Chapter 1: Didn't Know I Was Lost (Till You Found Me)
Brian doesn’t want to go out that night. But he’s tired of staring at the walls of his office or his apartment, he’s tired of the usual places he visits with his friends. With Erica, when they’re on - they’re very much off again, and he can’t bring himself to care, even though he probably should.
He had the dream again last night. The little cottage in the woods, a child’s laughter and tiny fingers wrapped around his own, sunlight on a woman’s red hair, wicked laughter written all over her face. And the man, dark curls and gold-hazel eyes and his stunned smile by firelight.
Colored chalk all over his fingers, the smell of peaches and the taste of plums.
None of it makes any sense.
So he goes to this smoky little place in Brooklyn, finds a corner booth and hides there, nursing a hard cider through the first band of the night, the second. He has a sketchbook and his pencils with him, and though the light in here isn’t good, it’s not so bad he can’t draw what he’s seeing. He sketches patrons and he sketches the second band, and then -
The third band of the night comes up, the lead singer approaches the mic, and Brian’s pencil slips from his hand because that dark curling hair is a sucker punch to memories that aren’t even fucking real. There’s no way he can be staring at a figment of his dreaming mind, Brian reminds himself as the guy begins to sing. He’s English, surprisingly, with a lovely voice made all the more appealing by the accent.
“It’s been a long time coming/Down this road/And now I know/What I’ve been waiting for…”
Brian can’t look away, not for the entire set. And at some point, the singer’s gaze lands on him and stays there, a fleeting look of confusion on his face familiar like deja vu. They stare at each other from across the room and Brian has another flash - a long, lean figure stretched out atop a sign he can’t read.
Is he losing his mind?
He hasn’t figured out a good answer to that one when someone pulls out the small table’s other chair.
“So, did you like the set?”
Brian looks up from where he’d been staring into his cider as the singer from earlier drops into the seat across from him, a lazy grin on his face. But there’s something in his eyes - his impossibly familiar eyes - that doesn’t match the easy flirtatious note of his words or his smile. Something that makes Brian’s heart stutter in his chest.
“I, uh. Yeah. You’re very good,” Brian says, and grips his glass tighter.
“I’m Nigel Cooper.” And the lilting accent - English, Brian still thinks, but there’s a note of something else in it, maybe Scottish or Welsh, he doesn’t know much about accents - really does just make him all the more attractive. Brian never thought he had an accent kink before, and yet.
“Brian Devlin,” Brian says, and takes a drink, hoping it will ease the sudden dryness in his mouth. It doesn’t, really, but then alcohol really isn’t ideal for that, is it?
“Have we met, Brian Devlin?” Nigel asks, looking at Brian over the rim of his glass - whatever was on tap, presumably. “Because I could swear I’ve seen you before.”
I dreamed of you, Brian almost says, and Jesus, he’s still on his first drink, what the fuck is wrong with him? “I don’t think so, but I could say the same of you anyway,” he says instead, because if they both feel it maybe he’s not as crazy as he thinks he is.
“Hmm. I can’t stay, darling, but call me sometime?” Nigel slips a piece of paper across the table to Brian and then he’s on his feet again, vanishing into the shadowy room with his dark clothes. Brian’s fingers curl round the slip of paper with Nigel’s phone number on it. He tells himself he should throw it out, shouldn’t indulge whatever strangeness this is.
He tucks it into his wallet, then finishes his drink and leaves the pub.
The thing is, Brian hadn’t actually meant to contact Nigel. The whole thing is ridiculous, and he’s not going to indulge it. But two days later, he finds himself pulling the folded bit of paper from his wallet, saving the number in his phone.
And that night, he dreams of a cliff by the sea, a man who looks like the musician kneeling and looking up at him with impossibly soft eyes while Brian sets a crown on his head.
The next morning, he texts Nigel an offer to meet at the coffee shop by campus. The [yes] he gets in response makes Brian wonder if he's the only one with dreams. And he goes through his classes that day with about as much interest as most of his students - which is to say, none at all. Well, it’s not the first time he lectured on autopilot and it won’t be the last.
He’s expecting Nigel to be in the blacks he’d been wearing that night at the pub, tight jeans and shirt that covered everything and yet left little to the imagination, curls loose and tumbling around his face. What Brian finds, when he spots the other man waiting at a corner table for him, is a guy in a large, warm looking grey-and-red patterned sweater, his hair pulled back into a small bun at the nape of his neck, reading glasses perched on his nose as he scrolls through his phone.
And, oh. Why does part of him just want to climb in Nigel’s lap and curl up there? Brian doesn’t know, but he adjusts his own jacket and heads over with his usual order. “Hi, I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he says as he drops into the other chair, envious of the way Nigel leans back in his with an almost catlike sort of grace.
“How could I say no when the man of my literal dreams shows up out of nowhere?” That accent, as it turns out, is no less maddeningly attractive in a sunlit coffee shop, and honestly it’s just unfair. But Brian focuses instead on what Nigel said, which -
“You too, huh?”
“Afraid so. It’s all very strange, started, oh, two weeks back, give or take a day. There’s this cabin a lot of times, a little boy, sometimes a woman - and you. Or, well, someone like you. Longer hair. He kissed me -”
“- by torchlight, yeah,” Brian says quietly, then sips his latte as much for something to do with himself as actually wanting the caffeine. “And I remember the woman and the little boy too, and waking up together in a narrow bed, and how much neither of us wanted to -”
“- do anything but stay wrapped up in each other, but we had some kind of job to do. I remember looking down at some kind of tile design?” Nigel says, and Brian notices the tea bag tab still dangling from under the lid of Nigel’s cup as he pauses for a drink of his own.
“Colored chalk on my hands,” Brian murmurs, tasting the vanilla-caramel-white chocolate of his latte but remembering the taste of plums instead. He doesn’t even like plums, which makes the whole thing weirder, because in this not-memory he does. “I don’t understand any of this. Tell me it’s as weird for you, because I -”
A long-fingered hand closes over his own, and Brian looks up into gold-hazel eyes that he knows/doesn’t know and sees - all of it, reflected back. “I don’t get it either,” Nigel says, voice soft. “But I think maybe I’m better at just rolling with the punches than you are, hmm?”
“I don’t. Roll with, with anything,” Brian says, and his voice isn’t steady anymore. “I don’t know how, my life is a predictable bore and I like the predictable part if not the bore part. But I think you have to tolerate being bored to keep things predictable so. So I tolerate it.” Tolerates a job he hates because teaching is better than a cubicle at a 9 to 5, and because the paintings and the newly-begun manuscripts that are Brian’s only love won’t pay the bills. “I’ve dated the same woman off and on six times because neither of us care enough to say no the next time one of us is lonely enough to offer, there’s been a man or two in the off points but no one. Nothing like -”
My dreams make no sense, and I feel more in them than I’ve felt in years. It’s not something he can say out loud, though.
“I sing with three different bands and haven’t committed to any of them, because that would mean I can’t just pick up and go. My mother spent her life devoted to a married man and I swore I’d never be tied down like that, it’d be real or not at all. And none of it’s real so far. I always thought I’d just - know, when it was.”
“I don’t think the world works like that, but you’re a romantic.”
“I didn’t think boys of my dreams existed either, romantic or not. So, Brian Devlin, now what?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
Now what turns out to be mostly - texting at all hours of the day and night. About everything from little tidbits of gossip from the three bands Nigel sings with to the idiotic power plays behind the scenes of Hudson University’s English department, from the movie Nigel saw after rehearsal to the TV show Brian’s got marathoning in the background while he grades essays on Chaucer.
Or, when they wake up from half-remembered dreams, comparing them. It’s like having a constant companion everywhere he goes, and Brian finds that he likes it. Finds that he starts hearing Nigel’s voice in the texts - sometimes, when they’re both at home, they call instead of text, after all.
Two weeks of this, before it all shifts again.
Brian is in the middle of his lecture on Utopia when he happens to glance up to the very back of the lecture hall. Now, his classes are all intro, so he sees students of all ages. But there is something very familiar about that head of dark curls…
No way. Isn’t he supposed to be in Atlanta? Brian is very sure the text message on his phone from Nigel says quite clearly that he won’t be back until the end of the week, yet here he is, slouched casually in a chair in the back of the lecture hall, half in shadow yet unmistakable once seen. Brian can feel a faint flush creeping over his cheeks and neck, and clears his throat abruptly.
He has ten minutes left of class, he is not going to dismiss them early just because his - his - because Nigel came back from his out-of-state gig early. He is absolutely not going to do that, except that his eyes keep drifting back to that corner, and the shadows really don’t hide how the black jeans cling to Nigel’s ridiculously long legs or the sly grin on his face or -
Oh, really. This is ridiculous.
Brian takes a long drink from the water bottle he always brings to class, then manages a smile for his students. “Right, well, we’re done with this chapter, why don’t I end things here for today?” he says, very pointedly looking straight up the center aisle and not at the corner where he can feel Nigel smirking.
They’ve only known each other for two weeks. He can’t possibly be that accurately aware of the man. But when Brian does look back over, the expression on Nigel’s face is exactly what he’d pictured. Once the last student leaves, Nigel gets up, long legs closing the distance between them in minutes even though Brian feels oddly frozen and can’t seem to move. He almost doesn’t have to, because Nigel crowds him up against the podium, one hand tipping Brian’s chin up as he leans down to kiss him.
They’ve kissed once or twice before, almost chaste presses of lips that nevertheless felt like they set Brian on fire. This - this is different, this is Nigel licking at the seam of Brian’s lips until he opens for him, tilting Brian’s head back and just taking , Brian pressing in close and kissing back just as eagerly.
Like they aren’t in the middle of a lecture hall where he works. Like they’ve done this a thousand thousand times.
They pull back and Brian is breathless, relieved when he sees that Nigel is too. “So, funny thing. Texting mostly tided me over when I knew I could just say ‘let’s meet up for a couple hours’ and did more than once, but being only able to text you for four days is maddening. What have you done to me,” he whispers in Brian’s ear, trailing his lips over his jaw.
“Nothing you haven’t done to me,” Brian murmurs, sliding his hands into the back pockets of Nigel’s jeans. “We can’t - there’s going to be another class in here, Nigel, we can’t stay here.”
“Do you have an office?” Nigel asks with a grin.
Brian opens his mouth to say that this is a terrible idea and no, they are not going to his office to make out like horny teenagers, that is not a thing that they are going to be doing and what comes out is, “Yeah, three floors up, come on.”
They barely get into said office before Brian finds himself pushed up against his office door. He fumbles with one hand to lock it and tangles the other in Nigel’s hair. A flash, then, these curls under his fingers tacky with the remnants of hair product, head swimming with wine and something… he’s not sure of. Then Nigel’s lips are on his neck, teeth nipping at his skin and Brian is utterly back in the moment, one hand in Nigel’s back pocket again to pull them flush together.
“I want - fuck, bloody professor kink, that’s new, you’re bored as hell up there, how are you still fucking hot giving a lecture, that isn’t fair, Brian,” Nigel mutters against his skin and Brian laughs.
“You come in wearing - painted-on jeans and pounce on me, you have no -” Nigel rolls his hips and Brian’s thoughts scatter, a low moan spilling from his lips instead. “God, fuck, I don’t have any -” They’re in his office , why in God’s name would he have any kind of supplies here? Except right now he’s kind of thinking why doesn’t he?
Then he’s being literally lifted up - Brian yelps and wraps his legs around Nigel’s waist because it seems like the best idea, and then the next thing he knows the papers on his desk are hitting the floor and he’s sitting on it. “You’re not kidding about the sudden professor kink, huh?”
“Not even a little bit.”
Laughing in spite of himself, this time Brian pulls Nigel down to kiss him, the rasp of his stubble the kind of thrill he hadn’t known he wanted. Not that he hasn’t been with men before, but for Brian, sex and dating have always sort of been… mildly pleasant interludes, no more and no less. But this -
Nigel steps back and Brian only just manages not to whine like a a sulky child. “Hush, lovely,” Nigel says like he heard it anyway, stroking a gentle hand down Brian’s cheek. “I’m just thinking… hmm. So the traditional fantasy would probably be blowing you at your desk, with you in the chair and all. But I’m thinking, if I’m here trying to win myself a better grade -”
“I would never!”
“I know, but it’s just a fun thought, Bri, relax.” Absolutely no one calls Brian ‘Bri’, and he would point this out, except Nigel’s done it half a dozen times in text already so it’d be silly to object now. “As I was saying,” Nigel continues, “what I’d really want to do is make sure it was something you liked, and I think… you’d like being spread out over your own desk, wouldn’t you?” He leans in for another kiss, bearing down as he does, and Brian lets himself be tilted back till he’s lying on the top of his own desk, blinking up at Nigel.
And, OK, yeah, he has to admit as Nigel trails a hand down his chest and stomach, unbuttoning his shirt and then pushing it so it’s hanging off his shoulders, strokes him lightly through his slacks, that yes, yes this is something he’d like. Brian bites his lip against another whine as Nigel teases him, then fails to keep quiet when he pulls his hand away.
“Oh, I was right,” Nigel says with a dangerous grin - Brian has that dizzy deja vu of having seen that grin before but he doesn’t care about dreams right now - before he undoes Brian’s pants and pulls them down with his underwear. Brian has a moment, feeling the wood against his thighs as he watches Nigel pull actual lube packets from his pocket, where he thinks this is a terrible idea, someone could hear, or -
Nigel gets one hand around the back of Brian’s thigh, tilting his hips up, then presses a finger inside him, gold-hazel eyes intent on Brian’s face. And Brian can only stare back, one hand splayed on the desk top and the other over his mouth because he doesn’t actually want to get caught but. But as Nigel works him open, eyes never leaving Brian’s face, the thrill of the risk only sends Brian’s head spinning faster.
Nigel’s fingers twist and brush against just the right - and Brian sees stars, presses his hand all the harder to his mouth as his eyelids flutter and even that doesn’t fully muffle his moan. But then Nigel draws his fingers out and Brian whines, low in his throat. “God, you’re demanding, aren’t you…” Nigel leans down to kiss Brian till he’s quiet. He sheds his shirt and undoes his jeans, only bothering to shove the tight denim down to his calves before rolling on a condom which must have also been in his pocket and slicking himself up. His hands are tight on Brian’s hips and they’re kissing again when he pushes inside, when he sets a steady pace, so that Brian’s noises are muffled against his lips.
Brian tries to rock his hips, though he has almost no leverage at this angle, trying to get Nigel to move faster. Nigel nips at Brian’s bottom lip for his trouble, then trails kisses down his jaw, sucks a mark on his neck. Brian has to cover his mouth again, especially when Nigel does speed up, working a hand between them to stroke Brian at a matching pace. Brian moans again behind his hand, his other hand gripping desperately at Nigel’s shoulder and then -
He comes with a cry he can’t quite muffle and Nigel follows him over the edge with a moan muffled in Brian’s neck. They stay where they are for a moment, before Nigel presses a friendly kiss to Brian’s collarbone and pulls out carefully, taking off the condom and tying it before dropping it in the trash. He looks back up, smiling at Brian. “You make quite a sight laid out there, you know,” he says lazily as he gets his clothes back on.
“You - came prepared?” Brian manages as he slides off the desk with shaky legs, bracing himself on the desk.
“Course I did. I was planning to seduce a professor, after all.”
Brian should either kill him or kiss him. As he steadies enough to fetch the hand wipes he keeps in a drawer to clean off best he can, he decides the best plan is to kiss him, so they can keep doing things like this.
So here’s the thing. In Brian’s world, the world where his late parents met at a mutual friend’s wedding and had a perfectly normal, tame courtship that ended with a proposal, a small house in a ‘decent’ Boston neighborhood, and one child - there were supposed to be more kids, he knows, but it didn’t work out - office sex should be embarrassing. In Brian’s world where he’s well aware that hookups at work between professors absolutely happens more often than anyone likes to think, office sex shouldn’t change anything.
But it pretty much changes everything.
It’s Nigel’s apartment and bed they make it to, that first day, but it quickly becomes incidental whose apartment they’re in, whose couch they curl up on and whose bed they fall into together. They met in February when snow was still on the ground, and then one day it’s June and Brian stands in summer sunlight filtering through his windows and realizes that his kitchen has acquired an electric kettle - because Nigel’s look of horror when he microwaved tea water was hilarious but also earned him a very impressive lecture - several types of tea, a cereal brand he actively despises, a cookie (sorry, biscuit) brand he’d never even heard of before, and -
“It is too bloody early for you to be thinking so hard, cariad .”
And, oh, yes, there’s a musician who had been in his bed until about five minutes ago, probably. This early, the Welsh is thicker in Nigel’s voice - hence the endearment. He knows, now, that Nigel’s father is an English viscount, his mother a legal assistant from Cardiff who was swept off her feet by a wealthy, charming older man. In love enough to be content with raising her son mostly alone, though Daddy paid for fancy schools that make Nigel sound “entirely posh” in his words, unless he’s tired or… er, otherwise wrecked.
“I get broody before coffee,” Brian quips, leaning back into Nigel’s hold and closing his eyes. “Are you aware that you’ve basically taken over half my kitchen?”
Nigel hums in amusement, dropping a kiss to the top of Brian’s head. “Oh, have I? I mean, I am better at using the things in a kitchen than you are, this is only to be expected, really. Anyway, the bookshelves at my place actually have books on them! As if you’ve never heard of a Kindle or a Nook, this is the 21st century, honestly.”
“Says the man with an addiction to vinyl.”
Brian knows Nigel’s backstory, and Nigel knows his. The boy too bookish to follow his father into construction, who wanted to go to art school or at least take up writing. But no, that’s not practical, if he had to be useless with his hands then he had to at least be sensible about it. Teach, some school somewhere always needs a teacher, and Brian had been smart enough to earn being a professor. An adjunct, with a side job online in copy editing, but these are practical things that pay the bills.
Nigel pays his bills with his music when he can, and with the trust fund he ignores until necessary or when he has a whim to buy something, when he can’t. Nigel thinks Brian should start trying to sell his paintings, should take a semester off and see if he can finish a novel. Self-publish if he has to, just to get on his way. Brian thinks this is a terrible idea, even as the boy he used to be longs to do just as Nigel suggests.
“My God, drink your vile coffee if it will stop the brooding, Brian, I am telling you again that it is too early for this,” Nigel murmurs in Brian’s ear, and then he bites his earlobe, which, well.
“It’s also too early for that .”
“Nonsense, it’s never too early for that,” Nigel says, fingers dipping under the waistband of Brian’s pajama pants. After a moment, Brian lets himself be tugged back to the bedroom - the nice thing about summer is fewer classes to teach, the only one he’s got today isn’t till mid-afternoon, so why the hell not?
And that night, after Brian’s done checking over his notes for his next lecture, he pulls a book off a shelf that is located in Nigel’s apartment, but is an old favorite of his, his name written in a still-messy teenage hand in the front cover. He curls up in the corner of a couch as familiar as his to read, listening to Nigel pick out chords on his guitar on the other side of the room.
He still dreams, of course. Tonight, it’s Nigel’s silky-feeling sheets against his skin when he blinks awake in the dark, not his own worn-soft cotton. Brian’s fingers curl into it as remembered anger, remembered heartbreak, still pounds through him.
“That’s not me and that’s definitely not you.”
What isn’t, what happened, why does the memory of words he’s never heard in a voice that is only almost Nigel’s make him feel like someone opened his chest and crushed his heart? The dream is already fading, except for those words, and vague impressions of cool stone under his hands, a flowered arch over his head.
“Bri?” Nigel blinks sleepily at him in the dim light filtering through his curtains from the street outside. Brian stares up at him, his heart in his throat. Some nights, they talk about it if the dreams come back. Some nights they do other things.
“I love you,” Brian whispers in the dark, and really, he’s obvious, he’s sure Nigel already knows, but. But he has to say it.
“Come here,” Nigel murmurs, pulling Brian in against his side. “I love you too. You all right, though?”
“I think… I think I am, yeah. Just a dream.”
And somehow, it can be that easy. Maybe the dream, all the dreams, mean something. Well, actually, they almost definitely do, given the sheer level of strangeness about them. But it doesn’t matter as much as this, Nigel’s heartbeat under Brian’s ear, the pair of them cocooned together in the night.
Whatever else might be real, this, also, is real.
Brian knows he should shut up about this. It’s the first night he and Nigel have had to spend together in a week, what with fall semester starting and Nigel getting a steady job composing for a studio of established artists. They were supposed to just be taking it easy, curled together on Nigel’s couch with a movie going. But he just can’t stop ranting about the department chair and the stupid schedule and just - everything.
“And I know I don’t have tenure but for fuck’s sake, I can do things that aren’t intros, freshmen drive me up the fucking wall, Nigel, you’ve got no idea.”
“I think I have some idea, by now.” Nigel is definitely laughing at him, Brian can tell from the sound of his voice, but that’s all right, it’s always fond laughter with him.
Brian sighs. “I mean, they’re eighteen, it’s not like they’re bad kids or anything, it’s just that mostly the basic shit Carlisle keeps giving me are the courses people take for requirements, so half of ‘em aren’t taking it seriously at all. If I could just get a decent class or two it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“I keep saying, you’d be happier if you quit.”
“I keep saying you’re a pretty rich boy and that colors your judgment.”
“Hmph. Well, good thing I am, because that means I can do this.” Before Brian can ask what it is Nigel can do, he’s paused the movie and stood up, pulling Brian up with him and into his arms. “Now stop ranting for a minute and dance with me, hmm?”
“I - can’t dance, and there’s no music -”
Except that, apparently, with Nigel singing quietly in his ear and leading him carefully around the living room, Brian’s terrible dancing becomes… manageably bad, instead of a disaster. Granted, they’re mostly swaying together, but still. Slowly, Brian relaxes, until they really have just about stopped and his face is pressed into Nigel’s shoulder, the soft cotton of his shirt and the warmth of his body under it soothing away the last of Brian’s temper.
Nigel kisses Brian’s temple and goes quiet for a moment. Then - “Move in with me? Properly, I mean?”
The question is a soft whisper in Brian’s ear, but he straightens, eyes wide with surprise. “I - you want me to move in here with you?”
“Well, if you want, but actually I was thinking we could find a place together. I’ve barely seen you all week, I want us to come home to each other but I know your flat’s how you like it, and mine’s how I like it, so we should probably find one that suits us both. What do you say?”
And Nigel is saying all this in that careless way he has, like it’s just an idea and what Brian says doesn’t really matter. But Brian knows it does. And - the truth is, he wants it too. He smiles, and when Nigel practically beams back at him, he can feel his own smile turn giddy. “Sure, let’s start looking at places.”
They start looking the next day and finally move into their new apartment on a sunny late September day. Something about the leaves beginning to turn autumn colors against the blue sky gives Brian a good feeling. If he believed in good omens, he would think it was one, somehow.
“Why are you fiddling with your school ring? Also, are you supposed to wear it on your left hand like you’re married to your alma mater?” Nigel asks when they’re taking a break from carrying boxes.
“It just felt more comfortable,” Brian says absently. “Like I was supposed to have a ring there.” He thinks of engraved copper bands, one on his finger, one warm against his fingertips as he slips it on someone else’s hand, and shakes his head to clear the flash away.
Brian’s days are full of his classes - still mostly intro, but somehow they don’t bother him quite so much this fall. His evenings are spent usually bickering, more or less playfully, about where this or that will go. They paint their walls on the weekends and several of Brian’s sketches hang alongside photographs in frames just the right shade of wood to stand out.
“How do you always know?” he asks Nigel, who somehow always gets it right.
“No idea. Just do. Feels like I worked for it, but I can’t remember it being anything but instinct.”
It doesn’t really matter. Brian has a sense for what to put on their shelves, their walls, and Nigel knows how to make it look just right. Like a home that belongs to them both.
So, it’s a good thing that they both have steadier jobs now, Brian knows this. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it when Nigel has to fly out to California and he can’t go because he has classes to teach. Their half-unpacked apartment feels too empty, the corner of the living room where Nigel writes his music sits forlorn, sheet music and guitar gone along with the man who owns them.
The apartment is too quiet, so Brian puts on audiobooks to fill the silence. The bed is too big and too cold with just him in it, so he pulls out a spare blanket. He still doesn’t sleep as well as he’d like. He hates how clingy he feels, and yet… It’s not like he isn’t functioning. He’s not unable to get out of bed. He just hates being home alone, like it can’t be home anymore unless they’re both there.
It’s frustrating, but it’s also just true. Since he can’t help it, Brian tries to accept it.
Nigel left one of his oversized sweaters draped over the stool he sits on when he’s working on his music, and on the third night, Brian gives in to an impulse and steals it, curling up on the couch with his hands tucked into the too-long sleeves. He ends up falling asleep on the couch wearing it two nights running, and the third night of that (sixth night), he’s woken by a soft laugh.
“Miss me, sweetheart?” Nigel asks, trailing a hand over the green wool covering Brian’s arm. Brian grumbles and tugs him down by his jacket for a sleepy kiss, which gets him more laughter, but also, you know, a kiss.
“It’s too quiet when you’re not here,” Brian says, and he doesn’t care how plaintive he sounds.
“Oh, well. Next time you’ll just have to play hooky and come with me, hmm? For now, though… I think we can do better than the couch, and cute as you are in my sweater, I’d really rather see you in nothing at all.”
“Aren’t you jetlagged?” Brian asks, waking up enough to laugh as Nigel tows him down the hallway to their bedroom.
“Nope, it’s hours earlier in California, I am wide awake, Bri.” Nigel pauses just inside their bedroom to catch Brian up and spin them around. “And my God, the single is going to be brilliant when it comes out, this girl has the most amazing voice and she brought me in for the part that needed a male vocal, so you know. That makes it even better.”
Brian, who can’t hold a tune to save his life but loves listening to Nigel even when he’s singing a corny commercial jingle that got stuck in his head, has to agree with that assessment. He grins, leaning up for a kiss far more heated than the earlier lazy one.
But, after that, he does have a habit of stealing Nigel’s sweaters now that it’s getting chilly, though he’s not allowed to touch the burgundy one. “You bought that for me, you can’t go stealing it for at least a year,” Nigel says, and Brian only notes it because it happens the same week his school ring went missing for three days after he took it off to clean it and then got distracted by someone kissing the back of his neck.
But, whatever. He steals the blue-and-cream one instead when they go for a walk because Brian wants to sketch autumn scenes and Nigel likes to go walking as new melodies, new lyrics, brew in his head.
It’s good. It’s better than good. It’s the best Brian’s ever had, if he’s being honest.
But then Brian’s world flies apart before they manage to finish unpacking.
“You don’t teach classes over winter break this year, right?” Nigel says one Saturday morning as he’s getting ready to run a few errands.
“Hmm?” Brian says, looking up from his laptop. He had a burst of inspiration when he woke up and has been typing away at his novel basically all morning. “Oh. No. Almost no one in their right mind even takes winter break classes, and the ones who do are usually not intro-level kids, they’re seniors who are fucked without that one specific class and winter break’s their only shot. Why?”
Nigel hums, dropping a kiss to the top of Brian’s head as he passes by. “Do you have a passport?”
“Yeah, it’s gonna expire in March but I’ve got one. Again, why?” Brian asks, tipping his head back to look at his boyfriend, who has that mischievous look in his eyes that says he’s planning something.
“How about we spend the holidays in London?” Nigel asks, and he grins because they both know Brian is a pathetic sucker for English royal history and among other things has always been desperate to visit the Tower of London. (Nigel is just as bad, by the way, it’s just that he prefers Ancient Rome. Their Netflix queue is very interesting sometimes.)
“But you hate London,” Brian feels obliged to point out.
“No, I’ve hated going back since Mam died, because I hate my father. I do not hate my stepmother and the half-sibs, but they hate me and I can’t entirely blame them for that. But taking you home, now that’s different, don’t you think?”
Oh. Brian’s heart does something funny in his chest. “In, in that case… we should fly out of Boston, spend a couple days there first. Just, you know. If we’re sharing.”
Nigel grins at him. “Sounds like a plan then. Right, I’ll be back in an hour.”
Nigel… is not back in an hour. Brian doesn’t think much of it until it’s been over two, because Nigel has been known to get sidetracked, or to strike up conversations with random fellow shoppers or store employees. But by the time it’s been two and a half hours, Brian is starting to get a little worried. He gets significantly more worried when his texts and two voicemails go unanswered.
By the third voicemail, Brian was a little worked up. “Nigel, what the fuck, answer your bloody phone,” he says, fingers tight around his own phone. “Where are you, I’m getting worr-”
Nigel literally materializes out of thin air and Brian drops his phone. Distantly, he hears something break, but he’s too busy trying to figure out what the fuck is happening to really think about it. “N-Nigel, what - how -?”
He has a dizzying flash, then, of the almost-Nigel, the dream guy, standing in a kitchen wearing truly ridiculous pajamas, waving a hand as things literally float in the air around him like fucking Jean Grey or something. He has another flash of himself, his fingers moving in a pattern and a broken model plane floating in front of him, repairing itself as his fingers move.
What. What the fucking hell.
Nigel is - staring at him, his head tilted and a smile on his face Brian’s never seen. Something’s not right about his face, it’s the same features but something’s different, his eyes are the same but the look in them, the way he’s holding himself, everything is wrong and Brian can’t understand -
“Quentin. I found you. Do a card trick for me, Quentin!”
What? Brian takes a step back, hands raised defensively though he doesn’t know what he could possibly do. “Nigel, this - this isn’t funny, what the hell is -”
Nigel’s eyes flash red and Brian remembers - different eyes flashing red, his hands flipping cards with ease, footsteps and a gunshot.
“This is not what we agreed on!”
“I didn't actually agree on anything.”
Oh God. This - whatever this is, this isn’t Nigel, not really, but Brian can’t understand what’s happening. He backs up as the thing that looks like Nigel approaches him, until he hits the kitchen counter and he can’t actually move anywhere. It looks at him with something that’s almost a mockery of affection, and Brian feels sick.
“Don't be scared. This is great! There's so much for us to do together. This is gonna be so fun. I think anything is more fun when you do it with a friend.” And before Brian can say anything, can do anything, the Nigel-thing grabs his arm and the apartment vanishes in a dizzying whirl.
It’s a month, more or less, of being dragged around, barely able to eat or sleep even when the Monster gives Brian a chance. And it keeps echoing around his mind. “I’ll be back in an hour, I’ll be back in an hour.”
That, and a question - who the fuck is Quentin?
.... Until, in Greece, a vicious headache strikes and is gone like lightning, and where Brian Devlin was, Quentin Coldwater is back, blinking in confusion with blood on his skin, his clothes. He turns to see Eliot holding up a man, pinned by his throat - but, no, he realizes, dizzy with horror as Brian’s memories collide with his and everything suddenly makes a terrible sort of sense.
No. Oh God, no.
The Monster is hunting gods. It wants the things they took from it, which are… well, unknown, apparently. Right. But Quentin knows, when they’re sitting on that bridge, the Monster snuggled up against his side and laying Eliot’s head on his shoulder, that he should just keep his mouth shut. The Monster taught Brian very well that asking for things is a bad idea. But he can’t help it.
“You really understand me, Quentin. It's good to have a friend like you.”
“You know, speaking of friends, when you get back what the gods took from you maybe... Could I maybe have Eliot back?” Please, just let him go, you can keep me if you want, you probably will anyway if you found me even as Brian but please let him go first.
“The one who tried to kill me?”
Oh shit. Quentin should really have thought of that.
In the end, it works out, sort of. He’s back with the others, no one dies but Bacchus, and then there’s the Push game, and for one goddamn moment Quentin has clarity because when he can’t do shit else he can play cards. Oh, but there’s also a cursed fucking teddy bear that tries to get him killed in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Looney Tunes short and then -
Then. Quentin’s world doesn’t shatter, but it cracks down the middle, spiderweb fractures spreading so that one good hit is all it will take for everything to go to pieces.
He knew it was coming, of course. He hadn’t expected to find out after the fact, and hadn’t expected to break all his dead father’s model planes with a Monster wearing Eliot like a cheap suit, but. For a moment, this thing liking him is actually. Actually helpful. Smashing the planes actually helps, it lets out the grief and the guilt and it’s a fuck you to his mother and that fucking bitch she married, and God, he hates both of them but he loved his dad and. And. Throwing wooden planes against the wall with a god-killing Monster is apparently the only thing that lets him feel all of that without it drowning him.
“You'll be more useful to me if you feel better, so you should know that your friend Eliot is dead.”
“I felt the moment his soul died. It only hurt for a second. I promise he didn't suffer.”
One good hit. And Quentin’s world flies apart.
Chapter 2: But You're Still On My Lonely Mind
In which Quentin clings to the remnants of Brian and Nigel's life in hopes of keeping himself grounded.
Warning here: there is a lot of the Monster being all over Quentin in this chapter. It's all platonic - think of the Monster as a very large evil cat that likes to drape itself on Q and cuddle him - but Quentin does consider the possibility that this could change.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Quentin can’t sleep, no matter how much he tosses and turns, trying to get comfortable. How can he possibly sleep after the whiplash of the day? He has trouble sleeping now, in general, and after today…
He stares up into the dark and finally lets himself feel . Relief and horror and joy and heartbreak all tangled together, but this time last night there had been nothing but a numb sort of grief, and the difference is breathtaking. This time last night, he’d been trying to steel himself for banishing the Monster back to Blackspire, sending it away in Eliot’s body.
The body was all that was left, he’d told himself, because Eliot was already dead. This was just stopping the thing that had killed him, this was just another burial. He’d done that once, and he’d had to do that with his own hands, alone. At least this time, he’d told himself, Julia would be there afterwards. Even Alice, whose presence was no longer any comfort at all, meant he wouldn’t be alone again.
It hadn’t done him any good to think it, and he’d stared into the dark all night. Now, tonight, he’s exhausted. He should sleep. But he can’t.
“Peaches and plums, motherfucker. I’m alive in here.”
How many times, Quentin wonders, will his world flip upside down because of Eliot Waugh? From his arrival at Brakebills to now, how many times has it been? He’s lost count, he thinks. But this time, this one - this one might count for all, because Quentin isn’t sure the stakes have ever been higher. Because on the one hand, he knows that they can’t just - let the Monster run rampant forever.
He knows this better than anyone, what with having been that thing’s favorite toy since he was still Brian.
He doesn’t want to think about being Brian. He doesn’t want to think about being Brian before the Monster, when -
“Fuck this,” Quentin mutters, throwing off the covers and getting out of bed. If he can’t sleep, he thinks, he might as well be useful. So he gets up, padding carefully on bare feet out to the living room where they’ve left the books. Except, to his surprise, he’s not the only one awake.
Kady is perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, a mug of something steaming next to her as she flips through… Are those case files? They look like it anyway, like NYPD case files, and Quentin suddenly remembers - Kady’s alter ego, Sam, had been the detective assigned to the disappearance of Brian Devlin and Nigel Cooper.
“I never asked,” he hears himself say. “What was the running theory on Brian and Nigel?”
Kady looks up, watching him with narrowed eyes, and says, “It would have been that you just took off together, except you didn’t take anything. So I - Sam - she figured that one of you might have killed the other and taken off, but there was no evidence for that either. Then that fucking comic came up and… Well.”
Quentin nods, finds there’s still hot water in the kettle on the stove. “Mind if I use this?”
He doesn’t know who picked out the tea in the cupboard, he only knows that Nigel used to say it was one of the only American teas worth drinking. He pours hot water over the bag, adds milk, thinks of Brian adding no milk but too much sugar. He doesn’t add any sugar at all until he takes a sip and realizes he was so busy making sure he didn’t make it the way Brian made it, he made Nigel’s cup instead.
