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Iron It Out So Nice

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Even before Eliot opens his eyes, he knows that his heart is lying to him when it pounds Quentin, Quentin, Quentin. That's a little disappointing; it might have been nice to be fooled for a moment or two.

Or maybe it would only make the situation worse. Probably that. Eliot breathes in the scent of the soft hair under his nose, against his lips, but that's just for the pleasure of it. He's not fooled, he hasn't forgotten, this is not a dream.

As carefully as he can, Eliot shifts the warm body pressed against his chest so that Eliot can climb out of bed and....

And start packing, he supposes. He normally stays a few days when he makes this trip, but it doesn't-- It just seems unwise, now that he knows how strangely he and Quentin-One are affecting each other. They've had their coffee date now, more or less, and they haven't done anything yet that they can't pretend away. Time to call this off, whatever the fuck it is.

It's after ten o'clock, and the sun is flooding through the room until Eliot pulls the drapes shut on the balcony doors. His bare foot lands with a soft crunch on paper – the letter he dropped last night, abandoned in the dark when the knock on his door woke him. Eliot picks it up and presses out the crease his heel just made before folding it up and storing it in the deep pocket of his robe. He doesn't read it, but he doesn't have to; certain lines burn through the page, warming his skin while he handles it. I think you know it's more complicated than you want to make it and I'm sure you know how to find me and You were my best friend.

Eliot's not the one who wants things to be complicated. Eliot's not the one who wanted – any of this. Things just are complicated, and if he sees it and Quentin doesn't, well not to be condescending, but that's years of life experience that makes the difference. It's a complicated world.

Fortunately, he's barely unpacked, so packing won't be a challenge. He can be gone from here and back home before he's even in desperate need of a shower. A whirlwind trip to pay his Christmas respects, and he'll be safely back in his attic at Brakebills like the resident mad Gothic widow by noon.

“Some things never change,” he hears behind him as he shrugs out of his robe and drops it in his open suitcase. When he looks over his shoulder, he sees Quentin pushed up on his elbow. Eliot looks away, but that just means that Quentin's scratchy morning voice is scraping down the back of Eliot's neck. “You want to know how many times he snuck out after I spent the night so he wouldn't have to deal with me in the morning?”

“Not particularly,” Eliot says.

“Six.”

Apparently that wasn't an actual question. “Sounds about right,” Eliot says as he pulls out a travel outfit, piece by piece. Should he wear a tie? No. He's on vacation. “Do you want an apology? I was a selfish piece of shit when I was twenty-three.” Maybe a tie. A pop of color, and he won't have to dig for the pocket square he has in here somewhere. There's a definite disadvantage to enchanting your luggage to expand your options; he can't seem to locate a damn thing. “And then I changed, life changed me,” Eliot says, trying to sound cheerful about it. A pop of color works wonders. Where in the name of holy hopping fuck are his ties that aren't gray? Why does he even own four gray ties? “The beauty of all fucking life,” he growls, mostly to himself. “Changes you.”

“You don't have to explain that to me,” Quentin says. “I'm the one who– I already said, I know you – changed. That's not what this was– I know you're not--”

“Do you, Quentin?” Eliot snaps. “Because I'm honestly not sure you do know.”

“What, just because I kissed you?” Well, so much for pretending it away. The boy is impossible to work with. “I did that because I'm attracted to you, not because I was – attracted to--”

He can't, this is. Un-fucking-fair. “Then understand this,” Eliot says, summoning his best I-am-disappointed-in-the-entire-class voice from deep in his chest. “That boy who hurt your feelings? He's dead in this timeline, too, he's long gone. So I can't give him back to you, and you can never, ever give my Q back to me.” Not his Q or their son, not their home or their history – the Mosaic, the Monster, the hope, the fucking sacrifice – none of it is coming back. The one person who could give it to Eliot is...long gone. And he's not coming back.

There's a short, deadly silence. Quentin says with an unsteady little rasp, “Actually, um. I've had all the time travel I think I can stand, you know? I don't want things to come back, or to – go back the way they were. I'm just trying to figure my shit out, and you're-- You were a loose end.”

“Well,” Eliot says. “Sometimes those just happen. I'd love to be able to give you whatever sense of closure you got when you ran this story through your head, but that's just – a story. In the real world, some things just...start out good and get a fucked-up ending.”

“Thanks for the tip.” Quentin never shed any clothing last night except his slippers, which he locates easily on his way out the door. “See you around, I guess,” he says, and closes the door with a firm click that's pointedly not a slam.

That was – not ideal, Eliot supposes, but then how were they supposed to say goodbye? Best of luck in your future endeavors? This is why Eliot was trying to make a graceful exit, avoid a scene entirely.

It is...ironic, he supposes, in a grim way. After all the time he's spent trying not to wish for the impossible, for the chance to say a real goodbye to Quentin Coldwater-- It's funny, right? That he's quite deliberately refusing to....

