“Quentin! What do you think?”
Coming to a reluctant stop on his way to his office, Quentin turned toward Fen’s voice, and hoped that it wasn’t obvious that he’d been pretending not to see her there. The way that she smiled at him hopefully from the front of the shop, one hand on the ladder that Rafe was standing on as he hung tinsel across the double doors, let his shoulders relax.
He’d fled to the breakroom at the back of the shop in order to hide from Fen’s overenthusiastic direction as they dressed the window, and he hid behind his coffee mug now, knowing that he was failing at disguising his grimace as a smile. “It looks great,” he said, raising his eyebrows at her as he took a long sip.
The pleased grin that spread across her face triggered a twinge of guilt in him, but at least he wasn’t detracting from her excitement? That was good, right?
She turned back to the window, gesturing to one side, and Rafe quickly made her suggested adjustment. With her back to him, Quentin forced himself actually take in their display. Sprigs of plastic holly were intertwined here and there with the red and gold tinsel, and they’d framed the entrance in a way that… sure, objectively, it looked good.
That didn’t make him cringe inside any less at the sight of it, though.
But there were good things about this time of year too, he reminded himself. Well, one good thing. He spent the whole year looking forward to setting up the children’s charity program that he ran every holiday season since he first opened the travel agency. Every January Philly and Further sponsored two or three underprivileged families for a vacation, something they never would have had the chance to do on their own, and surprised those families with the news on Christmas Eve. He smiled, thinking of the kids whose lives will brighten just a little in a few weeks time.
If he ever got the budget from Alice so he could plan the details of the damned holidays.
He’d been hounding her about it every day for the last week, and he wasn’t going to wait any longer. The usual low hum of frustration that he usually felt when he thought of his business partner shifted into determination as he turned around and strode across the shop floor to Alice’s office. He rapped his knuckles on her open door and forced a smile at her when she glanced up at him from her computer. “So, I, uh. Need the budget. Today. Now.”
His pride at speaking so firmly took a hit when she just nodded toward the tray on the corner of her desk. “On the top,” she said.
Quentin stared at her for a few seconds, before his desire for the budget overtook his exasperation, and he stepped into her office and approached her desk. The report was right there, completed who knew how long ago because of course he didn’t need to know the details of how things were run in his own business, right? Running the travel agency together used to be a lot easier, back when he and Alice had actually felt like partners. He’d thought that they could make it work despite the divorce. Every day seemed a little harder, but… this company was his dream, and he wasn’t ready to let it go just yet. He wasn’t ready to give it up to her just yet.
Pressing his lips into a hard line, he picked up the stapled sheets of paper from the top of the pile and turned his attention to the tiny colour-coded boxes on the report, skimming through the utilities, maintenance, staffing costs, advertising, before he found the charity project near the bottom.
Except… those numbers couldn’t be right.
He stared at them, trying to force them to make sense in his head and when they didn’t, he stepped around Alice’s desk to the filing cabinet along the wall behind her. Setting his coffee mug on top of it, he pulled it open and thumbed through until he found the file he was looking for. He stared at the numbers in disbelief. “Alice,” he said slowly. The incessant sound of her fingers on the keyboard didn’t cease, and he tore his eyes away from the document to see her still watching the screen. “Alice,” he repeated, louder this time, as he walked back around to the front of her desk.
“You’ve done the budget wrong.”
She glanced up at him so briefly that he would have missed it if he’d blinked, before turning back to her computer. “No, I haven’t.”
Maybe if you gave me two seconds of your attention so I could tell you what the damn problem is. “There’s less than half the funds assigned for the charity program than there was last year. You must have made a mistake.”
Her hands stilling on her keyboard, Alice sighed before finally giving him her full attention. Her lips pressed together into a firm line. “It’s not a mistake, Quentin.”
He stared at her, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. Alice held his gaze, looking entirely unperturbed. She was really… she was really going to just let this project die? “We can’t abandon this program,” he said weakly. He wasn’t going to let it happen. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to.
Alice, obviously, had other ideas. Her commiserating grimace would have looked sincere, except for the fact that he knew all of her tells. She blinked a few times in quick succession before she spoke, and Quentin forced his teeth to unclench. “We just can’t make it work anymore,” she said simply. “How many times have we had this conversation? I want to help the kids as well, but we need that money to actually run the business.”
His skeptical laugh bubbled out of him before he could consider whether he should catch it. “We’re not struggling, though! There’s enough money to make it work.” They had managed to set aside enough money to help at least a few families every year since they’d started making a profit, and he couldn’t bear the idea of letting that slip through his fingers. They’d had a good year in profits, and he just couldn’t fathom why Alice would be cutting the funds for the one that he cared about the most. The only thing he liked about the season was seeing the excitement on the kids faces before they went on the holidays that he planned for them, or their happiness when they returned.
The calm way that she regarded him only sought to make his stomach churn. “‘Making it work’ isn’t what we need, Q,” she said. After a moment she turned back to her computer. “Businesses are supposed to grow. How are we supposed to grow if you keep throwing all our money away?”
Scoffing, he felt the budget report crinkling between his fingers and made an effort to unclench his fists. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that bringing a few days of happiness to underprivileged kids was throwing our money away.”
Setting her jaw, Alice looked up at him again, her eyes hard with irritation. “You know what I mean.”
“Just drop it, dude.” Quentin’s inhaled sharply at the voice from behind him, and then let it out slowly, squeezing his eyes closed and wishing he could disappear into the floor. Or make everyone else disappear. When he opened them, Penny had walked past him and was leaning back on the cupboard behind Alice’s desk, his arms loosely crossed over his chest. Presenting a united front, like usual — against him. At his travel agency. Penny looked across the room at him with one of the only two expressions he ever gave Quentin — disinterest. Which was better than the other: hostility. “Focus on the business.”
Focus on the — He unclenched his fists again. He didn’t want to argue with them, didn’t want to spend his whole life caught up in how his ex wife and her boyfriend were getting in the way of his business, but he needed this program. It was bad enough that Penny liked to linger around the office so much, let alone seeing his face on their advertising around town, but the model didn’t need to be putting his nose in on their financial conversations. “We’re having a meeting,” he said flatly, crossing his arms and meeting his gaze across the room. “Owners only.”
“Cool,” Penny said, reaching behind him to grab one of the travel magazines and opening it to a random page.
Biting back a frustrated sigh, Quentin looked pointedly at Alice. Her eyes were unapologetic. “I’ve said all I need to say,” she said simply. “The budget stands.”
Her certainty deflated him, and he turned his palms out to her helplessly. “Alice —”
“Look,” she said, and then paused. The corner of her mouth lifted into what might have been a smile, had he thought she actually cared about… well, any of this. “We decided, right? I make the financial decisions. And this is my decision.”
She turned back to her computer — the conversation was over. Quentin took a deep breath, his anger on his lips… but let the breath out again silently. Whatever he said now he could never take back, and he still had to work with her every day. Had to see Penny every day.
He wanted to channel his anger somewhere, but he managed to resist the urge to slam the door behind him on his way out. There were customers in the shop, and he wasn’t going to bring them or the other staff into his mood. Keeping his head down, he tread the path between desks back to his office across the room — and bit back his frustration when a man stepped in front of him. Blue hat, red shirt, and a smile that was way too wide for how Quentin was feeling. Not to mention the huge bouquet of flowers in his hands. “Delivery?” he asked, and Quentin stared at him, lost for words, because who the hell would have sent him flowers?
“Oh, I think those are for me!” Fen appeared at his side, reaching forward to check the card nestled in amongst the greenery. She laughed, grinning at Quentin as she took them from the delivery man. “Isn’t it sweet?”
“Yeah,” he said, “sweet,” and left her to it.
He heard footsteps behind him, and felt his stomach sink as they followed him into his office before he glanced over his shoulder and saw that it was Julia who was coming up behind him. “What the hell was that about?” she asked, wide-eyed as she tilted her head in the direction of Alice’s office.
With the door safely closed, Quentin sank into his chair, dropping the reports on his desk and scrubbing at his face with his hands, fighting against the urge to twist his fingers through his hair and tug until he pulled his hair out. “What do you think?” he said. He gave himself a second to gather himself before dropping his hands, leaning forward to set his elbows on the desk. “She’s cutting the budget for the charity program again. Give it another year and we won’t have anything.”
Julia had moved to sit in the chair on the other side of his desk and grimaced in commiseration. “She shouldn’t be able to take this away from you, Q.”
“It’s not about…” He trailed off. He couldn’t lie to himself. Didn’t want to lie to her. “It’s not just about taking it away from me. How can she take this away from these kids?” He huffed a laugh, humourless. “Even if she were so focused on making money, doesn’t she understand that this is good press? At the very least?”
Rolling her eyes, Julia twisted in the seat slightly and crossed her legs. “You know what she’s like. Once she’s focused on something, that’s all that matters.”
He’d used to love that about her. Now, he couldn’t think of anything more frustrating. “She wants the business to grow. And — I get that, I do,” he conceded. “Obviously I want that, but… but I opened this place to help people. If we lose that, then what’s the point?” The exploration, the adventure, the community… that had been his dream. Not the amount of money that they put away each week. Julia understood. She’d been there from the start, had helped him set up the business when it had been a venture he’d intended to undertake on his own. Sometimes he wished he could just go back and start again, despite the long days, the added stress. It felt like everything was twisting into the opposite of what he’d set out to do. “I’d rather sell my half of the business and start over.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d made the suggestion, but each time it became less and less of a joke. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed when Julia brushed off the idea. “Well don’t do that, because then you’re just starting from scratch again. We’re starting from scratch again,” she corrected, and the warmth that spread through him was instantaneous. His face must have given away the strength of his affection for her, if the softness of her smile was anything to go by. “What? You know I’ll follow you anywhere.”
She said it so casually, like it was nothing, but they both knew how much it meant. Reaching across the desk, he took her hand and squeezed it gratefully. If only the rest of his life was as steady as his friendship with Julia. “I just… miss loving my work. And this is one thing that I loved doing that she’s stamping out.”
It was Julia’s smile, barely hidden by the way her teeth pulled at her lower lip, that warned him. “Maybe you should find something outside of work to focus on. Kady has some friends that we can introduce you to.”
Groaning, he pulled his hand back and slumped back in his seat, picking up a pen from his desk and tossing at her. She brought her hand up quickly but didn’t close her fingers around it in time, and it bounced off her palm and landed somewhere on the floor. He’d get it later. “I’m glad that you’re in love and happy and it’s wonderful. That doesn’t mean that I’m ready to start dating again.”
“Come on, Q,” she said, and her voice was softer than he’d expected, less playful. “You can’t hold back forever. At some point you’ve got to get out there again.”
Quentin fought to keep his face neutral. There was a note in her voice that sounded almost like pity, and he couldn’t take that. And he certainly didn’t want to have this conversation, not in anything close to a serious way. Reaching over to his pen cup, he grabbed another one and threw it at her, forcing a smile when she caught this one. “So, wanna help me figure out how to stretch this money?” he said cheerfully, opening his internet browser and keeping his sigh of relief silent when she let the subject drop.
Grimacing his sympathies to the nameless man from the fourth floor that he shared the elevator with most days, Eliot made his escape as soon as the door slid open, grateful that he didn’t have to hear Karen talk any more about her Long John Slithers, her snake that she seemed far too infatuated with. The exaggerated look on panic that he got in return made him snort, and he caught sight of Karen glancing at him in confusion before turning back to Mr Fourth Floor.
And he felt bad, he did, a little, but that didn’t stop him laughing under his breath as he started down the hallway to his office. As much as he would have loved to see Pete try and explain what he was laughing at, that was not something he wanted to get in the middle of.
Turning the corner at the end of the hall, he paused when he saw Margo leaning back against his door, legs crossed at the ankles and arms over her chest. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them to debrief before the day officially started — she’d claimed the title of his best friend-slash-soulmate in his first week of his new job at his previous firm, and when he’d found a home at Loria, Fogg & Associates, he hadn’t rested until he’d convinced Henry that her talent was worth creating a position for.
Now, her office was right beside his, and the day didn’t start until they’d caught up with whatever drama had reached their ears from the day before. It was unusual for her to meet him outside his door rather than waiting for him to stride through hers. It was the smug way she grinned at him when she caught sight of him that made him hesitate, though. That smirk meant either very wonderful or terrible things.
Eliot approached her slowly. “Which of your enemies has suddenly befallen a tragic accident?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.
Her lips only stretched wider. “Come see for yourself,” she said, but stepped forward to give him room to open the door himself. Throwing a curious look at her, he turned the handle and pushed the door open, feeling a mix of anticipation and apprehension about what he’d find inside.
It wasn’t until he’d taken a few steps into the room that he noticed the candy cane hanging from his computer screen. He stopped halfway between the door and his desk, staring at the red and white striped candy that he most definitely had not left there the night before.
Someone was playing a joke on him, right? Wait — Margo was playing a joke on him. He glanced at her, a quick dart of the eyes before they warily returned to his desk. The candy cane hadn’t vanished. “If you think this is funny…” he said, his voice flat. He didn’t need to finish the threat.
“Please,” she scoffed, her hand trailing across his shoulders as she stepped around him. Placing both hands on the side of the desk, she lifted herself up onto it, crossing her legs as she reached behind her for the candy cane. “I’m not that mean.” She twirled it through her fingers a few times before holding it out to him. Her smile had slipped into something more genuine, but his movements were still slow and careful as he reached out to take the candy. “I snuck in here fifteen minutes ago to reclaim my yellow highlighter and it was already there.” For once, he didn’t buy into their usual argument. It didn’t matter that there was a whole room full of supplies down the hall — the game of stealing this particular one back again and again wasn’t actually about the highlighter. Margo’s eyes were alight as she stared up at him. “And you know what that means.”
He knew. There had been rumours circulating for the last few weeks that someone was going to be promoted to partner, but to find out that it was true and that he was being considered threw him completely. It was a silly tradition, that the name partners would show their support with something as cutesy as a candy cane, but he supposed whoever had come up with that idea was the same person who thought it was clever to announce promotions during the holidays, as though they weren’t stressful enough.
He didn’t care how silly it was, if it meant that he really was in the running. He didn’t know the other name partner as well, but Henry Fogg had been looking out for him since the moment he’d stepped through the door. Margo had told him that it was because he’d taken an interest in his career — he’d been certain that it was to make sure the risk he’d taken on him wasn’t for nothing.
Apparently it wasn’t for nothing. Despite the dark cloud of his past, despite having started over from scratch just a few years ago, despite not checking all of the boxes that the firm usually looked for in a partner…
His rising high stuttered to a halt when he remembered the one thing that had stopped him from feeling confident that he’d be considered. As usual, Margo was far too perceptive, and must have seen something of what was going through his mind on his face. “I’m sorry, are we not celebrating our continued success?” she asked, the concern in the knit of her brow contradicting the flippancy of her words.
Forcing his mouth into a wry smile, he nudged her ankles out of the way so he could sit down. She was leaning with one hand flat on his desk, and he put his over it, twining their fingers loosely together. “It’s flattering to be considered, but…” He sighed, frustrated that he had to put words to the one thing that was holding him back in the eyes of the firm. Particularly when that thing had nothing to do with his performance. “Everyone knows that Fogg only ever offers partner to someone who has a stable home life, with the spouse and kids and all that in the works. I am not that.”
“You’re so much better than that,” she said, her voice deceptively cloying, but the way her fingers tightened into a death grip around his knuckles was an indication of her true concern.
He squeezed back, a silent thank you. “Who else has got a party favour this morning?” he asked, both dreading the answer and knowing that Margo would know it.
Margo’s fingers relaxed around his, and she patted them lightly before pulling back to set her hands in her lap. “Only Poppy.”
Grimacing, Eliot leaned back in his chair, turning the candy cane over and over again in his hands. Poppy had already worked there for a year before he’d joined the firm, but he had a higher retention rate with his clients.
But Poppy was married, and had a sickeningly adorable nine month old.
Her husband was less adorable. Todd had worked as a paralegal in their office while he’d studied for the bar. Well, Todd had called it working. Eliot had been certain that he was trying to send him to an early grave. He’d thought that he would escape Todd once he passed his exams, but then Henry had gone and offered him a job, for some unfathomable reason.
He had been the first one to applaud Todd’s decision to be a stay at home dad.
He wished the stay at home dad didn’t feel the need to visit his wife at work so much.
But he could deal with Todd. He could deal with Poppy, and her penchant for taking risks and the devious nature that most of the other lawyers seemed oblivious to. He couldn’t deal with her being a threat to his promotion.
“I was joking earlier about the tragic accident, but...”
“Sure,” Margo said, arching an eyebrow. “Soliciting murder looks great on a resume.”
Sighing, he let the attempt at humour slip away. He was supposed to be happy about this, and he was, but that didn’t make the situation any less frustrating. “I’m ready to be partner,” he said firmly, and knew that it was true. “And I want to be promoted because I’m the best person for the job, not lose out to someone else because I don’t fit their perfect little standard.”
“Oh, honey,” Margo said, leaning forward to pat his cheek before slipping off his desk and straightening her skirt. She stepped toward the door, turning to look at him over her shoulder, her hand on the door. “If promotions were handed out on merit as opposed to whether you were married, or what’s between your legs, I’d be running the show by now.”
Slipping his wallet back into his breast pocket, Eliot rolled his eyes as he heard the Christmas carollers start up again. Because apparently it was appropriate to just walk up to strangers in a shopping mall and start singing at them. They’d almost cornered him earlier, but he’d managed to put a group of teenagers between them and him when they’d started to approach him, and then detoured the long way around the food court to keep his distance.
“Thanks,” Eliot said, as the server handed him the turkey sub. “Now I’m going to make myself scarce before I stick a poker in my ears.”
The server pulled a face. “Try working here,” he said, smiling at him wryly before turning to the next customer.
The carollers had paused for a few seconds but now they started up again, and he and the server winced in unison. But at least if they were bothering someone else right now, that meant he could make an escape. He was going to have to start bringing lunch from home. Or ordering in.
The problem with having lunch in the office, though, was that Margo ate all of his food.
He was going to risk it today. He started toward the exit when his eyes were inevitably drawn to the sound of the carollers — in self-preservation, to make sure he avoided them — but he paused when he caught sight of the man they were harassing. And he really, truly looked harassed. He also looked vaguely familiar and downright miserable, and — oh god, why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?
Eliot was crossing the food court before he could convince himself otherwise, rounding the stranger’s table and coming up behind him. There were five carollers crowded around him, and he elbowed his way through until he stood behind him. His head was bowed, his hand clutching the edge of the table, and how could they not see that he was uncomfortable? Hoping he wasn’t making it worse, Eliot put his free hand firm on his shoulder, leaning in on his other side. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere, honey,” he said, trying not to smile as the man’s head snapped quickly to look at his hand, before twisting the other way as he followed his voice. Eliot felt the lengths of his long hair brushing over the back of his hand as his shoulders tensed under his grip. “The sitter called, we have to pick the kids up early today.” He was staring up at him wide eyed, and he raised his eyebrows pointedly. “Just go with it,” he mouthed.
The man continued to stare at him long enough that Eliot was starting to wonder if his interruption was unwelcome, and the incessant singing of The Little Drummer Boy wasn’t helping. Just as he was about to pull away, the man started slightly, and his face turned into something that should have been worry, if not for the smile that kept appearing and disappearing from his face. “Oh… oh no,” he said, putting far too much emphasis into it. “We better… we better go then?” he said, somehow managing to sound firm and so goddamn uncertain all at once, and… well, Eliot had come over here out of the goodness of his heart, but he couldn’t help but grin at just how adorable this guy was when he was lying through his teeth.
Eliot’s arm stayed around him as he shoved the novel he’d been reading into his messenger bag, and scrunched up the scraps from his lunch. In seconds he was standing, and Eliot quickly steered him away from the table. “Eyes ahead,” he said under his breath as the man started to turn to look over his shoulder, and his neck straightened sharply.
After veering towards the trash cans in order to dispose of his rubbish, the pretend father of his pretend children’s arms twitched awkwardly, like he couldn’t decide what to do with them, before they settled by his sides. Jesus, had anyone ever held so much tension as this guy? Out of the corner of his eye, he saw him glancing up at him. “I, ah… thank you...?”
“Eliot,” he said. “And you’re welcome. I swear to god, if I have to hear one more Christmas song it’s going to be a bloodbath in here.”
“Quentin,” the man slowly. Eliot relaxed his arm around him slightly but kept it around his shoulders, just in case the carollers were looking. He could hear them singing behind him, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Quentin’s side was pressed against his as they walked, and he hadn’t made any effort to pull away. “Um. You know that it’s still a month until Christmas, right? And even if there weren’t random people jumping up out of nowhere to make our ears start bleeding, they’re still playing the songs over the speakers?”
“Oh, really?” Eliot said, colouring his voice thick with surprise. “I wasn’t aware.” Glancing down, he found Quentin looking up at him thoughtfully, and… there wasn’t hesitance there, specifically, but something in his gaze made him not want to crowd him. Before he dropped his arm, however, he felt some of the tension leave his shoulders, and hoped that he’d decided that his sarcasm was meant in the joking way he’d intended.
Even without his arm around him, Quentin kept in step with him. “I wonder how hard it is to hack into the music system,” he mused, looking up at him sideways.
Intrigued, Eliot caught his lower lip between his teeth to hold back his smile. “Don’t tempt me to find out,” he said lightly.
“It’s fine, you’ve helped enough for today,” Quentin said, slowing to a stop and turning to face him. The roll of his eyes was subtle, but Eliot caught it. “If only you could have a pretend boyfriend on call anytime you need one.”
That’s called a hooker, sweetie. Eliot bit back the words, keeping the joke for himself, but the slight widening of Quentin’s eyes makes him wonder if he’d made the connection on his own. This guy was fun. He knew where he’d recognised him from now, and it was nothing more significant than crossing paths semi-regularly on his lunch break. “Same time tomorrow?” he said cheerfully, taking a step backward in the direction of the exit.
“Ah… sure?” Quentin’s eyes were definitely wide now, and Eliot grinned at him before turning around and heading toward the exit.
He might have competition for his job, but he was in the running for a promotion, and had made a pretty boy blush. He’d definitely had worse days.
Eliot has a proposition for Quentin. It's only... yeah, entirely crazy.
Closing his office door behind him, Eliot took the three steps towards Margo's and stepped inside, leaning back against the door frame with one foot crossed over the other. “Whenever you’re ready, Ms Hanson,” he said, dropping his voice low into a fair imitation of Henry Fogg’s, if he did say so himself.
Glancing up at him from the other side of her desk, Margo smirked at him, gathering the paperwork spread out before her and scooping it into a pile. “I’ll be right with you, Mr Waugh.”
Rolling his eyes, Eliot crossed his arms loosely over his chest as he waited for Margo to finish for the day, putting on an air of impatience just for her benefit. If she saw it and felt like playing along, she didn’t give any obvious indication, but he couldn’t quite be sure whether she was taking her time with her files to toy with him or whether she was just taking care.
It’s not like they had anywhere overly exciting to be — the bar two blocks down would still be waiting for them if Margo took an extra five minutes to get her things in order, whatever her motives.
On the other hand, he could not wait to down his first drink, and his second — maybe he’d balance out after his third. The staff meeting that he’d walked out of twenty minutes ago had done him in for the day completely, and he was ready to forget about work for the next fourteen hours. It had just been a routine meeting, sure, but it had still been only a few hours since he and Poppy had found candy canes on their desks, and Poppy had been insufferably perky the entire time. “Can I get you a coffee, Mr Fogg?” There are assistants to do that for him, Poppy Fucking Klein.
Worse, that he’d been simultaneously focused on outdoing her, while also quietly simmering in frustration that he even had to try. He deserved this job. Abruptly, his thoughts turned to the man who he’d seen in the food court earlier that day, and the awkward joke that he’d made. “Maybe I should get a fake boyfriend,” he said idly.
Margo looked up at him incredulously as she stood up from her desk, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “What the flying fuck are you talking about?”
Pushing off of the doorframe, Eliot straightened his shoulders, looking down at her consideringly. He’d been joking, but… but the other man — Quentin — had been the one to bring it up, and he didn’t know what his whole story was but if he’d meant it, even just a little… Eliot had been joking, when he’d said it just now, but the more he thought about it, the more brilliant it sounded. But Margo was still staring at him like he’d grown a second head, and she was always fifty-fifty on whether his ideas were genius or batshit crazy. Like hers were ever any better.
“I… met some today.” Margo’s eyebrows shot up immediately, her lips starting to curl up into an interested smile, and he held out his hand, palm outward, to stall her before she started. “No, not like that,” he said, then paused, remembering deep, brown eyes and somehow both a skittish manner and an easy smile. “Well, he was unbelievably cute in that sad puppy way, but…” He shrugged, suddenly feeling like the awkward one. This was ridiculous. Wasn’t it? “He said something about how his life would be easier if he had a fake boyfriend, and… so would mine.”
Margo grinned at him as she stalked over to him, turning her head to keep her eyes on him until the last moment as she walked past him and out the door. He closed it behind him when he followed her out, moving forward to keep step with her as they made their way down the hall, blatantly ignoring the sly look she set him. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”
“Maybe I’m not.” Eliot slowed to a stop as the end of the hallway came into sight. Poppy stood with a handful of lawyers and paralegals in the foyer, one hand on her husband’s arm as she gestured with the other to accentuate whatever story she was telling. Something baby related, he was sure. Said baby was still in the harness strapped to Todd’s chest, and Todd’s smile took up most of his face as he talked to the group of people surrounding him. Fucking Todd. Cry, he willed at the baby, but he stayed silent, asleep against his father’s chest. It was bullshit, bullshit, that he might lose out on this promotion just because he didn’t scream ‘family values’ the same way Poppy did. “Maybe if it looks like I’m in a committed relationship, then Fogg won’t favour her for partner.”
Pursing her lips together, Margo eyed him thoughtfully. “You know you’re better than she is.”
He knew that. He hoped so, at least. But the voice in the back of his head, telling him that maybe he wasn’t, maybe he was fooling himself, maybe she would take this from him, was just a little too loud for him to ignore. “But just in case, right?” he said, with more bravado than he felt.
Her prolonged side-eye told him that she saw right through him, but she let it drop. “Hmm,” she said lightly, turning to assess the competition again. “This guy must be cute.”
Picking up his phone, Quentin checked the time before putting it back face down on the table in front of him. It was only three minutes since the last time he’d glanced at it, but those three minutes had felt like at least ten. Trying to ignore the scratching feeling bubbling up inside of him, he adjusted the angle of his sandwich on the table, squared his napkin, and tried not to look around the food court for a semi-familiar mop of curly black hair.
He wasn’t sure if Eliot’s last words yesterday had been an acknowledgement that they ate at the same place most days or an intention to meet. He was surprised that he’d recognised him from the food court at all. If he was going to meet him then he should wait to eat, right? But if he wasn’t… how long did he sit here for?
It was hard to make “same time tomorrow” plans, when they hadn’t actually specified a time.
He was just about to unwrap his sandwich when he caught sight of someone weaving in between the tables nearby, and he lifted his head to properly see Eliot striding towards him. He was as impeccably dressed as he was every other day, a detail Quentin had noticed long before he’d learned his name yesterday. Today, he wore light grey slacks with a matching waistcoat over a powder blue shirt, but none of that stood out compared to the smile that spread across his face. “Ah, we meet again,” he said, slipping into the chair opposite Quentin.
“Um. Hi.” Quentin watched him for a few seconds, as he tore the paper on his wrap and scrunched it between his fingers before setting it on the table and considering his lunch.
“No hasslers yet?” Eliot asked, lifting up slightly to glance around them.
The carollers were on the other side of the food court, well out of range. For now. Quentin hoped they kept their distance. He wasn’t in the mood to put up with them today, not after the argument he’d had with Alice that morning about funds (again), and he didn’t really want to get banned from one of the few places in the area that actually had a good variety of food options.
“Over there,” he said, right as Eliot’s head turned in their direction. His mouth twisted into a grimace. “Hopefully they stay there.”
He hadn’t intended to sound so bitter, but Eliot’s brow was furrowed when he turned back to face him. Sinking slowly back into his seat, he quirked the corner of his mouth into the kind of smile that was supposed to be more commiserating than joyful. “Bad morning?” he asked lightly, before taking a bite of his wrap.
“Hmm,” Quentin said noncommittally, plucking disinterestedly at the cling film wrapped around his chicken and avocado on white. Now that he didn’t need to wait, he’d lost interest in his lunch. Maybe it was just that he knew that the sooner he ate, the sooner he’d have to get back to work. “That’s one way to put it.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
Seriously? “I’m sure you have better things to do than to hear a stranger complain about their job.”
Eliot waved his hand dismissively. “We’re not strangers. You’re Quentin. I’m Eliot. We did this yesterday, remember? So, tell me about your day, dear.”
Is he… oh, he was joking. Eliot looked back at him with twinkling eyes, and he smiled back uncertainly. “Well,” he said, then paused. “I guess. Long story short, don’t get into business with your ex wife.”
He told Eliot the bare bones of how he and Alice had gotten into their current situation, and didn’t realise that he was rambling about the children’s charity program until he was mostly all the way through complaining about the difficulty he’d had all morning, trying to find reasonable accommodation for a number of children in fun and exciting places without the larger budget. Starting to sink into awkward, he trailed off, embarrassed when he realised he was venting so passionately to a complete stranger.
A beautiful, striking stranger, who was watching him attentively despite the fact that none of this could be even remotely interesting. He… he didn’t know why he was even sitting here with him, really, let alone... “You don’t really want to hear about this,” he muttered.
Something strange passed over Eliot’s face, his eyebrows drawing down and then lifting all in one quick movement. “I do. First of all, I may be terrified of children, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to have good things,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and… and Quentin had to look away, because, well. It should be, shouldn’t it? And yet here Alice was, trying to shut it down. “And secondly, I'm also being selfish, because once you finish telling me about your work drama I'm going to tell you about mine. Sound good?"
Quentin wasn’t sure why he wanted to tell him about his day any more than he wanted to hear about his, but who was he to argue? But still… He looked up at Eliot again, hoping he didn’t look anywhere near as awkward as he felt. “That was kind of… it. Anyway. You go.”
Eliot watched him for a few more seconds before lifting his chin and smiling faintly. “I’m a lawyer,” he said. “I’m being considered for a promotion to partner.”
Quentin perked up. “Oh, congratulations!”
Mouth twisting into a grimace, Eliot considered the remains of his lunch for a moment before setting the last of his wrap on a napkin. “Well. I’d be celebrating harder if my bosses didn’t have a prejudice for family-orientated people, and the other person up for the job is married with an infant.” Waving away Quentin’s sympathy, he straightened his features again. Quentin wondered what it was like to be able to let go of what he was feeling so easily. “Yes, I know it’s bullshit. Something you said yesterday got me thinking.”
Was he changing the subject? Blinking up at him, Quentin tried to remember what they’d talked about yesterday. It was just about the carollers, right? “I, um… what?”
“Oh, you know. Be my fake boyfriend. And I’ll be yours.”
Be my… what? “You’re kidding, right?” Quentin stared at him, certain that he must have heard him wrong, that he must be joking, except there was a hint of uncertainty playing around Eliot’s eyes, and… god, he had said that, hadn’t he? “I…” He couldn’t believe that he’d caught that, or that he’d thought about it afterward, or that… or that he thought that he, Quentin, would have anything to bring to a deal like that. He wasn’t… charming, or good at smalltalk, or someone that an attractive, confident guy like Eliot would want to show off to his work. "I'm not good at —" anything "— lying to people," he said instead, glancing down at his hands.
Eliot was silent on the other side of the table, and when he finally forced himself to look up at him again he was watching him with a frown, which quickly slipped into a smile when he realised he was looking at him. “Okay,” he said, shrugging nonchalantly. “Do you have any plans for your kids trip this year so far?”
It was a few seconds before Quentin could shake himself out of his surprise enough to respond. He didn’t know whether he’d expected Eliot to be angry or annoyed or to just shake it off and leave, but he hadn’t thought that he’d… actually still want to talk to him? What the hell was that about? He sounded like he… actually cared, which… “Really?” Eliot arched an eyebrow at him, and he forced his hands to untwist in his lap. “Okay, well…”
Quentin was halfway through the details of the holiday that he'd planned for the kids last year when his phone vibrated on the table in front of him, and he paused, picking it up and turning it over to see a message from Julia. It was only then that he noticed the time — they'd been talking for almost half an hour, and somehow he felt not only relaxed in this stranger's company, but also excited about the charity program again. Sure, he didn't have the same funds to work with as he'd had last year, but that didn't mean that he couldn't create something great this year too.
Smiling, he tapped onto the message, expecting a 'where are you' or a 'can you bring me back a something on your way', but his heart sank when he took in the words on the screen.
Soooo I know you said that you still aren't interested in dating, but Kady and I are going out for dinner with Surendra — remember Surendra? From college? The guy who you thought was cute? And is now single? And coming out for dinner with us on Friday? Anyway, you're coming out for dinner with us on Friday 😘
Quentin stared at the message, unable to believe that Julia had actually gone and organised a date for him after he'd explicitly told her that he wasn't interested. Or actually, he could believe it. He knew that she was just trying to help, that she was doing it because she cared for him, but the fact that she thought his life was so goddamn sad that she had to go and do this…
He looked up at Eliot, who was waiting without complaint as he checked his phone. This random guy from the food court, who probably had better things to do than hang out with him on his lunch break. And yet. "Let's do it."
"As a business arrangement," he said firmly. It didn't need to be messy or complicated or awkward. Well, more awkward than usual, with anything he was involved in. "I'll help you convince your boss that you're worthy of your dream job, and you can help me get my best friend off my back about dating." Holding up his phone, he waved it back and forth, grimacing at the screen pointedly.
Eliot smiled at him wryly. "And make your ex jealous?" he asked.
There was no judgement in his voice, and Quentin found himself struck by the question. He hadn't thought about Alice in any terms other than frustration for so long that it surprised him to even consider it. He saw how someone might make that connection, but… yeah, he truly meant it when he said, "I don't want her back. Maybe it would feel good for her to be jealous? Is that spiteful? But I don't have feelings for her. Maybe I want her to see that I'm doing well without her."
It sounded stupid, but when he stopped talking with a half hearted shrug, Eliot nodded like everything he'd said made complete sense. "So. A business agreement." Holding his gaze evenly, Eliot reached his hand across the table, and when Quentin took it, shook his firmly. "To our new relationship."
"Uh… yeah," Quentin said, feeling well and truly foolish and reckless, and loving every second of it. Maybe this was what he needed. Just something stupid to do, to get Julia off his back and distract himself from all of the Christmas happening around him in the meantime.
Speaking of… he tore his eyes away from Eliot's as the unfortunately familiar sound of Christmas carols hit him hard and fast. They were just a few tables away, grinning wide as they sang to a family with young children. The children were loving it, which — good for them, but they were the closest people, and he did not want to get caught up in that if he could help it.
"I think now is a good time to, um," he said, nodding towards the carollers, and Eliot's eyes widened when he followed his gaze.
"That's your second good idea in as many days." Gathering both his rubbish and Quentin's, he stood up from the table. Quentin followed him quickly, falling into step with him as they fled the food court. "So, we need ground rules," Eliot said.
Ground rules. Right. But… he checked the time on his phone again. "Definitely ground rules, but maybe… can we meet again tomorrow and talk through them? I'm due back at work."
"Of course," Eliot said easily, slowing to a halt. He sounded distracted, and Quentin frowned up at him. God, he's tall, he thought, and had to force himself not to dart his eyes over his whole length. Instead, he followed Eliot's gaze to the set up on the other side of the foyer: Santa Claus, complete with the big red chair and the trees behind him and a handful of elves chatting to each other. There were a few groups of families standing around, eyeing the prices of the photos, but no one in the line itself. "Do you have two minutes to spare?"
Quentin cringed. "To sit on an old man's lap and have a photo taken that's going to be in the trash in a month and a half? I don't have five seconds to spare."
"Come on," Eliot said imploringly, bumping lightly into Quentin's shoulder, and he looked up to see an almost wicked smile on his face. He got the feeling that Eliot knew just how attractive he was and how to use that to his best advantage. "I can frame it and put it on my desk because we're so sickeningly and insufferably in love."
Okay, that was a real, genuine reason. "Fine," Quentin sighed before he could talk himself out of it, and in the next second found himself getting pulled along to go sit on bloody Santa Claus's lap to get a picture taken with his boyfriend.
The light mood caused by the bizarre turn of events that had become his life was snapped out when Alice strolled into his office the following morning, without so much as a perfunctory knock on his door. "I've organised a spot with the newsroom for the Reindeer Report again this year, for a week before Christmas Eve," she said matter of factly. "Penny's going to present it."
Quentin looked up from his computer to stare at her in surprise. They ran the Reindeer Report every year, a sponsored weather report as an advertisement for the travel agency. "Penny," he said slowly. "Why the hell would Penny —"
"Penny is an excellent choice. He's a model, Quentin. Of course we want him on television representing us."
"But he doesn't represent us. You or I —"
"Aren't public speakers."
"If you could just let me finish one sentence," he muttered, but trailed off at the unimpressed look on her face. "Neither is he," he said instead. "You or I should do it. It's our business."
"It's already booked," Alice said, with a shrug that was probably supposed to look apologetic. "And I already told them that Penny's presenting it."
Without talking to me about it. Thanks.
But it wasn’t worth the fight. It was already done, right? What was the point in arguing about it now? “Fine,” he said, pushing up from his chair. “But I’m writing the script.” She could twist things however she wanted to put her boyfriend on television for thirty seconds at the risk of their company all she wanted, but he wasn’t going to let it be a total shambles.
Last year’s report had been well received, and he was pretty sure that Julia had the notes from it somewhere on her computer. He was halfway across the main office and heading toward her desk when a scent hit his nose, and he recognised it a second too late as he turned toward the delivery man striding toward him. “Look —” he said, then softened his tone. This poor kid didn’t deserve his frustration. “Just because it’s my shop doesn’t mean I have to be the one to sign for these,” he said, certain that his mood bled through anyway. “Fen works reception, she’s right over there.” And had caught sight of them, apparently, her face lit up with delight as she’d started to make her way over.
The kid barely glanced in the direction that he’d pointed, then held the boxed bouquet out to him anyway. “You’re Quentin, right?”
Confused, he signed hurriedly for the delivery before poking through the flowers for the card. “Oh, they’re gorgeous,” Fen gushed from right beside him, her hand on his arm to angle the flowers better. “Who’re they from? Stoppard? Skye? Come on, Q —”
“They’re from Eliot,” he said, staring blankly at the message on the card.
Looking forward to our lunch date today. Meet me at the Vietnamese restaurant on 4th instead of our usual spot.
Smiling faintly, Quentin looked back to the flowers. He didn’t know what kind they were but they were beautiful, similar to roses but with more petals that fanned out wider, the colours mostly a deep burgundy with a few pink-tipped white blooms interspersed between them. No one had ever sent him flowers before. He was… almost embarrassed by how pleased he felt.
“Eliot? I don’t remember an — oh, they’re for you.” If anything, Fen suddenly became more interested, reaching out to touch one of the flowers, snatching at his card. He pried it out of her fingers carefully, not sure how he felt about the excitement on her face. “Quentin! Who’s Eliot? Why don’t we know about him? Why haven’t we met him? Is he your boyfriend? It’s so sweet he sent you flowers, I love that.” She paused, her gaze veering a touch wistful as she looked over the flowers once more, but a second later she was back to her cheery self. “Love that,” she repeated, before turning and wandering back to her desk.
Giving himself a shake, he turned to head back to his office, and stopped short when he saw Julia standing a few steps behind him, arms crossed and hip cocked. The demanding look in her eyes was softened only slightly by her grin, and he knew he was caught. “Explain.”
“I told her that you were my ‘romantic interest’,” Quentin said, sinking lower into the booth as though he could hide. “She was starting to get pissed at me for not telling her that I had a boyfriend, so I told her that you weren’t, yet. But maybe when I get back I can tell her that you are now? I figure maybe her asking me about it made me spiral into making us put a label on it during lunch today?”
Biting into a spring roll to hide his grin, Eliot watched Quentin carefully as he chewed, unable to believe that this guy felt nervous about putting a label on their fake relationship. It was almost painful how adorable it was. “I think I'm going to like Julia,” he said.
Quentin looked at him askance from across the table. “You know that the reason I'm doing this is because she's being a pain in my ass.”
As is the best friend’s prerogative. No one caused him more stress than one Margo Hanson, but she was ride or die for him just as much as he was for her. “Yes, and it's saving my ass,” he said instead. “So the statement stands.”
Rolling his eyes with a quiet laugh, Quentin stacked the last of the empty plates and pushed them to one side. “Okay. Let’s talk rules.”
Right. To business. Wiping his hands on the napkin, he reached down for the manilla folder that he’d set on the bench seat beside him when he’d sat down. “I may have drafted a contract already,” he said sheepishly, pulling the paperwork out of the folder and setting it on the table between them.
Pulling it towards him, Quentin stared down at the front page of the document — The Mistletoe Contract — then back up at him again. “You made an actual contract?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Eliot said with a shrug. “Don’t worry, I left plenty of space for your demands.”
“Jeez,” Quentin said, his brow furrowing as he skimmed through the pages. “Demands? A contract? There’s no clause hidden in here that’s gonna end with you taking everything I own, is there? Because trust me, there isn’t much.”
His tone was light, but there was something in his voice that told Eliot that some of his worry was real. “No hidden clauses,” he reassured him. “I just thought we should both be on the same page about what we expect and what we need from this. We don’t even have to call it a contract,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “We could call it a… bond? A convention?”
“Ah, that’s worse,” Quentin said with a grin, glancing up from the paperwork. "What about just something simple, like… a promise."
"The Mistletoe Promise," he said, taking the contract back from Quentin and pulling his pen from his breast pocket. He crossed out the word contract and wrote promise underneath. "Cute." He flipped open to the first page. "We’ll put down whatever you need, note down any differences, and then I’ll email you the amended copy. The first part is the usual stuff. We both have to actually make an effort when we're around the other person's people. We have to actually spend some time together to get to know each other well enough to pull this off." He smirked, lifting his eyebrow teasingly. "No falling in love."
"Uh huh. Someone's watched too many rom coms," Quentin said, rolling his eyes again, but Eliot didn't miss the slight colour that tinged his cheeks, or the way he squirmed just a little. He didn't shrink back though, and Eliot found himself intrigued despite himself. If he were honest, he’d really expected that Quentin would show up at all, and he felt like every other moment was just as much of a surprise. He'd only met him a few times, properly anyway, and he already was entirely charmed by the way he wore his emotions all over his face. "What else?"
"Well, I have the things that are specific for me. There's a few Christmas work events, the type of things you bring your partner or your family to. You'll have to attend those. And there's a…" He paused, not sure what Quentin would think of what was, well, the most important part of his plan. "The week before Christmas is a trip to New York that the favourite senior associates are invited to with the firm’s partners, which is our last chance to schmooze up to them. That’s when they'll announce the promotion. Partners are invited as well, and — the cost is completely covered, so —"
"It's fine," Quentin said with a shrug, taking Eliot aback once more, this time with how casual he appeared. "I'll go. Is that all?"
"That's the crux of it." He clicked his pen twice. "What's on your list?"
Quentin was silent for a few seconds, thoughtful. "Basically the same stuff? Work events. The, um. Flowers were a nice touch."
"Yeah?" he said, smiling. He hadn't been sure — some guys were weird about flowers, but it pleased him to know that Quentin had liked it. "Keep on with the gifts, got it."
"There's another… thing we should talk about." God, Quentin was getting all squirmy again, and it was delightful. "Like, um, PDA and… stuff."
And stuff, oh my god.
It took everything he had in him not to pounce on that, just to see how much redder the poor guy could blush. He's doing you a favour, don't scare him away. "Whatever you're comfortable with is what I'm comfortable with. Although I've been told I'm fairly tactile, so just let me know if you need me to tone it down."
"Sure, sure." Quentin cleared his throat. "Anyway. We should plan a date this weekend. Get to know each other before we have to pretend that we're actually together."
He had a feeling that getting to know Quentin wasn’t going to be the most painful thing he’d done. “Right. Are you free Friday night? We could see a movie.”
"Because you learn so much about someone sitting silently in a movie theatre,” Quentin said, his voice teasingly sarcastic.
Eliot held back his joke about learning a great deal when he was fourteen, sitting in the back of a movie theatre, and made do with an obligatory roll of his eyes instead. This was going to be fun. "And dinner, obviously.”
“All right.” Quentin nodded, his grin softening into a genuine smile. “It’s a date.”
Quentin and Eliot go on a date.
"So. Is it cute or creepy?"
"The signs?" Eliot asked, glancing at Quentin sideways.
"Mhmm," Quentin said, raising his eyebrows at him questioningly. "It's a make or break question, you know. Julia made me watch the movie just so she would know my stance on it."
Quentin hadn't given the same outcry as everybody else when he'd found out that he hadn't seen Love Actually, and it was a relief to be around someone who didn't feel the need to hassle him about having no interest in it. That hadn't stopped him from dragging him along to the special Christmas showing of it tonight for their date.
