Chapter 1: On Astrolabes
[A continuation from “On Covert Operations” and “On Desperation,” chapters three and four of The Explanation of Eliot.]
The object in question was beautifully rendered, detailed and precise. A burnished color, the cool weight of it reassuringly solid in Q’s hands as he examined it, turning it over and over in his hands. This one wasn’t even particularly old; it looked to be a sixteenth century model, and Q had seen older and more beautiful in his time.
But this one… well, he’d never seen an astrolabe capable of wreaking so much havoc. He’d never held a scientific device in his hands that might have been able to bring the world to its knees. Scientific advancement often introduced a certain level of chaos to the world, but this was just—literal. Literally, the thing Q now held cradled in his hands as he sat up in bed, could have killed thousands of people in one fell swoop, sucking the magical energies out of them and funneling them into its user…
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” El said next to him, a hand flopping out and patting clumsily at his back. “I know you haven’t been sleeping well without me.”
“You think quite a bit of yourself,” Q said, but it was half-hearted, because he knew El hadn’t slept the full night through since the last time they’d been able to do so together, and it was the same for him. Of course it was. He set the astrolabe down on the small table beside the bed, and curled back into the crumpled sheets next to the warmth of El’s body. There was still an indentation on the other side, from where Margaret had been curled until just hours before, when she’d sneaked away to return to Jules. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had to wake up in the middle of the night and study our successfully purloined object of indescribable power, if you had let me look at it earlier.”
Even in the dark, Q could feel El lift an eyebrow at him. “Earlier, we were a bit busy.”
That was true. Q was pretending he was still sore all over, although of course soreness never lasted with them. He nuzzled back into the hollow beneath El’s throat, smelled the scent of him, tried to understand how he could have gone without it for even a few weeks while they’d worked this impossible, grueling, dangerous job. Only now, with El back where he belonged, and the danger over, did Q allow himself to feel the full extent of his fear. Yes, they couldn’t die. Probably. But with so many dangerous magicians, all seeking power for their own ends… there were plenty of consequences frightening enough to contemplate.
“And in any case,” El said to him, the words sleepy and muffled in the top of Q’s head, “it’s just a hunk of metal, Q. We’ll destroy it in the morning.”
These were the moments that kept their relationship from growing stale, and Q liked to remind himself of this when he felt himself start to get annoyed. “I know it’s dangerous,” Q said, patient but hopefully not patronizing, “but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Things like this…” he gestured towards the astrolabe, “we can learn so much from them. Not just about magic, but about people. The magicians who created it over a hundred years ago… what were they thinking about? What did they intend to do with it, and did they succeed in their goal? How did the magic manifest? Is there some large-scale disaster somewhere in the past, attributable to magic instead of the natural world, and we just don’t know it?”
“Q,” El said, the sound almost a moan. “Please talk about this with Jules in the morning, I’m exhausted.”
“Are you letting me out of bed in the morning?” Q asked.
Q laughed, and kissed the bit of skin nearest his mouth, just above the collarbone. “Insatiable.”
“I’m beginning to think you were more eager for the astrolabe than you were for my return,” El said, and in a distant past, the words would be a tacit plea for reassurance, and Q would give it to him, would expound upon his devotion and love until El was forced to believe him.
But these days… “At least the astrolabe is new and shiny,” Q said. “And besides, we’re destroying it in the morning, as you so rightly point out. You, I’ve got to put up with for the rest of eternity.”
Of course Q wouldn’t have cared about this magical artifact if it meant further separation from El. Of course he’d forsake all manner of intellectual curiosity in the service of keeping El close to him, safe and happy. But that didn’t mean he didn’t care about anything else. Magic fascinated him. History fascinated him, in that way that just because he’d lived through some of it didn’t mean he understood it any better than most humans of the mortal variety. It was a shame, really, that the astrolabe was too dangerous to keep around. Q would never wish to use it for its apparent purpose, but so much magic, finely crafted, a unique application of many apparently contradictory principles…
“Where’s Pen?” El asked, and Q was surprised to find him still awake, after he’d failed to respond to Q’s latest quip.
“I think he and Jules were making plans for cleanup,” Q said. “Last I checked. But I’m sure M dragged Jules to bed, so…”
“So I missed him too, you should call him in here,” El said.
