It was only about 3:30 in the afternoon, but Quentin was already seriously considering casting Enchant Water into Vodka about six times and calling it a day. He could only foresee one problem with this, which was that Enchant Water into Vodka wasn’t an actual spell in any discipline he knew. If it had been, it seemed pretty unlikely that he would have missed it.
Quentin was back in New York now, and it wasn’t as if vodka of the unenchanted variety was in any kind of short supply. But the last time he had checked, the snow was still coming down pretty steadily and bundling up in three layers just to walk down to the corner liquor store and buy a bottle from the clerk with whom Quentin was already on a first name basis was pretty high on the list of things that he didn’t want to get accomplished today.
Times like this, he was surprised by how little he missed Fillory.
He missed being king sometimes, and having about a hundred loyal pages on call, any one of whom would have jumped at the chance to be given the title of Royal Vodka Fetcher. But as for Fillory itself, magical land of wonder and adventure, he just didn’t think about it all that often.
It probably didn’t help that he was living in a third floor walkup closet in Brooklyn, a place which, on a scale of one to magical, was about a negative 15. Sure, you could hit up the antique stores and actually turn up some pretty legitimate stuff. Quentin had been at a pawn shop down in Williamsburg a couple of months ago looking for a bike and he’d spotted the Casket of Arctic Winds right there in the display under the counter. He’d had the owner get it out so he could take a closer look, and sparks had shot out about a foot in every direction where Quentin had touched it and a film of hoarfrost had crept over his right hand all the way to the wrist. He’d had a hell of a time convincing the owner that, no, he hadn’t broken it, so, no, he wasn’t going to buy it.
But that still wasn’t magic, not like Fillory had been magic anyway. That was just tourism.
Still, Quentin thought he was adapting to life back on earth pretty well. He’d been eating a lot of Pho, and he was smoking again. He’d been to a couple of shows around the city, including one at The Knitting Factory, where he’d been about the oldest person there except for the bartender. He’d left with his ears ringing, which he decided was a pretty solid indication that he was getting old. But he had taken even that realization in stride.
He was working again. This time, he’d gotten the job without the help of Brakebills - though, he reminded himself, having that cushy vice president position right at the top of his resume probably hadn’t hurt - working as an on-call interpreter for a couple of sales reps from a big oil and gas company out of Bucharest. Magic school hadn’t given him a lot of marketable skills, but it had drilled about a dozen obscure languages into his skull. A couple of them even still had living speakers.
Radu and Constantin flew into New York about once a month. They’d call him as they were landing at JFK and Quentin would throw on his one good suit and rush out to find a cab to take him out to meet them. Then he’d try to look presentable and discreet for the rest of the day while a limo shuttled them between about six different lunch meetings.
There had always been a faint whiff of the unsavory, the underhanded, around the dealings of the Bucharest Brothers here in the city, but for as long as Quentin had been working for them, they had never engaged in anything but dull, dry, on-the-level corporate bullshit. They hadn’t even asked him to show them any good strip clubs. Quentin was starting to think that they actually had a younger, hipper translator who they liked a lot better. One who had a lot of tattoos and got into dead-hooker-in-dufflebag shenanigans with them.
Radu had that regal, high-browed look about him, like he probably had a Roma grandmother somewhere who’d passed on all her ancient secrets to him. Once, Quentin had tried to hit him up for what he knew about Gypsy divination teas, but Radu had just given him a look like Quentin had shit all over the living room rug.
That had been the last time Quentin had actually tried to talk to anyone about magic. At first he’d thought it would be hard. Hard in the what-do-people-talk-about-if-not-magic-sense. It wasn’t actually that bad, though. It probably didn’t hurt that the closest thing he had to friends were Radu and Constantin.
He hadn’t really thought about it in as many words before, but the thumbnail sketch of his life really was shaping up to be a whole lot of negative statements. He didn’t talk about magic. He didn’t think about Fillory. He didn’t have any real friends. He didn’t not drink too much.
Quentin was starting to suspect that he might be depressed, that maybe it was about time he hauled his ass to a therapist and got some pills.
That was when he had the first dream about Alice.
“Are we spending Christmas at your place or mine this year?”
That was the last thing Quentin had expected to hear. Alice had never mentioned the holidays before, but her voice had taken on that hard, brittle tone, the one that meant she wasn’t going to stand for any bullshit. She let him get away with a good deal of eye rolling and smart mouthing, but when she wanted him to straighten up and quit being an asshole for five minutes, she generally let him know.
“Yours,” Quentin said. When he looked up, he realized that she was watching him with fixed, caged eyes. “Please?”
“Forget it,” Alice sighed. “Just forget it. We’ll get a duck. Do you think you can handle the stuff for orange sauce?”
“Of course,” Quentin said. He felt that he was seeing her now against a backdrop of muted colors, like a bright scrap of paper laid over a painted screen. His mouth felt numb when he told her, “You know, my parents usually spend the holidays with the octogenarians at the closest four star hotel dining room.”
“I didn’t know that, Quentin.” Alice’s expression settled back into a smile. “I hardly know anything about you.”
“What are you talking about? You know me better than anyone.”
“No, I don’t. For someone so self-absorbed, you practically never talk about yourself. I don’t know anything about your family, or your home. I don’t even know your favorite color.”
“I don’t have one,” Quentin said. “I didn’t even know that was a real thing, favorite colors. You don’t have one either, do you?”
Quentin flinched. He hoped she hadn’t seen it.
“I don’t know anything about your real life,” she said.
“This is my real life,” Quentin replied instantly. “Brakebills is real, and Fillory is real. And you’re real. Put all of that together, and that’s my life.”
