June 2017, Montclair, New Jersey
“Is this the boyfriend?” Ted Coldwater slaps Eliot on the shoulder, a grin blooming over his face.
“Dad, it’s not—it’s casual—we’re—”
“Yes,” Eliot says, reaching out and shaking Ted’s hand. “Eliot Waugh.” He’s staying at Quentin’s house in Quentin’s childhood bedroom for the next week, where he’s most certainly going to fuck Quentin as thoroughly as possible. And, while Quentin doesn’t know it—there’s been no real discussion of such things, which is just as well—they’ve been exclusive going on six months. Eliot meant to tell him—he just hadn’t gotten around to it, and he decided it was best to leave it after he got the job offer in Ibiza. For his own reasons, he’d been quiet on the boyfriend front. Less disappointment all the way around. And Eliot is all about lessening disappointment.
“Oh, uh. Yeah, then. I guess. Yeah.” Quentin tucks a stray bit of hair behind his ear, eyes darting over to Eliot. There’s a rosy blush high on his cheeks. Eliot grins. Sure, that’s not what they’ve been calling it up until now, but it doesn’t really matter now, does it? As much as Quentin insists they should work out ways to see each other—Eliot’s seen the writing on the wall. Q needs someone—well, someone not like Eliot. The whole boyfriend explanation makes sense for Quentin’s dad, and it’s nice while it lasts. Eliot’s last boyfriend—and the boyfriend before that—well, things hadn’t ended so well with either of them, and Eliot thought it was best if Quentin didn’t join their ranks.
“Curly Q here said you’re an amazing cook—”
When Eliot looks to Quentin, he’s blushing even deeper and is now looking down at his shoes. “Curly Q’s been bragging about me, I see.”
“Oh, my God.” Quentin scowls.
“I was going to ask if you grill. I have a few of these gourmet prime rib burgers—and I’d love some assistance.”
“Dad, come on—”
“Q, my rosacea flares up around the grill in the summertime, and it’s been worse since the chemo. But I wanted to share this with you and Eliot.”
“Fuck,” Quentin blurts. “I mean, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about—um. The chemo. I’m an asshole.” There’s a pause, and Eliot tentatively slips an arm around Quentin’s shoulders. Quentin sighs, his body relaxing back into Eliot’s after a moment.
“It’s no problem, kiddo. Let me show you boys to the guest bedroom. I ordered a memory foam mattress—queen size since I knew you were coming to stay.”
Eliot sucks in a sharp breath, letting it out slow as they follow Ted down the hall to the room just at the end. He’d known they’d be staying together in the guest bedroom—that was a given. Because Ted is the liberal parent of a young millennial on the East Coast. It’s just that—Eliot’s never gotten to this part before. And this is—he thinks—the first and last time he’ll be doing this with Q.
“Make yourself at home, boys. I’m going to pick up Kathleen, and we’ll be back around five to light up the grill.” Ted taps on the doorframe and smiles at both of them, wide and genuine, the absolute inverse of Quentin’s usual pout. “I’m just so glad that you two are happy. Curly Q’s talked about you so much, Eliot. Since the first time he came home for my treatments. It’s so good to finally meet you.”
“Oh—ah—thank you,” Eliot says.
“Uh, yep,” Quentin adds, rocking back on his heels. “We’ll see you. At five.”
Ted waves before he walks down the hall, footsteps falling further and further away until they hear the door shut behind him. Eliot takes another deep breath and pulls Quentin toward him, settling him just in the crook of his shoulder, right where he belongs. He places a kiss on the top of his head, lips against his soft hair. They’re quiet like that for long moments; somewhere, there’s a clock on a wall that actually ticks, and Eliot can hear it like the beating of a heart in the small ranch house in Montclair, New Jersey.
“This isn’t your childhood bedroom,” Eliot says after a while.
“Why?” Quentin’s breath is hot against his shirt.
“Because we’ve got an hour and a half, and I’d like to absolutely rail you on your Fillory duvet.”
“I do not have a Fillory duvet.”
“Your Fillory sheets.”
Quentin laughs, pulling Eliot down into a kiss. “Yeah, we should do that. There’s so much Fillory shit in there—you can fulfill your whole weird virgin fantasy. Okay?”
“You’re my virgin fantasy.”
“Definitely wasn’t a virgin—”
“Shh, shh. Let me get in the right frame of mind—”
“God, you’re weird.” Quentin’s words are muffled, his mouth pressed to Eliot’s neck. “I like you so much.”
Something tight and warm sticks in Eliot’s throat, thrumming in time with his pulse, but he pushes the thought away as Quentin leads him down the hall and into the rich fantasy world that is teenage Quentin Coldwater. Apparently, Q hadn’t done much redecorating in the intervening years, and Ted Coldwater was either highly sentimental—probably, given the gene pool—or he simply wasn’t into thematic interior decorating—also likely, given the gene pool. But he doesn’t have long to think about it before Quentin is sinking to the floor and opening his soft, pink mouth.
