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bury the iron in the backroads

Chapter Text

Eliot’s phone rang on game night. Quentin’s eyes drifted to the space where it lay on the table as it lit up in silence. It struck him as faintly odd. None of them exactly had friends or family that might call them, and those that had no longer did.

"El, incoming," Margo said, gesturing with her drink.

Eliot picked it up and looked at the screen for a long moment, his face a little blue in the light. Quentin felt his mouth curve in a sympathetic frown. He doubted that Eliot would spare that kind of attention if it were spam or just some random call.

"Everything okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," Eliot said, clearing his throat. He set his phone face down and settled his chin on his hands. He’d taken to wearing glasses more regularly and it gave him a serious air that Quentin found both unfamiliar and a little comforting, something to distinguish him from the Monster but that made him look a little older, more relaxed. "Whose turn is it? Julia?"

He smiled when Margo gleefully pulled a tile and only checked his phone once more, a few minutes later. Quentin tried not to observe him too obviously but it was difficult - he drummed his fingers on his phone like he wanted to look at it again but knew he shouldn’t; he bit his lip and his shoulders shook just slightly, like he was bouncing his leg. He was quiet in a way that he hadn’t been before, his eyes wandering somewhere over all of their heads.

Quentin tried to keep his attention on the game. This had become a part of their routine, of Eliot’s recovery, but he usually found it overwhelming. He’d never been a competitive person, at least not externally, and even the playful yelling that Wednesday nights sometimes escalated to made him anxious, especially after the last several months. But since it was one of the few that he could tolerate - simple rules and minimal competition meant less back-stabbing stress - he thought it was the least he could do. Everyone else deserved to have fun, he figured, and just because he had a hard time focusing and found it all a little overwhelming didn’t mean he needed to be accomodated. Besides, he’d gotten used to it, and looked forward to the dedicated nights they all spent together.

As they played through a round and began the next, he felt almost normal. The preceding weeks had been fraught, the relief of having Eliot back constantly mingling with the anxiety that things would never be the same, like oil in water. In the midst of it all, Quentin was doing his best to take care of himself. Though no one said anything, he knew he'd been a wreck in the months of Eliot's possession. He’d lost weight and his cuticles were peeling and scabbed; his scalp had taken on an oiliness that meant he wasn’t bathing as often as he ought to. He’d started smoking for the first time in his adult life, his nerves frayed in a way that he could almost feel under his skin, oversensitive and feverish.

In many ways, this felt different from his earlier episodes in high school and college. He’d been able to get out of bed this time, didn’t struggle as much with his energy levels, didn’t feel as debilitated. It felt easier to deal with, somehow, like if he could just keep soldiering through, eventually he’d just get better. It wasn’t the world-ending depression of his youth and earlier adulthood; instead it felt manageable, like he’d grown up and could finally deal with it all on his own. And so while Eliot recovered in the hospital, he tried to take small steps toward his own recovery. He wanted to be able to care for Eliot when he got home, to make sure he knew how thoroughly he was loved. And so he’d forced himself to go grocery shopping, to eat a salad every couple of days and to take occasional walks around the block. Julia helped him find a therapist and while he only went to a few appointments, he learned a couple of new grounding techniques and called it a win. Most importantly, in his opinion, was that after a few rounds of bullying Lipson wrote him new prescriptions for his old meds. Altogether, it didn’t feel like much, but his clothes fit again and he thought he looked more like someone worth coming home to.

Then Eliot came home and settled into the center of his days. In many ways he was the same man that Quentin had always known, but he felt softer now, his edges a little smoothed. There was a comfort to being around him that Quentin had almost forgotten, a reassurance in his presence. He made Quentin feel a little lighter, a little less alone; being with him loosened Quentin’s chest like a long sigh. He was startled to find that he relied even more on Eliot than he remembered, that he almost needed Eliot around to feel like himself.

He almost thought he should’ve expected it; everything he felt for Eliot had never really faded. Rather, it had only taken a backseat while Quentin tried to survive. Now that he had settled back into being alive, it only made sense that it would bubble up to the surface. He wondered if Eliot's homecoming should be some kind of turning point and thought a lot about the possible outcomes, of what might happen if he untangled his feelings and told Eliot about them. But after everything, Quentin was too grateful to have him back. His presence itself was too precious to risk losing again, regardless of what had happened between them before. If Eliot was the sun, bright and shining and essential, then Quentin was glad just to be in his orbit.

Still, there had been a moment, not long after Eliot came home. Quentin had fallen asleep on the couch and woken up to Eliot laying a blanket over his shoulders. He’d opened his eyes as Eliot’s hand drifted to his face, his thumb ghosting over the ridge of his cheekbone. Quentin’s heart seized up as Eliot leaned down to press one kiss to the corner of his mouth and whispered, Keep resting. The feeling of his warm breath and of his lips so close to his own was made his stomach tight in the moment but later, he wasn’t sure if he’d dreamt it. He rolled the memory up tight and tucked it away.

Against all odds, time marched on. Eliot healed, everyone seemed to find their routines, and in general, Quentin felt like at least half a person most days. Eliot and Margo's voices filled the apartment and Quentin felt warmed by it all, their openness, their ability to slide back into certain aspects of themselves despite all they'd been through. Still, Quentin felt a persistent unease. He had the sense of standing on a frozen lake; though he was almost certain that the ice would hold, the fear of falling through was always at the back of his mind. He tried to chalk it up to anxiety but couldn’t, not entirely. The phone call set him on edge.

The tension eased slightly as they started a new game and Eliot enthusiastically dictated which rules he would not be applying. The air seemed to shift so profoundly that Quentin almost thought he’d misread the situation until the end of the night, when Margo and Julia gave out their goodnight kisses and Eliot stood and walked to the liquor cabinet instead of toward his bedroom. He moved with the kind of efficiency that suggested emotions in need of numbing, his steps exacting and sure.

"You okay?" Quentin asked.

"I think so," Eliot said. "You going to bed or d’you want a drink?"

Quentin was exhausted. His meds still left him fatigued and it was late, past 11.

"I’ll have a drink," he said. Eliot sat down on the couch with two glasses of whiskey, apparently waiting for Quentin to join him. The bottle sat on the table, too, casting a watery shadow on its surface.

He settled in beside Eliot and reached for his glass, taking a small sip. The alcohol made the roof of his mouth tingle.

Eliot held his glass in both hands, peering into it like he was trying to read his fortune in the copper surface. Looking at him, Quentin felt a sharp twinge of longing in his belly, an itch to reach out and touch him.

"You sure you're okay? You seemed kind of distracted tonight," he said after a few seconds.

Eliot didn’t look up. He took a deep breath and tapped the edge of his glass, a rapid rhythm of anxiety that struck Quentin as familiar. It was more his own tic than something he'd expect from Eliot.

"My dad’s dead," Eliot finally said. He sounded almost confused, like he was surprised to find he had a father at all.

What the fuck.

"What?"

"He died," Eliot repeated and cleared his throat. "I guess. I didn’t know he was still alive, honestly. But he was. Some attorney left me a message; I have no idea how they found me. I guess there probably aren’t that many one-L one-T Eliot Waughs in the country." He laughed in a way that reminded Quentin of a broken bell and made a dismissive gesture.

Quentin shifted a little closer, until their shoulders pressed together.

"I’m sorry," he said.

"Don’t be."

Quentin nodded. For a minute or two, they sat quietly as Quentin tried to think of what to say. This wasn’t like when his dad died, he knew. There were no bittersweet feelings of a life well-lived, the regret of lost opportunities. He couldn’t know what Eliot felt, but he knew that at best, it probably edged closer to bitterness than anything else.

"Do you know what happened?" he said carefully.

Eliot shrugged, knocking back his drink and reaching for the bottle. He poured another couple of fingers and said, "No, but I can guess. White male, early 60s, alcoholic, years of rage problems including but not limited to domestic violence, vitriolic racism, and homophobia? You see where I’m going with this." He laughed again, this time in a way that sounded on the edge of tears.

Quentin’s limbs felt leaden. He still didn’t know what to say but he thought that there likely wasn’t much to say. From what he knew of Eliot's father, he assumed there was little to mourn.

"So what now?" Quentin said, squeezing Eliot’s forearm. When he didn’t pull away, Quentin allowed his hand to linger, running his thumb along the line of muscle.

"Road trip?" Eliot sighed as he relaxed against him, leaning until Quentin had no choice but to wrap an arm around his shoulders. "I don't have it in me for a portal and honestly I don't want one to Dearborn County within a hundred miles of New York, anyway."

Quentin let his head fall to rest against Eliot's crown. "Do you actually want to go?"

"No, but I need to. I have to clean out the house, put it on the market or tell the lawyer to or, I don’t know. Do whatever it is that estranged children do when their parents die."

"Can’t your mom do that?"

Eliot looked up at him, eyes a little wide, like he realized he’d left the oven on, his body tense and ready to spring into action.

"She’s not exactly," he said, and took a deep breath. "She died when I was in middle school."

Quentin stared back, almost offended at his own ignorance. A horrible twist of something like guilt gripped his insides.

"Why didn’t I know that?"

Eliot shrugged. "I’ve never said anything."

"It just feels like I should’ve." He swallowed hard and pushed the swell of emotion down. "I’m sorry."

"No it’s - it’s fine. You know I’ve never liked talking about my life before." Eliot smiled at him, a little weak.

Before magic, Quentin understood. And it wasn’t exactly true, he knew, remembering their early conversation about Logan Kinnear, how open a book he'd been when Quentin needed him. It wasn’t like Eliot was secretive. While Quentin knew it was unreasonable, he couldn’t help but wonder if Eliot thought that he couldn’t be trusted with that kind of intimacy. Even worse, he almost felt jealous of Margo; there was no way that Eliot hadn’t told her. Selfish as it felt to admit, it was painful to realize that Eliot had kept such a tremendous loss under wraps.

He allowed himself a few moments of silence. It was strange, sometimes, to realize how little he knew about Eliot’s past. Even fifty years with him mostly left Quentin with impressions; everything he could remember from their time felt like looking through old glass, cloudy and distorted. He could remember the press of his hand, the sound of his voice - deeper in his 40s - but the words themselves were lost. To know Eliot so well and yet to lack fundamental parts of his story felt wrong, like Quentin had gone straight to the third book in a series because he’d heard it was the best one. The thing was, though, that Eliot had been the one to have him skip to the good parts, who executed such precise control over his narrative. While Quentin had enough context to understand why Eliot was the way he was, to love the parts of him he knew, he wanted to understand all of his little references, his poetic devices. It was hard not to feel a little hurt that Eliot held so much back.

He wanted to ask more questions, to know what had happened to his mom, what she had been like, if Eliot hated or resented her like he did his dad. Still, he thought better of it. Quentin wasn’t sure he had the energy for a deeper emotional dive than they’d already taken.

Instead he said, "When do we leave?"

"What?"

Quentin looked at Eliot and grinned. "I’m not letting you go back to your hostile home planet alone, El."

Eliot stared at him for what felt like a long time.

"You sure it won’t be too much? After everything with your dad?"

Quentin frowned but shrugged. "Somehow I feel like it’s going to be a little different. And it’s okay. I owe the universe my presence at a funeral," he laughed.

"Well, if you're sure," he said, dusting nothing from his knees, "the wake is on Saturday. It’ll take us two-ish days to drive; it’s about twelve hours with breaks. So unfortunately we should probably leave tomorrow so we can get there Friday evening? That way I can try and wrap stuff up before the service and then we can get the hell out of Dodge." Eliot smiled at him, small but earnest.

"You really want to go to the funeral, though? You don’t have to, you know."

Eliot’s shoulders heaved in a sigh. "I guess. I don’t know. It feels like an important fuck you or something. Maybe I'll spit on his grave," he said flatly.

"I'll be the look out," Quentin said. He jostled against Eliot’s side, tried to radiate affection through his skin.

Eliot laughed, finally, like himself. "Thank you," he said, leaning back against his shoulder. Quentin let his weight settle against Eliot so that they leaned heavily together, each other’s cornerstone. He sipped what remained of his whiskey while Eliot booked a car and the lone available Airbnb in Milan, Indiana.

The next morning as they packed, Margo stood at the counter, drinking coffee in the deliberate way of someone who would soon go without.

"If you want me to stay, I'll stay," she said. Her voice was unsure, a little choked. Quentin hadn’t been there when Eliot had told Margo about his dad. He was glad that Eliot had her, though, that he had someone else to help carry him.

"No, it's fine. You should go," Eliot said, drawing her in and resting his chin on top of her head. He was so much taller than everyone around him, how did Quentin forget? He'd been in awe since he'd first seen him, stretched dramatic and catlike in the sun. Even without his crown or finery, he was beautiful, larger than life. He kissed her forehead and Quentin felt sentimental as he watched them. He thought of a lifetime ago, watching Eliot crown her with all the sincerity that Quentin had barely known he’d had. The memory made his knees go weak.

"We didn't know that the fucker would kick it when we were due back," Eliot said. "Our kingdom awaits, Bambi. I’ll be there as soon as I’m done with this plebeian shit."

Margo frowned, her chin quivering. "I feel like I should be there, El."

"It's fine, I promise. Besides, Q is gonna go with me. It’ll be fun. Like a quest."

As he spoke, Quentin felt his chest tighten.The levity in Eliot's voice was forceful and familiar and he shifted from foot to foot, his hands deep in his pockets like he might find something there to comfort them all.

Margo leaned against him. "They have rabbits in Indiana, right? Promise you’ll send one if you need me."

"I promise. We’re not going to be in any danger, though," he said.

"I don’t trust Midwesterners, is all I’m saying. ‘Indiana nice’, my ass."

"I’ll be fine. Q, you ready?"

"Yup. We're supposed to pick up the car in 10. You up for just walking over?"

Eliot nodded and kissed Margo once more on the cheek.

"Let's go," he said, voice chipper and resigned.

"Take care of him," Margo called after them. Even though Eliot was the one dealing with loss, Quentin wasn't entirely sure which one of them she meant.

Together, they walked the few blocks to the car lot, Quentin shouldering his own duffel, their shared garment bag, and gingerly rolling Eliot’s suitcase. Eliot, dressed in green shorts that barely reached midthigh and a white linen button down, looked the picture of summer and while it was strange to see him in such light clothing after the last year, it suited him in a different way. Despite the cane, he looked youthful, like maybe he was actually just a 28 year old man with a normal life, who maybe wrote articles for culture sites and went to a bar for trivia with his co-workers on Tuesdays. It made Quentin feel a little sad, imagining what Eliot’s life could have been in a kinder world.

The ten minute walk took almost twenty as Eliot made shorter, more measured strides, his cane tapping a third step. Quentin regretted asking him to walk as he turned just in time to see Eliot let out a long breath and grip his side.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine," Eliot said and winced as he straightened.

"It's just two more blocks," Quentin said. While Eliot hadn't exactly been resistant to help, Quentin knew that he felt better when he could manage things on his own. Still, it was difficult to tell where his limits lay. Quentin made sure that his own steps were a little slower after that.

Quentin stood to the side while Eliot signed the paperwork and got the keys. They headed to the lot, Eliot's suitcase rattling over the pavement.

"What did we get?"

"Some kind of little SUV," Eliot said, his hand cutting through the air to point toward a white Honda. "We’re in for dirt roads and like fuck am I driving a pick up."

Quentin smiled and shook his head. After he threw their bags in the back, he moved to get in the driver’s seat only to be stopped short by the blunt pressure of a cane across his middle. Even for Eliot, the move felt a little dramatic.

"Absolutely not," Eliot laughed.

"What?"

"As though I’m letting you drive in Manhattan, Mr. I Got My License at 24 and Only Because Margo Wouldn’t Stop Making Fun of Me."

Quentin scoffed. "Whatever, she’s from California, she had to drive to like, preschool or whatever," he said defensively, reaching for the door handle. Eliot cocked an eyebrow. He wasn't embarrassed but he did want to be able to take some of the burden off of Eliot, to make the trip easier in whatever way he could. "Also, I have anxiety."

Eliot tugged at his sleeve. "Case in point. We don’t need to give you a panic attack right out of the gate. You can drive when we get to Pennsylvania," he said. Quentin sighed and went around to the passenger side.

They drove. The city readily gave way to forested hills, much more quickly than Quentin expected. He could see stripmalls and houses a few hundred feet off in some places, but mostly it felt like trees swaddled the highway. Huge and looming or squat and scrubby, they framed their path in a way that seemed out of time. The sunlight fell harshly over the treetops and asphalt and it seemed so different from the city, with so little nature, and Fillory, with almost nothing but. He’d almost forgotten what summer could do to the landscape. Absurd as it felt, now that he'd spent so much time on another planet, Quentin realized that he’d rarely left the tri-state area before Brakebills, that even though he’d been to so many places via magic, none of it felt as real as this did. Fountains and portals had nothing on what it felt like to watch the world drift by, almost on a loop, to feel the warmth radiating from the window; they were nothing compared to the comfort of making steady progress with Eliot at his side. As they passed through Harrisburg a few hours in, he decided that it was the farthest west he had ever been.

"How many states have you been to?" he asked, looking out the window. The glass was warm against his temple as the sun sat cradled in the mid-afternoon sky.

"I dunno, maybe ten? Twelve?" Eliot said.

Quentin turned to face him. "That many?" It seemed unfathomable to him that anyone outside of the Northeast, where the states were only as big as counties and everything interesting was nearby anyway, found the time.

Eliot shrugged. "We had family in North Dakota and Iowa. There were a lot of road trips."

"Oh." Again, Quentin felt the uncomfortable desire to know more about Eliot's past. This time, he indulged it.

"Will you tell me about them? Your family I mean?"

Eliot looked at him a beat too long. Quentin couldn't tell if he was upset but he looked a little worn out, like he'd already played his answer in his head several times over. The road curved and the sun now backlit his face, lighting his curls into a halo.

"Yeah, um," he said as he turned back to the road. "What do you want to know?"

"Whatever you feel like telling me," Quentin said.

Eliot cleared his throat. A few more seconds passed before he spoke. "Okay, well. The farm was my mom's parents' and they lived with us until they died when I was five or six. I don't remember them that well. My dad's parents were in Iowa and they were kind of mean, I think - which tracks, given how he turned out - so we only saw them once or twice a year. He had a sister but by the time I was born they were completely estranged." He paused to switch lanes and pass a row of semis and Quentin wasn’t sure if he would keep going.

Eventually, he said, "My mom, she had six siblings and when I was little, the cousins were around all the time, but they're all over last I knew. I got along with them when we were kids but after my mom died I think they, I'm not sure. I pulled away and they did, too. In retrospect I think my mom held us all together."

Quentin did his best to take it all in, to listen as actively as he could. It seemed important to remember everything perfectly, to prove that he deserved to be let in. Even as Eliot kept his eyes on the road, Quentin looked at him, watching every motion of his hands, the small movements around his mouth and eyes. When he talked about his mother, his face seemed to soften. It wasn't a happy expression, exactly, but it was almost fond. Quentin didn't think he had ever seen Eliot look quite that tender.

"And yeah, you know the situation with my parents, more or less. My dad was a shit, my mom died when I was a kid from, uh, basically complications of alcoholism. I don't have any secret siblings. I left home when I was 17 and haven't really talked to any of them since."

"Not at all?"

