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Honestly, his life was a wreck. Crash and boom and burn, baby. Skid marks on the pavement outside a school in Whitefield.

Eliot — should have known better. Should have known what he could and couldn’t handle. Should have seen the signs that he was being too open with his fucking feelings, spilling his broken shit everywhere, letting it boil over because he was too goddamn scared of being burned to hold the lid down himself. Well, guess what. It boiled over. The pot’s dry. His shit spilled and now they’re all sitting in the mess he’s made.

And best of all? It’s the funniest fucking thing that’s ever happened to him.

But worst of all? No one else gets the goddamn joke.

Well. No one except maybe —

 

— O —

 

Eliot awoke next to Margo with no recollection of the previous night. So it was a normal day, since she’d decided he needed babysitting even at night and crashed in his room most of the time. Sleep had sharpened his fuzzy edges, making him feel alert and refreshed, nearly alive.

It was revolting. Where the fuck was his flask.

He opened his eyes to —

Item 1. He was in Margo’s room, not his. He felt a little better about waking up next to her in that case. And didn’t examine it.

Item 2. They were both naked. Well, it had been a while, they were probably due for some make-up sex. Or angry sex. Or sad sex? Eliot shuddered. Sad sex was a thing that Other People did.

Item 3. There were laser beams flying through the air on the other side of the bed, where a very naked Quentin Coldwater was propped up open-mouthed like a pretty, hung-over fish and a very angry Alice Quinn stared him down from her perch at the foot.

Eliot sighed and tuned them out. So dramatic. So they had fun, maybe popped little Q’s cherry last night. Nothing mattered. They’d be over it soon enough. Or not, and in that case, please see Eliot’s earlier memo, Re: the world is a shithole and nothing anyone will ever do will change that even a little bit so stop trying to pretend things can get better, you self-righteous little twits.

Where had Bambi hidden his flask today?

In the drawerrrrrr...no.

Iiiin the laptop bag that languished in the corner of her room because her laptop broke on day oneee...no.

Under the beeed? Well, not that he could see.

In the dreeeesserrr…

“Jesus Christ, Eliot, can you put some fucking pants on if you’re going to get out of bed?” Quentin’s affronted sneer was cute, but not enough to make Eliot turn around.

“No. If you don’t like it, don’t look.” He stretched out an arm and pointed towards the door. “Or get out.”

He continued rifling through the dresser — not in Margo’s underwear, ooh, but she’d gotten some new boyshorts, nice color for her — until a smack on the shoulder made him turn, unperturbed. A lit cigarette was in his hand that he didn’t remember getting. The smack was from Alice, who was looking ninety degrees away from him and shoving one of Margo’s silk robes in his face. “I’m leaving, just. Put it on,” she said, teeth gritted.

He burst out laughing. See, Quentin, that’s how you do cute enough to get Eliot to listen. And the silk did feel nice against the burning sensation threatening to melt his skin clear off his muscles.

Honestly, he’d expected (some unimportant amount of time later, dressed impeccably for a man with perfect clothes and perfect taste and zero fucks to give about either)(up to his third mystery cigarette)(having drunk two flasks’ worth once he finally found it tucked behind an old photo) to come downstairs and have everything be back to its fine’n’dandy and rosy and peachy and perfect — normal self.

But the tension in the room was palpable. If Eliot had any interest in breathing the air and not smoke, he’d have worried about the integrity of his lungs.

As it was, he ignored it and watched the pretty shapes the smoke made in the air. He could pull at it with his telekinesis, do all that fancy shit the first years loved with the weather enchantment on the lips, without a single casting. Too bad he couldn’t be fucked to do any of it. And there was something nice about the natural smoke, anyway. The smoke didn’t care who it helped, who it hurt. You set something on fire, it burns. A cigarette, accept the gift of nicotine or leave the space. You set a human on fire, and they burn, too.

But not if you throw water on it. Not if you douse the fire after it’s already been set. Fire gets under the skin, you think it’s okay when the burns are all healed but the fire is eating away at the core of them, and once it works its way to the surface again, oh, they’ll start smoking, they’ll start leaking everywhere and people won’t know. Even though everyone knows.

Where there’s smoke there’s —

“Eliot!”

“Yep. I’m with you. Totally. I think Alice issssuper right.”

“Jesus Christ, Q, could he even consent last night? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

What the fuck is wrong with Quentin?

Eliot started giggling.

“I’m — I’m done. I need a minute.”

“Alice, wait —”

“Quentin, not you too, get the fuck back — what the fuck did I just walk into?”