“I’ve never done this before. Will you show me how?” Quentin gives Eliot one of his crinkly little grins before he pulls two of Eliot’s fingers into his mouth, hollowing his cheeks.
Eliot doesn’t consider the nuances of his relationship with Quentin after that. He doesn’t consider much beyond the velvety heat of Quentin’s mouth, the trembling of hot, hard little body, and the sound of his name on Quentin’s lips. Really, Eliot thinks, there’s nothing in the world better than this.
Quentin has a whole thing about Taylor Swift. He has “All Too Well” blasting on his phone, which is set precariously on the edge of the sink in the bathroom. Eliot put a waterproofing charm on Quentin’s phone a few months back due to his propensity for listening to angsty TSwift jams in the shower like the basic bitch he is.
Eliot could join him, but he’s still lying in bed even though he should be getting his bags packed for Ibiza. Most everything he owns is already there in the apartment he’ll be sharing with Margo—no one is happier for him than Quentin is, thrilled that he’ll be with his best friend in a year-round adult playground for magicians. Eliot should be rejoicing, doing cartwheels on the shag carpet in the guest room, but he can’t muster up the energy to get a hard-on for Spain. It’ll come, he knows. When he steps through the portal at nine tonight, he’ll be—ecstatic. Right now, he’s reserving the time to be angsty about it. He can feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and toss them away once he’s there.
Really, it’s Quentin. He’s been getting further and further under Eliot’s skin every day since then. This week with Quentin and his dad—and his dad’s weird girlfriend—had made it so much worse.
When Quentin steps out of the en-suite bath, he’s got a towel slung low around his hips, and he smiles, dimpling, when he catches Eliot’s gaze. “Thought you were still asleep.”
“No. Just woke up to the sound of your tuneless singing.”
“You love it.”
Eliot gives him a little shrug, but he doesn’t deny it. He’s beyond the point of denying anything. Which is why he really needs to go.
“C’mere,” he says, “lemme touch you. Your skin is so warm when you get out of the shower.”
“We’ve gotta be at brunch with Dad’s weird girlfriend in an hour. And my dad’s in the kitchen—”
Pushing up to sitting, Eliot twists his fingers in a soundproofing ward, following it up with one to stop anyone from coming in the door. “Come here, baby.”
Quentin is already shuffling toward the bed, color high in his cheeks, looking down like he’s embarrassed. Still, he climbs onto Eliot’s lap, his towel coming undone. Eliot places one hand across the plane of his fuzzy stomach; something in his chest clenches at the closeness, the jump of Quentin’s muscles beneath his skin, the hunger in his eyes. Eliot has had plenty of boys, but he’s never had this—he doesn’t know how to describe it. Wholeness, maybe—the sense that when he puts his hands on Quentin’s hips, he feels good and right, no sense of the pain or guilt he held in his youth. It’s in the way Quentin responds to him—with that wide-eyed, almost-innocent but really quite filthy sort of need that Q carries around inside of him.
Quentin catches his lips in a kiss, his lips soft and warm and open, one open palm pressed against his chest, just over his heart. Eliot will miss this, may even regret leaving it behind. But he knows he’s not forever for Q—he’s not the settling down type or the long-term partner type. Inevitably, if Eliot stayed, he’d do something hurtful, break Quentin somehow. This way is simpler. For now, he drinks Quentin in, the smell of his clean skin, the firm press of his dense, masculine body, the sweep of his soft hair.
It’s methodical and gentle, the way Eliot has him this morning. Eliot commits to memory Q’s sweet, hot panting sounds, the rise of the flush over his chest and cheeks, the pebbling of his nipples, and the wetness at the tip of his cock. They’re both desperate and aching hard when Eliot slicks himself up and Quentin, shaking with need, sinks down onto his cock. As Q rides him, Eliot works him over, licking his thumbs and circling each nipple, placing a slicked-up hand loose over his cock so Quentin has a bit of friction, just enough to make him whimper—oh, fuck, you’re so—good—his hips rolling so that he starts chasing his own pleasure, using Eliot’s cock and hand to get himself off, moaning shamelessly, eyebrows arching as he draws close to the edge.
“Baby,” Eliot murmurs, kissing over his neck, pleasure rolling around inside and growing, a match turned to flame. “Gonna make me—”
Eliot comes first, pleasure surging and wending through him like—Eliot thinks of fire, of the sunsets that blazed over the mountains behind Brakebills, the whole of them, Quentin and Eliot, laid out in his mind as Eliot cries out, Quentin snapping his hips, eyes on Eliot’s. Eliot’s fingers knead into Quentin’s hips, a bruising force that, however temporary, marks Quentin as his. For this last day, for this morning, for their last time having one another like this. Quentin finishes himself off, gently rocking still, crying out when his body seizes and toes curl.
