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quiet in jet black, hoping I will carry you home

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Love, it stings and then it laughs
at every beat of my battered heart
The sudden jolt, a tender kiss
I know I'm gonna die of this

And that's because
I could drown myself in someone like you
I could dive so deep I never come out
I thought it was impossible
but you make it possible

"Impossible" - Nothing but Thieves

--

The smoke curls from Eliot’s lips, sketching pale spirals against the city scape. Quentin watches it for perhaps a beat longer than is socially acceptable, then takes a slow pull from his own cigarette. The brick of the building roughs against his back, sticks to his hair.

“I feel bad for Helen,” he says, because silence makes his skin crawl. Eliot’s gaze slides to him, languorous. “Trying to quit drinking on top of everything else.”

“It’s too much,” Eliot agrees. His eyes are shadowed today, which the dark liner edging the base of his lashes only serves to accentuate. “She’s not going to make it happen.”

“I had an old therapist that--” the words come out in a rush, tripping over each other, and Quentin forces himself to breathe. This space, if any, is a safe one to talk about stuff like this. “She, um. Used to say that you can’t get rid of a bad coping mechanism without having a better one to replace it with. Or else you’re just, like. Fucked.”

“Smart therapist.” Eliot takes another drag, exhales a thin line of smoke. It seems to coil like a snake for a flash of an instant, but then Quentin blinks and it’s gone. God, he needs to sleep.

As usual, Eliot is not additionally forthcoming on the subject. Quentin shifts. “Have you, ah, ever done anything like this before?”

“What, smoke with a cute boy who only likes menthols?” He spares Quentin a wink, which makes him blush and clutch his cigarette self-consciously.

“Group therapy.”

Something shifts in Eliot’s expression. He shakes his head. “Therapy virgin here, actually.”

Quentin blinks. “Really?”

Eliot turns then, arching a graceful eyebrow. “I know, right? It’s hard to believe that I’m any kind of virgin.”

(Honestly though, it makes sense. This isn’t Quentin’s first rodeo, and it’s not his first group therapy. He knows the patient archetypes so well that he could write his own Girl, Interrupted. Eliot Waugh is a master of the facade, all European collars and perfectly-coiffed curls. He laughs at all the right times, makes sympathetic faces when others are speaking, and even flirts lightly with the coordinators. But when the buck is passed to him, he goes rigid, curling behind his glittering exterior and deflecting queries with a smile and a quip.

Like earlier. Helen had been expressing that fighting with her husband was making it harder and harder to stay away from the bottle, and their facilitator had used it as an opportunity to pounce.

“What do you think about what Helen’s saying, Eliot?” She had asked.

“I think if I were married to her husband I’d have drunk myself into a coma years ago,” he had said casually, drawing a laugh from Helen and appreciative smiles from the rest of the group. But Quentin saw what their coordinator had honed in on, that seed of vulnerability hidden deep behind carefully-constructed walls.)

Quentin just shrugs. “Gotta start somewhere. I’ve been doing this for, like, a super long time, and it gets a little easier but it’s always weird.”

Eliot’s gaze is faintly curious. “How long is ‘a super long time’?”

He scrunches the toe of his Converse into the sidewalk. “I don’t know, I was like fourteen or fifteen I guess?”

Something softens in Eliot’s expression. He takes another slow pull from his cigarette. He’s smoking like a chimney today, Quentin can’t help but notice. The smoke is making his eyes itch. “Young.”

“Yeah.” Quentin’s gaze goes back to the ground. “Probably going to be stuck in it forever honestly.”

Eliot seems like he’s about to ask Quentin something, weighing words on his tongue, but instead he bites it back and gives a faint smile. “We should go back inside.”

As he reaches to stub out his cigarette, the sleeve of his oxford slides up a few inches, far enough for Quentin to see a smudge of dark ink. He looks closer. Three starbursts twine up the inside of Eliot’s forearm, solid black but for a keyhole cut from the middle.

“What are those?”

Eliot shakes his sleeve back down. “Just some designs. Come on, Rosemary will pop an aneurysm if we’re late.”

--

Quentin had immediately noticed Eliot when he entered group on the first day. The man was stunningly attractive and impeccably put together, which meant he stuck out like an iceberg in an ocean in this pale and clinical atmosphere. He was wearing a fucking paisley vest. Quentin, meanwhile, was proud that he’d managed the energy to put on a clean hoodie before rolling into session.

As these things usually went, the facilitators asked new members to introduce themselves and talk a little bit about why they had chosen to come to therapy. Quentin had done this enough over the years that he had his spiel down to an art, but there was something a little more intimate about this room, the coloring pages and markers spread across the conference table, and the half dozen pairs of eyes settling on him. Particularly the eyes of the well-dressed man in the vest. He cleared his throat and tried to breathe past the anxiety knotting his chest.

“Um, hi everyone, I’m Quentin.” A faint, shaky smile, and he licked his lips. “Uh. Not my first time in group therapy, but it’s been a couple of years.”

“What made you decide to come back?” The facilitator asked, leaning back in her chair.

“I, ah.” Another smile, harsher and self-deprecating. “Was trying to stay out of the hospital. So like. I don’t know. Trying to get ahead of things, I guess.”

“I feel that,” one of the other group members offered with an encouraging nod, and Quentin met their eyes briefly before dropping his gaze back to his lap.

“Was the hospital feeling like a promising option?” The facilitator spoke again. Quentin thought her name was Lisa, or Leslie, but she had that same sharp-eyed intuition shared by all of his best therapists over the years.

He didn’t know how to answer that except with honesty, so he shrugged. Tension was collecting between his shoulder blades like sweat, thick and sticky, and it hurt. “I’ve been in twice before, I don’t want to go again. But I know what it feels like when that’s becoming more and more of a possibility.”

He stopped, eyes dropping to the plastic folder in front of him. The room was quiet, a polite stillness that invited him to lay down his burdens, at least for a few hours. “My brain breaks sometimes. And it’s better than it used to be, but it’s happened enough that I know what it feels like when things are starting to fall apart again.”

Quentin took a breath. Something settled in the room, and the people around him seemed to breathe again too. When he looked up, he caught the eyes of the man in the paisley vest, who was looking at him with...not pity. Empathy? Softness? But it was gone in a flash, and Quentin looked to facilitator Lisa-Leslie, who was jotting notes on a clipboard before she looked up with a warm smile.

“Well, welcome, Quentin. Thank you for your honesty. We’re happy you’re here.”

He found out later that the man in the paisley vest was named Eliot, that he smoked outside on their breaks, and that he liked to stare at Quentin when he didn’t think Quentin was looking, like Quentin was a fascinating puzzle that he wanted desperately to unravel.

Quentin never stood a chance.

--

It’s a Friday night, and he’s three drinks in when he tells Julia about Eliot.

“So there’s this guy in group, right?” He sighs. He’s not normally this much of a lightweight, but his newest regiment of antidepressants jives badly with alcohol and he hasn’t had a drink in weeks. Julia leans closer, smiling faintly.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to date other group members.”

“They never said that.” Quentin takes a swig of his beer. “We’re just not supposed to, like, run up to each other in public and go--” he slams the bottle onto the table and throws his arms wide, “-- hey! Tried to commit suicide lately?”

A polite huff of laughter from Julia, but even three drinks in he can see the darkness that settles briefly in her expression. Whoops. Too cavalier. He takes another drink. He doesn’t even like beer, but he’s hit the point of soft-and-floaty-intoxication and he doesn’t want to lose it.

“Anyway. He’s, like, all dark and broody and mysterious but also charming and - fucking - elegant and shit. It’s dumb.”

“Sounds like your type,” Julia teases, and Quentin gives her a half-hearted glare. What does she know what his type is? He’s never dated a man or even kissed one as long as they’ve known each other.

Another drink. “We just smoke together.”

“I didn’t know you were smoking again.”

On a good day, Quentin can gloss over the little edge of judgement that slips into Julia’s words sometimes. On a bad day, he snaps at her and it turns into an argument. On a drunk day...he sits there, debating, then decides starting a fight isn’t worth it, particularly since Julia isn’t always aware of how critical she sounds.

“Not much. Menthols mostly.”

She’s quiet, sipping her hard seltzer. Remnants of takeout pizza are cooling on the counter, and a quarter-full Scrabble board stretches between them, even though neither of them has placed a tile in at least half an hour. And while tipsy-Quentin is more chill and tolerant than sober-Quentin, the silence still feels prickly and uncomfortable on his skin, and he clears his throat.

“How’s, um.” Shit, what’s his name? “--James?” Very smooth, Quentin. He takes a too-big gulp of his beer to cover his awkwardness and ends up choking on it. At least Julia is grinning now as she pats him on the back.

“Careful,” she laughs. “He’s fine. He’s been busy with law school so I haven’t seen too much of him.”

“Right. Law school.”

“So what does this mysterious guy from group do?”

“Eliot,” Quentin automatically supplies, then stops, thinking. What does Eliot do? “I don’t know. He kind of makes it sound like he sits around drinking martinis all day.”

Julia laughs again. She’s in a good mood tonight, all light and easy with a smile. “Clearly I’m in the wrong line of work.”

“He’s like.” Quentin stops, takes a drink. “Really sad though? I swear he’s really sad. You can just see it in the way he holds himself. He acts like he’s so gorgeous and so graceful that it makes him fucking bulletproof. Even though sometimes his eyes get really soft and big and his lips just…” Quentin tries to come up with words for it, the trembling pout that he’s gotten sparing glimpses of when Eliot thinks no one is looking.