It's not the same. Nothing about this is comparable to – to the fucked-up ending he and the real Quentin were saddled with, or Quentin-Prime and Eliot-Prime and their beautiful dark twisted whatever, or even the eternal loose end that Quentin had to endure when Eliot drifted off to sleep and never woke up. It's not anywhere close, it's not on the same continent. It's just...awkward. Eliot does hate awkward mornings-after, of course – doesn't everyone? – but you really can't draw some kind of straight line between that and....

Still, he's sorry if it dredged up bad memories for Quentin-One. He probably was badly misused. That would be very on-brand for Eliot.

 

He can't exactly just vanish; it would be terribly rude, and – people would worry. He likes to think someone would worry.

So he fixes himself leftovers for brunch and sits next to his suitcase on the back porch and has a few more conversations with people he too-rarely gets to sit and talk with. It's less painful today, probably because he has an exit strategy. Eliot might, just possibly, still be kind of an asshole.

He is genuinely sorry that he has to say goodbye to Hope and Leah so soon. They're so unreasonably fond of him, and for the life of him, Eliot can't figure out why; it isn't as though they suffer any shortage of indulgent adult attention. He's a rarity, Eliot guesses. Limited-time only.

Julia is disapproving, of course, and Eliot's not sure if she just disapproves of him splitting with so little advance warning, or if she's directly or indirectly caught the way the wind blows in re: Quentin and she knows that Eliot's leaving a tangled pile of loose ends behind when he goes. Not that it's any of her business where Quentin was last night or how uncivil their parting shots were on both sides, but Julia would surely disagree. “I'll come back soon,” he promises her to smooth things over. “Before summer.”

“You're doing it backwards,” she says. “You'd be better off living here and visiting back there when – you know. When you need to.”

If Eliot could guarantee that he'd always have access to Brakebills' resources even after he stops contributing anything of value to Brakebills, he might seriously consider it. But that's not really the way it goes, is it? And he can't risk....

It's so small a thing, in the grand scheme of things. These stolen hours of conversation, season to season and year to year. He can't even take her hand. Having it is – small. Being without it would be massive.

“Backwards in high heels, and with exquisite grace,” Eliot agrees lightly. “My aesthetic in a nutshell.”

“You can't hang onto the past forever,” Julia says, and for once she looks like she really, truly understands why he would want to. God, people really are clocking Eliot as pathetic left and right these days. He finds it concerning.

But it's not like he isn't feeling a tad pathetic, so he can't exactly insist on his innocence. He pulls Julia into a hug, almost drowning her tiny frame in his greatcoat. She slips her arms around his waist and hangs on, and it's honestly very.... He likes it. He hasn't just hugged anyone in he doesn't know how long. “But us, old friend, what's to discuss, old friend?” he sings very quietly, bent over her head and for her ears alone. “Here's to us. Who's like us? Damn few.”

Julia sighs deeply, her whole body rising and falling in the circle of his arms. “Nerd,” she mumbles. He kisses her head and then lets her go.

 

He hangs around on the porch a little longer. There's an aesthetic rim of frost still clinging to the railing, sheltered from the sunlight. That's not why he's sitting here, obviously. Just to stare at frost.

He doesn't know exactly why he is sitting here. All it does is increase the risk of another uncomfortable conversation about an unsolvable problem, and Eliot hates discomfort. He endures it, to the degree that life requires you to endure a certain amount of discomfort, but he doesn't do it gladly and he doesn't do it voluntarily.

That, of course, is why he used to self-medicate: to help him endure life's inevitable agonies with head held high and a pageant smile. That, of course, is why he would probably stay at least one more night if he could do it with six or eight cocktails and a Xanax on his side.

Compounding bad ideas with more bad ideas. In his right mind, Eliot knows there would be no worse choice he could make than to... than to stay, with lowered inhibitions and all this disastrous wanting.

When does it just – when does it go the fuck away? This wanting, this always wanting and wanting and waiting on Santa Claus and waiting on true love's kiss, when does he grow out of it? He's in his thirties for god's sake.

The frost drips to the floorboards of the porch, splattering and shining in the sun. Temporary. Beautiful. Do you always get one, when you chase the other? Is that the answer? He wouldn't know. He was dead when the puzzle was solved. He never really understood the grand reveal, the epiphany about beauty and life. He's not sure if Quentin did or not; there was never really enough time to ask.

But then, in the life where Eliot grew old, he still never really did grow out of it, did he? It sharpened inside him, not faded, when he got old – the wanting. The petty shit started to fall away, forgotten, and he found himself distilled down to his truest self, and he found that he liked that self after all: the nosy old sharp-tongued gossip with the loud, inelegant laugh and the gleefully filthy sense of humor who was vain about his hair but not too vain to let the grandkids tie fallen leaves into his curls with sticky fingers, who never forgot to bring flowers for an anniversary, who served the best deviled kidneys in a hundred-mile radius. Eliot got old and he stopped hating and fearing himself, but he always wanted, wanted more than ever. More flowers, more beauty, more scandalous stories, more meat and more peaches, more laughter, more time.

