someone without being part of therapy. That they should be.”

“So you like her, then?” He remembers Quentin talking about the therapists he’d had, once or twice, in Fillory. He hadn’t seemed to like any of them, from what Eliot remembers.

“She’s… the best I’ve gone to, at least? So, yeah, I like her, more or less. Look, if you wanted to keep wandering…”

“I really don’t, not unless you do,” Eliot assures him. He does end up playing games on his phone for a little while, though, even if people watching is somewhat entertaining. He’s no New Yorker, but he likes making a game out of trying to spot the tourists. Some of them are obvious, others less so. And, of course, he leans over to watch Quentin draw. He’s not drawing full portraits of anything, just little sketches scattered over the pages. A little girl with an ice cream cone, the Ferris wheel, a pair of clasped hands, storefront displays, just things that seem to catch his eye.

Eliot gets up to stretch his legs, leaning on the rail and looking out at Brighton Beach. “Water’s still too cold for much swimming, I bet,” he says absently. “You know, I never saw the ocean till I was in undergrad, except in movies, TV. First time, I went right to the edge, I couldn’t believe how loud it was, how… impossibly big.” He’d been barely eighteen, terrified and thrilled all at once, Cythera trembling at his side.

“I always liked it. We went to Wildwood every year, it was just part of life,” Quentin says, and Eliot hears him shuffling, maybe turning on the bench, but he doesn’t look just yet, as Quentin keeps talking. “But there was this quiet spot by the seawall I liked best. They’ve blocked it off now, I guess it was unsafe but I’d sit there for hours, just listen to the crash of waves, and it was… That could be the whole world, surf and sand and breeze. And happy chaos not too far off, if I wanted it. But the sound , it was like... Like how we’d curl up in the cottage when it stormed, remember?”

“And you loved the sounds of the wind and the rain, meanwhile I’m thinking about tornadoes,” Eliot huffs, rolling his eyes. “But ocean, I know what you mean. The first time I saw it up close, after I stopped just staring at it like the idiot farm boy I so tragically was at the time? I’d seen something my parents never saw, my brothers, the extended family - none of them ever wanted to leave so they never did. But I had, and I knew - I was never going back.”

Now Eliot does half turn, leaning still against the rail, the wind picking up just enough to tug at his hair. Quentin’s watching him, a faint smile on his face, but then -

“El, don’t. Don’t move.” Quentin loses the smile, his eyes going focused, intent in a way almost recognizable from situations involving a lot less clothing, but also… not like that. The sketchbook’s open again, to a fresh page, and Eliot laughs in spite of himself.

“Q, are you drawing me?” he asks, keeping his voice lazy and teasing like he’s a careless third-year again testing the limits of a pretty first-year boy he’s only just realizing is more than a new flavor of the week.

“Yes, just - stay. I’ll try to be quick about it but I’ve got to - you don’t know how much I’ve got to -” Quentin shakes his head and bites his lower lip, embarrassment shifting back to focus and he looks up every other minute to check some detail and Eliot -

How can Eliot do anything but let him, how can he be anything but staggered by the way Quentin seems to need to do this? And after, when their daemons are back with them and they’re walking the boards again, they stop for ice cream because why the hell not and Eliot demands to see the sketch because, “honestly, Quentin, you can’t just boss a man around like that and expect him not to want to look.”

So Quentin hands over the book, and ducks his head over his mint chocolate chip cone while Eliot looks. He doesn’t go right to the sketch of himself, he flips through older pages, most of them childhood memories, it looks like. Some of Brakebills, or little scenes from their current day-to-day, and then -

Oh.

Eliot doesn’t make a habit of looking in mirrors when he’s deep in thought, or memory as in this case. And so it’s odd to see the intensity, the faint melancholy, of his own expression, it’s like Quentin somehow drew the description Eliot gave of himself at eighteen into his current features. How , Eliot doesn’t know, he doesn’t -

You see so much when you care to look, sweetheart, and yet you can’t see the one thing I need you to see , Eliot thinks, helpless, and he wonders if Quentin would taste like mint chocolate chip if he kissed him now, if Quentin would taste chocolate on his own tongue, if, if…

If Eliot knew how to tell him the truth so he’d believe it. And he doesn’t, yet. But he has Quentin, he has him back, and he’s not letting him slip away. So there’s time, they’ll have time. And today, there’s the cheerful cacophony of a boardwalk, ice cream lingering on their tongues, and their daemons chasing each other in circles, playing together like nothing’s changed.

It’s something to be going on with.

 

(xxii) and the promise of a favorable wind

Quentin’s sketching again when Alice finds him. He seems to be doing that - not constantly, but a lot. Whenever he doesn’t have something else in his hands, out comes the sketchbook and charcoal sticks, and with them comes the Quentin she hadn’t seen in months who talks to people, rambling again even. As if having props in hand makes him better. Alice doesn’t know what to make of that, except that he’d smiled at her like it was first year again three days ago when she’d agreed to pose for him, and she’d been unable to do anything but smile back.

Much more unusually today, he’s alone. Alice doesn’t remember the last time she’d seen Quentin without Eliot or Julia or sometimes Margo in the same room. She knows this because she’s been waiting for an opportunity.

“Is that Julia?” she asks when she sits next to him at the breakfast bar. The girl taking shape on the page can’t be older than ten, one tooth missing from her smile, but she’s familiar all the same. It must be Asterion on her shoulder, but he’s a very small monkey, maybe a capuchin, half hiding in her hair.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” Quentin says, finishing off a line and then setting the charcoal stick down, looking up at her. After a moment, he frowns. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”

“Can you guess why?” Alice asks, and it is a struggle to keep her voice steady. But she promised herself that she would. Perdix is tiny right now, a monkey not unlike the sketched Asterion, so that he can sit on her shoulder and be close, comforting. “Really, Quentin, do you have any idea why?”

“Yeah, yeah I do,” Quentin says, rubbing a hand over his forehead and leaving charcoal streaks on his face. “Alice, look, I didn’t plan to -”

“I don’t care what you planned! You made me watch you almost kill yourself, Quentin! After you promised we’d do what needed doing together, after we’d agreed that trying to save each other just made things worse, every time!” Alice snaps, and this is why she’d waited until summer began, until Quentin seemed steadier, because she couldn’t have yelled at him when he was awake but still horribly fragile in the hospital, or healing but drifting like a ghost in the first couple weeks after he’d gotten out. But it’s June now, it’ll be July soon enough, and she’s less frantic in her anger, Quentin is more himself now.

“I know,” Quentin says, and he reaches for her hand. Alice almost yanks away, but she lets him take her hand, lets him twine their fingers together. He’s getting charcoal dust on her, and she should complain, but she doesn’t.

“I know, Alice, and I am so, so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, or make you watch that.”

“Then why did you? I mean, I know you were - I know what it was, Q, when you stopped running. We all know now, but why did you do any of it? We could have figured something out. We always do.”

“Except when we don’t, as 23 reminded me. We’ve always figured it out here, in this loop, but our luck had to run out, Alice.” Quentin sighs, looking away for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “I knew that Monster, and… either Everett had its power or it had all the magic he’d stolen as well as its own power. That didn’t seem - it wasn’t a risk we could take. But really, I didn’t think it through that clearly. It was like the mirror wanted me to fix it, and at first I forgot the risk in the, the sense of feeling that, and then…”

“Then you didn’t care.”

“Then I was too tired to care.”

“Is there a difference? It came to the same thing,” Alice points out, and Quentin shrugs.

“Um, kind of? It’s not something I can explain, exactly, but I’ve been in a place where I didn’t care about anything, I’ve been in a place where I hated everything, and those are ways my brain breaks. This is a different kind of way, a - I wanted rest , not death exactly, but it felt like that was the only rest I could get.” Quentin sighs, rubbing his free hand against the scar on his neck. “But you’re right, it added up the same way, and I’m so sorry I made you watch. And I guess I made 23 help, I probably owe him an apology too - but not like I owed you.”

Alice squeezes his hand, and lets go. She doesn’t wipe off the charcoal streaks, as Perdix leaps off her shoulder and lands in the form of an Asian golden cat, just like Ariadne. Truly gold, unlike Ariadne’s more amber-colored fur, but they’re the same shape, nearly the same size as they rub their faces together in a cat’s hello. “At least it meant we could save you.”

“And I’m grateful for that.”

“Are you?” Alice asks, and now her voice shakes, her eyes sting - she keeps her gaze very firmly focused on the daemons who are now carefully grooming each other.

“I am. Thank you, Vix.” Alice’s gaze snaps back to Quentin’s face when he uses that nickname - it seems to have startled him as much as her, and it’s different now, he says it the way he says Jules , a world of affection but not a lover’s affection. Almost like how Charlie had said Allie , and some deeper ache in Alice eases, somehow.

“Damn you, you idiot,” Alice says, and she isn’t sure how she got off the stool or got him off his, or how they’ve ended up hugging in the kitchen again , but here they are, and she thinks he’s crying this time but then, so is she. “Never, never again, Quentin, OK? You - you talk to someone, anyone , just don’t do that again.”

“OK, Alice. OK,” he whispers in her ear. “I’m getting better, really.”

