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Quentin was screaming. Uncontrollable, on a account of all of his nerve endings firing simultaneously, as he was later told. But in the moment, he actually felt like he was being flayed alive; fire melting skin. Not the most auspicious of returns, that’s for sure. He wasn’t aware of much else, after that.

When he opened his eyes--and it was just like that. One moment searing agony, the next? Like he was in a giant cathedral just gliding towards the ceiling--everything echo-y and dreamlike. Definitely the morphine. He was in a weird bed/zero-gravity-chair hybrid, in some kind of hospital ward. Most likely a magical ward, given he was hovering in mid-air. Kinda, sorta. He was aware there were people around him; their voices that muffled-cotton sound like a conversation in another room. Someone was shining a light into his eyes and that made him scrunch away, trying to escape the brightness. But he was so fucking tired, and didn’t last long.

The next time, he was still flying high towards the impossible ceiling, and wondered vaguely if this was what it was like to astrally project. He blinked a few times, realizing he was looking at Penny, and maybe that was where the thought had come from. But, Penny was leaning in close, talking to Julia, so neither of them noticed. He rolled his head to the other side, with what seemed to be a great effort, and was met with Eliot’s anime eyes. Eliot’s face did that slow slide down thing, like when he was about to cry. Beside him, Alice shifted, holding herself stiffly, anxious eyes going wide when she met his. He tried to make a sound, but it just came out as a grunt. Then, exhausted, darkness folded over him, taking him back.

The third time, he was being shifted and prodded. It was annoying enough for him to peal his eyes open. Professor Lipson was adjusting something on his IV stand, twisting a vial, then wrote something down on his chart. After a few moments, she noticed he was watching her. “Back to the land of the living?” Her voice was far to chipper and her words far too glib, which she seemed to realize, given the way her face screwed up in sympathy. “Sorry. I just know there’s some people who would be very happy to see you’re awake. You up for a visitor? Just one. We don’t want you overwhelmed.”

His throat felt like the desert. “Water?” He croaked out, his voice like sandpaper.

She held out a cup with a straw. “Careful. You have a feeding tube.”

He brought his hands up to hold the cup steady, for the first time noticing they were covered in those thick hospital socks, the ones with the nubby bottoms to prevent you from slipping. He looked at Lipson with confusion.

“Ah. The spell was--well. Touching things hurts you. Someone figured out that maybe this would protect you a bit.”

And, wasn’t that a lot to process all at once. The effort of holding his head up to drink made him feel like he was approximately eighty years old. Something he knew from experience. Considering his options of visitors, he felt Julia would be the easiest. He lasted less than five minutes as she gently held his be-socked hand between both of her own, silently crying, before he passed out again.

The next time he woke, Julia was there again, watching the Maury show on low. The chyron on the bottom of the screen announced that “KEVIN IS NOT THE FATHER OF MISTY’S CHILD.” The Kevin in question was currently duck walking across the stage in front of Misty, who was flicking him off with both hands, middle fingers obscured. She was shouting a stream of expletives, given the way they were bleeping out every other word. He snorted, drawing Julia’s attention.

Julia clicked off the tv and turned towards him. “Hey! Oh, holy shit!”

He twisted a bit in the bed. “You didn’t have to turn that off.”

The corners of her mouth twisted upwards. “I’m not here to see Maury.” She pulled her chair around to be closer to his side. “How’re you feeling?”

“I--” His head didn’t feel like it was full of cotton, and he could actually focus. He was vaguely aware that he should be in pain, like it was just there, right out of reach. They must’ve switched up the drugs because morphine just made him completely numb. “I--uh. Not sure, exactly. How long have I been in here?”

Her eyes got suspiciously shiny and she slowly licked her lips. “Eight days.”

Which--he didn’t really know how to process. Seemed like he had just gotten there, but his sense of time was all wonky.

“The are others here, too. They want to see you. But Lipson has been strict about visitors.” She reached out, wrapping her fingers around one of his socked hands. “God, Q--” And she was crying again.

