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Quentin sees the text from Julia before he puts his phone on airplane mode: Omg! almost forgot it’s Night of the Moms (Dads too)! Good luck!!!!

He rolls his eyes, and almost instantly types back, Ok please shut up, then realizing he’s not being his most generous self because, well, the thing is happening, he follows it up with Thanks Jules. He watches the bubble of the Ok please shut up turn blue, delivered, and then the Thanks refuses to send. There’s a connection error message.

Quentin sucks in a breath, and just turns off his phone, instead. Yeah, ok, it feels productive to give up on something.

It was all of 20 minutes before the main assembly when he put the last staple on one of many Back-to-School Night! banners on his classroom walls. Each subsequent year, he overprepares more to offset the fact that sometimes his voice still squeaks like it did when he had to do public speaking for the first time in grade school.

And this year he had really done, like, everything? He had art from last year’s kids up on the walls and just outside his classroom, quotes in rainbows from the end of last year, too, the few still-surviving dixie cup seedlings, and the class’ guinea pigs Ember and Umber in their cage. Then his reading corner, the play kitchen, the music station kicked absolute butt, which would have almost been appropriate enough to say in front of his day-to-day audience, except for the fact that you should never say butt in front children, it’s impossible to come back from. He had activities! Activities plural! Scavenger hunt and cards! Then he had pushed a table by the door for parents to sign in and take name tags, and he was thinking he had gotten his equilibrium of understanding how much direction-following he could actually expect from a group of adults. (Literally only in this context, though. Jesus, sometimes he slips into his teacher-voice when he’s trying to have a life, though once Julia had professed there was no difference.)

The worst by far is the chairs. His classroom is now full of bonus chairs, squat kindergarten ones and ones meant more for adults, and it still wouldn’t be enough for all the parents and the kids and maybe their siblings, which he had just accepted as an incontrovertible fact about two years ago. In spite of this, the chairs would seem to be multiplied for the next few weeks. The chairs were maybe...haunted?

Quentin maybe needs to get a non-teaching hobby. Like, any-fucking-one. He hasn’t even fully reread any of the Fillory books in the last couple of months.

He pretty frequently is able to get Julia to help him with free labor, and tried to do exactly that for tonight, too, but something had come up on one of her case negotiations at the last minute. But for four years, she’s helped laminate and staple and cut and hang and re-hang enough things that she’s definitely racked up, at least, ten hidden dead bodies’ worth of best friend favors. If she ever goes on a crime spree, he’ll have to suck it up.

Quentin makes the anxious rounds of his room one last time, knowing there is nothing to change in it and annoyed with himself, before he goes into the hallway to head toward the auditorium. He’s cutting it a little close, but not close enough that anyone would notice since like 80% of the other faculty are doing the same thing, and the other 20% are robots. The hallways between his room and the auditorium are thronged with families, waves of sound coming from the big open doors at the last hall he turns into.

When he passes, Penny gives him a genial wave from the other side of the window of the performance room, his other hand still on a poster of music scales. Quentin blinks, fighting back a thankfully at least pre-grad school-dated urge to look around to see if the wave is for someone else, and lifts his hand in return, mouthing an exaggerated, “Hey!”

Penny, Mr. Adiyodi, teaches the music the kids get on alternating days. Every year, Quentin’s kids always love him, routinely going to lunch still playing air-hand-drums on his days, with varying levels of chaotic results. It takes him a second to think of what weirdly nostalgic feeling this entirely inconsequential interaction triggered, and it’s the rush identical to exactly one thing: when Julia’s softball friends in high school acknowledged his existence.

Wait. What the fuck. Okay. Whatever. So, when he finally goes back to therapy—

WELCOME, BRAKEBILLS BULLDOGS 2019! is the two-line banner hanging over the door of the auditorium. There’s more banners inside, but you know what, honestly, his room has a lot of space to impress, and already everything’s got that smell of popcorn and also kids after recess. Julia had once told him, gently sympathetic, that he was trying way too hard when parents always loved him. This conceptual framework does not factor in the high likelihood that parents are only especially cooperative after he tries too hard, so he’ll probably just have to keep trying really hard until he dies, he guesses.

(Julia had rolled her eyes, and said: “Q, I’m so sorry, you’re such a talented, good, good teacher, but...you know all these moms immediately love you because of your manbun, right?”

Her “Dads too!” kick is recent.)

