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all my nights taste like gold

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June 2017, Montclair, New Jersey

~Eliot~

“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—”

Dad.”

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.

“Uh, no.”

“Where’s that?”

“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

~Eliot~

“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—”

“Mmm, no.”

“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—”

“Was not.”

“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.”

“Compelling argument.”

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

~Quentin~

“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.”

“I can’t—”

“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.”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Don’t lift anything else while I make coffee.”

“‘Kay. Movie?”

“Yeah. That we can do.”

Chapter Text

Eighteen Months Later— 237 Miles from Brooklyn

Brantley, New York

~Quentin~

“Hey, Busy—bad news.” Quentin crouches down so he can look into the heart of this intimately familiar little pout. “I couldn't find Edie. I know you probably have a lot of big feelings about that—”

The pouting intensifies. Eyes widen, mouth turns down, and arms cross. Small frown lines appear—his own scowl, but in miniature. “But I think I had her in the car. What if—what if we left her in the city?” There’s the faintest quiver in her voice, and Quentin’s chest tightens—a physical reaction, like there’s an actual vise behind his sternum, drawing tighter, and he’s beholden to its minute fluctuations.

“Hey, we didn’t leave her in the city. She came in the car.” Quentin takes her small hands in his, squeezing tight. “We lose Edie on a, like, hourly basis. So we can solve this, right? There’s a lot of boxes in the house, so it’s a little confusing, but—we can find Edie.” Belatedly, Quentin of course regrets buying a stuffed Bengal cat two Christmases ago, but Busy was just starting to spend the majority of her time with Quentin and that was what she wanted. So, sue him, he fucking bought it. It’s cute, the little stuffed cat she carries everywhere, ever a part of Busy’s World of Pretend. A customer at her grocery store, a patient at the vet— Edie’s once soft fur is matted and worn down in spots, threadbare around her red collar where Busy presses her fingers when she holds it to her chest at night.

Yeah, it’s super fucking cute. And it’s also camouflaged to blend in with everything they own. And he’s very fucking sick and tired of looking for that fucking cat.

“Can you do the thing, Dad?”

“Oh—uh,” Quentin stammers. In the apartment in Brooklyn, Quentin didn’t do the thing unless it was an absolute emergency because the thing involves open flame, and the smoke alarms were tetchy and none of his neighbors were magicians, so. A sharp thread of anxiety wends its way through his gut; he pushes out a breath, stopping it. This is why they moved to Brantley. “Yeah, sure, we can—”

“Q, is she looking for the cat?” Julia pops into the house, holding the door open with her hip. “It was in the driveway!”

“Jules, hey.” Quentin sighs in relief, scrunching down to pick up his daughter, propping her on one hip. God, she’s so heavy now, long legs and strong arms wrapping around him on instinct. It’s funny, sometimes, to think that she ever didn’t know Quentin, that she was ever fatherless. His knowledge of her is so complete, a seamless part of his days, that he can’t imagine his life before or apart from her. “Thank God. I was about to grab the brass bowl and the light some shit on fire—some stuff on fire—”

Busy cackles at that, which— wow, he should really take better care with his language. But that’s not new, exactly. He’s always trying and frequently failing: a microcosm of parenthood.

“I’ve been working on something special for Edie since you visited last time,” Julia says. She waltzes up to them and presses a kiss to Quentin’s cheek before tucking the cat into Busy’s arms.

“Look at that, baby. Jules found Edie.” A little heaviness sits just behind his eyes when he looks at Julia— it’s been maybe two weeks since they saw each other, and it was two months before that. He’s grateful they’ll be permanent fixtures in each other’s lives again. He doesn’t know if Julia will benefit from that, but she loves Busy, loves her aunt duties— and Kady adores Busy with an intensity that Quentin never quite expected. Quentin can’t give many things, but he can gladly share Bea with his people. That’s what this move is about, isn’t it? Not just a safe place, but a place that feels like home. He squeezes his daughter’s shoulder. “What do you say to Julia?”

“Thank you,” she says, cradling the cat against her chest.

“You’re most welcome.” Julia pulls a red ribbon from her pocket and hands it to Busy, who regards it with suspicion. There’s a little bell in the center of the ribbon, and she shakes it. It makes a faint jingling sound. “If you or your dad do a little spell on the ribbon, it should ring the bell. So you can always find her. Plus, it’ll match her collar.”

“Oh! Wow—will you teach me?”

“A little later,” Julia says. “We’ll do breakfast first. Don’t lose her in the meantime.”

“I won’t!” Busy wiggles against him as she adorns Edie with her newest accessory.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Quentin says.

“Oh, I know.” She grins at him. “BTW, your dad is at the new patisserie, picking up coffee and pastries. Killer donuts. You know, I can’t believe I forgot to tell you about the bakery— it’s been in progress for, like, almost two years, now, but—”

“That, uh—that sounds nice. Pâtisserie—that sounds kind of, like, weirdly snobby for Brantley. Like. More of a city thing.”

“It’s funny you should say that,” Julia says. “Because—”

Busy, apparently done with being held now that her cat has returned to the fold, squirms in Quentin’s arms. He absentmindedly lowers her to the ground, and she zips off, running for the stairs. He shouts after her. “Bea—Busy—what’s the plan?”

“Showing Edie the window nook,” she yells back, already halfway up the stairs. “We have to set up the bookstore—” Busy follows that with some garbled explanation involving the stuffed cat, her box of books, her toy coffee maker, and the window nook, a location of much promise, according to Busy. And, like, at least twenty percent of the reason Quentin bought this house instead of the much more reasonably priced condo on the outskirts of town.

“Don’t get lost up there,” Quentin shouts, his heart skipping. He’s so used to worrying about Busy running off in the city—it’s going to take some adjustment to get accustomed to small town life.

“I won’t!” This time the reply is muffled, accented by soft steps across old floorboards.

Julia wears that knowing little smile that’s always simultaneously endeared and annoyed him, like she knows something he doesn’t. Typically, she does know something Quentin doesn’t, which is highly annoying. At thirty-four years old, Quentin should know a lot of stuff. And yet, it’s Julia who knows all the things for both of them. Time passes, but certain things never change.

“What?” He pushes up his glasses, then shoves his hands in his pockets. The corners of his mouth tug down entirely without his permission.

“I’m just happy you’re here, Q. This is the right place for you.”

Quentin rocks back on his heels. “Didn’t have much of a choice. You know what Busy did the other day? She lit the dog’s bed on fire. I don’t even know—she just—” Quentin runs his fingers through his hair, pushing his bangs up. God. He has bangs now. “—she just keeps doing magic shit. And she’s already gotten into my spell books. Like—seems like having an early reader would be fun. But it’s just—in this case it’s fucking dangerous.”

Julia laughs, the sound of it warm and homey and more familiar than his own skin. “You’re in the right place. She’ll do great in kindergarten. The teachers know what to do with precocious magician kids. Which is great because—”

“Because she’s a menace?”

“I wasn’t going to say ‘menace.’ More like—” She loops her arm through Quentin’s. “—a delight. Genius. Best among children. So it’s good you’re here.”

“Is my moon in Cancer with retrograde Planet X, like, signifying that I’m onto new adventures or—” Julia flicks him on the arm. “—hey, ow—”

“Cut it out. Let’s go chat on your porch. I need to tell you—about the pâtisserie—”

“Listen. I get that you and Kady don’t have kids. So I’m just going to inform you—Busy can and will burn down the house. Or hurl herself into a wall. Or—”

“Got it.” Julia nods, the movement exaggerated. “You’re but a simple helicopter parent.”

“I’m not—what were you going to—”

Right at that moment, there’s a flash of brown and black and white spots, the skitter of claws across the floorboards, a green leash trailing behind. The door swings open. “Curly Q, Jules—I was trying to wipe his paws, and he got away.”

Quentin’s dad shuffles his feet over the mat just outside before stepping in and taking his shoes off, trying to balance three coffees, an orange juice and a huge box that smells like fresh, sweet bread and warmed chocolate. The puppy is still skittering around the house, making loops around the partially put together sectional, and pausing to look up at Quentin and howl.

“Don’t give me that shit, Sam,” Quentin says, squatting down to scratch behind his ears as his long tail thumps against the sofa. When he looks up with longing eyes, his tongue lolling out, Quentin grabs his collar. “Gotcha.” The dog tries to pull away, scraping across the hardwoods—thank god they’re reclaimed or ‘distressed’ or whatever, or he’d have to refinish them inside of a year. “Jules, towel!”

Julia tuts and draws a tea towel through the air, landing it on Sam’s back. “Your wish is my command,” Julia says with a little flourish, finishing with a bow in Quentin’s direction.

“You’re a dork.” He says it mindlessly, carefully wiping the majority of the dirt clumps from the dog’s paws and finishing off with a basic cleaning spell that leaves the pads of his feet warm and dry.

“I’ll never get tired of seeing you two do all that. Especially in this town.” His dad sets out the coffee and pastries on the table, arranging them on a wooden tray that Quentin’s never seen before. It’s one of the many things, he thinks, that Julia and Kady and his dad surreptitiously added to his moving arrangements. “That’s a nice bakery, by the way. Good customer service. Gave us a few extra plum-almond tartines, or whatever these things are called. But that’s because—” His dad pauses, an odd look on his face. “For the record, I hadn’t stopped in there until a couple of weeks ago. Watching my cholesterol. And you’ve been so busy...” His dad trails off.

“You— what?” Quentin furrows his brow in suspicion. “Did it just open? What’s happening?”

“I usually go to the coffee shop on Vine Street,” his dad says. “So I didn’t know—”

“Oh, yeah—” Julia’s voice goes an octave higher than it usually is. “About that. I was just going to tell Quentin—”

Quentin’s brain halts, pieces floating into place. “Out with it. What’s the thing you’ve been meaning to tell me—that’s making your voice all fucking weird?” He stands, brushing the dirt from his knees and releasing Sam to do a very active sniff test of all the corners in the house. “Is it—like—who’s working at the bakery? Ex-girlfriend, ex-girlfriend’s parents, ex-fiancé—my fucking—sworn enemy or—just tell me. I knew I was going to have at least, like, five embarrassing moments when I moved to a town populated entirely by magicians. Just—tell me.”

“You didn’t tell him.” Quentin’s dad gives Julia a meaningful look and slips into his not unkind adult-knows-best voice. “You were supposed to tell him after I called you.”

“Well,” Julia starts, clearing her throat and shoving her hands in her pockets, “I thought it might be best to wait after the stress of the move.”

“The move is officially over. I have moved. I’m not going to have a meltdown.” Quentin catches Julia’s eyes darting in his dad’s direction. “What? I’m not. There’s no— fucking melting down.”

“Where’s Busy Bea? Maybe I’ll give her some Granddad time.” His dad rocks back on his heels, clearly about to start sweating through his button down.

“Upstairs.” Quentin raises an eyebrow. “Is this, like—some kind of situation where you two need to separate so I can be, like, neutralized? Like a—performance orca?”

“An excuse me—what the fuck?” Julia presses her lips into a thin line like she’s biting down on a smile. God, Quentin hates her so much. There’s only a few people that would cause this kind of conspiracy to develop between Julia and his dad, and the images flashing through Quentin’s mind make his pulse tick up, thrumming in his temples.

“God—just—tell me.”

His dad pauses at the foot of the stairs, tapping the railing as he watches Quentin. “Didn’t think he recognized me. But he wouldn’t let me pay—and he asked after you. Thought he was still in Europe, last you told me. But that was a few years ago now.”

Quentin’s heart squeezes, a sear of old pain crackling in his chest. God. It’s been—so long since Quentin has even said his name. The last day Quentin saw him, they’d made promises to see each other soon, but they just—didn’t. He had a thousand excuses for Quentin. Then it was the pictures on Instagram and Quentin’s forgotten birthday and—finally, the texts just stopped.

A hard knot of anger rises in his chest. Anger at—he doesn’t know. Julia, maybe. But he’s beyond throwing a tantrum, so he takes a slow breath and— “Jules—”

“He’s been here on and off for— a year maybe? I only saw him a few times, and I thought— I thought he was visiting. I assumed it was Josh who was opening the bakery because he was the one who was there every day. It’s been under construction for a year, and Josh was the one who was there most of the time when it opened— and Kady and I have been swamped with SafeHouse—”

“Fuck.” Quentin pinches the bridge of his nose. He is not going to have a fucking breakdown.

“—Margo was the one who put the down payment on the place. And I thought he was here just— helping. But he was taking courses in Paris, and that’s why he was here on and off—Margo told me—”

“Margo,” he says, her name so strange in his mouth. He knew she’d owned a place here for a couple of years, but he figured she was probably back and forth between Brantley and New York. But if this is home for her— of course Eliot was bound to follow. God, he was so stupid. If he puts the house on the market now, he could get a place in Brooklyn again by the fall, have Busy start kindergarten there—

“—he’s a pastry chef now, and this is his thing. He’s been sober for two years.”

Quentin hasn’t seen him in more than eight years. He hasn’t lost his shit over Eliot Waugh in a long time. Not since Bea happened. “Two years,” he repeats.

“Yeah.” Julia puts a hand on his shoulder, and he flinches. “He’s asked me about you every time I’ve been in there.”

“How many times have you been in there.”

Julia shrugs. “A few times now.”

“And—and what did you say? Tell him I’m moving here like—a fucking stalker? That—that I still have a framed picture of us from that last week?”

Julia shakes her head, slow. “I told him if he’d wanted to know, he could have kept in touch with you in the first place.”

“Nothing says you have to go there, Curly Q. You don’t have to give him your time if you don’t want to spare it.” His dad taps the railing again and walks upstairs. He hears his daughter squeal at the sight of her grandfather.

It had taken more than a year to get him a non-magician dispensation to live in Brantley. A hard-won prize with a word-as-bond seal that Quentin had to have magically notarized. His dad owns land here now—two acres—he has a garden and three hens. He’s talking about getting a goat—no, two goats since they’re social animals, Q—and for fuck’s sake, Quentin isn’t leaving. Because of an ex—whatever-they-were.

For the first time in his life, Quentin actually owns a house, at a semi-reasonable price, close to a school that can actually handle his pint-sized magician hellion. And Brantley is one of only four small towns in the country inhabited by only magicians. The ambient magic draw for obscuring wards makes it almost impossible to maintain places like these—and Quentin snagged a spot here when he got hired to work for Kady. This is his goddamn life.

“I’m fine,” Quentin says— even though Julia didn’t ask.

Julia gives him a little shrug, but he doesn’t know whether or not she’s agreeing that he’s fine or denying that he is. He watches her, arms crossed, as she starts emptying the large box of dinnerware that absolutely includes silverware that he never bought himself. He’d be upset, really, if he weren’t so useless at picking out real adult things. But that’s part of the problem right now, isn’t it? Julia deciding what’s best for him. As per usual.

“Why—why didn’t you—I—I—you should have told me.”

Julia levels him with one of her Julia stares. “I knew you’d freak out. You didn’t need to have a full-scale panic attack a month before moving across the state.”

“Thanks for—thanks for, like, deciding what I need—”

“You remember when Kady and I broke up the first time?”

Quentin pushes out a little laugh, the memory bubbling up, climbing through the layers of his irritation. Somehow, Julia got past the fucking wards at Brakebills, and she’d ended up ugly crying in the window nook of The Cottage, growing especially maudlin when she realized that Kady had once sat on the same couch. It was with that particular scene—Julia red-faced and snotty, waxing poetic on Kady’s eyes and her stupid gorgeous face and her punishingly erotic collection of knife holsters—that the remaining vestiges of Quentin’s crush on Jules had vanished. Not because she was any less beautiful—but because she was in love with Kady, and he was— well, he was already falling in love with Eliot.

Sometime after midnight, Eliot had ushered Julia into Quentin’s room—which he had cleaned while Quentin handed her tissues and ordered pizza. Eliot, who’d never even met Julia, had taken care of her reflexively, only knowing that she was a hedge who’d helped steal from the Cottage. If there was disdain in Eliot, he never showed it, not to Quentin. Eliot had told him early on that there were few things worth caring about, but he’d shown, through his actions, that Quentin and his people fell outside of that philosophy.

That was the first time Quentin had stayed in Eliot’s room for more than a night at a time. It seems so distant now, like it was another Quentin living that life.

He huffs a little, watching as Julia tends to his silverware. Maybe he shouldn’t put that much stock in Eliot’s actions; Eliot, after all, had broken his heart. Her point, however, stands: Quentin isn’t the only one in need of special handling, never has been. She knows that better now than she used to. And, maybe, so does Quentin.

Quentin grins in spite of himself. “You wouldn’t stop talking about the birthmark above Kady’s right thigh.”

“It’s a cute birthmark. It looks like a little owl.” Julia’s cheeks go slightly pink, and she chews on her lower lip. “You know, you let me stay in your room for a week.”

“Was it that long?”

“Yeah and the second time we broke up, you let me crash in your apartment. And you didn’t tell me you’d been seeing Kady when you went to work. Because you knew—”

“I knew you’d flip out.” Quentin nods, leaning against the table and fiddling with the tape on one of the boxes. “Okay. As long as it’s not like—because you think I can’t handle my shit.”

“Dude, I know you can’t handle your shit. But neither can the rest of us. It’ll be fine. You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.” She shrugs. “It’s not like you’re getting a job as errand boy at the bakery.”

Quentin sighs—he knows it’s not that easy. It’s never going to be that easy when it comes to Eliot. “You know I—I almost went inpatient that year after he left. You were away—”

“No, you didn’t tell me that.” She pauses her work with the bowls, tapping her fingers on the side of one of the boxes. “You didn’t end up there, though. And you haven’t had to in a long time. Not that it’s a bad thing to have dips like that—”

“Canyons,” Quentin says, peeling off a long strip of tape and balling it in his fingers. “Definitely more than just dips.”

“Either way. Yeah, you’re still intense. And sensitive. But that’s what makes you a great dad. You’ve had time and space to grow into yourself.”

“I guess,” he says. He halfheartedly unwraps a few dishes and puts them on the table. “I don’t really feel a whole lot more stable than I was. It’s just—I guess I—got the right meds. Or close enough, you know? I know myself better now. I know more or less what works. I guess.”

“Yeah. You do.” Julia leans in and kisses his cheek. “And maybe you’re not the only one who’s grown up. Eliot could be a good friend to have. You never know.”

Quentin rolls his eyes. It’s a cheesy thing to say. And probably—it’s just what he wants to hear. He knows—he knew as soon as he heard Eliot’s name this morning—that he’ll be dropping by the bakery. All in the name of being a mature adult. “How’s he look?”

Julia snorts. “Hideous. The whole messy apron over button-downs isn’t working for him. Longer hair—completely unattractive with his curls. Defined muscles in his forearms from all the kneading and lifting—and the sleeves rolled up. Honestly, I’m glad you didn’t see him. You’d be sad that he looks so horribly unattractive.”

Quentin’s stomach flips. “God, yeah. I bet. Sounds—terrible.”

“A tragedy,” Julia says. “Time has really been so unkind to Eliot.”

“Yeah, yeah, uh— I’m sure. He’s just. Always been awful to look at.” Quentin fiddles with the box of pastries, looks inside it to see a selection of far too many baked goods for three people, but they’ll last the week with a freshening spell, he thinks. He can feel the warmth coming off of them, the sugary freshness.

There are chocolate and almond croissants— his longtime favorites— and tartines— whatever the fuck those are, little fruit things in an absurdly delicious looking crumbly crust— a couple of cronut-looking creations and a selection of puffy donuts doused with cinnamon sugar and something shiny that catches the light. His stomach rumbles, and he bites the inside of his cheek. How dare Eliot, honestly, be a fucking pastry chef? God, the universe is out to get him, he thinks, still staring at the pastries.

“You should go by and see him sometime. Really. I think he’d like to see you.” Julia folds discarded bubble wrap and packing paper carefully slips each piece into a banker’s box. Of course she would think to save packing supplies. Quentin’s not fit to be a fucking adult, he thinks, and then kicks himself for the negativity. He’s not fit to have thoughts either, fuck.

“So you’re team Eliot now?”

“I’m team Q. But he owns the town’s only bakery. He’s on the business owner’s board.”

“I— I’m not going to be able to fucking avoid him, am I? I mean.” Quentin sighs and picks up one of the croissants, sniffing at it like it might have remnants of Eliot on it. But it’s none of him— all almond and butter. He thinks of Eliot flipping burgers in the backyard, wearing a black t-shirt and trousers that looked suspiciously like jeans so he would “fit in” at Ted’s barbecue. Like that wasn’t the most distractingly attractive thing he could do, like it wasn’t going to drive Quentin insane the entire time. To see all of Eliot’s arms, the shape of him.

He’d jumped Eliot in a way he usually didn’t, after that. And God, it had been so, so sweet, that feeling of youth, one that hadn’t often sat with him, the freedom of being in his twenties and having a smoking hot guy in his bed who moaned his name when Quentin bit down on the meat of his shoulder—

Daydreams, now. Those are daydreams. He’s been through this in therapy. He doesn’t need to dwell.

 

This is what’s real. Here, now. In the house he bought with money he earned and— fine, his dad had helped with part of the down payment— he could have paid the whole thing; it was just that savings, you know, were important, and, like, something ludicrous like seventy-five percent of millennials are a paycheck away from total collapse— but this, most importantly is his. He’s trained himself long enough to get by and get along, putting one foot in front of the other, every day since Eliot left, in fact. Not that that was a defining moment of his life— it was, at that time, cataclysmic, a destroyer of worlds. It isn’t now, he reminds himself. He stepped outside of that dream eight years ago, and he’s here, now, in the town that will give his daughter a shot at a semi-normal childhood.

He peels a flake of croissant away and stuffs it in his mouth— it’s brain meltingly good in the way that everything Eliot ever did was good. It’s not helping his whole position on adulthood, that’s for sure, because it makes him think about Eliot’s hands, which makes him think about Eliot’s forearms, which makes him think about all the rest of Eliot. He tears another piece off and shoves it in his mouth, and the chocolate-almond filling melts on his tongue, sweet and the faintest hint of savory or salt, something beyond what you’d find at even the best farmer’s market. And in the flaky layers surrounding, there’s no hint of the sour-almost staleness he’s tasted in a fuck of a lot of pastries.

Not a hint of the ordinary, he thinks. Not even a little.

“Good, huh?”

Quentin scowls and takes another bite. “God. Yeah. It’s—” He shoves the rest of the pastry in his mouth. “— fucking incredible. Is there—” He closes his eyes, presses his tongue into the sticky center of the filly, sugar fizzing over his tongue, and it still tastes warm somehow, like it just came out of the oven. “— an enchantment on this?”

“Oh yeah,” Julia says, not even trying to hide the note of approval in her voice. “He and Josh have apparently been working on this for as long as Eliot’s been out of rehab. I, um, did a little work on the metacomp. But strictly in a business capacity. Might have been a taste tester. Just a few times. Only during business hours.” Julia purses her lips, slowly folding one of the boxes and sending it to the recycling pile by the door.

“Never could resist a spellwork challenge,” Quentin says, shaking his head. “I’m— God, I’m pissed you didn’t tell me.”

“I did tell you,” Julia says. “I just told you.”

Quentin huffs. “Okay, okay, I get it. I mean— I, yeah. I might have had a minor meltdown. And that would have been— detrimental to the move.”

“Mm hm. And you’re not having one now?”

“No, absolutely the fuck not. I’m not. I’m thirty-three, and I’m a parent, I’m employed, I own a home— and I’m— not melting down.” Quentin sits down in one of the chairs, more or less melting against the table. The drive was like— four hours— not that much life shit would actually fit through a portal, and he’d piled Busy in her seat at six in the morning, thankful he’d downloaded the entire six-movie Frozen franchise for the journey north. It was, logically, better to learn this information now.

He drags his hands through his hair again, thinking, idly, that it’s a lot shorter than it was when he last saw Eliot, shorter than it ever was when he was at Brakebills. He has neatly trimmed scruff— Quentin’s ex boyfriend had taught him to fix it so it accentuated his jawline, the shape of his face. And he’s fit, maybe more fit than he’s ever been in his adult life, trim at the waist and broad across his shoulders and arms. He’d look good strolling into the bakery, and maybe—

Well, it’s no use considering that Eliot would look at Quentin and see what he’s been missing. It’s been nearly a decade, and even if he’s found no one worth a lifetime in the intervening years, that doesn’t mean that Eliot is that person. For him. For Beatrice.

He feels a nose press against the back of his calf; when he reaches down to scratch behind Sam’s soft, warm ears, he slumps lower, realizing how— God, how very fucking tired he is. Running on fumes. He grabs another pastry— one of the plum tartines, and he breaks off a bit, jamming it in his mouth. He moans when it hits his tongue— it’s not fair that Eliot should have the upper hand here just because of a few tartines. But Quentin feels that same rush, the one he got when Eliot had made him dinner for the first time.

Smoked salmon potato cakes with herbed créme fraîche. He remembers it still because Eliot had given him the menu rundown about six million times. A Bourgogne Blanc Chardonnay. White chocolate raspberry gelato. And wilted greens with a balsamic vinaigrette.

That dinner, Quentin had decided, was worth two blow jobs. He’d delivered accordingly.

Eliot knew these pastries were bound for Quentin’s home. Maybe Julia hadn’t told him directly, but Eliot has to know he’s here— and Margo certainly does. And it’s not like there were a lot of homes for sale in Brantley. So, the box of pastries— He’d gifted them to Quentin— he’d asked about Quentin.

“And I’m not— I’m not pissed off about how good these fucking pastries are. God, what the fuck?” He notices he’s gobbled most of the plum tarte, and Julia sighs at him as she opens a trash bag and starts picking up bits and pieces of discarded tape.

“Dude, snap out of it,” Julia says, cuffing him on the shoulder. “We gotta make some headway on unpacking. Eliot isn’t going to materialize here like the Ghost of Pastries Present. You’ll see him.”

“What if I don’t want to see him?”

“Q. Come the fuck on.”

Quentin pinches the bridge of his nose. “I mean, yeah. Obviously, I want to see him. But Julia— I can’t. I can’t be back there.” He thinks of the pit of his grief, his tenuous grip on sanity, the times he’d almost dialed his dad’s number to come get him and drive him to the clinic. He hadn’t checked himself in during any of those dark months, but it was a close thing.

“Yeah, and you’re not gonna be. Have I broken down on your couch over some stupid shit with Kady any time in the last few years?”

“Don’t make me think through that, Jules. You might not like the answer.” He gets it though. He’s not the same. They’re not the same. The landscape of his life is different— in leaps and bounds.

“Yeah, yeah, okay. But you— you look great. Are you deadlifting your daughter for kicks? He’s going to flip the fuck out when he—”

“Jules, I literally need to stop talking about this. Now.”

“I get it. Okay. So.” Julia clears her throat. “Alexa, play Ayo Technology—”

“Alexa, stop.” Quentin doubles over laughing. “That’s not the solution.”

“It’s always the solution,” Julia says, stepping up to him and bumping her hip against his.

“I’m just— so tired. Just— pick anything not related to Eliot.”

She draws him into a side hug, putting her head on his shoulder for a moment. “Okay,” she says. “Okay— is Busy excited to be here?”

Quentin smiles. “She’s excited to see you and Kady and Dad a lot more. Excited to have ‘little friends’ who are ‘magic like her.’”

“She’s very wise. You talked to the teachers yet— they know they’re dealing with a child prodigy?”

“Ah, yeah. I emailed.” He snorts. “I told them she’s accidentally lit, like, six things on fire in the past month.”

They slip easily into conversation about Busy, as always. Julia soaks up every detail, every inch the proud aunt— how Quentin is pretty sure she can speak with certain kinds of animals, but it’s a whole thing since she’s not quite six and not-quite-six year olds are full of wild imaginings— but she’s also exhibiting signs of capability with physical magic, translocating coins and palming cards like Quentin used to as a kid. She tells him about one of the youngest runaways staying at the nonprofit— a twelve-year-old psychic from a small religious community in Pennsylvania, forced out for her “unnatural abilities.”

It renews his purpose, distracts him from the looming fact of Eliot, talking to her— reminds him why he’s here, why he made this exact, long debated choice. This is about more than just family, more than Beatrice and her education; it’s about something bigger, the thing he’s always been seeking— a mission, a quest. Something he can fix, maybe not with just magic, but more than that. With compassion and understanding. Something greater than himself. A life he can hold up to his daughter and say— this is it, what makes life worth living— and here, I’m building this so that you can see it.

This is evolution, he thinks, what he was supposed to become, what his friendship with Jules was intended to be. There was a time when Quentin would have locked himself in his closet and had a whole ass pity party over Julia thinking of him as a friend. But now, it’s the best thing, what they are now— beyond family, even. He can have other good things like that. Adult things. A life where he’s not haunted by his mistaken loves, his heartbreak. And maybe that life doesn’t have to have a spouse or a partner— he’s tried that in several different iterations, and it’s been less than ideal all the way around.

As long as he has all of this— his home, his family, his daughter— he’s good. He’s settled. He spent years working on himself to get here, and he’s handled way weirder shit. He can handle living in the same town as his ex. Maybe. Probably.

~~***~~

When Quentin settles later that night, splayed out on his new memory foam mattress, windows all open and the breeze rolling in, he lets his mind wander back to the fact of Eliot, sleeping wherever he is— a few blocks away, in one of the apartments downtown. Sam is curled up by one foot, a cotton blanket loose over both of them. Maybe Eliot is sitting up, too, drinking club soda or whatever, working on pastry shells.