Quentin was having a hard time remembering anything outside of the last few days; of needles, drugs and beeping machines. But, he felt like he was missing something big. His eyes went wide. “Oh, Jesus. Who died?”

That just seemed to make Julia weep harder, bent over at the waist.

And, holy fuck. Was it Margo? Who hadn’t he seen? His mind ran through all the different, terrible scenarios, but the pull of exhaustion was just not a battle he was strong enough to fight.

She didn’t manage another word before he fell asleep again.

***

The next visitor was Alice, silently reading a book, back straight in her chair. She was dressed in muted grays and black. “Hey.”

“Quentin!” Her voice was doing that breathy, quiet thing when she was caught off guard. She closed her book. “How are you?”

He turned a bit to get a better look at her, but he still felt so fucking weak. “Never. Better.”

She let out a shaky breath. “It’s really good to see you, Q.” And, fuck. If she didn’t look like she was going to cry, too, eyes owlishly wide and bright.

So, it was as bad as he suspected. Worse. “Ok. Someone needs to tell me who died.”

At that, her face sort of crumpled, and she stared down at the book in her lap. “You--you don’t remember?”

And, then. Suddenly. An onslaught of memories. He felt like he was on fire again, dragged over broken glass. The mirror world. Everett. His body disintegrating into a million shards. He found it hard to breathe, heard the monitors going crazy as his heart tried to beat out of his chest. There was a flurry of movement; people shouting, coming into the room.

“Move, move!” Lipson? Maybe.

“I got this!” An angry voice, all sorts of broken. Painful, in how familiar. “Please! Just let me.” And then. Quiet. Someone taking his hand. A deep voice, anchoring him. Benefits of a lifetime of practice. “Q. Q? Focus on me.” Eliot took his hand. “Just breathe. Focus on me, ok, sweetheart?”

And, Quentin did.

***
He was in the hospital for a few weeks before he was deemed well enough for release. He had a full regimen of therapy, both PT and the broken brain variety. Everything was still loud, and bright. And, hurt. But, he was down to wearing a thin pair of leather gloves someone ordered off of Amazon, lots and lots of layers, and two Advils every four hours. So. Inching towards the new normal.

His first night back--well. He'd been exhausted, so he didn’t make it very far--the rush of all the people, and the noise, and just fucking being alive, before needing to lie down. He must have been out for a long time, because when he woke, the windows were dark. Someone was in the doorway. And, apparently, he'd been crying.

“You ok?” Eliot’s voice sounded slurry with sleep. “Dumb question.”

“Oh--I--I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” He reached over, fumbling with the lamp as he had put socks on his hands to sleep. He hastily swiped over his face.

Eliot limped over towards the bed, favoring one leg heavily. He was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt over pajama pants, and in that moment, he looked so much like him. It must have shown by the way Eliot pulled back a little. His eyes, though. All Eliot. He stopped, bracing a hand against the wall; his voice thick. “I can go.”

Quentin felt overwhelmed by a wave of panic. “No--please.” He took in a deep breath, wiping over his face again. He took in another shaky breath. “I know. I--I know I shouldn’t even be asking, but--”

Eliot’s face did something strange then. He seemed to consider something for a long moment, before giving him a tiny smile. “You can ask me anything you want, honey.” Eliot didn’t say another thing, just carefully slid onto his side on the bed facing Quentin, staying a few safe inches away. He just stared and stared, in that way that made Quentin feel like he was something precious. In that way he did before.

And, that? Answered a whole bunch of questions all at once.

***

He went out onto the little porch to smoke, leaning against the railing and just looking out. He'd made Alice cry. Didn’t mean to. Never did. But. Seemed where they always ended up these these days.

Alice had finally asked. Did you want to die?

And. He didn’t know the answer to that. Which? Was that worse than knowing?

Julia followed soon after. They always had eyes on him, now. “Hey.” She smiled, trying to be easy about it. “Can I join you?”

