Only a day into the snowstorm that marks the start of the Long Winter, they’re completely snowed in. They’ll have to deal with tunneling out soon enough, if only because the air in the cottage is already starting to smell stale under the bread Quentin’s baking - but that’s a problem for future them. Well, mostly future Eliot, who’s planning on using telekinesis to shovel the snow, and Teddy, who’s already getting cabin fever and would tunnel out like a mole if they let him. Right now, Eliot’s enjoying the reprieve from the Mosaic, and the way the cottage seems like a world onto itself, all the snow muffling the sounds of the storm outside.
Two days in, Quentin pulls out the box with their chalks and current Mosaic pattern notebook and says, “Well, if we can’t actually work on patterns, we should plan them out.”
“Ugh,” Teddy says from the floor, where he’s sprawled out reading a Fillorian mystery novel that Quentin swears is a direct knockoff of the Artemis Fowl series.
“Hey,” Eliot says, mildly chastising, although privately he’s inclined to agree. “The Mosaic is important, Teddy.”
“It’s boring,” Teddy says dismissively, and Eliot tries not to smile at that. Quentin gives him a look that says he didn’t quite succeed.
The Mosaic is - well, not boring, not exactly, but he and Quentin have been at this for a long time, now, and it could most kindly be described as routine. Sometimes one of them will have a blaze of inspiration, and they’ll breeze through a week’s worth of patterns that all feel like they could be The Pattern. Inevitably, none of them are, and inevitably, he and Quentin will fall into a rut and spend an hour every evening thinking of new patterns and checking them against old ones. Then, when they reach their limits for planning, they fall into new ruts…
“Sometimes it’s good to do things that are boring,” Quentin tells Teddy, “like Mosaic patterns, or laundry, or spelling homework.”
“Ugh!” Teddy says again, and he wriggles a few feet away with his book, behind the couch entirely. Eliot raises his eyebrows at Q and mouths ‘subtle’ at him, and Q rolls his eyes. In the great quest to teach Teddy how to spell correctly, Eliot has happily surrendered the lead to Quentin. God knows he’d never been particularly passionate about spelling, but Q, who still remembered the words he’d gone out on in the state spelling bee back in 2001, has taken to the subject with alacrity.
“I’ve been thinking about doors,” Quentin says to him, opening the notebook. “Portals.”
“Oh?” Eliot asks.
“Yeah, and I was thinking maybe - maybe we should try representing different portals back to Earth. Home. Whatever. Visualize the future we want, right?”
“Makes sense,” Eliot manages. Home.
He’d said it so causally, as though it wasn’t a word that they’d tiptoed around for - years, probably. After Teddy was born, even. There’d been one memorable night when he and Arielle and Quentin had all gotten extremely drunk, Teddy safely away being spoiled by Arielle’s parents, and they’d ended up in one of those awful drunken fights that spin out from one thoughtless sentence and tension exposed by alcohol. The thoughtless sentence had been Quentin’s, of course (‘The stars at home never looked like this’), the tension had been Arielle’s (‘Don’t you think of this place as home?’) and Eliot had supplied the spark as well as the alcohol, voicing something that had been mouldering in his belly for months, years (‘And if we solve it? What are you actually planning-‘).
In the morning, Quentin claims total memory loss. Arielle looks drawn and tired - for more reasons than a hangover, although they don’t know that, then. Eliot brings her a mug of tea and they watch Quentin swear under his breath as he moves tiles around, a picture never quite forming.
“He loves you,” Eliot remembers telling her, “We both do. You and Teddy are our family, and I promise -“
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Arielle says sharply, and then, “I’m sorry. I worry, sometimes, that you’ll finish this and then you’ll both leave us. Or one of you will leave, and the other - it works, how it is now. It’s balanced. If you leave and he stays, it won’t be the same.”
Eliot’s face twists up for a moment in bitter amusement at the thought that, were he to leave, Quentin would be unable to get by with just his beautiful postcard family, but. That was unfair, to all of them. Arielle was right - they had found a balance, despite so many elements that should’ve threatened to topple them over: the fact that Quentin was the only one who wanted them both, the fact that Eliot could’ve been happy keeping Quentin to himself forever, the fact that Arielle probably felt the same way.
He thinks, for a moment, about the night he and Margo and Quentin had had together. Was there a timeline where they’d had similar negotiations? Would it have been easier, because the wanting was almost equal between them all? Or would other insecurities have emerged?
But that’s in the past, and in a present that will never happen. In the present that Eliot does have, he wraps a shawl around Arielle’s shoulders, and sits with her in silence until he finds his courage.
“I’ve never really had a family before,” he starts, striving for casual, maybe not quite hitting it. “My so-called parents were, mm, not big on love, or care, or - all the things that you should feel for your children. My dad never even bothered to try, and my mom’s idea of love was - let’s just say it was heavy on speeches about eternal damnation.”
