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Iron It Out So Nice

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I know I'm just a wrinkle in your new life

Staying friends would iron it out so nice

– “Closure,” Taylor Swift

 

 

“He's asking to see you,” Julia says, which Eliot knew she would, he knew she was big, fat liar who was big, fat lying about how this was a no-pressure, sober and mature friend-date for coffee in Manhattan.

“Not interested,” Eliot says. “How's the lavender latte? You know, those always sounds so cute and spring-y, and yet most of the time you can't even taste--”

“Eliot. Jesus, will you just--? Come on. For once in your life, can you do something for someone else?”

As soon as she says it, Julia frowns and leans back in her chair, biting her lip. Eliot can somehow see the numbers scrolling in front of her eyes, Matrix-style, as she tries to calculate whether that slightly shitty thing to say hits the particular rather high threshold that Julia sets for apologies. Eliot's interested, in an academic sort of way, in the conclusion she'll come to, but he doesn't particularly care about the apology as such.

Eliot's a selfish piece of shit mostly, but so is Julia, mostly, and on this issue they are very much not on the same page, but they're both chasing their own best interests as they see them. Always are. Eliot would expect no less from either of them. “Darling, you know I'm retired from the heroism business,” he says.

Reluctantly, Julia smiles through her indignant huff. “I'm asking for like an hour of your time. Heroism. Don't be so goddamn dramatic.”

Eliot shrugs, implicitly pleading no-contest to the charge.

It makes him feel young again, really. That's part of the charm of old friends: they always remember you best from the part of your life when you were most intense. Even if now you're a semi-reclusive, teetotalling, washed-up professor with a collection of vintage Sondheim on vinyl, there will always be a part of your past that lives on in them. Old friends do tend to become old habit....

“Look, I get why it's hard,” she says, changing tactics. Eliot has to look out the window, away from her big, too-earnest eyes. From the way she tucks a stray curl back into her loose chignon, the diamond ring glinting on her hand, tangible evidence of...what? Of a life that continued after the world ended. Of lasting love, family, a vision of the future, resilience. “He's not expecting anything, if that makes a difference. He just.... You know he grieved you, too.”

“He's never met me,” Eliot says.

It's going to rain, he can see it in the heaviness of the sky. Eliot didn't pay attention to the weather report when he portaled into the city. Dotty old Professor Waugh, living in his own world. So on-brand for him.

“You know what I mean,” Julia says.

“It's not a small detail, Wicker,” Eliot says, perhaps a little more sharply than necessary. “Whoever he thinks I am, I'm – clearly not. And he's not....”

Damn. Eliot's throat won't quite let him vocalize the rest of the thought, and he resents that small weakness. This young man who lives with Julia now, he's not – he's not the Quentin Coldwater that Eliot carries. He shouldn't hold any power over Eliot at all.

That's the theory, at least.

“You're so goddamn stubborn,” Julia says, her smile very clearly pried from her against her will. “Same stubborn prig you were on the day I met you.”

Who is to say, old friend, how an old friendship survives,” Eliot sings softly before he lifts his cappuccino to his lips, both hands wrapped around the oversized mug. “I love you, too,” he says when he puts his drink down again. “And I'm glad that...having him in your life feels like whatever it feels like to you. A second chance.”

“It's not that,” Julia says. “I know it's not the same.”

And of all people, she probably does know best. Julia's cozy little bungalow in the Catskills is as much a Boys' Home for Wayward Timeline Refugees by this point as it is a hedge school. “Nevertheless,” Eliot says. “I just....” Damn Wicker and her fucking aura of sincerity and benevolence. Absolutely appalling that it works on him even though he knows better. “You know how long it took me,” he finally says. Another fragment of a thought. Another forced compromise with a body that, left to its own devices, would rather choke on these truths than have them floating free in the air.

“I do know,” she says.

It took him years. Years before he could go through the motions of his life without a part of him still sitting by that funeral fire, wondering when it would all start to feel real.

That's the thing: it never really felt real. Seven years Quentin's been gone. Almost that many years for Margo, who's not dead but might as well be, for how far away she is now, how unreachable. Years that Eliot has spent learning how to lead a normal life, practicing a profession, drifting half-heartedly through dinner companions who weren't really friends, lovers he never felt any love for. And all of it, he knows, could be unraveled in a moment, because none of it was ever really Eliot's real life.

Real life has been...let's say, on indefinite hiatus. For quite some time now. Eliot supposes that is a bit dramatic, but it's where he is.

