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The mood in the safe house was tense.

Quentin tried to make himself smaller - Marina barely tolerated him at the best of times, and this was most definitely not the best of times - and he edged closer to where Julia was sitting, because if nothing else, his messy brain identified her as safe enough that he’d hopefully be able to stave off an anxiety attack. The thing was, the wards in the place were so keyed-in to Marina that when she was pissed off the entire place kind of vibrated with anger, and when she was happy it was always a sort of gleeful, cruel happiness that rubbed Quentin the wrong way. It was pretty much a recipe for disaster for Quentin’s mental health, is what he was saying.

“What happened?” Julia asked Pete, which was good, because Quentin really wanted to know, but would have only received a disdainful eyebrow raise if he’d asked.

Pete talked to Julia exclusively and made great efforts to show Quentin how hard he was ignoring him, and he also clearly wanted Julia to sleep with him. Quentin, having spent many years in his adolescence pining after Julia but having finally emerged on the other side to merely really appreciating her as a friend, would’ve been sympathetic if only Pete had been less of a dick. Of course, given that Quentin’s new evolved state with regards to Julia was maybe tangentially related to the one-night-stand he’d had around three months ago that had been so spectacular he still had vivid sex-dreams, and also to the weird patch of memories he couldn’t recover as much as he and Julia tried, maybe Quentin wasn’t exactly an authority on the whole thing, but. Whatever, Pete was still a dick.

“Hannah’s daughter hasn’t come through with something Marina really needs,” Pete whispered. “She’s been at - well, this place with a ton of magic for a while, and Marina isn’t closer to getting the big score. So, yeah. Angry times.”

“Wait, Hannah’s daughter?” Julia asked, frowning.

“Shhh.” Pete waved at Julia to be quiet, head swiveling wildly as he checked if anyone had overheard them. But he kept going, because he always loved impressing Julia with how much he knew. “Yeah, Hannah’s daughter. Hannah, like. Agreed to place her under a three-way word-as-bond with Marina, to pay off a pretty serious debt. Because she knew she’d get an invite to. This place. And that way Marina could get her hands on books and whatever, and eventually this big score.”

A place with a ton of magic... It had to be Brakebills. Just thinking about the word gave Quentin a weird headache, but Julia had explained that he’d been expelled from there, even though neither of them knew why and Quentin could - of course - not remember. Fucking Christ. Quentin was so, so glad he and Julia had agreed not to tell anyone about his own Brakebills connection. It helped that Quentin was just okay at magic - not great, not terrible - but okay in a way that didn’t look too suspicious. He’d gotten to five stars a little quicker than others, but nowhere near as quickly as Julia. He could only imagine what nightmare Marina would’ve come up with, to use him and Julia, if she knew.

“Wait, can word-as-bonds involve three persons? That photocopy of the book you showed me, it said it’s for a binding promise between two…” Julia said.

“Well, it’s Marina’s own home-brew, I don’t know,” Pete said, shrugging. A commotion made them all turn to the door, where Marina was dragging Hannah behind her. “Listen, I better get over there - if Marina presses too hard and kills her, it could get messy.”

Quentin and Julia stood frozen together, while Marina loudly berated Hannah. It was seeing it - seeing Marina use magic to choke Hannah, using magic to keep her from moving, eyes terrified, seeing how she twisted at some unseeing way that Marina was hurting her - that made Quentin finally say it.

“Jules?”

“Yeah, Q?”

“I - I think we should try to go out on our own.”

“What do you mean go out on our own?” Julia hissed, making a quick hand-movement to set up a small silencing ward. He and Julia had worked out how to adapt it from something Pete had taught them a month ago, because Quentin had really wanted to have his own Muffliato spell. He remained loyal to Fillory, but he reserved the right to try to steal any of the Harry Potter spells that seemed useful.

“Jules… magic is. It’s.” Quentin paused, running a hand through his hair. “Listen, I don’t want to stop learning more, I’m not saying we go back to our old lives. I’m just saying… I want magic to be more than this. Than Marina yelling at us, and threatening people, and using it to hurt. More than being stuck inside a safe house that makes us feel like crawling out of our skin because she likes us nervous. Don’t you?”

Julia looked at him for a moment, lips pursed in thought. There was something a little haunted in her eyes, still, something that didn’t quite match up to the Julia of six months ago. Then again, there was something haunted in the both of them - the remnant of whatever it was Brakebills did to them, the patchy memories they’d never get back. Quentin vaguely remembered the smell of a strong, spicy cologne, the taste of a cocktail he hadn’t been able to reproduce, and he still had a circular brand on his palm that he couldn’t remember getting, along with a string of bizarre and often terrifying dreams that always featured clocks or moths, or both.

Julia - she had the jagged scar on her arm, a constant fear that magic would be taken away, and an anger she couldn’t really articulate to him. Underneath it all, though, she was still Julia, still the person Quentin knew best in the world, and he trusted that even the slightly harder version of herself she’d had to build to make her way into Marina’s world - and to get Quentin in, when he asked for help - wanted better, just like he did.

“I do,” Julia whispered, after a moment, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “I do, you’re right. So, what’s the plan? We set up our own safe house, or something?”

“Yeah. I mean, you’re the best hedge witch here outside of Marina, and I - well, I can keep learning to catch up to you. But just. On our terms.”

Julia slowly smiled - that crooked, small smile that meant trouble, but the good kind. “Damn right.”

As Quentin smiled back, helplessly, he couldn’t help but remember the 6-year-old who’d gotten Quentin’s dinosaur back from Billy Hogdkins through a masterful plan of kicking dirt in his face; the 8-year-old who’d first lent him “The World in the Walls” and then told him he could be Martin and she’d be Jane; the 14-year-old who’d stolen the good scotch from her mom so they could figure out what it felt like to get drunk; the 16-year-old who’d brought him his playing cards to the in-patient clinic and made him laugh in what felt like months...

He knew, too, that they’d almost broken. The memory patch Quentin had made it difficult to remember exactly what happened, but he could still recall that fight, after his Yale interview, and Julia had eventually shared enough with him on how things had been on her side that he knew he’d been dismissive and even cruel when she’d told him she had magic while he was still at Brakebills. But at the end of the day, she’d said, when she’d gotten his message about being expelled she decided to help, because, “You apologized, Q, and - and fuck it, it’s you and me. That matters more than a fight.”

“But, Q. You’ve seen her. She’s not just going to let us walk away easy.”

Quentin nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. Marina and Pete - they really don’t like me.”

“Q…”

“No, Jules, you don’t always have to protect me. I’m okay with having just a few people like me, as long as one of them’s you.”

“And tall guy from the bar,” Julia teased, nudging him with her elbow. “He seemed to really, really like you.”

Quentin felt his cheeks warm. “It was three months ago, Jules, and, like, he didn’t leave me his number, and anyway that is not the point,” he said. “The point is, Marina and Pete don’t like me and they think I’m just, like, a depressed super-nerd holding you back. Marina, especially, looks at me like I’m the thing that will screw up her plans for ‘big magic’. So, let’s do that. I’ll - I’ll just act like I’m sliding into a depressive episode, and you can tell them that we need to take a break ‘cause this whole thing isn’t good for me. And. You know, with my dad… it’s not like there isn’t some justification.”

Julia started nodding slowly. “Right. I can sort of say that the intensity level of the coven here is a bit too much, especially with your dad being sick, and it’s not that we’re quitting magic, but just not like this. Good plan. But, Q - will you be okay, pretending? Do you think it might, um -”

“... lead to an actual episode?” Quentin asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, I hope not. I wasn’t great three months ago, obviously. And I’m never going to be okay with my dad not getting treatment, even though I recognize it’s his choice. But getting back on my meds helped, so. Hopefully not.”

“Okay. Just, if it gets heavy, let me know?”

Plan set, he and Julia spent the rest of the week discreetly copying the spells they’d been learning at Marina’s - thanks to a spell Julia had modified, which sent the information to one of the Fillory books in Quentin’s messenger bag (The Flying Forest, which he allowed only because it was his most beaten up copy) - and Quentin worked on visibly acting more listless, coming in without showering, using the same clothes every day. It didn’t feel great at all - it kind of made his brain panic, because warning signs galore - but it was clearly working. Pete was now torn between even more pronounced disdain and some actual concern, the contrast making him look constipated, and Marina was not even deigning to look at him.

It all led to a whispered argument between Julia and Marina that made the wards start vibrating again, with Julia looking suitably dramatic and intense, clearly channeling the time she’d played Éponine in their high school’s eleventh grade production of Les Mis.

“Fine!” Marina eventually exclaimed, raising her hands in mock surrender. “Fine. I always knew Eeyore over there wouldn’t be able to hack it, but I gave him a chance for you. But you - I thought you’d have the guts to do whatever it takes. I guess I was wrong. Just… just go. But don’t bother ever coming back here. Go hang out with the little barfly covens, or those idiots who dance naked under the moon in Central Park every month.”

Julia sniffed and gave a resigned nod, really, really leaning into the Éponine singing herself to death vibe (Julia forced Q to run lines with her for two months straight, and he will always resent how well he knows the musical because he’d hoped to not hit every single nerd cliché, and yet).

When they said goodbye that night to the two hedges still around the safe-house, Quentin hoped they wouldn’t ever be back. Particularly because he’d decided to take one of the books that Marina had apparently gotten from Hannah’s daughter some months ago, and while she’d declared it useless without volume two, she could still be possessive and vindictive.

+++

Setting up a new space took them about two weeks. Julia was able to rent a storage space near the docks through her dad’s company, badgering the accountant until he went through enough loops they were pretty sure nobody could trace it back to her, and they set up ward after ward with everything they could remember from Marina’s safe house and a few extra ones that they puzzled through together (if they took inspiration from Deathly Hallows nobody needed to know - stealing her ideas was what Rowling deserved after the horrible boomer epilogue and her even worse transphobic opinions, anyway).

At first the space looked uncomfortably like Marina’s - all industrial and exposed cement, almost deliberately unwelcoming - but Quentin convinced Julia to bring in a couple of comfortable couches they got second-hand, one of them big enough to crash if either of them needed to, and some nice if beaten-up wooden book-cases. Julia herself brought in a few of the plants from her apartment and supplemented them with some extra ones they could use as ingredients for spells, and a hand-knitted blanket Quentin had commandeered for naps on and off for ten years. Once they brought in some rugs, a few lamps that gave off a warm glow, and turned off the over-head white lights, the safe-house was seriously cozy. It reminded Quentin of somewhere, a place he knew he’d been, like an itch on the back of his head, but he just couldn’t figure out where. Maybe he’d just dreamed about it.

Still, as much as their new safe-house was as comfortable as the previous one had been horrible, Quentin needed oxygen and caffeine and Julia needed to have a conciliatory lunch with her parents after her weird rental request, so they went their separate ways for the first time after walking out from Marina’s for an afternoon.

Quentin decided to make his way to his favorite coffee shop in the East Village, where he’d hid out constantly during undergrad in the total opposite direction of Columbia when the overabundance of clean-cut business major bros on campus got on his nerves. Once he settled into his favorite corner with a London Fog latte (which he’d had to convince the barista to make, but he had an inexplicable craving), he pulled out the book he’d stolen - re-stolen? Re-appropriated? Liberated? - from Marina to finally examine it carefully. Surely, even without volume two, there could be something relevant to learn. Especially since he was trying to work out how to solve a problem he hadn’t yet dared to present to Julia, because, well. It was probably immensely stupid to even try. But Quentin felt like they had to.

His musings were interrupted when the book in his hands starting vibrating - what the fuck? - and a shadow loomed over his table.

“A-ha! You are caught, miscreant.”

Quentin looked up, and up, mouth open. And there, right in front of him, just like he’d been three months ago (albeit less blurred by alcohol), was Tall Guy in all his glory. Paisley shirt, vest, tight tailored trousers, and perfectly coiffed hair.

“It’s you,” Quentin whispered.

“It. It is me. And it’s you,” Tall Guy replied, voice as hushed as Quentin’s.

They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, frozen, until the screech of a chair being pulled back from a table startled them.

Quentin licked his dry lips - Tall Guy’s nearly imperceptible glance downwards making his body zing with heat - and decided to go for it. “So. Are you going to tell me your name now that we’re seeing each other in daylight?”

Tall Guy seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then nodded to himself and cleared his throat, as if he’d resolved some strange internal argument. “I’m Eliot.”

“Hi, Eliot. I’m Quentin - Quentin Coldwater.”

Eliot smiled, a small, strangely nostalgic thing, and moved the chair opposite Quentin’s to sit down. “Well. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Quentin Coldwater. Again.”

It made Quentin remember - much like he’d been remembering for more nights than he’d admit at this point - Eliot kissing him deeply at the bar, before they even exchanged names. It had been so intense, so consuming, that they’d never actually gotten to it, Quentin had just pressed up into Eliot (Tall Guy in his head, back then, and for the last three months) and let himself be moved, led the way to Julia’s apartment, let himself be taken apart over and over again, for hours, Eliot praising him constantly (”good boy, you’re so good for me, so perfect”) until they fell asleep, sated and exhausted, and Quentin woke up alone the next morning, feeling oddly bereft for what should’ve only been a one-night stand.

He was sure he was blushing, could feel the blood rushing to his face, but before he could try to talk about that night - what would he have said, anyway? Why did you leave? Can I give you a blowjob right now, please? Could you call me good again? It would’ve all come out sounding so fucking desperate - the book in his hand vibrated again, more intensely, and it shocked Quentin into making the connection.

“You were looking for this book,” he said, slowly putting it together. He glanced up, Eliot’s wide eyes and the way he was biting his lip - it was so strange to see him nervous, but why did Quentin even have the frame of reference to have it feel strange? - confirming it. “You - you must have magic.” And then the greater realization, because the book had come from… “You’re from Brakebills.”

“Oh, shit,” Eliot said quietly. “Um, okay. I think I should go. Q - Quentin. Just, don’t tell anyone you remember Brakebills, okay? Don’t tell me what you remember. Just - keep the book, if you want, I’ll figure something out, and keep your head down.”

As Eliot started shifting to stand up, Quentin shot out a hand and placed it over Eliot’s where it still remained on the table. Eliot glanced down at their joined hands for a moment before looking up, staying put for the moment.

“Wait, wait. I - I don’t really remember anything about Brakebills but the name,” Quentin said quickly. “I know I got expelled - my friend Julia told me I called her about it, I heard the voicemail I left her. We both have this. This memory thing. And it’s obviously pretty strong for a reason. But we both remembered enough to remember magic, and, well…” Quentin let go of Eliot’s hand and turned his arm on the table, raising the cuff of his sweater until his forearm was exposed, showing the five black stars tattooed there.

Almost as if he couldn’t help himself, Eliot leaned forward slightly and touched the stars with soft fingers. The touch felt electric (and, again, what the fuck? Like, yeah, okay, best sex of Quentin’s life, but could he not get through a fucking hand graze without palpitations?) and Quentin struggled not to shiver.

“You’re a hedge,” Eliot said softly.

“Yeah. Well, trying to be,” Quentin said. “My friend Julia and I, we’re starting our own safe-house, kinda, ‘cause the people we were with before, they weren’t. Great.”

Eliot glanced up then, sharp. “Be careful, Quentin. Some hedges can be… rough.”

“Yeah, trust me. We, uh. We got the memo,” Quentin said, running a hand through his hair to hide his shakiness - half from Eliot’s touch, half from left-over stress over Marina. “Listen, I. I have a proposition.”

Eliot raised an eyebrow, smirking slightly, suddenly looking comfortable again. “Oh? I’m listening.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. “Not that. I mean - not that right now, not that you’d want. Just. Never mind.” He paused, took a breath, tried to ignore the intrigued and almost fond way Eliot was looking at him. “Look. You came here looking for this book, so presumably you need it. And I - I need help figuring something out. So can we maybe make a deal?”

“Quentin, I can’t tell you about Brakebills, if Fo- if they find out, they’ll just come for you again and wipe you harder,” Eliot replied, looking genuinely worried.

“No, it’s not about that,” Quentin said. “It’s - this hedge coven we were in. The leader was cruel, and she just used magic to. To hurt.”

“Magic isn’t rainbows and ponies, Q. More than a few people use it to hurt,” Eliot pointed out, a strange tone in his voice.

“No, I know, I’m not an idiot. Magic isn’t inherently good or bad, it just is, it’s people who can use it either way. But, Eliot, this woman isn’t, like, accidentally pushing someone away because she’s scared or something,” Quentin said, ignoring how right it felt to have Eliot call him Q, or the way Eliot had startled at his last sentence for the moment, because, well. Priorities. “She’s torturing people. Jules and I managed to get out okay because she thinks I’m an idiot and Julia’s naive, but there’s this woman who she has. She has her under a spell, her and her daughter, a word-as-bond, and she’s using them to get things, and hurting them, and I just. I want to help.”

“Wait… she has two people under word-as-bond?”

“Yeah. Julia was also weirded out by that, but apparently she sort of, modified it herself?”

Eliot leaned back, a furrow between his brows. He seemed to be puzzling over something, and absentmindedly took Quentin’s mug to sip from his latte. “Well, I can hardly - wait,” he looked down at the mug. “Are you drinking a London Fog?”

“Uh, yeah? I. I didn’t like it much before, but I’ve sort of craved it, for the last couple of months.”

Eliot looked at him for a moment, mouth slightly open. There was something immensely complicated in his eyes - satisfied, almost, but at the same time sad - and it felt, like so many of their interactions since that night at the bar, so much heavier than their short acquaintance could explain. But, well. Sometimes you just clicked with people. Not that Quentin had really experienced that, outside of Julia, and that had been more over the righteous politics of childhood dinosaur ownership. Just as Quentin was about to ask if everything was okay (maybe one of Eliot’s friends was tragically involved in some sort of a London Fog accident? Maybe Eliot was?) Eliot seemed to shake himself, putting the mug down.

“Listen. Word-as-bond is heavy magic. It may look like it’s an insert-A-insert-B sort of spell, but it’s deceptively simple. The reason most people really just substitute names and intentions when casting it is because modifying it outside of that without having it backfire or weaken would take a Master Magician,” Eliot said, and Quentin could somehow hear the way he’d capitalized the title - a Magician, something different from a hedge, clearly. “A three-way word-as-bond? I think only Maya - this Russian asshole I know - could pull it off.”

“Okay, but. But this one works, somehow. Eliot, I’ve seen how she scares this woman, and obviously her daughter’s terrified - I’ve never met her, but she’s been stealing things from,” Quentin paused, and then went ahead. In for a penny. “From, uh, Brakebills. For her.”

Eliot’s eyes narrowed. “She has someone in Brakebills under it? Huh. So she added even more complexities to it, or someone would’ve noticed.”

“Oh god. We’re not going to be able to break it,” Quentin said, running both hands down his face. Why did he always have such stupid ideas?

“No, Quentin, this is good news. I’m sure the hedge bitch is good, if she was able to pull it off for this long, but she really can’t have the training to have done so many modifications to the spell without it having some serious weak spots,” Eliot said, grabbing a napkin from the table next to theirs - god, he had long arms - and pulling out what looked like an obscenely expensive fountain pen from his shirt pocket. Quentin shuddered to think the disaster a fountain pen would wreak anywhere near him. After Eliot finished writing, he slid the napkin towards Quentin. “Try this. It’s a third-ye - an advanced spell I talked someone into teaching me with a blow-job, because Mar- my friend, uh. Got into some hot water, and needed to get out of a pretty tight contract. Anyway. This shouldn’t work on regular word-as-bonds, that’s the whole point of them, but I’ll bet anything it can work on this fucked up little home-brew.”

Quentin read through the spell carefully, admiring the steady way Eliot had drawn the hand-movements while forcing himself to ignore the flash of heat-memory that had surfaced when Eliot talked about giving blow-jobs. He wasn’t too sure he was understanding every element of the spell, but Julia probably could. There was only one thing that seemed off. “Wait, it says we need the contracted. I - I don’t know who Hannah’s daughter is, and I’m pretty sure I can’t go around Brakebills trying to find out.”

“Don’t worry - I’m thinking the way the magic’s been stretched, having just one of the contracted, bonded, whatever, will be enough.”

Quentin nodded, and leaned down to get out the Fillory book he’d stuck into his messenger bag for the day - The Wandering Dune, this time - tucking in the napkin carefully inside. When he glanced up, he saw Eliot was giving him that strangely fond look again, and felt flustered for the, oh, thousandth time in the last twenty minutes.

“Eliot, thank you,” he said. And offered the vibrating book to him. “A deal’s a deal.”

Eliot took the book with a smile, and it stopped vibrating as soon as he touched it. “A deal’s a deal,” he repeated. And then his smile turned into that smirk again. “Not that I would’ve been opposed to the other proposition.”

Quentin opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times like fish, but, as Eliot started to look rueful, like he was about to take it back, he felt brave enough to blurt out, “Can I have your number, then? For. For the other thing?”

Eliot raised both eyebrows, clearly surprised, and Quentin felt kind of proud that he could manage to surprise someone so seemingly in-control all the time. “My signal is truly abysmal at, well. You know. I wouldn’t be able to get any calls or texts.”

“Oh.”

“But. I can leave you my email?” Eliot offered, still looking torn between pleased and hesitant. “There’s a place, on campus. Where we can check it.”

“I can email,” Quentin said, smiling.

Eliot smiled back, like he couldn’t quite help himself, and stole another napkin from the next table to write it down.

+++

Quentin walked into the safe house - feeling the slight zing of the wards recognizing him, which thankfully felt pleasantly warm rather than anxiety-inducing here - and saw Julia hunkered down into the big orange couch, smoking. So, clearly lunch had sucked.

“Hey, Jules. Bad lunch?”

“Bad lunch,” Julia confirmed, voice a little raspy like it went whenever she was holding back tears, or anger, or both.

Her relationship with her mom had always been as complicated as Quentin’s, but unlike Quentin, her dad wasn’t in her corner, so. Lunch with them always turned into a recitation of all the various ways she was letting the family name down, and couldn’t she at least try to be more like her sister. At least Quentin was an only child, and was spared the comparison game whenever Molly mustered enough wherewithal to demand his presence at dinner.

“Want a distraction?”

“Please.”

Quentin sat down on the other couch, and took out The Wandering Dune, checking Eliot’s napkins were still safe and undamaged. He lost a second staring at the one with Eliot’s email, reading and re-reading the can’t wait for your other proposal. e.

“Hello? Earth to Q?”

Quentin startled, and looked up to see that Julia was sitting up, staring at him confusedly. “Sorry, right. Uh, so. How would you feel about trying to free Hannah and her daughter from Marina’s word-as-bond?”

What?”

“Just. Just hear me out, Jules,” Quentin said, raising a hand, palm out. “I’m so glad we got out, so fucking glad. But. But it’s not right, what Marina is doing to her, and to her daughter, and if we can do something about it, shouldn’t we?”

Julia gave him a look eerily reminiscent of the time in seventh grade when Quentin had convinced her to liberate the class guinea pig (his spirit was being crushed in that cage, okay?), like she kind of agreed with him but also wanted to strangle him.

“I mean. I get it, Q. But can we actually do something? This is Marina we’re talking about. You and I got out because were really fucking lucky, people are usually assholes about mental health and rarely know how to react to cancer, and ‘cause I played a convincing Éponine, no matter what Mrs. Johnson said.”

“I did see that you were doing that, you were very good,” Quentin said.

“Thank you,” Julia replied primly. “But, back to the topic at hand. There’s just two of us, Q. How can we even begin to come up with something powerful enough to break a spell of Marina’s?”

“Well, that’s the thing… it’s not about being powerful enough. It’s just finding the cracks,” Quentin said. He bit his lip, and shifted nervously in the couch. This next bit he knew Julia wouldn't love. “Um. Okay, confession time. I kinda stole one of the books Marina got from Hannah’s daughter.”

“Q!”

“What, she just. Shoved it aside because there was no volume two! She never even looked at it.”

“Q, did you take the book because you felt sorry for it?”

“Maybe…” Quentin said, shifting on the couch again, and pulling one of his knees closer. “But, never mind, the thing is. I took the book to B Cup, today, just to see if there was anything in it we could maybe use, and uh. Tall Guy showed up.”

“Wait, Tall Guy from the bar, Tall guy?” Julia asked, brow furrowed.

“Yeah - I mean, have we actually talked about another Tall Guy since that time?" Quentin replied, rolling his eyes, and then barreling forward when it looked like Julia was going to reply. "Not the point. The point is, it turns out he has magic? His name is Eliot, and he’s from Brakebills, and, well. He was looking for the book.”

Julia immediately leaned forward, looking serious and scared, taking one of Quentin’s hand in hers. “Q, are you okay? Did he do anything to you? Do you - do you need to hear the voicemail again, did he take more memories?”

“No, no. I’m okay, Jules,” he said, squeezing her hand gratefully regardless. “He was actually. Um. Really nice. He was just as scared that anybody would find out I remembered, he actually tried to leave and pretend he hadn’t found me, but. Well, I decided to trade the book for his help with the word-as-bond.”

“Huh. Pretty sneaky, Coldwater. I like it,” Julia said, relaxing back into the couch. “So, what did this, uh, Eliot, have to say?”

“It kinda looks like you were on to something? When you thought it was weird that the spell was three-way,” Quentin replied, taking the napkin with Eliot’s spell and passing it to Julia. “Eliot said that with the modifications Marina had to do, she probably weakened it at a few key places, and that this contract-breaking spell would probably undo it.”

Julia read the napkin intently, her left hand almost absent-mindedly going through the hand motions, and muttering under her breath. After a moment, she looked up. “Well, it looks pretty legit. But are we actually sure Marina’s spell is weak?”

“Eliot said that only a, a - a Master Magician, he called it? - could modify the original in so many ways, without having it backfire,” Quentin said. “And, yeah, Marina’s top bitch in New York, but. I can see how her ambition could run away from her.”

Julia glanced at the napkin again, biting her lip. “Yeah. Listen - it shouldn’t be up to us. I get what you’re saying, Q, but. But this is going to be a risk, and Hannah has to be the one to decide.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Quentin said. “Only, um. D’you know how to get in touch with her?” Quentin had mostly been ignored by the other hedges in Marina’s safe-house, so his knowledge of useful gossip was down to whatever Julia shared with him.

“Yeah. I think I can get a message to her, through one of the hedge bars,” Julia said. “Let’s hope she doesn’t think we want to fuck her over worse than Marina.”

+++

Hannah didn’t not think they wanted to fuck her over worse than Marina, but she also seemed to consider that Quentin and Julia weren’t much a coven to reckon with and was evidently curious, so she agreed to meet them at mutually agreed neutral grounds: a particular room in the New York Public Library which was warded so intensely, any magic anyone tried to do immediately fizzled out. Nobody was sure who’d set the wards, or why - Julia thought it meant there were clearly people with magic in more institutions that they knew - but the room was extremely useful nevertheless.

After they explained their plan, and showed Hannah the spell - now transcribed in a more durable no-tear sheet of paper - she stared at them silently for a moment.

“I don’t get it. You just. You want to help me get free from Marina?”

“Yeah. I mean, we want to try - the spell seems solid, but any spell is a risk, obviously, so it isn’t really a guarantee that it’ll work,” Julia said.

“No, it’s not the magic part that’s tripping me up - you wouldn’t believe the weird-ass shit I’ve tried over the years, kid - it’s the why. Why do you want to help?” Hannah asked.

Julia looked at Quentin, nodded slightly, so Quentin shifted slightly forward, cleared his throat.