Quentin forces his hands to be very, very steady as he puts exactly two spoonfuls of sugar in his tea. Eliot doesn’t like tea, he remembers dizzily, not unless he has no choice, but Nigel chokes on it every time he tries to drink coffee, so he drinks tea like water for the caffeine and Brian laughs and says if he’d just convert to coffee he could drink less.
Fuck. Fucking goddamned bloody fuck. (Brian never used the word bloody before Nigel came into his life, Quentin never uses it at all. Fuck .)
“Must have been weird for you, to wake up and realize you’d been dating your best friend before he got possessed and kidnapped you instead,” Kady says, and Quentin’s fingers tighten around his mug. Oh yes, such a weird thing, so unexpected and unusual. But then, he hasn’t told even Julia about the Mosaic, or Margo. Maybe Eliot told Margo, maybe not, but Quentin has never breathed a word. So how would Kady know?
Eliot told him no. Quentin learned all about respecting other people’s wishes, and what happens when you use love as an excuse not to, with Alice. Eliot told him no, and the only way Quentin knows to respect it is to never speak of it. But now he doesn’t just have the memories of a lifetime in Fillory, hazy as a dream and achingly vivid by turns. Now he has months of Brian and Nigel and those memories are clear as day, all the time, a life not theirs but lived in the real world and taken all together it’s -
He thinks he might choke on all the things he isn’t speaking of. He isn’t sure he can keep doing it.
“Weird is one word for it,” he hears himself say. “Broke Brian’s heart, when Nigel went psycho on him. He didn’t understand it, though he figured out pretty quickly shit was much worse than just… cute boyfriend is actually a sadistic fuck.” And then I woke up, and my heart broke , he adds silently.
“You should know that your friend Eliot is dead,” the Monster had said, and Quentin had remembered Eliot in his chair, still and quiet, the feel of dirt under his hands as he dug a grave, the blanket he wrapped Eliot in. The way blood had spurted when Eliot in his golem had taken a fatal spell meant for Quentin, his wide blank eyes where he lay on the floor. But some part of him, some strange corner of his mind, had been Brian falling apart over Nigel.
And now -
“Coldwater!” From the way Kady snaps at him, Quentin guesses this isn’t the first time she’s called his name. He blinks, and with an effort pulls himself back to the present. “Hey, what the fuck’s up with you?” she asks when he focuses on her. “You aren’t usually this out of it.”
“I - how much do you know about what happened today?” Quentin asks, and drinks some tea in hopes that it will ease the sudden ache in his throat. It doesn’t, but it tastes good, and he thinks it might be the first thing he’s had to drink in hours which… That’s a problem, isn’t it? “In the park?”
“I know Julia’s worshipper is dead, Alice was here and gone again, and the Monster’s still here. Julia says you’re convinced Eliot’s alive but it didn’t make any sense to her. She said he started rambling about something random and you insisted it meant Eliot had broken loose for a minute?” Kady sounds less skeptical than Julia had, which Quentin appreciates. Mostly she sounds curious, like this is an implausible story but she’s willing to be convinced.
Quentin has never known Kady all that well, at least not compared to the others. But looking at her now, he can’t help but wonder if she sees more than he’d have thought. He thinks of her after Penny had died, and how she looks at 23, and, well. Things he’d been more peripherally aware of than actively thinking about until now.
“The stuff he said, no one else could know, except me and Eliot,” he explains. “And from some of the shit the Monster said to Margo, we know that it does not have access to Eliot’s memories. So, when he said those things… I knew.” And I knew when I let myself look in his eyes, when I saw how he looked at me. Eliot had looked at Quentin like he loved him and that doesn’t make sense but it had definitely been Eliot.
The Monster isn’t - capable of a look like that.
“Shit,” Kady says. “Any idea how to get it out of him, then? I’ve had my own stuff going but I do know that blood from a stone banishing spell was the only thing we had, right?”
Quentin nods, and drinks his tea. “There has to be something, but no, we haven’t found it yet,” he admits. “Hey, Kady? What happened to Brian and Nigel’s stuff?”
“Well, given that you two just vanished, there wasn’t really any evidence. So there was a secure padlock put on the door and everything was just covered with dustcloths. Why, did you want to get some of it?” Her voice slips briefly into a Brooklyn accent - was Sam from Brooklyn? - but Kady doesn’t seem to notice so Quentin doesn’t mention it, just considers her question.
He hadn’t actually gotten that far, but since she’s asked. “Yeah. I would.”
Kady ends up picking the padlock with a spell Quentin’s never seen, though it resembles the unlocking spell he knows a little. Kady says it’s more heavy-duty than the one Brakebills teaches, useful because this door has both a regular lock and a security lock put on by the NYPD. Quentin is actually pretty impressed, and files it away to ask about learning later. He remembers Eliot talking about hedges like they were all but useless, but from what he understands, Marina 23 helped them get their memories back - even if it was Julia who really fixed it - and Kady and Julia, hedges both, have been far from useless in his experience. Maybe it’s time he took a leaf or two from their book, because he never did so well as a standard magician.
But that’s a thought for later. Quentin reaches for the light switch without even looking, flicking it on. Except for the sheets covering the furniture, everything is just how he left it - it’s been over a month now, closer to a month and a half. Well, his phone is no longer on the floor, maybe they thought that was evidence, but there’s a few shards of plastic and phone screen glass.
Brian’s sketches are still on the walls. Nigel’s guitar is still sitting upright in the ‘composing corner’, as they both took to calling it. There’s still sticky notes on the fridge and on the coffee table. Both Brian and Nigel had a habit of leaving each other notes, little reminders or jokes. Brian’s handwriting isn’t that unlike Quentin’s - more an odd hybrid of print and cursive than Quentin’s, that’s all - while Nigel’s is neater and slanted differently to Eliot’s.
Even his laptop, battery long since run out, is sitting where he left it.
Quentin swallows hard and turns away, heading for the bedroom. He doesn’t hear footsteps behind him, glances back once to see Kady glancing around - she’s seen the place before, of course, but maybe it looks different to her now, knowing the full story. Quentin doesn’t know.
Their bed still isn’t made. They didn’t bother, because it was Saturday, and there was every chance they’d end up back in it before the afternoon was half over, so why bother making it? Quentin sits on the edge of it, palms flat against the rumpled sheets, and tries to breathe. He came here to pack a bag, because he can’t get his things from wherever Brakebills stuffed them, and he’d only had a couple of things at his dad’s house.
That’s the practical reason to come here, of course. It’s not the real reason he’s here. So, after filling Brian’s duffel bag partway with his clothes - buttondowns and slacks and a few pairs of jeans, underwear and that sort of thing, there’s still room. Quentin turns to the closet, finds it full of clothes that won’t fit him - except for a blue zip-up jacket he grabs - and, of course, Nigel’s sweaters.
He can’t help but reach out, curling his fingers into soft wool. He remembers resting his head against Nigel’s chest, his heartbeat in Brian’s ear and the same soft wool against his cheek.
Or stealing one, laughing at the look on Nigel’s face.
“Coldwater, you OK?” Kady asks, and Quentin doesn’t turn around, can’t quite meet anyone’s gaze right now.
“No. Not really,” he admits, and only hears after that his own voice slipped like hers, Brian’s Boston accent replacing his own Jersey suburban one. “Not really at all.”
Kady sighs. “Well, like I said before, it’s weird, coming back to yourself to realize that before your best friend got possessed and kidnapped you, you were dating him, when you don’t usually want to do that.”
“Who says I don’t?” Quentin asks, suddenly reckless. Why is he telling Kady? He doesn’t know. Maybe because he can’t see her face. Maybe because Brian counts love in the feel of soft wool under his fingers the same way Quentin does in the taste of plums on his tongue, because those counts come back to the same man , when all is said and done.
Maybe because it was Eliot in the park today, Eliot saying “Fifty years, who gets proof of concept like that?” and Quentin would get drunk on it if he lets himself hope but maybe a little optimism is safe enough to feel. And maybe it won’t break the world, in a moment where he can be optimistic, to say that things aren’t OK. Or maybe he’s seen how Kady looks at 23 while 23 is looking at Julia.
The looks are actually - not that different. And they’re sort of, kind of, the less horrifying version of what Quentin feels when it’s Eliot’s body he’s looking at, Eliot’s face and eyes, but not him at all.
“Son of a bitch,” Kady murmurs. “Does he know?”
“Yeah,” Quentin says. “He didn’t, um. Want to. But that doesn’t matter. Not now, not anymore. Um, please don’t tell anyone?”
“Why would I do that? Look, pack up what you want and do it quick, we really shouldn’t be here too late.”
So Quentin zips up Brian’s bag, full of Brian’s clothes and Nigel’s sweaters - and a few of his older t-shirts, because Brian stole those too, wearing them with sleep pants as pajamas, and he actually can’t find Brian’s old sleep shirts. Probably in some of the still-packed boxes. On a whim, Quentin also grabs a chain off the dresser - Nigel’s, he sometimes wears pendants as part of his look onstage. But Quentin doesn’t take any of those. Instead, he pauses to collect his own housekey, or rather Brian’s, and strings it onto the chain before slipping it over his head and under his shirt.
Kady watches him do it, but to Quentin’s relief, she doesn’t say anything about it.
The next morning, he tugs on a grey and black sweater over one of Brian’s thinnest buttondowns, the sleeves too long so he’s left with sweater paws. But the weight of it, the familiar wool against his fingers, keeps him grounded against Julia’s questions, her fears that helping the Monster isn’t a good idea. The key on its chain under his shirts helps too, in its way.
“It's Eliot,” is all he can say, and he knows she doesn’t understand. He’s made sure she won’t, hasn’t he? “Right now we can't fix everything, but I think that we can do this.
“Okay,” Julia says, her eyes searching his face. Quentin isn’t sure what she’s looking for, isn’t sure she’ll find it, but she must find something. “For now, we help the Monster, but at the same time, we also figure out what our next move's going to be.
“Thank you,” he says, and means it.
Julia focuses on her food for a moment, then takes a deep breath, looking back up at him. “I don't know. I guess I'm just worried. I can't help you if you -”
“You're helping a lot,” he hurries to say, because this is true. If he were doing this alone, he’s not sure he could do it at all. But Julia still doesn’t look convinced.
“I was a goddess, and now I'm just your friendly neighborhood bulletproof vest.”
“I mean, you would be a very high level X-Men. Like Emma Frost's diamond form.”
“Mutant?” And she still doesn’t look happy, but there’s an amused glint in her eyes, so Quentin sells it a little harder.
“A mutant,” he confirms. “Like The Indestructress.” He can picture it, takes a notepad and pen from the drawer by the refrigerator and sketches a quick little thing of Julia in a superhero uniform. Drawing doesn’t come easily to him anymore, as Quentin, but he feels more like Brian today anyway, except for how seeing his oldest friend smile chases away all the demons, for a moment at least.
He can still feel Julia worrying, can see the curiosity in her eyes as she studies him in the overlarge sweater. He knows she wants to ask why he’s wearing it, wants to ask why he’s so willing to take risks like this to save Eliot. But she doesn’t, and he wonders if she knows how much he loves her for it.
He doesn’t know how to explain it to her. Talking to Kady, in the dark, when he knows she has some understanding of how he feels, that had been - the words had been out before he really wanted them to be. But he doesn’t think he can tell Julia, because she’d probably try to comfort him and he might break if she does. Or, worse, for his own good she’ll try to bench him. He can’t - that can’t be allowed.
The thing is, Quentin doesn’t - actually think, when he sees the Monster rooting through the pills. He’s on edge already, he knows he pushed the envelope bitching about the tequila thing earlier. He knows he can only play this game so far even when all he can think about is making sure Eliot doesn’t die because the Monster inadvertently poisons him somehow, or gets him fatally hurt.
But… Almost got hit by a fucking truck, Jesus Christ.
So, yeah, he doesn’t think, just tears across the room to knock the pills away. And then there’s a familiar force catching him up, gossamer silk against his skin but strong as iron, and then suddenly burning against his skin as he’s thrown against a wall.
Julia helps him to his feet, her hands lingering on his arms like she wants to hold him back, but Quentin can’t let her do that. He approaches the Monster and he’s too angry to be scared, for once. “Those pills can kill you.”
“I'll take a new body. I'm bored.”
There’s a jolt of pure panic that makes it hard to breathe, but it’s washed away in the anger because after all this, after everything - no. Just no. What does he have, what threat can he - the Monster is using them, it doesn’t seem capable of finding its body on its own or at least isn’t aware it can, so maybe… “You kill Eliot and you can forget about us helping you.”
“Eliot, Eliot, Eliot. Why do you care about him so much?” And Quentin can hear the bitterness, the jealousy , and he thinks he has an answer for why the Monster said Eliot was dead, before, when it could have been using his life as a bargaining chip all along. And maybe he should be careful, but he can’t.
“Because I do. You kill him, and we are done. I swear to God, I am serious. I will abandon you, and I will die trying to burn you to the ground.” The Monster likes him, Quentin is its favorite toy. That’s all he has, that’s the only leverage he has, staring up into wrong-familiar eyes and refusing to back down.
“That's cute,” the Monster murmurs, looming over Quentin. “But I'm strong. And you're weak.” It lifts Eliot’s hands and wraps them around Quentin’s throat, pressing in slowly, more a promise of danger than actually cutting off his air.
And no. That isn’t going to cut it now. Brian might have stopped at a threat of violence, but Brian didn’t understand the stakes. Quentin stares up at Eliot’s eyes that aren’t Eliot’s, hands he knows better than his own slowly tightening around his throat. “Break my bones and strangle me,” he says, the words a dare as those fingers tighten so his next words are strained. “Too tired to care anymore.”
And he is. If this is how he dies, then this is how he dies, and his only regret is that it’s not really Eliot who will be the last thing he sees. Julia whispers his name, Quentin hears that, but he can’t look at her, can’t look away from the Monster who isn’t pressing further now, just. Holding. Holding just enough that Quentin’s head is beginning to spin a little, but he can still breathe enough to speak. “You hurt him, you take one more pill, and you can build your body on your own.”
Those fingers press tighter and Quentin gasps in spite of himself as, for a moment, he can’t breathe at all. Then the Monster lets him go. “Fine,” it says with a low growl, sounding almost childishly sulky. “I'll take better care of the meat suit. But you don't have to be such a baby about it.”
Then it’s gone and Julia’s grabbing Quentin by the arm. “Q, what the fuck was that?” she demands, shaking him a little. “You can’t just -”
“It was a bluff,” Quentin says, the half-lie falling from his tongue with shocking ease. “I figured it didn’t want to break its favorite toy yet.”
“So you’re leveraging your life against Eliot’s?” Julia demands. “How is that a good idea? Would Eliot want you to do that?”
“Probably not,” Quentin has to concede. “But do you have a better idea?” When she doesn’t answer, Quentin smiles a little sadly and pulls out of her grasp, holding tightly to what’s left of his composure as he heads for his room. He manages to keep calm until he gets there, but as soon as he closes the door to his room, he slumps back against the door, trembling.
Fuck. Fucking hell. He swallows hard and already it aches, he’s going to have bruises from where the Monster began to strangle him with Eliot’s hands. The hands and body it stole, and he would have slipped away staring into its stolen eyes if it had gone through with -
Quentin spins and slams his palms against the wall, hard. Once, twice, three times until it aches all up his arms and his knees give out. He sinks to the floor, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.
“I’ll take a new body.”
Oh God, oh fuck, how is he supposed to stop it, really? That’s the worst part of all of this, when it comes right down to it. Literally the only protection any of them have is the Monster’s twisted fondness for Quentin. Without that, maybe Julia would be safe, but - Quentin’s main fear is Eliot, what the Monster is doing to his body, but Kady is here in the line of fire too, her hedges are in and out of the apartment, innocent bystanders. Penny 23 will be back at some point, possibly Alice as well. If Margo ever comes back, then she’ll be here too…
Quentin himself, but he really can’t be bothered to care about his own safety. He can’t worry about that when he has to focus on Monster-wrangling. What the hell is he going to do? He’s made a bargain with the Monster, but what if he can’t hold up his end? If they aren’t able to help it to its satisfaction, what will it do? Will it kill Eliot for spite, or threaten to, over and over? How long can Quentin’s fucking sanity hold out against that?
Well. It has to, that’s all. That’s what Quentin tells himself in the next days, as every lead after the mummy dries up, when the Monster wakes him half-straddled over him on the couch and Quentin’s anger is ashes so that he can only plead his case. Half beg for more time before it hurts Eliot again.
The worst and best part about the dragon egg mojo, when it overtakes his mind, is that for a little while, he forgets everything else.
The worst and best part about coming back to himself is the remembering.
“Look, don’t take this out on me, I just passed on the message.”
“What the fuck made you or my Penny think I wanted to hear that bullshit, especially from you? I could get ‘move on and find new happiness’ from a damned Hallmark sympathy card.”
Ugh. Quentin keeps his eyes closed, partly because, yep, that hangover is still very much pounding behind his temples, and also he isn’t exactly keen on 23 and Kady realizing they’ve been overheard. Near as he can tell from the sound of their voices, they’re actually a floor up the spiral, in Marina’s library, bits and pieces of their argument drifting down the stairwell.
He can’t blame Kady, really. 23 probably meant well with the whole ‘message from beyond the grave thing’, but… Well. Quentin happens to know that it’s actually really awful to be told that the person you love is dead by someone using their voice and wearing their face, so he can pretty well guess that a message of I love you but you need to move on because I’m dead would be. Also not good in similar circumstances.
The voices go quiet and Quentin has almost drifted off again, mind wandering. Wondering what a kid raised by Poppy might turn out to be like, remembering the question, “Do you think you’ll ever be a dad?” and trying not to remember either a million moments with Teddy at the Mosaic or that time Brian and Nigel ended up babysitting the neighbor’s kid for three hours and somehow in an attempt to keep her busy by making cookies got flour literally on every surface of the kitchen.
He’s almost asleep determinedly not thinking of how hilariously terrible Eliot is at hide and seek whether he’s Eliot or Nigel when the sofa creaks and a hand trails down his arm. Oh. This again. And sure enough, when Quentin opens his eyes, the Monster is straddling the couch again, trailing Eliot’s hand down Quentin’s arm.
“We have your rock,” he says, sitting up to reach for it. He feels the couch give beside him and - oh OK, that’s new, he thinks distantly as the Monster all but wraps Eliot’s body around him, chin hooked over his shoulder. The smell of blood and sugar and sweat is almost choking Quentin, like this. This is new and he really doesn’t care for it, and is the Monster smelling his hair? What the fuck. “Yeah, uh, so. Your stone. Here.” He holds it up just as the Monster actually nuzzles behind his ear and yeah, OK, this is not good.
“Good job, Quentin,” the Monster says, untwining itself and getting up, the rock in one hand. “You smell like dragon. I don’t like it. Dragons put things in their hoards and they can’t have you.” It strokes a painfully familiar hand through Quentin’s hair just as Quentin spots Kady frozen on the spiral staircase, hands braced for what he’s pretty sure is battle magic. Behind the Monster’s back, Quentin waves her off, though he appreciates the gesture as those fingers trail down to the back of his neck.
“I will be back later, I want more churros,” the Monster mutters, and then it’s gone.
“Coldwater, what the fuck,” Kady says flatly. “Tell me that shit’s not normal.”
“Uh… Just about?”
“Jesus Christ,” Kady says, sitting in the gold chair. “You need to - no, I guess there’s not much you can do, is there?”
“Nope.” Quentin just hopes that whatever kicks it gets out of treating him like a pet are enough to keep it from another adventure with drugs or alcohol. He also hopes it doesn’t get any ideas about, well, anything more intimate. Because if the Monster manages to discover sex, then there’s a good chance - Quentin has been trying very hard not to think about that, because while it’s not something he’d just… accept, not like he’s forced himself to tolerate the cuddling, he’s also aware that he won’t be able to prevent it.
Best to just hope nothing comes of that, and otherwise try not to think about it. He’s fairly sure, though, that the same basic idea has occurred to Kady. Because this is one thing he definitely doesn’t want to discuss, he says, “So, it was a good idea to keep Sam’s gun. Things are pretty hazy by that point but I, uh, definitely remember the nine-mil.”
Kady snorts. “Well, she had to be useful for something, didn’t she? Sam, I mean. Addictions aside, she fucking owed me one for making me prefer her life to mine.”
“They were certainly easier people to be than us,” Quentin agrees softly. “But I, um. You’re pretty impressive when you get going. With the hedges, I mean.” Watching that speech from the sidelines had sort of made him wonder how she might have fit in if she’d still been at Brakebills when everyone went to Fillory, though all of that is so damned long ago he can barely imagine it now.
Just snatches that are still so achingly vivid, and even most of the memories that weren’t nightmares when they happened twist his heart now, so he tries not to think about them much.
“Thanks, Coldwater,” Kady says with a lopsided smile. “I should have realized this place came with more strings than just the freaky landlord. Apparently, you inherit the castle, you get the crown too. Never wanted that to be my gig, but apparently I have to move on anyway so why not?”
Shit. “Maybe he meant well -” and oh, that’s a glare “- but 23 should have asked you if you wanted to hear it, before he just told you.”
Kady shrugs, leaning back in the chair. Quentin draws his legs up, curling into the corner of the couch. Finally, she says, “It wouldn’t have made it any easier to hear, but I’m guessing you’ve got some idea of that yourself. Fucking - it’s so stupid, though. I sound like one of those girls who just want to be some guy’s girlfriend, which I guess if that’s your thing and you’re happy then whatever. But with us, we were both our own people doing our own thing, but we were both fucked up, you know? Neither of us had anyone we could really rely on, and I thought maybe that’s what we were going to be for each other. The person that you know will stick the fuck around. Look how that worked out. And I don’t have a clue why I’m telling you any of this, Coldwater.”
“Quentin,” Quentin corrects quietly, and all he gets for that is raised eyebrows, but he figures that’s not a terrible sign. “I don’t know why either. I’m here? You broke into an apartment for me and I confessed that I’m in love with my possessed best friend so now we’re even or something?”
He’s oddly proud when Kady laughs a little at that. “Maybe some of both, Quentin ,” she says.
About a week after the dragon egg fiasco, the search for Enyalius takes Quentin, Julia, and 23 to the Brakebills library. They’re in the middle of flipping through books when 23 decides to express the opinion that what they really ought to do is destroy the last stone before the Monster can get to it, prevent it from ever building its body and achieving even more power.
“I love it,” Quentin says in reply, his voice clipped. “Except for the part where it doesn’t save Eliot.” He doesn’t wait for an answer, just turns all his focus back to the book he’s reading. Even so, he sees Julia shake her head out of the corner of his eye, knows that she must be warning 23 off pressing his point.
The weight of the green sweater he’s wearing - the first one Brian ever stole, Nigel laughed so hard at the sight of him curled up in it, but his eyes had been soft - is the only thing keeping Quentin from flying apart, or so it feels. The weight of the sweater and the book under his hands, the goal in mind. Get the last stone, get the Monster its body so that it leaves Eliot, and figure out how to stop it after that.
Julia gets up, murmuring something about going to get another book, and as soon as she turns the corner, 23 puts a hand over the page Quentin is reading. Quentin looks up, something twisting all the tighter inside him. Inside, where there are three people, an old man with grave dirt under his nails, a confused professor who’d been giddy in love one day and living a nightmare the next, and Quentin as himself, who -
“Look,” 23 says. “I’m as sympathetic as the next guy, but there comes a point when shit like this can’t be about any one person.”
Julia isn’t here, which is why Quentin says, as levelly as he can, “And if it was Julia? My Julia, your Julia, who the fuck knows if you can tell the difference -”
“I know Eliot’s your friend, but you can’t compare -”
“Why, because you were in love with her? Is that the only kind of love you think matters that much?”
“I didn’t say -”
“I’m in love with him, are you happy now?” Quentin hisses the words and realizes, dizzily, it’s the first time he’s said it this bluntly in this life, with these memories and body. “I’m in love with him and I am not going to consider anything that doesn’t end with us getting him back, do you understand me?” He’d never meant to speak of it, thought that was the way to respect Eliot’s no, Eliot who only loves him back when there’s no choice or they aren’t themselves, but it doesn’t matter anymore. How Quentin feels isn’t dependent on how Eliot feels, and Quentin doesn’t need Eliot to love him back, he just needs him to be here. And Penny fucking 23 is not going to stop him from making that happen.
Julia comes back, and from the looks she gives them, Quentin realizes she knows something happened, but thankfully she doesn’t ask. Maybe she figures neither of them will tell her, or at least won’t tell without it ending in another argument. Maybe she doesn’t actually care. Quentin isn’t always sure, anymore.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees a flash of white-blonde hair behind the bookshelf on his left, a familiar profile. But he has to be seeing things. And even if he isn’t, it’s not his business anymore.
They come back to the apartment to find the Monster interrogating a man tied to a chair. And then killing a man tied to a chair. Quentin wishes he felt more horrified than he does, but how many people has he seen the Monster kill, by now? This one wasn’t even on purpose, the Monster’s mind was just too strong…
But then Quentin gets a good look at the body, and all he can think is “I had to try 19 before I found a real one,” nineteen more people murdered by the Monster who doesn’t care about that, who doesn’t, who isn’t....
Penny’s saying something to the Monster, but Quentin doesn’t hear it, staring at the dead guy - Allan, his name was Allan, and Quentin should know that because, because - He just should, shouldn’t he?
The Monster is in front of him, a hand on Quentin’s waist and a hand on his forehead. Almost gentle. Almost - “You're upset,” the Monster says, touching him almost like Eliot did, sounding more like Eliot than he ever has, yet still wrong, wrong, so wrong and the disconnect is such that Quentin can only nod. Can only agree that yes, he’s upset, and if the only one who cares is the Monster then. Then that says something, doesn’t it?
“I'll get this gross corpse out of your sight. See you when I find a new psychic friend.”
But then Penny says something, he offers to help, Quentin thinks. He can’t seem to hear entirely properly, it’s like being underwater. And then he doesn’t hear Penny, or Julia arguing with him, because the Monster catches him by the wrist and takes him along. “This way, you can see the body go! Won’t that make you feel better?” it says with that awful twisted-child cheeriness.
And Quentin can only nod, hands shaking so badly he can’t pick up the stones. River water, and mud, and the roughness of stone against his fingers, the cooling waxy flesh of the dead man - Allan - and the Monster’s cheery tuneless humming.
He can’t do this. He can’t - he can’t be here, he closes his eyes and lets himself slip away, lets his body keep going while his mind - his mind remembers a different night, so different than this, so far from these nightmares.
“Now stop ranting for a minute and dance with me, hmm?”
“I - can’t dance, and there’s no music -”
He doesn’t remember tying stones to the body, or the way the Monster watches him, strokes the hands it stole down his sides.
The Monster is wrapped around Quentin when they go back. Wrapped around him, nuzzling at his temple and stroking a hand down his chest. Did it unbutton his shirt? Quentin doesn’t know, he doesn’t remember, he’d buried himself in memories and he’s not even sure where the mud under his fingernails came from.
He sits on the bench and replays the feeling of those wrong-familiar fingers skimming down his collarbone, rough-smooth against his skin just like he remembers but wrong, wrong , oh God. He tries to recapture that night in Nigel’s old apartment, tries to think of Eliot finding him up at two a.m. in the Cottage kitchen a week after he’d moved in, how they’d sat up with hot chocolate of all things.
“Fine, I’ll put this awful marshmallow vodka in yours, you plebeian,” Eliot had grumbled, doctoring his own mug from his flask afterwards.
Quentin blinks, and tries to put himself back in the moment. He got up at some point, he’s standing at the bathroom sink and his hands are turning red from how hot the water is. When did he get here? He supposes it doesn’t matter, though maybe he should be concerned that he scrubbed hard enough that his nailbeds are bleeding. Anyway, the river dirt is gone and that’s the important part.
He dries his hands and drifts back out to the living room, where Julia is staring so intently at 23 and the Monster sitting across from each other that she doesn’t even notice him coming back in. He thinks he remembers her telling him that washing his hands will help but he’s not sure. So Quentin watches Penny 23 and the Monster too, and he thinks Penny’s nose is bleeding.
He should be worried about that, shouldn’t he? After what happened to the twenty people the Monster killed because they weren’t psychic enough? Julia’s worried, he can tell, she keeps taking these abortive steps forward like she wants to interrupt them.
“I think it’ll make it worse if you try to stop it,” Quentin says slowly, and Julia whirls on him, but before she can say whatever she wanted to say, Quentin sees over her shoulder that they’re back. “They’re back,” he says, and then he and Julia are both supporting Penny because he’s swaying on his feet and now Quentin feels the worry, and the guilt for not feeling it sooner.
That was helpful,” the Monster announces, getting to its feet and looking more pleased than Quentin has seen in a while. That… that can’t actually be a good thing. “Tell him I said thanks. I know just who to find exactly to Enyalius's tastes. We're going to find him and I'm going to be whole again. This is a great day.”
And then Penny’s seizing and Quentin doesn’t have time to worry about what “just who to find” might refer to, because he and Julia are too busy trying to help Penny. He settles after a moment, and when a nifty diagnostic spell Julia runs Quentin through casting reveals that he’s fine, they lay him down so he can rest.
(But really. Quentin is beginning to think the hedges have cornered the market on actually useful spells, though that could just be because of how soon his magical education was cut short.)
Penny 23, however, seems to have other ideas, because he’s up again within minutes, despite both Julia and Quentin trying to get him to at least sit back down. The look in his eyes is wild, almost panicked, and Quentin feels a chill run down his spine. “Where's the Monster?” he asks.
“He's looking for a girl for Enyalius,” Quentin tells him, and doesn’t understand why Penny seems to look a little relieved about that.
“Okay. I saw Eliot in there,” 23 says.
And Quentin’s world - doesn’t flip, this time, but steadies in this moment when he’d been closer to flying apart than ever before. Because it’s proof, isn’t it? Someone other than him saw Eliot, knows he’s in there. “Is he -
“Alive. And poking around like a pro. The Monster, everything he can't remember, it's in there. All of it,” Penny says, and he’s calmer now, but his eyes are no less intent. Whatever he’s found out, it spooked the hell out of him. That, in spite of everything, worries Quentin.
“Wait, Eliot saw this?” he asks.
“He saw something. In the Monster's memories, buried. We've been wrong about everything. He's not trying to rebuild his body. That's not what the stones are. That's not what they're for. It's so much worse than that.
“Just breathe,” Julia says as 23 sways on his feet again. Quentin trusts that Julia has the ‘make sure our friend is OK’ part of this in hand, and presses on for more information.
“If the stones aren't for building a body, what does he want with them?” What Quentin doesn’t ask is, if the stones don’t make the Monster’s body, then how the hell is he ever going to get it out of Eliot?
“No, he's building a body. His sister's. He's trying to bring her back to life.
“Oh, my God,” Julia mutters.
“That's the girl he thought was a sacrifice to summon Enyalius, but she wasn't. Enyalius and the other gods killed her. They chopped her up and turned her into four stone organs."
“Jesus,” Quentin says. “There's two of them.”
“Yeah,” 23 confirms. “And if he got prison and she got the death penalty, I'm guessing she's the bad one. Till he remembers, he won't know to go looking for Enyalius. Which means we’ve gotta figure out what the hell we’re gonna do before then.”
The worst part is, Quentin can’t even argue with that. He’s pretty sure he’s going to end up arguing about what it is they’ll do, but. Yeah. They are definitely just about out of time. Fucking bloody hell, as Brian would say. Quentin curls his fingers into the sleeves of the blue and cream sweater he’s wearing and reminds himself to breathe as Penny and Julia start talking strategy, because he’s going to need as many wits about him as he can gather.
He can make this work. Somehow.
The Monster comes back in the middle of the night, Quentin waking as his mattress dips behind him, long fingers stroking through his hair. It’s not the first time, though so far it hasn’t done anything but spoon him, for which Quentin is tiredly grateful. This is, however, one of the reasons he’s so tired. For a moment, in the dark, Quentin closes his eyes and almost lets himself pretend this is the apartment Nigel shared with Brian, or the narrow bed he and Eliot shared on the Mosaic. Almost pretends it’s Nigel or Eliot playing with Brian’s/his hair.
But if he lets himself do that, it will be even worse when it touches him. If he lets himself forget whether he’s Quentin or Brian too often, he’ll lose himself. So Quentin opens his eyes and sits up, fumbling for the lamp. The smile he gives the Monster is his empty Monster-wrangling smile, and he keeps his gaze fixed somewhere just over the Monster’s shoulder so he doesn’t have to see those eyes, familiar and so wrong. “What is it?”
“I want Percy 23 to go back in there with me. I think there is something I am missing.”
Oh shit. They hadn’t been able to agree on much after 23 dropped Eliot’s bombshell, but they had agreed that it was important that the Monster think it was building its own body for as long as possible. If at all possible, they wanted to stop it before it figured that out. The main point of contention was that 23 wanted to get Enyalius’ stone and then find a way to kill the Monster whether they could get it out of Eliot or not. And Quentin, obviously, wanted to exorcise the Monster so it was out of Eliot before they killed it, though his specific objection to destroying the stone had lessened. Somewhat. Julia, so far, hadn’t come down on a side, just reaffirmed that whatever they did next, they needed the stone and they needed the Monster kept clueless as long as possible. So that was enough to be going on with.
What Quentin hadn’t told the others is that he’d considered bargaining with the Monster - its Sister’s life for Eliot’s. What’s stopping him, mostly, is the fact that he has no idea, and is pretty sure the Monster doesn’t know either, if it can willingly leave a host without killing that host. It’s not a risk Quentin is willing to take, and, well. He doesn’t exactly want to unleash Monster Twins on the world either, so there’s that. But he’d still thought about it.
He should probably be more concerned about that than he is.
But first he needs to get rid of the Monster again so he can talk to Penny and Julia. Maybe they can somehow use this to their advantage? “OK, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you again,” he says carefully. “But the thing is, it hurt him to do that. He was strong enough to survive it, but your mind is very powerful. So we’re going to need a little time to… set things up so he’ll be OK afterwards.”
“I don’t care if he is all right,” the Monster says, tilting Eliot’s head in puzzlement.
“Well, if he’s not OK, and you don’t get everything this time, how will he help you again?” Quentin points out, and the Monster nods, beaming its awful rictus of a smile.
“That’s true, Quentin. Thank you for thinking of that.”
Jesus fucking God. Right, OK, Coldwater, focus. “You’re welcome. So you’ll give us the time we need to figure out a way to do this safely?”
“Hmm…” The Monster stretches out on Quentin’s bed, peering up at him through dirty curls that have fallen across his face. It’s - another almost-familiar gesture and Quentin’s stomach knots. If he were Brian and this were Nigel, or if this was Eliot in their lost lifetime, his fingers would itch to brush back those curls. Here, now, he feels the what-he-would-feel like a burning instead. Quentin presses his hands flat against his thighs and waits for the Monster to decide.
Finally it sighs and stretches, blinking lazily up at Quentin like a great evil cat. “You have until the chatty women come on the TV, the ones that sit around a table and bicker with each other.”
Then it’s gone, and Quentin blinks. What the - he’s pretty sure there’s a few shows that qualify for that description, but the earliest comes on at eleven a.m. so he’s going to assume that’s when the Monster will be back, demanding further assistance. So Quentin hauls himself out of bed and knocks on Penny’s and Julia’s doors until they wake up, not looking any happier about it being two in the morning than he is.
Out in the kitchen, Kady is also awake - and Alice is with her, while that blond guy Pete Julia’s had run-ins with and who’s now playing lackey to Kady is sound asleep on the couch. “Hi,” Quentin says tiredly, and if part of him wants to know why Alice is there, it’s not a strong enough part to ask about it. Instead, he goes to make coffee even as Kady and Alice drift back toward the bedrooms. Quentin can’t cook, except for a few select things that are mostly breakfast foods and grilled cheese, but somehow he makes the best coffee by far out of any of them.