The auditorium microphone screeches, so everyone realizes that Principal Fogg is on stage, shuffling papers at a podium and probably looking slightly dead inside, Quentin cannot judge from here. The microphone gives a cry of feedback one time before Mr. Fogg clears his throat, like he is interrupting it, and says, “Hello, parents and students, faculty and staff! Welcome and welcome back!”

Mr. Fogg is not a time-waster, and has a lot more faith in his ability to wrangle many different kinds of adults into a series of events, and tells everyone broadly what they should do for the next two hours in the span of about 10 minutes.

“You can’t say the man doesn’t keep it tight,” Penny observes next to him, having very obviously waded into the front rows of cramped seats with the teachers all of five minutes before Fogg stops talking. Quentin does not know why he’s chosen to start interacting with him, even though they are coworkers who have had plenty of okay incidental interactions.

“Yeah, uh, because he hates his job and all of us,” says Quentin. Penny does this sort of shrug thing, but just with his face.

Fogg’s vision for the school year is brief but compelling, in that it is just basically: Good year! Love of learning! Childhood emotional stability! Hard for Quentin to disagree with those broad strokes. Less-compelling are the recitations of student performance statistics from last year. But Fogg wraps it up, and rows of children and their adults, parents and teachers and staff all, including Penny with another salutary wave, are shifting back to the double doors. He looks at his watch as he files into the aisle to flow back to his classroom, and it’s not even 6:15 yet. Well. All he can do is survive.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Kindergarten is hit the hardest by back-to-school night, which is fair. He would be trying to one-on-one interrogate his kid’s first public school teacher too. (No, he wouldn’t, since he’s also a teacher, and had a randomly-occurring doormat thing.) So usually, people congregate in this hallway first.

As he walks back, he passes families—parents, kids, older siblings dragged by parents—peeking between classrooms. When he gets to his hall three children have already wandered away from their scattered curious parents and are sitting right in the middle of where everyone needs to walk, on the floor, echoingly discussing their fall birthdays. He gives them a, “Hey guys!” and they titter after him.

But when he gets to his door, a tall, lean man with fair skin contrasted by a crown of dark curly hair is the only one standing in front of his displays, regarding it with a hand on his chin like someone at a museum. He is wearing the two out of three parts of a three-piece suit that aren’t a jacket, and he looks out of place with the candy-colored posters papering the hallways, a cultivar of some highly specific aesthetics that Quentin can’t adequately describe to himself. Like, he might be wearing eyeliner?

Quentin hopes he doesn’t look surprised.

The display is actually a posterboard of one of his favorite things that he has his kids do every year: he has them draw what they liked to do most at school, and then helps them write a description of what that activity was. The headline: MR. Q’S CLASS: OUR FAVORITE THINGS AT BRAKEBILLS. This past spring, a banner academic year, only four of his kids had decided to try to represent “going to the bathroom.”

No one’s ducked in his room yet, with its imminent terrifying Rube Goldberg-esque series of sequenced activities (which he had planned for himself to do, and to be doing, this was literally all his fault) and his speech and explanation of class rules with a handbook (which he printed out at 2am two nights ago) waiting for him to start running.

So, Quentin puts his hands in his pockets and shuffles up to stand next to him in front of the posterboard. Aware of his presence, the man visibly blinks, turning his face to look at him, his hand not quite dropping from his chin.

The man smiles at him, his eyes light and dark at once even under fluorescents, and turns back to the display. “This is cute, right?” he says, somehow both gently condescending and sincere.

Oh. Yikes. “Uh,” Quentin says, articulately, “Yeah—yeah, you know, I think so.”

He realizes that he has about five seconds to figure out how to introduce himself as the person who made it for this conversation to not be weird. But he’s smiling, too.

Before he can say anything else, though, the man glances at the group of kids sitting on the floor, then gestures with a tilt of his head to indicate them to Quentin. “One of them yours?”

“Oh, no, no. I mean, actually,” he squints just a little, trying to discern ages. “Maybe?”

The man looks at him for a too-long second, and his eyebrows raise, slowly and specifically.

Quentin laughs, and in spite of himself, it’s not nervous or embarrassed at all. “Yeah, what—what I mean is, I’m a teacher. Sorry. Hi, I’m Quentin Coldwater.”

Oh,” the man says, taking Quentin’s extended hand. “Right. Of course. Quentin...Coldwater? So you’re—”

“This is my room,” he says, and casting a sidelong glance to his display, amused. “Thanks for, uh, the compliment on this. Nice to meet you—?”

