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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.

 

Chapter Text

It takes more than an hour, in reality, to pack his things and shower and shave and get dressed to more or less the standards Eliot demands of himself for business-casual occasions like the first day of classes or Christmas dinner at a friend's covenstead or making the acquaintance of the ghost of his dead lover for the first time. Eliot doesn't want to be overly precious, but these things take how long they take to prepare for.

Fortunately, Julia has not sent out the dogs for him yet, so when he portals up to the Catskills with his baggage, literal and figurative, he's able to stroll in while doing a credible impression of someone who's carelessly, fashionably late.

Stately Wicker Manor is just as he remembers it, a ramshackle old hotel held together with ivy and magic. He's always suspected that Julia leaves it in its current state of shabby-chic mainly for the aesthetic, so that it feels suitably witchy and also suitably homey for the past and present students in residence. Eliot doesn't know a lot of details of Julia's background, but he gathered from between the lines of Q's old stories that Julia comes from genuine fuck-you money, and he suspects she's fully aware of how alienating normal people can find being pitched straight into the full Downton Abbey. Eliot likes the balance she's struck; it does feel homey, even though it resembles no home Eliot's ever had, except maybe Brakebills, if you squint.

Even the massive dining hall manages somehow to avoid being excessively Hogwartsian, not least because everything is served buffet style while the hedges wander around accosting each other to chatter about magic, like a Brakebills staff cocktail party where everyone is, unfathomably, sober. Eliot slips in without fanfare and starts making himself a plate – heavy on the cheesy rolls and mashed potatoes because he still has some alcohol to soak up from the corners of his stomach, some honey-balsamic glazed brussels sprouts because he's a healthy adult who eats green things, and some of the standing rib roast, because the other main is Penny's chole, which Eliot has learned from experience is delicious, but not meant for the timid or the digestively compromised.

He knows all of Julia's coven, or at least the ones most likely to be spending Christmas here, so he's folded into the conversational scrummage without fanfare. He doesn't even make it far enough to find his hosts, although he waves to Penny from across the room before he's enlisted to help fix a plate for Leif, the sexy blond ex-globetrotting journalist who discovered magic after what should have been a fatal skydiving injury and is now both subject and researcher on the cutting edge of magical spinal regeneration. Eliot's always done his part for science by flirting outrageously with Leif, on account of the sparkle and the will to live and all that.

Eliot finds a seat, which allows Hope and Leah to attack him as the newest potential source of praise and candy, and conveniently prohibits him from being able to devote his full attention to a bunch of shop talk about flight dynamics. He listens to Greg and Jalisa drag each other in the companionable way that hedges always do, face-to-face instead of in passive-aggressive interdepartmental e-mails as is the tradition at Brakebills, and he takes the opportunity to be a good role model by popping a honey-balsamic glazed brussels sprout into Leah's mouth when she pauses for breath. She makes an inimitably weird three-year-old face as her little brain registers the shock of this not being candy at all, but she doesn't spit it back out on his vest, and in fact munches on it continuously like she's chewing cud while she settles onto Eliot's leg and leans into him. Hope continues to talk; she's more relentlessly opinionated than Greg, and Greg is a forty-something white guy and an engineer, so that's an impressive achievement.

He does see...Quentin, across the room. Other Quentin, Quentin – One? Do they just call him One? It doesn't roll off the tongue the way Twenty-Three does, and even that got tired eventually. He's caught in a conversation with Chandra, so he's either having a fabulous time discussing classic science fiction or an absolutely agonizingly terrible time listening to her stubborn defense of Paracelsus, it's only ever one of the two topics with Chandra. Eliot can't gauge by Quentin's face, which went blank and and anxious when he caught a glimpse of Eliot. Eliot gives him a nod and a little smile, and the anxiety melts into sort of a bog-standard frowny-Quentin expression of restless uncertainty.

God, he really does look.... But of course he does.

Eliot is saved from himself by Julia arriving to pluck her youngest from Eliot's lap with one arm and hug him around the neck with the other. “You're doing the right thing,” she says in his ear, for him alone.

“Imagine that,” Eliot says. “A true Christmas miracle.”

“You plan to wear your coat and sunglasses all day?” she teases him. “Don't get me wrong, it's a look.”