No, he’s not sure how either. He remembers Eliot and Margo laughing in bemused delight when they’d discovered this, his first weekend as a Cottage resident, and he has to rest his head briefly against the cool metal of the refrigerator until he’s sure he’s not going to cry. He doesn’t have time for this.
By ten in the morning, they have a plan, and a potion to make it work.
“So while I’m wandering Memory Lane with the Monster, you sneak into Eliot’s mind palace and find out the rest of what he knows,” Penny 23 sums up, and Quentin is suspicious because maybe their Penny might have let Quentin do this out of the basic decency that hid under his grumpiness, but 23? 23 hates him, but then while he’d probably prefer to bring Julia in with him and Eliot would have to tell her whatever there is to know in order for it to get out at all, there’s no way to be certain he can given her indestructibility comes complete with anti-magic shielding.
Still, there’s something odd about this, something hard in 23’s expression that should really make Quentin nervous.But Quentin is too tired to put his finger on it, and in the end he doesn’t really care, either. Let 23 have his reasons, whatever they are. All Quentin cares about is that he’ll get to see Eliot, actually see Eliot , for the first time in so long he can’t actually think about it for too long.
“Why are you making me sleep, Quentin?” the Monster asks once it arrives and they explain things, eyeing Quentin and the drink he hands him suspiciously. The Monster likes Starbucks of all things - Eliot has no strong opinion on Starbucks as far as Quentin knows, but Brian used to laugh about how much places like that offended Nigel - so they got him some kind of frozen drink from there to put the sleep potion in.
Sugary frozen drinks, ice cream, churros, sugar and blood, he always smells of sugar and blood. Quentin swallows the lump in his throat and forces a smile. “It’ll make your mind more relaxed so 23 will be able to help you more,” he says, and he’s used to lying to the Monster now, it comes easily. Quentin is, on the whole, an utterly terrible liar, but he can lie to the Monster. There’s probably a metaphor or an analogy or some fucking thing in that, but he can’t be bothered to find it, really.
Once the Monster’s asleep, sprawled loose-limbed on Quentin’s bed (it insisted), it almost looks like Eliot. It could almost be Nigel, too, Brian whispers from the corner of Quentin’s mind, and sometimes he wonders if he’s still going to be sane when this is over.
23 does his thing, one hand on Quentin’s temple and one on El - on the Monster’s - and it’s like blinking. One minute Quentin’s in his room, the next minute he’s… in his room. Except it’s not his room at Kady’s anymore. It is an almost perfect replica of his room at the Physical Kids’ Cottage, except that, inexplicably, the bedspread is Brian’s from his old apartment, and some of Brian’s sketches are hanging on the walls like they did in the living room of the apartment he and Nigel shared.
Quentin shakes his head to clear it and then dashes out of the room. From what 23 said about his own visit here, their time is limited, to put it mildly. He clatters down the stairs, turns the corner, and -
Eliot sits up from where he’d been sprawled on one of the couches, giving Quentin an almost bitter smile as he takes him in, too-short hair and oversized sweater that was never actually his. “Another Brian?” he says, the cadence of his voice just slightly - not quite English but not quite Eliot either, like Nigel with an almost-American accent. “Does my head think that’s an easier way to look at you when you’re not real, when I can’t -?”
Quentin curls his fingers in the too-long sleeves of Nigel’s sweater, and he’s shaking so hard it takes a moment for him to speak. “I’m not Brian, at least, no more than you’re Nigel, or we’re those men at the Mosaic,” he says, and he means to be gentle because clearly Eliot’s been conjuring up people but it comes out like a challenge, his chin up. “And none of that counts, El, remember? That’s your theory, isn’t it?”
Eliot scrambles to his feet. “ Q? You’re - Jesus, you’re really here?” And the way his voice cracks, like in the park when Quentin hadn’t believed him, that does it. Quentin’s running the distance like he did the day Eliot came through from the Neitherlands, throwing himself forward as Eliot catches him up in turn, both of them holding on like they’ll die if they let go. You said you'd be back in an hour, whispers the part of Quentin's mind that's mostly Brian, but he manages not to say the words.
“I’m sorry, oh God, this is all my fault, we’ll get you out I swear, El, fuck, I’m so sorry,” Quentin mumbles into Eliot’s shoulder, and he knows he’s crying, can’t be bothered to care.
“Hey, what? No, come on, Q, don’t do that. I shot the fucker, remember?” Eliot whispers in his ear. “And I’d do it again, so hush, sweetheart. How’d you get in here, huh?”
Sweetheart. The endearment from another life - from two other lives, actually - leaves Quentin both soothed and rattled, so he tries not to feel either reaction and just explains, voice still muffled from where he’s hidden his face in Eliot’s shoulder. The scent of him isn’t quite right, Quentin thinks, that’s Eliot’s cologne but it’s mixing weirdly with the soap Nigel preferred and a hint of woodsmoke from their Mosaic life, but it’s not sugar and blood and it means home to his tangled mind anyway so he doesn’t fucking care.
Eliot’s petting his hair, and Quentin all but melts into him. “So you need to tell me what else you didn’t get to tell 23, and we don’t have much time but -”
“Luckily there’s not that much else to tell,” Eliot says, voice soft in Quentin’s ear, and they’re swaying slightly now, Quentin suspects from how tightly Eliot’s holding on that it’s for both their benefits. “They don’t know why the gods attacked them, they weren’t doing much yet, they killed the Sister as a sacrifice, locked the Monster up because he lost his shit about that. Which, you know, he’s a psychopathic manchild but I can’t blame him there.”
“23 said she got the death penalty… he said she’s much worse than the Monster is?”
“She is. More powerful, more driven, she was very much the leader of the two of them, but it wasn’t a punishment. Or if it was, it’s for something they didn’t know they did. And that, Q, is all the new information I have. Which is great, because -” Eliot shifts, gripping Quentin’s arms and pulling him back so they can face each other. “I wanted to talk to you really in person, but - I’m not stupid, there’s a chance I don’t get out of this.”
“No, there isn’t, we’re getting you back, I’ll get you back if it’s the last damn thing I -”
“Don’t you dare,” Eliot says roughly. “I swear to God, Quentin, I get out of this and find out you died for it, I will bring you back to kill you again,” he threatens, punctuating his words by actually shaking Quentin a little. “You got me?”
“Yeah, OK. No dying to get you back,” Quentin says. “But I am getting you back.”
Eliot smiles at him, one hand letting go of Quentin’s arm to cup the side of his face instead. “If anyone can stubborn their way to it, you can. But still, I need to tell you something and I’m gonna do it now, just in case, or so we can skip the talking once I’m back, whichever happens.”
Eliot’s hand slides to the back of Quentin’s neck, his other arm wrapping around his waist, and he kisses him. Quentin freezes for a moment before fifty years of a life not lived and ten months of a life not theirs take over and he kisses Eliot back with a soft broken sound low in his throat. “I love you,” Eliot whispers against Quentin’s lips, drawing back just far enough to do it. “I - God, Q. I panicked that day in the throne room, I panicked, and I lied to you, and it’s the thing I regret most, because I’ll always choose you, OK? You’ve gotta know that, just in case -”
“You absolute bastard, you broke my heart,” Quentin chokes out, and oh, yeah, he’s crying again. “We - you - I love you, I’d choose you in a second, anytime, anywhere, if you would just let me. When this is over you’d better let me ,” he insists, tangling a hand in Eliot’s hair and pulling him in to kiss -
- Quentin blinks, and he’s back in his room at Kady’s apartment again, cold all over without Eliot wrapped around him. The Monster is gone and 23 is watching him with a strange intensity, but Quentin doesn’t care what it’s about or why he’s doing that. “What did he say?” Julia asks, and Quentin needs a moment to remember the mission-relevant parts when all his brain wants to focus on is the way Eliot had held him, the way it felt to kiss him again after so long.
“Uh. It wasn’t a death penalty, the gods used her in some kind of sacrifice, the Monster got locked up for trying to attack them over it.” Which, Eliot’s right, actually; Quentin has a lot of reasons to hate the Monster but even he can’t say wanting to kill people for killing your sister is… unjustified.”She’s more powerful, yeah, she’s the boss, so we definitely don’t want her brother getting her back but -”
“So we’re gonna stop fucking around and destroy that stone, right?”
“We’re going to make sure the Monster doesn’t get it or find out it’s gone before we find a way to get it out of Eliot,” Quentin says flatly.
“Damn it, Coldwater, I thought if you heard this from Eliot you’d see sense and - !”
“I told you, I’m not - !”
“Both of you stop it right now!” Julia yells over both of them. “Penny, if this was some kind of scheme to convince Q to give up on saving Eliot, it was a fucking stupid one. Q… we have to be practical about this. You know we do.”
“And you know,” Quentin says, “that I’m not going to stop, Jules. Right now, we’re agreed, the Monster can’t get that last stone. But I am not going to cooperate with any plan that kills Eliot. So let’s focus on getting that stone first, because we can still work together on that.”
It’s his room, but Quentin is the one who walks out anyway, because if he doesn’t he might take one of the heavy books they’ve been researching with and hit Penny 23 over the head with it. He goes out to the small patio, grips the railing and stares up at a cloudless spring sky. Suddenly, almost irrationally, he misses their Penny so much it feels like a punch to the gut. Their relationship had been a weird enemies to fighty friends thing that Quentin never pretended to understand, but back in the day Penny had still basically hated him and come after him anyway when Julia locked him up in that mental hospital illusion. He’d trusted Penny to only be a dick about unimportant things, basically, even then. 23… he can’t trust at all, he thinks.
Quentin doesn’t know if 23 is right, in a strategic sense. He can’t think of it like that because it’s Eliot , and Eliot is the one thing all the bits in Quentin’s head from every life he’s lived can agree on. They can’t lose him, not again. He’s done this before, he tries to tell himself. Tries to find the younger, bristling with nervous energy self who looked Niffin Alice in the eyes and said he thought she’d want to come back if she was herself, who was so sure he knew best.
Jesus fuck, how had he been so arrogant in the middle of having such shit self-esteem? If Quentin could go back, he thinks he might punch himself in the nose. He’d had good intentions, sure, but God. And yet he envies that younger self, too, who had been so certain that if he could just find the right thing, he’d figure this out.
Quentin wants that certainty now, he needs it. And yet he can’t quite find it, because - because things aren’t certain, are they? Back then, he’d still half thought he was living in a fantasy. Urban fantasy as much as a real-life Fillory book, sure, but still a fantasy world where the good guys win and get the girl (or the guy) and all that. He’d wanted the Key Quest to change him and maybe it had, though it hadn’t made him any better. At least he doesn’t think so, but then he never does, does he?
This isn’t a story and that means there are no rules. There’s only the fact that Quentin himself simply can’t lose Eliot. And, there’s the fact that he promised El he’d be here, that he won’t die to bring Eliot back. Quentin is still willing to, but knowing that Eliot loves him back is… Well. He knows how he would feel, if their places were swapped and he came back to Eliot having died for him.
Quentin thinks his life is worth it, but he won’t leave Eliot to face that kind of pain. So, he has to get him back, and he has to survive it. Two facts, in a storm of questions. Not great odds. But maybe he can find just enough of that older self to be certain there is a way. He just has to find it in time.
It’s easier, after waking up, in spite of the clash after and the looming question of what do they do once they get the stone out of the Monster’s reach. Despite Quentin knowing that 23 is all for banishing the Monster regardless and that Julia... could be brought to that way of thinking. Kady and Alice are around, peripherally, but Quentin doesn’t know what they think - Alice already made it clear that she thought he shouldn’t have stopped the banishment, regardless. As for Kady, Quentin trusts Kady more than he ever has - mostly because he knows her better now - but the thing is both she and Alice are mostly bound up in the fight against the Library.
Which, great, yay, good for them, especially given the whole brain worms thing because Quentin’s fairly sure their entire group counts as hedges now and he really doesn’t want one of those things in his head. But it does mean they’re not precisely… available, even assuming he could get their help should 23 convince Julia to go scorched earth.
And yet in spite of this it is still easier , holding close the memory of Eliot and all they’d said, to keep going again. Quentin wraps himself in another of Nigel’s sweaters to soothe the part of his mind that is Brian - is even more Brian, now, in some ways - and goes back to work.
When the claw machine refuses to cooperate, Quentin considers just sticking his arm up in there to get what they need, but it occurs to him that slicing up his arm is probably a really dumb idea. Especially when he’s supposed to be making sure that he doesn’t die. “Hey Jules, think you could help us out with this?” he asks, because she’s his Indestructress right now. So Julia sticks her hand up the claw machine, and they gather all they need to go meet Aengus.
Who, Quentin just wants to have this on the record, is a fucking dick. “Happiness is a choice,” Aengus says, he says that he can taste the anxiety rolling off Quentin. Quentin bites his tongue, does not say “if the life of the man you loved was on the line, you’d be fucking anxious too,” because that is not this fucker’s business. He settles for pacing near the door because this divine idiot apparently forgot the combination to his own bunker. Quentin would laugh if this wasn’t so important.
Once Aengus gets himself tucked away, what then? They have to figure out a way to get the Monster out of Eliot, but how? None of the exorcism methods they’ve been surreptitiously researching seems likely to work. There’d been a bunny from Josh, finally a response from Fillory saying Margo was onto something. But Josh hadn’t said what, or how long it would take, and as much as Quentin would like to rely on Margo, the truth is that she isn’t here and they don’t know when she’ll be here, and most importantly they don’t know how long they have.
It all goes to hell in a rush, because of course it does.
Quentin’s actually never seen the Monster this furious, the room dark with its rage as it pulls the stone from Aengus’ chest and turns to them, actual flashes like lightning in the air around them. He steps forward, hands up in a placating gesture even though he’s not sure what he means to do. He just knows that he can’t let this happen, he can’t let the Monster leave because then they’ve lost Eliot, he can’t let the Monster kill them because he promised -
He feels Penny 23’s fingers curl around his arm and then the disorientation of travel - and they’re back in the penthouse. Quentin wants to scream, wants to demand that Penny take him back, give him a chance to fix this. But there is no fixing this, is there? The Monster has the last stone, is going to get its Sister back, and then probably come and kill them all for trying to stop it.
And Quentin is never going to see Eliot, for real , ever again.
He’s sitting on the spiral stairs near the kitchen, holding a glass of clear liquid that is probably not water and has no bubbles so it’s not soda, but beyond that, Quentin doesn’t know if it’s vodka or gin or some kind of fucking poison. He isn’t drinking it. It’s just something to have in his hands because everyone else has a drink. 23, Julia, Kady, and Alice. Those two came in together and Quentin has no idea what they’ve been up to. He didn’t care much before, he doesn’t care at all now.
He doesn’t feel anything, so he can’t care about it.
A shadow falls over him, and Quentin looks up to see Julia standing over him, and for a moment he flashes back to years of sitting off to the side even at small gatherings. Julia slipping away from the clusters of people to check in on him. Some habits never change, just their settings shift, he thinks as she says, “Hey. This isn't over.”
“Yes, it is,” he says quietly, curling his free hand into the sleeve of the sweater he’s wearing and looking at his glass, remembering the year Eliot tried to make alcohol out of peach juice. It didn’t go very well, and when Quentin laughed at him, Eliot dumped one of the jars of juice over his head. Which, of course, meant Quentin dumped another on Eliot when his back was turned and -
Well. It had ended up being fun, if, er, sticky.
Quentin remembers an earlier day when they’d still been students with nothing like Beasts or quests or Monsters hanging over their heads. Remembers Eliot putting a clear cocktail in his hand and then dropping down beside him on the couch, arm wrapped around his shoulders. No particular reason for either, as far as Quentin can recall, just an excuse to hang out half curled into each other. He drifted off eventually after finishing his drink, lulled by Eliot’s warmth and the easy rhythm of his voice and Margo’s over Quentin’s head. Eliot had laughed at him and ruffled his hair when he woke, drowsy and confused as much by how content he’d felt as by his impromptu nap.
He remembers Brian’s fondness for green apple vodka and the horrified look on Nigel’s face when he'd stolen a sip one time.
Pulling himself from the memories, Quentin can see that Julia is looking at him more intently than she’s looked at him in months, how the fuck can she not see that it even hurts to breathe right now? “No, it's not,” she insists, as if it’s not over because she says so but it doesn’t work like that. “I'm gonna figure out whatever the hell this, uh, Binder's all about and become a goddess again.”
And Quentin is sure that she will do that, but he doesn’t see how - “Okay, that's not gonna make a difference.” Jules having goddess power again would be great, but the Monster’s killed gods, her being a goddess again and presumably losing her invincibility - which may or may not apply to the Monster’s attacks anyway - would only put her at risk.
“Well, yeah, there's a ton of reasons it won't, but when has that stopped us?” Julia asks, and he recognizes the look she’s giving him. That quiet almost pleading, that, come on Q, work with me here that she used to give him all the time, before magic. The one she’d worn when she was trying to help him, always trying and he never thanked her enough for it, but when she hadn’t known how to help. “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.”
Quentin stares at Julia for a moment, and he just - he hasn’t got the words. Because this isn’t, it’s not about the fact that he fucked up, so he needs someone else to save. He knows what Julia’s doing, and behind the numbness he loves her for trying. She’s trying to help him, to give him a new goal, something to hold on to so he won’t spiral. She just doesn’t know it’s not going to help.
That without Eliot, he can’t help her anymore even if he could find the energy to care enough to try. This loss is too much, the only way he can even attempt to bear up under it is to feel nothing.
He gets up, leaving his glass on the step he’d been sitting on, and goes out to the patio, sliding the door shut ever so gently because what he really wants to do is slam it hard enough that it shatters. It won’t make him feel better, he knows, but even so. He wants to.
“Don’t break anything,” his mother always says.
Quentin grips the rail so hard his knuckles turn white, looking down at the street below. He almost wishes he was thinking about tipping himself over the rail, but he isn’t. He promised he wouldn’t die for this, and if he can’t keep any other part of the promise he made Eliot, he can manage that much, right? He has a bad habit of breaking the promises he makes to Eliot, whether stated outright or not. That he wouldn’t abandon him to Fillory being the stand-out there. He’d managed to break that one twice, and he’s sure that his relationship with Arielle broke a few, even if Eliot had been the one to end them that first time. And that damned threesome, well, he’d just stabbed everyone involved in the back somehow with that one, hadn’t he?
Brian was better at keeping promises. But then, he’d had less time and easier circumstances, so who can really say?
Quentin shoves his hands in the pockets of the sweater he’s wearing - Brian never stole this one, it’s the burgundy one he bought Nigel for his birthday - and his fingers brush something, a velvety box. Quentin draws it out, looking at it by the patio light, and it looks like a ring box. Except - no. That can’t be what it is, or maybe it is but it doesn’t mean anything, Nigel had rings even if he only wore them when he was performing, it doesn’t mean -
He isn’t going to open it. Quentin tells himself that right up to the point when his thumb flicks the box open to reveal a silver ring with a design of sapphire and diamond. His fingers shake as he takes it out, rolls it between his fingers. He spent a lifetime knowing Eliot’s ring size, because he did sometimes take his rings off. This isn’t his size. Quentin closes his eyes, swallows a lump in his throat, and slides the ring onto his own finger where it fits perfectly. So that’s why my school ring went missing for three days, whispers the part of Quentin’s mind that will maybe always be Brian, and he yanks the ring off, shutting the box with a hard click and shoving it back in his pocket. And Quentin can’t - he can’t breathe, because he can see the copper ring Eliot put on his finger in Fillory, the one he gave Eliot, the etched designs on them and the feel of the metal under his fingers and the press of his ring and, and -
Oh Jesus fuck. And Quentin hates that his reaction to Alice’s voice is - that . He’d loved her once, after all, loved her almost to an obsession which was. Not good, but real. It had been real, in its own sharp way, and he hates that realness being reduced to gritting his teeth when she talks to him. But with all they’ve been and done to each other that’s where he is right now. “Alice, I’m not really up for conversation.”
“Yeah, well, I drew the short straw for talking to you. Kady thinks you’re going to tell me to fuck off, Julia hopes you’ll listen to sense, and 23 didn’t share an opinion.”
That all sounds promising, Quentin reflects, and doesn’t turn around. “Talking to me about what?”
“Quentin… The Monster has the last stone.”
“Yes, I know, I was there when that happened, because Aengus was a fucking idiot who didn’t remember his own safe house combination. What’s your point?”
“Will you look at me when I’m talking to you?” Alice snaps, and Quentin turns to face her. Her hands are fisted at her sides and she doesn’t really look any more happy about this than he feels. Though he doubts she actually is anywhere near as upset as he is. “Look,” she continues. “We can’t wait for them to just come after us. We have to be ready when it comes.”
Quentin’s hand curls round the box in his pocket, and it’s a silly thing to do, maybe, because whatever Nigel intended, even knowing that Eliot loves him back, marriage is, well. A thing beyond loving someone, so he’s not going to make any assumptions even if he’d say yes as easily as Brian would have. But he grips the box like some kind of talisman anyway. “Alice, say what you came to say.”
“We’re going to try for another stone. We have to banish it, and we don’t have time to de-possess Eliot first or some of us are going to die.”
Through the sudden roaring in Quentin’s ears, he can just manage to respect the way that Alice doesn’t flinch from telling him this, even though she has at least some idea how little he wants to hear it. Or, no, more than some idea apparently, because she continues, “I know you love him. I heard you tell 23 at Brakebills. And I know how you are at times like this, I know how you were when it was me. But this is bigger than that, this thing kills gods, the danger level is - you have to -”
Which, OK, what the fuck, and also not the point. “Do I?” Quentin asks. “Do I really? Tell me, Alice, do you think I don’t know that already? I’m the one that fucking thing has been fucking with for months, I’m the one it drags around like its favorite goddamn toy. Do you think I don’t know what it is?”
“I think you don’t care because it’s in Eliot’s body and you can’t face that it’s too late to save him!”
“No it’s not!” And he’s contradicting himself but there is - there’s a fucking ring in his pocket and Eliot’s alive in there and it can’t be too late, there has to be something. He told 23 they’d find a way, he promised Eliot he’d get him back, and so there just. Has to be something.
“No, Alice. I can’t stop you from looking for a new stone. But I’m not going to help, and you can be damn sure I’ll get in your way if I have to. I’m going to find a way to save him, and none of you are going to stop me.”
“We could,” Alice points out. “We could just lock you in until it’s over. We could put a sleep spell on you. We could stop you.”
“Try it if you want,” Quentin says, and he brushes past her to go back inside. No one stops him as he picks up books and goes back to his room, shutting the door behind him. He isn’t sure why they don’t stop him, and it doesn’t really matter, does it?
Come talk to me at eidetictelekinetic.tumblr.com! Or Fae_Boleyn on Twitter, though I'm there much less. :)
Chapter 3: What If I Knew How To Yell (What Would I Pray?)
In which Quentin time travels and yells at a plant, and then it's time to take down the Monster Twins.
(Also in which Quentin does not go near the Mirror World.)
So, those of you who have read my other Magicians chapter fics (and if you haven't, consider this a pause for shameless self-promotion) will recognize this - I underestimated my chapter count again! Four chapters, not three. As usual. I keep trying, and yet.
Also, there have been various changes to details from 4.12-4.13 - some of these are deliberate, the others are because I'm never ever watching those again to check.
Warnings: the non-consensual touching involves a kiss - but nothing further - in this chapter. There is also discussion of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Margo comes back the next morning with a pair of axes, a plan, and a shit-eating grin. And, in the first moment when he opens the door to her, when she declares that “I’ve got a way to get that fucking parasite out of Eliot,” and Julia looks up to listen - Julia who has been trying all morning to convince Quentin to give up on Eliot - Quentin remembers what hope feels like. High King Bambi, he thinks of Eliot saying fondly, and surely if anyone could have found something it would be Margo?
Look. Quentin gets it. The first time he hears Margo’s story, he’s fairly impressed himself. She has every right to be proud of her success, he doesn’t resent that. But she keeps retelling it, gleeful each time, waving around her pizza slices and Quentin can barely choke down one slice and a garlic knot as he listens because every goddamn thing tastes like ash in his mouth. And she’s so happy, so certain, and he - can’t be. Because the axes, fine, that’ll probably go off without a hitch, but these bottles?
“Seriously, you spent that much time in the desert, and this never occurred to you?” he asks, and maybe that’s not entirely fair because she was hallucinating but he can’t help it. Nothing about any of this has been fair to any of them, why start now? “We're dealing with God-level monsters.”
“Who possess people,” Margo says, dismissive. “Those axes pull the spirits out, and then we bottle them up. Bam!”
“All he's saying is they're too powerful. I doubt your bottles can hold that shit.” And Quentin would be a little more surprised at 23 of all people being the one to back him up, except that 23 has been the one trying to push the stop the Monster at all costs narrative the longest.
Margo rolls her eyes. “Those monsters are coming for us. Make it work.”
And something - snaps in Quentin. He will refuse to let them just kill Eliot, but Julia and 23 have earned the right to at least criticize his choices with regard to the Monster, because they’ve been here. They’ve dealt with it too, if not as much as Quentin has. They stuck around, they’ve both helped, they’ve been working on this with him. But Margo? She just walks back in like she’s already saved the day and she fucking ran from this, she went back to Fillory and hid from the fact that a thing was walking around in Eliot’s body. And Quentin? He wouldn’t have done that, but he never had the choice. Not when the Monster wouldn’t let him do anything but face it. All. The. Time.
“What the fuck do you think I’ve been doing, exactly, Margo?” Quentin asks, and he almost doesn’t recognize his own voice, drawn tight and quiet and cold. Absently he notices 23’s sudden wide eyes and the way he glances at Julia - does he sound like his evil counterpart or something? Does he care?
Margo’s full attention is on him now, her eyes narrowed in a glare that normally would make him back down, but he just stares back levelly now. “The fuck crawled up your ass and died, Q?” she demands, and that is just -
“Wait, I have an idea,” Alice chimes in, speaking a little too quickly and looking between Margo and Quentin like she’s afraid something is about to explode. “An incorporate bond. It's a way to pin a being or object in place. It's like a fourth-dimensional paperweight. Mayakovsky was trapped under one for years. We just need to pin the monsters to your bottles long enough to get rid of them.”
“There, see?” Margo says, waving a hand carelessly in Alice’s direction. “I hate you less now, Quinn, let’s do that. But first, again. What the fuck is your problem, Coldwater?”
“My problem, Margo, is that we don’t fucking hear a word from you for ages - I sent thirty damned messages! And, OK, fine, the talking animals weren’t talking but they clearly started. You couldn’t be bothered to send one bunny back, or have Josh send one, to tell us what you were doing so we could already be checking up on ways to make sure this would work?”
“Did you miss the part where I let myself get deposed, where I lost everything I’ve fucking earned and that shit had to be convincing?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Then back the fuck up,” Margo says, shoving him back a step, “because from where I’m standing, I’m the only one with a solution here. I certainly don’t see you doing anything useful here.”
“For one thing, making sure the Monster didn’t kill Eliot,” Quentin begins, and Margo scoffs.
“Why would it do that when it’s using his body?”
“Because that doesn’t stop it? We know that already?” Quentin snaps. “For fucking kicks, Margo, I don’t know, it almost ODed for fun, all right? But I talked it out of that by telling it I’d die trying to kill it if it killed El, and it didn’t want to lose its favorite goddamned toy yet! You want to know what I’ve been doing? I’ve been playing along with that thing, letting it drag me around to murder people and get rid of the bodies, letting it pet me and wishing it would fucking - choke me again or break my arm again because that would be better than its twisted idea of affection with, with Eliot’s hands that for half a second when I’m tired sometimes I forget it’s not - I have been living with that thing because I couldn’t run off anywhere like you, it would follow me!”
And, oh, OK, somewhere in the middle of all that he’d started yelling, and everyone else had gone quiet and, and kind of startled. Margo is staring at him, eyes wide and shocked, and he’s not sure if she’s still angry or not, but he apparently is? He’s breathing hard and his fists are clenched, he doesn’t think he’s really mad at her so much as at everything.
A narrow, familiar hand on his shoulder. Alice. “I have to go to Brakebills South to talk to Mayakovsky. He’s not a bear anymore - which his wife is pretty unhappy about - and he’s the one who designed the incorporate bond, it’s why he couldn’t break it. So I need to talk to him about it, and I think you need to get out of here for a little while. So come with me?”
She might have a point, actually. Quentin is far from thrilled by the idea of going back there, especially with Alice, but. He probably should be somewhere not-here, for a little while.
Brakebills South is as ominous as Quentin remembers. And, of course, because nothing can ever be easy, they find that Mayakovsky, experimenting with new magic, has swapped places with his own future self. Who has dementia, and therefore can’t tell them a goddamned thing. Worse, Mayakovsky is the only one who can reverse this timeshare spell, which means their options are wait for present-Mayakovsky to come back, assuming he isn’t affected by the dementia as well, or give up.
Or… “What if I talk to him in the past?” Quentin asks.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Alice says, alarmed.
“Do you have a better one? Because we can’t give up, and I certainly don’t. And going back to ‘get a new stone and banish the Monster’ is no more acceptable to me today than it was yesterday. I might be on the outs with Margo but I’m damn sure she won’t cooperate with that either, and she’s a tougher mark than I am,” Quentin points out.
Alice presses her lips together, looking grim, then nods. “OK, fine. Let’s get this set up then.”
And so they do just that, talking out how he should approach Mayakovsky as they do. The best they can come up with is that Quentin should just pretend to have heard about incorporate bonds and be curious about it. That’s more a thing the Alice of first year might have done - or Julia, if this had been a timeline where she was at Brakebills - but Alice can’t be the one to go because she needs to cast a Memory Charm on Quentin’s past self so he won’t remember this.
Alice doesn’t ask, and Quentin doesn’t admit, that there are no gaps in his memory which would suggest the charm having once been placed.
Quentin is ready to go when Alice decides he needs some last-minute advice. “Once you're there, you can't do anything or say anything to anyone that'll -”
“Risk changing the past. I get it. I've been to the movies,” he cuts her off, trying not to sound too impatient.
“This is serious, Quentin,” Alice scolds him, and it reminds him of the past in a way that somehow leaves him both annoyed and almost fond. Weird. “The bridge between your past self and your present self is is delicate. If you break it…”
“Look, as long as you wipe past me's memory, we'll be fine,” he tells her, and really, that should do the trick. There’s always the chance Mayakovsky himself will figure it out when Quentin goes asking him for the incorporate bond - though the plan is to not reveal it even to him - but Mayakovsky is the kind of guy who will just gleefully file away the information that his spell is a success, and never tell a soul because he doesn’t care enough to tell.
“I have a Memory Charm ready to go. We'll set the spell so it takes you back to where we were at Brakebills South. Just go straight to Mayakovsky's office - and don't talk to anyone.”
“I won't,” Quentin says, and casts the spell. It takes him about thirty seconds to realize why it’s a major problem that they sent him back to Brakebills South on their first visit without discussing the possible complications connected with, well, them . Namely, that Quentin comes to awareness in his younger self’s body with Alice in her underwear on top of him.
He’s not proud of the way he scrambles out of there with a truly terrible excuse about condoms, not proud of the wounded look on younger Alice’s face. Probably, for the sake of the timeline, he should have just gone with it, but - no. That isn’t OK on about ten different levels, so just… no. Still, he feels guilty because whatever the mess between him and Alice now, this Alice has nothing to do with that. But also, Quentin doesn’t have time to dwell on it. He has an asshole professor to see.
It goes… about as well as Quentin could have expected, at first. Mayakovsky trash-talks him, says he should really be off having fox sex with Alice - which raises some deeply uncomfortable implications about Alice’s theory, back when, that this really never was them - and how Quentin isn’t capable of an incorporate bond anyway.
Then comes the problem.
“What is your discipline?”
“What?” Oh, this again. Quentin’s never exactly forgotten that he never truly got a discipline, but it’s also one of those things that hasn’t really mattered in a long time. Somehow, though, the fact that it’s coming back to bite him now only makes sense.
“Your discipline, B-minus student, or did you leave that back in your tiny fox pants?”
“They tested me - inconclusive.”
“Well, that is a problem. Can't cast incorporate bond without your discipline.”
“There's got to be some kind of workaround.”
“Nope. Come back when you're fully-formed.”
“Come on. There's got to be something that you can do. I need this.” And Quentin will be damned if he says why, not to Mayakovsky who would make a joke of it. But he can’t help thinking - he’s in the past, which means that back at Brakebills proper Eliot is himself again, doing… Doing what? Meeting Mike, possibly, which makes Quentin suddenly wish he could, could call or something, warn El off the guy who wasn’t actually Mike, but that’s. The kind of shit he’s not supposed to be doing.
“Fine. Drink that,” Mayakovsky says, and Quentin is relieved that he seems to have relented, but also confused by the fact that he’s being offered a bottle of vodka. Or possibly moonshine. Neither would be a surprise, given the source. For a moment he thinks, again, of Nigel handing back Brian’s glass of green apple vodka and looking offended as a cat, but there’s no point right now.
He wonders if his past self has noticed the key on a chain under his shirt, the ring Quentin had strung there beside it last night. It doesn’t matter, though. What matters is getting what he needs, so he eyes the bottle and asks Mayakovsky, “This will help with the test or…?”
“It will kill brain cells. I have plenty to spare. You don't, but I don't want to drink alone.”
Which, OK, that’s probably one of the least assholish things Mayakovsky’s ever said. The not wanting to drink alone part, anyway. And what the hell, he could use a drink.
So Quentin goes with the drinking (it was vodka), and the weird shit that for some reason includes Mayakovsky climbing on him. And then busting him for being in the past, with a nickname downgrade to D-minus and a truly creepy comment about his brain apparently being older than his dick, which is just. Not something Quentin even wants to touch, thank you very much, but he does admit it. “Yeah. Yes, fine. I am. Not me me, but my consciousness. I came here to ask you about incorporate bonds.
“Why didn't you ask me in your time? I am dead or something?”
“No. Look, I can't tell you anything else. I can't risk messing with the past.”
Which, of course, gets him more mockery and more sex questions - this time about having sex with his mother, and Quentin is really tempted to ask Mayakovsky if that’s what he’d do but he decides against it. And then, finally -
“This basis for incorporate bond. We are done here.” Mayakovsky slides a paper over to Quentin, who memorizes it carefully.
“You never told me my discipline,” he says once he’s sure he’s got everything down pat.
“Repair of Small Objects.”
“Really?” He - well. He really should stop hoping for anything impressive by now, shouldn’t he?
“Hope we did not ruin your big plans after you get back to your mysterious future, Mr. Time Traveler. Tell my older self well done.”
Well, Mr. Time Traveler is a better nickname than D-minus, anyway. And Quentin has the incorporate bond, which is the most important thing. Even if he is disappointed in the test results… Although, he can’t help but brighten a little when he remembers that mending disciplines are physical, which means he actually belongs in the PKC if they ever go back.
Maybe it’s silly for that to make him feel a little better, but so little feels good these days that Quentin will take whatever comfort he can find.
He should have realized Alice wouldn’t let him get away with it. But then again, he and the Alice of his time both probably should have realized that when he went back he’d probably wake up with her. And it’s not like he can blame her for being angry, or for wanting answers. The problem is that he can’t answer her, not if he wants to make sure he can get home. But when she insists that she can cast a Memory Charm on herself, he’s well and truly cornered. But still he asks, “Why?” even though he pretty much knows.
“So we can talk about the way you looked at me when you came back. There was so much pain.”