Julia is staring at him now with a growing lopsided grin. “You’re staring at the guy’s lips?”

“No! No, no I’m not, I just --” Quentin gestures with his beer bottle, “see it sometimes, you know? Because it’s right there. I can’t not see it.”

“Why do you think he’s sad?”

And isn’t that the question. Quentin furrows his brow. “I don’t think he talks to his family. Maybe his mom is dead? But he gets really...tense, I guess, whenever he has to participate in conversations with people whose parents are shitty.” He picks at the label on his beer bottle, short nails gliding along the glass until they catch paper. He can feel his good mood deflating, sinking away as the melancholy of the alcohol begins to take its place. Drinking is the worst. He drinks some more. “I don’t know. I don’t even know why he’s in group to begin with.”

“Sounds like he has plenty of stuff to work on.” Julia stacks their empty plates and takes them back to the kitchen. She calls back over her shoulder, “So what are you going to do about it?”

“...About?”

“Eliot.”

“Oh.” The label gives way to a thin, opaque layer of adhesive, which Quentin systematically begins to scrape away. “Probably nothing.”

Julia huffs a laugh. “Really?”

“Have you met me?” He sighs. “He’s probably not interested anyway. Why the hell would you want to hook up with someone after hearing about their deepest traumas for two weeks?”

--

“I can’t help it, Bambi, he’s hot.”

Her fingers pause as they card through his curls, and he cranes his neck to look up at her face. Margo is frowning, as she often is, but it’s a thoughtful kind of frown. Eliot frowns too. “What?”

She looks back down at him, lying across her lap with his head pillowed on her thighs, and rolls her eyes. “Nothing. You’re just sounding real dick-whipped, which was definitely not why I told you to go to therapy in the first place.”

“You didn’t say I couldn’t do both,” Eliot points out. She flicks his nose.

“You know what I mean.”

“I do,” he admits. “But I’m not ‘dick-whipped,’ I just think he’s interesting.”

“And hot.”

“And hot.” Eliot sighs. “I promise I’m getting plenty of psychoanalyzing in though. I’m basically a new man.”

“Sure you are,” Margo’s tone is mildly scathing, and she leans down to press her lips to his forehead before shoving him from her lap. “Now I’ve got a meeting with Marina, so you’d better relocate that new ass of yours.”

He pouts, but he sits up. “Why can’t I stay? I’ll be super quiet.”

“It’s a geas thing, certain things can’t be talked about except between Coven leaders.” She’s messing with her hair. Why is she messing with her hair? She only does that when she’s nervous, and Marina usually just makes her angry.

“Even as your Successor?”

“Doesn’t count until you’re sworn in.” Margo frowns at him. “Now scat.”

Obediently, he scats, though he complains about it until the moment Margo closes the door behind him. He even stands there for a moment, ear pressed the door, until the wards snapping into place around her office shove him backwards. He exhales, frustrated, and spins on his heel to head to the kitchen and make himself a drink.

Eliot had hoped that when Margo officially named him as the next leader of the Coven that things would be different. But here he was, stuck on the outside, while all the important decisions were being made behind closed doors.

But it isn’t the lack of input in policy decisions that makes his chest tighten with anxiety. It’s Margo, disappearing behind a door. It’s his other half going where he cannot follow. It’s the niggling sense that maybe he’s just too much for her to deal with, that she only named him her Successor to get him out of her hair.

It’s a nauseating spiral of thoughts, and he clenches his hand into a fist to allow the dull bite of nails into skin to bring him back down again. What would they say about this in group therapy, he wonders vaguely. It isn’t like he can give any specifics about his personal life without them tossing him into the psych ward.

I’m just a burden to my best friend. He tries out the wording in his head, then immediately backs away from it like a live wire. Literally one phrase and tears are beginning to burn in his eyes. Ridiculous.

He draws the heel of his hand beneath his eyes, sniffles once, and recomposes himself. Back go the shoulders, up go the smile.

Everything is just fine.

...Barring that, there’s alcohol.

Chapter Text

My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating

Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
'Til then, I walk alone

"Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Green Day

--

It’s dreary and raining. Quentin hesitates in the lobby. Eliot is already out in their usual spot, his back pressed to the building as he shrinks from the weather. Eliot was short-tempered and sharp-tongued in the first part of group therapy this morning, and he’d been the first to leave the table when their facilitator had announced a break. Quentin has only known the other man for three weeks, but he knows enough to have a sense that something is bothering him.

Eliot’s hands are shaking as he struggles to light his cigarette. The eaves of the building keep most of the elements off of him, but there’s enough wind that his lighter continues to flicker out. As Quentin watches, the cigarette finally catches. Eliot’s shoulders rise in a relieved exhale as he closes his eyes and takes a long pull from his cigarette.

Which promptly smolders out.

Quentin feels a little awful for biting back a smile, but Eliot’s reaction to this minor inconvenience is so over the top that it’s impossible to keep a straight face. He crushes the cigarette under the heel of his boot and tilts the back of his head against the wall, eyes shut, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose like he’s staving off a tension headache.

Quentin is about to head out into the rain to distract Eliot from his existential dread when Eliot straightens and retrieves another cigarette. One hand holds it to his lips while the other rests near his hip, fingers curling several times in a “come here” motion. Then Eliot rotates his hand, rolls his fingers, and brings his fist to his shoulder with a snap.

A small flame jumps from his fingers, and the cigarette lights.

Quentin stares.

And then Quentin bursts through the door, slipping a little on the wet sidewalk. Eliot jumps, and Quentin catches a glimpse of something like guilt before he buries it again.

“Quentin Coldwater,” Eliot drawls, raising his cigarette in a jaunty toast. “And what brings you -- ”

“Do that again,” Quentin demands, stopping several feet away. He’s getting rained on, but right now his universe has shrunk to the end of Eliot’s cigarette, which continues to glow a cheerful cherry red.

Eliot’s expression of casual indifference is airtight, and he arches an eyebrow. “What, you want a light?”

“Don’t fuck around, I saw what you did.” Quentin bites down on his lip. “I saw you do magic.”

Eliot lowers the cigarette, eyes growing cold. “And what makes you think that?”

“Don’t -- don’t fucking gaslight me, Eliot!” Quentin snaps, lurching forward a step. His heart is racing, and suddenly this feels like the most important conversation in the world. “I know it’s magic because I can do it too, o-or sometimes I can.”

“Can you now.”

It’s not encouraging, but at least Eliot isn’t telling Quentin he’s delusional. Quentin takes a deep breath and tries to still the fluttering panic ricocheting around his chest. “Only sometimes. When I’m, like, really upset or angry. And it’s usually just sparks or, like, moving stuff I guess.” His ears and the back of his neck are hot, and he clutches at the hem of his t-shirt to give his hands something to do.

Eliot watches him for a long, agonizing moment, eyes unreadable. Then he nods. “That tracks. Plenty of Magicians don’t even know they have abilities until they blow something up or kill someone with a school bus.” His tone is bitter, a half-hearted inside joke, but Quentin only hears one word.

“M-Magicians?”

A long, graceful exhale sends smoke spiraling into the air again, but this time as Quentin watches, Eliot crosses two fingers and gives them a gentle twist, and the smoke curls obediently into a delicate spiral.

Quentin is riveted.

“How -- how the hell -- so it’s actually real?” He splutters. He can’t catch his breath.

The curl of Eliot’s lips is sharp and beautiful, and Quentin gets the sudden, startling image of battleships sunk on the edge of that smile.

“Oh, it’s very real.”

--

“Let’s get coffee,” Eliot says to him after group. Quentin shoulders his messenger bag and nods firmly, trying to shove his excitement and anxiety down, down. The amused glint in Eliot’s eye makes him think he doesn’t quite succeed.

There’s a little independently-owned coffee shop a few blocks from the hospital where they have their therapy sessions, and Quentin hangs back half a step as Eliot leads the way. His mind hasn’t stopped racing since Eliot showed him that magic - the movement was called a “tut,” Eliot said - and he can feel a hungry longing opening up between his lungs as his mind reaches for more.

It’s a little bit thrilling and a little bit nauseating, and as they cross the threshold into the cool coffee shop, he closes his eyes against a wave of vertigo. Can everyone else in this coffee shop do magic? Is it a magic coffee shop, or just a regular coffee shop?

“Hey.” Eliot’s hand touches his elbow. Quentin’s eyes snap open. Eliot blinks, his hazel eyes soft. “There’s a spot back here.”

He guides Quentin to a pair of sagging armchairs clustered around a low bookshelf, and Quentin immediately feels the tension locked around his shoulders begin to ease. Eliot couldn’t have picked a more Quentin-friendly location if he’d tried.

Eliot lets Quentin sit down and then immediately pops back up again, his elegant hands knotting together. “Right. I’ll get your drink, what do you want?”

“Uh.” He hadn’t thought that far ahead. “W-Whatever you’re having, I guess.”

“Brave man. All right, back in a tick.”

Again, Quentin finds himself immensely grateful for the moment of relative silence in which he can compose himself. He fishes a legal pad and pen from his messenger bag and scrawls on the top page “Coffee Meeting with Eliot,” then dates it, because he’s incredibly stressed and somehow it makes him feel better.

He has so many questions for Eliot, but every time he tries to pin them down they all spiral back to the same few basics:

How is Eliot doing it? Where did he learn? How can Quentin do it sometimes if he’s never been trained? Why can’t he ALWAYS do it?

and most importantly

Can Eliot (pretty pretty please) teach Quentin to do it too?