He frowned and gunned it around an old Crown Victoria. "The last time I spoke to my dad was legitimately the night before I left," he said. "Thankfully he was always kind of suspicious of computers and the internet so I just figured that even if he looked, he wouldn't be able to find me. I made sure my college directories were private, never got on Facebook or anything. I made sure he couldn't find me, if he ever bothered to look."

"That sounds fucking awful, I’m sorry."

Eliot waved one hand dismissively. "It’s not so bad. Besides, I’ve got you and our little rag-tag company of Dickensian orphans now." He turned to Quentin and smiled briefly before returning his gaze to the road. They kept a comfortable pace in the right lane after that.

Quentin wished they were anywhere else so that he could lean over and hug him. He knew that Eliot wouldn't want sympathy, exactly, that it ran too close to pity for his comfort. But he wanted to reassure him somehow, to let him know how grateful he was to be given access to these parts of his life and how badly it hurt him to know that Eliot had spent so much time around people who didn't know him, didn't love him quite right.

Quentin realized, then, how easy it might be to admit that he still loved Eliot. Away from the city, the din of traffic and the sounds of other people living, it felt clearer, something he could almost hold in his hands and examine. It wasn't a painful love, he thought, and he'd settled into his longing a long time ago. That he loved Eliot was just something Quentin knew about himself now, like the fact that he was born in New Jersey or that he had brown hair. He carried it with him and learned to live without expectation; his love was a given.

Quentin swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Still," he said, "I get why you wouldn’t want to talk about all of that stuff. But thank you, you know, for telling me."

Eliot nodded and reached over, briefly taking Quentin’s hand and squeezing. "Thanks again for coming."

Quentin dozed for a while after that. Pennsylvania oscillated between imposing forests and flat stretches of farmland, bright green in the summer sun or tilled so that only the deep brown soil was visible. Neat rows of crops flitted by, alternating clear rows of dirt visible with each blink that passed as abruptly as they appeared. Sometimes they passed fields dotted by horses or cows chewing lazily or standing still in the shade. They crossed the Youghiogheny and the Monongahela and Quentin silently shaped his mouth around the sounds as they did, and a hundred other small creeks passed beneath them. Eliot still didn’t let Quentin drive.

Around hour six, they drove through a storm. It started in a gentle percussive beat and built into a brief but severe downpour. Eliot cursed as he flipped the wipers up to their highest speed only for the water to continue flowing over the windshield in sheets. He pulled over and hit the hazards and slowly, they came to a stop.

"Just for a few minutes," he explained.

Quentin smiled at him and shrugged. "It’s kind of nice, actually," he said, looking out the window. The verdancy of summer was dulled underneath the haze of the storm and it was soothing, he thought, especially in concert with the insistent drum of the rain. And Eliot, bright as he always seemed to Quentin, looked soft in the blue-grey light. Being trapped in the car with him made Quentin feel almost spoiled, like he was given access to rare manuscripts that no one ever got to see.

Later, at a gas station outside of Pittsburgh, they sat for a few minutes under a plastic umbrella, drinking sodas and munching on trail mix. The storm had seemingly passed through the area on its way east and steam rose from the hot pavement. It reminded Quentin of summers at the beach.

"I think we can make it to Ohio tonight," Eliot said. "We’re only an hour or two out. We can sleep in and still get there mid-afternoon tomorrow."

Quentin nodded and shoveled a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. "You’re up for it?"

Eliot stood and stretched, apparently assessing the state of his joints. Quentin heard the click of his knees even as he said, "Yeah, I think so. But you’re driving." He grinned, extending a hand.

Quentin took it and his stomach dropped pleasantly at Eliot's touch. "Roger that."

The treeline receded until they hit the state line and crossed unceremoniously into Ohio, when the land seemed to flatten all at once. Quentin thought of the board game Life, the way its plastic hills gave way sharply to the flat expanse of the cardboard. For what felt like hours, they passed nothing but green fields of stout soy plants and lanky corn stalks, unmoving in the still evening air. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anything like it and felt suddenly hyper-aware of his urbanity, of all the things he didn’t experience growing up in such densely packed places. Even the suburbs felt like close quarters compared to the wide open space that seemed to stretch endlessly on either side of the highway. Something about it made him feel calm, almost hopeful, the quiet of it all finally allowing his whirring mind to rest.

Late in the afternoon, farmland gave way to a series of sprawling suburbs. It felt like the appropriate bookend to the day after their journey out of the city.

"Oh my god, Q, that hotel has a tiki bar," Eliot said gleefully, pointing to a small billboard. "A tiki bar in Ohio. I hope you’re ready to stop because that is one hundred percent where we’re staying tonight."

Quentin laughed. "Sure," he said. "Whatever you want." He was ready to be out of the car and the idea of spending the night drinking coconut-based drinks with Eliot sounded, frankly, really good. They had rarely been alone lately and the thought of getting Eliot to himself for a night made him feel almost giddy. After all the time they'd been held hostage, Quentin was a little desperate to create new memories and for a moment, he forgot about the purpose of their trip. All he saw in front of him was a night out with his friend, who maybe he loved a little too much.

Chapter Text

By the time they actually found the motel and checked in, it was past six o'clock. The woman at the front desk - late fifties, Quentin thought, with a crop of grey hair that screamed either I crocheted blankets for each of my twelve grandchildren or Sir, the sign said this dog food was on sale - looked at them with mild suspicion but not unkindly. Quentin didn’t really blame her. He could imagine the kind of havoc men in their twenties had likely brought down on her before.

"We're pretty booked this week but we do have a single queen left, if that'll do all right for you." She looked at them over the rims of her glasses, waiting.

"What do you think, Q? Think you can keep from aggressively spooning me?"

"Shut up, don’t act like you’re not a cuddler." Quentin said. He elbowed Eliot’s arm affectionately. "That’s totally fine, thank you."

He felt Eliot’s hand at the small of his back and tried to ignore the way it lit him up like tinder.

A while later they found their way to the tiki lounge. Quentin wanted to complain but found himself unable in the face of Eliot’s smile, bright and broad as they walked in under a wooden sign that proclaimed, Love the nights I can't remember, with the friends I can't forget. Once inside, the place seemed underwhelming. The bar smelled musty, like mildew that had been scrubbed clean more than once. There was the faint scent of chlorine under everything, from the pool itself and from the swimsuited lodgers who had come into the bar and sat down on towels, as though that would protect the upholstery. The lights were low and welcoming, though, and Eliot's excitement hadn't dampened.

"One Port Light for me, one Zombie for you," Eliot said as he sat their drinks down with an awkward flourish. It made Quentin wistful to see Eliot so similar to how he'd been once, the life of the party in a room full of acolytes. He didn't miss that Eliot, exactly. He knew that Eliot was somehow better off now, an ex-king and recently possessed, than he'd been back then. But he did miss the ease of that time, the novelty of magic and what it felt like to have their entire futures stretched out in front of them.

He wanted to believe in all of it again. Maybe it would never be the same but they were still here and together and somehow, maybe, they could find the kernel of truth at the core of themselves that made them them. He pictured a small, whirling galaxy beneath his breastbone and wanted to turn in on himself until he found the center of it. He thought that even if he had spun out to its edges, he might still find his way back, especially with Eliot's gravity to guide him.

"What's going on, Q?" Eliot said. His voice was warm in the low light of the empty bar. "That's a thousand yard stare if I've ever seen one."

Quentin shook his head. "Nothing," he said and smiled, taking his drink from Eliot's hand.

Something flickered across Eliot's face, an emotion like headlights passing. As quickly as Quentin noticed it, it was gone, his expression drawn back. Eliot settled into the chair next to him and tossed his cane unceremoniously onto another one.

"So," he said as he leaned back and sipped his drink. "I spilled my guts about my family today. What dirty secrets do you have for me about yours?"

Quentin shrugged and tasted his drink. He had no idea what was in it but it tasted tropical enough to warrant the ‘tiki’ title, the syrupy taste of rum heavy underneath layers of fruit juice. He said, "Not much, honestly. My mom has a sister that I don’t really know and my dad was an only child. Growing up they were dysfunctional but like, fine I guess? I mean, they got divorced when I was in high school but it wasn’t a big deal, it was obvious by then that they kind of hated each other in that very suburban, white-male-novelist sort of way. Then I lived with my dad until I went to college and you know the rest."

"That's it? Come on, Coldwater." Eliot kicked lightly at his chair.

"I'm serious," he laughed. "Honestly, I'm probably the biggest source of drama in my family." He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers, framing his face. "If my first depressive thing hadn’t waited until after the divorce, I’m sure my mom would have found a way to blame everything on me. They still managed to fight about it, though. My mom didn’t think a sixteen-year-old should be on medication, blah blah, my dad was really for it. But yeah, that’s about it."

"Did you ever fight with her about it?"

Quentin chewed on his straw, thinking. In truth, he almost couldn’t say. When he thought of his mom, he could barely recall Sunday breakfast or grocery shopping, let alone fights. Mostly, he remembered her absence and later, her criticism. "Not really," he said. "I wasn’t exactly in a state to, you know, make that kind of decision. In the end she was wrong and I’m glad my dad fought her on it. But at the time I didn’t care. We weren’t close; she wasn’t exactly the most maternal parent. Like? She was never shitty, exactly, not when I was a kid. She just didn’t seem to care if I was there."

"I don’t know, Q, that sounds kind of shitty."

He shrugged. In the almost ten years since he’d left home, he’d seen his mom almost exclusively on holidays and at funerals, his father’s excepted. He wondered if maybe he should miss her more than he did, but her tacit neglect had left him accustomed to her absence, emotional and otherwise. "I guess. What about you? Were you close with your mom as a kid?"

Eliot looked up, his mouth drawn tight as he thought. He took a long pull from his drink. "As close as you can be to your mom at that age, I suppose. I think she liked having a little sidekick, especially because my dad was such a prick. She was a really nice person though, you know? She was hilarious, honestly, always making people laugh. After she died, I thought I’d never hear the end of how lovely she was, how kind and generous, all that stuff. And people weren’t just saying it to say it because she was dead; they really meant it. Everyone loved her."

Quentin nodded. It was easy to imagine Eliot coming from someone like that, someone full of life, glowing at the center of everything. It was just as easy to see how that sort of personality, no matter how genuine, could be used as a mask.

Eliot said, "She drank pretty much constantly, though. I don’t know all the details but I know she had a hard life before I was born and my dad didn’t make it easier on her. But it wasn’t until after she died that I realized that, ‘No, that’s mommy’s special drink’ isn’t something that all mothers say when their kid goes for their soda on a road trip."

"Jesus, the drinking was that bad?"

"I mean," Eliot said and tilted his drink as if to make a toast. He didn’t say anything else but Quentin felt an uncomfortable tension in his gut. They’d never talked seriously about Eliot’s drinking and this didn’t seem like the best place to start, even though it made Quentin feel like a bad friend and a coward. He wanted to, he’d convinced himself a long time ago, but he didn’t know where to begin. While Quentin was used to being the subject of interventions, the idea of doing it to Eliot both terrified him and made him feel deeply guilty. The fact that he had a drink in his own hand didn’t help any of it.

Eliot seemed to sense the shifting tone of the conversation and let out a long, affected sigh.

"Anyway. I loved her more than I loved my dad, at least. Which, granted, is not a high bar to clear, but I really did love her as a kid. Now, I mostly feel sorry for her. I wish we could’ve gotten to know each other but it is what it is." He smiled and shrugged. "Another round?"

Quentin understood that Eliot was done talking about his family and their conversation stayed lighter for a while after he returned from the bar. They talked about their friends, the still inexplicable thing that was Josh and Margo; they talked about how mutually impressed they were by everything that Kady had done and what Julia might have in store for her now that she was, by all accounts, whole again. Eventually and, Quentin would reflect later, regretfully, the conversation turned to Alice.

"You want to get a souvenir for her? From the," Eliot squinted, flipping through a tourism brochure discarded on the next table. "From the National Museum of Cambridge Glass? Before we head out tomorrow?" He chuckled as he pushed it across the table to Quentin.

"I guess a little peace offering wouldn’t be bad," Quentin said, even though he didn't think Eliot was serious. The museum advertised a gift shop full of delicate, kitschy figurines and it might be nice, he thought, to buy something cute and find a small enchantment to go with it, something to make a horse gallop or a merry-go-round always spin. He doubted anything would impress Alice at this point but it seemed like a nice gesture, something to show that there were no hard feelings. He owed her at least that.

"You guys okay?" Eliot asked. Quentin tilted his head, questioning.

Eliot continued, "I mean, interdimensional really is pushing the boundaries of long distance," he said. He took a sip of his drink and looked into the glass for a minute before glancing at Quentin. A little bit of foam - egg white? - stuck to his upper lip.

"What?" Quentin almost choked on his drink as bits of pineapple caught in his throat. He stared at Eliot, eyebrows raised, willing him to clarify.

"Aren’t you, weren’t you a thing again? Margo said - "

"I guess, for like half a second before we both realized that we’d probably self-destruct within a week. I mean, I almost died, you know? Kind of brings you clarity." His words, pried loose by rum and questionable liqueur, hung heavy in the air and everything seemed to come to a halt, like Quentin had cast a spell. He felt stupid and thoughtless, a clawing feeling that began at the back of his neck and creeped over his scalp, threatening to flood his body with panic.

"You what?"

Quentin winced, running a hand over his face to scrub the expression. They had never really talked about everything, much less his brush with death. Some part of him had hoped they could just pretend it never happened, that they could both agree to ignore everything that came after Blackspire and pick up where they left off, regardless of the damage that led to it and all that followed it. He knew it wasn’t reasonable. That wasn’t the point. He just couldn’t bring himself to deal with what it might mean to talk about how he’d felt while Eliot was gone.

"Fuck, I mean - look. It’s not a big deal, I didn’t want, I didn’t mean to," Quentin stammered. He picked up his glass and ran a finger over the rim, trying to soothe himself. "I had to cast in there, in the Mirror Realm, I mean, and it did what we knew it would do and I almost got caught in it but I didn’t, okay? I’m fine."

In many ways, it felt impossible to explain. He had offered up his life once to save the world and it only made sense to do it again; what was a sacrifice if you could take it back? And when he’d gone in with Alice, he’d been sure that he’d come back. It hadn’t even occurred to him that things might go sideways. It was only in the moment, when it was do or die, that he’d made his choice. That was what he told himself. Anything outside of that very narrow understanding risked upending the tenuous stability he'd built. He peeled the dry skin at the edge of one nail back until it stung and it was only then that he realized he was bleeding.

"Q. What the fuck were you thinking?"

"It's fine, I promise. It's not like I tried to kill myself," he said as he sucked at the wound.

Eliot only looked at him, mouth a little open and eyes wide, aghast.

"What?" Quentin asked.

Eliot shook his head. The room seemed to grow darker somehow, the air heavier. Eliot didn't look at him. He waited for what felt like a long time; for Eliot to speak, for this to make sense, to find the words in himself to explain everything he felt. He felt like he was on the wrong side of a two-way mirror, like Eliot could see every secretive action he took while Quentin could only see his own mottled reflection.

Eventually, Eliot said, "I wish you'd tell me what you're feeling sometimes."

Quentin couldn't think of anything to say. He felt stuck on the fact that, apparently, Eliot had thought that he and Alice were together for the last several weeks and hadn't said anything. He didn't understand why Eliot thought he would keep that to himself, why he wouldn't tell him about something like that and he wanted to shake him by the shoulders, to tell him that he loved him and that he was so, so stupid to think otherwise. More than anything, he wanted to ask what Eliot was so worried about, why he’d fixated on what happened that day, and what exactly about this conversation mattered, given that they were driving seven hundred miles to bury Eliot’s estranged father and shouldn’t they be dealing with whatever it was that Eliot was feeling, not digging with ungloved hands into Quentin’s recent history? In that moment, every word, every feeling seemed incomprehensible and Quentin felt the tangle of it all tightening in his chest until he thought he might panic, until he might burst and he almost did, almost let everything tumble out in an inarticulate mess of grief and longing.

Instead he took a deep breath and with a gentle voice said, "Did you really think that she and I were back together and I wouldn’t tell you?"

Eliot shrugged. He still wouldn’t look at Quentin, instead focusing intently on the drink menu, despite how full his glass was.

After a moment he said, "I guess, I thought you were trying to spare my feelings."

"Oh," Quentin said, dumbstruck. Before he could say anything else, Eliot closed his eyes and shook his head, like he was clearing a magic eight ball.

"It’s fine, let’s not," he said. "They have free pool tonight. Come embarrass yourself to make up for it."

Between the lines, Quentin heard Don’t push it. He sighed, relieved and ashamed still more than a little confused.

"Okay. Sure."

A thick tension hovered above them for the rest of the night. Quentin made it through exactly two rounds of pool and was not, in fact, embarrassing at all. If Eliot was offended, he kept quiet, and they got through the night on waves of pineapple juice and rum. Around one, they stumbled back to their room. The air was cooler by then and Quentin was relieved when they stepped outside to walk across the parking lot. He hadn’t noticed how warm the bar had been or how anxious he’d really felt.

"Fuck," Eliot said after he opened the door. Quentin looked around the room for something obviously wrong before it dawned on him. The one bed situation would ordinarily be fine, he was pretty sure, but the bed was too small to fit the two of them and the almost corporeal discomfort they carried home with them like a third wheel.

"It's fine," Quentin said. "I'll sleep on the floor."

"Q, don't be fucking stupid."

Like so many times that night, Quentin had nothing to say. Slowly, clumsily, he stripped down to his boxer briefs and went through the pantomime of brushing his teeth and splashed his face with cold water. He made a point of getting into the bed first. He didn't want to have to shape himself around Eliot's long body and some petty part of him wanted to make Eliot uncomfortable, to make him find a way to fit with Quentin for once.

Quentin pretended to be asleep by the time Eliot crawled into bed and for a while, they lay next to each other in the dark. Though he ordinarily slept on his side, he didn't want to face away from Eliot, didn't want to abandon him. So he laid on his back, his growing misery heavy across his chest like a weighted blanket, and waited fruitlessly for sleep to come.

At the back of his mind, he didn't want to fall asleep with this cloud over them, didn't want to let the storm brew into something worse overnight. Above all, he didn't want to arrive in Eliot's hometown like this. It would be painful enough. He rolled onto his side and inhaled through his nose.

"El," his voice was sticky in his throat.

"Yeah," Eliot said and sounded clear. He obviously hadn't been asleep.

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For being a dick."

"I guess that's a start," Eliot said. Quentin felt the bed shift as he rolled over. In the spare light from the clock, Quentin could just make out Eliot's face. His face was a little smushed against the pillow but it didn't make him any less heartstopping, especially not with the way his mouth hung a little open, inviting. Quentin's alcohol-soaked brain wanted suddenly, desperately to kiss him.

"Let's just. Table our shit until we get back, okay?" Eliot said. He reached across the space between them and touched his knuckles to Quentin’s cheek. The punchdrunk desire he’d felt faded as quickly as it came, transforming instantly into something more like sadness, nostalgia for a time they hadn’t lived.

Quentin nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I don’t - I didn’t mean to make this trip any harder." He felt himself drifting off, too drunk and too sad to really process anything coming out of his mouth.