“You do it,” Q says. “I’m too comfortable to move.”
In the end, Q did concede to allow his mental wards to slip down just the tiniest bit, alerting Penny that his presence was wanted. When Pen entered the room, he made for El’s other side, ready to curl into him, but paused next to Q for a moment, staring down at the astrolabe.
“It’s a shame, almost, to destroy it,” he said.
Q grinned at him in the dark, and El groaned. “Come to bed,” he said. “I’ll remember this the next time you all try and send me away for a mission. I don’t even get the hero’s welcome I deserve—”
“Everyone in this house heard the welcome you got from Q,” Penny said, grumpy, but he let his hand fall from where it had been reaching out towards the astrolabe, and he flopped down, throwing an arm around El’s waist so his hand landed against Q’s elbow. “Now go to sleep.”
Q followed his instructions, but he thought about the astrolabe as he drifted off. As Penny said, it would be a shame to see it destroyed. He knew Jules would say the same thing in the morning.
El probably had the right of it. The very fact that Q’s fingers were itching, even now, to examine it again, to run every magical test he could think of, to disentangle the fibers of fantastical energy and learn their every secret… well, it all meant that getting rid of it was the right thing to do. And they would, in the morning. Or. Or maybe in a day or two. After all, there was so much left to learn.
The very first time Q and El kiss, it escalates alarmingly quickly into something more than a quick spark of passion, and before too long, Q finds himself on the ground, his clothing rumpled and pushed clumsily out of the way, El on top of him, inside of him, the ground rough beneath his cheek, no tenderness below or above to speak of whatsoever.
He has fond memories of that first time, of an occasion when the thing that existed between them was tainted with fear and disbelief, but also carnal magnetism, impossible to deny. At the time, Q wasn’t sure yet if he hated El for teaching him the truth of what he’d now become. He hadn’t decided whether to stay or run. But El had wanted him with a desperation impossible to ignore, and Q had caved to it instantly, wanting it just as badly.
Over the years, for myriad reasons, they’ve turned to each other for sex without the comfort of a bed available to them. In the rare moments when Q is forced to the expediency of his own hand instead of the use of his partner’s, he touches himself remembering the scratchiness of straw in a barn as El drove into him, remembers sloppy, soul-stealing embraces in a secluded hot spring, can draw on the memories of being pinned up against a wall in an otherwise bare, freezing hovel, and having things done to him with a warm mouth that could bring a man to his knees every time.
In fact, the very first time Q and El ever did share a bed, there had been no lustful indulgences to be found. They were in Ireland, near to Q’s original home, close enough that a few days’ travel would have brought him back to… to a place he could not go, to a life that could no longer be his. He’d left in a huff weeks ago, determined to return to what he’d known before, and El had picked up and followed him, insistent, loyal, determined, but fuming, furious at Q for his stubbornness in trying to run away.
In those days, as Q now understood, El had been caught between terror at being left behind, and the worry deep inside that the best thing to do for Q would be to let him go. Q thanked him, now, for his stubbornness, for the drive his loneliness had given him. It took Q a long time to process, to come to the right decision, and if El had wandered off and let him be… who knew how long it would have taken for them to find each other again. Who knew how many memories and years they might have lost.
But traveling together with someone you were ignoring, someone you were fighting hard to hate, was no easy feat. And in the coldest month of the year, finding shelter was sometimes a difficult prospect. Hence the situation they had found themselves in that night, a roof over their heads and a fine evening meal, and the miracle of padding beneath them, a proper quilt to lie under… but only one.
It was no trouble to share, except for the fact that it really was quite cold, and Q had been traveling with a silent, angry shadow for days, pretending he didn’t miss the sound of El’s voice, the easy conversation they’d fall into sometimes as they became fluent in each other’s favorite languages. The scratch of his stubble on the skin of his neck, the taste of him against his tongue. The way his hand cradled Q’s skull as he tilted down to kiss him, like he was afraid of breaking him apart, but couldn’t stop himself from touching. Q was fighting so hard against the pull of something that felt so very good, and sometimes it was hard to remember why.
