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“Hi,” is all that winds up coming out of Quentin’s mouth.

There’s a pause that feels audible, in the cold nighttime air of suburban Halloween. A kid on the other side of the road is yelling something; families and beleaguered older siblings are out up and down the street in general force. Quentin mostly hears his own pulse in his ears.

Eliot’s eyes narrow at him, just so, but he just steps back in the door frame. Quentin, shoulders slumping, shuffles up past him into the house. The adrenaline that had propelled him is fully guttering, into limb-twitching nervous energy that makes him want to physically shake himself out, like a wet dog.

The certainty that this was the only course of action propelled him, like, he doesn’t actually know how many blocks has dissipated. But would you even count blocks in a non-city? Whatever.

“Where’s Charlie?” he asks.

Eliot’s expression is more and more dubious, but he just closes the door and puts the candy cauldron down on the table to its side. It’s not a feature of Eliot’s house he’s specifically noticed before, a side table there, but something about it suddenly strikes Quentin as incredibly together, as like, a choice of a thing to have. Something by the door at about hand-height, to put your mail and keys down on, or anything else. The sort of thing he would annoyedly think about buying and not ever remember to buy, because he’s always chasing the idea of having his shit together. Quentin feels slightly unhinged?

In the real world, those thoughts had occupied, like, two seconds, and Eliot is saying, “We went out and came back. Margo walked with her to the thing at the library. I assume she’s kicking child ass at spooky trivia, or something.”

“Right,” Quentin says. “Sounds...fun.” He does an awkward kind of batting-together of his hands, like he might have meant to clap, which maybe he did, he doesn’t know. It’s hard to look at Eliot, because, well.

“Okay,” Eliot says, like he’d just made an unconvincing argument. “Quentin, is something up?”

His mouth is very dry. “Yeah,” he says, and he has to clear his throat, “yeah, kind of?” And then, blinking at Eliot, fully registering: “Sorry, are you wearing a cape?”

“Oh! Yes,” says Eliot, and he grins in a surprisingly boyish way before he fishes something out of his pocket and pops it in his mouth, only to bare a cheap set of vampire fangs at Quentin. “These are not comfortable,” is what Eliot must approximately say next; it comes out about like, Thesth are not camftable, before he pops the teeth back out, “but, you know, one sacrifices for art.”

Of all things to feel in response to that, Quentin feels fully dumbstruck. He also has a teenage-feeling sense that he’s being a huge fucking weirdo, but like he’s hearing a report of the events of his own behavior secondhand and has no idea how to make it stop.

Eliot’s smile has eased. “You know, between this and Buffy, I’m starting to think you have a personal vampire grudge,” he says. “Would you like to sit?”

“No,” Quentin half-snaps, to what he burningly feels is Eliot’s surprise, making his voice soften next with self-consciousness, “no, I just. Um.” And then he crosses the room to the couch anyway, even though he will maybe probably have to immediately stand back up to pace, like, what are you gonna do.

It’s like—he hasn’t even known Eliot that long. But with the whatever it was that just happened, it was hard to both look and not look at Eliot. The explanatory teeth were borderline unnecessary because he’s made up like a pre-Hays code horror movie, a story about a tall and beautiful monster. That’s inconvenient on top of the fact that when he does make himself look at him, Quentin’s eyes keep hyperfocusing on like, the bob of his Adams’ Apple, down to the hair on his chest that starts soft above what the neck of his shirt exposes, and it’s suddenly like he’s never seen any of those things on a body before. He hasn’t even known Eliot that long, but the context of seeing him feels differently new.

Eliot doesn’t call him out on his, like, whole thing except to just eye him, and take a very exacting beat before he follows him to the couch.

And in the silence that expands with a need for an explanation, Quentin again realizes he has no fucking idea what he wants to say. I thought of you while kissing another guy is not exactly a pre-Hays code-worthy declaration. It’s not any kind of declaration. It’s not even exactly what happened, even though, well, yeah, it is. Maybe more accurately, it’s not really what made him walk directly here, all this way without thinking to wonder if Eliot was even home, because he had to see him. What even is happening? It’s like something cracked open, but it’s more than just hey, Eliot is hot, which is not a fact that Quentin is unacquainted with. (Though, hot? It’s a weird thing to think about someone who always looks like he’s just come from somewhere way more interesting. But like, no, he’s also just hot. It’s just, Quentin wouldn’t want to sell him short.)

And then it’s like—if he says something wrong, this is over. If he says, in particular, I thought of you while kissing another guy then everything from here on out will unfold from that. It would always be context even if it doesn’t land. Quentin is not brave in the best of times, but it doesn’t seem cowardly to not want to just, turn the first new fledgling adult friendship he’s had in years on that axis. Of all things, he remembers how he misses Alice sometimes in a way that’s not really romantic at all: how she was soothingly good at pulling back to consider the factors of a pressing situation. The glow that would cross her face when they mutually stumbled across a topic she had a specific, educated passion about in conversation. He’s untangled by now that he mostly misses her friendship.

Basically, okay, when you go down that narrative branch, you risk losing a whole person. It’s a little soon to tell, but Eliot might be too important for that.

And Quentin has to fucking say, like, anything.

“I, um,” he starts. “So I was at the staff party we have at the school. For Halloween, right. There’s always alcohol so, you know, people show up, actually.”

“Uh-huh,” Eliot goes when he pauses, clearly having no idea where he’s going with this. It’s clear because, well, Quentin has no idea, either.

“So we—um. I realize now, I think—okay. I kissed Penny? Penny kissed me.”

Eliot blinks at him, opens his mouth, closes it, opens it to say, “Right. Who’s she, again?”

“He,” Quentin says, quickly enough and with a tone that surprises himself. “Uh. He. Yeah. Mr. Adiyodi? The, the music teacher—he was at the play...”

As he trails, Quentin cannot identify the look that crosses Eliot’s face, other than maybe something like mild surprise. “Oh,” Eliot says.

“Yeah,” says Quentin.

“Okay. Sorry,” says Eliot, plainly. “I don’t appreciate assumptions of that nature. Not that they’re made about me frequently. Though, I don’t know, I guess you’d be surprised.”

And—it dawns on Quentin: this was why he came here? Actually? Because it wasn’t like he didn’t have an idea of the score, like Eliot had never, say, casually mentioned he skewed more into Mark Hammill than Harrison Ford growing up, which by the way, legitimately bizarre opinion. Sure you related to Luke more, that’s the point of Luke Skywalker, but being more into Luke? What. Anyway.

And, okay, Julia isn’t straight. That’s one of those sneaky things they didn’t really mutually discuss for years, as if his deal and her infuriating but still embarrassingly-welcome knowingness about it when he spat it out was the headline, but it was true. He also didn’t come out of his twenties in New York never knowing other queer people who also knew that he was queer. It was something he identified more and then less and then more with. But talking about this with Julia would be different. Cognitively, it’s not possible for him to articulate to himself why this would be, in this moment, because really, for all that he’s super good at thinking about at least thirty unhelpful things at once, a lot is happening. But he just. He’s getting to the point in his head, maybe.