Is that the answer? Live to want, want to live, and hey, presto – beauty? Are all those things the same, in the end?

Is he really sitting here on a damp porch swing in the freezing cold, being pretentious about wanting to fuck someone his students' age for, like, the profundity of it? He's like the insufferable self-insert in a literary novel about a midlife crisis, and he's only thirty-two.

Someone sits on the swing beside him, and it's Penny, wearing a Dad cardigan and a knit cap that doesn't quite hide the gray at his temples; Eliot, whose beard already comes in half-gray when he lets it, is obscurely pleased to notice that. At least he's not alone here. Penny gives him a little half-smile and offers him a pack of cigarettes, which is particularly sweet of him, since Penny quit smoking years ago. Eliot wonders if he scavenged these from someone else, or if this is his emergency pack.

Eliot takes one with a grateful nod and lights it before he thinks to ask if Penny minds. Penny just laughs silently at him, because it is literally already on fire and shedding smoke. Still, principle of the thing, right? “You know, if you're waiting for someone to invite you back in....” Penny finally says.

“God, no,” Eliot says. “Don't you dare.”

“All right, all right,” Penny says. “You can stay or go, man, it's up to you. Just saying.”

Eliot sighs, breathing out a plume of smoke. “I wish I could stay,” he admits. If wishes were fishes, we'd walk on the sea. That's something Eliot's mother used to say. Eliot isn't sure, now that he thinks about it, if his mother had ever seen the sea. “It's probably...fairly obvious why I can't.”

“I think I figured out your big scary secret, yeah,” Penny says, gentle and warm and teasing like Eliot is one of his children. “You know, it's – funny. When you're the guy who doesn't belong here, it really is pretty funny to watch people kind of, uh. Scatter when you show up. Because they don't know what to say to you, you know? Nobody knows what to say to you. Nobody to blame for that or anything. It just is what it is.”

Eliot looks over at him. It isn't that he'd forgotten, precisely, that Penny is a latecomer to the timeline himself. For some reason, Eliot's brain just never connected the dots, never stopped to realize how similar the situations are. “Is it hard for you?” he says. “I mean, do you...know what to say to him?”

“Nah,” Penny says. “Not much to say. You go through what you go through, and you get this – second chance. You're lucky and you know it, you just don't always feel lucky. You feel...guilty. You feel alone. But you're lucky anyway. Nobody has to tell you anything; you already know what there is to know. He'll be okay. He knows that, too.”

“Still,” Eliot says quietly. “I'm sure he appreciates...being slightly less alone in this fucked-up predicament than you were.” Penny shrugs, something like maybe he is, maybe he isn't and something like I hope you're right. “Do you mind if I ask you a – personal question?”

Penny doesn't look directly at Eliot, so he only has a side-view of Penny's big, sickeningly handsome smile. “Is it, How much of a mindfuck was it the first time you slept with your soulmate's doppleganger? Shot in the dark.”

“This is why no one likes psychics,” Eliot says.

“Dude, your wards are better than that. It's your personality that's kinda predictable.”

Eliot grimaces. Even worse. “That wasn't exactly my question. Although it was – not unrelated.”

“Total mindfuck,” Penny says, sounding unperturbed by it. “It's just, like – overload, for a long time. Your brain's just constantly updating this weird, imaginary spreadsheet of ways they're the same and ways they're not. But I don't know. Once or twice, you forget. Did my Julia like Pretty Woman, or is that just Jules? Was she always weird about spiders? Did I even know that before? You have to ask. You have to, like – go open up the mental spreadsheet on purpose, check through your memories. It gets harder and harder to sort it all out, and eventually it's just.... You don't see the point anymore. The Jules in front of you is the only one who matters. Most of the time. Except when you feel like shit because of all the stuff you can't remember anymore. I don't know, man. It's a weird ride, but it's also – I don't know how to say it, but like. It's kind of a gift, too. You're not gonna know anyone else in your entire life the way you know...someone you had to go out of your way to fall in love with twice. You know sides of them that the rest of the world couldn't begin to wrap their heads around. I mean, maybe marriage is always like that in a way, but – more. You lose more than you ever wanted to lose, but you get more than other people get.”

“Romantic,” Eliot says. He can't keep the skepticism out of his voice. Things that sound too good to be true almost always are.

Penny shrugs. “It's a weird ride. Maybe it's not for everyone, I don't know. It was right for us.”

“He's so young, though,” Eliot hears himself say.

“Buddy, he's not that young,” Penny says, glancing at him and smiling again, sadder than before. “You got old early.”

Harsh but fair, Eliot supposes. He picks at a button that's hanging loosely attached to his coat. Needs mending. “It's so gauche,” he says. He doesn't know if he's keeping his tone as light as he intends to. He doesn't know how to measure these things anymore, how to gauge the depths accurately while he's in the pull of them. “Replacing the man you killed with a younger version.”