“I could kick Fogg for telling you to throw out your meds,” Alice says, stepping back and smoothing down her blouse. “For the record.” Alice spent her life around magicians, and she knows that the only kind of drugs that fuck with magic are the kind that fuck with you generally, make you too loopy to function on any level, magical or otherwise.

“Yeah, Jules said the same thing,” Quentin says. “Well, actually, she said she’d strangle him.”

“That too,” Alice says. “Helpful as he may have been lately.”

“More than usual, that’s for sure. Hey, um… There’s this secondhand bookstore near where I buy my art supplies, want to catch a train over and check it out? Seems like something you might like, I’m pretty sure some of the books are magical but I keep getting interrupted before I can get a good look.”

Alice laughs, and it feels good. “Why not?” she says, and so they take a train to Brooklyn. She knows his therapist’s office is near here too, but he didn’t mention it so she doesn’t. Instead, they poke around the shelves of an old bookstore, and sure enough, Quentin was right about some of the books being magical.

“I’ve been wanting to read this bestiary for years, and Kady will definitely want this book of battle spells, though she probably knows half or more of them,” Alice says, holding up her finds. Quentin has a book on mending spells, it looks like - good, knowing one’s discipline is really only the start, and it doesn’t surprise her that he wants to learn all the uses for it he can, because it’s Quentin and they’re alike in this much - and one on…

“Magical cocktails, really?” she teases him. “I wonder who that could be for.”

“Battle spells for Kady, huh?” he asks in very nearly the same tone. “How is it being roommates with her, by the way?”

“Not bad, no one gets kicked.” Margo and Julia have a running debate on who has caused the other more bruises, they tend to have this debate over breakfast while everyone else hides in their coffee mugs. “We talk a lot. Almost like the sleepovers I never had as a kid.” Except… there’s something, a spark under her skin, when she thinks about those quiet conversations. “How’s rooming with Eliot?” she asks, to take her mind off it, and to test herself. There’s a squirm of discomfort but it’s mild, and she’s proud of that.

“Not the first time. Banter and bullshit and dancing around everything,” Quentin murmurs, “but no one gets kicked either. So there’s that.”

It occurs to Alice that while she might have no idea what’s going on with her and Kady, at least they aren’t anywhere near this much of a pair of raging idiots . But it isn’t really her business, and mostly she just wants to enjoy the sunny afternoon with a friend she almost lost, in more ways than one.

When they find a street market on the way to the train station, Alice buys a necklace for herself at one of the tables and a pair of earrings she carefully doesn’t think Kady would like. Quentin buys a pair of rings at the same table, green jade and black, slipping the green onto his right ring finger and the black on his left. She doesn’t ask, and neither does he.

It’s a nice summer day, and nothing catastrophic has happened yet, so why poke too hard at each other?

Chapter Text

(xxiii) if I gave you my hand would you take it?

Eliot notices the rings the day Quentin and Alice come back from their shopping trip, because, well - they’re a little bit obvious. Green and black against Quentin’s skin, where before bright copper had once been, matched in everything but the patterns etched into them. Why black and green? he wants to ask, why anything at all? He wants to ask but he doesn’t know how, and so he says nothing.

He actually doesn’t have a wedding band anymore. He wouldn’t have any of his rings anymore, except he knows a few jewelry conjuring spells and replaced them, except for his wedding ring, the one from the marriage to Fen. It turns out, being mourned in Fillory is the equivalent of being legally declared dead, and being legally declared dead is the only method of Fillorian divorce available.

“Maybe you should consider changing the laws, High King Fen,” Eliot had said dryly when Fen told him this. “I mean, if I’m not actually dead but it still holds, maybe actual divorce can be an option now?”

“Maybe you’re right,” Fen had agreed, stroking Kaisa’s back.

Granted, Fen may or may not be High King forever. Margo is looking for a way to undo her banishment, and Eliot knows Fen is on board for that much. He does not know if Fen will easily give up the throne, or what will happen if she doesn’t and Margo won’t compromise. He… also doesn’t know what he’ll do, because he can imagine both of them looking to have him take their side and that is just -  

He’s not a king anymore, and when he thinks of Fillory - Fillory is still a home to him and Cythera, yet it’s not Whitespire he thinks of. It’s a cottage in the middle of nowhere, it’s Teddy’s voice and Arielle’s teasing laughter, Terciel’s bright feathers in sunlight and Ileana mimicking Terciel, it’s Quentin and Ariadne. And Quentin and Ariadne are here, on Earth, and so Eliot and Cythera are here.

For now, so are Margo and Talaus. “Well, I owe Kady’s hedges for you, don’t I?” Margo says, tossing her hair like it’s nothing. “Anyway, we’re still not sure how to fix the exile problem. So I might as well keep myself occupied.”

“I guess you might as well,” Eliot says, and they go back to writing down spells for Kady. “God, I hope she doesn’t ask us to teach, can you fucking imagine?”

“Screw you, I’d be the best teacher they ever had. Also the scariest, and probably the hottest,” Margo retorts with the sly grin he’s always loved so much.

He doesn’t love it quite as much when Quentin and Kady come back from the sandwich shop down the street with their daemons walking close together and all four chatting quietly. They’re friendlier than they’ve ever been, and when Eliot had asked Q about it, he’d only gotten a shrug and a comment that “we found out we actually have a thing or two in common. Also she’s going to show me how to throw a punch.”

He doesn’t love it as much because Margo takes one look at Eliot and the way he can’t look away from Quentin’s hands as he and Kady unpack the food they’ve brought, the green and black catching the light differently than the copper had but still impossible to miss, and huffs.

“Honestly, El, shit or get off the pot,” she murmurs. “You can’t just pine from afar forever.”

“Actually, I am entirely capable of that. But I probably shouldn’t, this is true.” Not least because he made a promise. But the thing that Eliot is finding, is that it’s easy to make a promise to a figment of one’s own trapped mind. It’s easy, in a horrible, painful way, to make dramatic vows to someone who is in a coma and unable to hear them. It turns out that it is a lot harder to look Quentin Coldwater in the eye and tell him the truth now, when he can hear, can react, when he’s real and won’t just… let Eliot have whatever he wants because he’s a conjured-up illusion.

Because here’s the bottom line. Eliot almost lost him. For good. And that - he can’t breathe , just thinking about it. He just - needs Quentin around. Needs to wake up in the mornings with them wrapped up in each other like nothing’s ever changed. And Eliot will keep silent forever if not upsetting the balance means he gets to keep Quentin.

It’s only a fraction of what he wants. But given how close he came to having nothing but a memory, well. He’s reluctant to risk losing it.

Except Quentin went out, with his ex-girlfriend no less - although if Eliot is any judge of things, he’s fairly sure Alice and Kady are in the early stages of circling each other - and bought rings . Rings that he wears where he used to wear wedding bands. A green ring where there used to be a ring Eliot put on his finger.

He can still remember, will never forget that day. The middle of autumn in Fillory, the leaves red and orange and gold like flames against the blue sky, Teddy laughing that it’s about time they made it official after the ribbon had been tied round their hands. “He gets the teasing from you,” Quentin had said, rolling his eyes.

“And you love it in both of us, Coldwater, don’t deny it,” Eliot had said, grinning until Quentin gave up on trying to look annoyed and smiled too. And then, well, their hands were still tied together, how could Eliot not use that to reel Quentin in for a kiss?

Eliot blinks, and shakes off the memory. Margo is watching him watch Quentin, and he can feel her gaze like he’s transparent and she can see right through him. Probably because she can, always has.

Two days later, Eliot and Cythera find Quentin and Ariadne napping in their room, and Quentin has a sketchbook open on his lap because he fell asleep sitting up. Eliot shakes his head and moves the sketchbook so he can nudge Quentin down to lie properly. Soft sleepy grumbles are his response, and, familiar with that, he hushes them with a kiss to the top of Quentin’s head. Once he’s down, curled up almost in a ball, Eliot glances at the open sketchbook -

And his breath catches in his chest.

“Eliot?” Cythera asks, crossing to him and nosing at his free hand. “What is it?”

“I - it -” He shows her, flipping through the pages of a life together, a life he’d spent months trying not to think about, that Quentin decided to memorialize and then never show anyone, because Eliot’s seen his sketchbooks, he’s got a whole collection now. He’s never seen this one out where it can be seen, this one with its swirled pink and purple cover.

Peaches and plums, or close enough.

“We promised to be brave,” Cythera says quietly. “We can’t expect them to come to us this time, Eliot, or even really give us an opening.”

“I know that,” Eliot hisses, as he closes the sketchbook and puts it on the bedside table, gathers the pencils back into their case and puts them back as well. “I just - I will. But I can’t, yet. I don’t know how to tell him so he’ll believe me, Cythera. I don’t know how to fix what I broke.” Because he knows he broke more than Quentin’s heart, he knows that he must have broken some of Quentin’s faith in him too, and that, that is what Eliot can’t figure out how to surmount.

But he will, he knows that now, however scared he is of what it might cost him. He has to. Because he can’t bear this forever.