He lets his eyes flutter shut for a moment, and he imagines Eliot’s arms, what they’d looked like that day at the barbecue, and what the muscles looked like when they flexed beneath the skin when he touched Quentin that night. It had been incandescent, those final few times, pleasure raw and ripped open between them.

He remembers— more than that— the first time Eliot had kissed him—

Jesus, he’s not going to jerk off over Eliot his first night in town. Like how fucking— pathetic can he be? He can’t think about that. Not that night—

He sighs and shakes his head.

Daydreams.

Instead— and maybe this isn’t any better, but he’s allowed to have some normal human impulses— he decides to stalk Eliot on the internet. Which is— well it is what it is, anyway. It’s fine. He’s sure it’s fine.

“Cardinal and Crown Patisserie,” he murmurs, puffing air through his nose. “Over the top name, El. But very on brand.” Beneath the covers, Sam thumps his tail in his sleep. There are artsy photos of flaky pastries and pies with crumbly crust, savory tarts, delicate pastel macarons, sourdough bread and focaccia that purportedly stays fresh for at least five days— no freshening spell needed, it advertises.

When he follows the link to “event confections,” which apparently means cakes— someone needs to school Eliot on the use of language in advertising, but he guesses it’s the only magic bakery in town unless you want brownies laden with magic weed— he takes in a sharp breath. There are birthday and graduation cakes, of course, but— what draws Quentin’s eye are the wedding cakes. The cakes are all clad in smooth, bright buttercream frosting— Eliot has a whole paragraph with the heading “Why We Don’t Use Fondant,” which makes Quentin let out a sharp, unexpected laugh.

“You never did like fondant,” he murmurs. Eliot had railed on it whenever Eliot put on one of the many, many cooking shows he’d watched with Quentin.

Might as well cover a cake in sugared cardboard, Q. Why would anyone?

There’s one cake covered in teal frosting and bright, spring flowers, carved and layered into cake so that it looks like a 3-D impressionist painting. Like Monet’s gardens, but in cake form. The custom toppers spin and sparkle in the images when he hovers over them. It’s not surprising, exactly, the wedding cakes.

He would have expected Eliot would go big with anything he did. The wedding cakes, though, the act of creating them just seems so quaint, something Quentin would have expected him to— maybe not sneer at— but push away from. He knows creating classy wedding cakes is a big fucking business— he doesn’t even want to think about what Julia and Kady’s cake cost— but this is such a small town, such a tight-knit population. It seems like he wouldn’t want to be here at all, like it might somehow remind him of Indiana. The opposite of the cosmopolitan life he thought Eliot wanted.

Quentin has changed, he knows. He’s a father now, a homeowner. He’s as cool with himself as he’s ever been— living with his own light and darkness rather than railing against it, wishing he was someone he wasn’t. Eliot couldn’t be exactly the same person he was at twenty-six. Still, Quentin’s kept him in his mind like that, looking back at him as he walked toward the portal for Ibiza, preserved in time, forever young.

For a long time, he thought that Eliot had taken a large part of Quentin’s heart with him when he left; he’d often thought that piece of his soul was something he could never recover. It colored the relationships of his late twenties because no one could measure up to Eliot, and in a roundabout way, that view had brought Beatrice into creation— so perhaps, he thinks, he should be thankful that he’d been so wayward then. But Quentin has it, has it still. His heart is here and still beating within him— changed perhaps, but whole.

Bea was instrumental in bringing it back— but it was more than that. It was him and the work he’d done, the careful, tireless, inexact work he’d done to accept himself. He’d found it again in the ceaseless act of becoming that seems to be the work of adulthood— of choosing to pick up the pieces, no matter how broken or scattered, of carrying on even in darkness.

He sighs. He’s still emo over Eliot, but, you know, maybe not fucked up. It’s progress.

There’s no real preparation for clicking the “About Us” link, which gives a brief history of how Cardinal and Crown came into creation— the creative project born from the intimate restlessness of sobriety. Quentin reads it through, something complicated blooming within him as he thinks of Eliot hitting whatever his version of rock bottom was and climbing through the muck of it, emerging to a new life in a small town, a bakery, of all things, on the other side.

The cardinal, it tells him, is the state bird of Eliot’s home state of Indiana. God, that’s— it makes Quentin tear up to think that something Eliot had hidden for so long from so many people would be printed on his website, immortalized in the name of his business. Crown is an ironic, self-referential

Quentin snorts. “So fucking dramatic.”

Beneath the “About Us” intro are pictures of the staff— Josh, a young woman he doesn’t recognize, and Eliot in the center. He’s older than he was, not that twenty-six year old preserved in the clear amber of Quentin’s mind; there are a few more lines around his eyes. His face is not exactly slimmer, but more angular, maybe, in the way that often occurs upon crossing the border of thirty, a maturing of the features that adds something, something Quentin hasn’t seen before. His hair is longer, curls less tamed than they once were, and when he zooms in, there’s a few faint threads of silver in that one curl that falls over his forehead. God, that— fucks him up, unnerves him, maybe more than anything.

Eliot was always gorgeous— and sexy, and self-assured in a way that Quentin never was— and it had driven him wild. He’d wanted Eliot so much, wanted to tuck into him, cling to him, have him in any way he could. But now, Quentin thinks Eliot is beyond that, even. Heart-stopping, earth-shattering. All the cliché descriptors.

Okay, maybe this is going to be a problem. Yeah, it’s going to be a big fucking problem.

“Fuck,” Quentin says in the darkness. He slams his phone down on the bed. “Dear Universe. Thanks, I hate it.”

He stills and— piece by piece, lets himself recall the image of the first time Eliot kissed him. They were alone on the patio after a Cottage party, just talking in that aimless, easy way they had, the way that had developed post-Mike and post-Alice. A lot of Eliot’s edges had been worn down, around Quentin at least, so it was smooth and simple to talk to him. Quentin had thought so many times about kissing him, but he didn’t want to break what they had. But Eliot was looking at him under the bright light of the full moon with an expression of curiosity and hope, and he’d leaned in and caught Quentin’s lips, soft and gentle. When Quentin had pushed up, grasping at Eliot’s vest, Eliot had moaned into his mouth and gripped his waist, still so tentative, like he was afraid Quentin might float away.

He might have if Eliot weren’t holding him.

He’ll go by the bakery— he fucking knows he will— but he needs a plan. And he needs to take notes, and he needs to practice— like he did before his brief stint in the Montclair High School debate club. Like he did before he asked his date to the prom— Quentin can’t even remember her name now. It’s as if everyone he loved or wanted has been extracted from his mind, in fact. And all he sees, all he hears is: Eliot, Eliot, Eliot.

 

Chapter Text

Cardinal and Crown Pâtisserie, 212 Main Street; Brantley New York

~Eliot~

The bell that sits at the top of the door rings as it pushes open, a figure in shadow on the other side of the frosted glass door—

He knows it before he really knows it, that it’s Q. Ted had been in here the day before yesterday, walking a dog Eliot hadn’t seen before and Eliot had figured— it was time.

Really, Eliot has been preparing for this moment for sixteen days— ever since Ted Coldwater walked into his bakery and ordered a black coffee and two cinnamon donuts. He’d confirmed with Margo— it’s good to have a best friend on city council— that Quentin had bought the Victorian on Noble Street, a mere handful of blocks away from Eliot’s apartment.

He’d thought through all the ways it might be different, seeing Q after all this time— he’d tried to feel his way through the shock of it, tried to draw up the prickle that ran down the back of his neck when he met Quentin the day of his exam, relived the icy wash of sorrow that hit him when he stepped through the portal to Spain and into a life that, necessarily, wouldn’t include Q. Eliot had even found a meditation focused on seeing an ex you’d wronged years ago and laid on the floor of his apartment while it played on his phone.

As of this morning, he thought he was ready to see Q, but as the door opens, Eliot’s stomach dives like he’s on a ship in rough waters, the porthole going inky black when the bow sinks beneath the waves. It’s very clear that he was not prepared for this. This Quentin, the Quentin of now, the one who lives in this town— not the boy he’d loved, but a man he’d recognize anywhere— and one he no longer knows.

Eliot’s breath goes still, the world around him going silent in a way that feels entirely unexpected.

Quentin had always been pretty—Eliot would argue that’s an objective fact.

Honey brown hair, deep set dark eyes, expressive brow, and a dense, muscular body—surprisingly lithe and capable despite his self-proclaimed propensity for huddling in a ball and staying in one place. The shock of his smile, the rare sight of his dimples. Eliot felt the first crackles of attraction the moment he met Quentin for his Brakebills entrance exam. His desire had only intensified over time— and that’s how he’d thought about it then. Just desire, a small, hidden thing that he kept stowed away as Quentin slowly wormed his way into Eliot’s life.

Eliot had thought it would fade, that the hint of emotion— the pipe dream of his romantic interest— would slough off like dead skin. It hadn’t. Not when Quentin fell in love with Alice, and not when Eliot had his brief, terrible relationship with Mike.

It was so much worse after they were both single, both living in the Cottage that summer after Q’s first year. Quentin started falling asleep in Eliot’s bed and Eliot— well, he was only human— often had to jerk off about it after Q left for his job at the Brakebills special collections library in the mornings. He was nearly unhinged with jealousy when Quentin had a one-night-stand with a Nature Kid, a dark-haired, quiet boy named, of all things, Elgin— and Quentin had laid back on his bed the night following, stoned on one of Josh’s stronger blends, and said he wouldn’t not date Elgin, but he was a terrible kisser and didn’t give great head. So that was a hard no.

That had sort of decided it. Quentin was a lot less straight than Eliot originally thought, so Eliot had to try, leaning down and slotting their lips together after the fifth Cottage party of Eliot’s third year— which led to Eliot working his way down Quentin’s body and blowing him on the patio, Quentin’s fingers tangled in his hair, pulling hard when he came, sharp and bitter, over Eliot’s tongue. He couldn’t even answer when Eliot asked him if he gave better head than the solemn Nature Kid because Quentin was already gasping and fumbling with Eliot’s belt, making an animal sound when he wrapped his fingers around Eliot’s cock—

His thing for Q dug its claws into him then, growing on itself, adding layers and layers.

In just the same way, when Eliot moved away and lost touch, he’d thought that his feelings for Quentin would diminish. A longer half life than normal, perhaps, but fading out nonetheless. That, predictably, hadn’t happened, either. He’d had to actively push Quentin from his mind, working at losing him piece by piece (—two rivers, a continent, he thinks), but it was work, an active extrication of all things Quentin, dulled by alcohol and drugs and sun-soaked, over-waxed men. It had taken time and the death of brain cells, his subsequent sobriety and the rebuilding of his life, brick by brick, loaf by loaf—

—but Eliot is sure, as soon as Quentin walks into his pâtisserie, that all of that resistance, the repeated acts of forgetting, was for nothing. Eliot thinks, gripping the edge of the counter as he stares— God, he’s staring— that Quentin in his twenties was surely beautiful, but the man in front of him is something else entirely. Softer, somehow, deep laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, his hair short now and somehow, that’s worse than the loose bun he used to wear because it’s wholly different, betraying all the time lost between them. His dimples crease as he catches Eliot’s gaze, and he pushes his glasses up the slope of his nose. He’s—God, it’s so corny, and Eliot is so deeply fucked—Q is artistry, perfect form, a masterpiece, the depth of Eliot’s long-buried wanting made manifest.

“Hey,” he says, raising a hand in greeting, then shoving it in his pocket. He rocks back on his heels, a little motion that makes Eliot’s breath hitch in his chest. Something he hadn’t thought about in years, the sweet, stilted gestures of a nervous Quentin. A giddy bubble of excitement expands inside of him— God, it’s been so long, and he’s here and he’s just the same and different entirely and—

Q looks happy to see him.

“Uh, long time no see. I guess.” Quentin fishes in his pocket for his phone and glances at it like he’s checking the time. “Um. This is— like a super nice bakery.”

Eliot cracks a smile, his pulse ticking up, pattering in his ears, prickles of sweat on his palms.

“I saw Ted,” Eliot says, because it seems logical to acknowledge that, well, he’s known for two weeks that Quentin was moving here. He’s not, however, going to acknowledge the fact that he’s been thinking about it almost nonstop, that Margo nearly had to slap him when he had a whole meltdown about it. Very Quentin of him, honestly.

“Ah, yeah. He said he really likes your coffee. Big compliment, you know. He’s been into coffee in kind of an annoying way ever since— well, I guess, a few years after you left. So, he’s obnoxious about it. But. Anyway.” Quentin huffs out a little breath and laughs, anxious, fiddling with his phone in his pocket again.

Eliot tamps down the impulse to shimmy over the counter and bury his nose in Quentin’s hair. Really, he’s doing remarkably well. He’s not laugh-crying like he did his first week in rehab, at any rate. He’s counting that as a win for now. “I do take pride in my coffee. It’s intentionally delightful. You’re welcome to—”

Quentin shakes his head, smiling, dimples creasing his cheeks. “Any more caffeine today and I’ll launch into the sun. But, um, I know my dad will be back.”

“Ted— he got a dispensation?”

“Ah, yeah. Once I got the house, he was able to move into that weird, run-down farmhouse right at the edge of town. It’s like— a total shithole, but he’s taken it as his divine calling to refinish everything.”

“He still with Kathleen?”

“Oh— no. That was— God, so long ago now. They were pretty much done after— about a month after you left for Ibiza, I think.”

Eliot’s stomach rolls all the way over and threatens to launch out of his body. He’s replayed those memories countless times, trying to do some kind of penance for losing Quentin. For leaving him behind. For not even trying. “Q— I’m—”

Quentin gives him a look that cuts off his words at the knees. It’s not angry, not even sad. Wistful— that might be the word, but with a side of knowing, like he can see all the things flaring in Eliot’s mind. “Listen, we don’t need to rehash this. It was a long time ago.”

“Yeah. I— okay. You’re right. So— you bought the house on Noble Street?”

“Yeah, um. Yeah, I did.” Quentin goes to tuck a piece of his hair behind his ear and stops, like he’s only just realizing there’s not enough hair there anymore.

“Looked like a nice place. I go walking at the park near there.” Quentin raises an eyebrow at that because Eliot was never one to do any sort of exercise beyond raising martini glasses and fucking pretty boys. “For exercise— Mostly I saunter. Casually.”

“Of course. Yeah. You’re great at— sauntering.” He bites his lip like he’s holding back a laugh, a hint of fondness in his eyes. “It is um. A nice place. Big, open floor plan. Refinished hardwoods and a big kitchen with one of those chef’s hoods over the oven. You’d like it, I think.” Quentin scratches at the back of his neck and clears his throat. “It’s walking distance from the school. Jules got me to jump on it.”

“You— your family?” Eliot stumbles over the words. He can imagine the look Q would give him if he said, You and your wife? It was the first thing that had come to his mind, and he hates himself a little bit for it.

“No. I mean, yes. Sort of. My daughter. That’s why—” He gestures awkwardly to the street behind them. “—Brantley. A better place for her than Brooklyn or Jersey.”

“Daughter?” He feels like he would have known this, something this monumental. But he wouldn’t have, would he? If Quentin sent out a birth announcement, Eliot wasn’t on the mailing list. Julia, in all the times she’s seen him, has been kind with an aloof edge, all business when it came to culinary enchantment meta-composition. Nothing on Quentin— just deflection, whenever he asked.

“Yeah. She’s five— turning six in October. So, kindergarten.”

“Overdue congratulations, I suppose. Her mother?”

“In and out of the picture. I have primary custody. Amicable. She’ll probably come to stay a few months out of the year. There’s a little apartment above the garage. But it’s—” He shrugs. “It is what it is. And Busy’s mom is who she is.”

Eliot pulls in a sharp breath. He’d assured himself he wouldn’t be affected, wouldn’t “No one else?”

“No. It’s just— me and Bea. And my dad. My last actual relationship was maybe four years ago? He didn’t stick around after I got custody sorted out. Not a stepdad type.”

A searing twist of jealousy hits him— he’d always imagined Quentin settling down with a woman, probably because he’s a garbage person, but it seemed like a safe assumption. Instead, Quentin went and had a kid— and a boyfriend who wasn’t Eliot. “God, I’m— I’m sorry.”

“Dodged a bullet, I guess.” Quentin strolls up to the counter and leans against it, clearly unaware that he’s destroying Eliot with the black t-shirt that does nothing to hide the fact that his biceps and his chest are firm and pulling against the worn jersey fabric. “And I wasn’t with Busy’s mom, not really. She was— well, she was a visiting professor when I was doing mending work at Brakebills. A fling. Just happened to have very— lasting effects.”

He’s so close that Eliot can feel the rhythm of his breath, the warmth of him. He wonders if Margo will ritually burn his body and launch it into Lake Ontario if he passes out and smashes his head on the counter after standing so close to Quentin Coldwater that he can see the tight trim of his facial hair, can smell the woodsy-spice of his aftershave, a soft hint of what might be a sandalwood cologne. A lock of his hair is flipped up above the rest, and the wire-rimmed glasses— it’s highly possible that Eliot will not last the day. He might as well text Margo instructions for the pyre.

“Busy?”

“Yeah. Her name is Beatrice,” Quentin says, laughing, his body visibly relaxing when he says her name. “But she’s also Bea, and my dad— he started calling her Busy Bea. It stuck.”

“Curly Q,” Eliot says, and he almost regrets saying it, but Quentin grins, looking down and running a hand through his hair. It’s hard to regret it, making Q smile like that after all these years.

“Yeah. He’s got a pattern. You know, it was all sort of an unexpected— adventure. But, um, you know, my dad is living on borrowed time. We’ve already passed the five year mark? Um. But.” He shrugs, blinking for a moment before pushing back from the counter and tapping it a few times like he’s trying to get his bearings. “So we’re in the like— less than one percent of people who survive glioblastoma that long. There aren’t many things that are guaranteed, but we know it’s going to come back. It’s just like— a shark sitting in the water somewhere, and we don’t know when it’s going to fucking pop up and— like, devour him. But he’s gotten to know Bea. And she’ll, she’ll, um, remember him, I think. They’re each other’s favorite people.” Quentin grabs a paper napkin and randomly dabs at his eyes, sending that napkin— and a second one— falling to the black-and-white tile floor. “Jesus, I didn’t mean to launch into all this shit. And also, like, scatter your napkins. It’s, like, not even nine in the morning.”

“That’s fine. It’s fine,” Eliot says, his throat tight as Quentin bends to pick up the napkins. “I’m simply delighted. That Ted is able to be a granddad. I don’t know of anyone who deserves it more, I don’t think.”

“I— you know, he’s not perfect. But he’s, like, really fucking dedicated. Even through all my shit. And we’re— friends, now. You know. If I had a son, I always thought I’d name him after my dad. But, um. Busy is busy. Suits her.” He taps on the counter again, fingers flexing. “She was two when I met her. Her mom— I mean, I just didn’t know she existed. It was a shock to the system. But like— ultimately a really good one? Just. It was a lot.”

“She was two?” Eliot swallows hard, imagining Quentin opening the door to find his ex-whatever and a toddler, waltzing into his life. Nonsensically, Eliot thinks, I should have been there. Where was I—that I wasn’t there? It’s an absurd thought, he knows. And he doesn’t want to think about where he was four years ago because it hadn’t been anywhere good.

“Yeah, you know, like I said. Leave it to me to find the most complicated route to— anything.”

“And she’s here for school. So she’s— pretty young— for school in Brantley. Their kindergarten class is super small. Like five or six students?”

“Sounds right. I have magician children bombarding the shop afternoon— they seem happy. Confident. It’s a good decision, whatever that’s worth. Not that I know a thing about parenting beyond having daddy issues.”

Quentin gives him a soft smile. “I thought about you, you know, when we applied. Just being young and not really knowing what was happening.”

“Magic, unfortunately, isn’t included in the What’s Happening to My Body Book for Boys.” Eliot watches behind Quentin as someone strolls by, trying not to think of Indiana or the life he might have had if he’d had one decent parent. Like Ted. Like Q. “How old was Bea?”

“She was four when she floated this little cat she has. And like— broke a bunch of stuff after that. So, eighteen months ago, give or take.” He laughs. “It was— kind of a total disaster? She’s been sneaking around with my spellbooks and she nearly set our building on fire six months ago. Brantley was kind of the only option, after that.”

“Trust me, it wasn’t the only option.” Eliot thinks of his father shouting at him after the toolbox went missing— and later, when he’d found it on a rafter in the barn, much worse than that. The accusations that Eliot was unnatural, a product of the devil. Eliot hadn’t even known what he’d done or how he’d done it— he’d thought it was true, that he must be a demon. “But you made the best choice.” He sucks in a breath, eyes locked with Quentin’s, the air between them crackling. “She look like you or her mom?”

“She’s—here, let me—” Quentin pulls out his phone and fiddles with a second before turning the screen to Eliot. “That’s her.”

The picture shows a little girl with copper hair and freckles and deep green eyes scowling at the camera, her little eyebrows locked together in concentration.

“She’s beautiful,” Eliot says, his throat locking with emotion. He feels like there’s an electrical storm sitting just inside his chest, ready to release its fury— this beautiful man that he had loved, standing in his shop, showing him pictures of a girl that might not have his dark hair or eyes but is so unmistakably his.

“Yeah, so. She— she’s a powerhouse. I don’t know where it came from. I mean. Probably her mom. I think I was probably ten or older when I first accidentally translocated a card. And I didn’t even notice.”

“So, she’s a natural talent.”

“Yeah, that’s— definitely not me.”

“I dunno. I’ve seen you do some pretty complicated mending I never could have managed.”

Quentin laughs, shaking his head. “I dunno. I know she’s gifted. And that she needed something different or she was going to be levitating desks in class. We’ve got a dog, too. And I think he’ll be happier here. More space to breathe, a real yard. This is Sam.” Quentin flicks to a picture of a beagle puppy, head in Bea’s lap, looking up at her with unabashed adoration.

“You should bring her by for hot chocolate. Pastries on the house.”

“Oh— uh, yeah,” Quentin says, like he hadn’t quite thought of that. He chuckles, his whole body twitching with it. “I mean, we live like five, six blocks away. That’d be— nice.” He laughs, breathy. “You know, I swear I didn’t move her to stalk you.”

“Mm hmm. Just a big coincidence.”

“Big coincidence, yeah,” he says. Quentin bites his lip, his eyebrows arching up almost imperceptibly. Anyone who didn’t know Quentin wouldn’t recognize it, the wheels turning in his head, the hint of uncertainty in his eyes. It hits Eliot in a place long unexplored, depths he hasn’t plumbed in nearly a decade.

He’d worn that same look in his last few days with Eliot. Eliot had seen it then—and he’d seen it on the few video calls he’d actually taken in his early days in Ibiza. He might have called it hopeful, at one time, but Eliot knows it’s more complicated than that, that whatever hope was there before is now tinged with resignation.

“Maybe we could go out for coffee sometime,” Eliot says, the words coming out of him in a rush. “To catch up. Just. Casually.”

“Oh.” Quentin’s mouth falls open. “I’m— there’s a lot going on. I’m working with Safe House weekdays and—I’m with Bea at night. Most nights. Often.” He pulls his hand through his hair, mussing it just around his face. “And, uh, it’s—I dunno. I mean, I want to hear about, um—everything. Jules told me you’re sober—that’s—it’s incredible, really. It’s just— busy. Right now.”

“So that’s a maybe?” Eliot doesn’t know why he’s still talking. He doesn’t deserve coffee, not after leaving like he did, but his therapist would tell him to not to go back into that mindset— so he’s sweating through his collar, white-knuckling the counter, trying not to sink into blaming himself for losing Quentin. It’s been so long— he shouldn’t even be asking, shouldn’t want such a thing.

“Um, yeah. That’s a maybe.” Quentin is staring at him like he wants to add something else, but he doesn’t. “You can, um—” He pulls out his phone and hands it to Eliot. “— put your number in, I guess. I’ll text you, okay?” Quentin’s voice wavers a little at the end.

While Eliot types in his number, the thought that he’s somehow fucked up twists through his mind. He wants a drink or a cigarette, the ghost of that old need prickling icy in his chest. But he doesn’t do that now. He takes a deep breath, pushing it out slow. He types in his apartment address for good measure, not because he’s a weird creep, but because Quentin should know where he is in case he needs anything. In case he needs a blow job in the middle of the night. Whatever.

This is fine— it’s fine because Quentin will have his number, and he’ll be able to choose if or when he texts Eliot back. And that’s okay, one of the many things in life Eliot can’t control.

“Here,” Eliot says, sliding Quentin’s phone across the counter with one finger. “That’s me. You— I know you have friends here, but you can get in touch if you need anything. No pressure, you know. About coffee.”

Quentin grabs his phone a bit too abruptly, fumbling and nearly dropping it. “Shit. I— yeah.” He slides it into the pocket of his jeans without texting Eliot his number, which is just as well, really. He’s mute, gazing up at Eliot, dark eyes blinking behind the wire-rimmed glasses that Eliot finds upsettingly hot. “Yeah, I’ll get in touch.”

Quentin’s tongue darts out across his lower lip, and Eliot shivers, hoping it doesn’t show that he’s about to come undone at the seams. “It’ll be good to see you around, Q.”

“I’m, uh— you too. I should—” Quentin jerks his thumb in the direction of the door, a little too pointedly. “— get going. I need to pick up Busy.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “It’s nice to see you again. I missed you, you know.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Eliot says, just watching him. It’s like seeing his memories with a new image superimposed over the old, adding crisp, new edges to the grief he packed away eight years ago. It hurts— almost physically— to look at him. But Eliot can’t stop, can’t look away. He’s probably staring in a not-so-uncreepy way, but Quentin is staring at him, too— and he’s not making up the crackle of tension in the air between them. Quentin breaks the silence with a soft little sigh.

“Um, so. I’ll see you.” Quentin ducks his head and lifts one hand in a half-wave before turning to the door. He looks back once, a short glance, before walking down the street, toward his new home.

~~***~~

Eliot throws open the door of Margo’s office. He’s barely had time to remove his chef’s apron since closing shop; he flew most of the way to her apartment. “Bambi, it’s an emergency. I cannot stress how much this is an emergency.”

“‘Why, hello, dearest Margo, I’ve not seen you in a fortnight,’” Margo starts, not looking up at Eliot. Her feet are kicked up on her desk, dangerous heels discarded on the floor— vintage Louboutin platform pumps with the cherry red sole— and she’s typing viciously on her computer, which is propped up at an odd angle in her lap. “‘Dear Timothy fell down the mineshaft, and I fear the grain silo is crumbling.’”

“What the fuck?”

“Bitch, I haven’t seen you in two weeks.” Margo is still looking at her laptop. “And you appear out of nowhere with an emergency. What's the emergency? Did you run out of confectioner's sugar? We came to this town so there would be absolutely zero fucking emergencies, ever.”

“Should I have said hello first?” Eliot places a pastry box just in front of Margo and drapes himself over the couch behind the that bitch desk that she got for herself when she was elected councilwoman of Brantley. “Hello, dearest Bambi. Before you sits a box.”

Margo snorts, but she doesn’t look up.

“In the box, we have my peace offering. Two lemon-camomile, two raspberry white chocolate, and two salted caramel macarons. Freshly crafted. Very crisp.”

“No matcha?”

“I was out. Next time.”

“Hmm.” She peers at the box around the edge of her laptop. “That'll do. This time, anyway.” She presses the laptop closed with a click. “What’s this about an emergency? Forgive me if I’m not leaping up to assist.”

“Maybe not an emergency to you.”

“Mm hmm.” She opens the box and examines a salted caramel macaron before taking a delicate bite. “I imagine it’s not a goddamn emergency to me. If the sewer system isn’t backing up and producing a sentient garbage person to terrorize the residents— there’s no real ‘emergency.’” She uses air quotes to emphasize her point before taking another bite of the macaron.

Eliot sighs, tipping his head back. His fingers still twitch sometimes like he’s searching for a cigarette, but there’s none available to him, not since his campaign to get better, build a real life from scratch. The trappings are good so far— he’s built more in the past year than he has in the previous three decades. But he thinks about smoking more than he does about drinking, which is to say he thinks about smoking at least ten times a day and drinking— once a week at most. It’s getting better, and the bakery is everything he dreamed, but God, what he wouldn’t give for a real cigarette.

“Mind if I?” Eliot pulls a vape pen from his pocket because that’s the only goddamn thing he can do, and even then, it’s Josh’s mildest blend, mostly CBD. But it’s enough to calm the buzzing ache that he used to kill entirely with alcohol and harder drugs. He needs something. This is what he has.

“As long as it’s not meth, fucking knock yourself out.”

“Haven’t gotten to the meth stage just yet.” Eliot takes a drag from the pen. It tastes faintly grassy against his tongue, and he holds it for a breath before puffing it out between his lips. He lets it settle in his body for a moment, his shoulders relaxing as it hits him. He thinks maybe it’s more the act— a holdover from over a decade of smoking. “So.”

“Enlighten me about this ‘emergency.’”

“Only if you stop using air quotes.” Eliot takes another puff and puts it away, his fingers still itching to hold something he can light up and keep smoking until it’s a burnt nub. “Makes me feel invalidated.”

“I have a question for you, El,” Margo drawls.

“Hm?

“How fragile is your masculinity, really?”

Eliot huffs. “As fragile as the macarons I’m going to stop giving you—”

“Fine. But like I said, I really like to stay away from that word since I help run a town full of fucking magicians. Seems like bad vibes to go tossing that around.”

“I told you I saw Quentin’s father a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, my God, El. What an emergency—”

“Hush up, bitch. Let me tell it.” He huffs a little, straightening up on the couch. “That was right before you left. And he didn’t say— but I figured, of course, that meant Q was not far behind.”

