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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.

Chapter Text

“Uh, Charlie.”

“Yes, Mr. Q.”

“Is there...something...in your backpack?”

She stands in front of his door, her bright purple kitten-face backpack nearly sagging off her shoulders, weighed down in the middle by something very heavy. Her expression does not change, and she shakes her head side to side. He narrows his eyes, where they’re nearly even, him down on his knee on the hallway’s floor.

“Are you being honest with me?”

She nods, her expression a little too blandly innocent.

“Okay,” he says, holding up his hands. “Trusting you, Charlie. Handshake dance?” This is now, essentially, the secret menu option of his class’s morning visual prompt. He has to get up to his feet for them to do it, and as usual it ends with Charlie catching the giggles, but slightly encumbered by whatever is in her tiny, tiny backpack.

He frowns at it in her cubby at one point over the course of the day. But Charlie is doing great. He remembers what Mr., uh, Eliot had said about marching orders, and smiles when Charlie looks briefly very upset but ultimately finds another toy when Emma K. wants to do exactly what she was doing with the exact piece of fake kitchen cookery she was doing it with. Charlie then ropes like five other children in at the play kitchen, seeming to assemble some sort of play restaurant scenario, that involves her yelling, “Service! Table! Service! Table!”

What cooking competitions are they watching in the Waugh household? If it’s even just the Waugh household. (This question in no way impacts his life, and it’s probably not especially thoughtful or considerate to have this stray curiosity, but, well.)

At the end of the day, he’s not on car duty, so he is waiting as waves of kids are called to the school’s entrance—car riders first, then the buses start coming. Car riders are called and kids flood out in the hallway behind what is today a hall monitor, but Charlie hangs back, lifting her weighed-down backpack off its hook. She shuffles it over to his desk.

“Charlie,” he says, with a brow raised.

“Dad got you a present,” she says. “Margodad told me how to hold it but I don’t want to hold it. It’s really heavy.” She unzips her backpack.

When he leans forward in his chair to look, there’s a.

There’s a bottle of wine.

Or, at least, it’s a bottle of wine inside a very obvious, cute little decorative container. It’s also fuck-off huge. He blinks down at it, looks back up at Charlie. She seems indifferent to the whole situation in a way that would be comedic if not for, well, random alcohol, school property? That’s definitely a thing, right?

“Charlie, so, let me get this straight,” he says.

“Okay,” Charlie says, obliquely enough that it’s impossible to tell if she’s heard that turn of phrase before, but it’s fine.

“Your dad put this in your backpack. Eliot Waugh, who is your father, put this in your backpack.”

She bobs her head yes. He feels like he’s hallucinating.

“Okay,” he says faintly, and he takes the container out of the backpack and immediately puts it in the intended-to-be-confiscation drawer in his desk which, in all honesty, he rarely really gets a lot of use out of, and certainly not for more than a day. Like, they’re five- and six-year-olds. Most frequently next to technology, fought-for iPads, he hides all the glue and tape in there, because kids are so weird.

“You go out with the next group, okay?” he says. He should probably try to walk her to her car but he doesn’t know what he would say right now to Eliot Waugh or Margo Hanson in person about this and does not want to have a hysterical anxiety-induced fantasy of it, so he does not linger on the idea.

She is putting her unweighted backpack on, and seems bothered by his dismissal. “Mr. Q,” she says, mouth scrunched, “you have to say thank you for gifts. My dad says.”

His mouth flattens. Okay. Then he makes himself smile, though he doesn’t have to try very hard. “Thank you for the gift, Charlie. Have a great weekend, okay?”

Quentin has no idea what Eliot’s schedule is like; he knows relatively little about their life situation even after having a meeting with him about his child, which, again, is not really his concern except inasmuch as it impacts the kid in his class. And clearly Eliot Waugh is doing fine there; Charlie has made so much improvement in just the span of the week that’s passed since the meeting. He’s checking in with her about her day and giving her way more opportunities to verbalize things, sure, but he’s a lot less important than her dad (and Margodad) would be in this equation.

But he has Eliot’s number from the Back-to-School night sign-in, same as his email, though Eliot had given it to him again when they were exchanging messages about when they had time to meet last week, and this is, it has to be a call. Right?

The wine bottle in its bottle box bulges his messenger bag ridiculously, and when he hefts it out of his classroom along with a box of things he, of course, needs to take home, why is there always so much shit to take home (he loves his job), he almost runs into Penny walking from the opposite direction who says, “Whoa!”

He stops short and can feel himself nearly skid, high-school-Q style, and the box with craft stuff, the “grading” he has to do and some other stuff, almost tips out of his hands. Penny half-helps catch it, both hands on the other side of it, easing it back into his arms, which Quentin thinks is really—pretty dashing, he has to say. (Dashing? What the fuck?)

“You good, Quentin?” he asks, brows raised. Then his eyes fall to Quentin’s bag and he, uh. Smiles? No wonder he’s reminded of Julia’s high school softball friends.

“Yes, yeah, thanks so much, Penny, sorry,” he says, meaning to end this social interaction, he is maybe going to blush for whatever reason and that’s—

“What’s in the party bag?” Penny’s head cocks.

For some reason, the words that come out of Quentin’s mouth are, “Don’t worry about it?” His voice is horrifyingly tiny.

Penny’s brows raise. High. And then he laughs. “You’re a big weirdo, man,” he says, shaking his head. “You’re lucky you’re really nice. Enjoy the weekend freedom.” And Penny passes him with a clap on the shoulder, apparently going back to his room to do work, which Quentin usually would be doing even on a Friday, but he has a bottle of wine on school property. While kids are still in aftercare. What. What.

Like he usually does on Friday, he has to walk his bike to the bus stop and take it most of the way home, but only most of the way—inconveniently most of the way—since Brakebills is hardly the public transit capital of upstate. He has to walk for a while with all of his crap. He offloaded his bag into the little metal basket that Julia gives him shit for because it definitely looks like it belongs on a kid’s bike.

He gets up to his apartment, says hi to Chatwin by sitting on the floor and eventually letting him splay his horse-sized dog self on him, which is bad training, he knows, but Chatwin will reliably then be panting like it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened. Someone walks him during the day, and Quentin will walk him in a minute.

He just, uh. The, uh. Wine.

He doesn’t know what he expects, but Eliot picks up on the second tone of the ring. “Hi, Quentin?” he says on the other end of the line, and for some reason, in spite of the context, Quentin feels excitement bubble in his chest. Eliot had saved his number.

Well, duh, he’s his daughter’s teacher. Shit. Whatever.

“Hi!” This comes out embarrassingly propulsive, and he winces at himself. What is going on with him, actually. “Hi, yes, Mr.—Eliot.”

There’s a pointed beat. “Well, we can take our time on the first name basis, I see it’s difficult,” he says, and for some reason it doesn’t sound judgy, even though it also definitely is. Quentin laughs, in spite of himself.

“Right,” he says. “Thank you, I, I guess. I, um, I just wanted to touch base—well. Charlie brought something...in her backpack...today?”

“Yes,” says Eliot, patient, maybe amused. “She usually does. I do make a mean brown bag lunch. Bento box, sometimes.”

“Sure. Of course,” Quentin agrees. “But today, like, I think you know, she brought—Eliot, did you give your daughter a bottle of wine to give to me, at her school, which is a school, where there are, uh, other children. At school.” He can’t end it on the tone of a question because he knows that is actually what happened.

There is a much longer beat. “Well, when you put it that way,” says Eliot, very delicately.

Quentin’s mouth opens, to speak, but he winds up laughing again, rubbing a hand over his face. “Like... really?” He looks at his bag; he hasn’t taken the wine out of it, even though it’s slung from one of the two chairs at the kitchen island.

And Eliot laughs, too, sounding a little apologetic. “Okay, I didn’t think—I’m very, very sorry. Mea culpa. That was a fun choice. I’m a responsible parent who makes fun choices. Just...enjoy the contraband wine?” There’s maybe a weird, almost-hopeful note in the question.

Quentin feels like a jerk.

“Oh, I can’t take it,” he says. “I don’t, it’s not even, I just I don’t take gifts from parents, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to be, like, difficult.”

“You don’t take gifts from parents?”

“I get a lot of them,” he answers before thinking, not even with the excuse of blurting it or being flustered, and then immediately in Quentin’s head he plays back the words that have just left his mouth and he closes his eyes, wincing hard. There’s a silence.

“You get a lot of them,” echoes Eliot, sounding very, spectacularly, delightedly amused.

“Yes, please, let’s not,” and Eliot is laughing, making him pinch the bridge of his nose even though he’s also smiling, “let’s not talk about it. I don’t think we need to talk about it?”

“No, we might,” says Eliot, mildly. Quentin shakes his head, but Eliot goes on before he can speak again, “Okay, look, not to be a bitch, but pay for teachers is famously shitty. And I bet you have like a billion dollars in student loans. Is this correct?”

“Well,” starts Quentin, at a loss, maybe a little offended.

Well,” Eliot continues, “all right, but you certainly don’t make enough money for going one-on-one with my kid. She’s been coming home and telling me things you tell her, and I really...I appreciate it.”

Quentin’s reaction to all of that is, well, a lot. He doesn’t know what to say, and there’s a tiny pause, but Eliot presses on on the other end of the line, like he has to, “Please, just...Drink that wine. Keep it? I’m not taking it back and I will be very offended if you do anything else with it. I’ll PTA mom you.”

“You’ll PTA mom me for, uh...you giving your child alcohol to take to school,” Quentin manages, deadpan.

“I will,” is his answer, back to delighted. “Quentin. No, Mr. Coldwater, frankly, I’m...I’m willing to take you, taking that wine, to the school board.

Quentin, helpless, laughs again. “Uh, well, Principal Fogg might take it off my hands,” he says, confidentially, and then in the next moment, he catches himself in horror. He’s talking to a parent. Oh god, he said that to a parent of a child in his classroom who attends the school where he works, professionally, and will attend the same school for the next few years. Oh god.

“What,” says Eliot, and he can hear it again, delighted realization dawning.

“I—didn’t say that. Please forget I said that.” Oh god. Could he hang up? Could the shitty laminate wood floor of his apartment swallow him right now? Either or both seem like great options.

He hears a huff at the other end of the line, not quite a laugh. “I’ll forget you said that,” says Eliot, sounding indulgent. “As long as you’re forgetting the sordid origin story of a certain bottle of wine.”

Quentin was going to take it already, anyway. Student loans had been an expertly-deployed argument for drinking, all things considered. He’s smiling, again, even though he sighs.

“I’ll keep it. It was, it was very thoughtful. And Charlie reminded me to say thank you—” That gets a laugh. “So thank you, Eliot,” he says, and it feels both more and less comfortable to use his first name, at once.

Eliot sounds like he’s smiling, too. “You’re quite welcome.”

*

They’re a commuter train hour up from New York where Josh doing his philosophy doctorate at NYU, but Josh basically acts like he’s flying in from five states over every time he visits for a weekend, which is very, very frequently. He also travels a lot for his program? Josh is really dramatic, actually.

Quentin is for some reason even happier than usual to see him when he’s on the other side of the knock on his apartment door, when Josh immediately goes, “My man!” and claps him on the back in a hard hug.

Julia is sitting on the floor in front of the TV with popcorn, but lets out a “Josh, hi!” with Josh’s arrival, too, and stands and hustles over to get them into a very squeezy group hug like they didn’t just do this two weekends ago that makes Quentin go, “Jesus Christ, both of you, oh my god, stop”.

They’re all probably going to get really drunk and sleep on his couch and floor tonight. It’s basically just like undergrad except thankfully not like that at all, undergrad really sucked. But Quentin makes enough noises for them to extricate themselves from around him, Josh and Julia both laughing and doing a little hug individually, too. Josh’s luggage, a single duffle as always, was somehow thrown far from the door.

“Where’s my Chatwin?!” crows Josh when he and Julia break off, fully person-talking-to-dog-voice absent the dog for only about two seconds before Chatwin, claws clicking fast on the floor, bounds from somewhere in the very small depths of Quentin’s apartment—probably from around his food bowl since that’s the only reason he would not immediately freak out with love when someone comes in—and all but leaps on Josh.

Oh my god Chatwin hiiiiiiii,” Josh says as he melts to the floor with Quentin’s dog between Julia and Quentin, and with his face being covered really thoroughly in slobber. “Chatwin, you’re such a good boy, and I love that about you, hi!”

Quentin’s eyes finally narrow. “Josh, are you, uh, already high?”

Josh looks up at him, as if he had forgotten Quentin was there. “Uh, I’m high on your dog, who is just the best, isn’t that right, you big baby boy,” he says, finishing the sentence with a hand on each of Chatwin’s ears, apparently looking deep into his eyes. Chatwin pants hard, loving it.

Julia grins at Quentin, putting her hands on her hips. “Yeah, he’s really high,” she says.

“No, I know,” says Quentin, fond. Josh is not paying attention, and is trying to bogart his dog.

“Josh, we already started Arsenic and Old Lace,” Julia says, indicating the paused TV with a tilt of her head.

“Oh my god, again? Seriously? What the fuck is wrong with you people,” Josh says, as Chatwin busily licking his chin.

“It’s a classic!” Julia and Quentin say, not quite in unison and with different tones of offense. They might as well be all reading from a script for as many times as this exact exchange has happened in the course of them all knowing each other.

Josh looks between them in turn and then shakes his head, standing. Chatwin happily springs up on all fours as Josh gets up on just his two. “Is it too much to ask for a movie made in the past 50 years when you’re an exhausted doctoral student who rode up on a rush hour train for two hours—”

Quentin puts up a finger, smiling even though Josh is so fucking annoying, “No, no, one hour—”

Two hours,” Josh is grandly undeterred, “to see his best friends? I ask you. Would a movie from the last 50 years, maybe, an Avengers really be so awful? For me?”

“Josh, I work in New York,” Julia says, patiently, like she does every time. “It’s literally one hour. It’s a very nice train ride that lasts exactly one hour.”

“Okay, Julia, but you’re not coming from Brooklyn! You don’t know the struggle!” He huffs, at Chatwin. “These people, appropriating my experience.”

Julia folds her arms. “Yeah, we’re watching Avengers so you can be quiet,” she says, unilaterally deciding, which really only encourages Josh. Quentin has to admit, he’s fine with it, and this means he can choose tomorrow night. It’s the basis of a very compelling argument for a Star Wars.

Thank you!” Josh says, like this is the first sane thing either of them have said, and he claps his hands together after he stands up. “Popcorn?”

Julia retrieves the bowl from the couch to put it in his hands, then they all settle in together, Chatwin happy to curl under the table in front of them. Quentin eventually slides off to the floor and absently scratches Chatwin between his eyes, only half-watching the Avengers they redirected to on Netflix.

“Oh my god, wait, Quentin,” Julia says, after a startlingly short time, and leans forward to pause because Julia always pauses things to talk no matter how many times everyone has seen it, “did you tell Josh about the wine?”

“The wine?” says Josh, the answer to her question apparent.

“Oh, my god!” Julia sits up so much she nearly comes off the couch, her face bright with her amusement and affection. “The wine! Q! He needs the wine story. Josh, you need the wine story.”

“The wine story,” agrees Josh, on very little information, “I need the wine story?” His face is expectant when he sits up a little, too, and both of them are turned in their seats on the couch to Quentin sitting on the floor, who still has his mouth open to answer Julia’s initial pause-question now from like two minutes ago.

“Um,” he says, articulately.

Julia rolls her eyes. “Okay. Josh. A hot dad sent a bottle of wine with his daughter to Quentin’s school,” she says. Josh’s mouth also opens, but with delight. “In her backpack!

“What the fuck?” says Josh.

“Right? That’s what I said!” says Julia.

Um,” Quentin says again. “No. That’s not, that’s not exactly what—happened?” It literally is what happened. “And when did I say hot dad?”

Julia smiles in that even, distantly evil way she has. “Is he not hot?”

Quentin’s mouth opens, closes, and immediately Julia seems to have a thought and then goes for her purse to the side of the couch. “What’s his name?”

“Eliot Waugh,” he says, with the rote tone of explaining who from their school he ran into at a party, then, with an ethics-based pitch of panic in his stomach, he realizes. “No, wait, shit. Don’t—”

He sees, from a sliver of her screen, that Julia has opened Facebook. She types something, and the screen flickers to a different color, reflected on her face, and her eyes go wide. “Q, oh my god,” she says, laughingly.

Josh, his eyes narrowed, leans his face next to hers, and the change in his expression, too, is almost comical. “Wow, Quentin,” he says, “gotta say, respect.”

“This guy sent you wine?” Julia goes on. “He’s a real person? He’s very like, off-Broadway Oscar Wilde?”

Quentin does not want to see the picture she’s describing. He doesn’t. In fact, he reaches over and presses the home button on Julia’s phone to exit them from it, while she goes, “What—Q!”

Quentin raises his hands, like, I did what I had to do. They both look at him incredulously.

But then Josh looks to Julia apparently for her expert lawyer counsel, because what he asks next is, “Wait, wait, about four steps back, is alcohol at an elementary school legal?

“Oh, not at all,” she says, happily again, putting her phone off to the side. “Well, I mean, it’s probably a school hours thing. You guys definitely drink at your faculty parties and I feel like that’s fine?”

Quentin thinks miserably about his hangover from the end of year party, this past academic year, and rolls his eyes. He pulls his legs up to his chest, and Chatwin puts his face on his foot to complain about the loss of attention, like he usually does.

“It’s totally fine unless Fogg gets too in the mix! But. Jesus. Okay, yeah, so—hot dad—” He’s going for sarcastic, ridiculous, but it only makes Julia beam wider— “he has a daughter in my class and she’s been having a hard time adjusting. You know, the school year just started? It’s really normal stuff but I do think other teachers would handle it maybe...not...great, because it’s a lot.”

“And you’re not concerned that her dad sent a bottle of wine with her to school?” Josh asks.

“No,” Quentin says, very honestly. “It didn’t—it wasn’t super appropriate, okay, yeah, but this guy, he’s fine. He just, he cares about his kid a lot and he was trying to be nice, I think?” It would have been pretty normal if Eliot had tried to just drop it off, but. Well.

Josh confers with Julia again, now for her expert Quentin counsel. “Did he keep the wine?”

Julia leans with her head propped on her arm against the back of the couch, grins a little smugly like this is the grand finale, and nods. Josh’s mouth drops, scandalized.

“It’s not a big deal,” Quentin insists before they both even look back at him.

“What do you mean, not a big deal? You never keep the gifts! If you did you could start a hot parent racketeering operation! Shit, Giftgate? Giftgate 2016, man!”

Josh is referring to his inaugural holiday season at Brakebills, his first year of teaching here after moving on from his initial post-grad placement that he lingered on in after finishing his program, and the literal mountain of presents that had wound up on his desk as the last week before winter break progressed, to his increasing horror. After that he had started sending out emails midway through the year that he didn’t want gifts but would love for all of his parents to send treats or activities with his kids to school. It was now the same form letter every year, and he still would get some parents trying to force at least a gift card on him at the end of the year.

Mostly moms. He would not concur with Julia on this pattern, because it’s really embarrassing.

Quentin runs his hand through his hair. “It’s just, it’s the one thing this one time, and it’s fine, and it’s not weird, and that’s it,” he says, aiming for finality, winding up with small voice.

Josh is still looking at him, speculatively, and Julia is still very amused. “Do you still have the wine?” Josh asks. “What is it? I gotta see this hot dad wine, judge me some hot dad tastes.”

It’s easy enough for him to roll his eyes again, and smile, in spite of himself. “I finished it, asshole,” he said.

“Ooh, no, wait, bad word, another bad word, he cursed twice,” says Julia, scorekeeping as they do since he has really kid-sanitized his language.

“He cursed twice! That he did! Two points,” says Josh. Quentin hates them both and doesn’t even need to say it. He shakes his head into pulling himself up; the dog is ruffled.

“I don’t remember the, uh... brand?” he’s saying, as he pads into his kitchen, sure that that is not the real actual adult word for wine labels. Jesus, he’s 33 years old. “I think the bottle is still in here. Um.” He looks in the cramped little pantry for his recycling bin, and the bottle is still there, because he’s really bad at taking out his recycling. He brings it back to the couch, and hands it over to an eager Josh.

Josh’s mouth has, again, dropped open before the bottle is even fully in his hands. He takes it, looks down at it for long enough that Quentin narrows his eyes, then looks back up at Quentin. “Um, Q,” he says. “This one bottle of wine costs, like… a hundred dollars.”

Inside Quentin’s head, something cracks.

“What,” he says, faintly.

“I mean. I’m actually... being conservative?” A wave of cold horror washes in Quentin’s stomach. “But at least, yeah, like...a hundred dollars. Maybe a hundred fifty? And not even because it’s old, it’s just, it’s really expensive wine.”

Julia’s mouth has also fallen open, and then she looks at Quentin with his own mouth opening and closing, raising her hands like she’s going to reach out for him, and says, “Okay, so, Q, breathe—”

“Oh my god,” he says, not breathing. “Oh my god.” He might actually be having a panic attack? He sits down woodenly, on the couch. It literally feels like he’s hallucinating, and he goes on, kind of disconnected from his body, “Tuesday night I made a cheese quesadilla and I drank, I drank all of that, and, and, I watched Planet Earth on Netflix, and, it, it cost a hundred dollars.”

Josh winces like he is in a deep, deep pain. “That...should not be what you ever tell Mr. Hot Dad,” he says, and Quentin groans, putting his hand over his face, sinking boneless back to the floor.

“Fuck!” he says, from under his hand. “That’s like, a chunk of my monthly student loans?”

“I know, Q,” says Julia soothingly, reaching over for his shoulder.

“He made a joke about student loans!”

“I know,” Julia says again. She didn’t because he definitely didn’t describe that detail to her.

His voice loses momentum all at once, in numb horror. “I drank a hundred fucking dollars.”

“In probably like three hours, I would bet?” Josh says, helpfully. Quentin groans again and presses his face into both of his hands this time.

Julia hasn’t moved her hand, and Josh adds his, too, on Quentin’s head, like he might start full-on petting him like he’s Chatwin, and honestly, the effect is weird, this is what’s weird.

“You know,” Josh starts, seemingly hesitant, “on the bright side, the hot dad is definitely a fan?”

This is not the bright side, but Josh and Julia do at least wait a respectful amount of time for Quentin’s existential crisis before they announce their new curse tally.

*

Eliot loves being home right when Charlie gets home, because the minute she sees him, she always yells “Dad!” with frightening volume and full-tilt runs for his arms. Even if she’ll be more excited about Margo in the next second, all he has to do in that moment is pick her up to put her on the top of the world. In the joy of it, he won’t absently think about how someday she’s going to have to throw him not even being her father in his face, during what will probably be an otherwise inconsequential teenage fight. But, well. Come to that bridge, cross it, et cetera.

“My Charlie-girl!” he announces grandly, like he always does, and swings her around in the way that makes her giggle raucously, until he stops to drop a kiss on her head, put her safely back on her feet. He bends to her then, grinning. “How was your day, kiddo?”

“Good,” she says, and she sounds proud.

“Define ‘good,’” he prompts gently, like always now.

She explains: “Emma and me were the best cooks at kitchen game. And Mr. Q says I can ask for help if I need it. And Mr. Q says I can take breaks.”

Eliot makes a show of considering all of these pieces of information, really drawing on his rich high school theater career, to make her giggle again, like he’s tickling her. “Mr. Q knows what he’s talking about,” he says.

Mr. Q’s been talking to Charlie a lot, very specifically, based on reports. He wonders if he should wonder if the other kids are getting this quality Mr. Q time. Yeah, hi, he’ll call Quentin and say, now I’m complaining to the board of the school that you’re too focused on my kid.

“Mr. Q says,” Charlie says on another day, “that it’s good to tell people things but it’s okay if you don’t want to talk too.”

The next day, “Mr Q. says it’s good when you cry and crying is good. I should cry more.”

“No?” says Eliot. Her eyebrows crease. “Well, I mean, yes?” That smooths her face out. “Did Mr. Q say that last thing?”

No,” says Charlie, with a five-year-old tone of, duh.

“All right. Crying more, not an official recommendation,” he says. “Got it.”

Charlie nods absently, then goes to get into her blocks without asking if it’s play time, which he then reminds her to do, and she does ask. He knows all along that the answer will be that it’s play time.

The next week: “Mr. Q,” she says, “didn’t know why the sky is blue when I asked, and I don’t know also but he says you can look up why it is if you don’t know something, and you should always look it up. And he took his phone and we Googled it, and he let me type it in on his phone, but he helped me, but I typed.”

“On his phone?” says Eliot, sharing for a second her build to awe.

“On his phone,” she confirms.

He sits with the sheer impressiveness of that. “All right, my little scientist, why is the sky blue?”