He’s deep in scribbling notes by the time Eliot returns, ceramic coffee mugs in hand. There’s an odd, pleasing spice laced around the scent of the coffee, and Quentin glances up, brow furrowed.

“Turmeric,” Eliot explains. “Golden lattes. They were all the rage for a few months. People love any exotic spice that they think can fix their weight or their skin or their relationship problems.”

A sharp glance from Quentin makes Eliot laugh. “No, turmeric isn’t magic. But there are probably a couple of spells that use it as a component.” He drops into the armchair across from Quentin.

Turmeric, writes Quentin, then adds (probably not actually magic).

Eliot is smiling a little when he looks up again. It’s a faint, fond smile that makes something within Quentin’s chest warm in response, and it softens the shadows beneath Eliot’s eyes.

“Are you okay?” Quentin blurts out before he can stop himself, and he bits down on his lip with a scowl as Eliot’s expression flickers in surprise. “Sorry, you just seemed a little, ah. Pissed off in group today, I guess.”

“Oh.” Eliot’s expression clears. “Yes. Brandon was getting on my nerves. Like he’s so much better than the rest of us just because he’s getting a psychology degree.” Eliot rolls his eyes. “Newsflash, Brandon, you’re in here with the rest of us crazies for a reason.”

Quentin huffs a laugh because as always, Eliot has hit the nail on the head. He may act like he’s uninterested in what the rest of their group has to say, but the other man has an intuition sharper than anyone Quentin has ever known.

(Honestly it’s a little terrifying, because what does that mean Eliot has figured out about him?)

The chipped coffee mug is tiny in Eliot’s long, graceful fingers, and Eliot stares down into the golden-brown liquid for a moment before closing his eyes and taking a blissful sip. Quentin hurries to do the same, nearly knocking over his entire mug in the process.

“I got into a tiff with a friend this morning too,” Eliot sighs into his coffee, eyes still closed. “Before group.”

“Oh, uh. W-what happened?”

A shrug. “She’s...well, she’s the reason I’m doing this therapy shit to begin with. Kind of gave me an ultimatum a few weeks ago.” His eyes flutter open. “She said just because I’m going to these sessions doesn’t mean I’m getting anything out of them, and I told her to fuck off because she’s not here and she doesn’t know how things are going.”

“That’s...kind of invasive of her.” Quentin furrows his brows. “You’ve also only been doing this like two weeks, right? That’s like nothing.”

Eliot’s glance is appreciative. “Right? That’s what I tried to tell her. But also.” He shrugs again. “She usually knows me better than I know myself, so she may have a point.”

The fact that Eliot is choosing to open up about this to Quentin, a total stranger outside of the odd shared intimacy of group therapy, seems to indicate otherwise, but Quentin doesn’t know if he’s ready to argue that point against a person who isn’t even here. Instead he takes a sip of his coffee, and he’s pleasantly surprised by the sunny warmth that floods his tongue.

“Good, right?” Eliot sets his on the low table between them. “Sometimes the skinny rich bitches are onto something.”

He pushes at the cuffs of his shirt, and Quentin once again catches sight of the mysterious starburst tattoos that he has seen on Eliot’s wrists.

Eliot catches his gaze and pushes up the sleeves so they bunch at his elbows. There are, like Quentin suspected, many more tattoos than what he could usually catch glimpses of during their smoke breaks. All are dark seven-pointed stars, roughly the same size. But now Quentin can see that several are marked with numbers instead of keyholes. He can see a 50 and a 100 among the stars decorating Eliot’s thin forearms.

“These are Hedge Witch tattoos. They mark me as belonging to a Coven.” He indicates one in the bend of his left wrist, a starburst with the addition of a small and intricate crown. “This one indicates which Coven.”

“And the numbers?” Quentin leans forward.

This time his smile is unmistakably smug. “Power level. So other Hedges know I’m not worth fucking with.”

Quentin’s head is spinning. He digs the heels of his hands into his eyes, forcing back a building headache. “Hedge Witches? Covens?”

“Right. Guess I should probably start there.” Eliot takes another sip of coffee, sighs. “Like with the rest of the world, some Magicians have the money or social connections or status to attend university. Others of us weren’t...afforded that extra bit of privilege and have had to claw our way into every bit of magic we know. We call ourselves Hedge Witches, or Hedges. There are a handful of Covens across the city, where Hedges come together to learn magic and work through problems that need solving, maybe contract out our skills for favors or income.” Shrug. “Part small business, part social club, part fantasy guild of old.”

“Which, um, Coven are you in?”

Eliot’s smile grows slightly patronizing. “The name wouldn’t mean anything to you. But I can assure you that we’re the best in New York.”

“How did you…” Quentin clears his throat. Anxiety is sapping his mouth dry. “How did you get into a Coven to begin with? When did you know you could do magic?”

“Ah. A couple of long stories there.” His grip on his mug changes, knuckles going whiter. Quentin looks away. He probably shouldn’t be staring at Eliot’s hands this much, but now that he knows they can do magic, it’s impossible to look away. “I first used magic when I was in middle school, but I wasn’t able to properly harness it until my early twenties when I started matriculating in the Hedge community.” A dry smile. “I met some people who could do some really, really amazing things, so I essentially offered myself up as their bitch if they’d teach me.” Something in Quentin’s expression must be careening towards panic, because Eliot immediately adds, “But we don’t do things that way anymore, of course. My Coven just charges dues like any normal organization.”

“Any normal organization that can fucking do magic,” Quentin murmurs, and Eliot chuckles.

“I can teach you some basics, if you want. They’re mostly parlor tricks.”

“God, yes, please.” Quentin leans forward, mug tilting dangerously in his grip. “Anything you can.”

His voice is raw with hunger, edging towards desperation, and his breath is becoming short in his chest. He hasn’t felt this alive in years, and the idea of having it snatched from him when he’s this close is agonizing. Eliot stops, leaning back in his chair as if to put some space between them. His mug goes to the side, forgotten.

“Quentin.” Eliot’s voice is gentle, almost wheedling. It feels enough like pity that Quentin’s hackles are immediately roused. “Magic doesn’t really solve anything. Honestly it makes most situations worse.”

“I don’t care.” He puts his own mug aside as well, then balls his hands in his lap. He needs Eliot to know what this means to him. “I really don’t fucking care. Anything has to be better than this.”

Eliot is very still for a moment, then something shifts in his expression, darkens the hazel of his eyes. “If I tell you something in full confidence, do you promise you won’t bring it up in group?”

It’s a startling enough deviation in the conversation that it shakes Quentin from the undertow of his own obsession. “Uh, yeah, of course.”

“Because I’ve dealt with it, I don’t need to talk about any more.” Eliot’s fingers twitch like he’s looking for a cigarette. They find the worn piping on the chair’s arm instead. “I was fourteen the first time I used magic, and I killed someone.”

His tone is frank, colored with the space of dissociation, and Quentin shifts in his chair. “Did you mean to?”

There’s a brief flash of white around Eliot’s eyes, like a startled animal. “I mean...yes, no. I was a kid. He made my life a living hell. Made me want to kill myself for most of middle school.” A flick of his gaze back up to Quentin, then down to his nail beds.

“But the point is, killing Logan Kinear didn’t fix anything. It didn’t make the other kids stop bullying me, and it didn’t…” A shudder, a hesitant breath, and Eliot shakes his head like he’s dismissing memories back to their tightly-locked boxes. “Anyway. Magic isn’t sparkles and unicorns and creating flowers out of nothing. It comes from our pain.”

Quentin can feel the deep sincerity in Eliot’s warning, and for a fleeting moment he wants to reach across and take his hand, to ease the tendons in his wrists when they’re locked in tension like this. But he doesn’t. He looks away.

“Well, I’ve got plenty of that.”

Then Quentin’s phone pings with an incoming text, making both of them jump, and the moment shatters like crystal. He checks it, more for something to do with his hands than out of true interest, but when Julia’s name pops up on the screen he sighs.

“That’s quite the face you’re making.”

Quentin looks up. The vulnerability in Eliot’s expression has been replaced by what Quentin is learning is his usual cover, an elegant wall of arrogance and vague disinterest. But his eyes flick down to Quentin’s phone, then back up to his face. “Is it your mom?”

He shakes his head. “Julia.”

“Ah.” Eliot softens, releases his grip on the chair and reaches for his coffee again. There are little crescent moons stamped deep by his nails along the leather. “She’s who you were talking about this morning, right? The one with the new boyfriend?”

“He’s not really that new.”

“But you don’t like him.”

Quentin frowns. “I mean...he’s okay? He’s just a jock type.”

Eliot smirks. “You sounded pretty pissed at him.”

“I wasn’t pissed, I just -- ” Quentin looks up, makes a face. Yeah, he was pissed. He hates James, and he hates that he has no reason to hate him beyond “you’re dating my only friend and I worry you’re going to replace me with a buff law school student who knows how to carry on conversations and doesn’t end up shipped off to the psych ward every few years.”

Ugh. It makes Quentin feel dirty. So he just shrugs.

But Eliot has scented blood in the water. “How long did the two of you date for?”

Quentin’s frown deepens. “We didn’t -- I never -- we grew up together, I never dated her.”

“Ah. One of those.” A corner of Eliot’s mouth hooks up, sharp and dangerous. “I’m just curious what kind of girl it takes to get Quentin Coldwater this riled up.”

