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The Way a Fool Would Do

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The spells to take down the protection around the anchor stone are long, and repetitive, and exhausting. Margo has it all worked out, seems confident that they’ll be able to break through, grab the stone, get back to Whitespire in no time at all. It’s still the dead of night back at the castle, and Eliot comforts himself with thoughts that nobody knows they’re gone. Nobody has any reason to suspect. Just Q, sitting alone in his room, waiting. If Eliot can keep it together, he’ll be back with him soon.

“The portal’s on a timer,” Margo had explained to him while they’d walked up to the estate. “It opens back up at a set time, exactly four hours from when it opened the first time. So we get the stone, we run back down to the village, we’re back before sunrise.”

And here they were, coming to the end of the spell. Stone in hand, they’d have to hurry slightly to make it for their return, but Eliot would rather that than have to sit around and wait. Even as he moves his hands in the casting formation, chanting the words Margo had taught him, impatience builds. A buzzing anxiety under his skin. He thinks some of it might be coming from Q. Even with anger building a stone wall between them, neither wants to be apart from the other.

They’re reaching the pinnacle of the spell, the final moments that will break down the forcefield and allow them to grab the stone, when it happens.

Something hits Eliot out of nowhere. At first he thinks it’s a physical blow, and he spins wildly, nearly knocking Margo over in an effort to find the surprise attacker. But the room is empty, nobody there but the two of them.

The hit had been low, in his gut, off to the left… his knees start to buckle before he’s mentally processed what it might mean. The pain is secondary to the realization. The implications of the physical agony rippling through him in escalating waves.

Oh gods.

A sound escapes his mouth, a moan of denial, and his vision fuzzes around him as he pulls on the threads of his mind and soul that belong to Q, searching, holding on with the fierceness of desperation.

“Eliot?” Margo’s voice is close, her hand on his arm, but he can’t… he can’t breathe, something’s wrong, Q’s not… he’s not there, something’s…

“We’re hurt,” he says, trying to explain, trying to make it make sense. “Something’s—we’re in pain, something’s wrong with us, Margo, help me—”

“Oh, shit,” Margo says. “Is it your… is it Q?”

Eliot tries to nod his head, finds it difficult to control his body. He’s still upright, knees aching from where they’d hit the stone floor, but his body is leaning against a pillar in the room, and Margo on the other side, keeping him from sprawling into a full collapse. “Help,” he says, nonsensically. Q, where are you? What’s happening? Please— “Oh gods. Margo. We have to, we’re not—fuck, I need to get back.”

“The portal isn’t going to reopen for another—”

No,” Eliot says, clawing under his shirt and pressing his hand against his soul-rune. It’s burning, far hotter than the skin surrounding it. He can’t understand what’s happening. The pain is radiating out from the rune itself, some clawing, sickening wrongness that is simply the absence of Q.

But he’s not gone. He’s not… Eliot doesn't know what it would feel like if Quentin died, if the bond was severed suddenly and with no warning, but he’s sure it… well, it wouldn’t be this. He can still feel something, like the bond itself is screaming, writhing on a hook between them. Somewhere, Quentin is feeling this too. Somewhere, Quentin could be hurt, could be…

“Okay,” Margo says, and it’s only then that Eliot becomes aware that he’s been speaking, just please please please over and over, because he’s desperate and he’s useless and he can’t figure out how to move his legs, how to get back to where he needs to be… “Okay, let me grab the stone, the spell’s almost done, and then we can—”

Eliot takes his weight back on his trembling legs, takes a couple of deep, gasping breaths. Quentin is hurt. Something is very wrong. His soulmate fucking needs him. He can’t fall apart. He can’t let the pain swarm over him, crash to the floor, wail out in agony, beg Quentin inside the echoing cavern of his own mind, please, please don’t go.

He has to be strong. He can’t let things stand the way they left them, he can’t let his last words to Quentin be… be cold, rejection, disbelief, a rending between them.

“We’re leaving now,” he says, throat tight around the words. He spins and tries to walk towards the door. Margo grabs his arm to stop him; he shakes her off, but another wave of nauseating pain hits him and he stumbles, crashing to the floor and catching himself clumsily on his hands. “Fuck.”

Eliot stands. Tries to stand. It’s like a great weight is pressing down on him from above, keeping him still. Trying to… it’s almost like someone is pushing him and pulling him at the same time. Trying to yank him out of the world and bring him somewhere else. A dark chasm of nothing awaits wherever Eliot is being taken, and he fights it, even as he feels hands on him again. He struggles away from them, angry, desperate, suffocated by nothing at all.

“Eliot, shit, look at me.” Margo’s voice is hoarse, like she’s been screaming for his attention for a while. “I need a second caster to get the stone.”