“Eliot,” he supplies. “Eliot Waugh. So I think this means... you’re my girl’s teacher, actually?” His head tilts, just so, to indicate the display. “This is you?”

He smiles, clasping his hands together. “Yeah,” he says, “yep, it’s me. Would you like to come in for the tour? I’ll be waiting for more people to start, but there’s, uh, stuff to do, some snacks—”

Mr. Waugh is making the same face he made when he’d called the poster board cute. “I would love that,” he says, and Quentin feels his grin go wider, gives a little nod.

Mr. Waugh, apparently on this thought, turns to the children on the floor. “Hey, Charlie-girl,” he says.

A little girl with a mop of dark brown curls looks around, having sat faced away from them, and clambers up to her feet when Mr. Waugh puts his hand out for her. She is...really weirdly detailedly dressed, wearing three different but color-coordinated patterns on her tights, a skirt, and a shirt, accentuated by a long white streak of paint down her front.

“What were we talking about, hm?” Mr. Waugh asks her when she takes his hand, his voice going somehow private, even though the conversation had been very, very loud.

“How my birthday is the next one,” she reports.

“Wonderful,” Mr. Waugh says. It feels like Quentin decided that he liked him at the beginning of this interaction, condescension and all, but he does definitely like him. “Charlie—She’s Charlotte, Charlotte Waugh—this is your teacher. He’s going to help you this year, and you’re going to help him. Can we say hi to Mr. Coldwater?”

She nods up at him like the question had not been rhetorical, which maybe it hadn’t been. “Hi, Mr. Coldwater,” she intones, kind of expressionless though obviously not out of shyness.

Quentin leans down, hands going his knees that are slightly bent. “Hey, there. Can I call you Charlie?” She seems to consider it, looking his face up and down, and bobs her head yes.

“Great,” says Quentin. “You can call me Mr. Q.”

“Is that your letter?” Charlie asks. It seems like the prospect of this is pretty exciting.

“Absolutely, it’s my letter.”

The excitement flickers out like she had not asked the question. “Okay, it’s your letter,” she says, indifferent again.

Quentin shrugs his shoulders. Maybe she had wanted him to say no. “Okay,” he agrees, and he straightens, and when he glances back— Holy shit, there are like, 30 people standing in his classroom now. This is why he can’t talk to parents one-on-one at school events. He definitely must look surprised now, because when he looks back at them both, Mr. Waugh looks amused.

It occurs to him he was watching people filter in behind Quentin’s back without saying a word.

“Is that enough people to start?” Mr. Waugh asks, delicately.

He has the left-of-field impulse to tell him to shut up, like he would and just had over text to Julia. “Yeah,” he says instead, the slyness that sneaks into his tone feeling unexpected, “Yeah, I think so.”

Mr. Waugh grins maybe too wide? Is this interaction weird? No, it’s fine. “Well, by all means, after you, Mr. Q,” he says.

He inclines his head, his hands clasping again. “After me,” he echoes.

They follow him into his now very-noisy classroom where there are already would-be-name tags all over the floor, direly not enough chairs, and he is not even a half-step into the door immediately accosted by a thinking-about-Harvard-in-Kindergarten mom. He does not see how Mr. Waugh reacts.

When it’s time for him to address the group and go over what the year will look like, Charlotte— Charlie—sits on Mr. Waugh’s lap. So do lots of the other kids with their parents, of course. But for some reason, with them, it’s a little distracting.

*

Before the start of every new school year, Quentin reassures himself it will go differently, that he’s definitely going to be so much better-prepared, that he will somehow find the impossible and right combination of preparation and work to leave for the course of the week. At the start of every new school year, what actually happens is that Quentin operates on about three hours of sleep every day. Four hours feels really fucking extravagant.

But the thing is, he really—he loves his job. And he can let that animate him when he’s a zombie. This is the case on only the second day of the week, on all of two hours of sleep, he tries to remember if he took his meds this morning, freaks out a little internally as he mentally retraces his morning routine steps in the same tired way he’s done fifty thousand times before, and finally has to fish in his desk for the bottle he keeps there. This happens just seconds before Gina from the cafeteria wheels in the breakfast cart with a welcome brightness, and he goes to stand at the door as sleepy-eyed students in their backpacks trickle in before first bell.

“Good morning!” he says to everyone individually, and he reminds them by pointing that they can ask for a hug or a high-five using two pictures on the door.