Charlie first purses her lips, then sticks out her hand for what it takes him a second to realize would be his phone.

Another day: “Mr. Q says things look like they’re moving really slow when you’re moving really really fast.”

Another: “Mr. Q says we’re going to do a slime volcano and make a video, Daddy!” Are those two things connected? He tries to discern.

Another week: “Mr. Q says his favorite food is pizza but Alex says he’s lying and no grown-up likes pizza and their brains are sad.”

Okay. Odd little subplot there. Alex obviously has a healthy suspicion of authority, though Quentin during their interactions did not strike one as particularly authoritative.

“Daddy, is your brain sad?”

He’s taken aback. “Not all the time,” he says, remembering, emotional openness with my bossy five-year-old. “Not most of the time. Because you’re here. You make my brain happy.”

Charlie beams up at him, making him scoop her up close.

The next: “Mr. Q says Goldilocks is rude but I think she has pretty hair.” Margo is there, Charlie’s backpack hoisted over her shoulder, and she snorts.

“That’s my girl,” Eliot says. “But your hair is prettier.” He kisses it for the second time that afternoon. Margo smiles at him, a little wryly over Charlie’s head, as she eases Charlie’s backpack down.

The next: “Mr. Q says I’m good at saying words and weather.”

He blinks at her. “Oh, sweetie,” he says, “I’m lost on this one. Saying weather?”

She nods instructively, then goes, her voice rote: “When it’s hot you wear shorts. When it’s cold you wear a jacket. When it’s raining you take an umbrella.

“Oh,” says Eliot, “you are good at saying weather.” Charlie nods again, less instructive, more like, yep.

And then, the next: “Mr. Q says it’s okay to be angry. Mr. Q says sometimes when you’re angry you’re scared too and you’re angry because you’re scared, and that’s okay too.”

Eliot is actually already putting away her lunch kit when she says this, disassembling small fiddly plastic containers at the sink to be washed just to be packed again sometime before tomorrow at six o’clock in the morning. And then, he stops, and he looks at her where she’s sitting on the floor in a pile of her toys, a little stricken. She looks up at him, and seeming to react to him looking at her more than anything, smiles.

He turns off the water before he goes to sit in front of her, his legs splaying on the living room rug. “What do you do when you’re angry?” he asks. “Did Mr. Q talk about it today?”

She hums a yes. “What you do is—” She visibly forgets, and looks up at him, her lips pressed in thought. Then, a light bulb goes on, and: “You can take a breath. Daddy?”

“You’re so right. Show me, Charles,” he says.

With the air of having been given an important assignment, she takes a dramatic, heaving breath, the whole of her tiny and fragile self tilting backward on the air in, and curling back on the big puff out. He grins wide as she rights herself, and ruffles her hair, and she preens just like her Margo would.

“Here,” he says then, “let’s do that together.”

He puts a hand over her stomach, and tells her to pretend like she’s trying to just move that hand, which she is eager to try to do in order, presumably, to beat him at whatever this is. And he puts his other hand out to support her back, on her shoulder, and when he counts off a rhythm she breathes steadily and evenly, deep in, slow out.

Her whole body tilts in a familiar way into his lap, and then she is saying vaguely, “Can I take a nap,” without the lilt of a question before she closes her eyes. He smiles, bending in to give her forehead a kiss, but she doesn’t stir.

She doesn’t wake for dinner even when Margo comes, and at the end of the night he carries Charlie cradled in his arms up the stairs to her bedroom, from the couch in the living room left dark for her sleep. All that happens when he changes her into pajamas is her face barely twitches, rabbitlike, and then when tucked in, she turns over under her sheets.

You can take a breath, he hears her saying in his head. He lingers at her doorway long enough to realize he’s forgotten to turn on the nightlight on the wall outlet, and closes the door soft behind him.

The next morning, Charlie wakes ungodly early before the four alarms he has set would even start to think about going off. She makes him aware of this by coming into his bedroom and shouting, “DAD!” at top wake-up-neighbors volume, and he’s awake, he’s awake, Jesus fuck, he’s awake.

*

It’s getting cold early this year, and Quentin contemplates jackets before he and Chatwin leave his apartment for Chatwin’s customary Weekend Day Out, which he imagines Chatwin looks forward to with a specificity of time that is, you know, maybe not possible for a dog. But still. He doesn’t come to a firm consensus on what kind of jacket to wear, one of the moments where he remembers he used to be stuck in indecision on some minor thing for hours because of, what, anxiety, depression, it’s basically a choose your own adventure. Now he just leaves the house in a hoodie.

There’s a dog park about a forty-five minute walk away. He has been contemplating trying for Dog Beach Weekend again with Julia and maybe Josh before the weather turns for the rest of the year. He knows from experience he needs to, like, basically collect as much sunlight as possible while it’s still really out. (That’s not how that really works.)

But for now, the day is just on the edge of cool, even with the sun, and the sky is very blue, and Chatwin alternates between lagging behind and racing ahead of him even just on sidewalk. Sometimes it startles him to feel like life is good.

The dog park is gated in but connected to a regular playground, which he’s passed a dozen times, and doesn’t give a second glance to until he hears a, “Mr. Q!”

His head turns, and he doesn’t need any time to figure out the source. Standing at the edge of the woodchipped-in swing sets and slides and a fort up on a ladder, there’s Eliot Waugh with Charlie, in an iridescent puffer jacket that is way overdramatic for the weather but super cute, up on his shoulders.

Quentin’s mouth drops open, not quite in surprise, or it shouldn’t be because, well, Brakebills is small, literally like, the picture definition of upstate suburb that some of his friends would have sneered at in undergrad. But on a quick second thought, he lifts his hand to wave, and finds he’s smiling.

Charlie is theatrically gripping her father’s lapels (does he ever not wear a vest? No, that’s not a normal thought) and seems to urge him forward like a horse, and he hears snatches of her voice, though not the content of what she is leaning down to say to him as they approach him.

“Doggy doggy doggy,” Charlie is then saying, before either of the adults further acknowledge that they are about to have a conversation. Eliot looks up vaguely, not able to make eye contact with her the way she positioned herself.

“Very polite, Charlie,” he says, as if it is a genuine compliment. “Hi, Quentin.”

“Mr. Q has a dog,” she observes, raptly.

“I do have a dog,” confirms Quentin, a little laugh in his voice. For once, he definitely does not have to crouch down to talk to Charlie. “Hi, Eliot. Hi, Charlie.”

“Daddy can I pet the dog,” asks Charlie, immediately. This level of social interaction seems to be beyond her excitement.

“It’s not my dog, Charles,” he says, able to catch her eye when he tips his head up a different way and she crouches to him, as if he has maneuvered this interaction thousands upon thousands of times. “Ask Mr. Q if you can, okay?”

Charlie, for the first time, really looks at Quentin. “Can I pet her, Mr. Q?” she asks.

He does not correct her on the gender of his dog, because, whatever. “Sure you can,” he says. “Thanks for asking, Charlie, asking is important.”

Maybe he should have waited to impress that point upon her because she immediately begins to try to clamber down off Eliot’s shoulders, definitely ignoring him, and he smiles to himself. Eliot, of course, just has to pick her up and set her down neatly on the pavement outside the gated dog park, and something about the display makes Quentin remember the, oh, life-course-altering fact that he and Alice had ended over wanting or not wanting kids. Well, that was one of the things, anyway? Holy shit, why is he thinking about this now?

Anyway. Quentin crouches when Charlie fully sits on the ground in front of Chatwin, and Charlie is very ready to giggle when Chatwin hugely licks her cheeks and nose and lets her smush his face like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him, or any living creature. Chatwin flattens himself on the ground and Charlie lays on top of him, which he graciously accepts. Quentin, very proud of his dog, reaches to scratch his ears, too.

“What’s your dog’s name?” Charlie asks, like she’s reminded of Quentin’s presence at all by this.

“Chatwin,” Quentin says, and Charlie’s face lights up.

“Like Fillory and Further! Like Umber and Ember in our class!”

He is a little taken aback; Charlie’s not expressed any Fillory-specific interest which, you know, there’s really no lacking opportunities to do in a classroom that he’s running. “Yeah, like Fillory,” he says. “Who’s your favorite character in Fillory, Charlie?”

“Jane, duh,” she says.

Quentin is smiling. “Of course,” he says, very seriously, and conspiratorially. “Me, too.” Charlie is positively beaming at him, from where she is splayed on his dog.

He looks up then, at Eliot, internally startled at the fact that he hasn’t been paying attention to see if Eliot clearly wants this interaction to end. What he finds is Eliot smiling in a way that’s a little unreadable but very warm, looking down at the both of them.

“Sorry, are you guys going somewhere?” Quentin asks, standing, to give him an out. “Don’t, uh, let me and my dog hold you up.”

Eliot seems mildly surprised, his brows raising. “Oh, no,” he says, “no, not at all. It’s Sunday, Quentin, we weren’t doing anything.”

“Some people go to church on Sunday,” Charlie offers.

“Very good, Charles,” says Eliot, and Quentin, feeling like he understands something about the two of them, is still smiling.

“Well,” he says, “I was taking Chatwin to the dog park. If you guys want to—” Wait, is this weird? No, it’s fine. “I mean, if you guys want to join me, I’m sure he’d love the company.”

It’s currently provably true that Chatwin is basically a hothouse flower for the sunshine of devoted kid attention, but Eliot seems to find something about that funny, even though he nods his head once. “I’m sure he would,” he says.

Quentin, unbalanced by this for some reason enough to let his mouth fall open again, laughs, shaking his head. Whatever is happening in this exchange is of course totally lost on Charlie, who spontaneously starts yelling about playing with Chatwin.

Charlie only clambers up off of Chatwin so they can walk all together into the dog park, which is maybe the busiest it can be on Sundays. Quentin bends down to let Chatwin off his leash on the other side of the fence and gate, since that’s the point of walking him all this way. When freed, Chatwin immediately bounds toward the nearest friendly-looking person with a toy, but Charlie launches off after him, an excellent enough distraction that Quentin stops short of going after them both, a bit speculative about the outcome. However, the outcome immediately is: Charlie and Chatwin chasing each other in loops, Charlie giggling.

When he looks at Eliot, he is also considering dog and child, his arms folded, his smile eased with some not-quite-distaste. He catches Quentin’s glance, which must be a little questioning, and sighs.

“She’s going to be a fucking nightmare about getting a dog after this,” he says, long-suffering. Quentin, again, laughs.

“Sorry about that,” he says.

“You know, you apologize like a metric shitton,” Eliot says, mildly, uncritically.

Quentin blinks. “Sor—” Eliot turns toward him, fully, his arms somehow folding more pointedly.

“—Sort of, I do, yeah,” Quentin finishes on a huff, “I guess,” tucking his hair behind his ear when there is hardly any out of his ponytail to tuck. Eliot smiles, tipping his head like, nice save, which they would both know to be a terrible lie if he said it out loud.

“So, what are you doing with the rest of your day?” Eliot asks, to move them right along, presumably.

Quentin tilts his head, thinking about the unoccupied space of his life on weekends where he’s not with some combination of Julia and, much more than occasionally, bonus annoyed weekend commuter Josh. Not great to explain while also making it sound like he’s a fun person, but honestly, it’s also not something that he minds.

“Lesson planning, mostly,” he says, with a shrug, his hands in his pockets as he looks back out at Charlie and Chatwin, now rolling around on the ground under the shade of a tree, Charlie rubbing his stomach with gusto. The sight makes him smile because, well, he is a human being. But he goes on, “I mean, like you said, it’s Sunday. So like, nothing.”

Eliot nods. “All right. Fair enough,” he says.

“And you?”

“Oh, I literally said, nothing. Not a single fucking thing. Sunday.”

Quentin nods then, too, smiling. “Right, I know, I was just doing, uh, polite conversation,” he says, and Eliot seems surprised by the way it comes out kind of barb-like, maybe over-friendly, and laughs, a little.

For a moment they go quiet, both of them watching the dog and Charlie. It’s like a, okay, kind of weird version of a playdate. He looks over at Eliot when Eliot digs something out of his coat pocket—Eliot had apparently hard leaned into early-fall—and it turns out to be a box of cigarettes. He shakes one out, the movement delicate, puts it in his mouth, and seemingly on a second thought offers Quentin the box, its own question.

“Oh, no,” says Quentin, putting up a hand, “thanks, but, I don’t. Well, I don’t now. For a few years?”

Eliot’s brows lift in apparent impressed surprise. “Good man,” he says, cigarette still hanging from his mouth, and next he produces a matchbook, presumably for the, like, aesthetic. He strikes a match with a professional precision on the first try, and shakes the flame out of it after he lights his cigarette.

“Uh, so, there’s also actually a no smoking sign,” Quentin says, nodding in its direction behind Eliot and back up the path to the gate, “like, right back there.”

At this, Eliot turns, looks at it, and turns back to Quentin with only a shrug, lifting his hands helplessly, one still holding the matchbook and the other, the burnt match. Quentin grins, looking away from him, back at his dog and Charlie. In the process he catches a dog mom with three whole poodles glaring at Eliot, and Eliot maybe acts like he can’t see, suddenly.

“You know,” he says, after another oddly comfortable silence elapses, “Charlie’s a really good kid. And she’s done so much better in such a short amount of time in my class. I’m really proud of her.”

Something a little odd happens on Eliot’s face even in profile, and he takes the cigarette out of his mouth as he looks at him, not immediately replying.

So Quentin presses on, “And I don’t know, I just, I think she’s really cool, and it seems like you’re doing a great job?”

Eliot’s isn’t smiling anymore; his face is suddenly serious in a way it decidedly had not been when he shrugged off the no-smoking sign. It’s almost like looking at a different person, the intensity of the change.

“Thank you,” he says. Then he turns his face back towards Charlie, and Quentin can see the corner of his mouth lifting, as he takes another drag. “Jesus Christ. Is it that obvious I’m a mess?”

Quentin’s face helplessly softens in his concern. “No, that’s really, not it, not at all, I’m—” Is he seriously about to say sorry? Oh, fuck. Busted.

Eliot cuts him off, though, with a little, curious laugh. “It’s fine, Quentin,” he says. “Mr. Coldwater. I don’t need to unload on you or start announcing my problems to someone who teaches my kid.” It should maybe sound harsh, to either himself or to Quentin, but there’s something oddly generous in his tone.

He takes another drag of his cigarette and bends to stub it out. Quentin wishes he knew what to say; he’s vaguely discomfited, and it’s hard for him to not go into helper-mode even considering that this is a relative stranger. Who had sent him wine to his classroom. Which is how they knew each other, because of his child, who Quentin teaches.

“I mean,” he says finally, after Eliot has straightened again, and Eliot looks back at him. “It’s not like we’re at a parent-teacher conference. Right?”

Eliot squints, thoughtfully. “Technically are all our interactions parent-teacher conferences?”

“God, I really hope not,” says Quentin, more honestly than jokingly, but Eliot laughs, anyway. It seems like Quentin just keeps catching him only just off guard, which is not something he usually does with anyone.

“You’re very kind,” Eliot says, not for the first time to him, and just like the first time, it makes his chest constrict. “And you’re good at what you do for a living. And my kid is now biting your very large dog, I think, so we should probably get going here.”

“What,” Quentin says, his head turning fast, and then, “Holy shit.”

Technically, it turns out Charlie is delicately nibbling on Chatwin’s ear, and Chatwin is totally rolling with it like a new life experience has just casually been added to his understanding of existence, but. Her explanation when she is pulled physically away from Chatwin is that she is just playing dog, too, and also her playing-as-dog name is Brenda for some reason. As he steers her toward the gate and Quentin and Chatwin trail them, Eliot gives her a talking-to about what turns out to be a wide variety of reasons why the biting was problematic, ranging from germs to potential harms to both dog and child, which ends in her almost-furious tears.

“Oh, my heart, you’re so tired,” he says, gentle enough that it’s nearly sing-song as he lifts Charlie up to cradle into his shoulder, even though she is actively plotting a revolution against all adults, maybe. Quentin is even more charmed (charmed?) by this than by the earlier shoulder-lift-off; it’s probably a little incongruous that he’s smiling and he should stop.

I’m not tired,” is the tearful, small-voiced whine that comes out of Charlie, and Eliot just tut tuts tuts, and unexpectedly catches Quentin in a gentle sort of knowing look that he’s able to return. It’s the kind he probably wouldn’t have liked being the subject of between two adults when he was little, but really, really gets now. It makes him miss being a kid, almost, the part where sometimes bigger people seemed to conspire to be taking care of you.

When Eliot turns them both to keep walking, Quentin follows with Chatwin already back on his leash.

Eliot looks back at him, maybe in surprise, again, stopping short. “You can...stay in the dog park with your dog, Quentin,” he says, not unkindly, but definitely like Quentin has just done something very deeply weird. “I’m just taking Charlie home.”

“Oh,” says Quentin, which is just, wow, a genius answer. “No, it’s a long walk back for me anyway. We should probably get going, too.”

Eliot considers this. “Do you want a ride?”

Quentin blinks. “Um,” he says, which, again, genius, and Eliot smiles.

“As long as neither one of you throws up in my car,” says Eliot. “Especially not man’s best friend. You, we could come back from, I think.”

Quentin blinks again, more rapidly. “Why would either of us—throw up—”

“Quentin, I have a child,” Eliot starts, “and this is my beautiful and richly rewarding frame of reference for the world. Also have you met dogs? You have one? Whatever, okay, come on, we’re parked over there.”

Parked over there is a, like, tanker-size black SUV that is immaculate. Quentin is suddenly a little uncomfortably aware of his adulthood brokeness. His dad had been drained by medical bills, those last few years of his life that he had convinced him to try to have. Between the two of them, they had not planned for Quentin’s expenditure on a famously lucrative Master’s in education to be a ball and chain. But it is what it is, and he’s happy.

What it is not, however, is a car. Or even knowing how to drive. So.

“Maybe I should be worried about throwing up?” Quentin says, a little compulsively. Eliot shoots him a crinkled-brow smile like he doesn’t quite get it, but thinks he’s funny anyway, something he is commonly on the receiving end of from Julia. Weirdly, it makes him feel a little warm.

“Uh, this is a nice car,” says Quentin, by way of explaining.

“Oh,” says Eliot, a little flatly. Then, he smiles. “Yeah, right?” And Quentin grins, too, putting his hands in his pockets with Chatwin’s leash in one of them.

Chatwin, an eternal good boy, sits without prompting while Eliot loads Charlie into a car seat. He doesn’t know when Charlie fell fully asleep, but she’s out like a light, and only makes a soft little complaining sound right when Eliot eases her into the chair.

“Oh, it’s okay,” he hears Eliot whisper to her in reply, before he leans to kiss her forehead, and he feels weirdly embarrassed that he caught that; Eliot’s voice is very private, with a tender note in it.

He looks away in a way he’s sure is totally casual. Nice trees, he might be thinking.

“Um,” says Eliot, as the door slides closed and he rounds to open one in the front, looking down at Chatwin. “Would you be...Victorian high-society faux pas offended if your small horse goes in the trunk?”

Quentin narrows his eyes at him. ”Does that,” he gestures, “even, like, qualify as a trunk?”

“You’re really into my car,” says Eliot mildly, and on that note they coordinate to let Chatwin jump in the back with his leash still on, Quentin unable to think of a reply that isn’t weirdly defensive or otherwise embarrassing.

“Where do you live?” Eliot asks when they are both in the car, the inquiry coming with him obviously going for whichever Maps it is on his phone.

“Oh,” says Quentin, and suddenly thinks about one of the parents of his students knowing where he lives. Boundaries? Well. He gives his address, and Eliot nods once. Then his brows furrow down at his phone.

“Sorry, you live...here?”

From context, Quentin cannot discern where his gentle bewilderment is directed. “Yes?” he says.

Eliot looks at him sidelong, putting the phone in its place on the, uh, thing. “It’s a 15 minute drive,” he says, a little wonderingly. “How long did you walk?

He has never before thought to be embarrassed by this. He is suddenly internally horrified and defensive, neither of which are normal or fun reactions. “Um,” he says. ”it’s a...long walk?”

“Uh-huh,” says Eliot, mild again, and Quentin wonders if he seems, like, concerned, before the car is moving.

Even considering what is some pretty obvious ribbing, when they fall silent, it is again companionable enough, maybe after Quentin stops feeling embarrassed about his modes of transit. The car radio had turned on some music station when Eliot put the key in the ignition, but he had turned it to what sounds like NPR and then the volume down low, then lower, with a tell-tale glance at the backseat in the rear view that makes Quentin smile to himself.

Outside the car, the afternoon sky is getting dark like it’s going to rain. It’s probably for the best that he got a ride.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?” says Eliot. “No one is.”

Quentin grins. “Yeah, I’m not, no. I don’t know if no one is from here, though?”

“Remains to be seen. Where are you from?”

“Jersey. Like, the burbs. It’s not super exciting. Uh, what about you, where?”

“Indiana,” says Eliot, with no expected flare or tone. “I mean, full Bumfuck, Indiana.”

Quentin blinks, looking at him in profile; he looks perfectly casual. “Oh,” he says. “How, uh. How was Indiana?”

“Oh, you know,” is his answer. “But when grandma finally kicked the bucket, God rest her soul, I did inherit the record player and the Queen and Frank Sinatra vinyls. Also Garth Brooks? But, here nor there.”

Quentin finds he is smiling again, too, even though it’s pretty clear that Eliot just elided over something while showily saying something else. Well, that’s fine. “I just didn’t expect it, I guess?”

“I know. I used to lie to people but they can Google me now. How fucked up is that, right?”

Quentin laughs, out loud, and Eliot’s grin is a little sly, like maybe he’s proud of himself. They are a few turns away from his apartment and rain is tap-tap-tapping on the car’s roof, somehow putting Quentin in mind of when Julia used to drive him home from school once she first got her license.

Quentin’s eye is drawn to Charlie in the backseat, the rear view mirror positioned so he can see her sleeping soundly, full-body knocked out with her head askew in an uncomfortable-looking way in her carseat. Again, he smiles to himself.

“Charlie’s a cute kid,” he says, meaning to small talk. “She looks a lot like you.”

Eliot raises his brows, glancing again. “She is the cutest,” he says, a little ruefully, like it’s an unfortunate fact for all to contend with. Then, more neutrally, he adds, “She’s my brother’s daughter.”

“Oh,” says Quentin, then he nods once. “Okay.” Eliot doesn’t go on, and he already feels weirdly like he overstepped even though that was, on balance, neutral to say—

“Actually, does that mean I’m cute, too?” Eliot says, then, and they are in Quentin’s apartment complex but he only dimly registers that, because. “You know, if she looks like me.”

“What,” Quentin says. “No.”

They park in spot in front of his building, with enough space for a thoughtful pause. “So I’m not cute,” says Eliot, suddenly grim.

Oh my god,” says Quentin, and then for some reason, as if that were the final straw, he bursts out laughing, and Eliot laughs, too, shaking his head, looking off.

“I’m fucking with you,” Eliot clarifies.

“No, no, I got that,” says Quentin, and Eliot tips his head like, well, even though he looks, again, pleased with himself. Then Eliot, apparently thinking of something, cranes forward in his seat to look up at the sky.

“Do you want to wait it out a little?” he asks. “You can.”

It is now raining more in sheets than in gentle, time-for-a-long-nap tapping on the windows, and Quentin sighs. “No, it’s, it’s fine, the stairs are right there—”

“Quentin,” Eliot starts, again as if he is being very strange, “you can impose on me with your and your dog’s presence in my car for like five more minutes. It’s fine.”

Quentin finds himself blinking, and then he nods his head once, smiling.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll, um, impose.”

Eliot returns both the nod and the smile. By the time the sky is a little clearer and Quentin clambers out of the car, realizing belatedly one of his legs is half-asleep, it’s been a little longer than five more minutes. Later he can’t even fully recall what they talked about, the arc of their conversation, because it was really nothing in particular, meandering between topics. That’s true even though Eliot seems to have a way of egging anecdotes out of him.

But he can remember how much Eliot makes him laugh.

*

Margo didn’t usually help him at the restaurant; barring the big-ticket stuff like restaurant week, Eliot now struggles to make an appearance in it on a weekly basis himself. He would have to guess, however, that sometimes she’s just bored. Sometimes they will both be hanging out there while he’s finishing something up like an alcohol re-stock before going out or before picking up Charlie from the aftercare program that she’s now sporadically in at school, and sometimes Margo decides to do something like stand at the computer in the front and scroll through reservations.

Sometimes is right now, as a point of order.

“Let’s see, some bitches cancelled,” she says airily. “Ooh. You got the mayor on Saturday. Or wait. Is that the name of the mayor? Do we have a mayor?”