“Open the portal,” Eliot snaps at her, the world coming back into focus as the strange pressure finally dissipates. “Take me back, now, we need—”

“I told you, it’s on a timer,” Margo says. “It’ll open soon, but we need to get to it—”

No,” Eliot says. “Open it.” He’s gasping for breath, bright spots in front of his eyes. The panic is everywhere inside of him, an acid taste in the back of his throat, a twisting ache in his gut, his rune still burning on his skin. “You did it back in Whitespire, you can open one right here—”

“I don’t know how,” Margo says. “The last one—Eliot—” she mutters a curse and stands up from where she’d been crouched over Eliot. He can hear her resuming the spell, trying to get to the stone.

Eliot can’t move, and he can’t stay still. He lurches to his feet again, and presses his hand against his hip, the rune burning his fingertips even through the fabric of his shirt. The pain is fading. His heart is still in his throat, his body shivering in wracking waves, cold sweat and hair standing on end, but the pain, whatever it had been, is going. Going. Gone.

He tries not to think about what that might mean, as he regains firmer footing and makes his way out of the room, down the staircase, out the front door.

Margo catches up with him before he’s made his way to the gate, picking up speed as his shaky legs start to steady.

“Eliot, hold on a second,” Margo says. “Have you thought about what it might mean, that—”

Has he thought about it? Eliot doesn’t waste words on responding, just cuts her off with a glare and excellerates into a full run downhill towards the village, where he’ll be able to portal back to Quentin. Margo races after him, but ignoring her is the easiest thing in the world.

“Eliot. Wait, I need to talk to you, I need to tell you—”

“It can wait,” Eliot says, when it seems clear he’ll be required to waste a breath on shutting her down. There are so many things to be afraid of right now, so many reasons to despair. Buried underneath the imperative that he get to Quentin, and get to him now, is an accompanying fury. With himself, with Margo. Why had he allowed himself to be talked into this? He left Q alone, and now something’s happened, and he wasn’t even there to help or protect or anything.

Quentin. Please fucking answer me, Eliot implores inside his mind, shaping the words with all the urgency and desperation he feels inside him even as he bolts down the street.

He gets nothing in reply. Just an aching absence of Quentin’s reassurance.

It’s not—he’s never felt the death of a soulmate, of course, but surely he’d know it if it happened. What he feels now is sheer and complete terror, panic at the thought of Q in pain, Q in danger. If Q were dead, the only thing left in him would be the desolation of despair.

Fear means hope. Something’s gone wrong, obviously, but whatever it is, it’s not over. There’s still a chance.

Vaguely, Eliot watches as the people of the village notice him and Margo running past. Their fine clothing, alongside the terror-stricken look that must be on Eliot’s face, sweat dripping down his brow. It’s just possible that some of the villagers might even recognize him from when he’d lived here as a kid, but he doesn’t have time to wonder about that. He sprints, his longer legs leaving Margo behind, until he reaches the turn to the small alley just off the village square. He stares at the patch of air where the portal should be, fists clenched at his sides, waiting with impatience for Margo to round the corner after him.

“Eliot,” Margo says, leaning a hand against the wall and heaving for breath. “I don’t know how to open it early, I—”

“How long?” Eliot asks.

“Ten minutes?” Margo says. “Approximately?”

An eternity, then. “Not acceptable.”

“Eliot, listen. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

Eliot lets out a little laugh, turning to look at her for the first time since he’d felt the pain in his soul-rune. “Margo, I’m not—really here right now, okay? I’m not uh—capable of processing—”

“I’m getting that,” Margo interrupts. “I’m sorry, it’s just—it’s important.”

“I can’t,” Eliot says, every word an exhausting ordeal. It’s like someone is draining him of color and life, and the only way to get it back is to find Q and fit the two of them together into the whole they’re meant to be. He’ll fade into nothing soon, if he can’t get back to that which makes him a person in the first place.

Eliot leans back against the alley wall, the back of the small village’s only bakery. He can feel the warmth from inside, as fires are stoked for the preparation of the morning’s wares. He has no idea what time it is. Has lost all sense of the date. The second he’d felt the pain and realized what it could mean, every other consideration in his life had gone, had become vanishingly unimportant.

Maybe later he’ll feel guilty for it, but at the moment Margo’s presence is nothing more than an irritant. Whatever she’s trying to tell him, eyes wide and imploring, is an irrelevant nothing in the face of what Quentin might be going through right now. He cannot afford to let himself picture Q lying somewhere in pain, but he can’t stop the images from repeating in a sick loop. Myriad injuries, everything from a broken bone to a festering gut wound. He pictures him alone, or with Julia or another friend, whimpering and trying to call out to Eliot, but—

“Quentin,” Eliot says aloud, eyes closed as if that will help him concentrate better. He’s never had to work so hard to feel the connection between them, and that’s what’s frightening him worst of all. “Quentin, please hold on. I’m coming to you. As fast as I can.”

“Can he hear you?” Margo asks.

Eliot doesn’t look at her, doesn’t bother responding, and Margo doesn’t try again.

And then, just when Eliot’s sure he cannot stand to wait another second, hot tears streaming constantly down his clammy face, there’s a sound. The air in front of them shimmers, a portal warping and crackling to life where once there had been nothing.