He didn’t see her move, but suddenly she was right beside him. Her heavy breasts were pressed against his arm, and her colorless, un-madeup lips were against his ear. She whispered to him, but the voice did not come from her. It was the sounds she made, unmoored and rudderless, drifting without haste or purpose.
“No, it’s not.”
Quentin woke up with an erection tenting the front of his boxers. It was one of those sleep-numbed hardons, painful but utterly unresponsive to stimuli. It felt like it was about to burst, but he know there wasn’t anything he could do about it, so he kicked off the sweat-soaked blankets and rolled off his futon.
It was freezing in his apartment. Quentin let his breath out in a startled exhalation, and it clouded, white, in the air before him. He staggered into the bathroom, slapped the wall until he found the light switch. The tile cold was enough to sting his bare feet, as he stood in front of the toilet and willed his erection to go down enough to let him piss. His head was swimming. He tried to remember how much he’d had to drink before he went to bed, if it was possible that he was drunk still. It didn’t feel like any drunk that he’d ever been before, though.
Of all the things Quentin had missed while he was in Fillory, he had been surprised to find that indoor plumbing didn’t even crack the top ten. If someone had asked him what was number one on that list a couple of weeks ago, he would have said something flippant, something safe, like coffee or zippers or videos of cats on the internet.
But the truth was, that more than anything else, he had missed Alice. He still missed her, even now.
His chest constricted, an iron gauntlet where his ribs should have been. He’d never thought of it like that, in so many words. When he’d awakened from that coma the Beast had put him in, so much time had passed that it felt like he should have done all his grieving already, like his heart should have been on the mend. It had been convenient, in a way, to avoid all the messy business of coming to terms with death. He’d run off after the Questing Beast, and at the time it had seemed to Quentin that he had been the one doing the pursuing. But now, he was no longer entirely sure that had been the case.
It was too cold for this, standing around literally with his dick in his hand and trying to out-think his own brain. Alice was gone, and he knew that. Intellectually, logically, where it really mattered, he had understood it for years.
Quentin flushed the toilet and stuffed his still-sore cock back into his boxers. He turned on the tap so he could splash some water on his face, but what came out of the faucet was like ice. Something was wrong with this place. He could hear the radiator clunking away in the other room, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good. Call the apartment office in the morning, Quentin thought. Better yet, write a note and stick it on the bag of frozen burritos before he went back to bed so he was certain not to forget. In the meantime, he could get some olive oil and rosemary and herbs de Provence (which, he had learned, had just enough lavender in it do in a pinch) out of the cabinet and cast Wroughton’s Incandescence to get a little heat circulating through the apartment. Or he could just get the spare blanket out of the closet.
Until now, Quentin had been deliberately avoiding looking at his reflection in the mirror over the sink. He didn’t want to see the crust of stubble on his jaw or the dark circles that had settled comfortably under his eyes. He didn’t want to deal with any of that right now. But when he straightened up, it was pretty hard to avoid catching a glimpse of himself. He started to turn away, then paused and came back.
There was a black spot down in the corner of the mirror. It looked like someone had squirted a stream of ink out of a fountain pen and onto the glass. Bewildered, Quentin bent in close and scratched at the spot with his thumbnail. He felt nothing but the cold, unblemished surface.
Only then did he realize that the spot wasn’t in the mirror at all; it was somewhere in the room behind him.
Quentin’s stomach lurched, and his balls tried to leap up into his body. He whipped around, banging his hip against the sink so hard that his leg went numb all the way down to the knee.
There was nothing behind him. Nothing there.
Quentin let his breath out in a strangled sigh. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been holding it, but his lungs ached. His heart was still going fast; he could feel the throbbing of his pulse all up the sides of his neck, under the hinges of his jaw.
It was nothing, though. Nothing but stress, and an empty apartment, and late-night fears. Even the spot in the mirror had been just his imagination, or a trick of the light or something. If he turned around and looked again, it would be gone.
But there was something keeping him from turning around. When he thought about looking back into the mirror, the hair on his arms stood up and a cold chill ran up his spine. He felt like he was being watched, which he’d always considered the lamest, least scary thing someone could say. Until it happened to him.
He felt the syllables of Penny and Alice’s old Magic Missile incantation piling up in the back of his throat, and he choked them down. He was being stupid, and he wasn’t careful he was going to blast a hole in the wall and that was probably going to come out of his security deposit. Gritting his teeth, he turned around.
The black spot hadn’t disappeared. It was still there, and it was bigger now.
Most of the bottom left corner of the mirror had been blotted out. The spot had reached the level of Quentin’s jaw, and as he watched it stretched out unhurrying tendrils and spilled over the lower half of his reflected face.
It wasn’t a spot on the mirror, Quentin realized, and it wasn’t something in his apartment. It was on the other side.
Quentin froze. A bead of sweat trickled from his armpit down his ribs.
On the other side. On the other side. On the other side. The words kept repeating over and over again in Quentin’s head, a loop he couldn’t free himself from. It was on the other side of the mirror. As he watched, the black spot ballooned again, and this time it blotted out his face.
The bathroom lights flickered, and Quentin swore the ones in the mirror did it a split second before the ones on his side. He tilted his head back to look, and suddenly the apartment was rent by the sounds of screaming.
The noise came from above him, around him. Out of the ceiling and the walls. Quentin’s legs tried to run before the rest of his body was ready, and he stumbled back out of the bathroom. His heel caught on the doorframe, and he fell full-length into the main room.
The back of his head hit the hardwood floor. Quentin saw stars, and he heard a sound like the rush of the ocean in his ears. When it cleared, the screaming had stopped.
There was no sound. No sound at all except for his own ragged breathing.
Quentin scrambled up onto his hands and knees. He crawled sideways, crab-like, to the bathroom door. His head was down; he didn’t once look up as he groped blindly for the knob and slammed the door shut.
