No one's getting younger,
would you like a souvenir?
Let it take you under,
feel your worries disappear
"Graveyard Whistling," Nothing But Thieves
“I’ve been institutionalized more than once,” Quentin blurts out.
It’s been ten minutes. They look as one at the ropes on their wrists -- unchanged -- and then Alice and Kady blink back up at Quentin.
“Um...that sucks?” Kady ventures. Quentin’s face is heating up.
“For what?” Alice tries. At least her tone is gentle. Quentin’s shoulders rise and fall in a quick, uncomfortable jerk.
“Um, you know. Depression and stuff. But apparently that isn’t deep or dark enough, so...awkward.”
There’s a brief pause, then Kady says, “I have a...friend who went to rehab for a bit. Said it helped a lot.”
“It can be a good place if that’s what you need in the moment. But it doesn’t fix anything,” Quentin says. “It’s just a stopgap. You have to do the work in your real life to change things.”
“Are you feeling better?” Alice’s voice is small, like she’s not sure how to ask it. Quentin almost laughs.
“Mostly, yeah. I’ve learned my limits, and I’ve learned how to work within them. And I have a good treatment team, meds and therapy and stuff.”
“That’s good.” Alice swallows. “My, um, brother died. And I’m pretty sure my mom wishes it had been me instead of him.”
“What happened?” Kady asks.
“An accident, I think. With magic. My parents won’t really talk about it.” Alice licks her lips. “I was...kind of hoping if I joined a Coven I’d be able to do some research and find out more.”
The ropes on their wrists stir, but they remain in place.
Kady seems emboldened and clears her throat. “I told you I basically grew up in a Coven, right? They do have a lot of resources that you can’t get when you’re practicing solo. Maybe you’ll be able to find what you need here.”
“Why did you leave your Coven?” Quentin asks. He knows it’s a tricky question, so he’s not surprised to see Kady almost visibly pull back behind her walls.
“Just wasn’t working out,” she mumbles.
Is he imagining it, or have the knots in the rope grown tighter?
Alice exhales in irritation. “Come on, Kady, Quentin and I said our pieces.”
There’s a flash of anger in Kady’s eye as she looks back down at the ropes. Her hands clench, and she takes a deep enough breath that her shoulders quiver. Still, Quentin isn’t sure she’s going to say anything until she finally blurts out, “It was my mom’s Coven. She died. So I left.”
“I’m so sorry,” Alice says softly.
“I don’t need your pity,” Kady spits, but there’s some uncertainty mixed with the venom in her tone. And her voice is softer when she adds, “It was also an accident with magic. Or a curse, rather.”
(Quentin makes a mental note to ask Eliot about curses later, which until now he had definitely not registered as a Thing.)
Alice sucks in a breath. “But curses are --”
“-- illegal?” Kady snaps, rage limning the set of her jaw. “Yeah, I fucking know. Welcome to the world of Hedge Witches, where we don’t follow the rules set by classically trained asswipes in their ivory towers.”
Quentin has...so many questions, but he holds his tongue until Kady has finished fuming. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
She just shrugs, but she doesn’t try to bite him, so Quentin considers it a win anyway.
With their deadline drawing nearer and their ropes still firmly tied, Quentin is beginning to panic.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming,” Alice says, slightly frantic. “I should have known they’d include something like secrets magic in their Trials.”
“You’re not a fucking clairvoyant, Alice,” Kady rolls her eyes, then stops. “You’re not, right?”
Alice clicks her tongue. “Of course not. Psychic magic is the one I’ve never really been able to do.” But then she also stops, and Quentin can see something shift behind her eyes. After a moment of thought, she corrects herself. “No, that’s not true. I can do psychic magic.”
“Way to brag,” he tries to tease her, but she presses on like she hadn’t heard him.
“I can do everything my parents ever showed me and then some. I can do everything I’ve read in every book I’ve found, usually on my first try.” Her eyes are bright. “But I always hold back. Every single day. Because I’m already so damn unpopular, can you imagine what people would think if they knew how good I really am? Even I have no idea what I’m even capable of.” She swallows. “And I’m just trying so hard to be anything close to normal.”
There’s a soft rushing sound, and the three adepts look down to see the knots around Alice fall away. Alice is struck speechless, rubbing at her wrists, and Kady and Quentin lock eyes.
“Guess it’s up to us now,” he says weakly. Kady too has something shining in her eyes, a ferocity and wildness that reminds Quentin of the edge in Eliot’s smile when he told him that day in the coffeeshop that “magic comes from pain.”