It made sense, he supposed, if they were both trying to get into the Christmas spirit this year. A romcom was better than some of the other options, at least.
"I can see how people think it's cute," he allowed, stopping at the corner of the street to wait for a car to pass. Quentin pulled his scarf a little more tightly around his neck, and fell back into step beside him when they crossed the street. "Big romantic gesture and all that. But come on. His best friend is right inside, but who cares about cuckolding him if it's romantic?"
Quentin huffed a laugh, a little sarcastic but the little smile on his face told Eliot that he was pleased with his answer. "Julia thinks it's weird too."
Eliot grinned down at him. The only thing he knew about Julia so far was that she was part of the reason why Quentin was going along with this charade — which was good for him, at least. And Quentin seemed to really care about her. "Julia's got good taste."
They reached the restaurant that Eliot had booked them a table at for their dinner. He touched Quentin’s arm to get his attention, and tilted his head towards the door when he stopped. “This is it,” he said. It was a nice spot — a little Italian place that had, in his opinion, the best gnocchi all'arrabbiata in the city, but nothing too extravagant for a date that wasn’t really a date. “I hope you didn’t fill up on popcorn.”
“You ate easily as much popcorn as I did,” Quentin said, looking at him with the perfect amount of incredulity and laughter, and Eliot had to remind himself again that this wasn’t a real date.
It was Quentin’s fault, if he’d gotten caught up in the moment once or twice. It had just been far too fun to brush his fingers against his hand in their shared bucket of popcorn when he’d felt him stiffen slightly the first time around.
Eliot’s buoyant mood fizzled out immediately when he opened the door to the restaurant and he was bombarded with the frustratingly typical holiday music. He couldn’t even go out for a meal without Christmas being shoved in his face at every turn, and he felt his ire rising with every overly cheerful note that sounded in his ears. His skin was crawling, and he hated it — not just because the music was irritating, but because he could already feel it ruining a perfectly good night. “I hear the menu at McDonalds is wonderful at this time of year,” he said. It was a joke, but he couldn’t make his feet move.
“Oh, come on,” Quentin said, manoeuvring around him so he could get inside. “You talked up the gnocchi so much, you can’t deprive me of it now.”
The eagerness in Quentin’s voice notched his guilt higher, and Eliot’s hand tightened around the edge of the door. But no — regardless of whether this was a date or not, of whether he actually was having a good time with Quentin or not, he didn’t need to let this stranger see his mood sink so sharply because of Christmas music. Nevermind the constant reminder that it was the time of year where all of his failures started piling themselves high in the forefront of his mind. Quentin didn’t need to know about that. And besides — they were here for a reason, and that reason was all tied up in Christmas anyway. Better get used to it. “You’re right,” he said, twisting his grimace into a bright smile. It was almost too easy to pull himself together on the outside, a move long perfected. “You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted it. And the bruschetta is perfection.”
With wonderful irony, it was then that Quentin’s eyebrows drew together, his lips parting and then turning into a frown. He was losing his touch if he couldn’t even hide his discomfort from someone he barely knew. “Oh. We don’t have to, it’s okay. We can go somewhere else.”
Even if he wanted to take the easy option, he knew they’d have a hard time getting into somewhere with no notice on a Friday night, particularly this close to the holidays. “It’s fine,” Eliot said, brushing it off as he reached back to press his hand between Quentin’s shoulders, guiding him into the room. For the first time, he noticed the stares of the people at the tables nearest the door, and realised that he was letting the cold air in. “Come on, our table’s waiting.”
Quentin was still frowning at him, but he didn’t protest when Eliot led him into the restaurant and then to the table that the server led them toward. He remained quiet as the server explained the specials and then left them with a menu, and the silence was starting to eat at Eliot by the time the woman came back to take their orders. He couldn’t figure out his play — if he were here to sleep with Quentin, he’d flirt a little (or a lot), make him smile, force his attention to anything other than Eliot’s own failings.
“So,” Quentin said slowly, picking at the edge of the napkin folded on the table before him, and it was so awkward that Eliot’s laugh escaped him before he could rein it in. Quentin glanced up at him, startled, but thankfully dropped into a smile that caused some of the tension to ease from between them. “You really don’t like Christmas, huh.”
“Not in the slightest.” The lack of judgement in Quentin’s voice felt surprisingly gratifying, especially compounded with the relief on his face to go along with it. More surprising, perhaps, was the way that Eliot’s need to keep all of his struggles wrapped so tightly to his chest that nobody could see a hint of them was just… non-existent, all of a sudden. Quentin still wore a generous measure of nervousness on his face, and he was caught in the need to do what he could to ease that. “Christmas has never been a particularly happy time of year for me,” he said, trying to keep his voice even but finding it flat instead. He lifted his glass of wine in mock-salute. “There’s three particularly terrible years that haunt me — my Christmas ghosts, if you will,” he said with a self-deprecating snort.
Quentin reached for his own wine glass, raising it to his lips slowly. Eliot tried and failed not to worry too hard about his reaction. “Will you tell me about your first one?” he asked after a few seconds, and Eliot’s throat tightened.
But Quentin wasn’t looking at him with pity, or with the sick kind of fascination most people assumed when faced with someone else’s drama. He looked genuinely interested, although Eliot couldn’t tell if the pinch of his lips was because of leftover guilt for throwing the question at him so casually or if it was anticipation for what he might say. Eliot almost felt bad for him, before he shoved the feeling down.
Well — he’d asked, and the music was just jarring enough that Eliot’s limited ability to censor himself was worn away by irritation. Nothing like spilling all of your dirty secrets to a man you’ve just met, who you’ve barely convinced to do a significant favour for you. “I almost killed someone on Christmas Eve.”
He regretted it the moment Quentin’s eyes widened in response. It wasn’t a truth bomb to just drop on someone, especially not when they were just trying to get to know you. Or a secret to tell someone on a first date, or anyone at all, really; Margo was the only person in his new life who knew about that night.
He didn’t know why the words had slipped out the way they did, or at all, but he couldn’t take them back. Self sabotage at its finest. His specialty. “And, I’ve broken our rules on the first date,” he said, giving a little bow with a flourish of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, his brows lifting like a… oh, like a goddamn kicked puppy. “I shouldn’t have… you don’t have to tell me, that was a dumb thing to ask, I —”
“It’s fine,” Eliot said, marvelling at the fact that Quentin was concerned about whether he was comfortable talking about it rather than running for the hills. Or the door, at least. He certainly couldn’t leave it on that note, especially if he wanted Quentin to see him again. “It’s not as… as malicious as it sounds, although it’s…” He was well aware of Quentin’s eyes on him, and his need to ease the worry on his face outweighed his desire to bury himself deep. The quickest way out was through. “It was an accident, as much of a difference as that makes. Teenage me was drunk on vodka coolers when Logan Kinear decided that he didn’t like my button-down — which, I’ll have you know, was very charming,” he said, hoping to make Quentin smile and feeling himself settle a little when he did so. “He picked a fight with me, and I don’t think he expected me to fight back. I didn’t push him hard, but it caught him off guard and he stumbled right back into the road and in front of a car.”
“Oh, shit,” Quentin said softly.
Eliot used the pause of the interruption to steel himself again. There was something strange happening in his stomach, something that felt like vulnerable but not all at the same time, and he definitely was not going to explore that right now. He squared his shoulders, finished his wine. “He didn’t die. He was in the hospital for a while, a few broken bones and a head injury that they were worried about for a hot second, but he healed up good as new in the end.”
His fingers itched to pour himself another glass from the bottle on the table, and it was only a few seconds before he gave into the urge, topping Quentin’s up first because he was a gentleman, after all. “And that was my first step towards hating Christmas,” he said, his voice thick with a false cheer that he absolutely expected Quentin to see through. “Now, that’s enough of my big dark past for the moment,” he added, leaning back in his chair as the server approached with their starters.
Quentin picked at his mozzarella sticks for a minute or so, and Eliot tried not to think about all of the things that he could be thinking about what he’d told him. He knew that he couldn’t bare to dwell in this mood all night, or even for a second longer. “It’s your turn to overshare,” he said, pointing at him with his crust. “And I demand you make it light and fluffy and fun to compensate for me bringing down the mood.”
His shoulders visibly stiffening, Quentin looked more uncomfortable now than he had when Eliot was telling him about one of the worst days of his life. “Oh, um — I don’t know what…”
“Tell me about your work,” Eliot suggested, figuring it was a safe enough topic, and one that was likely to come up with Quentin’s work friends and his. “There must be something you like about it if you’ve stuck it out despite being unhappy there.”
“I’m not… unhappy’s the wrong word,” he protested with a frown, and Eliot was surprised when it so easily slipped into a soft smile just a second later. “I actually really love the work. I love… bringing joy to people, and giving people places to escape to.”
Taking his lower lip between his teeth to keep his own smile in check, Eliot wiped his fingers clean on the napkin and leaned forward to rest his cheek on his palm, watching Quentin across the table with something that wasn’t quite amusement. “You look so ridiculously wistful right now,” he told him, and gave up hiding his grin at the embarrassed flush that spread up Quentin’s neck.
“It’s stupid,” Quentin said, inadvertently telling him that there was more to it than what he’d put into words. Eliot wondered whether pressing the point was bad form.
But when had that stopped him? He raised an eyebrow, looking around them pointedly. “More stupid than what we’re doing here? I think you get a free pass.”
Quentin glanced down at his food, back up at Eliot, and then helplessly around the room. Eliot felt his curiosity growing with every passing second. “There’s a book series that I kind of like,” he said eventually, lifting his chin and meeting Eliot’s eyes with determination, and he felt a pleased little rush that he was feeling comfortable enough to open up. “Have you heard of the Fillory books?” he asked, his eyebrows lifting hopefully, and then barrelled on before he could tell him that yes, in fact, he had read them once when he was younger. Or rather, he’d read the first one, and then the wiki for the others.
“I, um. I always wished I could go there. Explore the Wandering Dune and the Flying Forest, go on adventures and just see every corner of this place that I loved so much. Which, I know I can’t,” he said, almost a little defensively, and Eliot bit back his smile, “but that urge for adventure never really went away, and there’s so many cool places around the world that are just… waiting there to be explored.” If he’d thought Quentin had looked wistful before, now he was positively dreamy. He seemed to catch himself, giving a little shrug. “I love getting to share that with other people, and helping them find places to fall in love with.”
Eliot couldn’t hold his grin back any longer. He was entirely too adorable. “I was right,” he said delightedly, tilting his head. “You are a huge nerd.”
“Oh, I…” Mouth twisting, Quentin dropped his eyes down to his plate, and Eliot reached across the table quickly, not touching him but catching his attention.
“No, it’s cute,” he said sincerely.
And oh, the way Quentin blushed at that felt way too good for a fake date. Eliot removed his hand and sat back, giving him some space, and after a moment Quentin straightened up as well, clearing his throat. He didn’t look uncomfortable — a little embarrassed, maybe, but there was the hint of a smile playing around his lips and Eliot thought that maybe it was okay. He found that he enjoyed flirting with Quentin, even if it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and was pleased to know that maybe Quentin didn’t mind it either. “We should, um. Get to know each other? Maybe talk about things that our work friends are going to expect us to know about each other?”
“I have a feeling that knowing you’re die hard Fillory is relevant information, but sure,” Eliot said, earning him a proper smile, even if it came with an eye roll. “Tell me all about you, Quentin Coldwater.”
Quentin looked up from the email on his laptop at the sound of a knock on his door. He smiled to see Julia standing there, but it froze on his face when he saw Fen beside her, a huge gift basket in her hands. "Delivery," Julia said brightly.
"Um. Thanks," he said, as Fen set the basket on his desk. It looked to be an assortment of chocolates shaped like roses, wrapped in red and purple and gold foil. She hovered beside it, brushing her fingers over the cellophane, and Quentin hesitated before reaching for the card.
Some sweetness for you, sweetheart.
That was… ridiculously cheesy. Way too cheesy. Quentin snorted before he caught himself with the reminder that he was supposed to find this endearing and thoughtful. He was quickly learning that Eliot wasn't one to shy away from dramatics.
"This guy's really schmoozing you, huh," Julia said, eyeing the two flower arrangements that had replaced the one from a week ago.
Shrugging, Quentin followed her gaze around the room, feeling awkward and pleased all at the same time. It felt nice to receive surprise gifts, and everything Eliot had sent him was beautiful. And expensive. He didn't want Eliot to feel like he had to spend money on him.
"He must really like you," Fen said, her eyes and her smile wide.
She was still touching the packaging with curious fingers. "Do you… do you want some?" he asked, trying to figure out whether he was imagining the hostility behind her cheerfulness.
"Oh, can I?" she said.
"How did your date go?" Julia asked as he unwrapped the packaging and pulled out one of the chocolates.
He offered a piece to Julia, who shook her head to decline. "It was good," he said, thinking back to their date last weekend. And it had been good — he'd genuinely had a good time with Eliot. There had been that one moment, where he’d thought that Eliot was going to close up or leave or both, but then he’d surprised him by opening up to him with shocking casualness. He’d seemed surprised when Quentin had taken it in stride, and they’d slipped back into the easy, light mood that they’d started the night on. Without the need to convince him that he was someone who he actually wanted to date, it had been the most relaxed he'd ever felt on a date. It was a pity that real dates never felt so easy. Not that he’d had the experience for a few years, thankfully. “He’s… he’s a really great guy, Jules,” he said, and meant it.
Julia drew her lower lip between her teeth, eyeing him with amusement. “Did you go back to your place or his?”
“Oh my god,” he said, grabbing the basket and getting up to put it on the cupboard in the corner so that she wouldn’t see how hard he was blushing. He hadn’t even — well okay, that was a lie, he had thought about what Eliot would be like in bed, but only because he oozed confidence in every inch of him, and his mind had drifted once or twice to how that might carry over to, well...
He was an attractive man. Quentin wasn’t blind.
“Neither,” he said, forcing himself to meet her eyes when he turned back around. The laughter around her eyes told him that she was enjoying watching him squirm. “We saw a movie, we went to dinner, he kissed me goodbye at the car. That’s it.” And true, except for the last bit.
Lowering himself back into his chair, he glanced up at Fen, wishing a little that she didn’t have to see him be all awkward about this. She was still smiling, but there was a shrewdness to her eyes that made him even more uncomfortable. She lifted her chin when she caught him looking at her. “I’m sure it was great,” she said, with that same over-cheeriness from a moment ago. “The chocolates are delicious. Let me know where you — I mean, he — got them from?”
Quentin was still staring after her when she closed the door behind her on her way out. Bewildered, he turned to Julia. “Is she… is she implying that I bought them? For myself?”
Because that was so much more ridiculous than your fake boyfriend sending them to you, right?
Julia waved her off with a roll of her eyes. “She’s just jealous that she’s not the only one getting gifts sent to the office anymore. And that your date actually wants to see you again.” Pushing off from the cabinet behind her, she wrapped her arm around his shoulders, giving him a quick squeeze before heading to the door. “Don’t let it bother you. But if you go on too many more dates before I get to meet him, then I will be bothering you. Okay?” She winked at him before disappearing through the door.
Alone, Quentin leaned back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face before turning to eye the gift basket. His stomach was twisting in a way that he didn’t like.
Fen wasn’t wrong, not exactly, and he felt foolish when confronted with the reality of what they were doing. He could just imagine the laughter behind his back if they ever found out that he was faking a relationship.
But just as much as that was getting to him, the idea that Fen clearly didn’t seem to think that he could be seeing someone who wanted to send him presents bothered him just as much. Did she not think that he deserved someone who would do nice things for him?
Why did he even care, when it wasn’t real anyway?
And if it wasn’t real, Eliot shouldn’t be wasting money on flowers and chocolates, if no one was going to believe that they came from a real person.
Quentin picked up his phone, thumbing through his contacts for a minute or so before he worked up the courage to press call. The panicked realisation that he might be in a meeting, or with a client, or something else that would make a ringing phone an interruption hit him on the third ring, but Eliot answered on the fourth, before he could hang up. “Oh hello, sweetheart,” he said, a smile clear in his voice.
It took him a moment to find his voice. “Um. Hi. It’s Quentin?”
There was a noise on the other end of the line that sounded almost like laughter. “Yes, I figured. Hence the ‘sweetheart. Did you get the chocolates?”
The chocolates. Right. The reason he was calling. Glancing at them again, Quentin turned to set his elbows on the table, trying to make himself stop sounding like an idiot. “I did. You — you know that you don’t have to send me gifts, right?”
“I know. I don’t mind. It comes with the territory, right? I’m wooing you,” he said, and Quentin didn’t have to see him to picture his delighted smile.
It was a nice smile. “But you don’t have to spend money on me, whether —” he lowered his voice, just in case “— we’re a real couple or not. I don’t expect it.” He struggled with his next words, wondering whether he was completely off base or not. Most of all, he didn’t want to offend Eliot, but he didn’t want him thinking that he needed things from him in order to play along. “You don’t have to… buy me off, or whatever.”
Eliot was silent for a few seconds, and Quentin was well into wishing he could just dig a hole and bury himself in it when he finally spoke. “If it really bothers you, then I’ll stop,” Eliot said slowly. “I figured that it would be good for the people you work with to see you getting spoiled.”
And… yeah, that would be good, if the people he was trying to fool actually believed him. Not that Fen was the person he was trying to get off his back with this charade, but her assumption that he couldn’t possibly have someone was an itch between his shoulders that he couldn’t ease. Embarrassed whichever way he spun it, he pressed his middle finger and his thumb into his temples, leaning his elbow against the desk. “There might be a person or two who… not everyone believes that I’m actually seeing someone.”
Eliot’s immediate laughter surprised him. “They think you’re making me up?”
His lips stretched automatically into something vaguely representative of a smile. Yeah, it sounded ridiculous, except it wasn’t so far from the truth, was it? “... Yeah?” he said. The resolution was simple, but he didn’t want to ask, felt silly for needing it. He’d just told him that he didn’t need him to spend his money on him, and didn’t want to immediately follow up with asking for his time. But. It would make things easier. “Could you…?”
“I’ll be there in twenty,” Eliot said.
He didn’t sound irritated or frustrated. Quentin was sure he could still hear a smile in his voice, and when he heard the call disconnect he slowly lowered his phone to the desk. Was it really that easy? He’d had a mild inconvenience in their pretend relationship, and Eliot was already on his way to help him with it.
It couldn’t be that easy.
But, Eliot was coming. Here. His stomach lurched, and he spent a full minute tidying the paperwork and straightening everything on his desk before he realised that it was ridiculous.
Eliot wouldn’t care what his office looked like. And he shouldn’t care, even if he did. Worst case scenario, a potential friend was about to see his work space. That definitely wasn’t worth fussing over.
It was just over twenty minutes later when the sound of Eliot’s voice made him straighten in his chair. He stood slowly, walked over to the door and opened it just in time to see Eliot approaching. Fen was at his elbow, her face alight as she gestured this way and that, but Eliot’s attention seemed to be completely on Quentin as he caught sight of him. “Hey,” he said softly, his smile warm and gentle and just for him as he stepped in close, one hand settling on his waist as he bent his head to press his lips against his cheek.
Just for him… and just for the eyes of everyone else in the office. Quentin pushed down the warmth spreading through his chest. This was just a normal greeting for two people seeing each other, he reminded himself, and managed to wrangle his features from nervous to pleasantly surprised as he pulled back. The spark in Eliot’s eye told him he was enjoying the charade. He wished they’d agreed on a story, or that he knew what he’d said to Fen. “You’re early,” he said, hoping that covered most of the options.
“I know our lunch date isn’t until tomorrow, but I hoped to see you anyway,” Eliot said, and — okay, it worked, they’d made it work, it was fine. “The lovely Fen here tells me that you haven’t had lunch yet.”
“No, I —” Quentin paused, side-eyeing the way Fen was looking at Eliot, surprise still etched into her features as she glanced at Quentin and back again. Was it really that shocking that he could be dating someone like Eliot? He blocked her out of his thoughts, turning his body slightly away from her. “Let’s get some lunch.”
He could feel eyes on him all around, and glanced up nervously to find most of the office hurriedly looking away from them. Except Julia, who was staring at him with wide eyes and a delighted smile on her face.
Somehow, it hadn’t actually occurred to Quentin until that moment that he’d have to actually introduce them, that Julia and Eliot were both real people who would probably have to meet each other, especially since his whole reason for going along with this was to get Julia off of his back about starting to date again. Would they… would the three of them have to spend time together? Would they talk to each other about him? Would Julia have opinions about Eliot?
He hoped that she’d like him, whether he was his boyfriend or not.
“It was lovely to meet you, Fen,” Eliot said, tearing Quentin out of his thoughts. He glanced up at Eliot just as his arm slipped around his shoulders, a comforting pressure that he hadn’t even had to ask for. “I’m sure I’ll see you around again soon.”
The wide smile on her face, her bright, accommodating eyes, told him that of course she’d be happy to see him again, and gave not a single hint that she’d doubted his existence barely half an hour ago. “I’m sure,” she said brightly, the apples of her cheeks blushing slightly, and Quentin fought to keep the grin off his face.
It shouldn’t have pleased him so much that Fen was impressed with his pretend boyfriend, and yet…
He wondered again what Julia would think of Eliot, both with the shallow perception of his appearance and also if she had the chance to get to know him. Not that Quentin knew him incredibly well either, but… the hot lawyer with a biting sense of humour and an immediate desire to help out a… a friend in need was at least potentially likeable for Julia, even considering her high standards.
“You must be Julia!” Eliot’s arm around his shoulders pulled him to step forward in Julia’s direction, and he wasn’t sure whether he was glad or panicked that he’d shown Eliot Julia’s photo. Eliot was as smooth as silk when he reached for Julia’s hand, nodding at her over it as he squeezed it. It wasn’t quite a shake, not really a bow, but entirely gentlemanly just the same, and Quentin caught the incredulous bubble of laughter in his throat before it sounded.
“I’ve heard so many things about you,” he continued, oblivious to Quentin’s train of thought. “I’m very much looking forward to getting to know you in person, but I hope you’ll excuse me today to take your friend out for lunch.”
God, who was this guy?
Julia was looking at him with exactly the same amount of what the fuck plus wow, this is somehow incredibly attractive and how does this feel so natural on him when it should be overdramatic and ridiculous that Quentin was battling against. Wide-eyed, she turned to Quentin, who couldn’t offer her anything more than a shrug. “Enjoy your lunch date,” she said, and any surprise was quickly replaced by the smug delight flashing across her features. There was the Julia he knew. “Please bring him back in a good state to sign our holiday bonus cheques. So, two or three drinks in, but not further than that or he’ll just fall asleep at his desk.”
“Julia,” he hissed, trying not to laugh.
Quentin felt warm — warm from the weight of Eliot’s arm around his shoulders, from Julia’s combination of over-protectiveness and excitement that he was seeing someone. He only wished that it was for something real — that she was willing to wait for him to find the right person. Or maybe he should be wishing that he didn’t care so much about what she thought about his romantic life in the first place.
Either way, it felt nice to walk out of the office for lunch with Eliot by his side.
Filled up on chicken tikka and naan, Quentin followed Eliot around the pop-up Christmas supply store that had taken up one of the empty tenancies at the other side of the shopping mall. The place was filled with figurines and decorations, wreaths and boxes of fairy lights and tinsel and all of the other things that Quentin tried not to think about.
He wouldn’t have been here at all, except Eliot had suggested that they have a quick look for the bauble that he had to take to his boss’s tree trimming party this weekend. He’d hardly been in a position to deny him, when he’d agreed to meet up with him for his lunch break rather than enjoying that time for himself.
It would have been slightly more pleasant if Eliot had had an ounce of care for the bauble that he was going to choose, but Quentin could hardly point the finger either.
Eliot wandered around the store as though there were concrete slabs tied to his feet, a constant grimace on his face as he observed one bauble and then another, and it would almost be cute if Quentin didn’t know that there was something more serious behind it. His thoughts were quick to jump back to the story Eliot had told him — or hinted at, anyway. An accident that had led to someone being hurt, and Eliot’s self-blame strong enough that it still bothered him now, years later.
He’d said three particularly challenging Christmases. Quentin wondered what else Eliot had buried deep.
His hand hovering over a bauble in the form of a snowglobe, Eliot glanced at him once, and then again, and Quentin was just starting to wonder what was going through his mind when he turned and eyed him again consideringly. Quentin felt like he was being measured up, but he still wasn’t expecting the question Eliot threw at him so casually. “So what’s your problem with Christmas?”
His shoulders stiffened despite his best efforts not to react. The thought of Christmas hadn’t always caused his chest to tighten, but it was funny how your mind and your heart picked associations and then wouldn’t let them go. “I used to love it, actually,” he said. It had been such a wonder to him as a child; the tree, the decorations, the food, the family. Looking around the store at the rows and rows of decorations, he tried to find some joy in those things again, but instead he just felt tired. “Not so much anymore.”
Bracing himself for the inevitable following questions, Quentin reluctantly turned back to Eliot. Eliot watched him thoughtfully for a few seconds, and then offered him a commiserating grimace before turning back to the decorations, letting the subject drop.
The fingers around his heart eased a little, but he wasn’t expecting the weight of guilt that settled in his gut in their place. Frowning, he turned to the other side of the aisle, looking over the shelves without really seeing them.
It’s not like Eliot had opened up to him with the requirement that he do the same, but he felt bad for it regardless. He liked that Eliot had felt comfortable enough to share it with him — or maybe that he’d chosen to share it with him anyway, despite that it was painful.
He wished he was brave enough to share as well.
He was also grateful that Eliot wasn’t pushing him to air his drama in the middle of the store, too.
There were other ways he could contribute, he realised. Other ways he could help. Quentin doubled down on his search for something for the tree trimming party. He’d never been to one before, but Eliot had told him it was simple — essentially just a dinner party at his boss’s home with the rest of his co-workers. Apparently, Henry Fogg was the kind of person who jumped on the Christmas spirit the second that Thanksgiving was over, but at least he wasn’t the type to put up the Christmas tree the second that Halloween was over.
Everyone brought a decoration for the tree. He wasn’t surprised at all to learn that Eliot had put off choosing one.
It had to be perfect, Quentin knew that. It seemed like a small thing, but it was another way for him to impress his boss in the lead up to the choice for promotion.
It would also be the first time Quentin met Eliot’s boss, and his work friends.
He was always anxious about meeting new people, but he was excited and a little terrified at the thought of meeting Margo, in particular. From Eliot’s stories about her, she sounded incredible, and also a little bit like she might eat him alive.
Turning into the next aisle, Quentin browsed the options carefully. He was halfway along when something caught his eye. Lifting it from the hanger, he smiled at the glass bell, etched with snowflakes and adorned with doves.
Handling it carefully, he lifted up on his tiptoes to in order to see Eliot over the top of the aisle. The top of his curly head was right in front of him.
Eliot looked up at he approached, eyes dropping immediately to the decoration in his hand. Quentin held it up between them. “I… I found this?” he said, his confidence in his suggestion already fading. “I just thought that — well, doves are a symbol of love and peace, right? And two makes fidelity.” God, it sounded more and more cheesy the longer he talked. “I figured… since that’s what you’re kind of selling here, they might like… it might be a good choice? But you don’t have to —”
“It’s perfect,” Eliot said, reaching out to run a finger along the curve of the bell. His smile sent a wave of relief through him. Eliot reached past the decoration to squeeze his shoulder, and Quentin smiled back tentatively when he lifted his gaze. “Thank you, Quentin.” His sincerity only lasted a moment, before a more familiar glint appeared in his eye. “Now, let’s get out of here and get you back to work before your friends can start to wonder what we’re getting up to on your lunch break.”
Quentin attends Henry's tree trimming party.
“Sorry, sorry!” Quentin slipped into the passenger seat, and Eliot bit back the tease that he’d been sitting here for hours when he caught sight of the dark look on his face. The door slammed shut probably a little firmer than was absolutely necessary, and Quentin closed his eyes, looking ready to curl up into an angry little ball. "Sorry."
"I pulled up two minutes ago, but sure,” Eliot said instead, still trying to keep it light. The thin smile he got in return was barely worth it, and he reined himself in from hoping for the brilliant smile that he knew he was capable of. “Do you need a minute, or…?”
“No, I’m fine.” Quentin waved him on, crossing his arms over his stomach, and Eliot shot him another glance before he flicked the indicator and pulled out onto the road.
Fine. Sure. The frustration vibrating through every inch of him felt far too strong for the trouble of keeping Eliot waiting a couple of minutes, and he wasn’t sure whether he should push it. The last time he’d asked him about something personal Quentin had closed up, and his curiosity fought against his reluctance to push someone he still barely knew to share with him. Instead, he remained quiet, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music to distract himself.
Quentin’s… whatever this mood was, wasn’t the only thing setting him on edge. Henry Fogg’s tree trimming party was one of the important events of the holidays for the Philadelphia branch of Loria, Fogg & Associates. Only the partners and the favourites got an invite, and Eliot was lucky enough to have been invited for the last three years in a row.
So was Poppy, but that was beside the point.
Tonight was important. Tonight was the first time that he was introducing a partner to the firm, that he was introducing himself as someone who was in it for the long haul, who was planning a future with another person and with the company and was… someone worthy of taking a chance on.
The fact that his romantic prospects could hold any weight to his career was enough to twist his stomach into a ball of anger, but he forced his hands to relax on the wheel, to take a deep breath. He was more than whether he wanted someone to love him or not.
Quentin’s sigh brought him out of his thoughts, and he glanced across to see him staring down at his knees. "I'm sorry," he said again, but this time it felt like a genuine apology instead of an irritated burst that wasn't actually directed at the person he was speaking to. Eliot looked back to the road, and his next peek at Quentin found his lips stretched into a rueful almost-smile, even if it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I just… I just got off the phone with Alice, actually." He hesitated, that barely there smile faltering as he dropped his gaze, and Eliot forced his eyes forward again. "You don't want to hear about my bullshit."
Eliot got the feeling that he was used to people agreeing with him. He found himself concerned, even outside of the fact that he was relying on Quentin to bring the charm tonight. "Well I definitely don't want you like this all night," Eliot said, hoping that he'd take the dismissive tone as the push towards normalcy that he'd intended it to be. He waved his hand in Quentin's general direction. "Vent away, let it out."
He saw him stiffen slightly in his periphery, and was quiet just long enough for Eliot to determine that he'd taken the wrong approach after all. When he did speak, his voice was quiet. "You can't really care though…"
For some reason, he did. And he was equal parts amused and frustrated that Quentin seemed to care whether he cared instead of just blurting out his irritation like a normal person. "Quentin. Q. Let's just skip to the part where we're friends."
"We barely know each other," Quentin said, sounding surprised.
"I bond fast," Eliot said greedily, and feeling anything but. There was something about Quentin that pulled at him to fix whatever was causing him to draw in on himself in hurt and frustration and — well, he knew it wasn't his problem to fix, that he shouldn't be so concerned about pulling him out of this funk, but he'd quite liked what he'd seen of happy Quentin so far. "Tonight is going to be painful enough as it is, let alone the next few weeks, and I'd rather do it with a friend by my side. Okay? Good. Now tell me about your bullshit day."
He risked another glance at him as he turned the corner, and was pleasantly surprised by the way Quentin's shoulders were already relaxing, just a little. "Okay," he said slowly, pausing to take a deep breath before he continued. "I was trying to convince her to release more funds for the kids. She says that there aren't more finds, which I know isn't true. She's just more interested in keeping money sitting there. She made one bad business decision four years ago that we've come back from, it's fine, and I know it's important to have safeguards in place but guess what, we do have them and this isn't touching that money at all and she still won't let me use it to help the kids."
The genuine feeling in Quentin’s voice every time he talked about the charity program that he ran through the travel agency never failed to pull at something inside Eliot. He supposed it was the same thing that drew him to his work — he wanted to make things easier for people in ways that he’d wished his family had been helped as a kid.
He was pretty sure nothing could have helped his family, but that was beside the point.
The fact that someone was trying to stand in Quentin’s way was just incomprehensible. And he didn’t understand how she could, anyway? “How can she deny you the funds when it’s your business?”
“Well, it was my business. We started dating, and… I was in love, and I trusted her,” Quentin said, an edge of bitterness remaining in his voice even as it quietened. “And she had a business degree,” he added with a snort. “Fat lot of good that did us. But anyway, money was tight to start with, so I let her buy in. We — she spent a huge chunk of money on a new advertising contract a few years ago, and the company went bust a few days later and took our money with it. It was a hit, but we’ve worked back from it, and now she’s so focused on making money — which is fine, that’s a good thing, I’m not an idiot, but… but why can’t we use some of that money to help people, when we have it to spare?”
He could feel Quentin’s eyes on him, and could picture exactly the earnest look that he’d have on his face. He meant it, he really did. “You don’t have a Scrouge bone in your body,” Eliot said, smiling softly as he glanced across at him.
He caught the edge of Quentin’s uncertain smile before he forced his eyes back to the road. They were almost there, and he was surprised that the drive had gone so quickly. “I just really want to give them something happy,” he said, defeat clear in his quiet voice.
“Don’t give up,” Eliot said, pausing when the words slipped out before he could really consider them. He didn’t want to take them back, despite the surprising amount of force between them. This was important — for the kids, and for Quentin. He kept his eyes firm on the road, watching the houses closely as he turned onto Henry’s street. “You’re doing a good thing. Don’t let her take this from you.”
Quentin’s shoulders rose and fell in Eliot’s peripheral vision as he took in a slow, deep breath and then let it out. “Thank you,” he said, and he sounded the closest to settled that he’d been since he’d opened the car door. “It’s really good to hear that sometimes.”
Flicking on his indicator, Eliot pulled into Henry’s driveway, focusing on the majesty of the house instead of the heavy feeling in his gut. “Welcome to wealth and splendour,” he said, gesturing with one hand over the impeccably decorated front yard of his boss’s house. It looked no less magical without the Christmas decorations, he knew. He’d only been here a handful of times, but every time he was impressed anew by the elegant stylings.
Pulling to a stop, he turned off the engine and turned to face Quentin, who looked like he’d only just realised what they were doing. “Shit. Eliot? Shit. Why did we think this was a good idea?”
There were no remaining traces of his bad mood, at least. Eliot flashed him a grin, hoping to stoke a little excitement in him now that he’d talked through his anger. “Are you ready?”
Quentin swallowed before he nodded, and his smile stretched hesitantly across his face. “I’m ready. Let’s go, boyfriend.”
Chewing on his lower lip, Quentin looked over the table of appetisers, wondering if he was going to stop feeling too nervous to eat at some point tonight. He needed something to do with his hands, and he couldn’t keep downing drink after drink just so he’d have something to fiddle with. There were so many people here, and all of them wanted to know something about him with differing levels of interest. He felt like he’d been watching every word that had fallen past his lips since they’d walked through the door an hour ago, and he was already exhausted.
This was… not the kind of party where he could double down in the corner with a Fillory book.
Eliot had been wonderful, though. He’d stayed by his side the whole time — which was probably the point anyway, but it was a comfort nonetheless — keeping him involved in the conversation enough to make it look like he genuinely cared about his input, but not enough that Quentin felt like he was the centre of attention. Eliot’s boss, Henry Fogg, had been as openly pleased to see him as he was intimidating, and Quentin had managed to find enough confidence to not make a complete idiot of himself or Eliot in front of his new boyfriend’s co-workers.
Margo, on the other hand. Margo was another story.
Eliot hadn’t said much about Margo, aside from calling her his life partner and soulmate, and heavily implying that she would eat him alive if he took half a step wrong. He was fairly confident that had she not known that their relationship was fake, that he would be terrified of her.
He was still probably a little terrified of her.
She was also pretty incredible, and had jumped straight into the pretence that the were already friends, or at least knew each other well. Her boyfriend was out of town visiting his family, so she was adopting him as well, or so she told Henry.
It had been her quiet suggestion that he have a look and see what food the Foggs had laid out, and he was smart enough to take the hint that yes, drinking on an empty stomach when he was trying to make a good impression probably wasn’t a good idea.
Both she and Eliot had said that they didn’t want anything. Maybe they’d changed their minds. Maybe he should stop overthinking it and just grab some of the nearest ridiculously fancy finger food and force it down to settle the alcohol that was making him feel giddy.
Nope, that was just his brain.
Quentin glanced up, intending to catch Eliot or Margo’s gaze from across the room and gesture to confirm if they wanted anything, and almost jumped out of his skin when he found Bigby Fogg standing right in front of him.
"Relax, honey," she said, in a loud, conspiring whisper that didn't take away any of the brightness from her wide smile. "You're doing fine."
Quentin managed a smile that was hopefully a little less on edge than he felt. "That obvious, huh?"
He'd only caught a few minutes of Bigby when they were first introduced before she was off to greet more guests, and she'd spent every minute since then dancing between groups, making sure everyone was happy and laughing and drinking. That exuberant energy didn't seem any less, now that she'd stopped to talk to him. She grinned at him, her eyes wide with delight. "You are, but it's adorable. Have you eaten? Please, try some of these, you have to."
Bigby took a little plate from the table and piled half a dozen things on there before shoving it into his hand, still smiling widely at him. "Um, thanks — thank you," he said, biting into a mini quiche. He couldn't decide whether the nervous feeling in his gut had eased or gotten worse with Bigby's attention on him, but he wasn't going to turn down food when that was the thing he'd come over for. Just — why can't you do it like a normal person? He smiled around his mouthful, completely unlike like a normal person. "It's delicious."
"Isn't it, though?" Bigby continued to talk as she filled a plate for herself as well, adding a few things to his as she went. "I'm so thrilled that Eliot's finally brought a date to one of these old things." Turning back to him, her smile shifted into something that almost would have been sly except for the lighthearted twinkle in her eyes. "He's always been a favourite of Henry's, but don't tell him that or I'll get in trouble."
A spark of excitement ran through him. It was a good sign that Henry spoke about Eliot at home, and he couldn’t wait to tell him. Quentin tamped it down for later, even as Bigby’s wink implied that she saw straight through him. “His ego’s big enough as it is,” he said instead, because that was a thing that people said about their boyfriend when their boyfriend was Eliot, right?
Bigby laughed. “Oh, does it count if it’s warranted though? Jesus Christ, have you seen that smile? I bet it’s unbearable when he’s throwing all of that charm your way.”
“Yeah,” Quentin said slowly, following her gaze across the room to where Eliot stood by the tree with Margo and a tall, blonde woman with her hair pulled back. Eliot had ducked his head to say something to Margo with a smirk before returning his attention to the other woman, his smile slipping into one less sharp. His expression right now was softer, but the grin he’d given Margo looked a lot more natural, and neither really reminded him of the amused yet thoughtful smile Eliot turned on him during the times that they’d spent getting to know each other, or writing up the contract.
He liked Eliot’s smile, the way his eyes crinkled when he really meant it. He was pretty sure that he’d never met anyone as gorgeous as Eliot in his life.
Although meeting Margo tonight had given him pause for a second.
How would it feel like to have that smile on him with intent? Like Bigby was talking about?
Startled from his thoughts — and gratefully, as he felt a flush run up his cheeks — Quentin turned to see Bigby dropping her plate onto the table and reaching out to take a baby from a man’s arms. The man’s eyes were wide but he was smiling cheerfully as he handed over his kid. “Quentin, this is Ladon, the most adorable squishy little boy,” she said, balancing him in one arm while she squeezed his foot through his tiny shoe with the other. “And Todd,” she said, taking little Ladon’s hand and waving it to Todd. “Todd, this is Quentin, Eliot’s boyfriend.”
Todd… that name was familiar, and the baby… it took a moment before it clicked that this was the husband of the woman Eliot had told about, his main competition for the promotion. “Hey,” he said, setting his plate beside Bigby’s before reaching out to shake his hand.
“Hi,” Todd said cheerfully, either oblivious to their rivalry or unbothered by it. He turned back to Bigby, his brow scrunching a little. “Thank you for letting us bring Ladon. Our sitter cancelled at the last minute and we didn’t have anyone else who could take him but Poppy and I both really wanted to come.”
Bigby waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t be silly, Henry and I love kids." So much so that she was barely paying attention to Todd at all, Quentin noticed with amusement.
Todd didn't seem to mind — in fact, he was looking around with his brow slightly furrowed, although he smoothed it out when he turned back to Bigby. "Do you mind keeping an eye on him for a moment while I use the bathroom? I can't see Poppy."
“Of course,” Bigby said, bouncing Ladon on her hip to make him smile as Todd hurried away. “Oh!” she said again, her eyes lighting up as she caught sight of something over Quentin's shoulder, and suddenly he had an armful of baby.
"Oh, um — okay?" No sooner had Bigby pulled away than Ladon was squirming in Quentin's arms, trying to keep her in his sight, and Quentin tightened his grip automatically, shifting his hold to support him better.
Bigby was back in just a moment, a champagne glass in each hand. She lifted one to Quentin with a nod before placing it on the table next to his plate, and took a sip from the other.
One for him, one for her. But Todd would be back soon... “A lady’s allowed to have her favourites,” she said with a wink.
So… maybe he wasn't making the worst impression?
The baby in his arms was determined to be the centre of attention, grabbing Quentin's tie and tugging on it hard enough to pull his head down, but he didn't mind at all, laughing as he detangled Ladon's fingers. Bigby's eyes softened as she watched him. "Are you and Eliot planning to have children?"
What a heavy question, and probably one they should have discussed. Quentin cleared his throat as unobtrusively as he could, and figured that an answer close to the truth was the best one. "When the time is right," he said, hoping that he wasn't contradicting anything Eliot had said to Henry or to anyone else. He imagined Eliot with a small, curly haired boy in his arms, and smiled. "I've always wanted to be a father."
It was the truth, and he could feel Bigby's warm recognition of that in her eyes. Suddenly feeling a little too seen for a conversation with someone he'd only just met, he looked down at Ladon, surprised to find him staring up at him. His face lit up with Quentin's eyes on him, and he reached up a tiny hand to grab a fistful of his cheek.
He grinned, which only gave Ladon more to grip onto. Ladon’s laughter was pure delight, and Quentin felt himself warming again from the inside out. Feeling a little awkward from just how charmed he was, he glanced nervously across the room and stilled when he found Eliot watching him, the smile on his face just a little too soft to be amusement. Eliot raised his eyebrows, nodding to the kid in his arms, and Quentin shrugged in response, laughing when Ladon decided to wrap his fingers around his lip instead and tug.
“Oh, the two of you just are adorable,” she said, and Quentin thought that she must be talking about him and Ladon before he glanced back to her and saw her looking between him and Eliot.
Hoping that his smile wasn’t too panicked, he bit back his insistence that they weren’t making eyes at each other because — well, that was what they wanted her to think, wasn’t it? “Um. Thanks?” he said, relieved for once in his life that he already had an awkward, flustered baseline to start with. Unable to take the delighted look in Bigby’s eyes, he sought comfort in Eliot again across the room, not sure if it was a help or not when he winked at him.
“Bigby and I would like to extend our welcome and our thanks to everyone who made it tonight, old friends and new alike.” Henry raised his glass to the room at large, looking around at the people gathered with a smile on his face. If Quentin had thought him intimidating before, then it was nothing to his presence as he stood in the middle of the room, framed by the biggest Christmas tree he’d seen in his life, commanding quiet purely with the even cadence of his voice. “We throw this little party every year, and it’s wonderful to see so many familiar faces.” It almost looked like Henry’s eyes paused on Eliot as he said that, and Quentin forced himself to wait until his gaze had moved on before he turned to look at him.
He was fairly confident that everything about Eliot’s countenance was deliberate, from the casual way he leaned back on the couch, to the arm wrapped loosely around Quentin’s shoulders. A faint smile played around his lips, and it widened imperceptibly as he spared a glance at Quentin before turning back to Henry.
Quentin followed his lead, watching Henry as he spoke about the work they did, how important it was to him that they worked with so many different types of families, and did everything they could to make difficult times as easy as possible. That wasn’t what first came to mind when Quentin thought ‘divorce lawyer’, but he could tell that Henry really meant it.
“Loria, Fogg & Associates have served the families of Philadelphia and New York for nineteen years,” Henry said with obvious pride, “and we’ve been able to do so for so long because we are more than just a business. We are more than just a law firm. We are a family.” He paused, smiling warmly at his wife before turning that same smile onto the rest of the group. “Every person in our company has earned their position through hard work and integrity, and I’ve never been more proud of a group of people than I am of each person in this room.” He raised his glass, turning to include everyone in the toast. “To family!”
The words echoed around him, but Quentin’s throat was too dry to do more than mouth the words. If the way Eliot’s arm had tightened around him at the word ‘integrity’ was anything to go by, he was feeling the same heavy feeling in his gut, only made worse by the warmth in Henry’s voice when he’d toasted family.
This was a family, just a group of people who were trying to do some good in the world, and he’d spent all night lying to them. So much for integrity.
As soon as chatter started to ease into the room again, Quentin pulled out from under Eliot’s arm. “I have to… bathroom,” he muttered, pushing himself to his feet without looking at him and weaving through the gathered people in the direction of the bathroom. As he turned the corner into the hallway, he caught a glimpse of Eliot just a step or so behind him, and wasn’t sure whether or not to be surprised that he was following him.