“I can't,” Eliot says. Does that make him stubborn? He doesn't feel stubborn. He feels impossibly fragile. “I can't see...some boy with his face and pretend like it's normal.”

“Nobody thinks it's normal,” Julia says wryly. “Jesus. What the fuck, El. You think it was easy for me?”

Yes. Or – not easy, maybe, but a welcome challenge. Julia likes challenges, likes proving to herself that she can rise to them. Eliot thinks the whole concept is exhausting. “I think he's lucky to have a friend like you,” Eliot says, and in case it's necessary he adds, “I truly mean that.”

“I know you do,” Julia says. “But I'm not doing him some kind of favor out of the goodness of my heart. I'm.... He's Q.”

He's not.

He can't be. Not to Eliot.

“I should get back to Brakebills before the rain starts,” Eliot says. “Give your girls kisses from Uncle Eliot.”

“I'll consider it,” Julia says. “And you really won't come for Christmas?”

He won't.

He can't. Not this year.

“I'll let you know,” Eliot says breezily as he drains the last of his cappuccino and pulls his gloves from the pocket of his greatcoat. “Take care, darling. Merry – all the things.”

“Fuck you,” Julia says pleasantly. “This isn't over. I will wear you down, Waugh.”

On his way out, he bends to kiss the crown of her head and tuck that rogue strand away for her once again.

 

Eliot has big plans for Christmas. Well – he has a boat.

It's not his boat, but it's on loan from a friend.

Well – he's not a friend, but he'd very much like to be. Eliot is a bit on the fence about that, but certainly allowing Eliot to borrow the boat over the holidays racks up a few points in his favor. At least a New Year's phone call.

God, what is Eliot going to do with himself when he stops being pretty enough to get away with this shit? Pay for things himself, he supposes. Shudder.

He finishes his shopping and mails his gifts, waters his plants and locks up his Brakebills apartment, and he hies himself from cold, rainy New York down to Savannah, where The Borealis is wintering alone, just like Eliot. She's a Magician's boat – not a Fillorian living ship, but well-polished by planar compression spells and an infinitely stocked bar, as well as not a few low-grade seduction and virility spells, because The Borealis is a lady, but her owner is no gentleman.

The bar, at least, will not go to waste for the next two weeks. Eliot doesn't drink anymore – during the school year. But he's on vacation now, and he definitely did not choose to spend said vacation alone on a 35-foot docked yacht so that he can, what, feel his feelings? In what fucking world?

The first night he's aboard, Eliot doesn't sleep well. There's little enough traffic through the marina this time of year, but it's surprisingly unquiet even deep into the night – the creak of ropes in the wind, an occasional engine passing in the distance, a low boat horn somewhere out to sea. None of it is louder than the ambient noise of a farm or a Fillorian palace, of course, but it's all just unfamiliar enough to keep Eliot's brain from sloughing it off as unimportant.

He doesn't sleep well, but there's a bar so he has a tequila sunrise or three, and there's a spell on the large bed that interferes with his refractory period, so he masturbates a time or three. It's all but dawn when he finally falls asleep, but it doesn't matter, he can sleep all day if he wants, and he does want exactly that. It's his holiday break – what else does he have to do?

Nothing. Nothing – just the way he likes it.

By the next evening he's awake and restless, not to mention hungry, having brought nothing with him except the box of cherry cordials Jules and Penny's daughters always send him for Christmas and a bag of apples he picked up on a whim because he's vaguely aware that one's thirties is the appropriate time of life to consider one's fiber intake. He's a grown man, after all, and a surprisingly responsible one, all things considered.

Or maybe it's not so surprising, given the wreck he made of lives – of universes – back when he was more strongly given to impulsive acts of passion. Eliot does learn. You can say a lot of things about him, but you can't say that he doesn't learn his lessons.

He doesn't have plans, per se, but he puts on a tie and shines his shoes before he takes himself out to dinner. He hesitates a moment over the watch: he's fond of the Patek Philippe, and it's encrusted with a few little protective charms, just enough to render him uninteresting to anyone who might clone his cards or pick a fight – handy to keep on him if he plans to go out looking for a drink or some other type of entertainment tonight.

Instead he puts on the other watch, Fillory-bred and -harvested, its bronze gears budding up from the wood backing. It was only a tiny thing when Eliot first plucked it, and he kept it in an empty jam jar for weeks, feeding it sparingly and keeping it small like a bonsai tree so it would fit on a leather band instead of at the end of a chain in the pocket. He likes a pocket watch, personally, but he admits it's maybe a tad much for everyday wear, and anyway he didn't mean to keep it for himself.