“Me too, sort of?” She’s a little breathless. “My mother was a fucking wreck. She was broken. She did drugs, she slept around, she took her clothes off for money. She brought home horrible guys and was never there when I needed her. And her Coven was a fucking wreck too. And even though she’s gone, and I’m gone, I still feel like…” A shuddering inhale. “I still feel like I’m going to end up like her too. I know I will. Because I’m broken.”
There’s a dull roaring in Quentin’s ears, and he can hardly hear himself speak as the words fall from his tongue, almost automatically. He thinks of Fillory and Further on his bedside table, dogeared and annotated, while unreturned calls from Julia blink across the screen of his phone. He thinks of that moment when he saw Eliot doing magic in the rain, where for the first time in his life he ran towards something instead of away from it.
“My friend Julia always says I can’t run away enough. She’s right. I run, and I find secret doors, whether I’m alone or in a group -- it doesn’t matter. I’m here in this amazing place, I have literal magic in front of me, and I’m still running. I’m still a person that I fucking hate.”
He doesn’t notice the ropes have fallen from his wrists until Alice says, “Quentin, look,” and he glances down at his bare arms. Kady’s are free too, and she laughs, her eyes shiny-wet.
“We fucking did it.”
“We fucking did it,” Quentin echoes, a grin spreading across his lips, and Alice squeals and wraps her arms around Kady’s shoulders, then seems to come to herself and backs off with a splutter. But Kady is still smiling, and Quentin is being hugged by both girls at once when someone clears their throat behind them.
It’s Josh and Penny, along with six or seven other robed figures. Josh is grinning openly, and even Penny isn’t frowning quite as much as he has been.
“And that’s it, folks!” He claps his hands together. “And now you’ve just got one more trial. Hopefully none of you are afraid of needles, hm?”
It turned out that, while there were magical and painless ways of giving tattoos, the Edgewood Coven preferred the old fashioned way (because “magic is pain,” of course) to mark their new initiates. But it’s hard for Quentin to hold still while the young blonde draws the gun down his skin, inking out a quarter-sized starburst in the bend of his left wrist, bedecked with a tiny crown to denote his Coven membership, because he’s a Magician now! There’s magic to be done!
Around Kady, Alice, and Quentin there’s a small party beginning to form, complete with finger foods and a neon blue signature cocktail that Josh says is always served when new members are initiated. But Quentin hasn’t seen Eliot yet, or Margo, and he’s fidgeting enough that the blonde does have to ask him to hold still twice before she’s finished.
The starburst is raw and fresh on his skin, and he takes a moment to appreciate hey, first tattoo. It’s a classy marking, striking but subtle enough that he can tuck it under a wrist band or the edge of a sleeve.
He’s admiring the delicate little crown motif when the door to the room opens once more. Quentin’s glance flickers automatically up, then his eyes widen and he can feel himself beginning to smile, because there’s Eliot, dressed in tall boots and a long overcoat like an extra in Hamilton. He’s poised and lanky and elegant, and Quentin has a fraction of a heartbeat to admire the way his curls frame his aristocratic face before he realizes he has crossed the space between them and thrown his arms around Eliot’s neck. It surprises Eliot too; he stumbles backwards a step before his own arms come up reflexively to hold Quentin in place against his chest.
“Well hi there,” he chuckles. Quentin can feel the rumble through his chest, and then he realizes oh god you’re hugging this guy you barely even know, and immediately begins to disentangle them. “Glad to see you made it.”
“Y-yeah! I made it!” Quentin breathes, joy still bubbling in his throat.
“It wasn’t that bad, was it?” Eliot places a hand on his shoulder, and Quentin feels his thumb graze the base of his neck.
“I mean...it wasn’t fun.” Quentin makes a face. “But, look --” He holds out his wrist to bare his new ink. Eliot’s smile widens.
“Hey, we match.” He rolls up one sleeve, flashing half a dozen more starbursts winding up his thin forearms. “Looks good on you, Q.”
“Thanks.” The back of Quentin’s neck is warming. “Hey, uh, weird question, when can I --”
“Do magic?” The curl of Eliot’s smile grows wry. “Step outside with me, Mister Coldwater, and let me show you something.”
The hallway is quiet and about five degrees cooler, and Quentin takes a breath for the first time in what feels like days. What time is it anyway? It has to be late, but adrenaline and excitement are hot wires beneath his skin, and he feels like he could take on the world.
Eliot closes the door gently behind them, shutting out the chatter of the growing party. “Okay. Remember this one?”
He starts with a curled hand by his hip, fingers curling in a “come hither” motion. Then his wrist rolls, moving to eye level, and when he snaps Quentin is already expecting the little flame that jumps to the tip of his fingers. Quentin hesitates.
“I’ve already tried that one, remember? Couldn’t do it.”