“Of course,” Eliot says, straightening up to stand behind the bar. “We are the talk of upstate New York and mayors absolutely no one, let alone us, remembers the name of.”

“Mayor probably remembers the mayor’s name,” she says, like it’s a hypothetical. She’s still scrolling.

“Very well-observed, Bambi,” he says, indulgent as ever. She preens in response, smiling, even though she doesn’t look up.

He picks up a cloth and wipes down the bar absently, even though he’s long since gotten used to not doing these kinds of chores day-to-day. They’re not quite closed, but they might as well be before what constitutes dinner rush on a weekday.

“Hey,” says Margo, squinting at the screen, leaning in. “What’s the name of C’s teacher again?”

Eliot, who had turned to go through bottle stock for the umpteenth time, stops, turns back. Margo’s brows are raised at him, the beginnings of a I-just-got-juicy-goss smile spreading. He squints at her, not least because she definitely knows his name. Like, he’s said it enough times.

“Quentin… Coldwater?” he still says, and he rounds the bar to look at the screen before she says anything else.

Like the cat that caught the canary, she steps back from the host podium as he steps in front of it, folding her arms. In the hideously dated Excelesque reservations window on the computer, there was: FRIDAY 9/20 6:30PM - COLDWATER, QUENTIN - PARTY: 2.

He opens his mouth, sure that he is going to start a sentence, even taking a breath to start saying any kind of word, but. Does not.

Well?” Margo says, after a beat of him just, staring. “We giving ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle so you guys can fuck and I can stop hearing about this, or what?”

Chapter Text

Quentin has about fifteen minutes to spare at home, between biking, Chatwin, and taking a second shower of the day because, well, the restaurant he’s going to with Julia is supposed to be. Uh. Nice? He even finds one of his full-adult jackets in his closet, that’s how nice it’s supposed to be.

Even though he tells Julia to text him, she’s the one behind the knock on the door when he opens it.

Hey—ooh, wait, the jacket,” says Julia, grinning in a different way immediately.

“The jacket,” he confirms.

Julia shakes her head, actually, even though he thought she’d be pleased. She had gloated enough about getting him to agree to this specific kind of fun. “I think it’s too much,” she says. “Just the button-up, Q.”

“Hey,” is all he says, both tone and face frowning.

Julia’s been really into the idea of going for, like, two months, but she finally had sent him this text: Next weekend. You me and restaurant that needs a reservation. C’mon Q!

The Cottage is probably the closest thing Brakebills has to, like, a Thing. There’s some pretty generic bars and other stuff around downtown that are fine to nice, but they are not really Things.

At least, this is how Julia sold it to him. Quentin still eats a frankly embarrassing amount of instant noodles on top of being a huge homebody, so?

But something about the restaurant takes Quentin aback. The outside has a stagelights sign, and the inside is almost too inviting, wood paneling everywhere but not so it feels cramped, lots of velvet in different places for some reason? And a huge, huge bar. It wraps around the wall of most of the restaurant, which isn’t small.

“Coldwater?” repeats the woman at the podium in the front, raising her brows and looking at them each in turn. She’s pale and has her brown hair in a long braid.

“Yep,” says Julia. Okay, maybe the woman’s hesitation wasn’t weird and was fine, Quentin guesses.

The menu feels like a book in his hands, and he’s amused by how decorated it is, too, until he looks at the prices, even though he knew that would be about it, it’s still. Uh.

Around their table, the restaurant is packed, but it somehow isn’t hard to hear Julia when she leans forward to brandish her menu and go, “Oh my god, Q, we have to get—”

Their waiter (who introduces himself as Todd, maybe?) brings them bread with butter and jam. Quentin has to back off of eating the last piece when Julia gets really mutinous.

“I deserved that,” he says, even though his mouth is still full. He swallows. “I’m a teacher. Teaching’s really important. For society.”

“Well, I lawyered you out of it,” says Julia.

The woman who had previously been at the podium appears at their table.

“Hi, so sorry, I’ll actually be taking care of you! My name is Fen. Anything you guys want to start with yet?”

So they order and then talk about their weeks. Julia worked from home that day and she updates him on the pro-bono thing she’s doing with the nonprofit in Brakebills. What does Quentin have to share?

He thinks about it.

“A kid in my class threw up two days in a row,” he says, with a flat little frown.

Instead of complaining about talking about that at dinner, Julia’s face melts into concern. “Oh, no!” she says. “Are they okay?” This is why they’re best friends.

They don’t really hash out the full nuances of the situation before the food comes to their table, though. And then Quentin is increasingly baffled as one, two, three, four, five plates are set down.

“Julia. Did you...order this much stuff?” he asks. He knows she didn’t because they had quibbled about their orders so that they could both try things they wanted to try.

“I don’t think this is us,” says Julia, brows scrunched. “Hey, sorry, excuse me?”

It’s not their waitress she flags down—Fen, Quentin has to recall, kind of a funny name but now he is determined not to judge anyone’s name for maybe the rest of his life. But Fen appears seconds later, looking a little, uh, frazzled?

“So sorry again,” she says, lifting her hands up, apologetic. “So our chef is actually doing, uh, a tasting menu tonight? And is sending it out to different tables? So—your wine will be out—”

“Wine?” asks Julia, brows raising.

Another person appears with wine glasses, one for each of them. Quentin’s eyes must be very wide.

“Yes! It’s all on the house, don’t worry—”

On the house?” asks Quentin, with some, like, moral alarm.

Fen looks at him, with a sense of repressed stress, and just nods. “On the house!” she confirms, and laughs a little, maybe awkwardly. “Um, if you’ll excuse me I need to go check on something, but please flag down anyone if you have any concerns about allergies or anything! I’ll be right back!”

She clearly makes a beeline toward the podium, where people are waiting, formerly-their-waiter Todd(?) already standing there looking a little helpless.

“I think this is, like, cornish hen?” says Julia with some fascination, poking with a fork at one of the plates. It’s swimming in a dark sauce with some kind of caramelized fruit, and it looks like a food blog picture.

“Should we, um. Flag someone down about our allergies?” says Quentin.

“They might take back the free food,” says Julia, ending on a hiss.

This is really weird, but everything smells incredible and Quentin has maybe never been more hungry in his life, suddenly? They share everything on the table until they’re fighting over stuff again.

Quentin realizes, again with his mouth full, “Julia, I don’t eat real food?”

Julia laughs, downing her wine before she says, “You make a mean Top Ramen, Q.”

“Oh my god. How am I allowed to be an adult? Holy shit.”

“Oh, wait, one bad word!” says Julia. Thanks, Julia.

When more food appears, both of them are too surprised to do more than say thanks as the table is rearranged by another waiter or whoever even works here, in bizzaro world on the house fancy restaurant.

Again, Julia and Quentin stare at each other.

“Okay,” she says, “I’m, like, almost full, so I’m asking questions.”

She flags down another person and they, in turn, seem to go find Fen, since Fen again appears at their table.

“Hey! Everything good so far?” says Fen, aggressively bright again.

“Oh, it’s all totally incredible,” says Julia. “And it’s all...on the...house?”

Fen’s smile maybe goes a little fixed. “Yep. Just a tasting menu to...try out some new things,” she says.

“Uh-huh,” says Julia. “With...wine?”

Fen just nods, looking at them both in turn. There’s a little pause. Then Fen breathes in a little too loudly, though it’s not quite a sigh.

“Okay! I’m just going to go grab the...my manager...if you’re still concerned?” she says.

Julia looks from her to Quentin, a little nonplussed. “We’re not concerned,” she says, “we’re just, um—?”

“Sorry, I’ll just go grab him! He’ll be right with you,” Fen says.

Again, over more beautiful plates of food, Julia and Quentin stare at each other. Then Julia picks up her fork again to begin to eat whatever the stewed thing is in earnest with a half-shrug, making him laugh. When she reacts to it with a chorus of “mmm, mm, mm-hm!”s and pointing as if he doesn’t know what she just took a bite of, he takes a bite, too, and, wow—

Eliot Waugh is coming out of the back of the restaurant.

And he’s unmistakable even on the far side from them, with all the other occupied tables and servers zig-zagging between them. Quentin nearly drops his fork, and in a panic he thinks he doesn’t know what his face is doing as Eliot, in a well-loved chef’s apron and with dark curls hanging where they’d be in the way of his eyes, stands by their table with his hands clasping behind his back.

For a second, there’s only the dawning of Julia’s very, very large smile.

“Hi?” Eliot says, finally, like they’re the ones being odd.

“Hi, Eliot,” says Quentin, and he finds he’s, what, smiling too? Sure. “Are you, uh—”

“Oh,” Eliot says, “I own this restaurant. And I’m making a one-night-only return as chef de cuisine, yes. Are you going to introduce me to your date?”

Julia’s face is, like, lit up, and even Quentin somehow laughs, shaking his head. “Okay, cool, nice segue, this is my best friend, Julia Wicker. Julia, this is Eliot Waugh. His daughter is in my class.” Julia knows, but.

When Eliot takes Julia’s hand, he bends to kiss it, saying, “A pleasure,” like it’s something he does all the time. She laughs then, too, raising her brows at Quentin.

“Nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you,” says Julia as they drop hands, and much, much, much more than Eliot’s somehow-facetious ‘date,’ this makes Quentin’s face go hot, because what the hell, Julia.

“Oh?” says Eliot, his brows raising too at Quentin, now. “Very bad things, I hope?”

Julia shakes her head, grinning. “Nope. Only good. Sorry.”

Eliot frowns a little at Quentin, his hands squaring on his hips, an extension of a fake pout. “I’ll have to be meaner,” he says.

Quentin shakes his head, should maybe try hiding his grin. Then he says, with a sigh, “Eliot, you can’t just—give us a bunch of free food. And wine.”

Eliot blinks at him, the picture of innocence. “Of course I can,” he says, easily. “It’s Teacher Appreciation Day.”

“Eliot, Teacher Appreciation Day is in May.

“And it’s practically amoral that it’s only once a year,” Eliot says, as if sympathetic. Quentin wants to roll his eyes, and is not bothering to check in with Julia’s reaction.

“Uh-huh,” is all Quentin says.

“Besides,” says Eliot, “not only is it now the second Teacher Appreciation Day of the year, but you get the friends and family discount. Which is, as it happens, uh...free.”

Quentin just shakes his head, again. “Come on—”

“Do I have to do my teachers are underpaid line again?”

Quentin’s face goes very flat. “Would really prefer not that,” he says. Eliot just puts his hands up, as if he’s been caught out.

“Plus,” Quentin says, “Julia’s a lawyer! Julia’s a lawyer who commutes to the city. So.”

Eliot looks between them, as if thinking of something, then leans toward Quentin, a little like he’s about to ask something confidential. “Is she your sugar daddy?” he says.

Julia laughs at the same time Quentin says, “Oh my god.

“It would be sugar mama?” Julia ventures.

“Oh, no, that’s not the vibe,” says Eliot, head tilting toward her.

“Fair,” Julia says.

Quentin tips his head to the ceiling like he’ll get some deity-based assist, even though he’s actually still smiling, and Eliot gives him a little fortifying pat on the shoulder for his trouble.

“Eat the food?” Eliot says, then, and his hand had not stayed on Quentin’s shoulder. “Come on, Mr. Q, I legitimately can’t charge my child’s teacher for services rendered. Very gauche, hypothetically.”

It’s the same conciliatory, convincing earnestness that made Quentin agree to take the insanely-priced wine that he had not known was insanely-priced. All of this food, he fully knew this time, is also insanely-priced.

Julia’s look at him is pointed, too.

Okay, Eliot,” he says, and he hardly has to say that before Eliot beams.

“Wonderful,” he says. “By the way, you’re welcome. I’ll get you both a bottle of wine? So nice meeting you, Julia.”

And before Quentin can open his mouth, even to irritably actually thank him, Eliot turns to walk to the bar. Julia’s mouth is open as she looks after him, and then she turns back to Quentin, some question or another forming in her expression.

“You know, it’s really weird that I didn’t even plan this,” Julia says, and he throws his napkin in her direction. Since it’s a cloth napkin, she has to hand it back.

Eliot does send over a bottle of wine, which Quentin really has to wheedle Julia to not check the price on so he can function. But to Julia’s clear delight, Eliot reappears with the dessert he was probably always going to send them. Some of the tables have cleared out around them. Maybe in light of this, he pulls up a chair from an empty table to sit down.

“Never try to steal chairs at a restaurant,” Eliot says. “They might let you but they’ll seriously fucking hate you.”

“Oh, no, I remember from waiting tables,” Julia says, and so Eliot salutes her with the dish’s plate before he fully sets it down. “What is this? It looks lovely.”

“Plum cobbler,” says Eliot.

“That’s weird,” says Quentin, unthinkingly. Both Eliot and Julia look at him with mirrored arch expressions. Oh, wow, this combination of people already seems bad.

“I mean,” says Quentin, wanting to somehow explain, except, uh. There’s no other context to the thought.

Eliot just stands again to reach back to the table he’d taken the chair from to take a spoon now, too. When he sits he digs into the dish for a bite, the sugared pastry on top of the fruit audibly crackling like they’re in Amélie or something.

“Makes the grade,” Eliot decides, about his own food. For some reason, Quentin’s face feels warm.

*

The Sunday after that, two days later, Quentin runs into Eliot and Charlie again at the dog park. Then the next weekend, too. Then the week after that, they see each other at Stop and Shop; Charlie is on Eliot’s shoulders as he pushes the cart around, which should probably seem more precarious than it does.

Every time, Charlie calls out a weirdly triumphant, “Mr. Q!” At Stop and Shop, she’s disappointed that Chatwin is not with him for groceries.

“Oh,” he says, and even though he’s usually not a fan of jokingly lying to kids, he goes on, “yeah, it’s because he’d eat the whole store.”

No he wouldn’t!” says Charlie, in happy disbelief.

Quentin nods to the contrary, with the utmost seriousness. Eliot is really smiling at him.

It maybe should be cause for concern that they’ve seen each other so much that Charlie doesn’t seem to have an issue with him existing outside the confines of school. Instead, her excitement seeing him outside of school seems to be transferring to her excitement to see him in school. Probably by Chatwin association. Which, he can’t blame her.

But it’s Thursday, a few days after running into each other in the store, when he gets a text from Eliot Waugh’s number.

are we acquaintances now or have we been having a bunch of weird parent teacher conferences

Which is. Um.

Hi Eliot. We’re acquainted, is what he sends back, to no immediate reply. He sees Julia that night since the next day is a professional day for teachers, so he can kind of mosey into school at a breezy eight o’clock instead of a seven or more likely six A.M., and she all but snatches his phone from him when he hesitantly mentions that Eliot, uh, may have texted him.

“Whoa! You said this?” she says, her brows raising.

“What?” says Quentin, caught off-guard. “I was saying, we’re...we know each other.”

“Uh,” says Julia, not quite wincing. “Q, it reads...kinda flirty?”

Oh, no. “Oh my god. I wasn’t being flirty.” He grabs his phone back, without asking for it, and she just makes a slightly-pitying face at him. “You’re flirty,” he says, nonsensically.

Julia laughs at him, fairly, before she unpauses Bringing Up Baby.

So it maybe falls under the Geneva Convention definition of torture that Eliot does not reply at all. The low-level (okay, moderate-level) panic makes him reconsider the fact that Charlie is a child in his class and Eliot is a parent. It’s maybe not the best idea for them to be, well, acquainted, not outside of that context. The most obvious reason is that it’s just kind of weird. The second-most obvious reason is that the multiple Ivy League-track parents would probably hone in on the idea that he could be, like, networked with. They’re basically heat-seeking missiles. It’s terrifying.

Not that talking to Eliot is...networking.

Eliot doesn’t reply to the text. What Eliot does reply to is the Google form he sends out asking for volunteering parents to go on their first big field trip of the year into New York. And this is how his hand is forced to call him.

He, of course, calls two other people who responded first. One of them can’t make it, they realized, so sorry; he calls to confirm with another parent, they’re fine. He still needs one more, and he definitely stares at Eliot’s submission.

That night he decides it’s too late to make more calls, and then he comes back to it the next night after dinner, realizing he’s a weird dumbass. Then he calls Eliot.

“Quentin,” is Eliot’s only greeting on the other end, and Quentin grins a little helplessly.

Mr. Waugh,” he says, unable to not sound a little corrective. He stands from his laptop at the table to kind of pace, as he gives the same spiel he gave the two other parents: “Hi. I hope you have time to talk. I was just calling to confirm that you could make it out with us for the whole day on the trip to the American Museum of Natural History in the city. We’ll be leaving by bus within about twenty minutes of the first bell and we’ll be back by dismissal at three o’clock. Were you still interested in chaperoning?”

At the other end of the line, silence, bringing with it just the opening strings of a familiar social anxiety orchestral number.

Then, “Holy shit, is that how you sounded when we met?”

Quentin laughs, a little careworn near the end of the week. “Pretty much, yeah,” he says.

“You’re like a robot,” is Eliot’s awed response. “A teacher robot.”

“Principal Fogg would love to hear that,” Quentin says, essentially no longer caring about his own job security, he guesses. Eliot laughs.

“Okay, enough of that. Yes, I can swing it,” Eliot says next. “I want you to know how well my Charlie is following directions now, because she came home with that slip in her backpack, even though you also sent the email—”

Quentin interrupts, patiently, “I did also send the email—”

“You also sent the email,” agrees Eliot. “But she came home with that slip, and she handed it to me before she did anything else, and she told me I had to help because Mr. Q said so.”

Quentin presses his mouth together, on his smile. “Okay, well. I don’t think I was quite that demanding,” he says.

“Are we sure about that? There’s no footage, is there?” And Quentin laughs again.

“If I had to guess,” Quentin starts, mildly, “she just wants to hang out with her dad.”

There’s a little pause, but it’s somehow not a stressful one. “Are we on or off parent-teacher conference time?” Eliot asks.

Quentin thinks it so hard he almost says it: You’re such a shit. The feeling behind it more than wanting to say it takes him aback, maybe too much giddiness.

“We’re off of it, Eliot,” he says instead, not wondering at the length of his own pause.

He can practically hear Eliot smile when he says, very dignified, “Well, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Shit. He gets it. He gets why Julia said he sounded flirty.

*

“Mr. Q was hugging a lady at school today,” Charlie says.

Eliot blinks, looking up at Charlie. They’re sitting down for dinner; usually Charlie is all out of Mr. Q anecdotes by now, tending to tell him about her day in as close to paragraph-form as is possible when prompted and at near-impossible speed. Then playing, and then cleanup, and then dinner, and then bath before bed.

Was he?” says Margo before he can say anything, leaning forward to Charlie from across the table, conspiratorial. Charlie eats it up, nodding big.

“A lady with light hair knocked on the door and he went outside the door to talk to her and they were talking about our field trip and then talking really quiet,” and Charlie takes a breath, “and they hugged.”

Margo looks at Eliot, her brows raising.

Eliot has trouble settling on one single thing to think. His expression, though, stays unconcerned. “Don’t be nosy,” he tells Charlie.

Margo actually snorts. “Mixed messages is bad parenting, El,” she says, dabbing at her mouth with a sarcastic primness.

With great nobility, Eliot ignores this.

“Are you excited for the museum trip, Charles?” he asks then.

Charlie nods dutifully. “Dinosaur bones,” she says, sounding more like a wizened observation than an explanation of what she’s excited about.

“Indeed,” says Eliot.

“Maybe when you spend 10 straight hours with him you’ll figure out Mr. Q is insufferable,” Margo says, like this might be a good thing.

“Mr. Q is nice,” says Charlie.

Both Eliot and Margo look at her then, simultaneously taken aback. Charlie is doing the smallest frown. Eliot and Margo then share a glance that communicates who, exactly, gets to respond to this.

“Of course he is, Charlie,” says Margo then, looking back at Charlie. “He’s been really good to you and you’ve been a superstar. I’m just kidding with your dad.”

“Okay,” says Charlie, apparently still suspicious, which is a rare occurrence with Margo. She loves questioning and arguing with Eliot, which he loves about her, but Margo has her Margo magic.

Margo just shakes her head and reaches across the table to ruffle her hair, which makes Charlie giggle almost as much as she does when Margo then smooths her hair back out again, her smile warm.

“Do we want Margo to do bathtime?” Eliot asks, with a genuinely contemplative air. Charlie sits up so much she nearly stands, and nods up and down and up and down in exaggerated excitement. Ugh, she’ll definitely need to go to theater camp at some point. What a terror, thinks Eliot.

Margo, for her part, smiles beatifically.

“Chopped liver in my own home,” Eliot says, not really lamenting it.

Later, after he makes the rounds turning off her lights and then the hallway lights upstairs before he goes back down, he finds Margo standing at the bottom of the stairs, all too ready to look him up and down.

“Why, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says.

“I didn’t say anything,” says Margo, her arms folding.

“Margo, your not-talking is louder than some people’s screaming?” he says, as he backs into the kitchen past the counter island, to begin cleaning up from dinner.

“El,” she says, and her voice is suddenly gentle. “You know what I’m gonna ask. Are you pining for taken straight boys again? You’re too old to be doing that shit. And I mean, just to make sure you understand, we’re both too old for you to be doing that shit.”

Well. So much for gentle. But he smiles at her.

“I don’t know that I am,” he says, rolling his sleeves to start loading the dishwasher, turning water on. “Pining, I mean. I’m definitely too old, I was too old when that was actually what was happening.”

“Don’t you even think about backsliding,” Margo says, somehow stern even when she positions herself leaning against the counter like she’s posing. “I like you stable, no matter how boring that sounds.” She still says things like this mainly out of their shared sense of drama.

His expression goes a little wry. “I literally own a bar and this is when I get a lecture on backsliding?”

Margo holds up one finger, as if to silence him even though he’s already silent. “Restaurant with a bar,” she says, definitely parroting one of his own richly-argued justifications.

He sighs. “Hm. Restaurant with a bar.”

“Anyway, if we’re being honest, I trust you more around alcohol than around hypothetical dick,” she says.

“Well,” he says. “Gee. Ever so glad this waited until after bedtime.” This is maybe unfair, since they both talk how they talk when Charlie is absolutely awake and in earshot.

Margo knows this, and so she straight up rolls her eyes. “El, come on. No bullshit.”

He sighs, again, and leans down over the racks to put silverware in the dishwasher with more drama than is at all required. “No straight guy pining,” he says, standing, looking at her, hands raised momentarily in his own defense. “I mean, listen, he’s cute. He’s kind. He’s great with my kid, which is his job. He’s maybe a friend. I like him a lot.”

“That’s what you call ‘no pining’?” she says.

“Margo, to the best of my understanding, literally every single mom is in love with him. Also every married mom, maybe?” Really, if he were a married mom, well. That aside: “Honestly,” he goes on, “it’s basically like having a crush on, I don’t know, the guy who plays Thor?”

“You’re comparing Charlie’s teacher to Chris Hemsworth?” she says.

“Right. Nerd,” he says, with great affection.

“That is so not worth a ‘nerd’, that’s mainstream-ass knowledge, and you know it,” she says.

“Okay,” he says, coming to lean by her at the counter, giving up the pretense of the rest of the dishwasher for right then. “You got me. I do know it.”

Margo rolls her eyes away from him. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that you didn’t debunk my straight guy theory,” she says then, a little archly. “Hemsworth thing is still fucking incredible, though.”

Eliot is maybe getting annoyed, which in and of itself is more annoying than Margo’s withering concern.

“Because I literally can’t,” he says. “Debunk, I mean. I don’t know, if I were younger and stupider I would say some probably-offensive, nuclear-dysfunctional shit, but I grew up at least a little bit. I’m tired of being that way. I’ve been tired of being that way, Margo, I thought that was pretty fucking clear. It’s all about my own stupid shit anyway. I’m not trying to project that on Charlie’s kindergarten teacher. Jesus.”

He’s not exactly offended, mostly because he can see where she’s coming from. But this whole conversation feels a little retrograde, so he’s not not-offended.

Margo had met his eyes midway through him talking, and now her face is reluctantly soft, which he knows few others get to see; it’s him and Charlie. “I don’t know, El,” she says. “I just, I worry about you. I’m not trying to question your character development here. We’ve had a great arc, baby.”

“That we have,” he says, maybe a little rueful again.

“But I think,” she says, and he gets knee-jerk more annoyed at her voice going more gentle, not a relic of their relationship but a relic of his life in general, “I think you’re a little lonely?”

Eliot looks at her, and sighs a little again, smoothing a hand over his face. “I mean, you’re not wrong,” he says. “Local Gay Single Dad: Lonely. Not really a shocking headline.”

She just tilts her head at him, her face full of care. “Listen, Eliot. I know you’re lonely because I’m kind of lonely. I got you, I got Charlie. I got my super sexy tiny suburban museum gig. I kinda got the restaurant, honestly? And it’s not like…”

“Margo,” he says when she doesn’t finish the thought, “are you saying you want to...date?”