“Shit… shit…” Quentin said. Twice, just like that. Sharply, like he was spitting something out. He crawled over to the futon and hauled himself up onto it.
The clock on his phone said three hours until morning. Jesus christ, Quentin thought. That was a long time.
At 5 am, the little diner on the corner opened up, and Quentin walked down to have some eggs benedict. His mind was pulling in about three different directions at once, trying to make sense of what had happened the night before.
For what it was worth, he didn’t believe in ghosts. Except that he kind of did, because he was scared of them. Still, it seemed a safe bet that if ghosts actually did exist, then he would probably have heard of them before now. Julia had talked a lot about elves and pixies and things like that slumming with the hedge witches, but she’d never mentioned ghosts either.
His eggs came then, cardboard-colored and runny. As soon as he smelled them he realized he was starving, and as soon as he had taken a bite he realized that there had to be a logical explanation for what had happened.
That was what they always said in the movies: There has to be a logical explanation. Right before a ghost jumped out and ate them or whatever.
But this wasn’t a movie, Quentin thought. This was his life, and he’d already had more than enough goddamn adventures to last him the rest of it.
He tried to remember what, exactly, had happened. It had been cold when he’d woken up. He’d seen the spot on the mirror. And then the screaming had come from the walls. It wasn’t much, when you put it that way. The cold, that was easy. He lived in an old building, and a draft had blown in from somewhere. The mirror was a little weirder, but he wouldn’t put it past his sleep-fogged brain to play a trick like that on him. Besides, the light had been strange, probably strange enough to make optical illusions. That only left the screaming, which had not been screaming at all, but just the pipes rattling when the boiler turned on.
Quentin was satisfied by that. The logical explanation had triumphed, but he still felt a strange disappointment. Because the whole time it had been happening, there had been the wild hope…
No, he could not say what he had hoped. He couldn’t admit it, even to himself.
He paid for the eggs and walked back slowly through the icy morning. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the traffic was starting to get pretty busy. Everyone else’s day was just starting, which made Quentin feel profoundly tired. He thought that he’d try to get a couple more hours of sleep before trying to figure out something to do with himself for the rest of the day.
His apartment was on the fourth floor. He hauled himself up the stairs, and he was out of breath by the second landing, something which practically never happened to him. He unlocked the door and kicked his boots against the frame to shake the snow off before he stepped inside.
Quentin got one foot across the threshold, and he froze.
There was glass all over the floor. A big light fixture hung from the center of the ceiling. Quentin had left it on when he went out, since obviously ghosts were scared of that, and at some point all four bulbs had shattered. It wasn’t dark inside, though. A wedge of fluorescent light spilled out from the open bathroom door.
The door Quentin knew had been closed and latched when he’d gone out less than an hour ago.
A quick check of his finances, conducted from the library WiFi since Quentin had no intention of setting foot back in his apartment again until he had a plan, revealed that he was in no shape to be moving out right away. He couldn’t afford to break his lease, and he doubted he’d be able to find a price as good as the one on his current place on such short notice. Not even if he moved in with a roommate, which was probably worse than living with a g-word anyway.
Maybe that was all a haunting was. A lost spirit that waited until you sunk all your savings into a security deposit, and then started acting like a total jackass.
As far as Quentin could see, that only left him with one other option. He’d have to try to talk to it. He’d have to tell it to leave, or at least quit breaking his stuff. His chest felt tight, but it wasn’t because he was afraid.
That old obscure hope had returned to gnaw at him. Quentin pushed it aside.
He spent the rest of the morning putting in research at the library. It was probably overkill, but old academic habits died hard. He figured it was some kind of control-freak thing, or else he was just trying to put off actually taking action. Either way, he didn’t give the matter too much thought; he was in no mood for probing his psyche today. Much better to probe a bunch of books with titles like Ghost Whispering 101 and Positive Feng Shui for Haunted Homes.
What he learned was that the first thing to do when you suspected a haunting was drop about $800 on a full-spectrum, infrared, EMF-activated ghost-o-meter, the primary function of which was, as near as Quentin could figure, convincing people who desperately wanted to be convinced that something fucked up was going on their house.
After the library, Quentin walked down the stretch where all the thrift stores were. Way in the back of one, on the shelf with the old VHS tapes and the toasters, he found what he was looking for: a handheld analogue recorder, the kind that took the little miniature tapes. There was already a cassette loaded in the machine, which was a stroke of luck because Quentin would have had no idea where to find one of those.
Quentin paid a couple of dollars for the whole setup and had enough left over to catch a bus home. In the foyer of his apartment building, he listened to part of the tape, which turned out to be a recording of a bunch of kids making fart noises and giggling.
He rewound the tape and headed upstairs. When he stepped into his apartment, he was relieved to find it warm and tidy and unthreatening. The maintenance guy had been by while he was out – Quentin had called him from the library and mumbled something about a power surge – and the overhead light was fixed now.
Quentin vacuumed up the rest of the glass. Nothing weird happened.
He microwaved a burrito and ate it. Then he put away the futon and tidied up his desk and put away some dishes in the kitchen. Still, nothing went down.
By that time, he had to piss, but that meant going back into the bathroom. For about ten minutes, Quentin debated going in the kitchen sink, or just hanging his dick out the open window and hoping for the best.
And by then, he really had to piss.
In the bathroom, everything was just how it should have been. The mirror was fine, the lights were fine, the pipes in the walls were all fine, too. Quentin was starting to think that nothing was actually going to happen after all. He’d gone to all this trouble, and it was over before it had even started.
This place was about as haunted as a sock drawer.
Feeling sullen and coldly disappointed, Quentin dropped onto the unmade futon. He no longer expected or hoped for anything. Admitting it didn’t feel as bad as he thought it would.