“A lot of things have happened,” Quentin says, and wonders how he would even begin to explain it all if he could. But even with Alice planning to cast a Memory Charm on herself, he has got to be as vague as he possibly can be, here.
“Pretty goddamn bad.”
“What happens?” Alice presses, and Quentin suddenly remembers that this Alice, not quite as sharp-edged as the Alice he’d left in the future, is the girl who convinced him to help her summon what turned out to be the Beast when they’d barely met. The girl who sang a song from The Breakfast Club to summon a Niffin, the brother she’d been ready to save or die trying.
And Quentin thinks of how quickly they’d fallen into fighting, even before he woke up naked in bed with Eliot and Margo, Alice staring at him. Thinks of Alice burning herself away in blue fire, how he’d set a cacodemon on her, how she’d lived in his back and tormented him. How angry she’d been that he brought her back. How tense all their interactions have been since, one way or another. And there are other things, he knows - he’s certain being a captive of the Library is no picnic, for just one example - that he didn’t witness at all, just like things happened to him that Alice didn’t see.
“You, uh, get hurt. We both do,” he finally says, because the words are so inadequate but even a full explanation wouldn’t really capture it all, would it?
“So would you rather I just stop this now so that we never have to feel the way you feel?” Alice challenges him, and Quentin has no idea what to say to that, letting her keep talking instead of trying to find words. “Look, you're a nice guy, Q, for trying to warn me.”
“I'm not trying to -” There’s a sharp comment on the tip of his tongue about how she didn’t exactly give him a choice in the matter, here, but he bites it back. After all, he’d want to do the same thing she did, he just wouldn’t have had the guts.
“But I'm not scared of the future,” Alice tells him with a defiant sort of confidence that he remembers seeing flashes of before, wanting to see more of before when he’d been half a boy still and smitten with her.
“I'm scared of losing this ,” she continues, fierce and sincere in a way he’s actually never seen. “Maybe it's crazy and hopeless where you live, but you know, maybe I never told you this, but you are the best thing that's ever happened to me. So when you go back, just remember that, OK?”
Oh hell. Oh fucking bloody hell, as Brian would have said after ten months with Nigel. Quentin hadn’t been trying to warn Alice, of course. But now he wishes he could. He wishes he could tell her not to cast the charm, could tell her what really happened and maybe protect both of them from the implosion, because -
If he’s the best thing to ever happen to her, that’s a pretty fucking low bar to clear. He hadn’t known Alice, any Alice, could still break his heart, but in the last moment before he casts the spell to go back, he realizes he was wrong. Repair of Small Objects, he thinks, but people aren’t small objects, are they, and this is one mess he’s never known how to fix.
He doesn’t even know what fixing it would look like now.
Quentin decides not to ask Alice whether she kissed his past self or if his past self kissed her. He would really rather not know, because if it’s the latter he’ll feel compelled to apologize for it, and if it’s the former he. Doesn’t know what to think, actually. Because that would suggest Alice maybe wants things he didn’t think she wanted and that she knows - “I know you love him. I heard you tell 23 at Brakebills.” - he can’t give her anymore.
Having been in that position dealing with Alice herself, Julia before her, and Eliot after her, Quentin doesn’t think anything he might say in that case would be at all helpful. So instead Quentin just fills Alice in on what Mayakovsky told him, hyper aware of his short hair, the chain under his shirt, the shoulder with no sensation in it, all the ways he is no longer that boy whose body he’d been in again.
He writes down the information about the incorporate bond right away to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, and then Alice asks, “So Mayakovsky told you what your discipline is?”
“Repair of Small Objects,” Quentin says, remembering the day they’d been tested and how impressed he’d been by her phosphoromancy. How he’d called himself a nothingmancer. Not quite true now, which is something.
“You did always excel at Minor Mendings,” Alice says, and that’s true, isn’t it? That’s one reason why it was the magic he’d chosen to show his dad - a sentimental gesture about the plane he’d broken as a kid and also the one bit of magic he’d always been certain would work every time. Well, that and card magic, but that hadn’t seemed like a good idea.
Still, he can’t help admitting, “I always thought it'd be something cooler.”
“At least it's real. Now you don't have to fantasize anymore about who you are and lie about who you wish you were. You just - you just know it now. And maybe you've always known it.” There’s something important, maybe vital in what she’s just said, but Quentin’s not sure he can pinpoint it right now. Then Alice turns away, picking up the broken pieces of a mug that he thinks had been on the table, whole, when he’d climbed up there to cast. “Show me,” she says, setting the pieces in front of him.
And he thinks of the girl who sat across from him and made her hand and forearm invisible by bending light, and maybe some things do repeat themselves after all. It’s the same tut he used to mend that plane, it’s the same spell he used to fix every tile Teddy ever broke, and it’s easy. The only thing that suits him so well is card magic, he thinks, and even that is different. He loves it because he taught himself card tricks with sheer determination and it’s only right that even magic responds to years of effort but it’s still something he does . This feels like something he is , something that is his and his alone that can’t be taken.
“How does it feel?” Alice asks, softly, and he wonders if she can see it, if bending light feels like this for her. Is this how Julia feels re-forming spells, how Kady feels casting battle magic, how Eliot feels using telekinesis?
“Like I helped it wake up and remember what it was before,” he says, because he doesn’t have words for all of it, but he can explain this part. The part where the broken pieces seem to whisper how they fit together, the clarity of knowing, for once, exactly what to do and how to do it.
He looks up in time to see her soft smile, and he can’t help thinking of the Alice he’d just been with in the past, the girl he’d once loved so much he’d dragged her back to humanity against all odds and even her own wishes. Quentin doesn’t think she hates him for it anymore, but he knows now he shouldn’t have ignored what she said she’d chosen, said she wanted. He might wish, under the circumstances, for the certainty of the boy he’d still been, then, but not if it comes with that arrogance too.
He isn’t in love with Alice anymore. But he doesn’t hate her either. He wanted to, for a while. He wanted to feel nothing for her at all, for a while. But the truth is that he still cares, because he’s never been good at stopping that. It’s just the kind of care that’s changed. But maybe, maybe that’s -
“I used to think I could never trust you again,” he says quietly, and it would be easier to look at the mug he’d just repaired. That’s why he looks her in the eye. Because that’s harder, and because - he met her angry gaze head-on when she was a Niffin, he didn’t look away from Julia without her shade and he’s stared down a monster with Eliot’s eyes how often now? If he can do that, he owes Alice, the real Alice, just as much bravery after everything. “But now - you’re here, you’re helping, and that after I was brutal about sending you away. That after Kady apparently decked you?”
“Kady was easier, actually. One punch and she was fine. You are a harder nut to crack, which I didn’t see coming,” Alice says, and she’s not looking away either. “What are you saying to me, Quentin?”
Quentin licks his suddenly dry lips, and he thinks again that people aren’t objects, but maybe the principle is still the same. Maybe it all starts with small mendings. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ve never - really said that to you without some ulterior motive, usually wanting you to date me again. By now, we’ve both hurt each other so much, but it started with me, I fucked up first, and maybe… maybe if I hadn’t, we’d at least have caused less damage, whatever else happened, however we might’ve turned out. The what-ifs don’t matter. What matters is that I’m sorry, and I miss you. I didn’t know I did, didn’t know I could, but you still matter to me, and I’d like - I’d like to figure out who we are as friends, once we all get through this?”
Alice looks at him with something in her eyes that he can’t read. Except that he sort of feels like they’ve maybe been here before, only their roles are swapped. He doesn’t know what to do about that except be sincere, so he doesn’t look away, doesn’t push. Lets her turn his words over, searching for something he can’t quite guess at.
Then she reaches for his hand, squeezes once, and lets it go. Something flares up in Quentin’s chest that he thinks might just be hope - if they can fix the mess that they are, then maybe other impossible things aren’t so impossible. “I told you once I missed our friendship more than our relationship,” Alice says quietly. “So, OK. Once this is over, we’ll figure out how to be friends. I haven’t really had any in a while, except one, and I’ve lost her to the damned Library.”
I’m sorry, Quentin means to say, again, condolence rather than apology this time, but the air shifts and 23 is there. He doesn’t say a word, just holds out a hand to each of them. But the grim set to his features is enough to tell Quentin that shit just hit the fan again .
“It took Julia for its Sister?” Quentin echoes after 23 explains what happened, and he realizes, distantly, that Alice’s fingers are wrapped around his wrist like she’s trying to help anchor him. Just as distantly, he sees Margo eye them through the fishbowl she’s staring at, but it doesn’t matter because -
Oh God, Julia. First Eliot, now Julia.
“Yeah, not that it would have fucking happened if you hadn’t sabotaged getting rid of that thing,” 23 hisses, and the shock fractures in red fury as Quentin spins to face him.
“Excuse me?” And he might have blamed himself if his thoughts had gotten that far, but -
“You fucking heard me,” 23 says, shoving Quentin back a step. “The only reason that thing lasted long enough to steal her is because you -”
Quentin shoves him right back, and flashes back to casting battle magic on a different Penny, a lifetime ago. But this Penny is shocked enough by Quentin’s response that he manages to shove him again, back against the counter. “I think we’ve already had this conversation,” Quentin hisses before 23 can recover. “And we both know you’d make the same call in my shoes, 23, or do you still think bleeding another stone is an acceptable plan now there’s two of them?”
“Get the fuck off me, you little shit,” 23 says, and he shoves Quentin off him. Quentin hits the breakfast island hard, but the Monster threw him into a wall, this is nothing.
“Is this helping anyone?” says a voice Quentin doesn’t immediately recognize, but then - oh. Fen. He should feel bad about not knowing it was her immediately, but then they don’t interact very much. And anyway, she’s right.
“No, it’s not,” Alice says, sounding tired, almost as tired as Quentin feels. “It doesn’t change the plan, though. Now we just have to axe two people, not one. Margo has more than one bottle, and we have the incorporate bond. We just need to figure out a source of power.”
“We need to do something now!” 23 snaps. Margo’s fists clench, and she flashes a lightning-quick glare at 23 before focusing on the fishbowl again, which, what the fuck?
“You didn't give two wet shits when it was Eliot's life on the line, and now that it's Julia, you're suddenly leaning in?” Margo snarls, and 23 looks about ready to snap back but -
That’s when Fen stands up, straightening her crown. Is it the same crown Quentin once put on Eliot’s head, or just an identical design made to fit Fen? Quentin can’t tell, and can’t bear to dwell on it. “So, for everyone who just got here, I’m going to explain what I was telling Margo,” she says, “because I have to get back to Whitespire and your fighting is wasting time.” So she explains about the reservoir she and Josh found, the water made of pure magic.
And curse, apparently, which is why Margo is now staring at a fishbowl containing Fillorian Dying Fish Josh, who has imprinted on Margo so unless she watches him constantly he’ll die.
Well. That is… not the weirdest thing Quentin’s heard of since becoming a magician, so why not?
The reservoir solves one of their problems, of course, but under the circumstances that doesn’t help much. Once Fen leaves, Quentin suddenly finds that all eyes are on him. Even Margo’s, which is probably because even Margo doesn’t remember as much about the books as he does. Quentin sighs, rubbing the back of his neck so that his fingertips brush the chain.
"Closest thing to the reservoir in the books is the Secret Sea. It's an underground ocean. Chatwins sailed across it with -”
“Oh, that was the rabbit pirates,” Margo cuts in, eyes still focused on Josh Fish, which is getting progressively weirder.
“Are those pirates who steal rabbits, or pirates who are rabbits?” Alice asks.
“Kind of both,” Quentin says absently. “But it doesn't say anything about the Secret Sea being full of magic or cursed, so I... maybe there's a clue that I'm missing.” He can’t think of anything though, and he turns to make coffee, hoping that maybe caffeine, or the routine of making coffee, will jar something loose in his brain.
“And if your nerdy bullshit leads us nowhere? We need a back-up plan,” 23 snaps.
Which Alice apparently has, involving one of the bunnies Fen sent. Quentin, focusing on making coffee and then on digging out cereal - he doesn’t want the coffee or the food but, again, this is about trying to make his brain work better - doesn’t pay close attention. He does half listen to Margo and Alice talking about Josh, enough to shoot some very confused looks toward Alice because what the fuck? Quentin, admittedly, doesn’t know Josh that well, but he would not have pegged him for Margo’s type. Still…
He might be able to help here, he realizes, plucking a business card off the refrigerator. “Uh, I think this is the hedge doctor that Kady called to fix Pete. Says he's a veterinarian. Maybe he can help with the fish-Josh. Josh-fish.” Is there a proper way to phrase that?
“Way to be useful, Coldwater,” Margo says, taking the card and sailing off with it and the fishbowl.
“‘Way to be useful’, right,” Quentin mutters, and then a couple of things happen at once. Alice’s bunny comes back and he doesn’t have time to ask who she reached out to before the door bangs open and Kady strides in, dressed as a Librarian. The Library woman, Zelda, is right behind her and they have books.
Fillorian history, as it turns out. Because they know about the reservoir, because Everett’s the one who created it. He’s been siphoning off magic using the Library’s rationing to cover it, and stockpiling it. Apparently, he wants to become a god.
23 says something about Librarians and wanting to be gods, just as Alice comes back looking grim and asks what he’s talking about. Which is how Quentin finds out that the four gods the Monster killed were originally Librarians, who killed the Sister to take her power and become gods after the Monster Twins were created as some kind of experiment the Binder was somehow involved in. Oh, and the Binder is a book but also a weird old man that manifests out of said book.
What the fuck.
The next few hours are filled with research and Chinese food Quentin eats mechanically. He accidentally requested Brian’s preferred dish, and doesn’t realize until he’s half finished. But then they finally figure out that what they need is the plants in the Drowned Garden. Martin Chatwin is the one who cursed the Secret Sea - he was thirteen, which explains the fish thing - but the plants of the Drowned Garden counter it.
To make the plants bloom, one has to truly love Fillory. Quentin can feel 23, Alice, and Kady all staring at him - Margo hasn’t gotten back from the hedge vet - but he keeps his gaze on the book he’s holding. They don’t still really think he can manage it, do they?
“Quentin.” Something about the way Zelda says his name has Quentin looking up at her and only her, seeing a degree of understanding in her eyes that is frankly disconcerting. “It has to be you. I'm familiar with your books. Even considering your recent experiences, Quentin has the best chance of making the garden grow.”
Quentin… does not like the sound of that, actually. Not so much that he’s the only one who can make this work - he’s not thrilled about that either because he’s really not convinced he can do it, but. Zelda is looking at him and he’s suddenly very aware that she is probably a lot older than she looks. That’s a thing, with Library people, isn’t it? But she’s looking at him like she knows that on some level he is also older than he looks, an entire lifetime echoing in the back of his mind.
And if she’s read his book, then she does know. He’s really very uncomfortable with that.
But they don’t have a choice, and so Quentin goes to Fillory with Alice and 23.
They check in briefly with Fen at the doorway leading down to the Drowned Garden and the Secret Sea, mostly so that if by some impossible chance someone finds them, everyone can say their presence is with the High King’s permission. Quentin wonders, briefly, if the fact that he and Alice were at one point outlawed ex-monarchs is an issue if they are caught, but then decides not to ask. It’s probably the sort of thing no one will think about unless someone mentions it so better not.
And then they’re in the Drowned Garden with the Secret Sea outside, and this is just. It’s Fillory all over, isn’t it? Another thing Quentin once longed to see and now - OK. Thinking like that isn’t going to make this work, is it? So he tries to forget Alice and 23 hovering somewhere behind him, tries to forget everything except the not-so-fictional world that had been his first real passion.
“Fillory is obviously great. Um, you know, talking bears, right? Who who could hate that? And- and opium in the air. That was smart.” He remembers, sometime during their first year on the Mosaic, Eliot grumbling that there wasn’t enough in the air to get a decent high off of - but he shouldn’t think about that, should he?
“And socialized centaur medicine.” Quentin is actually genuinely grateful for that, given it’s why he has a shoulder, but he’d been so lost in grief and guilt when he woke among the centaurs that it doesn’t mean much, does it?
Behind him somewhere, he hears 23 say to Alice, “Are we screwed because Quentin can't get it up for Fillory?” And he’d really, really like to punch that guy in the nose, but that would also not help the current situation even if he could pull it off.
Quentin sighs. “Okay, um, when I was a kid, I loved the Fizzy River that they found in book two. And I loved. I loved the Upside-Down Desert. You know, the, it, I, I can't really picture it, but, you know, it-it sounds, it sounds cool.”
God, this is useless. He spins away from the plants, turns back toward Penny and Alice. “I don't know, I can't. I'm sorry - I just - I can't.”
“Hey. Hey.” And Alice has her hands on his arms, she’s comforting him, and he doesn’t deserve it because this is the one damn thing that he’s always been, and he can’t even make this work now.
“I used to love Fillory when I was a kid because I didn't know what it was. Plover left out all of the terrible shit, and most of the good stuff, I think he just made up. And everything he didn’t - everything he didn’t leave out is messier and more complicated and every good moment here had a damned kick in the stomach after it and I - Alice, I don’t know how - The thing that saved me isn’t what I thought it was, just like everything else and I don’t know how to make that work!”
Alice smiles at him, a little sadly. “Believing in something, really believing is almost impossible. But the Quentin I first met? He believed in magic. And in Fillory. And he changed. He grew up.”
“Everything went to hell in Fillory,” Quentin reminds her.
“Yeah, it did. But that’s how we grow up, Q. We figure out who we are in the aftermath of the shit life throws at us. And you still believe in magic, even if you get as angry at it as the rest of us now. I was just with the boy I first met again, remember? And the man I’m looking at now still knows how to care like he did. If you can still love magic after everything, if you and I can figure out how to be friends after all we’ve done to each other, then you can still love Fillory, don’t you think? So let's go.”
Alice steps away from him and leads 23 back up the steps. Quentin takes a deep breath, then sighs, turning back to the plants. “Okay, it's just you and me.”
And then it all starts pouring out, the frustrations he’s bitten back since, well. Since the Leo Blade didn’t cut his hand, he has to admit, because he’d hoped, he’d wanted… “You know the worst part of getting exactly what you want? When it's not good enough. Then what do you do? If this can't make me happy, then what would? Fillory was supposed to mean something. I was supposed to mean something here.” And yet he’d run away when he had the chance, he knows that, but it had felt - it still felt - like the one place he’d thought to belong didn’t fit, and he couldn’t bear that.
“But it's all - it's just, it's random. It's so random that the only way to save my friends is to yell at a fucking plant! Honestly, fuck Fillory for being so disappointing. You know what, maybe I was better off just believing that it was fiction.” When Fillory was a matter of the books he read, that truly terrible TV movie adaptation, the online fandom stuff he honestly really misses. All the games he played with Julia.
“The idea of Fillory is what saved my life!” Quentin yells on a bitter laugh. “This promise that people like me.” Shit. Shit, when did he start crying? He doesn’t remember, doesn’t remember the last time he let himself cry at all but now he can’t stop. “People like me can somehow find an escape. There has gotta be some power in that. Shouldn't loving the idea of Fillory be enough?”
A few of the plants twitch, he thinks maybe their leaves are a brighter shade of green, but none of them bloom. Biting back a frustrated scream, blinking back still more tears, Quentin picks up a stone and throws it as hard as he can against the wall of the cave, then picks up another. But this one is smooth and almost flat, the feel of it against his fingers stopping him in his tracks. A perfect skipping stone, and Quentin only knows that because -
He can’t skip stones, for the record. Neither could his dad, or his grandfather. His dad said once that his grandfather used to joke that it was a thing Coldwater men couldn’t do. But Teddy could. Teddy could because Eliot taught him, down at the lake not far from the Mosaic where they took Teddy to teach him to swim, and then for day trips because it was fun.
Teddy was a Coldwater-Waugh, not a Coldwater; different rules applied. So much of what their son had been, he’d learned from Eliot. Sure, there’d been a decent bit of Quentin there too, but -
He spins back to the plants, because he did grow up in Fillory, didn’t he? But not the Fillory he and Alice were talking about. “The idea should be enough, the idea saved my life and I know, I fucking know that the idea of Fillory, or the idea of other stories like it, have saved lives,” he says. “But fine, it’s clearly not. So how about this. The beauty of all fucking life, that’s what the Mosaic was supposed to be, right? So, OK. How’s this for a Fillory story? I went to Fillory with my best friend, a man I’d just realized I was in love with. I knew it, but I was never going to tell him, what if I lost him? But a year into our life there, I kissed him, and he kissed me back, and… It wasn’t easy. We broke it off, I got married to a woman. Great woman, and I was probably never fair to her - I have a problem with that, actually. I should think about that, later, maybe.”
Quentin huffs a sound between a laugh and a sob, running a hand through his hair. His too-short hair, Brian’s hair, and… Well. Brian isn’t going to help him here, is he? That poor confused guy who didn’t understand his dreams of the life Quentin remembers. “Arielle left. But she left Teddy with us. And Eliot and I raised him together, and we came back together. We got married in the autumn Teddy was twelve, and I don’t think Fillory has a prettier time of year than an autumn day, the leaves red and gold against a blue sky. So what is the idea of Fillory? Is it colored chalk dust on our hands? Mending the tiles our son broke because his hands were too little to lift them but he wanted to help his dads? Is it a little cottage that was more home than anywhere else I’ve ever been? Teddy’s laugh, El’s smile?”
He closes his eyes against the burn of more tears. “I didn’t need to be in Fillory to love Eliot. But Fillory is where our son was born, where we raised him, where we first learned what we could be together. I don’t know if I can love Fillory for itself anymore. But I love them. And Fillory was where I learned how to love, not just to feel it. The effort of it, the work of keeping it. I can love Fillory for the chance it gave me to learn what love really is, in its different shapes and kinds. And if that’s not enough… then I don’t have anything else to offer.”
Quentin opens his eyes, and the flowers are blooming. “Guys! Guys, get in here!”
From the way 23 and Alice react to him when they join him, at least some of what he said definitely carried to where they were waiting. 23 won’t quite meet his gaze - good , after what he tried to pull, Quentin can’t help but think with a certain vicious edge - and Alice is looking at him like she’s never quite seen him before. He doesn’t know what to feel about that. After a moment, he decides he doesn’t need to know what to feel about that, because they have bigger problems.
So, the plants work. The power is unlike anything Quentin’s ever felt, actually. They go back to the loft but they’ve barely arrived when a bunny shows up. “Monsters in the Library!”
Which, well, all right then. At least they don’t have to figure out how to find them.
Quentin isn’t sure why 23 has Margo’s axes and not Margo, but there isn’t time to ask. 23 hands him one, and they have the bottles at the ready. Then he takes off one way, and Quentin and Alice another. “Should he be going off solo?” Alice asks.
“Well, he is from a warzone timeline,” Quentin says with a shrug. He’s going to assume 23 knows what he’s doing, and leave it at that. Then they hear voices echoing down the hall of the Library - Fogg and Julia. Or, well. Not Julia, as it were. Without needing to discuss it, he and Alice pick up their pace, and then Quentin calls, “Hey, Monster… Lady…”
OK, it’s not his best line, but it ends up getting the Sister’s attention, so there’s that, right?
She comes out to face them, and distantly Quentin has to wonder why she decided to change Julia’s clothes - the Monster had changed Nigel’s clothes too, do they show up with a particular taste in clothing? None of this matters right now, Coldwater, focus, he tells himself.
“Adorable,” the Sister mocks, her voice a lazier monotone than the Monster, but just as wrong-familiar so that Quentin’s stomach knots. “So determined. Maybe I'll keep you as pets.”
Alice, apparently, objects to this idea, because she casts first, a spell that sends the Sister flying. Quentin reaches for the axe at his belt, starting to run over to strike the blow, only to skid to a stop when the Sister is back on her feet in a moment. Shit.
“Then again, I like my pets strong, and you're weak. You're already fading, aren't you?” she says, approaching them slowly, like a panther stalking its prey. It only takes a moment for Quentin to understand why she’s worse than her brother. The Monster is interested in things, it can be sidetracked from goals - the Sister can’t. It’s there, in Julia’s eyes turned dead and cold.
A careless gesture, and Quentin and Alice both go flying. Quentin scrambles to his knees, just in time to hear a familiar shout of “Sister! That one’s mine, I don’t care about her but -”
Oh Jesus Christ, Quentin thinks with a terrible urge to laugh. Because the Sister, hearing that, looks right at him. “Are you why he’s turned weak on me?” she asks, hand lifting in a gesture knows too well from her brother. There’s nothing he can do, is there?
Then Penny travels in behind her and axes her just as a yelp of surprise makes Quentin turn around. Fogg is standing behind them, and Quentin can just make out the silhouette of Eliot in a closing portal. What? “What did you do?” he demands.
“Whatever you did to power up, it’s faded, yes?” Fogg asks. “I sent him to a forest with a drugging effect. He won’t be able to leave it, and when you’re ready to remove the creature from Eliot, you’ll know where to find him.”
Quentin is about to yell at him, but Alice somehow got over to his side, and she puts a hand on his shoulder. “He’s right, we have to get back to the reservoir, then we can take care of Eliot too.”
“We need to get Julia to a doctor!” Penny says.
“We need to power up again,” Alice says firmly. “It’ll only take a minute, Penny.”
Except that when they get to the reservoir, it’s empty. Quentin stares at it, his arm around a moaning Julia, helping to support her, and has to agree with 23’s assessment. “Always a fucking twist.”
Next moment, they’re back at the loft and Quentin dimly sees Alice step away before he realizes he’s still holding Julia and -
And then they’re both in the Brakebills infirmary and from the look on 23’s face, he didn’t realize Quentin was along for the ride either. But it hardly matters as Lipson and her assistants get Julia up and onto a stretcher, then into a room. 23 races after them, Quentin following, still a little confused. He walks into the room to find it in chaos.
Julia’s arched back on the bed, writhing in pain, and Penny 23 is gone, which, what the fuck. Quentin hurries over to Julia’s side, hands hovering uselessly because, shit, what can he do for her? “What the fuck’s going on?” he demands of Lipson, who rolls her eyes.
“As I told the other one, her body’s full of weird magic, and so is whatever wounded her, nothing’s responding to -”
Quentin turns to see what she’s staring at, and can’t blame her. The old guy is the Binder, from what the others said, and Penny looks grim.
Apparently the Binder noticed that too. “It was a difficult choice for Penny 23 to even call upon The Binder. The Binder was certain, however, that Penny 23 had made the right choice. Julia, The Binder explained, would remain in a cycle of wounding, agony for millennia. Her body required transformation. Luckily,” he pauses as Julia groans loud enough to drown him out. “This was The Binder's expertise.”
Julia arches again, her spine cracking horribly, and Quentin and Penny share an alarmed look, for once in complete agreement. “Well, great. Let's get on with it,” Penny snaps.
“The Binder needed direction: Initiate her long and arduous journey to full goddesshood or revert her body to that of a mere human?” Oh shit. Last Quentin knew, Julia wanted to be a goddess again, but...
“If it was up to me, that'd be a no brainer,” Lipson comments from off to the side.
“Yeah, but it's not,” Penny tells her.
“It should be her choice,” Quentin agrees. And it should be - it should be anyway, but for Julia? Who’s had her choices stolen possibly more times than Quentin even knows about?
“The Binder paused for Julia to make that choice. Then dryly noted she wasn't in a talking mood.” He turns to Penny. "The Binder assumed he was speaking with her husband - or master?”
“No. No!” Penny says, and if he had looked anything but disgusted by the second option, Quentin would have had to punch him even if that would be less than useless. Since he can’t throw a punch. Luckily, Penny does look disgusted, but then the Binder looks at Quentin.
“The Binder wonders if this one is -”
“No fucking way!” Quentin snaps. There’s got to be something they can do, some way they can figure out how to save Julia, who is still twisting against the restraints they’d put her in. Quentin, at a loss, turns to her, trying to stroke her hair like he used to when they were kids and she didn’t feel well. He thinks of 23 blaming him for this, and maybe - maybe there’s some truth in that.
He couldn’t have done otherwise, and yet… “I’m sorry, Jules,” he whispers, hoping she can somehow hear him. “We’re gonna fix this, somehow, OK?”
Quentin tunes back into the conversation in time to hear the Binder say, “Still, The Binder replied, stating the obvious to the strident female, someone needed to choose for Julia.”
Lipson, who he’d sort of dimly heard arguing with the Binder, scowls but doesn’t answer. 23 is looking between the Binder and Julia, eyes too wide and panicked. Quentin knows that kind of fear, remembers himself diving across the room to knock pills from the Monster’s hand. That kind of panic makes people stupid, Quentin knows, and for a moment he feels phantom fingers tight around his throat.
“ No , it’s Julia’s choice,” Quentin cuts in.
“The Binder would remind Julia’s companion that she cannot speak to choose right now.”
“No, but I can ask her,” Penny says, taking a deep breath like the interruption to whatever he’d been about to do was enough to let him think. “I can go into her head and find out. Or at least I’ve gotta try that first.”
Quentin steps back from Julia so that Penny can get closer, then moves back in to try and help keep her as still as possible. Lipson comes over to help, and Quentin hates holding his friend down but what else can they do? He tries not to think, just to do, but then he can’t help but think of the Monster stashed away somewhere, can’t help but remember that Julia’s back but Eliot isn’t, every minute might matter whatever Fogg says and -
Penny steps back, and Lipson and Quentin can let go. Julia twists worse than ever once she’s not pinned, as if making up for it, actually screaming outright now. Penny stares at her for a moment, then shakes his head. “She said - both. Demigoddess, compromise. Can you do that?”
The Binder watches Julia for a long, long moment, and Quentin is pretty sure Penny’s about to hit him - and he’s tempted himself. Then he says, “The Binder is capable of granting such a strange request. It will take at least a day to complete.” He waves a hand, and Julia goes still, beginning to glow faintly silver. Quentin takes a deep breath, running a hand through his hair.
“Penny, you’ve gotta take me back to the loft, please. You can come right back here, but I need to -”
23 offers a hand, eyes still on Julia. “No, if I don’t help, she’ll kick my ass. I'll just keep jumping back and forth.” Quentin, taking his hand, sees the way Penny looks at Julia, and he wonders again which Julia the other man sees. But she’s going to be all right, and right now that’s the most important thing.
Then they’re traveling again, and back at the loft.
“So Everett wants to be a god,” Josh says after they’ve all compared notes to figure out where they stand, with Julia de-possessed, the Monster still in Eliot’s body and stashed in some forest that Fogg says will leave him dazed and basically drugged, Kady and Zelda didn't escape the effects of the Poison Room but there's a treatment so they'll be fine, and the head of the Library wanting to get the Monster’s power. “And now he's so juiced that he can just rip the god power right out of Eliot. So why don't we just let him?”
Not the worst plan, Quentin thinks, but there’s one major problem and that’s -
“So let that psycho book-fondler rip the Monster out of Eliot and probably kill him?” Margo demands, and when Josh looks surprised, she just turns and storms out.
Yep. That’s the problem.
“Hey, come on. Where are you going?” Josh says, and when he gets no answer besides a slamming door, he turns to Quentin, who isn’t exactly sure why. “She's pissed at me but more pissed at herself for being so pissed. She's not great at apologizing, so she's going to walk around until she calms down - and hope I forget.”
That does not sound one bit like the Margo Hanson Quentin knows and he is absolutely certain that she is no more likely to apologize for shutting down a plan that might kill Eliot than he is. Why would either of them do that?
And she’s likelier to be hostile about not apologizing, because this is Margo. But Quentin figures that’s Josh’s problem anyway. Also, he has a more important point to make. “She’s right. Anything where he could die is off the table,” he says flatly, and then notices Zelda coming downstairs from the library area. She looks shaky yet, but healed, and it takes him a second to realize that Kady isn’t behind her.
That… doesn’t seem like a good thing. So Quentin ignores Josh who seems about to say something else, and goes up the stairs, finding Kady just staring at an IV, her hand hovering over a button that, Quentin realizes, is for releasing the dose of medicine.
At the sound of his footsteps, Kady glances over. “Did you know they had a fucking cure for the Poison Room the whole fucking time?”
Quentin can only shake his head. “No, I assumed they’d developed it recently…” Oh God. Penny. That means -
“Nope. They had it all along. But Penny couldn’t get it, because he broke their precious rules. And to think, I was starting to fucking respect that bitch.” Kady laughs but it’s an awful sound, one Quentin sort of understands. “You know, I had a moment, when I first realized the bugs we had to swallow were wearing off, I thought, maybe this is how I’m supposed to die. Just like Penny did.”
Quentin thinks of how he’d thought dying under hands more familiar than his own wouldn’t be the worst way to go, and he can’t exactly blame her for the thought, but… “You’re not gonna just… not take the cure, are you?” he asks, softly.
“I don’t know. What would it matter, really?”
“It would matter a lot,” Quentin says. “You’ve got - you’re Queen Hedge now, they respect you, Jules and I think Alice are your friends, I’d like to think I’m your friend, it would matter a lot,” Quentin insists. And he’s talking to Kady but he’s not sure he’s just talking to Kady, when he can see himself in her shoes all too well. How many times has he thought, what would it matter? “You matter.”
“Know too much about it, do you?” Kady asks, finger light on the button but not pressing.
“Way too much,” Quentin admits. “But you wanna know something? I’ve tried to kill myself, a few times. Planned it other times. Each time I tried though, my last thought? Always regret. I kept hoping it’d be relief, but somehow it never was. It won’t be a relief to die, it’ll just be… done.”
“If nothing else, live to spite them, for what they took away,” says a new voice. Alice, on the top stair, looking pale and tense, but sure. “Or in spite of all the reasons you think you shouldn’t, to say to hell with that. Take the Library’s cure now, we can raze them to the ground later. But Quentin’s right, Kady. We’re your friends - you - you’re the first one who actually let me prove I meant my apologies, you know. That meant a lot. People care about you, and you shouldn’t die like this.”
Kady looks at them with a strange little smile, but she presses the button, so that’s what matters most. They keep her company up there until the IV bag is empty, not really talking. Downstairs it doesn’t sound like anything’s changed, but then Alice says, “We should go down, I think I have an idea about where to get rid of the Monster Twins once we have them both.”
“But we have to figure out how to get enough magic for the cast,” Quentin says, leaning against the side of one of the bookshelves and rubbing the back of his neck again, the chain warm under his fingers. “We should’ve taken bottles or something, filled them up.”
“There’s a good chance that the magic would have eaten through them,” Alice says. “Or that it would have lost its charge like the charge faded in us. Though you’re right, it was stupid not to try.”
“Well, maybe I can help with that,” Kady says, pulling the IV out. The bag is empty, and she looks healthy again. “Come on, let’s join the war room.”
Downstairs, it doesn’t look like anything’s improved. Zelda's gone and 23 is back again. He doesn’t look happy to be there but he also doesn’t look upset. A knot of tension Quentin hadn’t noticed was there loosens - 23 being here means Julia’s still all right. But no one has any ideas, Margo looks ready to kill someone, Josh is eyeing her warily, and they all turn to look as Alice, Kady, and Quentin come downstairs.
“I think I have a place to dump the bottles once we have them both,” Alice says. “When I was a Niffin there was this place… I only had the nerve to approach it once, I could feel how dangerous it was. It looked like a black hole inside a mirror, and I went seeking more information about it, I thought it would scare me less if I understood it… Anyway. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s called the Seam, and what goes in never comes out.”
“Great, but how do we get the power to get that thing in the bottle to stay once it’s out of Eliot?” Margo demands. “Because Josh’s damn fish magic faded from not getting used, and Fogg doesn’t have a spare battery.” Fish magic? OK, Quentin missed that conversation.
“Hedge witches,” Kady says.
“Can barely tie their shoes,” Margo scoffs, and it reminds Quentin of what Eliot used to say, but the thing is, he knows now that they’re both wrong.