After they left, Eliot wasn’t intending to follow, cross his heart and hope to sink. He had just stood himself up and was walking, maybe to the kitchen, maybe to his room, who the fuck knew — but Alice and Quentin had apparently decided the broom closet was the best place to hash out their wittle twoubles.

And it wasn’t like Eliot could exactly get cable in here.

Standing in the hall outside the closet door, he puffed on mystery cigarette number six and mused on the fact that they all tasted like a pack he had lent to —

He slapped his hand into the wall, turning on a dime, stomach revolting against his throat, must be all the flask-emptying on an empty stomach — had he eaten yesterday either? — but smacked his head into a low beam, and while that had the unfortunate effect of making him sit down with little cartoon butterflies ‘round his ears, it actually did wonders for the nausea. He took a drag and got busy getting distracted.

Here was the run-down.

 

Alice: you’re a whore! *smack*

Quentin: but oh my god I love you and I’m, like, sorry!

Alice: you’re just incapable of being with people when you’re in your right mind! first the foxes, and now this!

Quentin: those are not the same thing!

Alice: you’re right, at least this time you’re being honest about what it means to you!

Quentin: Alice wait that’s not what I meant, oh no!

And Alice threw the door open, one brow arched and jaw proud, striding through like Elsa going out onto her balcony. Didn’t you know? The cheating never bothered her anyway.

 

— O —

 

— except, maybe. Alice.

Because she feels it, doesn’t she? Not the same. But a part of it. She’s walking around with a fracture that Eliot recognizes because it’s the same one he had before it split him down the middle and into lots of tiny shit-stained pieces ground under everyone’s heels, including, most notably, his own.

It doesn’t help matters that Eliot’s the one who put it there. But it’s not like it can exactly make things worse than they already are. If she tells him to fuck off, that’s basically encouragement, he’s been trying to fuck off from everyone’s business for ages and they just don’t seem to fucking get it. So. He talks to Alice — it works, win for her, win for the universe because that particular brand of fracture deserves no place in a world Eliot Waugh lives in. It doesn’t work, win for Eliot, Eliot gets to fuck off. Win for the universe, Eliot’s fucked off.

He knocks on Alice’s door as he turns the handle. It opens. If you want a door to stay closed, lock it. “What are you doing here?” Alice asks, barely pausing in her paces with a bottle of —

“Is that triple sec?” Who the fuck drinks triple sec from the bottle?

Well, Alice Quinn. But that seems neither here nor there.

“No, no, no, friends do not let friends drink triple sec,” he says, moving to usher her out of the room by the shoulders.

“It’s a good thing we’re not friends, then, huh?” she spits back, venomous.

If something venomous bites something poisonous, guess what happens.

But that’s not what he’s here for. “No, we’re not,” he agrees, puffing on his — cigarette — but it’s — okay, it’s his usual brand. It must be from the pack he left in the other room with his jacket. She’s waiting for him to say more. The smoke blows between them.

Where there’s smoke there’s —

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You’re — what?”

“Look, I will explain, okay, but you have got to stop drinking that,” he insists. His hand is in front of him, upturned. An invitation. They both look at it, and back to each other, with the same amount of confusion, though Eliot’s is probably unrecognizable under all those layers of apathy and loathing.

Uncertain, she hands him the bottle, and he drops it with a snap of his fingers to disappear the object before it can hit the ground. Once more with an arm around her tense shoulders, guiding towards the door, and this time, she goes with him. Win for Alice Quinn, win for The Universe, win for Eliot.

He grabs a bottle of rum from the top shelf in his room and holds it out to her. She takes it and hesitantly drinks, and then, “So what was that you were saying about being sorry?”

“I’m broken.” The smoke blows into her face. It’s much easier to show someone where the fire is when you know they don’t care. “And very few things can make me feel worse. But I am so —” His voice wavers, and he almost shuts up, until he remembers that nothing matters. Well. Quite literally, nothing except this. “I am truly sorry that I broke you too.”

Alice regards him squintily and swallows down a cough with her next mouthful of rum. “I’m not broken.”

“Look, Alice. I know more than anyone what it feels like to realize you put your trust in a lie. To suddenly find out that someone was only with you because they weren’t acting for themselves, that there was never any mutual understanding, only...two sides. Using each other.” He reaches for the bottle and downs a bit. “And that you were the weak one.”

“Oh.”

“And you feel this way because of something,” the words burn an acid trail up his throat, and he imagines it turning black and dry, flaking away into ash, “I did.”