“I don’t know, it wasn’t like, unwelcome, but, I. Um—it just. So I haven’t really been in a relationship since, god, I can’t believe you met her, Alice. Like here and there, dates,” and he that specific word comes out of his mouth like he doesn’t understand the concept, but honestly, the levels to which this is all a nightmare to be saying are a footnote right now, so, “but nothing that like...mattered? And you know, I told you, Alice and I broke up because that was it, she didn’t want to do the family thing, and that’s what, like...that’s what I want. I think.”

The process of it becoming what felt more and more like a foundational difference had clarified things for Quentin in a way they might have never otherwise. Maybe they would still be dating right now, if they hadn’t had that one initial offhand conversation about it. Maybe it never would have come up for years and years, except one day he would suddenly be able to name the lack of something too late to do anything about it, with the way it takes him to find his way back to what he’s actually thinking and feeling through all the fucking, everything, all the time. It’s an unhelpful series of what ifs, since it’s not what happened, and is instead a spiral into a tortured alternate reality where everything is even more his fault all the time.

He’s not looking at Eliot when Eliot says, abrupt only from Quentin’s perspective, “So I should be planning to cater your wedding to my daughter’s music teacher?” He sounds gently mystified. When Quentin looks up at him, startled, his eyes are a little wry.

“God, no!” Wait. Jesus Christ. “Um—not that...Penny is…he’s very. He has really...nice...cheekbones?”

Eliot raises one brow, in the way Quentin knows him well enough to know that he does. Quentin sighs, remembering to be surface-level miserable. “It’s just that, I don’t know, Eliot,” he says, “I’ve been out with guys, right, even since Alice, but it never...I don’t know. I came out to my fucking parents by inventing a guy at college who didn’t exist to tell them I was dating, because I didn’t want to say it to just fucking say it,” and both of Eliot’s brows raise clean up his face, whatever, Quentin can’t stop talking, “and I couldn’t, I couldn’t imagine just being like, this is what I am and what I want to have. And it’s not just—internalized shit, or whatever, it’s just like, that’s how I am about fucking everything. I’m so bad at knowing what I want, or need, or. I don’t know. I’m so fucking lucky I’m not a miserable philosophy grad student.”

Eliot’s expression is now considering, not in the way he does when he’s thinking about something Quentin’s done when he knows he’s being weird, but like, he’s just thinking. What he says while Quentin is catching his breath is, “Sidebar: Philosophy?”

“Fuck off,” says Quentin.

Eliot’s brows raise again, and then he smiles, prompting Quentin to rub his hands over his face, recentering on what the fuck he’s trying to say. What is he trying to say?

“So, I guess what I’m saying is, it didn’t click. Not that I’m into guys, I know that, I freaked out about that in middle school and high school like every other fucking person, so by college it was mostly okay? But just that—I don’t know. I guess my life now looks the closest it’s going to look to the life I want to have. You know? I made it to adulthood! And then this really, this cute guy kisses me, and it’s great and everything, and, and suddenly I realized...Fuck, my future could end with a guy. Like I really imagined it, and I really felt it, not even with—it wasn’t about Penny, I guess? Not that he’s not, you know. It was just. It was like the possibility never occurred to me before? Somehow? That doesn’t even make sense.”

Eliot just looks at him. “I kind of think you know that it does?” he says next, kindly.

Quentin feels himself deflate. Not in a bad way, like a gently-released pressure. “I guess,” he says, even though he’s not sure it’s true. He leans back into the couch, his body slumping. Eliot is still looking at him.

“Quentin,” he starts, “you know, as much as it could have without me remotely putting myself in a position to knock someone up, being a parent just...fucking happened to me. It wasn’t something I ever saw for myself. Not in a million years.”

He turns his head to look at Eliot, almost startled. “You’re a really good dad,” he says, without thinking. “You know that, right?”

Quentin’s sure there’s a pause.

“Well, I work with what I’ve got,” Eliot says then, smiling with a bothersome wryness. “But that’s not my point. My point is that I never really had to come out. I was a theater kid in family values country. I knew every lyric to West Side Story at the tender age of eight instead of literally anything I was supposed to give a shit about. I probably even had the raiding-mom’s-closet moment, I don’t really remember, not that my mother was extremely sartorially exciting. But I mean, I say I never had to come out, but I still totally did have to come out. I did the beard thing in high school and everything. She was sweet. Actually, we’re Facebook friends?” This seems to lingeringly bother Eliot.

“Oh,” says Quentin, even though he thinks he would always want to know Eliot now that he’s met him, so that makes sense.

“Right,” says Eliot. “But Quentin, there’s just not a fucking blueprint for this. Like, you get that that’s the thing, right? I never thought I would be a parent because it wasn’t even a multiple choice option to begin with. That was even before the, you know, wide variety of substances.”

It suddenly strikes Quentin that it could be a little frustrating that he can’t physically seem to stop himself from venting spleen at Eliot, but meanwhile Eliot metes out backstory like an especially frustrating D&D campaign which seems to require Quentin levelling up by obscure and secret gaming mechanics. But it’s only frustrating if he’s acknowledging just how much he wants to know stuff about Eliot, just to know it.

“What does that mean?” is what he says, acknowledging it.

Eliot’s brows lift, though he doesn’t seem surprised. “I had...what would be called a disreputable youth if I were, I don’t know, a young, handsome British lord,” he says. “But I was ratty and broke for a long time, so we can just say I was a fuckup. I was as into coke and other snortable things as much as the next baby gay who washed up in a coastal city, but I was mostly preserving my liver in alcohol. For the record, I guess.”

And, well. None of this is hugely surprising, Quentin guesses, but.

“You own a bar?” Quentin says, a little wonderingly. This was a general thought he’d been on the edge of articulating to himself, since Eliot’s offhand non-drinking, since Googling him.

“I own a restaurant with a bar. I also own a tremendous natural business acumen, and a martyr complex,” Eliot says. “This feels off-topic.”

“It’s not,” says Quentin, and again it comes out as a snap; Eliot again looks taken aback. Quentin sighs, now, yeah, frustrated. It would be kind of unhinged if he explained, as much as he’s already explained a lot of things that make him sound kind of unhinged. “Eliot,” he starts.

Eliot’s startle relaxes. He smiles. It’s a smile that strikes Quentin as generous, before he looks down, and Quentin can see just the edge of how his mouth then purses, and wait, it’s cute? He doesn’t know if that word has ever particularly jumped out to him, looking at Eliot before—he’s beautiful. But he does that, the slightly theatrical thoughtful thing with his mouth, his eyes and lashes so dark on his face with what Quentin has long-since accepted is eyeliner, and it’s really cute. If Eliot looks up at him at the wrong time, he has no idea what this thought will look like; it feels awkwardly loud in his head, like he just handed it to Eliot on a lined piece of notebook paper, do you like me too check yes or no.

“Q,” Eliot returns, finally. “This is just my life, and I’m still working on thinking it’s possible. I mean, clearly.”

Quentin shakes his head. “That’s not, it’s not clear,” he says. “Stop saying stuff like that. Jesus.”

The smile on Eliot goes slack again, before he laughs. “I don’t know that I can?”