“We discussed this. So— Q showed up with his cute little manbun and blew you behind the counter—”

“Man bun is gone. He’s been replaced with—”

“What the fuck? Coldwater cut his hair? Jesus, you really must have fucked up him up.”

“Oh, fuck off. You ruined my line.”

“Start over.”

“He’s been replaced with—”

“Who’s he been replaced with?”

Eliot pauses for effect. “DILF Quentin. Single dad, apparently. A smattering of beard, glasses. Short hair, sticks up in the front. He definitely works out and he has—”

“A kid? Like a real live one?”

“Absolutely. A real, live magician kid.”

“Horrifying.” Margo selects a raspberry macaron and makes her way over to the couch, kicking her feet up on Eliot’s lap and lazing back on one of her throw pillows.

“Moderately. But also hot? I don’t know. I think I’m into it.”

Margo wiggles one foot, and he clutches it, absently kneading his thumb into the muscles of her lovely arch. These feet, he thinks, are different from any other feet, in that he would actually touch them. She’s lucky she’s perfect. “Jesus Christ. You would be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have tender wife guy written all over you. Makes sense you’d get horny over Coldwater having spawn.”

“I don’t know how to take that, my love.”

“Take it how you want. It’s fucking true.” She waves her hand. “And none of us knew about this— magic love child? Wicker never let it slip that Quentin got knocked up while she was having tender baking moments with you and Josh?”

“Nothing from the tender baking moments. She cut me off at every Quentin phishing attempt.”

“No wonder. She probably didn’t want to set off your DILF boner around the sourdough starter.”

“I don’t have a DILF boner,” Eliot lies.

“You do if the DILF is Quentin. I told you, you know. I told you you’d have a whole fit over seeing Q again.”

“I know,” he says carefully, “and I’m perfectly fine.”

“You rolled in here saying this was an actual emergency.”

Eliot sighs “It was an awfully long time ago. And I was the one who— I didn’t even end things, did I? I just let him believe I’d forgotten about him. So I can definitely handle myself. Our relationship— or dalliance, I should say— ended eight years ago. If I am having a whole fit— I shouldn’t be, should I? It’s untoward.”

“Remember who you’re talking to, honey. There were a lot of nights early on you ended up sobbing on my lap and telling me you’d never love again. More than once, you were actually naked. One time, you were actually balls deep in some beach rando.”

“I don’t remember— a lot of that.”

“You’ve been over this in like— eight different kinds of therapy, baby. Just because you blocked it out doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You were fucked up over him. And maybe you still are a little.”

“A little,” he repeats. “I’ll concede that point. Maybe.”

There’s so much of the past almost-decade he’s blocked out— in Ibiza, there had been a lot of cocaine involved— he knows that for sure. And with the cocaine, alcohol, the effects of each balancing the other out. There was the occasional bit of magic-soaked mescaline, the ketamine nose drops he’d scored from one of the many beach randos, the regular ecstasy and the enchanted kind, prescription painkillers and the magician-made basement bathtub version. And one unfortunately memorable meth experience that he’s very glad Margo helped him handle.

For a long time, in the early Ibiza years, he’d held it together, more or less sober in the daytime, marking the number of drinks he’d had and pills he’d consumed— with a handy little invisible ink spell— on the back of his right hand. By year six, he’d stopped tracking altogether, convinced he held himself in a kind of functional addictive state— never sober, but never out of control. That had, quite obviously at this point, been one of the many lies Eliot, rather expertly, told to himself.

And, while Quentin wasn’t at the heart of all of his wounds, the memories sat there, fresh and close to the surface, breaking open again and again as the sickness that lived at his core churned on, demanding more and more of Eliot until there was barely anything left. What he’d had with Quentin didn’t exactly intersect with Eliot’s childhood traumas, but their relationship had become yet another jagged break when he left New York behind.

Margo brings up an image on her Instagram, and Eliot leans in to see. It’s Q— his beard thicker and heavier, hair longer, a little copper-haired girl at his side, their dog a tiny puppy. “Yeah, you win this round,” Margo says, contemplatively, scrolling through pictures. “Little Q a total DILF.”

“You follow him?”

“I requested him as soon as you said you saw Ted, but he just approved it.” She takes a closer look at her phone. “Looks like today.”

“Should I follow him?” Eliot’s voice sounds somewhat more hysterical than he intends.

“Don’t be a cock. Of course you should. You’re friends.”

“Friends is a strong word.” Eliot thinks of the few smiles Quentin threw his way, the way his stomach had flipped over entirely.

“You had a friendly fucking conversation. You’ll be seeing him in town. Request his ass. He’s not gonna say no.”

“It’s not—” Eliot stops, chewing on his lower lip. “— untowards of me?”

“You’re a maladapted millennial from Dickhole, Indiana, not a Victorian school marm. It’s normal shit— stalking your ex on the internet is as common as— I dunno what’s other millennial shit? Working two jobs and eating avocado toast.”

“What if he doesn’t want me to—”

“Listen, I know you have a whole fucked up set of issues. But Coldwater’s always been desperate for your dick. He’s also Quentin. He’s not going to be offended— just trust me.”

“I don’t know. He was all— I don’t even know— he wouldn’t even let me apologize. And I can’t say I blame him—” Eliot starts, and before he registers what’s happening, Margo’s snatched his phone from his pocket and opened Instagram. “Hey—”

She tosses the phone back to him. “There. Now we’re going to order food. The macarons are an absolute delight, but I spent all day in portal-travel hell, and I need some actual goddamn food.”

“Bambi— what the fuck. He hasn’t even texted me his number yet.”

“Hm.” She scrunches up her nose at him. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that doesn’t fucking matter a bit. Bet you’ll get a text after— whatever the normal bedtime for children is.”

Eliot stares at the requested profile, at the tiny picture of Quentin— his hair was so long there. He refreshes it once, half-expecting it to reveal Quentin’s full page or— he doesn’t know— disappear, maybe. Or maybe the phone will incinerate in his palm, and he won’t have to think about the intersection of Quentin and social media ever again.

“El, I say this as a friend. Your best friend. The one who’s put up with all the various levels of your spectacular bullshit. Emphasis on spectacular— because you are.”

“Hm?” He glances up from the phone for a moment before looking down again to see the same partial profile that was there before.

“Put the goddamn phone down, and pay attention to me. Quentin’s not going to move away, and he’s not going to— disappear. And, listen to me—” She knocks the phone out of his hand, suspending it in midair and doing a complicated locking charm that Eliot’s never quite mastered. “— you can’t let any old feelings for Q get in the way of all the shit you’ve worked so hard to build.”

“He’s not.” Eliot scoffs, grabbing the phone and shoving it in his pocket. The charm will wear off in maybe an hour and a half. She’d used it so many times the first time she’d gotten him clean, just so he wouldn’t be absorbed in the toxic corners of Twitter or TikTok while he shivered, wrapped in blankets on Margo’s guest bed and watched endless episodes of some Korean soap opera that he recalls was pretty good, but all of it blends into the sensations of nausea and dry heaving, the taste of noodles in vegetable broth, the awful tea she’d gotten him to drink— comfrey and lemon balm and turmeric. “The bakery is priority number one.”

“I didn’t mean the bakery,” she says, quiet.

This time, he really looks at her, meets her eye. She doesn’t look a moment older than she did when they graduated, but there’s something more even and measured about her, even if she rarely lets it show. They’d been close as soon as they met, but it took them time to get here, this place where they’re more than family, all the unhealthy shit washed away with time. And effort— lots of effort.

“Yeah, I know. Yeah.” He runs a hand through his hair, pushing the curls back and letting them fall over his forehead. “I thought about drinking today. I wanted to.”

“Thought you might have. It was always a trigger when you got weepy as fuck over boys. Q in particular.”

Eliot rolls his eyes and slumps back on the couch. He wants something— he doesn’t know— anything. He takes out the vape pen again and takes a long drag, coughing a little and thinking— thinking as he slips it back in his pocket, as it clacks against his phone, that he’d had this idea of how he was going to be when he arrived in New York as a teenager, and it hadn’t included being struck numb by his breakup with Mike or drinking himself into near-coma over Idri in Ibiza or— never really letting go of Quentin after he was the one who walked away. “You know me too well, Bambi.”

“I’ll say one piece of emo shit before we get dinner. I wanted to know you because you were fuckin’ fabulous. And I kept on because I found out that I couldn’t stand anyone else. You’re a goddamn gift. You just think you’re not, that you’re some kind of burden, and it’s about time you get the fuck over that.”

Eliot laughs and pats at the eyes with the back of his hand. “You’re going to ruin my eyeliner. Bitch.”

She laughs and pushes at him with her foot. “You always let me know you more than anyone else did, and I felt pretty goddamn special. And you finally let me know you all the way.”

Eliot sighs. That really doesn’t recommend him as fit for anyone in the first three decades of his life but— he gets it, he does. Every substance he misused was another shield he put between himself and the world, between himself and the depth of his own emotions. He’s stripped bare now, and seeing Q was like a burn seared on newly healed, thin skin. No more barriers between Eliot and his history.

“And I’m still here,” Margo says, softer now, “because you’re better than anyone else. And you’re a lot more sensitive than you let on. I wouldn’t have thought that was strength a decade ago, but it is. So whatever happens with Q— it’s gonna be okay. You’ve always got me. I’m gonna take care of you.”

Eliot’s maybe a bit more misty-eyed than he ought to be, but that’s how it is when you’re thirty-four and a partially— most of the way? He always forgets what he’s supposed to say— recovered alcoholic reminiscing with your best friend. “I know.”

“I’ll slap you with truth whenever you need it.”

“Might need it.” He looks at the ceiling, one arm draped over Margo’s calves. “There’s bourbon and rum in the bakery, you know, but I have Josh checking it every morning when he gets in. An insurance policy. My idea.”

Margo hums. “Good. Can’t say I trust Josh to take care of you like I would, but he’s alright.”

“You and he still—”

“Let me stop you right there. Because no, and also no. He’s very much in the realm of former distraction. This bitch did that, went there, and returned home to a blissfully empty apartment.”

“Oh?” Eliot leans forward, putting his chin on one hand.

“Nope. We are definitely not reviewing any of that. Shockingly, actually, I’d prefer to hear more about Q.” Margo takes out her phone. “I’m about to order a fuckload of takeout and then you can yearn for Quentin all you want, tell me how pretty his dick is— I don’t give a fuck as long as I’m eating.”

“Fine, my love.” He pauses. “It is pretty.”

Margo grins. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna get on my loungewear, and we’ll order from that Peruvian place. And you’ll tell me if you have actual plans for your twitchy nerd-boy stroller-toting DILF fantasy.”

He sighs and nods, feeling for all the world like he’s fifteen again, noticing boys for the first time, viscerally experiencing the heated excitement and earth-shattering dread all wrapped up in that discovery. Really, that’s not so far from the truth. It’s like waking after an extended dormancy, emerging from a chrysalis he’d created with the haze of drugs and alcohol.

Eliot dons the spare robe and sleep pants he keeps at Margo’s— for emergencies such as this one, obviously— when the food arrives. The chicken, portaled in from the city, is still hot when Eliot sets out plates on the coffee table.

“So,” Margo says, wiping her hands on one of the paper napkins after finishing off a plantain, “El.”

“Mm hmm.” Eliot’s heart rate picks up. He half wishes he never had to bring anything important up to Margo, but it’s part of them, now, to do this. There were so many subjects they carefully avoided talking about for so long, but since those long nights at the end of their lives in Ibiza, avoiding shit isn’t what they do. Not anymore.

“You have seduction plans for Coldwater?”

“Not as such, no. I’m not even sure he’ll text me back. In fact.” Eliot reaches for his phone and sighs, remembering Margo’s spell.

“He will,” Margo says breezily. “And he’ll accept your follow request. If he’s anything like the Quentin Coldwater I remember, he’s probably vibrating about it right now and meticulously cataloging all his memories of your dick.”

“Bambi—”

“If you want a chance, it’s yours,” she says, like it’s all so simple.

“I forgot his birthday that year. I stopped texting him back.”

“I’ve heard this before, and, unfortunately, I’m going to remember it for the rest of my goddamn life. I know you hurt him. I know you were both idiots who didn’t want to admit you had big, gross feelings for each other. And you were both so young. We were so young, honey. None of us knew shit.”

“That’s not an excuse,” Eliot says, his voice tight.

“No, it’s not an excuse. But I’ve learned vicariously through all your fucking therapy that it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to rehash that garbage. Just makes you feel shitty. And you’re not. So— fucking stop. Okay?”

“But you didn’t see—”

“I didn’t see what? I wasn’t there when you walked away, no. But I’ve been right here for eight years.” She presses her lips together, something pained slipping across her features. “And you’ve pushed me away more than anyone.”

Eliot nods, looks down at his hands. He’d tried so hard to make her leave in the thick of it, make her go home, cast him aside and start over without Eliot weighing her down. But she hadn’t. She’d seen the worst of it and stayed. “I know I did.”

“Coldwater’s not going to make you do penance,” she says, low and soft. “That’s not his style.”

“It’s not.” Eliot pushes out a sigh, thinks about how graciously Quentin backed away, the message he sent, telling Eliot he’d always care about him, that he hoped Ibiza was everything he dreamed. It hadn’t been what he dreamed at all, in the end.

“So what do you want?”

“I— I don’t know.”

“He’s not some random cock. He’s a whole ass mountain of emotions. And he’s got an entire kid who lives with him basically full time. Baggage.”

“He also has a dog.” Eliot thinks of the pictures of the little girl with the puppy; something warm unfolds in him at the thought.

“Does pet ownership make you horny too?”

“You know I’m very into the responsible dad thing.”

“Idri definitely had that going for him. But his child was a whole adult. Or, like, an approximation of an adult—”

Eliot snorts. “True.”

“Honey, don’t take this the wrong way. I think you’re just into Q. Like if he bought a rainbow wig and joined a group of traveling performers, you’d be into that.”

“God. That would be kind of hot, honestly.” Eliot sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “What do I do?”

“You’ve got a few options. Pretend he’s just a customer and wait for your big, complicated feelings to fade. Or you tell him you want to fuck him silly. Or you ask him on an actual date like an adult human who does things, and then you tell him you want to fuck him silly.”

“Those are the options, hm?”

“Worst thing that happens is that he turns you down.”

“That’s not the worst thing, Bambi.”

“No?” She’s started shredding pieces of chicken with her fingers, taking one bite at a time.

“The worst thing is that he says yes. Then I have to figure out what to do.”

“Then do nothing.” She gives him a pointed look.

“I don’t want to do nothing.”

“Then figure your shit out.” She shrugs. “I know you think it’s not that simple, but it is. He texts you. Fucking text him back. Create a way to spend time with him if you want. He won’t let you apologize? Fucking do it anyway. Send him a fucking edible arrangement or a silicone cast of your dick.”

“That easy?”

“Don’t get me wrong. Life is fuckin’ hard. Decisions you have to make as an adult suck actual balls. But this is simple. Decide what you want to do, grow an ovary, and goddamn do it. Don’t fuck around.”

“You’re right— I know you’re right.”

“You bet your dick I’m right.”

They fade into their normal back and forth after that, gossiping about the new additions to the city council and the magician helicopter parents, the cake he’s making for Julia and Kady’s soireé in a couple of months— that’s probably for Quentin’s birthday, God. (“They ordered it today— they like my cakes.” Margo doesn’t point out that he’s really the only game in town unless you want to get absolutely zoinked on cinnamon-weed muffins. She just says, “They fucking better.”)

It’s late when Eliot gets home, later than it should be for a reasonable adult who has to wake up before sunrise so his business won’t go under. He goes through the routine that’s kept him afloat for the past couple of years, through getting clean and going to therapy, through going through the painstaking work of trying to be a person. Ten minutes of breathing, listening to a guided meditation on his phone, two sets of sun salutations just before brushing his teeth. When he climbs into bed, he flicks his fingers to open the window a crack, letting in the early summer air. It’s not hot here yet, and the nights are still the faintest bit crisp.

When he closes his eyes, he thinks of the guest bedroom where he stayed with Quentin their last week together. It had been decadent to have him like that; he was released from the stress of finishing his thesis and passing his remaining classes, and he was hopeful about his new life in Ibiza. And he hadn’t yet realized he’d leave Q behind in the way that he did. There was a sunlit energy to it, to the feeling of being young, released for the time being from responsibility. He’d let himself sink into the warm, smooth feeling of loving Quentin, waking up next to him, falling asleep together to the sound of the warm, green sound of the breeze rolling through the trees outside. Because he had, he’d loved Quentin— even if he didn’t put a name to it, couldn’t say it out loud. For a blissful moment, they’d been uncomplicated and golden.

He’d thought those memories would fade, but they hadn’t. Maybe they’re less crisp than they once were, faded around the edges, but they’re with him all the same, indelible in his mind.

No boy had ever taken him home before— that’s part of it. By the time Eliot arrived in New York, he no longer had any kind of home. Home was what he could fit in a backpack, in the corner of a bedroom in a safehouse in Queens, and later, one half of a dorm room. The Cottage was the first place he felt like himself, the self he’d imagined at maybe fifteen, unaware of all of the particulars but bizarrely sure of what it would feel like to be that person. But it hadn’t been home, not exactly. The closest thing to that concept wasn’t a place; it was what he felt with Margo when they’d first fallen in together, and he kept carrying it with him, not a place but a feeling.

Coming to Quentin’s house in Montclair had been a shock— Eliot hadn’t thought a place could feel like that. It had been so long since he felt genuinely at home in someone’s house, if he’d even felt it at all. It shouldn’t have been surprising— Q had a way of breaking Eliot’s notions apart and reshuffling them into new forms, continuous evolution. It should have followed that his house would feel more like home, a real one, with Quentin and Ted and the grill in the backyard and the clean sheets and fresh towels, eggs and bacon in the morning, than anywhere he’d known since his very early memories of childhood.

It’s not worth revisiting why he left and didn’t look back. He had his reasons and explanations, the flippant justifications he threw at Margo when his phone buzzed with a FaceTime call from Q and he didn’t answer. She’d answered for Eliot maybe a half-dozen times, pulling him into the picture with her as they listened to Quentin ramble about his thesis plans. She’d stopped trying to play matchmaker after that, maybe, or maybe she knew he was a lost cause— some combination of the two, he thinks.

(Margo was never one to spend time on futile endeavors. Eliot takes it as the compliment it is that she’s gone about the infinitely convoluted work of loving him.)

That time of walking away, those mistakes— they feel so present, so real, like it all happened days ago instead of years. Like he could reach out and touch it, illuminating all the details with a flick of his fingers.

Eliot knows it’s fantasy. Knows that he and Quentin are worlds removed from the people they were. That even if something works out— and God, he knows he doesn’t deserve a second chance— it’ll likely be fleeting. It doesn’t stop him from imagining, when he closes his eyes, the sensation of waking up next to Q and drawing him in close, body taut and solid and full of thrumming life and desire, all hard, masculine lines, his lips yielding against Eliot’s.

It’s easy to think like this in the darkness of his room, the only light coming in from the magic-lit street lamps, sending pink hued shadows over the walls; to imagine Quentin next to him, their fingers intertwined, a cold foot pressed to his shin. He pulls the coverlet up to his chin, pressing the crisp cotton to his lips, and he wonders what he’s doing now, a few streets away and eight years distant, if Eliot has crossed his mind since he left Cardinal and Crown.

His phone is still dark— no new texts— when he turns off the light.

Chapter Text

112 Noble Street; Brantley, New York

~Quentin~

Quentin hadn’t not thought about texting Eliot, which is to say he’d been thinking about it constantly for the previous twenty-four hours. He’d composed no fewer than six texts, all of which seemed at least awkward and at most, completely desperate.

Hey bud, it’s me, Q—

No— that’s absolutely fucking unacceptable. He’s never uttered the word bud in real life apart from saying it to the dog.

Hey, El, great to run into you. Hope we can be friends again.

God, no. That just sounded like auto fill from his phone set to extra boring with a side of completely pathetic.

You look great. I mean you always look great, but you look, I mean, wow. Like a cover model for Baking Monthly. If that’s a thing. Which it’s probably not but it should be and maybe you could start it if it’s not a thing already hahaha

“Nope,” he says out loud. “Fucking serial killer territory. Jesus.” That text, in particular, looks like it was composed by someone who takes the phrase “friend zone” seriously.

If you wanna have coffee sometime—

No. He probably— no, he shouldn’t. He can’t. He can’t— can he? Fuck. He’s thirty-three. He’s single. He should be able to do whatever the fuck he wants. And whomstever the fuck he wants. It’s just that he’d already sort of freaked the fuck out about having coffee with Eliot, bleated a series of barely associated words and booked it out of the fucking pâtisserie. He can’t, like, retcon his coffee date refusal. Can he?

Like, of course he can’t. Absolutely fucking not. But it’s like— it’s Eliot. Eliot, six miles long and made of languid elegance. Eliot, all hot skin and strong fingers and nipping teeth, soft, dark laughter and words whispered in his ear, only for him.

He just doesn’t know if he wants to sit across from Eliot and gaze into his eyes, reminiscing about how those broad hands felt when they slipped beneath his shirt, palms hot against the small of his back, sweat gathering at his collar as Eliot nuzzled against his neck, tongue flicking out— should we go upstairs, or can you be quiet if I get my hands on you right here?

Who the unholy fuck is he kidding? Of course he wants that. There’s never been a single goddamn day in the past nine— no, more like ten— years when he hasn’t wanted that. He knows, however, that it’s something he shouldn’t want. Or at least, it’s something that he should think he shouldn’t want. That he wants but that he, like, is probably too old to want or— like, shouldn’t even consider thinking about wanting—

Honestly, he’s so fucking confused.

I’ve been thinking about you, he types.

No. Not that. Even if it’s true. Can he? He deletes it, double checks that he didn’t accidentally send it. He puts his phone down, picks it back up and checks it again— he didn’t send it. He didn’t send it. It’s okay because, he’s confirming to himself, that he did not fucking send it.

It’s Quentin, he types. This is my number. You see any good movies recently?

That just sounds like all of the most boring people he’d met on Grindr and Tinder, which is like— literally everyone he’s met on both apps. Not to mention Poppr, the defunct magicians dating app— honestly, that one was the absolute worst offender. Quentin doesn’t know many boring magicians in real life— apparently, every single fucking one of them was on that app.

He deletes the message.

He should be able to do this.

He and Eliot— they were something once. Something to each other. It hurt when Eliot left, yeah, but there were no real promises there. Eliot didn’t know he was condemning Quentin to a summer of low lows with no highs in sight, that Julia had come to find him in mid-August, pale and thin, barely having moved from his bed. That, even with the tension that still lived between them, she’d had to drag him to the shower and pack his bags for Brakebills.

Those dicks didn’t accept me, she’d said, voice a quiet rasp, as she’d handed him a towel, but you love magic. You have to go back.

I love him, he’d said, choking back a sob.

And Julia had looked at him, with the infinite patience that sat at her core alongside all that fury and fire. I know. And I know it hurts. But you’re going back.

Eliot didn’t know, couldn’t have known. No mistakes were made, not really. Ibiza was his plan, and he’d made it known, albeit implicitly, that Quentin didn’t enter that particular equation.

Hey, it’s Q. Good to see you yesterday. I always believed you’d do something incredible, and you did.

He leaves it there. But he doesn’t press send.

He closes his phone and puts it face down on his bed. Then he eyes it for a second before double checking that it’s off and flinging it on the nightstand.

He’s half-afraid of accidentally sending Eliot a picture of his dick— a poorly lit picture of his dick— and he needs the phone to be away from him. He’s not even fully naked, but he’s sure that he could somehow manage to accidentally shove the phone in his boxers and photograph his junk at some weird, awkward angle, pressing send just after the flash goes off. And that’s what Eliot would receive instead of a normal person text.

Quentin mashes his face down into his pillow. He tries to clear his mind, think about the color of the walls or whatever stupid trick his last therapist told him to do instead of focusing on intrusive thoughts. Instead, it’s Eliot he imagines. Remembers. It hasn’t always been Eliot who’s entered Quentin’s fantasies, certainly, not in all the years they’ve been apart. Eliot’s just been the strongest, most certain memory, brighter and clearer than everyone else.

Everyone— Quentin knows, he knows it because Penny had mentioned it his third year— everyone has a greatest hits playlist, you know, for jerking off, moron. And damn if Eliot isn’t cycling through your sad, loser brain constantly. Fucking fix your wards.

And later: Look, it fucking sucks. He’s an asshole. But you have to pass your classes. Don’t be a braindead dipshit hung up on your ex. Get fuck-you grades and and a fuck-you job and make fuck-you money and then shove it all up his ass. Then Penny had gone through a tedious lesson on fixing his wards, badgering Quentin until he had it locked the fuck down.

Unlike the Cottage, where Penny, inexplicably, hung out all the time their third year, Quentin’s house is blissfully free of all people. His dad has Bea for the day— and they’re probably going by the fucking bakery, fuck— so Quentin can unpack his clothes. Instead, he’s been lying in bed for an hour, trying to compose a text to Eliot, who is— like, holy shit— living in the same tiny magician town. Eliot owns a bakery five blocks from his goddamn house, for fucking fuck’s sake.

God, it would be so easy to go for broke. Tell Eliot that he still makes at least seven of Quentin’s top ten greatest hits— eight if he counts that time with Margo, which he absolutely does— and Quentin can say: he doesn’t need anything serious. He just wants to get his hands on Eliot’s skin, run his fingers through the scratch of his chest hair, rub his face over Eliot’s neck, get his mouth on the firm stretch of Eliot’s beautiful cock— Christ, living in this town is going to be a problem.

A shiver runs through him, warmth blooming low in his belly, desire sparking down his thighs. It tingles just beneath his skin, the bloom that had taken root within him yesterday, trembling as it unfurls, inevitable as sunrise. When he closes his eyes, he sees the warmth of Eliot’s gaze, the crisp turn of his fingers as he demonstrates a spell for Quentin, the soft parting of his lips as he dives down to steal a kiss. It’s greens and blues and jewel-tone purples all the way down, his subconscious lit up with life and light and color that he’s not seen in years. (Quentin’s fiancé— Oliver— he was drab beiges and dark gray-green, he thinks, closing his eyes, slipping down deep in his mind. And Eliot— Eliot was like the curtains lifting on the set of a Broadway play, revealing depth and complexity and spirit, a world contained within him.)

He sees it as clearly as if it was yesterday— Eliot leading him upstairs, pulling him onto the sofa in his bedroom and kissing him senseless. Baby, I’m gonna make you feel so fucking good.

That was the first time, the first real time, and Eliot had been slow and gentle, his movements measured and precise. He’d gotten Quentin stoned, blowing smoke into his mouth just beforehand, lips soft and warm. They’d laughed, lazy, making out and touching, Eliot lifting Quentin’s shirt to play over his nipples just before blowing another puff of smoke in his mouth.

To relax you, Eliot said. And that had been— God, it was sexy. His skin was buzzing bright, eyes rolling back in his head by the time Eliot moved him onto his hands and knees, to open him with his long fingers, the velvet heat of his tongue.

By the age of twenty-five, Quentin had spent over a decade trying to get out of his own head, and Eliot had conquered the feat within the space of an hour, sliding his fingers in Quentin’s hair and tugging hard as he moved inside him. Quentin’s mind had fuzzed out to a single white point of light, back arching in pleasure, his senses focused only on the grip of Eliot’s fingers on his hips, the rhythmic jolting of his body and the dirty-wet sounds of skin on skin, his own cock aching and full between his legs.

He doesn’t quite remember Eliot coming inside him, just the warm, stretched sensation as he slipped out, the gentle way he’d rolled Quentin to his back and the heat of Eliot’s mouth as he took Quentin to the back of his throat, two fingers pushing inside him where he was wet and open, filling him, not like Eliot’s cock— but the clever curl of Eliot’s fingers had pressed just so. It hadn’t taken long then—

Quentin moans when he thrusts into the mattress. It’s been so long since he’s been with anyone, and longer still since he’s gotten well and truly fucked. He’s aching hard now, and he gingerly slips one hand beneath his waistband, cupping his cock and pushing into his palm. Breath hitching in his chest, he flexes his hips, staccato at first, but falling into a rhythm soon after, thrusting into the makeshift tightness of his hand— thinking of—

— Eliot’s mouth sinking down on his cock, Eliot sliding, slowly, inside, pumping into him rough and frantic— He thinks of the time Eliot had bound his hands with telekinesis and— Quentin grunts— slid down onto Quentin’s cock, riding him, slow and deliberate so Quentin could watch himself disappear inside and— he rolls to his side, choking down on a garbled noise as he works his hand over his dick. Eliot was so tight and slick, and he’d ridden Quentin, stroking his big, gorgeous cock, foreskin moving in time with his hand, the flushed-red head shiny, a fat drop of precome at the tip.

Top three, at least, Quentin thinks, dizzy with the memory, the ache of it.

His body snaps tight as he imagines— fucking into Eliot, back arching as Eliot leaned against Quentin’s thighs, curls wild— and he comes, spilling hot over his hand, shooting up to his belly as his hips snap up into nothing, fingers and toes flexing— as he remembers how Eliot used to kiss him afterwards, sweet and slow and open, like he there was no place he’d rather be, no one he’d rather be kissing. Like they had all the time in the world.