“Because magic should be better than this,” he said. “What Marina is doing to you, to your daughter… we all want more spells, and more magic, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of something like that. Magic can be better, if we’re better about making it and sharing it… it doesn’t have to be about hoarding it and hurting other people.”

Hannah looked at him and Julia silently for another moment, something warm in her eyes where before there had only been suspicion. “You’re a nice kid. You both are.”

“Does that mean you want to try?” Julia asked.

“Listen - I don’t really think it’s going to work,” Hannah said, shrugging slightly. “But the spell doesn’t look like it’ll do something too bad even if it doesn’t work, and if I’m the only one near, then if it backfires at least it’ll only be on me. We’re not bringing my daughter into it, okay?”

“Okay, yeah. Sure,” Julia said, nodding, and Quentin could see she was already excited over the idea of getting to do more complex magic, and that excitement was surpassing whatever reservations she’d had.

They gave Hannah the address of their safe-house - they had to trust she wouldn’t fuck them over, at this point, or why where they even doing this - and they agreed to meet to do the spell in two days, to give time to Quentin and Julia to practice. Doing the spell wasn’t exactly easy, even after they’d drilled on the hand-movements and phrasing for almost forty hours, but they could all feel it work: Hannah, sitting in between both of them as the focus, suddenly glowed, and they heard something that sounded almost like breaking glass.

“I feel - I feel lighter,” Hannah whispered. “Fuck, you two crazy kids… you actually did it.”

Quentin couldn’t help giggling as he shook out his hands from the spell, the high from channeling still something he hadn’t gotten over, not when it was this big, and Julia was looking totally blissed out.

“We did it,” she said. Then she bit her lip. “Uh. It probably goes without saying, but. Don’t tell Marina?”

“Of course not,” Hannah said immediately. “I’m gonna take an extended holiday from this city, I think, just as soon as I tell my kid we’re home-free. But I am gonna let a few solid contacts know that you’re good people - they’ll get in touch, I’m sure.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Julia said. “We didn’t do this to get something back.”

“No, I know. The thing is, not all hedges are like Marina… and I’m grateful you reminded me of that,” Hannah said, smiling slightly. And then she took out her phone, and texted them both about 25 different spells they’d never seen before, leaving with a wink.

Once she was gone, Julia took out a bottle of wine, and they both sat down on the couch, passing it back and forth.

“I still can’t believe we did it. Pretty bad-ass,” Julia said.

Quentin took a large gulp of the wine. “Well, at least half of it is because Eliot is apparently really good at magic. Maybe I should email him. To, y’know, maybe ask for some more spells.”

“Riiiight, Eliot,” Julia said slowly, giving Quentin a arch look. “You know, Q, you can just say you like him, you don’t have to pretend it’s about magic.”

“No, Jules! I mean. I mean, I do like him, but obviously he’s very good. At magic," Quentin sputtered, almost choking on the wine.

“In his pants?”

“Julia!”

Julia started laughing, and took the bottle from Quentin. “I’m just saying, Q. You’ve been pining over Tall Guy for like, three months. And now it turns out he’s got magic, and he’s willing to help you, but, more importantly - he wants to see you again. So just. Go for it.”

“I wasn’t pining,” Quentin muttered defiantly, taking another sip of wine. “And how - how do you know he wants to see me again, anyway?”

“C’me on, Q. Give me some credit. I totally read the other napkin you tucked into The Wandering Dune,” Julia said, knocking her elbow into his, stealing the bottle back. She paused for a second, suddenly more serious. “You’re allowed to have good things. Don’t cut yourself off at the pass before even trying.”

“Okay. Okay, yeah, I’ll write him,” Quentin said.

“Promise?”

“Promise. But, uh. I might need some more wine.”

Julia dutifully passed him the bottle, and he took a big gulp before taking out his cellphone and tapping out a message, feeling excited and terrified about it at the same time.

The next morning, he and Julia woke up twisted together on the couch, miserably hung-over (the one wine bottle had turned into two and a half), to the wards buzzing and somebody knocking on the invisible metal door outside.

When they went to answer - Julia leading the way, Quentin behind her holding an empty bottle in what he hoped was a somewhat threatening manner - they found two girls, who couldn't be older than seventeen or eighteen.

“Uh… hi?”

One of the girls - the shorter one, wearing a leather jacket and a pretty impressive under-cut - stepped forward slightly. “Hi. I’m Xochitl Robles, this is Plum Purchas. We, uh. We got sent your way? We’re learning magic, and, uh. They said you’re good people.”

Julia looked back at Quentin, eyes wide, and Quentin shrugged.

“Right,” Julia said, after a moment, clearing her throat. “Um. Want to go get breakfast?”

And that was how they got a coven. Or, well. The start of one.

+++

It turned out Plum was seventeen, but Xochitl was actually twenty; she just looked a little younger. They’d both wandered into one of the hedge bars - Xochitl with actual intent, because her grandmother knew somebody who knew somebody, and Plum out of sheer luck - and the bartender had taken one look at them, made a phone call, and then directed them to Julia and Quentin’s safe-house.

“I don’t know, it’s kinda nice,” Quentin said, as he and Julia wandered around the Bowery, looking for a specific place that housed an undercover hedge market and feeling uncomfortably like locals were taking them to be really dumb, lost tourists after they circled around a block four times because Julia felt something coming off of one of the locked doors. “Like, that they think we can teach them? Also. Uh. Marina would’ve been really horrible to them.”

He could picture it, the way Marina would’ve taken in the leather jacket and a couple of the tattoos, the haircut, and assumed Xochitl was tough and meant to hurt, would’ve forced her into learning all the offensive spells the coven had scrounged together, would’ve taught her that magic was for scaring people away. But Quentin could see the worried way Xochitl talked about her grandmother’s diabetes, the careful way she watered the plants according to schedule, fussing over plant vitamin and bugging Quentin until he bought a particular soil supplement or another, the way she protected Plum even though they’d only met by chance. And Plum - she was so young, and so fucking talented already, her magic almost blazing out of her at odd moments. Marina would’ve pushed her and pushed her, forced her into something no seventeen year old should be forced to become.

And it wasn’t that Quentin and Julia were perfect - far from it - but Quentin could sit quietly on the floor next to Xochitl and hold her hand as he explained, the way he’d learned to his own misery two months ago, that magic couldn’t take the big diseases, as much as they wanted it to. But some herbs worked, for the symptoms - he’d figured out certain herb combinations for brain cancer with Julia, and he and Xochitl worked on figuring them out for advanced diabetes. And Julia delighted in teaching Plum, but knew that she had to take it slowly, step-by-step so Plum wouldn’t burn herself out by pushing too hard, and in doing that, paced herself too.

“Do you think they’ll send more people our way?” Julia asked, conceding Quentin’s point with a nod.

“Hmmm. Maybe.” Quentin paused, feeling something strange. He glanced around, caught sight of an incongruously large moth crawling on the side of a building. “What the…”

“Hey, Q, I think we’re here!” Julia called out from a few steps ahead, gesturing to a suitably creepy-looking dark entryway.

Quentin hurried to meet her, and they walked into what Quentin’s DnD fantasies could have barely conjured up. The space seemed to have widened, somehow, and there were stalls everywhere, people selling everything from candles, incense, crystals, and herbs, to what kind of looked like eyeballs.

“Uh, what. What are we looking for, here?”

“We need a couple of moonstone crystals - Plum is really gravitating toward making illusions, it seems like, and I think it could help her focus? - and hopefully we can find some of the herbs you and Xochitl need that aren’t exactly farmer’s market kosher,” Julia replied.

“Right,” Quentin said, and took a bracing breath. He had no idea how they weren't going to get lost in the impossible vastness of the market. “Um, okay. I’ll - I’ll look for the herbs, and you look for the crystals? Meet by the entrance in twenty?”

Quentin made his way to the more fragrant end of the stalls, dodging some truly bizarre shit on the way, and spent a few pleasant minutes poking around until he found bundles of agrimony and blessed thistle - he and Xochitl intended to mix them up with rosemary and, after a couple of spells they’d been working on, pass it off as restorative tea for his dad and her grandma.

“Um, how much for these?” he asked the stall-owner, a burly man who was about two heads taller than Quentin and sported a pair of impressive-looking tattoo sleeves, flowers and writing and diagrams mixing together.

“Hmm, I’ll take thirty bucks, or a spell if it’s useful enough.”

“I, uh - I have a localized silence ward?” Quentin offered. “We worked it out so it would make people hear buzzing or nonsense, instead of nothing, to make it less suspicious.”

“Hmm, intersting. It's a deal,” the stall-owner replied, passing Quentin a paper and pencil. He looked at him with slightly squinted eyes while Quentin bent over and wrote out the spell.

“Here,” Quentin handed over the paper, hoping his slightly squiggly writing would pass muster. The stall-owner took the paper, but kept looking at Quentin strangely. “Um. Everything okay?”

“There’s something hanging over you, kid. Not sure what, but just in case take these, too,” he said, handing Quentin two additional bundles of herbs - wood betony and rue, read the labels.

“Um. Thanks.”

When Quentin made his way back to the entrance, he saw Julia enthusiastically talking to a blond woman. As he got closer, he realized they were actually using ASL (Julia had learned it during a volunteering stint she’d done in twelfth grade, and now Quentin felt like slapping past-Quentin for not joining in - it made her grasp the hand gestures for magic so quickly. Of course, considering past-Quentin had been on the edge of another hospital stint in twelfth grade, maybe he should give himself a pass).

“Hey, Jules,” he said, and gestured what he hoped he was remembering alright was hello.

The blond woman smiled slightly and said hello back, hand gestures far more clear than Quentin’s.

“Q, this is Harriet, she runs her own coven, kind of,” Julia said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you know FuzzBeat?”

“That website with the really stupid-” Quentin began, then glanced at Harried. “Uh. With the quizzes?”

Harriet rolled her eyes. “I know they’re stupid,” she said, voice a little hoarse. “That’s the point.”

“It’s magic, Q,” Julia said excitedly. “Harriet just showed me - there’s a ton of spells up there.”

“Wow, really?” Quentin said. Then, it struck him - from their experience with Marina, people rarely just handed out magic. But the stall-owner had given him the extra herbs, and now this… “Why would you show us?”

Harriet shrugged, and quickly moved her hands in response, almost a little faster than Julia could keep up, if her squint was anything to go by.

“We’re… good people?” Julia said, and Harriet nodded. There it was again - apparently Hannah really did have a few contacts. “And she likes fucking with Marina.”

“You need to get strong, though,” Harriet said, out loud. “You got away, but she doesn’t forget.”

With that, she walked away from them, deeper inside the market, and left Quentin and Julia staring at each other.

“Uh. Ready to go? Did you get the moonstones?” Quentin asked, feeling like maybe they should get back to the safe-house after the cryptic warning level of the day had gone up to two.

“Yeah, yeah, let’s get going,” Julia replied.

The bright sun outside, nearly blinding after the candle-and-incense lit dark inside of the hedge market, made the entire experience feel even more surreal, and after a moment, Quentin felt his hackles lower. Julia took out her phone and started browsing FuzzBeat, excitedly discussing the spells they might find, when Quentin felt his hand sting, suddenly.

“Fuck, ouch.”

“Q? You okay?”

“Yeah, just - my hand,” he replied, waving it slightly.

“That scar is so weird,” Julia said, stopping so abruptly someone behind them nearly crashed into them - they were being really shitty New Yorkers, today - and taking his hand gently in hers. “Do you want to buy some ointment for it? It’s been a while, now, and it isn’t really fading.”

But the sting was gone as quickly as it had come.

“No, no, it’s okay. Maybe some of the herbs reacted with it, or something,” Quentin said, a little embarrassed over the weird panic. Maybe he’d just imagined it? “Come on, let’s go back to the safe-house.”

“D’you really think Marina will come after us?” Julia asked, after they walked a few more steps.

“I mean. She really does seem to like concentrating power, but. I don’t know. It also seems like there’s a lot more outside of her coven than we thought at first?” Quentin replied, looking back at the entry to the hedge market, which had now turned into a nondescript brick wall.

And there on the wall he saw the moth he’d seen earlier, now joined by three more, just as big as the first, wings fluttering slowly and almost menacingly. He glanced down at the circular burn on his hand again, and a worry he couldn’t quite let go of nagged at him, making him almost certain that something was coming that was somehow worse than an extremely pissed-off Marina.

He didn’t know where the certainty came from - the weird dreams he’d been having for the last three months, the way he felt watched, sometimes, whenever he left the safe-house. Whatever was happening, though, he was glad he and Julia would face it together. And, remembering Eliot, who’d replied to his email and agreed to meet him tomorrow, that maybe help would keep coming from where they least expected it.

+++

The next day, walking toward the B Cup, Quentin tried to talk himself out of turning around and going in the entirely opposite direction and back to the subway station he’d just exited.

The thing was, even having read and re-read Eliot’s email (see you wednesday 2 pm, same place. e.) Quentin still couldn’t really buy that somebody that looked like Eliot, somebody so sophisticated and put-together, could actually want to, like. Hang out with Quentin. Outside of getting very drunk and having sex, anyway, because Quentin knew alcohol could make anyone do pretty weird things and hooking up with socially awkward nerds was one of those things, as his entire sexual history could attest to.

Julia had cornered him in the safe-house in the morning, though - she’d noticed he was panicking, obviously - and given him an intense pep-talk that turned into, like, a promise to curse either Eliot or Quentin himself if either of them didn’t show up. It had been loud enough that Plum and Xochitl had heard, of course, and Plum had ended up making Quentin a cup of chamomile tea spelled to emit colorful steam and sliding it toward him while he was working through some ancient Sumerian; Xochitl had quietly told him she could beat up Eliot for him if he bailed.

So Quentin kept walking in the right direction, because he refused to disappoint the three women who were running his life one way or another, and consoled himself with the thought that, even if Eliot did in fact bail, at least Quentin could get a decent latte out of it.

As he turned the corner from 14th street onto Avenue B, however, he saw Eliot waiting outside for him already, his long, angular figure clad in a cream-colored suit a monochromatic, elegant contrast to the messy colors of the coffee-shop. He was smoking, leaning backwards against the wall, neck stretched elegantly as he let the smoke escape from his mouth, and Quentin felt a jolt of recognition, like this was something he’d seen before, kind of, Eliot waiting for him like this, even though it was impossible. The strange feeling was soon overcome by a particular sort of elation because Eliot was here. He was here early, even, he hadn’t bailed on Quentin at all.

And then Eliot caught sight of Quentin and his careful posture changed, somehow, although Quentin couldn’t exactly explain how. He looked a little nervous, maybe? But it didn’t make any sense. Why would Eliot be the nervous one?

“Hey, hi,” Quentin said, catching his breath slightly, as soon as he was in front of Eliot. “Um. I’m glad you’re here.”

Eliot put out his cigarette, and smiled - something small and genuine that made Quentin’s heart race, a little. “Hi, Q. I’m glad I’m here, too. Shall we go in?”

They walked inside, and Quentin recognized the barista - an older guy who had served him espresso after espresso back when he haunted the place during midterms in undergrad with only mild judgement.

“Double-shot espresso?” he asked, as soon as Quentin and Eliot approached the register.

“Um, no - actually, uh, last time I had a latte with Earl grey tea? Would you be able to make it again?” Quentin replied, ignoring Eliot’s curious glance for the moment and squinting at the menu. “And, um. Maybe a smoked turkey sandwich?”

“A London Fog? Jesus. Well, at least you’re eating something now,” the barista replied. He then turned his disgruntled glance to Eliot. “For you?”

“I’ll have the same, actually,” Eliot replied. “Sounds good.”

The barista rolled his eyes, and turned away to start brewing the tea. Quentin shifted his messenger bag around trying to pull out his wallet from his pants - it always seemed to get stuck, somehow, at exactly the wrong moment - and realized Eliot was frozen next to him.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Just. Shit - I sort of forgot, well. Money. I’m so sorry, Q,” Eliot said, shoulders slightly hunched.

“Oh, hey, it’s totally okay, I’ll get this one” Quentin replied. And then, feeling a little bold, “You can pay next time?”

Eliot looked surprised and little delighted - he kept looking at Quentin like that - and nodded. “You got it, Q.”

After their drinks and sandwiches were ready, with only just a little more grumbling by the barista, Quentin and Eliot made their way to the corner Quentin favored. Quentin, of course, chose that exact moment to forget how to act like a human and bumped into Eliot as they approached their table, nearly upending their drinks (which Eliot was able to stabilize, somehow, and, was he telekinetic? gah, magic), so Quentin fell into his seat with what he knew was a red face - he could feel his cheeks burning - and he stared at Eliot, unable to come up with a graceful way to break the silence that didn’t involve Quentin blurting out how wonderful Eliot’s thighs looked in his pants.

“So, the barista seemed to have some opinions about your drinking habits,” Eliot said, raising his eyebrows slightly, blowing on his own drink and taking a delicate sip.

“Yeah,” Quentin sighed, grateful that Eliot was ignoring his general Quentin-ness and taking the conversational gambit. “I, uh, used to come here a lot, in undergrad.”

“Oh? Are you an NYU kid, then?” Eliot asked, taking a second sip from his latte and nodding approvingly - apparently it passed muster.

“No, uh. Columbia, actually,” Quentin said. “I just came down here a lot to get away from. The Ivy League of it all, I guess.”

Eliot nodded. “Well, I’m a City College kid myself - Theater, of course - so I can somewhat sympathize. You Columbia boys really did fill the top of Amsterdam Avenue with a lot of hot air,” he said, a slight grin on his face. “But the hallowed halls of the Ivy weren’t all they were cracked up to be?”

Quentin shrugged, trying to figure out how to put it into words without sounding like the absolute worst kind of cliché. “I mean. I - I sound like a fucking jackass, if I say no, but. But the thing is, like, me coming all the way down here to be away from it all. I would say, I always told myself - that I did that to avoid the finance bros or whatever, or how competitive and manufactured the whole thing felt. And that’s true. But I was also, kind of. Avoiding myself. Because Columbia was one more thing that didn’t quite fit, and, like…” he paused, fiddled with his sandwich. He hadn’t really verbalized this before - not outside therapy, last time - but saying this to Eliot, who was looking at him quietly but with complete concentration, it felt. Right. Quentin shifted in his chair, pulled a knee up to hug it, and kept going. “Okay, so. My brain breaks, sometimes." He paused, then, but Eliot just looked open and attentive and not like he was massivelly regretting going out on a date with him, so Quentin kept going. "And after the whole bad brain thing started there was always a part of me which thought - it’s happening cause you’re in the wrong place. Like, if you just find the right place - not a suburban house in Jersey with parents who can’t stand each other but won’t talk about it, not in high school where you’re a weird supernerd hanging on to the coattails of your popular best friend - you’ll finally feel right. So, even after a couple of stints in the hospital, and therapy, and different rounds of meds, there was this part of me that believed if only I could find the right door to cross, arrive at the right place… I’d be solved. Sort of.”

“And every TV show, teen movie, and piece of wisdom told you you’d find that right place in college. But you didn’t,” Eliot said, quietly completing his thoughts.

“Exactly,” Quentin said, running a hand through his hair. God, it had been exactly like that. The way Eliot was looking at him - the understanding, but also the pained recognition - it made something burn inside Quentin’s chest. It was terrifying, and he wanted more. “Columbia was just. One more place, where I didn’t quite fit in. One more place that didn’t fix me. And it was a little easier not to feel that if I wasn’t there so often. Hence, the barista knows me - or, well. At least probably recognizes that I drank way too much espresso to be healthy for four years.”

“Thank you for telling me, Q," Eliot said, a tiny, kind smile on his face.

Quentin nodded, but felt like it was suddenly a little hard to meet Eliot’s eyes. He still didn’t understand why he’d felt so comfortable with him, from the very first second, and it kept catching him off-guard. Like, he wanted to tell Eliot more - maybe everything - but the instinct to do that was also blanketed with something that felt like alarm (Why him? Is it magic? Are you under a spell? Is he here to erase your memories for good this time?) and a secondary, more normal reluctance (Who even cares? Why would somebody like that want to hear about your stupid everything?).

Eliot cleared his throat, making Quentin glance up, and he saw that he was being stared at somewhat speculatively.

“Listen - what do you say we take these to go?” Eliot proposed, gesturing at the drinks and food. “I’m feeling a little antsy, and it’s a pretty decent day out. Want to walk, for a bit?”

Quentin looked at Eliot for a moment, almost at a loss. But he saw no impatience or annoyance, just Eliot genuinely offering to walk around so Quentin could feel less anxious. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds really good, actually,” he finally replied.

They negotiated the switch of beverages and food to portable cups and a paper bag (with some additional grumbling and stink-eye from the barista, which only seemed to push Eliot into slightly more outlandish requests, like radish dressing, what the fuck, Eliot), Quentin pulled his messenger bag back on, and they walked down B Avenue toward Tompkins Square Park almost automatically.

“So - I didn’t want to ask right away, and I know you kind of told me in your email, but,” Eliot said, eyes narrowing slightly. “Did the spell really turn out okay? Nothing went wrong?”

When Quentin had written to Eliot - after the bottle of wine, and with Julia cheering on and offering increasingly nonsensical opening line options - he’d told him about lifting the word-as-bond from Hannah briefly, but he’d low-key worried about putting in too much detail in writing. Did anybody at Brakebills monitor the student emails? Would this make them come after him again? So his paranoia had probably made things come out too vague.

“No, yeah,” Quentin replied, smiling up at Eliot and getting a little distracted doing it, which nearly resulted in a collision with a fire hydrant, a fate avoided by Eliot’s truly ludicrously long arms steering him right. “Uh - thanks. Um, yeah, it went really well. We ended up casting it together, Julia and me, to make it stronger and ‘cause we figured there were two people under the spell so it made sense? And it worked.”

“Hmm. That’s interesting,” Eliot said, frowning thoughtfully. “I don’t know that my instinct would’ve been cooperative casting, but I’m guessing - as hedges, you do that often?”

“Casting together? Yeah. I mean, Marina wasn’t really a ‘we’re all in this together’ type, obviously, but she always emphasized how much more of a kick spells could get when we did them like that. And Julia and I are pretty compatible, even though she’s kinda way stronger than me. But I’m steadier at some things, maybe? Like small things. It’s weird.”

“No, it makes sense,” Eliot assured him, steering him into the park with a hand in his back. “I mean, it’s weird because magic is weird, but we all sort of gravitate to some things or others. Still, I’m very glad it was a success.”

The park wasn’t too busy, and, as it usually happened in New York City, even in small parks, the incessant buzz of the city was hushed, slightly, and it felt like they’d stepped into a different world.

“Yeah,” Quentin said, a little distracted, staring up at the canopies of the trees - he always did this, at parks, stared up and let himself get a little lost in the branches. “It actually went well enough that she kind of, like. Recommended us, to people? Two girls - well, women, I shouldn’t say girls - showed up at our safe-house like a week and a half ago and we’ve been teaching them, it’s been kind of intense.”

“So that’s why you took so long to email,” Eliot said quietly, almost too quietly for Quentin to hear. And then he paused - literally paused, in the park walkway, grabbing Quentin by the arm to stop him. “Wait, you’re teaching hedges? Q, do you and Julia now have, like, a coven?”

“Um. We’re trying to? And I don’t know. Can you be a coven with four people?”

“Well I don’t know!” Eliot exclaimed, then pressed his fingers to his forehead, like he was staving off a head-ache. “Okay, okay. It’s fine. Just - keep being careful, okay? These girls - women - whatever. They’re not. Magic junkies, or something?”

“No!” Quentin said. Eliot just stared at him with raised eyebrows, so Quentin huffed out a breath. “No, El, they’re really not. Like - Plum got kicked out of her house, she’s seventeen. We’re not sure if she got kicked out because of the magic, or because she got caught kissing the chauffeur's daughter? Maybe both. Her family is super-rich and conservative, so it’s a toss-up, I guess. Anyway, she was just looking for a place to learn, and she’s really good, and Julia and her are being very good for each other. And Xochitl is just. She’s amazing, Eliot. She lives with her grandmother because her parents got deported last year - she’s covered by DACA for now, but they weren’t, and it was just luck that her grandma’s second husband was American and she got citizenship through him so she wasn’t left totally alone… she’s so tough, and so smart, and I’m totally over my head and obviously barely competent enough to teach anyone, but.”

“But you’re doing it,” Eliot said, eyes soft.

“Yeah. Yeah, we’re doing it,” Quentin said, shrugging. “I don’t know, El. The thought of either of them landing in Marina’s doorstep… or, or. Or going to Brakebills and doing something wrong and getting expelled and erased like I did? I’m not even close to ideal - Julia’s better, obviously - but. But at least we’re trying to keep them safe. And we won’t erase them if they fuck up. That’s gotta count for something, right?”

“Q… it counts for so much,” Eliot replied, putting an arm around him, and bringing Quentin close. His eyes were shining with an intense sort of sincerity it was hard to look away from, but hard to keep looking at, at the same time. “You’re a good person, Quentin Coldwater. And - and it was Brakebills, that fucked up with you. We don’t have to get into it, and I won’t tell you how I know because I don’t want to risk the memory patch getting screwy, but. You didn’t deserve what happened.”

“Thanks, Eliot,” Quentin said, quietly, embarrassed. But there was something he had to say - a way to echo Eliot’s warm regard. “I’m. I’m really glad we met. You’re a good person, too.”

Eliot’s mouth twisted, slightly, like he was hearing something too strange to believe. “Q - we met not too long ago, you don’t know me that well… I’m not. Not good.”

“Well, you’ve been good to me,” Quentin replied, firmly. And a phrase came to him - something he’d read, maybe? - so he added, “And time is an illusion, anyway, so. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t meet that long ago.”

And Eliot smiled, then, a fragile, beautiful thing that made Quentin force himself to stay still and not kiss him. To distract himself, Quentin looked around for a likely place where they could settle down and have their sandwiches, until he spotted an old oak empty of any other people around. He pointed and Eliot nodded, wordlessly following him.

After they sat down and started nibbling on the food - the sandwiches had gone a little soggy, but still good - Eliot started rhapsodizing on the various deli and coffee shop sandwiches he’d had around the city, classifying them by taste and texture, and he was wrong. He was so wrong! They were in the midst of a fairly intense throw-down over Katz Delicatessen when Quentin caught sight of a little herb garden not too far away, and got distracted, suddenly remembering the strange insistence of the hedge herbalist yesterday.

“... and I just think, like, there’s an institution there, Quentin, and you need to respect - Q? Did I lose you?”

“Sorry, um. It’s just - what would you use wood betony and rue for?” he asked.

“Well, I’m certainly not a naturalist, Q -” Eliot replied, and waved a hand when Quentin opened his mouth to ask. “Never mind, not the point. I’m pretty sure they’re for, uh, warding? Protection-heavy, both of them. I think wood betony’s used to counteract despair and anxiety, too. Why? Are you and Julia writing your own herb compendium or something?”

“No - I mean. We kind of are, but. No, I was asking because we were at this hedge market yesterday-”

“A hedge market? Jeez, I think I really did tangle with amateurs my first year,” Eliot said, eyebrows raised. “Anyway, sorry, you were saying?”

“Uh, right. Well, I was looking for some herbs, mostly healing stuff, for my dad and Xochitl’s grandmother - uh, long story -" Quentin said, as soon as it looked like Eliot was going to ask, "-and the stall-owner told me it looked like there was something hanging over me? And he told me to take them,” Quentin said, opening his messenger bag and pulling out the two little bundles of herbs. He’d left the agrimony and blessed thistle with Xochitl so she could get started on some of the potions they’d found, but he’d sort of felt like he should keep the wood betony and rue around.