He can see Arielle glancing at him, but he keeps his eyes forward, vaguely noticing Quentin’s ass as he bends down to pick up a tile.
“So, Margo was the first person who actually saw me and loved me, which I realize might sound bleak, because it is, but when it happened, when I realized someone could feel that way about me, it was…indescribable. We were there for each other in the ways that our ‘families’ never were. It was -“ he pauses, tries not to feel like he’s betraying Margo as he continues, “It was as close to unconditional love as you can give when you’re young and selfish and have serious problems with drug and alcohol abuse. And then things fell apart. We never stopped loving each other, but - it wasn’t the same.”
“You wish you had a chance to make something like this, with her, now that you know you can do it,” Arielle says. She moves one hand from the mug and puts it on Eliot’s knee, the warmth from the tea reaching his skin very faintly.
“Yes,” he says simply. “But that’s not my point. My point is - we have a family, you and me and Q and Teddy. We made this, together. I want you to know that that’s important to me. It’s not something I’m going to just abandon for a quest.”
He looks at her, and she smiles faintly, the expression not quite reaching her eyes. She doesn’t believe him, not yet. Maybe not ever. In her place, he knows he’d feel the same way. But he gives it one more try.
“I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” he says, keeping his eyes on hers. “I didn’t know, until I had it, that this is what I was really trying to find for all those years. But now that I have it, I don’t want to give it up. I -“
He has to pause and close his eyes, pushing through all the alarm bells in his heart as he makes himself so very open.
“I don’t think I could give it up.”
He opens his eyes. She’s still looking at him, brow furrowed like she’s searching for something in his face. He can’t bring himself to bare any more - she knows what he means, just as she knows what Q had meant the night before, when he’d said, sloppy with anger and alcohol, “I’m not going to leave our son! How could you think that-“
He’d cried, then, and Eliot had tried to remember how much Arielle knew about Q’s mom, and Arielle had kicked a stack of tiles and blinked back tears, furiously, for what felt like hours. The misery and frustration of the night is difficult to recall in the morning light, the memory skittering away as though to say, Focus on now.
“I know you don’t want promises,” Eliot tells her, “But you should know that I’m still quite selfish, and so it’ll be the easiest promise in the world to keep, because it’s something that I very much want.”
“You say that like you’re good at letting yourself have what you want,” she says wryly, and he has to smile at that.
“I don’t think either of us are very good at believing we really have something when we have it,” he replies. Arielle looks down at her tea.
“We are not,” she admits, “But at least we can remind each other. And for what it’s worth, I do believe you.”
She squeezes his knee and gets up from the bench, the shawl fluttering loose from her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she says quietly, “for telling me.”
“De rien, as the French say,” he says, leaning back against the bench and casually crossing a leg, “It’s nothing.”
“Well, that I don’t believe,” she laughs, and he puts a hand against his chest in mock hurt. She goes inside with her tea, but not before running a hand against Quentin’s back that loosens his shoulders a little.
Eliot stays there on the bench for a few more minutes. If anyone asks, it’s because it’s perfectly situated for ogling Quentin, a pastime he has always enjoyed. If it also gives him time to let the raw, open feeling in his chest fade, that’s simply an added bonus.
When he does get up and go over to help Quentin (read: convince him that they have to clear away the mess and start again), he feels lighter. Quentin’s still a little prickly, but he lets Eliot press a kiss against his temple with not even a word of protest.
He spends the morning sitting up in their tall chair, directing Quentin’s tile placement and looking over every so often to see Arielle through the window of the cottage. Usually, she’s reading a slim volume of Lorian desert poetry. Once, he catches her standing at the window and watching Quentin.
“…and the clock to Fillory, obviously,” Quentin is saying, labeling a blank page CLOCK, big square letters written with a piece of blue chalk. Teddy is lying on his back now behind the couch, book held above his head. Eliot can just barely see the spine of the book quivering.
“We should do the door to the cottage,” Eliot says. “Our cottage.”
Quentin pauses, the corner of his mouth curling up.
“Alright,” he says, looking over at Eliot and seeing - too much. More than Eliot wants him to see, in the moment. When he looks away again, Eliot feels relief with a twist of disappointment.
He flips the page over, writes COTTAGE on a new one. There’s blue chalk dust on his fingers and, somehow, his chin.
Eliot licks his thumb and leans over to rub the chalk away without thinking. Catches himself after it’s already done, hand back in his lap. Quentin glances at him and then back at the book. He smiles at the blank page, lines that Eliot is quite fond of appearing around his eyes. Quentin exchanges the blue chalk for brown, and starts to draw the door.
Outside, the snow is still falling.