“I’ll miss you,” Quentin says, catching his mouth in a kiss, nipping at his lower lip, legs still trembling around Eliot’s waist. “I’ll miss this.”
“Me, too, Q..”
“But we’ll see each other soon.”
“Yeah,” Eliot says, squeezing Quentin’s hip and pulling him in close. He buries his face against Quentin’s neck, trying to remember this, to keep it inside of him, the memory of these moments.
When he leaves for the portal later that night, he gives Quentin a kiss that they’ll both remember, the arcs of his eyebrows and the pout of his lips just as lovely as they were the moment Eliot first saw him.
“Eliot, I—” Quentin starts, murmuring against Eliot’s lips.
“I’ve gotta—portal’s closing in the next five minutes,” Eliot says, swallowing hard. “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
Quentin stills in his arms and nods against Eliot’s shirt. “Yeah, okay.”
The look he wears as Eliot walks away, bound for the portal system at JFK, is one that will stay with him for years, baked soundly into the multitude of regrets he’ll accumulate in Ibiza. He’ll wonder, many times, when he’s out dancing or drinking or recovering from the hundred-and-fiftieth hangover, what Quentin had intended to say.
Quentin gives him a little wave, and Eliot blows him a kiss, the specter of Manhattan looming behind him. Eliot tucks the memory away when he arrives in Ibiza, a small, sunlit spot in the landscape of his life, that he’ll bring out to look at so many times in the intervening years that he’ll be surprised it doesn’t wear thin at the edges.
Seven Years Later, Upstate New York
“Heeeey bitch,” Eliot says, pushing up his sunglasses. There are still dark circles around his eyes, even if he’s got four or five— he has no idea, really— prescriptions that help him sleep and jumpstarted his brain again or whatever the fuck. So, the dark circles are warranted. He’s earned them. Margo is leaning against the back of a Prius, fabulous in a royal blue pencil skirt and cropped jacket. Very much a boss-bitch suit. There’s a trembling swell of love in Eliot, and he’s— struck by it. By her. By the fact that he’s one of the only ones leaving this week who has someone to meet them.
“El,” she says, taking in a sharp breath. “It’s good to see you. You look— different. Better.” Eliot pretends not to see her lower lip tremble when she looks him over, pretends not to notice the lack of her usual Margo-isms. He knows he looks like the disaster he truly is— thinner than he ought to be, his skin pale and papery. He’s wearing a sage green Henley and gray chinos— not his standard fare. But rehab is rehab, and he’s been doing watercolors and talking about his feelings, so the finer things were depressingly unnecessary. He thinks Margo picked these up from a Target in Albany. He shudders; he’s not going to think about it too hard.
He’s healthy, right? He keeps telling himself that. A new fucking lease on life after the better part of his late 20s and early 30s sitting right on the border of hell. He’s seen approximately 300 therapists in the past year, and he’s told each of them all of it, as much as he could stand, anyway— his tragic backstory and his penchant for pouring alcohol on his problems. Combined with his genuine affection for the buzzy-numb rush of cocaine and the bright, euphoric swell of a solid opiate high, well— as they say, it was a total goddamn shitshow, and Eliot was the top billing performer.
Margo pops the trunk and watches mutely as Eliot slings his bag inside. It’s filled with the few toiletries they let him have, the five other Henleys Margo had sent with him, and a depressing array of soft khakis and sweatpants. No belts allowed. He’d thought about Quentin an absurd amount in the earliest days at the center— especially— the time he told Eliot, fingers playing absently over his chest, that they’d taken the strings out of his hoodies the times he’d been hospitalized. That they’d lost the matching gray drawstring, and he’d replaced them with navy blue imposters his dad had ordered from Amazon. A visible reminder of the darker parts of his brain, like Eliot’s brushed cotton chinos, slub jersey Henleys, and off-brand Toms. Rehab wear— here’s how fucked up you are: a visual breakdown.
His more fabulous outfits are all in storage, he reminds himself. Safe and sound. Maybe a bit loose on him still, but he’s sure he’ll put on some weight when he starts eating and sleeping normally again. Whatever normal is for Eliot. His brand will be restored, wherever Margo has decided to settle them. Eliot told her it didn’t matter, and he didn’t care, as long as it wasn’t Indiana, Brakebills, or Ibiza. He still wasn’t so convinced he could find a home anywhere, but he was finally willing to give it a try.
“Thank you, Bambi,” he says. It comes out a bit too sincerely, but they’re really beyond the point of needing to throw juicy quips at each other. He figures they’ll get around to it again, circle back to the better parts of who they’ve always been.
“Of course, honey. Been boring as shit without you around. And lonely as balls.”
Eliot smiles at that, letting out a heavy sigh. His mind still feels heavy and clouded— where he would ordinarily throw out something glib, his mind produces nothing but a heavy, gray cloud. He bends, instead, to kiss Margo on the perfect, flawless apple of her cheek, burying his hand in her silky hair for a moment. This is home. Wherever I go, this is home, he thinks. “Love you.”