He shrugged, looking over his shoulder at her. “Sure.” He moved to sit in the other chair so they could properly talk. He wondered if he would make her cry as well. He was physically healing; things were not as painful as before. He was numb, though. Tiny bits of feeling coming through. Made him clumsy; no sharp objects, etcetera. But they’d been keeping him away from sharp objects ever since he’d been back, so. On the inside, though, he still felt completely raw and exposed.

“I saw--Alice.” She tapped out a cigarette from the pack, lighting one of her own.

He nodded, taking in an long inhale. “I always seem to find new ways to hurt her.”

Julia leaned forward a little. “Do you--I mean, you and Eliot.” She tilted her head at him knowingly. “You--talk--right?”

He flicked his eyes towards her; knew she was asking more. “Yeah. We talk.” And, they did. About lots of things. About Monsters and mind palaces. About regrets. And once, even, Eliot had asked. What he remembered. From the beyond. Nothing. Was the answer. Because all he remembered was walking through a door and then screaming on the ground. But when he started to consider the existential enormity of that. Of the seven missing months where he had simply ceased to exist. It felt like his sternum had split down the middle and he couldn’t breathe. And, Eliot had been there, holding him, rubbing his back. Through layers of clothes; Eliot’s hands covered in socks just so he could fucking touch him. I’m so sorry. It’s ok. I’ve got you, sweetheart. And, it had been the exact right thing.

Julia was watching him, thoughtful. “He tell you about the spell?”

He rubbed a gloved hand over his face. “No, he--uh. No.” Truth was, he got the gist that Eliot was not very interested in the mechanics of what happened. Just that it had fucking worked.

Julia nodded. “Well, I think you need to know. To understand why Alice--” She blew out a long breath, looking down. “I’m sorry, Q. I know this is hard.” She looked back up at him, eyes shining. “But, you need to know.”

“Ok.” He knew he sounded broken; could tell that Julia heard it, too, by the concerned look she shot him. He felt pathetic, wished Eliot was there, holding his hand. Julia slid her hand into his, squeezing gently.

She took a deep, steadying breath. “So. It was Alice who found the spell. Both spells, actually.” She squeezed his hand again. “She de-poisoned the Poison Room.” She waved her free hand around. “Has this theory about open-source Magic. Anyways. She found the book there.”

Quentin felt a swell of pride--of course Alice would find the way.

“So, um. She already found the resurrection spell, but like--” She closed her eyes for a brief second. “Um. The way--the way that you--”

“Died?” He felt a spike of panic lance through his chest.

“Yeah.” Another long breath. “Well, you--your, uh.” Another wave of her hand. “Essence. Soul? Or whatever. It was mixed in with, well, Everett’s. And, we didn’t know about the bottles. About the Monster. And--and, his sister. And, whoever else was in there.”

He could tell by her tone just how much this was breaking her. He squeezed her hand gently; knew it was inadequate, but he was pretty broken right now, as well.

She shrugged. “So, we need a calling spell. One that we could be sure would draw you to us. Just you.” She cleared her throat. “So, Alice found the spell. It was in Haitian Creole and--”

He sat up straighter. “Wait. Is this the point where you tell me you used a zombie spell to--”

She chuffed a small laugh. “No. Ok. So, yeah. Turns out there are spells that tap into the Zombie Astral, or whatever, but those are to reanimate a corpse, and that’s not--” She shuddered, shaking her head. “Anyways, the calling spell was in Haitian Creole, but also, like encoded. Like some weird iambic pentameter cipher--it was really fucking hard. We guessed that’s because it was a pretty dangerous power to have. Like what if you wanted to call fucking Hitler or something? But, we soon found out it was actually way more nuanced and specific for that.”

He could feel his heart thudding in his chest, his ears.