Eliot made a huffing sound that Quentin couldn’t tell from a laugh or scoff. "You didn’t, Q, it’s okay. I’m really glad you’re here. Promise."

He passed out with Eliot's hand still against his face.

In the morning, he awoke more comfortable than he'd been in ages. The alcohol had left behind a headache but it didn't feel like anything a few ibuprofen couldn't handle and he felt incredibly warm - not hot, but warm, almost swaddled.

For a moment, he thought about staying still. Eliot’s naked chest was snug against his back and it had been so long since he'd had anything more than the most casual touches.

"El," he said quietly. He tapped gently at Eliot's forearm. "Eliot."

Eliot’s arm tightened across his chest before he spoke.

"Hey," Eliot said and his voice was hoarse and warm against Quentin’s ear, made him shiver. For a few languid moments, neither of them moved. Quentin couldn't tell if Eliot was totally awake, if he realized how close they were. It made him feel a little guilty and even more pathetic, but it felt undeniably good to be wrapped up, to be held. Then Eliot pushed one knee in between his legs to pull him even closer and it took a level of restraint Quentin didn’t know he possessed not to grind back against him.

The worst part was that he knew this. Everything about it was familiar - the weight of Eliot behind him, the feeling of what Quentin was almost positive was his erection at the small of his back and just, the way he held him, a little possessive, a little demanding. He’d woken up like this for decades. Eliot's body knew all of his crooks and bends and the press of it was comfortable and exciting and urgently new all at once and Quentin knew that if he didn’t extricate himself he’d end up doing something stupid that he would have to live with for another thousand miles.

As he pulled away, Eliot fought him, just enough that Quentin felt a twinge of regret. If Eliot felt guilty or awkward, he didn't show it. They got ready and packed up in relative quiet and by ten o'clock were back on the road.

The rest of the drive went by slowly. They didn’t talk much, for which Quentin was grateful. His hangovers usually took the form of exhaustion and a mild, all-over sadness and it was easier to stay quiet. Instead, he listened as Eliot hummed along to the radio and then to a playlist from his phone. It felt almost indulgent to curl up in his seat and mull over everything he'd said the night before. He sunk readily beneath the surface of his thoughts, his self-loathing a comforting weight. The ease with which he gave into the familiarity of depression had always been the most dangerous part of his illness but just then, he didn't care. He watched as water towers and mile markers slid by with a liquidity they hadn't possessed the day before and everything seemed to slow the further he slid into his head.

Overhead, clouds floated, lofty and gentle. It was different today; there were no more stretches of clear blue, endless sky, no storm clouds. Though the landscape was still mostly flat, it felt less like the sky and the ground were competing with one another for space. Instead, the clouds seemed diaphanous, desaturating the sky and softening the horizon until it all appeared to Quentin as a single gradient. The hazy view combined with the Eliot's voice as he sang along to the tinny music from his playlist soothed Quentin and he grew listless and drowsy. It was better than focusing too much on everything from the night before.

By the time they crossed into Indiana, he was asleep. He woke to Eliot lightly tapping his shoulder.

"Hey, Q," Eliot said gently. He sounded tired and Quentin was a little relieved. Anything was better than anger, he thought as he blinked awake. His mouth was dry and he reached for a water bottle from the day before, chugging the lukewarm remains before speaking.

"Are we almost there?"

Eliot nodded. "Another 45 minutes maybe. I guess I didn’t need to wake you up yet, but."

Quentin wasn’t sure exactly what Eliot meant, but if he didn’t want to be alone in Indiana, he didn’t blame him.

"Yeah," Quentin said. "I’m here."

It was a two lane highway for the final 20 minutes, due south. They passed houses set far back from the road, mailboxes the only sign that the long driveways ended anywhere; they passed old grain stores and homes more recently built, ranch-style houses that looked like they might justify breezeways with their length.

"There’s the church," Eliot said as they passed a red brick building with white trim set at the edge of a road. Sunday Service at 9 and 11 a.m., read the marquee in yellowed letters.

"Lutherans?" Quentin asked. He turned and realized the cemetery lay just across the street, surrounded by a low iron fence.

"Yup," Eliot said, as though it were sufficient background. "Every Sunday. Can’t say I’m looking forward to going back."

"I always wished my family were religious," Quentin said. "The community, Sunday School, all that seemed nice when I was a kid. I always liked going with friends after Saturday sleepovers."

"Yeah, well. Your friends probably weren't Missouri Synod," Eliot said. Quentin felt too tired to ask anything further and they were quiet for the next several minutes until they passed a sign welcoming them to Milan, home of the 1954 state basketball champs.

"How does a town in Indiana end up named Milan?" Quentin asked.

"Well, it's My-lunn, if that makes a difference," Eliot said, smiling. "But who knows. Why does Paris, Texas or Lebanon, Kansas exist?"

Quentin shrugged, feeling a little warmer under Eliot's smile. "Point taken."

"I just want to get to the room and rest," Eliot said as they turned off the highway and into a neighborhood. "Airbnb, whatever. We can go to the house first thing tomorrow. It's actually technically in a different town, another ten-fifteen minutes out."

"Okay," Quentin said. He wasn’t sure why Eliot felt the need to explain himself. "Whatever you want to do."

They parked in a cement driveway in front of a house that was, by all appearances, perfectly typical: one story, neutral siding, a dark green or maybe grey or maybe brown door. Quentin busied himself getting their luggage while Eliot found the keys.

Once inside, Quentin dropped their bags in separate rooms while Eliot took out their suits and hung them in one of the closets. The house could be best described as beige, its carpet and couch and even the countertops all various shades of brown. The blinds were closed and gave the house a cloistered feeling that reminded Quentin of his father's house, made him feel restless. The only notable thing was a huge black scorch mark near the entryway.

"Well this is," Quentin said as he sat down on the sunken couch, "definitely fine."

Eliot slumped beside him, looked at him sidelong and laughed. Quentin felt his chest relax a fraction. He hadn’t realized how anxious he was about everything; not just what Eliot thought or even how he felt about being here, but about having to go to a funeral at all. He’d said that he didn’t mind and he meant it at the time, but now that they were here it felt terrifying.

"Smoke?" he said. Eliot nodded and followed him back out onto the porch. They sat under a lone light fixture that was more moth than lightbulb as the sun set in Quentin’s periphery.

"You sure you’re okay to deal with all of this?" Eliot asked as he pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Instead of handing one to Quentin to light himself, he lit one and sucked on it until the ember glowed. Something stirred in Quentin’s belly when Eliot passed it to him. There was an intimacy to the gesture that Quentin hadn’t yet learned to take for granted.

"I mean, not really," Quentin said, inhaling and blowing out a thick plume of smoke. He smiled, small and close-mouthed. "But it's okay."

Eliot regarded him silently for a moment before accepting the cigarette. Quentin held his gaze, unwavering. It felt like some kind of challenge, though Quentin couldn’t say why.

Something came over Quentin in that moment, a kind of bravery he hadn't felt in a long time. He thought it might be recklessness but he was too tired and hungover to care, so he scooted over until he was pressed firmly against Eliot's side and tucked his face into Eliot's neck. He didn't have a plan and he wasn't sure what he was doing. All he knew was that it was important to be close to Eliot again.

He closed his eyes and took Eliot’s free hand. He always thought of Eliot as so much bigger than himself but his own hands were almost as large, their knuckles pressing a little uncomfortably together. It startled him to realize it. He wondered why he didn’t remember. It seemed like an important detail.

"Q," Eliot said. His voice wasn’t casual and he didn’t take his hand back.

"Yeah."

"What’s up?"

Quentin ran his finger tips over the backs of Eliot’s knuckles. He almost said Nothing, wanted to say I don’t know. Instead he forced a deep breath into his lungs and tucked more firmly into Eliot.

"I’m sorry," he said. "I really am. I just. I don’t know what to say all the time and things - they weren’t good while you were, you know, gone. I’m still trying to figure out where I fit into everything now. I don’t think I expected to be here."

He felt Eliot’s shoulders rise with his breath. A moment passed when Quentin thought Eliot might leave. Instead he turned his head and kissed Quentin’s temple.

"That’s okay," Eliot said. "We’ve got time."

Quentin realized that Eliot must have stubbed out the cigarette when he cradled Quentin’s hand in his wide palms. Quentin really did feel out of words, then, exhausted and overwhelmed. It had taken more energy than he had just to get those few sentences out and he slumped against Eliot, hoping he got the message.

"C’mon, Q. Big day tomorrow." he said, and his voice was barely above a whisper as he moved to stand, balancing with practiced steadiness on his cane. Quentin followed him inside on leaden feet. Once in bed, he managed to stay awake long enough to hear Eliot lay down in the second bedroom. He felt a little glad that Eliot left his door open.

The next morning, they found breakfast at a diner. Quentin ate lukewarm pancakes and Eliot picked at a plate of eggs and greasy hashbrowns. Whatever had passed between them over the last thirty-six hours seemed to have evaporated, mostly anyway, and Quentin felt at ease for the first time in as long. Somehow, he didn’t feel nervous about going to Eliot’s old house, now barely felt any anxiety about attending a funeral the following day. He hoped the feeling stuck.

"I think this coffee is mostly dirt," Quentin said into his mug. When he tilted it, he could see the coarse, burnt grounds at the bottom.

"I’m not sure these aren’t very wet shoelaces," Eliot said. He picked up a clump of hashbrowns on his fork and they quivered when he shook it.

"Be careful with those. You might choke."

"At least I won’t have to deal with today and tomorrow if I do," Eliot said ruefully. Quentin couldn’t help it; he laughed. There was something comforting about Eliot’s tone, dramatic as it was.

"What?" Eliot said and Quentin wasn’t wrong, he was smiling a little bit. He shook his head.

"Nothing, you’re," he laughed again and his cheeks hurt. "It’s just really good to have you back."

Eliot looked at him, not quite smiling now but with warm, slightly crinkled eyes.

"You too," he said. His fork clattered when he dropped it on the plate. "Ready to face my childhood?"

The house, Quentin learned as they drove, sat on about a thousand acres outside of town. When Eliot was little, they had mostly grown corn and soy but they’d had some animals, too. If Quentin didn’t know what he knew about Eliot, he’d think it idyllic. He could imagine growing up surrounded by towering fields and braying goats and it wasn’t entirely unappealing, the idea of reading the same books he loved but out under a poplar instead of under a table. He could imagine the smell of soil, the musk of the animals and the way it would all fade in a warm summer breeze. In a more romantic universe, Eliot’s childhood would’ve been treasured.

Eliot said, "At least, that’s what it was when I was a kid. My dad may have let it go to shit. It wouldn’t surprise me."

They turned off the highway and onto one of the dirt roads that Eliot had promised. It took another fifteen minutes and a couple more turns - including one over a cattle guard, which Eliot explained as the car shuddered over it - and finally, they arrived at the house. Eliot pulled into the gravel driveway but stayed a good distance back, and Quentin took in the surroundings.

In the yard, there were old whiskey barrel planters, half on their sides. Weeds and flowers grew out of them equally but it seemed intentional, a practiced sort of rusticness that Quentin had observed often during their drive. The yard itself was a little overgrown but only just, like it had been well-maintained until recently. Little white flowers on long stalks dotted the perimeter, some in thick clumps and others standing alone. He tried to imagine Eliot, small but the same, running around the house, in the yard or in the fields behind it, but couldn't. This didn't seem like a place that would've allowed for a skinny boy with wild dark curls.

For a minute or two, they sat in the car, staring. It felt as though they were waiting to see if someone would come out, or if the house would burst into flames and save them all the trouble. No one appeared and the house stood still.

"So, this is it," Eliot said as he got out of the car. Quentin followed him, looking up as they approached.

The house itself was imposing. It stood two stories, a rectangular facade that implied stability, its old windows peering out at them blank and empty. A long porch wrapped around the front and Quentin could imagine that it had been nice, once, to sit out on it in the evening and watch the sunset. Looking up, he observed a peaked roof and a chimney that was visible to one side, its brick whitewashed to blend in with the rest of the exterior. The white paint looked new but Quentin could still see the flaking texture of old paint and decaying siding underneath. Whoever had last painted the house had been more interested in covering up what was broken than fixing it.

They took the three steps up to the porch and paused in front of the screen door. Quentin could smell dust and old wood, the heat of summer pulling every musty scent up through the decking. Eliot bent over and pulled a key out from under a pot holding the dried remains of a plant. Quentin wondered why he didn't just magic the lock open.

"Are you sure you're ready?" Quentin asked.

"Not at all," Eliot said. He shook out his hands and went for the lock. "Here we go."

As the door creaked open, Quentin held out his hand. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Chapter Text

They crossed the threshold and Quentin was glad to have Eliot's hand in his. The house was almost pristine, recently vacuumed and dusted and not at all what Quentin had pictured. It looked as though Eliot’s father might have just left for the grocery store and a chill passed over Quentin's arms, imagining that he was still alive and might come home at any minute. It might as easily be a dollhouse, the furniture worn but in an intentional way that implied design, or else stubborn resistance to change.

He turned and observed Eliot's face. He seemed almost in awe - not in a good way, really, but in the way that Quentin remembered from historical texts he'd read in college. He looked pained, like whatever he saw was burning down and might soon collapse, destroying everything around it. His mouth hung a little open and his eyes were wide. Quentin tapped his thumb against Eliot's hand where he held it and swung his arm slightly.

"You okay?"

Eliot licked his lips. "Yeah, it's. This place hasn't really changed. I swear to God that's the same TV, same doormat, everything. It's exactly the same as it was when I left." Instinctively, Quentin squeezed his hand.

Looking around, Quentin could imagine that the house hadn't changed since at least the mid-90s. The couch looked like corduroy and was overstuffed, like it would be as at home in a rec room or clubhouse. The blinds were yellowed but in good shape, like they’d been regularly dusted and no one had ever tugged too hard on the cords. Red floral valances topped every visible window in a way that struck Quentin as both decidedly farmhouse and suburban; he was almost certain that his Cub Scout meetings took place in a house with those same window dressings.

"Wow," Quentin said, at a loss for words. Again, he tried to imagine a young Eliot in this house, this time splayed out on his belly in front of the television or curled up on the couch. It pulled a knot tight in his stomach.

"Yeah," Eliot laughed and pulled his hand back ran it through his hair. "I know."

Despite the uncanny nostalgia, a warm light fell over everything that gave Quentin the urge to sigh. It was hard to find the place too ugly when the sun oozed through the old blinds like honey, casting them all in gold. He fought the urge to reach back out for Eliot’s hand.

He followed Eliot’s gaze up the staircase that led straight up from the door. Upstairs, Quentin could see hazy sunbeams drifting across the second floor, filtered through curtains and dust.

"You wanna see my room?"

There was something undeniably tempting about the idea. He’d always had the sense that between his mental health issues and his actual hospitalizations, he’d missed out on so much, on so many normal teenage experiences, and it pinged something adolescent in Quentin. He felt his cheeks grow hot at how eager he suddenly felt, at how badly he also wanted this small glimpse into Eliot’s past.

"I mean, I doubt it’s the same. There's no way the old man would've kept it after I left," Eliot said as he took the stairs two at a time and Quentin resisted the urge to tell him to be careful, to slow down, to watch his cane. "And, yep, here we are."

Quentin peered around the door frame and found a nondescript room. It could have been in any hotel or bed and breakfast, he thought. There was a full bed in the center, white sheets and a blue quilt covering a flat mattress braced by a simple wooden headboard. A lamp stood on the nightstand and a single dresser sat off to one side. There was nothing on the walls but a single print, brush strokes made to look like oil, of a barn against a blue sky.

Before he could say anything, Eliot made for the closet. It was a small walk-in, apparently, as Eliot took a step and disappeared inside. Sparing another long look around, Quentin wondered what all might have happened here. He tried to imagine the room as it was before, covered in posters, maybe, with bookshelves and a more boyish bedspread; he tried to picture the nights Eliot spent alone as a teenager, waiting for his future to come. It made Quentin feel both nostalgic for his own childhood and ache for everything he couldn’t know about Eliot.

When it came, Eliot’s laughter wasn’t bitter like Quentin expected. He sounded - not happy, exactly. But it was real, tinkling laughter. Quentin followed it into the closet.

"What’d you find?" Quentin asked, kneeling beside him where he sat next to an open box on the floor. "Oh."

In his hands, Eliot held a Bible. It was bound in simple brown leather, embossed gold letters on the cover. Quentin watched as he flipped it open to the flyleaf and saw a note scrawled across it. He couldn’t quite make out the words, black ink aged and blurry on the thin paper, but it wasn’t the straight, old-fashioned lines of family birth and death records.

"Was it a gift?"

"Yeah," Eliot said, quiet and soft. "My confirmation. We had mentors - not like, you know, Brakebills mentors, but. Mine was this woman, Deborah, who upon reflection was definitely a lesbian. She lived with a roommate. She must have known, God, I must have been so obvious to her." He laughed and Quentin had the all too familiar urge to hold him tight. There was so much unsaid in that sentence that Quentin could hear between every word, No one really knew me and I wish they'd tried. He thumbed through the pages and Quentin thought of vanillin. The paper was almost too thin to safely turn.

"Did you stay in touch with her?"

Eliot shook his head. He ran his fingers over the inscription and closed the cover. "By the time I left I never wanted to talk to anyone from this town ever again. It was easier to cut off every tie than try and keep in touch. And I was always afraid that someone might tell my dad where I was. I guess I should’ve trusted her."

"El, what," Quentin paused, unsure if he should ask. "What exactly happened? With your dad I mean?"

Eliot looked up from the box he rummaged through. For a long moment, he held Quentin’s gaze.

"I’m sorry, you don’t have to -"

"No, it’s okay. He, um." He paused and drew his lower lip between his teeth, worrying at it as he settled on his words. "I guess the easiest way to explain it is to say that he was abusive. Which he was. He yelled all the time, at me and my mom and anyone that pissed him off, always about the dumbest shit. You never knew what might set him off. He didn’t hide that he hit my mom and I was, you know." He gestured down at his body as if that were an explanation. Quentin shook his head.

"I mean, it will shock you to learn that I was a loud, ridiculous kid, which he made no secret of hating in the first place. So when I listened to music he didn’t like and got into theater and cared more about my clothes than learning how to work the thresher, well. He, yeah. He’d hit me a few times when I was little but after my mom died, it got really bad. And I thought, I guess, I thought that it was just something dads did, because he always had and it’s not like I was the only kid I knew whose dad was an asshole. It sounds so stupid now, but back then he was my dad and I thought he loved me. Even after he broke my arm and some other - well. Some other really fucked up shit happened." He wiped at his eyes with his thumbs and when his breath came, it seemed to rattle in his chest. "I promise I'll tell you about it one day but I, I can't right now."

Quentin felt indescribably guilty. "No, Eliot, it's okay," he said. "You don't owe me anything."

Eliot clicked his tongue and blinked up at the ceiling, like maybe the light would help dry his eyes. "All this is to say that I, I never said anything to anyone and eventually I, well. Disappeared. It was my only choice."

As his voice shook, Eliot kept his eyes on a small wooden whistle that he’d dug out of the box. It was painted faded blue and shaped like an airplane and as he ran his fingers lightly along the wings, Quentin wondered what it meant to him.

"Christ, Eliot. I don't know what to say."