 

(xxiv) help me tie up the ends of a dream

“The funny part, the really funny part? My first Fillory copies were my mother’s. She started it, and then she couldn’t tolerate it anymore. She fell in love with a woman who didn’t like kids, she didn’t have the patience for me anyway, and she was basically gone. I should have taken that as a warning, magic and fantasy lands have a punch to the gut behind them.”

Dr. Griffin considers him, her eyes a pale blue behind her glasses, and for the first time Quentin almost considers sketching during a session, except he kind of wants to try and capture that shade of blue, and all he’s got is charcoal. “Do you blame her for your interest?”

“No. I blame her for leaving and then acting like she should still get a say in my life when she decides she feels like it, and for acting like all this -” he waves at the office “- is just me seeking attention. The fact that she set off the interests that led me to the best and worst things in my life is just… a messed up fucking coincidence. But at the same time… I wanted her to meet Alice, once, I want her to meet Eliot. Her meeting Arielle would’ve never been possible, but I wanted that too.”

Quentin almost stops talking, but, fuck, he’s said this much, might as well finish it out, right? “I wanted it with my dad more because I knew he’d want to meet them, I knew he’d be happy and I got to see that a little when I told him about my other life. But I wanted her to know too and I - I don’t know if it’s because I still want her to be my mother on some level, or if I just wanted her to see that someone. Loves me. Even if she doesn’t.”

Damn it, how had he ended up talking about his mother? They’d started out with his first considered suicide attempt, the incident with the pills and whiskey and Ariadne clawing at him till he stopped, then suddenly he was talking about Mom. Ariadne is curled on his lap today, while Dr. Griffin’s kakopo daemon sits in his usual bookshelf nest. Quentin wonders sometimes what that deceptively silly-looking daemon thinks, watching him every session like he does, but he tries not to brood on it. At least he’s less judgey than the last two therapists’ daemons. They’d both had monkeys, and the judgment had been obvious on their faces.

“You used the present tense with Eliot,” Dr. Griffin says mildly, and Quentin shrugs.

“I’m still in love with him. I don’t think I’m going to shake that, or ever stop hoping, a little. It’s just part of me now, I think I’ve accepted that. And he’s - I don’t know. He was always good at mixed messages, and the thing is that... In our other life we didn’t have to talk about it, I feel like he’s trying to tell me something but he won’t say it.”

“Have you thought about asking him?”

“Well, yeah, obviously,” Quentin huffs. “But I don’t want to - it’s good. We’re good. I’d rather stay in the in-between that’s good than risk upsetting the balance and things go wrong. Does that make sense?”

Dr. Griffin watches him steadily. “Does it make sense to you?”

“You know, doc, it would be really nice if you could just cast a damn spell and tell me how to fix everything screwy in my head, but magic can’t do that any more than it can cure cancer. I said this before and I’ll say it again, who made this system up, this running on pain crap? I have depression, shouldn’t I get, like, super-charged?”

Dr. Griffin raises her eyebrows, but she lets him change the subject. Quentin likes this about her, actually - he gets very stream of consciousness and he knows it, and Dr. Griffin usually follows his tangents more than his other therapists did. “You tell me. How is your magic, after working with me and taking your medication?”

Quentin shrugs. “Better, I think, actually.” Weirder, also - he has a hunch, lately, that he can feel it when something has magic in it, but he’s not sure if he’s onto something or not yet. He’s keeping it quiet until he has a better sense for it. “I can focus more, anyway. So there’s one strike against the bullshit about my pills I was fed on day one, right?”

And, frankly, now that he’s figured that out, it pisses him off. But there’s not much he can do about it, so he tries not to dwell. It mostly works.

After the session, Quentin goes back to the art supply shop. On something that’s almost a whim, but feels like more than that, he buys a case of colored pencils. He also, before leaving the coffee shop - today he couldn’t settle and three pages of his sketchbook are full of little doodles, but nothing complete - buys two dozen mixed muffins to take back to the loft. No real reason, except they make great muffins and he should probably learn to share.

No one’s in the kitchen or living room when he gets home except for Penny 23 and his eagle, which gives Quentin and Ariadne half a moment’s pause. It’s strange, being around 23, these days. Strange because their original Penny and his eagle - a golden eagle instead of a crowned eagle - are fresh in their minds all over again, strange because 23 is the other witness to Quentin’s suicide attempt, and not only a witness, but…

Quentin sets the muffin box down on the counter, and without looking at Penny, he asks, “Why did you listen to me?” Ariadne leans against his leg and he’s not sure why he asked, it’s not like he regrets ensuring that if he did die, no one else but Everett would, but something about it bothers him.

“What, Coldwater?”

“In the Mirror World, when I told you to take Alice and go. You don’t like me, I’m pretty sure half the time you look at me and see the Beast. Which, OK, I probably would too in your shoes, I can’t help that or anything, but you didn’t even argue with me. I just wondered why,” Quentin says, tap-tapping his fingers against the counter. There’s gold flecks in the countertop if you look closely enough, and it makes him think of gold sparks and how they burn.

Fuck.

“He told me to,” 23 says, and Quentin turns enough to see him, the uncomfortable scowl on his face, the way his crowned eagle - Theia, their Penny’s daemon was Theia, Quentin assumes 23’s is also Theia - takes flight with an unhappy shriek. “Dead me told me to ‘do what he says’, I don’t know why, though from what I heard he used you as a messenger so I’m guessing he used me to make sure you got there. Can’t say I appreciate being jerked around like that.”

And, OK, Quentin can relate to that because he’s not entirely pleased to have been used as a messenger either, though he gets that Penny at least believed it was the only option. If Sean’s timing had been just a little off, Quentin knows he might well have chosen to move on, without ever knowing he had another option. “Fair enough. I just - like I said. Wondered.”

“Yeah, well, if I’d known I was signing up to pull an assisted suicide, I might have been less inclined to go with it instead of grabbing you by the damn hood and dragging you out with us.”

“Well, that’s blunt,” Quentin says after a moment’s pause, turning to look Penny 23 full on. “But I guess you could say I’ve earned blunt. I shouldn’t have asked you to do that, I’m sorry - I wasn’t planning that but it was still a screwy thing to do.” His thumbs rub along his rings, an old habit he’s fallen easily back into. “How much did you hear, from my head? Our Penny used to rant about how loud I was.”

“Enough to know you were fucked up, not enough to know how much. Enough to know I couldn’t call you out too much for playing along with that thing , because in your shoes I would’ve too.”

“Christ, I’m really starting to get sick of being obvious to all the wrong people,” Quentin mutters before adding in a louder voice, “This is probably where I turn the tables on you and pull the ‘if you hurt my best friend’ shovel talk but, uh, I’m probably not that convincing and anyway, I’m not sure it still applies.” He’s not sure it should apply; he’d finally gotten the whole story of Julia’s turn human, which had turned out to involve 23 making the decision for her instead of reading her mind.

“Your guess is as good as mine on that one,” 23 says, sounding tired. And there’s something - Quentin is not on 23’s side, here. He is very much on Julia’s side, on the side of his friend who has had her choices taken away from her way, way too many times. But he wonders, uncomfortably, what he’d do, what he would have done, in 23’s shoes. He’d like to think he’d do better, do differently - that he’d learned from forcing Alice back to humanity when he was in love with her and thought it meant he knew what she wanted. He’d like to think that, if they are using the same analogy, that if he’d lost Eliot, then was maybe getting him back in a new reality, he’d not pull a similar stunt just to keep him. He’d like to think this but he wonders sometimes.

Then again, Quentin actually can’t imagine being willing to replace Eliot that way to begin with, by pursuing another version of him. It seems kind of creepy, though in fairness it’s probably the kind of thing you can’t be certain you’d refuse to do until the issue comes up. Regardless, he can’t really see himself in 23’s shoes.

And yet… Penny’d made Julia smile, for a little while. In a way almost like how a teenaged Julia had started to smile at James, Quentin seeing it and having to turn away and make himself breathe through the jealousy. Jealous of both of them, he can admit now, just like he can admit that Ethan (first kiss, first fuck, first everything but love) had blond hair like James and brown eyes like Julia and both of these probably had something to do with why Quentin wanted him in the first place.

Well, that and they had a lot of fun trying to out-cheat each other at poker.

“Try an apology with no excuses, and if you pull a stunt like this again, I’ll see if I can’t pull off acting on a decent threat after all,” he says to 23 and leaves the room, because really, he’s not sure what else there is to say.

“So, that was weird,” Ariadne says when they’re back in the room they share with Eliot and Cythera. A side note, here; it is ridiculously unfair to share a room with Eliot, because between the multiple shampoos and the hair product, aftershave and cologne that are definitely paired by their smell as well as effect, the whole damned room always smells like him.

It is just - not fair.

“Life is weird,” Quentin says, reaching for his salve. The scars on his back run down to mid-thigh or so, and they’re mostly not bad, except for when he showers. He used to like hot showers but now, it’s probably sense memory and not actual damage but the hot water makes him feel like the sparks are burning through him again. So, he runs the water cool now. But the sunburst scars on his palms… He has stress balls he squeezes every day, and he has this magicked salve, all to keep the scar tissue from hardening and giving him trouble.