“Hmm. Well, I can ask Lip- someone who’s pretty good at herbal magic to see what the most useful combination would be?” Eliot said, shrugging slightly, taking the wood betony from Quentin and examining it for a moment before handing it back. “I’m kind of useless, I mostly passed that class using the notes from this guy who used to be our weed hook-up. He’d be our guy to ask if he was still around, but, uh. His class sort of disappeared.”

Quentin frowned. “Disappeared?”

“Yeah, uh. Magic isn’t all that safer inside Brakebills than it is outside of it, honestly,” Eliot replied, grimacing slightly. “But, back to what you said - and feel free to tell me to fuck off if you want - but. Q, is your dad okay?”

Quentin took a deep breath, and let it out. He hated thinking about it, even though it was always, always there, but. Just like he had since he'd met him, Eliot felt like someone safe to share this with, like he wouldn't judge Quentin for however he was dealing - or not dealing - with the whole thing. “Uh, no. Very much not.”

“D’you… want to talk about it?” Eliot asked, and if thinking about his dad’s illness didn’t make Quentin want to tear his hair out, he honestly would’ve laughed over the way Eliot got out the words like just verbalizing them was making him nauseous.

“There’s. Not much to talk about,” Quentin said. “It’s, uh, brain cancer. Pretty aggressive. And he doesn’t want a surgery, so.”

“Fuck,” Eliot said quietly. He leaned a little closer, and took one of Quentin’s hands in his a little hesitantly, like he was afraid Quentin might pull back, and then squeezing it softly when Quentin didn’t. “Um, but, Q - you do know that magic…”

“Can’t cure cancer?” Quentin said bitterly. “Yeah, I had that reality check two months ago. It was the first thing Julia and I tried to do, when I found out. But Peter - he’s Marina’s, like, second - he explained. And he’s a douchebag, but. It was clear he wasn’t lying about it. When Julia told him she thought he was full of shit, he actually took us to visit a hedge who’d tried to get rid of a malignant mole with magic, and, uh.” Quentin swallowed, remembering the nearly grotesque way the woman’s leg had been twisted. “She made it very clear that trying to cure disease with magic wasn’t something that would go well.”

Eliot squeezed his hand a little tighter, and the touch helped ground Quentin. “So the herbs?”

“Just to help manage symptoms,” Quentin said, shrugging. “It’s a little trial and error - the magic we learned at Marina’s was very, um. Attack focused? But she had a bunch of herb lore lying around that she’d gotten from someone and I spent a couple of days copying a lot of it down, so Xochitl and I have been experimenting a bit. For my dad’s nausea and dizziness, and for her grandma - she has diabetes, and it’s progressing into some side effects we’re hoping to manage, because they don’t have insurance and it’s gotten really hard to get insulin lately.”

“I’ll ask the person at Brakebills about some ideas, too,” Eliot promised.

And Quentin, he just felt. Overcome. This kindness Eliot kept showing him - it kept catching him off guard. But it also somehow helped bridge the gap between Quentin’s fear that this was all some sort of cosmic set up for him getting fucked over or made fun of or erased again, and the possibility that it was real. And it pushed him into being braver, into tugging Eliot toward him by the hand he was still holding, and finally, finally kissing him again, like he’d been wanting to the second he called Quentin a miscreant at the coffee shop, the second he woke up alone three months ago, basically.

Eliot froze for a millisecond - enough for Quentin to notice and almost, almost begin to freak out - but he then fell into the kiss, the hand not holding Quentin’s going to the back of his head and burying itself in his hair, and, god. God, he needed to always be kissing Eliot, he needed to always feel like he was being taken apart and put together again with every time Eliot’s tongue teased against his, with every involuntary clench of Eliot’s hand in his hair, with the sheer fucking feeling of Eliot pressed against him.

The kiss would’ve kept going, but something crunched nearby - somebody walking, maybe, stepping over some dead leaves - and they both remembered they were in public. They drifted apart slowly - barely - Eliot’s eyes more vividly green than the usual hazel meeting what Quentin guessed was his own entirely hazy gaze.

“Q,” Eliot whispered, low, strained, and so close still that his lips almost grazed Quentin’s.

“El,” Quentin echoed. “Do. Do you want to go-”

And it was like suddenly someone had turned off the world, or something - the air around them froze, the very voice in Quentin’s throat froze, and they weren’t in the park anymore, exactly, or they were, but it was like a dark negative of itself. It was magic - it had to be - but nothing like Quentin had felt or experienced before. Eliot was opening and closing his mouth like he was trying to talk but nothing was coming out, and his eyes were wide and panicked.

In the utter, terrifying silence, they heard rustling again, and Quentin reluctantly dragged his eyes away from Eliot - who was still holding on to one of Quentin’s hands but trying to cast something, anything, it looked like, with the other - and saw a group of about fourteen or fifteen moths, some flying, some crawling, moving toward them slowly. They were brown-ish and huge, and just like the ones Quentin had seen by the hedge market, just like the ones that he’d been dreaming about for three months now, and fuck. Fuck. Quentin knew, he just knew, that if the moths reached them, something really bad would happen.

Something, an instinct he really wouldn’t be able to explain later, made him glance to his half-open messenger bag, to the two little bundles of herbs sticking out, and he grabbed them both. He met Eliot’s eyes, mouthed “Burn them,” and still holding hands, they each used their free hand to cast the basic spell for combustion. The wood betony and rue caught fire, the smoke intermingling and rising, and the bizarre spell was broken. The moths vanished, the color and sound of the world turned back on, and Quentin could finally hear his own panicked breathing.

“What the fuck was that?" Eliot breathed out, his hand shaking in Quentin's.

Quentin could only shake his head, not even attempting to guess.

"Fuck it. Q, we’re getting the fuck out of here. Now. Where’s your safe house?” Eliot asked, a tremor in his voice he was clearly trying hard to suppress. He was standing up already, and pulling Quentin up with him.

It took Quentin a couple of tries to get words out, and he almost stumbled when he was back on his feet until Eliot steadied him. “It’s. It’s by the piers near Brooklyn Bridge. We, uh. We can take the 4 down to Fulton, walk from there.”

Eliot nodded. “Okay, let’s go. I’d do anything to be able to portal there instead of taking the subway, but that would take magic a little more complex than I can handle right now, unfortunately.”

The walk and the subway ride felt too long and too short at the same time, every sound amplified. When they were inside the train Eliot held Quentin close to him, as if he was trying to shield him, somehow, and Quentin was too scared and strangely tired to fight it. It felt right, anyway, to fall into Eliot’s chest, to let himself be held.

When they approached the safe house Quentin cast so Eliot would be let inside wards, and he felt like he could finally breathe when the door shut behind them.

“Q? Is that you? Did the date-” Julia walked toward them from behind one of the bookcases, and she froze in shock when she finally caught sight of them. Whatever she could see in their faces made her frown. “What the hell happened?”

“Um. I think. I think something tried to attack us, in Tompkins Square park,” Quentin replied, finding no other way to put it.

Julia glanced wordlessly between Quentin and Eliot for a moment, and then shook her head. “Okay, just. Go sit, I’ll make you some tea. Then you can explain.”

Quentin took Eliot’s hand and led him to the comfiest couch, where they both collapsed like their strings had been cut. Eliot’s hand still trembled slightly in Quentin’s, and Quentin just squeezed it silently.

Julia came back after a moment and handed them both chamomile tea before sitting cross legged on top of the coffee table in front of the couch.

“Okay. So. I’m guessing this is Eliot?”

“Um, yeah, sorry, Jules - uh, this is Eliot Waugh,” Quentin said. “El, this is Julia Wicker.”

“Pleased,” Eliot said a little hoarsely. “I’m sorry we’re not meeting in slightly better circumstances.”

“Likewise,” Julia replied. “Which leads me to - Q, explain?”

Quentin took a sip of the tea, wincing slightly at the heat, and cleared his throat. “Um. I’m still. Still not that sure exactly what happened, but. We were at the park and suddenly it was like… like we weren’t there, exactly. The park was still around but it was like none of the people except us were, and it was all in, like. Negative. Dark, quiet. Neither of us could speak. And there were these - these moths, coming toward us.”

“Moths?” Julia asked, frowning.

“Yeah. I - I don’t know what they were, but they felt evil,” Quentin said. “I had the wood betony and rue from the hedge market yesterday and somehow I just. Knew. It would help. So we burned it, and the whole thing sort of stopped; the world went back to normal.”

“What the fuck,” Julia breathed out. “Q, it sounds like…”

“... like we were on really fucked up drugs?” Eliot interrupted.

“No. I mean, yeah,” Julia said, biting her lip. “But also. I’ve been reading this article, on FuzzBeat, and it talks about multiple worlds and places where the barriers between the worlds are a little thinner. And, um. It mentioned that parks in New York City can often be those places.”

Eliot shut his eyes. “Of course. It’s why a lot of portals are near the parks, or on them.” He opened them immediately. “Wait, you said you read about this on FuzzBeat?”

“Yeah, it’s run by hedges so it has hidden magic articles,” Julia replied distractedly, rustling around the desk for some notes she'd obviously taken on the article. “More importantly, there’s portals?”

“Jules, focus,” Quentin interrupted. “Weird attack, over here?”

“Right, sorry. My point was… maybe you accidentally get too near a thin barrier, and something freaky from another world crossed over?”

It was tempting to take the explanation and move on, but. “The thing is. I don’t think it was an accident,” Quentin said. “I - I think something’s after me. Specifically.”

“What do you mean after you?” Eliot asked, voice sharp.

Quentin glanced down at his hand, where the circular brand was still clear as day, no matter how much cream or ointment he put on it. “I’ve been having these dreams, for the last three months. Dreams with clocks, and. And with moths.”

“A couple of shitty things have gone down, Q - weird dreams are normal,” Julia said with a soft voice.

“I know, and I kind of chalked them up to that. But every time I’m out of the safe house, it’s like. It feels like I’m being watched. And, uh. I saw those moths yesterday, by the hedge market,” Quentin admitted. “Also. I just think it’s all connected, because, well. My hand’s hurting, again.”

“Shit,” Julia hissed. “I knew we should’ve looked into that more.”

“Your hand?” Eliot interjected, looking between them both with a frown that made him seem angry and nervous all at once.

Quentin turned slightly toward him on the couch, and showed Eliot the palm of the hand he wasn’t holding, where the weird circular brand was looking almost irritated. Eliot grazed a soft finger over it for a moment, and then glanced up to meet Quentin’s eyes, his own pained.

“What is it, El?”

“Quentin, this.” Eliot paused, took a shuddering breath. “Listen, I hate that I need to do this, and I'll help you make a potion that will help with the headache, but I need to tell you why you got expelled from Brakebills. Because I think this started there.”

Quentin met Julia’s eyes for a second, and then he glanced back at Eliot. “Okay, um. Tell me.”

And Eliot talked about Quentin getting mixed up with a girl called Alice and working with her and two other people on a spell to summon her dead brother, but which ended up summoning some sort of moth man from another dimension that killed a professor and took the dean’s hands and eyes.

“Fuck. Well. Of course they expelled me,” Quentin breathed out, trying to ignore the weird headache that had sprung up behind his eyes. “It’s lucky they didn’t, like. Charge me. Is there a magic prison?”

“What? Why would they charge you?” Julia said, looking up from where she'd been taking notes of Eliot's story, because of course she had been.

“Jules, you heard what Eliot said - I did something totally stupid and got a person killed, and another permanently maimed!”

“No, Q, that’s not what I heard,” Julia said, frowning fiercely. “What I heard was that you made a mistake because you were trying to help somebody, and that stupid fucking school punished you and hung you out to dry instead of teaching you anything. And now you’re out here, with whatever magical training we’ve managed to scrounge up, and that fucking mothman is after you!”

“The Beast, is what the professors called it,” Eliot interrupted quietly. “And she’s right, Quentin. Brakebills is - far less concerned with student life and safety than any other school. They call it the cost of learning magic. But you truly did make an honest mistake, and it wasn’t just you - three other people did, too. You were just the scapegoat. Quentin, I swear I didn’t think this was after you.”

“I know, El…”

“No, I - right before you were expelled, when you figured out you’d get wiped, I said I’d come find you, okay, and I did,” Eliot said, eyes pained. “We had that night, and I saw that you weren’t. Perfect. But you were with Julia, and I’d seen you again, and I thought that’s as much as we’d get. But I never imagined… I’m used to Brakebills being lackadaisical, okay? But this - they had to know, or guess, that this thing was going to come back, and that it could go after the people who had inadvertently summoned it. The other three are safe behind Brakebills’ wards, but you…” Eliot trailed off then, looking troubled.

“So what do I do now?” Quentin asked, hating that his voice broke in the question, but unable to hold back the fear he was feeling, not when both Julia and Eliot were looking at him so seriously, and so clearly scared.

“I’m going to help you, Q. I’m going to protect you,” Eliot said, a near manic intensity in his voice and eyes. “Do you believe me?”

Quentin looked at Eliot for a moment, at the way his hazel eyes were desperately fixed on Quentin, the near-imperceptible shaking in his hands.

“Eliot… were you the one that got me into London Fog?”

Julia looked between them as if they were nuts, but Eliot smiled, a small, trembling thing.

“Yeah, Q. I made it for you one day, when you were feeling a little down,” he replied. “And then you sort of talked me into making it for you every other day.”

Quentin nodded. He couldn’t remember - and it hurt to try - but he’d somehow always known, even back when Eliot was just Tall Guy and the most intense sex he’d ever had, that there was more. “I believe you, El,” he finally said. “But. If this thing is so bad, how are we supposed to face it? How am I?”

“You learn more magic,” Eliot said immediately, taking Quentin’s hand in his again, almost unconsciously tracing a soft finger over the brand in his palm. “I’m teaching you and Julia and your baby coven, and I’ll rope Margo in to help - she’s my girl, she knew you back at Brakebills, and she’ll love breaking some rules.”

“Eliot, are you sure? Won’t you get in trouble?” Julia asked.

“Fuck it. Fuck them. If it hadn’t been for some stupid herbs I’m not sure Quentin and I would’ve made it out of the park today,” Eliot replied, fierce. “We’re doing this.”

Julia nodded, looking determined and even a little excited, because, well. Magic. “Okay, if you’re sure. We’re doing this.”

Eliot and Julia both turned to Quentin.

“Yeah, okay. I guess we’re doing this,” he shrugged, helplessly.

If there was a person alive who could resist the combined force of Julia Wicker and Eliot Waugh, Quentin was very, very much not one of them.

+++

In the next week, the following things happened, making Quentin’s already surreal world all the more surreal:

First, He met Margo Hanson. Or met her again? He still got weird headaches whenever he tried to think too hard about his time at Brakebills or when Eliot explained too much. Still, meeting - re-meeting - Margo was about as terrifying the second time as he could guess the first time was. She was gorgeous and fierce and utterly unapologetic, walking into the safe house like a queen entering a foreign domain and ready to find it wanting. But then she looked around at the mismatched couches, the lamps, the messy bookcases, and something in her softened inexplicably.

“El, this place…” she said softly.

“I know, Bambi. Quentin said he convinced Julia to fix it like this because it felt like home,” Eliot said, something strange in his voice, glancing briefly at Quentin and relaying part of the conversation they’d had over dinner after the Beast’s attack.

Margo turned to Quentin, then, and having the full force of her attention was truly. Something.

“Listen, Q - I still don’t think you’re that cute, but you’re one of mine even if you don’t remember exactly why. Brakebills fucked you over, but we’ll fucking fix it, okay?” she said, something dark and fierce and fond in her eyes all at once.

“Okay, Margo,” Quentin answered, because, like. He somehow knew you didn’t say no to Margo Hanson, whether you’d known her for a minute or for months.

“Good. Now go get mamma a shot of bourbon, and I’ll take out all the books I duplicated out from this bag,” she said, shaking the tiny, beaded purse on her hand. When Quentin tilted his head, curious she huffed out a laugh. “It’s got a modification of Thibadeau's Planar Compression. I’ll teach it to you later, little Q.”

Then, three more people showed up at the safe house, sent their way by someone they described as a blond, low-level Wall Street type who’d chased them away from a coven they’d heard of but gave them Quentin and Julia’s names instead. So, clearly Pete had something of a conscience underneath all the douchebag, or he still wanted to sleep with Julia. Or both.

Whatever the case, they now had three more baby hedges to teach: a soft-spoken willowy nineteen-year-old called Neil Johnson, a mild-mannered forty-year old receptionist called Anna Stewell who had a crazy unexpected aptitude for what Eliot and Margo called battle magic she’d discovered after an attempted mugging, and Jorge Martinez Robles, Xochitl’s second cousin who’d apparently followed her after getting suspicious and not taking her grandmother’s word that she wasn’t in some sort of trouble. Which, well. She kind of was in trouble, because of Quentin, but she always punched Quentin in the arm when he tried to point that out.

The next two months turned into an intense, exciting, and exhausting haze of learning and drilling more magic than Quentin and Julia could’ve imagined back with Marina, often leaving his hands shaking and his skin buzzing with exhaustion and spell-work, and slowly making their star count increase, until Quentin felt he could put together a constellation on his forearm. While the magic Brakebills taught was clearly extremely advanced and magical, Quentin sometimes felt it was missing something, and he could tell Julia felt it, too.

So it eventually became a bit of a back-and-forth, and every time Margo and Eliot presented them with a new spell or technique, Julia could usually offer some way to tweak it to make it stronger, or cast it in a different way, and when she didn’t, Quentin or Plum or Xochitl, or even the newer kids, would suggest things, scrolling through FuzzBeat and finding unlikely and unexpected spells and bits of magic. They didn’t always work, but a lot of the time they did. Margo and Eliot looked a little baffled - Margo kept saying it wasn't the way the spells had always been done - but they were also fascinated by the variations, and kept spending longer and longer at the safe house, allegedly using the excuse of pre-thesis research to explain their absences from school.

One night, Eliot made them all celebratory cocktails after everyone had mastered cooperative Sumerian Shield Charms and Mansell’s Primary Invisibility. Quentin was happily ensconced into a corner of the couch and while Plum and Jorge tried to talk Xochitl, Neil, and Anna into some version of magical twister and Julia played referee, and he overheard Margo and Eliot talking about the coven.

“Jesus, trust Coldwater to put together a coven that is like, seventy-five percent made up of disaster bisexuals,” Margo said, chuckling.

“Who’s the twenty-five percent?”

“Anna. Bitch is the only one who’s got it the fuck together.”

Honestly, Margo wasn’t wrong.

The final surreal thing that happened, that kept happening, was, well. Eliot. It wasn’t that Quentin hadn’t dated before, for a given value of dating, but. The couple of weeks he’d dated Jessa Walker in 11th grade or the month and a half he’d spent going over to George Paxton’s dorm-room in undergrad to allegedly plan DnD campaigns but always ended up with them making out or jerking off… he’d just pined for Julia for such a long time, and he’d spent a not insignificant amount of time trying to figure out a way for his own mind not to kill him on top of it all, not always successfully, that he felt he could barely call them relationships.

But now, with Eliot - even amidst the training, even amidst the low-level fear that thrummed through him over the thought of the Beast - it was good. It was like nothing he’d experienced before. It was Quentin knowing that he should make Eliot’s coffee with a splash of milk and a tiny spoonful of sugar even though he only ever ordered it black out loud. It was Eliot making Quentin fancy mac’n’cheese on bad brain days that was easy to eat and settled his stomach, without Quentin ever having to ask. It was Eliot’s hand settling at the nape of his neck whenever Quentin became overwhelmed; it was Quentin figuring out that putting his head on Eliot’s lap on the couch was the fastest way to stop Eliot from spiraling into needless blame and worst-case scenarios (they usually - thankfully - mostly took turns to freak out).

It was also arguing - sometimes more low-level sniping, sometimes bigger fights, because Eliot tended towards over-protection and making decisions without asking, and Quentin got pissy and morose, and neither of them were smooth, easy people. But none of the arguments meant they ended, none of the arguments were irreversible, and that was also new, for Quentin, who was used to his edges pushing everybody but Julia away. He was learning, though, that Eliot also had those edges and was just as scared as Quentin that they made him unlovable. What Quentin was finding out, though, what they were both discovering, was that their edges could fit together.

And, also, all the time: it was kissing, and kissing, and kissing - kissing to say hello, and goodbye, and kissing because oh, shit, I just bumped into you by the weird corner table with a kettle plugged in we call the kitchen. It was slipping off to some corner or another of the safe house and making out for so long that Quentin felt like his own skin couldn’t quite contain him, like he’d die if they ever stopped. It was the greatest and fucking scariest thing Quentin had experienced feeling for another person, and he couldn’t get enough of it.

“Okay, Q - we’ve been trying to nail down Fergus’ Spectral Armory for the past five hours. I think you need a break,” Eliot said, leaning back against one of the couches with a sigh.

“I’m okay, El, I can keep going,” Quentin said, shaking his hands out to get ready for another try. Whatever the Beast was, learning a spell to conjure an invisible armor was bound to come in handy, but since the whole thing was kind of adjacent to battle magic, it required a frame of mind that Quentin was still having a hard time cracking. Julia, on the other hand, was on the opposite side of the safe house making Margo and Anna shoot spells at her to test the limits of her armor.

“Okay, then I need a break,” Eliot huffed out a laugh, sitting up from his slouch and taking Quentin’s hands in his to massage them gently. “C’me on, Q. You’ve got the basic movements down, and the Gaelic. You can practice the rest tomorrow. For tonight - I have a plan.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed, Mr. Coldwater. And this plan requires a change of ensemble for me, and for you, uh. Well, you just need to show up. Meet me by the Chambers street portal around eight?”

Eliot looked practically as composed as ever, but Quentin was learning him more and more every day - his quirks, his tells, his tender spots - and he could tell that for all his nonchalance, he was nervous, still somehow expecting Quentin would say no. So he refrained from complaining about going out and tried to hide his apprehension about going somewhere that required outfit upgrades, and gave Eliot the only answer he could give, really - the same answer he’d been giving since Eliot had come and found him in a bar.

“Of course, El.”

Quentin must’ve not hidden his reservations quite as well as he’d hoped, though, because Eliot quirked a smile. “I promise you’ll like it.”

After Eliot took off with Margo, though, and Quentin explained to Julia why they were leaving earlier than had become the norm, she absolutely put her foot down.

“Q, you totally have to change!”

“But, Jules, Eliot said I looked fine.”

Julia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, because you’ve sort of incepted him into believing that flannel and ratty t-shirts are the height of attraction - don’t pout, Q, I speak from a place of learned appreciation for your flannel - but this is a date! You need to make an effort.”

With that, Jules kicked everyone out of the safe house for the night, to almost general grumbling (Neil never really grumbled, but at least he was looking less permanently scared - Plum and Margo, surprisingly, were working on it) up until the moment Julia let slip that Quentin had a date, which, like, was it a date? Eliot just said plans? Anyway, not the point. The point was that the kids started ribbing Quentin shamelessly, Anna outright laughed at him, and Xochitl punched him on the shoulder. Again.

After Julia and Quentin made it back to Julia’s apartment, she made him go over his entire closet twice (there wasn’t that much to go over, to be perfectly honest, but Quentin ignored Julia’s judging eyebrows with practiced ease) until she finally settled on black jeans and a black button-down.

“Simple, classic - it works, Q. Trust me.”

“Don’t I look a little bit like a droopy-haired undertaker, though?”

“I mean… that’s one interpretation? But no, trust me. Eliot will love it.”

Despite Quentin’s doubts, Eliot’s face when he met Quentin by the Chambers street portal made the entire thing worth it - even the bruise he could feel coming in from Xochitl’s arm punch.

“Q, you look…”

“Right back at you. Uh. More, back at you.”

Because more was the only thing Quentin could think of, looking at Eliot. He was wearing dark blue fitted trousers, brown boots that went all the way up to his knees, and underneath his camel hair coat, Quentin could see a dark blue shirt with some sort of pattern, a slightly shiny lavender vest, and an ochre patterned tie. So, yes. Quentin was maybe trying not to drool, a little, but Eliot seemed to be pleased with his reaction.

“So, um. Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise, Q. But I think you’ll like it.”

They walked further into Tribeca and Quentin felt increasingly apprehensive as they passed fashionable bars and restaurants he’d very deliberately avoided during his escapes from Jersey to the city with Julia in high-school and throughout undergrad. Eventually, though, Eliot came to a stop in front of an entirely non-descript looking building: faded brick, shabby and fading wooden door. Before Quentin could ask, Eliot performed a basic revealing charm and the door turned from peeling, cheap wood to gleaming mahogany, and Eliot knocked on the massive brass knob in the middle. The door slowly opened to reveal a candle-lit, gleaming bar, and Eliot took Quentin’s hand before walking inside.

“The wards are set for Brakebills graduates and students, but we’re allowed a plus one as long as they stay close and aren’t a total Muggle about it,” Eliot explained, and when they reached the host, said, “Table for two, under Waugh.”

Quentin looked around with interest while Eliot negotiated something or other with the maitre d’- apparently the table they were being offered wasn’t the one Eliot had requested. The place was a lot bigger than it seemed possible, as was apparently par for the course for magical establishments, and in addition to the fire roaring in a chimney set against one wall and the various candles floating around which created a very specific ambiance, he could sort of feel something else floating in the air. He brought his left hand up to do the tuts for a one-handed Mann Reveal, and saw lines and lines of wards crawling up and down the walls, the floors, the tables themselves.

“Jesus, what are all the spells for? Just to keep non-Brakebills people out?”

“Not just that,” Eliot replied, putting a hand behind Quentin’s back to steer him toward the corner table that had at last been deemed acceptable. They settled down - the chairs were unbelievably comfortable, even though they looked like they really shouldn’t be - and Eliot made a gesture at the waiter that had two extremely complicated-looking drinks appearing in front of them within seconds. “There’s your run-of-the-mill non-flammable wards, so nothing catches fire - a rather key precaution, you’ll agree - anti-vermin wards, and non-flooding wards, because this is, after all, New York City, and the owner had a bad experience during Sandy. But there’s also a few spells that ensure no real harm can be done inside the bar.”

Quentin felt his eyes widen. “What, like. People can’t hurt each other here?”

“I mean, like. People can get into arguments, of course - it’s not mind-control, or anything. I’ve witnessed one or two spectacular breakups here myself. But if you tried to cast a curse, or Battle Magic, or, like, stab me, you wouldn’t be able to.”

Quentin took a sip of his drink - it tasted like peaches, but had a nice, kind of sour undertone - and rolled his eyes. “Stabbing you isn’t exactly top of my list, El.”

“Oh? And what is the top of your list?” asked Eliot with an arched eyebrow.

Of course, Quentin had to take the implied dare, and leaned across the table to kiss Eliot, intending to do it only for a moment but unable to resist deepening the kiss when their lips caught together, because kissing Eliot was still not something he could do lightly, probably never would be. He pulled back, though, because they were in public, after all. “We can start with that, because the rest needs us to be in a bedroom, preferably,” he said, feeling his cheeks warm but refusing to look away from Eliot.

“Well. That can be arranged after dinner, maybe,” Eliot said, clearing his throat a little, but unable to hide a delighted smile. He really seemed to like it when Quentin openly expressed how much he liked him, and, seriously, had he ever looked in a mirror? If Quentin wasn’t under threat from a bizarre moth-person-Beast thing, he wouldn’t spend all his days learning spells to stay alive, he would spend them in Eliot’s bed, basically. “Do you - uh. Is this a good surprise, then?”