It feels like Eliot’s flirting, but Quentin has seen him pull this tactic in group several times. Whenever Eliot feels exposed, he redirects and sends a barb in someone else’s direction. But it still stings a little bit.

So Quentin just shrugs and retrieves his latte, which has cooled to a more drinkable temperature. Two can play at that game. “The friend that wanted you to do therapy, is she in your Coven too?”

And whatever he said, it was the right thing, because the tension prickling from Eliot like static in a thunderstorm begins to slide away. His smile grows softer, a little proud. “She runs the damn thing. Said she’d kick me out if I didn’t get my shit together.”

Quentin stares. “Can she do that?”

“Absolutely. When Margo says jump, I ask how high.”

What kind of person does it take to inspire such fervent loyalty in someone as flighty and evasive as Eliot? Quentin looks down into his coffee. “Does she know you’re telling me about this stuff?”

“Nah, but she’ll be fine.” Eliot’s tone is dismissive. “It’s been a long time since I brought home a stray.”

“A stray?

“Oh hush.” Eliot touches his wrist, grinning. “It’s a compliment.”

Chapter Text

Quentin is not a fan of the newest member of their therapy group. He can tell by the faces Eliot is making across the table that he agrees. Of course, he never expected to get along with everyone, even if they are all here for the same reason, but every time Jeff-from-Rhode-Island opens his mouth Quentin has to take a deep breath and remind himself that Jeff is entitled to be a dumbass if he wants to be.

Eliot isn’t feeling quite as patient.

“I don’t know why he thinks we care that his wife cheating is on him,” Eliot says during their smoke break. Now that Quentin is in on the secret, Eliot spends these short sessions creating moving tableaux in his exhaled smoke. Currently a long-legged deer bounds across the air between them, graceful and free. He’s tried to show Quentin how to do it, but he admitted early on that without a foundational knowledge of the workings of magic, tuts are just hand signals. And he can’t teach Quentin anything more until he’s brought to the Coven and Margo gives her approval.

Quentin blinks, looking away from the deer with a mix of longing and disappointment. “Hmm?”

“Toxic Masculinity Jeff.” Eliot dismisses the deer with a wave of his hand and takes a deep drag from his cigarette. “I bet his wife isn’t actually cheating on him. He’s clearly just paranoid.”

Quentin leans back against the building, eyes drifting to the middle distance. “I mean, paranoia’s pretty common among people with mental illness.”

“Well yes, but.” Eliot cuts a sidelong glance towards him, inviting him to join in. “He’s not really mentally ill, he’s just an idiot.”

Eliot likes to take himself and Quentin and pluck them from the reality of their situation, saying things like “well you’re not crazy,” and “I’m only here because Margo made me” to isolate them on a distant, cozy island. The solidarity is nice, but Quentin has been in and out of therapy for long enough that he knows a defense mechanism when he sees it. So he shrugs.

“They’re not mutually exclusive. I think he’s an asshole, yeah, but he clearly needs some anger management therapy.” He exhales. “And maybe therapy will make him less of an asshole.”

Eliot clearly does not agree, but he just takes an extra long drag of his cigarette and coughs. “Therapy isn’t magic, Quentin.”

--

Seventy-two minutes later, Quentin is picking at his cuticles, trying to tune out Toxic Masculinity Jeff as he complains about his fifteen-year-old son who must be doing drugs, because why else would the kid spend so much time out of the house?

“Sometimes I wish I could just beat it out of him like you can when they’re kids,” Jeff drawls, his tone half-joking, but Quentin still winces down towards his lap. Read the room, Jeff.

“What the actual fuck?

Quentin’s eyes snap up to find Eliot, who has abandoned his lounging sprawl of general disinterest and is now leaning into the table with dark, angry eyes. Their facilitator begins to speak, to diffuse the situation she can see brewing, but Eliot speaks over her with the ease borne of years of practice.

“If you come to goddamn group therapy and expect that people are going to sit around and give you pity-based asspats because the only thing your rancid sponge of a brain can default to is child abuse, you’re dead fucking wrong.” A cutting glance towards their facilitator. “Or there’s even more hypocrisy in this place than I thought.”

There’s an icy chill of fear trickling down Quentin’s spine, pinning him to the chair as Jeff’s cheeks flush and he splutters over the beginning of a response, because all Quentin can see is the flare of power in Eliot’s eyes, and all he can think of is a comment from five days ago.

“I was fourteen the first time I used magic, and I killed someone.”

But Eliot has more control than that now, surely? Quentin has seen him in various stages of “upset” before, most of which involve some degree of biting sass, but he’s never seen the deep anger that’s sharpening the angles of his shoulders and jaw, the whitening of his knuckles on the edge of the table. Quentin is not afraid of Eliot, but he is afraid for him.

“Eliot, Jeff, let’s take a moment, all right?” Facilitator Lisa-Leslie (or maybe her name is Joan?)’s voice is calm and polished to an even sheen with years of practice, and Quentin feels himself take a breath along with the other session occupants. Maybe she’s a Magician too? A distant part of him makes a mental note to ask Eliot later. “Jeff, I understand the frustration you’re feeling about your son’s lack of interest in communicating with you and your wife. However, I don’t think that that was a helpful way of expressing it.” She turns her gaze to Eliot, who is still coiled whip-tight, half out of his chair. “And Eliot, do you want to talk about why you're feeling so strongly about this?”

Eliot hasn’t mentioned his father much in group beyond the odd joke or throw-away comment whenever one of their facilitators traps him into a corner. He’s candid about the fact that he does not speak with his parents and hasn't since high school (“and good goddamn riddance”), but Quentin has always just assumed a disagreement or a natural growing apart when Eliot moved out or found out that he was a Magician. There had been one comment, after a younger group member recounted her father’s stony silence when she came out to him --

“We were fucking farmers, how do you think my father reacted to this?” A gesture to his ascot and beaded vest. “The best thing I ever did was get out of there.”

-- but it had never crossed Quentin’s mind that Eliot’s father might have hurt him. And the idea forces his pulse into his ears.

Across the table, Eliot freezes in place, bristling like a cat assaulted by a bucket of water, then draws himself up to his full, impressive height. “Fuck this,” he articulates, his words cold and clipped, then flips his scarf over his shoulder and storms out.

Quentin is out of his chair when Joan-Lisa-Leslie steps between him and the door, a faint smile on her face. “It’s okay, I’ll go talk with him,” she says. Then, over his shoulder, “Robert, will you keep the session going?”

Quentin forgets about Robert, the quiet masters student with a nervous smile, about 86% of the time during their sessions, but as Robert resumes the discussion, Quentin obeys and settles back into his seat, though he can’t help but glance back towards the door every so often.

About ten minutes later, Joan-Lisa-Leslie returns, but without Eliot. She meets Quentin’s panicked gaze and says, “He’s all right,” before adding quietly, “He went home, but he said he will be back Thursday.”

Once Lisa-Joan-Leslie resettles, the group has a discussion about group values and making sure that everyone feels welcome and accepted, but Quentin’s attention wanders. Is Eliot okay? Did he go straight home to his Coven -- does he live with his Coven, or does he have an apartment elsewhere? Quentin realizes he has no idea.

Group lasts another twenty minutes, and Quentin stops almost immediately outside the conference room to pull out his phone. No new text messages. Someone nudges past his shoulder, and he scoots to the side, reflexively apologizing as he types out a message.

Quentin: Hey
Quentin: *!
Quentin: Are you ok?

The fucking social politics of punctuation. He hates it.

Eliot doesn’t respond immediately, but Quentin keeps his eyes on his phone as he walks out to the parking garage (and nearly falls up the stairs doing so). But as he gropes for his keys and unlocks his car, his phone lights up with a new message.

Eliot: Of course!
Eliot: Just couldn’t take any more of old man Jeffrey so I thought a dramatic exit was in order.

It’s complete and utter bullshit, and Quentin chucks his phone into the floorboard of his passenger seat in a surge of frustration. What can he even say to that?

Eliot is miserable. Quentin, as a fellow miserable person, recognizes that. But there’s no solidarity to be found if Eliot continues to act like he’s invulnerable.

--

Eliot doesn’t actually like milk baths. The aesthetic is amazing, but the process is arduous and if he doesn’t end up showering immediately afterwards his hair starts to smell like sour dairy.

But his heart still feels like it’s skipping beats in his chest when he’s not paying attention, and his hands are cold and tingly, and if he thinks too hard about it he feels like he can’t breathe. Normally his response to these feelings is to drown them in artisan alcohol, but he’d promised Margo he wouldn’t drink on weekdays until after 4pm, so instead it’s time to fixate on ~aesthetic~ and get in some prime sulking.

He leans his head back into the porcelain cradle of the bathtub and gives a long, vocalized sigh. Margo is sitting on the bathroom counter with a magazine in hand. He wonders if she would bring him some chardonnay if he pouts hard enough.

Probably not.

But she ignores his first sigh, so he sighs again, even more melodramatic. No reaction, but she also hasn’t turned a page in her magazine in quite some time.

“I’ve always thought Ophelia had such a lovely aesthetic.” He floats a rose petal over the knuckles of his ring and middle finger, watching it rotate slowly. At that, Margo does look up.

“Bitch drowned herself in a pond, El.”

“Well, yeah.” He draws the rest of his hand from the bath, watching the milk cascade from his skin in an opaque waterfall. “But she had style when she did it.”

“You didn’t even read Hamlet.”

“Course not.”