It doesn't tell time, but why in God's name would Eliot care what time it is?

He finds a little bistro for dinner, upscale enough that he's not ridiculously overdressed, unpretentious enough that it's not utterly absurd that he's dining alone. He orders a big bowl of cioppino and a bottle of chardonnay, and the waiter (or maybe the chardonnay, but probably the waiter) talks him into a hazelnut brownie for dessert. What the hell, he's on vacation, and God but the waiter is cute, so who is Eliot to say no?

“Gavin, I need your help,” Eliot tells him at the end of the meal, with just enough eyelash to see if Gavin will flush under those freckles. He does. “I want to take a panini home with me, but do I want the steak and gruyere or the serrano-fig?”

“Well, I guess that depends,” Gavin says. “I love the steak gruyere, but....”

The hesitation is delicious, it's better than hazelnuts. “But...?” He stretches the word out, teases with it. Smiles. It's been ages, but you never really forget how. “Level with me, Gavin, I'm relying on your honesty.”

“The horseradish is a little strong,” Gavin says. “So if you're...taking it home to someone else.... Could be a factor.”

Eliot holds his eyes for just a moment. He has thick auburn hair, a little shaggy, and his tie is carelessly, unevenly tied; he's handsome, but a little too organic to match the décor of this place, which is all square light fixtures and semi-uncomfortable firm booths and semi-too-small tables. He doesn't quite belong here. Eliot's been around high-strung and perpetually scrambled Brakebills students long enough to notice the signs of that. “It's just me,” Eliot says.

He doesn't take the waiter home that night, but they do meet up for a late drink and a not-entirely-tiresome conversation. Gavin is a SCAD student, because of course he is, getting a BFA in film and television; he gets excited about sound editing the way that-- some of Eliot's students, historically, have been able to get excited about magic, and that's endearing. With his tie undone it's clear that the freckles go all the way down the long column of his throat, and Eliot wonders idly if he'd be into professor roleplay.

This wasn't Eliot's big plan for Christmas, but he agrees to trade numbers at the end of the night anyway, thinking – he doesn't know what he's thinking. Thinking, what could it hurt? Gavin is too nervous, too sweet, too unaware of his own disheveled charm; Eliot has no right to put a mark on him, but someone certainly will, sooner rather than later, and why not Eliot, truthfully? The boy could do worse.

Eliot, after all, hasn't murdered a lover in years.

That's a little joke he likes to tell the audience in his head.

So that night he sends Gavin home with a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth, and when Gavin does call, he answers, and he invites Gavin to visit him aboard the boat where they fuck themselves dizzy and dehydrated in an unnaturally large magic bed while the world sways around them, rocking back and forth on the tides.

It's nice. Eliot wouldn't say he's lonely, but it's been a long time since he's let himself indulge in something quite like this, something – less than romantic but more than transactional. That was always Eliot's sweet spot, quite frankly, and it feels a little bit like it still is.

 

It lasts – Eliot loses track of the days. More than a week, less than two. The sun rises over the ocean every morning, and Eliot lies in bed and listens to Gavin snore softly as The Borealis bobbles up and down in the cradle of its dock. It's nice. December in Georgia isn't winter as Eliot defines it, but you can feel the chill scratching at the back of your throat, at the tips of your toes in the hours before sunrise. The extra body heat under the blankets with him is...nice.

They do talk, or at least Gavin does. He's a bit of a talker, and after more than a week, less than two, Eliot knows about Gavin's parents' divorce, about his two young foster brothers, about leaving law school after one semester to go into film production instead, about the best drag show in Birmingham, about the pastry chef who broke Gavin's heart – his first heartbreak.

Eliot doesn't talk much, but he's a perfectly willing listener. Once upon a time, he probably would have been charmed by this open, upbeat boy who blushes and casually speaks in therapy lingo with his Alabama drawl. He might've been a little bit crushed around the edges, in fact.

Once upon a time, a boy like Gavin might've developed a bit of a crush on Eliot, too, but that doesn't happen, which – good for Gavin. He can look forward to years of healthy and mutually satisfying short-term affairs with bored tourists, as long as he maintains this adorable ability to hold his boundaries.