“Well, work on it. Fuck,” Quentin says irritably, but Eliot just laughs again, which gives Quentin the impression he’s missed the point somehow, if Quentin even knows what his own point fucking is. But in that moment, Eliot seems to think of something else, his eyes listing downward. “Wait, what actually is your costume?” he asks.

“I’m Mr. Rogers,” Quentin says.

Eliot blinks at him. “Oh,” he says.

Quentin’s brain catches up with him enough that he expects Eliot to make fun of him, but he doesn’t. Actually, Quentin can’t quite parse the look on his face. Then, seemingly off another thought, Eliot says, “Okay, come on.”

“What,” is all Quentin has time to say, before Eliot stands up. He trails behind Eliot to the kitchen, and it turns out, to the door of a space he’s only been peripherally aware of, which is Eliot’s backyard. The door hinge makes a noise that makes Eliot give it a considering wince when he lets it close behind Quentin, and then Quentin is reminded, again, that he’s underdressed for the weather. He buries his hands in his pockets, feeling suddenly childish.

The door out comes on to a deck made of smooth, clean-lined dark wood. He had never really conceived of living in a place that trucked in backyards pre-Brakebills, outside of a vague bitterness about the concept of a white picket fence, which seemed like a life path for people more together than he was, something he should have but couldn’t. Instead, he got this far.

Eliot pulls both cigarettes and his showy box of matches from his pockets, and then, in a move of circuitousness on the part of the universe that seems roughly fucking impossible to Quentin, he is for the second time in however many hours standing outside, a little too cold, watching an offensively beautiful guy smoking. It feels like he’s trying to identify his emotional experience by reading about it later, which is pretty typical for him, but he thinks he might still be miserable.

The match strike and the flickering embers at the end of the cigarette as Eliot takes a drag both seem discontinuously colorful. Eliot hadn’t flipped on whatever light there must be out here, so the tones of cold moonlight pull blue on him, the warm inside lights from the window not really reaching him.

“I just,” stars Quentin. Eliot looks at him, cigarette pulled from his mouth, so he goes on, “I just—something that was always true seems real now but it was real before. And that’s just, not how it’s supposed to work. Isn’t that not how it’s supposed to work?”

Eliot seems to think. “Reality is relative,” Eliot says.

Quentin blinks at him. “Does that even mean anything?”

Eliot shrugs eloquently. “One hopes,” he says, and he smiles at Quentin in a way that makes him feel better. It’s not like he’d, well, substantively responded to anything bothering Quentin, but somehow he had smoothed it over anyway. Maybe by acting like it wasn’t a big deal.

“There must have been,” Quentin starts, impulsively and not sure if he has a coherent point he’s going to make yet, “like, a moment when, you know, you realized you—you have a backyard.”

“No, yeah,” says Eliot, immediately, “I didn’t even look outside when we signed the mortgage.”

“Shut up,” says Quentin. “Yeah, you bought a house with a backyard. We’re upstate. You have a family, I mean, fuck, you are a family. I just feel, like...when did that seem real?”

Eliot’s expression is hard to read in the dim, if anything he’d said had made it change, before Eliot looks down. There’s a lot of life left in his cigarette, but he lets it fall on the ground and stubs it out with his shoe, a series of actions that feels at odds with how fussy he’s learned Eliot is. Then he puts his hands in his pockets, making Quentin feel horrifyingly aware of his own pose, doing the same thing, what his own arms and legs are doing in relation to each other.

“Well, so. My father—my parents, I should say—tried to fight for custody of Charlie,” says Eliot, no fanfare. “You know, I know what you mean. It didn’t hit me before that when I got a series of calls from lawyers or, uh, Sarah’s parents—Sarah was my sister-in-law, and Charlie’s grandparents through her are, like, incredible, like I didn’t know parents that nice existed, which I guess brings me to the fact that my father is not that.”

Quentin has nothing to say to that, so. Eliot goes on: “He loved James, though. He pushed him around, too, you know, without the same homophobic zest. But when James left it really felt like, if Mr. Future Homecoming King was running away, where the fuck did that leave me, right?”

Quentin is just staring at Eliot, the outline of his face tilted back down, the way he might actually feel about any of this obscured in the less-than-half light.

“You know, I kind of hated him for years? James, I mean. My dad, obviously. But James got out of the army, married his prom date, had this great job. Every time we talked, he acted like I was something he had to—not even fix. Like, course-correct. And for a while, when we were kind of in touch, we never talked about anything with our family. Nothing. But one day he calls to tell me Charlie had been born and he wasn’t letting our dad see her, and did I want to come visit Memorial Day weekend when he had time off? God, that was like one of our last conversations.”

Obviously Quentin has nothing to fucking say to that, but he gets the familiar sense that if he did, he’d be interrupting. Eliot looks at him then, and Quentin sees the glint of it when he smiles a little.

“So—yeah, when there was court involvement, I guess it felt real?”

Quentin feels a wash of cold shame that roots him back in his body, making him swallow hard.  It hits him he had given a novel-length explanation of his inconsequential bullshit to someone who just told him everything Eliot told him. Holy shit.

“Fuck,” says Quentin, embarrassingly reacting to that more than to anything Eliot had just said. But, like, fuck.

Eliot, who is not privy to this horrific series of thoughts and is therefore essentially on a different planet from Quentin, just says, “Yeah,” with a little laugh, half-humorless. “I mean, I don’t know, Q. There’s not a switch to flip to make things feel real.”

“Why not,” says Quentin, before he can think better of it.

Eliot just shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says, with a tone of genuine regret. “I was looking for years.”

*

Eliot and Margo don’t see each other at length before Margo has to leave the next day to set up some charity brunch thing, since she’d gotten home with a by all accounts very sugar-high Charlie that night while he was still out dropping Quentin at his. The two most important people in his life were dead asleep by the time he got home, on a Friday-night Halloween, at a scandalous half past ten o’clock. He had smiled to himself when he closed Margo’s door as soft as he could to go to his own bedroom.

The next morning, she’s leaving while he and Charlie share a bowl of Lucky Charms (which she wants, but only wants if he will share it with her; it’s all very complicated). Margo says “Morning,” then says “Bye,” dropping a kiss on their foreheads in turn.

So, a little later on, he texts her:

good luck with the event. i meant to tell you mr. q’s not a straight boy after all

Margo doesn’t respond for a while. When she does, it’s this:

Congrats. I assume you found out practically. I wasn’t going to tell you but since you got a W I fucked Fen

Then, she follows up:

Like a few times now

Then:

😘

Eliot blinks down at his phone, then chooses to put it on the table and go see what Charlie is up to.

*

It’s been four months since the accident, and Eliot holds Charlotte all the time. She’s a memorably fussy baby, for reasons that seem out of her control, and constantly wanting someone to be holding her. But nearly every time he does, he feels newly in awe of her smallness. He watches videos on YouTube, and finds that maybe this is what dissociating actually is, like, what he feels while watching videos about how to hold a baby must be that. He alternates this with staring at her a lot, mostly kind of like, what the fuck. Obviously, he loves her helplessly, he feels like such a bullshit person for not deigning to really be significantly in her life, oh, a minute sooner than was necessitated by the unimaginable disaster that will change the course of her life forever. And he feels like he doesn’t love her enough.