Eliot is moving the second he sees the first hint of it, and practically dives through the portal before it’s finished forming, holding onto his composure by the merest inch. If he doesn’t find Quentin within the next two minutes, he’ll unravel entirely.

He’s still half in the alley, half in Margo’s guest chambers in Whitespire, when it happens.

He wouldn’t have believed it possible that anything in the world could distract him from Quentin. It’s the only imperative that matters, to find his soulmate, to reassure himself that all his happiness and peace haven’t been torn from him forever. But one thing does manage to pierce through, at least for the briefest moment.

Margo doesn’t follow him. He can see her, on the other side of the shimmering patch of air, still standing on the dirt road. The anchor stone, emerald green and radiating power stolen from Eliot’s former home, is no longer in her hands. It must be in the pouch she carries at her waist, the one carrying the stone she’d arrived with. She’s standing there, looking at him, her eyes wide, her hair blowing back in the rush of magic from the portal. She’s frowning.

“Margo,” Eliot says, although he’s not sure if he means to ask a question, or issue a command. It doesn’t matter, he doesn’t have time to wonder at her hesitation. He needs to get to—

“I’m really sorry about this,” Margo says, and she takes a step backwards, still facing him through the portal. Her jaw is set, but her eyes are still imploring. “I tried to tell you. I wanted to explain.”

“Margo,” Eliot repeats, the echoing chorus of Quentin Quentin Quentin drowning out all but the smallest sliver of his remaining comprehension.

“He has someone I love, El. I didn’t have a choice.”

Eliot opens his mouth, but he has no idea what to say.

“I hope Quentin’s okay,” she says, and then her hands are up, and the portal is closing between them. Eliot on one side, in Whitespire. Margo on the other.

With the anchor stones.

*****

Quentin awakes with the feel of a cool cloth on his forehead, Julia’s worried face looming above him in the gloom.

“Eliot,” he says.

Julia frowns. “Not back yet.”

“El,” Quentin repeats, squeezing his eyes shut and reaching for the bond. It’s still there. He hadn’t realized he’d been worried about the alternative, but he feels relieved tears spring to his eyes at the thrum of the bond still existing inside of him where it’s meant to be.

But something’s wrong, all the same. For a moment Quentin thinks Eliot still has him blocked off in some way, but that’s not what this is. Quentin knows the feel of Eliot keeping him at bay. It’s a necessity in their lives, the need for privacy, and even if they don’t tend to cut each other off entirely very often, Quentin still knows how it feels when it happens. Like the bond is waiting behind a door, and all he needs to do is knock and it’ll swing open at once, Eliot inviting him in where he’s always welcome if he asks.

Now, it feels like the path to Eliot has been moved. Like he might wander in circles, down circuitous paths for hours or days and never reach his destination. Eliot is still there on the other end, but Quentin can’t quite…

“The castle?” Quentin says, swallowing down the taste of acid and getting to his feet. He needs to focus. Eliot will… Eliot will be back soon, if he felt the effects of that spell the way Quentin had. They can figure out what’s wrong with the bond later, because there will be a later, and Eliot will be home as soon as he can be. He knows that for a certainty, and there are other things to worry about. “Penny?”

“Penny’s okay. The castle is fine,” Julia says. She frowns, shaking her head and running a hand distractedly through her hair as Quentin stands up. “Well. We’re all holding our breaths. With the pentagram down, we’re basically running on backup plans.”

“And we’re not sure they’ll hold?” Quentin asks.

“Exactly. Queen Jane and King Rupert are doing something, but whatever it is can’t be sustained permanently. They need the anchor stones to do that. They’ve had to—” Julia breaks off, swallowing and shaking her head.

“Jules? What?”

“They’re removing the other anchor stones from the pentagram,” Julia says. “And moving them into closer formation. With the one in Eliot’s old family estate and the center stone both missing, they have four instead of six. So… new center stone, using one of the former points. A triangle instead of…”

“And that’ll work?” Quentin asks. “Julia, why are you looking at me like that?”

“It’s not as good, I guess. And of course it’ll have to be a lot smaller. So many people who’ve depended on the protections…”

It’s obvious, now that Quentin stops to consider it. In the panic and disbelief he’d felt during the Beast’s attack, he hadn’t stopped to really think about the larger ramifications. It makes him selfish, but Eliot had loomed so large in his mind that anything else hadn’t had room to take hold. “Oh gods,” he says. Gritting his teeth and scrubbing a hand down his face. “All those people.”

“They’re trying to evacuate people and move everyone inside the new protections, but realistically there are going to be thousands of Fillorian citizens who just can’t—”

“I’m so angry,” Quentin says, like it’s a confession. It’s easier to focus on the anger. He can’t think about what it means for so many innocents to lose the protection of the pentagram. It was already too small; there were already so many left outside of the Chatwins’ inner sanctum. It’s even worse now, and that’s all because of Quentin’s soulmate. “I’m so—how could Eliot do this?”