“You gonna be done punishing yourself, like...ever?” Penny asks. He says it not – sympathetically or unsympathetically, particularly. Just like it's a question that only Eliot can answer.

Usually people try to dissect his logic, on the rare occasions Eliot allows himself to say something like that aloud. All the reasons Eliot didn't and it's not Eliot's fault, all technically true. None of it erasing the fact that... if saving Eliot's stupid, pointless life weren't the one thing Quentin cared about most, Eliot would be dead right now and Quentin would be alive. It's a relief, actually, not to go through the same song-and-dance with Penny now. The question about the future is, after all, the one that really matters, isn't it?

“He'll be dead forever, won't he?” Eliot says. That's not really an answer. Maybe it's an answer. God, this whole thing is already a mindfuck, and Eliot isn't even getting to enjoy the benefits.

Penny slaps his palm lightly over Eliot's knee, two or three times. “I love you, man, for real,” he says. The in spite of your bullshit is implied.

Still, it's...nice of him. Penny isn't the force that Julia is, but he's been as steadfast a friend to Eliot, in his quiet way. Friends are...a thing that living people have, and sometimes they don't choose each other, but there's still...love.

It's love no matter what, isn't it? Can the circumstances ever make love less beautiful than it is? Having now lived into and through several life-changing loves that began in some severely fucked-up circumstances...Eliot likes to think the answer is no.

But he's no expert.

 

He stays long enough to finish his cigarette. He stays long enough to watch the sun shift into the low slant of a winter afternoon and the chill to creep back into the shadow of the porch. He stays long enough to get hungry again.

What is he waiting for? He's made up his mind. He's made the choice, and a clean-ish break. Does he think it's going to get easier at some point, that if he gets cold enough and bored enough and his phone battery runs out, he'll find his enthusiasm for returning to Brakebills?

When he gets cold enough, he checks his coat pockets for a stray pair of gloves, and his fingers close around the Fillorian watch he hasn't worn in several days. Eliot pulls it out and looks at it. He remembers harvesting it from the clock tree, delicately nudging the tiny bud of it into a jar and letting it ripen just enough to round out to the jar's width. He remembers filing the bark off the edges and polishing the back to a smooth gloss so it would sit comfortably against a wrist without splinters. Choosing the leatherwork for the band.

Quentin was dead, he was dead already by then, but Eliot thought – he still wanted – to have a gift for him, just in case. In those first months, Eliot frequently entertained the notion that...something would happen, someone would think of something. They'd harrow the Underworld or they'd bargain with a god or they'd...reset the clock somehow, through some yet unknown means. It didn't truly feel, in Eliot's heart of hearts, like this could be permanent. And when they did have Quentin back again, Eliot would thank him for....

He had a whole speech prepared, at the time. Who can even remember it now. About bravery and time and self-improvement and second chances. About keys and clocks and doors, about Fillory, about never knowing how much time you had left, for better or for worse. Eliot remembers the gist, but all the details are long gone.

The watch never ran right, and nobody ever came up with a plan. Eliot kept the watch and he swallowed his speech and he...tried to move on with his life. He really did try.

Carefully, Eliot buckles it around his wrist. It's a little rustic for his tastes, honestly, but it has sentimental value.

Quentin would have loved it, with or without the speech. Eliot smiles when he thinks of that, and it feels so goddamn good to smile, for once, at the sound of that name.

 

He comes back inside for supper and he stays.

Not forever, of course, but for the night. He talks about magic and he talks about the ethics and aesthetics of updating West Side Story for a new century and he watches six episodes of Animaniacs with Hope and allows himself to laugh his natural laugh, the one Margo used to say made him sound like a friendly donkey. He helps make caramel corn in the oven and he plays Settlers of Catan well into the night, and because Julia is kind enough not to say I told you so, he hugs her again, holding on and on.

Quentin watches him with quiet curiosity. He smiles a little when Eliot's eyes linger on him, but he keeps his distance, except when he's squeezing Eliot to death on a sheep-for-lumber deal. Eliot doesn't remember Quentin-Forty being so competitive, but...it's been a long time. He doesn't remember everything.

Eliot repays Julia and Penny for some tiny fraction of their patience with him by singing to the girls once they're in bed, and then he heads back to his room himself, suitcase in tow. He might leave tomorrow. He might stay a little longer. He doesn't have to decide right now.

In spite of the sharp cold, Eliot steps out onto his balcony to smoke before bed. Maybe he should quit, too? He's been smoking for absolutely ages now, and magic can't cure cancer – of course, because that would improve people's lives. He chuckles softly at his own joke, if that even qualifies as one, and he leans on the balcony rail. He can barely see the moon brushing the top of the treeline, but he can see an infinite sea of stars. It's beautiful up here, it really is, although the climate is a bit more amenable down at the beach.