Charlie Waugh appears very early every day, never asks for either a hug or a high-five, and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that she’s kind of. Well. Tricky? Like, she’s a notable social butterfly of the classroom, one of the kids other kids seem to orbit. But the first week, which historically includes a lot of kids calling him “Dad,” hard transitions, and tantrums, includes an especially bad minutes-spanning tantrum for her.

This resolves in her hiccuping up remnants of sobs and sitting with him in a quiet, still blue room in the school nurse’s office. He has a class aid that day and right about now, she should be taking the other kids to their afternoon art with Mr. Rafe. The nurse steps away from them.

“Are you feeling calm now?” he asks, gently, bent in front of her where she’s sitting in a chair.

She looks at him through slow blinks, like she needs a nap. Which, uh, she would. But she doesn’t answer.

“It’s okay if you’re not,” he says, quickly. Slowly, as if that removes some burden, she shakes her head. He smiles.

“Okay, hey. Thank you so much for telling me,” he says, and she nods again, looking down. He straightens, with the idea of giving her a little space. It’s definitely not an emergency, just a severe version of something pretty normal, so this can be an afterschool email or call, probably.

Charlie accepts an offer for a glass of water, and after about another five minutes, she lets him walk her though saying that she’s ready to be calm. They walk down the hall, empty since it’s a class period but filled with errant shouts, music and less-dramatic voices from classrooms, to drop her off at art.

Even though he had already mentally shelved this as make-call-later, when he is back in his room he has a second thought and goes ahead and opens an email to Mr. Waugh. His reply comes before the transition to the next period, less than fifteen minutes later, and he sends a last reply to confirm what time would be good for them to meet before he has to go herd the kids back to his classroom and away from finger painting with for the end of their day.

When he gets there in time to hear voices chorus in disappointment that they have to do something else, he feels a little sympathetic ache, like he always does.

*

Eliot has four meetings that day. Restaurant week is coming up and there are a bunch of arrangements that needed to be made between now and then that ongoingly give him five tension headaches, all in very different parts of his head. He’s never been what anyone would call, let’s say, detail-oriented, unless it was himself bullshitting with gusto on a resume he never really had it together enough to use.

It would be wonderful to go back in time to when he had just dropped out of community college, was high as shit all the time to avoid thinking about how much he hated himself, and ping-ponged between random couches until he landed on Margo’s sorority dorm floor ultimately, figuratively, for life, and tell that sad sack that he was now contemplating hiring a fucking personal assistant. Probably his younger self would spit in his face, which would, really, be very cathartic for him. How fun.

Fen in the front of the restaurant lets him know the vendor he’s meeting with is here, and he’s about to close the door behind him to the cramped back office when he happens to glance at the notification on his phone: Charlie’s day at school from one “qcoldwater@brakebillscps.edu.”

Oh, shit.

“Hey, Fen?” he calls; she’s a few steps in front of him, and turns. “Stall for me? With, uh, the...fancy produce guy?”

Fen squints at him, then lifts her hands, all no-big-deal. “Stall with the fancy produce guy,” she says in a bright affirmative, and turns to follow marching orders.

Hi Mr. Waugh,

I’m sorry to be getting in touch under these circumstances, but I wanted to let you know that Charlie had a hard day today. She had a very long tantrum, about 7 minutes, and needed to leave the room to calm down at the nurse’s office before coming back to our class. I think it was triggered by having to share toys.

If you can make time for an in-person meeting to talk about this or to talk over the phone, it would be great to discuss how to support her.

Thank you,

Quentin Coldwater - Kindergarten

Brakebills Elementary School

He responds and then calls Margo immediately. He has to call her twice, and is wincing down at his watch, thinking of fancy produce guy waiting in the front, and not having time to be even mildly concerned that he had fully, irrevocably forgotten the name of someone mid-level important two minutes before a meeting. Rest in peace to every brain cell tragically eviscerated in his twenties.

“Hey, hon,” Margo finally answers, with a dulcet tone of mild concern that instantly releases a bit of tightness in his chest. “What’s up? We don’t do the double call for nothing.”

He sighs, ducking back into the office, closing the door behind him. “I got an email from Charlie’s teacher,” he says. “She had one of her moods at school. For...seven minutes? Do we think he timed it scream to scream?”

“Aw, nooooo. Baby girl. Well, I’m not surprised. It’s her first week of big kid school and that’s kind of her deal. She has a lot of feelings. Day’s not even done yet, is it?”