“He didn’t know,” Julia says, parroting Quentin’s own insistence back at him.

Quentin nods distractedly, shaking the remaining sluggishness from his mind. There are too many things to consider. Margo’s betrayal. Eliot’s current whereabouts. The pentagram gone, replaced by something else that might not be good enough to keep the castle safe, and leaves thousands of others out in the cold. The Beast, out there somewhere, expelled from Whitespire for now, but perhaps mounting another attack even as they speak…

Something clicks in Quentin’s brain, and he whirls from the window to look at Julia again. “They know El’s family’s stone is gone?”

Julia looks at him, pity and a bit of trepidation in her eyes. “Yes, Q. Alice told Fogg and the king and queen while you were unconscious.”

“About Eliot,” Quentin says, dry throat clicking on the words. “Alice told them about Eliot and Margo leaving. So when he comes back here—”

“Yeah,” Julia says. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t exactly tell Alice to keep her mouth shut, could I? There’s so much at stake—”

Quentin shakes his head. “I told him. I—I told him there was no way he wouldn’t be found out. I told him they’d lock him up and keep us apart and he didn’t—he didn’t care—”

He doesn’t realize he’s crying again until Julia’s arms are around him. “Hey,” she says, a soothing hand petting through his hair. “Hey, Q, we’re going to figure it out. It’s going to be okay.”

How? Quentin wants to ask. He doesn’t know if he can speak. The stability of his entire life, all the things he’s depended on to make his world make sense, it’s all been torn apart in the space of a single night. The castle threatened by outside invaders. Eliot walking away from him, disobeying the imperative loyalty that’s existed between them since the day they met. And then his own guilt, an overwhelming, throat-closing panic at the spell he’d performed at Alice and Julia’s urging. He’d felt what it was doing to the bond. He could have kept digging. He could have forced himself all the way down to the root and pulled every gasp of magic out of the soulbond itself. Yanked Eliot back across the miles separating them, Margo and the stones in tow. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe it’s what Quentin should have done, but…

“Is the bond okay?” Julia asks, arms still wrapped around him, holding him close. Almost like she can read his mind like Eliot can.

Quentin nods so she can feel it, automatic. He can’t contemplate another answer, and he’s not sure whether he wants Julia to know the full truth right now. He’s not mad at her or Alice for suggesting the spell. Quentin made that choice. He’s mad at himself, maybe, for agreeing to it. Or for not finishing it. And he’s definitely mad at Eliot for putting him in this position.

“I have to do something,” Quentin says, pulling out of the hug at last. “I can’t just stand around.”

“You were pretty out of it,” Julia says, frowning at him. “It’s only been half an hour Q, you were—well, you were in a lot of pain. Maybe you should try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t do that. I have to move. Tell—look, Julia, if you see Eliot before I do, tell him I’m in the Magician’s Court. I’m going to—maybe Fogg has a job for me, or—”

“They’re going to arrest him,” Julia reminds Quentin. “The second they see him—”

“I know,” Quentin responds, short and sharp. “And there’s nothing I can do to—there’s nothing I can do about that. So just. Send him to me. He’s going to have questions.”

He leaves the room before Julia can say anything else. Going to Fogg, getting a job, helping with defending the castle, visiting Penny on his sickbed… all things he could do. All things he knows won’t make him feel any better at all. Twin core emotions are festering inside of him, his guilt and grief over what he could have done with that spell. His fury and grief at Eliot for everything else. He wants Eliot to come back and explain himself, make it somehow be okay.

But at the same time, for the first time in his life he’s not sure he’s ready to see his soulmate at all.

*****

Eliot steps out of Margo’s chambers and into the hall, heart pounding in his temples, legs wobbling under him. He turns, meaning to rush to his own quarters, the last place he’d seen Quentin, although he has no way of knowing if that’s where he’s at. The bond is still dull, no longer painful but somehow a shadow of what it should be, despite the fact that Eliot has the walls blown wide open on his end, a ceaseless inquiry spilling forth: Q, where are you? Where are you, where—

He sees Julia round the corner and look up at him, freezing with her eyes wide. “Eliot.”

“Where is he?”

“Eliot,” she repeats, approaching with a grim expression on her face. “The pentagram came down. Margo took—”

“Quentin’s hurt,” Eliot says. Maybe she doesn’t know. Maybe that’s why she’s wasting his time with irrelevancies. He grabs her by the arm. “Please, I need—where is he?”

Julia looks at him as if she doesn’t understand the import of these words. As if Quentin’s hurt isn’t registering for her. He’s the only one who can feel the growing, creeping wrongness inside of him. Something is off, and if he could just get past whatever this stupid conversation is supposed to be, and get back to Q— “you have no idea what’s been going on,” Julia says, almost like a question.

“Julia,” Eliot growls through his teeth, making to move around her and back towards his and Quentin’s bedrooms. “Quentin is—”

“Fogg will be looking for you,” Julia says. “You’re going to want to be cooperative—”

Where is Quentin?” he repeats, shoving Julia aside and storming down the hall, his whole body still rolling in violent shivers. He hates that he has to ask the question, hates that he doesn’t know, that he can’t feel… it’s wrong. It’s all wrong.