Margo gives a heavy, frustrated exhale, and he looks up in time to see her toss her magazine to the side. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or do I have to sit through hours of pastel goth bullshit until you gather the tits to tell me? Because I love you, El, but a girl has her limits.”

He frowns, putting on the air of being offended, but having her eyes on him soothes some of the restless energy trembling beneath his skin. Even here in his rose-scented bath with Enya playing in the background he still feels like he needs to be running away from something. But with Margo, he feels seen. He feels anchored. The edges of his facade are beginning to crumple like wet tissue paper, and he sinks lower in the tub.

“This pea-brained Neanderthal in group was shooting his mouth off. I got pissed and left.”

“That’s it?”

He isn’t looking at her, but he can feel the eyebrow she’s arching in his direction. “I mean, I said some shit, probably shouldn’t have lost my head, etcetera etcetera.”

“Did they kick you out?”

“No.” In fact, Lisa had been very supportive. She had even stayed out in the hall to talk with him until she was convinced that he wasn’t going to go home and binge drink himself into oblivion because someone accidentally made him think about his daddy issues. It had been...weirdly nice.

A short sigh from Margo. He can tell her patience is thinning. “So? The Shakespearean pouting?”

He has no immediate response. In fact, he’s quiet for a long moment, trying to focus on taking a breath before leaping into a deflection, like Lisa has called him out on in group. Damn, maybe he is learning something. Margo is simmering with impatience, but once exhaling doesn’t make him feel like he’s about to pass out, he swallows. His throat and tongue feel like they’re coated in sand, and his words come out weak and scratchy. “Did your dad ever hit you?”

She goes so still and quiet that he finally looks over at her. Margo Hanson is many things, but she isn’t soft. But here, in the confines of this bathroom, with her back to the mirror and her mouth gone thin and still, he can see the rare glimmer of something more gentle.

It makes him want to shush her, to cover it up and go back to pretending that they’re both brave and untouchable. But that’s not what this moment is about.

“No,” she says. “Did yours?”

She knows he did. Eliot has joked about it enough in passing that he knows she’s been onto him. But he’s never spoken about it directly with her, especially not like this, when they’re both sober and he’s literally naked and vulnerable in front of her.

Eliot Waugh lives for the attention of others, but only when he has full control over what they’re seeing.

“Sometimes,” he finally says. “It wasn’t ever too bad though.”

Margo’s expression is dark. “Doesn’t matter. Hitting a kid at all is bad.”

Eliot looks down and traces his finger through the water, creating a small spiraling current around the rose petals. “Anyway, this new guy made a joke about it in therapy. I got angry and left.”

“I hope whoever was running the damn thing said something to him.”

“Yeah, I think she did.” He shrugs, then lightens his tone. “And now I feel like I just want to get super drunk, so I’m taking a bath and whining to you instead.”

He looks up as she slides from the counter and comes to kneel beside the tub. “I’m fucking proud of you, okay?” She says. She’s using her Coven Leader voice on him, firm and commanding, and it makes him feel warm and safe. “And if you want me to hex that motherfucker so he feels like there’s a lobster hanging off his taint for the next six months, I’m all for it.”

His eyes are wet as he laughs. “I think we can come up with something more subtle.” He leans over to kiss her on the forehead, and she tilts her face up to give him a return kiss on the cheek, then the lips.

And the leaden knot of anxiety in his chest finally, blessedly, begins to uncoil.
--

Later, he sends Quentin another text.

Eliot: No yeah I’m fine
Eliot: Still want to punch Jeff but feeling better now

“Who are you texting?”

Margo is stretched across his bed with a heavy textbook open in front of her. She’s been trying to work through the tuts of a new warding spell for the last twenty minutes, though the pieces aren’t falling together yet and Eliot can tell she’s growing bored. But it’s a side of her most people don’t get to see, the reading glasses and the lips pursed in concentration as she immerses herself in research.

“Quentin.”

Quentin Quentin?”

He gives her a scathing look. “How many Quentins do you think I know, Bambi?”

She rolls her eyes. “What does he want?”

Eliot hesitates for long enough that she arches an eyebrow. “He just...wanted to check in, after earlier.”

That clearly wasn’t what Margo was expecting. Eliot sees a faint flicker of surprise dance across her expression before she goes back to her book. “You should bring him to the Safehouse sometime.”

He stares. “Really?”

She doesn’t look up, and she even turns a page to cement the illusion that she is, in fact, only half paying attention to him, but Eliot knows better. “You’ve already told him about us, and it doesn’t sound like he’s going to pull the ripcord any time soon.”

Eliot snorts. “I haven’t seen someone so desperate to get their hands on magic in a long time. He’s not going anywhere.”

“Do you trust him?”

That’s more of a question. Eliot leans back against his dresser. He wants to say yes, because of the smell of cigarette smoke and the scratch of the brick against his back and the way that Quentin’s eyes get so big and earnest whenever someone in the group admits a hard thing. He wants to say yes because he knows so little about Quentin, yet at the same time he feels like he knows so much. He knows that Quentin is curious, that he’s brilliant, and that he’s fucking brave and strong. And he knows that what he’s seen of Quentin is only the tip of the iceberg, and that if the Coven just gave him the chance, he could do something amazing.

So...he says yes.

--

Eliot: Btw what are you doing tomorrow?

Chapter Text

Quentin stops on the sidewalk, his heart galloping in his chest. The building stretches three stories above him, chipped brick and uneven stucco with a faded sign reading Lear Consulting. Stunted, half-dead landscaping frames the entrance. Eliot also stops to look back over his shoulder.

“Are you coming?”

Quentin knows there’s an illusion in place, but there’s still a seed of paranoia nipping at the back of his mind that this is all just an elaborate joke Eliot is playing on him. But his rabid curiosity is far, far louder, so he follows.

Six steps down the walkway leading to the house, Eliot draws a rune in the air, and a chill runs down Quentin’s spine. When he looks up again, the vision has changed. The ragged facade of Lear Consulting has given way to the soaring elegance of a Victorian home with rust-colored brick, off-white window trim, and a front yard more fitting of a home in the suburbs than in Brooklyn. Quentin stops for a moment to stare. Magic whispers across his skin like a cold breeze, making him shiver and tuck his arms to his chest. Eliot is watching him, gauging his reaction.

“Not bad, hmm?” He slings an arm around Quentin’s shoulder and leads him up the gently-sloping sidewalk, now transformed from cracked cement to artistic cobblestone. “This house is technically in a pocket dimension, but it’s also pretty solidly anchored here so it’s not going to just, like, fall into the ether between worlds or anything. But it’s why we were able to get a place in Brooklyn for dirt cheap.”

“Uh huh.” Quentin’s brain is buzzing. He’s making mental notes of things to ask Eliot about later, but he has a feeling that list is going to be astronomical by the time they’re done here. It makes him feel faintly dizzy, and he’s suddenly very grateful for Eliot’s arm around his shoulder.

Eliot chatters on. “So today is just a grand tour, you’ll get to see the place and ask any questions about Edgewood or the Coven before you decide if you want to commit to an initiation.” He frowns. “They can be...kind of painful and unpleasant, so it’s important to make sure this is something you’re truly interested in.”

“I am,” Quentin says at once, and Eliot huffs a laugh.

“I know.” One hand comes up to ruffle Quentin’s hair. He’s in a very good mood today. They climb a few stairs and stop before a large, ornate wooden door, and Eliot lets Quentin go. “All right, deep breath as we go through the door.”

Quentin obediently holds his breath as Eliot reaches for the knob with one hand, then performs an intricate series of finger twists and twitches with his other. Tuts are a beautiful kind of choreography; sometimes he thinks he can see glowing lines left in the air in the wake of Eliot’s fingers.

Something in the air shifts, and Quentin stumbles as the seal on the door releases and the door opens on its own accord. Eliot manages to catch his forearm.

“Easy. You can breathe now.”

Quentin breathes.The world steadies around him. Eliot leads him in through the front door.

He doesn’t know what he expected the inside of Eliot’s Safehouse to look like. Maybe like the common room of a Harry Potter house, or the lobby of a plush hotel. Edgewood blends all three of those expectations, and Quentin blinks as a high-ceilinged great room with dark wood paneling, Oriental rugs, and a sweeping staircase materializes before him. The air smells like sandalwood and old furniture, and he can hear quiet strains of classical music coming from somewhere deeper in the house.

Eliot grins at him. “What do you think?”

“It’s…” Quentin’s not sure what word to pick, so he goes with some light teasing. “Pretty extra. Which I honestly should have expected from you.”

Eliot puts a hand to his chest, mock-scandalized. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Come on.” He loops his arm through Quentin’s elbow. Quentin’s skin tingles where they touch. “Let me show you around. Margo and the others will be upstairs.”

The first floor of Edgewood is room after room of the same odd mixture of Victorian charm and plush, cozy furniture. Eliot leads Quentin through several rooms that could be conference or meeting rooms, breezes him past an industrial-sized kitchen and large adjacent dining room, and passes by a living room that has the faint lingering scent of weed.

“Do you have issues with people, like, breaking in or anything?” Quentin stops to look up towards the second floor, past the polished wooden railings glowing in the afternoon light. He’s half surprised that there isn’t any stained glass to be seen amidst this display of finery.

“Not since Margo took over,” Eliot says. Pride paints his tone and body language like sunlight, and Quentin smiles.

“You make her sound so…” He stops. “Impressive? Terrifying?”