Gavin finally gives in just before Christmas, interrupting languid post-coital kisses to wind Eliot's hair around his finger and smile down at him in the darkness. “What about you?” he asks point-blank. His face is still close enough that their noses are brushing. Their legs are tangled together, Eliot's hand spread wide against Gavin's waist. “Don't you have family or something? I mean – no offense, but what are you doing here by yourself?”

“I like being by myself,” Eliot says. “I live in campus housing most of the year. Solitude is a luxury.”

“Sorry to crash your solitude,” Gavin says with a hum of playful laughter before he catches Eliot's waiting mouth in one more kiss. “But – no, seriously, you don't – have anywhere at all to be? Tomorrow's Christmas.”

“No family,” Eliot says. No family he cares to claim, at any rate. “My...best friend moved abroad a few years ago. We don't see each other in person much anymore.” Gavin makes a vague, sympathetic noise. He really is...nice. “Most years I spend Christmas with another friend in the Catskills, but.... I don't know, I didn't feel especially social this year. I thought recharging would be a better investment of my vacation time.”

It sounds normal enough to Eliot's ear. Plausible. But he must not be selling it, because the next soft kiss Gavin lowers onto Eliot's lips has a noticeable tang of pity to it. “Well. New year coming up, right?” he says. “Fresh start.”

He really shouldn't-- But he does, almost while he's still thinking I really shouldn't-- “That's very thoughtful of you, if also a little condescending.”

“Oh, I didn't mean anything like that,” Gavin says. God, he's so fucking sincere. He lets his hand slip free of Eliot's hair and cups it against Eliot's face instead, and he says, “It's just that you're – you know, I can see that you're sad.”

“I'm not sad,” Eliot says, or tries to say. It comes out parched and breathy, like the words aren't native to his body at all, but just found themselves passing through. “I told you, I wanted to be alone.”

“No offense, but you obviously don't?” Gavin points out. “But it doesn't seem like you really want to be with me, either, so I figure-- Seems like you're into someone else and you're just too polite to say anything about it.”

Eliot can't help but smile, even as he feels his chest caving in. “It's...not that,” he says. “Not exactly.”

“Eliot, it's fine,” Gavin says, stroking his thumb over Eliot's lips. “If this helped at all, I'm really glad.”

“I'm not on the rebound,” Eliot says. “There is – there was someone, but. He's been gone a long time.”

“Well, he's an idiot,” this pretty fool tells him, as if he knows Eliot, as if he could ever imagine.

I really shouldn't-- Eliot thinks, but it's night and he's breathing with someone, breathing in soap and sweat and the faint, greenish rot on the sea-salt air, and he doesn't want to be disruptive to the structural underpinnings of this aimless, harmless little affair, but he hasn't said it in so long, and apparently it wants to be said. “He died,” Eliot says.

Even in the dim light, cast only from the glow of appliances in the nearby kitchenette, he can see Gavin's eyes widen in surprise. “Shit,” he says. “I'm an asshole, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Eliot.”

“It's really fine,” Eliot says. It's fine. It is fine. The fact of it isn't fine, but talking about it, at least right now, doesn't make it any more or less real than it was before, so it's fine. It's life. “Don't worry about it,” Eliot tells him. “It was years ago, I'm really.... It's okay.”

Days go by sometimes, and he doesn't think about Quentin at all. Not lately, of course, but there's an obvious reason for that, Eliot's not just randomly backsliding. I didn't want to spend Christmas making small talk with an alternate-universe version of my dead ex-boyfriend is information that Eliot is obviously not at liberty to share, but – up until that little plot twist, Eliot was making steady progress, leaving the past behind him and focusing on the life he has now.

Gavin lowers himself down to the bed, into Eliot's arms. “I'll shut up now,” he says, pressing a little kiss to the curve of Eliot's shoulder. Eliot strokes his hand down Gavin's back, apology and forgiveness, and they sleep for a few hours, before the alarm on Gavin's phone goes off with the first morning light.

He kisses Eliot before he gets out of bed, and again before he leaves. Eliot smiles at him and doesn't draw attention to the fact that they're unlikely to see each other again.

It's fine, he's not in his feelings about it or anything. Eliot has very good boundaries.

And a fully stocked magical bar.

Eliot thinks quite a bit about Gavin, while he's drinking multiple chai-spiced hot toddys on the deck of his borrowed boat, bundled up in a ruana against the late December wind. Not about Gavin as a human being, necessarily – not that he didn't seem like a perfectly lovely human being, but Eliot's more interested in the sudden Gavin-assisted discovery that Eliot himself might be – lonely?