And so it had only been natural that in that cocoon of bedding, Q would have squirmed towards the warmth of El’s body, and El would have pulled him in at once. They lay with Q’s back against El’s front, not speaking, but holding tight to one another, El’s breath tickling the back of Q’s neck, and it was the very best night of sleep he’d gotten in… well, maybe ever, at the very least since waking up after dying to find more of the same on the other side. They’d fucked each other dozens of times by then, but they’d never fallen asleep in each other’s arms. They’d never even really lingered after the act was over, despite the unspoken truth that craving each other’s touch went far beyond the realm of the sexual. It was a bridge Q couldn’t cross, even though he knew El would run to him if he did.
Q has fond memories of that night too, because upon waking he’d realized he was madly in love with the man holding him.
The memory is fond now, but of course at the time the thought had made him incandescently angry. He couldn’t afford to allow himself the luxury of this, when the thing that had happened to him, the thing that kept him breathing, that healed him against all sense, was sure not to last. He was bound to run out of time, or else he was bound to live forever, and either way the thought of being trapped into closeness with someone he couldn’t have chosen, someone foreign, and dangerous, someone who claimed to be older than the gods Q worshipped… he couldn’t handle it. He didn’t want it. Any of it. He wanted to go home and study his magic and become a respected member of his community. He wanted the life prescribed for him, as small and predictable as it now seemed.
So after he and El had both awakened and wordlessly disentangled themselves, he’d told El to stop following him, and he’d set off for home alone.
El obeyed, this time.
Well, sort of. He’d stayed nearby. Found ways to make himself useful in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Kept his distance from Q, but found ways to let him know he was waiting.
It would be two years before they spoke to each other again, and when they’d finally come together, a kiss sealing the promise of their new and fragile family, El had insisted on finding a bed before they fell into each other’s arms all over again. He’d told Q, adoring and thankful, that he meant to make him comfortable, meant to take his time, meant to give him the touch of loving hands somewhere they could be safe, and dry, and warm.
Q looks back with a certain measure of nostalgia on the rough, adventurous, nearly violent beginnings he and El shared. But he must admit, there’s nothing better than a soft place to land at the end of a hard road.
The next chapter is sort of a companion to this one, so expect more to follow soon!
Chapter 3: On Consummation
This continues on from chapter two!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
[A continuation from “On Beds”, chapter two of The Creation of Quentin.]
So it was that the first time Q ever made love to his soulmate, they’d already been fucking for years.
There was no difference between then and now, except for the simple fact that the tenderness that existed between them was no longer a hidden, shameful thing, but a bright spot in the center of Q’s heart. He no longer had to excuse his shaking hands, the way El’s lips on his made him want to weep. He no longer had to pretend that physical expediency was all that drove his desire to feel El inside him, but could instead acknowledge the miracle of the most beautiful man in the world wanting not only his body, but also the rest of him. His mind, his heart, his magic, whatever it was inside of his soul that kept breaking and regrowing itself with jagged edges.
“You can’t imagine how I’ve wanted this,” El said to him, his lips on Q’s throat, hands spanning across his hips, pinning him down, holding him close.
Q laughed. “I think I can.” He squirmed, feeling them both sliding hard against one another, pressed between their naked torsos. But he knew El meant far more than that. It had been two years since he’d felt El’s hands on him, heard the rumble of his voice in intimate closeness. Two years, and it had been torture every second. If he wasn’t careful, he’d ruin this wonderful moment by hating himself for keeping it from happening for so long.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He couldn’t help it, he needed El to know how much he’d— “I’m sorry I made us both wait so—”
“No,” El said, breath hot against Quentin’s skin, hands shaking where they stroked up his side, gathering in his hair, fingers petting along the planes of his face. “No, please, I tried to force it, I wanted you, I didn’t listen…”
In a flash, Q realized that they would have all the time in the world to discuss this, to apologize to one another and to insist there was nothing to apologize for. Here, now, they had comfort and privacy and each other. It wouldn’t do to waste it, not even with eternity in front of them. No amount of time could ever be enough, and this was the revelation at the center of everything. Q shook his head, smiled, nuzzled at El’s face until he lifted up, so they could slot their lips together again. He snaked a hand between their bodies, palming at the perfect hard length of El, wrapping a fist loosely around him.