He's so lost in the sight that he almost doesn't notice the sound of his own name, but the second time he hears it, it sinks in. Eliot glances around and then up, until he sees Quentin on the balcony one room over and one floor up, leaning on the side rail with the red gleam of his own cigarette in his hand. “Hey,” Quentin says, just loud enough to waft down to where Eliot stands. It's the first non-Catan related word Quentin has said directly to him since this morning, and it's impossible to ignore the way Eliot's heart hums at the sound of it. Hey. Honestly, is that really all it takes?

So it seems.

“Hi,” Eliot says in response.

There's something...magical about it, and Eliot doesn't mean that in an entirely complimentary way. It's fraught and strange, the silence and the chill, the tips of fire on their cigarettes drifting arrhythmically to and from their mouths like slow-moving fireflies. It's dangerous – dangerous because they're sober, because they're awake, because there's no convenient scapegoat for whatever they choose to risk right now. It's magical, and the thing about magic is that too much of it or too little and you're ruined.

In the dark and from this distance, Eliot can't see the details of Quentin's face, can't analyze his expression. He only knows that Quentin continues to lean on the rail, his body canted toward Eliot. He only knows that neither of them have even made a token effort to look away.

When he finishes his cigarette, Quentin stubs it out and disappears without a word. Eliot closes his eyes and takes two last, long drags while he waits for a knock at his door.

“Listen – I'm really sorry,” Quentin says when Eliot opens the door for him. Eliot takes hold of his forearm and pulls him through, closing the door for privacy. “I overreacted--”

“No, it was me,” Eliot says. “I'm sorry. I'm not usually cruel like that anymore, not that you have much reason to believe--”

“I do believe you.” Quentin's skin is flushed from the cold. Eliot wants to hold his face, warm him up. He wants, deeper than wishing, deeper than hope – the kind of want that fuels a quest, or a life. “I never....” Quentin pauses and bites his lip, frowning as he searches for the words. “I never meant to cross any lines. I really did just...want to meet you. I wasn't lying about that.”

Eliot never thought he was. He lets his hand slide down the sleeve of Quentin's henley until he can catch at Quentin's hand. That's cold, too. Eliot pulls it up, catches the other one and pulls them together, curled as much as he can in between Eliot's hands. “He was the most important person in the world to me, which – did not keep me from hurting him. And now I can't make it right. So you should just...know that that's how things stand for me, and I don't know how to move past it, and that is absolutely not your fault but I'm almost definitely going to keep making it your problem, because I'm. Kind of an asshole.”

“It sucks, doesn't it?” Quentin says with a smile, with the one smile that will always and forever wreck Eliot. “Not getting – closure or whatever. I wish we could give each other that, but you're right, we can't. But, I mean. We're both here now.”

Aren't they just. “Q...” he says warily, although the responsible-adult act would probably be more convincing if he could...let go of Quentin's hands.

“No, nothing, nothing like that,” Quentin says. “I just mean.... I had a really good time last night, talking to you. Not just because-- Truthfully? You're – easier to talk to than he was. You don't seem like you're always trying to steer the conversation away from the Quentin Says Something Stupid sand trap, which is. Nice, actually.”

Eliot can't help smiling. “Really? Golf analogies?” Quentin huffs and gives him an in spite of your bullshit look. Eliot's racking those up at quite a clip today. “I don't know what you're saying to me. You want to...be friends?”

Friends are a thing that people have. Even Eliot, from time to time. Friends are even...a thing that Eliot and Quentin used to be to each other. Once upon a time.

“I... yeah?” Quentin says. “I mean, not – necessarily in a strictly plain vanilla I think we should be friends kind of way, but. We were friends pretty much right away, when we met – before, in my timeline, and I just. Jesus, I like you, El, I like you as a human being and I don't understand the point of like, trying to make myself stop or whatever. If that's what you want me to do, I think, I think you should have to explain it to me. Tell me why we're not allowed to – to fucking like each other anymore.”

He's so – lovely and mulish and impatient and loyal. He's so...Q. Eliot leans down and places a soft kiss on his forehead, and inside the shell of his hands, he feels Quentin's fingers flex, a nervous jitter of surprise. “We're allowed,” Eliot says. “I just don't see how it's going to turn out well, both of us doing that thing where we lie and say we're happy as friends and let ourselves get increasingly bitter and morose over the idea that the other one might not be lying.”

“Okay, that felt a little targeted,” Quentin says with a twist of smile and a sour note in his voice. “But I agree with you: let's not lie to each other. El, I – was in love with you before, and – I don't know if I am now, but even if – all the changes mean my feelings are different, my, um, my opinion of you? It's pretty much the same. I think you're – smart and kind and proud, and you expect a little too much of yourself and you don't really expect enough from the people who care about you. I think you've been through so much shit, the world has really just been shit to you, and you still always find these little things to notice and like and hang onto, like you still – act like being alive in the world is worth the trouble, and that doesn't necessarily come naturally to me, so it's like. More of a superpower than you give it credit for, you know? So yeah, I like you, I love you, you'll always be – I don't know, this person who matters to me even if you're not in my life anymore, but I do want you to be in my life, and fuck, I don't know if it changes anything for you, knowing that there's this, whatever you want to call it, sexual element or this attraction mixed up in my feelings about you, but if we're being honest, yeah, I'm like, insanely into you, and I can live with it if that's off limits, drawing a boundary around that wouldn't somehow make our friendship a lie, but also I – am not going to be the guy who insists on drawing that boundary. You can be. If you want.”