Julia grabs his arm and tries to pull him around, but Eliot shoves her off. Her touch is an affront; he cannot believe that she, that anyone would take steps to keep him away from Quentin right now. It’s the most grotesque violation of respect he can imagine.

“Gods, El, you have no fucking idea what you’ve done, do you?” Julia says. “Quentin’s not hurt, okay? He’s not hurt, and that’s no thanks to you—”

Where—”

“He’s in the Magician’s Court rooms, he’s completely—”

But Eliot is already gone, racing through the halls so fast his feet are skimming the ground. His side of the bond is still blown wide fucking open, tendrils of his very inner self seeking its other half, desperate from the absence. The rune is still too hot against his skin, and he has no time to check to see if it’s turned the faded, ugly grey of a broken—

He can’t even think the words, panic closing his throat.

And then he’s there, charging through an open doorway and into the chamber where they go for morning assignments, and Quentin is there, just standing there with his arms at his sides, his face expressionless. No sign of blood or injury at all, he’s okay, he’s alive, he’s not hurt, and Eliot is across the room, hands gripping his shoulders, eyes welling with yet more tears, confusion and gratitude spilling over, making it hard to form words.

Q, thank the gods, what—what the fuck happened, what’s going on?”

“We were attacked,” Quentin says. His voice is… wrong. Off. Not at all reassuring.

“You’re hurt,” Eliot says, and it’s only half a question, because he felt—but Quentin is shaking his head, a frown on his face.

“I’m not. Penny is. Pretty bad, although Lipson says he’ll live.” And then he shifts away, talking a step back, so that Eliot’s hands fall like weights to his side. Eliot can’t believe it.

“I felt—” unable to help himself, Eliot reaches forward again, and sure enough, against all precedent and sense in the universe, Quentin shifts away from him, away from his touch. “Q—”

“Where’s Margo?” Quentin asks. Coldly. He asks it coldly, accusingly.

Eliot shakes his head. There’s too much going on. His side of the bond is still pulsing in remembered pain, that strange aching tug right down the center of himself. He can’t think about Margo’s betrayal; it doesn’t matter in the face of whatever else is going on here.

“I—Quentin, I’m—I’m terrified, here, can you please tell me what the fuck—”

“The center stone is gone, El,” Quentin says, locking his eyes on Eliot’s at last. There is so much pain in them, so much disbelief and hurt and anger. Eliot is locked in stasis, too many emotions at once, stacked up in a precarious tower that’s sure to collapse at any moment. This cannot be true. It would mean—

“No,” Eliot says, shaking his head. “No, it can’t—”

“So you didn't know?” Quentin asks.

“Fuck, Quentin, fuck, of course I didn’t know—what are you even saying? What do you mean it’s gone?”

“Where’s Margo?” Quentin asks again.

“She—she left.”

“She took the stones and she fucking left,” Quentin says, speaking over him, like he hadn’t really needed Eliot to answer the question after all. “She took the center stone, the pentagram broke, and about fifty rabid followers of the Beast stormed the godsdamned castle.”

“How—I don’t understand,” Eliot says. It’s all he can manage. Margo’s gone, Quentin’s okay, but he’s looking at him like whatever the fuck just happened doesn’t erase the fight they’d had earlier in the night. Like anything they’d said to one another before their bond started screaming in pain could be even slightly relevant now. “Q, what happened to us? I felt—I felt something happen to you. You were hurt, or—or—I don’t know, I need you to please just tell me what—”

“DId you hear me? The Beast’s followers attacked the castle. The Beast was here, Eliot. I saw him. He attacked the Chatwins. Do you even care?”

Eliot cares about those things. He does. But even though the evidence of his senses is telling him that Quentin is alright, standing here in front of him perfectly unhurt, and clearly incredibly furious, he still can’t feel it to be true, inside the bond. It’s all wrong, faint and sickly between them.

“I—Penny?” Eliot says, trying to focus. “Is he okay?”

“Yes,” Quentin says. “But if we don’t get the stones back—”

“But Q,” Eliot interrupts, and he tries for a third time to step forward, can feel the strain against his heart and soul when Quentin shifts away from him again. “What happened?”

Quentin swallows. This time, he doesn’t pretend not to understand what Eliot’s really asking. “I did something. Soul magic. It’s all going to be fine.”

“But I felt…” Eliot trails off, horror blooming in waves through his chest, trying to fight against the truth threatening to drag him under. He still doesn’t quite understand, but he’s about to. “Gods, Q, I thought you were hurt, I—”

“Sorry,” Quentin says, and he does sound it, although there’s still that wall up, the bond only a baseline tether instead of the free flow of connection they usually share. Even having that much back, even seeing Quentin standing and talking in front of him, is a relief so powerful he wants to fall to the floor and weep. But he can’t. He just… he doesn’t understand… “There were consequences. Unintended. But I needed you back here, Eliot.”