He flung an arm over his eyes to block out the light. Almost at once, he was asleep.
Alice was in his dreams again. Her hair was long, black, more like Julia’s hair then anything, but it was unmistakably her. He saw her face amongst a glitter of colored lights, glimpsing it for only a moment before a black spot, like a blot of ink, swallowed it up.
He waited, knowing that eventually she would come out the other side and he would be waiting for her when she did. The black spot stretched out its fingerlike tendrils and it drew him in. It broke over his head like a wave, and when it ebbed Quentin was still alone.
Then, he turned into a goose. And he forgot everything and flew away.
Quentin woke up disoriented and freezing cold. In the first moments, before he was fully awake, he was seized with the feeling of having come unmoored. He didn’t know where he was, or how he had gotten there.
His hands groped blindly, finding the back of the futon, the familiar flat pillows. He was still in his apartment, but he knew even in his hazy half-awake state that something was not right.
Though he was certain the overhead light had been on when he had fallen asleep, the apartment was dark now. A faint yellow glow came from the crack under the closed bathroom door.
That light was the only one Quentin was sure he had turned off.
Fear made his insides knot up. He lurched to his feet and immediately stumbled, bracing himself against the wall. The cold had numbed his limbs and made his movements heavy and awkward. He slammed his hand down on the wall and groped until he found the light switch and flicked it up and down a few times.
Nothing happened. All the bulbs were burned out.
There was something building, something inside the walls. It wasn’t a sound, but it was an unmistakable current, like the energy you felt right before you kissed someone. But unlike a kiss, Quentin had the feeling he didn’t want to know what would happen once it reached a climax.
Cursing, stumbling over the furniture, he groped his way to the other side of the room and opened the curtains. The light from the streetlamps flooded in, giving the room a washed-out monochrome look. He spotted the little recorder sitting on the edge of his desk and he lunged for it, but he only managed to knock it onto the floor.
He got down on his hands and knees and fumbled under the desk looking for it. That was where he was when he heard something, somewhere scratching.
Quentin jerked his head up, cracking it soundly on the underside of the desk. He barely felt it. His heart was pounding and his body hummed with adrenalin. He found the recorder and snatched it up, reeling back to sit against the wall.
The scratching came steadily now, alternating long and short, as if it were tapping out some kind of code. It was coming from the other side of the room. The closed bathroom door or the closet right next to it or, hell, maybe just from inside the wall. Quentin wasn’t in any shape to making those kinds of calibrations right now.
He was clutching the recorder so tightly that it had cut into his hand. Without taking his eyes off that spot across the room, he forced his fingers to unclench. He stabbed the record button with his finger and started to speak.
“Who are you?”
All the books he had read had said this was a good idea. The analogue format could pick up sounds that the human ear couldn’t. You asked your questions into the tape, then you played it back and listened closely and hoped, and you might hear something there.
It had seemed like a pretty harmless experiment when he was reading about it, but now that he was actually trying it, Quentin felt ridiculous.
“What do you want?”
After the second question, he hesitated. Maybe these questions were too personal. Like, if he’d just gotten finished being dead, he wasn’t sure he’d want someone to start interrogating him like that. He should ask something simpler, something yes-or-no.
“Is your name Alice?”
As soon as it was out, he wished he hadn’t said it. The scratching had stopped for the moment, but Quentin could still feel the electric hum in the air. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
No, it wasn’t fooling anyone. Whatever it was, it hadn’t gone anywhere.
Quentin rewound the tape and played it back. His own voice sounded small and hollow and shaky to his ears.
“Who are you?” There was no answer, nothing but the normal assortment of analogue clicks and pops. “What do you want?” Followed by more album-on-vinyl noises. Quentin was ashamed that he’d asked the last question. He wanted to switch the tape off before it got there, but it was already too late.
“Is your name Alice?”
A tremendous scream of static burst from the speakers. The little recorder shook in Quentin’s hand, and he coughed out a cry and threw it aside. It hit the wall, and fell to the carpet with a thud. A low rumbling had begun inside the wall. He could feel it vibrating like a plucked string.
The light inside the closet came on, a bright ribbon just barely visible under the door. It was in there, whatever it was. Quentin felt a wet heat ballooning in his chest. Some kind of magical fight or flight response had kicked in, and by the time he realized what was happening, he was already halfway through a spell. Liquid fire flowed down his arm, making in veins glow briefly, gold and opaque, against his skin. The heat pooled in his fist, until his palm was slick with clammy sweat.
He held it there until he heard the tiny click of a latch. The closet door swung open a few inches, painting the opposite wall with light, and Quentin unleashed a ball of fire from his fingertips. It streaked across the room and hit the closet door leaving an ugly black scorch mark. Most of the flames shaved off on the door frame, but the little that got through seemed to have found its mark. An undignified yelp came from inside the closet, followed by the clatter of falling hangers.
Then, there was silence. The humming in the walls had stopped, and Quentin’s tape recorder had shut itself off at some point. The closet light flickered once more, and then burned steadily. There was no sound at all, except for the jagged stabbing of Quentin’s breathing.
But there was something on the other side of the closet door. He knew it was there.
He considered prepping a fresh spell, just to let whatever-it-was know that he meant business, but it was already too late. From just on the other side of the closet door came a not unfamiliar voice.
“What the hell, Quentin?”
Quentin tried to stumble to his feet, but he had miscalculated how badly his legs were shaking. They went out from under him before he could even take a step, and he dropped to his knees on the carpet.
“I’m coming out,” the familiar voice said. “Try not to burn the hair off my balls, all right?”