“You goddamn better. Get in. We’ve got a fuck of a long drive, and you better thank me again when we get there. Capisce?”
“Will do, darling.”
No one else would come and get me. The thought settles in as he slides into the passenger side of the Prius, which must be a rental. Margo would never drive a Prius. Well. Eliot’s been tucked away for most of the year. He realizes that he has no idea what kind of car Margo bought when she sold the villa and signed the lease on the apartment in Soho. Or if she even got one. A year of life that he missed.
They’re silent as they drive— he doesn’t even know where they’re driving— he’s sure he’s supposed to know, but so much of what Margo has said to him on visits has slipped by him, not sticking. He leans against the window, watching the guard rails on the side of the road drifting by him in an endless pattern of gray rectangles. Farmland gives way to deciduous forest, leaves just starting to transition to autumn, hints of yellow in just the poplars.
He remembers that at Brakebills, how he’d pointed the poplars out to Quentin when they’d taken one of the boats and floated out beyond the Brakebills microclimate. Quentin didn’t know poplars are the first to turn— city boy that he most genuinely was— still is. The memory sticks like threads of rubber cement in his chest, tacky and thick. He’s glad this rehab program just had him write letters, never forced Eliot to send any of them. He gave Margo hers; there wasn’t anyone else left in his life who’d really care to hear his apologies. Quentin’s is still in his bag.
“I told you about the place— but the accommodations— fascinating.”
“Not needed,” Eliot says, closing his eyes. He loves when Margo nerds out about— whatever. Anything, really. But his head is foggy from the newest medication for his insomnia. Later. There’s plenty of time. Infinite, featureless, sober time. “I assume there will be very fluffy towels and clean linen. Room service. No alcohol. Steam room. Hot stone massages.”
“Obviously,” she says. She changes the music to a playlist she’d made him his first month at the center. Lizzo comes to life on the speakers. “I’m not a heathen. The bed and breakfast is a five-star joint. Magician-run spa.”
“Never heard of one of those. Besides in Ibiza.” Eliot runs his fingers along the edge of the car window, drawing away a fine layer of dust and disappearing it with a flick of his fingers. A magician-run anything is one of Margo’s geek fixations, and he smiles a little, thinking he’ll be able to hear her voice every day now.
“A few nature students, a healer from two years ahead of us— you remember Sandy whatsherfuck—”
“She was in the orgy thing we did that first semester—”
“Which one? This is so very not ringing a bell, my love. We’ve got a high body count at this point.” He speaks of Margo like she’s an extension of his person, and he thinks that perhaps she is, that he’ll never not think of her that way. Ergo, her orgies were also his— and, well, that generally had been the case, hadn’t it? My logic is valid, he thinks, a bit dimly.
Margo snorts. “She was the one with one pierced nipple. Lots of great ink. Dorothy on her thigh.”
Eliot nods, corners of his lips turning up slightly. “You had a bit of a thing for her. Went down her Yellow Brick Road more than once.”
“Did not. She was curvy— well, damn, if Instagram is to be believed, she still is— and quiet, but weird.” She shrugs, flicking the turn signal on and turning onto a smaller road that looks like it leads up the mountains. “You know I don’t mind that. A fuckin’ bit.”
“Dearest Bambi, I do know that. I still contend it was more than a passing thing—”
“The fact that I remember her after some prompting definitely suggests—”
“Listen. She’s a friend. She runs the spa, set us up with a suite that is illegally hard to get and an appointment with a realtor. If I eat her ass all day long while we’re in town, it’s just because I’m impressed.”
Eliot hums. “Certainly not anything else.”
“Nope— and I’d appreciate if you didn’t suggest otherwise, you cock.”
“I’ll do my best, but no promises, darling.”
Margo grumbles a bit at that, but she’s more occupied looking at the shifting map on her phone, the screen flickering in and out as they climb in altitude. Eliot doesn’t think much of it, not at first, but they make a sharp turn that takes them deeper into the forest, and the screen keeps flipping through weird patterns, like there’s some kind of disturbance in the air. The light is all but lost, now, the sky nearly invisible through the canopy of dark green leaves and gray branches, twisting— sinister almost, Eliot thinks— above the darkened skylight of Margo’s wildly out-of-character rental car.
“I tried to get a fucking—” She curses when she hits a bump in the road. “— SUV. Something sexy and sturdy. Like us.”
“Mm, I do believe we’re only one of those things, Bambi.” Eliot peers out the window, rolling it down out of sheer curiosity, which he belatedly realizes is something he hasn’t felt in— months, at least, maybe longer. He’s had two emotions total this year: boredom and baking.
“Speak for yourself. I’ve got charisma, stamina, and a mighty fine ass. I worked out with Michelle Obama’s arm guy while you were gone.”