“Um. So, we figured out the key to it. Or, so we thought. But, it seemed pretty clear that the person doing the calling? Well. It had to be someone who loved you.” She squeezed his hand again. “Alice went first. But--nothing happened.” She shrugged. “Then, I went. Because? But. Yeah. Didn’t work. Then, we thought--maybe it was a collaborative spell. So, we tried together. No dice.” Her face did something complicated, and she hesitated a moment. “Then, we tried it together--”

And. It took Quentin a few seconds to figure out what she was saying to him. When he finally did, he felt like he whited out right then and there. “Um. You did a sex spell? With Alice?” Jesus fucking Christ. Like his own personal fantasy come to life. Jesus.

She cleared her throat again, unable to look at him. “We were desperate, ok?” She stole a quick glance. “Oh my God do not look at me like that, asshole!”

He gave her a tight smile. “Sorry! I just, um. Sorry. That’s? That’s a lot, Jules.”

She shook her head, laughing a little. “Yeah. Well. Didn’t work, so. So. At this point, Zelda found out. She was beyond pissed. But, like. Physically incapable of not seeking knowledge or some shit. And, realized our translation error. Because it wasn’t a love spell. It was soul magic.”

And. There was his heart. Thump thumping away. “Soul magic?”

She gave him a wry smile. “Yeah. So. The caller needed to be your soul mate. I figured out pretty quickly who that was.” She shook his hand, then dropped her head. “Alice--was--” She sighed audibly.

And, Quentin felt his heart splintering into a million pieces. Oh.

She blew out a breath. “Only one problem. We had no idea where Eliot was. He and Margo just--disappeared to Fillory. Right after you--” She flicked her eyes towards him. “We tried a locator spell. Penny even tried putting out psychic feelers, or whatever. But we couldn’t find them. Luckily, right about this time, Fen and Josh just came bursting through a portal. Telling us about timelines and being dethroned by a Dark King."

Eliot had filled him in on some of these bits.

“So, Penny knew this dude. Stoppard?”

Julia looked at him, silently checking in if he knew. He just shook his head.

“Anyways, he was a bit salty--some shit with Penny, but like, he could bend fucking time, Q. It was--pretty fucking cool.

And, he actually felt joyful at Julia’s nerdiness. He knew that when 23 had decided for her to keep her human? That had been a coffin nail on any budding relationship. But he, Quentin Coldwater, was inordinately grateful, in that moment, for his best friend Julia’s humanity.

She smiled at him. “He bent time, Q, and we just fucking--went. It was. God.”

Quentin couldn’t help but smile back at her naked wonder.

“And, then we found them. They were hiding out from the Dark King, and we rescued them. Margo was pretty furious about this--wanted to stage some kind of revolution. But Eliot--” She searched his face. “God, Q. I know I don’t know him as well as you. But like, he was fucking bleak. Margo later pulled me aside, told me he had all but died when you did. So.”

And. He'd thought there wasn’t anything left to break inside him. But. He felt that thick, hot feeling behind his eyes. He licked at the corner of his mouth.

She squeezed his hand again. “So. We tried again. And, God, Q. It was like the spell had been waiting for him. Like--Jesus. Like blossomed. Or some other romantic bullshit. I don’t even know.” She laughed a little; clearly nervous.

Quentin slowly licked his lips, swallowing around the lump in his throat. He closed his eyes, taking in a long, fortifying breath. “That’s, uh--”

Julia smiled at him again. So fucking soft. “Yeah.”

***

Quentin sighed, mentally steeling himself for the conversation he was about to have. He knocked a quick rap against the door, muffled a bit under his gloved hand.

"Come in."

Opening the door to Alice’s room, he immediately noticed clothes strewn over the bed, some already folded neatly in suitcases. His throat went tight. “Going somewhere?”

Alice clutched a sweater to her chest, seemingly surprised to see him. “I need to--the Library needs me.” She sank onto the bed, the look on her face so heartbreakingly sad. She sniffed, then closed her eyes, silent for a few seconds. “I’m sorry. I just--it’s too much, Q.”