Thankfully, the bathroom was empty. Quentin heard the door lock behind him, but kept his head down as he lowered the lid on the toilet seat and sat on top of it, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and bury his head in his hands. He scrubbed at his face, but when the crawling feeling beneath his skin didn’t ease, he dropped his hands but keep his eyes on the ground, peripherally aware of Eliot leaning back against the vanity.
Silence filled the room, blending horribly with Quentin’s self-loathing. He could only imagine how Eliot must feel, since these were his people that they were lying to. Or, he assumed that he was feeling bad for it — they barely knew each other, but they already had Henry smiling at Eliot with pride and his wife excited about the idea that they might have a fucking family one day.
“I don’t like lying to good people,” Quentin said to the white tiles beneath his feet.
Eliot made a noise that sounded like it was supposed to be a laugh, but all it sounded was bitter. “I can tell you terrible, terrible things about them if it makes you feel better. Did I tell you about that time they… stole candy from babies? Didn’t help the old lady cross the street? Oh, this one’s real — I saw Henry not hold the elevator when I know he saw Pete running for it a week or so ago.”
His tone was flippant, so Quentin was surprised when he finally looked up to see a grimace on Eliot’s face. Eliot held his gaze evenly, but there was a tightness around his eyes that told him just how uncomfortable he was. He felt a twinge of guilt at entertaining the thought that Eliot might not really care, but… but if he cared so much, then why were they doing this in the first place?
“Why can’t we just tell them the truth?” he asked, determinedly not thinking about how this wasn’t really any different to the lie he was telling Julia and the others at his workplace. “Tell them that you should get this promotion because you deserve it, instead of whether you’re dating someone?”
Eliot’s arms tightened around his waist before he dropped them to his sides, glancing upwards as he took a long, slow breath in. When his eyes settled on Quentin again, he looked tired. “I know it’s a stupid yardstick to measure up to,” he said. “And I’d be fighting tooth and nail against it if this job wasn’t so important.”
“What’s so important about a company that won’t accept you for who you are?” Quentin asked, and immediately wished the words back when Eliot’s eyes slid closed. He watched anxiously as Eliot’s brow furrowed and then smoothed out again, his fingers twisting against his thigh, and Quentin wondered if he was wishing for a cigarette as much as he was. He’d quit years ago, but suddenly it was all he could think about.
Eliot opened his eyes, and let out his breath in a short sigh. “This isn’t the first firm that I’ve worked for,” he said, his voice still an odd blend of dismissive and faux-cheery that filled Quentin with the need to fix. “The place that I worked at before this was where I started out. I worked as a paralegal through law school, and then they took me on the moment I passed the bar. I… learned that Mike… that someone I worked with was hiding conflicts of interest in order to manipulate cases.” He shrugged, meeting Quentin’s gaze so firmly that it almost felt like a challenge to look away. “I went to the senior partners about it, and they covered it up. No," he said, his lips twisting in a bitter grimace. "They covered it up, they hazed me out, and they soured my reputation for most of the decent firms in Philadelphia.”
"Oh, shit," Quentin said softly. He could only imagine what that would be like — to be kicked out of your own workplace, and then to have them betray him so far as to make it hard to find another place to work. He knew how much Eliot liked his job, that he took pride in it, and it must have been like a kick in the gut to have them turn on him so thoroughly. He looked at Eliot now, thought back to what he'd told him on their first date. Did he blame himself for this, too? "You did the right thing, Eliot. That's… that's appalling, that they took the other guy’s side and forced you out like that." He'd thought that it was bad enough that Eliot's current company was holding him to a standard like this. "Are all law firms so cut throat?"
"That's not even the worst of it," Eliot said grimly, but then paused, closing his mouth sharply and straightening his shoulders. His eyes slid sideways, just a little, so that he no longer looked directly at him. "But that's veering very quickly into deep territory, and I'm ever a stickler for the rules."
That was… not the impression that Quentin had gotten so far, but he wasn't going to push it. "Sorry," he said quietly, not sure if he meant for his part in leading the conversation there, or that it had happened to him, or… just for everything.
Eliot lifted one shoulder in a shrug. He already looked like he was shoving it all down inside him, and Quentin was filled with an overwhelming urge to encourage him to let it out, that he didn't mind, that he'd listen if he wanted to talk about it. "Anyway — Christmas ghost number two, and you're welcome," Eliot said, rolling his hand in front of him as he ducked his head in a mockery of a bow. "The point is that Henry Fogg was the only person who was willing to take a chance on me despite what they were saying, and I know I can live up to that trust if I'm given the chance."
Eliot finally met his eyes again, looking at him like he really wanted Quentin to hear him. He did. He understood the importance of proving yourself to someone who'd vouched for you.
He didn't point out that they were lying to him in order to get there. He didn't need to; he saw the knowledge loud and clear in the tightness around Eliot's eyes.
It was almost midnight when they left. Quentin was fairly sure he’d met everyone that Eliot worked with — all of Henry’s favourites, anyway — by the time he’d shaken Henry’s hand and kissed Bigby on the cheek and promised them that he’d had a wonderful time and that he was very much looking forward to seeing them again before Christmas. Thankfully, he’d managed to stay by Eliot’s side through most of the night, feeling both a little chagrined that he was being babysat and grateful for it all the same.
His brief introduction to Poppy was still playing on loop in his head with warning lights flashing, as she and Eliot had tried to outdo each other on the politeness and the Christmas cheer and showing off their partners. He couldn’t quite figure out Eliot’s disdain for Todd, but he could tell it irritated Poppy no end, and maybe that was reason enough.
Overall, his night hadn’t been terrible. He’d survived Poppy, Henry, and Margo, so he thought it was a win overall.
The chill in the air had just given in to the warm air flowing through the car vents when Eliot broke the silence, pulling Quentin out of his thoughts. “Margo thinks you’re cute.”
Surprised, Quentin turned away from his long stare out the window into the dark night to look at Eliot. Neither of them had really said much once they’d gotten in the car, and this was the first time that they’d had a proper moment alone since they’d left the bathroom. He’d assumed that Eliot might be dwelling on the whole reasoning behind their charade like he was, but the faint smile playing around his lips now as he kept his eyes on the road suggested otherwise. He could lean into that. “Well, Bigby thinks you’re cute,” he told him, hoping to widen his smile.
The laugh he got in response… wasn’t quite right. The sour note in it pulled at Quentin, and he let his eyes slide closed, wishing he could do something to make things right. He hated that Eliot was fighting so hard, not to get something that he hadn’t earned, but because people were holding something against him that wasn’t his fault.
And what was someone supposed to do if they never wanted to get married and have kids? Those were things that Quentin wanted, and he thought they might be things that Eliot might want at some point, but what if he didn’t want them at all? How did that make him any less capable of helping people? We’re both good people.
“Is… someone disputing that?”
Opening his eyes, Quentin looked across at Eliot to find him glancing at him quickly, and realised that he’d said at least the last thought aloud. Well — he meant it. “You’re single, and I’m divorced. Neither of us is married but we’re still doing good in the world, and it’s not fair that Henry is holding that against you.”
The words poured out of him all at once, and he realised that they were the other half of the discomfort that had been churning inside of him for half the night. He felt bad for lying, but that was barely different from the lie he was telling Julia and Alice and everyone else at work. The thought that he or Eliot were less than because they weren’t in committed relationships was just as hurtful.
The corner of Eliot’s mouth twitched down, like he was trying to hold back a grimace. “Henry’s a good man.”
Quentin remembered what Eliot had told him about how he’d started at Loria, Fogg & Associates. He was still reeling a little, that he’d opened up to him about something that was obviously painful, when he’d been the one to suggest that they keep things light. Watching Eliot watch the road, he wondered what part of his second Christmas ghost that he had held back.
He could understand loyalty to someone who’d taken a chance on him, particularly after being betrayed so thoroughly by people he’d trusted. And he’d seen nothing about Henry tonight to make him think that he wasn’t genuine in the love and pride he had in his employees. “Sometimes good people fall into narrow perspectives.” He hoped that was the case for Julia, and for Henry as well. Eliot didn't deserve to have something so meaningless held against him. “I really hope you get the job,” he added quietly.
The streetlights washed over Eliot’s face in waves, so he missed the moment when the tension seeped out of his face and left his smile as one more relaxed. He felt the relief of it anyway. “Thank you,” Eliot said, looking at him sideways for a few seconds before turning back to the road. Leaning back in his seat, he took a breath and let it out slowly before his eyes flickered towards him once more. “And thank you for coming tonight. It was a lot, even if this was —” he waved his hand between them “— you know.”
Real. Quentin knew. But even if it wasn’t a real relationship, the time he’d spent tonight with Eliot in particular had actually been pretty fun. He thought back to their car ride to Henry’s place, how Eliot had asked him about what had happened with Alice and how he’d actually listened to his response. I’d rather do it with a friend by my side. He really liked the sound of that. “I had fun,” he said, and meant it.
The car pulled to a stop, and Quentin looked up in surprise. He hadn’t realised they were so close to home. “Oh. Um. Thank you for picking me up,” he said, all of his awkwardness crashing in on him at once. Eliot had turned to face him, and was watching him that that little half-smile again. “Will you — um — will you let me know how it went? You know, if they say anything?” Not that he expected people to be talking about them, but they probably would, right?
“I will,” Eliot said. “I’ll message you tomorrow. We’ll make a plan for your work thing next weekend.”
The snowman building contest. Quentin wished he could say he’d forgotten about it. “Sounds great,” he said, reaching for the door handle. “Night, Eliot.”
He caught a quick glance of Eliot’s wave as he stepped out of the car. “Good night, Quentin.”
Christmas trees and snow men abound! And maybe some more sharing, too. Who needs rules, anyway?
“I wish you’d tell me where we’re going.”
Eliot didn’t turn his eyes away from the road as he grinned, his teeth pulling at his lower lip. “How many times do I have to say ‘it’s a surprise’ before you wrap your head around it?”
Rolling his eyes, Quentin stuck his elbow out to knock Eliot’s arm. “I don’t like surprises.”
“Everyone says that. Trust me, it’ll be fun.”
Quentin wasn’t entirely sure that Eliot’s version of ‘fun’ or ‘comfort levels’ were comparable with his, but he couldn’t deny the steady thrum of excitement that ran through him. He was almost surprised by how good he felt about this… whatever it was that was happening.
He’d gotten a message from Eliot late last night, asking if he was free for the afternoon. They didn't have a 'get to know you' date planned, and the snowman building competition that the travel agency ran every year wasn't until this evening. Since he’d read the message Quentin had asked him three or four times what he was planning, but all he'd gotten in return was a winky face in response to his text, and a shrug and a smirk when he'd picked him up.
The last thing he expected was to pull into a tree farm. Quentin stared at the huge expanse of pine trees on the other side of the small parking lot before looking at Eliot dubiously. “I didn’t think you were the type to want a fucking Christmas tree.”
Eliot’s eyes twinkled back at him. “It’s for you,” he said cheerfully, opening his door and climbing out of the car without a backward glance.
Oh no. No. Quentin forced his limbs to unfreeze and scrambled out of his seat, turning to look at Eliot over the car as he closed the door. “I don’t want a tree,” he said, his words coming out shorter than he’d intended but…
But he really didn’t want a tree.
Unfazed, Eliot rounded the car and wrapped his arm around his shoulders, steering him toward the entrance. Quentin let himself get dragged along, feeling his heart sink with every step. “You never know,” Eliot said, that same easy cheer in his voice that Quentin was starting to recognise as his ‘this is a thing that we’re doing and you’re going to enjoy it through my sheer force of will’ voice. “It might be fun.”
Quentin stopped, and Eliot took another step forward, keeping his arm hanging over his shoulder as he turned to face him. He sighed heavily at the blank look Quentin gave him, and he fought down the urge to smile at his dramatics. His painfully obvious good mood was making it hard to hang onto his gloom. “Look,” Eliot said, pulling his arm back to squeeze Quentin’s shoulder. “Doing the whole tree thing is supposed to be fun, right? And we’re trying to get into the Christmas spirit this year — let’s try actually doing that for five minutes and see how it goes.”
Pressing his lips together, Quentin looked up at him, taking in his raised eyebrows, his pointed gaze. He was trying — whether for himself or for Quentin, he was trying to make this not a miserable experience. He should probably make an effort, too. “Okay, fine,” Quentin said begrudgingly, smiling thinly to show him that he only meant it a little. “But I get final say if it’s going in my house.”
There were so many trees. Rows and rows of them, big and small, thin and narrow and wide and lustrous. They wandered up and down the rows, passing couples and families, stopping every now and then so as not to get bowled over by a handful of kids that were weaving in between the trees. There was a woman near the entrance with a cart selling hot drinks, and after about ten minutes they doubled back for coffee. It was mediocre at best, but wrapping his hands around the paper cup kept them warm.
And… it was actually not the worst time in the world. Quentin didn’t have anything against Christmas trees, per se, but this was yet another thing that he and Alice had enjoyed doing. They’d always bought a tree for the house and a small one for the office. The first year after their divorce, they’d tried to go shopping for a tree together, but ended up spending half the time bickering and came back empty handed.
Tree shopping with Eliot was… not that. He could tell from the way that Eliot stopped at every other tree, talking about the pros and cons in far too much detail, that he was hamming it up to try and get Quentin invested in it. He didn’t tell him so, but the fact that he was putting in an effort to get Quentin to enjoy himself was the best part of the experience.
Holding Eliot’s half empty coffee, he watched him, smiling, as he looked over a tree that Quentin already knew was too tall. He was talking about the spread of the branches, sprouting facts that he was fairly confident that he was making up as he went, but Quentin was happy to go along with it, nodding and making the right noises every time he glanced up at him.
It was nice to see him happy. Quentin had enjoyed the time he’d spent with Eliot at his work party last weekend, despite the shadow that had cast over both of them partway through the night, but the smile on his face now was so different than the one he’d put on for show while he’d been trying to impress his colleagues and his boss.
He liked this smile better.
He was still surprised that he’d opened up to him so much, about the boy that had gotten hurt when he was younger, about what his previous workplace had done to his career. Eliot had been the one who had specified keeping things light, but he was continuing to reach out to him, and it felt good to know that he apparently felt safe enough to confide in him. It warmed him, to think that maybe Eliot had meant it about being friends, that they could do things like go tree shopping and actually have a good time.
They finished their drinks, tossed their empty cups in the trash can and took on another row of trees. As soon as they rounded the corner, Quentin laid eyes on what he knew immediately was the perfect tree. It was maybe a foot taller than Quentin, not too wide, but with dense greenery. “This one,” he said, plucking at Eliot’s sleeve to get him to follow him as he approached it.
He leaned around it, making sure that it wasn’t hiding any patchy sections on the other side, and when he turned back to Eliot it was to find him staring at it doubtfully. “Don’t you think it’s a little… small?”
A surprised laugh bubbled out of him as he looked between Eliot and the tree. “That’s just because you’re oversized,” he said, taking a step back to get a better look. He liked it, but what if Eliot was saying that because he didn’t, and didn’t want to say so? “It’s… it’s okay though, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be this one, I just —”
“I love it,” Eliot said firmly, and Quentin let his breath out in relief when he set his hand on his shoulder. It felt casual, but it was a comfort just the same. “It’s perfect.”
“But you just… whatever,” he said, rolling his eyes when Eliot raised his eyebrows at him obliviously. I’m going to kill him, he thought, and bit back his smile. And it was only going to get worse — he was anticipating being the butt of every joke tonight, with Julia feeling Eliot out. “Oh!” he said, shoving his hand into his pocket. “We should — we should take a selfie with the tree. That’s a couple-y thing to do, right?”
“Definitely,” Eliot said. “Here.” He turned so that his back was to the tree, wrapping his arm around Quentin’s shoulders.
Quentin held his phone up, angled it slightly, and sighed when he couldn’t get a decent view of the tree behind them as well as the two of them. “Could you and, um, your ridiculously long arms take it?” he asked, turning his head to grin bashfully up at Eliot.
Eliot laughed. “Quiet, you,” he said, as he took Quentin’s phone and reached out to take the picture. Both arms free now, Quentin held them awkwardly by his sides, unsure what to do with them. Well, they were supposed to be newly in love and all that, right? “Um. I’m gonna…” Turning his body into Eliot’s, he wrapped one arm around his back and set his other hand on his chest, grabbing onto the lapel of his coat. Eliot’s arm came tighter around him, holding him against him, and he tentatively laid his head against his chest, feeling the softness of the wool underneath his cheek. “Is this okay?”
“Very ‘outside in the cold with my boyfriend chic’,” Eliot said, drawing a nervous laugh out of him even as the tension fled from his shoulders. The last thing he wanted to do was make him feel awkward, but he got the impression that Eliot was a tactile person anyway, and this would make a great photo to show Julia.
It didn’t hurt that Eliot was warm, and it was very cold.
Damn, but he smelled great, too. Like sandalwood, and… bergamot, maybe. And pine, definitely pine.
Or maybe that was, you know, the trees surrounding them.
“Ready?” Eliot said, and Quentin nodded, smiling widely at the camera. He snapped a few shots to be safe, and Quentin drew back as soon as he dropped his hand, taking his phone back and swiping through the photos.
There were one or two where he didn’t look like a total idiot. Frustratingly, Eliot looked perfect in every one. “How do you do that?” he muttered.
He hadn’t really intended Eliot to hear him. “Just — look that good in every picture.”
A slow smile spread over Eliot’s face, his eyes dancing. “It’s a well refined skill, darling,” he said, and Quentin snorted, looking back to the pictures.
They really did look like two people in love. He knew which one he would show Julia — in one of the last ones, Eliot had tilted his head down towards him so that his cheek was pressing against the top of his head, his smile warm and easy and… yeah. That one.
“All right,” he said, with a sigh dramatic enough to rival Eliot’s. “Let’s get this stupid tree home.”
When Quentin sat his box of Christmas decorations on the dining table, Eliot looked at it askance. “I thought you said you didn’t like Christmas.”
“And yet here I am, letting you bully me into putting up a tree,” he said, opening the flap and looking inside. When Eliot didn’t respond with the quip that he was expecting, he glanced up to find him watching him cautiously instead. “I used to love Christmas, actually,” he said, pushing the box towards Eliot. “Things change.” Especially when your favourite holiday becomes associated with one of the worst days of your life. “I’ve got a bag full of tinsel as well, but feel free to start with the lights if you want.”
He returned from his spare room with the bag slung over his shoulder like Santa because they were trying to get into the spirit of things, weren’t they? Eliot was still standing over the box, both hands inside and a scowl on his face. It barely eased when he looked up at Quentin as he entered. “I’m going to need a drink if I’m going to be here all afternoon untangling these lights.”
He didn’t even try to defend himself. He knew it was a mess in there. “A drink, I can do. I have red wine, whiskey, um… maybe a few beers?”
“How dare you,” he said lightly. “If the red is less than twenty dollars a bottle, then I’ll have a whiskey, thank you.”
It shouldn’t have made him so pleased to return with a glass of red wine in each hand, but the way Eliot’s eyelids fluttered closed at his first sip filled him with pride just the same.
It didn’t take all afternoon to untangle the lights, thank god, and Eliot set to work stringing them up while Quentin sorted through his collection of baubles. Most of them were a matching set of red and gold, red and silver, silver and gold, but there were a handful of old, mismatched trinkets that had somehow ended up in his collection over the years.
Once Eliot had finished with the lights, Quentin pulled a length of tinsel from the bag, and set to draping it around the tree with Eliot’s help. Or rather, trying to drape it around the tree while he and Eliot argued about the best way to hang it. After almost five minutes of the two of them snatching the tinsel back from each other, Quentin threw his hands up and let Eliot do it, and most definitely didn’t tell him afterward that yeah okay, it maybe looked better his way.
The banter kept up while they started hanging the baubles. Quentin stepped back from the tree to grab a few more, and bit back his exasperated laughter when he turned back to see Eliot moving the bauble that he’d just placed. Eliot glanced over his shoulder, smiling at him innocently, and Quentin shook his head at him, rolling his eyes goodnaturedly.
He was… he was having fun. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed anything about Christmas except for the charity program, and he definitely couldn’t place the last time that he’d enjoyed something so explicitly Christmasy as this. He watched Eliot as he fussed around the tree, adjusting the lights and tinsel and baubles until they were to his liking, taking the baubles out of Quentin’s hands and adding them to the tree.
It was obvious that Eliot was enjoying himself too, and Quentin was both surprised and glad that he’d slipped so easily into this, considering all of the reasons he’d already given him that he struggled at this time of year. If he’d known that doing this together would loosen him up so much, would bring this kind of joy to his eyes, then he’d have suggested it himself.
Was this whole thing — the tree, the decorations, Christmas itself — was it something that he was familiar with and had let go of? Or something that he hadn’t had the opportunity to do for a long time, if at all. He couldn’t decide which option tugged at him more, but the look of delight and satisfaction on Eliot’s face as he stepped back to admire their work made him smile.
A crease appeared in Eliot’s brow as he assessed the tree. Shifting his weight to one foot, he crossed his arms, tapping one finger against his lower lip. “It’s missing something,” he said, and then “Aha!” he said, as he strode past Quentin to riffle through the box, now mostly empty. “We need something for the top of the tree.”
Refusing the twinge of pain in his chest, Quentin cleared his throat. “I don’t have anything,” he said, and tried not to think about the box in the back of his cupboard that he’d caught a glimpse of as he’d retrieved the bag of tinsel.
“Oh. Okay.” Eliot shrugged it off easily, which only compounded Quentin’s guilt at the lie. “I think we might be done then, if you’re happy with it? Do you want to do the honours?”
Taking a deep breath to ground himself again in this moment, Quentin found the end of the string of lights, plugged it into the wall, and flicked the switch. Stepping back to stand beside Eliot, he took the offered wine glass, freshly refilled, and clinked it against Eliot’s as he turned to admire the tree.
They’d done an amazing job, far better than anything Quentin could manage on his own. Probably better than any tree that had ever lived in his house.
It was beautiful, and Quentin fought against the prick of tears at the corners of his eyes, embarrassed at such a strong response for something so simple. But it wasn’t simple, really, was it? He hadn’t let himself take any joy in this thing that he’d loved for years, and it almost felt like relief to have had so much fun with it today.
“We make a great team,” Eliot said, nudging him with his elbow.
Quentin leaned into him right back, a response to his nudge and a thank you all at once. He wasn’t going to bring the mood down with why this meant so much to him. He wanted to live in this good feeling for now. “We can dress all the trees you want, Waugh, but it means nothing if we can’t make good snowmen together.”
Eliot’s laughter pulled him firmly back into feel-good territory, and it was surprisingly easy to ground himself in that.
Tugging his coat tighter around him, Eliot slung their bag of supplies over his shoulder and closed the car door behind him. He met Quentin at the front of the car, looking around at the others pulled into the small parking lot beside the park. When he turned back to Quentin and saw the tension in his shoulders, he reached for his hand, hoping that it was a comfort.
Quentin took a deep breath, relaxing on the exhale and squeezing his hand in response.
A car pulled up in the empty space behind Quentin’s just as they turned to walk past it, and Quentin’s shoulders were immediately tight again. Eliot hadn’t met Alice when he’d come to the office, but he was willing to bet his tie collection that the woman who stepped out of the car was Quentin’s ex-wife. A man climbed out of the passenger seat, presumably the boyfriend.
Quentin stopped walking with obvious reluctance, glancing up between him and the others. He knew what this felt like, or almost. Quentin had told him that he wasn’t going along with this charade for Alice’s benefit, but he knew that it mattered, at least a little. “Hey,” Quentin said, adjusting his grip on Eliot’s hand so that their fingers threaded together. He squeezed back tightly. “Eliot, this is Alice and Penny. Alice, Penny — Eliot.”
Penny was watching him with open curiosity, while Alice had lifted her chin, smiling at him thinly and with no great warmth. Instead of throwing that same frostiness back at her, he stepped forward without dropping Quentin’s hand, reaching out to offer his other to her. “A pleasure,” he said, looking her in the eye as she slipped her hand into his. He turned to Penny, and shook his hand as well. “I’ve heard so much about you. Quentin tells me that you do a magnificent job of managing the travel agency with him,” he added to Alice.
Looking between them, Alice straightened her shoulders, her brows lifting high before dropping down into a frown. “He does?”
“Absolutely,” he said, ignoring the look Quentin was giving him. He couldn’t miss the expression on Alice’s face as she glanced at Quentin, though. It didn’t feel like jealousy, per se, but something closer to dubiousness, and he felt irritation spike hard in him. It probably shouldn’t bother him so much, but he was offended by that doubt on Quentin’s behalf, and pushed back against it by dropping his hand to sling his arm around his shoulders instead, pulling him in close to show her that yeah, okay, he’s here with Quentin and happy about it.
Which was a weird flex, considering that he wasn’t actually Quentin’s boyfriend, but that was beside the point.
Quentin pulled him onward into the park as the other two stayed to grab their supplies from the car. They’d barely stepped out of the parking lot when he heard the crunch of shoes in the snow beside him, and turned his head to see Julia approaching them. “Hey, Q,” she said brightly, and at least she had a smile for Eliot, too, even if it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Eliot. I’m glad you could make it. I couldn’t decide whether Quentin would want to keep you to himself or bring you to show you off.”
Quentin’s cheeks flushed, but he was slowly relaxing after their interaction with Alice and Penny, so he took that as his lead and decided not to be worried about her. Fool her into thinking they were together, sure, but she wasn’t the enemy. “Here I am,” he said, ducking his head in a bow with a flourish of his hand. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
“You’d have a different tune if Fen wasn’t running it this year. She’s terrifying when she’s competing. You just have me to worry about.” She turned to Quentin. “Speaking of, she’s looking for you. I’ll show Eliot where your assigned area is.”
“Oh.” The hesitation on Quentin’s face as he looked between the two of them was kind of adorable. “Um. I can —”
“I’ll be fine, sweetheart,” Eliot said, laughing a little to hopefully ease his stress slightly. He could handle the best friend alone for a few minutes. “Julia will look after me, won’t you, Julia?” he said, smiling at Julia as though he’d known her his whole life.
“Absolutely!” she said, linking her arm through his.
Quentin trudged through the snow with only half a dozen backwards glances, and Eliot waved his fingers at him before he let Julia lead him across the park. White marquees were set up in a row, and a single one off to the side that he assumed belonged to the judges. Jesus, they took this seriously.
Their pace slowed as they neared the marquees. Eliot glanced down at Julia, found her chewing on her lower lip. “Let me guess,” he said lightly. “This is the ‘hurt my best friend and I’ll flay you alive and feed you piece by piece to your predator of choice’ chat.”
The expression on Julia’s face when she looked up at him was a curious blend of relief and thoughtfulness. “Well, I wasn’t going to put it like that, but yeah, I guess it is.”
Eliot stopped before they could reach the earshot of the people already setting up. Pulling his arm free, he turned toward Julia, trying not to smile when she lifted her chin defiantly. “Look. I’m not here to hurt Quentin. I care about him.”
And he meant it. For a man who lived by holding people at arm’s length, he’d somehow let Quentin get under his skin with a disturbing amount of ease in the three weeks that they’d known each other. He’d left things awkward after oversharing last weekend at Henry’s party, and Quentin hadn’t brought it up during their messages throughout the week, but he’d wanted to do something to make it up to him, to show him that he wasn’t as twisty and angsty as he’d come across.
Well, he was, but he could show him a fun time as well.
Watching Quentin loosen up, seeing him smile so much this afternoon, had gone a long way to making this whole venture seem less daunting.
Julia was eyeing him thoughtfully, her arms crossed over her chest. He wondered what kind of people Quentin had dated in the past, whether she was comparing him to them. How did he stack up against Alice? “Fine,” she said eventually. “But I’m keeping my eye on you.”
That, he could handle. “I would expect nothing less.”
They were assigned to the marquee right next to Julia’s. She introduced him to her girlfriend, Kady, and to Rafe, who worked with them at the travel agency. Quentin joined them a few minutes later, looking between him and Julia nervously, and Eliot dropped a kiss on the top of his head for her benefit. He gave Quentin’s arm a reassuring squeeze as he leaned back. “So tell me,” he said, loud enough for Julia to hear him. “Are we playing to win to impress your friends, or do we let them win so they’ll like me?”
“Are you kidding me?” Quentin said, throwing a grin over Eliot’s shoulder that told him that Julia was definitely paying attention. “We’re going to kick their asses.”
“Good,” he said, turning around to wink at Julia as he straightened his gloves and rolled his shoulders, making a show of it.
Once Fen shouted start, he tuned out the other teams, too focused on scooping up snow, on packing it tight, on Quentin. His hair kept slipping out from behind his ears, and every time he tucked it back he left a fresh dusting of snow in his hair. It wasn’t until Quentin glanced up at him, frowning, that he realised he’d been staring. “What?”
“Can’t take you anywhere,” he joked, reaching out to brush the snow away.
Quentin’s eyes widened slightly. Clearing his throat, he glanced around them. He hadn’t intended it as something for the benefit of their charade, but he supposed it probably looked intimate. “I get that you’re trying to be cute,” he said, his mouth twisting like he was trying very hard not to smile, “but we have a game to win, Waugh.”
Oh, so that’s how it is. Quentin had no idea what he was up against, if he wanted to play it like that. He wanted to flirt? Eliot could flirt. “Well if you would stop distracting me by being so cute in the first place, we’d be done by now.”
And he was cute. Quentin stuck his tongue out at him before returning his attention back to the snowman, but it was the concentration in his eyes, the purse of his lips, the furrow in his brow that softened something inside him.
A loose fistful of cold hit his face, breaking him from his thoughts, and he blinked down at Quentin in surprise. “Help me,” Quentin laughed in exasperation, throwing another handful of snow at him, and he forced his head back in the game.
After forcing a handful of snow down the back of Quentin’s shirt, anyway.
Eliot was just making the final touches on the fall of the scarf around the snowman’s neck as Quentin adjusted the tilt of the tophat when the whistle sounded to signify time to stop. Running his hand down the scarf — from his own closet, Quentin had better be grateful — he took a moment to look their creation over once more before he took Quentin’s offered hand and let him pull him to his feet.
They’d done a pretty damn good job, if he did say so himself. Even so, he was surprisingly nervous as Fen moved between the snowmen. Julia and Kady’s attempt was… well, calling it an attempt was accurate. Their snowman’s head was tiny in comparison to its body, and they’d used pine needles in crosses on its face to indicate eyes, which was just creepy.
On their other side, Alice and Penny had done better. Much better. Their snowman stood straight, twig arms jutting out proudly. The finishing touch was the antlers sticking out of its head.
Looking between the snowmen, Eliot was confident that theirs was better made, their shapes more even, their pebble eyes a more proportionate distance apart. Still… Fen was making a lot of happy noises as she looked over Alice and Penny’s effort, and he couldn’t see the snowmen that the other groups had made further down the line.
Noticing Quentin restless beside him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he wrapped his arm around his shoulders, turning him so that they were looking at their own snowman instead of watching the others. “Well, I think that I’m probably better at trees than snowmen, but I think we did an okay job.”
He felt Quentin’s head turn, but he’d already looked ahead again when Eliot glanced down at him. Still, he caught the edge of his smile, felt the tension seep out of his shoulders. “I think we did a great job.”
A loud gasp and then an angry curse drew their attention back to the others, and Eliot froze when he caught sight of Alice and Penny’s snowman. Half of its head had crumbled away from the rest, broken in a jagged line along the edge of the headband that the reindeer antlers were attached to.
It took everything he had to hold back his laughter when Fen crossed out something in her notes with exaggerated slowness. Julia didn’t have the same restraint, if the snort that sounded from behind him was any indication.
He ignored Alice and Penny’s bickering over who hadn’t packed the snow properly as Fen and Rafe walked over to look at their snowman. The arm he’d kept around Quentin’s shoulders had lost any temporary calming effects that he’d hopefully offered, but his restlessness now seemed to be more excitement than worry.
“Everyone did a fantastic job tonight!” Fen said, clapping her hands together. She was standing opposite the marquees, having finished scoring the snowmen. “All of your snowmen look great! Thank you everyone for coming out in the cold to —”
“Tell us who won!” Julia called out, causing laughter to ripple through the group.
Fen pursed her lips together, then opened up her notebook with a sigh. “Okay, fine. In third place, we have Julia and Kady!”
“That’s what you get for being impatient,” Quentin stage-whispered to her above the clapping.
“If you keep that up, I’m going to shove this stick so far up your —”
“In second place,” Fen continued loudly, now glaring openly at Julia and Quentin. In a blink, her smile was back again as she turned away from them to look further down the row. “Rafe and Abigail!”
The bark of laughter from beside him was barely muffled. “Seriously? Did you see how slowly Abigail was packing that snow? There’s no way that…” Quentin trailed off under Fen’s narrowed eyes. Apparently his competitive bragging had limits. Eliot grinned at Fen unapologetically.
He hadn’t meant to be flirty, but if Fen blinked at him in surprise and dropped her eyes to her notebook with a flush in her cheeks, then at least she wasn’t glaring at Quentin anymore. “Again, thanks to everyone for coming tonight! There’s hot chocolate and donuts for everyone to celebrate with. And please eat them all, otherwise they’ll be sitting in the breakroom for the next week.” Someone cleared their throat loudly, and Fen let out a huff. “Okay, okay. First place goes to Quentin and Eliot!”
“What?” Quentin said loudly, apparently stunned despite his fighting spirit just seconds ago. Turning toward him, Eliot laughed at the wondrous look in his eyes, in the grin that took up his whole face. “We won?”
He reached out to Eliot and he hugged him tight, laughing again when Quentin jumped up and down in his arms, too excited to stand still. The unabashed way that Quentin enjoyed things was quickly becoming his favourite thing about him. He’d thought that most of Quentin’s reasons for wanting to win were about rubbing it in Alice’s face, but the blatant joy radiating from him when he let Julia pull him away to hug him was far too genuine for it to have been just that.
Maybe this was another Christmas thing that Quentin was taking back for himself this year.
He liked that he got to be a part of that.
The rest of the group starting milling toward the marquee set up behind Fen. Quentin told Julia that they’d join them in a sec, his smile fading into something softer when he turned to face him. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
Eliot shoved down his insistence that it wasn’t a big deal — it might just be rolling some snow together into fun shapes, but he could tell that it meant a lot to Quentin and he didn’t want to lessen that. And it was the least he could do, after putting him through the stress of last weekend. Instead of delving into all of that — he was pretty sure that Quentin knew, anyway — he gestured toward the snowman. “So now what? We just leave him here to melt, unappreciated?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” Quentin shrugged. “Sometimes the kids let them stay up to watch them melt slowly, sometimes they have more fun knocking them over.”
Poor Mr Snowman. “Well, I’m not sacrificing this to the kids,” he said, reaching for his scarf, unlooping it carefully so as not to disturb the snowman’s head.
Quentin was silent as he walked slowly around to the snowman’s other side. “Maybe he’s still good for something,” he said, running his gloved hand down over the snowman’s fat middle. He paused, raising his eyes to meet Eliot’s as he forced his fingers abruptly into the tightly packed snow.
Eliot’s jacket took the brunt of the force as the makeshift snowball hit his shoulder, but when it broke up upon hitting him, snow melted against his neck, sending a shiver through him immediately. Stunned, he stared at Quentin, who was looking thoroughly pleased with himself. And, well, he couldn’t have that. “Oh, is that how it is?” he said, grabbing a fistful of the snowman’s body and tossing it at him.
Bringing his arms up to protect his face, Quentin laughed as he stumbled backward. He bent to grab a handful of snow but Eliot was quicker, grabbing another clump of already packed snow from the snowman and throwing it in Quentin’s direction in the same time it took him to scoop up a fresh lot. He turned his body so that Eliot’s snowball hit his arm instead of his chest, hastily pressing the snow firm with both hands before drawing his arm back.
That one flew high, grazing against the top of Eliot’s head so lightly that all he felt was the snow settling in his hair rather than a true impact from it. Quentin’s eyes were wide, but he recovered quickly at Eliot’s laughter, bending down to gather more snow. Taking a new tactic, Eliot ran toward him instead, wrapping an arm around his waist and pulling him up to stop him scooping up more snow. “Hey!” Quentin gasped in protest, trying to squirm out of his grip, but then that gasp turned into a yelp and Quentin was falling backwards, his flailing hands gripping onto Eliot’s coat and pulling him down with him.
Eliot managed to bring his arms up enough that he caught some of his weight on his forearms instead of dropping it all on Quentin, but he still landed pretty squarely on top of him. His breath caught in his throat, part shock and part worry, but that shifted quickly into exhilaration when he felt Quentin shaking beneath him, his laughter only barely muffled against his shoulder. Quentin’s hands were still twisted in his shirt, pressed awkwardly between them. Eliot pulled back to ease the pressure, and then more to see his face.
It was half-covered by his hair, quickly growing damp from the snow, and his eyes were screwed shut as he choked on his laughter. “I can’t believe you tackled me,” he forced out between gasps of air, before dissolving into giggles once more.
Shaking his head incredulously, Eliot shook off his glove and brushed Quentin’s hair off of his face. “That is not what happened,” he said, unable to hide his grin as Quentin’s eyes fluttered open.
The mirth in Quentin’s eyes was tempered by something else, something he couldn’t put his finger on, and Eliot sobered a little. His laughter faded away, the shaking of his body turning to a nervous fidget that suddenly made Eliot very aware of how completely they were pressed together.
He took in the flush of Quentin’s cheeks from the cold, and the slow blink of his eyes before he glanced sideways in the direction that the others had gone. He watched intently as Quentin’s throat moved in a swallow before he turned back to look at him. “Kiss me,” he breathed, his eyes wide.
Eliot stilled, his heart jumping into his throat. “What?”
Eyes widening, Quentin stared up at him, and when he pulled his lower lip anxiously between his teeth, Eliot watched, hypnotised, confident that Quentin didn’t even realise that he was drawing attention to his lips like that. “Alice is watching,” he said softly. “You could — if you wanted —”
He didn’t let himself think about it. Leaning down, he kissed Quentin, closing his eyes just before their lips met. He wasn’t tentative about it — this couldn’t be the first time they’d kissed, not if anyone was watching them — but he was careful to keep it chaste, his lips pressing firm, closed, against Quentin’s.
Quentin’s body stiffened underneath him, drawing in a sharp breath through his nose almost like he hadn’t expected Eliot to do as he’d asked. Just as he was about to pull away, Quentin shifted underneath him, pushing back with his shoulders he pulled Eliot closer by his coat, tilting his head as he kissed him again, and again. His lips parted against his, tongue brushing over Eliot’s lower lip and he didn’t let himself question it, didn’t let himself think as he gave in to the moment, sinking his hand into Quentin’s hair and kissing him deeply as he fell headfirst into the sensation. He swallowed Quentin’s gasp, and then the deeper sound that he made in the back of his throat. Maybe… maybe he should pull back, or ease up, but Quentin’s mouth continued to move under his, clinging and tender in a combination that pulled at him, heady and unexpected.
Any amount of time could have passed before Quentin’s hands loosened in Eliot’s shirt and he came back to himself with a shock. His heart pounding in his ears, he softened the kiss, keeping his eyes tightly shut as he pressed his forehead against Quentin’s. He could feel Quentin’s deep breaths beneath him, in sync with his own. “I think… that’s probably a good enough show, considering we’re at a work thing?” he managed, hoping his voice wasn’t as thick as it sounded to his ears.
If Quentin noticed, he didn’t comment on it. “Yeah,” he murmured. Eliot opened his eyes, watching as Quentin’s blinked open slowly. “Yeah.”
Rolling off of him, Eliot climbed to his feet and then held his hand out for Quentin, grabbing his abandoned glove from the ground after helping him up. Quentin was standing by the snowman when he straightened up, slipping Eliot’s scarf and his tophat into the canvas bag that they’d brought their supplies in. He glanced at him, but there was something off about his smile as he looked away. And the flush in his cheeks was definitely from the cold, right?
Yes, he told himself firmly, berating himself for even wondering. It was just a display for their audience, that’s all. And if Quentin felt awkward about it afterward, then he had every right to. It’s not something they’d discussed before, not really, not… like that. His body felt cold now, without Quentin’s against it, and he determinedly pushed that thought away.
But they shouldn’t be acting weird, not if anyone was still watching them. It was hard to resist glancing over toward the rest of the group, but he kept his focus on Quentin. He kept his touch light as he brushed his hand over Quentin’s snow-covered back, bending his head to not-quite press a kiss to his hair. “Do you still want to head straight home, or do you want to spend some time with Julia?”
He wanted to go home, he told him without quite looking at him. He made a big show of having had a good time when he said goodbye to everyone, and Eliot followed his lead, probably making a bigger deal than was necessary over kissing Fen’s hand in gratitude, but it made her all giggly and made Kady smile and roll her eyes, so that was a win as far as he was concerned. Bidding Alice and Penny a warm farewell despite their barely restrained frosty demeanours, he exchanged a grave nod with Julia, tucking away the thoughtful look in her eye as evidence that yes, she had definitely seen them making out in the snow like it was no big deal.
The car ride home was quiet, and Eliot didn’t push it. He felt like he’d only just started to defrost when Quentin pulled into his driveway. He supposed that was normal when you spent minutes lying in the snow making out with your fake boyfriend.
Turning the engine off, Quentin removed his keys from the ignition and dropped his hands into his lap. Eliot hesitated with his hand on his seatbelt, not sure what they were waiting for and feeling just a little too uncertain about where they stood tonight to ask him about it. A joke about sitting in the car in the dark was hanging from his lips when Quentin eventually let out a sigh, a painfully long minute later. “I shouldn’t have asked you to do that,” he said to the steering wheel, softening that uncomfortably nervous edge in Eliot immediately. “That wasn’t in the rules, not like that.”
Was that was this whole odd mood was about? He ignored the fact that he’d been stewing over the same thing for the last half an hour. He pushed down his own mirroring worries, reaching across to touch Quentin’s arm. “It’s fine,” he said, keeping his tone light, trying to keep the moment light. “I’ve had worse kisses.”
This time, he was certain that the flush in Quentin’s cheeks had nothing to do with the cold. Quentin looked across at Eliot’s car on the road, at his house, down at his hands. "If we can not make this weird —"
"It's not weird," Eliot reassured him. He dropped his hand back into his own lap, not wanting to overwhelm him. Definitely not thinking about how Quentin's hair had felt between his fingers, or the taste of him on his tongue. Not weird at all.
If Quentin's thoughts were still stuck on that same thing, then he didn't seem to be letting it show. He tried not to appear like he was staring as Quentin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "You could…" He paused, let his breath out slowly. "Will you come inside?"
Eliot nodded, even though Quentin wasn't looking at him. "Of course."
Five minutes later saw Eliot sitting on Quentin's couch. The light in the kitchen spread far enough to illuminate the living room well enough, especially considering the extra lights from the Christmas tree on the other side of the room.
Just as he was about to go and investigate what Quentin was doing in the kitchen, he appeared with two glasses in one hand and the aforementioned whiskey in the other. "Pour for us?" he said as he dropped the glasses and the bottle on the coffee table in front of him, before disappearing again.
Setting the bottle down, Eliot was just lifting his glass to his lips when Quentin came back into the room. There was a shoebox in his hands, and he set it on his lap when he sat down beside him. He didn't spare a glance for Eliot at all as he reached for the whiskey Eliot had poured for him, downing it in one gulp.
Placing his empty glass on the table, he returned both hands to the box. Wordlessly, Eliot refilled his glass and then topped up his own. Whatever was weighing on Quentin now went well beyond whatever Eliot thought had been bothering him, ran deeper than being embarrassed about a kiss, and he wasn't going to push it, no matter how piqued his curiosity.
"I know there's not like… an expectation of sharing, or anything," Quentin said eventually. "With you telling me those things about yourself. About Logan, and about…"
"Mike," Eliot offered when Quentin hesitated. The name tasted sour on his tongue.
"Mike, right. Anyway, you… I know you didn't tell me about those things that happened to you just so that I'd tell you my drama, but —"
"You don't have to." Eliot's oversharing wasn't a give and take. The last thing he wanted was for Quentin to think he owed him something.
Pausing, Quentin grimaced at the box in front of him before finally lifting his gaze to Eliot. He looked tired. "Obviously you know Alice and I were married, and now she's with Penny. But Penny and I were friends beforehand, before I even knew Alice."
"Okay," Eliot said slowly when Quentin paused.
Taking a deep breath, Quentin dropped his eyes back to the box on his lap. "I found them in bed together."
Oh, shit. "Quentin —"
"On Christmas Eve."
Swallowing down every useless expression of sympathy that flashed through his mind, Eliot squeezed his hands together in his lap, resisting the urge to reach out for him. He didn't want to be more than he needed right now, didn't want to force an intimacy if things were feeling awkward between them since the kiss. But Quentin was opening up to him, reaching out to him. He brushed his fingers against his arm, tentative, and then laid it flat when Quentin offered him a thin smile. "I'm sorry."
Quentin shrugged, lightly enough not to dislodge his hand. "I was at Julia's for dinner, Alice cancelled because she had to work late. Julia and her boyfriend at the time got into a fight, so I came home to what I thought was an empty house."
"Not so empty after all," Eliot guessed.