The closet door swung open from within, and Eliot clambered out. He grabbed the doorframe and hauled himself up, and he stood, regal and elegant, in his calfskin riding boots and breeches. His embroidered tunic and the cloak held rakishly at his shoulder with a gold straight pin.
It was a well-established fact that no one actually looked good in a full-length cloak, but Eliot came about as close as anyone could to pulling one off.
With a careful hand, he tucked a lock of singed hair behind his ear. He was wearing the diadem of the Fillorian High King: a circlet of burnished gold, fashioned into delicately entwining branches of oak and ivy. It looked like something that had been dug out of one of those Scythian burial mounds.
Quentin tried again to get up, but his knees buckled under him. Eliot’s eyes flicked over him, and he held his hands out in a half-hearted gesture of presentation. “Surprise.”
“What did you…?” Quentin stammered. “How…?”
Eliot sighed, as if he found the very notion of recounting the story insufferably dull. He trailed his fingers up the doorframe, and then glanced back into the closet he had just come out of. “I thought I’d never have to do that again. At least you only tried to kill me with a fireball. That’s still an improvement over how my parents reacted.”
He pushed the door closed with the mother of pearl heel of his boot. “Don’t get up, darling. I’ll show myself in.”
Quentin tried for the third time to stand up, and this time his legs held him. He watched Eliot take an exploratory lap of the apartment, which didn’t take long in a 200 square foot studio. Eliot ducked into the little alcove that held the fridge and the kitchen cabinets. When he came back out, he was eating Quentin’s last Tofutti Cutie.
“It’s weird, the things you miss,” he said. “I bet you had Taco Bell every day for a month when you first got back here. Where’s your liquor cabinet, darling?”
“I don’t have a liquor cabinet,” Quentin rasped. “I barely have any regular cabinets.”
“Then where’s you liquor – I don’t know – shelf? Or do you stash it in the toilet tank, just like mother used to do?”
“Eliot, what the hell are you doing here?”
Eliot’s noble brow twitched as if he were hurt. “To be honest, I had dared to hope you might be glad to see me, Quentin.”
“I don’t understand. Is Fillory all right? Are you not king anymore or something?”
“No, the rabble hasn’t overthrown me yet,” Eliot said. “They haven’t sentenced me to the guillotine. There’s no talk of mounting my head on the castle gate. But it’s sweet of you to be concerned. Josh kept saying that if you asked, I was supposed to tell you ‘a wizard did it’, but to be quite honest I think this was more a case of a whiskey doing it.”
“So you’re just…”
“Just visiting,” confirmed Eliot. “Just dropping by. Honestly, Quentin, is it so inconceivable that I might have missed you? That I might have been a little worried about how you’re getting along?”
“You can’t just drop by, Eliot! If it were that ease then I wouldn’t have… none of this…”
“Don’t start that. Nothing could have changed what happened, and you know it. But I wanted to see you, and Josh said he thought he could get me through. He’s really taken to the climate in Fillory, you know. All those big energies he can channel, it’s like he’s finally got a source powerful enough to draw from. He conjured up the portal, and it was agreed I should be the one to go. This is an historic diplomatic occasion, after all. And besides, everyone agreed that I pick out the best gifts.”
“Ember is going to be furious when he finds out.”
“Yes,” Eliot said. “This is one of those occasions where we all thought it was better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. And much better to just never say anything and hope that he doesn’t notice I’m gone.”
“He’s a god, Eliot. He’ll notice.”
“Look, darling, I didn’t come all this way to debate the finer points of Elven Law with you. Can’t you act like you’re happy I’m here? Even just a little?”
Quentin sighed. “I am happy. But this is weird. I don’t know if you noticed, but Josh’s portal wasn’t exactly a gentle procedure. He’s never had a surgical touch. But if you knew what’s been going on in this apartment for the last couple of days, you’d understand. It scared the shit out of me.”
In a single horrifying moment, Quentin was certain that he was going to cry. He turned away quickly, hiding the flush of color that came into his cheeks, the tears that welled in his eyes. Eliot noticed, of course. For someone so self-absorbed he was remarkably perceptive. You couldn’t slip something like that past him.
Eliot popped the last bite of Tofutti Cutie into his mouth and chewed it slowly, thoughtfully. He licked a bead of ice cream off his thumb, and then reached out to touch Quentin’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t think how it would seem to you. I didn’t know you’d be here like this. Alone. You just need a drink to clear your head, Quentin. I was thinking we could go to that place in Midtown you used to like so much…”
“It’s closed,” Quentin said. He couldn’t make his voice come out as anything more than a pained whisper.
“Did they go out of business?”
“They’re closed because it’s Christmas Eve, Eliot.”
Thirty minutes later they were on the Metro headed downtown. While Eliot had changed into a pair of borrowed jeans and Quentin’s spare overcoat, Quentin had browsed the list of bars that were open on Christmas until they found a place that looked like it had decent martinis.
Eliot had retrieved a leather flask embossed with the royal crest out of his raiment before he hung them up, and they sat side by side in an empty car, passing the bottle back and forth, sipping the dark, syrupy schnapps made from Fillorian blackberries.
“Aren’t you glad I packed lunch?” Eliot said. “It’s supposed to be a mixer, but some people insist upon living like animals. Very sober animals.”
“Excuse me, but I wasn’t expecting company.”
“You weren’t expecting company on Christmas? I’m not keeping you from something am I, Quentin? I had no idea what day it was going to be. Hell, I was lucky I managed to guess the year right.”
“No,” Quentin said. “Nothing. I don’t really like holidays.”
“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed one, but I don’t think that means I’m quite ready to dismiss the practice outright.”
“How even-handed of you. You’re turning into a regular politician.”
When Eliot smiled, it accentuated his crooked jaw, the jagged line of his teeth like the blade of a saw. That, Quentin supposed, was why he rarely did it.