He hasn't been conscious of feeling lonely in ages. To the best of his knowledge, he was telling the truth when he said he wanted to be alone – when he said it to Gavin, when he's said it to Julia, to Todd, to Charlton – to anyone and everyone who's made the slightest effort to become or remain friends with Eliot over the past few years. Eliot likes being alone.

Doesn't he? He didn't always. He used to be quite the social butterfly, if memory serves.

He thought he'd go back to normal, when...things calmed down. When he'd had his period of mourning, of coming to terms with the hopes he'd never see fulfilled and the regrets that are bound to him permanently now, scar tissue lying somewhere between his skin and organs, invisible. Instead, Eliot somehow fell into a new normal.

But this week was – it felt – good. Lying in hazy hypnogogic bliss with warm skin pressed to his skin, a hairy leg caught inside the curve of his knee, winter-chapped lips resting against his shoulder. Even the conversation, one-sided though it mostly was, eased something Eliot hadn't realized he'd been holding so tight inside him. The...companionship. One might say.

Every time he thinks it, something contrary rears up in him, ready to argue. No, I don't want – no, I like being alone – no, I was just bored – no, I didn't feel – I don't want to feel that again--

But goddammit, Eliot's not the coward he once was. He's earned self-knowledge at the most terrible possible price, and he won't disrespect the living and the dead by retreating into false ignorance.

The part of him that was a romantic, once, the part that put down roots in someone else's heart and then grew up toward the sky like an orchard of sweet stone fruit – it's alive. The truth is, it really still is, and until now Eliot hadn't been sure.

He's still not sure what that means, exactly. That he's ready to – move on? To meet someone new, relearn what it's like to offer himself, remember what it feels like to have the offer accepted?

Eliot closes his eyes and breathes in the briny pickle smell of the ocean, the smell of motor oil, the smoke from the burger shack on the shoreline. It's still an alien world to him every time he visits the sea, a landlocked midwestern boy grown up and gone on adventure. When he opens his eyes, his lashes are damp; he'd blame the fog, but that's the coward's way out.

Quentin would tell him to move on. Eliot knows it, he's always known, can almost hear the words – don't be stupid, El, you can't live your whole life like this. You deserve so much more. Just pick someone who deserves you, that's all I ask.

Something ridiculous like that. Is what Quentin would say.

Eliot runs out of chai, but that's all right. There's always rum.

He's on vacation.

 

The rest of the day turns into a bit of a blur, to be perfectly honest. He might be drunk, he might be drunk, he's a little drunk and it's Christmas Eve. All the bars and restaurants close at dusk, and Eliot wanders the street, following the shine of candy canes and holly wreaths lit up and hanging from the lampposts, his woolen scarf over his nose, his flask tucked in the pocket of his greatcoat. He passes church after church – solid stone churches with steeples, not the sleek strip-mall megachurches of Eliot's childhood. Bells ring, and parents herd overexcited children from the parking lot into the inner warmth behind stained glass. Christmas Eve, it's Christmas Eve. Santa comes tonight, if you're good. If you've been good, if you've cleaned your plate and done your chores without complaining and used good manners and you haven't told your parents any lies (except for that lie, of course, you must absolutely tell that lie to be good).

He doesn't go inside. He considers it – there will be warmth, there will be singing, there will be – companionship, he's so lonely, God, he's so lonely – but underneath many, many layers of indifference toward gods and the laws of gods, Eliot can detect the shape of a small knot of antiquated shame, legacy of another lifetime. He's drunk as shit. He can't go to church like this.

So he keeps walking under the neon lights, and he sings Christmas carols between sips from his flask – and in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the yearsmild He lays His glory by, born that men no more may diehere we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore, faithful friends who are dear to us--

He likes Christmas music, okay? It's not against the law. It doesn't make him – it doesn't mean he's – a child, he's not waiting for Santa, he doesn't have – hope or the Christmas spirit or anything like that.

Oh. But he does have presents waiting for him – presumably. Every year, he tells everyone he knows that he doesn't want to exchange gifts, and every year two people flagrantly disrespect his wishes: Todd, who leaves a tin of homemade brownies on his desk on the last day of every fall semester, and Julia, who does whatever the hell Julia is going to do, but it's always something, and she always makes sure it arrives on Christmas.