El made a noise like Q was hurting him, and the rush of familiarity mixed with newness made Q whimper against El’s lips. They knew how to touch each other. They knew how to make it good. And here, now, when Q could be confident that this wasn’t his last opportunity, when he no longer pretended to himself that every caress was a goodbye, he meant to make it the best that it could be.
Q felt every slow second of the journey it took to disentangle himself from El’s arms, wend his way down his body, wrap his lips around his length. Suck cries of pleasure and pain out of him, his own need forgotten in the desperate wish to make El’s body know the worship of being loved. When El came, choking on a gasp and bowing his head back against the bedding beneath him, Q collapsed with his head on El’s stomach, feeling the tremors of his lover’s skin, the throbbing between his own legs growing more pronounced now that his immediate goal was sated.
And then, without quite knowing how it had happened, El’s hands were on him, he was being tugged, flipped, his back thumping against soft fabric, El’s mouth on his own, rough, slanting, something harsher and more heated taking over the moment. But it wasn’t like it had ever been between them before. El’s desperation was familiar to Q. When they’d touched each other in the past, neither of them had known what it would be, what they might become. Q was running from it. El was holding too tight to something that could never be real. Today, that desperation was still present, obvious in the burn and squeeze of El’s fingers against his arm, the weight of his hips pinning Q down, the harshness of his breathing, the sharp scent of his sweat and satisfaction. But this time… gods, this time there was joy, too, a happiness so uncomplicated and pure that Q marveled at the fact that such a feeling existed inside of El, that time and hardship had not burned it out of him entirely. How lucky Q was, to be here for him, a haven at the end of unfathomable isolation.
“I want to make you feel this,” El said, whispering the words like they were sacred, like he was afraid to even say them. “As happy as I am right now.”
“I am happy,” Q said, gasping and squirming as El’s hands moved down the length of his body, as his fingers, wet with moisture pulled magically from the air around them, dipped to split him open. “You make me so happy.”
“I can’t imagine why I’ve been given such a gift,” El said, and it was so heartbreakingly sincere, not empty flattery, but the simple bald truth. Q closed his eyes, breathing in gasps as El moved his fingers inside. “I’ll work to be worthy of it.”
Q shook his head, fighting for the words, everything flying out of him. They’d done this before too, El had been gentle with him, they’d even whispered sweetness and care to each other in the throes of passion, but it was never allowed to last beyond the moment of physical release. This time, Q knew it would, knew it would last for the span of eternity. And that made all the difference. It made him eager to face whatever impossible future awaited him now, eager to become fully whatever inhuman, unnatural thing he now knew himself to be, because if El was unkillable, then it couldn’t be truly bad…
“You don’t have to be worthy,” Q finally managed to find an answer, as El loomed above him, eyes shining with unshed tears. “Just be with me. And I’ll be with you. That’s—that’s enough. That’s everything.”
When they were joined, it was like every time they’d ever done it before, and also like the very first one. It was a culmination, a consummation of years of confusion and uncertainty, but it was also just the start of all they would one day become.
Thanks everyone. <3
Chapter 4: On Despair
Content Warning: this snippet focuses on Quentin's mental health and delves into the way he feels in his darkest moments, including expressing a wish to die and obliquely referencing past attempts. It has a hopeful outlook ultimately, but please use caution!
He wishes he could explain it to himself. Wishes that every time he feels like the world is ending, he could find a damn good excuse. He wishes it lined up, with reality, that when he experienced something horrific, his body and mind decided to panic over it, and that other times, when all is well with him and those he loves, he could believe it.
But that’s not how it works.
There have always been words for it, changing over the years. Melancholy, now called treatment-resistant depression. Different concepts and medicines and theories and researches, and Q has tried them all, if only to appease his desperate family.
He’d like to pretend he’s gotten better at handling it over the centuries, and the truth is… he has. Or rather, there have been periods of his impossibly long life where he’s been quite good at taking care of himself. And then there have been other periods when he hasn’t been. The progression is not linear. The progress does not hold. It will always be this way, and learning to live with that is the earliest trick he’d been forced to learn, the earliest truth of himself before his first death had taken away the promise of future oblivion.
He doesn’t want to die. Even when he wants to die, he doesn’t want to die. It’s too much to want anything, when the despair swamps over him. To lie in bed, still as a corpse, curled into the smallest possible space his body will fill, is still unbearable in the choices it requires, the wants it displays. He does not want to be lying down, any more than he wants to be going for a run. He cannot make his body do anything or want anything, and convalescence is the closest thing to a choiceless existence he can achieve.