Her face lights up, in laughter. “Oh, fuck no,” she says, shaking her head, on a giggle like he’d told a fucking knock-knock joke. “No, I’m saying I’m overbooked, overtired, and I stress, have been made to watch Moana like fifteen times in the last week alone. When I don’t come here, I go straight the fuck to mine and go to bed. And that’s my whole life right now. I’m kind of at the end of my rope, El.”

Eliot bypasses several conversational stages: the Wait, and You mean that you’re, and I’ve been relying on you so much, then I always rely on you, and goes straight to: “Holy shit,” he says, blinking, holding on to the edge of the counter like he has to support himself. “I’m such an asshole.”

“You’re not, Eliot,” she says. “I mean, you kinda are, but you’re not alone on the hook for this one. Because I love you and Charlie more than literally anything that could ever exist. I would murder literally anyone for either of you. We got that, right?”

“Of course,” he says, turning into her. He picks up her chin, and kisses her forehead while she smiles up at him, her expression not uncomplicatedly happy. Then he wraps her into a hug.

“Maybe we should take up knitting,” he says, into her hair and the conversation still being unresolved, on a late-feeling weeknight, with sparse lights on in the kitchen. “Separately.” Margo still laughs for him.

“I would murder you for Charlie,” she says from his shoulder, like she’s clarifying. “So we’re clear on pecking order.”

He smiles, kisses her hair again. “I’m so glad. And we love you, too, Bambi. So much.”

*

Quentin is nervous about the field trip.

It’s not even the Alice thing. He would have thought that it would be the Alice thing, then he sucked it up and left her what predictably turned into a rambling voicemail about the fact that his class would be taking a trip to the museum she was currently working for.

“Which you probably know, since, ah, you...work...there,” he’d said into the silence of the phone, and then he was wincing, pressing his fist to his forehead like he could maybe knock his brain into doing things like a normal person. She did curator stuff? Coordinator stuff? Uh.

But he’d relayed the information, done his due diligence to not make it weird since the shuffling-around of big deal field trips was kind of out of his hands. It was pretty annoying, actually, not because of this situation, but because he would have liked more notice to incorporate stuff into his class? Whatever, he’s bitter.

And it wasn’t going to be bad, not really, since things weren’t super weird between them, after all. It wasn’t like they had reconnected in the way they’d been friends before they started going out, but there had been some amicable “Saw this and thought of you!” kind of exchanges in text messages, with minimal forced cheer.

Things had gotten a little ugly toward the end between them, though, and a lot of it had been his fault. That was because it was hard to let go of Alice, who had once seemed like his future and a representation of every good thing about him. Like, the thing was: she was smart, so smart, and weird and so beautiful, and somehow she loved him. Alice meant a sense of rightness even if things fell apart for him, like when his dad was dying.

And even though it became clearer and clearer they just didn’t want the same things, it had dragged on for longer than it should have. Agreeing on breaking up had actually been what let them end on an amicable note, and the pressure that Quentin remembers feeling in his chest had disappeared from his life when Alice first broached the subject. That was shitty in a different way, but, hey.

At least he could leave her a voicemail?

And he wasn’t quite surprised when Alice returned it with a text. He was surprised when she asked to meet, and about when she asked him to meet. It was a Friday when she sent him a text that she was almost at the school, and then knocked on the door of his classroom, kind of overly-formally.

“Hey, it’s someone here about the field trip?” he said to the class aide for the day, Connie, and she just nodded at him. Serendipitously, it was free time for his kids.

It’s incongruous to have Alice in front of his class display, in his hallway, at his job that doesn’t touch any part of the Alice Era of his life. But Alice apparently wears wire frames now, her hair shorter than the last time he saw her, still in the same sort of skirt-and-sweater she always wore that makes him smile to see.

And the curl of her mouth, while not quite a full smile in return to his, is kind.

“Hey, Quentin,” she says.

“Hey, Alice,” he says, and he laughs, a little, before they hug.

“Thanks for, for calling,” she says, easing herself from him. “I did notice—I saw your school was coming. They didn’t give us the contact information yet, so I didn’t know it would be you. So thank you, for reaching out.” Her tone is strikingly genuine. “Um, how have you been?”

“Good,” he says, with a little nod, a smile. Honestly, his life is boring, even if it’s in a way he’s not unhappy with. “How about you? Whirlwinding around the New York museum scene, right?”

She laughs. “I think I’m staying at Natural History for a while. You know, it’s kind of—the outreach stuff for kids is really great, actually. It’s, it’s fun. I didn’t think I’d like it.”

Should this be painful to hear? No, he’s an adult and she can like working with kids, Jesus, even if that’s not what she wants out of life, or wanted out of life when they were together. But it still sits on him a weird way, that makes him laugh, again, for want of any other reaction.

“Yeah, I mean,” he gestures to the classroom, “I like it okay.”

She laughs, too, ducking her head. “Good to know!” she says, and he catches the little kind-of-dig in it, but it’s fair enough. “I’m actually meeting your principal today? Mr. Fogg?”

“Oh, no, he’s terrible,” says Quentin, unthinking of the fact that they are in the hallway of his job where the principal also works and other people who interact with the principal every day, much like he might, also work. But also, honestly, whatever.

But he realizes this meeting time makes sense, now, during the day, out in the burbs. He feels a little silly for thinking it was odd—she had a reason to come other than seeing him. Wow, why is he always like this?

Alice just raises her brows. “I’ll keep that in mind?” she says, but she’s smiling a little.

“Yeah,” he says, still smiling back. “But, hey, if you want you can tell him the teacher got in touch with you and we have all the chaperones we need confirmed. And I think most of the class is going. It’s going to be really good participation-wise?”

“Oh! That’s amazing!” Alice legitimately seems excited; them nerding out about the same things had really been a crux point for them. “I’ll say that a little birdy told me.”

“Well, uh, he does know my name,” says Quentin. “I mean, I think so? Wow. You know, actually, maybe not—”

That doesn’t matter. In any case: they hug again before saying goodbyes, and he feels light enough going back into the classroom for the rest of the day.

*

Charlie asks for braids in her hair after bathtime the night before the field trip. “For tomorrow,” she says, soberly.

Eliot finds he’s smiling. “Darling, I’m so happy you’ve inherited my sense of vanity,” he says, and even if Charlie doesn’t understand his nuance, she giggles, the both of them mutually entranced.

He does her hair up into a braid crown and drops a kiss on her forehead when he’s done; she’s half-asleep from the soothing repetition of the motions, sweeping locks of her hair up, crossing under. Luckily she’s already in pajamas, of course.

They have to get up earlier than usual, but her excitement offsets any difficulties here, not that there would be too many. It’s something he’s learned about kids and doesn’t remember about himself, that they generally wake up psychotically early by themselves, like they’re excited just to be alive and start living by the nature of existing already. It’s just barely six o’clock in the morning, and Charlie talks a mile a minute about the exhibitions at the museum that Mr. Q had told them about the previous day and the ones she’s most excited about.

Dinosaur bones,” she says meaningfully for the, maybe, five-hundredth time that week, her spoon clattering in her cereal bowl.

He’s still kind of blinking sleep and maybe old eyeliner out of his eyes, his coffee in hand. “Dinosaur bones,” he repeats back. “And?”

“The Great Canoe and the big head statue,” she says, on a roll again, at now fifteen minutes past. “Easter. The Easter Statue!”

She means the replica of the Easter Island Statue, which he figures out with some trial and error. Eliot is very proud.

He fusses over neatening her hair before they go, and makes a production of letting her pick her outfit even though they’re on the clock. Her choices, of course, include the rainbowed boots she loves.

He frowns, a little, in spite of himself. “I don’t know if you’ll be comfortable walking in these all day,” he says to her. “Are you sure you don’t want your sneakers? We could do the purple sneakers.”

She shakes her head. Apparently the dead T-Rex requires a favored outfit.

He sighs. “Okay, no complaining about walking later,” and she probably doesn’t register this as a potential consequence before she runs for her backpack and lunch kit.

They get to school what seems to be before the crush of initial arrivals, which is usually when he drops Charlie off, anyway.

“When are we going to go to the bus, daddy?” They’re walking hand-in-hand down the hall. She has asked him this question maybe twenty times since they left the house.

“It’s almost time, my dear,” he reports to her. “You’ll be discovering fossils very soon, Dr. Waugh.”

She preens up at him, not even questioning the doctor title though he can’t remember if he’s ever explained a non-medical doctor’s existence to her. For the present moment she’s appeased, and Quentin is waiting at his classroom door. He looks somehow surprised to see them, raising his hand in greeting.

Charlie announces like it might be news, “Mr. Q, my dad is helping you today all day.”

“I know, Charlie,” Quentin says, and Eliot is always very charmed by how he has an apparent instinct to lean down pretty much fully to Charlie eye-level, hands on his knees. “I really appreciate it. Are you helping, too?”

Charlie bobs her head.

“That’s awesome! Thanks, Charlie,” Quentin says.

And Eliot kind of feels, well. Eliot nearly feels like wincing because the universe had the temerity to produce a man this cute, and this good with children, and this much his daughter’s teacher. He’s already thinking this before he realizes he’s going to see the Handshake Dance in the flesh, which is precisely the moment when Charlie goes, “Handshake dance?”

Quentin glances back into the classroom, and Eliot thinks he’s maybe checking the clock, but he grins and nods back down at Charlie before he stands.

“Daddy,” says Charlie, “we’re going to handshake dance.”

Quentin looks between the two of them, his mouth opening, and Eliot blinks. It takes him a moment to take the hint. “Oh!” says Eliot. “Do you want me to handshake dance?”

She actually gives him a deeply pointed look of incredulity. “Uh, yeah,” she says, and he has an absent realization that he would use the same inflection, but. “Dad, we do handshake dance every time.”

“Charlie,” Quentin interjects, “your father doesn’t have to—”

“No,” Eliot says, to stop him. And he’s curiously smiling, maybe at Quentin’s spontaneous willingness to be the bad guy to his kid. “No, we can do it. But you have to show me, Charlie.”

Charlie nods, respectful of the seriousness of the occasion. When Eliot looks back up at Quentin, they smile at each other, before Quentin presses his mouth together, nodding, too.

“Okay, then,” he says, visibly refocusing on Charlie. “Um, so, after me?”

And Eliot almost wouldn’t fully consider the presence Quentin’s, what, discomfort? Awkwardness? Except that it’s clear when it melts away for Charlie, and Quentin starts laughing at how exaggerated Charlie is going when she copies him. And Eliot, not to let even his own child just outdo him, does a more-exaggerated version of the hip-shimmy, stomp, clap, hip-shimmy, two-step.

Charlie is giggling so hard that they nearly overbalance on Quentin’s last “Stomp!” and Eliot is laughing with his girl when he catches her by the one hand he has holding her. Charlie lets go of only Quentin’s hand when their arms drop and woozes on her feet, like she’s dizzy.

But immediately she says, “Do it again!”

Quentin shakes his head, laughing a little, too, but stoops again to get Charlie into a body-shaking literal handshake to make up for it, making her peal into more giggles and let go of Eliot’s hand. And Eliot, standing more fully upright with his laughter easing, has all of five seconds to control what his face is doing before Quentin looks up at him, grinning, eyes soft.

Eliot thinks, with the feeling of a bell being rung, that he might have a crush.

They just miss making Charlie’s classmates wait on their little show before they’re lining up, and from there the other two chaperones show up but cut it close, prompting profuse apologies from the last of the two to rush in with her son.

“Traffic was awful,” she insists, maybe a little too harried.

Eliot is sure no one notices when he raises a brow, looking at her from where he’s waiting with Charlie by the door, but then he maybe sees Quentin glance back away from him. Whoops.

“Yeah, it’s no problem, Mrs. Alvarez,” he‘s saying, and, uh, Mrs. Alvarez flashes a bright, perfect smile. Eliot waits for her to bat eyelashes, but this does not come.

Eliot gives his Hi, I’m Eliot Waugh, Charlie’s dad introduction twice, very palatably, if he does say so himself. Amy Alvarez and Karen Levy already know each other.

When Amy Alvarez introduces herself, Eliot very charmingly and smilingly says, “Ooh, alliteration.”

“Uh-huh,” she says, her smile going just perceptibly strained, and Karen Levy looks between the two of them, maybe a little amused in an intriguing way. Internally, he reels back to fucking around with Ivies-adjacent rich kids. Wow, is he ready to upgrade to the world of Participating Moms? Already very cutthroat.

The morning is still colder than it will be later, and dewily wet, when the adults lead the children out to the bus waiting at the curb. The bus is a novelty for Charlie, and she’s practically bouncing on her feet as they cross the asphalt, unable to be contained on her perch of his shoulders.

Quentin had sent him a very detailed email including everything short of a second-by-second breakdown of what the day will be like and then probably, based on the apparent level of neuroticism, a second-by-second breakdown of two contingency scenarios. He appreciates a man of detail. (“Aw,” Margo had cooed, reading the email on his phone over his shoulder, “he really thinks you can read for that long!”)

On the bus, there are minor arguments over who’s sitting with who that sound way too adult for Eliot’s taste, but Quentin goes down the aisle as everyone settles in with Connie, a teacher’s assistant Eliot has before this day known from Charlie reverently referring to Ms. Lau, and the bus settles down.

He bends over in their place in line when Charlie tugs at his hand, a well-worn Father, Attend to Me signal.

“Daddy, I want to sit with Emma,” she says. Emma was already sitting, an empty spot beside her.

“Sure, sweetheart,” he says.

“I mean I don’t want you to sit with us,” she says, frowning.

He blinks. His eyes narrow down at her. “Hey,” he says. Her expression does not change. Well, fine. He’s already not a cool dad. Really. Already?

So he’s sitting at the front of the bus, alone, one row up and across from the other two moms also on chaperone duty. The drive into the city will probably be some circle of hell at rush hour, and he wonders how déclassé it would be if he, uh. Fell asleep.

And then Quentin sits down next to him.

“That went pretty well, actually,” Quentin says, with a confidential lean-in and smile, glancing back around at the bus.

Eliot blinks at him, not having expected the interaction. “Were we wanting some early morning drama?” says Eliot.

Quentin hums, like he’s considering that. “It was, uh, not unanticipated. Kindergarten’s a dramatic time,” is what he says. Eliot grins, and gets a grin in return.

When Quentin stands to go talk to the bus driver before they set off, he realizes the Participating Moms had been looking back in their direction. Eliot raises his brows, and waves, gamely. He catches Amy, at least, giving him a smile so big it must be forced before they both look away.

Quentin comes back and looks around, leaning with a hand on the seat in front of him and one hand close to Eliot’s head on their bench. “Are we ready to go, guys?” he asks, with his big-indoor-teacher voice. It’s good that he’s looking at the kids so he doesn’t see how Eliot smiles. After he gets a bunch of yelling at different kid octaves in response, they’re off and Quentin sits back down next to him.

“Did you, uh, take off work?” Quentin asks, next.

Eliot’s brows raise. “Well. I’m unfortunately my own boss, so not really.”

Quentin raises his brows at him, lips parting like he’s going to say something, but then he just laughs, looking away.

“What?” says Eliot, not even pretending to be offended. “Okay, I guess I did make a few arrangements. Does that make you feel any better?” He knows he sounds a little smug, because, well.

“Kind of?” says Quentin, looking back at him, smiling too.

But then for all of how he seems, uh, some sort of way, it actually is the reality that it takes fairly little coaxing for Quentin to talk about himself.

“So you moved here four years ago, right,” Eliot is saying. They’d already basically gone over these brass tacks.

Quentin nods. He’s folded a leg under him in the seat, forcing him to perch on it in an odd way with a hand on the edge by one of his knees, but it seems like he’s comfortable. “Fresh out of grad school. Yeah. I’ve told you about Julia, right? I mean, you guys met, but.”

Eliot smiles. “You mentioned her before that.”

Quentin nods. “You know, she wouldn’t, like, say it to anyone—definitely not, uh, someone she just met—” He assumes Quentin means himself, Eliot. “—But she, she definitely decided to live here just to support me. Like she needed a new apartment maybe two years ago, and was joking about Brakebills real estate, then it was actually serious? But you know, we had this falling out, um, around the time we both went to grad school—Well. She went to law school. But then it, I don’t know, it got better. I mean. It got better because we worked on it.”

Eliot catches, just, the tiny frown that ghosts across Quentin’s expression, like he’s determined to give himself credit.

But Eliot thinks to say, Should I be jealous, and just before the words make it out of his mouth he realizes, well: it’s probably too close to something he means and they don’t know each other well enough for that to be a joke. That is, they don’t know each other well enough for something he means to be a joke. So what he says is, in earnest, “That sounds nice.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is,” says Quentin.

“You’ve met Margo, right?” he says next. “Margo Hanson. She’s picked up Charlie before.”

Quentin nods, then looks a little wry. “She’s not, um. Super forgettable?”

Eliot’s smile is very wide, then. “She’s really not,” he agrees, tone mild. “I followed her up here. I mean, there was no ambiguity, we both, like, talked about that that was what was happening.” He’s eliding a little bit, you know, less dramatic for a more recent friend, which is how normal people tell other normal people things about themselves. But he can’t help but tell the core truth: “As Margo goes, so goes my nation.”

Quentin looks at him maybe a little speculatively, for whatever reason, but not unsmiling. “That sounds nice, too,” he says. Eliot inclines his head to the point. Margo’s the second best thing he’s done with his life, and even though the first best didn’t want to sit with him on her field trip ride, the power ranking probably won’t be under reconsideration anytime soon.

As expected, it takes approximately fucking forever to get to even an identifiable oh, we’re going to the city! tunnel with signs. The problem is that Eliot doesn’t actually notice until they’re on busy streets close to the museum, sidewalks crowded with tourists, hotdog stands, everything else, and he looks down at his watch in the pause in their conversation that prompts. Oh. He feels almost embarrassed to realize he had so thoroughly lost track of time.

When he looks back at Quentin, Quentin has pulled out his phone, looking at it with a slightly bewildered, just-woken-up expression.

They look at each other.

“Um,” Quentin says, with a gesture indicating, Eliot doesn’t know, the whole bus, and Eliot realizes he’s smiling as Quentin stands, bracing himself again on the seats. “Almost there, guys!” he announces, and what seems to be a thousand kid voices don’t even cheer but register excitement in many different ways at once. Then, “Nope, nope, uh, let’s keep sitting—oh, jeez.”

The kids are very eager to unload themselves from the bus after the adults. Eliot, positioning strategically outside at the door, snatches up Charlie with a dinosaur roar as payback for being spurned for a seat. Judging by her yell in response, it is not an adequate punishment. Dad foiled again.

“Okay, everyone,” Quentin starts brightly, loudly to the line now gathered outside of the bus. “Mushroom-Orange time! Let’s start with—” He points to the first kid in line. “Alex, take it away, buddy.”

What, thinks Eliot.

“Mushroom,” reports Alex.

“Orange,” intones the girl behind him. Oh. Okay, thinks Eliot.

They count off, or fruit-vegetable off, down the line. It becomes amusing after a while to them, making a few of them giggle at each other.

Quentin makes some switches between the groups in this fashion: “Alex, can you go over, so Alicia can stay with her mom. Thanks, buddy. Oh, hey, Charlie, trade with Eric?”

Eliot figures based on the names he has heard from breathless Charlie anecdotes he is balancing out problem kids (including his daughter), but, you know, it’s kind and subtle.

It’s bright and crisp out now, a panning-over-New York-in-a-movie day. It might make him feel big city homesick if they linger for too long outside, but they don’t, leading the lines of children up dramatic steps and into the air conditioned expanse of museum. He strayly remembers a later-grade school trip all the way to Indianapolis that the teacher decided to keep him back from because the same boys in his class that always gave him too much shit were giving him too much shit.

He’s holding Charlie’s hand, so he squeezes it, and it makes her look up at him absently from Mr. Q’s itinerary speech and preen for about the fourteenth time this morning.

Wait. Quentin’s itinerary speech.

“...so we’re dividing and conquering, guys. I know you’re all super good at staying in line and listening, right?”

A choral yell of child assent back, with an especially proud and surprisingly enthused “YES!” from Charlie.

Quentin claps his hands together with a nod, and then Eliot’s head lifts in muted surprise when Quentin instructs Karen, alliterative Amy and Connie as backup to all take one group, while “Mr. Waugh and I will take the mushrooms.”

Eliot should not look amused at the faces of the other chaperones, so he stays very tactfully bland, like he could be bored. This must strain credulity, even though Eliot has never done a thing wrong in his life, because Amy definitely kind of looks at him.

“Hey Connie, come find us in a little bit, okay? We’ll trade off,” he says, and Connie nods, apparently without any idea of any quasi-political maneuverings taking place. Thrilling. And then Quentin turns to him, for some reason, and smiles.

It’s dinosaurs until lunch, apparently, after the reception the diplodocus (Charlie knows what it is) at the entry gets from all children present. Their line files past glass enclosures of bones with heads tipped way, way up toward the undersides or huge jaws or rib cages. Charlie drops Eliot’s hand in one of the instances she had deigned to hold it, open-mouthed, and stands on tip-toes to mirror the set of bones that extends up nearly to the vaults of the ceiling. She’s clearly not listening to the museum talking head, who Eliot is almost sure is a teenager or at least a college student, now leading up the group with Mr. Q.

“What do you think the barosaurus eats?” says Museum Youth. “I told you it’s an herbivore, and that means…”

“Plants!” Charlie bursts out, just ahead of two of the other kids saying the exact same thing, because of course. “Plants plants plants, salad,” Charlie goes on, starting a chant he has to shh her out of.

“That’s right,” is all Museum Youth says, which is enough for the victory of multiple children, including his daughter.

Between set pieces, Quentin falls back into step with him. “Charlie’s doing great today,” Quentin tells him, in one of these instances. “So is everyone, actually?” He sounds almost nervous.

“What is it they say about gift horses and mouths?” says Eliot, not unsympathetically. And something in Quentin’s face eases, before he smiles, folding his arms. He’s about to say something, maybe, but then they’re at a new dinosaur.

Charlie is perfecting her own roar with Emma, again uncomfortably emphasizing the need to get her into some form of drama, on into lunchtime. They have to go outside so everyone can get their lunch out of their backpacks to eat. Connie is with them by the time they’re filling out the entrance. Quentin had stepped away with an odd apologetic air when Connie came to find them, even though Eliot had comprehended the very simple Adult Ratio Plan as presented earlier.

“See you when we eat?” is what Quentin had said to him, backing off into the next room in a direction that promised to be the other half of his class, then turning.

But he does indeed see Quentin outside the museum, down the front steps, flanked by the other group and the parents. The kids stagger out on the steps in little lines to eat; Eliot had put food for himself in Charlie’s lunchbox, which she apparently first finds unjust.

“But I want two sandwiches now,” she complains.

“I know, sweetie, life is hard,” Eliot says. She’s pouting, but also nods like she agrees with him. He winds up giving her half of a half of his sandwich anyway, and as he tears it for her, Quentin climbs back up the steps in front of them.

“There’s always some kids who forget their lunches,” he says as a greeting as he sits, with a beleaguered sigh. He kind of has a different personality when he’s not in front of the kids, but Eliot surmises that it’s not that different.

“I heard you remind them like five times,” Eliot says, “so yeah, of course.”

“Are you saying...I should have reminded them six times?” Quentin is smiling.

“I remembered lunch,” Charlie offers, around a mouth of sandwich, which she then swallows.

“And I didn’t remind you at all,” says Eliot, reaching to ruffle her hair, making her giggle. When he looks back at Quentin, Quentin’s face is warm.

“You grew up in Jersey, right,” says Eliot, knowing how to conduct a conversation like a grown man who is not having a profound internal reaction to his daughter’s kindergarten teacher. “Did you ever come here as a kid?”

“Oh, man. Of course,” says Quentin, looking around, as if remembering and glad to remember. “All the museums, all the time, you know—I sympathize now because it’s really, the easiest thing to do with field trip time. But me and Julia, we would sometimes, you know, ride the train in like we were grown-ups and go to museums on the weekends by ourselves. In high school.”

By the end of the sentence, Eliot is grinning very wide. “You’re a nerd,” he says, like the solution to a great mystery has just presented itself to him.

“I like museums,” is Quentin’s response, somehow both shy and a little put-upon.

“Did they have the dinosaurs?” asks Charlie, still considering herself part of the conversation.

“Yep, they did,” says Quentin, gamely, “and the ocean hall, too. That’s where we’re going next.”