“What are you talking about?” Eliot says. He’s desperate, his head is swimming, Quentin is right in front of him and maybe for the first time ever, he knows instinctively that he’s not allowed to touch him.

“We realized you must have taken it—”

“I wouldn’t—”

“That Margo must have taken it,” Quentin corrects himself with an impatient wave of the hand. “I need to bring you back here. There’s a spell. It—it didn’t work as intended, but we were desperate.”

“What spell?” Eliot says. He feels like he’s at the end of a very long tunnel, and Quentin is on the other end, words echoing down the space between them. Even when they fought earlier that night, Eliot had not felt so distant from him. He’s never felt so distant from him.

“It would have brought you back here. Um. Against your will, which I wasn’t crazy about, but I tried getting through to you with the bond and it didn’t…”

Eliot’s not sure what his face does at this point, but Quentin must see something in it. Or maybe he feels the wave of nausea roiling through whatever small pathway of communication is working between them right now.

“You don’t get to look at me like that,” Quentin says, jaw clenched and lips pursed. “You’re the one who made this choice for the both of us.”

“You did a transport spell. On me. On the bond,” Eliot repeats, because maybe if he says it out loud he can make it make sense.

“It—I couldn’t go through with it,” Quentin says, and he looks down, like he’s ashamed. Of what, though? Trying such a dangerous spell in the first place, or failing to complete it? “I started it, and I think it was working but I could feel what it was doing to us and so I stopped.”

“Quentin…”

“Anyway, the pentagram is down, we’re all basically just waiting to be attacked again, but the Beast seems to be gone for the moment. Maybe regrouping. So that’s. That’s what happened.”

Eliot knows he’ll process the rest of it later, can feel it all threatening to spill over him, take him over entirely. But for now, all he can find, all he can care about, all that makes sense, is… “So you’re okay?”

Quentin looks at him, heartbreak personified. “I’ve honestly never been less okay in my entire life.”

“And we’re okay?” Eliot asks.

He doesn’t mean personally. He knows Quentin is angry. Maybe even hates him for what he’s done. Eliot is still trying to catch up, his relief at seeing Quentin upright and unharmed is making it difficult to focus on the rest of it. He means the bond. Is the bond okay, or did Quentin do something to it? Because it still doesn’t feel right, and he can’t figure out if that’s a function of some dangerous spellwork or just a consequence of the rift between them over the night’s events.

Quentin blinks at him, like Eliot’s just said something incredibly stupid. “We’re obviously not okay,” he says, stone-cold. “I find it laughable that you could even ask me that.”

Sometimes Eliot is—not as quick as he pretends to be. He’s good at faking his intelligence, good at smiling in just the right way to cover up when he doesn’t understand something. Good at gliding through an unfamiliar moment until he can find a way to learn what he was missing at the time. Quentin always chastises him for this, on two fronts. One, for pretending to understand something he doesn’t understand—just ask a question, El, what’s the worst that could happen?—and two, for pretending that all of his intelligence is therefore some sort of a lie, for putting himself down and pretending to be an idiot with one area of expertise only. He knows nothing but can fool people into thinking he knows everything.

Maybe Eliot is unfair to himself, but it doesn’t change the fact that despite outward appearances, sometimes he can be slow on the uptake.

It makes moments like these ones difficult for him. He’s burdened under an avalanche of stimuli. He wants a dark room and a quiet day to think through it all, to rage against Margo and to apologize to Penny and to talk to Q. Just talk to him, have him near, smooth away the ruffled edges of everything that’s somehow collapsed around them in the space of only a few hours.

But something is emerging from the stimuli. A series of facts that, when placed next to each other, paint a picture Eliot doesn’t know how to survive.

Quentin is angrier with him than he’s ever been in their lives. Quentin did a spell that could have ripped their bond apart. Nearly did rip it apart. Quentin is standing here now, arms crossed, lips tight, unrepentant. Still angry. And they’re not okay. The idea of them being okay is laughable.

Did Quentin… did he know, when he was doing that spell, what would happen? Does he wish he’d gone through with it? Did he want

The world around Eliot lurches as if an earthquake has just rolled the stone floor under his feet. He takes an unsteady step over to the nearest pillar to give himself something to lean against, even though doing so pulls him even further away from Quentin. “I—” he says, licking dry lips, his throat incredibly tight. He suddenly finds it impossible to meet his soulmate’s eyes. “Quentin, I’m so sorry—”

“Lord Eliot Waugh of Broken Lineage.”

Fogg’s voice rings out as he enters the room. He speaks in the same deep, melodious baritone he always uses, but his customary disapproval has grown into something with sharper edges.

Eliot looks to Fogg, then looks to Quentin, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around his stomach protectively.

Ah. Of course. Another way in which Eliot has been slow on the uptake. He thinks Julia might have been trying to tell him he was under arrest earlier, now that he thinks of it. He just hadn’t had the capacity to care about that at the time.