Sighing heavily, Quentin tapped his fingers against the side of the box. "Not so empty." He straightened his shoulders, and Eliot reluctantly let his hand drop. "It was a few years ago now. And I'm… I'm okay, I honestly really am, but it's still just a little harder at this time of year. Especially when I have to spend my free time building snowmen with my ex-wife and the man who I thought was one of my best friends."
Eliot could imagine it. He'd very nearly been in the same position. But he didn't want to be thinking about Mike right now. He couldn't say why it mattered so much that Quentin had shown him this part of himself, but he wasn't going to let him regret it. Despite all of the nightmares from his past that this whole charade was bringing up, he'd had his first happy Christmas themed day today in years, and was fairly confident Quentin felt the same. He was too true to himself for his good mood today to have been for show. Slowly, Eliot leaned sideways until his shoulder bumped Quentin's. "We had fun tonight though, right?" he said, offering him a way back to that if he wanted to take it.
Despite the fact that he'd been trying for it, Quentin's smile still surprised him. It was faint but it was real. "Yeah, we did." He seemed steadier in a way that he hadn't before. "Even earlier, with the tree… Especially with the tree. Maybe it's just nice to spend some time with someone at Christmas who doesn't remind me of all the reasons I hate this time of year. I don’t really have a big family, Mom lives interstate so it’s really just me and my dad. And Julia, I suppose.”
That was definitely something he could relate to. His fingers itched for a cigarette or a drink or both. More than his own dislike of dipping into his darkest memories was his need for Quentin to know that he wasn’t alone. “I might as well tell you my last Christmas ghost,” he said, forcing the words out before he could swallow them down again.
Quentin started, his eyebrows lifting as his lips parted. “You don’t have to…”
It was sweet, that he seemed to understand Eliot’s inherent desire to keep things locked up. Eliot’s smile was armour, but he didn’t force all of himself down behind it, not quite. “It was the day after Christmas when I packed everything I cared about into a duffel bag and walked away from my family. My father…” The memory was as fresh as though it had happened yesterday: his mother, the skin around her eye already yellowed from whatever she’d done wrong a few days before, still defending him. His brothers, purposefully oblivious as they drank beer and watched reruns of last years finals. His father, drunk and slurring for the last three days, his face in a perpetual scowl.
Eliot’s arm in a sling, recovering from a dislocated shoulder. It wasn’t his fault, his mother had said. You shouldn’t have upset him.
Quentin’s hand slipped in between his, pulling him out of his thoughts. His heart was in his throat as Quentin’s fingers twined around his, squeezing gently. The weight on his chested lifted enough for him to draw in a deep breath. “I was sixteen. I haven’t spoken to them since.” His voice was calm, dismissive, the only way he could get the words out. He still hated himself for it, just a little. “I don’t miss them. Margo’s my family now, and that’s enough.” Most of that was true.
Quentin squeezed his hand, and he breathed a little easier again. “Thank you for opening up to me,” he said, so painfully earnest, and… he couldn’t let himself sink into the full brunt of his feelings.
Straightening his shoulders, he squeezed Quentin’s hand before letting go. “Enough feelings for tonight. What’s in the box?” he asked, finally risking a glance at him as he gestured toward the shoebox still sitting in his lap.
Smoothing his palm over the box, Quentin glanced down at it for a moment before looking back up at him ruefully. “More feelings?” he said, smiling when Eliot huffed with exasperation that he didn’t mean. Quentin’s eyes dropped back to the box, his expression thoughtful. "I lied, before." He curled his fingers around the edge of the lid and removed it, reaching inside to pull out a star.
It was a tree topper; pale gold and adorned with gold and silver beads. It was gorgeous. Quentin handled it carefully in one hand as he set the box aside. “Alice liked to be the one to put it on the tree. I haven’t had a tree since I left, and earlier today... it felt weird to be the one to do it.” He looked up at Eliot, and his smile was a little sad but more than that, it was hopeful. Determined. “But I'd like to, now.”
Eliot’s throat was tight, and he cleared it loudly as he stood up, relying on theatrics to hide just how humbled he was feeling. He held out his hand. “Let’s reclaim your tree, Quentin.”
Quentin didn’t hesitate, putting his hand in his and letting him pull him to his feet. His eyes were solemn as he stretched up to place the topper on top of the tree, but his smile when he stepped back to admire it was more brilliant than the star.
Passing the basket from one hand to the other and back again, Quentin watched the numbers above the elevator door light up in sequence, trying not to feel nervous. Surprising your boyfriend at work was a thing that people did, right? It didn’t have to be a big deal — he knew that this was around the time that he usually took lunch, and if he was with a client or something he could just leave his gifts with someone else to pass onto him.
He really wished that he’d let Eliot know that he was coming.
The elevator dinged as it stopped at Eliot’s floor, and Quentin took a deep breath, steadying himself. The placards outside the elevator downstairs had told him which floor Eliot was on, but he realised as the doors opened and he caught his first glimpse of the entryway beyond that he didn’t know where his office was. Stepping out of the elevator, he looked around, hoping to find someone to ask.
He wasn’t expecting to see Henry Fogg rounding the corner.
“Quentin!” Henry said loudly, before Quentin could unfrazzle his mind long enough to decide if should really slink back into the elevator and hope that he hadn’t seen him. He was here to be seen, but that had sounded so much more achievable in his head. Well, he’d been able to ignore the realities of it when he’d imagined it earlier.
Henry was smiling at him as he walked across the entryway. He held out his hand, and Quentin hooked the basket over his elbow as he reached out to shake it. His grip was just as firm as he remembered. “Are you visiting Eliot? Of course you are. Well, it’s good to see you again.” Henry dropped his hand, and Quentin curled his around the handle of the basket, trying not to look surprised that he remembered him in the first place. “I hope you had a good time at our little Christmas party. You made quite an impression on Bigby.”
He did? He’d had a good time talking to her, but had managed to convince himself since then that she’d probably just latched onto him for entertainment, or that she’d taken pity on his nervousness. “Oh, ah —” He paused to gather his thoughts, hoping that he could manage not to stutter his way through his whole conversation. “I had a great night, thank you. Bigby was a lot of fun and a perfect host,” he said truthfully.
“She’ll be glad to hear you thought so.” Henry’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “We’re both hoping to see you at the ice rink tomorrow.”
Oh right, the chance for him to really make a fool of himself. Because falling over into the snow last weekend hadn’t been embarrassing enough.
More embarrassing than asking your fake boyfriend to kiss you in front of your friends? Or that he could still remember in vivid detail just what he’d tasted like, what his body had felt like as he pressed him into the snow?
But he definitely didn’t need to be thinking about that while he was talking to Eliot’s boss.
“Of course I’ll be there,” he said, forcing the memory from his mind. Somehow, things between the two of them had settled into something that wasn’t completely weird. Which was a relief — ever since they’d shared their scars after the snowman competition, he felt like there was a kinship between them that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. If they weren’t truly friends beforehand they were now, and he didn’t want anything to ruin that, particularly awkwardness over a kiss that obviously didn’t mean anything. Quentin trusted him, in a way that he hadn’t really let himself since what had happened with Alice and Penny.
“I’m glad,” Henry said, and Quentin blinked at him, unable to believe that he’d let himself get lost in his thoughts again already. If Henry noticed, he didn’t let on. He nodded to the basket hanging from Quentin’s elbow. “What have you got there?”
“Oh!” Quentin said, grabbing the handle and pulling it from his arm. “My friend Julia and I were making gingerbread men for my employees, and I thought we’d make an extra batch for everyone here,” he said, taking one of the gingerbread men from the basket. Well, Julia had made them with minimal help from him, but he kept that information to himself. It was hard to suck up to your boyfriend’s boss with baked goods if you were a terrible baker. The plastic wrapper crinkled under Henry’s fingers as he took it, and Quentin’s stomach dropped with nerves. “It’s silly,” he added, quick to make it clear that it wasn’t a big deal, that every inch of him wasn’t crying out for this stranger’s approval. Because that would be ridiculous.
Caught between being glad for the interruption and hanging on Henry’s opinion, Quentin turned in the direction of Eliot’s voice to find him striding quickly toward them, a bright smile spreading across his face. “Hey,” Quentin said, his heart doing a little jump in relief that he wasn’t upset to see him here.
“Hey.” Eliot touched his arm lightly when he reached him, and then leaned in to press a quick kiss against his cheek, a casual brush of lips against his skin. His eyes were alight when he stepped back. “I didn’t know you were dropping by.”
“I wanted to surprise you,” he said, feeling his cheeks warm at the open display of affection. He was very aware of the fact that Henry was standing right there… but that was the point, wasn’t it?
Eliot made a sound like a pleased little hum. "Count me surprised."
He continued to smile at him with those warm eyes of his, until Henry cleared his throat lightly beside them. Eliot blinked when he turned toward Henry, a perfect imitation of being startled out of his thoughts. Somehow, he managed to make it look charming instead of ridiculous, like he was sure he had earlier. “I’ll leave you to it, then,” Henry said, not unkindly. “Quentin, I look forward to seeing you tomorrow evening.” He nodded toward the basket. “Would you mind if I took an extra gingerbread man for Bigby? I’m sure she’ll find them delightful.”
“Of course, take a few,” he said, holding out the basket and trying not to feel too pleased with himself. “We made plenty.”
The moment Henry nodded his goodbye and turned away, Eliot slung his arm around Quentin’s shoulders and turned him in the direction that he’d appeared from. “Let me show you my office.”
Down the hall and around the corner from the elevator was a door with Eliot’s name printed on it. Eliot dropped his arm to open it, and stepped back to let him enter first. Quentin walked inside, looking around curiously. It was remarkably different from Quentin’s office, and he told him so, setting the basket down on Eliot’s desk and drifting over to the bookshelf along one wall. It was filled with more knick knacks than books — although Quentin wondered whether you could still call them knick knacks when everything looked expensive and elegant.
There weren’t any family pictures, not that he’d expected any after what he’d told him on the weekend. He felt unease twist in his gut at the reminder that he’d grown up like that, unable to feel safe in his own home, physically and emotionally hurt by his own family. Quentin’s home life growing up hadn’t been perfect, but he’d never felt unsafe.
Turning around, he watched Eliot relaxing into the chair behind his desk, and let the smile on his face ease his mind. He didn’t want to bring it up again just because he was thinking about it, particularly when Eliot seemed to be in such a good mood.
“Nice touch, that,” Eliot said, nodding to the basket on his desk. Leaning forward, he grabbed one of the gingerbread men and sank back into his chair, tugging on the red ribbon holding the wrapper closed and breaking off a gingerbread arm. “I can’t wait to see Poppy try and talk this down.” He popped the arm in his mouth, his eyebrows lifting in surprise as he chewed. “This is good.”
“Julia did most of the work, but I’ll tell her you like them. You’ll have to tell me how Poppy reacts,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and then pulling them straight out again. He wanted to see her reaction, but he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t happy enough that Eliot liked them, and that he’d pulled off another conversation with Henry. “I can’t really stay. I have to head back and get some work done since I wasted my whole morning trying to convince Alice not to let Penny do the Reindeer Report.”
"The what now?"
The incredulous look on Eliot’s face pulled him out of the frustrated spiral he was seconds away from tipping back into. Sighing, he crossed the office to take the seat on the other side of Eliot’s desk. The chairs were a lot more comfortable than the ones he had in his office. “The Reindeer Report. A week before Christmas Eve the agency sponsors the weather report on one of the local stations. It’s a bit of a joke about the best way for Santa to cross the US, with a nod toward a landmark or two where you can book vacations, and we mention the charity program. It’s some of the best marketing we get all year, and Alice wants Penny to be the one to present it this year.” He scowled as he thought about the argument they’d had all morning, going around and around in circles with it. “Penny’s care factor for all of this is below zero. He’s not going to go on camera and be fun and excited. Alice just wants to give him the job because he’s her boyfriend and he’ll look pretty on TV.”
Eliot grimaced. “Maybe he’ll surprise you?” he said hopefully.
“Maybe,” he said, shrugging. Maybe Alice should listen to a single one of my ideas. The most frustrating part was that he knew that he would give in to her, just to make sure that they didn’t lose the spot. And she probably knew it.
Breaking off his gingerbread man’s other arm, Eliot held it up in front of him, looking at it closely. “I don’t suppose we could put a poisoned batch of these in front of Penny the morning of the report? It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” he added quickly. “Diuretics won’t cause him trouble for long.”
Picturing a startled look and a frantic dash to the bathroom, Quentin laughed despite himself. Eliot smiled at him faintly from across the desk, and he appreciated the attempt to cheer him up, however unrealistic it was.
“I hear we have a visitor.” Quentin twisted in his chair to see Margo leaning against the doorframe. Pushing off against it, she walked up to the desk and peered into the basket. “Cute. Poppy’s going to hate it.”
“That’s the plan,” Quentin said. Now that he seemed to have Henry’s approval, anyway. Reluctantly, he pushed himself to his feet.
“Thanks for the gingerbread,” Eliot said, straightening up in his chair. “I’ll message you tonight with details for tomorrow.”
He felt bad for leaving right when Margo had come in, but it couldn’t be helped. Margo was the one person besides Eliot that he wanted to like him regardless of their arrangement. “I can’t stay, sorry,” he said. “But I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there,” she said, looking less than impressed about it. “I’ll see your lover out, El,” she added, slipping her arm through Quentin’s and ignoring the bright flush of his cheeks.
“Bye, lover!” Eliot called as they left his office.
Margo let Eliot’s door fall closed behind them, and then steered him along the corridor toward the elevator. “Which one’s your office?” he asked, craning his neck to try and read the print on the nearby doors.
“The one next to Eliot’s,” she said, and her dismissive tone was like a warning sign even before she continued with barely a pause. “And if you break his heart, I’m going to be the first one to hear about it, and there aren’t going to be pieces of you big enough to put back together by the time I’m done with you.”
“What?” Stopping in front of the elevator, he pulled her around to face him, frowning at the open challenge on her face. He glanced around them to make sure that no one was within earshot, and then lowered his voice anyway. “But you… you know about the deal we have. About the, um, the promise.”
Her mouth softened slightly, but her eyes remained hard on him. The elevator dinged behind him. He heard the doors slide open, but he didn’t move. After a moment Margo arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow at him. “I said what I said,” she said simply, nodding over his shoulder toward the elevator.
Confused, he stepped back into the elevator, on auto-pilot as he reached out and pressed the button for the ground floor. Margo held his gaze, her arms crossed loosely across her chest, and he wasn’t sure if he imagined the thoughtful note that crept into her expression as the doors slid shut between them.
“Okay, that is just unfair.”
Quentin looked up from strapping on his left skate to see Eliot watching the ice rink, his brow scrunched in frustration. Following his gaze, he turned to see Poppy and Todd gliding by not far from them, laughing as they moved like the wind. Eliot let out a huff and turned back to his own skates, his movements short and sharp as he adjusted them. “I can understand Poppy, but how is Todd so good when he’s so goddamn awkward?”
He knew that the strength of Eliot’s irritation over something so trivial should have made him laugh, but there was a weight on his chest in the shape of his broken leg when he slipped and fell on the ice, or his broken arm, or his neck, or —
“Hey.” Eliot’s voice, and the soft touch of his fingers against his arm forced his attention out of his worst case scenarios. He realised that he'd been staring unfocused at the barrier between them and the ice rink, and blinked up at Eliot as he bent down to fix the fastenings on his skates. Satisfied, he stood up and turned to face him, somehow still managing to move gracefully despite the skates. He wondered if Eliot could do anything ungracefully. "You've really never done this before?"
Trying very hard not to pout, Quentin put his hand in Eliot's and let him pull him to his feet. It was awkward balancing on the ice skates, and he wobbled until Eliot's hand grabbed his elbow, steadying him. “Does it look like I’ve done this before?” he asked, hating how distressed he sounded.
"You'll be fine," Eliot said, the dismissive tone in his voice contrary to the reassuring squeeze of his arm. He tugged on him gently, and Quentin took a reluctant and very awkward step toward the ice. He was really going to make him do this, wasn't he? "You might fall over and that’s okay. You just get back up and try again, all right?”
Which, sure, that was a thing that made sense, but that wouldn’t stop him from making a fool out of himself while he did it.
When he didn’t answer, Eliot pulled him along anyway, moving his grip from Quentin’s elbow to wrap around his hand instead. Stepping in front of him, he caught his other hand as well and stepped backwards onto the ice, the show off. How was he so steady? “If I pull you down with me it’s not my fault,” Quentin grumbled, hesitating at the edge of the ice.
“I won’t hold it against you,” Eliot said, tugging on his arms pointedly.
Taking a deep breath, Quentin tightened his grip on Eliot’s hands and stepped forward onto the ice. His foot slid forward a little and he quickly brought his other one forward for balance, clutching onto Eliot as he looked down at his feet. “Shit — shit.”
“Don’t look at your feet,” Eliot told him, skating backwards. Not daring to really move, Quentin let himself be pulled along with him. It went against his instincts to look up but he forced himself to do it anyway, bracing himself before he raised his eyes to Eliot’s.
Eliot was grinning at him but his eyes were warm, not like he was laughing but like he was enjoying himself. All of that focus right on him sent a shiver down Quentin’s back, and suddenly he was nervous for an entirely different reason. He felt… safe, with Eliot’s hands firm and sure leading the way, his gaze intent on him, his voice somehow both soothing and confident as he told him how to move his feet.
It was… a lot. To… to feel safe. Could Eliot see it? Feeling a little too raw, he dropped his eyes to stare at the top button of his shirt, because Eliot might be safe but this was safer.
It struck him, again, that Eliot didn’t have to be doing this for him. Didn’t have to be spending his time teaching him how to ice skate instead of wooing his boss. But there was not a trace of impatience in Eliot’s demeanour, nothing but reassurance and enjoyment and just a touch of amusement.
After a few minutes Quentin realised that although Eliot’s hands were still just as firm around his, he’d let their arms slacken between them. Eliot was still helping to keep him balanced, but he was moving forward under his own momentum, and… and not falling over. Yet. Glancing up, he found Eliot watching him closely, one eyebrow slightly cocked, and his smile widened under Quentin’s gaze. “Are you ready?”
What? “Am — what?”
“Good,” Eliot said, dropping his left hand and spinning around so that he was skating by Quentin’s side. “No, don’t stop,” he said when Quentin froze up, and he forced his legs to unlock, to push forward despite the anxiety twisting at his insides. And — yeah, and the exhilaration. Eliot’s free hand held onto Quentin’s arm, his laughter light and easy as he lent him support. “You’re doing great.”
He didn’t feel like he was doing great. He was also probably doing better than he thought he’d do. Without Eliot skating in front of him, he could see the other people in the rink, couples doing laps hand in hand, kids racing each other with far more skill that Quentin would ever be able to manage. One kid, maybe twelve or so, barrelled straight into someone that Quentin recognised vaguely from Henry’s Christmas party. He spied Poppy and Todd standing off to the side, talking to another couple. “At least Margo’s not here yet to see me make an idiot out of myself.”
“Oh, Margo’s here,” Eliot said, steadying Quentin when he looked up at him in surprise. “She doesn’t skate. She’ll be sitting in the cafe sexting her boyfriend or flirting with the barista or both.”
She… what? “Are you kidding me?” he laughed, feeling a little hysterical with it. He could be on solid, firm, non-slippery ground right now?
Eliot squeezed his arm, and when Quentin glanced at him his grin was far too innocent to actually be, well, innocent. “You can join her if you want,” he said lightly. “But only after you acknowledge that we’re four laps around now and you haven’t fallen over.”
Not only that, he realised, but he’d been skating for at least the last minute or so without panicking or even really thinking about it. Maybe he could actually do this after all.
He wasn’t planning on letting go of Eliot’s hand any time soon, but that was besides the point.
Facing forward again, Quentin took a deep breath just in time to see Bigby breeze past them, gliding across the ice like she was born to it. “Oh my darlings, don’t you two look adorable together!” she said brightly, waving her fingers at Quentin before she span around and flew out in front of them.
He heard the quiet huff of Eliot’s laughter, felt it flow through him to warm him from the inside out. He couldn’t imagine anyone thinking he looked adorable doing anything, especially this, but maybe, with Eliot beside him, he could pull it off. “Maybe we can stay out for a little longer.”
They made it around another two laps without him falling over, and Eliot gradually let his grip on his arm slacken. His hand stayed firm in his, their fingers twisted together, an anchor that assured him that he was still there.
After a few minutes, he heard Eliot clear his throat, and felt the mood shift even before he spoke. “Quentin. Thank you. For putting in so much work for this.” He slowed their pace, veering them closer to the edge of the rink so they wouldn’t be in the way of the people skating faster than they were. He looked a mixture of sincere and uncomfortable. “I know I’m getting so much more out of this than you are.”
He supposed that was true. Eliot was vying for a promotion, and Quentin was just… fooling his friends? “It’s been nice having Julia off my back,” he said honestly, then laughed. “That sounds like such a stupid reason to be doing all of this. Why did I agree to all of this in the first place?”
He’d meant it as a joke, but Eliot span on the spot, putting his free hand on Quentin’s shoulder to look at him squarely as they halted completely in one smooth move. How does he do that?
Eliot ducked his head a little, meeting his gaze earnestly. “What more can I do for you?”
Quentin shrugged again. “You don’t need to do anything, Eliot. You came to the snowman thing. And it’s been… it’s been nice,” he admitted, the corner of his mouth twitching hesitantly. Eliot’s eyes softened, and Quentin felt something in his stomach twist in response. “Not being alone at Christmas, I mean. This is the first year since Alice and I broke up that I’ve actually been enjoying myself at this time of year. That’s something, right?”
The something that it was, was probably really fucking sad, but he clung to the hope spreading through him anyway, that maybe he didn’t have to let this thing weigh him down forever. Not — not with Eliot, he didn’t mean… but with someone. Or even just with himself.
He breathed a small sigh of relief when Eliot dropped his hand from his shoulder, turning back around and tugging him forward. “Of course you’ve been enjoying yourself,” he said light-heartedly. “I am an enjoyable person.”
“Ha,” Quentin said, putting as much sarcasm as he could into his voice while also trying not to smile.
A sideways glance showed a delighted grin. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Rolling his eyes, Quentin shouldered him, quickly straightening up before he could unbalance. “Okay, you’re not wrong.”
“Was that so hard?” Eliot said, dropping his hand to sling his arm around his shoulders instead. “Now, let’s go find something hot to drink.”
As predicted, they found Margo sitting at one of the tables in the cafe, smirking at her phone. “Say hi to Josh for me,” Eliot said, dropping his wet skates on the floor next to the chair beside hers. “What’ll you have, Q?”
Excusing himself while Eliot ordered for them, Quentin visited the bathroom. When he stepped up to the sinks to wash his hands he recognised the person as the other basin and hesitated, but Todd had already caught sight of him in the mirror and was beaming at his reflection. “Quentin! How’s your night?”
“Um. Great, thanks,” he said, approaching the sinks slowly. He couldn’t figure out if Todd just didn’t know or care about the rivalry between their partners, or whether the open excitement that he exuded in every interaction that he’d had with him was a well-calculated front. Well, he wasn’t going to be an asshole about it either way. Pumping soap into one hand, he turned on the tap with the other. “I haven’t really done this before, but Eliot’s a great teacher. You and Poppy were great, though.”
“I never used to be great,” Todd said, shaking off his hands before reaching for the paper towel dispenser on the wall. “Poppy loves it though. She used to ice skate with her ex husband all the time, and I want her to keep doing things she enjoys, so.” He shrugged at Quentin through the mirror, as though to say what are you gonna do?
Quentin’s hands stilled under the stream of warm water, the soap suds running down the drain. “Ex husband?” he said carefully. “Poppy has been married before?”
“Yeah, Richard,” Todd said, tossing the used paper towel in the trash can beside him. His eyebrows shot up. “No, wait, that was her second husband. I meant Ess, Ess taught her how to skate.” Something must have passed over Quentin’s face, because Todd froze, his eyes wide as he stared at his reflection. “Oh — shit. Um.” He smiled at him uncertainly, his eyes darting toward the door. “I gotta… Hope you have a good night!”
Quentin watched Todd as he fled the bathroom, and then slowly turned off the tap, his mind replaying the conversation over and over again. It didn’t mean anything to him if Poppy had been married twice before — he was divorced himself, he could hardly judge, but… did Henry, with his preconceptions about the perfect family dynamic, know about it? Would he care? Todd’s reaction to realising that he’d let it slip made him think that it was supposed to be a secret, and who else would Poppy want to hide it from?
Drying his hands, he was still deep in thought when he returned to the table in the cafe. There was a steaming mug in front of one of the free seats, and Quentin sank into the chair opposite Eliot, pulling his hot chocolate close and wrapping his hands around it with a muttered thanks.
It took him a few seconds to realise that Eliot and Margo had cut off whatever conversation he’d walked in on, and were both looking at him strangely. Had they said something to him? Eliot looked almost concerned. “All okay?” he asked, his hand drifting a few inches across the table toward him.
His words died on his lips, as he considered what Todd had said and what that meant for Eliot. It might not mean anything, and even if it did… Eliot deserved this promotion based on his work, not the relationship history of his competition. Straightening his shoulders, he met Eliot’s eye with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, taking a sip of his drink, letting the familiar taste of chocolate on his tongue cal him. “Yeah, everything’s great.”
"Good," Margo said, setting her mug down on the table and twisting in her seat to grin slyly at Eliot. "While you were out teaching ice skating lessons, I was charming our dear Henry into telling us the information for the New York trip."
"Oh, are you coming too?" Quentin asked, not sure if he was excited or worried by the idea.
"Unfortunately not, sweetie," Margo said, and he wasn't sure whether he should be worried about that, either. "It'll just be you and Eliot shacked up for two nights in a big fancy room at the Plaza. And Poppy and Todd down the hall, of course," she added dismissively.
"You're still happy to go, right?" The corner of Eliot's mouth turned up in a hopeful smile, as though he thought there was a chance that he might say no.
"It's the main part of the —" He cut himself off before he could say the word contract, glancing around them. There wasn't really anyone in hearing distance, but better to be safe than sorry. And… they hadn't called it a contract, had they? "The promise," he said instead. "Of course I'm going."
Eliot's smile softened, before he turned to Margo to ask what else she'd found out. Quentin continued to watch him, Margo's warning to him yesterday fresh in his mind after her endearment just a few seconds ago.
Why would she think that he would break Eliot's heart? He still couldn’t figure it out. It wasn't like there were real feelings involved — just an agreement to spend the holidays together and tell a white lie or two. Someone like Eliot wouldn’t have feelings for him, anyway. Maybe Margo knew the details of Eliot's struggle with this time of year and assumed that he'd be having a hard time, and the stress of lying about their relationship might get to him.
It couldn't be anything more than that. He watched as Eliot laughed at something Margo had said, and couldn’t help but hope that his unseasonal cheerfulness was in part because of him. Eliot was helping him enjoy Christmas for the first time in years, and he hoped that he was having the same effect on him.
Eliot might think that their deal was unbalanced, and maybe it was. But, sitting here with Eliot and Margo and feeling light, feeling happy, he wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
“Penny knows the script,” Alice said for what had to be the tenth time. “It’s going to be fine.”
“Or, it’s going to be a mess,” he said, digging his fingers into the edge of his seat so that she wouldn’t see them twisting in his lap. The Reindeer Report was airing that evening, and he had absolutely no faith that Penny was going to go on screen and promote the travel agency with any great level of professionalism or enthusiasm. “Have you actually seen him rehearse it?”
Alice’s made an irritated sound in the back of her throat. “Of course I have.”
He raised his eyebrows at her. “And how did he do?” he asked.
Dropping her eyes to the paperwork in front of her, she picked up her highlighter and resumed marking spots on the page. “He looks great,” she said dismissively.
Was that really what she was going for? Quentin let go of the chair and leaned forward in his seat, looking at her pointedly across the table. She didn’t raise her eyes, but he could tell from the way her shoulders stiffened that she knew he was watching her closely. “I didn’t ask how he looks, Alice. Of course he looks great. But how did he sound? Like he’s passionate about what he’s talking about, or like he doesn’t give a shit about what he’s talking about?”
The press of her lips together combined with her silence made Quentin’s heart sink. But… but maybe, if she saw it, then she’d let him put someone else in. Hell, he’d rather get up and do it than watch Penny fail. “Penny’s going to come across gruff, or at least bored, and we need to promote the business better than that, Alice, you know we do. Penny’s one mood lately seems to be disinterested and frustrated and short tempered, and that’s not the message we want to be sending.”
“He’s not going to be like that on screen,” she said, finally raising her eyes to meet his again, and he grimaced at the adamant look in her eye. “It’s the right thing to do, the right way to draw in viewers.”
Signing the bottom of the page, she tucked the paperwork into a manilla folder and pushed her chair back. Quentin stood up to keep her in sight when she walked around to the other side of her office, leaning back against her desk while she opened her filing cabinet and started flicking through the tabs. “How is he supposed to be encouraging people to be excited about a kids charity if he’s on screen talking in a monotone?” he said.
Alice’s hands stilled, her shoulders stiffening. “We’re not talking about the charity, Quentin,” she said quietly.
His heart stopped. He stared at her in disbelief. Surely he’d misheard, surely... “What?”
Alice’s hands searched through the same files over and over again, as though it weren’t obvious that she was avoiding his eyes. “It’s not so much of a feature this year,” she said simply. “It’s best to just keep the promotion to the agency itself.”
“It’s not so much of a feature because you wouldn’t approve the money,” he said incredulously. Pushing off from the desk, he took a step toward her but then stopped, his hands lifting in protest before dropping helplessly to his sides. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Couldn’t believe that he was still surprised by this. “You can’t — you can’t just keep doing things like this. This is my business too.”
“Well, it’s too late now,” she said with finality. Finding the tab that she was looking for, she slotted the file into place and pushed the cabinet draw shut, finally turning to face him. She lifted her chin, her eyes a little wide as she smiled at him. “Penny’s doing the report. We’re not talking about the program. It’s all going to go perfectly.”
Quentin just stared at her, feeling like he was going to be swallowed up by emptiness. She was really doing this — taking everything that he loved about his work, piece by piece, and tearing it to shreds. He couldn’t do it anymore. He… he couldn’t run his own business like this. Couldn’t let her twist everything that he cared about just because it wasn’t what she wanted.
He was going to have to buy her out, he realised. Or... sell his half and open a new place. Start from scratch. The idea tore him up inside, but what other choice did he have?
God, what had happened to them?
He took a deep breath, steeling himself to tell her that either way, they couldn’t do this together anymore, but the words caught in his throat when he caught sight of a familiar face through the window to the shop floor. What was Eliot doing here? And… talking to Penny, of all people? He frowned, trying to figure out what the hell they could possibly have to talk about. Seeing his expression, Alice turned to follow his gaze, but Quentin was too thrown by the delighted look on Eliot’s face as he spoke to Penny to care about her reaction.
A second or two later she was heading toward the door, and he followed her quickly out of her office. Eliot looked up as they approached, returning Quentin’s questioning look with a cheerful smile. “Hi, darling,” he said warmly, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek. When he pulled back, Quentin stared at him dumbly, his questions stalling on his tongue because why are you talking to Penny and oh wait I can’t ask that right now can I?
“Penny and I are going out for a drink,” Eliot said, answering one part of his silent question but not the what the fuck part of it. The most important part, apparently. “I was just telling Penny that I have some experience speaking on television, so I offered to teach him a few pointers,” he said, like it was the most casual thing in the world.
Uncertain that Penny would just readily go along with that, Quentin glanced at him dubiously, surprised when he didn’t contradict him. He didn’t think that Penny would accept help from anyone, let alone Quentin’s boyfriend. This couldn’t end well. “I… I don’t think you should be getting drunk before going on air,” he said, reaching out to grab Eliot’s arm imploringly but letting his arm drop to his side before he connected. He didn’t want to tell him what to do, but also Penny was going to be representing his business and he was already sure that it was going to go terribly.
Eliot’s hand found his anyway, squeezing his fingers encouragingly. “Of course we’re not getting drunk, Q. A drink or two is good for the nerves, however, and it’ll be good to get out of the office for a while. Won’t it Penny?”
“Sure, whatever,” Penny said, exchanging a look with Alice.
Eliot’s hand squeezed his again, and Quentin turned back to him to see his eyebrows raised. “Trust me,” he mouthed.
And he did. Right? Eliot hadn’t steered him wrong so far, and he was one of the most confident and well spoken people that Quentin had ever met. It couldn’t make anything worse, anyway. “Okay,” he said slowly, and was rewarded with a grateful smile.
“We’ll meet you there, then,” Penny said, kissing Alice on the cheek. She opened her mouth, but then shut it without speaking as he bid her goodbye and turned for the door. Quentin felt exactly how she looked when Eliot pressed a kiss to his temple and followed after him.
His confusion quickly snapped back into irritation when Alice turned her curiosity on him. “Did Eliot tell you he was going to do this?” she asked warily. “Who is he to stick his nose in and —”
“He’s helping, Alice,” Quentin said, not interested in the slightest in placating Alice — particularly when he didn’t know anything more than she did. “Which is more than I can say for you,” he muttered as he turned and headed into his office, closing the door firmly behind him.
Quentin pulled up the email that he was halfway through composing to a client, but it was unable to hold his focus. His mind kept drifting to Eliot and Penny. Would Penny take on board anything that Eliot suggested? What else were they talking about? Quentin had just the right balance of a history of friendship with Penny and a current falling out to make him prime to say all sorts of incriminating things about him if he wanted to.
But even that didn't matter — it wasn't like Penny had a chance of scaring off his actual boyfriend.
That didn't make him want Eliot to like him any less though.
It felt like hours had passed when he raised his eyes to a knock on the door, but he knew it couldn't have been more than one. Julia grimaced, nodding towards his cell phone, sitting silent on the desk beside him. "Haven't heard anything?"
Was he that transparent? He wondered if she'd overheard their conversation earlier or if Alice had said something. Had Penny messaged her to let her know how things were going? He checked his notifications, despite knowing for certain that he hadn't received anything other than a promo for buy one get one free at the Chinese shop around the corner that had made his pulse skyrocket before he saw what it was. "No."
Julia was quiet, and when he looked up at her again she was smiling faintly, her eyes thoughtful. “Whatever he’s doing with Penny, he’s doing it for you. He seems like a good guy, Q. I’m really happy for you.”
Quentin tried to hide his smile as joy flowed through him, until he crashed back to reality and forced his mouth into what he hoped didn't look entirely like a grimace. It's not real. Not the care and effort that Eliot was putting into their relationship, not the warmth spreading through him from the inside out when he thought of Eliot — someone — doing hard things for him to make his life easier. Not the relief that Julia felt that he was in a happy relationship for the first time since he'd left Alice.
He'd somehow managed to ignore the knot of guilt growing tighter in his stomach every time he'd spoken to her about Eliot in the last three weeks, waving it away with excuses and reasons. Looking at her now, so happy for him, he couldn't hide from it anymore.
He hadn't expected her to like Eliot so much. He hadn't expected to want to keep him as a friend afterward, and he realised that those two things weren't going to fit together as seamlessly as he'd like.
He couldn't think about that now. Today's stress was enough for him without drowning in what was going to happen later. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and forced another smile. "Thanks, Jules," he said, and tried not to let himself dwell after she disappeared from his doorway.
With only half an ear to the assistant’s chatter, Eliot followed him through the door to the green room. Quentin was standing at the opposite end of the room, and Eliot felt an equal amount of amusement and guilt over the nervous look on his face. He raised his hand to wave at him, but Quentin’s eyes had already slipped past him to Penny, who wasn’t paying attention to either of them as he moved toward Alice.
Quentin excused himself from the woman he was speaking to and crossed the room, and Eliot’s cheerful hello died on his lips at the pained expression on Quentin’s face. His grip was stiff when he closed his hand around Eliot’s and pulled him a few steps to the side, further away from everyone else in the room. “Hey,” Eliot said. “What —”
“Hi,” Quentin said, and his voice was short but not sharp. “What the hell have you been doing all afternoon?”
He couldn’t tell if he was upset with him or not. Belatedly he realised that he probably should have told Quentin that he was planning to talk to Penny. But it had been a last minute decision, to be fair. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Quentin’s worry when he’d visited him at work a week ago.
Adjusting the grip of his hand to be more comfortable, he brought his other up to squeeze his shoulder, meeting his gaze squarely. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you beforehand. I wanted to help. I know how important this segment is to you, and for the travel agency. It sounded like the likelihood of you talking Alice out of using Penny was non-existent, so I wanted you to have your best shot with the materials you had to play with.” He shrugged. “I don’t know how much luck we had, but he definitely loosened up a little being out of the office, so at the very least I don’t think it hurt. I don’t think we’re going to get the warm and fuzzies from him, but hopefully he’ll be welcoming enough to make the promo worthwhile.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected of Quentin’s reaction, but it wasn’t the hopeful smile that he gifted him with now, looking up at him wide eyed. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. Relief flowed through him, stronger than was probably warranted, and he forced his hand to relax on Quentin’s shoulder when he realised that he was squeezing it tight again. Quentin blinked sharply and then looked away, his chest rising as he took a deep breath. “Thank you for caring.”
Quentin looked nervous, and Eliot couldn’t blame him, not with how worked up he’d been about the Reindeer Report for the last few days. Longer, probably. He hoped that whatever he’d done with Penny would help at least a little, even if it only by making Quentin feel better about it.
Wondering if Penny was holding onto the more relaxed vibe that he’d settled into earlier, he glanced up, finding Penny talking to Alice and the producer. The time he’d spent with him this afternoon had been surprising. He’d heard enough about Penny, had seen enough of him himself, to have an impression of a surly, sarcastic tough guy, but a beer and half an hour in he’d started to let go of that. Eliot’s immediate thought was that maybe there was trouble in paradise, so to speak, but it was when Eliot had dropped Quentin’s name that he’d gotten brusque again.
That was definitely something that was worth exploring later.
Now, though, he noticed with amusement that Alice was glancing across at them every few seconds, her brow knitted slightly in a frown, and wondered what she thought of him and Penny spending time together. Turning back to Quentin, he paused when he noticed how close they were standing. His hand was still on Quentin’s shoulder, his other wrapped around his, and he realised how intimate this must look to the others.
Something must have passed over his face, because now Quentin was frowning at him too. “What is it?” he asked, his eyes darting between Eliot’s, and he was sure Quentin must have been able to read his mind because a moment later he felt a hand settle on his hip before sliding up a little to be a warm pressure on his waist.
It was a gesture of comfort, it had to be, but Eliot knew that it definitely looked like more than that. “Alice is watching,” he said softly. “Can I kiss you?” Quentin’s breath hitched, his eyes widening, and Eliot berated himself for pushing too hard. “You can say no,” he added quickly.
“No,” he murmured immediately, and then shook his head in a tiny, sharp movement. “I mean, yes, you can… do it.”
Eliot felt such a rush of fondness at Quentin’s stumbled words, at the way his skin reddened underneath his fingers as he lifted his hand from his shoulder to trace along his hairline, tucking his hair behind his ears. It was so soft, just like the way Quentin was looking at him, the trust in his eyes almost overwhelming. An all-consuming need to live up to that trust fired through him, echoed by the sudden desire he felt to lean in and close his mouth over Quentin’s, to taste his lips and hear again the breathy little sigh he’d made when they’d kissed.
Slipping his hand around to the back of Quentin's neck, he closed the distance between them and then hesitated, his nose brushing against the side of Quentin's, his eyes sliding shut as his body hummed with the want of kissing him.
Quentin's hand tightened on his waist, and Eliot —
Turned his head, pressing his lips to the corner of his mouth instead. He felt Quentin's lips part in a sharp inhale, and ignored the instinct that demanded he turn into him, to kiss him properly, like he meant it. Quentin didn't mean it, and he couldn't…
Instead, he pulled back, taking a deep breath to settle himself before he opened his eyes. Quentin's lips were still parted as he looked up at him in confusion, but he was fairly confident that his own was buried deep enough that he wouldn't see it.
What the fuck was that?
Instead of dwelling on it, he let go of Quentin, tucking his hair back again for the others' benefit. And sure, maybe to busy his hands and bring the moment back to something more familiar. Quentin was still frowning at him. "Eliot —"
Nope, nuh-uh. He wasn't going to do this now. Or at all, preferably. Clearing his throat, he shifted his weight to his other foot to put some distance between them. He certainly didn’t get frazzled at the thought of kissing a cute boy. "We should —"
"Quentin, are you ready?" the producer called from the other side of the room, and Eliot breathed a sigh of relief when Quentin turned away. "Penny's mic'd up and ready to go, so we're going to show you in now."
"Great," Eliot said, clapping his hand to Quentin's shoulder and pushing him forward. "Let's go see where the magic happens."
Quentin glanced at him over his shoulder with that same curious look, but Eliot kept his focus on the producer — Pearl Sunderland, as she introduced herself — as she led them through to the studio. The moment they stepped into the large open room, Quentin seemed to remember that they were here for a reason and started fidgeting with the sleeves of his shirt.
Pearl showed them into the production control room adjoining the studio, showed them the view to the stage through the window, the rows of monitors and controls, and introduced them to the people running them. It wasn't Eliot's first time in a gallery, and so it didn't hold his attention enough to distract him from what had gone through his head just a few minutes ago.
It obviously didn't mean anything. He'd never denied that he thought Quentin was attractive, and feeling an urge to kiss him shouldn't be a surprise. Especially not when he knew how well he kissed. It was easy to get caught up in a moment, particularly when Quentin was doing that thing where he had awkward and ridiculous reactions. Which, to be fair, was most of the time.
But he couldn’t just kiss Quentin because he thought he was cute, or funny, or kind. They had a deal, they’d made a promise, and not one single part of him wanted Quentin to feel like he had to do anything more than what he was comfortable with.
Eliot was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn’t realise that Pearl was leading Penny out of the room until they were at the door. The tense silence continued after they’d left, as Quentin and Alice apparently had nothing peaceful to say to each other and the workers in the control room had no interest in whatever drama they were having.
Catching Quentin looking like he was trying to turtle into his shirt, Eliot boxed in his mess of inexcusable feelings and took Quentin’s hand between both of his, squeezing it tightly as he met his eyes. “It’s going to be great,” he said firmly. “Take a deep breath for me. Okay? Good. It’s going to be great.”
Quentin’s doubtful look pulled at him more than he liked. “But —”
“No buts,” he said, then looked over his shoulder. “Right, Alice? Penny’s going to do great.”
Alice looked surprised as she turned away from the window toward them. After a moment her frown smoothed a little, and the corner of her mouth lifted up into what looked like a hint of a smile. “Yes,” she said, turning grateful eyes to Eliot. “Yes, Penny’s going to do great.”
Calm down, honey, Eliot thought through the smile he offered her in return. I’m not doing this for you.
The door to the studio opened, and Pearl stepped back in, barely sparing them a glance. “Ready? Good,” she said before any of them could answer. She turned toward the studio, and Eliot followed her gaze to see Penny standing in front of a green screen, his arms crossed over his chest. “We’re coming in from sports now, and then they’re going to throw it to Penny.”
Seconds later, the two news anchors exchanged a comment that made very little to no sense about whatever sport thing Eliot hadn’t been paying attention to. Eliot didn’t take his eyes off of Penny for a moment, willing him to pull through.
It had amazed him when Penny had admitted to being nervous, back at the bar, the worlds coming out of him unprompted but as though Eliot had forcibly dragged them out. Sure, he had a lot of experience in front of a camera, he knew how to make himself look good, but he had no experience speaking in front of a crowd or on camera and especially not on live television. Eliot had expected to be going into a conversation about how he had to lose the ‘better than all of this’ attitude and do something good for Alice, if not for Quentin, but that had been even more in his wheelhouse. He knew how to make people comfortable, how to make people confident.
Penny had appeared confident when they’d left the bar. He didn’t look so much so, now.
He heard one of the anchors introduce Penny Adiyodi from Philly and Further Travel Agency, and felt Quentin stiffen beside him. “He doesn’t even actually work there,” he muttered under his breath, and Eliot let out a surprised huff of laughter.
It caught in his throat when his eyes landed on the largest monitor in front of them, with the bright red light blinking beside it to indicate that the cast was live. Penny was staring straight into the camera, silent. They were live, and he wasn’t saying anything.
“What is he doing?” Pearl said at the same time as Alice cursed and took a step toward the door, but Quentin caught her arm when Penny seemed to start a little.
“Hey,” Penny said, and Quentin buried his face in his hands. When he continued, his voice was so bright with fake cheer that it came out sarcastic, and Eliot wanted to cringe. “I’m Penny from Philly and Further Travel, and I’m here to —”
Stopping mid-sentence, Penny let out a sigh and then pressed his lips together. “I’m here to talk about the Reindeer Review.” His eyes closed the second that the words were out. His tone was something closer to normal but those were not the right words, Penny. “He had it perfect before we left,” Eliot said, glancing across at the others.
Quentin just stared at Penny hopelessly. “Oh no,” Alice breathed, her hands clenched into fists and pressed against her chest. “Come on, Penny.”