“She has an arm guy?” Eliot turns away from the window just in time to catch Margo’s delighted laugh. “Okay, bitch, but did you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know? Next time, keep your dick in your pants, and don’t snort so much coke. Then you won’t miss shit when you’re in rehab.”
Eliot— caught off guard— laughs. There was plenty of absurdity at a magicians’ rehab facility, but nothing that made him laugh, really laugh. Not like his Bambi. He can’t catch his breath to say it’s too soon. So it’s probably not. That logic is also valid.
Margo actually starts giggling, clearly delighted about— maybe the joke, but she keeps on laughing, deep belly laughs, shooting a glance at him before bursting into a wide, apple-cheeked grin. Just as he catches it, burned into his memory— this vision of his person, swinging a soccer-mom-blue Prius wildly around a turn at the near top of a mountain, she veers off the road and floors it.
“Bambi— holy shit— what the fuck—”
“Hold on to your dick! Gonna test the rental insurance on this thing.” She squeals, car bumping over the forest floor, slamming on the accelerator and heading straight for a massive oak tree.
Eliot’s thought he was going to die— he doesn’t know how many times. On the basement floor of the farmhouse, shivering through the pain his father’s first real beating. At the hedge safe house when he was seventeen, body and brain drained by a cooperative spell gone wrong. In Ibiza, maybe most of all— so many times. It had seemed exactly the right place for him when they arrived— but it was terribly fucked up, it turned out, to give an addict access to a daily breakfast buffet of booze, drugs, and sex. And now, Margo is thoroughly off her rocker— likely his fault that she was driven to this— haha, driven— and she’s speeding toward their end— it’s been a good run, he thinks, as the world slows down around him, everything in sharp focus for a moment.
Eliot screws his eyes closed and grips the seat, knuckles white. The sounds of the forest fade away, and the road settles beneath them— he blinks his eyes open and keeps blinking, the world coming into wobbly-bright focus after the dark of the forest. The first thing he sees is a battered green sign next to a wide metal drawbridge.
Welcome to Brantley, New York. Est. 1911. Population: 2722.
When the car approaches the bridge, the numbers flicker for a moment. Population: 2724.
“This is the place I told you about,” Margo says, casually, like she didn’t try to just fucking kill them. “Told you it was fucking crazy as shit to get here.”
“Bitch, what the fuck,” Eliot murmurs, heart still slamming in his chest. “I do not remember a goddamn bit of that. I thought you were slamming us into a tree for funsies.”
Margo, unlike a normal person with empathy, rolls her eyes. “You weren’t fucking listening? Jesus. It’s all I talked about the past two visits.”
“I distinctly remember talking about my roommate’s weird hairbrushing habits and literally nothing else.” He furrows his brow. The name ‘Brantley’ does ring a bell, but he’s not going to admit that on pain of death at this point. He fumbles in his pocket for the half-smashed pack of Merits he’s been working his way through— he’s definitely quitting, just not today, not after that— and shakily sticks a cigarette in his mouth, lighting it with a snap and taking a long drag. He blows smoke out of the window as they pull up to a traffic light, just on the edge of what looks like a cute little Main Street, similar to the quaint mountain towns littered around the touristy areas of the Adirondacks.
“One hundred percent your fault you didn’t know, and I’m not budging on that.”
“Fair. That’s fair.” Eliot’s hand is still trembling, but his heart rate has actually slowed. “I concede. I wasn’t listening. And I paid the price of near-death. I was just listening to your lovely voice, Bambi.”
“It is lovely.”
“It is.” Eliot tips a bit of ash out of the car as they pull up to a crosswalk. There’s an old-fashioned farm on one side of the street, a butcher shop on the other, a hispstery market across from them. “It’s cute.” He clears his throat. “And I assume we have a reason for being here that I also did not catch?”
“That part is the fuckin’ surprise, actually.” Margo pulls into one of the slanted spaces just at the edge of the supermarket and turns off the car. “Fortunately for you, honey, I actually fucking listen to people—”
“I do, too— that’s not fair—”
“Just shut your gorgeous mouth for a second. And listen. Actually listen.”
Eliot nods, stubbing out the cigarette before tossing it into the ether with a flick of his wrist.
“As I was saying, I listen to people. And I listened to you. Not only did I listen to you, I ate approximately three million scones. And muffins. Cakes. Bagels. Fucking croissants with— fillings I didn’t even think you could get on the East Coast.”
Eliot smiles. “Only way to pass the time.”
“Jasmine is meeting us in five. Come on.”
“Not sure what the fuck all these things have to do with each other, but it’s been a weird day.” Eliot watches as Margo slings her bag over one shoulder and dismounts her royal blue chariot. Eliot does what he does best with Margo, following at her heels and waiting to see the next grand event.