Margo is just watching them both right then, him holding Charlotte, when she breaks the baby’s-breath silence: “El, honey, what are you thinking about now?”

At this point Margo is sleeping over nearly every night, and from time to time he catches her looking tired in a way that makes him remember how young she used to be, but clearly thinking of something to say to him, turning over an idea until it sharpens to a knifepoint in her mind. He knows that face. In other contexts it would be unnerving, you know, Margo up to something, reminiscent maybe of when they used to do things like go to casinos pretending she was a pageant winner while also high, before she still graduated with a much-negotiated near-4.0. She’s still bitter about the near part of that.

Charlotte is in his lap, asleep. He’s still trying to decide what to call her, trying on different nicknames every other sentence. He’s recently learned to pitch his voice as low as he does then, in deference of sleeping child: “The same thing we think about every night, Pinky,” he says. “How I’m going to fuck this up.”

Margo smiles, but it’s a wan smile. “El,” she says, “it’s never been cute when you martyr.”

“Jesus, Margo. It’s been four fucking months. My brother is dead. Her dad and her mom and her, like, whole life, I have to be that now. Give me some time to be a fucking mess, okay?”

“See, this is what I’m saying.” And he sees her gaining purpose, leaning forward: “You’re not a mess. This is handled. You lawyered up to protect a child, and you’re obviously over the moon, even though I honestly can’t even remember a time when either of us have ever been around a child for more than twenty seconds except for, what, on a plane or at brunch—something just, happened. And you don’t see it. I wish I could make you see. Like if I could jam my eyes into those huge dumbass sockets right now, I would.”

Well. The romantic gore is unsurprising. “How sweet,” he says, which only makes Margo’s eyes narrow.

Charlotte stirs gently in sleep, warm and soft, the moue of her mouth changing. She’s so small. The world is so big. He’s all that’s left in between this tiny, tiny thing and the world.

“I can’t ever yell at her,” he says, helplessly. His tongue is prolifically loose these days even though it’s been a while since he’s had the luxury to casually unwind with a substance, because it feels like everything he feels is spilling out of him at once all the fucking time. “I can’t—if I ever—I feel like there’s this monster inside me that’s going to come out at any moment, Margo, and it looks just like my fucking father.”

“Listen, dumbass,” she says, and he does. “You’re going to fuck up. You’re definitely going to yell at her. I yell at you all the goddamn time. Does that make me your fucking dad now? Bullshit. I love you. And about the only thing I’m sure of is neither one of us two prizes have ever met anyone with parents who didn’t fuck all the way up.”

Eliot is struck that he that won’t ever get Margo to accept that he doesn’t deserve her, but he might be unlucky enough that she’ll come to that conclusion on her own, one day.

“But by the way,” she goes on, losing as much of the fire as it’s possible for her to lose, “I’m a prize for real. Just wanted to make that fucking clear.”

“You are, Bambi,” he says, a little tonelessly. But he means it, he means it so much that he deflects it by looking down at the baby. He swallows.

“Margo, I love you—” he starts, stops. It won’t come out how he wants it to, maybe, but what else is fucking new? “But I didn’t know how it…” His mouth presses in on itself, and he hates crying so much. He steels himself, thinking of chorus or acting class breathing exercises, even though the only thing worse than crying is looking like you’re trying not to.

“I know,” she says, and she does, probably, as much as anyone can. She stands then, and like a blessing she comes over to lean herself into their armchair, and he shifts with Charlotte still asleep so that Margo’s arms neatly go around his shoulders, steadying. “All we can do is hold on, okay? And we got it. And I’ve got you, El.”

He closes his eyes, leaned in at the hollow of her chest.

And they do, and she does. But.

Of course Margo was right, like she is about a lot of things; of course he yells at Charlie. He yells at her when she can’t even understand what he wants and she can’t tell him what she wants, either. When this happens, the split second right after it does seems like it must be the worst he’s ever felt, because she literally can’t understand him. He yells at her when she’s just slipped into sentences other people understand and he doesn’t have to translate her beautiful babble, fully-formed suddenly, like the best magic trick the world’s ever seen, ever. He’s not convinced that anyone else has ever learned how to talk as well as Charlie has. That’s also a banner fuckup event.

But the worst, the real worst time he yells at her is, well, it’s in the weeks before she’s due to start school. Because the planets align in this way: he’s distracted by the fucking restaurant as if it matters, but it’s about to be incredibly busy. So, variable one. Variable two, his babysitter fell through and Margo has her own life tonight and he has to go to a bullshit small business event (see variable one) that’s black tie, and he has no choice but to take Charlie. It’s some hobnobbing bullshit, which is the one piece of his job that he is unambiguously good at other than sliding around the pieces he’s not good at and also, food. Then variable three: the iPad is past dead, and they do not have time to charge it before going in the car. Then, final variable: Charlie, who is never satisfied with letting the iPad charge in the car while they drive. Charlie, whose dress is also itchy, apparently.

Charlie’s world entire just about crumbles in front of him.

“I’m not going!” Her tiny body makes so much volume; it would be awe-inspiring in another context.

“You can’t stay alone,” he says, for the fifth or sixteenth time, a desperate and ugly pressure from that and all the other little things building behind his words. He’s trying to focus on packing the bag for her, the rote motion of his own hands, to stay calm. “You know that, I told you. We can charge—”

“I’m not going,” she says, and then, all of his worst determination in a 3-feet-and-some-inches package with her hands somehow on her hips like she understands what that means at age six, “I’m not going I’m not going I’m not going I’m not going—”

“Charlotte—”

“I’m not going!” she shouts up, with all her force.

And he turns fully on her on a dime, “CHARLOTTE ANNE!”

She stops all at once, gaping up at him. She’s stunned. And he sees it surface in her eyes, just before more tears: she’s afraid.

Her lower lip trembles, and trembles.

“Oh,” he says, nearly physically recoiling in horror at himself, “oh, no, no, no, baby,” but he resists the internal magnetic pull to get away, and drops to his knees in front of her, stunned, too. And he’s still is not the biggest fan in the world of crying, but tears well helplessly in his eyes, like they’re mirrors of hers.

“Daddy,” she says thickly, every trace of tantrum gone once he’s on the floor in front of her, and he nods a little incoherently. He makes himself reach for her, even though he’s terrified of touching her just in the aftermath of that, to gather her into his arms. Her body goes limp, leaning into his.

“My love, daddy is so sorry,” he says into her hair. “I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry. That was my fault. Okay? You didn’t make me do that, I made me do that. Okay?”

“Okay,” she says, making his starched shirt wet with tears where her cheek presses. Her arms are tight at his neck.

“Charlie, Charlie-girl, I love you so much. I love you no matter what I say, if I’m mad at you or if you’re mad at me. I make—I make mistakes sometimes, and it’s not your fault, sweetheart, it’s never, ever your fault.”

“Okay,” she says again, sniffling hard.