But Penny was shaking his head, scowling at the floor. “You know what, screw this,” he said, pulling his mic out from his shirt and storming off the stage.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Pearl said, as Penny dropped the mic on the floor and stormed out of the studio. “Tick, cut back to Emily —”
“No, no, no, no, wait,” Eliot said, jumping forward and holding his hand out to Pearl. Turning back to Quentin, he grabbed his shoulders in both hands, “Go,” he said, pushing him backward toward the door.
Mouth falling open, Quentin stared at him wide-eyed. “What? No —”
“Someone has to step in, Quentin,” he said. Christ, his heart felt like it was about to beat out of his chest. This was right, this was perfect. “You know the script. Go, Q. Now.”
“The mic,” Pearl reminded them, opening the door for them and thank fuck.
He pushed Quentin through the door, bending to pick up the mic that Penny had left dropped on the floor. No time to make it look pretty — he hooked the bodypack to the back of his jeans and pulled the cord over his shoulder, clipping the mic to the front of his shirt. Quentin was still staring at him like a deer in headlights. “Are you sure?” he whispered, his hand fluttering over the mic.
“Of course I’m sure,” he said, wishing that Quentin could have even a fraction of the confidence in himself that Eliot had in him. He took his hand, squeezed it tightly, before grabbing his shoulders and pushing him toward the stage. He could feel everyone’s eyes on them through the window to the control room and ignored them. “You’ve got this. Go.”
Throwing one last nervous glance at him over his shoulder, Quentin nodded shakily and took a step forward, then another until he was standing in front of the green screen. Turning to face the camera, he stared at it for just long enough for Eliot to fear that he’d put Quentin in the same position that Penny had been less than a minute ago, before lifting his eyes to Eliot. He smiled at him with all of the encouragement that he could muster.
He knew that Quentin could do this, could do anything that he put his mind to, and his passion for this knew no bounds. Enough of that faith must have crept into his expression, because Quentin took a deep steadying breath, and when he smiled at the camera Eliot felt a weight lift off his shoulders.
Quentin introduced himself to the camera, and if his voice was a little shaky for the first few words, he quickly steadied himself with a glance every few seconds in Eliot’s direction. He spoke about the Reindeer Report with the warmth and enthusiasm that had been lacking from Penny’s best attempt, his smile bright as he talked about Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve journey across the USA and some of the favourite landmarks that Philly and Further could send you to. Eliot grinned at him when his references to the charity program rolled off his tongue as naturally as breathing — it wasn’t Quentin’s fault that Alice had changed the rules on him last minute. He could see the moment Quentin realised that he’d name dropped the part that Alice had wanted to leave out, and had to hold back a laugh at the delight that flickered across his face.
As soon as the cast went back to the news anchors, Quentin’s shoulders slumped, but the smile on his face was as bright as he’d ever seen it. Hearing one of the anchors saying something something after the break, he stepped forward to congratulate him, but his pride was spiked with frustration when Alice stalked out in front of him. The way Quentin’s face dropped upon seeing her made Eliot stiffen defensively, and he hurried forward to join them.
“How could you advertise the charity program when we’d agreed to cut it?” she hissed at Quentin.
Eliot’s hands curled into fists at his sides, but he didn’t interrupt as Quentin scoffed. “No,” he said, his voice as quiet as it was firm, his quick glance around them showing that he was well aware of their audience. “You decided to cut it. I didn’t agree to anything.”
You tell her, Quentin , Eliot thought, trying not to feel too smug about it.
He forced the grin from his face when Alice turned to look at him as well. Half a second too late, if her accusatory glare was anything to go by. “This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? Whatever you did with Penny today was just to make him fuck up so Quentin could get on screen to promote his stupid charity program.”
He’d been ready to let Quentin fight his own fight, but he jumped at the opportunity when Alice brought him into it. “That stupid charity program is the best part about your business,” he said, keeping his voice calm and loving the way she scowled at him in return. “Quentin tried to tell you that Penny wasn’t up for it. It’s not his fault that he was right.”
With a furious groan, Alice stormed away from them, the slam of the door answered immediately by a harsh shh. “We should get off the stage,” Eliot said, catching Pearl’s unimpressed look through the control room window. Quentin still looked a little stunned but he took Eliot’s offered hand and followed him readily as he led him back through to the green room.
Thankfully, Alice and Penny were nowhere in sight. A handful of other people milled around the room, but he didn’t spare them more than a glance. Quentin was still wearing his mic, and Eliot set to work unclipping it. “Eliot,” Quentin said quietly, covering his hand with his own.
Stilling it, Eliot let his hand rest against his chest, wrapped up in Quentin’s. The look in his eyes wasn’t just being overwhelmed from jumping in front of a live camera with no notice, or from standing his ground with Alice. He looked worried. “What is it?” he asked, his eyes darting between Quentin’s as he tried to catch what was the matter.
“Did you…” He trailed off for a moment, glancing down at their hands on his chest before looking up at him again, eyes searching. “Did you do that on purpose?” he asked, his lips twisting unhappily.
“I —” He wasn’t surprised, now that he thought about it, to learn that Quentin might think that. He desperately needed him to know that it wasn’t the case. “No, Quentin. I honestly tried to help Penny today, and I thought I did, a little. Apparently not enough,” he added with an exaggerated grimace that earned him a softening of the worry lines in Quentin’s brow, if not a smile. “I just wanted to help you.” Quentin had already done so much for him, and was about to spend the second half of the week in New York City with him on top of that. He wanted to give Quentin a little success too. He’d never imagined this. He’d taken back a big thing from Alice, and driven a bigger wedge in between them in the process. Hopefully the good outweighed the bad. “I’m sorry if I made things worse with Alice.”
“Screw Alice,” Quentin said dismissively. Eliot grinned at him, and Quentin face changed suddenly, his eyes opening wide and his mouth falling open in a disbelieving huff of laughter. “Eliot, I — I did the Reindeer Report,” he said, his voice full of wonder. He laughed again, pulling his hand away to look at the microphone still clipped to his shirt. “And plugged the charity program. Without fucking it up.”
Unclipping the mic, Eliot reached around him to pull the bodypack from his belt. When he pulled back, Quentin was beaming up at him, his eyes bright. “You didn’t fuck it up,” Eliot told him, and watched his smile grow impossibly wider. “You were amazing. I’m so proud of you.”
Quentin swallowed, glancing away for a moment. Lifting his arms, he hesitated awkwardly for a moment as though he were about to stop, but then wrapped his arms around Eliot’s waist, his head resting on his chest. “Thank you,” he murmured into his shirt, and —
“It’s what I’m here for,” Eliot said lightly, giving Quentin a quick squeeze before pulling away. The words were out of his mouth before he realised how irreverent they might sound given the context of their relationship, but if Quentin picked up on it then he didn’t say anything. It was himself that needed the reminder, not Quentin. “We should return that mic to Pearl before she decides we’re more trouble than we’re worth.”
“And get a drink after,” Quentin said. “I might call Julia, see if she wants to celebrate with us.” He laughed again. “Alice is going to kill me, but I don’t even care. Jules is going to love it.”
Eliot paused, unsure if spending a prolonged amount of time with Quentin’s best friend was a good idea, but he found himself unable to say no in the face of Quentin’s happiness. “All right,” he greed. “But I’m picking where we’re going. The pub Penny insisted we go to was terrible.”
Chapter by highkingmariot
Julia receives an email. So does the rest of the office.
Wrapping both hands around his mug, Quentin tried for about the fifteenth time to make himself focus on his computer screen. It wasn’t like there was anything interesting happening on the wall across from his desk where his eyes kept drifting to, but he still couldn’t make his attention remain on the itinerary that he was supposed to be typing out for one of his regular clients.
He wasn’t hungover — he hadn’t drunk enough last night to warrant it and he hadn’t even really been home that late from the pub, but it had been well after midnight before he’d managed to turn his brain off enough to sleep. Unfortunately, sleeping through his alarm hadn’t actually made him feel any better, since any good that he’d gotten from the extra twenty minutes had been cancelled out by his panicked rush to get to work on time.
Still, he had coffee, and a happiness that had been quietly vibrating away in his heart since yesterday afternoon. Even though he’d been the one to suggest it, caught up in his own adrenaline, he’d been nervous about Julia and Eliot spending time together, but the two of them had gotten along better than he could have hoped for. They’d fallen into an easy comradery that had made it hard to remember that the thing that had brought him and Eliot together was a ruse, and one they were still keeping up, but the awkward warmth that had overtaken him every time Julia gave him a knowing smile or Eliot touched him with familiarity was easy to bury down deep once he let himself lean into it.
And Eliot… Quentin had learned the difference between his charm when he was trying to impress people because he had to, and when he used it because he wanted to. He’d genuinely had a good time with Julia last night, he was sure of it, and if the worst that Quentin had to suffer through was Julia’s embarrassing childhood stories about him and the delighted grin on Eliot’s face as he listened to them, then he’d definitely been through worse.
He would have put up with worse, especially after everything Eliot had done for him yesterday. Quentin hid his smile in his coffee mug even though no one was there to see it. He still couldn't believe that he pulled off the Reindeer Report, at the last minute and with no preparation… but Eliot had known he could do it, he'd had confidence in him from the start.
Even Alice and Penny’s silent treatment today only added to his good mood. His tired-but-good mood, he amended as he stifled a yawn. There was no downside to them ignoring him this morning — he’d gotten to talk about what he was passionate about on local television yesterday, had taken back a little bit of power from Alice, and if they didn’t want to speak to him today then that meant that he didn’t have to speak to them either. Win/win.
He just needed to make himself focus on the document in front of him so he could be on time to meet Eliot for lunch in the food court. They hadn’t had a lunch date planned, but he’d messaged Eliot on his way to work to ask him if he wanted to meet up anyway. That was a thing that regular friends did, right? Either way, he was looking forward to it.
He finally managed to force his attention to his work for more than five minutes when he heard a loud, “Oh my god,” raised above the general chatter out in the main office. He glanced toward the door with not quite enough curiosity to warrant him actually getting up to see what Fen found so interesting that she had to exclaim loud enough to be heard throughout the shop.
It wasn’t until he heard his own name in the chatter that followed that his curiosity got the better of him, but he was stalled before he could even stand when Julia appeared at the door to his office. His question about what was going on died on his lips when he caught sight of the tightness around hers. “So, we’re going to talk later about how you lied to me. But before then, you might want to decide to work from home for the rest of the day.”
Her quick, quiet tone had him on edge just as much as the words themselves. “What are you talking about?” he said, straightening in his chair.
Her mouth twisted into a grimace. “Seriously? You must be the only person not on the email.”
What? “What email?”
Glancing over her shoulder, Julia stepped further into his office and pulled the door mostly shut behind her. She pulled out her phone and passed it to Quentin, who glanced over it quickly. It was from the agency’s admin email address, the recipients list long enough that most of them were hidden. There was nothing in the subject line, or even in the body of the email, but there was an attachment, and Quentin’s stomach turned to lead when he saw the title of the file.
The Mistletoe Promise.
He didn’t click on the file. He didn’t need to. “Everyone got this?”
Swallowing down the lump in his throat, he raised his eyes to Julia, who hadn’t sat down on the other side of his desk like she usually would. Her arms were crossed, her jaw set, but the hurt in her eyes was stronger than any of the anger that she was leaning in to. She wasn’t stupid. If she’d read the contract, she knew what it meant, and that he’d done it specifically to lie to her. Why had that seemed like a good idea? “Jules, I’m so sorry —”
“Later, okay?” She held her hand out, stepping back again when he’d placed her phone into it. “We all know who must have sent the email. I know you’re not going to want to deal with her or anyone else about this today. Have it out with her later, but you don’t want to do that here.”
Julia gave him one last, loaded look before she slipped out of his office. She was right. But... His insides were a mix of apprehension and embarrassment and frustration, but they were slowly being swallowed up by anger. Pushing up from his chair, he grabbed his wallet and keys from his top draw, pulled on his coat, and then paused. He couldn’t let go of the image of Julia’s disappointed face.
This was because of him. He wasn’t going to try and fool himself otherwise. But what fucking right did Alice have to go through his emails to find dirt on him and then send that dirt to everyone in the office?
He knew he should leave. His skin was crawling with mortification and anger building in equal proportions, and the thought of everyone watching him leave the office, knowing why he was leaving, made him feel sick. Everyone here knew that his relationship with Eliot was a sham. If anyone brought it to the attention of Eliot’s co-workers...
And that was what tipped him over just enough to do something stupid.
He thought he heard Julia call his name as he crossed the room to Alice’s office, but he ignored it, pulling open the door without knocking and then closing it loudly behind him before Julia or anyone else could follow him in. Penny was, of course, lingering inside, sitting on one of the chairs opposite Alice with his feet up in the other, his laptop open in his lap.
The two of them looked up sharply when he closed the door. The wary look on Alice’s face fired him up just as much as the smugness on Penny’s.
“You hacked my emails,” he said, trying for calm and missing it completely.
Straightening her shoulders, Alice looked at him silently for a few seconds before turning back to her computer. “You shouldn’t be using your work email account for personal matters,” she said simply.
“Oh, come on,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You don’t give a shit what I use my email for. This is about yesterday. This is because you,” he said, pointing to Penny, “couldn’t get your head out of your ass for long enough to give a shit about something other than yourself, and then fucked us all over on TV because you were unprepared.”
“Fuck you,” Penny said, snapping his laptop shut and dropping his feet to the ground. “I would have been prepared if your boyfriend didn’t pull me away for the afternoon to distract me. But oh wait, he’s not really your boyfriend, is he?” Quentin bit back his retort about Eliot only trying to help him just in time to not make it worse for himself. “You made me look like a fool, just so you could get yourself on TV and talk about your stupid charity bullshit, and now you’re pissed at us for finding out the truth? You started it, asshole.”
It was probably the most words he’d gotten out of Penny in one go since they’d fallen out three years ago. “I think you were kind of the asshole first, when you slept with my wife,” he said sharply, but his satisfaction when Penny was the one to close his mouth didn’t last longer than a few seconds. Dropping his hands to his sides, Quentin looked between them helplessly. Penny’s eyes were guarded, and Alice’s face carefully blank.
His fight drained away, leaving only exhaustion and disappointment in its wake. “We were friends, once. We were married. We loved each other,” he said quietly, and even the flash of guilt on Alice’s face, missing from every encounter they’d had since the divorce, wasn’t enough to make him feel better, not even in a spiteful way. None of this felt like winning. He didn’t want to win. “Why does it have to be like this?”
Alice’s eyes dropped to her desk, her jaw tight. Penny was looking at his closed laptop. Neither of them answered him.
He wasn’t going to wait around to press the point. He was done fighting.
The hush that fell through the office when he opened Alice’s door was instant, but he ignored them all as he grabbed his things from his office. The grimace on Julia’s face when he walked past her desk was a small comfort that he didn’t know what to do with but was certain that he didn’t deserve.
Dropping down onto the bench seat at one of the tables in the area of the food court that they’d claimed, Eliot set his turkey sub and his bottle of water on the table in front of him and checked the time on his watch. He’d gotten caught up on a call with a client and had worried that he was going to be late, but when he’d arrived at the food court Quentin wasn’t yet in their usual spot.
Eliot pulled his phone from his pocket and wasted a few minutes on Instagram before a new message appeared on his screen.
I can’t make it today. Sorry.
Eliot stared at his phone, trying to decipher Quentin’s tone from the message. Was it short and rushed and disinterested? Apologetic? His disappointment at not getting to see him today after all was just as uncomfortable as his worry at why he was cancelling at — well, later than the last minute. He typed out four responses before he found one that was something close to the right level of casual.
Caught up at work?
He put his phone back down onto the table so he wouldn’t stare at it while he waited for a reply, but snatched it up as soon as it buzzed.
I just can’t do it.
Frowning at the short sentence, Eliot tried to ignore the welling of concern in his gut. Either he was too busy to tap out what was going on — which, fine, whatever, the man was busy — or… or something was wrong.
Are you okay?
Would he tell him if he wasn’t? Quentin didn’t owe him that. He wanted to know anyway, wanted to be there for him, wanted —
But it was probably nothing.
Five minutes later, Quentin still hadn’t responded, but it was probably fine.
Suddenly, eating his lunch in the food court was the last thing he wanted to do. He took his sub back to the office to eat with Margo, but his peek through her office window revealed her to still be in a meeting with some new client. Retreating back to his own office instead, he forced himself to eat a few bites of his sandwich and then threw the rest in the trash, his appetite gone.
It was good that his lunch plans had changed, actually, because he was behind on his work. He spent half an hour on the phone to one of his clients, and then churned out a handful of emails that he was supposed to have written yesterday. He'd spent all week with Quentin's worry in his mind, about how Penny was going to do with the Reindeer Report, but it had taken him until the eleventh hour to talk himself out of the idea that offering to help was putting his foot where it didn't belong. Which, he realised now with a slowly sinking heart, might be what was going on with Quentin today. He couldn't imagine that Alice would just let it slide.
And as long as Quentin was okay he couldn't bring himself to regret it. His mind was full of how incredible Quentin had been yesterday, and the evening that he'd spent with him and Julia. The memory of seeing him so happy and proud of himself sent a flood of warmth through him, but his mood quickly slumped again when he glanced at his phone and saw that Quentin still hadn't replied to his messages. It wasn't that he expected constant communication from the person that he wasn't actually really dating — but Quentin hadn’t missed a date with him yet.
There was also the fact that they were supposed to be catching a flight tomorrow morning to go to New York and impress the name partners of his firm with how stable and perfect their relationship was, and if Quentin was getting cold feet then he kind of needed to know.
His emails forgotten, Eliot locked and unlocked his phone distractedly, his eyes on the blank screen. He should respect Quentin’s privacy, no matter that he was worried about him.
Or, he could call him.
It was a brief, idle thought, but the phone was ringing before he had a chance to second guess himself. He brought it to his ear, his stomach twisting into knots.
Hi, this is Quentin. Leave a —”
Sharp footsteps on the floorboards made him look up, and he hung up without leaving a message when Margo walked into his office. The once over she gave him was enough to have him on edge as she dropped into the chair opposite him. “What’s the pouty face for?” she asked, leaning forward with one elbow on the armrest and her hand in her palm.
Slowly, he lowered his phone onto the desk and narrowed his eyes at her. “I don’t pout.” Certainly not because a man hadn’t answered his call.
Margo screwed up her face. “Honey, you’ve spent weeks perfecting a pout, and all of this —” she gestured in his general direction “— is far more real than that.” Pausing, she rolled her lips together, but when her eyes widened in a show of innocence, the quirk of her mouth gave her away. “Boyfriend trouble?”
Leaning back in his chair, Eliot arched an eyebrow at her. “No,” he said, very casually.
If the way her smile widened was any indication, she didn’t believe him for a second. “Uh huh.”
He met her gaze evenly, but she didn’t waver, not even a little. Eventually, he sighed, rolling his eyes. “I hate you,” he said cheerfully.
“You love me. Now, spill.”
Grimacing, he rubbed his hand over his face, looking at his computer screen as an excuse to not meet her eye for a moment. “It’s nothing. Quentin and I were supposed to meet for lunch —”
“Oh, a date.”
“Not a date,” he said firmly. “Just lunch, because we were both free today and why not, right? We’re friends, or something.” He ignored her raised eyebrows. “Except Quentin cancelled on me at the last minute and now he’s not responding to me. Oh and also his ex-wife slash business partner is in a prime position to be pissed at him today.” He paused, reluctantly returning his eyes to her, bemused at her knowing expression. He cleared his throat, forced his body to relax. “Do you think Fogg will notice if I head out to meet unspecified clients again?”
Margo scoffed. “Honey, you’re not going to skip out on the afternoon two days in a row when you’re vying for a promotion. Stop thinking with your dick.”
“I’m not thinking with my dick,” he protested.
“Well if you’re not thinking with your dick, and you’re still considering going over there, then I’m even more worried about you.” All traces of her earlier smirk slipped away, leaving behind a sincerity that he was fairly certain she didn’t show anyone but him. And maybe Josh, he allowed begrudgingly.
Eliot waved away her concern, ignoring the look she threw him. “How about instead of worrying about my thoroughly platonic relationship with Quentin, you help me worry about what outfits I should take to New York. I was thinking the lavender with the grey suit, or perhaps the burgandy —”
“You say that like you don’t already have both options packed just in case.”
He got through the rest of the afternoon without getting worked up about Quentin’s silence, because why would he be getting worked up that his non-boyfriend wasn’t answering his phone? He left the office at six, declined Pete’s offer of after work drinks, and headed home to the last of his packing, the bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm, and a growing irritation that Quentin still hadn’t replied to his messages.
Irritation was a lot easier to handle than concern.
His key was in the door to his apartment when he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket, and when he closed the door behind him and took his phone out, an embarrassing amount of relief flooded through him to see Quentin’s name on the screen.
Sorry. I’m okay. I just need a minute.
Setting the whiskey on the counter along with his wallet and keys, Eliot sank down on the couch, taking in the message. All of his earlier desire to berate him for ignoring him when they had an interstate trip planned the next day fled his mind, replaced with worry and relief in equal measure. His instinct had been right — something must have happened, and the only thing he wanted to know more than what it was, was whether Quentin was really okay.
Do you want me to come over?
The message was sent before he could second guess it, and he spent the next few minutes chewing on his lip as he waited for Quentin’s reply. His desire to just be where Quentin was, to make sure he knew that he had his support even if he didn’t want to tell him the details, was overwhelming and confusing and — now that he’d put it out there — felt a little ridiculous.
No more ridiculous than how quickly he lifted his phone again when he felt it buzz.
… yeah, so that’s the exact opposite of giving me a minute, but… That would be nice, actually.
Eliot smiled softly, surprised and pleased that Quentin hadn’t brushed him off. Whether Quentin wanted to talk about it or not, it felt good that he would let him be there for him. Pushing himself up from the couch, he grabbed his things from the kitchen counter again, and was halfway down the corridor when his phone vibrated with another message.
Maybe he wanted him to grab take out or something on the way. It was around that time. Already thinking ahead to the places he could stop at on the way, Eliot pressed on Quentin’s name to open the conversation.
Hold on. Penny’s here. I’ll txt you after.
Pressing send on the text message to Eliot, Quentin closed the front door and turned to see Penny setting the six pack on the coffee table in his lounge room and making himself comfortable on his couch. The heavy weight of anxiety that had lifted with Eliot’s ready offer of company had resettled in his gut, and he eyed Penny warily as he slowly made his way over to the armchair opposite him.
Penny had said that he wasn’t here to fight. His shoulders were tense, but he didn’t look like he wanted to argue. Pulling a beer from the six pack, Penny held it out to Quentin, who stared at it in confusion until he rolled his eyes. “Will you stop looking like I’m here to kick your dog or something.”
“Aren’t you?” Quentin said, begrudgingly reaching out to take the bottle.
Grimacing, Penny leaned back on the couch and took a mouthful. Like they were buddies just chilling out after a long day at work. “Are you okay?” he said after a long pause, and looked like he meant it.
Trying and failing to bite back his bitter laugh, Quentin drank from the bottle and then set it and his phone down on the coffee table. “Real great,” he said. So great that he’d spent the whole afternoon curled up on the other side of the couch from where Penny was sitting right now, trying to stop hating himself enough to reply to Julia and Eliot’s messages. He’d only found the energy to pick up his phone half an hour ago, and after a short exchange with Julia that didn’t actually resolve anything (J: I’m still mad at you. Are you okay? / Q: I’m sorry. I’m fine. / J: Good. Love you. Still mad.) he’d reached out to Eliot, trying to squash down the waves of guilt that he felt when he saw the messages and the missed call.
Penny frowned, obviously uncomfortable, and Quentin wished that that didn’t bother him. He felt more than enough of his own discomfort without feeling Penny’s on top of it.
His fingers tapping against the neck of his bottle, Penny glanced around the room, pausing when his eyes settled on something on the other side of the room. “Your Christmas tree looks good.”
Your… fucking Christmas tree? Quentin took a deep breath, forced the tension out of his shoulders with minimal success. “Can we just get to why you’re here?”
Taking another long drink, Penny leaned forward, setting the half-empty bottle on the coffee table between them and then resting his elbows on his knees. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them he looked at Quentin directly. “Alice and I were dicks to you today,” he said flatly. “I think we have been for a while. You…” He paused, looking upwards as he took a deep breath, and that hint of frustration was the most familiar he’d found Penny in years. “You were right. We were friends, and we fucked that up, and it’s shit that we haven’t been able to move past that. I don’t know what the hell bullshit is going on with you and Eliot, but I’m sorry for being an ass today.”
Conflicted, Quentin looked away. It couldn’t be that easy — except he knew that this wouldn’t be easy, not for Penny. Talking through his feelings wasn’t something that Penny had ever been comfortable with. “You know I didn’t set you up yesterday. Neither did Eliot.”
“I know,” Penny said reluctantly. He picked up his beer again, leaning back against the couch with an arm thrown out, a picture of indifference. Quentin saw straight through it. “It’s just hard, okay? To know what Alice and I did to you and have to look at you every day.”
“Maybe if she didn’t try and block me at every turn in the business that I started, it wouldn’t be so hard,” he said, the words coming out harsher than he’d intended but he couldn’t bring himself to care now that Penny was finally listening to him.
Or trying to, anyway. “It’s hard for her, too.”
He wished that he was beyond caring about what Alice was struggling with. He shoved that empathy down as far as it would go. “She’s the one making this hard.”
“The situation is making it hard,” Penny said. “Alice feels guilty every time she looks at you. She’s closing herself off so she doesn’t have to deal with the shitty thing the two of us did to you. That’s always been how she deals with things.”
“I know,” Quentin said pointedly. There had been a time where Quentin was the person who knew all of Alice’s habits, both good and bad. Just because Penny was the person closest to her now didn’t make those memories go away.
None of that made it any easier to deal with, particularly when he wasn’t in a position anymore to call her out on it without making things worse for himself.
Pressing his lips together, Penny shifted on the couch, turning his eyes back toward the Christmas tree. Quentin waited — he still wasn’t entirely sure what Penny was doing here, or what he wanted. He didn’t even know what he wanted. If there was an olive branch being extended somewhere, would he take it? Did it change anything?
He was just so goddamn tired of things the way they were.
Eventually, Penny sighed quietly, looking both rueful and reluctant as he turned back to Quentin. “I’ve been doing that too.”
A part of him recognised that how much it must have taken Penny to come over here and say that. Most of him still felt raw and exhausted and defensive after spending the afternoon afraid that his world was crumbling around him. “Yeah, no shit,” he muttered, pulling his legs up onto the chair and wrapping an arm around his knees.
Penny huffed, taking Quentin by surprise when he smiled wryly. “Look. I know it’s complicated, and you and Alice might be unfixable at this point, but you reminded me earlier today that we used to be friends, and… well, I’d kind of forgotten about that. It was easier to be pissed at you for existing than think about how I fucked you over.”
“Why are you here?” he asked flatly. He was done with trying to guess Penny’s point before he finally got around to it.
Draining the rest of his beer, Penny dropped his hands into his lap, looking down at the bottle as he turned it slowly. Quentin could practically see his skin itching with the urge to get up and leave up rather than put his feelings into words. He still knew Penny pretty well, too. “I guess I’m here to apologise for sleeping with your wife, and then for taking that out on you. Or something. I don’t know, don’t make a big deal about it or whatever.” He paused. “But I am. Sorry. And for earlier today. I guess we got carried away. But seriously dude, what the fuck is up with you and Eliot?”
That was more familiar. Typical of him to brush past the important part and then deflect away from anything close to vulnerability. Quentin ignored it, feeling even more off-kilter than before in the face of genuine sincerity. Years of hurt and anger and frustration told him not to trust it… but Penny had never been duplicitous, and he couldn’t think of a reason why he’d start now.
Stalling for time, Quentin finished the rest of his beer while Penny reached for a second. Okay, so they were really doing this — sorting their shit out over drinks. Back when they’d been friends, they’d done this more than once, although with much less communication and a lot more alcohol than the six pack that Penny had brought with him. Everything had felt so much easier then, before he’d met Alice.
But that was too harsh, wasn’t it? They’d had good times together, too. Those were even harder to remember than his history with Penny, but they were there, making every interaction with her since only the more bitter. Quentin eyed Penny thoughtfully, wondering at the way he’d called his relationship with Alice ‘unfixable’. It certainly felt that way from his side, but half an hour ago he never would have imagined having this conversation, either. “Does Alice know you’re here?”
Penny grimaced. “She thinks I’m an idiot. She said she doesn’t see the point in trying. I told her I don’t see the point in fighting with you just for the sake of it anymore.” He shrugged. “You can kick me out if you want. I would, if I were you. But I think you’re as over all of this as I am. So. Truce?”
He said it so simply. And maybe it was that simple. He’d never really considered before what reconciliation with Penny would look like — after he’d found him with Alice he’d held onto his anger with both hands, because it was a lot safer than the hurt that had threatened to overwhelm him every time he thought of the reality of the betrayal. That anger had changed over the years, turned into a dull constant rather than something with a sharp edge, but he was so tired of holding onto it.
And Penny was here, making an effort. Apologising. Looking like he was physically in pain trying to get the words out, but still.
Cautiously, Quentin nodded, breathing through the wave of complicated and conflicting emotions rising up inside his chest. He’d have to sift through them later, but for now he focused on the tentative hope that was rising to the surface. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Truce.”
A buzzing sound nearby caught his attention, and Quentin patted his pocket absently, frowning when he couldn’t feel his phone. Twisting in his seat, he found it jammed down between the cushion and the arm of the chair, having slipped out of the pocket of his sweatpants. Seeing both Eliot and Julia’s names on his screen, he tapped on Eliot’s name first.
Okay so definitely come over then?!
Seriously do you want me there?
Q is everything okay?
His guilt at making Eliot worry about him again because he hadn’t seen his messages mixed with the way his heart lifted at the idea of Eliot caring enough to worry, and he opened the conversation with Julia instead so he wouldn’t have to look at that blend of emotions too closely.
Um so Eliot txt me how much he should be worrying if Penny’s at your place so why the fuck is Penny at your place?
Also is your fake boyfriend supposed to care about your safety so much because it sounds like he cares about your safety a lot.
Julia’s messages had much the same effect as Eliot’s, for slightly different reasons. He felt his stomach dip at the way Julia called out the fact that he’d lied to her for the last few weeks, but the humour in her message gave him hope that things would be okay between them.
He didn’t even know when Julia and Eliot had exchanged numbers, but the thought of him messaging her to better gauge the situation made him smile probably more than it should have.
The knowledge that even without knowing what had happened today, Eliot wanted to make sure he was okay, spread warmth through him, settling him in a way that nothing else had tonight.
Realising that he was smiling dumbly at his phone, he gave himself a shake, glancing up at Penny before tapping out quick responses to both Eliot and Julia to let them know that he was okay. “Sorry. I told Eliot you were here and now he and Julia are freaking out about it.”
Penny was watching him thoughtfully. “Are you still going to New York tomorrow if your secret’s out?”
He was surprised that Penny knew about that — or knew that his booked vacation days were for his trip to New York with Eliot. It took him a few seconds to remember that the New York trip was in the contract that Penny and Alice had dug up from his emails.
Quentin considered him for a few seconds before deciding, fuck it — he still wasn’t sure how secure this white flag between them was, but he didn’t have much left to lose anymore. “It’s important for Eliot to get the promotion.” He thought about the upcoming few days, about sitting by Eliot’s side and pretending to be his boyfriend in front of more people that he didn’t know. Henry’s Christmas party and the family event at the ice skating rink hadn’t been as painful as he’d expected, but this felt different. This was a whole three days away, where he’d have to be socially on in high pressure situations to impress people who probably wouldn’t look twice at him if he wasn’t there on Eliot’s arm.
Three whole days of pretending to be in love with Eliot.
That felt like a different challenge than it had when he’d first agreed to do this.
“A free trip to New York doesn’t sound so bad,” Penny mused.
“Hmm,” Quentin said noncommittally. “Although the last thing I feel like doing after today is going and faking a relationship with someone who —” He bit back the words, surprised by what had been about to spill from his tongue.
Penny didn’t even have the decency to look surprised. “With someone who you actually give a shit about?”
“No,” he said, to Penny and to himself. “He’s just… a good friend, I suppose.” Penny didn’t look convinced, but he brushed it off. He didn’t need to convince Penny that there wasn’t anything between them but friendship, and this deal they’d made.
And the way Eliot had supported him yesterday, and tried to look out for him today, and the warmth that spread through him every time he thought about those things —
Clearing his throat, he shook the thought out of his head and reached out for the fresh beer that Penny offered him.
They finished the six pack right around the time things started to feel awkward again, and Quentin was grateful when Penny announced that he’d head off so Quentin could pack for tomorrow. Quentin didn’t mention the suitcase that was already almost fully packed in his bedroom. It was still early, but he was exhausted, and the next few days promised to only be marginally less stressful than today had been.
He walked Penny to the door and then hesitated beside him before opening it and stepping back to let him pass. His mind stumbled over all of the different versions of what he wanted to say before he settled on, “Thank you.” Penny turned back to him, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “For coming over. I’m sorry if it causes any problems with you and Alice.”
Penny shrugged. “That’s between me and Alice.” He paused, something complicated flickering over his face before it was hidden once more. “It was good to catch up,” he said, as though anything tonight had been as simple as that.
Nodding to him, Penny turned on his heel and headed for his car, parked in Quentin’s driveway. Quentin waited until he’d pulled out onto the road before he closed his front door, leaning against it heavily and rubbing his hands over his face.
“What the fuck was that?” he said aloud to his empty house.
He still wasn’t entirely sure, but he was willing to hope, just a little, that this was a change toward good things.
Eliot had poured another two fingers of whiskey and brought the glass to his lips before he remembered that his last glass was going to be his last one. Grimacing, he took a sip anyway, and set the glass aside where he’d have to reach for it.
He’d gotten through the last two hours not-watching Netflix and drinking just enough to take the edge off of his anxiety without having so much that he wasn’t able to drive if he had to. He’d messaged Julia when it had become apparent that he wasn’t going to be hearing back from Quentin straight away, and had ended up calling her when she’d replied with just oh shit.
His heart had dropped into a lead ball in his stomach when she’d told him what Alice and Penny had done. He’d been on his feet and ready to walk out the front door again when Julia had talked him out of it, telling him that Quentin knew how to look after himself and if he’d told Eliot not to come then he should respect that.
Which was complete and utter bullshit, but… also maybe a little bit true, and he didn’t want to make things worse for Quentin if he rocked up while he was having it out with Penny.
It took everything in him not to head over there anyway.
Somehow, instead, he’d ended up telling Julia the bare bones truth of his relationship with Quentin. She’d stayed quiet through his explanation, his assurance that Quentin had never meant to hurt her, all the while wondering if he was overstepping by speaking on Quentin’s behalf. Floundering in her silence, he joked that at least she didn’t have to worry about him hurting Quentin like she’d warned him against when they were out building snowmen, and he’d been trying to figure out her response ever since. You’re as big an idiot as he is.
The vibration of his phone on his chest startled him out of his thoughts, and he lifted it quickly to his ear when he saw Quentin’s name on the screen. Scrambling for his remote, he muted the TV. “Q?”
“Hey,” Quentin said, his voice quiet through the phone, and Eliot let his head fall against the back of his couch, a whole afternoon and evening’s tension seeping out of him with one word. “So, um. It’s been a day.”
"Sounds like it," Eliot said, his relief at hearing Quentin’s voice moderated by his worry about him, all the stronger after finding out exactly what that day had entailed. "Do we start with whether you survived Penny, or what he and Alice did this morning, or maybe the fact that oops, Julia told me what happened at the office this morning."
He heard something indistinguishable on the other end of the line, and then Quentin's voice was a little louder in his ear. "Is she okay? She replied to my texts earlier but I think that was only because you messaged her —"
"Q," Eliot said calmly, trying to breathe some of that down the line to Quentin. "Julia's fine, or she's going to be fine. Let her be mad about it, and then she'll listen to you. I promise. How are you? Because if you’re not at least eighty percent okay right now, I’m gonna need you to give me Penny’s address so I don’t have to bother Julia again tonight."
He heard Quentin give a weak little laugh through the phone, and decided against telling him that he wasn’t joking.
“I…” Quentin took a deep breath. “Alice and Penny hacked my emails and leaked the contract. I, um. I might have gone off at them about it, and then went home to hide and feel sorry for myself and pretend that the outside world didn’t exist for a while. I’m sorry I flaked on you this afternoon, that was pretty shitty of me.”
“It’s fine, Q, you don’t have to apologise.”
“Yeah, well.” He paused. “I am, though. Sorry. For making you worry, but… but it means a lot that you did.”
There was a lump in his throat as big as his fist, and Eliot swallowed it down before he spoke. “What happened with Penny?”
Quentin cleared his throat. “Right. Um, well. He came over to apologise.”
“He what now?”
He listened intently as Quentin told him about Penny’s offer of a truce and his apology. He sounded both calm and a little bewildered as he detailed how they’d talked their shit out, how he didn’t really expect anything to change with Alice, but that it felt like a huge weight off his shoulders to know that he wasn’t being attacked from this side, at least.
It sounded like a lot, and out of nowhere. But he remembered how Penny had clammed up yesterday whenever he’d mentioned Quentin. “Do you trust that he means it?” he asked as soon as Quentin finished.
Quentin was quiet for a few long seconds. “I want to?” he said, sounding uncertain. “I don’t know that I can just… trust him, after everything that’s happened, but… but what do I have to lose from giving it a shot? Either he’s messing with me or he’s not, but Eliot, I’m so tired of fighting with them.”
“I know you are,” he said, both hoping that Penny was being genuine and trying not to sink into his doubt that this person who he barely knew might be manipulating Quentin in some way. He had to trust that he knew what he was doing. “Are you okay?”
He huffed a laugh, drawing a sad smile from Eliot. It was a dumb question, he knew, but still. “I think so? I just feel drained, I think, like I could sleep for about five years. At least the flight isn’t too early tomorrow.”
Reaching over to the coffee table, Eliot picked up his glass and looked down into the amber liquid, swirling it a few times before he lifted it to his lips and drained it in one mouthful. The twist in his stomach didn’t ease, but he barrelled on anyway. “You don’t have to come to New York,” he said, the words heavy on his tongue. He would explain it, somehow. He’d get Margo to help him figure out a story that didn’t paint either of them badly, and he’d just have to hope that they didn’t think any differently of him when he showed up to the party tomorrow evening alone. He tried not to think about how he’d been looking forward to the trip and, in particular, spending more time with Quentin. “I don’t want to put you through any more of this. I know it’s not the type of thing that you’d actually enjoy, and if today’s been so terrible… It’s okay, if you want to stay home.”
Quentin was quiet for so long that Eliot started to think he wasn’t going to answer him at all. “I’m going to New York,” he said eventually, his voice soft. “I said I’d do it, and… and I want to do something good for someone else, even if I can’t manage to hold it together for myself.”
“I mean it,” he said, firmer now. “I want to go. That — ugh, that came out really maudlin, didn’t it, but what I mean is… I want to help you with this, if I can. If nothing else, getting away for a few days can’t be a bad thing, right? Just… let me suck up to some big wigs for you and convince them that you’re the person who deserves this job.”
“I am the person who deserves this job,” Eliot said, but he was smiling.
So was Quentin, if the warmth of his voice was anything to go by. “I know that.” He paused again, and Eliot heard shuffling on the other end of the line. “I’m going to get something to eat and then have an early night, I think. It’s been a long day. But…” His voice dropped a little. “Thank you for offering to come over. And just for checking up on me. It means a lot.”
A big part of him wanted to ask if he still wanted him to come around, except his own ridiculous need to confirm with his own eyes that Quentin was okay wasn’t more important than the fact that Quentin had only just seconds ago told him that he was going to bed soon. Tipping his head back, Eliot smiled grimly at the ceiling, struggling to get a grip on himself. “What else are fake boyfriends for?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them, and more so when Quentin went quiet again. He wanted to take the words back.
Because it didn’t feel so fake anymore.
He hadn’t realised until today, when he’d spent so long worrying about him, and the relief he’d felt at hearing his voice tonight. Or maybe yesterday, when he’d been filled with so much pride at watching Quentin succeed. No matter when it was, he couldn’t hide it from himself any longer. He was falling for Quentin.
Falling, or fallen. Either way, he was fucked. He couldn’t tell him. Quentin didn’t feel the same way. And besides, they had a deal. A contract. A promise.
“Yeah,” Quentin said eventually, breaking him out of his thoughts. He couldn’t have known what Eliot was thinking, but it felt like an agreement regardless. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Right.” He acknowledged the fleeting thought that just because he didn’t have to drive tonight didn’t mean that a hangover tomorrow was a good idea, but that didn’t stop him from pouring another measure of whiskey into his glass. “Sleep well, Q.”
“You, too. Night, El.”
Eliot bid him goodnight, his traitorous heart full.
Startled, Quentin tore his eyes away from the detailing on the huge crystal chandelier in the middle of the foyer and turned to see Eliot approaching him, two keycards held between his index and middle fingers. He did his best to return the easy smile that he gave him, and knew from the crease in Eliot’s brow that he hadn’t succeeded.
“Ready,” Quentin said firmly, forcing his smile wider. It was the least he could do, after Eliot — or Eliot’s work, at least — had flown him to New York and paid for his accommodation.
All for the purpose of tricking them into thinking that he and Eliot were in love and living their best lives together.
It took a great effort to keep that smile on his face as he reached out to take one of the keycards. If the doubtful look Eliot sent him was anything to go by, he still didn’t believe it for a second, but there was no way he could tell him the worry that had been echoing through his mind since their phone call last night.
What are fake boyfriends for? He didn’t know why Eliot’s comment had bothered him so much. That’s all they were, right? Fake boyfriends, and maybe friends. No, definitely friends. There wasn’t anyone else that he felt this himself with, this comfortable with, except for maybe Julia. He had a feeling that it was the same for Eliot, and he liked the way that made him feel.
Maybe he was just tired of all the pretend. Especially after yesterday, after how it had felt for everyone to find out… after how it had felt to see Julia’s judging and pitying eyes on him. He would feel better after he spoke to her about it properly. He’d feel better after this trip, after they wooed Eliot’s bosses, he got the promotion, and then they could have a perfectly amicable breakup and remain friends afterwards.
Except that didn’t feel right either.
Maybe that’s what happens when you lie to everyone close to you for weeks. Nothing feels right anymore.
“Hey,” Eliot said, fingers brushing his arm as they stepped into the elevator. He turned to look at him as the doors slid closed. “What’s going on in there?” he asked, gesturing to Quentin’s head and finally drawing a real, albeit rueful, smile out of him.
“Sorry,” he murmured. “I guess I’ve been terrible company since you picked me up this morning.” He hadn’t quite figured out how to do the small talk thing today, his brain caught in various levels of maudlin. “I’ll get it together before tonight, I promise.”
Eliot looked at him strangely. “I’m not worried about tonight. Tonight’s going to be fine, Q. No matter what happens. Even if what happens is you staying in with room service and the TV —”
“I didn’t come to New York to sit in the room,” he said firmly, rolling his eyes even as he appreciated how much Eliot was sticking to his offer to let Quentin pull out at any point.
“But you can,” Eliot said, looking at him squarely. The elevator dinged, the doors sliding open, but Eliot didn’t move. “I meant what I said last night. None of this is worth it if you’re feeling less than good about it.”
Quentin couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Of course I’m feeling less than good about it. But it’s just the party tonight, and then lunch tomorrow. Then back to the real world.” His grin, sardonic as it was, slipped from his face. “Time to face the consequences.”
Sighing, Eliot took the handle of his suitcase and slipped his other arm through Quentin’s. “Well, first we have two all expenses paid nights in New York, so let’s live in the moment for tonight at least, shall we?”
Wishing he could have even a fraction of Eliot’s positivity, he let himself be dragged along with him. When he remembered that much of Eliot’s positivity was a blatant challenge to the universe, he took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.
This wasn’t easy for Eliot, either. If Eliot could put on a brave face, then so could he.
Eliot opened the door to their room and then stepped back to let him enter first, flourishing his arm dramatically. Hiding his smile, Quentin stepped inside, and then let out a little laugh when he looked around the room. “Are you kidding me right now?”
The room was regal and elegant in cream and gold. Or, rather, the suite. He stepped into the sitting room, letting go of his suitcase to turn around and take in the space. He caught sight of the bedroom, opened to the sitting room, and paused at the sight of the bed — huge, and singular.
Which made sense, since as far as whoever booked this for them thought that they were together.
The sound of the door closing behind him shook him out of his thoughts, which was a very good thing because he absolutely should not be thinking about how Eliot’s face might soften in his sleep. He turned to watch Eliot stride into the room, his eyes appreciative but not surprised as he glanced around their home for the next three days. “Impressed?” he said with a smirk as he walked past him and straight into the bedroom.
“I’m pretty sure this place costs my entire week’s wages for one night,” Quentin said, following him slowly.
Huffing a quiet laugh, Eliot lifted his suitcase up onto the bed and immediately set to unpacking. “You’re probably not wrong,” he said, lifting at least four garment bags out of his suitcase and heading into what looked like a walk in closet, because of course there was a walk in closet.