"I tried so hard, Q. I wanted to be something he could love. I did 4-H, I raised rabbits and goats and learned how to drive the tractor and helped him tear up the back field when we transitioned to fucking soy," he laughed, wet through tears. "It’s so fucking stupid because now I know there was nothing I could do and anyway I don’t want love from someone like that. But I hate that I tried, that I didn’t know better sooner. I could’ve saved myself so much time and pain."

Quentin didn’t ask, just leaned into Eliot and pulled him in for a hug. More than anything, he wanted to comfort him, to somehow make him feel as loved as he should’ve always been.

"I'm so sorry," Quentin said, at a loss for words. He maneuvered their bodies so that he could hold Eliot against him, intimate but not assuming, and slipped his hand into the curve of his neck, felt the soft, unstyled curls under his fingers. Quentin closed his eyes and forced down the thick wave of empathy that rose in his throat. Eliot's chest heaved against his ribs.

"Yeah," Eliot said into Quentin's shirt. "And you know the worst part? It all makes me hate my mom. What he did, everything he put me through, I know it's not her fault. But it's so hard not to be angry at her. She should've tried harder to stop drinking, to get better. I'll never know what difference it would've made but it's impossible not to think that maybe she would've eventually left and taken me with her. I don't know. Part of me hates her for it, for dying." His breath hitched and Quentin held him close.

Eliot cried like someone conditioned to hide it: choked off and quiet, without long wails or sobs. Quentin rubbed his thumb steadily across the nape of his neck, cradling him, and almost had the urge to rock them back and forth. All the while, Eliot held the whistle with the delicacy of a relic, turning it over and over in his palm, worrying the smooth edges with his thumb like someone might count rosary beads. Quentin ached for him. He imagined the church members who might have seen signs of what Eliot was going through, who probably brought casseroles when his mom died but never asked if he was okay; he imagined the family members that had disappeared and left Eliot to fend for himself. Worse, he imagined Eliot’s father and the rage, the hatred that Eliot must have had to contend with in the face of someone who should’ve loved him like Quentin’s father had. He thought of Ted, then, and what he’d lost with his death; the way he always doubled-checked if the doors were locked, the panic attacks he’d sometimes had on the freeway. Quentin remembered the yogurt he’d always packed in his elementary school lunchbox and the way he’d always insisted on a hug and a kiss before Quentin went anywhere. Though Eliot didn’t have these tender feelings, there was something to all of this, he thought. Remembering was part of grieving. It was like burning a forest to revitalize the soil, an act of absolution, of purification. Memory, it seemed to Quentin, was a little bit holy, even when it hurt.

"You deserved to have a mom," Quentin said. "You deserved to have a family that loved you and took care of you."

Eliot's shoulders moved in an approximation of a shrug. He sighed and for a moment, Quentin felt his nose pressed hard against his neck.

"We got an internet connection for the first time when I was thirteen or fourteen and it changed everything for me. I didn't know there were other queer people. I didn’t know what a queer person was, except something that I shouldn’t be. Then I had this whole universe opened up to me, full of people who called themselves queers and dykes and fags and had dads that hated them, too, and for the first time in my life I didn't feel alone. I found a few people on," he laughed, a sharp exhale warm against Quentin's collarbone, "fucking LiveJournal. They gave me something to look forward to, helped me plan an escape. My last growth spurt hit when I was seventeen and I got taller than him and I felt, I don’t know, finally like I could take him if he wanted to fight. So I left."

"I’m really glad you were able to get out," Quentin said. He wanted to tell Eliot that his own life wouldn’t be the same without him, that he wasn’t sure he would have survived the last couple of years. He wanted to say that he loved him. But it seemed selfish, somehow, to bring the focus back to himself. Instead he held Eliot tighter and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.

Eliot sat up and jostled against his shoulder. His eyes were puffy and red but he smiled, just enough to show a thin strip of teeth. "Yeah," he said, "me too."

For the next few hours, they sorted through the stacks of boxes in Eliot's old closet. Eliot took him on a guided tour of his childhood and adolescence, explaining that the wooden whistles were from a local fair where he’d competed with other 4-H kids, that there were probably some of his old trophies and ribbons buried somewhere, too, because for a while he’d actually been pretty good at raising small animals. When Quentin found a box full of CDs - God, you were so much cooler than I was - Eliot told him about looking up bands online and searching through the bins at Best Buy in the next biggest town, Columbus, Indiana or Cincinnati, and the incomparable excitement of finding an indie record store that actually stocked what he wanted, whose walls were lined with posters of The Smiths and Hüsker Dü and a million other bands that Quentin had never heard of.

"Is that how come you have all these Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey CDs?" Quentin said, reaching into the box. The jewel cases sparked a sense memory in him of his own adolescence - the thrill of new music, of finding exactly what he was looking for.

"That is exactly why I have those, thanks," Eliot said, laughing around the tears lingering in his throat. "Did you ever try using Kazaa on dial-up? An absolute nightmare." He sat up and plucked the CDs from Quentin’s hands.

There were more boxes, too, full of books and old magazines, worn copies of The Advocate and a few music magazines. Quentin delicately flipped through the covers and wondered why Eliot had bothered saving them.

"Blockbuster sold those," he said fondly as Quentin flipped through a July 2003 issue of Alternative Press. "Not that I ever paid for them."

Late in the afternoon, when they had finally combed through what remained of Eliot’s past, they carried two boxes downstairs and set them by the door. In them were a few trinkets, a few old journals that Eliot hadn’t let Quentin read, some CDs, and a dozen books that Eliot had deemed worthy of the apartment.

"What about the rest of it?" Quentin asked as he pulled a frozen pizza from the yellowed fridge. "The house, I mean."

Eliot sighed, leaning back into a chair at the kitchen table, his long legs splayed out in front of him. Quentin heard his hips crack as he moved and realized that squatting over boxes all afternoon probably hadn’t been good for his healing joints.

"Can we just torch the thing?" Eliot said. "We’re magicians, we can hide the evidence."

The oven pinged, signaling the end of its preheating cycle. Quentin slid the pizza directly onto the rack and turned to face Eliot.

"Honestly? If it'll make you feel better."

Eliot laughed, cracked his neck. In the late afternoon light, Quentin felt comfortably domestic. He settled into a chair across from Eliot and picked at a corner of peeling linoleum on the tabletop, finding himself oddly fixated on the brown-speckled material. Like so many things in this house, the table reminded him of his own childhood - his mom’s house, this time. He couldn’t say for sure, but he thought that she had a similar table, maybe something she’d gotten secondhand after the divorce. He realized that he’d sat at it while she had gone over his discharge paperwork after his first hospitalization.

Three days and they say you’re stable?

"Q, you okay?"

"Yeah," he said without thinking. "I’m fine."

When the pizza was finished fifteen minutes later, they ate in relative quiet off of the flattened pizza box and paper towels. Eliot wiped the grease from the corners of his mouth with an exaggerated delicacy that made Quentin want to reach across the table and drag his thumb over Eliot’s chin.

"C’mon," Eliot said, standing. "I wanna get drunk in the barn like I’m sixteen."

"There’s a barn?"

"Quentin, we had pigs and goats. Where do you think they slept?"

Quentin tipped his head back and laughed. After everything - the drive, their tension, the trip down memory lane - Eliot's matter of factness about farm animals sent him over the edge. He stood and leaned against the wall and watched as Eliot rooted around in a cabinet at the far end of the kitchen and emerged with two wine bottles and a small, ornate bottle of what he guessed was whiskey.

"My dad always bought this for special occasions, so, you know, any time he wanted an excuse to be more drunk than usual. I’d always wanted to steal it," Eliot said, examining the label.

"It’s never too late to fulfill your dreams." Quentin regretted the words the instant they left him and instinctively lifted a hand, as if he could reach up and catch them before they landed.

"Mm," Eliot agreed. "Shall we?"

As it turned out, they were in for a walk; the barn sat almost a mile from the house. The sun sank into the horizon as they crossed the uncultivated land, long, dry grass sticking to their jeans. Grasshoppers criss-crossed their paths like water popping in hot oil and it startled Quentin as much, their canvas colored bodies invisible against the straw. They passed a wine bottle back and forth as they walked and Quentin felt warm all over before they made it halfway.

"Aren't you glad I made you bring jeans?" Quentin asked as he stepped over a fallen log.

"You didn’t make me do anything," Eliot said. "I am in fact scarred enough by this place to remember the terror of its insects."

After a few more minutes, they reached the barn. It wasn’t as big as Quentin imagined and he realized that his only real reference for barns were childhood toys featuring Old MacDonald. This barn, though, wasn’t towering and bright red, nor did it have the arched angled panels over the roof. It stood only about ten feet, tall enough, he guessed, for smaller animals and with a high enough ceiling to allow the air to circulate. Its floor was mostly dirt, strewn here and there with straw but not much of it. Still, a stale scent of sweat was detectable beneath the smell of grass and dirt. He wondered when an animal had last slept there.

They settled in against the old wood and Eliot handed him the bottle of wine by the neck. He unscrewed the cap, watching as Eliot took a long pull from the whiskey.

"Fuck," he said.

"Pretty much." Quentin drank directly from his own bottle and leaned back against a plank that creaked with his weight. "You okay?" he asked even as he saw Eliot wipe underneath his eyes with his finger tips.

"To be clear, I’m not crying because I’m sad he’s dead," he laughed. "But to be honest I don’t know why I’m crying. It, I don't know."

"I get it," Quentin said. "Today’s been a fucking lot."

Quentin felt helpless. He wanted so badly to do anything to make Eliot feel lighter, less alone. A few more moments passed in silence while Eliot focused on tearing the health warning label off of the whiskey.

"I think I feel relieved, to be honest," Eliot said after a long breath. His voice tilted up at the end like he wasn’t sure, like it might be a question. "I didn’t realize until he was dead that there was always this piece of me that was worried he’d find me or that I’d see him on the street somewhere. And I don’t feel bad for feeling that but I do feel, well. I guess I wish I didn’t have to feel relieved."

"What do you think would have happened if he did?" Quentin quietly asked.

Eliot swallowed and knocked back another mouthful of whiskey. "Honestly? I might have killed him. I don’t know if I would have meant to or not but I was always afraid of it. He would have deserved it, but I." He bit his lip and fixed his gaze on the ground. "I wouldn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He would have found a way to haunt me."

As Quentin listened to Eliot speak, his chest ached. It was incomprehensible to him that anyone could be so cruel to their own child. His memories of Teddy were nebulous but if anything he remembered the love, how it bathed their family in warmth every day, how it was always a comfort. He remembered how it felt to hold him, to console him when he cried, and how raising him with Arielle and Eliot had only made him love them both more. He couldn’t begin to imagine treating Teddy like Eliot’s father had treated him or what it felt like to have that love made so ugly, to have it turned inside out and exacted with such violence.

Quentin chewed at his lip and drank his wine. He didn’t know what to say; his own inarticulate feelings seemed to fill his throat until it burned.

"It’s, God, it’s so fucking weird being back here. I really never meant to come back."

"Why did we?" Quentin asked.

Eliot shrugged. "It felt like I should."

Quentin raised his eyebrows.

"Not to honor his memory or any kind of bullshit like that. Closure, maybe? I wanted to do it for me, no one else, because I've been trying, or at least, trying to try lately. Everything has been so weird since I got - " he paused, laughing bitterly. "God, I know there has to be a better way to say it than ‘Got back’ but for the life of me I can’t fucking figure out what it is. Since I got unpossessed? Since I was freed from the grip of certain damnation? Since Margo axed my puppet strings?" Eliot laughed and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. "Is this really our life? Am I really sitting here with you in my family barn in Indi-fucking-ana trying to figure out a better way to say I was possessed?"

Eliot's voice was sharp, almost caustic. Quentin wanted to soothe it back into the soft thing he knew.

"Yeah," Quentin said, tapping Eliot’s ankle with his toe. "This is really our life."

Selfishly, Quentin was glad to be here; to him, time had always been a gift. He still felt like he’d been given something precious when Eliot had accepted his offer to tag along.

"Could be worse, I guess," Eliot said. His foot drifted and fell against Quentin’s.

Quentin nodded in silent agreement and settled so that their outstretched legs pressed together. He looked at Eliot in the moonlight and felt his throat close up. The light fell over his face in glowing blue, illuminating the aquiline curve of his nose and the ridge of his brow in a way that Quentin found unbearably romantic. Again, he thought that maybe there was something to this whole country-living thing, that maybe there were things he’d missed out on.

Eliot turned to him and smiled thinly.

"You didn’t - are you okay? I can’t imagine how this all must be, after your dad. Julia said that you had to pack his stuff up and that it went a little odd."

Quentin shrugged. "It’s okay." Though he felt admittedly touched by Eliot’s concern, he didn’t want to burden him with the story of the airplanes and the frozen peas. Even for him, all of those details were unbearable and the thought of laying them on Eliot's shoulders, especially while they were here, when there was a funeral to attend the next day, when Eliot already carried the weight of his father's death and his entire childhood heavy on his back - he couldn't do it. The thought alone filled him with shame. He said, "I mean, it wasn’t fun, but. I got through it."

Eliot seemed to be waiting for him to speak, as though he hadn’t finished his sentence. Quentin looked down and fixated on the white edges of his nails that had only just started to show.

Quiet filled the barn for a few more seconds until Eliot’s sigh took its place. "Sometimes it, I’m not sure. It feels like you tell me things to avoid having to tell me things," he said.

"I don’t know what that means." Quentin picked at the edge of his thumbnail and didn't look up.

"It means that," Eliot sighed again. "It means that you tell me enough so that I don’t ask questions but in the end you haven’t actually told me anything. I’ve been trying so hard to be honest with you, Q, after everything, I wanted. I wanted you to know that I’m still me but that I'd changed, that everything that happened fucked me up, and, that, I don’t know, that I’ve been trying. I've been trying so fucking hard and you’ve been so closed off. You didn’t used to be this way, you used to tell me things."

"I still tell you things," Quentin said, and believed it.

Eliot scoffed. "Why are you so afraid of feeling?"

Quentin felt like he’d been slammed against the wall, the wind knocked out of him. He flicked the bottom of the whiskey bottle, suddenly annoyed, a little vicious. "You’re one to fucking talk, Eliot."

"I know," he said and chuckled like it wasn't the closest he'd ever come to admitting to a drinking problem. "But that’s my point. I’ve been trying. Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to be more open, in general and with you. I'm here at my fucking dad's funeral because even though I hated him and he doesn't deserve me and I'll never, ever forgive him, I wanted to let myself actually feel something about it." He shook his head and set the whiskey down, as if to prove his point. "For once in my fucking life I wanted to stop ignoring everything that's ever happened to me. I'm tired of shoving down everything I feel, good or bad. And you're a big part of why, so why can't you just." He gestured vaguely into the air and looked at Quentin expectantly.

Quentin felt like he sat trapped at the bottom of a pit while Eliot shouted at him to grab a rope he couldn’t reach. He wanted to scrabble up the sides of it, to dig his fingers into the stone until his hands were broken and bloody. He wanted to put in that effort. But he found himself unable; he didn't want to know what might come of it.

And really, what business was it of Eliot's? What right did he have after all this time to demand answers like this? Quentin dug his nails into his palms as he thought it. The paralyzing panic in his chest turned into something like anger as it surged up his throat.

"What do you want me to say, El?"

Eliot said nothing, only stared at Quentin in the cool light. He felt a hurricane building in his stomach.

"What do you want me to say?" he repeated. "That you were gone and I was alone, that I spent months being dragged around the planet like a demigod's, I don’t know, torture sugar baby? That my dad died and no one was there, no one helped me, they all just sent me off by myself to deal with it? That not even my own mother could be bothered to ask me how I was doing, if I needed help? I was so fucking alone, is that what I’m supposed to tell you? What would make you feel better? Do you want me to say that I loved you and you rejected me and then you were dead and this place that I loved, this place that kept me going when I thought nothing else could, it all turned out to be a lie? What do you want from me, Eliot?" he said and he was gasping now but there was no stopping it, not the way his hands clenched with tension, how he wanted to claw at his scalp to relieve it; not the way his jaw ached from grinding his teeth or the way he wanted to beat his fists against his legs and his ribs and his neck, anything to stem the growing pain, to rein himself in.

Quentin’s chest heaved under his splayed hands and he felt everything spinning out of his grasp, like the universe was trying to burst out of him and form anew. It was better, it would have meaning; it meant construction and a future. But in that moment all he felt was the threat of explosion, the searing heat of truth rushing up his back.

He said, "I barely functioned for months and I'm just doing my fucking best to get through the day and to be there for you and maybe I don’t want to keep fucking thinking about all the, all the bad things that happened to me because I don’t want to feel like I did when I decided to cast in that room with Alice. I don’t want to go down that road."

He looked up into Eliot’s face, defiant and furious and desperate. "Is that what you want to hear?"

Eliot’s expression was a mess of a million things that Quentin couldn’t read, could barely see through the tunnel forming around his periphery. His breath came too quickly for him to process anything and he thought it was the inverse of drowning, sucking in air until it left his lungs too quickly to mean anything.

Finally, Eliot’s voice broke through the haze.

"Yes, for fuck’s sake, yes," he said with a force that reminded Quentin of the other life they’d lived, of a time when they weren’t sure what the future would bring. "I want you to tell me all of these things. I want you to tell me what happened while I was gone, I want you to tell me why you made a decision that should have killed you. Do you really think you’re worth less than the rest of us?"

"Isn’t that just being an adult?" Quentin asked from beneath his hands. "Accepting that you're not always important?" He slumped back against the rotting wood and watched as a puff of dust rose around him. He felt tears burning behind his eyes and squeezed them shut. He clenched his jaw so tightly that his ears rang.

"No, Q, it’s fucking not. We will always, always figure it out. Life doesn’t have, I don’t know, a main character, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not important. It doesn’t mean that you’re fucking expendable. That’s not how any of this works." Eliot’s voice cracked on the last syllable. "We still need you, I still need you. To think that you ever thought it was worth it, to die, I mean. Q, it fucking kills me."

Eliot reached forward then and pulled Quentin against him. The feel of him was instantly so familiar and comforting that before Quentin could fight it, he was crashing back to Earth. He pressed his face against Eliot's collar, felt the scratch of his stubble and the soft fabric of the linen shirt he wore. He realized then that he had barely been breathing and took a deep, shuddering breath. When he exhaled, tears came with it. For a long time, he held onto Eliot and cried.

He knew now that the words had escaped him, there was no going back. He couldn't tuck back into his brain, couldn't hide behind the veil of doing fine. Some part of him didn't want to, though. For the first time in recent months, he wanted to explain himself. If he didn't owe it to Eliot, then he owed to himself because he knew - and he hated himself for it, wanted to turn in on his own body until he disappeared - but he knew that for a long time, he had wanted to die. It didn’t matter that people said they loved him or told him he was important, because he knew at his core that they were lying, that no one could possibly feel that way about him. No matter how he repressed it, the sense that he was a burden had never abated and the simple fact was that for as long as he could remember, a part of him had always wanted to die, had always expected to. It was only there, shaking apart in Eliot's arms, that he felt the full weight of it.