Charlie takes this as gossip, and so before they go back in, their half of the class is talking about ocean stuff. When they amble up to it, Charlie is agog at the actual-size (that’s what it’s supposed to be, right? Wow, Eliot still can’t pay attention to save his life) whale model, again her head tipped so, so far back on her body’s small axis it’s a little bit alarming to look at her.

They pass more exhibit installations lit sealike green, blue, white. Quentin hangs back in front of one.

“I got lost here once,” Quentin comments to him, but obviously the memory isn’t a scary one; Quentin is smiling. “Um. Kind of intentionally?”

“You ditched out on a field trip?” Eliot extrapolates, between mystified and impressed.

“Kind of,” Quentin says. “It was just, no one wanted to look at things as long as I did.”

God, that’s cute. “Oh, Coldwater,” Eliot says, and his delivery of this is apparently ambiguous enough to bring Quentin’s eyebrows sweetly, curiously up, so of course Eliot doesn’t elaborate.

When they weave out of the ocean area, the other happy volunteers with Connie and their ragtag group are there. Connie is talking to a blonde woman with glasses, who turns when Connie waves to them. When Eliot looks at Quentin, there’s definitely something weird happening on his face—like, maybe Quentin doesn’t understand the concept of quietly experiencing emotions, or something—but then it leaves off.

“Hey, guys,” he instructs, full teacher-voice even though he doesn’t really turn that off, seemingly, “say hi to Ms. Quinn, okay?”

“Hi Ms. Quinn,” comes the dull child-roar.

One Ms. Quinn seems flustered when she smiles, but that recedes visibly when she straightens herself in place. “Hi, everyone,” she says. “Ready for a special planetarium show?” And with that, Ms. Quinn is the most popular adult there. That must be cheating.

The whole class is reunited and the kids are bobbing with an end-of-day second wind into the theater; Eliot in his place maintaining the line can hear a lot of completely unrelated chatter.

As they pass through the doors to the theater, they’re plunged into even more dim blue lighting. And waiting for the fake sky above them to flash on after they get settled into seats, only their group there, Eliot suddenly remembers: he had come to this museum once. Right? It was this, or another planetarium before he’d bounced back out of New York, where he had gone on what could in the most generous and loosest sense of the term be described as a date, crossfaded enough that the pavement outside made him dizzy, let alone this. Now, surrounded by his kid’s first class, music blares on as the room darkens further, and a voiceover starts telling them about the stars as the galaxy comes to life on the sphere of the ceiling.

When he looks down next to him, he sees the light reflected in Charlie’s eyes, as she looks up in awe like she’s done all day. He’s lucky she hadn’t noticed or commented on him sitting next to her in the funny tilted pews, because he can take her hand since his heart feels heavy. She looks at him, grinning big, and they both look up, together.

“Daddy,” she stage-whispers up to him, her hand in his when they trail out of the auditorium after the birth of the universe.

“Sweetheart?”

She looks like she has very serious information to give. “The lady who’s talking to us is the lady who visited Mr. Q,” she says.

Ms. Quinn is still at the front of the group, and it’s good that he’s the only adult leading up the back right then, because Charlie’s top secret volume needs intensive workshopping.

“Okay,” he says, unsure of what she wants him to do with that information. But it wasn’t like he (and Margo) had handled this as if it were not interesting gossip. He doesn’t know what, if anything, Charlie would have taken from that.

“You guys were just at our ocean exhibit, right?” Ms. Quinn is asking, and there’s a chorus of assent. “Well, actually, we can learn a lot about how our universe and the earth were created from our oceans as they are today,” and holy shit, Eliot would not be able to remember the details of what she says next to draw about them later or whatever Mr. Q will have everyone do. That’s embarrassing.

But Ms. Quinn is all of yea high and more anxiously propulsive than perky and is like a nerd boy’s fantasy of how a museum nerd girl would dress. And her hair is light. Eliot does his best not to evaluate all of these facts in a sequence, since they are not relevant to him particularly.

“Ms. Quinn is pretty,” comments Charlie, as if on cue. He smiles down at her, a little.

“Yeah, Charles,” he says. Obviously, she would be.

There was, at some point, an arrangement made to meet back by the main entrance at a certain time for pre-herding the class back to the bus. Ms. Quinn—it’s annoying to not know her first name, if she’s going to be this relevant to the internal monologue—trailed along with them, and is talking quietly with Quentin not quite in the shadow of the diplodocus that Charlie was so excited about. When Connie appears with the rest of the troops, Quentin telegraphs what it is he’s saying to Ms. Quinn with a gesture toward the group, a few more words and a soft smile, then a maybe-stiff hug.

“Daddy, my feet hurt,” says Charlie for what is now the sixth time, rightfully interrupting his rubbernecking.

“I told you this morning, sweetheart,” he says, gently chiding, since he hadn’t yet reminded her he told her so. “The rainbow boots are betrayers.”

Obviously, when Quentin announces the bus is ready for them, Eliot carries her out on his shoulders anyway. Consequences on such matters have been an ongoing issue in the Waugh household.

On the bus, she deigns not only to sit with him, but falls asleep in his lap. Quentin doesn’t start the ride with a seat next to him, maybe deferring to an instantly-sleeping child. About twenty minutes in, though, Quentin walks down the bus aisle, over-cautious in navigating with his hand on the back of each seat. When he stops at their row, Eliot nods to the space next to him, you know, to be polite, and Quentin smiles and sits down.

“Did she have a good time?” Quentin asks, in an automatic slumbering-kid sotto voce.

“Is that a joke?” Eliot says, grinning. “She wants to live there. Lucky she came back with me. Maybe just because I carried her.”

Quentin is grinning back at him. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“I think you’re trying to back me into calling my kid a nerd,” says Eliot.

Quentin lifts his hands. “No, hey, I’m very anti-bullying.”

He has to move Charlie in his lap a little, more because the position looks uncomfortable for her than anything, rebalancing her on his legs. A little lock of her hair is loose from her braids. She would probably want him to fix it, but he should probably let her sleep for another ten minutes more for her to not be world-ending cranky, so.

“Hey,” he says. “Is she losing major kindergarten social capital by falling asleep on me, do you think?”

Quentin blinks at him, like he can’t decide if it’s a joke, which it is. “No, I think her...rep is fine,” Quentin says, with the unmistakable undercurrent of an accusation of ridiculousness. “And like ten other kids are asleep.”

“Oh. Otherwise she’d be in trouble?”

Quentin nods soberly, and Eliot laughs.

He doesn’t know when he closed his eyes, but when he opens them again and some time has passed, Quentin doesn’t comment on the fact that he fell asleep on the volunteer job; he just smiles when Eliot glances up. He has to rub his eyes and sits up a little straighter and sighs at Charlie, still too dead to the world to promise that she’ll sleep through the night.

When he gently shakes her shoulders, whispering to her that it’s time to not be asleep, Charlie starts to sob in earnest on the second breath she takes after her eyes open. He strokes over her hair and she calms, going kind of blank-eyed with sleepiness.

“I think we’re almost at Brakebills,” Quentin says, jerking Eliot back into awareness of where they—he and Charlie—are.

It’s a mild pandemonium getting the class off the bus after a sleep-inducing trip back, then back into the classroom to wait for the bell, but it settles with Quentin’s surprising ability to corral in sharp relief. In a court of law Eliot would say that he hadn’t intended to be the last parent volunteer and attendant child standing, outlasting both The Moms and even Connie who took the last of Charlie’s classmates for the car rider line, but. Well. By then, Charlie had been sitting in her jacket for a few minutes as Quentin had kept finding one more thing to do that Eliot could also help with.

“Hey,” he says, remembering some key Quentin trivia about his primary method of transit, “actually, do you walk home from here?”

Quentin doesn’t look up at him from where he’s re-binning some toys. “I don’t,” he says. “I take the bus and I bike. Usually.”

“Brakebills...has...busses?”

Yes,” Quentin says, “Brakebills has busses,” and to Quentin’s credit, it was only then that he looked up as he tipped into defensive.

“I want to go on the bus,” says Charlie, apparently tuning in to planet Earth from her post-nap daze.

“We just did, sweetie,” Eliot says.

“I want to go on the bus again,” she says, though with no real determination.

Like she’s given him a subject change, Eliot says, “Would you like a ride home, Quentin?” Then, as if they both need a rationale, he has to add, “It’s been a long day.”

Quentin blinks at him, again, still hovering and half-bent by the bins he had just reorganized. “Oh, uh.” Quentin straightens, rubs the back of his neck, almost a fidget. “I—yeah, it has been a long day. Thanks, Eliot.”

Eliot keeps himself from replying with something both terrifying and banal like Anytime. As an option it’s too close for comfort.

“Of course,” is what he does say, as Charlie ponderously stands to put on her backpack.

It seems like it would be unkind to ask how Quentin negotiates precisely all of the shit he puts in a box to carry out of his classroom on a bike and a bus, so Eliot doesn’t. He catches Coldwater in a wide yawn out of the corner of his eye as he’s putting Charlie in her carseat, but he also doesn’t call him on that, getting to feel privately very generous about that.

The instant Eliot pulls out of the school parking lot, the animation that Quentin had in the classroom drains from him, his expression unfocused. The change comes with a silence that definitely seems to be thinking about something else. Quentin’s apartment is further out than he would have thought someone without a car would be able to swing, and of course, it’s long enough that Eliot knows Charlie’s strikingly similar sudden silence will become soft snoring before it does.

“And we’re out again,” he says, with a sigh, and at this Quentin perks up to smile at him.

“Long day, right,” Quentin offers. Eliot nods his agreement. Quentin is looking at the road when he glances at him again.

“Penny for your thoughts?” he asks. At that Quentin looks maybe taken aback, cementing the entirely unreasonable bubble of anxiety that Eliot feels about questioning whatever the mood is.

“No,” starts Quentin, “oh, no, I shouldn’t just—” And Eliot is only able to meet his eyes for a minute, and has no idea where Quentin means to go with that sentence, to be honest. Quentin, in the periphery of his vision, presses his mouth together.

Eliot waits.

“Sorry. Jesus, I can’t even—explain the situation without it sounding ridiculous,” Quentin says.

Well, that’s Eliot’s wheelhouse. “Try me,” he says.

Quentin sighs. “So what just happened is, um,” and there’s the propulsive note of not being able to stop himself, “we went on a field trip to the museum where my ex works.”

And the fringe of the information he’s been privy to slides perfectly into place for Eliot. “Oh,” he says, as much at that as anything else. “Doing some light stalking, Coldwater?”

This instance ribbing does not go over, which Eliot knows because of the weird, weak way Quentin laughs, which makes Eliot feel surprisingly horribly guilty.

“Um, no,” Quentin is saying, “I just—I genuinely didn’t think about it. Stuff like that has to get approved, like logistically, and I, just kind of tossed a bunch of museums on a list and didn’t think about it until I got an email saying we could go to Natural History, and I was like wow, I really—fucked it up.”

Eliot feels his brows pull. “Did you? Or did you take a bunch of kids to see some dinosaurs?”

Quentin’s laugh then is a little relaxed, thank god, but he sighs. “I guess,” he says, like he can’t quite bring himself to agree, even so. “I mean, it was fine, it was...We’re kind of fine now. As fine as it can be. I don’t think I’m even, like. It doesn’t upset me to see her. I just…”

The thought trails off, at length, then seems to enfold itself back into Quentin with an air of embarrassment.

Eliot realizes that Quentin has neither confirmed nor denied nor actually specified ever, at all, that it was the mild object of Charlie gossip, Ms. Quinn. It doesn’t seem like he means to conceal as much as he’s wholly feeling whatever else it is he’s feeling, which is hard to guess if he’s really not just a little sore at the sight of his library-aesthetic-hot blonde ex.

They’re about to hit Quentin’s apartment complex, unfortunately. Eliot is distractingly bothered by the idea that Quentin will just get out of his car without unloading whatever it is he needs to unload, and when they wind by what must be the complex’s front office, Quentin is still quiet.

When he parks, Eliot sighs before Quentin says anything, if he was planning to. “You’re a master of suspense,” he says.

Again, Quentin laughs, almost also a sigh. “I don’t have to—you’re the one who said, I don’t need to unload my stuff on my daughter’s teacher, or, whatever. I don’t need to unload my stuff on my...parent of a student.”

“Okay. Well-put,” says Eliot, gently, even though self-acrimonious gears are turning in his head. Maybe it’s the context of Quentin throwing those words back at him after a day of shared wryness over either kid antics or Quentin’s own fucking nerdiness and, what, some weeks later, but it seems really stupid that he said that, now. But also, “Wait, sorry, was that supposed to be an imitation of me?”

“No—” Quentin is smiling.

“That is not how I sound.”

Quentin’s smile goes wider, and he ducks his head. “It kind of is,” he says, sly.

“Literally no, don’t quit your day job,” and then Quentin really laughs, breaking some tension that had been coming from him. Eliot can’t keep himself from smiling, too, at that more than anything else.

“We’re friends,” Eliot ventures, in the moment that seems open to it, right after Quentin laughs. “Right? It’s not just—”

“Parent-teacher conferences?” Quentin offers, some of his frankly bizarre mischievousness back. It still makes Eliot grin.

“See, I think we in the business call that an inside joke.”

“Really,” says Quentin, flat but smiling. “Thanks. I’ve never had, uh, any friend before, at all.”

“Shocking,” says Eliot, and what is actually mildly shocking is when Quentin’s response, of all things, is to not-unawkwardly elbow him.

Then Quentin pulls back into himself a little, and there’s a quiet moment in the car, punctuated by Charlie in her carseat still gently, softly snoring.

“It’s Friday and she’s definitely not going to sleep tonight,” he says a little ruefully, looking at his girl in the rear view. “We have nothing but time.” He doesn’t think about implying he has nothing to do on a Friday because, well, he’s a dad, and also only normies only have fun on the weekends, except he’s a huge, disgusting normie now.

But Quentin looks almost confused, for a moment, when they lock eyes, and Eliot can’t pin down why before it clears. “Just—so it was Alice,” and Eliot can tell, with some zeal, that a floodgate opened. “Alice Quinn, sorry, obviously, she was there for the space...part. The auditorium. She’s, god, we were together for a long time, she was—” He hesitates. “We were in grad school. And my dad, my dad died, and we went through so much shit, she got me through so much shit, but at the end of it, I—she didn’t want—what I wanted.”

Eliot’s brow is creasing deeper and deeper. “Quentin, I—”

But Quentin doesn’t seem to register that: “—And I don’t think, I don’t think it’s that I’m still hung up on her, or anything, right. I’ll always, she’ll always be kind of like a part of who I am, you know, she was so important to my life at that time. It’s just seeing her—I wanted a family, you know? And I didn’t know that for a long time except in a kind of weird abstract that’s what you’re supposed to do way. But when I figured out what I actually wanted to do for my job, which took, um, almost getting into a Philosophy program, I realized I just—I want a family. Like I want the whole, the cliche thing. And she didn’t want that, and it felt like, for a long time it felt like it was because I wouldn’t be good enough at it or I couldn’t talk her into it right? Which I know isn’t true, and it’s so unfair, and fuck, I’ve just been talking for like fifteen minutes.”

Quentin deflates into silence after he takes a deep, unsteady, breath, and he’s looking at his hands in his lap. The emotion in Quentin’s face, a protected hurt, is so clear in every line of it that it’s like Eliot is looking through a glass into it.

“You haven’t been talking for fifteen minutes,” Eliot says, after the pause.

“Shut up,” says Quentin, inexplicably. Eliot laughs, a little, baffled by the familiarity.

“Two minutes at best,” he chides, even so, and then Quentin laughs a little, too, with the sore edge of needing to laugh to it.

Eliot clears his throat, then. It’s unclear if it’s a good idea to say the only thing he really thought, when Quentin had stopped talking, but: “I think it’s...listen. For me, Charlie just...kind of happened?”

It’s a story for another day, probably, he doesn’t need to make it about his shit, but Quentin does look at him maybe more than a little curiously, the weight of the mood changing. And that is a very oblique way to mention, you know, his only brother and his sister-in-law fucking dying, brief horrific custody battle, et cetera. Still.

“And I wasn’t—what my life looked like then was very, very different.” That was the understatement of the century, again, but hey. “Before Charlie happened, I didn’t know all of the ways I just wasn’t a fucking person until I had to be, not that I’m ever going to win Dad of the Year or anything. But.”

Quentin’s shoulders seem to relax, and he’s looking at Eliot with deep, clear earnestness that’s both hard to look at and look away from. Eliot’s mouth works as he decides how much to say.

“It’s no small thing,” is what he says, “to know what you want. Yeah?”

Quentin’s mouth opens, and closes.

“It’s not—” Quentin’s expression goes a little fraught again. “It’s not really that, maybe. I don’t know, Eliot.”

Eliot lets the silence after that expand a little, since he doesn’t know what to do with that, exactly.

“Well,” Eliot says. “We don’t have to figure it out today, do we?”

We?” says Quentin, immediately.

Off some internal mortification, Eliot says, “Yes, we,” and then, that mortification just fueling how certain he decides to sound, “I’m here in my car having this conversation, so, we.”

“Okay,” says Quentin, but he’s like, really grinning suddenly. “Okay. Uh. Cool.”

This feels mildly hysterical. “Cool,” Eliot echoes, absurdly, and Quentin laughs, hopefully in some part at himself.

They do talk about other things—Quentin brings up upcoming school events not like he’s dropping the subject on purpose, but like it would be good to talk about something else, too. But it’s sooner rather than later when Quentin gets out of the car; Eliot witnesses him re-acclimatizing to standing the same way he had when they had all gotten off the bus, bouncing on his legs a little. It’s cute. Charlie is still out, which is not great, but.

“Hey,” says Eliot, as Quentin is trying to gather all of the shit he apparently needed to bring home, shuffling the box up from the floor of the car. He lists back with it a little, to look at Eliot.

“Hey?” says Quentin.

“Would you want to come over for dinner? Say, Thursday?”

Chapter Text

That personal anxiety orchestra of Quentin’s comes to a crescendo as he rings the doorbell, hearing it echo inside of Eliot Waugh’s house, which on the outside is warm-bricked and cleanly nice for as much as Quentin knows about anything. That feeling expands in his chest when there’s shuffling on the other side of the door, and then a tiny, terrifying pause, and then it opens, and: it’s just Eliot, in an apron that literally says DAD.

Oh.

But before he can say anything normal, like hi, Eliot calls back into the house, “Hey, Charlie,” and he’s grinning widely, “your playdate is here.”

Quentin blinks at him. “Oh, thanks,” he says, but the odd half-sting of it entirely dissipates when he hears tiny feet running hard in their direction. As he steps past Eliot into the house, he barely understands that Charlie is running on him before she fully jumps, apparently no longer experiencing any kind of out-of-class cognitive dissonance at the sight of him.

“Sorry,” says Eliot as his child fully hangs from Quentin’s arm, “was I being rude?”

Quentin just shakes his head, having to smile.

“Mr. Q!” is Charlie’s contribution, about fifteen times in a row: “Mr. Q! Mr. Q!”

“He knows his name, honey,” says Eliot, mildly, to less than zero reaction from Charlie. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Though Quentin demurs for now, Eliot still disappears around a corner into an open-plan kind of immaculate kitchen, when Quentin rounds the space to look after him. The rest of the house is the same, even with hints of the presence of Charlie everywhere—drawers under the television overflowing with toys, a low bookcase with a lot of Bert and Ernie. It’s not just clean, there’s obviously, like, actual decor.

“Your house is really nice,” Quentin says, having to half-call it into the kitchen. Eliot leans over the island to look at him.

“Thank you?” he says, like Quentin is being weird, even though that’s super polite and something people say all the time? But Charlie, who tugs on his hand at that same moment, wants to show him the blocks she got on Christmas.

“Last year?” he asks.

“On Christmas,” Charlie explains.

He gets down on the floor with Charlie for a while; they knock over no less than four carefully-constructed magnatile towers while the sounds and smells of very active cooking continue in that adjacent room.

Without announcing himself and with Charlie wanting to build a tower alone, Quentin gets to his feet and comes to stand at the kitchen island. Eliot is at the stove, and he pivots on his heel to open the fridge with an air of, like, Sisyphus. In profile, his face is more serious than Quentin’s ever seen him, and he doesn’t seem to register Quentin watching him.

Quentin almost clears his throat. “So what’s for dinner?” he asks instead, to end his weird feeling of intrusiveness, coming up to the counter.

Eliot looks at him, and then he smiles. “Adult macaroni and cheese,” he says. “And a salad.”

Quentin should say, like, it smells amazing (because he does), or something else normal. What he does say is, “Adult mac and cheese? Like rated R?”

Eliot looks surprised in his amusement. “Unrated,” he says. “Banned stateside, beloved in Europe. Lots of nudity, a controversial gruyere.”

“Oh, yeah. Of course,” Quentin says. Then, to be normal, he says, “It smells good.”

Eliot just nods, turning with a little less seriousness back to his task.

But whatever Quentin had been anxious about going wrong (he can’t actually figure that one out; he had barely been able to detective his way back to oh, anxious from really thinking about the physical feeling on the bus) was not this: “You said mac and cheese.

Eliot had set that dish and a salad on the table in turn, and Quentin actually caught the moment that Charlie’s face fell looking at it.

Eliot glances at Quentin and sets one of the plates he’s putting out the rest of the way down in front of Charlie, bending next to her. “Oh, darling,” he says, with that deep patience that should be jarring with the rest of his whole, like, thing, but isn’t. “I’m afraid this is mac and cheese.”

She shakes her head. “It’s white.”

“Mac and cheese can be white.” It sounds like something he’s said before.

“But I want the box,” she says. “The box kind. And the noodles.” To be fair to her, what was on the table was actually, like, fancy huge shells?

Eliot, as Quentin watches, closes his eyes for a second. Then, opening them again, he says, “Okay, do we remember our rules?”

Charlie sniffs, looking a little mutinously at him.

He clears his throat. “The rules are,” and Quentin can tell she knows what he’s going to say, “you have to say something while I’m cooking, or else I can help you make a jelly sandwich.”

She sniffs harder. “I don’t want a jelly sandwich.”

“Those are the choices, darling. You can think about it if you want.”

Charlie is proving it’s possible for a kindergartener to look more resentful and vengeful than any single adult ever has, but Eliot just kisses her forehead and stands up.

After an extended silence, and in the middle of Eliot telling a story about a restaurant critic that seems to be building to a weird, raunchy punchline, Charlie says, “Can I get cereal?”

Charlie is in the kitchen apparently taking care of her own cereal when there’s the sound of keys jangling to turn the lock before the door opens. Margo Hanson doesn’t even look at Quentin as she toes out of a pair of heels, deposits a coat on the coat rack, hangs her purse on Eliot’s chair behind his back before she smooths her hands down his shoulders for them to coo, “Hi,” and “Hi!” at each other, Eliot’s face tilting up toward hers like an orbiting planet.

What the fuck, is what Quentin thinks, even though it also feels like he’s intruding.

But then Eliot says, looking back like he hasn’t forgotten him at all, “I know you both have met, right?” He reintroduces them anyway, with inclines of his head: “Margo, Quentin. Quentin, Margo.”

“The famous Mr. Q,” she says, smiling at him. “You know what, I did hear a rumor the PTA was meeting here tonight.”

“Now, Bambi,” Eliot says, in apparent admonishment, though he does not go on.

Quentin almost goes, “Uh,” out loud; his mouth opens to do so then closes. Margo grins at Quentin very specifically, and it takes a moment for his beautiful-girl-fight-or-flight response to subside so he can wonder: Bambi?

Margo kisses Eliot on the cheek and trails into the kitchen without sparing him a glance, and he has to think Don’t be weird at a top-volume loop in his head to cut off any further speculation about what, uh, their deal is. Eliot had mentioned that Charlie was his brother’s daughter and hadn’t mentioned anything clearer than that further. But?

“Margodad!” he hears Charlie crow in the kitchen, and then the tell-tale noise of a little more cereal being poured.

Then Margo: “Okay, hon, I see the tired eyes, is it bathtime?” There’s an enthused response before the two of them reappear, one of Margo’s hands holding Charlie’s, and the other holding a bowl of the contentious pasta.

“Beg pardon,” Eliot for some reason actually, literally says before he stands to join a routine-seeming flurry up the stairs, taking quick steps up behind Charlie and Margo. After they all disappear, Quentin can just make out the shapes of Margo and Eliot’s voices punctuated by Charlie chirps, ending on her outburst about cotton candy bubble bath before there’s the sound of water turning on and filling a tub.

Eliot comes back down with his shirtsleeves pushed further up his arms and a tiny set of pajamas hanging from his elbow, which he leaves on the stair railing.

“I didn’t want to start any trouble,” he says, grinning at Eliot as he comes back to the table, “but boxed mac...” Of course, he plans on hastening to add, the food was incredible, but Eliot owns a whatever-starred restaurant and probably already knows that.