“I'm not good at that,” Eliot says. “Boundaries.”

“Okay, that is a lie,” Quentin laughs, and then he goes very still for a moment. “Or maybe you are. Maybe I don't...know you as well as I think I do. Like you said, life – life changes people.”

It does, that's true. It's changed Eliot, and it changed...the man that Eliot lost. So, for a change, Eliot does something that as far as he knows, no version of him has ever done before: he puts his fingers under Quentin's chin and tilts his face up, and instead of waiting for something good to happen to him before he believes it can, Eliot believes first, or at least believes enough to be the one who goes for the kiss.

Quentin kisses him back silently, desperately, but he makes the sweetest little sigh of relief when Eliot releases him. His hand lies flat against Eliot's chest, and he shifts it just a little, stroking over the cashmere blend of Eliot's sweater. “It's weird not to have a bunch of goddamn buttons and shit to get through,” Quentin says with a grin, and something about how fucking unsentimental it is makes Eliot's heart kick harder in his chest than I love you did a minute ago. “No vest, no tie. You're practically naked in this, like – Jane Austen kind of way.”

“Am I pulling it off?” Eliot asks. Quentin nods, and suddenly he's not smiling; he looks focused and hungry and Eliot – kind of loves it, he thinks he might be extremely into this version of Quentin who was ballsy enough to fuck Eliot at Eliot's absolute most dissolute and dysfunctional. Eliot has questions about this version of Quentin, and the blood hums hot and fierce through his body as he strategizes about how he might get those answers. He slides his hand from Quentin's hip up to his waist, pushing just a bit under the hem of his shirt, and he murmurs, “I want you practically naked in the actually naked kind of way.”

“Yeah,” Quentin gasps, pushing up to hook his arm around Eliot's neck and kiss him again and again. “I mean, uh – it would probably be ideal if I had, like, um. Literally any fucking idea what you're looking for or how you feel about me, but I don't know, fuck it, I guess? I guess let's just – get naked and see what happens, what the fuck, I want you so bad, Jesus.”

Eliot can't help laughing. “It'll be okay,” he promises, stroking his fingers through Quentin's hair, kissing him once more before taking him by the hips and backing him up toward the bed. “We'll figure it out after. I'm not going anywhere.”

“Yeah?” Quentin says, and the smile spreading over his face is like moonrise and high tide, it's so beautiful that it makes being alive in the world worth the goddamn trouble.

The Quentin in front of him, smiling because of Eliot, is the only one who matters right now.

They hit the bed together, making a stupid, sloppy mess of pulling off each other's shirts. Quentin's fingers go straight to Eliot's nipples and drag first, then grip and pull, and Eliot almost chokes on the words fuck, Q. Quentin lowers his head and licks up the side of Eliot's neck, then presses his face down at the join to Eliot's shoulder, smiling, and Eliot is quietly losing his goddamn mind, can't remember what to do or say in bed, only manages through sheer fumbling luck to get Quentin's ass in his hands to help him grind down.

“You're so hot,” Quentin whispers in his ear before nipping at the shell of it, then drawing the lobe just between his lips and suckling at it. Eliot shudders, feeling the inevitable effects of praise even though he kind of suspects it's an affectionate white lie, because he's not hot right now, how could he be? He's not even doing anything, can't manage to do anything but squirm under Quentin's solid weight and tilt his head back for Quentin's mouth to work along his jaw and down his neck. “God, and there's so fucking much of you,” Quentin says, his warm chuckle vibrating against Eliot's skin and down into his fucking bloodstream, traveling everywhere on the propulsive energy of Eliot's pounding heart. “I wanna – wanna get my mouth everywhere.”

Kiss me,” Eliot says, a sudden croak that leaps out of his throat like an ugly, amphibious thing.

But it must not seem ugly to Quentin, who answers with a soft noise you could sink into and get lost in, like pressing your hand into mink until it almost disappears. He kisses Eliot with one hand tangled up in Eliot's hair, tugging light and steady, the fingers of his other hand following the line of Eliot's waistband back and forth. He's so – fucking good at this, is he – did he – Eliot's Q was not this confident in bed when he was a first-year, Eliot would swear it on a stack of Bibles, so how did-- Was it the other Eliot who taught him how to do this, taught him how blindingly sexy he was? Is, he is blindingly sexy, and Eliot would send flowers to thank himself, if he weren't dead. (Fucking time travel.)