And the deeper, marrow-bound truth was that Quentin hated himself. He hated how he looked, hated his small body and how he never felt quite masculine enough, how he always hid behind his hair like a child. He hated his voice, his fidgeting hands, and the way all of these insecurities added up to a debilitating anxiety that made him awkward and weird and off putting. He hated how he always fucked up, how he destroyed his relationships and made people miserable. More than anything, though, he hated how he made everything about himself, always, every time, even when he didn't matter, like he didn’t now, because Eliot was mourning and dealing with far worse feelings and Quentin had still managed to bring everything back to him and his mental illness, his own bullshit.

When he'd made that decision to cast, he finally felt relief. He was ready, he thought. After everything, from the unbearable pain of his illness to the relentless, heavy knowledge of the weight he laid on everyone’s shoulders, he had the notion that he'd earned it, that death was his decision and his due. He was owed. It was the least he could do.

But he couldn't find the words to tell Eliot all of these things, his chest burning with shame even as he thought them. Instead, he wept.

"I'm sorry," he sobbed. "I wanted - I don’t know. I want to tell you but it’s, I just, I really didn’t, I just. Everything was so fucking hard, El. It was so hard and it feels so impossible, so fucking, I don’t know, I’m trying." He inhaled sharply and tried to steady himself. "I promise I’m trying."

"It's okay," Eliot said. Quentin realized that his arms were firm around his shoulders and that Eliot's hand soothed circles over his back. Quentin laughed, the taste of it bitter in his throat like citrus rinds.

"Let’s go inside, okay?"

Eliot stood, not bothering to dust off his jeans before he held out his hand. For a split second, Quentin hesitated, wanted to insist that Eliot leave him there, that he deserved it.

Eliot’s hand was warm in his as they left the barn.

Chapter Text

The walk seemed much shorter as they stumbled back to the house. Quentin kept his eyes on the ground and barely noticed that Eliot led him by the hand, too absorbed in his own misery and discomfort. Once they were inside, Eliot hauled Quentin to the plush couch and sat facing him. He had stopped crying but his face felt swollen, his throat raw and tired. He wanted this conversation to be over, to go to sleep and pretend that it hadn’t happened when they woke up the next morning. Because it was one thing to say, I’m depressed or I’ve been hospitalized; it felt like a different sort of confession to say, I’ve written suicide notes and I’ve thought a lot about it and this time, I thought I’d go through with it.

"Q," Eliot said. Nothing else. Quentin shook his head and shrunk into the couch. He imagined sinking between the cushions until he disappeared or suffocated, whichever came first. The last thing he wanted was to keep talking, for words to keep falling out of him, torrential and out of control.

But some part of Quentin knew better, that there was no turning back. That part of him clung to a thousand hopes. So he heaved himself out of the soft trap of the cushions and sat on the edge of the couch, back straight and stiff. He flexed his hands.

"You were right. I've been, I don't know, numbed out I guess." Quentin mumbled. The embarrassment that always came after a meltdown was beating steadily inside him now and he couldn’t bring himself to look up. Eliot’s hands entered his vision and he didn’t fight it when they took his own or pulled to turn him toward Eliot.

"What happened when I was gone?" Eliot said. His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper.

"I don't, it's stupid, I don't know. It felt like everything fell out from underneath me. I lost you, I lost Fillory, my dad died and I missed his funeral and it felt like just about everything that had ever given me something to live for, or at least, like, bullied me into living was gone. It sounds dramatic but I really was so alone, El. Everyone was off on their own adventures and I just, I spiraled because I couldn't fix any of it. I’ve never felt so helpless and, so I guess, it. When it came time to decide, it wasn't hard."

"What do you mean?" Eliot shifted beside him as he spoke, until one knee pressed against Quentin’s thigh.

Quentin shrugged. "It just seemed like, like, I don’t know. An obvious choice. All I was ever going to do was repair little things or whatever the fuck and if I could use it for this one, small thing, then it was worth it. I don’t know, El, it made sense, in a fucked up way. A minor spell, a minor mending, at the very minor cost of my life. That’s all it cost to save you, to save everything."

"Life is made up of small things, Q. Us?" He touched his chest briefly and reached out, placing his palm flat against Quentin’s chest. "Everything we are? It’s all, I don’t know, microscopic. It’s okay to be small. That's all there is, little things that add up to big things."

Quentin sighed. He wanted so badly to believe Eliot but it felt impossible, like someone had knocked on his door and asked him to believe in God. While the treacherous parts of him insisted that Eliot couldn’t possibly know how this felt - what it was like to know with all your being that you didn't matter, that everyone around you would be better off in your absence - he took a deep breath and held it for several seconds. He reached up with one hand for Eliot’s and held on tightly to his fingers.

"I," he said and his throat hurt, tight with fighting tears. "I know it's shitty to think like this. All I can think, though, is that I don't fit anymore, if I ever did. I’ve spent so much time thinking about dying, you know? It always felt like a solid plan B. Which is fucked up, I know, but it. It always made sense. And I really was, so, so messed up while you were gone and then you were back and I thought, okay, I can handle this now." He laughed wetly and wiped his nose. "Which obviously isn’t the case."

Eliot squeezed his hand. "I'm so fucking sorry you've felt that way, Q. I'm so, so sorry. I think, I don't know, stop me I'm off base, tell me if I'm wrong. I think, though, that I've felt that way too. I know it's not the same, I know - I know you have your own pain."

Quentin looked up at Eliot in time to see him blink back tears. It made his heart hurt to see the way Eliot’s nose scrunched up, how his cheeks visibly tensed as he clenched his jaw. He realized that he’d never really seen Eliot cry before today.

"But after Mike? I never told you and I thought it was obvious but still, I never said. When I went to Fillory, when I married Fen, I wanted to die. I really did, and I thought the circumstances would take care of the job for me. But death is not a debt we owe the universe to justify the pain we feel. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn't. But there's nothing you can put on the scale to even it out."

Quentin shut his eyes tight and shook his head against the wave of tears threatening to crest inside him.

"What I mean is, I feel like you going to the mirror, upside-down, whatever place was the same thing. So I get it. I really do."

It was almost strange to see such a gentle expression on Eliot’s face. Quentin knew he had it in him, had known him long enough to understand implicitly that beneath the layers of acerbic humor and aloofness was a man who cared deeply about the people he loved. Even so, he wasn’t used to seeing such naked tenderness. Something in Quentin’s body felt pulled toward Eliot, lit up and magnetized. He had never expected Eliot to understand but he supposed that that’s what depression did, put blinders on you that narrowed your vision until all you could perceive was your own pain. Because of course - of course Eliot would understand; he’d spent years being told he was worthless or worse and clawed his way back from the brink every time. Something else was blooming in his center, now, something like relief and empathy that was fighting its way through the bramble of grief and guilt.

"Are you trying to tell me that it gets better?" Quentin asked, his voice cracking.

Eliot laughed, his smile wide enough that Quentin could see the little gap between his canine and molar. "You know what? Yeah. Yeah I am. Because you're not alone. I'm here and I love you."

If Quentin's laughter were tangible, it would have been sodden, soaked through. As the wave in his chest receded, he thought that this must be what floating in the Dead Sea felt like, warm and weightless and more than a little terrifying.

"I love you, too, El, but what - what does that mean?"

Eliot frowned and Quentin swallowed hard and bit his lip, searching for the right words.

He said, "It's, I don't, I mean, I'm a fucking mess. I hate myself, I. Where's the room in all of that for your love? I just - no wonder you shot me down."

The sensation Quentin had of floating inched closer to vertigo the longer Eliot took to respond.

"Quentin," he finally said. He shook his head almost imperceptibly and his eyes were wide and pleading. Quentin let out a laugh that was halfway to a sob.

"But what I don’t get - what I don’t get is, you. You kissed me. When you came back. I didn’t know how to read it. You kiss people all the time but I wanted it to mean something."

Time seemed to slow, caramel-thick, as Eliot looked at him. Quentin wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or something about the warm summer air, still and hazy inside the house, but everything felt a little soft around the edges. He felt flooded with carelessness. He wanted to stand at the prow of whatever ship they were on and smell the salt air, feel the harsh wind. Now that he’d said so much, it hardly felt like a risk to keep going.

"I know this is the weirdest thing," Quentin said wetly, his vocal cords pulling tight around the urge to cry. "I guess, it's - you said I’d want to spare your feelings and I realized I still, I still had this little bit of hope. So now I’m drunk on a farm in Indiana and I'm trying to be honest, so I guess that means I'm trying to tell my best friend that I love him in case there's still any chance at all that he wants me."

Eliot licked his lips. "I was just happy we were all alive. I thought you had moved on and I was trying to be," he said and laughed, sudden and sharp. "I was trying to be a better person. I didn’t want to push it."

"So?"

Eliot smiled and Quentin felt increasingly stupid; every reckless thing in him wanted to reach toward him, to press his lips against his cheek and neck and the bolt of his jaw. He wanted to crawl into his lap, muscle memory telling him that Eliot wouldn’t be able to resist.

"So," Eliot said carefully. "Should I push it?"

Quentin almost lost his patience. He felt weightless, wine-drunk and reeling from the freedom of admitting everything he felt - everything, his heart insisted - the loneliness and the anger, the grief and the want and, worse than everything but essential, bone-deep: the desire to die, the thing that undergirded his understanding of himself in a way he hadn’t quite realized until Eliot had drawn it out of him like a knotted thread. Every shameful thing he’d hidden for his whole adult life and everything he’d buried even deeper in the months since Eliot’s return now sat at the surface and instead of feeling dread, he felt only a paradoxical joy, like the noises he feared in the night were only animals playing. He didn’t want to lie anymore, didn’t want to hem himself in. Instead he wanted to hold out his hands and say, This is what I am, I’ve always been sick and I still deserve your love.

"What do you think?" Quentin said. He was determined to force Eliot’s hand. It felt petty, almost childish, but he thought that if he deserved anything, he deserved to hear Eliot admit it.

"I - yeah, okay," Eliot laughed. He pushed his hair back with one hand and faced Quentin. "Okay," he said one last time and kissed him.

It only lasted a second, close-mouthed and sweet. Eliot’s hand was gentle against his cheek, his thumb stroking the space beneath his sideburn. His hands shook.

"Fuck," Eliot breathed.

"Yeah," Quentin agreed before pressing back against him. Against all odds, he was alive, and for the first time in a long time it made sense. Eliot’s lips were soft and smiling against his and he wanted to prove how badly he craved life in that moment, how willing he was to carry on as long as he didn’t have to do it alone. His chest felt tight with elation and he couldn’t help the mixture of laughter and tears that bubbled up in him.

"I just have one question," Eliot said against Quentin’s lips. Quentin’s heart fell straight from his chest into his feet, panic surging up in its place.

"Torture sugar baby? "

Quentin choked, laughing. "Listen, asshole."

Eliot smiled, bright and wide but somehow private, like a sunny reading nook. "I’m sorry I ever made you think I didn’t want this," he said, cradling Quentin’s cheek. "I just couldn’t make myself believe someone like you would want to be with someone like me, even after fifty years."

Throwing his legs over Eliot’s thighs, Quentin half-flung himself into his lap, eager to disprove whatever self-loathing ran through his head.

"Someone like me?" he asked. He kissed the juncture of Eliot’s neck and jaw like he’d wanted so badly to do in Ohio, flexing his legs. Eliot’s skin was a little salty with sweat, the rough texture of his stubble against Quentin’s lips sending a sharp heat coursing through him. He felt increasingly relaxed, a little giddy, even, as the combination of the comedown and relief settled in his limbs.

"You know," Eliot said, shifting his hips. Quentin could feel the beginnings of his erection and it made him almost lightheaded, giddy with satisfaction. He wanted to taste every part of Eliot, to lick and nip at him until he went liquid underneath Quentin’s mouth. "You’re so - quit it," Eliot laughed and pushed Quentin’s face back from his neck. Quentin smiled and tilted his head against his temple. He couldn’t stave off the overwhelming fondness that grew in his chest.

"You’re hopeful. You see all this potential in everything. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve never given up on anything. I'm just a cynical shit."

Quentin pulled back and squinted. "El, I literally just had a giant meltdown about how suicidal I’ve been," he said. It felt ridiculous to say it with such ease. Despite the weight of it, it felt less powerful now, defanged and domesticated.

"That’s what I mean, though. I don’t think you would have told me you felt that way unless you wanted to live. I think it’s brave to put words to those feelings and I think that when you can find the strength to take something so terrifying and private and tell someone, tell me, I don’t know. You’re taking this impossible thing and making it your own. And that’s how you move past it," he said and let out a huff of breath. "I’m not making any sense." He tucked his face against Quentin’s neck.

Quentin felt indescribably full. After months of emptiness, of feeling so untethered, he almost didn’t know what to do with himself. He wanted to find a way to tell Eliot, to make sure he knew how much he mattered. He wanted to be honest and he didn’t want to hold back. The part of him that had been afraid before, after the mosaic and again after Eliot came home, the part of him that was afraid of being too much, too needy, annoying and desperate - that part was gone. This was too important.

"You realize that you've taught me so much, right? I know we're all fucked up but, you. Right out of the gate, you liked me, you said I was cute and wanted to be my friend. It was completely, I don’t know, unreserved. You wrapped me up in your life without asking and assumed intimacy in this way that made me feel so good and, just, wanted. You made me feel loved before we even touched. I'd never felt that before," Quentin said.

"What?"

"I’m just saying. That doesn't sound like something a cynical person would do. That’s all."

Eliot looked at him, skeptical but soft around the edges, and then his lips were back against Quentin’s, still unbearably sweet for another moment before Quentin felt them tentatively part. Eliot’s hand pushed into his hair and pulled him even closer, somehow, until they were a tangle of limbs and heated movement. He was still positioned a little awkwardly in Eliot’s lap but he was grateful for the space it gave Eliot to grip his thigh, to pull him close.

"Is it pushing it to ask if you want to go upstairs?" Eliot asked once they came up for air.

"Definitely," Quentin said.

"Good."

As they stumbled up the narrow stairs, Quentin didn't know what to feel but grateful. The adrenaline of his panic was wearing off but had left him feeling vulnerable, a little tender. It left him open and wanting and arousal readily took up space, heady and heavy low in his stomach. Before Quentin had fully processed it, they were in Eliot's old room, falling onto the bed.

For what felt like a long time, they lay pressed together, only kissing. Eliot's hands roamed the slight dip of his waist, his neck, and Quentin found the spots behind Eliot's ear and under his jaw that made him groan. It made Quentin feel blissfully adolescent, to hold back like he did, and he kept his hands skimming over, never under, the folds of Eliot's shirt.

Then Eliot’s fingers were hot at the hem of his t-shirt and somehow even hotter as they dipped beneath his waistband, as they undid his fly. Quentin couldn't stop himself from gasping as he worked a hand into his briefs.

"I forgot how good you feel," Eliot said into his ear, whisper-warm against his skin. Quentin shivered. It felt good - it did - but something gnawed at the back of his skull, a minor anxiety that threatened to bloom into something toxic if he didn't say anything. He was being honest, he reminded himself. He needed to tell the truth about what he felt and needed. And right now, he was increasingly, irrationally scared that they were just drunk, that they’d wake up in the morning and none of this would be real.

"Not to be a buzzkill, but I’m drunk and I - El, I wanna do this right for once." He swallowed the panic and embarrassment that threatened to escape him and did his best to keep his eyes open as he spoke, not to hide behind anything. "Can we, let's just sleep for now? This feels like emotion magic and I don’t want to feel the way I did that morning after."

Eliot pulled away and looked at him, his eyes a little hazy but his gaze soft. "Of course, sweetheart," he said. "I want you to feel good. I want to get it right."

Quentin nodded, his cheeks burning. "Thank you."

"Can we at least take our clothes off?" Eliot said, lascivious. "For sleeping purposes."

Grinning, Quentin nodded and slipped out of his clothes, leaving his underwear in a mockery of chastity. They settled into bed and before he could doubt himself, he curled up against Eliot, resting his head on his shoulder and tucking one arm in between them and tentatively settling the other on Eliot’s chest. When Eliot reached for his hand and tangled their fingers together, the anxiety in Quentin’s chest loosened and fell apart.

Eliot’s breath quickly shallowed and slowed and Quentin was glad he’d asked to stop. He wanted both of them clear-headed for whatever might happen and more than anything, wanted to be sure that Eliot still wanted him in this timeline, that this version of him was enough. Still, he let himself fantasize about Eliot’s hands at his hips, about getting his mouth on him in every conceivable way until he drifted off.

This time, when he blinked awake, his head on Eliot’s chest and one leg thrown over Eliot’s thighs, Quentin allowed himself to indulge in it. He hardly felt hungover, only a little sluggish, and it made him feel melted and soft, like he could fit himself against Eliot in every way he wanted. He watched for a moment as Eliot slept. The morning sun was bright where it lay across his cheek; his hair was a little wild in a way that made him look rakish, younger. A deep, almost wrenching feeling struck Quentin’s middle. He’d been so in love for so long.

"Morning," he said, muffled against Eliot's clavicle.

Eliot groaned softly as he woke. His arm tightened around Quentin’s shoulder and Quentin squeezed his hip with his thigh.

"Morning, Q."

They lay like that for a few minutes, gradually coming to life. Quentin let himself take slow, deep breaths, let himself soak up the warmth. He hadn’t realized it, but the effort he’d put in to holding back had left him stretched thin and exhausted. Now that he could let go, he found himself readily falling into all of the casual intimacies, all of the easy comfort he was sure they’d had before. His body told him so with the way it fit against Eliot’s, all of their soft places notching together.

"God, I missed this," Quentin said, nuzzling at Eliot’s neck. This was okay, he reminded himself. He was allowed.

"Mm," Eliot agreed, pressing a kiss to Quentin’s forehead. "Anything else you missed?"

Languorously, Quentin ran one hand up Eliot’s chest. The hair under his hand was coarse and a little thicker than he remembered, but he supposed that time had passed since his last real memory of Eliot’s body. He rubbed his thumb across the dip of his sternum.

"This," Quentin said.

"What?"

"Just. Your everything. I always loved your chest hair. Is that weird?" As he spoke, he ran his fingers through it, scratching and pulling, gently as he could. Touching Eliot like this had calmed him when he was terrified and sleepless in Fillory, he was sure.

"No," Eliot laughed. "I always loved your hairy forearms." He reached for Quentin’s hand where it lay on his chest, tapping his wrist with one finger. "This stuff, right here. You have this whole dorky, soft-boy air about you - don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true - and I remember the first time I got a good look at your wrists it completely upended that. It was like I got this little peek into your masculine parts, at everything under those hoodies and button downs. It was such a turn on."

The blush Quentin felt on his cheeks rapidly colored his neck and the top of his chest, made him hot all over. He wasn’t used to people talking about him like this and struggled to believe it, even though he knew Eliot was always honest about this sort of thing. He’d never pretended to be attracted to anyone, never lied about how he felt in that regard. Quentin knew that. Still insecurity and anxiety tumbled around inside him.

"Am I really your type? Masculine enough?" he said. His voice came out quieter than he intended.

"Q," Eliot said, his voice serious. "Come here." He pulled at his leg until Quentin sat up, straddling Eliot’s hips. Quentin crossed his arms protectively across his naked chest, suddenly feeling unbearably exposed.

"No, none of that," Eliot said, tugging his arms down. Quentin let his hands rest on Eliot’s ribs instead. Underneath him, Eliot smiled.