“Yeah, El. This place is incredible.”

It became even more incredible in the next few seconds, when various kinds of appetizers just appeared at their table. Quentin dug into a plate of what looked like basic potato wedges and found to his delight they had truffle oil and parmesan on them, and were the exact perfect temperature to be warm and crispy but not burn his tongue.

Eliot glanced around, a slightly self-deprecating look on his face. “You know, my first year at Brakebills, I was convinced this is what I wanted to do, once I graduated. Set up an exclusive bar or lounge catering to Magicians, seek out the best and most complex party magic possible - make every evening an event.”

“And that’s not the plan now?” Quentin asked. It sounded perfectly suited to Eliot, in a way, who knew how to turn an evening after learning spells into a memorable celebration with barely anything more than a couple of bottles of wine and some chips.

“Well. Now I think I’d make sure hedges could come into my bar - I mean, not, like, Marina hedges, but you know what I mean. And maybe even Muggles, too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Q. These weeks I’ve spent with you, with your coven,” Eliot said, swirling the drink around his glass contemplatively. “I just feel we’re missing out so much, in these Classical-Magicians-only spaces? I think in ensuring safety or exclusivity we’re just cutting ourselves off from not only other kinds of magic, but. Reasons, to do magic.”

“What do you mean, reasons?”

“I mean - uh. I’m about to talk about some Brakebills stuff, so brace yourself for a mild headache, maybe,” Eliot said, and paused until Quentin nodded. “So, there’s this week in Brakebills that’s meant to be for finding mentors, or whatever, for post-grad life. Our first year, Margo and I mostly just spent the whole week drunk and partying, and it was kind of a disaster, I ended up being matched to a nun. Long story. For second year, we actually researched and we were both aiming to get this woman, Genji, who runs a retreat for Magicians that is extremely exclusive and features learning some fascinating spells but also apparently a very hard-core magical orgy…”

Quentin couldn’t hold back a smile, because, honestly, going from a nun to a magical orgy sounded kind of exactly the thing Eliot would do. He did nothing by halves. “Did you convince Genji to be your mentor?”

“No,” Eliot sighed, and then a strange look passed his face, half-regretful, half-stubborn. “You, um. You’d just been kicked out, a few weeks before, and. My heart wasn’t really in it. Margo ended up getting the invite.”

“I’m sorry, El.”

“No, god, don’t be,” Eliot waved him away. “I was annoyed at the time because I hate losing to Margo, but now… I don’t know, Q. It seems so small? Like, we have magic, and we use it to have orgies and do tricks, and the height of ambition I could think of for my post-grad life was to start a bar. And here you are, cut off from magic because of a mistake and a dick of a university dean, and in between trying to survive you’re attempting to figure out how to manage diabetes and cancer side-effects.”

Quentin sat with that for a moment, eating another chip with truffle oil - they were ridiculously good. There were some good points, among what Eliot had said, but something was rubbing him the wrong way.

“Okay, um. I agree, a bit, but also I don’t,” he said, once most of his thoughts were in order, picking up a napkin to clean his fingers, and then picking up another one which he started folding into origami. “Like, yeah, El - Brakebills magic does seem to be geared a lot towards, like, the individual. I’ve definitely noticed that. And it sucks that it’s also made a very insular world, because that for sure leads to stagnation, but. But there’s ways to improve that, and still do things that you love and want to do. Like, your idea about your bar, but for Hedges and regular people - that sounds great. I, uh - I’m obviously not the life of any party. But. Eliot, there’s nothing small or stupid about creating places and experiences and nights that make people happy.” He finished his origami - a little, slightly lopsided swan - and made a few small tuts until he’d completed Cavaleri, and the swan was fluttering its wings slightly.

Eliot frowned for a moment, but then touched a gentle finger to the swan and his frown softened. “Yeah, okay, but. Isn’t it a little selfish? Maybe I should be aiming to become, I don’t know. A doctor, or run a magical soup kitchen, or something. Like, a job where I’m just a good person, and not some sort of professional lush.”

“Okay, first of all, don’t do that, don’t talk about yourself like that,” Quentin replied, heated, putting a hand over Eliot’s where it lay on the table. “I mean, I get it, I am a world-class expert at putting myself down, but. El, do you know how lucky I feel, that you’re my boyfriend? You’re so fucking smart, and so kind, and so ridiculously attractive it makes me dizzy, most of the time.”

Quentin could see Eliot gearing himself to reply, but he barreled on ahead, because there was an even larger point that we wanted to make, and he felt if he didn’t do it now the opportunity would be lost, and Eliot would keep feeling like he was less, somehow. “Second of all, like. Being a doctor or a soup kitchen owner or, like, a nun, it doesn’t automatically make anyone a good person. Like - I’ve been institutionalized more than once, and I’ve met my fair share of psychiatrists and doctors and social workers, and some of them have been really good and truly helpful, but some of them were assholes. Because people can be assholes, whatever job they have. And there’s as much value in building a safe place where people can have a drink and spend a good time with their friends as in being a doctor who can fix someone’s broken hand, or broken brain, or whatever. It’s just. Different kinds of medicine. It’s not about what work you do, it’s more about - about how you do it, I think.”

Eliot looked at him quietly, for a moment, mouth opening and closing like he couldn’t quite come up with what to say, and then looking down at their joined hands without saying anything. It was so rare, to see Eliot lost for words like that, that Quentin worried he’d somehow overstepped.

“El? I’m, uh. Sorry, if that came out, uh. I know I can be overbearing, Julia scolds me all the time over it.”

“No, Q, no,” Eliot said, finally looking up and squeezing his hand. His eyes were a little shiny, but he was smiling, a small, beautiful thing. “I mean, you can be overbearing, but I mostly like that. No, I was just. Thank you, Quentin. You, uh. You gave me a lot to think about.”

“Oh. Um. You’re welcome.”

Then, after another pause, Eliot’s smile turned sly. “Boyfriend?”

And Quentin realized what he’d said, during his rant. Shit. “Um, you know, like. Obviously, if you don’t, uh. But if you want?”

“I want, Q,” Eliot said, warmly.

“Oh,” Quentin breathed out, relieved.

“Now, do you want another drink?”

“Please.”

Their magical appetizers disappeared, then, but before Quentin could miss the truffle fries too mournfully, an incredible-looking hamburger showed up in front of him, and a salmon that smelled pretty amazing in front of Eliot.

“How did - did the magic just guess I wanted a hamburger?” Quentin asked, amazed.

“No,” Eliot said, huffing out a laugh. “I did, sent our order via spell this morning. You’ve been saying you want one for the last week, but your kids keep out-voting you and getting pizza or Thai. But now that you mention it - it would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it? A sort of catered eating experience, adjusted to the cravings of the patron after they walk through the wards…”

“You should work on it,” Quentin said. “For, your, uh, thesis.”

Eliot shot him a look, like he knew exactly what he was doing, but just nodded and dug into his salmon while Quentin took a big bite out the hamburger which was truly as unbelievably good as it looked. Eventually, after they finished eating and had another drink, Quentin felt a little woozy and excused himself to go to the bathroom. He tried to guess the various enchantments as he washed his hands - probably something to eliminate any bad smells, and maybe something so the water was the perfect temperature coming out of the taps? He made a mental note to ask Eliot, because the water temperature in Julia’s loft was hit or miss.

As he walked back to their table, he saw Eliot talking to a man with curly blond hair who was gesturing towards the door, and while Eliot seemed to be smiling, Quentin could tell the smile was entirely fake. He made it to the table in time for him to hear the man invite Eliot - for what sounded like the second or third time - out for a smoke.

“No, really, I’m okay. I’ll wait for my boyfriend to come back and maybe get a smoke with him,” Eliot was saying, and then, when he caught sight of Quentin, widened his eyes with almost imperceptible relief. “Q, there you are!”

“Here I am,” Quentin replied, smiling uncertainly and sitting down.

“The boyfriend?” the blond man asked dubiously.

“The boyfriend,” Eliot confirmed, the fake smile totally gone and replaced with what Margo called his ‘disagree and I will kill you, bitch’ face, which made Quentin feel overall less disgruntled by the apparent disbelief of a total fucking stranger that he could actually be with Eliot. “Q - this is Mike, was it? He introduced himself. He’s apparently a Brakebills alumni and he recognized me, or something - but he’s, uh, leaving now.”

The blond man, Mike, whatever, looked seriously pissed for a moment, eyes flashing strangely, but then he covered it up with a smarmy laugh. “Hey, fine. I can see where I’m not wanted, no need to be rude. Have a good night.”

I was rude?” Eliot asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow, once they’d seen the man leave. “Please. Is ‘no’ truly such a hard concept to grasp?”

“Well, Julia, Margo, Xochitl, and Plum would say that it is, unfortunately,” Quentin said, shrugging slightly.

“Fair point. Not Anna?”

“I mean - Anna figured out she had magic because she Battle Magicked the shit out of some guy who didn’t grasp the concept of ‘no’, so…”

Eliot laughed, then - it always made Quentin feel so proud when he made Eliot laugh - and the blond asshole was forgotten. When they finally left the bar, the gleaming mahogany fading into ratty wood behind them again, Eliot seemed to hesitate.

“It’s kind of late. Do you, uh. Do you want me to walk you home, Q? Call it a night?”

It made Quentin pause, and he forced Eliot into a stop with a hand on his forearm. “Are you crazy? Yeah, I want you to walk me home, El. And then come up with me and fuck my brains out.”

It made Eliot crush Quentin to him, right there on the street, pulling Quentin into a messy, needy kiss. “Jesus, you’re my favorite,” he hissed, before pulling Quentin towards a side street. “Fuck walking, we’re taking one of the portals - there’s one nearby, because most Magicians hate taking the F.”

They stumbled out of the Brooklyn portal closest to Julia’s loft, and Quentin could feel himself buzzing with anticipation. It was almost like the first time, when Eliot had come to find him in the bar and seduced him and turned his head upside down, but this time it was so much better. He knew Eliot’s name, for one, but also - he knew Eliot, down to his bones. The promise he’d felt, those months ago, had come true.

Inside the loft, they crashed into Quentin’s room, Eliot hastily throwing up silencing wards and walking Quentin back into the bed, not pausing in kissing him for a second, now that they were inside.

“Shirt, off,” Eliot said urgently, leaning back for a second to start unbuttoning his own vest.

Quentin obeyed, glancing down at his shaking fingers which could suddenly not go through something as basic as unbuttoning a fucking shirt, and then made the mistake of looking up, and. God, Eliot. Eliot’s chest, gleaming in the light of the bedside table lamp, his dick straining against his ludicrously tight pants. Quentin could understand the blond asshole, because why was a man so unbelievably perfect even doing with Quentin? He mostly looked like a foot!

Eliot noticed his hesitation, and finished hopping out of his boots. “Q, darling - less watching, more undressing. I promise you’ll get to look your fill.” When Quentin still didn’t move, though, he moved to kneel in front of him, between his legs. “Hey - what’s going on in that head of yours?”

Quentin couldn’t really figure out how to say it, beyond gesturing helplessly with still shaky hands between his own bony chest and all that Eliot encompassed. He couldn’t quite explain why it was hitting him now of all times, either, considering how much time they’d spent making out at the safe house (Anna had teamed up with Julia to create a spell to sound an alarm if they spent more than fifteen minutes at it because people had gotten that sick of walking in on them). But maybe the whole thing was catching up with him - putting a name to what they were, and the perfect date, and the belligerent shit who tried to hit on Eliot.

Eliot looked confused for a moment, but comprehension dawned in his eyes slowly, and he crawled even closer into Quentin, forcing Quentin’s legs to open even wider to accommodate him.

“Q… the last thing I want right now is to give you a headache. I mostly just want to give you head,” Eliot began, smiling a little, but then turning serious, his eyes intent on Quentin. “But I think I need to say this, just so you understand how absolutely fucking off base that idiot tonight was. I got to see you walk into Brakebills, the first day you got there. Guided you to your exam. And, Quentin - from that very first second that you stumbled in, looking lost and ridiculous and wearing entirely the wrong outfit, I wanted to do absolutely unspeakable things to your gorgeous little body.”

“El…”

“No, really,” Eliot continued, and, with gentle but certain hands, finished unbuttoning Quentin’s shirt, and slowly pulled it off him. “I spent hours talking about your face and your cute little ass to Margo while you were doing the exam, she was absolutely ready to kill me. But, Q, the fact that I’ve found you ridiculously attractive since the first second I saw you - I mean it, you’re my type to a tee - is the least of it. Back in Brakebills, we became friends because you. You fascinated me. You were nerdy and smart but also a bitchy little shit, and I couldn’t get enough. And when you got kicked out I broke the rules to find you because I couldn’t stand the idea of not seeing you, at least once. I thought that would be enough, but…”

“But what?” Quentin asked quietly, every cell in his body straining forward to hear Eliot’s answer.

“But it wasn’t, and I was miserable, and the day that I walked into that ridiculous cafe and found you on the other side of my locator spell was possibly the greatest day of my life,” Eliot said, his words coming rushed and intense, his voice going shaky by the end. “So. You see. You couldn’t be more wrong, thinking that you’re not good enough for me. If anything…”

And hell, no. After the bravery it had taken, for Eliot to say what he had, Quentin wasn’t going to let that stand - he was going to be just as brave in return. “How about we agree that we’re just. Good for each other?”

Eliot looked as if he was going to argue, a bit, but then he shook his head and smiled. “Alright. Agreed.”

They looked at each other quietly for a moment, desire building between them, and almost at the same time, they both leaned toward each other for a kiss. It wasn’t as rushed as it had been, when they got to the loft, but it was, if possible, more intense. With both of them finally shirtless, Eliot took off his own pants, took off Quentin’s jeans and then sort of bodily moved him up the bed - Jesus he was strong - covering Quentin’s body with his. He then kissed his way down Quentin’s body, slowly, so slowly it made Quentin shiver with want. Eliot paused on his hips, and Quentin whimpered, shifted slightly, tried to get him moving, but Eliot’s big hands just gripped him, kept him still, and then Eliot just. Kissed him. Softly, gently, on the hips. The intimacy of it made Quentin almost pass out, turned him boneless.

“El, El, El,” he moaned, realizing after too long that he was actually saying it out loud.

“Q…” Eliot whispered. “Let me?”

“Anything,” Quentin said, feverish. “Anything.”

There was no room for doubt, then, no room for talking. No room for anything but their bodies, moving against each other, their mouths and tongues meeting until Quentin’s lips felt bruised, until he felt he would die without Eliot inside him.

“Fuck me, Eliot,” he whispered, staring up into Eliot’s eyes.

And Eliot did, taking Quentin apart over and over again, pushing into him deeper and deeper until Quentin felt he wasn’t made from skin at all, he was nothing but sheer sensation, until all that was left in his brain was Eliot, Eliot, Eliot.

+++

Quentin woke up the next day with a smile. His body felt pretty sore but as he leaned closer to Eliot’s warm shoulder and heard Eliot’s sleepy hum in response, all he could think of was that he wanted more, today, right now.

Unfortunately, however, Eliot had an elective on Horomancy that he couldn’t skip and Quentin had made plans with Xochitl and Jorge to go herb hunting at the hedge market again, so Quentin’s perfect plan to stay in bed all day had to be rescheduled.

“But I love the way you think, baby - we are absolutely doing an entire day in bed soon. We’ll do an entire weekend,” Eliot promised, giving him a deep kiss goodbye before leaving the loft.

Quentin stared after him dejectedly for a moment, until a raspy laugh made him realize Julia was in the kitchen drinking coffee and had clearly witnessed the entire thing.

“What?” he asked, crossing his arms.

“Oh, hey, nothing at all. Just glad Eliot’s good at silencing wards, I think”, Julia said, smirking.

“You’re the worst.”

“There’s still coffee on the pot.”

“... fine, you’re. Not that much the worst.”

After two cups of coffee and a shower, Quentin felt a little more ready to face the world, and he made his way to the safe house to meet Xochitl and Jorge for their excursion. They took the J train to the Bowery and headed in the direction that Quentin remembered the hedge market was in.

“You don’t know exactly where it is?” Jorge asked, voice judgmental. Quentin knew that Jorge absolutely hated not having a detailed plan for things - whenever they planned on going anywhere and started arguing about how, he was the first one to take out his phone and Google-map the most efficient route. It was probably a side-effect of him being a scientist.

“I mean, I know the general direction? But it sort of. Showed up, last time,” Quentin said. “I’m pretty sure it’s not in the same place all the time, and I honestly have a sneaking suspicion that it might, like. Occupy a different plane, or something. You’ll see what I mean when we go in.”

Jorge still looked disgruntled, and Xochitl rolled her eyes.

“Oh, get over it, Jorge. It’s magic! You can’t make all of it make sense, okay, Mr. Physicist?” she said. “Now, Q,” Xochitl had picked up his nickname, but pronounced it like coo in Spanish instead of like cue in English, and he loved it. “We’re getting agrimony again, right? And some more blessed thistle?”

“Yeah. I thought this time we could also try, um, astragalus, for my dad? It helps mental clarity. And feverfew for your grandma.”

Xochitl nodded, and took out a little notebook she always carried around from inside her leather jacket. “Okay, good. I also wrote down something the other day, let me check-”

“Um, guys? This Aryan-looking asshole is following us and I don’t have a good feeling about it,” Jorge interrupted, low and urgent.

Quentin and Xochitl turned, but before they could do much of anything, the man following them - shit, it was the blond asshole from last night! - basically ran at them, throwing himself at Quentin, something black gleaming in his hand. Quentin dodged, barely, and then Jorge was placing himself between Quentin and the blond man, shoving him down into the pavement. Quentin and Xochitl both brought their hands up, trying to get a clear shot at the attacker without hitting Jorge.

Finally, the blond asshole rolled Jorge underneath him, and as he leaned back to strike him with - was that a fucking black knife, what the fuck - Quentin moved his fingers quickly through the tuts Margo had taught him, the magic coming urgent and clean the way he hadn’t been able to manage in the safe-house, and a blue shield missile shot out, forcing the blond man several feet back. He stared between Quentin, Jorge, and Xochitl for a moment, and then behind them, where Quentin could see from the corner of his eye a doorway was expanding - the hedge market - and clearly decided running was the better part of valor.

With the attacker gone, Quentin breathed out, relieved, but then Xochitl groaned, and his blood ran cold.

“Fuck, no. Jorge!”

He kneeled down next to her, by Jorge, and saw the blood pouring from his side. The asshole had managed to stab him.

“Damn it, Jorge,” Quentin said, putting trembling hands on top of the wound, trying to keep pressure. “Xoch, call Julia, now.”

“Come on, bring him inside,” a gruff voice said, and Quentin looked up to see the burly herb stall-owner. “Come on - we have a place where we can stabilize him. Just don’t take your hand off the wound.”

Between the three of them, they carried Jorge into the hedge market, and the stall-owner led them to a side-room that had a long wooden table in the middle where they lay him down. Quentin didn’t let down on the pressure as he stared, bewildered, at the stall owner putting together all sorts of herbs and powders into a stove-pot and started boiling the whole thing. Before he could ask, though, Harriet - the FuzzBeat hedge - walked into the room and started signing far quicker than Quentin could follow.

“Yeah,” the stall-owner replied, speaking at the same time as he signed. “I didn’t get too good a look at the attacker, but it had the same sort of aura I noticed when the kid came around, last time. We need to get them non-tracking amulets.”

Xochitl - who had finished texting Julia with trembling fingers, and was now holding on to Jorge’s hand - frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“We’ll tell you in a second,” the stall-owner said. “Now, get out of the way so I can wash out the wound and put this compress on it - the potion will accelerate the healing and work better than stitches.”

Quentin and Xochitl took a step back as the stall-owner cleaned out the wound, Quentin wincing at Jorge’s pained yelp. But the pain seemed to diminish with the potion - some of it was placed directly on the wound, and the rest on a soaked gauze that the stall-owner placed directly over it. Harriet stepped forward, then, hands moving fast through a series of tuts which created a spell that shone over the gauze first and then moved through Jorge’s entire body, and they could see Jorge was fast asleep when it finished.

“Fixes the compress in place and creates an anti-microbial shield. It’s also a hell of a relaxant, he should be out for a while,” the stall-owner explained, wiping his hands. “Now. I guess you have a few questions, and so do we. My name is Jonathan, and you two trouble-makers are Quentin Coldwater and Julia Wicker, right?”

“No, um. I’m Quentin, but. This is Xochitl Robles. Julia’s not here, she’s on the way,” Quentin replied. “Sorry, though, how do you know my name?”

“I asked around, after you came here last time,” Jonathan said, nodding towards Harriet, who shrugged. “Heard mostly good things, don’t worry. But I asked because I could feel something was after you.”

“You gave me those herbs…”

“I did. Did they come in useful?”

Quentin shivered, remembering the attack in the park, how close Eliot and he had come to being stuck in that bizarre mirror world. “Yeah,” he breathed out.

“Good. Now, I thought that whatever seemed to be following you around was a low-level vengeful spirit, or maybe a pissed off ex-girlfriend who’d cursed you with some bad luck, but clearly something bigger is happening. Care to fill us in?” Jonathan asked, gesturing between himself and Harriet.

“Sorry, but why do you care?” Xochitl cut in, her confusion having turned to belligerence. She had an extremely low patience threshold for authority figures who refused to explain themselves, which had made school a nightmare for her, as she’d explained to Quentin some time ago.

Harriet stepped a little closer, looking rueful. “Because hedge covens are supposed to look out for each other,” she said in a hoarse voice. “Quentin and Julia reminded us. The rest of us - we made some half-hearted tries to contain Marina Andrieksi when she showed up to the scene a couple of years ago, but it clearly wasn’t enough, and we just retreated into our own circles, let her keep recruiting people and spit them back out. But these two - brand new to magic, and they took on her anyway.”

Quentin thought about it for a moment, trying to figure out if it was a trick, if maybe this was just another way the Beast was trying to get at him. But he remembered that Jonathan had offered him the herbs that saved him and Eliot, free of charge, and that Harriet had shown them how to see the spells in FuzzBeat, and that his entire coven had shown up presumably because hedges had passed word around that he and Julia could be trusted. And he wanted to trust. He wanted magic to be like this, about helping each other, not about shutting oneself behind impenetrable walls like Brakebills or scaring people into complying like Marina. So, fuck it.

“It’s called the Beast,” he said, clearing his throat, making Xochitl, Harriet, and Jonathan turn to look at him. “Or, well. It’s what they called it, at Brakebills. It’s from another world, it looks like, and, uh. Apparently I summoned it by accident with three other students, and it. It did some bad things. I got expelled and wiped, so obviously I don’t exactly remember any of this, but. It looks like it’s going to keep coming after me - this is the second time it’s tried.” And then, remembering the blond asshole first showing up last night, trying to get Eliot to go outside, he swallowed. “Or third.”

“That fucking school,” Jonathan muttered rolling his eyes. “I swear, if Henry Fogg had the sense Hecate gave to a goat…”

“How did you find all of this out, if you got wiped?” Harriet asked.

Quentin rubbed the back of his neck, shrugging a little. “Um. One of my friends from school came to find me? He and another one of his friends have been teaching us.”

“Really?” Jonathan asked, raising his eyebrows. “Hmm. Good. Didn’t think Brakebills assholes had it in them.”

Harriet rolled her eyes, and signed something, annoyed.

“Hey, they’re one step away from Librarians, and you know it,” Jonathan said. “At least it looks like these ones didn’t have their brain removed by the fucking Trials. Now - you’re learning battle magic, it looks like? I managed to see the tail end of your spell, out there.”

“Yeah, I mean, among other things. We’re learning as much as we can to defend ourselves, and we’ve tried to research more about the Beast, but. Mothmen from another world don’t show up in the books, it looks like.”

Jonathan met Harriet’s eyes for a moment, clearly communicating something silently, and then he nodded. “We’ll help. You’re not leaving the market without Harriet’s non-detection amulets for you and your whole coven, and I’ll get you more herbs that can help. You keep learning, keep researching, and the second you hit on something useful to get rid of the bastard, you let us know. We’ll be there.”

“Thank you,” Quentin whispered, overwhelmed.

Jonathan nodded. “Stay here for a while, until your friend wakes up. We’ll be back to check on you.”

Quentin and Xochitl watched them leave, and then looked at each other. Quentin silently opened his arms, and Xochitl collapsed into them. Her leather jacket bit into Quentin’s stomach a little uncomfortably, but he just hugged her tighter, and let her cry into his shoulder without saying anything. After a while, she pulled back, rubbing her eyes and sniffing slightly, and Quentin led her to sit on a couple of the stools near the table so they could watch over Jorge as he slept. Around half an hour later, Julia burst into the room, looking panicked, Plum fast on her heels.

“Q, what happened? Is Jorge okay?”

Quentin stood up to meet her, putting an arm on her shoulders, while Plum hurried toward Xochitl.

“Jorge’s resting - one of the hedges here helped him. They said he’ll wake up soon,” Quentin said. “It was the Beast, we’re pretty sure. It was weird, Jules - not the Mothman, like last time, but. This guy, that hassled Eliot and I last night. He looked mostly normal, but his eyes were super weird, and he attacked us with this strange knife…”

“Fuck. Okay, well, I sent a fire message to Margo and Eliot - Anna and Neil stayed behind at the safe-house in case they show up, to explain.”

Jorge started moaning, then, and they all looked in horror as the gauze - which had been pristine white - started turning red. Before they could move, Jonathan ran back into the room.

“What happened? I set an alarm spell in case anything started bleeding again,” he said.

“We didn’t do anything,” Xochitl said, shaky. “He was sleeping and then he groaned and, and. It started bleeding.”

Jonathan carefully peeled back the gauze, and they saw the wound - which really was mostly closed - had started developing strange black lines around it. And, suddenly, a green vine shot out of it.

“What the... “ Jonathan hissed, and his hands started moving through a series of tuts that all seemed to fizzle out, as a few more vines grew. “I don’t. I don’t know what this is.”

“Q… you said. You said the attacker had a knife?” Julia asked, stepping closer to look at Jorge’s wound.

“Yeah,” Quentin whispered, staring at the growing vines with wide eyes, and then meeting Julia’s freaked out but knowing gaze. “D’you think… but, Jules. That would mean. It would mean the Beast is from-”

“I mean. If more than one world exists, why not that one?” Julia said, raising a shoulder. “We’ve found nothing about him in any book about this world, and neither have Eliot or Margo.”

Oh god. It was so much to process -- too much to process. Did this mean Fillory was real? It was exactly what Quentin had wanted nearly all of his life, what he’d dreamed of, what he’d longed for every time he was stuck in his own head, in his own misery, every time he opened a closet door, or a classroom door, or the door to yet another psychiatrist who his mom told him would fix him if only Quentin tried hard enough because obviously depression was his own personal failing and not his brain chemistry. And then a worse thought - Fillory was real, but the Beast came from there. What did that mean? Was Fillory ruined, now, even before Quentin got to go? The thoughts raced one after another in his head, but then Jorge moaned, and another vine started growing, and figuring this out had to be secondary to making sure Jorge made it.

“Okay, but,” he said, thinking back hard to what he remembered from the book. “Do we need to make a doll of Jorge, then? Will that do it?”

Julia bit her lip. “I know that’s how it worked in the book, but. I feel like it was about more than just the doll?”

“Okay, what the fuck are you two talking about?” Xochitl’s voice rang across the room like a whip, startling Quentin. “A doll of Jorge? What?”