“It’s not because of you,” she says, watching him with that little frown. “Well, not just because of you. But I don’t blame you. You’re not the one who cheated, you’re not the one who — who falls into bed with someone new whenever he’s not thinking clearly, you’re not the one —”

“That’s what I’m saying, none of this would have happened if I’d —”

“And I’m not broken, Eliot.” He shuts his mouth at the steel in her eyes. He’s gone too far, pried open his ribs too wide, whatever weapon she aims next will meet no resistance on its way to the beating core of him —

“And neither are you.”

Some part of him — some distant, desaturated, desperate part — gives a derisive snort and lifts a phantom flask to his lips. The heart in his ravine of a chest beats steadily. Cold oozes down his spine.

“We’re not broken. And you’re not like him,” she hisses. He can feel something dark and gritty spurting from the puncture wounds at each word. Coals spit and steam underfoot as it splashes down over them.

“Who?” he says, hating the weakness, hating that he wants to laugh and hating that he can’t, just hating — “Quentin, or —?”

“The Beast.” Her eyes flash. “Or Mike, whatever. That’s not what I’m feeling. You didn’t put that on me.”

“Now where would you get a silly idea like that?” he asks, wan, looking away so he doesn’t have to see how he misses his mark.

“Well, I’m thinking a lot more clearly than you right now, for starters.” She crosses her arms, then uncrosses them again to grab for the bottle and screw up her face for a long drink. “Which is saying something.”

His empty hand clenches, and he shoves it in his pocket, taking a gruff draw on his cigarette, feeling the particles lodge in his chest.

“What I’m saying is, you didn’t do it on purpose,” she continues. Still going. Like a zamboni.

“If I didn’t do it on purpose, then neither did Quentin,” Eliot challenges, lifting his eyes. “We were equally fucked up from those emotion bottles.”

Her face pinches uncomfortably, and it sends a zap of something hollow through him, something shaped like victory, but — if it walks like regret and talks like regret, it’s probably regret. It’s pretty big, either way, and he hides behind it gratefully.

“You’re right,” she says tersely. The feeling expands. Like one of those grow-a-dinosaur toys, the ones you stick in some unpronounceable chemical solution until they get bigger and bigger and then you hand them off to your children. “It’s not Quentin’s fault either.”

— Ah.

Alice drops onto his bed and takes what looks like a fortifying swig of rum. Fortifying, or maybe just pissed. Looking directly at him, she levels one more projectile — voice pulled so tight it hits Eliot like a crossbow bolt — “I forgive you for your part in this. Margo too. And I’ll forgive Quentin later, I — I just need to be mad at him some more first.” It finishes in a mutter against the lip of the bottle, the small opening distorting the sound of her words.

“Huh,” Eliot settles on. This — is. Not. What he was expecting. He thumps his ass on the bed, sideways so that he’s teetering on the edge, bringing his cigarette to his mouth —

It’s out.

He stares.

The still-slightly-smoldering tip is wet and cold when he touches it to the pad of his thumb in disbelief. Ash smears in a chunky grey paste on his skin.

“Hey Alice?”

“Yeah?”

“Tell me more? About how we’re not broken?”

 

— O —

 

The box screeches a little when Eliot opens it. It’s like something out of a video game, all the absurdities and magic things and grand destinies Fillory has introduced into his life, boiling down to this moment: opening an old, rusty chest, looking at the treasure wrapped safely inside. Each item a new life, a new chance.

He knows instinctively which one’s his — the blood in his veins knows, singing when he passes his hand over it, and the matter of his being recognizes it like family. The red and orange crystals call to the fire he can still feel sometimes, licking at the bottoms of his feet. The jagged, ragged edges all set in their place, the crown holding its broken pieces careful and precious. The centerpiece a chunk of black, cracking wood — something burned but surviving despite it, stronger for it, smoothed and strengthened by the same smoke which tried to devour it. A full circle. Something whole.

“So, I guess we just put them on,” he says, turning to the others. It seemed like they should do — something, but —

“No, god, stop —” Quentin cuts in, holding out a hand and taking a half-step forward. Eliot freezes with the crown above his head. “I mean,” he continues uncertainly, “I just, we should do, a, uh — a ceremony. This is only gonna happen once, we are becoming Kings and Queens, so.” He looks around for support, but the other three are watching him flounder with varying levels of disinterest, and Eliot’s smile is probably hidden under his wonder. “It’s important, and I — we should honor it.”

When that still doesn’t get a reaction, he huffs and comes to take the crown from Eliot, whose smile grows on his approach. Quentin’s got this look in his eye. A man on a mission: his friends will feel celebrated this day. Eliot would be happy just celebrating the fact that he finds himself endeared instead of disgusted.