“Admit it,” he said. “You’re glad I came.”
“You know I am. I’m just jumpy. Or something. How long did it take Josh to set up that portal of his?”
“He was at it for about an hour, I guess.”
“Things have been weird in my apartment for at least a couple of days.”
“Time passes differently here than it does in Fillory. You were probably experiencing temporal feedback.”
“What’s temporal about it?”
“I don’t know,” Eliot said. “I made it up because I thought it sounded cool. If it bothers you that much, then I’m sorry.”
“Do you know what I thought?”
Eliot raised an interrogative eyebrow over the rim of the flask.
“I thought my place was haunted.”
Eliot laughed and ended up choking on a mouthful of schnapps. Quentin managed to keep his stern, exasperated expression in place for all of five seconds before he started to giggle too. “You weren’t there,” he said. “It was very symptomatic. It was practically the first thirty minutes of a direct to video horror movie.”
“Then just call me the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
Eliot offered the flask then, but Quentin didn’t take it. His hands were clasped tightly around his knees, and he was staring out the window. He had stopped laughing. “You know what else I thought, though?”
“What, darling?” When Quentin didn’t reach for the flask right away, Eliot nudged the back of his hand. Blindly, Quentin groped for the bottle and brought it to his mouth for a long pull.
“Come on,” Eliot said. “Just tell me.”
Quentin’s fingers convulsed on the flask, and he made no reply.
“Spit it out already. I know you want to, or else you wouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It’s really stupid.”
“Quentin! Just. Make. Words.”
“I thought it was Alice!” Quentin snapped. He thrust the flask back into Eliot’s hands, slopping the medicine-colored booze all over their fingers. “I thought maybe she was trying to, I don’t know, talk to me or something.”
Eliot sat back slowly. He licked the schnapps off his fingers and said nothing. Quentin knew that he was still watching him curiously, a little differently than he had a moment ago. He knew it even though he could no longer look up and meet Eliot’s eyes.
“Anyway,” Quentin said after a while. “Let’s go. This is our stop.”
Quentin hadn’t expected the bar they’d picked out to be Cheers or anything, but he also hadn’t expected that they’d be the only customers in the whole place. At least the bartender was competent, and he seemed relieved that they’d come in and given him something to do. Eliot started on a steady stream of Manhattans, and Quentin tried to sip a beer, which went right to his head because he had hardly eaten a thing all day.
Their bored bartender offered to heat up some leftover tapas for them, and Eliot immediately ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. Quentin knew that he’d be paying for it, since Eliot didn’t have any goddamn money, but he didn’t care anymore. By the time he was on his second drink, he was rapidly losing the ability to care about much of anything.
Eliot held his liquor as well as he ever had, and he was cautious now. Perched there elegantly on his barstool, sipping from his cocktail glass, he talked about everything except what they had been discussing on the ride over.
Janet was fine, he said. Josh was fine. Poppy was fine too. After they’d gotten back from the edge of the world, they’d all decided that the job of Royal Bodyguard ought to be expanded into a fulltime position.
“We held another tournament,” he said. “Congratulations, Quentin, you started a Thing. Practically everyone who’s anyone was there. But they were all a little disappointing compared to that strapping fellow you hired for your quest.”
“You mean Bingle?”
“Oh, was that his name?”
“You spent more time with him than I did, Eliot.”
“We didn’t have much in common.”
Quentin sighed. “Did you hook up with Bingle? Tell me you didn’t…”
“Sorry, darling, I don’t kiss and tell.”
“I can’t help but feel like this undermines my authority in some way.”
“Ancient history.” Eliot patted Quentin’s knee, and drained what was left in his glass. “I’ll take the next one when I get back. Let’s go up on the roof. I’m dying for a cigarette.”
It was freezing outside, and the snow was still coming down. Quentin and Eliot huddled by the patio heater, and Quentin produced two cigarettes for them. Eliot insisted on lighting them, though, which he did expertly, even with the wind blowing slush in their faces.
They leaned on the rail that ran around the deck, and looked out at the skyline. It was a good view for such a tacky dump.
“Do you like it here, Quentin?” Eliot asked.
“Are you kidding? Nobody does.”
“Not even Sinatra?” Eliot turned, putting his back to the city and reclining back with his elbows on the rail. “If you don’t like it, why didn’t you go somewhere else?”
“You mean like Boston?”
“I mean, like, another fountain. Another world. You still have the button, right?”
Quentin didn’t answer right away, and Eliot sighed, exhaling a great cloud of frozen breath along with the smoke from his cigarette. “You’re not the only person who misses Alice, darling.”
“Spare me the pity party, Eliot.”
“I mean it. She wasn’t my best friend or anything, because that position would be reserved for you, but I knew her for more than five years. She was a very nice girl. Tough to figure out. I liked that the most about her.”
Quentin’s brow furrowed. “I’m really your best friend?”
“I always assumed your best friend would be a centaur with six-pack abs who plays the electric guitar or something. I’m not very good at being anyone’s friend, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Poor Quentin. Everything is so dreadful for you, isn’t it?”
“You have no idea. Even when I was so sure I was being haunted by the spirit of my dead girlfriend, all I could think was, ‘Is this it? Why does it have to goddamn boring?’ And that’s why I’ll always be a shitty friend, Eliot. I can accept that.”
“You were bored in Fillory, too.”
“Christ, you don’t have to rub it in.”
“Let’s see if we can’t find something exciting to do.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but your idea of excitement is putting ice cubes in your scotch. Besides, it’s 11:30 on Christmas Eve and we have about $40 to our names. What are we supposed to do?”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something, darling.” Eliot flicked his cigarette into a dirty drift of snow, then he took the flask out of his inside pocket and had a long swallow.