He'd forgotten, actually, that he was wearing the sunglasses. “They're medicinal,” he says dryly.

Immediately, Julia looks worried. That's nice, in its way. He's never really minded when Julia lets her high-octane mom energy leak out onto him. “Are you--? I thought you quit.”

Okay, he's done with the mom energy now. “One-time thing,” he says shortly. “Trust me.”

And she does, at the end of the day. She likes to act like she doesn't, but she does. She knows the older, sober, professorial Eliot Waugh, after all, much better than she ever knew the less trustworthy rough draft. Lucky for him. “I thought you knew every hangover spell ever invented,” she says, mollified enough to return to mocking him.

Eliot shrugs. “Decided to live with it,” he admits. “Incentivizes that whole – one-time-thing thing.”

Julia's smile turns a little twisty, but she just shakes her head and says, “Whatever works, I guess.”

“Sometimes a man has to provide his own bondage and/or discipline,” Eliot says. He probably should stop saying things like that where the girls can hear him, at some point. Eventually.

“Yeah, it's your sadism and/or masochism that concerns me,” Julia shoots back.

“Eliot!” Hope shouts, loud enough to turn heads even in the holiday din. “Show me a spell!”

He's pleased that spell is the word she chose to latch onto. “I can't, I don't know any spells,” he says, shaking his head sadly.

“Yes, you do,” she scoffs. “You're a witch like Mom and Daddy, only Mom says you aren't in the coven because you like school too much and you won't leave.”

“I'm not in the coven because my job is at school,” Eliot says. “And your Mom's too cheap to pay me.” Julia rolls her eyes, just as aware as Eliot is that the salary issue is a dodge. There are always ways around financial obstacles, when you're a Magician.

He doesn't quit Brakebills and come help Julia teach here because it's too much work. Because he doesn't want to get to know students who aren't cycling constantly in and out the door. Because he cares about this place enough to be dangerous already, and he has to put up a boundary somewhere. And, of course, because--

It's just easier this way. Leave it at that.

With a solemn promise to show Leah spells later today, Eliot makes his way back to the center of the room for coffee, which puts him – semi-coincidentally on the other side of the dessert table from Quentin, who's stacking cookies on a napkin. Belatedly, Eliot remembers the sunglasses and takes them off and spends plenty of time folding them up into an inner pocket of his coat.

“Hi,” Quentin finally says. “I'm – it's good to – I'm glad you came.”

Eliot glances once, very briefly, from his coffee to Quentin's face. “Hey,” he says. He busies himself with the coffee, but he can't suppress a little smile. “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, tucking back his hair. Eliot isn't looking directly at him, but he seems to be smiling, too. “Yeah, merry Christmas.”

So that went fairly well.

 

All day long, while Eliot catches up with friends and plays with Jalisa's dogs and suffers through just one soccer game out in the back pasture for the girls' sake, he's aware of Quentin-One, lingering just out of chatting-distance.

It's. Eliot doesn't know.

It's painful, he supposes. He can feel the impact of this fucked-up situation just like he did on the first day Julia told him about it. It feels like an asteroid landed in the center of Eliot's chest and opened a faultline that separates him in half – part of him just carries on with his life like none of it has anything to do with him, like it's nothing more than mildly annoying that Julia's new student is wearing Quentin Coldwater's face and body, but the other part of him can't stop scanning for the sight of Quentin, can barely breathe until his eyes come to rest on....

Quentin. Quentin. Quentin.

He is Quentin; it's unfortunately impossible to ignore that fact, now that Eliot has met him. He's almost identical in every respect to the Quentin that Eliot first met, when they were both young and, in their own ways, equally self-involved. Well – that's not fair; this Quentin has been through his share of suffering, Eliot knows, but he just.... He looks so young, so tense and uncertain and frustrated by the world's shortcomings and his own.

Is that – real? Is that how he really is, or is Eliot just remembering his Quentin at twenty-two?

Does it even matter? However similar Quentin-Prime may or may not be to Eliot's memories of a younger Quentin-40, the thing is that Eliot...is not twenty-three. Not nearly. Not for quite some time.