But Eliot makes a face, and then, with a conspicuous lack of flourish, plucks a cherry tomato out of the salad bowl on the table before he pops it in Quentin’s mouth.

Quentin stares until Eliot reaches back to the bowl and then catches a tomato in his own mouth, too, but he makes another sort of face. “Oh, wow, are these out of season,” Eliot is saying as he takes Quentin’s plate from the table and gathers the other plates to go back in the kitchen.

Very belatedly, Quentin chews, and swallows. It just tastes like a tomato to him.

He stays through Charlie coming down in an equally-tiny bathrobe for her pajamas, her hair carefully swept up under a towel, then retreating back up the stairs with Margo. Both he and Eliot, who does not seem in a rush for him to go even though it’s certainly a school night, immediately agree on watching the Terminator that’s on one of the cable networks that Quentin does not have at home (which is all of them, he only has internet).

Margo and Charlie come back down around the first commercial break. “El, I gotta go back,” she says, and he nods and stands up from the couch, casually hoisting up Charlie one-armed as he goes.

“But I want you to stay,” says Charlie, with the force of both a whine and a statement of fact. Margo grins at her, saying “I know, sweetie,” and is of a height to just barely lean to kiss her forehead with her in Eliot’s arms.

“Tomorrow, then?” Eliot says, meanwhile, like he’s checking in on plans, and Quentin realizes he is a little too raptly both listening to and watching them, and he looks back at the We Know Drama TNT screen with his mouth pressing.

“Nice to see you again, Mr. Q,” says Margo, a moment or two after that, and when he looks up, her expression is too over-earnest not to be suspicious.

Eliot grins. “Hush,” he says to her.

What? It’s nice to see him again,” she says, pulling her purse over her shoulder, giving Eliot another kiss on the cheek, too.

“Nice to see you, too,” Quentin says, choosing to pretend the rest of the exchange did not happen, and he stands up to wave as she heads out the door. When it’s closed behind her, locked one-handed by Eliot, Eliot looks back at him, and Quentin has to shove his hands in his pockets to feel like he’s standing in a normal way, and smile.

Quentin leaves after Charlie falls asleep on the couch.

*

“El,” Margo says. He doesn’t look up; he’s really in the zone on this avocado he’s halving and cutting right now.

“El,” she says again. She’s somewhere in the vicinity of the coffee table, in sight of the kitchen. “El. El. Honey.”

“Bambi?” he says, as saccharinely attentive as if he was answering her just the first time, stopping his chop. She gives him the exasperated look he expects; he smiles beatifically.

“The school play is Wednesday? I could’ve sworn Friday.” She’s holding a red sheet of paper that was definitely the school calendar printout they got in the mail. He frowns.

“Maybe I gave you the wrong date,” he says, and brushing his hands off with a kitchen towel before he comes to take the sheet from her.

It was the second play of the year, but this time, kids from different classes had participated in...writing it? Producing it? Somehow? The ideas piece. Charlie had talked about little else for approximately two weeks, even catching Quentin on alleged non-school-related time about it. It was called A Play About Trees and Charlie would be a tree. One of many, is what Eliot gathers.

“It certainly looks like Wednesday,” he says, judging by the fact that the play is, indeed, in the little box for this coming Wednesday. “You have something else?”

“I have an evening meeting with the fucking board,” she says, on a sigh.

“Evening meeting? Is that legal?”

“Now, I know you’re fully aware of the schmooze capacity of a well-planned dinner, you little bitch,” she says, with fondness. “And no way can I cancel this last-minute. Old fucks with deep pockets are already naturally suspicious yet in awe of me.”

Off this, Eliot sighs, looking down at the paper.

“Say, Margo,” he starts lightly. “How many times did Charlie make you promise you would absolutely positively be there?”

Margo groans, her head going to her forehead like she’s coming down with something, which would be a soon-to-be-betrayed child.

He tries, “A billion?”

“Billion and one,” she grouses out, and he pulls her into a hug.

“We’ll weather the tantrum together,” he says.

*

At the inaugural performance of A Play About Trees, a story about a group of trees believing in themselves, searching for seeds, and providing age-appropriate explanations of photosynthesis and climate change, all hell comes close to breaking loose.

Parents as far from the stage as the back row can hear a young girl bellowing from behind the curtains, wailing, right as the last of them are trickling in. Some exchange varying levels of understanding, confused and annoyed looks.

Then, of course, a teacher comes out—most of them know him as Mr. Q—and he’s whispering something in the direction of stage-right, before he slides down off the stage, still whispering. Well, whispering loud enough to be heard by stage-right. None of them are that familiar with the man who jogs with odd grace down the little set of steps after him, to Mr. Q’s side, expectant. In the audience, one mother who had volunteered for Mr. Coldwater’s class says to the other, with a tone of surprise, “God, what was that guy’s name? Waugh?”

The wailing backstage is silenced. There is a pause that is filled with a newly-silent audience. A few older siblings are now excited to see something very embarrassing.

But the music teacher, Mr. Adiyodi, has been sitting patiently at the piano on stage, not looking particularly bothered by anything unfolding. In that moment, Mr. Adiyodi nods in response to a signal that should be more obvious to the audience, but, hey, no one’s expecting Shakespeare, before he launches into what is definitely a riff on the Charlie Brown theme. Kids, littler and bigger, all in black leggings, black shirts and stuck-on leaves flood the stage.

Everyone notices it, but no other parent will think about it too much later: a little girl trails after, with leaden feet. She joins the group as they take turns reciting how the sun gives them food.

And offstage, still side-by-side, Maybe-Waugh shakes Mr. Q’s shoulders, their heads turning to grin at each other just out of the line of the bad lighting.

“A tree needs roots,” says the same little girl when it’s her turn. A sea of phone cameras are recording for posterity, and every parent is waiting for the moment where it seems right to clap.

*

“I’m sorry, you saw Eliot how many times last week?”

“Three?” tries Quentin. His voice is so small it’s almost hoarse. He clears his throat: “Three...times.”

“You both have jobs!” Julia seems both indignant and impressed. “That’s, like, how much we hung out in high school.”

“Please, we hung out way more than that in high school,” he says. “And...I don’t know. Maybe it’s, normal. Friends see each other.”

Julia takes an especially pointed sip of her coffee.

And anyway, every time they had seen each other made sense, in context. They run into each other at the grocery store again (it happens with a weird frequency until you consider, hey, small town). Eliot, again, invites him over for dinner. He goes to dinner. Eliot comes downstairs from bathtime with two tiny wet handprints on each lapel of his vest that neither of them comment on.

Quentin has his shoes off, and he’s curled in on himself on the sectional couch while Eliot is sprawled longways next to him, his feet up on the couch right next to Quentin’s thigh, telling him long story after long story:

“—And so my last catering job,” he says, gesturing with his wine glass, which Quentin had obviously noticed at the beginning of the meal only got filled with water, “or, well, one of my last, before the restaurant, was for a Twilight-themed wedding.”

Quentin laughs. “You’re fucking with me,” he says. And then he almost glances around; there’s no one here who will add to his imaginary bad word tally.

“I would never,” Eliot says, with the delighted tone of, I would. But he goes on, “No. It was like, ironic though. Honestly, that’s way more embarrassing.”

“Oh. Wait, what, ironic how?”

“You know in the last one, there’s this whole thing where she has his vampire baby and it’s really gross?” Quentin doesn’t, he only got away with watching the first one, but Eliot doesn’t need him to even nod or pretend to get the reference before he goes on: “To the best of my understanding, the cake was a...bursting vampire fetus.”

Holy shit,” laughs Quentin.

Eliot has story after story like this—it’s easy to listen to him talk. But Quentin will find himself talking, too.

Through his life, it’s been a lot like: all of the words coming out of his mouth feel awkward and wrong until something picks up steam and he’s talked about Fillory or Han shooting first (not even his opinion on it, which is a given, just a really thorough explanation of it as a controversy but also not a particularly unique controversy) for half an hour. By then he has, for instance, lost the wandering attention of one of Julia’s friends at his second-ever party where there was alcohol. In that particular case, he threw up on her shoes later that night. Sorry, Julia’s friend.

But it’s kind of different with Eliot, not that he’s that same exact person on the other side of his most productive years of therapy and medication, anyway. It’s still different. Maybe there was a time that the frequent note of condescension he hears would’ve rankled him more, but it seems kind of like a feature of Eliot’s, not a bug of his own. Instead, sometimes it catches him right, and he laughs at himself a little.

And, okay, maybe the other times they hung out didn’t come with a surplus of context. Or maybe Eliot being affronted that he’s never seen Buffy all the way into the promise of a marathon counts as context. Quentin decides it does. That happens on Saturday afternoon.

“Okay,” says Eliot, on the end credits rolling. “Some people don’t like the first season. But! This is remedial pop culture knowledge for a total nerd.”

“But there are different kinds of nerds,” Quentin says, inexplicably. Eliot raises a brow at him. “Right? Sci-fi nerds, fantasy nerds, dungeons and dragons nerds. You know. Nerd specializations.”

Eliot looks indulgently amused, but instead of making fun of him, asks: “So you are which one?”

“I mostly read fantasy or kind of sci-fi as a kid,” he says. “Um, maybe like, Harlan Ellison and Neal Stephenson when I got a little older.”

“Who the fuck?”

“That’s like, my point.”

Eliot must have a response, but his phone rings. Next to him, Quentin is studiously eating tortilla chips and trying not to puzzle out the other side of the conversation, which on Eliot’s end goes, “Hi, Bambi. Oh, you’re done already? Okay. Right. Right, no, that’s good. How surprised should I be, are we thinking? Right. Horrified but not too much.” He sounds, like, beatific. “Perfect. Bye, Bambi.”

Eliot ends the call, and belatedly seems to twig on to Quentin kind of looking at him, before he stands. “I’m going to pretend to be shocked that Margo allowed Charlie get her ears pierced,” he says, by way of explanation.

“What,” says Quentin.

“Do you remember her backstage diva Margo-related meltdown? Last week?”

Quentin does, in fact, vividly recall: first just Eliot was talking to her off to the side of the auditorium’s stage, and then when she’d escalated to wails he had—you shouldn’t intervene with parents doing parenting, probably, even at school events.

But he had walked over, and Charlie, with heartbreaking full tearful sincerity, had kept repeating, “Margodad said she would come.” Quentin had helped her take a breath to calm down, and they had both gotten her reluctantly on stage. In dim twilight out in the parking lot, Eliot, who had offered him a ride home, explained that he and Margo had told her Margo actually wasn’t able to come, but that crossing the bridge of that happening was something else.

“I think I remember,” Quentin says, a little wryly. Eliot nods like he’s a quick study.

“So the plan is, I will be appropriately villainized so that Margo emerges victorious. And you know, she’s wanted to get her ears pierced forever. I felt kind of weird about doing it when she was so little, and her parents—” The pause is hardly there, but the sentence restarts around it: “Her parents hadn’t. Obviously. Not sure that they would have.”

Quentin blinks up at him. It’s bizarre to hear him say her parents when Charlie seems like an essential, embedded fact of Eliot, but he remembers Eliot’s referred-to brother. So that is definitely a separate part of the equation, then. But like. What.

Eliot, for his part, says, “So, another episode if you think you won’t blow the whole charade for us.” Then he finally disappears for a second off into the kitchen, and Quentin wonders how he would be preparing for such a performance, except all Eliot is doing is getting more chips. He gets a weird look back as he does, and, chagrined, looks down.

Still, Quentin feels like he needs a previously-on recap for just that conversation, but it’s easy enough to not say anything a little bit later, when Charlie positively bursts through the door to the couch. Margo sweeps and heel click-clacks right after her, starting with a theatrical, “Now Eliot, don’t be mad.

“My Margo, what ever do you—” A false shadow crosses Eliot’s face. “This child’s ears.” And Charlie giggles raucously when he pulls her close to examine the affront, like she must somehow know everyone’s playing. Eliot sweeps her dark curls behind her tiny, now-pink ear, revealing a telltale silver stud.

Eliot actually gasps.

He then tickles his daughter to a torrent of breathless laughter as Margo curls up next to them, grinning. It makes a complete picture even if the components of it don’t quite make sense to him yet. What the fuck, is what Quentin thinks, even though he’s smiling very, very wide.

Instead of Buffy, they all watch an episode of Paw Patrol. “A certain little delinquent could use a dose of dog cops,” Eliot reasons after capitulating very quickly, and Quentin laughs when Charlie laughs first, like she understands exactly what her dad is joking about.

*

“I really don’t understand how a food snob insists on our finest local Starbucks.”

“Yeah, Josh,” Julia says. “Even I can tell it’s burnt and gross.” Though actually, Julia is drinking a matcha latte, so it’s probably not burned. Maybe?

They’re sitting outside of the Starbucks, one of the, on last count, four that Brakebills comfortably boasts. It’s just edging into October, and today is unseasonably warm, hence outside. Chatwin is sitting by the table, ready with overenthusiasm for attention from passersby.

“Okay, I admit it,” Josh says. “I’m just a bitch for pumpkin spice, I always get excited. Sue me!”

“She could,” Quentin says.

“So, can we as a group have a consecutive conversation without a lawyer joke?” says Julia.

“What is law, anyway,” offers Josh, just blatantly eating the whipped cream off the top of his pumpkin spice whatever he’d ordered.

Quentin groans a little, tipping his head back for a second. He usually just gets black coffee and drinks it all when it’s too hot. He doesn’t really enjoy it. “Philosophy students,” he sighs.

“You were just as annoying as me, buddy,” says Josh. “But you got better!”

“And you didn’t?” Julia asks.

“Oh, I’m nowhere near annoying as he was,” says Josh, easily, and Quentin tips his head back again, but further. “Which is saying something,” Josh adds. Thanks, Josh. Chatwin nudges Quentin’s hand for attention, then, when he’s denied an interaction with a rare couple who doesn’t stop for him passing on the sidewalk. Rejection is hard.

“So back to how we didn’t realize that Quentin’s new close good friend is some kind of hot restaurant owner,” says Josh. “Like, what?”

“I should have just Googled,” Julia says, a little mournfully. “Literally. He’s done like, interviews and stuff.”

Josh sighs. “Man, we really dropped the ball.”

Interviews. Quentin had not thought about Googling Eliot. And in sequence in his head the words Googling Eliot sound like a really weird euphemism. He frowns a little up at the sky, his eyes closed against the sun. When he lifts his head back up Josh and Julia are predictably leaning to look at Julia’s phone.

It occurs to him that he’s spent, well, yeah, a decent amount of time with Eliot and he’s heard a lot of stories, but he doesn’t really know a lot about him? Actually? He must still be making a face, or something, because Julia visibly softens when she looks up at him.

“Sorry, Q,” she says, putting her phone screen-side down on the table, “I guess this is kind of weird.”

Josh shakes his head. “Fun-ruiner,” he says, though he says it with little conviction, to be fair.

They walk around downtown a little—”downtown” for certain values of downtown, like, it’s mostly that one Starbucks and a street of red-bricked storefronts—with Chatwin getting a lot of the audience engagement he’s come to expect. Josh and Julia like getting to act like proud dog co-parents. But if it was weird that they Googled a guy that Quentin is now friends with, it must be considerably weirder when Julia goes, “Oh, hey, his restaurant is right there!” She doesn’t have to contextually explain who his refers to, and the restaurant is not actually right there, it’s a ways down the street at the next intersection.

“Jules,” he says, lagging behind with a groan, right as Josh is going, “Ooh!” with decided interest. His dog forces Quentin to fall back in step with them.

“Q, how can we wingman you when you’re acting like we’re torturing you?” Josh asks.

“Uh, I don’t know—what part of that to respond to first,” Quentin says, but they kind of ignore him, stopped at a next-door distance from Eliot’s restaurant, standing instead in front of the weird fake-vintage store that Quentin resents the existence of. The sign on the Cottage is illuminated since it’s edging closer to sunset. Josh tilts his head.

“This is nice for Brakebills,” he says, like he’s conceding to the point.

“Right?” says Julia. “Q, do you wanna try to say hi if he’s there?”

“No. I mean, he’s only actually here, like, once a week,” he says in earnest, “he does stuff from his house, I guess.” Both Josh and Julia look at him then. He blinks. “What?”

“Uh. Quentin,” Josh says. “What classes am I in right now?”

“What,” says Quentin, again, even more baffled.

“Yeah. Sure. That’s what I thought,” says Josh. It does take Quentin a second.

After Chinese food, half of a game of Uno with a deck that he’d accidentally stolen from school, and Julia dropping Josh at the train on her way home, he’s alone in his apartment. Chatwin is snoring on his dog bed in Quentin’s bedroom, the door cracked so Quentin hears when it starts happening from the couch. Even though he’s got an early day tomorrow like he always does, Quentin feels a little restless.

He gets out his laptop with the aim of going over the school stuff that he’s never, ever done with, but then he stares instead at the Google page that comes up when he opens a new window. Then, he types eliot waugh and presses Google Search.

Julia hadn’t been exaggerating. There were actual interviews and what looks like a passing mention in a New York Times article about suburban restaurants. The more substantive one is obviously the local paper. This prompts him to remember that the Brakebills local paper exists.

Feeling perilously like he’s looking up something Bad on a public library computer, in his own home, as an adult, he clicks.

He scrolls. It’s a lot about restaurant inspiration and industry history and other kind of fakey interview stuff, not told in quotes. Quentin is able to put the report of first a caterer, working up to restaurant manager before his move up to the East coast into anecdote context in his head, and feels smug about it somehow for a second. Eliot had, actually, told him...stuff.

Quentin mindlessly scrolls further, not fully reading as it transitions from the narration to a direct interview. Then his eyes alight on the word rehab in an answer attributed to Eliot, and he closes the tab so fast that he somehow exits the whole window instead.

Shit.

That was—weird of him to do, and to do and find something direly, deeply personal, and something he shouldn’t know about unless Eliot wanted to talk to him about it, and. Frozen in place in front of the screen, the idea occurs to him that maybe the word had a different context in the rest of the answer. But the thought to go back to, like, check makes more cold guilt creep up his stomach. And then he wonders if Julia had hit the same answer on the same interview earlier. Well.

Chatwin is still snoring in the next room. Quentin takes this as advice to cut his losses, and closes his laptop to get ready for bed.

*

Quentin hardly thinks about it twice, doubling back outside that next Saturday after taking Chatwin out and hanging his leash up on the hook by the door, on autopilot with the sheer rush of responsibility he feels remembering to check his mail. It’s a beautiful day outside, like, a specific subgenre of a beautiful day. Not quite gray, not quite sunny, air cold and clear. The mailboxes are back toward the street at the office of the complex. He sees the same two dogs he had seen out walking a few minutes ago on his walk over, and has mail to take back with him.

Quentin leafs through the envelopes as he goes up the stairs to his apartment door, and it’s bill, bill, bill, and then, in the sender address corner of yet another plain white envelope: DIRECT WHOLE LIFE INSURANCE — RETURN SERVICE REQUESTED. Quentin doesn’t miss the next stair, but it feels like he does in the pit of his stomach.

He opens the door to his apartment and lands on the couch. Chatwin’s reaction, even though he has one, doesn’t really register. It’s the envelope and the drop in his stomach. And then a horrific thought that makes him fumble for his phone in his pocket, with the other mail shocked out of his hands, falling onto the coffee table and the floor.

It’s October 12th. Fuck. “Fuck,” he says. “Fuck, fuck. Fuck.”

Chatwin whines and puts his face against Quentin’s shin, wet nose against jeans, wanting to help. Quentin knew the sequence of events: he was going to have to call his mom about whatever life insurance thing had cropped up. They would have an argument about how he had somehow fucked up. She would say something like, I can’t always be the bad guy, Quentin. And.

He scrubs a hand over his face, the gesture ending in his hair, and he goes all the way to almost pressing call on Julia’s number on his phone before he just, doesn’t.

When he does go to open the letter, it’s just, Jesus Christ: a Consumer Satisfaction Survey. He feels half-angry tears in his eyes almost in the same second, just how unfair it is that something like this can both bowl him over and make him realize he fucking forgot the anniversary of his father’s death. And it’s unfair that underneath that, he feels a little relieved it’s not anything he has to call his mom about. None of it is fair, it’s just worked itself into a smaller and quieter place over the last ten years, until something turns the volume back up and he’s freaking the fuck out alone in his apartment.

He presses his palms to his eyes and takes one unsteady breath, then another. The weight of it almost eases, and Chatwin has moved on to trying to splay up on to him where he’s sitting. Having an emotionally intelligent dog is sometimes really inconvenient; he’ll be freaked out trying to meet a work deadline, usually self-imposed, and Chatwin will do his very best to be on top of him in some way.

Right then, though, he goes, “Hey. Hey, you’re a good boy,” scratching Chatwin’s ears. Then he picks up his phone again.

“Quentin,” says Eliot on the third ring, with a lot of lightness. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Wow, he’s so weird, is what Quentin thinks, and he laughs a little, a telltale shaky-wet laugh that immediately changes Eliot’s tone: “Hey, what? Is something up?”

“Um,” says Quentin, eloquently. He can feel the thought that he always upends people’s lives to get them to take care of him pressing on the other side of the barrier in his head that therapy has mostly built. The Great Wall of Therapy. Old intrusive thoughts die hard, though, because that was definitely what kept him from calling Julia. “Sorry.” He sniffs hard. “Sorry, are you busy?”

The silence goes on an agonizing second too long, but all Eliot says is, “Not at all. It’s Saturday, Quentin.”

Quentin laughs a little again. “I thought, uh, Sunday was the day when everyone has nothing to do,” he says.

“Oh, I’m a single parent. We celebrate that on both days.”

Quentin laughs, really for real. “Right,” he says.

Eliot hums his assent from the other end of the line, but doesn’t say anything else to fill the silence. The immediate onslaught of feeling is bouncing back into nervous energy, and Quentin has to stand up to pace, saying, “Okay, I know—I don’t want to—” He didn’t know where he was going with that, except to somehow apologize for, like, himself. He sighs.

“I’m listening,” is what Eliot says. It’s almost embarrassingly reassuring, even though obviously he’s listening.

“Sure,” says Quentin, rubbing over his eyes again. “You didn’t really sign up for me to unload on you, or whatever, so sorry, but I just. Okay, Tuesday’s the anniversary of my dad’s death. Eight years. October 15th.”

There’s another short silence. “Quentin,” Eliot says then. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”

“I didn’t—” He shakes his head, not knowing how to explain, his voice hitching helplessly into tears. “I didn’t remember. I didn’t think about it, until—this fucking, fucking ad in the mail—Jesus. Like what does that even...” Say about me, the thought finishes in his head, too cruel to come out of his mouth.

“Are you at your place?” says Eliot. “Do you want company?”

“No, I—look, I didn’t mean to—”

“Q,” Eliot says. Quentin swallows.

If you drive, Eliot’s house isn’t too far from his complex. That’s not impressive because, like, Brakebills is the size of a fucking stamp. Obviously, Eliot drives. With the ease of, well, the parent of a small child, he talks Quentin into a plan in stages. First, it’s just that Eliot come over; then, breezily enough, it’s that he has Charlie and Margo is busy, so he’ll come over with Charlie. Finally, it’s that they should go back to Eliot’s house, right, that makes the most sense. (“Sure,” he’d said on the phone, feeling drained but in a better way than before. “Yeah.”)

Even just seeing Eliot’s car pulling up to dawns a weird calm inside him. It’s like how he would recognize the kind of car Julia used to drive years after she stopped driving it, a red compact car that made a very disconcerting squealing noise before it died unceremoniously, and on instinct it would make him smile.

“Hi,” he says to Eliot, not even feeling too sheepish, and he turns his head toward her to say, “Hi, Charlie.”

“Hi, Mr. Q,” she choruses. But he’s no longer novel enough to draw her attention away from a tablet in her hands. Should that concern him? He looks back at Eliot, smiling a little.

“Hi, Mr. Q,” Eliot echoes, and he’s smiling too, but a little, like, circumspectly.

Eliot’s pulled away from the building and has made it past a stop light before Quentin says what that’s reminded him of, but it still feels abrupt: “You know, I don’t think you’ve ever called me Q before,” he says.

Eliot blinks in response to this, sparing a sidelong glance.

“On the phone,” Quentin clarifies. “Uh, earlier.”

“Oh? No, I have,” Eliot says.

Quentin has already tried to think of another time he had. He hadn’t been able to. “Uh. Julia calls me Q,” he says, apropos of nothing.

“I’ve heard her call you Q,” Eliot says. How offhand he says it belies that he’s only met Julia the once, which is impressive, since he’s now apparently part of the social architecture of Quentin’s week. Then Eliot goes on, “It’s not the world’s least obvious nickname. Anyway, you’re Mr. Q. I guess I’m finally being disrespectful.”