They kiss and kiss, and when Quentin starts kissing Eliot's nipple Eliot almost cries, it feels so good, he can feel it spilling like cinnamon and honey, all the way down the line of his spine from his scalp to his balls. “Q,” he moans when Quentin's hot mouth finds the slight dip under his ribs, sucks down to the delicate skin of his belly. Quentin makes a little prompting noise, turning his head so that his chin presses against the crest of Eliot's pubic bone, a slight shock of bracing pain. Eliot licks his lips, trying to remember – was he going to say something? Words? “'S so good,” he mumbles, cupping his hand around the back of Quentin's head, rubbing with his thumb. “Sweetheart, feels – you're fucking amazing.”

Quentin lays his cheek against Eliot's abdomen, lazy but steady fingers finding the buttons and zipper on Eliot's slacks. “Good,” he says dreamily as he releases the pressure on Eliot's cock, drawing it out through his fly. “That's what I want, I want it to feel amazing for you.”

Yes, it does, you doing everything right for me, you're making it so good – are all responses that pass briefly through Eliot's head, then evaporate as Quentin's tongue passes in a broad, languid curl around the head of Eliot's cock and off the tip with a sensation that cracks through Eliot like the sonic boom of a whip snapping in the air. All that's left behind is a vestigial yes, and Eliot says it again and again and again, because it might not be elegant, exactly, but it's working.

Quentin's hot, tight mouth on his dick would be the best sensation Eliot ever remembers feeling, if it weren't for the flutter and drag of Quentin's tongue edging it out. God, it's all – all of it together is – more than he remembers, better than his aching, frustrated dreams because it's real. He fumbles with one hand to find Quentin's hand where it rests on Eliot's groin, and he wraps it around Quentin's wrist, holding as tight as Quentin's other hand holding onto the base of Eliot's cock, and it feels like closing a circuit, like neither of them will let the other go.

It's like being on fire, it's literally that consuming; when he comes Eliot can barely make a sound because his throat is scorched down to charcoal, and his hand is shaking when he lifts it to brush back the curls that are sweat-plastered to his forehead. Quentin crawls up his body, and Eliot only manages to nudge ineffectually at Quentin's jeans, wishing them out of the way. Fortunately Quentin has a handle on that situation, too, and he ends up kneeling over Eliot's chest with his jeans and underwear shoved halfway down his hips and his dark, curving cock very conveniently accessible to Eliot's hand. Eliot decides that licking his palm is easier than magic, and Quentin doesn't seem to mind. They can't quite get a mutually acceptable rhythm going, Quentin's hips juddering in no particular relationship to the pace Eliot tries to set with his fist up and down Quentin's cock, but judging by the amount of precome he's leaking, Quentin isn't too bothered by that, either. Still, it could take forever at this rate, and Eliot's not – in a hurry for this to be over, but this is kind of his last chance to do something memorably sexy before their first-time story is forever solidified and it is not complimentary. So he gathers his wits with a heroic effort of will, and he tips his head back while his lips part and his lashes flutter, and he says in a choked-out voice that he hopes is husky, “You can come on me, sweetheart – oh, I want you to. Give it to me, let me see.”

Fuck!” Quentin says, sharp and almost panicky, and his hips spasm against Eliot's hand, his mouth dropping open as he pants for air. Moments later, Eliot feels it: the molten heat of Quentin's come landing on Eliot's face, temple to cheek to jaw. Eliot lets out a real gasp, softer than Quentin's noises but still audible, because fuck, the sensation is so intense that it feels like the narrow blade of a sword, like his skin is being laid open. It's not pain (even though it feels like it'll leave a scar), but it's not pleasure, either (even though the shivers that run up and down Eliot's body feel like a dimmer echo of the orgasm that wrung him out only a few minutes ago) – it's just. A lot.

Eliot just lies there afterwards, half-melted through the fibers of the mattress, his breath juddering slower and slower as it approaches normal speed and volume. He keeps his eyes closed, but he can hear Quentin murmuring gentle nonverbal sounds of reassurance and approval as he tuts Eliot clean and smooths down Eliot's rumpled hair with his hands. The sweet nothings fall by the wayside, too, when Quentin puts his mouth to better use kissing Eliot's eyelids and the bridge of his nose and his still lips.

“You with me?” Quentin finally says, playful but also earnest. Eliot smiles with his eyes still closed and reaches out to stroke through Quentin's hair and squeeze the back of his neck. Quentin chuckles and starts shaking out the rumpled bedding to cover them both up.

They're fully bundled up together, legs overlapping, Eliot's fingers tracing patterns on the small of Quentin's back, Quentin's hand curled around Eliot's ribs, when Eliot finally lets his eyes open and focus in on the soft edges of Quentin's face in the darkness. “This would be a really good time for you to ask me again about our relationship,” Eliot says drowsily. “Whatever you want, it's yes for another – I don't know, ten or fifteen minutes at least.”

Quentin laughs softly and kisses the point of Eliot's collarbone. “So I have my advantages, right? Even though I'm not....”

Okay, a harder swing back into reality than Eliot had anticipated. He can swing along, though. He rubs softly over Quentin's back and says, “I hope you don't think I was scoring you competitively. I wanted to do this, with – you. You-you.”