Eliot succeeds in technically “playing” “soccer” while also not breaking much of a sweat and also still being on the winning team, mostly because he's on Hope's team and the kind of people who like to compete against a six-year-old are also inclined to let the six-year-old win. There's another game elsewhere for people who actually put effort into things; Eliot doesn't know who wins that match, nor does he care. He gets word that people are watching The Nightmare Before Christmas inside, and he's much more interested in that.

Quentin is part of that group. That's – nice. He's been here for around four months, and he seems to fit in. Probably that's indicative of the kind of person Julia likes to collect, a whole coven made up of needy, hyperfocused Quentin-wannabes bursting at the seams with potential. It sounds exhausting to Eliot, but Julia does love a challenge or twelve. Anyway, he's glad Quentin likes it here, and not just because it means nobody has to figure out how to integrate him back into Brakebills to finish his education.

God fucking forbid.

They watch the movie together – in the same room together, although still too far apart for conversation, and Eliot pretends he can't feel Quentin's eyes following him every time he gets up and down for a glass of water or a cigarette or a puzzle Leah wants him to look at. This is the level of togetherness that Eliot thinks he can endure.

Quentin wanted to see his face? Well, now he has. Let the healing officially begin.

It's exhausting. Eliot's not used to all-day parties like this anymore, and he's still feeling last night just a bit. He forces himself to do his good-guest duty until sunset, when people begin to bundle up and fill their thermoses for the bonfire-and-fireworks phase of the event, and Eliot honestly just – can't. He begs off with something vague about the strains of holiday travel and spring semester prep work that needs doing, and he collects hugs from Julia and the kids, promising he'll watch the pyrotechnics from inside the house in his pajamas and enjoy them very much, before he carries his things up to the guest room that's always waiting for him.

He passes Quentin, standing perfectly still by the back door with one arm in his coat and one arm out of it. Eliot gives him a polite nod and a murmur of goodnight. That's enough, isn't it?

Eliot's done enough, hasn't he? He's glad he came, in his heart of hearts it did always feel wrong, being away from his substitute-family on Christmas. He did the right thing, the brave thing, he came and he was composed and polite and rational and sober as a churchmouse. He's done enough. He has. Now Quentin can – move on or whatever, released from whatever burden of responsibility he felt toward the fortieth version of the man who flamed out so spectacularly on Quentin's watch. Eliot isn't that person: see? Living proof.

The room where Eliot stays is impossibly posh, given how infrequently he visits. Surely Julia could put this suite to better use than reserving it for Eliot's use for a few days over Christmas and a week in the summer, but as far as Eliot knows, she doesn't choose to. It seems in the same condition he left it last year, down to the electric kettle and the box of Bengal Spice teabags he left on the nightstand last summer.

It's a sweet gesture, letting Eliot have a dedicated room as though he were an honorary professor here already. He really doesn't deserve the effort Julia expends on...whatever it is she thinks she's accomplishing with all the things she does for him. Saving him, maybe. Or – being his friend? Eliot vaguely recalls that sometimes people just...do that, as a goal in and of itself. Make friends. Keep them.

There's a balcony on his room, and Eliot does what he promised, after he changes into his thermal pajamas and his winter robe and slippers – he brings a chair by the sliding doors so he can see the sky over the woods where the light show will start as soon as it's full dark. The pyromancers work all year for this, and Eliot does appreciate the artistry.

He's only watched the show alone from his bedroom once, the first year Penny and Julia had the covenstead, had a real community blossoming out of the rootstock of their early teaching experiments. It was the second Christmas after everything, the first after Charlton moved out, and Eliot still wasn't – at his best. (Is he at his best now? Maybe. God help him, probably.) Julia all but had to shove him into a harness and drag him up here like a stubborn Yorkie, and he spent three days determined to prove that she could compel his presence but not his Yuletide spirit. He even took most of his meals in this room, alone.

Looking back, Eliot can't even say for sure why he came at all. He and Julia still weren't close back then; if anything, he actively resented how obvious it was that she felt she'd inherited Eliot and his problems as an unfinished project from Q. But he did come, and he's come back every year since then. He's never brought a guest of his own, but every year he's been progressively...a little less alone when he's here.

He probably would...be happy. If he came to live here. To be fully truthful with himself, it would probably be...good for him.

Brakebills is the devil he knows, but he's never managed to dredge up any love for it. At this rate, he has to admit he probably never will. Even his school days were – less happy than he liked to pretend they were. There's a short list of reasons that he sought out the teaching job there and that he's kept it all these years; happiness is not anywhere on it.