Quentin smiles a little wider, watching Eliot’s amusement with himself in profile. But then the thought that strikes him next just comes out of his mouth: “My dad, uh, my dad called me Curly Q.”

The amusement drains from Eliot, and Quentin thinks, no with a certain childish tenor that surprises him inside his own head. “That’s very sweet,” Eliot says, like he’s weighing words carefully. It’s not something he’s felt like he has noticed Eliot doing before.

For some reason, Quentin laughs a little. “Yeah,” he says.

Quentin catches Eliot’s speculative sidelong glance. “Did you have curly hair as a kid?”

“What? Oh. No, no. I...wrote my letters weird.”

“You wrote your letters weird,” Eliot repeats, a question without the tone of a question.

“Yeah, uh, I used to write like—not so much anymore. It’s a little less chicken scratchy. But I spent a lot of time on my Q’s. Because I thought I’d be, I don’t know, a writer,” and his tone tilts into mild self-embarrassment or disbelief, “or whatever, I guess, and I’d have to, you know, sign autographs.”

He’s immediately nearly wincing, expecting Eliot to zero in on Quentin Coldwater, Non-Author, Presumptive Autographer, but Eliot just says, “So your Q’s were curly.”

Quentin can’t quite figure out—is he making fun of him? That would be the thing he would do, right?

“Yes?”

Eliot just kind of hums, and though it’s warm Quentin can’t discern whatever reaction he’s having, so he just looks out the window. “That’s nice,” Eliot says after a second, like he realizes he should have followed up. It’s very sincere.

“Yeah,” Quentin says again. “My dad was…” He sighs. He shouldn’t wring himself out while they’re still fucking driving over to Eliot’s house, which feels like another in a litany of leftover thoughts from an earlier version of himself. “Fuck, I don’t know, he was...he had cancer. Like, it wasn’t a surprise, when it happened, but it was, it wasn’t when he should have died, and he was a good guy. I guess that’s the big thing, right. He was a really good guy.”

Eliot nods. The rest of the car ride isn’t quite silent, but Quentin feels dammed back up, at least for right now. When they get out of the car and Eliot gets Charlie out of the backseat, she has telltale tablet-induced tired eyes that he’s used to seeing in his kids after they choose-their-own-activity too hard.

Eliot catches his eye, where he’s lingering at that passenger side door to wait for them to file into the house, and he mouths to Quentin: Nap. Charlie yawns visibly even though she’s pressed into Eliot’s shoulder, the iPad navigated between their two bodies still in her hands, and Quentin grins.

Quentin shuffles into the house after him as Eliot goes upstairs swiftly on the edges of Charlie beginning to lodge her now-familiar-to-him complaint, “I’m not tired,” and then he doesn’t hear even her soft, once-removed voice again before Eliot comes back down. Quentin sits on the couch like he’s there all the time, which is weird to realize. Uh. Is he here all the time? He might be here all the time.

“Okay,” Eliot starts. “Are you, like, a salty or sweet comfort food person?”

“Um,” Quentin says. He feels like he must be going pink with the awareness of being cared for, the warmth of it spreading like it’s physical. “Either...or? I don’t know if I’m picky.”

“That seems like a lie,” says Eliot, without any significant lingering on the point in his tone, but Quentin’s face flattens anyway as he disappears into the kitchen. He reappears with a little plastic bag held closed with a clip.

“Can I interest you in chocolate chips?” he asks.

“What the hell, yes,” says Quentin. Eliot’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Point, me.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” says Eliot, sounding weirdly serene as he sits next to him, depositing the clip on the coffee table. Quentin’s eyes narrow at him, but then he’s eating a whole fistful of chocolate chips, so.

Quentin somehow migrates to the floor, his legs under the coffee table, Eliot sprawled more comprehensively to the side of him on the couch. They’re watching a block of reruns of like, one of those reality shows. You know, one of those. They all live in L.A. or something and maybe work at a restaurant. Quentin is brutally fascinated.

“How are these people real,” he says. They’re only on a second episode.

“Oh, sweetie,” says Eliot. Quentin looks back at him and understands his tone only when he sees his face, and again, his own expression goes flat, but he takes more chocolate from the bag in Eliot’s outstretched hand.

What he likes about spending time with Eliot is the unhurried quality of every interaction, even when the limitations on their time are very real and present. Of course, his biggest responsibilities are Chatwin and the precise amount of sleep he aims for getting each night so that he’s not miserable, and stuff to do for his job. But it’s that same quality, right, that makes Eliot a balm just then. He’s not looking for solutions, like Julia would be. They’re just together.

Eliot orders them pizza, and when Charlie is woken up they need to switch to something more Charlie-appropriate, even though she’s still sleepy-eyed when she sits on the other side of where Quentin would be if he were up on the couch. So they’re watching Prisoner of Azkaban on one of the cable channels.

“Do you want something else to drink?” Eliot asks him, at some point later. Charlie had filled up on the cheese pizza ordered for her and also, um, Quentin, and was now asleep in her spot. He feels Harry Potter-marathon glazed over. It’s not that late; Charlie hadn’t woken up for too long.

“Sure,” Quentin says, stretching his back out. Eliot brings him a beer out of the kitchen; there’s a perfectly recognizable, reasonably-priced label on the bottle. Quentin didn’t think to be anxious about this until Eliot puts it in his hands, and then he’s kind of bemused.

He doesn’t have a drink for himself, Quentin notices after a beat, other than their glasses of water. “This not up to your standards?” he asks, lifting his bottle.

Eliot’s brows lift, then he seems to twig on. “Oh,” he says, “no, I just don’t drink.”

“Oh,” says Quentin, taken aback. And then, feeling his face go hot, he remembers the interview answer with rehab. Why is he still such a dumbass? But he doesn’t know what to say, what he should ask, even though he almost wants to blurt out, I googled you to just get it over with and stop feeling the internal grinding he is remembering now to feel.

“That’s one of three of Margo’s beers from the last time she was over,” Eliot says, apparently ignorant of Quentin’s entire internal fucking situation, sounding quite fond. “You know, she got a lot of poor lifelong habits from the sorority system.”

“Uh-huh,” Quentin says, relaxing into it with a smile. And Eliot smiles back at him, pulling his legs up on the couch in an easy, unguarded way that makes Quentin suddenly aware of how many hours he’s spent at Eliot’s house this week. The thought makes him look away from Eliot.

“Thanks,” Quentin says, “for like...babysitting me.”

Eliot looks at him levelly. “Okay,” he says. “Are you a child?”

Quentin feels like that’s a trick question. “No?”

“And am I being paid per hour?”

This makes Quentin feel extremely like being a shit, and it must show on his face, but, “No.”

“Well.” Eliot picks up his water glass, raising it in a salute to Quentin as he leans back. Quentin smiles, again, and raises his beer back to him. “Pretty sure this is just what tired adults do with their time,” Eliot adds, not sounding un-tired as he says it.

Quentin’s still smiling. “Guess so,” he says. “I’m definitely, uh, tired.” Eliot hums, like that much is clear, which is, he’s a shit. Quentin just shakes his head.

He heaves himself to his feet to get himself another beer when Eliot offers. It seems like Margo’s the type of person who would be protective over anything that she expects to be hers in the house, but he figures Eliot would be the expert there, so. Charlie wakes and instead of carrying her, she zombies up the stairs with Eliot trailing behind her. A few moments later, he hears her go, “But dad, Mr. Q is here,” just a little louder than the soft fuzz of Eliot’s voice. He smiles to himself.

By the time he finishes that third beer and feels kind of floaty. He’s never been the most unlightweight, and now his instances of drinking are more and more seldom in deference to SSRIs, so it makes sense that he’s kind of detaching from his body right now. It’s at a juncture that he realizes this that Eliot comes back from the kitchen, probably with more water or something, he’s really not keeping track now, and looks down at him with a worried brow.

“Okay,” says Eliot, like they’d already argued about it, “so you’re definitely sleeping here?”

“What,” says Quentin, “no,” and then he tries to stand up, which is harder than anticipated. “I gotta—Chatwin—”

“I’ll kick you out bright and early,” Eliot says, with a concillatory tone that makes Quentin think: no fucking way will that happen.

“I’ll get a cab, Eliot,” he says, and he’s able to get to his feet this time, even though Eliot is weirdly in front of him, at a fussing arms’ length. “I’m, no, it’s fine.”

“A cab? Honey. Are you so drunk you think we’re in New York?”

Quentin deflates enough that he kind of woozes, and Eliot steadies him, one hand on his shoulder and the other on his elbow.

“Uh-huh,” Eliot says, “we’re getting you upstairs while you’ve still got, let’s say, half of your faculties.”

He wants to protest, but as they navigate to the stairs, it turns out that half was kind of a generous estimation. Stairs seem like they were invented by a really dumb person, probably, except Quentin is apparently dumber than that person because they’re really hard suddenly. Quentin is distracted by the familiar pathetic feeling of needing this much help that he kind of doesn’t think to question why they would be going upstairs until they get to a bedroom and he realizes Eliot is going to deposit him in what must be his own bed, stopping only to fumble the switch on a bedside lamp.

It feels like the alarm that goes off in his head must be audible. He’s giving him the bed.

“Wait,” Quentin says, “wait, wait, hey, I don’t, I’m fine on the couch, Eliot, come on,” and then he lands on the bed on his side, with a little groan, body traitorously drawn to a soft surface, his head landing on a pillow. He doesn’t hear Eliot’s response if he has one. He feels his own shoes pulled off—was he still wearing shoes, okay, that’s kind of rude—and then he hears when the bed shifts, making him half-roll over from where he’d been facing away to see that Eliot is sitting next to him, leaned in with a palm flat on the bed, looking down at him with maybe amusement.

Honestly, what a shithead.

“Hey. I’m not taking your bed,” he says, even though he’s physically laying on it, which he realizes in a kind-of-removed way is fucking stupid.

“You’re welcome,” says Eliot. “I could sleep with Charlie, but she’s a kicker. Anyway, there’s another full bedroom. It’s Margo’s, when she stays.”

Quentin blinks up at him, a little blearily. So they don’t—share—what. The idea doesn’t actually really make sense, but the reverse would also not make much sense, so?

“What is up with you guys,” he says, without thinking about it, and he’s only a little surprised when Eliot laughs.

“Well, if you have to ask,” Eliot says, seeming to feel very pleased with himself. Quentin groans, again, and rolls his eyes up to the ceiling. But Eliot, next to him, goes silent, and is just patient-faced when Quentin looks back.

“What?” Quentin asks.

Eliot’s head tilts. “Just wondering if putting you in the bathtub would be too much of a drowning risk,” he says.

Quentin sighs, and laughs a little then, at himself. Eliot seems gently surprised at that reaction, but his grin goes wide. And that only makes Quentin feel a weird, gooey warmth for a second before the smile slips off of his face, replaced by whatever the fuck it is that he’s feeling instead now, because.

“My dad would’ve liked you,” Quentin says, not knowing why he has to say it. “Like...you’re smart the way he would have liked a lot, and you’re, you’re funny in this—he would have loved you. I think that was what he liked most about my mom. That she’s funny. I don’t know, by the time I really remember the two of them interacting, they—” He presses the heels of his hands against his eyes. “God, they just fucking hated each other.”

His dad dying had thrown into sharp relief every fight he’d overheard, every Oh, come on, Ted that was met with an I’m trying the best I can, even after the divorce. There was that and his mother’s, whatever, probably complicated grief manifesting in how angry at him she was right after the funeral, when the life insurance money that had started today’s panic attack was still being handled. But that was just a distraction, right, from his own guilt when he thought about every fight he’d had with his dad, the amount of time when he was a teenager and especially early in college that it felt like they were on either sides of a wall. It’s easy to see now that his dad was always trying to find windows to look in. They had made a really good team, at the end.

“Hey,” says Eliot, and before he can react to that Eliot takes for one of his wrists, easing a hand away from his face. He looks concerned, more than anything.

It makes Quentin laugh at himself again, a little, before he presses his mouth. He’s still kind of crying; the line between crying and not-crying gets blurry for him sometimes. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry, I’m not usually, I’m not usually like this.”

“Like what?” Eliot says.

That feels like a key going into Quentin and unlocking, and he can let out a breath he suddenly feels like he’d held for days. Eliot is still sitting up and watching him, but he reclines then, settling up against the headboard, his hands folding in his lap. Quentin’s own breathing rattles his head, in and out.

“I just hope he knows, you know,” says Quentin. “That I...God, I just—we were really good at the end, and I knew it was coming, but it still feels like—I remember every fucking time I was a shit to him, all of the shit I made him do to, to take care of me. I hope he knows—knew.” His eyes are wet again. “He’s, he was a good dad. And a good person.”

Eliot is silent, for a second. “It sounds like it,” he says. “I’m sorry, Quentin.”

Quentin just hears his own breathing again, for a few moments that don’t stretch so awkwardly. He scrubs a hand over his face and turns, opening his eyes up to the ceiling.

“I think…” Eliot starts, and then stops. Quentin feels absurdly reoriented to whatever he’s about to say, with the newfound awareness that Eliot has been kind of, what, cagey? If he thinks too hard about that when he just cried in Eliot’s bedroom, it would be so fucking embarrassing, but. Eliot goes on, “It’s hard. You know. Unfinished business.”

Quentin just looks at him, swallowing, the moment turned fragile. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah.”

He watches, some part of him fascinated by the smallest changes in Eliot’s face, like when he licks his lips then, looking down. “I think about that with my brother.”

Quentin doesn’t say anything, sure anything that comes out of his mouth would be an interruption, but that makes Eliot look at him. And he smiles, unexpectedly, not at all grim. “But we’re talking about you. Are you waiting for me to ugly cry, too?” His tone is kind.

Quentin shakes his head, grinning, somehow. “No, I—” He presses his hand over his face again. He’s a little bleary-eyed and his face feels swollen, like he had fit a day’s worth of crying into the last fifteen minutes. “I don’t know, Eliot. Let’s stop trying to apologize to each other for just...fucking saying things.”

Eliot is suddenly mystified. “Did I do that?”

“I don’t know,” Quentin says. “Maybe. Yeah? I think?”

“Huh,” Eliot says. He looks up, apparently at the ceiling. Quentin looks up at him, until he meets his eyes again. Then: “My brother, James, Charlie’s father, I’ve mentioned. He’s dead. What I’m about to say sounds like especially low-rent soap opera dialogue so I’ll just say it: both my brother and his wife died in a car crash. Drunk driver. He survived, of course.”

Jesus Christ. Quentin swallows, just looking up at him, and Eliot’s response is a kind of tight smile.

“See, it’s hard to smalltalk about it. Death really sucks all the air out of a room.”

“Yeah,” Quentin agrees, after a second. “Yeah, that’s, that’s one thing that happens.” Sorry feels inadequate, even though Eliot saying it just moments ago had been good enough.

Eliot, then, just nods a little. Quentin’s eyes are heavy, but he ignores it, because it still feels very important to watch him. “You said eight years with your dad, yeah?” Quentin nods, and Eliot goes on, “So I can’t even pull the experience card and tell you about how time heals all wounds, it gets better, yada yada. This wasn’t that long ago. But I don’t even think that it does get better. Changes, maybe.”

“Yeah, it does,” Quentin agrees. “It changes a lot.”

They’re both quiet then. Eliot seems to be considering something, looking down at him. The one light from the bedside table and the overhead glow cast in from the hallway combined are still dim, yellowed and casting comforting shadows. Falling asleep here seems less and less bad.

“I think you should tell me something else about your dad,” Eliot says, after a second. Quentin blinks at him, still bleary.

“Um,” he says. And then he smiles, a little. “Okay. He used to build model planes?” Eliot laughs a little, and Quentin laughs, too. “He tried to get me into it, but I’m not, I’m a different kind of nerd.”

Eliot tut, tut, tuts. “Ah, your nerd genres,” he says, and Quentin is grinning in a way that must be really dumb. But he’s surprised when Eliot goes on, “My brother was military. Fucked off to the army right at 18, probably would have done it at exactly midnight if he could have. He was five years older than me.”

And like this, they trade facts—Eliot’s brother married his high school sweetheart; Quentin’s parents met in college, to much worse apparent results. Eliot’s brother liked jazz, like “weird, obscure jazz,” Eliot says, apparently still flummoxed by it; Quentin’s dad listened to Simon and Garfunkel and Steely Dan. Eliot’s brother owned every National Lampoon movie, which seems to be why Eliot was confused about the jazz; Quentin’s dad was still rereading the same decimated Raymond Chandler paperbacks when he was in chemo. Eliot’s voice gets softer and softer, taking on the fuzzy quality of the low light in the room as they trail comfortably off-topic after a while, and Quentin is not sure when he falls asleep.

*

Eliot almost gets away with it.

His eyes open at a weekday-adjacent time, watery sun just peeking through the windows. Of course, again, you don’t get to sleep in with a little kid, is what he’s figured out, but it still feels disagreeable out of habit. The awareness dawns that there’s a bad crick in his back. His body is aging at quadruple speed, probably, he’s fucking decrepit, and like a louche oversexed twenty-year-old he’d fallen asleep oddly, pulled up on a pillow up against the headboard, and Quentin is in his bed.

At some point during the night, Quentin had taken a very much decorative blanket that was on the end of the bed and cocooned himself in it. He’s an extremely, excessively chaste amount of space away from Eliot, like he was trying to get somewhere else in his sleep, rolled over away from him.

There’s no drunk-and-sleepy debauched filtering back of memories, which, you know, he’s not experienced anyway for a few years now. No, it’s clean and clear: he and Quentin had fallen asleep talking. Thinking the words nothing happened in a sequence doesn’t feel relevant to the actual chain of events that led to Quentin trying to roll himself into a ball on the other side of his bed. Everything had been shockingly unsexy.

But he still draws himself up from the bed like he’s defusing a bomb, through a wince for his poor aged back, even though Quentin doesn’t stir. The rise and fall of his breathing is too subtle to not make Eliot watch for it for longer than required.

Required? Yes.

He’d left his bedroom door open, and then a sort of drunk-filter-adjacent series of thoughts does occur to him. His kid’s teacher had fallen asleep with him in his bed, and it was the very same Charlie who would any moment now bounce in to see if he was awake while showily acting like she’s being quiet. (Incidentally, she would not dare to pull such a routine with Margo.) The very same Charlie would then see her teacher in dad’s bed. The endless amount of things she could then say about it at school, probably right when Quentin would be thinking he was in the clear, would be ridiculous.

“Well,” he announces, his only audience just softly breathing. “Right.” He closes the bedroom door, to at least delay the possibility of this scenario.

In his sleep, Quentin looks younger, boyish. What his face does when he’s awake makes him look...something. Worried? Worried is what he decides when he shakes Quentin’s shoulder, saying, “Quentin, hey, rise and shine,” and a perfect crease immediately forms between Quentin’s brows the closer he gets to opening his eyes. Then he groans, making to turn over, and Eliot feels essentially like he’s just done something mean to a puppy.

Oh, no.

“Quentin,” he repeats, still shaking his shoulder, “hey, Q,” and finally, finally Quentin opens his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, but he does pull himself lumberingly up in the bed, the blanket still on him like he’d fastened it to himself. If he’s surprised by anything that’s happening, it doesn’t show, but he still seems like eighty-five percent of the way asleep, so. Or just hungover. A horrific three-beer hangover.

“Okay, what’s the story, morning glory? Food and coffee?”

“No. No, El,” Quentin says, his voice sleep fuzzy, and he scrubs a hand over his face. “I just, I’ll get myself home—”

Eliot interrupts, disbelieving, “Can you, like, stand?”

Quentin blinks at him, his mouth tugged down, for a second maybe the most put-upon anyone has ever been. Eliot takes that as an answer that suits him.

“Bathroom?” Quentin asks, and Eliot directs.

“You can shower, if you want,” Eliot says after him, and he has to take Quentin’s incoherent response as demurring. Quentin next asks for Advil.

There’s really no delicate way to put it, so as Quentin takes the bottle from him, Eliot says, “So how about we go downstairs now, so my kid doesn’t ask a lot of questions about us both being in my bedroom?”

Quentin blinks at him. That seems to wake him up, a little.

Eliot changes out of yesterday’s clothes into today’s pajamas before he goes down after Quentin, who’s sitting at the table with his borrowed Advil and a glass of water he had managed to get for himself. His hair is very cutely rumpled, holding the shape of a pillow in it. Eliot is obscurely glad he didn’t try to fix it in the bathroom.

Upstairs, as if on cue, he hears a door open, and dramatic little feet, then another door open, presumably his own, then more little feet bounding down the stairs.

“Daddy!” Charlie crows, and he picks her up to swing her when she jumps at him, like they had been tragically parted for months when he was presumed lost at sea instead of her going to sleep at a reasonable time.

“How did you sleep, pumpkin?” he asks her while she’s up in his arms, and waiting for her to notice Mr. Q on her own. But as they do their morning back-and-forth, after she hops down, she doesn’t seem to register his presence.

To the contrary, she says as she sits at the table, “Morning, Mr. Q,” but not with any particular curiosity. Eliot’s brows raise, not immediately trying to do an adult exchanging of glances with Quentin, whose ken that might be above at the moment anyway. But it works itself backwards quickly enough in his mind: Charlie literally sees Quentin nearly every day of the week, now, and Margo comes and goes from the house all the time. From there this apparently isn’t a stretch.

It seems like a morning that calls for pancakes. Charlie eats half a banana while she waits, watching him with exacting attention and bouncing around the kitchen, and Quentin continues to be a mix of the end of a college video on the dangers of drinking and glum Charlie Brown. Quentin gets less monosyllabic after they eat, and he drinks the coffee Eliot makes so quickly that he can’t possibly have tasted it.

“Oh, shit,” Quentin says, distractedly, not seeming to think if Charlie might be in earshot (which she’s not, she’s in the bathroom), “my meds.”

Eliot, doing dishes now, turns his head toward him. He opens his mouth, closes it. “Do you need something?” he asks, mostly to remind Quentin that he can hear him.

“Oh,” says Quentin, re-startled. “No—I, it’s fine. I need to get back soon, Chatwin is, he’s been inside forever.”

Eliot does not ask a followup question. He gets Quentin to agree to being dropped off—it’s incredible that he pretends that whatever combination of bus and walking he uses in Brakebills isn’t a very specific choice. Charlie continues to be unperturbed by the presence of her teacher in her weekend morning, and is still in her pajamas doing a large foam puzzle at the table with help from Quentin as Eliot finishes cleaning the kitchen.

So, to stress, Eliot almost gets away with it. And then there’s the sound of a key in the front door.

Margo pushes in the door with her hip, carrying grocery bags and a fairly characteristic duffel, and is midway through calling out like they might be upstairs, “Hey—” when he sees her eyes stop at Quentin, clearly in yesterday’s clothes, at the table with Charlie.

Her mouth is open for a second longer, and then she drops her things unceremoniously only to snap right up, very bright, “Mr. Q. If this isn’t a cute little Sunday morning plot twist.” She’s grinning. Wide.

“Um,” Quentin says.

Eliot feels like pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hi, Bambi,” he says.

“Um,” Quentin says again. And then, very naturally and normally (no, not at all), he gets to his feet. Not to be outdone, Charlie is on her feet, too, and gloms on to Margo. Margo holds her one-handed, multitasking in her observing smugness. Quentin goes on, “Sorry, I was about to—”

“Leave for the first time in 24 hours?” Margo says. Eliot, to himself, winces. Charlie is maybe saying “Margodad” inaudibly pressed into her side.

“Q, I’ll drop you,” he says, ignoring whatever brand of look Margo gives him.

“No, it’s fine, Eliot, really don’t worry about it,” Quentin says, which is. Is he just going to leave? Quentin finds some things he’d taken out of his pocket and left on the coffee table as Margo watches him like the cat that ate the canary, hands on her hips. “I’ll call you—later.”

What an un-incriminating, very neutral thing to say as you’re leaving, is what Eliot thinks. Charlie, blissfully six years old and not understanding anything, happily says, “bye, Mr. Q” first, but Eliot barely gets out his “Goodbye, Quentin” as Margo choruses, with great implication, “See you later” before Quentin is gone, like he just remembered he left the stove on but couldn’t quite work his limbs about it.

Margo looks after him for a second, then turns to Eliot, thrilled. “Really,” she says, with the exact, no, the exact tone of a dad realizing his son had just lost his virginity in a very gross 90s comedy. “Finally?”

“If I say it’s not what it looks like,” Eliot says, “it sounds like it’s what it looks like.”

“So you didn’t,” and Margo seamlessly covers Charlie’s ears, “rock that man’s G-rated world?” Eliot takes a beat, then just grins at her, a little tightly. Margo narrows her eyes at him.