He pulls back, just so, to look at her. Her face is open again, red-eyed and red-cheeked from crying hard even before, well.

“Charlie, can you listen right now?” he says. She nods yes.

“All right, sweetheart,” he says. “Thank you. Okay. If I ever, ever, ever hurt you or I’m ever mean to you, you tell me. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in trouble. You tell me, Charlie. You understand?”

Her eyes are teary-glazed with imminent exhaustion, but she nods, even though he’s not sure if she actually does understand.

“We have to take care of each other,” he says, “okay? All of us, you and me and Margo, we have to take really good care of each other. And you’re the best at taking care of me, Charles.”

“I love you, daddy,” she says, and he kisses her head, once and then again. And it turns out Eliot doesn’t need to go to the event more than he needs to sit with her on his lap on the couch and put on Frozen, and let her fall asleep less than fifteen minutes in.

With all due respect to Charlie’s happiness, he turns the movie off and gathers her up to take her to bed, and after haunting through the hall to turn off the upstairs lights, he climbs in next to her like he still does sometimes when she’s restless, even though his girl is an acrobatic sleeper. But he doesn’t get an accidental elbow before, in the soft nightlight yellow of her room, in the warm purple cocoon of her bed, he falls asleep with some pieces of his tux still on and Charlotte curled at his chest.

*

Charlie had been preoccupied with everyone’s knowledge of her coming birthday long before Halloween had overtaken the school. The furor only increased on the other side of that benchmark. While kids were big on non sequiturs, generally, Charlie found increasingly creative connections to things her classmates were talking about and her birthday. To Quentin, it was something special—the kind of un-self-consciousness possessed by a confident kid and, also, most kids in general. It seemed to him like any given adult’s role in a child’s life should have been ensuring they stay unaware for as long as possible that someone, somewhere might not care about their favorite color, the frog they saw this morning, or their birthday.

So on no level was it a plot twist when, after a warning email from Eliot (a way over-formal email, since Eliot really, frankly, hammed up them having a parent-teacher boundary), Charlie came to school with a manila envelope full of ornate birthday party invitations. Each one was a bright pink dinosaur cut to its own silhouette. ROAR! PARTY!, the top of each read. Charlie even had some invitations for some kids in other classes. There had been only one other reported and celebrated birthday thus far in the academic year in Quentin’s classroom, so it was really shaping up to be a social event for the kinder set.

In the week leading up to the party, he tagged along with Eliot on what turned out to be a party errand day, apparently, because at the grocery store Eliot asks him, beleaguered in the Baking Needs aisle, “Do I need to do something with…alternative flours?”

Quentin shrugs in earnest, even though it’s fun, to him, when Eliot is showy about being a weird snob. “I guess it’s thoughtful,” he says.

“Disgustingly thoughtful,” is Eliot’s reply.

“Uh, normal thoughtful?” Quentin suggests; Eliot ignores.

Anyway. Eliot offers coffee after they finish at the grocery store, before Quentin heads out. But he becomes spontaneously anxious about his coffee order since Eliot’s order, recited casually, is not something Quentin has ever noticed in the Starbucks repertoire, capped off with a smooth “And for you?” that makes it dawn on him that Eliot is paying for his coffee, but then he has a split-second of anxiety clarity that he likes black coffee and black coffee is an unimpeachable coffee order. Like, frankly.

So, Quentin says, “Medium coffee, black, please.”

The barista reaches for a cup to write on. “So you’re paying for your boyfriend?” he directs at Eliot, with a distinct undertone of slyness, and, wait. Hold on?

Somewhere adjacent to his body, in this room in this coffee shop which is as far Quentin knows on this planet, Eliot laughs. “I’m paying for my friend,” he says, but not exactly like he’s clarifying.

The guy just nods, apparently pleased, and this is when Quentin is able to visually interrogate the fact that this guy is…hot. He has, like, a neck tattoo. Oh my god.

Quentin clears his throat, and in the rush of needing to seem okay with all of this what he winds up doing is saying “Thanks,” directed at no person in particular, and retreating from the counter.

There’s stuff in the car that needs to go in the fridge, so they weren’t going to linger anyway. But the stretch of time where he’s too embarrassed to say anything makes him then think his embarrassment might be giving the wrong impression, which it often has a way of doing. Because of this, a measured pause after they’re in the car, he decides strategically to say, “So.”

Eliot doesn’t look at him. “Uh-huh?”

“Did you, uh, get a number on the receipt or something?”

Okay, then Eliot looks at him, apparently taken aback. “Quentin,” he says, “I never ask for my receipt. Waste more trees, why don’t you.”

What even is he talking about. What. Should Quentin not ask for receipts. Are receipts bad? Wait, oh my god. Quentin rolls his eyes. “Okay,” he says, maybe a little huffy, “I’ve definitely come up with better lines on the fly than are you paying for your boyfriend, and that’s—saying something.” And that was probably not true, but it made his point.

Eliot smiles, his eyes again slanted in Quentin’s direction. “No number on my receipt. No number on your cup, either.”

“What?”

Eliot half-shrugs. “Kinda thought he was about to flirt with you,” Eliot says.

Quentin’s mouth opens, and closes.

It’s impossible to imagine encountering both himself and Eliot in the wild and choosing to flirt with, well. He would wonder if Eliot’s fucking with him, but they’re both adults and this is not the highly specific set of circumstances that happened a few times in schools middle and high that instilled this exciting subgenre of his anxiety disorder. But outside of that: he can’t picture it. Not choosing Eliot? No way.

Given that he doesn’t have a car and can’t leave promptly, Eliot finds an endless array of small tasks to assign to Quentin for the party once they get back to his house. There’s something special, and sweet, about the level of gravitas that Eliot assigns things like this—like food or decoration or any of the somehow-many logistical details of a child’s birthday party, some of which that maybe previously hadn’t been invented. Sure Quentin’s caught hints of a kind of self-recrimination from Eliot, but he also sees how Eliot with no apparent effort believes that the things he thinks are important and serious are, in fact, worthy of being important and taken seriously. He's a lot like his kid in that way, or Charlie is a lot like him in that way.

But then when it is time for him to leave, Charlie all but has to be pulled off of him with a crowbar. She goes through peaks and valleys in interest in him; this is a firm peak given that he’s been talking with her all about the presents she’s getting for her birthday all day.

“We’re going to see Mr. Q at your party,” Eliot tells her as they all stand at the door, very patiently.

“Why can’t he stay over again,” she says. She’s pouting.

And Quentin—well, to be fair, Charlie has never referenced this, and so he had never imagined her referencing this, and it kind of had not pinged him somehow that it would be in her wheelhouse to reference this. Even though a vague warning statement that Eliot made the morning-of about them being in the same bedroom floats back to the forefront of his mind along with white-hot embarrassment. Even though it’s a rookie mistake.

Eliot is visibly also doing work to answer this. “Mr. Quentin stays where he lives,” is what he says, diplomatic.

“But he has to come back!” Well, in like two days, but: she’s a kid.

“I know, sweetheart.”