It's not been a major concern of Eliot's, really – happiness. Not for so, so long.

Against his better judgment, Eliot opens his smaller suitcase and takes the letter out of its inside pocket. Against his better judgment, he lets his eyes travel the familiar handwriting over and over again, not even reading so much as letting phrases rise from the depths, rolling and crashing like waves against his consicousness. every good thing in the world to happen to you. that some part of him is still in the world. I'm so sick of not asking for things. You were my best friend, and I don't know why. You picked me, and I don't know why.

Colorful magic begins to burst outside, neon reindeer and watercolor Pinocchios dancing to the distant hum of music. Red and purple and blue flicker across the page in Eliot's hand, making it all but unreadable. Merry Christmas. really do hope you're having a good one. Merry Christmas, El.

Eliot leans his elbow on the arm of the wingback armchair and lowers his face to his hand as the lights flash, too bright, too fucking merry.

When they finally go dark, it's not any better. God, he's absolutely impossible to please, isn't he?

Eliot sits in the dark and thinks I can't do this, and no one holds his hand, and it's no one's fault but his own. If only he weren't so goddamn stubborn, he probably wouldn't be so alone.

 

He sleeps a little bit, sitting in the chair by his balcony doors. He knows he's sleeping because he dreams of Fillory, of the Great Cock in full feathery array, saying a land where you are no king, no magician, just a vulnerable man...

Eliot snaps into wakefulness, fingers and nose numb with the falling mountain chill, his heart pounding with some mixture of anger and shame and childish frustration, unable even in a stupid dream to say well, I did it, I did everything you said and I'm nothing, is this what I was born for?

What was the goddamn point of any of it?

There's another noise, and Eliot recognizes it as the sound that woke him up. A knock on the door. He stands up, and one foot is numb. Q's letter flutters to the floorboards, disappearing in the dark, and Eliot limps his way to the door to interrupt a third, louder knock.

It's Quentin, and he scowls at Eliot and brandishes a bottle of wine between them. It's sort of like they're in the middle of a fight, except that they – aren't. “You didn't have one drink,” he says, like it's an accusation. “All day, you didn't – just coffee or water, nothing-- You didn't drink.”

“Well, I didn't want there to be a shortage,” Eliot says wryly, deflecting another random gesture and disarming Quentin. The bottle is nearly empty. “You should go to bed,” Eliot advises.

“No, you don't understand.” Quentin sways a little on his feet, and it's the bottle of wine in him, but it's something else, too. He's vibrating with it. “You're – you, but you're not, you're all – sober and old and you talk about magic and you're good with kids, and I just want to-- I'm just so pissed off, it's so un-fucking-fair! How did you live to be, be all this, and he died?”

“Okay,” Eliot says softly. He's lived through a drunk student breakdown or three in the past few years, so this isn't even a challenge, if he can just keep his focus. “Come on in. I'm going to make you some tea, and you're going to drink it and sober up.”

There's magic to fill the kettle and magic to charm the tea, and by the time Quentin is halfway through the mug, he's clear-headed enough to look deeply appalled at himself. “I am so sorry,” he says for the third time. “I shouldn't have – I never meant to – make any of this your problem. It's my problem. I'm sorry.”

Having surrendered the wingback chair, Eliot has nowhere else to sit except the bed, so he does that. “You haven't made it my problem,” Eliot assures him. “I have my own problems.”

Quentin gives him a weak smile. “When he – when he died.... I think I just needed a lot more time to process it. Things started happening fast after that, and I went to Fillory, and I guess I just – never really did process it. There wasn't even a funeral. I thought I dealt with it, but maybe not – not so much.”

“Probably not so much,” Eliot agrees. “It takes time. Not a small amount of time, when it's. When it's sudden like that. And it wasn't that long ago for you, was it?”

“A few weeks before I got here.”

Less than six months. “It is unfair,” Eliot says. “Everything that happened to you is un-fucking-fair. But...you're here now, and while this timeline isn't exactly Shangri-La, it's.... I think you'll have a good chance here. At least if Wicker has anything to say about it.”