Dr. Lipson, when he went back for a checkup, said that the drawing probably helps too, at least his dominant hand. The trick is to never go too long without working both his hands, because that will give the tissue a chance to stiffen. He could lose enough hand mobility to have real trouble with magic, if it gets bad.

He prefers to use the stress balls right after waking up and right before going to bed, making them part of his routine. Also, it’s easier because it means Eliot’s the only one who sees, but Quentin is the one who sees Eliot try to go without the cane only to wobble too much and need it. They’ve been here before, as age caught up to them. Whatever they are now, they are safe in this, and know it.

If only it wasn’t the only thing Quentin is certain about, when it comes to Eliot. And thinking that, Quentin pulls out the new colored pencils, and the sketchbook where all his Mosaic drawings live. Because his memories are in color, after all.

He wakes up, later, to find his sketchbook closed and placed on the bedside table, the pencils back in their case and set neatly on top of it. The thing is, the last thing he remembers is feeling a pencil slip from his fingers. “Did I put that there?” he asks Ariadne.

“I don’t think so, but I was sleeping myself,” she says.

Well. Shit.

 

(xxv) played songs we never heard, but we danced anyway

“I’ve been thinking. There has to be something off about the theory that magic comes from pain,” Julia says, laying back on the couch and folding her hands over her stomach. Next to her, Quentin flips a pencil over and under his fingers while Asterion preens Ariadne’s fur. For a moment, they could be in undergrad again, or even earlier - high school, middle school, elementary school.

“What do you mean, something off?” Quentin asks without looking up from the book he’s reading. He’s looking up something for Alice, she thinks, while Julia tries and fails to cast simple spells. It’s really starting to piss her off, because she knows her magic is still there, she just can’t seem to access it properly.

“Well, I mean, look at you. You said magic’s easier now, with you back on your meds, right?”

“Mm. I mean, I’m not exactly better at it,” Quentin says thoughtfully, closing the book with a finger inside it to keep his page marked. “But I can think it all through more clearly, because my head’s clearer. I can concentrate better. But I think I see your point, I was complaining about it myself. I have depression, you’d think it’d make me extra powerful.”

“Maybe that’s what Fogg was trying to do, telling you to quit your meds, though that’s no excuse,” Julia says. “But, I mean - if it was just about pain, then there wouldn’t be any reason for, let’s say, magic to run in families, but we know that it does. Some of that is probably that fucked up people can end up raising fucked up kids even when they try not to, but that can’t be all of it.”

Julia sits up, shifting over on the couch so she can lean against Quentin’s side, put her head on his shoulder and twine their fingers together. “Maybe once there’s one magician, the link stays open, and can be inherited,” she says aloud, still pondering her theory. “So maybe - maybe pain opens the door to magic, but what happens next doesn’t have to be more pain. What do you think?”

“Could be,” Quentin says, tilting his head so his cheek rests against the top of her hair. “I don’t know, Jules, you’re the one with the knowledge discipline, I just fix things.” And there’s something happy in just the words, she notices. Julia happens to know that Quentin really likes fixing things, outright gets a kick out of using mending spells to fix any little broken thing in the apartment. Like when the kitchen sink got knocked out of alignment thanks to one of Kady’s hedge-students and water was spraying everywhere, for example.

Only a few days ago and Q had been soaked when he was done but smiling in a soft, pleased way Julia’s rarely seen since puberty hit and depression came with it.

So there’s something happy in Quentin’s voice when he says he fixes things, but also something exasperated right now, because he knows that mending isn’t the kind of fix she needs. And that - “Hey. You’re sitting here letting me talk at you, that’s kind of exactly what I need right now.”

“A sounding board? Is this going to be like the time you said I was just a sounding board for the track team and I ended up being the lookout while you guys set up your prank in the boys’ locker room?”

“... Probably not.”

“I feel so reassured, Jules. Really.”

Julia huffs and elbows Quentin in the side as Asterion takes flight with a laugh, Ariadne running around underneath him as he flies circles over all their heads. And then Julia tries another spell. It’s akin to the sing-along spell, the tut is similar, but -

It isn’t pain Julia is thinking of. It’s a lifetime of these two daemons playing together, of this man next to her who grew up when she wasn’t looking just like she did when he wasn’t looking either, except that this moment, this moment together has a thousand thousand echoes in their twenty-six, almost twenty-seven years alive. Maybe the weight of things matters more than what they are, and good things can be as heavy as the bad.

Julia’s fingers flick out in the last motion of the tut and music fills the air in the otherwise empty loft, music followed by her own giddy laughter. “Wait a minute,” Quentin says, “isn’t this -”

“Yep, the song we taught each other to dance with before junior prom,” Julia says, and on impulse she jumps up, using the fact that she’s still holding Quentin’s hand to pull him up with her. “Come on!”

“Jules, this is ridiculous.”

“I don’t care.”

And that’s how they end up spinning around the room while songs they played on repeat in high school run on magic through the air around them. It’s like being five and twelve and seventeen and twenty all at once, and this almost didn’t happen. The thought is enough to make Julia stumble and stop, and Quentin stops with her, blinking down at her in confusion as the music softens but doesn’t stop.

“You promise me, Q. Never again, OK?” Julia demands with a sudden lump in her throat, holding his hands like he’ll vanish if she lets go. “You’re my family, and I’m yours, and I - we’ve both fucked up, and I don’t know - but that’s over, it’s done. And I will be here, if you’ll be here. You got that?”

“You’re more my brother than they’re my sisters, and this is more home than my house,” Julia confessed at ten, on the tire swing Mr. C built for them both.

“And you and Dad are my family, Mom isn’t,” Quentin had told her then, his gaze intent on hers. “Always, right?”

“Always.”

Now those same eyes study her, and Julia holds on tight, thinks of the sunlight dappled through the trees, the gentle motion of the stopped swing. Julia has magic that’s only a little accessible, Quentin has charcoal smears and mysterious rings on his hands, they both have years of hell weighing them down and all the things that, before magic, they’d known how to share. All the things they’ve forgotten how to share.

“Then I guess I have to be here, don’t I?” Quentin says, and this time he’s the one who spins her around, when the spell she didn’t shut off flips to an older song, childhood movie soundtracks now. “I came back, Jules, I’m not about to give up on that so fast. Anyway, can’t leave my little sister just getting her magic back, can I?”

“Little! I’m older than you!”

“Yes, but I’m taller, aren’t I?”

She smacks his shoulder, but he only laughs like she hasn’t seen from him in years, and what can Julia do but laugh with him, and table her payback for later? So that’s what she does, and they spin like idiots around the room until the door opens. Quentin and Julia freeze as one, Eliot and Margo looking at them with identical what the hell expressions as Cythera goes to twine herself around Ariadne and Talaus settles nearby.

“Julia’s magic’s coming back on,” Quentin says with a grin as Julia cancels the spell.

“High school radio hour, huh?” Margo asks as Eliot leans against the counter, his eyes on the rings Quentin wears.

“Oh, nothing wrong with them having fun, Bambi, even if the music’s a little… trite,” Eliot says, and Quentin rolls his eyes.

“I know for a fact that you can sing Nickelback of all bands, OK, so watch it,” Quentin retorts, and Eliot looks as offended as a cat who’s just had water poured over its head. Julia has to stifle a laugh and Margo doesn’t bother to -

And for a moment Julia wonders, dizzily, if it was like this for brief moments in those other timelines when she was a student alongside them. She wonders if, when Eliot and Margo took Q under their wing, she came too, or if she kept him from them, or if other people (other Pennys, maybe, or other Kadys, or other people entirely who she’s never met here) drew her away at the same time as Q went with these two so they still were pulled apart.

Thirty-nine lives and one, probably all of it happened at least once.

Thirty-nine lives and two , for the two men in the room, though. Eliot’s gaze still catches on Quentin’s hands when Q won’t see him, and Quentin shoots Eliot sidelong looks when Eliot’s looking somewhere else. Julia doesn’t know much; she knows what Eliot told her in anger, and she’s seen the pink-and-purple sketchbook Quentin keeps. She knows what Arielle’s smile looked like and how much Teddy looked just like Q as a kid. She knows from Quentin that he still feels like Arielle’s widower and Eliot’s husband, that he misses Teddy with a constant ache, she knows a handful of stories from fifty years that go with certain sketches. But Q made Julia promise not to tell anyone any of this and so her hands are somewhat tied.

The thing is, this is getting ridiculous now. So after dinner, when Quentin is sidetracked by Kady towing him and Alice off to learn to punch - there’s a thought - Julia follows Eliot out onto the little terrace. Asterion is on her shoulder, Eliot’s Cythera sitting at attention at his side when Julia braces herself against the rail. “Need a light?” she says, offering her lighter.

“Got it, thanks,” Eliot says, and Julia shrugs, lights her own cigarette instead. They smoke in silence and the red-tinged light of sunset for a while, until Eliot says, “Is this a shovel talk?”

“No, this is a ‘dear God please do something before I find a shovel and hit you both’ talk,” Julia says flatly. “I mean, you literally stole his medical chart and justified that by spousal privileges, don’t you think maybe you should try talking to him?”

“Thought about it, sure. Not as easy to do, it turns out.”