Quentin does not fully remember the rest of the interaction; there’s heat in his face and he blurts “Okay, bye” over Eliot trying to say something else, and to Quentin’s horror Eliot’s face registers that he’s surprised, and then he is back home where his dog can just lick his face while he pets him. That is a form of conversation where Quentin can’t fuck up the timing.

Charlie’s actual date of birth happens to fall over the weekend, which makes for a probable banner year in the life of any kid who has a school calendar birthday. The week before any Rashomon interactions with a barista, he’d had a minor moral panic about something relatively simple: whether or not he should bring a gift to Charlie’s party. (He’d almost forgotten about getting a gift? For a birthday? Even though he’d thought of one like a month ago? Whatever, Jesus, separate issue.)

“I don’t know, Jules,” is what he’d said, at the stage of minor moral panic where Julia is looped in. “The party will be like, almost entirely kids from my class, and I don’t really—like, it’s kind of weird that I’m going period, in the first place, and—“

“Quentin,” she says. “Please, for the love of God, go to Target, get your friend’s kid a toy.”

Oh. Yeah, that does sound normal.

It’s normal to go to your friends’ kid’s birthday party. It’s an event that he understands, based on rote jokes made by parents during meetings and open houses, to serve a very serious dual function as a tired adult social event separate from the kids-running-around party. And so he means to get there with a safe cushion of earliness so that he can kind of, like, acclimate himself, but even though he’s on his own freakishly early timeline, there’s already a modest line of cars on the street in front of the house. On the sidewalk, he swallows so audibly that maybe the word gulp appears in a little speech bubble over his head.

“Mr. Q!” Charlie crows at him, answering the door without an adult immediately behind her person, before she jumps at him.

But Eliot appears, as if summoned. “Charles, what have we said multiple times about the door—“ and then he doesn’t so much drop that as switch tracks, with a centering sigh, then a smile: “Hello, Quentin.” And with that, Quentin thinks he feels as acclimated as he meant to feel.

But Charlie doesn’t heed whatever hint of argument the door reminder implies, because she’s attached to Quentin’s leg just then. “Hi, Eliot,” Quentin says, grinning easy, but then he has to walk Charlie out to the backyard like that, stuck to his leg. Charlie is apparently unfazed even by the rapt attention that he receives when children bloom in from the party’s locus in the backyard, three in a row stopped short to stare at their teacher in a totally foreign context. One out of the three is unresponsive when he tries to say hi.

Outside, adults and a couple more kids are scattered, in varying states of cold-weather outerwear even though it’s unseasonably warm especially as it’s getting into the afternoon, with the adults congregated around the table of food that’s surprisingly unfussy. It’s bowls of chips and pretzels, baby carrots and capri suns, an end space that will obviously eventually accommodate pizza. Charlie has detached and is running after a kid from a class that shares their recess period.

“Can I get you a drink?” Eliot offers, stopping Quentin short of analysis of any reaction among the parents he is mostly familiar with.

“Do I get a capri sun?”

Eliot sighs. “On this, the day of my daughter’s birthday party.” Quentin’s grinning again. He trails after Eliot’s polite insistence on getting him a beer, back into the house, where he sees: most of the stuff that they actually got at the store when he went with Eliot.

“I was wondering where the brie went,” he comments.

“Oh, Mr. Q,” Eliot tuts. “Food for adults stays in the house. Someone is going launch the chip bowl into the ground, but that need not happen to an innocent canapé.”

Need not, Quentin almost repeats back to him, and even in his mind it’s more with weird giddiness than any kind of razzing. It occurs to him that he was so anxious about how this would actually be that now that it’s more or less fine, he feels that familiar goofy absence of tension. So like, actually, is the beer a good idea? Wow, weighing the impact of a beer is embarrassing. Eliot puts the bottle in his hand, and Quentin raises it to him.

“So, how’s all of—“ and then Quentin uses the bottle to gesture vaguely to the outside throng, “everything, so far?”

“Well, to start with, everyone showed up painfully fucking early. Including Amy Alvarez. You know, I didn’t think she’d actually come.”

“Uh—why wouldn’t she?”

Eliot’s mouth opens, closes, opens again to say: “Well, never mind,” right before someone’s dad comes up with their son to ask about the bathroom.

When Quentin gives the same sort of bathroom directions to a mom who asks him later in the party (Ms. Cantor, he remembers unprompted, which is pretty impressive for his usual retention of names), it’s only inconspicuous in terms of his familiarity with Eliot’s house since it’s, well, later in the party. Parents weren’t trying as hard to back him into a networking corner as he’d expected, but that’s maybe because in replacement of the standby of finding an amenable animal at someone’s house during a party, he’s just entertaining kids off and on. And it’s occurring to him as the day goes on how much Charlie has blossomed, just watching her really get to ring-lead. Though, ok, before cake, she broke open a sparkly dinosaur piñata with unhealthy zeal, and chased around Alex when he took off with the piñata’s head. So, yeah. Balance.

The only things that had made Charlie more excited than the piñata beheading were cake and Margo respectively, the latter of which arrived about ten minutes after Quentin with a large beautiful present bag and in a white fur coat as if she was impervious to any possible child chaos or protected by a forcefield. Quentin had heard half-snippets of her exchange with Eliot that she’d had to double back to get more ice and drinks when the party had barely-started, and then she’d turned to him and enthused, “Mr. Q,” and kissed him on the cheek like it was perfunctory for them, leaving him just, incredibly confused.

It was much later in the evening after everyone had mostly herded inside when there was, at long last, the cake. Margo hit the lights as Eliot emerged from the kitchen with it, sparkler candles and picturesque flecks of vanilla bean in the frosting under gold letters that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHARLIE, and a little green dinosaur figurine stuck in by the candles. As Eliot rounded the table behind Charlie to set it down, he started in a grand, clear intone, “Happy birthday, dear Charlie” that made her giggle, and when everyone joined in, half the kids sang “Charlotte” instead of “Charlie” even though Quentin had never heard anyone call her that at school.

And then there was Eliot’s face at his daughter’s shoulder, lit by the sparkler candles, grinning wide and whispering something to her right before she blew them out with one dramatic blow. Then, her classmates erupted.

But when most of the kids and their parents had filtered out, it was like the house had been muted again. This was true even though Emma K. was staying the night, and both she and Charlie had eaten way too much cake and were running around outside until it was way too cold for Eliot to not boss them into the house, and then for Margo to more effectively boss them into the house as Quentin watched from the kitchen table.

“But guess what,” Eliot was offering a very put-upon Charlie, who still wanted to run around.

“What,” she said.

“It can be present time now.” This information seemed to completely change Charlie’s life.

It hadn’t really occurred to Quentin that there hadn’t been any real laboriously long present-opening at the party; Charlie had opened a couple from some classmates at some point, he thought, maybe? But his present, plainly book-shaped and messily-wrapped, was still sitting in the living room.

“I want Margodad’s,” Charlie had said, matter-of-factly, seeming to prioritize size. It turned out Margo had gotten her a kid science experiment kind of set, which drove Charlie absolutely insane, and Quentin couldn’t help but smile at how Charlie burrowed herself into Margo saying “thank you thank you thank you!” with a tone full of exclamations. Margo gathered her up gladly, saying, “Happy birthday, honey.”