“And she’s all of it.” Eliot softens. “Impressively terrifying. Terrifyingly impressive. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Something twinges beneath Quentin’s breastbone, an odd, unhappy sort of feeling, but before he gets the chance to examine it further he’s taken by another swooping sense of vertigo. The room in front of him shifts suddenly, and he stutters to a stop, hand going up to the nearest wall with a smack as he tries to catch himself. Eliot turns, then frowns.

“Damn. Come here for a second.” His hand finds Quentin’s elbow again, steady and strong, and Quentin lets himself be led to a nearby couch. Once he’s seated the world doesn’t seem to be tilting as violently, but his palms are tingling and there’s a low ringing in his ears. Eliot’s hand has not left his arm.

“I’m sorry, it’s the wards on this place. I forget that they’re really hard on newcomers.” Quentin can feel the pad of Eliot’s finger tracing shapes along his forearm, then the inside of his wrist, then his palm, and he lets his eyes slide closed.

“Are you going to pass out?” Eliot’s voice again, and Quentin considers this very seriously for a second, then shakes his head.

“N-No, whatever you’re doing is helping.” There’s a faint warmth emanating from the spaces where Eliot’s hands have been, and Quentin opens his eyes again to see if he can see evidence of the magic. He’s disappointed to find that he isn’t glowing.

“It should pass in a minute or so. I just don’t want you hitting the floor on me.” Eliot leans across to take Quentin’s other arm. “That would be a colossal bummer. Just try to relax.”

It’s easier said than done, with his inner ear suddenly determined to take up hula hooping, but as Eliot continues to draw invisible patterns across Quentin’s arm, he takes a breath and tries to focus on the touch. His mind tries to draw images from the runes by feel -- that spiral could be a snail shell, the pointed V a flock of birds flying south for the winter. Eliot’s fingertips are surprisingly callused, Quentin thinks, then immediately feels ashamed for making assumptions like that based solely on Eliot’s carriage and his style of dress. He might play guitar in his free time, or spend his weekends woodworking.

“How’s that?”

Eliot’s voice filters back into his consciousness, and Quentin blinks to refocus his eyes.

“Um...better, I think.” He takes a breath and is pleased when it doesn’t catch uncomfortably in his chest. His hands and legs still feel weak and shaky, but there’s no longer a concern that he’s going to lose his lunch all over Eliot’s shoes.

Eliot looks pleased. “Good. That was my first time trying that spell.” He claps Quentin on the shoulder. “Glad you didn’t turn into a newt, but I guess there’s still time.”

Quentin hopes he’s joking.

--

There’s a second set of wards between the first and second floors, but Eliot draws the spell across Quentin’s forearms and takes his hand as they pass through the invisible barrier, which seems to negate a lot of the issues. Their hands are a very nice fit, Quentin notices absently, then takes a moment to consider when the last time he held hands with someone was.

At some point Eliot drops his hand, and Quentin’s small, surprising flicker of disappointment is swallowed by a familiar tide of social anxiety once he realizes that he is, unfortunately, expected to meet people today.

“Is this a weird kind of interview where you try and decide if I’m an axe murderer before you let me join your club?” Quentin murmurs to Eliot. Eliot huffs a laugh.

“Of course not, we have spells for that.” His hand migrates to Quentin’s back, settling snugly between his shoulder blades as they stop at a group of Coven members clustered around a low coffee table and a set of notebooks. They look up at Quentin and Eliot’s approach, and one of them flips the notebooks closed. Eliot rolls his eyes.

“Don’t be a dick, Penny. This is Quentin, he’s going to be joining us after his initiation.”

One of the other members, a cheerful-looking man with glasses and a checkered polo shirt, offers his hand to Quentin. “Josh,” he introduces himself. “Welcome to Edgewood.”

Quentin shakes his hand and offers a hesitant smile. “Thanks. It’s, um, really impressive.”

“Right?” Josh grins. “Oh, did Eliot show you the kitchens? They’re the best part of this place, Margo pulled out all the stops.”

“Um, yeah, sort of -- ”

“He hasn’t been initiated?” The man who Eliot referred to as Penny crosses his arms.

“Haven’t arranged it yet, we’re going to speak to Margo about it,” Eliot replies breezily. Penny doesn’t seem to like that answer, but instead of protesting further he pulls out his phone and turns away.

“Have you seen her, by the way?” Eliot directs his question to Josh, who shakes his head.

“Not since this morning. I think she had another meeting with Mari-- ah, just another meeting,” he quickly corrects himself, eyes flitting apologetically to Quentin. Quentin just shrugs his shoulders.

“Hmm.” Eliot frowns. “She knew I was bringing the little neophyte by this afternoon. We talked about it.” His foot taps the ground in what Quentin recognizes as irritation, but before he can react to it, Josh has turned his attention back to Quentin.

He’s a very friendly guy and one of Quentin’s favorite types of people to interact with, because all Josh needs is a vague indication of interest from Quentin and he can carry the rest of the conversation himself. But he has some very interesting things to say, and Quentin finds himself several layers deep into Josh’s explanation about the union of herbal and cooking magic that he’s been trying to master when the energy in the room changes, like a ripple goes through the assembled Magicians.

Josh drops off mid-sentence, and he and Eliot turn to the door, both wearing similar expressions of fervent adoration. Quentin doesn’t know what to expect from the oft-referenced Margo, so it takes him a moment to pinpoint the center of the attention shift. But once he sees her, he gets it.

She’s small, both in stature and delicately built, with slim shoulders and an olive complexion. Her dark hair is twisted into an intricate bun at the base of her neck, framed by a ring of braids. A gold and black eyepatch covers her right eye. She wears no crown, but authority drapes from her shoulders like a richly embroidered cloak, and she carries her head high with the expectation that everyone in this room will drop what they’re doing and attend to her as necessary.

So this was Margo. Her gaze finds him, her one brown eye hard and calculating, and Quentin fights the urge to drop to a knee. Eliot, meanwhile, has warmed like a house plant moved into a sunny window. His hand finds the small of Quentin’s back, and Quentin has to remind himself to breathe as Eliot steers him through the room towards its focal point, the sun whose gravitational pull is holding everything in orbit around her.

“Bambi,” Eliot begins, cheerful. “This is Quentin Coldwater.” He looks back at Quentin. “Quentin, Bambi.”

Quentin’s lips have formed the B in a questioning Bambi? when Margo drawls, “That’s High King Margo to you, dollface.”

“Hi, um, your Excellency. Ma’am.” Does he bow? Attempt a curtsy? Thankfully Eliot saves him from further social embarrassment by draping an arm across his shoulder, and the weight of it brings a little bit of presence back to Quentin’s pitiful spine.

“I’ve given him the grand tour, can we schedule his initiation now?”

Margo arches a delicate eyebrow. “Hasty, much?”

“I mean, he’s already made it through the wards. I don’t know what else you’re waiting for.”

Quentin half expects Margo to reprimand Eliot for the impatience in his tone, but the two of them clearly have a different kind of intimacy and familiarity to their relationship than Margo has with any of the others in this room, who have faded to anonymous faces behind Quentin’s back. Margo, Quentin suddenly remembers, is the reason that Eliot started group therapy in the first place. Margo is the reason he’s here, if indirectly.

“Fine,” she says, pulling him from his mental calculations. “Bring him by tomorrow morning.”

When her gaze shifts from Quentin it feels like a weight has been lifted from his chest, and he takes a deep, quivering breath. She passes by them to greet Josh with a kiss to the cheek, and Eliot grins.

“Yeah, she has that effect on people.” He squeezes his shoulder. “But hey! As long as you pass the initiation rituals tomorrow, that means you’re in!”

The excited buzz beginning beneath Quentin’s sternum is slightly quelled by the word dropped into the middle of Eliot’s sentence like a live grenade. “Initiation...rituals?”

“You’ll be fine. Most people usually are.” Eliot pauses, reconsidering. “Usually.”

They meet a few more people after that, but Quentin’s mind feels like it’s lagging behind him like a balloon on a string, going through the motions of shallow human acquaintance while he devotes the full amount of energy possible to processing and analysis.

He has to ace it. He has to.

But it’s kind of hard to plan when he has no idea what “it” is.

Chapter Text

Quentin: Are you sure I can’t do anything to prepare for tomorrow
Eliot: Absolutely. You just have to show up and be pure of heart or whatever.
Quentin: How’d they let you in then?
Eliot: Ooh, spicy Q tonight. I like it.
Eliot: And idk, probably my irresistible charm and magnetism.

--

He hates that he can’t tell Quentin more about the Trials, at least to soothe some of his anxiety. He can’t imagine the state of the poor boy’s cuticles. Eliot purses his lips and scrolls up through their short text message history, then back down again. He taps over to his text thread with Margo.

Eliot: Are you seriously meeting w Marina again?
Bambi: [read at 3:13pm]

Almost two hours ago. He rolls over so his chest is propped up against the arm of the couch, long legs stretched behind him, and pouts a little, because it makes him feel better.

He wants Margo to be done with her stupid mystery meeting already so he can lay in her lap and let her comb her delicately-manicured nails over the headache pressing into his forehead. He wants a drink, or a cigarette, but he’s still trying to drink less and that means he’s out of cigarettes.

And he wants to tell Quentin everything, but even that thought tightens the golden thread of the geas around his throat, making it uncomfortable to breathe until he lets it go. Frustrated and directionless, he lets his phone fall to the floor and exhales. Thoughts of the Trials still cluster in his mind like crows on carrion, and since he can’t think about Quentin...he thinks about Margo instead.