“Dear God. Well, I’m pretty sure if you two keep pining, someone is going to snap and lock you in a room until you stop, so, just keep that in mind.”

When Quentin asks, the next morning, what she was talking about with Eliot - how he heard about it she’s not sure - Julia just shrugs. “Angel protecting your future, remember?”

“What does that even mean, in this context, and how worried should I be?”

Julia grins, and wraps her arm around Quentin’s waist. “Don’t worry about it. Now come on, we’re on breakfast fetching duty. Eventually someone’s going to have to start cooking around here, this is getting to be a lot of takeout.”

And that’s that, for now anyway.

 

(xxvi) when you come close to selling out, reconsider

They all know Quentin’s therapy day routine by now, because they more or less live in each other’s pockets. So Margo knows that when they get one of those super-rare summer days when there’s almost no humidity and it’s not too hot, she can find him in a park three blocks from where his doctor’s office is. Which is, in fact, where she finds him, set up at a picnic table with charcoal sticks and colored pencils, drawing the kids and their daemons running through the sprinklers not far from where he’s sitting.

“Finally decided to add some color to your art, huh?” she asks, dropping onto the bench beside him.

“Oh, hey, Margo,” Quentin says in an almost dreamy sort of voice, before he shakes his head and looks up, closing the book. He sticks the green colored pencil he’d been using behind his ear, blinking like he needs to bring things back into focus. “Yeah, felt like it was time. There’s probably some kind of symbolism or whatever in it, but it’s been a while since I was in philosophy class.”

“Ugh, let’s not go there, Coldwater,” Margo says, rolling her eyes. “Why was that your major in undergrad again?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Quentin says with a shrug, and Margo kind of wants to shake him, because that is way, way too much of a life motto for their Q. Blackspire, letting Niffin Alice live in his back, probably the very fact that he ended up dead in 39 timelines trying to defeat the Beast.

Mending the Seam-mirror.

“I don’t think that’s a life motto that works for you, Coldwater,” is what she says out loud, and Quentin shrugs without answering, so she pokes him in the shoulder. “I mean it, Q. It’s gotten you into a lot of trouble by now, hasn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

She probably should have known he wasn’t going to make this easy. But before she can so much as speak, Talaus does at least some of the work for her, loping after Ariadne and picking her up like a cub. Then he drops her between his paws and holds her there while he washes her, the smaller cat yelping in exasperation but half-laughing too. Margo turns away from them to see Quentin watching her, bewildered but fond too, hair falling in his eyes again. Just long enough for that, not long enough for him to really hide.

Margo lets herself smile soft the way she wants to, reaching out to brush Quentin’s hair back. She can feel the warmth of their daemons, cuddling now, and it helps. “I should have known something was wrong the second I saw you,” she tells him.

“Margo, it’s -”

“Shush, I need to say this and I need you to listen. I still don’t get why I didn’t, except that so much was happening and I’d gotten out of the habit of checking on you. But Tal and me, we made ourselves a promise that awful night -” She stops, giving herself a moment so that her voice stays steady. “I was sitting there by Eliot’s bedside, afraid to leave him, and afraid that door would open on someone telling me you were dead. Both my boys hanging in the balance and all I could do was sit there . And then, I had Eliot barely mobile insisting on seeing you, and we turn the corner to hear Alice yelling at Julia that what happened to you was a suicide attempt.”

“I’m sorr-”

“I don’t want you to be sorry!” Margo yells it before she can stop herself, and she probably wouldn’t have anyway. “You apologize too fucking much sometimes, except when you don’t at all. I don’t want you to be sorry, Q. I want you to not do this to us again. I want you not to do this to yourself , for that matter. You think I haven’t found out since how much you pushed yourself? It’s been a few months now and you’re still too damn thin, you still look tired.”

Margo pauses, takes both of Quentin’s hands. He leaves charcoal dust on the back of her left hand, but she doesn’t care about that right now. “Eliot is my best friend, my other half, you know that. But you - you are ours , OK? You’re my best friend too, and I lost sight of that, and maybe you did too. I should have seen it but you should have known you could talk to me, even in the middle of all the bullshit. I don’t know which of us forgot first, or how, but no more of it, Quentin. You got it?”

Quentin nods. “I’ve got it, Margo. Really. I’m - I am trying. I knew as soon as I decided to come back that I’d have to try. I knew before I actually made up my mind, really.”

“It helped you, didn’t it?” It’s a thought Margo’s had before. The others, she knows, think Quentin is steadier now because the bad shit is over and because of therapy, which isn’t wrong, but. Even when he’d just woken up, he’d been more himself. “Being in the Underworld, I mean.”

“It did,” Quentin admits, nodding. “I know it sounds awful. But something about - having to face what I’d done, having to make a choice so explicitly… It helped. Because I know now I don’t want to die, so that even when my brain says it wants to, I know that I don’t… want to want to, if that makes sense?”

It doesn’t, exactly. Margo has many issues of her own - she’s a magician after all, having issues is part of what makes being a magician even possible - but she’s never actually been suicidal. If anything, Margo’s instincts are to cling fiercely to life, whatever comes her way.

But she thinks of Quentin, dejected on the Cottage steps, breaking over his father and the knowledge that magic wasn’t the cure-all he’d thought it should be. She remembers that as the moment she knew this boy was hers. He’d already been hers because he was Eliot’s, transitive property and all that, but that moment had cemented Quentin as one of Margo’s people with or without Eliot. “It’s the universe deep-dicking us. Lay back and try and enjoy it,” she remembers saying, with no idea just how badly the universe was preparing to continue fucking them all over.

Somehow, Margo had understood then that what Quentin needed was to have people with him. That being alone was what would destroy him. She knows, because they talked about it later, that Eliot had figured out the same thing - she remembers him calling Quentin over when they were grilling in the rain, remembers Q’s bewildered wet-puppy face and silly smile, how Talaus and Cythera had met Ariadne halfway. But Margo had sensed it for herself, and she’d wanted to be one of those people, surprising herself with how much. It hasn’t changed either; even when she’s wanted to smack him she always wants to keep him.

“I’m not sure if it makes sense,” she tells him honestly enough. “But if it helps you stick with us, then it doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to work.”

“It is working, Margo. I promise,” Quentin tells her, and his eyes are as honest as they were that day on a cliff by the ocean. So Margo believes him, her one-time little king, at least for now. And if it stops working, well. She’ll just have to keep an eye on him to kick his ass into gear if it ever proves necessary. Or drag him back from the brink.

Speaking of ass-kicking, though… Margo considers telling Quentin she knows why he’s wearing those rings, that she knows about the Mosaic. But she can’t, because she’s pretty sure Eliot doesn’t want her to tell anyone. “Let’s go for a walk,” she says, and she hooks their arms together as they head off down one of the paths. Ariadne is riding on Talaus’ back, because it amuses them both to do it. Margo finds the sight pretty funny herself.

“So how goes the research?” Quentin asks as they circle a fountain. “To get your exile reversed, I mean? I know the bunnies are having trouble again…”

They are, and that makes Margo nervous. The bunnies seem disoriented when they come, at least as disoriented as bunnies can look. “So far no luck. I think we might be onto a way to let me back into Fillory, but I’d never be even a citizen again, much less get my crown back.”

“Will Fen just… step back down?” Quentin asks. “I mean, she is actually High King now, would there have to be more elections?”

“Truthfully? I have no idea,” Margo admits. “I mean, I can take Fen personally, but no one wants a succession crisis. Or another damned war - and yes, I know how that sounds coming from me, we’re all growing up here, Coldwater.”

“I didn’t say anything!” Quentin objects as their daemons laugh.

“I can hear you thinking, I know you,” Margo tells him, mock-threatening. “Honestly? I want to go back and get my throne, but I kinda like being back on Earth.”

“Much better on, like, the indoor plumbing front,” Quentin agrees, mock-solemn. Margo rolls her eyes and pokes him in the side because she can. He’s right of course, there are a lot of modern conveniences she misses when in Fillory, though the nice part about that High King can never leave thing going by the wayside means none of them will ever be trapped in Fillory again because of it. Even assuming the Game of Musical Thrones stops, and all.

They could end up trapped in Fillory by other things, of course. That’s always on the table because life is a bitch like that. But Margo still wants to go back. And the bunnies being half-stoned does not make her feel better about the situation. Something is wrong, and she can feel it. But she can’t do anything until she can figure out a way to get her fucking crown back.

“Maybe Fen can reappoint you like Eliot appointed you, me, and Alice?” Quentin suggests. “I mean you wouldn’t be High King anymore, and I guess it’s wrong to go back to appointing monarchs when Fillory’s learning about elections, but, well. Fen overthrew you and only you, her, and Josh know you agreed to it, that’s not exactly democratic either.”

“I don’t know if I want to settle for that, and the whole ‘can’t even be a citizen’ rule of the only exile reversal we found so far means it won’t take,” Margo says. “I’ll figure it out. Eliot’s helping me when we’re not helping Kady, and Alice is too sometimes. I think if Zelda keeps pointing out all the knowledge she’ll have access to she’s going to cave about running the Library.”