“You weren’t a Magician then,” Eliot says simply. “Watch me once more, then try it.”
Quentin’s thoughts are buzzing as he copies Eliot’s motions, then repeats them a little more quickly. His tuts are jerky and erratic, not the flowing dance of Eliot’s graceful fingers, but after the third time, something is different. He can feel the heat growing in his fingers as he curls them, like furnaces tucked in between his knuckles, and by the time he brings his hand to his face he feels like his skin is about to catch fire.
Then he snaps, and the energy releases in a small, yellow tongue of flame that flickers for a second, then dissipates into the air. Quentin stares at his fingertips for a moment, then looks at Eliot’s wide grin.
And then he bursts into tears.
“God, I’m really sorry,” Quentin says for like the fourteenth time in five minutes, drawing the heel of his hand beneath his eye and sniffing. “I’m -- I didn’t mean to -- ”
“It’s fine,” Eliot says for the fourteenth time in the same five minutes. They’re sitting on the carpeted staircase, Eliot stroking Quentin’s back gently while Quentin tries to recompose himself. “Magic is intense, I get it.”
“It’s just like.” Quentin sniffles again. Eliot offers him a navy pocket square from his waistcoat, because of course he carries a pocket square. Quentin looks down at it in his hands. They’re still shaking. “I told you I could do sparks and move stuff sometimes, right? Like when I was really upset or angry or whatever.”
“It stopped when I was like sixteen.” Quentin swallows. He folds the pocket square in two. “I had...some stuff was going on, and I was...I didn’t feel safe, you know, mentally, and when I told my mom I like…” He mimes sparks flying from his fingertips. “Did it. But she didn’t see it, or acted like she didn’t, even when I tried to bring it up again later.”
Eliot’s hand is still between his shoulder blades. “What happened?”
Quentin snorts and blinks against a swell of new tears. “She told me I was too emotionally unstable to know how I was feeling and that I should get over myself.”
“Goddamn, Quentin.” Eliot’s jaw is tight. “Fuck her.”
“Yeah. Ended up in the psych hospital two days later anyway, so shows her.” It’s reckless and he knows he’ll hate himself later for oversharing, but talking is keeping him from crying, and Eliot feels warm and safe beside him on the sweeping staircase. “But, uh. The magic stopped after that. Couldn’t do it.”
“Until now,” Eliot finishes, and Quentin gives an undignified snort that’s half laugh, half sob.
“Until now.” He runs through the tuts again, just because he can. The flame leaping to his fingertips is stronger this time, and he smiles.
Eliot’s thumb ghosts along the curve of his scapula, pensive. “It’s been in you all along. It didn’t go anywhere, you know. It just kind of got buried.” He shifts, then pats Quentin on the shoulder and withdraws his hand. “And it’s our job to help you uncover it.”
Quentin folds the square again, then looks up at Eliot. Eliot’s eyes are kind, but there is no pity there. “Hope you like digging.”
The tattoo isn’t the only result from Quentin’s new initiation into the Edgewood Coven -- it’s explained to him that with the magical ink comes a geas.
(“So a geas is -- ”
“I’m a high fantasy nerd, Eliot, I know what a geas is.”)
The terms of this specific geas are fairly straight forward.
Rule number one: Quentin cannot speak about the Trials or any other part of the initiation ceremony with anyone outside of initiated Edgewood Coven members, which explains Eliot’s scattered hints and apologies in the days leading up to Quentin’s Trials.
Rule number two: Quentin, as a new member of the Coven, cannot purposefully reveal the existence of magic to non-members.
(“That part will be lifted in time,” Eliot explains, “when you get more ink. This is just the starter pack.”)
Eliot, as Margo’s Successor and a higher level member of the Coven, has a different geas strung around his neck, but he of course cannot talk about it with Quentin. It really all is in the tattoos -- different numbers and patterns of starbursts come with different benefits. The number of combinations possible is a little dizzying, so Quentin leaves that thought process alone.
Quentin also now has full access to Edgewood House, at least the lower levels.
“The wards shouldn’t make you so sick anymore either,” Eliot says brightly. He seems to either have been assigned or to have appointed himself as Quentin’s official tour guide, and for the days following Quentin’s initiation he is never all that far away.
“Do you live here?” Quentin asks one afternoon over bubble tea. There’s a beach volleyball game going on in the backyard with a progressively-higher Josh keeping score, and he and Eliot are watching from the back patio.
“Yeah, my rooms are in the upper levels, up near Margo’s.”
Quentin quirks an eyebrow. “Rooms?”
“What, you think I’d be caught dead living in a dorm room?” Eliot snorts. “No, I’ve got a full apartment. I’ll take you up and show you some time.”