“It really is not,” he says. And he shakes his head, pinching the bridge of his nose and leaning on the edge of his desk. Margo was supposed to get her from school, with all of the trivial things he had to do for the restaurant still hanging over his head. “Margo, I need to be the one picking her up,” he says. “I can cancel—the person who is here right now. Whoever he is, I actually have no fucking idea.”

“Charlie already knew I was getting her today, El,” she says. “That might set her off, too.”

It is true that when Charlie was denied Margo time, no matter how plentiful Margo time was otherwise, they usually needed to plan in a buffer of thirty minutes to get anything with her done for the rest of the night. He feels like he should be the one showing up, it’s his kid (which isn’t the strict truth even if you’re just considering between him and Margo, not by a longshot), but he knows she would tell him that if that were a real thing he should be thinking.

“Annoyingly compelling argument, Bambi,” he says, very fond.

“I know, I’m great. So I’ll get her still. And you can make it work to leave early and we can all be home and talk. Okay?”

“You’re the best co-parent,” he says, which is both appropriate and usually how they say goodbye in public to make people uncomfortable, because it’s ecstatically weird.

“No,” Margo coos back like she always does, “you’re the best co-parent,” and they do a few more no-you’s until Margo says that she has a real fucking job and needs to go, unlike some degenerates.

He has to let her have that one, but then, he usually will.

*

Charlie gets in as early the next morning as she usually does, one of the first walking down the hall period. Today she is wearing the tiniest sequined combat boots, and black and flannel. She always looks like pictures of a celebrity kid on the cover of the National Enquirer at the grocery store, and the contrast when she really throws a tantrum is almost...charming? Definitely has been making his class life interesting. This year he has a good set of kids who have a bunch of different things going on, as always, life is like that. Charlie is probably not the one who needs the most support. But like all of his kids, he likes her a lot.

“Good morning, Charlie,” Quentin says, and he bends down with one knee on the floor, but he’ll keep it light and unrelated to yesterday to not make her feel singled out. “How are you doing today?”

“Good,” she intones, clearly expecting to just go in as she always does.

“Good!” he says. “Do you know that you can ask me for a hug or a hi-five? This poster on the door?”

She bobs her head, saying, “Yes Mr. Q,” no punctuation in the sentence structure that comes out of her mouth.

“Okay,” he says. None of his other kids have appeared yet, so he can take a little time. “Do you want to ask for something else? What about a...secret handshake?”

A light goes off in her eyes. “What handshake,” she says, no punctuation again.

He grins and stands, pushing himself up on his knee, and says, “Okay, let’s try it out. Do what I do?”

She nods up at him, open-mouth smiling, and then follows him when he leads her through what is inevitably a modified version of a middle school Julia-and-Q dance: a hip-shimmy, jump, double hi-five, hip shimmy, jump, clap, big double handshake wrists crossed, and Charlie is nearly doubled over in giggles, holding his hands on the shake for support.

And here’s the thing, it’s really stupid, and multiple adults pass them down the hall, but one of the best thing about Quentin’s job is that if it’s something he’s doing for his kids, the anxiety part of his brain that’s always somewhere evaluating how other people see him just, turns off. Not just that, but the anxiety part of his brain feels silly, in a real, tangible way.

Quentin ends it in a “Hey!” and Charlie, doing a bit of 5-year-old improv, looks down and stomps her feet hard, then looks up for his approval. He nods sagely.

She then giggles past him into his classroom, the lightest he has ever seen her when she’s not interacting with another kid or getting to go home, and like five kids have lined up behind her.

“Mr. Q,” says Hector, next in line, and Quentin bends back down to say good morning, but when he does Hector is smiling a little shyly, eyes alight. “Can we do handshake dance too?” Hector asks.

Oh, man. Oh, man, a bunch of his kids saw that, and since obviously he’s got to do it, more of them come and see each other doing it, too. When he gets to the end of the line of kids who are increasingly very, very hyper, he’s overrun the bell ringing and his lesson plan, even though some still want hugs or just hi-fives or nothing, and he’s really worked out his memories of the Julia-and-Q oeuveure. Everyone is jazzed on this and school pancakes-or-cinnamon rolls into a chaotic beginning of the day.

It’s pretty great.

The meeting with Charlie’s dad isn’t until Friday night. In the interim, Quentin is getting curious? It’s mostly because, well.