“Fuck you,” Kady says. “And also, you're wrong. A huge untapped pool. Look, they're used to crumbs and, yes, ambient is low, but you know what amplifies it? Cooperative magic. We tell everyone, and I mean all of the world, wherever there's a pipe. Fillory, even, and we all do the same thing at the same time.”
“You can't get that many people to cooperate. This isn't Sesame Street,” Margo says.
“There are some shitty hedges, but there are enough good ones that we could pull this off, and we need them,” Kady tells her, and Margo looks thoughtful for a second, but then shakes her head.
“You’d need to have perfect timing, and get them to agree. How are you gonna do it?”
“You haven’t seen her rally the troops,” Quentin says when Kady looks ready to snap again, which isn’t going to help. “We have time, because of Fogg’s stunt, so get the word out, we should have a chance.”
“I’ve seen hedges pull off some powerful stuff. They know less, mostly, they don’t have less power . The Library thought taking them out was worth it,” Alice points out. “And the timing is just a matter of having people ready for the signal. Cell phones will work, because even if we ask Fogg to help, cell phones don’t die right away on campus. Plus he’s got one spelled not to, just in case.”
“So that means at least two of us need to go to the trippy forest to de-possess Eliot, and probably at least two of us should go to this Seam place,” 23 says. “I’ll have to be one of the ones going to the forest to get anyone there -”
“Sorry, but I'll need you for the Mirror World too, I’ll need you to get in,” Alice says, a little ruefully, but 23 just sighs.
“Julia’s still out cold anyway,” he says. “That Binder guy's still at it. Lipson says her body’s rewriting itself, that she’ll be fine but she’ll probably be out another day at least. I want this shit over, so whatever I’ve gotta do.”
“I’d better go to the forest with you and Margo,” Quentin says, and he can see 23’s about to object - Margo doesn’t look surprised - but Quentin shakes his head. “Margo won’t be able to cast, she’ll have to hit Eliot and then he’ll need help like Julia did. There should be at least two people casting on the bottle, and also… We all know the damn thing likes me. I might be able to keep its attention long enough for Margo to sneak up on it.”
“Quentin, is that a good idea?” Alice asks.
“Could be worse,” Quentin says. “It’ll only be a couple minutes.” What he doesn’t say, and no one pushes him to admit, is that he was always going to be going. It’s Eliot. He has to be there when he comes back. A small part of him would like to go to the Mirror World too, see the bottles thrown away and have a kind of revenge for himself and Eliot both (for Brian and Nigel too), but… No. He doesn’t need it. And something about the idea sends a shiver down his spine, like someone just walked over his grave.
“OK, then I’m going along to the Mirror World,” Kady says. “Can’t use magic there, right?” she asks, and when Alice nods in confirmation, she says, “Well, any threats show up, I have a gun. It’s already proved useful once, just ask Quentin or 23.”
And with the teams decided, as it were, all that’s left is for the word to get out. Kady has her contacts, Alice apparently has a few, Josh goes back to Fillory to let Fen know and tap into the magic there. Margo seems to relax a little once he’s gone, but only a little - she’s tense and fiddling with her axes, ready to snatch them up at a moment’s notice. Except that, at the last moment -
“Here,” she says, handing Quentin one of them. “If I can’t get him, then you have to.”
Quentin wants to refuse. He wants to say that if Margo finds she can’t bear to axe Eliot, how the fuck is he going to do it? He doesn’t even want to think about the possibility that the Monster might kill her before she can - no, he’s not going there. But she’d given her axes to 23 and he’d come back without El once, so Margo won’t give him another chance. This is Margo saying that he’s the only other one she trusts to do this. Maybe it’s almost a truce for their earlier spat. Quentin doesn’t know, just curls his fingers around wood with a nod.
When no one’s looking, he tugs the chain out of his hoodie and wraps his other hand around a key and a ring so they can’t be seen, but he can hang onto them. Fun fact, one of the few things Brian and Quentin have in common, besides loving the same man, is they were both raised Catholic. Quentin closes his eyes and tries to think of half-remembered prayers, because they probably won’t work, but it's better than thinking about anything else right now.
And then, everyone’s in place, and it’s go time.
Luckily, whatever magic makes the trippy forest, well, trippy, must take time to have an effect, because the only disorientation Quentin feels on landing is the usual amount caused by traveling. Margo dodges out of the Monster’s line of sight - she’s going to use her fairy eye, which can apparently be popped out, to gauge the angle.
The Monster lurches upright, eyes glassy. “You hurt my sister,” it says, and oh shit, it’s looking at Penny, and -
“No, we didn’t, she’s somewhere safe,” Quentin says quickly, loudly. He can feel the axe in his hand, the ring and the key back under his shirts. They all seem to be burning against his skin. “We’re going to take her to y-”
It doesn’t burn this time when familiar telekinesis catches him up, yanks him across the distance to collide with the Monster, one wrong-familiar arm wrapping around his waist to keep him upright and close. Too close, and Quentin can only tip his head up to look, to try and figure out what’s going on behind those eyes he knows so well with a Monster behind them he can never know.
“Will you come with me to where my sister is, Quentin?” the Monster asks.
“Sure,” Quentin lies easily to the Monster now, trying not to think about how close they are, about - yeah, no, not thinking about it, don’t think about it.
“Good,” the Monster says, free hand stroking Quentin’s hair like he’s a pet. “She hasn’t been very nice, but we can teach her, can’t we? Why names matter, and why I wanted her back so much? Because you understand, don’t you, why I needed her back? Because I missed her.”
Margo, where the fuck are you? Quentin thinks even as he manages a smile. “Yeah, I get it. She’s your family, of course you had to save her.”
“This is why I like you, Quentin, you understand!” the Monster announces. “I learned something about how humans show they like a person, I want to try it with you!” And then the hand in his hair tightens, yanks his head back to an almost painful angle as the arm around his waist presses in and -
It’s - kissing him - and -
Quentin feels the jerk, feels the sudden warmth of blood against his own stomach before he’s falling, on top of the Monster. No, on top of Eliot , because there’s the golden mist of the Monster soaring into the bottle. Quentin rolls, dizzy, and feels 23 catch him by the hood. He scrambles to his knees with a nod as 23 hits the text message to cast, and then the world is, for a moment, nothing but magic as their hands move in the tut.
Cooperative magic is everything Quentin always wanted magic to be, and for a moment he’s not Quentin, there’s no fear or grief in him at all, just the magic and a dizzying sense of being everyone in the cast, seeing every place where magicians and hedges stand to do this. And then it’s over and -
Quentin doesn’t remember scrambling to his feet or crossing the distance, only knows the jarring all through his body as he hits his knees beside Eliot, his hands covering Margo’s on the axe wound. Oh God, there’s so much blood.
“Eliot!” Margo screams it, and Quentin can feel her hands shaking under his, can hear the fear in her voice when she says Eliot’s name again, softer and broken. You can’t do this, you can’t, Quentin thinks dizzily, you can’t leave me again, El, please, and in the back of his mind Brian is screaming Nigel’s name -
“You were supposed to be back in an hour, please don’t leave me again, please wake up this time,” he whispers, staring at Eliot’s still face and half-wishing the Monster had snapped his neck instead of kissing him because, because if -
Margo is yelling again, fear and pain turning to fury in a way Quentin wishes he could copy even as his ears ring with her shouts. “If there's a tunnel with Grandma, tell her to piss off and come back to me, you selfish fuck! Get back here! Eliot. Eliot, please. Eliot! ”
“Well, when you put it so sweetly, Bambi, hmm?” Eliot breathes, eyes slitted open, and Margo manages a laughing sob. But Quentin can’t, he can’t - he feels like he’s flying apart -
“Hey, Q…” Eliot murmurs, clouded gaze turning to Quentin.
“Please don’t do that again,” Quentin chokes out, and then there’s the tug and faintly dizzying whirl of traveling, and they’re landing halfway in a heap in the Brakebills infirmary. There are people tugging Eliot away and up onto a stretcher before Quentin can fully understand what’s happening. Margo, quicker on the uptake, is already on her feet and racing alongside them.
23 pulls Quentin to his feet, squeezing his shoulder in a gesture more surprising than comforting. “Hey, he’ll be fine,” he says, and some part of Quentin’s mind understands this as some kind of apology, or at least an olive branch. But then 23’s gone to meet Alice and Kady, and Quentin is tearing down the hall after Margo, close enough to hear her yelling at Lipson.
“Do something, please!”
“They need all the ambient for those bottles,” Lipson says with a calm that makes Quentin want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.
“What is the point of being a magician if you can't use it?” Margo yells as Quentin catches up at last, falling in beside her as they jog alongside the stretcher. Eliot’s unconscious again, so pale it makes Quentin go cold, because he looks - he almost looks -
“Before I was a magician, I was a trauma surgeon. I'm perfectly capable of saving him the old-fashioned way. If you need to cry, go outside.” And with that, Lipson and her assistants wheel Eliot into the OR, and Quentin and Margo are left watching the doors swing shut. Quentin curls his shaking hands into fists. Margo stumbles back a step, turning to look at him with wide, panicked eyes. He’s never seen her like this, he wonders dizzily if he looks as scared as she does. He knows that they both have Eliot’s blood drying tacky on their hands.
There has been - so much blood on Quentin’s skin, hands and elsewhere, since the day Brian was kidnapped by a Monster wearing his partner’s face. He is really getting tired of it.
“He has to be all right. He has to be. He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?” Margo says, and Quentin swallows hard.
“Yeah. He’s gotta be,” he says, because that’s the only answer he’s got, it’s the only one either of them can stand. Margo sinks into a chair and Quentin slumps back against the wall, the key and the ring on their chain heavy around his neck. He closes his eyes and thinks of a young man stretched out on the Brakebills sign like a cat in the sunlight, thinks of a man all in black on the stage of a smoky pub. His knees buckle, and he slides slowly to the floor, legs curled underneath him. He doesn’t even bother to open his eyes.
There’s nothing left to do but wait.
I'm not the first person to use the demigoddess Julia idea - unfortunately I'm not sure where I first saw it. But I like the compromise.
Chapter 4: Breathe Your Breath In Me
The nightmare might be over, but the story and the recovery are very much not.
I misjudged my chapter count again, as you can see.
Warning: further discussion of the non-con issues surrounding the Monster and Q. Also, please don't take Q's opinion of therapy as correct - my thinking on this is that he has had terrible luck finding a therapist that works for him, it is not meant as anti-therapy. Therapy is a good thing, people.
Thanks as ever to my RAO enablers! (Extra thanks to Maii, who always looks over my chapters for me and is the source of my explanation for Margo/Josh.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Quentin wakes with a surge of feeling - it's magic, sparking in him like when he and Eliot stepped through the clock. Drowsy and confused with it, he looks around to find himself still sitting on the infirmary floor. Oh. He doesn’t remember falling asleep.
"Magic's back - really back, not rationed to shit," Margo says when Quentin looks her way. "No idea why, but…" She looks down at herself, the dried blood on her hands and even some on her clothes, and makes a face. Quentin’s eyes drift shut again and he misses the tuts, but a moment later magic washes over his skin and he opens his eyes again to see Margo crouched next to him, hands still raised. The blood and forest debris that had clung to him is now gone too, and actually his whole body is clean, he can feel his hair no longer needs a wash. There’s just a faint sense of a film on his skin which he knows is the result of the cleaning spell itself.
“That’s why actually taking a shower is better, but this’ll do until we figure out this puzzle,” Eliot had said on their third morning at the Mosaic, showing Quentin the tuts for the cleaning spell. Of course, as it turned out, they had needed to figure out a different alternative as part of fixing up the rundown cottage, but they hadn’t known that then.
“At least sit in a chair, come on,” Margo says when Quentin’s eyes slip shut again, nudging him more gently than he might have expected. “I can’t let you sleep on the floor, Q, God knows what you’ll be sleeping on.”
“Probably slept on worse, one time or another,” Quentin says, but he gets up and walks with Margo over to a line of chairs where they can still see the OR doors. Margo doesn’t sit down for long before she’s up and pacing though. Quentin watches her through half-closed eyes, head tipped back against the wall. His hair is just long enough to fall in his eyes, now, but he doesn’t bother to brush it aside.
“Quentin!” Margo snaps and Quentin startles awake again, blinking.
“What, Margo?” he asks wearily. The adrenaline is well and truly gone now, and he doesn’t mean to keep dozing off but he’s barely slept in days. Well, fine, he’s barely slept since he was Brian, if he’s being honest.
“I asked if that ever happened before,” Margo says, coming to sit back down next to him. “When you said it made you its toy, and then it was kissing you, I - Quentin, what -”
Tension wakes him up better than coffee could, and Quentin sighs, running a hand through his hair. “I didn’t mean it like that, Margo. I don’t think it knew what sex was, and I’m pretty sure I’d have been the first one to find out if it had learned. I meant - you know it dragged me around on its murder tour shit, and it… treated me like a pet, or a living teddy bear. That was its idea of friend. I’m, uh, glad you axed it when you did, though. I don’t want to know if that was the only new thing it had learned.”
“Jesus Christ on a pogo stick,” Margo mutters. “And where the fuck were Wicker and 23 in this?”
“They couldn’t have helped, Margo -”
“Did they fucking try?”
Quentin opens his mouth, then closes it, at a loss. “Julia… had concerns, but, uh, we didn’t really discuss it.” He knows Julia was there the night it… took him to a river, but Quentin remembers only snatches of that, he can’t actually say if Julia tried to get it off him or not. He doesn’t think so, though. He’s not sure how to feel about that. “Kady was gonna blast it once, but I waved her off. It would have killed her.”
“Yeah, and you being buddy-buddy with our local Hedge Queen is another unexpected development, I have questions. But I think I like her response more. God, I…” Margo’s mouth twists down, and even the silly pirate eyepatch can’t make her look less solemn as she reaches over, brushing his hair back. “You look like hell, Q. You’ve really been driving yourself into the ground for him, haven’t you?”
Quentin’s throat goes tight, and he swallows hard. “I - what else could I -?” What else could he have done?
Margo doesn’t answer him, just reaches over and pulls him into a hug. Quentin hugs her back, remembering as if through some kind of fog that he’d missed her too, that he used to be able to lean on her too. He’s not sure when he started crying into her shoulder, and he thinks dizzily that she might be crying too, but he can’t seem to stop. Finally, when they sit back, Margo’s eyes are red but steady. “OK, well. We’re getting you back on your feet too, the bags under your eyes have bags and you’re too damn skinny under that hoodie. Sneaky, trying to hide it with layers, shouldn’t have let me hug you if you didn’t wanna get caught. You’re mine too, OK? I think I forgot that… and a lot of other things…”
She trails off with a frown. Quentin, wiping his eyes, waits for her to keep talking and is a little worried when she doesn’t. “Margo?”
“You looked like shit when we were yelling at each other too - you might have had a point, by the way, there won’t be a next time but if there is I’m sticking around - and I didn’t notice it. And then… I actually let 23 go off to save Eliot instead of me, trusting him to do that when I knew Julia was the only one he gave a shit about,” Margo says, frowning. Quentin doesn’t know what to say, because all of these things are true, so he keeps his mouth shut, letting her think.
“Did I tell you I’m a werewolf now?”
She hadn’t, but - “I kind of assumed, because, uh. You and Josh,” Quentin says carefully.
“Yeah,” Margo says with a sigh. “I mean, look. He was either gonna have to fuck someone or kill someone, so I said I’d help him out. I wasn’t really thinking - I guess I felt kinda guilty, Bacchus was his friend and all that, and then… We didn’t know if El was still alive or not, I just wanted a fucking win, and it felt like helping him not horribly murder someone would be a win.”
“But it turned you into a werewolf,” Quentin says.
“Yeah, and, sure, at the time I didn’t think much of it, it litereally meant one sex act I couldn’t do unless I was with another werewolf - one of my favorites but God knows there’s plenty of other options, whatever, right? Only now I keep thinking… I don’t hate the guy, and somewhere along the line he picked up decent sex skills, I’m assuming while he was Uber Guy. He made himself useful, but… All the shit I said before, I’m starting to wonder why I said it. And even if I am falling for him, I picked staying with him over saving Eliot, and I can’t fucking remember why.”
Quentin doesn’t really feel equipped to deal with this, but the thing is, Margo isn’t asking for his help. She just seems to need an audience to talk this out to, and he - he can do that. He’s exhausted and he’s definitely in no place to offer any real solutions, but he can listen. “You think there’s more going on?”
“That hedge doctor vet said something about a bond, I don’t know. He thought it had something to do with being a wolf, and maybe it does. I just know I’ve gotta find out. Once you and Eliot are all right.”
“Margo, I’m -” He just needs to sleep for like a day, he’ll be fine.
“Bullshit. You know, I can’t believe I’ve never asked this, but you’ve got meds, right? You have to. You’re taking that shit, right, being the professor guy didn’t screw that up too much?” Margo asks, suddenly looking alarmed.
Quentin blinks. “Uh… Fogg took them my first day, he said magic meant I wouldn’t need them. When magic didn’t really fix it I assumed the truth was that psych meds must make magic harder because of the comes from pain thing, and I’m middling enough as it is so -”
He stops talking because the last time he’d seen Margo look that murderous was when he’d declared his intention to stay in Blackspire. “Are you telling me,” Margo says in a dangerously sweet voice, “that you have meds you’re supposed to take and Fogg took them from you on your first day, that you have been going through all the shit we’ve faced with clinical fucking depression and no help for that?”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
“I’m gonna fucking kill him as soon as Eliot’s life doesn’t depend on being in an infirmary on the campus Fogg runs, and I am dragging you to a pharmacy by your fucking ear if I have to, because you need to be back on your goddamn meds, Q. They’re not gonna hurt your magic, all the shit you’ve seen me and El toss back, did it ever mess up ours?”
“Well, no, but -”
Quentin is many things, but he is not stupid, so instead of arguing he just nods. He’d never minded the meds, really - he’d hated therapy a lot more, because he’d never quite managed to find the words to explain his mind to someone literally watching him and taking notes. Ever since his first therapist had basically taken art away from him by insisting he use it as therapy, he just… doesn’t feel comfortable with them. He knows, logically, that their job is to help, but he always felt like they were trying to hammer him into a shape he couldn’t fit, or something like that.
That's something else Brian did for him - gave art back to him.
They go quiet again after that. There’s one of those hospital coffee vending machines down the hall, and on one of Margo’s pacing routes she gets two cups. Quentin’s, he finds when he sips it, is hot chocolate, not coffee. He can barely drink it, but it’s something to do, so he swallows mechanically, the sugar reviving him a little. Margo paces with her own drink, whatever it is.
Really, he thinks they’re both relieved when Alice shows up, pale and with her clothes a bit singed - he thinks her hair might be too, actually. “Hey, how’s Eliot?” she asks, falling into step with Margo as they come back over to where Quentin’s sitting.
“We don’t know, he’s in surgery,” Margo says. “Can’t help, so can’t think about it. What happened to you?”
Alice sinks into the chair Margo had been using, Margo moving to sit next to her. “Everett showed up. Luckily, 23 threw the bottle he had into the Seam before mine had even cleared the frame - we were going to do one at a time but Kady said she thought she heard something, so we moved quicker. Anyway, when Everett realized… he completely lost it, he was about to cast. I have no idea what, it wouldn’t really have mattered. But Kady shot him in the head.”
“That doesn’t explain why you look singed,” Margo says.
“Yeah, well, he bled reservoir water. At first, it was just water, but then he started dissolving into a puddle and it started sparking. Going haywire like spells do in there. We had to run and we were lucky all we got were a few surface burns.” Alice shakes her head. “He shattered the Seam-mirror. Seconds after the bottles were both in. If we’d been any slower, or he’d been any faster… I’m just glad that didn’t happen, I think it would have been a disaster.”
Something about Alice’s last comment sends a shiver down Quentin’s spine. It makes him think of the old cliche, how that means someone’s walking over your grave. It’s an odd, unsettling thought, so he tries to ignore it. Then the OR doors open and he drops his - luckily empty - cup, he and Margo scrambling to their feet as Lipson approaches. Distantly, Quentin realizes Alice has one hand on his shoulder and one more tentatively on Margo’s, but while he appreciates the gesture -
“Is he all right?” Margo demands, and Quentin wonders if the echo is in her ears too or just in his.
“He’s going to be fine, though don’t expect him to wake up for at least a day,” Lipson says briskly. She goes on to explain more about the surgery but Quentin doesn’t hear it. He’s going to be fine. He’s going to be fine. Oh God. It’s over. It’s finally fucking over. Quentin feels like he can breathe freely for the first time since he was still Brian and something wearing Nigel teleported into their living room.
Alice slips out quietly once they’re allowed to sit with Eliot, leaving Margo and Quentin to do just that. He still looks terrible, pale and still - and Eliot doesn’t sleep like that, he’s either clingy and wrapped around the person he’s sharing with, or a pillow if he’s alone, or he starfishes and takes up the entire space. But he’s alive, the monitor shows that and he’s clearly breathing, there’s no blood, and that’s enough for now.
Quentin curls into one of the chairs - these are bigger and even cushioned, clearly meant for someone to be able to sit there for hours - and reaches for Eliot’s hand. Margo’s across from him holding Eliot’s other hand, and that’s the last thing Quentin notices before he - falls asleep again.
What wakes Quentin, eventually, is cramping in his fingers. He blinks sleepily, trying to figure out why - and then scrambles to sit upright in the chair when memory returns. “El -”
“He’s still out,” Margo says even as Quentin realizes that, and also figures out that his hand cramped because he’s still holding Eliot’s. He lets go reluctantly, flexing his fingers to try to ease them. “You’ve been out all night, I’m pretty sure I slept for a while too but only you could stay out so long in these chairs.”
Now that she mentions it, he is kind of sore… everywhere, but that’s not unusual for him on waking up. He remembers, back when they were just magic grad students, Eliot and Margo started a list of Ways Quentin Is A Cat, and second on the list had been ‘he can fall asleep anywhere and in any position’ , which is actually true. First, if he remembers correctly, had been about the weird ways he sits.
He’s still tired, but he feels marginally functional again, which is nice. “Any news?” he asks, his voice still sleep-rough.
“Wicker’s up, 23 stopped in about twenty minutes ago to let you know, I’m pretty sure she told him to do it,” Margo says, and picks up a fast food bag by her chair, pulling out a wrapped sandwich and handing it to him. “Kady dropped in with this, said she figured none of us were moving for a while. There’s also coffee next to you, if you didn’t notice.”
Quentin isn’t sure if the breakfast sandwich is better than usual or if he’s just hungry. He does know the coffee is objectively terrible, but caffeine is more important than taste right now. His trash goes back in the bag, and then there’s really - after months of constantly focusing on how to get Eliot back, now just waiting for him to wake up has Quentin feeling strangely useless. He keeps stealing glances at him, hoping to see him stirring, but no luck so far. Margo’s doing the same thing, though, so Quentin doesn’t feel too weird about it.
He should go visit Julia. He even wants to, it’s just - he can’t quite make himself leave for longer than it takes to duck into the bathroom and that’s only because it’s strictly necessary. He comes back with his face wet from splashing water on it in an effort to wake up a little more, and Lipson is there doing some kind of diagnostic spell on Eliot. Who’s still out cold.
Quentin doesn’t notice he’s pulled the key and the ring back out from under his shirt to hold until Lipson says Eliot’s recovering nicely and leaves, and then he lets go of them but forgets he’s not alone.
“Quentin, why is there a housekey and a ring around your neck?” Margo asks, and Quentin’s brain pretty much short-circuits.
He glances at Eliot, still asleep, and with his hair so long, the part of his mind that probably belongs to Brian forever at this point still sees Nigel, and see, here’s the thing. Kady knows about Nigel and Brian, and Quentin’s feelings for Eliot. 23 and Alice know the latter, not the former. No one knows the personal part of Quentin’s conversation with Eliot in his mind palace.
He’s never consciously realized that no one has the full story, and none of the people with pieces of it are Margo or Julia, who probably have the most reason to expect that they would know. Quentin wishes he hadn’t finished his coffee, because he could use something to occupy himself right now under Margo’s intense stare. He tucks the chain back under his shirt anyway, because if he doesn’t he’ll forget and if Eliot wakes up -
He doesn’t know if they’ll discuss Nigel’s un-acted on plans at all anyway. Eliot changing his mind about them isn’t anything but a promise to try, Quentin isn’t assuming anything. He’d just needed it, just needed the reminder that they’d managed to love each other in three lifetimes, that it was worth fighting for even if no one else thought so.
Regardless, he does not want to force a conversation because Eliot spots Nigel’s ring around his neck.
And none of this is going to help him evade Margo, still clearly waiting for an explanation. “It’s… a very long story,” he says, haltingly.
“Neither of us are going anywhere,” Margo replies.
“No, I guess we’re not,” Quentin says, looking at his hands and remembering how they’d changed, tiles and farming leaving scattered scars - sometimes there were accidents, after all - and age leaving spots and wrinkles. Remembers colored chalk on his hands in Fillory, ink spots and paint flecks from when he’d been Brian.
He looks at Eliot again, and what he remembers this time is so much further back - one of his many insomnia nights, only Eliot had been up too, and they hadn’t talked much, just settled on the couch together. Quentin with a book, and Eliot working on a jewelry spell. Until Quentin had felt a weight against his side and found Eliot asleep with his head on Quentin’s shoulder. Quentin remembers being almost afraid to breathe in case it woke him up, being almost unable to breathe because it was like seeing Eliot relaxed in sleep really drove home just how much he already mattered . And - and Quentin hadn’t been able to deal with it, then. Not when it was a minor miracle Eliot even wanted to be his friend, from Quentin’s perspective.
He thinks that, all in all, he doesn’t miss the boy he was then, even if he could have used some of that boy’s certainties to get through all this. But, no, he doesn’t miss him.
He looks back at Margo. “I guess you’ve figured out I’m in love with Eliot, so I don’t need to tell you that. The first thing you’ve gotta understand is that when you got that letter from me, and went to get the Time Key off Jane so that timeline would never happen… it did still happen. Or, at least we remember it, I don’t know exactly how it all works. So, we went through the clock, and…”
He tells her everything. About that first year, and how on their anniversary he’d worked up the nerve to kiss Eliot - he backtracks, there, to explain how he’d realized he loved Eliot before all that, in the moment when he’d gone to the Fillory clock and knew it was now just a clock, with magic gone. He tells her about their first breakup, Arielle, Teddy’s birth that had been absolutely an accident but the best one he’s ever made. Arielle leaving, him and Eliot raising Teddy and slowly coming back together. Getting married, growing old together - even that last day, when he’d lost Eliot and found the key, given it to Jane the little girl. How he’d gone to sleep that night alone and the next thing he knew, he was in the throne room with Eliot, memories hitting them both.
Margo listens without comment, until Quentin tells her about the conversation in the throne room. “Are you fucking serious,” she says flatly, then scowls at the still-sleeping Eliot. “El, babe, I love you, but you’ve been head over heels for the boy since day one, what the fuck.”
“I don’t think he’s going to answer that yet, and also, you’re joking, can’t have been that long,” Quentin says.
“Oh my God, you’re both so fucking stupid,” Margo grumbles. “Christ, Q, that is heavy shit, no wonder you wrecked yourself to save him, but that doesn’t actually answer my first question.”
“I told you this was a long story,” Quentin defends himself, and then he explains about Brian. Brian and his quiet, boring life that he hated and refused to admit he hated. Meeting Nigel -
“Oh my God, you fuckers managed to have two meet-cutes, what the fuck,” Margo interrupts, and Quentin only shakes his head. “Andale, keep talking,” she says after a moment, and so Quentin does. He tells her about how fast Brian and Nigel came together, went from strangers puzzling over dreams to inseparable. And, as he talks, it sort of hits home how they always do that, how that happened in this life too, and he wonders if they always did or if it’s some kind of carryover from thirty-nine prior timelines.
But then, Brian had it right all along. Whatever else is or was real, this is real too. What triggered it hardly matters.
When he has to tell her about the day Brian’s world collapsed, Quentin gets up, goes to the window, fingers gripping at the sill. And when he tells her about finding the ring just at the worst moment when he’d lost all hope, he closes his eyes, leaning his forehead against the window. “I talked to El,” he says quietly as the sun-warmed glass warms further with his body heat. “23 got me into his mind palace. He - we - worked it out, he changed his mind about us. We didn’t discuss, uh, Brian and Nigel, it was just. All I had, you know? Bits of our life when we weren’t ourselves to hold onto - a key, a ring, those oversized sweaters. And I needed something. And they were happy, we were happy being them, and I just. Held on to what I could.”
He turns back to her, a watery smile on his face. “I promised him I wouldn’t die to save him,” he says. “I managed that, we’re still here, and if he’d just wake up…”
“Hey, he will,” Margo says. “Maybe we’ll even finally catch a fucking break, and you two can go off and be disgustingly cute together for a while.”
Quentin sinks back into his chair, reaching for Eliot’s hand again. “Maybe,” he says quietly. “That would be nice.”
“Think you’d come back here, be students again?” Margo asks, waving a hand as if to indicate the whole campus. Quentin can only shrug.
“No idea, it’d be El’s call as much as mine. Oh - but I am a legit Physical Kid now. Repair of Small Objects,” Quentin says, and he can’t help but smile. All the more when Margo grins back at him.
“We should make you retake the test.”
“I know where the key to the back door is hidden now.”
Quiet falls again after that, but it’s soft this time, companionable rather than the tension-filled waiting of yesterday. Quentin dozes again, not really asleep but not quite awake either. Then Eliot’s hand shifts in his and his eyes fly open. “El?” he says at the same time Margo does, both of them sitting forward in their chairs.
“... th’ fuck happened?” Eliot asks, voice hoarse and a little slurred from the pain medication. His eyes are barely open, but they’re his eyes again and Quentin is dizzy with the relief of it.
“Magic depossessing axe, sorry about that,” Margo says, and her voice wavers with unshed tears, but hey. Quentin will never judge her, especially when he doesn’t think he can manage words yet himself.
“Oh… s’all right, Bambi. Got me back, huh?” Eliot says after a moment, and Margo nods, free hand swiping impatiently at her eyes.
“Damn fucking straight I did. Couldn’t have if your stubborn boy over there didn’t hang in long enough to keep you around for me to do it though.”
Eliot’s foggy gaze shifts to Quentin then. “Hey, Q. You… you were real in there, right? Cause, cause I meant what I said…”
“Oh,” Quentin breathes, the sound almost punched from him, and until now he hadn’t realized he was afraid, on some level, that Eliot hadn’t really meant it, not in the real world. “I was real in there, El. I kept my promise, too.”
“Good,” Eliot says, wincing as he shifts a little in the bed. “Think I’m… gonna go back t’sleep now,” he says, and his eyes flutter shut again.
“Oh God,” Quentin whispers, folding over so that his forehead rests against the mattress near Eliot’s hip. “Oh God, oh fuck. It’s fucking finally over, it’s really over,” he whispers, still holding tight to Eliot’s hand. It’s over. Eliot woke up, if only for a minute, he’s himself again. The rest - the rest they can deal with.
Quentin is able to leave, after that. Not for long, but long enough to go down a corridor and a half to visit Julia. 23 is still there, they’re talking quietly. They don’t look upset, but serious, and definitely not happy either. Quentin knocks on the open door so he doesn’t just walk in and startle them, and when Julia turns to face him, her brown eyes have turned silver.
“Wow,” he says, caught by surprise.
“Yeah, I know,” Julia says with a laugh. “Go full goddess and no one can tell by looking, go half and your eyes turn into something that book we found in our fourth grade classroom library where the kids got psychic powers from a drug trial.”
“ The Girl With the Silver Eyes ,” Quentin remembers, because that title had been nothing if both unimaginative and accurate. “They definitely look better on you,” he adds, very seriously, because he knows it’ll make her laugh.
“I’ll, uh, talk to you later, Julia,” 23 says, and Quentin steps further into the room to let him pass, before taking his vacated chair. He and Julia both stare at the doorway for a moment, as if unsure where to start.
“He tried to convince me to pick human, when he was in my head. I mean, he didn’t lie to the Binder or anything, but he really wanted me to be human,” Julia says, and Quentin turns back to her only to find she’s not looking at him, her hands twisted in her lap. “I didn’t ask him why then, I didn’t care, but I asked him today. I asked him who the hell it is he sees, when he looks at me. Me, or her.”
Quentin, who feels like he can’t always fully keep track of who he is, can freely admit he sympathizes, somewhat, with 23 - but only somewhat. When his oldest loyalties are to Julia and Kady is the only person who understood even some of what he was dealing with facing the Monster, and the three of them are all a tangle, Quentin has to pick their sides over 23’s, really. But…
“What did he say?” he asks, and Julia shrugs.
“He said he’s not sure. That he thought he knew he saw me, but when I was hurt, all he could see was her, and how he couldn’t save her but if he could save me…” Julia shrugs, tucking her hair behind her ears. “At least he was honest about it. I told him I won’t be a replacement for anyone, not even another version of myself.”
“So… you’re done with him?”
“That depends on if he can see me, and whether I believe it if and when he claims he can.” Julia’s eyes narrow then, and the color might be different, but the look in her eyes is very familiar. “And what about you and Eliot?”
“I -” Quentin stops, blinks. “I never told you -”
“You didn’t have to. We’ve known each other since we were four years old, Q. I know you. Maybe not perfectly, I’m getting the sense just looking at you that I missed a lot lately, with 23 and my goddesshood quest. But I still do know you. I didn’t think you realized you were in love with him till the day you almost let the Monster kill you, but I guessed you were a while ago.”
Quentin huffs a sound between a laugh and a quiet sob, leaning back in his chair. “You never said.”
“I wasn’t sure how. Especially when we couldn’t be sure we’d get him back. I thought talking about it would make it worse for you. Was I wrong?”
Quentin - doesn’t know, actually. He’d been afraid to talk about it, afraid Julia would insist he step back for his own good. But at the same time, he knows he’d been getting lost in his head. He still is kind of lost, and he’d be more lost if he hadn’t had the anchors from Brian and Nigel’s life, or the budding friendship with Kady. If he hadn’t been able to talk to Eliot. He doesn’t know if Julia cornering him would have helped, but…
“I don’t know, but I kinda wish you had said something anyway,” he finally says, because it’s the best answer he’s got.
Julia nods. “How’s he doing?”
“He woke up for a few minutes, then fell asleep again. But he’s himself again, which is - the most important thing,” Quentin tells her, slumping in the chair. He’s still so damn tired. And he’d gotten used to being wrapped in one of Nigel’s sweaters, he feels weird now. Even if he’d chosen to wear his hoodie instead because it was less likely to get caught on something.
He’d had a hoodie almost identical to this one on when they went through the clock, he remembers now. It had worn thin until they ended up using its pieces for rags. A few pieces had been refashioned into clothes for one of Teddy’s toys - Eliot had been the one to decide the stuffed cat needed a jacket, and years later Quentin found out it was because Eliot once had a similar toy from his grandmother, the only decent adult in his family.
Teddy had carted that cat around until it fell apart, and then he’d bring it to Quentin to mend. It had still been around the day Teddy left, and he gave it to his eldest daughter when she was born. Eliot had pretended not to cry about that, Quentin hadn’t bothered pretending.
“Hey, Jules? Can I tell you a story?” he asks. “Maybe I should’ve told you sooner, but I was afraid you’d think it meant you had to bench me.”
Julia looks at him steadily. “Sure. I probably should have tried to bench you. For your own good.”