Quentin smiles, tucking his hair back. God, it's Quentin's gesture, Quentin's hand. It's Quentin sitting in front of Eliot in the dark, except for all the reasons it's so very not. “Yeah, you know, it's weird. I went right from watching Julia get gutted by a psychopath to meeting this version of her that's ten years older and married with kids, and that was – not weird? Like, that part was absolutely.... Yeah, same Jules only different, you know?”

Eliot does know. The past ten years have made Julia – double down on the Julia of it all, more than they've changed her. Some people, Eliot supposes, just spring fully formed out of the ground, ready to do battle for the fate of the universe, and Julia Wicker is one of those people. All she's done since the age of twenty-two is acquire more people to herd through life by nipping at their heels. “She loves you,” Eliot says.

“I know,” Quentin says. “I always knew, I just for some reason.... I don't know, I can get high on my own self-pity sometimes. Make problems where there aren't any. I don't know why I do that.”

“You have time to figure it out,” Eliot says. “Christ, that came out patronizing. Sorry.”

Quentin shrugs. “I have a lot of shit to figure out, that's just a statement of fact. But, uh, if Eliot Waugh figured out his life, no offense, probably anyone can eventually?”

“Oh, I do try to inspire,” he says, pretending he can't see the smirk on Quentin's perfectly fuckable lips. No offense.

“What was it?” Quentin asks, and this time he sounds oddly serious, even intent. “I mean, what – what changed the way things came out for you? If all the loops started when Jules and I came to Brakebills, then you were – you used to be – just like him. I know it doesn't, I mean, I guess it doesn't matter, it doesn't change the past, but. I'd really like to know.”

What changed? What changed Eliot from a brittle hedonist wafting through life in a haze of attention-seeking and hallucinogens into... whoever he passes himself off as now? Quite the question. And if he owes anything to this Quentin, Eliot's dearest stranger-friend in the world, it must surely be an honest answer, as best he can manage. “I think...Fillory,” Eliot says. “I thought at the time that Fillory needed me, and. It was maybe the first time I believed something did.”

A million years ago, in this timeline, Quentin's eyes stopped lighting up when someone said Fillory. This Quentin's still do. “My-- the, the Eliot I knew, he – wasn't with us when we went to Fillory,” Quentin says. “But they made you High King, right?”

“For a while,” Eliot says.

“And you cared about it. That was – a thing you decided to care about – Fillory?” Quentin looks unsure if he's being fucked with, and Eliot's not sure if that says more about Eliot or about Fillory.

Either way.... “I cared,” Eliot says. He means to say more, but the words drop back down his throat, landing hard in his stomach, and he needs a minute to recover.

He cared, and it didn't matter. He wanted it, and he lucked into it, and then he lost it, and Fillory hated him and wanted him gone, and Fillory honestly, really and truly, saved his life at least twice over, and then Fillory moved on and left him behind.

“Tell me what it was like,” says Quentin – this Quentin, who only spent a few weeks in Fillory before he was murdered there along with everyone he loved. “I mean, Julia's told me some stuff, but you were there a lot more than she was, right? And anyway, I – want to know how you saw it.”

What it was like? It was dangerous, absurd, petty, brutal, beautiful. It forced him into marriage, then stole his child. Its waters could heal you, its air got you high. It asked for his blood and told him he was special. It's where he was buried when he died.

“I wouldn't know where to begin,” Eliot says.

“Anywhere,” Quentin says, and he's breathless with longing for just this, just someone else's memories of a place he never had time to lose his love for. How the hell can Eliot say no?

“I'll put some more tea on,” Eliot says.

He starts by telling the story of how Margo tricked her murderous child-bride into thinking he'd lost his virginity, which is the closest thing to pure farce that Eliot can remember on the spur of the moment – but that just leads to stories about the Fairy Queen and the Muntjac and that time Eliot was briefly engaged to a man he fought a duel with who was also, briefly, a rat.

It's been a hell of a long time since Eliot thought about some of this stuff on purpose, especially the attempted assassinations.

Something about the smallest, coldest hours of the morning are almost a passable substitute for alcohol, and once Eliot starts telling stories, it gets harder and harder to know when to shut up. And if that were the only increasingly hazy boundary in play, that would be one thing, but right now as far as Quentin-One is concerned, Eliot-Forty is the sole source in the multiverse of volumes six, seven, eight, and nine of Fillory and Further, which is obviously really doing it for the kid. The way he keeps leaning closer, asking questions, laughing, asking unsettlingly accurate questions, gazing at Eliot with his dark eyes alive with surprise and endless appetite...