“Eliot, there is a chandelier in the sitting room.”
“Sometimes working for the one company that will have you has its perks,” Eliot said, stepping back out into the bedroom, and Quentin felt a twinge of apprehension at the dark joke before he saw Eliot’s grin. Sliding past Quentin, his eyes lit up, and Quentin followed his gaze to the bottle of champagne sitting in an ice bucket on the counter behind him. Eliot walked over to it, plucking the card from the counter and giving it a quick once over before picking up the bottle. “‘Eliot and Quentin. Enjoy the champagne, and the room. We look forward to seeing you tonight. Xoxo Idri and Henry.’”
“They did not write xoxo.”
“How about you just let me pretend they did, and in return I’ll let you have some.”
Setting his suitcase on the bed opposite Eliot’s — he supposed those were their sides of the bed sorted — he walked over to join him, pulling the two glasses closer as Eliot twisted the bottle, cork tight in hand. “My name’s on that card too,” he pointed out.
With a flair and an expertise that he was coming to expect from everything Eliot did, he filled both glasses and passed one to Quentin. Setting his shoulders just so, Eliot lifted his chin and raised his glass, the effect ruined only slightly by the smile tugging at his lips. “To Eliot and Quentin, and their perfect relationship,” he said, and then, with equal sincerity, “and to you and I, for putting up with this whole farce that some brilliant but foolish person came up with four weeks ago.”
Rolling his eyes, Quentin lifted the glass to his lips to hide his smile. “I’m going to — um, to get ready,” he said, looking around the room. “Are you okay if I use the bathroom first?” Eliot waved him on, topping up his own glass, and Quentin dug his toiletry bag out of his suitcase and headed into the bathroom.
It wasn’t until he was shaved, showered, and blow-dried that he realised that his clothes were still in his suitcase in the bedroom.
Opening the door a fraction, he peeked out through the gap and, when he couldn’t see Eliot in his narrow view, cautiously stepped out into the bedroom, his fingers clutching tightly to the towel wrapped around his waist. He heard a quiet noise from the sitting room, and tried to keep his own movements muted as he crept through the bedroom and around to his side of the bed to sift through his suitcase for his clothes. Eliot’s suitcase was gone, his clothing presumably packed away in the closet, his toiletry bag sitting on the bed as he waited to get ready.
Making sure that his towel was secure, he flipped open his suitcase and took out his garment bag — which was, in itself, less glamorous than Eliot’s. Laying it out on the bed, he unzipped it, freezing when the zipper sounded louder than he expected.
He held his breath, and then cursed when he heard Eliot’s voice from the other room. “Quentin? Are you done in the bathroom?”
“Just a minute,” he called out, pulling his trousers off the hanger with one hand while he grabbed a pair of clean underwear from his suitcase with the other. His face was burning as he made a dash back for the bathroom, his clothes in hand, not daring to look through to the sitting room to see if Eliot was watching him.
He emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, trying not to feel self conscious about the fact that, once again, he’d left his shirt in his suitcase. Eliot had relocated to the bed, stretched out with his hands behind his head, and was watching him with amusement as he walked around to the other side of the room, shoulders stiff. “Everything okay?” Eliot asked, his eyebrows high and his smile wide as he stood up and turned toward him.
“Yep,” Quentin said brightly as he found his shirt, trying very hard not to feel self conscious as he slipped his arms into the sleeves and quickly tugged the panels closed.
“Can I use the bathroom now?”
God, can you stop sounding like you’re enjoying this so much? Quentin felt himself flushing again, and determinedly kept his eyes on the bed between them. For some reason, he was fighting the urge to smile. “Mhmm, all yours.”
Quentin unpacked the rest of his suitcase as Eliot disappeared into the bathroom, and then curled up on the couch in the sitting room with a book as he waited for Eliot. He had trouble getting his mind to focus, feeling exhilarated from Eliot’s teasing. The frazzled blend of humour and embarrassment had only just given way to the story when he heard the water turn off.
He glanced up at the sound of the bathroom door opening, and felt his mouth go dry as Eliot stepped into the bedroom. A towel hung low on his hips, his curls loose and dripping onto his shining skin. He only caught a glimpse of him before he moved further into the bedroom, outside of Quentin’s view.
His elbow slipped against the arm of the chair, and it was only then that he realised that he’d been leaning sideways.
But who could blame him though, right? It wasn’t Quentin’s fault if he thought that it was appropriate to walk around their shared space with nothing but a towel on. Or a thin robe, he thought numbly, as Eliot rounded the corner into the sitting room. He’d found his underwear, at least, and a red and gold robe hung open on his shoulders, leaving his pale chest in easy view, the defined line of his collarbone and the light dusting of dark hair framed by the robe.
It looked like silk. Quentin wondered if it was softer than his skin.
The robe moved, and Quentin tore his eyes away hurriedly. Wishing he could disappear into the couch at the thought of being caught staring, he took a deep breath as subtly as possible, keeping his eyes firmly on Eliot’s face. Thankfully, Eliot’s gaze was on his book as he tied the robe loosely around him.
Eliot nodded to the book before turning to pour himself another glass of champagne from the almost empty bottle. “Why am I not surprised to see a book in your hands?”
Oh that’s fine, we can talk about normal things as if I weren’t just staring at your half naked body ten seconds ago. He wished for another drink for himself, or a whole bottle. But Eliot was grinning at him, and he felt brave. He returned the smirk, closing his copy of The Secret Sea with his finger tucked inside to mark his page. “I’m sorry, I had to do something to occupy myself while you spent half an hour in the shower.”
Eliot laughed, the sound loud and warm. “Touche. But although this comes naturally,” he said, gesturing dramatically toward himself, “it also comes with a touch of effort.” With another sip and a wink, Eliot turned on his heel and disappeared back into the bathroom, wine glass in hand.
Alone once more, Quentin fiddled idly with his tie, wondering what more effort he could put into making himself look nice. His jacket and his shoes were laid out for when they left, but aside from that he was ready to go. Unless he should do something with his hair? He ran his fingers through it, wondering if he should tie it back. He was fairly sure Eliot was going to spend at least another half hour making sure he looked effortlessly beautiful, while he would just look… effortless.
Henry's party two and a half weeks ago had been about the fanciest event he'd ever been to, and that was just at his house. He had no idea what he was walking into here.
Except that, without a doubt, Poppy and Todd were both going to be more prepared than he was.
Trying to push down his rising anxiety, Quentin opened the Fillory book, trying to find some comfort in the familiar words, but the thought of either making a fool of himself, or standing there quiet and awkward all night so that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself, or just being plain boring wouldn’t leave him alone, his thoughts jumping from one to the other in a rotation of dread.
He tried to push the thoughts away, tried to distract himself. He’d been rereading the opening paragraph of chapter seven for probably twenty minutes when a curse from the bathroom broke him out of his downward spiral.
“Eliot?” When he heard another curse, quieter this time, Quentin tucked his bookmark between the pages and pushed himself to his feet, leaving the book on the couch as he headed toward the bathroom. One hand on the doorframe, he tried not to think about what various states of undress Eliot might be in as he peeked inside.
He was fully clothed, or almost. Quentin took in his slacks, the same dark maroon as the waistcoat and jacket he’d spied in the closet, and knew he’d never be able to pull off anything like that. His navy shirt was tucked into his pants, his collar up, and his tie hung loose around his neck.
His hands gripped at the edge of the vanity, his head bowed, and when after a few seconds he straightened and looked at his reflection in the mirror, Quentin saw his irritated scowl. He opened his mouth to ask if he was okay, but closed it again as Eliot took an ends of his tie in each hand and started to twist them in short, sharp movements.
After a few seconds, Eliot’s hands froze. Closing his eyes, he took a long, deep breath in and then let it out slowly, pulling on one end of his tie as he did so until it hung loose again.
“Need some help?” Quentin asked, perhaps unwisely.
Eliot’s eyes darted up to catch him in the mirror, and Quentin watched as his jaw clenched before he relaxed himself with visible effort. “I know how to tie a tie,” he said flatly.
He’s nervous, Quentin realised, and berated himself for getting so caught up in his own insecurities that he hadn’t considered how Eliot might be feeling about tonight. He didn’t just have to show up and be charming, or try to, anyway. Eliot’s career — his future — would be directly influenced by how everything went tonight.
That reminder should have made him freak out all the more, but instead Quentin felt steadier than he had all day. Eliot had done whatever he could at every turn to make this easy for him, to make him feel good about himself and like he wasn’t going to fail completely at this. The least he could do now was to repay the favour.
Ignoring Eliot’s easy dismissal, Quentin stepped into the bathroom. “I’m sure you know how to tie that fifteen or so ways more than I could,” he said, holding his hand out for the tie and holding Eliot’s gaze in the mirror. “But let me help you anyway.”
Eliot stared at him for a few long seconds before, wordlessly, he turned and draped the tie over Quentin’s waiting hand. He hadn’t been sure that he would actually let him help, but Quentin held back both his surprise and the smile that pulled at the corner of his mouth as he reached up to slide the tie around Eliot’s neck. “These colours look good on you,” he said, pulling on one end of the tie to get the length that he wanted.
“Of course they do,” Eliot said with a scoff, but when Quentin glanced up he was sure that he was hiding a smile of his own.
He didn’t rush it — he knew how to tie a tie well and straight, but an irrational part of him wanted to give Eliot this little bit of confidence in him, that he could help him with this, that he could help him tonight. It was silly and illogical, but he felt proud of himself as much for the way that Eliot’s shoulders relaxed as he did for the even knot at his neck.
He grinned up at Eliot as he adjusted the knot, his joke about being good at some things dying on his lips when he realised Eliot was staring at him with a small smile on his face. Had they always been standing so close? Instead of turning to look at his reflection, Eliot’s hand lifted from where it had hung at his side, and Quentin stilled at the brush of warm fingers against his as Eliot checked the shape of the knot. He pulled his hands away quickly, not wanting Eliot to think that he’d touched him like that on purpose.
Except Eliot had been the one who’d touched him.
But he had already turned back toward the mirror. Quentin searched the reflection of his face, looking for any of the emotions that had flashed across his face before he’d pulled away, but the arch of his eyebrow, the amused quirk of his mouth, had replaced whatever indistinguishable something that had been in his eyes. “See?” he said. “It’s like it takes no effort at all.”
His tone was light, teasingly dismissive, and completely at odds with whatever that was that Quentin had felt between them just a few seconds ago. Quentin forced a smile, unsteady but not wanting Eliot to see it until he could figure out why his joking manner had thrown him so much. “Yeah, um. Funny how that happens.”
Eliot paused midway through adjusting the fall of his curls, his eyes catching Quentin's in the mirror again. The corner of his mouth turned up ruefully. "Thank you," he said, his voice deep and solemn and, well, Quentin hadn't meant to make a big deal about it but the acknowledgment felt really, really good anyway. "I — oh wait," he said, his eyebrows shooting up.
Turning, he put his hand flat on Quentin's arm, guiding him aside a step so he could move past him and back into the bedroom. Quentin followed him curiously, watching through the door as he went into the walk-in closet and opened up his suitcase. When he straightened and turned back to face him, he had a small box in his hand. "Speaking of thank you, I have something for you."
Quentin stared at the box. It was small and flat, three or four inches wide with a purple ribbon wrapped around it. He tore his eyes away to look at Eliot, whose self-satisfied smile softened when Quentin met his eyes, bewildered. "Eliot…"
"It's not a big deal," Eliot said quickly. "Except that everything you've done has been a big deal, for me. The fact that you're still here, after your end of the plan fell apart —"
"Of course I'm still here."
Eliot shook his head. "You say 'of course', but it is a generous thing you're doing for me. Everything you've done for the last few weeks. I think you've even won Margo over," he said, and grinned at the surprised, nervous laughter that bubbled up out of Quentin's chest. His smile faded, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. "But more than that… Despite this whole game, this has been the first year in a very long time that I've actually enjoyed Christmas, and that’s because of you.” Eliot paused, and Quentin was swept up in the sincerity in his eyes before he seemed to give a shake and he smiled again. “So, thank you for agreeing to do this ridiculous thing with me for the last few weeks.”
It was so much of the same things that Quentin had been feeling, particularly for the last few days. He smoothed his thumb over the loop in the ribbon. “I didn’t get you anything,” he said uncertainly.
“Quentin.” Eliot sounded exasperated, and when Quentin glanced up at him he found him rolling his eyes fondly. “Just open the damn gift.”
His stomach full of butterflies, Quentin untied the ribbon and opened the box. Inside sat a pair of silver cufflinks in the shape of rams heads. Stunned, he looked up at Eliot again, who was watching him with a smile barely hidden by the way his teeth pulled at his lower lip. “Is this… like…”
“Like Ember and Umber? I don’t know if that’s what the store had in mind, but that’s what I thought of when I saw them.”
Quentin shook his head slowly. Eliot had seen these, and thought of him, and had bought them for him because they’d reminded him of something Quentin cared about. It was too much, the swelling in his chest so strong it might sweep him away. “El, I can’t —”
“Just —” Pulling a cufflink free of the box, Eliot took one of Quentin’s hands. He turned it over, adjusting the fall of the sleeve of his shirt before slipping the cufflink through the hole. His hand was warm as it brushed over his. “There,” he said, once he’d pinned the second one in place. “Do you like them? Please tell me you like them.”
His heart in his throat, Quentin watched Eliot as he fussed with his sleeve. “Yeah,” he managed, the word thick on his tongue. And he did — they were perfect, but more than the gift itself, he was overwhelmed with the thought that Eliot had put into finding something that he would like, that he didn’t think it was silly, that he looked so happy for surprising him with this. He touched lightly at the grooves in the silver, the curve of the ram’s horn. “I love them. You didn’t ha—” He cut off when Eliot’s eyebrows shot up again in warning. “Thank you,” he said instead, and Eliot’s smile widened. “Eliot, thank you.”
He wished he had something to give Eliot in return, wanted to give him everything. Eliot’s fingers had circled his wrist. He wanted to slip his hand down and thread their fingers together. He wanted to tell him how good it felt to be seen, and to be liked anyway, and he wanted to tell Eliot that he saw him, too.
Instead, he dropped his hand.
His stomach twisted nervously at the only thing that came to mind. “Maybe I do have something for you,” he said slowly. “But… I don’t want you to use it.”
Eliot looked at him quizzically. “Mmm, that sounds useful.”
He was worried — that Eliot would be upset that he hadn’t told him, that he’d use the information even though he didn’t need it. “I mean it. I… When we were at the ice skating rink, Todd let it slip to me that Poppy’s been married before. Twice. Which — is fine, whatever, marriages fall apart.” Eliot was staring at him, his eyes wide, his lips parted in surprise. “And for the record, it’s shit that she feels like she has to hide this, just like it’s bullshit that you need to hide the fact that you’re single. But you should know that you’re not the only one hiding things for this promotion.”
He couldn't tell if the small, disbelieving laugh Eliot gave was the good kind or not. “Quentin —”
“I didn’t say anything before,” Quentin said, interrupting him before he could tell him that he was disappointed, “because I know that you’re the best person for the job. And you shouldn’t say anything either, not unless you have to. You don’t need it, El. You deserve the promotion on your own merit. Not because you’ve outplayed your adversary, or because you’re in a relationship, or because Bigby seems to like me for whatever reason. But because you’ve earned it.”
He watched Eliot’s throat move in a swallow, his mouth twisting for a moment before settling into a hesitant smile. His eyes were shining, and Quentin’s chest tightened in response. “I don’t know how you have so much faith in me,” Eliot said, his voice deep and quiet and full.
And it was obvious to him, so obvious that Eliot could do anything he put his mind to, that he was brilliant, unstoppable. He looked at Eliot and yes, he saw the things Eliot saw in himself, the past hurt weighing him down, his need to be accepted rivaling Quentin’s own. But none of that outshone his wit, his humour, his kindness, his fierce loyal heart.
Eliot was still looking at him like he couldn’t believe he was real, and Quentin felt an answering rush of warmth through him. Just like yesterday, when talking to Eliot had been the only thing to make him feel settled. And earlier, when his instinct to help Eliot had taken over his own fears. Quentin saw something real in Eliot’s eyes, and he was pretty sure that he would do anything, in that moment, if only Eliot keep looking at him like that.
Before he could try and find words to put to the feeling unravelling inside him, Eliot glanced down at his watch. "We need to go," he said, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder before he turned and headed back into the closet. Quentin fled to the other side of the bed, taking what small escape he could.
Sitting on the edge of the mattress, he took deep breaths to calm his racing heart as he slipped on his shoes. What was that? He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts as he pulled his laces tight.
Terrifying. That's what it was. That full feeling in his chest wasn't going away, not with the sounds of Eliot moving around the room behind him, not with the memory of that soft soft soft look in his eyes when he smiled at him.
But that was ridiculous. Eliot didn't feel anything towards him, not the type of something to make his head swim and his breath catch. And it didn't matter if he did, because Quentin didn't feel that way about him either.
Liar, whispered his heart.
Nodding his thanks to the bartender, Eliot turned, nursing his drink in one hand while he crossed the other over his chest and leaned against the bar. He knew that it wasn't kind to leave Quentin alone for too long, but he just needed a minute.
It wasn't that he was having a bad time. He was nervous, sure, but tonight was just the social event of the trip — tomorrow's lunch was when he had to convince Henry and Idri that he was worthy of the position. Tonight was just about making them like him, and he had never really been worried about that part. But he couldn't think, not while having to perform cheerful and charming in so many directions, and his head had been spinning since before he’d left the hotel room.
Quentin had no idea how much it meant to him, that he believed in him so completely. It wasn't like with everyone here tonight, where he could put his best foot forward and know that he was likable, at least on the surface. Quentin saw deeper than that, he knew his demons and his failings and he smiled at him anyway and said "I believe in you."
He didn't have that faith in himself. Could he pull through tomorrow without using every advantage that he had? He didn't know, not for sure.
Was it too big a risk?
What would Quentin think of him if he told them?
Did he care enough to chance it?
He felt sick to his stomach just at the thought of the choice, let alone dealing with whatever repercussions that he would have to face.
He didn't begrudge Poppy keeping her previous marriages a secret — he was lying for the same reasons. The knowledge that she would use that against him if she found out that his relationship with Quentin was a sham didn't help him make up his mind either way.
The earnestness on Quentin's face when he'd told him not to use the information shouldn't have weighed his decision, and yet...
He took a sip from his drink, fighting the urge to down the whole thing and then two more. He couldn’t drink this away, not with so many eyes on him tonight. He considered calling Margo, but he already knew that she’d tell him to use whatever he needed to. He wanted to pull Quentin away from the others, talk it through with him, but he was pretty sure he knew what he would say, too. One vote for, one against.
He watched Quentin through the crowd, standing with Bigby, Zelda, Harriet, her assistant, and Idri himself. He should be over there. The whole point of this trip was to get Idri on his side, and he should take the opportunity to have both the managing partner of the New York office and his right hand woman practically alone before they moved on to mingle with the other guests. And keeping a good relationship with Harriet was always worth it too — Zelda’s daughter might work at a different firm, but that didn’t make her any less an important connection.
Harriet signed something at Quentin, and Eliot smiled when Quentin laughed, wishing he could hear the sound of it from across the room.
“The Eliot Waugh I know would never bring a boy with him to a party.” Turning his head, he found Marina with her elbow on the bar beside him, eyeing Quentin across the crowd. Great. After a few seconds she glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised skeptically. “He’s a pretty prop, I suppose. Mama Fogg seems to like him.”
Humming noncommittally, Eliot sipped from his glass to avoid replying straight away. He usually enjoyed Marina’s snark and her attitude, but it felt like lead in his stomach to have it directed at Quentin. He knew better than to let her see it, though. She’d only been at the firm for a year and a half, but already she was a senior associate and well on her way to the promotion that Eliot was fighting for this year. He’d heard a rumour that she’d forced out Pickwick, a long suffering employee of the New York office, in order to make way for her to step up, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was true. Marina had dirt on everybody in both branches, and knew how to use it — and how to keep it quiet — in order to get exactly what she needed.
“Much prettier than the woman you brought to the mid year soiree,” he said, hoping to distract her from Quentin. “What was her name again? I thought Pete was going to cry when you showed up with her.”
Rolling her eyes, Marina downed her drink in one go. “You fuck a guy once, and he moons over you for a year. At least good ole Henry didn’t decide to bring him to this.”
He didn’t miss that she changed the topic just as easily as he had, but he was happy to follow her lead. He glanced at her skeptically. “Pete? As partner? Please. No, you’ll just have to wait for the next time you have to work together. Maybe over a nice dinner and a bottle of wine.”
“I would rather step on a rusty nail,” she said cheerfully. “Repeatedly.”
She gestured to the bartender, and it was only then that he realised that he’d finished his drink. He set his empty glass on the bar and took the fresh one. Staring down into the amber liquid, he let himself entertain the thought that had been pulling at him since Marina had approached him. It would be the easiest thing in the world to tell her about Poppy’s previous marriages. She would see straight through him, would know that he wasn’t just passing gossip, would know that it would benefit him greatly, but he was sure that she could find a way to use that to her own advantage as well. Worst case scenario, he’d owe her a favour, and she could let slip to Henry and Idri that Poppy didn’t have the same antiquated view of family values that they stood by.
Quentin thought that he was better than that. He wanted to be better than that.
Maybe he wasn’t. And if that was the only way he could get the partnership…
Looking across the room, he found Quentin already watching him. His face lit up when he saw that he had Eliot’s attention, looking only mildly panicked at being left alone with Eliot’s bosses for so long. He tilted his head as though to say ‘come over’.
All he wanted in that moment was to be able to walk across the room to stand by Quentin’s side, to take his hand or put his arm around him and be able to say this man is here with me because he wants to be. To be able to take him out to a party or to dinner or home to his apartment, just because they wanted to and not due to some charade.
“Looks like you’ve been summoned,” Marina said wryly.
“Mmm,” he said, instead of the words that lingered on the tip of his tongue. Todd is Poppy’s third husband. She’s divorced twice over. Fear that he wasn’t good enough mixed with the fear of the person that he was if he spoke up. He inhaled slowly, wishing that weight in his chest would subside. “Don’t drink the bar dry without me,” he said, and ignored the curious look she threw him at the tightness in his voice.
Quentin’s relief was barely hidden when Eliot joined him a few seconds later, but he was still too polite to glance away from Harriet for more than a moment. Her assistant — Kyle? Kevin? No, Kenny — was watching her as well, looking relaxed with his hands clasped in front of him, smiling as he interpreted for her as he had done for as long as Eliot had known her. Eliot put his hand on Quentin’s back, a comfort and an apology for staying away for so long, and nodded hello to Idri and Zelda, but didn’t want to interrupt Harriet.
Idri had no such qualms. Maybe he’d heard this story before. Harriet paid him no mind as Idri put his hand out for Eliot to shake, his grip firm. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Eliot.”
“I’m grateful for the invitation,” he said, as though it were as simple as that. They both knew why he was here. “I see you’ve already met Quentin.”
“Indeed,” Idri said, and Eliot felt the relief of the warm approval in his voice through every inch of him. “Bigby introduced us not long ago. I understand she’s quite fond of him already.”
He glanced at Quentin, who was clearly trying not to smile as he asked a question of Harriet. “As am I,” he said, thrilling at the colour that touched Quentin’s cheeks.
Harriet, it appeared, was telling them about a friend of hers, who she’d stepped back into her origins in family law to help. “He took his daughter home today,” Harriet said, the relief plain on her face. “Just in time for Christmas.”
“This is the true meaning of Christmas,” Zelda said. “Bringing families together, however we can. Ours, and theirs,” she added with a smile at Harriet.
“What does Christmas mean to you, Eliot?” Idri asked.
Eliot smiled, thinking about the last few weeks that he’d spent with Quentin, before the smile froze when his mind stalled on, well, everything else. What does Christmas mean to you? Mike’s face swam before his eyes, and Logan’s, and his father’s, sharp words and indifferent sneers and blood curdling screams —
“Why don’t you tell them that story about those friends of yours who met in the mall?” Quentin said, his quiet voice breaking through the beginnings of a downward spiral that he’d never been able to crawl out of on his own. Turning his frozen smile from Idri, Eliot looked at Quentin, who was steady and sure as he gazed up at him. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and for a moment Eliot thought that he was encouraging him with the truth of their relationship.
Until he realised that he could tell them his truth of their relationship.
"I have a friend who hated Christmas," he said, the words heavy in his throat but he pushed them out anyway. "For genuine reasons, mind you, but… let's not get into that." He glanced at Quentin, who nodded at him encouragingly.
He told them about his friend, who met probably the only other person in the city who struggled with Christmas just as much as he did, how he saved him from the Christmas carollers in the mall, the kind that stalk you down and sing right in your ear until you're ready to strangle them. That earned him a laugh, and he got into the story as he told them about their pact — to spend the next few weeks together in misery and get through the holiday season together, which was surprisingly close to the truth. He told them how the two of them spent time together, making up fictional dates to take the place of their work events.
"They fell in love," he said, his heart beating out of his chest with the truth of his words. From his side, at least. The time that they’d spent together today, his every interaction with Quentin, had only made the strength of his feelings painfully clear. He didn't dare look at Quentin, couldn't bare for Quentin to see that he meant it and risk seeing nothing in return. "With each other, and with Christmas. They've both grown since they first met: shaken off the trappings of their past and jumped readily into whatever awaited them in the future."
He paused, caught up in his hidden confession that he'd forgotten there had to be a point here, somewhere. "That's what Christmas means to me," he said, lifting his chin and taking the conversation back from his aching heart. "Like you said, Zelda," he said with a nod to her. "Coming together, and being stronger together."
"Well said." Idri smiled at him, and he felt almost shaky with relief.
Finally, he risked a glance at Quentin. His lips were parted, his eyes bright, and… and he wasn't going to tell them about Poppy, he realised with a rush. It was an easy advantage, but he didn't want to be granted the promotion because someone else had lied — he wanted to have earned it, to be the best choice based on his work. A thrill ran through him and settled in his chest, wonder that he could make the right choice and feel good about it, feel so good that Quentin believed in him so much.
Quentin… The surprise on his face had given way to a smile, and Eliot grinned back at him, feeling helpless in the wake of Quentin's pride. He’d started out doing this to get a promotion, but he was quickly realising that this feeling inside of him, and this… whatever he could have with Quentin, might be the most important thing he could get out of it.
"That was you, wasn't it?" Bigby said, and when Eliot turned with a sinking heart toward her, she was beaming at them. "The two of you. That's how you met."
Was his world so easily torn down? They'd never believe that he and Quentin were serious if he admitted that they'd met during this holiday season. He'd managed to avoid getting into detail about how they'd met before now, had managed not to lie about it. It shouldn't be a big deal to just say no, that he was truly talking about a friend of his, but he was just so tired of lying about Quentin.
Tonight, and tomorrow, and that's it, he reminded himself, even as he knew that it wasn't so simple. "Actually —"
“Last year." He felt Quentin's hand on his lower back, and tried to keep the surprise off his face as he looked down at him. "It was us," Quentin admitted, glancing around at the group with a nervous smile.
"I knew it!" Bigby clapped her hands in delight. "I have a sixth sense about these things. And you're only just letting us meet him now, shame on you." But she was laughing as she swatted Eliot's arm playfully.
"I wanted to take it slow," Quentin said. He still looked nervous as he turned to Eliot, but his hand remained firm on his back, a lifeline whether he intended it or not. Eliot felt like that touch was the only thing keeping him on his feet. "But I knew early on that Eliot was going to change my life." His face softened. "It was the best Christmas I'd had in a long time, too."
"Oh, you are too adorable," Bigby exclaimed, causing Quentin's cheeks to flush again.
Thankfully, the conversation turned, as Harriet took pity on them and started updating Zelda about a family friend who worked with her. Quentin turned back to the others and Eliot followed his lead, noting that Quentin's hand was still a warm touch through his jacket.
He felt Idri's eyes on him, and glanced at him cautiously, belatedly worrying if he might look down on him passing off his own story as someone else’s. Lies within lies within lies. But he was smiling at him, and raised his glass in his direction when he realised that he had his attention. "Enjoy your night, Eliot," he said, before nodding to the others and taking his leave, heading to another group of guests.
With the pressure off of him and Quentin for the moment, he took a deep breath. He'd felt on the backfoot from start to finish, far from the impression that he wanted to give, but Idri seemed pleased and that's what mattered. It was nowhere near over, but…
But maybe it was going to be okay.
It had started to snow by the time they left the party, their breath frosting before them as they stepped out into the night, and so Eliot didn't blame Quentin for the incredulous look he threw him when he suggested that they walk instead of hailing a cab. "It'll be worth it, I promise," he said, and hoped that were true. Quentin’s cheeks were flush with wine and the chill, but he followed Eliot with an eye roll and a poorly hidden indulgent smile.
The meeting point was just around the block. Eliot’s nervous excitement dropped into just plain nerves the closer they got to the corner, but he forced himself not to slow his step and delay the moment. He’d organised this last week — before he’d bought the cufflinks. Before he realised that he might be a little bit in love with Quentin. It was supposed to have been something fun and nerdy that Quentin's fantasy loving heart would enjoy, or at least be amused by. Now it felt like a romantic gesture. Maybe it always had been, and he was just too blind to realise it.
He was watching Quentin as they rounded the corner, so he saw the way his eyes went round before he saw the carriage itself. A pair of white horses waited patiently before it, and its driver was wearing a suit rather than a red costume, but the carriage was decorated with fake snow and stars and holly and stylised like a sleigh.
Eliot waved inconspicuously at the driver, who nodded at him in return. Quentin didn’t notice, focused as he was on the carriage.
“It’s beautiful,” Quentin said as they neared it.
Eliot had to bite the inside of his cheek to hide his grin as he stopped beside it. He held his hand out to Quentin, who tore his eyes away from the detail on the carriage with obvious reluctance. “Shall we?”
His eyebrows shooting up high, Quentin blinked at Eliot’s outstretched hand for a few seconds before looking up at him, turning to the carriage, the waiting driver, and then back to him again. “Really?”
It made his heart swell, the unbridled hope and joy in Quentin’s voice. Eliot found it infectious, and gave into the stretch of his smile. “It’s already paid for, so I think it’s probably a good idea.”
Laughing in surprise, Quentin put his hand in Eliot’s and let him help him up the step into the carriage. Neither of them were quite drunk enough to stumble, but Eliot had heard enough clumsy Quentin stories that he was careful to make sure that he was safely in the carriage before he let go and followed him up onto the seat. “Ready, Mr Waugh?” the driver said, smiling between the two of them.
“Aye, Captain,” he said cheerfully, and heard a snort from beside him.
“This isn’t a ship, Eliot.”
“Shh, let me have this.”
It wasn’t a long ride to their hotel, but the driver seemed content to take them slowly, and Eliot was grateful to let this stretch out. The sharp clop of the horses’ hooves on the asphalt sounded loud in the night, almost soothing in their repetitiveness above the background noise of New York City.
Eliot looked to Quentin, and the warm contentment that his face had settled into felt just as good as his earlier excitement. “Did you have a good evening?” he asked, and then lifted the corner of his mouth into a wry smile. "Or at least a not-terrible one?"
“I had a great time,” Quentin said, with more feeling than he expected. He knew that big social events weren’t Quentin’s thing, but now that Eliot thought back over the night, he could only recall one or two moments where Quentin had looked like he’d been ready to jump off the balcony in order to leave a conversation. One of those moments had been the whole time he’d been stuck talking to Marina — Eliot had spotted them together by the bar, and had immediately recognised Marina sizing him up. He still hadn’t deciphered what her wink had meant when he’d politely but pointedly pulled Quentin away.
Quentin gestured around them at the carriage, his face doing that funny thing where he looked like he was frowning and smiling at the same time. “But this, Eliot… you didn’t have to do this. You’ve already done so much.” He touched one hand to his opposite wrist, and Eliot realised that he was fiddling with his cufflinks.
It took him a moment to remind himself that that wasn’t necessarily code for you’re too much. Quentin wasn’t looking at him like he was too much. He stopped the automatic ‘thank you for helping me,’ that jumped to his lips, because… well, that might have been why he’d organised it, originally, but it was more than that. “I wanted to,” he said instead, because that was the truth of it. He just wanted to, wanted to make Quentin happy, wanted to see him smile, particularly after the day he'd had yesterday.
“Thank you,” Quentin said earnestly. Pausing, he glanced at the street around them, at the sidewalks slowly turning white, and when he turned back to Eliot that same look was back on his face, the one he’d given him earlier when he’d survived the conversation with Idri. Terrifyingly, he thought that it might be pride. “You were incredible tonight. Everyone loved you. I didn’t see anyone speaking to Poppy and Todd for half the time they were with you. The last thing you need is an inflated ego — don’t laugh, it’s true! — but…” His teeth pulled at his lower lip, hiding a smile suddenly self-conscious. “But I knew you were good at this from the first time we met. The — the talking to people, and making them feel seen, like they mattered. And now they all know that too, if they didn’t already.”
Was that really how he’d made him feel? That first day, in the food court? Eliot tried not to dwell on that, tried not to let it fill his heart up. Swallowing down the lump in his throat, he forced a smile. “Now I just have to convince them tomorrow that they can trust me as much to help run their company, as they can to be a good conversationalist at a party,” he said, knowing as the joke came out that it fell flat.
But Quentin didn’t roll his eyes at him, or tell him to suck it up, or brush it off. He smiled at him, like he knew a secret that he was just now deciding to share. “Eliot. They already know you can do the work. You wouldn’t be here, otherwise. Even Idri — you think he and Henry would make a decision like this based on one weekend? They probably already know who they want, and this is just… I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “Making you sweat to see how you handle it. That seems to be something a lawyer needs to be good at, right?”
Eliot narrowed his eyes at him. Quentin was making too much sense. “Okay. But how do you know that I’m not here to make Poppy sweat?”
“Well… I don’t. But it’s never going to be about you being not good enough.”
There was a fist around his heart, and Eliot looked away so Quentin wouldn’t see it on his face. Every time he thought that Quentin had more faith in him than he deserved, he came out with something like this. He’d spent his whole life trying to be good enough — for his family, for Mike, for Henry, for himself. He couldn’t comprehend how Quentin could so easily look at him and think good, particularly when Quentin had just about the biggest heart of anyone he’s ever met.
When he’d managed to pull himself together, he risked a glance back at Quentin just in time to see him shiver. His hands were tucked between his thighs, his body looking stiff under his coat. Slowly, Eliot lifted his arm to sit along the back of their seat, not quite touching Quentin’s shoulders. A silent offer, if he wanted it. He managed to catch his sharp inhale when Quentin leaned back against him, shifting closer on the bench seat until their thighs were pressed together, his body pressed up against Eliot’s side. “It’s cold,” Quentin said, giving a nervous little laugh, and Eliot took the invitation to wrap his arm properly around his shoulders.
And if Eliot rubbed his hand slowly up and down his arm, it was just for warmth. Quentin didn't seem to mind.
Feeling Quentin shift slightly, he turned his head to look at him — and froze when he realised just how close they were. Quentin blinked up at him slowly, his lips parting, and Eliot held his breath as he looked down at them. Just a few inches, and he could…
When he looked up at Quentin again, it was to find his cheeks more flushed than before, his eyes darting all over Eliot’s face. Whatever he saw there made his eyes widen, and then —
He looked away.
And Eliot came crashing back to reality.
Turning away, he took a deep breath, forcing down all of the dreaded emotions that threatened to choke him. He was a fool to think that Quentin might want him back, yet still he’d hoped… But it was okay. It was okay if Quentin didn't want to kiss him. It was totally fine. He could not think about how soft Quentin's lips were as he was sitting his with arm wrapped tightly around him. He could — no, no he couldn’t.
He felt the cold creep in between them immediately when he pulled his arm back, the absence of Quentin’s body pressed up against his side making his heart sink deeper. Because he was a god damn fool, he risked a glance at Quentin again, and the disappointment he thought he caught on his face before he looked away had to be his imagination.
“Almost there,” Eliot said, as though it weren’t entirely obvious why he’d pulled his arm back.
“Mhmm,” Quentin said to his knees.
Neither of them spoke much as they went up to their room. Quentin didn’t look like he was actively avoiding Eliot’s gaze, but he wasn’t really looking at him either, and Eliot spent the five minutes between tipping the driver and slotting the keycard into the door wondering how much of what had happened for the past few days had been his imagination. He’d tried to ignore it, but with the acceptance of his own feelings had come the realisation that Quentin’s eyes sometimes lingered on him too. The way he’d looked at him earlier today when he’d come out of the bathroom, the way he’d held him so tightly after he’d done he’d jumped in and done the Reindeer Report...
He’d hoped — so deeply that he hadn’t let himself even think it — that Quentin might want him too.
But if Quentin didn’t return his feelings, he wasn’t going to let himself ruin what had built between them. It was too important to him. Pulling the card out of the slot, he opened the door and paused to hold it for Quentin, relieved when he was too polite not to meet his eyes with a muttered thank you.
“I’m looking forward to sleeping for about thirty years,” Eliot said as he closed the door behind him, determined not to let this tension sit between them all night. Quentin shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable because of the way he felt.
Quentin glanced back at him as he threw his coat over the arm of the couch. He faltered a little when he saw Eliot’s smile, which was only a little forced, and Eliot watched as some of the tension seeped out of his shoulders. After a few seconds, he found a smile of his own. “With how long it takes you to get ready? There’s no way you’re making it to lunch tomorrow.”
Surprised by the ease of his own laughter, Eliot shrugged out of his own coat and hung it up in the closet like an actual human being. Quickly shedding his jacket, waistcoat, tie, he darted in to take first use of the bathroom.
His face washed and moisturised and his teeth brushed, he headed back out to the bedroom, feeling tired but at ease. “All yours,” he called out to the sitting room.
He stepped into the closet to dig his phone charger out of his suitcase, and the bathroom door was closed again when he returned to the bedroom. Plugging in his phone on his side of the bed, he tugged at the top button of his shirt before he hesitated, his eyes lingering on the bathroom door. He’d thrown in a pair of soft pants to sleep in, but he didn’t have any shirts that weren’t shirts.
Stop being ridiculous, he told himself, stripping off his shirt before sitting on the side of the bed to tug his shoes off. This is only weird if you make it weird. He won’t even notice what you’re wearing. Just go the fuck to bed and go to sleep.
Changing into his sleep pants, he turned off all the lights except for the lamp on Quentin’s bedside table, and climbed into bed. He was sitting up against the headboard with the covers tucked around his hips, setting the alarm on his phone, when the bathroom door opened. Quentin took two steps into the room and then froze, his eyes widening slightly when they landed on him.
Eliot almost choked on his easy smile. “Come on in, the water’s warm.”
Dropping his eyes to the floor, Quentin ran his hand through his hair. Was he blushing? It was too dark to tell. “I can… I could sleep on the floor. Or, the couch might be big enough —”
“Or,” he said, gesturing to the unoccupied side of the bed as though he wasn’t experiencing something that felt almost like panic low in his gut. “I can keep my hands to myself,” he added, feeling just about ready to throw himself into the sun. He might not get a wink of sleep, but the bed was big enough that it was only going to be mildly painful.
He averted his eyes as Quentin got undressed, and wasn't sure if he was relieved or tormented to see Quentin approaching the bed clad only in a thin pair of shorts as well. Quentin plugged his phone in as well, and Eliot slipped down to lay his head on the pillow as Quentin pulled the cover back on his side of the bed and turned the lamp off.
Suddenly, Eliot was wide awake. He stared up at the ceiling, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dark until he could faintly make out some of the details of the embellishments around the lights. He was confident that Quentin wasn’t asleep. After minutes or hours of listening to his breathing and feeling no closer to sleep himself, Eliot rolled onto his side, hoping in vain that a different position would magically let his body drift into sleep.
Too late, he realised that he should have turned the other way. The curtains in the room were fantastic, but that didn’t stop him from trying to find Quentin’s silhouette in the dark room. He thought he could make out the curve of his shoulder, but couldn’t decide which direction he was facing. Eliot stretched his limbs out carefully, bending one knee to get comfortable, one arm resting between them.
Quentin shifted slightly, and Eliot froze at the feeling of a hard knee touching his. He waited for Quentin to pull away, the air growing thicker between them for every heartbeat that he didn’t.
Maybe he didn’t realise. Maybe he was asleep after all.
Or maybe not. Something touched his forearm. Fingers, the barest brush against his skin. “Don’t,” Quentin whispered, the word barely heard over the sound of Eliot’s heart beating out of his chest.
He twisted his fingers in the sheets to stop himself reaching for Quentin’s hand, or his face, or something equally stupid. “What?” Don’t what, Quentin? Don’t what don’t what don’t what?
Quentin was quiet for so long that he started to think that he wasn’t going to answer, but he didn’t pull away either. Every now and then his fingers twitched against his skin, a gentle stir in the hairs on his forearm. The pressure increased fractionally, before he turned his hand to flatten his fingers along Eliot’s arm. “Don’t keep your hands to yourself.”
Eliot held his breath, certain that he was hallucinating, that if he spoke or moved or breathed then this moment… whatever it was… would shatter. “Quentin —”
Whatever helpless words that he hadn’t really thought out anyway were stolen from his lips when Quentin closed the distance between them, his brain short circuiting at the press of Quentin’s mouth over his. A muffled declaration of want sounded in the back of his throat at the taste of Quentin’s lips, warm and firm and real.
Every ounce of Eliot’s body protested when he broke the kiss. Quentin pulled back, but only so far that he could still feel his breath against his lips. Eliot chased them instinctively, his whole world shifting when he kissed Quentin again. It wasn’t until Quentin’s lips parted under his that the memory of Quentin turning away pulled at him, but the way he moaned under his touch loosened that knot of doubt, loosened every part of him, made him putty in his hands.
Quentin’s hand curled tightly around his shoulder, and then they were flush against each other, nothing between them except for two thin layers of fabric. He could feel Quentin’s chest rising and falling irregularly against his own, the skin of his stomach smooth against his, and he clutched at his side just to get more of that bare soft warmth, slid his hand around to his back to hold him close as he kissed him until his lungs ached with it. He must be going crazy, because Quentin was grasping at him just as desperately.
Those grasping hands pulled Eliot until he rolled on top of him, and he couldn’t think for the feeling of Quentin’s body underneath him, his… Jesus Christ, his legs parting for Eliot to slip between, and — oh fuck, the way he was hardening against his own quickly growing need. Holding himself up on one elbow, he threaded the fingers of his other hand through Quentin’s hair, kissing him with the days — ha, the weeks — of tension that had been building between them, swallowing his moan when he rolled his hips down. Quentin kissed him and kissed him and kissed him, his feet flattening on the bed so he could grind up against him, his hands in his hair and on his shoulders and around his back.
It took all of his will to soften the kiss, to turn his head and nose against Quentin's cheek instead. He was breathing heavily, but so was Quentin. Quentin, who was working the fingers of one hand under the waistband of his pants, just barely brushing against the top of his ass. Fuck. “Q, are you…” He fisted Quentin’s pillow with the hand that held him up, trying to force his mind to cooperate. He didn’t want — he couldn’t let this happen, if Quentin didn’t want this, really want him. “Are you sure…?”
Quentin’s lips worked messily against his jaw, his blunt nails digging into his skin. “Fuck, please,” he said, and Eliot couldn’t say no to him, could never say no. He turned his head and captured his mouth once more, and everything that wasn’t Quentin and Eliot disappeared from existence.
He felt Quentin’s hand drifting along his waistband until it slipped between them, dancing over his hip and sending a shiver through him as his fingers brushed the sensitive skin just underneath it. He slipped lower, and Eliot’s breath was punched from his chest as his hand wrapped around him. "Jesus Christ, El," Quentin breathed as he held him, and Eliot laughed against his lips, delirious.
Quentin held him still, his thumb rubbing over him as far as he could reach, and Eliot fought against the urge to thrust forward into his fist. He teased him just long enough to have him crawling out of his skin with desire before he started to move his hand properly, stroking up and down his length in slow movements.
Eliot’s mouth stuttered against Quentin’s as he tried to make himself comprehend that this was happening, that Quentin was touching him, that Quentin was moaning into his mouth just because he had Eliot’s dick in his hand. “I wanted to kiss you,” Eliot groaned, as Quentin’s free hand slid back into his hair, turning his head. A shiver ran through his whole body as Quentin sucked at the skin just below his ear. His arms were trembling as he continued to hold himself up, and when Quentin’s thumb rubbed over the tip of his cock, they almost gave out. His blood sang with the confession, the truth that Quentin must already have known. “Back in the carriage, I wanted —
"I wanted you to," Quentin said, the words a breath in Eliot’s ear. "I want you, I want —" He cut himself off as he surged upward, kissing him until all Eliot could think of was his lips, his tongue, his hand around his cock, their legs tangled together. He kissed him until it threatened to overwhelm him, until Eliot had to grab Quentin’s wrist and pull his hand away from him before it ended far too soon.