Later, when the beach volleyball game has finished and Josh is passing out celebratory blunts, Quentin asks Eliot about the woman he saw in the maze.
Eliot frowns. “There’s a lot of weird things in that maze.”
Quentin shakes his head. “She was different. More real, I think. Short blonde hair, scruffy, leather cape-type thing.”
That makes Eliot pause with his straw halfway to his mouth. “Was she kind of a bitch?”
“I saw her for like ten seconds, Eliot.”
“What was she doing?”
“Talking about Margo. She said Margo would be pissed at her for some reason, but she didn’t care because Margo was always pissed.”
Normally that would make Eliot laugh or at least smile, but concern has sunk into the lines around his mouth. He chews briefly on his straw before sighing. “I’ve got a theory, but if I’m right I don’t know what it means.”
“What’s your theory?”
Eliot shakes his head. “I’ve got to talk to Bambi first. But...I don’t know, tell me if you see her again or anything, yeah?”
Quentin agrees and drops it, but only because Eliot’s mood has changed like an evening storm sweeping in, and he doesn’t want to ruin the nice afternoon they’re having. It’s not fair to Julia, but it feels like it’s been years since he’s had a moment with a friend like this, a snapshot in time where his only worries are the score of the volleyball game and if Eliot can teach him the charm he used to keep their bubble tea cold. It’s peaceful, almost hypnotically so, though he knows at least 60% of it is the thrill of the magic in the air, buzzing against his skin like he’s standing too close to the speakers at a Pixies concert.
Eliot has abandoned his tea for a cigarette, though he somehow spends more time blowing smoke rings (and squares and stars) than actually inhaling the nicotine. Quentin can see that he’s thinking, and even though the silence makes his anxiety itch, he keeps quiet and focuses on replicating the cantrips that Eliot has taught him. One to light a cigarette, one to douse small flames (“All in the name of balance”), and one to fill the palm of his hand with water pulled from the air around them. He’s supposed to start formal training next week, but Eliot saw his restless energy and threw him a bone to keep him occupied until it was time to advance his studies. Quentin is grateful. He hopes Eliot knows it.
Eliot speaks again after a few minutes, his voice gone slightly husky from the cigarette. “Do you think they’d care if I skipped the last week of group therapy?”
Quentin gives a startled laugh. “Yeah, I think they definitely would. What, are you really that tired of it?”
“Just got better stuff to do.” Eliot shrugs. “And I feel like I’ve gotten everything I need out of it, you know?”
Quentin doesn’t know. Therapy sessions are their own kind of magic, a type of psychological maintenance that his mind can’t seem to go more than six months between without breaking down. And he’s trying to be more forthcoming with his own thoughts and emotions, so he says, “Not really.”
Eliot smiles a little. “I mean, I’m not drinking as much, and Margo’s gotten off my ass about that, so I think it should be time to call it a win.”
“That’s...good at least.” Quentin looks down into the remnants of his drink, little fragments of tapioca balls flattened together in the dregs of tea leaves. “I think I’m going to keep going for a while.”
“And that’s good for you, I just don’t need it anymore.” Eliot blows a smoke ring, charmed lips pursed so the smoke sparkles in the afternoon light. And Quentin knows Eliot thinks he’s just being straightforward, or arch, or whatever evasion method is going through his head, but the words still drag and embed themselves across Quentin’s skin like splinters, and he clenches his jaw.
“Fine,” he manages. Eliot seems to be too preoccupied in forming another smoke creation to pick up on Quentin’s tension. The next ring sprouts a pair of feathered wings and flaps away like an ungainly bird.
“You’ll just have to give Lisa hell for me.”
Quentin blinks. The smaller, quieter logical part of his brain knows that he will still see Eliot even after therapy has ended - they are part of the same Coven now, after all - but it’s quickly becoming eclipsed by a darker, heavier conviction that this is Eliot’s way of washing his hands of Quentin. Brought in a new recruit, got some bonus points from Margo, and now back to...whatever it was Eliot did for the Coven. Quentin really knows next to nothing about Eliot, between all his excuses and the layers of secrecy that he insists are “just part of things.”
“I will,” he manages through a thick-feeling throat, and when Eliot glances over, Quentin meets his gaze with a small, tight smile.
For a moment, he thinks Eliot is going to say something. He thinks he’s going to apologize, or clarify, or say something to drag him back from the edge of the pit that Quentin can feel himself slowly slipping towards.
But Eliot gives him a small, tight smile in return, and as his next smoke ring turns into a horse and gallops away, Quentin can almost hear the shell of his soft and hazy moment crack like glass.