“I suppose you’re here to arrest me, then,” Eliot says. He’s not trying for flippant, but it comes out that way a little bit anyway, some defense mechanism springing up to pretend the fraying and tattered remains of his heart. Just minutes ago, he’d been so terrified he couldn’t breathe, that Q was lying somewhere, hurt or worse. In the aftermath of that, he’s pretty sure he can survive a little imprisonment.

“And I suppose you’ll come quietly,” Fogg says, stepping up close into Eliot’s personal space.

Eliot nods, absentmindedly, as Fogg takes him by the elbow and begins to steer him out of the room. He’s looking at Quentin. Watching, as that stony anger that has been holding Quentin upright starts to crumble under its own weight. He sees the exposed underbelly of Quentin’s grief crack forward. Quentin’s face collapses in on a sob. He lowers himself to the stone floor right there in the middle of the room, head bowed, arms still tight around his stomach. Eliot can hear the crackling sound of a gulping sob even across the growing distance between them.

Eliot would do anything—would tear the world apart, would kill Fogg where he stood, to get back to Q’s side, to pull him into his arms and comfort him in his distress. But he doesn’t do that. He lets Fogg escort him out of the room, down the cavernous halls, towards the stairs. Knows he’s headed for the dungeons inside his own godsdamned home, there to be held as a prisoner, a danger to the crown and everything he’s sworn to protect and uphold.

And he doesn’t fight to get back to Q, because Quentin’s made it pretty damn clear that he doesn’t want him to.

*****

It’s the worst day of Quentin’s life, by a significant margin.

When he’d been twenty years old, just three years ago, his father had died. Quentin had had a series of worst days during that period, the slow decline of Theodore Coldwater’s health, the day it finally all ended, the aftermath and understanding of what that grief really meant.

The despair he’d felt on that occasion had been otherworldly. He’d thought himself an expert at grief even before anything bad had happened to him. His brain had been training him for such an onslaught of melancholy for as long as he’s had a consciousness to remember. But it’s different, when the constant refrain he’s taught to himself: this will pass, it will end, is no longer true.

His father wasn’t coming back, and Quentin could not imagine a world in which he’d ever feel less intensely ruined over that very fact.

Eliot had been the only thing to save him, on that occasion. Quentin hadn’t known how to appreciate it at the time, beyond the baseline reality that without him, he wouldn’t have survived the experience at all. He said that out loud to Eliot once and Eliot, who had already known it to be true in any case, still looked like he’d been punched in the stomach. “Don’t say that, Q. You’re stronger than you know.”

But Eliot was his strength. Always had been, from the start. It would have been naive to deny that reality. If it makes him weak to need Eliot in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, then he’s weak. What of it?

Now, years in the aftermath of grieving his father, Quentin finds himself thinking of those days of endless despair, playing a sick game in his mind, comparing then to now. Which is worse? His father dying, dying far too young, a good man, a good leader to his people, gone forever. Or Eliot Waugh, locked up in a dungeon, the look on his face when Quentin had explained about the spell…

He doesn’t have Eliot to help him through this time. That’s the most frightening part of all of this. He cannot run to Eliot and place the burden upon his soulmate, require El to bolster him under the onslaught of pain. He cannot fix things by making Eliot fix them. Because Eliot broke them, didn’t he?

“Hey.”

Alice is standing in the doorway to Quentin’s bedroom. He doesn’t really remember walking here. He’d gone to visit Penny after Fogg had escorted Eliot to his imprisonment. He’d met with some of the senior magicians and learned the new plans for keeping the castle safe now that their most stalwart means of protection was no longer reliable. And then he must have gone back to his own rooms without conscious choice, feet treading familiar halls. Being here is to feel viscerally the absence of Eliot on the other side of the wall. But where else can he go?

“Hey,” Quentin says back to Alice, even though he’s not sure he’s in the mood for company. “How’s—” he stops, not sure what he meant to ask. “Is there anything new?”

Alice shakes her head. She has a hard time with empathy sometimes, but right now she’s looking at Quentin like he’s made of glass, might be liable to shatter if she speaks too loudly, says anything unexpected or unwanted. It’s probably true. He’s as delicate as he’s ever been in this moment.

“I wanted to check on you,” Alice says, still in the doorway. Quentin nods his head forward to invite her in, because it would be rude to tell her he doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. Being alone would probably be worse.

“Right,” Quentin says, stupidly, as Alice enters the room and perches delicately on the end of Quentin’s bed. Quentin is pacing, and he forces himself to stop, even though he’s afraid if he does, he’ll collapse entirely. He sits on the couch across the room. He can’t be close to anyone right now. Wants to be held, but can’t stand the thought of hands on him. Anyone else’s hands, anyway.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to do that spell,” Alice says all in a rush. Oh. She’s feeling guilty. Quentin should have realized.

Everything in his mind is working on a delay. It’s all going to catch up with him soon, and somehow he’s going to feel even worse than he already does. He’s not looking forward to that.