“Hmm.” Quentin shrugs. “She’s pretty adamant on not taking the offer right now, but you might be right. Jules and I might be able to help you out soon, we’re making progress on her magic so once that’s settled we can help.”

Margo isn’t entirely sure how she feels about that - she still can’t decide how she feels about Julia, even if she is a mostly-decent roommate and she did save their asses at the end of the key quest after Alice fucked them over. But she figures she needs all the help she can get, especially since she just knows something else is brewing. Hell, that something else might even be how she wins back the throne, if she plays it right. “I may take you up on that,” is all she says for now, though.

At the edge of the park Margo convinces Quentin to get lunch from a food truck because she claims to have missed food trucks while in Fillory. He might suspect she’s also pushing food on him - he really is too damn thin and she doesn’t like it, OK? - but he doesn’t say anything.

At another picnic table, Margo nudges Quentin’s foot, waiting for him to swallow his sip of soda before she says, “So, when are you and El going to get your act together? The longing in the air is getting so thick we’re all choking on it.”

“I - I don’t know what you -”

“Bullshit, Coldwater,” Margo says flatly. “I know you, remember?”

“It’s not that simple, Margo. He - he shot me down once already, and I don’t know… It’s, I’m a lot to ask someone to take on, especially when they’ve already -” Quentin cuts himself off, studies Margo with narrowed eyes. “You know, don’t you? About the Mosaic? About the fact that we still remember?”

Suspicions aside, Margo tells herself there’s no reason to lie to a question that direct. “Course I do. And you’re both fucking idiots but that doesn’t mean you need to pine dramatically forever. Honestly. Keep this up and I’m locking you in a room together.”

“I, uh. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See that you do. All of it,” Margo says, in her firmest High King voice. She watches Quentin straighten up in his seat in response to it, and his face is very serious when he nods. Which is an interesting reaction. But she means it. She wants him to remember every single thing they discussed today.

If he doesn’t, she’ll just have to remind him.

 

(xxvii) and to those who have seen it

“So I think I should be offended that you haven’t actually asked me to pose yet.”

“What? Of course I have - haven’t I?” Quentin has certainly drawn Eliot countless times - even discounting the memories sketched in the Mosaic book - but surely that wasn’t all drawn from memory or just one of his ‘candids’ of the others in the apartment.

“No, you have not. You ordered me to pose at Coney Island, but you have not asked me, Quentin Coldwater, and I am insulted,” Eliot says, turning his nose up, though Cythera’s amused chirp sort of ruins the effect. Ariadne, tucked in against Cythera’s side, purrs contentedly, enjoying the dramatics. Quentin does too, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep the ridiculous fond smile off his face.

“In that case, please pose for me, Eliot Waugh,” he says instead, working very hard to keep his face appropriately solemn. It lasts… about five seconds, then his eyes meet Eliot’s and they both burst out laughing. And it’s - God, even before everything it’s been so long since they were able to just laugh like this, like ridiculous twenty-somethings who might or might not still be grad students.

Even on the Mosaic, Quentin realizes, startled. Even there, they’d still had a job, and then they’d been building a life, a family, and that had been wonderful even when it was horrible, with plenty of silly moments, but the weight had always been there.

There isn’t any particular weight, just now.

“How do you want me?” Eliot asks, entirely too innocent, and one look at his face tells Quentin he knows absolutely what he’s doing. Also, they’re in their room, Eliot half sprawled in the single chair with his feet propped on the bed, Quentin curled on the overlarge windowsill, their daemons cuddled together beside the bed. He’d been reading up till now, a book called Cold Fire from a stash of Marina’s Kady had found, since he’s worked his way through all the Old Kingdom books. But there’s not much to do, in the room. They could leave, obviously, but…

“Get on the bed,” Quentin says, leaning down to pull his sketchbook out of his bag.

“Aren’t you going to buy me dinner first?” Eliot laughs, but he does what he’s told anyway.

“Oh, I see you’re in a ‘tease Q’ mood.”

“Well, it always has been fun to make you blush.”

“Ugh, you’re impossible. Here, no, don’t just sit up…” It’s more than half an excuse to touch Eliot, but Quentin will take what he can get, nudging him into a position on his stomach, like he’s relaxing, looking at something. Cythera he gets to lie beside the foot of the bed, relaxed. Eliot’s healed now, except for occasional leg trouble, so Quentin knows it’s safe. “Maybe you should have a book.”

“This is me we’re talking about. Oh, I know - give me one of your sketchbooks, I can flip through it, you can draw me looking at it,” Eliot suggests.

“Oh. Yeah, all right.” Quentin reminds himself that Eliot’s looked through his sketches before, more than once. But there’s something - he doesn’t know what it is, something in Eliot’s eyes almost like a dare, and he remembers again waking up to find his Mosaic book closed on the nightstand. Well, he’s certainly not giving Eliot that one, thank you very much. His fingers close instead around the first sketchbook he filled, and he hands it over to Eliot, who props his head on one hand like Quentin had directed him, the sketchbook open on the bed. Quentin fiddles with the curtain for a minute until he has better sunlight coming through the window, then settles back onto the sill, sketchbook braced against his knees.

Quentin’s trying to capture the exact tilt of Eliot’s head when he realizes Eliot hasn’t just been staring at one page. He probably should have noticed sooner, but the thing is, when he draws, in a weird sense his awareness falls away. He sees light, shadow, line and angle, the focus of his sketch in sharp relief yet nothing else at all. “You’re supposed to keep still,” he murmurs, voice absent.

Huh. He doesn’t usually talk once he gets into a sketch, and he sounds out of it.

“I am keeping still, but if I don’t actually look, I’ll get bored,” Eliot tells him, and flips another page. Quentin hums and doesn’t try to answer, talking is actually kind of hard when he wants to focus.

He’s trying to figure out what pencil combination will get him the closest to the gold-hazel of Eliot’s eyes when Eliot says, “Q, why are there two of you in this sketch? Some kind of symbolic thing?” But his tone is less curious and more edgy, like he knows there’s more to it. Quentin blinks and looks up to find Eliot’s sat up, holding the sketchbook to show him the picture of Quentin 1 in the replica of their childhood room, Quentin himself as a reflection in the wall mirror.

“Oh. Uh, no.” He hasn’t really discussed his Underworld adventure in any detail. Far as he can tell, no one really wants to know, and he hadn’t felt like discussing anything but the situation with Penny back in the hospital. But Eliot is looking at him with worried eyes, and Cythera is tense beside the bed, on her feet again and watching him with her tail lashing but otherwise still as the Sphinx.

Ariadne leans against his legs as Quentin moves to sit more properly, setting his sketchbook aside. “That, uh, isn’t me. Well, not exactly. I, shit.” Quentin runs a hand through his hair, which is growing in again now. Longer than Brian would have tolerated, he thinks, shorter than he himself usually likes, so not yet as long as that of the other Quentin in the sketch.

(Once, he’d let it grow even longer, he remembers the weight of it. But he’d also stopped hiding behind it, forever and not so much forever, as it turns out. All he has of that now are memories and replacement rings.)

“I mentioned Penny, and Sean Teagan, when I told you guys about Penny having to set me up, and all that. I didn’t mention, Sean sort of… brought someone else in, to talk to me.”

“Because you didn’t know whether you wanted to live or not.” Eliot’s voice has gone from edgy to a terrible kind of flat that makes Quentin’s throat tighten, but damn it. He’s working on it, isn’t he? Isn’t that enough? Isn’t the choice he made in the end, to live, the choice he’s following through on, enough?

“No. I didn’t,” Quentin says, and his voice is clipped, and Eliot flinches. Quentin wants to regret it, he does regret it, but if they’re going to do this then he is going to be honest about it. No one fucking asked him, no one fucking noticed he was sinking when it was happening, and Quentin hasn’t been knowingly angry about that but apparently some bit of him is. Eliot is the only one who wasn’t there but he’s the one who’s asking now, so.

“Look, it was bad,” he tells Eliot softly, gentling his voice. “I was bad. And I’m getting better, I started getting better because of what happened, because it woke me up, but I was really fucked up, El. So, yeah, I needed to think, and I needed to hear things. So, Sean summoned backup. Me. Or, well, not-me. Like our original Penny and 23. That was, um, the original me, from the timeline that existed before Jane’s first reset.”

“Timeline 1 Quentin,” Eliot says softly.

“Yeah. He was, uh. Pretty insistent I come back, actually? Like, more than you’d expect, well, me to be, I guess, even in my worst moments. That, it sort of. It didn’t exactly tip the scales, because it wasn’t all of what I needed to know to choose living, but it weighed in. A lot. So I had to draw him. Because talking to him was the turning point. He told me that he was the last to die, in his world, but when all he wanted was that he could have died instead of his friends, they told him they didn’t want that either. That they’d wanted to just - all survive, you know?”

“I know exactly,” Eliot says, and he’s staring at Quentin like he did that day in the park, when he’d broken through for precious seconds. Staring at him like Quentin is the only thing in his world, and that -

Do you still love me? Quentin wants to ask. Did you ever, really, the way I fell in love with you, or was that whole thing about not a choice you telling me that for fifty years you just made do? But he doesn’t. “And, you know, he also said the rest of my, uh, other selves - and everyone else’s too - would be mad at me if I stayed, which seems pretty intense compared to what Penny said.”