“I have three dads,” Charlie says one day, with the kid confidence of knowing one of several simple things to be true.

Quentin, ears perked by the potential awkwardness of five-and-six-year-olds stumbling all over each other’s feelings in ways that will, from incredibly and uncomfortably direct experience, reverberate into adulthood, turns from where he’s bent at the bookshelf in the direction of her voice. She’s sitting at her space marked CHARLIE WAUGH on chalkboard-style label tape at one of the table centers in the classroom (he liked to wait until after Back-to-School to do that, in case any of the kids went by other names), and she and Emma K. are going methodically together through the bin of squishy toys.

“What?” says Emma. Oh, no.

“I have three dads,” Charlie says like she already explained. “Dad, Margodad, and James is my dad and we don’t forget James.” The latter part of her sentence comes in the parroted lilt of someone reciting a parental invective.

Quentin can’t say he gets it without context, but, sure.

Emma does not seem to do any meaningful processing work on this concept, and frowns. “That’s too many dads!” It is a dramatic semi-outburst, and sounds, of all things, kind of jealous. All of his kids are at such a weird, great age.

Charlie giggles. Then they talk about how icky the sparkly gel alligator feels when they squeeze it, except Charlie says, “And the alligator is a girl.” The interaction back in safe territory, Quentin goes back to picking the book he’s going to offer to read in the classroom nook for any interested takers.

That day he’s the teacher outside seeing car riders off. This is assigned through some kind of random and punishing system of Mr. Fogg’s own devising, though Quentin doesn’t mind morning or afternoon duty so much. Morning is kind of fun even though he has to get out of the house about an hour and a half early. When he mentioned this to Penny in the teacher’s lounge the other day, Penny looked at him like he had grown not just one extra but at least three more heads, and was like, “Man, if you say so, I’ll trade with you next time.”

He can tell when Charlie’s ride pulls into view in line, because Charlie starts bobbing in full-body-kid-going-home-excitement as he comes back to the line for his next send off, and she starts to repeat, “Margodad Margodad Margodad Margodad,” like an ancient atonal chant.

Stop,” complains Emma K., who is waiting in the loosely-formed line of the school’s kids next to her, and giggling.

Quentin is smiling. “It’ll be your turn soon,” he says to Charlie.

When it is her turn, he walks her over to the car that is decidedly not a kid-friendly SUV, but is some not-quite-sportscar (Quentin knows nothing about cars), and is bright yellow. The woman who gets out and rounds the car is, like, insanely beautiful in a way that makes ancient hindbrain social anxiety flare even in this context, and wearing large white sunglasses, looking like the kind of parent who would have a kid who dresses like Charlie.

“C-baby!” the woman crows, and she picks up Charlie even though her outfit should preclude dirty kid’s shoes.

Charlie is still saying, “Margodad!” and buries her head easily in the woman’s shoulder for a big hug.

“Let’s get you in the car, okay, sweetie?” says the woman, and Charlie nods into her, even though she’s all starfished like she won’t have to move.

Quentin gestures to offer to get the door, and the woman nods, so he opens it. The carseat inside this car is kind of incongruous, but Charlie is loaded into it with a practiced doting sweetness.

The woman is buckling Charlie in when she seems to have a thought. “Are you her teacher?”

“Oh!” Quentin had not thought to introduce himself to the obvious parent-person of one of his students. Nice. “Oh, yeah, I’m sorry. I am Charlie’s teacher, I’m Quentin Coldwater. I’ve met Mr. Waugh?” He extends a hand.

The woman raises a brow down at his hand, then smiles, takes it. “Oh, I know,” she says, like there’s a joke he’s not getting. “I’m Margo. Margo Hanson.”

But she doesn’t give him more context than that. Which, he guesses, she doesn’t have to.

What she does do is turn to Charlie, leaning with her hand on the top of the car door, and says not even in a stage whisper, “He’s not that cute?”

Charlie, in the car seat, shrugs her very small shoulders, and the woman, Ms. Hanson does a what-are-you-going-to-do face, and Quentin’s brain is like, 2 miles behind this exchange and catches up all at once. His eyes narrow and he opens his mouth—

The car door closes. “Bye thank you so much for your help with her have a great day!” says Ms. Hanson, already rounding the car.

Quentin, nonplussed, puts his hands in his pockets as they pull out of the line, and he shakes his head before he goes back to the kids, all waiting for the freedom of going home.