Nothing about it is a good idea. If Eliot had a shred of self-preservation, he'd – make it stop before things escalate further.

Obviously, Eliot doesn't do that. Come the fuck on.

Explaining how Josh first became temporary High King (“Josh...Hoberman?”) and how he became a werewolf and how he then became Margo's werewolf lifemate (“We – maybe knew really different Josh Hobermans?”) takes a lot longer even than you'd think, and suddenly somehow the track lighting over Eliot's bed is supplemented by a suspiciously morning-gray light coming through the balcony doors. Somehow, less suddenly, Eliot is lying on a bed that he's only ever slept alone in, face-to-face with....

Jesus fucking Christ. Who is this person curled up on his side, stealing Eliot's pillow, smelling like pine needles and cheap merlot? If Eliot doesn't even know the answer that very basic question...

The problem is that he knows too many answers, and they can't all be true.

Of course, in spite of the fact that his life has been relatively quiet lately, Eliot definitely knows what it's like to eat impossible things for breakfast, so – maybe they can all be true at once? Maybe this can be both a stranger who's enchanted with Eliot's knack for spinning his worst traumas into his best stories, and Eliot's best friend, the one whose death he processed years ago, except that he didn't, couldn't, can't, because it's always too sudden and there's never enough time in the world.

Couldn't he? Be both at once to Eliot?

“You know, it's weird,” Quentin says softly. “I keep forgetting that Margo is...gone. Like somehow my brain just can't hold onto this idea of a world where there's just one of you. You're Eliot-and-Margo.”

Eliot smiles. “We still are,” he says, which is a lie, but it's the lie that they've chosen, and a lie that Eliot's come to love for what it is. “New Fillory is a different kind of dimension than the ones you can get to through the Neitherlands, and nobody's quite cracked the code on how to open portals, but when certain astrological events occur in both worlds simultaneously, you can open a kind of window. So...we talk. Whenever we can.”

“How often is that?” Quentin asks, his voice warm and sympathetic no matter how hard Eliot tries to pretend that this is fine, totally fine.

“It's irregular,” he says. “Sometimes every couple of months, for a while. Sometimes longer. It's...longer on their end, actually, because of the time difference. Margo just turned – well, last time I talked to her, she'd just turned fifty-eight. She looks amazing.”

“I believe it,” Quentin says. “And she's happy?” Eliot nods. Usually he does a better job of being the bearer of news from New Fillory, but right now a nod is about all he has in him. “I'd like to talk to her, too. Next time it's possible. You think that would be okay?”

“I'm sure it would be,” Eliot says. “You'll have to come to Brakebills. It's the only place we've been able to keep the conditions stable enough for the portal.”

“Oh,” Quentin says. “That...explains some things.”

“Yeah.” Eliot's never managed to dredge up any love for Brakebills, but the work is – fulfilling, in its way, and he can't leave the fucking place. Not as long as it's his only link...home. To Bambi, which is the same thing. Someday some intrepid magical researcher will figure out how to replicate the experimental portal, or to send a person through it.

Someday, someday. And when the day comes, Eliot will do what everyone wants him to do – he'll move on.

This isn't the first lifetime he's spent in the in-between, passing the days and nights while he grows old. He made it beautiful, the first time. This time it's – harder.

No one can do this alone, according to a certain Cock of Eliot's acquaintance. Eliot just has to...hope that's not true, and in fairness, Fillorian Questing Beasts were notoriously unreliable sources of information.

He's surprised, and yet somehow not at all surprised when Quentin-One finally reaches across the inches of distance and presses heavy, chilly fingertips to the line of Eliot's jaw. “You are everything I wanted him to be,” Quentin says, chips and cracks spidering through his voice. “It kind of makes me hate you a little, but also... I'm glad you lived. I really am.”

“Yeah,” Eliot says. He feels so far away from his own body, from planet Earth. This whole night, it's too surreal to process. He can barely remember the last time he slept, if you don't count sleeping off a miserable Christmas Eve bender, which you should not count. “I wish you had.”