“I’ll point out that, willingly or not, Penny was trying to make you choose to die, you said that yourself,” Eliot says. “But - what did he say?”

Quentin shrugs, and somehow, he can’t quite look at Eliot when he says, “That you’d all be fine without me.” He strokes Ariadne’s fur and watches the way it moves under his fingers, and it takes him a moment to realize that Eliot hasn’t responded. So he looks up to see that Eliot has gone dead white, his fingers clenched in Cythera’s fur.

“Quentin,” Eliot says, and his voice is very, very even in that way it only gets when he’s holding back a lot. “Tell me you know that’s bullshit.”

Quentin shrugs again, wants to look away and finds that he can’t. “Well, no. I mean. I know it wouldn’t be good news but. You’d get over it, if I hadn’t come back. Right?”

Somehow, that… does not seem to have been the right answer.

 

(xxviii) burning the night like the dawn

Eliot could swear something goes - odd with the world, when Quentin says that Penny told him they’d be fine without him. Things are echoey and he feels strangely cold, like someone dunked him in a tank of ice melt. Maybe that’s why he’s able to keep his voice so calm when he says, “Quentin. Tell me you know that’s bullshit.”

But the answer he gets - Eliot is fairly certain he feels his own heart briefly stop in his chest.

“Well, no. I mean. I know it wouldn’t be good news but. You’d get over it, if I hadn’t come back. Right?”

“You’d get over it.”

You’d get over it.”

It plays on repeat in Eliot’s head, bouncing around in there until it’s the only thing he can think of. And he can’t speak, he can’t answer, and Quentin is looking at him with that fucking puzzled face like he didn’t just rip Eliot apart -

And Eliot has had it.

He doesn’t remember getting up. He doesn’t remember gripping Quentin by the front of his shirt and pulling him up either. The next thing Eliot knows, he has Quentin pressed back against the wall beside the window. Quentin is looking up at him, eyes wide and startled. “Eliot -”

“No. Shut up. You’ve had your say, God fucking knows you’ve had it and I’ve kept my mouth shut. I’m done, Quentin. Done . I am tired of you - you carrying around this fucking ridiculous idea that you are expendable! I thought we settled this over Blackspire, I thought shooting the goddamned Monster in the face so you wouldn’t stay with it -”

“Oh, and that worked real well, didn’t it, Eliot!” Quentin snaps. “No one needs -”

Eliot takes him by the shoulders and shakes him. “Stop. Just - stop . I swear to God, Q. Stop talking.” Quentin’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even try to twist out of Eliot’s grip. Eliot holds him there, still, and he’s probably holding on too tight and he doesn’t fucking care right now.

“I am not talking about your - effectiveness as a magician, or whatever it is you’re thinking of by need,” he says, and his voice is level, calm, each word very clipped and precise. Because it’s that or start screaming. And screaming won’t work, he needs Quentin to hear him. “We need you. We wouldn’t be a we without you, you’re the person who brought us together, remember? Maybe Julia and Kady would be friends regardless, Margo and I would be, sure, but that’s it, Q.”

He slides his hands down Quentin’s arms, feeling him tremble slightly under the touch. “We need you. You’re one of us. And you - you keep trying to fall on your fucking sword like that’s what you think we expect. No one expects that, no one wants that. When you were - we didn’t know if you were going to wake up, no one was anything less than gutted, Q. And -”

“I’m not saying no one cares, El, just that -”

“Just that we’d be fine without you,” Eliot snarls, deliberation forgotten in a rush. Quentin isn’t getting it, how can he not see? “Oh, yeah, sure, Q. Maybe a few of us would be but fuck that. Fuck that. ” Eliot shakes him again, because that puzzled look is back and he can’t bear it. “You hear me? You think Julia or Margo would be OK losing a best friend? That Alice would just move on without a blink? That I -”

Eliot’s throat tightens and he swallows hard. “You think I can do this without you, Quentin?” he asks, his voice a low hiss. “I need you. You can’t just - I would have torn the Underworld apart to get you back if you left me, Q. I can’t lose you, do you hear me?”

“You said -”

“I know what I said! For fuck’s sake, Q, I was lying! Because I was scared, and when I get scared I run away. And I had to face that. I did face that. When I broke through to you, the way I did that was by finding my worst memory. And you know what that was? Rejecting you that day in the throne room. But it wouldn't be that now, Q.”

Eliot pauses, seeing shock and confusion on Quentin's face. “God, I need you to stop that, looking so damn confused that people care,” he says, voice softening in spite of himself. “I promised my memory of you that I'd be braver, that I'd tell you the truth. But then… then I woke up, and Margo told me what happened, that you might never wake up and - that would be my worst memory now. Waking up to a world where you might never be there again.”

“Eliot, I -”

“I love you,” Eliot cuts Quentin off. “I'm in love with you. And maybe you moved on, maybe you can't forgive my rejecting you. Fine. But you need to know that. And you need to know I need you, as my friend if not my partner, I need you in my life. Please believe me, you are not expendable, no one would be all right without you. And it would destroy me, to lose you.”

Eliot stops talking, then, because there’s nothing else to say. He’s told Quentin everything he thinks might matter, and Quentin isn’t answering, is just staring at him. Out of the corner of his eye Eliot sees Cythera has Ariadne pinned, but Ariadne isn’t struggling any more than her human is. Quite the reverse, she’s all but limp under Cythera, as if welcoming being overmatched like that.

“I’m sorry,” Quentin says quietly, and all of Eliot’s focus is on him again. Quentin’s eyes are wide, a little darker than usual, intent on Eliot’s face. “I - I guess I should have listened to myself a little more, believed him a little more. And to what our friends have said since I woke up, now I think about it. But I - it’s going to take time, Eliot, and I’m never going to be fixed . I need you to know that. That I can work on this, on all of it, for the rest of my life, and figure out how to mostly be OK, but there will still be bad days. And I know that you, you were there before, but you might have thought modern medicine would fix it. It won’t, not completely.”

“I don’t want to fix you, Quentin. I want you as you are, good and bad,” Eliot tells him, needing Quentin to believe that much, at least.

Quentin shrugs a little. “Either way. I needed to say that, needed to tell you that. And I can’t. I can’t promise that I’ll always just - believe that I’m not expendable. Some days I won’t. But I believe you mean it, and that the others care, and is that enough to be a start, El? Because there’s something else.”

“It’s a start,” Eliot agrees, because it is, because it’s the first step to convincing Quentin and he’ll take that, he can definitely work with that.

“OK, good. Because the thing. The last thing. You said maybe I moved on.” Quentin shakes his head, and oh , Eliot knows that smile. The first time he ever saw it, Quentin had just kissed him on their anniversary, that night on the Mosaic. That smile that managed to be bold and sheepish all at once. “I don’t think I’m capable of it. I’ve been in love with you, to know it, since the day you walked back into the Cottage from the Neitherlands, and I practically jumped on you because you were literally all I could see, all I cared about, in that moment. I love you, and I want everything you’ll give me, you have me in every way you could ask for.”

Eliot stares at him, and he realizes then - he hadn’t expected Quentin to still want him. Not, as he’d claimed once, because he’d thought Quentin didn’t mean his offer. Not anymore. But because Eliot had broken his heart, and why would Quentin trust him with it a second time? But he has. In spite of it all, Quentin still trusts him enough for this. After all the fear, all the doubt, to have what he’d hardly dared hope for is... It’s staggering .

Eliot lets go of Quentin’s arms, framing his face with both hands as he pulls him in for a kiss.

He’d kissed the memory version almost exactly like this. But this is vivid and real and Quentin has his arms around Eliot’s waist, is pressing in close even as he opens for him, and it’s so much more than a memory could ever be. “Stay with me,” Eliot whispers when the kiss breaks, trailing his lips along Quentin’s jaw, his neck, pressing the words into his skin. “Be with me, don’t leave me.”

“I won’t, not again, not going anywhere, but you - you can’t either. Eliot. You can’t. I can’t bear it again,” Quentin tells him, voice and body trembling, and Eliot kisses him quiet, stroking a hand through his hair until he settles.

“I won’t,” Eliot promises, resting their foreheads together. “You and me, this is all I want. I’m not going to be stupid enough to leave you behind again.” He turns them around, backing Quentin up until his knees hit the bed and he lands in a sprawl, so that Eliot can cover Quentin’s body with his own. He rolls his hips as Quentin arches his own up to meet them, a rhythm easy as breathing, like coming home as he kisses Quentin again, swallows the little noises he makes as they move together.

“You always respond so well for me,” Eliot murmurs, sucking a mark just under Quentin’s ear, another one just above where a shirt collar might hide it. “Even if we’re quiet, everyone’s going to know…”

Good ,” Quentin says with a sudden fierceness that surprises Eliot, as much as Quentin’s hand tangled in his curls, pulling him into a harder, almost desperate kiss does. But he can match him, one hand twisting in Quentin’s hair, pressing him down into the bed.