Two years ago she was even more prickly, all rough and squirrely around the edges with the survival instincts of a feral cat branded into her. Literally, in one case -- Eliot remembers the first time he saw the scars seared into her wrists. They were over a year old at that point, but they looked as fresh and angry as if they’d just been done.

He had given her a wide berth at the start of the trials, because she was intense and uncompromising and those two things in combination gave him a migraine. But they’d been placed in the same group for the translation puzzle, then the astral maze, and by the time the secrets magic came around he had changed his mind about her. She was sharp because she was scared, because she felt like if she didn’t bite first and go for the throat she would be the one bitten. Thankfully Eliot had always been good at mollifying scared, insecure people.

And then they were paired for secrets magic, and as soon as he dropped his own guard, she had responded, finally feeling safe enough to share her own vulnerability in this delicate safe space cupped between them like crystal.

And they had been joined at the hip ever since.

(Less so since she became Coven leader, the cruel part of his brain whispers, a slow sibilance that he pushes away.)

Eliot huffs out a sigh and goes back to his text thread with Quentin - no response yet - and sighs even deeper before letting his phone drop to the carpet with a dull thud.

--

Quentin is in line for coffee when he passes out.

Or something similar happens -- one minute he’s scrolling through his phone researching trials throughout history, and the next his consciousness goes black like a lightswitch flicked off. He doesn’t know how long he’s out for, but when he comes to again, he’s lying on his side with his cheek pressed half an inch into a thick plush carpet that tastes like old incense.

It’s an odd enough sensation that it takes him a few blinks longer to realize that his hands are secured behind his back with a rope that feels like silk. A tie? He strains his wrists reflexively, but there’s no give to the fabric.

Someone is breathing nearby. He startles with an undignified gasp and flips onto his back like a turtle. The ceiling has crown molding and a glistening chandelier hanging from the center. The person breathing also huffs a surprised-sounding gasp, and Quentin cranes his neck to see if he can catch a glimpse.

It’s a girl his age, round glasses askew and white-blonde hair stuck to her lips and face as she also tries to reorient herself. She manages to prop herself up onto an elbow and get a couple scoots away from Quentin, leaving his field of vision.

“Who are you?” She spits. She sounds more angry than afraid. Quentin tries to copy her elbow maneuver and finally gets himself up to a seated position, his core aching with the effort. Now that he’s vertical, he can see a third person in the room with them: someone with long brown curls, lying on the floor with their back to Quentin and the blonde.

Quentin blinks. “Quentin. Who are you?”

“Alice.” Her gaze leaves his face and darts to the figure on the floor, the furniture, the chandelier. He shifts and tries his hands again.

“Is this part of the Trials?”

Now she looks at him again, her brows snapping together suspiciously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says. It’s incredibly unconvincing.

“Well I can’t think of anyone else who wants to kidnap and tie me up in a fancy house. Are you trying to join the Coven too?”

He must have swayed her, or perhaps she’s just desperate, because the tension locked into Alice’s jaw eases slightly. “Yes. But I didn’t think the Trials were until tomorrow.”

“I guess that’s part of the surprise.”

Now that he’s here, he feels weirdly calm, his anxiety dropping to a low simmer as the unknown unfolds before him. Finally no more waiting.

The other figure in the room with them has also struggled to a seated position by now, and Quentin catches a glimpse of thin eyebrows over sharp brown eyes before the girl huffs and turns her face from them. “This is bullshit,” she snaps.

“You know they’re watching us,” Alice hisses back. Quentin shrugs, thinking of Eliot.

“They know it’s bullshit.” He cranes his neck, trying to get a look at the binds on his wrists. Both Alice and the other girl have their backs to him still, but he assumes they’re tied similarly. “Do you think we can untie each other?”

It takes several minutes of awkward shuffling, but soon Quentin, Alice, and their third party member, Kady, are on their feet and free.

“So now what?” Quentin looks around, rubbing his wrists. There are no doors or windows in the room.

“Now the real fun begins!”

The fourth voice comes from behind them, and they whirl in surprise to see a cloaked figure standing in front of the still-blank wall. Kady’s hands snap in front of her in what Quentin pieces together is a tut mere seconds before a second, taller cloaked figure shimmers into existence and waves a hand. With a sharp snap, Kady’s hands are bound again, this time in front of her.

“None of that now,” the taller figure says mildly. “No Battle Magic indoors.”

Neither of them are Eliot, but Quentin recognizes Josh in the shorter figure’s voice and stature.

Josh looks unbothered and spreads his arms wide for a more dramatic presentation. “Welcome, potential Hedge Witches, to the Official Trials of Becoming. You will be tested on your ability to think and act like a Magician. You will be pushed to your very limits and then beyond. And once you have emerged, if you survive the trials, you will have undergone a true metamorphosis of self. You will be born anew.”

Quentin can almost hear Alice rolling her eyes beside him.

“Your first Trial, should you choose to accept it -- ”

“Josh, I told you no nerd shit,” The taller figure sighs, effectively shattering the tension of the moment.

Josh’s hooded head snaps towards the other figure. “Mission Impossible isn’t ‘nerd shit,’ Penny, it has Tom Cruise in it!”

Kady slouches all her weight onto one hip. “Can we just get on with this?”

Josh sends one more glare at Penny’s hooded figure, then redirects his attention with a pointed throat clear. He frees Kady’s hands again with a quick twist of his wrist. “Right. The first Trial is a test of your magical aptitude. Penny and I will perform a spell for you, once, and then you will have to replicate both the theorems and the tuts to the best of your ability.”

It’s a quick motion, something involving thumbs askew and a curled wrist, and then it’s over, and Quentin hadn’t even known it was time to pay attention. Kady’s sharp intake of breath suggests that she may be in the same boat. A silvery image of a rose, half-translucent and shimmering, appears in the air before them. As the group watches, Penny crosses his fingers over each other. The petals from the rose begin to peel and fall away.

“How Beauty and the Beast, hmm?” Josh claps his hands and the rose disappears. Quentin’s stomach feels like he’s swallowed a marble.

After Josh and Penny deposit a large pile of scratch paper onto the carpet and make their exit (as in, one blink they’re present, and the next they’re not), the three remaining in the room lock eyes. Alice’s small frame is almost vibrating with excitement.

“I wondered if they’d ask us to do Phosphoromancy during the trials. It’s very important for stealth and concealment.”

“Phospho--?”

“It’s illusion magic crap, anyone can do that.” But Kady looks about as nauseous as Quentin feels.

“There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to do that,” Quentin blurts out. “How do they -- I mean, I didn’t even know magic existed until like last week, how am I supposed to -- ?”

But instead of commiseration, all he gets from Kady and Alice are expressions of varying degrees of pity, which only thickens the panic climbing his throat.

“Last week?” Alice’s frown is incredulous.

Kady shakes her head. “You’re fucked.”

Quentin does, in fact, feel fucked -- and not in the good kind of way -- particularly when Kady and Alice turn away from him and begin scribbling what Quentin assumes to be magical theorems or various hand positions for tutting. He looks down at his own hands, pale and useless.

He doesn’t know what he expected, honestly. What, did he think he’d just roll up to a magical land and be given the keys right away? Every hero has to go through a journey; the only prize worth winning is one you’ve worked for.

The platitudes do little to soothe him as he stares blankly at the paper before him. Images slip through his mind like water: Josh’s thumb, Penny’s curled pinkie, the flip of a wrist half-hidden beneath cloak sleeves. Quentin spreads his own fingers. Is he imagining things, or is his right index finger tingling? He curls it impulsively. The middle and ring fall into place beside it, leaving his pinky outstretched. Is that a glimmer of silver appearing in the palm of that hand?

“Your Popper number eight is off,” Alice says brusquely. The rose in front of her is already half formed, though she seems to be having difficulties getting it to solidify beyond a vague silvery shimmer. Kady’s looks too solid and angular, like she pulled a rose from an alternate universe and tried to translate it to three dimensions.

“I thought he was trying to do four,” Kady says. At first Quentin feels the dark tug of shame against his breastbone - why is he stuck here in a room where he clearly doesn’t belong? why did Eliot put him through this? - but then Alice frowns.

“Four would make more sense, but then how do you get the petals to fall? Four is a static movement.”

“Haven’t gotten that far. I didn’t think to use four until I saw him.” Kady is perched on the edge of an armchair, one knee tucked up to her chest and one leg dangling as she shakes out her hands. She looks frustrated. Quentin looks down at his hands again.

But there it is, an unseen weight dragging at the palm of his left hand. He flips it over experimentally, and there’s another brief flicker of silver in the air. Alice’s frown deepens.

“How are you doing that? You don’t have any theorems written down at all.” She peers at his paper to confirm this.

“I honestly don’t know. I’m just...feeling it out, I guess?” It sounds so incredibly gauche and new age-y that he wants to trip himself on the sidewalk, but Kady nods.

“That’s how I usually learn new stuff. My old Coven wasn’t great with the actual teaching of shit. They’d throw you in the deep end and hope you figured out how to swim before the sharks got to you.”

“You’re already a Hedge Witch?” Alice asks, in a tone that implies, isn’t that cheating?

“Born and raised.” Kady slouches deeper. “What about you?”

Alice looks away. “My parents are classically trained.” And she leaves it at that.

Something clicks then. Quentin clears his throat. “Maybe that’s the point of this exercise then, you know? We all have different strengths and backgrounds, we all bring different things to the table. And we can’t replicate the spell unless we combine our strengths and work together.”

“Well what do you do?” Alice snaps.