Then he did something Quentin didn’t expect. Eliot leaned over and kissed him.
Quentin froze. He didn’t want to pull away, because as kisses went this one was distinctly not-terrible. He’d never been much of a kisser, never really gotten the appeal of it, but Eliot seemed to be into it. His eyes were closed – Quentin knew because he kept his open the whole time – and when Quentin didn’t pull away immediately, he slipped closer, pressing their bodies together. His leg went up between Quentin’s thighs, pressing against his crotch. Quentin gasped, and jerked away.
Eliot sucked in a deep breath. “Before you ask, I did that because I wanted to.”
“Oh,” Quentin said. He reached up and touched his lips. They felt oddly swollen and sore. Eliot hadn’t stepped back yet. His hand slid up the back of Quentin’s neck; his fingers threaded through his hair. He lowered his head onto Quentin’s chest, and Quentin was certain he must have been able to hear the pounding of his heart, even through the layers of clothes between them.
“Let’s go have that last drink,” Eliot said quietly. “And then head home.”
Quentin knew that he’d had plenty of opportunities to call the whole thing off. When they were back in the bar and Eliot was putting away three cocktails in the space of time it took Quentin to finish one beer. On the subway home, or the walk back to Quentin’s building, while Eliot kept pretending to slip on the ice and grabbing his arm for support.
He knew he was getting laid tonight, Quentin thought. Well, good for him.
Outside the door of Quentin’s apartment, Eliot slumped against the wall and waited while Quentin searched his pockets for the key. He was laughing as he cast his eyes up at Quentin’s face, but then his gaze fell on his hard, immobile profile and he trailed off.
“Darling,” he said quietly, stroking Quentin’s cheek with the backs of his fingers. “My god, we don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
Quentin shoved the door open and grabbed Eliot’s wrist, dragging him inside. He pushed him up against the wall and kissed him roughly, savagely, so that he felt Eliot’s body go stiff beneath him. He’d thought that a firm, decisive move like that would be what it took to convince both of them, but it only made him feel ridiculous. Like he was trying too hard.
“I’m sorry,” Quentin said, drawing away. He tried the light switch out of habit, but the bulbs were still out.
Eliot licked his lips as if they were suddenly dry. “It’s all right.”
“I’ve never done this before. With a guy, I mean. Sorry, I sound like a walking cliché, don’t I?”
“Just think of it as a wrestling match,” Eliot said. “And whoever loses gets to be on the bottom.”
He shed his overcoat and unwound his scarf and sat down on the edge of the futon, where he began unlacing his shoes. He stopped long enough to pat the seat beside him. “Come here.”
Quentin started over. When he sat down, Eliot drew his hands along the lapels of his overcoat. “Are you going to get comfortable? Or do I have to cast the spell the makes shirts fly off?”
“There’s no such thing.”
Eliot’s mouth quirked into a jagged grin. He leaned in for a kiss, his hands moving down the front of Quentin’s coat, undoing buttons along the way. Quentin’s arms were cinched tight around his midsection, but when Eliot got to his waist they fell away.
Everything was falling away, yes, and that was good. It was all that he needed right now.
He grabbed Eliot’s face in both hands and dragged him close so that their mouths met. Eliot arched up under him, putting his head back so Quentin could descend on him. It was still weird, thinking of Eliot as a good kisser. He’d never struck Quentin as the kissing type.
They broke apart long enough to strip their sweaters off over their heads, and then came back together. Eliot’s hands were pressed against his chest, worrying open his shirt buttons. Quentin realized that if things kept up at this rate, he was actually going to be naked. This was actually going to happen.
“Wait,” he gasped between kisses. “I want you to wear the crown.”
“The diadem, I mean. Whatever. I want you to wear it.”
“Sounds naughty.” Eliot stood up. As he did, his crotch hovered briefly in front of Quentin’s face and, even in the low light, Quentin could see that he had an erection.
Blushing, Quentin looked away. But he didn’t really want to stop. It wasn’t actually that bad, at least in the sense that it could have been worse. He couldn’t really think of anything else he’d rather be doing right now, and if he had tried he knew he would have found his thoughts a tangled mess, with not one thread that he could trace back to its source.
He leaned back against the pillows and unbuttoned his shirt. Just as he finished, Eliot returned with the diadem cocked rakishly on his head.
“Just gorgeous,” he said, and swung one leg over Quentin’s hips so he was straddling him.
“Sorry,” Quentin gasped. Eliot settled his weight on top of him, and Quentin felt the blood drain out of his head. He kept talking with numb lips. “I haven’t exactly been rolling in snatch since I got back and I need to get some sun and—“
“Gorgeous,” Eliot repeated firmly. “But not terribly romantic.”
Quentin caught his breath. “Sorry.”
“You’re hot, Quentin,” Eliot said. He bent his head and kissed Quentin’s neck, his shoulder, the sharp edge of his collarbone. “You’ve always been hot. In an awkward, gangly, all-elbows-and-knees kind of way.”
No one had ever called him that before, and Quentin didn’t quite believe it now. It was nice of Eliot to say, though. Almost as nice as what he was doing now, kissing his way down Quentin’s chest, pausing long enough to tease his tongue around a nipple.
“Shit, Eliot…” Quentin grabbed him by the nape of his neck and shoved his head down. Eliot laughed, gamely allowing himself to be prodded. His hands moved with brisk efficiency, unbuckling Quentin’s belt and unzipping his jeans.
His cock pressed up into the hollow of Eliot’s hand as he eased it free. A knot rose in Quentin’s throat, and he swallowed it back down. Eliot’s breath was hot and damp on his skin.
“Just do it,” he whispered. There was a hitch in his voice, almost a sob, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to speak again.