"Look at you," he said. His hands moved swiftly up his hips and waist to his shoulders, making Quentin shudder. "You’ve got these really nice broad shoulders. Look at your little narrow waist and how wide you get at the ribs. See?"

Quentin blushed, looking down.

"And these, frankly, beefy thighs you’ve got. What’s going on there?" Eliot said as he squeezed them.

"Ten years of mediocre soccer?" said Quentin sheepishly. He kept his focus on Eliot’s hands; it was hard to see himself in such detail. He thought this must be how old buildings felt, cracked and broken while people looked on in awe. Even so, he didn’t think anyone had ever touched anything with as much reverence as Eliot touched him.

"You see?" Eliot insisted, running his hands up the taut cotton over Quentin’s thighs until he nodded. "And your face, oh my god. Look at me." One hand moved up to cup Quentin’s jaw, tilting his chin up.

"What about my face?" Quentin asked. He almost didn’t want to know. Hiding behind his hair had been just as much a nervous coping mechanism as a real desire to hide, a need not to be seen. He’d always hated the way he looked.

"You can’t see but you have this cute little Neanderthal brow thing happening," Eliot said. He smiled as he touched his thumb to the edge of one eyebrow.

"El."

"It just means you have a heavy, strong bone structure," he said gently. "It’s good, I promise."

Quentin almost couldn’t stand it, but another, greedier part of him increasingly wanted to know more. It felt undeniably good to have someone like Eliot - who was so tall and beautiful, whose hands cast elegant spells and whose long body made everyone around him desirous and envious all the same - to have someone like him enumerate all of these things about his body. It made Quentin feel almost arrogant.

As if he’d read Quentin’s mind, Eliot continued, "Your beard is my favorite thing. In Fillory especially, I always loved you after a few days of stubble. It grows in so thick and you get this real nerdy mountain man vibe, especially when you have long hair. I never would have guessed you had it in you, way back when." Quentin felt his face burning under Eliot’s hand, a deadly combination of embarrassment and arousal sending his blood rushing. It all ratcheted up a notch when Eliot pushed his thumb into his dimple.

Almost whispering, Eliot said, "I don’t remember exactly when it happened but I think you’re gonna start getting greys in it sometime in the next few years, too. I can’t wait for that." Quentin shuddered when Eliot drew a finger across his lower lip. He sat back and realized with a start that Eliot was hard underneath him. And God, he’d missed this, the rush of power when he realized that he turned Eliot on, the feeling of Eliot’s hard cock beneath him, against him, inside him. Without thinking, he rocked his hips.

"And you know what?" Eliot asked. His hands were firm against Quentin’s hips now, subtly encouraging Quentin’s movement.

"Hm?" Quentin couldn’t find any other words.

"I’d say your dick is pretty masculine," Eliot said. "Not to be reductive or anything, but. As a person who likes men and dicks I’m just, saying." Laughter trailed after his words, bright in the morning sun.

Then Eliot’s fingers were at the waistband of his briefs, tentative and patient. Quentin held his gaze as his fingers stilled.

"Is that okay?"

Finally wordless, Quentin nodded. He gasped as Eliot pushed the elastic down and took him in hand.

"Q," Eliot quietly said. "Look at me."

Quentin hadn’t even noticed that his eyes had fallen shut. It took him a moment but eventually, he found himself enough to open them and peer down.

Beneath him, Eliot’s eyes were wide. The light caught the green and gold flecks at the center, set them almost sparkling. His lips were pulled back in a small smile and his hand, Quentin saw when his gaze finally drifted downward, his hand. It covered the better part of Quentin’s dick as he moved steadily over the head, smearing precome. Quentin’s legs quivered as he thrust into it.

"Good?" Eliot asked.

"Yeah, fuck. Yeah."

"You wanna come up here?"

Quentin leaned down to press his lips to Eliot’s.

"What?" he asked, incredulous when Eliot giggled.

"Not that I don’t want to kiss you for literally ever, but that’s not what I meant. Like this," he said, and gripped Quentin’s ass with two hands, encouraging him forward. Quentin shuffled on his knees until he straddled Eliot’s chest.

"El, what -"

"Like this," Eliot repeated. He leaned up enough to lick a broad stripe from the underside and over the tip, stopping briefly to tongue at the slit.

"Oh, fuck, I,"

"C’mon," Eliot said, encouraging him the final few inches forward with his hands until his knees were astride Eliot's shoulders. Quentin felt a rush of embarrassment but underneath it all, undeniable desire.

"El, wait, are you sure," Quentin said, even as he pressed one hand flat against the wall behind the bed.

"Quentin, I'm only gonna say this once. You ready?"

"Uh huh," Quentin said, a little dumb. He'd lost his words eons ago, he thought, thrown them into a well along with every coherent thought.

"I want you to fuck my mouth. Okay?"

Quentin shuddered, goosebumps running down his shoulders and arms. Again he nodded, wordless, and held his cock in one hand to guide it to Eliot’s lips. He held it there for a moment, waiting for some sort of final permission, until Eliot opened his mouth and swallowed him down.

It was almost too much. Eliot’s mouth was hot and soft around him, the pressure almost unbearable as Quentin moved. He wanted to be gentle, terrified of hurting Eliot, but Eliot's hands roved over his back and down to his ass and pulled, encouraging him to move. He made careful, shallow thrusts, losing himself in the flat of Eliot’s tongue, the insistent warmth of his mouth.

After a minute, he looked down. Eliot’s eyes were still open and he looked up at Quentin under dark lashes, almost coquettish. The sight tugged at something in Quentin’s belly, pulling him forward. He peeled one hand off the wall and brushed Eliot’s hair back, letting his hand rest at the top of his head. Eliot's hands kept encouraging him, moving his hips a little faster, a little harder, until he hit the back of his throat and Eliot grunted.

"Fuck, you okay?" Quentin asked, pulling back.

Eliot smiled, all neat white teeth, avaricious. "Yeah, c'mon," he said, squeezing and pulling at his thighs until Quentin moved again. He slid his hand back just slightly to cradle Eliot's skull and drive deeper. When Eliot moaned around him, he had to stop for another moment and catch his breath.

"El, I'm close," he said shakily. His legs quivered and his breathing was ragged. "I don't, I need a minute."

He didn't want any of this to end. Despite Eliot's reassurance, he couldn't shake the feeling that this was their only chance, no matter how false it was. He wanted, needed it to last, to be perfect.

Struck with inspiration, Quentin sat back and heaved one leg over so that he sat beside Eliot. He adjusted his position until he lay with his feet toward Eliot's head and vice versa, all while Eliot watched, wide-eyed but with obvious satisfaction, his lips turned up in a smirk.

Quentin pulled at Eliot's hip to bully him onto his side. "Like this," he said, and tugged Eliot's briefs down. A new wave of confidence struck him when Eliot hissed, air sharp through his teeth.

"Have I mentioned that I missed this?" Quentin said, holding Eliot's cock firm in one hand. He dragged his lips up one side, sloppy and eager, somehow desperate and yet wanting to take his time. He gasped when he felt Eliot's mouth back on him, moving faster now, with clear intent. It made Quentin's confidence double in on itself, to know that Eliot wanted him like this, made him feel almost impish in his desire to tease him, to drag it out.

"You know," Quentin said. "I wasn't sure if my memory was exaggerated but you're as big as I remember." He laughed and briefly sucked at the head, relished in the weight of it. "Maybe bigger."

Eliot moaned and pulled off of Quentin, panting. "Number one, how are you talking when I'm doing this to you," he said, punctuating the question by briefly taking him to the root and making him gasp. "And number two, as absolutely hot as it is to hear you praise my dick, I'm going to die if you don't stop and do something." He thrust his hips ever so slightly, so that his cock grazed Quentin's cheek.

Quentin smiled. He couldn't explain what it was exactly, but he felt giddy, light-headed.

"Okay," he laughed, and gave Eliot's cock one last, long lick before taking as much of him as he could. He let himself sink into the rhythm, into the sure feeling of Eliot moving in his mouth, the head of his cock pushing past the back of his tongue. It didn't take long before his jaw ached but it only made him more hungry for it. He relished in the way Eliot couldn’t keep from moving his hips, in the way that Eliot moaned without holding back. It made Quentin feel proud, almost, to know that he could draw these noises from him.

The combination of Eliot in him and around him was overwhelming and he had to pull away to catch his breath, which proved a fatal mistake. Eliot used the pause to hold his hip firm in one hand and take him deep, sucking his cock like it was the only thing he’d ever wanted, a hungry devotion. In the end, it wasn’t entirely the sensation - of Eliot’s mouth, his tongue or of his fingers as they grazed his perineum - that did Quentin in; it was the knowledge that Eliot wanted him, that they were both sober and this was real. He dug his nails into Eliot’s thighs as he came.

His ears rang and he almost didn’t hear when Eliot asked, "Can I try something?"

"Uh huh," he said, face mashed against Eliot’s thigh. He went like a rag doll as Eliot rolled Quentin onto his belly and clambered over so that he sat on the backs of Quentin’s thighs. It didn’t occur to Quentin to ask what was happening; he settled with his cheek against his folded arms and trusted Eliot to ask for anything that might require asking.

Then Eliot was on top of him, crowding over his shoulder. His cock slipped over his tailbone. They both gasped.

"I’m just gonna, fuck - is this okay? Just this, I promise," Eliot said as he pulled back. His breath was hot against Quentin’s ear as he moved, thrusting against Quentin’s lower back, and it was so painfully close to fucking, to having Eliot in him, that Quentin whimpered with the thought.

"Fuck, Eliot," he gasped. "Yeah, that’s - it’s weird but it feels good," he laughed. There was no way he’d be hard again soon enough but it still felt good to rut against the sheets, pressing back against Eliot as he did.

"You feel so good," Eliot said, snaking a hand across his chest. "I missed you so much, like this. I can’t, God, Q, I can’t wait to get you home and take my time on you."

For a moment, Quentin was afraid he might cry. Eliot’s voice and the sentiment, the idea that they had more time, that Eliot wanted to take it, was all too much. Then Eliot pulled back and pushed forward too hard, pressing blunt against Quentin’s hole hard enough that he flinched.

"Fuck, I’m so sorry," Eliot gasped.

"No, no - it’s okay," Quentin laughed. These parts of sex - its clumsy, imperfect moments - had always put him strangely at ease, at least with Eliot. He thought that it was one of the things that really meant something, that made Eliot stand apart from other people he’d been with, because instead of being anxious and self-conscious when things went sideways, he only ever felt relaxed, able to laugh at every wrong step as long as they took it together.

He extended his hand out and flexed it, waiting for Eliot to take it. When he did, folding firm over Quentin’s knuckles, Quentin smiled.

"Keep going," he said.

Then Eliot was flush against his back, his mouth hot against his ear.

"Do you have any idea how much I’ve thought about this? About having you close like this again?" He pressed half a kiss to Quentin’s cheek. "I had all that time in my head and almost all I thought about was getting back to you. I’m sorry I fucked everything up. I shouldn’t have - "

"El, no, it’s okay," Quentin said. He tightened his grip on Eliot’s hand.

"It’s really not," Eliot laughed. He dragged his lips over the shell of Quentin’s ear. "You don’t have to pretend like it is. I almost lost you forever. I won’t make that mistake again, I promise."

Quentin’s heart and stomach fluttered in tandem. He wanted to hear more of what Eliot had to say but the animal part of his brain wanted Eliot moving against him, wanted Eliot to come. It was always a shock to him, how strong sexual feelings tangled up with strong everything else feelings, how wanting an apology and wanting to be wanted and wanting the feeling of Eliot’s come dripping down his back all felt like the same desire when he was this keyed up.

"Please, El," he whined, and craned his neck to clumsily kiss Eliot’s mouth. He felt his lips curve up in a grin.

"Yeah?" he asked, suddenly predatory. He pushed himself back up on both hands and repositioned himself to rut against Quentin, over his ass and the small of his back.

"Yes," Quentin gasped. Like this, it was so easy to imagine, to remember how Eliot had felt in him before. He could almost feel the burn and the pressure of it, the way Eliot moved with such confidence, always seemed to know exactly what set Quentin off. He thought of, too, the way it had felt to have Eliot’s legs wrapped around his waist, the heavy feeling of Eliot’s cock pressed against his stomach. All he had were impressions, really, but he had enough to be thrilled for what might lay ahead, to make blood pool heavy in his pelvis.

Eliot’s cock pushed one last time over his back and Quentin turned his head, eager to see Eliot’s face, hoping and knowing what his expression would be. Then Eliot’s hands were tight at his hips and he smiled, giddy and a little stupid, as he came, hot on Quentin’s back.

Eliot had the good grace not to collapse on top of him, instead rolling to his side. They lay together in the warm sunlight, in Eliot’s childhood bedroom, and Quentin felt oddly grateful. It was something extraordinarily rare and lucky, he thought, to be given a second chance. He pushed his nose into the crook of his elbow and smiled, small and private.

"Eliot?" he said.

"Yeah?"

"Can we skip the part where I’m awkward and you get distant and, I don’t know, be normal? As normal as we can be, anyway."

Eliot grinned. "I suppose so," he sighed, affected nonchalance the same as when Quentin had first met him, reclining on the stone Brakebills sign. "I don’t know if I’ve really hammered it home that well but when I was stuck in memory prison I spent, frankly, most of the time thinking of all the things I’d say to you to convince you to give us a shot." Lecherous, he ran his fingers over Quentin’s back, rubbing his come into his skin.

"You’re disgusting," Quentin laughed. Under any other circumstances, with any other person, it might have been gross, but under Eliot’s hands it felt affectionate. Eliot had ruined him a long time ago.

"Yeah," Eliot agreed, smiling as his hand settled on Quentin’s ass. It felt strangely natural to fall into this kind of intimacy, easy and quiet, and Quentin needed to be sure of everything. He wanted to keep being honest.

He said, "I know we can’t, like, jump right into whatever our relationship was when we were fifteen years into the quest or, I don’t know, but."

"But what?" Eliot squeezed his ass gently. His eyes were open and sincere.

"I guess I just. I want to be extra clear that you’re - you’re what I want, El. I don’t want to pretend like my feelings are new or tentative or like I don’t love you as much as I do. I’d rather you know that and choose not to be with me than to play it cool so that you’ll like me like we’re, I don’t know, twelve years old." He braced himself for rejection, for the familiar feeling of watching Eliot’s wry, defensive smile turn on him.

Instead Eliot cleared his throat and said, "I don’t know how else to convince you so again, I spent months - that felt like years, by the way, and that I thought might actually be because it turns out time is fucked in one’s own head - thinking about what I’d say to win you, well, not back, I guess, but convince you I was worth it. Then I came back to life and had to sit with the fact that you were with someone else which really, even though I was trying to be good and make healthy decisions, only gave me more time to concoct dumb fucking schemes and get all maudlin."

"Yeah?" Quentin said, increasingly overwhelmed.

"Mm, I’m not interested in playing it cool. If you think I haven’t been fantasizing about getting to wake up with you all the time and kiss you in public and generally be disgustingly romantic and pervy at you, well. You would be massively incorrect. I already have a dinner date planned. There will be lamb."

Quentin grinned. The idea of Eliot cooking for him made him go a little soft. He wasn’t above admitting that he’d always wanted to be the target of Eliot’s culinary affection, that watching him cook for other people made him feel alternately fond and jealous. There had been one time during Quentin’s first year at Brakebills, when he was first off his meds and his withdrawal was making it hard to stand up, let alone take care of himself. Eliot hadn’t asked, just brought Quentin a bowl of polenta with a mild tomato sauce and sat next to him while he ate. Quentin had thought of that memory often, while Eliot was in Fillory and later, when he was everywhere else.

He glared warmly. "Pervy, El?"

"Do you really want to hear me say ‘horny’? Is that really a part of the illusion of me you think you’re ready to see fall?" Eliot asked, voice pitching up at the end. He rolled over and dug his fingers into Quentin’s ribs and it took Quentin a moment to realize that Eliot was actually tickling him, working his way up to his armpits.

"Please no," Quentin laughed. Eliot’s face was against his neck now, rough and warm, and the days-old stubble against his skin sent shivers down his whole body.

"Gird yourself for romance, Coldwater. I’m really fucking good at it."

Chapter Text

In the early afternoon, they stood leaning against the car, its height shielding them from view of the church. Smoke from the cigarette Eliot held hung around them, as though it understood their need to keep out of sight until they were ready. Across the parking lot, the church hovered over them and those arriving to pay their respects; its steeple cut through the horizon, the cross at the top reaching skyward like the worshipers Quentin imagined would be there come Sunday.

"You sure you’re ready to meet my family? Or at least, you know, encounter them?" Eliot said.

"Listen," Quentin said, "the first time I met Alice’s parents, A, she didn’t tell me we were meeting them, B, we walked into a literal bacchanalia, and C, I learned I was bad at sex right before we had to do sex magic in her childhood bedroom. There were so many unicorns, El. So many. I think I can handle a few dysfunctional farmers."

"If you say so. And for the record, you're not bad at sex," Eliot said, earnestly enough that Quentin’s stomach fluttered.

He smiled. "I’m just saying, there’s no way this ranks higher on my personal trauma scale."

Eliot laughed and kicked at the grass that constituted the overflow parking lot. His hands were in his pockets, giving him an anxious, adolescent affect that Quentin knew a little too well.

"We don't have to go, you know," Quentin said.

"I know," Eliot said, his tone uncertain. Quentin knew it was important to Eliot to be here but it felt just as important to give him an escape route. He wanted to be that for Eliot: his scaffolding when he needed to finish something and his blinking, bright red exit sign in a crisis.

"Okay, well," Quentin conceded, taking the cigarette from Eliot. "We can also leave if you change your mind."

"Same to you. This is your proxy dad funeral."

Quentin smiled, a little tight at the corners of his mouth. For another moment, they stood in silence. Quentin took several long drags before Eliot reached across him and plucked the cigarette from his fingers, taking a final drag before dropping it and putting it out with his toe. "You ready?"

"You ready?" Quentin echoed.

"Nope." He smiled grimly and shook his head. Quentin offered his hand for the second time in twenty-four hours. It felt different this time, less a tentative offering and more of a practiced ritual. When Eliot took it, he used it to pull Quentin in close.

"I love you," he said, quiet against Quetin’s hair. Quentin didn’t have time to process the soaring feeling beneath his ribs before they crossed the parking lot and walked into the church.

Like the Airbnb they’d rented, the church housed a plain interior. Its pews were finished, unpainted wood, a mild brown against the stone tile floor. Felted banners hung from the walls on either side of the pews, Bible verses and unnaturally geometric doves and lambs glued to royal purple and deep green fabric. Quentin saw the "Reserved for Family" signs on the front pews and thought Eliot must have too, but he tugged at Quentin’s hand as he stepped forward. The reserved section stayed mostly empty but for a woman with thinning grey hair and a few other people that didn’t look like Eliot. Quentin considered asking Eliot about them, but thought better of it.

They settled into their hard wooden seats near the back of the nave and Quentin spared another look around. He hadn’t known what to expect, really, but he’d had it in his head that the church might be beautiful, that it might evoke some sense of awe. Aside from the banners and a stone arch that preceded the sanctuary, though, there was little decoration. Not even the funerary flowers, simple white lilies and greenery that looked like eucalyptus, seemed able to make the place feel holy.