Quentin hasn't taken his hand away yet. Eliot hasn't asked him to.

It's not Quentin. It's not Quentin. Eliot lives in the in-between, and this person, sweet and smart and full of wanting as he is, can't ever be Eliot's past and won't ever be his future.

“Can I ask you something?” Quentin says, and then proceeds as if it's fully clear to him that Eliot's ability to respond sensibly right now is minimal at best. “Did he ever tell you how he felt – your Q?”

Eliot's heart batters against his ribs, a dozen long-repressed memories warring for prominence. What if we gave it a shot? and proof of concept like that and you are High King in your blood and somehow that makes sense and somewhere in between, a hundred thousand times that Quentin took his hand or leaned on his shoulder, and a seamless flow of what the fuck would I do without you and I don't know, what did your dad say? and I can't believe the shit I let you get away with and oh, totally, my Eliot's the same way and god, what you always did to me, El, what you still do.

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “Yeah, he did.”

It was Eliot who was never any good at – who never really told--

Well. He did, he hopes. In his way. He thinks Quentin knew. He – had to know, didn't he? He had to.

“Good,” Quentin says – this Quentin. In spite of the words, he sounds ungentle, unhappy. Insincere in a way that doesn't suit him. “Good for him.”

Eliot should make it stop. He's the older one, the experienced one, and he knows how wrong

this will go, but he – can't, he can't stop. He leans into the heat of Quentin's palm as it opens against Eliot's cheek, tilts his head and waits for the kiss that's written all over Quentin's beautiful, beloved face.

It's sweet and hot and hungry, and a strange chill goes through Eliot from skin to spine as time folds, because it's – Quentin, it's Quentin's kiss, not the rushed confusion of the first wine-soaked and headblind kisses they shared, but the way Quentin kissed him later. He can feel the familiarity in the way Quentin tips his head to let Eliot nibble on his lower lip, the way his hand twists so the backs of his fingers brush the hinge of Eliot's jaw, the way he smiles into the kiss just enough and not too much to spoil it.

This has happened before, but not to Eliot. To a boy with Eliot's face and Eliot's weaknesses – a boy who had this fucking precious thing, had it earlier than Eliot and still fell further and faster than Eliot did, who hit the ground so hard he didn't stop for six more feet.

For the very first time in all of this, Eliot thinks – what was he like? What was it like to be him? Did he know, as it was happening, that he was killing himself? Did he regret it? Did he think of Quentin in the end, and if he did, was it with shame for the burden on Quentin that his life and death had become, or did he hope that somehow Quentin would still find a way to save him with a kiss?

In this life, here in the gray dawn, Eliot moans and rolls closer, slotting his shin between Quentin's shins, grasping Quentin at the ribs and stroking around to his back. Quentin echoes the noise back to him, works his tongue deeper into Eliot's mouth and scrapes it against Eliot's teeth when Eliot's other hand comes around to grip his hair.

“God, you look so good,” Quentin gasps, and that's familiar, too, Quentin never could shut up in bed. He presses his wet mouth to the corner of Eliot's lips, breathing hard and burning hot, and he mutters, “You're better than I thought, didn't know what to expect, but you're so – good, you look good, you look happy.”

That's not one that Eliot hears often, but he supposes it's all relative. Eliot pets over Quentin's soft hair with an open palm and says with tender disapproval, “You worry too much.”

“I do worry too much,” Quentin agrees. “I have anxiety.”

“You don't say.” Eliot smiles, then uses a light, sweet kiss to lure Quentin into pursuit of another, and one not so light, until finally Eliot has him where he wants him and they're kissing again, lost in it.

He knows Eliot's body distressingly well, nuzzling all the best spots along Eliot's neck and hidden away underneath his jaw; it's dizzying, dreamlike – it's Quentin – it's not, it's not. Eliot's hand is unsteady when he brushes the tips of his fingers over Quentin's flushed cheek, traces his funny flat eyebrow with the edge of a nail. He could touch this face forever. Even at his most cowardly, Eliot has rarely denied himself the pleasure of Quentin in the palm of his hand.

Everything slows down, and Eliot's not entirely sure which of them stops kissing the other, but they're breathing now, just breathing. Eliot's fingers are threaded into Quentin's hair. Quentin has a loose grip on the lapel of Eliot's robe in his fist, and even half-asleep, he doesn't seem ready to let go. Eliot kisses his forehead.