He didn’t have to. Eliot’s lips parted and he took him in hard and fast, all the way to the back of his throat. His stubble rasped against the insides of Quentin’s thighs, and suddenly all the hot brunettes in big plastic-frame glasses that he’d been planning to think about in order to get off melted away. He was going to come, and he was going to do it in Eliot’s mouth.
And he was going to do it way too quickly, too, unless he enacted some damage control.
Quentin dug his fingers into the waves of Eliot’s hair and eased him back. Eliot looked up at him over the rise of his hips. Strange lines had appeared on his normally smooth face, a sharp V between his eyebrows, a web of fine furrows around his eyes. His pupils were the size of pie plates, and there were two spots of color high on his cheekbones. Quentin could tell by the rise and fall of his shoulders that he was breathing hard.
He was amazed that he had somehow done something to turn him on.
“It’s okay,” Quentin whispered. “Just go a little slower.”
He felt the muscles at the hinges of Eliot’s jaw flex against his hands as he guided him back down, establishing a pace he liked. The head of his cock slid along the roof of Eliot’s mouth, then down into the hot wet clench of his throat.
Quentin closed his, and the room spun around him. It wasn’t only because he was drunk.
Soon enough, it was over. Quentin felt like he’d come about ten gallons, but Eliot kept his head down and swallowed it all.
He pawed his way back up Quentin's body, squeezing close so they could both fit on the futon. He pressed his face against Quentin’s throat and his stubble was like a sweet burn on his skin. Quentin kept his eyes closed, but he could feel the weight of Eliot’s chest, the heat coming off his skin. He could feel that his hand was down at thigh level, and he was making some kind of weird, quick, jerking motion with it.
Quentin flushed when he realized what he was doing.
“Here, let me,” he said. He had expected Eliot to put up some kind of fight, make some kind of noble attempt at protest, but he let Quentin nudge his hand away, let him wrap his fingers around his cock.
Quentin stroked him slowly, making little half circles around his shaft. He could feel a wild pulse surging against his palm, and beside him Eliot let his breath out in a senseless murmur. Quentin turned to him and fumbled his lips over his cheek until he found his mouth.
Eliot sighed into the kiss and then he came in Quentin’s hand.
They both lay still for a moment. Quentin’s eyes were closed so he didn’t know if Eliot’s were open, or what.
“Not bad,” Eliot said at last. “For a walking cliché.”
“I’ve had some practice with that, at least.”
Eliot laughed, almost without making any sound at all. He leaned over Quentin and picked up the discarded shirt from the floor and used it to wipe them clean.
“You’re going to want to wash that in hot, darling,” he said.
Quentin didn’t reply. His head fell back against the pillows and he squeezed his eyes shut.
He didn’t want to fall asleep. He just wanted to shut out the static in his head, everything, but he dozed off almost at once. He’d been a lot more tired than he thought.
Though he didn’t think he’d been out for long – fifteen or twenty minutes at the most – when he woke up it felt like years had passed. Eliot was sitting up with his back against the wall, his legs crossed over Quentin’s. He was turning the royal diadem over in his hands, and the light reflected off the gold illuminated his face.
“Was it that good?” he said.
“You can lay down here, you know.”
“I know,” Eliot said. “I’m sorry. I’m just not that tired. I think I have trans-dimensional jetlag.”
“Is that something else you made up because you liked the way it sounded?”
“Yes.” Eliot stretched out on his stomach at Quentin’s side, propping his chin up on his hands. “You know, I wish we hadn’t done that. Not because it wasn’t fun, but because I know you too well, Quentin. I’m afraid you’re going to misconstrue some things.”
Quentin laughed weakly. “Are you afraid I’m going to think you converted me or something?”
“No, I’m afraid you’re going to think this means I can stay here with you.”
Quentin sucked in a sharp, sudden breath, as if he had been struck. “I didn’t think that.”
He knew he should have left it there, but Quentin wasn’t fully sober yet. Still drunk enough to make a fool of himself and not care. Still drunk enough to hope. “But you could come back…”
“I can’t,” Eliot said. “You know that. You know I’m bending every rule there is just being here with you now. Maybe I can get away with it once, but if I push my luck who knows what will happen?”
“So what?” Quentin replied. “If it’s that important to them, they can get another king. Jesus, it’s not like it’s a highly specialized position. About the only requirement is that you come from Earth.”
“I don’t want anyone else to be king, Quentin. What would you like me to do? Tell you to your face that Fillory is more important to me than you are? Fine. It is. I can’t lose that place. For the first time in my life, people don’t treat me like shit because I’m gay." Quentin opened his mouth to respond, but then he realized he had nothing to say. He turned over on his side, facing away from Eliot. His eyes were unfocused, blindly staring.
“I’m sorry,” Eliot said. “This was supposed to be all champagne and scented candles. I’ve thoroughly ruined the moment.” He touched Quentin’s shoulder. “I never even read those stupid twee books, you know. I just pretended I had so you all wouldn’t think I was some kind of illiterate peasant gnawing on dirt clods.”
His hand moved on Quentin’s back, making idle shapes, illegible letters in indecipherable alphabets. “Maybe that’s why I like it there. Because I didn’t go in wanting anything, hoping for anything. Or maybe that’s just an excuse, and the real reason is that this is a shitty hateful world, and Fillory is a shitty, slightly-less-hateful one.”
Quentin sighed. He felt his body responding to Eliot’s touch, and he resented himself for that. It wasn’t a big resentment, though. It was easy to ignore. He rolled onto his back so he was looking up into Eliot’s face. “You really never read the books?”
“You’re going to kick me out of bed now, aren’t you?”
“No,” Quentin said. “I’m just glad you’re where you belong, Eliot. I’m glad we’re both where we belong.”