Quentin rolls over and stares at the ceiling. Outside, a car passes on the mostly quiet street. He can hear the barking of a dog somewhere in the far distance. It seems bizarre, somehow, that Eliot just exists, and Quentin has seen him, and the whole town is going about its daily business, continuing its spin through space and time despite the enormity of Eliot, the weight of his smile, the elegance of his hands and the hidden kindness in his eyes.

He sighs and tuts out a quick cleaning charm, and the wet spot disappears. Really, it’s all very ordinary. Lonely, single dad runs into The One Who Got Away™, has a whole moment about it and ends up jerking off. Said single dad remains lonely and single, possibly indefinitely, becomes the equivalent of a crazy old cat lady, muttering to his pack of beagles as they search his entire house for crumbs. Why not just be a spinster? He might as well fucking lean into it.

He should be able to put it off, push it away. He’s been doing that for years now. But there’s an aching, new thing that sits at the center of his chest, sending out roots and new growth, reaching for sunlight and warmth.

Quentin hasn’t felt anything so dangerous in quite some time.

~~***~~

After Quentin does a cleaning charm, he pulls on a gray shirt that’s probably clean, jeans that are less likely clean but definitely functional and a hoodie with holes in the sleeves that he’s caught Julia trying to throw out no less than four times. He hobbles down the stairs, thighs still burning from three days of moving boxes, and wipes his glasses off on the bottom of his shirt, moving slow, blinking and bleary-eyed. The world is more than a little blurry around the edges, nearsightedness that he’d put off for all of undergrad and most of graduate school having caught up to him.

His optometrist had promised him that his vision would get better in his thirties, but Quentin’s had gotten decidedly worse in the past three years, which he thinks is a dick move of his eyes, honestly. The glasses fix it, but they’re always blemished with fingerprints— his daughter has the unfortunate habit of picking them up lens-first and handing them to him in the mornings. He’s trying to get the last smudge off when a shadow— a decidedly non-beagle shaped shadow— crosses his field of vision. He misses the last step, nearly stumbling into the edge of the sofa before shoving his glasses on, heart beating hard in his throat.

“I know battle magic,” he says, voice squeaking. He pushes his glasses up his nose and falls into a stance he’d looked at once when Julia showed him a spellbook she’d stolen from Marina’s coven.

There’s a laugh coming from the direction of his kitchen, and his heart rate ticks up, blood rushing in his ears. The dog— the dog’s not here— and even if he was, who is Quentin kidding, Samwise is the worst fucking guard dog. He just howls, runs in a random direction, and flops over in a beagle-heap. He’s going to have to think of something— and isn’t this supposed to be a protected haven for magicians? He’s going to have to talk to city council—

“You do not know battle magic, dickhead.”

Quentin lets out a long, irritated sigh and slumps against the sofa. “The fuck are you doing here? I thought you were in Antarctica.” When Quentin adjusts his glasses, he sees Penny, sporting a tan vest and paisley scarf, shoveling one of Eliot’s almond croissants into his mouth.

“Got tired of freezing my nuts off.”

“What are you doing in my house?”

“Calm down, man. Julia said you might need some help with some of the heavy lifting shit.”

“Julia?”

“Yeah, Julia. I feel like you’ve met. She’s like five feet tall, knows magic.”

“God.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. Penny is like a rash he’d tried and failed to get rid of, like, two dozen times. After a while, the rash had stopped bothering him, or he’d stopped bothering the rash. Like it’s still annoying and a dick, but he doesn’t want to light the rash on fire when it pops up now. Well, like, most of the time, anyway. “You’re such an ass. I mean, since when are you talking to Julia?”

“Since she got married to Kady?” Penny shrugs, like Quentin should very clearly understand why Penny is just suddenly casual buds with his ex-girlfriend’s wife.

Quentin knits his brow and peers at Penny. He’s known Penny’s been friends with Kady since forever— he was Kady’s best man— but Julia has generally had no patience for him. Quentin knows this, but he can also tell, after a fuck of a lot of practice, that Penny is weirdly sensitive about— well, literally everything. And if he mentions that Julia might not exactly hate him, but she’s not the biggest fan of his douchebaggery— yeah, he’s not going there. Not with Penny ostensibly here to help Quentin, which is weird, but no weirder than anything else in Quentin’s life.

If someone told Quentin a decade ago that his absolute dick of a roommate who’d threatened him on more than one occasion would be one of his— Jesus— one of his best friends, he thinks, raising an eyebrow— he would have told them to fuck all the way off.

“Uh, okay, I guess,” Quentin says. He shuffles to the coffee maker dumps in a solid half-cup of pre-ground Cardinal and Crown breakfast roast. He can feel Penny watching him as he pours water in the reservoir. He cuts his eyes over to Penny, who is, in fact, still staring at him. Quentin might not have, like, amazing social graces. But Penny has none. “Um, yes? You have something to say?”

Penny shrugs again when Quentin cuts his eyes in his direction. The coffee sputters and drips, the sound and smell of it bringing his heart rate down. Even if he’s in a new goddamn house in a weird new town with Penny breathing down his neck right after he jerked off to Eliot, who’s a pastry chef— he still has coffee. Coffee is on the way, and it will not ask anything of him, nor will it say—

“Didn’t know your dick boyfriend lived in this weird magician town in Bumfuck, Nowhere.”

Quentin huffs, hitting the side of the coffee maker when it sputters. “He’s not my— you know what, I’m not going to justify myself. You know, he’s not my— why am I still talking?” He tries to think of anything else other than just having come on his bedsheets to the thought of his definitely-not-boyfriend— probably ex-boyfriend?— who lives in this weird magician town in Bumfuck, Nowhere.

“You tell yourself that, and yet— here you are with a bunch of pastries from his pretentious little store.”

Quentin scowls through pouring himself a cup of coffee. He hasn’t even showered yet, and he definitely— if he took the opportunity to smell himself, which he has not and will not do in front of Penny— most probably smells like armpits and sad, lonely, one-man sex. And someone— not him, certainly— needs to talk to Penny about traveler etiquette. It has to be written down somewhere that you can’t fucking pop up in the middle of someone’s kitchen talking about pastries before eight in the goddamn morning.

“It’s— it’s a nice store. Shop. Whatever.”

Penny whacks the box from Eliot’s bakery closed, flicking his eyes down to the admittedly super extra logo that Eliot almost certainly designed himself. “Says here it’s a patisserie. We’re like a hundred miles away from the nearest city. That is pretentious as fuck.”

“It’s— yeah, I mean. It’s Eliot. What do you expect?” Quentin leans against the counter, right in the corner next to the fridge, and sips his coffee. It’s obnoxiously good; Eliot’s organically sourced, open-trade-whatver-the-fuck magical, ethical coffee beans are, of course, practically perfect in every way. If his pâtisserie is a little pretentious, it’s only because Eliot is actually Mary Poppins.

No— that’s not fair. Really. Eliot has shit because everyone does, and Quentin knows more of it than most. Indiana and his dad and sketchy hedge safe houses, the blank years, as Eliot had called his time at Purchase. He’s not perfect and— Quentin’s one of the ones who knows that. Even still.

He knows there’s no telling who Eliot confided in when he was in Ibiza, if he’d found a replacement or ten for Quentin. His stomach twists painfully, and he doesn’t notice that he’s zoned out until Penny snaps his fingers next to Quentin’s ear.

“You can’t get all hung up on that douche again. You’re a grown ass man.”

Quentin rolls his eyes and shoves himself farther into the corner, shifting so he’s half-sitting on the counter. “I am not getting hung up— I just saw him once.”

“He give you a bunch of free pastries?” Penny taps the box again.

“Uh— yeah. I mean. Those are from move in day, actually. He sent them with my dad. They have— actually, it’s a really clever preservation spell. I don’t know much about culinary magic, but like—”

“Man, he is trying to get in your pants. Hitting on you through your dad. That is weak sauce. Like officially— the weakest sauce.”

“What? He’s not— what does that even mean?”

Penny just scowls at him, resting dick face in full effect. “Look, I know I don’t get any say in your personal life—”

“Uh, no. You do not. I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine. Focused on getting Bea in school, making sure she’s okay in Brantley.”

“C’mon, man. You’re radiating psychic distress in fucking waves, mixed with like— massive levels of horniness.”

Quentin stares at his coffee. He knows one other traveler, Victoria Something-or-Other, but not, like, well. Not enough to know if she’s constantly barging into her friends’ houses, or if she’s reading her friends’ psychic energy like it’s the front page of a newspaper at the supermarket. “I told you not to do that. Like— stop. Reading my psychic energy— like don’t do that.”

“I literally can’t stop, Coldwater. Do you think I want the vague impression that you’ve been pining over your prom date for at least the last hour?”

“Um—”

“Nah.”

But you—”

“And do you think I want to stand here talking about it?”

“You popped up in my kitchen. So— yeah, kinda.”

Penny ignores him. “Spoiler alert: I do not. I’m here to help you move chairs and set up the grill or whatever manly shit you can’t manage solo.”

“Hey— I’m literally a magician. And I’m, like, plenty manly.”

“You tell yourself that all you want. But you’re shitty with that kind of stuff. Lifting shit and moving things around.” Penny nods at the chair and mattress that have yet to go to the guest bedroom.

“So are you,” Quentin says. He has half a mind to hex Penny, but this is a no-hexing household, and he should stick to that, even when Bea’s not here.

“Man, for someone who needs my help, you’re ungrateful as all hell.” Penny flings open Quentin’s cabinets until he finds a mug. Quentin watches as he helps himself to coffee because God forbid Penny ask anyone for anything. “Tell me you were going to actually move this today. Look me in the eye and tell me that.”

Sometimes, he has to remind himself that he and Penny are friends. Good friends. Because he really is such a tremendous dick, and he half-acts like that same asshole Quentin roomed with first quarter at Brakebills. “I wasn’t.”

“Goddamn. I’ll have to frame that and hang it on my wall.”

“Don’t be so— glib.” Quentin clears his throat. “I’m— I do need help. I just wasn’t expecting anyone. And so— I was probably going to sit around— playing my Switch or staring at the wall. Just a lot going on.”

It was just him and Penny and Alice left at Brakebills when Eliot and Margo graduated. Julia and Kady had their— thing, which continued from a dating thing to a marriage thing. And Penny had listened to the worst of Quentin’s Eliot-related breakdowns when Julia wasn’t around, throwing back mildly derogatory advice and reminding him not to be a complete fucking dumbass and forget to eat or take his meds. I’m not hauling your rank ass to the shower— you take care of that shit on your own time. Wicker can do it when she’s not railing my ex.

Penny puts his hand on Quentin’s shoulder. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to finish these pastries—”

What? Those are my pastries—”

“And we’re going to move that shit upstairs. And you can rant about Lover Boy while I pretend to listen.”

“Fine. Hand me that box. I want one of the almond croissants.”

Penny shoves the box at him. “Those almond ones are dope. The chocolate croissant, though— I could get you right now from Paris, and it would be like a thousand times better.”

“Does it ever exhaust you?”

“Does what exhaust me?”

“Being a dick about literally everything.”

Penny looks him dead in the eye. Quentin almost shifts uncomfortably, but they’ve been friends— like, sort of, anyway— the better part of a decade, so he doesn’t. “I don’t know, Quentin. Does it ever exhaust you that you’re a bitchy little dork?”

Quentin lets out a snort, kinda-sorta biting down on an almost smile. “Yeah, you know. It is pretty exhausting. But it’s like— a whole personality statement. It’s like resting bitch face but— more, like, just— resting bitch. A permanent state of being. It’s fine. I’m pretty used to it.”

“Yeah. That tracks.” Penny finishes off his coffee and crosses his arms. “You are a resting bitch.”

“Yeah, so.” Quentin throws his hands up, scowling at Penny, who is scowling right back at him. He can’t believe he’d wanted to fuck Penny for, like, three solid months in his third year. “Then, like— go. You can go literally anywhere. Anywhere but here would be fucking preferable.”

“Look, I can dip out— and you can do your sad nerdboy shit. Jerk off to the Fillory series on Netflix or whatever the fuck you do on weekends.”

“It’s not a weekend. And I parent on weekends. I’m literally a parent. So I’m parenting. Like always.”

“I know, man,” he says. Penny pours himself another mug of coffee, which seems to mean he’s not leaving. He lets out a sigh that Quentin would describe as highly dramatic. “I can stay and help. That’s what I’m saying. Like for real.”

“I’m— thanks, I guess. Sorry about the dick comment, I mean— it’s not like it’s not true—”

“Save it. Kady said you might be slow-moving on the house shit. And I gotta look out for Bea. Make sure you don’t maim yourself lifting a chair.”

“There are like at least three insults, like, interwoven into that narrative. Like, probably more if I think about it hard enough.”

“You can thank me later.”

“What, I—”

“Gotta get your ass moving before you start work. Two days. Focus.”

“Yeah, I— fine. Just let me finish my fucking coffee.” Penny’s already moving in the direction of the junkyard of Quentin’s lazy unpacking practices, dismantling the plastic cover on the mattress. Quentin drinks the rest of his coffee— it’s lukewarm now, which is, like, the normal state of parent coffee— and shuffles across the room. He starts peeling the plastic wrap off of the chair, groaning. It’s a change to be here— a good one, but it’s a huge fucking transition, which isn’t exactly Quentin’s favorite thing. It feels maybe a little better to have someone with him, especially after the wild adrenaline rush of all things Eliot yesterday.

They work in silence for a while, and Quentin sort of hates himself for it, but he’s grateful for the company. Like, a little, anyway. Like maybe a medium amount.

“You gonna see him again? I mean beyond running into him at his snobby-ass pastry shop.”

“Um.” Quentin shoves the shredded plastic wrap in a garbage bag. “I dunno. I mean, I do— like I want to? But. You know all the stuff.” He follows that with a shrug, and Penny gives him a little nod.

Penny doesn’t say anything for a while, focused as he is on reproducing a complex physical spell that will make the mattress lighter since they’re both pretty shit at telekinesis. Quentin senses it when the spell catches, weaving itself through the fibers of the mattress. There’s a warm thrum in the room between them when their magic catches and intertwines. Not the electric spark of casting with Eliot or the steady crackle that takes over when he casts with Julia. It’s just warm and comfortable and— kind, somehow, a thing he’d never admit to Penny. But he feels it, the thing their friendship has become. The first time he’d cast with Penny his third year, that’s when Quentin realized that Penny’s sharp edges are his armor; the person beneath is someone who will help you move a mattress and harass you into talking about your ex.

It’s smooth and easy to get the mattress up the stairs and onto the bed frame in the guest room, and they follow with the chair, Penny bitching about the working conditions at Brakebills and a few of the new traveler students who’ve needed a lot of handholding and, like, they’re adults— can’t they manage their zAshit?

Quentin just shrugs and doesn’t remind him that they definitely couldn’t handle their shit when they were at Brakebills. And all of them— all of them together— were the human equivalent of a giant trash fire. But it’s easy in your thirties to look back at that time and think you were more together than all the ‘kids’ just coming into graduate school. It’s on brand for Penny, anyway.

It’s near noon when they flop down on Quentin’s sofa— burnt orange velour at Julia’s recommendation— a bright sheen of sweat on both of their faces. Quentin gets out his phone to order food when he feels Penny turn to him, that focused energy pouring back in his direction. “Uh, what? I was going to get— hoagies or something.”

“Fine,” Penny says, like it’s a huge concession to let Quentin order him lunch.

“You want— turkey or—”

“Don’t care. Whatever’s good.”

“Uh, yeah, okay, I’ll—”

Penny cuts him off. “I’ll say this once, Coldwater. Be careful.”

Quentin laughs, scrubbing a hand over his sweaty face. “What, like ordering food? I only got food poisoning once, and that was from that super sketchy sushi and fried chicken place.”

“No. Like. Seeing your ex. I don’t dole out, like, a ton of fucking encouraging advice—”

“Yeah. I kind of noticed?”

“— but I was there for the aftermath. Listen, before you say shit like you’re ‘better now,’ and you’ve ‘changed,’ I know you have, marginally at least. I’m just saying, shit from our past has a way of undoing all that work.”

“You’re like best buds with Kady.”

“That’s different. She’s got a whole wife. They’re trying to have kids.”

“They’re what?”

“Shit. You do not pay attention to anything.”

“Tell me—”

No. You have a functioning mouth, so you ask.”

“Fine, I just—”

“Nope. We’re talking about you. For like the next fifteen seconds, and then I’m done.” Penny spits out the words like Quentin tried to drag the advice out of him. Which, for the record, he did not. “You’ve spent four years putting your kid before everything else.”

“Yeah, I mean, that’s like the right thing to do—like,” Quentin says, defensiveness blooming in his chest, “that’s what parents do.

“No. They fucking don’t.” Penny shrugs, a belligerent edge to his voice. “You know they don’t. And yeah, it’s the right thing to do. But not a lot of people actually do it. You. Your dad.” Penny grumbles and does a lazy, shitty bit of telekinesis that pulls a beer from the fridge— Quentin didn’t even know he had beer, which, like— how long was Penny in his kitchen? “But it takes a toll. Your whole life’s been on hold.”

“Like I said, that’s how it should be.”

“Yeah, no. I get it. You’re a good dad. But Bea’s going to school in September. And you need to not be— sad and pathetic.”

“Hey—”

Listen. I mean— prioritize yourself, man. Whatever that looks like.”

“What does that— what does that even mean?”

“It means if Eliot comes knocking at your door with more fucking pastries, you don’t have to fall directly onto his dick.”

“I don’t even know if he— if he’d want that. He’s the one who— fucking walked off.”

“That dude sent you like twenty-five pastries. And a shitload of fancy fucking coffee. Trust me. That’s his super fucking extra bullshit way of trying to apologize for his disappearing act. And all the fucking boat pics and the Instagram twinks—”

“I fucking remember, Penny— Jesus Christ.”

“I’ve got my eye on that douche. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’ll let him know,” Quentin says, mostly under his breath.

“You do that. Tell him if he fucks with you, I’ll send Kady after his weak ass.”

Quentin laughs, a real laugh. A little of the stress he’s been holding onto fades away, which is pretty fucking weird, given how stressed he used to get over Penny’s existence. “Not you?”

“I can throw down in a fight—”

“Sure.”

“— but that dude is really fucking good at moving shit around. Rather send someone after him who can actually kick his ass.”

“You know, the Penny I met at Brakebills never would have offered to have his ex-girlfriend kick my ex’s ass.”

“Times change, man.” Penny takes a long drink of his beer. “Also— fuck off.”

~~***~~

Safehouse Headquarters, 362 Vine Street; Brantley, New York

By Monday morning, Quentin has composed— and deleted— approximately twenty-five text messages. Each one of them was fifty shades of pathetic, which is the opposite of the vibe he wants to give off. He’s not sure what vibe he’s going for— but the sad, limp Eliot texts are definitely not in line with— anything. Cool, competent, sexy, nonchalant— that’s maybe what he wants to give off, he thinks. But that’s, like, all the things Quentin isn’t. He’s none of that, and the texts are none of that, so he doesn’t fucking text Eliot, which nearly sends him into a panic spiral— but it’s not, like, a complete panic spiral. So he figures he’s winning at life. You know, for now.

He’s almost thirty-four, and he has a mortgage and a real house with a backyard and a dog and a kid— so he’s, like, doing fine at those parts of being a full-fledged adult. Sure, maybe he can’t text his ex, but, to be fair, he’d seen Eliot with his own two eyes four days ago, and he’s not sure he’s ever going to recover from it. Your honor, he thinks, his forearms.

And, he reminds himself as he takes a breath and pushes open the broad wooden door that stands, out of place, in the center of the plain gray building that houses Kady’s head office and the hedge training center, he’s got a job. Outside of his admin-and-sometimes-adjunct-professorship at Brakebills, and away from the endless mending contract jobs that were never quite as steady as he wanted them to be.

He’s as together as he fucking can be, and he can only deal with, like five changes at a time right now. And maybe he can be cool and mysterious, like the sort of sexy sophisticate Eliot might actually want, keep him guessing about— when Quentin is actually going to send a text.

“That’s not exactly man of mystery material,” he mutters when he steps inside. There’s a ward that shimmers just beyond the door, the magic shifting as it recognizes him. He’s been here once, long enough to take a tour and meet some of the longer term residents. “Hey,” he says into the near darkness. “I’m here to— um.”

A door opens, and Kady gives him a little wave and the kind of smile that she reserves for her people. It makes Quentin stop, still, like a rabbit caught in backyard floodlights; she always catches him off guard with that smile, even still. It’ll be five years next month since Quentin stood beneath a white canopy on a makeshift dance floor, weatherproofing spells shimmering around the edges as rain and wind battered the canvas tent, and gave a speech— something he’d only do for a very limited number of people, like, maybe only Julia and Kady— and rambled about found family and the arbitrary, draconian Brakebills honor code and how he was actually grateful Kady had been expelled— everyone had laughed at that, and his nervous heart had flipped because he was still unsure about teasing Kady— because that meant she’d found Julia, which also meant that she’d never really be rid of Quentin.

Kady had liked it— the speech— and she didn’t kick his ass. And, maybe reluctantly at first, Quentin had become one of her people. Hence, Brantley and his job and home and the school for Busy— all of it, thanks to Kady.

“Hey, Q. Students are out back practicing some basic defensive spells. Want the latest tour? We have a new classroom.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.” Quentin shoves his hands in his pockets, vaguely nervous with the strange feeling that he’s late for class— even though these will be his classes and he was, like, at least six minutes early.

Kady opens up the back wall with a wave of her hand, revealing a long hallway of classrooms, each of them with glass doors and large windows facing out to the courtyard. It had taken her more than a year to get the permits to create the space here in Brantley, and longer than that to gather the magicians necessary to turn it into a real training center and, more than that, a home for teenagers that don’t have one. “What do you want the kids to call you? Mr. Coldwater? Professor—”

“Just Q. Q is fine.” He grins as Kady rattles off news about the new hedges who’ve joined their ranks, the teenagers who have moved in, choosing this over the hazing and magic-junkie culture rampant in covens throughout the bigger cities.

“We’ve even got a fucking logo. How cool is that shit?” She opens a cardboard box on a table near her office, revealing a stack of heather gray t-shirts. The logo, screen printed in dark plum, is a key superimposed over the shape of a building, Safehouse written below it. “Julia thought we ought to have a slogan. Like, ‘when you’re here, you’re home,’ but I’m pretty sure that’s the Holiday Inn—”

Quentin laughs. “I think that’s a Julia amalgam of a slogan from Parks and Rec and, uh— the Olive Garden. ‘When you’re here, you’re family.’”

“That tracks,” she says, laughing, eyes crinkling up at the corners. Quentin remembers the dark, sullen expression she wore most of the time her first year, the way she’d lashed out at him, at Alice, and after a while, at Penny, too. It’s funny to think that her anger was, certainly, a part of her, but it was also like a mask, something that wore away and fell off over time. It’s good— he feels good about this job, about teaching, more than he’s felt about anything in a long time, and there’s a hum of excitement as she introduces the teachers and students and shows Quentin his desk, in a quiet corner in one of the bright, airy classrooms, steps away from the library.

“Thanks, this is— this is incredible. The space— the students and what they’re doing— it’s really fucking exciting, honestly.”

“Good. I’m glad you like it. Because the job market in Brantley sucks. So if you don’t wanna commute by portal to Albany or Trenton, you’re stuck with us.”

“I mean, thanks, all the same. It’s good of you to take a chance on me. You’re kinda stuck with me, too.”

“Don’t get sappy on me, man. I hired you because the students liked you best out of all the physical magic candidates. And it was a tight race. Friendship really had nothing to do with it.”

“I got lucky, then.” He runs one hand over the desk— oak, he thinks, from the way the wood speaks to his hand. An antique, the wood humming with magic— it must have belonged to a magician, maybe one of the first to live in this town.

“You make your own luck. You had a great interview.” Kady shrugs. “Plus, we’re throwing you on the event planning committee.”

“Oh, Jesus. I knew there was a catch. I don’t do events—”

“You did that gala shit for Brakebills, right?”

“Yeah, that was like— I called caterers and told people to order tablecloths. Cold called alumni and got paper cuts from stuffing, like, three thousand envelopes. You know there’s no spell for stuffing envelopes? That’s like— a Julia problem. Don’t you think she could figure one out?”

“God, you’d think Brakebills would realize that email exists.”

“Yeah, not so much. So— no envelopes. I’m not doing any fucking envelopes. It was just like shoving my master’s degree in magic into an envelope. Like, three thousand times.”

She snorts. “Nope. We gotta come up with a charity event that people in Brantley will actually attend. Not just that— but we need something that’ll attract reputable magicians from out of town. So— you’re part of our idea team.”

“That’s— that sounds fine.” It sounds awful, but he thinks of that speech he wrote, and he thinks he’d probably do anything for Kady.

Kady’s posture betrays that she’s nervous— or at the very least, stiff— about something. “We’ve got— really, no ideas. So we’re trying to get together a few volunteers from the community. Heard from a few people who want to help. Like actually, just today—”

There’s the chime of a bell, and whatever Kady was going to say is swallowed by the ensuing din.

“Break’s over—” Quentin watches as one of the other teachers strolls into the Safehouse common room, rounding up students— Quentin vaguely recognizes him from his interview day— dark hair and blue eyes, an illusion student who’d graduate a few years ahead of him. He flashes Quentin a bright smile before he rounds up students and herds them toward the main classroom.

“That’s Luke. Don’t fall for his—” She waves in his direction. “—schtick.”

“What’s his schtick?”

Kady shrugs. “You’ll see. He’s a fucking fantastic teacher. The kids love him. But ‘single dad’ is like a drop of blood in the water, and he’s a whole army of sharks.”

“That’s not, I’m not—”

“Save it,” she says, laughing. “You’ve got your first one-on-one session. He’s a tough one, but I think he’ll mesh well with you. He’s had a hard time adjusting. Keeps saying he wants to go back to the city.”

“I’ll, uh, I’ll do my best.”

“You’ll be fine. Then we’ve got the event committee at three. Your dad’s got Busy ‘til five?”

Quentin nods, distracted, as he watches the students take their seats. “Yeah. He does. Yeah.”

“Make me glad I took a chance on you, Coldwater.”

“Sure thing,” he says, snorting, “boss.”

It’s a bit of a mad rush after that, students filing in and out of the dorm and finding seats with their teachers or heading to the long hallway with the classrooms. There’s an odd fluttery feeling in Quentin’s chest when Kady shows him to one of the long metal tables and tells him to wait.

~~***~~

The kid can’t be more than seventeen, maybe a hundred-twenty pounds soaking wet with deep black hair and two hedge stars dark against the light brown skin of his inner arm, one of which is crossed out with jagged red lines. The kid digs his thumbnail into his wrist, leaving a red crescent on his skin.

The first fifteen minutes Quentin tries to talk to him, he’s sullen and mostly silent, nodding here and there when Quentin asks him about spells he knows. By the time Quentin has run out of shit to say, he taps the table nervously and thinks through the tuts he first learned. “Show me the first three Poppers. We’re going to work on your form.”

The kid groans, deeply channeling sitting-in-AP-government energy, which Quentin knows all too well.

“Here, I’ll just show you some shit. Okay?” Quentin takes the empty coffee mug from in front of him and drops it on the polished cement floor, where it shatters with an echoing clank. He catches Kady’s quick smile before he turns back to Felix.

“What the—”

Before Felix can finish, Quentin falls into the well-worn tuts he knows so well, pulling the magic from the air, catching it with his fingers and drawing the pieces of the mug together, letting it hover before him. When he closes his eyes, he can sense the molecules reconnecting, reaching out and fitting together, humming with something like happiness— or approval, maybe— when they reform.

“Holy shit,” Felix says, leaning forward now.

Quentin smiles, lowering the mug back to the table. “Not that impressive, really. But it’s kinda my thing.”

“Just— a lot of magic I’ve seen is.” He knits his brow, like he’s trying to think through something. “Destructive, I guess.”

“A lot of magic hedges pick up is kinda that way. Nothing wrong with it. We need to break things as much as we need to fix them.” Felix frowns at that. “But there’s a lot you can do that’s really beautiful. And you can find out what your knack is, kind of how magic fits you. I think— I mean, disciplines are kinda bullshit, but finding the things that suit you— that’s the good shit, you know?”

“Yeah, I guess. You can show me some shit. I’m just— I’m leaving next week, anyway. There’s people I gotta see. Might as well pick up what I can.”

Quentin’s stomach drops at that, but he’s parented enough to know when he has an in. “Hey, Felix— look at me.” Felix does. “We want to make sure you know the basics,” Quentin says softly. “Especially if you’re going back. I don’t know too much about your history. That’s not my job. But I know what a crossed out hedge star means. And it’s usually not a friendly thing.”

“Yeah.” He sniffs. “Guess not.”

“You say you’re going back. Do you have a place to stay?” Quentin feels a little out of his depth, talking to this kid. He feels all at once deeply grateful that, despite the fact that his dad never fully understood his interests, he’d always accepted Quentin. Quentin might have been from a home that had seen better days, but it was always a home, always safe and clean. A warm bed and decent food. A home with love.

“Uh, not really. No. My friend’s couch, maybe.”

“Okay,” Quentin says carefully. He remembers the nurses on the psych ward asking him about his plans for college, what he thought he might have to look forward to upon returning home. It had, at the time, made him feel even angrier. “Well, that’s good. I know Kady has bunks set up in one of the back rooms. You’re sleeping there right now?”

Felix nods. He runs one hand through his hair, and it flops back over his forehead. “It’s fine.”

Quentin doesn’t really know what’s fine, but he just nods. “There are some real asshole hedges out there. Honestly, a lot of people in general who have magic are— total dicks.”