With a decisive swallow, Quentin holds himself straighter. “Kneel, Eliot Waugh.” Eliot looks over his head to exchange amusement with Alice and Margo, but does as he says. Quentin looks down at him, focuses on him with those dark brown eyes, and Eliot’s breath catches when he realizes how much of him is poised, taut, waiting for what’s about to happen.

“So destiny is — it’s bullshit,” Quentin starts. “I, like, only selectively believe in fate, and Fillory has enough backwards shit that I’m not going to start now. But here’s the thing, Eliot. You deserve this. More than anyone else, no matter who that blade chose. You’ve worked for it, you’ve — you’ve worked to be able to stand here today. You’re already a king. The crown is, it’s an epilogue, capping off a story that’s already there. And, um for what it’s worth, I think you’re going to be a really good king. Um.” He breaks off, looking into Eliot’s eyes like he might fall into them, and Eliot thinks he wouldn’t mind. “So I — I dub thee —” Stopping again, he looks stumped for the first time, a tiny smile playing at his lips as he thinks. “I dunno, would you say you’re more brave or merciful?”

Before Eliot can answer, Alice does. “Enduring.”

Quentin turns to look at her, and Eliot peers around his side. She gives an encouraging nod. “Eliot the Enduring.”

“Okay,” Quentin says, relieved, and lifts the crown high enough that Eliot looks below it, not over it, to catch his eye. “I hereby dub thee: High King Eliot, the Enduring.”

The weight of the crown settles comfortably on his head, and he lifts it easily when he stands, hands in Quentin’s. After a full breath of the clear air, his first breath as king — well, one among many if Quentin is to be believed — he gives his fingers a squeeze before letting go. “Thank you.”

Next up is the crown of the High Queen, his Bambi’s regency finalized at last. She approaches and kneels gracefully as Quentin steps back, making a face at Penny’s eye-roll.

“By the power vested in me by...I have no idea, I do hereby crown you: High Queen Margo, the Destroyer. If I have ever been a king without my crown, you have been a queen a hundred times over. Your fire burns for what is good and right,” he tells her smiling face and shining eyes as she stands back up, face wreathed in gold. “All hail, Your Majesty. Long may you reign.” He presses his lips to her forehead, hoping to impart everything dwelling within his words through touch.

As Margo returns to the circle, Alice takes her place and he picks up her crown, a sturdy circlet with gentle peaks and deep blue inlay in rough-finished silver.

“If you please, Miss Quinn,” he says, and she kneels with a smile. Her white-blond hair swishes as she tucks it behind one ear nervously. “I feel it is incumbent upon me to honor the fact that I would not stand here today with any semblance of grace if it were not for you. You see things as they are, and accept nothing less from those around you. Even if they try really hard to disappoint. Honestly,” he breathes out a laugh, toying with her crown. “I still have some character defects. I’m working on it.”

“What?” She giggle-snorts. “No, you’re perfect.

“Well, on that note,” Eliot says, tempering his grin, “I hereby crown you: Queen Alice, the True.” She stands and holds his gaze proudly as he presses his lips to her hand.

And then there was one. He lifts the final crown, a light, fine silver work with eloquent swoops and milky stones. Alice stops him with a hand on his arm as he turns around, gaze serious and questioning. Wordless, he offers her the crown, and gives Quentin’s shoulder a squeeze on his way to join Margo across the little circle.

He can’t see Quentin’s face as he kneels in front of Alice, but he does see the way he rubs his palms on his jeans, lifts his head in supplication.

“Since we’re, um. Clearing slates and all that,” Alice starts, then tosses her hair like a horse’s mane and lifts her chin. “It’s about time I say this. I forgive you for what you did, Quentin. I was really angry at the time, and even once I realized it wasn’t your fault, it still hurt.” She blinks down at the crown in her hands, rubbing a thumb along the smooth metal. “But —” in the pause, she looks up briefly, catching Eliot’s eye. He nods, telegraphing his support, and she smiles for a moment before looking back down at Quentin. “But you are more than your mistakes. We all are. You didn’t let the pain turn you spiteful, or miserable. You always find a way to come back to yourself. And I recognize that, and I’m trying to do the same.”

“You do,” Eliot hears Quentin murmur.

Alice sniffs. “So — by the power vested in me by, um, Eliot — I hereby crown thee: King Quentin, the Redeemer.”

Quentin grasps her hands and stands carefully, bowing his head as Alice kisses him softly just under the edge of his crown.

The Knight of Crowns starts clapping enthusiastically, and they both join in. Even Penny smacks his hands together a few times.

“We’re royalty, you glorious motherfuckers,” Eliot says, and slides an arm around Margo’s shoulders. The weight of the crown rests cool on his skin, already at home.