It scares his family, every time. Even knowing he won’t do it, won’t take steps to die, and that even if he did, it wouldn’t do anything. This ultimate expression of unending despair is barred for him in his immortal state. He’s fucking tried in the past, is the thing. He’s tried, and he’s woken up, and he’s tried again. The look on El’s face when Q had told him was enough to make him swear to himself he’d never do it again, but that promise isn’t always so easy to keep. Q is a monster, inhuman, a grotesque mistake: for what is a human being but a tangible, limited consciousness with a beginning and an end? Take away the end, and what does he become?
He hates himself when the concept of hate is too heavy to carry. But then he hates himself so much more when the despair starts to lift, when his body and brain remember to care about things again. He hates himself because he cannot commit to the hatred. Because to hate himself would be to hate something that his family loves very much. How can he conceive of himself as a despicable creature unworthy of attention, when he simultaneously believes El is good and true and honest, smart enough to determine his own priorities, to surround himself with people that are worth it? Even in the worst of times, Q cannot doubt that El loves him, and he must have his reasons, as obscure and impossible as they seem at times.
It’s a tangled web, and it sticks to his skin, makes waking up out of the deepest depths of the darkness worse than being encased in the middle of it. Hurts like clawing his way out of the grave, blinking up into the blinding light.
El and Margo and Penny and the others are always waiting for him, though. He can always bury his face into the skin of El’s neck, block out the worst of the light while his eyes adjust. Julia can always lift him out of the hole, surprisingly strong as she raises him from the depths. Margo can cajole him out of the muck, Penny can force him into a new perspective. Their presence is really all they can offer, as much as they all wish they could do more.
In the early days, El tried to do more. Was desperate to understand, to help, to fix it. Couldn’t stand the very idea of Q’s pain.
El is no stranger to despair, but he has the gift of more or less understanding where it comes from. When he grieves, he knows what he’s grieving. In his worst moments, Q could almost hate him for that and that alone. He can remember in their first few years together, trying to explain in a halting language that he wasn’t sad or scared or angry or sick because of his current situation, or for any rational reason whatsoever. It wasn’t becoming immortal, losing his old life, that had done this to him. Or at least it was a lot more complicated than just that. He can still recall the look on El’s face when he’d said it had first happened to him when he’d been no more than ten years old, that his completely ordinary, happy, fulfilled and comfortable life had been interrupted by a storm cloud, a crashing wave, pulling him into the undertow, and that he is never, ever going to understand why, or learn a way to fix it, magic or mundane.
El had been crushed at the thought of having no way of helping him, and Q understands that now, can see the depth of love in his lover’s helplessness. At the time, it had felt like rejection, like horror, like El was finally waking up to the fact that Q could never, ever be worth the kind of devotion he’d been offering thus far.
In Q’s darkest moments these days, he can at least look back to that time of his life, and marvel at the comparative ease with which he now weathers the worst of his suicidal brain worms.
Despair is woven into the fabric of his personhood. It is not contingent on a place or a time, it is the thing he carries with him, a cosmic balance to the scales of his otherwise charmed existence. They all have their darknesses, the pieces of eternity they find most difficult to carry. But Q doesn’t think he’s being a martyr when he says he has the worst of it, and he knows the others agree.
But eternity has its advantages. The universe has thrown so much at him, and he is still standing. The despair of mere days or weeks or months or years cannot stand against the weight of centuries. He knows the darkness does not last, because he’s lived through its most shadowed and sinister excesses. Q knows exactly how to be happy, and he has people who love him. He has the proof of concept he needs, to lift his head to the sun and embrace another day.
Chapter 5: On Elevators
It’s embarrassing, but he’s a little afraid of elevators. It’s not heights, and not enclosed spaces, but some potent combination of the two that’s always done him in.
Q has lived a long life, and done many miraculous, dangerous things. He’s encountered the odd situation over the centuries where he’s been forced to step into a box and allow a complex system of weights and pulleys lift him into the sky. Today is just one of those days, and he’ll get past it and move on.