“Yeah?” Quentin says like he wants to believe it, like he half-does believe it.

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “The – things you said earlier. I didn't quite know how to react in the moment, but I want you to know that it, it means – everything to me, that you see....” He pauses and takes a moment to wet his lips and gather his thoughts, and he says carefully, “You had a very up-close and personal view of a side of me that I'm not... A side of me I'm ashamed of. The fact that you still don't think that's all there is to me.... It's so touching. I don't know if I deserve it, but I'm grateful. And that's you. You said those things. You have faith in me, and that's – something you have in common with the Quentin I knew before. As we get to know each other, there's going to be a lot of things – commonalities. But I don't want you to think I don't know who I'm with, because I do. I hope you feel the same way.”

Quentin leans in and drops a fleeting kiss on Eliot's cheekbone. “Literally I like you better, so there's that.”

“Mm, you're excellent for my ego,” Eliot says, wrapping an arm around Quentin's waist and pulling him in snugly against Eliot's body. “I said I'd tell you what I was looking for, so. Here it is. I've been alone a long time. I'm not, historically, great at adult relationships but I do actually want one, and I think – I think we could be good for each other, if we. Gave it an honest try. No guarantees, but. I don't see why we shouldn't at least try.”

“We'll just go slow,” Quentin says. “We could go on – dates, you know? Pretend we don't know each other. Hell, we don't know each other. Not like we-- well, not like I want us to, anyway.”

Eliot nods. “I'll take you to dinner,” he says. “It'll be extremely normal.”

It will be insanely abnormal, an absolute mindfuck, quite possibly the weirdest ride of Eliot's life. Quentin smiles crookedly at him like he's thinking the same thing, but he says with gravity, “I think I'd really like that.”

“You like me better, hm?” Eliot says to lighten the mood.

“I mean, you were the High King of Fillory,” Quentin says. “Do you know how hard that gets me?”

Eliot laughs softly. “Very much the nicest benefit of a job that, I'm sorry to tell you, came with all too few benefits. The crown was pretty. The bold lines and angles really contrasted nicely with my curls.”

“You can talk shit about Fillory,” Quentin says with a warm, amused tone that – strikes a nostalgic note in the pit of Eliot's stomach, “but I can tell you kind of loved it. Hell, you even read the books, finally.”

“I only got halfway through book two,” Eliot admits.

“Liar,” Quentin chuckles. “You mentioned the Mosaic the other day, and that's in the beginning of Wandering Dune.”

Suddenly, the pit of Eliot's stomach goes significantly further down than he thought it did. “I mentioned – what?”

“The Mosaic,” Quentin says easily. “It's in the beginning of the fifth book, it's like a puzzle? Jane thinks she's going to solve it, but it's already solved by the time she finds it. It makes like a picture, and it's – the beauty of all life. You said that last night, so I just. Figured....” He trails off uncertainly, perhaps aware of the tension in Eliot's body, the shallowness of his breath.

Tighten your shit, he tells himself in Margo's voice – or maybe Julia's. It's funny the way that memory blurs certain lines, mixes things together.... It's a kind of time travel, isn't it? With all the perils and pleasures thereof. “Sorry, I really didn't get that far,” he says. “I know the Mosaic, though. I – visited it, as part of the key quest.”

“Really?” Quentin says, pushing up on his elbow a little. “So you found the key to greater magic?”

“No,” Eliot says. He touches the crown of Quentin's head, slides the soft strands of his hair between his fingers. “You did, my darling.”

“I – oh,” Quentin says, taken aback. “But... Fucking time travel.” Eliot nods, because that is not a lie. None of it is, in fact. “Uh – cool, I guess? So – what was the answer? What's, what's the beauty of all life or whatever?”

Eliot takes a strand of this lovely, familiar hair and tucks it behind Quentin's ear, the way he's done a thousand times, in a thousand memories that are Eliot's and Eliot's alone now. The beauty of all life. A test that Eliot both passed and failed. A good life he probably didn't deserve. A good death he almost certainly learned nothing from, that gave him no special insight into the implacable immensity of death.

Or maybe he did learn. That living is wanting, that being alive in the world and staying that way is a superpower. That death is a key, or a clock, or a kiss, or all of those things and none. That love is an open wound, an endless vulnerability, but also... in all its infinite weirdness, a gift.

Eliot pulls him down, this weird gift of a young man that Eliot loves and doesn't love, knows and doesn't know, drawing him into a tender, lingering kiss. “No idea,” he says, their lips a breath apart. “You never mentioned.”

“I guess it doesn't matter,” Quentin says. “It's just gonna kind of bug me now.”

Not that Eliot can blame him for that, but – he'll get tired sooner or later of looking over his shoulder forever, trying to solve long-gone puzzles from a long-lost past. What a useless way to let your life fall though your hands, tile by tile. “Sweetheart,” Eliot advises him gently, feeling his own, less-sweet heart soften and expand as his mouth begins to learn this new word that tastes like his future as it rests on the tip of his tongue. “Let it go.”