Felix snorts at that. “Yeah. Kinda found that out.”

“I think it would— probably be good if you stayed here for a while. Let things settle, see what you can learn. Kady might be— well, she’s not warm and fuzzy, right? But a lot of that is because of her history, and it’s not great. Her mom was a hedge, and she was, too, before she came to Brakebills.”

“Think they’d call me in? You know, eventually. That’s that fancy school place, right?”

“I dunno, man,” Quentin says. “No one there ever explained shit about their selection process. Just that some people made it, and others didn’t. Some of the most gifted magicians I know are hedges who never got a chance to sit for the exam.” Quentin takes a coin from his pocket and rolls it over his knuckles, noting that it catches Felix’s eye. He does a quick translocation spell that sends it to his other hand, and he keeps doing it, on and on, Felix watching his hands. “I can teach you this one.”

Felix shrugs. “Sure.” He hesitates a moment. “I don’t know any translocation spells. Never got that far.”

“Ah, before I do that. You know— I have a daughter. She’s— gifted. Really gifted. Uh, she was, like— four? When she first did magic that I saw. And she might have been doing it before that.” Quentin places the coin on the table, pressing his index finger against the face of it. “I’m not sure if I’d really want her to go to Brakebills. It’s her choice— but magic is dangerous. And it’s a lot safer to learn it from people who actually give a shit about you. I’m new here? But I know that’s what Kady and Julia are in the business of. That’s why this town is here. It might not be all that exciting, but it’s safe. So— how about I teach you this, and I can review some of the practical shit, too— and you stick around long enough to learn it?”

Felix purses his lips and glances up at Quentin. “Fine.”

“Good. So this is one of those things that Brakebills tells you is advanced— but it’s something I figured out on my own when I was a kid. Like, without knowing it. You have anything like that?”

Felix nods, hesitant, and twists his fingers in an unfamiliar pattern. When he cups his palm, a warm, red flame appears in the center, bright and dancing. Not uncontrolled in the way Busy lights fires, which is— well, it’s a relief. He listens to Felix talk, haltingly at first about how magic had found him, when he was young and living with his grandmother in the Bronx. She’d shut him in his room for a solid day after he first did it at age eight, and he’d hidden it after that. He laughs at himself, telling Quentin that he’d waited for his letter to come, “— like from Hogwarts, you know? I kept looking for owls,” but no letters had arrived. And he’d left home at sixteen, looking for a place where he fit and finding none.

It’s late when Quentin actually glances at his phone— well past three, and he has the fucking event planning shit. “Alright, Felix, you think you’re good with what I showed you? We can meet again tomorrow if you’re still here.”

Felix nods, pulling his hoodie from the back of the chair and putting it on, stuffing his hands in the sleeves— a move that feels so familiar it flips something over inside of Quentin.

“Hey, I know it’s hard. This sounds dumb, like something all adults say, but like— I might not have had this particular bullshit, but I’ve had my share.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Felix says, his eyes almost visibly glassing over. Because who is Quentin to say to him that he gets what Felix is going through? Quentin owns a fucking house in a town with his kid and his father, who might not have been perfect, but he pretty much thinks the sun rises and sets on Quentin and Busy. And he has a job at a nonprofit run by his best friend and her wife— he can afford this safe, quiet life.

“You know. I have a friend who lives here in town who ran away— had to run away, really. He, um— his family, well that would be a strong word for them—”

Felix nods at that, not quite meeting Quentin’s eyes.

“— he left home when he was— young. Sixteen. He was a hedge before he put himself through college, and he got into Brakebills. He’s really— he’s phenomenally talented, and he’s been through actual hell that I have no place saying I know anything about. He runs the bakery here.” Quentin closes his eyes for a moment, his mind flashing back to the moment— second year, God. It had been nearly three months after they started dating or— whatever they were doing. Eliot had shown him, in the early morning light, the tattoos he kept glamored, drawn in a looping spiral across his shoulders. When Quentin had touched them, he could feel the vague tingle of magic beneath his fingers.

“He bakes? Like that— weed place?”

Quentin laughs. “Well, no. His place is— a couple doors down. He is friends with the weed guy, though. Who— um,” Quentin stammers, “his, uh, place— a hundred percent legal. But none for you because. You’re seventeen.”

The kid snorts, which is fair because Quentin doesn’t sound convincing, even to himself. He was certainly smoking weed at seventeen, even if he was mostly very uncool about it. He’d read articles on the use of THC for anxiety and— yeah, he’d smoke half a joint or so and sit out on his roof, reading The World in the Walls for the fortieth time.

“Yeah, well. I got shit for money, and I’m sleeping in a warehouse,” Felix says, shrugging. “Not like I got much room to get in trouble here.”

“Guess not.” Quentin smiles, can’t help himself. He likes Felix, likes that this is his job, that maybe he can help where it’s needed.

“I mean, it’s a really nice warehouse,” Felix says. “Like, no offense. It’s a lot nicer than where I was. Where I was, was like real shitty. There’s a shower here.”

“No offense taken. For what it’s worth, I hope you stay. Really.”

Felix shrugs again, which appears to be something of a common move for him. But he seems a little lighter than he did when they first sat down together. That’s not exactly what Quentin was hired to do, but it’s a good fringe benefit, one that Kady had definitely mentioned in her offhand way. These kids haven’t had a whole lot of positive reinforcement. Not big in most of the hedge circuit. And you’d be surprised how badly some people react to their kids having magic. They just need someone to tell them they’re worth something.

Quentin thinks of Eliot as a young man, like he has many times, really— but watching Felix as he passes Quentin’s coin over his fingers, translocating it from one hand to the other puts a different frame on it. Eliot at sixteen, arriving in the city hopeful and finding it just as hostile as his home had been— he can see it so clearly in a way he’d never really considered.

The garage door on the far side of the warehouse opens then, letting light spill in over the uniform wooden tables and chairs. He recognizes Kady’s silhouette, framed by the late afternoon light, and someone behind her, carrying boxes. A distant, primal place in his brain recognizes Eliot before Quentin actually catches up. When he does, it hits him all at once, a wild swooping rush through his gut. When he’d seen Eliot— days ago, now— it had been on his terms. Practiced and calculated— as calculated as Quentin gets, which is, like, not very— but still, it had been his choice. He’d been as prepared as he could be to walk back into that part of his past and acknowledge it. But now, after the first day of his new job, after the practiced vulnerability of teaching, seeing Eliot now— it cracks him open.

He’s so beautiful, sunlight falling over his face, illuminating the softness of the dark curls around his face— he’s let his hair grow some in the years between them— and he’s softer, warmer than he was then. He doesn’t look older, not really, but he seems to be more comfortable in his bones, more settled. Like he’s finally let himself be at home somewhere, a tree setting out roots, branches moving with the wind rather than raging against it like he used to.

He doesn’t see Quentin at first; Eliot is unselfconsciously setting out trays of pastries, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, his apron still on. When he looks at Eliot like this, it’s like no time has passed, like Eliot never ghosted him— because that’s really what he’d done, wasn’t it? Quentin hates himself for having the same visceral reaction of wanting he did on the day of the Brakebills exam— but only a little because, holy hell, look at him. He’s stunning even in the small, careless moments where he doesn’t think anyone is watching. Especially then.

When he looks up, he catches Quentin’s eye and grins, which barely seems real. Warmth spreads through Quentin’s chest, the same thing he felt his first year at Brakebills. A crush— it had just been fun, at first, and maybe more complicated after he and Alice were done— when Quentin had to decide if he was going to act on it. After that it was the twisted up, heated thrill of seeing Eliot, so effortlessly beautiful, and knowing that, the moment he saw Quentin, he’d change direction, walk his way. That Quentin, one day, might break form and kiss him just to see what would happen. It sits within him now, the same heat, the same wanting, even if it’s mottled with regret, with sadness.

Well. He’s here in this town now, with a kid and a job and a new life, and he and Eliot can be— friends. There’s a raw, gray stripe running through that realization that changes the feeling in his chest, dampens it— and he realizes he’ll maybe have to go through this process for a while, remind himself how low he dropped in those months after Eliot left.

God, it feels simple, the way he feels about Eliot, felt about him. So in love he could barely function, make it to class, bursting with pleasure and longing so bright, the core of a star, building on its energy, ever-increasing— but content, unfortunately, to know that he wouldn’t get the same in return, that Eliot would never let himself feel it, would never name the emotion that sat between them because it was so much, too much. It was something, he now realizes, that Eliot wouldn’t let himself have. For someone who put on an air of brazen freedom, Eliot put so many restrictions on himself, didn’t lift them for anything or anyone.

“Um, you okay?” Felix pokes him.

“Oh, uh. Yeah. That’s just— that’s my friend. That I mentioned.”

“You’re friends with that guy? He’s the stoner baker? Damn, he’s— tall.”

“No, I mean. They’re friends. Eliot doesn’t own the dispensary. Just the bakery.”

“Hm, okay,” Felix says, sounding bizarrely unconvinced, like it’s impossible that a town this size would possibly be home to two magicians who bake. “You said he was a hedge?”

“Yeah he was. He keeps his stars glamoured. Showed me once.”

Felix knits his brows, looking between them, and dear holy fuck, Eliot is walking towards him. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say. He still hasn’t fucking texted Eliot. God, he’s an asshole, isn’t he? This is him, being an asshole, dopily grinning at Eliot and hoping he’ll just forget the assurance that Quentin would get in touch. About coffee. Or whatever.

He doesn’t even know if he wants to have coffee. Well, no. That’s a fucking lie. He knows he wants to do literally anything that will put him in Eliot’s path. And sitting across from Eliot for, like, maybe an entire hour— yeah, obviously he wants to do that. But realistically, in, like, adult world, he needs to focus on his fucking job. And he can do that. Because Eliot’s just dropping off pastries. And that’s fine.

There’s a whack on his arm, knocking his fixation loose and bringing Felix back into focus. “Mr. Q— I was asking you if you know what coven he was in.”

“Um.” Quentin looks back to the kid who he’s supposed to be teaching for his, you know, real live actual job. “No, I don’t know. He was never super specific. I know he didn’t know Kady before we started at Brakebills. So it wasn’t Marina’s coven.”

“You know her? She’s fucking badass—”

“No, Marina is— maybe ‘evil’ isn’t the right word. It’s more like— she’s really lonely? And maybe— Machiavellian, is what I’d say?” Quentin catches a glimpse of Eliot out of the corner of his eye. He’s stopped to talk to that Luke guy like he knows him, which makes Quentin’s gut twist in a not wholly unfamiliar way. He’d watched Eliot flirt with so many guys his first year— even when he’d been with Alice, he’d felt that churn of jealousy. It seems like it should have gone away after all these years, like— if Quentin were more fully evolved as a human, he wouldn’t feel this shit.

“But, like— she invented that collaborative hex—”

“Yeah, she’s smart as hell.” Quentin grips the table and fixes his gaze on Felix, away from Eliot and that other stupid-hot guy. “But she’s not someone you want to get involved with. You know Julia?”

“Yeah, the short one?”

Quentin snorts. “Don’t let her hear you call her that. Marina hexed her after she tried to bring a stolen spell book back to Brakebills. Took her stars.”

“Shit. Just for— a book.”

Quentin nods, eyes flicking over to Eliot, who has a hand on Luke’s shoulder. His jaw clenches in response, a slippery thread of jealousy rising in his chest. “Yeah,” he says absently, forcing his attention back to Felix, “just for a book. That’s how it is in a lot of covens. I know I don’t have to tell you that. Seems like you’ve been through a lot.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Felix crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, eyes flicking up to the clock that hangs on the far wall.

Quentin nods, a little helpless with the feeling that there should be something more, something he could say that would take away the loneliest pieces of Felix’s history, but he knows that nothing really can. “I’ve got a meeting. But maybe— if you’re still around tomorrow— you will be, won’t you?”

Felix shrugs.

“Well, I could probably take you by to talk to my friend. Or Kady could? Maybe. I’m sure he has a lot in common with a lot of you guys.”

“Him?” Felix points just over Quentin’s shoulder. Quentin freezes, and it’s like he can almost feel the weight of Eliot standing behind him. He knows the normal thing to do is turn, so he does, and he sees Eliot’s shirt first— well, his torso, really. The shirt is a deep navy with small cream dots— apron gone now, no tie, just suspenders, the first few buttons undone.

He glances up to see Eliot’s smile, bright and lovely, like Quentin is just the person he wanted to see. His pulse quickens, a rush hitting him— the kind of high he’d gotten when his dad pushed him on the swing in their backyard and for a few moments, at the highest bit of the arc, he’d felt like he was flying. It’s the same burst he felt when he first controlled magic with intention, pulling it through his fingers and knowing that the prickle beneath his skin was the power he held in his hands. It’s the thrill of danger and the quiet ache of freedom; it’s real desire, something he hasn’t felt in so long, just beyond his reach.

“Q, hey. Thought I might run into you here.”

“Uh, yeah. That was a— solid guess. I’m um. Working here now.”

Eliot laughs, like maybe Quentin intended that to be funny. He hadn’t. He just can’t communicate like a normal person when Eliot, like, exists. It’s not a thing he can do, particularly when he’s not prepared. But it’s okay because Eliot works at the bakery and not at Safehouse, and this isn’t going to happen every day, which is fortunate. Really, really fortunate. It means that Quentin won’t have to sell his house, for one.

“You told me,” Eliot says. And, oh, yeah, right— he did. Tell Eliot that. “First day.”

“Yeah. It’s been— pretty great. Really. This is—” Quentin tries to gather what remains of his brain cells and focus on the actual thing he’s supposed to be doing. “— Felix. I told him you had your own experience with hedges before Brakebills.”

“Ah, Felix.” Eliot leans over Quentin’s chair, his arm brushing against Quentin’s as he shakes Felix’s hand. A shock— like static— zips through him, bright energy pooling low in his hips. “Yes, I was in a coven from the time I was sixteen until, well— until I went to college. Still stunned that they let me out with my stars intact. But they’re there. And then— Brakebills.”

Quentin can feel the warmth of Eliot’s body behind him, and he’s very possibly going insane. There’s a weight on the back of his chair— Eliot’s hand— it’s Eliot’s hand, knuckles just barely brushing beneath Quentin’s shoulder. He thinks if he, like, concentrated on it, his dick would actually get hard. And he’s an adult professional. So he draws his focus back to Felix and away from Eliot’s broad hand— the same palm that had stroked over his cock, knuckles that dragged over his nipples, fingers that fit so deep inside him— yeah, okay. New tactic. He bites the inside of his cheek.

“Yeah?” Felix leans forward, focusing in on Eliot. “Which coven?”

Quentin feels Eliot shift and sigh. “The once great, now defunct, hedge house of Washington Heights.”

“Oh. Didn’t know that was, like, a thing.”

“It’s not anymore,” Eliot says, voice soft and low. “There was some bad business with another coven. Mistakes were made; people were lost. It was disbanded by the time I went to Purchase. I laid low there, you know, for the most part, living off of my sparkling personality and wholly unaware that Brakebills would come calling after I graduated, thus saving me from a life of fruitless auditions and— well, it’s certainly possible I would have picked up a sugar daddy, but that’s neither here nor there.”

Quentin bites down on a groan, trying for all the world not to imagine being Eliot’s sugar daddy. His, like, sort of submissive sugar daddy, paying for Eliot’s lovely clothes and fancy, sexy cologne. Eliot calling him a good boy when he gets on his knees to worship Eliot’s heavy, thick—

Jesus fucking Christ. He cannot exist in the same room as Eliot. Ever. He has to leave Brantley.

Felix is smiling and laughing at Eliot’s jokes, their conversation washing over Quentin’s head. He tunes back in just in time to hear Felix bonding with Eliot over hedge stuff. “I was in the Bronx,” Felix says. “Now I’m— out of there. I guess. Still have some friends there but— I guess I’m pretty much done.”

Eliot hums. “You’re really new here, huh?”

“Yeah. Not exactly a coven,” Felix says.

Quentin has the— sort of fatherly, he guesses— impulse to defend Safehouse, tell him it’s better, safer, more reliable. But he’s also going slowly insane, and Eliot’s knuckles brush again against the tip of his shoulder. He keeps his mouth shut so he doesn’t say anything patently ridiculous and watches, dazed, as Eliot sits down in the chair next to Quentin’s. God, his knee brushes Quentin’s leg. He feels like he might levitate from weird, horny, inappropriate thoughts.

“That’s a good thing, Felix. That it’s not a coven, that it’s not run that way. It’s not as glamorous, certainly. There’s a dorm, for fuck’s sake. It’s probably like a less thrilling version of summer camp.”

“I didn’t go to summer camp,” Felix says, his jaw set.

“I didn’t either, to be honest. I didn’t do much away from my parents’ farm until I ran away to New York. That’s a decision I don’t regret a bit. I needed to get out.”

“Yeah, I get that.” Felix shifts in his chair.

“You probably do. I don’t go about my days regretting the coven I joined, but I can tell you that they didn’t teach me a tenth of what I know about magic. It was all cobbled together bits of battle magic and shitty illusion spells, a few different ways to scam money off of people. Nothing like you’ll learn here.”

“What— what would I learn here?”

“Just about anything worth knowing,” Eliot says lightly. His leg presses against Quentin’s. Again. “From world-class magicians. And not just classically trained— which is what I used to consider the end-all. Kady knows both worlds, and Julia has worked pretty tirelessly to bridge the gap. And they’ve hired world class teachers.” He nods at Quentin, which makes his heart thump wildly, sweat prickling on his forehead. “Ultimately, it’s your choice if you stay. Plenty of people have left, from what I understand. But it’s an opportunity to know more and be better than your peers. Get to know real magic from real magicians.”

Felix nods, like he’s considering that. Just as he goes to open his mouth, a bell sounds. Students push away from tables and spill from the classrooms, voices echoing off of the high ceilings.

“Later, Mr. Q— and thanks, tall guy.” Felix unceremoniously departs, shoving the chair behind him in with a sharp burst of magic.

“Meeting in five— war room,” Kady calls, her voice towering over the others.

“That’s my cue,” Eliot says. “Signed up to be a volunteer.”

“You,” Quentin says, lips parting and staying that way as his brain processes Eliot’s words. “You signed up—”

“Yesterday,” Eliot says, standing and pushing in his chair. “Josh wheedled me into it. Kady kept asking him to help with the event, and he thought I’d be a better fit.” Eliot puts his hand on the back of Quentin’s chair again. “Can’t say he was wrong. I certainly am. I’ll— see you around, Q.”

“Oh. Um. Actually— I’m supposed to head up the event committee?” Quentin swallows, watching Eliot watching him.

“Oh?” Eliot’s eyes are on his, and Quentin feels like he could reach out and touch the crackle of electricity between them. Like magic he could harness if he could just— catch it. He’s not making it up. He doesn’t think. He’s, like, fifty percent sure.

“So. We should— uh. Kady’s conference room. War room.”

“I suppose so,” Eliot murmurs, voice so low and deep that it sounds a bit filthy.

That’s just Quentin’s imagination. Probably. It’s likely. Quentin’s horny and especially inventive imagination. Jesus.

As he follows Eliot to the meeting, he pauses for a moment just outside of the door. “I’ll— be there in a second,” he says.

He types out a message in the text box of his phone, practically vibrating.

Hey, it’s Q. Sorry I didn’t text. I couldn’t figure out what to say. So— hi. It’s good to see you. Penny thinks your almond pastries are ‘dope,’ but he says he could get better ones in Paris. He’s a dick. I think they are all great. I think you really got through to Felix. That was impressive. Congrats on the bakery. And your sobriety. See you in there.

He pauses, watching as Eliot glances at him, a question on his face.

He stops thinking anymore about it.

Quentin presses send and walks inside the war room.

Chapter Text

Safehouse Headquarters, 362 Vine Street; Brantley, New York

~Eliot~

Luke Rapinoe is a decent fuck. Like a four out of ten, like maybe a five on a good day. Eliot first met him at an Encanto five summers ago, when he was more or less still sober during the day.

When Eliot quietly moved into his apartment, while he was still cycling his time between Brantley and Paris, he’d had Luke over exactly twice. Good times—or acceptable times, he supposes—were had. He at least made a show of enthusiasm, liked Eliot’s cock—it was highly likeable, honestly—but he was overall boring—like most of the boys he’d been with since Quentin. It seems kind of sad, measuring his sexual history against someone he’d been with eight years ago, but he figures as long as he doesn’t tell anyone, no one needs to know.

He’d never planned to fuck Luke again after that, but he hadn’t exactly written him off.

The second meeting of the SafeHouse event planning committee had him rethinking his “eh, maybe” stance on Luke.

The first meeting revolved entirely around Eliot receiving Quentin’s text message beneath the table and subsequently entering a mild fugue state. He was a thousand percent unaware of anything Luke was doing because he was first creating a new contact for Quentin, followed by thinking about the content of Quentin’s message and the subsequent examination of Quentin himself— when Eliot could catch a surreptitious glimpse.

If Eliot were an anxious person— he’s not— he would have been concerned about what he, a nearly thirty-five year old man, was doing thinking about a boy in a serious meeting. As he is now an adult and volunteers his time for the sake of a group of wonderful magician children and attends serious meetings, it seems he perhaps shouldn’t be caught up in pontification on the subject of Quentin’s jawline, the length of his stubble (less now than the first time he’d seen him, but still some), the way the muscles in his forearms flex when he picks up his pencil—

But Eliot is feeling his feelings these days and not focusing too much on the why of things. He’s not 100% sure that’s what his current therapist would recommend, but it seems like it’s close enough. And honestly, that’s the best anyone can do on most days, isn’t it.

That second meeting had started off simply enough, with Quentin running through his notes on the banquet from last year and Kady reviewing the different avenues for fundraising. Luke had given a splendidly tedious rundown of the speakers from the year prior— including a congresswoman magician from Connecticut that Luke’s boring family knew. Eliot threw in a few suggestions for drumming up funding from the businesses in Brantley, which had earned him a sweet smile from Quentin and a thumbs up from Kady.

All in all, Eliot had had worse afternoons. However

It was after the first break that the Luke-related goings on started to get under his skin. He’d already been sitting next to Quentin, asking him questions under his breath, passing him printouts of— whatever-the-fuck, information about whatever kind of tiresome fundraising goes on in Brantley. A creeping feeling of unease had wormed its way beneath Eliot’s skin. And then Luke touched Quentin— not anything that bordered on unprofessional, not really. Perhaps skirting the area close to it. A simple touch on the shoulder. But it sat in Eliot’s chest, tangled up in sticky bits beneath his sternum.

And today, in Kady’s war room, that feeling multiplies.

Eliot never thought he could lose his shit over a boy the way he did over Quentin nearly a decade ago. And he would have sworn up and down—last month, even—that he certainly wouldn’t have a whole internal meltdown over a petty little thing like jealousy.

It’s just that—

They’ve been texting. He and Quentin. For a little over two weeks. It’s been— not as flirty as Eliot would like, but not cold or unfriendly, which are the secret things Eliot had been fearing most when Ted Coldwater had first walked into his shop and he’d realized, a bit belatedly— maybe six minutes after Ted left his shop— that Quentin was soon to follow if Ted had somehow managed to get a muggle dispensation.

No, not unfriendly. Quentin hasn’t sent the dick pic of Eliot’s dreams, but there’s time and life yet in the universe for said dick pic. And, Eliot had conceded, in one of his very drawn out conversations with Margo over the past ten days, that he genuinely doesn’t expect anything to happen with Quentin, not with the way they left things. Not with Quentin being the primary parent to a five-year-old magician and likely having no time for such dalliances. And Eliot would be just that, he thinks— a way for Quentin to pass the time, contrary to all that Margo alleges.

(He was so in love with you he could barely walk straight. Well, fuck, that’s not a good idiom for Q. He couldn’t walk straight anywhere even if he’d never laid eyes on your dick. But after that— Jesus, he was doomed. Look at me, Eliot. You’re a grown-ass man, and you can ask him on a goddamn date.)

It would all be just dandy, he thinks, if Luke hadn’t just offered to get Quentin a water and reappeared from the break room with a chilled lemon-lime LaCroix.

Fucking Luke puts a damper on his fantasies of— the most boring, domestic shit imaginable— smoothing down that lock of Quentin’s hair that never seems to behave, holding hands while they watch a dumb science fiction movie Eliot has no interest in, cooking dinner for him and Bea, something savory and hot and filling. Chicken pot pie, he thinks. At night when he goes to sleep, he closes his eyes and pretends Quentin is in the empty space next to him, his breath soft and even, his hand resting on Eliot’s hip. He’d been planning to ask Quentin to coffee again after this meeting, but Luke is opening the can for Quentin, and Eliot’s sure he’s going to lose his mind before he makes it to the end of the hour.

He heaves out a dramatic sigh as Luke reviews lists of potential donors. Quentin gives Eliot the most withering look that he can manage— which is really not very withering at all. His mouth turns up at the corners, and his eyes lock with Eliot’s. The room goes still for a moment, everything quiet as Quentin grins at him, tapping his pencil against the table.

Tap tap tap, taptaptap.

Kady clears her throat, glancing at Eliot with a frown. “It looks like we’ve got the first phase of the battle plan in order,” she starts, “but we haven’t changed anything up from last year’s event. So— ideas.”

“The banquet last year was successful. We raised enough money to add on the classrooms and expand the courtyard,” Luke says. He’s wearing a sky blue polo shirt, which is fitting, truly, since Luke is the sky blue polo shirt of people. Not distasteful, but certainly not exciting. Barely noticeable in a crowd; reliable and never out of place; also— woefully bland. “I don’t see a reason not to repeat something that was successful.”

Of course he doesn’t.

“True. But we do want to cultivate a reputation in the community,” Kady says. “Not just in Brantley. We’re focused on expansion this year, and that means an event that will attract more donors.”

“But the reputation we have is already stellar,” Luke says. “We’re really making a name for this organization. Even in the magician community in Connecticut.”

Jesus. Eliot pinches the bridge of his nose and lets out another sigh.

Kady turns to him. “Eliot, do you have something you’d like to share with the class?”

“Mm, no.”

Luke, unfortunately, pipes up again. “The banquet was a great event for the warehouse. Perfect size. We had a lot of donors from out of town—the lighting looked great. The seating—

“Not nearly enough for what we need to accomplish this year,” Kady says, but Luke doesn’t seem to hear her.

“— because what could be better than a black tie event? We could call it a gala this year. Bring in a string quartet. Speakers from Brakebills—”

“A string quartet. Brakebills! So prestigious,” Eliot says, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his voice. Luke is blindly loyal to Brakebills in a tedious-as-fuck, unimaginative, and not at all surprising sort of way.

“Eliot— anything to add?” Kady swivels toward him in her office chair.

“It’s not like Luke isn’t right. I was in Paris learning how to cater large scale events while the last SafeHouse banquet was going on.” God, Eliot is an asshole. He’s an asshole— and Quentin is looking at him kind of like he’s definitely an asshole. He clears his throat. “Obviously, it sounds like the banquet was a smashing success, but magicians are a fickle lot, and they appreciate novelty. You could certainly run another successful banquet— or a gala—” He clears his throat. “—but that’s sort of the premise we’ve been working with. But we want to scale up. Like you said, expansion.”

He glances at Quentin, who’s watching him— it shouldn’t make his heart flip over the way it does— the spark of interest in his dark, earnest eyes, the glint of his wire-rimmed glasses, and the flippy piece of hair that seems to do its own thing, ignoring the rest of Quentin’s head and veering out at a wild diagonal. That particular lock of hair has been driving Eliot insane over the past two weeks, sticking in his mind like a burr every time he happens to run into Quentin. Happens to, like he’s not doing it on purpose. He’s not. Mostly. Mostly not.

Kady nods, clearly waiting for him to continue. He closes his eyes for a moment, letting his mind tick through the big money-earners in his former life. “The biggest draws at Encanto, particularly during the off-season, were competitions. Wet t-shirt contests, dancing competitions, the erotic equivalent of open mic nights. I’m certainly not suggesting something quite of that nature.”

“Yeah, I don’t think we’ll have our donors super stoked on funding a spanking contest. Or a pleather fashion show,” Kady muses, “but I like the idea— we could charge an entry fee for contestants. Maybe live stream it if we can work up the encryption. Got any big ideas?”

Quentin has shifted in his chair so that he’s got a leg tucked under him, chin propped up on his other knee. “That’s, um— that could be really good, right? We’re, like, an obnoxiously competitive group of people. Like, in general. And like—” Quentin taps his pencil against the table, utterly unaware of how loud it is. “—like, we could— uh, sell tickets to the live stream. There could be tiered donor levels, a bunch of different ways to participate.”

Eliot smiles, a familiar thread of warmth lighting up in his chest. He did sign up for volunteer duty as a Brantley business partner out of the deep kindness in his heart. It’s a fringe benefit, obviously, that he gets to see Q. And Quentin is looking at him. Like that.

“You know, you used to make me watch those like— cooking competitions— we could do that.” Quentin beams at him.

“I didn’t make you do anything,” Eliot says, a smile tugging at his lips. “You kept asking to watch Bake Off. I was just the one who got you hooked on it. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Luke looks between them with a confused expression. “You two— know each other?”

Eliot waves a hand in Luke’s direction. “Long ago and far away.”

“You totally made me,” Quentin says, raking his fingers through his hair, causing more of it to stand up. Infuriating. “But— uh. Actually— that’s a, like, good model. Not just cooking, but baking. I mean, you know so much— and Josh— like as long as he’s not baking— meth muffins or whatever. It could be, like— a way to scale up.”