Jasmine turns out to be the much-sought-after realtor of this odd, tiny town. She gives Eliot a rundown about the town, pointing out the businesses along Main Street, the rows of Victorian-era houses beyond the edge of the town proper. Eliot nods politely, still groggy and maybe a little frayed around the edges from Margo’s whole Thelma and Louise road show.
He nearly jumps out of his skin when a hand claps him on the shoulder. “Compadre! Let me be the first to welcome you to Brantley, as the owner and proprietor of the Glazed and Confused dispensary.”
Eliot wells up with unexpected emotion at the sound of a familiar voice. It threatens to topple over, still not fully regulated after the gut punch of sobriety. “Josh, hey. That seems— perfect for you.”
Before he can say anything else— or process the reality of standing on the Main Street of an all-magicians town— Josh is drawing him into a tight hug, which feels bizarre. He doesn’t know that he’s sober-hugged anyone other than Margo in a long time. Years, maybe. “It’s— it’s good to see you,” Eliot says, his throat tight.
“Sorry to bother,” Jasmine says, “I have an appointment at five. Can I walk you guys through the place?”
Josh pats Eliot on the back and squeezes his shoulder. “Proud of you, man. Margo and I have a— surprise. And a proposition.”
“Kinky,” Eliot says halfheartedly, falling in step behind Jasmine and Margo, still wearing— he realizes— something he really shouldn’t be wearing in public. He feels a bit naked, bare, without his layers, out in the real world. But he’s done a lot weirder wearing far less clothing.
“That’s the dispensary. I bake so people can get baked,” he says, snorting at himself. “Business is booming. It’s definitely good times. I have my own CBD blend— with a hint of non-addictive calming potion— for people who just want to be lightly toasted and not fully baked.’”
“Ah, I’ll certainly have to stock up before we head back to the city. Or wherever.” Here, maybe. Is that why they’re here? This doesn’t seem like them, but it is cute. The appropriately adorable dispensary features a green and teal awning, cheerful hand-painted signs, and inside are counters with neat rows of typical smoke-shop goods. In the back sits a refrigerator with a clear door, the shelves stuffed with muffins and cakes and cookies. “This is really lovely— delighted to hear it’s thriving. Suppose there’s always a need to get baked. Or lightly toasted.”
“You know it,” Josh says. “Come on.”
Eliot is still looking through the window when he realizes that Jasmine is still walking, a half block ahead of them. Eliot frowns. “This— this isn’t the destination?”
“No, no, amigo. Something far better. You know how they teach you in first year that magic is all about potential, harnessing it, making it work for you.”
“Mm. I might have missed that lecture. No, I definitely did.” By the time they catch up to Margo and Jasmine, Eliot feels, somehow, more naked than ever.
“This is all about potential,” Josh adds, somewhat nonsensically, since Eliot still doesn’t know what’s going on.
“... the spot in between the two properties can be converted— absolutely. And there are several apartments above the properties. Older places— no air conditioning, but with the right temperature-controlling spells, put in place by a skilled magician—”
“Fabulous. We’ll take a look at the one above the shop,” Margo says.
“Shop? Tell me what I’m looking at,” Eliot says. The storefront— less than a minute’s walk from Glazed and Confused— is empty, a thick layer of dust covering everything inside. Instead of the all glass front, there are wide display windows, a bell on the door. It looks like something directly out of Pleasantville— but abandoned, left behind. Something about that strikes Eliot as awfully sad, but he’s been feeling a whole lot of his feelings recently, so it might just be the theme of the day: Eliot Waugh, finally sober, gets emotional about empty storefronts.
“You’ve been baking,” Josh says. “Margo says— you’ve had quite a lot of experience at this point. That you’ve been doing it since you were a kid, but it escalated this year.”
“The only thing in my life that escalated.” Eliot’s stomach flips over; there’s something in him, beneath the foggy haze of this day, that knows something is happening here that matters. There’s a cold slip of fear alongside that same knowing, but there’s a brighter thread of hope wound up with it.
“There’s a pastry course at Lenôtre,” Margo says. “In Paris. If you want to get fancy about your shit.”
“And that’s related to this— how?” Eliot knows, but he can barely think of saying it to himself. It seems so out of reach to have an anchor like this.
“I have more money than I know what to do with,” Margo says. “I think it’s time for me to start investing. Like a fuckin’ adult or whatever.”
“I’m not exactly a sound investment, Bambi.”
“Don’t tell me what is and what isn’t a sound fucking investment.” Margo steps beside him and puts her arm through his. “It’d take some time. But the space between them can be converted into a pastry kitchen. Josh needs it, and this downtown needs cakes without a fuckton of weed. For weddings, birthdays. A place to pick up croissants and coffee before work. A spot for kids to go after school that won’t get them high. No offense, Josh.”
“None taken.” Josh follows Jasmine inside the potential pastry kitchen, flipping on lights and talking loudly about range hoods and freezer storage.
Eliot sniffs, blinking back tears. He knows, from all the fucking therapy, that he should believe he deserves a chance like this— a second chance at anything, a shot at making something real— as much as anyone else. “What if I— fuck it all up?”