Quentin glanced at the wound, then at Julia again, and then took a deep breath. He was well aware that he was about to sound like he was insane, but. He was in a market that probably existed in a parallel dimension and surrounded by people who regularly did magic, so. It was probably all relative.

“Julia and I think that, uh. We think that the Beast is from Fillory,” he said. “And that he somehow used that blond douchebag to stab Jorge with a knife that’s called the Virgo Blade, which triggers this curse called-”

“-the Strangled Heart,” Plum cut in. “From the fourth Fillory book.” And then when everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “Hey, I know I don’t advertise it as much as Quentin, but I’m a pretty big nerd, too. Fillory was great to escape to when my parents got to be too much. And, uh. My great grandfather left me his own set of books, so.”

Quentin felt a little offended over the nerd thing, but mostly full of kinship. He really fucking loved his coven. Like Margo had said, they were all a bunch of bisexual disasters and one baddass in Anna.

“Okay, but. How does that help Jorge?” Xochitl asked, clutching Jorge’s hand in hers. Quentin wanted to hug her again - she was trying so hard to keep it together - but he knew she wouldn’t appreciate it right now, when she needed to feel in control. She’d come to him if she needed to later, and in the meantime, they needed to get Jorge through this.

“In the book, Jane gets stabbed, but, uh. Honeyclaw - this talking bear-”

“A talking bear?” Jonathan muttered, but quieted when Harriet elbowed him.

“-yeah, uh. He burned a doll that Jane had, that looked like her. And the vines disintegrated. Which is why I thought of making the doll of Jorge.”

Harriet started signing something very fast, Julia and Jonathan nodding along, and then Julia said, “Harriet says curses like that are always tied to the deep things - heart, soul, shade. So the doll must’ve meant something, and not just acted as a physical representation, or the curse wouldn’t have been satisfied. So, uh. She wants us to explain what was special about the doll.”

Quentin bit his lip, wishing he’d brought The Secret Sea with him, but he only had The Wandering Dune because he’d been re-reading it intermittently and The World in the Walls because, well. He always carried that one around. Still, he knew this. He knew this. He took a deep breath, and tried to remember the passage. “Well, the doll - she’s, uh. Jane’s mom made it for her, before the war, so it’s very special,” he began.

“Right, and, um. Wasn’t it the only thing she had, from back home?” Julia said. “That’s why she always carried it around, because it was, like, a piece of her past.”

“Yeah, uh - Fillory usually didn’t let many things from our world get through, so the doll was it,” Quentin said. “It was, I guess, the most precious thing she owned?”

Jonathan signed something at Harriet, who nodded, signing back. “Yeah, that tracks,” he said. “So, this Strangled Heart curse is probably a variant of some of the ancient Akkadian life-force curses - or, hey, maybe it’s the other way around, who knows if some Akkadian Magician wandered into this Fillory place or whatever. The point is, we need something the curse will accept as a substitute - something so valuable the curse recognizes it as the person itself, in a way.”

“I think I know what it is,” Xochitl said, voice small but steady. “I just - I need to go to his apartment to get it.”

“I’ll come with you,” Quentin said, immediately.

“No, uh. Can you. Will you stay with him, for me?” Xochitl asked, lips trembling slightly.

“Of course, Xoch,” Quentin replied. “Jules will go with you, okay? I just. It’s not a good idea for you to go alone.”

“You’re fucking right it’s not,” Jonathan cut in. “Harriet, the amulets?”

Harriet then gave each of them string necklaces with little charms on them - all the charms were different, Quentin’s was an anchor, and he saw that Julia’s was a tree, and there were extra ones for everyone else in the coven, and Eliot and Margo - and even though they were small and should’ve been light, when Quentin put his on, he felt a weight, like a cloak, settling over his shoulders.

“It’s a variant of this basic classical spell, Mansell’s, for invisibility,” Jonathan explained. “We, uh. Mixed it up a bit, added a few things and took out others, so it works as a cloaking from harm, rather than from sight. But it has the effect of making you invisible to those who mean you harm, both visibly and magically. We’ll give you some for your non-asshole Brakebills friends, too.”

With their amulets on, Xochitl, Julia, and Plum left, leaving Quentin sitting by Jorge’s side to monitor the genuinely very, very creepy growth of the vine.

Around twenty minutes later, Jorge started shifting slightly in the table, and blinked his eyes open. He tried to sit up, and Quentin restrained him softly, trying not to hurt him.

“Hey, hey, Jorge, it’s okay. Just - stay down, okay? Your wound is. Uh. Complicated.”

Jorge craned his head up to look at his torso and his eyes widened as he went pale. “Complicated is one way to call it. What the fuck is wrong with me?”

“It’s a curse,” Quentin said. “But we’ve figured out how to deal with it, okay? Just as soon as Xochitl gets back, we. Well, we’ll have to burn something really meaningful to you, which is going to suck, but.”

“But there won’t be any more creepy plant life growing out of me?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, I’ll take it.”

Quentin tried a smile - which probably came out like a grimace, from Jorge’s unimpressed look - and then asked the question that had been rolling around in his head for a while now. “Jorge… that man, he was coming at me - why the hell did you get in the way?”

“Xochitl -” Jorge began, and then grunted slightly, waving a hand when Quentin shifted closer. “Xochitl really likes you.”

Quentin shook his head, blinking tears out of his eyes. “No more than she likes you. But, uh. Thank you. I owe you a serious life-debt.”

“You’re teaching me magic, Quentin, and you gave my favorite cousin a place to be where she could feel safe and figure her shit out without destroying herself or destroying the world. It’s copacetic, man.”

Xochitl came back then, with Julia and Plum, carrying an ancient looking watch.

“Quentin explained? That we have to, um...”

“Yeah, it’s okay, prima. Burn it,” Jorge said quietly. Then, to Quentin, “It was my uncle’s. He, uh. He’s the one that brought me here, when I was really little. My mom stayed back in Puebla, so he raised me, pretty much.”

Quentin nodded, and stepped back so that Jonathan could set up a bowl close to Jorge. They put in the watch, and Jonathan added a few herbs before both he and Harriet moved their hands together and powerful flames burst forward, burning blue. They needed extremely intense heat so that the watch would melt. Eventually, though, the flames started dying, and when the watch was nothing but bubbling metal, the vines vanished from Jorge’s side.

As Quentin saw Jorge and Xochitl hugging tightly, he walked towards where Julia was standing, and leaned into her side.

“We need to get this asshole, Jules.”

“I know, Q. We will.”

+

Quentin, Julia, and Plum escorted Xochitl and Jorge to Xochitl’s grandmother’s apartment - the two cousins were pretty eager to start researching more about the Beast now that they had a mostly certain point of origin, but Julia overruled them flat.

“Jorge, you need to rest and stay put for at least a day, and Xochitl, you know you’ll be low-key freaking out if you don’t stay with him.”

And when Xochitl threw pleading eyes at Quentin - they all knew he was the pushover, and she knew he was the pushover for her in particular and used it against him often - he did his best to back up Julia while promising Xochitl they would absolutely text if something very, very important came up.

They hadn’t walked more than half a step inside the safe house, wards settling comfortingly over them, when Quentin was immediately engulfed in Eliot’s long arms.

“Q, are you alright? Are you hurt?” Eliot’s voice was almost frantic, and he ran his hands over Quentin’s back, down his arms, down his chest, as if he needed the contact to make sure.

“I’m okay, El, I’m okay,” Quentin soothed him, but submitted to the crushing hug that followed willingly, anyway, because. Well. It was a hug from Eliot, there was never anyway he wouldn’t take one.

“See, he’s okay, Eliot, you can calm your fucking tits now,” Margo said from further inside the safe-house, her voice exasperated. Quentin pulled back just slightly from Eliot - to a displeased hum - so he could catch sight of her, and was rewarded by a classic Margo combination of raised eyebrows and pointed finger. “And you, you little shit, do not even think about going out without either one of us again, okay? I cannot handle another freak out from Lover Boy here.”

“I did not freak out,” Eliot protested half-heartedly above Quentin’s head, eliciting an incredulous snort from Margo. “I may have been just a little concerned.”

“Just a little concerned? Your pacing left permanent track marks on the rug,” Margo told him pointedly, before turning to look at Quentin again, and Julia and Plum behind him. “Anyway, not the point - Wonder Twins, you two need explain what the fuck happened, and Plum, you need to go check on Neil before he collapses into nervous vapors - Anna can’t hold the fort anymore.”

“Got it,” Plum said, hurrying toward one of the little side-rooms they’d set up in the safe-house where they could go to have comfortable alone time (and which was mostly only used by Neil and Quentin, really).

Julia and Margo made their way to the couches, but when Quentin made to follow, Eliot held him tight. Quentin met his eyes in a silent question, and saw the way Eliot kept running nervous eyes across his face over and over again, the way he was clenching his teeth. Quentin reached up, placed a hand on the side of Eliot’s face, swallowing when Eliot closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.

“I really am okay, El,” he whispered.

Eliot nodded slightly and opened his eyes after a moment, the emotion in them overwhelming. “I know. I just. When we got the fire message, even though it said you weren’t hurt, I kept expecting the worse.” He leaned down, gave Quentin a long, soft kiss. “Now - go sit down, I’ll make you some tea.”

Quentin joined Margo and Julia, settling down on the floor next to the squishy brown leather armchair that Eliot favored when he was at the safe-house, and was surprised to hear them discussing potential applications of cryomancy rather than the attack, but he figured they were waiting for him and Eliot to get into it all. He hugged his legs to himself and rested his head on top of his knees, content for the moment to listen to the two smartest women he knew talking about magic, reminding himself that even though there was a Beast out there, he had this here: fucking brilliant friends; a boyfriend whose existence felt miraculous; a coven of fearless, weird, wonderful people; a safe house - a safe place.

A steaming mug appeared floating in his field of vision - literally floating, Eliot was holding two other mugs in his hands and floating a highball glass in front of him as well, using his telekinesis in the careless but precise way that left Quentin breathless. Quentin took the mug and inhaled a bergamot-y, enticing scent - Eliot had made him a London Fog - before taking a small sip. There was something a little different in the drink, a kick of something smokey and deep.

“Did you spike this?” Quentin asked.

Eliot grinned, passing Margo and Julia their own drinks and then settling down on the loveseat. “Just a little - a dash of a wonderful little Islay whisky I charmed my flask to pour out for the month. Figured you could use the pick-me-up.”

“Thanks,” Quentin said, taking a deeper sip, appreciating the fiery undertone in the latte again. Not something he’d usually like, but it was really warming him inside out right now.

“Okay, so. The attack?” Margo asked, looking between Quentin and Julia.

Julia nodded at Quentin to begin, so he cleared his throat, setting his mug down on the table in front of him before leaning back against Eliot’s legs. “Right, um. So I think I should start with last night? Because, well. El, d’you remember that blond asshole who kept asking you to go outside for a smoke? The Mike guy?”

“Yeah…” Eliot said, a little confused. “Bambi, it was that guy who was in third year when we started Brakebills, Mike McCormick? He came over when Q was in the bathroom, told me he’d always wanted to get to know me, which was weird, because-”

“-because he was an entitled, white asshole who never gave anyone the time of day at school?” Margo put in. “Yeah. I mean, I know you had a bit of a thing for him before you left behind the whole jock thing for your nervy nerd obsession, but I really wouldn’t have placed any bets on him knowing your name, the way he acted back then.”

“Nervy nerd obsession?” Quentin asked, tipping his head back to meet Eliot’s eyes.

“Like I said - my type to a tee, sweetheart,” Eliot replied, shrugging, before he started running a soothing hand through Quentin’s hair, which made Quentin feel maybe a little more boneless and turned on than he should be in the middle of the whole Beast explanation.

“Yes, yes, it’s all very meant to be,” Margo cut in. “Why are we reminiscing about Republican McDouchebag, again?”

“Because he’s the one who attacked us today,” Quentin said, and hurried to explain over Margo and Eliot’s shocked disbelief. “I mean, I say him, but… we’re pretty sure he was possessed by the Beast, somehow? His eyes were all weird, and after I managed to hit him with the Force Blast it was like he had no clue what he was doing and he ran off.”

“You zapped him with a Force Blast?” Margo asked, perking up. They’d been practicing it for a few days but Quentin had been unable to do much beyond whip up a light breeze with it. “Aw, it’s baby’s first battle magic! I knew you had it in you, little Q.”

“Yeah, but I don’t really see Jorge getting stabbed as a sustainable motivator in the long-term,” Quentin shrugged deprecatingly.

“Wait, stabbed?” Eliot asked behind him, the hand on Quentin’s hair pausing. “We thought he’d attacked you with magic… why would he bring a knife to a magic fight?”

“Because the knife was magic,” Julia said. “After Mike got away, the hedges helped us, got us into the hedge market and took care of the wound, but… but it was cursed.”

“Cursed how?”

“Vines started coming out of it, rose vines,” Julia explained, grimacing a little - Quentin could sympathize, the memory of Jorge moaning in pain as the vines shot out of him would haunt his nightmares for a while. “They kept growing, even after we tried potions and spells. Just like -”

“Like Jane Chatwin,” Margo whispered, eyes wide. “Wait. You're saying Jorge got stabbed with the Virgo Blade?”

“Yeah,” Quentin said. “Which means that we’re pretty sure that the Beast. The Beast comes from, uh-”

“Fillory,” Margo said, eyes darting between Quentin and Julia, biting her lip when they nodded the confirmation. “Fuck me. Fillory is real?”

“Yeah. And it wants to kill me, which. I guess kinda typical for me,” Quentin said, huffing out a bitter laugh. He still hadn’t processed how he felt about Fillory being real and being a danger to Quentin, when it had only ever been a lifeline. It didn’t feel good.

“Hey, we don’t know if all of Fillory wants to kill you, Q,” Eliot said, his hand stroking Quentin’s hair soothingly again. “It’s just one Beast. Maybe it’s after you because you’re someone who can help the rest of Fillory against him?”

And, god, Quentin loved him. He hadn’t told him yet, wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, if it would spook Eliot, but. But there was no other way to call it, this massive feeling in his chest, the way he felt warmed and supported by Eliot skipping all the way to trying to figure this out with him without even stopping on Quentin’s favorite fantasy-book land being real. The way things still sucked, but knowing Eliot was here with him made them suck less.

“I mean, maybe? But El, if anyone would be useful enough to help Fillory it would be Julia,” Quentin replied. “She’s the one who’s amazing at magic. Or god, you, or Margo. I’m just… like. Aggressively average.”

“There is nothing average about that pretty face, sweetheart,” Eliot said immediately, which made Quentin roll his eyes even as he knew he was blushing - his face felt like it was burning - because he could never get used to Eliot complimenting him. “And anyway, maybe it’s not about magical talent itself.”

“Nauseating little exchange aside, Eliot could have a point,” Margo said, tapping a finger to her mouth.

“Maybe it’s about all of us working together?” Julia suggested. “We all bring some different things to the table, and I’ve noticed when we cast together that our magic is pretty complementary to each other.”

“Right, but we can’t be the only hedges or classical magicians casting together every once in a while,” Quentin said. “I’m still stuck at, like. Why me specifically? Is it really just because of a fucked up summoning?”

Margo cleared her throat slightly, looking uncharacteristically apprehensive. “Okay, uh. So I think we actually have a way of getting information on this? But it would mean bringing in another Brakebills student. Who is maybe not our favorite person.”

“Bambi, no,” Eliot said, sitting up from his slouch, voice hard. “We agreed she would be getting nowhere near Quentin, not again.”

“I know, El, and I hate her as much as you do, but if she knows something useful… and, anyway, it should be Quentin’s choice, shouldn’t it? His and Julia’s?”

“Who is it?” Quentin asked. “Just tell me.”

“Her name is Kady,” Margo began. “She’s one of the other three students who was involved with the summoning spell-”

“-and who went along with her stupid boyfriend fucking you over and getting you expelled-”

Eliot cut in, eyes hard.

“Yes, thank you Eliot,” Margo said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, she was obviously very much out of our good books - El and I have made the Cottage pretty uncomfortable for her - but she started trying to talk to us a few weeks ago. Of course, we ignored her, because you don’t get to mess with my… with my… whatever you and I are.”

“Friends?” Quentin suggested.

“Sure, let’s go with that,” Margo agreed, shooting him a now-familiar smile - like, fond but at the same time confused about why she was so fond of him, which, well. Quentin couldn’t really explain it, either. “Anyway, it was mostly vague bullshit about wanting to bury the hatchet or whatever, but lately she’s been asking about you more directly. Like, wanting to know if we’d seen you, or whatever, because she says she has something important to tell you.”

“Yeah, fuck that,” Julia cut in, angrily. “That bitch isn’t getting within a mile of Quentin, not her or any of her stupid friends. Not after the way they hung him out to dry.”

“Preaching to the choir, here,” Eliot said, his hand having moved from Quentin’s hair to the back of his neck, as if he wanted to make sure Quentin was still there.

“And I was exactly on that same track, but during last week’s pathetic attempt to get information out of us, she said it was about a book Quentin lost that she wanted to tell him about… Fillory book six,” Margo said, eyebrows raised.

“But. But there isn’t a book six,” Quentin sputtered.

“I know, and I told her it was bullshit and walked away,” Margo said, leaning forward. “But Q, what if there is a book six, and it explains about the Beast? What if Kady actually does know something?”

Quentin cracked his knuckles and then crossed his fingers, thinking it over. It sounded impossible, a sixth Fillory book, and yet - hadn’t today redefined possible? If Fillory was real, why was another book not real, too? And until they had more information on the Beast, what had almost happened to Eliot yesterday and happened to Jorge today could happen again, to Xochitl, to Neil, to Anna or Plum, to Julia… they needed all the information they could get.

“Okay, yeah. We need to talk to her.”

+++

They arranged for Margo and Eliot to bring Kady to the safe house in three days: it would give them enough time to set up a proper clean room right by the entrance to the safe-house, warded so that Kady wouldn’t be able to cast anything harmful at them (inspired by the bar, tweaks in the spells by Eliot and Julia) or be able to gather evidence to take back to Brakebills that they had magic and get them in trouble with the faculty. It also gave Jorge enough time to really recuperate, not just pretend he was better and grimace when he thought nobody was looking (Xochitl had sent Quentin more than a few annoyed texts from her grandmother’s place).

And, most importantly, it gave Quentin and Julia a chance to sit down with the coven, talk over the risks Quentin’s connection to the Beast implied as re-framed by the most recent attack, and give them a chance, again, to walk away safe, maybe go to another coven - Quentin was pretty sure Harriet or maybe Jonathan at the Hedge Market would help. He’d tried to begin a similar conversation with Julia, too, but he’d only opened his mouth before she gave him this look, and said, “Q. Don’t even think about it. You and me, we’re a package deal.”

So, the coven settled in the living room in their various favorite spots - Quentin on the floor, Julia on the long orange sectional couch alongside Plum and Neil, Anna in the squishy armchair and doing some knitting (which did amazing things for her tuts), and Xochitl next to Quentin, after forcing Jorge onto the blue couch - and Quentin cleared his throat.

“Um. So. You all know about the Beast. Jules and I’ve tried to, uh. Be transparent about it, because there was always a chance you could get hurt in the crossfire,” he began, pushing his hair back from his face. “But I didn’t expect something like what happened to Jorge, which. I guess none of us could’ve known, exactly? Now that’s it happened, though, and that we know a little more about the Beast, I just. You guys signed up for magic, not for some bizarre evil magical being from another land to come after you because I was an idiot in ways I can’t remember. So. Jules and I think that you guys, uh. Um, if you want, of course. That you -”

“That you deserve to choose this, properly,” Julia put in, thankfully rescuing Quentin from his own word-jumble. “It’s been amazing having you here, teaching you and learning with you, but if you want to tap out, we’ll make sure you go to good covens, okay?”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, Neil nervously tapping on his knee until Plum put a hand over his, Anna pausing in her knitting, Jorge and Xochitl looking at each other and having a silent conversation that involved a lot of eyebrow movement, until Jorge nodded, Xochitl nodded back, and then punched Quentin on the shoulder.

“Ouch! Xoch, why?”

“It’s just the shortest way to make you get it, Q,” she said. “Do you think we’re all here just by chance? Like, yeah, maybe we got pointed here at one of the hedge bars, or by that blond douchebag that runs around with Marina, but do you think any of us would’ve stayed a day if it wasn’t for you and Julia? It’s not just about the magic for any of us.”

“You both gave us a home,” Plum said softly.

Xochitl nodded, sharp. “Exactly. So, what, you’re in trouble? Big deal. Doesn’t Plum sleep here, or with me, or at your loft, all the time? Didn’t we all pitch in, creating wards and doing a cleansing, when Anna’s landlord was being a fucking asshole and harassing people in her building? Aren’t we ready to put the curse of a lifetime on Neil’s fucking foster parents, whenever he says he’s ready?” She paused, swallowed audibly. “And haven’t you stayed up with me, for hours, just trying to figure out a way for agrimony to interact properly with chamomile so my grandma - and Jorge’s great aunt - doesn’t lose her fucking sight? So we’re in this, okay?”

Quentin blinked tears out of his eyes, looked around at the determined, fierce people looking back, met Julia’s eyes for a moment, knowing she felt just as amazed as he did. “Are. Are you sure?”

Anna gave him a warm smile, and resumed knitting. “Like she said, honey. We’re in this.”

Quentin nodded, and smiled back as Xochitl leaned into a hug at his side.

+

When Eliot and Margo showed up with Kady, directing her into the clean room the second she walked in the safe-house, Eliot barely glanced at him and Margo didn’t even deign to say hello. Quentin was ready to get pretty offended - he was hurt, really - when Julia pulled him close by an arm before they walked into the room.

“Q, they’re downplaying how much they’re involved with us, with you, just in case Kady can use it against them,” she whispered.

Oh, right. Quentin nodded, shooting Julia a grateful look - the whole thing could’ve taken him to a pretty bad spiral, honestly.

Once Margo, Eliot, Kady, Julia and Quentin were all inside - the rest of the coven were all out for the day, for their safety - Eliot shut the door to the clean room with a wave of his hand, and the various wards and spells they’d set up activated, a rush of magic whooshing past and through them.

“Not taking any chances, huh?” Kady asked ruefully, shaking her hands out.

“Would you?” Eliot shot back pointedly, with a raised eyebrow.

“Fair point,” Kady said, and then turned to Quentin. She had sharp, bright green eyes and curly, long hair that kind of defied gravity, and she was looking at him with a mixture of guilt and defiance and expectation that made Quentin’s anxiety spike just a little. It was still so uncomfortable, to be reminded that people knew him and he had no idea exactly how, especially because Kady didn’t feel safe the same way Eliot and Margo had from the beginning. “Coldwater, I want to start by saying sorry. When I got into Brakebills, I had to stay there, no matter what - I couldn’t afford to get expelled, and I didn’t give a shit if people got hurt as long as I was safe.”

“I’m sorry, I thought this was supposed to be an apology?” Julia cut in, voice hard.

“Jules, it’s fine - let her talk,” Quentin said, putting a hand on her shoulder, and walking closer to Kady. “So, uh. Kady? You were getting to a point among all that self-justification?” he asked, and saw Eliot grin at Margo from the corner of his eye, a brief, little gleeful exchange over his bitchiness, which they both seemed to enjoy whenever it came out, but he kept his attention on Kady.

Kady narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, about to say something, before she sighed and shook her head. “Yeah. Yes, sorry - it’s just. I had to apologize, and explain a little where my head was at. Anyway, around two months ago I found out something, and. And I had to make it right, what happened to you. So I went to Fogg - uh, the Brakebills Dean - and I was going to come clean, tell him that you should be able to come back to school, get your memories back, the whole thing, but when I got to his office, he was talking to this woman I didn’t recognize - some British chick - and they were talking about you…” Kady paused, shrugged a little. “It was weird, Coldwater. You’d been out of Brakebills for like maybe four months by then, and they were discussing you like they knew what you’d been up to the entire time. And then they said you’d been attacked out here, by the Beast, and when Fogg suggested they should take you back inside Brakebills so you’d be safe behind the wards, the woman said you were getting stronger out here, that you were becoming more than a magician and Fogg shouldn’t interfere - that you’d be able to make the Fillory connection on your own.”

“So Fogg, he’s known the whole time? That Quentin is learning magic, that he’s a hedge?” Margo asked, looking dangerously pissed. “About fucking Fillory?”

“It looks like it,” Kady replied, and then turned to Quentin, that strange look of guilt and almost like kinship back on her face. “It was a fucked up conversation, and I just. I thought it’s only fair that you know that these two people were making decisions about your life.”

“But wait, go back a second,” Julia said. “You and this Fogg person, you talked about Quentin going back to Brakebills and just picking up where he left off or something, but he got mind-wiped, like. Bad. I had a hard time and it was only hours I lost - when Q got out of there, he was having headaches all the time. How could they take any of that back?”

Quentin winced, remembering those first few days after the expulsion. The mental block only barely twinged nowadays - the slightest of zings when he heard new information - but back then, he hadn’t been able to get out of bed for almost two weeks, between a pretty serious depressive episode and the ceaseless headaches.

“You get wiped if you don’t pass the exam, because it’s only a little while, but. If you’re a student and you spend some actual time at Brakebills, going to class - they don’t really erase what they wipe, they store it, which is why it kind of hurts,” Kady explained.

“How do you even know all this?” Eliot interjected, his voice betraying disbelief. “Margo and I had no idea, and we’ve been at Brakebills longer than you.”

“Because that’s what Marina Andrieksi wanted. Her memories. She got expelled a couple of months from graduation, and she’s been trying to get back all the magic she learned since,” Kady said, a bitter smile on her face.

“But then, if you know about Marina, that means…” Julia said, trailing off as she made the connection Quentin was making himself.

“Hannah’s my mom. I was under the word-as-bond with her.”

“And what you found out is that Quentin and Julia released you, for no other reason than believing magic should be better than for fucking people over,” Eliot said with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, irony.”

“Yeah,” Kady said, looking down for a moment, and then meeting Quentin’s eyes again, her own a little wet. “When my mom told me that these two hedges had released us, when she told me that I should be on the look-out for Quentin Coldwater and Julia Wicker, because they were good people and we owed them a good turn… shit. I felt like a complete idiot. I really am sorry, Quentin. Penny, Alice, me - we acted like selfish assholes, each for our own reasons, but I am seriously sorry for my part in it.” She took out a folded sheet of paper from her jacket, and held it out to Quentin. “Alice and Penny are sorry, too, but I told them we shouldn’t crowd you. Penny wrote you that, though - he said he thought it might be helpful, considering what Fogg said. And, uh, that he was sorry about taking your shit and lying about it.”

Quentin took the note and started reading, as Julia, Margo, and Eliot kind of kept giving Kady a hard time. The writing was in all-caps, like the person who’d written it was trying hard to project “fuck you” through a note that also held an apology, which made for an interesting contrast. Quentin wondered if he and Penny had gotten along at all, and then, remembering he was the only one of the four that got expelled and that Penny had apparently stolen from him, concluded that the answer was a pretty certain no.