There were other presents Charlie opened before Quentin’s—toys, mostly. What Quentin had gotten her was a new and very beautiful fully-illustrated version of the first volume of Fillory and Further. Obviously, someone had to have read the books to her, but: this one was pictures. When she’d torn the wrapping paper free of the cover, she stopped all at once, awed.

“Mr. Q,” she says, with a tone of reverence, “it’s so pretty. Is that Jane?”

Eliot’s present to her was likewise smaller, or at least, what she had to open was smaller. It was a box with a set of kitchen toys in it, like a kid version of something you’d buy for a first apartment. Charlie is ecstatic even before Eliot says to her, with a showy non-showiness, “You know, for your new kitchen.”

“NO WAY,” Charlie says. And at some point, Eliot had secreted down a play kitchen that looked—well, like a real kitchen, but purple and yellow and, uh, small. And even though the girls were both thrilled by the kitchen, and Charlie immediately instigated a variation of the pretend-restaurant she did at school, by the time Margo announced from the kitchen table, “El, I’m actually dying, bye, goodnight,” Quentin had been half-reading and half-showing The World and the Walls for long enough that his voice was going scratchy, sprawled on the couch.

“Don’t die, Margodad,” said Charlie, suddenly sounding miserably tired as Margo came to squeeze her goodbye. The exchange was lost on Emma, since her eyes were fully closed.

“I won’t, sweetie,” Margo reassured her. “But I won’t be doing any cleanup.”

“Margo,” Eliot said, without any reproach. “Let’s role model.”

“Go role model yourself, I’m going home and going to sleep,” says Margo, gathering up Charlie from her place by Quentin on the couch to do birthday goodbyes, and then after the door had closed behind her, Eliot troops Charlie and her barely-awake sleepover guest upstairs, Charlie being awake enough to “but dad” about it. Quentin doesn’t hear his response.

Quentin’s voice had been going, but somehow, he isn’t tired. So by the time Eliot comes back downstairs, Quentin has found a use for himself and is gathering up trash, contemplating the pros and cons of wielding a rag to wipe down counters. He only looks up to see Eliot standing in that open-plan-house liminal space between the kitchen and the living room because he hears the soft pad of footsteps; Eliot doesn’t announce himself. He’s standing like he’s stopped himself short, looking at Quentin.

“Thank you, Quentin,” is what Eliot says, before comes to take the haphazard trash bag out of his hands. “Margo will clean tomorrow. She just loves making an exit.”

“Well,” Quentin says. “I’ll help now.” He grins, and after a second, Eliot returns the smile, and Quentin takes the bag back.

Then there’s a lapse of silence that makes the evening feel much later than it is, with the warm light from under the kitchen cabinets and the clock on the stove glowing only 10:42. Eliot moves around the kitchen, too, wiping down surfaces. They exchange logistics: “This goes in the fridge?” “Yes, please.” It’s like it’s happened before, between the two of them, but Quentin guesses one after-party cleanup is like another. He’s sure he’s missing something when he’s cleared the last of the food trash, leaning back against the counter and waiting for the obvious thing he overlooked to dawn on him.

Eliot rounds the counter to stand next to him, wiping his hands with a dishtowel. “I would probably have just gone to bed if you hadn’t started acting like a Roomba,” he says.

Well. “Sorry?” Quentin hazards.

Eliot smiles. “I’m thanking you. I just didn’t actually say thank you, or anything that could be misconstrued as thank you.” At that, Quentin laughs, ducking his head, but Eliot goes on: “Thank you, Quentin.”

Quentin shakes his head, a little bit. Maybe he’s starting to feel a little fuzzy. “I’m your friend, and you had a messy kid party,” he says. “And I’m here. So.”

Quentin watches Eliot’s brows raise in profile. “So,” Eliot repeats, like Quentin made a good point. Quentin’s smile goes wider. Then Eliot puts the dishrag down, sighs. “Is it about time to get you home before you turn into a pumpkin?”

Quentin shakes his head. “Not even Halloween,” he says.

“Good, because that’s just an incredibly clear Cinderella reference, you fucking dork,” Eliot says, and Quentin laughs again in a way that’s disconcertingly close to a giggle.

“I’m fine,” he says, as a counterpoint to being a dork, even though he’d just like, fucking giggled. “What, you want me out of your hair?”

Eliot purses his lips, in thought. “Are you in my hair?” Why does he do this joke so much. He’s so weird. Quentin doesn’t realize he must have at some volume vocalized that thought until Eliot says, “Am not.”

Quentin feels himself blush, but Eliot is smiling, so he scrubs his face, saying, “No, man, you are.” Why did he just call Eliot man, but words keep coming out of him: “You’re weird, and you’re, you’re great.”

“Part of that was a compliment,” says Eliot, his tone not letting on how clearly, obviously pleased he is.

“All of it,” Quentin says, as a correction. “All of it was.”

Quentin watches Eliot’s mouth press. “Quentin,” he says, and Quentin feels like he has to pay much better attention than he’s capable of paying right now, and he’s not even, like, he didn’t have more than that one beer.

Eliot’s mouth presses again; it’s really, really distracting. Then, he says: “Am I being obtuse?”

Quentin swallows. “I don’t, um.”

And there’s a sudden electric awareness of how Eliot is standing now: he’s turned toward Quentin, leaning back against the counter, his hand rested on the surface right behind Quentin’s back.

Eliot’s mouth seems very close. Does he always stand this close? Is this something he’s missed, even after all of his self-revelation bullshit? Is this just how it’s been the whole time? “I think,” Quentin says, “I think something is happening?”

Eliot blinks at him, slow. “Huh,” Eliot says.

Quentin doesn’t know if what he feels, the charge of it, is bravery, but he licks his lips, and the fact is that one of them is going to move and that will be it and it might as well be him, right, and his eyes move up the length of Eliot’s neck to the dimple of his chin and then to his mouth, and it will change everything or less than he thinks, and then behind them there’s a clatter of tiny feet coming downstairs.

Quentin springs away from the counter where Eliot steps back in a way that, were Quentin outside of himself, he would have to evaluate was much more normal, right as Charlie appears in the kitchen doorway. “Daddy?” she asks, sounding both sleepy and, like, disappointed.

“Oh, birthday girl,” Eliot says. “Can’t sleep?”

The moment somehow doesn’t evaporate on contact with a reminder of the outside world; Quentin’s heart is still pounding.

“I want a Snickers,” she says, by way of answering the question.

Eliot’s face in response makes Quentin huff a little laugh, turning around in his place uselessly, but when Eliot answers, it’s with patience: “You already brushed your teeth.”

“I’ll brush again and it’s my birthday,” says Charlie, persuasively.

Quentin can immediately tell this will work, even though Eliot looks suspicious. “You’ll brush again? You hate brushing.”

“No I don’t! Pinky promise! For Snickers!”

Eliot looks dubious, but obviously relents, and Charlie practically jumps up and down even though she’s like, living-undead-sleepy. Then she immediately goes to clamber up on a counter by the fridge.