Out of the corner of his eye, Quentin caught the movement of the pastor making his way from the wings, slow and steady like a zealous turtle. When he finally took his place at the pulpit, Eliot reached again for Quentin’s hand. His skin was clammy and if it had been anyone but Eliot at anything but a funeral, Quentin might have teased him. It was only then that he grasped just how anxious Eliot was. He couldn’t imagine the strangeness of being here, of what it felt like to be the prodigal son returned.

The mild hum of the crowd quieted. It took the pastor several seconds to settle in, adjust his glasses and find his page. Then the first words out of his mouth were, Alan Waugh was beloved by his congregation and before he could stop himself, Quentin let out a laugh that was more bark, abrupt and loud and blessedly, if barely, mistakable for a cough. Eliot looked at him for half a second, wide eyed and almost scandalized, but smiling, the corner of his mouth affectionately upturned. Two women in the nearest full rows turned and glared, but said nothing.

"Sorry," Quentin whispered to no one, half a laugh as he caught his breath. "Sorry."

After that, the service moved through the typical pieces: a hymn, a litany, a reading, another prayer, another reading, another hymn. Having not grown up in any church, Quentin didn’t recognize most of the material and felt a little awkward as they stood for the hymn, and even more clumsy when he couldn’t find the right page of the hymnal in time. Still, he hummed along as best he could, out of a sense of obligation or something else, he wasn’t sure. Eliot stood silently next to him, the hymnal untouched in the pocket of the pew in front of them, and Quentin regretted that he didn’t get to hear him sing, hadn't realized he'd sort of been looking forward to it. He hoped he could badger Eliot into it on the trip home.

As the service progressed, Quentin felt increasingly tired. He figured he was worn out from the drive, or that the high emotions of the last few days were finally catching up with him. His limbs felt a little heavy and he struggled to keep his eyes open as the pastor droned through a reading. Eventually, he found himself slouching against Eliot’s shoulder, absurdly grateful for everything that had led them to this moment, that allowed him to touch Eliot without a second thought. The exhausted feeling that had started in his arms and legs made its way up to his center, twisting and pulling at his ribs like they were violin strings. He felt a burning sensation in the back of his throat, like he’d been crying.

Suddenly, Quentin's chest was molten with grief. It shifted around inside him, trying to find its way out as it told him that he'd missed out on this, all of it, for his own father. Even if it wasn't what he'd imagined, there was something about sitting in a church surrounded by people in black, their heads bowed in grief and prayer, that stirred a deep sadness in him. As the pastor recited Psalm 23, Quentin felt tears starting behind his nose and he tried desperately to hold them back. The last thing he wanted was to make Eliot feel like he needed comforting, so he held tightly to Eliot’s hand and tried to hold it all back.

Toward the end of the closing prayer, he looked over and saw tears brimming in Eliot’s eyes. He squeezed his hand until he turned, grateful to have somewhere to pour his attention.

You okay? he mouthed, eyebrows raised in concern.

Eliot laughed through closed lips. He nodded quick and tight. Talk later.

The rest of the mourners stood for communion and Eliot and Quentin stayed seated. Eliot’s hand finally relaxed a little, but his face was still drawn, his eyes still shining. Quentin rubbed his arm consolingly and watched the communion procession with a kind of detached, anthropological interest. He remembered one of his early experiences at a friend’s church, how he hadn’t known what to expect, the mild terror at the idea of drinking blood. Nevertheless, he’d been disappointed when it turned out just to be grape juice.

When it was all said and done, they stood outside the church, smoking and anxiously avoiding eye contact with the rest of the crowd as they filed out into the parking lot. Eliot still looked like he might cry, his jaw tight and his hands unsteady as he smoked. Quentin tried to wrap his mind around his desire to kiss Eliot and to console him, wanted to find the middle ground. He settled for rocking up onto his toes and throwing his arms around Eliot’s shoulders.

"I’m just really messed up," Eliot said wetly.

"Yeah," Quentin said into his neck. "Me too. Is there anything I can do?"

Eliot sighed, his shoulders lifting enough that Quentin had to strain to keep his toes on the ground. "Just, squeeze me for a minute," he said. "The gayer I can be at this funeral, the better."

Quentin laughed and held him as close as he could. Eliot’s arms were tight around his ribs and it was the most consoling thing Quentin could imagine. He hoped that Eliot felt as safe as he did.

There was no motorcade; Alan Waugh would be buried in the graveyard across the street from the church he'd attended for most of his life. Quentin and Eliot didn’t follow the other funeralgoers as they followed the pastor to the grave site. Instead, they stood across the street in the shade of an old oak tree and watched as the group said a final prayer and two pallbearers lowered the casket into the ground. It seemed strangely unpoetic to Quentin; most of the funerals he’d experienced had been on TV or in movies, where it always seemed like the final act of burial carried a certain weight. From his vantage point, though, it only looked like what it was: a group of people standing around a hole in the ground.

Still, as soon as the crowd began to disperse, Eliot walked across the bleached asphalt of the narrow highway. Quentin followed behind him without a second thought. Once they reached the graveyard, Eliot grabbed a single white lily from an arrangement on a stranger’s tombstone, sparing a moment to push some greenery into the space it left behind. Quentin didn't ask questions. Whatever Eliot was doing, he figured, Eliot needed to do.

He stayed close to Eliot as he marched to the still-open grave where his father's casket lay, watching as he pulled off the petals one by one. When they finally reached the site, Eliot paused for a single second before he unceremoniously tossed the handful of petals on top of the polished wooden casket. For a few minutes after that, he stood quietly over the grave.

Quentin stood silently behind him, watching the way the wind caught in the vent of his jacket and the ends of his hair. The fields beyond the graveyard stretched endlessly in every direction, dotted by lonely farm houses with only the occasional windmill to keep them company. He thought he could see a few trees gone early to autumn, orange and red along the distant road, and fantasized about extending their trip, maybe taking a few weeks or even a month to drive around the Northeast and see the seasons change.

The breeze that sent the windmills spinning and tangled Eliot's hair smelled perfectly like summer, grass and clouded sunlight all tangled up in Quentin’s own nostalgia. He remembered a camping trip his father had taken him on, six months after his first psychiatric stay and what would turn out to be a few weeks before his second. They’d gone to the Catskills, some park a couple hours north of the city, and the air had been like this, clean and a little humid. He remembered his father’s face in the firelight, the smell of pine needles and cut wood, and that even though the feeling hadn’t lasted, he was glad to be alive.

For the first time that day, and in some ways, for the first time since that day in his father’s basement, Quentin allowed himself to feel grief. He had never gotten the opportunity, really, to thank his father for taking care of him when things had gotten bad. Though he’d made mistakes and hadn’t always understood, no one else had gone to bat for him like his dad; no one else had gone to support groups and filed insurance claims and researched medications; it had been his dad who had brought him Fillory and tried to give him a place to put it all down. In that moment, Quentin wanted desperately to thank him - for what he’d given him, for being there, for keeping him alive. And so finally, he let himself cry.

His tears came silently, gentle over his cheeks. He braced himself for an onslaught of heady emotion, but found himself oddly at peace. It wasn’t the wrenching, almost nauseous feeling he’d had in the church. Instead, at the center of his grief, he felt a profound stillness, like he’d uprooted the dying vines of it and looked out over the tilled soil. There was a sadness in the ending but there was something more, something to look forward to.

He saw Eliot’s shoulders rise as he inhaled, preparing to speak. For another moment, his shoulders stilled, straight as the prairie. It seemed to take several attempts, like Eliot’s words were caught under the weight of everything he felt.

"I don't forgive you," he finally said. "But I'm leaving you here."

Quentin realized that it was the first time Eliot had spoken to his father in almost thirteen years.

When he turned, Eliot’s face was tearstained. He reached for Quentin and ran his thumbs over his cheeks so that their tears mingled together. It brought another wave of grief up into Quentin’s chest and he was grateful when Eliot bowed his head to lean his forehead against Quentin’s, giving him something to brace against. For a moment, they stood there like that: Eliot’s hands on Quentin’s face, Quentin’s hands at Eliot’s waist, breathing each other in. The breeze stilled and the only thing Quentin could hear - not the birds, not the rustle of leaves, not even the resonant hum of passing cars - was Eliot’s shaking breath.

"Okay," Eliot said, sniffling. "Okay." He pressed a quick kiss to Quentin’s lips as he pulled away, and Quentin nodded and took his hand. They retraced their steps as if they were walking through any other place but a cemetery, gingerly following the trodden paths between graves.

"Are we going to the after party?" Quentin asked once they returned to the car.

"If you'll be my date," Eliot said. He smiled at Quentin in a way that made him feel small but in a good way, like maybe he was something precious. His face still had the slightly crumpled look of a recent cry - red-eyed and a little puffy - but underneath it, Quentin could see the laugh lines near his mouth and his eyes, always wide and full when he looked at Quentin. "I think they’re calling it a reception, though."

Quentin smiled up at him and despite the circumstances - and maybe, he thought, a little bit because of them - he felt warm, like sunlight fell over them in the cloudy churchyard. It was ridiculous, he knew, to feel so lucky and in love at a funeral. But after everything, he would take his joy where he found it, even in a cemetery in southern Indiana.

"Eliot, are you asking me out?"

"I guess I am," he said. Quentin’s smile only grew when Eliot stooped to kiss him.

As the funeral program promised, the church member’s house was only a few miles away. Eliot navigated the winding dirt roads with ease until they arrived at the house tucked past a set of old silos. Like so many they’d passed before, the house blended into the landscape, long and low, like it didn’t want to disturb the horizon. They walked in without knocking and Quentin felt immediately, inexplicably at ease. He wanted to stand between the world and Eliot, to put his arms out and shout as if chasing off a bear. It was suddenly easy to feel protective and he knew that in many ways, he’d always been. But it was different to slip so easily into the role, especially now that he no longer had to couch his motivations.

Eliot pulled him by the wrist to a table full of liquor.

"Seems in poor taste to have this at the wake of someone whose death was almost certainly related to alcohol," Eliot said, pouring two drinks. "But thank God, honestly." Quentin shrugged and felt a familiar jolt of guilt as he accepted the glass.

They stood near the bar, off to the side of the living room, while Eliot scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Quentin sipped his drink and tried not to feel like he was in a sitcom, like he ought to be making sharp observations about the attendees, mostly people in middle age and older. Grey seemed the dominant color; no one wore the bright patterns or shawls or pocket squares that Quentin had grown so used to over the last few years. Instead, most people were dressed in simple black suits and dresses, none of which seemed particularly modern or fashionable. It made them - Eliot in his finely cut suit and intricately knotted tie, Quentin with his long hair and the tie pin that Eliot had poked him with last minute - look even more out of place.

Quentin didn’t mind. If this room was full of people that found Eliot’s father worthy of mourning, then he was happy to be perceived as other. He couldn’t imagine how so many people could love someone he knew to be so awful. It seemed like the inverse of his own father’s funeral; a kind man with no friends and cruel man with many. He thought that they both must have worn their own masks.

For a while, they stood surveying the room, Eliot pointing out people he knew or thought he might have met once: church members and one couple who he thought might be the parents of one of his few friends in high school; an old track coach or neighbor, and someone that might have helped his dad fix the thresher one summer, maybe, he couldn’t be sure.

"See that guy?" Eliot pointed to an impossibly tall man with close-cropped white hair. "I’m pretty sure he was my dentist when I was a kid. A real torture artist, honestly. And her, I think she taught Sunday school. Another savant in the art of making children miserable." Quentin watched as the maybe-teacher delicately sipped a sparkling water and thought that if she hadn’t taught Sunday school, she certainly looked the part in her knitted cardigan and knee-length dress.

It didn’t take long for someone to notice them. Quentin realized it only when he made eye contact with her as she gazed predatorily over her wine glass. Her appearance - the sharp cheekbones and cutting chin, the blunt edge of her haircut and the close fit of her dress - only worsened the sense he had of being hunted. Quentin took a long drink as she approached and settled a hand on Eliot’s lower back.

"Eliot?" she asked, incredulity in her voice subtle as an undertow.

"Cynthia," Eliot said, straightening and and turning to Quentin. "This is my godmother. Cynthia, this is my boyfriend, Quentin," Eliot said. He nodded once and cast a quick glance toward Quentin, as if to say, I mean it. Quentin felt a surge of overwhelming, unabashed pride that Eliot had so brazenly used the word and that he had earned the title. He wanted to live up to it.

"Nice to meet you," he said, holding out a hand with unfamiliar confidence. It was almost nice to be out of his element; he could pretend to be Eliot’s strong willed but polite boyfriend, could even be rude if he wanted. No one here knew him and he didn’t anticipate they’d be back. The only thing that mattered to him, he realized, was making sure that no one hurt Eliot.

She proffered her hand daintily, fingers down and knuckles relaxed, clearly implying something that Quentin had no interest in interrogating. He accepted it and shook a little too firmly.

"I have to say I’m surprised to see you," Cynthia said as she withdrew her hand.

"I’m as surprised as anyone." Eliot’s voice had an affected quality to it that reminded Quentin uncomfortably of the way he spoke to first years back at Brakebills.

"Your dad missed you, you know." She sipped the last of her wine, leaving small tails of crimson at the center of her lips. "It hurt him so badly when you left."

Eliot's eyebrows shot up before he seemed to catch himself. Instinctively, Quentin tugged at his hand so that Eliot stood slightly behind him. This was a familiar tack, one his own mother had pulled on him like a penknife enough times: reduce the actions you took to protect yourself to misbehavior, to childish impulses. It filled Quentin with an empathetic, helpless anger.

"Well. I guess it doesn't matter now," Eliot managed. Quentin kept his eyes on her as she smiled and tilted her head. Ire boiled up in him but he felt shockingly calm, like he could control it, target it only at things that deserved it. He wanted to start a fight, to shout at her that she should have cared more, should have noticed what was going on. Though he knew he wouldn't say anything, that it would only make things worse, a part of him still thought it would be just, that she deserved it no matter the consequences.

"Doesn't it? You never came around, never called. You didn't even say goodbye."

"Well," Eliot weakly said.

Quentin was so accustomed to Eliot’s ready-made, biting quips that it took him too long to interject, and he realized that the only thing he could do now was get Eliot out of the situation. He took a deep, steadying breath, planting his feet firmly on the ground.

"Not everyone deserves a goodbye, Cynthia." Quentin said, flat voice belying the steady simmer of defensiveness in his gut. "Can we get you a refill?"

He saw her glare over his head, at Eliot. "That'd be lovely."

Quentin took her glass but did not get her the promised refill. Instead, he followed Eliot into the kitchen, hidden in a galley in the corner of the house. He piled cubes of unnaturally orange cheese and off-brand crackers onto a plate and held it out, staring at Eliot until he took it.

"How're you feeling?" he asked.

"Been better. Having you here helps," Eliot said. He reached out and briefly grazed Quentin’s cheek with a knuckle.

"What exactly was her deal?"

"She was my mom’s friend, sort of, I think. But I always thought she had a thing for my dad. I don’t think anything ever came of it, at least not to my knowledge, but she came around all the time after my mom died. She’s always been defensive of him. So I just assumed." Eliot set his plate down and reached for his drink.

Quentin peeled a few clammy pieces of salami off a platter. He nibbled one thoughtfully for a moment before rolling three slices up taking a bite.

"Do you want to go?" he asked around a mouthful of cold cuts.

"No. I still feel like I need to, I don’t know. Stick it to someone." Eliot shook his head and laughed, taking a step toward Quentin and gently holding onto one wrist. "How’s that lunch meat treating you?"

"It’s Indiana’s finest processed meat product, thanks," Quentin said once he’d swallowed. He held Eliot’s gaze and felt spoiled to be here, looking up at Eliot, eyes tired and face scruffy but beautiful, in some ways even more so than usual. Eliot hadn’t shaved since they left New York and Quentin made a mental note to hide his razor for a few days when they returned. He said, "Thirty more minutes, okay? It’s my prerogative as your newly-minted boyfriend to make you take better care of yourself. I know you want to be here for your own reasons but I think we should set a limit. For your own sanity."

"You’re probably right," Eliot sighed. "Okay. Half an hour."

"For courage," Quentin said, and kissed his cheek.

They only lasted another fifteen minutes. When they returned to the living room, Cynthia stood surrounded by other people, the dentist and the maybe-track coach included. She hadn’t bothered to lower her voice and though they were across the room, they could hear enough to know she was talking about Eliot, undoubtedly the shame of a son who had abandoned his father. They watched for a moment as she continued talking and the people around her looked pointedly over their shoulders, looking Eliot up and down as though sizing him up. Quentin tried to imagine what she could possibly be saying, what details she could have possibly altered to make Eliot the villain.

Eliot looked stricken as finished his second drink and poured a third. He managed a few friendly hellos, though no one else asked where he’d been or expressed anything resembling curiosity. It was so unlike the Eliot that Quentin knew, who sipped champagne and charmed every person in sight, and Quentin couldn’t help the anger that kept building in him. Didn’t these people know who Eliot was? Didn’t they understand what they were rejecting - this incredible man who had learned to grow and change and never had anything but faith in the people he loved? He couldn’t fathom any of it.

When Quentin overheard another man say something like, Not sure what right he has to be here and looked to Eliot in time to see his face drop, he made his decision.

"C’mon," Quentin said. "Let’s go."

Wordless, Eliot nodded. Quentin turned toward the front door, not bothering to spare Cynthia or anyone else a last glance. He knew he’d be entertaining fantasies about all the things he could’ve, should’ve said to them over the next several days, but just then it didn’t matter. Eliot was hurting.

"Wait," Eliot said. His voice had a more familiar edge to it, now.

"El," Quentin said, low and warning. Eliot looked at him and shook his head, tears brimming.

"No. Fuck this. I’m a goddamn king." He knocked back the remains of his drink and set the glass down hard on an end table. The noise turned a few heads toward them and Eliot seemed to take it as his opportunity. As anxious as Quentin felt, he thought that Eliot deserved to say whatever he wanted. An angry, petty part of him was also eager to see them shut down.

Quentin followed him, one step behind.

"Hi," Eliot said simply, once he was in earshot.

"Hello," Cynthia said cooly.

"Is there something you all wanted to say to me?" As he spoke, he kept his eyes on Cynthia, ignoring the other eyes on him.

After a moment’s silence, Eliot continued, "No? Nothing about how disappointing I am? Nothing about how I abandoned my father?"

Defiant, Cynthia held his gaze. "You knew what it would do it to him when you left."

"And what was that? Did I leave him without a punching bag? Did he get restless and start killing small animals?"

She sighed, letting out a big breath of exasperation and impatience. "Eliot, he did the best he could. He deserved a second chance."

Quentin couldn’t stop himself from scoffing. He wrapped an arm around Eliot’s waist as if to hold him up and was gratified when Eliot’s hand settled on his shoulder, pulling him close. Silently, he observed the small crowd, sun-worn faces flanked by trousers ironed to sharp creases that had gone limp throughout the day. It occurred to him that he had never been less scared of a group of people before.