Wrapping his hand around Quentin’s, he pulled his arm up until he could press a kiss to the inside of his wrist, noting how Quentin’s whole body seemed to tremble with it. He wanted to show love to every inch of him. He kissed him again, along his forearm, the inside of his elbow, before leaning over him and pressing his lips to the centre of his chest. Quentin’s fingers tangled in his hair, and then tightened with a whimper when he started working his way down his body, mapping his ribs and his belly and his hipbones with his mouth. Letting go of Quentin’s hand, he curled his fingers around the waistband of his pajamas, brushing his wrist against the tent in his pants just to hear him gasp.
Still, he hesitated, his mouth brushing against the skin just above Quentin’s pubic hair. He might want this, but did that mean he wanted… more than that, or was this just… and how did you ask someone that when you were just a thin barrier of material away from putting their dick in your mouth? His heart ached with the want and the fear of knowing. “Of course you’re a tease,” Quentin groaned, angling his hips up from the bed, and Eliot let out a little broken laugh.
There would be time to tell him how he felt. Later, tomorrow, and the day after, and… he felt dizzy with possibility. And for now, he could show him.
Carefully, he pulled Quentin’s pants down his legs, and let them drop onto the floor beside the bed. His hands found Quentin’s knees, his legs already spread for him, and he smoothed his palms down his thighs, pushing them open a little wider as he settled on his stomach between them, his own legs dangling off the bed. Quentin’s breathing stopped when he brushed his fingers along the length of his cock, and then gasped when he wrapped his hand around it. Eliot took a few seconds just to feel him, the skin soft and warm under the pads of his fingers, hard and heavy against his palm. He rolled his thumb over the head at the same time that he leaned in, kissing softly at the side of his shaft near the base, and the helpless little choked off sound that Quentin made set his blood on fire.
“Fuck,” Quentin groaned, as Eliot pressed chaste kisses up along his length, and then, “fuck,” as he licked from his frenulum up over the tip. “Eliot…”
“Mmm?” he said, before opening his mouth wider and taking Quentin in deep.
Eliot lost himself in learning Quentin’s body. He loved this, was good at it and loved being good at it, loved knowing how to drive a man crazy with the things that his tongue and his lips could do. He quickly realised how much he loved sucking Quentin’s cock. No matter what he did — taking him in deep, working him over with his tongue, using just his mouth or stroking simultaneously with his hand, laving over his balls with his tongue — Quentin was responsive to it all, squirming and moaning and shivering and driving Eliot crazy with it.
When Eliot swirled his tongue around the head, he cried out almost helplessly, and Eliot moaned at the salty taste of precum that hit his tongue. He wished he could see him, see what his face was doing, was it open and serene or screwed up in pleasure? Was he biting on his lips to muffle his sounds? It sounded like it, and Eliot wanted to see it, wanted to watch him fall apart, wanted to take him in deep until he filled his mouth with his release. He wanted —
“Please tell me you brought lube,” Quentin said, his voice high and strained, and Eliot groaned around his cock. He felt off his game, so totally wrecked, his usual suave deliberate seduction lost in the face of a Quentin who was telling him what he wanted, and that what he wanted was him.
He tried to make up for it by increasing his suction around Quentin’s cock, pulling it slowly from his mouth with an obscene slurp that drew the intended moan from deep within Quentin’s chest, but he gave himself away immediately as he practically scrambled from the bed in his haste. Light filled the room, and Eliot squinted against the sudden brightness as he stopped, looking over his shoulder to see Quentin lying with his legs strewn on the bed, pushed up on his elbows, his body as smooth and perfect as the glorious arch of his cock. “Jesus Christ, look at you,” he said thickly, and watched hungrily as a deep blush spread over his chest. “Quentin…”
Quentin’s leg twitched but then stilled, like he was resisting the urge to cover himself. “El, the — the lube —”
Fuck. “Yeah, baby,” he murmured, and stared as Quentin’s skin turned even redder. “Fuck, you’re going to kill me,” he said under his breath, tearing his eyes away and trying not to run into the bathroom for the condoms and lube he’d stashed in his toiletry bag.
He shucked his sleep pants midstep when he returned from the bathroom, leaving them where they fell on the floor. Quentin sat up on the bed, his eyes wide and hungry as they darted all over him, and Eliot slowed, a low hum of incredulity flowing through him that Quentin would look at him like that. He gave himself a shake when Quentin’s raised his eyes to his again, and climbed onto the bed and into his waiting arms. Straddling his thighs, he dropped the lube and condom on the bed beside them before taking Quentin’s face in both of his hands, hiding his disbelieving smile against his mouth, kissing him until his lungs were burning.
Quentin’s fingers dug into his hips, pulling him down against him. He could feel his cock, still wet from his mouth, rubbing against his. “Do you want me to fuck you, baby?” he asked, and swallowed Quentin’s whimper. “Or do you want to fuck me?”
“Want you to fuck me,” Quentin said immediately, like he’d been thinking about it. He snaked a hand between them, closed it around Eliot’s cock again. The touch sent a shiver right through him, and Eliot arched into it. “Fuck, El, you’re… Want you to fill me up.”
Quentin left the light on, and it felt different now that they weren’t hidden by the night. It felt on purpose. On purpose, Eliot knelt again between his legs, pushed them back until Quentin grabbed them to hold them up. He took Quentin’s cock back into his mouth, just to see what his face did, and felt drunk on the pained furrow of his brow, the part of his lips, his broken laugh. But he didn’t linger — now that he knew that Quentin wanted him to fuck him, he wasn’t going to let him come until he was buried deep inside him.
Flattening his hands on Quentin’s asscheeks, he pulled them apart gently as he traced his way down with his tongue, over his balls, down his perineum, and into the cleft of his ass. Quentin’s whole body tensed when he brushed his lips against his hole, and then let out something that sounded like a sob when he licked at him. Quentin moaned on every shuddering breath as he explored him with his mouth, and Eliot could just imagine how easily it would be to make him come like that. Next time.
Jesus Christ, next time.
Quentin’s body relaxed easily under his ministrations, and when Eliot licked inside him he gave way easily. His groan turned into a gasp when Eliot moaned into him, and his whole body shuddered as Eliot continued to press into him with his tongue. He didn’t want to stop, but he knew it would be worth it when he pulled back and found Quentin plaint and wet enough with saliva that his finger slipped inside him easily. He stroked his insides, curling his fingers to find his prostate and then only brushing against it sporadically, almost by accident, too desperate for Quentin’s pleasure to stop himself entirely even as he was determined not to wind him up too far just yet.
He kissed and licked and sucked at the skin surrounding the spot where his finger joined Quentin’s body until he couldn’t hold his legs up anymore. The lube was within easy reach, and he grinned at Quentin’s weak protest when he withdrew his fingers to slick them up. His hands were twisting in the sheet on either side of him, his chest heaving. His eyes, dark and sharp on him, fluttered closed when Eliot lined two fingers up against his hole, rubbed at the sensitive skin before slowly pressing them into him.
Without pulling out his fingers, Eliot repositioned himself onto his knees, flattening his free hand on the back of Quentin’s thigh and pushing his legs back toward his chest again. He drank in the sight of him, rocking down on Eliot’s fingers while he worked him open, his cock leaking against his belly, his skin gorgeously pink. He bent his head to press a kiss to the inside of his knee as he scissored his fingers inside him, stretching him, pausing to massage his prostate because he couldn’t help himself. Quentin’s choked cry was the purest music he’d ever heard, and he only wanted to hear it for the rest of his life.
That wasn’t true. He also wanted to be inside him. But he didn’t seem to be the only one hungry for it. The moment that he pulled his fingers free, Quentin sat up, one hand searching blindly across the sheets for the condom while the other wrapped around Eliot’s dick. He tore the packet open with his teeth in probably the smoothest move that Eliot had ever seen from him, and Eliot held his breath as he quickly rolled the condom down over him, trying to stop himself from bucking forward into his hand.
Quentin turned his face up to him, his eyes wide and open, and Eliot couldn’t bear the tight squeeze in his chest. Wrapping one arm around Quentin, he cupped his face with the other and kissed him with every tender feeling in his heart. Quentin’s touched tentatively at his jaw before dropping to grasp his shoulders, and Eliot pushed him backwards down onto the bed.
The feeling of Quentin’s body underneath his again sent pleasure fizzing through him from his head to his toes. The slide of their cocks together, and against their stomachs, felt so good and real and primal that Eliot lost himself in it for a moment, only drawn back to himself when Quentin turned his head to capture his mouth once more, angling his hips in such a way that was a blatant hint of put something in me right now.
Eliot would have given him anything. He pulled back just enough to find the lube, to flick the cap open and slick himself up, spreading more against Quentin and grinning at him when he squirmed. Kneeling between his spread legs, Eliot took himself in hand to line himself up, pressing his cockhead against Quentin’s hole without pushing in. He rocked his hips slightly, just to let Quentin feel the pressure, driving himself crazy with it in the meantime. “Oh my god, just — oh,” Quentin gasped as he pressed just the head inside. His whole body arched, and Eliot held his hips still, trying to keep his composure enough to draw this out just a moment more. “Oh fuck, El.”
“Yeah,” he said, whatever eloquence he usually had dissolving as he pushed in a little deeper, his world narrowing to the tight heat of Quentin’s body surrounding him. Dropping down to his elbows, he forced himself to hold still long enough for Quentin to get used to him, made harder when Quentin’s arms surrounded him and pulled him in for a hungry, clinging kiss.
Quentin rocked his hips up against him, taking him deeper, and Eliot lost all measure of self control as he thrust in to the hilt before he could stop himself, their long, low moans mingling against each others’ lips. He dropped his head to Quentin’s shoulder, overwhelmed with sensation, breathing through the squeeze of Quentin around his full length. Quentin’s hands were tight on his back, his pulse thundering under Eliot’s lips. “You are unfair,” he whimpered into Eliot’s hair.
The laughter that bubbled up out of Eliot’s chest was almost hysterical. Unfair? Quentin was destroying him from the inside out, and he was unfair? “What?”
“Every —” He stopped with a gasp when Eliot shifted, not quite pulling out but dragging against him just the same. “Everything about you.” The thin trace of humour left his voice, leaving only something raw, something Eliot was entirely unprepared for. “I never stood a chance.”
Pushing back up onto his elbows, he felt his chest tighten to see Quentin’s eyes glistening in the lamplight. He stared at him in wonder, holding his weight on one arm so he could trace the curve of his cheek with his fingertips. “Quentin,” he murmured past the lump in his throat. He was stripped bare under Quentin’s gaze, and surely he must be able to see it on his face, to feel it in his touch, the thing that Eliot hadn’t yet been able to put into words. Quentin, I love you.
“Please,” Quentin whimpered, twisting his fingers in his hair again. His hips rolled against his, making Eliot’s breath catch. “Move, please,” he said, and Eliot, like a coward, let the moment pass.
But he could give Quentin what he needed. He swallowed Quentin’s moan when he pulled out just enough to sink back in, crying out when he bottomed out again. He felt unbelievable as he swallowed up his body, swallowed up his soul, the poetry of Quentin moving around him tearing him down and remaking him anew. Eliot found an angle and a rhythm that drew a deep noise from Quentin with every thrust, and let himself get lost in the taste of Quentin’s lips and his sweat, the softness of his skin and the firm muscles beneath it, the tenderness of his hands and his heart as he gasped Eliot’s name.
He was so tuned into every inch of Quentin’s body that he noticed when he started to tremble and didn’t stop, when his cries changed pitch, when he flattened his feet on the bed so he could push down on Eliot’s cock with intent. “Fuck, Q,” he gasped. He slipped his hand between them and wrapped it around Quentin’s dripping cock, swirling his thumb through the precum around the head and groaning loudly when Quentin bit at his lips.
“I wanna feel you,” Eliot breathed into his mouth, “wanna feel you come on my cock, sweetheart.” Quentin whimpered, his eyes screwing up tight for a moment before they sprang open again, his pupils so blown that he could barely see the brown of his eyes. He picked up his pace, feeling delirious with it as his hands tightened on him painfully. Yes, baby, I’ll make you feel so good, let me look after you, let me love you, let me show you, come for me darling, and he didn’t realise until the words were falling from his lips that he was babbling them into Quentin’s neck but then Quentin was shuddering underneath him, his muscles spasming tightly around Eliot’s cock as he started to come, his cry loud and uninhibited as he shot his release between them.
If he hadn’t been close before, he was now, the sight and feel and sound of Quentin’s pleasure spiking his own until he was rutting into Quentin’s body frantically. He chased his own release like a drowning man, spurred on by Quentin’s hands in his hair, his tired mouth against his jaw, his voice whispering things that he didn’t catch. His legs were trembling, but he continued to move, drunk on the feeling of Quentin’s heat still squeezing him tight. “I’m… fuck, I’m…” he moaned, and Quentin whispered yes, like it was the only thing he’d ever wanted, and then the world went white around him, fire sparking in his veins as he buried himself into him as deeply as he could, shuddering violently through his release.
He came back to himself with Quentin’s fingers stroking through his hair, his other hand tracing patterns up and down his back. Turning his face into Quentin’s neck, he breathed him in, the heady clean sweat smell of him, his mind too sluggish to comprehend that that was really a thing he could do. “Q,” he murmured, and felt an answering hum from Quentin’s chest, pressed against his.
He didn’t want to move, not even a little bit, wanted to stay wrapped up in Quentin’s limbs. It was with great reluctance and a gasp of sensitivity from both of them when he pulled out, climbing off the bed on unsteady legs to deal with the condom. He returned from the bathroom a little cleaner and with a damp cloth for Quentin, who looked like he was struggling to keep his eyes open as he took it and cleaned the mess from his stomach.
Taking the cloth back, Eliot tossed it into the bathroom, tomorrow’s problem, and then hesitated when he turned back to the bed. Quentin had pulled the covers up around his waist and was staring at the ceiling, a smile playing around his lips even as his brow creased. After a moment his face smoothed out, and Eliot smiled, happiness bubbling up in his chest. He’d written off the idea of this happening, of anything happening between them, and yet here Quentin was, sighing and visibly relaxing into the bed.
Quentin’s head turned toward him, his face breaking out into a smile when he saw him standing there, watching him. “Do you make a habit of staring at people naked?”
“Only when they’re incredibly gorgeous men in my bed.”
The blush that crept down Quentin’s neck was delicious. He rolled over onto his side, reaching one arm across the mattress. “Come here,” he said, his voice small.
With a full heart, Eliot rounded the bed and curled up curled up behind him, tucking him in tight against his chest. It was like the two of them had been designed in perfect proportion for spooning, and Eliot took full advantage, brushing Quentin’s hair back from his shoulder before burying his face against it, revelling in the feeling of his bare skin flush against his own.
Settling his hand on Quentin’s chest, he was surprised to find that his heart was still racing. He flattened his palm against it, turning his head to press his lips to his neck. “I can hear you overthinking,” he murmured, already feeling sleep pulling at his tired and satisfied body.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“No, you don’t…” He smoothed his hand up and down Quentin’s chest, tangling his fingers with Quentin’s when he found his hand. “Don’t apologise. Just get some sleep. I’m right here, Q.”
“Yeah,” Quentin said, his voice barely a breath, and the last thing Eliot knew before sleep claimed him was the iron tight grip of Quentin’s hand around his.
Turning his face into the stream of water, Quentin felt the suds of body wash run down his skin and wished that it were so easy to wash away his fragile and traitorous heart.
He’d woken in a haze, his mind slow to understand the meaning of a familiar body, a familiar smell, all wrapped up around him in a different way. Then Eliot had shifted against him with a low, deep sleep sound, his arm tightening around his waist, his face pressing into his hair and breathing in deep. And Quentin’s world had tilted, as it all came rushing back to him, Eliot’s warm soft naked skin against his tired, pleasantly used body coming into focus as everything that had happened last night came rushing back to him.
Eliot’s arms had pulled him even closer, and Quentin had squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to hold Eliot too tightly as he attempted to breathe through the tightness in his throat. He was so… so warm, and so tactile, nuzzling against his shoulder. “Go back to sleep,” Eliot had whispered, his voice gravelly, and the only thing Quentin had wanted was to burrow deeper into his embrace, to stay surrounded by him and forget about everything outside that bed.
Instead, he’d muttered something with the word bathroom in it, squeezed Eliot’s hand one last time, and fled.
Twisting the tap so that the water ran hotter, Quentin tried to focus on the burn on his skin, but it was futile. His mind was immediately drawn again and again back to the man in the bed on the other side of that door, and the life-shattering knowledge that he was in love with him.
I’m in love with Eliot. Closing his eyes, he raised his face into the stream again, desperate for something to distract from the feeling of his chest cracking open. He couldn’t hide it anymore. He didn’t know when it had happened, or when it had started happening, but today it was the most obvious thing in the world.
He was utterly wrecked, even now, by the way Eliot had touched him last night, by the way he’d looked at him. Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead against the wall, the tiles a cold shock to his skin after the warmth of the water, and let the memory fill him up. Eliot’s hand on his face, his eyes wide and wanting, the way they’d moved together…
He wanted it. To have Eliot look at him like that forever, to feel a different, wonderful thing in every brush of his lips and his fingers. He wanted it so badly he couldn’t breathe. He wanted it so badly that it terrified him to his core.
Eliot was… Eliot. So gorgeous that he could have anyone he wanted, Quentin was sure of it. So charming and personable and fun that he took up any room that he was in. How could Eliot really be happy with someone like him?
It couldn’t be real. And if it was… He wasn’t ready. For the cold fingers around his heart that accompanied the swell of hope everytime he thought of Eliot’s smile. For the very real chance that he could jump, ready for Eliot to catch him, only to fall and fall and fall. That Eliot would get bored of him once their lives returned to normal, and he’d realise that Quentin wasn’t enough for him.
But what if you are enough? a voice whispered in his heart, small and desperate. What if he will be happy with you? What if you’ll be happy with him?
He wanted to take the leap. His stomach twisted in knots of longing and fear.
He had no idea what time it was, but he knew that he’d been in the shower too long. He’d heard the faint sound of Eliot’s alarm going off through the wall a few minutes ago, which meant that Eliot was likely properly awake now. He had to talk to him, had to —
Crawl into a hole and never come out? That sounded a lot more achievable.
It took him a few more minutes to gather his willpower, but eventually he managed to shut off the water. Without the hot water on his skin, he felt cold. It’s all going to be fine, he told himself, shivering as he wrapped himself up in the fluffy white hotel towel. He’d grabbed his pajama pants and a t-shirt before stumbling into the bathroom. He dressed quickly, and then hesitated once his hand was on the doorknob. Eliot probably didn’t want anything to change between them anyway, and he was just making a big thing out of nothing. Maybe he’d just… imagined the whole thing. He took a deep breath, and another, and then opened the door.
Eliot was sitting up in the middle of the bed, flicking through one of those little info booklets that the hotel supplied. He’d put on his robe, but it hung loosely from his shoulders, covering only his arms, and Quentin wanted nothing more than to crawl into his lap and trace his lips down his collarbones, over his belly, lower. The covers, bunched around his hips, hid whether he’d found his underwear as well.
Nothing tugged at Quentin more, though, than the softness of Eliot’s smile when he looked up at him. He looked more relaxed than he’d seen him since… well, probably ever. “Morning.”
“Hey,” he said, his mouth like cotton.
Closing the booklet, Eliot tossed it on the bed beside him. “I know we’ve got lunch in two hours, but what do you say about getting room service anyway? I’m starving.”
Maybe he could just… pretend it never happened. He chewed on his lip as Eliot stood up, tying the robe loosely around himself. He was trying not to look, but before he closed his robe, he couldn’t miss the fact that Eliot was not, in fact, wearing underwear.
The last thing he felt like was eating. “Sure.”
Eliot rounded the bed, something flickering to light in his eyes as he approached Quentin with slow, measured steps. “I could call down now, or…” Pausing, he stepped up to Quentin, who held his breath, suppressing a shiver as Eliot traced his fingertips lightly down his cheek before settling his hand flat against the side of his neck. His hand was so warm, and he remembered how good it had felt to wake up wrapped up in that warmth, how safe he’d felt until his panic had kicked in. Somehow, his hands had ended up wrapped in the panels of Eliot’s robe, and it would be so easy to pull it open and step forward to feel the heat of his body. Eliot’s thumb stroked across his skin, the smile turning the corner of his lips telling him that he suspected where Quentin’s mind had gone. “Or, you could join me back in the shower.”
He bent his head, his intention clear, and Quentin’s heart felt like it was about to beat out of his chest. It would take nothing to just let himself be kissed, to let himself enjoy this moment, to choose happiness. To give himself over to another person and trust that it would be okay.
Instead, he turned his head, squeezing his eyes shut as though if he blocked it out, then he wouldn’t have to face it. Eliot’s lips brushed his cheek, and Quentin felt him stiffen immediately. “Eliot,” he said, and hated the way that it already sounded like an apology.
Eliot pulled back, and Quentin forced his eyes open again, made himself look up at him. His brow was pinched, his smile faded into uncertainty. “What’s going on?”
What’s going on is that I’m a coward. I love you, but I’m a coward. “I…” Fuck, his throat was burning. “I can’t.”
“You…” Eliot’s hand dropped from his neck, and Quentin’s fingers tingled as the blood rushed back into them when he let go of the robe. Eliot took half a step back, his face a mask of surprise and confusion. “What?”
He wanted to do anything to stop Eliot’s face doing that. Quentin took the fragments of his courage, not enough to open up his heart but enough to protect it, and powered through, hating himself in every breath. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” Eliot’s eyes were wide, and Quentin struggled against the urge to reach out to him. His mouth twisted into what he was sure was the furthest thing from a smile. “Last night was perfect, El, it was everything, but… but it wasn’t what we agreed on.” He took a deep breath to steady his trembling voice. “What we promised.”
“What we…” Eliot shook his head slowly, looking at him searchingly. “Q, you said you wanted —”
“I did,” he said quickly. He never wanted him to think that he didn’t want him, that he hadn’t delighted in every moment that they’d been together. “I do. I just…” Fuck, he couldn’t cry. He couldn’t. He blinked his eyes until his vision cleared, but Eliot was still looking at him like he couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. “My life’s a mess right now, El,” he said, needing him to understand. “You helped me to forget that last night, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to go home tomorrow and pick up the pieces of my broken life. Julia, Alice, my job.”
“I can —”
“I’m not ready,” he said in a rush, before Eliot could tell him that he could be there beside him for all of it, or whatever other perfect, supportive answer he was going to give him. Already he felt like he was being split in two. He couldn’t even think about the chasm that would open up inside of him when Eliot would decide to end things. It would be inevitable, and he wouldn’t be able to take it. “I… You’re so important to me, El,” he said, almost choking on the cliche, no matter how much he meant it. Eliot’s eyes squeezed shut, and he wished he could take it back. “But I feel… I feel torn open and terrified.”
Each second that stretched out between them made the fist around his heart squeeze tighter. He needed Eliot to understand, and didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t. He still wasn’t looking at him, had turned his head away with his hand on the back of his neck, the other arm wrapped around his middle. Quentin wanted to make it easier, but he didn’t know how. Everything was falling apart, and he only had himself to blame.
“And last night…” Eliot said eventually.
“I’ll only regret it if it changes anything between us.”
Eliot took a deep breath before nodding sharply, his jaw clenching as he straightened up and opened his eyes. He still wasn’t quite looking at him. “Good,” he said, his voice jarringly firm. “It’s for the best, I’m sure.”
“We made that contract for a reason, right? We should stick to it.”
“Right.” Except there was a hollow feeling in his gut that was expanding and expanding, and… He felt like a fool, because he knew that it was easier if Eliot doesn’t want this to explore this… whatever it could be, it was better for his heart and Eliot’s if Quentin’s heartache wouldn’t hurt Eliot too, so why did he still feel like there was a knife in his heart?
Eliot looked at him, finally, and the knife twisted. He’d seen that face before — carefully neutral, guarded, closed. “I’m going to shower. Order what you want. I’ll wait for lunch.”
The sick feeling in his stomach only got worse the longer that Eliot was in the bathroom. He changed slowly into the only other suit he owned and then retreated to the sitting room to give Eliot space. He didn’t bother trying to even pretend to read, sitting by the window instead and watching the tiny dots of people on the street below. He tried to conjure up some pride for asking for what he needed, but he only felt tired and sad and ashamed.
Eliot’s face was still carefully, painfully neutral when he came, fully dressed, into the sitting room an hour later. Quentin was as curled up in his chair as he could get in his suit, his legs tucked up on the chair beside him and his arms around his knees. He wished he could make a tighter ball, wondered if that would help him to hold himself together. Eliot sat down on the couch to put his shoes on, his eyes barely skimming over Quentin by the window. This was what he didn’t want. “I’m sorry for making things weird,” he said, before he could consider whether pointing it out would make it worse.
Eliot’s jaw twitched. “Quentin. We fucked, and now we’re not going to do it again, and that’s fine. It’s not weird.” He froze, his eyes sliding closed before he covered them with his hand. “Okay fine, that was weird.” His shoulders moved in a great, deep breath. When he straightened up, his eyes had lost some of the indifference that had made his gaze so painful. He looked at Quentin, grimacing. “I’m sorry.”
If his guilt for upsetting Eliot, today of all days, wasn’t bad enough, then it grew stronger again for the tiny twinge of relief that he felt to know that it mattered to him, at least a little. And what kind of person felt good about someone else’s pain? Eliot deserved someone so much better than him, someone who was brave and strong and who didn’t fall apart at the idea of a relationship breaking down before it even started. He deserved everything — he deserved to be recognised for how incredible he was, without any qualifiers.
“You should tell them the truth.”
He hadn’t intended to say it. He hadn’t intended to be such a mess during the trip, either. Eliot looked at him sharply, and it was almost a relief. “What?”
Letting his feet slip down to the floor, he turned to face Eliot properly. “You shouldn’t have to lie to get this promotion, Eliot. We both know that you deserve it because you’ve worked for it, and everyone at that firm knows that too. You should… you should be honest with them, tell that that we’re not together.” He stood up, cutting off Eliot’s protest. He didn’t know how much his opinion mattered right now, but he needed Eliot to hear him. “You deserve to know that you’ve won this for the right reasons,” he said. “That you’re good enough that it doesn’t matter. And if it does matter, is this really the company that you want to tie yourself to?”
Eliot was staring up at him, his eyes wide. “This is my career,” he said quietly.
“I know.” Quentin smiled at him sadly. “And you deserve to know that you succeeded because you earned it, not because we’ve spent the last few weeks fooling your bosses.”
His chest moving in a deep sigh, Eliot dropped his eyes back to his shoes, slipping the other one and pulling the laces tight. “It’s not that easy, Q,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Quentin wasn’t sure if it was because Eliot wanted to believe him, or if he was just as tired as he was.
Eliot was suffocating.
This was the moment that he’d been working towards for the last few weeks, for the last few years, for his whole life. This was success. This was making something of himself.
He wanted to be anywhere else.
Loria, Fogg & Associates had gone all out, with a pre-planned menu and everflowing drinks that Eliot took care to only sip at. He knew everyone at this table — Henry and Bigby; Idri and Eliza, his wife and a senior partner; Zelda; Poppy and Todd — and he knew exactly how to charm them. He had been careful to prompt the others with as many questions as they threw him, particularly Zelda and Eliza, who didn’t know him as well as the others. He’d managed to work his three most successful cases into the conversation seamlessly, and in ways that best highlighted exactly how great he was at his job.
It was a job interview disguised as a casual lunch, and he was everything that they wanted.
He was putting on his bravest face, and he knew that he was doing it well. He’d been faking this kind of nonchalance and confidence since he’d left behind a small town in Indiana fifteen years ago. No one needed to know that his heart was breaking.
Stop being melodramatic, he scolded himself as he listened to Eliza talking about… something. He didn’t do this — didn’t fall in love with men who didn’t want him and then pine away to distraction. Didn’t make himself sick wondering what he could have done differently, what he could say to make Quentin reconsider, get so caught up with his personal drama that he couldn’t focus on the people who held his future in his hands.
He was a fool. For thinking that Quentin would want him in the cold light of day, for hoping that he might truly feel as he did. For the fact that last night had been one of the best of his life.
Quentin was nodding along to Eliza like he was hanging on every word. Eliot felt sick. Had anyone else noticed that their smiles were forced every time they’d made eye contact? He’d been quiet, a lot quieter than yesterday, but he’d done a perfect job of playing Eliot’s partner for the past few weeks and today wasn’t any different. Even if he thought that he should tell them the truth.
Apparently he wasn’t real relationship material, but Quentin thought he was good enough for this, good enough to drop the charade. Eliot wasn’t so sure.
After… everything that had happened — Eliot’s throat tightened just from determinedly not thinking about it — he’d been sure that Quentin wouldn’t want to come to the lunch. When Eliot had given him the out again, he’d looked at him incredulously and told him that of course he was coming.
Quentin hadn’t mentioned telling the truth again, seemingly ready to leave the decision in Eliot’s hands. Eliot didn’t know what to do. Quentin was right — he wanted the job on his own merits, to be able to stand up and say that he’d gotten the partnership because of what he could do and not because of a lie. But what if he wasn’t good enough after all?
Except he was. He knew he was. And Quentin thought so too.
“How about you, Eliot?” Bigby said, and Eliot’s attention snapped back to the table. He cast his mind back over the conversation that he’d only just caught snippets of. Poppy had been talking about something that he had no interest in — that’s right, her marriage. “Have you ever thought about getting married?"
She could not be any more obvious if she tried. She practically winked at Quentin, and Eliot somehow resisted the urge to laugh and cry and flip the fucking table.
He knew how he should play this, knew how to have them all eating out of the palm of his hand with big romantic notions, but he didn’t have the heart to play coy and say someday and exchange a smirk or a shy smile with Quentin like he knew that he should.
He was just so goddamn tired.
Eliot looked around at the people who would decide his future, at his competition. He lingered on Henry, the man who’d taken a chance on him when his name had been dirt, and even longer on Quentin. It took Quentin a moment to really meet his eye, and his eyes widened slightly, as though he’d seen something that he didn’t expect.
He’d spent so long pretending that he was past everything that had happened, to everyone else and to himself. Until now, he hadn’t realised the difference between shutting out his past and moving on from it.
Quentin had slipped beneath his walls and broken them down from the inside, and he hadn’t even realised it. But that didn’t make him weak. It made him strong.
The confusion on Quentin’s face told him that he’d already taken far too long to answer, and he smiled at him reassuringly before turning back to the others. He met Bigby’s gaze evenly, his shoulders set. “I almost was,” he said, but his heart didn’t even clench with dread at the thought of the tiny little box that he’d had hidden in his closet, pawned for rent money after he’d left his life behind for the second time. “The person who I thought I’d spend my life with ended up… well, it didn’t work out. But that was okay,” he said, and meant it. He turned to Henry. “Because it actually led me to the firm that I work at today, a firm that is focused on helping people, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
Henry’s eyebrows had lifted in surprise — he hadn’t known the full story, hadn’t known that the person who had betrayed him had been his partner. He was looking at him consideringly, but whatever this information meant to him now, whether it was good or bad or indifferent, Eliot didn’t know.
He hadn’t told Quentin, either. Not that part. It was easier to divulge a professional betrayal than a personal one. Quentin was very still beside him. Eliot very carefully kept his gaze on Henry.
“I’m glad you found a place where you belong,” Zelda said.
Me too stalled on his lips when he felt fingers brushing against his hand. He didn’t look down, but turned his hand on his thigh to grip Quentin’s hand tightly, surprised by the way his throat constricted at his support, constant and unceasing even now, even after what had happened this morning and last night. Quentin squeezed back.
And he knew what he wanted to do.
"Quentin and I didn't meet last year," he said, and felt everyone’s full attention on him instantly. "I met him four weeks ago, in the food court, being harrassed by Christmas carollers. That part was real. But the relationship we've shown you for the last few weeks isn't." His eyes landed on Henry, and it scared him a little how much he wanted him to think well of him. And how, despite that, this truth felt more important. "I asked him to come with me to our holiday events so that you wouldn't think less of me because I wasn't in a relationship."
He was met with a wall of confusion and surprise. The wide-eyed stare frozen on Poppy’s face was almost comical, if he’d felt like laughing. Had Todd told her that he’d slipped up to Quentin about her previous marriages? He could spill it all now, her secrets as well as his own, and making it a level playing field. A few weeks ago, he would have. A few weeks ago, he would have thrown her under the bus and denied any lies of his own.
Margo was going to kill him.
“Why are you telling us this now?” Idri said. He didn’t look angry, just thoughtful, and Eliot met his gaze evenly.
“Because I deserve to be made partner because of my work, not because of whether or not I’m in a relationship,” he said, feeling Quentin’s fingers tighten around his again. He lifted his chin and spoke his worth. “I’ve fought hard for every step in my career despite the setbacks that I’ve had, despite coming to the city with nothing. I’m proud of the life that I’ve built. The career that I've built, with your help," he said to Henry. Taking a deep breath, he looked at him with as much openness and honesty as he had when he'd first given him a reason to take him in the day they'd met. "You know that I'll be a valuable asset to the firm as partner, if you just let go of the ideal that families and marriage are the only way to promote goodness. And more importantly, I know that."
He turned to Quentin, and the pride on his face took his breath away. He felt like he should be shaking, with adrenaline if not fear, but Quentin was holding him steady. Always holding him steady. "I've never met anyone as kind-hearted or brave as Quentin, who also happens to be divorced." Quentin's eyes softened, and Eliot smiled at him tremulously, looking back to the others before he choked on the sudden lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry for lying to you,” Quentin said quietly before Eliot could continue, and he felt a moment of real guilt when he turned to see him looking at Bigby. Bigby opened her mouth, but hesitated when Quentin sat straighter in his chair, when he squared his shoulders and looked at the others. For the first time, Eliot felt nervous. “I don’t know that my opinion’s worth anything, but… but you will never find anyone as dedicated, or as loyal, or as generous as Eliot. He’s changed my life from knowing him just a few weeks. He only did this because he loves this company so much.”
He’d started speaking faster the longer he’d talked, and he stopped in a rush, looking around at everyone at the table except for Eliot. Eliot squeezed his hand, begging his attention, and Quentin’s mouth twisted. “I’m going to…” Pausing, he swallowed hard, and when he finally glanced at Eliot he saw the building panic there. “I’m sorry, this is — a — a business meeting, and I shouldn’t be here.”
Pulling his hand free of Eliot’s grip, he pushed back his chair, suddenly not meeting anyone’s eyes. “Quentin,” Eliot said, alarm pushing to the surface.
“It was nice to meet you,” he said to the others, taking a step backward. “Um.” He shook his head sharply before turning and hastening between the tables toward the door.
“Well, shit,” Todd said in amazement, quickly followed by Poppy’s shh.
Quentin was almost at the door to the restaurant. He couldn’t let him leave. He glanced over his shoulder back to the table, but nothing he saw there came close to his need to go after Quentin and make sure he was okay. “Excuse me, I — sorry, I’ll be back,” he said, as he was already on his feet and running for the door.
The entrance to the restaurant was crowded, and Eliot feared that he'd lose him in the throng, but a few unfortunately placed elbows later he had pushed his way through. The lobby was much emptier, and his heart leapt to see Quentin still inside.
He stopped when Eliot called his name, his shoulders curling defensively, but Eliot didn't slow as he crossed the lobby. "Wait," he said, putting his hand on his shoulder as he walked around him to stand before him. "Q —"
"What are you doing?" Quentin said, his voice thick with anguish, his eyes wide and shining. "Get back in there, you have to —"
"Not without you." Eliot set his other hand on his shoulder, worried that he was going to turn away. "Are you okay?"
The tremble of his lower lip before he pressed them together in a grimace was a fist around Eliot’s heart. He wanted to pull him into his arms, to hold him tight, to make him safe, but Quentin had put a wall between them that he couldn't tear down, no matter how much it hurt. "I can't stay," he said, grabbing one of Eliot's arms and squeezing it through his sleeve. "I'm sorry, I — I can't, I —"
"Hey," Eliot said again, dropping his voice and ducking his head to hold Quentin's gaze. "It's okay."
Quentin laughed, a small desperate sound, swaying as though he might take a step back. Eliot tightened his grip, and so did Quentin, until he was sure he’d have bruises on his arm. “How can you… It’s not okay,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not okay, I — I broke the contract and fell in love, and I’m sorry, Eliot, I’m sorry but I can’t —”
He cut off with his own hand clapped to his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut. Eliot stared at him, his breath caught in his throat until his blood started pumping louder and louder in his ears, the perfect drumbeat to fell in love fell in love fell in love.
But he couldn’t mean it, right? He was just upset, he —
Fell in love.
“Quentin,” he whispered, sliding a hand up to pull Quentin’s away from his face. His hand settled on the side of his neck, guiding his head back with his thumb under his jaw. He could feel his pulse under his fingers, hammering just as hard as Eliot’s was.
The open vulnerability in Quentin’s eyes when he finally opened them shook Eliot to his core, and… oh. Finally, he understood. Or hoped he did. He remembered the way Quentin had looked at him last night, the broken sound of his name on his lips, the wonder in his voice — all of it an echo of what lived in Eliot’s heart.
He’d been so scared of facing it that he’d ignored it from the moment he’d met Quentin, pushed it down until it was too big to hide. It didn’t feel so scary with the word love falling from Quentin’s lips.
“I know what you said before,” he said, and was surprised to find his voice steady. He’d never been more sure of anything in his life. “That you’re afraid. But Q… you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met. Quentin, I —”
— love you.
Biting back his confession, Eliot forced his eyes across the lobby to see Henry striding across the room, looking relieved to see them. Eliot didn’t feel relieved at all, particularly when Quentin quickly let go of his arm and stepped back out of his grip. He looked back at him, his heart sinking when he wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“You’re being missed at the table,” Henry said, his voice doing that thing where he sounded both flippant and unimpressed at the same time. It was always a fine line to determine which one he was leaning toward. “And you should know that Idri doesn’t like to be kept waiting any more than I do.”
“I’m sorry, Henry,” he said, and felt the weight of the lie hit him all at once. “I didn’t mean —”
“Yes, you did. Own your mistakes, Eliot, so you can learn from them, but you can apologise for them later.” Henry nodded back toward the restaurant. “Right now, you need that conviction you were spouting five minutes ago if I’m going to convince Idri that you’re still the right candidate.”
Surely he hadn’t heard that right. “But I thought…”
“That,” Henry said flatly, “would be a first.”
Bewildered, Eliot turned back to Quentin, who was watching him with a complicated expression on his face, too jumbled for him to read. “Don’t keep them waiting,” Quentin said softly. “I — I’m going to get an early flight, but you —”
“What?” He moved toward him, but Quentin took a matching step backward, shaking his head. Eliot’s fingers ached with the need to reach out to him. “Quentin, no —”
“Go. Please,” he said. “Show them who you are. Who you really are.”
The idea was terrifying. But not more so than leaving this heavy weight hanging between the two of them, a breath away from slipping through his fingers. “Don’t go home.” They couldn’t fix anything with hundreds of miles between them.
“Don’t let this all be for nothing,” Quentin said, his smile small and sad as he nodded to Henry and then… and then just turned and walked away.
“Quentin,” he called, but he didn’t stop this time.
Eliot watched him go, the icy grip around his heart not soothed at all by the weight of Henry’s hand on his shoulder. Despite all he’d worked for in the last few weeks, despite the fact that — somehow, incredibly — Henry still wanted him at that table…
All he wanted to do was follow Quentin through that door.
Q: Home or office?
J: jk I’m at the office I might be mad and petty but also I love you you jerk
Most of the lights had been turned off, the room illuminated only by the light spilling through from the break room, the gaps in the blinds from Alice’s office, and from a couple computer monitors that hadn’t been turned off. Sitting in front of one of those computers, with her legs tucked up underneath her and her hands wrapped around a mug, was Julia.
Setting his suitcase by the door, Quentin approached her slowly, forcing a smile when he reached her desk and she finally looked up at him. He wasn’t sure if it was just the way that the light of the screen in the dark room hit her face, but she looked tired. He could relate. “Is this seat taken?” he said, pulling the chair beside her out an inch.
“Yeah, by my best friend who has a lot of explaining to do,” she said brightly, the sharpness in her eyes belying her smile.
He didn’t need to play at being chastened. He’d felt it ricocheting through him since he’d found out about the email. Longer. Pulling the chair out the rest of the way, he sank into the seat, frowning at her in confusion when she offered him her mug. Raising it to his lips, he smelled something sharper than coffee, and huffed a laugh before taking a sip, tasting whiskey on his tongue.
He let the warmth and the alcohol steady him before setting the mug on the desk and leaning back in his chair. “So, I did a stupid thing.”
“Followed by another stupid thing.”
“Sounds about right.”
“And then finished it up with one more stupid thing.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Oh no, that’s just taking it too far.”
Quentin rolled his eyes at her, but couldn’t stop the smile that pulled at his lips. He’d known that they would be okay, but that was entirely different than really feeling it. The relief flowed through him, relaxing his body and tightening his throat. “Jules, I’m so sorry. For the contract, for how you found out about it.” She’d read it — she already knew what his side of the deal was. “I wish I’d never lied to you.”
All traces of humour had slipped from her face, leaving only the things that he had feared the most. Hurt, betrayal, confusion. “Then why did you?”
Because a pretty man asked me to. He felt far too self-deprecating to make the joke. Just thinking about Eliot, about the way he’d looked at him when Quentin had told him he was going home, made his heart twist painfully. But it was fine — the other reason made him feel just as terrible. “Because I was tired of you thinking I was just a sad lonely puppy who no one wanted,” he said, hating himself for the way Julia’s face fell. “And I wasn’t ready to date yet. I met Eliot, and he asked me if I’d help him with this. I didn’t think it would become… this.”
He remembered thinking the idea was silly. He felt like a fool, in an entirely different way than he’d expected.
Julia picked up the mug, watching him thoughtfully over the rim as she took a mouthful. There was a finality to the way she set it back on the desk, and he dreaded her next words. “You weren’t ready, or you were afraid of getting hurt?”
As usual, she saw the depth of him without even trying. The fact that not only was she right, but that he’d have adamantly denied it a month ago, felt like his world shifting beneath him. Was it really only this morning that he’d woken up in Eliot’s arms, only to pull himself away and throw up a wall between them to protect his heart? He looked away, feeling raw and exposed and knowing that Julia saw it all. “I guess I kind of got hurt anyway.”
He saw her straighten up slightly in his peripheral vision, felt her hand brush his knee. “What happened?”
The concern in her voice was a comfort that he clung to selfishly as he told her everything. How he fell in love with Eliot without realising it. How Eliot had done everything he could to make yesterday perfect. “He, um…” He pulled the cufflinks from his pocket, ran his thumb over the ridges of the horns before holding them out to show Julia. “He bought me these to say thank you.”
Julia had once loved Fillory just as much as he did, and even though she’d let it go since they’d grown up, he saw that she still recognised the significance immediately. Turning the little rams head over between her fingers, she laughed. “Damn, Q, and your nerd heart didn’t ask him to elope right on the spot?”
“No,” he said, reaching out to take the cufflink back and slipping them back into his pocket. “But I did sleep with him.”
The laughter in her eyes died instantly. “Oh, Quentin,” she said, and it was exactly the pity that he’d jumped into this facade to avoid.
But at least he’d given her reason for it this time. He squeezed her hand tightly when she threaded her fingers through his. “It was perfect,” he said, his voice breaking from the truth of it. “Right up until I chickened out. I told him that I wasn’t ready for a relationship, and then I fucked up his business lunch and jumped on an early plane home.” He knew that he hadn’t belonged at that meeting, but the lost look in Eliot’s eyes when he’d told him that he couldn’t stay had haunted him for the entire flight home.
“You really like him, don’t you?” Julia said softly, because of course she knew. “Like, really really.”
He stretched his mouth into… a grimace or a smile, he wasn’t sure. He felt closer to crying than happiness. “I really like him,” he said, a weight lifting off his chest at the confession. “I like him too much.” He glanced at the slashes of light emitting from Alice’s office. He wasn’t surprised that she was still here after almost everyone else had gone home, even on a Friday night this close to Christmas. “The last time I loved someone like I’ve fallen in love with Eliot, they ended up cheating on me with my best friend and taking my business out from underneath me.”
Freeing her hand, Julia drained the last of her coffee, and then opened her bottom draw to pull out a small bottle of whiskey. “Well to start with, I’m greatly offended by the implication that Penny is your best friend, was your best friend, or has ever been your best friend.” She glanced inside her mug and then seemed to change her mind, drinking straight from the bottle instead before holding it out for him.
“And Q… you can’t compare Eliot and Alice,” she continued, dropping her voice a little and nodding over his shoulder to his ex-wife’s office. He took a long draw of the whiskey to avoid the pointed look she sent him, but she didn’t let up. “You didn’t fool me about your relationship because you’re such a great actor. I’ve never seen you look at anyone the way you look at Eliot. Alice certainly never looked at you the way Eliot does.”
The way his heart lifted momentarily at her words was a complete and utter betrayal. He shoved it back down, pulling his feet up onto the chair and wrapping his arms around his legs. “I’m never looking at anyone again, particularly not now that everyone knows about the contract.” He looked around the dark office. Every desk, every computer, every sign, every picture of the walls: all because he’d put it there. He’d built this place up from nothing, and now he didn’t think he’d be able to face anyone on Monday. Penny’s olive branch was one thing, but Alice would more likely than not just continue to use it against him. “Maybe it’s time to give in,” he said slowly. “Sell my half to Alice. Start a new agency.”