COLDWATER -
SORRY ABOUT GETTING YOU EXPELLED AND THAT MOTH-THING ATTACKING YOU OUTSIDE OR WHATEVER. FIGURED YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT YOU HAD A MANUSCRIPT FOR FILLORY BOOK 6 YOUR FIRST DAY AT BRKBLS, I TOOK IT TO READ BECAUSE I WAS BORED AND THEN THREW IT AWAY ‘CAUSE I SPILLED SOME COKE ON IT. DON’T REMEMBER TOO MUCH, IT WAS WRITTEN BY THE GIRL, JANE, AND TALKED ABOUT THIS BUTTON BEING A KEY TO FILLORY. IF YOU FIND IT AND ARE GOING LMK. I THINK THERE’S SOMEBODY I NEED TO HELP THERE. ANYWAY, HOPE YOU AREN’T AS MUCH OF A PUSSY.
- PENNY

Quentin tuned back in to the others to see that the little digs had turned into a full-on shouting match between Kady and Eliot, while Julia and Margo looked on like tennis spectators; Margo had, somehow, actually conjured popcorn, and Julia was looking at Kady kind of intensely - reluctantly impressed, maybe, and something else.

“Oh my god, I do not need to justify my fucking life-choices to some bargain-basement Oscar Wilde!”

What did you just say to me?!”

“Guys…” Quentin said, and then, when Kady and Eliot continued to snipe, yelled. “Guys! Enough!”

“But, Q…”

“No, Eliot, we don’t have time for this shit,” Quentin said, shaking his head, stepping between Kady and the other three. “Am I pissed? Yes, a lot. And I wish I had the time and space to process how angry I am over the fact that these months of my life - that my first time meeting you, and Margo, and going to fucking magic school - were taken from me and could apparently be given back to me if two people I don’t even know weren’t fucking pupeteering my life. But we don’t have that time, and this whole thing is obviously bigger than Kady, and whoever Alice is, and this Penny person. So let’s just. Focus.”

Eliot looked like he still wanted to argue, but Margo nudged him with an elbow and he finally nodded. “Okay, Q. Sorry. What does the letter say? Anything useful?”

“Um. We might need to go to England?”

+++

After Kady had been escorted out of the safe-house (she’d left with a promise to help them with whatever research she could inside Brakebills on a way to defeat the Beast, saying she’d work with Penny and Alice), Penny’s letter had been read and re-read by all of them, and Quentin had explained why they had to go to Plover house because it was the one possible place the button could still be, they settled on a plan.

Margo and Eliot got to work on creating a portal to their favorite pub - apparently something they’d already done at Brakebills, so it wasn’t too difficult to reproduce the circumstances - and Quentin and Julia tracked down all the information they could find on the Plover house to prepare.

“You know, Q, I always sort of thought it was weird that so many kids disappeared around Plover, but - the more we learn magic, and now knowing Fillory is real…”

“You think the kids just went to Fillory and stayed there?”

Julia shrugged. “I mean, I hope so. Because if they didn’t, then Plover is kind of more creepy than either of us wanted to admit when we were young.”

“Yeah,” Quentin sighed. “Hey, should we, uh. Should we take any of the kids? Or Anna?”

“Are you finally okay with them getting more involved?”

“I mean. Okay is stretching it. But I’d be a total hypocrite if I didn’t respect their choice, after my whole lame speech back there.”

“Hey, I thought it was a good speech,” Julia said, grinning. “You clearly did benefit from running lines with me back in eleventh grade, for all your complaining.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Éponine,” Quentin grumbled.

“Anyway, I think we should take Plum,” Julia said, more business-like. “She’s getting really good at illusion-work, and if we’re stealing stuff from the Plover house, we might need her to get us out of a tight spot. Plus, she’s also kind of a Fillory nerd, so she might pick up on things we miss. I think Xochitl and Anna should stick around here and keep working on battle magic with Neil and Jorge - whatever those assholes do or don’t find in Brakebills, there’s no way defeating the Beast doesn’t need as much juice as we can handle.”

“You can use their names, Jules, it won’t hurt my feelings,” Quentin said. “Also - I totally saw how you were looking at Kady.”

“They were assholes and I will keep calling them that until I feel like it, Q," Julia replied, mouth stubbornly pursed. "And shut up about how I was looking at Kady - after what she did to you, whether I find her hot or whatever is beside the point.”

“Hey - I’m. Well, I haven’t worked through all my feelings about it, yet, but you holding yourself back from liking somebody isn’t what I want, or need,” Quentin said, leaning closer and putting a hand on Julia’s forearm briefly. “Jules - you haven’t liked anybody since you broke up with James. If Kady is someone you find intriguing, don’t stop yourself because of me, okay?”

“Now that you’re coupled up you want to share the wealth?” Julia asked wryly.

“No, Jules. Just. Paying back the good advice you gave me, when I wasn’t sure if I should write to Eliot.”

“Okay. Thanks, Q. I’ll - I’ll keep it in mind,” Julia said, shooting him a small smile. “Now, back to business. You agree with us taking Plum?”

“Yeah. Yeah, let’s go ask her.”

An hour later, the portal was ready, and Plum was excitedly sharing random Fillory trivia, while Xochitl scowled a little - she hated being left behind, even though she agreed with the need to get everyone as leveled-up on battle magic as possible.

“Alright, everyone who’s coming, get ready,” Eliot called out, by the wall where the portal was starting to glow. “Onward to The Ball and Sack!”

“Your favorite pub is called The Ball and Sack?” Quentin asked, walking towards him.

“I mean. You have to admit it’s pretty on-brand, Q” Eliot smirked, before leaning down to press a swift but deep kiss to Quentin’s lips. “Promise you’ve got my actual favorite ball-sack, though.”

Quentin blinked. He was pretty sure he shouldn’t find that even a little bit charming or hot, and yet. Dating Eliot Waugh always brought out new parts of him. Resigned, he walked through the shining portal.

The Plover house was a dream come true, at first, and then a fucking relentless nightmare. Within the space of a few hours, Quentin experienced the thrill of standing in the same place one of his heroes had lived and breathed and written the books that had saved Quentin’s life, over and over again, and then the utter fucking horror of realizing the man had been infinitely worse than any monster he’d ever written into the Fillory books. Holding hands with Julia, shaking, as they both saw the ghost of Martin Chatwin be abused by Plover, would be a moment indelibly seared in his brain, something he knew he would agonize over for years. Never meet your fucking heroes. All of it was compounded, of course, by the ghost of Plover’s psycho sister, who would’ve gotten them all killed without even coming close to the button if it hadn’t been for Plum’s illusions saving the day.

Outside, barely able to catch his breath, Quentin tried to put two and two together.

“The Beast isn’t from Fillory after all, he’s just. Trying to keep it. Trying to keep others out. It’s Plover. The Beast has got to be Plover.”

“Are you sure, little Q?” Margo asked, voice unusually soft and careful, as if she was worried Quentin was about to break down. Hell, maybe he was.

“He was learning magic, talking about growing extra fingers,” Julia said, biting her lip. “I think Q may be right - he kept talking to Martin about going to Fillory to explore, promising Martin he’d take him…”

“I don’t think it’s Plover,” Eliot interjected quietly. They all turned to look at him, and there was something so strangely wounded about him, like he’d reached a conclusion that was hurting him to even think about, let alone verbalize, and Quentin wanted to go to him, try and hold him, but - it was like Eliot’s hurt was spiked, too, like he’d crumble if Quentin reached out, or hurt him right back. “I think it’s Martin.”

What? No, no way,” Julia replied immediately, aghast. “Martin was just trying to get away, he was just a hurt kid.”

“Not to be twee, but.” Eliot smiled - a pained grimace of a smile, a cold dagger of a smile, that made Quentin shiver to see. “Hurt things hurt things. Plover was a gross, horrible man who wanted to go into another world, but the Beast… what he did back in Brakebills, the attacks since… that is a hurt, very hurt, boy. Trust me - we can be very dangerous.”

Quentin swallowed, and he took a step closer to Eliot to try and hug him, kiss him, take him the fuck away from here, mystery be damned, when a voice came out of the darkness.

“He’s right. It is Martin.” A woman with reddish-brown hair stepped out of the trees, to join them in front of the Plover house. She was wearing a pink cloak, and a tragic look on her face, and Quentin felt like she knew her, but didn’t, all at the same time.

“Who the fuck are you?” Margo said, stepping forward with her hands raised already, fingers almost forming tuts.

“It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” the woman said quickly.

“Wait, I - I know you. I think I do, anyway. That day at my grad-school interview, when the guy died… you were the paramedic,” Quentin said, and Julia gasped next to him, obviously remembering. It was more than a little fuzzy, but the interaction had been weird enough that her face had stayed with him, even through the mind-wipe.

“That’s right,” the woman confirmed. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you all. On you, Quentin, most of all. You and I have a common enemy.”

“You’re the British chick who was talking to Fogg about Quentin,” Margo interjected, hands still raised. “Which means you’ve been putting him in danger, deliberately, this whole time. Why the hell should we listen to you?”

“Because you have to. Quentin’s life, all your lives - the very existence of magic, and this universe - depend on it,” the woman said.

“Okay, enough with the cryptic shit,” Julia said, stepping next to Margo and raising her hands too. “We’ve had a long, horrible night. Just tell us who the hell you are and whatever it is we need to know, before the both of us blast you to oblivion.”

“I’m Jane Chatwin.”

The declaration was greeted by a shocked silence, the faint sounds of the night around them - the rustling leaves, an owl hooting - suddenly loud as a shout.

“I know I’m the non-Fillory nerd in the group so I could be missing something, but. Isn’t Jane Chatwin…” Eliot trailed off.

“Yep, yeah, one of the protagonists,” Plum confirmed in a high, reedy voice. “Because, you know. Tonight hadn’t been weird enough.”

“Sorry to add to the chaos,” Jane said, shooting them a there-and-gone smile. “But you’ve gotten close enough, now, that relevant information needs to be shared. Quentin - would it be alright if we took a walk?”

“Q, I’m not sure if-”

“Oh, hell no, Mary Poppins, you aren’t taking him from our sight-”

“Where Quentin goes we go.”

Eliot, Margo, and Julia all spoke up at the same time, while Plum raised her hands and set them in the position to cast a Heraclitus Net that would prevent Jane from going anywhere.

Jane held up her hands, pacifying. “I won’t hurt him, trust me. The continued existence of this world - and others - depends on him staying alive.”

“The multiverse depends on… Quentin?” Margo asked, eyebrows climbing up to her hairline. “But he’s. Quentin.”

And maybe some other time - maybe seven or eight months ago, before Quentin had been accepted into magic school and then fucked it up so bad he got expelled, before he’d been rescued from his terrible choices by his best friend who proved that she was a smarter and more talented magician than he was, Brakebills be damned, but pushed him to catch up anyway, before seeing Eliot wield telekinesis and magic with an ease and grace that was breathtaking, before seeing Margo create knives of ice out of thin air, before seeing Plum create full-sized illusions of all of them, before Xochitl, and Jorge, and Neil, and Anna… maybe then, Quentin would’ve been offended over Margo’s disbelief, would’ve said that yes, it made sense, there really was some great magical destiny he was meant to fulfill, and that’s why his life had sucked so hard before and his brain been a total dick, because his destiny hadn’t been revealed yet. But now? Now he knew that he was lucky as hell, to know people so much more talented and brave and amazing than he was, to support them, and maybe it wasn’t a magical destiny - maybe destiny was bullshit - but it made for a pretty good life.

“He’s the volunteer tomato,” Jane replied cryptically. She then turned to Quentin. “You won’t understand why for a few minutes yet, but it’s you I need to say this to, and you can do with the information what you will. I won’t make you keep it from your friends or anything of the sort.”

“I… okay,” Quentin agreed finally, shrugging. He turned to the others briefly, met their eyes, and pulled out the little anchor amulet from under his sweater; wherever Jane wanted to take him, the Beast wouldn’t be able to track him, he’d be protected. Julia and Margo nodded, while Eliot tried to smile at him, but ended up looking very scared, clutching his own amulet - a little crown - as well.

Jane led Quentin into the bramble of trees near the Plover house, and after a few minutes walking in the near dark, she whispered a few words and a miniature light floated near them.

“It’s funny. I always tell you to stay on the garden path, but here I am, as usual, leading you away from it,” Jane said.

Which.

“Um. Always?”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve met, Quentin. It’s not even the second, or third, or tenth.”

What.

“How - how many times is this one, then?”

Jane stopped, then, and turned to him with a strange, sad smile. “This is the fortieth time. The fortieth time I’ve had to take out the clock and restart the time-loop, to try and stop the Beast. My brother.”

“Time-loops?” Quentin asked, and it hit him then, because it was so impossible and so ridiculously obvious at the same time. “But then. You’re the Watcherwoman?”

“That’s right,” Jane nodded. “And don’t ask me why you. I don’t know, exactly. I wasn’t just being facetious, to your friend Margo - you really are the volunteer tomato, the one that keeps showing up. Every loop, Martin comes after you, you’re the one who makes him speed up his plans, try to break through to this world just so he can get to you. After a few loops, I understood that trying to protect you or keep his attention from you wasn’t possible. He always came. But then I realized that him always coming after you - that one, predictable thing - was his weakness. That maybe instead of just him coming after you, you could go after him.”

Quentin was quiet for a moment, trying to parse all of it. He took a deep breath, hand shooting to his amulet again. Stay calm. He let out the breath again, going through all the tricks he’d learned to keep panic attacks at bay.

“How many loops until you figured that out?”

“Enough,” Jane said, mouth twisting. “I won’t sugar-coat it, Quentin. All the ones before this one, they ended badly.”

“Oh, you were sugar-coating before?” Quentin said, keeping hysteria at bay through sheer force of will. Then the rest of Jane's sentence hit like a stone in his stomach. “How badly?”

“We lost and everyone died badly,” Jane replied starkly. “I’ve tried tweaking a few things, but nothing ever worked. This time, though - I think this time could be it, Quentin, I really do. You’re stronger than you’ve ever been. I can sense your magic, not to mention Julia’s, the rest of your coven… and you unraveled the mystery much faster than ever before.”

“Well, it was Eliot. I thought the Beast was Plover,” Quentin said.

“Yes. Mr. Waugh is very sharp, when he’s not intoxicated, which has many times not been the case.”

Quentin felt immediately offended on Eliot’s behalf - Eliot was always sharp, and Jane had no right to talk about his drinking habits when she barely knew him, and. Wait. Many times? “You said you’ve tweaked things. If I’m stronger… what did you change, this time?”

Jane bit her lip. “Brakebills. I’m sorry for taking it away from you like I did, because it’s been a home for you before, but - I’d already decided to keep Julia out this time, you see? I figured her being on the outside, you inside, you’d both learn different things and make each other stronger. But when the attack happened - so much faster than any other time before - and you reached out to her, sent her that message… I took a chance. I made sure you’d remember some of it, just enough to keep seeking magic out, to be on your guard, and I knew you’d made enough of an impact on the rest of your Brakebills friends that they’d come and find you eventually,” she said, taking a hold of Quentin’s hand and running a finger over the brand, which was at last fading. “It’s not fair, Quentin. I know it isn’t. But if my brother gets his way - if he controls Fillory in its entirety, the way he wants to, it’s not just Fillory he’ll ruin once and for all. Magic will be gone from the world.”

“It comes from Fillory, then? Magic?”

“We’re not sure from where, exactly,” Jane shrugged. “Probably many places. But Fillory is the backdoor, of a sorts, the way magic is funneled to all the other worlds. The wellspring for it.”

Fuck. What a disaster. Quentin couldn’t understand, he still couldn’t understand, what it was about him. The thing was, of course, now that he knew about this, about how magic and Filory were at risk, and now that he knew the Beast would come after him no matter what… however manipulated he felt, however sick at the thought of thirty-nine versions of him and his friends dying horrible deaths, he knew Jane was right. He would do whatever it took, would use whatever middling talent, whatever kernel of strength was inside him, to help, and to stop the Beast. And then a thought struck him. Maybe it wasn’t about stopping him.

“But, then. Jane, if you have the watch and the key, let’s just figure out a way to go back and, just. Make sure Martin can go back to Fillory, can get away from Plover,” Quentin said, words rushing out, his hands shaking. There had to be a way to fix this. There had to be a way to make all of this. Just. Less fucking shitty.

But Jane was already shaking her head, with that look on her face that Quentin had only known for, like, all of thirty minutes and already absolutely fucking hated, that look that was tragic and sympathetic but un-goddamn-movable in her knowing better than anyone. “Oh, Quentin. Every time you’ve figured it out, before, that’s always your first instinct.”

“Why the hell wouldn’t it be? He was just a kid!”

“I know. And I agree. This is my brother, Quentin,” Jane said, her voice breaking slightly. “And for every Martin in every timeline after the first, I’ve been able to go back and make it better. But the reality of the Beast - that which Plover and Fillory itself brought into being - it can’t be taken back. I can’t loop back enough, I can’t erase it. Once something so evil is done, and something so evil created… it puts something out in the universe that can’t be taken back.”

“But. But there has to be a way to fix it,” Quentin said, angrily rubbing tears out of his eyes.

“Some things just can’t be fixed, Quentin. They can only be faced,” Jane replied, voice stark. “The only way forward - the only way to protect Fillory, and to protect all of magic - is to stop the Beast. To stop him. And to stop him…”

“... we have to kill him.”

Jane nodded, and Quentin turned away slightly, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. “How?” he asked quietly, his voice breaking. If thirty-nine versions of him had tried…

“There’s a spell my brother Rupert used,” Jane replied. “I don’t really know much about it, he didn’t like discussing it, but. It’s supposed to be the most powerful battle spell there is.”

“If it’s that powerful, casting it must be almost impossible,” Quentin said. “And why would I be able to use it now, and not the thirty-nine times before?”

“Casting it alone, yes,” Jane said, and then smiled. “But you’re not alone, Quentin. And this time, you’re not a magician. You’re a hedge.”

+

Later, after a somber round of drinks at the Ball and Sack, where Quentin relayed the information Jane had given him to Julia, Eliot, Margo, and Plum, leading immediately to a second, third, and fourth round of drinks back at the safe house (not that any number of rounds could really undo the shock of hey, turns out this is the fortieth time we’ve been through this, and we’ve died every time before, but they sure as shit tried), Quentin found himself on the floor, squished next to the armchair, despondently going through the pictures he’d taken at the Plover house.

After a few minutes, he felt Eliot settling down next to him, his long (long, long) legs crowding Quentin’s comfortingly.

“Curating your choices for a Facebook upload, Q?”

Quentin huffed out a bitter chuckle. “No. Just revisiting what a fucking idiot I was.”

“Q…”

“I mean it, El,” Quentin said. He tilted the camera so Eliot could see better, showed him the picture on the display - Plover’s writing room. “This desk saved my life. The first time I was hospitalized, when I was sixteen, my dad had no fucking clue what to do. But something made him bring me my old copies of the Fillory books, and reading them again - it helped me. It reminded me of that first time I’d read them, when I was eight, it made me feel like the world could be a little more than gray and disappointing and painful. It made me feel like there could be magic, somewhere. And now… now it turns out that the books that saved my life were written by an asshole who destroyed another’s, that this douchebag I idolized is more of a monster than the monster he created. And I just don’t know what to do with that.”

Eliot was silent for a moment, and then raised his arm to bring it across Quentin’s shoulder, pulling Quentin even closer to him.

“Maybe the way you can think about it is that it’s not the desk that saved your life, Q,” Eliot said, voice soft and careful. “Maybe it wasn’t him at all. Wasn’t he just the horrible conduit for the stories the Chatwins told him? Now that we know Fillory is real, maybe it was Fillory itself - or the idea of it, anyway - that saved you. And Plover has nothing to do with it.”

“I - I don’t know. Maybe. Do you think I can do that? Hold on to the idea?” Quentin asked, hating that his voice was breaking slightly.

“I think you can, Q. Ideas are much more powerful than people. I mean... “ Eliot paused, then let out a breath. “The only reason I survived my own adolescence was because of my idea of me.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I - remember I told you about Logan Kinnear?” Eliot asked, and waited until Quentin nodded. “I didn’t mention it, then, but I grew up in Indiana, on a farm.” Eliot paused, a pained smile taking over his face, something in his eyes that Quentin rarely saw - a long-buried hurt, that only ever lingered in the background, but was always there. “I - I know how to drive a tractor, and I have actual opinions about crop-rotation, as much as I’ve tried to forget them. And my dad and my brothers were homophobic assholes, my mother retreated into her church and a bottle, and school had Logan. So I just held on, as hard as I could, to the idea of what I could be when I got out - of the clothes I would wear, the music I’d hear, the plays I’d see… the boys I’d fuck. I held on to the idea of what I could be to survive, and I made that idea a reality when I finally got out, I built myself out of that idea. So, yeah, Q. I think ideas work.”

Quentin looked at Eliot for a long moment, at his beautiful face, where he could read old pain and shame and bravado all rolled together, but most of all a fragile offering - a deep truth, one of the secrets at the very heart of Eliot, given to Quentin for safe-keeping because Eliot was trusting that Quentin would take these soft, broken parts of him and take care of them, the same way Eliot had done for him - the same way he hadn’t called Quentin childish or ridiculous for placing such a heavy stake on a fantasy world and being so hurt over Plover.

Words seemed insufficient, for moments like this, for what Eliot had given him, and he didn’t know how Eliot would take what he wanted to say, but Quentin needed to say it, needed Eliot to know that there was nothing inside him Quentin wouldn’t take. “I love you, Eliot,” he said, the words stark but honest in the little space of intimacy they’d created. “The parts of you that know how to ride a tractor and the parts of you that know what wine to pair with what cheese. The parts that you hide, and the parts that you built. Thank you for sharing that with me.”

Eliot smiled, a small, trembling thing, and his eyes filled with tears which he tried to blink away. “Oh, Q. You - you’re just fearless.”

“I’m, like, the most scared person I know,” Quentin said, confused.

Eliot leaned closer, kissed him on the forehead softly. “I know. Which makes you so much braver.” He pulled back, rested his own forehead on Quentin’s, eyes closed. “I love you, too,” he whispered. “Don’t tell Margo, though, she’ll never let me live it down.”

Quentin smiled. “I kind of think she knows, El.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Eventually, after Plum had been sent off to sleep at Xochitl’s, Margo and Julia settled down next to them on the floor and, cramped and uncomfortable, but together, the four of them passed a bottle of red wine back and forth, waiting out the rest of the night, helping each other dread the next day a little less. Whatever it was that had brought them together thirty-nine times before, Quentin made a promise to himself - and to them - that he wouldn’t let the same thing break them apart.

+++

The next day, they gathered the coven and told them everything they’d learned. The reactions ranged from freaked out (Neil, and Plum, still), pretending they weren’t freaked out (Xochitl and Jorge), and annoyed at Jane Chatwin but calm (Anna, because she remained, always, the one that had it together). But after the information had been digested, they got down to business.

“Okay, so - Jane told you about this really powerful battle spell that Rupert used, right Q? That she thought might work on the Beast?” Julia asked.

“Yeah, she didn’t know what it was called, though, so it makes it harder for us to track it down,” Quentin said.

“What makes it so special, though? There’s a lot of battle magic out there, why would this spell in particular be the one to work?” Anna cut in, frowning.

Quentin shared a quick look with Julia. He’d checked the books backwards and forwards early in the morning, trying to figure out what spell Jane had meant, and he’d come to one logical conclusion. As logical as anything could get, really, when dealing with the fact that a fantasy book was apparently real. “Well, um. In the books, Rupert realizes that World War Two is still going on, and he goes to the Armory in Whitespire Castle, where they have all the books, and I guess he learned this spell, because he then gets extra strength from Ember and Umber and goes back to Earth. The thing is, this was December 1944, right during the Battle of the Bulge. And. Well, you know what happened next.”

“Wait, so you’re saying this spell won World War Two?” Jorge asked, incredulous.

Quentin shrugged. “Um. Yeah? It. It kind of looks that way.”

“I mean, we know history books lie, but this is, like, a whole other level,” Xochitl said, shaking her head.

“But how can we even find this spell? We may have the button, but going to Fillory right now and running into the Beast before we’re ready would be suicidal,” Plum said.

“Well, I hate to be the one to say it, because I still don’t like the bitch, but - Q, Kady is our best bet at figuring out what the spell is since going to Fillory is out,” Margo said. “Eliot and I can talk to her when we go back to Brakebills today. She did say she owed you and Julia, so.”

“Yeah. Yeah, let’s ask her,” Quentin said, after a moment. There really was no other way, and Kady had honestly seemed like she wanted to help, even if she didn't like that she wanted to help. “Thanks, Margo.”

While Margo and Eliot went back to Brakebills and, hopefully, got some information about the spell from Kady, the rest of the coven went through everything they knew and everything Jane had told Quentin again, Jorge actually pulling out a blackboard to diagram the whole thing, which made Xochitl make fun of him ruthlessly until Anna quieted them down with a look of mild reproof. It was still not quite real, for Quentin, the fact that he’d apparently gone through thirty-nine lifetimes before this, the fact that so much of what he thought were his choices seemed to be the choices of a woman he’d only thought of as a literary character for most of his life and a university dean who was, by all accounts, a semi-functional alcoholic.

But as he saw Plum and Neil argue over the exact placement of creepy moths on the diagram (Plum thought they should go under “Manifestations of the Beast”, Neil favored “Attack Methods”), he reflected that, even with the meddling, he wouldn’t trade who he was right now - the stars inked on his arm; the now rock-solid bond he had with Julia, at last untainted by unrequited love and forged through fire because they’d come out of what could have been a seriously friendship-damaging fight stronger; the way he and Eliot had gotten a second chance even after the mind-wipe and created something that was perfect for both of them; his ridiculous, amazing, talented coven - for any other version of himself.

A few days later, Kady came through. Or rather, Kady and Alice Quinn came through.

The first Quentin knew of it was a text from Margo, which read: heads up, got info but bringing alice quinn to safe-house in exchange. have scared her into silence etc. eliot being a bitch about it so u need to kiss it better. Since the text arrived about a minute before Margo herself arrived, along with Eliot, Kady, and apparently Alice Quinn, Quentin didn’t have much time to decipher it (or, more realistically, to ask Julia and Xochitl to help him decipher it) before he was rushing to the door at the knock outside and adjusting the wards to let everyone in.

Quentin looked closely at Eliot’s face when he walked inside, and noticed that he looked a little off. He smiled at Quentin, of course, but a little apprehensively, and he sort of drifted to the side with Margo, leaving Quentin in front of Kady - who still looked at Quentin with a mixture of annoyance-guilt and gave him a nod hello - and a nervous-looking blonde who could only be Alice.

“Um, hi, Quentin. I - you don’t remember me, but I guess Margo let you know I was coming? I’m Alice Quinn.”

At the sound of her name, Julia glanced up from whatever whispered conversation-and-or-argument she seemed to be having with Kady, and walked over to stand next to Quentin, face set in a hard expression.

“Yeah, um. Hi, Alice,” Quentin replied. He waited a beat for Julia to introduce herself, and when the silence became obvious, he rolled his eyes. This is my best friend, Julia.”

“Hi,” Alice said, and then bit her lip, as if weighing her words before continuing. “I’m sorry for barging in, but, well - I asked Kady to let me know if you guys needed anything, if there was something I could help with, and when she told me you were looking for that spell, I kind of went on a research binge, and then I found something but needed Dean Fogg to help and I had to convince him, or, um, threaten him for a bit, but eventually we went to talk to this fairy who used to be Brakebills faculty and, um,” Alice paused, the barrage of words faltering, and she took out what looked like an old school workbook from her bag and showed it to Quentin. “Well, here’s the spell, I think. It’s called the Rhinemann Ultra.”

Julia - hostility somewhat dimmed in the face of magic, as usual - stepped forward and took the workbook, immediately opening it. “This looks like it could be it, Q,” she said after a moment of reading. “But - it really does look like it takes way more power than one person could hold… wait.” She glanced up, frowning slightly at Alice. “These notes in the margin - they’re to turn it into a cooperative spell?”