"So, just so we’re clear," Eliot said, gesturing flippantly with his free hand, "no one has anything to say about the fact that for years, he regularly showed up still-drunk to church? No one has anything to say about how he used to beat the shit out of my mom and when he couldn't anymore, he beat the shit out of me? No one has anything, anything at all to say about the man who hated his own kid so much that he routinely locked him out of the house? He drove my mom to an early grave and all you’ve got is ‘he did his best’? Was I, were we really that fucking hard to deal with?"

Quentin pulled Eliot impossibly close against his side.

"Son, you should show a little respect for the dead," said a man to her left. It caught Quentin off guard, baffled as he was by the tone of the conversation and how anyone could be so blind to the reality of a person.

"Oh, fuck off, Lowell," Quentin spat. The words were out of him before he’d even thought them and briefly, he panicked. He wasn't sure why he thought the man's name was Lowell, couldn't remember being introduced and absurdly, Quentin thought that he looked like a Lowell, like someone raised on a steady diet of corn and unquestioned sexism. His glasses were thick-lensed and wireframe, his black suit poorly fitted right down to the white collar that hung a little loose around his neck.

Fuck.

Lowell - Pastor Lowell Miller - straightened and held his hands clasped in front of him.

"I think you all’d better head out," the pastor said mildly.

"You’re right," Eliot said. He seemed suddenly calmer, like whatever had set him burning had suddenly been doused. "I got out of this place and I intend to stay out. And I don’t believe in God anymore," he said, making intent eye contact with the pastor, "but I hope you’re all settled up with yours."

"El," Quentin said softly as he stepped away, toward the door. "Let’s go."

Quentin didn’t ask what Eliot wanted to do as he ushered him into the passenger’s seat and slid into the driver’s side; he had the sense that he should be taking some sort of charge, that he should take over decision making, at least for today. And even though he didn’t know where to go, he turned the ignition and headed east, back toward the highway. Part of him thought they should just leave, abandon their things and not stop driving until they crossed the state line; still another, staid part of him knew that they couldn’t run away just yet.

"I can’t believe you told the priest to fuck off," Eliot said after a minute.

Quentin laughed, a brief huff of air, shaking his head. "Yeah, well," he said, shrugging as though it was the only reasonable conclusion to the funeral.

"It was worth it just for that but," Eliot sighed, "I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to go to the fucking wake." There was an edge of bitterness to his voice that brought Quentin’s protectiveness back up to a low boil. Eliot rolled the window down and Quentin glanced over in time to see him lighting a cigarette.

"El, it’s okay. It’s not exactly unreasonable to expect people to be nice to you at your dad’s funeral."

He reached blindly for Eliot’s unoccupied hand and found it curled into a fist. Delicately, he wiggled his fingers underneath Eliot’s, prising them open until Eliot gave in. He sighed and squeezed Quentin’s hand a little hard.

"I've been so fucking angry, Q," he said, relaxing his grip. "And I haven't been letting myself be angry because I didn't want to be like him. I don’t want to feel how I felt after Logan. I want to be allowed."

It filled Quentin with a righteous sort of fury to think about all the things that Eliot’s father had denied him. It wasn’t enough that he had robbed him of a childhood’s worth of love and support; he’d also taken away his right to be angry, to express discomfort until it all came surging out of him and made him hate himself. For the first time, he thought he understood why Eliot drank; when every feeling had the potential to bring violence on him or out of him, it only made sense that he’d prefer being numb. Quentin let go of Eliot’s hand only to reach up and rest his hand on the back of his neck, rubbing lightly.

Softly, he said, "Of course you’re allowed, El. You have every right to be angry and it doesn’t make you like him. I promise."

Something strange took ahold of Quentin, then, something anxious and urgent and ready. His sense of direction told him that the farm was not more than ten miles away, more or less to the south, off the same highway as the church. He may not have learned to drive until his mid-twenties, but navigating bus and subway systems all his life did at least leave him well-oriented. If Eliot realized where they were going, he said nothing. He kept his head tipped back against the headrest and leaned into Quentin’s touch as he smoked.

It didn’t take long to reach the farm. Quentin stopped on the road, at the turn before the long driveway. For a minute or two, they sat in the car, Quentin anxiously tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as Eliot stared at his hands.

"What's that one spell you used to use for grilling?" he asked.

"What?" Eliot said, high-pitched and a little baffled. His eyes were wide as he looked up but Quentin thought he could see the edge of a smile playing out across his face.

"You know, the," Quentin rubbed two fingers together. "The snappy thing. For fires."

"Quentin, no," he laughed.

"Eliot, yes. Teach me the spell?"

Eliot gestured into the air with open palms and shook his head. "You can’t be serious."

"I’m absolutely serious, El."

For a long moment, Eliot stared at him, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. Like this, Quentin could see the way his dark lower lashes cast soft shadows across his cheeks, how his upper lip bowed gently in the middle. He’d always been a sucker for detail and looking at Eliot always made him search eagerly for it, made him want to do ridiculous things like write poems about the lovely curve of his mouth. Quietly, he laughed at himself. How he’d ever thought he wasn’t ruined for anyone else was still a mystery to him.

"Okay, um. Hand folded down, like this," Eliot said, "middle finger along the meridian, draw it up and, light." A small flame shot from Eliot’s fingertips, barely missing the roof of the car.

"C'mon," Quentin said. It was a few minutes’ walk up the driveway and he did his best to keep a moderate pace that belied the sense of urgency propelling him forward.

They walked into the house and Quentin was briefly struck by an uncanny sensation, like they’d walked into a dollhouse. It wasn’t unlike the feeling he’d had when they’d first arrived, but the house seemed more distant than it had before, like they’d crossed dimensions to get there. He wasn’t sure if it was the steadily increasing adrenaline, the beat of his pulse thrumming under his skin, but the house seemed almost unreal to him now. In the early evening light, the living room took on a liminal quality that made Quentin even more anxious to act.

"Where do you want to start?" he said.

"Q, are you sure this is, you know. A good idea?" Eliot’s voice was uncharacteristically nervous. Quentin thought it was the tone it always took when he really wanted something but was afraid to admit it; though it didn’t happen often, Quentin knew it well enough. He’d sounded much the same the previous night.

"Without a doubt. We’re torching it. We’re purging this bullshit. Okay?" As he spoke, Quentin undid his top button and loosened his tie. Everything he felt at the funeral, all of his protective rage, simmered steadily inside him now. If this house was a monument, a testament to everything painful in Eliot’s life, then they should burn it down without question. He knew it with a strange, sharp sort of clarity.

"Let's get angry," he said. It wasn’t a plea.

"My dad’s room," Eliot said suddenly. "That’s where I want to start."

"Okay. Lead the way. Let me know if you’re starting to hurt, though," he quickly amended. "We’re here to burn down your dad’s house, not die in a fire." Eliot shook his head, smiling.

It turned out that Eliot’s parents’ room was at the far end of the second floor, opposite the long hallway from Eliot’s. All of the bedroom doors had been shut when they’d arrived the day before, and it occurred to Quentin suddenly that someone must have closed up the house after they’d removed the body, like they’d been trying to lock death up before they left.

Though Eliot opened the door without preamble or hesitation, Quentin still felt like he was entering a tomb, still and sealed off as the bedroom was. It wasn't a sacred place, though, or a forbidden one. Rather, he had the sense of entering a looted place, a place whose inhabitants had neither earned the right to it nor ever tried to make it their own. There were no photos on the wall or nightstands, no art or other decorations. A lone wooden cross hung over the bed.

"Jesus," Eliot said.

"What is it?"

"Nothing, it's just - this is the same furniture they always had. It was my mom's parents'. She's been dead almost twenty years and he thought he could just, keep it. Why would he even want it?"

Quentin stood beside him, speechless. In the absence of words, he looked up at Eliot and frowned.

"Do you still want to do this?" he said, suddenly doubtful. It had been his idea, sure, but he hadn’t considered how much of Eliot’s mother might still be in these walls, in the furniture or the ugly valences downstairs.

Eliot laughed something small and rueful. "Fuck it," he said and rolled his fingers with all his usual grace. The gesture ended on a sharp snap and suddenly the heavy oaken bed was alight, its curved footboard glowing orange and the smell of burning nylon and cotton filling the air. Smoke formed more quickly than Quentin anticipated, thick and black, and he tapped at Eliot’s arm, gesturing to his face.

"Do you remember that, like, air bubble spell?" Quentin asked as he ran his index and middle fingers across his cheeks, drawing a protective layer across his nose and mouth.

"Q, for someone who loves magic you are cosmically bad at remembering what literally anything is called." Eliot said. Quentin briefly felt embarrassed but Eliot’s tone was only fond. "Shouldn’t you be the Hermione of the group by all accounts?"

Quentin smiled, a little sheepish but unable to resist the door that Eliot had opened, even as the smoke seemed to blossom around them. "I’m obviously Neville, El, c’mon. Do you remember the spell, though?"

"Of course," Eliot said, and repeated Quentin’s motion. "It’s a modified version of Fergus' Spectral Armory, just for your information."

"Thanks, Hermione. Okay, my turn," he said seriously. He tried his own hand at starting a fire, clumsily going through the motion but landing well on the snap. When the heavy curtains were suddenly engulfed in blue flame that thankfully, quickly petered back down to orange and yellow, he realized that he’d maybe executed the spell too well or else very poorly. He felt Eliot’s hand around his arm, dragging him out of the room.

"You’re a lot better at fixing things than destroying them," Eliot laughed. "But that felt good." His chest heaved a little, his breath coming quickly and his smile wide.

"What next?" Quentin asked, shaking out his hands, preparing. He tried to imagine all the little molecules he felt during a mending, the way that things wanted to be whole. This house, he thought, did not radiate that same energy, didn’t seem to want to be anything other than broken. He could feel it in the creaking floorboards, the peeling paint. Despite how well-maintained parts of it appeared, he was sure that underneath it all there was no recovery but to raze it.

And really, it might be a mending, in its own fucked up sort of way.

"My room." Eliot said definitively. He walked calmly down the hallway and took one last look around the room, inhaling deeply as if to sigh. Then his hands were a flurry of motion, his anger steady and sure.

Quentin stood back and watched as Eliot set small fires in two of the corners. They caught and spread quickly, lighting up the bedskirt and licking at the legs of the nightstand. For a few seconds, Quentin let himself imagine the memories themselves going up in flames, their edges peeling back like burning photographs. He thought of all of the hurt Eliot had faced in this house, the violence and the neglect; he thought of the young queer kid who had once slept in this room, trying to survive and waiting for his moment to escape. He hoped that once this house no longer stood, that kid might find his way out.

"Q, c'mon," Eliot's voice was oddly soft when he spoke. Quentin nodded silently.

From there, they gleefully ran through the remaining two upstairs bedrooms, setting fire to the curtains and the bedspreads and anything else that would readily catch, allowing them to do the most damage in the least amount of time. Eliot’s hands moved swiftly and Quentin followed with more controlled bursts of flame, smaller fireballs beside Eliot’s graceful spontaneous combustion. Quentin learned that plastic has a hard time catching but smokes the most, and that cheap duvets were, in fact, mostly plastic. He learned that carpet shrivels like burning hair and that drywall blackens long before it burns, creating layers of soot that reached toward the ceiling. Eventually, they had to make their way downstairs, there being nothing else left to burn on the second floor. The flames were mostly contained to the bedrooms, but Quentin knew it wouldn’t last. Smoke billowed down the staircase and hovered ominously above their heads as they stood in the living room.

"What about the basement?" Quentin asked. Eliot flicked his wrist and sent the better part of the smoke back up the stairs. But there were limits on that kind of physical magic; Quentin knew it wouldn’t hold. They only had a few minutes left.

"I mean, if we want to buried alive? There’s a boiler down there that will definitely explode and our odds are fifty-fifty of getting either trapped or burned to death so, let’s not," he said. Still, he was smiling, setting small fires along the valences in the living room.

"You don’t want to die romantically in the arms of your lover after committing a heinous crime, having only recently admitted your feelings?" Quentin asked as he tossed a small fireball toward the couch. "That sounds like your aesthetic."

"Q, you’re absolutely right," Eliot said with a dramatic sigh. "And it pains me to admit this, but I do want to live. I don’t want to literally be a buried gay."

Laughing, Quentin headed for the fireplace. This would be the last step, he knew, and he turned the key in the gas valve until he could hear the hiss of it. Quickly, he backed up, until his back hit Eliot’s chest.

"We should probably run," Eliot observed as he rubbed his hands up Quentin’s arms.

"Uh huh," Quentin said, grabbing Eliot’s hand. He turned on his heel and pulled them as quickly as he could back out the front door, knocking the screen door off of one of its hinges and running down the rickety steps of the deck. Once their feet hit the ground, Quentin kept running, his hand tight in Eliot’s, up the driveway, past the whiskey barrels in the yard and the constellations of little flowers. He knew Eliot’s knees had to be killing him but it didn’t matter; they needed to get at least to the end of the driveway and probably further, to get out of range in case their minor act of arson became a catastrophic explosion.

Beside him, Eliot laughed. They kept running toward where they’d left the car, almost a mile back at the main road. Eliot’s laughter was a little hysterical but it buoyed something in Quentin until it came out as laughter, too, and they could barely keep their feet moving for the way they lost their breath to it. Eliot turned back once they were a hundred yards or so away and threw a quick and dirty protective spell, to keep the fire from spreading to the surrounding fields, Quentin guessed. After that, they didn’t stop until they reached the car.

Quentin heaved himself up onto the hood and instead of following him, Eliot sidled up between his legs, bracing himself on Quentin’s thighs. Without thinking, Quentin flexed under his touch.

"Is it weird that I’m even more attracted to you than usual right now?" Eliot asked, crowding into Quentin’s space. Quentin tried to catch his breath but found it immeasurably more difficult with Eliot at eye-level like this, when he could see the fine lines at the corners of his eyes and the way his stubble crept up his cheeks. Then his arms were over Quentin’s shoulders and Quentin wrapped his legs around the backs of Eliot's thighs.

"I mean. Is it the smell of smoke and burnt plastic? I hear that’s very in."

"Mm," Eliot agreed. He pulled Quentin in close, until their noses brushed together and said, "I think it's the felonious arson, honestly. Who knew you were such a bad boy?"

"Well, you know. I've always had a rebellious streak."

"Yeah," Eliot said, "I heard you got a B in undergrad once, too." He moved closer, then, until Quentin felt his smiling lips barely brush against his own and closed his eyes.

"It was a B minus, thanks," Quentin said, closing the distance. Instinctively, his hands settled on Eliot's chest, his fingers pulling lightly at his loosed collar. Eliot’s lips were warm against his own and he felt himself go almost liquid under the kiss, all his tense muscles and joints loosening in the soft grip of affection. He felt Eliot’s hand snake behind his neck and pull him somehow closer, silently begging him to open up, to let go. Obligingly, he parted his lips and was rewarded with Eliot’s groan and another hand tugging at his shirt, seeking skin. Eliot’s hand felt impossibly broad against his back.

I want to let myself feel everything, every single miserable thing. I want to be alive.

"Fuck, El," Quentin gasped as Eliot moved to nip at his jaw.

"Probably not here, sweetheart," Eliot said and kissed the tip of his nose.

Quentin rolled his eyes, grinning. "Listen, I was just enjoying my boyfriend’s attention to detail." He couldn't help it; he still relished in the word and all its unspoken weight. It was such a small thing but it was dense, made Quentin feel a little ridiculous with how good and grounding it felt. He pushed at Eliot’s shoulders. "Come sit up here with me?"

"I suppose," Eliot said. Balancing himself on Quentin's offered hand, he hopped up onto the hood. Quentin exhaled when he felt Eliot's head settle on his shoulder. As they sat there, watching Eliot’s childhood home burn down, dark black smoke against the dusky pink sky, he felt exceedingly happy.

"I can’t believe our first date was my dad’s funeral," Eliot said, taking Quentin’s hand.

Quentin laughed. "I mean. It’s kind of perfect. Definitely on brand for us."

"You weren't too fucked up by it?"

Quentin shook his head. "No, I mean. I definitely have like, stuff to work through," he laughed and wiped at one cheek with the heel of his hand, suddenly overcome. "There were a lot of things I missed."

"We’ll get through it," Eliot gently said. He squeezed Quentin's hand where he held it and brought it up to his lips, laying a brief kiss to the back of his hand. "Which. Speaking of, will you make another appointment with that therapist you were seeing? Or let me or Julia help you find a new one, if they weren’t working?" He ran his thumb lightly over Quentin’s knuckles as he spoke, still leaning against him.

Quentin looked at the ground beneath his feet. He felt his cheeks grow a little hot with embarrassment and he wanted to argue, wanted to insist he was fine, that he’d been dealing okay for this long and he could still, if he tried.

"Yeah," he said in a quick breath, before he could talk himself out of it.

"I just want for you to be okay," Eliot said softly. "I’m scared you’ll feel like dying again. I’m sorry."

"It’s okay," Quentin said, and meant it. In truth, he was just as afraid. His desire to die had always butted up against an incredible will to live and right now, the living side was winning out. Still, he knew he needed more pillars, that he couldn’t rely on Eliot to hold him up all the time. Sometimes it was just easier to do something because someone else, someone you loved, asked you to.

"Will you do something for me, too?" Quentin asked.

"Of course," Eliot said. The readiness with which he agreed heartened Quentin. He inhaled through his nose.

"You know how you said you wished your mom had tried harder? That she hadn't drank so much?"

Eliot hummed, noncommittal. Quentin pressed on, "Do you think, maybe you could try, too? We can get you help, whatever you want. I know it’s really hard and scary but, it’s just. Eliot, I don't want to lose you either."

Eliot sat up and turned to him, then, and Quentin was briefly afraid. Afraid that Eliot would say no, that he would tell Quentin to go fuck himself. That he would insist that he didn’t have a problem, that he could handle everything on his own.

Instead he said, "I don’t know if I know how to be happy."

Quentin shrugged and smiled. "Me neither. Think maybe we can figure it out together?"

Eliot’s eyes shone, from tears or the sunset or the far-off firelight, Quentin wasn’t sure. He watched as Eliot worried his lip, could see the barest glint of his front teeth.

"Yeah," Eliot finally said. "I want to."

"So is that a yes?" Quentin said carefully.

Eliot cleared his throat. "Yeah. Yes."

Quentin nodded and took his turn to lean against Eliot. For a while longer they sat there, watching the remains of Eliot’s past burn to the ground. The fire burned bright and Quentin thought that though the flames might be furious, there was something joyful about the way they licked up the old siding, consuming everything like hungry children. Somehow, it seemed almost playful, even as the roof of one corner collapsed in a dramatic cackle of buckling wood and ember.

He thought, too, of the flower that Eliot had left on his father’s grave, of its impermanence, of what it might mean to let go, to finally put everything down and fill their arms with only what they wanted to carry.

When they heard the faint beginnings of sirens in the distance, Quentin heaved himself up. He held out a hand to help Eliot down.

"Q?" Eliot said as he took it, sliding off the hood of the car.

"Yeah?"

"Thank you."

Quentin felt something in his chest go soft, warm and honey-thick beneath his ribs. He didn’t feel the need to ask why or what for. He only took one step toward Eliot and wrapped his arms around Eliot’s waist, sparing one last look at Eliot’s face in the gentle glow of the sun and fire.

"Let’s go home."

 

 

my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
...
My father
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust,
was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
...
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

Mary Oliver, Flare