He stood there, frozen for a moment, while his brain caught up to his heart. Then, he walked around the bed, sitting next to her. “I’m sorry, Alice. I--”

She opened her eyes then, looking over, and Jesus. She was so fucking beautiful. “I know, Q. I know, ok.” She gave him a watery smile. “And I’m glad he’s here for you. That he can give you what you need.” She sighed. “But, I can’t sit around and watch--”

He nodded mutely, feeling oddly hollow. Like his insides had been scooped out.

“I still love you, you know?” Her voice so fucking fragile, it actually hurt.

“I love you, too, Alice.” And, he did. Always would. But--

“But.” She closed her eyes briefly, giving her head a little shake. “I know you didn’t choose this, Q. I know that. You weren’t even here to, um.” At that, she did seem to break a little. She hastily swiped at her eyes beneath her lenses. “I just--I need.” She threw her head back, studying the ceiling. “Fuck. Space. Time. Purpose. Something beyond all this.” At that, she waved a hand between them.

“I still want you in my life, Alice.” He felt cruel for wanting this; it wasn’t fair, and he knew it. But, it was the truth.

Her mouth pressed together tightly into almost a smile. “I know. And, I want that, too. Eventually. But, Q? You fucking broke my heart. Twice.”

He took in a shaky breath. “I know I did. And, it was a shitty thing to do. I’m sorry--”

“I know.” She gave him a sad, soft smile. “But, it was inevitable. I think I knew that even then.”

He really didn’t have an answer to that. He let the silence sit between them for a bit. “You’re going to be fucking great at this. You know that?”

She gasped, looking so much like she was going to cry, but turned it around into a small huff of a laugh. “You always believed in me.”

At that, he did chuckle. “Well, I’ve met you.”

***

It had been yesterday when Quentin was finally able to touch again, no pain, no fear. He wanted to touch all the things, different textures, soft, hard, hot, cold. Skin. He had been giddy with it, feeling something nearing, well. At least human. Vaguely. He, Eliot and 23 had gotten drunk. Kind of accidentally/on purpose. To catch up on the last two seasons of “Game of Thrones”. Which, who knew 23 had it in him, but apparently they lost cable in his timeline and he had a thing for Daenerys. Which. Quentin couldn’t really argue.

Eliot didn’t seem to mind even though he interrupted every ten seconds to whisper at Quentin, asking for a recap. Also? He had a thing for Jamie Lannister. Until Quentin explained. Well. Yeah. Incest. “Why do you watch this show again?”

Penny lasted about halfway through the current episode before peacing, probably equal parts annoyed at Eliot’s interruptions and to go and find Julia.

Quentin kept stealing glances at Eliot; the blue tv light flickering off of his face. Then, very carefully reached over, wrapping his whole hand around Eliot’s fore and middle fingers, rubbing thumbs together. And, there was Eliot. Watching him. With that fond, dear look.

“Hey.” Eliot was doing that big-eyed thing; staring. Waiting.

"Yeah?” Quentin’s heart thumping a staccato in his chest.

"Yeah.” Eliot readjusted slightly, pulling Quentin down with him. Settling him against his chest; slotting him in. Where he belonged.

***

Quentin slid the hair tie from around the box, pulling it free with a snap. There really was no reason he was hiding the vape Eliot had given him in the box that housed his dad's Cross pen-set. Everyone smoked openly in the penthouse. Smoked, drank, edibles--whatever. But, for some reason, Quentin liked the ritual of putting the vape together; the stealthy slyness of the innocent pen-set resting atop the dresser. Eliot teased him about it; but it was fond. That oh, honey look. Quentin felt nice and languid, the pot easing the tension in his back, the colors tuned down and his head floating. He lit a cigarette, watching the smoke curl up and away.

The door squeaked open, and Quentin knew without looking it was Eliot, the thump of his cane giving him away. He knew Eliot hated it; made him feel old. But, now, this was just another part of Eliot. Learning to love a new body. Permanent nerve damage. Quentin’s wounds were less obvious, but no less enduring. And Eliot still loved him, so.