“Yeah, uh - just ideas, my discipline isn’t meta-comp, but,” Alice shrugged. “I guessed that you wouldn’t be able to petition Ember and Umber for power like Rupert did so easily? And Kady mentioned that hedges lean toward cooperative magic a lot more than classical magicians do, so.”

“This looks really good. I - I think if we keep working at it, we might be able to do it,” Julia said. “Q, do you mind if -”

“No, go ahead - you guys can use the living-room, there’s a fresh blackboard set up,” Quentin replied immediately. “You’re thinking Xochitl and Anna to work through it?”

Julia nodded. “Well, and, uh. Kady.”

Quentin ignored the faint blush on Julia’s face when saying that, because he was a good friend. “Sure, okay. Maybe ask Margo, too, if she doesn’t mind. Um, Plum, Jorge, Neil, and I can work on some protective stuff with Eliot.”

“Wait, Quentin, can I - can I talk to you?” Alice cut in, looking nervous again.

Quentin glanced at the corner - their makeshift kitchenette - where Eliot and Margo were talking to Anna. “Yeah, um. Sure. We can go get coffee and bagels for everyone, if it’s okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Okay, just. Let me talk to - I’ll be right back,” Quentin said, and made his way to the kitchenette. Margo and Anna saw him coming and walked away, clearly eschewing all subtlety, leaving Eliot and Quentin alone. “Hey, El - I’m gonna go get coffee and bagels. Do you want your usual?”

Eliot glanced briefly towards where Alice was already engrossed in discussion with Julia before replying. “Yeah, Q. Sesame and scallion cream cheese, please.”

“Got it,” Quentin said, and shifted slightly from one foot to the other, hesitating a little before deciding it was better to just ask. “El - are you okay? Margo mentioned you were, um. Not great with Alice being here?”

“That meddling bitch,” Eliot muttered softly, and then sighed. “No, I’m fine. It’s just - well, it sounds so ridiculous saying it out loud…”

“Hey, from what Xochitl tells me, about sixty percent of what I say out loud sounds ridiculous, so.”

Eliot let out a huffing laugh, shaking his head. “Oh, Q.” He looked at Quentin for a moment, terribly fond. “Okay, so. Here we go, try not to judge me too hard. When I first met you, back at Brakebills - you had something of a crush on Alice. And just knowing you’d meet her again, I had a moment of jealousy which was totally silly and unnecessary and I hoped would pass unnoticed but, well. Margo.”

Quentin tilted his head. “I mean. I can see why I would’ve had a crush on her, but. Eliot, I obviously had a crush on you, too.”

“Q, really - it was just a not-great impulse reaction I had, because I’m sometimes a little scared that maybe you’d prefer being with a girl, but Margo already kicked that biphobic lapsus out of my head, I promise. I was being silly, you don’t have to tend to my insecurities.”

“I mean, you always help me when I’m feeling weird, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” Quentin replied. “But I’m being serious. El - they wiped my memories, not my personality. I basically fell into your lap the second first time I met you, at the bar, and I had pretty vivid dreams about you for three months after… there’s no way that when I got to Brakebills that wasn’t also true, even if we didn’t have sex or anything back then.” He paused for a moment. “And anyway, if I ever do want to have sex with a girl or whatever, it would be when we both agreed that was something we wanted to do together, and um. I’d probably need, like. Some alcohol first, maybe.”

Eliot grinned. “Quentin Coldwater - surprise threesome dark horse. Who knew?”

Quentin felt himself blushing. “Shut up, I meant. Like. You know what I meant.”

Eliot’s grin turned into a small smile. “I did. And thank you, Q. Not just because of the threesome offer, but. For saying all of it.” He leaned down, and kissed Quentin, a soft meeting of lips. “Now - Daddy really does need his coffee and bagel.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. “Still not doing that, no.” He leaned in for another kiss, though, because, well. It’s not like he had any self control when it came to Eliot.

He double-checked everyone else’s order (everyone’s was the same as always except for Neil, who seemed to like taking risks via bagel schmear even though he hated risk in every other aspect of his life), and collected Alice. They were about to walk out of the safe-house when he remembered the amulets. Luckily, Harriet had sent along a few extra ones last week, when Julia had called her to give her an update of where their research on the Beast was at.

“Wait, um - let me get you a protective amulet, just in case,” Quentin said, going to the little nook next to the door where they kept the generic guest amulets, and pulling out one shaped like a star to hand to Alice.

Alice took the amulet and examined it closely. “Does it have a modified Mansell’s? I haven’t seen a variation like this before.”

“Yeah, it does. One of the heads of the covens we’re kind of friends with put it together for us - it helps us avoid any additional encounters with the Beast or whoever he may be possessing when we’re outside the wards,” Quentin replied, gesturing a little excitedly. It kept surprising him, how the Brakebills crowd reacted to hedge magic - with suspicion and then something like curiosity and even envy. “They gave us one for everyone in the coven, but since we mentioned we’d been having some guests, they sent us more.”

“Can I see yours? Is the shape different?”

“Yeah, everyone got different shapes - Harriet sort of adjusted them to each of us, is what she explained?” Quentin pulled out the little anchor amulet he always wore and showed to Alice, who tilted her head slightly.

“An anchor: hope and steadfastness,” Alice said, a strange, almost wistful look on her face. “It suits you, Quentin.”

“Um. Thanks, I think.”

The walk to the coffee shop was extremely awkward at first, and considering Quentin was, like, the reigning king of awkward, it was really saying something. Alice kept opening her mouth as if to speak and then shaking her head slightly and not saying anything. After the fourth time it happened, Quentin decided that the only way out was through.

“So, Alice. You - you wanted to talk to me?”

Alice glanced at him with wide eyes, a little startled - and, really, at this point Quentin was starting to wonder if he’d somehow misheard and had in fact accidentally co-opted Alice into a coffee and bagel run against her will - but she gave a small, jerky nod after a moment. “Yes, Quentin. I guess I wanted to - no, I needed to talk to you and apologize.” Alice paused for a second, biting her lip. “That night, when we did that spell that ended up summoning the Beast - I don’t know if Eliot explained, or how much he knows, but. You were helping me, because I wanted to summon my brother, to figure out what happened to him, how he died. And when we got into trouble, and then Penny pinned it all on you, I - I should’ve said something, I should’ve stepped up. But I let it happen because I couldn’t risk being kicked out of Brakebills without understanding what happened to Charlie. And you paid the price.”

Quentin had actually heard from Eliot - who had apparently heard it from Quentin, and that made his head hurt a little more than he could handle right now - why they’d tried the summoning, but it felt different, somehow, hearing it from Alice. He could maybe understand his past self a little better - just hearing the stark pain in Alice’s voice when saying her brother’s name made him want to try and do something right now, even. But also, clearly, he’d been a bit of an idiot about the whole thing because he probably did have a crush on Alice back then.

“Did you find out what happened to Charlie?” he eventually asked, because that had been one thing Eliot hadn’t been able to tell him.

“Yeah. Um - I ended up slipping truth serum into Fogg’s tea? And he explained that Charlie niffined out. He used too much magic trying to help a friend when one of her spells went wrong,” Alice replied, mouth twisting slightly. “I thought about bringing him back, but. Kady and Penny convinced me to bind him.”

“I’m sorry,” Quentin said. Pete had told them a couple of nasty stories about hedges who’d tried to channel too much, do spells they couldn’t handle - it was terrible to imagine Alice’s brother going through that.

“Thanks,” Alice replied, voice soft, still looking at Quentin a little apprehensively.

The thing he was kind of thinking, but couldn’t exactly verbalize - Alice seemed sorry, but also like she wasn’t. In a way, Quentin couldn’t blame her - he’d been little more than a stranger at the time, and she’d been trying to find her brother. It was bizarre, after all this time, to come face to face with one of the reasons he’d been expelled, one of the reasons he’d been placed in danger, and end up feeling not mad about it. He couldn’t ignore the fact that Jane Chatwin had clearly been moving things behind the scene, too, so. Better to let slip the last bits of blame he was holding on to, and start fresh.

“Listen, Alice - you were looking for your brother. If it were me, looking for Julia, I would’ve probably done what I needed to do, and damn the consequences. So let’s just - put it aside,” he said, shrugging slightly. “I bet we didn’t get to know each other much before I was expelled, but I could always use a friend. Maybe you could, too?”

Alice frowned a little, like the words Quentin was saying were maybe in another language, but she nodded slowly after a moment. “Yes. That - that would be nice, Quentin.”

“Great,” Quentin smiled. “So, my first question as a friend is - what the hell is meta-comp?”

Alice smiled back, and launched into an explanation that lasted the rest of the walk, the process of ordering-and-waiting-around, and the walk back. By the time they made it to the safe-house, Quentin was pretty sure of two things: that if Julia had ended up going to Brakebills, meta-comp would’ve been her discipline, and that he was also - as usual - massively over-matched by the women he knew. Which was fine, because they mostly liked him.

+

Getting the spell ready took about a week of almost around-the-clock work by Julia, Alice, Margo, Anna, Xochitl, and Kady. By the end of it, though, they’d broken down the Rhinemann Ultra into layers and component parts that could be done by different people working together in a certain order, without any one of the components being complex or draining enough that they’d niffin out. Julia admitted to Quentin, begrudgingly, that Alice really was brilliant and she wasn’t sure that they’d been able to work through some of the snags without her.

“Even with all of it broken down into parts, though, it still takes time to power up,” Kady pointed out. “And from what we’ve all seen, it’s not like the Beast is going to hang around while we get the spell ready to blast him.”

“So we need some sort of distraction,” Margo said, nodding. “Fuck.”

Quentin paced around the black-boards, looking at the various components of the broken-down spell. It was seriously amazing, to think that Julia and Alice and everyone had managed to work out a way for a spell that usually needed the power of a god to work just as long as they worked together. And then it struck him - a distraction didn’t need to be another crazy spell, it just needed to be something simple but strong. “What about, um. Sumerian shield charms?” he suggested.

“What, the spell to protect from like burst glasses or whatever that we learn in PA?” Alice asked, frowning.

“I - I don’t know what PA is, but Eliot taught it to us a while ago, and um. Yeah, it’s a simple spell, but we’ve been casting it together - our coven - and if we do it cooperatively, it could be powerful enough to keep someone hemmed in, I think,” Quentin said, shrugging.

Xochitl bit her lip. “I mean, I think it could work, precisely because it’s not as hard to cast, but. Q, we’re gonna need more people - not all of us can do the parts of the Rhinemann, and also do the shield charm.”

Quentin glanced over at Julia, who was already smiling slightly and reaching for her phone. “I think we can get some more people together.”

Harriet and her FuzzBeat crowd agreed to help, along with Jonathan from the Hedge Market and his own coven, and they brought along people from a coven called Free Trader Beowulf run by a guy called Richard Corrigan (which, ugh, what was up with pretentiously naming your coven? Like why even?). They got everyone up to speed on who the Beast was - Jonathan’s husband was particularly upset when they revealed what Plover had done to Martin, apparently he was also a Fillory fan - and they talked them through the plan to defeat him, showing them the modified Rhinemann Ultra.

Richard suggested that they try summoning something stronger to defeat the Beast - like a god, apparently he and his coven had been tracking down some stuff - but Harriet and Margo shut him down hard when he suggested it. Harriet told him she’d read pretty terrifying things in the books she’d managed to smuggle out of the Library (which, Quentin made a note to track her down and have her explain exactly which library she meant - he was pretty sure it wasn’t the New York Public…), and Margo, who had apparently taken a Divinity elective in her previous semester at Brakebills (“What? The teacher was hot”), explained that non-believers trying to summon gods for convenience rather than faith tended to get fucked over pretty badly and that Richard should stop trying to be such a fucking white guy. So, Richard’s idea was summarily shot down and their original plan was agreed to. Altogether, they had enough people of varying skills and strength to have at least twenty people channeling the Rhinemann components led by Julia and Alice, and ten people casting the Sumerian shield charm led by Quentin.

“I think it’ll take us at least three of days to practice until we’re channeling both spells well, because there’s a lot of new magical signatures we need to get used to,” Julia said later that night, after their guests had left, and only their coven, Eliot, Margo, Kady, and Alice were left. “But we should be ready. We’ll take down the Beast.”

“Right, but. Has anyone thought of how we actually get to Fillory to actually do that?” Margo asked. “Because it’s usually been the bastard coming after us, here. Do we just use the button? Will it take all of us?”

“Uh. I actually asked Jane, back at the Plover House,” Quentin said, and shifted from foot to foot when everyone turned to look at him. “She said that the button could be tricky - it might end up taking us to the pathway between worlds rather than Fillory itself, but that if we found a traveler she could teach him how to harness it so it actually works properly. Only, um. Do we actually know a traveler?”

“We do,” Eliot said grimly, pressing closer to Quentin. “Penny.”

“Oh.”

“Kady - your loverboy owes Quentin here,” Margo said. “Will he come through?”

Kady glanced at Alice, who was biting her lip nervously, and then at Julia who looked pretty displeased at the reminder of what Penny had done. “I’ll talk to him.”

“He’s not a bad guy,” Alice said softly. “He was just, um.”

“Saving his own skin, and his people,” Eliot cut in. “I got that the moment he did it. But Quentin was, and is, my people, so you can see why I can’t just let bygones be bygones.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Kady repeated. “He’ll come through.”

The next day, Kady and Alice showed up with Penny in tow, and Quentin finally re-met the last of the Brakebills trio who had - with Jane’s assistance - truncated his time at Brakebills. It went… probably like the first time they’d met.

“God damn it, Coldwater. Not even a mind-wipe could get you to close your mind, huh? Taylor Swift? Still?”

Listen, Shake It Off was Quentin’s anxiety song, okay, and he wasn’t going to apologize to a guy who wore, like, scarves instead of shirts.

“Penny,” Alice hissed.

Penny rolled his eyes. “Right. Anyway, like I said in the note I sent you - I’m sorry. Kady and Alice explained, and I’ll help get you to Fillory, but I want something in exchange.”

“That’s not really how it works, Adiyodi,” Eliot said. He’d been hovering by Quentin’s side the second Penny arrived with Kady and Alice, as if he was scared Penny would somehow get Quentin expelled again, which made Quentin feel a little annoyed but also warmly pleased, so he let it slide - it wasn’t like Eliot being near was ever a problem. “You owe Quentin.”

“Listen, Waugh-”

“You want to help someone, right? In Fillory?” Quentin interrupted, putting a restraining hand on Eliot’s arm. “You said in your note.”

“Yeah,” Penny replied, a little surprised. As if Quentin was likely to forget a note where someone he couldn’t remember had called him a pussy in all-caps. “Someone’s trapped there, and I can hear her, somehow.”

“Okay. We’ll save her,” Quentin said. “If you, um. If you write down everything you can remember about where she is, Plum and I can try and figure it out from the books, while Jane teaches you how to use the button.”

Penny looked at him a little suspiciously for a moment, but then nodded grudgingly and went off with Kady, who handed him a pen and a piece of paper.

“You big softie,” Eliot said quietly, voice fond. “A little hint of damsel in distress, and you melt.”

Quentin shrugged, glancing up at him sideways. “I mean, what was I gonna say, El? No, we can’t rescue the poor woman who’s trapped?”

“That’s one of the reasons I love you, Q. That you couldn’t even imagine someone refusing to help,” Eliot replied, smiling slightly.

“So, you love that I’m naive?”

“No, not naive. Kind.”

Quentin looked down, feeling blood rush to his cheeks, but Eliot gently raised his chin up again and, meeting his eyes for a moment, kissed him, a firm press of lips that turned lingering.

“Hey, lovebirds! Save it for later, huh? We need Quentin to call Jane Chatwin,” Margo called out from across the room.

With that, Eliot ruefully pulled away from Quentin, and Quentin took out his phone to text Jane (the moment when she’d saved her number into his phone had, truly, been one of the more surreal things to happen to him, even beyond figuring out that magic existed and that he’d been mindwiped. He had the Watcherwoman’s phone number. Nine year-old him could never).

Over the next three days, the various hedges and magicians practiced the two spells over and over, and Quentin and Plum figured out that the woman Penny kept hearing, Victoria, was in the Castle That Isn’t There. In the meantime, Jane Chatwin taught Penny how to unravel the mysteries of the button and got him to tattoo his knuckles - apparently a spell to help him take other people when he traveled. Quentin saw as Penny tested himself with Jane first and then Kady and Alice, and then all three together, until at last, after blipping out and blipping back into the safe-house, he turned to them and said, “I did it. Made it to Fillory and back. We’re good to go.”

Quentin turned to look at Julia. They were as ready as they were going to get.

+++

They were going to Fillory tomorrow. Everyone had mostly scattered - to get supplies, to get some rest, to get laid - but Quentin had made his way up to the roof of the safe-house, where he could sit and take in the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge not too far, and try to process the fact that he was going to a place he’d dreamed of since he was a kid.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Julia’s soft voice broke through the silence, and Quentin glanced up with her with a grin.

“I mean, I’m pretty sure you can guess and save yourself a penny.”

“Fillory?” Julia asked, settling down next to him, a comforting warmth.

“Fillory,” Quentin confirmed.

“How do you feel about us going?”

“I mean, I don’t know, Jules,” Quentin said. “I’d like to pretend that there was a point in my life when I was even a smidgen cool and, like, rationalized my love for the books or whatever, but. But even after all the therapy, and the hospitals, and the Abilify and Prozac, even after all my stupid term papers analyzing the literary underpinnings of every book the teachers threw at me in college… I never stopped believing it was real.”

He shrugged, and showed Julia the book he was holding - his first edition of The World in the Walls. He kept his eyes down, running a soft finger over the clock and the tree in the cover of the book. “You told me a couple of years ago that me and Fillory and everything else was about finding secret doors to run away from myself, and it was, a bit. But it was also - I was trying to find the secret door to make myself make sense. And there was always a part of me that thought that if Fillory was real, that’s where it could happen. That it could be the place where all the ways in which I don’t fit in here, in this world, would work. Where my awkwardness and my broken brain would somehow resolve themselves, and I’d be Quentin, High King and Savior of Fillory.” He raised his eyes, then, and he could feel that he was crying, a bit, but he was with Julia, and if there was one person to whom he could say this, it was her.

Julia looked at him for a moment, head slightly cocked, no judgment on her face, nothing but what looked like an infinite kindness. “And now, Q?”

Quentin ran a hand down his face, sighed. “Now, I’m kind of trying to deal with the fact that Fillory is real and it does need to be saved, but my involvement isn’t because I’m some destined chosen one… it’s just because apparently I’m stubborn enough to keep coming back. A volunteer tomato.” He paused. “And I guess, that, even when we walk through that door - or Penny travels us, or whatever - maybe… maybe I don’t need Fillory to fix me? Maybe my awkwardness and my broken brain are just. What they are. And it’s fine.”

Julia wrapped one of her arms around his, and rested her head on his shoulder. “Well, I’ve always thought so, Q. And I’m pretty sure Eliot thinks so, too. Even Margo, for all that she tries to pretend otherwise. You’re our volunteer tomato.”

Quentin let his own head rest on top of Julia’s. “That probably shouldn’t make sense, but. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” They were quiet for a moment, looking at the sun slowly go down and the lights on the bridge turn on. “Are you hungry? Want to go get dinner?”

“Actually, um. I was thinking of going over to my dad’s for dinner”, Quentin replied. “I kind of want to take Eliot, so he can meet him. Do you want to come?”

Julia grinned. “Moral support?”

“I mean, yeah. And if my dad pulls out the baby pictures or whatever, you’re way better at doing that Jordan’s invisibility thing on objects than I am,” Quentin said.

“It’s a deal.”

+

They took one of the portals to Jersey, even though it wasn’t close enough and Quentin always had to Uber the rest of the way to Montclair (Eliot was really amazing at portals and they’d discussed setting up a portal from the safe-house directly to his dad’s house, but the whole thing had taken a backseat to the Beast).

“Q, are you really, truly sure it’s okay that I’m here?” Eliot asked, as they approached the house. He’d been unusually fidgety for Eliot - adjusting his cravat one way and then another, taking out his crown-shaped amulet a few times and running his fingers across it over and over. “I mean, not that I don’t want to meet your dad, but. Tomorrow is a big day, and if you have something important you want to talk to him about, I don’t want to get in the way…”

Quentin took one of Eliot’s hands in his and squeezed it. “You’re something important I want to talk to him about, El. Whatever happens tomorrow, I want him to know you. And before you ask again - yes, I’m sure the wine you brought is perfect. My dad is kind of bad at that stuff anyway.”

He kept Eliot’s hand in his as they walked up the steps, quickly tutting with his other hand to let the wards he and Julia had set up around the house adjust. They couldn’t make the place invisible or anything like that, but they’d warded it against magic users in general, with tweaks so Quentin and Julia - and now Eliot - could get through. Considering the various paths the Beast had tried to take to get to Quentin, they couldn’t take any chances.

Eliot still looked a little nervous, but then Ted opened the door and exclaimed, “Curly Q! Julia, always great to see you. And you must be Quentin’s Eliot - you didn’t tell me he was such a tall drink of water, Q,” and the nerves seemed to melt out of him.

Quentin could see that his dad was a little bemused by Eliot’s whole Eliotness at first - he looked between them as if trying to figure out how Quentin’s black-hoodie-and-black-jeans self could mix with an Eliot dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit - but after a while Eliot had him happily drinking a fairly complex-looking cocktail and Ted was, in turn, telling Eliot embarrassing stories about Quentin while Julia egged him on.

“But wait, wait - you’re saying Quentin actually got himself stuck inside the box? Like, literally couldn’t get out. ”

“Yep,” Ted replied, grinning. “It was one of those wooden boxes magicians use to pretend they’re cutting people in half, and it was clearly too small for him, but he was convinced he’d done a spell to make it fit, and, well. Julia was the one who had to come and get me, after they gave up on trying to get Quentin out by themselves.”

“Can confirm, yeah,” Julia said, laughing slightly. “It took an hour to get him out after that, Ted almost called the fire department.”

“That’s amazing,” Eliot said, gleeful.

“Yeah, thanks for that one, dad, Jules,” Quentin said. “I’ll be lucky if I have a boyfriend at the end of the night.”

“Oh, you’re never getting rid of me now, Coldwater,” Eliot told him, leaning across the table to take one of Quentin’s hands.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry, Curly Q - the guy followed you after they kicked you out from magic school, didn’t he? I’d say he’s a keeper,” Ted said.

Eliot froze, looked between Quentin, Julia, and Ted. “You, um. You know about magic school?”

Oh, shit, Quentin had totally forgotten to mention that to Eliot. It had become so normal, that Ted knew, and he’d taken it with enough equanimity that the whole magic thing was very much in the background of more pressing concerns like whether he was experiencing new symptoms, if the nausea was better or worse, what the neurologist was saying…

“Um, yeah,” Quentin said, wincing slightly. “We kind of had to spill the beans after I got kicked out and my dad figured out that Jules and I weren’t going to grad school. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, El, I just kind of blanked.”

“You gotta understand, Eliot,” Ted said. “Julia and Quentin here were the nerdiest overachievers you ever saw-”

“Dad!” “Ted!”

“- don’t pout, you two, you know it’s true. Anyway, you can imagine how worried I was, hearing that these two kids who I’d taken to mathlete meets and knowledge olympics and what-not and had snobby opinions about Ivy League colleges were suddenly bumming around New York without going to school.” Ted paused, glanced at Quentin for a moment, and Quentin could guess what Ted was thinking, so he gave him a brief nod. Eliot knew about his depression. “At least Quentin was taking his medication again, which was good, but I was still worried.”

“So they told you,” Eliot said, quietly.

“So they told me,” Ted confirmed. “And, you know, it didn’t really change much. I guess they’re still the nerdiest overachievers, but now about magic?”

“That’s exactly right,” Eliot said, smiling again, looking at Ted like he was something he’d never quite seen before, like he couldn’t believe that he was real. Quentin was suddenly, sharply reminded of Eliot talking about his own father, and desperately wished he could somehow portal to Indiana and test out the Rhinemann Ultra. “I’ve had to pull them away from practicing spells to get them to eat multiple times.”

“Oh, we’re not that bad,” Julia protested.

“No, you absolutely are. But it’s okay - it’s given me a chance to really hone my food-preserving spells,” Eliot said. He then turned to Quentin’s dad and, with a wave of his fingers, floated the cocktail he’d prepared towards himself. “And now that I know you’re in the know, Ted, I’m going to make you that cocktail again but with all the bells and whistles it should actually have.”

“Well, I won’t refuse. Will my drink actually whistle?” Ted asked.

“Perhaps,” Eliot replied mysteriously, before bustling off to the kitchen, Ted’s half-empty glass in hand. Quentin wasn’t sure his dad should really be drinking too much, but the herbal teas and potions they’d been preparing didn’t interact badly with alcohol, and Ted looked so charmed by Eliot’s efforts that he let it go.

After a moment - and hearing some bizarre clangs coming from the kitchen - Julia stood up. “Okay, sorry, I need to go see if he actually does make the drink whistle, and how. Be right back, guys.”

Ted and Quentin were quiet for a moment, Quentin aimlessly twirling his pad-thai around the plate, but he looked up as Ted cleared his throat.

“Quentin - I really do think he’s a keeper,” he said, soft and sincere. “I’m so glad, that you have him. I know you’ll always have Julia, but. I worried. I could see that you had so much love to give, such a big heart, and, well. I’m glad you have more people in your corner, son.”

Quentin swallowed, and blinked back sudden tears. What they both knew, what Ted wasn’t saying outright, was that he was glad Quentin had more people in his corner because at some point, sooner than Quentin was ready for, Ted wouldn’t be. No matter how many herb combinations he and Xochitl came up with, the clock would eventually run out. He suddenly remembered Jane’s solemn voice, saying Some things can’t be fixed, Quentin. They can only be faced.

“Thanks, dad,” he finally replied. “I - I’m glad I have more people on my corner, too.”

Eliot and Julia came back, then, with a drink that did actually whistle, and the solemn moment was broken. The rest of the night was spent sharing a few more embarrassing childhood stories, because Eliot apparently couldn’t get enough of the nerd adventures of Quentin and Julia, and eventually with a somewhat abridged explanation to Quentin’s dad that Fillory was in fact real and they were going to do something a little crazy the next day to try and save it. Quentin elected to edit the fact that the Beast was very specifically after him, because he didn’t want to worry his dad too much.

Ted looked at him knowingly, though, and just said, “Well, Curly Q... I guess you’ve been preparing for tomorrow all your life. Just - make sure you come back and tell me how it went, okay?” He looked at Eliot and Julia, a complicated, sad smile on his face. “You all come back.”

“We promise,” Eliot replied, looking at Quentin and then Julia with determined eyes, until they nodded their agreement. “We’ll come back, Ted.”

And Quentin knew, even more than before, that he would do whatever he needed to keep that promise, to bring Eliot back to his dad’s house often enough that he got used to it, to be with his dad for as long as cancer would let him.

+++

The next day dawned bright and clear, the sun shining enough to warm but not hot enough to stifle, with a pleasant breeze coming in from the East River.

Quentin, waiting outside the safe-house to let their various friends, guests, reluctant allies, and other assorted hangers-on, took a deep breath and put out a wish into the universe that the strange, brightly lit day would herald victory, that maybe pathetic fallacy would work the other way around this time and the sunshine and breeze heralded a win against the Beast.