“It wouldn’t have been good. If he’d died -” Quentin cuts himself off, shakes his head. He tells Julia a more condensed version of the story, but he does tell her. The Mosaic, the throne room, Brian and Nigel. Before he’s even done, Julia orders him to lay down with her and she wraps an arm around him, his head on her shoulder. And when they both go quiet after he’s done, it’s like old times, like they haven’t been since -
Since the night before his Yale interview, really. They’ve had good moments since, plenty of them, but there’d always been something, some barrier between them. They can never go back, but this is nice, it’s comforting in a way they haven’t been in a long time. He remembers her that night, curling up with him and asking about his latest brief visit to inpatient treatment. He’d evaded, not wanting to explain either why he’d gone in or left. Hadn’t quite been sure how to.
He remembers James, laughing and teasing, jumping on them like the goofball he was. God, Quentin had been so gone on them both for years, by then, the ache of it had been almost a companion. And then, before twenty-four hours were up, he was stumbling onto the Brakebills lawn, and somehow, even faced with a whole sunlit campus when he’d been on a New York City street moments before, Eliot had been the most impossible thing.
Still is, sometimes.
Quentin doesn’t miss the boy he’d been then. But he does miss - how easy it had been when it was him and Julia and often James, even with the constant sting of his crushes. He thinks about suggesting they find him, undo his memory patch so he remembers Julia again - and maybe Quentin, because it seems unlikely that he wasn’t included in that wipe if only by proximity. He doesn’t, though, because there’s enough mess to clean up.
He’ll bring it up another day.
Quentin gets up quickly when they hear Lipson’s voice down the hall. A good decision, because she comes into the room moments later. “You’re really getting around here, aren’t you?” she tells Quentin, who shrugs because, really, what the hell can he say to that?
After a quick checkup mostly involving diagnostic spells and Lipson making these odd little faces that have Julia and Quentin exchanging alarmed looks, Julia is cleared to go. “You’re in perfect health. Perfect health for what I’m not exactly sure, but there’s no reason to keep you here,” Lipson says, and leaves.
“Think I could get her for being speciesist?” Julia asks once she’s gone.
“Maybe, but probably not worth the effort?” Quentin shrugs. He leaves while she gets dressed, then walks her out. 23 is waiting by the nurse’s station, holding up his hands in an ‘I come in peace’ gesture.
“Just here to give you a ride, no games,” he says, and Julia nods, taking the hand he offers her. To Quentin’s mild surprise, 23 looks at him and says, “You coming?”
Quentin shakes his head. “No, I’m going back to sit with El and Margo.”
“You need to come back and sleep in a bed eventually,” Julia points out. Quentin doesn’t mention that he’s been sleeping on the couch since they did the second mind palace trip, because he couldn’t get the memory of the Monster stretched out in the bed out of his mind. Sure, the couch has memories like that too, but he’s had more peaceful rest sleeping out there than in his room at Kady’s.
“I’ll get to it,” is all he says, waving them off. It occurs to him that maybe there are other things he should be talking to people about, but he doesn’t want to complain.
The first thing Eliot’s aware of, when he actually wakes up properly coherent as opposed to doped up on painkillers, is a warm weight near his hip. Opening his eyes and looking down, from this angle all he can manage to see is a mop of brown hair, instantly familiar if shorter than he’s used to. Quentin’s neck is going to kill him later if he stays like that, so Eliot runs a hand through his hair, trying to wake him up.
Usually that works, but all he gets this time is a sleepy sound, then nothing.
“Yeah, I tried waking him up a half hour ago, he’s down for the count for now,” Margo says from his other side. Eliot turns his head to look at her, and he really doesn’t care for lying down like this.
“Help me get the bed raised?” he asks, and soon enough he’s more or less sitting, and a little concerned by how the movement didn’t make Quentin so much as stir. But Margo didn’t sound worried so he’s going to try not to worry. And then Margo’s hugging him, not as tightly as she normally would, but he turns his face into her hair and the familiar scent of her shampoo is one of those things that means home. That means safe.
Memory Margo had been scentless, just like Memory Q had been a little too calm. Eliot wraps his arm around Margo’s shoulders, his free hand slipped into Quentin’s hair again, and just breathes, trying to let it sink in that this is real. He’s real and they’re real, and the nightmare’s over.
(Memory Brian had been very confused, because when he’d shown up there had been an Eliot and a Nigel with very definite, very loud opinions on Eliot’s choices. He’d sent them off to his room and they were gone when he checked. It had all just been weird as fuck.)
“How long was I out?” he asks Margo when she lets go of him, and she shrugs.
“By now, almost two days since we got you back. You woke up for a little bit yesterday - do you remember?”
Eliot has to think about it, but yes, he does. It’s a foggy memory, but it’s there. At least it’s a little clearer than his other dim recollection of Margo screaming, Quentin’s softer pleas, a blurry forest canopy above him and… major pain in his side, which he can still feel, just a lot less nasty. “Yeah, I remember. Also, I feel like shit.”
“Yeah, well, the demon child had a thing for junk food and a brief yen for drug experimentation, so there’s a reason for that.”
Oh. Wonderful. Withdrawal and terrible eating habits would explain a lot. “Any idea what’s wrong with my leg?” Because his leg aches too, a steady quiet throb, which doesn’t seem like it should be connected to the… axe wound, he remembers Margo talking about depossession axes when he’d woken before.
“Lipson thinks it’s some kind of weird battle magic a Librarian cast when the Monster Twins went on a killing spree there,” Margo says. “She says it’ll wear off on its own, but she’s not sure when. You’re gonna need a cane for a while, probably, but you could be dead, so you better not complain too much.”
“You know I’m going to anyway, Bambi. But I suppose I can make it part of my style,” he says, thinking of a black cane with a silver rams’ head handle that he found at the spring market fair.
“Of course you found the fanciest one there, but at least you finally copped to needing one. Now will you stop leaving it in the middle of the floor, El!”
Even at seventy, Quentin could still be a snippy little thing. And it had been so unfair how he never needed a cane. But Eliot remembers - Jake from his least favorite band had said he should put a walking stick into his performance, learn dance moves with it, and he’d -
No. No, that was Nigel, he’s not Nigel, fuck this is going to be weird, isn’t it? He remembers Quentin popping up in the Happy Place, how he’d thought he was conjuring up another Brian because he was in one of Nigel’s oversized sweaters. There’s a chain around Quentin’s neck, too, and he doesn’t really wear necklaces so that’s odd - they’re going to have some messy conversations, Eliot can feel them looming.
“So, what have I missed?” he asks, trying desperately to make this normal.
“Well…” Margo tells him about Fillory, calm until she gets to how she’d let Fen depose her so she could get the axes that saved Eliot. Then her lips tremble and her eyes go just a little too wide. She doesn’t cry, but her hand in Eliot’s goes painfully tight and he silently uses it to reel her in and hug her again.
“It’s all right,” Margo says, her voice muffled. “Or it would be except…” She tells him about Josh, then, about being a werewolf. “I think some of my having a soft spot for Hoberman’s legit, but El. I think about some of it and I just don’t get it. I jumped his bones like it was victory sex when we still didn’t have you back, and that was after I let 23 take the lead in trying to get you back because I was watching Josh the Fish.”
She sits back. “I mean, what the fuck. It’s not like I wanted him to die, but I’d just figured out I could pop out my fairy eye and let it stare at him, why the fuck didn’t I do that? It’s like it didn’t occur to me, and I don’t know. I’ve gotta figure it out. And speaking of figuring out our love lives, God fucking help us, Q told me about you two.”
“Which part?” Eliot asks, carefully.
“Both parts. Fillory and your memory wiped selves. You’re an idiot.”
Eliot has to laugh, even though he regrets it when that pulls on his stitches. “I am aware of that, Bambi. Working on it.”
Margo looks like she wants to say something, but she’s interrupted by Lipson walking into the room. “I’m going to run some diagnostic spells,” she says briskly. “Because we had to patch you up in the mundane fashion, I can’t use the healing spells I’d like to immediately, or you’ll heal over your stitches. You do not want that.”
No, Eliot doesn’t. But also - “Why do I have stitches, anyway?”
“We needed all the ambient - magic was rationed, I’ll fill you in on the rest once she’s done,” Margo explains. And so Eliot has to be content with that, as Lipson casts spells over him and mutters about Quentin being in the way but doesn’t actually try to move him.
“Hey, any food restrictions, doc?” Margo asks as Lipson finishes up, declaring that Eliot’s in as good health as can be expected, and mentioning potions she’ll give him to combat the fact that the Monster apparently ran his body on sheer power and junk food rather than actual food and sleep.
“We’ve already done some spellwork once the ambient came on to counter the worst, so no,” Lipson says, then looks at Eliot. “Just take it slow, and I’d advise nothing too spicy or heavy just yet. But there are no actual restrictions.”
Once Lipson leaves, Eliot raises his eyebrows. “You realize whatever hospital food they have around here will be safe, right?”
“As if I’d let you be stuck with that,” Margo says. “And this way I can grab something for me too and for your boy, who needs a few decent meals as much as you do.” There’s something she isn’t saying, but before Eliot can push her on it, she’s off explaining what happened after she came back to Earth with the axes, from the weird matchmaking ghost to Quentin and Alice’s trip to Brakebills South, the attack on the Library and the cooperative magic used to trap the Monster after Margo axed him.
“That’s why there wasn’t any magic that the healers could use on you, it was all tied up in keeping that thing trapped.”
“Fair bargain, all in all,” Eliot decides after a moment, and he knows Margo so he knows she’s not telling him everything. “Margo -”
“We’ll talk about it when you haven’t just woken up coherently for the first time, OK?” Margo says, because she knows him, too. “There’s - definitely some stuff you should know, but I’m not sure I know all of it yet myself, so give me a chance to get caught up and then I’ll catch you up, got it?”
Eliot doesn’t like it. But he’s - he doesn’t think he’s up for the argument yet. Besides, he’d rather have the whole picture, so letting Margo get that first isn’t going to be a problem, right?
An hour or two later, Margo goes for food and Eliot is left to the quiet. Normally, this wouldn’t be so bad, but he remembers - the Happy Place had splintered , everything sliding to pieces like the Limbo scenes in Inception, but it had all been utterly silent. And then he’d been waking up, but before that he thought he was going to die and so it feels like the silence is pressing in -
A soft noise beside him and Eliot looks down to see Quentin stirring, sleepy grumbles a familiar sign that he’s coming around. And sure enough, a moment later Quentin sits up, blinking drowsily as his brain tries to catch up with where he is. Eliot is - his breath catches in his throat and some of it is because Quentin’s so much more real than any memory version, than even the… astral self who’d visited Eliot in the Happy Place. But it’s also fear because -
Quentin looks… shadowed , is the first word that comes to mind. Like that plant in Brian’s old apartment that kept wilting because he could never find enough sunlight for it despite every place he’d moved it to.
It had finally bloomed on the kitchen window of the apartment Brian and Nigel found together.
Eliot shoves the memories aside. It had been so much easier, he reflects, to ignore the bits of Nigel that had somehow crept into his mental version of the Cottage. He’d almost welcomed those, actually - the kitchen counters like the ones from Nigel’s flat, the guitar in the corner next to Eliot’s bar, one of Brian’s sketchbooks in the reading nook. They reminded him where he was - and where he wasn't. Now the memories are a distraction.
Quentin looks like he’s barely slept, dark smudges under his eyes despite the fact that he’d been out cold moments ago, he’s too pale and his cheekbones are too sharp. But in spite of all that, Quentin’s eyes are bright and focused on Eliot, with that warm smile he’s seen so many times. “El, you’re up.”
“So are you,” Eliot says, and they both reach for each other’s hand at the same time, which causes a minor collision of fingers before they figure it out. Their hands fit together like they always have, though, from that first day. Eliot remembers noticing it, at the time, and trying to think nothing of it. Trying to ignore the tiny voice whispering mine in the back of his head. He remembers how worried he’d been on hearing about the attack on the first years, and realizing that he’d failed to not care about the cute nerd boy.
He looks at their joined hands, then up to meet Quentin’s worried eyes. “I’m all right,” Eliot says, “Just thinking. I… I did tell you I meant it yesterday, right? What I said when we met in my head?”
“You did,” Quentin says, that smile of his getting a little bit brighter. “And I did too, I meant every word. You’re gonna let me this time, right?”
And that always has been the question, hasn’t it? Not really if he would choose Quentin, or if Quentin would choose him, but if Eliot would let that happen. And the truth is, promises in the heat of reunion are easy. Eliot thinks of being Nigel, how easy it had been to ask Brian to move in with him. About the ring he’d hidden in the one sweater he’d told Brian never to steal, that he’d planned on proposing either in Boston or in London, whichever felt more right.
How easy it had been for him. Because Nigel had seen his mother - a woman that didn’t exist and yet is so much more vividly what a parent should be than either of Eliot’s were - accept scraps of affection because that was all the man she loved would offer. How much he’d hated being a shadow child, how determined he’d been to make it real when he fell in love, real and declared and as certain as possible.
Funnily enough, Nigel’s determination had made him a little like Q, and Brian’s tendency to throw logic at things as long as he could had made him a little like Eliot. At least in how they approached relationships.
“Know that when I’m braver it’s because I learned it from you.”
Eliot lifts their joined hands, presses a soft kiss to Quentin’s knuckles. He’d kiss him properly, but Quentin happened to sit on the side where he’s hurt and Eliot can’t actually lean over that way yet. Besides, while kissing Quentin is one of his favorite things, watching him go all flushed and bright-eyed over cliched romantic gestures is another of Eliot’s favorite things. “Yes, I’m going to let you.”
It turns out that he doesn’t have to move after all to get a proper kiss, though they do have to behave a lot more than Eliot would prefer.
In hindsight, it occurs to Eliot that he probably should have started asking questions when Quentin never seemed to leave the infirmary except when nudged into changing his clothes and getting cleaned up. But, well, Margo pretty much never left either. And, truthfully, Eliot had preferred convincing Q to curl into his uninjured side and share the bed with him to the thought of seeing him leave, and so he hadn’t wanted to push.
Lipson had wanted to push, but apparently some reading or other indicated that Eliot did better with Quentin tucked in next to him - he could have told her that - so she didn’t do more than shake her head over it.
Four days after Eliot woke up, he's cleared to leave. His stitches are out and the wound mostly healed thanks to Lipson finally deciding that it was safe to cast the spells she wanted. His leg is still a problem, but Eliot can handle that. It's not permanent, as far as they can tell, and so he just transfigures the ugly cane they give him into a perfect replica of his old one. "I only need it for distances, they said. Maybe I should get a sword cane, make it cool," he tells Quentin as they head off for Kady's.
"I feel like that would end with you getting in trouble that I'd have to bail you out of jail over, somehow."
"But you love me, so you'd do it."
It would feel like old times, but Eliot doesn’t miss how Quentin goes tense the moment they cross the threshold into Kady’s apartment. It’s a nice place, Eliot decides, but unsettling. There’s a hazy familiarity like deja vu, like his body feels that he’s been here before even though he wasn’t in control at the time. He doesn’t like the feeling, but given the choice between some nebulous discomfort and the very idea of going back to the Cottage being almost enough to make him physically sick, well. The options are limited, aren’t they?
And yet, even tucked in against him on the couch, Eliot can feel Quentin not relaxing, holding himself like he’s waiting for an attack. He doesn’t think Quentin notices it, his face and eyes are open, no obvious fear there. But Eliot can feel it. “Hey, you all right?” he murmurs in Quentin’s ear under the cover of Kady talking about the demonic landlord’s latest rent demand.
Which, what the fuck.
"Yeah, of course," Quentin says. And if that was a lie, Eliot could call him out on it. Thing is, it’s not. Quentin means it, but the quiet tension of his body tells Eliot he’s wrong, anyway. He’s not sure how to bring that up, though, and won’t in front of everyone in any case. He tries to subtly pet Quentin’s hair, which usually calms him down - and Quentin jumps before settling again, leaning into the touch and relaxing like he used to do. But not as much as he used to do.
Eliot should have expected this. But there hadn’t been a problem in the infirmary so he’d thought, he’d hoped… Well. Now, he hopes Margo was able to get that information she’d said she was going to get. Between his own vague deja vu feelings and Quentin’s constant unconscious tension, he’s going to have to know what happened.
In the end, though, he doesn’t have to wait for a chance to ask Margo - a chance that doesn’t come that first day anyway, because there are just always people around. Eliot doesn’t entirely mind, because it gives him a chance to start catching up with how things have changed. And as it happens, they’ve changed a lot.
Margo is keeping to herself more than usual, poring over books Alice got ahold of about the werewolf infection, and all Eliot can do for her is tug her to sit down on his other side and wrap an arm around her shoulders. Kady and Alice are apparently buddies now, 23 and Julia are past their weird mating dance into a whole other kind of awkward (and Julia’s eyes are silver now, which, OK). Quentin and Alice seem to be circling each other like they’re not sure how this friendship thing works, Quentin and Julia seem fine, but there’s something off and Eliot doesn’t like that. But he can’t figure out why it’s like that. And then there’s Quentin and Kady.
“Since when are you and Kady such buddies?” he asks Quentin that night as they’re getting ready for bed.
Quentin shrugs. “It just sort of happened? We - I know we haven’t talked about, well, them yet,” he says, and even though they haven’t discussed it, Eliot knows that ‘them’ means Brian and Nigel. “But Kady’s fake self was a cop, and she was actually investigating our, their, whichever, She caught the missing persons case, it came up one night and just kind of went from there? She - 23 isn’t evil or anything, just kind of a dick. But he’s not Penny, or not the Penny she was with, and we sort of… Like shades of the same problem, kind of?”
Eliot is left at a loss for words. He should push for more, even if they are about to go to sleep. He should make Quentin talk, because it’s painfully clear there’s trouble brewing. Worse, there’s a part of him that’s still Nigel, that’s yelling for him to do just that, because that’s what he’d do for his Brian, who is Eliot’s Quentin, and it’s all just.
He pulls Quentin into a long, tight hug instead, kissing the crown of his head, because that comes easy to Eliot. Expressing affection through touch is what he does, that’s easy. The words - those are hard, and he’s working on it but it takes time. Which is why, though he notices that Quentin waits for him to get into bed before he lies down, Eliot doesn’t ask. He will, he tells himself, but only after he finds out more. Instead, he just presses up against Quentin’s back, holding him close. Which seems to help, because Quentin falls asleep before he does.
And the next thing Eliot knows, he’s sitting up in the dark, disoriented and confused, Quentin struggling to get out of his arms. Eliot lets go, startled, and Quentin scrambles away so fast he falls off the bed. Hearing the thump, Eliot automatically reaches for his power, telekinetically flipping the light switch.
Quentin has his knees drawn up to his chest, face hidden against them, back pressed to the wall. Eliot’s seen this before, Quentin’s panic attack nightmares, so he approaches carefully, kneeling next to Quentin. His leg protests, but Eliot ignores it. “Q, hey, it’s all right, just breathe, OK? You’re all right, you’re safe.”
Quentin is mumbling something Eliot can’t hear at first, but then he realizes - “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Quentin is saying, over and over.
“Hey, no - don’t apologize, you have nothing to be sorry for,” Eliot says, and normally it helps Quentin when Eliot touches him, it helps bring him back. But Eliot doesn’t know what triggered this, and so his hands hover uselessly over Quentin’s shaking shoulders, because he’s afraid to make this worse when his mind is telling him -
- he likes the surprised sounds Quentin makes, the way he trembles or tries to hold himself so so still -
- Oh God. Oh fuck. “Q, can I touch you? Is that OK?” Eliot asks, voice pitched soft and gentle. Quentin nods, and tips forward into Eliot’s chest when Eliot puts his hands on his shoulders. So, OK then. Eliot manages to shift them so Quentin is half sprawled in his lap, crying into his sleep shirt. Eliot feels so fucking useless, but he runs his hand up and down Quentin’s back, over his hair, trying to soothe him. Finally, Quentin goes quiet but still slumped into Eliot’s hold, and Eliot is more aware than ever of how thin he’s gotten. It worries him, because he may not be any better off, but at least there’s a good reason for his own poor health.
But first things first. “Hey… can you tell me what happened?”
“I’m sorry, El. I know - I know you’re -” Quentin murmurs, voice hoarse from crying. “But I think. It, um, the Monster used to show up in my bed, cuddle me from behind. I haven’t slept in here since, since the day I went into your head, it insisted we do it in here and seeing it out cold on my bed it was - it could have almost been you, or you-as-Nigel, and I couldn’t. I’m sorry, I -”
Eliot remembers, suddenly, a confession Quentin made in the dark last night at the infirmary. How part of him had wanted to go to the Seam and be the one to pitch the Monster into that black hole, to see it go. Eliot wishes right now that he could have done that himself, or that the damned bullet had actually worked, because this is -
“This is not your fault, Q. You don’t have anything to be sorry for, OK?”
“But I -”
“ Nothing ,” Eliot says, voice still low but very firm. “But, baby, maybe we need to talk about this.”
There’s a sniffly sound that’s not a laugh, but sort of related to one. “You hate talking about things,” Quentin points out.
“I absolutely hate talking about things,” Eliot agrees, “but I hate you waking up with night terrors and having no way to help a lot more, all right? And maybe we should… not be in here, huh?”
They end up taking the bedcovers from both their room and the empty one next to it - apparently that one was initially supposed to be Eliot’s, and he thinks maybe they should switch - and making a nest on the floor of the empty room. The couch is out, because Quentin’s eyes go shifty and Eliot has another flash of hovering over Quentin, half-straddling him where he’s asleep on the couch.
So, a bedding nest on the floor of a bedroom that isn’t actually theirs. They’ve settled in weirder places for the night.
They end up laying almost like they had in the hospital, Eliot on his back with Quentin tucked into his side. “If having a panic attack isn’t my fault,” Quentin begins, “then, El, you have to know that none of what it did is your fault, OK?”
“I mean, you could make a case that shooting -” Eliot begins, but Quentin sits up, suddenly fierce even with how tired and sad he looks.
“ No , Eliot. You tried to save me. You didn’t know what would happen, and what it did isn’t on you. I can’t talk about this if you’re going to blame yourself, so just - please believe me. It wasn’t you, and I know you’re you again, it’s just my muscle memory or something that’s not catching up yet.”
“OK, Q,” Eliot says. Part of him, he suspects, will always blame himself for this - if nothing else because he believes he could have stopped it before it began, if he’d just made a different choice weeks before Blackspire. But he can at least try to believe Quentin’s insistence.
“OK,” Quentin says, taking a deep breath. And then Quentin tells him, about the Monster’s violence and its twisted affections, snapping his arm with a thought one minute and cuddling him the next. How it threatened to kill Eliot more than once to make Quentin work faster - but before that, it had told Quentin Eliot was dead, and when Quentin says that he has to stop for a few minutes, shaking like a leaf holding onto Eliot almost too tightly.
How it showed up in the night, or twined itself around him, how it would stroke his hair like it thought Quentin was a pet.
“I think a pet is what it thought I was, kind of,” Quentin says. “It didn’t really - it didn’t think like humans do, so… I don’t know. It just - liked me.”
Eliot has another flash then, like the deja vu this whole damn apartment gives him, but more focused.
He wants something, wants it more than anything but he doesn’t know what it is, except that it eases when he has Quentin under his hands and -
Eliot pushes it away, holds Quentin a little tighter, and wishes a little more that he could have destroyed the Monster personally. Then Eliot forces himself to loosen his grip. “Q, if being around me is -” It’ll kill him to let Q go but -
“No,” Quentin says, fierce and sharp again. “God, no , El. I missed you, I missed you so much I thought I’d go crazy with missing you. We, we might have to do some things a little differently, till the less conscious parts of me can catch up, but I know it’s you, Eliot. And I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
And who is Eliot to argue the point, when Quentin is so insistent and he doesn’t really want to let him go anyway? He’ll just have to be careful. And, Eliot decides as Quentin relaxes against him again, breathing slowing down as he drifts off, he needs to make sure he has the whole story so he can do that.
The next morning, Eliot leaves Quentin asleep in their little nest - the shadows under his eyes are still not gone , he needs the rest - and heads out to the common area.
It’s no surprise that Margo’s not up yet, but maybe it doesn’t matter because Kady is, drinking coffee while studying what looks like a map. She looks up at the thunk of his cane but only waves a greeting, and he sort of vaguely remembers from her brief time as a Cottage resident that she’s barely verbal before coffee. A bit like Margo, actually.
Fine by Eliot. That gives him some time to gather his own thoughts. The coffeepot is mostly full, so he makes his usual cup and frowns at it - too bitter. It’s almost like he doesn’t like the taste of coffee anymore, which is strange and also not true, so what the fuck?
“I don’t know how you drink that shit, cariad.”
“It works better than tea, dear. ”
Oh hell. Eliot scowls down at his coffee and adds more milk, and even a bit of the Irish cream flavored creamer someone stashed in the refrigerator. Not the vanilla, though, he has his pride on that score. The result is a softer sort of flavor than he’s ever liked before, but it works. Good damn thing too, because he needs caffeine.
“So I hear you and Quentin are friends these days,” he finally says when Kady is sitting more upright on her stool and doesn’t look so much like she’s about to bite someone’s head off for saying hello.
“This isn’t some weird mark your territory shit, is it? Because that nerd can use all the friends he can get,” Kady replies.
Eliot shakes his head. “No, why would you think that? Actually, if anything, I should probably thank you. I get the sense you’re the only one who spent much time being his friend while I was - gone.” Quentin hadn’t said as much, not in so many words, when he’d talked about what the Monster put him through last night. But he had said, more than once, that Kady being able to understand at least some of what he was going through had been more than helpful. And his story had been oddly devoid of anyone else making much effort.
Even Margo, until after it was all over. From Margo’s own comments, though, there might be a reason for that so Eliot’s trying not to be upset about it where she’s concerned.
“Yeah, Margo wants to talk to me, she said. I’ve been busy with the hedges, though.” Kady sets her mug down and turns to where Eliot is sitting, giving him her full attention. “How much did he tell you?”
“How much do you know?” Eliot asks.
“More than I’d like, not as much as someone probably should have. I caught that thing wrapped around him like a fucking snake, and he was just sitting there, letting it. I was about to blast it, he waved me off. Probably saved my life, but I still think I had a point. Someone needed to blast it. We all heard it make a threat to kill you if he didn’t get it some results, I don’t know if that was the only time or not.”
So far, this is in line with what Quentin told him last night. The cuddling, the threats. But something about the look on her face… “There’s something else?”
“I wasn’t here. I’m not sure what, exactly, happened. Just that Quentin wore turtlenecks under those huge sweaters for a few days and he moved like he was in pain. Julia saw it, I think, but she said she didn’t want to talk about it when I asked if I’d missed anything important.”
Eliot blinks. Quentin, he happens to know, hates turtlenecks. As for the sweater thing… He’d noticed Quentin seems to have Brian’s clothes, which makes sense because their own things were only just recently liberated from Brakebills. As in, brought back here while he was still in the hospital, per Margo. But he remembers Brian curled up in one of Nigel’s sweaters because he missed him, how it had become habit after that.
Quentin had shown up in his Happy Place looking so much like Brian Eliot had thought he was, at first. There’s - things there that he’ll have to ask about, at some point. But right now, he’s more concerned about the fact that Quentin absolutely hates turtlenecks. So why the fuck was he wearing them?
Quentin told him about the broken arm, and various other ways the Monster slapped him around when he was still Brian. So what didn’t he mention, and why?
“El, you have to know that none of what it did is your fault, OK?”
Of course. It would be just like Quentin to keep quiet about the things he knows are most likely to make Eliot blame himself. It’s also possible he can’t bring himself to talk about the worst of it, yet. That wouldn’t surprise Eliot either, but he just knows some of Quentin’s silence was entirely about protecting him . Goddamn it.
But Eliot doesn’t say anything when Quentin wanders out to the kitchen a few minutes later. Eliot has to smile at how Q still looks half asleep, and how his shorter haircut means his hair sticks up more than it did when it was longer. Quentin, seeing Eliot’s expression, makes a face at him and then goes for his own coffee, which -
Huh. Apparently both the vanilla and the Irish cream are Quentin’s, or at least he uses them. But then, Eliot remembers watching him dump three different creamers into coffee that was itself flavored - no, Nigel remembers watching Brian do that, with bewildered fond amusement - so maybe his taste buds aren’t the only ones that changed. Because last Eliot knew, Quentin just went for sugar and milk like he did, less sugar and more milk than Eliot’s own preference.
Quentin looks up to see Eliot watching, and shrugs a shoulder, free hand pushing just slightly too-long hair out of his eyes. What can you do, his expression says, like it did when they’d finally gotten the chicory-like plant to brew something that was almost coffee, in another life that never happened.
We have too many lives, Eliot thinks, going for a second cup, snagging the bottle of Irish cream before Quentin can put it away. He thinks Kady might be watching them, doesn’t know what to make of that. We’ve got to sort them somehow, but we can barely sort ourselves right now.
His hand bumps against a plastic container of cheese curls on the counter and he has a flash of sitting on the counter eating them, watching a TV psychic infomercial.
Eliot decides that he really doesn’t like this apartment, but where else is there?
They fall into a pattern over the next few days. Eliot starts to realize that Quentin isn’t the only one he makes jumpy, so he moves more deliberately, gritting his teeth and letting the cane thump against the floor where his instinct would be to make it as quiet as possible. “Try not to come up behind me, or at least make noise?” Quentin asks on their second morning out of the infirmary, and that clinches it, doesn’t it?
It helps that he has his own clothes back. Nigel’s clothes would be comfortable, he knows, but Eliot’s clothes are him. That said, while Margo helps him fix his hair with a combination of spells and scissors on the third morning, he does decide to keep Nigel’s reading glasses. Not that he plans to use them much, but he now has proof they mean less headaches, so. Reclaiming himself from what the Monster made of him, on the third morning with his hair clipped almost as short as it had been during his second year before Fillory, that helps Eliot feel steadier.
The smile on Quentin’s face when he sees him does too, as it happens. “Are we time-traveled?” he teases lightly when Eliot sits next to him, brushing a hand over Eliot’s hair.
“No, and if you mess that up Bambi will kill you.”
“What about later?” Quentin asks.
“Maybe,” Eliot says, though they both know it’s unlikely for the next little while. They haven’t had sex yet - he still feels worn down and so does Quentin, it’s a bit annoyingly like their later years at the Mosaic with how they just can’t seem to find the energy. Eliot tells himself that’s the only reason, and not how Quentin sometimes jumps or tenses slightly at his touch before relaxing, or how he himself is haunted by sense-memories of Quentin that are not his.
How does he erase that thing’s touch when it used his hands to do it?
At least they’ve managed to migrate from the bedding nest to the actual bed in the room they swapped to. Eliot’s leg definitely appreciates that. They sleep either like they did in the infirmary or Eliot ends up the little spoon, which doesn’t prevent either of them from waking in the dark with nightmares but it does prevent panic attacks. It does mean that they can hold onto each other instead of Quentin needing to push away, and times like that they fall back to sleep on their sides, facing each other. It’s working, more or less.
Eliot’s nightmares are formless things he can’t ever remember on waking, and he’s almost afraid of what he’d learn if he could remember them.
He’s not sure, later, what exactly triggers it. Maybe it’s because he’s standing in front of Quentin. Maybe it’s the fleeting anger on Quentin’s face - not directed at Eliot but at the text message on his phone from someone named Molly. Eliot thinks that’s Q’s stepmother, but he never could remember her name. Maybe it’s Julia walking in the door and into his peripheral vision, but -
The next thing Eliot knows, he’s on his knees on the floor, Quentin kneeling next to him and holding him steady, Julia standing close by like she’s not sure how to help but wants to. And Eliot -
He stares at her, he wants to shrug off Quentin’s hands because, shit, how can Q still want - “You watched that thing choke him, and then drag him off to sink a body, and all you did was look?!”
The little not-god had said something when he wrapped the body’s fingers around Quentin’s throat, but she’d been too afraid to stop him. Stronger than Quentin but afraid where he wasn’t, so angry and saying he didn’t care if he died.
She didn’t say anything after they got rid of that nasty body, though, she just looked at them like they didn’t matter, she was more worried about Percy.
“Eliot,” Quentin says, voice low. “Don’t - there wasn’t anything she could’ve done.”
But all Eliot can think is that if he’d been here, if someone else Quentin loved had been taken and he’d been here, then - stopping the Monster, in any body, that would have been impossible. But Eliot knows that he would have been there, trying to make it as easy to bear as possible. And he knows that, much as it makes him sick to think like this, had Margo been the possessed one, Quentin would do that for him, and if it had been Quentin, so would Margo.
Quentin talked about Kady, the two of them fumbling their way to an understanding that helped. He never mentioned Julia - well, that’s not true, he mentioned Julia helping him do what the Monster wanted, but that’s not the same as helping Quentin . He doesn’t seem to understand what that says, in Eliot’s mind, but Julia does. He can see it in those strange silver eyes she’s got now.
“Q and I settled this,” Julia says though, because she has her pride just like Eliot does, and he can see clear as day how the lift of her chin says, I don’t have to explain to you. Eliot pushes to his feet fast enough that his leg throbs in protest, that Quentin almost overbalances before scrambling upright himself.
“I need to get out of this fucking apartment. On my own.” He summons his cane with a flick of his wrist and he walks out, letting the door slam behind him.
“That went well,” Julia says as the slam of the door echoes around the room. Or maybe that’s just in Quentin’s head.
“Not helpful, Julia,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose. In some ways, though, it’s not surprising. Both of them had taken to going off for cool-down walks in the woods around their little cottage after Teddy was born - it was the best way to avoid fighting in front of their son. It was a habit neither of them had quite broken in that life, though they’d had their fair share of fights anyway. Quentin just hopes Eliot takes it easy or he's going to aggravate his leg. He'd have said so before he left, except that would have only just made sure Eliot would push too hard. Out of sheer contrary stubbornness, not that Quentin has any moral high ground about that.
“I don’t owe him an explanation,” Julia says. “You and I are good, aren’t we?”
Yes , Quentin wants to say, but somehow the word sticks in his throat. “I don’t remember much about that night - when Penny went into the Monster’s head the first time and was able to talk to Eliot. I remember the Monster blipping out with me, I remember coming back… and you and Penny just looked at us. Did - the next thing I remember is scrubbing my hands raw in the bathroom. I don’t remember how I got off that bench, anything. Did, what were you doing?”
“I was afraid Penny was going to die like the others, I thought if I was watching I could step in before it got - you seemed -”
“Fine?” Quentin asks, feeling strange. “I think I need to go for a walk too.”
“Not - not right now, Jules,” Quentin says, turning and walking out the door. He doesn’t slam it, though. Neither does he go looking for Eliot - he’s tempted, but it’s probably a bad idea. They’ll have to have it out, one way or another, but he doesn’t really want to force the issue just yet.
Instead, he finds himself in an art supply store, wandering the shelves. He remembers Brian and his inked drawings, his watercolor paintings. His own boxes of colored pencils before that fucking therapist made a chore of it.
He needs to find a new therapist, he knows. A magician or hedge, ideally, or else he’ll have to lie and that’s just not helpful. But he hasn’t quite found the energy to do that - Margo set a bottle of his pills by his plate at lunch two days ago, he hasn’t asked how or where she got them, doesn’t want to know until he needs a refill, but he knows they won’t be enough long-term.
But not today. Today, his fingers drift over acrylics and oils, his gaze lingers on charcoal sticks and he thinks of chalk dust and paint flecks on his hands. Wonders if charcoal would be a new medium with enough of his older ones to be comforting. He’d missed art, and Brian gave that back to him. The Mosaic itself being a job, a chore, had meant it never quite managed the same. Still, maybe he should consider art stuff beyond drawing?
The idea makes his fingers itch the way they only used to when he thought about holding first editions of Fillory books. How about that?