That's nice. She's been nice to him, ever since – when did that start? Probably when everything started. When everything ended. When – the thing happened. Eliot supposes she sort of...inherited him. Scooped him up like an orphaned puppy and added him to her portfolio. Is that a mixed metaphor? No. No, he can imagine a portfolio of puppies. It's a charming image. Eliot is clever.

So he loops back in the opposite direction – he thinks it's the opposite direction – and eventually he remembers that his boat is on the ocean, and that makes it much easier to find. Hard to lose an ocean, even in Eliot's...distracted state.

(He might take a brief pause to get down on his knees and throw up in some – plants of some kind, by the road. Best to stay down for a few minutes, just until the world stops spinning. He's dimly aware that there's a version, or a few dozen versions, of himself that would be embarrassed by what a lightweight he is now. Why did he stop drinking, that was so stupid of him, stupid and, what's infinitely worse, boring.)

Anyway, he does find his boat eventually, and he strips out of his vomit-stained coat (magic will fix that, magic fixes so very many minor inconveniences, but only when his fingers are a little more, well, when he can do the things) and leaves it lying in the middle of the floor, and he pours himself an Old Fashioned before he looks around for-- There it is. Oh, she's so very predictable.

Or...traditional? Is this a tradition, that they have now? That sounds like a thing that friends have. Holiday traditions. Because friends are basically just families, right? You can love them or hate them. They can be kind or cruel. You can run from them. They can leave you behind. But you'll always have certain things in common with them, like it or not, and those things are called...traditions? Memories? Collective trauma?

On the foot of his bed, there's a smallish rectangular box, wrapped in silver paper with faint dark green pine branches printed on it, and a sprig of fresh pine lanced through the heart of the gauzy silver bow. Classy, Pinterest-y wrapping, of course. Of course. Julia has excellent taste, effortlessly absorbed from a lifetime of exposure to privilege and a keen attention to detail. Eliot is jealous – was jealous – has been, in the past, from time to time, viciously, bitterly jealous of Julia Wicker's grace and power and focus and poise and...lovability.

Before they were such close friends, he means. Of course.

Eliot opens the gift before the card, a terrible breach of the manners his mother tried to teach him, oops, oh well. He wants the fucking present, is he not allowed to want things? He is. He is allowed, and he's alone anyway (God, he's so lonely) so he can do whatever he wants.

It's a pair of delicate gold reading glasses, and if he's briefly curious as to how Julia knows his prescription, he dismisses the question immediately. How does Julia know anything? She's Julia. They're lovely, and of course they're enchanted, but how? Half the fun of presents from other Magicians is figuring out what the fuck they do, but Eliot can't quite catch the details, either wearing or holding them. They're – warded, it's a ward of some kind. Feels protective.

That's dark, for Christmas. Eliot hasn't had any need for protection in ages, so far as he is aware. He relies on the Brakebills wards when he's in residence, and he hardly ever leaves. Also, who would give a shit about him? Eliot is nobody, really.

Really, he always was, wasn't he? Underneath it all.

Well, they're lovely – not quite as flattering a frame as his ordinary glasses, but nicer than the cheap backup pair he keeps in his desk drawer. He leaves them on – from convenience, not necessity; he doesn't need reading glasses, they're mostly insurance against headaches, he's only thirty-two – while he reaches for the card that accompanies the gift.

There are two envelopes.

Eliot sits on the bed for a long, long time with the longer of the two envelopes resting on his thigh as he drinks. Eliot across the front – just Eliot. Julia's card has his full name on it; she's his closest friend in this world, probably, but she doesn't feel the need to be quite so familiar about it.

Eliot.

He doesn't open it.

He's going to open it. Of course he is. It would be so rude not to, and anyway he – does want to read it. He does. He does want to.

He's hungry. He's drunk. The boat keeps moving, should he still be here? He's hungry. He threw up earlier. He should walk on the beach, shouldn't he? He came here to spend Christmas at the beach.

He should read the letter. He should read the letter. He should know what's in it. He doesn't have to answer it, but he should still know.

His coat is still a mess, but it's only chilly out. Eliot takes the letter down to the beach with only his shirtsleeves and a quick insulation spell for protection, but it's fine, he's not particularly cold. Toasty, really. It's Georgia. Midwestern boys don't get cold in Georgia.

New York, he means. He lives in upstate New York.

He takes the letter. He takes the bottle of bourbon. It's probably not allowed on the beach. He's a fucking – he's a Magician, he won't get caught. He won't. He doesn't care if he does.