It doesn’t help that this particular mission also involves going under cover. It’s a job more suited to El, really, with his confidence and his ability to stand out and blend in in equal measure, as the situation calls for. But unfortunately, he’d already blown his chance by meeting with their mark earlier, before they’d realized this level of espionage would be required.
It’s a stupid marketing firm, in New York, at the top of a high rise. The year is 1962. Q is going to work, dressed in a suit, and Kady Orloff Diaz is by his side, dressed sharp and ready for a day as his secretary.
Which is demeaning, because Kady would be ten times better at the job Quentin is pretending to do today, but, well, there you have it. El had been eliminated from consideration for this job because of his earlier role. Penny, Margo, and Julia had all been eliminated for—other reasons, ones that make Q’s blood boil even now as he steps through the sleek doors and into the cramped space.
The office is on the thirty-third floor.
He slips into the back corner, and Kady goes with him, though the look in her eyes tells him she’s not pleased. She feels trapped in here just the way he does, although her anxieties are more pragmatic, less psychological. There are some evil men in this building. Some men who want to use their magic to take over the minds of the masses. Being trapped in a metal box with them is not ideal.
But of course everyone is too busy with thoughts in their own heads to even register Q and Kady, as the elevator begins to grind its way up.
Q thinks of El. There is an antidote to the pulse-pounding, sweaty fear pooling in his gut at this exact moment, and it’s holding El’s hand. If he had that, if he could focus on the pressure of fingers squeezing around his own, tangling them together, he’d be able to control this. Slow his heart-rate down. Stop thinking useless, irritating thoughts about how at the end of the day, he’s going to have to get back in the damn elevator for the trip down to the lobby. Maybe he’ll take the stairs, down thirty flights. Maybe he’ll throw himself out the window and then find a way to wipe everyone’s minds of the memory when he miraculously hops back up, unhurt among the broken glass…
Kady’s arm brushes against him, and he turns to meet her eyes. She lifts an eyebrow. Q becomes aware that he’s breathing loud enough to be heard. The next-nearest man, a tall portly fellow carrying a briefcase, looks over his shoulder and frowns at Q, before turning back to look at the sheet of paper clutched in his hand.
And then of course, even if El were here with him, he couldn’t exactly hold his hand in an elevator full of businessmen. In public. Where people would have opinions.
Sometimes Q wants to go back to a time where men were allowed to touch each other without it meaning anything wrong or perverse. Other times, he wants to go to sleep for a long, long time, wake up and see if the world has found a way to get over itself in a century or so.
He swallows, feeling his throat close up. He’ll see El tonight. It’s ridiculous to miss him. But he would have found a way, pressed together in this cramped space, to comfort Q. He would have pressed their arms together, dipped a hand behind Q’s back, in the space between his body and the back of the elevator, pressed his palm there for just a moment, silent and solid. Q would have unspooled, calm in that affirmation of his presence.
A hand on his elbow, and it takes him an embarrassing amount of fortitude not to flinch at the touch. It’s Kady, of course. Sliding a few inches closer to him in the press of bodies. She tugs on his elbow until he drops his arm, only then realizing that he’d had it curled around his stomach, the way he does when he’s trying to hide his panic.
Kady touches the back of his hand with her fingers, then wraps her hand around his and gives a single squeeze before dropping away.
When the interminable ride finally ends, Kady holds Q back from the flood of bodies exiting the elevator. She turns him around so they’re face to face, and raises an eyebrow. “Maybe next time, tell me if you think you might panic.”
“Panic is a strong word,” Q says, but his entire body unclenches the second he steps out into the carpeted hallway. They turn as one towards the office, and Q runs through his cover story, his persona for this job, trying to put the fear behind him. “But yes, I should have said something.”
“You thought it wouldn’t be so bad,” Kady says, still speaking in an undertone. “And then somehow—”
“Somehow it always is,” Q finishes.
Kady takes his hand again, and squeezes it. Q still wishes El were here, but he’s glad he has Kady, too.
“Well, focus up,” Kady says. “I can’t have you distracted today.”
“Who put you in charge?”
“Margo. You were there.”
Q thinks about debating her on the finer points of Margo’s actual instructions, but then just smiles and shakes his head. He’s happy to follow where Kady leads. And he’s got hours in front of him before he has to get back in that damn elevator.