“This is your place,” Julia said firmly, and he was blown away when he turned back to her to see her eyes blazing with determination. He was even more surprised when her lips curved into a sly smile. “And besides, I think you’ll want to stay.”
“Why?” he asked warily.
Riffling through a stack of paperwork on her desk, Julia pulled out a manilla folder and passed it across to him. “This.”
He frowned at the label on the front. Philly and Further’s Charity Program. “What is this?”
“While you’ve been off rendezvousing with your not-but-maybe-boyfriend, I’ve been fielding calls from local businesses and other donors. They want to sponsor the charity program.”
“What?” He looked up in shock, but the grin on Julia’s face was excitement and not, hopefully, some cruel prank. Opening the folder, he skimmed through the list of business names, followed by a handful of family names, some of which he recognised and others that he didn’t. His heart stopped when he saw Henry and Bigby Fogg halfway down the list. “All of these people want to help?” he asked weakly.
“They do.” Julia scooted her chair closer and rested her chin on his shoulder, pointing out a few names in particular. His head span with the size of the donations that they wanted to make. “They saw the Reindeer Report and wanted to help the kids. There’s going to be enough to send another couple of families away in January, and to make it a bi-annual thing. We could do a fourth of July event or something if you wanted to make a theme of it.”
“Holy shit,” he said, laughter bubbling up out of his chest. “You’re serious.” Closing his eyes, he remembered the mess that had been the Reindeer Report. If he hadn’t stepped in to take over, the charity program never would have gotten a mention.
Grabbing the tissue box from the other side of her desk, Julia wiped out the coffee mug after all so she could pour a measure of whiskey, and then passed him the bottle. “To the kids!” She clinked her mug against the bottle and took a drink. “Sorry I didn’t buy champagne,” she said dryly.
Quentin was grinning as he brought the bottle to his lips, but his pride and excitement started to deflate with the burn of whiskey down his throat. His heart caught on the memory of his last champagne toast — yesterday, with Eliot. Before everything had changed. Before he’d admitted that everything had changed. He had looked at him with the same kind of pride that Quentin had felt a burst of just now, and he… he wanted to tell him about his success, to fill himself up on Eliot’s smile, to tell him that he wouldn’t have been able to get up onto that stage without the confidence that he had in him. Dropping the bottle into his lap, he turned it between his hands, his aching heart putting a bad taste in his mouth.
“You wish you were celebrating with him, don’t you?” Julia said quietly, and he shrugged without looking up at her.
He took another mouthful, but it didn’t clear the lump in his throat. “I do,” he said honestly, his mouth twisting against the sudden burning in the corners of his eyes. He forced himself to look up at Julia, and cracked open the last, vulnerable part of him. “But what if he doesn’t want me anymore? Or at all? Or… what if he does?” Just the thought sent his heart racing, but the fear was almost as loud as the hope. “I wish I was brave enough for this.”
“So.” She shrugged. “Be brave.”
He raised his eyebrows at her incredulously. “You say that like it’s easy.”
“Of course it’s not easy,” Julia scoffed, leaning forward and taking his free hand in hers. “But maybe it’s worth it.”
Was it worth it? The potential for a broken heart, the worry that Eliot might not love him in the same way, the fear that Eliot would tire of him, that he wouldn’t be enough for him, that he’d be too much… all of these things that he couldn’t control, all of the reasons why he was holding himself back.
But what if Eliot did love him? What if he wouldn’t get sick of him, what if they could be happy. He hadn’t been as happy as he’d been last night in longer than he could remember.
He wanted… he wanted to be brave. Like Eliot thought he was. Because it was worth it. Eliot was worth it. A chance to be happy with him, to see his brilliant smile and hear his laugh and feel his arms around him... to feel safe together. To feel strong together. To have faith that if he fell, Eliot would catch him.
But Quentin had already fallen, and Eliot had been waiting with open arms.
“I have to…” He stretched awkwardly to pluck his phone from the pocket of his jeans. He wanted to tell him about the charity program, wanted to — his breath caught in his throat, his heart swelling — wanted to tell him that he loved him, and have it be something joyful rather than the heartbroken confession that had tumbled out earlier today. Eliot wouldn’t be getting home until tomorrow morning, but that didn’t matter, if he could hear his voice then it didn’t have to wait, he could tell him now —
His phone wasn’t responding. He pressed on the power button again, and groaned when the red battery symbol appeared on his screen. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The laughter in Julia’s voice was just as frustrating as his flat battery. “Do you have your charger?”
“Nope,” he said bitterly. He knew exactly where it was — plugged into the wall beside the hotel bed where he’d left it this morning. He hadn’t thought to grab it in his mad rush to pack before Eliot got back from the restaurant.
“Wanna use my phone?”
It was tempting, but now that he’d paused to think about it, the last place that he wanted to call Eliot from to tell him that he was in love with him was his work. I’m in love with him, he thought, and let himself feel the wonder and lightness that came with the realisation rather than the fear. It fizzed through him, and he didn’t try to moderate the grin that spread across his face. “I’ll wait until I get home.”
Patting his cheek affectionately, Julia tossed back the rest of her drink and then stood. “Do you want a lift?” she said, as she stepped around him toward the breakroom. “I’m going to Kady’s, but I don’t mind the detour.”
His answer stalled on his lips when he heard the click of a door opening behind him and more light spilled into the room. He caught the surprise on Julia’s face before he turned to see Alice hovering in the doorway to her office. “Hey,” she said, chewing on her lower lip. She looked between him and Julia and back cautiously, her jaw visibly tense from across the room. “Do you have a minute?”
Every inch of his body vibrated with the need to get home, but there was something about Alice’s wariness combined with the politeness of her tone that gave him pause. “You go ahead, Jules,” he said, and glanced over his shoulder to see her surprise moved to him. “It’s not so bad outside, I can walk.”
“It wasn’t when I got here.” He appreciated her concern, whether it was for the weather or otherwise, but he could handle himself. He wasn’t going to let things continue like they had been with Alice, and turning her down when she was — for whatever reason — reaching out to him didn’t seem like a good place to start. “I’ll message you when I get home.”
Giving her a reassuring smile when she continued to look at him doubtfully, he replaced her whiskey in her bottom draw and followed Alice into her office. He expected her to round the desk and sit in her usual seat behind it, and was surprised when she sank into one of the two chairs closer to the door. He was less surprised when she looked out through the blinds into the office. “You know you’re not supposed to have alcohol at work,” she said, as he perched tentatively in the chair beside her.
“Is that really what you wanted me for?” he said, hands on the arms of the chair to push himself right back up again.
“No,” she said quickly, holding out a hand to stop him, and he sank slowly back into the chair. Closing her eyes, Alice took a deep breath, and when she opened them, they were determined. “I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.”
Leaning slowly back in the chair, Quentin forced the distraction of Eliot away and regarded her warily. He was tired, so tired of fighting with her, but he wasn’t going to put words in her mouth, particularly when he didn’t know exactly what she was apologising for. The last few days? The last few years?
When she apparently realised that he wasn’t going to but in, Alice clasped her hands together in her lap. It looked like she’d been picking at her fingernails. She only did that when she was stressed. “I know that you and Penny have reconciled,” she said. She sounded like she was choosing her words carefully, and he wondered how many times she’d rehearsed this. “I’m glad, Quentin. The two of you falling out was one of the worst parts about what happened —” She paused, turned her head slightly. “About what we did. I’m sorry for that. I know I apologised at the time, but I don’t think either of us ever let it go.”
She was right. He’d heard all of her sorrys back when it had happened, but he hadn’t wanted to hear them. It surprised him to realise that far less of the anger and frustration that he felt toward her seemed to be tied to that than it used to be. “Thank you,” he said simply, not quite sure how to put the rest of those thoughts into words that felt safe to share with her.
Alice nodded, and Quentin suppressed a wry smile that this seemed to be going how she’d hoped. He considered standing up and flipping the chair just to see how she’d react, and then thought ruefully that he’d been spending too much time with Eliot. Eliot, his heart sang, but he forced himself to pay attention as Alice continued. “I’m sorry, too, for sending that file out to everyone in the office. It was… it was a nasty thing to do, even if I thought that you’d purposefully ruined Penny’s TV spot. Which I know now that you didn’t do,” she added quickly.
Closing his mouth to pull back his automatic retort, Quentin shook his head at himself, bemused. The fact that he’d gone on the defensive without stopping to think about it brought up all of the turmoil that was a daily part of their working relationship. “What are we doing here, Alice?” he asked, leaning forward to scrub his hands across his face. “I can’t work like this anymore. I can’t live like this anymore.”
“I know,” she said, her voice small, and when Quentin dropped his hands he found himself looking at the Alice that he’d used to know, the Alice that he’d married, the Alice that he’d gone into business with. Gone was the armour, the tight walls and the barbed defences. “It’s been poisoning us for years, and I didn’t know how to stop it.” Abruptly, her hands pressed flat together and tucked between her knees.
“You can relax, okay,” he said gently, and wondered a second too late if he was overstepping.
But her shoulders slumped, the lines on her face easing just a touch. “I don’t know how to not fight with you anymore,” she said with a small, helpless smile. “We would have hated this.” Pausing, she cleared her throat, and if she dropped her eyes slightly so she wasn’t quite looking at him anymore, at least she’d gentled her hands in her lap. “After it happened, I felt so guilty for breaking up our marriage and your friendship with Penny that it just became easier to knuckle down and do things for myself rather than thinking like you were still part of my team, or I was a part of yours. And then I got used to that. It stopped being about avoiding you and started being about doing something for myself, and that felt so good that I didn’t stop to question how I was treating you in order to do what I wanted to do.”
It was almost comical how closely that aligned with his own mindset since their marriage had fallen apart. The only difference was that he’d been too focused on keeping the peace to take so much for himself, and once he’d started on the back foot he hadn’t been able to come back from it. He couldn’t do that anymore, but he knew that he didn’t want to leave, no matter what he’d told Julia just before. “We have to figure out a way to work together, Alice.”
Her eyes lifted until they met his once more. “Maybe we don’t,” she said carefully. “I want to sell you back my half of the business for the price that I bought them for.”
Quentin stared at her, stunned, but she didn’t take it back. He hadn’t imagined it. The corner of her mouth twitched up into a faint smile. “This is your business, Quentin, and I was trying to make it mine. It’s time I find something of my own. And maybe. Not yet, I don’t think, but maybe at some point we could try and be friends.”
Friends. With Alice. He put the idea next to the one that said friends with Penny, and wasn’t sure how it felt just yet, but it was immediately better than whatever they’d been dancing around for the last few years. “Okay. I think I could try that.” The relief on her face was a vulnerability that pulled at a confusing kind of nostalgia, and a hope for the future, that things could one day feel comfortable. “I think I want to try that. But are you sure about selling —”
“I’m sure,” she said firmly. “It’s what I want. It’s going to be good for you. And we both know that you can handle the business on your own, especially if you hire another manager to replace me.”
Of course she’d thought this through. The irritation that she wasn’t letting him set out his own steps was a force of habit, and he made the deliberate choice to let it go. “Okay. Let’s do it. But can we talk details on Monday?” He checked his watch. It wasn’t late, but he was itching to speak to Eliot. “I have a phone call to make.”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” Alice said quickly, and then paused. “But I’m glad you’re happy.”
Quentin was surprised by how much that meant to him. “Thanks, Alice,” he said, and couldn’t help but smile. “Me too.”
Turning his phone over and over between his fingers, Eliot watched the snow fall from the sky to dust Quentin’s front yard, and tried to remember what patience felt like.
He’d been waiting for half an hour or three hours or five days, he couldn’t be sure, but the wooden steps leading up to Quentin’s front porch were a cold and hard seat that he was reluctant to leave. The bench seat below the front window on the porch behind him didn’t offer as good a view of the road. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Knowing his luck, Quentin wasn’t even coming home tonight. His phone went straight to voicemail every time he tried to call it, but he kept pressing the green call button anyway, just in case. Maybe he’d gone to stay at Julia’s, or at his dad’s, or who knows where else. Maybe camping out on his front porch was creepy, maybe he wouldn’t want to see him, maybe he would wake up in the morning an icicle.
But it didn’t matter. He had to see him.
The second that he’d left the lunch meeting, he’d grabbed his belongings from the hotel and caught the next flight. He was going to wait here until Quentin got home, no matter how long it took. He had to tell him that he was in love with him. That he was fighting for him.
He almost dropped his phone into the thin layer of snow at his feet when it buzzed. His heart jumped to his throat, and then sank when he saw Margo’s name on the screen. Still, there was no harm in answering it — either Quentin’s phone was switched off or dead, and he would hear it beeping at him if he got another call anyway. Swiping at the green symbol on his screen, he brought the phone to his ear. “Hello. You’ve called the stalker hotline. For just $29.99 an hour you can have your very own desperate lover camped out the front of your house. Surcharge applies for other people’s houses, though, in case of, you know, getting violently beaten because you’re lurking around strangers houses.”
“Oh, honey, you’re worth so much more than thirty bucks an hour.” He huffed a laugh, humourless, and heard her sigh down the phone. “Your boy still hasn’t shown up yet?”
“Not yet,” he said, leaning sideways against the wooden railing. A snowflake landed on his nose, and he flicked the moisture away with his thumb. “Give it another hour, and then I’ll need you to organise a care package. Or maybe a search and rescue.”
“For you or for him?”
“Care package for me, search and rescue for him.”
“Have you tried, you know, calling his best friend to see if he’s with her?”
“Twice,” he said cheerfully. “It rang out both times. Any other helpful suggestions?”
Margo hummed thoughtfully. “Maybe if you’d just admitted to yourself that you had a crush when you first met him, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Swiping his fingers along the step beside him, he flicked snow into the air and wished he was aiming at her. “Ugh, get your logic away from me, heathen.” There was something about Margo that always settled him, but even she couldn’t ease the lead ball in his stomach. As he glanced up to follow the movement of the snow, he caught sight of a sprig of mistletoe above his head. Quentin, who hated Christmas, with mistletoe on his porch. It just made him think of their contract, their promise, and once more he was faced with the fear that that would be all they were. Two men who had made a deal, and then parted ways. He couldn’t let it happen.
He felt ready to jump out of his skin, impatient to see Quentin, to tell him how he felt. He couldn’t stop thinking about how broken he’d looked when he’d fled the restaurant earlier today, and he’d regretted every minute since then that he’d let Henry lead him back inside. He should have gone after him, should have told him then. What if he’d missed his chance? He couldn’t let this be the end. “Bambi,” he said uneasily. “What if he doesn’t…”
“Doesn’t what? Love you? Like he’s already told you he loves you?” He could see her exaggerated eye roll as though she was standing in front of him. “Don’t pussy out on me now, Waugh.”
Eliot smiled despite himself. “I love you, Margo.”
“Call me after if you need me.”
“Hopefully I won’t.”
Margo scoffed. “You’ll always need me.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Ending the call, Eliot dropped the phone into his lap and closed his eyes. It would be so easy to call an uber and go home, or to Margo’s, drink himself into a stupor and try and fail to forget the part of him that Quentin had brought to the surface.
Not a single part of him wanted to move from this spot. No matter how cold it was. No matter how his ass was starting to hurt.
He didn’t want easy. He wanted real. He wanted Quentin.
A noise reached his ears, the quiet scuff of a shoe against the sidewalk, and Eliot lifted his head hastily, his eyes snapping open. Quentin stood at the end of his driveway, his hands tucked into his coat, his hair dusted with snow. Shoving his phone into his pocket, Eliot scrambled to his feet, and all the words that had been spinning around in his head died on his lips because —
Because Quentin was smiling at him.
The smile faded, and then Quentin was rushing forward, crossing the front yard before Eliot had let go of the handrail and taken the two steps down to the ground. Quentin stopped just out of reach, and Eliot curled his hands into fists to stop himself from bridging the distance between them until he knew that it was what Quentin wanted. “What are you doing here?” Quentin asked, his eyes wide.
Eliot shrugged, finding a tentative smile despite the urgency inside him. “You got on a plane. I got on a plane.” It was that simple. “Quentin —”
“Eliot, I —”
They both stopped, the laughter between them strained and nervous. Eliot’s heart was thundering in his chest, but somehow he managed to nod to Quentin to tell him to go first. His brows drew together as he looked up at Eliot, that hopeless little puppy dog gaze that made Eliot’s heart cry yes, anything. “I’m sorry for leaving so abruptly,” Quentin said. “It was just… It was a lot. I needed some time to think. But I’m sorry for walking out on the lunch, and I’m sorry for leaving you in New York.”
Of course he was worried about that instead of literally everything else that had happened today. “You have nothing to apologise for,” he said, and saw Quentin’s mouth twist in response. “I mean it, Q. Henry vouched for me. I think Idri was impressed with the effort we put in to win Henry over. They gave me the promotion,” he said, still not quite able to believe it. “I’m the new partner for Loria, Fogg & Associates, starting in the new year.”
“What?” Quentin stared at him, stunned, before his whole face lit up in a grin. “You did it! I knew you would, of course they gave you the promotion. Eliot, you did it!”
Quentin’s excitement flowed through him, filling him up, and Eliot… was proud of himself, and happy, and relieved, but… but nothing mattered more to him than the brightness in Quentin’s eyes right now, the music of his laughter. “We did it,” he pointed out, because there was no way that he would have been able to do this alone. There was no way he would have been able to do it without Quentin. “Together.”
Quentin’s eyes softened. “Eliot…”
“I know we have something real,” Eliot said, the words tumbling from his lips before he could consider them, before he could ease into it. “And I can’t let go, not when I think you feel it too.” Quentin sucked in his breath, his lips parted and his eyes wide, as Eliot took a step forward, holding out his his heart, lying open and vulnerable, ready for Quentin to do with as he wished. He’d pieced it back together, and now every patched up shard of it belonged to him. “I know it’s hard,” he said, trying and failing to keep his voice steady. “It’s fucking terrifying for me too. But not so terrifying as living my life without you in it. I —”
The words were swallowed by Quentin’s lips, pressing firm and sure against his, both of his hands warm against Eliot’s cheeks. He sobbed with relief into Quentin’s mouth, wrapping his hand around the back of his neck, pulling him closer closer closer. “I love you,” he gasped as Quentin’s arms came around him, his body leaning in against him, his hands in his hair. “I love you.”
He felt Quentin’s lip tremble against his. “I love you. Eliot.” Quentin pulled back enough to look at him, and Eliot could have tumbled into his gaze and drowned there happily. “I want this. I know I said I wasn't ready, but… but I… I don't want to hide away forever, not when you already see me. It might fall apart," he said, surprising Eliot with a laugh, "but it might be the best thing that could ever happen to me, and I want to find out. I want to give it a shot. You and me. For real.”
“You and me,” Eliot whispered, staring at Quentin in wonder. Taking Quentin’s face in his hands, he leaned in and kissed him, pouring every swell of his heart into the touch of their lips, a promise so much more profound than anything they ever could have written on paper.
He felt like he was stepping off a cliff, but with Quentin by his side, he knew that he could face anything.
Chapter by highkingmariot
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Wakefulness pulled at Quentin in fits and starts, his body becoming aware of his surroundings slowly. The early morning sunlight turned the inside of his eyelids red, and he wasn’t sure who had left a gap in his bedroom curtains but they were going to have words once he stopped fighting the morning.
Turning his face further into the pillow, Quentin pulled the arm tucked underneath it closer in an attempt to block out more light, and felt something shift against his shoulders. Something… someone. Eliot. It was like he’d rolled half on top of him in his sleep, his chest pressed against his back, one arm draped around him and a leg tucked in between his.
His heart swelled, warm and full and safe in Eliot’s embrace. He could feel the rise and fall of his chest with every breath, steady in sleep. He buried a smile in his pillow, filled with wonder that he got to wake up with Eliot in his bed, wrapped around him, relaxed and happy and thoroughly naked.
It didn’t seem so important to stay buried in sleep, when being awake meant being aware of just how wonderful Eliot’s skin felt on his skin. Moving slowly so as not to disturb him more than he had to, Quentin rolled over, sliding his arm around his back and pressing his forehead to his shoulder. Despite his best efforts, Eliot stirred a little but he didn’t wake, making a sleep-thick sound in the back of his throat as his arms tightened around him.
Five days had passed since they’d returned from New York. They’d spent the weekend together at Eliot’s apartment — mostly in Eliot’s bed — and the nights since then at Quentin’s house. It felt good to be in no rush this morning, to get to wake up at their own pace and just enjoy each other before they had to face the day. Quentin traced his fingertips up the points of Eliot’s spine, just because he could, breathed in the scent of him and thrilled at its familiarity. He could stay like this forever.
Except for the uncomfortable press of his protesting bladder.
Eliot reached out blindly for him when he started to pull his limbs free, but settled again at his whisper that he’d be back. Slipping out from underneath the covers, Quentin grabbed his phone and tiptoed into the ensuite. He smiled as he glanced back at Eliot, his sprawling body tangled in the bedsheets, before he closed the door.
Swiping away all of the useless app notifications, he skimmed through the handful of generic messages, pausing when his eyes landed on one in particular. Merry Christmas, Quentin was all it said, but it was the first time that he’d gotten a non-work related message from Alice since their divorce.
She was trying. That felt… good. Weird, but good.
It would be easier, after the holidays, when they’d finalised the sale of the business back to Quentin and they didn’t have to work in each others’ pockets every day.
Everything felt a little easier now, when his mood was in a constant state of happy.
Setting his hand towel down on the vanity, he paused when he caught his reflection in the mirror. He looked a little tired, but he wasn’t surprised, not after the late hour they’d been awake to last night. But it wasn’t the smudges under his eyes, or the half-smile that had been pulling at his lips nonstop for the last few days that drew his attention.
He touched the tip of his index finger to the purplish mark on his skin, just above his collarbone, and felt his cheeks heat up at the memory of Eliot’s mouth on his body. The blush deepened when he traced his fingers from the hickey down to its twin, an inch or two in from his hip bone.
He didn’t linger in the bathroom.
Closing the door behind him, Quentin paused when he saw that Eliot was now wrapped around his pillow, his face mushed against it much like Quentin’s had been just a few minutes ago. His curls fell lazily across his forehead, his brow smooth and content. Smiling, Quentin crossed the room and pulled the covers back just enough to slip between them. “Replaced me already?” he asked, his voice pitched low in case Eliot was still too close to sleep.
But Eliot was already reaching for him, eyes still closed, pushing the pillow away to wrap around him instead. Quentin crawled happily into his arms, feeling himself relax immediately with bare skin on his. “You’re my favourite pillow,” Eliot murmured thickly, nuzzling against his shoulder. His knee brushed against the outside of Quentin’s leg before he hiked it over his hip, Eliot’s arms tight around his waist, his face buried against his neck. Laughter fizzed up from Quentin’s chest like champagne, like joy, as Eliot wrapped himself bodily around him. He was ridiculous and adorable, and somehow wanted to be those things with him.
Surrounded by warm skin and a loving touch, Quentin let himself sink into soft and safe. There had been a battle raging in his brain for the last few days, his overwhelming happiness fighting against the part of himself that continued to tell him that this couldn’t be real. With Eliot’s morning stubble raking against his neck, his breath sending goosebumps over his skin, it was easy to muffle the fear that he didn’t deserve this, that Eliot didn’t really want this, want him.
It was impossible, with Eliot’s scent filling him up, his touch lazy and casual and yet still filled with longing, to doubt him.
Eliot arched into him when Quentin ran his hand down his back, and that was definitely his cock, half-hard, brushing against his groin. Which was good because he could feel himself stirring, his body coming to life with Eliot surrounding him completely, the soft satisfied sigh that he made as he shifted slightly against Quentin making his body hard while his insides melted, but he didn’t know if this was affectionate time or whether it could be more, whether Eliot just wanted to cuddle and sleep for a while or…
Eliot’s lips parted against his neck, clinging to his skin, and he couldn’t hold back the sigh of relief that escaped from deep in his chest.
Retracing the path back up Eliot’s back, Quentin threaded his fingers through his hair and tugged him up until he could reach his mouth. Eliot’s kiss was languid, a slow exploration of each other, and it didn’t matter that they’d spent most of the last five days in the same pursuit — the lazy sound Eliot made at the back of his throat when he deepened the kiss was one he hadn’t heard before, and every new thing that he learned sent a thrill of excitement through him. I want to know everything about you, he thought, his heart bursting with it. I want you to know everything about me. Tear me open, take everything, it’s yours.
After a minute or an hour or a week, Eliot rolled onto his back, pulling at Quentin until he was stretched out above him, slotted between his legs, and Quentin hummed as he rolled his hips down against Eliot’s, taking in the feeling of every hard inch of him. Eliot’s hands cupped his face, threading the tips of his fingers through the hair along his temples, holding him still so he could lighten the kiss to press one two three kisses to Quentin’s lips in quick succession. Opening his eyes, he found Eliot’s smiling back at him. “Merry Christmas,” he said, pressing another light kiss to the tip of his nose.
A month ago, even a few weeks ago, his mood would have plummeted at the reminder that it was Christmas today, but it didn’t even make a dent in the happy bubble he was swimming in. And it wasn’t just that being with Eliot was a good distraction from the painful memories of his past. He was looking forward to spending this day with Eliot, looking forward to enjoying this day with Eliot.
“Merry Christmas, El,” he said, wondrous in the truth of his words.
When Eliot kissed him again, a touch of urgency finally started to build between them, and Quentin sank into it willingly, tilting his head to deepen the kiss. He grinded down against Eliot just to hear him gasp, the sensation of their cocks sliding together sending a shiver through him. Eliot’s hands drifted down his sides until they curled around the curve of his ass, guiding the slow roll of Quentin’s body against his.
Eliot’s grip on him shifted, and in the next moment Quentin’s back was on the mattress, Eliot’s thighs straddling his as he draped himself over him. He caught Eliot’s hips as he leaned down to kiss him, lifting his own to press up into him, delighting in the friction, in the smile he could feel against his mouth. “Do you want your first Christmas present?” Eliot murmured, and Quentin’s laughter caught in his throat when Eliot ducked his head to suck at the skin just below his jawline.
His lips, tongue, teeth left a trail of fire down Quentin’s body, and he was aching by the time Eliot closed his mouth over the head of his cock. Quentin moaned as the wet heat enveloped him, his tongue rolling against the underside as he sank down over him, his fingers rubbing lightly around the base as he held him still. The sheet twisted under Quentin’s hands as he grasped out blindly, resisting the urge to thrust up into Eliot’s mouth.
His hips twitched up no matter how he tried to hold still, and the hungry sound Eliot made when he pushed in deep vibrated breathtakingly around him. “How are you — fuck — so — so good at that?” he gasped, as Eliot’s lips tightened around him and he slowly drew back to the tip.
The light kiss that Eliot pressed to the head, and the quick swipe of his tongue that followed it, sent a shiver through him. Eliot looked up at him all the while, his eyes dark, and when he smirked, pulling his lower lip down with Quentin’s cock, it was probably the hottest thing that he’d ever seen in his life. “It helps that you’re so damn responsive.” His tongue darted out to taste him before kissing at the head again. “Your body tells me exactly what you like.”
“Everything,” Quentin gasped as he took him in deep once more. Squeezing his eyes shut, he pressed his head back into the pillow, reaching down to thread his fingers through Eliot’s hair. “Everything you do to me.”
Humming around him, Eliot slipped his free hand between his legs, guiding them further apart with a touch to his inner thighs. Quentin felt himself brush the back of Eliot’s throat at the same time that Eliot touched the pad of his finger over his opening, and the ragged sound that fell from his lips might have been embarrassing if he’d been able to focus on anything other than the way Eliot was touching him. He laughed, breathless, at Eliot proving his point so easily, elation bubbling up out of his chest that this was his life.
The laughter hitched as Eliot started to rub gently around his hole, his fingers dancing over the sensitive skin until he was pressing down against it, desperate to feel Eliot inside him. “Please,” he sighed as he increased the pressure without slipping in. “I want —”
He cut off with a whine, looking down at Eliot as he pulled his hand away and lifted off of his cock. “Lube,” he murmured, reaching up to tap against Quentin’s side.
There was a bottle of lube on the bedside table. He knew there was a bottle of lube on the bedside table, but instead he grabbed Eliot’s reaching hand, pulled it up, and took two of his fingers into his mouth.
“Fuck, Q,” Eliot groaned, and Quentin opened his eyes — when did he close his eyes? — to see him staring up at him, his pupils completely blown. Pulse hammering, he worked his tongue between Eliot’s fingers, sucking at them lightly, moaning as they crooked in his mouth to press against his tongue. He wanted more than his fingers, he wanted to feel his cock pushing at the back of his throat, wanted to taste how much he wanted him. He wanted — fuck, he thought as Eliot took him back into the heat of his mouth. He wanted this to never end.
Reluctantly, he let Eliot’s fingers slip from his lips, whimpering when he felt them again a moment later massaging against his hole. “You’re going to be the end of me,” Eliot said without taking his mouth off of Quentin’s dick, as he pressed the tip of his finger past the tight ring of muscle. Quentin pushed down onto it, protesting wordlessly when Eliot moved his hand back, trembling when he worked his finger into him shallowly. “Lube, baby, get me the lube.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, frenzied, as he reached out blindly. The moment that his fingers curled around the bottle, Eliot sank down over him until he hit the back of his throat, paused, and then pushed deeper, swallowing around him. Quentin’s hand closed reflexively around the lube, his whole body shuddering. “Oh… oh…”
Eliot grinned at him when he pulled back, his lips wet with saliva. “Breathe, Q,” he said, his eyes alight.
Laughing helplessly, Quentin dropped the lube onto the bed beside them and threw an arm over his face, feeling like he was floating. “If you keep doing that I’m going to come,” he said into his elbow as he heard the click of the bottle opening.
“Oh no,” Eliot said, as he slipped a slick finger into him in one slow, steady movement.
Quentin’s arms dropped back to his sides as Eliot took him into his mouth again, shallowly now as he stroked against his insides. His hips jerked up and then back down again, chasing the pleasure of Eliot’s mouth and his hand at the same time, wanting all of it and more all at once. His body was already so tuned to Eliot’s touch that he opened up for him easily, and it wasn’t long before Eliot had two fingers working inside him. When he bent them to brush against his prostate, his tongue tracing patterns over his balls, Quentin fisted his hands in the sheets, biting down hard on his lower lip to stop himself from coming there and then. “El —”
Eliot made a sound, hungry and wanting, that only spiked Quentin’s pleasure further, particularly when he moved back up to wrap his lips around the head of his cock again. Quentin screwed his eyes shut, but not being able to see the way he looked stretched out between his legs didn’t lessen the way he was playing his body like an instrument, sending beautiful music along his nerves. “Fuck, El,” he moaned, reaching down with a trembling hand to touch the top of his head, to try and push him back but he only sank down on him further. “Eliot, stop, I’m gonna —”
It wasn’t until Quentin tugged sharply at Eliot’s hair that he pulled back, and Quentin’s chest heaved as he tried to will himself back from the edge. It was an impossible task, when Eliot dropped his head again to press a row of kisses slowly up his shaft. His fingers continued to massage a steady pressure against his prostate, and he couldn’t make himself focus on anything but what Eliot was doing to him and trying not to come.
The sharpness of Eliot’s gaze was the only thing that broke through the lust-filled haze that surrounded him until he spoke again, and the words that Eliot kissed along his length ran through him like lightning. “You’re so tense for me, Q, so close, aren’t you? I want you to come for me, want to taste how good I can make you feel. And then I want to fuck you nice and deep and slow until you come again on my dick.” His voice was a deep rasp, his eyes wide as he looked up at him through his lashes. “Think you can do that for me, sweetheart?”
The only answer that Quentin could manage was a desperate cry as he took him in deep again, his nose brushing against Quentin’s belly, his throat tight around the head of his cock, but it was the way that Eliot moaned around him that sent him over the edge. Eliot pressed firmly against that sweet spot inside him, sending pleasure shooting through every inch of him as Quentin spilled into the heat of his throat.
He was in a different kind of haze when Eliot crawled back up his body and stretched out over him, but he didn’t miss the pleased grin on his face before he cupped a hand around the back of Quentin’s neck and kissed him. He could taste himself on his tongue, but Quentin only kissed him deeper, every inch of his body overflowing with happiness. “I love you,” he breathed against his lips.
Eliot laughed, a loud, warm sound that Quentin never wanted to stop listening to. “I bet you do.”
“I mean it.” He felt drunk on the way Eliot rubbed his cheek against his neck, on the smile he could feel against his skin. “I love you.”
Reaching between them, Quentin wrapped his hand around Eliot’s cock, and felt his breath hitch when he started to stroke him. “I love you too,” he groaned, rocking forward into Quentin’s hand, and Quentin grinned as he rubbed his thumb over the head of his cock.
“I bet you do.”
“Oh my god shut up,” Eliot said, laughing as Quentin got his other hand on his shoulder and pushed him onto his back.
He settled between Eliot’s legs, watching him shiver as he smoothed his hands up his long thighs. His cock arched up against his belly, hard and flushed and smearing precum against his stomach, and Quentin’s mouth watered. “Okay,” he said, circling the base of Eliot’s cock with his fist and closing his mouth over the head.
Eliot’s breath left him in one long, slow exhale, only to hitch when Quentin sank down over him until his lips touched his fingers. He could taste the salt of him in the back of his throat, and pulled back to lick over his slit, down to tease at his frenulum until Eliot’s hips were stuttering upward. Slackening his hand, he took him in deep enough that the feeling of him brushing against his throat made his eyes water.
When he pulled back to breathe, Eliot’s fingers on his cheek stilled him before he could get his mouth on him again. Quentin looked up to find his eyes hot, his kiss-red lips parted. “I still want to fuck you,” Eliot said, his voice strained.
Quentin watched Eliot’s brow furrow as he stroked him from base to tip and back again. He hadn’t just said that he wanted to fuck him, before. He felt a stirring of want echo through his body, but not enough to give Eliot what he wanted. Besides, he really enjoyed sucking Eliot’s cock. “If you want me to come again then you’re going to have to give me a minute,” he said, smirking up at him from between his legs. “And we might as well have fun as we pass the time.”
Eliot’s eyes widened. His head fell back against the pillows, his stomach flexing as he laughed, his voice almost delirious. “Fuck. You’re going to kill me.”
It was a challenge to hold back, to keep things soft and slow so Eliot wouldn’t get too worked up too quickly. Quentin kept his mouth loose as he wrapped it around him, resisting the urge to take him in deep, to take as much of him as he could until he was choking on his ridiculous, magnificent dick. Eliot threaded his fingers through his hair, pushing it back from his face, to touch him rather than to guide him, and every flex of his fingers when Quentin did something he liked sent a rush through him.
It wasn’t long at all before his body responded again to the heat thrumming through his veins. Eliot trembled when he dropped his head to mouth at his balls, and Quentin felt himself hardening again, impossibly turned on by Eliot’s pleasure. He lifted a hand from Eliot’s thigh, but Eliot caught it before he could touch himself. “C’mere,” he murmured, tugging on him until he was lying beside him, their bodies flush together once more.
Quentin moaned against Eliot’s lips as he wrapped his hand around his length, stroking him slowly in his tight fist. “Please,” he said with a gasp, rocking forward into his hand, his fingers clutching tightly to his shoulders.
His other hand hooked under Quentin’s knee, pulling his leg up over his hip and then reaching around to dip his fingertips inside him. “You ready for me, Q? Want me to fill you up?” he asked, sinking his fingers deep.
Whatever words he babbled must have been coherent enough for Eliot to take an as assent. Quentin’s body ached in protest when he pulled his hands away, and he watched with hungry eyes as Eliot leaned over him to grab a condom from the bedside table. As he opened the packet and slid it on, Quentin grabbed the other pillow and tucked it underneath his ass, spreading his legs wide and watching Eliot’s chest rise sharply as he took in the sight of him.
“Look at you,” he breathed, dropping the lube back onto the bed and slipping his fingers inside him again. Quentin arched up into the touch as he felt him stroking against the most sensitive parts of him, and it was good, so good, impossibly good, but he wanted more. He squirmed helplessly, his nerves on fire. “Oh my god, you’re beautiful.”
How did he so easily manage to crack him right open, to make him feel vulnerable and safe and wanted all at the same time? It was too much. He never wanted it to end. “El,” he murmured, reaching for his free hand. “Eliot...”
Humming, Eliot brought Quentin’s hand up to press his lips against his palm before reaching for the lube again. It was cool against his skin when Eliot dripped it over his hole, when he fucked it into him with his fingers, but it had warmed by the time he pulled out and wrapped his slick hand around Quentin’s cock instead, stroking him a few times before he uncapped the lube again and slicked himself up too.
Quentin hooked his legs over Eliot’s hips as he knelt between his legs once more. He watched, transfixed, as Eliot’s throat bobbed in a hard swallow when he lined himself up, as his brow furrowed when he started to press into him, as his eyes fluttered closed when his head eased past his tight opening. The stretch felt incredible, the sensation of slowly being filled up overwhelming in the best way as Eliot sank a little further into him with every shallow thrust, his fingers kneading at his waist. Quentin clutched at the sheet beneath him, at Eliot’s arms, his shoulders, his own chest tight and he had to remind himself to breathe as Eliot thrust in as deeply as he could with a groan.
Sliding his hands down to Quentin’s hips, Eliot grinded into him, and Quentin threw his head back with a gasp, feeling every perfect inch of him filling him up. “You feel… fuck, so good,” he whimpered, rocking up against him.
“Yeah?” Eliot grinned down at him, a wicked quirk of his lips as he slipped an arm under Quentin’s leg, pushing it back and pressing in even deeper. Quentin’s breath was punched from his chest, his head swimming. “You like that?” Whatever response he could have given dissolved into a helpless cry when Eliot pulled back and then thrust back in. Eliot grunted, his fingers tightening around his thigh before he started to move, slow and steady and so, so deep.
He could feel every thrust in his bones, low in his chest, his eyes watering with the intensity of it. “Kiss me,” he begged as he sucked in a breath, so quiet he wasn’t sure that Eliot heard him until he was pressing his leg back against him, leaning down over him and pulling his head up with a hand on the back of his neck. Eliot’s mouth closed over his as he continued to fuck him, and Quentin kissed him with all of the want boiling inside him, all of the adoration and desire that threatened to consume him.
He whimpered in protest when Eliot pulled back to lean up on one elbow, but the sound cut off into an embarrassingly loud moan when the new angle had Eliot dragging against his prostate with every thrust. He picked up his pace, groaning quietly with every other breath, his eyes squeezing shut in pleasure when Quentin rocked his hips up to meet his.
The world narrowed to the places where their bodies touched, the sound of skin on skin, the pleasure building again within him mirrored on Eliot’s face. Eliot stilled inside him, dropping his head against Quentin’s shoulder as his whole body shuddered. “Shit, Q, I — I’m close,” he said brokenly. “I wanna feel you.”
And he… he shouldn’t be there again so quickly, but feeling Eliot tremble above him pushed him a little closer to the edge. “I want to feel you too,” he said, fighting the urge to grind down against him. He reached up to brush his fingers against Eliot’s cheek, flushed with exertion. “Don’t hold back, I just want to feel you.”
The sound that Eliot buried against his neck was wretched, and Eliot started to thrust into him again, his body moving like he had no control over it. His hand slipped from Quentin’s thigh to wrap around his cock, letting the movement of their bodies push Quentin up into his fist. Quentin clutched at the back of Eliot’s head, wrapping his other arm around his back, the tension growing more and more taut inside him with every thrust of Eliot inside him, every squeeze of his hand around his cock.
Quentin held Eliot close as his cries grew hoarse, his hips snapping into his in sharp movements until he buried himself deep and held there, the pulsing of his cock as he came inside him drawing a moan deep from within Quentin’s chest. It felt incredible, both to feel him come, and to know that he was the one to make him feel like this. Eliot’s heavy breaths against his neck rose goosebumps all over his skin.
Eliot only gave himself a few seconds before his hand started to move again, jerking him off with short, sharp movements. Quentin snaked his hand between them and curled it around Eliot’s, fucking up into their entwined fingers. He continued to thrust lightly inside him, his mouth open against Quentin’s chest, and it was no time at all before everything went white around him, his body arching off the bed as he spilled his release over their hands and onto his stomach.
Every inch of his skin tingling, Quentin sank back onto the bed with Eliot collapsed on top of him, their mess a smear between them that he could put off for a minute or two, at least. Too soon, Eliot pulled out and lifted up off him, laughing at Quentin’s wordless protest as cool air rushed in between them. “I’ll be back,” Eliot promised as he climbed off the bed.
He disappeared into the bathroom for no more than a minute, returning cleaned up and with an open pack of wipes in his hand. His shoulders were relaxed, his curls a mess around his head that Quentin already craved to sink his hands into again. Eliot smiled at him lazily as he crawled back onto the bed, wiping at the sticky mess over his stomach. “Thanks,” Quentin said, feeling probably a little too touched that Eliot would take care of him so readily.
“As much as I like the look of you stretched out, sex-dazed and messy, this is better,” he said, sinking back onto the bed beside him and pulling Quentin into his arms, and his kiss was so soft and tender that Quentin’s heart could burst with it.
Settling back against the pillow, Quentin pushed Eliot’s hair back from his face, letting his fingers thread through his curls, twisting one around his finger. Their legs were tangled together, Eliot’s hand a comfortable weight against his waist.
They’d have to get up soon, he’d have to go out and share Eliot with other people for the rest of the day, and he wanted to enjoy every minute alone that they had together beforehand. Maybe I can get him to join me in the shower, he thought, smiling when the softness in Eliot’s eyes as he gazed back at him made him sure that he wouldn’t have to ask very hard.
The corners of Eliot’s eyes crinkles as his smile widened. “You look happy,” he said, leaning in to nuzzle against Quentin’s neck, his stubble scratching at his skin.
Quentin laughed, his chest growing impossibly warmer. “Of course I’m happy,” he said, sliding a hand up Eliot’s back to pull him closer. “Although I’d be happier if we could stay in bed all day.”
He felt Eliot grin against his skin, shifting slightly and wrapping his arm around his back. “Hmm. Me too. But it’ll be almost as much fun impressing your dad when he didn’t even know you were bringing someone to Christmas lunch until four days ago, right? Right?”
He’d been trying not to think about that. Not that he thought he really had anything to worry about — his dad had already forgiven him for not telling him that he was seeing someone when he’d realised that Quentin was actually looking forward to Christmas day this year. And he knew that Ted would love Eliot. Without him bending over backwards to make it happen. Julia and Kady were going to be there, and Julia was always an excellent buffer with his dad. “We’re done trying to impress people,” he said. “I just want you. As you are.”
Eliot hummed, and Quentin felt the deep vibration through his chest. “I knew you were a romantic, Coldwater. We never stood a chance.”
Good, he thought, his heart spilling over with joy as he pulled Eliot back to kiss him.
Eventually, he forced himself from the bed, and was delighted when Eliot followed him into the bathroom unbidden. “What time do we have to be at Margo’s?” he asked as Eliot closed the door behind him.
“She said anytime from six. So definitely not before seven.” The way he rolled his shoulders to stretch them out was distracting. This was a terrible idea. Or an incredible one. “Depending on what time we leave your dad’s, we could go straight there or…” He paused, tonguing at his lower lip, his eyes alight. “Or maybe detour back here on the way.”
Turning the shower on, Quentin held his fingers underneath the stream, looking at Eliot skeptically over his shoulder as he waited for the water to warm. His body was relaxed and content, but his mind was jumping ahead to the many ways they could fill that time if they didn’t go straight to Margo’s apartment. “If we come back here we’re never going to leave.”
Eliot walked up behind him, wrapping an arm loosely around him and bending to kiss his shoulder. “Show me the downside.”
There was only one, so far as he could see it, but it was a terrifying one. “Margo?” he pointed out.
“I’m willing to risk it.”
The water warm, Quentin drew his hand back and turned to Eliot. “I’m not,” he said, trying not to grin as he shrugged.
Eliot gasped, holding his hand over his heart. “I’m wounded,” he exclaimed.
Quentin rolled his eyes at him, giving in to the tug at his lips. “I will be wounded if it’s my fault that we don’t make it to her place.”
Grinning, Eliot closed the distance between them, wrapping his arms around him and pressing his face into Quentin’s neck. “Mmm, she already knows I can't keep my hands off you,” he said, splaying his hands over Quentin’s bare back as though to prove his point. Quentin arched into him automatically, sighing at the way the wiry hair on his chest brushed against his skin. “It's okay, she has a spare room —”
“Oh my god,” Quentin laughed, turning them and pushing Eliot back into the shower.
Eliot pulled him right along with him, dropping his hand when he stepped under the spray to cup his face instead. Quentin looked up at him, sliding his hands up his arms until he held his wrists. “Thank you for inviting me today,” Eliot said, his voice quiet against the patter of the showerstream.
There was a weight on his chest, but it wasn’t panic, and it wasn’t fear. He was hopeful — for their future together. For himself. “That’s what real boyfriends do at Christmas,” he said. His heart soared when Eliot leaned down to kiss him, soft and perfect and real.
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