The rational, Lit-major part of him who had disdainfully analyzed each over-tired reliance on the weather and fate in 19th century novels knew better, but he had to hope, he had to hope, because. Well, because he wasn’t done. He wanted more magic, more adventures with Julia, more evenings breaking down herbal remedies with Xochitl, more mornings getting freaked out because Plum was practicing illusions and she liked making spiders, more endless days breaking down spells and building them back up with Neil and Jorge and Anna, more late-night arguments about the geo-politics of Narnia and Fillory and Middle-Earth with Margo, and more Eliot, more Eliot, more Eliot.

“You okay, Q?”

Quentin turned to see the very object of his thoughts looking at him carefully, a worried little furrow between his brows.

“I’m okay, El. Just. Nervous.”

Eliot stepped closer and pulled Quentin into his body, resting his chin on top of Quentin’s head. Quentin tensed for a second, but then let himself melt into Eliot, into the wordless comfort he was offering. They stayed like that for some time, and Quentin calmed himself by cataloguing all the things he loved about Eliot’s body: his smell, a spicy, woodsy smell that Quentin loved, something like woodsage and sea salt and cardamom, something so distinctive that even Fogg and his mind-wipe hadn’t been able to take it away from Quentin; his long, long arms, his lean torso, the way Quentin fit perfectly under his chin; his heartbeat, steady and strong, a metronome that helped Quentin time his breaths until he felt his anxiety slowly melting away.

“I won’t bother with platitudes, Q. I can’t promise that everything is going to come up roses, because the Beast is the Beast and magic is magic, and we don’t always have the best of luck,” Eliot said softly, after a while, his voice reverberating in Quentin’s ears since he was still pressed to his chest. “But I can promise this - you are not alone, here. You’ve got your coven, you’ve got a whole assorted alliance of hedges, you’ve got Margo, and Julia, and those miscreants who got you expelled, and you’ve got me. You’ve got me.”

Penny, Kady, and Alice arrived then, soon followed by Harriet’s coven, then Jonathan’s and Richard’s, and they were finally ready. They all stood in a circle in the middle of the safe-house, hands joined, and watched as Penny made a few tuts that Jane had taught him over the button before taking hold of Kady’s hand and, in what felt like the blink of an eye, they were in Fillory.

Quentin took a deep breath - there was something in the air he couldn’t quite describe - and looked around. He was in Fillory. It was unbelievable and heartbreaking, all at once, because what he could see was a land slowly being eaten away: dead trees, a chilling fog, various gravestones scattered in the distance. He locked eyes with Julia and saw his own mixed feelings reflected - they were in a place they dreamed of as children, but it was dying.

“So - this Wellspring place, it’s close, right?” Margo asked. She was also looking unsettled by the general decay, but, in her inimitable Margo way, seemed to be choosing to ignore it so they could get shit done.

“Yeah, um. Jane told Penny and I it was just past the next clearing. The Beast should be coming in about an hour, if we timed it right. Before the suns set,” Quentin replied.

It had been a strange conversation to have with Jane. She knew where to find the Beast, briefly explaining that he’d taken control of the Wellspring (apparently she’d actually meant it when she said Fillory had a well from which magic was distributed and it hadn’t just been a random metaphor, which made Quentin’s brain hurt slightly) and that he went back every evening to replenish his strength, making it likely that he was at his weakest right before.

“Jane, you - you know exactly where to find him, and when to stop him. I just. I still don’t get why you think we’ll have a better chance than you. You’re obviously a Master Magician - you could just do the Rhinemann yourself.”

“Oh, Quentin. I wish I could, truly. I’ve tried before - not the exact spell, of course, but others. Similar ones. They all rebounded on me, nearly killed me. You see, it doesn’t matter that Martin is now shadeless, that he’s all monster now… he is still my brother. And he still knows me better than anyone, so he’s always, somehow, ready for me. But you, Quentin - Martin doesn’t understand you. Before, when he was young, he would’ve seen himself in you, would have found a kindred spirit in your thirst for knowledge, in your desperate belief in magic, even in the way your own emotions drown you sometimes. But when he went so far in his pursuit of magic that he lost his own humanity, he lost the capacity to understand you. And so, while he knows you are somehow key in his downfall, he can’t understand why, or how. It escapes him, how a magician of middling talent could defeat him, could keep coming back to be the pebble in his shoe.”

“It - it escapes me, too. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to try, it doesn’t mean I won’t do my best, but. I just don’t get how my best will come even close.”

“This is exactly why, Quentin. So many people would just walk away, ignore all this. Ward themselves to hell and back and let Fillory decay and vanish into his clutches, let magic die as long as they lived. But that’s never been you, not in the thirty-nine times I’ve known you, and not now. That eight year-old who first read the Fillory books and believed in them with all his heart - that heart - that’s what makes you different, Quentin. That’s what will get you through.”

And so, now, they were here. Walking toward the Wellspring, which looked deceptively lame (“A fucking out-house, really? God, this place is ridiculous,” Kady complained), and positioning themselves in the correct configuration to channel the Sumerian shield and the Rhinneman.

The suns were beginning to set, and everything in Quentin knew that the Beast wasn’t far behind. He shook out his hands, took a deep breath, looked at Anna, and Neil, and Jorge, and Plum, and Xochitl, committed his coven to memory, looked at Margo and Julia, looked at Eliot, looked at the people he knew well and barely knew and had known but had been made to forget. It was time.

“Alice, you ready?”

“Ready,” Alice nodded, eyes hard and determined. When she’d explained her discipline to Julia, Phosphormancy, they’d figured out a way to have Alice hide everyone from the Beast’s sight until they were ready to spring the trap. “Just - everyone, don’t move. The refraction will get all screwed up and you’ll be visible if you even put a toe out of line after I start.”

“Plum, ready?”

Rather than responding, Plum began moving through a series of complex tuts, whispering under her breath, and after a moment, an illusion of Quentin was in front of the Wellspring. Plum moved back to her place in the circle, and Alice made them all vanish.

They heard the Beast before they saw him, a rustling of dead leaves, and the ominous sound of moths fluttering their wings slowly. And then he came into view, and Quentin winced as he was hit with what could only be a memory of the first time he’d seen the Beast, back in Brakebills: the same man, wearing a gray suit, his bizarre, loping gait, and the moths surrounding his face. He paused in surprise when he saw the illusion of Quentin, but then he started chuckling, an incongruous, terrifying-sounding thing.

“Well, well, well. Isn’t it silly little Quentin Coldwater.” The moths fluttered noisily, crazily, but then parted around the Beast’s face, to show the oddly unlined face of a non-descript middle-aged man. Martin Chatwin. “I have to say, you’ve been particularly meddlesome. Getting away from me three times, and wearing those pesky amulets. I figured you’d spend the rest of your time hiding, but I should’ve guessed my sister would fill your ears with overwrought sentiment about how you were the last hope of Fillory and that, like the heroic fool you are, you’d come.” He walked closer toward the illusion, toward the Wellspring. “And here you are! All alone, like a good little hero. Alas, my sister should have told you that you’re more like the side-kick who dies first.” He raised his hands, then, the six fingers looking grotesque, and Quentin broke free from Alice’s refraction.

“She did mention I was pretty much just like a tomato,” Quentin said, startling Martin into turning around. “And I’m not alone.”

With that, Quentin and the other nine he was leading began casting as one, the Sumerian Shield coalescing around the Beast like shining air, keeping him pinned, as Julia, Alice, Margo, Eliot, Kady, Anna, Xochitl, Harriet, Jonathan, Richard, and everybody else started casting the re-worked Rhinemann Ultra, air crackling around them as each component began to appear and power up. Quentin kept his hands moving, ignoring how they were starting to cramp, his mouth moving automatically to repeat the incantation over and over and over again, wincing whenever the Beast tried to break the shield.

“You can’t stop me, none of you can’t stop me!” Martin yelled, his hands almost blurring together as he cast spell after spell that crashed against the shield. “Do you think a silly group of magicians can come close to matching me? I’m practically a God!”

“Julia…” Quentin whispered, feeling sweat break out on his brow. He could see Neil and Plum flagging, he could feel his own strength being drained. They couldn’t keep the shield going for much longer.

“Wait, Q, wait -” Julia said, words gritting past her lips as she moved her hands swiftly, the last component appearing before her. Quentin could feel it, then: the Rhinemann was ready. The clearing filled with a sharp, humming sound, and the hair on Quentin’s arms stood on end at the sheer power being marshaled. “Now!” Julia yelled, and, as one, everyone channeling the spell shot their hands forward, while Quentin and the rest dropped the shield and ran for cover.

The Rhinemann hit the Beast like a missile, and the clearing filled with white light, forcing Quentin to close his eyes. When he blinked them open, struggling to get back on his feet, he glanced towards where Martin had stood, and saw nothing but a strange, blue moth, wings fluttering once, twice, until they stopped.

It was over. They’d won.

+++

The next few hours were among the most bizarre and unexpected Quentin had ever experienced, and this included going to magic school and getting mind-wiped, being targeted by a relentless nemesis with moths instead of a face, and that one afternoon when Eliot made cocktails that were even more experimental than usual.

After every person in the group got close enough to ground zero to verify with their own eyes that nothing was left of the Beast but a dead moth, they wandered to the nearest village, dazed and magic-buzzed and exhausted. Eliot was the one who spotted the pub and, wordlessly, led everyone inside, immediately walking to the bartender (who was a bulldog, and Quentin was unfortunately too tired to start asking him all the questions he and Julia had come up with in case they ever saw a Fillorian talking animal) and asking for thirty shots of whatever was strongest.

The Fillorians inside the pub had gone entirely quiet when they walked in, but as the bartender got a human server to pour Quentin really couldn’t guess what - the Fillory books had been fairly PG-13 when it came to descriptions of alcohol, but maybe calling it mead would work? - he could feel people staring at them, see them pointing at their clothes, and the startled silence soon gave way to a persistent buzz of whispering.

Eventually, a young woman approached them, her blue eyes wide with apprehension and excitement. “Excuse me, but - are you all Children of Earth?”

“Uh, Q?” Eliot asked, putting his shot down and walking closer to him, subtly taking a defensive stance. Margo, Alice, Penny, Kady, and the rest of the hedges tensed, many of them shaking their hands out to get ready to cast.

“No, it’s - it’s what they call people from Earth, it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Quentin said quickly, meeting Eliot’s eyes quickly, and then Julia’s, who nodded at him. He turned to the young woman. “Yes, we’re Children of Earth. Sorry about, um. Just showing up. We had to deal with the Beast, so, there was no time to get a formal invitation or anything.”

The declaration caused a muted uproar among the small crowd, and the young woman gasped.

You’ve killed the Usurper?”

“If that’s another way you called that dickhole Martin Chatwin, then yes,” Margo replied, eyebrows raised. “So maybe the bartender can comp us a few drinks, huh? We just did a lot of fucking magic, and we are exhausted.”

The young woman’s shock turned into palpable excitement, although tinged with fear. “Yes, I’m sure Barleycoat will gladly give you free mead, but I - I must go get my father immediately.” With that, she practically ran out of the pub, shouting over her shoulder, “Don’t go anywhere, Children of Earth!”

“Well, that was fucking weird,” Penny muttered.

“Whatever, we get free shots,” Margo said.

What they got was much more than free shots. About twenty minutes later, the young woman showed up with an older man - who introduced himself as the Knifemaker, and Quentin could hear the capital letter in front of that name - and they summarily requested everyone to hold out their hands to determine who was the High King. Quentin, seeing that Jonathan and his coven were about ready to throw down over the weird request and Xochitl was looking particularly mutinous, hastily offered his hand and only felt a twinge of disappointment when the knife didn’t nick his palm even a little bit.

Following his example, Julia and then Plum held their hands out, and the rest of the hedges relaxed. After about halfway through, the Knifemaker finally made it to Eliot, who had been trying to coach Barleycoat into making a Fillorian approximation of a martini and had lost some interest in the palm-cutting activities, and they all froze when the knife cut into his palm like butter, leaving behind bright blood.

“Ow, fuck!” Eliot hissed, cradling his hand to his chest and hastily grabbing one of the cloth napkins on top of the bar to staunch the blood. “Did it have to be my dominant hand?” He seemed to notice after a moment that a shocked silence had descended among the crowd, again, and that the Knifemaker was staring at him reverently. “Q? Why is everyone looking at me like that?”

Quentin swallowed. “Um. I’m pretty sure it’s because you’re the High King, El.”

Eliot blanched. “Oh. Well, shit.”

In the general confused celebration that followed, Margo and Quentin attempted to keep Eliot calm by strategically keeping him drunk enough so he wouldn’t bolt but not so drunk that he’d attempt to fly to the moon (again, that one time with the experimental cocktails had been. An experience) while Julia took the Knifemaker and his daughter - who finally introduced herself as Fen - aside and attempted to get the specific details of what the knife blood-test meant and what Eliot was expected to do next, to see whether it matched up with what they knew from the books.

The rest of their coven and the hedges took advantage of Eliot’s unexpected kingship to scam some more free shots - Quentin couldn’t really blame them - and Penny, clearly tired of waiting any longer, asked for directions to the Castle That Isn’t There and took off with Alice and Kady to rescue Victoria. They came back a couple of hours later with a malnourished young woman who had to be Victoria and with a diminished-looking older man who Quentin recognized with revulsion: Plover.

“Oh, hell no,” Margo said. “We sure as fuck aren’t dealing with him right now. Can someone knock him out and make sure he stays out?”

“Gladly,” Kady replied - Julia had filled her in on what they’d seen in the Plover house and she’d been pretty horrified. They saw as she made a few complicated tuts and then pinched Plover between the shoulders and neck, which made him drop like a sack of potatoes.

“Was that - was that like a Vulcan Nerve Pinch?” Quentin asked, horror at Plover’s presence muted for a second in fascination.

Penny rolled his eyes. “You are such a fucking nerd.”

“No, but it was! Was Gene Roddenberry a Magician? Or did some Magician create the spell because of the series?”

Margo started laughing. “Oh, little Q. Never change.”

The rest of the night continued in slightly intense and shocked revelry, like nobody could quite believe the fact that they’d actually won and defeated the Beast and every weird thing that happened after, from Eliot being declared High King to the reappearance of a pedophile fantasy author that was presumed dead, just adding yet another touch of unreality.

By the time most people had crashed in various places - the bar was an inn and had a few communal rooms available - Quentin found himself sitting next to Eliot on the floor in front of the fireplace, both of them nursing a warm drink that sort of tasted like mulled wine.

The crackling sound of the fire and the warm, spiced drink gave Quentin the space to ask what he’d been wanting to since Eliot’s palm had been cut. “El? How are you feeling about this?”

Eliot sighed. “I’m not sure how to feel, Q. I mean. High King of Fillory? Me? I won’t lie, I’m sure I’d look fabulous in kingly outfits, but. There’s no way I’m actually meant to do this. It feels like a gigantic cosmic joke.”

Quentin set his drink to the side and shuffled a little closer to Eliot, until they were thigh to thigh. He took Eliot’s right hand in his, carefully cradling it. The wound had scarred over incredibly fast, but it was clear that the scar wouldn’t fade - almost like the brand Quentin himself had carried around courtesy of Jane.

“I mean, I don’t know, El,” he began. “I guess after this whole experience I should come out thinking that there really is such a thing as meant to be or meant to do, but honestly? I just think destiny is bullshit.”

Eliot blinked, clearly surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, I know I should probably be the one who is all about it, but. I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have taken us forty times to defeat Martin if there really was such a thing as chosen ones, or meant to do x or y. If the whole thing is that I was such an intense obsessive Fillory nerd that I kept showing up, but it still took forty times for Jane to tweak things until we got it right, then. Then us winning is all about our choices, and not about our destiny. Because maybe Jane changed things, but we’re the ones who chose what to do with the things she changed.” Quentin paused, ran a careful finger over Eliot’s scar. “But even with all of that, El… you being High King in your blood? That makes sense to me.”

“But why, Q?” Eliot asked, voice quiet and a little shaky.

Quentin smiled. “Because if being High King means doing whatever it takes to save the people you love, means taking the crap hand life deals you and having the strength to turn it into what you want it to be, then. Then there’s nobody I know who is more of a High King than you.” Quentin saw Eliot swallow, then, and glance down, quickly blinking away tears. Quentin leaned down, a little, to try and catch his eye. “And I think Fillory needs you, needs that. It - it looks so fucked up now, El. Nothing like in the books. And you heard some of the stories people let slip, about the other kings and queens, about Martin.”

Eliot glanced up again, then, and squeezed Quentin’s hand. “I did hear them, yeah. And - I think that’s what’s tripping me up the most. I just. I don’t think it’s fair, you know? That the people who get to rule this place, to be Kings and Queens, are just, like, people from Earth who happen to have magic and bleed when a knife cuts them, because a couple of gods thought it would be funny. It feels so exclusionary and short-sighted, and, god. I don’t know, Q. It just. It feels like the Brakebills exam. Like keeping people out and choosing who gets to actually learn about this power at their fingertips and who doesn’t on the whims of a functional alcoholic of a university dean who’s a dick, honestly - be glad you don’t remember him."

Eliot paused, bit his lip. "And probably, if you hadn’t gotten kicked out and I hadn’t gone looking for you, met the Hedges, seen all the different ways people can and need to access magic that isn’t through the decree of Brakebills, I don’t think I’d be so concerned about this, but. From everything you’ve told me, Q, from what Jane said - Fillory is magic, and that means that Fillorians can probably access magic, too, if the Earth children who have apparently been misruling this place for years now and then the fucking Beast hadn’t kept it all to themselves just to keep their stupid thrones.”

Quentin was quiet for a moment, taking that in. There was a part of him that wanted to protest, wanted to explain how Rupert had clearly been a kind and just king, that what came afterwards was an outlier, that Martin had been Plover’s fault, but. That was sort of the point Eliot was making. Because Ember and Umber had deemed it so, this magical, beautiful world was held to the whims of whichever Earth person happened to wander in and bleed and, from what he remembered, maybe passing some sort of Earth culture exam with the Knight of Crowns. It was the most cruelly random way to choose who controlled the fate of Fillory, because from what the Fillorians had let slip tonight - after enough mead had made it around the bar that they’d stopped worrying so much about offending the Earth magicians and the new High King - after Rupert, all the Children of Earth who’d ruled Fillory had sucked. And then the Beast, well. Had been the Beast.

“Okay,” Quentin said, finally. “What do you want to do, then?”

“I - I think I want to help Fillory turn into a democracy,” Eliot replied, shrugging. “I have no idea how, or if we can, but. But I think Fillorians should get to choose who rules them. Not a knife.”

Quentin stared at Eliot, then, because. Fuck, he loved this man. This man who loved him, who infuriated him, who saved him, who helped him save himself - this man who had walked into his life three times and changed it, even if Quentin couldn’t remember the first. Quentin couldn’t think that anyone but Eliot Waugh would look around a magical kingdom that had elected him king and decide he’d try to turn it into a democracy, and, well. If Quentin had anything to say about it, he’d help Eliot make it happen.

“Well, um. Jane Chatwin probably owes us one, so we can ask her to help figuring out how to sell democracy to Ember and Umber. Also, I’m sure Margo would really enjoy figuring out Fillorian politics - did she tell you that when she was a kid she wanted to be a Fillorian Ambassador to the Outer Islands? And, um, not to brag or anything, but I totally kicked ass at Model UN when we had to come up with a better plan than what actually ended up happening for post-Gaddafi Libya. So - let’s try?”

And Eliot, who had been looking at him a little apprehensively, smiled, that terribly fond and beautiful smile he only ever gave Quentin and Margo. He leaned in to kiss Quentin, a deep, consuming kiss that left Quentin feeling far more hazy and shaky than all the alcohol they’d drank.

“What was that for?” Quentin whispered, voice hoarse.

Eliot leaned in for another kiss, this one shorter but no less dizzying. “Because you’re you. Never change, Quentin Coldwater.”

+++

Four months later

“God, this horomancy paper is really kicking my ass,” Julia said, grimacing at the various papers and books scattered around the table. “How are you doing with yours?”

Quentin looked up from his own dismal essay and pile of books in disbelief. “Jules. If you’re having trouble with horomancy, how the hell do you think I’m doing? I’m five minutes away from bribing Neil into doing this for me - he’s some sort of horomancy savant.”

Julia let out a breath. “No, c’me on, Q. We can totally figure this out. We defeated the Beast! This is nothing compared to that.”

“You know, Jules, there will come a time when saying that will stop working as a motivator,” Quentin pointed out drily, reaching out to drink from his mug and finding that his tea was gone. When the hell did he drink it all?

“But not today,” Julia said with a grin. “Come on, let’s just get this essay done so we can spell it off to Brakebills and then we’ll go meet the coven for dinner - they’ll totally get on our case if we’re late. Plum has become, like, an Olympic-level pouter.”

“Oh, and I wonder who she takes after.”

“Shut it, Coldwater. Or I’ll get Xochitl to punch you in the shoulder.”

Quentin grumbled half-heartedly, but went back to his books. Quentin and Julia were sort of half-enrolled in Brakebills - Dean Fogg had approached them and offered to let them go to school full time, expressing a sort of half-hearted regret over Quentin’s expulsion and looking at Julia with a kind of intensity that was creepy. But going to school full time wasn’t something that either of them were ready to commit to. Julia was working with Kady and Jonathan from the Hedge Market to make hedge covens have safer, better access to magic and keep people like Marina in line. Marina had obviously tried to start shit a couple of times since they’d gotten back from Fillory and stopped using their amulets so often because she could finally find them, but hadn’t gotten far - she’d finally agreed to toe the line when people from her coven, even Peter, threatened to defect.

Quentin kind of thought it was only a matter of time before she tried to start something again, but he was also sure Julia, Kady, and Jonathan would stop her. Quentin, for his part, was helping Eliot and Margo with the transitional council in Fillory which often took him away for at least a couple of weeks at a time - at least the traveling was getting easier because Eliot had started working on creating stable portals between Earth and Fillory (he’d sold it to Fogg as his thesis work in exchange for also being able to take classes only occasionally).

Also, neither Quentin nor Julia were willing to give up their coven or their safe-house, so. Part-time and often long-distance study was what they’d compromised on with Fogg, and they’d also made him give back Quentin’s memories and reverse the memory-wipe on Julia, which had led to a couple of head-achy and confusing days for Julia, and a pretty horrible week for Quentin, requiring a dosage adjustment for his antidepressants and a referral to a Magician therapist from one of the Brakebills professors (Lipson, who’d muttered uncharitably under her breath about Fogg as she examined Quentin). Eventually, though, they’d both assimilated the extra layer of memories and were able to test out of quite a few first-year classes - Julia with a bit more success than he.

Which led them to now, and their horrible horomacy assignment. Quentin mournfully glanced at his empty mug every once in a while but didn’t quite feel the wherewithal to stand up and actually go to the counter and order a new one - he also didn’t dare to just call out to the barista for a refill, because he didn’t want to antagonize him any further: convincing him to actually put London Fog in the menu had been enough of a win.

He managed to get a reasonable amount of work done, and, when he glanced at his mug again, was shocked to see it was full and steaming again, the delicate smell of earl grey and bergamot wafting from it. Quentin glanced at the barista, startled, but then big, warm hands rested on his shoulders, and someone dropped a kiss on his head, and he knew.

“Hey, El. I didn’t know if you’d make it,” he said, leaning his head back so he could get an actual kiss hello.

Eliot smiled down at him for a moment and then sat down. “I didn’t know if I’d make it, either, but Margo made an executive decision to kick me out of Fillory and, I quote, fuck Coldwater silly until you’re less annoying, so. Here I am. One does not disobey a decree from Transitional Chancellor Hanson, even if one is Transitional High King.”

Quentin snorted into his tea. “Yeah, no. I guessed Margo would be good at Fillorian politics, but she’s really gone above and beyond - she’s like a total grey eminence.”

“That’s my Bambi,” Eliot said fondly. “If she has her way - and she will - Fen will end up being the first democratically elected leader of Fillory and Margo will get to be the power top behind the power.”

“So the sexual tension there finally went somewhere?” Julia asked, quirking an eyebrow. They’d all taken various bets on how long Margo would take to get Fen into her bed, but it had taken far longer than they’d imagined.

“Yes, thank heavens,” Eliot replied, rolling his eyes. “They may also be fucking Josh? Which, I won’t pretend I get, but as Bambi reminds me, it’s not my pussy, so I don’t get to judge.”

Josh Hoberman ended up being rescued from a place called the Neitherlands by Victoria and Penny, and Margo had ended up inviting him to Fillory to serve as head chef because food in Fillory was kind of hit-or-miss.

“Oh - um, all three of them together?” Julia asked, head cocked. “How does that work?”

Eliot frowned. “Julia, are you asking me to explain threesomes to you?”

Quentin couldn’t help it, he started laughing. “No, El. Julia is trying to process the fact that she has the hots for Kady but also for Penny and is maybe looking for tips on polyamory?”

“Shut up, Q!” Julia hissed, blushing. After a second, however, she sighed. “But yeah, kind of.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure if Margo really is the one to ask - she’s pretty specific on the fact that it’s just sex and not feelings,” Eliot said, brow still furrowed.

“You could just read the book I got you, Jules - it had really good reviews,” Quentin said. He’d felt a little weird at first, buying a book called The Ethical Slut, but his inner Margo had told him to get over himself, and he ended up paging through it before giving it to Julia - he’d actually picked up some useful tips in case he and Eliot ever wanted to revisit the conversation about having sex with someone else together.

“I already finished it, Q,” Julia admitted grudgingly. “And it was good. But I still kind of wanted to talk to somebody I know with some experience. I don’t want to screw it up.”

“Well, we’re having that cocktail party with the Lorians next week,” Eliot pointed out. “You could ask her then. Just because Bambi’s set up isn’t totally applicable to you doesn’t mean she won’t have some good suggestions. But Julia - I’ve seen the way Penny and Kady look at you. I think you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, Eliot,” Julia said, smiling. “Now, maybe you can solve my next problem - horomancy.”

“Ugh, horomancy,” Eliot shuddered. “But okay, hit me. What are you stuck on?”

As Quentin heard Eliot and Julia discuss the finer points of clock-making and time-magic, he couldn’t help but smile. No part of him could’ve imagined that this is where he’d end up, that day he and Julia were walking to his grad school interviews. That he’d get admitted to magic school and then kicked out, that one character from his favorite books would end up turning into a monster deadset on killing him, and that another character from those same books would turn out to have been meddling with his life far more than he could comprehend, even now. That he’d end up leading a group of people in learning magic and teaching it to others with his best friend in the world, or that he’d have to figure out the finer aspects of voting rights for talking water-beetles.

Above all, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d find somebody like Eliot - someone who saw all the messy, awkward, bitchy, sad parts of him and took them in with the rest, someone who let Quentin see his own tender, hurting parts and trusted him to keep them safe. It wasn’t that life was perfect, now - that was impossible, because Quentin’s dad was still dying and Xochitl’s grandma was still sick, and from what Alice had told them about the things she and Harriet were figuring out about the Library, trouble loomed rather closer than they wanted it to.

And it wasn’t that Quentin was, at last, “fixed”, because he’d meant what he told Julia; he knew that fixed wasn’t something to walk towards, that bad days would inevitably happen but also that better ones would come after that, and taking it one day at a time was as much as he could do. It was, rather, that what Eliot had promised him the day the Beast had first come to Brakebills and promised him again before they faced the Beast in Fillory had proven to be the truth, over and over again, in innumerable ways: Quentin was not alone, here.