One night at the old cabin – Eliot's not sure if he's dreaming about it or just remembering – one night in the first, giddy flush of their brand-new fling, Eliot was sprawled in bed, flat on his back, sticky and delighted, while Quentin knelt over him at the waist, naked and laughing in amazed joy. Eliot remembers (dreams?) putting his hand on Quentin's hip and sliding it up and around, so besotted that even the slide of sweat under his palm felt like a gift, because he did that to Quentin, they did that to each other. Why haven't we been doing this all year? Quentin asked him, and Eliot was all too aware that Quentin would not enjoy hearing the answer to that, so instead he wrapped his arm around Quentin's solid body and pulled him down, heavy and still heaving for breath in Eliot's arms, and he kissed Quentin's forehead, just like this.

It wasn't the first time – not for that, not for anything between them. Nearer the first time than the last, certainly, but that's not why Eliot remembers that night now. He remembers....

He dreams as he dozes – his fingers in Quentin's hair, Quentin's chin pressed to his shoulder. Okay, like, if you could only do one thing for the rest of your life, what would you pick? One thing sexually.

Eliot wrinkles his nose. I don't think you have the hang of this game. We're supposed to uncover new kinks, not eliminate existing ones.

Quentin laughs, pressing his face down to the crook of Eliot's shoulder. I wanna know, though, he says. What's your top-tier, your desert-island thing? Gun to your head--

So violent.

Metaphorically. Metaphorically, gun to your head, you can only pick one thing--

In his dream, Eliot is honest. He remembers that night, maybe, because he was honest. Back then, he tended to save that for special occasions. Kissing, he says.

Quentin goes abruptly very silent, very still. Eliot continues to hold him and wonders how this can be salvaged, how he can mine it for humor, for irony at the very least... No, seriously, Quentin says in the strangest tone, almost as if he's afraid. Don't make fun, I wanna--

I'm serious, Eliot says. I have hands, right? I can still beat off, in this bizarre scenario of yours?

Sure, I guess, Quentin says. Yeah, you can.

Eliot shrugs. Quentin moves with him, stays with him. Poor substitute for sex, but at least it is a substitute. Nothing else is-- Even though they're still talking, there's a breathless silence in the dark world around them. Fate and the gods, Eliot supposes, waiting for Eliot to lob this stick of dynamite directly into the tender heart of his brand-new happiness and watch the chaos rain down. Well. So fucking be it, then. There's nothing else like – kissing the right person. No substitute at all.

Oh, Quentin says. That – makes sense, because it's so – it's with another person. Yeah.

They fuck again that same night, silent and grasping and desperate, Eliot on top this time, and in this dream (this memory, it happened, he had this once, so many years ago) there's a pause, a shared tremble, a moment of hesitation like they're about to set foot on a bridge that might or might not hold so much weight. It catches them both by surprise and imprisons them in the in-between, and it's a terrible and glorious moment with his dick two inches in Quentin's body when they're suddenly not best friends anymore and they're not something else yet, and it goes on and on. Eliot doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know if anything he's done so far is right or good or – noble, and he wants to be those things, mostly because Quentin already thinks he is those things.

It goes on and on, until finally Quentin (it's always Quentin, it's Quentin every time, he does what Eliot can't do every single time) moves one hand from the nape of Eliot's neck and the other hand from Eliot's bicep, cupping them together to hold Eliot's face between them. You can kiss me, he says. You can honestly – swear to god – kiss me anytime.

And Eliot did, and he did, and he never really stopped, and oh, he had the right person, no one else has ever felt right to Eliot, the whole world lives in the shadow of this one right love.

When Eliot opens his eyes again it's morning, it's this world and this life, and he's cradling a man in his arms who never said that to Eliot – who isn't Eliot's one right person, who doesn't remember all the things Eliot remembers, not even when he dreams. Which, in and of itself, would be fine. It might even count as moving on with his life, if it weren't for...Eliot's stupid, oblivious heart thundering in his chest, shouting at him that it's Quentin's hair, Quentin's scent, Quentin's snore, Quentin's flesh and bones and Quentin Quentin Quentin.

That's the part that's going to be a huge fucking problem.

 

Chapter Text

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.”