“I know you.” Margo takes his hand and squeezes it. “You might fuck up some. Probably not all the way. But you’ve got me— and I’m always gonna take care of you.”
“I know,” he says, “I do know, Bambi. But my life— it doesn’t work— nothing’s ever fixed that. This is probably just another disaster in the making.”
“No guarantees. If you fuck it all up, you might as well be with me when you do it.”
She leans against his shoulder. “I can be very compelling.” She laughs. “It’s this, which is an actual plan— or not having a plan at all. Those are the options we got.”
Jasmine steps back outside. “I have thirty minutes to show you the shop and one of the apartments. What do you think?”
“Might as well,” Eliot says. He follows Margo and the realtor inside.
Brooklyn, New York
“Bea— put that down, honey. I said— put it down—” The phone in his hand buzzes and sings the song of its people. His heart rate is already sky high, and the ringing of the phone nearly sends him into overdrive. But he needs Julia, and he told her to call, so he pushes a breath out and answers.
The picture zaps in and out, and he can barely make out Julia’s face. “Hold on,” she says. “Gotta do the signal boosting spell. Things are real weird here.” He hears her murmur something, and her face falls into view. He misses her so much sometimes that it feels like a physical thing, like someone chopped off a limb. Or his hair— God forbid.
“So, uh—” Behind him there’s a clatter on the floor, and he nearly jumps out of his actual skin. “Busy, you’ve gotta—” He turns around to see his daughter sitting in the center of the kitchen floor, three glass mixing bowls suspended in the air above her. He didn’t even know he had mixing bowls. Jesus, where the fuck did they come from? He sighs and holds up the camera so Julia can see. “Honey, you’ve gotta put that stuff down.”
“But I want Julia to see! I want her to see it! Look!”
“Oh— wow, Bea— that is—” Quentin can hear the shock in her voice, and he almost laughs. Like, it’s almost funny, but it’s also really, really not. Julia, of course, doesn’t miss a beat. “That is awesome, sweetheart. You know, you are just like your Aunt Kady.”
“Really? That’s so cool. I’m magic!” Busy jolts up, knocking one of the bowls loose and dropping her spell. The glass bowls stay suspended for a moment, like they’ve forgotten the whole concept of gravity exists. Time slows to a halt, and in the millisecond he has to think, Quentin tosses his phone on the sofa and shoots out a spell, catching two of the bowls before they fall. The third cracks against the floor, shattering around his child’s bare feet.
“Oh shit, Jules— hold on—”
“I’m here,” she says, laughing. Like it’s funny. It’s not fucking funny.
“Bea, stay still, okay?”
“Daddy,” she cries out, and fuck if that doesn’t hit his heart, crumbling it. She starts to wail— he doesn’t know how he produced a child so loud. He was a quiet kid. He sat still and read books and didn’t do magic in an apartment building in Brooklyn at the asscrack of dawn. “It broke!”
“I got it. I got it— okay?” He shakes out his hands, stepping over to her calmly and crouching next to her as he starts to cast. “This is a good one to know, okay? Dad’s good at it. So I bet you will be, too.” He catches the magic in the air, turning it from a buzzing mess into focused points of energy. Busy smiles, tears still clinging to her lashes, as she watches it rise next to her, the bits of glass finding one another, the bowl whole and round again. Quentin places it on the floor next to the others.
“Good job.” Busy puts out her arms to be lifted, like she always does. Has always done. Since the day he met her.
“Thanks,” he says weakly. He picks her up automatically, walking with her in his arms and flopping back on the sofa.
When he picks up the phone, Julia is beaming. “You guys make a pretty good team.”
Busy nods sagely. “Dad fixed it.”
Quentin shrugs. “So— this is the news.”
“Big news,” Julia says. “Bea, you are so very talented. But you have to listen to your dad when he tells you to put it away. You just tuck your magic up in your pocket and bring it out when it’s safe.”
“Safe?” She looks up, bright green eyes on Quentin. She’s four, so she no more has a context for the word ‘safe’ than she does ‘egalitarianism.’
“Other people can’t really know,” he says. “People can get scared. And people can get jealous.”
She nods again. It would be great if that were the end of it, but having a four year old is like having an actual mini-tornado. You can’t just expect them to not do tornado things.
“Yeah, but when you come visit— you can do it here. Kady would really love to see. And I can teach you a few things—”
“Oh my God, no. Jesus Christ.” Quentin scrubs at his face. “She does not need to know anything else.”
“Who’s Jesus Christ?” Busy tangles one small hand in his hair and tugs it.
“Ow. Shit.” He untangles her fingers and holds her small hand, brushing over the back of it with his thumb. “Let’s not pull Dad’s hair.”
“It’s like her comfort item,” Julia says.