*

Being in an empty elementary school seems like it should lightly tug on some repressed trauma, but Eliot is fine. It’s almost disappointing, he thinks. He is also deeply and very prosaically confused about where to park since all spots are marked off and he cannot seem to find one for visitors, then just decides, Whatever, fuck this, no one’s here, except a scattered few other cars.

It’s not at all unoccupied inside, some low lights on from the office, then scattered few classrooms lit up down different hallways. It’s almost 7pm and the sun is still kind of up outside, but the afterschool program should be done by now. It still smells like sweaty children.

The same board is still up outside of Charlie’s classroom, and he lingers over it again even though the light inside the classroom is on and clearly, Quentin—Mr. Coldwater—will be in there already. He smiles, a little, at a kid’s very baroque drawing of the playground monkey bars that he’s seen in person outside. Jesus, this is his life now. It has been for years. It never stops hitting him.

“Mr. Waugh?”

Quentin Coldwater leans out from inside the classroom. He is devastatingly, made-in-a-laboratory-for-single-moms cute, and wearing a well-loved sweater over a button-up, collar peeking out at his slender throat. His eyes lingering there makes him feel like his first crush did, which also happened in an elementary school and had about as much potential.

Seriously. Laboratory. Single moms.

He nods, obviously he’s Mr. Waugh, and feels himself smiling. “Yeah, hi. Are you ready for me?”

Quentin (Mr. Coldwater, he seems to be very into the Mr. and probably also Ms. and Mrs.) smiles, and says, “Yeah, yeah, come on in,” with a little wave of his hand.

Eliot follows him inside, and he was struck when he saw it before, too, how homey the room is. It’s very crowded in with stuff, everything warm colors, and has little furniture everywhere that he guesses isn’t from the school? How worrisome.

“Okay. Here, let me get—the actual adult chair,” Mr. Coldwater says with a little laugh, and he takes a large chair from the corner and moves it to what seems to be his desk area, which also has another adult human-sized chair. “Please, have a seat,” he says then, even though Mr. Coldwater himself goes to the other side of the room to get something.

Eliot obliges him, though, and sits down, his legs crossing. Mr. Coldwater returns to his desk with some papers, a clipboard.

“Thanks for coming to meet in person,” he says. “You’re probably really busy, but I think these things are better, uh, face to face,” and his hand indicates between the two of them, “so I appreciate it.”

Eliot looks up, in faux-thought. “You know, no, I don’t feel like I’m really busy,” he says, even though he is, again, to stress, contemplating the hellish abyss that is the reality of hiring a personal assistant.

Mr. Coldwater eyes him, his mouth just opening as if to speak, and then he decides to laugh. Eliot smiles, too.

“No,” Eliot goes on, “I, uh, really should have met with you earlier. We knew she would have a hard time. If there’s another world war it won’t have anything on Charlie starting daycare. Dictators could learn things from her.”

Mr. Coldwater grins. “I mean, it’s really...not that bad?” he says, with a little shrug. “So the day I wrote to you, she did have a really long tantrum. And she needed a lot of calm down time. But she doesn’t throw things or try to hurt others or herself. That would be the, um...danger zone?”

Eliot‘s brows raise. “Danger zone,” he repeats.

“Danger zone,” Mr. Coldwater confirms, fully committing to that choice in a professional context. Well. That’s very admirable.

“Okay,” says Eliot, mildly. “So seven minutes isn’t that bad?” It feels like a deep personal failing every time Charlie so much as pouts, which she does a lot, but he’s very inured to personal failings.

“Well, no. But yes? I’m not, um, minimizing it, it’s obviously a lot but, like I said.” When Mr. Coldwater leans back in his chair tilted back toward his desk, very clearly thinking, it puts him at an angle where Eliot’s eye is drawn to the clean, smooth little knot he has his hair up in. “You know, I think another teacher might want to put her on an IEP—sorry, that’s individualized education plan? Definitely they would if she had more than a few rough days like that one, it’s not not disruptive. But she just started, like, this brand new school thing, all the kids have, and that’s really big. No kid is a robot. I think she just needs a little extra support. She’s really wonderful socially, and definitely like you said, the mini-boss type? But that’s really, I see it a lot. And she’s connecting with the other kids so easily.”

Finally he looks up at Eliot, and what he sees in his face must surprise him, his mouth going a little slack.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Coldwater starts, leaning forward again and fully facing him, seeming concerned. “Am I...stepping on toes, here? I didn’t—”

“No,” says Eliot, surprised into genuineness. He smooths a hand over his mouth, easing himself forward, too. “It’s...everything you just said, it was really kind.”