“A magician baking competition,” Eliot says. His brain catches for a moment, like it’s having a hard time processing the fact that Quentin entered this conversation, building on his suggestion. It shouldn’t be world-shattering, this act of connection— but it feels like an event, the event of Quentin looking directly at him, dimples crinkling, his expression lit up like Eliot’s given him a gift.

“That could work,” Kady says, nodding. “Culinary magic would definitely be a draw. Could we do it here, though? In the warehouse?”

Eliot should tell her no, that it would be too much for the space, that it would cost too much up front, that the nonprofit is only in its third year, that his bakery has only just gotten off the ground. That Josh foisted this on Eliot expressly because he doesn’t have time to volunteer while running two businesses. That Eliot can’t afford the interruption to his life. Luke is frowning at him like he’s trying to work up something negative to say about the baking scheme— so, fuck it. Sky Blue Polo Shirt can eat his entire dick.

“We’re magicians, darling.” Eliot winks at Quentin, which makes Quentin’s dimples appear, parentheses at the edges of his smile. “We can do anything we damn well please.”

“Not entirely accurate,” Luke says. “A baking competition wouldn’t work well for the space. The magic to maintain that kind of thing is a huge draw one the ambient—”

Dick.

That’s the thing that really seals Eliot’s fate as the baking competition frontman, Luke’s skeptical little look, his body still canted toward Quentin.

“Maybe not in the warehouse,” Eliot says. He glances at Quentin— his eyes are sparkling. This is definitely the stupidest commitment he’s made for the sake of a boy. But the boy is Quentin, and this would mean a whole host of opportunities to see Q. To show him, a small voice says, that you’re better.

“The tent!” Quentin snaps his fingers. “A replication spell that complex would take a lot of time and manpower, but if we put up a weatherproof tent in the area just beyond the courtyard— we can replicate cooking equipment during the weeks before the competition. And with a stability spell— the ovens and fridges and— whatever-the-fuck— would last until well after the event.”

“That just doesn’t sound logistically—” Luke starts.

“Sounds fucking great to me,” Kady says. “People love that shit. Brantley is the smallest of the magician havens in the U.S., but it’s got the best goddamn food scene. Eliot’s right— fuck the logisitics.”

“Great Brantley Bake Off,” Quentin says, smiling like he’s deeply pleased about the immediate acronym payoff.

Eliot chuckles because Quentin is smiling so hard, he’s managed to generate dimples Eliot’s never even seen before, and Eliot’s a little slap-happy right now. Quentin’s attention is trained on him, and, yeah, it’s a little bit ridiculous to sign himself up for limitless extra work. But his therapist told him he needed a hobby outside of baking the last time they spoke. Well, she gently suggested it, but Eliot knows how to read between the lines.

After the sixth time he mentioned Quentin, she’d asked if he had any hobbies. Fashion, obviously— but she’d claimed that fashion wasn’t a hobby as such. Baking, which apparently doesn’t count if you run a bakery, so that was out. Eliot had learned to crochet dishcloths when he was at rehab, and he has exactly three balls of expensive yarn sitting on the top shelf of his closet. So— that was all sort of a big, nebulous no.

She’d also gently told him that Eliot deserved good things, and Eliot had cried— it was a whole thing. She’d also mentioned asking Quentin on a date, but that wasn’t something Eliot was currently capable of doing because he and Quentin are in this weird, quasi-coworker, almost-neighbor, definitely ex-boyfriends place that Eliot would certainly say is close to friendship. It’s delicate, and asking that might shatter what’s there, make the texts stop coming. And Eliot, if he’s being entirely honest, is relying on the dopamine supplied by Quentin’s texts. Not in an unhealthy way, he thinks. He’s pretty sure

Which is to say— event planning. Event planning can definitely be a hobby. Culinary magic in general— also a hobby. Two birds, one stone. This is as good a hobby as any.

Kady flicks her fingers toward the white board in the corner, and her handwriting appears:

Magicians’ baking competition

Tiered donations

Tent in courtyard; replicated pastry kitchen with weatherproofing spell

Tentative date: September 29th

“So long as we’re all agreed, meeting adjourned,” Kady says, glancing up once to really sell the illusion of everyone agreeing to the idea. Which they definitely didn’t. Luke is more or less slack jawed, staring at the wall ahead, like someone told him they sold out of his favorite flavor of ice cream. Vanilla. No— a good vanilla is the gold standard. Luke probably likes— rum raisin. Or something equally vile. Definitely something with raisins.

Eliot picks up his mostly blank notebook— a leather bound sketchbook, actually, since it was the nicest thing available at the bookstore the next block over— and makes movements to leave, glancing again at Quentin, who seems to be ignoring Luke’s efforts to engage him in conversation. He’s just— looking at Eliot instead.

“You two— stay behind,” Kady says.

“Me?” Luke leans on the table, inches away from Quentin.

“No. You have tutoring with the psychic kids, Luke. Q, Eliot— that’s the you two I’m talking about.”

It’s a little bit of a shock to the system after everyone clears out to be left in a room with just Quentin and Kady. He’s standing what he thinks is an appropriate distance away from Q, looking only at Kady and wondering what conditioner she uses when he realizes she’s already started talking.

“... really could use some extra help on planning the spells needed. We also need to figure out the logistics— where the tent, seating, basic supplies. Congratulations— the two of you are figuring that shit out.”

“Absolutely,” Eliot says.

“Wait, but like— Eliot already has a lot to do. And he’s a volunteer,” Quentin says. “He doesn’t work here. This should just— like— it should just be me. I think.”

“He’s a volunteer,” Kady says flatly. “Volunteers do shit. He just said he would. He literally volunteered.”

“I’m perfectly fine with the assignment as stated,” Eliot says mildly. “I volunteered and I’m delighted to do right by Safehouse.”

“You sure? You have so much going on with the pâtisserie.” Quentin gives him that arched-eyebrow, worried, wide-eyed look that definitely doesn’t make Eliot’s heart skip a beat.

“I’m quite sure.” He bites down on the ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ that sits right on the tip of his tongue.

“And you two—” Kady points at both of them. “— you’re fine to work together.” It’s really not a question so much as a command. “Everyone’s all grown up and responsible, and we can all refrain from being dumbasses. Like you can both act like two grown ass men— since that’s what you are.”

 

“Um.” Quentin’s eyes flick over to Eliot for a moment like he’s checking to see if Eliot is in fact a grown man. “Yeah. I don’t super love the implication that we would be anything other than that.”

Kady scowls at Q with a look that implies he definitely doesn’t want to get her started, and Quentin takes half a step back.

“We’re fantastic,” Eliot says. “Absolutely professional adults. You needn’t be concerned.”

~~***~~

Eliot gleefully schedules Tuesdays to bring Quentin coffee in the SafeHouse courtyard. As one does.

They usually sit on the bench just off the brick path, where Quentin can watch his students while they practice with Luke— may God help Eliot through these deeply troubling times— and Eliot can take measurements from where he sits in order to create a spell for the tent. At this angle, Eliot can watch Q as he taps his pencil against his knee or pulls his legs beneath him or pops up and paces around. Sometimes, Quentin’s students stop by to talk with him, one or two of them clearly enamored with their oblivious teacher.

The third week, Eliot actually points it out to him— Rosemary with the long purple braids and the spiral of small stars above her collarbones and Hendrix with the spiky hair and wide dark eyes each stopping by to chat— but Quentin just rolls his eyes.

After the team meeting that week, Eliot also points out that Luke keeps lingering when and where he can— and he swears he keeps his tone even and light when he says it. But Quentin— at the mention of Luke— clams up, his lips drawn into a thin line and his eyes not angry or annoyed but— maybe sad. Quentin doesn’t say anything; instead, he gives Eliot a clipped wave and a smile before heading home. That night, Eliot has a terrible ache in his upper abdomen and panic-calls Margo to see if she knows anything about gallstones.

“Bambi, tell me whether I need to go to the emergency room in Albany.”

“Baby, and I say this with all the tenderness I can manage— drink a glass of fucking water, and go to bed. In the morning, maybe you can talk to Quentin. Novel idea, I know.”

“He might be dating Luke.”

“I swear to fucking Christ— you have invented this whole goddamn thing in your head. I never should have gotten you off drugs because you were a thousand percent less worried about boys when you were sailing on a mix of liquid sunshine and bathtub ecstasy.”

“So you don’t think I have gallstones?”

“No, you don’t have fucking gallstones. You have anxiety. Go to bed.”

~~***~~

When Eliot does talk to Quentin, it doesn’t go according to plan. Because— because he sees Luke talking to Quentin after the team meeting on Monday, hand on his shoulder for at least thirty seconds longer than strictly necessary. There’s also extended eye contact involved, and a lingering brush of his hand against Quentin’s decidedly firm dad-bicep.

So, when Eliot mentions it— it’s not exactly what he planned. They’re sitting on their bench in the courtyard, a chaste space between them, discussing the benefits of a Lewiston replication spell over the simpler Koenig-Yamata enchantment. When there’s a lull toward the end of the meeting, Eliot’s left looking at Quentin, that unfamiliar, heavy pain sitting just beneath his breastbone that— probably isn’t gallstones, he thinks. “I saw you after the meeting yesterday.”

“Yeah?” Quentin absently twirls his hair, going back through the calculations they wrote down.

“It seems like you and Luke are getting on well.”

Quentin immediately looks up, eyes narrowing. “Eliot—”

“What? I’m just pointing out the obvious.” Eliot’s aware that he’s digging his own grave. He can feel himself standing in it, the weight of the shovel in his hands, and it’s like he craves the crunch of more dirt between his teeth. “He likes you. He’s nice.”

Eliot tries to think of something else to say about Luke but finds himself coming up empty. He has a nice dick? Eliot thinks most dicks are nice, so it wouldn’t be a real compliment. It would be like saying, that person has hair.

“Oh? He’s nice?” Quentin crosses his arms, his brows furrowing in the way that Quentin’s brows furrow— which is to say, adorably. Eliot believes that’s also a fact. That wall over there is gray, and Quentin has the perfect brow line. All dicks are nice.

“Yeah, he’s nice.”

“What do you know about Luke? He seems to know you.”

Eliot shrugs. He fiddles in his pocket with his vape pen, but now he’s trying to quit using that, and besides, he shouldn’t just whip it out in the courtyard of Quentin’s workplace. “There’s not much to know. He’s— fine.”

“Uh-huh.” Quentin bites his lip, which makes Eliot feel a little unsteady, just enough to feel the world go still around him. He wonders what it might be like to press his thumb just there, if it would feel the same as it did the first time he’d kissed Quentin.

“He’s perfectly fine,” Eliot repeats. He looks down at his nails, brushing them absently over his shirt. “He’s a fine guy.”

“Are you— do you think I’m— seeing him?” Quentin purses his lips.

“Oh— no, certainly not. But if you did, that would be— well, he’s a nice, fine person. Old magic family. Seems like a good teacher.” Eliot pushes out a breath, trying to force away the strangeness that he absentmindedly created. Shit. “Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Seeing— Luke?” Eliot doesn’t know why he can’t shut the fuck up, but it doesn’t seem like his mouth is giving him the option.

“I see him, like, literally every weekday.” Quentin cracks a little smile, his eyes dancing in the way they did when he was amused with Eliot’s particular brand of bullshit.

“Yeah?”

“But I’m not seeing him. Or anyone. Like, socially. Dating-wise or whatever. If that’s what you were asking.” Quentin pushes his glasses up his nose and fiddles with one of the buttons on the sleeve of his button down. “I mean, I’m not implying that you were— you know, asking. That. But it sounded like you might be.”

“Oh. Yeah. I was just— curious. Luke just seemed, well, the way he is. Affectionate. Mildly overbearing.”

“Eliot—”

“What? I think that’s a fairly accurate description— and he’s perfectly nice—”

“You’ve said that, like, six times.”

“It’s true— he’s fine—”

Before Eliot can spill anymore of his particular brand of bullshit all over Quentin, Kady appears in front of them. “Working hard?”

“Yeah,” Quentin says, his eyes still locked with Eliot’s. “We were definitely working hard. Uh—” He hands Kady the most recent page of his notes, pointing out the measurements they’d taken for the tent and the tent expansion spell. His gaze breaks away from Eliot’s, which, as always, gives Eliot the opportunity to look at Quentin’s face, the strong, soft, familiar lines of him, all the differences that have come with time and age, all the things that have stayed the same.

“That’s— that’s really clever,” Kady says, pointing at some of their math, commenting on the footprint of the tent versus the expansion spell, asking if the spells to keep equipment in place will conflict with what they have or draw too much ambient.

“Shouldn't be an energy sink,” Quentin says. “Um, we can get Jules to check it over. Think it should all work out.”

“So we’re in good shape,” she says. “We’ll be able to do a trial run in about eight, nine weeks. What I need you all to do next—”

Eliot doesn’t like the sound of this. “Next? I thought we were done.”

“You wanna rescind your volunteer agreement?” Kady raises an eyebrow. “Shady move.”

Any nonprofit would benefit from having someone terrifying at the helm. Eliot feels intimidated into whatever she’s going to request, and she hasn’t even told them yet. “Certainly not.”

“We’re on board,” Quentin says, casting a glance in Eliot’s direction.

“So Luke and I have been talking—”

Eliot snorts. “Goody.”

“Maybe don’t open your mouth for the next twenty-five seconds,” Kady says, no ire in her voice— but she doesn’t leave room for any discussion. “We need some notable magician chefs to attract some of the big donors. I’m going to have you two come up with a presentation to sell it.”

“Um, is there no one else who can—”

“Q, you know we’re short staffed. And I also know this is a big ask. But you’re good at this stuff. And Eliot has the—” She scrutinizes Eliot, looking him up and down. “— panache to actually pull this shit off.”

Kady gives another rundown of exactly what they need, and Eliot more or less pays attention, meeting Kady’s eyes so he doesn’t get entirely lost in playing the game he so frequently plays around Quentin— glancing at him, taking bits of him in, trying to match the Quentin of now to the memories in his mind. If he has nothing else of Q, he can have that— the image of him, moving through his memories. The knowledge that he can wake up in the morning and feel this way about someone, that this piece of him hadn’t been lost when Eliot emerged from chrysalis and waltzed into his new, sober life.

When Kady departs, walking toward the center of the courtyard to prep for her Defensive Magic class, he turns to Quentin, prepared to plan a completely platonic planning strategy. Before Eliot can open his mouth, Quentin is twitching nervously, his mouth open and soft and pink and lovely, and Eliot’s mind snaps momentarily into emptiness. No thoughts, only Quentin. He almost misses it when Q speaks.

“— really think we should have an outside-of-work, um. Meeting. So we don’t get interrupted.”

Like a date, Eliot’s brain supplies unhelpfully.

“That would certainly be prudent,” Eliot says mildly.

“I know you’re busy—” Quentin’s eyes dart to the side, and Eliot detects something in his expression when he looks back to Eliot’s face. The barest flicker, there and then gone. Inscrutable, yes, but certainly there.

“My schedule is quite barren compared to yours, I’m fairly certain,” he says, channeling the calm he used to carry when he was far less sober. “So I’m free. Likely whenever you are.” Eliot has the brief sinking feeling that he’s giving too much away, but it’s fine. It’s an outside-of-work work thing.

“Um.” Quentin’s eyes dart to the side again. “We could, like— go out to dinner? I mean. There’s that French place you like. And I know it’s not super fancy, so it would be fine if we bring work stuff. Right? Like completely fine.”

“Oh, Toujours, wow—”

There’s a hint of the sort of panic he saw in Quentin years ago when he’d come up with any sort of suggestion himself, more out of shock than any fear of upsetting Eliot. “Or we can absolutely, like— not do any of that. Also.”

When Eliot was a boy, he learned early on that hope was a dangerous thing— he’d so often coupled the effort of trying to be someone else, someone he wasn’t, with hope that the two things had become irreparably intertwined in his mind. He’d tried— and mostly failed— to play tee ball with the hope that his father would show some interest in him. He’d been rewarded with learning the word fairy and its more negative connotations. He’d learned from those early days that hope was so often useless; it only led to disappointment.

He’s learned, in his hundred billion light years of therapy, that it’s okay to have hope. That in healthier times and healthier relationships, it’s okay to want things. It’s even okay to, occasionally, actually get them.

“Yeah,” Eliot says. “Let’s plan on that.”

~~***~~

212 Main Street; Apartment B; Brantley New York

The call comes twenty minutes before the not-a-date. Eliot’s in the middle of fixing his tie, which— it’s funny, really— feels a little odd, like he’s wearing a balaclava in the middle of summer, out of place and itchy around his neck, given that he doesn’t wear ties at the bakery, and he’s always at the bakery— when his phone buzzes.

“Hush,” he tells it. “Daddy’s fixing himself up. Have to look my best.”

But the phone buzzes again. When he fishes it out of his pocket, he sees Quentin’s face— the picture he snapped of him when he came into the bakery last week. He feels a little stricken, somehow, just seeing Q pop up on his phone. It’s been six weeks now that Q’s been in town, but Eliot’s still not used to it. When he slides the screen open, he puts it on speaker, ostensibly so he can do his eyeliner, but mostly so he can keep glancing at the DILF pic.

God. Total DILF.

“Q, how lovely,” Eliot says, trying to keep a light edge to his voice, like he couldn’t possibly care less that they’re about to have dinner at Toujours. “Couldn’t wait to see me?”

Quentin laughs, the sound of it warm and rich. Whenever he laughs like that— a genuine laugh— it lights up some long-neglected area of Eliot’s brain. He hears Margo laugh on a regular basis because Eliot is nothing if not hilarious, but with Q— a tingling rush of serotonin bursts in his mind. It hits him, in fact, so hard that Eliot doesn’t really comprehend the words tumbling out of the phone.

“— so like, he was at the urgent care through the portal in Albany, and it’s Kady and Julia’s anniversary so I’m just— not. I can’t. Ask them? You know. So I think— I’m not sure when he’ll be able to. And I’m, like— God, I really wanted to see you. Like. Professionally. For the meeting.”

“Let’s rewind,” Eliot says, his heart rate picking up. He’s entirely dressed, and one eye is fully lined— and it seems like he’s being ghosted before he gets to go anywhere. “Tell me what happened in simple words so that I understand.”

Quentin chuckles again, followed by a nervous sigh. Eliot melts a little— it can’t be helped. It’s a biological response entirely out of his control.

“Okay. I was in the shower— like, three hours ago.”

“Fancy.”

“You— shush. So— my dad had Bea at his place. And they were— I don’t know, one of the baby goats got loose? I told my dad he shouldn’t have gotten goats, but he wasn’t going to be swayed. So, like.” Quentin sighs. “He tripped in a sinkhole or whatever that he claims is a ‘hub of mole activity.’ And he hurt his ankle pretty bad. So I got him through the portal to the Patient First in Albany since Alma is on vacation. And it turns out— his fucking ankle is broken. Fractured. Whatever. Alma can fix it when she’s back, but for the next three days, he’s gotta be off his foot. And that doesn’t mix with watching a five-year-old. Particularly my five-year-old. Since she’s like, frankly, a fucking lunatic. Like in all the best ways— but still. Not safe. Not, like, subdued. She’s not a TV child. She’s like— a possessed horror movie child.”

“That is oddly specific. So that’s a—” Eliot clears his throat, trying to dispel the sinking feeling washing through him. “Rain check?”

“Yeah, um, I— so like. My dad is going to sleep here tonight— well, the next few nights, I think. And I have chicken I can marinate. Hot dogs for Busy. The garden is starting to give up a few vegetables. So I can grill some kabobs? Maybe? I’m not like a grillmaster, but.” Quentin doesn’t tell him but what exactly.

“You’re telling me about your dinner plans?” Eliot tugs at his tie absently, pulling until the knot unwinds. It feels a bit shameful to breathe a sigh of relief he won’t have to wear it. He has so many nice ties, but they’re maybe one of the pieces of his old life that don’t quite fit him anymore. A thought to consider; he feels a bit shameful about it. It is a nice tie.

“No. I mean, yes. But, more specifically, I was hoping— like, no pressure— but I was hoping maybe you’d want to come over to my place for dinner? We could still talk about the seating options for the SafeHouse Bake Off. Like— even better. Like— definitely better lighting. To see notes. Or whatever.”

Eliot sits down at his vanity, his stomach twisting at the thought of it— being in Quentin’s home. It seems unreal that he can even do such a thing— not just that Quentin is somehow here, in Brantley, and more marvelously, seemingly at ease with the entire concept of Eliot. But this, he hadn’t really imagined. Well, maybe a little— but only at night, and the scenarios he shuffles through don’t include the grill. Usually.

“Q—”

“It’s— maybe not a great idea— I mean, I can’t cook anything like, gourmet—”

“Hey, Q. I want to come over,” Eliot says, his heart still skipping, unlikely to calm itself any time in the next fifteen minutes. “And I don’t require anything fancy. I’m a farmboy at heart.”

Quentin snorts at that. “You belong on the cover of like— French Vogue, Eliot. That’s what you are at heart. I don’t care, like, how many chickens you tended on a semi-regular basis.”

“At least fourteen at any given time.” Eliot bites down on a smile and walks to his closet, picking through the more casual button downs he’s amassed in the name of bakery work. His stomach does a strange flippy thing as his fingers flit over the fabrics, cool cottons and buttery soft linens. “I don’t think that’s exactly right anymore. My French Vogue days are behind me. Unless they’re doing a spread on the fashion of small town bakers.”

“You’d be the first one they’d call, I’m sure. Like, honestly.”

Eliot sighs, wishing for all the world that his body would get the message he’s not going to Quentin’s right now. God, anxiety he can only self-medicate with lavender oil and magnesium is so tedious. “So— your place. Tonight?”

“Um. Maybe— maybe tomorrow? I should, like. Clean the house. I think. There’s an explosion of small legos and dinosaurs. You really like— don’t want to step on a triceratops in the middle of the night.”

“No need to primp for me,” Eliot says, blood still rushing in his ears. This is a thrill, he thinks. Let it be thrilling.

He remembers in rehab the oft repeated advice to avoid relationships in the earliest stages of sobriety. The dizzying rush of Quentin— the timbre of his voice, the turn of his jaw, the soft smile that melts over his face when he sees Eliot— is not unlike the first heady rush of a drug fizzing in his blood, firing off chemicals in his brain, flooding his receptors, sending him flying, thoughts falling through his mind in hazy bits of dandelion fluff.

And they haven’t even— this isn’t even— it’s not, he reminds himself, a real date. But it could be a gateway drug. Very possibly. Maybe.

“Um.” Quentin sucks in a breath. “I—yeah. We’ll do tomorrow, I think. I’d kind of like to settle down from all the shit today. Clean up. And maybe— buy real food. The three cucumbers from the garden do not a salad make.”

“Tomorrow. That sounds quite lovely. Perfect for— work.” Eliot moves his fingers in a quick tut that removes his eyeliner. “What time?”

“Like—five. I know that’s, like, super early—”

“I wake most mornings before the sun. I assure you my mealtimes have become quite malleable. Much to the chagrin of my former self.”

“Oh. That’s— that’s, um, good. I just— I’m a little self conscious about how early we eat dinner? I guess. But that sounds silly now that I say it out loud.”

Eliot knows he would have teased about such a thing years ago. Teased isn’t even the right word. He wouldn’t have been cruel, not intentionally, but thoughtless.

“It’s not silly.” He sighs, puts his forehead to his hand, thinking of the times he was genuinely unkind to Quentin— he’s reviewed them so many times in his mind now that it’s like they’ve worn grooves in his mind. “Sorry. Therapy response.”

Quentin laughs at that, and Eliot gives the mirror before him a weak smile. “Yeah. I get that.”

“That is to say— you needn’t worry about my judgment. I’ll reserve it for your kabobs.”

“Good deal. I know it’s not ideal to do this with like— Busy and my dad—”

“Q. I’m saying yes because I want to see you. They’re a bonus. Unless your dad secretly wants to throttle me—”

“He’s never wanted to throttle anyone. He’s the type to catch bugs in the house and re-release them into the wild. He’ll be happy to see you.”

“Good then. Five?”

“Yeah. See you then, El.”

Eliot sits at the vanity after the phone clicks off. He puts his head in his hands for a moment. There’s a name, he’s certain, for the sparkle of emotion taking shape beneath his ribs. But he’s officially had enough thoughts for the evening, so he tucks it away for now and calls Margo.

~~***~~

Coldwater Residence; 112 Noble Street; Brantley, New York

Eliot can’t bring a bottle of wine anywhere anymore. Not that he couldn’t— but it just doesn’t seem like proper respect to his past self, not the Party King of Brakebills, nor the cocaine-fueled theater kid of his college years— but the person who stepped into rehab two years ago, the one that Margo had shoved through the portal, the one who’d put in all the work of becoming who he is now.

So. He finds himself at Quentin’s front door, standing on his wide, wooden porch that wraps halfway around the house— there’s a swing and a woven rainbow-colored hammock, a line of Hotwheels cars adorning one of the flower boxes— with a box of double-fudge brownies in one hand and a fresh loaf of sourdough bread in the other.

(He’d ask Margo what she thought children liked to eat, and she’d rolled her eyes. Fucked if I know— probably not matcha macarons. Maybe chocolate?)

He knocks on the door, tentative, his stomach swooping and twisting, the faint prickle of sweat on his palms. He assures himself that Quentin wouldn’t have invited him if he didn’t want Eliot to be there, if he didn’t want to share a meal—

Is this a date? I don’t know if this is a date. I’m thirty-four, and I’m Eliot Waugh, and I’m supposed to know.

What kind of dates happen with a child and grandparent in tow? Probably the kinds of dates where you’re dating a parent. Shit. Eliot has no idea. His traitorous heart starts thumps in his chest, his throat growing tight just as the door knob starts to move—

Eliot expects to see Quentin’s wide eyes and soft pout when he opens the door, but there’s only the homey Victorian foyer, the geometric gold patterns of the wallpaper, the ticking of a grandfather clock beside the stairs— honestly Quentin would have a grandfather clock— and a console table littered with messily colored pictures of ponies and dragons and a large, lopsided clay bowl filled with— keys and cards but also— more ponies.

“Ah, hello? Anyone home?”

“Hi!” There’s a girl’s voice and a shift in the shadows, and for a moment, Eliot wonders if this is one of the many places the realtor claimed to be haunted in Brantley. “You’re very tall. You didn’t see me. I’m Bea!”

Eliot looks down to see not a waifish Victorian ghost but the fiery haired girl from Quentin’s pictures. “Well— hello. Yes, I am very tall.”

“Oh, God— Bea— did you run into the street again—” Quentin rolls into the foyer, nearly skidding like a cartoon character. “You know you’re not supposed to— oh.” Quentin, who’s never been especially good at hiding his emotions, cracks a smile that feels to Eliot like light filtering in the windows after a rainy morning. Maybe it’s corny, but Eliot’s accepting that a lot of things about sobriety are corny as fuck— his thoughts too genuine and heartfelt for his former tastes, but he lets himself feel it today, catching Quentin’s eyes, growing warm in his gaze.

“Hey, Q.”

“Hi.” Quentin lets out a little puff of a breath, lifts his hand to torment that lock of hair but stops halfway and drops his hand again. He’s wearing a battered red ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron that’s seen better days. Eliot is already having unfit thoughts about that apron, and he hasn’t even been here twenty seconds. “Uh— welcome. As promised, I am marinating chicken. In oil and vinegar dressing with like— Italian dressing mix? My go-to.”

“Can’t go wrong with that,” Eliot says. The rest of Eliot’s words, the clever, charming ones, had departed when the beam of sunlight filtering in from the dining room caught Quentin in its glow. He’s faced now with Quentin’s parted lips and the tips of his white teeth and the soft slope of his nose, the shadows cast in the hall betraying new creases at the corners of his eyes, a few devastating new smile lines to accompany them.

The sorrows of your changing face, he thinks, another scrap of a poem, but the sorrow— it’s different here. The sorrow isn’t that Quentin has changed; it’s that Eliot missed it.

“Not super elaborate,” Quentin says. He wipes his hand on the thighs of his jeans, just where the denim pulls tight over the muscle there. A shiver unfolds down the length of Eliot’s spine.

“You mentioned. I’m not bothered.” His eyes linger on Quentin’s lips for a moment before Eliot meets his gaze again. The same static electricity that’s always lived between them seems multiplied now.

“I helped pick all the veggies from the garden!” Bea pokes Eliot’s arm. He’d nearly forgotten she was there. When he looks down, he sees— not Quentin’s coloring, certainly, but she has the same hooded eyes that give her a slightly elven quality. Her hair is shorter than it was in the pictures he saw, cut in a wavy bob that falls just to her chin.

“Well, that’s so very helpful of you.” Eliot swallows a hint of panic. He hasn’t fucking interacted with children since he left Indiana, and Quentin is the DILF of his most deeply erotic dreams, and he’s entirely out of his element.

“I’m so helpful.” She grins at him and grabs his wrist, not allowing Eliot the space to think or pause or even really look at Quentin again as he’s pulled toward the kitchen. “I’ll show you the cucumbers. Dad says it’s too early for tomatoes, but there’s a spell that will make them grow faster. But he says it might be dangerous, so we shouldn’t do it. Which is boring.”

“Busy, um— I’m getting stuff together in the kitchen for dinner. Why don’t you give Eliot a tour? He loves— like, old houses and stuff.”

“Oh, I definitely do love old houses. Maybe even more than I love dangerous vegetable spells.”

“Uh, I’ll, just like— show him the cucumbers super, super quick, okay?” She’s already pulling Eliot through the doorway, and is apparently not to be swayed from the task at hand.