Quentin leaves the store empty-handed today because he knows he went in there just as a distraction. He’s not stupid. He can feel Eliot being careful of him, and he hates it - but he understands it. He can’t help wondering, though, if that’s contributed to what happened today. And, he thinks with a guilty squirming in his gut, it probably didn’t help that Eliot is apparently getting flashbacks of the things Quentin deliberately didn’t mention because, well. He knows Eliot. He knows he’s blaming himself, and he didn’t want…
Well. What’s done is done. They’ll have to work it out, is all.
Without meaning to at all, Quentin finds himself back in the park where they’d planned to banish the Monster. Where Eliot had broken free long enough to tell Quentin he was still there. The sky’s darkened since Quentin left the apartment, the sight telling him he should probably head back. Except -
Eliot is sitting on a picnic table, feet resting on the bench, cane resting next to him. Quentin wonders if he knows he’s looking right at the same place where they’d been that day. “You know, that’s where you broke out, right across from you,” he calls as he approaches.
“I didn’t mean for you to come hunting me down, Quentin,” Eliot says, not turning around.
“I didn’t say you did,” Quentin says, pushing himself up to sit on the table as well, facing the opposite direction from Eliot. “I needed some air myself, ended up this way and here you are.”
“Here I am,” Eliot says, voice even. “I’m not sorry for what I said to her. Did she do anything to help you, while I was possessed?”
Quentin tips his head back, thinking of how blue the sky had been the day he was last here, when Eliot broke out. Today the sky is dark with clouds, it’s going to rain soon for sure. “She didn’t reach out, no, but… She helped me do things, she was here. That means something.”
“Well, it’s better than fucking off to Fillory -” Quentin cuts himself off. “No, that’s not fair. Margo and I settled that too, and probably better than Julia and I have, I need to think about that. But Eliot, that’s not really what has you so upset, is it?”
There’s a long, long silence before Eliot speaks, but Quentin doesn’t push him. “You didn’t tell me about the choking incident, or the body disposal, Quentin. I thought you were going to tell me everything.” There’s no accusation in Eliot’s level voice, but that’s actually worse. Quentin sighs, looking down at his hands.
“I know I didn’t. I also know you blame yourself and I -”
Quentin’s cut off by Eliot grabbing his shoulder, spinning him enough that they can face each other. “ No . I have to know, Quentin. I’m going to know anyway, clearly,” Eliot says on a bitter laugh. “It hurt you with my hands, and I -”
Quentin jerks away, scrambling back to his feet. “I know that! But it wasn’t you, El, and I don’t want to make your blaming yourself any worse! I was wrong, all right? I was wrong, and I’m sorry!”
Eliot pushes to his feet as a light drizzle starts to fall, and even with the cane he practically stalks across the distance between them until they’re close enough that Quentin has to tilt his head back to meet Eliot’s furious eyes. “You dared it to kill you, Quentin! Why the fuck would you do that?”
“It was going to kill you! If you can tell me, honestly tell me, that if I’d been possessed you wouldn’t have done that, then I’ll apologize. If not, then I did the only thing I could think of at the time and I can’t be sorry because it worked! It liked me and -”
“Oh, I know all about how it liked you, Quentin,” Eliot spits as the rain starts coming down in earnest. They shouldn’t be doing this here, but it seems they’re going to. At least the rain means no one’s around to hear them. “I have its thoughts in my head and I know what it wanted even if it didn’t know.”
“You - you know…” Well, if that awful kiss hadn’t confirmed Quentin’s worst suspicions about where things could have gone, this does. Eliot grabs him by the arms, pulling him a little closer. Eliot's cane thuds to the ground, but neither of them notice.
“Tell me it didn’t. Q, please, tell me it didn’t touch you, that you wouldn’t have just let it…”
Oh God. Quentin shakes his head. “I wouldn’t have, El, I swear.” Because Eliot looks like he doesn’t believe it, Quentin swallows and adds, “I don’t know how I would have stopped it, but I’d have tried. And, it - right before Margo axed it, it… kissed me,” he admits, remembering a hand fisting in his hair, yanking his head back. How the kiss had been more teeth than lips really, and he’d been surprised his mouth wasn’t bleeding, after.
Eliot lets Quentin go like he’s been burned, stepping back. “Q…”
“No!” Quentin says, and he’s suddenly glad for the rain, because it disguises the tears he can feel spilling from his eyes as Eliot pulls away from him. He looks at Eliot, at those gold-hazel eyes wide with horror, and wonders if he’s crying too. “El, please. Eliot. Don’t pull back from me. Please.”
“It hurt you. I felt - it wanted you, Q, the only reason it didn’t force you is because it didn’t understand it wanted that,” Eliot says, voice hoarse.
“I know that. I knew that long before it kissed me, Eliot, I knew what it might be leading to.”
“And it was my hands, my body! I can feel it now, how it would touch you and you’d shake, or go still, I remember what it did to you! You flinch when I touch you half the time, you woke up with a night terror because I was holding you! How can you even…” Eliot shakes his head, pushing wet curls out of his eyes. “How do you not see it every time you look at me? I believe you when you say you don’t, that it’s all subconscious shit, but how , Q?”
“Because I love you! Because I missed you so much I almost went mad with it, Eliot. I told you that, I told you - you don’t know - I let Kady break me into their apartment because bits and pieces of who they were was, it was all I had of what we were, all I had of you! I needed - and now you - that kiss was nothing, all right? That was, it was another broken arm, it pulled my head back by my fucking hair and it hurt, all right?”
Quentin closes the distance again, and Eliot keeps backing away from him. He should stop but he can’t, he keeps walking until Eliot’s back collides with a tree trunk and Quentin stands in front of him, hands clenched at his sides, raindrops pouring down his hair and face, and Eliot’s too. “I liked when it hurt because then nothing in me was confused! The reason I flinch now is, is it tried to be gentle, and - sometimes it almost worked. When I was half-awake, it could almost fool me. Sometimes I wanted it to, just so the nightmare would stop for a fucking second!”
“So it is making it worse for me to be near you!”
“No!” Quentin yells. “I - fuck, Eliot, if it hurts you to be near me because, because I’m a trigger for these flashbacks then, then all right. I’ll step back.” It might kill him, but he will. “But don’t pull back because you think it’s helping me, it’s not. It’s only breaking me, El. I can still feel it, all right? I still feel it touching me, and how every fucking touch with your hands meant you were gone, because it took you away! And the only - the only - you’re back, and I just want you, and I know I’m jumpy with some things but I thought that was OK and I. Please. You’re not hurting me by being close to me. It’s the only thing that can help me . It means you’re here, you’re back. Eliot. Please.”
Eliot doesn’t say anything, and Quentin closes his eyes. He doesn’t turn away, just closes his eyes, until a gentle hand curls round the back of his neck, a gesture so familiar it makes him ache. Eliot is looking at him like he did the last time they were in this park, and like last time all Quentin can do is stare back at him.
Eliot’s breath is warm on Quentin’s rain-chilled face as he leans in, resting their foreheads together. And Quentin doesn’t flinch, because this is a gesture the Monster didn’t steal, this is something that is still only for them. He just looks at Eliot, blinking rainwater from his eyes. “OK. OK, sweetheart,” Eliot says, voice soft but still clear even over the rain. “But you can’t - no more hiding this from me, all right? If we’re going to fix this, I need to know what I’m fixing, Q.”
“No more lies. I promise,” Quentin says. “But, Eliot - the flashbacks. You’re yelling about me, but what about you? You’re seeing what it saw, are you all right?” It’s a stupid question, neither of them are all right, but he doesn’t know a better way to phrase it.
“No,” Eliot says, resigned. “I’m not. I will be, because fuck letting that thing win, but right now I’m not.” It sounds like it’s a struggle to say, and it probably is. Quentin slips his arms around Eliot’s waist, pulling him in closer as if more contact will make him feel better. It usually does - Eliot shows his feelings through touch and he seems to believe other people’s more when they do the same. So Quentin hopes it helps now, even if only a little.
“I hate that fucking apartment and its constant deja vu for me, how you never relax there,” Eliot continues. “I think if we could get the hell out we’d be better off, but I think of going back to the Cottage and I still feel sick. So we’re fucked.”
This, Quentin suddenly realizes, is not exactly true. He’s starting to shiver, and he can feel Eliot shivering too. They should really get back inside, and yet Quentin can’t bear to step away and start walking. Not yet. He thinks of Brian and Nigel picking out their apartment together, those men who were them and weren’t all at once. Thinks of the housekey now tucked into the zipper pouch of his wallet, and the fact that they bought that apartment, and it’s still theirs.
“Actually… there is one other place we can go.”
Come chat with me on tumblr at eidetictelekinetic.tumblr.com or on Twitter where I'm Fae_Boleyn!
Chapter 5: But Here We Are, We're Here Tonight
Quentin and Eliot move into Brian and Nigel's apartment, hoping to make it their own. But there are still conversations that need to be had.
There is also a kitten.
And here we are at the end! As ever, thanks to my dear RAO enablers, and extra thanks to Maii for reading over my chapters. And to everyone who's read this!
I can't think of any specific warnings for this chapter, but if anyone spots something, do let me know!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“This is weird, Quentin,” Julia says, and Quentin sighs but doesn’t look up from his packing.
“Weird is kind of our life, Julia.”
Julia sits on the bed with a sigh, and Quentin finally looks up from the shirt he’d just folded, waiting. “I mean, you don’t see me staying enrolled at Brakebills as Kim, you don’t see Margo going back to her fashion magazine, or Penny DJing on the weekends. It’s weird, Q. Those people weren’t real.”
“I told you about how much it meant, Jules,” Quentin says, keeping his voice even with some effort.
“Yeah, OK, but it meant something because whatever Brian and Nigel had was just… what you and Eliot have poking through. I did some research on that memory potion they made us all drink. You have to change the proportions of the ingredients based on someone’s age. You and Eliot remember a whole extra life, so it didn’t work as completely on you. That doesn’t mean you should go pretend you’re those fake people again. I mean, Fogg got those identities from a comic book , Q.”
Quentin sighs, running a hand through his hair. “I disagree that none of that was real, and I don’t appreciate you dismissing it like that. So if you could stop, that’d be nice. Anyway, we’re not pretending to be Brian and Nigel. We’re Quentin and Eliot again, we’re staying that way. It’s just that because we were Brian and Nigel, we now own an apartment, and we’re going to live in it.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, though? I mean, Eliot still has a cane, and you’re still recovering…”
Quentin softens, a little, even as part of him wants to say, why weren’t you this worried when the Monster was draping itself on me like an evil cat? She’s worrying now, and that has to be more important, right? “We’re sure, Jules. This place - it’s not good for either of us. Too many bad memories. We’ll be just a subway or bus ride away, it’s not that far.”
“You could set up a portal,” Julia suggests.
“No,” Quentin says with a quick shake of his head, because he and Eliot discussed that. Margo will be going back to Fillory soon, so they’re probably going to get their hands on the Fillory clock so she can come right to their apartment, but a portal to Kady’s is out of the question. First, it’s a waste of magic when they’re so close, and second, they’re moving out to disconnect from this place that is too much of a trigger for both of them.
He explains this to Julia, who sighs. “What about Brakebills?”
That’s an odd question. “What about Brakebills?”
Julia shrugs, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. Quentin hasn’t seen her do that since they were in middle school, him already taking to hiding behind his hair and Julia never showing her teeth when she smiled because of her braces. “Fogg contacted me. He offered me re-enrollment, since I didn’t actually fail the exam the first time and Kim didn’t either. Under my actual name now, he says.”
Oh. That’s… huh. “But you’re a demigoddess.”
“Yeah, but that means I’m still partly human. I’m figuring the best first step for getting the hang of my magic is to learn the human side of it, and go from there. Besides, from what I can find out, the degree from Brakebills gets you easier access to other magical institutions, and I’m going to need that to figure out what I can do now.” The look she turns on him is hopeful. “If you came back, we could really learn together.”
“I don’t know yet, Julia. I - I can’t decide about that yet. Besides, he hasn’t offered it to me. Or to anyone but you, as far as I know. And there’s… Fogg lied to me, my first day. He said magic meant I wouldn’t need my meds. And I think I - I’ve only been taking them again for a little bit, but it’s already - I think I came pretty close to another attempt, Jules.” It’s hard to say, but he needs her to understand. “And, sure, I’m the one who agreed to give them up, but why wouldn’t I believe the dean of the school on my first day, y’know? I don’t know if I could be comfortable going back.”
He sticks to the reasons he would hesitate to go back that would be true with or without Eliot, because that’s a better case to make with Julia. “Also, I’ve kind of liked picking up spells from the hedges in and out of here,” he adds, because that is a thing he’s doing now. He’s not exactly sure how it started, though he thinks it’s because Pete saw him mending an amulet for Kady to give the Baba Yaga. But some of the hedges who drop in to talk to Kady about business have taken to dropping in with little magical trinkets that need mending. And they’ll swap him a spell if he does it.
Julia nods. “Being a hedge was shitty for me, but maybe it’ll do better by you. Who knows? But you should think about it. I can’t see Fogg making you go off your meds again, and it’s not like you have to tell him you’re back on them anyway.”
“I’ll think about it,” Quentin says, because it’s the easiest way to cut off what he suspects would be a pretty circular debate.
Julia leaves him be after that, and it’s only minutes later when different footsteps approach, with a soft accompanying thud of wood on wood. “Hey, El,” he says, tipping his head back to see Eliot coming into the room and closing the door. “How’d it go with Margo?”
Eliot sits on the side of the bed, shrugging a shoulder. “She’s not thrilled, but since she’s going back to Fillory at the end of the week anyway, it’s not like we’d all be living in the same place. Plan Nab The Clock is still a go, she’s enlisted 23 by ways I do not think I want to ask about, so we’ll just put the clock in - our apartment.”
Quentin might not have noticed the hesitation if he hadn’t just had to explain himself to Julia. But he does notice it, and so he says, “Do you not like this idea, Eliot?”
Eliot shrugs again, laying down on the bed. Quentin, sitting on the floor beside it, leans against the nightstand so he can tip his head up to look at Eliot. There’s no answer for a long moment, before Eliot sighs. “No, it’s our best bet. It’s just - aren’t you worried about the lines blurring?”
Quentin considers this. Thinks about a housekey and a ring around his neck and wearing too-big sweaters. Thinks about how he only coped as long as he did because he let the lines blur. He wonders, suddenly, if that might have been a mistake. It doesn’t really matter if it was, of course, because if he hadn’t done that he’s not sure he’d even be here. He isn’t sure how to explain it, though. “I think… they probably will anyway. Because we spent eleven months being those people, and we have their histories still, you know, downloaded into our heads. They’re in there. So maybe it might actually help, to rebuild things as us ?”
Eliot turns his head to look at Quentin, his expression making it clear he knows Quentin just sort of came up with that out of the blue. Which he did, but he also thinks he might be right. He had to hold onto Brian, and even if he hadn’t, being Brian would have changed him. How could it not? He knows Julia and Margo are almost unaffected by their time as Kim and Janet - though Quentin wonders if Julia’s renewed eagerness for Brakebills is fueled by Kim’s time there - and he has no idea how 23 or Josh feel, but Kady is like him.
He wonders, suddenly, if Eliot is more like Margo or Julia than like Kady and Quentin himself, and what that means if he is.
“Well,” Eliot says after a moment, “we need to get out of here more than anything else, so I guess we’ll just have to see.”
“Do you not like this idea, Eliot?” Quentin asks, and Eliot...
Eliot knows it shouldn’t bother him. He knows why Quentin took up Brian’s habit of wearing Nigel’s sweaters, and if Quentin had been the one possessed and Eliot the one for whom the Monster had a fixation, he can’t pretend he wouldn’t have found some kind of equivalent coping mechanism. So he gets it.
But it’s - Nigel bought a ring. They hadn’t even been together a year, and Nigel bought a ring . Some of that is definitely down to the fact that on some level he and Quentin had remembered their lives before, thanks to having fifty years’ worth of memories the potion wasn’t equipped to fully erase, but some of it is just that they weren’t the same people.
Or, they were, but not. Eliot is still not quite sure how it worked for them, really. It feels almost more like they were themselves with different hang-ups. There’s not much about Nigel that was particularly counter to Eliot, after all. Little things, sure, like the fact that Nigel hated coffee, loved tea, and drank beer of all things. And Nigel dressed for comfort and not style unless he was on stage, but on stage he understood the need to project a certain persona just like Eliot does. They were very different personas, but same concept. It’s just that Eliot is on stage every minute people who aren’t Margo or Quentin can see him, and sometimes with them too - but with them, it’s because he enjoys the performance most of the time.
He still hasn’t quite figured out how he feels about having been Nigel. Margo, he knows, brushed Janet aside as soon as she was herself again, while Quentin seems to think of Brian as someone he honestly was, a phase that’s over but worth keeping things from. Eliot - well. He has memories of staring himself down, only it was Nigel, and that kind of makes the whole thing weird.
But he also remembers ten months spent mostly being the happiest Nigel had ever been, and that Eliot had only allowed himself to be in another lifetime altogether. Hence the damned ring.
That ring is still hidden in the burgundy sweater, but he’s pretty sure he-as-Nigel put it in the other pocket. Eliot, so far, has tried not to dwell on this particular detail, because he has no idea what to do with it. It pretty much screams that Quentin found the ring at some point, but if Quentin hasn’t mentioned it by now he’s probably not going to. Which means that, eventually, Eliot will probably have to do… something about it.
(He’s carefully not thinking about the options for that something just yet. Not until he’s sure it’s him thinking it, not the echoes of two lives not this one.)
So. It shouldn’t bother him, but it sort of does. He can’t help thinking Nigel was much better at this sort of thing than he is, and what if Quentin - what if he’s gotten Nigel and Eliot confused in his head, because things Brian would have held onto are all that Quentin had? Hell, what if Quentin isn’t sure what’s him and what’s Brian?
But they can’t stay here. They could look for somewhere entirely new, but that’s just a waste, and so Eliot says, “No, it’s our best bet. It’s just - aren’t you worried about the lines blurring?”
“I think… they probably will anyway. Because we spent eleven months being those people, and we have their histories still, you know, downloaded into our heads. They’re in there. So maybe it might actually help, to rebuild things as us ?” Quentin suggests, and it’s so obvious he’s coming up with that from nowhere, but he’s so sincere, Eliot can’t really argue.
Maybe he’s even right.
“Well, we need to get out of here more than anything else, so I guess we’ll just have to see.”
We’ll just have to see is the best Eliot’s got, looking down into Quentin’s upturned face. It really is their best option, and if it feels… weird, at least it’s not trauma-weird, which is the case for both this apartment and the Cottage now. And, fuck, he’s pissed about the latter - of all the things the Monster took, that one of those is the first place Eliot ever called home and meant it is just. It’s infuriating. And it was probably the one thing the Monster didn’t do on purpose; from everything Eliot picked up in its head and everything he’s been told, the Happy Place was likely a side effect of the Monster’s presence and not something it had the understanding of people to create.
Somehow, that actually makes it worse, that his first home could be taken by the... mental equivalent of a natural disaster. Eliot would almost rather the brutality of malice, for something like this.
He tells Quentin that, the last night they spend at Kady’s, when for once Eliot is the one gasping awake from a nightmare. “I never got out,” he says, half-asleep and shaken, the combination somehow making it easier to speak. “Everything since I woke up was just another illusion.”
Quentin presses close and conjures a light that Eliot recognizes, the soft golden glow he and Quentin had both cast for Teddy, but before that -
“You’re here. I promise. Do you remember how you got here, El?”
They’d watched Inception together three days after the Scarlotti Web, Quentin refusing to sleep in case he woke up in the mental hospital again. So, of course, he’d fallen asleep as the movie ended and somehow when he’d come up screaming, in a panic the first thing Eliot had thought to say when Quentin demanded proof this was real was “Do you remember how you got here?”
In the movie, one way to recognize being in a dream is that you can’t remember how you got to where you are, since dreams usually start in the middle. The familiarity is as comforting as the soft pitch of Quentin’s voice and his worried eyes in the golden light.
“We fell asleep on the couch after our goodbye pizza night and the new Star Wars movie - who picked that, honestly? - and Julia woke us up and said we should sleep in a bed before moving tomorrow. So we went to bed.”
“Hey, don’t knock it, one day Margo and I still are gonna make you watch Lord of the Rings. It’s agreed, you know. But actually it was 23 who picked Solo, which I didn’t see coming. And you’re right, that’s exactly how we got here.”
Eliot lets out a shaky breath as the adrenaline fades, turning his head to hide his face in Quentin’s hair. The shampoo he’s using right now smells like oranges, which Eliot suspects means one of the ladies bought it. But the feel of soft straight hair against his skin is familiar, and calms him all the more. “I wish - I swear, it’s the one part I think that thing did by accident, and now I can’t go back to the first place I ever wanted to stay in.”
He’s relieved when Quentin doesn’t try for useless comforting words, just holds on a little tighter when Eliot ends up crying into his hair. Words are good, and Eliot tries his best to give them to Quentin when he needs the comfort, but - but for himself he prefers this, the man he loves tangled with him in the soft light, solid and warm and real where Eliot can hold onto him like a lifeline.
It’s not, on the whole, the best night to come before a big day, but it could also have been a lot worse, so Eliot decides to take what he can get on that score.
There are dust cloths over the furniture when Quentin lets them in the door, and Eliot glances sidelong at him. “Did the NYPD do that?”
“No idea,” Quentin admits. “I thought it might’ve been someone’s coworkers before whatever memory stuff on them wore off?”
“Possible,” Eliot agrees, and then, because he can, he yanks off all the dust covers telekinetically, with an almost lazy wave of his hand. It feels good to have magic properly back at his disposal again.
Quentin shakes his head. “Show-off.”
Which, obviously, but. “I happen to know you like it when I show off, Coldwater.”
“I never said I didn’t like it, Waugh.”
And there’s the briefest flash of heat in the way their eyes meet - but they’re both still too worn down. And they’re breathing in however many months’ worth of dust. So it’s just that one charged moment and then they get down to the business of cleaning things up with a mix of spell work and doing it by hand.
It reminds Eliot of how they fixed up the Mosaic cottage. And he tries his best to use that memory to shake off the unease he feels looking at paint and furniture picked out by people who weren’t him and Quentin and yet also were.
He tells himself he’ll get used to it, and he likes the apartment itself anyway, likes the location. It’ll just take time.
Quentin isn’t stupid, of course. He knows there’s something Eliot isn’t saying, the same way Eliot saw his tension at Kady’s place when Quentin himself was so used to it he’d stopped noticing. They pack up Nigel’s things and most of Brian’s - Quentin decides, on a whim, to keep Brian’s books and some of his clothes (mostly the stuff Quentin didn’t wear while dealing with the Monster), and to his surprise Eliot doesn’t get rid of Nigel’s vinyl collection, but that’s just about the only thing of Nigel’s he keeps.
Quentin had thought he might be sad to see the sweaters he’d used as a comfort object, that had been one of Brian’s favorite things to steal, get packed up to be donated, but he doesn’t. He’s pensive about it, because - he knows how much it meant. He’ll never forget, he thinks, that on some level the feel of those sweaters rests beside the smell of peaches and the taste of plums in his head, but they also mean one of the worst times of his life now.
“If you really want, you can keep a few, the oversized look was cute on you,” Eliot says with a strange edge to his voice, and Quentin shakes his head.
“No, I don’t, I was just thinking.”
Quentin wants to point out that Eliot is the one who said they needed to start talking, but he’s not sure how. It bothers Eliot to be here, that’s clear, but he brushes it aside every time Quentin asks if he wants to try something else, just says, “No, I’m good here, don’t worry,” until Quentin wants to shake him. I can’t help if you won’t let me, he wants to say, but -
What if he only makes things worse, and pushes Eliot away? They agreed that they wanted this, wanted to be together, but Quentin can’t help remembering that Eliot actually married him once and then changed his mind out of fear. The last thing Quentin wants to do is somehow spook him, and lose this again.
So he doesn’t say anything. He takes down Brian’s watercolors because it is a little too weird - and he got rid of the paints, because he really doesn’t think watercolors are his thing. He doesn’t get rid of the paintings, though - he remembers the work that went into them and can’t quite make himself do it, so he just shoves them in a bottom drawer.
One day he finds Nigel’s sheet music and lyrics notebook - the guitar is long gone - next to them, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“Maybe I should sell them,” Eliot says from the doorway, and Quentin looks up. “I mean, they’re not bad songs,” Eliot continues, “and I’m not going to perform them. But it’d be a waste to just get rid of them, so maybe I’ll sell them. Not sure how one goes about selling music, but I’ll figure it out. Google it, go from there.”
“Not a bad idea,” Quentin says, and it isn’t, but there’s just - something - “Did you ever play an instrument? I mean, you love musicals and that sort of thing…” And he remembers back at the Mosaic, Eliot slowly teaching himself to play a battered fiddle they’d found at the summer market. Quentin had found a wooden flute in the same box, they’d both gotten pretty good at it eventually.
“Mm,” Eliot shakes his head. “I wanted to play violin actually, but my father didn’t think musical instruments were for boys. I’d sing, though - singing in the shower wasn’t a problem even by his standards, and I could practice when I was alone. I did musical theater in undergrad, did I ever tell you?”
“No, you didn’t,” Quentin says, closing the drawer and getting to his feet. “Or if you did I don’t remember, some of it all blurs, doesn’t it?”
“Well, we did get old,” Eliot says with a shake of his head. “You did… philosophy, right?”
“Yep. God knows why, I think I assumed I was going to teach forever.”
“What, no Plato in his cave? Plato was the one in the cave, right?”
Quentin has to laugh. “Honestly, I don’t remember anymore.”
Quentin tells himself the tension’s passed, once their counterparts’ - stupid word choice, but he hasn’t got a better one - things are donated or packed away. He’s taking his meds and Eliot is weaning himself off the pain meds he’s been taking, his cane set aside for longer every day. He has physical therapy twice a week, and it’s while Eliot is at one of his sessions that Quentin makes a decision about a different kind of therapy.
“The meds are helping,” he tells Eliot later that day. “Hell, if anything my magic’s better than it was. Maybe it’s time I gave therapy another shot.”
“You’re sure?” Eliot asks. He knows all about Quentin’s tendency toward awful luck with therapists, after all.
“No, but I’m sure I want to at least look into it.”
Quentin calls Kady about it, because he figures his best bet for a magical therapist is probably a hedge therapist, but the first one he tries is an unmitigated disaster. Dr. Evans tells him to go off his meds and brew a potion instead, one which when he shows the recipe to Eliot turns out to numb all feelings, emotional and physical. So, no going back to Dr. Evans, who can’t translate Irish Gaelic to save his life.
As it happens, Quentin is contemplating the business card of a Dr. Sybill Griffin as Eliot fiddles with the radio, when everything comes to a head. “Hey, Q, did you have to buy such a temperamental radio?” Eliot grumbles.
Quentin says without thinking, “I didn’t, whoever stocked Brian’s original apartment bought it, and he insisted on keeping it, don’t blame me.”
“Oh. Then we should think about getting a new one, since I assume you don’t insist on keeping it?” Eliot asks, entirely too casually, and Quentin sets down the business card, looking up with a scowl.
“Look, Eliot -” But he stops as a new song starts to play, and Eliot’s face goes rigid. For a moment, Quentin doesn’t understand why, and then the woman singing is joined by a male voice. By Eliot - no, by Nigel’s voice. Oh. Oh shit. Most of the… marks their various fake personas may have left were somehow undone by the breaking of the spell - how this works Quentin isn’t sure, because he knows they were given memory potions but he’s not sure how the people they were left among were spelled into thinking they were always there.
Most of their connections are gone. But a recorded song is the much more public version of Brian’s third of a novel sitting on his laptop. (Quentin kept that; it was better than his. Eliot even kept Nigel’s, same reason.) And now it’s on the fucking radio, a permanent reminder of a person Eliot both was and isn’t.
“I couldn’t wait for you to hear this,” Eliot says in a low voice as the song ends, his hands fisted at his sides. “I - he - fucking hell.”
“Aren’t you jetlagged?”
"Nope, it’s hours earlier in California, I am wide awake, Bri. And my God, the single is going to be brilliant when it comes out, this girl has the most amazing voice and she brought me in for the part that needed a male vocal, so you know. That makes it even better.”
Quentin closes his eyes. “I wish we could have heard it when we were still -”
“Is that the only thing you’d rather we were still them for, Q?” Eliot snaps, and Quentin’s eyes fly open. Eliot looks furious , suddenly, and Quentin has no idea where the anger is coming from. “Or do you want things to be more like they were when we weren’t ourselves?”
And now Quentin is angry too. “That’s not fucking fair.”
“Oh no? You were the one walking around in Nigel’s things like Brian used to, you were wearing their fucking housekey as a necklace! You’re the one who thought of coming back here real damn fast and you’re the one who keeps looking upset when I get rid of Nigel’s shit. Did you forget who you were actually getting back there for a while?”
“I told you why I was doing that! I - there wasn’t anything of yours, and I needed to do something so I didn’t lose my fucking mind, Eliot! You said you got that!”
Eliot spins away from him, raking a hand through his curls, apparently not caring about messing them up. “I - that doesn’t mean you didn’t get things mixed up, using Brian and Nigel to keep yourself going. Are you sure you -”
Oh no. No, no fucking way. “No, Eliot. You are not doing this again.”
“Not doing what, exactly?”
“Did I mix things up, that sounds a whole hell of a lot like ‘that’s not me and that’s definitely not you’, don’t you think? You didn’t believe me then when you had no reason to think -”
“Oh please, Q, you asked me to try by saying ‘why the fuck not?’ I was too harsh and I should’ve handled it differently, and I regret it, but let’s not pretend I had no reason to wonder how serious you were.”
Quentin thinks of their conversation in Eliot’s memory palace - the Happy Place, he’d said it was called. Maybe that conversation had been as unreal as the location. He takes a deep breath, and his own quiet, level voice surprises him. "Eliot. Do you believe me when I say I love you? And if not, what are we doing?"
Eliot doesn’t know how this got so out of hand. He’d just - he could remember recording that fucking song, Drina had been surprisingly sweet to work with, and he’d been more than a little giddy at the idea of singing a duet for a song likely to get pretty widespread. He’d been so pleased, and so happy to come home and tell his boyfriend -
And that hadn’t been him , except for how in a very real way it still had been because a good bit of what Nigel was is just Eliot in a different context, like the memory potion rearranged them instead of wholesale erasure. Traits turned to different angles, kind of, except for one. How as Nigel or as Eliot he’s in love with the same man.
Who is now standing there with his face set but his eyes too wide, looking at Eliot like he’s expecting to get his heart broken again, and Eliot never wanted to see Quentin look at him like that again.
Part of Eliot, the part that said “not when we have a choice,” is tempted to say that he doesn’t know what they’re doing. He could push Quentin away so easily and not have to face this, but he already knows he can’t do that. He can’t let him go, it would break him, and they’ve been through so much. The Monster didn’t ruin them, how can Eliot let his own fears do that?
“If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver it’s because I learned it from you.” Well. He’d always known it wouldn’t be easy , hadn’t he? But he’d better follow through before this all goes too far to fix.
“Yes, Quentin, I believe you. I love you. I just - Nigel was better than me, all right!” And Eliot almost spits the words. “He, he asked Brian to move in with him and he bought a fucking ring and he didn’t love you - he didn’t love Brian - any more than I love you, but he knew what to do with it. He wasn’t afraid of it. And I’m - trying not to be, Q, because I love you and I want what we are together, but I’m - I keep thinking, what if you’d rather I was like Nigel that way, and not me?”
Eliot doesn’t know what he expects Quentin’s reaction to be. But he is surprised when what Quentin does is cross the distance between them and take both of Eliot’s hands in his. “I’m scared too. I always have been. That’s why - you’re right, ‘why the fuck not’ is a terrible way to ask, and you were even right to say we probably shouldn’t have made any decisions right after getting the memories back. I did it like that because I was scared too, love, because if I didn’t say it then I was never going to. Bad calls, both sides. That’s OK, we can handle that.”
“Q, I didn’t - I knew I was talking bullshit when I said you wouldn’t -” Eliot hadn’t been wrong about all of it, exactly, and he’d definitely thought the chances were high Quentin would reconsider once his head cleared, however sincere he’d been in the moment. But Eliot had still been a dick in how he handled it.
“Sure,” Quentin says, “because we know each other. Part of me knew you were lying about at least some of what you said, the thing was I wasn’t sure which part and it hurt to think about. I didn’t want to lose you as a friend -”
“That was never gonna fucking happen,” Eliot cuts in quickly, and Quentin rolls his eyes, but the little smile on his face is soft.
“Well, I didn’t know that for sure, and I’m explaining my reasoning here, El. I didn’t want to lose what we had just because I wanted more, so I kind of… shoved it all aside.” Quentin’s face grows serious again, his grip on Eliot’s hands tightening. “I don’t know how much of what Brian and Nigel had was us coming through, or how much of it was those two new people being compatible in themselves. I don’t think we’ll ever know. And, yeah, when I was Brian I was happy - and those memories are part of me now, I think they’re part of us now. I’m trying to use them to remember that being happy’s, you know, an actually possible thing. Just like how I look back on our life at the Mosaic. I never wanted the same thing, El. I knew it wouldn’t be. I just believed, I still believe, that as long as it’s us it can be just as good.”
The thing is, Eliot believes that too, when he can get out of his own way. And yet.... “But when I was Nigel, I was so much better at this.”
“And when I was Brian I was either not depressed or so much more mildly so I didn’t notice. Still not sure which. Who we were under that spell is part of us, but not all of us. And as for this being better thing. First off, it’s bullshit, once you’re in it you’re an amazing partner, OK? And Nigel wouldn’t suit me any more than Brian would suit you. Do you want Brian back, when he was definitely a lot less of a mess than I am?”
Eliot remembers how much he’d loved Brian, when he’d been Nigel. Remembers his bright-eyed professor with his fond, exasperated smiles, curled up in pilfered sweaters and grumbling about his job, whispering ‘I love you’ in the dark. They’re good memories, but - “No. I want you. I’ve wanted you in my bed since I saw you, and I’ve loved you since you put a crown on my head and called me spectacular.”
“Exactly,” Quentin says softly. “I don’t know when I fell in love with you - I know that I found myself looking for you in every room, and always aware of you when you were there to find, long before I knew what that meant, but I don’t remember when it started. I realized what it was, though, when you came stumbling out of the Neitherlands into the Cottage. You remember? I practically tackled you?”
Of course Eliot remembers. Remembers Quentin colliding with him hard enough to leave him winded, remembers turning his face into Quentin’s hair and breathing him in, hugging him hard enough to bruise and being hugged back just as tightly. “I remember,” he says.
“I knew I loved you then,” Quentin says, “but I’m pretty sure I’d loved you for a long time before that without knowing it. So, no. You don’t want Brian, and I don’t want Nigel. Maybe we could both stand to learn a few things from who we were then - God knows Brian had more common sense than I’ve ever had and I might just finish that novel of his - but we are ourselves, and that’s how we love each other.”
What can Eliot do in response to that but nudge Quentin back till he’s pressed against the kitchen counter, and then lean down to kiss him till they’re both breathless? And Quentin always responds so wonderfully to being kissed, opening for him and threading his fingers through Eliot’s curls, pressing closer like he can’t help himself. And when Eliot draws back, he doesn’t go far, resting his forehead against Quentin’s like that day in the park, in the rain.
“I’m good with staying here, but can we change this place the rest of the way up?”
“You’re the one who said keeping the furniture was just practical.”
“Yeah, well, fuck that. If this is ours, then let’s make it ours , what do you say, Q? Build a new home that’s not a cabin in the middle of the Fillorian boondocks?”