It’s a good question, if bluntly phrased, and Quentin has no idea. “I have no idea. But I guess we’ll find out.”

--

Once the three of them begin to work as a group, the spell pieces together relatively quickly. Alice has the metamagic training required to write out the theorems (“There are theorems?” Quentin had asked), and Kady has the raw, keen sense of a dancer for how the tuts should flow together to form the rose as required. And Quentin...well, he keeps the group functioning as a team, and he likes to think that once or twice he has something helpful to contribute.

After nearly two hours, Josh and Penny reappear, and Alice comes forth with a set of prim and accurate tuts that summon the silver rose and its peeling petals from the ether. Quentin, much to his chagrin, had never been able to successfully complete the spell. Penny gives a single, affirming nod, but Josh claps.

“Very nice! That was fast too, it took the last group almost four hours to get anywhere.”

Penny pulls back his hood. “Now that you’re warmed up, let’s see what you think of the second exercise.” He holds out his hands, one palm-up and one palm-down, and touches thumb to index finger, then rotates them 180 degrees. There’s a dull pinching sensation starting in the corners of Quentin’s mind, like he’s trying to squeeze his thoughts through a too-small tube, and across the room, Penny winces.

“Can you drop your wards?” He asks Kady, who tenses defensively but soon softens with a nod. “This next bit requires a short trip to the astral plane.”

And before Quentin has time to ask any questions, his consciousness snaps away from him for the second time today.

When he comes to, he’s lying on his back in a bed of dry grass. He quickly scrambles to his feet and looks around for Kady and Alice. But he’s alone in what appears to a garden, with hedges towering like buildings on either side of the narrow garden path. Behind him is a wall of more hedges, leaving only one way to go. Fifty or so feet ahead, the path forks.

“A hedge maze,” he breathes, awe and frustration warring in his chest. Apparently he’d have to do this one alone. “How original.”

The grass crunches beneath his feet as he forges forward, and when he gets to the first split he goes right, because maybe astral mazes follow the Right-Hand Rule too.

He doesn’t know how long he continues to take the paths leading right, right, right. Time doesn’t seem to flow the same way on the astral plane. If it weren’t for minute changes in his surroundings - a purple-flowering vine creeping through the hedges here, a patch of mud in the grass there - he would assume he was just going in circles. The sky overhead is a static gray, with no sign of clouds or sun.

After an indeterminate amount of time, there’s a flicker of movement down the left pathway of a fork. Quentin pauses and peers down the shadowed path. Whatever it was, it’s gone now.

“Alice? Kady?” He tries. No response.

Several minutes later, something else catches his eye: the edge of a shirt sleeve disappearing around a corner. At this point he’s getting nowhere, so he decides to change his tactic and take the left fork.

Almost immediately the scenery changes. The sky grows darker, and a chill wind whips up. As it snatches at his shirt tails and tosses his hair, Quentin thinks he can hear a faint voice on the breeze.

“Alice?” He folds his arms against his chest for warmth.

At first there’s no reply, but then he hears a familiar giggle. He pivots, startled.

“Julia?”

No Julia, no Alice. There’s nobody there. He huddles further into his hoodie and presses on. If things are getting tougher, that has to mean he’s headed in the right direction.

“Magic is pain, right?” He says aloud. There’s another whisper in response.

“Quentin,” Julia’s voice hisses into his ear. It’s sharp, worried, and he frowns but keeps walking. “-- always such a burden --”

“-- breaks things --” That one is clearly his mother; he’d know that tone anywhere.

“-- don’t know why I --”

“-- would be easier if he just --”

“-- tried yoga? It helped my --”

The newest voice is a therapist, he thinks - one he stopped seeing after two sessions when she recommended he go off all medications and try to treat his depression the all-natural way.

“-- honestly, have you seen --”

“-- what a waste --”

The voices are louder now, no longer only whispers on the breeze, and their words have gotten sharper, like little darts thrown just hard enough to pierce his skin.

“-- not worth it anyway --”

“-- should just give up --”

“-- no way he’s going to make it past 30 --”

He slaps his hands over his ears as they rise in pitch and intensity, but he still trudges forth, trying to focus on the feeling of the grass beneath his sneakers and his breath in his lungs. Inhale, exhale. They’re nothing more than intrusive thoughts, Q, and you’ve dealt with those your whole life.

And then a single voice rises above the din, loud enough that the person could be standing right behind him. It’s a higher voice, feminine, and someone he doesn’t know.

“Well you can tell Margo that I’ve got better things to do than chase after Lunatics.”

Quentin whips around just in time to see a woman with short blonde hair and a leather jacket stalk into view, one hand wrapped tightly around her cell phone. He can see the tracks her boots are leaving in the dying grass, but her outline flickers like the picture on an old tv.

“I don’t care if she’s mad, she’s always mad. It’s when she gets agreeable that you need to get worried.”

“Quentin?”

Alice’s voice this time, and he opens his eyes - when had he closed them? - to see the girl in front of him, huddled against the wind in her short-sleeved blouse.

“Are you real?” Quentin blurts out. She doesn’t look surprised by his question.

“As real as you are, I hope.” She shivers. “Have you seen Kady?”

“No, but this place is --” Quentin shakes his head. “Kinda nasty.”

“You’re telling me,” Alice says darkly. She falls into step beside him, which Quentin is happy to find dispels the noise for now. “I keep hearing all these...voices.”

“Did you see that girl too? The blonde?”

Alice looks sideways at him. “No, I haven’t seen anyone.”

“Great.” Quentin frowns. “Love being the crazy one.”

“There’s nothing sane about magic use.” She shrugs. “You’re literally using your energy to break the laws of physics and write new ones.”

She does have a point.

After several minutes they find Kady, though she almost hits them with a wave of Battle Magic as she whirls, wide-eyed and hands raised, at the sound of their footsteps.

“We need to get out of here,” Quentin says grimly once she’s settled. “Does anyone think they got close to the exit, or the center of the maze or whatever?”

No one says anything.

“I still don’t understand why you’re so gung-ho and ready to trust us,” Kady grumbles, hands shoved deep in her pockets as they continue to walk. “We could be plants for all you know, or hallucinations or something.”

Quentin doesn’t know, honestly. So he settles for the truth. “I just have a feeling.”

Alice is beginning to flush, spots of anger high on her cheekbones. “I’m hoping you all aren’t hearing my mom too,” she says, her voice twining with a whispered “-- never going to get better --” that could be Julia, or Quentin’s mom, or maybe even his dad.

“I don’t know what your mom sounds like,” Quentin puts in, but shakes his head. “No. Mostly mine, and...other people, I guess.”

“Buncha mommy issues up in this group.” Kady rolls her eyes, and pointedly doesn’t contribute to the sharing session. But Quentin can see the tension in her jaw and shoulders, and he can see the way she flinches at movements in the hedges. She’s hearing things too.

After all of this, the center of the maze is...anticlimactic, to say the least. At this point Quentin is expecting a Triwizard Tournament-esque trophy, or at least a congratulatory banner of sorts. But it’s only Penny and Josh again, reclining against a low rock wall in the way of people that have been waiting for hours. Josh hops up when he sees them.

“Guess we’ve got a good group this time,” he remarks. “Nice work.”

Penny just sighs and snaps his fingers. The maze begins to melt around them, turning from structure into liquid color and light, and when Quentin blinks he finds himself back in the chandeliered sitting room at Edgewood. The light streaming through the windows is the same -- if any time in the real world has passed while they were in the maze, he can’t tell.

“What the fuck was that all about?” Kady demands. The floor still feels unsteady under Quentin after the astral travel, and he takes a moment to admire her quick recovery and unshakable backbone. Penny and Josh too seem impressed.

“Have you all gotten the ‘magic is pain’ speech?” Penny asks. The three initiates nod, and Penny relaxes. “Great, saves me some time.”

“This exercise was a reminder that all of your other shit doesn’t go away just because you’re in a Coven now, or just because you can do magic,” Josh says. “You carry it with you. And you have to deal with that other shit while you’re running errands for Margo, or working on research, or any of the other thousand things that you’ll end up doing once you’re a part of Edgewood.”

“And ‘I have a shitty past’ isn’t an excuse for not pulling your weight in this Coven.” Penny crosses his arms. “All of us have shitty pasts. Magic doesn’t let people get by unscathed.”

Josh nods. “And don’t be afraid to lean on your other Coven members.”

Quentin glances at Kady and Alice. Alice has spots of flustered heat burning high on her cheekbones, and Kady is glaring doggedly back at Penny like she dares him to call her out again. A real open and welcoming crew, he thinks dryly. I’m sure “my brain breaks sometimes” will go over stupendously with them.

Josh is talking again. “--Secrets magic, which you all may be familiar with.” He begins to pull a seemingly endless rope from an inside pocket of his robe. “If all of you would step forward? The final Trial is one of utmost seriousness. You must bare yourself in the presence of your fellow magic adepts -- not literally, we’re not perverts --” he adds in response to Alice’s stricken expression, “and expose your highest governing internal Circumstance. Which is to say, your utmost truth.” He walks between the three of them, binding their wrists together in a knot that tightens with a sizzle of magic when he snaps his fingers. “It’s a cooperative spell, and all of you must succeed to unravel it. You have one hour.”

And he leaves Quentin tied to two women he hardly knows, with the expectation that within the next sixty minutes, they would give up their darkest secrets.

Maybe they all were as dramatic as Eliot.

Chapter Text

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.”

“Right.”

“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.