Eliot snorts. He doesn’t think Quentin’s daughter leaves much room for any kind of disagreement. “I’m happy to see the kitchen first. But I would love a tour. Do you know when this one was built?”

“Sometime in the, like, 1900s,” she says, apparently not too bothered with specificity. She pulls him toward the wood-topped island in the center of the kitchen, which has definitely been updated from whenever it was built in the ‘1900s.’ There’s a gas stove with a range hood, countertops made of what looks like polished concrete, a wide refrigerator and a rack above the island sporting copper pots and pans that he’s 100% sure that Julia bought.

“Stunning kitchen.” Eliot looks back to see Quentin in the doorway, just watching them, his expression warm, eyes bright.

“Oh— these are the cucumbers.” Bea tugs at Eliot’s sleeve and points to the island, where some very lumpily cut cucumbers sit, haphazard, on a wooden cutting board. “They’re going to be in a salad,” she adds.

“Those look wonderful. Did you help cut them?”

“Mm, me and Dad did them. He washed the lettuce and spinach. I like the spinach but not the lettuce. He made a vina— um. Vina— gret.”

“Ah, a vinaigrette. Solid choice.”

“He said he wanted to impress you—” Bea starts.

Quentin lets out a sound midway between a bark and a cough. “Busy— um— why don’t you show Eliot the back porch?”

“— so he thought he’d give it a try. Make the vinaigrette.”

“Well, it is quite impressive. When I knew your dad in grad school, he mostly made grilled cheese sandwiches.” He gives Quentin a little smile as Busy tugs him toward the porch and patio.

“He still makes grilled cheese, too!” Busy flings the door open and pulls Eliot through a sunroom that he barely has time to process before he’s more or less pushed outside to the sprawling stone patio. Ted Coldwater is sitting in a lounge chair with his foot propped up.

“Hello there, Eliot.” Ted raises a hand in greeting. “Looks like we didn’t pick a great day to be outside.”

“Oh,” Eliot says dumbly, looking at the sky. It’s gray, a bit, and there are heavy white clouds in the distance, but the sky is blue just above them. He searches his brain for something to say to his ex-boyfriend’s dad about the nonexistent weather. He clears his throat. “Is it— is it supposed to storm?”

“Yep. Busy and I were looking at storm info for the area yesterday. Seems we get a lot that come through here and sit right over the mountain. The wards seem to create some kind of weather anomaly—”

“Dad, it’ll be fine. Nothing’s supposed to happen until after ten tonight.” Quentin appears behind them with a pan of chicken and vegetable kabobs, looking illegally cute in his little red apron. Eliot has the absent thought of Quentin in nothing but that particular apron. Eliot watches mutely as Quentin sets up the chicken and vegetables on the side of the grill. Apparently, seeing Quentin is just a thing he does with his life now.

A sleek brown and black shape darts past and doubles back around Eliot, barreling between his legs before jumping up on the lounge chair with Ted.

“Oh,” Quentin says absently. “You met Sam, right?”

“He’s a tri-color beagle,” Bea says, gesturing at the dog like she’s Vanna White and Sam is a fabulous convertible.

“Yes. Busy asked for a puppy the day she got magic. And she didn’t stop asking for him any time in year following. So, here we are.” Quentin glowers at the chicken like it owes him a favor, poking it with the tongs.

“He likes me best,” Busy says.

“Everyone likes you best, Bea,” Quentin says. He goes to lick a bit of Italian dressing from his finger, which is probably also covered in raw chicken grease.

“Q— you should—”

Quentin thinks better of giving himself salmonella and wipes the dressing on his apron. He glances back at Eliot. “What?”

“Nothing.” Eliot closes his mouth. He reminds himself that he’s at a house that isn’t his, that he needs to let Quentin cook if that is indeed what Quentin planned to do. Bea is twirling in random circles, which is apparently a thing children do, but he catches her attention with a wave. “I’d still love to see the inside of the house. Are there any secret doors?”

“Oh! No! But I have a whole nook to myself. I keep all my stuff there. You should come see.”

Before Eliot has a chance to respond, Bea is leading him back through the house, making a winding path through the living room past a very un-Quentin-ish sofa and several overstuffed chairs to the stairs that lead to the bedrooms upstairs.

Eliot would dwell on the details— the crown molding, the stone inlay by the fireplace, the grain of the wood on the railing of the stairs. But Bea doesn’t allow for any such pleasantries. She yanks Eliot by the hand, and he falls up the stairs after her, nearly stumbling when she pushes him into her room. It seems like her, the room— filled with cars and ponies and dragons, shelves of books. There’s a spellbook on her bedside table that she clearly lifted from Quentin, open to a spell for growing vegetables faster.

“That’s the spell,” Busy says, unabashed. She slams the book shut before Eliot can really get a good look and pulls him over to the window nook that faces the street. In the nook, there’s a white mesh hammock full of stuffed animals hanging at an angle from the ceiling. There’s a small bookshelf of what look like especially selected books, and there’s a small porcelain tea set on top of it, a Hotwheels car in each cup. Eliot doesn’t ask. “And this is my nook! It’s where I have my shop and my books. And where I keep Edie during the day when I’m at camp.”

“Who’s Edie?”

“This is Edie.” Bea picks up a small stuffed cat with two red ribbons around its neck.

“Ah, Little Edie, nice to meet you.”

“She’s not little!”

“My mistake. Big Edie.”

“She’s not big either,” Busy huffs, inspecting her cat, perhaps to make sure it hasn’t increased in size.

Eliot crouches down and takes it from her, running his finger over the nubby fake fur on its forehead. “Oh, hmm. I guess she’s not. Not too big or too small. Medium Edie.”

Busy nods like that really makes the most sense of all. “Yeah. She’s a medium sized kitty. I wish I had a real one. But Dad says he has callergies.”

“Allergies? Like allergies to cats?”

“That’s what I said.” Busy does a twirl, the sequins on her shirt catching the sunlight in her window nook. “Duh.”

Eliot, and it’s unusual for him he must admit, feels at a loss for words standing in a child’s bedroom, in all of its dragon-and-pony finery. Glow-in-the-dark stars decorate the ceilings, and it looks like Quentin has given Busy carte blanche to draw on one of the walls. His eyes widen at that, until he realizes the dark blue wall is covered in chalk paint, remnants of green and yellow dust coating the baseboards like tainted snow. And beyond that— beyond the bright-clear memory of the smack of a ruler against his knuckles when his mother caught him drawing a picturesque little house on his bedroom wall— Eliot realizes that it wouldn’t matter, really, if she’d been given permission to besmirch any of the walls. Magic erasers exist, and magic also exists. Contrary to the way Eliot was raised, there are genuinely few messes that can’t be unmade.

Eliot points at the wall. “I like your planets.”

“Oh, that’s my constellation chart. I copied it from the spell book!”

“Goodness, then. Don’t— don’t summon any demons. I suppose.”

“That’s the rule! Come on! There’s an attic.” Busy tugs at Eliot’s hand and leads her past Quentin’s bedroom, which Eliot cranes his neck to peer into— all dark blue and burgundy and deep, slate gray— always the colors of Quentin’s greatest comfort— before tugging him upstairs to the attic and launching into an explanation of how her mom would come and sleep in the guest bedroom up here on the third floor, and they’d have tea and talk about dragons.

Eliot reacts, he thinks, more or less appropriately, occasionally making a joke that goes a bit over her head, but she takes it in stride and laughs with him anyway. He can’t imagine Quentin being quite so gregarious in his early years; in fact, Quentin’s blatant inability to turn on any sort of charm is one of his defining features. The thing she does have in common with Quentin is her complete sincerity— that and the clear way she loves magic, the way she greets it with curiosity and wonder.

There’s not really much time or space for him to see the rest of the house with Busy dragging him to only her favorite spaces, skipping over the sitting room in the front of the house and Quentin’s library. She tells Eliot those rooms are too boring for the tour before she leads him back outside.

The clouds, to Ted’s credit, are gathering in the sky to the east of Brantley, the breeze picking up and suffusing the patio with the faint smell of ozone. It looks like the storm hovering just beyond the border of town. Quentin shrugs it off when his dad mentions it again, flipping chicken and vegetable kabobs— tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms— on the grill before turning to Eliot with a smile.

He’s beautiful, all soft dimples and creases at the corners of his dark eyes. Eliot’s looked at the picture on his phone, the one associated with Quentin’s number, quite a lot— like possibly an embarrassing amount. It’s really nothing compared to standing here, facing him, as his dog makes circles around his legs and his daughter twirls in the fading purple light of the early evening.

The spell is broken when Bea tugs at Eliot’s wrist, pulling him to the wide wooden table. “There’s gonna be a big storm,” she announces, “but not until later.”

“Might just be an electrical storm,” Ted says, making his way over to the table with a crutch. “Could be pretty bad late, though.” Quentin helps him sit down next to Bea. He gives Eliot a little nod, which makes Eliot’s stomach flutter; he knows full well he had to have been persona non grata in the Coldwater household for the past eight years.

“Yeah, yeah, you and Granddad and your storm wrangling,” Quentin says, placing chicken and vegetables in the center of the table next to the salad and distributing a clashing set of blue, orange, and purple plates. The cups are mismatched, too, the silverware visibly battered. It’s all well loved, in the way that everything seems in Quentin’s house, even the pieces of furniture that seem newer.

“Granddad had a fall. Just yesterday. I saved him,” Busy says, conversationally. Quentin heaps her plate with chicken and vegetables and tops it off with a slice of buttered bread.

“Yeah. Busy did a good job. She called me— and we got Dad to Albany.” Quentin looks at Eliot a little apologetically. “Sorry again—”

“The last time I got to eat at a friend’s house was Thanksgiving,” Eliot says. “So this is— really lovely. Thank you. Honestly.”

Quentin flashes him a smile, a genuine one, and Eliot lets that warmth rise within him. It has been a long time since he’s been anywhere, really, besides the bakery and Margo’s apartment. Sobriety, unsurprisingly, doesn’t yield dozens of new social avenues, particularly in a town like this one.

“Good. Well— welcome, I guess.” Quentin sits down across from Eliot, which is completely distracting and not even a little bit conducive to Eliot concentrating on eating or speaking. But he thinks he does okay, sitting across from the man he’d long thought he’d never see again, the one person he thought might genuinely be the love of his life.

Eliot is nearly floating by the time they head into the kitchen to share the brownies Eliot brought. He knows he won’t be able to accurately report what the chicken tasted like or what kind of vinaigrette Quentin made when Margo asks because he was mostly paying attention to the way Quentin’s mouth moves, the sweep of his hair, and the way his shoulders look in the shirt he’s wearing. That all seems far more pressing, somehow, than the content of the meal.

When Ted takes Bea into the sitting room to read before bed, Quentin casts him another one of those devastating smiles. “We can— um. We can go outside. I mean, to the sunroom. For— talking.”

Quentin looks incandescently beautiful in the warm gold light of the kitchen, just inches from Eliot. He seems so far away still— Eliot thinks of that sometimes when he’s thinking about Quentin. There’s really no use in saying that he hasn’t been pining over his ex-boyfriend. He absolutely has, without a doubt, been pining over him. An indecent amount.

But it’s like Quentin is still a continent away, like he’s still at Brakebills, Eliot on the beach in Ibiza. He thinks of one time, the memory tacky and cold like drying glue, of seeing Quentin’s name pop up on his phone while he was lying beneath the shade of a palm tree in one of the ubiquitous hammocks, recovering from his sixty millionth hangover. Eliot’s pulse had picked up, seeing Quentin’s beautiful face— and he’d declined the call. Just like that. There was no fully formed thought, just an automatic refusal. Dimly, he remembers thinking that Q was better off, that he’d find someone so much better than Eliot, someone who could give him a home and a family. He’d built that for himself, it turned out, and there’s still— inexplicably— this open space next to him. And Eliot is standing here now in the flickering glow of the candles on the windowsill.

“Yeah. Sure. We can—” Eliot stops— the fucking work thing. That’s why he’s here. That’s why Ted is reading to Busy, that’s the why of everything— not because Quentin wants anything real, wants something with him, the relationship that they never quite had and Eliot could never quite admit that he wanted. “We can go outside. I’ll get my tablet. I have an app that records and transcribes— there’s a bit of spellwork woven into it so it works better than most.”

“Oh— that’s— um, that’s cool.” Quentin clears his throat, stepping back a little and leaning against the counter for a beat. “I’ll get my notebook. Got used to doing things the old fashioned way when I was working at Brakebills. I’ll, um, go sit out on the porch.”

When Eliot passes by Ted’s room to get to the foyer, Eliot hears his voice, warm and deep, as he reads to Busy. It pricks at something inside of him, some long ago dream, more distant than Ibiza, much farther back than that— buried beneath layers of dust and sediment. But it’s there, humming within him, and he stands still for a moment, heartstruck, letting it grow a little louder because it feels safe enough here, doesn’t it. He’d wanted this, at one time— a home, family. He’d dared to imagine, very early on in his teenage years, that maybe he’d find a partner with a mythically accepting parent, and that maybe that would take some of the pain he’d grown up with and transform it. It hadn’t, but this feels close enough to be an echo, and Eliot lets himself glow inside of it for a moment before he grabs his tablet and heads to the porch.

The screen porch sits catacorner to the patio, through a door next to the kitchen. Eliot can see all of Quentin from this vantage point, kicked back in the wide porch swing, bundled into a nest of pillows on one side of it, sketching out formulas and numbers in the composition book he keeps with him at all times. His hair is a bit longer than it was when he first stepped into Eliot’s shop, the edges of it beginning to betray the slight wave of his hair. He’s lit from behind with amber light spilling from the kitchen, a few golden orbs— Meckham’s illumination, he thinks— lit up above him. When Eliot steps out on the porch, there’s an air-cooling spell going, the shimmery edges of it encircling the porch.

“Must be different here,” Eliot says, sliding onto the porch swing, a pile of pillows between them. He has half an urge to sweep the pillows away and crawl into Quentin’s lap, but he’s grown quite good at fighting his urges, so he leans back, settles in.

“Hm? What?” Quentin jots something else down, pressing the eraser of the pencil to his soft lower lip after.

“Getting to use magic whenever you want.” It’s dark enough— and they’re supposed to be working together, anyway— so Eliot lets himself just watch Q as he writes.

“Yeah.” He blinks like he’s coming back to himself before he meets Eliot’s eyes. “Um, yeah. That’s really good, actually. Busy was getting— kind of anxious about— like, magic in general. Like— we had to have a lot of rules about it. And we still do— have rules. But she’s allowed to use it at camp when she’s learning basic spellwork, and she’s allowed to practice outside when there’s an adult with her.”

“Convenient for you, too.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. It’s funny— I know there are, like, a huge fuckton of advantages to all of us being here. Like Sam has space to howl at shit, and my dad always wanted, like, a chicken coop. And he has one— and I can use a heatbox spell on it when it gets cold again. But whenever I think of how good it is to be here, it’s always about Bea. She just— she needed a place where she could shine.” Quentin’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he talks about his daughter. It’s unacceptable, truly, how stunning he is when he talks about something he loves.

“I think you found that. You like it, though?”

“Yeah, I. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. There are things I miss about Brooklyn. That’s where I’d always envisioned my life. But like, sometimes life hands you a forty-pound magician. Things change, and priorities transform, and the endgame looks like something entirely different. So, I’m adjusting. But it’s good. Really good.”

“I know how that is. Not so much the forty pound magician as the broad new perspective sort of thing. Paradigm shift.”

“Yeah.” Quentin laughs and leans almost imperceptibly closer on the porch swing. “There are a lot of those going around. Catching like the common cold.”

“Guess so. You like it at SafeHouse?

“Yeah, actually. I really— really do. I love it— like, I’m not good at a lot of things—”

“That’s not true,” Eliot says softly.

“I mean, it is. Like I was always smart but never— like preternaturally talented at anything. Maybe math— but like, I’m not, like, beyond the norm. And magic— like, I’m solid when it comes to mending—”

“Better than solid.”

“Whatever, listen— I have a point. My point is— that I’m really fucking good at teaching and I never realized it. I did TA shit at Brakebills, and I was so self conscious I had no idea. That I was good. And I am. Felix decided to stay in the program—”

Eliot nods. “Tough one. But you— you did really well with him. I can tell he likes you.”

“Yeah. He— yeah. I think he would have headed back into some dangerous shit.”

“That’s the frequent way of things. It’s a drug, the way they treat magic. Not— all of them, I know. But covens in the big cities chew kids up and spit them back out.” Eliot, without entirely meaning to, shifts closer to Quentin on the swing, their knees bumping. Quentin doesn’t shift back, and Eliot doesn’t either. The soft hum grows inside Eliot, pushing itself through him and blooming into something more complicated, something close and hot and lovely, the wanting of what Quentin always offered him of home wrapped up with the need to be touched and held and kissed— he hasn’t kissed anyone in so long. And someone he genuinely likes— far longer than that.

“Yeah. Felix’s situation— he really didn’t have anywhere to go besides one of the pretty rough covens in Manhattan. He seems happy here, for now. So that’s— an accomplishment. Better than doing mending work for snobby Manhattan magicians.” Quentin stretches, pushing an inch— maybe less than that— closer to Eliot. “You know, Felix asked about you. Said you should come in and teach a ‘telekinesis elective.’”

Eliot laughs. “Hm, I’d probably be banned from campus for ogling the teachers.” He blanches as soon as he says it— but Quentin is going beautifully red.

“Oh—” He clears his throat. “Who would those teachers be? Not Kady, I’d guess. Hm.” Quentin gives him a smile, a genuine one, leaning forward so that Eliot feels like he’s at the top of a tall building, looking down. He snaps it’s finger. “It’s Luke— isn’t it?”

Eliot laughs, nearly startled by it. “I’m never going to live this down, hm.”

“No— totally, like truly— absolutely fucking not.” Quentin’s eyes are crinkled adorably at the corners.

Eliot’s stomach flips. They’re so close, Quentin’s knee bumped up against his; Eliot can feel the soft heat of his body, can smell the woodsy notes of his cologne. A little thrill wends its way up Eliot’s spine at that— Q smells like ginger and sandalwood, something smoky and spicy beneath it. He’d refused to wear a cologne when he was with Eliot, said it was too fussy and he smelled fine as he was, that he’d had an incident with Axe Body Spray after he and Alice returned from South, and he wouldn’t subject himself to more scent-based torture, Eliot.

“I was just—” Eliot stops, just looks at Quentin, who is intensely focused on him. He knows he was going to say something. Something about Luke, he thinks. But it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

“You were just what?”

He lifts his hand, lets it hover over Quentin’s knee for a moment. “I was going to say that—”

There’s a movement— Eliot sees it in the reflection in Quentin’s glasses— and he turns just before there’s a crash in the kitchen and the subsequent dog shaped flash, followed by the stomping of little feet. Busy appears at the screen door, yanking it open without preamble, wearing a patented Coldwater pout. The dog bolts out from between her legs, sending her toppling over and howling before he charges through the dog door and into the yard.

“Hey— Busy— you okay?” Quentin has leapt from the porch swing and propelled himself two feet toward the door frame, catching his daughter just before she crashes against the coffee table in the center of the room. Even still, she’s crumpled in an awkward position, tears dotting her eyelashes even before she starts to cry.

“I’m— I’m— I just needed you to take me to bed, and the dog— he— he got out—”

Eliot feels like a bit of an interloper on the porch watching Quentin’s child crumble and Q— watching him tell her she’s okay, checking her ankle and coaching her through her breathing. It’s too much for Eliot, his neurons all exploding and his heretofore absent biological clock falling from its dusty shelf and ticking to life— as Quentin helps Busy up and pulls her into his arms.

“Hey— I’m sorry.” Quentin turns so Eliot can see the little worry line between his brows. “I’ve gotta get her in bed—”

“Totally understand. I’ll be— I’ll be out here.”

“It might take me a bit. If you wanna go— I know we didn’t exactly figure out what we were going to do for that presentation.”

“I’ll stay.” Eliot isn’t sure if he should, if he’s pushing his luck, but Quentin smiles at him as he takes his daughter inside, and that’s as good a sign as any. Eliot sits back in the pile of pillows on the porch swing, opening his tablet to review what few ideas they do have.

Eliot tries not to think about kissing Quentin, how it would have taken the barest push earlier— just to catch Quentin’s lips, slide his hand to the back of Quentin’s neck. It would have been so easy, like breathing, to fall into Quentin, pull him onto his lap. It would be easy still.

He thinks he could pull Quentin in and slot their lips together. It would be like kneading dough or putting on eyeliner or painting lettering on the daily menu— a practiced motion, repeated so many times that it lives within him. It’s a memory, yes, a distant one at that. But that set of memories is so well worn in Eliot’s mind that it’s like they’ve been with him for the past eight years, tender bed companions that he conjures night after night. He knows how exactly how it would feel to kiss Quentin because he’s relived it obsessively.

Those aren’t the only memories he knows far too well. Since Quentin’s reappearance in his life, Eliot has systematically reviewed— reviewed would be one word for it, anyway— the times and touches he remembers, the heat of Quentin’s compact body, his eager noises, the way he whispered in Eliot’s ear when he was close to tipping over the edge— more.

Eliot sighs, tapping the stylus against the blank page of the tablet, trying to bring his thoughts back to work. They’ve really got nothing because Eliot hadn’t been especially focused, and honestly, this was a terrible environment for figuring anything out. He’s not sure, honestly, how people with children get anything done. And there had been three adults (and one beagle) to one Busy. She’s admittedly one of the loveliest kids Eliot’s met— fuck, she might be the only child Eliot’s really spent any time with as an adult. She might be awful for all he knows.

The screen door opens behind him, and Quentin is framed for a moment by the light of the kitchen. Somewhat tragically, he’s no longer wearing the blue button down he’d had on at dinner; it’s been replaced by a Fillory 5K t-shirt that Eliot remembers Quentin had ordered midway through his second year. It should be threadbare, but it looks good— really good, tight over his biceps in a way that would stop traffic. Maybe Eliot’s biased, but even Margo had acknowledged Quentin’s DILF potential.

“That shirt,” Eliot starts, even though he intends to talk about the presentation they’re supposed to be planning. Not that he’d really had any ideas beyond pressing his lips to the soft spot behind Quentin’s ear. “You had that—”

“Oh, um.” Quentin looks down like he didn’t register changing into a different shirt. “Yeah— mending spells. It’s an old favorite. Simpler times, I guess.”

Eliot nods. “Mm. Getting comfortable?”

Quentin’s mouth falls open, and if Eliot’s not mistaken, there’s a bit of color in his cheeks, though it’s hard to tell in the low light. “Uh. Oh. Busy wiped toothpaste on my button down—”

“She what?”

Quentin grins. “Children are fucking chaos demons. She just— does that shit without thinking. Like at least 74% of parenting is trying to figure out what fluid you have on your shirt.”

“What’s the other 26%?”

“Guesswork. Mitigating disaster. And like— a lot of, like, crisis management.”

“That’s—” Eliot dissolves into a laugh. “—a truly thrilling summary.”

“That’s definitely a word for it.” He rocks back on his heels. “I, like, barely remember changing. So you see before you a pre-bed shirt.”

“I’m flattered I merit the pre-bed shirt.”

Quentin raises one shoulder in a shrug and shuffles over to the swing, pushing back into his corner, and rather unfortunately, several inches further away than he was before. “You’re one of the privileged few. You’re lucky I didn’t just reappear in my boxers.”

“Oh?” Eliot raises an eyebrow.

Quentin purses his lips, a bright blush appearing over his cheeks. “Um, I didn’t mean that like— I mean, more like I just, like, forget what I’m doing?” Quentin reaches for his notebook and whacks his pencil against it. He looks like he might vibrate into the ceiling. “So it would make sense that I’d put on my pajamas and just show up on the porch. Because boxers are my pajamas. Uh.”

Eliot tries not to stare at the planes of Q’s well muscled body beneath the t-shirt, which might have been appropriately sized for the Quentin he knew at Brakebills but it’s clinging on for dear life right now, and Eliot— Eliot has the bizarre impulse to lean forward and lick the shirt where it hits Q’s bicep. It takes a lot of restraint not to focus on the entire concept of DILF Quentin in his boxers or on the way he wants to dive into Quentin’s body, pour it over him, make him feel good and wanted and loved, all the things he deserves.

“I do remember that. Hard to put it out of my mind when I— when I see you.” Eliot shifts in his spot on the swing, rocking them a little. “Not that I’m thinking about that. Every time.”

It might have been the wrong thing to say because Quentin’s cheeks go a deeper shade of red, but Q leans toward him, shifting so his body is canted toward Eliot’s. He’s so close that Eliot can almost taste him— the sweetness of his lips, the soft noises he made as Eliot held him, the way he thrummed up beneath Eliot’s hands. He moves closer, lifting his hand in the vague direction of Quentin’s much shorter hair.

“Um, I.” Quentin gives him a little smile before he ever so slightly— pulls back. “I didn’t think that you’d want to see me. Like this. Or even really— be friends. I thought I’d come by and get it over with and— that would be it. I didn’t expect this.”

There’s a cold drop in Eliot’s chest when he meets Quentin’s eyes. It’s not anger he sees but sadness, the sort he’d worked hard to avoid for such a long time. “I’d say I don’t know why you’d think that, but—” He has the impulse to look away, but he’s been through enough self-healing to know that he’s made it through worse. He can do hard things. “—I never gave you cause to understand how much I— how much I cared about you. I always thought you must hate me. Or that you realized you were better off.”

Quentin gives him a weak smile. “There’s a lot of assumptions there, Eliot.” His voice sounds crisp around the edges, different than the way they’ve spoken to each other tonight, different from the easy rapport they’ve developed over the past few weeks.

“I didn’t mean to assume,” he says.

“It’s um. I mean. I don’t know if it’s something we need to dig into, you know. But if we’re going to be spending time together, and if we’re— if you were flirting with me? Were you flirting with me?” Quentin pauses, and Eliot realizes that Q actually expects a response.

Eliot swallows, his throat dry. “In a very measured and, a— ah, hopefully respectful way. So, yes. Respectfully.” That doesn’t quite get the smile that Eliot was hoping for, but Quentin doesn’t leap up from the swing or hex him. He can be grateful for that, even if he feels like he’s suddenly swimming in shark-infested waters.

“So, if—” Quentin pushes his hair back, and the lock of hair that he had tamed through most of dinner pops back up, taunting Eliot. “— if that’s a thing— in the interest of adulting, you should know that it was— um.” Quentin pulls one knee up and hugs it to his chest. “It was hard. Like really hard. Julia had to drag me back to school.”

“Q— I’m sorry—”

He holds his hand up to get Eliot to stop like he did during that first visit at the bakery, like it’s something he’s firmly unwilling to hear. “Um. You know, I did think that you didn’t care about me. Not to like, drag you through that. But that’s what I thought. And for the reason that, like, I can’t seem to stop talking, I guess, I’m— I just. I just thought you needed to know.”

The tight, cold thing in the center of Eliot’s chest twists up, creaking against itself. “That’s fair.”

“It’s fine now. I assumed for a long time you didn’t want me, and falling out of touch was the easiest way to let me know.”

“No— there’s—” Eliot swallows hard. “There’s never been a time I didn’t want you. I thought you must be a lot better off when I left.”

“That wasn’t your decision to make, like, without me. I know we weren’t— I know we weren’t official. And that was on me, you know. Not just you. I swore I wasn’t going to talk about this. But I guess. It’s, like. Good to talk about it. If we’re going to be friends.” He huffs, turning the full force of his worry-beset brow on Eliot. “I never hated you,” he says, voice low, “and I never thought I was better off without you.”

“You were. In those years.”

“Maybe. But you couldn’t have told me that..” Quentin pushes back into his corner, away from Eliot, pulling a pillow over his chest and hugging it.

“Q— I’m—”

“I was engaged,” Quentin interrupts. “He was a TA at Brakebills when I was doing contract work there. I really liked him. I loved him. It was um, after you and after Busy’s mom but I didn’t— I didn’t think I would find anyone. But I did. It wasn’t really, like, right, though.”

Eliot’s everything seems to crack inside, solid-loud and crunching, like ice splitting just before a thaw. “He was the boyfriend who—”

“Yeah. Um. If Bea hadn’t sprung from my past life fully formed— we would have been married like— six months after Julia and Kady. It’s good Bea came along for a lot of reasons. Oliver thought— he kept saying I was hung up on you. He’d make jokes, and I brushed it off. The jokes kind of turned to jabs because I did still talk about you. Not often but— sometimes.” He glances at Eliot before his eyes dart to the ceiling, focusing on the orbs of light above them. “Right before Busy came into my life, Oliver found, like, a folder of pictures on my computer. And some of them were—” Quentin shrugs. “Well, you know.”

Eliot’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh?”

Quentin laughs, shaking the swing and diffusing some of the tension between them. “What was I going to do? Delete them?”

“I thought you probably did.” Eliot doesn’t add that he kept every picture, every moment stored. That he pulled up one of the videos just this morning— it definitely stood up to the test of time. But he might have to watch another just to make sure. “I might not have been an amazing boyfriend, but I’m phenomenal in bed.”

Quentin makes a disgruntled noise, rolling his eyes. “You were a really good boyfriend. Even if we were— keeping it casual or whatever the fuck we thought we were doing— when we were together, you made me feel—” Quentin takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, blinking his eyes. “—like I was really important to you. And desirable. Like I mattered.”