“I say yes. As long as I can keep my bookshelf.”
“Your bookshelf?” Eliot asks, wrong-footed. Quentin laughs softly at the look that must be on his face, and he hasn’t laughed much lately, it warms something in Eliot to hear it.
“The stuff from my dad’s house is in storage, we had this bookshelf, he used to measure me against the side of it like some people do at doorways. I want to keep that.”
Eliot never met Ted Coldwater. But he can picture a tiny Quentin standing back against a wooden bookshelf, hoping he’d gotten taller. They did that with Teddy, only they cut notches into one of the tree trunks. “All right, baby, I think we can make that happen. But no IKEA for anything, got it?”
“Somehow, I had a feeling you might say that.”
It will only occur to Eliot later that it’s the first time he and Quentin have touched where Quentin didn’t freeze or twitch even for a moment, the first time since Eliot started having flashbacks that he didn’t have an echo of the Monster’s half-understood desires in his mind.
It’s progress, in more ways than one.
Quentin thinks Eliot’s crazy for saying they ought to go with grey paint. He thinks of the Library when Eliot says that, and he also thinks of the common room of the second hospital where he’d done a stint of inpatient. “Trust me on this one, Q,” Eliot says, and Quentin does - and even if he didn’t, he would when it comes to aesthetics anyway. So he just insists on not wanting a single set of white sheets or towels, which makes Eliot laugh but they go with it.
And it turns out Eliot was right, when they spend a Thursday painting one wall of the living room in the grey he picked out, an accent wall that gets the most sunlight out of the whole living room. It turns out to be a soft color, like mist in a fantasy painting, and Quentin thinks there might even be a hint of purple in the color. Whatever it is, it’s soothing and nothing at all like Library grey.
Mostly, they leave the white walls they painted when they weren’t themselves, except for the accents. Grey, in the living room and the second bedroom, but Quentin suggests a light shade of green he sees over Eliot’s shoulder at the paint store for the bathroom. Eliot asks, “So, do you have a thing about white in certain places?”
“Damn, that obvious?” Quentin asks, unloading the groceries they got since they were already out. Not that he does much with those except put them away, unless it’s breakfast and he’s making eggs or pancakes. But since Eliot does almost all the cooking it’s only fair that Quentin does most of the washing and putting away.
“Only a little,” Eliot says from where he’s settling the paint cans in a corner until they’re ready to use them.
“Little bit clinical,” Quentin says with a shrug, because it’s not a phobia, just a quirk. “Medical stuff, everything’s white. It doesn’t upset me or anything, I just used to tell myself when I had the chance I’d choose anything but white. Or plain white - I like the living room.”
“I mean, that’s fair. I never again want to live in a place where I can see cornfields from my window.”
This conversation is how they end up painting their bedroom a sort of soft golden color, and when they end up with a wine-colored bedspread, Margo laughs at them during her tour of their half-done apartment. “It’s like vintage Gryffindor in here,” she says. Quentin laughs and Eliot rolls his eyes, and Margo finds them a Gryffindor poster, which she frames and hangs in their room while Eliot and Quentin are distracted by Fen.
They find it after their visitors leave through the clock.
“I should have seen this coming,” Eliot muses when he tries to take it off and finds it’s been spelled to stay there. Quentin takes a picture with his phone and sends it to Alice with a text explaining the situation - when he last talked to her, reforming the Library was not going terribly well and he figures she can probably use the laugh.
Julia comes over a few days later with a peace offering of donuts from a little bakery in Brooklyn they used to go to all the time in undergrad. They make all kinds of flavors, and they let you mix and match glazes and toppings so it’s always fun. She and Eliot eye each other like circling cats at first and Quentin watches them like a referee while he makes coffee, but no one starts fighting and he counts that as a win.
Two days after that, Julia goes out poster shopping with Quentin because of the two of them she’s always known more about musicals than he does. Although he usually likes the ones he knows about. And even though Quentin hadn’t known or had forgotten that Eliot did musical theater in undergrad, he did remember that Eliot sang a lot at the Mosaic, sometimes under his breath but often not. Quentin also remembers which songs he sang the most.
Julia can help him match the songs to the plays they’re from, he figures, and he’s right. Which is how he ends up with an armful of rolled up posters and a canvas bag full of frames for them. “How are you going to hang them up without him seeing again?” Julia asks.
“He’s in Fillory today, Margo and Fen needed help with something,” Quentin says as he checks to make sure he has his bus pass in easy reach, then leans back against the telephone pole by the bus stop sign. “He’s a Commuting Royal Advisor, there is literally a plaque in the office declaring this. That’s why the clock is in our living room and Eliot spent three weeks on Wayfair.com finding furniture that didn’t clash with it.”
“We were watching HGTV for a week straight before we started painting. I am not kidding. Also, does every bored housewife have a crush on one or both of the Property Brothers?”
Julia laughs. “I don’t know but probably. I like your living room though. All vivid colors except for the walls, it’s nice. And the clock doesn’t look weird.”
“Speaking of that, how did you even get that?” Quentin asks, because all he knows is Eliot said something to Margo, who apparently said something to Julia. Which makes sense, given that Julia and 23 are the only ones at Brakebills right now - he got an invite back too. So did Quentin; he set the letter on fire and Eliot filmed it on his cell phone. It had been very cathartic.
“I walked in with 23 and we took it. I’m not actually sure either, I think I just… diverted notice from us? He traveled us out with it, and that was that.”
“Nifty demigoddess powers, huh?” Quentin asks, amused.
“Apparently.” Julia pauses, looking uncomfortable. “Q, are you mad at me? Because things have been weird ever since that blowup with Eliot. And I really did think we’d settled it.”
Quentin sighs, and wishes he had a cigarette. He’d never been more than a social smoker, but the last time he tried to have a smoke, he’d flashed back to the river. He doesn’t remember smoking that night, but then he still doesn’t remember much of anything about that night. Still, just now it would give him something to keep his hands busy. He shifts his grip on the posters instead.
“I don’t know,” he admits. “I think I’m more hurt than angry? I’d be angry if I thought you knew I was struggling and brushed it off, but it wasn’t like that. Was it?” he asks, meeting her worried silver gaze directly. He has to know.
“No, I - I knew you were upset, sure, but… I didn’t know how bad it was. I guess I should have. I’m sorry I didn’t see it. I hope there’s no next time, but I’ll pay more attention if there is, I promise.”
Quentin smiles a little. “I’m not gonna say it’s OK, but we’ll be OK,” he tells her. “I hope there’s not a next time either. I really, really hope not.”
“Well, if there is, I’ll be right there with you, got it?”
“Got it.” And Quentin - believes that Julia means it. Does he believe she’ll really do it? He supposes he’ll never be able to fully believe she’ll follow through until and unless the time comes when she has to and then does , but believing she’s sincere is a start. Just like letting Margo step in to help him somewhat belatedly had been a start. It’s not OK but it will be. He doesn’t think that’s too bad a situation to be going on with.
Julia ends up helping him hang the posters - they decide on the office, because the colors of the posters might clash a little too much with the couch cushions and the throw rug. “You should get, like, black and white photographs for out there maybe?” Julia suggests as she hangs the Wicked poster next to the enchanted mirror connected to one Margo has at Whitespire. Quentin’s bookshelf is in here too, all of the shelves filled now and Quentin’s collection of fantasy figurines displayed on the top.
“Maybe,” Quentin agrees, straightening the RENT poster he’s just finished hanging. He thinks of Brian’s watercolors and sketches, and of the charcoal and oil pastels in an art supply store bag under the bed.
He doesn’t want to hang Brian’s work back up. But maybe he can do some of his own? It’s worth thinking about.
“So, the long and short of it was, being turned during this thing creates a mating bond between the two people who fucked,” Margo says, draping herself over the couch, her legs in Eliot’s lap like old times. “Hoberman didn’t know about it any more than I did, and so far I’m still wolfy but we managed to turn the mind fuckery off.”
Eliot watches her, but Margo has her eyes closed like she doesn’t want to look at him or anything else right now. “And so…”
“And so, we’re still fucking occasionally because he’s not bad at it and, again, still a wolf until further notice, but no more weirdness. Turns out neither of us are mushy about each other, which, thank fuck. I’d be terrible at it, unlike you apparently.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I’m any good at this,” Eliot says, shaking his head.
“I came in and you two were practically cuddling in the kitchen, and your boy’s sketches are hanging up on your living room wall,” Margo points out, opening one eye to look at him.
“Well, yes, but so are my photographs.” He’d bought the camera on a whim around the time Quentin had started spending more of his free time with a sketchbook than a novel. In fact, Eliot’s first photos had been of Quentin, because Q didn’t believe he made ridiculous faces when he drew and Eliot obviously had to prove him wrong.
But it turns out he likes it, likes finding the right light and angle, likes playing with photo editing on his computer. He’d taken some photography classes in undergrad as electives, and he’d liked it then. But he likes it more now, it flips some kind of control switch or something that makes it soothing. Quentin says that for him, sketching helps him remember that the world is real, because he’s recording it. Eliot feels the same way when he gets just the right shot.
And as for the ones he edits to make them right, or just for fun? Well, that’s all aesthetic, which has been his comfort for years now.
“It’s like I’m visiting art students,” Margo agrees, teasing.
“Well, milady High General of Fillory, if you don’t like it…”
Margo pokes his arm with her socked foot. “I never said that, did I? Also, ugh. Did you catch the meeting about this Dark King asshole we’re hearing stories about, he’s some kind of rebel? We’ve got the spies out to try and find out more, but so far all we’ve managed to rule out is that Queen Ru is not involved, she’s keeping to her deal with Fen. And Idri’s part of Loria still considers itself an ally so it’s probably not them. I’m wondering if it’s one of those desert fuckers pissed off at me, but so far we can’t tell.”
“Wasn’t the last word from them that the women were in charge now and told High King Fen ‘we owe your General a great debt’?” Eliot asks.
“Well, yeah,” Margo says, “but I assume this would be one of the men who got their asses kicked. El… this commute when we need you thing, are you really gonna keep that up for good? I mean, you guys are nesting, I get that, but… you can have two homes, can’t you?”
In a way, yes, because for all that a small handful of places in Eliot’s life have deserved the word home, the real truth is that for him, home is bound up in people. Or, rather, two people. And since Margo is one and Quentin is the other, Eliot very much has two homes, what with the two different worlds his people live in. But in another sense…
“For now, at least, it’s gonna be the commute thing, Bambi,” he says quietly. “I like being able to help you and Fen, don’t get me wrong, and I think Q’s in a place now where’d he’d be able to find something to do too - and him coming along is nonnegotiable.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Just making it clear. But I don’t… feel that I belong there, right now. I don’t know if it’s because I was elected off my throne so decisively, or if I’ve outgrown what I needed there, or what, but right now it wouldn’t fit, and I’m tired of trying to force shit like that.”
Margo sighs. “I think I knew you were gonna say that, but I miss you. The mirror spell and having the clock in your apartment is better than nothing, but I still miss you.”
“I miss you too,” Eliot says, and not so long ago they both would have choked on those words. But they had to grow up eventually. “Like I said, this might not be forever, I don’t know. I’d have to talk to Quentin about it anyway, but right now this is what we need to do.”
“I get that,” Margo says. “But really. Say the word, Fen’s said so too, we’ll make it work if you come back.”
“I know we will,” Eliot says, and then the door opens - Quentin coming back from his therapy appointment. Margo sits up a bit to wave at him, and because of the angle, she’s the one who sees -
“Coldwater, why is there a lump in the front of your hoodie?”
Quentin freezes, eyes comically wide, and Eliot suddenly has a feeling this is going to be one long story. Especially since Quentin has a pretty big shopping bag when he only went to therapy. And yet, even so, Eliot is still kind of surprised when the lump in Quentin’s hoodie wriggles and then meows.
“Oh my God you stole a cat,” Margo says, and then bursts out laughing.
“I did not steal a cat, I found her in a cardboard box that said Free Kittens, and it’s raining, I couldn’t just leave her!” Quentin says, indignant, as he pulls a protesting orange kitten out of his pocket.
Margo only laughs harder, as Eliot pinches the bridge of his nose. “Are we keeping it?” he asks slowly, deliberately.
Quentin blinks. “Well. I mean. Not if you’re, like. Fiercely against it or anything.”
“You bought supplies,” Eliot points out.
“Yes, because even if she doesn’t stay she’ll be here for a little bit,” Quentin says.
Eliot sighs, looking at the orange kitten with its tufted ears and mismatched blue and green eyes sitting up in Quentin’s arms. Oh no, they’re adorable together. And it could be worse, it could be a puppy. Not that Eliot doesn’t like dogs - he has no strong opinions on pets at all, actually - but he’s pretty sure puppies are harder to house train than kittens.
“You’re totally going to end up keeping her,” Margo says, and Eliot refuses to dignify that with an answer because, well. She isn’t wrong.
Quentin calls the kitten Chaya, which Eliot doesn’t get but Margo laughs about. “You even watched the animated version?” she teases as they finish up their Indian takeout and the kitten chases a ball around the living room.
“I mean, if you called the reference, so did you, or else you read it in a fanfic, so I wouldn’t be too smug if I were you” Quentin says, then takes a very pleased bite of his food when Margo makes an indignant noise.
“OK, what’s the nerd reference?” Eliot asks, dramatically long-suffering.
“Spock’s pet as a kid was called I-Chaya,” Quentin explains, and Eliot sighs.
“We can only allow this because Quinto is attractive,” he decides after a moment. Quentin throws a wadded-up napkin at him and Margo laughs, so it got more or less exactly the response he expected and wanted.
Kitten training is… tedious, for the most part. But there are spells to keep her from clawing the furniture, and while that doesn’t help with the litter box training, scratches are more permanent. “At least she doesn’t scratch us,” Quentin points out, and Eliot shrugs, doing his best to play the aloof second year he’d once been.
“Yes, but she’s also apparently going to be huge, because somehow you managed to find a kitten that’s half Maine Coon ,” Eliot points out. That had been a fun little revelation at the vet’s office, that Chaya was only a little more than half the age she looked and the reason for her size was that she’s half the largest breed of housecat that exists.
“Well, how was I supposed to know? Anyway, who’s the one who bought that cat gravy stuff for her kitten chow?”
“That dry food has to get boring after a while. It offends my sensibilities. It does not mean I like her. I am tolerating her for your sake.”
“Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that, dear.”
Quentin sort of trips and falls into a new career choice, because of course he does. It actually started when he was still at the loft, trading spells for mending, but word spread. Now Quentin gets paying clients for mending jobs, and he’s not about to complain. It turns out that most people can’t mend magical objects, which Quentin vaguely remembers one of the professors at Brakebills mentioning, so there’s a lot of call for someone who can.
Having a mending discipline is the only way to really be consistently able to mend things with magic already on them, because otherwise the mending spells tend to clash with the existing magics.
So Quentin finds himself with clients both hedge and classical magician, and it’s a good thing they have two desks in their office. Eliot’s is mostly full of Fillorian documents and texts, since even if he’s part long-distance and part commuter, his seat on Fen’s council is still his main job right now. Quentin’s is more of a worktable, with a stack of books of mending spells, the notebook where he keeps his records, and a few tools like magnifying glasses that are occasionally helpful.
One day, he’s meeting Kady at a coffee shop halfway or so between his and Eliot’s place and the loft - he finds that it’s actually harder to set foot inside Kady’s place now that he doesn’t live there. When he lived there, the fact of having no choice had sort of… helped him ignore the tension.
So they meet in neutral places instead, and this little coffee shop does great lattes and equally good pastries. Quentin has a weakness for spice cake muffins, Kady has one for red velvet muffins, and so they both get to indulge at this place. This time, he’s got an amulet for her that forms most of this month’s rent for the Baba Yaga.
“Told you it wouldn’t be that hard,” Quentin says, handing over the little velvet bag with the amulet inside, then pocketing the cash Kady slips him - they’re friends, but she’s still a paying client. Mostly because she insisted and Eliot said he’d be silly to argue.
“Show-off,” Kady teases.
“Not so much when it was this time-consuming, but I did it in stages.” That’s because the last time he’d done an amulet with this much magic in it, he’d done it in one long sitting that had left him with a migraine for two days. Eliot hadn’t been too happy with him and Quentin hadn’t been all that thrilled with himself either.
“Probably for the best. How’s the kitten?” Kady asks, sipping her coffee.
“Well, we finally got her box trained, so there’s that. Eliot continues to deny he likes her, but I have pictures of them napping together so at some point I’m going to show Margo and his cover will be broken forever.”
Kady snickers. “Make sure you film that on your phone, I want to see. Hey, on another topic, I know Brian was the professor, but would you be interested in some teaching work? Basic stuff mostly, for baby hedges. I’ve… acquired a second safe house so that people aren’t always meeting in my home, it’s a house someone converted into a doctor’s office so now there’s different rooms, I figure I can run different kinds of business out of it, including some training.”
Quentin finishes his muffin, toying with his coffee cup as he considers the question. “Would I have any credibility? I mean, you said last time we hung out that even you had some problems once things calmed down because you didn’t rise through the ranks normally, and I’m no hedge. Just a Brakebills dropout.”
“So was Marina, once. Well, kicked out, but close enough. Anyway, once I got my stars I was good.” Kady’s hedge tattoos are twin swirls of stars up her arms - she got creative with it, Quentin thinks, and it looks good on her. But is she suggesting…?
“How many of those do you think I could earn?” he asks, as if just curious.
“Mm, with all the random shit you’ve picked up during all the crazy? Eight, probably. Hell, eight because I say so. And you’d have all the credibility to teach newbies that you need, then. I was going to mention that, actually.”
Quentin turns the idea over in his head, and the funny thing is - he kind of likes it. He never did get the Q on his back removed, though he’d thought about it after all that had happened. It had ended up removed anyway, presumably by magic when he became Brian. He sort of resents that more than makes sense, maybe because it’s tangible proof in a way that his haircut isn’t. But the idea of marking himself up again in a way that isn’t scars, in a way that means something…
In a way that would make his burned Brakebills invite all the more final. He likes it. It feels… declarative, or something.
But he can still remember Eliot’s disdainful words about hedges back in their early days. He knows better, now, but… “Let me talk to El and I’ll get back to you?”
“Sure, this thing’s still in planning stages anyway.”
Quentin gets back to the apartment with a box of muffins - Eliot likes the orange-cranberry ones, which Quentin does not understand the appeal of at all, but they each get half a box worth of their favorites so it works. He can hear Eliot and the echoey voice of someone talking through the mirror, so he drops the box on the kitchen counter and wanders down the hallway to lean against the open door.
Then he has to bite his lip to keep from laughing, because Eliot is sitting at his desk with Chaya on his shoulder, reading glasses perched on his nose as he looks over a map while a councilor Quentin doesn’t know talks in the mirror.
Last night, the shoulder kitten thing happened while Eliot was cooking. But he still insists he doesn’t like her - the current excuse is that he lets her sit on his shoulder because “she just wouldn’t be high enough for the effort to be worth it if she was on your shoulder, Q.”
Eliot ends the mirror call and Quentin grins at him. “So is Chaya the newest member of the royal council?”
“Very funny,” Eliot says with a long-suffering sigh that doesn’t stop him from reaching up to scratch between Chaya’s ears and make her purr. “This Dark King asshole is raising hell in the west. Not sure who he is, though we’re pretty sure at this point he’s a magician. But tall and dark haired with a cape is… not much to go on as a description.”
“No, it really isn’t. Think he’s from Earth?” Quentin asks, sitting down at his own desk and soon finding himself with a lapful of purring kitten. Chaya seems to have a sixth sense for when he’s nervous, maybe because he’d been nervous when he brought her home. Either way, he finds that having a warm cuddly kitten to pet helps, so it’s all good.
“Seems likely, but who the fuck knows? Margo’s got that in hand - military shit isn’t what they keep me around for really, but I heard that part. She thinks she might want to borrow us when they corner the guy, though, suggested we invite Kady to the party, maybe Alice too if we can catch her.”
“I wouldn’t invite Alice, actually. Last time I talked to her she said she had to be really careful about which of our misadventures she gets involved with now, or it’ll make her look weak if she doesn’t try to lock us into contracts in exchange for her help.”
“Michael Corleone strategy not working then?” Eliot asks, rolling up the map he’d had spread out on the desk.
“Mm. Jury’s still out, it hasn’t been that long yet. Do you even like that movie?”
“Not really, but it’s enough of a classic I figured I’d better be able to understand the references. So, no Alice. Kady?”
Quentin has to laugh. “She’ll probably enjoy the chance to blow shit up again. I’m pretty sure she misses it. Speaking of - er, of Kady, not explosions - she had a job offer for me when we met up today. Wants me to teach baby hedges… and become an official hedge myself, stars and all.”
Eliot tips down his glasses to eye Quentin over the tops of the frames and that - really shouldn’t be as good a look on him as it is, honestly Quentin is going to lodge a protest somewhere. Especially when they haven’t gotten past necking like teenagers since they moved out, and it’s finally starting to be annoying. At first they’d been too tired, then he’d been too jumpy, and now…
But he has other things to focus on at the moment. “Are you… gonna say something?” he says when Eliot just studies him. “El, I know you don’t like hedges but -”
“Actually, I was trying to picture how the stars are gonna look on your arms,” Eliot says with a smirk that makes Quentin think of first year and, really. A protest is going to be lodged. When he figures out where.
“No, I know what I’ve said before,” Eliot continues, and Quentin refocuses on him. “Truth is, I didn’t want to admit that I was hedge-adjacent myself for a while. Had to be - fourteen, in the middle of Indiana, nothing that might explain the situation but a glitchy Internet connection. Never ran with a coven outright, but I very nearly got mixed up in some dangerous shit when I was in undergrad at CUNY. Brakebills came up just in time.”
Eliot stops then, making a face in response to Quentin’s questioning look. “On the whole, I guess Brakebills wasn’t any safer, but this was dead in a gutter somewhere dangerous shit, so. Kady’s thing is different. But you don’t like teaching.”
Quentin smiles. “No, Brian didn’t like teaching. I have no idea if I like it or not, and I think it’s worth trying. She’d offer you a job too, but…”
“Uh, no. At least, not right now. I can write up some stuff for you and her and whatever other teachers she finds to use, though, given that I have an extra year of classical training.” Quentin must look surprised because Eliot shrugs. “I owe them, don’t I?”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
Three days later, Quentin goes with Kady to get his ink - the hedge who does it needs the all-clear from Kady to do the initial stars, apparently. “I thought we’d be dragging Eliot along,” Kady comments as they climb the subway stairs.
“No, he’s in mirror meetings all damn day,” Quentin sighs. “Some kind of inspection, it went over my head a little,” he admits sheepishly. “Oh, by the way, he said he’s not interested in teaching, but he’ll write down stuff for us to use since he had more training. He’s even going to see if Margo will - they didn’t take all the same classes so there’s things she’d know that he doesn’t - but she’s busy enough dealing with this guerrilla rebellion that I don’t think she’ll have time for a while.”
The stars are easily inked - his end up look different than the ones he remembers on Julia before she was Kim, black outlines filled in with green instead of a reddish-pink. Which makes sense, Kady’s are blue, so when Aubrey asks about colors he picks green. Eight stars winding their way up his right arm, and yeah it does hurt, but his back tattoo hurt worse and he doesn’t mind it. Which is good, because…
“So you called and said you wanted a tattoo on your left arm too, right?” Aubrey says. “Compass rose, you said? Were you able to pick out a design?”
“Yeah,” Quentin says. The one he picked is simple, almost all black except for a circle in the middle that in the design wasn’t colored but he asks Aubrey to color it in. Her tattoo inks are magicked, so the dark amber-gold shade he picks is… maybe not quite accurate, but pretty close. He read, once, that sailors used to get compass rose tattoos for luck and to bring them safely home. He figures that he could use some of both, and as for the color at the center being as close a match for Eliot’s eyes as he can manage? Well. It’s less blatant than people who get their partner’s names, isn’t it?
“OK, you’re done then,” Aubrey says, repeating the speed-healing tut she cast over his stars. “Now, the skin is still going to be sensitive, but not in a painful way, and you should still follow the instructions on this paper. The spell means you don’t need a bandage for a day or anything like that and pretty much prevents infection. They can be touched, but you still want to wash them with antibacterial soap twice a day, keep lotion on them. Basic unscented lotion is best.”
Quentin nods, and pockets the written directions. Kady does not tease him about his color choice, which is because sometimes she’s nice when no one can see her. They walk back to the subway station chatting about the plans for her new safe house, when he’ll be expected to start teaching. They part ways there though, getting on different trains, and Quentin listens to an audiobook on the ride home.
He gets in and can hear Eliot yelling at someone in the office, echoey indistinct shouts coming back in reply. “Meetings are still going, huh?” he asks Chaya, who is curled up and sulking on the couch - they have discovered Chaya doesn’t like when people yell. “Poor girl,” Quentin says fondly, dropping onto the couch and laughing when he has a lapful of oversized kitten within moments. He turns his audiobook back on, head tipped back against the couch cushions as he listens, one hand absently petting Chaya.
Eliot appears upside-down in Quentin’s line of vision two chapters later, and Quentin barely has time to pause his audiobook and tug out his earbuds before the kitten formerly in his lap - she wandered off to eat - is replaced by his boyfriend’s head in his lap. “Why did I agree to this fucking job again?” Eliot asks, removing his reading glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose, eyes shut.
Quentin hums, carding his fingers through Eliot’s hair, watching as the tension slowly fades from his face. “Because you love Margo and Fen and want to help them?”
“Well. Yes. But this sucks.”
“Sorry, baby,” Quentin says. “You could find a new job?”
“No,” Eliot says with a huff, opening his eyes. “I really can’t, at least not yet. So, better topic, let’s see the new ink, huh?”
Quentin laughs and turns his right arm so that Eliot can see the green stars trailing up his arm. And a moment later he understands what Aubrey meant by ‘they’ll still be sensitive’ because Eliot traces the path of stars up his arm, a feather-light brush of his fingertips. And even that is - is almost too much, Quentin’s breath tangling in his throat.
Jesus fuck. And with Eliot’s head in his lap, he’s definitely going to notice -
“I got another one too,” Quentin says and is proud of how steady his voice turns out to be as he offers his left arm. Eliot brushes his thumb over the compass rose once, twice - and then stills, looking at the amber-gold center.
“What did you say these were for again?” Eliot asks, voice soft.
“Good luck,” Quentin says, equally quiet. “And finding your way home again.” He meets Eliot’s eyes and - no, Aubrey’s inks weren’t the same at all, they just weren’t , but it’s close enough. Close enough that they both know why Quentin would pick that color to be part of something that he’ll wear forever.
Quentin isn’t sure if Eliot really is sitting up unusually slowly or if it’s just in his head, but things feel… almost suspended as Eliot moves, then reaches to curl his hand round the back of Quentin’s neck and reel him in for a kiss. Quentin opens for him, pressing closer until he’s climbing into Eliot’s lap, one hand in his curls again and the other wrapped around his waist.
It occurs to Quentin, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he doesn’t need the compass rose. He knows where - he knows who - his home is, after all.
Things have been getting better. Eliot doesn’t have to make noise when he moves around anymore, and Quentin relaxes under his hands without jumping first. He still can’t be the little spoon, but Eliot kind of likes having Quentin tucked up behind him or against his side, and so does Quentin. So while Eliot misses curling around his boy at night, if it’s a permanent loss it’s a minor one in the scheme of things.
Besides, he can still wrap around him during the day.
They cuddle as much as they ever did, lying half on top of each other on their couch or Eliot’s arm around Quentin’s shoulders and Quentin’s around Eliot’s waist when they’re just standing. Easy, casual touches as they pass, that sort of thing. Kissing too, they have a habit of making out like teenagers on the couch - and Chaya has a habit of jumping on whichever one of them she can reach when they do that, which is both hilarious and irritating.
But they haven’t gotten past that. And he got back in April, it’s September now. To be fair, between various lingering complications, the thought was there but the interest in the necessary effort not so much for most of that time. Even so.
This happened before, actually, in another life, after Teddy moved out. Somehow, the fact that they no longer needed to be careful had turned them awkward in a way they hadn’t been in a long time. Actually, looking back, Eliot doesn’t think they’d ever been that awkward with each other, even now.
But this. Now. Quentin didn’t have to tell him, didn’t have to explain the coloring on his tattoo - maybe it should be weird, seeing an approximation of his eye color on his partner’s skin, but it’s not, it’s… It’s Quentin doing what he does in ways Eliot can barely dare, one more way of being brave and honest about how he feels.
And it makes Eliot think about copper rings and a silver-and-sapphire one he’s not sure he’ll keep for when he’s ready to use it. But it also makes him think of Quentin on a Saturday morning, trying to color in a sketch of Eliot and grumbling about how the pastels aren’t mixing right.
So he sits up, and he pulls Quentin into a kiss. And Eliot knows, when Quentin presses closer, he can feel the shift because this has happened before -
- he’s foggy with magic and alcohol but this, Quentin kissing him through the haze is a bright point of clarity -
- soft and quickly over, and Quentin’s little shrug, and Eliot slides his hand over Quentin’s as he pulls him in, bears him down to the tile under them because no, this is not going to be quickly over, this has been brewing forever between them and Eliot can’t believe he gets to have this , he can’t waste the chance -
- lounging in the back of the classroom until he can crowd Brian against the podium and kiss him like’s run mad, in truth he thinks he has, all he wants is the man under his hands and he’s going to have him, here and now and damn the risks -
Oh yes, they’ve been here before, but still… “Tell me, if you want to stop,” he whispers against Quentin’s lips, because Q doesn’t startle at his touch anymore but he still wakes up choking on screams.
“God, don’t fucking stop,” Quentin mutters, fingers twisting just a little in Eliot’s hair the way he likes, because they know what the other likes. “Though we might wanna move before we get jumped.”
Eliot is laughing when Quentin kisses him, this time, then jumps up and catches Eliot’s hand, towing him down the hall. Now, that just won’t do, he is entirely too in possession of his faculties, and so Eliot turns the tables as soon as they’re in the room, actually spinning Q back around by their clasped hands and pressing him against the wall to kiss him breathless. The door shuts with a flicker of thought and power, no distraction at all. But the way Quentin kisses back, just gives himself over to it and presses close with eager muffled sounds…
Oh yes, that is distracting.
Eliot trails kisses down Quentin’s throat, hand in that soft straight hair to tug his head back, and Quentin laughs breathlessly, rolling his hips. “We have - a perfectly good bed, right there,” Quentin points out, and Eliot retaliates by biting down harder just under Quentin’s jaw, sucking a mark there he won’t be able to hide.
Eliot’s wearing one of his Fillorian shirts, which is useful in this case because it’s easier to get off. Quentin’s hands slip under the hem even as Eliot keeps marking his throat, and the slide of slightly rough hands up his sides, mapping his skin, is better than Eliot remembers. He draws back long enough to tug Quentin’s shirt off and then his own. When the cloth goes over Eliot’s head, he sees Quentin darting around him. Eliot huffs an almost laugh as he catches up again, wrapping an arm around Quentin’s waist and kissing him again. “Running away, darling?”
“I told you, dear, there’s a bed right the -”
If Eliot pushes Quentin back onto the bed with both his hands and just a little nudge of telekinesis, it’s worth it for the way those pretty brown eyes blow dark just from that, just from a tiny press of Eliot’s magic. “Yes, I heard you the first time,” he says, crawling onto the bed to cover Quentin’s body with his own, kissing him again and again until they’re both dizzy. “Happy now?”
“Oh, thrilled,” Quentin replies, snippy even with his voice trailing into a low moan. He shifts under Eliot until their hips slot together just so, arching up and making more of his lovely sounds as they find a rhythm together. Eliot’s hands find Quentin’s, pressing them down on either side of his head so that he has Quentin as pinned as he can get him, watching Quentin’s eyes go soft-focused from that as much as anything else.
“Do you want me to keep you like this when I get up? No hands, just magic?” Eliot murmurs, and he expects the breathless agreement he gets but it’s still nice. It’s still such a sight, it’s always been, to see Quentin sprawled out on the bed for him, squirming under Eliot’s magic like he can’t help but fight it even though he loves the hold of it. And God, Eliot can sense-feel him moving, like a dizzying synesthesia, touch but not touch all at once.
He sheds his trousers and underwear, then tugs down Quentin’s jeans and boxers, pausing to leave another mark on Quentin’s hip. Quentin shifts under him with a whine, but Eliot is still in control enough to keep him in place. “El, El get up here, come on,” Quentin says, half a plea and half a demand, and well.
Skin to skin now, open-mouthed kisses that do nothing to muffle the sounds they make, and Eliot only just manages to remember the spell he needs before working a magic-slick hand between their bodies and wrapping his fingers around both their cocks. It won’t - they won’t last, it’s too much after so long but -
Quentin’s hand finds Eliot’s where he’s working them both over, and they cry out together at more touch, more friction, just - more , and it’s…
They must come at almost the same time, because when Eliot’s head clears, Quentin looks every bit as wrecked and dazed as he feels, blinking up at him with hazy brown eyes. They stay like that until it starts to get sticky, and then Eliot rolls off onto his back. A tingle of magic and the mess is gone; he turns his head to see a lazy pleased smile from Quentin.
“I mean, you were doing all the magic before, ‘s only fair,” he murmurs, shifting so he can curl into Eliot’s side, sliding his hand up till his palm rests warm over Eliot’s heart. Eliot hums, playing absently with Quentin’s hair, grown out enough now to spill loose over Quentin’s face and Eliot’s skin. They lay together quietly for a while, late afternoon sunlight spilling into the room. Eliot watches the play of it on the ceiling and listens to their breathing, all but matched up right now.
“I like the tattoo,” he says, finally, and Quentin makes an amused little sound.
“Yes, I think I noticed.”
“You love it.”
And, well, yes. Obviously. “You don’t need it, though,” Eliot says, and there’s almost a question in his voice. He hadn’t wanted to - but there it is. “To find your way, I mean.”
Quentin sits up just enough to look at him, a small fond smile on his face. A little like that night on the Mosaic, torchlight playing on his face. A little like Brian, waking up wrapped in one of Nigel’s sweaters. But not, because they are both different than they were then, not less or more but just changed.
“Of course I don’t need to find anything, El. We’re both already home, aren’t we?”
Eliot thinks of homes. Of a farmhouse that was never anything but a cage, cold dorm rooms that he didn’t know how to make a home of, the Cottage that would have been no more than a different kind of dorm if not for Margo. Whitespire and the Mosaic, the former more a lifeboat than a home in the end, and the latter…
It became home because of Quentin.
There are other almost-homes that don’t belong to him, that were probably never real save for the flat in Brooklyn and this apartment. This apartment as it was, when they were different men, and as it is now, the place they made together.
But Quentin doesn’t mean that, doesn’t mean the things they picked out or even the kitten meowing indignantly in the living room. He means this, them. And Eliot did too, when he said Quentin didn’t need that tattoo the way sailors believed they did. Neither of them do, or will again.
In every life they’ve known, this much at least has been true. Eliot thinks the echoes aren’t so confusing, when looked at that way.
“Yeah, Q. We are.”
And one of these days, he’ll either use that silver-and-sapphire ring or he’ll find another one. Not now, not just yet. But it’s enough to know he will, one day. It’s enough to know he’ll be able to.
It’s more than enough to finally be home.
So, shameless self-promo here since this is definitely my most popular Magicians fic, if you liked it I have others on my profile! And watch out for two more s4 finale fix-its, Lay Me Down (Pockets Full of Stones) and If I Could Fall Into the Sky, which are currently in progress. :)
Come chat with me on tumblr at eidetictelekinetic.tumblr.com or on Twitter at Fae_Boleyn!