“Alice, you didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want…” Quentin trails off, swallowing. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about. I’ll be fine.”

“Did you talk to him?” Alice asks, grave and serious.

“Yes,” Quentin says, just about managing to shape his voice around the single syllable. How he’d managed to get through that conversation without a full mental collapse, he’ll never know. “I talked to him. They took him… Fogg took him.”

“Right, of course,” Alice says. “I… I think they’ll be lenient, I think the king and queen will know it was Margo’s doing, that Eliot was an unwilling accomplice—”

“Listen, Alice, I—thank you for checking on me but I need to not think about it right now. I just. I need to sleep for a couple of hours, or… I don’t know, what time is it, even?”

“Almost time for breakfast,” Alice says with an apologetic grimace. “But you should try and sleep. I can tell them to bring something up for you in a bit.”

Quentin nods, and waits for Alice to stand up off the bed and leave, but she doesn’t, still staring at him like there’s something more she needs to say.

“What?”

“I—” Alice says, swallowing. “You and Eliot. I need you to understand that I only suggested the spell because I assumed you’d be able to—look, I didn’t know how risky it was. I’d never forgive myself if—”

“It’s not broken,” Quentin cuts in. “It’s—we’re fine. We’ll be fine.”

Alice lets out a breath of relieved air. “I can’t even imagine either of you without the other. You’re—Quentin and Eliot. You belong to one another.”

Ordinarily, hearing something like that would make Quentin feel proud. In the moment, all he feels is very, very tired.

“Yes, well, I—”

“I’d still marry you if you wanted,” Alice says, and for the first time in hours, Quentin finds himself thinking about something other than Eliot.

“Excuse me?”

Even as the words are escaping his mouth, Quentin tries to pull back on the incredulity. It wouldn’t do to offend her, not when she’s making an offer like that. But why would she say… they’d parted ways over a year ago, mutually comfortable with the decision, with the knowledge that they couldn’t ever make each other happy.

Alice swallows, and looks at Quentin until Quentin finds himself locking eyes with her. Both of them frozen where they sit, staring. It’s like Alice is trying to push thoughts into his mind without saying a word out loud. Like they’re the ones with the magical ability to do such a thing.

“You and Eliot,” Alice repeats, chewing on her bottom lip the way she does when she’s weighing her words carefully. “Neither of you could… you’re the entire world to one another.”

Quentin feels cold all over. That’s been true for hours now, all through this long, impossible, nightmarish darkness, but he notices it anew as he waits for Alice to continue. He doesn’t want to understand where she’s going with this. The implications are too much to take in.

“You could never marry someone else,” Alice blurts, apparently tired of circumspection. “Not—not in a happy marriage, I mean. A real one, a partnership. Eliot’s your partner and he always will be.”

“Alice,” Quentin tries to huff out a laugh, but can’t manage anything even close. “I’m not exactly sure what—”

“I’d be willing, for appearances,” she says, and now just a hint of irritation has crept into her tone, as if Quentin is being deliberately slow on the uptake. “It would make the courts happy, it would make sense, our houses are a good match, any children would be—”

“Alice, we broke up,” Quentin says, strangled. In an odd way, he’s happy she’s decided to bring this up now. He doesn’t feel any less wretched, of course. If anything, this insane conversation is making him even more anxious. But dealing with whatever this is means he doesn’t have to keep picturing the look on Eliot’s face when Quentin had told him about the transport spell. The way he’d slumped forward in dejection as Fogg had escorted him out of the room, all the fight leeched from him.

“Yes,” Alice says. “We broke up because you weren’t in love with me.”

She says it so pointedly that Quentin can hear the echo of the implied: because you were in love with someone else.

“We’re not having this conversation,” Quentin says, finally getting his legs to move, standing up and pinning her with a glare. “This is—wildly out of line, and—and—honestly, the idea of making a good match is about the last thing on my mind right now, Alice—”

“You should be with him right now,” Alice says. “You… or at least after you get a couple more hours of sleep. You should be with Eliot.”

“I’m mad at him,” Quentin says, as if this needs to be clarified.

“So am I,” Alice answers with a shrug. “But you and I both know that doesn’t mean anything in the long run.”

“I can’t talk about this—”

“I knew you when we were kids. Before him. And then I’ve known you with him. It’s there for anyone who has a reason to see it, Q.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Quentin repeats. His eyes are stinging. His throat is hoarse. He’s so tired and so, so wide awake.

Alice is there suddenly, in his space, hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have brought this up now,” she says. “I just—I guess I thought you might need a warning.” She pauses again, tilting her head in thought. “He’d die without you, Q. And you’d die without him. Even without taking the bond into consideration. You’re going to forgive him, so why put it off any longer than you have to?”

She leaves before he can answer, and Quentin’s legs all but buckle under him as he sits back down on the couch. He pulls his legs up to his chest, presses his cheek to his knee, and stares at nothing for hours, as daybreak spills across the floor.