“Honey,” she says, bending down to Charlie-height, which isn’t far because Bambi is tiny, “can you go upstairs while your dad and I talk? I’ll be up to give you a weekend bath?”

Charlie goes, crowing about how she wants the bubble bath, while Eliot sighs. He should have made her stay downstairs. A few minutes and another cup of coffee for him later, sitting down in the living room, Margo is gaping at him.

“You’re seriously telling me he literally slept in your bed with you and you just fuckin’ talked?

He smiles, a little. “We just fuckin’ talked,” he confirms. “I don’t know, Margo. It was nice.” Saying that out loud feels like putting his spine on display, but okay. He adds, “We’re friends. We talked. It was late, we fell asleep.”

“Christ, what are you guys, in high school?”

Eliot pretends to consider this. “I don’t think so. Not enough trauma,” he decides.

Margo shakes her head. “You know, if he fucks you over, Charlie’s gonna be down a teacher,” she says.

He smiles wider. “And she’ll be heartbroken,” he says, with just a hint of regret.

And then, after that, Eliot doesn’t further consider the idea that if something went wrong between the two of them, it could possibly be Quentin’s fault.

*

In the two weeks leading up to Halloween, the Kindergarten hallway is suddenly wall-to-wall pumpkins, like a dam was suddenly unblocked and a friendly orange flood had rushed out in the school. One day, Quentin passes Mr. Rafe whistling and bedecking a wall with yet more pumpkins and safe-but-spooky things like little cutout spiders, silhouettes of witches flying on brooms, a papier-mâché orb for a harvest moon.

Halloween became exponentially more exciting when your job involved teaching kids about the world. At least, that was true for Quentin, whose Halloweens had previously peaked in the year when he had convinced Julia to trick-or-treat with him even though they were objectively way too old and not in the same social sphere as the dudes in Anime Club who happily collected their candy yearly until everyone graduated. From around that point on it had been years of uncomfortable, roped-along partying, with breakthrough memories of embarrassment and feeling like the social equivalent of a paperweight.

But now Halloween is a bookmark in his year, and specifically the school year. It’s a sizable notch toward Thanksgiving and then the long winter break, and it’s also something of the event that he remembers it being as a kid. It also means the weather outside has settled into a decisive autumn chill. He doesn’t have to feel indecisive about his jacket choices before he walks Chatwin, out through gold-and-red-leaved trees in crisp early mornings. Piles of those leaves get stirred up by the wind, which he’s pretty sure he smells being illegally burned on the air.

The week of, he does a lot of different morning circle talks that involve witches, brushing your teeth (you know, candy), crossing the street. This year, he’s had the kids work toward a specifically-themed Halloween party by earning little ghost stickers in their folders, and his announcement that everyone had earned enough was met with unremitted chaos.

He forgets that he had volunteered to bring chips for the staff party until Penny goes, “Hey man, did you get your stuff?”

Quentin still doesn’t get it, actually. He had been absorbed in the luxury of having a teacher’s lounge lunch instead of working on stuff while, like, half-eating his microwave burrito. “What? Stuff?”

Penny laughs at him. “Sorry. I mean, for the party,” he said. “I still have to do something about my, uh...desserts. I think I said desserts.”

Quentin blinks up at him. “Oh,” he says, without thinking. The party is tomorrow. “Shit.”

“O-kay,” Penny goes, clearly very amused, “glad I said something. You’re welcome, Coldwater.” Shortly after that he kind of moseys out of the teacher’s lounge, and something about the whole interaction was both unfair and embarrassing.

But then Quentin remembers to check the fucking Google spreadsheet where everyone had signed up for party contributions, and he nearly drops his phone in the process.

So, he leaves after the last round of car-riders to pick up chips at the closest grocery store and then just walks straight back to school in the fading late afternoon, feeling very annoyed with himself. But he has extra work to do on the room, anyway, obviously. Their party will be ghost-themed. He’s gotten a lot of fake cobwebs and ghost cutouts, and there’s going to be pizza, after carefully-sought responses on a Google form and a few times by phone to parents. A few of them are going to bring treats in. The kids will be uncontrollable after lunch, but hey, they would be anyway. Though he always thinks he’s going to get a new costume, Quentin is Mr. Rogers for the fifth year running, because he can always find that red sweater, even though the kids don’t usually get it.

Notably, Charlie comes in later than usual. He thinks about it in passing when Alex is the first one in (he asks for a high five now, after several weeks of apparent suspicion edging on disdain for Quentin; he’s Optimus Prime, so Quentin high-fives Optimus Prime). When she appears at the end of the hallway as he’s waiting on the door, just after another Elsa had materialized, she’s wearing all-black and carrying something very unwieldy and piled-high for her size. Immediately, Quentin is suspicious.

What she’s carrying, with a determined, oblivious seriousness that reminds him of her dad, turns out to be several tupperwares. She’s wearing fuzzy black triangle ears that stick straight up out of her curls and costume-set black lipstick that’s already smudged at one corner. “Can I go put these down and then handshake dance,” she asks, very soberly.

“No, Charlie, I got it,” he says, smiling, easing them from her hands. “What are all of these?”

“There’s a note,” she says. “Daddy said to say to you there are no allergies in them, and daddy wrote a note to you.”

Oh. Food. Duh. But Eliot hadn’t signed up or said anything to him the like—three times? Again? Three times they had seen each other this week. The thought is in his head for seconds before it makes complete sense, of course Eliot would do this, but thinking that with the exact sense of familiarity and fondness he does takes him aback. They like, just met. A month ago. Two months ago? It had been two months. Right. Time is linear. What is happening.

Charlie is still just standing there, blinking up at him. “Um, sorry, okay—” And he laughs a little before he doubles back in the room to set things on his desk. “What’s your costume, Charlie?” he asks, crouching back in front of her.

She wordlessly fully lifts her arms, revealing silky, tiny batwings. “I’m a bat,” she says, and then she tries to hiss, the sound making it apparent she’s due to lose a tooth.

Quentin, well, nearly fully dies, but he laughs and just tickles her for it, complimenting her costume like he does everyone else’s as her giggles die down. He can’t play favorites.

When he goes back to the tupperware and the other snacks parents had dropped off as Connie tags him out for morning circle, he sees the note Charlie had mentioned. It says:

Q,

They’re cupcakes. Surprise. Enjoy.

Your acquaintance,

Eliot

P.S.. No nuts but they’re not gluten/dairy-free, I have principles.

And then when he popped open the containers, well, “cupcakes” turned out to be kind of an understatement. They were full-size and meticulously-decorated, like they were about to be judged on one of the Food Network shows Julia used to turn on in the background when they were in high school while she did homework in his living room. There were beautiful icing cobwebs, cauldrons, a half-moon and stars, in oranges, yellows, dark purples and greens. Oh my god. He looks up at his own decor near the table where the food would be, and suddenly it seemed kind of shoddy and half-hearted. The end result of the implacable mixture of emotions is him frowning, but somehow like, in a good way? He doesn’t even know.

For their lunch party, pizza is evenly-distributed, but as soon as it is, most of the kids have already fully drunk their little paper cups of fruit punch. Then they get let loose in single-file order on the different snacks—mostly the cupcakes, and little rice krispie things someone else had made, some pretzels. He tries, in vain, to keep track. But Charlie comes up to him, very serious again, and says, “Mr. Q, this cupcake is for you.”

She’s holding out a cupcake on a plate that’s topped with a very ornate black flower and like, oh my god, what, sparkles. It’s kind of adult-aesthetic, and it looks too pretty to eat; he hadn’t noticed it even when he was just kind of standing there shocked about the pastry competition entry in his classroom.

“Oh, great, thanks, Charlie,” he says, “I’ll get one in a second—”

“It’s your cupcake,” she repeats, with the tone of an eye-roll, and she gives the plate to him because he has no choice but to take it or let it fall to the ground. And, well, then he’s standing there holding a very nice cupcake.

He looks down at it, wondering if Eliot had assigned him a cupcake. No. Maybe? What.

The day is a long one because there’s the party later—it always starts at a weird time, 4:45 just after school, and ends early but after there’s been just enough time for alcohol to surreptitiously appear, because a lot of the teachers are parents who have to go home to take their kids out for the actual fun they want to have depending on when Halloween falls. Presumably, parents who aren’t teachers might also have other Halloween plans. This is, again, not an experience Quentin particularly relates to, but hey. He remembered the soda and chips.

His room is a mess at the end of the day, and he might be annoyed that he has car ride duty except car ride duty is kind of the best when the kids have extra reason to want to go home. A lot of Elsas are positively jumping up and down in line, which he’s supposed to discourage, and he does, but it makes him smile. Charlie is rocking hand-in-hand with Emma K., who is in a competitively adorable ladybug costume. When the car for her has fully rounded the line, Quentin had long-since noticed it was Eliot’s.

“Happy Halloween,” says Eliot, directing it to him even as Charlie is exclaiming near-nonsense as he picks her up, and then he swings her and laughs. “How did the Ghoul Gala go?”

Eliot has done weird gestures enough times (like, twice?) that Quentin recognizes he’s doing this thing where he doesn’t refer to it, but the weird gesture is very present in the conversation. Quentin kind of eyes him, as he loads his daughter into the backseat, putting his hands in his pockets.

“I think everyone had fun,” he hedges. “You know, we had pizza, and, uh, pretty good cupcakes…”

That gets Eliot to full-on look at him, pausing in the middle of buckling Charlie in. “Pretty good?” he says.

Quentin grins wide. “Well, I didn’t have any, you know, notice, so no one could eat any—”

“We ate the cupcakes!” Charlie bursts in, fully ratting him out with a tone of concern. Quentin opens his mouth but doesn’t have a followup and Eliot looks from him to Charlie, his brows fake-furrowing.

“Are you saying Mr. Q is lying?” he asks her.

“No, we ate the cupcakes,” she says, like that doesn’t count as a lie. Quentin smiles to himself right before Eliot looks back at him, and then Quentin exaggerates his own sheepishness, his mouth pulling down.

Eliot is really smiling. “Pretty good,” he repeats, like he’ll remember that for the rest of his life. “I’ll have you know I studied in Paris.”

“Oh,” says Quentin, waiting for him to finish his bit.

“Yes. I studied drinking a lot. For like, two days.” And Quentin can feel his own face light up; he has to look away, for a second.

“Mr. Waugh,” he says, “sorry, but we really need to move through the line as quickly as possible.”

Eliot blinks at him, and, plainly scandalized, starts to open his mouth before he casts a glance at the line of bobbing up-and-down children and also another teacher’s assistant toward the back. He seems to think better of whatever he was going to say, his mouth closing, and then he slides Charlie’s door closed. “Nice to see you, Mr. Q,” he says, instead.

After the last of the car riders are off, when he goes back to his room, he finds Connie gathering up the tupperware Eliot’s cupcakes had been in from the sink, on the finishing touches of clearing up the room. “Hey, Quentin,” she says, bright and casual like she hasn’t just effortlessly done his job better than he has. She’s wearing a Princess Peach costume, pink jeans and a shirt with a wig and crown. “Are you staying for the staff party?”

Well, yeah.

They walk over to the auditorium, which is mostly now the gym since it’s the school year, and it’s still in that awkward space of being-set-up that staff parties always are, no matter where you work, when you first get there. Someone set up a skeleton like it’s at the microphone on the stage; fine, Quentin thinks.

There’s only a hodgepodge of the Google spreadsheet-promised refreshments on the table at the opposite side of the room now, but people are already talking to each other. Lots of teachers are here already, most in costume. He first sees Penny and the gym teacher—he can’t quite remember her name because he never sees her, and also, he always kind of gets the impression he’s done something to offend her—hovering at the table, figuring out a set of speakers. In the next moment, the speakers suddenly blare The Monster Mash. Penny and the gym teacher both crack up, and turn and actually high-five each other? Quentin feels like he is anthropologically observing a different species.

“Hey, Kady!” Connie just says, like a normal person, waving. Kady, that’s totally her name, turns around and waves back, and so does Penny. Quentin realizes it’s not just a wave, it’s like a combination come-here gesture. Well, he has to put down the stuff. But.

“How was Micah today?” says Connie first to Penny, which Quentin catches trailing after her. Micah is a kid a grade up, and Quentin is very familiar with him.

And so, like at most faculty events, they all get into swapping recent kid war stories. Except Quentin is distracted trying to figure out what Penny is supposed to be; he’s wearing a potentially swashbuckling button-up and a long brocade jacket. He looks so good that Quentin abruptly remembers he makes him nervous, and he completely misses whatever it is that Penny actually says to him in the next moment.

“Huh?” says Quentin’s 3.6 unweighted undergrad GPA.

“I said, how’s Charlie Waugh doing in your class now, man?” says Penny. They’d talked about Charlie’s behaviors the day that tantrum happened. That seemed like a long time ago now.

“Oh, she’s doing great,” he says. “I met with her dad—he’s a really—” And Quentin, for a moment that seems to expand but only in his head, has no idea how to describe Eliot. “He’s been really willing to work with me,” is what he says.

Penny seems to consider this. “Nice,” he says. “That’s rare.” Kady snorts. She’s fairly monosyllabic.

He shakes his head. “I’ve been reading your reports on her in music, she’s been doing awesome, right?”

“Oh, she’s a super cool kid,” Penny agrees. “But she was never really a problem for me. You know, for the record.” He holds his hands up, apparently helpless at his own skills, and Quentin grins.

“But they get to bang on drums with you,” Connie says. “That’s behavioral cheating.” Quentin gestures at her, like, hey, and Penny laughs. At some point, Kady seems to not exactly lose interest but not exactly be paying attention, and she touches Penny’s arm and he nods after her in some unspoken exchange before she goes to talk to Mr. Rafe.

The thronging is temporarily disrupted when Principal Fogg calls to order by tapping on a plastic glass—it’s incredibly ineffective, and yet somehow people pick up on it—and gives a really weird speech that Quentin will not remember the finer details of later. Fogg had unceremoniously put out the wine pretty early. Just after he trails off in his speech, Connie joins two of the other assistants who already seem pretty wined up.

Penny, who had also drifted off, comes back to put a plastic glass of it in his hand. “Fogg really held out for a long time this year,” he deadpans. Quentin just grins and shrugs, and takes a sip.

Then he makes a face. “Ugh.”

Penny gives him a look like he’s kidding. “Wine snob, huh?”

“No,” he says, bothered, even though now technically he’d had a lot of hundred-dollar-plus wine. Technically. But wine is a binary proposition to him: it tastes either okay or like shit. “This is also, like, watery.”

“Yeah, it is. No idea how Fogg pulled that one off,” says Penny, apparently unbothered and finishing his glass, putting it behind him on the table. “And I’m getting more,” he says, leaning into Quentin’s space as he passes, and Quentin’s mouth suddenly feels weirdly dry, his head kind of listing after Penny in his wake.

So he’s not looking when Principal Fogg says, “Mr. Coldwater,” having materialized right in front of him, and he does a full-body flinch that must look Looney Tunes.

“Oh, my god,” he says, and immediately, “hi, Mr. Fogg, Principal, Principal Fogg.”

Fogg’s expression is very flat. He’s not wearing a costume. It’s terrifying.

“So,” he says, at a withering length, “about the field trip budgets,” like he’s going to ignore the last minutes for everyone’s own good.

At some point, someone turned the music down to a staff party-appropriate ambient level, and Quentin figures it’s just playing a Halloween YouTube playlist from somewhere. The alcohol and snacks supply is already dwindling, clocking in at about an hour—he overheard Connie talking with the other assistants about their carpooling plans. A few people have headed out. The head librarian, Zelda, is laughing way too loudly with the music at the volume it is right now. Quentin thinks he’ll leave soon.

Penny had brought him another glass of wine, and Quentin realizes now he had disappeared after that. The gym is a little outsize for just their staff party, with the lights off toward the back of the room with one set of doors that leads to the playground. He is ringing around the room, with the idea of saying goodbye to Penny, when the smell of cigarette smoke hits him.

He turns his head to it. The door out is cracked open, letting in cool air from the outside, making him realize his skin is overhot. He shivers when he pulls it open.

Outside, it’s dark already. Seasonal depression is coming. This door goes out to concrete and railing to a ramp with the playground down a circuitous sidewalk around the school, and one of the fluorescent lights attached to the brick of the school is flickering over Penny’s head, casting him in half-shadow with a cigarette to his mouth where he leans against the wall. He perks his body up in apparent surprise, saying, “Oh, shit,” before he relaxes. “Okay, you’re not an authority figure. Christ.”

Quentin smiles, going to join him. “I think people smoke out here all the time,” he says.

“Not all the time,” says Penny, giving him an eye. “I go out from the cafeteria. That’s the spot.”

Quentin shakes his head, breathing out concussively. “Okay, whatever, I guess I’m not up on what the cool kids are doing.”

“Clearly,” says Penny, laughing, and Quentin sees the pointed up-and-down look. “What are you supposed to be, anyway? A nerd?”

Quentin is offended on behalf of Fred Rogers, like he has been for several years and guesses at this costume running. “I’m Mr. Rogers,” he says.

Oh,” says Penny, his face changing on a dime as he looks him up and down anew, and then he starts to laugh. “Oh, my god. Okay. No,” he goes, seemingly off of Quentin’s face feeling hot, “it’s...nice! Very...wholesome. Mr. Rogers with a ponytail.”

“Okay, what are you supposed to be?” Quentin says, feeling a little defensive. “Like, a hot pirate?”

“Jesus Christ,” says Penny, “Why is no one getting this, I’m Wolfgang fucking Amadeus Mozart—” and something dawns in Penny’s face. “Wait,” he says.

“Uh,” Quentin says.

Penny is grinning ear to ear, and cocks his head just so. “Did you say I’m hot?”

Immediately, a high-definition reel that his anxiety still ongoingly records of everything he says plays back in his brain, and he had said, Like, a hot pirate. “Um,” he says, lifting his hand for some reason, like he’s going to do some gesture that will help. “No?”

“No,” says Penny, not quite ignoring that, “well, in that case, I guess I’m hot Mozart.” He hunches back against the wall so they’re almost eye-level, his grin still wide. Quentin’s face is burning, but when he looks down, he’s grinning, too. He feels a little loopy, and still hot, even though the chill outside had hit him hard at first. The wine maybe should’ve been watered down even more. He thinks but does not say that no one would be confused by Penny’s costume if he was wearing one of those wigs.

“I’ll give you cute Mr. Rogers,” he says, like he’s making an important strategic decision. His head is still kind of cocked, looking at Quentin. Quentin’s face burns even more.

“Um,” he says, his mouth feeling dry and heavy. “Thanks?”

Penny laughs at him, and he straightens to put out the cigarette on the railing in front of them, only having to reach out just so to do that, a fact which seems very particular to Quentin in the moment that he does it. “I assume you don’t smoke, Mr. Rogers?”

“Nope,” Quentin says, not elaborating with the I used to, but he usually doesn’t.

“Glad you didn’t catch me slipping,” Penny says, grinning, and Quentin has the pressing feeling he’s about to miss something as he goes toward the door to open it. But then Penny goes, “Whoa, hey.”

Penny had glanced up, and Quentin does, too. Over the doorway there’s a well-decorated, a little ribbon half-hanging off of it, but very weathered, sprig of. Um.

“Is that mistletoe?” Penny says, even though it clearly fucking is, stepping free of the door and letting it almost-close again. “Fuck, is this school a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

“I don’t even remember seeing mistletoe last year?” Quentin says, and Penny vaguely shakes his head, looking back at him. It would have been at the generically-named Holiday Party.

“And no one noticed for almost a full fucking year,” he says, but he doesn’t sound bemused, more like, typical.

“Uh-huh,” Quentin says, rocking on his heels. Then he says, “So you were right.”

“About?”

“Um, about, no one smokes out here.”

Penny laughs at him, harder than the callback warrants, but it makes Quentin smile, anyway. He thinks they’re just going to go in, and that when Penny looks back up at the door he’s just going to open it again.

But instead, like he’s just had a thought, he just says, “Hey.” And he nods up at the mistletoe, looking back at Quentin. “You want to?”

Quentin hears a dial tone in his head.

“Um,” he says. Penny’s brows raise, and he smiles, even as Quentin’s saying, “I don’t know if it, it counts, if it’s not Christmas we don’t, we don’t have to,” and Penny kisses him.

He smells like something that must be good cologne, and his stubble rasps under Quentin’s mouth, but that’s almost all lost to the taste of cigarettes. Something that he still wants full-body, just once in a while, that taste. And then, his mind should be going happy-blank, but instead he has a sense memory of autumn college parties and kissing the rubbing alcohol-strawberry taste of jungle juice out of a guy’s mouth, and never really talking with Alice about the whole subject because well, when does he talk about anything that he wants, and his dad saying, As long as you’re happy, curly Q, and seeing a family and wanting a family, a vision of his future all at once articulating itself past the gray haze of maybe-dying, and the taste of cigarettes, and kissing someone taller than him which he becomes more aware of because Penny’s hand has found the small of his back and he realizes he’s craned up on his feet, and Eliot’s big hands, one of them shaking out the match in the green expanse of the park and the other bringing the filter end to his mouth. Eliot’s mouth.

Holy shit.

He gasps and pulls back but his hands had fisted into Penny’s shirt, the two instincts fighting each other until his sense of his body reorganizes and he drops them away. He has to blink, hard, and Penny’s eyes are glazed over with either alcohol or what had just happened. And then Penny laughs, a little, and half-turns even though he doesn’t complete the motion to go inside, his body still close to Quentin’s. “Uh,” says Penny, and it should be gratifying. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” says Quentin, and he’s breathing hard. He tries to stop breathing hard, taking a full step back, but he’s bad at that at, like, other, normal times. He smooths a hand over his mouth, which hasn’t been used for that in, like, he doesn’t want to think about it. And Penny is tall and dark and handsome. And his heart is pounding in his ears.

“Merry Christmas?” Penny tries. Quentin laughs, unevenly, hands on his hips, his head ducking.

“Um. I think—” Quentin has no fucking idea what he should say, even though he does, in fact, now have an abundance of ideas about what he thinks. Fuck. What the fuck.

“That wasn’t a thing if you don’t want it to be,” says Penny, looking at him. His expression is guarded enough that Quentin wonders if he’s being a huge asshole somehow, like, what is his own own face doing right now? “Though, up until about five seconds ago, it kind of seemed like you wanted it to be.”

“Um,” Quentin swallows, hard. “In—in other circumstances, I would want it to be. I would really want it to be.”

Penny’s head tilts. “But not these circumstances, right here.”

Quentin can only just shake his head. Penny takes a breath like he’s collecting it, and smiles.

“Hey,” he says. “Nothing ventured.”

Quentin guesses he’s right, and he doesn’t say anything to anyone else. He doesn’t say anything to anyone else even though not enough of them have by then petered out yet for that to be excusable when he cuts back through the gym, down an empty hallway, out the front door. He barely remembers to get his stuff with his wallet, his keys.

It’s definitely too cold that night for the jacket he put on for this morning, a fact he understands like it’s not really related to his body as he has to loop out wide to pass families and costumed kids with bouncing plastic jack-o-lanterns full of candy, on sidewalks that are increasingly residential. He doesn’t stop until an indeterminate time later, feeling like he’s going insane, and look at fucking Google Maps, because he had just headed vaguely in the direction of the library, which he’s taken the class to from school before. He’s walking toward the library, and the library is off Maple, and Maple is the major street by the row of townhouses with the Waugh house on it.

There’s obviously a kid’s party happening at the library; he hears errant shouts from inside filtering out to the cold air. He keeps walking. He’s going to combust. No matter what’s about to happen, he’s going to be on fire. And it takes him approximately somewhere between two minutes and two hours to be in front of Eliot Waugh’s door, and then there he is.

He rings the doorbell.

The pause is long enough that the rush of adrenaline gives way, and he remembers: Charlie. Eliot is out trick-or-treating with Charlie. He had fucking here walked on the busiest kid holiday of the year to say, what, he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say, without ever thinking that he wouldn’t fucking be there, he’s such an idiot, and then there’s the scrape of the door unlocking, and like any number of times the past few weeks Eliot is on the other side of it.

Eliot has a cauldron of candy bars under one arm, and his face is chalky-whiter than usual even in the dim of his porchlight and backlit by inside warmth, his hair mussed, a line deep to his chest visible at the neck of his shirt under a red velvet vest. Quentin realizes that the rush isn’t whatever determination had made him furiously walk here, sweaty and with an early warning sign of a wine hangover throbbing in the back of his head. It’s maybe just what seeing Eliot is like.

Fuck. Fuck.

“Quentin,” Eliot says, leaning in the doorway, “aren’t we a little old for trick-or-treating?”

Quentin, miserably, takes a deep breath.

Chapter Text

“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.”