Charles,” Eliot intones, in warning, coming up behind her. Quentin sees now that the bowl of candy from the piñata had been put up out of casual kid reach on the fridge, up by two boxes of cereal. Something about noticing this makes him feel kind of weirdly emotional.

But, Charlie goes, “I can get it! I got it.” And, to her credit, she gives Eliot a half-second to acquiesce to her will, with Eliot coming up behind her, a hand hovering at her back. And then, when she’s fully standing on the countertop, reached up high to the bowl, Charlie, while she’s trying to tug it down, overbalances and falls free of Eliot trying to catch her, landing hard elbow-first on the kitchen tile with an audible crack.

For a moment after the noise, there’s another muted silence, now faintly horrible, Eliot half-bent over his daughter and not moving or speaking while Quentin stands there, open-mouthed and having no idea what the fuck to do. Then Charlie sobs, and all hell breaks lose.

“Daddy,” Charlie sobs, “daddy it hurts, daddy,” and then she cries out when she jostles her own arm as Eliot sits her up, cradling her, and it’s pretty clear the arm is broken even if it’s not bleeding. It’s at a painful angle on her.

“Honey, hey, listen to daddy, okay, we’re going to the hospital—“ and Charlie wails, tears streaming freely, and it’s terrifying.

Quentin hears a vague, muffled sound from upstairs, and remembers there’s another kid here. “Hey, El,” he says, softly, “I can call Emma’s mom?” He had been in the room for Emma’s mom leaving their number on a note.

Eliot’s head jerks to look up at him, wild in a way that makes it clear that the rest of the world had briefly ceased to exist to him. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says, “okay, yeah.” Eliot fumbles for his phone, too, and as he goes to the other room to see if he can even find where he put his own phone down, he can hear Eliot going, “Pick up, Margo, Margo, pick up, fuck” and then a breathless, relieved, “Bambi, okay—

Emma is picked up before they get Charlie in the car to get her to the hospital, and Quentin doesn’t think to wonder if he shouldn’t have come along; it doesn’t even occur to him. Margo is apparently meeting them there, so Quentin is in the back with Charlie. She’s still crying, tears streaming, but he manages to get her to take a few deep breaths, tells her he knows she hurts and he’s sorry, and then he goes, “Remember the scene in the book where Jane is trapped, but then the two magicians passing by see she’s in trouble and save her?” Charlie nods tightly, so they talk more about it. When she asks a little bit later if she can hold his hand, it doesn’t seem like it could be right to say no.

*

Normally, the doctor explained, a kid might need a splint then be able to hold on to get a cast and go home in the meantime, but Charlie had so obliterated (fractured, to be precise) her elbow that it had to go directly into an actual cast as soon as possible. She gets a bed at the hospital, where she falls into a tiny-snoring sleep off some combination of exhaustion and kiddie painkillers.

It would be nice if Eliot could say he wasn’t jealous. He’s excruciatingly awake in the chair at her bedside, which looks outwardly like it’s upholstered but feels like sitting on bunched-up plastic. Eliot is not a fan of hospitals. It’s a pretty prosaic way to feel about them, but it’s less any real fear or negative connotation and more the specific way in which they’re overwhelming. He blinks at his daughter slowly, tired but distant from sleep, even as she continues to snore.

There’s an awkward little half-knock on the door, even though it’s open. When he looks up, it’s Quentin in the doorway, with a styrofoam cup in each hand, having apparently done something with his wrist and the doorframe in order to make a noise to get Eliot’s attention. Eliot smooths a hand over his face, sitting up.

“Quentin,” he says, “literally, go home.” Any crushing fondness he feels manages to come out at least a little bit recriminatory.

“Well,” Quentin says, with a half-hearted attempt to look at his watch even though he’s carrying cups with liquid in them, “in about…three hours, Jules will wake up at a really ungodly hour to jog so I can get a ride from her, probably.” Quentin seemed both proud of and satisfied with this plan, which is breathtaking in its insanity.

Eliot shakes his head as Quentin steps in the room to hand him a cup. “Margo will drive you,” he says.

“She showed me a Google search on her phone for cabs in Brakebills and she’s talking to nurses about insurance stuff?” is Quentin’s answer. He’s still holding out the cup. Eliot blinks fortifyingly and takes it. “Oh,” Quentin adds, “that’s, um, cocoa? They were out of coffee.”

“Well, that makes sense.” It smells entirely like chemicals, and is indistinguishable as a liquid from bad coffee with creamer in it; Eliot takes a sip. “It’s fucking terrible,” he says.

“Yeah,” Quentin says.

It turns out, later, that Quentin’s lying—because he doesn’t try to socially network himself a ride from the hospital until after Charlie gets her cast on, which takes longer than his promised about three hours. Eliot then also has to talk to nurses about insurance stuff. God, he’s a parody of an adult. When it’s all said and done, and Charlie’s roused to pick out a bright turquoise cast (she uses the word turquoise very specifically, that’s his girl), Quentin is still there to be the first to sign it. Charlie is alight with excitement, like she hadn’t gotten a surprisingly complicated injury on the night of her birthday and instead had a full twenty-four hours of potently restorative kid-sleep.

They’re waiting to be able to leave the hospital, finally, finally, and Quentin is being walked through drawing a very misshapen star on Charlie’s cast with a sharpie he had spirited from somewhere: “Now an open triangle. Yeah, like that. Now upside down open triangle. No, not like that.” Quentin had written some slightly-smudged words, too, that Eliot can’t quite make out from where he’s standing—Quentin has the handwriting of a kid maybe three or four grades up from his daughter’s class, but Eliot digresses. He suddenly feels like he could start crying again, which is at this point objectively more embarrassing than anything, and an inclination he decides to dismiss.

Even though Charlie’s energy is up right after the cast and all the fussing over her about it, when he and Margo take her home, he walks her upstairs to re-brush her teeth some eight or nine hours later and navigates changing into new pajamas featuring one of his undershirts to fit the cast (they’d cut her shirt open at the arm, and also she’d smelled like hospital), before she’s out like a light.

“Never even got her Snickers,” he tells Margo, sotto voce, when she joins him at the door to her room.

“What?”

He looks at her. “She was trying to get Snickers, specifically. New favorite.”

Margo kind of huffs. “What’s Starburst, chopped liver?” Eliot smiles, a little.

“Looks enough like it, I guess.” Margo’s probably too tired to do any kind of fun and cute response, since she’d been theatrical about being tired, oh, several hours ago, before they all proceeded to get no sleep at all. As he turns back to Charlie, so small tucked in her bed except for the comically huge cast on her arm, he remembers the moment that immediately preceded Charlie coming downstairs last night. He remembers that at some point he’ll have to explain it to Margo. He pinches the bridge of his nose, sighs.

“I seriously can’t tell what you’re emoting about right now,” Margo says, flat.

“Oh, you know,” he says, and she gives him a look that, when he meets it, is as good as an eye-roll. “Anyway. Hey, can we actually sleep in your bed? It’s better than mine.”

“You gotta get a new mattress,” she says.

He smiles at her, a little deliriously. “Margomom,” he says. She swats him on the shoulder hard enough that he says, “Ow.”