Eliot, it says. He touches the ink over and over while he waits to open it, sitting on the damp sand overlooking the bellowing black sea. The reading lamp spell comes easily to him, even in this state – it's a first-weeks-of-class spell, and he uses it almost daily to grade papers in his cozy little attic apartment. It's dark, the world is so dark, but the page glows and every word is clear. Every word.

 

Dear Eliot,

I think you probably already suspect what I'm writing to ask, and you're right, but I do also want to say Merry Christmas, I really do hope you're having a good one. Julia said you went to the beach, so good for you for getting out of the cold, it's so fucking cold up here and half the hedges have the flu. You were right to skip it, probably.

Why can't magic cure the flu? Fucking magic, right?

This is so weird. I don't know how to talk to you. I know you think that we don't know each other, and I know that you're right, or partially right, but you're partially wrong, too, Eliot, and I think you know you are. I think you know it's more complicated than you want to make it, and I think part of you does want to meet me. And you should. You should, and that's what I'm writing to tell you, even though yeah, on one level this is incredibly creepy and invasive when you've already said no, but you said no to Julia, not me. And I need to be the one who asks. I'm so sick of not asking for things. I made that mistake too many times.

Julia says that when I died (other me), you took it really hard, and I get that. I know what that feels like, and it's not like I can blame you for not wanting to reopen a wound or whatever. But I don't think it has to be like that, you know? I'm not asking to go back to being friends or just pick up like nothing happened and we're both people that we're not. Honestly, I'm not asking for much, except – cards on the table and at the risk of doubling down on the creepy thing, the last time I saw you (other you) was when I found your body in a bathtub, and that's fucked up. That's such a fucked up ending, and I didn't know you for a long time, but you were still basically the biggest thing that ever happened to me other than magic. You were my best friend, and I don't know why. You picked me, and I don't know why. I thought I'd have time to figure it out, but you died.

And the things is I know you (this you) can't fix that. It happened, and now I'm in an alternate universe where it didn't happen, except it did, for me it will always have happened, it's a thing I can't ever forget or undo. I'm still working on the whole not-blaming-myself angle. Your life wasn't mine to save. Hell, I guess your life wasn't even yours to save. You never met that guy.

Fucking time travel.

You're welcome for the seasonal fucking cheer, by the way. I'm still working through some shit, obviously.

I'm not asking you to fix things you can't fix, or feel things you can't feel, or care about me the way that he did. I'm literally asking you for coffee, nothing else. Again, super creepy I grant you but the thing is, I know you exist, but it doesn't feel real to me because I've never even seen your face. And maybe I shouldn't care but I do. Knowing that you're alive in this world doesn't change the fact that my Eliot is dead in mine, but I still want to know it. I just feel like I could let go a little bit, if I could see with my own eyes that some part of him is still in the world, in this world.

If it really is too hard for you, I understand. I don't know you, but I want you to be okay. It doesn't seem like you need saving, Julia says you're a good teacher, you have your life together and all that, and it's really good to hear that. That sounds trite or whatever, but it does feel really good and I don't want to fuck things up for either of us.

But I do want to see you, even though maybe Julia's right, maybe it's fucked-up stalker shit to ask again when you've said no multiple times. I won't ask again, I promise. It's all in your hands now.

Anyway, I hope you think it over. There's no expiration date or anything, so if you ever change your mind, I'm sure you know how to find me. I swear I'm not usually like this about boundaries, I really am capable of just getting coffee and acting halfway normal. And even if we never meet face to face, I hope you know that I'm, I don't know, not your friend I guess, but in your corner? A weird, long-distance parasocial stranger-friend who wants every good thing in the world to happen for you, because I'm 99% sure that you are kind and loyal and generous, I think all of that is who you are deep down, who you would always turn out to be.

Merry Christmas, El. Get in touch with me if you want, any time you want.

 

Yours sincerely,

Q.C. (First of His Name)

 

Eliot wishes....

Wishes are pointless, they don't matter, they're what stupid people confuse with magic. Eliot doesn't wish – hasn't really wished for anything in ages, because either you can have something or you can't have it, there's no middle state, nowhere in the world where you can just afford to swan around wishing things while the world grinds on.

But he wishes – it's stupid, it's impossible, it's a waste of energy – he wishes he could ask Quentin for advice. The real Quentin, his Quentin, the best friend who always believed in the best possible version of Eliot, even after he knew the real Eliot better than anyone. What would that Quentin tell him to do?