He smiled at Eliot as he gently sat in the chair next to him, folding his leg carefully. Quentin knew it hurt like a bitch, especially when it rained. Pretended not to see the wince, just kept smiling easily. Being high as fuck helped. “Hi.”

Eliot snorted, looking pointedly at the pen case. “Yes, you are.” Oh, honey.

Quentin shoved the box towards Eliot with a few fingers. “Join me?”

Eliot pretended to consider the offer; exaggerated, but it did the trick. Quentin bent over with laughter. “Why the fuck not?”

“Indeed”. Quentin did a terrible attempt at an English accent, cracking his own damn self up. And there were actual tears of laughter rolling down his face.

“Wow. You are off your tits, babe.” Eliot took a deep breath in and held it; finally letting little curls of smoke escape the sides of his lips before exhaling. Once, twice, three times.

Quentin was watching him, knowing the moment the smoke took effect, the little lines of tension around Eliot’s eyes smoothing out. This medical grade shit was no joke. He wanted to tell Eliot how good he felt, make him understand just how good being around him was. Because it hadn’t always been easy. “You look really nice today”. And, he did. Eliot always looked nice.

“And you--well, you know my feelings about those pants”. Eliot giggled a little himself.

Quentin had borrowed Josh’s hoodie. Well, by process of elimination, was probably Josh’s hoodie. Neither Eliot nor Penny would have been caught dead; Quentin liked that it was big on him. The pants in question were a stupid Target bargain rack purchase--fleece pj bottoms with BB8 on them, emblazoned with the phrase That’s How I Roll. Eliot hated them. But, also, sort of liked to rub his cheek on them, so. The relationship was complicated. Quentin was always cold, now. Being brought back, everything was loud and sharp; vaping helped, therapy twice a week was, well, pretty fucking awful, yet he was still going. (Even on his own now, this past week. Instead of clutching Eliot’s hand tightly the entire way). And, even though the pain was gone, he was still always cold. So the stupid BB8 pants and an oversized hoodie.

Eliot smiled dreamily as he let his head tip backwards. He reached a hand over, laying it on Quentin’s thigh, stroking the fleece of his pjs with his whole palm. Like the texture felt good. “I hate these.”

Quentin snorted at him. “Clearly”. He sat forward in his chair. “Do you ever think, that if everyone could be precisely this high, then maybe like there would be no war?” Waxing poetically at times like these felt so--practically normal. And he was the perfect amount of high; not completely brain-blanked or paranoid. Just soft and warm.

Eliot giggled helplessly. “Ok, Pineapple Express.” He was carefully enunciating; nope, no sir, Occifer.

Which, of course, made Quentin giggle, light and airy. The road to here had been particularly fraught; and it was lovely to share some moments of peace. Finally. To allow them this. He let his hand drop onto Eliot’s on his thigh. Eliot automatically turned his hand, lacing their fingers together. Hadn’t always been easy to touch, between them. Even with the benefit of recreational drugs.

“Alice and Kady are coming for dinner.” Eliot’s voice was carefully neutral. “Just got a bunny. They need to talk to us.”

At this, Quentin squeezed his hand. Because even though Eliot and Alice had forged something of a mutual understanding of where Quentin fit into their hearts while he was gone, and even though Quentin had chosen him, when presented the choice, Quentin knew that Eliot still needed to be assured. For his part, he loved them both. Differently; obviously. But, still. They both owned different parts of him. Eliot just happened to be the lucky bastard who had faced off with more of his demons. And, knew how to provide the kind of naked soul-bearing kindness that Quentin needed right now. (Always). “Wanna get Indian from that place? Tikka masala, garlic naan. Just get a bunch of stuff?”

Eliot hummed thoughtfully, threading and rethreading their fingers, as if it weren’t a deliberate move for comfort.

Quentin didn’t mind. That was another change--Eliot was now as good at taking as he was at giving. Quentin scooted his chair around the little table, never letting go of Eliot’s hand, one knee touching. He wished the angle was better, that he was over on Eliot’s good side, but still. He pulled on Eliot’s hand and turned his face up for a kiss.