“That’s how I felt about you.” Eliot steels himself against the desire to tug Quentin into his lap, to kiss him until he’s melting, until he can’t think clearly enough to keep talking. It’s the strangest mix of sensation— the anxious, swirling energy of reliving his greatest regret and the prickling, needy rush of possibility, the weight of knowing that Q had wanted him, maybe wants him still.

“I spent, like, a while being angry. And I went to therapy and switched meds. I finished my thesis, and I put it behind me. Or I— I thought I did? I guess. I really thought I did. But Oliver kept pointing out that I hadn’t, not really.”

Eliot thinks Oliver sounds like a possessive dick, but he holds it in his mind, tucking it away. Not the right time. He goes with what seems like a safer option. “What do you think?”

“I dunno. I mean, people are all made up of their memories, and part of that is— all the people they loved, including all the times it didn’t work. We worked, you know, until we didn’t. I guess.” Quentin closes his eyes and presses the pads of his fingers to his eyelids. “You know, I think there’s a piece of me that’s always going to be back there at the airport, watching you walk away. And that’s at odds with this other part of me that wants you in my life. Warring factions, I guess.”

“I guess,” Eliot echoes. He rests his elbow on his knees, watching the door as Quentin’s beagle pushes through the dog door and flops down on the Berber carpet. Eliot’s pretty sure this is his cue to leave, but he feels stuck to the spot, rooted, like he could sit in the weight of this shame indefinitely.

“Um, so. I do want you in my life, Eliot. But it’s— it’s really hard. But I know I can’t go back there. There’s too much at stake.”

It shouldn’t surprise Eliot that this is the way of things. He’s known he did wrong by Quentin for a long time, really since the moment he left. He’d followed that path to the conclusion that Quentin wouldn’t want to see him, wouldn’t accept Eliot into his life. And recently, he’s thought that maybe he was wrong, that he and Q could be something again. He’d never considered this in-between place or the reality of sitting with it. Eliot taps against the vape pen in his pocket, where it clacks against his phone. “I get that. I do.”

Eliot is in the midst of wondering how he’s going to follow that up, what he’s going to say when there’s a loud clang in the kitchen, followed by Sam perking up from a deep sleep and launching into a howl, his tail and scruff perked up.

“Oh, shit.” Quentin leaps up, flinging the porch door open. Eliot immediately follows, shocked into action by the— everything, the bang of the door, the continuous howling, and Quentin’s rush into the kitchen.

What Eliot sees in the kitchen is something he thinks he’ll remember forever— Quentin, frozen in the doorway, staring at his daughter who is turned toward the stove, every burner lit, bright plumes of flame reaching the range hood and extending beyond it. Behind her is a cluster of pots and pans, some of them floating a few feet from the ground, others scattered over the floor.

Eliot’s body floods with adrenaline and he tries to push past Quentin, whose arm automatically flings out and grabs Eliot’s arm, clutching hard. Q’s voice is shaky when he speaks. “You’ve gotta— gotta stay back. There’s an anti-pyromancy charm on, um, the kitchen. Well, most of the house. We’ve um, we’ve gotta be— calm.”

“So—” Eliot’s heart beats wildly, his body pulsing with the drive to act, to help, to stop whatever is happening. But he steadies himself, even if he can’t halt the pounding in his ears. “What’s the procedure here?”

“She’s— she’s asleep.” Quentin lets go of his shirt, his hand trembling as he takes a slow step forward. “So she has— n-no idea what she’s doing. Usually it’s, like, stuffed animals. Which is a little, uh. Different from this. But she— she saw my dad break his ankle this morning, so I think, I think that’s— you know. Stress. For a six year old.”

“I can grab her—”

“No, um. We do not want to do that. Not when she’s— fire. You know. Not good with fire. We don’t want to startle her. I’m— I’m shit at pyromancy. I can um— I can talk to her if you can, like, redirect whatever she’s doing? You can— you know how to do that, right?”

“Working at a Six Flags for hedonistic, mostly drunk magicians gives a boy some unique skills.” Eliot swallows hard, his body tensed as he runs through the protocol for Inadvertent Magical Emission. Slow approach, calm the customer, remove their access to all drugs and alcohol, redirect outpourings of violent magic in a worst case scenario. This is truly a worst case scenario, and it doesn’t even involve enchanted cocaine or Bacardi 151— but Eliot supposes a child is similar enough to a small drunk person. “I can manage.”

“We just can’t— like vigorously shake her. Or shout at her—”

“I wasn’t planning on it? But duly noted.”

“That was just, like, the wording the pediatrician used.” Quentin releases a deep, shuddering breath and gestures for Eliot to approach Busy from the opposite side of the kitchen while he slowly walks toward his daughter.

“Hey, Busy,” he hears Quentin say just as a plume of fire reaches the ceiling. The smoke detector, quite belatedly, starts bleating vigorously, and Eliot hears the thump of Ted’s crutch as it hits the floor. Quentin gives Eliot a panicked look, and Eliot responds in kind by striding quickly to Busy’s side and raising his hands in the complex, fiddling little formation of Harringer’s Rerouting, sussing out the thread of Busy’s magic, separate from the protection spells on the kitchen, distinct from the ambient surrounding them. He tugs at it, like pulling at it like a loose thread, gentle so it doesn’t break but firm enough that it, slowly, begins to unravel.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Quentin says, his voice soft and low, “it’s just me. Eliot’s here, too. You’re sleeping, but you need to wake up, okay? You’re fine, we just gotta—”

Busy’s magic flares, fire cascading over the kitchen ceiling, and the thump of Ted’s crutch against the hardwoods gets closer.

Eliot pulls hard on the thread of magic, gathering its energy, cooling it down, piece by piece.

“Everyone okay in there? What were you doing, making a midnight snack? We already ate!”

The pots and pans still floating behind Busy clatter to the floor, and the fire tries to flare again as she screams, her raised hands faltering as Eliot yanks the rest of the magic from her— wilder and hotter than that of an adult— and pulls it safely to a swirling shimmer in front of him, the fire falling away as he seals it and Busy slumps, crying, into Quentin’s arms. Eliot ties the magic off with a twist of his thumbs. It hangs in the air for a moment, shimmering with a silvery cast, not unlike that of a freshly cast ward. It hovers there for a moment before it bursts and dissipates into the air like water vaporizing on hot pavement.

Busy is still weeping, hanging onto Quentin’s shoulders and nearly pushing him over when she tries to crawl into his lap. “Daddy— what happened?”

“It was just a little sleepwalking. We fixed it. It’s okay, we fixed it.”

Eliot nearly falls over from the expenditure of magic and the adrenaline crash. The kitchen is still lightning-hot, the ceiling scorched, the smoke detector beeping ceaselessly. There’s a knock on the doorframe, and Eliot turns to see Ted taking in the scene.

“You kids okay in here? Looks like we had a real scorcher tonight.”

“Yeah, we’re um. It’s okay,” Quentin says, glancing at Eliot, wide-eyed, before glancing at his father.

“Sleepwalking again?”

“You are—” Eliot pants. “— surprisingly calm for all of this.”

“Had a lot of practice. Curly Q—”

“Oh, my God, Dad.

“— he was always sleepwalking, knocking things over. We never had a fire, but there were a few very odd things that went missing. And once when he almost fell down the stairs.”

Busy is still crying, and Quentin is shushing her, Ted still awkwardly staring at Eliot. It occurs to him that this has crossed from helpful-magic-friend territory to family invasion territory.

“Normally, I’d take Bea,” Ted starts, “but as it stands— well, I can’t really stand much. If you boys need anything— I was going to say, you should just shout. But you should probably call Julia.” Ted leans forward beyond the door frame. “Busy Bea.”

She looks up from Quentin’s shoulder. “Yeah?”

“You okay?”

She nods. “M’okay.”

“Goodnight. I’ll be fixed up in a few days here. We’ll get back to our routine.”

“Yeah,” she says, her voice very small. “G’night. Love you.”

“Love you, too, sweetheart.”

Ted thumps away with his crutch, and Eliot thinks, his stomach churning, that he might actually sink into the floor below, melting into the foundation. “I should probably go,” he manages. “I’m— I should probably— head home.”

“No— wait,” Quentin says. “Um. Don’t. Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. I mean— you should if you need to. You should—”

“I’ll stay,” Eliot says, not really meaning to say it. “What can I do for you? To help?”

“Can we have hot chocolate?” Busy looks at Eliot, expectant, tears clinging to her eyelashes.

“Wow, well,” Quentin says, glancing up at Eliot, who is now faced with two sets of Coldwater eyes, “I am super not into using the stove right now, Busy—”

“I’ve got it. You two go get cleaned up. I have a spell I can use. I have bakery magic that allows for such things sans terrifying plumes of fire.”

Eliot gathers ingredients in Q’s kitchen—milk, honey, a surprisingly nice cocoa powder from the odd little market in town—while Q gathers Busy in his arms and takes her upstairs where he hears the washing of hands and a brief argument on Busy’s stringent belief that it’s unnecessary to change pajamas as “these ones are fine, just singed.”

Eliot hums a little as he heats a pot with an endothermic spell that alters the state of the molecules or some such. It simmers merrily until it hits the perfect temperature; Eliot suspends it there, adding in chocolate and honey, a hint of cinnamon to bring out the sweetness of the milk, the richness of the chocolate. He falls into it, letting the evening slough away, the fire kissing the ceiling, his cold panic, the conversation on the porch. This is one thing he knows how to do, a small thing to steady him, a way to pull himself back from the darker places in his mind and give something to a man he loved once, who he believed had loved him as well.

When Quentin and Busy reappear, she’s clad in dark blue pajamas with a robot and rocketship design, her hair brushed, eyes bright. “I didn’t know you could make hot chocolate!”

“I’m a genius when it comes to such things. Your father should bring you to my bakery.”

“The bakery with the fancy name?”

“Yeah. That’s the one.” Eliot puts a mug on the kitchen table and watches as she sits down. Quentin is now wearing a different Fillory shirt, which is honestly so cute. In the days Eliot knew him, he certainly had at least five such shirts. It’s not exactly surprising he has the same now. But it is cute.

Bea sips at her hot chocolate. “Dad told Julia—”

Quentin sighs sharply. “Hey, um. Bea. You don’t need to like—”

“— that he wasn’t stopping in because he might jump over the counter and—” Busy takes a long, loud slurp form her mug, smiling angelically afterwards, chocolate on her upper lip. “— what did you say, Dad?”

Eliot’s insides twist up, a prickle running up the length of his spine. He knows that he and Q had been about to kiss, maybe. It was easy to question whether or not Quentin would want Eliot in his adult life, the life with a child and a home and a steady job. He knows Quentin is attracted to him— was then, is now— and this was a total call out. When Eliot looks over at him, he expects Quentin to look— sheepish, maybe. Twitchy or squirrely or cagey. Instead, Quentin just meets his eye, something dark and hot passing over his features. He’s leaning against the doorframe, t-shirt pulled tight over his chest and arms, his hair getting just long enough to fall over his glasses on one side. His cheeks are maybe the faintest bit pink when he shrugs, gesturing with one hand as if to say, well, what did you expect?

A bolt of heat shoots through his core, lighting up his nervous system like fireflies coming to life on a hot summer night, smooth and slow, darkness coming to life one spark at a time.

“This is freakin’ great,” Busy says, sipping louder, Eliot would say, than is strictly necessary. It breaks his concentration, and he pulls his eyes away from Q, over to the little girl sitting at the kitchen table, smiling bright, chocolate on her teeth and her upper lip.

“I am so thoroughly delighted that you’ve enjoyed it.” When he glances back at Quentin, he’s still watching Eliot, arms crossed. He’s different, this Q, older and more confident. Eliot hasn’t had the chance to process it yet, and he doesn’t know the thesis statement, really, of what Quentin was telling him since they were interrupted by a very cute fire demon who is currently watching them with interest and finishing her hot chocolate— but he does know that Quentin acknowledged, plainly, that he’d never stopped wanting Eliot. That he still does, that it’s hard, that he doesn’t quite know where that leaves him. Eliot doesn’t know where that puts them, but it’s somewhere they weren’t the day before, and he’ll take that for now.

“Dad, did you have any?”

“Oh— not yet. I don’t think I can handle it if Eliot is good at making pastries and hot chocolate. That might be one of those things where I just— melt into the floor.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” Eliot says lightly. There’s a bright flash that pulses for the kitchen for a moment, the sky lighting up, clouds reflecting purple beyond the kitchen windows. The world beyond is illuminated for a moment— the dark outline of the willow tree in Quentin’s back yard, the tall fence, the chimney of the house behind his.

The dog leaps up from his position by the pantry door and howls again just as thunder begins to rumble, only seconds behind. The first burst of sound is followed by another, a crack that reverberates through the old bones of the house as the wind begins to pick up.

“That was loud,” Bea comments, sliding to the kitchen floor and scooting over to sit with her dog. He huddles against her, shoving his head in her lap. For all his posturing, Sam seems to be afraid of storms.

“I think that’s my cue,” Eliot says. Rain splatters in fat splotches against the windows. “Sounds like Ted and Bea were right about the storms. I should have taken off already. If you two are fine—”

“You should stay,” Bea says sagely. “Granddad says no one should go out in a storm. He says that the ambient magic in Brantley is a magnet for—” She pauses for a moment, like she’s trying to pull the information from her mind. “—electrical storm activity. He won’t fly his drone before a storm here.” Bea huddles back against the pantry door, pulling Sam closer to her chest.

“Don’t let Granddad scare you, honey.”

“I’m not scared. Sam is scared. I’m protective of him. He doesn’t have a mom, so he needs someone to hold him during thunderstorms.” Quentin looks a little taken aback by that, and his eyes flit between Bea and Eliot. The mother in question hasn’t been mentioned very much, but apparently, Bea heads Quentin’s anxiety about that. “I’m talking about the dog, Dad. I have, like, three moms. Poppy, Julia, Kady. Sometimes Alice. They’re all my mom.”

“Well.” Quentin clears his throat. He nearly has to shout over the thunder. “I guess that’s— true. Um. Thanks for taking care of Sam.”

“No problem.”

Outside, the wind whips, the storm picking up. Yeah, Eliot should have left an hour ago. It’s only a five block walk, he reminds himself. And he needs to go so Quentin can do his family thing, get Bea back to bed. “I should go, really.”

“Um, I think— I’d offer to walk you home. Under less stormy circumstances,” Quentin says. His words light up that whirl of heat already sitting within him. He offered to walk Eliot home. Which is a good sign— it has to be a good sign, right?

“I think I’ll be okay, Q.” He can’t help smiling. “If you have an umbrella—” In his pocket, his phone buzzes, followed by the weather warning sound that he’s all too familiar with.

Quentin’s phone starts up a moment later, and his eyes widen when he looks at it. “Shit— there’s a, um— a tornado warning. We are, like, very strongly encouraged to shelter in place.”

Eliot wants to say that he can walk home in the storm, that he’ll be fine for the five blocks that it takes to get to his apartment, that the weatherproofing spell should be enough. He purses his lips as another crack of lightning illuminates the sky, deep gray-purple clouds and the black outlines of houses and trees. “I could walk—”

“Nonsense. You’ll be staying here. Big front moving through, and a tornado touched down right outside of Albany.” Ted Coldwater is back at the door of the kitchen; Eliot hadn’t heard the thump of his crutch due to the thunder and the relentless pounding of the rain. The dog leaps up, the fur on his back puffed up, and he gives a plaintive half-howl, half-bark before he cowers back to his spot with Busy, burying his head in her lap. “With the weather anomalies here—”

“Dad, please don’t start.” Quentin drags his hand over his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Curly Q, it’s true. Deb told me at least ten tornadoes have nearly touched down here or just outside of town. Ripped up the byway on the east side of town about a year and a half ago. Storms don’t break up over mountain ranges like they usually do—”

“She said Brantley attracts weather like magnets,” Busy adds. “She used to be a storm chaser.”

“She’s right— we oughta go down to the basement. You all go on down there, and I’ll stay in the hallway up here.”

“You’re not staying in the fucking hallway, Dad. Bea— you go hang out in the basement, and we’ll get Granddad down there.” Quentin’s eyes narrow as he looks at his father. “And then Granddad is telling me who Deb is.”

They all shuffle toward the door to the basement, Bea traipsing down first. Eliot hears her pulling something down from a shelf, the rustle of fabric following, as he and Quentin help Ted down the old wooden stairs.

As his tour didn’t include much beyond Busy’s bedroom and her nook, Eliot’s not sure what he’s expecting when he enters the basement, but it’s not— whatever’s been going on in the basement, apparently, for the last few weeks. “Oh, wow. This is cozy.”

In the style of many basements attached to early twentieth century houses in Upstate New York, the ceilings are low, and the walls are reinforced with brick and concrete in places, and there are a web of small rooms; in many other homes, there would be an inherent eeriness to the space, but here, it’s pretty clear that Quentin’s daughter has been, well— busy.

In the main room of the basement, there are two Coleman camping tents set up; just behind them are gym mats, with bright blue hammocks hanging above them. Each wall is painted a different color— deep purple, forest green, cyan blue, and a magenta that Eliot feels, upon consideration, was well-selected. A room to the right has mattresses set up on the floor, flanked by bookcases on either wall, and fairy lights strung across the ceiling.

“Welcome to sheltering in place chez Coldwater.” Quentin gestures to the tents. When he glances at Eliot, a dimple pops out on one cheek, and Eliot’s heart double thumps in his chest.

Eliot watches mutely as Quentin sets his dad up on one of the mattresses in the— Eliot’s not sure what to call it— the room with mattresses in it. Q does a careful spell to elevate one mattress so that Ted can get up and down easily. Busy makes herself a nest next to her grandfather, setting up with a pile of books and no clear intention of going back to sleep, possibly because Eliot’s entire visit has been a disaster movie where the main character keeps getting chased by natural (and unnatural, in this case) phenomena. Eliot catches a sliver of conversation as he peeks through the rooms in the basement.

“… thought you might tell me who Deb is.” There’s an edge of Responsible Dad Quentin in his voice, which is quite honestly really working for Eliot.

“Deb Hoberman. You’ve met her— at least once. Former ornithologist—”

“And a storm chaser?”

“She was telling Busy Bea about storms. It’s a topic of mutual interest.”

Quentin huffs out a little sigh, like he can’t believe his father might be talking to a woman, of all things. “Well, I’m sure she’s nice.”

“She is.” There’s a hint of laughter in Ted’s voice that makes Eliot smile. Good for him.

Eliot is sitting against the back wall of the basement, wondering exactly when he should leave. He almost doesn’t want to; it’s like he’s gained entry into Quentin and Busy’s secret world. Eliot’s always been a bit of a risk taker, and this seems— as risky as anything’s been in a long time. His ex already pretty plainly told him it’s hard to be around Eliot, and here Eliot is— sitting in Quentin’s basement, pretending to read a book on his phone while the sky flings itself at Brantley.

“Don’t be mad that your dad is boo’ed up with Deb Hoberman. She’s cool.”

Quentin slides down the wall next to Eliot, about two feet separating them. “Is that— Josh’s mom?”

“Yeah. She lives over on Lakeview. A few doors down from Josh. She’s long-widowed. Nature magician like Josh. And at some point, I’d wager she’s split a pot brownie with your dad.”

Quentin sighs, pulls his knees up to his chest and rests his chin there. “My dad didn’t confirm that they were dating.”

“I know Deb pretty well at this point. If she’s got him in her sights, she’s not going to be shy about dating him. She’s a very hashtag YOLO ex-hippie boomer who loves birds, storms, and weed. Been lonely since Josh’s dad died a few years back.” Eliot shrugs. “I’d wager if she met Bea—”

“It sounds like she did.” He sounds moderately scandalized, like Ted might have been introducing his daughter to strangers lurking at the playground. “Which is fine. I’m fine with that. I’m fine with my dad— dating. Or whatever.”

“Well, I’d imagine she’d go insane over Busy. She spoiled me and Margo when we went there for Thanksgiving. Unlimited fancy wine for Margo, and Rice Krispie edibles for the rest of us. They fried a turkey in a metal trash can in the backyard.”

Quentin snorts. “Of course they did. Bet it was good.”

“It was fucking good.”

They sit in silence for a while after that, Eliot glancing at his book occasionally and trying not to stare at Quentin, the soft glow of him, illuminated in the soft glow of the fairy lights strung above him.

“Bea’s life has been— inconsistent,” Quentin starts. “She didn’t know me the first couple years of her life, and I didn’t know she existed. Her mom, who was a, like, pretty brief fling, turned up at the door of my apartment with a two year old. I was living with my fiancé, Oliver.”

“Jesus, Q.”

“I was pretty, um. Shocked? I told Poppy I’d keep Bea for the weekend, because she had to see about a dragon— she’s a draconologist— in Bulgaria. Poppy was— well, it was longer than a weekend. About four days longer than a weekend. It was really hard and really fucking weird— and Oliver left to stay with his family while I had Bea there. My dad came to stay with us. The whole thing was— really not great. At least she liked me, like, right away?”

“What’s not to like?”

Quentin gives him a soft smile. “Plenty, apparently. Oliver left after that. After Poppy and I worked out a custody agreement. He told me this wasn’t what he’d ‘signed up for,’ even though he’d told me a dozen times he wanted kids. Just not— my kid, I guess?” There’s a sigh, followed by Quentin shifting on the mat, his knee falling to one side, closer to Eliot. “As much as I loved Busy, like, right away— it was really tough on her to have all these adults switching in and out of her life. Then, two years later, it was pretty clear she had magic. And it was— terrifying. And now we’re here. I’m sure Deb is fine. She sounds cool. But it’s a whole new person.”

“Busy seems pretty sure of things.”

“She’s like that. Always a lot more surefooted than I am.” Quentin pushes his hair back, tugging at it again like he’s trying to make it grow. “It’s been a big change. For me, I mean. Busy is— fine. I’m way more worried about her than I need to be. But I can’t help myself. It’s just the internal governing circumstance of parenthood.”

“Sounds about right,” Eliot says softly.

“And you— you’re here. It’s, um. I didn’t know you would be. But you are, and I have to face that, I guess.”

Eliot’s heart can’t take much more of this. It’s been doing medically questionable things in his chest since he arrived at Quentin’s house, and it’s just about given up. “Q, is it easier if we’re not— if we take a little time before being friends?” Eliot swallows hard, against the hard, thick weight forming in his throat. “I’d like to actually be friends—”

“Eliot—” There’s a sharp, ragged edge to Quentin’s voice.

“—at some point. It doesn’t have to be right now. And it doesn’t have to be intimate. We can be cordial. You can come into the bakery and say hello. But I can withdraw from the volunteer committee or shift to working with someone else—”

“El,” Quentin says, voice low. “That’s not what I—”

“—because I get that you don’t want— me. In your life. I shouldn’t have pushed my way into it. I was cruel and I—”

“Eliot, stop.”

“— I shouldn’t have—”

“Would you just listen—”

“What?”

“I was going to— before everything— before the fire and the fucking tornado. What’s next? An electrical storm made of sharks? I don’t even— just listen.”

Eliot listens.

“I don’t know whether I asked you out on a date or not. You know for— the French restaurant. And then— this. Total disaster. Or if it was just friends. Or if it was for work, and we’re friends and, incidentally, we used to date but we pretended we weren’t dating?”

“Ah, that’s a more or less— accurate summary.” Eliot glances over at Quentin, who’s looking at the wall ahead. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t have any expectations that it was a date.”

Quentin meets his gaze, his eyebrows quirked together. There are a few gray hairs just around his temples; his glasses are a bit askance, his face relaxed into the signature Quentin Coldwater Pout™, the one he wears instead of a neutral face at rest. Eliot has, in the past several weeks, thought about that pout an absurd number of times, thought about those full lips wrapped around his cock, how it felt to nudge to the back of Quentin’s throat. The contented groan that came from Q when he’d taken Eliot as far as he could. The way his eyes fluttered shut, then— the way he looked up at Eliot as he took him to the edge. Eliot’s jerked off a fair number of times about it. He’s also jerked off to the idea of holding hands with Quentin in bed— like as a prelude to sex, at least— which he thinks lends evidence to the idea that he’s not out to hurt anyone. That, he thinks, probably wouldn’t stand up in court.

“I— I don’t know if I— I don’t know what I was doing. I know I see you, and I feel— I feel a lot of things, Eliot. I feel angry, and I feel so sad for the person I was— and the person you were. And I feel— I feel stunned that you’re here. In this place. And that you want to see me. Want to talk to me.”

“I do. I always do,” Eliot says. “I’ll always want to.”

“And I’m— blown away at that.”

“At what?”

“You. Saying that.”

“Oh.” Eliot shifts, pulling one knee up to his chest. “New thing I’m trying. Emotional honesty.”

“What am I supposed to do with that?” Quentin sounds moderately distressed, and Eliot doesn’t particularly blame him.

“I don’t know, Q.” Eliot’s eyes flick to Quentin’s lips, his abdomen tensing when Quentin’s tongue darts out. It’s one thing to sit next to Quentin when they’re working on the competition. When Luke is fetching Quentin ice water and handing him pencils. Or when he’s passing by the bakery and waves hello. It’s entirely another to be here, sitting next to Q in the near-dark as the sounds of the storm and the ever present beat of the living house buzz on around them.

“Well. What do you want?”

Eliot takes a deep breath. His blood rushes hot beneath his skin. “I thought you were going to kiss me. And I thought I’d kiss you back— and then I realized I wasn’t thinking very far beyond that, which is very on brand for me. To be very clear, I still want you. I always have.” Quentin is looking at him intently, like he might spot the missing piece of an equation he’s been puzzling over if he just concentrates hard enough. “I never stopped— but I’ll step back if that’s what you want.”

“That’s not what I want,” Quentin says quickly, his voice low. “It’s just that I don’t— I don’t know if what I want is— well, I don’t even know the shape of it. What I want. With you. I just know it’s— intense. What I feel, still, when I see you.”

“Then you’re the one guiding this ship, darling. You tell me what you want when you know the shape of it.”

Quentin just breathes for long moments, looking at Eliot, chin pressed to one knee. When he speaks, he’s slow and halting. “First, um. We can find a time to figure out the Safehouse stuff. And then, I’d like to ask you to my birthday dinner. Lowkey. Just, like, a few people.”

Eliot keeps his face neutral. The cake Kady ordered in the spring is big enough to feed a small army, and it’s supposed to be delivered to Safehouse directly. But that’s— that’s fine. Eliot can do that. “I missed a lot of birthdays. It would be nice to be there for this one.”

“Good. I’d, um— I’d like that? I think. I’d like that a lot.”

“Me too.”

“I don’t, um.” Quentin swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing when he looks at Eliot. “I don’t— I can’t. I have to take things slow. That’s what I was going to say before on the porch. I want you, Eliot. I want you— so much. Like I haven’t let myself want anything in a long time. But I have to be intentional. My life doesn’t belong to just me anymore.”

“I know.” The back of Eliot’s throat burns when he swallows. He grips his shin, fingertips pressed into muscle.

“And I don’t have time to fuck around with something that’s not— really right. And things— things were so close to right when we were together before. Don’t you think?”

Eliot— breathes out, a heavy weight sitting on his chest. “In a way, I think a lot of our relationship was right. In other ways, it wasn’t. I was so young, and I was foolish. I’m not perfect now, but I’m trying very hard not to be careless.”

“That’s, um. That’s good so— do you want to— like officially—”

There’s a loud creak, followed by a little bloom of light about three feet off the ground. When the light takes shape, a little bulb suspended in mid air, it illuminates Bea’s face, her red hair, the dark circles under her eyes. “I couldn’t sleep,” she says, her voice very quiet. “I kept thinking about the fire. And the thunderstorm.” Sam pokes his head from behind her legs, and he comments with a disgruntled woof before trotting over and plopping down at Quentin’s feet.

Quentin goes immediately alert, standing and brushing imaginary dust away from his jeans. “You want to sleep in one of the hammocks, Bea?”

 

Eliot can see Busy nodding, her face so much less confident at midnight than it had been when he’d arrived. She walks over to them on her tiptoes, looking between them. Her cat is tucked beneath one arm, a book beneath the other. Her eyes land on Eliot. “Would you read to me?”

She places the book in Eliot’s hand while Quentin readies the hammock for her, holding it steady while she climbs in. That’s how Eliot finds himself reading James and the Giant Peach, sitting on a stack of gym mats in Quentin Coldwater’s basement while the storm whips and rages on outside, hail clacking against the house, sharp and arrhythmic.

“Not far away, in the middle of the garden,” Eliot reads, “he could see the giant peach towering over everything else. Surely it was even bigger tonight than ever before? And what a dazzling sight it was. The moonlight was shining and glinting on its great curving sides, turning them to crystal and silver. It looked like a tremendous silver ball lying there in the grass, silent, mysterious, and wonderful. And then all at once, little shivers of excitement started running over the skin on James’s back. Something else, he told himself, something stranger than ever this time, is about to happen to me again soon. He was sure of it. He could feel it coming.”

When Quentin checks to find Busy asleep, finally, in the hammock, suspended in the air a few feet above them, he smiles at Eliot and gives him a silent thumbs up. Quentin tosses Eliot a sleeping bag, and they settle in, heads resting on camping pillows on opposite walls, their feet nearly touching in the middle of the mat. A minute or two after Quentin dims the lights on the ceiling with a flick of his wrist, Eliot’s phone buzzes next to him, the screen lighting up.

Quentin: will u be my date to my birthday dinner next weekend, sry we were interrupted

Eliot chuckles. He can see Quentin’s phone light up in the dark when he texts back.

I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.

I am extremely busy and very popular.

But it looks like I have that day free.