Eliot leans over his knees, ignoring his stomach's mild distress, and breathes into the crisp cotton of his shirt, letting the crook of his elbow warm his nose. He is cold. He should've brought the ruana, or a cardigan or something. He had options. They just weren't the one he wanted, the coat he ruined, so he spurned all the rest, and that's probably what Quentin would say, he'd say something like, Jesus Christ, El, it's exhausting to watch you double down every time you get hurt and hurt yourself worse on purpose, I wish you wouldn't. You're the reason you're alone, it didn't have to be this way, so would you please pick up the damn phone and let someone who's alive yell at you instead of making me do it every single time? I'm trying to rest in peace, here.

No. He might say something like that, but he probably wouldn't. Quentin's patience was not unlimited, but usually he delivered his tough love with...kindness. Usually he looked at Eliot with so much kindness, like he understood Eliot better than Eliot ever intended to make himself understood.

Quentin would probably say....

Nothing, maybe. He was good at saying nothing.

There were times – times outside of time, in the time when Quentin was Eliot's and vice versa – when the burden of isolation and hard labor and the feeling of being stripped of all his choices and most of his coping mechanisms would weigh hard enough on Eliot to crack the gloss a bit, when he'd give in and cry in frustration and the unremitting grief of losing a life he wasn't officially allowed to admit he'd lost. Not Eliot's finest hours, but they happened. And he remembers that Quentin... said nothing, mostly. That he curled up under Eliot's arm and sighed softly against Eliot's collarbone and anchored his arm around Eliot's waist and held on.

Eliot remembers.... There was a time when he was drowning, when he was crying and berating himself for his weakness, when he was having vague, desperate thoughts like I can't keep doing this, and Quentin put his hand in the middle of Eliot's chest and said nothing, nothing at all. And Eliot put his hand over Quentin's hand and he kept breathing, and he gradually got quieter, inside and outside, until finally, gradually, he was just breathing and not crying.

And Quentin was the first to speak, his voice rough and soft, and he said, “It's crazy that with everything we have going on, your nails always look like you just came back from the salon or whatever. Is there a spell for that or something?”

It shocked a strange little laugh out of Eliot. It just felt so wild and out-of-the-blue. “Can you give yourself manicures with magic?” he paraphrased. “Yeah, it's not, it's not even hard. Of course there's a spell.” Quentin hummed a little, accepting that, and Eliot kept breathing, watching their hands rise and fall on top of his chest. “You want me to do yours?” he finally said.

Quentin tipped his head to look up at Eliot in the light of their banked fire, and he smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds nice.”

Eliot wishes....

If he were here, Quentin probably wouldn't say much. He'd probably take off his hoodie and drape it over Eliot, because probably Eliot looks cold out here on the beach in the bleak midwinter without a goddamn coat. He'd probably stroke Eliot's back, maybe even put his cheek down against it.

That's who Quentin was deep down: a man who would stick by the people he loved through any discomfort, any test of strength. The real question is, is it who he would always turn out to be? Given the chance to live his life?

The answer isn't just a matter of wishing. The answer makes a difference now.

 

He waits until the sun comes up over the Atlantic ocean, like he planned when he arranged this trip. Christmas sunrise over the sea. It sounded so beautiful, and beauty has been there for Eliot for years when nothing else has. The beauty of all life.

It is beautiful. It is.

God, he wants to live. Why does that feel so...embarrassing to admit, even to himself? Being alive is – good, actually? Not just the Sondheim song, but the genuine article?

Waffle House is still open, even though it's Christmas morning and he's rolling up disheveled and coatless and clearly hungover – especially for that reason, to be honest, Eliot is helping this Waffle House fulfill its Waffle House destiny as a refuge for tragic fuck-ups. The waitress calls him hon. He holds his face close to his coffee cup to let the steam defrost his nose. It's Christmas, and she and the cooks are at work and Eliot's alone with cold sand in his shoes and magic reading glasses perched on his nose and a letter clutched in his hand from someone who thinks he could let go a little bit, if only he could see Eliot's face.

How much is that to ask, really? How selfish would Eliot have to be, not to grant that small wish?

“Hi,” he says when Julia answers the phone. “Would you – have an extra plate for me, if I made it up there by lunch?”

“Fuck you, Eliot,” Julia says with her own version of that broken, out-of-the-blue laugh that Eliot knows well. The laugh that comes out of your body when someone you love comes through for you in the weirdest possible way. “I'm giving you an hour, and if you're not here I'm coming to get you.”

“Yes, Miss Wicker,” he says.