“Let’s see if I can remember the spell…” He can, of course he can, and their clothes are gone, vanished and reappeared in a pile on the floor. Usually he can make them fold themselves, but while he’s making sure it worked, Quentin bucks under him, enough to get a little space between their bodies, and he’s got his hand wrapped around both their cocks, fingers slick enough that he must have been doing a little casting of his own. So, you know, imperfect casting can damn well wait.

Fuck - ” Eliot bites Quentin’s neck as he rocks into his hand, the friction lovely but not what he wants, not this time. He kisses Quentin again, deep and filthy, fucking his mouth with his tongue until his hand falters, and then -

“Eliot!” Quentin tugs his wrists where they’re suddenly pinned on either side of his head, but they don’t move, held fast by Eliot’s telekinesis. He can feel Quentin’s muscles working under his hold, an almost-synesthesia that always heightens his own need. He trails a hand down Quentin’s chest and stomach, over his hips, just avoiding his cock.

“You were going a little too fast, sweetheart,” Eliot tells him with a grin. Quentin rolls his eyes because he is a little shit, but he shivers every time he tugs on Eliot’s hold and fails to break it, he loves this as much as Eliot does, they both know it. Eliot grins as he leans down to kiss Quentin again, pressing their bodies together in a way meant as much to tease as to indulge in how it feels to be so close, skin-to-skin.

“I love you,” Eliot murmurs as he sits up again, looking down into Quentin’s face, his blown-black eyes. “And I’m keeping you this time, so you’re staying right where you are.”

 

(xxix) erasing the borders with each brush of a hand

Here is a secret that is not a secret. Quentin absolutely loves it when Eliot uses telekinesis on him. It’s like a brush of gossamer silk against his skin, strong as iron chains when he tries to pull against it. Even now, when it’s maddening, when all he wants is to touch and Eliot isn’t letting him, he loves it.

“I love you. And I’m keeping you this time, so you’re staying right where you are,” Eliot says, his eyes intent, and Quentin tugs again because he can’t help it, because they both like how it feels when he does.

“I love you too but now you’re just being a tease,” Quentin retorts.

“No,” Eliot says, tracing a familiar spell against Quentin’s hip. It’s one he suspects Eliot invented, that slicks someone up inside and cleans them out at the same time. It makes him squirm like it always does, the sensation of it somehow both strange and arousing all at once. Quentin whines, he can’t help it, and he sees Eliot’s smile turn sharp as he watches.

“No, no what?” Quentin manages to ask.

“No -” Eliot puts a pillow under Quentin’s hips, then slowly presses a finger inside him. Quentin’s breath catches; it’s been long enough for even that to burn a little, but he’s always liked that sort of discomfort. He’s determined to keep still while he can, though, bound hands twisting as he tries to find an anchor. “I’m not teasing you, I’m making a point.”

Later, Quentin will say Eliot was absolutely being a tease even if he was making a point. Eliot works him open slowly, eyes on him the whole time and Quentin almost doesn’t know if it’s Eliot’s fingers or the weight of his gaze, the pressure of his power, that drives him higher. All he knows is the way his thoughts scatter, the way he pushes back against Eliot’s fingers seeking more, biting his lip to try and keep quiet.

“El - please, c’mon - let me - stop teasing and just -”

Keeping quiet, he thinks dizzily, is not going well. He tugs again on the invisible bonds around his wrists even as Eliot twists his fingers in a way that has always driven Quentin mad, and he cries out, arching up desperately. “El -!”

“Shh…” Eliot whispers, leaning forward to press a kiss to Quentin’s knee. “All right, I’ll let you go,” he says with an edge of wicked laughter in his voice. A second later Quentin figures out why, because Eliot flicks his free hand and Quentin’s wrists are free, but then he pulls his other hand out. Quentin whines again at the sudden emptiness, but then he reaches for Eliot, pulling him into a desperate kiss, trying not to beg against his mouth but failing.

Eliot only hums in reply, cleaner hand tangling in Quentin’s hair as he kisses him back, kisses him quiet. Quentin can feel himself being moved, even though it’s not Eliot’s hands doing the moving. That gossamer silk again, catching him up and shifting him into place, ghosting over his skin until he can’t breathe, can’t think -

Eliot must have slicked himself up at some point when Quentin didn’t see, because the next thing he knows, Eliot’s hands are light on his hips as he pushes inside him. Quentin tries to move when Eliot just stills for a moment, reaches for him again. “El - come on -”

Once they find the rhythm, the way they move together is easy as breathing, and Quentin remembers just how to surge up under Eliot and make him go faster, remembers how to catch hold of him to pull him into a wild kiss. Eliot gets a hand around Quentin’s cock as his pace starts to falter, and Quentin cries out into the kiss when he comes, feels Eliot shudder as he falls over the edge right after him.

For a few minutes they just lay there, Eliot collapsed half on top of Quentin, a familiar weight. “So… you had a point?” Quentin manages finally, voice a bit muffled because he’s nuzzling Eliot’s curls.

“Mm. Yeah. You staying right here,” Eliot murmurs into the bend of Quentin’s neck. “With me.”

“Oh. I was already gonna do that.”

“Well. Call it hedging my bets.” After a moment, Eliot adds, “Quentin? Why the rings?”

“It just felt right, mostly,” Quentin says carefully. “I didn’t want to pretend it didn’t matter, that it didn’t happen, anymore. I was tired of pretending. Aren’t you?”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Eliot shifts then so that he’s next to Quentin, sitting up and looking down at him. Carefully, Quentin sits up too. Eliot considers him for a moment, then reaches for Quentin’s right hand, the one with the green ring in place of the wedding band Eliot gave him, once. Quentin’s half expecting Eliot to gently tug off the green ring, rolling it between his fingers, but it’s still a shock somehow when he says, “Let me put it back on you? Not - we do it for real, it won’t be this impromptu, but just. As a promise.”

Quentin finds he can’t speak through the emotion tightening his throat, he can only manage to nod. So Eliot slips the ring onto his finger, and then kisses him again. If the kiss tastes of salt, Quentin thinks that might be both their faults this time.

Much later, after a few cleaning spells and Eliot moving again to wrap himself around Quentin from behind, Quentin makes his way out of bed, easing out from under Eliot’s arm. He doesn’t go far, just pulls on his boxers and the first shirt he finds. It happens to be Eliot’s, and he doesn’t bother to button it as he curls up on the windowsill again, nudging the curtain aside enough that he can rest his temple on the cool glass, watch the city below. It’s night, but it isn’t that late, so he can still see people going about their business.

He can’t see the stars, not in New York City, but the city lights are their own kind of soothing. He’s always been a little in love with New York, growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. It was a kind of promised land to him, when he’d grown up enough to understand that there was no magical clock to a faraway land of magic - or wardrobe, or letter delivered by owl, because Fillory might have been his favorite but he wouldn’t have said no to Narnia or Hogwarts, given the chance. Fillory wasn’t real, or so a young Quentin had thought, but New York City was. Surely, in such a big, bustling place, he could find somewhere to fit, to belong?

Even though that didn’t work out in undergrad like he’d hoped, Quentin’s never stopped loving this place. Even when all he really cared about was finding the best tall buildings, he’d still wanted his last pretty view to be of New York City. And now - now it’s the place where he started learning that he actually wants to live after all, where he started realizing that, yes, his friends really do mean it when they say they care.

Where, now, he and Eliot have found each other again. And speaking of Eliot…

“Q, why do I have two cats in bed with me but not you?” In the light let in where Quentin’s nudged the curtain aside, Eliot looks sleepy, rumpled, and a little exasperated. Cythera is draped over his feet and Ariadne curled up against his chest. As Quentin watches, Eliot pets her, slow and gentle, making Ariadne purr and making Quentin shiver.

There’s a dare in Eliot’s eyes, when Quentin can tear his eyes away from the sight of Eliot’s fingers against Ariadne’s fur. A dare in his eyes and a smile on his lips, and Quentin can’t help but smile back. “I was just thinking,” he says with a shrug, not yet moving even as Eliot scratches that spot between Ariadne’s ears that makes both the daemon and her human go damn near boneless. “El…” he says, voice already gone breathless.

“You stole my shirt, bring it back here,” Eliot says, with all the imperiousness of their first meeting and his announcement that Quentin was late for an exam he hadn’t known he was scheduled for.

“You are ridiculous,” Quentin laughs, but he does get up, slipping back into bed. As expected, Eliot only wanted to take his shirt off of Quentin, and he tosses it back in the direction of the clothing pile.

“It’s already wrinkled to shit, that won’t hurt it. Now, what were you thinking about that you needed to get out of bed for, hmm?” Eliot asks, resting his forehead against Quentin’s even as he tangles their legs together. Ariadne wriggles out from between them, settling at the foot of the bed near Cythera.

“Nothing all that deep. Just that I’m glad I came back,” Quentin says, and while that may not be strictly accurate as an answer, that doesn’t make it any less the truth. He is glad he came back, so stunningly glad in this moment that it takes his breath away.

“So am I,” Eliot whispers, one hand curling round the back of Quentin’s neck to draw him into a kiss. It’s soft, this time, undemanding. And shattering , because there’s a world in this kiss, in this moment. A world Quentin almost walked away from, without really considering what he was leaving behind.

No matter what, he’s determined never to do that again.