The moment feels oddly fragile, and somehow moreso when Mr. Coldwater smiles, just a little crinkling around his mouth.

“Yeah. No. Of course. So, it’s just—” He seems again to be trying to figure out how to phrase something. “Kids like Charlie, the personality she has—I feel like she’s probably really secure in some contexts, probably especially at home, and so it’s scarier when she doesn’t feel safe or like she’s getting what she needs. I think it would be great if we could remind her when to use her words but before she gets upset and that it’s okay to be upset? Talk to her about feelings and stuff? And I mean...” He puts a hand on his neck, head tilting in thought. “I almost think that’s it?”

Eliot realizes he should not feel stunned. Eliot is stunned. “Thank you,” he says.

Mr. Coldwater smiles at him again, his hands falling into his lap. “I’m just doing my job,” he says jocularly, like he is used to an over-compliment, which is maybe true, because again, so cute.

“No,” Eliot says, a little background irked at being given, like, a very sweet TEDTalk about his child and then having the person giving it play it off. “I mean, I can tell you care about all of—” Eliot gestures to the room. “All of this. I can tell you care a lot.”

Mr. Coldwater inclines his head, still smiling, and really, why does this adult man have dimples? Is this allowed? Is there a number he can call? “Thank you, Mr. Waugh.”

“Oh my god, please stop calling me that,” he says, and he finds he’s smiling, too. “I can be Eliot. That’s fine. We’re both adults.” He thinks flickeringly of his old spiel, not Mr. Waugh is my father, but Mr. Waugh is my brother, the implication pointed without actually having to go into it, just enough for a little flair of the dramatic that was how he tended to get his kicks day in and day out. But then the tense of his brother’s life changed.

Mr. Coldwater laughs, in surprise, and says, “Okay, yeah, we’re—good point. Both adults. I can be—” Is Eliot being mocked by a guy wearing a sweater over a button-up? “—Quentin.”

Well, even if he is being mocked: Mr. Coldwater can certainly be Quentin.

“All right. Perfect,” says Eliot. And he adds, “Your name is funny.”

“What,” says Quentin, without the tone of a question, surprised out of his parent-teacher mode.

Eliot smiles. “Your name is funny,” he repeats.

“It’s—it’s two English words together,” Quentin says, a response that sounds well-worn but baffled.

“No, no, your full name is funny,” Eliot says, almost serenely, for some reason feeling in his element, a little excitable. “Quentin Coldwater. So funny.”

Quentin stares at him, blankly, for another minute, and then starts laughing. “Get out of here,” he says, the laugh in his voice, shaking his head, and he stands up from his seat. Wait, is this it?

“Is this it?” Eliot asks, not thinking to worry if he sounds disappointed.

“Oh,” says Quentin, suddenly taken aback. “Oh, no, not literally, get out of here—” And then Eliot’s eyebrows shoot up and then he laughs, too, at that ridiculous, anxious-seeming turn. When he does, the worry dissolves in Quentin’s face like ice melting in a good drink you would have, sitting out in the sun.

And again Quentin smiles, ducking his head. He’s so, so cute.

“Okay, no,” says Eliot then, superfluously, “I mean, are we done? Is this parent-teacher meeting adjourned? You’ve given me my marching orders and it’s, uh, emotional openness with my bossy five-year-old?”

Quentin tips his head to one side. “That’s definitely...one way to summarize what we just discussed, yes.” He’s a little wry, surprisingly, and the dark of his eyes have a warm spark with hidden humor.

Oh, shit, Eliot thinks.

“I’ll take it,” he says. He gets to his feet, then, and as Quentin kind-of, not-really walks him to the door, they smalltalk about the rest of the school year—a play is coming up, and Quentin is apparently excited about Halloween enough to mention it, even though it’s still nearly two calendar months away. Then there’s handshakes, and goodbye.

“Thank you, Quentin,” Eliot says before he leaves the room, while Quentin’s hand still in his, and it’s surprising, how much he means it. Quentin just smiles, for a second.

“I’ll see you around, Eliot,” he says, and it’s like he’s saying again, just doing my job.

The sun’s gone down outside, and Eliot feels oddly light walking to his car in the low street lights, the near-empty parking lot. There’s no repressed trauma even in the same area code.