“I’ll tell her to pull your hair,'' Quentin mutters. He sighs again, and he can feel his face falling. “What are we gonna do?” He realizes he said ‘we’ without even thinking, and he and Julia and Kady are no longer ‘we,’ not with the nearest portal connection in Albany. Can’t have the riffraff coming into the fancy fucking town. No, he knows that’s not— not quite how it is. It’s safer that way, just a lot less convenient.
“We’ll figure something out.” Julia sips at coffee, rings clinking against the ceramic. Quentin hasn’t even had coffee yet. It’s unfair. It really is.
“Like— what? This is— I never had this problem. I wish she were— I don’t know. A little less precocious.”
“There’s a school here. Did I tell you that?”
“Cool beans for you, Julia. What, is Kady going to teach music lessons there?”
“Nope,” she says, popping the p. “It’s for magicians’ kids. A safe place.”
He swallows, the pieces falling in place in his mind. “But we— the job and— my clients.” He stops. “It’s fucking impossible to—”
“Maybe not.” Julia shrugs. “We got a place. You’ve got enough money for a down payment if a place goes on the market. And you’ve got an inside connection.”
“But, Dad— we can get to him so easily here. And it’s, you know— it always feels like time is limited. With him.”
Busy curls into him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Granddad?”
“Yeah,” he says, “Granddad. We like to be able to see Granddad.”
“There is a place on the edge of town. It’s run down. But it’s a cool property. Been on the market for a long time. Not great for you and Bea. But— maybe Ted.”
“He’s not a magician,” Quentin says desperately. He closes his eyes for a moment and pictures a school where Busy can go without Quentin losing his actual mind. He’s not even sure he can send her back to preschool.
“Where there’s a rule, there’s an exception to it. We can work it out.”
“Just think about it. I’ll ask around, and we’ll see what we can see.”
“I don’t want to uproot our lives, Jules.”
“It’s just a thought,” she says. “Think about it, I said.”
“Fine— I guess. I’ll talk to my dad, maybe. You can— ask around.”
“Roots are where you put them, Q.”
Quentin rolls his eyes. “I know that. I’m just— I’m a city kid.”
“We grew up in Montclair. You're a suburb kid. You can be a small town kid.”
“Yeah, maybe. It’s— it’s just a long shot. It just seems so unreal, you know. I need a solution, like, today.”
“Busy,” Julia says. “You think you can only lift up things that can’t break? And only in the apartment?”
She nods, a little hesitant. “Why can’t I do it whenever I want to?”
Quentin closes his eyes and pushes out a deep breath. That’s the thing, isn’t it? He can’t imagine her, in all her wildness, trying to be something she’s not.
“We’ve just gotta be— lowkey,” he says. Again, he thinks, a completely foreign concept to any four year old, along with ‘safety’ and ‘egalitarianism.’ But especially his. “For a while. Until we figure something out.”
Julia hums in agreement, and Quentin realizes he’d forgotten she was there. “We will. Be nice to have our family here.”
Quentin smiles at that, grateful, as ever, that he has a person. People. “Okay, um. I think we’re going to— take a sick day. Maybe get some ice cream.”
“I’m not sick,” Busy protests. “I wanna go see my little friends!”
“I know, but I think having a whole panic attack before coffee counts as Dad being sick. And I need some company. That okay?”
She nods. “Edie and I can take care of you.” She points to her stuffed cat, the one she’d lifted in the air at five this morning, like a fucking nightmare come to life right above Quentin’s bed.
“Then I’m in good company,” he manages.
“We’ll get you a pass to come visit,” Julia says. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. That sounds like a plan.” It’s more than he had at 5:15 this morning when he thought his heart had actually stopped in his chest. Couldn’t this have happened at, like, four in the afternoon?
“Love you guys,” Julia says. “And that means I’m on your side. To the moon and back. ‘Til the end of time.”
Quentin laughs, and Busy smiles. “‘Til the end of time,” she repeats.
“Talk soon.” Julia gives him that wry, knowing smile. Like she’s got it all figured out. Cool beans for you, Julia.
“We will,” Quentin says.
“You’re gonna be okay. You’ll make it okay. You’re a great dad.”
He shrugs. “Making it up as I go along. Best I can do.” He presses the red button on the phone, letting out a groan. Busy is likely to make him lose his fucking mind before she graduates from high school. Maybe before she even gets to kindergarten. But he has one Ted Coldwater trick up his sleeve: an emergency, no matter what kind, calls for a mental health day. “What are we gonna do today, Busy Bea?”
“Watch Jurassic Park and order smoothies,” she says with such complete and utter conviction that Quentin has to laugh.
“Yeah. That’s a good plan.”
“And we’re gonna get a puppy. A real one. With black spots.”
“Uh— I dunno about that.” He pulls his hair back and slings it into a bun, pushing his glasses up his nose. “One thing at a time.”
“Don’t lift anything else while I make coffee.”
“Yeah. That we can do.”